Radio: Three goes to Glyndebourne, Four steams up to the Boyle
Sunday 20 July 1997
Yet rumour has it that the laconic Controller of R4 intends to do away with it, along with loads of other old junk for which he can no longer find house room. These rumours are muddled, contradictory, unreliable and unsettling. They serve no purpose other than to arouse the vociferous claque of R4 lunatic listeners into wild, undirected counter-blast. Until he actually hires the skip and starts trying to fill it while the listeners just as rapidly empty it, it's a waste of space to speculate further: watched Scots never Boyle.
So let's away to Sussex where James Naughtie was enjoying a break from Today and discussing The Christies of Glyndebourne (R3). The series started with Sir George talking about his parents, John Christie and Audrey Mildmay, who began the whole thing. We heard John talking robustly in the distant, imperial accents of George V, and Audrey singing Susana with a sweet, equally dated refinement, on a record scratchy as brambles.
In the early days, people would dunk their wine bottles in the lake, tied to saplings, and fish them out at the interval. One young man, attempting to retrieve his, fell in. Dripping and festooned with duck-weed, he went looking for a taxi but was offered a dashing costume from Act III of Eugene Onegin, in which he stayed to enjoy the rest of the performance. He was handed his own laundered outfit at the end and went home to write the best review they'd ever had. The moral, said Naughtie, gamely, was to treat everyone like a critic. Sir George disagreed: sounding very much his father's son, he said that the moral was to push all the critics in.
The new house at Glyndebourne has been widely welcomed, but it remains to be seen how the refurbishment of Covent Garden will be greeted. It might have been easier to win public support for the venture if it had caught fire. That was the message of an excellent Sunday Feature, Daniel Snowman's The Building of the House (R3) which looked at the world-wide epidemic of operatic architecture. The director at San Francisco's opera house shot under his marble-topped desk when the 1989 earthquake began. The house's refit is seismic, but timely: just before the disaster several doughty women facing long queues during the only interval in War and Peace marched into the Gents and occupied it. The new design will provide better facilities for Ladies and obviate the need for such a sit-in.
Both he and the man in charge of La Fenice, the burned-out Venice house, marvelled at an unexpected and encouraging side-effect of their enforced rebuilding: the influx of a newer and younger audience for the performances they have been giving at less daunting venues. Nicholas Payne at the Royal Opera House has taken note. He hopes to use the Royal Opera and Royal Ballet's temporary homes to try out different repertoires, attract new devotees. It is, as Snowman said, a grand opportunity for lateral thinking.
Nigel Kennedy has been doing a bit of that lately. The Act of God that forced him out of business was a cyst on his neck, probably caused by pressure from his violin. Two operations and a new baby later, he returned to the concert platform, by all accounts playing better than ever. He was In the Psychiatrist's Chair (R4, for now at least) last week, and he was delightful - quite happy to talk about his pretty dreadful childhood, but devoid of self-pity.
For the third week running, the superb Anthony Clare conducted a perceptive interview, discovering precisely what he wanted to know. Kennedy spoke of the tremendous effort that goes into each performance: "It's such an inward- looking, almost destructively critical exercise, playing music," he said, yet "it takes you outside yourself and puts you into an area so deep that language cannot reach you" (he was doing pretty well). There had been occasions when the effort of playing Beethoven, of "assimilating his thought and emotional patterns" has produced the weird effect on Kennedy of finding himself at the back of the hall, watching his own performance - though he hasn't yet dared to walk out, for fear of never getting back again.
The pianist John Lill has spoken of similar experiences when interpreting the uniquely potent Beethoven. To celebrate the season of the Proms that began on Friday, George Steiner made a stab at identifying the nature of Beethoven the Titan (R3), though even he found it tricky: "What is one meant to do with mere words?" he groaned. "Language is a crippled instrument" (he did quite well, too). A contemporary critic at the first performance of the Ninth Symphony simply said that Beethoven transcended all normal dimensions. Better, perhaps, just to listen to the music.
The opening of the Proms is always a time for jubilation. For weeks to come, we can be assured of a magnificent concert every night: Nicholas Kenyon, R3's competent Controller and Proms supremo, has proved his reliability. And he will certainly not depend solely on the traditional greats, but will introduce brave new music as well, just as the founder of the Proms, Henry Wood, predicted. A previous Proms Director, John Drummond, easily identified the Wood quotation given to him on Quote, Unquote (R4, still), last week. Conducting some Schoenberg in 1912, Wood encouraged his orchestra with the prophetic words "Stick to it, boys, stick to it. This is nothing to what you'll be playing in 25 years' time." Eighty-five years later, they're still at it.
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