Strength and grace

Tonight I have the privilege to take part in a performance of Mahler’s 8th Symphony at the Royal Albert Hall in London. I will be singing in the Crouch End Festival Chorus, joining the BBC Symphony Chorus, Sydney Philharmonic Choirs, a trio of boys’ choirs, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, 8 soloists and not forgetting the majestic Albert Hall organ, to perform this work on the first night of the Proms. The concert was sold out within a shore time of booking opening, but you can still attend if you are prepared to queue on the day, or you can catch it on BBC TV and radio.
I love this music. It is robust and emotional and uplifting. Some may dislike what they see as it’s gigantism – not for nothing is it nicknamed the Symphony of a Thousand. It is true that there are moments of unimaginable strength that blow your head off and dissolve your mind. But it is surprising how much of the music is for small scale forces that delight the ear – just a small group of singers with harmonium and harps, or a soloist with a few strings and mandolin. There is much grace in this music as well as strength.
We have had several large scale rehearsals. In a work on this scale, bringing together different groups to work together, there is an added challenge for the conductor. It’s not just rehearsing the music but making sure we all sing together the same way, despite our size. It needs an exceptional conductor to bring this off. Exceptional people taking on big challenges are not confined to music, as we have seen this week. I think that managing an institute of 1250 people will also entail managing small teams as successfully as the whole entity. Perhaps we should call UKCMRI the “Institute of 1200”?
But I digress. After a 6-hour rehearsal last Saturday, in a venue next door to the Wellcome Trust, some of us retired to a very fine pub called the Bree Louise. It used to be called The Jolly Gardeners and has connections for me.
In 1994 I gave a talk in the Wellcome building to a librarians’ workshop, about biomedical information on the Internet. I had been doing quite a bit of poking around on the Net and had amassed a goodly portfolio of useful sites. It was clear that this Internet thing was going to become significant for providers of information and i was keen to share this fact. The workshop organizer, John Cox, was one of the librarians at Wellcome and took me and four others to The Jolly Gardeners afterwards. Over a few beers the six of us agreed we should work together on a funding bid to create an online subject gateway to biomedical Internet resources. The bid was successful and the OMNI service operated for several years before ending up as part of Intute.
That was my first and only foray into external funding bids. I remember the great feeling on hearing that we had won the funding, followed by the realization that now we had to deliver what we had promised (and we had promised some things we were not sure we could deliver!). John Cox was the first project manager but he left for greater things after a year or so. His replacement was Sally Hernando, who I just learnt this week died from cancer in January. She was my age so it shook me a little.
Coming in as a new manager of an existing project is a tough call, but Sally was a tough lady. She was short in stature with fine facial features and a charming Yorkshire accent. She was also very astute and hard-headed, able to cut to the important issues and resolve them even if it meant telling some uncomfortable truths. I hope I learned something from her. I admired her courage back then and was grateful for her good humour. I think of her as a tower of strength but also a very gracious person.
Sally left Wellcome and moved into a strategic library role for NHS South West, where she made a very big impression. There are a couple of nice tributes to Sally from her colleagues – one free and one needs a subscription.
I shall think of Sally as I sing the closing section of Mahler 8 tonight. It sounds better in German, but here is a translation:
Everything perishable is merely an image
The unfulfillable – here it becomes actuality
The indescribable – here it is performed
The eternal essence of womanhood leads us aloft

About Frank Norman

I am a retired librarian. I spent 40 years working in biomedical research libraries.
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4 Responses to Strength and grace

  1. Henry Gee says:

    Lovely post Frank – I hope the experience tonight will be unforgettable, for all the right reasons.

  2. Frank Norman says:

    Thanks Henry. It’s all over now; I think we nailed it.

  3. Tom Roper says:

    In the evidence of the television broadcast, you certainly did. I trust there will be a blue plaque in the Jolly Gardeners soon

  4. Stephen Curry says:

    Very nice tribute Frank – thanks.

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