Saturday, 25 April 2015

Mikko Franck's Sibelius France Musique


This September, Mikko Franck takes over from Myun-Whun Chung as Chief Conductor of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, where he's been guesting for the last twelve years. He was only 24 at the time, yet had already been conducting professionally since his teens  At the Sibelius Academy,  he was a young prodigy, widely tipped for international acclaim. Fortunately, early fame didn't go to his head and distort his talent. Instead he built his skills  steadily, By the age of 22, he had become Chief Conductor of Orchestre National de Belgique. He went on to be Music Director of the Finnish National Opera, which is a much bigger deal than opera houses in other countries, because in Finland, opera is so dominant that it's the focus of much new writing. Franck commanded such respect that he was able to regain his position after resigning in protest at the management, not something that can be done lightly. In the early stages of his career, he was plagued  by poor health (injuries and asthma) but that seems to have been resolved. ORF know what they're doing.

France Musique presents a selection of Franck's Sibelius concerts with them over the years  Interesting and unusual choices, such as the Nocturne from King Christian II, Sibelius Violin Concerto with Baiba Skride, En Saga and a magnificent Sibelius Symphony No 7.  Ironically, it must be harder for Finnish conductors to tackle Sibelius, because he carries so much extra musical weight in his home nation that it can be hard to interpret him in purely musical terms.  As Esa-Pekka Salonen said, he couldn't face conducting Sibelius until he had himself matured, much in the way that you can;t really appreciate your father until you've become your own person.

Sibelius used to complain about “distorted” performances of his work, as he told his friend Simon Parmet, whose book about the symphonies was first published in English in 1959 , though written much earlier. It's such a personal, first hand account that it's still a key document in Sibelius interpretation. “Many conductors seem unwilling to allow their impulsive playing to be disturbed by intellectual considerations and sober musical thinking”, he wrote. “A conductor can acquire an authoritative position in relation to a composer’s work equal to that of the composer himself if he possesses an exact knowledge of his logic, a knowledge which must be extracted from the text of the composer’s work.  Then, and only then, can he feel sure of keeping faith with the intentions of the composer. (Only) then will he be entitled to let his own subconscious take over and guide him through those difficult passages which no degree of intellectual effort could help him master”.

Since Sibelius's music is so remarkable, it's easy enough to play safe and wow audiences with something predictably overblown,  but good conductors do more. And Sibelius deserves more. Thus I like Franck's Sibelius, which sounds clean, fresh and vibrant.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

The Writing on the Wall ? BBC Proms 2015 announced


Details of the BBC Proms 2015 season now out! The First Night of the Proms on 17th July features a Feast of  Belshazzars - Sibelius and Walton - kicking the season off with suitable magnificence, though the ominous writing on the wall should not be overlooked, bearing in mind changes to the BBC and the focus of national arts policy. Enjoy, but be vigilant. Will the feat last? Sakari Oramo conducts the BBCSO with Lars Vogt Mozart Piano Concerto no 20. Also the Overture to Carl Nielsen's opera Maskerade, last staged in London years ago at the ROH.

The warning to Belshazzar is apt, because Prom 2 carries out the new diktat "Ten Pieces". The very notion that the vast wealth (feast) of classical music in the canon can be chopped into ten easy bite-sized pieces is just plain nuts. People learn music in lots of different ways : only robots and bureaucrats think in narrow boxes. The Ten Pieces philosophy assumes that listeners are too stupid to listen, learn and make the voyage of discovery in their own way. What are the BBC Proms for, anyway, after all? This nonsense stranglehold  has now become a condition of funding in organizations all over the country. Ultimately, Ten Pieces and the mindset behind it will cripple music appreciation, not enhance it.  It destroys the very idea of music as a creative experience. Few things breed stupidity more than half baked minds trained to think by rote. It's time to rethink the very basis of arts policy in this country. Heed the Writing on the Wall! 

Three  Proms with Leif Ove Andsnes and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, unfortunately labelled "Classics for Starters". Why diminish good music, good performers and the intelligence of listeners, even those who've never listened before?

