Jem Muharrem

Words on thought, art and music

Infallible judgement: Dave Hickey, classical music and the critical state

TWO old ladies were overheard in the lift going down to the car park of Sydney City Recital Hall following a performance of Hartmann’s Concerto Funèbre by violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja and the Australian Chamber Orchestra. One said to the other, “I enjoyed that. I think it was good…but let’s wait and see what the critics say tomorrow.”


The American culture critic Dave Hickey quit the art world this week. He told The Observer that art editors and critics had become a courtier class, hostage to rich collectors “who have no respect for what they are doing”. Mr Hickey said that more collectors are employing arts consultants to tell them what is great art, instead of relying on their own opinion.

“What can I tell you? It’s nasty and it’s stupid. I’m an intellectual and I don’t care if I’m not invited to the party. I quit,” he said.

dave hickey

Hickey said that the art world had become self-reverential and money-obsessed

Mr Hickey’s particular reasons for quitting, and his opinions on the “calcified”‘ state of modern art have been well documented (see the full article here). What I am concerned with is the role of the critic, and what it is that we might be losing in such a figure as Mr Hickey.

I am going to list a few questions playing on my mind.

Critics…Who are they?  Do we rely on them? Should we? What are their motives?

What is Mr Hickey’s motive in being an art critic? What does he want to achieve with his write-ups? Occupying that hallowed junction where expertise meets taste, does he want to be an arbiter? Is it his place?

A critic cannot be a blind initiate; this can lead to mere hagiography or advertorial. Even when it is severely negative, the scathing review is itself a kind of passion for the art-form which the reviewer feels has been marred by the work in question. But Mr Hickey has gone a step further in his throwing in of the towel. It is not a dislike of an artist or a work, but a wholesale rejection of the entire art world. It’s a pretty serious state of affairs for the doyen of US critics to say, and I re-quote: “I’m an intellectual and I don’t care if I’m not invited to the party. I quit.” He says that collectors have consultants tell them what is great art, instead of relying on their own opinions…or should it be his?

What has been lost? The art is still going to be there, isn’t it? So we’ve lost a point of view, an erudite and deep one, but one person’s opinion nonetheless…Will art suffer? Will our appreciation or even our ability to appreciate it suffer? Will his quitting affect the creation of art and its future trajectory?

There have been a lot of question marks in this introduction, mostly rhetorical, and I hope they’ll make your synapses buzz as much as mine have been.

With art and the case of Hickey, what I admire is that the very genre is being questioned, even repudiated. In the classical music sphere, there is no such similarity. When is the last time a music critic stood up in such a way? Unquestionable, the genre is king…Can this be termed the “calcification” of music?


ernest newman in 1905

Newman believed in the ‘infallible judgement’ of the critic to arbitrate on new compositions

Musical criticism has moved towards a differentiation between general music criticism and performance criticism. Historically, reviews often concentrate on judging (mostly new) compositions. Here is Ernest Newman’s take on the Proms in 1931:

“Programmes are mostly given up to works of the most familiar kind. There has been during the past week a Wagner night, a Beethoven night, a Brahms night and a Tchaikovski (sic) night; and as none of these composers have written much lately, there have been no new works for the critic to exercise his infallible judgement upon.”

The goalposts certainly have changed. Today, the decline in the performance of contemporary music has led critics to concentrate on performing artists; earlier, music was heard fresh from the composing desk, often performed by the composer themselves.  Thus critics would concentrate on the work, not its execution. Then, it was OK to say what you liked about music already accepted into the canon, but now that works are performed canonically, critics aren’t expected to praise Schubert or excoriate Tchaikovsky (like when Hanslick said that Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto gave “for the first time the hideous notion that there can be music that stinks to the ear”) but to focus on the performer.

As the canon of classics calcified, thanks in part to music critics, repeat performances highlighted the extent to which each performer contributed uniquely to the experience of the music. Nowadays, critics with axes to grind or with personal theories about the music itself aren’t taken seriously. The performer and the performance are the things to be scrutinised, not the work. It is accepted, and correct, that the performer adds his or her thoughts and personality to a work, and all are worthy in their own way; the concept of the canon is unequivocal, and is here to stay. Just like art’s deification of certain individuals – Hirst, Emin, et al – music, driven with critics and the media, creates it own pantheon; where, in certain circles, a rich, high-demand “star” might not be the most talented, the most profound, but seems to keep people’s attention.

Is this calcification of the canon good or bad for music? Of course, visual art and music are not the same, but music, canonically, is no longer questioned. This perpetuates absolutes, and this then squeezes interpretations, viewpoints, perhaps even the creation of new works into a fixed space, perhaps precluding the opportunity of breaking these bonds and discovering new vistas. Therefore, Mr Hickey, I applaud you.


It is certainly a time of change for specialist critics these days. The New York Times recently removed Allan Kozinn from his position as music critic and reassigned him as general cultural reporter; over the past few years, critics’ jobs have been eliminated, downgraded or redefined at papers across the world.

classical twitter

Social media has certainly impacted not only critics but cultural consumption in general

The role of social media, which thrives on argument, not consensus, has certainly impacted the critic. A twitter feed of professionals and non-professionals who freely trade opinions with rapier-speed and passion moves away from the burden of traditionally proscribed cultural consumption. The critic of old did not enter into dialogue, and we no longer accept the authority of critics unless they engage with us. No longer can thousands of words be lavished on a concert review, but 140 characters still can…Can you image George Bernard Shaw being re-tweeted?

Criticism involves having a reaction to a work of art, and then trying to understand and account for that reaction. There’s something hauntingly sensual about this performance – what is it? This piece gives me a feeling of the eternal – why?

