Wednesday, 30 May 2012

GSMD Ned Rorem Our Town

Ned Rorem's Our Town received its European premiere at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London, last night.  Rorem is a prolific composer of vocal music, but has rarely ventured into opera, so Our Town is quite a scoop for GSMD. Ironically, some of the leading Rorem specialists in this country were associated with the Royal College of Music.

Our Town is based on the play by Thornton Wilder (1938) which pits the artifice of theatre with the reality of live performance. A Stage Manager (Stuart Laing) stands on the GSMD Theatre platform, interacting with the stage hands. The opera has already started though we in the audience haven't realized yet, for The Stage Manager is an interface between us and the performers.. It's a good device for later, the dead Emily Webb (Sky Ingram) will  go back in time and relive a day in her childhood. She interacts with her parents, but also carries the knowledge of what will happen to them in the future. Parallel realities. It's so unsettling that she returns to take her place among the dead in the cemetery,who observe mourners come and go with dispassionate detachment.

But first, we see George Gibbs (Alexandros Tsilogiannis), playing with schoolmates and falling in love with the girl next door (Emily, aged 16). The Stage Manager tells us about this small town, with its churches, drug store and neat rows of houses, similar to the one in the photo, perhaps, which shows Thorton Wilder and his family in 1900.  It's "Normalcy", as Warren Harding described America of this period., though even then, it was an idealization. It's so bland that the dramatic pace of the first act drags, unless you're familiar with the cultural context.  In the second and third acts, the narrative takes leave of convention and becomes far more involving.  But this orderliness is just a foil for the metaphysical goings-on. Although nostalgia is integral to the plot, Wilder insisted on absolute non-realism. Thus the stage at the Guildhall is almost bare. Performers mime activities. Stage hands run in and out .They're performers too, part of the strange blend of theatrical illusion and reality.

Like most of Rorem's music, the vocal lines are almost conversational, the orchestra (conductor: Clive Timms) providing atmosphere. Nice keyboard, adding a "period", drawing room feel. Singers don't get to sing much, since it wouldn't be right in this conformist society where there is "No culture" as Mr Webb the newspaperman (Ashley Riches) tells a questioner planted in the audience.  All they do is sing hymns. Towards the very end, though, the Stage Manager gets to sing gloriously long lines, so protacted that you start counting the bars. The whole opera pivots around Emily and George, but the closest Sky Ingram gets to elaborate singing is when she realizes she can never go back among the living. While they were "alive", the performers had to act. When they're "dead" they can sing properly again.  Short but excellent moments from Mrs Soames (Anna Starushkevych), Mrs Gibbs (Kathryn McAdam), and the Choirmaster Simon Stimson (Jorge Navarro-Colorado). Barnaby Rea  was Dr Gibbs and Emily Blanch was Mrs Webb, who don't die and sing as much.

Rorem's Our Town is good for students as it teaches singers how to act without relying solely on vocal technique. Actors can learn how music changes the way theatre works. Since large numbers of students can participate, everyone has something to do. Even skills like moving as an individual in a group are useful. One good example is when the alcoholic Choirmaster throws up in the choirstalls. Obviously there's no real vomit, he doesn't really throw up, but the actor closest  to the mess reacts, screwing up his nose at the smell, wiping his hands on the bench, after the action has moved back to the front of the stage. Most of the audience wouldn't notice, but this was very good acting indeed, completely natural. The Guildhall School of Music and Drama teaches theatre and music skills, but these are just as useful in other professions. If an actor can be so dedicated that he keeps in character even when no-one is watching (except me), he can be dedicated in any kind of work he does. Not everyone who graduates from GSMD ends up like Bryn Terfel, but many learn things that will serve them well whatever careers they choose.

Lots more on Rorem on this site. If the idea of Rorem's Our Town appeals, you might like Laci Boldemann's 4 Epitaphs, These  are based on Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology (1915). Masters writes fictional epitaphs, each of which tells the story of the person supposedly buried beneath. Ollie McGee denounces her abusive husband. "In death, I am avenged". Sarah Brown tells her lover to tell her husband "There is no marriage in Heaven. But there is love".....Laci Boldemann (1921-69) gets straight to the point, expressing the "person" by inflections in phrasing and syntax, rather than through ornamentation. The songs feel like speech, just as you'd expect from gritty pioneer folk who don't mince words. Anne Sofie von Otter recorded them in 2009 - cult favourites!  Read more here.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Four L'Olimpiades!

Vivaldi's 1734 opera L'Olimpiade seems to be multipying everywhere. Last week, there was a  concert performance at St John's Smith Square. Starting this weekend, there'll be a fully staged, high profile production at Garsington Opera at Wormlsey, and soon there'll be another staging at the Buxton Festival.  The photo shows a staging  at Schloss Greinberg during the Donaufestwochen in 2008  Very minimalist.

The opera isn't about the Olympics so much as about cheating!  The hero  uses a fake ID to win, but the prize is his friend's girlfriend. Dishonesty, deception, suicide, attempted murder. Sure beats drug scams. The original play, by Torquato Tasso, was so popular that it inspired over 60 composers - including Beethoven - to write operas and shorter pieces about it.
Prepare by listening to The Venice Baroque Orchestra, whose L'Olimpiade pastiche took place last night at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Review HERE on Opera Today. But listen for yourself, as it's online on BBC Radio 3 for 7 days HERE. This version uses extracts from 16 different composers and works surprisngly well, because the pieces are so well chosen. Indeed, the difference is styles adds piquancy You can hear why pastiches like these were so popular once, they have charm. Vivacious singing, and delightful playing, conducted by Andrea Marcon.

Hugh Canning on ENO Caligula

Hugh Canning writes about the ENO's Glanerrt Caligula HERE. "Olympic-size success for home grown talent", (He;s writing for The Australian and direector Benedict Andrews is "home grown Australian talent". Now that's a pertinent observation, since elected governments go along with what the IOC wants.  "Bread and circuses", cynical Roman politicians used to say. Distract the populace and you can get away with anything. Dodgy governments like big public spectacles. And populations are still fooled.

Glanert's Caligula is political. While he was writing, he was thinking of Dimitri Shostakovich, who had to make compromises to survive a totalitarian regime. In Caligula, everyone makes compromises to survive. It's also savagely satirical. The Shostakovich connection runs fairly deep: think of The Nose where a nose flies around wreaking mayhem on society. You don't confront dictators and escape, but you survive by your wits. Tyrants don't understand humour. In the Soviet Union, satire was the weapon of the weaponless. After all, life's one big, bloody joke! One of Glanert's other big hits is Jest, Satire, Irony and Deeper Meaning (Scherz, Satire, Ironie und tiefere Bedeutung) (2000), extracts of which were available on CD until quite recently.

Although I disliked the German production visually, the performances were so pointed that they brought out deeper levels in the opera than the London version does. There's now a recording of the original production, conducted by Markus Stenz with Ashley Holland in the title role. Get it here. Read a review here. Benedict Andrews's staging is more prescient, but the cast, though good, were a little too genteel. Perhaps it's  probably correct given that British audiences may need to be eased in gently. Peter Coleman-Wright's an excellent singer, and this is a difficult part, but he's too much the Elder Statesman  to create Caligula's maipulative cunning and manic mood swings. He's just too lovable!  And Caesonia was old enough to be Caligula's mother. His boundary-testing toddler tantrums become lethal because she iudulges him. Caligula and Caesonia aren't Darby and Joan but something very sick. Similarly, the relationship between Caligula and Helicon can be pivotal. Glanert pits Helicon's counter tenor against Caligula's baritone to make this clear. Helicon's a mirror opposite to Caligula, so when the balance is even the relationship's more acute. Take the time to listen to more Glanert and on his own terms. He's a much deeper composer than some realize. We need composers who can write music that's accessible and inherently dramatic.

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Vivaldi L'Olimpiade - Garsington Opera at Wormsley

Vivaldi's L'Olimpiade iis a rarity, but this year, like buses, three come along at once. Garsington Opera at Wormlsey's production is probably most interesting as the director is David Freeman. Garsington Opera has always specialized in baroque treasures, and Freeman has directed all three Vivialdi operas there so far. The conductor will be baroque veteran Laurence Cummings. This will be the one to go to! It starts Sunday, and a few seats are still available.

"We did L’Incoronazione de Dario, from Vivaldi’s early period, La Verità in cimento (see review) last year, and now L’Olimpiade, from much later. This is probably the finest - we’ve saved best for last”. Though not, hopefully really the last as there are at least 20 more Vivaldi operas around.

