Monday, December 20, 2021

Light of Evening by Edna O’Brien


The Light of Evening by Edna OBrien is a deceptively complex book. It deals with relationships between two women, Dilly and Eleanora, who live very different lives some years apart. They are both women, but they come from different generations. They are both Irish, but they seem to belong to different countries, as well as different eras. They both leave their homeland to seek fortune, but on wholly different terms and to different places. They both seem to stumble into relationships with men, some of which involve marriage, and cope in partially successful ways with the challenges posed by maintaining the terms of engagement. The complications in the relationship between the two women, Dilly and Eleanora, arise because they are mother and daughter.

At the start, we meet Dilly, the mother, who is in hospital in Dublin. Her years have advanced. She is seriously ill and about to undergo a procedure. Her youth flashes before her sedated eyes. She travels from Ireland to the United States and we follow a developing life in New York as it moves from promised opportunity to promised opportunity, only to find that reality usually imposes its surprisingly mundane results. Wiser, but only marginally richer, Dilly soon finds herself repatriated for family reasons.

We meet Eleanora via scenes from her marriage. She too has left Ireland, but she has personal reasons and she has pursued education. She seems to be in control, at least potentially in control of her life options. She is apparently free to choose and we see her relocate for professional rather than menial reasons. But she seems to spend as much of her time and energy analyzing her relationships with men as pursuing her professional goals. The turns in her life are unpredictable, often unfathomable. They have a gloss of normality imposed by obvious consumption, personality created by likes and dislikes and achievement realized through opportunity. It is a life that presents a vivid contrast to the life of Dilly, whose own journey was imposed by a need to make a living first and a personal space second.

But the real complication arises because these two women, doing what women do a generation apart are mother and daughter. Letters exchanged form a major part of the book’s substance, specifically letters between mother and daughter. These letters often do not appear to say very much, but then that becomes a crucial point in the narrative. Deceptively simple, they can also deceive by not saying what the writer wants to say, by not communicating what the reader wants to hear.

Overall the plot of Edna OBriens novel dwells almost exclusively on the nature of the relationship between mother and daughter, the difference and similarities that make their lives. It travels the world that surrounds their different generations, drawing sharp contrasts but also recognizing remarkable similarities. Its a book that walks well-worn paths, but arrives at new experiences for the reader. Rather than the substance of life, it is the spaces between, whether large or small, that captivate. And, by the end, we realize that for all our complications, we individuals are generally ruled by self and can often be driven by quite mundane, but devastatingly relentless material concerns.

Thursday, December 16, 2021

Swann’s Way – In Search of Lost Time Volume 1 Marcel Proust


Imagine a collage, an assemblage of the entire output of august artists, especially those of fin-de-siecle France, those one-time upstarts and latter-day establishment pillars we have since learned to label “Impressionist”. Imagine too this vast canvas repeated in multiple shades, so that not only does it present to the eye a vast, near limitless, expanse of colour, of detail, of form, of fine ladies in finer drapery, of gardens replete with blooms of every season, of carriage-jammed Paris streets shining through murky wet evenings, of multi-coloured lilies afloat on a surface of quiet lakes or stilled streams of rural France, of dancing girls performing their ballet or rehearsing their slender limbs in outline at the bar, but also it revisits every view from multiple angles in different colours, at different times, from different perspectives with different impressions. We seem to see the same things repeat, repeatedly, but always different, always changed, always vivid. And imagine this presented not only in the bright colours of the original, but also the imposed hues of vividly recalled memory that knows every scene, but cannot fix exact date, time or form, so that they re-form truly solid, living structures reconstructed from what the original eyes only partially recorded. And then close those eyes, so that the images can be drawn from their memories, those indelibly, but perhaps inaccurately filed images that we have collected inadvertently by virtue of the unfinished act of living. And then we share that experience.

And then, in the words of the author, himself, so it is with our own past. It is a labour in vain to attempt to recapture it: all the efforts of our intellect must prove futile. The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object (in the sensation which that material object will give us) which we do not suspect. And as for that object, it depends on chance whether we come upon it or not before we ourselves must die.

But the imperative is that we must try. We have but one chance shot at this moving target we call ‘life’ and our aim is, by its very nature, wayward. We remain forever unsure of the boundary between what we remember and what we imagine, especially when one merges into the other in that uncontrolled manner, that imposed confusion of blurred edge that inevitably results when we attempt to focus on a passing image and have only a memory of its momentary impression on the mind to recall whatever detail it shed.

And the result? The result is a passing stream, an ever-changing, forever variable vista that always comprises the same view, the same solid objects that once, or perhaps still, peopled its banks. And, from the distance of time, who can ever be sure what we felt? Who can be sure of motive, of consequence, of intention or stratagem? Who can testify that those remembered words were spoken in love, hate, respect, derision, criticism, praise or merely to pass the time we now realise we never had? It is irony that perhaps lasts longest, as in an invitation to dine with an acquaintance of the family, M. Legrandin?

Only the day before he had asked my parents to send me to dine with him on this same Sunday evening. "Come and bear your aged friend company," he had said to me. "Like the nosegay which a traveller sends us from some land to which we shall never go again, come and let me breathe from the far country of your adolescence the scent of those flowers of spring among which I also used to wander, many years ago. Come with the primrose, with the canon's beard, with the gold-cup; come with the stone-crop, whereof are posies made, pledges of love, in the Balzacian flora, come with that flower of the Resurrection morning, the Easter daisy, come with the snowballs of the guelder-rose, which begin to embalm with their fragrance the alleys of your great-aunt's garden ere the last snows of Lent are melted from its soil. Come with the glorious silken raiment of the lily, apparel fit for Solomon, and with the many-coloured enamel of the pansies, but come, above all, with the spring breeze, still cooled by the last frosts of wirier, wafting apart, for the two butterflies' sake, that have waited outside all morning, the closed portals of the first Jerusalem rose."

The question was raised at home whether, all things considered, I ought still to be sent to dine with M. Legrandin.

Irony, then, leaves its mark, but not as deep as the scars left by the cuts of young love, obsession or jealousy. In a vast, detailed and probably reconstructed memory of M. Swann’s relationship with Odette, a woman he initially likens to an image from a Botticelli painting in the Sistine chapel, we share the heart-racing exhilaration of a man becoming obsessed with the sensual beauty of a desirable and available woman, we euphemistically accompany him in adjusting the flowers that decorate her bodice and then we suffer the gnawing, destroying doubts about her motives that grow out of an all-embracing, near-destroying jealousy.

