Tuesday, 29 April 2014

ENO 2014/15 - sound heads, good sounds

"From terrorism, invasion and despair through to miracles, enlightenment and joy, two millennia of history, four centuries. of (opera)....... reveal the unique ability of opera to convey what it is to be human"  .... a good summary of the English National Opera's 2014 2015 season. Sixteen productions, eleven of them new, from Monteverdi Orfeo to another world premiere by a British composer. ( Don't forget Julian Anderson's The Thebans on Saturday). Along the way, Henry Purcell's The Indian Queen, Verdi Otello, The Girl of the Golden West, The Mastersingers of Nuremburg, John Adams The Pirates of Penzance. The Queen of Spades and much more. A season with lots of varety, and even an opera for children. Getting the very young involved, is a good idea - it's done a lot in mainland Europe.

Even more interesting is what the announcement reveals about the ENO's financial strategy.  Contrary to the negative flak in the media, the ENO expects to end the year with a surplus, following better than expected box office sales, Attendances were up 11% over the previous year, while the average finamcial take per performance rose by13%. Some nights, there was standing room only (Madam Butterfly, The Magic Flute) and Peter Grimes, Rodelinda and Rigoletto ran 77% capacity. Audience capacity rose by 7% to 76%. That's  still much lower than the ROH where the house is often within 5% capacity, but the comparison isn't really fair since the ROH audience is very different. Overall audience was 182,242

Martyn Rose's first full year as Chairman of the Board at ENO has seen ventures like Opera Undressed do well. A total of 1800 seats were sold for Opera Undressed, some within minutes, as with The Magic Flute, . Of those who booked for Opera Undressed, 28%  booked for further performances. The Secret Seat scheme  where you pay £20 on the chance of getting something much better has done well - many of my friends have been delighted at getting dress circle seats at a quarter the normal price. Very nice, but it's a system which can't really be extended too far, unlike Opera Undressed, which targets first timers and charges more.

The ENO's HD screening of Peter Grimes was the highest grossing UK screening ever for an opera by a British composer - pity it was ruined by transmission problems as it took place on the night of the worst storm all winter. HD broadcasts are expensive and risky (even ROH doesn't make huge profits) but the ENO  will be doing five broadcasts in 2014/15, some overseas. Three safe bets - Otello, La Traviata and Carmen (vindicating Calixto Bieito) but more imaginatively, The Pirates of Penzance and The Long Way Back Home, the newly commissioned opera for children. These latter are perhaps more significant because they're aimed at audiences who wouldn't otherwise come to "formal" opera,  and extend the ENO's reach to new potential markets. The Long Way Home sounds wonderful - might it be the surprise hit of the season?

The "national" in ENO has always been a joke, but this year, the ENO is working with the Old Vic Theatre in Bristol, the oldest purpose built theatre in the country.  Perhaps the ENO's Bristol  Orfeo will be as successful as the ROH's L'Orfeo at Shakespeare's Globe. It's a good connect between performing space and work, and extends ENO outside London. It's wise, too, that the ENO, like the ROH, is cultivating relationships with other organizations. Alliances with other houses, of around the same size and eclecticism as the ENO spreads costs and reduces risk. No-one stands alone in this business.  The ENO is also starting an interesting  partnership with UCL, the university which has been mounting rare operas for over 60 years.

Peter Sellars has been appointed  "Director in Residence" which hopefully means his staging of John Adams The Gospel According to the Other Mary which was not well received at the Barbican despite being conducted by Dudamel. More fun maybe with Purcell The Indian Queen, a joint venture with Teatro Real Madrid. Edward Gardner conducts the Mastersingers of Nuremburg and The Queen of Spades. The "9/11" opera is Between Worlds, composed by Tansy Davies, about a man walking a tightrope between the Twin Towers.

ADDENDUM : yet again the media seizes on a relatively minor issue and blows it out of proportion.  It's not essential that people who write about opera need to know anything about it, but it would be nice if some could just comprehend the wider issues ? No, the ENO is not switching to music theatre, it's just giving Michael Grade and Michael Linnit a space for them to do new work in the summer. Music theatre done well can be good, and might bring in new audiences for opera. Besides, if ENO makes money out of Linnit and Grade, why not ? It's not like they're handing the place over  and paying him for the privilege. qv the South Bank and Alex Ross.

Monday, 28 April 2014

Rameau Zaïs Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment QEH

Shepherdesses, gods and supernatural sylphs, jostling merrily together in Jean-Philippe Rameau's Zaïs, performed by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment complete with dancers.,This is the latest venture by the Rameau Project, a multi-disciplinary group dedicated to Rameau scholarship. In October, Anacréon (1754), reconstructed from archival sources, and Pigmalion will receive their modern premieres.

Zaïs (1748) opens with a Prologue in which the orchestra depicts Chaos itself - the origin of the Universe, from the Elements - Earth, Air, Fire and Water - are brought into being, an ambitious concept, but one which reflects the audacious bravado of the high Baroque.  The strings scream turbulence like howling winds, and percussion beats thunder. Four flautists stand apart from the main body of the orchestra, playing wavering lines that might suggest flames. Anyone still under the misapprehension that period instruments can't do gusto needs to hear the energy of the OAE, unleashing the creation of the Sun no less, and the world of gods and men. A woodwind chorus plays birdsong, reminding us how deeply Messiaen's roots reached into the past. Jonathan Williams conducted, bringing out the sprightly humour in the work which I feel is so important in the idiom. Rameau was a radical in his day, no po-faced curmudgeon.

Zaïs, King of the Sylphs, has fallen in love with a mortal, the shepherdess, and she with him, thinking he's a shepherd. Jeremy Budd and Louise Alder wore normal concert black, as did Ashley Riches (Cindor), Katherine Watson (Amour). David Stout (Oromanés), Katherine Manley (The High Priestess), Anna Dennis (A Sylphide) and Gwilym Bowen, a cupid-like Sylph. This was surprisingly effective. Realism is not of the essence in an allegory like this, any more than in the pastorals of Watteau, Boucher and Fragonard or Le Petit Trianon.  Choreography is hard to authenticate, but it was interesting how this dancing reflected the music. Edith Lalonger had the dancers use stylized poses, their arms hovering in the air during pauses in the music. What did real shepherdesses wear in those times?   They can't have moved like characters in a toile de jouy. These certainly weren't Grecians of Antiquity. So it's fair to imagine them as 18th century Parisians re-imaging the past.  Are the costumes in Rameau's operas an elaboration of normal court dress, if "normal" could ever apply to Versailles? 

The love between Zaïs and Zélidie,transgresses social boundaries so must be tested throufgh a series oif trials. which involve impersonation and deception, magic flowers and offers of immortality. The role of Zaïs is far more demanding than the others, so it would be quite unfair to quibble about the use of a score. Budd has the notes and carries them with fine flow: Zaïs must be quite some guy. Interestingly, Rameau seems to give more gravitas to the male characters than to the women,  allowing Riches and Stout some very good moments. The choruses were the Choir of the Age of Enlightenment and Les Plaisirs des Nations.

The dancing gives visual content to abstract ideas. I thought of the way French philosophy predicates on formal logic and precision. Boulez, for example, studied and conducted Rameau. Eventually, love wins out. Zaïs and Zélidie are miraculously time shifted into  barren desert. Thunderclaps in the orchestra and whirling winds. These could hardly be staged realistically in the short time frame Rameau gives them, but the storm is more allegory than nature. This is an aesthetic very different indeed from later forms of opera. Hopefully the Rameau Project will enlighten us further. Cuthbert Girdlestone's monumental biography of Rameau remains the cornerstone, but much has happened in Rameau studies since it appeared in 1959. Graham Sadler's new book is eagerly awaited.

Please see my other pieces on Rameau : Platée (Prince kisses Frog), Hippolyte et Aricie
 Les Indes Galantes, Castor and Pollux.(Shocking but Not Wrong)...