Fortunately,hidden away among the gimmicks, pop bits and talks (alas usually not worth the effort), there's some good music. Andrew Davis conducts a hefty British music Prom on 22/7, honouring veteran Hugh Wood, whose music is genuinely good enough to be showcased on its own merits, not simply because he's British. Mark Elder brings the Hallé to Prom 17 on 30/7 with another meaty concert - Elgar Symphony no 2, Debussy Afternoon of the Faun and Vaughan Williams Sancta Civitas,  

The first really out of the ordinary Prom comes on 4/8 , Monteverdi Orfeo, John Eliot Gardiner conducting a great cast, The Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists. This is good programming, because it builds on the Orpheus themes which the Royal Opera House and others have been dealing with in depth in the past and in the 2015/16 season coming up.  This kind of "total immersion|" lets listeners go as deeply as they like into the ideas behind music, and the different ways in which such ideas can be expressed, infinitely less superficial than the shallow Ten Pieces mindset. There's absolutely no reason why non-listeners can't be drawn into the magic of music through more solid fare. That's how people have been learning and listening for millennia. More JEG Berlioz and Beethoven on 9/8. 

Several things stand out - Prom 47 Jon Liefs' Organ Concerto which should lift the roof off the Royal Albert Hall, and keynote Nielsen Prom 46 with the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra.  Two Andris Nelsons Proms with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, who nabbed a prize racehorse when they signed him.  But did he grab a pawn and lose the King?  Another must, François-Xavier Roth conducting the SWR Symphony Orchestra Baden Baden on 26/8 in Boulez, Bartok and Ligeti. Roth is one of the most charismatic conductors on the circuit vtoday. With a rock-solid background in baroque, he's bringing a very original, but perceptive take on new music.

Also not to be missed, Sakari Oramo's Sibelius Kullervo on 29/8.  This is inspired programming too, coming after the magnificent danced Kullervo in Helsinki (more here) and around the same time as the Edinburgh International Festival Kullervo (Edward Gardner). Again, the more you listen, the more you learn.

Recurring themes - Nielsen, Sibelius, James Macillan, Mozart. Big names - Haitink, Maria Joao Pires, Bychkov conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, (Brahms, Franz Schmidt), and Simon Rattle Elgar The Dream of Gerontius on 11/8. Generally, though, a formulaic Prom season designed to be as non-demanding as possible, goodies concealed where they won't alarm the Ten Pieces Brigade. Perhaps this season should be re-named the Classic FM Proms, not the BBC Proms.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

ENO fights back - 2015/16 season announced


Under threat from punitive cuts by Arts Council England, English National Opera is fighting back with a bright new season for 2015/16.  Closing down the ENO would destroy a national asset that's taken decades to build up,. The ENO is unique, and part of its survival strategy should be to celebrate that uniqueness, and its  place in the wider network of the cultural life of this nation.

Last year, 201,361 people attended an ENO performnce live, up from 182, 242 in the same period the previous year, while an extra 51,000 heard broadcasts on radio and in the cinema. Popular marketing ideas like Secret Seat and Access All Arias did well. This year a new initiative: 23% of tickets for every performance will be sold at £20 or less. Thirty-five percent of first-time visitors via Opera Undressed have returned to catch another show. Capacity is up, though capacity figures are a crude measure of success. The ENO audience is slightly different from the ROH audience, which is supplemented by the international market, which the ENO hasn't even started to test, though it could exploit the niche market for operas written in English, as it has done with Philip Glass and Benjamin Britten. .

The Coliseum itself is an asset. Part of the fun of going to the ENO is the quirky, iconic Frank Matcham building, the biggest and most beautiful theatre in London. If crowds can come and enjoy Trafalgar Square and the West End, why not add art and architecture to the mix? Commercial developers might covet the site, but it doesn't make business sense for the ENO to move elsewhere. Negotiations for a foyer Benugo are well underway, but there are other opportunities to make profits from other parts of the building.  (I for one would miss those ornate wooden doors.) At the end of the day, though, people don't go for sandwich cafés, or even because tickets are cheap. Opera isn't cheap to produce and shouldn't be seen as cheap entertainment. Besides people often use cost as an excuse for not going, and happily spend much more on other things, eg football. .

