Tuesday, October 30, 2012

New James Bond - so-so

Last night went to the new Bond, Skyfall. Not in my view by any means the best Bond, although with many wonderful actors: Judi Dench, Ralph Feinnes, Javier Bardem, Ben Whishaw and Naomie Harris who I hadn't seen before and was therefore a delightful surprise.  However the script was not great and full of annoying plot-holes. To name only the most egregious:
  1. Why doesn't Bond stop the assassin in Shanghai before he has made the hit?
  2. The Shanghai police are very efficient - they would surely not have allowed all these shootings to happen and ignored them.
  3. Q is supposed to be a computer genius dealing with another genius' infected computer. Yet he plugs it in to the internal network???
  4. And rasies no alert to the police that an assassin disgused as a cop is on the loose.
  5. M addresses the chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee as "Minister"???  I know Select Committees are a bit arcane and the ISC isn't quite a select Committee, but having decided to use it as a plot device there is no reason why M can't address the Chairman as "Chairman" (as undoubtedly she would IRL, being of that generation). Also this ISC seems to be in public when for obvious reasons their hearings are in secret.  
  6. Q knows where Bond and M are, but have arranged no backup??
 There were also too many filmic in-jokes for my taste. But certainly I'm rather old fashioned.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Die Walküre with Simon O'Neill

Sarah C, Eva-Maria W, Susan B, Bryn T, Simon, and John T
To Covent Garden to see Simon O'Neill singing Siegmund in Die Walküre. This has been sold out for ages and even Simon couldn't get me a ticket, but fortunately an old business friend is on the Board so I managed to obtain one (paying full price of course).  The cast is simply amazing: in addition to Simon who is pretty much the Siegmund at present (La Scala, Met, Vienna, Berlin, Munich etc...) we had Bryn Terfel as Wotan, John Tomlinson as Hagen and Sarah Connolly as Fricka - four truly GREAT singers working together superbly.  Eva-Maria Westbroek as Sieglinde was also terrific, and Pappano and the ROH Orchestra were on wonderful form.

As is so often the case, the production was a bit obtrusive - I wish that opera Directors would have their fees cut and cut until we got people whose goal was to illuminate the piece and make the music and drama really shine through rather than to impose their CONCEPT and Do It Differently. It is I suppose particularly difficult with The Ring becasue Wagner was so specific about so many things and so immersed in theatrcial detail that if you really tried to follow all his stage directions you'd need lots of special effects but not a Massive Directoral Vision.  Still this would be worth trying!  Anyway with a cast this wonderful you can always shut your eyes and listen to sublime singing.

Siegmund's entry is a great moment, and Simon is terrific from the word go. The whole of Act I - a tremendous three hander - was amazing.  (The final stage direction is Er sieht sie mit wütender Glut an sich which means "he pulls her to him with raging fervour" - the old Covent Garden translation which I have has "tumescent passion"!)

With the very complex Act II we got Bryn Terfel who is a completely wonderful Wotan but the Valkyries are more witches than warrior maidens and Susan Bullock as Brunhilde was not to my mind quite so impressive but these roles are notoriously difficult to bring off. Having Wotan goose her with his spear in her Hojoto-ho moments was an ill-judged directoral trope (that got a few sniggers). Sarah Connolly was excellent as Fricka and we really got the sense that they loved each other despite everything. There were then the very moving scenes between Brunhildle and Wotan (Scene 2) and Siegmund (Scene 4) and Bullock was much more into her stride. Against Wagner's specific instructions both Siegmund and Hunding are killed by Wotan's spear in Scene 5. The Ride of the Valyries was wonderfully sung and the concept of having the horses represented by horses' skulls was OK - though again the witches look was unfortunate. But the final scene between Wotan and Brunhilde was almost unbearably moving - Terfel is absolutely superb, singing and acting brillantly.

Massive and hugely justified applause for all.  Popped backstage to see Simon but we'll have to have dinner when he's back in the UK in a few months - he flies to Japan early this morning to start work on Cavadarossi in Tosca tomorrow.  If you haven't heard him sing yet then you really should. He is amazing and will probably be appearing in a major opera house (or concert hall) in your continent soon!

