THE BLOG
09/04/2013 03:20 pm ET Updated Nov 04, 2013

A London Sojourn

I lived in London over 25 years ago as a young composer. During my two years there I attended a couple of concerts a week which gave me a good sense of the English musical landscape, attended some theatre, and got to know at least parts of the city well. I returned this past month for about 10 days and the experience was even richer than in the past.

One of the great pleasures is simply walking around the city-which is to say, it is filled with the greatest of architectural delights. This does not mean that any particular building or buildings are splendid, although some are, but rather that the eye is perpetually caught by intriguing juxtapositions- of new and old, of wide streets jutting off into the tiniest of nooks and crannies (the mews), of tidy green spots, and of everything being off grid. Remarkable slices of history appear at every turn, like the church where many of Handel's first performances took place. Unlike most large American cities (Boston and Philadelphia being modest exceptions), London's buildings have a sense of whimsical architectural ornamentation, a playfulness that refreshes. One can thus walk from St. Paul's Cathedral to Royal Albert Hall over the course of a day and never get visually tired, and is rarely overwhelmed by the barren quality of so much of architectural modernism.

I sampled more heavily in the realm of drama this year than in the past. Shows attended included Noel Coward's Private Lives, Ibsen's The Dollhouse, Tennessee William's Sweet Bird of Desire, and Luigi Pirandello's Liola. The productions were uniformly at a very high level as one expects from the London theater scene, with staging and sets clean and crisp, and characters well developed, if sometimes a bit, well, stiffly.

These four plays perchance present issues central to our civilizational survival. Private Lives and the Dollhouse look at the issue of individual self-realization versus the need for societal norms vis-à-vis marriage. They seem to come down on the side of self-realization over society's need for the normal or bourgeois approach to relationships.

In Private Lives the aristocratic Elyot suggests an aloofness or disdain for the world of ethical or moral behavior, which is mirrored in the cavalier attitude of his first wife, and now again lover, Amanda. That their love is shot through with violence only accentuates the amoral nature of their relationship. Also, their obsession with each other places them almost outside of the world, desperately trying to negate the effect of their behavior on their jilted spouses.

In The Dollhouse the relationship between husband and wife is so superficial as to seem to demand its termination. In this, it suggests the state of marriage as latter presented in Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique -- that marriage is a superficial form that negates woman's possibility for self-understanding and living a life of meaning. Friedan of course repented in her latter years, as she saw that the collapse of marriages and the collateral damage it caused was more problematic than she had originally anticipated. She realized that the marital situation was of great complexity and that there are other aspects of marriage than the political and personal that really do matter. When Nora slams the door upon her departure at the play's conclusion, are we really to assume that her children will be better off with the nanny? Might it be more heroic for her to stay in the marriage and work to make it into a real relationship? Does she have any "sacred duties", as husband Torvald suggests? Is there no possibility for personal growth, let alone salvation and redemption, in building a real relationship?

Liola and Sweet Bird present us with young philanderers who are actually in love -- the problem is that for societal reasons their love can't be consummated in marriage. In Liola, set in feudal Sicily, it is a problem of the necessity of marrying for financial stability, while in Sweet Bird it is a problem of the lovers coming from unequal stations in the American South.

The philandering but generous Liolà, who has fathered three children by three different women, shows us that life can be a laidback delight, particularly when you have a mother who will look after her grandchildren and a tight-knit village that looks after its own (It truly does take a village, but then again, this presupposes the existence of a village!). Fun, or a lighthearted approach to life, can trump bourgeois dictates, particularly in the face of a hierarchical society that seems to provide no alternative. It is a society where values may be imposed, but the outlier can ignore them without replacing them with any of his own. Powerlessness, rather than breeding contempt, is the creator of ironic insouciance.

Sweet Bird brings together two lost souls -- Chance, a would-be actor and gigolo, and the ageing Hollywood star, Alexandra Del Lago, in flight from the what she thinks is the failure of her last movie. Chance has driven them from Florida to his native Gulf Coast town in search of his old girlfriend, Heavenly, who he still loves from his youth. Unbeknownst to him, in their last encounter he left her with a venereal disease that resulted in an operation that left her infertile. It is a melodrama that fails to find a center, with the central characters flippant and course, the secondary characters, particularly the father of Heavenly, a venal and, of course, religious politician, hollow and one-dimensional. Its saving grace is that Chance has a sense of remorse upon hearing of Heavenly's state-seemingly, he actually does have a soul that acknowledges right and wrong and is accepting of a brutal form of Southern penance.

The concert I attended was one of the BBC Proms, a long tradition in London. Concerts take place in the barnlike Royal Albert Hall, which holds 5000-6000, and wherein half of the audience stands -- think of a very dignified mosh pit. The concert included music of Holst, a British favorite, and Lutoslawski, a Polish composer who, along with Penderecki, pretty much defined Polish music for the latter half of the 20th century.

Host was represented by his most well-know piece, The Planets (1914-16) and a short overture-like work, Egdon Heath (1927), while Lutoslawski was represented by his Symphonic Variations, an early work, and one of his last, the Piano Concerto, here played by Louie Lortie.

The Planets is tone painting at its best, if also most trite. The music is simplistically explicative of the supposed astrological nature of the planets, with an all but the kitchen sink approach to orchestration. To say that the work is one dimensional, simplistic and melodramatic in the extreme, would be a vast understatement. Yet the piece finds favor in the English heart. It is in fact hard to hear this piece now after the theft and over use of Holstian ideas by the Hollywood composers- John Williams in particular, who should be paying royalties to the Holst estate. The BBC Symphony, for whom this isn't often encountered repertoire, played their hearts out for the doggedly muscular conducting of Edward Garner.

Egdon Heath is something else altogether. Written in 1927, it was Holst's first major orchestral work after The Planets. It is the complete antithesis of that piece: Egdon Heath is never primitive, always elusive, and structurally erratic. Maybe it is best described as moving in and out of a boggy fog- Gothic here, renaissance-like there, sometimes melancholic and sometimes almost, but not quite, buoyant. It is emotionally complex, almost ill at ease with itself. It is a non-narrative work disguised as something other. This slim and fascinating piece, a diamond in the rough, was performed with mystery and elegance.

Lutosławski's Symphonic Variations was completed shortly before the occupation of Poland when the composer was just 25, that displays the composer's approach to appropriating folk materials or generalizing from their specific nature to broader ideas a la Bartok, and his already masterly handling of orchestration, for the piece sizzles with colorful bravura. His Piano Concerto, in his mature style, incorporates his idiosyncratic approach to twelve-tone technique, aleatoric textures, and a "chaining" concept of development. While effective, like too much of the music of this period, the music is ultimately bland and emotionally constrained, and has a tendency to wander. The orchestra, for whom this kind of music is daily fare, knocked the piece out with aplomb, and Lortie was a strong advocate for the alternatingly kinetic and introspective piano part. Gardner was a supportive and generous partner.

Subscribe to the Culture Shift email.
Get your weekly dose of books, film and culture.