Friday, 25 February 2011

The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and Mahler

On Wednesday Nicy and I went to hear the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra playing at the South Bank Centre. It's 30 years since I heard them play in London, and that was under their legendary conductor Herbert von Karajan. Then, I had to queue for hours the day the tickets went on sale; now we simply went on line, but we had to be quick. Within the first few hours all the tickets went - we got almost the last 2.

On my Facebook page I've described the BPO as the 'BMW 7 Series' of orchestras. Completely faultless playing whatever the music (road conditions). Classy in an understated way so that you are left wondering at the music and not just the orchestra's playing.

The main work on Wednesday was Mahler's massive Third Symphony. The conductor Bruno Walter, a student of Mahler, when visiting the composer in his Austrian retreat remarked on the wonderful mountain scenery. "Don't look at that," Mahler is reported to have said, "I've described it all in my music." And you can believe it in this sprawlingly massive symphony where you can easily imagine brooding mountains with rocky crags, spring flowers bursting through, the dances of Pan and other woodland spirits, the yodels of Austrian shepherds, and the sublimity of human, perhaps divine, love.

The music lurches from brooding seriousness, to vulgar Jewish klezmar band, to alpine scenes with yodelling, a sentimental minuet, a setting of a deep poem by Nietzche followed by a sugary children's religious song, and then finally, a 25 minute long unfolding (in rondo form - if you want the technical description) of a sublime melody celebrating love.

The whole symphony is a celebration of life from the sublime to the ridiculous. Some of Mahler's fans get rather precious about his music: "O God, wouldn't you DIE without Mahler," says one of the characters in the play and film 'Educating Rita'. It's rather ironic that she tries to commit suicide while Mahler's 6th symphony is playing on her record player.

His later music has a poignancy to it that is almost unbearable as he contemplates the sadness of having to leave this life behind, in, for example 'Das Lied von der Erde'. But it's because he loved life so much and couldn't bear the thought of leaving it. Tragically, Mahler died at the comparatively young age of 51. I believe his death was due to a streptococcal infection which these days would easily be treatable with penicillin.

If music can celebrate life in all its fulness, then Mahler's music does it. Jesus said, in the Gospel of John, that he came to bring life in all it fulness. Mahler's music celebrates life, but I believe Jesus actually GIVES fulness of life.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

The Promise

Like buses, you wait for ages then 3 come at once. That's what it feels like with TV dramas on Sunday nights. If you want a nice golden glow of Victorian nostalgia then 'Lark Rise to Candleford' leaves you with a warm feeling of 'niceness'. If you want an edgy realistic drama set in contemporary Israel, then The Promise is outstanding (more on that in a moment). Or there's 'Being Human', the rather gory but intriguing story of a vampire, some werewolves and a ghost sharing a house in Barry, South Wales. (The basic premise of the drama is: what does it really mean to be human? Answer: to have a physical body, to love, to grow old and to die.)

'The Promise', though, has been my drama of choice these last 3 weeks. It concerns the current relationship between Jews and Arabs in Israel, playing out a contemporary story in parallel to that of the post-Second World War British mandate in Palestine. It has captured the very nuanced and complicated situation that existed then and now in a way that is rare in TV dramas these days.

The story is of a girl, Erin, who visits an Israeli friend who is just doing her national service. Erin has taken her grandfather's diary from the 1940s and has discovered that he was serving with the British forces in Palestine. As she reads the diary she discovers more about her grandfather, and more about the people around her in modern Israel.

When I first visited Israel in 1981 I quickly sensed the very real legacy of the treatment of Jews in 1930 and 40s Europe. 'Never again' was, and still is, the popular cry. Armed soldiers are everywhere, and I was initially shocked to find myself standing next to a soldier with a machine gun on a bus in Jerusalem. I remember seeing a group of soldiers relaxing at a swimming pool, with their guns neatly lined up against the wall, never far away in case they were needed quickly. The other thing that commuicated a sense of nervous unease was the amount people smoked. 'Like chimneys' would be quite an accurate description.

The Jewish freedom-fighters, the Irgun, were terrorists in their day and they were much more fiercely anti-British than they were anti-Arab. The British were stuck in the middle - as they have often been in overseas conflicts, trying to protect the Arab majority (and their own oil interests) while at the same time granting limited asylum to Jewish refugees fleeing Europe.

The Promise has very carefully brought out the differences in status between Israeli Arabs, such as those living in Nazareth, and the West Bank Arabs, who are denied Israeli citizenship and who suffer the daily indiginity of having to pass through the so-called Peace Wall to travel from their homes to their work. Not only that, but they suffer the illegal occupation and development of their land.

The typical Israeli Jewish argument about settling in Israel is that when the Arabs had it to themselves they did nothing to develop the land in 2000 years. But since 1948 the Jews have worked tirelessly to bring about an Isaiah-like transformation of the desert into a place of fruitful abundance. That may be so, but it ignores the fact that the Arabs were living there first. Just because you can do a better job with the land doesn't give you the right to take it from someone who you might describe as lazy.

The Promise isn't just pro-Arab propaganda, though. It describes the real fear that many Israeli Jews feel, and the belief that they have a right to live in their own land in safety and in peace - shalom as the bible would express it. The only thing lacking, so far, in this drama is any reference to the religious aspect of the situation. But perhaps that is refreshing, as the Israel/Palestine conflict is often portrayed too simplistically as a Jewish/Muslim problem.

This has been a TV drama that has been almost unique in its careful portrayal of a complicated political and historical problem. My only irritation has been with the central character, Erin, who has absolutely no idea of the consequences of her action, and thinks the world revolves around her; in other words, the typical surly teenager. With one more episode to go I hope her experience makes her grow up.

'Lark Rise to Candleford' may be a nice way to end a Sunday, in the same way as eating toast and marmite sitting by a log fire, but 'The Promise' brings us back to reality in a way that both entertains and informs.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Being a Good Samaritan to a Good Samaritan

I spent yesterday evening at one of the Croydon Floating Shelters for homeless people, being run in Purley. One of the guests told me a story about an experience he had had recently which gave me a new insight into Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan.

This man is not from the UK and has had some trouble with the police, and he is homeless. So he is probably on the receving end of many people's prejudices about 'people like him'. He told me that recently he was in Purley when he saw an old lady trip on the pavement and fall into the gutter. He was at a distance, and was surprised at the number of people nearby who did nothing to help, so he and a black gentleman ran over to help this lady up in the middle of the crowded area outside Tesco. He made sure the lady was OK, but didn't stay because of his earlier run-ins with 'The Bill'. The people of Purley passed by and the lady who fell had to receive help from a homeless immigrant. Now he, in turn, has been receiving help from the church in Purley (along with helpers from churches in Coulsdon).

When Jesus told the parable, he wasn't just saying "Help people in need," but "Be prepared to consider your neighbour those you might despise and have nothing to do with." In Jesus' days on earth the Samaritans were despised and looked down on by the Jews because hundreds of years earlier the Assyrians conquered the northern part of Israel and had intermarried with the northern Israelites based round Samaria. So 'Samaritan' to a Jew meant unclean and mixed race. For a Jew to receive help from an unclean mixed race man was almost unthinkable. But, in the words of the song that we sang in school assembly thins morning; 'That's what's turning the world upside-down.'

I might have had some prejudices against homeless people, but when I heard this man's story and connected it with Jesus' parable those prejudices were dealt a severe blow.

Here in Coulsdon we are planning to run our own floating shelter next winter as part of the Croydon scheme. We are really excited about this as it gives the churches a practical way of demonstrating the love of God, and doing mission together.