Saturday, 26 April 2014

Lohengrin Wiener Staatsoper Klaus Florian Vogt

"Lass zu dem Glauben dich bekehren: Es gibt ein Glück, das ohne Reu! " sings Elsa von Brabant, confronting Ortrud. At this point, Eva's love for her mystery Knight is so pure, that she asks no questions. Happiness, with no regret or doubt. But then she goes on to grill her bridegroom, and all falls apart. Why shouldn't a girl know who she's getting into bed with? Why is the secret so extreme that Lohengrin must reject this great love for Montsalvat? Wagner Lohengrin at the Wiener Staatsoper was live screened last night. and should, hopefully be available in the archive. Watch it if you can, because it's very thoughtful indeed, and links Lohengrin to Parsifal on many intriguing levels.  Plus the singing - Klaus Florian Vogt is divine and conductor Mikko Frank reveals sonorous, disturbing mysteries in the score.

The motto "Es gibt ein  Glück" appears on the drop cloth, and later in a painting on the back wall of the set, much as in the way mottos - and hearts - appear so often in traditional German settings.  Heinrich "der Deutschen König", with his Saxons and Thuringians, has come to Brabant, then one of the Frankish lands. Dressed in fustian and Lederhosen, they present an image of German-ness at once domestic and militaristic.These men are in armour, though their uniform, their buttoned-up jackets suggesting repressed violence and conformity, much more effectively than flashy mock medieval coats of armour or neo-Nazi brownshirts. Thus Elsa (Camilla Nylund)  in her white shift seems painfully exposed. Ortrud (Michaela Martens) girded in metal-studded velvet is every inch a warrior. Telramund (Wolfgang Koch) is a convincing leader but also compromised and world-weary. When Lohengrin appears, he's in a white shift which billows like the wings of a swan. It's a provocative reference to the way Parsifal wandered into the Grail community. Director Andreas Homoki uses costume to amplify character. As the balance of power shifts, Elsa and Lohengrin dress up while Ortrud dresses down.

The simplicity of the set focuses  attention on the singing and on the dynamics between singers. The folkloric setting also emphasizes the divison between men and women, another subtle counterpoint to the misogynist world of Montsalvat. The women of Brabant know their place in society but support Elsa. The chorus in the wedding is delightfully lyrical. The staging once again evokes the image of a swan. In the prologue, Nylund held a swan while she played with her brother: clearly it's a symbol of purity and innocence. Yet swans are mute until they die. Homoki hints at levels of interpretation but keeps them elusive. Later, when Lohengrin prepares to take his leave, Vogt is seen writhing on the ground, his body twitching like a dying bird. His acting is extraordinarily moving, suggesting pain and regret. "Es gibt ein Glück, das ohne Reu!" resounds, unspoken, in memory. 

Camilla Nylund's voice is pure, and the clarity of her diction suggests underlying strength of character. Nylund's Elsa interacts well with Michaela Marten's Ortrud.  Neither of them are exaggerated stereotypes, both feel like real women caught up in an extreme situation. Wolfgang Koch's Telramund is no monster : the softer inflections in his voice suggest a man trapped almost against his will. Günther Groissböck's Heinrich der Vogler is cleanly assertive - we can savour the interplay between tenor, baritone and bass and ponder even more hidden levels of meaning. Detlev Roth makes the Herald feel much more part of the proceedings than usual. Altogether, this Lohengrin feels deeply human and all the more compelling for that reason

But as I said earlier, Klaus Florian Vogt is divine.  He has created the role  numerous times, yet manages to make this portrayal sparkle with freshness and individuality. In his Act Three dialogue with Nylund's Elsa, Vogt's voice becomes powerfully intense: is this the battle he has been sent to be tested for? Saving Elsa from the court of judgement was easy in comparison. When Vogt sings In fernem Land, his voice seems to radiate a spiritual quality.  His voice softens for a moment on the words "meine Lieber Schwan" then moves on ever more refined, as if he's reaching apotheosis. [His performance moved me so much that I haven't stopped wondering about the role. Have the Grail Knights, despite the intervention of Parsifal, continued in their old ways ?  Whoever his mother is, has Lohengrin been sent to learn the errors of blind faith and obedience without question?]  After listening to this Vienna Lohengrin, I listened again to the recent Munich and Milan  Lohengrin with Jonas Kaufmann. Kaufmann fans will want to kill me, but Klaus Florian Vogt (whose range is higher)  is in an altogether more elevated league.

Bizarre PR BBC Proms 2014

Press coverage of the 2014 BBC Proms has been bizarre. Is ithe BBC mindlessly self-destructive or is the media so gullible that it thinks The Pet Shop Boys are the big story? Whether the cause is internal or external, the coverage is pretty strange. (here is my piece on the2014 announcement)

The Proms are by far the biggest achievement of British broadcasting, ever. They are a huge asset - perhaps even the last vestige of Britain's credibility as a world power. So why make it look stupid? In principle, gimmicks are no big deal as long as they're done with humour, eg the Dr Who Proms, which were justifiably popular.  So why has the media fixated on Pop, Horse puppets and orchestras from abroad? Overseas orchestras have figured at the Proms so long that their absence would be  bigger cause for concern.

Roger Wright's recent Proms seasons have been so good that this year pales in comparison. The differences are more comparative than substantial. Perhaps we need a rest from the sheer euphoria of the Wagner marathon, the Barenboim showcases and choral blockbusters of recent years. Beneath the silly gimmicks like the War Horse and Ceebeebies, this year's offering aren't bad, though you need to think rather than repeat press releases.  Perhaps that's the crux of the problem. How can anyone with even a basic grasp of modern repertoire  equate Luca Francesconi with Gabriel Prokofiev? Or connect the Strauss offerings with the Elgar series? Both reprise a world that was to end in war. I don't know why the publicity for this year's  Proms is so odd, but we,  the audience, need to think for ourselves.
HERE is my summary of the BBC Proms 2014 season

Friday, 25 April 2014

How children learn about opera in China

How to help kids love opera? These days every decent house needs "outreach" partly to develop genuine interest and partly to justify funding. Some of my recent posts on the subject : Will children ever learn about opera ? and End the Missionary Position in Classical Music

 Here's how children learn about opera in Hong Kong. These schoolgirls were given a brief to make a documentary about any subjectb they liked and somehow picked Cantonese Opera with its long and complicated history and sub-genres. They had to research the subject for themselves, read up, do interviews and then do the "practical" working with opera personnel as well as with film makers. They wrote the script and presented it themselves. The film is six years old  and the final sequence about Chinese opera in English is misguided, but these girls are in PRIMARY school. This isn't a single occasion, but a regular experience for many kids in many schools. I went through that system too though I didn't do it until the first three years of secondary school. It was my school that pioneered the system sixty years ago. They did a full production of Purcell Dido and Aeneas. and even sewed the costumes themselves.  I was seven, way too young to be involved, but remember being fascinated.  A few years ago, they did The King and I which went on to DVD and sold well.

The secret of real education, I think, is to learn by doing: self motivation and fun. The subject doesn't matter, and the whole class gets involved. It's also a good way to teach kids how to organize themselves and project manage. Good multi-skilling training for life in general.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

BBC Proms 2014 - safe, bland but not bad

PSYCHIC POWERS! I guessed the First Night of the BBC Proms 2014 - Elgar The Kingdom, Andrew Davis BBC SO (the BBC house band). Read more HERE  It pays to be "forward thinking". So follow my site - I cover 40 or so Proms each year.

A surprisingly safe Proms season otherwise, as if it's been designed to placate the vociferous lobbies who need to find something to complain about in order to be happy  I for one will miss Roger Wright who did know his music and did have vision but who was hamstrung one one side by dumbed-down bean counting and on the other by self-appointed "Friends". So there are plenty of British composers, a number of women, sports events,  kids events, musicals, youth orchestras etc. Nonetheless there's enough real music to look forward to.

Glyndebourne's all-new Strauss Der Rosenkavalier arrives in London on 22nd July right at the start of the season when excitement is still high - good programming and a great way to  integrate serious opera into the Proms, as was done last year with the Wagner marathon. Strauss Salome on 30/8 (Runnicles, Nina Stemme) and Strauss Elektra on 31/8 (Bychkov, with Christine Goerke!) plus songs and other pieces incl. Ein Heldenleben.

