Tuesday, 31 March 2015

The Tsar's Bride - Barenboim, Milan broadcast

What have things come to, when Ivan The Terrible should now be known as "one of the same characters that inspired Eisenstein", according to the blurb on BBC Radio 3. Ivan the Terrible, supposedly a demonic despot who cast a shadow over all Tsars to come, and the father of the Russian Empire, reduced to a bit part in history?  Eisenstein's 1942 film is a classic, about which I've written  before, but there's a whole lot more to Ivan than the movies. Maybe modern "research" these days depends on what's on page 1 of Google, and look no deeper. 

No trivializing when it comes to Rimsky-Korsakov's The Tsar's Bride, where the Tsar's forceful persona dominates all around him. No trivializing, either, in Barenboim's account for Teatro alla Scala, recorded late last year.  Glorious playing, the riches in the orchestration suggesting the splendour of the Tsar's court . Yet poison seeps from below the surface. Wealth and power mean nothing, when you're paranoid, surrounded by enemies, real or imagined.  Listen HERE to the full broadcast. Fabulous, orchestral playing matched by fabulous singing too. This is what The Tsar's Bride should sound like. The Royal Opera House production a few years ago got attacked because it was  set in the modern world of the new oligarchy. Why not? since human nature doesn't change.  Is it so hard to imagine what it must be like around Vladimir Putin? 

The problem with the ROH production was that it was unidiomatically conducted (Mark Elder), polite watercolour, rather than pulsating blood. If Barenboim and his cast had done that production, the opera would not have been met with the incomprehension it received in London.   Incidentally, there's a film based on Rimsky-Korsakov's The Tsar's Bride. The filming is stunning, though musically it's pretty average.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Andreas Schager - shining new Parsifal, Berlin, Barenboim

Andreas Schager made his role debut as Parsifal with Daniel Barenboim in a new production for the Berlin Staatsoper. From all accounts, Schager's the bright new hope in the Wagner tenor world. He sang an outstanding Siegfried in Barenboim's BBC Proms Götterdämmerung,  

At the time, I wrote"The sensation of the evening was Andreas Schager. True Heldentenors are rare and a singer like this is rarer still. Schager's voice is full of natural colour and beauty, which he uses well, creating myriad nuances and shadings. His phrasing is intelligent, bringing out character and meaning.  In Wagner, it's not enough, ever, to sing words without meaning. Each time Schager sang, I felt that I was learning more about Siegfried than I'd fathomed before. Every  passage was individual, purposefully and beautifully expressed. Schager's voice is flexible, so he can do subtle changes of inflection without sacrificing line. He also has stamina. Though the part isn't a killer like that in Siegfried, it shouldn't pose problems. Schager has strong lungs but also strong technique. 

He can also act. He inhabits the part so intuitively that his body becomes an extension of his singing. His movements are instinctive and expressive.  Schager could not have had much coaching for the part since he only stepped into the Berlin production at short notice, and from what I've read, it was one devoid of Personenregie. When Schager moves, we remember that Siegfried grew up with animals in the forest, a true child of nature. Even when he dons a suit, Schager's agility suggests that the real Siegfried still lives within. The sheer joy and energy in Schager's singing makes us realize that, for Siegfried, everything is new and exciting."

Although Siegfried in Götterdämmerung, isn't quite as much of a tour de force as in Siegfried,  Parsifal in Parsifal is definitely a leap to the top, an anointment of sorts, promising a good future. 
Austrian born, Berlin resident Andreas Schager has quietly been building up a career in the smaller but more esoteric German houses, gaining the sort of experience that comes with hard work and total immersion in repertoire. He sings a lot of Wagner and did the title role in Rienzi twice, including this January in Hamburg. He's not a Met-style publicity creation and puts the hype about the Met Siegfried into perspective.  I was wracking my brain trying to remember where I'd heard Schager before and remembered the superb Mozart Magic Flute from Berlin in April 2013, where  Schager sings the first Armoured Man. It's not a huge part, but he's singing it with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

My Top 10 Hits of the 20th Century

HERE are Pierre Boulez's Top Ten Hits from the 20th Century. Anyone can play!  And should, because the fun is in the process of thinking, not in Beckmessering a result. My Top Ten Hits of the 20th Century. In Random Order. Subject to change at any moment.

Britten : Violin Concerto (more here)
Messiaen  :Et exspecto resurrectionem Mortuorum (more here)
Messiaen : Chronochromie
Messiaen : Sept Hai kai (more here)
Britten : Death in Venice

Boulez : Pli selon Pli
Janáček : Diary of One Who Disappeared

Szymanowski : Symphony no 3 (more here)
Szymanowksi: Violin Concerto
Sibelius : Luonnotar

Sibelius : Symphony no 7

Mahler : Symphony no 8
Mahler : Symphony no 10 Cooke III completion (Harding)
Janáček : Sinfonietta (first version)
Brian Ferneyhough : Shadowlines

Britten : Billy Budd

Franz Schreker : Die Gezeichneten, or Irrelohe, or Christophorous
Walter Braunfels : Jeanne d'Arc (more here)
Berg : Wozzeck
Stravinsky The Rite of Spring

Edgard Varèse : Ionization, Equatorial

Elgar : The Dream of Gerontius
Ralph Vaughan Williams : Six Songs from a Shropshire Lad
Gerald Finzi : Dies Natalis
George Butterworth : Songs from A Shropshire Lad, Banks of Green Willow

Benjamin : Into the Little Hill
Birtwistle : Thesus Games, Earth Dances (more here
Ernst Krenek : Reisebuch aus den österreichIschen Alpen (more here
K A Hartmann : Simplicius Simplicissimus (more here)

K A Hartmann : Gesangszene (more here) 

Braunfels : Die Verkündigung (more here)
Puccini : Madama Butterfly (lots on this site) 
Mahler : Das Lied von der Erde
Xenakis : 
Boulez : Derive 2

Oops that's 80+ dashed off in 20 minutes, and loads left out.

Boulez Top 10 Hits of the 20th century

Fifteen years ago, a US journalist,  John Schaefer, had a good idea. Rather than interview Pierre Boulez, ask him to pick his Top Ten Hits of 20th century music. (more here)  And to his surprise, Boulez agreed. What a fun idea! As Schaefer says  Boulez is "funny and charming and very, very smart.". Not such a surprise to those familiar with the music, the man and his many other achievements. But, in the US, Schaefer notes, he's best known as  "the inventive music director of the New York Philharmonic ......in the early 70s, or the man who recorded two of the definitive versions of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring with the Cleveland Orchestra". The divide between the US and Europe goes very deep indeed. and probably not just in music.

For his Top Ten, Boulez picks fairly safe and uncontroversial. No Henry Pousseur, no Luigi Nono, not even Messiaen, with whom Boulez is so closely connected.  Perfectly reasonable: he's addressing a generalist radio audience, giving them things they can relate to.  He's not holding a gun to anyone's head.  There is just no way that any lists of 10, or even 100, could possibly hope to be comprehensive. Almost by definition, creative arts can't be locked into artificial formats. In 20th century music, there's just so much variety that even labels like "modern" don't mean very much. Every sentient person is going to have his or her own personal list, always subject to change. And there's almost no way anyone.who makes a list can second guess someone else, or please everyone else  all of the time.

