Saturday, February 28, 2015

Butterfly, Face-changing and Janie in 84 Charing Cross Road

Curtain Call for 84 Charing Cross Road
Very busy week too frantic to blog.

Two Chinese New Year celebrations, both with impressive Lion Dances but one also with an amazing Facechanger – an art that I had not seen before. Essentially this seems to be using sleight of hand (and maybe sleight of mouth) to change and remove silk masks in the blink of an eye.

Butterfly Curtain Call
On Thursday we went with some dear friends to Madame Butterfly at the Albert Hall, produced by David Freeman. This was another popular classic I had avoided seeing for no very good reason and I’m glad I saw it at last. I wondered when writing this blog whether Buttercup in The Pirates of Penzance was a satire on Butterfly (Sullivan in particular was quite adept at satirising Opera) but Pirates was 1880 and Butterfly was 1904 based on a 1900 play - so no.

Then to Salisbury to see Janie Dee’s wonderful performance in 84 Charing Cross Road. This play was first performed in Salisbury in 1981 under the direction of the playwright who adapted it for the stage, James Roose-Evans and he is now, in his 80s, directing it again. Sadly it was the last night. Janie as usual was completely brilliant and very moving – it’s quite a difficult role because it consists almost entirely of speaking letters that she sends, and she is on stage pretty well the whole time. About 1/3rd of the way into the 1st act the Fire Alarm went off and we all had to evacuate the theatre. But nevertheless it was a commanding and moving performance, with her co-star Clive Francis brilliantly depicting the Chief Buyer Frank Doel with whom she corresponds so effectively and with increasing affection – and who very sadly dies before they can meet.

Clive Francis has a number of books including the wittily-titled There’s Nothing Like a Dane (the lighter side of Hamlet) and the even more wittily titled There’s Nothing Like a Thane. Janie will be in Cabaret at Les Deux Coqs in March and then playing in Regent’s Park and Bath – so very much in demand this year. Catch her if you can!

Monday, February 23, 2015

Schubert, Beethoven, Bach, Family and friends

A delightful family celebration yesterday with many friends and family. The great majority have either known me for more than half my life, or I have known them for more than half their lives - or both.

In addition I had the privilege of playing some music with some wonderful musicians.
  • Kathron Sturrock has worked with some of the greatest musicians of the 20th Century: Schwartzkopf, Rostropovich and Brendel. She is a Professor at the Royal College of Music and directs the Fibonacci Sequence, a wonderful chamber ensemble. I am incredibly fortunate to get piano lessons from Kathron from time to time. 
  • Ruth Palmer shot to the attention of the musical world in 2006 when her independent début CD Shostakovich Violin Concerto No 1 & Violin Sonata won rave reviews from everyone. When my nephew Martin and I went to a Wigmore Hall recital her Bach Chaconne seemed to dissolve the hall into a cathedral of sound. I said to Martin I thought this was genius playing and a friend of Ruth’s who overheard suggested I should come and tell her so. We were delighted when she was nominated for a Classical Brit award (Young Classical Musician of the Year) and we went to the Albert Hall to support her. Nicola Benedetti was another nominee and I remember the stunned silence when the winner was announced: the judges had relied on their ears rather than the PR machines and Ruth was the winner. She has since performed to acclaim in the UK, the US and continental Europe and has given world premières of at least 2 concertos.
  • Rupert and Rachael Beale: my son and daughter-in-law, who were both choral scholars at Trinity and are both wonderful singers.
Here are my notes for the pieces we played:
Schubert Fantasie in F Minor D940
Franz Schubert (1797-1828) wrote this in the last few months of his life and dedicated it to his pupil Countess Karoline Esterházy (1811-1851) a descendant of Haydn’s famous patrons. He was unrequitedly in love with her. It is widely considered one of the finest works for Piano 4 hand.
JS Bach Goldberg Variations Theme
JS Bach (1685-1750) is my favourite composer and of all the pieces I can play the Goldberg Variations are my favourite. I try to play them at significant moments in my life. But there was neither the time to play them nor to rehearse them to an adequate standard, so the Theme must stand for them all. It was probably written by Bach for his wife Anna Magdalena (1701-1760): an accomplished singer and mother of 13 of Bach’s children including JCF Bach (1732–1795) and JC Bach (1735–1782). They were influential in developing the Classical style of which Beethoven was a supreme exponent – indeed on JS Bach’s death it was thought that he would be remembered mainly for his sons. The variations are of unsurpassed beauty and compositional virtuosity: Beethoven pays homage to them in his great Diabelli Variations of 1823.
Beethoven Sonata No 6 for Violin and Piano 2nd Movement
Beethoven (1770 -1827) wrote this in 1802 and dedicated it to Tsar Alexander I who had come to the throne in 1801. Alexander I began as a reformer and he also made peace with Britain and opened negotiations with Francis II, the last Holy Roman Emperor. After the (brief) general peace of October 1801 Alexander began openly to admire French institutions and Napoleon, though from 1804 onwards he became Napoleon’s implacable enemy. He died in 1825 and was succeeded by his brother Nicholas I. Beethoven was an admirer of Napoleon until he made himself Emperor in 1804. The world was at peace and things were looking good in 1802 which may account for the sunny mood of the whole sonata. It may also be the influence of Haydn (1732-1809) who had briefly been Beethoven’s teacher in 1790-91 and who composed his last major work in 1802.
Schubert Der Vater mit dem Kinde (D.906)
Schubert wrote this in 1827. The words are by his close friend Eduard von Bauernfeld (1802 - 1890) who was a prolific playwright and wrote a libretto for an unfinished opera of Schubert’s. Rupert and I first performed this song in public in 1995 at a charity concert in Leighton House. In German “child” has neuter gender so we don’t know if it is a son or daughter. The concept of  “melancholy-filled bliss” (wehmuthsvoller Seligkeit) is very German Romantic! To prepare ourselves for the Leighton House concert we had a memorable lesson from the great English Tenor Ian Partridge – and we still have the marked up copy from this.
The father lies, the child in arm
It rests so well, it rests so warm
It sweetly smiles: dear father mine
And with the smile it falls asleep.