"In L’Olimpiade, Freeman says there is some “absolutely beautiful music and it’s genuinely touching too. It’s not just pretty tunes. The music cuts pretty deep, even if the plot’s a concoction”. L’ Olimpiade is based on a text by Metastasio which was also used in other operas. Audiences would have had printed texts available, though not sheet music which was expensive to copy, so the plots would not have been wholly unfamiliar. “So there wasn’t the same close relationship between text and music that you get in Mozart or even in Monteverdi". Contemporary audiences might have enjoyed these operas much in the way that popular modern shows string together good tunes around a storyline."

“Another thing about Vivaldi”, says Freeman, “is that we tend to think of baroque as Handel. They were almost direct contemporaries, Vivaldi (1678-1741), Handel (1685-1759). But Handel was a German composer writing in Italian for an English audience, so naturally he didn’t go in for very complicated plots but for rather sublime situations. Vivaldi is different. He’s a Venetian writing for Italians, even in the Venetian dialect, for Venetian audiences, who could understand . So he was able to do a lot more, with text, with comic wit, a lot more madness. So there are more arias, even if they’re shorter, and lots more recitative. So in comparison with Handel who can seem quite noble, Vivaldi might seem more scrappy, but that’s what makes Vivaldi lively”.

David Freeman is an extremely experienced director. Please read this interview in Opera Today, in which he talks about Vivaldi and how he makes drama come alive.

Photo shows David Freeman directing Rosa Bove in rehearsals fo Garsington Opera's Vivaldi L'Olimpiade. 

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Jonas Kaufmann out of Les Troyens

Jonas Kaufmann is out of the Royal Opera House Berlioz  Les Troyens next month. He hasn't been well for a while and pulled out of the Met too. Complete sympathy. Singers do not pull out of performances like this without a good reason  Kaufmann's Enée wouyld have been mega high profile, so his decision was not taken lightly.  He's being replaced by Bryan Hymel,. Hymel sang the part successfully last year in Paris, so he knows it well.  Hymel' a lot younger but good, and has the potential to go far. Remember him as The Prince in Dvorak Rusalka? He's also a French repertoire specialist.

He's replaced Jonas K several times before, including once in Munich where the announcement was made minutes before curtain went up. The audience were seated and waiting, and then the Intendant walked in front of the curtain and said Kaufmann was unwell. Naturally, the audience weren't happy. Since Munich is Jonas Kaufmann's home turf, it was pretty intimidating for a young guy to go on.  Hymel had been singing in another opera running at the same time in the house, but it was still quite a challenge. So when that audience applauded at the end,  it meant all the more.

 Berlioz Les Troyens at the Royal Opera House will still be a very major event, whoever is singing. Those who go for a big name might be miffed, but those who go for music will be OK. Let's hope Jonas K recovers well. He shouldn't push himself too much too soon, because he's got to consider the long term effect on his voice.

ENO Caligula Glanert review

Detlev Glanert's Caligula at the ENO shows how powerful modern opera can be. Caligula was a tyrant, but this opera isn't sensationalist. Based on the play by Albert Camus, it's a study of human emotion in extreme situations, expressed in vividly dramatic music."The opera starts and ends with a scream", says director Benedict Andrews. It's primal. This phase in Caligula's madness is set off by the death of his sister Drusilla, allegedy murdered because she became pregnant by him. It ends with Caligula being killed. Suddenly he shouts "I'm still alive!". The cycle doesn't end. Caligula's madness is universal psychosis.

Camus was writing when Hitler and Stalin were in power. Glanert, despite his jovial personality, doesn't shirk from the political implications. Caligula (Peter Coleman-Wright)  is mad, and everyone knows it but he has absolute power. His inner circle feed his delusion, but he's sane enough on some level to despise them for their hypocrisy. Ralph Myers's set is uncompromising. The audience is confronted by a wall of seats, not unlike a theatre. Perhaps it's an arena where gladiators kill each other to entertain onlookers. Are the populace any less bloodthirsty than their Emperors? There but for fortune. Caligula looks at himself in the mirror of the moon, which refracts blinding light back at the audience.  We can't not get involved. We're in the Coliseum, after all! Madmen become tyrants when ordinary people don't take responsibilty. Incidentally, modern tyrants have used football stadiums to imprison people and do massacres, so the image is even more poignant.

In the middle of this arena there's a tunnel, a discreet reminder of Caligula's psycho-sexual confusion. Despite his madness, he's trying to make sense of his situation. "Loneliness!  Loneliness!" he wails, though he knows he can't escape the ghosts of those he's killed. What motivates his excesses? He's compelled to outrage every sensibility. Yet that traps him in a vicious cycle, too.Are his provocations a kind of death wish, to goad his public until they crack?

Glanert's music builds Caligula's complex personality.  An electronic organ rips through the more refined instruments in the orchestra. Maniacal crescendi, more meticulously orchestrated than their impact might suggest. Ryan Wigglewswoth conducts with the precison this music needs. Like Caligula, all is not in the roar. Caligula's mind works logically, though his ratiionale is flawed.  Some of this music is very beautiful. Caligula knows thw world around him is ugly, which is perhaps why he idolizes the moon.  Tender woodwinds make his fantasy as alluring as he thinks it is. But Caligula can't sustain a line of thought for long. His extreme, unpredictable mood swings are mirrored in the music. The parody burlesque and the silly songs the poets sing add wry humour. If we aren't humane, even to madmen, we lose the very humanity that stops us becoming tyrants. Gaiety throws grotesque into high relief. When we're at the heart of the beast, Glanert's textures are clear. Yet scratching, thudding beats in the percussion build up pressure, and the quiet heart will again explode.

Caligula is a difficult role to sing and Peter Coleman-Weight succeeds well though he doesn't quite get the craziness that's in the part. The falsetto screech, for example, could be chillingly dangerous, for it touches a raw nerve in Caligula's soul. Caesonia was old enough to be Caligula's mother, and it's she who indulges him in his madness. The exchange between Coleman-Wright and Yvonne Howard's Caesonia could be much more sinister, though perhaps that might be too unsettling for British audiences. For this same reason, it was probably best that performances all round were good, rather than especially sharp and distinctive. Pavlo Hunka impressed as Cherea the procurator, as did Carolyn Dobbin's Scipio  and Brian Galliford's Mucius, and the irrrepressible Eddie Wade filled his two parts well.

But the very fact that Glanert's Caligula is in London at all is a cause for celebratiuon. British audiences are sadly cut off from continental European music and opera in particular. Caligula is a much more sophisticated opera than Wolfgang Rihm's Jakob Lenz (read review here) (written when Rihm was only 24), so it doesn't have to be prettied up for British audiences. This ENO Caligula is much better than the production in Frankfurt that keeps getting revived. .(the singing there was sharpr). Benedict Andrews's clear, unfussy style concentrates on the inherent drama. In Germany, this would be a hit. Glanert's music is certainly not intimidating, so British audiences should appreciate it too. After all, he's guided by what Hans Werner Henze told him when they first met, that opera should communicate.

Glanert's music has featured at the Proms eight times, but I can't remember seeing any of his many operas in this country. Even the operas of Hans Werner Henze are rarities here, though they're often performed on the Continent. Henze is such an impoirtant composer that it's shocking how little Henze we get here. How can we assess the genre if we don't  hear enough to judge?  So Glanert's Caligula at the ENO is an excellent point to start from.

Photos copyright Johann Persson, ENO
A more formal version with full cast list soon in Opera Today. Please read my other posts on Glanert, Henze, ENO and satgecraft (follow labels below)

ENO Glanert Caligula - new trailer

 Here is ANOTHER trailer about Detlev Glanert's Caligula at the ENO. FULL REVIEW HERE. In the meanrime, Read my preview HERE.. Lots more on this site about Glanert, Henze and ENO. Enjoy!

Friday, 25 May 2012

Harrison Birtwistle Portrait London Sinfonietta

Harrison Birtwistle is perhaps the greatest living British composer. The London Sinfonietta, with which he's been associateed for over 40 years, paid tribute to him in this South Bank In Portrait: Harrison Birtwistle event.  Event, rather than concert. Forty minutes of music was stretched out to nearly two hours as an excercise to be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 9th June  and filmed for archive and further broadcast. The audience were pretty much used as incidental props.