There is, of course, much socialising. It would not be far from the truth to observe that these people spend more time worrying about whom to include and whom to specifically and justifiably exclude from a guest list than they do at work, in their beds or on the road. And the decisions are usually based on class, that universal categorising and branding of quality that seems to suffuse and smother human society in whatever age and every place, the very quality that revolutions might occasionally but unsuccessfully seek to eradicate. And what happens at these gatherings remains primarily social, whatever the focus of the soiree.

If the pianist suggested playing the Ride of the Valkyries, or the Prelude to Tristan, Mme. Verdurin would protest, not that the music was displeasing to her, but, on the contrary, that it made too violent an impression. "Then you want me to have one of my headaches? You know quite well, it's the same every time he plays that. I know what I'm in for. Tomorrow, when I want to get up - nothing doing!" If he was not going to play they talked, and one of the friends - usually the painter who was in favour there that year - would "spin," as M. Verdurin put it, "a damned funny yarn that made 'em all split with laughter," and especially Mme. Verdurin, for whom so strong was her habit of taking literally the figurative accounts of her emotions - Dr. Cottard, who was then just starting in general practice, would "really have to come one day and set her jaw, which she had dislocated with laughing too much.

And this is a place and time where no-one lives life by halves, where no person is ever truly reticent in expressing emotion, even when that which is quite sincerely expressed may, at some later date, convey at least the partial sensation of over-statement. She had been taught in her girlhood to fondle and cherish those long-necked, sinuous creatures, the phrases of Chopin, so free, so flexible, so tactile, which begin by seeking their ultimate resting-place somewhere beyond and far wide of the direction in which they started, the point which one might have expected them to reach, phrases which divert themselves in those fantastic bypaths only to return more deliberately with a more premeditated reaction, with more precision, as on a crystal bowl which, if you strike it, will ring and throb until you cry aloud in anguish to clutch at one's heart.  

Viewing this vast, sewn together patchwork of art, this mixture of people thrown together by time and the filter of memory, may at times feel like making an ocean journey by small boat, rigged with too scant a sail, a boat that, often becalmed, seems to drift. The real trick, undoubtedly, is to relax and go with the flow. That’s life, it seems.

It’s all in the detail – Madama Butterfly in Valencia

Puccini’s Madame Butterfly is a very well-known, much loved, and indeed popular opera. The genre is replete with femmes fatales, Butterfly, Tosca, Manon, Carmen, Lucía, Violetta and Katya, just for example, who get it in the end, so one might think there is nothing much to see in terms of new perspectives when such a familiar work with such a well-worked theme is staged. Opera lovers, however, will confirm that there most definitely is!

Audiences tend to fall into two distinct groups, those for whom any diversion from their own preconceptions signifies the end of civilization, and those for whom radical interpretation is a welcome challenge to the establishment. There is another perspective, however, in which directors, via minor changes to staging, can completely transform the way we understand these often rigidly interpreted stories. Such was the success of Emilio Lopez, the director of the recent production in Valencia. His 2021 staging of Butterfly will be broadcast on Opera Vision on Sunday 19 December and will be available through that website for some weeks. It is successful on several levels, one of which is revelatory.

Lets start with the term verismo. That certainly applied to the way Puccini approached his work and it implies that the setting should not be palatial and that characters might be depicted as everyday folk. We may assume that the composer never experienced the mid-19 century Japan of the opera’s setting, so if verismo applies to Butterfly, then it applies principally on an ideological level. That said, the opera’s potential for costume drama usually so overcomes designers and directors that even recognition of verismo in the result is obscured. In other words, everything gets pretty before it can become credible. And it is verismo that suffers.

In act one, Cio-Cio-san describes how she is from a poor home and became a geisha because of lack of opportunity. The ceremonial dagger which she eventually uses to take her own life was presented to her father by the Mikado with request that he use it on himself. We must assume that Butterfly’s family were thus already in disgrace. She then compounds this disgrace by rejecting her cultural and religious traditions, an act that uncle Bonze condemns, prompting her friends and community to reject her, all except Suzuki of course. The fact that Puccini then takes us into the love scene of the wedding night often obscures this rejection. In the Valencia production, a backdrop that had featured cherry blossom becomes the starry night of the couple’s ecstasy, but it does so by melting like celluloid in an overheated projector, implying that the comforting blossoms of the past have been destroyed. The starry night persists into acts two and three, but thus becomes a symbol of continued isolation and of Butterfly’s insistence, nay imperative to live in the past.

Cio-Cio-san often comes across as a meek and thus stereotypical Asian woman, who has never even practiced the word “boo” with geese nearby. As a result, she often becomes the single-, even simple-minded naïve devotee of Pinkerton, despite the fact that, as a geisha, she must have had experience of the fly-by-night sailor. The supplicant image endears her to audiences, perhaps, but strips her of the identity and individuality she certainly has, otherwise she would never have pursued her own, private wishes so single-mindedly.

The point is she does not have a great deal of choice. She is poor. She is a geisha. She has done her job. Pinkerton offers her a way out, which she, perhaps naïvely accepts. But once she has made the commitment, she cannot go back. She wants to please him, but by doing so she suffers the rejection of her own community. But she has to go through with the risk.

In Valencia, Emilio Lopez recognizes that Cio-Cio-san is living in poverty. Ignored by Pinkerton for three years and still rejected by her own community, she and Suzuki live amidst decay and grime. The temptation to portray Butterfly still in full, opulent geisha regalia makes no sense and is avoided convincingly in this production. Suzuki confirms this poverty in the libretto. What too often comes across as blind faith on Butterfly’s part now becomes necessity, imposed by her community because of her rejection by and of them. She cant go back. She has no other option. This is an element of verismo in the opera which directors often tend to overlook.

But in this Valencia production, the real surprise comes at the end. Pinkerton has returned but has refused to see Butterfly. He storms off because he cannot take it anymore... He does want the child, however. His new American wife and Sharpless are told by Butterfly to come back in half an hour to take the child. Note that Pinkerton has not heard her request.

