Monday, 26 January 2015

Vítezslava Kaprálová - remarkable musician, remarkable times

Vítezslava Kaprálová would have turned 100 this weekend. Had her situation been different, she might, conceivably be alive today, respected  in her own right, rather than a passing footnote in the shadow of others.  We need to remember her, for her music, but also for her place in Czech history. I won't say for her place as a female musician because I don't believe in cynical bandwagon feminism. No-one should be classified by gender. Kaprálová is far more interesting as herself.

Kaprálová  was was five years old when Czechoslovakia gained independence. She left the country before the Germans invaded in 1937, and died in Montpellier, soon after the fall of France. Like the first Czech Republic's, Kaprálová's life ended far too early. Kaprálová is largely forgotten, for anyone who dies aged only 25 leaves little for posterity. They haven't had a chance to fulfil their potential.  She was born into the Czech musical aristocracy.. Her father, Vaclav Kapral, was a composer, her mother a singer. They knew everyone in close-knit Czech musical circles. Kapral was a student of Janáček, and contributed an article on the elder composer's choral music in a magazine celebrating Janáček's achievements. Evidently young Kaprálová heard or read the scores of what Janáček wrote, and no doubt was familar with a great deal more. She came into contact with almost every big name in Czech music circles, so perhaps it was inevitable that she was something of a child prodigy. She started writing her own music from the age of 9 and entered the Brno Conservatory aged 15. She moved between Prague and Paris, developing a strikingly original voice.

Consider her song January, for voice, piano, flute, two violins and cello (1935,  (link HERE) the month  she turned 20. This is a beautiful piece, the non-vocal writing exquisitely balanced. The poet is Vítězslav Nezval (1900-58), whom Kaprálová probably knew personally. He was a musician who studied with Janáček but is better known for his association with the thriving Czech avant garde in the 1920's and 30's, where literature, music and film art flourished in a kind of Czech renaissance largely unknown to anglophones. "In the night the frost painted on my window a delicate vase. I am horrified of winter days and vases!" The protagonist sees frozen virgins in a boarded-up house, a chill church organ, ceilings falling in. Exquisite balance, the instruments (especially seductive cello) curving round the voice, slowly encircling it. And this is just Kaprálová's op 5!

Evidently she had a very original, creative mind. With her impeccable connections, she was very much part of the lively arts scene in the new republic, creating its own distinct identity through music, literature, visual arts and film.  She also lived an independent , liberated lifestyle.  Much is made of her affair with Bohuslav Martinu, but their relationship didn't last. She  married Jiří Mucha, son of Alphonse Mucha, who defined art nouveau painting and design. After Kaprálová's death he married Geraldine Thomsen Mucha. Their home in Prague was a shrine to a remarkable era in Czech history

Kaprálová began conducting in her teens and worked with masters like Vítězslav Novák and Václav Talich. In her early 20's she was conducting the Czech Philharmonic and made a notable impact on her contemporaries, including Rafael Kubelik, also part of the Prague musical elite. In 1938, aged 23, she conducted the BBC  Symphony Orchestra in her own Miliitary Sinfonieta (1937). Against the background of Nazi confrontation, it's quite a statement. Fierce, bright brasses suggest defiance, more lyrical passages suggest the endurance of more peaceful (possibly Czech)  values.. The tension between driving ostinato and themes of soaring  freedom give the piece considerable sophistication. Perhaps we can even hear echoes of Janáček's Sinfonietta in the cheeky, rhythmic fanfare towards the end.  It may well be Kaprálová's humorous way of acknowledging quirky nationalist spirit. No really good artist copies, or lives under the control of anyone else. Kaprálová is unique. When she died, aged only 25, after the invasion of France, a truly fascinating talent was extinguished.

Please read my other pieces on Kaprálová and on Czech music and film.

Little Troy Lumpkin

You have got to LOVE this guy !