So what if Boulez leaves out something  It's his choice. "I might conduct Sibelius", Boulez once said, with a huge grin "When I'm 100". So what if Boulez doesn't conduct Sibelius? Sibelius hasn't been suppressed.  Why shouldn't people have different opinions ?  That, I think, is the essence of creativity. Until recently Schoenberg was the bogeyman  who destroyed tonality. Now, it's Boulez, though most people don't really know what he's actually done.  Just because  a lot of people think something's true, doesn't it make it true. The Bible may say God created the world in 7 days but that doesn't make science sin. So often those most obsessed with notions of suppression do a lot of suppressing themselves.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Boulez at 90 : a personal appreciation

Pierre Boulez turns 90 on March 26th. Celebrations started months ago, and will continue for a while.  There's so much interest in Boulez that it would be impossible to squash it all in at once. In January,  François-Xavier Roth conducted the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg with Pierre-Laurent Aimard.   It was with this orchestra that Boulez began the major part of his conducting career,  on the recommendation of  Hans Rosbaud, who'd come to know Boulez through Le Domaine Musical, the extraordinarily influential concert series Boulez curated in Paris. Boulez was already well established as a composer. His mentor, Olivier Messiaen, used early Boulez works to teach other students. Boulez is more than a composer who conducts; he is also a driving force in modern music. He founded Ensemble Intercontemporain and IRCAM, which has now grown into part of the new Philharmonie de Paris.  He was honoured in its keynote opening galas. French radio has done all-day Boulez marathons, no doubt followed elsewhere. In London, we had a Boulez Total Immersion, with several more concerts to come.  Time to replace the myths that have grown up around Boulez, and replace them with information.

A few years ago, I was at a private reception full of the great and good in European music. A  very difficult new piece was being premiered (not Boulez). Afterwards I was chatting to the young musician about circular breathing. We were in a corner, away from the crowd. And who should appear, leaving his entourage, making a point of quietly  encouraging the young player, who nearly fell over in surprise. Sincere encouragement, without ostentation.  Very different indeed from the myth of wild man.

Similarly, one year at Aldeburgh, Boulez charmed the Bach Mass crowd who come in every year.  That year, their buses arrived very early, and about 30 of them joined a masterclass Boulez was giving.  Noticing the influx of people even older than himself, he addressed himself directly to them and their interests. They stayed for the music, enjoying themselves.  At the end, some of them lined up to shake his hand, because no-one had told them they must not like modern music.

Until a few years ago, there was a perception that Arnold Schoenberg was the devil who destroyed western music.  But there never has been a time when music has stood still. Rameau shocked audience because he wasn't Lully. Paris  took a while to warm to Bizet or Berlioz.  Schoenberg's closest followers wrote music very different from their own. That's the real message of creativity: good composers are original, they aren't slavish copyists.  So, too, Boulez, who opens up possibilities for others to pursue in their own way. So what if, as a conductor, he programmes new repertoire?  Sir Henry Wood did that all the time. He even conducted Schoenberg.  The market is so big that no-one can do everything.  Boulez is a brilliant Messiaen conductor, but he can't stand the Turangalîla-Symphonie. The world hasn't collapsed., since others do. Nowadays we get far too much mediocrity because commercial pressures force conductors to do what the market wants, rather than what they actually care about. A conductor's duty is artistic excellence, which comes with the integrity to express things with personal vision, .

Another perceived problem with Boulez is that he's an intellectual. He's exceptionally well read and knowledgable, and a rigorous thinker. In this world where search engines make people instant experts, perhaps it's threatening that real wisdom comes from the  gradual way data is processed. and absorbed. Emotion can be expressed in many ways.  Boulez's emotion isn't worn on the sleeve, but white hot with the subtle intensity. that comes from deep engagement  As the world plunges into the barbarism of fundamentalist extremism ,we need all the more to appreciate the complexities of an intelligent mind.  Sometimes I think the rise of Creationism is affecting music history. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter how clubbable and conforming a person is, but whether they are true to their art. 

Above, a photos of  Messiaen, Loriod and Boulez in 1944. So what if Boulez scrapped with Messiaen?  As Pierre-Laurent Aimard, has said, sons need to rebel against their fathers to find themselves. Messiaen didn't stop loving Boulez one jot, and neither did Boulez stop loving him. One day, Boulez heard that Messiaen was trying to track down a   balafon, a West African xylophone. He found one, and carried the massive thing all the way up to the organ loft, where Messiaen was working.  Their bond was too great to be broken.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

What's really ahead for BBC Radio 3 ?

On Thursday, the BBC Trust published a review of BBC Music stations (full document here). So what really does the future hold for BBC Radio 3?

It's striking how much commercial competitors have had an impact on the Trust's recommendations. Hence "Action 9"  which recommends for BBC Radio 3: "While individual programme and scheduling decisions are for BBC Radio not the Trust, we think that the priority for Radio 3 should be to increase choice for radio listeners by maximising its distinctiveness and minimising similarities with other stations". What does that mean, translated into plain English?

Although it's essential that the BBC is up to date on the market as a whole, that does not mean that competitors should dictate what the BBC does. Rupert Murdoch might not like what the BBC does but he doesn't, as yet, decide the agenda. Thank goodness that the BBC Trust isn't making recommendations on news provision, or sports. "Distinctiveness" means many things. In theory one could interpret this as meaning more esoteric, adventurous programming, but that would go against the whole way BBC Radio 3 has been heading for several years.. Does this mean scrapping the whole policy of de-specialization, when Radio 3 is run by those who espouse the mindless pabulum of "Ten Pieces" and the like? So it's much more likely that what the "Action" means is that commercial stations get priority and BBC Radio 3 gets the scraps that Classic FM does not want. When Classic FM started, it wasn't competition for the BBC but now it decides what BBC Radio 3 can and can't do?

Darren Henley, Chief Executive of Arts Council England, was until recently the boss at Classic FM, while the head of BBC Radio 3, Alan Davey, has a background, not in radio or even in music but as a bureaucrat at ACE.  There have even been murmurings in some quarters that BBC Radio 3's cherished bandwith be changed, which should also serve to kill Radio 3's competitive edge.   So what is the way ahead for BBC Radio 3? I should like to see a return to serious music values, and the integrity that made BBC Radio 3 great  because it is Britain's Cultural Ambassador to the whole world, a position even more significant with new digital technology. Classic FM remains, and will remain, no more distinctive than any other local radio station. Fundamentally,  it's BBC Radio 3 that should be ring fenced, not downgraded.  Public money has been invested building up BBC Radio 3, s it's not smart to prioritize to private interests.  The photo above is George Orwell, addressing The Third Programme. Have his predictions come to, pass?

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Boulez at 90 Barbican London Pli selon pli

The Barbican's Total Immersion Day  Boulez at 90, came to a climax with Notations 1, 7, 4, 3 & 2 and Pli selon pli.  A grand climax indeed, for these are pieces scored for very grand forces indeed - yet grandeur is not the point. This palette provides a spectacular range of colours, which Boulez employs with exquisite subtlety. Although Boulez is now approaching 90, I don't think we have yet truly begun to understand the possibilities he opened up with his music. Even his propensity to revise is a reminder that ideas don't freeze but continue to inspire and develop.  With every performance, we learn, and live, more fully.

The last time I heard Pli selon pli live was when Boulez himself conducted the Ensemble Intercontemporain.  This was at the end of a long tour through Europe, so I thought he looked frail because he was tired. He kept changing his spectacles, and cut out some parts of the piece (as a composer is entitled to do).  Earlier this year, he wasn't able to attend a major concert in his honour in his home territory, Baden-Baden. That last London Pli selon pli might have been Boulez's last major performance. But the music will, I think, regenerate forever.  François-Xavier Roth, one of the many good Boulez specialists these days, was originally scheduled to conduct, but had to pull out at the last moment. Thierry Fischer conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra in his place, with Yeree Suh as soloist.

Stéphane Mallarmé's original poems described his response to Bruges, a city of canals, where the boundaries between land and water are blurred. A lot like Venice, which inspired Britten, Nono, Berio and even Erich Korngold. Hence the concept of "folds upon folds", layers upon layers. In this ambiguous, undulating landscape, familiar landmarks blur, always elusive and tantalizing. For me, anyway, it's a voyage of inward exploration.

.Pli selon Pli begins with a single explosive burst. It's significant, for the work is built on single chords and cells, every colour kept as pure as possible. As in impressionist painting, where brushstrokes shine, as in Debussy, whose influence hovers implicitly. At the core of the orchestra is the celesta, behind the conductor, five harps behind it, supplemented by xylophones, marimba, metallic bells and piano used as a percussion instrument. Also significantly, to those who remember Boulez's connection to Mahler,  the guitar and mandolin, which figure so decisively in Mahler's Symphony no 7, where they play much the same role as a human element in a  territory of dreams. Perhaps they even suggest the idea of an eternal troubadour, journeying through time (yet another of the "layers" in the piece).