Long term, people go to the opera for good music drama.  ENO productions are adventurous, attracting a livelier, more adventurous crowd, often with an interest in theatre as opposed to grand diva vocal display.  The ENO 2015/16 season offers a good range.  Six new productions, and five classic revivals

First, in September, the long-awaited  Shostakovich Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. first seen in Düsseldorf in 2008, directed by Dmitri Tcherniakov. Patricia Racette, John Daszak and Peter Hoare sing the leads. Mark Wigglesworth, new ENO Music Director, conducts.  In November, a new production of Puccini La bohème directed by Benedict Andrews, who did the striking Monteverdi Return of Ulysses for the ENO at the Young Vic in 2011. 

Even more exciting, for lovers of rarer repertoire, Verdi's The Force of Destiny in a new production of Calixto Bieito, whose Carmen for |ENO , adapted for English sensibilities, has proved quite popular. Bieito may be shocking to some, but his ideas stem from a deep reading of text and music. His La Forza will be set in the Spanish Civil War. Don Alvaro would be perfectly at home.


The ENO's first ever Bellini Norma, in February, conducted by bel canto specialist Stephen Lord, directed by Christopher Alden with designs by Charles Edwards. This is a joint production with Opera North., giving the company a home in London.

Probably the mega-hit of the year, a new production of the legendary Philip Glass Akhnaten  by Improbable Theatre Company's Artistic Director, Phelim McDermott, who created the astonishing Glass Satyagraha (of which much on this site).  Expect spectacula !  Thirty years ago, Aknaten marked the beginning of the ENO's long relationship with Philip Glass.

Stuart Skelton, an ENO discovery, returns as Tristan in a new production, in English of Wagner Tristan und Isiolde. For Skelton, fans will turn out in droves, especially as Matthew Rose is singing Marke and and Edward Gardner is returning to conduct.  Sets are being designed by Anish Kapoor, as part of the ENO's new relationships with British visual arts. Director is Daniel Kramer, who did Duke Bluebeard's Castle in 2009.

Revivals incliude the perennial and much loved Anthony Minghella Puccini Madam Butterfly, David Alden's Janáček Jenůfa  and Mozart The Magic Flute, directed by Simon Burney of Complicité, who created the wonderful effects in the ENO's surprise hit A Dog's Heart.  When this Magic Flute premiered, it was met with incomprehension in London  but well received in Aix and in Amsterdam.  But Magic Flute is fantasy, and deals with the pursuit of wisdom through knowledge and trial. It doesn't "need" to be quaint. (Please see my review HERE)

The other two revivals are Jonathan Miller The Barber of Seville and The Mikado. That's what you get when a house is strapped for cash and can't take too many risks. Fun enough for some, but perhaps not healthy fare for those for whom opera is a living, thrilling form of art.. 



Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Barbican Boulez Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna


The Barbican Boulez at 90 tribute continues Thursday 23rd with a keynote concert, in which
Peter Eötvös conducts the London Symphony Orchestra (Boulez's old band) in Boulez Livre pour cordes, Stravinsky Rite of Spring and Boulez Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna, a particular favourite of mine. Above, Boulez, Maderna and Stockhausen in 1955, around the time Gruppen was written. Imagine, Gruppen now 60 years old ! Worth a birthday party. .

 Maderna (1927-73) and Boulez were particularly close, so Rituel is an extraordinarily personal work which brings together several different threads in Boulez and Maderna's musical life. Maderna was an associate of Hermann Scherchen, the champion of New Music, and began conducting Mahler at a very early stage. His Mahler 9 still remains one of the greats. Boulez's Rituel commemorates Maderna on many different planes.