Butterfly has her own plans, however, plans that involve using that ceremonial weapon her father used to kill himself. The elements are clear. Butterfly kills herself, the voice of Pinkerton returning is heard. Or perhaps not…

The usual way to treat this is to have Butterfly stab herself on the orchestral tutti and then for the sound of Pinkerton’s voice to be heard as she dies. If Pinkerton is not seen, it could be argued that he really was nasty all along and that Cio-Cio-san is imagining the voice, still therefore deceiving herself. If he does appear, then his character is rather let off the hook. If only Butterfly had delayed, then the ecstasy of the starry night might just have returned. But then she had already waited three years…

Sometimes Cio-Cio-san hears the voice and then stabs herself. Again, we have her imagining the sound as a possibility, but we then also have the possibility that she is suffering a form of self-loathing the result of the rejection. Again, this approach internalizes Butterfly’s suffering.

In the Valencia production, the orchestral tutti arrives with dagger drawn, but Butterfly turns to face the entrance to her house when she hears Pinkerton’s call. She waits for him to appear and recognize her and then she kills herself.

The effect is to transform her suicide into an act of defiance. She knows the child will be cared for. She has been rejected by her society and by Pinkerton. She is alone and has no future. But she is now also determined that he will not possess her, and she wants to demonstrate her contempt. You will not possess me as chattel, she thinks. And thus, her character is transformed from the meek and mild recipient of tragedy into a defiant individualist, albeit a dead one. At least she has asserted her own position. Its different and surprising, which illustrates beautifully that sometimes the most radical transformations are achieved via detail.


Friday, December 10, 2021

The Witch of Portobello by Paulo Coelho


The Witch of Portobello is a novel by Paulo Coelho. Perhaps already there is already a divide. There are readers, many of them, for whom the author conjures a world of another universe, perhaps, where, inside the unknown but knowable self, anything can be discovered. Equally, there is another group for whom this platitudinous pseudo-religious self-discovery approaches the nauseous. First, the bones of plot.

Sherine Khalil was abandoned at birth by her Romanian gypsy mother, at least partially because her father was a foreigner. Whether these origins, a rejection born of a persecuted minority in a context of political oppression are relevant is an academic question, because we spend so much time inside Sherines head, albeit from outside, that we often lose sight of any wider context.

Thus abandoned, the baby girl is adopted by a middle-class Lebanese couple and brought up amid the political turmoil of the Middle East in general and Lebanon’s war in particular. Neither scenario is examined in the book, though they are cited as possible influences on Sherine’s development, though specific consequences seem not to figure. Sherine renames herself Aurora, is brought up a Christian and has visions.

Aurora goes to London and university to study engineering, but drops out, marries and has a child, because she realizes that is what she really wants. The marriage breaks down and she attains the status of a single mother, a status she seems to claim as an act of martyrdom. She does several things to make ends meet before becoming an estate agent in Dubai, an activity that proves lucrative.

But throughout, there is a side to Aurora-Sherines personality that is not of this material world. She associates with the Virgin Mary, the mother, and with Santa Sophia and other phenomena. By the way, we can always tell if an emergent concept is both real and transcendental because we may note it always has a capital - letter even in speech. I digress…

Aurora returns to London and becomes associated with an apparently blasphemous sect based in Portobello Road, though what she is selling, apparently, is not secondhand. Amidst all the navel gazing and self-realization via universal personal discovery, there is space for religious difference. Fingers are pointed. Accusations are made. Lets leave it there.

Sherine-Aurora’s story is told by a series of people who knew her. Criticism of the work arises because these reminiscences by different people do not really offer the different perspectives that might be expected. None of these people for instance dismiss Aurora’s claims about herself out of hand. In some ways, they are all converts.

Personally, I have just used this form in my own novel, Eileen McHugh, a life remade, so perhaps I am over-conscious of the of its potential shortcomings. For me, however, these different testimonies to the life of Sherine-Aurora were just two consistent to convince a reader they might be the recollections of a varied group of people with different memories and interests.

I began by defining to apparently opposing reactions to Paulo Coelhos work. Obviously, I am in the latter group, so why might I choose to read this book? Well, I read it in Spanish as a way of developing my fluency in the language. Personally, it was a means to an end and, as such, the book delivered, its calculated simplicity of style and associated simplicity of language suiting my linguistic goals perfectly.

And, in facilitating my personal goals in this way, this opening up new possibilities for my own self-expression and discovery, it may just have delivered on the message of self-realization I have apparently been keen to dismiss. It becomes an illustration of whatever an artist may have intended in creating a work, it is eventually what the recipient experiences that endures. Perhaps there is always an element looking within when we experience our universe.

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

La Ciudad de las Bestias (The City of Beasts) by Isabel Allende


La Ciudad de las Bestias (The City of Beasts) is a novel by Isabel Allende. I read it in Spanish, without consulting reviews or doing any prior research. It was only later that I realized the book was originally conceived as a ‘young adult’ novel. I apparently do not qualify, largely on the latter half of the target. I am clearly still young enough, because I found the book to be an engaging, if rarely challenging read. First the bare flesh of the work.

We start in New York with the book’s real weak spot. Alex is on his way to stay with his grandmother because his mother is ill. We see him get involved with a young woman who robs him. His flute - yes, flute - was in the lost bag. We think we are about to embark on an urban tale of misfits, crime and precarious living. We are not. The first section is really a vehicle to introduce the reader to Kate Cold, Alexs grandmother, who is an eccentric writer on indigenous peoples in the Amazon, an anthropologist perhaps, who also just happens to have her husbands flute, which forms the perfect replacement for Alexs lost instrument.

And then they set off up the Amazon. Grandma Kate is on a mission to encounter lost tribes and Alex accompanies. What happens in The City of Beasts is more important than how it happens, so this review will not describe detail events. But listing the elements is giving nothing away.

On the expedition we have an academic who seems to know everything about his subject, which happens to be indigenous Amazonians, except of course he does not know how to accept criticism or contradiction. There is a young girl, Nadia, who is a few years younger than Alex, who of course bonds with him. Theres a capitalist who wants to exploit the land inhabited by indigenous peoples. He cannot do this while they are still in residence, so he has devised an ingenious way of protecting the people which is eventually a way of getting rid of them. Alex and Nadia of course uncover the plot.

Alex and Nadia are eventually taken by the People of the Mists and they travel through jungle, mountains and caves, to experience ritual and tradition. They encounter fabulous beasts that do not spell smell too good. They learn that all that glitters is not gold, even in El Dorado, and apparently come to appreciate what it must be like to live as a hunter gatherer.

What is striking about these two young characters is their consistent application of rational thought to everything that happens to them. Whereas received opinion or generally adults talk seriously of magic and myth, Alex and Nadia think things through and always unearth the plausible that just seems to have passed by everyone else. That is probably because their vested interest always takes precedence, and these vested interests are better served by continued obfuscation.