The much missed  Jiří Bělohlávek  returns on 23/7 with a meaty programme of Bartók and Shostakovich, and  Gergiev will conduct a new edition of Janáček Glagolitic Mass on 24/7, thankfully not with a pick-up orchestra but with the LSO.  Roger Norrington conducts Bach St John's Passion with James Gilchrist and the Zurich Chamber Orchestra, which should be interesting. Simon Rattle conducts St Matthew Passion with the Berliner Philharmoniker on 6/9.

This summer marks 100 years since the start of the First World War, so there'll be themed events, and for good reason. 1914-18 changed the world forever.  So naturally, Butterworth, Gurney, Elgar -- and Mozart's Requiem on 3/8 but more unusually Gareth Malone's "War Horse Prom" with "Life-Size War Horse Puppets by the Handspring Puppet Company". Most of the 1914-18 commemorations so far are so bland as to be almost risible. But the Proms are hardly the place for more incisive contemplation. I'll be doing more on the impact of war on music over the next few years, God willing. Fortunately, Andris Nelsons conducts Britten's War Requiem on 21st August - he's so good that nationality becomes irrelevant (as it should be).

More of a challenge will be Prom 28 on 7/8 when Sakari Oramo conducts the UK premiere of Luca Francesconi 's Duende the Dark Notes together with Stravinsky Oedipus Rex and Beethoven Egmont Overture. What an intriguing programme! Francesconi is one of the great modern European originals  -- do not miss his opera Quartett at the Linbury, ROH from 16/6. 

Watch out for the Cleveland Orchestra (7/9 and 8/9) , The Berliner Philharmoniker's all-Russian Prom (5/9),  Ivan Fischer's Budapest festival Orchestra (25/8, 26/8)  Three seriously good Mahler Proms coming up - Mahler 4 (16/8) with Bernard Haitink, LSO and Camilla Tilling, Mahler 2 (29/8 Daniel Harding) and Mahler 3 on 11/9. That's probably the best pick of the season - Riccardo Chailly conducts the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. And Chailly is back on 12/9 with Beethoven 9.
And the Last Night of ther Proms 2014?  No gimmicks this time but genuine music values.

As always, every Prom will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 online, internationally and on demand for 7 days. 

photo Yuchi Morioka

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Elgar The Kingdom - for the Forward Thinking

After hearing Andrew Davis conduct Elgar The Apostles (op 49, 1902-3) at the Barbican (read my review here), I decided to revist its companion piece, The Kingdom op 51 (1901-6). The Kingdom is ideal material for the BBC Proms because it's spectacular and needs a space as grandiose as the Royal Albert Hall. Oddly enough it was last heard at the Proms in 1999, though it's been done 8 times since 1930. Andrew Davis conducted the BBC SO  then - it would be interesting to hear him conduct it fifteen years later   Mark Elder conducted the most recent recording (2011) of the Kingdom and also of the Apostles (2012), both with the Hallé, already well revered in Elgar's time. All the more reason to be intrigued as to when it will be done again and by whom  HUGE GRIN !!!!!!!

Elgar's The Apostles will crown this year's Three Choirs Festival at Worcester, Elgar's home town.  The massive computer glitch that hit the box office has been fixed, so it's worth seeing what's left. Please read my summary of the 2014 Three Choirs Festival HERE. I'm a regular devotee.

Monday, 21 April 2014

End the Missionary Position in Classical Music

Time to end the Missionary position in classical music, where middle class western pundits pontificate on what's best for lesser beings. The motives may be noble but the underlying assumption isn't. When "civilised" folk bemoan the fact that non-white, non middle-class audiences don't flock to concerts and opera, they're implicitly replicating the values of imperial aggression. Just as Victorian missionaries took it upon themselves to force the "natives" to hide their nudity and ancient beliefs, modern cultural do-gooders take it upon themselves to wail that other people don't do as they do, and get paid hefty amounts of public money in the process.

Why shouldn't the "natives"  (of any colour or class) enjoy pop, rock, grime, hip hop or whatever? The western classical tradition is barely 300 years old. Chinese opera, for example,  pre-dates Monteverdi, and rose from a sophisticated literary tradition that goes back much further. Indeed, classical tradition isn't any more superior in the west than other western traditions like popular music, hymns and theatre.  Classical music proselytizers are far too full of themselves.

Yes, it would be good if classical music audiences reflected the demographics of the world outside the concert hall. But that's not going to happen because someone gets public funding to talk about it.  Fact is, people come to classical music when they are ready, and people are ready in different stages. This kind of hand wringing serves to entrench the idea that classical music is elitist It's short-sighted luvvie policy to con younger audiences into halls while effectively excluding loyal and well-informed audiences (who often see through the sham of trendy thinking). There will always be a mix of young (student) audiences and older folk - those in the middle have mortgages and young families to worry about. Respect that. Above all, it's a stupid idea to dumb down. Sure that raises sales statistics, but long term it does no good for the kind of quality and high standards that make good classical music so enthralling in the first place.

There was news this week that China might be the most Christian country in the world by mid century. Pay heed, for this is relevant to the future of classical music. In China, millions have been poor for millennia, but the idea of culture as something to strive for has kept people motivated. Parents would starve so their kid could go to school.  Non-western people are not primitive  If they can recognize the intrinsic value of something, they'll go for it. That's why thousands of Chinese kids play piano, listen and enjoy. Sure they have pushy parents and enroll in competitions, but so do kids in the west. Somewhere along the way, people enjoy themselves. It's not at all unusual to see kids at concerts in China. Even in London: I observed a Russian pre teen at Faust last week, intently involved with what was going on. A lesson to some badly behaved adults who think they know everything and sneer.

So the trendies can contemplate their navels all they like, it won't change a thing. Better, I think to respect classical music for what it is, and keep up the standards. Definitely music education in schools makes a difference. But these days there are so  many more choices and opportunities.  Western classical music is something very special and very precious, so it needs support.  But ramming it down people's throats doesn't help. Old style mssionaries got kicked out of  China 65 years ago, but Christianity has grown better than ever because the time is right. It sells because the product is worth buying. So, too, with music.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Cantique de Pâques - Arthur Honegger

For Easter, the glorious Arthur Honegger: Cantique de Pâques  for  soprano, mezzo-soprano, contralto, female choir and chamber orchestra. It was written in 1918, when the composer was in his mid twenties but it's a surprisngly "modern" work. It isn't heard nearly as often as it should be, because the ensemble isn't the easiest to programme, and the piece runs 6 minutes.  Perhaps that's why Honegger transcribed it for soprano and piano in 1924. But the original version is so beautiful that it really needs to be better known

Bunnies and Bombs - Easter 1914

Why is this Easter bunny wearing an ammo belt and beating a marching drum ? And why are these soldiers arresting the bunny ? Perhaps the impact of war hadn't sunk in. Or maybe  escapist fantasy helped.  Why do Christians go to war ? Below, an image that deals better with the meaning of Easter. A soldier lies dying. A farmhouse burns in the background. Maybe at home, the soldier's farmhouse might be burning too. But the fallen soldier looks up at a wayside cross. Erschiene mir zum Schilde, zum Trost in meinem Tod Shine your shield on  me and comfort me at the moment of my death" 

Saturday, 19 April 2014

London's South Bank - cutting thru the coterie

Priority case for Sajid Javid.  The South Bank should be the nation's cultural flagship, if only because it's gobbled millions. Since the South Bank management, The Arts Council England and the Guardian, formerly a newspaper, are far too cosy together, it will take a strong-minded Culture Minister to cut through the coterie.

From Douglas Cooksey :

"Dr Johnson is famously remembered for his quote that when a man is tired of London he is tired of Life. Having now lived in London for almost 50 years, I can say with some confidence that I am emphatically not yet tired of Life. However, in common with - one suspects - a great many genuine music lovers, there is a sense of total frustration at what has been happening at what we must now apparently call 'London’s Southbank Centre'.

"Of course all things change, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.  It would be completely unreasonable and stultifying to expect them to remain the same. However, despite a renovation costing in the region of £100 million, the Royal Festival Hall has declined from its original status as one of the World’s great concert halls, spoken of in the same breath as Vienna’s Musikverein, Chicago’s Orchestra Hall or Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, and has sunk into a sort of pervasive self-inflicted squalor.

