Saturday, 27 September 2014

If this isn't nice, what is?



Thank Kurt Vonnegut's Uncle Alex for the great writer's most valuable piece of wisdom, which I'm proud to say has been taken up by our nearest and dearest young generation (more anon). That it had a huge impact on America's sharpest and funniest literary polemicist is obvious from the places where he quotes it (or rather, to be precise, 'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is'), not least often in a series of graduation speeches probably not meant to be anthologised. But it achieves its best definition in the nearest KV got to an autobiography, or rather a little book of wit and wisdom, A Man Without a Country (subtitled A Memoir of Life in George W Bush's America, misleadingly since its timespan is far greater. I only wish he'd lived to pen his thoughts about Barack Obama's Amerca - that might have given just a little glimmer of hope).


The context begins with a negative before accentuating the positive.

When I got home from the Second World War, my Uncle Dan clapped me on the back, and he said, 'You're a man now'. So I killed him. Not really, but I certainly felt like doing it.

Dan, that was my bad uncle, who said a male can't be a man unless he'd gone to war.

But I had a good uncle, my late Uncle Alex. He was my father's kid brother, a childless graduate of Harvard who was an honest life-insurance salesman in Indianapolis. He was well-read and wise. And his principal complaint about other human beings was that they seldom noticed when they were happy. So when we were drinking lemonade under an apple tree in the summer, say, and talking lazily about this and that, almost buzzing like honeybees, Uncle Alex would suddenly interrupt the agreeable blather to exclaim, 'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is'.

So I do the same now, and so do my kids and grandkids. And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, 'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is'.

Just before the great happiness of our Garrick birthday dinner for four of the godchildren - two reaching 21 this year, two 18 - along with their parents, a close friend and my mother (to celebrate her whizzing back to health after hip and heart ops), I picked up a copy of the graduation speech book compiled after Vonnegut's death.


I didn't use anything from it in my own speech, which was mainly to praise the two sets of estranged parents for each and every one passing on so many intimations of their own rich hinterlands, their culture and essential decency, to the fine young four who are now very much their own people. But Evi, Maddie and Alexander have all enjoyed the Vonnegut books I bought them; every teenager/twentysomething should read him. I think Kurt would have been pleased with Evi playing up to - which means half taking the piss out of - the taboid photographer at the Oxford May Ball in this pic which we saw to our surprise in London's free morning rag: at first I didn't think 'Eva Hale' was my very sensible goddaughter. How we all laughed.


Having shared Slaughterhouse Five with Alexander, I was delighted that he's been finding my personal favourite among the ones I've read, Breakfast of Champions, even better - if, of course, not quite as significant for Vonnegut's personal history.

The big payoff came when Alexander and father Christopher came to join me at the East Neuk Festival's all-day Schubertiade. Plans for lunch boxes to be delivered to Crail had failed, and we were more than happy to wait for some of the best fish and chips in Scotland. Which we took back to the house where cicerona Debra Boraston was staying with festival CEO Svend Brown and his partner Roy McEwan. In the garden by the sea, we ate our f&c to the strains of the Belcea Quartet warming up inside for their afternoon recital. And Alexander said exactly what I was thinking, as if on cue: 'if this isn't nice, I don't know what is'. Featured, clockwise, David Kettle, the Waltons, Debra, me, Alexander (Christopher must be taking the photo).


And from the other angle, shot taken with Ken's camera and duly posted by him on social media.


'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is' could also have been applied to the previous evening's post-concert time by the sea, just down the valley from Cambo House where I was lucky to be staying, with Alexander's ma Julie and her partner Andy. The sun was setting at the end of the concert (one of two photos taken with my crappy mobile, as the pocket Olympus had just given up the ghost)


but it still wasn't entirely dark at nearly 11pm.


Another moment of happiness was on the last day, where I took my bathing trunks and borrowed a towel at a lunchtime party hosted by the very charming, easy festival chairman and his wife at Elie. The garden gate has steps beyond it down to this most glorious of beaches - photo taken with Debra's iPhone - and there, once I'd cleared the jellyfish zone, I had a blissful North Sea swim looking over to North Berwick and East Lothian, and up to a flotilla of eider ducks who didn't paddle away.