Saturday, 24 January 2015

South Bank 2015/2016 season – why it matters

The South Bank 2015/2016 season was quietly announced this week - here's the press release. Since I avoid doing copy/paste, I've spent a bit of time thinking.  The South Bank is, or was, at the heart of the arts in the whole nation. What happens there impacts on everywhere else. This year, the focus is on the Royal Festival Hall, since the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Purcell Room are being closed down for refurbishment (details here) at a cost of £25 million, a bit less crazy than the original £120 million project. I wish they'd refurbish the South Bank website which caters mainly for the short term. Serious music listeners plan a year in advance, so the website chases business away instead of bringing it in.

You'll need to book early for Opera North's Wagner Ring, from 28/6/16.  Current Arts Council policy has an animus against London.  But if we want a national arts policy, surely it makes more business sense not to starve London of funding but to bring regional companies to town. Opera North should get a good income from coming to the South Bank, much morre than when it toured to Sadler's Wells, and it increases their profile. Economics and demographics favour London, no political gravy train is going to change that.

Zurich Opera has been coming to the South Bank for years, even if Arts Council England hasn't noticed. Zurich is a major house, so if London's good enough for them, so be it.  This year, they're doing Alban Berg Wozzeck on 2/10/16 with Christian Gerhaher, conducted by Fabio Luisi.  Even more significantly, Jirí Bélohlávek brings the Czech Philharmonic and good singers from the Czech National Opera to London on 18/4/16 in Leos Janácek JenufaThis is a big deal since the RFH is bigger than the Barbican Hall where Bélohlávek conducted when he was with the BBCSO.  More space will let the music breathe, and more people can enjoy.

These three ventures represent a much more effective means of using existing London resources than the hare-brained idea of sponsoring micro-mini companies in the boonies.  I'd really like to hear the Hallé., for example, enticed to London, under some reciprocal deal. It's cheaper to move players around than to fund more "British Music Experiences" which serve little purpose except to siphon funding.  Real artistic innovation is made by people, not by capital projects.

Resident Orchestras :

At the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski continues for a few more years, which is  good news, because he's a man of integrity and sensitivity who likes exploring, especially Russian repertoire. This year, he's conducting Taneyev, Tchaikovsky, Bruckner, Sibelius, Knussen, Strauss, Mahler and the world premiere od Alexander Raskatov's Green Mass ( 30/1/16). Raskatov wrote the ENO  A Dog's Heart which was brilliant theatre, so let's find out about his music.   

Also unmissable, the world premiere of Magnus Lindberg's Violin Concerto no 2 (Frank Peter Zimmermann). Jaap van Zweden conducting. Lindberg was a regular at the South Bank under the aegis of Marshall Marcus, a man of such vision that he could reinvigorate  a genuine understanding of the arts in this country, much more so than some of the ruling clique. I'm also booking for Christoph von Eschernbach on 9/4/16  Matthias Goerne sings the UK premiere of Marc-André Dalbavie's new work for baritone and orchestra , and also Brahms German Requiem. Dalbavie's orchestral and chamber music is good : more recently, he's been writing opera, eg Gesualdo in Zurich.

Emeritus conductor of the London Philharmonia, Christoph von Dohnányi returns  on 27/9/15 with Beethoven's Ninth - a gala to mark his 85th birthday. His second concert, on 1/10/15 (Berg, Ives and Schubert) would be fulfilling, too. Chief Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen focuses this year on Stravinsky, but you'll have a job finding out what he's conducting since the South Bank website is musically illiterate and hard to navigate.  Look at this for example, which pours out generalities about something that's not even on the programme! Nothing wrong with mistakes, everyone makes them, but that's hilarious. It brightened nmy day. Fortunately, Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Nobody knows the trouble I see (6/12) gets mentioned, along with Bruckner 8th.  Andris Nelsons, however, is known only here  for his work at Boston!  Salonen also does three concerts with Lang Lang.  The Salonen Stravinsky concerts, which sound good, tre in May 2015  and September 2016.