On an obvious level, Rituel is a ritual procession, loosely referencing Mahler and even, possibly, the Catholic world in which they both grew up, even if they didn't practice the religion. The orchestra is divided into eight unequal parts, moving at different paces and in different ways, just as mourners follow a cortege, seemingly disparate but with common purpose. Solemn percussion evoking the image of a funeral, but also serving to measure time and its inevitable passing. This percussion functions like a heartbeat, often harshly hollow. Sudden  interruptions, flurries, changes and pauses that feel organic, like a brave heart that's failing but rallying despite the odds. Brass and string chords reach out into space, as if exploring distance and searching the unknown.  No wonder I'm thinking Gruppen, though they're so very different. Cymbal crashes echo, the sounds lingering after the act of playing has ceased.

Boulez's Rituel has been heard as a commentary on Maderna's own music and his place in music history, yet it's also psychologically intense, as if through the formality of the structure, Boulez is coping with extreme emotion.  Anyone who still swallows the myth that Boulez is cold needs to listen to Rituel.  Emotion does not need to be effusively heart-on-sleeve. Indeed, I think it's more sincere when tempered by intelligence. Significantly, solo clarinet functions prominently, weaving past the regulatory percussion, like a lone mourner wailing, bereft.  I've often imagined Rituel as if it were a chorus in a Greek tragedy, for it sounds primeval, throwing its deeply-felt spirit into high relief.

HERE is a link to extremely well written Programme notes by Philip Huscher for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Masculine Women ! Feminine Men !


Thank you to my friend Peter who found this treasure from 1926

Friday, 17 April 2015

Not funny - Mahler Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt


Is Mahler's song,  Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt,  from Des Knaben Wunderhorn meant to be funny ?  On the surface, it's droll, but as with so much good art, it's not a good idea to judge by surface appearances.  Saint Anthony of  Padua, a contemporary of St Francis of Assisi who preached to birds, was a famous orator, with phenomenal abilities to convert the heathen. In the poem from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, collected by Brentano and  von Arnim, the saint arrives at an empty church. So he goes down to the river and preaches to fish instead.  The fish leap and glisten, with excitement.  "Kein Predigt niemalen, den Karpfen so g'fallen"  Nothing like a juicy sermon, even if you can't speak.Latin.  Each verse describes a different type of fish, crabs and turtles, which wouldn't happen in nature.The stylized strophic refrains are a further clue that this isn't reality.

"Fisch große, Fisch kleine, Vornehm und gemeine,
Erheben die Köpfe, Wie verständge Geschöpfe:
Auf Gottes Begehren, Die Predigt anhören
."

To the devout, it's a kind of miracle, taken seriously. But, as so often, literalism is the enemy of art. Whoever crafted the poem subverts the pious image.  The minute the saint turns his back, the fish are back to their own ways.  "Spitzgoschete Hechte, die immerzu fechten" remain quarrelsome thieves. Note , too, the greedy carp, whose mouths are always open, swallowing anything they're fed,  A pointed warning for our  times when received wisdom replaces thought. . 

Mahler's setting of the poem reflects its mischief.  The markings indicate "with humour" on the piano part , its rolling rhythms suggesting that the saint's been too free with communion wine, although from what we know of the early Franciscan order, they were ascetic, not given to indulgence. It's a sly reference to Dionysius, a figure who pops up elsewhere in Mahler's work, specifically in Symphony no 3.  This humour is deceptive. "This piece is really as if nature were pulling faces and sticking its tongue out at you" (said Mahler)  "But it contains such a spine-chilling panic-like humour that one is overcome more by dismay than laughter". 

War, loss and death are recurring themes in the Wunderhorn saga. Thomas Hampson has called some of them "negative love songs" for they are neither optimistic nor sentimental. The regimentation of military life contrasts with individual freedom,  though these brief escapes through love and imagination are doomed. In death. troops of skeletons march through streets, and lovers meet, as ghosts. Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt isn't funny. It's a wail of despair, though the wit dulls the pain. 

