Monday, July 22, 2013

Puccini, a Picnic (at Vintage Car Rally) and a Posh Party!

Sunday, July 21, 2013
My friend Bishop Michael of St. Paul’s Cathedral told me that he thought my Blog post of today would be especially interesting—and he was not mistaken! I had a most extraordinary day during most of which my phone was shut off and Llew, trying hard to reach for me a long weekend chat, was much disappointed.

Snagging A Day Ticket at the Royal Opera House:
I awoke early (by 6.00 am) and did some editing work before I ate scrambled eggs and chipolata sausages for breakfast and jumped on to the Tube. Needless to say, Holborn and the Tube were empty at that unearthly hour on a Sunday but by 8. 30 am, I was at Covent Garden joining the other Early Birds in the Day Ticket line. I must say I was delighted to discover how well-heeled they were. Distinguished elderly men and women joined Asian youngsters—many had brought portable stools on which to perch as they whiled away the time. I took one of the chapters of my book to edit and since I was concentrating on it so deeply, time flew and before I knew it, the doors opened and five minutes later, I was the proud owner of a ticket to see Giacomo Puccini’s La Rondine at the 1.00 pm matinee show It was deeply thrilling, to say the least. So it was really worth the wait.

Sunday Church Service in a Royal Venue:
            I have waited for years to attend Sunday Service at the Queen’s Chapel at St. James’ Palace. The trouble is that they have very selected times during the year when services are held there—next week, the Royal Family goes on holiday to Balmoral in Scotland, for instance…so services will be suspended until September. During the winter, services are held in the Chapel Royal of St. James’ Palace. (I was very pleased to attend service there this past March with my friend Cynthia and her son Aidan). So, I was excited to be received by the verger Katherine who saw me to my seat at the Queen’s Chapel, a space that is breathtakingly beautiful. But then, I am not surprised. It is, after all, the work of the exceptional Inigo Jones who learned everything he knew from the legendary Andrea Palladio of Italy and brought his Classical principles to British architecture to create an aesthetic that, in time, influenced Christopher Wren and his pupil Nicholas Hawksmoor. Built in 1663 for Portuguese Queen Henrietta Maria, the wife of Charles II, it was a Roman Catholic place of worship for a Roman Catholic queen. In course of time, it was, of course, taken over by the Church of England.
            The chapel has large Palladian windows—named after Palladio, of course. The style is strictly balanced and symmetrical. The colors are those of the French tea room, Laduree: Wedgwood Green with Gold Accents. And what accents they were! There was gold lavished everywhere—but subtly, never gaudily. On the plaster ceiling, on the side walls, on the altar where the added bonus was the most magnificent wood carving (and gilding) by my favorite 18th century craftsman, the superbly-named Grindling Gibbons. There were twin arc angles high up on the altar holding a lavish garland of flowers and fruit and lower down the altar too framing the beautiful painted altarpiece. I have not been able to find out who painted this Nativity scene but it is a lovely image and suits the classic subtlety of the interior.
            The service was equally wonderful and I felt excited and privileged to discover that the angelic choristers were going to sing a Jubilate in English composed by none other than Prince Albert, consort of Queen Victoria, who was a talented and passionate musician—he often played the violin with his good friend Mendelsohn on the piano at Buckingham Palace. In fact, coincidentally enough, tomorrow night is the start of a four-part BBC TV series entitled “Monarchs and Music” moderated by David Starkey which will discuss in detail the contribution of royal family members to the grand British tradition of music.
            I always think it is marvelous that the Anglican Church has kept alive the stirring music that was composed for the Church by some of the world’s greatest composers—indeed it is only in the UK that I get to hear this kind of music (there was a lot of Tomas and also some Handel) and it never fails to move me deeply and convince me that the Anglican Church is a far better place to worship than the Catholic ones when one is in the UK. (Although, having said that, most of the London Catholic Churches also do a sung Latin Mass on Sundays during which I have heard the most amazing music and the most impressive choirs). In America, it is only very rarely (only on high holy days) that one gets to hear such music in a Catholic church. The preacher was a visiting chaplain from the Isles of Scilly (pronounced Silly) off the coast of Cornwall and he did a competent job likening his islands to Bethel, the holy city named in the day’s reading. Overall, I had a most moving Sunday church experience—exactly the sort that will bring me eagerly to church again next Sunday in another historic house of worship.               

