Thursday, October 18, 2018

wild about...

Eleven years ago I went to the best gig I’ve ever seen. Harry Connick Jr at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Truth to tell, my expectations were fairly low. The CDs that Harry had out at that time were fairly middle of the road, and I remembered the sheer excitement of his first Albert Hall big band gigs in the early 90s with too much love to think that this poor latter day version of a once-great artist could come anywhere near that fire power.

How wrong I was. 

He performed a lot of material from those CDs I didn’t much care for, but he taught me, and everyone else in the packed auditorium, one helluva lesson. CDs are for selling; ‘live’ gigs are for living. The music was re-arranged, re-imagined, re-invigorated and re-al. Full on, difficult, not for the pleasing but for the love of it jazz. Well I was pleased. I was in love.

And - and this was cherry on the cake stuff - it was like jazz in the movies. Jazz in the movies is blue. The light, the set, the atmosphere. Harry’s staging that night was stunning. It was blue. And perfect. And when a soloist stood to soar, they were hit by a cartoon-perfect spotlight, that threw the rest of the stage into blackness and the soloist into diamond-bright glory. I’ve never seen anything like it before or since. It was intense. It was glorious. It was just the best.

Well, I came home dancing, and I put myself on a couple of email lists so that next time Harry came to town I’d be sure to get a good seat and re-live this amazing experience. 

Week after week those email sites would send me news of other concerts that I had no intention of going anywhere near. As months passed into years, and still there was no sign of a return gig, there were times I thought of pressing unsubscribe. In what felt like increasingly vain hope, I resisted. Then, suddenly, last July, ten and a half years after that dim and distant memory of the best gig I ever went to, they turned up with the goods and my MacBook shouted at me. 

Harry is coming back.

So I booked my ticket and instantly started to worry. Because, you know, lightning never strikes in the same place twice, right? There was no way that this gig was going to be anywhere near as good as 2007, right? And all I had from that gig was my memory, and a sense of how superb it was… This time was going to be one long let-down.

So I arrived early at the London Palladium. I admired the photos of Harry adorning the outside of the theatre, with him flashing his wedding ring very prominently. “His wife chose that picture,” said one sad middle-aged female fan to her equally disappointed middle-aged female friend. 

Inside, the bars were doing brisk trade. There were a number of folk who looked like people I ought to be recognising. I made my way in. A good seat, near the front, with the risk of being a terrible seat if really tall person sat in front of me. No-one sat there for an age till just before show time, a family came and sat down - a blonde woman and what I presumed were her daughters. Perfect - I had a great view of the whole stage.

Then we start. 

Let’s get the negatives out of the way first. The sound balance wasn’t ideal - it varied, and at times was very heavy on the rhythm, and so light on the (small) horn section that it felt more like a rock gig than a jazz gig. It varied through the evening; a friend of mine did find this a disappointment. I confess, I struggled less - because my attention was less on the band and much more on Harry, who looked and sounded great.

And that’s it for the negatives. Everything else was pure joy. I’m the same age as Harry (go on, I’ll admit to a couple more months) and I’d heard a couple of TV performances in the last year that had made me wonder if he was going to sustain a whole evening’s show.

What utter tosh. Harry Connick Jr was in stunning form. His voice has never been a thing of immaculate beauty, like that Canadian guy, but it is the grit and the character that makes it so terrific. His piano playing was relaxed and flowing, and a thing of power and imagination. His presentation was playful, having fun with a guy wearing an outrageous jacket, talking to folk who wandered out to the toilets or bar, interrupting himself frequently with asides and embracing the crowd in a way I just don’t recall from eleven years ago. 

There were times when he looked straight at me, and I was completely taken aback. He even winked, which was both disconcerting and sneakily wonderful. Then he introduced his wife Jill - the blonde woman in the seat in front of me… A relief, and a disappointment…Sitting where I was, I got to see how often he looked her way, and how much she enjoyed a show she must have seen many times. That was immensely touching. As was his interplay with his daughters, and their tourist tales of London.  

Good to see guys in the band who’d been there with him back in 1991 (notably Lucien Barbarin), great to enjoy the variety of New Orleans stompers, When Harry Met Sally swingers, and some rather more funky stuff too. Plus - Harry sang Gospel. Not a thing I’d ever imagined happening. Jonathan duBose came on stage with his guitar, and we had a very powerful rendition of How Great Thou Art, plus a brief (but very inspiring!) sermon before a New Orleans funeral procession to When the Saints. And it didn’t stop there… we were treated to Harry’s trumpet playing, and to his tap dancing, along side pro Luke Hawkins. 

How did it compare with 2007? Ah, I think that was a very special evening. I think the band back then perhaps was better (a little bigger too - which made a difference on some of the charts).  I think the surprise factor played into it too. But…

There can’t be many performers who will do two and a quarter hours of a show without any intervals. No wonder the crowd bayed for more, and received encore after encore. And as Harry gets older, I honestly think he gets better. His voice, his musicianship, his showmanship, he looks great, and with such high expectations and such a long wait - 

He did not disappoint. 

Come back soon. Please. With a full big band. Or just you & a piano. But come back soon.  

Friday, August 10, 2018

the duck and the gopher

Last Sunday, as I was leading one of our morning services, I was suddenly reminded of a dream I had years ago.

