It may be tripe, but it's my tripe

While the New Year gongs are doled out, the passing of George MacDonald Fraser is mourned. Elsewhere

Winter warmers

While in Britain, the seasonal bawdiness may have departed with the panto, France is currently celebrating a personality that stood for lascivious loving, unbridled libertinism and unfettered existentialism. No, not Sarkozy. With Simone de Beauvoir’s centenary celebration next week, the nation’s critics are locked in ferocious argument as to how the intellectual should be championed. Whilst Danièle Sallenave, the author of the De Beauvoir biography, Castor de guerre, is keen to ‘look at all her work together, not just the affairs and the sex - important as they are," others are prioritising: Le Nouvel Observateur made its position clear, plastering their latest with author's naked buttocks. In the UK, the release of Ang Lee’s graphic Lust, Caution (reviewed in this week’s issue) has reduced even the most esteemed bloggers into gossiping schoolgirls, as fervent debate over whether co-stars Tony Leung and Tang Wei actually consummated their sexual scenes or not, rages on.

Smash and grab

Following Robin Stummer’s piece in our Russia special on the destruction of Moscow’s traditional architecture, Moscow’s historical landscape has taken another aesthetic blow to the solar-plexus with the approval for Lord Foster’s £2billion 500m high wigwam. Due to become the world’s largest building, the designs have been widely criticised by resident architects, such as the disgruntled Yuri Bocharov, for not only “contradicting the spirit of the city” but for also resembling a “dahlia stuck in a string bag”. Complete with 3,000 hotel rooms, 900 apartments and three house theatres, you can be certain this ‘city within a city’ will essentially become an air-conditioned bubble for the country’s super-rich.

Honourable mentions

Ushering in the New Year was the Honours List, that annual bout of bilious populism which evokes inevitable incredulity (you don’t want to care but you are appalled) on behalf of those who didn’t receive recognition (such as Neil MacGregor, former director of the National Theatre), when urchins like Des Lynam did. Deservedly, however, 94 year-old cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, co-producer of the James Bond films Barbara Broccoli, author and NS contributor Hanif Kureishi and Jazz pianist and composer Stan Tracey all received the pieces of metal and tinted ribbons they have long desired.

Gone in a flash

One past recipient not around to witness the queasiness was the author George MacDonald Fraser, who passed away on the 2nd January following a battle with cancer. Notorious for his Flashman series, which glorified a conceited caitiff whose exploits inevitably ended in triumph, (despite being a racist, a misogynist and a womaniser), Fraser was unforgiving to the last, his candour refreshing in an age where publicity machines dictate a saccharine sweetness from their authors: "It may be tripe but it's my tripe - and I do urge other authors to resist encroachments on their brain-children and trust their own judgment rather than that of some zealous meddler with a diploma in creative punctuation who is just dying to get into the act."

Best of the rest

Other dispatches that may have eluded you this week include Radiohead’s New Year’s webcast of their song ‘Nude’ (complete with Thom Yorke in what appears to be a ketamin-fuelled séance), and the announcement that Catherine O’Flynn,, whose novel What Was Lost was rejected by over twenty agents and publishers, has been awarded the First Novel prize at the Costa Book Awards. Thankfully, the Chapman brothers, Jake and Dinos, made any weekly toil lighter by gracefully consenting to remove themselves from society, albeit it for a day, in order to take control of the Big Brother house in conjuncture with Channel 4’s experimental new Hijack formula. Should that prove as ghastly as it sounds, why not catch Cristian Mungiu’s Cannes winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, climb Henry Moore’s sculptures at Kew or ride into the New Year on any one of the variety of small horse-drawn trams on view at the reopened, and refurbished, London Transport Museum.

BBC/Chris Christodoulou
Show Hide image

Proms 2016: Violinist Ray Chen was the star of a varied show

The orchestra soaked up his energy in Bruch's first violin concerto to end on a triumphal note. 

Music matters, but so does its execution. This was the lesson of a BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus programme which combined both a premiere of a composition and a young violinist’s first performance at the Proms. 

The concert, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, opened with Tchaikovsky’s symphonic fantasy The Tempest, a lesser-known sibling to his Romeo and Juliet overture. The orchestra got off to a fidgety start, with some delayed entries, but fell into line in time for the frenetic chromatic runs that drive the piece. The end, a muted pizzicato, was suitably dramatic. 

Another nature-inspired piece followed – Anthony Payne’s composition for chorus and orchestra, Of Land, Sea and Sky. Payne drew on his memory of watching of white horses appearing to run across water, as well as other visual illusions. At the world premiere, the piece began promisingly. The chorus rolled back and forth slowly over scurrying strings with an eerie singing of “horses”. But the piece seemed to sink in the middle, and not even the curiosity of spoken word verse was enough to get the sinister mood back. 

No doubt much of the audience were drawn to this programme by the promise of Bruch violin concerto no. 1, but it was Ray Chen’s playing that proved to be most magnetic. The young Taiwanese-Australian soloist steered clear of melodrama in favour of a clean and animated sound. More subtle was his attention to the orchestra. The performance moved from furious cadenza to swelling sound, as if all players shared the same chain of thought. Between movements, someone coughed. I hated them. 

Ray Chen in performance. Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Chen’s playing had many audience members on their feet, and only an encore appeased them. It was his first time at the Proms, but he'll be back. 

The orchestra seemed to retain some of his energy for Vaughan Williams’ Toward the Unknown Region. Composed between 1904 and 1906, this is a setting of lines by the US poet Walt Whitman on death, and the idea of rebirth.

The orchestra and chorus blended beautifully in the delicate, dark opening. By the end, this had transformed into a triumphal arc of sound, in keeping with the joyful optimism of Whitman’s final verse: “We float/In Time and Space.” 

This movement from hesitancy to confident march seemed in many ways to capture the spirit of the concert. The programme had something for everyone. But it was Chen’s commanding performance that defined it.