Had it not been for the sheer force of Birtwiustle's personality it would not have been worth attending. At least the BBC studio events lets us "props" in the audience get in free, but the South Bank makes us pay for the privilege of wallpapering the hall. Curiously, it felt like Birtwistle's own music, where parallel levels co-exist but don't necessarily connect., though it's unlikely that South Bank marketing had that in mind. Listen to the broadcast, where Birtwistle keeps cutting through gretentious waffle with down-to-earth ripostes, like "No". He's so sharp that he doesn't need presenting. The South Bank seems fixated with dumbing music down, but Birtwistle shows that good music can stand up for itself.  "Beethovenian  (long noun)" says Tom Service of dynamic contrast.  "No  just basic music practice" says Birtwistle. It was hilarious, but also pointed good sense. Birtwistle shows that it's possible to talk intelligently and intelligibly about music without pretending to be clever.  Tom Service keeps repeating the tongue twister title Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum over and over because he can . "I don't do Latin" says Birtwistle. "Is Five Distances for 5 Instruments the key to your work? (or words to that effect). For once, Birtwistle is lost for words, but his face speaks volumes. Let's hope that whoever edits the film has the guts not to pretty things up. Then it will be a classic, honouring Birtwistle in perpetuity.

Bitrrtwistle acknowledged his long relationship with the London Sinfonietta by starting with Cortege (2007), a reworking of Ritual Fragment. A typical Birtwistle cryptic code, for Cortege was written to celebrate the reopening oif the Royal Festival Hall, though both commemorate Michael Vyner, one of the founders of the London Sinfonietta. It's a theatrical work in which performers change positions as they play: reminiscent of Luigi Nono perhaps.. But in this context, it was particularly poignant as times have changed so much since Vyner's uncompromising vision held sway.

Five Distances for 5 Instruments (1992)  is a ten minute jaunt of movement and interchange. Horn (Michael Thompson) and Bassoon (Simon Haram) call out to each other while flute (Michael Cox)  oboe (Gareth Hulse) and clarinet (Mark van delWiel) comment.

Birtwistle spoke eloquently about how Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum is structured, using Paul Klee as metaphor. Boulez, too, is a Klee fan and collector: it's hard to overestimate the importance of modern visual art on modern music, even though Birtwistle thinks Picasso wasn't much good. The piece is like an infernal clockwork, (another Birtwistle thing). Six "musical mechanisms" interacting and opposing each other, changing gear, pace and register.  I love Birtwistle's quirky sense of humour, where notes jumble along, clash and escape in sudden spurts of free spirited joy. The photo at right (by James Yardley, is a moment of sheer Birtwistle glory, a completely unplanned juxtaposition of two place names in an incongruous setting. And they're both near where the composer was born! He'd chuckle.

The musical highlight of the evening, however, was the UK premiere of In Broken Images (20110 first heard at MITO Settembre Musica when the top photo was taken. Its tight construction seems to give it vigour. "The 'timbre family principle'  and the 'principle of rhyhmic imitation" says Pietro Mussino in the original programme notes. "Every timbre layer-family has its own inner complexity  which in some cases exceeds the ten polyphonic parts  while in others lightens to the point of only using, for example, the clarinet".  Again, the idea of a perpetual motion machine that recharges itself with the energy of constantly changing cells. And the idea of voices as characters, conversing and demurring: opera without voices. Birtwistle asked Tom Service to read out a poem which inspired the work. "You are young and fast, I am old and slow" it runs (not exact words). But old isn't decrepit. This is amazingly energetic and inventive. "They're both me" said Birtwistle.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Common sense about the Met's The Enchanted Island

When the Met did The Enchanted Island Martin Bernheimer tore it to shreds, and many others followed (almost word for word). Yet many enjoyed it.  At the cinema I went to, the audience were cheerful even though the opera lasted a long time. What was the fuss about then? Partly, it was the word "pastiche" which means something negative in modern English. So people worry that if they'd had a good time, they'd be showing "bad taste", even the ones who claimed to know pastiche meant something different 300 years ago. But "purist" is a snotty 20th century concept, often employed by people too insecure to let on that they don't know what they're talking about. Real "purists" would have recognized in The Enchanted Island a true example of baroque spirit.

In baroque times, composers churned out dozens of opera to entertain their audiences. No qualms about recycling good ideas. Scores weren't printed, and copying expensive. In any case, audiences liked hearing tunes they recognized. No recordings to freeze productions into fossils. Similarly, audiences had no hang-ups about endlessly rehashed narratives.  Complicated plots weren't a problem for those who read Tasso and Metastasio in the original.

Perfhaps part of the negative reception was that Peter Gelb attracts so much hate that no-one could bring themselves to accept that The Enchanted Island was pretty good. Not genius, but fantastic theatre. Had it been premiered in Europe, it would have been a success (remember the Glyndebourne Purcell The Fairy Queen, (see here), also William Christie and Jeremy Sams? Both of them know their baroque better than average.  This is what I wrote about the Met's The Enchanted Island last January "Met Enchanted Island - deeper than expected".
Now here is someone else, a baroque specialist who's seen it and comments positively too. He also dismisses the idea that hiding the list of items was a kind of conspiracy, as some suggested. Some who know the original works the bits came from recognized them anyway. The writer also praises the stagecraft which was amazing - exactly in the true spirit of baroque extravagance. How could anyone miss Placido coming out of the sky? Or that boat, flying in from the wings? Live, it must have been so over the top!  True baroque spectacle. Now THAT was a proper use of the Met's thing for expensive machinery and extravagant display. (though in fact it was cleverly done rather than gargantuan).

Here's the link: to Joel Cohen's article in the Boston Musical Intelligencer, and thanks to whoever sent it to Norman Lebrecht. 

Christian Gerhaher and András Schiff Vancouver BC

From Barbara Miller, who was at the Chan Center in Vancouver BC:

"I don’t know where to begin to explain how special this recital was. I had admired Christian Gerhaher on recordings and heard András Schiff live in solo recitals, as well as on recordings of marvelous collaborations with great singers. So I didn’t think twice about making the three-hour drive to Vancouver to hear them perform together. The program included Beethoven’s “An die ferne Geliebte” and Schumann’s “Dichterliebe”, as well as Schumann’s Opus 98a Harfner songs from Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, and a set of songs by Haydn that tended toward the spooky or melancholy: The Spirit’s Song, Content, Trost unglücklicher Liebe, Geistliches Lied, and The Wanderer. Beethoven’s lovely “Adelaide” ended the program, with Schumann’s “Mondnacht” sung as an encore.

The biggest revelation for me in this recital was how effective it is when a very capable singer is thoroughly committed to communicating the words of the songs, concentrating his energy and putting all his vocal technique in the service of the texts. Gerhaher had a very contained stance, and I don’t remember a single hand gesture, although he was never stiff. While he moved his head and upper body, and his face was quite expressive, his hands remained at his sides, or one hand was holding the piano. Rather than create a character who felt the emotions, he so thoroughly inhabited the songs in his own persona that we had to pay attention. Meanwhile, András Schiff, who is one of the great solo pianists of our time, brought his own genius for detail to the accompaniments, authoritatively and unforgettably leaving his mark on his solo passages, while always keeping the sound of the fully opened Steinway D piano underneath the singer when they were together. Gerhaher had a music stand with the texts of the songs, to which he referred occasionally with a quick glance to the side, except during the Haydn songs, when he put the stand in a position where he could look down at it directly in front of him, perhaps wanting to get the English words exactly right.

Looking through the notes I scribbled during or between songs, there is little that is really useful, since I really wanted to watch the performers and listen to the music rather than write coherent comments, so this will be a disappointing review for anyone who wants details of the songs. Gerhaher’s baritone voice was smooth through the registers, showed a good dynamic range, and never suffered flaws in intonation or breath support. He has recorded all these pieces with his usual accompanist, Gerold Huber (the Beethoven and Haydn will be on the recording coming out in June), and I refer anyone who is unfamiliar with him to these recordings (or to the slightly quirky Youtube videos of them performing An die ferne Geliebte in a rehearsal studio) to judge for yourself the nature of Gerhaher’s style.

But, as fine as Huber is as an accompanist, Schiff’s accompaniment was amazingly sublime and complemented Gerhaher’s “plain style” with a refined sense of detail and consummate technique that made for a truly rare and memorable Liederabend. The two artists performed this program in New York and Toronto, as well as Vancouver, and I can only bless my luck, and thank the Vancouver Recital Society, for the fact that one of their performances was close enough that I could attend it. Christian Gerhaher’s bio mentions that “while completing his medical training he perfected his musical training in master classes given by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau” among others. I never heard Fischer-Dieskau live, but, in lamenting the passing of the great singer, I am grateful to experience his legacy: another generation of singers with deep artistic commitment to the Lied, and a cultural climate in which Lied recitals can take place around the world. Rather sadly, the hall was not completely filled for this world-class performance. The Vancouver Recital Society’s Artistic Director Leila Getz made an appeal at the beginning for subscription renewals, saying that, while the concerts are growing ever more wonderful, the audiences are diminishing. (Since most of their programs are instrumental recitals, one assumes that it is more than just art song that is drawing fewer people). I hope that there is still a future for this kind of intimate performance by the world’s great musicians in places other than the music capitals of the world, and I encourage everyone who loves these forms to attend live performances and make donations to the organizations that bring them to us."