During the service I had preached on Ephesians 4, and had spoken of the calling we all have as Christians, and the way all of us should live a life worthy of that amazing calling to love God and love people. We may have different parts to play within the Church as we help build each other up and bless the whole body, but we are all called. And sometimes, it feels like others have more calling. Feelings can mislead.

Though they can point to deeper truths too.

And as the service went on, suddenly I opened my hands in invitation, and they were taken by a memory...

It goes back to before I was ordained. The dream I was reminded of, I mean. In it, I was by a river, at the foot of a wooded cliff. There was a sort of ledge to sit on, and a bit of an overhang, enough room for a group of people to gather. As I sat there on a sunny afternoon, I saw to one side a small furry animal.

A gopher.

Not a creature one usually sees in England. But I knew instantly what it was. And it was a brave little thing, coming right up to me. So I reached out, and touched it - and as we touched, it began to sing.

I promise, I was more surprised than you.

It's song was tentative, deep, intensely musical and more instrumental than vocal. Plangent. Sad.

Then I looked to the other side of me and saw a dark coloured bird, with a flash of colour on its wing and on its beak. A rather elegant duck.

A duck.

And it too approached me, so I reached out my other hand and stroked its feathers - at which point, it joined in the gopher's song. Not with a quacking or a bird sound of any kind, but with a counterpoint melody to the gopher, high and gentle, rising and falling, yet somehow rising ever higher.

I retracted my hands, stunned by the music. It stopped. Both creatures stayed where they were and looked at me. Rather accusingly, I felt. I laughed, feeling embarrassed, and reached out again -

The music grew, and grew, and enveloped everything. I had never heard this music before to my knowledge but it was beautiful. Melodies entwined with each other, harmonies grew, the sound was everywhere, I saw people all around and wanted to draw them in, but somehow I knew all that I had to do was keep contact with the duck and the gopher. I wasn't making this music, it was nothing to do with me, I had only the smallest part - I was simply a contact point. Yet the contact was vital. I was the least important. I was essential.

The thing is, about two weeks after that dream, I bought a CD in Woolworths (remember Woolworths?) a disc with Shostakovich's 10th Symphony on it. And as a filler, a Ballet Suite. Like everyone, Woolworth's licensed decent recordings and sold them on their own label.

The first movement of Ballet Suite no.4 (no, there's really no reason why you'd know this music) stopped me in my tracks. It was the song of the duck and the gopher from my dream. Here's that recording I bought back in the early 1990s:

And last Sunday, as I led our morning service, suddenly I felt the memory of a surprisingly elegant bird at one hand, and a small furry creature at the other, and the sound of a song I've not thought of in far too long filled my mind, and again it was glorious.

God makes the music; all we have to do is a tiny thing so that everyone hears it.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

how to curry favour...

The world has been entranced by Presiding Bishop Michael Curry's address at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. His words on the power of love have had enormous impact.

However, there has been a mystery about how the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church was chosen to deliver this address -

Until now.

A recording has emerged of Harry & Meghan's wedding preparations with the Archbishop in Lambeth Palace. The following is a partial transcript of that recording.

The scene is a drawing room in Lambeth Palace. 
Prince Harry & Meghan Markle sit wth the Archbishop of Canterbury, sipping tea & discussing plans for their upcoming ceremony.

Prince Harry: We’d like some advice about the wedding, archbishop.

Archbishop of Canterbury: Yes, of course.

PH: Obviously, it would be good to have a mix of things.

AoC: Obviously.

Meghan Markle: Being, you know - 

AoC: Mixed race.

PH: A royal wedding.

AoC: Well, precisely.

PH: Papa has given us some classical type tunes and things, and they seem OK...

MM: We’ve never heard of them

AoC: (pause as he looks down list) Nor has anyone else. Good Lord.

MM: Yeah, right, so we thought something a bit more popular would be good.

AoC: Something that Suits you - as it were! (AoC laughs at his own joke)

MM: Sorry?

AoC: Apologies. (sounding embarrassed) Now actually, I ‘m very good at this popular music thing.

PH: Really?

AoC: Yes - there’s that young black person who’s in the album charts at the moment…

PH: Er… That doesn’t really narrow it down.

AoC: Plays the cello.

MM: That narrows it down. Maybe not quite what we were thinking.

AoC: Oh, Ok. Well we can always put him in the signing of the register then.

PH: And what will we do while that happens. ?

AoC: (audibly surprised at the question) Stand by me, of course.

MM: You know, I really don’t think we should perform; couldn’t we get a choir to do that?

AoC: No no no no no - I mean you’ll stand by me to sign the register. 
        Though now you mention it…that's not the worst idea.

PH: And then we need to think of someone to give the address.

AoC: (A smile creeping into his voice) Well, thank you, I rather thought - 

MM: (interrupting) Apparently there’ll be two billion people watching.

AoC: (instantly businesslike) - it shouldn’t be me. No. Definitely not. 

PH: And Grandmother said not anyone from Alpha or the Archbishop of York.

AoC: Ah. I see. Anyone you’d like?

PH: Don’t really know many preachers. Better on rugby players. Army types.

MM: Actors. 

PH: The Beckhams.

PH & MM: Elton John. 

AoC: Well, who would your Grandmother like?

PH: Oh, God knows. Don’t try to curry favour - just give her something Anglican, something that makes her laugh, or a horse.

MM: But not the Archbishop of York.

