Review: a cocktail of Baltic and French

East and west London offer up some unusual venues for musical performance

A tale not quite of two cities, classical music in London has always been a rather lopsided affair. For a long while only the Barbican offered a lonely outpost beyond the historical strongholds of south and west, but with the opening of the King’s Place concert hall in Kings Cross and the growing cultural strength and diversity of East London, the map is slowly beginning to shift.

With a new season starting at the Petersham Playhouse, surely west London’s most beautiful boutique arts venue, and the return of the Spitalfields Music Festival to Shoreditch, this month has seen east and west London facing off in a serious battle for cultural supremacy

The annual Spitalfields Music Festival offers more than enough reason to venture beyond the Southbank, its churches, converted warehouses and municipal buildings reflecting the breadth of the programming. While experimental projects like Harrison Birtwistle and Tony Harrison’s semi-improvised folk-opera Bow Down find a suitably edgy home in The Village Underground, more traditional programmes are housed in one of the area’s lovely galleried churches.

An evening of Baltic choral music from the Choir of Royal Holloway and the Britten Sinfonia threatened to strip the peeling paint from the walls of Shoreditch Church, so raw was its emotional delivery. Oxbridge chapel choirs have long had it all their own way, but under the direction of Rupert Gough, Royal Holloway have become a serious rival. Their chief strength is their musicality, balancing the dense, cluster-harmonies of this repertoire with the clarity that is essential if this deceptively simple music is to flower.

This precision, and the choir’s bass-anchored blend, were showcased beautifully in their opener – Vytautas Miskinis’s Time is Endless. There is a monumental, timeless quality to the music of this region, which while appealing but can lose its impact after too much exposure. Here we were saved from monotony by the syncopated rhythmic dissent of Rihards Dubra’s Oculus non vidit, and the fretful chromaticism of Arturs Maskats’s Lacrimosa.

A UK premiere – Tonu Korvits’s Kreek’s Notebook – offered the choir the chance to shape a larger-scale work, demanding the dynamic range and contrast that had been missing earlier. Folk-inspired, the work’s unmistakably Slavic melodies translate the region’s oppressive history into musical redemption, and made full use of Royal Holloway’s excellent lower voices – both mezzos and basses bringing depth to the palette. That the choir enjoys this repertoire is clear; that they understand its fragile directness is even more so.

From Baltic music in east London to French music in the west. Founded just last year, the Petersham Playhouse in Richmond has its home in the intimate grandeur of Petersham House’s ballroom. Growing swiftly, the Playhouse currently offers a quirky programme of both theatre and music, commissioning new works (such as opera Dr Quimpugh's Compendium of Peculiar Afflictions, stouring to Edinburgh this summer) and co-producing with venues that have included the Old Vic Tunnels.

To enter the playhouse you must first walk through a fantasy of a garden, flaming torches guiding the way. Every leafy nook is equipped with a bench, and every bench with a view. Making the most of this unique setting, Petersham Playhouse shows invite audiences into another world, working with their environment to create immersive, unapologetically lovely performances.

Devised and performed by pianist Martin Jacoby, Debussy and Ravel: Earth and Water is just such a show. Part lecture and part concert, it offers a gently informative stroll through the lives and music of two of the greats of 20th century music. Personable and relaxed, Jacoby makes an excellent tour guide, sharing his own personal journeys with this music as well as its official histories. On our chronological trip we take in the stylistic movements of Modernism as well as the personal developments of the composers, with performances both of classic favourites and more obscure repertoire.

While Claire de Lune exposed Jacoby’s tendency to overstatement, distorting Debussy’s delicate melody with undue emphasis, the pianist soon relaxed his grip. A rendition of Ravel’s playful Jeau d’eau was all metallic sheen, brilliant in colour and appropriately throwaway in its wit, while the inscrutable melancholy of the composer’s Oiseaux tristes introduced softer shades and some nicely-balanced doubt to proceedings.

Discussing rivalries, ambitions, and working practices (Debussy’s easy facility contrasting with Ravel, ever the grafter) we made our way to a finale in Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit. A challenge for even the most experienced concert pianists, it was a bold finish from the young Jacoby, who pulled off its three distinct moods with assurance, his passion for the music showing particularly in the Gothic chills of Le gibet.

We may not be in Proms season yet, but with such contrasting classical performances on offer, London audiences have no excuse not to escape the Olympic-crush of the centre this summer and explore their options, both to west and east. Patrician charm or indie musical chic – it’s your choice. 

Debussy and Ravel: Earth and Water, with Petersham Playhouse/Choir of Royal Holloway & Britten Sinfonia, ran at Shoreditch Church until 23rd June.

Debussy & Ravel: Earth and Water. Image: Petersham Playhouse
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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era