WHEN I SET off for Venice a couple of days ago, I doubted whether I would enjoy the Biennale as much as my wife and our daughter. How wrong I was. I have been enjoying exploring the artworks housed in a number of different places around the city. Some of the shows are in pavilions specially designed for Biennale exhibitions. Others are in places adapted, mostly temporarily, for use during the art festival. For example, the Nepalese and Armenian shows are in what look like disused shop premises. Others are in far grander edifices.
Today, we visited an exhibition housed in the courtyards and rooms of a huge palace, which is home to a music conservatoire (located close to Campo S Stefano). The exhibits (sculptures, paintings, and videos) were created by members of a group of artists within the fold of the Parasol Unit art foundation. The artists in the show are: Darren Almond, Oliver Beer, Rana Begum with Hyetal, Julian Charrière, David Claerbout, Bharti Kher, Arghavan Khosravi, Teresa Margolles, Si On, Martin Puryear, and Rayyane Tabet.
The show in the conservatoire is wonderful. The building itself is a fantastic architectural sculpture with a myriad of neo-classical decorative sculptural details. The works of art, which are in total contrast to the architecture, harmonise interestingly with the environments in which they have been placed. Photographs cannot do justice to this exhibition; it has to be experienced in person.
Although this show will be amongst my favourite exhibitions in the 2022 Venice Biennale, it is not alone in being magnificent. I am glad that we have come to Venice for this artistic bonanza.
DURING AN INTERVAL of a concert given in Thaxted’s parish church, someone sitting close to us asked whether we hade ever been to a performance in what she described as the ‘superb concert hall’ in nearby Saffron Walden. We had no idea that the small Essex town had a concert hall of note. Always keen to enjoy classical music and to have an excuse to visit Essex, we booked for a concert given on the 12th of August 2022 by both the Essex Youth Orchestra and the Essex Young People’s Orchestra.
The concert hall, which has seating for audiences of over 700 people, was opened in late 2013. It is attached to Saffron Walden county high school, and was financed by a private donation of at least £10 million. This is believed to be the largest private donation to have been made to a state school. The hall is used both for school purposes and for public performances. The venue attracts ‘big names’ in both the classical and non-classical music worlds. For example, the Autumn 2022 programme includes concerts by: the Hallé Orchestra, Isata Kanneh-Mason, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Lady Smith Black Mambazo, Courtney Pine, The Sixteen, the Pasadena Roof Orchestra, and so on. In addition to these better-known performers, there is a host of others.
The air-conditioned hall is beautiful. It is spacious, and fitted with adjustable acoustic panels and its walls are lined with birch wood. We heard a wide range of compositions beautifully performed by the two orchestras. The acoustics were fantastically good. The sound quality within the hall rivals that of the best concert halls in London. A small grumble is that the seating is not overly comfortable, but that did not detract from our enjoyment of the music performed by some of the best young musicians in Essex. Saffron Walden is not far from London, but it feels like it is much further away. If you do not mind night driving, it would be feasible to drive to and from Saffron Hall to enjoy an evening concert, but my suggestion is to spend a night somewhere near the hall and to enjoy Saffron Walden, its concert hall, and its rustic surroundings.
THE COMPOSER GUSTAV Holst (1874-1934) is best known for his orchestral suite “The Planets”, which was composed between 1914 and 1916. This work does not include the planet Pluto, which was only discovered in 1930. Son of a professional musician, Holst was born in Cheltenham (Gloucestershire). Between 1886 and 1891, he was a pupil at Cheltenham Grammar School, where at the age of 12 he composed his first piece, “Horatius” for an ensemble of strings, woodwind, brass, and percussion. From 1891, he studied counterpoint for several months with the organist of Merton College in Oxford. Next, Holst studied composition at the Royal College of Music (‘RCM’) in London’s Kensington.
After graduation at the RCM, Holst worked as a professional trombonist in the Carl Rosa Opera Company and the Scottish Orchestra. During this time, he continued composing and also became interested in translations of Sanskrit literature. Several of his compositions reflect his heartfelt interest in the “Rig Veda”, “Ramayana”, and the “Bhagavad Gita”, all of which struck a meaningful chord with him. In 1903, he accepted a teaching role at James Allen’s Girls’ School in Dulwich. Two years later, he left Dulwich to become Director of Music at St Paul’s Girls School in Hammersmith, a position he retained until his death.