AoC: (As if a light has just gone on) Well… “curry favour”… I think I may have just the right person for you…

Thursday, February 01, 2018

all good things

I’m in Wengen, Switzerland, taking a couple of weeks as ICS chaplain. I’ve been doing these little stints at St Bernard’s Church for 21 years. You never know what lies ahead when you arrive - who you will meet, what you will see, what opportunities you will have to share faith and help folk along the way. It’s a wonderful thing - but for all sorts of reasons, I’ve decided this is my last such trip.

There’s the practical: ICS provide accommodation & a travel grant, but Switzerland has gotten expensive! The pound went a lot further 21 years ago… And there’s the emotional. Last year, at my 50th party, it struck me that I really needed to do new things or I’d be doing the same-old same-old for the rest of my life. Sometimes you have to let go of the past in order to discover the future.

On Sunday night I was at Merton, talking of the past, for a Candlemas Communion. There was an excellent sermon, and the choir were on superb form. One of the things they sang was a piece by Byrd:

Senex puerum portabat; puer autem senem regebat. Alleluia.
The old man was carrying the boy; the boy however was ruling the old man. Alleluia.

In context of a Candlemas service, it’s a reference to Simeon holding the infant Jesus. But the infant Jesus is Simeon’s Lord and Saviour, and the hope of seeing this child has ruled the old man’s life. Now the hope is fulfilled; he can die in peace. 


As I sat there, having heard an excellent sermon on suffering and life and the presence of God through the dark times, it struck me that there was another layer to this. So let me re-translate:

When we grow older, we carry the memories of our younger days with us. What we don’t always realise is the power those memories, those experiences, those past times have over us. Alleluia.

And the problem is, that’s not always a good thing. 

A look of disappointment. A word that cut us down. A failure. A shame. We carry them with us from youth to age. And these follies of youth can maintain a power over us even when we are so old we have forgotten them.

Why are some adults frightened of dogs? Because a puppy jumped up at their pushchair. I remember at five years old scoring a goal in the playground, and a lad - who went on to become a leading light in the local football club - punched me. I’m not sure I scored too many goals after that!

Salvation, it seems to me, is sometimes letting our old man get to know our child a bit better so that the past loses some of its mysterious power. You shall know the truth, says Jesus, and the truth shall set you free. We’ll reveal what has been hidden; we’ll face up to what we’ve avoided. Because the child within us is an important part of the old man, and shouldn’t be ignored or wiped away or forgotten - but one certainly shouldn’t rule the other. A little harmony goes a long way.

And sometimes Salvation is about recognising the time to put away childish things. Not especially  because they’re childish, but because if we don’t, we’ll never discover life has even more to offer.
My tastebuds may always like Ribena. But there’s a time to appreciate coffee, and I’m missing out if I don’t try it…

Through the last twenty-one years I’ve certainly had some times when I have had to see the truth a bit more clearly, and in the process the mystery of the past has lost a little of its grip, and the present has become a better, healthier place to live. A little Salvation has happened. And times in Wengen have played their part in that for me. And yet I know that letting go is growing up. The friends I have made here will always shape me; and I will always come back to them. But the chaplaincy that first brought me here is coming to its end for me. Or I won’t find out what else lies out there… And that’s a taste of Salvation too. A taste of the ‘even more’ that all life, and especially life with God, is supposed to bring.

I tell you, I am seeing every single person who ever meant anything to me in this place this week. And every time I do, I am filled with gratitude. It is quite a thing.

All good things… 

Saturday, January 20, 2018

unoriginal instruments

I was listening to the radio today and a heretical thought crossed my mind:

Hasn't the period instrument stuff gotten boring?

I mean - back in the olden days, say, like the 1970s, when there were folk who clearly had a direct line back to stuff like Mozart, it was a fascinating thing. Musicians, fed up with being able to play familiar scores, started to play them faster just to see if it was possible. Often it wasn't, but we loved it anyway. We were told it was old, but it was new.

And then came the influx of "original instruments" - like real instruments, but impossible to play. So we had stunningly well recorded versions of Bach and, well, more Bach, played sometimes really nearly in tune.

Just like Bach would have heard it himself.

It was a crazy time - people thought of all sorts of things, like using really bad pianos to record Mozart concertos, and then changing 'pitch' - reading the same music but playing a semi-tone lower than you were reading. Really technical stuff. And given that, that most of the notes still came out in the right place and in the right order was awesome. No wonder we gave those guys awards by the bucketful.

But now...

Original instruments sound so...unoriginal.

They're so in tune. So accurate. So together. So like real music. I mean, that's it really. When you go to a concert, you can see some of the flutes are wooden, and some of the string instruments are a funny shape, and some of the trumpets are side-ways on, but when you just listen - it's like listening to proper people playing proper grown-up instruments. It's all so professional.

It's like Simon Cowell has applied autotune to everything.

It is sort of pretty; but it's not so much fun. Somewhere along the way the early music brigade has exchanged its personality for a glossy coat.

Monday, January 08, 2018

New Year, New Blog

I have a new blog. This one will keep running with the usual mix of - well, whatever it is I put on here...

But now there's also The Possibility of Difference . This one is where I'll put thoughts & theologies & stories to do with issues of sexuality in the Bible & the church today. By all means wander over & take a look!

Thursday, January 04, 2018

New Year, New Toast

As a regular listener to Radio 3's Breakfast programme, it is with some resignation that I hear of the excitement in the various announcers' voices as they talk of the "New Year, New Music" promotion that is being offered to us in January.