The father bows and hardly breathes
And listens to his child’s dream
He thinks of the vanished time
With melancholy-filled bliss.

And a tear from the depth of his heart
Falls on his child’s mouth.
He quickly kisses the tear away
And rocks it quietly up and down

To win the whole world
He would not give up his heart’s child.
You’re blessed already in this world
Whose fortune in your arms is held

Schubert An Die Musik (D.547)
Schubert wrote this in 1817. The words are by another friend Franz von Schober (1769 - 1882) who was a poet and actor and wrote the libretto for Schubert's 1822 opera Alfonso und Estrella - which was never performed in Schubert’s lifetime and has hardly ever been performed since. It is for obvious reasons a favourite of musicians. Rachael has very kindly agreed to do it in a singing translation I have made. These things are always tricky: the opening words “Du holde Kunst” could be rendered “you gracious craft” but then as WS Gilbert remarked “I admire your ruddy countenance” could also be rendered as “I like your bloody cheek”.
O lovely art! How oft when I am downcast
And am in life’s bewildering coils enfurled
You draw my heart to warmth and love enticing
And carry me into a better world …
Carry me to a better world.

Oft has a sigh that from your harp has flown -
A holy harmony you send below -
The heavenly realm unlocked to my poor spirit
O lovely art, I thank you so profoundly …
O lovely art, I thank you so!

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Elijah and the Transfiguration


Giuseppe Angeli Elijah Taken Up in a Chariot of Fire
c. 1740/1755 (nga.gov)
The 0830 Communion Service at church is increasingly well-attended: a combination of days getting longer and meeting for prayer 15 minutes before the service!

Today the readings were Elijah being taken up and Mark's account of the Transfiguration. Preacher made the point that this is begins the second half of Mark and follows immediately on from Peter's recognition of Jesus as the Messiah. Moses and Elijah of course represent the Law and the Prophets - also there is something slightly odd about Moses' death in that he was buried but no-one knows where.

The fire ascending of Elijah with "a double portion of his spirit" falling on Elisha is of course mirrored in the tongues of fire descending on the disciples at Pentecost. And (something that needs to be explained to English-speakers) Jesus and Joshua are same word: Moses leads Israel to the boundaries of the Promised Land but Joshua has to lead people through the Jordan into it - Jesus takes on where Moses and Elijah left off.  The motif of crossing the Jordan and then crossing it back is also echoed in Jesus' baptism where the voice from the cloud says something very similar to the voice at the Transfiguration.

As the preacher mentioned, the Greek word for "Transfiguration" is MetamorphE which is also the word Paul uses when he says that we must not be conformed to the world but transformed. "Changed from Glory into Glory" by the Spirit.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Priscilla, Chicks and Anonymity

An interesting discussion this morning in Church prompts me to do further work on my idea that Hebrews was written by a woman, probably Priscilla.  Although I developed this idea independently I was not the first, but the atrocious Von Harnack - which may explain why it is almost unknown even in highly educated biblical circles and even by people doing PhDs in feminist theology!

I don’t of course claim that the attribution to Priscilla is certain - Origen is clearly right to say “But as to who wrote the epistle, only God knows the truth”. But what I think we can say is that Hebrews was written by:
  1. A very wise and learned early Christian teacher
  2. Who was very close to Paul but not Paul himself
  3. Who had strong connections with the Jewish community in Rome
  4. Who was confident to reason from the scriptures but never appeals to personal authority
  5. Who for some reason the Church found it wise not to attribute authorship to widely - despite the fact that it must have been known to the first recipients.
Of the people we know about only Priscilla and Aqullia fit (1-4) Luther suggested Apollos but he was from Alexandria not Rome. Tertullian suggested Barnabas but he was from Cyprus. Others have suggested Timothy but he was from Lystra. Only Priscilla fits (5). It has been suggested that Apollos, Barnabas or Timothy might have had their names suppressed because they were not apostles, but nor were Mark and Luke. Furthermore there is a very early extra-canonical Epistle of Barnabas so there was certainly no reluctance to attribute works to such figures.