The City of Beasts in Spanish was a learning experience. It was also worth reading. There is still room for more magic by the end.

Monday, December 6, 2021

Quichotte by Salman Rushdie


I heard an author interviewed on the radio. He described a character he had invented, a fellow called Quichotte (that’s key-shot, by the way), who himself had been invented by another character in the same book (Quichotte), who had already been invented by the author. The characters have families, each having one son, one imaginary, the other – well - imaginary, but at least in possession of a formal and formally imagined birth, the other a product of parthenogenesis.

All these people, both the real-imaginary and the imaginary-real, live in the United States, amongst other places, a country which, as places go, is regularly imagined and sometimes described. The author’s point, if it might exist in the singular, is that it was time to update the idea of Miguel de Cervantes, who four hundred years ago imagined a character called Quixote (key-ho-tay) emerging from the pages of a discarded Arabic text discovered on a rummage through a second-hand stall on Toledo’s market. That’s Toledo, Spain by the way (population 84,282, occupying 232.1 square kilometres and 89.6 square miles, if you are so inclined). Or so we are told. But he made it up, alongside the said Quixote’s (key-ho-tay’s) popular culture-driven madness that demanded he set off dressed as a film star to do good in the world. Geddit?

Quichotte proceeds in a parody of said key-ho-tay back and forth across the United States, accompanied by his real-imagined and imaginary-real playmates, old flames and the not wholly imagined but apparently unattainable beauty, Salma R, among them. They get up to some good, but predominantly they observe and relate. They relate to their relatives, who are mainly from Bombay, and to their acquaintances, who as often as not abuse them on the basis of their skin colour, which is brownish, and as a consequence accuses, nay convicts them of being terrorists, bombers, jihadists or merely general extremists before pulling their guns. This causes our characters, both real-imaginary and imaginary-real to suffer significant but mild crises of identity. More accurately, their identities would be in crisis if they could ever find them or even define what they were looking for in their continual search for said qualities. Rule one: carry a gun. Self-defence. Get the retaliation in first. Rule two: read the book.

As I sit here in my room (population one), I imagine my rather privileged position. There cannot be many reviewers of a Quixote parody who can also claim to have written one. In his search, Donald Cottee, my own imagined key-ho-tay, examines his identity and origins from the perspective of a second-hand Swift Sundance parked on a campsite in Benidorm. In his radio interview Salman Rushdie, from here on called ’the author’, talked about his own origins.

The author went to Rugby public school - for our American friends, here public means its exact opposite, private - blame the English - and sang Christian hymns with his Muslim voice at school assemblies. Also, for the Americans again, rugby with a capital R is a town (population 100,500) and should not be confused with the sport of the same name, team population 13 or 15 depending on social class, whose name is in fact often capitalised, which was first invented in the same establishment, the school, population 802, established 1567, not the town, origins debatable, but probably iron age. It has progressed.

But he and his family, the author Rushdie that is, and therefore their combined roots, were also from Bombay, if you are English or perhaps Portuguese, which most English don’t appreciate, or Mumbai if you are Indian, but there is no such language as Indian, so this term must apply to residency. But of course the author Rushdie was not resident in Mumbai-Bombay at the time, hence his presence in Rugby (public school, where public equals private) where he tried to work out where and who he was, probably while playing rugby.

And so to the United States where he is lumped together with others whose skin is tinged, coloured (not orange or red, unless you are an Indian, but that’s another story) or brown - let’s call it Black - by another broad church (C sometimes) of people, who skin is pink, red, but not Indian, or even orange – let’s call them White, who, if they live in New Jersey, need regular check-ups to ensure they have not morphed into mastodons. Geddit?

Let’s stir into this heady mix a manufacturer of opioids, fentanyl for sublingual use, just to be accurate, a terminal cancer, several close shaves involving gun owners trying to retaliate first and lots of encounters with popular culture, Holly-Bollywood and the like, and you arrive at where you have been headed all along without ever consulting a map or making a plan. And we have not yet even mentioned a Dr Smile or a Mr DuChamp. Get it? Read the book. It’s splendid. Funny. Political. Perspicacious. Now there’s a word.

Jurowski and Kavakos with the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin at ADDA Alicante

There is nothing standard about performance, nothing predictable about experience, unless, of course, it is drained of all communication by an imperative to supply a product. Then, perhaps only then, strictures of form take over and dominate. And a concert program featuring Mozart’s Don Giovanni Overture, the Brahms Violin Concerto and then Schubert’s Ninth Symphony might just sound a little run-of-the-mill, highly susceptible to the kind of delivery that might pander first to audience expectations and only then to interpretation. Expectations were thus not high, though it was pleasant to be back in Alicante’s ADDA auditorium without designated vacant seats to enforce social distancing. At least we were an audience again. 

Initial impressions were that this touring Orchestra, the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, would be quite small, since the chairs arranged on the stage seemed to leave significant spaces. But, at least in the scale of orchestration, none of these works approaches the grandiose, despite the fact that Schubert clearly did apply the term to his work’s duration.

On reflection, how could any concert be considered humdrum when the conductor is Vladimir Jurowski and the soloist Leonidas Kavakos?

And what about, from first note to last, the resplendent bright sound of this orchestra’s strings? They have a texture that seems sharp, in its attack, not its tonality! There seems to be an edge, for want of a better word, that shapes the phrases of the music into something much more than reproduction, much more than reading off the page. The brilliance of the sound surprises, rendering even the completely familiar into new experience. And so Mozart’s overture was suitably dramatic, but also fresh and even surprising. After a month without orchestral sound, the opening chords worked magic.

Vladimir Jurowski is tall. Leonidas Kavakos is taller. During the long orchestral introduction to the Brahms concerto, he faced the orchestra. This, surely, was no more than an indication of how much this soloist regarded the orchestra as his partner rather than as his vehicle. And the Brahms concerto is an integrated work, a true collaboration between orchestra and soloist, never a competition. The quality of shared experience was communicated perfectly by the performers and so, even in this work that the audience had heard so many times before, they collectively breathed fresh air into the auditorium. And the audience breathed freely, despite the masks. The perfection achieved on stage translated into a forty-minute performance that was received by a packed audience in complete silence, with every note registered and every phrase understood. This was communication, not mere bravura. Leonidas Kavakos offered an encore of solo JS Bach and, after the Brahms, the understatement was almost more intense than what had preceded it.

In some hands Schubert’s Ninth Symphony, the so-called Great C Major, can go on a bit. This performance was advertised as lasting fifty minutes, so clearly not all the repeats were played. They very rarely are.

