Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Orchestral Conductors - Mud From A Scraper - No.7 In An Occasional Series

I saw that Prufrock at Prufrock’s Dilemma has published a serious and learned guest post on the Art of Conducting. Those of you of an equally serious musical bent might like to pop over and read this well researched and well written essay. Anyone of a lighter disposition could continue reading here, although !WARNING! this may well turn into an overlong post. (I don’t expect comments)


“What! up and down, carv’d like an apple-tart?”
Taming of the Shrew - Shakespeare

With the exception of a few who are truly great, conductors are either popular with audiences or the orchestra; to have a large public following and to command the respect of the players at the same time, is not given to many.

Whilst most lay audiences will admit to their incompetence in judging matters of sound, they claim the right to pass judgement on what they can see. Orchestral players assess the merits of a conductor solely by the quality of his music making, and find any unnecessary display on the podium merely distracting. A beat that looks impressive from behind is usually difficult to follow, whilst a stick technique, from which all extravagant gestures have been amputated, affects an audience no more than would a metronome.

There are as many types of beat as there are conductors - or ‘carvers’ as they are known in the profession. Some of them beat in circles, some diagonally, some give no down beats, some nothing else; some sweep the stick decisively from one extremity of their reach to the other, and some oscillate their elbows and expect to produce cohesion.

All carvers however, though differing in every other imaginable way, expect an orchestra to play the final chord of any slow pianissimo cadence on the fourth waggle of the stick, and not before.

A conductor should understand all instruments and be able to play several. He must be capable of judging balance and tone and appreciating the finer points of orchestration; he must be a student of human nature and applied psychology, and he must be able to understand the composer’s intentions - which is often overlooked. A great conductor can do all these things. He also has an attitude of humility to his art, and a great respect for his players. He achieves his results by taking an orchestra into spiritual partnership and treating them as equals. He never loses his temper or bullies players - nor does he need to do so.

There is a regrettable attitude among conductors that, by virtue of their craft, they are the social superiors of mere instrumentalists.  An orchestra is quick to judge the character of a carver. Musicians will co-operate with a conductor who is sincere and who has a musician’s approach, even though he has no pretensions to greatness. They will not approve of incompetence, over-theatricality, or simply lack of musicianship.

Given a good orchestra, any musician can stand on the rostrum and conduct it - provided that he makes it clear when the players are intended to start and to stop. The result will always be passable with a well-known work, because the performers can, and often do, play it from memory.

Conductors’ musical reputations are made and lost at rehearsals. No orchestra will co-operate with a carver who keeps going over a passage without saying what is wrong with it, or one who stops and points out an accidental error from ten minutes ago. To a certain extent, an orchestra knows its own failings, and if a conductor points them out he is considered sound. Musicians will, however, find means of retaliation if a conductor complains about a section that musicians know to be in order.

Musicians will rarely approve of a visiting carver’s new interpretation of an old familiar work. An interpretation that has been accepted for twenty years is not to be upset by the whim of any jack-in-office who couldn’t conduct a tram. A conductor who has earned the orchestra’s respect may, however, break convention in moderation without losing face.

The least pleasant conductor to play under is the composer. His technique is rarely any worse than that of a professional carver, but he will know every note of the score, and require to hear them all; he will also enjoy himself and expect to see the orchestra fascinated by his brain-child.

There are many symptoms by which a conductor can tell whether or not an orchestra likes him, should it make any difference to him. Sabotage is rare, being difficult to reconcile with an artistic conscience and wrong notes played at concerts are generally accidental. Passive resistance, however, is frequently indulged in, and, among other time-wasting efforts, consists of a general lack of concentration at rehearsals.

Finally, should any orchestral musician, through misguided ambition or avarice, aspire to become a conductor, he must be prepared to renounce all his old friends and allegiances; also in so doing he will encounter all the mistrust and suspicion otherwise only experienced by a man who meets his ex-wife’s relations.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Sunday Sunday

“What’s libertarian?”  Beloved couldn’t give me a definite answer. We were both guessing.