Panic stations? ENO Caligula preview

Detlev Glanert's Caligula starts at the ENO Friday. Panic stations?  Just because something is German and modern doesn't mean it's scary. Glanert's music is perfectly accessible. In fact, he's been featured at the BBC Proms, hardly a bastion of danger, no less than eight times starting with his Third Symphony in 1996. Indeed we've heard something of Caligula beforer, since Glanert's Theatrium Bestiarum, featured at the Proms in 2005.

At the time, the Guardian said that it "shares some basic material with Glanert’s opera-in-progress, based on Albert Camus’s play Caligula. Yet it’s not a study for the stage work, rather a kind of anatomical dissection of ‘man as beast… a glimpse into the inner soul of a monster as human beings can become'... . The mood of the piece is uneasy, closer to that of Ravel’s La Valse than anything else". At the time, I wrote "It's  irrepressibly vibrant and uplifting, more a heady circus than a freak show of horrors. “Music is theatre”, says Glanert, “imaginative, not realistic”. Indeed, strange figures seem to scuttle across the music, odd sounds burst forth from the oboes and strings, as if they were the tails of creatures flitting past so quickly you can't catch sight of them. This is amazingly visual music, bursting with colour and brio. It's great Proms stuff too because it uses oddities like the contrabassoon and five percussionists, no less. There are passages of wistful “Nachtmusik” and a burlesque march to boot.". So when Caligula comes to the ENO it could be quite dashing !.

Glanert was one of Hans Werner Henze's few students, so he has a pretty good idea of how music theatre works. When they first met, Henze shot out the question, "Who are you writing for, and why?" Since then, he's never forgotten. It keeps him focussed, since opera is about communication.
Caligula is something of a hit, having been revived several times since its 2006 premiere. I heard it in Frankfurt in 2009. (read more here). Glanert's trying to imagine who Caligula was, beneath the psycho monster image historical sources described. This is a study of how absolute power corrupts, destroying even the tyrant himself. So don't expect gory sensationalism for its own sake, but something more complex. It’s based on the play by Albert Camus. Caligula’s raving mad, but there’s a crazy, warped logic behind him. “I’ll never be alone”, he says, “the ghosts of those I’ve killed are around me”. Einsamkeit, Einsamkeit, he wails in self-justification. Eventually, everyone seems caught up in delusion. Glanert's music scales seven octaves, mirroring the extremes of Caligula’s personality, yet they don’t sound forced or strained.

Vocally, the writing is sophisticated. Caligula’s baritone contrasts with the countertenor of his slave, Helicon. Significantly, when Caligula in his madness decides to take on the persona of Venus and marry the moon, he sings falsetto, an attempt to mimic Helicon and also, perhaps the women he's hurt and been hurt by. Caligula may behave monstrously but he’s not a monster. Life itself is absurd, so Caligula’s way of making sense of things isn’t, of itself, immoral. He’s a creature of instinct albeit a warped one. So Glanert is careful to make the role sympathetic. Four poets appear, singing sentimental doggerel, their music is ghastly. When Caligula has them killed, we agree. There's humour here and surprisng tenderness. (The photo is a marble bust of Caligula, restored with the right pigments used when it was originally painted. Such a pretty lad, who died aged 29 - doesn't look like a monster)

I disliked the Frankfurt production, so it's a good thing that the ENO will be doing something completely new. The director this time is Benedict Andrews whose Monteverdi Return of Ulysses in 2011 was greatly admired by many. (read my review here). Will Andrews bring classy cinematic values to this opera? Like Ulysses, Caligula is set in antiquity but the subject is all too modern for comfort. As Glanert says, these things have happened in our time. Lots more on Glanert on this site, too. Enjoy the TWO trailers below. ;

Monday, 21 May 2012

Vixen de-fanged - Glyndebourne Janáček The Cunning Little Vixen

Glyndebourne's 2012 season started in great style with Leoš Janáček's The Cunning Little Vixen. Its rapturous reception would suggest that this could become a Glyndebourne perennial.  Inspired by a novella illustrated by cartoons, the story of Vixen Sharp Ears has great charm. The production glows with gorgeous colours, on stage and in the pit. Vladimir Jurowski conducts the London Philharmonic Orchestra with lustrous style: you can hear the "birds" in the score, feel the sunshine and thrill to the starlit night sky in the final scene.

The Cunning Little Vixen is about nature, but it's not naturalistic. Janáček observed nature closely, but doesn't write about animals so much as about human nature. Thus the intense gemstone colours of Tom Pye's designs dazzle gloriously. Like the World Ash Tree in Wagner's Ring, a huge construction looms over the stage. It's a tree which changes with the seasons : spring blossom, autumn golds, bare winter branches. Since one of the themes in this opera is the passing of time, the tree is a natural metaphor. There's a slide behind it from which animals pop up and observe. Later, it's shown as the lair in which the foxes live. This vividness reflects Jurowski's approach to the music. Although Jurowski softens the sharper edges of Janáček's idiom, he creates surges so lush that he brings out the vigorous life force that's fundamental to the meaning of this opera. The Vixen dies, the Forester grows old, but nature renews itself each year, and the grandchildren of foxes and frogs continue the cycle of life.

 "Kontrapunkte, Kontrapunkte", the Forester (Sergei Leiferkus) tells the Schoolmaster (Adrian Thompson)  He's explaining that the dry old schoolmaster's not right for a woman like Terinka. It's a wry joke, not something a woodsman would say, but a composer might. Perhaps Janáček identified with the Schoolmaster, withering away without love. Significantly, he found new creative momentum in old age, when he met Camila Stösslová. Janáček is quite explicit about what makes the sap rise in human beings. "How many children do we have, dear?" asks the Fox of the Vixen. "We'll make many more".

In this production, one of the finest scenes is the one where the Fox (Emma Bell) courts the Vixen (Lucy Crowe), just as a formal, old-fashioned formal couple might have done in Janáček's youth. "May I call upon you?" he asks, and she responds coyly. Very decorous. Animals don't beat around the bush like that.  Janáček then becomes even more daring. "Do you smoke?" asks the Fox. Is the Vixen A Modern Woman, emacipated like Stösslová, and not domesticated like Zdenka,  the composer's wife? The Vixen lives independently (in a treehouse inherited from "Uncle Badger" (Mischa Schelomianski). "My ideal woman!" cries the Fox. There are cryptic personal meanings in The Cunning Little Vixen which can easily be missed. Please see my piece "Janáček, Cunning Vixen and Subversion". The scene isn't heavily scored, so the words carry weight and Jurowski lets them be heard clearly, Then, when the mood shifts, orchestral textures become more dense, even sinister.  Listen for the triumphant finale, which could be sheer Hollywood (though it was written long before film had sound). As life ebbs from the Forester's body, his spirit breaks free. You can imagine Janáček joyfully defying convention. The Forester doesn't die with "The Old Woman", his wife (Jean Rigby) but with the spirit of the Vixen and her wild ways.

Sergei Leiferkus's Forester is outstanding, created with real vigour. He's of course an extremely experienced singer, but he's also a strong actor with a wonderful sense of humour. He does Shostakovich satires with panache. In 2010, he sang Edward German's Who were the Yeomen of England at the reconstruction of a 1910 Prom. He sang with a heavy accent, but with such glee that it felt more sincere than any dour, irony-free performance. Adrian Thomnpson, as the Schoolmaster/Mosquito, was sadly underused. He can sing Czech better than most Englishmen, and has done a lot of Janáček, including the difficult The Eternal Gospel. (more here). He deserves a higher profile. Lucy Crowe as The Vixen was clear. pert and spirited, as a good Vixen should be.

This Glyndebourne The Cunning Little Vixen is great entertainment, and orchestrally rewarding. It's let down, however, by direction that's less incisive. While Janáček defines the roles vividly, Melly Still turns characters into caricatures. Dressing humans as animals is almost as tricky as dressing animals as humans. From time to time, the cast move like animals, but that's not enough. The focus should be on who the animals really represent. Partly the problem lies in the costumes (Dinah Collin) which make it hard to realise who's who unless you've read the synopsis.