We get some idea of how highly Priscilla was regarded by Luke from the fact that whenever he mentions "Priscilla and Aquilla" it in that order, as does Paul when he is sending greetings to them - interestingly when he is sending greetings from them he uses the conventional order of Aquilla and Priscilla (c/f “Andronicus and Junia” in Romans 16) and several scribes "corrected" the order on the occasions when Luke refers to them. Of course when Luke refers to Paul meeting them he says Paul first met Aquilla and then Priscilla but that is chronological.

There is also the very interesting detail that Luke refers to Priscilla and Aquilla taking Apollos aside and expounding the ways of God more accurately he uses the word ἐξέθεντο (exethento) which comes from ἐκτίθημι (extithEmi) which means expose of explain/expound. This occurs only 4 times in the NT and always in Acts:
  • (7:21) when it refers to Moses being exposed
  • (11:4) when Peter is explaining
  • (18:26) when Priscilla and Aquilla are instructing Apollos
  • (28:23) when Paul is expounding the scriptures to the Jews in Rome.
On a completely different note there are two fascinating papers in Science:
From Brugger 2015 commenting on Rugani et al
  •  In "Number-space mapping in the newborn chick resembles humans’ mental number line" (Science 30 January 2015: 534-536)  Rosa Rugani and her colleagues show that 3-day old chicks (!) trained to find food behind a panel representing an abstract number (dots differed in color and shape but were matched for area and circumference) expect food behind the left of two panels representing a smaller number, but behind the right for a larger number (!!).
  • In "Unique in the shopping mall: On the reidentifiability of credit card metadata"  (Science 30 January 2015: 536-539) Sandy Pentland and some of his colleagues show that "anonymised" information about credit card use uniquely identifies a user with about 4 transactions. This is in a special section gloomily entitled "The end of privacy". 

Friday, February 06, 2015

Inclusive Growth event with Justin Welby

Panel: Xavier Rolet, Clive Cowdray, Mike Rake,
Frances O'Grady, Barbara Stocking, Liam Byrne, Justin
On Weds to the Inclusive Growth event organised by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Inclusive Growth where Justin Welby was the speaker and Liam Byrne the Chair. It was an excellent event.

Justin gave a hard hitting and very theological speech in which he affirmed the fundamental importance of creativity - hence work and making money - as well as gratuitousness, solidarity and subsidiarity. He mentioned God and Jesus a lot (having warned them!) and also emphasised under subsidiarity that it is not just an either/or of Market or State. There is a major role for the voluntary sector for example and there must be a strong awareness of who does what best.

Clive Cowdray pointed out that the link between rising productivity and rising earnings for the lower paid which held since the 1950s first broke down in the US in 2003, then in Canada and then in the UK and Germany at the same time.  He didn't draw the natural implication which is that it probably isn't something uniquely bad about the UK system!

Mike Rake emphasised that business is seriously concerned about these issues, not least because public trust in business is very low and only 52% say the business is a force for good. Frances O'Grady said she was encouraged by Davos last year talking about inequality but this year she found a disappointing lack of progress.

Xavier Rolet said he grew up in a sink estate in France and there is enormous entrepreneurial creativity amongst very poor people. We need to make equity more widely available to unlock people's potential. He also brought out the global context, that hundreds of millions of people in China and elsewhere have been taken out of extreme poverty by the market mechanisms.

I do worry a bit that people see this in too much of a parochial context. Indeed other things being equal reducing inequality between nations will inevitably increase inequality within nations.  But on the whole it was a very good event and the group is an excellent initiative.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Watford Half and half-correct science

Ran the Watford Half Marathon today - 5 mins slower than last year but I have had a cold for about 70 days until 10 days ago so training has been down. Met charming Marathon Mona running for the Lullaby Trust.

The detection of gravity waves from inflation that was hailed as a great triumph last year turns out to be in all probability an artefact of galactic dust. It is one of the serious problems of much of modern experimental physics that the observations require such an enormous amount of information processing and statistical treatment that it is very easy for some kind of error to creep in when a result gives something that is inherently credible. This is of course why it took ages before people at CERN were willing to confirm that they had found the Higgs.

A frightening amount of what is published in the scientific literature is almost certainly wrong because of publication bias and the general statistical illiteracy of many reviewers. In principle experiments can be duplicated but often they are not. This is not, of course, to decry science but to recognise its inevitable limitations.