Archive for November 21, 2016

Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia Orchestra

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 21, 2016 by telescoper

I was indisposed over the weekend so I wasn’t able to do a write-up of the concert I attended at St David’s Hall on Friday evening, featuring the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy in a programme of all-Russian music. Ashkenazy is of course best known as a pianist, but he has in recent years increasingly appeared in public performances as a conductor, apparently preferring to confine his piano playing to the recording studio. I’d never seen him in the flesh before and was surprised when this rather diminutive man bounded onto the stage and, hardly pausing for breath, started the concert. He’s obviously not one for hanging about.

First item on the menu was the Overture to the Opera Prince Igor by Alexander Borodin. At least the piece is attributed to Borodin, but no trace of the original score has ever been found; the piece as performed nowadays was entirely reconstructed from memory by Alexander Glazunov. It’s a rather conventional overture for the time, consisting of a sort of fast-forward of some of the outstanding themes and musical motifs that occur in the Opera.

In case you didn’t know Borodin was only a part-time composer. His day job was as a Professor of Organic Chemistry. He also died quite young – at the age of 53 – suffering a heart attack at a fancy dress ball.
Given is relatively short life and his occupation with other matters, Borodin didn’t write all that much music, but what survives is of generally very high quality, and this piece is no exception. A very nice warm-up for the larger works to come.

(Yes, I say Borodin was “quite young” at the age of 53 because that’s how old I am…)

Next up was one of the most familiar concert pieces of the entire classical repertoire, the  Piano Concerto No. 1 by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Certainly the spectacular opening, with its fanfare-like introduction followed by a dramatic string theme supported by huge chords from the piano, must be one of the best-known introductions to a classical work. It’s curious though that the theme that gives it such an imposing start is not heard anywhere else in the concerto, though what follows is hugely absorbing and entertaining, if a bit theatrical for some tastes. It’s not too theatrical for me, I hasten to add. I love it.

(Coincidentally, Tchaikovsky also died at the age of 53.)

The soloist for the performance was Alice Sara Ott who played with great verve and virtuosity. It’s a piece that calls for some muscular playing, and despite her slender build, Alice Sara Ott was up tot the task. She practically lifted herself up off the stool on a number of occasions to generate enough downward force on the keys.

After the interval we had Symphony Number 1 in D Minor by Sergei Rachmaninov. The first performance of this work in 1897, conducted by Glazunov with the composer in the audience, was a complete disaster and the piece was so badly received that Rachmaninov refused to allow it to be published (and even destroyed the score). It wasn’t until 1945 that the orchestral parts were found and the symphony reconstructed that it was performed again. I think it’s a very satisfying symphonic work. Although ostensibly in D Minor it spends most of the time in major keys (F major in the second movement, B♭ major in the third, and D major in the finale).  Like all great symphonies it takes the listener on a journey through a very varied soundscape – and times wistful and  and at others exuberant. I particularly enjoyed the lengthy coda at the end of the 4th movement.

I really don’t know why this work was so savaged by the critics when it was first performed, although Rachmaninov laid the blame firmly at  the conductor’s feet. I think he would have appreciated last night’s concert a lot more than

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The Tay Bridge Disaster

Posted in Literature with tags , , on November 21, 2016 by telescoper

Over the years I’ve posted quite a number of poems on this blog, but I recently realized I have yet to share anything by the great William McGonagall, Scottish poet who I think I can safely say is in a class of his own. Here is what many regard as his greatest poem, a majestic work composed in commemoration of the Tay Bridge Disaster of 1879, which I’m sure you’ll agree represents an extraordinary level of achievement…


Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

’Twas about seven o’clock at night,
And the wind it blew with all its might,
And the rain came pouring down,
And the dark clouds seem’d to frown,
And the Demon of the air seem’d to say-
“I’ll blow down the Bridge of Tay.”

When the train left Edinburgh
The passengers’ hearts were light and felt no sorrow,
But Boreas blew a terrific gale,
Which made their hearts for to quail,
And many of the passengers with fear did say-
“I hope God will send us safe across the Bridge of Tay.”

But when the train came near to Wormit Bay,
Boreas he did loud and angry bray,
And shook the central girders of the Bridge of Tay
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

So the train sped on with all its might,
And Bonnie Dundee soon hove in sight,
And the passengers’ hearts felt light,
Thinking they would enjoy themselves on the New Year,
With their friends at home they lov’d most dear,
And wish them all a happy New Year.

So the train mov’d slowly along the Bridge of Tay,
Until it was about midway,
Then the central girders with a crash gave way,
And down went the train and passengers into the Tay!
The Storm Fiend did loudly bray,
Because ninety lives had been taken away,
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

As soon as the catastrophe came to be known
The alarm from mouth to mouth was blown,
And the cry rang out all o’er the town,
Good Heavens! the Tay Bridge is blown down,
And a passenger train from Edinburgh,
Which fill’d all the peoples hearts with sorrow,
And made them for to turn pale,
Because none of the passengers were sav’d to tell the tale
How the disaster happen’d on the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

It must have been an awful sight,
To witness in the dusky moonlight,
While the Storm Fiend did laugh, and angry did bray,
Along the Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay,
Oh! ill-fated Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay,
I must now conclude my lay
By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay,
That your central girders would not have given way,
At least many sensible men do say,
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
At least many sensible men confesses,
For the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed.

by William Topaz McGonagall (1825-1902).


Dunes on Mars

Posted in Art, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on November 21, 2016 by telescoper


This isn’t a new picture, but I hadn’t seen it before a friend put in on their Facebook page at the weekend. It isn’t what I first thought it was – a wonderful piece of abstract art – but is, in fact, an equally wonderful photograph of the inside of the Bunge crater on Mars, where a complex pattern of dunes has formed through wind action. The area covered by the image is about 14 kilometers wide.

According to the official NASA webpage: “This image was taken in January 2006 by the Thermal Emission Imaging System instrument on NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter and posted in a special December 2010 set marking the occasion of Odyssey becoming the longest-working Mars spacecraft in history.”