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Orchestra Cross

The opening dramatic performance of a festival to celebrate Russian composer Igor Stravinsky was met with a standing ovation last weekend.

Standing in the wings of London's packed Royal Festival Hall was series consultant Jonathan Cross, who is Professor of Musicology at Oxford University.

Four years earlier, he had been approached by the Philharmonia Orchestra with the idea of a Stravinsky series.

Professor Cross was an obvious choice for the role of series consultant – he wrote a highly-regarded book on the composer in 1998 and was in the final stages of writing a biography of Stravinsky which was published last year by Reaktion.

He says his role in the festival, called Stravinsky: Myths & Rituals, was a refreshing change from his usual academic pursuits.

'As a scholar, it was great fun to have a direct engagement with the professional musical world,' he says.

'Working alongside the Philharmonia and their principal conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen has been a huge privilege. It's rare one has the opportunity to influence concert programming in this kind of way.

'The Philharmonia Orchestra was also keen to surround its concerts with all kinds of other materials, so I found myself advising them on films and other digital materials for their interactive website. I also oversaw and contributed the bulk of the 80-page programme book. I am now leading study days and giving talks before their concerts.'

Professor Cross is particularly excited by the challenge of encouraging audiences to listen to some of Stravinsky’s lesser-known works.

'Although he is such a well-known name, actually only a handful of his works are ever played – even I have not heard all of them live before,' he says.

'It is still challenging to audiences to hear these pieces they are not familiar with, so I’ve had to think of ways to get an audience to take a risk and give them a go. I hope that in some way they are changed by what they encounter.'

One of Professor Cross' aims for the festival is to help people to put Stravinsky into context.

'I want people not just to hear Stravinsky's pieces as abstract music, but to think of the composer whose life was affected by two World Wars, Revolution, emigration and tragedy, and how that context left its mark on his music, and how his music in turn left its mark on the 20th Century,' he says.

The research that went into Professor Cross' biography of Stravinsky has informed the planning of the festival. Critics praised the book for offering a fresh perspective of Stravinsky in a number of ways.

'The idea of loss and lament in his music is a key and under-explored issue,' says Professor Cross.

'A lot of his music seems playful and fun on the surface, but I hear a sense of distance and exile running deep through his music. Though he spent most of his life living elsewhere, he always seems quietly to be lamenting the loss of his native Russia. It's a key theme.

'My book also attempts to place the composer in Art Deco Paris, where he worked for twenty years. I believe it shaped his music, and in turn contributed to that environment.'

There are still tickets available for all remaining performances in May, June and September, and all the concerts are being broadcast on BBC Radio 3. In the meantime, Professor Cross encourages music students at school or university, or indeed any interested members of the public, to explore a dedicated interactive website on Stravinsky set up specially for the festival.

Microsculpture

Oxford University's Museum of Natural History has been named 'best of the best' of all UK museums at the Museums + Heritage Awards for Excellence 2016.

This was the top category in the awards which are likened to the 'Oscars of the heritage sector'.

The Museum also won best 'project on a limited budget' for its Dodo Roadshow, which saw the Museum’s dodo specimen travel from Land's End to John O'Groats in just eight days, touring 24 museums and galleries on the way.

The Museum shows no sign of resting on its laurels. Next Friday it will open its latest exhibition, Microsculpture: The Insect Portraiture of Levon Bliss.

It features tiny insect specimens from the Museum's collections, which have been photographed by photographer Levon Bliss and transformed into large-format, illuminated installations.

The exhibition opens on 27 May and, in the meantime, readers can browse its interactive website.

The Bodleian Libraries also scooped the best marketing award for their campaign around the acquisition of their 12 millionth printed book, Percy Bysshe Shelley's 'Poetical Essay'.

Hashtag

How is social media affecting our behaviour?

Has the gender of an author influenced whether their work is accepted into the literary ‘canon’?

These are among the questions being explored by four new research networks at Oxford University.

The new networks will bring together researchers from across the Humanities and beyond will come together to discuss topics from the Psalms to social media as The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH) launches four new research networks.

The new networks, #SocialHumanities, Gender and Authority, Rethinking the Contemporary, and the Oxford Psalms Network, will hold talks, workshops, performances and conversations for scholars to share and discuss their findings.

Professor Elleke Boehmer, Professor of World Literature in English and Director of TORCH, said: ‘We are delighted to support these new networks that capture the breadth, liveliness and diversity of research in Oxford.

'Bringing together researchers from a wide range of subjects and career stages, these networks address contemporary concerns, longstanding questions, and pressing new global challenges. The networks’ events are open to all and we encourage you to come along and find out more!’   

#SocialHumanities will look at how social media is affecting our language, behaviour and culture. The network will probe the value of social media to society, and what the risks and dangers might be.

Yin Yin Lu, who is studying for a DPhil in Information, Communication and the Social Sciences, said: 'Social media research is exploding.

'Data generated by platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube have become the substance of academic inquiry, because they reveal much about social processes and human behaviour.'

The Gender and Authority project will look at the literary “canon”. Through public seminars, researchers will explore how gender influences whose work comes to be considered “classic literature”, and whose work is marginalised.

It will look at how we determine the quality and authority of works of art, and which assumptions might distort our view.

Rethinking the Contemporary will investigate the major forces at work in the world since the 1980s, from the changing role of religion to the transformative effects of the internet.