 Think ahead to Wozzeck, where the anti-hero tries to do his best, but is destroyed by the cycle of madness around him. Can we hear in the cyclic traverses of Wozzeck, echoes of the marches in Des Knaben Wunderhorn and the repetitions in Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt ? Maybe, maybe not, but that should start you thinking. DKW and Georg Büchner's Woyzeck come from a similar vein in the Romantic Imagination. 

Furthermore, consider Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt in the context of Mahler's Symphony no 2. The long first movement may represent a funeral march, taken at a steady processional pace. From that the Ländler breezes serve a a Ruckblick on  a happy past, which will inevitably be left behind. In the third movement,  marked "In ruhig fließender Bewegung" come the references to the world of Des Knaben Wunderhorn.  The departed may be dead, physically, but Nature is working its miracles. The "Fischpredigt" passage begins with a  bang, the quirky woodwind melody leaping energetically, the strings surging with energized power.  The sermon is over, but that's not a negative thing. Now, we can move forward.  The music moves like the fish, disciples of the power of Nature to regenerate itself. Even at this point, we can think of Der Abschied, "Ewig, ewig.....".  In this context, the Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt represent transformational change, as well as the wilfulness of fish who don't change their ways. 

Hence the danger of interpreting this song too narrowly and too literally. Please also read my article "Why greedy kids in Mahler 4"  Understand and absorb the spirit of Des Knaben Wunderhorn : it's a key into Mahler's inner world.
 .

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Ambitious Royal Opera House 2015/2016 season


The Royal Opera House 2015/2016 season is one of the best for a long time. Eight new productions in the main auditorium alone, and a florescence of new work at the Linbury, before it closes for refurbishment.  An ambitious range from the baroque to the modern.   Juan Diego Flórez sings his first Orphée, and Bryn Terfel his first Boris Gudunov. Even some of the revivals are "new", like Tannhäuser and Il trittico, revived for the first time.  And even more intriguing, ROH is going musically in depth, enhancing appreciation of opera repertoire by developing themes which connect operas and by doing opera-related orchestral music. Even the revivals of more regular repertoire are given star treatment. Jonas Kaufmann and Bryan Hymel, no less. Joyce DiDonato and Vittorio Grigolo make their role debuts in Massenet's Werther.

ROH starts 2015/2016 in grand style, with Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice, in the 1762 French revision, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner with Juan Diego Flórez's Orphée and Lucy Crowe, and his own specialist musicians, the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists. Hofesh Schechter, the acclaimed choreographer, will direct. An interesting fusion of period performance and modern dancing. An even earlier telling of the Orpheus legend will be Luigi Rossi's Orphée (1674), with Christian Curnyn conducting the orchestra of the Early Opera Company at Shakespeare's Globe, where ROH staged L'Ormindo: very different from the Roundhouse Monteverdi Orfeo (1607) .earlier this year. A hat trick of early Orpheus operas, which, when heard in close succession enrich and inform, so we get more from what we experience. This is intelligent, joined-up thinking! This summer, ROH is presenting Birtwistle's The Corridor, also based on the same story. Could we dare hope for a new production of  his The Mask of Orpheus? Above, Orpheus with his lute, in a 17th century painting by Benedetto Gennari.

Bryn Terfel makes his long-awaited role debut in Mussorgsky's Boris Gudunov.. Richard Jones directs, so expect surprises, but also very musically informed insights.  This production is based on the 1869 seven-scene version of the opera, dramatically more taut and tense. Antonio Pappano conducts. Terfel will clearly be the draw but Ain Anger will be singing Pimen: an interesting contrast of voices. Anger is highly regarded, so his Covent Garden debut will be something to look forward to.  John Tomlinson, so closely connected to the opera, will appear in the vignette role of Varlaam.  

In November, the world premiere of Georg Friedrich Haas's Morgen und Abend, a co-commision between ROH and Deutsche Oper Berlin. Haas's In Vain created a sensation when it was heard at the South Bank last year. Read my article Invisible Theatre : George Haas In Vain  to get an idea of what Haas's music is like. It's intensely dramatic. Morgen und Abends is based on a Norwegian novel about the life of a man from birth to death, morning to evening. Graham Vick directs, Michael Boder conducts. 
  