(PS minor milestone: this is the 1,000th starcourse blog post published)

Sunday, October 28, 2012

NSFW with Janie Dee

To the Royal Court theatre last night to see our friend Janie in NSFW, a new play by Lucy Kirkwood about the issues around media, privacy and values, set in the offices of a very downmarket Lad's Mag ("Doghouse") and a semi-up market Women's Magazine ("Electra"). A lot of it was about exploitative power and the desperation of many young people who want to work in the media to get a job. A very good cast with Janie and Kevin Doyle (who plays Molseley in Downton Abbey) as "old hands", Julian Barratt as the sleazy and manipulative editor of Doghouse, with the juvenile cast being Esther Smith (playing Charlotte who with a First from Oxford is dogsbody to sleazy editor - and the only person in her circle of friends with a job at all), Sacha Dhawan (as Sam, the impoverished intern who is in a sense the play's central character - though this is not clear until Act III), Henry Lloyd-Hughes (as obnoxious Etonian Rupert).

It's a very interesting play, brilliantly acted, thought provoking and with a fascinating mixture of comedy and darkness.  Catch it if you can!

Afterwards backstage to see Janie and the entire cast ended up in the dressing room she and Esther share. We were going to go out to supper but the restaurant Janie had in mind was full so instead she drove us back to her house and we had a lovely supper a trois chatting about life, parenthood and much else. A wonderful evening.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Ned Phelps Seminar, and Hope for Justice Cabaret

Gave my seminar at Columbia chaired by Ned Phelps which was a very stimulating experience indeed for me - and others seem to have found it valuable as well. Ned and I had lunch beforehand (on our own) and then dinner afterwards with a few of the attendees.  I presented him with a copy of In Business and Battle.

Flew back from NY on Sat and went straight to the Cabaret organised at our Church in aid of Hope For Justice. I arrived just after the second half had started. A talented comedy duo called Frimston and Rowett (ex Cambridge) did a really clever and funny pallindrome sketch. I'm also told that the dance group at the end of the first half was exceptionally good, but I missed that.

The week has been exceptionally busy including a piano lesson with Kathron Sturrock on the amazing Chopin Etude Op 25 No 1. Must get on now.  Have been making some progress in updating the Polkinghorne Questions and Responses blog, though there is still quite a backlog alas.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Counterpoint over time, space, and pre-life

To a delightful concert given by Per Tengstrand at the Scandiavian Center in NYC. This was in a gallery on the 3rd floor which also had pictures of icelandic locations that had been painted in the 19th Centrury by a British painter called W. G. Collingwood who had been inspired to visit these locations by the Icelandic Sagas.  Thus many many resonances of time and space.

Tengstrand gave an enjoyable pre-concert talk about two of the pieces he was playing: the 1st Schubert Op 90 impromptu and Beethoven Op 14 No 2. His contemporaries thought that Beethoven was an even greater improviser than he was a pianist or composer, which is an interesting and scary thought (same can be said about JS Bach I suppose). It's also interesting to reflect that Beethoven overlapped a lot with Mozart (20 years) and Chopin (18 years) as well as Schubert (40 years, he was basically a younger contemporary).  Tengstrand said that Schubert was a master of a transition from 4 time to 3 time as was Beethoven but he couldn't think of an immediate example. I suggested the 2nd movement of the Pathetique so Tengstrand decided to play it as an encore.

He is indeed a very intelligent and interesting player, and it was a great pleasure to meet him.
A smorgasbord of Scandianvian tongues
United by music
As photographs of places in the sagas
Echo the centuries
Harmonies, dissonance, rythm, counterpoint
In music and landscape
And humanity
Fig 1b from Vaidya et al. A cooperative system comprised of three subsystems.
Numbers over arrows estimate the cooperative advantage for each step.
A fascinating paper has just come out in Nature "Spontaneous network formation among cooperative RNA replicators" by Nilesh Vaidya, Michael Manapat and others which builds (amongst other things) on Martin and Hisahsi's PNAS paper on Pre-life and observes how cooperative sub-assemblies of the Azoarcus ribozyme can interact to self-assemble in a stable way.

I think the most fundamental point is that there are astronomically more potential networks of genes/pre-genese than there are individual genes.  As always the whole idea of a "selfish gene" is a complete nonsese, genes (and their precursors) can only act in cooperation.  This point is made in the accompanying News and Views - though slightly pulling the punches possibly in deference to the Dawk and his followers.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Janie Dee in MMD Gala

Went on Sunday to the Mercury Musical Development gala at the Novello Theatre where our wonderful friend Janie Dee was one of the many artists performing to raise money for this worthy cause.