"What other major concert hall in the World permits unfettered access to all levels to members of the public, even during concerts? Previously at RFH one had to show a ticket for an event before proceeding to an upper level. Now, however these uppe- level areas are used as free Central London meeting space for all sorts of unrelated groups, even amazingly on occasion for groups of people dossing down to sleep.

"During one of Lorin Maazel’s recent Philharmonia concerts there was actually a children’s party in progress with children screaming and running riot at every level. Prior to this concert my partner and I were amazed to find couples with buggies picnicking on the upper levels, even directly outside the main entrance to the Stalls. A new low came when the public address system announced the start of the concert in 3 minutes time and the voraciously picnicking couple next to us swore loudly because the announcement had woken their child in his buggy.

"The opening up of the Royal Festival Hall to all-comers has also had discriminatory and Health & Safety consequences. In the first place, totally free access at all times has meant that older concertgoers now have little or no chance of a seat before, during the interval or after a performance because every seat in the public areas tends to be already occupied by people working on their laptops or by ad hoc group seminars, frequently being addressed by a speaker. When an older person may have made a long journey from, say, Bristol to attend a particular concert, only to be denied a seat by freeloaders, it clearly discriminates against the elderly and infirm, and is a strong disincentive for them to attend.

"More fundamentally, with several times as many people as originally planned now using the building at all times of day, there are genuine Health and Safety concerns; for instance, earlier this week I took two Czech and German friends to a concert, one of them a former member of a professional all-girl punk band (and therefore probably well used to touring insalubrious venues), and they were appalled to be confronted with three out of five toilets completely blocked. (Incidentally Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, which holds around 60,000 people, is an object lesson in the matter of hygiene and I was going to say that RFH would do well to take a leaf out of its book!) With the hall now in constant use throughout the day, mountains of garbage regularly accumulate in its waste bins and - leaving aside the stench - this should surely be investigated by Health & Safety as a matter of urgency.

"What is so depressing is that this is no slide into genteel poverty caused by lack of investment or by an ageing infrastructure – after all we’ve just spent more than £100 million renovating the hall - but largely the result of a series of conscious decisions by a perverse and unpleasant management operating to its own agenda which appears to seek to turn the hall into a “People’s Palace”, available to all people all the time. Regular concertgoers clearly now come a poor second. One has only to look at the Southbank’s monthly programme, where classical music is now relegated to the last 4 pages of a 28 page A4 booklet, to realise where the present regime (for that is what it is) sees its priorities. When just before Christmas the Philharmonia Orchestra wanted to announce its forthcoming season at roughly the same time as the LSO’s at the Barbican, I am given to understand that the orchestra was ‘instructed’ by the Southbank’s Management that it could not do this until some 5 weeks later, thus putting the Philharmonia at an unfair competitive disadvantage with their main rivals.

"Serious music lovers are now forgoing the Royal Festival Hall in increasing numbers, put off by the unpleasant surroundings. Who wants to emerge from a concert as that sublime final paragraph of Mahler’s 4th symphony 'Kein Musik is ja nicht auf Erden' ('No music like this is heard on Earth') fades into complete silence only to be confronted with pounding rock music from a party on the ground floor or by the raucous din of drink-fuelled hordes of revellers on the terrace.

"The Royal Festival Hall was erected as a temporary structure and has never been a wholly satisfactory venue for orchestral music but despite its faults we grew to love it, not least for the memories of all those great performances and great performers we heard there  – Klemperer, Karajan, Stokowski, Barbirolli, Boult, Celibidache, Giulini, Carlos Kleiber and even those two legendary Toscanini concerts – but perhaps it should now be turned over to GLC Parks & Leisure and a new ‘fit for purpose’ acoustically satisfactory concert hall like Birmingham’s built at a location with good transport connections such as Kings Cross. Above all it should be managed by a team in sympathy with its primary purpose as a place for music, not as a public space. In the wake of various Parliamentary scandals and an upcoming General Election we are almost certainly on the point of ridding ourselves of a swathe of career politicians who have existed wholly within the Westminster bubble, impervious, even contemptuous of public opinion. Perhaps now is also the moment to see the back of career arts administrators and to appoint some new blood."

See also :

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Puccini Manon Lescaut Rattle Westbroek Baden Baden

The very idea of the Berliner Philharmoniker playing Puccini operas  should raise a wry smile when one thinks of the orchestra's magnificent past.  But why not? Their artistry gives this Manon Lescaut a musical grandeur not often heard in an opera house. Sometimes, shifting the walls between sub-genres in music can be a good thing. Antonio Pappano plans to do much the same thing in reverse by getting the Royal Opera House orchestra to do more symphonic repertoire.  Read my review of Pappano's far superior Manon Lescaut HERE. Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker have been venturing to Baden Baden and into opera for some time, so their Puccini Manon Lescaut may or may not be interesting as a portent of things to come.

Thumbs up for Rattle and the orchestra, and most certainly for Eva-Maria Westbroek's singing.  In Massenet's Manon the heroine (or anti heroine) suffers for love in a dingy garret. Puccini's Manon indulges in physical and material excess. Her family may be packing her off to a convent for her own good. Westbroek's voice is lusty and her interpretation is well rounded in every sense. She creates a Manon who embraces pleasure with such feral enthusiasm that when she dies of thirst in the desert, Westbroek makes it feel like soul murder. Massenet's Manon sails off to an unspecified fate, but Puccini's Manon is destroyed to her very core. Westbroek's singing in the final act rises to heights of intellectual intensity one doesn't often encounter with "popular" Puccini. Westbroek may never sing a put-upon Cio Cio San, but her Manon is a creation of genuine originality.

Westbroek's lush blonde voluptuousness is nicely set off by Lester Lynch's Lescaut.  Thank goodness that we're now mature enough to face race without having to be coy, negative or embarrassed. Westebroek and Lynch are truly brother and sister, soul twins, so to say. They sing with similar physical intensity, so the dynamic between them works extremely well.  Puccini's Lescaut plays a much greater part in this opera than in Massenet's, so Lynch's portrayal adds a great deal to meaning. If only there were more roles which Lynch could do with Westbroek!

Nonetheless, the Romantic Hero in this opera is the Chevalier des Grieux.  Massimo Giordano sings the part effectively, though he doesn't quite have the quirky charisma of the Westbroek/Lynch combination, and is eclipsed by Bogdan Mihai's superb Edmondo and even Liang Li's Geronte de Ravoir. In the final act, though, Giordano lets loose. His singing becomes more impassioned, and he emphasizes words with greater force. In death, his Des Grieux seems to find himself.  Magdalena Kozena sings one of the musicians, not normally a huge part but she sings it with personality and flair.

The Baden Baden Festspielhaus is the biggest and most modern (1997) in Germany, and caters to a wide range of activities. It doesn't have the traditions of, say, the Vienna State Opera or Bayreuth, but every house fills a different niche.  Last year Baden Baden presented a very good Don Giovanni with Anna Netrebko, Erwin Schrott and Luca Pisaroni, which would have been welcome anywhere.  This Manon Lescaut was staged by Richard Eyre, whose greatest moment was the ROH La Traviata (1994) . Thirty years later, not much seems to have changed. This new production sports art deco angles but otherwise is rather provincial. Given the high standards Westbroek and Rattle achieve, it's a bit of a lost opportunity.  Admittedly the Lousiana scene is difficult to stage, especially as there aren't many deserts in New Orleans - so much for the myth of "historical accuracy".

Another interesting thing about Baden Baden is that it seems to be modelling itself on the Met. Alas,  they've copied the ludicrous interval interviews , though the interviewer herself is infinitely more articulate.  It's sad that an intelligent woman should have to mimic the Met's airhead gushing. If Baden Baden wants to make a name for itself it should do something more upmarket.
Watch this in full on the Berliner Philharmoniker website. 