Between 1908 and 1913, Holst lived not too far from the school: at Barnes in a house facing the River Thames on a road called The Terrace. His daughter Imogen Holst (1907-1984), herself a composer, wrote a biography of her father (published 1938). In it she described the house in Barnes:
“… a beautiful bow-fronted brick house overlooking the river. He had a large music room on the top floor, and in the evenings the grey, muddy river would collect all the colours of the sky and shine with a magical light …”
“It was an unhealthy house to live in, for at the spring tides the river overflowed into the streets, and often the floods would come in at the front door. He never felt really well there, and was perpetually suffering from a relaxed throat …”
Before moving to Barnes, Holst began to become interested in socialism, and having read some of the writings of William Morris (1834-1896), who had been living next to the Thames near Hammersmith in Kelmscott House since 1878. Imogen Holst wrote of her father’s interest in socialism:
“… [he] began to hear about Socialism, and after reading several books by William Morris he joined the Hammersmith Socialist Club and listened to Bernard Shaw’s lectures at Kelmscott House. Here he found a new sort of comradeship, and here he became aware of other ways of searching for beauty…. His socialism was never very active, and although he admired William Morris as a man, he found that the glamour of his romantic Mediaevalism soon wore off. But he remained in the club for the sake of good companionship, and in 1897 he accepted an invitation to conduct the Socialist Choir.”
He met his wife, Isobel (née Harrison), when she joined the choir as a new soprano, and they married several years later.
Holst travelled a great deal to places where the climate was better suited to his asthma. While visiting North Africa in 1908, he heard a street musician playing a repetitive tune on a flute in a street in Algeria. This haunted him and led to his composing a lovely orchestral suite “Beni Mora”, which is amongst my favourite pieces by Holst. I first heard this when a musical friend of mine, the late Roger Apps, played a recording of it for me in his home in Rainham (Kent).
A keen walker, Gustav and Isobel went rambling in England. On one of these outings, they visited Thaxted in northern Essex, where they bought one cottage (and then moved to another), in which Gustav spent as much time as possible. I will describe his musical associations with Thaxted in far greater detail in the future. Suffice it to say that some parts of “The Planets” suite were composed there.
In 1913, St Pauls School opened a new music wing, in which Holst was given a large soundproof room for his composing work. That same year, mainly for health-related reasons, he and his family moved from the house in Barnes to a house in Brook Green close to the school.
PARR HALL IN the heart of Warrington (Cheshire) is a concert hall designed by local architect William Owen (1846-1910). It was built for the townspeople by Joseph Charlton Parr, descendant of the founder of a local bank. The benefactor was a prominent member of his family’s bank, Parr’s, and Warrington’s Mayor between 1901 and 1903. A plaque on the wall of the hall facing Palmyra Square commemorates his generosity. A much larger and newer plaque, actually a frieze, also outside the front of the hall, serves a sadder purpose.
In May 2013, a new rock band was formed in Warrington. Called Viola Beach, it had four members: Kris Leonard, River Reeves, Tomas Lowe, and Jack Dakin. Frankie Coulson and Jonny Gibson were initially members, but they left the group to concentrate on their university studies. Reading of this, I was reminded of one of my father’s students at the London School of Economics: Mick Jagger. Unlike Coulson and Gibson, he could not afford to remain a student as his band was becoming so successful. Incidentally, The Rolling Stones performed at Parr Hall in November 1963.
In June 2016, the band’s debut album, “Viola Beach”, was released. Consisting of 9 tracks, it reached the number 1 position on The UK Albums Chart in August of that year. However, the band were never to learn of their success. In February 2016, the members of the group and their manager were on tour in Sweden. In the early hours of the 13th of February, the car in which they were travelling failed to stop at the closed barriers of a bridge across the Södertälje Canal. The roadway of the bridge was lifting to allow the passage of a vessel in the canal. The car carrying the band plunged into the water 98 feet below. The driver, the band members, and its manager, were all killed. The memorial outside Parr Hall, which portrays the band members and their manager in bas-relief, was sculpted by Tom Murphy. It was unveiled in September 2021.
Had they not met their end so prematurely, I wonder whether Viola Beach formed in a town on the Mersey might have gained some of the success enjoyed by another now much more famous Merseyside band: The Beatles.
THE ESTORIC COLLECTION in London’s Highbury houses a fine permanent exhibition of modern Italian artworks, mainly creations of the so-called Futurists. In one of the galleries, I spotted the name of an artist who was born in a town, which I have visited, in the northeast of Italy: Gorizia. When the artist Anton Zoran Music (1909-2005) was born, Gorizia was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. After WW1, the town became part of the Kingdom of Italy within the region of Venezia-Giulia. Soon after WW2, the eastern part of the region became absorbed into the Yugoslav republic of Slovenia (now an independent state). When that happened, the border between Italy and Slovenia ran through the eastern part og the town, the part in what was then Yugoslavia (a country I visited often between 1973 and 1990) became named ‘Nova Gorica’. Most of Gorizia, an attractive old town, is on the Italian side of the border.
