Three cheers for the International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival, which runs at the charming Buxton Opera House through the first three weeks of August (01422 323252). This is the sixteenth such beano, which expects to draw twenty thousand visitors to twenty-seven full-scale productions and seventy fringe events. Just about the entire corpus will be performed. Professional companies are complemented by amateurs from all over the world.
This year Australia and the US are represented, while previous festivals have featured such unlikely shows as a Trial by Jury from Estonia and a Cox and Box from Japan. Old stars of the D’Oyly Carte will be wheeled out for one last patter song.
A large number of youth groups also contribute, and there are even off-the-cuff stagings which any visitor can audition for. It’s all completely bonkers, organised without significant public funding or media interest, and a marvellous tribute to the unquenchable resilience of this uniquely British phenomenon and the opportunity it offers for everyone to dress up, act the fool and sing their hearts out.
The joy of criticism 'He wrote from the heart to the heart,’ meditates Robin Daniels in his engrossing new book about the great music critic (and cricket correspondent) of the Manchester Guardian Neville Cardus, who died in 1975. Daniels knew this wise and delightful man well - his previous book about him, Conversations with Cardus, is a classic - and in this rhapsodic and erudite study, Cardus: Celebrant of Beauty (published by Palatine Books), he brings him vividly to life and reminds us of the glory of his musical journalism.
Cardus was fundamentally a romantic, influenced by the aestheticism of Walter Pater and never afraid to let his personal feelings rule his reason (he preferred Lehar to Bach, and Kathleen Ferrier to just about anyone). He believed passionately in the Keatsian notion that beauty was truth, but that what was beautiful was something which could only be felt, not prescribed.
“Neville heard and understood music as if from within,” as Daniels puts it, and the result could be description as metaphorically precise as good poetry. Under Klemperer’s baton, he wrote, the players 'march on and on like the army of unalterable law’; Karajan’s interpretation of the Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony was 'a landscape mapped by Ordnance Survey’; while Friedman’s playing of the Liszt B minor sonata had 'the aroma and flavour of the burnt cigar, of astrakhan and dandruff, and thick curtains still not drawn next morning.’
Music criticism is a difficult business, believe me, not least because it involves translating into words sounds that set out to transcend verbal expression. But Cardus makes it seem easy: his prose is as wonderfully fluent as the strokes of Frank Woolley, the 'lyrical’ batsman he so revered, and although he was capable of mighty scepticism, his criticism is always drawn towards joy. To those of us who come after, he is the supreme master, and Robin Daniels’ book does him honour.
The Cultural Olympics - a pointless sideshow As if he didn’t have enough on his plate, Tony Hall, the Chief Executive of the Royal Opera House, has just been appointed leader of the cultural programme which will run up to and accompany the 2012 London Olympics. As well as chairing a new board of his own, he will also be a member of the small central kitchen cabinet responsible for overall “delivery” of a successful games.
His appointment can be seen as one in the eye for the South Bank Centre’s Artistic Director Jude Kelly, who has been running the cultural aspect of the operation to date. Hall has nevertheless persuaded her to remain as a member of his new board, alongside a disappointingly predictable grab-bag of A-list arts grandees rather short of youth and beauty - Alan Davey of Arts Council England, Nicholas Kenyon of the Barbican, Nicholas Serota of Tate, Mark Thompson of the BBC and so forth.
I wish Hall luck. He needs it, because he has his work cut out. Of course, the Cultural Olympiad is still at an early stage of planning, but what has so far been announced for this pointless sideshow is dismally uninspiring, timidly PC and chronically lacking in fresh, arresting ideas.
A World Shakespeare Festival - didn’t the RSC mount that a couple of years ago? A project to introduce young people to film; a showcase for 'the historical, built and natural environment’; events focused on the River Thames; a series of commissions challenging 'traditional perceptions of disability’ - no, my pulse isn’t racing either. And a carnival with street theatre! Wow, who would have guessed? All financed by a measly budget that is endlessly being cut or drawn on a rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul basis from other slices of the national cultural cake.
The good news is that finally there does seem to be some real “new” money on offer, that nothing has yet been set in stone and an element of radical re-thinking and re-structuring is still possible.
So one hopes that when Hall and his board of elders knuckle down and begin to put some flesh to the feeble skeleton, they can bring some Covent Garden-style spectacle, surprise, excitement and native talent to the party. Otherwise they might as well save themselves time and trouble by cancelling the whole shebang and let the nation concentrate on the sport - which it probably will anyway.
Down and out at the West End A couple of recent trips to the West End with foreign visitors left me cringing with embarrassed apologies. As my colleague Charles Spencer has often pointed out, the area is a total scam, and the theatres are usually part of it. Hidden booking fees, cramped seats with terrible views, overpriced drinks, vacuous programmes, Victorian stairwells, Edwardian plumbing – is it any wonder that Shaftesbury Avenue struggles?
Apparently, it’s even worse backstage, to the point where managers are bringing back cats. No, not the old Andrew Lloyd Webber hit. I mean they’re importing squads of clawed felines to hunt down the mice and rats that nestle down in dressing rooms or run up fly-ropes.
Another consumer complaint I have is that many of the big musicals aren’t candid about their casting: the posters promise big names who aren’t actually scheduled to appear. Gone are the days when Mary Martin did eight shows a week of South Pacific and over two years never missed a single one: now, particularly in long runs, the big stars are often only contracted to do a percentage of performances and the understudies (or 'alternates’ as they are known) are kept jolly busy.
But you’d never know this from the ads (though the website for Oliver! at least makes clear the nights that Jodie Prenger is scheduled to be “off”), and I have never heard of anyone booking a ticket being forewarned that X doesn’t do Mondays or matinees.
This seems to me dishonest - people don’t just come to see the show, they come to see the star in the show. Last week a judge found in favour of a man who had sued The Lowry in Salford over the absence of live music in a production of The Wizard of Oz. How long before a disappointed fan invokes the Trade Descriptions Act to brings a no-star claim against certain West End shows?