It's like a musical Dry January. Having had a feast of lovely music in the run-up to Christmas, we pay for it by having to listen to all sorts of gargling sounds in the first days of 2018.

"...And this is a wonderful combination of the bells of Winchester cathedral, the human voice and a vacuum cleaner, all mixed in together..."

Still, at least there are three things to give thanks for as we endure New Year, New Music.
1. February will soon be here.
2. The dog is occasionally entranced by the bizarre noises emanating from the radio as we wake up, and sits staring at the speaker till it all gets too much. Then he barks. And then I get up.
3. And - thank God - they have learned from a former experience, and at least we don't have the New Composer in residence that we had a couple of years ago.

This last thing was a terrific experiment that came straight from a Radio 3 version of W1A. Having listened through the whole darned thing, I imagine it went like this...

The Director of New at Radio 3 had an idea. Or, one of his team did, which (essentially) is exactly the same thing. So he sent an email to the Editor of Breakfast, and they met for coffee in Debussy, the Radio 3 canteen.

"Thanks for making time," said New.
"Always a pleasure," said Breakfast.
The Editor of Breakfast had been rather stunned to receive the email. The Director of New was well-known for arriving in the office at 11.30 every morning, and it was generally presumed he had no idea that Radio 3 offered a breakfast programme to the nation.

"I've had an idea," said New.
"Yes, great."
"Isn't it?"

They drank their coffee.

"Well, what is it?" asked Breakfast, nervously.
"Oh, of course," smiled New, "how silly."
"Not at all."
"You were saying?"

"We at New are always looking for ways to further the embrace of New throughout the purview of the great Network that is Three..."
"Quite right."
"Yes, well, we realised that amongst all that whatever it is you do at whenever it is you do it on Breakfast - wonderful title, by the way, so - descriptive - "
"Thank you."
"Well, there's not much New is there?"

The Editor of Breakfast sat, silent. Then:
"Not much New?"
"I mean, I listened today - well, obviously, I didn't, but I read the playlist, which is pretty much the same thing - "
"Pretty much."
"And there was plenty there that was new to me. I didn't even know the Apprentice was a ballet."
"It's not."
"It is - it said so on the play list."
"The music is from a ballet."
"Same thing."
"Bloody hell."
"As I said, new to me. But not - New. So we thought -"
"I'm a bit nervous."
"Don't be. We thought - Jacinta has a cousin who knows this chap who won a prize at, well, who cares, but the thing is, he's an actual composer. Like Alan Sugar."
"Bloody hell."
"And we've hired him."

Stunned silence.

The Editor of Breakfast tapped his cup, nervously, wondering if it would make much difference at this point if he smashed it over the Director of New's head.

"You've hired him? Why?"
"Because - and you'll love this - for six weeks he's going to write a piece of music a week for Breakfast. Something New. New, do you get? We'll be working together!"
"Bloody hell."
"And am I allowed to know his name?"
"Oh yes, he definitely has one."

And that was that.

Geraint Brynmor-Hughes was delighted to be commissioned by the nation's most prestigious serious music network to produce six short works for broadcast. It was - by far - his most significant opportunity to date. When the Director of New had first approached him, he had needed no persuading. When he had been offered actual money for the six pieces he had wept openly.

So Geraint Brynmor-Hughes put enormous thought and effort into his first work. It was important that the listeners to the nation's most prestigious serious music network understood his thought processes and the way he approached the task of composition. It mattered that they entered into the journey of self-understanding and communal-expression which embraced the every day and then transcended the ordinary.

Week One
"September Morning" was broadcast at the end of August.

The Breakfast team were slightly tense as they awaited the delivery of the recording. It was felt that they too should hear it for the first time with the nation.
"Builds the suspense."
"Makes everyone everyone."
"And, to be fair, this way it really is New."

At 7.43 Petroc announced - "We're delighted that today begins our new series of Composer in Residence pieces with six new compositions by prize-winning young composer, Geraint Brynmor-Hughes. This is 'September Morning'.

A low growling noise spluttered from an unsuspecting nation's radios. It was followed by a high-pitched squeal, that ululated, paused, stuttered, repeated, and was then joined by the percussive rhythm of a pneumatic drill with added Chinese gong.

The whole thing lasted one minute and twenty four seconds.

In the Breakfast studio, there was sheer terror. Followed by Petroc announcing:
"'September Morning' by Geraint Brynmor-Hughes, the first of six new compositions especially for Radio Three Breakfast in an exciting new series. Next, Chopin."

As the Chopin began, so did the recriminations.
"What the **** was that?"
"No it bloody well wasn't."
"It's on the list again for 8.39"
"Well take it off."
"But the list..."
"It's a minute and twenty seconds - Petroc can talk to the newsreader for all I care. That's New!"
"He does that most days."
"He's definitely doing it today."
"Who on earth is Geraint Brynmor-Hughes anyway?"
"Someone someone in New knows. Won a competition."
"For what?"
"Bloody well fooled me."
"Oh God."
"Look at the Twitter feed..."

Twitter was not the natural environment of the nation's most prestigious serious music network's Breakfast listener - so when #Radio3GBH was trending by 7.55, it was either a very bad or a very good thing. Depending.

Either way, Geraint's second composition came a week later.

