Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson in Sweeney Todd at the ENO

 Last night to the brilliant opening performance of Sweeney Todd at the ENO, starring Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson. It was a triumph!

The orchestra was on stage and initially the soloists were lined up with music stands and scores - with a grand piano in front of the conductor - strange, I thought, I don't recall a prominent piano part in the score. However half way through the opening number Terfel very deliberately drops his score, then all the others do, throw down the music stands, and the performers grab the piano, turn it upside down, drop it (clang!) and remove the legs so that henceforth it becomes a mini-stage.  The conductor's coat is ripped, revolutionary" slogans (eg "we are not a loan") are displayed, and henceforth the whole orchestral area and some of the auditorium becomes the set.

This might have been mere gimmickry but the cast was truly outstanding. Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson really  sparked off each other - they had done this in NY which probably helped and although one of them is a Singer and one an Actor the Singer acted remarkably well and the Actor sang well also as well as acting superbly. Everyone was miked of course. When I asked the head of the sound desk how many dBs Emma was up vs Bryn he just smiled and said it was challenging - though they were rising to the challenge very well.

The orchestra was on fire and the supporting cast were very good - particularly Philip Quast playing the odious Judge Turpin  - it seems that Quast has won 3 Olivier Awards for his performances in musicals - and Katie Hall playing Joanna the daughter.

The audience loved it and gave a richly rewarded standing ovation. And then Emma T pointed to a man in the 5th row  of the stalls and it was indeed Sondhiem himself (he's now 85!) who didn't come on stage alas but was roundly applauded and rightly so.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Tamsin Greig in Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

Curtain Call: Marianne Benedict, Anna Skellern, Haydn Oakley,
Seline Hizli, Tamsin Greig, Haydn Gwynne, Jerome Pradon
Anna Skellern and other members of the company
To Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown: The Musical last night to see the wonderful Tamsin Greig. She was indeed excellent and it is an enjoyable evening.  The cast was uniformly very good - I suspect Tamsin is another one of these actresses who gets the best out of other people. Anna Skellern should also be singled out as her model girlfriend.

I haven't seen the movie on which it is based and the musical takes liberties with the plot of course. But it is enjoyable madcap humour - well calculated to take one's mind of the election and in fact we saw C's nephew who is intimately involved in it and his charming girlfriend and her parents.

We popped backstage briefly to meet and congratulate Tamsin whose work we have admired for years - and then quickly home given the clock change!

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Back from Harvard and Justin Welby

Back from a fascinating trip to NY and Boston where including Joyce's concert and unbloggable client meetings I had very interesting discussions with Rob Engle, Martin Nowak and Sandy Pentland - and saw Elder Daughter and her lovely family.

Last night to Lambeth Palace for the Lambeth Partnership - another really inspiring meeting. Justin spoke very movingly about his plans and about the situation in the Anglican Communion and the CofE. Strikingly, the typical (churchgoing) Anglican is a sub-Saharan woman in her 30s living on $3-4 per day.  There is a 50% chance that they are living in a conflict zone and a 40% chance they are in a country where Christians are persecuted.

He recalls visiting Myanmar where one of the bishops had a 6-8 day walk to get to his remotest parish. The Archbishop explained that it should be only 2-3 days but for the landmines: one member of the party walks ahead and then the others follow exactly in his footsteps. He also recalls phoning a Bishop who was taking the funeral of dozens of members of his flock who had been killed in an attack on a church - and being put on speakerphone so that he could pray for the congregation!

In the UK the CofE peaked at 3.5M regular Sunday attendants in 1935 (out of a 33M population) and until 5 years ago there had been a pretty steady decline of 1.2%pa. But in the last 5 years the total decline has only been 1.5% (and remember 3% die every year) so we seem to be turning a corner. During the 15 years Richard Chartres has been Bishop of London, London Diocese has grown by 70% - Justin described Richard, rightly, as "one of the greatest Bishops of the last half millennium" and now the CofE is rolling out some of the effective growth strategies used here in the rest of England, with a new Bishop of Islington to be appointed very soon to spearhead this.