It’s late Sunday morning and we are having breakfast. I must hurry because I want to watch a programme on German TV at 10 am our time, a weekly discussion on socio-political and cultural topics. At breakfast I invariably open my IPad to check the day’s news: on the BBC, The Guardian online and HuffPost. The three teenaged girls who appear to have run away from home to join ISIS make the headlines. They’re either still in Turkey or have crossed the border into Syria by now. Their families are distraught.

“Authorities Failed Girls”, screamed one headline. Instantly I get cross. Is no one responsible for themselves anymore? Or have fathers and mothers abdicated responsibility for their underage children and expect the authorities to take over?

So then I thought of Libertarianism . I looked it up on Google. I often look up definitions on Google that I used to look up in dictionaries. I don’t think I like it. I like the idea of the weak and helpless being safe in the arms of a benevolent society until such time as they can help themselves again.

Getting back to the three teenagers. Apparently there are dozens of young people from European countries following the call. We all know that ISIS revels in unspeakable acts of cruelty and barbarity. They say these young people are brainwashed into joining; what kind of mental deficiency allows them to overlook these acts? We all have this pat little phrase: ‘I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy’. I expect we even mean it some of the time. If these girls and others like them know what they’re doing they deserve everything they’re going to get.

The discussion programme on German TV was on the Police. Your friend and helper in times of trouble on the one hand and the abuser of power on the other. It was a lively programme, spoilt for me by the sole politician member who tried to monopolise it by dragging party politics into it. I shout at the screen: ‘yes, yes’ we all know that’, 'you are repeating yourself', 'that’s not the point’, but he paid no attention to me. Politicians never do. The moderator wagged his finger at him to shut him up. Do these people not know how annoying they are? Hides like a rhinoceros, politicians.

I was glad when it was time for Sunday lunch. We have a thing about Sunday lunch. It’s special. I cook meat and several vegetables, roast in winter, and there’s often a starter and aways a pudding. Wine at lunch is not a good idea because I must walk Millie in the afternoon but the weather was foul and I knew I wasn’t going to go far, so I treated myself to an extra glass. Beloved has sherry beforehand and wine with, but then he only has to fall into his chair afterwards, where he promptly nods off. I like our Sunday lunches, they are cosy and companionable, with a table cloth, good china and glassware and candles on dark days. We had roast pork, roast root vegetables and apple tart today.

The bottom field was awash. Sue was sloshing through with Jake, a gorgeous long-haired golden retriever, about 100 years old. Jake never misses plunging into the river, Sue was racing ahead, waving at me from a distance. Normally we stop and chat. Not today. Brian was throwing tennis balls for his two collies, Murphy and Badger - Brian likes Irish stout. I lifted my golfing umbrella slightly so I could see him. ‘Filthy weather’, ‘that wind goes right through you’, etc. "Go on, get on home. Have a nice cup of tea", Brian advised me. Nice cups of tea figure high on an Englishman’s list of priorities on a day like today.

Millie didn’t seem to mind having her walk curtailed. Poor girl has to go in for yet another operation next Thursday. A growth on her belly, not a fat lump this time. I’m being extra nice to her, feeding her lots of biscuits. If she gets too fat she can’t have an operation, so I’d better watch it.

J.K. Rowling has written a couple of thrillers. I finished one of them lying on the sofa, duties done for the day. I never read her Harry Potter books, nor ‘A Casual Vacancy’, her first book for adults. The latter has been turned into a TV series; I saw the first episode, didn’t like it, and gave up on it. The thrillers aren’t great either but, what the heck, I’ll try anything once.

