Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Lang Lang @ The iTunes Festival

Last Monday, I won tickets to see the pianist Lang Lang perform at the iTunes Festival held at Roundhouse in Camden, courtesy of the London Symphony Orchestra.  For those of you who aren't familiar with this classical musician, I'm pretty sure he is currently the (or at least, one of the) hottest-young-talent-in-the-classical-music-scene-like-right-now.  You can catch up on his accolades here, as I won't use this space to list them but instead, focus on his performance that evening.

As my pianist mother was unavailable to take an overnight flight to London for the concert and John was busy being busy and important, I invited Ruth to come along.  We had an amazing pre-concert meal which far surpassed my expectations, at Made in Camden.  We ordered small but innovative tapas-style dishes which included delights such as miso chicken, pickled watermelon rind, fennel salad, seared tuna and roast pork belly.

Heading up to the main stage, we found that the opening act, 2Cellos, was already performing: comprised of two very attractive Croatian musicians, they first played separately as soloists, then together as a duet (and later with a drummer), on electric cellos.  The first part of their program consisted of classical pieces accompanied by piano but they quickly changed it up with more crowd-pleasing favorites such as covers of Green Day, Red Hot Chili Peppers and even a cringe-inducing U2 cover of "With Or Without You", to which the man behind me and Ruth sang with unbridled passion (and terrible intonation, might I add) whilst clasping his hands around his girlfriend's waist.  (Note: if that was my boyfriend, I would have dumped him right then and there).  There's a fine line between cool and cheese and I think that, unfortunately, 2Cellos crossed that cheese line when they stepped into classic rock territory.  Smooth Criminal was cool, Welcome To The Jungle was not.  They were entertaining, however, and most importantly, hot.  So, quite frankly, what they lacked in the aural pleasure department, they certainly made up for in terms of eye candy.  That's rather sexist, but so what?

Anyway, by the end of 2Cellos's rather ear-splitting and not-altogether-pleasant conclusion, the standing crowd (it was, after all, a festival) was officially primed and geared up for Lang Lang.  We waited.  Aannndd ... waited.  And waited.  At or shortly after 9 pm (read: about thirty or forty minutes later), dramatic fog swirled about the stage and a countdown was shown on the large screens above the audience, chronicling all the acts that have previously performed at the iTunes Festival.  When the countdown ended, there were an awkward few minutes when nothing happened and confusion ensued.  Where was he?  What was going on?  The Steinway was there, the fog completely covered it, but it was there.  Where was Lang Lang?

Finally, he emerged, in a black sequined jacket, nonetheless, and waved to the audience.  "HI!" he shouted into the microphone.  "How's everybody doing tonight?  Thanks so much for coming out!  Are you ready for some music?" he continued.  "YES!!!" the crowd, er, screamed.  "OKAY!" he said.  "Then let's enjoy Liszt together!" he exclaimed, before swirling over to the piano.  "Huh?  What?" said a girl in confusion behind me.  Oh dear.  Did someone not tell you, honey?  That this was going to be a classical concert?  Me neither.  It was too easy to be misled by the 2Cellos performance, the fog, the lights and the countdown.  Here I was thinking Lang Lang was about to launch into Radiohead's Karma Police, when he actually began playing an extremely, extremely fast version of Liszt's La Campanella.  Once I got over my initial shock that he wasn't about to play Radiohead or any other popular music, for that matter, I had to get over my shock of the speed he was playing Liszt at.  The piece opens with an arpeggiated sequence, which, when I play it (and as written in the score) requires both hands.  Lang Lang played it entirely with his left hand.  After I recovered from that revelation, I was then faced with the fact that for the duration of the concert, there would be a movie of time-lapsed clips of city streets and nature playing on five, floor-to-ceiling screens behind the artist.  I was confused.  Were we supposed to focus on the music?  Or the movie?  Was the music supposed to act as an accompaniment to the movie?  Or were the producers concerned that Lang Lang's classical performance would not sustain the festival-going audience and decided that visual stimulation was needed?

Then, a few people at the front began making their escape, after the third or fourth piece.  And a few more after that.  Lang Lang paid no notice and only paused to wipe his brow, smile and bow after each piece.  I rocked back and forth on my heels and looked at my watch.  I understood the desire to play a full program of Liszt, but there were several other romantic pieces he could have chosen that would have been much more appropriate for the venue - that is, crowd pleasing.  Yes, I said it.  Play the slow, tender pieces at the Barbican or Cadogan.  Play them at Carnegie Hall.  But I'm afraid that for a venue and crowd like the one at Monday night, something more bang-y would be required.  Rachmaninov.  Brahms.  Even some of the Chopin Marches or Impromptus - ANYTHING!!!  I was beginning to be bored out of my mind - and this is coming from someone who loves (and plays) classical and in particular, solo piano music.