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment has a natural home in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, but with that out of commission it's moving. At the Royal Festival Hall on 10/11/15, András Schiff conducts Mendelssohn and Schumann. On 14th, the OAE moves to St John's Smith Square, where Ian Bostridge sings Handel (in a Handel period building). More unusually, the OAE takes on Mahler on 12/4/16 with Vladimir Jurowski, and Simon Rattle conducts Hans Rott, Brahms and Bruckner on 22/4/16. The big gala comes on 7/6/16 when Mark Elder conducts Weber  Der Freischütz. This is core OAE rep and they do it livelier than most. No cast details, yet, but who cares, book as soon as possible.

As for the London Sinfonietta, once stalwarts of the South Bank, attracting an edgy and devoted following, there's no news at all.  I looked up the Sinfonietta's own website, with little more luck. How times have changed, sadly. This year they're doing more schools programmes than "new" new music.Al orchestras do outreach, but their primary goal is to create good art, not to substitute for the disappearance of basic musical education in this countrey.

Friday, 23 January 2015

James MacMillan’s Inés de Castro

James MacMillan’s Inés de Castro, revised and revived with the Scottish Opera, Edinburgh.  Read Rupert Christiansen in the Telegraph here.  The romance of Inés and Pedro has inspired works of art for centuries.  Horrified by adultery (and its political consequences) the King of of Portugal had  Inés's head cut off, reputedly in front of her children (his grandchildren). There are stories that Pedro had her exhumed, and her corpse crowned in a semi-Satanic ceremony.  Nice Catholic kids studying Camões learned not only about great love but also about lust, murder and the macabre,

 The photos show the tombs of Pedro and Inés in the Mosteiro de Santa Maria de Alcobaça. Even the setting is dramatic. The tombs are in what seems to be a spartan, empty wing of the main building, reflecting  the desolation Pedro must have felt. Then, as you come close, the sculptures, among the finest in all Europe, reveal their glories. You could spend hours studying the detail and imagery. The romance is depicted, its tragedy, and its moral epilogue: souls descending into hell.  

I've wanted to hear MacMillan's Inés de Castro for twenty years  but short of travelling to Scotland, what's the chance   This is where the idea of a nationally aware arts organization (even if London based)  comes into play. Scottish Opera, no matter how hard it tries, can't hope to reach the rest of Britain on its own. MacMillan is one of the major names in British music, and his music is readily accessible.  This would be a chance for the BBC to deliver on Tony Hall's promise of making it a major force for the arts.  

But what do we actually get when we turn to the flagship BBC Arts ? There's a short clip of MacMillan talking about the opera, which is very useful, but no substitute for the music. Without context, it's pretty much meaningless.  The BBC Arts homepage is barely more than a collection of random clips.  The Space, its predecessor,  failed because it was disastrously mismanaged.  If the French and Germans can do umbrella arts web channels why can't the British? The BBC is in a better position to do this than anyone else, even if it drives Rupert Murdoch crazy, but it seems to have lost the plot, and learned nothing from the mess The Space descended to. 

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Exclusive - your own Rheingold Ring

For the Wagnerite who has everything - your very own custom made Rheingold Ring pendant in 18K red and yellow gold! The Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra does Wagner Das Rheingold tonight with a world class cast - Matthias Goerne, Kwangchul Youn, Michelle DeYoung, Kim Begley, Oleksandr Pushniak, Eri Nakamura, Anna Samuil, Hermine Haselbõck, Peter Sidhom, Stephen Milling and many others. Conductor Jaap van Zweden.  More details HERE.

Chow Sang Sang, one of Hong Kong's oldest and most prestigious goldsmiths, sponsors this production. Hence the brilliant tie-in, a stroke of marketing genius! Because these rings are being made for an honourable, charitable cause, they won't be cursed. Brünnhilde would approve, as will the Rhinemaidens. Order HERE even if you can't make the event - this is an exclusive one-off limited edition offer.  