But it must be recorded that under Jurowski’s baton, this lengthy work came across as fresh, original and committed. There was not a single note in the hour when anyone in the audience felt that this was standard repertoire being delivered with standard interpretation. This felt particularly special.

The second movement, alongside the trio section from the scherzo, could be mistaken for Mahler, almost a century early. It is worth remembering, as the program notes pointed out, that Schubert never heard the work, that it was not premiered until over a decade after its composer’s death and that, at the time, musicians who saw the work considered it is difficult, unplayable and probably many other things that they dare not say because it did not conform with their expectations. Or perhaps, given a modern analogy, they considered the effort required as being above their pay grade. This performance by the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin under Jurowski did reproduce a sense of freshness and originality, perhaps something like Schubert had envisaged, the sound world that mystified the composer’s contemporaries. This time the mystery was enlightening.

Thursday, December 2, 2021

Against Interpretation by Susan Sontag


Against Interpretation by Susan Sontag was first published in 1961. It is hard in 2020, to accept that this was almost 60 years ago, especially since many of the works reviewed in this volume of criticism, containing essays as late as 1966, would probably not make it into the mainstream today. If - and if must be repeated for emphasis - if the objects of her criticism in the 1960s were manifestations of the current mainstream in the arts, then 60 years ago, at least to this reader, then contemporary theatre, film and art of today seem much more conventional, even conservative. No-one now, it seems, takes risks.

There are names that remain familiar in Susan Sontag’s critiques. We have a Genet, Sartre, Camus, Ionesco, Godard, Brooke, Arthur Miller, but there are many others who would now claim only anonymity. But what is truly interesting is how reluctant Susan Sontag is even to mention trends from popular culture, the term I personally regard as a misnomer.

Indeed, the essays are, by contemporary standards, elitist. Ironic, isn’t it, that they come from the decade which became notorious for challenging elite status? Perhaps we forget that an element of 1960s culture was to invade elite structures, to cram them with experience it would find both challenging and uncomfortable. Susan Sontag herself obliquely refers to this attempt at change by noting “…the American theater is ruled by an extraordinary, irrepressible zest for intellectual simplification. Every idea is reduced to cliché, and the function of cliché is to castrate an idea.” The implication is that much needed change via infiltration was already happening. One wonders what her opinion might be today.

As already stated, these essays on criticism unashamedly intellectual. There is not a hint that they also want to address popular themes in popular language or on its own terms. Susan Sontag does address popular culture, but sometimes, as in her analysis of science fiction movie scenarios, to record her belief that it relies on the formulaic. She was not alone in casting an apparently academic eye over mass market culture. At the same time in Britain, we had Kenneth Tynan and Bernard Levin, both young Mavericks in their way, but also both securely establishment figures, despite Tynan’s enduring celebrity drawn from his use of the f-word on a live television chat show. And Bernard Levin, for those who care to remember, offered a satirical and critical monologue late on Saturday nights on That Was The Week That Was, the satirical revue populated by largely upper-class intellectuals who would later become superstars and pillars of the establishment. This was a fate not to befall Susan Sontag and some of her ideas still sound contemporary.

How about this as a plea to writers that they should imagine a status other than Godly? “The immediate cozy recognition that the lifelike in most novels induces is, and should be, suspect… I wholeheartedly sympathize with what she objects to in the old fashion novel. Vanity Fair and Buddenbrooks, when I read them recently, however marvelous they still seemed, also made me wince. I could not stand the omnipotent author showing me that’s how life is, making me compassionate and tearful, with his obstreperous irony, his confidential air of perfectly knowing his characters and leading me, the reader, to feel that I knew them too. I no longer trust novels which fully satisfy my passion to understand.” How many subsequent writers took note of this advice? My suggestion is a few, but none of them popular.

At the heart of Susan Sontag’s ideas about art, theatre, literature and criticism is the need for audiences to be open to challenge. She writes “Hence, too, the peculiar dependence of a work of art, however expressive, upon the cooperation of the person having the experience, for one may see what is ‘said’ but remain unmoved, either through dullness or distraction. Art is seduction, not rape. A work of art possesses a type of experience designed to manifest the quality of imperiousness. But art cannot seduce without the complicity of the experiencing subject.” Perhaps the 60 years that intervened have conspired to reduce this willingness to tolerate the unexpected? Or perhaps nothing has changed. Audiences were never very good at it.

In the Modern Classics edition of her work, Susan Sontag had the opportunity, some 30 years after publication, to offer her own reflections on the significance of the writing. She reflects on how the artistic climate had already changed and on the characteristics of the decade in which her critical essays were written. These three short quotes from the final essay from the 1990s indicate why Against Interpretation is now an achievement in its own right, and not simply a response to the work of others.

“Perhaps the most interesting characteristics of the time now labeled the Sixties was that there was so little nostalgia. In that sense, it was indeed a utopian movement.”

“Now the very idea of the serious (and of the honorable) seems quaint, ‘unrealistic’ to most people and when allowed - an arbitrary decision of temperament - probably unhealthy, too.”

“The judgments of taste expressed in these essays may have prevailed. The values underlying those judgments did not.”

Truly we live in a different age.

Thursday, November 11, 2021

A visit to Casa-Museo Zacarías González, Salamanca

Zacarías González is not a name that appears in many art books or catalogues. Its not a name that appears on the title tags in many public galleries. It does appear attached to the name of a less than significant building in Calle Alcaron in Salamanca, the Casa-Museo Zacarías González.

Zacarías González was an artist. He was also a teacher. He taught drawing. He was born in 1923 and died in 2003. He lived most of his life in Salamanca, the city of his birth. He spent some time in Madrid, some on national service in Navarra and, in later years, when the Castilian winter was felt more keenly, he headed south to Alicante. He was a lifelong teacher of drawing and painted in his spare time. He does not seem to have travelled extensively.

In the Calle Alcaron gallery, a visitor can see most of the artist’s life’s work, which divides itself across three broad periods, the representational, the abstract and the re-discovery of a changed realism. Zacarías González is largely unknown in international art circles, hardly known even in Spain and is a name that only aficionados in Salamanca would recognise. So why devote an article to him? The answer is simple. It’s the quality of the experience that deserves publicity and wider appreciation.

