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Munich is perhaps our favourite city. Friends are often surprised when we say this, as the city, for them, still has too many associations with its Nazi past. But Munich today is a relaxed, friendly and hospitable city. Its centre is light, airy and spacious, yet compact enough that you can walk across it. And it has one of the finest concentrations of galleries and museums of any city in Europe. Yet, perhaps because of its dark past, Munich is not (yet) a tourist ‘must see’ like Amsterdam, Paris, Barcelona or Rome, and so those galleries are rarely crowded or afflicted with coach parties. Indeed in some of the less highly promoted institutions, such as the splendid new Egyptian Museum, or the truly overwhelming Bavarian National Museum, it’s possible, in some rooms, to be the only visitor.
So, when Carol Main, Director of Live Music Now Scotland, asked for Board members to accompany her to an international gathering of LMN groups in Munich, I jumped at the chance. I’ve had the privilege of being involved with Live Music Now for over twenty years. The organisation was founded forty years ago by Yehudi Menuhin, and the Scottish branch was set up in 1984, and Carol has been its Director from the outset. Four years ago, it was devolved from the main UK organisation, but Carol still leads for the UK on international development and networks. Two years ago, she organised a highly successful international networking event in London, and now the LMN Munich organisation had taken up the challenge to host a similar gathering.
In case you’re not familiar with Live Music Now, I should explain that its role is twofold: to help emerging musicians at the start of their careers, and to bring high quality performances to places and people that would rarely experience them: special schools, care homes, prisons and the like. LMN in Germany and Austria also owes its beginnings to Menuhin, but these groups were set up on a rather different basis. Where LMN in the UK is run by professional staff overseen by volunteer Boards, in the rest of Europe most Live Music Now groups are wholly voluntary. So, that meant that this international gathering brought together a large number of committed volunteers, not only from Munich, but also from other parts of Germany, from Vienna, from France and the Netherlands, and even from Chile.
It was an extraordinary weekend, both for me and for Judith (several delegates had brought their partners as vital supporters and networkers!). Rarely if ever have we met so many people, from so many different countries and backgrounds, with whom we immediately felt such a profound empathy and sense of common purpose. But I shouldn’t suggest this was a solemn occasion—there was a great deal of laughter too (especially around the painful subject of Brexit). But the total commitment to the value of live music, and to enabling access to that value, was genuinely moving and inspiring.
The whole event, however, had a much deeper and more haunting resonance. Our meeting was held in the Hochscule für Musik and Theater—entirely appropriate as the institution has very close links with LMN Munich. But the Hochschule is housed in a building that was constructed to be the Nazi headquarters in Munich. It is actually known as the ‘Führerbau’ and the room in which we were meeting had not only been Hitler’s own office, but was the location of the signing of the infamous 1938 Munich Agreement. For many this event was the unforgivable peak of ‘appeasement,’ though some see it as a desperate attempt by Chamberlain and Daladier to buy time for Britain and France to prepare for a war that they saw as inevitable. To add to the historic weight of the occasion, our meeting encompassed the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month—marking the 1918 Armistice, just twenty years before that fateful gathering of the European Powers.
The Hochshule’s Chancellor Dr Alexander Krause gave us an enthralling presentation on the history of the building, and led us on a tour of the cellars where, below 2.5 meters of concrete, 3,500 looted artworks had been kept safe from the Allied bombing which destroyed so much of Munich. He spoke about the controversy around the survival, continued use, and planned restoration of the Führerbau, and of his and his colleagues’ belief that a school of music was by far the best means of ‘exorcising’ the building’s past.
If we’d needed any demonstration of the power of music to support that argument, we had it that weekend. The day before our meeting, an evening reception had included an informal recital by two of LMN Munich’s most gifted alumni, of violin sonatas by Beethoven and Saint-Saens. It was a privilege to sit only a few feet away from such powerful music-making. Then, on the Sunday, we were guests of honour at a Benefit Concert for LMN Munich in the imposing marble splendour of the Herkulessaal. The great conductor Mariss Jansons led the Hochschule’s student orchestra in accompanying two of the school’s starriest graduates in violin concertos by Bruch (yes, that one) and Glazunov. The extraordinary level of music-making literally brought tears to our eyes. The future of classical music is safe in the hands of these amazing young people.
The ‘relevance’ of classical music today is often questioned. It can be dismissed as an elitist artform, too closely linked to its historical context as an expression of courtly or bourgeois taste, or (especially opera) too expensive and too exclusive to engage with ‘ordinary’ people. Hearing those two remarkable concerts, in which young people devoted themselves, heart and soul, to bringing life to music from the 19th century, was a humbling experience. Played with such commitment and insight, even ‘old warhorses’ as familiar as Beethoven’s ‘Spring’ Sonata, or the Bruch Concerto, can reach places that very few artforms, or any other form of human expression, come close to. I think all of us, regardless of our nationality, came away from this weekend in Munich with a renewed purpose to continue Live Music Now’s invaluable work, and to continue to foster strong international links through the power of music.