With textures as diaphanous as these, every note counts: careful listening mandatory. This is chamber music on a large scale, where listening and silences are part of the process. Pli selon pli is an innovation in the art of writing for voice.  Boulez doesn't paint words,  but distils them to their essence. Sometimes words fragment into abstract sound, the poem completed as it were, by singer and players together, in invisible layers. This performance was greatly enhanced by the soloist Yeree Suh, whose experience with the piece paid off well.  She has a lighter, more baroque voice than Barbara Hannigan, closer to the moonlight qualities of Christine Schäfer, whose recording with Boulez and Ensemble Intercontemporain remains the benchmark. Suh 's high, delicate voice suggests emotional delicacy  that gives the piece its magic, yet her delivery was firm and clear: the guiding thread through this elusive labyrinth.

Mallarmé's first poem, Don (Gift), has images, but no grammar. Words are separated by spaces filled by dots, which are as essential to meaning as the words themselves. Boulez expresses this with sequences of single chords, rippling around the voice. You're listening to the spaces and thinking, while the voice stretches forwards, searching and exploring. In this first poem, meaning is suggested by images of rock-like harshness - basalt. lava, winter - contrasted with images of ephemera - foam on waves, memory, loss. The word "hiver" (winter) the single notes around the voice prickle like penetrating frost, the sea itself frozen hard. Ce lac dur oublié que hante sous le givre le transparent glacier".

The Improvisation on Une dentelle s'ablouit combines Mallarmé's puzzles with Boulez's intricate structures, this time in reverse. Like lace, the soprano's lines trill and twist - horrendously difficult to sing - but behind her the music unravels. Whispering sibilants of cymbals being brushed, a fairly long passage for maracas. Then, as if brought to life by the line flotte plus qu'il ensevelit, the flutes emerge floating the vocal line that's subsumed behind the orchestra. Deftly placed silences again - a long gap between "au creux néant" and musicien" to emphasize dormant creation. Similarly, emphasis on the word "le sein", the key word in "Selon nul ventre que le sein filial on aurait pu naître".

Mallarmé throws a wild card with multiple puns on vowels in A la Nue Accablante Tu but Boulez parries with sound that extends the vowels and cuts across them with sharp sibilants.  Again, the hard images from the beginning of the cycle, "basse de basalte et des laves", Suh's legato rising and falling like the waves of the sea implicit in the symbols of foam and shipwrecks. The orchestral cells break into patterns that might suggest water, light, churning like the motions of waves. Gradually a new perspective emerges. Trumpets, tuba, tubular bells, so reminiscent of Messiaen that it feels like a deliberate reference, especially given the meaning of this work as a whole. Perhaps Boulez is referring to the penultimate section of Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum, and to the end of Time itself. But perhaps it's also a reference to Messiaen himself, Boulez's spiritual father.  As Pierre-Laurent Aimard has said, sons defy their fathers in order to mature, it's the way of Nature. Boulez scrapped with Messiaen but their bond was so close that it could not break. This reaffirms the meaning of  le sein (the breast).  The last section, Tombeau consists of one phrase, "Un peu profound ruisseau calomnié la mort",  This, for me, gives Pli selon pli its intense emotional power.

Boulez's vocal writing doesn't get nearly the respect it deserves, perhaps because there's so much in his music that fascinates.  "Poetry beyond words" I wrote earlier this week about Birtwistle, Carter, Holt and Anderson at the Wigmore Hall (see more here).  Boulez's music takes off  above and beyond mere words, opening out new possibilities of feeling and of expression.  As a man, Boulez is exceptionally well read and interested in art (he collects Paul Klee) . In an era where the very word "intellectual" is  a term of abuse, we need people like Boulez more than ever.

Friday, 20 March 2015

ENO Annual Review 2013/14

The English National Opera published its Annual Review this week. Surprise! Contrary to expectations, it's in the black!  Just. The year 2013/14 ended with an an unrestricted surplus of £208,000 following box office income of £9,684,000 across 117 performances (2012/13 = £9,678,000 across 132 performances). This represents a box office uplift of 11.4% per performance, and an increase in audience numbers of 11%. Download the annual review here  (It's not a line by line account)

A quick summary :
  • Average audience capacity for ENO productions was 75% in the 2,358 seat London Coliseum
  • 117 performances of 13 ENO productions, 8 new and 5 revivals, including 1 world premiere, 1 UK premiere and 3 operas by living composers (Sunken Garden, The Perfect American, Satyagraha)
  • 201,361 audience members saw an ENO production at the London Coliseum or at the Barbican, with 70,000 attending for the first time
  • 173,102 audience members saw an ENO production at one of our international co-producing partners. 11 productions opened around the world in 7 countries
  • 302 performances of ENO shows took place in London and around the world 
  • ENO is the world’s leading co-producer, having now worked with more than 35 opera companies and festivals globally
  • ENO Screen was launched in February 2014 with the live broadcast of Peter Grimes. This screening was attended by over 15,000 audience members around the UK and Ireland and is the highest grossing UK screening ever of an opera by a British composer
  • 88% of singers and conductors were British born, trained or resident
  • A third of our tickets across the year were available for £30 or under, with prices starting at £5
  • Over 57,000 tickets to an ENO performance sold at £25 or less
  • 24,000 members of Access All Arias – a scheme for students and under-30s which offers significant ticket discounts. 2,833 Access All Arias tickets were purchased during 13/14 financial year
  • Secret Seats was launched in 13/14 financial year - at least 50 seats available at every performance for £20 (sometimes situated in top price areas of the house). 4,441 Secret Seats were purchased
  • 2,000 tickets were sold to Opera Undressed – a special scheme aimed at new opera-goers. 35% of attendees have returned to another production since coming to an Opera Undressed event
  • 411,235 audience members attended one of 235 performances at the London Coliseum
  • As well as ENO productions, the London Coliseum welcomed 13 visiting companies and productions and hosted the British Fashion Awards for the first time in December 2013
  • 15 exceptionally talented British singers received bespoke training and development through ENO Harewood Artists
  • 3,874 young people from 23 London State schools participated in ENO Opera Squad
  • Over 1.8 million unique visitors to our website – representing year-on-year growth of 40%
  • 93% growth in our Twitter followers, 65% growth in Facebook page likes
  • Three productions broadcast on BBC Radio 3, reaching over 450,000 listeners

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Poetry beyond words - Nash Ensemble Wigmore Hall

The Nash Ensemble's 50th Anniversary Celebrations at the Wigmore Hall were crowned by a recital that typifies the Nash's visionary mission.  Above, the dearly-loved founder, Amelia Freeman,  a quietly revolutionary figure in  her own way, who has immeasurably enriched the cultural life of this country. Ostensibly, the concert featured some of the best modern British composers, plus Elliott Carter, an honorary Brit, since his music has been so passionately championed in this country.  But a deeper perusal of the programme revealed even greater depths.. "Poetry beyond Words" I thought, since most of the pieces transformed their original sources in text and visual images into exquisitely original works of art. Lieder ohne Worte: an affirmation of the life force that is creativity.

Simon Holt's Shadow Realm  (1983) gets its title from a poem by Magnus Enzensberger (a favourite of Hans Werner Henze).  ".....for a while/ i step out of my shadow/for a while.....".  Holt's music penetrates the elusive mysteries of the text, going beyond the words to express its spirit. It's structured in two halves, "shadowing" one another, but scored for an unusual combination of clarinet, harp and cello, creating a three-way conversation  creating a further shadow around the duality of its conception. It's a miniature, only eight minutes long, but its concision is so elegant that it puts to shame many works which drown in verbose meandering. Holt was only 25 when it was written: a remarkable original achievement by a composer whose self-effacing manner belies a mind of great originality. It says much about the Nash Ensemble that they commissioned it, long before Holt became famous.

