Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Shanghai Symphony Orchestra - China's oldest and biggest

The BBC Proms always feature orchestras from outside the UK. We've heard the Berliner Philharmoniker, he Wiener Philharmoniker, SWR  Gürzenich-Orchester Köln, Concerto Copenhagen and many, many more. This year the focus is on orchestras from outside Europe.  The China Philharmonic Orchestra featured in the Second Night of the Proms. (reviewed here). Classical music audiences in Asia (in particular) are vast, and growing, so by including  less well known orchestras, the Proms connects to audiences in the countries the orchestras come from (Turkey, The Middle East etc)  All part of one huge world-wide family.

The Shanghai Symphony Orchestra is the oldest orchestra in Asia. It was founded 1879. Shanghai was a prosperous, cosmopolitan city, so the orchestra soon became well established.  Details of the 2014-15 season have just been announced. If you're wondering why the photo above looks familiar, it was taken at the Philharmonie in Berlin  The SSO is international.

"What feels like to be the richest orchestra in an emerging second-richest country in the world? Ask Shanghai Symphony Orchestra." writes Rudolph Tang in Klassikom. "With 60 million RMB from the government subsidy and another 30 million from its board which comprises some of the biggest state businesses in Shanghai, Shanghai Symphony Orchestra engrosses over 100 million RMB (or USD 15 million) as its annual budget. The orchestra announced its probably the most ambitious season ever at the SSO’s new hall this afternoon. The 14-15 season of SSO in a comprehensive season integrates both the orchestra and the two halls that seat 1,500 in total."  Read the full article HERE.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Bayreuth Ring live broadcasts 2014

BR Klassik is again broadcasting live from Bayreuth.Very similar casts to last year. Coming up:

Die Walküre  - 5th August
Siegfried  - 12th August
Götterdämmerung  - 16th August 
Lohengrin  - 19th August 

All broadcasts are live. Start times all 1805 German time (5 pm GMT)  More details here.

Here's what I wrote about the performances last year . Two Rings in the space of weeks !Part of the reason Barenboim seems more vivid was because I was there live, sweltering in the heat.

Die Walküre (Petrenko Bayreuth) and Barenboim Prom
Siegfried (Petrenko Bayreuth) and Barenboim Prom
Götterdämmerung (Petrenko, Bayreuth) and Barenboim Prom
Lohengrin (Bayreuth 2011)

A Face in a Crowd

One hundred years ago today, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. From relatively small beginnings, thus was ignited the "Thirty Years War" of the 20th century. In Vienna, saccharinely rebranded the "City of Dreams", people gathered to cheer. The Face in the Crowd ? Adolf Hitler. Those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Schoenberg in London - WNO Moses und Aron

Arnold Schoenberg's Moses und Aron at last returned to London. The Royal Opera House in fact gave the British premiere of the opera, in 1965.  In the present philistine artistic climate, would they dare value art over stupidity? We need the values of Moses und Aron more than ever.  Thank goodness ROH has sponsored the Welsh National Opera production, which itself dates from 2003. At least we in London get a chance to experience the opera live. House co-operations like this are a boon.
John Tomlinson sang Moses in the Met production eleven years ago. Moses, as the text tells us, is a man who doesn't express himself in words, so Tomlinson's powerful presence creates the right impact. Rainer Trost sang Aron, catching the true Sprechstimme cadences well. The opera is a dialectic between Moses and Aron, but the choruses provide ballast and background. Their music is wonderful. Sometimes they represent the voice of god, sometimes the voice of the people. I would have liked sharper, tighter diction but for non-German speakers this was good enough.  Good enough playing, with the WNO orchestra conducted by Lothar Koenigs. Although I hate it when people wail of any performance "It's not like the recording" in this case we have such a choice of outstanding recordings that if we compared like for like, this performance won't come near the top. But never mind. Just getting a chance to engage with Moses und Aron is a privilege.

Please read Mark Berry's review of Schoenberg Moses und Aron in Opera Today. It's the most detailed of all.

