Phew. In tandem with a week of scintillating Indian summer, it’s been culturally full-on from Brian Wilson & his pretty big band belting out Beach Boy classics at the Festival Hall to statically stunning terracotta warriors at the British Museum, to a glimpse of the roller-coaster life of the American photographer, Lee Miller, at the V & A.
To crown it all, last night I experienced Maritime Rites on the Millennium Bridge. Now that proved to be an amazing hour and a half standing between three sources of discordant ‘water’ music: firstly from a barge floating mid-Thames with baby grand piano, tuba plus a few other instruments overseen by the American composer, Alvin Curran; then over by the Tate Modern, ensconced under a shell (reminiscent of the Trafagar Square gig with Nitin Sawney – see a previous blog), the London Symphony Orchestra Brass responded in kind, and thirdly, beside me and occupying half the bridge was a stretch of 200 or so amateur musicians. Young, middle-age, old, white, black, brown – it was a fantastic synopsis of Londoners playing portable harp, saxophone (particularly popular), horn, ukelele, trumpet, clarinet, violin, recorder or just contributing vocals.
Woven into this was the sight of an audience which evolved radically from the 5.30 start – art and music aficionados, tourists and general promenaders – to less than an hour later when the whole of the besuited, i-podded City seemed to be pushing its way across the bridge trying to get home. Not all were happy at the musical crush, and it was pretty easy to pick out disgruntled financiers on a day that had seriously breathed “crash”. “They think it’s some kind of music” muttered one besuited woman disparagingly to a slickly attired companion. Well yes. But the rest of us were happy and even a few cyclists squeezing their bikes through the multitude wore big smiles. And this time the bridge didn’t even wobble. A grande finale came with a carillon of bells from St Pauls – a nice nod to a historic neighbour.
Brian Wilson can do no harm. Wottaboy. There’s something delightfully ingenuous about this man in his sixties, and those old surfing tracks just never age, whatever new music he conjures up. That Lucky Old Sun was the novelty this time, and it went down well thanks to a fantastic back-up of musicians, many of whom were faithfuls from his previous tour. The multi-talented Paul Mertens was particularly impressive, swopping between four instruments, conducting the Swedish strings and ever beaming. What a pleasure to go to a concert which magnetises every generation – for the sheer energy and superb harmonies. Most of the Festival Hall audience was on its feet, happy-clapping and gently boogeying out of pure joy. Thank you Brian – and I was glad to see he’s looking pretty chipper these days; the effects of his stroke seem to be fading. Good vibrations indeed.
Then it was onto get a glimpse of that silent 7000-strong terracotta army, 20 or so members of which now stand to attention inside the transformed Reading Room of the British Museum. There’s been an incredible amount of hype attached to this exhibition and advance sales of tickets have set records, so I was somewhat wary, In the end it was easy to be transported. The beauty and sophistication of these 2000-year old figures is incredibly stirring, and the dynamic audio-visual setting brilliantly designed – even if captions were sometimes simplistic. But what a privilege to stand there, virtually nose to nose with these giants (they’re just larger than life) and their all-seeing, impassive faces. What is memorable too is to understand that the First Emperor himself still slumbers undisturbed inside a gigantic burial mound out there in Shanxi province, central China. Conjecture is rife as to what may lie beside him – rivers of mercury? a pearl-studded ceiling to resemble the night sky? For once, an intelligent hands-off policy has prevailed. In the meantime the entire 56 square kilometre site continues to be excavated. I’m sure I’m one of thousands who would love to get out there and see the reality – China is still one huge gap on my trail.
Over at the V & A, Lee Miller’s life and photos kicked off with her New York childhood which included two nude photos of her in full adolescent bloom taken by her father. That gave an inkling as to why she led such a wild life moving from lover to lover until finally settling down with Roland Penrose in a Sussex farmhouse. A low-key end to her whirlwind life which took her through Paris and the Surrealists, notably her lover and mentor, Man Ray, back to New York, then to Egypt, then London during the Blitz and finally saw her sitting in Hitler’s bath after his suicide at the end of the war. She too leaves an indelible mark.