Grevel Lindop

Poet, biographer, critic, essayist and writer on just about everything

Halle Delivers Matchless Mahler 2

Mahler’s Second was bound to be a make-or-break point in the unfolding ‘Mahler in Manchester’ project. The Halle and BBC Philharmonic are playing all ten of the symphonies this year to mark the Mahler centenary, and this was the first of the really big ones.

Gustav Mahler

Gustav Mahler

A couple of weeks ago the BBC Philharmonic gave a lovely performance of No. 1, but it didn’t actually fire me up. I found myself wondering whether maybe I’d just heard it too many times. Or is it that it’s a young man’s piece and sadly it doesn’t quite resonate with me as it used to? I’m sure the fault was mine.

On Thursday, though, there were no such doubts. This was a real, transcendent experience, with everything you could look for: clarity, dynamics, amazing textures, lyrical passion. And, incidentally, a capacity audience. The Bridgewater Hall was full and the atmosphere was charged.

The Second has maybe the most electrifying of all Mahler’s openings: an intense vibrating note on all the upper strings that just rivets your attention until the grumbling, growling basses and cellos start to enter and the whole thing begins to gather momentum like some colossal machine or mountain avalanche. Fascinating and terrifying.

And the melodies! Mahler has an unbelievable fertility in generating one gorgeous tune after another. The melodies just seem to flow out of him: eeerie little folksongs, huge chunky rhythmic patterns reminiscent of Brahms or Beethoven, catchy dance tunes, marches, rhapsodic romantic syrup, postmodern hair-raising discord-patterns, you name it.

And then he collages and interweaves and overlaps all of this to produce amazing drama – changes of mood, gradual revelations, mystical ecstasy, frightening shocks. It’s all there, and the result is a sound-drama (or movie if you like) that has the range of an epic yet keeps you engaged as if he were writing the soundtrack to your most intimate thoughts.

Speaking of which, I discovered Mahler when I was still at school, on my father’s LP records, and then by luck shared rooms at University with a music student, the conductor Peter Lawson, who was a Mahler fanatic. So I got soaked in the music for a whole year and it went somewhere very deep inside. And while other kinds of music have set the pace of my life at different times – the Stones, Jefferson Airplane, JJ Cale, Mingus, Parker, Coltrane, Bach, Stravinsky, and for the past few years Salsa in particular, underneath it all Mahler has never gone away. I find myself singing snatches of his music at the oddest moments. It’s like part of my DNA.

Thursday’s performance absolutely lived up to all of this. Markus Stenz took the first movement at a relaxed tempo but he kept it moving with a steady relentless pulse and there wasn’t a slack or dull moment. The momentum was maintained throughout the symphony and there was a clarity and precision at every point that gave the sense of an orchestra absolutely involved and attentive. The dynamics were interesting too. Stenz, who seemed to be enjoying himself immensely throughout, brought the harps right up, something I enjoyed because it emphasised one of Mahler’s strangest and most delightful textures.

Susan Gritton (soprano) and Katarina Karneus (mezzo) melted into the heart-stoppingly beautiful lyrics of the last movement with crystalline beauty as well as solid volume. The whole thing was so perfect and felt so natural that the symphony as a whole felt more like a geological or spiritual phenomenon – two things that aren’t so far apart for Mahler – than a human composition.

The colossal surges of sound and energy in the finale rolled over us with a huge unanswerable impact. This was Mahler the visionary, experiencing an apocalyptic resolution – maybe a highly unorthdox Day of Judgment, or maybe all beings finally revealing their Buddha-nature. As he wrote, ‘there are no sinners, no just. None is great, none small. There is no punishment and no reward. An overwhelming love illuminates our being.’ I’ll put in a clip of another superb performance – Rattle/CBSO – at the end of this post, so you can get a glimpse of what it’s all about.