© Robert Livingston
You know how it goes, even if only because you’ve read the Christopher Brookmyre novel of the same title. You put the frog in a pan of cold water and raise the temperature very slowly. The frog doesn’t notice till it’s too late. Of course, in reality, the frog would notice, and jump out in plenty of time. But that doesn’t stop this being a useful metaphor for those of us who ignore potentially calamitous circumstances until they’re about to overwhelm us, whether that be personal debt, or climate change.
In my version of the metaphor, the frogs are all of us in Scotland who care about culture, and especially the arts, and the gradually warming water around us is the state of funding for the cultural sector as a whole. I would say the temperature has probably reached about 90° C and is still rising.
Of course, every now and then an isolated example of something under threat hits the media, and campaigns are mounted: to keep a gallery or a library open, to stop a Council withdrawing free instrumental tuition in schools. But these are just the outliers, the big chunks of ice breaking off the continental ice shelf that everyone notices. I’m concerned with something much more insidious.
For instance, in this time of cultural glut during the Edinburgh Festivals, it’s easy to forget just what the situation can be in Scotland’s capital for much of the rest of the year. Let’s take some examples:
- The Traverse Theatre sitting empty for sometimes weeks at a time, when it used to have new productions running on a monthly basis.
- The Fruitmarket Gallery mounting just four exhibitions a year, where not so long ago it used to present eight per annum.
- Anything up to three floors of the City Art Centre sitting empty at any one time; the current exhibition, and the one which will follow it, are each running for six months, and only feature work from the City’s own collections.
If we move across to Glasgow:
- The Gallery of Modern Art has exhibitions that run for anything up to a year at a time. In a wonderful piece of irony, one current exhibition, by artist Marlie Mul, consists precisely of the absence of an exhibition: the gallery concerned will simply sit empty for six months. There could be no more pointed statement about the parlous circumstances we’re in.
- Scotland’s finest suite of exhibition spaces, the MacLellan Galleries, has not been open to the public for years.
- Kelvingrove has, admittedly, had great success with its current Frank Quitely exhibition, but there’s nothing on their website to say what will succeed it when it closes in a few weeks’ time.
- The CCA does rather better than the Fruitmarket, presenting six exhibitions a year, but when I worked in its predecessor, the Third Eye, in the 1980s, we mounted at least ten a year.
- The Citizens Theatre, once considered the most exciting Rep theatre in Europe, is mounting only one wholly new main-stage, in-house production between now and the pantomime.
Of course, these are major cities which still have a range of exciting and stimulating cultural experiences to offer residents and visitors, while a huge percentage of the Scottish population has, for example, no access of any kind to the visual arts, nor much access, it has to be said, to any other kind of funded arts either. And it is the funded aspects of culture that I’m concerned about. These are, to borrow a phrase from the Voluntary Arts organisation, Our Cultural Commons, paid for from our taxes. And like the agricultural commons of two centuries ago, they’re being taken away from us.
This is not new. We can’t just blame it on one political party, whether it be the Tories or the SNP. Back at the end of the last Millennium, I did an exercise whereby I compared the latest Scottish Arts Council annual report with one from a decade previously. Over those ten years, the 1990s, the same 14 organisations accounted for the bulk of grant aid (this was before the ‘national’ companies were funded directly from the Scottish Government), but the difference was that the number of productions, performances and exhibitions they presented had shrunk enormously, by anything up to 30%, and audiences had consequently reduced by a similar amount. We frogs were put in that pan of cold water a long time ago.
So, now, the ‘conversation’ has begun which will lead us towards a new Scottish Culture Strategy, and the Culture Secretary launched the process with a speech in which she stated: As the Scottish Government, we believe that culture lies at the heart of Scotland’s future. Back in 2003 the then First Minister Jack McConnell, said something similarly bold in his famous St Andrews Day speech. But little was then done, to turn down the heat under the pan.
My contribution, therefore, to this ongoing ‘conversation’ will be to use this blog to record any examples I come across of the temperature of the water being raised another fraction of a degree. Some of these examples might seem quite trivial, but everything’s connected. Here’s the first.