Despite all the mounting world horrors, these happy times to treasure have been so many, this year so far at least, and they bring me back not only to Vonnegut but also to my own favourite poem, Auden's 'A Summer Night' and this stanza especially, which no doubt I've quoted before:

And, gentle, do not care to know,
Where Poland draws her eastern bow,
What violence is done,
Nor ask what doubtful act allows
Our freedom in this English house,
Our picnics in the sun.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Swimming in Respighi, swaying to Wolf-Ferrari



In fact the Respighi binge is past now, but I still ought to honour it. After Dutoit's surely unrepeatable Proms feat of running Roman Festivals, Fountains and Pines together as a single second-half sequence, I reeled again from the surprising depth of the invention: quite apart from the superlative orchestration of Rimsky-Korsakov's pupil, it strikes me more than ever as a question of feeling, not painting or picture-postcarding. Which is why, perversely, I thought to launch this entry in Piranesian black and white. The darkest colours and some of the most haunting invention, to be sure, reside in the last of the trilogy to be composed, the four interlinked Festivals, which Dutoit wisely placed first since the ultimate Albert Hall spectacular would have to be left to the organ and the three extra trumpets capping the revived glory of the Roman cohorts in the 'Pines of the Appian Way'.


Feeding the Christians to the lions in the Colosseum obviously leads Respighi to invoke early Panavision and Technicolor garishness, though even this sequence is a cut above most film music (though not the scores of Nino Rota, Respighi's best follower. I'd put La Strada third only to Prokofiev's Ivan the Terrible and Shostakovich's King Lear music in that sphere). More haunting are the sounds rising at the start of the second 'picture' and, supremely, 'Ottobrata' from the sleighbell-accompanied passage onward, eerie and suspenseful. Here's Toscanini, followed by an outrageously fine performance of the final Epiphanic bacchanal from our own National Youth Orchestra under Vasily Petrenko at the Proms: apt, because his interpretation of Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony with the European Union Youth Orchestra was my absolute highlight of this year's Albertine festival, alongside the Stemme/Runnicles Salome (the NYO Petrushka under Gardner was stunning, too. Just to show that I'm not exclusively obsessed by complicated orchestral scores, I'd put William Christie's late-night Rameau motets in there too, and why not bung in the impassioned debut of the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic earlier that evening).



The introduction of the mandolin in 'Ottobrata' is especially magical: the whole of the nocturnal slow fade sequence matches the  second 'Nachtmusik' of Mahler's Seventh Symphony. Which I'm sure Respighi must have known. There's also a bewitching night picture in the first of the Brazilian Impressions, conducted by Dorati on a CD of early-stereo Mercury recordings which also includes the delicious suite of discreet arrangements The Birds - Going for a Song probably doesn't mean much to the younger generations these days - as well as the two usual subjects. The second Brazilian Impression here is of a visit to a snake institute, complete with Dies Irae.


I finally got round to listening to Respighi's Sinfonia Drammatica of 1914, and the Mahler influence is undeniable in this monument to the shock and grief around the outbreak of the First World War. I expected it to be turgid and overblown, but the varied use of orchestra, a year before Fountains properly made the composer's name, can be extremely subtle and on a superficial listening to the late, lamented Ted Downes's recording with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, I could already grasp that Respighi is doing something unique with form in the slow burn-out which marks the last third of the first movement.


From there it was on to investigate some of the songs, in a disc I'd been given some years back by a Dutch friend and never listened to; the singers are a perfectly Italianate soprano, Andrea Catzel, and a barely adequate tenor whom it would be fairer not to name, but I'm grateful to pianist Reinild Mees for masterminding the project, of which the CD I have is the second volume.

It's so marvellous to hear beautifully set parlando Italian, as in the early 'Storia breve', and I'll never forget 'Nebbie' performed by Teresa Berganza in an encore to a Royal Opera House recital. Among the songs of 1909 there's charming pentatonic style, more suitable to evoke China, in 'Serenata indiana', a setting of Shelley, and more word-sensitivity in 'E se un giorno tornasse', an adaptation of Maeterlinck. And Respighi's gift to be simple but still individual comes in an ideal encore, 'Canzone sarda'.

