Further news on the Fat Tax

The British government has rejected the call of the Medical Council to put a death tax on sweets and junk food. Fine. The 22nd August edition of Newsweek indirectly suggests why. The pharma industry is a monster dependant on our illnesses. Its tentacles stretch wide and deep. Did you know that the bloated British National Health System is the 4th biggest employer in the world? Yes, the 4th!  And who pays for that and who needs to keep that going?


According to Newsweek, most of the scans, tests and operations we are now encouraged to have are pointless. Their findings are best ignored by the wise. But doctors like to operate. They need to operate and they prosper from the prescription of drugs prescribed for often misdiagnosed illnesses. So do their bosses. Heart rate and blood pressure cannot be accurately judged from a 30 second test when most people are stressed simply by the fact that they are at the doctors. Don’t be afraid to challenge your doctor. Ask questions. They don’t always know better than you.


Sweets and fast foods make us ill. The manufacturers know this well. Remember the advertisement, “A Mars a day helps you work, rest and play”? It puts the fat where it kills you, ruins your teeth and certainly has no nutritional value at all. Neither do the “healthy foods” peddled by Nestle, Kraft and Unilever.


And, did you know that these killer companies get EU funding for staff training? So does Philip Morris!


In short, less drugs, less scans and much more scepticism regarding the motives of the health industry, the food industry and government.


Are Americans the problem?

  Americans may be the richest, most innovative people in the world (I exclude the welfare dependants, though they, in their way, may have enviable innovative survival skills of their own) but they do not seem to nurture the finest musicians.  Oh yes, the hype would persuade you to the contrary and the potential is certainly there but, in my experience, the reality is different. The fault may lie in the competitive spirit that makes America so successful. The repercussions for the rest of us are enormous.


My gripe is with performers who arrive, play, take the money, go and leave me absolutely cold.  Though not always Americans, these musicians seem to have modelled themselves on a modern American perception which, I think, has come from over-specialisation, competition and marketing. True, given the world we live in, all these are necessary factors to consider but there is a limit. Music without poetry and imagination, music without the ability to touch the deepest senses of the spirit, has little value. It becomes a commodity to be traded which, in time, even on a whim, loses its perceived intrinsic significance and is discarded.


Three media hyped American musical representatives have been to Warsaw recently. They embodied all that I find objectionable.  The fabled New York Philharmonic looked nothing like its press photos nor as I had imagined it, given its central European roots.  It had a sound to match. The tradition had been lost.

Joshua Bell, ethnically the real thing but reduced to a sort of bouncing pole with hairdo and supercharged Strad, had the same effect: all his pyrotechnics may have seduced the rest of his audience; they merely put me to sleep. But Nelson Goerner`s Schumann/Chopin recital last week, as part of the Chopin and His Europe Festival in Warsaw, was a display of everything that is lamentable about modern music making.


If Chopin had written nothing else, he would be remembered for the Preludes. Unquestionably works of genius which, like Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, play on our imaginations and emotions with contrast, intensity and rapidity that are as startling as they are wonderful. But in Goerner`s playing there was no mystery or wonderment, save for the disbelief that a pianist who, on the early piano, is so eloquent, can prove to be nothing more than a circus act when let loose on a monster Steinway and caution is thrown to the wind.


Few pianists today manage to adjust the instrument to the repertoire: Mozart and Chopin are not Rachmaninoff. A one sized glove does not fit all hands, nor should it.  The modern way of teaching, the system of competitions that seem to be the only measure of a pianist, the desensitising of audiences are bringing us to the same place that Rome found herself at the lowest point of the Empire, and we know where that left us.

To take a lesson from motoring, pianists should remember that just because your Aston Martin can do over 250 miles an hour, it is knowing the power is there that is the thrill, not its use. Where the Ford Motor Corp left Astons is a subject for another time.



Alarmed by the shocking rise of obesity in Britain, doctors have advised the government to introduce a fat tax similar to the draconian taxes on cigarettes. Companies that produce crisps, ice cream, sweets, biscuits, salted nuts, fast food, foodstuffs that be best described as crap food, are going to be hit hard. Let’s think which companies, those that load their products with deadly sugars and salts, might be. Cadburys, Kraft, Nestle, DANONE, Unilever, MacDonald’s, KFC, Coca-Cola. Who else? Help me out! 

How different Poland would look without these names. Oh, I forgot to say. Its not just Britons whose are sitting wider. It’s the whole western world.

Great Russians in Warsaw

  “I heard the pianist played too loudly” said the musicology student who had not been at the concert. You can’t win with the Warsaw audience. The last time Michal Pletnev played in Warsaw he was criticised for playing the Rachmaninoff third concerto too softly, too introvert. A very lukewarm applause and this was before Smolensk.


