For Manchester, a place of love, beauty and grace

I am in Hong Kong this week and feeling heartbroken by the tragedy in Manchester and the beautiful lives lost. I am so grateful for and inspired by all the messages of love, friendship and support from friends and alumni of The University of Manchester. The hospitality and welcome from alumni and strangers in Hong Kong and everyone’s compassion for Manchester has been wonderful. It is a city we all treasure.

I visited a tiny gallery in Hong Kong yesterday with wooden carvings of birds by Wang Keping, an exhibition entitled ‘Birds: Harmony of the Forest’. The curator asked where I was from. I said Manchester. She said “I am sorry”. For Manchester, I am sharing the swan from this exhibition to celebrate Manchester’s love, beauty and grace.

Wang Keping swan

A Week at the Welsh Seaside


Performing with the Solem Quartet under the guidance of David Campbell at MusicFest 2016. Photo by Keith Morris.

Having never previously attended a clarinet masterclass, it was somewhat to my surprise that I found myself in Aberystwyth for MusicFest, an annual eight day festival of music courses and international performances. Directed by one of Britain’s best clarinettists, David Campbell, the course is a clear draw for clarinettists but also runs a whole range of courses for singers, composers and other instrumentalists all led by renowned international practitioners and performers. Although more than a little rusty, I was encouraged by MusicFest’s website which advertised the course as ‘designed to raise your game, whether you are still at school, a music college or university student or a keen older amateur’. As it turned out I was the only older amateur, the other five clarinettists being outstanding 14-17 year olds at music schools and junior colleges but they were marvellously tolerant of me.

Clarinet masterclasses

The week was challenging and inspiring in equal measure, and the series of concerts and recitals alongside the teaching superb and truly world-class. It has been a real privilege to perform for David Campbell and Anthony Friend, the clarinet course tutors, and over the course of the week they have both offered ample encouragement, constructive criticism and insightful performance tips.

I focussed on Joseph Horovitz’s Sonatina for Clarinet and Piano and its tricky final movement. This Sonatina was written for Gervase de Peyer, a legendary player and former principal clarinet of the London Symphony Orchestra, and premiered at the Wigmore Hall in London in 1981. I heard Michael Collins perform this piece with pianist Michael McHale in Huddersfield two years ago. Michael introduced the piece saying Gervase de Peyer had asked for something flashy and virtuosic but not too challenging. The Horovitz is certainly flashy and virtuosic but it is, for me at least, very difficult!

Blithely, I introduced the piece to David Campbell very much as I have introduced it to you here. David responded that he and many other clarinettists keen to get their hands on the piece were at the premiere in 1981 and that he had been taught by Horovitz when at music college. In fact, David performed the Sonatina a few years ago at his 60th birthday party, where Joseph and Anna Horovitz were both in attendance (the piece is dedicated to Anna). This meant David was able to offer unarguable insight and commentary into the performance of the Sonatina which I benefitted from over the week. For example, although there are clear jazz influences on the piece, David said Horovitz was adamant the quavers should not be swung so I spent much of my rehearsal time over the week trying to straighten out the quavers and especially the quaver rests. I was supported in my efforts by an absolutely wonderful pianist, Catherine Milledge, who covered my tracks admirably as I meandered in and out of triplet passages, rushing here, slowing down there, misinterpreting rhythms and clumsily missing and adding in beats (sorry again Catherine!). Playing with such a perfect accompanist gives one the magical illusion that you are playing with poise and grace and just as the composer intended the piece.

We also had the opportunity to perform clarinet quintet repertoire with the marvellous Manchester string quartet, the Solem Quartet. It is much harder to play seamlessly with five players but the Quartet, like Catherine, were completely supportive and helped us all raise the level of our playing through their own musical mastery. I performed the Forlana from Gerald Finzi’s Five Bagatelles, and Aberystwyth photographer Keith Morris was kind enough to take the photo featured on this post. Keith provided a lovely image diary of the week via his Twitter feed, @KeithMorrisAber. Playing with strings is such a lovely experience, as the depth and richness of sound they bring intertwines beautifully with the darkness and brilliantness of the clarinet.