Directly engaging with others, whether through the review or the tweet, will help us find maybe not consensus, but more questions and thus an expansion of our ability to listen, analyse and appreciate.


Plebs: Classical Musicians and their audiences (It’s not just Andrew Mitchell…)

Classical musicians must cultivate relationships and understanding with audience members at a personal level if they want their art-form to thrive

I think deeply about the relationship between classical musicians and their audience.

Unlike folk or jazz  audiences, whose interactions – clapping, singing, dancing, heckling –  go a long way to giving those forms a living identity, a context, an ethos, forging links between performer/audience member, our audiences are often altogether excised from the act of performance. The no-man’s-land between the symphony orchestra and the first row is ineffably bigger than just a few feet.

The audience are expected to sit reverentially, silently, and to politely (not too enthusiastically, please) applaud after often nearly an hour. They are then scowled at (I have seen this often) by a row of grim-faced violinists raised begrudgingly to their feet by the conductor at the end of the performance. It is no wonder that a gulf seems to exist between us.

A colleague told me about when she once played as an extra with one of the top London orchestras. The orchestral manager came out to brief the musicians, and after the requisite information was given, the manager congratulated the musicians on a fabulous concert the previous evening and said that “the audience just loved it”. A principal woodwind player said out loud, with relish: “What do we care what they think?”

I have also been guilty of laughing with colleagues about innocent questions or comments made by earnest, less-informed audience members during the interval or after a gig. I have seen musicians roll their eyes after being congratulated by a member of the public. And ex-Conservative chief whips aside, I have often heard non-musicians described as plebs…

In difficult economic times, music and the arts suffer, as does everything else. Musicians, after dedicating a substantial part of their life mastering their craft, feel underrated, underpaid, misunderstood; funding is being cut, jobs are being lost. I was on trial with the Scottish Opera in 2011 just after their working year got cut down to just 26 weeks. I met the then principal trumpeter on his valedictory tour, after which he was stepping down following decades in the job to start an entry-level office job outside of music, just to be able to provide for his family. Times are hard…

This is exactly the time to coax out an attitude change.

During times of uncertainty, it can be very easy to begin to resent the amorphous, hundred-headed mass that sits out there in the dark watching us during our work hours.

Classical music is elitist: so goes the adage. This is normally said in reference to audiences – often older, richer – and to the whole nineteenth-century ethos, from our garb to the strange rituals and the frowns you get if you cough; that’s a whole other matter that I won’t expand on here. Yet if they’re not careful, the musicians themselves can put up barriers with their own audience. I am not tarring all with the same brush, but it is fair to say the attitude is prevalent.

There are many, many initiatives and organisations out there that try to bring audiences closer to music. My own beloved Southbank Sinfonia has regular rush-hour concerts most Thursdays at 6pm where entry and alcohol is free; the orchestra are at ground level with the audience and members of the orchestra stand up and introduce each piece, giving a human, personal touch to each work. This is a wonderful, inclusive ritual, and I know first hand that the audience love it.  This is one of myriad initiatives by arts organisations to bring in audiences. It fosters knowledge, understanding and empathy and above all, loyalty in the punters.

The author with George Salter of The Academy of St Martin in the Fields at a Southbank Sinfonia rehearsal, 2010

What classical music needs is for its practitioners – the rank-and-file string players, the second clarinettist, the freelancer playing the triangle, all – to develop a deeper respect for the audience. After all, if they didn’t come to watch, there would be no work for us.

My fiancée is a Classical Music PR Account Manager. As part of her mandate, she briefs her clients on how to treat journalists: how to interact with them; how to consider their own work from the journalistic perspective; what to say and how to say it, in order to maximise exposure and build ongoing relationships. When the right balance is struck, everybody can benefit: the paper gets a great spread, the radio station puts out a stimulating package, the player gets more coverage. This media training is invaluable to success and to lasting relations.

If musicians, not just soloists, but every member of every orchestra, as part of organisational training, were briefed on interacting with audiences – on representing and being the voice of their organisation, nay their artform – the positive effects would surely manifest. Audience figures, regulars and newcomers, would rise, as would coverage and reputation. Reciprocity is the key.

Yesterday, I took part in an intriguing talk and demonstration about trust and leadership in music by the conductor and broadcaster Charles Hazlewood. It was part of a corporate seminar about branding, future trends and customer service at Speakers Corner at the Mermaid Theatre in Blackfriars.

Here is a video of a previous performance of Charles’s exact same talk.

It went down a treat with the audience, made up of businessmen and women, and gave them an alternative take on trust and leadership in the workplace, albeit a more ephemeral one. The musicians, of course, had doubts about the placement of this talk in a business seminar about “being the brand” and sniggered when an audience member exclaimed that Charles Hazlewood “clearly had great product knowledge”. Well, the chap was right, he does.

Branding, future trends and customer service. If they are to survive and thrive, do classical musicians – wholesale – need to stop sniggering at the ‘plebs’ and start thinking about these things?

If you closed your eyes, it came as if the voice of an angry, Old Testament God, had he decided to come to Sussex of a balmy May evening: Shostakovich 13th in Brighton

One score establishes Dmitri Shostakovich as the musical conscience of the twentieth century; the Thirteenth Symphony, “Babi Yar”.