Needless to say, this will be TOTALLY OUTCLASSED by OPOLAIS, KAUFMANN and Pappano at the Royal Opera House in  June

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Lucerne Abbado Memorial - COMPLETE FREE online

How often do you see the members of an orchestra weep openly? The Lucerne Festival Orchestra's memorial  for Claudio Abbado  on 7th April is now available complete and free on arte.tv. This is infinitely more than an ordinary concert.  What makes it unique - and compelling - isn't "just" the music. Every player here knew Claudio Abbado personally and worked with him. Everyone in the audience had memories, too. There are people who think music should be judged purely in musical terms. This concert proves that without the human spirit, notes alone are meaningless. Without vision, without endeavour, without feeling, we are nothing. Claudio Abbado taught us a lot technically about the music he conducted, but even more so, I think, about being human.

The programme: Franz Schubert (1797-1828) «Allegro moderato» de la Symphonie n° 7 en si mineur D 759 Inachevée, Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843) Elegie Brot und Wein (Pain et Vin), Alban Berg (1885-1935), Concerto pour violon et orchestre A la mémoire d’un ange, Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), Finale de la Symphonie n° 3 en ré mineur.  Each piece chosen because they were closely associated with the conductor, but also because each touches upon some aspect of the human condition.  They also reference the idea of artists being taken before their time. Not death so much as the loss of what might have been. Thank whatever power gave us Abbado's finest years, after his near fatal cancer. "Half the stomach, twice the soul" someone once quipped

Significantly, the concert formally ends with the Finale of Mahler's Symphony no 3, soaring ever upwards, higher and higher until the very sounds dissolve into infinity. The Lucerne Festival Orchestra might have picked the Finale of Mahler 6th or Mahler 9th but the Finale of Mahler's 3rd is perhaps right in context: the Alps around Lucerne, but even more what mountains symbolize. Mountains endure, when mortals pass on. Most of us never reach the pinnacle, but we're lost if we don't dream.

 Here  is the text of the Hölderlin Elegy. Again a brilliant choice. The poet famously lived in a tower, contemplating the moon.  His work became hugely influential on 20th century composers, long after his death.  Why poems in a concert, and horror of horrors not in English, as some would say.  To paraphrase Mahler, speaking of the young know-it-alls of his time, "Have they read Dostoevsky"
Listen to the concert - not just to the sounds the orchestra is playing, but also to what might be happening in your heart. That, I think, is the real gift of musicianship, and Claudio Abbado's enduring legacy. There are many different ways to show emotion. The members of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra are not afraid to hide their feelings. Even the concert master gives in to his. I've watched this several times over, thoroughly gutted.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Garsington Opera's Rossini Maometto Secondo commemorative CD

To commemorate its 25th anniversary, Garsington Opera at Wormsley is releasing a CD. In the true Garsington Opera tradition this will be something special: the first commercially available recording of the new edition of  the rare Rossini opera Maometto secondo under the Avie label, The deluxe 3-CD set,  recorded live at Garsington Opera's universally acclaimed 2013 performances - the first-ever fully staged production of Maometto secondo in the UK -  is stylishly packaged in a 100-page hardbound book, complete with synopsis, essay and libretto in Italian with English translations. This is an important release which confirms Garsington Opera's status as the leading specialist Rossini house in Britain, having presented 12 Rossini operas, some in several productions, since 1995. This will be an essential for Rossini enthusiasts everywhere.

Maometto Secondo has the potential to become one of the great operas in the repertoire. Richard Osborne, the Rossini scholar, describes it as the grandest of Rossini's opera seria, "epic in scale and revolutionary in the seamlessness of its musical structuring".  Garsington Opera uses the new critical edition of Maometto Secondo compiled by Hans Schellevis."It´s scholarly and supported by men like Phillip Gossett" says David Parry, who has conducted most of Garsington Opera's Rossini over the years. "The physical presentation of the old edition was terrible, covered with amendments. It reinstates the original Rossini wrote for the Teatro San Carlo, Naples, in 1820. When the opera was performed in the Teatro La Fenice two years later, he had to revise it with a `happy ending´ to flatter the audience in Venice. Rossini created a third version, Le siège de Corinthe, which is effectively a
different opera. The mezzo part is taken by tenor, for example. The new edition we are using is definitely the strongest, musically and dramaturgically".

Maometto Secondo, or Mehmet II, Fatih Sultan of the Ottomans, captured Constantinople, and ended the Byzantine Empire. This Turk was no buffo. His next ambitious plan: to conquer Rome, thereby linking Europe and Asia under Islam. Mega geopolitics. Venice was the front line because Venetians traded throughout the Eastern Mediterranean. The Ottomans posed a genuine threat to survival of the Italian region. Rossini's audiences knew that Negroponte fell and its occupants were massacred. Mehmet and the garrison commander, Paolo Erissso, existed, but the opera is not based on historical facts. The plot resembles La donna del lago, completed the year before. Both foreign kings in disguise are called Uberto, and both offer tokens of safety. Indeed, Rossini simply lifted the aria "Tanti affetti" from La donna del lago straight into the 1823 Venice revision of Maometto Secondo . So much for historical specificity.

It is pertinent that Rossini wrote Maometto Secondo while Naples was occupied by the Carbonari, a volatile, violent secret society dedicated to revolution. The opera bristles with danger. A confident melody suggests happy memories, but the garrison is under siege. Rossini's vocal lines tear up and down the scale, but the long, difficult runs aren't there for ornamental display. The singers are pushed to the edge, just as the characters they portray. Technically, the musicians are in control, but dotted rhythms and coloratura extremes can suggest palpitating heartbeats, or muscles on alert. Rossini doesn't let the tension subside. Erisso, Anna and Calbo sing a long terzetto which is interrupted by the sound of cannon. Suddenly, Maometto materializes, high above the melée. "Sorgete: in sì bel giorno" is cavatina as theatre.

Please read my review of the 2013 Garsington Opera at Wormsley premiere, on which this new recording of Rossini Maometto Secondo is based HERE in Opera Today.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Elgar The Apostles Barbican Davis BBCSO Imbrailo Sherratt

Hearing Elgar'sThe Apostles (op 49, 1902-3) at the Barbican Hall, was a superb experience. The piece was conceived on a grand scale with over a hundred choristers, a huge orchestra and  team of soloists (who can be augmented if needed). Any live performance is a major event to be cherished. The BBC has the forces to pull it off  on a grand scale, as with this performance conducted by Andrew Davis with the BBC SO, the BBC Singers Symphony Chorus and a star list of soloists.

But perhaps the key to The Apostles (and to The Kingdom) lies in its connection to The Dream of Gerontius (op 38, 1900), performed by the same forces at the Barbican last week. Although Elgar never completed the ambitious trilogy he dreamed of, The Apostles and The Dream of the Gerontius  benefit from being heard together. The Dream of Gerontius tells of one man's journey from physical life to the life everlasting. (read more here). The Apostles deals with the very nature of that faith..  Hence the inherent contradiction that sometimes confuses The Apostles with overblown Edwardian public declarations of Christianity.

The Apostles unfolds in a series of seven tableaux, held together by male and female narrators. This structure allows a surprising degree of intimacy, concentrating on the interaction between  Jesus and the people around him. Judas, Peter and John are gearing up for their mission to spread the gospels to the world. The chorus exults and the brass plays the glorious fanfare, which seems to stretch over vast distances. The huge kettledrums beat out a ceremonial march. Splendid! Yet it is the quiet voice of Jesus which rises above the tumult. "He who receiveth you, receiveth Me, and he that receiveth Me, receiveth Him who sent Me",  Jacques Imbrailo is the Jesus of choice these days. He is unique - confident in its baritonal quality, yet haloed by a tenor-like glow. His voice seems lit with inner light, giving an almost miraculous purity. When Jesus  reveals the Beatitudes in By the Wayside, Imbrailo makes the words ring with sincerity and conviction, not by forcing sound, but by simple, sincere conviction. "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth". Meekness isn't weakness, though, for Jesus hints at persecutions to come. Imbrailo's timbre is natural and unforced,  but its centre is very strong.