World-class performances

With over 40 concerts and recitals this week, the festival component of MusicFest is a real draw and much appreciated by the local audience members who loyally turned up for each and every performance. David Campbell and the Solem Quartet set us off with a dizzying performance of Weber’s virtuosic Clarinet Quintet, with David showing off the full range and potential of the clarinet. For the second evening’s concert, the young and dynamic Magnard Ensemble joined the Solem Quartet for a programme of Shostakovich and Mendelssohn String Quartets interspersed with music for wind quintet, with rising star Joseph Shiner on clarinet.

On Monday evening, the evening programme concluded with a hilarious piece by Bohuslav Martinů about romance between kitchen utensils (yes, really). Originally a one act jazz ballet, it tells the story of the marriage of Pot and Lid which is threatened in turn by Pot’s dalliance with the Twirling Stick, and Lid’s flirtation with Dishcloth. All ends happily, you will be relieved to know.

David Campbell treated us to contemporary clarinet quintets by Gareth Churchill and Richard Blackford at the Old College in Aberystwyth on Tuesday lunchtime, and it was great to have both composers in attendance.

Wednesday’s concert featured the Orion Orchestra with pianist Tom Poster and soprano Raphaela Papadakis and we heard the gorgeous Finzi Eclogue for piano and orchestra, with Tom bringing out all its colour and poignancy, alongside Mozart arias. There was a particularly fun piece for soprano, orchestra and obligato piano called ‘Ch’io mi scordi di te’ which Mozart wrote for one of his favourite singers and we think played the piano himself, and Tom and Raphaela were a wonderful team.

On Wednesday evening, we heard the beautiful Kegelstatt trio for clarinet, viola and piano by Mozart, performed by Joseph Shiner and virtuoso Icelandic viola player Ásdís Valdimarsdóttir. The fluidity and ease of Joseph Shiner’s playing was remarkable as notes seemed to pour forth effortlessly and beautifully. Legend has it the trio was written just as effortlessly as the German ‘Kegelstatt’ means a skittle alley and it was said to have been written while he was playing a game of skittles. (Frank Bott’s programme note for this rubbishes this entirely as there is nothing to indicate the trio was written in this circumstance, but it seems rather to have been a sales pitch of a later publisher.) The programme included a new piece by Kaare Dyvik Husby and closed with the Brahms piano quartet no. 3 in C minor.

A real highlight of the week was a Bach-themed recital from Guy Johnston, Tom Poster and Magnus Johnston on Thursday evening. Opening with Bach’s cello sonata in G major (originally for viola da gamba and harpsichord) we then heard the little-known Six Canonic Studies by Robert Schumann, arranged for piano trio by Schumann’s student Theodor Kirchner. There is apparently also an arrangement by Debussy of this for four hands which is more commonly performed, but it worked wonderfully for piano trio. This concert finished with Mendelssohn’s second piano trio, in C minor, which is a tempestuous and energetic work which sweeps you along with its emotion and vitality.

For our final evening concert, we heard from Guy Johnston who performed Respighi’s Adagio con variazioni for cello and orchestra and Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme, both with the Orion Orchestra conducted by Toby Purser. It was a great finale to the week.

Thank you, everyone at MusicFest, for a wonderful week!


A teaspoon of music

In the middle of May I found myself in the Southbank Centre to hear a programme of piano music performed by the wonderful Paul Lewis. I was drawn to the programme by its Brahms and Schubert and my sister Jenny agreed to join me when I told her that Paul Lewis was playing Après une lecture de DanteFantasia quasi sonata from ‘Années de pèlerinage’, my sister being somewhat of a Dante aficionado.

Paul Lewis opened with Franz Schubert’s Sonata in B (D.575) followed by two sets of pieces by Johannes Brahms: Four Ballades (op.10) and Three Intermezzi (op.117). This was, for me, very much in my comfort zone of Romantic nineteenth century music, and I loved all these pieces and Paul Lewis’ performance of them. They were each in their own way lyrical and I responded to them intuitively and personally.