Slovenians still live on both sides of the border. Music, actually Anton Zoran Musič (pronounced mus-ich) was born into a Slovene-speaking family. Zoran, who went to schools in Maribor, studied art at the Academy of Fine Arts in Zagreb between 1930 and 1935. His first one-man exhibition (outside Yugoslavia) in Venice in 1943, where he had moved. Soon after this, he was arrested by the German Gestapo and then sent to Dachau concentration camp. After WW2, he moved to Ljubljana (in Yugoslavia), but soon shifted to Venice, where he lived (on and off) for the rest of his life. His career after the War was successful: he received several prestigious prizes for his artistic creations.
The Estorick displays five of Music’s paintings. They were created between 1951 and 1983 and illustrate his versatility as a painter. All the paintings hanging are between abstract and figurative in style, but slightly nearer the latter than the former. I had seen his paintings on previous visits to the Estorick, but until my most recent viewing of his art, I had not been aware of how many aspects of his life mesh with things that interest me.
HIDDEN IN A residential crescent, Philbeach Gardens, near Earls Court is a late Victorian church, whose exterior is far from attractive. However, St Cuthbert (completed 1888) has an interior which cannot fail to amaze the visitor’s eyes. The church contains what can only be described as an ‘over-the top’ array of decorative features. Some of them are typical of the Gothic Revival style beloved of Victorian church designers, and others that are typical of the Arts and Crafts Movement, which flourished in the last decades of the 19th and the first few of the 20th century.
One item in the church, which is particularly eye-catching, is made of wrought iron and hammered (repoussé) copper. It is a lectern with two large arms on either side of the leather-covered book holder. These are supports for large candles. The lectern is approached by a small set of stairs whose treads have studs on them. The studs are arranged to spell out words, which I found difficult to decipher. The part of the base facing the congregation is an intricately decorated folded screen with Arts and Crafts Style decorative motifs. Most probably handmade, the lectern, although fantastically crafted, has a very slightly amateurish look about it. It is more unusual and eye-catching than beautiful.
I would not have visited St Cuthbert had my friend, the excellent Olsi Qinami, not been conducting the London City Philharmonic Orchestra performing a concert there. The church with its colourful marble pillars and almost surreal interior is well worth a visit even if there is no concert being performed. It is a ‘must-see’ for lovers of Victorian church architecture.
WHILE ELTON JOHN was performing in front of thousands in London’s Hyde Park in late June 2022, a small ensemble was performing works by the baroque composers Pergolesi and Purcell in the large medieval gothic church in Thaxted (Essex). The superbly performed concert in Thaxted starring the Armonico Consort ended well after 9 pm. This was not a problem for the many well-healed members of the audience in the church, who lived locally and were able to feed themselves in their own homes.
We could have eaten before the concert, which commenced at 7 pm, but were not hungry before that early hour. The pubs in Thaxted informed us that their kitchens stopped taking orders for food before 845 or 9 pm.
At a pub called the Star, someone hearing us asking about food after 9 pm, recommended we should head for Farouk’s. The bar attendant and several bystander’s agreed with our informant. The bar attendant kindly said that we could bring food from Farouk and she would save a table for us at which we could sit and eat after the concert.
Farouk is the owner of a caravan parked in a yard behind a petrol filling station in Thaxted. He and his colleagues, all from Turkey, prepare and sell Turkish food in the caravan. And, his eatery closes not at 845 or 9 pm, but at 11 pm.
After hearing superb renderings of Pergolesi’s “Stabat Mater” and Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas” (semi-staged), we headed for Farouk’s caravan and the Star pub.
While waiting for our food to be prepared at about 9.40 pm, Farouk explained he had come from Gaziantep. He said that in his part of Turkey, which is quite close to Cyprus, Turkish is spoken with an accent that is very similar to that spoken by Cypriot Turks. During the ten minutes it took to prepare our food, Farouk took many food orders over the phone, which goes to show that in Thaxted there is a healthy demand for food after 9 pm.
We enjoyed our food at the table reserved for us at the Star. This welcoming pub is popular with locals. I suspect that its lively clientele was a different segment of Thaxted’s population from that which attended the concert in the church.
ST MARTINS IN THE FIELDS church is a prominent landmark located on the east side of London’s Trafalgar Square. This 18th century church, which first opened in 1724 and was designed by James Gibbs (1682-1754), hosts many concerts, mostly of classical music.
There is a large crypt beneath the church. Its vaulted brickwork ceilings are supported by sturdy masonry pillars. There are many gravestones flush with the floor. The floor is covered with tables and chairs, which are used by the many customers of the café which uses the crypt as its home. It is a pleasant place to while away the time of day.
