Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Three People's Principles 三民主義

Today, China celebrates National Day. Although the present government is dominated by the Communist Party, there is a lot more to "national" than political parties. All Chinese, whatever their affiliation, and however vaguely, subscribe to the Three People's Principles  三民主義 , formulated by Sun Yat Sen, founder of the Chinese Republic. From the perspective of the history, we can understand  underlying ideals that might inform the future.

Mínzú 民族主義, the idea of a common national goal, despite China being comprised of over 100 regional identities. It doesn't necessariply mean one nation state but rather an ideal that variations need not lead to diviseness.

Mínquán 民權主義, government by the people, of the people, by the people. Sun Yat Sen devised these ideas when China was ruled by the Manchus, a non-Han people who despised the Han, although they copied them. Furthermore, China was occupied by western colonial powers who seized concessions from China by military force and unequal treaties. Strictly speaking there's no "right wing' in modertn China, even though some sections of the Goumindang were proto fascist. Obviously who decides who the people are is a moot point, but the basic idea is that government should heed the people. It's much more pervasive than the technical size of the electorate and limited franchise. Basically it means that governments have a responsibilty to those who they rule.

Mínshēng 民生主義, government for the welfare of the people.As in all countries, government is effectively for the controlling elites, whatever they might be in each country, but the general principle links to the Confucian ideals of virtue and benevolence.

Sun Yat Sen was a Cantonese, as were many in his circles. Hong Kong protests, as it has been doing regularly year after year since 1997. Before which, such protests didn't happen (1967 was an aberration).


The five yellow umbrellas form the shape of the Bauhinia, symbol of Hong Kong and part of the Hong Kong flag. The five stars refer to the five stars on the national flag of China. Brilliant image, on many levels.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

All for one, one for all 危樓春曉

In view of what is happening in Hong Kong, this is a prescient time to revisit one of the great classic icons of Cantonese film, In the Face of Demolition, 危樓春曉. No-one can really understand a place until they understand the moral values which influence the way people think. In 1953, when the film was made, Hong Kong was very much a city in turmoil. Everyone was a refugee, including the native born, who'd been displaced  by the Japanese invasion. Cheerful as the people in the movie might seem, they're operating against a background of hardship and extreme insecurity.Watch the opening credits which show a busy city, panning to a shot of a bombed-out building.

Dressed in a sharp western suit,  Lo Ming, (Cheung Ying 張瑛 ) arrives in a rickshaw. He's moving into a run-down tenement. The decreptitude is a symbol.  The owner of the building is Wong Tai Pan – Big shot Wong (Lo Tun (盧敦) who speaks English to intimidate Ah Fong (Mui Yee  梅綺). Mr Lo doesn't realize it but he's moving into a room currently occupied by a family. whose father is played by Wong  Cho san 黃楚山. They haven't been able to pay the rent for 3 months, and they're being evicted, even though the mother has just given birth and can't walk. The commotion wakes the lady in the next bed space, Pak Ying (Tsi Law Lin 紫羅蓮) who leans over the flimsy partition. In those days, houses didn't have rooms but were divided up by screens or pieces of cloth.  The housekeeper Sam Koo is tough, but she has no choice. The house owner's wife screams at her.

 Enter Leung Wai, (Ng Cho Fan 吳楚帆), a tall and confident taxi driver). He confronts the owner's wife and offers to pay for the family to use the maid's bed space in the corridor (she says she'll sleep in the staircase). Eventually the owner returns and blows up at the housekeeper. "Do you know" he says in bad English, "This is crim-in-nal" and threatens the housekeeper with prison. A small detail,  but one with political ramifications. in a colony where the justice system was badly skewed. Although 99% of the population couldn't speak English, the use of Chinese was forbidden in the courts and officialdom until 1974. So much for the myth that "Chinese people aren't political" which the colonial government used to deny democracy in Hong Kong, with results as we see today.

The cubicle dividers are flimsy, and by accident Lo knocks over Leung's prized possession, a framed calligraphy that reads "All for one, one for all". "It was given to me by my seefoo" says Ng Cho Fan. "It's a motto by which I've lived my life"  Lo is a teacher, way up the social scale even though he's poor, while Leung is an uneducated guy, but positive and moral, which is utterly pertinent to the plot. "I'm a direct kind of guy", he adds, "I do and say what I think". Which includes kissing his wife in public, which must have been pretty racy in 1953. (see main photo above)

One of the other neighbours  (who fantasizes he's a kung fu master) played by Ko Lo Cheun (高魯泉 ) comes into Lo's room to draw. He used to be an artist before falling on hard times. He tells Lo that the house owner used to be a big shot too, but lost everything but the shabby tenement. Ah Fong isn't a maid but the owner's wife's niece, a naive country girl. from a good family, but exploited by her aunt. The beautiful Miss Pak is well bred, but fell on hard times too. She works as a dance hostess, fending off groping customers. "At night I hear her crying", says Yee Suk, "so pitiful" "Such a small building" says Lo, "But so many sad stories."