The big number for mezzo-soprano and string orchestra of 1918 Il tramonto, a winner as performed by the glorious Christine Rice on Pappano's EMI Respighi disc, is also a Shelley setting, by the way. How the poet of  'The Sunset' must have wished there were a word as beautiful as 'tramonto' in the English language.. Any excuse to re-use my shot of Shelley's grave in Rome's English cemetery from the 2011 Death in the South blog entry.


Then it was time to revisit Respighi's orchestrated selections from Rachmaninov's Etudes-Tableaux, and back to the best Fountains I've ever heard - even in less than state-of-the-art sound, from Victor de Sabata. This sets the seal on the work itself being my favourite of the Roman trilogy for its poetry as a whole (I've been there already on the blog, but de Sabata's exceptional interpretation merits a revisit). Sadly the entire recording of 1947 isn't up as a single unit on YouTube, which means that the highlight, the horn blasts for the Triton fountain, lacks its proper impact bursting out of the silence of the Valle Giulian poetry. Still, you get a sense of de Sabata's electricity as well as his control.


This was a serendipitous discovery bringing me back full circle after a coincidental excursion into the delicious music of Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari: I knew de Sabata's recordings of his Overture to Il segreto di Susanna - the Gardelli recording of which was a favourite LP in my teens, sadly never on CD to my knowledge - and the Intermezzo from I quattro rusteghi, an encore winner if ever there was one (so is the quirky little waltz from I gioielli della Madonna).


They're on a two CD EMI set as fillers to the Verdi Requiem, but I don't think I'd ever got as far as the Respighi or the Rossini William Tell Overture, a lesson in articulation that almost outdoes Toscanini.

It may have been an unconscious echo from my Respighi listening, but I came back to Wolf-Ferrari simply as a result of seeing an unheard disc on the piles of unindexed CDs and popping it on.


Most of the Violin Concerto could have been written in the 1890s - in fact at least one of the themes dates from that time -  but was actually premiered, close to its composition, in Munich on 7 January 1944. Hardly an auspicious time or place, and I still haven't quite got to the bottom of why Wolf-Ferrari and his muse-violinist, Guila (sic) Bustabo were there (nor indeed clarified Respighi's links to the Fascists).

The anachronistic quality isn't, to my ears, as much of a liability as it is in Korngold's sticky concerto of the same period. While Korngold was mired in late romanticism, Wolf-Ferrari somehow kept his favoured neoclassical mode fresh. Heavens, the tag - Arthur Lourie's re Stravinsky, contrasting Schoenberg's 'neo-Gothic' - was nearly two decades in the future when the Italo-German gave the cue to the next similarly duo-national composer, Busoni, with the Goldoni-based operas Le donne curiose (1903) and I quattro rusteghi (1906 - and yes, dear reader, I've seen it, in Zurich. Charming in parts but way too long-winded, though that may have been a false impression given by a rather cumbersome production).


The Violin Concerto certainly charms in its opening dream-tune, brought back Dvořák and Elgar style in the otherwise sparkling finale's nostalgic cadenza. The work even surprises us with galloping anger in the third-movement Improvviso, which while not exactly stylistically of the 1940s may express something of the pain Wolf-Ferrari felt at what he and his beloved Guila were going through. It's all well documented in the CD's 96 page accompanying booklet. Looking for something to demonstrate from YouTube, I came across this performance, accompanied by the violin part. Seemingly it's not embeddable, but do click on the link. Maddening that there's no credit for the performers, but I'm fascinated to see a comment asking if this is the Bustabo/Kempe recording - I didn't know there was one. Anyway, it's very fine, but then so is the slightly cooler one I've been listening to at home.

There Vienna-based violinist Benjamin Schmid and conductor Friedrich Haider, who's obviously worked wonders on the Oviedo Filarmonía, were discoveries for me. Haider loves his special composer-project to bits, and it's quite something that his performance of the delicious, encore-worthy Rusteghi Intermezzo is every inch as good in its way as de Sabata's. That miniature is surely the very essence of what protagonist Adrian Leverkühn tries to define, rather surprisingly, in Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus when he speaks of his old teacher:

For him, music was music, if that was what it was, and his objection to Goethe's statement that 'art is concerned with the serious and the good' was that something light can be serious, too, if it is good, which it can be just as easily as something serious can...I have always taken him to mean that one must have a very firm grasp of the good to be able to handle what is light.

