A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

The National Gallery and Die Walkuere

The last 48 hours have been... interesting. The story starts on Saturday evening,when I observed that, with the Proms concerts this week being a full performance of Wagner's Ring cycle and of Tristan und Isolde, conducted by Daniel Barenboim, it should be assumed that I would be occupied during the evenings. To which my mother replied, "Why don't you go to see one of them?"

Going to see the Proms is somewhat impractical for anyone who does not live in London. The primary reasons for this are the time and monetary costs of getting into London, as you would expect for one of the world's largest, richest cities, and the time involved in queuing for tickets if you are Day-Promming (I intend to discuss this in a future post). However, I currently have more time than I know what to do with, my mother had some coupons for free rail travel on a given date due to being inconvenienced by some set of major delays, and so this was an excellent opportunity.

I planned to see Die Walkuere: there wasn't really enough time to plan a day trip to see Das Rheingold, while the other three operas, being on a Friday (Siegfried), a Saturday (Tristan) and Sunday (Goetterdammerung) could be expected to be a lot busier. Not that Das Rheingold and Die Walkuere weren't busy, just that they were less busy so I had a better chance of getting in.

Given that I was travelling all the way to London and back in one day, it seemed a pity just to see an opera. Plus, unfamiliar with what the queues are like, I overestimated the time I would have available. My plan was to visit the National Gallery in the morning, head over to the Royal Albert Hall for 1:30-2pm (tickets were supposed to first go on sale at 2:30) and use any spare time in between buying a ticket and the concert beginning at 5pm to visit the Tate Modern. I have been trying to cultivate an interest in arts other than music and literature, so this felt like a good use of my time.

The journey down went smoothly. I finished reading the book of Jeramiah, continued my reading of Njal's Saga, and did a bit of thinking. A short hop down the Northern line to Charing Cross, and I was at Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery. The Gallery... I enjoyed it, but I spent a lot of time looking at paintings that I'm finding don't really interest me. I suppose that, ultimately, any art form faces the issue that a) if there are multiple styles, then most people will only be interested in some of those, and b) even if something is produced by a professional, that is no guarantee of genuine artistic merit. Just as for every Missa Papae Marcelli there are ten masses to send even the priest to sleep, for every Sistine Chapel ceiling there are ten uninspired depictions of biblical characters. The more modern areas were interesting - the Impressionists and post-Impressionists produced a great many enjoyable paintings. I tried to bear in mind Tyler Cowen's advice to his children: think "Which painting do I most want to steal and take home?" as a way of focusing your attention on the paintings you like and what you like about them.

Following this, I wandered around for a bit, had a brief look through the Covent Garden market and was bitterly disappointed - my dad recently had me watching some videos about transport and the like back in the 60s, and I enjoyed the aesthetic of large rooms filled with carts and pallets of fruit, vegetables, animal carcasses, fish, and many other things besides. Instead, the modern Covent Garden market seems little more than a collection of tourist traps. I suppose I'm not greatly surprised, but it was a disappointment nonetheless.

Victoria line from Leicester Square to Knightsbridge - the Royal Albert Hall is stupidly far from an Underground Station considering the density with which they pepper Oxford Road and the like - and a walk along the edge of Hyde Park, inspecting the (relatively) new One Hyde Park apartments from the outside along the way (they looked nice, although it must be pretty noisy living there) and I was at the Royal Albert Hall. A bit of asking around, and I found the back of the queue. Down the stairs, round the corner and about 30 metres along. Three and a half hours before the concert was set to begin.

Ah, well. I managed a fair bit more reading in the queue - I finished Eliezar Yudkowsky's Three Worlds Collide (highly recommended, by the way), and read a bit further through David D Friedman's The Machinery of Freedom (likely also recommendation-worthy, but I'm not far enough through reading it to assert that). Eventually, the queue started rolling forward, although by the time I was in all of the space near the front (this being standing-room, and therefore there being no precisely-defined property rights as there are with seats) had been taken, so I was left with a less good view than I would have liked, perhaps a less good view than I would have had from the Gallery. Still, the sound was incredible, very much worth going to see it.

When listening to opera, particularly if you are not fluent in the language in which it is sung, there are really two ways to enjoy it. The first is with a copy of the libretto and a translation to your native tongue - I had planned to download this to my Kindle, but forgot. The other is to forget about the words and plot and just lose yourself in the music. I attempted the first, reading over people's shoulders where possible (there had been copies of the libretto on sale, but they quickly ran out leaving a fair few people disappointed and in some cases rather annoyed) but by the third act I had given up on this. I won't attempt to describe the opera here; suffice to say that I greatly enjoyed it, the applause afterwards went on for upwards of ten minutes, and assuming it's still up there by the time you read it you should really go here to listen (the libretto, with translation, is here).

After we had finally finished applauding, I walked to Knightsbridge station, caught the necessary trains along the Underground to get back to Euston, and discovered that the last London Midland train to Birmingham had already left. I could have sworn that there was supposed to be one leaving at 11:30 pm (this was at about ten to eleven) but for some reason that was being operated by Virgin, which rendered my ticket invalid. In an attempt to get as far back as possible, I caught the London Midland train terminating at Northampton. Thus followed four long, cold and boring hours. I had my Kindle and first read through Lamentations, before starting on Ezekiel, but found myself getting tired and, since I didn't want to fall asleep on a strange platform, unguarded, with my Kindle and mobile potentially vulnerable, stopped reading. (I drifted off a couple of times anyway, but fortunately was fine). Finally, I caught the 5:15 to Birmingham New Street, a train from there to my local station, and collapsed.

All in all? I greatly enjoyed the trip, but have decided a) never to day prom again, b) to take a coat with me if there's any risk of being stranded overnight, regardless of the weather, and c) to give up on trying to find interest in paintings from before about 1700.

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