Lo and Pak have a lot in common: they drink a lot of coffee (unusual for the time) and share the same birthday.  Lo tries to borrow money from his school, but gets fired. Pak can't borrow from her boss either because she won't sleep with customers."You book learning people" says Brother Leung, "always worrying". He stumps up so the party can go on. Everyone joins in for dinner, including the owner Wong and his wife, but Wong keeps complaining and leaves. Leung, ever positive, says "We're all poor together. Even if all we have is white congee and yau ja kuei, we can fill up on that and be just as happy". Miss Pak's friend from the dance hall is there, dressed up like a glamour girl. "Looks aren't anything, I know what it's like when you can't even afford fish balls".  Miss Pak tells the group, "We don't dress up for vanity, we need to present an illusion so we can scrape a living".

Miss Pak's friend introduces Lo to a publisher who says he wants to print the short stories Lo writes now he's unemployed.  Lo is so excited that he dreams they'll be rich and travel "The world will be ours - America, Canada, Italy, France, Czechoslovakia, Greece - and Russia" !" (said in English, while wearing his pyjamas).  What they don't know is that the publisher is a crook. Fung Ying Sheung (馮應湘 ) was a American-Chinese famous for playing sleazy gangsters. All this playing around with the English language! – there's an implicit sub text somewhere. Lo and Pak laugh so much they wake the whole house. But the publisher turns out to be a fraud. Lo blames Pak for making him lose face. She scolds him for being selfish and getting his head turned by money, forgetting his true friends. In a beautiful scene, they make up, over the top of the cubicle divider. He decides to get a job so he can marry her, and she won't have to be a dance hostess.

Building owner Wong has been grooming Ah Fong. One night, his wife gets blind drunk, and he tells Ah Fong to watch her in their room. Instead, he rapes her.. His wife blames the girl for being ungrateful, and forces her to become a concubine. "If only she'd got a job when she left the countryside" observes one of the tenants. "None of this would have happened."

Earlier in the film, Bruce Lee played the son of the father of the family. The boy refused to eat, so his mother could eat instead, since she couldn't breastfeed the new baby as she had no milk. The father vowed he would do anything to help such a virtuous son. Since he can't get work, he sells his blood. Father feeds family, and also the Leungs, who are poor now that Leung lost his job as a driver and had to become an unskilled labourer. "I can't eat" says Bruce Lee, "it's like eating your blood, Dad."  Wong Cho San (the father) is a wonderful actor. As all at the table fall silent with guilt, Wong's expressive face speaks volumes. at last, he pretends to be cheerful. "Eat up everyone!" he says, "I'm behind 2 months in rent but now Lo the Teacher has got a job as rent collector, we'll be OK". Unfortunately, it's not up to Lo. His bosses are ruthless  and put pressure on him. He has to collect all the rents within 3 days because there's a demolition order on the house in 10 days. Building owners scream at the housekeeper, who screams at the tenants, but no-one has any money. The father of the family tries to sell his blood again, but the clinic won't use him again. He helps Leung at the wharf, but he's too weak and collapses. Their workmates clubbed together and raised $60 for medical treatment. Instead, they give it to Lo the rent collector.

On a typhoon night, Leung's wife goes into labour, while he's on night shift.. The women go to help. Ah Fong is so unhappy she tries to hang herself, but is stopped by the Father of the Family. He tells her that life is precious, even when it seems hopeless. He's used up his last ounce of strength and dies. A funeral, a birth and hospital to pay for. Meanwhile the storms outside gets fierce, and rain comes through the roof. Lo takes rent money to his boss, who is sitting in a comfy living room, wearing a smoking suit. "There you are sitting in comfort while houses are falling apart, and lives are in danger" says Lo, "Stuff your job". Huh !" sneers the boss, "I can get anyone, anytime to replace you". Back at the tenement, people are fleeing for their lives as the house collapses. Big shot Wong is killed.