Justin spoke to us about his three priorities:
  1. Prayer and the renewal of the religious life. I met the Prior of the Community of St Anselm and they have had over 350 applicants from 60 countries for the 12 places initially on offer!
  2. Reconciliation. Justin spoke movingly of the many initiatives here including reaching out to Muslim leaders for joint work on conflict resolution. One great scheme has been to get Christians and Muslims from Nigeria to see how  Christians and Muslims from Nigeria live together here and then spread the word back home: the first group has already reached out to over 60,000 people back in Nigeria.
  3. Evangelism and Witness: we cannot all be evangelists but we can all be witnesses - and invite people to hear evangelists.
We also  spoke of some exciting ideas he had about education.  And as usual we concluded with Compline in the Chapel. A wonderful evening!

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Joyce DiDonato at Carnegie Hall

Laura Claycomb, Joyce and Lawrence Brownlee
To Carnegie Hall on Weds for the final concert curated by the great Joyce DiDonato - a celebration of Bel Canto. I would travel a long way to hear Joyce but it was Joyce and Nicole (Cabell) and this is well worth a 3,000 mile flight - esp when it can be combined with business engagements.

Alas Nicole developed a horrible cold and had to pull out at two days notice. Her place was gamely taken by Laura Claycomb.
Joyce was, as ususal, beyond brilliant. And because it was a curated concert she was able to perform some rarities. I had never come across Michele Carafa or indeed  Giovanni Pacini - the latter described in his Wikipedia article as "largely forgotten today" and the former has only one notable opera from the 29 he wrote.  But the numbers Joyce performed from Le nozze di Lammermoor were crackers, and as for Ove t'aggiri, o barbaro from Pacini's Stella di Napoli - it was one of the most thrilling and compelling singing performances I have ever witnessed, and brought the house down.

Between these rarities we had three numbers from L'elisier d'Amore which is one of Nicole's great roles - I heard her in Barcelona - Lawrence was excellent and Laura did very creditably given the extremely short notice.

In the second half we had three numbers from Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi and when Laura was opposite Joyce's Romeo things caught fire and it was thrilling. I believe singing with Joyce is like acting with Judi Dench - everyone raises their game a notch and a half because you are performing with someone so amazingly talented and so amazingly nice. The billed concert concluded with Lawrence singing two numbers from Donizetti's La favorite and Joyce doing the triumphant final aria from Rossini's Zelmira.

After a gracious speech from Joyce in which she thanked the excellent Philadelphia Orchestra and Maurizio Benini we were then treated to an encore which (I discovered afterwards) was from Le Compte Ory. Ory has entered the bedchamber of his intended conquest at night but her page is there too and whilst he thinks he is embracing his conquest he is embracing the page. This was brilliantly sung and nicely acted - it's an obscure opera and I don't think many of the audience would have known it but it was wildly appreciated and rightly so!

Get well soon Nicole!
Joyce had very kindly put my guests and I on her backstage list but there was only time to say hi briefly and Joyce took another selfie, mainly so that we could send it to Nicole as a get well soon card. I was also able to congratulate Lawrence and Laura. A delightful evening.

Joyce is coming to Europe and will be singing in London on April 14 and 17. Maddeningly I can't be at either concert, but catch her if you can. She is beyond brilliant!

And concert organizers - get Nicole over to London again ASAP!

PS Laura emails saying that the concert is currently available to listen to here.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Janie Dee at The Crazy Coqs

To the last night of Janie's wonderful cabaret at The Crazy Coqs. It was announced at the beginning that she hadn't arrived yet and then her voice was heard apparently on the phone to Judi Dench discussing her forthcoming appearance in Mrs Henderson Presents - the Musical.  Janie comes on shedding coat and hat and has a lovely song written for her by her amazingly talented music director Alex Parker and a collaborator who is apparently a female recent maths grad from Cambridge now working in the City.