The tension between grand forces and simplicity gives The Apostles much of its  appeal. Elgar describes the storm on the Sea of Galilee, and Davis whips the orchestra into a turmoil. "It is I, Be not afraid!" sings Imbrailo, decorating the "I" with shimmering rubato so the very word seems to shine like a lighthouse.  Elgar's Jesus favours sinners, like Mary Magdalene (Sarah Connolly), Peter the Doubter, (Gerald Finley) and Judas Iscariot (Brindley Sherratt). Indeed, Elgar gives Judas more space than the others, suggesting his sympathy with those who question. Brindley Sherratt is as singularly exceptional in this part as Imbrailo is in his. Together they bring out a more unconventional element in the drama.  Sherratt's bass isn't brutal, but intelligently nuanced: he conveys genuine  concern where the other Apostles obey blindly. When Judas recognizes his mistake, Sherratt sings with anguish so intense that it takes on a strange, noble dignity. In the long passage that starts "Our life is short and tedious", Sherratt expresses such a range of emotions that he manages to make us feel compassion. This is a Judas with whom modern people can identify. We cannot judge, but remember the Beatitude "Blessed are the merciful!".  As Sherratt was singing, I remembered how he had sung Judas  on this very subject earlier in the piece.  A singer who can shed such insights deserves huge respect.

It's also interesting how Elgar goes swiftly from Golgotha to the Ascencion, as if drawn forwards by the musical vision of Angels singing "Alleluia!". The string writing is pastoral, yet luminous,  another insight, connecting Jesus's "rebirth" with his Nativity. The BBC Symphony Chorus sang The Mystic Chorus with beautiful clarity. In The Apostles, Elgar writes for voice as if he were writing for different elements in an orchestra. He weaves together lines for the orchestra, choir and soloists to form an immaculate, shining wall of sound. Imbrailo doesn't sing but the memory lingers, imprinted on the listener. ""And lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world".

Mark Elder conducted Elgar's The Apostles at the Proms in 2012, and his recording with the Hallé is so good it will stand as a benchmark, even taking into account Adrian Boult's recording from 1973. Elder gets much greater lucidity from the Hallé than Davis did with the BBCSO, though they were very good. It's just that the Hallé, one of  Elgar's favourite bands, have an unparalleled Elgar pedigree which no other orchestra can quite reach. Imbrailo, Sherratt and Paul Groves sing for Elder (with Alice Coote and Rebecca Evans). Davis has big names like Connolly and Gerald Finley, and lovely though consonant-lite Nicole Cabell. On balance, I prefer Elder, but any chance to hear The Apostles is welcome.

Gounod Faust 2014 Royal Opera House

Gounod's Faust makes a much welcomed return to the Royal Opera House. With each new cast, the dynamic changes as the balance between singers shifts and brings out new insights. In that sense, every revival is an opportunity to revisit from new perspectives. This time Bryn Terfel sang Méphistophélès, with Joseph Calleja as Faust – stars whose allure certainly helped fill the hall to capacity. And the audience enjoyed a very good show.

The opera starts in darkness: Faust knows all about the world from books, but hasn't lived.  Maurizio Benini's tempi were slow, suggesting that Faust is perhaps on the point of death when the pastoral theme bursts into the overture like a breath of Spring. When Calleja cried "Rein!", his anguish was heartfelt. As the youthful Faust, Calleja is much more in his element. His natural exuberance makes his Faust cocky rather than intellectual, but that's a perfectly valid interpretation. When Calleja sang  "Salut! demeure chaste et pur" he held the spectacular long note so fluidly, the audience went into rapture.  Calleja's Faust is a good-old-fashioned Italian (Maltese) wide boy, oozing charm. His rapport with the Margeurite of the evening, Alexia Voulgaridou, was good: they were singing together rather than at each other. There's a difference. 

Bryn Terfel created Méphistophélès for this production ten years ago, so it was big news when he substituted for another singer at short notice. Terfel is always a force to be reckoned with, even when forcefulness dominates his singing. Méphistophélès gets away with things because he's sly. The delicate background of pizzicato around the part suggest half-glimpsed flashes of hellfire. Rather more cunning on Terfel's part might have been more in character. Terfel's Méphistophélès and Calleja's Faust don't mesh together well, though both singers are masters at working an audience. Terfel's performance this time round was interesting because it showed just how "Gallic" Gounod's Méphistophélès is, in contrast to Goethe's original, and to Russian manifestations,  Think Chaliapin. When René Pape sang the part in 2011, the urbane sophistication he brought to the part made it truly sinister.

Alexia Voulgaridou has sung Marguerite many times. As soon as she began singing, her experience showed. She may not be as high profile as Sonya Yoncheva, who has appeared at the Met, with whom she shares the role, but she inhabits the role with great conviction. In her Jewel Song, her rich timbre evoked the sensuality underlying the purity in Marguerite's personality. Voulgaridou is physically very small, but energetic, suggesting the innate strength in the role. The revival director, Bruno Ravella, has dispensed with the silly blonde wig that made Angela Gheorghiu look wrong in 2011. It's the singing that counts, and most of the good ones these days have Latin complexions, perfectly right for a French heroine.

Simon Keenlyside is a perennial House favourite, but here his Valentin seemed underdeveloped. He has the notes but pushes them a little too hard, though his "death aria" was evenly paced an d well presented. Keenlyside's Valentin could have been the brother of Terfel's Méphistophélès. In 2011, Dmitri Hvorostovsky intimated that there's more to Valentin than the libretto alone might indicate. Renata Pokupić's Siebel was spirited. This is an unusual part wihich could be shaped well by someone with Pokupić's individuality: perhaps she'll make it a signature role. Jihoon Kim sang Wagner. Next season he will become a company principal, deservedly so, as he's very good.  Diana Montague sang Marthe.

The designs in this production, by Charles Edwards and his team, also reference the "Frenchness" of Gounod's idiom. In the cathedral scene, Marguerite prays before an ornate Baroque sculpture, from which Méphistophélès emerges. In modern, secular times the idea of sacrilege might not be as shocking as it was in 19th century France, so this staging is an excellent way into the deeper levels of meaning in the opera. The military choruses, for example, would have resonated with audiences for whom Napoleon III and the Crimean War were topical. Marguerite's predicament, too, highlights the hypocrisy of a world in which one unmarried mother s condemned while the image of another is revered. The Walpurgis Night ballet is staged in the context of the Paris Opéra,, where patrons lust for young dancers, just as Faust fancied Marguerite.  The choregraphy, originally by Michael Keegan-Dolan and revived by Daphne Strothmann, was brilliantly executed - the male principa,l Eric Underwood, was particularly expressive, his physical agility underlining the erotic undercurrent that runs through the whole opera.

This article appears in Opera Today. 

Photos c Bill Cooper, courtesy Royal Opera House

Friday, 11 April 2014

More uncultured Culture Ministers ?

 A Minister for Culture doesn't have to know much about the arts, but his/her brief is not to destroy.  The newly appointed Minister for Culture, Sajid Javid, apparently said in 2011 "Ticket resellers act like classic entrepreneurs, because they fill a gap in the market that they have identified." This is an extremely sensitive issue in the arts world. Any competent business person knows that you can't shoot off without knowing the terrain. You check out the ground first. I don't think Javid is stupid. Let's hope he's learned.

One of Alex Beard's earliest pronouncements since he took up his post as head of the Royal Opera House was to address the long standing problem of ticket touts. "Being complicit in ticket touting should be illegal, (he) has argued, as he admits it is “desperately unfair” on would-be audience members but so far “impossible” to prevent.... (nobody) “come up with a silver bullet” to solve the problem of touting.He has now argued for the “straightforward” method of making “it illegal to be complicit in the sale of invalid tickets”.(source here)

"The frustrating thing in our case is that it tends to be the cheaper seats and it tends to be an extraordinary mark-up, effectively misselling,” he said.“That damages two things. Firstly the quality of the poor people who have bought it, because the tickets themselves are not valid. And two, it means fewer people are able to get cheap seats to the Opera House.”He added it is “just at the moment impossible” to stop resellers from plying their trade.“The ones that are being touted tend to be the five and ten pound tickets, which are presented on these resale website as though they’re the top priced tickets,” he said.“It’s desperately unfair, both to the people who have bought these invalid tickets because they won’t be able to get entry into the opera house, and for the people who otherwise would have been able to purchase them.”“People have been wrestling with this issue now for decades, and nobody has come up with the perfect silver bullet, as it were, to take the touts out of business." 

