Saturday, February 25, 2012

Noises Off, Yundi and Rosenkavalier

What a week. Much of it unbloggable of course but I can mention a few highlights.

To Oxford on Monday for a very enjoyable and productive lunch and working session with Bob May. On Weds a we and a group of friends and family went to The Old Vic to see Noises Off and had supper afterwards where we were  joined by our wonderful friend Janie.

I was more than a little torn because I had been invited to Yundi's only recital in London on his European tour. This was a private event and I would have loved to have gone and was very honoured to be invited.  Yundi had given me a copy of his Live in Beijing CD playing mainly Chopin and it's stunning. Fortunately we were able to have dinner together the following evening and it was great being able to spend time together, talking about music and his plans to encourage Chinese composers to write great music for the Piano.

We also discussed the wonderful Schubert B Flat Sonata (D960) and my theory that the 2nd movement is in some sense a portrait of Ophelia and her death. I don't have any documentary support for this, but we both agree it's plausible and and makes artistic sense, although of course you can never pin down a piece of music.

If you can possibly get to any of the dates on his European Tour do so - you will not be disappointed. I was hoping to get to Paris on the 12th but it looks as if business commitments will prevent this.  We should be able to catch up when I'm back in Beijing.

Then last night I took C to the outstanding production of Rosenkavalier that I saw the previous Friday. It was just as good as before, and a practically full house.  What a tremendous week.

PS: D960 was composed in1828 and Schubert set his 3 Shakespeare songs in 1826. Johann Willhelm Otto Benda produced a translation of Shakespeare in Vienna in 1825-27 and Josef Fick also produced a translation in Vienna in 1825-1827, so Shakespeare was clearly very "hot" in Vienna at that time.  Can anyone give more information?

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Deservedly bad week for the Dawk

A deservedly bad week for the Dawk. His "Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science" (Richard Dawkins FRS - geddit?) commissioned a face-to-face poll intended to show that the people who said they were "Christian" in the Census were't really Christian. Dawkins was widely condemned and mocked for his arrogance and brilliantly skewered by Giles Fraser on the Today programme. One of Dawkins' "arguments" was that many people who said they were Christians didn't know that the first book of the NT was Mark. Fraser showed, on air, that Dawk didn't know the full title of the Origin (it's "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life")

The excellent ukpollingreport asks why they have held back the results of the poll (conducted 1-7 April last year) until now, and it's pretty obvious that they would have been in a tussle with MORI over the wording of the press release. Eventually MORI seems to have caved in and highlighted the "negatives".  However in the circumstances some of the figures showed for pretty down-the-line Christian belief are pretty high.

First, this was a face-to-face survey and it would almost certainly have identified the client as the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science.  This would certainly have put off many Christians from replying to the survey, and discouraged many responders from being as open about their faith as they might have been, since the nice woman/man doing the survey would have been seen as a representative of Richard Dawkins and likely to mock or disapporve of pro-Christian stances. (I know the MORI employees would not have mocked, but it's a fair bet that they would have disapproved - I bet they are more likely to be atheists/secualrists than the country as a whole). In the circumstances the fact that 54% self-identified as Christians can be seen as a lower bound. Indeed the British Social Attitudes surveys (which I suspect are conducted by even more anti-Christian inteviewers) "found" at the same time that only 44% of people considered themselves Christian. Interestingly this is up from 2001 where they "found" that only 41% considered themselved Christian, and the Census showed that 72% did.

Again, 19% of the MORI poll Christians say they attend services other than baptisms, weddings and funerals. So that's 10% of the population or about 7M people (given that they will probably have rather more children than average).

However one of the tables in the British Social Attitudes surveys is rather depressing. It shows that, amongst their sample,  only 5% of people brought up with "no religion" become Christian, whereas 32% of  people brought tup RC and 44-45% of people brought up CofE/other Christian fall away from the faith.

The Richard Dawkins Foundation is rather less well endowed than one might suppose, with only £280k in the bank and income of £69k, of which they spent just £32k. This included £16K of support and governance costs so only 23% of the money raised was actually applied for charitable purposes (at least this was up from the previous year when they only spent £10k).Since Dawkins must make well over £1M pa from his royalties, and presumably some people other than the Dawk put money in to his "charity", it seems that Dawkins pockets a good 98% ofhis after tax income. So much for atheistic "altruism".

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Ravishing Rosenkavalier

Our friend Susannah Fiennes invites us to the ENO for the Rosenkavalier. C was committed to be with the grandchildren in Cambridge but I could come and we were joined by the wife of a great accompanist.

This production is ravishing and the performances are utterly stunning. The four principals are all tremendous singers at varying stages of their careers, working together brilliantly under the baton of the utterly superb Ed Gardner.  We begin with Amanda Roocroft's Feldmarschallin and Sarah Connolly's Octavian in bed: the erotic daze of the 17-year-old lover beautifully sung and acted ("Wie du warst! Wie du bist!").  John Tomlinson is then wonderful as the blustering snobbish vulgar lustful Baron Ochs.  Having heard Sophie Bevan before I was greatly looking forward to her in the 2nd act and was not at all disappointed: she was indeed the equal to the three other amazingly illustrious singers, and at two points tears were brought to my eyes.