The original Stuttgart production looks a little dated now, but it's perfectly acceptable. Although the story comes from The Book of Exodus, when Schoenberg was writing in 1932 he may have been intuiting another kind of exodus. Moses believes in ideals that can't easily be put into words. Aron is his interpreter, much in the way a performer interprets what a composer sets onto paper. No need for tablets made of stone. Pocket scores will suffice.  And even these are meaningless unless the people engage with the content therein. But will the people care, or understand?  Will they prefer cheap thrills and easy answers? Yet, as Moses says, "Ich darf, und ich muss". He cannot compromise or lose his integrity.

There's plenty of nudity and sex in the libretto, but not in the production. The historical-reality crowd might prefer that, but the original directors  Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito,adhere to the spirit of that which cannot be expressed in direct images.  The People sit in what looks like a cinema, facing the audience in the auditorium, "watching" the golden calf in their imaginations, having vaguely impersonal orgies when they think they cant be observed. Much better this than gaudy special effects to distract from the moral power of the opera and the music. Indeed, the staging allows us to concentrate on the inner workings of the music. The naked women emerge vocally from the sprawl in the "theatre", their voices ringing out from the throng. So damn what if they're wearing anonymous clothes. Anyone with ears can pick them out clearly.  Moses und Aron is as much an opera about music as it is about faith.

The god of the Hebrews was austere, so holy that his name could not be spoken, whose presence could not be depicted in crass graven images. When Verdi Nabucco was staged last year at the Royal Opera House (read more here) some people went nuts because there wasn't enough gold and decoration. Surely such people must realize that the Hebrews chose the God of Moses, and not the graven images of Babylon? 

Glyndebourne comes to you

Glyndebourne Tour dedicates its 2014 season to visionary founder Sir George Christie. Glyndebourne Tour is to honour the artistic vision of its founder Sir George Christie by taking three world-class productions, two fresh from premières at Glyndebourne Festival, on the road this autumn. Sir George, who died in May, established the Tour in 1968 driven by an ambition to bring the highest-quality opera to as many people as possible and nurture talented singers from across the world at the start of their careers. Now in its 46th year, the Glyndebourne Tour is offering a rare opportunity to see two new productions direct from the internationally acclaimed Glyndebourne Festival, Verdi’s La traviata and Mozart’s La finta giardiniera.

 It''s not often that brand new productions hit the road so quickly, so this is good news, even though the  casts will be different. The new La Traviata is a safe enough choice though from what I've heard, the original cast was the draw, with all respect to the Tour cast. Good careers have been built from Glyndebourne Tour beginnings.

 The real attraction for me will be  La finta giardiniera.  Mozart's early  opera is relatively rare because it isn't a masterpiece but there's a lot more to it than, say, Bastien and Bastienne  On the other hand, the Glyndebourne production highlights its strengths and makes it good theatre, enhancing our understanding. Read Claire Seymour's perceptive review in Opera Today. I rushed to get tickets at Glyndebourne but it was sold out.  So I'm booking early for the Tour production. Has this Cinderella of Mozart's operas  found her prince? In Frederick Wake-Walker's thoughtful staging, La finta giardiniera.proves its strengths. The first night at Glyndebourne (5/12) is already sold out.
Also taking to the road is Jonathan Kent’s highly acclaimed 2006 production of Britten’s The Turn of the Screw.  Glyndebourne will also be screening  Melly Still’s playful family production of Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen in selected cinemas. "Playful family production" is the right description. "Vixen de-fanged",  I called it at the premeiere (more HERE)  It does nothing for Janáček or for those who like the opera, but it's great for family outings. Disney, with rather good music. Two other special productions for primary school children and  families, Songs about us and Five Deaths and a Happy Ending. Glyndebourne's youth outreach is very high quality indeed, and has featured commissions from composers like Julian Phillips (The Yellow Sofa).