At the hospital, Leung's wife has lost a lot of blood while giving birth. Miss Pak, Ah Fong and Ko Lo Chuen are in the waiting room. Lo turns up with money from his wages,and asks if the tenants will forgive him. It turns out that Mrs Leung has a rare blood type (B negative) and her only match is Lo the teacher. Mrs Leung needs so much blood that the doctor asks why Lo wants to endanger his own health to save hers "We are friends" says Lo. "Friends help each other". Lo still feels guilty because he chased his friends for rent, but they're all happy now he has helped save Mrs Leung's life. "it's thanks to Leung kor, who taught me his motto, Everyone looks after each other".

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Mystery great Wagnerian Závodszky Zoltán

Who was Závodszky Zoltán? A friend sent a link to an hour-long documentary about him, with lots of clips and rare photos, but it's all in Hungarian. Help, please!

From what we've been able to gather, Závodszky (1892-1976) was a famous Hungarian tenor, who specialized in Wagner, singing mainly in Hungarian translation.Watch the documentary because it's fascinating,  even if the language is beyond most of us.  From what I gather Závodszky is being interviewed, and talks about his roles. What a clear, pure Heldentenor he was - if he'd sung more in German, and in German houses, we'd be sure to know him better. How frustrating it is that we can't follow the interview because he sounds like an interesting person with perspectives worth hearing.

Adds my friend: "couldn't find a bio, but he had been a pupil of the great Wagnerian tenor Georg Anthes, who sang at Bayreuth and the MET in the early 20th century. Anthes can be heard in a few Mapleson cylinders and had also been the teacher of Rosette Anday and Maria Nemeth, who, unlike our tenor, made great careers in Vienna. He seems to have been active only in his native Hungary. All his recordings are in Hungarian. I first read about him in "Opera on Record", in which he is mentioned as the best Parsifal Knappertsbusch had heard. No mean feat. It's interesting to notice which conductors are mentioned in the documentary: Weingartner, the also forgotten Sergio Failoni and Knappertsbusch. I was told that both Failoni and our tenor were performing at the Budapest Opera until 1948. So, we have got a singer who had been active in the 30s and perhaps  earlier on and later and had a special affinity with Wagner's music I find him no less moving as a Liedersaenger at a well advanced age. I wish he had recorded any of the Schubert cycles."  He also sends this link, in English.

 In the documentary, there's a clip of him singing from Schubert Die schöne Müllerin. He looks about 70 years old but his voice holds up well.  

Below his Tristan and his Lohengrin.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Rameau Les Paladins Christie Les Arts Florissants

Ahead of the all-Rameau Les Paladins concert at the Wigmore Hall on Wednesday 1st October, a link to a film on Les Paladins on medici tv based on the 2004 Théâtre du Châtelet de Paris production with Les Arts Florissants conducted by William Christie.

"We're talking about a composer who IS funny.....I've been living with Les Paladins for a number of years now", says William Christie, "and the thing that strikes me is that it's a piece of absolute anarchy, and from a composer who's an old man , 77, 78 years old,, it's as if he's trying essentially to shock. Then, " parody and caricature are important words describing this piece - it's as if he's parodying himself "
A black and white engraving of a huntsman comes alive as rows of deer run out from the flat surface. The stage is divided so rows of dancers occupy the front level, while large-scale videos of other dancers leap above them, as if bouncing off clouds. The baroque imagination adapted and re-created by modern technology. Later, dancing bunnies and other images of the exuberant bounty of Nature. The livret is pretty basic. "It's Entführung" says Laurent Nouri who sings Orcan (ie Osmin). Excellently cast - Stéphanie d'Oustrac (Argie), Topi Lehtipuu (Altis), Sandrine Piau, Laurent Naouri (Orcan), René Schirrer (Anselme), François Piolino (Manto), Emiliano Gonzalez Toro (un paladin).. Choreography and staging by José Montalvo. The music is so bright, and the playing so infectiously jolly that the singers bob about quite naturally among the dancers.

Who could sit still grumpily with music like this?  Throughout the opera ballet, words and orchestral passages bounce back and forwards in intricate patterns, captured in lively splitscreen staging.  Gert the full 2 disc DVD here

Sandrine Piau is singing at the Wigmore Hall on Wednesday, with Les Paladins, the consort conducted by Jérôme Correas. They're doing a mixed programme of extracts from different Rameau opera/ballets , including Les Paladins, Castor et Pollux, Les Indes Galantes, Platée asnd Les Surprises d' Amour. Link to Wigmore Hall Box Office HERE. They're selling fast. There's a pre concert talk, too.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Happy 250th, J P Rameau !