The poems of Lorine Niedecker (1903-1970) pack intense meaning into fragmentary, haiku-like lines, some of which don't even follow grammatical syntax. But therein lies their beauty.(that's her in the photo). Harrison Birtwistle's Nine Settings of Lorine Niedecker (1998-2000), another Nash commission, distils each poem with a kind of almost homeopathic concentration, communicating the spirit of the poems, far more creatively  than mere word-painting.  Claire Booth sings arching lines which reach upwards and outwards, sustaining the legato, while the cello weaves around, without interruption, coming into its own only when the voice falls silent, like an elusive echo, Eventually, the poems seem to move away, beyond human hearing. The music gradually slows down, voice and cello retreating together with melancholy "footsteps", each note expressed with solemn dignity.  Birtwistle recognizes the fundamental structure of Niedecker's text, but emphasizing syllables and single words, rather than phrases. " thru bird/start, wing/drip, weed/drift", though in the text the words are joined. Perhaps this captures the sense of water, dripping quietly in some vast stillness. Yet it's also typically Birtwistlean puzzle-making,  creating patterns within patterns, layers within layers. Beautiful moments linger in the memory, like the "You, ah you, of mourning doves", where the poet plays with the word "you", which sounds like dove call yet also evokes human meaning, while the composer, for once, infuses the word "mourning" drawing its resonance out, like the cooing of the bird.

One of the great joys of Julian Anderson's music is that he's an extraordinarily visual composer. Graphic images inspire his music and enrich its interpretation. His Alhambra Fantasy (2000) was stimulated by Islamic architecture, The Book of Hours (2005) by the miniatures in  Trés riches heures du Duc de Berry, and even Symphony (2003), despite its non-committal title, owes much to the paintings of Sibelius's friend, Axel Gallen-Kallela. Yet again, the Nash Ensemble recognized his unique gift almost from the start.  Poetry Nearing Silence (1997) was inspired by  The Heart of a Humument, a book of paintings by Tom Phillips, where random words from an obscure novel were picked at random, then adventurously illustrated.  See more here.  Just as Phillips transforms words into visuals, Anderson transforms ideas into abstract music. Eight highly individual segments unfold over 12 minutes. Each has a title, borrowed from the book, though the settings as such aren't literal.  In the third segment "my future as the star in a film of my room", one of the violinists plays percussion (a ratchet), which whirrs like the cranking of an old-fashioned camera. In the Wigmore Hall, the sound is decidely disturbing, but that's perhaps Anderson's intention : we can't take what we hear for granted. In theory, the segments travel round Europe - Vienna, Bohemia, Carpathia, Paris. Far away landscapes of the imagination: perhaps we hear references to Janáček's Sinfonietta, crazily buoyant but cheerful. The Nash play at being folk musicians, imitating alphorns and shepherd's pipes.  Everything in joyous transformation!  Gradually, the clarinet (Richard Hosford) draws things together, as silence descends.  Although Anderson doesn't employ voice in this piece, it feels like song, because the instrumentation has such personality.

The recital began with the world premiere of  Richard Causton's Piano  Quintet (2015), dedicated to the Nash. It's lively and inventive. Violins and viola tease cello and piano, provoking and taunting, whiling off in all directions.  Gradually the piano (Tim Horton)  restores harmony with a gracious cantilena.  Peter Maxwell Davies's String Quintet (2014) also received its world premiere. Four movements, each with a different mood and form, the Chacony being the most vivid. Before that, Elliott Carter's Poems of Louis Zukofsky (2008), with Claire Booth and Richard Hosford.  Carter expresses the shape of the poems as they are laid out in print. There are silences in poems which create an impact by the way they look on the page denser scoring where needed, the vocal line calling out into aural space.  Zukofsky's copyright holder issues stern warnings against quotation and use.  A very different attitude to the immensely rewarding creative inter-relationship between different art forms which made this concert so rewarding. 

If I haven't written much about the performances, that's because the Nash Ensemble are always good, and reliable.  The players on this occasion were Tim Horton (piano), Philippa Davies (flute), Richard Hosford (clarinet), David Adams (violin), Michael Gurevich (violin), Lawrence Power (viola), James Boyd (violin), Björg Lewis (cello), Adrian Brendel (cello), Lucy Wakefield (harp) and Claire Booth (soprano), and Lionel Friend (conductor).  This article also appears in Opera Today.

This concert was recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 13th June 2015

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Sibelius raw, vibrant Kullervo, choreographed

Jean Sibelius; Kullervo op 7, 1892  is a work so powerful that it seems to break out from the restraints of orchestral performance. Even now, the piece seems surprisngly modern.. Musically, it's explosive; fabulously "primitive" sounds which presage The Rite of Spring. Wild, whirling passages that suggest a driving snowstorm, a relentless battle to the death and implacable doom. Kullervo, whose story is told in the Kalevala, was an abused, brutalized child, whose inheritance was stolen, and he was cruelly mistreated by his uncle. He sees a lovely maiden in the forest and wants to posses her. Since he has no social graces, he rapes her. Then she tells her story, how she'd become lost in the forest while picking strawberries. She turns out to be his long-lost sister. All this, against a background of primeval Nature, in an unyielding climate where summers are fleeting. Perhaps Kullervo is the first anti-hero of this type in literature, and possibly in music. Sibelius may have realized how shockingly savage it was, so ahead of its time.  Although he loved the piece, he withdrew it. It wasn't heard again for nearly 70 years..

Now Kullervo has been choreographed by the Helsinki dance company led by Tero Saarinen, and available on arte.tv   Definitely worth watching, for it captures the raw, physical spirit of the music extremely well. The set is at once modern and primeval. Sharp angular lines evoking the arctic landscape,and the harsh nature of the drama that unfolds and the angular music itself.  Metallic surfaces, harsh lighting: this staging suggest at once both the ancient nature of the saga and the brave new world of technological innovation that is modern Finland.  

In the first two sections,this dichotomy is evoked by two principal dancers. The female dancer is dressed in blue and white, the Finnish colours, crisp and pure against a background of earth tones and darkness. Her movements dart across the stage with the freedom of a wild bird. It's easy to see why the male dancer is fascinated. In the third section, where Kullervo meets his sister, the focus is on the singing. But thereafter, the orchestra surges forth, and the choreography becomes wonderfully expressive. When Kullervo goes to battle, in atonement for his sin, the male dancer is surrounded by an army of menacing men, closing in on him  in his struggle - wonderfully rigged, athletic movements. 

In the passage "The Silence of the Women" a group of female dancers undulate. Their simple white shifts as pristine as lilies, yet their movements are grave and solemn, as if they're in mourning for lost innocence. When Kullervo dies, the dancer representing him is alone.  He's half-naked, like the day he was born, in a much more innocent time. His arms flail, his body twists. Suddenly his arms swing in wild circles, as if propelled by invisible winds. The "Northern Lights" behind him become blindingly bright. The dancer is caught in some strange vortex. The whole stage turns, and the dancer moves away while the ensemble, barely individuated, moves like a dark mass centre stage. Suddenly, the light flares up once more, and the dancer is seen, It is lit so brightly that you can see the muscles in his stomach contort.  Such ends the tale of the cursed Kullervo......

Musical values are very high. Jukka-Pekka Saraste conducts  thje Finnish National Opera Orchestra,  which is top notch. Ville Rusanen sings Kullervo, while Samuli Poutanen dances the part. Johanna Rusanen-Kartano sings the sister, while the part is danced by Terhi Räsänen. The choreographer is Tero Saarinen.

Photo credits : Finnish National Opera / Finnish National Ballet / Sakari Viika 2015

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Death and the mother

Lady Caroline Lamb (1785-1828), the novelist, with a racy sex life.  Way ahead of her time.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Spring ! Oxford Lieder Song Weekend - April

Fresh and lively - the Oxford Lieder April Song Weekend, Holywell Music Room, 10-12th April

FRIDAY 10 APRIL 7.30pm Sophie Daneman (soprano) Stephan Loges (baritone) Sholto Kynoch (piano) Schumann: Myrthen A star team for Schumann's most substantial song cycle, Myrthen; his wedding present to his beloved Clara, whose songs also feature in this programme.