Which brings me to supper, very light because of the large lunch, eaten in front of another German TV programme, a cop show. English cop shows are cosy and bloodless and usually portray genteel murderers in picturesque villages, solved by bumbling policemen with a side kick who makes inane remarks. German cop shows are nastier, grittier, full of big city realism and the kind of murderer you want caught, hanged, drawn and quartered. I know which one I prefer. The English variety is soporific, asks nothing except suspension of disbelief, an ability to overlook wooden dialogue and looks pretty. What more could you ask on a wet evening in February.

There you have it, Sunday chez Friko. It might make a fitting punishment for my worst enemy, being bored to tears should describe it adequately.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Crumbs, or (In)consequential Trifles (1)

What do you want first, good news or bad news?

Some statements/headlines in the press or online are so stupid, outlandish, silly, ridiculous, horrifying, that they deserve no comment at all. Or no more than a sharp snort, a fruity snicker or a disgusted harrumph.

British confirmed as world’s sexiest accent. Guardian online.  (Since when is ‘British' a language?)

Nine is a perfectly good age for girls to consider marriage. Islamic State All-Female Militia Manifesto.

Female martyrs to the cause are rewarded with the freedom to choose their favourite husband and to stay with him for all eternity.  Ditto. (Lucky ladies.)

Finland is to remove cursive writing from its education programme and replace it
with lessons in keyboard typing. IceNews (What next, no maths, just calculators?)

But then I came across this:

German teen’s simple anti-bullying message goes viral

No all-singing-all-dancing-fancy-tech-firewoks, just bits of paper with handwritten lines held up, coming from the heart.

People! Nobody is worth less than anyone else just because he or she:

Has a handicap /
May not have much money /
May not be very smart /
May not have the best figure /
Is gay, lesbian or bisexual /
Has a different skin color /
Has a different religion /
Comes from a different country/

Victims of bullying often feel lonesome and left alone. They hurt their bodies because they think they are different. They have thoughts about suicide!

How would – you – feel about that?

Only TOGETHER can we CHANGE things! =)

The boy meant to address his peer group but his message goes for all of us. Just because somebody is different doesn’t make them a justified target for ridicule, hatred, bullying.  Will we ever learn this simple truth?

Monday, 16 February 2015

K is for Karneval - Helau and Alaaf !

Karneval, the Rhenish name for the Fools' Season, is centuries old - Mardi Gras is an offshoot, but the two share nothing else but a common European ancestry. The Ancient Greeks and Romans celebrated Mardi Gras in the form of spring festivals as early as the 6th century B.C. In medieval times the "Feast of Fools" was celebrated as the last opportunity for merrymaking and excessive indulgence in food and drink before the Solemn Lenten Season. In some areas of Europe Karneval became a theatrical demonstration, an effective way of mocking monarchy, governments and other rulers without being punished.

Karneval is a Catholic tradition and in Germany is found almost exclusively in Catholic regions such as Bavaria and the Rhineland. However, there are Karneval celebrations in some Protestant areas, notably in Berlin and Braunschweig. (Braunschweig’s Karneval procession was cancelled this year at the last minute because of fears over terrorist attacks. I saw grown men weep on the TV news.)

Cologne Karneval is huge. As many as half a million people line the streets some years, dancing and singing and shouting ‘Koelle Alaaf' and swaying (schunkeln) the cold away. The Rose Monday parade which was first held in 1823 is more than 6 km long, with elaborate floats mocking politicians and politics, foreign and home grown, celebrities, curiosities and the carriages bearing 'Karneval Royalty’. There are endless parades of groups on foot, some as small as a dozen, others fifty or more. Dozens of bands provide noisy music, as if the noise from the crowds and the carriages and floats weren’t enough to deafen you. Everybody wears some kind of costume (it keeps you warm). 300 tons of candy are flung into the crowds from the floats, as well as flowers, rag dolls, other small presents and whole bars and boxes of chocolates. Each Karneval society has its own band of ‘soldiers’ with uniforms dating back to Napoleonic times, when the Rhineland was occupied by Napoleon’s forces; when the Prussians sent Napoleon packing, the populace in turn mocked them and their occupation of the Rhineland by dressing in Prussian uniforms,  also represented today.