Written in 1962 (while Shostakovich was in hospital) for orchestra, bass-baritone and male chorus as a setting of texts by poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the work casts a searing spotlight on the largest singular instance of mass execution in modern history. Over two days in September 1941, the Nazis machine-gunned 34,000 Jews at the Ukrainian ravine known as Babi Yar. Shostakovich’s setting of Yevtushenko’s angry poem “Babi Yar” broke a long-standing, officially sanctioned silence on this tragedy, though it’s a surprise that the work was performed at all.
It remained an unspoken fact in the USSR that many Ukrainians helped the Nazis carry out this act. It follows that the poem and the subsequent symphony were deemed anti-Soviet, and were best kept hushed-up. The original conductor, Mravinsky, and two soloists both withdrew from the première after pressure from the authorities, but eventually a performance, with no media coverage, was given to a select government audience.
On Wednesday 23rd May, a packed out Brighton Dome witnessed a performance of this memorial, this distillation of rage and pain, that was enthralling, shattering and flawlessly delivered.

Vladimir Ashkenazy led the Philharmonia and the Men of the Brighton Festival Chorus withSergei Aleksashkin in the solo role. Aleksashkin, who has recorded the work several times, clearly knows the score like the back of his hand. His delivery was incisive, nuanced and monolithic. The pianissimo falsetto passages in the third movement, “In the Store” – a depiction of exhausted Russian women standing in line to buy provisions – were particularly haunting, but the power-house, declamatory passages resounded like righteous orisons in every available inch of the Dome. If you closed your eyes, it came as if the voice of an angry, Old Testament God, had he decided to come to Sussex of a balmy May evening.

Ashkenazy conducted undemonstratively and authoritatively; a contrast from his usual zeal. He brought a headiness and drive to the work which belied the more common interpretation of the symphony as a world-weary elegy. Even the third and fourth movements – Adagio and Largo – possessed a relentless undercurrent that was refreshing. For the first time ever, I heard all five movements of the work as a unified whole.

The Philharmonia were flawless; conveying every nuance of the score from hushed subtlety to triple-forte terror with verve, myriad colours and a polish and unity that stood out from most orchestras I recently seen. Concertmaster Andrew Haveron’s fiddle solo in the second movement, “Humour”, was positively Mephistophelean in delivery and the brass were terrifying at times. The gentlemen of Brighton Festival Chorus outdid themselves in delivery, swagger, diction and pronunciation. From familiarity with this piece, Shostakovich’s other vocal works and in comparison with Aleksashkin, their Russian was impressive. In fact, I reckon it wasn’t even them. Yep, they were replaced by the Red Army for the night, that’s what it was.

In the first half, Ashkenazy led on pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii in a slow, two-man conga line through the violin section of the Philharmonia. Blind since birth, 23-year-old Tsujii tossed off a jaw-dropping rendition of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No.3 in C Major, one of the most virtuosic of piano concerti, with a smile on his face and – it appeared – with no exertion. Throughout the performance, he would stretch out both hands to the far reaches of the keyboard and bring them back to the centre to reset himself, like some wonderful musical typewriter in a tail coat.
Along with his effortless execution and exaggerated physical tics, he is one of the more memorable soloists. He rocked back and forth completely out of time with the music and was relentlessly turning his head from side to side like a wary meerkat throughout. His ebullience however, was infectious. The Philharmonia were completely locked-in to his mad, superhuman tempi throughout and the Finale took off like a rocket which I’m sure has yet to land.

Calm before the storm: Two women, a sensitive Russian and the persecution of Christ

In Brighton, April is traditionally the quiet month before the maelstrom of events that comprise the Brighton Festival in May. This year’s, with Vanessa Redgrave at the helm, promises to be spectacular. There are two main events this month, both are real gems.

On Good Friday, 6th April at 7pm, the East Sussex Bach Choir will be performing Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion in St Bartholemew’s Church, Ann Street. They will be joined by members of the Brighton Early Music Festival (BREMF) Singers.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) wrote his Passio Domini Nostri Jesus Christus Secundum Evangelistam Matthaeum – or St Matthew’s Passion for short – in 1727. Regarded as one of the masterpieces of sacred choral music, it is written for soloists, two choirs and two orchestras.


The tradition of reciting the Passion, or the story of the Crucifixion as recorded in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, was established as early as the fourth century.

The texts were read as Gospel lessons during Holy Week, and were to be recited “in a solemn manner.” This manner of chant soon took on a rough musical and dramatic shape. By the time we get to Bach in 18th century Leipzig, this is a long established tradition.

As a jobbing composer and performer, Bach had to compose a weekly quota of sacred music for church services, but he also the opportunity for larger ecclesiastical settings. The St Matthew Passion received its first performance on Good Friday of 1727, as part of the usual afternoon Vespers service; its two parts would have framed a lengthy sermon, with congregational hymns before and after the Passion setting. Bach did not intend this to be a concert oratorio, but rather a devotional exercise, using all available musical means to make the central story of Christianity as vivid and immediate as possible to his listeners.

Bach’s St Matthew Passion is not an easy listening experience. It is a depiction of the time leading up to and including the execution of Jesus; both beautiful and harrowing. There are references to blood, tears, weeping, distress or mourning on every page. In one place, Bach writes a lashing figure for the violins and violas that depicts the blows of the whips. In other places, quavers (notes half a beat long) depict drops of tears.

It’s a bit like a Wagner opera: you’ve got to be in the mood and you have to do some work. World-class Wagnerian baritone, Sir John Tomlinson, will being singing the part of Jesus.

I once played in the orchestra when he sang the last half hour of Wagner’s The Valkyrie (where the famous ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ comes form) in the Brighton Festival; it was an incredibly experience. I remember him opening his mouth and the sound that came out completely smothered the orchestra! My friend, cellist Dan James, and I challenged the formidable gentleman to a pie-eating competition to which he quietly responded “Oh, well I don’t know about that.” It’s worth going along to see Sir John at work.