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Jonas Kaufmann redeems Andrea Chénier the Musical

Umberto's Giordano's Andrea Chénier, now at the Royal Opera House,  is no more about history than Jesus Christ Superstar is about theology. "It's more of an opera", said a lady, making a long pause, "......than Fedora." That said, it's so full of catchy tunes and star turns that it would make a great feel-good West End musical.   Basically, it's a  pot boiler even by opera standards. Had it been written 30 years later it would have been a Hollywood extravaganza, complete with dancing girls. But gosh, is it fun in its own camp way!

Jonas Kaufmann redeems the opera altogether, and raises it to an altogether higher level of power and dignity .The part is ideal for his rich, Italianate  timbre with its hints of mystery and sensuality.   Technically, the Big Numbers in Andrea Chénier aren't nearly as brilliant or as beautiful as those in, say, Manon Lescaut, but they provides moments of display stunning even the least musical members of the audience. Fortunately, Kaufmann is a genuine artist, who doesn't do things just for show. He creates the part with his singing, suggesting much more depth and complexity than the composer might have dared to imagine. This Andrea Chénier is a bad boy, a rock star, an outsider who writes poetry in an age of violence, yet he has the finesse to entrance a posh girl like Maddalena di Coigny. . After that "Un dì all'azzurro spazio" I was smitten, too.

Slight as Luigi Illica's libretto may be, the story deals with cataclysmic events. The French Revolution was such a watershed in world history that it creates a powerful backdrop that it saves the opera from itself. Because know what the story, we can fill in the emotional extremes without much effort, but singing this impassioned helps a lot. Eva-Maria Westbroek is a house favourite because she makes all her roles feel personal: her Maddalena  seems full-hearted and full-throated even before she dresses up for the ball. Westbroek  brings out the feisty woman behind the fancy veneer. Giordano may emphasize the love story, but the French Revolution happened for very serious reasons.

Elegant as the  Ancien Régime might have been, it was a system based on inequality and the abuse of wealth. Carlo Gérard  (Željko Lučić) rages against the cruelty that has worn his father down. Lučić's singing was so intense that he made it clear, that, for all the prettified décor of this set (designed by Robert Jones), the past was a hideous sham. The pastoral dance shows the rich pretending to be the peasants whom they exploit: dance is a metaphor for regimented group-think.  The servants have lovely costumes (Jenny Tiramani) but these are uniforms, only prettier than prisoners or soldiers might expect. It's also not for nothing that Bersi (Denyce Graves) is black. These things happened.

This production is visually stunning – chandeliers in the middle of the field of vision,  roccoco mirrors, colour co-ordinated designer clothes even for the mob in the court room. So much for the ideals which Chénier stood for.  This Andrea Chénier is most certainly "Regie" because every production, no matter how banal,  is a form of interpretation of meaning.  David McVicar "decorates" but misinterprets meaning.  The Revolution happened because, for a moment, people realized that superficial appearances deceive. It says much about modern society that people nowadays treasure trappings over truth. A man behind me kept talking loudly, bursting into insincere autopilot bravos and bragging about himself.  Never before have I experienced behaviour as boorish as that, especially not at ROH.  If he really did know opera as well as he claimed to, surely he might have noticed that the implicit values of Andrea Chénier are quite the opposite?

Fortunately, Željko Lučić sang with such dignified fervour that those who go to opera to listen would have appreciated the depths inherent in the drama which this staging did so much to nullify.  Kaufmann gets star billing, for good reason, but Lučić reached the true emotional depths. A big cast, young singers as impressive as the older ones.  

photos : Bill Cooper, Royal Opera House

Monday, 19 January 2015

Barbican Centre 2015- 2016 season announced

The Barbican Centre has announced its 2015-2016 season. Highlights (more details to come)

Debussy : Pelléas et Mélisande - Simon Rattle conducts the BBCSO in a semi staging by Peter Sellars.  Magdalena Kožená (Mélisande), Christian Gerhaher (Pelléas), Gerald Finley (Goulaud), Bernarda Fink (Geneviève), Franz-Josef Selig (Arkel) and the London Symphony Chorus under chorus director Simon Halsey (9/10 January 2016). 