But the bigger problem is that the parts are given no personality. The weakest scene in this production occurs in the hen coop where the Vixen tries to get the chickens to rebel against male dominance. It can be literally "red of claw and tooth" because the Vixen tears the Cock apart. Here, though, it's so tame you could miss it among the busy babble going round the stage. The dancers are nice, but they don't add much. Yet the Cock, Hens and The Dog are all crucial to the deeper meaning of this opera.  Even the Vixen isn't well developed. When the Vixen discovers the mystery of sex, poor Lucy Crowe pushes up her blouse in an unsubtle attempt to look "sexy". Yet what Janáček has been telling us all along is that nature is instinct, not appearance, and that instincts win. When these darker, more radical aspects of the opera aren't defined,  The Cunning Little Vixen loses its bite. And what is a Vixen without fangs? (photos : Bill Cooper)
HERE is a link to the review in Opera Today.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

I was there at the Coronation!

Since Windsor and central London are no-go areas for common citizens, we might celebrate the Queen's Jubilee in other ways. I love the Queen because she comes over as a genuinely decent person, who works extremely hard and cares about the country (and Commonwealth). Which is more than we can say about politicians, or other members of her family. One of the reasons we admire the Queen is because she came to the throne at the right time.The war was over, but there were still bombed areas and memories of rationing, death etc. And  out of this a pretty, conscientious young woman taking on the mantle of Empire. Highly symbolic. Monarchy is image, not logic, and if it remains, the monarch must fill a need. Which is a contradiction in terms when it's hereditary. Long Live the Queen, Long May She Reign (even if it's only to keep the seat warm for William).

Anyway, here is a Calypso from 1953, and the singer, nice tenor, is Young Tiger (George E Browne) who was young then but was nearly 87 when he died in 2007. Listen to the inventive words, and the way they twist round the line.  "Her Majesty looked really divine, in her crimson robe furred with ermine", "the night wind was blowing freezing and cold, but I held my ground like a young Creole"  Royalty sure throws a grand party, though we pay and pay and pay and pay.....I'l be doing quite a lot more on the Queen in music over the next few weeks, but very "alternative". Which somehow I think she'd apppreciate more than right-wing Little Englanders.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is dead

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau has died, ten days short of his 87th birthday. For me, it's like the death of a parent, for he played such a big role in my life. So I'm not going to write something trite to jump in on the bandwagon. That's insincere. As regular readers know, I don't write unless I can offer something personal or original. Someone like DFD deserves that kind of respect..

And yet, it's hard to find the words to express what he meant. He was a major part of my life since I was 14. Through him I discovered the whole German tradition, starting with song, branching out into orchestral music, literature, poetry, history and painting. Fifty years of adventure, starting with a tinny radio. Without DFD would I have become the person I am?

And more importantly, what did DFD mean to the world? Read the biography by Hans Neunzig (1998) which is the best we've got so far. The real significance of Fischer Dieskau would, I think, emerge all the greater without hagiography. He needs to be appreciated in the context of his times. He wasn't the "only" singer around, by any means, so that context needs to be remembered. But what he did that was special was to bring Lieder values to the fore. Had DFD spent his career in opera, he would not have been the phenomenom he was.  Above all else, he was a concert artist (and by that I include his Bach). On the concert platform, he embodied the Romantic Individual.

The painting by Caspar Friedrich David is such a cliché that we forget what it means. A wanderer is standing on a peak. He's had a struggle to get up there before trails and hiking boots, and he perches dangerously on a rock, looking out into the distance, made mysterious by clouds and fog. The man is a wanderer, who doesn't follow fixed routes or seek final destinations. "Ich komme vom Gebirge her, Es dampft das Tal, es braust das Meer, Ich wandle still, bin wenig froh, Und immer fragt der Seufzer, wo?"  Fischer-Dieskau embodied this Romantic spirit. It's an essentially high minded, intellectual aesthetic, and Fischer-Dieskau's elegant nobility fitted it well.

DFD was the son of an elderly Berlin schoolmaster, and thus a direct connection to the better values of 19th century Prussia - learning, discipline, hard work, idealism.  DFD came of age just after the war, when Europe was in turmoil. It's fashionable these days to attack Walter Legge and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, but they had a vision of Lieder as hyper-refined art that served some kind of esoteric higher function. Fischer-Dieskau and Schwarzkopf became a formidable team. They pioneered uncompromising single composer recitals, selling out the Royal Festival Hall with all-Wolf programmes. Unthinkable now? Together, Fischer-Dieskau and Schwarzkopf promoted other repertoire relatively unknown outside German speaking circles. I discovered Mahler through their seminal Des Knaben Wunderhorn recording (1968). I'll defend that passionately because they sing with great enthusiasm. Fischer-Dieskau also sang in ensembles with most of the leading singers in his day - Brahms parts songs, for example, and of course his Bach series with Karl Richter and others (hear the clip HERE and recognize the voices in "Capella Bavariae". singing Schubert Der Gondelfahrer D809).

Furthermore, in the 1950's and 60's, recordings became mass market. With full length LPs it was at last possible to enjoy long attention span music at home, and to listen repeatedly, unlike live or on radio. Fischer-Dieskau embraced this technology like no-one else. He recorded nearly everything in the repertoire, and preserved as many performances as  feasible on tape. Perhaps they'll be issuing "new" DFD recordings for years to come. Indeed, one of DFD's sons, when asked what his Daddy did for a living, said "He makes LPs". Recordings have changed the way we listen because we're attuned to detailed, analytical listening, perfect for Lieder.

Fischer-Dieskau is a father figure, but you truly honour your father when you grow up properly.  DFD had mannerisms and faults - so what? Who doesn't?  Ultimately, I think Fischer-Dieskau's greatest achievement was to get us listening and thinking about song and appreciating its individuality in the deepest sense. We will truly honour Fischer-Dieskau by understanding song as a living tradition, which grows and proliferates through many interpreters and interpretations. That's DFD's true legacy : love of the art of song, not celebrity..

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Janáček, Cunning Vixen and subversion

"How can animals talk?" My Dad asked my three year old brother. The kid thought seriously for a moment, then said with great solemnity. "Only when they wear clothes".  That's the perennial problem posed by Leoš Janáček's The Cunning Little Vixen, which starts the new Glyndebourne season this weekend. On a very superficial level, one might assume that the opera is a nature tale, since it's based on very shrewd observation of animal behaviour. We live in technologically cocooned urban times. Ninety years ago, Janáček and his contemporaries were a lot closer to the countryside and to nature. In any case, Janáček was inspired by a cartoon series in a newspaper.  So from the very start, The Cunning Little Vixen was allegory, not fairy tale. If you think it's cute and Disneyfied, the joke is on you! (photo : Peter Trimming)

For Janáček, The Cunning Little Vixen is satire. One of the most powerful themes in the opera is the way animals co-exist with humans, rather like a subculture on the margins of society.  A good metaphor. Foxes adapt. In Soho, for example, thousands of urban foxes dine on the discards of exotic restaurants, and retire to the Royal Parks for rest and recreation. Foxes can't be domesticated. Perhaps thee real clue to the meaning of The Cunning Little Vixen lies in Janáček's relationships with women which I've written about many times (like this Janáček's Dangerous Women). Women represent society and social mores. Janáček fell in love with 14 year old Zdenka Schulzová, a "vixen" so innocent and unworldy that he didn't connect her to what her family represented: solid middle class respectability, and Germanophile, (ie authority) for that matter. He was poor, Czech and an outsider, yet the family took him in and supported them, even when the composer wanted a divorce (extremely scandalous in those days). Yet Zdenka never ceased to love him, though he treated her and their daughter abominably (possibly hastening Olga's death).

Significantly, Janáček didn't leave Zdenka. There's evidence that he still slept with her late in life. And the fact that he pursued women who were not available to him speaks volumes. Was he more into pursuit than entrapment? Had Stösslová responded, would he have suddenly turned tail, all fervent protestations to the contrary? Philanderers often need an excuse not to commit, however flowery their passioins. So The Cunning LittleVixen affirms the values of non-domestication. Is "Vixen Sharp Ears" Zdenka as she might have been, and also Janáček's psychological rationale for not setting up home with Stösslová or anyone else? (he may have slept with others). From The Diary of One Who Disappeared, Janáček is fascinated by feral women. Notice that Terynka is a gypsy. Significantly both the song cycle and the opera were inspired by newspapers, for adults. Janáček anthromorphizes, and transposes dangerous feelings.

