Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Chinese Premier at Royal Society

To the Royal Society on Monday for the presentation of the King Charles II Medal to Chinese Premier Wen Jaibao.  He gave a fascinating speech which really empahsised his commitment to science, openeness, democracy. Few in the West would have expected this "Without freedom, there is no real democracy. Without guarantee of economic and political rights, there is no real freedom...To promote democracy, improve the legal system and strengthen effective oversight of power remains a long and arduous task for us. We need to create conditions for people to oversee and criticize the government to make the government live up to its responsibility and prevent corruption. With a keen sense of responsibility and democracy, people will spur social progress. The more the people participate in social management and public affairs, the greater the momentum there will be to sustain social progress."
He was very keen on promoting cooperation: "The Chinese government encourages large Chinese companies, research-oriented universities and research institutions to increase cooperation with their British counterparts. It also encourages more exchange of top-level talents and joint research between our two countries."

He also said something very wise at the beginning: "This is my fourth visit to the UK as China's premier. During this visit, I have a very different impression from my last visit two years ago, in early 2009. Back then, the UK was hit by both a rare heavy snow and the global financial crisis. Coming to London from Davos, I could sense anxiety and uneasiness in the air. I remember saying during that visit, "Confidence is more important than currency and gold." But now back in mid-summer London, I can see that people have regained confidence."

Of course I listened to the English translation but at least I understood one or two words of Chinese. Must make more progress in learning this fascinating language.

Monday, June 27, 2011

London Oxford Cambridge & Berlin

What a week.
On Weds am the FT published my letter about reform of the House of Lords, which has already had positive feedback from some very senior people, and in the evening it was the WCIT banquet at the Guildhall, in the presence of the Lord Mayor, his designated successor David Wooton and their designated successor Fiona Woolf who will only be the 2nd female Lord Mayor in the illustrious history of the office.  The present Lord Mayor is the 756?th holder of this office, which must be something of a record since the very few offices that go back further in history (Emperor of Japan, Pope, what else?) tend to have occupants that stay in office for more than 1 year!  A highlight of the evening for us was meeting a delightful couple based in Cambridge who are heavily involved in the CofE at both a local and national level.

On Thurs I went with a colleague to meet with Bob May and brief him on our latest thinking, then back to London for a client meeting and then to Cambridge to meet with Bela Bollboas and his colleague, finishing up with dinner on High Table, where Amartya was again presiding.

Friday evening I was at an even higher table as I flew to Berlin to see Nicole in Don Giovanni. Came in from the airport by bus which is an interesting way to see a city, esp for the first time. Sat morning I ran from the hotel through the Tiergarten to the Bundestag and then to the Brandeberg Gate.  Sadly I couldn’t go through it because there was some kind of pop concert. However I was able to stop in the Room of Silence by the gate, and pray for the victims of past divisions and for continued peace in Europe.  Worked on Sat and then to the Deutsche Oper.

Musically this was good/very good with Nicole of course being truly outstanding: it was well worth travelling over 1,000 miles to hear her. The Don (Ildebrando d'Arcangelo) was very good, and Anna, Zerlina and Leporello were fine.  Orchestra was OK though not remotely as good as the OAE at Glyndebourne.  However the production was execrable: a prime example of a Director trampling all over the music and words with a Concept, or rather several, some even worse than others.

We start with a not-too-bad idea which is that the Don should have a substantial retinue which adds to the sense that he is indeed a powerful figure and leader of a “gang”. Of course this is conveyed quite effectively in the text by his being a nobleman with a sword, but since it is set in modern dress we can’t have that.  So the entourage all sing Notti Giorni with Leporello – well OK though annoying for Leporello.  But they stay on for the fight and all sing the male parts, which overbalances the trio and makes it dramatically absurd - and of course Giovanni isn’t masked or anything like that.  Then the entourage clubs the Commendatore to death (with golf clubs – a leitmotif of the production) and stay on stage with Elvira, mocking her throughout her aria and the Catalogue song.  So far a bit annoying but apart from the lack of a mask it has some effective moments.  However it obviously creates problems later and greatly reduces Giovanni’s “heroism” since he’s hardly contra mundum.  I was (mildly) interested to see how the Director would solve them.

For Zerlina they keep Mazetto and Elvira on stage while the Don is seducing her, Mazetto being bound and gagged by the Don’s entourage and Elivra being smooched by the Don throughout. So she doesn’t burst in to stop him, she simply pulls herself out from her “erotic obsession” with him.
At the beginning of the changing clothes with Leporello scene the Don strangles a beautiful young girl in white - played by a 12-year-old apparently!  Then because the Director has dressed the Don and Leporello identically they have to produce Nobleman and Servant clothes and play the whole scene, which is really very deep and moving as well as being genuinely funny if played at all well, as a send up in commedia del arte style – further totally undermining Elivria’s character.  For the Do Veni alla Fenestra the strangled girl comes back to life and dances about – trite, stupid and pointless.
The party scene is quite well done, with a rather orgiastic set of flourescent lights and a door with “abandon all hope” over it through which the masked guests have to enter (the trio was sung superbly BTW).  The Don threatens to kill Leporello with a samauri sword but of course Ottavio doesn’t have a pistol – though he gets one later, sheer perversity.  The sense of mayhem at the end is considerable but no-one who didn’t already know the plot would have any real idea of what is going on, or how/why Giovanni escapes.