Young Artist Platform Six exceptional young duos give 40-minute recitals, hoping to be the next Oxford Lieder Young Artist Platform winners. Expect a very high level of performance from these artists on the brink of major careers. Full details online. The recitals will be adjudicated by Sophie Daneman and Stephan Loges. Dinner will be available at the Vaults Garden Café in the University Church.

Mary Bevan (soprano) Sholto Kynoch (piano) 'Songs of Mayhem and Madness' Mary Bevan, one of the UK's most exciting young sopranos, performs songs by Purcell, Brahms, Schumann, Schubert and others.

1.30pm-6.30pm Masterclass given by Sophie Daneman and Stephan Loges, working with the duos who auditioned on Saturday.

8pm Alessandro Fisher (tenor) Ricardo Gosalbo (piano) Schumann: Dichterliebe Alessandro and Ricardo were winners of the 2013 Young Artist Platform.

More details HERE

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Can Scriabin drive you to murder ?

Can Scriabin drive you to murder? In Hong Kong, a man is on trial for murdering his parents, He invited them round for dinner, and allegedly murdered them, serving their remains up for a meal with a friend. Their heads were found by the police, who came round inquiring about their disappearance. In the tiny flat, there were two commercial freezers and  lots of lunchboxes stuffed with body parts. This week, a court-appointed psychiatrist testified that 31-year-old Henry Chau had listened to  Scriabin's “Vers La Flamme” (Towards the Flame) every night for a month before killing his father Chau Wing-ki, 65, and his mother Siu Yuet-yee, 63, on March 1, 2013.

Chau told how he saw flames around the time of the killings and was convinced the world would be consumed by fire. "The music intensified the images of fire and flame in his mind. He believed the world was going to end and he could not get away from it. The music was like repeating the words to him every day," the doctor told the jury.(thanks to Dennis Wu for sharing)

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Music Theatre Wales goes international

Music Theatre Wales goes international!  Britain's most adventurous smaller opera company presents two productions, on the same day on opposite sides of the world. On April 2nd, Philip Glass The Trial opens at Theater Magdeburg, Germany, while Mark Anthony Turnage's Greek opens at the 2015 Tongyeong International Music Festival, South Korea  Both pieces are classic MTW. Glass wrote The Trial  (reviewed here) specially for the company, who have championed his work almost since the company started more than 25 years ago, including outstanding productions like In the Penal Colony (reviewed here). Turnage's Greek is also a MTW classic. Greek was shocking in 1988/9 because it was a primal scream of protest. Although it's set in the East End of London, it's based on Oedipus, a drama so universal that it's inspired many retellings.  Korea should have no problems connecting.

Two productions 5000 miles apart ?  Ever resourceful, MTW divided the work between two conductor/directors. Michael McCarthy's directing The Trial , with Hermann Dukek conducting, and Michael Rafferty's conducting Greek, with Rhian Hutchings as revival director. Both McCarthy and Rafferty have worked on both productions, so they'll be good.  Here's a link to the Music Theatre Wales website, for more information.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Ground-breaking The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny Royal Opera House

Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny at the Royal Opera Hall absolutely breaks new ground, revealing the sophisticated layers of meaning inherent in the opera. Yes, it's political, yes it's about capitalism, consumerism, greed, materialism and false values and the way such things wreak havoc, like the typhoon that flattens Benares. Why Benares, the "Holy City",and not wicked Mahagonny ?

For the first time I realized this had deeper meaning than simply irony.  In a world where "you choose to kick or be kicked", Jenny Smith chickens out and kicks Jimmy McIntyre. Yet he bears no resentment. When Kurt Streit sang Jimmy's death cell soliloquy,  I thought of Billy Budd, redeemed because he dies without rancour.. Some will scream in rage at the execution, where Jimmy hangs as if crucified, but it's  a perfectly valid reading of the score. Brecht and Weill lived in a supposedly Christian society which didn't practice the principal tenets of the faith. Three years after the opera was completed, Weimar descended into the Third Reich. Untrammeled excess and its counterpart of evil. It's not for nothing Weill writes hymn-like tunes into the music. The people of Mahagonny worship Mammon. It's also not for nothing that the three founders of the city pull the strings. As the man behind me perceptively said "The un-Holy Trinity", one of whom is actually called Trinity Moses, a dig at other religions, too.  This Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny is not only true to Brecht and Weill but confronts the very evil that makes societies corrupt. Far more danderous than just another parable about greed.

The un-Holy Trinity jump out of a truck, itself a metaphor for consumerism, a machine that keeps moving but that's hollow and can be filled by anything, including fugitives.   The truck is in Brecht's original libretto but lends itself to modern imagery. The backdrop of multi-coloured boxes looks like a container park. Think Sangatte, in Calais, where illegal immigrants hide, smuggling themselves into trucks in the hope of a better life. Wetbacks have usually paid bribes to escape, and often end up worse than whence they came. So Jimmy and his friends from Alaska arrive in Mahagonny with briefcases as shiny as their dreams.

This production also makes far more of Alaska than usual, and for good reason. Alaska stands for pure, unspoiled Nature, where hardship leads to rewards, not only in terms of money but in terms of the true riches of friendship. Sparkly objects flutter down from the ROH ceiling: images of fool's gold, snowfall, and the cleansing nature of the typhoon rainstorm.  We see glimpses of Alaska in the background, pristine in black and white, in contrast the feverish, unnatural neon of Mahagonny, where night and day merge in a drunken haze.There's plenty of colour in Mahagonny.  This set can be a visual feast for the eyes, but, like gluttony, this feast is poisoned. The men watch the girls dance  in a box lit in lurid hues, with fake palm trees and a Liberace pianist who "tickles the ivories" rather than plays. It's all a con to separate men from their money. The woman make money, but pay an even more savage price, invisibly. But all that matters to the crowd is delusion. "Ah ! that's what I call Eternal Art".Unfortunately, some audiences prefer tack to real art.

In Mahagonny, even the Seven Deadly Sins are shortchanged. Like crap commercial advertising, the guiding principles are reduced to four, gluttony, lust, fighting and alcoholic stupor, each neatly vignetted. A particularly vivid Fatty from Peter Hoare in a fat suit. Alaska Wolf Joe is a comically puny-looking  Neal Davies. His moment doesn't last long. He's wiped out in seconds by Trinity Moses (Willard White), who wields a big red punching glove. The game is rigged. Besides, the real fight is not fisticuffs, but the Trial, equally rigged. Killing people is a lesser crime than not paying for three bottles of whiskey. And so Jimmy must die.

This production, directed by John Fulljames and his team, Es Devlin, Christina Cunningham, Bruno Poet , Finn Ross and Arthur Pita, operates on so many different levels., and so radically that it puts to shame the appallingly superficial Los Angeles production which seems to treat the opera as some kind of LA in-joke.  The La Fura dels Baus production, from Madrid five years ago, at least had an edge, and is definitely the better choice. Calixto Bieito, with his political acuiity, could do something really disturbing.  But for ROH audiences, John Fulljames delivers an intelligent interpretation which shows genuine understanding of Brecht and  Weill and their insistence that opera should deal with real issues even though the setting is fantasy.  This is a Rise and fall of Mahagonny which anyone seriously interested in Brecht and Weill could learn a lot from.

Musically, though, this was a bumpy ride.  Mark Wigglesworth's conducting veered from very good to less clearly defined. Weill uses a variety of genres to illustrate the universal relevance of the story, just as Brecht mixes Mahagonny with Benares, Alabama and Havana, Katmandu and Pensacola.

Anne Sofie von Otter has long specialized in singing cabaret, as well as classical, and her Weill songs are highly regarded.  Deservedly, she landed the part of Leocadia, Widow Begbick. She does the spikey, spider-like body language perfectly. But like Leocadia, her voice isn't what it used to be. Sometimes she sings extremely well, getting the slime in the legato. She saved her best work for the ending when the character's venality is at last revealed.  Willard White has been singing Trinity Moses probably more than anyone else in the business now, but his voice,too, is a shadow of what it once was. Neither Brecht nor Weill were bothered about showpiece singing, so it doesn't matter all that much. Suffice that we were  again able to hear and see von Otter and White and respect them for what they could do.

