blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Friday, November 27, 2009

War and Peace

Earlier this month, like Prince Charles and his wife and in a bigger than ever crowd of Canadians, I stood on Parliament Hill near the war memorial on the morning of Armistice Day (or Remembrance Day, as it's called here). I took some photos of the parade and wanted to record in my blog that the twenty-one gun salute, which sent plumes of smoke wafting over the parliament buildings, frightened the little children in the crowd so much that they nearly all cried, and periodically drowned out the voices of the older children singing in the choir. I thought this altogether symbolic of how war deafens and damages us. Four fighter jets zoomed overhead in an ear-splitting fly past as well, so that we lost track of the poem being read.

This is what the children were singing:

I vow to thee, my country
All earthly things above
Entire and whole and perfect,
The service of my love;
The love that asks no question,
The love that stands the test,
That lays upon the altar
The dearest and the best;
The love that never falters,
The love that pays the price,
The love that makes undaunted
The final sacrifice.

And there's another country,
I've heard of long ago
Most dear to them that love her,
Most great to them that know;
We may not count her armies,
We may not see her King;
Her fortress is a faithful heart,
Her pride is suffering;
And soul by soul and silently
Her shining bounds increase,
And her ways are ways of gentleness,
And all her paths are peace.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Old fashioned service

This afternoon I went to Choral Evensong at Christ Church Cathedral, with Matthew Larkin playing the organ and directing the choir (he also composed today's setting of the traditional, 16th century Versicles and Responses).

It was thrilling. A bell began to ring in the tower, summoning the congregation to come in and sit down, and as the blasts from the organ pipes began to make the pews vibrate, I thought: this is good, I feel at home with this. The ostensibly religious element of the service, however—the prayers and the Bible readings, especially when translated into "modern" (inferior) English—did not have that same effect on me.

Mr Larkin was playing Oliver Messiaen's Apparition de l'Église Éternelle. It was neither comfortable nor soothing, but harsh, jaggèd, disturbing, composed by a man in mental torment, it seemed, and the organist emphasised this in his powerful interpretation, jabbing at the keyboard. Likewise when the choir's turn came to perform, that music was discordant too, and he got them to sing the clashes fortissimo. The Introit was Sir Edward Bairstow's Let all mortal flesh keep silence. The Magnificat and Nunc Dimitis, during which the congregation remained standing, were in Herbert Howells' setting; the anthem too (Behold, O God our defender) was by Howells.

The boys, who had learned their parts very thoroughly (except perhaps for the very young novices who sometimes lost their places in the sheet music ...and I saw one of these very small boys give a big yawn) were revelling in it. The lead chorister was particularly confident and had a fine, flawless voice, effortlessly produced. He turned his head toward the nave whereas most of the others either faced forwards, ten boys on one side of the choir, ten on the other, or kept their eyes fixed on the director. They wore the full regalia, red, floor-length cassocks, white surplices. The men of the choir sounded like professional singers. I was impressed.

After the prayers, including the Prayer of St Chrysostom, we all sang Praise, my soul, the King of Heaven, which once upon a time was my School Hymn, the trebles singing a descant to the last verse, and they processed out to the postlude, Jean Langlais' loud and triumphant Acclamations: Christus vincit on the organ.

Chris met me outside when it was over and we went to the Green Papaya for a Thai curry.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Two visits to Wakefield

15th August and 13th November, 2009. My mother aged 90 and, three months later, my grandson aged 2, walking along Chemin Mance near the old station.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Science is not a theme park

My daughter has just shown me an apposite blog post written by Michael de Podesta, a friend and colleague of hers who has just been received an MBE (for Services to Science) from the Queen. He runs "a course [...] called Protons for Breakfast which aims to help the general public make sense of some of the science that they encounter." His description of the BBC show Horizon on the theme of Black Holes as "dumbed-down science at its worst" puts into words what I felt today during my visit to the national Museum of Science and Technology in Ottawa.

Not all of the museum is bad; if it were rehoused in a building that looked less than a warehouse, didn't have such dismally black ceilings and if its contents were differently presented and modernised (most of the information and illustrations have not been updated since the 1980s), it could be a rewarding place for everyone to visit. Alexander enjoyed himself there, appreciating the model railway made from Lego, pretending to drive the vehicles and pressing the various buttons to make things happen, but then, he is only two. Surely a nation's tribute to Science and Technology ought not to assume that all its visitors are toddlers. Various groups of school children were there and most of them were simply running wild. In the Telecommunications (Connexions) section of the museum, above ground level, was a maze of interconnecting tunnels with coloured, flashing lights running along their sides. This installation was supposed to teach the youngsters about packet switching, but they weren't learning anything; they were playing tag. "Don't run!" said the poor woman (volunteer teacher's assistant? inexperienced teacher?) meant to be in charge up there. "I'm it!" shouted a little girl, not even noticing the adult was there. Alexander of course joined in and we lost track of him for a few moments. It was claustrophobic, dark and very noisy, not an atmosphere conducive to anyone's education. Emma, Peter and I became depressed when we started to think about it.