It's not just the ROH. The BBC Proms have the same problem. These sales have nothing to do with promoting the arts, because they bring in punters with more money than taste or basic common sense. Sure, people miss out when tickets sell out quickly, but it's the touts who create the situation in the first place. Eliminate them, eliminate the problem. 

Government exists (in theory) to keep things in relative balance. If governments believe in unalloyed greed, what's the point ? Do MP's who think the system exists so they can fiddle expenses going to stand up to pressure from commercial inducements. Conflict of interest - and the "C" word that eats away at Parliamentary ethics like a cancer.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

ENO appoints Surprise Executive Director

Surprise new Executive Director at the ENO - or maybe not such a surprise, since candidates from within are few and far between. The post has been up for grabs since July last year, so presumably the news got round in the business long before the job was advertised in November. This is a critical assignment, at a time when the ENO is facing big challenges. So what might this mean ? (Please read my other pieces on the situation at the ENO - About Anthony Whitworth Jones HERE and Radical rethink HERE and ENO Vindicted HERE.

The new Executive Director is Henrietta Götz, who will start within a few weeks. Götz has twenty years experience since university, which would make her 40 something. She was most recently Executive Director of Vlaamse Opera, Belgium, which she joined in 2009 and left recently. .She also runs Arts & Consulting Int., an international consultancy providing finance, organisation, marketing and sponsoring advice and management services to arts and cultural institutions. You don't need to be a "creative" to run the business end of an arts organization as long as you care about the arts. Which is more than can be said for UK Ministers of Culture.

More unusually she has an interesting background, being connected to the Fidel Götz Foundation which supports charities in the Third World. Not, hopefully, someone who's in awe of money and power ?  Even charities should be run by good business minds. In a job like this, a person's inner personality counts.  (Alas, again a relevant observation on the probity of some UK Ministers for Culture)

This appointment happens exactly - to the very day - of Martyn Rose's appointment as Chairman of the Board at the ENO which heralded a change in management style. Götz will be responsible for leading organisational operations including finance, theatre management, marketing, sales and fundraising functions.Jeremiahs will always howl about the ENO, but in many ways it's in a better condition than it was ten years ago. It has exceeded its box office target for 2013/14 and "will definitely finish the financial year in a balanced position – with the possibility of a small surplus" says the press release.

In the US, opera companies and orchestras are going into meltdown.. Sure, European houses get subsidies, but the cultural demographics are completely different. No-one has yet figured out the best business model, but I think that, at the end of the day, it's how you build the audience. Thank goodness for the ENO's belief in artistic vision. That's the business of any arts organization. The executive side "executes",so the artistic product can sell. Not the other way round.(it's Loretta Tomasi's original job for those who didn't notice)

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

John Shirley-Quirk remembered

From Evan Dickerson : 

The death of eminent English bass-baritone John Shirley-Quirk, 82, was announced on 7 April. He died in Bath, but the cause of death remains unknown. Born in Liverpool, John Shirley-Quirk sang in a church choir and played violin as a child. His university studies were in chemistry and physics, but singing was his abiding passion and he took singing lessons with Austen Carnegie. In 1957 he began studying with baritone Roy Henderson and from 1961–1962 performed with the Cathedral Choir at St. John's in London. He made his operatic debut in Pelléas et Mélisande in 1961 at the Glyndebourne Festival. In 1963 he was invited by Benjamin Britten to join his English Opera Group, with whom he performed until Britten’s death in 1976. His work included roles in the premieres of Britten's Curlew River, The Burning Fiery Furnace, The Prodigal Son, Death in Venice, and Owen Wingrave. Shirley-Quirk made his debut at New York's Metropolitan Opera in 1974 with a performance of Death in Venice. In 1975 he was named a Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

His recording career though featured a wider spread of English composers: he was the soloist in the first recording of Sir Michael Tippett’s The Vision of St. Augustine and in 1977 he created the role of Lev in Tippett’s The Ice Break at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. He also performed and recorded A Child of Our Time under the composer in the 1980s. His dedication to Vaughan Williams’ vocal works is to be heard on many of Sir David Willcocks’ recordings for EMI, including the first complete version of the Songs of Travel. He sang in the premiere recording of Delius’s Requiem in 1968. In later years he continued to make important recordings, singing the baritone soloist in Britten’s War Requiem under Richard Hickox in 1991 and the cameo role of the Recorder of Norwich in the premiere recording of Gloriana under Sir Charles Mackerras in 1992. He was also a soloist in Solti’s recording of Mahler’s eighth symphony. Aside from his singing career, Shirley-Quirk taught at Bath Spa University and at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore from 1992 until 2012. 

Vocally he was known for a warm and generous tone, which reflected the man, if my one encounter with him around 1993 was anything to go by. He had visited my singing teacher, the late Jean Austin Dobson, for afternoon tea and saw no reason to leave just because she had a few ‘evening students’. Their witty rapport was palpable, and he endured my baritonal efforts, singing some of Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel. This was music that I even then was conscious that he had a very deep connection with. He was patient and deferred to “dear Jean” when it came to matters relating to my technique, though he liked my tone. We discussed at some lengths the problems of singing in English and also its rewards when done well. The comment that has stuck with me though was, “don’t be afraid of the words – get stuck in!” It has shaped how I appreciate singers and listen to vocal performances ever since.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Luke Bedford Through His Teeth Linbury ROH - best British opera in years

Can this be the best British opera in years? Luke Bedford's Through His Teeth at the Royal Opera House's Linbury Theatre is exceptional. Drop everything and go. This packs more into less than an hour than many works which might last five times as long. It's so concentrated that further hearings will only intensify the respect that it's due. Bedford, now resident in Berlin, has found astonishing maturity and depth. Through His Teeth is sophisticated, and perhaps a bit above the heads of some, but that's exactly why Bedford is a true original.

Through His Teeth fires on every cylinder. A, (Anna Devin)  a dowdy 30-something looks at fancy cars in a showroom. R (Owen Gilhooly) spots her and chats her up. "I'm not really a car salesman", he says.  The tiny orchestra, CHROMA, conducted by Sian Edwards, screams alarm.  The small Trumpet in C wails like a warning klaxon. The harp's shortest strings are plucked to suggest tight, tense hollowness. An accordion gasps as if its lungs are too constricted to breathe. A doesn't take heed. R picked her out even before she entered the showroom,  sensing, perhaps, the vulnerability even she doesn't comprehend. What really draws a sensible girl like A into R's crazy world? It's not simply that he's good in bed. Almost from the start she knows something's wrong.  R's paranoid and thinks he's under surveillance. A assumes he's MI5. So it's  OK for her to accept flowers from him he's taken from someone he's just killed ? Morally, she too is compromised.

Distorted values, distorted reality. The designs (Becs Andrews) capture the psychological dislocation implicit in David Harrower's deceptively simple text.  Walls slide across the stage, dividing it into tightly framed compartments.  Sam Meech's videos fragment, offering mutiple different perspectives, even, perhaps that of the sinister surveillance person watching him. R controls A because she lets herself get cut off from the world around her. Yet. the walls of her "prison" are pierced weith holes which she could look through if she wanted to. This is the Faustian pact she's made with R. Like Mephistopheles he can offer her the wildest dreams imaginable but she must sell her soul.

The clarinet in B flat sings a poisoned melody, like a snake charmer's instrument. The cello is played so its strings reverberate their whole length, like a snake, flexing its muscles sensuously, like a and falling, willingly, into hypnosis. The percussionist beats brushes, quietly replicating a failing heartbeat. Bedford creates sounds that are so intriguing that the listener is drawn into an invisible trap, almost against one's will.  With abstract music, Bedford recreates extreme psychological complexity. Through His Teeth isn't just about sex. Manipulative people create cults around themselves.

A sinks so deeply into R's psychosis that her sister (Victoria Simmonds, playing multiple roles)  who lives in the real world, finds a way to trap him. R is put into prison. Gilhooly  walks as if he';s in chains we cannot see. Brilliantly economic direction by Bijan Sheibani. Watch this director - he's very good. Chains we cannot see: perhaps that sums up the horrifying nature of these mind games. A meets another of R's women (also Simmonds), a bag lady who blames herself for not being good enough to join the MI5 of R's imagination.  Modern Mephistopheles prey on their victim's hidden weaknesses, sucking them into a web of their own making.