Moire details of Glyndebourne Tour's schedule here. 

photo : morebyless

Friday, 25 July 2014

Gergiev Janáček Glagolitic Mass Prom LSO

At  Prom 9 Valery Gergiev conducted the London Symphony Orchestra. The LSO are an excellent orchestra, whose musicians have worked together, and with Gergiev, for many years. Earlier in the week, Gergiev conducted the World Orchestra For Peace, made up of musicians from 75 different ensembles who meet roughly once a year. WOP publicity made much of the fact that many of them were principals in their own orchestras. But there is no way in the world  that 75 orchestra are going to be of the same quality, or have the same standards, even with a few really good musicians among them for strengthening, like the LSO leader.  With the WOP, Gergiev's job was to hold the unwieldy unit together, hoping at least for cohesion.  With the LSO, he can be an artist, with musicians he knows can be challenged to great things. What a difference a good orchestra makes!

If an orchestra is about musicianship, the LSO delivered, superbly. Barry Douglas was the soloist in Brahms Piano Concerto No 1 in D minor. Douglas played with verve, confident that the orchestra would support him. It must have been as much of a joy for Gergiev to conduct this as it was to listen to.

Janáček's Glagolitic Mass was, however, the main draw. The Royal Albert Hall is made for monumental works like this, allowing the performers to throw themselves into its spirit with all the force they can muster. In Czech tradition, thousands would gather at religious festivals to worship by singing together, with the fervour of communal affirmation. No ifs, buts or maybes in such circumstances. "Gospodi pomiluj gospodi pomiluj" the chorus repeat, whipped into delirious frenzy,. It doesn't matter what you believe as long as you believe with intensity. Perhaps that's why Janáček used an ancient Slavonic language no-one actually speaks and used it in a way that would drive scholars crazy. It's the ferocity of belief that matters. Janáček, an atheist who knew all about playing in churches, aimed for something quite specifically non-churchy. His passion for nature and the outdoors inspires the piece. "My cathedral ", he said, was “the enormous grandeur of mountains beyond which stretched the open sky…...the scent of moist forests my incense”.

Wisely, Gergiev chose Paul Wingfield's reconstruction of the original version of the piece, which captures its audacious wildness in all its rough-hewn glory. This isn't nearly as well-known as the more conventional later version. It's shockingly modern, while also accessing the traditions of the Primitive Church. Pierre Boulez conducted it at the Proms in 2008 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, an  experience etched forever in my memory. The piece is almost as if Janáček's cathedral were being built in sound. Those powerful, pounding brasses, the upward, thrusting rhythms, cascading rivulets of sound sparkling like light through the giant trees in the forest, the chorus intoxicated by faith.

Janáček's Glagolitic Mass suits Gergiev's temperament, too. Boulez articulated the waving, angular cross-rhythms, showing the strength in Janáček's structure, from which firm base the excitement in the singing can emerge. Gergiev goes for a blunter approach, details more muted, but equally strong.. Possibly this way the piece connects more to pan-Slavic tradition and the Russian composers whom Janáček, would have been familiar with. Janáček was so fervently pro-Russian that he placed his beliefs above the welfare of his daughter. The photo shows the saints of the Slavonic Church revealing the gospels.

This interpretation suits the more lyrical passages in the music. The choruses and female soloists (Mlada Khudoley and Yulia Matochkina) produced beautiful sounds, like the "scent of the forest" the composer was referring to. Mikhail Vekua, the tenor, negotiated the extremes of the part nicely. Yuri Vorobiev sang the bass part.  Given the volume of sound around them, the soloists came over clearly. Strain isn't by any means inappropriate in this music given its quasi-savagery. Gergiev, though, adopts a sheen more in keeping with the neo-primitivism of Stravinsky, and the spirit of  much of Janáček's  other music. How I'd like to hear Gergiev conduct The Cunning Little Vixen It's a perfectly valid approach,  gentler on the voices, particularly the choruses, though the organ sounded oddly incongruous in context.  Thomas Trotter showed just how powerful the organ part can be, separate from the orchestra.  His Varhany sólo was extraordinarily explosive, yet dignified and controlled. Perhaps the organ is the voice of God, bursting through ? Or the voice of Janáček, the former church organist, who knew the spiritual power of abstract music.

