Why I'm in London will wait for later, but I took the opportunity of being there to attend two concerts at the Southbank Centre, a collection of monumentally ugly 1960s brutalist concrete slabs on the Thames immediately opposite the West End. Inside those slabs, however, are some spacious wood-lined auditoriums.
The real attraction for me was the appearance at the Royal Festival Hall of the Berlin Philharmonic, which Simon Rattle is taking on a last round of tours before his retirement from the music directorship next month. What they played was even more enticing: Bruckner's Ninth Symphony, in its completed version. Bruckner finished up three of an intended four movements, and those are what is usually played; but when he died, the finale still consisted of a collection of scraps and pieces, and since Bruckner's genius consisted largely of how he put the pieces together, completing it is a daunting task. It took four musicologists to concoct this version of the finale, which is just over 20 minutes long - a good length - and what I can say for it is that it seemed to comport well with Rattle's approach to the genuine article, which is to treat Bruckner as a composer of Big Paragraphs, and not to worry about anything so quotidian as themes. I don't think Rattle has quite as deep a command of Bruckner's large structure as some conductors, and the climaxes didn't tower quite as much as they should (an unreverberant hall didn't help), but the musicologists didn't seem afraid to make a conclusion big enough that it wasn't quite anticlimactic for the end of an epic 90-minute symphony.
As the piece ended, I muttered to myself (through having nobody else to talk to), "I always wanted to know how that one came out."
Like many conductors with similar pieces on their plates, Rattle chose to preface his epic with something brief and completely incongruous, in this case a piece of crypto-modernism by Hans Abrahamsen.
A chamber music concert at the much smaller Queen Elizabeth Hall, physically an unbroken slope-fest that reminds me of Snape Maltings, was intended as a reproduction of a famous concert that took place there nearly 50 years ago when the place was new. Daniel Barenboim, Jacqueline du Pre, and some other hot young talents of the day had played Schubert's Trout Quintet. So today, pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, who's 25, gathered together some age-mates, including violinist Hyeyoon Park and cellist Kian Soltani, to play the same piece, plus the Schubert Notturno, the Brahms Op. 25 Quartet, and a violin-piano rhapsody by Bartok. They were bold and fearless in all these pieces. The Brahms survived an unfortunate man who was horribly sick on the seat a couple rows in front of me, the man was led gently away and I heard he'd be all right, and I hope the hall survived too, judging from the number of employees busily scrubbing away at it during intermission.
Over across the river in a West End theatre boldly named the Coliseum, I got to a musical show from the other end of my tastes, a revival production of Chess. This show, which I've seen before, has a topic that appeals to me, plus an inordinate number of good songs, far more than any other post-1970 musical I've heard. The production had a lot of splashy lighting effects that overshadowed the tiny actors down on the stage, but made up for this with huge video projections of them during most of the songs, which, despite videographers prowling the stage, I eventually figured out were not live.
The stars, Michael Ball and Tim Howar, are, I understand, big names in this line of work, and they certainly did entirely satisfactory jobs on the big emotional ballads, the kind of song anyone who's not a consummate professional would make a complete hash of. But the performer who impressed me the most was the lesser-known Phillip Browne as Molokov, the Russian handler, who brought wit and vividness, not to mention a basso profundo, to this normally imperturbable role.
Further notes on visiting London:
1. I already knew that all theatres here charge extra for programmes, but the Brits seem to have trouble with them, as at all events I heard plaintive queries as to where they could be found, which I'd had no trouble with.
2. The better restaurants all include a service charge in the bill. It's labeled as optional, but only a churl would wish to reduce it, and I for one am happy to be relieved of the burden both of deciding how much to leave and of figuring out the amount. The rate is, universally, 12.5%. This strikes me as eminently reasonable for a lot of impressively attentive service. To leave 15% here would be impossibly generous, and 20% would be a studied insult by rich Americans throwing their money around. This is not to say the food is inexpensive: at these places, it certainly isn't.
3. On the other end of the economic spectrum, I saw more homeless on the streets than I ever had in London before. San Francisco claims to be embarrassed by its profusion of homeless. I don't think it's anywhere near as far out of the typical as it thinks, or than it used to be.