The Royal Botanic Gardens of Edinburgh has come under sustained attack for its decision to close Inverleith House as a gallery of contemporary art, after more than 50 years of continuous use. I haven’t been able to get too outraged by this decision. After all, as I’ve noted above, Edinburgh is not short of exhibition spaces, many of them currently under used, while the Botanic Gardens themselves are a unique facility and resource for the city, and bring me joy every time I visit them. Last Monday, so glorious was the weather that I suggested that Judith and I enjoy a stroll round the Botanic Gardens before going for something to eat, only to find that the Gardens now close at 6.00 every night, even at the height of summer and during the Edinburgh Festival. So, now, anyone who works normal office hours has no chance to enjoy the Botanics on a weekday. I don’t live in Edinburgh, so this state of affairs might have existed for some years now, without my noticing. But I do feel it’s another little slice of Our Cultural Commons that has been taken away from us, as, in case you hadn’t realized, RBGE is a Non-Departmental Public Body, directly funded by the Scottish Government.
© Robert Livingston
Are gannets good for you? Not as food, of course, though the former inhabitants of St Kilda would certainly have thought they were. Last week Judith and I took a short break to visit the gannetry at Troup Head in Aberdeenshire, just along from the village of Pennan, famous as the location for ‘Local Hero’. Troup Head, an RSPB reserve, is the only mainland gannetry in Scotland, and our timing was perfect, as thousands of birds had already returned to set up their nesting sites, along with similar numbers of kittiwakes, a few razorbills, and some jackdaws playing at being seabirds.
We’ve been to similar seabird colonies on the Isle of May, and the Brough of Birsay in Orkney, but those are both island locations. There’s something special about being able to just park your car, walk across a couple of fields, and then suddenly come across this vast seabird community. By a quirk of acoustics you can barely hear the colony until you’re, literally, almost on top of it, and then the noise is deafening. Gannets were everywhere: courting (that wonderful necking dance), fighting viciously over patches of ground (to the disapproval of their neighbours), flying—apparently—for the sheer pleasure of it, or just sleeping, head turned round and long beak lined along the back.
We sat and watched them for the best part of an hour, the closest birds barely 25 feet away. We were the only humans there and we were completely ignored. I guess it might be a different matter once the chicks have hatched! And I found that I felt a really profound sense of wellbeing, a sense of inner calm and unalloyed pleasure, to an extent that I’d not really recognised before. I think it was being so close to so many birds, and those birds being apparently oblivious of us. For the first time I felt I really understood what an Attenborough or a Chris Packham must feel like.
Afterwards, I began to think about the analogies between this experience of the natural world, and experiencing the arts. The recent death of the great painter Howard Hodgkin had reminded me of when the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art had presented a major exhibition of his work, and I remembered standing in the centre of the largest of the four galleries involved, just slowly rotating, as my eyes and senses filled with the glorious colours and forms—never quite abstract—of Hodgkin’s large paintings. Much more recently, just last month, and in the same week, I had had two similar reactions, to the near-perfect playing of the Sitkovestsky Piano Trio in Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall, and to the astounding dancing of the Danza Contemporanea de Cuba at the Festival Theatre.
How can I sum up this feeling? Exceptional physical and mental wellbeing, inner calm, an absolute sense of rightness, and the paradox of feeling both excited and stimulated, and soothed and relaxed, all at once. A sense of time standing still, and of wanting the experience not to end. When it reaches an extreme level, there is even a name for this: Stendahl Syndrome.
I’ve been googling whether anyone has been researching these parallels between how we react to nature, and how we respond to the arts. There’s plenty on how art might help us relate to nature but that’s not quite what I mean. I’m interested in understanding if the two experiences are, fundamentally, similar or even the same.
At the moment the different arguments for the links between nature and wellbeing, and the arts and wellbeing, tend to march in parallel. Those arguments are similar, but I’m not sure that they’re necessarily being linked up. The Westminster Government seems to be accepting some of the arguments about nature and wellbeing, and this seems to have led a coalition of bodies to present a powerful argument for a Nature and Wellbeing Act . With the process of consultation for a new Scottish Cultural Strategy, should we be thinking about being equally bold and ambitious, and making the case for an Arts and Wellbeing Act?
Because arts provision is not a statutory duty of Local Authorities, support for artists, arts organisations, and arts activities, is drying up across much of Scotland. The gaps in provision are often most acute in those communities which also score very heavily on indexes of Multiple Deprivation. Maybe it’s time for those who support the arts, and those who care about the natural world, to make common cause.
© Robert Livingston April 2017
I may just be a grumpy old man, but it does seem to me that many aspects of popular culture are becoming more, well, disappointing. Or perhaps it’s just that our expectations are constantly being ramped up by the media, in which case my problem may be more with the reviewers than with what they’re reviewing.
I’ll try to make my case through two genres: Detective Fiction, and Star Trek films. I’ve been a lover of Detective Fiction for over 40 years, and I use the term ‘detective’ advisedly, to separate this sub-genre from the much wider (and currently more critically acceptable) genre of ‘crime’ fiction. For me, Detective Fiction is about the solving of puzzles (crimes) within a dramatic framework, while Crime Fiction is more concerned with psychological dissection. The locus classicus would be Ruth Rendell’s splitting of her authorial personality in two, with the procedural Inspector Wexford novels under her own name, while her series of psychological studies, which are much more about why a crime was committed than how, were initially published under the pen name of Barbara Vine.