In his biographical note in the gallery’s excellent catalogue, Louis Javier Moreno observes that for many twentieth century artists, the life is the art. In the case of Zacarías González, however, he insists that this should be inverted so that for this artist, the art was his life. These are pictures that are intensely personal, enigmatic, intellectual, reflective, self-analytical, self-critical, refined, ascetic. They are also incredibly beautiful. At no point does this work try to shock, strive for noticeable individuality above communication, use overstatement to momentarily shock. Everything here simply communicates.

As an artist, Zacarías González seems to have visited several twentieth century styles in the same analytical way that an interested tourist might become familiar with a new place. He seems always to have been learning, but his powers of assimilation were considerable. He notices stylistic detail, contextualizes it within his own experience and then, rather than copy its dictates, he uses this assimilated language to communicate a personal world in visual form.

And so here, in three floors of this Casa-Museo set in a modest house, we are presented with recognisable associations of early Picasso, cubism, di Chirico-like surrealism, Tapies-like enigmatic abstraction, classical forms that might have been painted on the plaster of Pompei, Klee and Rouault and probably quite a lot more. But these are not copies. They are not imitations. They are personal works that inhabit a stylistic world and use the language of that world to share potential expression and thus, via that learned assimilated language, state something profoundly personal, and thus quite different from the still identifiable influence.

The gallery’s website is at and many of the works it houses may be viewed there. Personal highlights included Cerrada hasta octubre, Fuga, Fuego fatuo, Charra, La tunecina, El viaje del Dios, Viejo, viejo Mondrian, La suite de Nueva Orleans, and many more.

One of the joys of traveling in Spain is to share the oft-expressed pride in local heroes, be they artists, writers, musicians, architects, or whatever. From the famous, such as Dali in Figueres or Chillida in San Sebastian or Sorolla in Madrid (which, of course, was his residence, not his birthplace) to the less well-known internationally such as the Galician painters in Ourense and Pontevedra, those of the Almería school, or the Basque artists in Vittoria or Bilbao. Each town in each province seems to express a quiet, understated pride in local achievement and, crucially, devote resources to celebrate that achievement with always understated, but real pride. There may be queues of tourists in Figueres, but one often needs to seek out those galleries that display local work. One needs, for instance, to book an appointment to visit the Chillida. Also here in Salamanca, there’s an email link on the Casa-Museo website that allows a visit to be pre-arranged. One can’t just turn up to visit to the Casa-Museo Zacarías González. But do not be deterred. The appointment is easy to obtain, and the rewards are memorable.

The visitor to Salamanca will have the cathedrals, the University, the palaces and the stunningly beautiful old town on the list, not to mention the art nouveau gallery. But do not let the apparent obstacle of having to arrange a visit to this gallery deter you. Any visit to Salamanca by anyone with the slightest interest in art should include a trip to the Casa-Museo Zacarías González. You will not be disappointed.


Thursday, October 28, 2021

Alicante enthuses over Joshua Bell, Alan Gilbert and NDR Elbphilharmonie in Bruch and Bruckner


It looked like a middle-of-the-road program of Romantic staples. Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy and Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony were both written around 1880, though, as with everything, Bruckner took all criticisms to heart and later reworked various aspects of his work without changing its overall shape. These works of similar origin, of course, also contrasted. The Bruch Fantasy was written for a star performer, Pablo Sarasate, and clearly the composer had its potential for audience popularity in mind, whereas Bruckner probably did not write anything outside the intensely personal, internal drive to express his faith. The Fantasy uses popular song and folk melodies as its basis, whereas Bruckners music always seems driven by a very personal energy. In any case, these are works that this particular listener has heard many times and represent an approach to music which is not a great personal favourite. I had also prepared, choosing earlier to listen to a performance of the symphony I recalled from a previous tour of Spain by a foreign orchestra some years ago, a tour which included a performance of the symphony in Alicante which I attended. Thus prepared, I applauded the North German Radio (NDR) Elbphilharmonie orchestra onto the stage.

What I had not anticipated was a performance the like of which I have rarely heard. Joshua Bell arrived to play the Bruch Scottish Fantasy. Now reputations can be built on marketing, in which case the performance experience of the ego is often less than the promise. With Joshua Bell, one feels, the opposite is true. He is in such control of the music, so at ease with its expression, that the instrument, the human being, the art and interpretation become a single force. The result would be devalued by the label ‘spellbinding’. It felt at times like an effort to remember to breathe, so completely absorbed were this audience in the performance. It was an experience enhanced by Joshua Bells obvious ability and delight in communicating with conductor, fellow musicians and audience to create a sense of inclusion and sharing. An encore seemed inevitable and appeared. It was again a popular choice, but in unfamiliar guise. Thus, O Mi Babbino Caro from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi became a violin solo with understated orchestral accompaniment.

Thus far not mentioned, the conductor Alan Gilbert then led his NDR Elbphilharmonie orchestra in the Bruckner symphony. Given the orchestra’s previous association with Gunther Wand, this was surely familiar territory for the band, but this familiarity not only bred respect, but immediate and radiant brilliance. Their relationship with their recently adopted chief conductor is clearly not only going to build on the orchestra’s tradition but also enhance it.

There was not a moment in this performance when the playing, the interpretation, the sound, the phrasing, even the complete musical sense fell below the breath-taking, even revelatory. Often, Bruckner’s tremolo strings create the oral equivalent of a painter’s wash, stating nothing in itself, but colouring the overall effect with a dominating presence. In the hands of the NDR and Alan Gilbert, the tremolos clarified by adding what felt like the perspective of another dimension within the image. Through this clarified air, the landscape was able to offer its magical, often guilt-ridden detail.

Long before the end of this performance, it was clear that this was one of the very best interpretations of music I have ever heard. My earlier preparation became irrelevant. Nothing could have prepared a listener for this radiance, this sheer beauty of sound, this perfect balance, this always enlightened phrasing. For the first time in this concert goer’s experience, the music of Anton Bruckner made sense as well as an impression.

Joshua Bell, Alan Gilbert, Max Brooke, Anton Bruckner and the orchestra of North German Radio thus combined to deliver what can only be described as the experience of a lifetime.

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

SPQR by Mary Beard


I have just finished Mary Beard’s SPQR. I have just started Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation. The connection? Susan Sontag’s essay deals momentarily with the relation, if any, between form and content. She seems wary of the concept of form, seeing it often subservient to content. Perhaps the confusion is mine, since it may be the argument, rather than form, that stands out. More on this later.

