If this is your first time here, you’re probably looking for me either in a maths or a music context, as my two lifelong loves rarely overlap.

For details of my maths education work and writing, go to this page.

For my background as a performing musician, go to this page.

Otherwise, enjoy the blog…

I have a lecture coming up with a class of trainee maths teachers, on addressing and supporting special educational needs – particularly SpLDs (dyslexia, dyspraxia), ADHD, autistic spectrum and mental health issues. Anyone among my contacts have one of these diagnoses yourself*, and feel moved to share your opinions/experience?

If you can spare the time, I would really like to know if, as an adult, you still remember anything from your *own* experience of school maths that was particularly helpful OR unhelpful for your particular pattern of strengths/weaknesses. What did teachers do right? And wrong? Also, do you remember finding anything on the maths curriculum particularly easy / difficult / interesting / distressing / etc?

Your chance to influence the next generation of maths teachers… what would you like to say to them?

Message me privately, comment below if you prefer, facebook, twitter, whatever. Any quotes will be anonymous, obvs.

* Although parents, friends, etc. of kids with SEN often (rightly) have strong opinions, for this I’m only interested in first-hand experiences.

2014 has been a bit quiet in terms of posts. By which I mean I’ve managed one review. In January. Since then, been to a couple of operas and a handful of Proms, but no time/energy to write about them while still even vaguely fresh in my memory. Also promised two book reviews, which have as yet failed to materialise (although these I can at least reread to refresh). In case one of my very many* readers was concerned, I haven’t been ill (well, no more than usual) or away, just final stages of doctoral thesis taking over my life, followed by job hunting, followed by new job. While playing more operas than I saw, including a Strauss hat trick (go decades having played zero Strauss operas, then three come along in the same year…)

* not very many

Also late posting this term’s concert diary, but hey.

Saffron Opera Group: Meistersinger

Wagner  Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (concert performance)

Time  2.00pm Sunday 14 September

Place  Saffron Hall, Saffron Walden, Essex

Edinburgh Players Opera Group: no longer just Wagnerians…

Richard Strauss  Der Rosenkavalier (concert performance)

Time  11.00am Sunday 28 September

Place  Portobello Town Hall, Edinburgh

Tickets  £15 requested donation

Philharmonia Britannica: Great Film Music

Klaus Badelt  Pirates of the Carribean
AJ Lerner & F Loewe  My Fair Lady
John Williams  Star Wars Suite
John Williams  Harry Potter Suite
John Williams  Schindler’s List
H Arlen & EY Harburg  Somewhere Over the Rainbow

Time  6.00pm Saturday 4 October

Place  St John’s Waterloo, SE1 8UD

Tickets  £5, £1 (U19s)

Fulham Opera Orchestral Workshop: Elektra

Two-day orchestral workshop on Richard Strauss’s Elektra, followed by evening play-through. Cast including Zoe South in title role – further info at fulhamopera.com

Time  Saturday 11 – Sunday 12 October

Place  All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak NW3 2JP

Tickets  £15/day (participation) or £10 (audience)

Fulham Opera: Falstaff

Verdi Falstaff (fully staged, reduced orchestration)

Time  7pm Friday 7 Nov, 5pm Sunday 9 Nov, 7pm Friday 14 Nov, 5pm Sunday 16 November

Place  St Johns Church, North End Rd, London SW6 1PB

Tickets  £25 (concessions £20) from fulhamopera.com

Amici Orchestra

Mendelssohn Hebrides Overture
Saint-Saens Symphony No.2
Beethoven Symphony No.4

Time  7.30pm Thursday 3 July

Place  St Gabriel’s Church, Pimlico, SW1V 2AD

No tickets – retiring collection in aid of Macmillan Cancer Support.

Whitehall Orchestra with Idil Biret

Rimsky-Korsakov  Scheherezade
Brahms Piano concerto No.1

Time  7.30pm Saturday 22 November

Place  St John’s Smith Square, SW1P 3HF

Tickets  £8/£10/£12/£15 – book online

Fulham Opera Orchestral Workshop: Siegfried Act 3

One-day orchestral workshop on Wagner’s Siegfried (Act 3), followed by evening play-through. Cast including Jonathan Finney in title role – further info at fulhamopera.com

** PLACES AVAILABLE IN STRINGS AND BRASS (RESERVE LIST FOR WOODWIND) – CONTACT ME IF INTERESTED **

Time  Sunday 7 December

Place  All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak NW3 2JP

Tickets  £15 (participation) or £10 (audience)

