The old sod. No one ever asked for Delta blues to be any sadder or Irish drama to be any more Irish. As art it feels totally transparent. You get the impression that the scripts are achieved by walking down any Dublin street with a tape recorder, and the casts tumble out of a city bus at the back door of the next theater. This naturalness has the effect, strange as it sounds, of making the whole audience feel Irish by intermission. I thought I heard people around me saying “boyo,” “mammy,” and “What are you blatherin’ on about?”
Three-star chef. Life may not be a box of chocolates, but the Berlin Philharmonic is, and during their first visit to Royal Albert Hall this Proms season, Sir Simon Rattle made gestures that were like plucking nougatine from a dazzling array of sweets. He beams as he conducts, looking seraphic in a nimbus of snow white hair, and why not? At his disposal is an instrument of unparalleled virtuosity, and he sometimes puts his hands down at his side, gazing in rapt appreciation. If his interpretation should falter, the orchestra will carry the music along as if on a flying carpet. I can imagine someone tiring of London without tiring of life. No one who loves music could tire of the Berliners.
Noble and/or savage. In this Olympic summer the Proms have been lavish with opera productions, and I suppose the sheer Englishness of Peter Grimes made it an automatic choice. The production, done in concert without sets, came from the English National Opera with most of the original cast intact – it was first staged in 2009 – and was conducted for beauty and precision by the ENO’s music director, Edward Gardner. I’m getting the bare bones out of the way because it’s hard to revisit Britten’s seminal opera – the one that ratified his status as the greatest British composer since Henry Purcell – without feeling queasy.
Let’s do the twist! The Count sports a Sgt. Pepper mustache and velvet brocade bell bottoms. The Countess is dressed in a caftan that looks like William Morris wallpaper. Cherubino wears a skin-hugging flowery shirt. Yes, Glyndebourne has dared to set The Marriage of Fiagro as a romp through London in the swinging Sixties, and after holding your breath for the first ten minutes, it begins to work because it’s funny — a ridiculous sartorial period marries into the world of Marie Antoinette. Like a drunk uncle at the wedding, the swingers loosen everybody up. Once Countess Almaviva stops feeling sorry for herself and begins to frug — or is it the swim? — infectious absurdity wins the day.
Preggers. A bloke in a certain frame of mind, namely male, might wonder why he is sitting at Jumpy. April De Angelis’ new play, beginning its West End run after a success at the Royal Court, is very witty but also very hen-partyish. When the women in the audience laugh knowingly at a line like, “Is she metal-pausal?” some men might wince. Their eyes are likely to avert when a whoop goes up at the sight of a hunky young man entering stage left, starkers, except for modestly covering himself down there. This isn’t gender neutral comedy, and the territory it covers — the generation gap between a middle-aged mother and her mouthy sixteen-year-old daughter — has a case of galloping cliche.
Resistance movements. It didn’t take long for everyone to realize that they had a musical star in Vasily Petrenko, the boyish thirtysomething conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. He debuted with them in 2004 at the age of 28 with brilliant promise. No one spoke of promise after a concert or two; they were already floored. One of a star’s perks is a roaring welcome at the Proms. You’d have thought at the end of their concert two nights ago that the orchestra had just played Crown Imperial rather than the angst-ridden Shostakovich Tenth.
Gin and it.
There are cocktail parties, and then there are cocktail parties. Dramatists like to use them as a trope for the viral malaise that has infected middle-class life. In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the unraveling of a marriage is x-rayed with malicious glee, while in the sedate confines of The Cocktail Party T.S. Eliot takes up his familiar, morose theme of “shoring up fragments against our ruin,” giving us hints of the Alcestis of Euripides so that the failed marriage at the heart of the play has mythic resonance. (Albee seemed to stretch for all-American resonance by naming his duelling couple George and Martha, although the relevance to George and Martha Washington never hit home for me — history is the last thing one thinks about as the air blisters and boils in the play.)
Two musical instruments rise above all others in their humanity — the violin, because it comes closest to imitating the singing voice, and the piano, because it comes closest to conveying human nature. As human nature is vast, so is pianism. You can sequester yourself from territory that is too hot, cold, angry, lustful, domineering, or terrifying. Some pianists base their whole career on safely walling off the troubling aspects of human perversity (Alfred Brendel comes to mind, with his ability to make even Liszt wipe off his shoes at the door), while only one has been courageous enough to venture without a care into heaven and hell.