Spellbound by my re-reading of this extraordinary novel, which is nothing like what little I remember of it from my teens, and now I can't wait to get to the end; it's turned into quite the metaphysical thriller. But in the meantime, some 'serious-light' music (Prokofiev used the term interestingly, too). JEG's performance of the Rusteghi Intermezzo is almost as fine as the ones I cite above, and you get a glimpse of Wolf-Ferrari's Venice, though I apologise for the naff dancing.


Finalmente, let's wheel back to Toscanini in what sounds like a very early (pre-electrical recording era?) performance of the delicious and authentically neoclassical overture to Il segreto di Susanna.


Thursday, 11 September 2014

Between the James Plays



Though I may not have seen a single thing on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this year, three days in or near my Alma Mater gave as good a panorama of events as any I can remember. Central, of course, were Rona Munro's three wonderful James Plays: enough said about them already on the blog except to note that seeing them on consecutive evenings was a real festival experience, with much musing between.

James I: The Key Will Keep the Lock cheered us after a dreary first afternoon in Edinburgh; J had been up since the weekend and it had stayed unremittingly cold, drizzly and grim. Then off he went back to his tiny cubby-hole in the otherwise spacious New Club, still in the thick of his conference, I to our dear friend Ruth Addinall's in Gilmerton (no further from Princes Street than Belsize Park is from the centre of London). Waking there was bliss. Ruthie had gone off for her early morning swim, so I padded around snapping. Here in quick succession are glimpses of the space where she teaches her lucky pupils, looking out on the wee garden she's always coveted,


the studio


and the desk beyond the kitchen, quite a picture in itself.


Avian activity in the garden continues, despite the loss of a favourite blackbird to a sparrow hawk. The Putins are still here, Mrs P always eager to take berries from the lady of the house's hand.


Wish I'd been here when a flock of waxwings* landed early in the year. One is preserved in an Addinall special.


After a typically generous and healthy breakfast, I took the bus to the Queen's Hall for one of the best recitals I've ever heard, friendly cellist Alban Gerhardt and a pianist who should need no introduction, the versatile Steven Osborne in Britten, Tippett and Beethoven (with a melting Schumann encore). No need to reduplicate anything on the Arts Desk review here. Then lunch up the road at Mother India, a Glasgow branch of which I'd taken the student godchildren to recently, and to the nearby Dovecot Studios, a favourite venue since the discovery of both it - no longer the Infirmary Baths of old, which I well remember - and the work of the wonderful John Burningham.


Before we hit the studio proper, J wanted me to see what he'd already watched - four very beautiful films featuring the special Harris Tweed designs of Dalziel + Scullion, immersing the models in four different Scots landscapes for the exhibition Tumadh (publicity image pictured above). I have to go to Lewis with its inland beaches, and the river-valley setting for Recumbent, allowing the wearer to lie down boulder-like with its pads on the back, was so evocative. I'd have liked a Recumbent myself, but at c. £3,000 for a tailor-made commission it's a bit beyond my budget. Sadly there are no available images of the tweedwearers in landscapes beyond this one.


Upstairs, on the balcony of the main studio where the Burninghams had been hung, the space was shared by a delicious selection of Craigie Aitchison paintings, etchings and tapestries, and a celebration of the links between Dovecot Studios and the Australian Tapestry Workshop. A few of them appear below, above work in progress on Magne Furuholmen's Glass Onion design.


I'd forgotten what a strong painter Aitchison was. This showcase from the Timothy Taylor Gallery included several of his Crucifixions: apparently his Slade tutor had told him that the subject was 'too serious' for him, prompting the devil of opposition.




Over the road in the Talbot Rice Gallery of Old College, the show Counterpoint was more variable -  a selection of eight artists representing '25 Years of Contemporary Art in Scotland'. Most topical was Ellie Harrison's installation After the Revolution, Who Will Clean Up the Mess?


On 18 September, 'the four large confetti cannons installed inside Talbot Rice's Georgian Gallery will only be detonated in the event of a YES vote'. Which, of course, is coming to seem increasingly possible, and all the very best to the idealists and their unknown future if that happens**.

The one exhibit I'd like to follow up is Alec Finlay's Global Oracle, much preoccupied with the future (futurist fantasy) of bees. The book produced on the subject, with a fine compilation of poetry and prose, is one I have to get. Below, Navstar Satellites.