In the last month I’ve read two new examples of Detective Fiction which, for wider reasons, have been very high profile. First was the third novel in the Cormoran Strike series, ‘Career of Evil’, published under the pen name Robert Galbraith but written, of course, by the incredibly prolific J K Rowling. Rather to my surprise, I had really enjoyed the first two Galbraith novels. There was something pleasingly old fashioned about them, and the writing seemed much more accomplished than in the Harry Potter series, where I’ve always found the prose rather leaden. So I approached this third outing with real anticipation, and was seriously underwhelmed. It was far, far too long and repetitive (admittedly a common Rowling failing), but in trying to take us into the mind of a serial killer, obsessed with dismembering young women, it was following a wearily well-trodden path (in books, movies and TV dramas), and a distasteful one at that. Worst of all, for much of its length, it was simply dull.
By now the whole literary/reading world is familiar with the Rowling/Galbraith phenomenon. My next read has, however, has excited much more media interest and anticipation than did the third volume of a well-established series, because ‘The Monogram Murders’ is the first new novel ever to be formally approved by Agatha Christie’s estate, and therefore the first ‘proper’ Hercule Poirot story since Christie’s death. Now, I was looking forward to this for two reasons: first, I’d greatly enjoyed the two similarly ‘authorised’ Sherlock Holmes novels by Anthony Horowitz, and second, the author chosen to resurrect Poirot was Sophie Hannah, a critically acclaimed (and also prolific) writer of Crime Fiction, whom I’d once seen talking very interestingly about her work at the Nairn Book and Arts Festival.
This was a much bigger disappointment than the Galbraith. For anyone at all familiar with Poirot’s character, there were wrong notes from the outset, but the premise was sufficiently intriguing to keep me reading. But the last third of the book was a remarkably tedious slog through increasingly convoluted explanations of a literally incredible plot. Some of Christie’s original Poirot novels, in their entirety, are shorter than the many pages it took Hannah to unravel this farrago. Maybe that’s what happens when a ‘crime’ writer turns to classic ‘detective’fiction.
What these two books have in common, apart from excessive length, is the generally favourable reception they’ve been given in the ‘serious’ press: Guardian, Independent, Telegraph, etc. In the mainstream media only the (also incredibly prolific) Simon Brett, writing in the Daily Express of all places, tells it as it is about this underwhelming Poirot resurrection. Instead, one has to look to blog and fandom sites to find really thoughtful and accurate analyses of the failings in these books.
Now we’re regularly treated to dire warnings and plangent laments about the ‘death’ of professional criticism, as cash-strapped newspapers shed their paid reviewers, and blogging allows anyone to have their say online. But I’m becoming increasingly aware of a kind of trahison des clercs where it’s harder and harder, at least in the world of books, to find genuinely analytical and honest professional reviews, while the best bloggers, as in the example above, have a depth of knowledge, and the space to display it, that’s increasingly at a premium in the mainstream media.
So, what about Star Trek? I’m not sure if I really count as a Trekkie—I’ve never yet attended a Trekkie convention, in costume or otherwise—but it has been part of my cultural mainstream since the very first episode aired on the BBC in the Dr Who teatime slot when I was 14 years old. I’ve not followed every spin-off TV series (‘Enterprise’ was a step too far), but I have seen all the films, most of them more than once. Now I know that the critical consensus is that, with a few exceptions (‘The Wrath of Khan’, ‘The Voyage Home’, ‘First Contact’) the movies featuring the original two Enterprise crews were fairly ropey, and I’m prepared to go along with that verdict, and just enjoy them as guilty and nostalgic pleasures. But since JJ Abrams rebooted the franchise in 2009’s ‘Star Trek’ it’s achieved a blockbuster prominence that the early films never reached. I still think that that first, daring, reinvention of the origins of the crew of the Enterprise was a clever, inventive, and thoroughly enjoyable slice of space opera. I was much less impressed by its successor ‘Star Trek: Into Darkness’, perhaps because I made the mistake of watching it in a very distracting 3D, but also because the last 15 minutes of the film were really ridiculous, totally unnecessary in terms of a satisfying story arc, and changed Spock’s character in ways that just didn’t seem right.