A new Cav and Pag for Christmas!  Eva-Maria Westbroek should be a superb Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana, to Aleksandrs Antonenko . He's also singing Canio in Pagliacci,, plus Dimitri Patanias.  Very solid casting. It will be directed by Damiano Micheletto, who's directing Rossini Guilliame Tell.this summer.

Donizetti Lucia di Lammermoor, with two different casts in April (Diana Damrau) and May (Alexandra Kurzak) 2016, directed by Katie Mitchell, who is approaching Lucia as a woman forced into madness..  

Georges Enescu's Oedipe (1936) continues ROH's exploration of 20th century opera, following on from Szymanowski's Król Roger.(1926).  This production, by Alex Ollé and Valentina Carrasco of La Fura dels Baus, was first heard in Brussels three years ago, with Leo Hussain, who will again be conducting. 

Stars for  Emmanuel Chabrier  L'etoile, a macabre comedy. Incidentally, Laurent Pelly directs this opera in Amsterdam in October. In London, we'll be hearing a completely different production directed by Mariane Clément, who'll be directing Donizetti's Poliuto at Glyndebourne next month.  In London, Christophe Mortagne will be singing King Ouf I.

Verdi Il trovatore next year, a co-production with  Frankfurt Alte Oper, directed by David Bõsch with Gianandrea Noseda making his ROH conducting debut.

Plenty of other interesting things, especially in the Linbury before its closure, after which performances will shift elsewhere, such as to the Lyric Hammersmith.   The now regular co-operation between ROH and Welsh National Operas  brings Iain Bell's In parenthesis, directed by David Pountney. Among the many British composers being presented is Philip Venables, with his 4.48 Psychosis,  about the playwright Sarah Kane, and Mark Simpson's Pleasure co-commissioned by ROH, Opera North and Aldeburgh. For more, peruse here.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

X rated Mahler Wunderhorn Barbican


X rated Mahler on Wednesday  15/4  at the Barbican, London! Because there are scenes of nudity, it comes with an 18 plus advisory. And why not ?  Clemens Brentano and Achim von Arnim's Des Knaben Wumderhorn wasn't written for kids. This new Wunderhorn (not Des Knaben Wunderhorn) is creative re-imagining, in which live performance is blended into a film by Clara Pons who "visualizes Mahler’s melancholy and humanism, relating a story of love in times of war, and of a paradise forever lost",   Dietrich Henschel will be singing 15 of Mahler's originals, plus nine  orchestrated by Detlev Glanert which are well worth hearing. Nearly 20 years ago, Glanert wrote Mahler-Skizze, a skit, on Mahler's style, based on cartoons of Mahler conducting. It's a short piece but full of joy and energy. Glanert has a taste for the macabre, but also for satire and fun, which is very much Mahler. Alexander Vedernikov conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

Below,  the trailer, which suggests that this might be an acted film rather than just a series of projections behind the stage. Thankfully, it's not literal  Soldiers exchange meaningful glances while we hear Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredight, which ostensibly depicts an inebriated saint preaching to fish, who start fighting each other the moment St Anthony is done. Rather pointed when you consider how the sermon might apply in a militaristic society. Hopefully, the film will capture the charm and wit behind the poems.  Wunderhorn is fifth generation down from the folk tales collected in the field, transcribed by aristocratic intellectuals, influencing a late 19th century composer, who would go on to create a whole body of work inspired by the ideas generated from the collection. The river of creative invention flows, even for listeners who engage with sounds and meaning.

Brentano and von Arnim's Des Knaben Wunderhorn was a huge success in 1819 because it captured the spirit of the times. German-speaking countries had been ravaged during the Napoleonic wars. Germany then was a disconnected mass of over around 300 states, pitted against one another by which side their leaders took. It represented a way of finding an identity based on an idealized, but very lively version of a simpler past. The original is quite hefty, with long ballads and pieces of prose. Mahler set a lot more poems than are in the DKW set, but even then he didn't cover the entire collection. A good friend used to get us to instantly translate pages, unseen, with hilarious results, especially after a few glasses of wine.
 
