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August 2015 Archives

August 21, 2015

Closing the gap in Scottish education: is it possible?


Gary Robertson (photo courtesy of the BBC) interviewed Keir on Good Morning Scotland yesterdayday, shortly after he talked to Larry Flanagan (EIS) and before Iain Gray (Labour Party spokesman for education). Now that Nicola Sturgeon has proposed that her government be judged by its success in "closing the gap", there has been a flurry of interest in Keir's comments on this issue. On yesterday's phone-in with Kaye Adams, there was also plenty of confusion about what it actually means.

He is talking about the attainment gap between pupils from areas of deprivation and poverty compared with those from affluent areas. The easiest way to do it, wholly unacceptably of course, would be to dumb down or hold back pupils with greater educational success. To some extent the implementation of Curriculum for Excellence and limitation of the number of Highers has already done this, albeit by accident. The hardest time to close the gap is when you are already committed to improving the attainment of all pupils. As Keir pointed out, abolishing the gap (the First Minister's declared goal) would means improving the performance of the weakest pupils at an astonishingly fast rate.

He reminds us that children from poorer areas are already a full year behind the more favoured pupils before they even start school. Given the failure of various honest attempts to "close the gap" in Scottish education over the past 70-odd years, Nicola Sturgeon has certainly taken on a massive challenge. The programme is available via iPlayer here and Keir's interview  lasts for five minutes, starting after about 1 hour and 37 minutes.

August 18, 2015

Festival Figaro


A few days ago we caught the opening night of Figaro in which Ivan Fischer conducted the Budapest Festival Orchestra and directed a fine cast of singers: we were expecting a concert performance but actually this was an innovative "staged concert", with playful comedy and intelligent supra-titles. Hugh Canning (Sunday Times) was later very dismissive of the "rudimentary production" and "ugly costumes" but I disagree with him. Fischer placed the orchestra on-stage, instead of in a pit. By involving himself and the instrumentalists in the action, he fused music with drama. As he said "Mozart's music is extremely theatrical and his theatre is extremely musical"

The plot of Figaro is full of mutations (gender, countess to maid, boy to soldier) and implausible changes of costume and identity. Mozart operas are normally played po-faced, but this was a brilliant reminder that "opera buffa" is meant to be funny. I don't remember audience laughter-out-loud in any previous Figaro, and this production felt authentic. The orchestra and singers were splendid, with a specially memorable countess in Miah Persson (photo courtesy of www.wsj.com).

And tonight we have just enjoyed the Budapest Festival Orchestra again playing Mozart's Requiem. Miah Persson starred again as the soprano soloist and the Edinburgh Festival Chorus were magnificent. The range of styles in his final masterpiece is extraordinary, ranging from old-school vocal counterpoint and fugue (Kyrie eleison) to the more operatic treatment of Dies irae and the lyrical Benedictus. It was a convincing demonstration that this orchestra does serious Mozart extremely well, too.

August 20, 2015

Seven: music, movement and Mahler


Seven was a brilliant combination: the RSNO playing Mahler's 7th symphony and the extraordinary Ballett am Rhein performing modern dance, on occasion ensemble but mostly a series of vignettes, in close and poignant sympathy with the music. Some episodes were ardently romantic, others violent and disturbing, all beautifully danced by this wonderfully talented corps. Their footwear ranged from barefoot to en pointe to (surprlsingly) leather-booted. Enjoy a sample of this tour de force on YouTube.

Martin Schläpfer, when he took over Ballett am Rhein in 2009, abolished the traditional hierarchy within a dance corps: all 47 dancers are treated and paid equally, and this was manifest in the distribution of roles and curtain calls. The dancers were full of grace and virtuosity, and the unbroken 90-minute performance was enthralling. Schläpfer was inspired by World War 2 and referred to Jewishness and exclusion in his interview, but says "in order not to become pretentious, you have to stay abstract". 

Judith Mackrell (The Guardian) was patronising in her praise:

Schläpfer choreographs in blunt emphatic bursts that illuminate the surface of the score but not its architecture. As a result, Seven doesn't add up to a truly compelling interpretation. I sometimes wished the music, played with brio by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, could be left to do the storytelling on its own.

I find that a very pretentious criticism: she wants choreography that "illuminates the architecture of the score" and if she doesn't realise that her metaphor mixes media as well as meanings, she should perhaps just have closed her eyes and enjoyed the RSNO's performance. We kept our eyes open and found the synergy superlative.

Postscript: I am pleased to see that the Scotsman's Kelly Apter is much more generous here.

About August 2015

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