I had a ticket to hear the Pavel Haas Quartet this lunchtime at LSO St Lukes, but a couple of days ago a letter arrived followed by an email advising me that the wife of a member of the quartet had been taken suddenly and seriously ill, causing the Pavel Haas to cancel all their engagements for February, and that their place this Thursday would be taken by the Skampa Quartet, with a change of programme to accommodate the very short notice. I could have had a refund, but reading the small print I'd have had to present my original ticket at the box office twenty-four hours in advance. Since the train fare to London was twice the value of the ticket and I didn't have a spare day to go up to town that wasn't really an option, and anyway the Skampa Quartet are every bit as illustrious, if not more so, so I was happy to go with the substitution.
I'd chosen today's concert out of the four the Pavel Haas were due to perform because it was going to be a double bill of Smetana, and I'd heard some Smetana chamber music on the radio and thought I'd like to hear some more. We still got his string quartet number one, but it was followed by Janacek's quartet number one, The Kreutzer Sonata. I couldn't have hummed the theme before going, and I couldn't hum it to you now, but after the first couple of bars I recognised it. I am still feeling my way with Eastern European composers, whose music is not as cheerful and instantly soothing as Papa Haydn, but I enjoyed both.
My only gripe about the whole proceedings was the woman three seats along from me who coughed repeatedly, not just the sort of sudden tickle in the throat cough that could take you by surprise, but a full phlegm-clearing chest cough that she must have known she was suffering from before entering the concert hall. And she didn't appear to have come prepared with anything to calm it down or muffle it, like a bottle of water or throat sweets or a scarf to cough into. Coughing during a string quartet is horribly audible to the entire room, not like coughing during a symphony, where if you can hang on until the loud bits you can at least half hide it, and the movements in a quartet are only five minutes long. If you can't stop yourself coughing for as long as five minutes I really think you should consider whether you are fit to go, or if it might not be kinder to everybody else to stay at home.
From Old Street it's a short walk down to Bankside, where Tate Modern has got an exhibition of Alexander Calder on until early April. I adore Alexander Calder's mobiles. There were a few in a show at the Royal Academy several years ago, and I loved them. Layer upon layer of leaf forms and circles hang from delicately curved wires. The shapes are beautiful, and it is a marvel how everything balances. He made them in the couple of decades leading up to the second world war, and their curves foreshadow the 1950s aesthetic of little amoeba shaped tables perched on tripods of tapered legs, which I like as well.
I wasn't aware of his early work. Before progressing to mobiles he started off with airy wire sculptures like three dimensional line drawings, almost cartoonish in their simplicity and astonishingly lively. Hercules wrestles with a lion, acrobats balance on each other, and two loops of wire miraculously transform into a Homburg hat viewed from the right angle, like the drawings of Henri Matisse with an added dollop of humour thrown in. They are wonderful.
I was sorely tempted by the exhibition guide, but frustratingly they don't photograph especially well. Seen in only two dimensions you lose some of the point. And this was one exhibition where I wished the gallery had made a video explaining how he did it. How did he get the mobiles to balance so exactly? As long as you stick to horizontal wires it's just O level physics, turning momentum equals mass times distance from the pivot point, but many of Calder's connecting wires aren't level but hang tantalisingly at an angle. Did Calder mock the whole structure up with simple weights before cutting out his leaves and circles? Did he add small dead weights to some of the leaves where necessary to adjust the hang? I couldn't see any. Did he start at the bottom and work upwards to construct these multi-layered balancing creations? However he did it, it's a brilliant exhibition.