Claire Seymour's review is HERE IN OPERA TODAY

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Bartók Shostakovich Bělohlávek Prom 7

Jiří Bělohlávek made a welcome return to the BBC Proms. Sakari Oramo is a good Chief Conductor of the BBCSO but Bělohlávek was unique. He conducted the BBC SO from 1995, becoming the first non-British Chief Conductor in 2006, and serving in that capacity until 2012. He then decided to concentrate on Prague. Our loss, for Bělohlávek was in a unique position to teach us repertoire we can't claim to know better than he.  He forged strong links between Czech musicians and Londoners, which remain. At the First Night of the Proms in 2011, he conducted  Janáček's Glagolitic Mass, to almost universal acclaim. Please read Mark Berry's review here.  Tonight, Valéry Gergiev will be conducting the piece, in Paul Wingfield's  less familair edition, so the performances will be very different.  When  Bělohlávek conducted The Last Night of the Proms in 2012, he was greeted warmly. He gave the traditional conductor speech, his command of the English language greatly improved. In the past, he'd struggled to read from a script. He ad-libbed comfortably, joked and led audience and performers like a seasoned Master of Ceremonies. Altogether a valediction, and well deserved.

At BBC Prom 7 at the Royal Albert Hall, we heard again what we'd missed. Bělohlávek's traverse of the long, slow first movement of Shostakovich's Symphony no 10 was purposefuL. This is a theme that can test an  audience's patience,  but Bělohlávek shaped its complex structure, showing how its themes unfold. The Allegro was suitably wild. Whether the section represents Stalin or not, this movement shakes up the order of the Moderato that came before. Jazzy influences sneak past. In the Soviet era, as in Nazi Germany, jazz meant subversion. When Bělohlávek conducted the DSCH themes, one could imagine the composer grinning sardonically. Bělohlávek's forte is his ability to suggest warmth and humanity,against all odds. Qualities sadly undervalued in this world.

This thoughtful reading of Shostakovich's 10th pulled the whole programme together. Shostakovich writes in different influences, breaking the monopoly of form. Earlier, we'd heard the.posthumous premiere of John Tavener's  Gnosis, dedicated to Sarah Connolly. The piece makes good use of the special qualities of her voice. Lovely legato, delicious to listen to, but the piece itself amounted to nothing much. At the end, a completely different melody comes in, a direct Mozart quotation, breaking the dreaminess, just as if a window had been opened to let in banal reality. A piece for the singer rather than the song.

Thank goodness for Bartók's Violin Concerto no 2, with Isabelle Faust. She's pretty much the most interesting person doing Bartók's two violin concertos. Indeed, in her hands, the pieces sing as true originals: she did intensive background work into their genesis, notation and interpretation. She's recorded them with Daniel Harding. Bělohlávek and Harding are completely different interpreters, but both bring insight. Faust wouldn't choose to work with them if she didn't understand how they'd work with her. Bartók weaves in themes and styles (even more so in the First concerto), negotiating the extreme technical challenges. What a a variety of techniques, superbly executed, and with exquisite poise.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Der Rosenkavalier BBC Prom 6

Glyndebourne's Der Rosenkavalier came to BBC Prom 6. I was at the premiere (read my review here), captivated by Lars Woldt's unusual but singularly perceptive Baron Ochs. What a pity the Baron Ochs of the media were more focused on whether Octavian was sexually attractive to them, "either as man or woman". Its not up to them. If Ochs is fooled, that's his problem.  (Read my analysis of the interpretation of the role HERE)

The first act of Der Rosenkavalier usually gets most attention because it's luscious. But Strauss satirizes convention and superficial appearances. In the final act, Baron Ochs is shown for the boor he is. It's Octravian who sets him up. At the very end of the opera, the Marschallin renounces her hopes and blesses the young lovers. Quite pointedly, Strauss suggests that wallowing in the past is not good. In the new lies the future.  After Elektra, Der Rosenkavalier might seem a stylistic step backwards, but don't be fooled. Strauss references Mozart but also throws in sly barbs at the Strausses of Vienna, who turned the Mozart ideal into banal pap. The famous tenor aria is cute, but it's commercial, a consumer product like new clothes and hairdos. Baron Ochs likes music, too, but the music he likes is barely above the level of pop.