So I didn’t bother to catch the latest episode, ‘Star Trek Beyond’ (no colon, this time) while it was in cinemas. But it got such generally good reviews, with a broad consensus that this was a ‘return to form’ and to those elements that made Star Trek so memorable—namely the interaction between the main characters—that I rented the DVD as our Christmas Day movie. Well, the first two thirds delivered, looking dazzlingly beautiful and with some sharply written dialogue from Simon Pegg, but the last third was utterly preposterous and dumb to a degree that, it seems to me, dishonours Gene Roddenberry’s memory. Even if, over the years, the Star Trek universe has sometimes played fast and loose with scientific fact and theory, it’s nonetheless tended to retain a certain plausibility, or at least consistency, within its own terms of reference. But the vast space station ‘Yorktown’, a visual fantasy only made possible by state of the art digital imaging, would, if it was to have any possible reality in the Star Trek world, have required an application of technology and resources that would have been centuries ahead of the oddly retro/future world of the rest of the film (remember, we’re in the timeframe of the original, William Shatner, TV series, not even of ‘The Next Generation’ series, set 70 years later). And the ‘action’ that then occurs within this impossible world is simply stupidly over the top to the point where I ceased to care about what happened, and just wanted the movie to end.
So, is popular culture really getting dumber as it gets more hyped? Did things used to be better, or did we at least have, in the past, a sharper critical awareness and a better sense of proportion? Evidence that this may be the case came, also on Christmas Day, in the unlikely form of ‘The Muppet Christmas Carol’. Never a Muppet fan, I’d avoided this film ever since it came out in 1992, assuming it would be silly, sentimental, and tiresome. I’m happy to admit I was entirely wrong: it is a modest masterpiece, telling Dickens’s original story with great fidelity and visual flair, with a nicely understated performance from Michael Caine as Scrooge, and setting this all within the madcap world of the Muppets in a way that is very witty and oddly touching. Who would have thought that presenting Tiny Tim as a small green frog would bring a tear to the eye? Yes, maybe popular culture really was better then….
© Robert Livingston December 2016
Are you a Wittertainee? I mean, of course, do you listen to Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review podcast from BBC 5 Live? I’ve been a devotee of the Church of Wittertainment (as their fans are known) for many years (hello to Jason Isaacs, by the way), long enough to remember way back when they first launched the renowned Wittertainment Code of Conduct for cinemas.
This started out as Mark Kermode’s and Simon Mayo’s not very serious response to the many emails from listeners about the increasing prevalence of bad behaviour in cinemas, but it quickly became something really quite significant. Our Screen Machine mobile cinema has a copy posted by the entrance, and a few years ago I was delighted to find a copy in a similarly prominent position in one of Berlin’s top cinemas. The Code starts obviously enough with prohibitions on talking during the film, or using your mobile phone, eating noisy food, or kicking the seat in front. But some items get a bit more esoteric, including: ‘No shoe removal: You are not in your own front room. Nor are you in Japan (unless you are, in which case, carry on).‘
That crack about Japan came back to me during our recent, and first, holiday in Lisbon, where we experienced not one, but two disconcerting examples of audience behaviour, and were left wondering whether each was considered in any way normal in Portugal, and , whether, therefore, we would have been wrong to make a fuss. In one case we did, in the other we didn’t. Was either decision correct? What is the etiquette when forming part of a foreign audience? When in Japan, should you take your shoes off (regardless of any resulting pungent odour)?
This all started a couple of months ago when, having booked our flights and hotel for Lisbon, I did what I always do on these occasions and searched for what concerts might be available while we were there. To my great excitement I found that the most exciting young pianist of the moment, Igor Levit, was going to make his Portuguese debut during our stay. Not only that, but he was going to be playing two of the works from his latest recording which had just won The Gramophone magazine’s Record of the Year Award. And to put the icing on the cake, the concert was in the Fundação Gulbenkian, just a short walk from our hotel.
As you can imagine, by the time we actually got to the concert hall, my anticipation was intense. The Gulbenkian concert hall is a lovely wood panelled space, seating, I guess, about 1200, and it was almost full, which was impressive for the demandingly intellectual programme on offer. We settled down to enjoy the immense hour-long journey that is Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, and quickly appreciated that the hall’s acoustic was perfect for a solo piano. Unfortunately, it was also perfect for making clearly audible something much less uplifting: the utter barrage of coughing that broke out as soon as Levit’s fingers touched the keys, and which then persisted throughout the whole work. It was rare to get more than ten seconds of cough-free music. And it wasn’t just a few very sick individuals. Coughs resounded from every part of the auditorium. Several would go off at once. It was like trying to listen to a concert in the middle of a zoo, or the Gunfight at OK Corral (except that only lasted a few seconds…).
We really felt for Igor Levit. How he maintained his concentration, playing this Everest of the piano repertoire from memory, was a marvel to behold. As we discussed at the interval, if nothing else such behaviour (no one ever seemed to try to stifle their cough) seemed incredibly insulting to such a great artist. Yet at the interval the audience had given him a standing ovation! Perhaps that was just all the non-coughers acknowledging the scale of his achievement….