The calm of Old College, with only a lone seagull for company


was in marked contrast to Potterville (see It's a Wonderful Life) down in the Cowgate. I guess it was always a mass of drinking dens - we used to enjoy frequenting Bannerman's, especially around concerts in St Cecilia's Hall, but now, or at least in festival time, the street has a daytime reek of beer and is lined with big pubs offering multiple screens (and free fringe events - godson Alexander and his new band Tumfy and the Deecers played a gig at 2am after I'd left. He says, none too approvingly, that the Fringe is really the Edinburgh Festival of Drink).

Time out in the comfort of the New Club quickly yielded to Sister Marie Keyrouz and the Ensemble de la Paix in Greyfriars Kirk. The chief virtue for me was getting to hear music inside the Kirk for the first time ever. I never went in during my university years, even though my most regular haunt in first year, the Bedlam Theatre, is as close as could be, and only once or twice walked through the extraordinary graveyard. Anyway, quick shot of the done-over interior


and of the Greyfriars Bobby merchandise.


The faithful wee doggie's grave is close to the main entrance


keeping most tourists away from the fascinating decrepitude of the rest. I don't have any details about the chapels abutting the houses to the south, but admire how buddleia and ferns thrive.




This ensemble on the north-eastern side struck me as so quintessentially Scots.


So to James II: Day of the Innocents, a late-night drink in the astonishingly transformed space of the Dick Vet College and back to the Lambtons' at Chapelgill, Broughton-by-Biggar, where we've seen the godchildren grow up over the years. Here's the beauteous Kitty, sweet 18 and soon off to Aberdeen Art College, with her new kitty Milo (I could bore you with some very cute solo kitten shots but let's leave it at this).


The next morning was taken up with review writing and other chores, but we managed an afternoon excursion to one of my favourite botanic gardens, or rather arboretum, nearby Dawyck. I always like to head up the hill via the mossy stone terraces of Sir John Naesmyth's commissioned 1830s stonework


and the view towards the (private) house, designed by William Burn to replace the one that burnt down in 1830


towards Heron Wood and the cryptogamic sanctuary. The beeches were looking lovely as ever - father Lambton is inspecting a grey squirrel in a trap at the foot of the nearest, part of a campaign to save the reds -


but there was little sign of above-ground fungal activity other than these young 'uns barely visible.


I love the mosses and lichen wrapped around, or dripping from, the silver birches at the top of the garden, but I've already shown them in all their glory in a mycological post as well as one from 2009, so here's a record of one of the oldest trees, a European larch (Larix decidua) planted in 1725. I like the idea of Naesmyth going round planting this and its like in the company of the great Linnaeus.


Nearby is the peeling bark of Betula chinensis, the Chinese dwarf birch, looking in both layers like a pianola roll (aren't the dashes purely ornamental?)


One conifer I should have noted down the name of really does boast blue cones


and the variety of greens across the valley was especially stunning at this time of year.


Must go back at the right time in spring to see the amazing blue meconopsis, which I've failed to grow down here. But that will depend on the future of Chapelgill; by then, Christopher may have moved back to Edinburgh.

After tea and cakes from Dawyck back home, it was time to catch the bus from Peebles for James III: The True Mirror and excellent fish and chips next door. This time J accompanied me back to Ruth's afterwards and we had another sunlit morning in her ineffable company before heading back for the train via lunch with Alexander in the superb Cafe de St Honoré. It won in two categories this year at the 2014 Catering in Scotland Awards - 'Sustainable Business of the Year' and 'Chef of the Year' (Neil Forbes, who uses only sustainable local produce). Check out the website, a beautiful piece of work. Over two days, J could attest to the restaurant's excellence across the board, though I'd have liked more spice and/or seasoning on my risotto. Since the diplo-mate does not permit any but the most remote of shots, here's a severed shot of our boy, much in demand now as a saxophonist, at lunch with J's hand to the right.


More on Alexander 'Betty' Lambton and Kurt Vonnegut in a post to come.