Just as we should beware of sugar, we should beware of too much sugar-coating in Der Rosenkavalier. Strauss's music and von Hofmannsthal's text savage mindless convention. Richard Jones respects the composers's intention far more astutely than the Ochsen of this world would ever comprehend.

At the Proms, the Glyndebourne Rosenkavalier was not staged. Lars Woldt was unwell, replaced by Franz Hawlata, who sang Ochs for Andris Nelsons in Birmingham last month,. I've loved Hawlata since he was a colleague of Jonas Kaufmann in the stable at the Bayerisches Staatsoper in Munich.  Hawlata's voice is more resonant than Woldt's, more closer to the ox-like heft with which the part is often done. Although I missed Woldt's snake-like wiliness, hearing Hawalata was compensation enough.

Strauss's fondness for sopranos at the height of their fame but almost, not quite, past their prime ensures that the Marschallin is usually cast for a Big Name, thus ensuring box office attention. But strictly speaking, between the first act and the final scenes, The Marschallin doesn't really have much to do, though what she does is pretty remarkable. Kate Royal is a perennial favourite ith the Glyndebourne crowd, and perfectly adequate, but shes not in the ranks of, say, Schwarzkopf, Isoskoski or divas in their class. Still, shes beautiful, whether in evening gown or nude suit, and sang with a nice wry touch, accessing the spirit of the opera with intelligence.

In many ways, Der Rosenkavalier predicates on Octavian, who may only be 17 but has all the nerve and verve of a teenager who's just discovered sex (and cross-dressing). Again, Strausss' music poses a conundrum. Octavian is an extremely demanding part, interpretively as well as vocally. No 17-year-old could do it. Much better that a singer approaches it with youthful exuberance. Tara Erraught brings genuine freshness to the part, singing with sprightly agility. I like the roundness in her timbre, which suits the part. So what if Strauss mentioned that he'd like Octavian to be "willowy". His music suggests otherwise. Anyone familiar with Strauss should expect cryptic clues and contradiction. Erraught is only 27, so she's still to reach her full potential. One day, I suspect, she'll very good indeed. Certainly she impresses German audiences, who know a thing or two. In Birmingham, Alice Coote sang the role: Erraught isn't quite up to Coote's standard, but she could well get there, and deserves respect from those who care about music.

I wish I had been to Birmingham to hear Andris Nelsons conduct Der Rosenkavalier with the CBSO.  Everyone I know who was there loved what he did. Robin Ticciati has only just started his tenure at Glyndebourne. The premere I attended was in fact his first formal day on the job, so to speak. I loved his work with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. He's also a Glyndebourne insider, a regular conductor of  Glyndebourne Touring Orchestra.  In Der Rosenkavalier , Strauss throws challenges at conductors, too, to test whether they can grasp the tough-minded irony beneath the frothy sugar frosting.  That takes a feel for originality and even quirkiness, which is why, for me, Carlos Kleiber takes the cake. Ticciati has potential but he needs more self confidence.

Louise Alder sang Sophie, more developed and richer  than Teodora Gheorghiu at Glyndebourne. Michael Krauss sang Faninal. Full cast list here. Sarah Fahie directed the Proms semi-staging. She directed movement in the Glyndebourne production, every gesture  expressing character. Definitely a director to watch out for.