On the 21st April at 7.30pm, the London Philharmonic Orchestra will be at the Brighton Dome under the baton of Yan Pascal Tortelier. Mendelssohn’s Overture to Ruy Blas and Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto comprise the first half. After the interval is the barnstorming Fourth Symphony of Tchaikovsky (1840-1893).

The piece is a tale of two women. Both entered the composer’s life in 1877, the year he wrote it. One of them nurtured his creative career with bountiful gifts of friendship and money; the other, in a brief turbulent marriage, nearly destroyed it.

The first was Nadezhda von Meck, an heiress to a substantial financial empire. Early in 1877, she began writing long, heartfelt letters to him: “I regard the musician-human as the supreme creation of nature. … in you, the musician and the human being are united so beautifully, so harmoniously, that one can give oneself up entirely to the charm of the sounds of your music, because in these sounds there is noble, unfeigned meaning.”

For 14 years, they poured out their innermost to each other, and she sent him a large sum of money every year.

They never met.

He stayed at her estate when she was away and once, when they accidentally encountered each other on a street in Florence, they raced past each other in embarrassment.

Tchaikovsky was homosexual. In a bid to be “respectable”, he married his pupil Antonina Milyukova in July 1877. The relationship was a disaster and drove the composer to a nervous breakdown. He fled his new bride almost immediately and travelled Europe to avoid her. The turbulence of its first movement with its pervading “Fate “ fanfare, and the almost hysterical rejoicing of its finale reflect all this craziness.

I will include a passage of a letter in which Tchaikovsky tried to put into words the journey he went through during the composition.

Movement 1: “The introduction [the loud fanfare theme] is the seed of the whole symphony, without a doubt its main idea. This is Fatum, the fateful force which prevents our urge for happiness from achieving its end…hangs over our heads like the sword of Damocles, and constantly, unceasingly, poisons our soul…

“Discontent and despair grow stronger, become more scathing. Would it not be better to turn one’s back upon reality and plunge into dreams? [the solo clarinet’s wistful theme]…

“O joy! At least one sweet and tender dream has appeared. Some beatific, luminous human image flies by, beckoning us on: [the sweeping, waltz-like music]…

[Return of Fate fanfare] “No! They were only dreams, and Fatum awakes us. … So life itself is the incessant alternation of painful reality and evanescent dreams of happiness …”

Movement 2: “The second part of the symphony expresses a different aspect of human anguish. It is the melancholy feeling that appears in the evening, when you are sitting alone. … Memories swarm around you. You feel sad about what was and is no more. … It is sad and somehow sweet to sink into the past.”

Movement 3: “The third part … is made up of the capricious arabesques … that pass through the mind when one has drunk a little wine and feels the first phase of intoxication. The soul is neither merry nor sad. One does not think of anything; one leaves free rein to the imagination, and, for some reason, it begins to draw strange designs. … These are the disconnected pictures that pass though the head when one goes to sleep. They have nothing in common with reality; they are bizarre, strange, incoherent.”

Finale: “If you do not find cause for joy in yourself, look to others. Go to the people … They make merry and surrender wholeheartedly to joyful feelings. Picture a popular festival. Scarcely have you forgotten yourself and become interested in the spectacle of other people’s joy, when the tireless Fatum appears again and reminds you of his existence. … Do not say that everything is sad in the world. There exist simple but deep joys. … Life can still be lived.


A concert 133 years in the making: Britten Sinfonia at Lunch

Britten Sinfonia 3rd March 2012




Corn Exchange
3 March 2012
By Jem Muharrem
A concert 133 years in the making: Britten Sinfonia at Lunch
Luke Bedford (b.1978) – Three Intermezzi (2012)
César Franck (1822-1890) – Piano Quintet in F minor (1879)

“You have committed adultery in public, Franck…You’ve brought disgrace on us with that obscene depraved work…Adultery, in public, with that vulgar exhibitionist, that filthy harlot.”
These are the words of César Franck’s wife, who had a lifelong dislike of her husband’s piano quintet, taking him to task after the première of the work due to its apparent vulgarity and unbridled emotion. She may have had an ulterior motive: the work was supposedly inspired by Franck’s young pupil, Augusta Holmés, for whom the older composer had a deep infatuation. Composer and pianist, Camille Saint-Saëns, who was more temperate an aesthete, was disgusted with such a display and stormed out of the première during the applause. The work certainly tosses and turns; it is often turbulent to the extreme, going from a gossamer-thread of volume and tenderness to a tub-thumping triumphalism in a matter of bars, only to u-turn again.

While the tabloidy biographical details surrounding its genesis and subsequent reception history may be juicy, there is also artistic and compositional precedence to the quintet’s mien. Franck was influenced by iconoclasts Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt, whose motivic and symphonic integration respectively formed the basis for the extension and modernisation of symphonic music in the late nineteenth century and beyond. Wagner’s development of harmonic and formal exploration, culminating in Tristan and Isolde, in which the harmony doesn’t resolve for up to 5 hours, is arguably the zenith of how far music could go before established rules and accepted traditions began to fall apart at the seams. Liszt, a long-haired, dashing piano maestro similarly stretched boundaries in his intense symphonic poems, doing away traditional forms and overtly integrating mythical, natural, imaginary, historic themes into his work.
Franck, along with many others, was utterly enchanted by these developments, and through them, began to push his own harmonies far, modulating from one key to another in remote, startling fashions. Developing out of Wagner’s ‘leitmotiv’, he composed cyclically, where a prominent melodic idea recurs throughout a piece, in various forms, to forge unity between all of the movements.