That's why The Cunning Little Vixen is so free and so joyous. Janáček is indulging his anarchic side, merrily sending up the stultifying convention he couldn't shake off in real life. Thus the music is exhilarating, full of energy and wit, It leaps and dances like a pack of playful young foxes who haven't yet learned fear. This opera was one of the composer's favourites because he could poke fun at the human world and its foibles. The Vixen mocks the conformist hens who sell their souls for comfortable living. Like many women, and men, too, for that matter. The Dog is miserable because he's unnaturally celibate - like the Priest and Schoolmaster. The Poacher gets married and the Gamekeeper returns to the forest. The opera ends, not in misery, but in glorious triumph. Just as the vixen lives on, so do the frogs, insects, trees and other organisms. Is the Gamekeeper really alone? Whether he dies or not, he's at last at one with the eternal cycle of growth and renewal. So he and the Vixen have the last laugh after all.

One of the reasons I'm so fond of the 1954 Komische Oper Berlin production (Das schlaue Füchslein) conducted by Vaclav Neumann and directed by Walter Felsenstein is because it was made just after the war, not long after the Soviet Occupation, and under Communism.  (watch clips here and here) That audience would have known all about surviving in harsh conditions, and also about the consequences of conforming to rigid authority. They were fooled by "realism". The original artiist and the composer didn't see it realistically, either. The animals look like human beings, dressed up in corny costumes, which is a telling comment on regimes of all kinds. It's kitsch, but howlingly funny because it's subversive, playing along with convention but sending it up. Like Janáček, that audience could let off steam without getting into trouble. Like crafty urban foxes, those Berliners meant to survive.

Please see my numerous other posts on Janáček (more Felsenstein links, photos etc) and related subjects. My work is original so please don't borrow my ideas without acknowledgement.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Dalibor Jenis Ford in Falstaff, ROH

Dalibor Jenis sings Ford in Verdi's Falstaff at the Royal  Operas House. Jenis comes from Bratislava, but his good looks are simmeringly Italianate. Pity that in Robert Carsen's production, he's costumed in "ludicrous Texan cowboy disguise". Says Richard Morrison in the Times, "that's doubly sad, because Jenis is the one performer who injects real emotion into this superficial show."

“Everything in opera comes from Italy”, Jenis told me three years ago. “Italian is the language of music, my second mother language”. We discussed Italian roles and the balance between singing and acting.

"I think acting is as important as singing. Years ago, you could have fat singers who didn’t move much on stage but had wonderful voices and everyone was happy. Now people expect more.” Jenis is interested in the way small details and movement can make a characterization stronger. “I search every role to find moments when I can express things better”. Sometimes it’s as simple as changing position subtly. “I don’t like to be like a machine, doing exactly the same thing every time”, he says. “In life, things change all the time”. This keeps performance fresh and natural. “Even when we’re not singing, there is a connection between singers, which an audience can feel very clearly”.

Good acting isn’t all obvious movement. When Jenis was very young, he watched a Carmen, where the singer was in her mid fifties. She sang the Habanera so effectively that she was utterly convincing without having to overact. “She was so strong, she didn’t have to move a lot or “be sexy”, she acted with her face and her voice. I said to myself, “This is Carmen”. Read the full interview HERE.

Havergal Brian Songbook - surprise delight!

What is the appeal of Havergal Brian? He draws extreme opinion. Friends of mine admired him greatly, so I listened with respect, always assuming that one day, a perfect performance would make Brian work for me as it did for them. Please read more here and do the exclusive Havergal Brian crossword !

Mark Stone and Sholto Kynoch have now made a superb recording of Havergal Brian's songs, first part of a series which will be the Complete Havergal Brian Songbook. At last, Havergal Brian works for me!

This could be a cult favourite, because it's very enjoyable indeed. I've played it over and over with pleasure. Stone's elegant, dignified poise and Kynoch's lyrical playing make the best possible case for Havergal Brian piano song. There are also short works for solo piano and piano and violin (Jonathan Stone). The booklet is informative, with the high quality presentation that Stone Records is noted for. Havergal Brian could not have dreamed of anything as stylish as this.

But remember Brian's Symphony no 1 (the "Gothic") at the Proms last year? At the Royal Albert Hall, it was a magnificent theatrical experience, conducted with finesse by Martyn Brabbins. I listened with awe to the performance and the sheer audacity of Brian's vision. (read more here). But as music, the Gothic is decidedly odd.  Brian's fifteen minutes of international fame very nearly killed his reputation. So why does Brian have such a devoted following? The Havergal Brian website (HERE) is a labour of altruistic love, so comprehensive that anyone could become an instant expert without actually hearing the work. Perhaps Brian is endearing because he goes where other composers fear to tread. Perhaps it's the Great British Eccentric tradition, which honours those who Try Very Hard.

When the works on this recording were made, the heavy hand of worthy Victorian earnestness still  haunted British song. Ralph Vaughan Williams was one of the brilliant exceptions, rather than the norm.  Don't listen to Brian and think in terms of RVW, Butterworth or Gurney, but rather to the social context of song in the period, which owes as much to parlour song and hymnal as to ersatz pastoralism.  Think Granville Bantock, Peter Warlock or C W Orr, whom Stone Records has honoured in a recent recordng. which Andrew Clements admired  I'm less convinced, perhaps from having toiled too long in the lesser recesses of English song. But we need to know those valleys, if only to appreciate the peaks. That's why Stone Records' traverse of English song is so important.

The songs of Havergal Brian appeal to me because they're so unself consciously self conscious.  Brian aims high, setting John Donne, Yeats and Shakespeare. The message (begun on Stoke Station) follows Donne's poem so literally it's almost parody, but a delight, nonetheless. Listen to the wind blow-o-o-ow in When icicles hang by the wall (Shakespeare)  Care-charmer sleep (to a poem by 16th century Samuel Daniel) set by Brian while insomniac combines "soporific rocking and discordant  dreams". When Brian sets lesser poets, like his landlord, Christopher Masterman Masterman (not a typo), his stolid approach reflects the poem only too well. The Soul of Steel is melodramatic, the piano part as strident as the vocal declamation.  Get the CD for this song alone. It's delicious, precisely because it's so stubbornly unsophisticated. The essence of Brian's charm.  Stone and Kynoch perform with utter conviction, which makes us respect Brian, all the more. He was an ordinary man who dreamed big. Some of these pieces are good enough to be part of a mixed recital. You could hear a lot worse than Havergal Brian.

Think of the Charles Kingsley (The Water Babies) poem The Lost Doll, included on this genuinely recommended disc.

"I once had a sweet little doll, dears, The prettiest doll in the world; Her cheeks were so red and white, dears, And her hair was so charmingly curled. But I lost my poor little doll, dears, As I played in the heath one day; And I cried for her more than a week, dears, But I never could find where she lay."

" I found my poor little doll, dears, As I played in the heath one day; Folks say she is horriibly changed, dears, For her paint is all washed away, And her arms trodden off by the cows, dears, And her hair not the least bit curled; Yet for old times sakes, she is still, dears, The prettiest doll in the world."

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Simon Halsey raises the stakes

Simon Halsey becomes Choral Director of the London Symphony Orchestra and LSO choir from 1st August. This is significant news as Halsey's one of the most acclaimed chorus leaders in the business. He's been the chorus director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra for decades, working with Simon Rattle, when he was CBSO's chief conductor. When Rattle moved to Berlin, Halsey went with him (while retaining his place in Birmingham). Halsey remains with the Berlin Radio Choir, but plans to spend more time inn the UK, where he's taking up a post at the University of Birmingham. It's also significant news for the London choral scene as a whole, since Halsey's presence at the LSO could shake things up a bit, in a positive way. The LSO says, coyly, that he will "enable the London Symphony Orchestra to develop its choral activity, from the LSO Discovery Youth and Community Choirs at LSO St Luke's and the LSO's Singing Days, which offer the public the opportunity to join in choral activities related to the LSO's season repertoire."  Does this mean ambitious new ventures?  Certainly Halsey raises the stakes for all.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Jubilation - George Benjamin South Bank

"Jubilation", the title of a South Bank semi-retrospective on George Benjamin and the title of his 1985 work for large orchestra and massed chldren's ensembles. Jubilation opened the Sunday Night concert at the Royal Festival Hall. Almost certainly the young George Benjamin himself must have attended concerts here at some time. As the various school choirs and ensembles filed onto the platform, my heart leapt with joy that a new generation would be able to take part in a musical experience  like this. The audience was filled with family and friends, and some very young siblings indeed. So well behaved that they were a credit to enlightened parents. Even if the very little ones cried, that was fine. When children are brought up like this, they learn to listen, not only to music, but to themselves and to others.