The first Tchaikovsky concerto is a loud concerto and if any criticism is to be made on this occasion it ought to be of the utterly unsuitable conditions Warsaw provides for large modern symphony orchestras. We need a new hall in the centre of town. The Philharmonic Hall is a 19th century design. Since it was built, orchestras have almost doubled their volume. Players sitting in front of the blast of the brass should have their eardrums protected. They do in every major concert hall. In Warsaw they don’t seem to. Half of the string players must have ear damage (which, not wishing to be unkind, might explain a lot.). Have the musicians considered legal action against the management? In my opinion, Mr. Wit always plays too loudly whatever he is playing, and he is the management. So, plenty of evidence for litigation. The compensation owing to the musicians might be enormous. Who is their lawyer? Mind you, I imagine the Warsaw brass` lack of precision is less damaging to the ear (and less thrilling for the audience) than the razor sharp attacks of the Russians.


On the occasion of the Russian National Orchestra’s two concerts in the Chopin festival Pletnev conducted two young pianists, the one I heard, a 20 year old marvel, who played with an orchestra for the first time only last October. Pletnev himself is a great pianist and must be the perfect companion for any young pianist facing the challenge of such a daunting concerto. I first heard Pletnev in Rome in 1981 in what must have been one of his first foreign tours.  Unforgettable not only because of his amazing rendition of the Busoni Bach Partita, but because a day after I spoke to him at the end of the concert, accompanied by the British ambassador’s secretary, my flat was visited by the KGB (they only took my Omega watch.)  “Just checking you out,” said a First Secretary at the British Embassy.


Pletnev has transferred his pianistic skills admirably to the podium. Focussed, sparse, un-egocentric, his orchestra responds magnificently to his slightest gesture. The look of adoration he receives from his players ought to make our own Antoni Wit pause for a moment to consider why his histrionics do not instil the same admiration. He should be green with envy. I know I am as a Polish tax payer. How come the Russians can produce great orchestras and the Poles can’t? Management has a lot to do with it. So do the expectations of the audience.  To do them justice, the audience was quick to respond to the magnificence of the performance. Following the lead of my Australian companion, who was shortly followed by me and then the whole audience, it was only our Japanese friend whose posterior remained firmly fixed to her seat at the end of the concerto. She is hard to please, but it can be done as was proven as the final chord of the 4th Tchaikovsky Symphony strode triumphantly into the ether.

One man management shows dont work

  A village in the Lublin region. Nothing much going for it. A village of blocks, a rundown home for battered mothers, an hotel in the middle of town offering rooms for 100 pln next to a lake clean enough to swim in, a restored turn of the 20th century Dwor and a centre for after school activities in a Communist block. Nothing unusual, except for one thing. Something unique and marvellous, one of the after school activities: a choir of 300 children, a special choir of 40 multi-faceted early-instrument players, children who sing, dance, act their way around the world and receive accolades where ever they go, where ever they go except in their own land!


When the choir was founded 35 years ago the authorities viewed the choir as a national treasure. They were created Ambassadors for Poland. No longer. The world is a different place. Recent attempts to smear the founder and his wife with the worst imaginable slanders for adults working with children have been frustrated in court. But people, who have no connection with the choir either personally or through their children, have persuaded the new mayor to repossess the Dwor which, after a long fought for restoration some years ago, became home to the choir.


Now the town authorities   have set up a rival choir in the Dwor organised by a turncoat former assistant of the founder. In the past, the choir used the Dwor for rehearsals, concerts and as a place to welcome choirs and musicians from abroad. So great was the choir’s status that the mayor of Berlin proposed that the two towns become twinned, a request that was rejected by the town council.  Think about that! A twinning between Berlin and what? Not even a town in the south east of Poland.  Worse, now the Dwor is mainly used for wedding parties.


A very Polish situation? Yes. Someone through dedication, vision, skill and perseverance creates something of excellence. Other people, small minded, jealous, ignorant, powerful people steal the fruit of those labours in the mistaken belief that they can do it better.  Unknown to them, but clear to everyone else, they can’t. All that these infantile people manage to do is to destroy something of a far greater value than they can ever imagine or understand. But, one man management shows are, by their nature, weak and short term.


This is not an unique example of how the arts are managed in Poland. It cannot continue. The reasons are economic and social.

15th August

Today is Ferrogosto…how I remember my first in Rome. I was 19 and staying at Trevignano on lake Bracciano. Pagan, mystical, Catholic, a wonderful party. The picture of the Virgin is carried out into the middle of the lake, fireworks exploded, then returned to its place above the altar. A jolly good party especially when a litre of wine was 50 lire. Imagine!