Martin Scorsese drops in

Doha diary, part 2

You see them everywhere you go in Doha, especially in the West Bay area where the festival hotels are located: yellow American school buses. At dusk (which falls in the late afternoon here), the buses line up outside the building sites, waiting for the migrant labourers -- the vast majority of them from south Asia -- who work on the behemoths that will soon be hotels and office blocks. In the shopping malls (which are the main gathering places in Doha, as there's not much public space), long lines of migrants queue to send remittances home to their families.

Expats are integral to the Qatari economy. Although the available figures aren't precise, it's thought they outnumber citizens of the emirate by nearly three to one. The W Doha hotel, where I'm staying, is a case in point. Safak Guvenc, the hotel's manager, who is himself Turkish, told me that he employs people of 62 different nationalities, many of whom live together in a company "village" a 20-minute bus ride away. The majority were recruited by Guvenc and his colleagues in what the company's benignly Orwellian argot calls "talent shows" held in the workers' home countries -- Malaysia and the Philippines, in particular.

I was keen to talk to Guvenc about the "village", but unpicking the hard sell about how the W "brand" fuses the "local" and "global" was difficult, and, in any case, he really wanted to talk about Martin Scorsese, who'd shown up at the hotel for drinks last night. Along with most of the festival "talent", Scorsese is staying at the Four Seasons just along the bay. Having wandered along to have a look at the Four Seasons this afternoon, I can understand why he might have been eager to escape: the principal architectural influence on it appears, from the outside at least, to have been Ceaucescu-era Bucharest. The W building, meanwhile, does watered-down Las Vegas like nearly everyone else.

Scorsese doesn't have a film in the festival. Among the leading American directors who do is Steven Soderbergh, whose film The Informant, which opens in the UK next week, I went to see earlier this evening. Matt Damon plays Mark Whitacre, a corporate whistleblower at ADM, a pillar of Midwestern agribusiness. The film looks as though it's going to be a standard-issue corporate conspiracy drama (I thought I detected a nod or two in the direction of Francis Ford Coppola's masterpiece of Seventies paranoia The Conversation in the title sequence). But then it rather elegantly transforms itself into a psychological comedy, in which the extravagant subterfuges Whitacre perpetrates both on himself (Damon plays him as a genius of self-delusion) and others (including the FBI) turn out to be much more important than the price-fixing scandal that put him in the orbit of the Feds in the first place.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

BBC/Chris Christodoulou
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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.