Week Two
The Editor of Breakfast waited at the door of Broadcasting House for the Director of New to arrive.
"Did you hear it?"
"You didn't."
"Of course I did. Marvellous."
"In what world is ninety seconds of Saami folk song mixed with computer game noises and 'The Price is Right' theme bloody marvellous?"
"Look, you just have to understand 'New'."
"Or music. They seem to be alternatives."
"It's water cooler stuff though isn't it? I mean, here we are!"
They walked past the water cooler in the entrance foyer.
"I'm really sorry," said Breakfast, "but we're pulling the plug."
"Why?" asked New. "Too many listeners? Too many people talking about your show? Too much exposure for Petroc? Afraid he'll leave? I have had lots of enquiries... All that social media stuff must be very - what's the word - New."

The Editor of Breakfast fumed.
"It's just not right for us!"
"Then have Geraint on the programme," smiled New. "He's a lovely chap."
"Know him well, do you?" hissed Breakfast.

Week three
"And this morning," melifluated Petroc, "we're delighted to welcome our Composer in Residence, Geraint Brynmor-Hughes to the studio, to tell us all about his latest composition for us. Geraint, welcome."
"Is that a Welsh accent I can hear there?"
"No, I'm from Brighton."
"Ah - forgive me..."
"It's OK, I get it a lot. The name."
"And your latest piece, I must say - they've been causing everyone to talk - what is this one called?"
"Can you tell us something of the way you approach writing new music?"
"Well, this one is a classical Badinerie in form, but with hip-hop rhythms using household electrical items, and a bagpipe."
"Can't wait. Here's 'Thoughtfulness' by our Composer in Residence, Geraint Brynmor-Hughes."

Later, at the door to Broadcasting House, the Editor of Breakfast, accompanied by several members of his team, stood waiting at 11.29 for the arrival of the Director of New at Radio Three.
"Ah - Good morning!"
"Yes, well -"
"I see Twitter is agog with GBH!"
"Which is something -"
"It is indeed. Who'd have thought it?"
"Who indeed?"
"Hashtag Radio3GBH? Trending!"
"GBH is about right."
"Do I hear dissent in the camp?"
"What you hear is bloody full-grown revolt."

The Director of New paused.

"Full-grown revolt?"
"Bloody hell."
"And we're not going to play any more vacuum cleaners, pneumatic drills, computer game noises or hip hop on Breakfast."
"But you'll keep the Saami, the Chinese gongs and the bagpipe?"
"So you have been listening?"
"BBCiPlayer. Wonderful thing."

The Breakfast team stared at the Director of New as they all emerged from the lift onto the Third floor and seemed to be heading for a showdown in Copeland.

"It's not just that Brynmor-Hughes has no idea about, I don't know, basic Harmony -"
"Or melody."
"Yes, I see what you mean."
"Or, well, notes as such."
"You mean music per se?"
"It's not just all that."
"Though he did win a prize."
"So did Petroc's cousin's bull at the Great Western Show."
"For composition?"
"More likely than Brynmor-Hughes."
"It's just not very - Breakfast."

"But - " said New -
"Well, just a thought, really -"
"I'm listening."
"No, I realise the revolt is too far gone for this."
"What were you going to say?"
"Well, it's just that I've sort of paid him upfront."
"And it is the Great British Public's money, you know."
"Bloody hell."
"So would it help if - and I'm just spitballing here - we asked him to try using, well -"
"Yes, I suppose. I was going to say -"
"A tune?"
"That's probably a bit hopeful. How about a violin?"
"A violin?"
"Or a recorder."
"A recorder?"
"Something you'd find in an orchestra."
"A recorder. Something you'd find in an orchestra. Right."
"Anything. A more traditional approach."
"Everyone on board?"
"Bloody hell."

Week four
The response to Geraint Brynmor-Hughes' First String Quartet, broadcast 'live' on BBC Radio 3's Breakfast programme, was overwhelming.

It had recognisable instruments. It had four movements (Allegro - Preparation; Scherzo - Oven Timer; Adagio - Reading the Newspaper; Vivace - Dinner). It had no melodies, which might have been a slight negative, but much more importantly - it lasted (in total, all four movements all together) thirty seven seconds.

It was an unmitigated success.
"Well," exclaimed Petroc after it finished at just after 7.51, "I think we'll be hearing that again later!"

It was played seventeen times on Breakfast during the week.
The Director of New sent the Editor of Breakfast an email:

17! Thank you!
He received a reply:
37" Thank you.

Week five
"Geraint, sweetie, we're thinking of following up the String Quartet with another absolute classic."
"I've got something in mind too."
"Really, what?"
"It combines banjo playing and cement mixers on the A1-M."
"We're thinking more - choral. Have you ever worked with the BBC Singers?"
"The BBC what?"
"Singers. Wonderful. They sing."
"I guessed."
"First rate, I'm told. Songs, and, you know, other things. Well, they can't wait. The String Quartet has everyone wanting to perform your music."
"It does?"
"So what do you want me to write?"
"I wouldn't presume."
"Just keep your usual touchstone of the real world."
"For the BBC Singers."
"I knew you'd see it."

Petroc welcomed Geraint back into the Breakfast studio.
"And we're delighted to welcome back Geraint Brynmor-Hughes, our Welsh Composer in Residence."
"From Brighton."
"Tell us Geraint, have you been surprised by the response to last week's String Quartet?"
"It's not something I'm used to."
"I wouldn't have thought so."
"I mean, writing for a string quartet."
"So what made you branch out?"
"Er - well, it's been brilliant having the opportunity to write for Breakfast, really."
"And we have certainly experienced it with you. Now this week the studio is crammed because again we have a 'live' performance - another first performance - this time a choral work. Is choral writing something you enjoy?"
"I'll let you know."
"Tell us about this work, sung for us this morning by the BBC Singers under the direction of chief conductor David Hill."
"Well, I was at the Heston Services and I read the menu, and it came to me that this might be the perfect subject for a choral work."
"So though it's a 'live' performance, there's also some feedback, a bit of looping and a repeat."
"Just like being at the service station. Can't wait. Here's 'Menu' by Geraint Brynmor-Hughes."