The 5 players from the Britten Sinfonia, Thomas Gould and Miranda Dale on violins, Claire Finnimore on viola, Caroline Dearnley on cello, and Huw Watkins on piano, played with a keen intensity and conviction that kept one enthralled for the entire hour. The Britten Sinfonia, trying new ways of presenting their concerts, played in the round, with the players encircled tightly by the audience in the centre of the hangar-like Corn Exchange. You could literally reach out and touch them. It made the experience visceral and engaging in a way that is rare in classical concerts, where you still have to negotiate a no-man’s-land-like gulf, often both literally and figuratively between the audience and musicians. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment have recently taken this a step even further by taking the music of Purcell directly into pubs in London.

Thomas Gould, tall, sinewy, relaxedly commanding, led the group with a democratic authority; engaging and eye-balling his companions while spinning a complex, rich tone across all dynamics. His first entry in the slow movement was like a breath, you could hear the grain of bow horse-hair on the string. Huw Watkins incisive pianism, helped by the lovely Steinway he played upon, was ever integrated with the string quartet, adding as many colours to the timbral pallet as the strings themselves. Watkin’s ever-so-slow beginning to the middle movement created an ethereal, panoramic horizon and a perfect cushion for the music to unfold.

A novel element about this concert was the integration of Luke Bedford’s Three Intermezzi, composed some time in the last 2 months, into the gaps between the three separate movements of the Franck, making a single sequence of music. Given the 133 years in between the two works, I was captivated by the idea of a living composer engaging directly with one who died 88 years before his own birth, after an age of socio-political and artistic change. Bedford said: “Just as in art galleries, where one can sometimes make connections between apparently unrelated artists but whose work is side-by-side, I want to create something similar, but within a concert.”

Bedford’s spare, pregnant use of notes are a natural progression of Franck’s own cyclical, motivic philosophy; like exquisitely-crafted amuses bouche, simultaneously cleansing ones palate in between main courses as well as indomitably complementing the whole. In the first Intermezzo, a minimalist prelude for solo piano, Watkins magically transformed insistent, repeated high notes, returning over and over between evocative flourishes, into the beginning of Franck’s tenero ma con passione. The second, for strings alone, jarred microtones in a repeated rhythmic figure, punctuated by dry pizzicati. After 20 minutes of high romanticism, the ear took some adjusting, but this critic welcomed the challenge for the listener to leave prejudice at the door. The final vignette brought the 5 players together in a suspended stasis of extra-terrestrial long held notes before Miranda Dale on second fiddle began the agitated and tortured beginning of the con fuoco (with fire) last movement. One can’t help hoping that the players might have left a little extra energy for the resplendent coda, which felt a little contained, but after an hour of high romantic drama and quasi-pointillistic intensity, they can be forgiven. This was a fantastic, up-close-and-personal concert; an intriguing integration of the century old with the shiny brand new, shedding light both ways, and challenging the audience to take part in the forging.

A look back: Lawrence Durrell in Sussex

The British ex-patriot novelist, poet, playwright and travel writer Lawrence Durrell had very little feeling for England or the English. He resisted any close association, spending most of his life outside England – in India, Corfu, Egypt, Argentina, Yugoslavia, Rhodes, Cyprus, and the south of France. He spent so little time here that due to changes in immigration law in 1962, he was defined as ‘non-patrial’, and so had to apply for visas to enter Britain. It may be fascinating, then, to consider that for a time, this most cosmopolitan of artists lived and worked in the wooded village of Loxwood in Sussex’s quintessentially English Weald district; an idyll of farms, bridle-ways, streams and ancient forest.

Durrell was born on 27 February 1912 at Jullundur in British India, the son of Lawrence Samuel Durrell, a civil engineer, and Louisa Durrell, who was of Protestant Irish descent. Durrell described his parents, who had not seen England, as “God-fearing, lusty, chapel-going Mutiny stock”. The lack of allegiance to England is discerned in his mother’s feelings when applying for a passport: “I am an Indian citizen”. There are a few glimpses of this life, as recalled from pre-adolescent memory in his first and least successful novel, Pied Piper of Lovers (1935), which he was working on when living in Loxwood.


In 1923 Durrell sailed with his family for England and was schooled in Southwark, Canterbury, and Cambridge. On the death of his father in April 1928 and with an £150 annual patrimony, Durrell (aged about 18) took to London, convinced that he could become a poet. He whiled away hours in the reading room of the British museum, earning his keep as an estate agent, jazz pianist, and a studio photographer.

He met Nancy Myers, a tall and striking art student at Slade, when they were both 20, while she starred in a West End musical about lesbian schoolgirls. Nancy was taken by Durrell’s vulnerability, intellect and wit, and they quickly fell in love. The couple pursued a bohemian lifestyle despite Durrell’s generous funds and Nancy’s small fortune gained in inheritance when she was 21.

Their newfound economic freedom allowed them, in the summer of 1933, to exchange the sociability and intellectualism of Fitzrovia, for the solitude of Loxwood, Sussex. The couple were accompanied by their friend, George Curwen Wilkinson.

Part of the reason behind the decision to leave London was to enable the two men to write novels for a £300 prize competition announced by the publishers, Cassell (Durrell’s effort, the afore-mentioned Pied Piper of Lovers, was subsequently published, notwithstanding a failure to win the prize). They used Durrell’s Hillman car to search in the Guildford area for an “old beamy cottage”. About ten miles from Guildford, they found a fifteenth century two-room farm labourer’s cottage called Chestnut Mead at the north end of Loxwood.

Built in the traditional Sussex method, the ceilings were very low, held up by oak timbers salvaged from broken-up ships in Portsmouth which the carters sold off on their way inland.

