Sunday, 27 April 2008

What you have to remember is, erm, oh, you know

I've been up to my eyes with stuff lately, so haven't had time to update this blog since Easter.

The first rehearsal after the holiday, on 17 April, was an all-day affair, so we were all a bit hoarse by the end. Especially Nan, who spent most of it berating us for still not knowing the choruses well enough. The following week - last Thursday, 24 April - we were not quite as bad, and there were even some bits that all started and finished together, with lots of people singing much of the time.

Hmm. Those choruses are a bit tricky, and you have to remember quite a lot of counting. In the 'Grimes is at his exercise' sequence, for example, tenors have to remember the sequence 2-no-no-no-3-yes-no-yes-4-no-no-no-4-no-yes-yes-3-no-no-no-3-yes-no-yes+1-9-no-yes-yesx2-4-no-no-yes-yes. Which is just about possible, but the effort of remembering does tend to make you shuffle round like a bewildered care-home patient. (Which, coincidentally, was the subject of conversation over coffee afterwards with Abby and Caroline, both nurses experienced with the confused; they must feel at home in our rehearsals.)

But most of the time your counting is easily confounded. The highly varied nature of Britten's rhythmic chopping up, across the bar line, makes it very easy to get lost. If you've mentally based your entry on following someone else and they screw up, then you screw up too.

So chorus members, it's best not try to take your cues from the sops or altos, as they're not too sure of themselves. Don't rely on the basses or tenors, who aren't too secure either. Or the soloists, as half of them are unlikely to be there. Indeed, Mario is still slicing people up in Cardiff or something so we haven't seen him this term yet. We've had no Jenny either - she's doing jury duty, so we missed her in the court scene, ironically enough.

Anyway, that stuff I've been up to my eyes in has included having to finish my bike book 50 Quirky Bike Rides in England and Wales. It's finally going to press, only a year and half late, and will be out by June this year. I'm expecting that the royalty cheque will be enough to buy me a decent-sized pied a terre.

Oh, hang on, no, I mean pomme de terre.

I also reviewed Birtwistle's Punch and Judy, done by ENO at the Young Vic, for Sky Arts - it's up on their website. (Visit to see if they've got round to putting the review up on the website yet - the opera finished its one-week run last week...)

I was expecting it to be two hours of jagged orchestral torture, vocal screeching and 1960s expressionist hiccuping, but I was wrong. It was only 90 minutes. And actually it was rather good - being in the round at the Young Vic puts you within a string of sausages of the singers, and you feel the physicality and presence of the singers. You could even feel the heat from the baby Mr Punch gleefully incinerated at the beginning.

But I did come away feeling a little chastened. We've had seven months to work on Grimes and we're still struggling to do it without a score. Or even with one, actually. ENO's lot on the other hand had memorised 90 minutes of highly unmemorable and difficult music perfectly. How do they do it? Amazing. Well, I say perfectly – how would anyone know?

See you next Thursday. It's from 1pm to 5pm, so we'll have time to do the whole opera, seeing as we'll have all memorised it perfectly...

Saturday, 12 April 2008

A sideways look at the world of Dr Crabbe

Hope you enjoyed your Easter hols, everyone. Nice, wasn't it, waking up cosy in bed last Sunday to see two inches of snow outside, and thinking great, the cricket season starts this week?

Like most of us I've taken a couple of weeks off from thinking about Grimes. I've just started looking at the score afresh, uncluttered by preconceptions such as remembering any of the notes or the rhythms.

Next Thursday's rehearsal is the first of the summer term. It will also be, as you know from Nan's txts, an all-day affair. Principals at 11am, rest of chorus to join at 1pm. Rather like cricket, in fact: lunch and tea breaks, and perhaps some scampering off for rain or snow showers or bad light or another bollocking for not knowing the music well enough. I hope we perform as a team rather better than England's middle order.

I've got a temporary job which is based in Lincoln's Inn Fields, right in central London. Rather excitingly, it's just next door to the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons. This is another of those curious, free, London gems. In its display cases are jars of pickled foetuses, five-legged lizards, and skeletons of eight-foot Irish giants. Most entertaining are the gleefully annotated nubs of diseased offal hacksawed off some Regency pauper without the encumbrance of anaesthetic. ("This grapefruit-sized tumour was removed from a Mr Phillibert of Crouch End on 6 June 1784. His screams were said to be audible as far as Islington. He died at 6am the next day.")

It's only one of several attractions in the area for the lunchtime flaneur. The Oxbridge-like tranquillity of Lincoln's Inn itself, the weird and wonderful Soane Museum, are there too. But for sheer rubbernecked fascination, the Hunterian is something else, a show-and-tell casebook of eighteenth-century medical misfortune in freeze frame. After a while you get blase about it all, like the surgeon bantering about lunch while in the middle of slicing up somebody's pancreas. You happily work through your Sainsbury's egg and cress sandwich while staring at encephalitic skulls, monster cysts, prolapsed intestines and Mr Hunter's mighty surgical toolshed.

It's all a world that would have been familiar to two characters in Grimes: the dodgy pharmacist Ned Keene, who would probably have misappopriated the pickling alcohol and sold it off to Mrs Sedley, and Dr Crabbe, the non-singing physician, dismissed by Boles as a drunken charlatan ("He drinks! Good health to all diseases!"). So I'll count my visits as research.

Talking about surgeons, Mario, I hope we'll have the pleasure of your company on Thursday? I'll bring some egg sandwiches for the Tea Interval, and you can entertain us with stories from the operating table...