Puccini at the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden:        
            Just as the service ended, a No.9 (old Routemaster bus) came trundling down Pall Mall—I was so excited as I always try to ride a Routemaster once during each of my London stays. Although I was only taking it for one stop—up to the Tube Station at Green Park—it seemed worthwhile and I was excited. These rides never fail to remind me of my childhood in Bombay as we had double decker red buses there too and, as children, always clambered to the top deck hoping to get the front window seats for a bird’s eye view of the passing scene. These rides always bring out the kid in me and I love to return to my happy Indian childhood in this fashion.
            I reached Green Park station, hopped on to the Tube and got off at Covent Garden from where it was only a short stroll to the Royal Opera House. I was so excited to see an opera at the Royal Opera House that I could barely control myself. Doors had already opened, a half hour before the show began. This gave me the chance to stroll around the fabulous premises and to take in the glass and iron ceilinged bar-café where patrons were sipping pre-dinner drinks. I also went into the restaurant with its beautiful painted panels and its soft lighting. The entire effect is one of old-world opulence and class and I allowed all of it to sink in.
            Ten minutes before the show could begin, I found my seat—and what a great seat it was! The opera began and I gave myself up completely to the grand music of Puccini. What I love about opera in addition to the music are the lavish sets and costumes and this production had both. Set during the 1920 and early 30s, is the era of the flapper girl, the entire show reminded me a bit of the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald (think The Great Gatsby) and Paris of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. La Rondine, which in Italian, means the swallow, centers on Magda (played brilliantly by soprano Angela Georghiou) who falls in love with Ruggero but despite his devotion finds herself unable to escape her past. The sets were strongly reminiscent of the work of Louis Comfort Tiffany particularly in the stained glass panels and the iridescent mosaic pillars of the first and second acts. The reproduction of Bullier’s, the Parisian jazz club of the Roaring Twenties, was also stunning. And the supporting cast did as good a job as possible to keep up with the demands of the plot and the score. Overall, it was a memorable afternoon at the opera and one that will stay in my own mind forever.    
Off to a Picnic and Vintage Car Show at Kensington Gardens:
            Back to the Tube station, I walked dodging the crowds that were thick and eager and found my way to Queensway station on the Central Line for the next appointment on my agenda: A Vintage Car Show at Kensington Gardens to see the 1936 vintage car owned by my friend John Harvey who had shipped it across the pond in order to participate in the Aston Martin Centenary Exhibition. There were over a hundred cars on display lining the Main Walk to create an avenue of cars just opposite the rear entrance of Kensington Palace.
           Needless to say, the cars that drew the most attention were in the section marked with a gigantic golden 007—they had been used in the James Bond films. Some of them were horribly battered from all the beating Bond took in trying to stay one step ahead of his enemies. Others featured the exciting gadgetry for which Bond is best known: skis attached to the sides, rifles that pop out of the headlights, etc. I joined my friends Cynthia and Michael at the venue and they, in turn, introduced me to a bunch of their friends—Susi and her mother Sabine and her husband Nicholas. We made a jolly lot, joined also by the younger members of the family, Edward and Aidan. Our friend’s green and black car got a great deal of attention from the public as he had just commissioned a local artist to paint it—and the painting was still drying upon an easel right by the car—which was the only one to sport New York state license plates.
            The Aston-Martin that also drew a lot of comments and was most photographed was the ink-blue one belonging to Prince Charles. He had loaned it to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and they had driven down The Mall in it to their honeymoon. It featured a small sterling silver dragon on its windshield. It occurred to me that here I was gazing upon their honeymoon vehicle while the world waits with bated breath for the birth of their first child. How time flies!      
              It was hot and it was humid and it was time for a Pimms—my first one of the summer. Nicholas bought us all a round of drinks: Pimms for most of us, beer for the boys, water for Cynthia! We cooled off under an umbrella at a wooden picnic table and shot the breeze for a while. It was a lovely afternoon and a great setting for a picnic in the park—the red-bricked rear façade of Kensington Palace looked down on us benignly. It occurred to me that I was thoroughly enjoying my time in London and that although I do love doing all sorts of things on my own in this city, it was my friends who were making it especially enjoyable for me.