The final piece on the programme was Franz Liszt’s Après une lecture de DanteFantasia quasi sonata. This gripped me in a very different way with its drama and crashing movement up and down the keyboard. Not having bought a programme, and armed with only a hazy memory of The Divine Comedy which I read almost ten years ago, I tried to fit bits of the music around this. My sister and I agreed at the end that the opening theme certainly sounded hellish and the circling higher and higher and then lower and lower we felt could be the screaming of Hell’s victims. There is definite shift partway through to more hopeful-sounding keys which seems to allow Dante to be led from Hell to Purgatory to Heaven, which naturally is in a major key, although interrupted by notes and short sequences as if still ricocheting from Hell.

But I wondered if we had heard the piece under a different title and without the reference to Dante, would we have heard the same representations or would we have come to very different conclusions as to its meaning? Once music is known to be programmatic, can it ever be stripped of its story and returned to ‘pure’ music again?

Just one week after this concert I had the enormous pleasure of hearing with a good friend Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester for a rare performance of Dvořák’s The Golden Spinning Wheel (op. 109), a symphonic poem for orchestra. I include Sir Charles Mackerras and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra’s performance below.

Helpfully, I can direct you to my friend Aimée’s excellent blog about the performance and its fairytale story. As you will read, Sir Mark Elder beautifully walked us through the story and its orchestral representation. We heard the horses’ hooves during the Prince’s hunting party, the lyrical lovesong of the Prince and his new-found love, and as the story progresses different instruments chime in to speak different parts. Sir Mark Elder argued – convincingly for me – that Dvořák paid careful attention to the detailed rhythms of the original Czech poem and imitated these rhythms in his own symphonic retelling of it. Not only do different instruments vocalise different characters – a young boy, naturally, is the high-pitched piccolo – but their tunes mirror the rhythm of the words the characters speak in the Czech poem.

This seemed to me to be the perfect fusion of Czech poetry and symphony and that the poem is somehow bound up in the symphonic performance. I wished Paul Lewis’ Après une lecture de Dante had been so eloquently interpreted for me before the performance. Surely this is a piece that would make a fantastic lecture-recital, and no doubt it has been treated as such before.

Earlier this month, I heard Tom Service’s programme titled ‘How do you describe a teaspoon in music?’ in which he explores how music is able to tell stories in sound. This is available as a podcast here. Tom Service explored how we listen to music and create meanings and connections that make sense to us and conjure up an image or story. His answer, without wishing to spoil the ending, is both yes and no. Tom Service also quotes from a lecture by Leonard Bernstein, which talks of trying to listen to Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony without being influenced by its programmatic aspects, its cuckoo, brook, and storm. This video interview of Leonard Bernstein includes some of these ideas:

I am currently reading Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time bringing to life Shostakovich’s conflicted life under Stalin. Stalin and his political pawns find fault with much of Shostakovich’s music but I read:

“Stalin had expressed a great appreciation of Dmitri Dmitrievich’s soundtrack for the Maxim trilogy… It was the view of those at the highest level that Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich was not a lost cause, and capable, if properly directed, of writing clear, realistic music. Art belonged to the People, as Lenin had decreed; and the cinema was of much greater use and value to the Soviet people than the opera. And so, Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich now received proper direction, with the result that in 1940 he received the Red Banner of Labour as a specific reward for his film music. If he continued to tread the right path, this would surely prove the first of many such honours.”

(page 75; Julian Barnes The Noise of Time. Penguin Random House, London, 2016)

Shostakovich is chastised for his opera and symphonies but his film music pleases the political power of Soviet Russia. I felt this was because film music is fully programmatic and has meaning superimposed on it, which has the effect of simplifying and even restricting individual responses to the music. The film interprets the music for us, which for Soviet Russia is much safer than encouraging audiences to find their own meanings within music.

I remember hearing the potter, writer and now patron of music Edmund de Waal saying that he liked facetiously to mislead audiences with titles that sometimes had nothing whatsoever to do with the piece of pottery. It is this playfulness that reminds me that both music and art never have just one meaning, and that we as creative individuals bring our own experiences, responses and feelings to bear.

My least favourite dinner table question

At some point during a formal dinner, one of the guests on either side of me will usually twig that I’m eating something different to them. Are you vegetarian, one will ask, and why?