Week six
Well, thought the Editor of Breakfast as he strolled towards work, this is finally it. One more day and it's all over. Everyone will be happy. The Director of New will be old news. Life will return to normal.

So he was somewhat surprised to arrive at Broadcasting House before the sun had even thought of getting up to find the Director of New waiting for him at the door.
"Good Lord."
"Isn't it?"
"I didn't know you did this time of day."
"I don't usually."
"To what do I owe the pleasure?"
"Pleasure is the word. You may thank me now."
Breakfast felt queasy.
"Thank you?"
"Not at all."
"No - thank you for what?"
"Oh I see."
"Really - for what."
"Aha! Come and see!"

Inside Broadcasting House, New led Breakfast to studio seven, which had been laid out to broadcast or record a whole symphony orchestra.
"What's this for?" asked Breakfast.
New smiled: "You asked for something more Breakfast."
"Bloody hell."
"A piano would've done."
"Well I give you the BBC Symphony Orchestra."

The editor of Breakfast was shell-shocked.
"We are the nation's most prestigious serious music network."
"But - that's our annual budget sitting there."
"And about ten minutes of mine."
"At this time in the morning?"
"Well, not at this time - but by the time you're on air, yes."
"When have they rehearsed?"
"Rehearsed? It's Geraint bloody Brynmor-Hughes we're talking about, it's not like they're backing Shirley Bassey."
"No, well."
"I suppose these are professionals."
"And musicians."
"Some of them both at the same time."
"That's the spirit."
"So what has he written for them?"
"No idea. It's a tribute to Breakfast."
"What's it called?"
New looked at his iPhone.
"Bloody hell."

Petroc had a monitor showing him studio seven. He could see the BBC Symphony Orchestra ready to play Breakfast by Geraint Brynmor-Hughes. He, and the rest of the team in the Breakfast studio, were alone in the world in being slightly prepared for what was about to happen.

The string players had been given plates, knives and forks. Woodwind had boxes of cereal (sealed). The brass players had been given bowls of different sizes filled with differing quantities of milk, and were standing by with their mouthpieces, ready to blow. Everyone else had either bread or some form of electrical device (ranging from coffee maker to food mixer).

Not a single 'orchestral' instrument was in evidence.
The composer sat nervously at the side of the seventy musicians.
Sakari Oramo stood at the podium, ready to conduct.

A Rossini overture finished and Petroc announced that it was time for the final of the six specially-composed pieces by Composer in Residence, Geraint Brynmor-Hughes, who was "sitting ready with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, for a magnificent world-premier performance of a stunning new work - Breakfast!"

The scraping of cutlery across plates moved from first violins to seconds to violas to cellos and double basses; soon all of the string players were attacking their plates. Woodwind began (slowly at first) to shake cereal boxes, with an increasing rhythm that grew in intensity and menace. The brass took turns to blow into their bowls - till suddenly in a crescendo all of them were blowing at once, and the electrical devices switched on together. This cacophony lasted a full ten seconds till those with bread threw it in the air and as Sakari Oramo brought his beat down for the final time, the whole orchestra intoned -
"And it's nearly eight O' clock," continued Petroc, without missing a beat, "but there's just time to say that in St Mary's Church in Whitley St Drayton, there's a performance by the Whitley St Drayton Singers of English Choral Classics this evening at 7.30pm. Do look that one out if you are nearby. Time for the news now, read for us today by..."

*          *         *          *             *

Oh yes. It was quite a thing.
And now we are being made to endure New Year, New Music. Payment for too many nice things over Christmas. There's probably a new Director of New trying to improve us all again. Someone who doesn't realise what we need when those of us who wake up to Breakfast wake up.

At least the powers that be at the nation's most prestigious serious music network are not repeating the Radio Three Breakfast Composer in Residence debacle.

Though, as I scan the Radio Times, I see that this week's Composer of the Week is...

Geraint Brynmor-Hughes.
New Year, New Toast then.

Friday, December 29, 2017

three musicals

I've seen all sorts of shows, plays, operas and concerts this year. I've been very lucky. Musically, the highlight was undoubtedly Igor Levit playing the Shostakovich 24 Preludes and Fugues. It was two and a half hours of magic: that I was on the front row, inches away from the Steinway was a glorious addition to a perfect evening. One I will not forget.

I also loved the two-parter Harry Potter play, and Amadeus at the National at the beginning of the year set a really high bar as to my theatrical expectations.

But there were three musicals that stood out for me in 2017, three shows that will stay with me for all sorts of reasons.

An American in Paris came to London as a transfer from Broadway, with the leads reprising their roles. That it was at the Dominion almost made me not book - I really dislike that barn of a theatre - and the pre-show chatter seemed non-existent, making me wonder if I'd done the right thing...

I had.

From the moment it began, I was in love with it. Yes, it's a song-and-dance karaoke musical, a string of Gershwin hits cobbled together loosely after the Gene Kelly movie. But what songs. And what dancing...