Kurt Streit's Jimmy varied, too, but for good reason. He was superb in his transcendent last soliloquy, rather less forceful earlier on. Yet that, too, is part of Jimmy's personality. He seems like a wimp at first but reveals his true colours when everything's against him. It's not the butch who are strong, but the meek.  I was also impressed with Christine Rice, normally a bit too upper class to be playing a whore. Yet her froideur worked extremely well for Jenny, who does sex for a living, not for pleasure. She could save Jimmy, but like Judas Iscariot, betrays him in his hour of need.

Darren Jeffery sang Bank Account Bill, Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts sang Jack O'Brien, Robert Clark was the piano player, Hubert Francis was Toby, and the booming voiceover was Paterson Joseph. The Girls were Anna Burford, Lauren Fagan, Anush Hovhannisyan, Stephanie Marshall, Meeta Raval and Harriet Williams.

Andris Nelsons : Concertgebouw Amsterdam Sibelius, Shostakovich

Sibelius and Shostakovich in Amsterdam: Anne-Sophie Mutter (violin), Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Andris Nelsons, Het Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, 5th March 2015

Conventional wisdom has for over half a century suggested that Shostakovich’s mighty Tenth Symphony depicts the tyranny of Stalinism, both as a a construct on the evil of society and on the man himself. Whether or not Shostakovich actually wrote the symphony after Stalin’s death (the pianist Tatiana Nikolayeva has said she witnessed hearing parts of the work as early as 1951) this performance with Andris Nelsons and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra posed an interesting question: What happens when a conductor born after, and outside, the events which gave birth to such a personal and tragic work seems so intent on revisionism? Great music, of course, can survive an element of re-interpretation - Kurt Sanderling, for example, viewed Shostakovich’s Eighth very differently than either Kondrashin or Mravinsky - but Nelsons' view of the Tenth sometimes felt distinctly lacking in any sense of personal or wider meaning, and occasionally seemed lost altogether.

The huge first movement should make you feel you have travelled somewhere. Nelsons, an accomplished Brucknerian, was certainly aware of the architecture holding the structure together, and the climax had a cumulative power, but as the movement receded towards where we had begun one wondered where the sense of struggle was. In part this movement is an insidious waltz - albeit one that never quite takes the form of a dance - but too often the conductor was caught flatfooted and out-of-step with an historical past, or placing the symphony in one in which it never belonged. He was caught out again in the second movement. Shostakovich marks the score Allegro but Nelsons’ tempo was way off that marking (indeed, at almost six minutes this has to have been the slowest performance I’ve ever heard, in concert, or indeed on record, of this movement). There may well be a convincing argument for making this movement sound so rhythmically balanced and square (it actually felt more like a march), but Shostakovich crams within it a huge amount which was simply glossed over here. The orchestra did indeed begin fortissimo, but Shostakovich then goes on to add a further fifty crescendos (amid only two diminuendos) and at such a glacial pace the evenness of the orchestral dynamics made much of this go missing. The imposing gait simply added to the already tremendous weight of the orchestral sound; what we ended up with was less a portrait of evil and more an adventure in orchestral sonority, less Shostakovichian masterwork, and more brushstrokes in crotchets and semi-quavers.

The third movement risked a lot, and the dividends paid off it should be said. Returning to the failed waltz of the first movement, Shostakovich attempts a second one though it is even more macabre. Resolution is never quite achieved here, the music stumbling over itself in a frantic state of hysteria and mania. In part, Nelsons was much more flexible with his tempi, this being much closer to the Allegretto marking Shostakovich wrote, and the enormous weight of the ‘cellos and basses didn’t feel as uncomfortable (and disfiguring) as they had done in the Allegro. Although this movement for many conjures up Mahler and Das Lied von der Erde the sepulchral horn sound that Nelsons got from the Concertgebouw seemed much closer to Mussorgsky’s tenebrous Catacombs: there was a horror and abject sense of loss here that few performances articulate this well.

The Finale, too, was successful, Nelsons able to replicate the slowness of Shostakovich’s scoring into something genuinely terrifying whilst keeping the music from collapsing into episodic sectionalism. Because the fast music in this movement never really goes anywhere conductors can often seem non-plussed by the lack of resolution to it. Nelsons could have fallen into this trap but instead he chose to bring Shostakovich’s Tenth into a world much closer to Nielsen: snare drums and timpani seemed involved in a battle of wills, defiant against growling, resonant lower strings that came shuddering up from the floorboards. If there had been desolation in the woodwind at the beginning, there was triumphant optimism in the final brass fortissimos.

This concert had opened with Anne-Sophie Mutter as the soloist in Sibelius’ solitary Violin Concerto. Since I last heard Mutter play this work, probably some 15 years ago in London, both her tone and sense of engagement with the concerto have changed markedly. Her sound is huge, so much so that as I listened to her navigate this treacherous work I was often reminded of David Oistrakh. Apart from the richness and roundness of her string sound, she shares with him an unusual ability to confront a work with unassuming honesty. Her peerless virtuosity (and this really was a performance that was technically faultless) allows her to focus on the music and she does so with a sense of engagement and intimacy. Rapid string crosses, up-bowed staccato double-stopping, tonally perfect octave runs, arpeggios and harmonics were all heroic. The sheer size of her tone (especially on the G string which sings so lyrically) does sometimes come at the expense of this concerto’s oft-suggested tundra of chilliness and polar-capped sunlight, but she compensates for a sometimes warmer sound picture by giving the impression of imperviousness and in few performances do you get Tovey’s ideal of a “polonaise for polar bears”. For such a symphonic concerto, Nelsons and the Concertgebouw provided outstandingly rich, sonorous orchestral support. Mutter’s encore was big-boned, luxurious Bach, the Sarabande from the D Minor Partita.

Whilst it would be true to say that Nelsons’ Shostakovich Tenth remains something of an enigma (and very probably a work in progress for this young and immensely charismatic conductor) there is no question that he revels in what the Concertgebouw can do for him. The playing was very special, with fabulously rich strings and brass and woodwind sections other orchestras really can’t compete with. The hall itself gives such beautiful balance and proportion to every section of this orchestra - nothing is ever occluded or overwhelming. A memorable night in Amsterdam!

Marc Bridle

This concert is being broadcast on Sunday 15 March at 14:15 via NPO Radio 4

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

New CEO at ENO ? The questions

When the Arts Council England placed sanctions on the ENO, it said it wanted someone "qualifed" to take over as CEO.  So they've appointed Cressida Pollock. A good journalist would ask, who is she, and what can she bring to the job?  There isn't much on the net about her as she's relatively junior. Her Linked In profileFour jobs in 5 years -  with gaps - one of them as Summer Associate and two running parallel.  Even Henriette Gõtz  had more relevant background.  It's not paramount that the incumbent should have arts experience, but it  would help as long as they can demonstrate dedication and leadership. Age, too isn't necessarily a problem (Pollock is 32), but this is a job that involves political machination as well as financial acumen.  Maybe Pollock is a genius, but the challenges facing the ENO are so great that it would take someone truly amazing to sort them out.  Unfortunately the press are supine, regurgitating press releases instead of asking questions. What is really going on?

Monday, 9 March 2015

Tight and taut : Unsuk Chin Alice in Wonderland Barbican London

Unsuk Chin's Alice in Wonderland  returned to the Barbican, London, shape-shifted like one of Alice's adventures.  The BBC Symphony Orchestra was assembled en masse, almost teetering off stage, creating a sense of tension. "Eat me, Drink me". Was Lewis Carroll on hallucinogens or just  good at channelling the crazy world of the subconscious?   Unsuk Chin's take on Carroll, with David Henry Hwang's libretto, emphasizes the madcap mania of the original, where nothing is what it seems and Reason is Irrelevant. This Alice in Wonderland is anything but prim.  It's zany, anarchic and subversive, and also hilariously funny.