Karneval, called the fifth season in Germany, the Season of Fools, starts on 11.11 at 11.11 and ends at midnight on Shrove Tuesday. It goes into a sort of temporary hibernation during Advent, Christmas and the New Year celebrations, but comes back in earnest in February, with the last week before lent being an almost non-stop party for members of the ancient and venerable Karneval societies and everyone else who wants to celebrate. Since Karneval originated as a mocking of Royalty, of course there must be a Royal Couple, the Prinzenpaar, who are crowned at the beginning of the season.With them comes the “Hofstaat, the Royal Court."  This consists of the "Hofmarshall" (Prince's Grand Marshall), the "Adjutant" (Princess' Attendant), the "Hofdame” (Lady of the court), and the "Mundschenkin" (Toastmistress and keeper of the wine.) Then there are the very important Princes’ Guardsmen in their tricorns and elegant uniforms.  ‘Funkenmariechen’, in their red and white uniforms are the female equivalent to the town soldiers, who were disbanded by Napoleon. All of these honours don’t come cheap and are highly regarded. The Funkenmariechen, who are an acrobatic corps de ballet, train for months before they perform at Karneval shows, called Sitzungen.

Karneval is very traditional in aspect and procedure. A whole ‘industry' exists for just this season. There is Karneval music, food, cabaret, and Buettenreden, (humourous and satirical rhyming speeches), grand balls and not so grand hops and other festivities all tailor made. During Karneval behaving madly and overindulging is a virtue.

Drunk or sober, in the grip of the mother of all hangovers or happy and fighting fit, on Ash Wednesday it’s all over. Those who feel they have sinned (which is allowed during Karneval) go to confession, are absolved and receive a thumb print in the form of a cross on their forehead and promise to behave well until the next Fool’s Season.

Friday, 13 February 2015

A Valentine for Beloved

At a 93rd birthday party recently I was sitting on the sofa next to Wendy, a sweet old widow lady, a fellow guest. Nearly all the guests were elderly, the host and birthday boy being the oldest.

“Are you making any plans for the summer” she asked me, probably meaning trips and holidays.

Beloved was sitting at the other end of the room with the men.
I pointed to him and said: “ Not at the moment, my husband isn’t really up to travelling. He feels most comfortable at home, where he can arrange his life to suit his needs.”

Wendy made sympathetic noises. I didn’t want to sound like a woman put upon and hard-done-by, so I continued :”I don’t really mind. He is such a nice man that it is no hardship to spend time together at home.”

I didn’t get any further. “O,” Wendy burst out, “ how wonderful to hear this. I am always listening to women going on about their husbands, how tiresome they are. You have no idea how refreshing it is to hear of a couple who are friends, who like each other. If only I still had my husband; when I hear these women complaining I ask myself how would they feel if they lost them, would they be glad or would they actually miss them.”

Pleasantly surprised by this outburst, and a little touched by Wendy’s obvious sadness at her widowhood, I realised once again: it isn’t how much time you spend together, or how busily you spend this time; it’s harmony in your dealings together, and the pleasure you derive from being with each other, which matter.

As Berowne says in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, which we saw only Thursday evening:

And when Love speaks, the voice of all the gods
Makes Heaven drowsy with the harmony.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Of Gardening and Gardeners

In these wintry days, it’s only too easy to call Shakespeare’s take on February to mind. In ‘Much Ado About Nothing’  Don Pedro says to Benedick : “Why, what’s the matter that you have such a February face, so full of frost, of storm and cloudiness?”

Today the valley had a Sunday face, full of bright skies and sunshine, not a storm cloud anywhere. I decided it was time to walk around the garden to look for signs of spring. And I found some:

the first buds of hellebores

a golden carpet of aconites under the trees

 the splendid tendrils of the hamamelis

and unforced rhubarb shooting in the fruit garden.

