Friday, 28 August 2009

Durham, Chopin with Lang Lang, and Kind of Blue

Today, Wonder and Wondering is named on the Baptist Union E-News Sweep as Blog of the Day, along with two others. Very kind and a little embarrassing as I haven't posted for nearly two weeks!

August isn't busy in the usual way, and although I've been productive, I've enjoyed a different tempo. On Wednesday I spent an enjoyable day taking Andrew for a History Open Day at Durham University. It rained and, while Durham wasn't at its best, it was beneficial and we had a good time, talking, eating rubbish food including a delicious Belgian bun in the afternoon, and a more ordinary Burger King on the way home, and listening to the iPod during a nine hour return journey. During the afternoon, while Andrew was in a seminar, I spent a few moments with St Cuthbert at the Cathedral, and a few more just sitting in the nave and enjoying the cavernous yet intimate space of this ancient building.

Yesterday evening was part of Cazz' 50th birthday celebration, with some fine seats at the Royal Albert Hall for a Prom. The performance included Lang Lang playing Chopin Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Min. Op. 21. This was sensational and led to an encore of Chopin's Etude Op. 25, No. 1, which for me was one of those eternal moments when I lost touch with time. The second half included an awesome performance of Richard Strauss's Alpine Symphony. The orchestra, the Dresden Staatskapelle, who gave the original performance in 1915, played superbly, and although it's probably of little interest, the principal bassoonist made a wonderful sound that was both huge and flexible. What made the whole evening so good was to enjoy it together as a family.

During the interval we had a lively conversation with a couple who wanted our opinion on whether it was right to applaud between movements. We went on to discuss Traces, which was the piece that began the concert, which led into contemporary music in general, the future of the arts, concluding with Classic FM. Our conversation partners were opinionated in the best possible sense and good fun. He highly recommended Nielson's Helios Overture, which I listened to on Spotify and downloaded from Amazon. It's as he said.

I found the evening hugely nourishing and have lived in the goodness of it all day. I expected the Strauss to be the high point, but was totally ambushed by the Chopin. I'm finding that there are a number of composers I've been dismissive of, or certainly some of their works, and I'm relishing being taken by surprise by them. This happened recently with Schumann's Dichterliebe, which in turn led to becoming acquainted with Schubert's Die Schone Mullerin. And then I heard the Andantino of the Schubert Piano Sonata in A, Op. 120, D644, which is sublime. Chopin played by Lang Lang thoroughly seduced me and has opened up another world within a world.

And for something different, I've been reading Richard Williams' The Blue Moment, Miles Davis's Kind of Blue and the Remaking of Modern Music. This is a fascinating read about great music of another kind.

Friday, 14 August 2009

A Glimpse of Someone - Buechner

I'm reading Frederick Buechner's, Listening to Your Life, Daily Meditations. Today Buechner recalls a Da Vinci reproduction of a study of the face of Christ that greatly impressed him as a boy. I think that this is the one.

He writes, 'The head is tipped slightly to one side and down. He looks Jewish. He looks very tired. Some of the color has flaked away. His eyes are closed. That was the face that moved me and stayed with me more in a way than all the others, though not because it was Jesus' face, as far as I can remember, but just because it seemed the face of a human being to whom everything had happened that can happen. It was a face of great stillness, a face that had survived. It was as if in the picture I caught a glimpse of someone whose presence I noted in a different way from the others ... what haunted me was so strong a feeling of the painter's having in some unimaginable way caught the likeness just right that it was as if, without knowing it, I had already seen deep within myself some vision of what he looked like or what I hoped he looked like.'

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity

The third holiday book I read and found exceptional was Marcus Borg's The Heart of Christianity. I first encountered Borg through his dialogue with Tom Wright in The Meaning of Jesus. Then a few years ago I read Meeting Jesus Again for the first Time. He's provocative for someone like me who veers more naturally towards the Tom Wright end of the spectrum, but very stimulating, and there were many good things that I drew from the book.

His premise is that we need to view the Bible as historical, metaphorical, and sacramental, and the Christian life as relational and transformational. In the first half of the book, Seeing the Christian Tradition Again, the chapters on faith, the Bible, and God were invigorating. The chapter on Jesus was familiar. The second half of the book is given over to the relational and transformational aspects, Seeing the Christian Life Again. There was much that was inspiring in terms of the opening of the heart and the heart of justice.