The café serves food and drink. The coffee served there is slightly below average in quality and is priced a just little bit higher than average for London. Regardless of price or quality, the crypt provides a pleasant ambience to meet friends or simply to relax peacefully.
Burgh House stands high above the southwest end of Well Walk in north London’s historic village of Hampstead.Here is a little bit about it, an extract from my new book about Hampstead:
“… Burgh House is entered from a steep side street called New End Square. The house, built in 1704, is close to the Hampstead Well Spa (see below). According to Bohm and Norrie, the House is named after its 10th owner, The Reverend Allatson Burgh (1769-1856), who was the vicar of St Lawrence Jewry in the City of London. Burgh, who was keener on music than looking after his parishioners, neglected both them and his house. Thomas Barratt wrote:
“Mr. Burgh was a rector in the city, and the composer of a work on church music, published by Longmans. Burgh House is depicted on five pieces of the Wedgwood service, made in 1774, for Catherine II., Empress of Russia.”
Between 1858 and 1884, Burgh House became the headquarters of the Royal East Middlesex Militia. After having been put to a variety of uses, the house became used as a cultural centre in 1979. It now contains a small art gallery, a café, a shop, and a Hampstead Museum. The Reverend Burgh would have been pleased to know that today his former home also hosts many fine concerts of classical music.
From the bottom of the garden of Burgh House, the ‘Wells Tavern’ pub can be seen dominating the view along the gently inclined Well Walk. Known as ‘The Green Man’ until 1850, when it was rebuilt and renamed the ‘Wells Tavern’, a pub has stood on his spot since at least 1762. The pub’s name reflects one of the reasons that Hampstead became popular in the 17th century. Apart from enjoying clean air, people were attracted to the mineral water springs issuing chalybeate (iron-rich) water that were beginning to be exploited in Hampstead at that time…”
My book is called
“BENEATH A WIDE SKY: HAMPSTEAD AND ITS ENVIRONS”
YOU CAN BUY the paperback or ebook (Kindle) from Amazon:
HENLEY-ON-THAMES is located at the Oxford end of a bridge across the River Thames, which separates the county of Oxfordshire from its neighbour Berkshire. Located on the old main road between London and Oxford, it retains much ‘olde-worlde’ charm. Its streets are lined with many buildings that were constructed in the 18th century and before. Some of these used to be coaching inns but are no longer. However, some of the hostelries that served wayfarers in times long ago are still serving thirsty and hungry customers today, for example: The Red Lion, where William III might have visited, now an upmarket restaurant; and The Catherine Wheel, now a branch of the Wetherspoons company. On a recent visit in April 2022, we enjoyed superb coffee at Pavilion on The Market Place, close to the Town Hall.
Beer lovers will not need reminding that Henley is the home of Brakspear & Sons, the brewery company. Founded in Henley in 1722, beer was brewed in the town since then, although some of the comapany’s products are now brewed elsewhere. Many of the brewery’s older buildings, now converted for new purposes, can be seen alongside New Street. The company’s offices are now located on Bull Courtyard off Bell Street.
The stone bridge across the river was built in 1788. It is the finishing place of the annual Henley Royal Regatta held in summer, ever since its inception in 1839. Near the bridge, stands Henley’s parish church of St Mary the Virgin, which has a 16th century tower. The exterior walls of the southeast corner of the church is an eye-catching chequerboard of alternating masonry and flint squares. The church’s interior has been much modified by the Victorians. The churchyard north of the church is surrounded mainly by almshouses. Immediately next to the north side of the church stands a two-storied, half-timbered building, the Chantry House, some of whose beams come from trees felled in 1461 (according to scientific dating methods). Between 1552 and 1778, this edifice housed a school. Since 1923, it has housed the Parish Rooms.
The churchyard is filled with many gravestones. One of them immediately attracts the visitor as it is surrounded by generous amounts of fresh flowers. It is a memorial to the singer Dusty Springfield (1939-1999), who died in Henley. In the 1990s, Dusty lived by the Thames at Hurley near Henley. While in the area, she suffered from several bouts of breast cancer, the cause of her demise. Her funeral at St Mary’s in Henley was attended by many of her fans and leading lights in the British popular music scene including Elvis Costello, Lulu and the Pet Shop Boys. According to her wishes, Dusty was cremated, and some of her ashes were scattered in Henley and the rest in Ireland.
Dusty was not the only music celebrity to have lived in Henley. A man we met outside his house in the town reminded us that the Beatle George Harrison (1943-2001) had also lived in the town. He also mentioned that Henley’s former MP, the present Prime Minister Boris Johnson, had attended meetings in his home, and that he could tell us a thing or two … but he did not!