I had tears in my eyes at the end – something I don’t recall from previous performances. Half of the audience got to their feet during the applause, and I don’t know why the other half didn’t do the same. I never expect to hear a better performance of the symphony, and I’m grateful to have been present for that one. I don’t want to intensify the competition for tickets, which are going fast or already gone, but if you haven’t yet booked, I would suggest that you think about trying to hear some of the eight symphonies that remain. I couldn’t get to The Song of the Earth on Saturday, sadly, but I’m hoping to hear number 3 on 13 February. I probably won’t bother you with my amateurish comments on it. But if Thursday is any indication, this Mahler season is going to be unforgettable.

John Haines: Alaskan Poetry for Cold Days

During the recent cold weather, whenever I managed to drive anywhere through the snow I was accompanied by a deep, rolling, slightly guttural voice, with an accent you’d have found hard to place. West Country? Irish? North-Eastern?

John Haines: quietly intense eco-poet

John Haines: quietly intense eco-poet

Actually the accent was Alaskan, and the voice was that of John Haines, former Poet Laureate of Alaska, on a CD someone sent me from the US. I found Haines’s poems riveting, with their dreamlike, slightly surreal images, their subtle rhythms, and their intense focus on the natural environment. Haines, born in 1924, arrived in Alaska as a young man at a time when the government would give you a piece of land if you were prepared to live there. He built himself a house out of wood and lived as a fur trapper, hunting elk and bear and gaining an unrivalled knowledge of the landscape and ecosystem. He also wrote poems.

Haines uses a short-lined free verse that asks you to consider carefully each image. The poems build, stage by quiet stage, and much of their quality comes from a combination of the stark beauty of their images with the unanswerable finality of the propositions they offer:

The door is open

and the shaggy frost-fog

bounds across the floor

and wraps itself about my feet…

…I feel

its breath deep in my bones.

A spirit in it wants

to draw me out past

the whitening hinges

into the cold, enormous rooms

where it lives.

Out there a flickering pathway

leads to a snowy grave

where something in me

has always wanted to lie…

Haines also has a remarkable sense of the very ancient history of the region’s peoples, particularly the ancestors of the Inuit and the Native Americans who came into the continent from Asia some forty thousand years ago:

Among the quiet people of the frost,

I remember an Eskimo

walking one evening

on the road to Fairbanks.

A lamp full of shadows burned

on the table before us;

and the light came as though from far off

through the yellow skin of a tent…

Thousands of years passed.

People were camped on the bank

of a river, drying fish

in the sun. Women bent over

stretched hides, scraping

in a kind of furry patience…

We were away for a long time.

The footsteps of a man walking alone

on the frozen road from Asia

crunched in the darkness

and were gone.


Besides his very fine Collected Poems, The Owl in the Mask of the Dreamer, Haines has written an autobiography, The Stars, the Snow, the Fire, which is essentially a meditation on his many years in this austere, dangerous and immensely beautiful landscape.

Although a few years ago he was a candidate for the US Laureateship, he seems virtually unknown in the UK. The fine CD I was given seems unobtainable. But at least his books can be bought, and should be. His is an authentic voice, of great integrity, less self-dramatising than Gary Snyder, more thoughtful and muted. As a hunter (whatever one’s urban discomfort with killing) he had to learn to live not only close to animals but even as one of them: something that gives at times a shamanic quality to his poems. Here he tells how he lured a moose by making the noise of a rival moose rubbing its horns on a tree:

I went to the edge of the wood

in the color of evening,

and rubbed with a piece of horn

against a tree,

believing the great, dark moose

would come, his eyes

on fire with the moon…

In that poem, ‘Horns’, the moose survives. A companion poem (‘A Moose Calling’) is darker and sadder:

Who are you,

calling me in the dusk,

O dark shape

with heavy horns?

I am neither cow

nor bull -

I walk upright

and carry your death

in my hands…

Quietly and without fuss, perhaps disconcertingly so, John Haines is that recently much-trumpted thing: an eco-poet. We should be reading him. He’s made my life deeper and richer. I recommend him.

