Friday, July 24, 2009

Hail Albion: Where I Learned "Puppet on a String"

Right after our annual July celebration of Independence from the King of England, I went to the old country for a few weeks. I had been at university in Southampton, but except for a long layover from Spain when I popped into London to see the Tate Modern, I had not been back since.

When I came home to my beloved New York, I visited two fictional English worlds: Torchwood: Children of the Earth, and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. All in all, an enjoyable sojourn into the British psyche.

Which is why Anthony Lane’s New Yorker review of Harry Potter surprised me: “put The Loop next to HPHBP and you get a perplexing report on the corroded state of the British imagination.. . . . So much denial and self-hatred, for a small country, and behind them both the aggrieved memory of lost influence: what hope is there for the return of the steady, tolerant gaze?”

I think the British imagination is doing just fine, and the nation has no more or less self-hatred and denial than any of the rest of us. I think Anthony may be projecting a bit.

“No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life”

Samuel Johnson is still right. London was very crowded. Recession or not, the world calls at its door. I found shimmers of imagination in many places. The underground has ENORMOUS film screens on many of the lines, right at track level. Bike tours run through the Royal Parks. The World War One-themed play The War Horse is a beautiful feat of staging and storytelling. St. James’s Park offers a very modern high tea.

There was one sign of national corrosion: the BBC’s glutted coverage of Michael Jackson’s funeral. Sadder still is that it pushed off coverage of the dedication of the 7/7 memorial. In July 2005, terrorists exploded bombs in Kings Cross, on a double decker bus, and the underground stations Aldgate and Edgware Road, killing 52 people. The memorial dedication had the misfortune of being the same day as MJ’s funeral. But the Brits can’t be blamed for the frightening spell MJ cast on much of the world.

After a week I left London for Oakham, an East Midlands market town of little fame but great imagination in the persons of Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars. They hold an annual international choral workshop there, dedicated to singing Renaissance Polyphony. It’s an exhausting week of rehearsals and small group collaborations, lectures, and voice lessons. Beyond that professional side, the Tallis tutors-—Jan Coxwell, Patrick Craig, and David Woodcock-—were deeply funny, and witty, warm and encouraging. They are colleagues of longstanding, and it’s a privilege to see them interact with one another. Some of it is showmanship, but there is a genuine caring beneath that exterior that can’t be faked.

Those Other Distant Spires and Antique Towers

Our week with the Scholars included a day in Oxford, where Peter Phillips is now Director of Music for Merton College. He arranged for us to give a concert in its 13th-century chapel, famous for its acoustics. Singing in that space was glorious. We sang the Byrd Ne Irascaris: the mournful “Desolata est” reverberated on those storied stones. After a day sightseeing we returned to Merton and the Tallis Scholars themselves gave a concert in the same space, including the Taverner Missa Corona Spinea. That was breathtaking. That piece sends the sopranos into the stratosphere, and they never come down. Peter said they will be recording the piece next year.

Visiting Oxford is a completely different experience when you have something to do at a college, rather than just looking at it. It released my imagination to see a glimpse of Lord Peter near Balliol and yes, Charles Ryder near the distinctive Hereford (which also signals the entrance to Turf Tavern).

Desert Island Discs

One of the most entertaining moments of the week was Jan Coxwell and Patrick Craig recreating the BBC radio show Desert Island Discs, with Jan as the guest and Patick as host. It’s the longest-running radio music program in history, on since 1942. The guest has to name the 8 discs they would want on a desert island, and why. Then they have to name of the 8, which 1 they would choose if a storm came and blew away the others. (Wiki has a list of recent guests and their picks.)

Jan’s came to down Sandie Shaw’s 1967 Eurovision winner, “Puppet on a String,” a quintessentially English early pop beat song. She chose it because it reminded her of her childhood. Here was this world-class performer, able to fill a hall with the soaring notes of the highest soprano, and she’s bringing pop music with her to the island. Such is the emotional attachment we all have to certain bits of pop culture.

I went to England to to partake in the rarified experience of Renaissance polyphony, but was most glad of learning “Puppet on a String.” Thanks Jan!