With her music, Unsuk Chin builds ambitious architecture, vast grand edifices that stun by their sheer scale. This new version, with Netia Jones's semi-staging and Lloyd Moore's re-orchestration, reveals the strong, basic structure, releasing its manic, kinetic energy.  Jones's direction and designs buzz with wit and colour. Video (Lightmap and Netia Jones) is good at depicting impossibilities, like the vanishing Cheshire cat and his enduring grin. The interplay between video and reality is so good that it's quite unsettling, which amplifies meaning.  The illustrations are by Ralph Steadman: no trace of twee. When the Mouse (Christopher Lemmings) is condemned,  the crowd shout "Disneyfy him!" A fate worse tha death.

Kent Nagano conducted Unsuk Chin's original score in Munich eight years ago, but not all houses have such resources. Thus Los Angeles Opera commissioned a version that's easier to carry off and tour. Lloyd Moore is sensitive to the spirit of Chin's original. By reducing the number of players, especially in the strings, the inherent liveliness in the music is liberated. The choruses (BBC Singers, Tiffin Boys Choir)  are still big, though not quite the 40-60 singers specified in the original  The emphasis is thus on the quality of Chin's instrumentation rather than sheer volume. Chin has a passion for imaginative use of unusual instruments. The score employs "kitchenalia" which means just that - alarm clocks, wind chimes, tweet and crackles and pops. Vivid combinations, such as when the violins  are plucked, extending the sound of the mandolin. In Scene Two, The Pool of Tears, the image of water is created by celli and basses, bowed with maximum depth, creating a drone that's both mournful and mysterious. The Caterpillar sings, wordlessly. He, whose very existence depends on changing shape and form, is represented by a single instrument, the bass clarinet, which, oddly enough, looks like a metal caterpillar. Baldur Brönnimann conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra. He's a new music specialist,. alive to the quirky possibilities this music offers.

Unsuk  Chin's vocal lines are counter-intuitive to syntax, often also running counter to the orchestra. Text turns to tongue twister. Yet again, that's part of the concept of shape-changing instability.  It's not easy to carry off well, though.  Rachele Gilmour sang Alice in Los Angeles, which is perhaps why she was cast again in London. Andrew Watts sang the White Rabbit, Badger and March Hare in Munich and in LA, and is perhaps the most important countertenor in his field, and the most experienced. He was divine, capturing the jagged edges of his parts with demented aplomb, not only with his unique voice but also with his body language. His White Rabbit camps along, prissily wiggling his large rabbit behind: totally in character. A tour de force.

Marie Arnet's Cheshire Cat was sung with spirit and spice. Perhaps the cat knows that the way to survive in this crazy world is to grin, even when all else fades.  Jane Henschel was in superb form. Her Queen of Spades was gleefully wicked, laced with shrill but well controlled vitriol, and she made it sound like fun.  Dietrich Henschel sang the Mad Hatter, using the metallic tension in his voice to good effect. Impressive Christopher Lemmings Mouse, Dormouse and Invisible Man. Stephen Richardson, a British stalwart, sang the King of Hearts, while the other smaller parts were taken by American singers, from the LA production: Andrew Craig Brown, Rafael Moras and Nicholas Brownlee.

This concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3's Live in Concert on Saturday 11th July at 7.30 pm and available for 30 days after broadcast on the BBC Radio 3 website and BBC I Player Radio

This review also appears in Opera Today, where there is also a review of the Munich production. Please see my other posts on Unsuk Chin and on new music and stagecraft

Unsuk Chin Alice in Wonderland Munich and thoughts thereon

Tonight, a brilliant new version of Unsuk Chin's Alice in Wonderland at the Barbican, London. My review is HERE..

Meanwhile, a link to the review in Opera today of the original production, in Munich in 2007.  Opera Today is an excellent source of background material. This review is informative and  useful. The opera was originlly created for Los Angeles, but didn't eventuate, so the Bavarian State Opera took it on instead, conducted by Kent Nagano and directed by Achim Freyer. A film of this production was shown at the Barbican's Unsuk Chin Total Immersion some years ago. It's the one where the characters are dolls with giant see-through heads. transparent heads. When Alice realizes it's all a scam she removes hers. "Off with their heads!" in every sense. I liked the Freyer production a lot, but was less impressed by the music.

This time round, at the Barbican, my views have changed again .What a difference! The new semi-staging, by Netia Jones, and the new orchestration, by Lloyd Moore, reveal the true depths of this opera. Unsuk Chin's good at building vast grand edifices.  Created for Los Angeles and premiered there last year, the new production clarifies the strong internal structure. The music emerges as an elegant puzzle , rather like one of M C Escher's architectural conundrums, where stairways connect or don't connect, and corridors lead to dead ends or new beginnings.

A lot like the concept behind David Henry Hwang's libretto, where Alice enters a surreal world where nothing makes sense, and every assumption is turned on its head. Or "Off with it! " as the Queen might scream. Much zanier than Lewis Carroll, though it makes one wonder what he was drinking and eating. Not, most thankfully, Walt Disney's Alice in Wonderland. Indeed, when the Mouse is condemned, he's sentenced to be "Disneyfied", a fate worse than death.  This time round, the energy is far more manic, and far more surreal.  I loved the crazy humour in the instrumentation (another Unsuk Chin trademark)  Last time round, there was a family complaining that this wasn't the Alice in Wonderland they'd taken their kids to see. This time there was a warning "Not recommended for under 12's". Conversely, perversely, I think under 12's would respond positively to the anarchic ,mayhem.  Pity the show started at 7.30, not, as originally planned, at 7. which meant it ended very late.  By the time most people commuted home, it was way past bedtime. 

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Remembering Cléoma Breaux

Remembering Cléoma Breaux Falcon (1905-41), and the music tradition she stood for, and the era in which she lived.  Cléoma was a tiny little woman, barely five feet tall but what a personality! The Breaux family were the first Cajun musicians to be recorded, as soon as technology made it possible. The whole family was talented but Cléoma stood out, with her bright, clear voice and her assertive delivery. She toured in Cajun country and also appeared as far as California. Her career was cut short when she was run over by a  car: for the last years of her life she was in excruciating pain, though she continued to sing and play when she could. In the photo, she's seen with her husband Joe Falcon, also a musician, and their adopted daughter, who used to dance at their gigs.  Here's the classic Hip et taiau, (aka Hippy Tai o) still performed in various new forms, The video is a compilation, not of the lady herself. Please see my other posts on Women feisty by following the label below

Friday, 6 March 2015

Barbarians at the Gates

Nimrod the warrior guarding the gates of a palace in Assyria, now destroyed  God destroyed the Assyrians, leaving a reminder of what happens to even the most powerful, violent empires. So what has anyone, who believes in God, any God, have to fear from stones in the desert ?

Ghana Freedom Song

Today is Ghana Independence Day, let's us cheer !  Above the leaders of theIndepence movement. Below the iconic Ghana Freedom Song. Or rather the expurgated version, since the colonial government still managed to suppress the original. Read more about The Secret History of Ghana Freedom Song HERE  Original archive work - you won't find anywhere else !

Garsington Opera 2015 bookings open

The Pavilion at Garsington Opera at Wormsley, lit up magically on a summer night. Once experienced, never forgotten. (photo credit Clive Barda)  Booking starts soon (booking for members and affiliates has already started.