Paul is once again out of action and will remain so for several weeks more; he had to have a carpal tunnel operation, so no accident this time. Which is progress of a sort, I suppose. There are a number of jobs which need doing before spring is here, the compost heaps need turning, a climbing rose needs moving and a pile of wood needs chopping and burning or taking away for firewood. I have heard nothing from old Gardener for months now, I doubt that he’ll return, which meant gardener number three had to be found and interviewed.

The first thing Jon said was “I have been suffering with my back for the past three weeks; paid a fortune to a chiropodist so I don’t want to put it out again with lots of digging”. Eh? What is it with me and gardeners? How come I only attract the ailing and accident prone kind?

Anyway, Jon took a look at the jobs and I assured him that he could take his time over the digging. That is, until he told me his hourly rate: one and a half times the rate I pay Paul and nearly twice what I paid old Gardener. 

I am happy to pay a living wage for the hard or unpleasant work I ask people to do for me. Jon looked at me sideways when he mentioned the rate, not fully turning and looking me in the face, but swivelling his eyes in a ‘let’s see how she reacts’ kind of way; he mumbled something about that being the rate most people asked round here and he was going to do the same in the coming year with all his clients.

I felt both annoyed with him and sorry for him at the same time, but kept my face perfectly straight. Why do I feel embarrassed when people treat me like a fool? I need the work done now. It means that when Paul gets back he can carry on with current tasks rather than spend time on jobs which are a bit beyond him anyway. Jon appears to be a nice chap, he seemed grateful when I accepted his demand. Some acquaintances in the village employ him, so he comes recommended. But he is an unskilled labourer, not a trained gardener; I will pay him what he asks but he will have to work for it.

 Damn, I wish I weren’t so old and feeble. I’m not cut out to be an employer.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

SHORTS - Gossip

One winds on the distaff what the other spins. (Both spread gossip). 
Pieter Bruegel the Elder - Dutch proverb

Gossip is idle talk or rumour, especially about
the personal or private affairs of others.

Prudence said we should come and have a coffee. I accepted with alacrity. Sometimes I like to gossip. Problem is, I never know any, so people like Prudence are very useful to me after a long period of abstinence. Before we go, I arrange for a parade of people in my mind’s eye whom I haven’t seen or heard of for a while and with whose current circumstances I need to familiarise myself. Not all the gossip is malicious; Beloved came too and he wouldn’t stand for that, but some bits are just too juicy to keep under wraps. Prudence is an old lady, one of the many in our small village who can be relied on to have her finger on the pulse of public opinion on any delicate matter, like who has offended whom and why, who’s having an affair with whom, whose son is in trouble, etc. On this occasion it was righteous indignation at the shenanigans of an 80+ year old who very recently buried his wife and is already actively on the look-out for her replacement. Well, at 80+ he doesn’t have all that much time left for renewed nuptials; I can quite see the reason for the hurry. All the same, we were united in tutting at such callous bad taste, as well as wondering who could possibly be desperate enough to take him up on the offer.

In a historical thriller I read recently ( one of C.J. Sansom’s Shardlake series - highly recommended if you want something light, fast paced, Tudor, and well researched) the etymology of the word gossip was mentioned. So I looked it up. It comes from Old English gossib, god sibb,  a godparent, close relation, confidant. What an enormous distance for a word to travel,  from something good like a sponsor, a friend and mentor, to an idle tittle-tattler who can cause real grief and unhappiness. 

Beloved must have been quite confused, he left one of his gloves behind, he thought. One glove on its own is an abomination, if you must lose one, make sure you lose both. Having hunted high and low, not finding it, even retracing steps from Prudence’s door to ours next morning, I rang her. Putting the receiver down I heard a voice from the lobby: “It’s alright,” he said, “found it. It was here all the time. Pretending to be a plastic bag.” Do you wonder I need the odd bit of light relief occasionally?