No musical hoofing here, this is a show where the dance is ballet. The leads (Robbie Fairchild, Leanne Cope, phenomenal) are ballet dancers who are doing their first show. It shows - not in their acting or singing, which is as good as any anywhere, but in their dancing which is stunning.

I heard people disappointed in the interval. DISAPPOINTED!!! What did they want, blood? No - they wanted 42nd Street. It's not that. It's sublime. The interplay of the three male leads, the central love story, and the final ballet sequence made me want to stand a cheer and cheer and cheer. This is what you pay to see a show for.

I went again. And second time I was on the front row. From the circle I saw the shape of the choreography; from the front row I saw them dance with their faces. Beautiful. Beautiful.

In 1988 I dragged two friends to see Follies in the West End. Julia MacKenzie, Diana Rigg et al. A star-studded cast, and my first full-blown Sondheim. I loved it. They kind of enjoyed it.

Thirty years on, it's fascinating seeing it again. Of course, back then I was the age of the younger cast; now I'm with the older cast looking back. That's an interesting way to do a show...

Follies at the the National is sensational. The best acted and best sung production imaginable. Not star-studded, but properly cast (and that's not to disrespect Imelda Staunton or anyone else - but it does avoid stunt casting), and with the younger actors constantly shadowing their older selves like ghosts of the questioning past, it sends endless shivers down the spine. The madness of regret - the follies of age and youth - are played out remorselessly before an audience that applauds every last emotional mistake. A stunning theatrical triumph.

I saw it again.

As with An American in Paris, the second viewing was even more powerful than the first. I got (for the first time) how the 'review' songs actually comment on the unfolding catastrophe of the two main couples' lives. It's a show where nothing happens and everything happens, where the show we put on for everyone else finally crumbles to the reality of who we are and where everyone sees the theatre of our lives pulled down - and no-one notices.

It's bombastic. It's nuanced beyond belief. It's a marvel.

And then...

When I told friends here last January I had booked to see Hamilton, they said, "What's that?"
When I told them this week I was going to see Hamilton, they said, "Wow! How did you get tickets!"

I booked because a friend in the US went to see it on Broadway. It's not the kind of thing I'd expect her to like. But she came away raving about it. So I wanted to see it for myself.

It's a sung-through show, like Andrew Lloyd Webber or Les Mis. Not like AiP or Follies. And - the publicity tells you - it's hip hop. So it doesn't sound like my kind of thing.

But Hamilton is for me no Lloyd Webber show; and though I know someone (an otherwise sane someone) who has seen Les Mis more times than she's celebrated Christmas, Hamilton is considerably a better show than Les Mis. (I agree with Doctor Who on Les Mis - life's just too short.) And it's a lot more than a hip hop show - though - oh my - what power that music has, and how incredibly is it deployed.

First: the experience. Lots of the crowd know the show beforehand. (Given I went in the first week, I guess they were really keen, so they have the recording.) It felt much more like a karaoke show than AiP - but that was because of the frisson in the crowd, which made Hamilton - first time West End actor Jamael Westman - feel like a pop star when he stepped forward. It was indeed worthy of the standing ovation it received - my only feeling was that the crowd should have kept going longer. The players deserved more from us.

Then: the show. From the moment it began, it was sensational. It has a power, a rhythm which sweeps you along. The music is varied, the words are profoundly clever, and if at times I found myself wanting more emotion than I was getting - it came. And if I found myself wanting a change of pace, a little light and shade, it too came. From the relentless to the heartbreaking. From the politics to the personal.

Westman is impressive: head and shoulders taller than many of the cast, he holds himself with an enthusiasm and an authority that grows and is shattered as the evening passes. Terrific.

The colour-blind casting is beautiful. A vision of how humanity can be. Of how a nation could be. Should be. If anything, it draws attention to the way in which all the action is driven by men - the women are very secondary - till the very end. And then, one of the main themes of the whole show - who gets to tell the story - is thrown on its head and the woman's voice rings out and re-tells the truth. Beautifully, heartrendingly, better.

Given the ticket availability, I doubt I'll see this one a second time. But maybe I'll try...

I want a musical to entertain, to raise me up, to make me cry, to make me laugh, to engage and to amaze.
All three of these delivered in spades.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Time travelling. The annual pass.

I've been having fun receiving the annual natal congrats today.

FaceBook has decided that a year after my 50th, I'm celebrating my 40th. Well, if it's on the internet, it must be true.

Though @realDonaldTrump hasn't posted about is, so, it may not be completely true. Or it may be very true. Depending on where you get your fake from these days.

Last time I was 40, I had an evening do in the Gelliwastad Club in Pontypridd, with the quartet playing, and lots of friends in black tie. This time was a much quieter day.

Harry & I had a good walk (see picture) in the November sun - and wind, which was quite cold; I baked; I went to see a Janacek opera.

Janacek. There's a guy who knew a good time: "From the House of the Dead". An opera set in a prison camp. I tell you, I know how to celebrate being 40 again. Well, WNO are in Oxford for the week, so I'm going to the full set - Tchaikovsky, Janacek, Strauss. One of these is genuinely a bundle of laughs.

Speaking of laughs, if I let myself, I could describe the whole experience of being 50 as interesting. In the Chinese proverb "interesting times" way, rather than in the "want to have more time being 50 so I can explore it and understand even more of it" way. More Janacek than Strauss.