As a non-evangelical vegetarian, after years of attempts at a succinct, compelling response, I still find this question hard to answer so I knew I had set myself a challenge when I agreed to write something about being vegetarian for the Alumni Office’s green impact blog.

It’s a complicated question for me in part because stopping eating meat wasn’t at first a conscious decision. I ate meat until around ten years ago when, during my university years, I gradually realised that meat has ceased to be part of my diet.

There were some very sound reasons for this: I barely knew how to heat up baked beans let alone cook something that would take much longer than three minutes and could potentially be followed by 24 hours of self-inflicted diarrhea and vomiting. Cooking facilities at my university were limited to a defunct two-ring hob on which, even at its full power, a freshly boiled kettle of hot water would cool to tepidity.

The other driver for me was, as for many students, cost. Unless you buy the cheapest of meats – which in the end is probably more bone than meat – vegetarian food is significantly cheaper.

An inability to cook and an underlying stinginess have remained with me since my university days but over the years of being questioned about my vegetarianism I have acquired a number of responses.

You may be aware that vegetarianism can help significantly reduce climate change because of the high levels of methane emitted cows and pigs but you may be less familiar with the idea that the farming industry contributes significantly to anti-microbial resistance, which is worrying for us all. I didn’t know very much about this until Dame Sally Davies’ Manchester lecture on the topic last year, which you can read more about here. Strangely though, Dame Sally declined to answer a question on vegetarianism put to her by an audience member.

For more on meat eating vs. the planet, the Guardian offers ‘ten reasons vegetarianism can help save the planet’. As always, there are arguments to be heard on both sides. I googled ‘vegetarianism and climate change’ and the third hit was a Daily Mail article reporting asking ‘Are vegetarians to blame for climate change?’. And if that’s the stance the Daily Mail takes, I think that alone is a very good reason to be vegetarian.

When I was growing up in Halifax, my brother for a while worked in an abbatoir and thinking about what goes on in abbatoirs is surely enough to put most people off their dinner. As Paul McCartney said:

If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be a vegetarian.

I do feel a deep sense of compassion for animals which means my gut response to a rabbit is to want it to continue to live in peace not to put it in a pie.

I’m told that the meat most missed by vegetarians is bacon which fortunately I have never liked. There is such a thing as vegetarian bacon as the picture below so unappetisingly shows.


Image by Duncan Toms from Flickr Creative Commons

Thankfully, there are nowadays lots of options for human herbivores that don’t involve fungi and albumen. My current favourite meal is courgetti, a spiralized form of courgettes which works well with a tomato or pesto sauce, or many other things no doubt. Spiralize means, as you can guess, formed into a spiral shape.

Courghetti from Flickr CC Adrian Berg.jpg

Image by Adrian Berg from Flickr Creative Commons

I count myself lucky to live and work in Manchester, a city which has been home to revolution after revolution: from industrialisation to the first splitting of the atom to the world’s first computer to the foundation of the Royal Society for the Protection of the Birds in 1889.

While Manchester can’t claim to have invented vegetarianism – it apparently goes way back to BCE with figures such as Pythagoras – Manchester is the birthplace of the Vegetarian Society was founded in the early nineteenth century and continues to be home to the Society today. For those of us who work at The University of Manchester, within very easy reach I would recommend:

  • The Greenhouse Café in the George Kenyon Building
  • The Veggie Café at Contact Theatre
  • The Eighth Day healthfood shop on Oxford Road
  • Some of the stalls at Tuesday’s Levenshulme market outside the Martin Harris Centre
  • And a little further out, but worth the trip, the Unicorn Grocery in nearby Chorlton.

For other good vegetarian restaurants even further afield I suggest you read MEN’s guide.

I believe everyone should enjoy the food they eat and take pleasure in where it has come from. For me, that means not eating meat but for many readers of this blog it will mean eating meat, but perhaps choosing free range, organic, local. I feel fortunate to have an abundance of food and choice on my doorstep.

Help fundraise for conservation in Northern England

12647326_10156445209105114_3425609922643992106_nConservation charity the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is seeking volunteers in Greater Manchester to manage pin badge boxes.