Philharmonia Britannica: Italian Arias

Rossini  Overture to Barber of Seville
Mozart  ‘Parto, parto’ from ‘La Clemenza di Tito’
Verdi  Violetta and Germont duet from ‘La Traviata’
Mozart  ‘Soave il vento’ from ‘Così fan tutte’
Beethoven  Symphony No.6 (“Pastoral”)

Time  7.30pm Friday 13 June

Place  St James’s Church, Picadilly W1J 9LL

Tickets  £15, £12 (concs), £5 (U19s)

Whitehall Orchestra

Suk  Scherzo Fantastique
Bruch Violin concerto No.1 in Gm (with Peter Fisher)
Stravinsky Petrushka

Time  7.30pm Thursday 3 July

Place  St Gabriel’s Church, Pimlico SW1V 2AD
http://bit.ly/StGabriels

Tickets  £10 (concessions £7) – Book online or contact us

Kensington Philharmonic Orchestra
with Janis Kelly, Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Sam Furness, Jonathan Best, and the St Albans Bach Choir

Verdi Requiem

Times/Places
7.30pm Saturday 12 July at Cadogan Hall
7.30pm Saturday 19 July at St Albans Abbey

ROH Don Giovanni image

Image borrowed from http://www.roh.org.uk

Oo, a new production of Don Giovanni at Covent Garden! And a kind friend acquired me a ticket to the dress rehearsal. Who wants to know what it looks like? (Plot and production *SPOILERS*, obviously, along with some armchair psychiatry.)

It looks like the design team have been watching Complicité productions, Sherlock, and pop music videos. Not that I disapprove – I like to watch these things myself.

I like things with interesting visual presentation, stylish imagery, maybe a bit deconstructed in their recurring themes, and yes, I’m a complete sucker for multimodal effects, so I was charmed by the overture, which opened on what appeared to be the outside of a building, on different sections of which lists of names (grouped by nationality) began to appear, first slowly, then faster, until it was covered in tiny scrawlings. This theme of obsessive listing appeared at intervals in the production, with the visualised notebook pages descending progressively into disarray, with scribbles, underlinings, angrily scratched-out names, and doodles of ladies’ eyes, bottoms, etc. This was good. Sometimes individual characters had their name projected onto one of the (bedroom?) doors of the building – and I kind of wanted there to be a few text observations floating in the air around freeze-framed characters (Elvira: romantic, delusional, stalks her exes, 3 pet cats? Ottavio: romantic, loyal, crippling anxiety attacks, smokes French tobacco? Etc.) I suppose that would have been too gimmicky…

In terms of physical set, the centre building rotated, and the four orientations provided various doors, windows, rooms and balconies with which to set the many scenes. And a set of stairs, the frequent running up and down of which will have kept the cast well-exercised. Variety was provided by projecting different video graphics onto the flat surfaces – as well as the writing, there were different colours and patterns, rain effects, and an eye-watering geometric vortex that should probably have carried a Health&SafetyWarning for migraine sufferers. The projections worked best when they highlighted different characters active in different areas (e.g. downstairs someone singing an aria, upstairs, the person they were singing about), and there were some very appealing chiaroscuro effects. However, the novelty wore off, or perhaps the effects in Act 2 just weren’t as appealing; I just wished the damn house would stop spinning and sit still, and wondered if there’d be some computer-generated hellfire effects at the end. (There weren’t.)

Director Kaspar Holten sees Don Giovanni as “an artist” whose “catalogue of sexual conquests is a vain attempt to escape his own mortality” , while Mariusz Kwiecien (title role) describes him as feeling his age, melancholy, and with ebbing energy. This didn’t really come across to me – perhaps because Kwiecien naturally has more physical energy on stage than, er, some opera singers – or perhaps because I came in, as most of us do, with a preconceived view: I think of him as a superficially charming psychopath*, sex addict, and compulsive collector (of certain experiences). On the subject of which, I was also interested to read that Kwiecien imagines Giovanni as (maybe) bisexual (“He’s tried all sorts of women, maybe men too” – Telegraph) – and to be honest, I’m surprised I’ve never seen that portrayed on stage. He (character, not singer) seems equal-opportunities enough with regard to age, size, and plenty of other personal attributes in his partners, so why not gender? I expect that the society of the time/place would have been even less approving of a little black book of Antonios and Elvises (or maybe not – historians, feel free to correct me), so Leporello might have to keep that one out of sight rather than showing it around.