David Priestland, Professor of Modern History, said: 'Of course, a great deal of work is being done on the contemporary world, especially in the social sciences, but many scholars in the humanities are also interested in these issues, and we wanted to create a forum to link them together.'

The Oxford Psalms Network will examine the impact of the Psalms from the earliest times to the present day, looking at how the Psalms have been translated and reinterpreted in different cultures and settings, and how they have influenced culture and identity in Christianity, Judaism and other world religions.

TORCH is an interdisciplinary research centre which promotes collaboration between Oxford humanities researchers and other disciplines, institutions and external partners.

For more information on these networks, and the other networks in TORCH, click here.

Uni of Utah

This academic term will be a busy one for the Humanitas Visiting Professorship programme.

Novelist and historian Dame Marina Warner will give her inaugural lecture as Visiting Professor in Comparative European Literature tomorrow (27 April). This will be the first in a series of talks by her called ‘The Sanctuary of Stories’.

From 9 May, historian and television presenter Simon Schama will give a public lecture and take part in a round table discussion with Craig Clunas and Margaret Macmillan on the past and its publics. He is Visiting Professor for Historiography.

He will be taking part in an in conversation with Craig Clunas and Margaret Macmillan on the 11 May.

Award-winning playwright Tom Stoppard is this year’s Visiting Professor of Drama Studies. He will give a public lecture on 18 May and a Q&A on 19 May.

Then on 25 May and 26 May respectively, renowned guitarists the Assad Brothers will give a talk and a recital as Visiting Professors for Classical Music.

Oxford University’s Professor Sos Eltis, the Academic Director for the Humanitas Visiting Professorship in Drama, says of Professor Stoppard’s visit: ‘Tom Stoppard is one of the greatest modern playwrights. He has delighted audiences worldwide with the wit, daring, wisdom, dazzling intellectual challenge and sheer theatrical fun of his plays.

‘He has pushed the boundaries of dramatic form and reinvented the play of ideas. These events will be a wonderful opportunity for schools, university students and anyone interested in theatre to hear an extraordinary writer offer new perspectives on his life and work.'

Professor Elleke Boehmer, director of TORCH, adds: 'We are thrilled to bring some of the world’s most inspiring thinkers and creative minds to Oxford for a richly diverse programme of workshops, talks and performances.

'This term we will be joined by leading figures from the spheres of theatre, history and music, including award winning playwright Tom Stoppard, world renowned historian Simon Schama and gifted guitarists Sérgio and Odair Assad. Exploring issues as wide ranging as public history and theatre making, the events are a rare opportunity for public audiences to join leading speakers for debate and discussion.’

Humanitas is a series of Visiting Professorships at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge intended to bring leading practitioners and scholars to both universities to address major themes in the arts, social sciences and humanities.

Created by Lord Weidenfeld, the Programme is managed and funded by the Weidenfeld-Hoffmann Trust with the support of a series of generous benefactors and administered by TORCH | The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities.

The events are free and open to all. For more information, including booking details, visit the TORCH website.

The website also includes a more detailed summary of the dates and content of each Visiting Professor’s visit.

Tower poetry

The winners of the 16th Christopher Tower Poetry competition have been announced at Christ Church, Oxford.

The competition, which was judged by Alan Gillis, Katherine Rundell and Peter McDonald, attracted more than 1,100 entrants born between 1997 and 2000.

Ashani Lewis, from The Tiffin Girls’ School, Surrey, was awarded the £3,000 first prize for her poem Flowers From The Dark. Her poem is published in full below.

The winner of the second (£1,000) prize Safah Ahmed (Newham Collegiate Sixth Form Centre, London) with ‘Accent’ and the third prizewinner, Sophia West (Oxford High School) won £500 with ‘The Awakening’. Their schools receive £150 each.

This year's theme of wonder for the 16th Christopher Tower Poetry competition attracted over 1,100 entrants (all born between 1997 and 2000) with many schools encouraging entrants for the first time. 

Poet Alan Gillis said: 'Reading through all the poems, I was struck first of all by the great range and diversity of work in terms of voice, style and subject matter. But overwhelmingly, I was impressed by the consistency of excellence.

'The experience of judging has been really uplifting because of the passion and daring, boldness and confidence of the poems entered. This is a wonderful competition.'

The competition is just one of the initiatives developed by Tower Poetry at Christ Church to encourage the writing and reading of poetry by young adults.

Other projects include summer schools (to which the first three winners are invited as part of their prize), poetry readings, conferences, an ongoing publication programme and website, which is used as an educational resource in schools.

You can see the winning entries for yourself on the Tower Poetry website where the young authors read their own poems. The winning poem by Ashani Lewis, Flowers From The Dark, is here:

She is quiet,
With skin as tight as the wheeling crows:
She kneels over the dirt and grows
The roses.
Your lawn chair holds a pale absence;
A tulip dies, falls back against the fence,
And decomposes.

You watch her.
(And from her fair and unpolluted flesh)
The shadows on the windowsill – fresh
Violets Break up the clean square of light,
And, thoughtless, obstruct the sight
Of her silence.

She grows the flowers
For you. From loam and wombs,
The pits of eyes and empty rooms,
From hipbones,
Harpoons, moons and crows: everything dark –
Seaweed, oil, the time around stars;
And olive stones.

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