A delightful and brilliantly performed sequence of songs followed, with the brilliant repartee and audience connection for which Janie is justly renowned. Highlights included:
  • Poisoning the Pigeons in the Park - apparently one of the first professional solos she gave.
  • Anyone Can Whistle
  • Mon Jardin d'Hiver
  • Sailing
  • I'm not Getting Married Today.
and the immortal QWERTYUIOP/Copy Type  ("ours is not to question, but to quietly disagree"), Afterwards we went to supper with Janie and a delightful group including one of her sisters, and then Janie drove us home so that we could chat some more.

She's very busy this summer and you can see her in:
  • Ah, Wilderness! at the Young Vic
  • A 1-off Cabaret at Shakespeare's Globe on 10 May
  • A Great Play in the summer in London for which casting hasn't been announced.
  • Mrs Henderson Presents - The Musical at Theatre Royal Bath.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Anthropocene and Stewards of Creation

From Fig 1 of Lewis & Maslin 2015
Several fascinating papers in Nature but I should highlight SL Lewis & MA Maslin Nature 519, 171-180 (2015) "Defining the Anthropocene" which is a masterly overview of the issues. In particular there is a controversy over whether the Anthropocene should date from:
  • 1610 when there was a dip in atmospheric CO2 probably caused by the wiping out of indigenous Americans following the European conquests (largely due to pathogens) leading to fewer trees being cut down etc..
  • 1964 when there was a peak in atmospheric radiocarbon caused by testing atomic bombs.
Their concluding paragraph is worth quoting in full:
Past scientific discoveries have tended to shift perceptions away from a view of humanity as occupying the centre of the Universe. In 1543 Copernicus’s observation of the Earth revolving around the Sun demonstrated that this is not the case. The implications of Darwin’s 1859 discoveries then established that Homo sapiens is simply part of the tree of life with no special origin. Adopting the Anthropocene may reverse this trend by asserting that humans are not passive observers of Earth’s functioning. To a large extent the future of the only place where life is known to exist is being determined by the actions of humans. Yet, the power that humans wield is unlike any other force of nature, because it is reflexive and therefore can be used, withdrawn or modified. More widespread recognition that human actions are driving far-reaching changes to the life-supporting infrastructure of Earth may well have increasing philosophical, social, economic and political implications over the coming decades.
What we are seeing here is an overturning of the secular "Enlightenment" world-view which has led directly to the ecological crises that we are facing. Treating the Earth as a passive thing that can be ruthlessly exploited by an "enlightened" Man has been immensely damaging. Only by thinking of ourselves as stewards of Creation can we deal with this.

Of course to say  "Darwin’s 1859 discoveries then established that Homo sapiens is simply part of the tree of life with no special origin." is going much too far. But one must make allowances.

Sunday, March 08, 2015


Cast of Dara
Saw Dara last night at the National Theatre, a very stimulating play about the dynastic power struggles in the Mughal empire. The Crown Prince Dara is a Muslim heavily influenced by Sufism and (following the tradition of his predecessors) quite supportive of all religions in the Mughal empire. However his brother Aurangzeb seizes power and eventually has him condemned on trumped up charges of Apostasy, enforing a much stricter version of Islam. In the final scene Aurangzeb aged 88 repents of this and tries to avert dynastic struggles between his surviving sons.

There are of course (as I now know, I had to my shame never heard of these people before) a number of historical inaccuracies in the play. But it is at its heart an impassioned plea for religious tolerance especially within Islam. It is an adaptation into English of an original play by a Pakistani author which has been performed to acclaim in Pakistan and is something of a beacon of hope for that reason.

The central characters were pretty compelling and I'd especially single out:
  • Zubin Varla who played Dara
  • Sargon Yelda (Aurangzeb)
  • Prasanna Puwanarajah who played the prosecutor.
  • Anneika Rose who played a rather wicked sister Roshanara
  • Scott Karim who gave a mesmerising performance and the Fakir
  • Ranjit Krishnamma who played the Sufi saint Mian Mir.
 Of course after Aurangzeb's long reign where the Empire reached its maximal extent, it then imploded, and was eventually replaced by the British Raj. Fundamentally, any society that tried to impose such a repressive approach to ideas is going to be overcome by more innovative and open societies.  Just a matter of time...

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Microbes encourage us to rethink the foundations of biology

2 linked bacteria from Benomar et al
Bacteria are by far the most numerous living creatures on earth, and continue to hold many surprises.