*Thanks to Sue below for banishing the 'lap'
.
**It didn't, and Europoliticians J knew didn't think it would, despite the polls. Received some quite strong pleas from the 'bettertogether' campaign which I brushed aside. Had I had the chance to vote, I would probably have abstained, if there had been a politically-active category for doing so, since the polyphony of voices pro and con never resolved for me. And from what I gathered from reading a City analyst, a 'yes' result most likely wouldn't have been a financial disaster, just have made things either a little bit better or a little bit worse.

Anyway, I'm not unhappy with the result, and nor, it seems, were many of the 'Yes' voters interviewed in Glasgow's George Square by the World Service (apart from a very unstable sounding Australian Gaelic speaker). Scotland has wrung more measures from a panicky Cameron, so - onwards and upward for that country I love so much. 

22/10 But oh, it could all turn nasty if the appalling self-interest of Cameron in threatening to limit the powers of Scots MPs in Westminster goes through. Is this man totally cut off from the real world, and so in fear of the lunatic far-righters that he would so go against popular opinion? It seems so. All the more reason, then, to carry on what 84 per cent of Scottish voters began.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Deep opera at the Frontline



25 years of loyal service and, until recently, happy collegiality at the City Literary Institute are now to be followed by something partly different, partly the same. When relations with my line manager from Visual Arts (go figure, it's a long and unedifying story) went sour, and in the bigger picture the institution betrayed its socialistic ideals by axing or severely cutting back on core courses for the deaf and unemployed, I decided enough was enough (chapter and verse in the now-open letter at the foot of the post). The prospective stress of next year wasn't an option, and so I searched around for alternative venues to teach an opera course along similar (but not, to avoid any accusations of poaching, the same) lines.

The venue I fell instantly in love with isn't cheap to hire, but it has a lecture room/theatre on the top floor which includes my vital requirements - a big screen for DVDs and an excellent sound system. The Frontline Club in Norfolk Place, several minutes' walk from Paddington station - website here, with details of the course to go on there soon - was warmly recommended by a wonderful woman at whose behest I gave a series of private lectures earlier this year, Wendy Steavenson (she and her husband David live opposite).


Earlier this summer I went to see the facilities for myself, and had quite a frisson as I sat waiting in the handsome club room, half-overhearing the other occupant on the phone about Damascus and Istanbul, and browsing through a gritty book of Syrian images just donated by the photographer, a club member.  The Frontline was set up with a very serious purpose, as a charity to help the families of those reporters who'd lost their lives in the cause of telling the truth about war zones. It's full of interesting memorabilia and clean, handsome design.

So from 6 October I'll be running a course I've called Opera in Depth, and a year dubbed War and Peace: the nature of the venue drove me back for the planned first term to a work which isn't being performed in London this season, but which should provoke plenty of interesting questions about Russia in the 19th century, the 1940s and now: Prokofiev's flawed but most encyclopedic masterpiece, Voina i Mir to the Russians. I didn't see the livescreening of Graham Vick's second production for the Mariinsky Theatre - I was there before and during the first back in 1991, when I first met and of course then very much warmed to an inspirational Valery Gergiev, shame on him now - but I hope it will be available to see. It looks very different from the oak-tree-dominated vision of 23 years ago, not to mention the more classically handsome Konchalovsky production which followed that ten years later.


Second term will be devoted entirely to Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, since Richard Jones will be rethinking his original Welsh National Opera production, featuring Bryn Terfel's role debut as a Sachs to match Norman Bailey, for ENO, and the summer will feature a new one for me in terms of lecturing, Rossini's Guillaume Tell. Normally there would be six operas a year, but these are all epics which need time. Below: the fabulous collage drop-cloth lit during the Prelude for Jones's view of Meistersinger as embracing the full breadth of German, or Germanic, culture to the present day. How many creative or recreative artists can you name?


I now have enough students to run the course and cover the costs of the venue, but I'd welcome more (the space seats up to 100). I've kept the rates to City Lit standard last year - £180 per term, which works out at £9 an hour - and the day, Monday afternoon, with a slight shift in time, owing to the Frontline's schedule, to run from 2.30 to 4.30pm. You can buy drinks at the bar and bring them in, and the restaurant on the ground floor is excellent. If you fancy any or all of the terms, or simply want to know more, I'm going to do that taboo thing of giving my email here: contact me at david.nice@usa.net. I can also send a pdf flyer with more details.