Janie did the second performance, with a delightful and poingnant rendition of "Checkout Lil", a song about an observant and optimistic checkout girl at a supermarket just before Christmas that was written for her in one of the workshops about 10 years ago.  This was after a very Sondheimesque song by Howard Goodall about Minos full of cute rhymes (Crete, Meat, Street, Effete - Ma, Steak Tartare etc..).  Other highlights included the "Portrait of a Princess (in a Disney Way)".

Janie was in the first 1/3rd of the show which was just as well as I had lots of work to do the following day. The online auction has some gems - have a look.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Repentance and forgiveness + two rising stars

Very encouraged to hear that the top-management team of a major bank recently had a training session in the new extension to our church.  Apparently the CEO said words to the effect that "we've had training sessions in top hotels, in skyscrapers around the world, but perhaps it is now appropriate that we are meeting in a church, because we need to repent."

It's great that bankers are now prepared to use that language, internally. Of course we all need to repent: I heard on the radio this morning that the Dean of Coventry Cathedral after it was bombed had "Father forgive" engraved on the ruins of the old cathedral, and when people said, "surely you mean: father forgive them" he replied "no, there are no innocents here, we are all in need of forgiveness".  Interestingly only Luke records this wonderful saying of Jesus - and the similar saying in Acts of Stephen, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them."

It is of course a famous result of Martin Nowak's that forgiveness is good for society from a game-theoretical PoV. And although we don't remotely understand the neuroscience, it's clear that forgiveness is good for people as well. The neuroscience of forgiveness seems to be a very under-explored field.  The most cited recent paper seems to be "Innocent intentions: A correlation between forgiveness for accidental harm and neural activity" by Liane Young, and Rebecca Saxe Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, IT which was published in Neuropsychologia in 2009.  Interestingly it begins with a quotation "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. Luke 23:34" 

Lianne Young now runs the intriguing  Morality Lab at Boston College. Rebecca Saxe did her BA in Psychology and Philosophy at Oriel (where she got a congratulatory first) and then earned a PhD at MIT. She was a Junior Fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows 2003-2006 and is now an Associate Prof at MIT, running her lab on  Social Cognitive Neuroscience.  She co-authored a book in 2007 with Simon Baron-Cohen.  They are clearly both very interesting people to watch, and I hope their work goes well.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Very encouraged by what I hear about Justin Welby,

I'm very encouraged by what I hear about Justin Welby, from someone who has known him for many many years.

It seems that when he was at Coventry he was very active as co-director for International Ministry at the International Centre for Reconciliation, doing excellent work in difficult areas such as the problems between Muslims and Christians in Northern Nigeria.  He was then asked to help at the 2008 Lambeth Conference to encourage constructive dialogue between the Liberal (mainly American) bishops and the Conservative (mainly African) bishops, and succeeded beyond people's wildest expectations. It seems he used what is called an Indaba Process.

This is one factor in his otherwise rather astonishing elevation (he was only made Bishop of Durham last October). Another is that at 56 he will still be fully active DV in 2018 when the next Lambeth Conference is being held.

The fact that he understands global business, having worked for Elf and then as Treasurer for Enterprise Oil, is another plus.  And he's a Trinity man (so I forgive him for being an OE :-).  I haven't met him yet though I saw him briefly since he was inducted into the House of Lords at the same time as Gus O'Donnell and I was working there with Bob May at the time.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Good news of friends, family and life

Very encouraging that two key ministers have come out in favour of reducing the abortion time limit. They are stressing that it is their personal views, but it would be a lasting and great achievement of this parliament if the limit were lowered appreciably.

Daughter has conditional offer on the excellent Teach First scheme which is very encouraging.

Working hard on my presentation for the Columbia Seminar chaired by (Nobel Laureate) Ned Phelps.  As his daughter said to Obama, "better be good".

Fascinating article by Gillian Tett about how remote villages in Ethiopia learned to use iPads.  Maybe they could help in Darfur as well?

Lots of news of our musician and actor friends:
  • Our wonderful friend Janie Dee will be starring in a Royal Court production NSWF. She's always worth seeing - catch her if you can. 
  • Simon O'Neill is wowing people as Siegmund at the Royal Opera House.
  • Nicole Cabell is starring in San Francisco
  • Sasha Siem has a gig in London on Oct 31st
  • Toby Spence will be singing Antonio in The Tempest at the Met later this month.
  • Yundi has a major concert in Beijing on Dec 1st.
  • and Ruth Palmer has a concert in NY on Dec 7th.