But those who were left in the crowd (and it was still a good size) were, to my surprise, incredibly committed: no one heckled, no one even dared to breathe.  The cameras zoomed in on his fingers; his articulation was impeccable.  We marveled at the sheer speed at which he played some pieces, though I wondered if that tempo was actually necessary or in fact, detrimental to the interpretation.  However, you could hear a pin drop in the Roundhouse during the pianissimo sections and I was amazed at the audience's dedication.  I shamefully booked it as soon as he finished his first encore.  Don't get me wrong, I was very grateful for the tickets and the opportunity to see such a famous and sought-after musician perform.  It's clearly a once-in-a-lifetime chance and I enjoyed it for what it's worth.  But from a critical perspective, the performance as a whole just didn't work for that particular venue.  The layout and design of the concert seemed disconnected, confused and incongruous with the music that was actually being performed.

I don't want to say that Lang Lang resembled a fish out of water at The Roundhouse, because after all, he's practically a rock star - in some ways, it was the perfect place for him.  He has an energy and charisma about him that engages his audience, no matter the venue.  Yet, I know that should I see him again, I'd definitely rather be sitting in a concert hall.

In the meantime, entertain yourself with this video of 2Cellos performing Smooth Criminal - they're hot, no?:

Photo source

Some Say Being An Angloyankophile is a Lonely Business ...

... but it's not.  It used to be, but it's not now.  Now, I'm fortunate to have a social calendar that keeps me busy and one that I don't always - in fact, rarely, on the weekdays - share with John.  And I think that's important.  Because if you move to a new place with the intention of living there for at least more than a year, you need your own friends or else a cloud of resentment kicks in and that can make you very, very unhappy.  I know this because it happened to me and it took me a while to establish my own routines, my own social circle - my own life.

But while I'm thankful for all the new friends I've made here in the UK, both British and American, I also love and cherish the friends who visit me here in London - even if they're from far away.  And I especially love it when they bring gifts like these:

Adeline came down from Edinburgh to stay a couple of weekends ago now and we had a positively girly weekend, sampling almond croissants and pain au chocolat as big as our faces and then subsequently cleaning such faces at Space NK with complimentary Eve Lom and Clarisonic facials.  She brought me this amazing fairtrade organic green tea from Suki Tea (above left), some of the National Galleries of Scotland's famous shortbread (which is already gone, I'm afraid) and the adorable brooch (above right) to jazz up my jackets.  I'm holding out for this Bodum teapot to make my tea in.  Saturday evening may or may not have resulted in lots of red wine and memorizing the "best" phrases from The Chronicles of Riddick but we made up for our sins during Sunday morning yoga and a cleansing shopping trip on Regent Street.  I was sad as soon as she packed up to go.

But last Friday, I had the joy of meeting up with Anna and her mommy (Anna, of Le Petit Elephant fame) for cake and tea at Fortnum & Mason's The Parlour, where we were greeted upon arrival with mini ice cream cones the size of my pinkie finger for each of us.  We oohed, we ahhhed.  We discussed their recent Le Tour de Lakes - cycling tour of the Lake District - and caught up generally, as I hadn't seen Anna since our Mount Holyoke days in ... oh, 2005?  And then Anna pulled this out of her bag for me:

S'more making materials!  I told you I get the best presents.  Complete with "stackermallows" - marshmallows flat enough to make the perfect s'mores.  One whiff of the Honey Maid graham crackers and I was instantly transported back to kindergarten (we were allowed four graham cracker squares for a mid-afternoon snack).  I tried making the s'mores in my microwave, but the marshmallows exploded, sending me into a state of sweet, gooey mess - but they were still delicious.  John has yet to try a s'more, but I think he'll substitute the Hershey's with a block of Cadbury instead.  I'm no snob when it comes to s'mores, however, and though I prefer Cadbury to Hershey's you gotta make them the campfire way ... with the original.

I love my friends, old and new.  But mostly, I'm just grateful to have such amazing ones.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Tube Rave: Thank You, Holborn Station Staff - For Saving My Blackberry From An Untimely Death

Much worse things have happened, but at the very moment my Blackberry slipped from its cute Cath Kidston cover, bounced on the platform twice, and neatly slotted its fine self between the train and the platform onto the tracks below - I burst into tears.

I blame the novocaine.

You see, I'd just finished my seventh root canal appointment at the dentist and had gotten off the train at Holborn because an announcement was made that King's Cross was closed.  I didn't even WANT to get out at Holborn.  My jaw ached.  My teeth hurt.  My right cheek was semi-numb.  And I was hungry.