The cottage was fairly primitive, with no phone, electricity or bathroom. They furnished the cottage with bare chairs and a table and two beds. Nancy bought Larry (as he was called by those close to him) a second-hand baby grand piano for £60, which took up the majority of the tiny sitting room. George acquired a drum kit and in the evenings they played jazz, with Larry singing and playing the piano.

They lived a simple life. The men chopped wood for the open fire while Nancy did the cooking. The household was messy, with George cleaning up only occasionally and Larry emptying the chemical lavatory in a pit at the end of the garden every fortnight or so.

The authors spent every morning working on their novels, and after lunch, they would embark on long walks in the primeval surroundings. The trio never entertained, and made no attempt to enter into village life; thus the locals were dubious about them.

If the trio were considered outsiders, then the local population were in for a surprise when some of their rare guests turned up. During their adventures in literary London, Durrell and Nancy became acquainted with pretender to the Polish throne Geoffrey Potocki de Montalk (1903-1997), poet, pagan, pamphleteer, and with his brother Cedric.

The brothers were known to wear sandals, tunics and cloaks, medieval-style. Geoffrey was once imprisoned in Wormwood Scrubs for his translation of erotic material by Rabelais and Verliane, as well as his own bawdy poems.

So Loxwood was in for a shock one day when Cedric Potocki turned up at Chestnut Mead in full regalia and a scarf wrapped round his head due to toothache, accompanied by an American mistress who was only ever addressed as “Madame”. With the political volatility of the times, and the fact that London would have been dangerous for Cedric when war broke, he came to Sussex to look for a retreat. Nancy provided a meal for the pair, purchasing the luxury of a tin of chicken in aspic, to which Cedric retorted that the future ruler of Poland would not deign to touch tinned food.

There were tensions in Chestnut Mead throughout the brief time the bohemians lived there. Durrell was incandescent with activity, and had become purposeful and focused with the move from London. George became thoroughly de-motivated by his friend’s progress and Nancy was also at a loose end. When Larry asked her to provide illustrations for a book he wrote as a gift for his little brother Gerry (Gerald Durrell, later to become a famous naturalist, zookeeper, author and TV presenter), her perfectionist nature and shaky confidence left her with artistic block, and she become more and more unfocused and upset.

With no novel to show after a year in the countryside, George wanted out of the strange ménage à trois, having heard you could live extremely cheaply in Corfu, where he travelled soon after with his new wife, Pam. Durrell and Nancy were destined to follow. Following a sojourn with Durrell’s family in Bournemouth after the lease on Chestnut Mead had ended, the couple married on 22nd January 1935. Durrell and his bride set off for the Greek island, where they were later joined by his mother and siblings. In 1956 Gerald published his comic version of these adventures in My Family and other Animals.

Despite the myth of sun, sea, sand and endless days of happy paradise, the couple became more estranged. They had always rowed, but things deteriorated to the point where he swore and screamed at her, bullied her and forbade her talking to any man taller than his own 5 foot 4 inches. Although they had by then produced a daughter, the marriage was finished by the time war broke.

Durrell went on to serve as a press attaché to the British embassies in Egypt and Rhodes. Appointed director of the British Council Institute, he lectured on cultural topics in Argentina, after which he moved to Yugoslavia via London. He moved to Cyprus as to carry out public relations work for the British government, later writing Bitter Lemons (1957)about his time there.

He finally settled in Provence, France, where he lived for the rest of his life. Among his later works was his most famous, the Alexandria Quartet, which presents four perspectives on a single set of events in Egypt, before and during World War II.

Durrell was married four times with two daughters by each of his first two marriages. Durrell died of a stroke at his home in Sommières, on November 7, 1990. 

Big Society still important in Bevendean

Thursday 2nd February 2012

By Jem Muharrem

Bevendean Local Action Team is standing firm behind the idea of the Big Society against a backlash by residents of West Sussex County Council.

The group have benefitted from association with the scheme since their visit to Number 10 in March 2011 to collect the Prime Minister’s Big Society Award for the efficacy of the Leybourne Parade Regeneration scheme.

West Sussex County Council recently ignored the advice of 1,300 individuals and organisations who placed the Big Society Fund at the bottom of pile for funding priorities. Swathing cuts are being proposed to family, children and road maintenance funds while the Big Society Fund, which stands at £240,000 according to 2011/12 figures, remains intact.

Bill Gandey, chairman of the Bevendean Local Action Team said today: “Councillors need to make a decision on making cuts, do they have any other choice in these times?”

Whilst agreeing that the proposed cuts would be tough, Mr Gandey said that the Big Society Fund was vital for the survival of small organisations which work to enhance the lives of local communities. He said that non-for-profit organisations need a helping hand to pay for essentials like halls for meetings, which often are paid for straight out of committee members’ pockets.“You can get so lost in the search for funding, that you end up forgetting your role in the first place; to help improve your community,” Mr Gandey said.

When asked if the fact that BLAT had recently received the Big Society Award coloured his views, Mr Gandey replied “No, Bevendean Local Action Team was around four or five years before the Big Society Idea was established. When it did come about, it was just in recognition of groups that had already existed for many years. It just highlights what good things these organisations are.”

My first ever newspaper article, subbed to death…..

So this is the first article I ever had published in a newspaper a couple of weeks ago; had a lovely time talking to eager staff and students, had a tour round my old primary school, including a visit to the room where I first picked up a violin, warms your cockles doesn’t it…So it’s the next day and I am on my way to Salford to represent Brighton Journalist Works at the NCTJ Student Council, feeling smug about  the heart-warming story that the population of Brighton will pore over during their morning tea and digestives, when I recieve a call that my article is wrong! Wrong?! How could anything be wrong, I recorded everything correctly, I checked facts, spellings of names, numbers all correct, how could anything be amiss? The print article said the school got an ‘outstanding’ rating. THE WORD OUTSTANDING DID NOT APPEAR ANYWHERE IN MY COPY. LIBEL!!!! Some oik in Southampton decided to take it upon themselves to doctor my copy, and I was left to answer to an understandably annoyed news editor and a dismissive head teacher. The news editor apologised to me when he realised the sub had erred, and I guess I had a baptism of fire…..but subs beware!