I really don’t have time to dwell on all the absurdities and travesties of the production. Leporello, who is really quite an interesting and complex character as well as one of the funniest in opera, is made into a thug.  Elviria, who in many ways is the best person in the opera – Ottavio wants justice but she wants to give redemption through love – is made into an obsessive maniac.  Of course the final feast becomes a tableau for a diabolical “last supper” with a dozen slavering disciples, and the stone guest doesn’t appear at all.  Massive special effects of 3 sections of the sage rocking up and down provide the “drama” and the opera stops abruptly with Giovanni’s death. The latter travesty is sadly quite common but musically inexcusable and also dramatically quite wrong – this is more like Shakepeare than Brecht and the finale leads us back into the quotidian world.

What made this all extra-annoying was that there were a good many people in the audience who had never seen Don Giovanni  before. I spoke to 3 couples and they were all in that category – one couple appealed to me to tell them what was going on in the plot because they had no idea: surtitles notwithstanding.

Nicole and the Don had to sign records afterwards so after that we had a quick bite afterwards in the opera cafĂ©, where Nicole was approached by the manager and asked to sign the famous wall.  Sunday I ran again with a somewhat longer route through the Tiergarten, and indeed managed to run through the Brandenberg gate.  Then to a local restaurant for a long leisurely lunch with Nicole, chewing over many ideas both musical and non-musical.

Look out for her Magic Flute in Cincinnati and Chicago later this year.  In March she’s back in the UK for Child of our Time and also next year she’s doing Elvira in Japan.  Please please someone cast her as Elvira at Covent Garden soon – preferably in a production which respects the music and the drama.

I don’t read German well enough to follow the programme notes in detail, but it was fascinating to see a list of all the Don Giovanni plays and operas known to the editors.  This was an incredibly popular theme, indeed there were no fewer than four such operas in 1787 alone, and two in 1784:
It would be very interesting to learn more about the others, and to understand why there was such a craze (there was the Gluck ballet in 1761 and then 2 operas in 1776 and 1777) but at least it explains the slightly odd proper title.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Ethical and Spiritual Implications of the Internet

Last night we had the Colloquium on the Ethical and Spiritual Implications of the Internet at the House of Commons, 14 years after we had the first one at the House of Lords. We managed to get the two original speakers, Richard Chartres and Steve Shirley (now Dame Stephanie) and Warren East the CEO of ARM.  The original event was purely WCIT but this one was jointly held with PITCOM who provided the Chair in the person of Alun Michael MP.

Steve spoke about the work of the Oxford Internet Institute which she had endowed as a result of the first colloquium. Richard noted that the WCIT was still prominent in google searches on the topic of Ethical and Spiritual Implications of the Internet, and that not as much has been done in the intervening 14 years as one might hope, but he was thrilled by the prospects that the internet offers. Warren points out that we are still in the very early days of the net, and that society will over time address the problems.

The discussion from the floor was pretty interesting: our attention was drawn to the new Church of Scotland report which addresses many of these issues. I think PITCOM will make a formal report, it was great to work with them and excellent that we managed to bring these outstanding people together.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Music, quanta and job creation

Delightful music lesson on Thurs evening: some Schumann and Brahms and a first look at Beethoven's 6th violin sonata - which I didn't know at all but is wonderful. Apparently the final movement was orginally intended for the Kreutzer but then Beethoven wrote another one.  A major downside of trips to the US is not playing the piano - though I sometimes can play at the Algonquin.  Richard Rodney Bennett is playing there at the moment, who is a friend of a friend, but annoyingly not on Monday which was the night we were there.

Possiblity floated by an Oxford Prof of co-authoring a scientific paper on quantum science with a Nobel Laureate.  May not happen, but a delightful thought. Work going well, v v able new colleague (also ex Trinity) makes a big difference.

Good news about job creation in the UK.  We're doing our bit: one new colleague this month and another starting next month and considering hiring 2-3 more. In addition we're planning to sponsor a paid intern at our Church, which is a highly cost-efficient way of creating jobs.  Came back from the US with a useful export order and hope to raise our client base there considerably. This is what we need, not (of course) an idiotic VAT cut which would simply encourage imports.  Any money to cut taxes should be focused on reducing Employers National Insurance esp for lower paid. I'm really sorry that my scheme for negative Employers NI to encourage hiring the longer term unemployed hasn't (yet) got any traction.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Boston, NY, Figaro and PNAS

To Boston on Thurs for meetings with our Harvard collaborators and others. Spent weekend with Elder Daughter and her family - MJ getting cuter and cuter - and also managed two runs along the Charles. Then to NY for highly productive working session and more meetings.  Back Weds am and went that evening to the Classical Opera Company's concert performance of Figaro.  We'd gone because Rosy Joshua was singing Susanna but she'd emailed us the previous week saying she'd had to pull out.