Opera Rara Leoncavallo’s Zazà and Bellini’s Adelson e Salvini 

The UK premiere of Louis Andriessen's large scale opera La commedia  (part of the Louis Andriessen Composer focus. This will be part of a Total immersion in Andriessen's music, a range of concerts including: a performance of De Staat given by the Guildhall New Music Ensemble; Britten Sinfonia performing Dances and Tapdance; and UK premiere performances of Andriessen’s Mysterien and Rosa’s Horses with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Lots on Andriessen on this site, he's one of my faves.

Masaaki Suzuki and Bach Collegium Japan begin their first major UK residency. Suzuki comes regularly to the UK (usually Aldeburgh) but in April 2016, he3 and his amazing choir will be joined by sopranos Hana Blazikova and Joanne Lunn, countertenor Robin Blaze, tenor Colin Balzer and bass-baritone Dominik Wörner, for two of Bach’s greatest choral achievements: a performance of Mass in B minor, one of their great specialities,  (8 April) and Magnificat paired with Bach’s Orchestral Suite No 3 in D minor, Concerto for two violins in D minor and Cantata Bekennen will ich seinen Namen BWV 200 (9 April).

Hans Zender's Winterreise with Ian Bostridge in a new semi staging by Netia Jones (read more about the piece HERE) This new incarnation  promises to be more, as it's now titled "The Dark Mirror"

The Academy of Ancient Music Monteverdi Il ritorno di Ulisse in patria with Ian Bostridge

Handel Tamerlano with the orchestra Il pomo d'oro

Handel Orlando with The English Concert

Bach St Matthew Passion, John Eliot Gardiner,  Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra

Composer focus on George Benjamin, in March 2015,  including a semi-staged performance of Written on Skin featuring the Mahler Chamber Orchestra conducted by Benjamin himself. ‘This opera was designed for the MCO’, says Benjamin; ‘While composing, I remembered the sound of the orchestra and its special qualities.’  Experienced cast !  Barbara Hannigan, Christopher Purves and Tim Mead. Laurence Equilbey's new ensemble, the Insula Orchestra,  makes its London debut joined by Choeur Accentus and soprano Judit Van Wanroij, alto Wiebke Lehmkuhl, tenor Reinoud van Mechelen and bass Andreas Wolff presenting an unusual programme of Zelenka (Miserere in C minor), Mozart (Solemn Vespers K339) and CPE Bach (Magnificat). Highly recommended ! 

Rolf Hind's opera Lost in Thought "the world's first mindfulness opera" which might sound odd but Hind is a very gpod composer and the production is by Frrederic Wake-Walker, also very good   Lore Lixenberg sings, also good news. indeed.  It's "based on the classic structure of an extended meditation, with the music and concept by Rolf Hind. Exploring the points of contact between sound and silence in music and meditation,  Lost in Thought will be an immersive musical performance in which the boundaries evaporate between performer and audience, between time and experience". 
Composer focuses on John Adams, Thomas Adès, Louis Andriessen, George Benjamin, Henri Dutilleux, Henryk Górecki and Oliver Knussen 

Renée Fleming in February 2016 with Jiří Bělohlávek in the UK premiere of Swedish composer Anders Hillborg’s The Strand Settings. Especially written for and dedicated to Renée Fleming, the work is a 24-minute song cycle about love and desire, based on texts by Canadian poet Mark Strand. She returns in April with Hartmut Höll in a Lieder recital.

