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Ask Alice, with Alice McVeigh

On pupils failing exams, opera singers and gut strings,
with Classical Music Agony Aunt ALICE McVEIGH,
proud, today, to be (half) British

Dear Alice,

Re Geldof's irresponsible demand for a million people to march on Edinburgh, sadly anarchists have after all caused trouble, as I expected, rioting in one of Stirling's poorest, most deprived streets, and smashing cars. Scotland's poor have been more affected than the G8 leaders by these troublemakers, who have also besmirched the peaceful message of idealists like yourself. Numerous officers from the Met have been diverted from normal policing duties in London, being sent up to Scotland in preparation for irresponsible Geldof's anarchists, and I just shudder with horror to think that security has been lowered in London at a time like this. How are Africans helped by anarchists smashing up impoverished Scottish people's cars, while London is left wide open? I pray for a solution to Africa's problems, but cannot forgive Geldof for his messianic, megalomaniac studipity.

Big Hand Span

Dear Big Hand,

I guess you and I will never agree on this!!!!! Along with Geldof (of whom, despite being the world's least-groomed being I am a fan) I think the anarchists (who, remember, tried to wreck ALL the G8 summits) have nothing to do with him. Anarchists have ALWAYS targeted G8 summits, and generally done a great deal more damage than the Scots have allowed them to do at this one. I passionately deny that any Geldof supporter smashed anyone's car!!!!!! And your phrase 'Geldof's anarchists' is probably libellous!!!!!

Also, I am sorry for Stirling's poor, but I think we have to remember that even that poorest Scot scratching along on the truly abysmal state pension is still rich beyond the imagination of 99% of Africans, with access to free and high quality healthcare, state housing, and a myriad of other welfare-state benefits.

As for security in London, I feel very proud today to be (half) British. No amount of security can possibly deter suicide bombers on buses. The police, hospital and security services all covered themselves with glory -- as did Britain. I'm sure many more people would have died without the wonderful preparation and determination of a lot of unsung people. No one I've heard has suggested that it wouldn't have happened had MET officers not been seconded to Gleneagles.

All best, Alice

Ask Alice

Dear Alice,

I am a violin teacher with bad news for one of my pupils, aged nine. Despite all our best efforts, his, mine and his mother's, he has failed his grade five by two points. I know he hopes to be a player someday. What can I tell him?

[name withheld on request]

Dear violin teacher,

So sorry about this, especially as your pupil has put his all into this exam, which, of course, does not always happen.

I have a general rule of thumb (but then, so probably do you) which goes something like this:

  1. A month before the exam, you mention that examiners are human, and have bad days like the rest of us, and if he or she persists in thinking that a good mark is coming his way if he doesn't put his foot down on the practice front, he is kidding himself.
  2. Three weeks before the exam, you mention that life can be unfair, but that, if he carries on working hard you are hoping for the best.
  3. Two weeks before the exam, you point out that failing to connect brain in gear before plunging into one's scales (or sight-reading) is asking for disappointment. However (and this is the bright spot) he is otherwise doing terrific.
  4. One week before the exam, you tell the pupil that never, in all your puff, have you ever heard such a lovely sound. If he or she does anything wrong you may point it out (once, and gently). Otherwise all is sweetness and light. It is at this stage that the pupil's ego is at its most fragile. Build it up and up and up again, not worrying about how irritating this arrogance may be for his family later that evening. It will either have mainly vanished or be all bravado on the day otherwise!!!!!!!

In other words, you have to prepare the child for possible rockiness ahead. If you don't, you fail the kid because he might not work hard enough to still get past the examiner-from-hell, who that very day had his wife walk out on him, his children declare they were going with her, and his car give up the ghost en route to the exam centre.

You also (paradoxically) have to instill complete confidence in your pupil, whatever age he or she is, at the same time as warning them that their best efforts might still bring only miniscule reward. This is what makes teaching so exciting, also so dangerous. (You could of course suggest, next time, that you skip the whole exam minefield but pupils are odd: half the time it's the minefield that keeps them going ...)


Ask Alice


I was able to hear the Benjamin Britten International Opera School's fabulous production of Così fan tutte on 25 June, and could not believe the quality of Anna Leese's Fiordiligi. Were you there?

