Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Cordelia Williams in the Emperor

To the Barbican last night to see our neighbour Cordelia Williams play the Emperor with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Christopher Warren Green.

This is the first time I've seen Cordelia play live - though the YouTube of her Ondine from Gaspard is enough to convince anyone that she has a remarkable talent. I was expecting it to be very good and it was if anything beyond that.

As one might expect, she gave a highly intelligent account and was enormously persuasive in what I would describe as the filigree sections.  I cannot help thinking that it must have been somewhat like the way Clara Schumann would have played it. I've tried to find contemporary accounts of Clara's performances of the Emperor - which was a major item in her repertoire - but so far have been unable to do so.  However Clara did have a major success in London with the Emperor in 1865 with the orchestra of ... the Philharmonic Society (which became Royal in 1913) .. and thus essentially the predecessor of the current RPO.

The next item on the programme was the Choral Symphony (which was commissioned by the Philharmonic Society) but  I'm afraid I was too tired and came home.

She's giving the same programme at Birmingham Symphony Hall tonight - catch it if you can!  And look out for her Messiaen next year which I'm sure will be amazing!

PS there are some other terrific performances by Cordelia on YouTube. Do catch, for example:

Grandchildren back in the US

We had Elder Daughter over with her children and husband for about 10 days - they left yesterday morning and are now back at home in the US. It was an utter delight!  High points included
  • taking them to their first pantomime (Cinderella) and M was picked as one of 4 children to go on stage with Buttons.
  • A lovely Crib Service on Christmas Eve and also delightful services on Christmas Day and the two Sundays.
  • The girls and their parents going skating at the Natural History Museum.
  • Many visits of family and friends.
of course it's quite hard work, of a delightful kind, so not much time for blogging or anything else.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Science, convergent evolution, birdsong and personal contact

From Pfenning et al. illustrating the regions of Human and
Songbird brains that are involved in song and speech and
which have similar gene expression specializations.
Two amazing papers in Science exploring:
These demonstrate some of the genetic basis of singing in songbirds, which has evolved independently several times in birds and of course has also evolved independently in humans.
Nevertheless there is convergent evolution not merely in the "morphology" as one might expect but in the actual genetic basis of singing. The full papers incidentally are well worth reading even though they are highly technical. They also compare, for controls, a vocal non-learning bird (chicken) and a vocal non-learning primate (macaque).

This not only provides (much) more fascinating detail on the basic point, which I first learned from Iain McGilchrist's wonderful book The Master and his Emissary, that speech must have evolved from song, but also it illustrates in a fascinating way Simon Conway Morris's key point about convergent evolution. Indeed I'm not sure that even Simon would have expected such a dramatic finding. Truly the idea that evolution is "random" needs to be re-thought given the many striking instances of convergent evolution.

There is another completely different but also fascinating paper in that issue of Science called When contact changes minds: An experiment in transmission in support for gay equality which demonstrates the enduring influence of one personal contact on opinions (in California) in support of gay marriage. They compared gay and straight canvassers on the subject but didn't compare the effect of telephone or virtual contact with the direct personal contact they studied. Still it seems very plausible that it was the direct contact that mattered. All fascinating.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Justin on Desert Island Discs and in the FT

Just finished listening to Justin Welby's Desert Island Discs on i-Player. Well worth listening to!

It's been quite a day - Son was down for a family gathering last night and stayed the night (with his daughter) so we had him in the house for his birthday. I gave him The Great Reformer: Francis and the making of a radical Pope which seems excellent, from reading the first few pages and from the reviews. I would buy one myself except that I've had a hint that this might not be necessary! The first person mentioned in the book other than Francis and the author is Justin.

Justin continues to have a very good press, with a laudatory Editorial in the FT on the 21st
A Christian leader who is living in the real world
Archbishop Justin Welby is an increasingly respected moral voice

Indeed he is rapidly emerging and the most impressive and respected leader of any kind in the UK - other than the Queen who cannot speak out.  At some point the media will turn against him, but he's well prepared for that!

One of the many wise things Justin said was that when you have death or tragedy in the family that is associated with a particular day it is best to attack that day and celebrate the life of the person, rather than let the day attack you. We have always done this with the anniversary of the death of my father and this was the family gathering last night.  Jesus has conquered the grave, and we can be confident that those who sleep in Christ will rest in peace and rise in Glory!

PS Justin also has a nice article in the Radio Times, and quite a sympathetic profile on the BBC website.


Monday, December 22, 2014

St Nicholas + Merry Christmas!

from St Nicholas Icon
courtesy Wikipedia
The sermon on Sunday made a strong case for reclaiming Santa Claus ie St Nicholas of Myra as an important Christian symbol. Christmas is widely "celebrated" in China and Vietnam and elsewhere and it really won't do to say "there is no Santa Claus" because there is - St Nicholas was undoubtedly a real person.