One shame is that the 'Inside the BBC Symphony Orchestra' course has bitten the dust, at least temporarily. What I want to do there is run six classes over the year linked to the works I was most looking forward to talking about, the Nielsen symphonies, with contemporary Sibelius for comparison. Student numbers depending, these will be at the church around the corner, St Andrew's Fulham Fields, which has a lecture space upstairs for rent much cheaper than the Frontline (here, of course, I wouldn't need the screen). More details likewise on request.

It saddens me, of course, to say farewell to the City Lit, which initially brought me together with The One (we met at City Lit Opera  28 years ago, singing in Act One of Bohème - he as Colline, I as Schaunard - and our relationship first flourished when we went up to Edinburgh to perform Gianni Schicchi on the fringe: thank you, godfather Giacomo). Several years later, thanks to Ma(rgaret) Gibbs, who ran the opera group, I came into the orbit of the wonderful music department: how I loved working with the three successive heads, Graham Owen, Moira Hayward (where are you, Moira?) and Janet Obi-Keller, who was effectively driven out by the changes. Julia Williams was, and is, the best and most dependable co-ordinator I've ever worked with.


I've been privileged to be able to invite great musicians to both classes. I count Richard Jones as such since he was an accomplished jazz pianist for many years (in effect still is). He came twice, first to talk about Meistersinger between the production and the Prom, and then last year to discuss Gloriana. Both these events I recorded, but for private use; I need to transcribe them. He's very funny and an accomplished, light-of-hand tease. We laughed a lot and on each visit I gave him a gift for giving of his time: initially Journeying Boy, the diaries of the young Benjamin Britten, and at the time of Gloriana, tongue in cheek , the kitschy Britten and Pears cufflinks issued for the centenary. ' I don't suppose you wear such things', I said. 'I will now', he replied. Here he is looking at them in some bewilderment.


More recently we had the generous and easy Mark Wigglesworth come to talk about conducting Parsifal.


Again, too many revelations and perceptions to summarise - a full transcript is needed - but it was also a happy occasion. I like Mark so much and I hope the feeling is mutual. If the troll known as 'AndrewandJoshua' is still lurking, here's a gift of Bad English Teeth (mine, not MW's) for him/her.


The book I gave Mark was the most painfully truthful autobiography I've ever read, Behind Closed Curtains by the great Isolde of the 1980s (and, I think, one of the best of all time), Linda Esther Gray. Linda has become a good friend since moulding the diplo-mate as a Heldentenor; we love her very much. She, too, visited the class twice. I might have used this shot before - haven't looked back - but here we are at the end of term class meal, to which of course she was invited.


While I'm on the subject, a gallery of some of the many wonderful and modest players of the BBC Symphony Orchestra who've visited the Tuesday evening class seems in order. Sadly I didn't take snaps of visiting composers Mark-Anthony Turnage and Judith Weir (whose visit I missed owing to illness), but many of the orchestral musicians are here. First, the only one of the four quartets I photographed - others were two sets of violas and the Merchant Quartet. The Helikon Quartet have had to put their playing on hold due to the great news that Rachel Samuel and Graham Bradshaw, to the right, got together (married? I hesitate to assume) and had a child. To the left are Patrick Wastnage and Nikos Zarb, who've visited on other occasions too.


Other string combinations were a duo, Mark Sheridan and Donald Walker with his lion-headed double bass


and a trio who gave us such rich programmes (Martinů, Dohnányi, Mozart): Anna Smith (whose grin I love in the Arts Desk photo of Elektra between Goerke's heroine and Felicity Palmer as a manically triumphant Clytemnestra), Kate Read and Michael Atkinson.


Not pictured, but no less treasured among other string players are brilliant youngster Peter Mallinson, Celia Waterhouse and Danny Meyer, who introduced me to Igudesman and Joo (don't miss their Barbican appearance on Monday week); among brass players, several visits from horn doyen Chris Larkin and trumpeter Martin Hurrell, who could have an alternative career as a standup comedian and who has often come with his lovely partner Liz Burley, the BBCSO's consummate resident pianist and celesta player; among wind, shakuhachi and flute exponent Richard Stagg, my oboe hero Richard Simpson and a wind trio of young clarinettist James Burke, Alison Teale whose cor anglais solos have been so melting a part of the concert scene and long-serving bassoonist Graham Sheen. The ones I can show you are erstwhile contrabassoon principal Clare Glenister*


and our most recent visitor Katherine Lacy, who played amazing rep on several clarinets including the solo movement from Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time (here she's holding the bass variety in the company of the most delightful if small class - half aren't present in the pic - I've ever had the pleasure to teach. Two, by the way, are budding composers).