J Beer, London

Dear J B,

No, but I did manage to catch the other cast on 27 June!!!! -- To be fair to Anna Leese, people on the night I went were still raving about her, but I found much to admire in the other cast, especially in Simona Mihai's Despina. Of course, Despina is bound to steal the show -- there is so much opportunity to show your character as well as your voice -- but hers is an amazing young soprano, not exactly unknown (due to having won a Kathleen Ferrier Bursary and nine other international awards or prizes) but with a clarity and richness of expression that don't always go with such a nimble technique or such acting ability.

Perhaps it was unlucky for our Fiordiligi, the beautiful and statuesque Pumeza Matshikiza of South Africa, to be up against quite so outstanding a Despina (and such a promising Ferrando, of which more anon). However, her voice certainly possessed the requisite (extremely) high notes and (extremely) low notes, and her acting warmed up as the evening progressed, though I persisted in seeing in her more a Verdian or Donizettian heroine. She certainly excited the audience when torn, in the second half, between her conscience and her passion. Dorabella (Nicola Stonehouse) was also extremely able, but showed the wisdom of her (recent) decision to switch from mezzo to soprano in her exceptionally lovely high notes. Her acting was rather disappointing, lacking the impulsive flightiness of my ideal Dorabella, but it will be interesting to see what becomes of her voice.

In contrast, the acting of both male stars (Andrew Staples as Ferrando and Jacques Imbrailo as Guglielmo) left nothing to be desired, and both were particularly impressive when asked to combine their acting and singing, with Imbrailo true-toned throughout. Staples was the less reliable, but also the more exciting, indeed he effortlessly out-charisma'd the entire cast. It was difficult, despite his being very ordinary-looking, to take your eyes off him, because of his wonderfully expressive features. His tenor, so impressive in the first half, showed signs of tiring in the second, but the charisma factor was only exacerbated by the innovative direction of Ian Judge, who decided that the couples should remain disunited at the close, and also provided several dark and psychologically intense moments. As for the chorus: when has one ever heard such a stunning sound, provided by so (comparatively) few voices??? -- Of course, they are all Despinas, Fiordiligis, Dorabellas, and Ferrandos in waiting, and they rammed that point home very clearly indeed!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

In short, everyone was to be congratulated on a wonderful evening, which provides a fitting climax to Dame Janet Ritterman's tenure at the Royal College of Music. (I plan on buttering up her successor and my old friend Colin Lawson, in hopes that he will continue to provide such wonderful free treats for Simon and me ...)


Ask Alice

I was very pleased to hear that Steven Isserlis has the good sense to use gut strings just like me.

It is nice to have confirmed that one can get more variety of colour out of gut, as I have always believed. However I do take issue with the comment that the audience has to listen harder. You don't have to ram everything down their ears at fffff.

Edwin Gut Cello

Dear Edwin,

No, no, you quite misunderstand me here. Nobody is suggesting that we cellists ought to do a Lynn Harrell and play fortissimo all the time, whatever string type we favour. It's just that gut strings CAN'T produce the same VOLUME of sound that metal strings can, that's all. The variety of tone colour may be superior but the gamut of dynamic level CANNOT be ... This obviously doesn't bother you, but it is a criticism sometimes levelled at Steven Isserlis, that the stronger end of his dynamic range can seem limited, and that the beauty of his tone is best appreciated on CD. (I think his stage presence is pretty mesmerising as well, so I don't support that view either. He really does seem carried away, yet without distracting mannerisms such as Natalie Clein goes in for ...)

Incidentally, speaking of ffffs, you cannot claim to have the foggiest notion of what this sounds like unless you have had the thrill of listening to the Bromley Youth Music Trust's Elementary Brass band. THEIR dynamic range boasts a phenomenal forte to quintuple forte, courtesy of their keener than keen 24 youthful trumpeters, four trombones, six percussion, six euphoniums and four horns (including my seven-year-old daughter, who moans every Thursday afternoon that they have no RIGHT to pack up for the summer, and disconsolately blasts her deathless tenor horn part in their rousing rendition of Pirates of the Caribbean in memory of same ...)

Your fellow cello always,

Copyright © 8 July 2005 Alice McVeigh, Kent, UK

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