After the interval things did get better, partly because Frederick Rzewski’s equally monumental ‘The People United Will Never Be Defeated’ is a more torrential, acoustically overwhelming work than the Beethoven, and partly because some of the worst coughers seemed to have chosen to leave at the interval rather than expose themselves to a late 20th century masterpiece. But it was still much noisier than the average Moscow winter audience on old Soviet Radio relays from the 60s. I had thought of saying something to a member of staff at the interval, but in the end got cold feet—we were outsiders, after all. Perhaps this was normal, in Lisbon, in December.
Two evenings later we were at a free recital in the ornate Palàcio Foz in the centre of Lisbon, performed by the Trio Cremeloque, and taking a fascinatingly different approach to familiar Piano Trios of Beethoven and Haydn, with the usual violin and cello replaced by an oboe and bassoon. It was one of a regular series of free concerts, and the hall was packed. And even as the musicians started playing, several in the audience (all Portuguese) were busily photographing them on their phones. The middle aged man next to Judith even starting videoing the concert. This was too much. Judith gave him a sharp slap on the arm and he desisted—at least until the encore when the camera was out again, his raised arm blocking the view of those around him. Yet in between he had seemed intensely focused on the music. Once again the very fine musicians were given a standing ovation—which raised another unanswered question—are standing ovations the norm in Lisbon, rather than the very rare exception that they are in douce Edinburgh?
Lisboans, we found, are immensely welcoming, courteous and helpful people, and it was a delight to spend time among them. Indeed it is their very reticence and laid back character—certainly when compared with their counterparts in Madrid!—that made these two experiences seem, by contrast, so very odd. But maybe they would find the reverential behaviour of the average British classical music audience oddly cold and uninvolved. A mystery to solve—as if we needed an excuse to return to the delights of Lisbon!
Mind you, sometimes you can really get it wrong. Many years ago we went to a choral concert in Italy. We arrived, we thought, well before the advertised start time, only to find the Choir already on stage, singing away lustily. But the Italian audience was behaving atrociously: chatting loudly, moving about, even eating in some cases. We were stunned. Surely even Italians, we thought, couldn’t be this badly behaved as an audience. But then, after ten minutes or so, the choir all filed off stage. It turned out they were just doing their warm up. A few minutes later they returned in more formal manner, and their performance was then listened to in complete and attentive silence. And no one, as far as I could tell, took their shoes off.
© Robert Livingston December 2016
Last Monday I went to the Royal Opera House. I didn’t dress up, and I had one of the best seats in the house for the princely sum of £12.50. And I didn’t even have to leave Edinburgh. I was, of course, at a screening of ‘event cinema’, in this case, a new production of Bellini’s ‘Norma’.
The venue was the Odeon in Lothian Road. One of the interesting aspects of the continuing growth of ‘event cinema’—live or ‘encore’ relays of music, dance, drama and the visual arts—is that it’s in no way confined to arthouse cinemas and arts venues; the multiplexes have come on board in a big way. ‘Norma’ was already sold out at the Cameo Cinema, just a couple of hundred yards from the Odeon, and a pioneer in event cinema programming. So it’s not surprising that there were about 50 of us in the auditorium at the Odeon, which I would have thought would have been a good audience for any screening there on a Monday evening. But ‘Norma’ was also showing across town at the Vue Omni and, for all I know, at some or all of the edge-of-town multiplexes as well.
The staff at the Odeon are clearly keen to build an audience for these screenings. We were handed a programme by an usher as our tickets were checked, and told ‘you’re in for a dramatic evening!’ (which was true), and another member of staff, armed with a microphone, gave us a warm welcome before the relay started, and encouraged us to come back for future screenings. At the interval a trolley was rolled out with, alongside the usual ice creams, mini-bottles of Prosecco. Bless.
I’m always surprised to find that there are both cinema-goers and arts aficionados who not only have never been to an ‘event cinema’ screening, but are not even sure what it’s like. I still get asked, for example, if it’s just a single, static camera. So, for any readers who’re in that category, let me sum up my experience.
First, the seats are extremely comfortable and the sightlines are excellent. The HD projection is crystal clear and the sound is remarkably full and convincing. The subtitles are easily readable but small enough to be ignored. The introductions and the interval chats range from the cringingly gushing to the genuinely informative, especially when conductor Antonio Pappano is talking about the music.
The key aspect, of course, is the camerawork. Relays like this can use between 6 and 8 different cameras, and the director is usually working from a carefully crafted shooting script based on close prior observation, and where possible full camera rehearsals. The occasionally fluffed camera movement reminds you that this is still, to some extent, being caught ‘on the wing’, but most of the time the camerawork is fluent and unobtrusive. But it does two crucial things. It inevitably offers us an interpretation of the performance because it is the director’s choice as to what we see at any given moment; our eyes are not free to roam across the full stage picture. For some, that is the medium’s chief drawback. But it also means that our attention is drawn to details, actions, expressions that would be easily missed by—or perhaps even not fully visible to—those in the audience at the actual performance.