* Casual armchair diagnosis of fictional characters’ psychological disorders doesn’t have to be DSM5-compliant.

One can’t help rating various DGs on how credible they are as master seducers (and unlike the route taken by some other productions, it was very clear that this one’s conquests were consensual). ‘Barihunk’ Kwiecien was stalking around the stage in his flapping designer coat, doing the posh moody arrogant thing (complete with put-upon sidekick) that ladies are supposed to go for, but the attraction wasn’t quite making it back as far as us in amphi row N. Until Deh vieni alla finestra, that is, which sounded so lovely that one member of the cast literally walked up to him and took all her clothes off. I don’t like to say too much about the singing at rehearsals, but while this aria was a highlight (as was my favourite bit, where the Commendatore returns), all the cast were solid, particularly Véronique Gens’s Elvira and Alexander Tsymbalyuk’s Commendatore). The orchestra were spot-on throughout, although some of Nicola Luisotti’s tempi were too slow for my taste. I’m not a connoisseur of continuo parts, but Luisotti (fortepiano), Paul Wingfield (harpsichord) and George Ives (cello) really breathed life and interest into their moments in the spotlight. Ottavio fans (are there any?) will be pleased that he got two arias; purists (of which there are many) will be annoyed by the chunk lopped out of the final scene (post-death, pre-chorus).

Those Covent Garden patrons familiar with the somewhat unsubtle but satisfying Zambello production might also be disappointed by the lack of Actual Stuff On Fire at the end. This version seemed to be placing the Descent to Hell, along with the ambulant Statue of Murder Victim, in the realm of Giovanni’s hallucinating imagination, and Leporello’s fear seemed to be not of the haunting, but of seeing his master lose his grip on sanity. At the end he is broken and isolated from other humans. Fair enough. Although I do slightly miss the adrenaline rush of wondering if I’d die fried by an out-of-control operatic flaming dinner sauna.

Stray observations:

Anna was definitely keen on Giovanni at the beginning, but confusingly, seemed to know perfectly well who he was, and appeared to go back for a second shag even after discussing him being her father’s murderer. Maybe she’s a psychopath too? She didn’t seem that upset by dad’s death, and manipulated and lied to Ottavio without batting an eyelid.

As an unexpected take on the problematic Batti, batti, Zerlina seemed to be proposing a BDSM session with her betrothed.

 

WORKSHOP with Philharmonia Britannica: Schubert 9

Day workshop on Schubert’s 9th Symphony “The Great”, finishing with an informal performance of the piece.

Time  5.30pm Saturday 11 January

Place  London Welsh Centre, 157-163 Gray’s Inn Road, London WC1X 8UE

Tickets  Free entry, exit donation.

** Spaces still available in some sections – message me if interested **

Fulham Opera: Ring Cycles 

See fulhamopera.com for dates/times/prices/casts of individual operas and two full cycles (each over 6 days).

Place  St Johns Church, North End Rd, London SW6 1PB

(NB am only in Siegfried & Götterdämmerung)

Whitehall Orchestra: Beethoven 9

d’Albert  Cello Concerto (with Raphael Wallfisch)
Beethoven  9th Symphony (with Rebecca Goulden, Anna Harvey, Stephen Aviss, Richard Walshe, and The Bach Choir)

Time  7.30pm Saturday 29 March

Place  St John’s Smith Square, SW1P 3HA

http://bit.ly/StJohnsSS

Tickets  £15/£12/£10/£8 – buy online and choose your seat!

Image borrowed from www.roh.org.uk

Image borrowed from http://www.roh.org.uk

In brief: Berg’s Wozzeck – what a piece! How has it taken me so long to get around to hearing it? The ROH Orchestra – fab! Warner’s staging – meh. Keenlyside – yep, still has it.

In long:

Sometimes I think my reactions to music are not, well, normal*. I was thinking this the other night while watching a grim post-apocalyptic drama on TV, during a scene which the composer had scored with a delightful 1960s-analogue-style microtonal electroacoustic soundscape. It had interesting textures and shapes, a pleasing scrunch to the pitch combinations, and a nostalgic touch of BBC Radiophonic Workshop about it. Then I looked at the protagonists on screen, creeping around some creepy dilapidated post-apocalyptic building, probably about to be jumped on by a creepy post-apocalyptic monster, and realised that the composer had probably intended the soundtrack to create an unsettling effect in me, rather than a pleasing and nostalgic one. And that a well-respected professional composer has probably achieved their standing by pushing the correct contextual feelings-buttons for the majority of people. (Having said that, a lot of Rachmaninov makes me feel queasy, and I don’t suppose he intended that.)

