11th – 13th July 2017
Well, what a great time we had in London at Chris’s celebration of Oriental Culture. Our three-day trip encompassed both Chinese and Japanese banquets as well as a feast of music and visual art. It’s amazing what you can fit into three days if you really try!
We stayed, of course, at our regular hotel – the Melia White House in Great Portland Street, which proved to be as comfortable and welcoming as ever. It is starting very much to feel like home. The first excitement was our Chinese banquet, which was either a very late lunch or a very early dinner, depending on how you look at it, which enabled us to eat vast amounts of food AND still be in time for the evening concert at the Barbican.
We went to the Sichuan restaurant in the city, which was already fairly full of Chinese people by the time we arrived. The food was excellent, course after course moving from delicately prepared dim sum, through generous heaps of Peking duck to amazing platters of lobster in ginger. I particularly enjoyed the vegetable dishes – especially the dry fried lotus root. I’ve always wanted to be a lotus-eater. The culinary team is led by Zhang Xiao Zhong, whose family have been chefs for generations in their home city of Chengdu. He’s won several awards and, in 2010, worked with Fuchsia Dunlop on her cookbook, ‘Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking’. I would strongly recommend this restaurant; it seemed to me to have a really good mixture of authentic Sichuan dishes for the brave and more familiar dishes for everyone else!
We then made our way to the Barbican (our trusty coach driver had parked so near the entrance to the restaurant that we didn’t get very wet) where our ‘Oriental’ link came slightly adrift due to the fact that Lang Lang had cancelled all his July performances for health reasons. The young Russian pianist, Denis Kozhukhin, took on the unenviable task of coming in as a late stand-in to perform Bartók’s notoriously difficult second piano concerto, which he did brilliantly, showing both great strength and power but also considerable deftness and sensitivity. This was a remarkably diverse programme; we’d begun with the achingly beautiful Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde (where the rich strings of the LSO came into their own) and then the second half was an idiosyncratic and charming journey through Haydn’s Greatest Hits, devised by Simon Rattle himself. His obvious delight and love for the composer were evident not just through the music but in the joyous way he conducted, by heart and from the heart. You could see by their reactions how much the players were enjoying themselves too. It may not have been ‘Oriental’ but it was a brilliant evening anyhow.
On Wednesday morning we were joined by David Pollard, a world-famous vocal coach and expert on Puccini who is not unrelated to Chris Pollard. He gave us a fascinating insight into the history of Turandot productions and why it has become so hard to find singers who can perform the lead role. It really is intriguing to listen to someone with so much knowledge and experience. Yet again I think we all felt that we had benefited hugely from learning so much about the production before we saw it. We then made our way to the Royal Opera House to see the afternoon performance of Turandot – the sixteenth revival of Andrei Serban’s 1984 production, spectacularly staged with terrific costumes and choreography. For me, the finest singing was done by Hibla Gerzmava as Liu, (the only really sympathetic character among the principals) who drew out all the pathos and drama of the role. And the chorus were wonderful too. I still think a different ending would work better. Obviously I am a much greater expert on the subject than Puccini…
After the opera, we went to Roka, one of the finest Japanese restaurants in London, for our Japanese banquet. It was such a cool place! We had the tasting menu, matched with various types of saki and it was all amazing and revelatory. We’d warned them in advance that one of our guests was allergic to fish and they’d produced an entire parallel menu just for her. Impressive. The dessert, in particular, was spectacular. Although I could have done with one just for myself.
Then we went back to the Melia White House for a viewing of Kurosawa’s masterpiece, Rashomen, made in 1950 and featuring on every list of Best Films Ever Made there is. This complex and influential film is worth watching and re-watching. The complex storyline, where different characters re-tell their versions of the same event until the concept of truth itself eventually becomes amorphous, has had a huge influence on film structure and vocabulary in the sixty years since it was made. But maybe the influence of the astonishing cinematography in the film has been just as great; Kazuo Miyagawa uses the intricate woodland setting to represent the tangled emotions within the story. As Kurosawa wrote, ‘in the film, people going astray in the thicket of their hearts would wander into a wider wilderness …’
(Apparently, the water used in the rain scenes at the gate had to be tinted with black ink because the water from the hoses didn’t show up on the camera lens. And Kurosawa wanted to use natural sunlight, but it wasn’t strong enough, so they had to augment the light with mirrors, which gives a radiance to the light coming through the leaves and reflected on the actor’s faces. Most interestingly, it appears that Kurosawa was waiting for a dark cloud to appear near the emerging sun in the final shot, to show that the next bad thing was just about to happen, but none appeared so the film ends more optimistically than he had intended. I love the geeky bits!)
Wednesday morning was, in some ways, the highlight of the tour. The long-awaited visit to the Hokusai exhibition at the British Museum lived up to all expectation. In fact, for me, exceeded them in that I turned from contemplating Pink Fuji (1831) to find myself face-to-face with Roger Keyes, the American art historian and world authority on Hokusai’s prints, who had featured in one of the BBC’s Japan season programmes. Caught off guard, I found myself telling him that his appearance on the programme had reduced me to tears, and he ended up giving an impromptu lecture to a small and fascinated crowd about what made Hokusai such an exceptional artist. What are the chances?
The exhibition itself was truly astonishing – from fire-breathing dragons to windblown landscapes and birds whose plumage you can almost touch. Of course, there is no avoiding That Wave. I’d never thought, until Dr Jamie Fox mentioned it, that if you are a Western person you read the picture from left to right, so you are with the giant wave, whereas an Asian person would read it in the other direction so that you are with the tiny figures facing it. It wasn’t just the amazing range of work Hokusai produced; his understanding of nature and animals and the human form, but his attitude towards life and work which was so inspirational. According to Japanese culture, there is a sort of artistic rebirth at the age of 61 (hurrah!) and with each subsequent decade one is enriched rather than declining. In his final year he said, ‘if heaven would grant me another five years, I could be a true artist.’ He was ninety at the time. What a privilege to see these wonderful things. And another exciting cultural adventure at an end!