Jem Muharrem

Words on thought, art and music

Archive for the month “March, 2012”

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.

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