First, I walked away, convinced my phone was well and truly dead.  Then, when the train had passed, I peered over the edge and saw that it wasn't, in fact, dead, but rather forlornly lying face down on the side of the tracks nearest to the platform.  Feeling sorry for it and realizing it could be saved, I decided not to run the risk of being electrocuted or run over by a train and instead, tried the little "Information" button loudspeaker thingy on the platform.  A loud dial tone ensued by no one answered.  Everyone stared.

I raced up the stairs, up the two flights of escalators to Holborn station.  By now, I was REALLY hungry (and only John knows the extent of my hunger rage) and rather emotional - again.  I approached the nice looking ticket-checking/gate-guarding tube man and said, "Um, m-m-my phone ... it's ... I ... DROPPED IT. (hiccup hiccup)  I'm SO SORRY.  It's (hiccup) ON THE TRACKSSSSS," I cried.  "There, there!" he said, patting my arm.  "It's okay, do you remember where you dropped it?" he asked kindly.  "Um ... (hiccup) I was going eastbound ... towards King's Cross, on the Piccadilly line," I stuttered.  He spoke into his radio quickly, "A lady has dropped her phone on the tracks on Platform 4."  "Don't worry," he said as an aside to me. "It happens ALL the time.  And besides, it's only a phone!"  I hated myself for the tears, but again, I blamed the novocaine.

I watched the man as he helped numerous amounts of people find their way across London and cheerfully opened gates for people with heavy luggage or children.  I decided he was a Very Nice Person.

Then the Very Nice Person leaned over a few minutes later and said, "They've found your phone, but the station supervisor needs to stop a train before it enters onto the platform and retrieve it from the tracks."  I was pretty horrified.  I hadn't thought my stupid phone dropping incident would delay trains, if even momentarily.

The station supervisor emerged a few minutes afterward, waving my phone at me. "This yours?" he said sternly.  "Yes," I said gratefully.  "I'm so sorry!"  He wasn't amused.  "Now you need to pay up £20 because I had to stop a train to get it and it was a massive inconvenience."  "Really?" I asked.  "Um, YES, REALLY," he said.  "Okay, that's fine," I said, reaching for my wallet.  He burst out laughing and slapped his thigh.  "I love it, you really believed me!" he said, wiping his eyes.  "I'm so sorry, I feel really bad and I'm very sorry for the inconvenience," I said.  "Look," he said. "You're not the first one and you're not the last.  So please don't feel bad.  It happens all the time.  Don't feel bad."

I felt pretty bad.

So I did what John finds extremely embarrassing: I popped over to Costa coffee and bought two bags of mini muffins, proceeded to run behind the station supervisor and waved the muffins at him over the gate.  He pretty much looked at me like I was crazy.  "Please take these!" I shouted as tourists stared at the mad woman with mascara-tracks down her face waving bags of mini muffins.  "You shouldn't have done that, you know," he said.  "You really shouldn't have bothered."  "I know, but I wanted to thank you for being so nice and for helping me, so please give the other bag to the other man who helped me - thank you!" I babbled.  He took the muffins, thanked me, and I scurried away to call John and tell him about my adventure.

The end.

Cake Time Is Back!

Followers of this blog will know that I used to bake - a lot - and I chronicled my baking adventures in a series of posts called "It's Cake Time!" (see my proudest accomplishment here).  It was kind of like therapy but with the added plus of weight gain, since John would demand request I make things like, oh, an entire carrot cake and subsequently eat, oh, one slice, leaving me with carrot cake for the rest of the week to either consume myself or fob off to anyone who'd take it.  

My excuse was that we had an excellent oven in our Maida Vale flat - one that made cakes rise perfectly.  I also had at my disposal several amazing pieces of Circulon bakeware that John bought me for my birthday last year, so, left to my own devices with a few sticks of butter, caster sugar and self-raising flour, I made many variations of cakes in sandwich, loaf, and cupcake form for us to enjoy.

Since we moved to Angel, however, I hadn't baked until this weekend.  I could tell the oven was sub-par to the one we had before and I didn't want any baking disasters - because if there were ANY baking disasters, I'd swear off baking forever.  I have low confidence in my cooking and baking abilities.

But when we were invited over to Tom and Dani's for a picnic on Sunday and instructed to "bring dessert", I thought it'd be the perfect opportunity to make some cupcakes ... complete with Barbie sprinkles, of course:

And chocolate icing for the boys, for fear they'd be turned off by the Barbie sprinkles (I'm not kidding - the sprinkles were branded):

I didn't go too crazy with my first batch of cakes in the new flat, so I used a simple sponge cake recipe ... but having had an overall success with these, I'll be venturing into carrot and chocolate cake territory soon.  

*Pink Peep courtesy of A Wife Called Chuck
© angloyankophile

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