I love summer and Shostakovich, not necessarily in that order.
At last in dreary old London, we’ve had a weekend where I can finally dispense with my ubiquitous fleece and run free, albeit not naked – that would be too scary. As I huffed and puffed my way around the secluded section of Hackney Marshes this afternoon, I was passed rather menacingly and several times by a young man on a bicycle who took ages to work out whether or not I was worth harassing. What is that? Finally he passed me for the fourth time and muttered, ‘you look like you could use...’ He was so illiterate he wasn’t able to finish the sentence but I think I know what he meant. I admit my matronly bum is not so grand these days as it has been in the past but I’m not running for anyone but myself.
I did not, however, allow the slight to deter my enjoyment of my daily exercise shuffle, nor the side joy of collecting wild blackberries for tomorrow’s breakfast. This year’s crop has been crap because of the rubbish weather and it’s not that easy to find blackberries at their ultimate ripeness late in the afternoon. Sunday’s not a great day because everyone else has the same idea. The picture offered above shows how desolate the season has been this year. You're thinking that everything you used to count on in Britain lets you down.
And then you get a sunny weekend and all is forgiven.
Summer in London for me has always meant Reggae. It’s a Hackney thing I guess, but when you smell barbeque and the neighbourhood reverberates with lovers’ rock at sunset, you know the season has well and truly begun. I will miss this so much.
Last night after spending the day working industriously, if I say so myself – although I did take a bit of a breakette to catch for about the fiftieth time The Red Shoes over a longish lunch, I settled down to watch The Proms (regular readers - beloved BBC, no questions asked; new people - look here).
Despite my nominal devotion to both classical music and the Royal Albert Hall, I have to say that, for the most part, I’ve had little interest in watching The Proms on television for the same reasons as everyone else – because it’s mostly about Elgar and fucking boring.
But, the National Youth Orchestra’s programme for last night was intriguing enough to draw me in. They began with the contemporary New Era Dance by Aaron Jay Kernis, a six minute masterpiece written in 1992. It crashes its way through the entire menu of urban musical myth, via Gershwin and Bernstein to present day New York; the yellow cab, the subway, clang, clang, clang went the trolley, and all manner of spiritual transportation beyond. It was stunning.
During Prokofiev’s witty and bright Piano Concerto No. 1, led with flirtatious dexterity by gifted young pianist Alexander Kobrin, I began to notice that most of Prokofiev’s generous quota of minor instrumental solos was being taken up by girls. The flautists were spectacular and the girls were all over the brass too.
And then came the finale; Shostakovich’s beautiful seventh symphony, The Leningrad. Almost twenty years ago I visited the Leningrad (as it was still called then) Siege Museum and heard this extraordinary music playing as I filed with other bewildered ‘Intourists’ through the maze of black and white photographs of people who had withstood that horrific time. It was a poignant moment and not one I’ll soon forget. Shostakovich completed this symphony in 1942 and it was even played by a scratch orchestra and broadcast on radio from the besieged city before being transferred via microfilm where it was played publicly for the first time outside Shostakovich’s homeland at the The Proms of 1942.
Poor Shostakovich has been almost as unkindly revised by history as Wagner so it did my heart no end of good to hear this glorious and dignified piece of music played with such controlled youthful passion by young musicians totally engaged with it. You never got the sense that this was earnest, good-for-you music. Sorry but even I think The Proms sometimes comes across that way. If you love harmony, you can’t help but love Shostakovich.
The Leningrad is short on whistles and bells and long on… er… length. I loved seeing the faces of kids aged thirteen to seventeen totally focused on it, despite its lack of obvious dramatic payoffs. It was great to see that the orchestra leader, traditionally the first violinist first chair, was a girl. Less gratifying was that the makeup of our National Youth Orchestra is visibly composed solely of white and ethnic Chinese with a glaring absence of young people from either a black or Asian background.
As you ponder that question I’ll be washing my freshly culled blackberries. Be grateful I could not find a suitable segue to the handheld computer of the same name. I guess I’m losing my touch. You wish….