Last but not least came Sioned Williams, one of the world's great harpists and also the most sincere and compelling of speakers. I've already written about her most recent visit here, and rather than repeat the images, here's another of composer Paul Patterson with Sioned trying to persuade husband Ali, her 'tecchie' for the evening, to come in to the picture. Don't miss Sioned's Southbank recital on 14 October of works she's commissioned for her big birthday. She's offered to come and talk about it/play a bit after the event at St Andrew's. If I can get the numbers for it, this could open the door to more player visits.


Those are the happy memories, as are all the classes and the countless students who have become good friends, among the departed, Trude Winik, Martin Zam, Elaine Bromwich and Naomi Weaver. The writing was on the wall about the changed City Lit when I wanted to have tributes to Elaine and Martin on the website to show what adult education was all about, and was told this would be 'sending out the wrong message to students'. Nothing has been too much trouble in honour of them and their kind (and yes, I've had a few pains, but they've always been a very small minority).

The grim note is something you don't have to bother with, but should you have the patience to read on, just for the record this is what I wrote as a letter of resignation. I see no reason why it shouldn't be public knowledge. I got a curt 'thank you for your service' reply from the offending tutor, and nothing from any of the other City Lit staff I ccd, including the principal and the acting head of music. The final death-blow to the likelihood of returning came this week when I found out from another tutor that in mid-August the music appreciation courses had  returned to their rightful home - and nobody told me. The new opera course is a done deal, but I could have reinstated the BBCSO course as I said I'd have been willing to do under these very circumstances. Too bad. Anyway, here's the resignation letter.

After 25 years, 23 of them in very happy harmony with the administration of the music department, I have come to the painful decision to leave the City Lit. In the past two months especially I have found the situation unpleasant and stressful with what from my perspective feels like bureaucratic bullying.

There is no point itemizing here why I feel I have been so badly treated. I have already responded in detail to several emails from you which in my opinion were unacceptable; if anyone ccd wishes for further chapter and verse, I am happy to provide them. Those earlier responses, like many others when I had a criticism to make in return for what I felt were unjust conclusions, were ignored – one of them not only by you, but also by your own line managers. 

It was never satisfactorily explained why the incredibly popular music appreciation courses were moved from the Music Department, where they so obviously belong, to visual arts. The whole thing began with a falsehood, demonstrable in the email exchanges: you claimed the superlative Head of Music, Janet Obi-Keller, needed help with the burden of the courses she was dealing with, while she strenuously fought against the change. The way she was pushed out of the City Lit, whoever may have been responsible, was a disgrace.

In my opinion these courses need to be returned to the Music Department as soon as possible, in which case I would certainly consider teaching at the City Lit again. As it is, our email correspondence has escalated from being a cause of irritation to an untenable feeling of anger on my part – hence the belated decision to withdraw.

The latest wrangle began over what I perceived as mishandling of the blurb I sent for the opera courses. What you, or the City Lit admin, came up with - composers' names, not the titles of the operas - was indeed 'nonsense' as it made no sense. But you objected to my tone.

The last straw for me was the e-mail you sent on 23 June listing points which you expected me to abide by were I to teach next academic year. There were reasonable as well as unreasonable expectations, but even the former were insulting. What do my years of service and the glowing reports of the majority of students mean if not that I am already carrying out what you expect on the quality front?

You need to treat lecturers with decades of experience more respectfully. As I wrote before, we should be working together, not as inflexible boss and humble employee.

Perhaps you should pay more attention to what the students think. Mine were very emotional yesterday when I told them I would not be returning; two were even in tears. Students' voices in general have not been sufficiently heard in the current unhappy situation. It's time to shift the focus.

Yours very regretfully,

David Nice

*From one of the many supportive emails sent by BBCSO players, I learned that Clare has just complete her UCLA Scandinavian studies (BA in Norwegian) and is writing a Nordic crime novel. And now the good news is that she's joining the Nielsen/Sibelius classes I've set up at the church round the corner - as a student..