Mahler discovered Des Knaben Wunderhorn some sixty years later, when the book had gone out of fashion.  Having been brought up in a small garrison town, he would have understood the tales of soldiers far from home, the spectacle of marching uniforms and the macabre reality of death. Um schlimme Kinder artig zu machen - to teach bad children to be good, in the sense that all who dream and wonder are children at heart. .

Monday, 13 April 2015

An opera for 9/11 ? Dealing with trauma in art


More thoughts on Tansy Davies Between Worlds at the ENO, for the 9/11 was such a horror that it would be inhuman not to respond in some way.  The idea that 9/11 shouldn't inspire opera is a non-issue. Not all operas are song and dance routines! Anyone familiar with Davies 's music would have known she wouldn't do kitsch.  Besides, there are lots of movies and plays on the events. Why not art instead of sensation ? John Adams wrote On the Transmigration of Souls very shortly afterwards, There have been numerous films on the subject, some sensational. Charles Wuorinen's Cyclops 2000  has 9/11 connections, because some involved in the commission were in an industry badly dented in the disaster.  Thomas Adès's America: a Prophecy (1999) turned out to be almost too true., with its images of firestorm and  destruction., though he was referring to the cataclysmic end of Mayan civilization.  

So there's no reason why 9/11 should not be a subject for opera. It could be approached from numerous different angles, including sensationalist gung-ho adventure, which fuels the macho mindset of violence that can lead to terrorism and wars of attrition. Given Tansy Davies's thing for sculptural forms, I thought she might explore abstract forms but she chose a very different route, deliberately eschewing the "outer" aspects for an "inner" lower-key approach. That honours the victims of 9/11, not outside observers.  Many of those who were killed didn't know what was going on. They didn't see the iconic images imprinted in the minds of those of us who watched it on TV. They were shrouded in darkness, largely cut off from the outside world, largely unable to communicate. They didn't see the fireballs, though they might have felt the buildings shake. At the time, Karlheinz Stockhausen made a comment, widely miscontrued, that the attacks were like art. That doesn't mean he condoned killing. He was saying, I think, that the audacity with which the attacks were planned, connects to the audacity of art, horribly misapplied. Hijacked, in every sense of the word.

Between Worlds is Tansy Davies's first major work employing voice, so she uses voice as instrument, extending the palette and opening up new possibilities. Many modern composers do that, like- Birtwistle ,Boulez, Gérard Grisey.  Read my review ENO Tansy Davies Between Worlds.  There's no rule book that says things can only be done one way. Please read my article Poetry Beyond Words and my piece on Boulez Pli selon Pli.  Sometimes music begins when we get away from literal text.  If I were revising Between Worlds and of course no one should, I'd tighten the tension, minimizing threnody and relatively minor parts like The Mother (though it was beautifully sung by Susan Bickley). But we are still too close to events not to need comfort.


Sunday, 12 April 2015

ENO Tansy Davies Between Worlds


Tansy Davies Between Worlds at the ENO at the Barbican, London, confirms yet again the ENO's unique position in British cultural life.  Davies is a highly original, very distinctive composer. Between Worlds suggests great potential. It's her first venture into opera, building upon her orchestral style, interesting for that very reason. Everyone knows the events that took place on 9/11, so literal narrative would be crass.  We don't neeed to see planes crash. Many of the victims were trapped in darkness, not knowing what was happening outside. In Between Worlds, we get just that.  It's not an opera in the usual sense, but a meditation on the emotions people might have felt, lost in that claustrophobic limbo from which there was no way out but death.

