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Ask Alice, with Alice McVeigh

On Nutcrackeritis and MRI scans,
with Classical Music Agony Aunt ALICE McVEIGH

? ' Dear Alice,
How did your MRI go?
D G in Chicago

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Alice Dear D,
It was diabolical, yet I suppose it could have been still worse. The National Health pick their MRI teams from a field consisting of hilarious types, constantly high on some substance or other. (If anyone out there thinks that I over-do it on the exclamation marks, I defy them to compare me to this crew!!!!) I drew a pudgy bloke from up north, a pudgy brunette from 'Hallo Hallo' and a bubbly blonde Australian girl who didn't look old enough to drive. I knew I was in trouble the moment I saw the thing: a horrible, white tube, and only then understood why the guy on the phone had been so intrusively personal about my weight. Another stone here (or even there, come to think of it) and I wouldn't have even fit into the thing and I'm not more than borderline overweight, according to my doctor. I said, 'Oh my God it's minute', whereupon the bubbly blonde giggled like a hyena and said, 'Ha ha!!!!!!!!!! No, it isn't!!!!!!!!!!!! It's only cosy!!!!!!!!!!!!' and the bloke from up north (possibly Newcastle, though I wouldn't care to swear to it) said, 'Eh ba goom, yon's comfy enough!!!!!!!!!!!' After the other two had recovered from the hysterics, the B B went on to warn me that, 'Some people find it a teensy weensy bit on the noisy side, I warn you', whereupon the other two were reduced to weeping on each other's ample shoulders. 'Remember, don't move a muscle!' carolled the brunette cheerily.

Well I basically decided that the sooner I got out of this nut-house the better, so I allowed the bubbly one to buckle me in, assuring me as she did so that, if I was even the smallest bit worried all I had to do was to 'squeeze the bulb' (a rubbery device that she'd shoved in my hand). Then they probably all three buzzed out of the mobile unit (did I say it was a mobile unit?) and did a few lines of cocaine and had a good laugh, leaving me to my rubbery ball thingie (still damp from the sweat of the previous inhabitant) in my oversized kitchen roll dispenser.

She had suggested, blithely, that I close my eyes before being shoved into the casket, and I had done so. Only once -- idiotically -- did my eyelids part, only to see that my breathing space ended around an inch and a half from my eyeball, and that was the moment when I was closest to squeezing the bulb (not that it would have done any good, as the three of them would have been long since at the pub around the corner, avec fags).

Now what I want to know is this. Why don't they give you something to think about?? Personally, after dismissing (a) suicide and attempting (b) prayer and finding that imagining Schelomo in my head did nothing to calm me, I settled on this idiotic game whereby I lull my brain when I'm trying to sleep. Now, because I love names, it goes: Abigail, Actiola, Adeline, Aeolia, Africa, Agatha, etc etc, and I give myself plaudits for any name beyond four syllables.

Now apparently in the States, where they are slightly (but only slightly) less unimaginative than in Britain, they play Mozart through the headphones. Mozart is of course all very soothing -- and infinitely better than nothing -- but what you really need is something strenuously intelligent in order to make you forget that you're about to be smothered by a gigantic collapsing toilet roll (you laugh, but I've had nightmares ever since). What you want is some acerbic debate about a subject in which you have a direct and personal interest, or some witty two-hander by Ayckbourn or similar (that would make the time rush past). However, all I had personally was my own feeble stabs at Agatha, Ahermia, Aileen et al (Ahermia????) and every now and then the sound of technology grinding in my ears.

So what I want to know is this: where were bloody-minded Jeremy Paxman and confrontational John Humphries when I really needed them????

Yours, still afflicted by nightmares,

Ask Alice

? ' Dear Alice
Right, here's my question for today. I live in a town with a strong German heritage, and boast a good position in a (fairly) famous American orchestra.

Yet Christmas programing in our fair city is pathetic. I envy friends in Boston who say 'This December, I'm playing Bach Magnificat, and a Messiah and a B Minor Mass and Cantata such-and-such' while I don't have so much as an Amahl and the Night Visitors for musical interest. No, instead I have to play putrid Xmas pops concerts of various sorts -- at least, until the Nutcracker kicks us out of our concert hall -- and that's about it.

What's a good way to create Good Christmas Music Envy in my city?
Anon in US

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Alice Dear Anon,
I think that Nutcrackeritis is fairly well-known throughout the entire world (and is immune to all known anti-viral agents). My first cello teacher could play the whole cello part from memory, after decades of Decembers in the pit ... I suspect the problem is partly that America, according to my family/friends/spies has grown on the ambivalent side with regard to Christmas (all religious festivals, God help us, being created equal) and partly that, the classical music tradition having never been deeply rooted and established, that people are sadly much more prone to sit at home with a beer and a video than to rush out on a cold night to imbibe Bach cantatas. In other words, you're up against ignorance and indifference, but also (and this a biggie) sloth.

Not that you should despair!!!! Your city (which I won't name) is rich, and -- I guarantee -- has some loaded people with musical pretentions. Were you to start a Christmas programme series, built around Bach, Vivaldi, Corelli concerti grossi et al, you might find sponsorship, even without the main hall being available. This is especially true if you could tie it in to a company or an image or a campaign (I played many years ago in London for a chamber orchestra sponsored by Alfa Romeo. Not only did we have to wear Alfa Romeo badges, but we played before a superimposed image of a gigantic sports car ...)

You could broaden the appeal by having a few carols for audience thrown in, and I suspect you might be amazed at how many great local solo singers would be interested in singing for little or nothing, especially at the beginning. There's probably a hunger for real culture that has nothing to do with Disney or Nutcrackers (still less with Die Hard and Budweiser) that you might inspire to attract. Start your prices low, and, once it's taken off, make them more expensive. Advertise it as 'an old-fashioned Christmas' (take it from me: people who normally would rather die than go for anything old-fashioned can get notably gooey around this time of year).

(By the way, my cut will be 5%, after expenses ...)

Copyright © 11 January 2008 Alice McVeigh, Kent, UK

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