Joie éternelle or Eternal Joy is the title of an important melody from the kunqu repertoire, an old Chinese operatic form.
I learned this when attending the British Premier of a piece composed by Qigang Chen to be performed on the second night of the BBC Proms. I’d gone to the Royal Albert Hall because I looked forward to being immersed in Elgar, Liszt, Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky, but Chen’s composition, with trumpeter Alison Balsom as featured soloist, was an unexpected and satisfying surprise. It was eternal joy to hear someone of her musical calibre on an instrument I love (and have tried to play), jumping and sliding through phrase after phrase of difficult trills and turns, tones, semi-tones and tones-without-name, as if the trumpet suddenly had more than a mere three buttons. The programme notes comment on the work’s expressive and physical robustness, but still I marvelled at the miraculous pantheon of sounds delivered from Alison Balsom’s lips. And I thank God for the wisdom (and funds) of the joint commission, and the standard to which the China Philharmonic Orchestra have soared in such a short number of years under the baton of Long Yu. Bravo!
The title and mood of the piece also got me thinking: summer is to the seasons, Joy Eternal. We feel immersed in sunshine, immersed in warmth and positive feeling, immersed for refreshment in water (wine or beer), celebrating in these precious weeks the best life has to offer. And as such, I can’t separate the socializing I do in a European summer from the artistic riches on offer.
The very next morning I was back at the Proms... this time with the BBC Concert Orchestra, the Crouch End Festival Chorus, and an array of guests chatting with the host, Gabby Logan, about sport. Yes, sport. Imaginative Prom themes designed to appeal to the masses, this concert had large video screens so we could digest the likes of Strauss, Mozart, Prokofiev, John Williams and Richard Rodgers while watching cricket, rowing, sailing, rugby and tennis highlights. I think The Skaters Waltz by Emile Waldteufel (1882) had special appeal with Torvill and Dean gracing the screen. The crowd enjoyed singing with Freddie Mercury’s We are the Champions (so did I), and the infamous football anthem You’ll never walk alone. I was pleased, too, to see a confident female conductor, Rebecca Miller, lead her band through an eclectic programme; a lovely start to a summer Sunday.
The crowd was busy doing a Mexican wave to the theme from ‘Ski Sunday’, when a friend and I rushed out the door, on to a bus in the direction of Trafalgar Square, and up to the Royal Opera House to attend the Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance. Some years ago I used to look after the sponsors of New Zealand Opera’s Emerging Artist’s Programme and in the arts, as in all industries, it is vital to coach and encourage the next generation. So though I was a little over-indulged with music at this point (and not much sleep), after a quick bacon and egg sandwich I settled into the first act of Donizetti’s La Favorite and was left wanting more. I think those two cranky Muppets (from the balcony box) were sitting next to me in the first half, complaining about all and sundry, including the audacity of a young couple who’d brought a small boy to the performance. FYI the little chap behaved in a nicer fashion than they did – nor did he hog the arm rest - so I was relieved to move to an empty seat in the front row of the amphitheatre for the second half, from where I could stretch my legs into the aisle, and see and hear without interruption scenes from Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte. These young artists are in development of course, and it’s a big thing to step out onto that imposing stage in costume for the first time, so I immersed myself in the spirit of it and, unlike the Muppets, resolved to forgive small mishaps. The point is their promise, not their polish, and in this we were not disappointed.
The same could be said of the Chapterhouse Theatre Company’s production of Much Ado About Nothing at Canary Wharf last week: it wasn’t the best presentation of that wonderful play that I’ve seen (though I’m bias as I’ve played Beatrice) but sitting outdoors in the balmy evening air surrounded by light-hearted play and jest, energy and enthusiasm, you’d have to be a Muppet or a cranky-old-Codger not to enjoy it. That’s why I’m going to see Norma with Opera Holland Park this week – summer is all about using what’s available to us... making the most of opportunity, space, sunlight and good cheer. It is easier with a comedy I grant you, but I’m sure the flowers, shrubbery, and picnics associated with Holland Park will have the audience in a chirpy mood long before the first note.
That brings me to another infamous summer occupation: the festival. I can’t possibly list them all, but I know people are still scratching dirt off their Glastonbury boots. I, on the other hand, headed to Ireland for a family festival this year, set in the grounds of Westport House, County Mayo. The Westport Festival of Music & Food was running for the third consecutive year and by all (known) measures was a great success. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
To begin with, Westport is a great destination long before the festival starts: it’s pretty; it’s small enough to walk around; it has good jogging, cycling and walking tracks circling the town and adjacent country-side; it’s filled with friendly people, a lovely harbour, good restaurants, and dozens of pubs packed with music, dancing and good craic until the wee hours pretty-much every night of the week. There’s also Guinness. There’s an historical and artistically valuable manor house which deserves a visit. There’s amazing scenery, and places like Clare Island to visit nearby, and a big mountain you can climb if you dare.
(See http://theresalwaysastoryjulieemullins.blogspot.co.uk/2014/07/three-marines-and-sheila.html?spref=fb or www.blogjulie.com for what I hope is a humorous account.)
And who needs more than all that?
Then the music and food festival gets under way: there are cooking displays by respected chefs... caravans and booths with quality local produce and culinary diversity... plenty of Heineken... and two particularly relaxing tents, one for Comedy and one for RTÉ Radio 1 which was sometimes going out live and other times beautifully silly and community-minded. The Irish comedians were terrific and I so wish I had written down their names! With the open-mic, I cringed to hear an Aussie singing Waltzing Matilda out of tune... but so generous are the Irish when it comes to “having a go” that even she received applause. Westport House grounds and lake are stunning and on the last weekend in June, under perfectly blue skies (no rain), for two days and across three stages I thoroughly immersed myself in talent such as: the 2 Cellos; Paddy Casey; Lisa O’Neill; Shane Filan; the Bootleg Beatles; Morrissey & Marshall (look out for them); Danny Battles (look out for him too); The Young Folk; the Clew Bay Pipe Band (with assorted guests such as Matt Malloy and Mundy); David Gray; Sinead O’Connor; and the headliner, Bryan Adams. As an artist Adams has depth, talent, charisma and stamina, and he really deserved his top-billing on the marquee – complete with impressive videography, and the breadth of appeal which earns accolades like ‘classic’ and ‘legend’. The Promoter chose well... letting things slowly build throughout the day... while families and friends interacted and enjoyed the atmosphere... culminating in a first-rate-rock-‘n-roll show (where I knew many more of Adam’s songs than I expected)... and ending with everyone dancing and cheering and a surprise firework display.
The fact that I also met fun people, made new friends and cemented old ones, adds to Westport’s immense charm. I do hope they put the Westport Festival of Music & Food on again next year, and locals and tourists have the good sense to appreciate and support it. And if I wasn’t there myself I wouldn’t believe that after an intense fourteen day holiday mix of culture and comedy, art and adventure, flirting and frivolity, music and madness, my very last night was spent sitting in front of a Georgian fire at the home of a wonderful Westport family listening to the great Irish poet, Paul Durcan, recite his work, in his own voice, from several precious anthologies. I had to twist his arm to do it, such is this artist’s humility, and the rich satisfaction we already felt from good table conversation and superb dining, but it was an opportunity too good to be missed.
And though I’m back in London now, I still feel the goose bumps (goose pimples) from that privileged coalescence of social and artistic immersion – and it is nothing less than joie éternelle.
So do yourself a favour and get a ticket to something special this summer. For one day this winter the memory will keep you warm.