Jubilation mixes "difficult" music with the freedom of music even those without much formal traing can join  Quite complex sections with unusual instrumentation blend with a recorder band and vocal ensembles, whose variety allows each a special voice, not submerged in the mass. The big minus was that Jubilation wasn't immediately followed up by Ringed by the Flat Horizon, a strikingly advanced work written when Benjamin was only 19. That should have stunned the students, some of whom were in their teens, too, and perhaps spur them on. The photo shows George Benjamin aged 16, Myung-whun Chung aged 23 and Olivier Messiaen. Would that these youngsters had such enlightened teachers! When teachers impose their own limitations, they destroy the creativity that proper teaching should inspire. Benjamin shows what can be done with an open mind. Hopefully, these youngsters will learn from him and from their enlightened parents.

Benjamin knows how to communicate. "You've heard Ligeti", he told the students. "It's the scariest music in 2001 Space Odyssey". Even if Kubrick was before their time, they got that new music doesn't have to be difficult to respond to emotionally.  "It's very slow, like it's underwater", he said, describing Ligeti's Lontano.  Instead of describing his Palimpsests (2002) in technical jargon, he explained what palimpsests are, so the idea of cross and counter layers in music is easier to visualize in a vividly non abstract way. This is one of Benjamin's "greatest hits". perfectly accessible even for those who don't normally listen to new music.

Benjamin also made Ligeti's Double Concerto for flute and oboe sound fascinating. "The bass flute is a monster!" (or words of that effect), so the work can be heard as drama, the different voices of the different flutes (Samuel Coles) conversing with oboe (Gordon Hunt) and the Philharmonia Orchestra.  A pity that the programme was planned so the gaps between pieces were inordinately long. Music like this weaves its magic when you're properly paying attention. When the gaps are filled with noise, movement and trivia, the spell is broken.

The previous evening, Nicholas Collon conducted the London Sinfonietta in the Queen Elizabeth Hall in a much more focussed programme that highlighted Benjamins's more chamber oriented music. Flight (1979) for solo flute, (Michael Cox) inspired by the sight of birds soaring afloat, and Antara (1987) where panpipe sounds are expanded and developed by computer ((Benjamin's stay at IRCAM). These blend with flutes played in  vibrato-free "medieval" style, then growing in sophistication. "Deep, growling trombones" and metallic perecussion "invoke the real power of computerized keyboards- huge sustained microtonal chords , sweeping glissandi, ....all derived from the original pan-pipes" says Benjamin in his articulate programme notes. "At the largest climax the orchestral anvils in a myriad of metallic sound ...towards a coruscating but tranquil conclusion".

From panpipes to Ligeti's Horn Concerto where the soloist (Michael Thompson) is supported by a team of other horns (rather like a South American pipe ensemble), and then to Benjamin's Duet for Piano and Orchestra (2008), soloist Tamara Stephanovich, closely associated with the dedicatee Pierre-Laurent Aimard., who played it at the Proms in 2010. It's s a different kind of concertante, where soloist and orchestra don’t interact in the usual way, but observe each other, so to speak. Then, with a punchy crescendo, it’s over. Benjamin’s music often sounds pointilliste, like detailed embroidery, but here there’s sharpness in design, and clarity of direction. Listening this time, I realized how muscular Benjamin's music can be.  One oif the highlights oif next year's Royal Opera House season will be Benjamin's first big opera (100 minutes, full orchestra) Written on the Skin. I adore his Into the Little Hill (see more HERE) but have been worrying if Benjamin, a notoriously fussy writer, could produce for the big house.  Hearing the inherent drama in his Duet for Piano and Orchestra, I'm pretty confident Written on the Skin will be good.

Odd that Gillian Moore didn't mention the Queen's Jubilee in her opening speech, particularly as the South Bank is so closely identified with the optimism that marked the Festival of Britain and the Queen's coronation.  What a very different place this country is now. The Thames still flows past the South Bank, but was used recently for full scale military manouevres to "protect" the Olympics. Fortunately Moore was wise enough not to make too much of the Cultural Olympiad business, which claims credit for many things which would have happened anyway, even the Proms.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Why I defend Bianca Jagger

Yes, I will defend Bianca Jagger taking photos during Einstein on the Beach. Because it was Einstein on the Beach. Indeed, I'd say she got a lot more from the piece than the snotty critics around her did, some who clearly did not know the piece. Most reviews completely missed the point of the piece, which redefined all the usual parameters of opera. Glass and Wilson were experimenting with a new genre before most anyone else. Miss that, and miss the whole point of the exercise.

Indeed, sitting up in the balcony, I could see many flashes iin different parts of the building and thought they were a kind of performance art, a perfectly valid extension of the idea of Einstein as celebrity admired by millions who haven't a clue what he really did. So a celebrity like Bianca Jagger has every right to "participate".

Besides, Bianca J was enjoying herself and engaging with the piece, which is more than can be said of some of the superficial writers who went because it was free, without a clue about composer or concept. Interesting that those most opposed to Bianca are those who know least about the work itself. Bianca's real. So, too, Rupert Christiansen who loathed it. (They should have sent Ivan Hewett who has a better handle on Glass).  Both had genuine responses, far more sincere than those who just follow received opinion and pretend. It's not what you think that counts, but why. My response is HERE, written without programme notes but with general background.

In any case, Einstein on the Beach is conceptual. It's stream of consciousness, like a dream with images that aren't processed. Philip Glass's music is like modern society, where we're bombarded with technology and processes out of our control. That's why the onus is on the observer - a participant - to decide when to come or go, when to doze, etc. You don't "need" to take in every note or word. Or non-word.  Hence the repetitions and irrelevancies. As in the real world, you don't learn til you filter. So Hooray for Bianca, reacting like a human being, and taking souvenirs to preserve the moment.  [Now it emerges that she is a close friend of Glass and Wilson, who have supported her actions. If the composer and director are happy, why should critics who don't know the piece or the ideas behind it object? Or perhaps it's too much for big egos to accept that a woman might know more about than they do?]

But not all music is Einstein on the Beach. Tonight, I was at a George Benjamin concert where the music is so refined that every microtone counts.  A friend mentioned someone texting throughout, which was distracting. So he asked the person to stop, but other people turned on him instead. What's the point of going to music and not listen? And if you don't care, why spoil things for others? This boorishness is getting too common. Not long ago, at the Royal Opera House, a man started sneering loudly even as the Overture began. He'd come to get his kicks from being nasty: no interest in the opera itself. More money than sense. What kind of person needs to prove something by wrecking things for others? As my friend discovered at George Benjamin, if you stand up to boors they may call you a snob or worse, just because you dare care about what you listen to.

Is it "elitist" to listen these days? Two years ago, Alex Ross decreed that audiences should applaud when they wanted. But the whole point of going to performance is listening. Pay attention and respect that others around you might want to be paying attention too. It's as simple as that. Part of the problem is that concert going is perceived as consumer product, not as a form of enlightenment.  Buying a ticket does not "buy" an artistic experience. It's only when you engage with what you're hearing that you get full value. For most people these days, it's enough that they can tweet their pals or whatever, and prove something without having to actually particpate emotionally. Bianca Jagger's wrong to disrupt others, but her heart is in the right place. And she doesn't disrupt George Benjamin.

photo: Andreas Schipers

Saturday, 12 May 2012

NEW Proms booking plan - tips to get what you want

Booking starts tomorrow for the 2012 BBC Proms. The secret to getting what you want is to have a list beforehand. This year there's a new "Proms Plan" you can do in advance so the minute sales start at 9 am you're ready to go. Instructions here. Hopefuly it will speed things up as you won't have to key choices in one by one. Some things sell fast (though closer to date more seats get released). Others don't, so you can wait and get the seat of your choice. Refunds are tricky, so don't overbook. Lots of deals, like all-season Proms passes that get you into nearly everything standing room, and new Weekend passes for those who can't commit to the full season. There's a 2% booking fee, but it's capped at £10 per booking. So if you're buying 10 or more Proms at once, which many do, you're still be paying £10. Given the scale of the  enterprise it's niggardly to quibble. This is the Biggest Music Festival In The World, funded by taxpayers. (Photo Panos Asproulis - it's very well shot!)

The obvious big sellers will be the Barenboim Beethoven symphonies with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. Note, security for these will be extreme since protestors disrupted the IPO Prom last year. Totally counterproductive, but boosted circulation in some parts of the media. Since these Proms coincide with the Olympics, there'll be traffic mayhem as well. Isn't it ironic that the "Cultural Olympiade" claims credit for every big cultural event this summer, from the Proms to Les Troyens and much else. As if these events wouldn't have happened anyway? But the gullible will believe.

Top of my list will be Debussy Pelléas et Mélisande on  Sunday 15th. I might do Handel Judas Maccabeus  but book later on.  Since I'm going to the ROH Berlioz Les Troyens anyway, I might go to the Proms version to see how it translates to semi-staging. Definitely 26/7 late night Boulez! And Schoenberg Gurrelieder on August 12, even though it coincides with the last night of the Olympics. Not a good time to be in London.