Haiti Earthquake: Let’s Give Money AND Respect

HaitiArt 001One of the best-informed, most efficient and most cost-effective relief organisations currently working in Haiti is Medecins Sans Frontieres. If you’re in doubt about how to help, I’d suggest giving to them. The web address is: www.msf.org.uk They speak French, they’ve been there a long time already, and even the BBC News last night attributed some of its information about conditions in Haiti to MSF – which indicates that they know what’s going on.

But while doing what can be done to help, let’s resist the tendency to talk about Haiti as some permanently pathetic crippled nation. Haiti has had a bad press for centuries partly because it was the first country where slaves achieved a successful and lasting rebellion and established an independent nation.

It happened because in 1793 the French Revolutionary government abolished slavery in all French possessions, including Haiti. The black leader Toussaint L’Ouverture established a successful and moderate government which looked like giving the new island state prosperity. Then Napoleon Buonaparte, in a treacherous reversal of policy, decided the island must not become independent of France. He sent an army to conquer Haiti and reimpose slavery. L’Ouverture was captured through an act of treachery (he was invited to talks with the French, who abducted him) and taken to France, where he died in prison.

William Wordsworth wrote an unforgettable poem about him in 1802, not knowing whether L’Ouverture – a hero of liberty – was alive or dead:

TO TOUSSAINT L’OUVERTURE
TOUSSAINT, the most unhappy man of men!
Whether the whistling Rustic tend his plough
Within thy hearing, or thy head be now
Pillowed in some deep dungeon’s earless den;
O miserable Chieftain! where and when
Wilt thou find patience? Yet die not; do thou
Wear rather in thy bonds a cheerful brow:
Though fallen thyself, never to rise again,
Live, and take comfort. Thou hast left behind
Powers that will work for thee; air, earth, and skies;
There’s not a breathing of the common wind
That will forget thee; thou hast great allies;
Thy friends are exultations, agonies,
And love, and man’s unconquerable mind.
- William Wordsworth

The French were later defeated and regained their independence. Foreign intervention and foreign debt have been problems ever since, as has internal corruption. But Haiti’s people have been resilient, resourceful and brave.

They have been badly treated, and dismissed by foreign observers, often through racism. Entertaining but sensational and racist books like William Seabrook’s famous The Magic Island led to the identification of Haitian religion, Vodun, with ‘Black Magic’, whereas it is simply West African religion transmuted into Catholic Christian imagery – distinct from, but parallel to, Cuba’s Santeria. (Seabrook is said to have written his book by sitting in a Port-au-Prince bar and taking down everything the local drinkers told him. You can imagine the results.)

Tree of Life is a circular metalcut, devised for use on oildrum heads

Tree of Life is a circular metalcut, devised for use on oildrum heads

Behind the Buddha on my mantelpiece is a Haitian ‘Tree of Life’ sculpture cut from a thin disc of steel. It’s exquisite, as you can see: a beautiful thing and full of life. These metal-cuttings originated with artists who took the tops of old oildrums and shaped the design to make perfect use of the circular steel disc.

In the Dominican Republic I slept for a week beside an exquisite Haitian steel screen showing Vodun deities in a forest: a work of art the medieval scultpors of Europe’s Gothic cathedrals would have appreciated.

Creole Madonna and Child, Haitian Folk Art, c. 2006

Creole Madonna and Child, Haitian Folk Art, c. 2006

Haitian Adam and Eve, steel screen panel

Haitian Adam and Eve, steel screen panel

Our bedroom is graced by a lovely Haitian Madonna and Child in radiant colours. Let us pray to her and other gods and spirits that Haiti may benefit from the world’s goodwill now and into the future. reafforestation, lighter but stronger buildings, some good roads and better education will be a few of the long term goals but Haiti has a proud history and a rich culture.

They also have some of the Caribbean’s most magnificent traditions of folk art and music.