A fascinating review in Science of a book called The  Philosophy of Microbiology  by a philosopher of biology called Maureen O'Malley draws attention to many of the ways in which our thinking about microbes has changed and has to change further.  The reviewer says the book
makes a case for the special significance of microbes by describing four of their unique features:
  • their biomass and diversity,
  • ability to impact planetary processes,
  • influence on the major evolutionary transitions, and 
  • tendency to coexist in mutually beneficial relationships with other organisms. 
Of course the relationships are not always mutually beneficial - but in the great majority of cases they are. Indeed microbes certainly made the earth inhabitable for higher animals by generating enough oxygen, almost certainly are the origin of mirochondria, and our microbiomes in our gut and other places play a significant role in our continued health.

This article in Nature gives a summary of much of what is known about gut microbiomes.

There are also a couple of fascinating papers referred to in Nature about different species of microbes cooperating in unexpected ways.
  • Benomar et al show that "Nutritional stress induces exchange of cell material and energetic coupling between bacterial species" They "demonstrate the formation of an artificial consortium between two anaerobic bacteria, Clostridium acetobutylicum (Gram-positive) and Desulfovibrio vulgaris Hildenborough (Gram-negative, sulfate-reducing) in which physical interactions between the two partners induce emergent properties. Molecular and cellular approaches show that tight cell–cell interactions are associated with an exchange of molecules, including proteins, which allows the growth of one partner (D. vulgaris) in spite of the shortage of nutrients. This physical interaction induces changes in expression of two genes ...with concomitant changes in the distribution of metabolic fluxes, and allows a substantial increase in ​hydrogen production without requiring genetic engineering.
  • A separate study mutated E. coli and Acinetobacter baylyi so that they could not produce certain essential amino acids. When grown in a medium lacking the amino acid it required, E. coli formed nanotubes up to 14 micrometres long to connect with and share the cytoplasm of nearby A. baylyi, which was producing the amino acid. In return, E. coli provided A. baylyi with the amino acid it needed. These bacteria function as interconnected entities rather than individuals, the authors suggest.
Astonishing stuff. And further confirmation that the new synthesis Denis Noble and colleagues seek is so essential. "Selfish Genes" simply don't hack it here!

PS I sent this to Denis who was kind about the post, and I was delighted to hear that he was at an event to celebrate 350 years of Proceedings of the Royal Society, where they had picked 33 papers published over the last 350 years and DiFrancesco and Noble (1985) ‘A model of cardiac electrical activity incorporating ionic pumps and concentration changes’ was one of the papers featured!

Friday, March 06, 2015

Articles giving insight into ISIL

Iraq & Syria with ISIL controlled area grey (courtesy Wikipedia)
An interesting article in Foreign Policy ("You’ve Reversed a Long Way, Baby") laments the terrible reversals on women's rights in the areas controlled by ISIL - the so-called "Islamic State". And it points to an even more interesting article in The Atlantic called What ISIS really wants  where the author, Graeme Wood,  has made a real effort to understand and articulate their goals and ideology. He points out that they are remarkably transparent and clear about this, and failure to appreciate where they are coming from leads to serious mishandling of the situation.

First and foremost ISIL is based on a specific and strict reading of Islam, the Koran and the Hadith. It is a reading that the great majority of Muslims reject, but nevertheless in its own terms it seems pretty coherent. They are making a serious effort to act in the way Mohammed and his followers acted and to live in accordance with his instructions and precepts.  They can point directly to the Koran or the Hadith for approval of every practice that we find barbaric. They may well be misunderstanding and misreading the texts - I am not, of course, an Islamic theologian - but the texts are certainly there.

