Perennial spring. The Vienna Philharmonic never wants for love and respect, being showered with both almost beyond measure. Their PR department must consist of an answering machine that says, “Thanks for adoring us. Maybe we’ll call you back.” Since their principal season is spent in the opera house, the Philharmonic gives few orchestral concerts compared with the world’s other premiere ensembles. After earning raves and an audience hanging from the rafters at the Proms this summer, these august visitors were described by one London critic as “lifetime members of the high table.” It’s become de rigeur to carp about the absence of women in the orchestra (I counted three), but otherwise, a critic might as well push a macro key on his computer set to endless praise.
Gnawing the flesh. It was the best of Timon; it was the worst of Timon. Reducing a stage production to one sentence rarely does it justice, but the National Theatre’s new, wildly popular Timon of Athens, mounted as a showcase for London’s favorite actor, Simon Russell Beale, wins the best and worst prize on several counts. It takes the messiest of Shakespeare’s late plays, a nasty, grinding parable about misanthropy, and delivers a glittering first half that is unexpected magic before the genii departs and we endure the dismal gray of the second half.
Capitol crime. Julius Caesar isn’t a juicy play. The poetry occupies a narrow range between nobility and a bad conscience. Very little is inward. The famous speeches are public oratory, not soliloquies on the order of Hamlet. It’s the only play of his that could be read from a teleprompter. Only Mark Antony turns to the audience to share a confidence, after he has fawned before the conspirators who killed Caesar yet secretly abhors them. The central role is that of vacillating Brutus, who seems like a dry run for the truly tragic Coriolanus. For these reasons, a great production must make ancient Romans more than stuffed shirts in togas enacting potted history.
A penny for the old guy. The original London Eye wasn’t a Ferris wheel on the Thames but J.M.W. Turner, whose visual genius and all-encompassing vision engulfed everything in its path. Until the electroshock treatment applied by Francis Bacon, generations of British painters were subsumed by him. Paying obeisance to the great man is both a duty and a delight when visiting Tate Britain, and now the Turner galleries have been completely rehung for the first time since the mid-Nineties.
No British artist in living memory has achieved the glaring notoriety of Damien Hirst. As a teen-ager his idea of a fun photo was posing next to the swollen head of a corpse in a morgue. In the photo he grins with crazy intensity, and ever since then his aim has been to dazzle with disgust. One imagines that he wanders the streets in an acid-green spotlight waving off paparazzi the way Orestes waved off flies. In fact, flies figure into several of Hirst’s pieces. One is an installation in which maggots are eating a skinned cow’s head. Another is a black disc mounted on the wall made of resin and squashed houseflies. The repellent is Hirst’s muse.
Rocky road. Rebuilding an orchestra is one of the most complex tasks imaginable, requiring delicate negotiations as well as sometimes abrupt firings, a soothing hand with the musicians’ pride but also a new broom to sweep out the old dust. Riccardo Chailly, who at 69 is an eminence on the podium, set out to renew the venerable Leipzig Gewandhaus, historically the orchestra of Mendelssohn. Languishing behind the Iron Curtain after World War II did them no good, however, and where the Dresden Staatskapelle managed miraculously to keep up world-class standards, the Leipzigers weren’t so lucky. I didn’t hear them during their long dark period, but the recordings that came West were nothing special, except in Mendelssohn.
The old sod. No one ever asked for Delta blues to be any sadder or Irish drama to be any more Irish. As art it feels totally transparent. You get the impression that the scripts are achieved by walking down any Dublin street with a tape recorder, and the casts tumble out of a city bus at the back door of the next theater. This naturalness has the effect, strange as it sounds, of making the whole audience feel Irish by intermission. I thought I heard people around me saying “boyo,” “mammy,” and “What are you blatherin’ on about?”
Three-star chef. Life may not be a box of chocolates, but the Berlin Philharmonic is, and during their first visit to Royal Albert Hall this Proms season, Sir Simon Rattle made gestures that were like plucking nougatine from a dazzling array of sweets. He beams as he conducts, looking seraphic in a nimbus of snow white hair, and why not? At his disposal is an instrument of unparalleled virtuosity, and he sometimes puts his hands down at his side, gazing in rapt appreciation. If his interpretation should falter, the orchestra will carry the music along as if on a flying carpet. I can imagine someone tiring of London without tiring of life. No one who loves music could tire of the Berliners.