Who is to blame? Is it the fault of the museum's directors, the school system, the individual teachers, our ambient culture or lack of it, the children themselves, their parents, or all of the above? I suspect the museum is sadly understaffed. There was nobody in uniform to be seen while this pandemonium was going on (perhaps they were in hiding; I wouldn't blame them). The few adults present didn't seem to have a clue how to calm the children down or teach them anything. Had I been planning a field trip to this museum with a potentially rowdy class I would at least have visited it ahead of time and planned accordingly.

On the positive side, one teacher, elsewhere in the building with a different school group, was impressively and confidently in control. He didn't try to intimidate his charges, but when we watched him lining them up in the cafeteria after their lunch, they were doing exactly as they were told. The young woman who gave the dramatic 2 o'clock demo-lecture on Cryogenics also deserves praise; she did it entertainingly and efficiently in two languages, managing to aim her teaching at adults and young children simultaneously.

Maybe it depends (now as always) on extraordinary individuals like Dr de Podesta to give people young and old what they deserve to get in the way of education, but designing a nation's museums as playgrounds does not help.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Trumpet Man

No time to breathe, hardly, with Alexander to look after all day—for 10 hours at a time during the last three days—but now that he's asleep tonight I must seize the opportunity to write about the 11 o'clock performance by Fred Piston and his 7 Trumpets in the Panorama Room of the National Arts Centre, last Sunday. As French was the man's first language, I suspect it may have been even livelier in French; we heard the English version.

Frédéric Demers, apart from being a virtuoso on his trumpet, is a bit of a Pied Piper.

Adults and children sat on the floor on mats or round the edges of the room on chairs, with Fred and a small projection screen at the front, a treasure chest packed with visual aids behind him and a rack with hooks to hold his seven trumpets to one side. (On the other side was his computer equipment which did not let him down). Seeing the number of children coming in (mostly aged between 3 and 8 years old) and gauging their anticipatory noise level, it struck me that the man would have to have a highly developed teaching skills to cope with this audience.

He had.

The first piece of magic that he showed was a proto-trumpet. Pretending to be a caveman, he flourished a shell in the air, asking the children if they thought that was a musical instrument. When they all yelled "NO!" he promptly proved them wrong. Then came the didgeridoo (which grand name young Alex still remembers... he's been blowing down a roll of brown paper all week to pretend he's got one).

Fred asked the children how to get a sound out of a trumpet and when several of them said, you blow down it, he obediently tried and made no musical sound at all. Then a bright spark at the back told him to vibrate his lips, after which we were all encouraged to blow raspberries. Then he made it work, using the mouthpiece alone.

He told us that his father had taught him to play and that his father's trumpets were all in that large, mysterious trunk he had dragged into the "studio lab." On the first trumpet, sporting a pennant, he played a medieval fanfare (invisible trumpets joining in). On the screen, key words and cartoon characters were projected. The children were by now all ears. He gave us his credentials, saying he has a doctorate in trumpets—"I can cure sick trumpets!"he said.

On the cornet he played a virtuoso piece that "sounds like two cornets" (with double and triple tonguing), then came a demonstration of the cornetto. The Flügelhorn trumpet gave rise to a jazz improvisation and he told us that "[his] father charmed his way into [his] mother's heart" with the Adagio from the Concierto de Aranjuez by Joaquin Rodrigo that we also heard. As well as some other schmoozy, Latin American numbers we had blues and some salsa, and (on the Wedding Trumpet) Mendelssohn's Wedding March, as played in churches. The piccolo trumpet made a high-pitched noise which made the children giggle, as did a variety of mutes including a toilet plunger ("Do not do this in the bathroom.") At the end of the show, following a medley of Disney World tunes lost on me, Mr "Piston" picked a volunteer from the audience: the little girl who'd called out "I'm not shy!"and because she had a well developed sense of rhythm (had been on her feet dancing for all the jazzy numbers), he gave her a pair maracas with which to accompany his finale, and everyone got moving to the music.

Alexander was shy but appreciated it thoroughly; he finally took to dancing on the vacated mats when most of the other children were departing.

We then used up more energy in the leaves of Major's Hill Park.

The spectacle that made the biggest impression on him was The Violins, beforehand, for when we arrived in the NAC foyer, we were in time to see some children from the local Suzuki school in performance on the podium, all in synch, very well rehearsed. In the pauses between items we asked Alexander what they were doing and he said they were playing guitars with sticks, but he no longer says that now. The sulky faces he made at the time made us wonder if he disliked the experience, but it turns out he liked it so much he was disgusted that people interrupted by clapping when he did not want the music to stop." Alexander didn't clap until the End.