Figaro was sung by Matthew Rose, the wonderful Baritone who we'd seen as Leporello in Glyndebourne. From his opening Cinque it was clear we were in for a real treat. He's a tremendous singer, tall and imposing and with a real gift for acting which in some ways is streched more in a concert performance where you have to show so much with so little.  The stand-in Susanna did a fine job, though of course she wasn't Rosy. Mark Stone was an excellent Count, Clara Mouriz a winning Cherubino, and Katherine Watson a really sweet Barberina. The first bridesmaid was Anastasia Bevan who indeed turns out to be the sister Daisy and Mary.

As the performance continued the excellent got better and better. A great advantage of a concert performance is the lack of a Producer, Director and Designer.  This avoids the now almost-obligatory "concept" so that we get Figaro set in a space station/garbage depot/office block or whatever and allows the singers to decide for themselves how they will act it.  With notable exceptions (such as Peter Hall) opera directors tend to over-direct the singers.

Afterwards we met Matthew Rose and Katherine Watson and were able to congatulate them. Look out for Mathew at the ENO (Taggart), the ROH (Masetto) and the Met (Colline in Nov) and also Missa Solemnis with Colin Davis and the LSO (Proms Sept 4, NY Oct 21).  And as we were drinking at the reception I heard that our PNAS paper has been formally accepted. What a week!

Sunday, June 05, 2011

A reformed Lords that builds on best practice

It is now widely accepted that good governance requires that 50% of the Board of a company should be Independent Directors. The same principle should be applied to reform of the House of Lords.

Rather than a complex and expensive new electoral system which creates hundreds of paid "full time parliamentarians" the Lords should consist of 200 Independent Peers and 200 Political Peers, with each party allowed 2 Peers for each % of the vote cast in the last General Election. 

Peers should retire by lot so that there is a reasonable turnover - say  5-10% per annum.  The Independent Peers should elect their own members, rather like the Royal Society, though I agree that the 12 Bishops should be kept as part of their number and I'd add the Presidents of the RS, the BA, the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Academy of Medical Sciences and the Vice-Chancellors of the top 8 Universities.  Party Leaders should only be able to appoint Peers to fill vacancies in their allowances.  Ministers who are not MPs or Peers should be allowed to attend the House of Lords and speak in the debates but not vote. There would also be much to be said for requiring the Board of each Ministry to contain two Independent Peers.

This reform would achieve all the desirable objectives of the proposed 175 page draft bill at a fraction of the cost, whilst retaining the outstanding quality and independence of the best Peers which makes the House of Lords so distinctively valuable.  In particular under this scheme 94% of the Peers could be said to be elected and the balance of the political parties would be exactly represented.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Don Giovanni at Glyndebourne

To Glyndebourne yesterday to see our friend Toby Spence as Ottavio in Don Giovanni.  Arrived just in time for a quick tour backstage. Toby says it's a wonderful house to sing in, and also that the dynamics of the company are excellent - being together in the country helps people to be really friendly.  The acoustics and simply excellent and you can practically whisper.

We then had a wander round the grounds - it was a wonderful summer's day (unlike many of the previous times we have been where it has been rather cold) and its amazing how one can unwind and begin to think more creatively in this environment.

Then the performance itself.  The set is a massive Pandora's Box which opens out to provide the necessary interiors.  The setting is 1960s Italy which makes for stylish images,  But of course much of the actual and threatened violence of Giovanni depends on the fact that noblemen wear swords.  The music was outstanding, a brilliant young conductor called Robin Ticciati (a protege of Simon Rattle's) an generally excellent cast and of course the most sublime music combined to provide stunning musical performances, especially the ensembles which Mozart took to a level never surpassed.

At the end Ticciati was presented with a Critics Circle award, and responded with a short speech emphasising that without the musicians he is nothing. We saw Toby afterwards and travelled back to London together so were able to reflect a bit on the amazing depths and transitions of what I (though its hardly an original opinion!) consider to be the greatest of all the operas.

The astounding way in which it switches from comedy to darkness is only made possible by the music.  But there is a remarkable level of psychological depth in the characters.  The "heros" are of course Elvira and Ottavio - Ottavio is the only really good person in the opera and his steadfast love, willingness to think things through ("Io di ua non vado via, se non so come' e l'affar" - I'm not going until I get to the bottom of this), and deferred gratification. The Romantics of course misread Don Giovanni in their own image - classical composers have to know about deferred gratification.