Cecilia Bartoli and Mexican tenor Rolando Villazón star in in a Christmas gala  featuring arias, duettos and opera scenes by Mozart, Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti. Acclaimed soprano Natalie Dessay performs in a solo recital accompanied by pianist Philippe Cassard in a programme featuring works by Schubert, Mendelssohn, Duparc, Fauré, Liszt and Bizet 

Plus the usual glorious and fulfilling mix of concerts from the Barbican's resident orchestras, the BBC SO and LSO plus regular visitors like the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Overwhelmed by riches - the Philharmonie de Paris and more

Overwhelmed by the riches to watch and listen to, all at once, this week.  Some have been so good you need to enjoy them more than once. 24/7 listening if possible.  Absolutely the crowning glory is the inauguration of the Philhamonie de Paris. Twenty years in the making, this is, most certainly, the biggest new venture on the European arts scene in decades, eclipsing even the new Mariinsky.  Even those who don't actually like music should watch: the building is spectacular, so beautiful and so innovative it's a work of art - massive multi-dimensional sculpture. The filming is surprisngly tactile: the cameras linger lovingly over different vistas and angles, as if they were exploring the body of a beloved. Utterly sensual.

The performances are excellent, the performers electrified by the glorious sense of occasion and place.  The grand opening gala overran live but it was worth watching anyway: this was a historic moment, particularly in the wake of last week's murders and the bigotry that's surfaced since.  Paavo Järvi, sometimes uneven, led the Orchestre de Paris in a truly great rendition of a patriotic (but artistic) programme of Dutilleux, Ravel and Fauré.  William Christie, in the third concert,  positively glowed with happiness. He's looking old and frail, so any opportunity to see him should be treasured.  Les Arts Florissants did a familiar programme well, but my eyes were riveted on Christie, who was clearly enjoying the moment, the fulfilment of the dreams of a lifetime.  Les Art Florissants now have a glorious, permanent home in Paris itself, much higher profile than their former base at the Théâtre de Caen.  Les Arts Flo are more than an orchestra, they've helped transform the status of French baroque.

Last night I watched Tito Ceccherini conducting Ensemble Intercontemporain. Wonderful performance, even by the high standards of this orchestra, founded in 1976 by Pierre Boulez. Their home, the Cité de la Musique,  has been renamed Philharmonie II, integrating contemporary music and IRCAM in the mainstream, as it should be, for it's one of France's great contributions to European culture. Excellent programme, with great classics like Varèse Intégrales, Ligeti Concerto for piano and orchestra, and Magnus Lindberg's Related Rocks.  Throughout history, innovation has been resisted, but without renewal, there's no life. Boulez, incidentally, collects Paul Klee.

On now, Carl Orff Carmina Burana, which I'll watch later, and tonight, Laurence Equilbey conducts Max Bruch Die Loreley a rarity recently revived, which I've written about HERE (Max Bruch Die Loreley - non-Wagnerian Wagner 

On Sunday, clash of the Titans !  

 Boulez's Birthday Bash in Baden Baden, where he began conducting in 1957 on the recommendation of Hans Rosbaud. 

 Live streaming from the Wiener Staatsoper of Wagner Tristan und Isolde, the old McVicar production . 

The Jerusalem Quartet live from the Wigmore Hall on BBC Radio 3

A new opera by Régis Campo on BR Klassik

Plus a documentary  on the making of the  Philharmonie de Paris, and still have to catch up on Don Giovanni from La Monnaie, the Second Gala of the Phiharmonie de Paris (Lang Lang), photographed above by Beaucardet, and La Clemenza de Tito Plus, CDs, DVDs, books etc etc

Friday, 16 January 2015

Boulez Birthday Bash Baden Baden

Pierre Boulez turns 90 on 26th March. On Sunday 18th January, a special concert will be broadcast on  

 François-Xavier Roth conducts 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.  He still lives in the vicinity, so perhaps he will be in the audience.   The photo shows Rosbaud and Boulez in October 1958 at the Donaueschingen Musiktage in October 1958. Photo : Willy Pragher, Landesarchive Baden-Württemberg

The programme :

 "... explosante - fixe ..." 
pour flûte soliste, deux flûtes, ensemble et électronique

Première sonate pour piano
Avec Pierre-Laurent Aimard au piano

Dérive 1

Douze Notations pour piano

Notations I à IV et VII pour orchestre