Here’s the original:

Bevendean School going from strength to strength

Thursday 16th February 2012

By Jem Muharrem

Following a good rating in a recent Ofsted inspection, Bevendean Primary School is proving to be the beating heart of the community.

The staff were given just two days notice to prepare for an inspection on 17-18th January, after which Mathematics and English were singled out as areas of excellence.

Deputy head Paul Davis, who has been at Bevendean for seven years, said: “Our intention is to help the children develop self-esteem about maths in an inter-ability environment. We want our pupils to think of themselves as mathematicians.”

The subject had been an issue in the past, but Mr Davis attended a Primary Maths Specialist Teacher Programme where he got training needed to lead a peer-supported drive to develop skills and confidence in delivering a stimulating maths curriculum.

The success of this new focus was confirmed by Ofsted examiner Helen Howard, who said: “Quality of teaching in maths was a leading light of improvement for the school”.

Classroom teacher Kate Wallis will also take a similar course to Mr Davis in a bid to enhance maths skills in the school even further.

The school has recently revitalised ‘reading corners’ with £250 of new books and is tailoring them to pupils’ interests, including a ‘Top Gear’-themed reading corner complete with posters, a cardboard cut-out Stig and actual car seats to encourage older boys to get comfortable and to get reading.

Pupil literacy is further inspired in novel and exciting ways, such as the aptly named “Caught Reading” Scheme, where children receive a voucher if they are caught reading anywhere in the school.

Rylan Ide, Year 2, Alfie Chessell, Year 3, and Toni Gander, Year 6, said maths was their favourite subject. Jake Martinez, Year 6, said: I like solving maths problems and talking about it with my friends.”

Ruby Elwell, Year 3, likes making up her own stories in literacy class whereas Maisie Cook, Year 2, and Charlie Deletang-Burridge, Year 3, love science where they learn about how sound travels and get to make catapults.

Bevendean Primary School has a passionate approach about meeting children’s needs and nurturing their talents across all subjects, not just Maths and English.

Performing arts specialist Adele Bates attends one day a week to work with the children. She said: “Drama, art and music are a fantastic social tool for the children, it allows them to thrive”. Recent productions include a staged version of Roald Dahl’s ‘James and the Giant Peach.’ Bevendean has an active PTA which is currently trying to raise £30, 000 to redevelop part of the playground. There is also a ‘Superdads’ group, which actively engages male role models into the school ethos. Launch Pad, the school’s rebranded Hearing Support Facility, took part yesterday in a successful world record attempt called ‘Sign2Sing 2012’, where 130,000 participants nationwide sang and did sign language at the same time. 131 children and adults from Bevendean took part in the event which will enter Guinness Book of Records.

BrightonNoise: Classical Music in March

By Jem Muharrem

Classical Music in Brighton: Birds, Love-rats, Dance, Opium-induced cries of passion, and the Islamic angel of the trumpet.

No, I am not describing any old Friday night in West Street, nor am I rounding up the day’s headlines; I am describing the very best classical music going on in our fair city in March 2012.

Classical music, what’s it all about eh? It’s losing funding fast, it’s only for white-haired Saga louts and it’s so long and boring… so go the usual gripes. According to some, the bell is tolling.

For me, classical music takes one on an extraordinary emotional journey, it is slow and fast and exciting and difficult and ambiguous and challenging; it is infinitesimally quiet, like a breath, it can shatter like a nuclear explosion, shaking you to your very core. It runs the entire gamut of human experience. Plus (roll over Harry Potter), conducting is the only real job where in effect, you wave a wand and wonderful things happen.

Here are a few golden opportunities to start, or indeed continue, your own journey.

The month kicks off on Friday, 02 March 2012 at St Bartholomew’s Church at 9pm. The curious theme of this concert is ‘Sleep’ but slumber you shan’t as the Brighton Festival Chorus and the world-renowned Brodsky Quartet take you on a meditative and atmospheric programme of choral songs and pieces for string quartet. Formed in 1972 the Brodsky Quartet has performed over 2000 concerts on the major stages of the world and released more than 50 recordings. They will perform The Ecstasies Above by Grammy award-winning Tarik O’Regan, 34. The piece, commissioned by the Yale Institute of Sacred Music in 2006, is a setting of the poem Israfel byEdgar Allan Poe(‘Israfel’ meaning the angel of the trumpet in Islamic tradition). There will also be music by the Argentian-Jewish Osvaldo Golijov, Bournemouth’s finest Sir Hubert Parry and a special arrangement of Gustav Mahler’s ‘I am lost to the world’ from his Ruckert Lieder, arranged for a capella choir by Clytus Gottwald.

On the 3rd March, the ‘Britten Sinfonia at Lunch’ series continues at the Brighton Corn Exchangewith the world premiere of Luke Bedford’s Three Intermezzi. Bedford’s music is characterised by its brooding intensity, which makes the piece a perfect counterpart to the main work of the concert, Cesar Francks Piano Quintet in F minor. Hold onto your husband! This piece was composed during winter of 1878-1879, a time when it’s said Franck was besotted with a pupil of his. An outré -expressive powerhouse – Nadia Boulanger said it contains more ppp (softest possible) and fff (really very loud indeed) markings than any similar work– it may have been inspired by this illicit passion. Franck’s wife had a very public disgust for the work. This piece thrashes about and is definitely not a happy, well-adjusted child.