Today, 25th September, is the 250th birthday of Jean-Philippe Rameau. Celebrate! Rameau epitomizes the best parts of the era in which he lived, when Europe was confidently discovering the rest of the world, but before it took on the baggage of empire. The baroque was an age of discovery, exploring exotic new frontiers, of glorious, audacious extremes of the imagination.  Cure from the art,  hyperbole, not grim literalism. Gods mix with mortals and animals in landscapes which bear less resemblance to Greece than to contemporary France. Goddesses in states of undress, revealing the delights of the flesh, but teasingly virtuous, under the veil of 'art". Shepherdesses in the clothes of the time, fantastical inventiveness and over the top fantasy. Technical limitations decreed a degree of abstraction in stage mechanics, compensated by extreme imagination in music and characterization. Perhaps Gods and mythic heroes appealed so much - they didn't conform to grubby expectations. When your grandad is Neptune, for example, you don't really need to follow rules.  And so the Heroes go their merry ways, having adventures, fooling around,  screwing around, and getting away with things and eventually learning a degree of basic moral wisdom. In the baroque lies the germ of the idea that Gods and Kings aren't all-powerrful. The baroque was more forward thinking – and "modern" – than many realize.

And listen to Rameau's music! Who can resist the vigorous and very physical dance rhythms, that make you feel with your body as well as with your mind? Petty minded Victorian values colour the past with a prissiness that Baroque personalities wouldn't recognize. Rameau, a nobody from the provinces, captures the imagination of Paris with his uninhibited joie de vivre. In his own time, Rameau was considered a radical and a rebel. Rameau's dance patterns and structures need precise, clear-sighted performance. hence the importance of performance styles which let the music shine, free and unfettered. Without  the  genuinely informed insight we have today, would we be able to hear Rameau in his true light?  Jean-Philippe Rameau, your time has come!

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Christopher Hogwood 1941-2014 (extended)

Christopher Hogwood died this morning.  Announcement on his website :

"Following an illness lasting several months, Christopher died peacefully on Wednesday 24 September, a fortnight after his 73rd birthday. He was at home in Cambridge, with family present. The funeral will be private, with a memorial service to be held at a later date."

 He shall ne missed . His death casts a long shadow. over Handel studies,  over period performance, over musical learning and practice.

Period informed performance has been around now more than 60 years It's an unshakeable part of modern musical thinking. Nikolaus Harnoncourt rebelled against the bland "internationalization" of post-war American orchestral sound (read my article Nikolaus Harnoncourt against the bland and the safe)  All "historically-informed" practice means is being aware of the uniqueness of each composer and period, respecting the music, rather than imposing some "one size fits all " approach. As Harnoncourt has said, it's pointless being  "authenticke" in some kitschy way. Integrity is far more important. What is so frightening about that?  There's no reason why early music can't be played any which way. but it's better to build new performances on genuine understanding of period imagination, rather than on inaccurate assumptions thereon. People in the past enjoyed their music without carrying the baggage of stultifying social expectation  that classical music seems to attract in some circles. Period-aware practice has revealed the energy, expressiveness  and liveliness in early music. HIP was once hip, and thankfully is now free again.

Being an Englishman, Hogwood applied these clear-thinking principles to Handel and the British tradition to illuminating effect.  Read this article, Reconstructing The Messiah.) Currently I'm revisiting Hogwood's Handel Messiah, with the Academy of Ancient Music (from 1980). After 35 years, some aspects feel "of its time"  e.g., the haircuts ) but that's perfectly reasonable. All good performance is well informed and modern at the same time, if the performers have integrity.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Bessie Smith St Louis Blues full video

Rare - Bessie Smith's only movie, in its entirety. It's a short from 1929 based around her hit St Louis Blues and features Louis Armstrong and a full orchestral arrangement, with chorus, created by W C Handy and Rosamond Johnson. Equally striking is the way it's made. The director, Dudley Murphy, doesn't sentimentalize.

Bessie Smith and Jimmy Mordecai are playing themselves, in the context of the song. Jimmy was a famous tap dancer who worked with the Cotton Club but later fell on hard times and fell off the radar. In the film, he's wearing an expensive sharp suit and hat - way classier than anyone else. A star! other men are pretty ordinary, one's a janitor, another a semi midget. A "yellow girl" (often a vamp in Blues mythology) steals money from some gamblers and passes it to Johnny. The moment Bessie walks in (at 4.22) the whole mood darkens. She's one powerful lady! But for Jimmy. she's abject . "I give you suits, I give you clothes", she says, imploringly. "Ah, women get out of my face" Hre says as he knocks her to the floor. He steps on her, he kicks her as he walks out the door. It's brutal and very physical.

Then the song starts (7.23) "Feeling tomorrow, like I do today, got to pack my bags, make my getaway". At first she's seated at a bar, getting drunk, singing without accompaniment. Then the band materializes, and the other customers in the bar sing the chorus, and the smart customers go about their business.  Bessie's oblivious, though.

