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Ask Alice, with Alice McVeigh

Judges, sheep and a Rite to complain,
with classical music agony aunt ALICE McVEIGH

? 'Dear Alice,

I am writing to complain about the English National Opera production of The Rite of Spring. I took my seventy-year-old mum there for her birthday, and was appalled. I know ENO is always in financial trouble, but is their inspiration at so low a level that they have to have the male cast stripping off to complete nudity only to don dresses?

My mother, who is not a prude, as has been thrice married, was shocked -- and so was I.

' Yours,
H Griffiths, London

Ask Alice

Alice Dear H,

Haven't seen it. Nor am I going to, as all the reviews I've seen have been, frankly, rubbish. However, I know what you mean about ENO. It likes to see itself as the cheeky younger brother of the Royal Opera House, and enjoys tweaking with productions to an even loonier extent. I can see the point of the stripping off, given the storyline of the Rite, but the women's dresses defeats me. It reminds me of what my husband used to say about American football: 'It must be a pretty dull sport if they have to have pretty girls leaping up and down to get the audience excited.'

But surely even the nuttiest ENO person can't think that The Rite of Spring needs help!!!!!!

Anyway, if I were you, I'd complain direct of them. If enough people do, funny things might happen (like empathetic production values?)


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? 'Hi Alice,

I have several children, who all learn several instruments, and for many years we've supported a local music festival. This is an ever more discouraging experience, however, as the quality of the judges varies so greatly, and, despite coming home with various medals of all kinds, I am facing a rebellion from the kids. I don't understand why the judges can't understand that the main function of these things is to encourage, and not to carp and criticise!
Name withheld

Ask Alice

Alice Hi, yes, I do know what you mean, and in fact my kid and her best friend did rebel this year, and refuse to enter our own local effort, though I think starting secondary school had a lot to do with it.

My experience has been pretty mixed. Here are the types I've identified:

  1. The show-off judge. This specimen (usually male) can't wait for the cellists/trumpeters/whatever to finish, so that he can deliver the same bon-mots he's done up and down the country for ninety four years. He dispenses the prizes ASAP so that he can -- under the pretence of instruction -- swipe up his trombone/violin/whatever, to the general mystification of all, as it has bugger all to do with the competition.
  2. The know-it-all judge. This specimen (women just as guilty as men) woffle on for hours about their personal connections with Meditation from Thais/Haydn's trumpet concerto, to the general elucidation of nobody, but simply because s/he enjoys having a captive audience. They run massively late, 'but it doesn't matter because the little dears learn so much,' and are prone to wildly exaggerated comments ('You sound like Pavarotti!' 'Your bow hold looks like a crippled beggar's!') which are also -- er -- sometimes wrong. (They did vibrate quite a lot by Schubert's time, hate to break it to you!!!!!)
  3. The unhappy judge. These miserable buggers have grown to hate the profession they're in and do everything in their power to dissuade pupils from joining it. They are apt to such comments as, 'Very musical, not that it'll do you any good, of course,' and 'Twenty years ago I'd have predicted a good future for this player. As it is ...' These Eeyores should be persuaded to buzz off, as they're even more annoying than (1) and (2). (Most of the kids don't even want to be professionals!! Get real!!!)
  4. The 'presentation nut' judge. These misfits are not really musicians at all, but frustrated actors instead. They will give you medals if you (a) speak up when announcing your piece (b) smile and bow at the end and (c) hold your instrument correctly. (They're also very keen on no jeans and tidy hair!!!!!) These are capable of drivelling on about audience (communication with) for decades, and can only be dissuaded by the 'accidental' elbow jar by the presiding committee member.
  5. The great judge. The only one of these I've ever struck was in the Bromley Festival, and it was the Harpenden Musicale person, Gillian Johnston (mother of remarkable cellist Guy Johnston). Why was she so terrific? Because she was genuinely funny (no stock jokes), genuinely caring (encouraging even the nervous and disappointed players), genuinely musical (even inspiring) and offered advice in a spirit that was obviously full of good-will. She didn't describe anyone as Pavarotti, but she found something true to say about everyone that made them feel worth something and as if music was an enriching thing to do. (Also, she was fast: no drivelling on, and no demonstrating. God, but some of them do 'go on!!!')

So here's my solution. Clone G Johnston and farm her out to every music festival. (This is so obviously the answer that it can only be a decade of so away ... I mean, look at sheep.)

A friend of the editor. Photo © 2009 Keith Bramich


Copyright © 13 November 2009 Alice McVeigh, Kent UK

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