Slipped disc: April 2009 Archives
I'm on my way down, heavily flu-stricken, to St Martin-in-the-Fields to read a poem by William Blake at the memorial service for my friend Ewen Balfour. Somehow, I don't think it's going to be a solemn occasion. With Ewen, it never was.
Ewen was one of those people who made things work so well that you only noticed they were hanging by a thread when he stepped out of the frame. As director of public affairs at the Royal Opera House in the late 1980s he defused local opposition to the restoration, sneaked Princess Diana in when Prince Charles was not around, tranquilised a restive press and was so incredibly effective at managing relationships that, when he was sacked by a new boss, Jeremy Isaacs, the opera house fell apart faster than an atom at Los Alamos. When I came around to chronicle its collapse, Ewen was selectively indiscreet but never judgemental of those who had done him wrong.
He went on to launch Valery Gergiev at the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra which, like the ROH, spiralled into nonentity after Ewen's departure. For the next 15 years he handled a range of accounts for Brunswick, the public relations group. His influence reached into the most surprising places, the Prime Minister's office for one, and whenever Ewen rang to see if I might 'possibly accommodate him for lunch', I always knew the time would not be wasted.
He was such fun, his laugh so infectious, his joy at great art so naive that one was forced to step back and look at it again. He was the great, or possibly great-great, nephew of the founder of what would become the state of Israel, but he never traded on his family's political past and never treated anyone other than for what they were. In an occupation that invents image, Ewen was scrupulous with truth. He died in December and you can read an obit here.
I shall read William Blake for him this morning if it croaks the last of my voice.
The reputation of Bob Dylan as poet and musician hangs by the thinnest of threads in the course of his UK tour. There were 200,000 applications for 2,000 Roundhouse tickets in the first hour they went on sale, but those who got left on the outside were not necessarily the unlucky ones.
Dylan, 68, no longer playing guitar due to reported arthritis, banged a keyboard and mumbled his way through Tangled Up in Blue and other legacy numbers, adding little by way of musical development. His face hidden beneath a broad-brimmed hat, he seemed intent on giving the audience as little as he could - and this was supposed to be an intimate event, the best section reserved by invitation only for Bob's few hundred best friends.
As the set wore on, monotony set in. The Bobcats seemed to be enjoying themselves - one fellow behind me had seen 50 Dylan shows since he was 16 years old - but those who remember Dylan in his extended prime were left wondering if there is much left beyond an urge to mangle his works: they're mine, I can wreck 'em if I please.
Some were doubtless having a better time than I did, but there was no joy to the occasion, no sense of re-creation bo conjoining of artist and audience, just a wander down a rather derelict memory lane. Like a Rolling Stone was something of a highlight, but that may have been a nod to former glory nights in this converted railway shed, a memory all the more dispiriting in ts present travesty.
What was Dylan giving us? Never a leader in customer care, or a seeker of eye contact, he was always prone to drone into his armpit. That self-alienation has now reached a clinical point where you have to ask, what the hell's he doing there?
A poet exists to articulate words in unusual combinations. Dylan sounded at times like a dowager who had left her teeth on the bedside table. Entire songs flowed by without a discernible phrase.
A musician is meant to excite the ear with variable tones and intervals. Dylan was monotonous, over-amplified and negligent in everything but rhythm. The cult endures but the words and music came a very distant second.
I guess he'd come back with 'don't criticise what you can't understand', but there are no hidden mysteries here. It's just an icon of a bygone age growing old disgruntledly.
More, in fact, than is strictly within the rules since the contest doesn't open until next Monday.
There is a measure of sanity to this madcap game. I hate convoluted opera plots and classical farces with characters hidden in shrubbery. Any opera that can't be summarised in 140 characters should never get onto a stage.
Here's a couple of samplers, for starters:
Salome: 'Bring me that man's head on a plate,' she says, dancing. Sad stripper gets what she ordered.
Jenufa: Village full of inbred bigots. Girl has baby. Granny drowns it. She gets nicked. Have another drink.
Six weeks ago, I saw Stephen Sondheim's earliest stage work in a pocket West End theatre and was so excited by it that I concluded the review by saying it was worth seeing twice.
Needless to say, that observation went up in lights on the billboards and the show has since upgraded to a slightly less cramped space, the Arts Theatre. But the remark preyed on my consicence, so I decided to test whether the show was, indeed, worth seeing a second time.
First time round, I said it was based on a theatrical flop, Front Porch in Flatbush. Sondheim gently corrected me. It was not a flop, he mailed. It never even reached the stage.
You can see why. A play about Brooklyn singles in early 1929 has little relevance other than a pregnant connection to the subsequent market crash. That, on first sight, was its compelling contemporary attraction.
Second time round, I saw it as an important sketch for Sondheim's Company - and something more. The show is built around charismatic Gene (David Ricardo-Pearce) who knows he is destined for greater things than Brooklyn and crashes Saturday night parties in the heart of Manhattan.
Gene is surrounded by envious, tolerant friends who bail him out of almost every kind of trouble. He is the light of their lives, but not their leader. He is chosen but not trusted, loved but not well liked.
What does that remind you of? If the President of the United States has a spare couple of hours in London, he ought to catch Saturday Night at the Arts Theare. Nothing personal to this particular president. It just stuck me that America chooses its leaders in much the same way that Sondheim characterises Gene - as the life and soul of the nation, hedged with checks and balances and not fully trusted to lead. I hope I am not reading too much into the work of a 24 year-old debutant but, yes, Saturday Night is worth seeing twice. It is a microcosm of American social and political mores.
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Terry Teachout on the arts in New York City
Andrew Taylor on the business of arts & culture
rock culture approximately
Laura Collins-Hughes on arts, culture and coverage
Richard Kessler on arts education
Douglas McLennan's blog
Dalouge Smith advocates for the Arts
Art from the American Outback
For immediate release: the arts are marketable
No genre is the new genre
David Jays on theatre and dance
Paul Levy measures the Angles
Judith H. Dobrzynski on Culture
John Rockwell on the arts
Jan Herman - arts, media & culture with 'tude
Apollinaire Scherr talks about dance
Tobi Tobias on dance et al...
Howard Mandel's freelance Urban Improvisation
Focus on New Orleans. Jazz and Other Sounds
Doug Ramsey on Jazz and other matters...
Jeff Weinstein's Cultural Mixology
Martha Bayles on Film...
Fresh ideas on building arts communities
Greg Sandow performs a book-in-progress
Exploring Orchestras w/ Henry Fogel
Harvey Sachs on music, and various digressions
Bruce Brubaker on all things Piano
Kyle Gann on music after the fact
Greg Sandow on the future of Classical Music
Norman Lebrecht on Shifting Sound Worlds
Jerome Weeks on Books
Scott McLemee on books, ideas & trash-culture ephemera
Wendy Rosenfield: covering drama, onstage and off
Chloe Veltman on how culture will save the world
Public Art, Public Space
Regina Hackett takes her Art To Go
John Perreault's art diary
Lee Rosenbaum's Cultural Commentary
Tyler Green's modern & contemporary art blog