For the consumer of cultural events in London the crisis is invisible. The same is true if one walks around inner London and observes the restaurants and pubs full to the rim. And the same seems to be true of the binge drinkers around my district Shoreditch, judging from the outside noise level until 4 a.m. (and the accompanying detritus in the streets next morning on my way to jogging). But, of course, this may be an observation bias, since, as Bertolt Brecht said (translated: And you see only those in the light, but not those who are in the dark). The unemployed and the marginalised population groups are not in Covent Garden, not in the restaurant, but at home, possibly in dark and cold flats.
But London’s Westend is still thriving: I wasted a lot of money for a ridiculously flat play, based on the 1955 film “Ladykillers” with Alec Guiness. When I bought the tickets, I thought I would see good entertainment, but this was superficial, cliché-ridden, without any redeeming quality, except, of course, good acting, if one likes slapstick.
But then I was compensated by a very atmospheric Christmas carols concert in a beautiful Westend Church, dedicated to collecting money for a charity helping ex-prisoners to find their way back into life. A beautiful choir, great soloists and the possibility for the audience to join in with three carols made for a memorable evening.
A few evening later, a sensational La Traviata in Covent Garden. A very traditional, but beautiful production which caused the enthusiastic audience to applaud the sets for the gambling salon in the third act, a beautiful to look at Violetta by Ailyn Perez, who sang outstandingly, apart from a few rough cues. Her equal as Alfredo was Piotr Beczak, but both were outshone by a very impressive Simon Keenlyside as Germont the elder. A few weeks ago I had heard Traviata at the opera house in Yerevan: this present production showed that there still are differences around the world – without wanting to demean the very solid performance in Armenia.
A couple of days later an impressive London Symphony Orchestra concert in the Barbican Center, directed by the venerable and revered Sir Colin Davis. Davis may have a hard time making it up the stairs to the podium, but he directs with such a light touch and so much certainty, that he can evoke great music from this outstanding orchestra. Haydn’s 93rd symphony, the first of his London ones, was a rather stolid piece of music, not at all reminding one of the liberation the 60 year old Haydn must have felt after having escaped the narrowness and provinciality of his master of 30 years, Count Esterhazy, who did not let him venture beyond the small region between Eisenstadt, Vienna and Esterhaz. Only in the menuet set does this symphony seem jubilant and exalted. As the second piece, Nielsen’s 3rd symphony, an orgy in rhythm, brass and drum sounds, underlaid by a felt 100 violinists, all producing a fascinating “Klangteppich” (sound carpet ???). The old man Colin Davis was in his element, directing a very dynamic and precise orchestra.
After the intermission, the elf-like Mitsuko Uchida floated into the room and celebrated Beethoven’s 5th piano concerto (“Emperor”). She is an absolute marvel, extremely concentrated, clutching her upper arms with her hands when she is not playing, but observing intently conductor and orchestra, bringing out the most subtle pianissimi and managing the transfers to dynamic fortes in a way which lifts her from her stool, bringing out the longer swings in the music in a way that one thinks that nobody can play this better. And then, an absolutely non-star-like behaviour, bowing low and lower, until her head nearly hits the floor (she must be doing yoga at home), and very gently guiding Davis by his elbow up and down the steps of the podium to receive the applause. The audience loved her, and so did I. A truly wonderful evening.
Yes, London has its assets and benefits: in spite of the non-functioning subway, in spite of the vomit on the sidewalks after long drinking nights, in spite of the ubiquitous dug-up streets and sidewalks and the consumer-frenzy masses of shoppers in Oxford Street: its (high) cultural life is unique.