To my shame I'm very ignorant about his life, and didn't even know that he was present at the Council of Nicea or that he is the patron saint of sailors.

When the children were young and asked if Santa Claus were real I would say yes, and he has many helpers.

Lots of joyful family things happening and people staying so not sure how much blogging I'll be able to do. If I don't blog before then, I wish every reader

A very merry and blessed Christmas!

Friday, December 19, 2014

Sanya concert and Advent 3

Back from a lengthy and very interesting trip to China. I had the great pleasure of again singing in the South Cathedral Choir in Beijing on the Second Sunday of Advent. But for the Third Sunday I was at a very interesting Forum in Sanya hosted by our friend Wang Boming and there was no church anywhere near.

This was the second time I’ve attended the Sanya Forum and there were some very interesting discussions but they were business and I don’t blog about these. However there was also a concert in the evening – the most remarkable feature of which was the performance by an 11-year old Chinese pianist of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 20. This was done with considerable musicality, verve, skill and the Beethoven cadenzas. He will of course be even better when he is older!

Since there was no church available I worshipped in my room and composed a mini-sermon-ette on the set texts. I hope it is of some interest…

Meditation on the readings for 3rd Sunday in Advent.

Hope – expectation – something to look forward to – something to believe in. These are so important for us as we live our lives in a turbulent and troubled world.

The Jewish people in the 1st Century lived under oppression but in great expectation. Herod the Great had built the Second Temple, a building of extraordinary beauty and magnificence. One of the sages of Israel said “He that has not seen the Temple of Herod has never seen a beautiful building” The restoration of Temple worship was a wonderful sign of hope, even though Herod’s antecedents and behavior left an enormous amount to be desired. But the Land of Israel was under Roman Rule, and after the his death this became more direct. Taxes had to be paid to Caesar and, much worse, the very coins bore an idolatrous image – Caesar claiming to be Son of God. Although not in exile physically the exile was still continuing.

But there was hope. Daniel prophesied of the coming destruction of the evil empires who oppressed God’s people.  And Isaiah prophecies of a great liberation by God.
he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor,
to heal the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives
and release to the prisoners,
to announce a year of favor from the LORD
and a day of vindication by our God.
The poor, brokenhearted, captives and prisoners were not some specific individuals within the community – the whole people of Israel saw themselves in this light.  This is very clear in the parts left out in the Catholic lectionary.  This is to be “comfort to those who mourn in Zion. – ie the whole of God’s chosen people.
Strangers shall tend your flocks,
Foreigners shall be your plowmen and vinedressers
But you will be called the Priests of the LORD
They shall speak of you and ministers of our God
You shall eat the wealth of the Gentiles
And in their glory you shall boast.
Good news indeed!  But it requires a radical overthrow: instead of Jews paying tribute to heathen Romans the Gentiles should be paying tribute to the Jews.

So when John the Baptist begins his ministry people are full of expectation. Crowds flock to him in the wilderness. What is going on?  The Pharisees send people to find out. They are the main group of people dis-satisfied with the present situation. The Sadducees have possession and control of the Temple. The Pharisees believe that by deeper prayer and purity they can help bring forward God’s decisive action.

So they ask John “are you Elijah” because it was believed that Elijah (who of course was caught up to God in a whirlwind and traditionally never died) would return before the Messiah.  And he answers “no”.  Interestingly Jesus later says that John was, in a sense, the return of Elijah. But of course they were different people – it was Elijah who appeared with Jesus in the Transfiguration (along with Moses – the Law and the Prophets) and not John.

John says he is the voice of one crying in the wilderness prepare a way for the LORD. People sometimes make a big deal of the fact that the Septuagint tends to read this as crying in the wilderness, “prepare…” whereas the best reading of the Hebrew is  crying “in the wilderness, prepare…” but of course there are no inverted commas in Greek or Hebrew and the ambiguity can be taken both ways.

But what does this mean for us? How can we prepare this way in our wilderness today?  Well how can we put it better than Paul?
Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing.
In all circumstances give thanks,
for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.
Do not quench the Spirit.
Do not despise prophetic utterances.
Test everything; retain what is good.
Refrain from every kind of evil.
Inspiring thoughts, but how can this be done?  We can’t “pray without ceasing” and we certainly can’t “Refrain from every kind of evil”. Maybe we can try, but “If we say we have no sin, the truth is not in us” as St John warns us sternly.

Of course Paul knows this better than anyone, so he continues:
May the God of peace make you perfectly holy
and may you entirely, spirit, soul, and body,
be preserved blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The one who calls you is faithful,
and he will also accomplish it.
We cannot make ourselves perfectly holy or blameless. Our efforts are pitifully inadequate. But it is God who will do this. 
The one who calls you is faithful,
and he will also accomplish it.