SPQR is, put simply, an overview of the origins and the rise of Rome, from fabled Trojan settlement to Empire. It charts the growth of the state, from a probably mythical wattle and daub hut to an empire built of marble, from its assumed foundation in the middle of the eighth century BCE, as far as Caracalla’s offer of Roman citizenship in 212 CE. This is roughly, as the author labels it, Rome’s first millennium.

Remembering my first paragraph, it’s the form that Mary Beard imposes upon her work that makes the book’s argument. A less inventive mind would have started at the city’s foundation and progressed chronologically. Mary Beard profitably avoids this approach by beginning with the confrontation between Scipio and Catiline in the first century BCE, conveniently just over half-way through the author’s chosen era.

Catiline had led a revolt, not the first, or last, or most bloody, or most successful, against the established authority of the republic. The kings were already long gone, and the emperors has yet to assume their status. But the confrontation between the brilliant but rather condescending Scipio and the brash, brutal aristocratic chancer that was Catiline provides a starting point for an author who wants to stress what she defines as the essential cultural and political characteristics that can frame the reader’s understanding of this vast imperial achievement. For Mary Beard, this trial before the Senate symbolizes a couple of basic ideas that she uses as a cement to bind the various courses of the city’s history. These are the continual struggle for power alongside the surprising, for the uninitiated, but consistent, tendency for the Roman state to accommodate new ideas, new values, new religions and new citizens from those peoples it conquered.

The struggle for power was perpetual and ruthless. There were no rules apart from the winner took all, and then suffered the continual neurosis of how to hold on to it. Starting with the perhaps mythical fratricide that founded the city when Romulus killed Remus, ruling families or elites internally turned on themselves and one another to secure a hold on power. This is nothing special. Any visitor to Istanbul will vividly recall the rows of miniature coffins that were displayed when newly enthroned sultans disposed of their siblings to reduce potential competition. But Rome was, at least in extent, rather different, since it morphed from local warlords, perhaps, through kings, to republican presidents, in all but name, and then finally to emperors. Each manifestation of power brought its own kinds of struggle, but eventually struggles they all were, and usually involved eliminating the competition. The names and roles may have changed, but the methodology did not. You killed your way into power and killed to maintain it. There were, of course, exceptions.

The second characteristic that Mary Beard uses to create the form and thereby the content of this history is the Roman propensity for assimilation. This began with the rape of the Sabine women. Myth, perhaps, cites a shortage of breeding-age females amongst the early settlers, so what better way to obviate the problem than embark on the cattle raid? The logic, if that be the word, is quite simple. I do not have cows. My neighbour has cows, so I will steal them. It’s the same with women, it seems, and the booty seems to share the same status as the booty from a cattle raid.

But what ensues is change. There is inevitably a clash of culture that leads to accommodation and assimilation, resulting in complications of culture via marriage, albeit a marriage in chains. This process, argues the author, became a characteristic of Rome, in that kingdoms and peoples subjugated by force were culturally assimilated by Rome, and not necessarily destroyed by it. Indeed, some aspects of the defeated culture, such as their religions, were transported back to the centre, where they gained pragmatic adherents eager to try anything that might offer a competitive leg up. And it is this constant ability to change via assimilation that forms the second strand that gives form to this wonderful work.

But why finish with Caracalla, when the Roman empire endured for more than another century after his demise? Mary Beard is clear about this. It was Caracalla’s granting of Roman citizenship to all free men in the empire that change things. Until then the differences in status between men and women, between citizens and classes, between free men and slaves, between military and civilian that had set the boundaries on Roman life, boundaries that were admittedly fluid by virtue of people’s ability to be on either side and to change their relative status, gender apart. Mary Beard thus makes the case for the later years of the empire representing a different historical reality and thus warranting a different treatment. This change became even more apparent when the state adopted Christianity, which would brook no alternative and led to the conscious exclusion of further assimilation.

Mary Beard does offer the reader much detail. But her insistence on setting events in their wider political and cultural context really does clarify a bigger picture which then starts to reveal inter-related detail. By the end of SPQR, we fell we have been there.

In conclusion, Mary Beard warns against importing perceived values or solutions across the centuries in the belief that they might have relevance to contemporary society. Not only do we not really understand the values of this ancient age, nor do we really have sufficient material to be certain about anything. Rome did exist and is therefore worthy of study, but its example is relevant only to the furtherance of that specific study.

Form and content thus come together to create, in Mary Beard’s hands, a stunning, brilliant book that provides context, observation and profound insight into Roman history. It’s a book that only could have been written by someone who has both brilliant communication skills and perhaps unsurpassed in knowledge of her subject. This book is not recommended reading: it is nothing less than essential.

Monday, October 25, 2021

The Umbrella Men by Keith Carter


In The Umbrella Men, Keith Carter directs various characters in a plot to act out the financial crisis of 2008. The author specifically wants to highlight the role played by RBS, Royal Bank of Scotland, in a process that might be described as financial vandalism, wrecking things by financing them, but there are plenty of other actors who also get it in the neck in the fusillade of the author’s invention.

The Umbrella Men brings fictional characters into real-life scenarios. This is, of course, the basis of most historical fiction, which often goes as far as putting invented words into once real, living mouths. Keith Carter avoids this trap. Key actors in the financial crash, such as Sir Fred Goodwin of RBS, or the members of the Middle Eastern consortium who refinanced Barclays, appear occasionally in name only, but not as protagonists. This allows the author carte blanche to invent people who can act out his scenario. And this he does, and that is precisely what they do.

The Umbrella Men is the kind of book that ought to be described as plot led, in that if the “what happened” were to be removed, there would not be a lot left. Strangely, in this case, we also know the plot before we start, if we have been even mildly conscious at any time in the last decade. So what might there be left to say? Quite a lot it seems, certainly enough to run to more than 400 pages in the electronic version.

Nothing of the book’s plot will be revealed here, except that it deals with the 2008 financial crisis. This is merely an introductory description of the scenario. Characters names will also be omitted, because long before the end, it’s merely the roles enacted by these people - there are more relevant and accurate words - that flesh out the author’s plot.

There is a London resident director and part owner of a company called Rareterre. He is married. They are living beyond their means and they have a family. The company mines, or did mine, rare earths and has been operating in Oregon. Their facility there has been dormant for a while after a drop in the prices of their products. They succumb to a financing deal from RBS to bring the mine back to life. There’s a disaffected financier from New York who ditches her boyfriend and heads for a simple new life in Oregon, of all places. She joins an environmental group and meets in indigenous American, who has been pursuing his own personal campaign against certain corporate interests in the area. Their relationship develops improbably around a mutual interest in stopping, you may have guessed, rare earth mining.