Being in a box we had an excellent view of the orchestra and of Ed Gardner's conducting. It was quite extraordinary how he brings out the very best in all his musicians with such economy of gesture and the rapport between him and the singers is amazing. Indeed the final climactic trio almost felt like a quartet.

We left quite overwhelmed, all feeling that we had experienced one of the finest opera performances we had ever seen.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Lovely Cosi with Rosy

Back from a terrific, but sadly unbloggable, business trip to Beijing.

Just before leaving went with friends to see Rosy Joshua in Cosi at Covent Garden.  This is the Jonathan Miller production which he did on a shoestring, so it's very minimalist in terms of set. However they had Colin Davis conducting and a terrific cast, with Thomas Allen as Alfonso, and some very fine young singers as the lovers: Charles Castronovo (Ferrando), Nikolay Borchev (Guglielmo), Malin Byström (Fiordiligi) and Michèle Losier (Dorabella). Sadly at the beginning the Director of Opera came on to announce that Tom Allen was taken ill, and they were forced to have the role sung from the sidelines by Carlo Lepore (who was singing Bartolo in Figaro) with the young assistant director doing the actions onstage.  People were offered vouchers for their money back if they wanted to leave and a very few did. It was an excellent performance but of course would have been even more wonderful if Tom Allen had been on stage.

Sir Colin did indeed take it quite slowly, and as a result the sublime aspects of the music really came out. The famously ravishing trio Soave sia il vento brought tears to the eyes, for example. I know this opera pretty well, but there were many things I felt I was encountering for the first time. Some nice direction touches as well, like having a CNN cameraman and interviewer interviewing the departing soldiers, and then being paid by Alfonso.  And the outlandish "Albanian" costumes were Heavy Metal.

We went backstage afterwards to see Rosy and also met Malin Byström and her charming young daughter (aged 7 I think) who had sat beautifully through the performance near us.  Rosy then joined us and our two friends at Sheekys.

Despina can be cast as either very young or quite mature, and although Rosy looks about the same age as the lovers she in fact sang her first Despina 20 years ago. The great thing about having really experienced singers as Despina and Alfonso is that they can bring out the younger ones and indeed they have apparently grown considerably in confidence during the run.

I know we aren't meant to take the plot too seriously, but it's interesting to note that the stake (100 sequins=ducats) is 350g of gold or just over £12k at today's prices.  And clearly the girls are orphans in somewhat reduced circumstances (no parents, their chief servant a maid) so very much reliant on making a marriages.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Sam Harris debunked - ministers in good form

I've stumbled across this series of blog posts by an estimable fellow called William M Briggs, exposing the charlatanism of Sam Harris and his idiotic PLOS1 paper. Depressing that such statistically meaningless junk gets published. But people will believe what they want to believe, especially when there are pretty "scientific" pictures.

Saw the PM, William Hague, IDS and various other ministers at a big social event last night. All in very good form and heart. It's a huge responsibility that they are undertaking, and they are seriously trying with real values and dedication. Recent economic data suggests that we might well avoid a technical "double dip" recession, and I really hope we do. 

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Macroscopic quantum effects, and some support for maxHELP

Fascinating paper in Nature called Quantum-coherent coupling of a mechanical oscillator to an optical cavity mode.  Essentially they have built a small but decidedly macroscopic (31um diameter) optomechanical system which can be quantum-coupled to an optical system. This has to be done at very low temperatures (under 1K) to have reasonably long mechanical decoherence times, but of course the optical signal does not decohere much even at room temperatures.
Fig 1 from Nature paper. a, False-colour electron micrograph of resonator. b, Sketch of an optical whispering gallery mode in the microresonator (colours indicate optical phase). c, Simulated displacement (exaggerated for clarity) of fundamental radial breathing mode. d, Equivalent optomechanical Fabry–Pérot cavity

Although this kind of thing has been done before in terms of coupling to a microwave resonator, this makes much more real and tangible the fact that (at least at very low temperatures) quantum superposition is not just something that happens to objects at the atomic scale.

I've been too busy to think much about fundamental physics recently, but this paper "One or more bound planets per Milky Way star from microlensing observations" did catch my eye. It suggests that "it is the rule, rather than the exception, for stars in our Galaxy to host one planet or more. 'Super-Earths' are the most abundant type, being associated with around 62% of stars; 52% host cool Neptune-like planets; and 17% host 'Jupiters'."  This tends to support my maxHELP hypothesis. I wonder if there has been any progress on understanding this better?

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Aristo Sham at New year Celebration

To Chinese New Year reception organised by the Hong Kong Economic & Trade Office on Tuesday. Interesting - with impressive Dragon Dancers.  Also 15-year old prodigy Aristo Sham performed: Ravel's Toccata - quite fluently but it wasn't a very well judged piece for the Banqueting House's acoustics and although all the notes seemed to be in place, to bring this off properly requires a mastery of multi-level textures and larger scale structure that it would be unreasonable to expect from a 15-year-old.

Still one to watch I think. He has of course met Yundi and was interested to know about his tour.  We still don't know whether/when Yundi is coming to London.  Sebasitan See-Schierenberg also performed with him on the violin, clearly a much older and more mature player.