Monday, July 30, 2007

From our Arts correspondent:

To the other corner of The Wash last Saturday, King's Lynn for a concert by the Philharmonia Orchestra and violin soloist, Min-Jin Kym.

The venue, their much restored Corn Exchange (1854), stands in a nice Georgian square with its back to the docks on the River Ouse. Opposite is the Crown Hotel, an invitingly lovely building whose user comments on Tripadvisor would put off all but the hardiest from staying there. English hospitality and service at its most typical, apparently.

The programme had been selected with a traditional audience in mind and didn't disappoint. First up was Rossini's Overture, Barber of Seville. Conductor
Joji Hattori's satisfyingly flowing black locks shook impressively in the appropriate manner as he took the orchestra through it at a cracking pace. Then Min-Jin floated onstage, gold slippers peeping from under a diaphanous pink silk gown, to perform Beethoven's Concerto.

There's always something so vulnerable seeming about violin soloists, who have nothing to sit behind like cellists or pianists do, while they wait for their turn to play. She must have felt the weight of the thousand pairs of eyes focused on her while she stood, sometimes picking imaginary specks of dust from her Strad, or making tiny adjustments to her bow, or just scratching her shoulder. Then when it was her time, she lit the stage up with her presence, her control over volume and intensity, her total command of Beethoven's score and her ability to make individual notes flow together like liquid ripples. She pushed it to the limit and, towards the end, she had something of the matador about her, showing just that touch of exaggerated pride at her mastery of the piece and making us wonder if she could dare to reach for new heights as the inevitable climax approached.

She'd dominated the Philharmonia throughout, fully deserving her ovation. Whether through design or inability to keep up, they'd played rather a restrained role. I'd have preferred a more evenly balanced partnership, and a little more interest shown by some members - notably the first cellos who looked bored witless throughout. But after the interval, it came into its own with Tchaikovsky's Sixth.

Opinions differ as to whether this symphony is really the composer's 'last will and testament'. But it's hard not to see it as such and that thought might well have been in Hattori's mind, judging by the way he conducted it. The first movement - alternatively lushly romantic and moodily pensive is said to symbolise Tchaikovsky's forbidden homosexual love-affairs. The 5/4 time of the second makes it sound like an impossibly awkward waltz to be danced to by someone who can't fit convention. The third, with its martial theme; sometimes imperious, sometimes almost comic-opera, ends in a towering crescendo dominated by the brass and almost always draws applause from sections of the audience who think the work has finished. It's as if he's saying, "yes, see - see what I can do to you when I want to. You loved me, didn't you? Now listen to this..." And so to the final movement, almost unbearably deep and miserable, with parts harking back to the romance in the first, eventually simply ebbs away from us into nothingness.

Nine days after the premiere, Tchaikovsky's life had ended too.

On that sombre note, we left for home. Our lives changed, just by a small amount, by a Korean violinist, a Japanese conductor, Italian, German and Russian composers and a historic town in the flatlands of rural Norfolk. If only all multiculturalism could be as satisfying as this.

Tarkwith Vonackle

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Le Fromage du Mort

Dinard Airport was built to serve an age when air travel was a more personal pastime. You find this out as soon as you find yourself squashed into its baggage hall even more tightly than you were in the Ryanair Boeing that you landed in. Still, its advantage is that it's only steps into the outside world once you're through the perfunctory immigration check.

Our base for the 4 night break was an hour's drive away at the Manoir des .. oh damn, I've forgotten the rest. Anyway, it's just outside Sables d'Or des Pins and good because it doesn't have a restaurant and they leave you alone to come and go as you wish.

The attraction of this part of Brittany, of course, is that it's a coast like you wish England had - and would have if it wasn't for the way our coastline has been spoiled by pandering to the worst elements of mass tourism. Dramatic cliffs, hidden coves, long sandy beaches, fishing towns with actual fishing boats in their harbours, pleasant courteous waiters who bring delicious local produce to your table cooked to perfection at prices that make you swear never to be ripped off in an English restaurant ever again.
We spent most of the time at nearby Erquy, where the west-facing beach curves in a perfect crescent and you can eat coquilles St. Jaques and drink a glass of cider on a cafe terrace, looking across the harbour where the day's catch is brought to.

Well we inspected the sights, as you do on holiday. Remnants of abbeys, ancient stones, things that you don't give a second glance to back home that suddenly become must-sees when abroad.

We'd rented a Ford Fusion. I've driven automatics for years and this thing showed me why. To change gear you had to ram the clutch so far into the corner of the footwell that it could only be done using the very tip of your big toe. Agonising. And with a gear lever that felt like stirring Artex with a feather. After 100 years of motoring, how a major manufacturer can come up with such crap is beyond me. Not that it would matter if the public's irrational hatred of automatics could be overcome and we could all drive sensibly. Why they can't be arsed even to lock the car door without a remote control and yet insist on faffing about with a manual gear-box is a mystery.

Back at the airport, there was a sign saying what was forbidden to take on board. Among them, amusingly I thought, was 'smelly items'. We smiled condescendingly, thinking it was a quaint mistranslation from the French. Not so! Les Douaniers Francais could hardly be more rigorous on this matter! In a search of Mme.'s hand-luggage, an eagle-eyed gendarme detected a suspicious tub of Boursin fromage and confiscated it forthwith. Comforting to know the War on Terror is being taken so seriously on both sides of the Channel.