* Like I care.

Anyway, that TV show was not particularly compelling drama for me, however much I liked the music, and I’m afraid to say, the same goes for this Wozzeck. Similarly, for large stretches, the happenings on stage did not seem to gel with, or be particularly connected to, the score. What a score, though! I loved the richness of colour and texture (in huge contrast to the dull, dirty, white-tiled, mostly monochrome staging), he imaginative instrumentation, and the well-balanced architectural structure of the work (extremely well-paced and balanced by conductor Mark Elder). To me, a major part of the genius of composers like Berg is their ability to balance on a knife-edge between atonalism and (tonal) chromaticism. (Yes, there are no macro-scale key centres, but there are temporary ones, creating harmonic flow and tension, and leitmotifs for continuity.) I find this a particularly beautiful thing when done right. It was also wrenchingly tragic at times, particularly the orchestral interlude before the final scene, which, while obviously stylistically different, functioned similarly to Siegfried’s Funeral March.

Of course, having not heard the piece before, there might have been hundreds of wrong notes for all I know; I doubt it, though. I hesitate to pick out any individuals from an orchestra sounding so good, but there were some stand-outs – the tuba, for example! All the bassy things had sublime moments, in fact – double bass and bassoon sections, especially contra. Listening out for the flute section, as I always do, there was a lovely languid sensuality to be heard in the 1st flute solos, and a fun bit of whirling offstage piccolo caught my ear. Also, full props to the clarinettist in the onstage tavern band for his excellent warped, drunken, jazz-Mahler sleaziness.

Oh, did you want something about the singers?

I’m a fairly long-term fan of Simon Keenlyside, and it’s been too damn long since I last caught him doing his thing. Said ‘thing’ being singing beautifully and emotively while also throwing himself bodily, to an extent not matched by anyone else I can think of, into whatever the plot, staging and direction demand of him (which is usually quite a lot). Sometimes it’s fun athletic stuff like swinging from scaffolding, jumping over furniture, or scaling high walls with a rope (Billy Budd, James Bond Don Giovanni), sometimes rolling around on the floor in physical expression of emotional torment (Hamlet, Posa in Don Carlo, Oreste in Iphigenie, Winston in 1984). And that’s just off the top of my head – if you think of more, please do add them in the comments. Anyway, this production required him to be given an enema by John Tomlinson (ok, it’s pretend, but still, ick), and then to spend the last 20 minutes or so of the performance underwater (not pretend as far as I could tell – it was a glass tank full of liquid, in the middle of the stage, and he was definitely in it). Commitment.

Karita Mattila was a strong, full-bodied Marie, doing what she had to do to keep her kid fed, and occasionally managing to squeeze a little enjoyment out of life, despite the crushing weight of societal expectation and religious guilt. She also managed to make Sprechstimme a lot less annoying than I usually find it, which is an achievement. John Tomlinson was doing his usual (late-career) Bad Santa thing, which I thought was a little too much with the buffoonishness and not enough with the nastiness for the Doctor role.

Like I said, the set was mostly a large, dull whitish laboratory, in which poor soldier Wozzeck is poked, prodded, constantly insulted, and given beans to eat for extra pay. (NB If anyone wants to pay me to eat my beans, that could be a nice little earner. I like beans.) Taking one of Marie’s lines literally  – something like “we poor people only have a tiny corner of the world”, a small corner of the stage was painted black and designated her home (thus ensuring that people in the Left Slips seats would risk !Health & Safety! by standing up and leaning over the railing to see, every time a key interaction was set there). Marie also commented that she only had a tiny mirror, whereas the stage had a huge tilted mirror at the back, allowing them occasionally to do visually effective set-pieces with reflections of beds, peasants and bloodstains. I’m an opera fan, so I don’t mind if characters are singing about throwing/retrieving their knife in a lake, but actually drop it on the floor then jump in a fishtank; there was some water – close enough. Likewise, characters singing about hearing a voice in the darkness, when the person in question is quite silent and spotlighted right in front of them; I’m just happy the red blood-effect gave me some colour to look at, at last.

I can’t quite put my finger on why this production worked so well for me musically but not dramatically, despite the excellent leads – I think overall, it was the sense of disconnectedness between stage and pit. The last time this happened so severely was Pierrot-pants Pelleas. Anyway, I look forward to hearing the music again, and perhaps comparing different productions in the future…

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