Friday, January 21, 2005

ILYA GRINGOLTS: Thanks be for the BBC. Not owning a TV here in the UK, and not spending much time in the communal TV room (having been somewhat traumatised by watching the election results from the US presidential election as they came in), I can''t say how good BBC tv is, as a rule. But BBC radio -- or at least Radio 3 and Radio 4 -- is a very good thing indeed.
I've remarked on this fact before, but I was forcefully reminded of it on being awakened this morning. Waking up is generally something that isn't very easy or pleasant for me to do, so it usually isn't my favourite part of the day. How nice a change, then, and how great an improvement, to wake up to the strains of Bach's d-minor partita for violin playing on my dinky alarm-clock/radio. Happy for the excuse to stay in bed, I lay there listening, in a characteristic state of lassitude, for the whole thing. It was a good performance; but when the mighty chaconne -- the final movement, generally lasting 12-16 minutes depending on the tempo adopted, a technically and intellectually demanding gem of polyphonic writing for a single stringed instrument -- something odd happened. I've listened to this piece many times before; I'm familiar with a number of recordings, and have my favourites (Milstein, Grumiaux, and Szeryng). This rendering was completely different. It was clearly influenced by historically-informed performance practice; but it wasn't antiquarian, or tinny, or dry. The playing was incredibly virtuosic; but it was not showy -- there was real intellectual depth and engagement. And the understanding of structure and command of rhythm were phenomenal. The chaconne was originally a dance, and the connection between this austere work and its origins were clearer in this performance than any other I've heard. I didn't like it any better than the more restrained and reflective interpretations I've heard before, but I didn't like it any less either. And there was also an excitement to the playing which defies analysis -- but as I lay there, I could feel my pulse speed up.
And then the applause came, and I realised that it had been recorded live, whichr ather floored me.
The performer was the violinist Ilya Gringolts, originally from St Petersburg, who won the Pagannini Competition at the age of 16, in 1998. I find, from a quick internet search, that he has recorded a cd of Bach's partitas and sonatas for solo violin on Deutsche Grammophon, though unfortunately it's only half of the works and the 2nd partita isn't among them. Still, if the playing there is on a par with what I heard over the beeb, it's well worth looking, or listening, into.
Gringolts went on to perform the Bartok sonata for solo violin, which I hadn't heard before; and while I wasn't enraptured with it by any means, I'm glad to have been exposed to it. After that, there was more live music -- this time the BBC Symphony Orchestra playing the Overture to Die Meistersinger, followed by Lutoslawski's cello concerto and Prokofiev's Sixth (if memory serves) symphony.
So, listeners tuning in when I did could hear 5 works performed by first-rate artists, three of them from the 20th century, all recorded live. And I was introduced to the work of a young, very talented artist, and had an experience of great aesthetic pleasure.
As I said: thanks be to the BBC. Whatever it's faults, it's still the envy of the world, and a national institution of which the British should be justly proud.

VANITY, VANITY, ALL IS VANITY: I greatly enjoyed this piece by Alex Beam from the Boston Globe, despite not generally being a great fan of celebrity news (or at least celebrity news not concerning Royalty or public intellectuals or literary figures ...) It was especially apt, since I was just reading Ecclesiastes the other night (which no doubt says something about me ...) In addition to revisiting the old debate between St Jerome and Martin Luther about the title of that work, Beam and his precocious progeny Erasmus parse the fascinating topic of the split between Brad Pitt and Jennifer Anniston (who have, apparently -- split).

Sunday, January 16, 2005

MORE ON THE ROYALS: UK STILL WILD* ABOUT HARRY: The furor over Prince Harry going to a 'Natives and Colonials' party dressed as a Nazi soldier continues, no doubt in part because people like me can't stopp talking about it. Now there's grumbling about Harry, and his elder brother William (second in line for the throne, and thus one day likely to be king, barring the abolition of the monarchy) running with a 'racist and bigotted' set of posh sportsmen coming from within the Prince of Wales's camp itself, according to the Independent. So worried are they about Prince Harry's lack of understanding of the seriousness and, I guess, badness of the mass-murder of Jews, that they're having the poor chap sit down with the Chief Rabbi of England, Dr. Jonathan Sachs -- a man with whom I disagree about a good many things, but who I admire. It'd be nice to think that this wise spiritual leader and public intellectual could straighten Harry out; but one doubts it (ah, but what I wouldn't give to be a fly on the wall at that meeting!)
All I can say, ultimately, is that I wouldn't like to be one of the taxpayers who funds the royal Princes's nasty shenanigans. (Come to think of it, having paid income tax in Britain, I suppose there's a possibility that I might theoretically be one of those who helps pick up the tab for Harry's adventures in neo-fascist fashion. What an appalling thought.)
Also, irony of ironies, the whole brouhaha could cost London it's Olympic bid for 2012 (which does seem rather an over-reaction). One wonders what the host of the infamous party, a former British Gold Medalist, thinks about that.
Seriously, though, I've enjoyed the royal goings-on in the past, but this is getting a bit much to stand. Harry's behaviour, which isn't so much morally wrong as just dumb and loutish, just illustrates what should be a fairly obvious truth -- that being born into the royal line doesn't make one a worthy or distinguished person in any way. Nor, apparently, does an expensive education (or a dysfunctional family life which is carried out in full view of the world). The case against kicking the royal dogs out of their gilded kennel is ever harder to make. I've never thought of myself as much of a radical, but the cause of republicanism does look awfully sensible ...
UPDATE: Chris Brooke tears into the monarchy with all the righteous republican fury one would expect of a Rousseau scholar (and Oxford don**) (Incidentally, Chris, not uncharacteristically, goes rather further than I would in his proposed war on the British upper clases). Chris in turn links to a couple of posts by Matthew Turner, which in turn provide further links to articles on the whole affair. So, if you are interested in all of this --this should keep you busy.
I haven't read all the links myself -- while this has all been diverting, I've definitely reached Harry-saturation point (and indeed, did so long ago). But, like Chris and Matt, I can't resist quoting this observation from the Independent:
"So it might all have been so much worse: if the boys had got what they wanted when they went into the shop, Prince William might have been photographed trying to look like a black man in primitive clothing, while Harry would have been posing in the death's-head uniform of the Waffen SS. Now that would have made the party swing."
Well. That would've made future state visits to Africa by King William V rather, um, lively occassions, wouldn't it?
One of the articles Matt Turner links to fills in the background on Prince Harry's (and Prince William's) set -- and it's not a picture I find wholly attractive. For instance, there's this bit of waggery from a classmate of Harry's (and son of one of Prince Charles's advisors):