Mozart Così fan tutte (from 5th June)  Shouild be brilliant, as garsington is an ideal Mozart house
Fiordiligi Andreea Soare
Dorabella Kathryn Rudge
Guglielmo Ashley Riches
Ferrando Robin Tritschler
Despina Lesley Garrett
Don Alfonso Neal Davies
Conductor Douglas Boyd
Director John Fulljames

Richard Strauss : Intermezzo (starts 6th June)
Christine Kate Valentine
Robert Storch Mark Stone
Anna Ailish Tynan
Baron Lummer Sam Furness
The Notary Benjamin Bevan
The Notary’s Wife Sarah Redgwick
Stroh Oliver Johnston
A Commercial Counsellor James Cleverton
A Legal Counsellor Gerard Collett
A Singer Barnaby Rea
Resi Anna Sideris
Conductor Jac van Steen
Director Bruno Ravella

 Britten Death in Venice (starts 21 June)

Gustav von Aschenbach Paul Nilon
The Traveller William Dazeley
The Voice of Apollo Tom Verney
Hotel Porter Joshua Owen Mills
English Clerk Henry Manning
Conductor Steuart Bedford
Director Paul Curran

 Shakepeare, with Mendelssohn's music : A Midsummers Nights Dream (starts 16th June)
Royal Shakespeare Company under the creative guidance of Gregory Doran
Conductor Douglas Boyd
RSC Actors

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Free, online, Glyndebourne 2015

Free, and online, on demand internationally - Glyndebourne 2015 productions will be available via the Telegraph from May 24th.  Carmen, L'heure espagnole and l'enfant et les sortilèges, (June 21st for a week), Die Entführung aus dem Serail (from 9th July), The Rape of Lucretia (from 9th August)  The Ravel double bill is brilliant ! I was at the premiere - read more HERE. and an interview with Laurent Pelly.  I was a lot less impressed by The Rape of Lucretia, though., Full details of this year's Glyndebourne Festival HERE. New productions like Poliuto and Saul aren't included but that's fair enough.

On-line streaming like this is, I think, the way forward. In-house seat sales aren't enough. HD broadcasts were brilliant when they first came out, but they aren't the best way to do things. Cinema is old technology, gradually giving way to new forms of delivery, like Netflix.  Cinema chains don't make money out of the arts, so they're not inclined to market well.  In any case, why go to a one-off broadcast in some smelly cinema when you can watch where you want, when you want, in comfort, alone or with friends  Broadcasts are horribly expensive, so if cinema sales don't sell, they are a seriously dangerous gamble. John Berry of the ENO was right not to be keen, but in this present political climate, the ENO is damned if it doesn't reach out even if that reaching out loses money.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Not conductor, but Music Director Simon Rattle. LSO

Good news! Sir Simon Rattle will be joining the London Symphony Orchestra, but as Music Director, not Principal Conductor, the position Valéry Gergiev holds at present. Just as the two men are very different, the roles are very different too. The Berlin Philharmonic is a pinnacle against which nothing else quite competes. Rattle doesn't have anything to prove as conductor.  Within reason, anyone good can conduct, but very few have the ability to truly "direct music". Now, he's poised, hopefully, to lead the LSO in new directions. What's good for the LSO is good for London and, by extension, the whole country.

Rattle has charisma, but even more important, he has clout.  As I've been saying, his call for a super concert hall didn't come off the top of his head.  Whatever Rattle does, chances are he'll be doing things with much more vision than the small-box reductionism that dominates arts policy at present. The arts are an international industry and Britain must keep ahead of the game or lose out. Hence the concert hall (already being called the Simon  Rattle Concert Hall). It's not an extravagance, but an investment. All the education in the world means little if performance standards drop. The small-box reductionism of current arts policy is destructively short-sighted.  It's worth noting that the Arts Council cut the Barbican Centre's funding almost as drastcially as it cut the ENO. What we need is vision, which takes into account the worldwide nature of the industry and the impact of new technology. In an increasingly globalized market, it's primitive to think simply in terms of bums on seats. The real audience is worldwide, and much more sophisticated than it gets credit for. The future doesn't rest simply on schoolkids in the UlK, but on the vast untapped resources opened up by technology. "Think globally, act locally"  Please see my numerous posts on arts policy and learning, especially this Analyzed in Context: Rattle's Concert Hall for London.

Monday, 2 March 2015

Back from the Dead : Massenet Le roi de Lahore, Chelsea Opera QEH

In Jules Massenet's Le roi de Lahore,  King Alim returns from the dead, redeemed by love. On Sunday, the Chelsea Opera Group brought the long-dead opera back to life at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London.  The opera was a smash hit from its premiere in April 1877. Fifty-seven performances followed, in several productions, in France, Italy, London, St Petersburg and Buenos Aires  Then, suddenly, silence until the first shoots of new interest in the early 1960's. The present reincarnation began with a new edition by Marcello Viotti and a ground-breaking production at La Fenice, ten years ago. (Read more HERE).

This enthusiastic performance by the forces of Chelsea Opera showed what made Le roi de Lahore an instant success. It was created as a showpiece for the then new Palais Garnier, built to flaunt the confidence and wealth of the Third Republic, and also its new empire in Africa and Asia. To quote Simon Bainbridge's notes for the Chelsea Opera Group, the premiere was "an occasion of almost unimaginable splendour..... the costumes alone cost 200,000 francs."  It was so spectacular that the stage designs were published, and photographs taken to preserve it for posterity. The picture above shows the Act V scene in Indra's temple. The deity dominates: all else is dwarfed. Perhaps this very grandeur might explain the opera's eclipse. Like a juggernaut it mesmerizes by its sheer audacity. Yet six years later, Délibes's Lakmé premiered at the Opéra  Comique, combining spectacle with even more spectacular music and songs which remain immortal today.

The Grand Overture whips up promise for grand things to come. Massenet's instrumentation calls for  fashionable "new" instruments like three saxophones, and the giant Adolphe Sax contrabassoon, plus an unusually large range of percussion, which includes antique cymbals, Indian drums and a large Indian gong.  This artillery provides great special effects  and must have sounded wildly exotic at the time. Even in  a non-staged performance, this Indian flavouring whips up mental images of a busy temple, packed with worshippers, wild horns and drums beating incessant rhythms. The Battle Scene in the desert is even wilder, with off-stage trumpets (attackers) and on-stage brass (defenders)  Huge ostinato - did French audiences assume Punjabis fought with elephants? The London audience were thrilled, and that's what matters. The three divertissements for dancing  were less atmospherically written, apart from the second, which might have inspired swooping and lilting choreography. Tantalizing hints of flesh under saris, perhaps, to please the balletomane faction.  Since Sitâ is Scindia's niece, the plot even by non-western standards is a little risqué.

Renato Belsadonna is best known as the Chorus Master at the Royal Opera House,  so he was an ideal choice to conduct Le roi de Lahore, where the choruses play a critically important role. The Chelsea Opera chorus and orchestra are good, though nowhere near ROH standards, but Belsadonna's verve  makes them respond with such enthusiasm that they create the right kind of wayward atmosphere, much more in the spirit of this opera than over-refinement, though we could have used more luminosity in the Act III Paradise chorus. This isn't a plot for deep introspection. Besides, crowds in temples, battles and market places wouldn't sound right, drilled to perfection.  We came for the fun of the opera, and Belsadonna gave us adventure, without lapsing into the kind of noise-for-the sake-of-excitement that prevails all too often in concert halls these days.

Wedged between Bizet's Pearl Fishers and Délibes' Lakmé, Le roi de Lahore doesn't compare. The principals aren't really given enough material to display what they can do. Michael Spyres sang Alim with ardent fluency, hitting the high notes with athletic grace. Would that we could have heard more of him,  but this isn't really a numbers opera.  Anush Hovhannisyan sang Sitâ. The awkward extremes in the range pushed her, but she had lovely mezzo-ish tints, suggesting that Sitâ, despite her youth, has an instinct for passion. Hovhannisyan is beautiful.  as befits a girl men would die for. It's no fault of the singers that modern audiences can't forget The Bell Song from Lakmé or The Flower Duet. Justina Gringyte sang Kaled well, a part written with interesting spice.   William Dazeley as Scindia has a lot to sing. If Dazeley's voice was a tad dry, that worked fine for a villain, especially one who preys on girls and kills his King. Scindia and Timour are great characters. As Timour, the High Priest, Jihoon Kim creates a figure of authority with the depth of his timbre, but also colours his singing so that we can feel the depth of Timour's personality. This Timour is a man who cares about people even if it means going against the rules. An excellent portrayal. Kim will make a good Heinrich or Marke, in the not-too-distant future. Robert Lloyd was slotted to sing Indra, but had to cancel. Joshua Bloom saved the day, singing both the Army Chief and Indra, standing high amongst the chorus. Please see my other posts on Massenet, including Hérodias, as well as Manon and Werther.