What this really means is that a cinema relay of a performance is not a replacement of that performance, it is something sui generis. I was thrilled and excited by ‘Norma’. The singing was magnificent, the staging was intriguing, and the filming drew me into the heart of the action and of the passionate, life or death emotions. I genuinely believe that I could not have enjoyed the experience more had I been sitting in the Royal Opera House itself. I might have enjoyed it as much, but for different reasons. I would have been stimulated by the atmosphere (though perhaps put off by the sense that some, at least, in the audience were there more for social than musical reasons), and I would have felt a special auditory thrill in response to such superb singing, but I might have had a restricted view, a neighbour with irritating habits, and a slight feeling of discomfort from being dressed up for the occasion. As several writers have already noted, ‘event cinema’ is becoming an artform of its own. I’ve elsewhere compared it to the early days of television, when viewers had to become used to the idea that this was neither a film in a box nor radio with pictures, but something else.
In the case of ‘Norma’, there is one additional intriguing aspect. Almost uniformly the London critics disliked the production, and indeed it was apparently booed on the opening night. Now, it’s certainly not a conventional production: the Catalan director Alex Ollé has replaced the Druidism of the original with a fanatical modern sect that is very like, but not identical to, aspects of the Catholic Church. The ‘sacred grove’ of the original is made up of a forest of hundreds of crucifixes. The High Priestess Norma is dressed like a modern day bishop—something that will be more shocking in the director’s home country than in Anglican circles! The critics seem to have found this shift confusing, wrong-headed or excessive.
Now, for me and for the friends I was with, in the cinema in Edinburgh, the production was almost completely comprehensible and persuasive, and was much more dramatically pointed than would have been a faithful evocation of the world of 1st century AD Gaul. Was this because we had had the advantage of hearing the stage director explain his approach, and of seeing how the camera director presented that vision to us? In that respect, were we actually better off than the audience in the Royal Opera House?
Event Cinema is not going to go away: rather, it’s going to continue to grow. At many venues the entire New York Met season of relays sells out within days of being announced. For many smaller venues, especially outside the cities, it has become both a financial lifeline and a valuable way of expanding the cultural offering to their communities. The big national companies that so far dominate the scene say that they’ve seen no drop off in attendances at their live performances as a result, rather the reverse. Cinemas say that they’re attracting a new audience, one that doesn’t come to the normal film programme, and that was certainly the case in the Odeon last Monday. Yet it’s not without its critics. Those who are keen to promote films outside the Multiplex mainstream understandably feel threatened by event cinema. After all, if your programming choice is between an obscure foreign language film, and Benedict Cumberbatch in ‘Hamlet’, which is going to make you more money and, more important, which is going to please a larger audience?
And there is (pardon the pun) a very large elephant in the room. At present there is absolutely no Scottish content being offered through ‘event cinema’ routes. Across Scotland, many audiences are becoming more familiar with the work of the New York Met, or the National Theatre in London, than with the work of the Scottish companies they pay for through their taxes. The scenario is perhaps a bit like the early days of the Edinburgh Festival, which was criticised for bringing in foreign companies and artforms at the expense of homegrown Scottish culture, because at that time there was no equivalent showcase for that culture, at least until Hamish Henderson and others laid the foundations for what became the Fringe. Maybe we need a similar initiative now, so that audiences in, say, Thurso, can have the choice between the Royal Opera, and Scottish Opera.
© Robert Livingston September 2016
The first painting I fell in love with ‘in the flesh’, so to speak, was Botticelli’s little ‘Annunciation’ in Kelvingrove Art Gallery in my home city of Glasgow. So our latest cultural jaunt to London had to include a visit to ‘Botticelli Reimagined’ at the V&A. It’s an exhibition that has divided opinion. Some reviewers have given it five stars, while Boyd Tonkin in The Independent described it as ‘the grossest heap of kitsch and dross ever to litter [the V&A’s] halls’!
It’s certainly different and unexpected. Being greeted at the entrance by Ursula Andress rising from the waves in Dr No, while Sean Connery looks on from the bushes like a satyr, was an arresting opening. The first gallery then explores the appropriation of Botticelli’s most iconic images throughout the 20th century, from Surrealist and Pop artists to Dolce and Gabbano, while the second gallery examines the impact of his ‘rediscovery’ on artists in the 19th century, including some fascinating copies by names famous and unknown, and even two outright forgeries. Only in the third room do you reach the real Botticelli—or do you? Because only one signed painting by Botticelli survives: the Mystic Nativity usually in the National Gallery. A key theme of this section is the process by which, over the last two centuries, individual paintings have been attributed, reattributed, and even de-attributed, or at best demoted to ‘workshop of Botticelli’ status.