And there’s the bankers, not only RBS but predominately them, a financial speculator outfit called B&B, that is also interested in consuming main meals. There are Italian girls in gymnasia, numerous boyfriends, estranged and current, mental break ups, bogus contracts, takeovers, market crashes and, of course, the Chinese, who effectively create a takeaway, pun intended.

The Umbrella Men is structured, if that be the word, like a box set of episodes from a TV drama. Each chapter contains an author-driven polemic, followed by numerous scene and location changes, so that these characters can issue dialogue, best described as strings of clichés to illustrate and justify what we were told that the start. The book thus sounds and feels more like TV drama as it progresses. The Umbrella Men will enthral readers who adore such TV dramas.

But these people do not live, except to live out the plot, a task they accomplish quite effectively. There are a few dilemmas, almost no contradictions, and, basically, very little conflict. The pieces move around and the game is completed. By then, this reader was left wondering whether this should have been a novel at all.

And, by the way, we know that Sir Fred Goodwin will survive at the end, though he seems to have achieved a suitable anonymity by then.

Monday, October 18, 2021

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold


The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold is a novel about loss. It deals with the idea that bereavement changes the living, opens a hole in survivors’ lives that they continuously have to avoid, continually have to accommodate, lest they themselves be consumed by its void. But this gap in life, this emptiness that must always be acknowledged without ever approaching too close to its gathering currents also imposes new directions on continuing lives, demands diversion from paths that previously led directly towards the future. And, if they could see it, what would the deceased make of their continuing, if unintended influence? Would they revel in the power, or feel embarrassed about causing all the fuss? Effectively, this is the scenario that plays out during the entirety of The Lovely Bones.

At the start, Susie Salmon is fourteen years old. And like any pubescent girl, she has crushes, imagines what sexual encounters might be like, has friends, goes to school. She has a younger sister and a much younger brother, plus parents who plod along in their devotion to the family.

We are in Canada, but the place is not important. Suffice it to say that it’s rural and pretty quiet, with vast expanses of cold, snow-fluttered fields. Nothing is revealed about The Lovely Bones by stating that the fourteen-year-old Susie Salmon was murdered on December 6, 1973. The book begins with the crime and we follow the victim as far as heaven. Thus, the complications begin.

There is no body, just the remains of an elbow. There is a suspect, but evidence has been erased. We know everything about the crime, so there is no suspense involved, only consequences. From her rather superior vantage, Susie Salmon observes. She watches how grief rips into the fabric of her family. She watches how her classmates try to cope with the forced realignments of their friendships. She watches as her murderer continues to evade justice. And she learns that this is not the first time he has succeeded. She watches as the police investigate, perhaps not as competently as they might. She watches as all those she has left behind become changed by her absence, as they learn to live with the void she has left.

Now having the victim in an all-seeing heaven allows Alice Sebold to use a standard, god’s-eye-view, third person narrative, as if it is Susie who is describing events. Too often, however, it is the author who is speaking and clearly not her character, who presumably could offer much more in the way of opinion or reflection on events. So, what unfolds is essentially a tale of family disintegration seen from afar. The disintegration happens slowly and, it has to be said, sometimes rather repetitively.

Unfortunately, as well, the end of the book was just too sentimental for this particular reader. In fiction, I am willing to suspend belief or perhaps succumb to it, and for, the purpose of the plot, I am willing to accept that there might be a heaven from which one might observe. But to accomplish what Susie does late in the book was taking myth just a little too far. The Lovely Bones remains worth reading. Its slow development might convince some readers that such forensic analysis of the details of these relationships too often strays into indulgence. But, one supposes, when one has an eternity in which to keep occupied, little things do make a difference.

Costa Blanca Arts Update - ADDA presents Garcia Abril and Kallinikov

ADDA Simfonica’s second concert of the season something of a rarity, in that it featured just two works, neither of which would have been familiar even to the music devotees in attendance. The fact that this now superb orchestra visited this unfamiliar territory so easily and with such quality of communication is testament to the fact that the band is now an established, mature musical force. And all of this was accomplished under a guest conductor, Manuel Hernandez-Silva, who was directing the orchestra for the first time.

 The first half featured the viola of Isabel Villanueva in the Cantos do Ordesa by Anton García Abril. The composer’s music may well not be widely known inside Spain, let alone outside and this particular work, essentially an episodic viola concerto, illustrated the composer’s highly individual style.

Composed in 2012, Cantos de Ordesa is a perfect example of García Abril’s style. The expected elements of twentieth century Spanish music are all present, but Garcia Abril often seems to cut phrases short, leaving them unfinished to merge into different impressions, the whole apparently a compressed, almost impressionistic succession of experiences, stitched together like a jump cut film. Thus, while the material may often suggest a familiarity, the way episodes are juxtaposed evokes a dream-like experience of a familiar reality. The overall effect seems to be similar to a collage made from familiar images that have been cut together in a wholly unexpected way. At least this is how the orchestral writing this piece comes across.

The solo part, admirably played by Isabell Villanueva, is another matter, however, in that it is a truly demanding virtuoso amplification and exploration of the orchestral material. The solo part inhabits the same landscapes as the orchestra, but in a far more complex and exploratory way, rendering the overall effect both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, but sometimes also suggesting that the soloist is competing with the orchestral forces. Throughout, the sense of music for film is never far from the composer’s conception, which is no surprise since García Abril did compose much music in the genre. Antonio Garcia Abril died in March 2021. Isabella Villanueva offered one short encore, Nana from Manuel de Falla’s Popular Songs.

The other work on the program was Kallinikov’s first symphony. First performed in 1897, this is a large work in very much the style of Borodin. The composer uses folk melodies alongside sophisticated orchestration and occasional rhythmic invention, though there is always the sensation that the composer preferred the music of his past rather than that of his contemporaries. There is no overt modernism here, at least none of the type that Richard Strauss or Gustav Mahler might have used at around the same time.

The overall effect of the symphony, however, is thoroughly satisfying musical experience. This is not at work which will shock, nor will it lift an audience to a frenzy of excitement. But it will lead its listeners along a path that is the musical equivalent of a novel with a linear plot, where the focus lies in what happens to the characters rather than a psychological analysis of their motives, more Turgenev than Dostoyevsky.

The concert presented what was probably the first experience of the music of either composer for the majority of the audience. Its success was testament to the vastness and quality of the repertoire and it ought to suggest to other artistic directors that risks are there to be taken, and taken successfully.