For them it is essential that there should be a Caliphate, that the Caliph should be a member of the same tribe that Mohammed was, and that he should control territory. They are apparently not interested in attacking countries in the West but in getting the West to attack them because this, they believe, will hasten the End of the World.  As Wood points out:
Virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to what it calls, in its press and pronouncements, and on its billboards, license plates, stationery, and coins, “the Prophetic methodology,” which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail. Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it. We’ll need to get acquainted with the Islamic State’s intellectual genealogy if we are to react in a way that will not strengthen it, but instead help it self-immolate in its own excessive zeal.
For example the Koran says (5:33)
Indeed, the penalty for those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger and strive upon earth [to cause] corruption is none but that they be killed or crucified or that their hands and feet be cut off from opposite sides or that they be exiled from the land. 
If the Koran is to be followed literally then crucifixion is clearly an option.

They apparently believe that the armies of  "Rome" will be defeated at a great battle at Dabiq which is in Northern Syria by Aleppo. One US author therefore suggests that there should be a set-piece battle there to discredit their ideology.

When ISIL threaten that they will "enslave your women" and "sell your sons in the slave market" they are going along with the Koran which explicitly allows the enslavement of non-Muslim enemies. To be fair the Koran also encourages slaves to be freed but this really only seems to apply to Muslim slaves - conversion to Islam was not enough to free a slave and if you were born a slave you remained one until freed. Mohammed owned slaves and also freed some of them.

Of course the Bible - both OT and NT - presupposes slavery as well: the word translated "servant" is almost always doulos which means slave. The ancient world could not have functioned without it. But we are given the Holy Spirit who "will lead you into all truth" and we can and do argue that the Holy Spirit has led us to understand that slavery is evil and must be abolished. It helps of course that Jesus never owned slaves. But for Muslims the Koran and the actions of Mohammed are held to be perfect: if Mohammed did something it must be right.

We must continue to pray for the people who are so deluded - that they will be led into truth and peace. And of course the great majority of Muslims are not followers of ISIL. But it needs to be understood, confronted, and prayed against.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Winterreise: Bostridge's wonderful book, and some singing translations

Greatly enjoying Ian Bostridge's brilliant book Schubert's Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession. This is a simply brilliant exploration by one of the world's greatest Lieder singers - and almost certainly the only one with a DPhil from Oxford.

Each chapter is a meditation on one of the songs and although they all begin with the text and a direct translation they are by no means dry musicological analyses and go in all kinds of philosophical and intellectual directions - including having charts such as the reconstructed Temperature Anomaly from 0AD to 2004.

I really can't do justice to this wonderful book - if you know this song cycle at all do buy it.

I've tried to make some "singing translations" of the songs which keep as far as possible the sense of the words whilst fitting the music.  Here are a few - do see what you think:
1. Good Night
I came here as a stranger
As stranger I depart
The month of May was good to me
Flowers garlanded my heart
The girl she spoke of love
The mother, marriage too
Now all the world is miserable
The road bedecked in snow

I can for this my journey
Not choose a softer time
Enshrouded in the shadows
My own path I must find
A moonbeam travels with me
My one companion here
And on the ice-white meadows
I look for track of deer.

Why hang around for longer
Till I am thrown out?
Leave straying dogs their howling
Before their master’s house.
For love, it loves to wander
God made it thus, that’s right
From one onto the other
My sweetest love good night!

I shan’t disturb your dreaming
Or trouble your repose
You should not hear my footsteps
And soft the door I’ll close
I’ll write as I go past it
Upon the gate, “Good night”
So that you can be certain
I’ve thought of you all right.
3. Frozen Tears
The frozen drops are falling
From each of my smarting cheeks
Has it escaped my notice
That I have begun to weep?

O teardrops, my teardrops
And are you so lukewarm
That you will turn to ice
Like cool dew in the morn?

And yet we can trace your source to
A breast that is so aglow
That it would have the heat to melt
The whole winter’s ice and snow!

4. Frozen Stiff
In vain I seek for traces of her marks in the snow
Where once upon my arm, in green fields we would go

I’ll pierce the ground with kisses, piercing the ice and snow
Till my hot burning tears to me the earth shall show.

Where can I find one flower, or one blade of green grass?
The flowers are dead, the grass washed out, it’s greenness in the past.

Shall I then find no keepsake to take with me from here?
When my own griefs are silent who’ll speak to me of her?

My heart is as if frozen – frozen her picture there
And if my heart should melt again her picture will disappear.