A particularly fascinating section concerns Thin Places which he describes in terms of 'a sacrament of the sacred, a mediator of the sacred, a means whereby the sacred becomes present to us. A thin place is a means of grace.' And while he refers to geographical places he extends thin places to music, poetry, literature, the visual arts, and dance. 'Even times of serious illness, suffering, and grief can become thin places. They do not always, of course; but sometimes our hearts are broken open by such experiences.' I liked his notion that people can become thin places, 'Many of us have known at least one or two people through whom we experienced the presence of the Spirit at particular junctures of our lives.' He goes on to look at worship as a thin place, and particularly the different components that constitute worship: music performed and participated in, sacraments, sermons, the Bible and liturgy.

An additional delight is that Borg quotes Frederick Buechner a number of times, and this led me to become reacquainted with this wonderfully insightful writer. It was uncanny to see that both Jim and Simon have posted on Buechner, Jim several times, in the last week.

Borg concludes with a chapter on Being Christian in an Age of Pluralism, and for those who seek spirituality but not religion he responds, 'religion is to spirituality as institutions of learning are to education ... Institutions of learning are the way education gets traction in history; so also religion is the way spirituality gains traction in history.'

A nourishing read for both head and heart.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Home and Netherland

I read three books and began another while on holiday, and all were exceptional in different ways.

I loved Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, and resisted reading the sequel Home, despite rave reviews, until this occasion. Home is not a page turner yet it is thoroughly enthralling, a novel to savour and take time with. While Gilead was written from the perspective of an elderly Presbyterian minister writing to his very young son, Home concerns the same family but from the perspective of the youngest daughter, and focuses on the black sheep of the family, Jack, who returns home after a twenty year absence. Like Gilead it's beautifully written, showing profound insight and theological awareness. In the words of one reviewer it's 'frighteningly sad', and another, 'the saddest book I have loved' and although I was deeply moved there is a quality about it that didn't thoroughly undo me!

Netherland, by Joseph O'Neill is another book with justifiable rave reviews. It concerns a marriage breakdown, but brings particular interest in the context of post 9/11 New York. The writing is brilliant and compelling, and the quirky focus on cricket in the States, makes it a captivating read. Without providing a spoiler, this novel ends on a contrasting note to Home.

Both books were nourishing and life giving, and will be on my favourites list for some time, Home, maybe for ever!

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Holiday in Southern Italy

I've just got back from two glorious weeks in Calabria, Southern Italy. This is our third summer in this wonderful part of the world - on the two previous holidays we visited the regions of Abruzzo, and last year, Puglia. So we've done the calf, the heel, and this year the toe of Italy.

Among the things that attract us is the almost guaranteed sun. Every morning it was a delight to open the shutters to blazing sunshine, and only on one day did it become particularly cloudy with some rain, although even on that day we had an hour of unbroken sunshine at lunchtime.

Then there is the rural Italian pace of life in late July/early August which is very 'andante'. And of course the food. Unlike most places in the UK, the only choice is Italian with no Chinese or Indian, or MacDonalds. And yet in each region, the food has subtle differences. In Calabria, the predominant distinctive is not-so-subtle hot peppers. Add to this the wine - and we drink only the local, highly gluggable, red wine, chilled - and the ice cream, and the espresso.

Our location this year was particularly spectacular, surrounded by forest-covered mountains with peaks, some 6000 foot high. This gave rise to a gentle cooling breeze, reducing the temperature to around 30c, which seemed to increase dramatically whenever we visited a town. Everywhere took a long time to get to, along some pretty scary bends encountering the sort of driving you would not believe. The towns are different yet have an attractive similarity. Architecturally we were baroque-ed out, as last year, but found a jewel of a Byzantine church in Stilo.

Language is mostly a challenge as very few people speak English and our Italian remains limited. This adds to the fun, and though we come back with great intentions to improve we've had little success so far.

We met some terrific people with whom we enjoyed some fascinating conversation. They included Andrew, Rita, and their lovely daughters, Lucia, and Sacha. Interestingly, Andrew wrote a book a few years ago, with the title, 'The Corporate Christ' which examines Christ's methodology from a business perspective - I hope to read it. Talking of books, I read some great books lying by the swimming pool but I'll resist commenting on these and save them for another post. Generally we enjoyed being together and not doing a huge amount. Andrew was with us, but we missed Jonathan who was in Uganda building a school, as you do.

Strange to say, we were glad to get home, partly to be reunited with Jonathan and his girlfriend who picked him up from the airport early the same day. And also because even all things Italian begin to lose their shine with familiarity. And because the holiday had done what it was meant to do - we were rested. refreshed and renewed, and just a bit bronzed!

One other thing - for the car hire we were upgraded to a red Alpha Romeo which really was fun!