Those who died trapped were ordinary human beings, facing an unimaginable trauma. Grand arias would be inappropriate. Real people don't play to the gallery, especially in such circumstances.  Bombastic gestures are for terrorists.  Davies concentrates instead on the fragile lines of communication between the inner and outer worlds:  phone connections that break up, messages that don't get through, signals that fail when they're most needed   In this opera, the orchestra sings what cannot be expressed. Wailing sounds suggesting sirens, creating anxiety, all the more disturbing because they sound muted and distant.  Ticking, tense mechanical sounds, beating staccato like the very pulse of the Earth.  A Birtwistle connection exists, though Davies's music, of course, sounds nothing like Birtwistle.  For me,  Tansy Davies's music has always felt sculptural,  as if she's working with physical, architectural forms.  In Between Worlds   she uses fragmentation: myriad tiny sounds that deliberately don't cohere, but en masse form vast walls. The Twin Towers were beautiful monuments of glass, defying the elements, but they couldn't withstand the attack. Those who remember 9/11 will recall the clouds of rubble and dust, waves of paper fluttering down from wrecked offices, and bodies falling, to be smashed into pieces. Listening to Between Worlds as a purely audio experience  will be an experience, As music, it's extraordinarily subtle.

Davies's vocal lines are stratospheric, reflecting  the idea of "looking upwards" to survive . This timbre causes probelms for many in the cast, apart from Andrew Watts, the Shaman, for whom a realm beyond mortal existence is normal territory. Although he's dressed in a business suit, his keening, legato seemed to float into space. Much of Manhattan was built by Native American construction workers, riding the girders way above the streets, turning empty nature into concrete. The Shaman is fantasy, of course, but brings a deeper level of meaning.  When Watts sings, one hears something of eternity, which fits in nicely with Davies's quotes from early music and hymn. The downside is that this stratospheric timbre is hell to sing.  Most of the rest of the cast is challenged.  Psychologically, this is true. The lines  break up frequently, like broken signals, and feel  like strangulated screams, words caught mid-flow in choking gasps.  Not at all easy on the ear, but perhaps it shouldn't be, in the circumstances. But focus on the music in the orchestra, conducted by Gerry Cornelius. This is an opera where abstract sounds tell the story, with beauty, dignity. and sensitive imagination. 

The stage is divided into three separate spheres. Andrew Watts, alone, at the very top, the chorus in darkened space below. In the centre, five key figures whose "ground" is perspex, and transparent, as if they're in suspended animation.  The figures are symbolic of Everyman, so there's no great need for in-depth characterization. It's enough for us to know that the Realtor (Clare Presland) has to divide her time between being a mother and an executive, and that the Younger Man  (William Morgan) is scared of heights: we feel for them as human beings.  The closest we get to conventional aria is when The Young Woman (Rhian Lois) sings of love. It's a wonderful vignette, celebrating lesbian choice -  good for librettist Nick Drake and Davies!  Eric Greene sings the Janitor, a role that sits more easily in range, Phillip Rhodes sings the Older Man, a relatively conventional figure.  Susan Bickley sings The Mother. Deborah Warner directed, Michael Levine designed the set, which underlined the fragility of being "between worlds".

Special mention should be made of the dance sequence towards the end, choreographed by Kim Brandstrup. A man's body floats helplessly suspended, supported gently by a sylph-like female dancer, in a kind of reverse pas de deux.  The image suggests vulnerability, as well as gentleness. Eventually the male figure flies upwards, finding release. The music behind this sequence is beautiful, expressing deep meaning without the use of words. What was striking about 9/11 was that those killed sent messages of love, not hate or revenge, but that, alas, has been lost in transmission in our more divided, violent times.

Between Worlds is so unusual that's it's bound to shake up some. It might take time to settle, I think it proves how much creativity and talent there is in Britain, and why it should be supported. The ENO is in a unique position because it supports original work in the English language, and does so with a quirky liveliness that appeals beyond the narrow confines that give opera  a false elitist image.Scrapping the ENO in favour of small-town runs of, say, The Barber of Seville, just doesn't make sense, long term. The ENO's contribution to British art cannot simply be measured in accountant-speak.