On the 4th March at the Brighton DomeBarry Wordsworth conducts the Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra in a programme including English and Czech musical portraits. Arnold Bax’s Tintagel evokes the stormy Atlantic seas and rugged cliffs of Cornwall. This is followed by Elgar’s searing Cello Concerto (composed in Sussex) with Robert Cohen as soloist, and Vaughan Williams’s Norfolk Rhapsody which make up the first half.Dvorak’s ebullient Symphony No.8 comprises the second half and is a paean to Czech folk dance.

Paddle back over to the Dome on the 10th and hop on board the HMS Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra for a ‘Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage’ with Mendelssohn’s so-named overture. This begins a concert of popular favourites, with Sibelius’ Finlandia, Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture, and Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite No.1 (if you don’t recognise this, think Alton Towers theme), topped off by a performance of Grieg’s Norwegian folk-tune inspired Piano Concerto with the renowned Freddy Kempf. Born in Croydon to German-Japanese parents, Fred the Shred (no no no, not that one) tears his way up and down the ivories with the world’s best orchestras with an authority and maturity that belies his 34 years.

On the 17th at the Dome, 27-year-old violinist Fanny Clamagirand will play Mendelssohn’s evergreen Violin Concerto in E minor with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Fabien Gabel. As if that wasn’t enough for her, Fanny will also play Vaughan Williams’s Lark Ascending (recently voted England’s favourite piece of classical music) in which – and I quote the press release, the lark (represented by the solo violin) is “spiralling, floating and propelling its way towards the firmament with a sense of aspiration and discovery: a lone creature set against the expanse of the skies.” Very apt… poetic too… well done that PR officer, but please, don’t take their (or my) word for it. This work takes you on a transcendent journey all of its own, do listen to it. The second half is Sibelius’s Symphony No.5, which was inspired by swans in flight, and has a swaying ‘swan-call’ introduced by French horns in the finale leading to a soaring, exultant finish.

On the 18th the Berlin-based Kuss Quartet give a concert in the Corn Exchange of Mozart’s Dissonance Quartet, Stravinsky’s Trois piéces and Tchaikovsky’s Quartet No.1 in D major. The Kuss’s playing has been described as ‘…provocative, driving, impassioned playing… the purity of sound was almost heavenly’ by the Houston Chronicle.

The Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra gives their final concert of the season at the Dome on 25th March with the fearless John Lill as soloist in Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.3, one of the most physically demanding and technically challenging of piano concertos. The BPO also playBerlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. Completed in February, 1830, the programmatic symphony portrays a romantic tale of a young artist meeting a woman, his un-reciprocated love, and the eventual tragic sequences (one hears the musical description of a beheading!). The story was based on Berlioz’s own passion and despair for Harriet Smithson, the English actress who first dazzled him by playing Ophelia in a production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The composer was purportedly off-his-face on opium when composing the work.

Quite a month…

Jem Muharrem

Gove Save the Queen

Following on from Richard Lindfield’s public affairs lecture at Brighton Journalist Works about the functions of the monarchy (ahem) in which it turned out that nobody in the room knew any of the word to ‘God Save the Queen’ beyond the first verse, my curiosity was piqued as to what all of the words to our glorious national anthem really are.

And what should I find? Do please bring your full attention to the final stanza in the light of current goings-on way up in the chilly north. Discuss…

Lord grant that Marshal Wade
May by thy mighty aid
Victory bring
May he sedition hush
And like a torrent rush
Rebellious Scots to crush
God save the…..etc, etc

Maybe someone should tell Alex Salmond…

This was written circa 1745 as a prayer for the victory of Field Marshall George Wade’s anti-Jacobite army assembling at the time in Newcastle.

In an 1837 article from Gentlemen’s Magazine (what a name! would that this publication still exist…) the verse is presented thus; as an “additional verse… though being of temporary application only… stored in the memory of an old friend… who was born in the very year 1745, and was thus the associate of those who heard it first sung”.

The Jacobites bit  back with:

God bless the prince, I pray,
God bless the prince, I pray,
Charlie I mean;
That Scotland we may see
Freed from vile Presbyt’ry,
Both George and his Feckie,
Ever so, Amen.

Various other attempts were made during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to add verses to commemorate particular royal or national events.

Here is one David Cameron may like to consider singing out next time he and Nicolas Sarkozy inevitably come to blows :

From France and Pretender
Great Britain defend her,
Foes let them fall;
From foreign slavery,
Priests and their knavery,
And Popish Reverie,
God save us all.

None of these verses have of course survived to the present of course.  The last change to be made was by King George V who asked that the line ‘Frustrate their popish tricks’ should be changed to ‘Frustrate their knavish tricks’. Here is the full stanza, in fact the true second verse to follow the famous first one we all know:

O Lord our God arise
Scatter her enemies
And make them fall
Confound their politics
Frustrate their knavish tricks
On Thee our hopes we fix
God save us all.

(It’s O.K to threaten people old bean, just not the Catholics any more…)

This mutability of the words of the national anthem, albeit in its own imperialistic and blinkered way, is a product of its time but it is also a curious and rather pregnant idea. The notion of “God Save the King” as a socio-political barometer makes me think that, instead of logging on to Twitter to vent, we should just turn to our beloved national anthem and unleash our inner poet.

So picture it, next time the English football team (not Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish, no no no!) run out to play, we can all stand and proudly sing:

This time of austerity,

Doesn’t halt temerity

Of our MPs.

We’re not from Bullingdon,

No peerage for our sons,

No second home in Kensington, (all together now)

Gove save the Queen’s yacht.

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