Tuesday, 22 May 2012

The Portuguese Pepperpot

As long as I've known my adored, talented writer/English professor/DJ friend Jason Tougaw (we met in Mexico six years ago under extremely funny circumstances and have remained friends ever since), I've known about his grandfather, Ralph Neves. 

Neves was a jockey, 4'9" and "dominated any room he inhabited". Hot-blooded and fast-living – nicknamed the Portuguese Pepperpot – he hung out with all the Hollywood celebrities of the day. 

He started riding at 13, after he ran away from a Catholic school for orphans, where he landed when his father was institutionalised for schizophrenia, and found his way to a horse ranch in Oregon. He was ruthless on the track. In life, he was as charming as he was callous, writes Tougaw. 

One day in 1936, he came back from the dead. You can read Jason's piece about that amazing day here. Enjoy. 

Friday, 18 May 2012

Less pomp, more circumstance

When you've done something so often it becomes routine, it takes someone pretty special to lift that experience out of the ordinary. Adrian Brown is that man. 

Brown is a conductor who recently started working with my orchestra. I met him for the first time a few weeks ago. He is twinkly-eyed, charming, quick-witted and sounds a lot like Michael Caine – Carry On humour his speciality. But more importantly, he has a deep, spiritual passion for music, and knows instinctively how to convey this to an orchestra full of people like me who have been playing long enough to have heard it all before. 

A conductor will tell you how he – and sadly, he is usually a he – wants something played: shorter, faster, quieter. A good conductor will try to explain why. Brown did both, using language not usually associated with music, while also exploring the more interesting idea of why the composer might have written what he – and sadly, he is usually a he – did. 

An example. A passage in Edward Elgar's magnificent First Symphony sees the strings surging forward in a crescendo and then stopping, abruptly, to play almost inaudibly quietly. Brown told us he believed this was a musical manifestation of Elgar's passion pouring out of him, before he remembers where he is – prudish, Edwardian England – and pulls back, keeping his emotion in check. 

"This is autobiographical stuff!" he told us, more than once. "People think Elgar is all Pomp and Circumstance, but he was actually incredibly fragile." In an interview before the concert, he said: "I am deeply, emotionally attached to Elgar: his foibles, his moods, his difficulties, and his inferiority complex."

He also encouraged us to try to forget the last century of history and imagine we were hearing this music for the first time – not easy. "That key change would have been incredibly radical back then," he said. Later, sitting down to play Beethoven's fifth piano concerto, he stopped us after the first note, as he thought we weren't giving it our all. "This was written for an Emperor!" he said. And thus, without telling us how to play, he conveyed so much more. 

For me, I responded more than I ever have to a conductor, caring deeply about how I played and coming away with a more profound understanding of what I was playing. "Go to the tenderest place in your heart," he told us when we were rehearsing the symphony's exquisite slow movement. We did, and our performance on Monday was all the better for it.