The RSPB was founded in Manchester’s leafy Didsbury in 1889 where a group of ladies were opposed to the barbarous trade in plumes for women’s hats. This fashion was responsible for the destruction of many thousands of egrets, birds of paradise and other species whose feathers had become fashionable in the late Victorian era.

The RSPB’s pin badge boxes are one of our most successful fundraising tools. Last year our pin badge boxes in the North of England raised almost £200,000 for conservation. All the money from our pin badge boxes and collection tins stays in the region, helping to conserve our local nature reserves and educational programmes.

We are looking for local volunteers to visit pin badges sites near them every 4-6 weeks to empty the donations, count the money, top up the box with new badges and bank the money. By hosting a box you would be doing your bit to help conserve nature.

Currently we have a team of a dozen volunteers in Greater Manchester and we are looking to grow the scheme significantly in the coming weeks. Ruth Ellul (Senior Development Officer at The University of Manchester) is the volunteer area coordinator for the Greater Manchester region. She works closely with the Northern England Community Fundraiser Vicki Lamb, who is based at the Lancaster office.

The RSPB makes a difference in Manchester through our engagement work with schools and our Dove Stone nature reserve just outside of Oldham. As a team we communicate with the public about the work we do and the impact we have on local wildlife, showing how important it is to save nature. We communicate with various school groups, getting them out in the wild exploring and seeing nature at its finest.

Once a year we send our volunteers a certificate to say thank you and volunteers are also invited to attend our thank you event so they can see where the money goes and how it helps to protect and save nature. You would have the chance to meet people and chat to them about the RSPB.

For more information, please contact:

Ruth Ellul

07825 592644

Volunteering for World Book Night

At a time when life seems ever more hectic and fast-paced I believe books offer a sanctuary and an education for the soul. Books can show us how to laugh, to cry, to love, and ultimately, books become part of our lives and our very being. I believe we need books now more than ever before and I am passionate about sharing this love of reading with those who rarely fall in love with a book.

This is my response to the question ‘why do you want to be a volunteer’ in my application to volunteer for World Book Night 2016. If successful, this will be the fifth consecutive year I have volunteered to give out books to the community through this organisation. You can find out more and register to be a volunteer here.

Manchester’s ‘second-hand sky’

It was a gritty walk on the endless pavements, under the second-hand sky, and when you arrived there was only a rabbit of limited interest, twitching its nose through wire.

– Hilary Mantel, Giving up the Ghost, page 41

This is Hilary Mantel’s wonderful description of her walks to Manchester’s parks during her childhood. It is one of my favourite moments in her memoir Giving up the Ghost not because of the ‘rabbit of limited interest’, captivating though that is, but for the evocative phrase of Manchester’s ‘second-hand sky’. While you won’t find many rabbits or green spaces in central Manchester this rinsed out grey sky is still a familiar sight. To me, it speaks acutely of those days in Manchester when the sun seems not to rise, and leaves us with a white but cloudless sky, as if someone else had robbed us of our share of the sun.

The Buried Giant

Le Tombeau du Géant

Le Tombeau du Géant, Bouillon, Ardennes, Belgium

Where the Semois river meanders through the Belgium Ardennes it creates many of these almost islands. I suppose in time the force of the river will do its work and it will become a true island. But this almost island also carries with it a legend of Le Tombeau du Géant: that of a giant buried in a great tomb underneath the forest. From an aerial perspective, and one I haven’t quite achieved here, the forest bears the giant’s face, with evergreen eyes, nose and mouth.

I spent a few days in Belgium with friends over Easter and visited Le Tombeau du Géant. It had special meaning for me as at the time I was also carrying around a copy of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, and reading a few pages whenever I could. This is a book that takes the reader on a meandering journey, slowly. For me, it is a book that demanded to be read at a walking pace of an elderly couple – that of Axl and Beatrice – in spite of the narrative drive of hoping to find a dragon lurking around every page. Meeting Sir Gawain again in these pages was like meeting an old friend from university days. He took me back to a first year spent studying and clumsily translating Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.