I'm also booking early for Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker's second concert (Lutoslawski) but might book for the first concert (Ligeti et al). Definitely both Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra concerts with Chailly. No way am I missing either the Mendelssohn concert or Messiaen/Mahler (probably the best choice for Mahler this year). That's the gist of my first-round bookings. Usually I do a second round of bookings in the next few weeks, and a third round too. Extra booking fee, but so what? Almost certainly Elgar The Apostles, The Glyndebourne Marriage of Figaro, the London Sinfonietta Prom, and Knussen. New music Proms can usually be picked up late though there might be a rush for the John Cage Celebration, likely to be an "experience".

And of course, every Prom is broadcast online and internationally, and lots on TV. One thing for certain, The Olympics has dampened my enthusiasm, so I'm going to a lot less than usual, but won't miss out. Please read my summaries of the BBC Proms 2012 schedule for July HERE and for August-September HERE.
Got in 915, completed 1044, got all we wanted. Obviously you can do other things while you wait. Last year completed 1020. Not a good idea to login before start time as back to the end of queue, so best to wait a little longer. As it happened, I miscalculated on booking fee and ended up paying over £10. OTOH, when you can get a standard £1.75 fee on transactions as little as £12 elsewhere,  I did OK. Given that there are 80+ Proms and thousands logging in at the same time, it's a miracle the system works at all.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Divine Véronique Gens Wigmore Hall

Véronique Gens's recital  at the Wigmore Hall was an almost ideal distillation of of the belle é song. Over the years we've heard many specialists in French song at the Wigmore Hall, but Gens perhaps outshines them all.  With her background in baroque, lucid purity comes naturally, but she sings with exceptional intelligence. It's hard to explain why she's so distinctive, but her final encore (of three) might suggest an answer. Roses, jasmine and orange blossom infuse Gabriel Fauré's Les roses d'Ispahan. The vocal line moves gently like the breeze in the text. Yet the song is not about flowers but lost love. It's all the more poignant because it's so subtle. Gens doesn't dramatize, but lets the perfumed elegance convey depth of emotion. 

Last December, Gens created an esoteric selection of relatively little known  songs by Massenet, Gounod and Reynaldo Hahn. Read about it here. Now she chose a more familiar programme: Fauré, Chausson, Debussy, Duparc and more Hahn.  Fauré's Au bord de L'eau (op8/1 1875)  and Après un rêve (op7/1 1877) were poised, but Gens created even greater interest with Lydia (op 4/2 1870) to a poem by Leconte de Lisle. "Je t'aime et meurs, ô mes amours. Mon âme en baisers m'est ravie!" Love and death so intertwined that we can't be sure that Lydia is alive at all.

Henri Duparc's L'invitation du voyage (1870)  is so famous that it's true meaning can be missed.The poet is Baudelaire, after all.  The piano part (Susan Manoff) is limpid and delicate. These rippling waters might suggest Schubert, but the idiom is entirely different. No "gothic" histrionics here. The passion is cool but sinister. Similarly, Duparc's Romance de Mignon (1869) is decidedly un-German though it's based on Goethe's Mignon song Kennst du das Land.? The drama's more muted, though the feelings are just as deep. These days it's fashionable to disregard idiom but for me that's bad taste. What's the point of performing different composers in the same way? Musically-informed is much more literate. Gens and Manoff show how Duparc's Mignon springs from a different aesthetic. Gens followed with Debussy's Fleur des Blés (1881) and Nuit d'etoiles (1880) which are almost her signature tunes. Her recording of Debussy, Fauré and Poulenc with Roger Vignoles (2000) is very good indeed. 

Normally I don't describe what a singer wears, but Gens returned after the interval in a remarkable dress slit up to her midriff, but discreetly held together with tulle. Strikingly elegant, raising gasps of admiration from the audience. She seemed inspired, her performance in the second part of the programme quite divine. Like the hummingbird in Ernest Chausson's Le colibri (op2/7 1882) Gens glistened "comme un frais rayon s'échappé dans l'air". Her Les papillions (op 2/3 1880) hinted at erotic secrets in a refined manner. The sorrow in Les temps de lilas (op 19 1886) was expressed with elegant dignity. Gens and Manoff concluded with seven songs by Reynaldo Hahn. Hahn imbibes from exotic sources, so idiosyncrasic and so over the top. In three songs from Études latines (1900) Lydé, Tyndaris, Pholoé), he gets carried away with Leconte de Lisle's elaborate fanstasies of fake Antiquity. Gens and Manoff catch Hahn's effusive high spirits.  These put the famous A Chloris (1916) into context. Hahn's hamming up again, this time with Bach. Beautiful as the song is, it's mischief in music. Appropriately, Gens and Manoff concluded this evening of songs ostensibly about flowers and birds with Hahn's Le printemps (1899). Hahn's ebullient, exuberant and exhilirating - banished are the "flowers of evil". "Te voilà, rire du Printemps!", sang Gens, with a glorious flourish.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Szymanowski Third Bartók Eötvös Barbican

Karol Szymanowski's magnificent Song of the Night (Symphony no 3) received a splendid performance at the Barbican Hall, London, with Peter Eötvös conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. 

In February, we heard Vladimir Jurowski conduct Szymanowski's Third with the LPO at the South Bank: gorgeous, shimmering textures, so perfumed one could swoon. It was a pertfectly valid reading and beautiful.  Boulez, however, intuits the savagery beneath the shining surface, and .Eötvös replacing him due to illness, respects this approach. The Song of the Night can only emerge under cover of darkness, when the worldly market place is hushed and "the market of the stars" is revealed. "This night, Leo, and Orion, Andromeda and Mercury shine crimson!"  The 13th century mystic Jalaal'ad-Din Rumi writes about a love so deep that it's cosmic, yet only revealed in secret. Persians knew their astronomy and astrology. "This night, Saturn casts  his malign control and Venus sails in the golden drizzle". The stars are exquisite, but they control fate and cannot be reached by mortal men.Whoever these lovers are, they're not fated to be together except in dreams.

As if shielding the poet in a night garden, Szymanowski uses a huge orchestra to create a lush, exotic atmosphere. Yet note how Szymanowski immediately establishes two separate currents: the dense "undergrowth" in low winds and strings, and high stings screaming alarm. "O nie spij, druhu, nocy tej" (O, sleep not, dearest friend this night") sings the tenor, Steve Davislim. The chorus repeats the dense textures this time, but through by the extreme high tessitura of the violin (Gordan Nikolitch).  Patterns within patterns. Szymanowski's writing Persian art into his music. Throughout this symphony, violin and singer seem to duet, separated by the vast crescendi in the orchestra and choir. A shy lilting dance led by winds, then Nikolitch soaring forth. Pizzicato, sudden irruptions of brass, even a kind of wayward march: a sense of alert anticipation. This night is not restful. The long middle section is full of incident, but then, silence, out of whch Davislim sings, with minimal accompaniment. "This night God and I are alone!". Cymbals unleash crescendi: we are hearing what the poet sees in the universe. The solo violin re-emerges, almost impossibly high pitched and pure. Boulez manages to hint at perverse Baudelairean undercurrents. Eötvös and the LSO aren't quite so unsettling, but Davislim sings so idiomatically that he'd be a top choice as the Shepherd in Król Roger. The parts are linked, for the Shepherd represents danger as well as liberation. Zamilknięciem wiąże język Lecz ja mówię bez języka nocy tej! (surrounding silence ties my tongue but I speak without my tongue tonight) .

The programme was big and Eötvös conducted Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta with more vigour. The first movement was a little too diffuse, though Eötvös delineated the separate subgroups  in the Allegro and Adagio cleanly. Nicolaj Znaider was the soloist in Bartók's Violin Concerto no 2. Almost any companion piece to Szymanowski's Symphony no 3 will pale in comparison, especially since the violin part there is so strange and disturbing. But Boulez chose the programme well, for the concerto is provocative in its own way. The solo part taunts and twists away from the orchestra as elusively as the part  in Szymanowski's symphony. Znaider played with grace and assurance, exploding passionately in the wild cadenza. Utterly apposite to the deeper meaning of the symphony. 

This concert is available online on BBC Radio 3. Listen for Znaider and Davislim, who has exceptional stage presence. Get the recording of Szymanowski's Third on DG with the Weiner Philharmoniker conducted by Pierre Boulez for a more intense performance.  Later this year Valery Gergiev will be conducting all four Szymanowski symphonies, combined with Brahms, not the first composer that springs to mind in this connection. All the more reason to hear what Gergiev does with Szymanowski.