And then I'd have to add - as Stephen Sondheim so memorably said in a song I've enjoyed again this year in its West End revival - "Lord knows at least I was there, and I'm still here..."

Yet that doesn't quite hit the mark. I've had some fragile times this year. But I was also given the gift of a piano, and I've been playing it every day, sitting down and finding songs old and new to sing and enjoy. All sorts of songs, but at the start of each day - worship songs. It has been a wonderful gift to have this piano. It has kept me spiritually close to God, as such a gift should.

And in my car as I've driven around, all sorts of music has healed my soul. Bach, of course. And Beethoven. And Basie. And Shostakovich - who knew? And most recently some old recordings of worship songs that Dan & Kirsty & I did together before they left Pontypridd. Just the three of us playing through songs and hymns. Simple, beautiful.

I guess I'm saying - it's been a year. There have been moments of fragility. There have been touches of God.

On my second visit to Florida this year I got an art piece which simply says "Rise'. Because every year, often every day gives the choice - is the cup half full or half empty? Which way are you going to see life? Which way are you going to let life see you? Sometimes it really does feel like Back to the Future, facing all the same old same olds all over again, and if the empty won before - how do we do this again?

Because we rise. Because we have a God who rose for us and gives us the same power. Because it doesn't matter what age, what day, what mood we find ourselves in. This may just feel like a crucifixion day: but there's a rising coming. And I choose - now, today, always - to fix my eyes on the rising. To fix my eyes on Jesus, who for the joy set before him, endured the cross.

If it's good enough for Jesus...

As a Christian, I'm supposed to be able to do a little spiritual time travelling on a regular basis - and that's no Fake News. Because we're all supposed to need to look to Easter today in order to reach tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

giving thanks in all things

This last weekend I preached in church on the Feeding of the Five Thousand.

The Gospel reading was the Matthew 14 version of this story. It's a great story, and slightly unusual in that it's one of the few that comes in all four Gospels.

And as I preached, one of my very favourite things happened:
I preached to myself.

I suddenly realised that what I was saying, I was saying to me. The words coming out of my mouth spoke to me.

Now, honestly, it'd be great if every time I preached the power of the word challenged my heart and changed me. But - honestly - this isn't always true. I do try to apply what I say to myself. I do try to think how what I am teaching will help me. But it doesn't always hit me between the eyes and go - Wow! This is God's word to you today!

But this week this happened.

I was carefully working through the text, and explaining how Jesus' disciples weren't quite as filled with endless stores of compassion as Jesus. First, they complain; and second they top the complaint with a problem which they reckon will sort out the issue to their liking.

Jesus is busy healing, having compassion on the crowd, when the disciples have had enough. They want a break. So they suggest it's time to stop. This is the complaint. "Can't we go home now?" "Haven't we done enough already?" Or, in the words of the text: "Send them away to buy their own food. It's late."

Jesus smiles. Concerned about them being hungry? I'm delighted you're learning, and still showing concern. Why don't you feed them?

So the disciples add the deciding problem to the complaint in order to finish the matter off:
"But we have here only five bits of bread and two scraps of fish. Not enough for so many people. End of."

And Jesus lifts his face to God, and says - "Good point. Send 'em home"

No - Jesus does something glorious.

Something so counter-intuitive it changes the world.

Something unthinkably, ridiculously and perfectly Godly.

He picks up the problem. The bread, the fish. The not enough food. And he thanks God for it.
He thanks God for the problem.

Then he breaks the bread. Gives it to the complaining disciples. And the complaining disciples find themselves feeding the massive crowd.


I have a confession to make: as a rector, there are times when people complain to me. I know, this may come as a surprise. And, sometimes, to top off the complaint, people will add a problem which really does finish things off.

Or it's meant to.

Know what I mean?

"And on top of that, he voted Brexit."
"And you'll remember she let us down last year as well."
"Well, we've never done it this way before."

But Jesus takes the very thing that is presented as the deciding problem and gives thanks for it. And the giving thanks leads to the problem being broken. And to the disciples stopping complaining and the crowd being fed.

When was the last time you gave thanks for a problem, a difficulty, something that you didn't like?

I can tell you when it happened to me. Sunday morning. As I preached.


I've got a meeting this week. With some people I'm finding really hard at the moment. It's their fault things are tricky, obviously. Clearly I'm beyond reproach, in this as in all things.

But I have been dreading this meeting.

Yet as I spoke about this moment, this thanksgiving, this transformational thing that Jesus does, this grabbing the problem that tops the complaint and thanking God for it -
I suddenly realised I had to stop my internal monologue of complaint and lift up my upcoming meeting, and all the people involved, the issues around it, the whole darn thing and thank God for every part of it.


We've not got there yet.

The week is young.

I have no idea how this will play out.

But what I do know is that I have been changed by an act of thanksgiving. I am in a different place. I am no longer dreading something ahead. It may well not work out as I'd like! I am however thanking God for his love, his kindness, his provision and his Lordship. However this time goes, he will still be Lord. He will still love everyone involved. He will still kindly bring good and provide a way through. I don't have to fight this battle - nor, I suspect, many of the battles I attempt - right now I just have to lift up the thing to God and be grateful.

And perhaps the thankfulness rather than the struggle will mean I am able to find the compassion and care that he is already working out for more people than I can yet begin to number.

So yes, God used the preacher in church this Sunday to say something that really hit me. And the preacher was me. We really do live in an age of miracles.