The Sunday Times - Britain

January 16, 2005

Focus: Harry, the boy in the bubble
Reaction to Harry dressed as a Nazi has been marked more by astonishment than anger. How could he be so stupid?Richard Woods, Nicholas Hellen and John Elliott report on the isolation that sparked a historic royal gaffe

It’s springtime for Harry and Germany!
The royals are happy and gay.
They dress up as Nazis, and dance at posh parties, —
Oh, who cares about Holocaust Day?
Yes, it’s springtime for Harry and royalty,
The Windsors are back to their roots.

Our kings and our queens are German in genes,
and swastikas — they’re such a hoot!

Yes indeed, it was a “springtime for Harry” mood last Thursday night at the pub where the prince, who is third in line to the throne, hangs out when he is at his father’s gaff at Highgrove in Gloucestershire.

“Has anyone heard from Harry?” breezed a young blonde, wearing a top emblazoned with Cirencester Agriculture College, who was propping up the bar. Although the prince had made headlines around the world for appearing at a party wearing the uniform of a Nazi soldier, nobody in the Tunnel House Inn in the village of Coates seemed too bothered.

A young lad known as Jed got up and began goose-stepping like a Wehrmacht soldier, provoking hysterical laughter from the blonde. “He’s such a lark,” screamed another girl.

“Prince Harry drinks in here whenever he’s at Highgrove,” said Jed. “He knows he can be among friends. He usually comes in with six or seven others and buys the drinks, which are lager and tequila shots. He isn’t any more outrageous than anyone else here. He’s good-looking, rich, royal and everyone loves him.”

Not everyone was quite so amused at the image of a royal posing as a member of a regime that killed many millions of people. Or at least that was what it seemed when this newspaper contacted the son of a close adviser to the Prince of Wales last week.
“My uncle died at Auschwitz,” said the young man, who was at Eton with Harry. He sounded sombre and the journalist offered his sympathies. Had his uncle really died at Auschwitz? “Yes, he slipped and fell off one of the watchtowers. Ho, ho, ho!”
The same Times article puts the whole thing into perspective:
He did so at a party attended by a horde of strangers with camera-phones. To make matters more absurd, the event had nothing to do with Nazis but was billed as “colonials and natives”, a theme cringeworthy enough in itself for a royal family trying to modernise. When did the prince do all this? Just three weeks before the world is due to mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, one of the prison camps where the Nazis systematically murdered 6m Jews.
Well, you've got to give Harry this. He doesn't do things by halves.
The article also mentions the fact that recent polls suggest that 40% of Britons surveyed don't know what Auschwitz was, and among Prince Harry's age cohort the level of ignorance is around 60%. This, it seems to me, is rather more disturbing than the antics of one overpriviledged prat.
With such levels of public ignorance, and Waffen-SS uniforms available in Cotswold costume shops, the really disturbing reflection is: maybe Harry is all too good a representative of his country.
I'd rather not think so.
*(Not in a good way).
** Some people -- including one of Chris's commenters -- remark on the oddness of militantly anti-aristocratic ire on the part of Oxbridge academics. Those making such observations, or having such thoughts, should bear this in mind: it's Oxford dons who often wind up having posh youths for pupils (though I imagine this is more of a problem at Magdalen, which so far as I know is the only Oxford college to have had a member of the British royal family as a student -- Edward VIII, then David Prince of Wales, who was also a big fan of the brown-shirted boys in Germany, than it is here at Balliol).
UPDATE UPDATED: Chris Brooke has e-mailed pointing out that I'm unlikely to have contributed to Harry's costume-buying pocket money, as the Prince of Wales, and presumably his family, don't get public money from the 'Civil List', but live off the huge duchy of Cornwall. So, I don't have to worry at least. But if you're an anti-Nazi living in Cornwall -- well, I'd be pretty pissed off right now if I were you.
Chris also points the way to this post picturing David, Prince of Wales as an undergraduate at Magdalen, from Matt Turner, who seems to have the Royal-posting thing down. Something about those Magdalenians ...
Also, Phoebe weighs in on this. I'm not sure about Phoebe's speculations on Harry's motivation, but she certainly wins a prize for the title.

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