We found the whole exhibition enthralling and thought-provoking, and as I was interested in exploring the controvery which the exhibition has stirred up, I’ve looked at no less than 12 different reviews online, all from reputable publications with paid reviewers, rather than from individual bloggers like myself. What I found revealed, I think, something significant about the state of criticism today, and it isn’t pleasant.
The single biggest exhibit in Botticelli Reimagined is a huge video installation, The Path, by the great American artist Bill Viola. Now, such is the complexity involved in setting up Viola’s large works that any chance to see one of them is an event, even in the crowded London art scene. And The Path is one of his most engrossing and moving works, easily the best thing in the whole exhibition, apart from the handful of indisputably authentic Botticellis. So I was interested to see what my clutch of critics had to say about this masterwork. Nothing. Nada. Not a Word. The one honourable exception was Time Out which devoted just 10 words to it, but at least described it as ‘mesmerising’, which it is.
I can think of three explanations for this mysterious omission: 1. They missed it. Such a large video installation does, after all, require a room to itself (though that room is right at the start of the exhibition). 2. They don’t rate Bill Viola. Such unanimity on his lack of importance, however, seems highly unlikely. 3. It didn’t fit the shared paradigm. This, sadly, seems to me the most likely explanation. Both those critics who loved the exhibition, and those who hated it, based the bulk of their reviews on the same crude idea of a progression from the valueless clutter and kitsch of the present day to the calm and purity of the 15th century Renaissance. The profound, meditative calm of Viola’s video completely disrupts that false paradigm. Support for this explanation comes from the similar omission of other works in the contemporary section which are also thoughtful and quiet in tone, and demand time to experience, such as that by Michael Joaquin Gray .
I think there’s a more profound failure underlying this omission of any reference to the Bill Viola work: a failure to grasp why this exhibition is not at the Royal Academy or the National Gallery, as might have been expected, but at the V&A, ‘the world’s leading museum of art and design’ (my italics). This is not an exhibition about art history but about cultural history, and of the twelve critics I surveyed only one, Kathryn Hughes in The Guardian, got that right and, guess what, she’s a cultural historian.
Botticelli Reimagined explores the idea of ‘Botticelli’ as a cultural ‘meme’ (as Richard Dawkins would put it), which lay dormant for three centuries after the death of the artist with that name, only to resurface and begin an extraordinary journey through both high and low culture, having effects (like any cultural meme) that have been both beneficial and adverse. Even in his lifetime ‘Botticelli’ was, as Hughes puts it, ‘a brand’, where the hand of the artist himself may have done no more than draw an initial cartoon as the basis for a stream of devotional images produced by his workshop assistants. If that sounds like anyone today, it’s Jeff Koons or the late Andy Warhol, both, of course, included in the exhibition.
The cumulative failure of these critics to address the true complexity of Botticelli Reimagined in favour of simplistic soundbites seems to me a real trahison des clercs. It’s not a good time for professional critics. Shrinking newspapers are shedding staff while the Internet enables pretty well anyone to publish their views on pretty well anything. The question is often asked: do we really need paid critics? My whole background would have inclined me to shout ‘Yes!’ but now I’m not so sure.
My favourite podcast is Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review on BBC 5 Live. Mark Kermode recently published an entire book, Hatchet Job, trying to defend the role of the professional film critic. It’s a good read but it smacks of desperation. After all, even Kermode himself often has to admit that reviews which listeners have emailed to his programme are more articulate and insightful than his own contributions. Some of those contributing listeners are not yet in their teens.
In my younger days I produced many paid and commissioned reviews for the Glasgow Evening Times, the Glasgow Herald (as it was then), Scotland on Sunday, and even BBC Scotland. Now I use this blog to write unpaid reviews of art, film, books, music and theatre. Setting aside the advantages brought by 40 years experience of working in the arts, blogging lets me discuss subjects at greater length and in greater depth than was ever possible all those years ago in the mainstream media. Sure, these blogs may only be read by a handful of people, as opposed to the thousands who read (or, more likely, skimmed) what I used to write for national media. But perhaps that’s a healthier model—a dispersed series of critical conversations as opposed to a fiat delivered de haut en bas from the elevated status of a national newspaper. We’ll always need people like, say, Mark Cousins, to educate us in the deep history and breadth of an artform like film, but perhaps the role of paid daily or weekly ‘reviewers’ is truly being replaced by technology, and will one day seem as quaint as those ‘explainers’ who used to stand by the screen to tell the stories of silent films, and whose remit was swept away by the coming of sound.
© Robert Livingston May 2016