Friday, 13 October 2017

Michelle in another millenial cafe

I asked for a coffee and a croissant, so I got that I guess. The pastry was a bit tired and the espresso was a portmanteau of the less appealing bits of artisanal north London (machined coffee served in a miniature bed pan).

So, I settled down to browse the Metro (you're getting the idea) and idly reflect on another grey Friday morning. Drive My Car came on the cafe radio, which caught my ear, as did the subsequent Norwegian Wood. Ah, they've got Rubber Soul on Spotify, or something. I considered the picture of Paul McCartney I'd been looking at in Sunday's Observer, a byline image to promote a new Michael Caine documentary, My Generation, about the cultural phenomenon of the 1960s.
“There was a lot of snobbery then. It was terrible. There is a lot now too, but it can’t really hurt anyone because we don’t give a toss any more,” he said.
Then - out of track order - Michelle.

Michelle is one of the greatest (pop) songs ever written.

It just starts, without intro. It's written by a boy - Paul - addressing a girl ('Michelle!'), himself (ooh, 'these are words that go together well') and, last of all, us, telling the story.

He tries again, warming to the theme. Here's the songwriting Beatle, in his bedroom, guitar on lap, as unconcerned by his crush being foreign as he is playing the guitar left-handed. Paul still has the novelty and cosmopolitan funk of a Hamburg basement club still in his nostrils. He's going to try some French, and see what goes together well.

Sod it.

'I love you, I love you, I love you!' he blurts out, the tune suddenly grasping at the home note of his key signature. Frankly, all that studied melodic craftsmanship (a Gitane-tangy tritone between the second and third notes; French) can just wait in line between all he wants to say. And yet, that very line, all he wants to say, sits over the most nonchalant (one even has to use an adopted French term) harmonic sleight of hand. Because he has said it. Hey, Natasha Beddingfield probably paid her mortgage with the same tricolon crescendo in These Words, 40 years later.

And Michelle gets it. It's not the only words he knows that she'll understand. The words don't matter - the learning doesn't matter. He doesn't 'give a toss' in that moment. The worry about education doesn't matter, the pre-grammar-schooling that Michael Caine worries has excluded so many of My Generation from their potential, doesn't matter.

There's no posturing in Michelle: no lengthy introduction, no mansplaining of who Michelle is or what she means. George (is it George?) sits in the other corner of the middle eight spinning a slowhand curl of musical smoke, ruminating.

Middle eight? Nope, until I find a way of talking about this miniature masterpiece that Hugo Wolf would have been quietly pleased with, I will say the only words I know that you'll understand about the bits inbetween verses that have no chorus in the quietest of pop masterpieces.

Friday, 6 October 2017

Mahler 3, Philharmonia, Festival Hall

"It was voted the tenth-greatest symphony of all time in a survey of conductors carried out by the BBC Music Magazine." (via Wikipedia)

Well, tenth-greatest isn't where I would put it, even following a highly polished performance such as this. The Philharmonia performed Mahler's 3rd Symphony last Sunday afternoon at the Royal Festival Hall, a special event that was streamed online and also captured for some sort of VR event (part of their Virtual Orchestra series?). I guess it's the familiarity of the music, the length of the piece and the faintly daft fourth & fifth movements... but then I always have to factor in the hangover association of hearing the piece at the Barbican 20 years ago when the person next to me tried to unwrap a sweet throughout the whole of the finale.

Personal pecadillos aside it was just nice to come and hear the Philharmonia giving a concert performance of a single work, and one that is a classic example of an orchestral showpiece. I enjoyed the concert in so many ways for this alone: the ensemble, following Esa-Pekka Salonen's beat as if on the end of a cord; the brilliant woodwind throughout; the ensemble of the cellos, who I often mistook for a single instrument; ferocious but nonetheless meticulous trombones, as if a Formula 1 car had been asked to corner in the melodic minor; the ensemble (have I mentioned the ensemble yet?) of the timpani in the final throes of the work - absolutely astonishing, utterly memorable.

In addition to this were the women of Philharmonia Voices and the (off-copy) boys of Tiffin School, precise in tone, text and decorous choreography as Salonen segued the Threnody of the final movement from the close of the prior Knaben Wunderhorn setting. I had a splendid seat for such an event, halfway up the balcony where I last sat, ooh, again, 20 years ago to hear Waltraud Meier essay Wagner, a good place to take in the sweep of the substantial, impressive, if unfashionable concert hall and a piece of music that could have been designed for it. And we all listened carefully - without intrusive sweets - for the full hour and a half.