Claire Seymour's reveiw  is in Opera Today

photo : Tristram Kenton, courtesy Glyndebourne Festival Opera

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Schubert Winterreise staged - Matthias Goerne

Schubert Winterreise with a difference! Matthias Goerne sang Schubert Winterreise with pianist Markus Hinterhäuser at the Aix en Provence Festival with a background of projected images designed by Sabine Theunissen, directed by William Kentridge. Not that there's much to direct. Goerne sings as he would normally, only occasionally turning to gaze at the scenery behind him. A perfectly valid approach, since the protagonist is acutely aware of his surroundings, even if he interprets them subjectively. Perhaps what happens is all in the protagonist's mind, but the richness of the imagery in the music and in the text suggests a typically Romantic interaction between Nature and inward emotion. A well-known baritone once told an audience to think of the "pictures" as Wegweiser, each song marking a distinctive, almost physical stage in the journey.

Staged Winterreises are nothing new. There have been many, even danced versions  but this new staging, premiered in Vienna in June, is one of the best because it makes us consider whats happening in our own minds when we listen.  There's nothing wrong in principle with staging Winterreise. It's so powerful that it demands emotional engagement. There's no such thing as clinically sterile listening. We all respond, each in our own ways, some more expressively than others, but respond we must.

Theunissen's images follow a stream of consiousness that flows alongside the music in a kind of counterpoint. Sometimes we see obvious figures like Der Lindenbaum, and Die Krahe, but then they morph into something more personal and esoteric. It doesn't matter what the images mean in a literal way. The images are predominantly archaic, referencing early 19th century manuscripts and lithos of trees and Germanic architecture. We see figures of men and women glimpsed briefly, as if someone is remembering snatches of a past. These figures don't need to be from the protagonist's memory. The act of listening is in itelf creative. All of us have buried memories.  If we're thinking about the protagonist's feelings of lost love, why shouldn't fragments of our own pasts pop up in our imaginations? Everyone of us will make different connections, but Theunissen shows us the way sentient people process their feelings and use the submerged data in their psyches.

Stream-of-consciousness images can operate on many parallel levels. Theunissen incorporates images of war and desolation, also perfectly valid for a listener living in modern times.  Indeed, the darkness in Winterreise almost predicates on images of death.  The scent of the Linden Tree reputedly has narcotic powers.  "Komm her zu mir, Geselle, Hier find'st du deine Ruh'!"  The protagonist can't rest under the tree. In any case, in winter, he'd freeze.  We see Der Lindenbaum morph into the horrifying The Hanging by Jacques Caillot, made during the Thirty Years War. In 2014, we cannot forget the start of the Thirty Years War of the 20th century, which  ran on with pauses until 1945.  Despite the horrors, somehow the world survived, if only to descend into further conflicts outside Europe.

Deciduous trees in winter are bare, but they carry in themselves the promise of rejuvenation.  Thus the protagonist forces himself even further into the wilderness, following the tracks of animals until he at last connects with another wanderer.  Theunissen's trees thus add to the interpretation of Winterreise. Does the protagonist go mad, or die or hallucinate the Leiermann?  Or does he find some form of painful wisdom? Winterreise is powerful because it's open to many different interpretations, as is all good art.

Every time we hear a performance, or even think about it, we're developing and refining the way we understand the piece.You don't have to understand every single frame in this Winterreise, but  its worth respect. When we're listening, we're doing something persobnal. No-one will ever have exactly the same take on anything. Even when we listento recordings, we hearb things differently because we ourselves are not the same as we were last time round.  After 45 years and hundreds of different Winterreisen, I'm still learning from different perspectives and interpretations. Some Winterreise stagings are so,literal as to be hardly worth the effort . This one, however, enhances the work because it deals with the very nature of creativity that inspired Wilhelm Müller and Schubert, and hundreds of thousands of performers and audiences since their time.  Arte and Medici TV will soon be showing the Aix performance online. The live show, which has also been heard in Amsterdam and in Germany, will also be done at the Lincoln Center in the fall.