"St Louis woman wears a diamond ring, she leads that man around by her apron strings. If it weren't for powder and store-bought hair, that man I love he wouldn't go nowhere". Her voice takes on the harsh timbre of a saxophone - extremely expressive. Listen to the staccatpo in the chorus, beating her like  a whip. The band plays on, the people dance, waiters twirl empty trays like showmen. In walks Johnny, strutting his stuff, doing a dance sequence – Mordecai was good!)  He spots Bessie alone at the bar. They embrace. The band plays the tune, this time like a smootchy dance number. Jimmy puts his hands up Bessie's dress, feeling up her thigh. But he's stealing the cash strapped under her suspenders. He walks out: Bessie hardly notices. Perhaps she's dreaming ? She's not too drunk to sing.

Band and chorus dissolve into distortions, as if conflicting music is happening at once, textures going awry. "My man's got a heart like a rock cast in the sea, or he wouldn't have gone so far from me".

Monday, 22 September 2014

Is introducing children to opera smug parenting or a valuable cultural eye-opener?

"Is introducing children to opera smug parenting or a valuable cultural eye-opener?" asks Chris Shipman of the Royal Opera House, ahead of a new opera for two to six-year-olds, entitled Dot, Squiggle, and Rest. The toddler-friendly opera will feature puppetry, dance and animation and has been intended as an introduction to the art form. Simple answer: depends on the children, depends on the parents.

There are plenty of smug, self-obssessed and status-mad parents around, who use their children to promote themselves. Kids are not stupid: they pick up on false vibes. Little Ptolemy and Little Drusilda might rebel but chances are that they'll grow up just like their parents, using opera as a consumer product to prove that somehow they're superior to other people. For people like that, opera becomes a weapon with which to beat other people up. Literally as in a recent case. Imagine if the assailant had been an underclass rapper and the victim an opera-going taxi driver?  No, it's not alright. Maybe children of such parents grow up to be successful because they don't let anyone else get in their way.

On the other hand there are a lot of parents who want their kids to grow up to be happy human beings. The arts, and opera in particular, are an ideal way to introduce kids to the world beyond themselves.  Children naturally learn from fantasy, so opera is an extension of story-telling tradition.  Unlike movies, opera is physical theatre, so children learn how magic can be made by overcoming technical challenges. Above all, children can learn to listen to other people's ideas, and develop their own emotional responses. As a culture, I think we are becoming too materialistic and too literal. Most children haven't yet lost that sense of wonder and openness that is the basis of creative imagination. Opera isn't a gateway to "culture", but a way of learning about emotions, relationships and artistic expression.

Many operas are written for children. Some are a lot better than others - as all operas will be. Benjamin Britten, who was a bit of child himself, passionately believed that opera for children could be exciting without being patronizing. A while back, I wrote about the brilliant Noyes Fludde at Blackheath, devised in conjunction with a local school, so the kids became involved at all levels. The children's eyes shone with excitement, their minds clearly active with ideas. A miracle to behold. Then a cynical adult sneered "That wasn't a proper rainbow". The death of imagination is the death of art.

In continental Europe opera for children is a well-developed genre. Zurich Opera does a wonderful Mozart The Magic Flute specially for children (available on DVD) . It's not trivialized. Children can understand the idea of overcoming trials. The Wiener Staatsoper does an even more interesting Wagner Die Feen, which adults can learn from too (See my review here)  A friend's 3 year old so loved the Ceebeebies Prom that he was high for days. My son, aged two, enjoyed Amahl and the Night Visitors so much that he ran out and stood near the stage, transfixed. I didn't stop him. He was as good as gold, taking in every moment. Last year, at Faust  at the Royal Opera House, I sat near a girl aged about 9 or 10.  Obviously a rich little girl, Russian I think, with governess and minder. The little girl watched with avid concentration, leaning forward.  Faust for a child ? Why not? What's so difficult about an old man who sells his soul to be young and happy again?  Gretchen dies, but other fairy tale heroines suffer grim fates, too.  This little girl was clearly entering into the experience and getting much more from it than her attendants. Obviously an intelligent child, not at all someone to be patronized. She'll grow up an interesting person. So, yes, opera for children, but the right children, the right opera and the right motivations.

Read my numerous other posts on children and opera/classical music, such as Will childrren ever learn about operaand End the \Missionary position in classical music

Will you play this tune as though you've never heard it before

"Good Morning, gentlemen. Will you play this tune as though you've never heard it before"