Off to a Posh Party at the Belvedere:
            An hour later, when the car show ended at 5. 00 pm and the Aston Martins began to leave the park, we left the park too. Nicholas drove all the ladies to the next venue: the Belvedere Hotel at Holland Park (Michael and his sons gamely agreed to foot it out to the venue). We found the entrance that leads straight to the very posh environs of the Belvedere Restaurant where our American hosts, John and wife Kazie and daughters Kitty and Alex were waiting to greet us as we entered. The Harveys, who are Manhattan-based, invited a bunch of their London friends and business associates and a number of their NY friends who made the trip across the pond especially to attend the show. Passed hors’d’oeuvres found their way into our fingers and our mouths as lovely cocktails were offered too: Watermelon martinis, Pimms, champagne, wines. We circulated, met new friends, said Hello to old ones, pecked many cheeks, made numerous trans-Atlantic contacts, exchanged contact details as we nibbled at the appetizers and then made our way to the many food stations. There was a variety of things to tickle the palate: from seafood served with delicious sauces to Thai curries, to Tex-Mex guacamole and chilli and tacos to a station named  “British Country Garden” which offered salads and quiches and scotch eggs and meat pies and Cornish pasties! How wonderful! For pudding, there were tiny strawberry tarts, even tinier ice-cream cones with rose-strawberry ice-cream and still tinier orange-polenta cakes. Everything was just delicious and I had a grand time. I never think that I am going to attend these posh parties in London but somehow I always do—and they are always fun because my friends always include me in them. I particularly enjoyed making friends with Manhattanites, the Anands: Vijay, a well-known ENT specialist is a good friend of my good friend, Cheri-Anne from Louisiana, also an ENT specialist, and his wife Nanda was friendly, warm and happy to meet a fellow-Indian from Connecticut in London. Of course, we have made plans to meet again when I get home. 
             The Belvedere overlooks the formal gardens of Holland Park--location of a famous scene from the BBC TV show As Time Goes By (one of my favorite shows of all time). It is the venue in which a young lieutenant Lionel Hardcastle (played by Geoffrey Palmer) meets the young nurse Jean Pargiter (played by Judi Dench) and comes up with the only pick-up line to enter his head: "Excuse me, but do you know the way to Curzon Street?" Not much has changed in the park: the red brick arches, the symmetrical flower beds, the sun dial in the middle, are still there and I feel stupid that I did not take a picture of the scene from the balcony of the restaurant which afforded a very pretty view of the setting. Holland Park is also the location of the Kyoto Garden or the Japanese Garden (filled with azaleas, cascading waterfalls and peacocks) which is one of my favorite parts of the city. I used to sit there and grade student papers when I was teaching in London.    
            At 11.00 pm, with everyone else having left, we who were having such a good time, were pretty much the last to leave. Michael and Cynthia hailed a cab and dropped me off at Holborn while Kitty, who was their house guest for the week, carried on with them. The boys again gamely decided to take public transport to get home! No, chivalry is not dead!
            It was about 11. 45 pm when I reached home and finally got to sleep on my last night in my Holborn flat. Tomorrow, I will awake and start packing for my move to Abbey Road where I will partake in Beatles’ history.
            Until tomorrow, Cheerio!   

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