Right now we’re necessarily hearing a lot about the agonies. But let’s not forget that Haiti also represents, and will represent again, ‘Man’s unconquerable mind’.

What Does Yanet Fuentes Show Us About Salsa?

If you were watching BBC 1′s So You Think You Can Dance last night, you were surely enchanted by Yanet Fuentes’ performance. She and her partner may theoretically have been dancing Ballroom, but every move she made was a lesson in Cuban dance and how to do it right in Salsa.

For me Yanet is a delight in all sorts of other ways. That accent – the rough, husky voice; the wide-eyed and just slightly fierce smile; the ear-piercing squeals when she greets a friend; the frantic little hops and skips when she’s happy – all these are quintessential Cuban female. Looking at her, I see my wonderful Havana dance teacher Geldys Morales looking over her shoulder and shrieking in unison from that top window on the corner of Aguila and Trocadero!

But watching the fluidity, relaxation and control of Yanet’s movements is the real lesson. Her spinning is precise but very relaxed: she’s worked on doing it without tension. Notice also the ‘spotting’: she fixes her eyes on a point and returns to it after each spin. But she also avoids that clockwork ‘click’ you often see, when ladies snap the head back into position too pecisely, so it looks mechanical. The spotting isn’t allowed to dominate. The fluidity of her hips is of course typically Cuban but you don’t need to be born with it. Yanet has spent a huge amount of time working on her reggaeton moves and also teaching body isolation. This is something everyone can practise in front of a mirror, and it involves just doing it and doing it and doing it, pushing the joints and muscles a little further every time over the weeks and months, so it aches a little. The next video will show you that salsa isn’t about steps and arm movements, it’s about body isolation : that is, how you move your bits!!!

Yanet’s work also tells us a lot about Cuba. I haven’t studied her biography but she was probably spotted as a potentially great dancer when she was a small child and given free, specialist training and education. This would have included not only modern dance but Russian-tradition classical ballet (you can see this in the fluid, balanced movement of her arms when performing) and also Afro-Cuban sacred Orisha dancing – the dance-moves that express each of the West African-descended Santeria gods and goddesses.

Yanet thus has a whole encyclopedia of dance under her belt. Add the typically bubbly Cuban personality and no wonder she’s doing so well.

She also embodies the paradox of Cuba: the wonderful education system and culture that value the arts so much that even in a poor country they will go all-out to train the artistically talented; and the fact that life in Cuba is so hard, such a daily struggle, that almost everyone wants to leave – and yet having left, will remain fiercely patriotic and convinced that Cuba is the best country in the world.

I don’t normally watch these dance shows on TV. But I’m watching this one for Yanet and I hope you will watch it next week, if you haven’t already. And, of course, VOTE FOR YANET!

Creativity in the Snow

Frosty's in good shape despite a stony stare. Love the hat!

Frosty's in good shape despite a stony stare. Love the hat!

Walking around in the snow lately I’ve been struck by the creativity it’s brought out in so many people.

Our road has brought forth a great crop of traditional snowmen complete with carrot noses, scarves and other designer requisites, but the nearby Chorlton Meadows have been colonised by an impressive number of igloos, including one (reinforced with sticks) in the shape of a face with the mouth for entrance. It actually was quite warm inside.

Brigadeer Snowman and spectacled kid; is that a polar bear cub on the right?

Brigadier Snowman and spectacled kid; is that a polar bear cub on the right?

I’m pretty sure we didn’t have any igloos in the last big freeze. Maybe people are now more conscious of alternative building traditions – most people have seen a yurt, and know about eco-houses roofed with turf or built from hay-bales and so on. This must be a good sign.

Building an igloo in Chorlton Meadows

Building an igloo in Chorlton Meadows

Humans are going to need to be resourceful as climate change takes a grip, whether it leaves us much hotter or much colder. Here’s to imaginative building!

Dog isn't sure about this slightly spooky face-igloo...

Dog isn't sure about this slightly spooky face-igloo...