At the end, the TV interviewer (Simmonds again) asks A, who is now technically "free", what she would do if if she were to meet R again. The question is put gently.. A's response seems non-committal, but Bedford's music suggests that A knows, deep in her heart, that she'd do it all over again.  The ending is powerful , all the more because it's so chillingly understated.  Bedford's Through His Teeth is a major work, which needs to be carefully contemplated.

photos : Stephen Cummiskey, Courtesy Royal Opera House

Monday, 7 April 2014

Harrison Birtwistle 80 major Barbican retrospective

"The Barbican marks Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s 80th birthday with
Birtwistle at 80, celebrating one of the great iconoclasts of British
classical music with performances of his operatic, orchestral and chamber masterpieces" so states the publicity.

Birtwistle is easily the greatest British composer of his generation.He's a true original who doesn't follow safe, established paths or court populist favour. Like Benjamin Britten, he isn't "Establsihment" by a long shot. If he ever becomes Master of the Queen's Music, we'd be in for a shock. Knowing Birtwistle, he'd give a good-natured shrug and chuckle with a twinkle in his eye.

The Barbican series is thus extremely important.  "At the heart of the series are two of Birtwistle’s most contrasting operas, Gawain (1991) and Yan Tan Tethera (1984), presented in concert hall stagings directed by John Lloyd Davies......Rooted in the English tradition, whether chivalric or folk, these operas highlight Birtwistle’s deep interest in ancient myths and rituals." The director comments "Birtwistle is one of the most viscerally theatrical of composers. All his works embody his obsession for his characters “to have blood in their veins and sex in their loins”.The great Arthurian myth of Gawain and the raw, wind-scoured Wiltshire plains of Yan Tan Tethera share familiar Birtwistle devices of ritual and repetition, yet even in a concert-hall staging what overwhelms the listener is the theatrical power, inventiveness and energy of the composer’s musical imagination.
On Friday 16 May, the Barbican and the BBC Symphony Orchestra present the iconic opera Gawain, based on the late 14th-century English romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, with a libretto by David Harsent. Martyn Brabbins conducts a star cast including bass Sir John Tomlinson singing the Green Knight, a role that he created for the world premiere at Covent Garden in 1991, and baritone Leigh Melrose in the title role. On Tuesday 29 May, the Barbican and Britten Sinfonia join forces for a co-production of the chamber opera Yan Tan Tethera. With text provided by Tony Harrison, the piece is based on a supernatural folk tale of two shepherds counting their sheep and encountering the devil. Led by Baldur Brönnimann, the cast includes baritone Roderick Williams in the role of Alan and soprano Claire Booth as Hannah.

"The themes of myth, ritual and landscape are also evident in the other events that are part of the Barbican’s celebration. Oliver Knussen conducts the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group in Birtwistle’s early breakthrough piece Tragoedia (1965), inspired by Greek theatre and mythology (Sunday 25 May – Milton Court).  The performance is part of a programme showcasing chamber works and songs from across the composer’s career, including Silbury Air (1977 – revisited in 2003), inspired by the prehistoric mound of Silbury Hill in Wiltshire, and the recent Fantasia Upon All the Notes (2012). The monumental orchestral work Earth Dances is presented by the London Symphony Orchestra and Principal Guest Conductor Daniel Harding (Tuesday 20 May). At the core of the piece, which is based on Birtwistle’s fascination with nature and the shifts and changes affecting landscape, is a geological metaphor: the orchestra is divided into six “strata” with ever-changing relationships reflecting those of the earth’s layers."

"Closing the series on Friday 30 May, Britten Sinfonia and conductor Baldur Brönnimann focus on Birtwistle’s quintessential Britishness and his relation to the pastoral tradition, in the context of an evening of British music inspired by landscape and national identity. The programme features Birtwistle’s The Fields of Sorrow and Melencolia I, and works by Holst and Vaughan Williams (including the latter’s suite Flos Campi for viola, small orchestra and small chorus with soloist Maxim Rysanov and Britten Sinfonia Voices directed by Eamonn Dougan). As a pre-concert
event, the Arditti Quartet – who will also be presenting the world premiere of a new Birtwistle work during their 40th birthday celebration at the Barbican on 26 April – pay homage to the composer with a performance of String Quartet:The Tree of Strings. With its title taken from a poem in Gaelic by Sorly MacLean, String Quartet:The Tree of Strings is deeply rooted in a sense of place, powerfully evoking the desolate history of the Scottish island of Raasay where MacLean was born and where
the composer himself lived in the 1980s. "

For more details, please see here.    
Please also follow the label "Birtwistle" on this site  : I've covered more Birtwistle than most, and havce written about many of the works above.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Prince Igor with blood and guts

Although Borodin's Prince Igor is rarely seen live in the west, there are many recordings. The music is gorgeous, and everyone knows the hit song "Stranger in Paradise".  Borodin's Prince Igor at the Coliseum, London with Novaya Opera and the Met's version have created a lot of publicity, but they are hardly the only points of reference. So in the interest of learning more, I watched how it  was done at the Royal Opera House in 1990, only 25 years ago, well within living memory, though the production was never revived. Bernard Haitink conducted the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra and Chorus. The singers included Sergei Leiferkus, Anna Tomowa-Sintow, Paata Burchuladze, Elena Zaremba and Nicola Ghiuselev.. By any standards, a performance to be reckoned with. The director was Andrei Șerban, best known in the UK for his Puccini Turandot

"Glory to the fair sun ! Glory to Prince Igor! Glory, glory!" sing the people of Putivl. Almost immediately, though, the sky (and set) darken. There's a solar eclipse. Șerban's set is based on strong visual angles, diagonals, horizontals and uprights. Igor and Yaroslava are further isolated by colour.  Their gowns billow gold and red, against the monochrome of their followers.  Then out come the icons, red and gold, too. No wonder Igor thinks he's on God's mission. Yet the same colours appear in the scene of debauchery where Prince Galitsky's followers get drunk and attack women.  More nudity (discreet) and violence here than at the Met or Coliseum, I suspect, but it's entirely appropriate. It's in the script. These thugs sing comic songs. Brutality underpins the whole narrative: miss it and you might as well watch Postman Pat.

The point is emphasized when Yaroslava sings her long aria against a backdrop of austere angles and moonlight tones. "Where are you now, oh bygone days?" She is faithful to her man but the men around her have little concept of  fidelity. The maidservants who have been raped writhe in white shifts. Soon after the "Glory" chorus returns, and the Boyars place their faith in God's protection. Huge bells ring out, but Yaroslava senses danger. With piercing pathos, Tomowa-SintoW sings "There is no escaping God's judgement".

Borodin immediately shifts to the Dance of the Polovtsian Maidens (photo of Elena Zaremba at the top). The costumes are exotic, and the music suggests "eastern" exoticism but the mood is desolation.  Konchak the Polovtsian Khan has captured Prince Igor whose son Vladimir loves Konchakovna. The understated set places full emphasis on the singers and the singing, and they deliver, beautifully. Burchuldaze's gorgeous in golden robes, too, and a true basso, his timbre warmed by the personality in the part.  The Polovtsian dances are wonderfully staged : the male dancer moves with angular but athletic grace. The orchestra create the "wild" rhythms of the steppes so dramatically that being a Stranger in Paradise doesn't seem like a bad prospect at all. Can we hear in this celebration of "savagery" hints of the Rite of Spring to come? Sadly, the filming is blurred and shot from a  fixed point in the balcony.

In contrast, Putivl with its repressive values does seem dull. Igor is back, but what has anyone learned? The comic players who caroused drunkenly when the women got raped, start singing again. Galitsky meekly accedes to Igor. What might really have happened had Borodin lived? Șerban's staging goes a long way towards making dramatic sense of a sprawling, illogical narrative held together by seductive music. Complicated contract problems prevented this Prince Igor from being repeated. A pity, since the staging adds so much to meaning. It still stands the test of time, though, so if it could be revived, it would help audiences to better appreciate the opera .