Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Souffler les bougies : L'année Rameau

Blow out the candles. It's Rameau's 250th birthday on 25th September. To celebrate Arte TV is screening four classic productions

All of these are very well known, so anyone with the slightest interest in Rameau will have seen them already. But my goodness, they are so good that you want to enjoy them over and over. A brilliant introduction, too, for those new to Rameau.

Les Indes Galantes - the groundbreaking  1992 William Christe Les Arts Florissants production from 1992. Barqoue is its true, exuberant glory!

Platée  (1999) Marc Minkowski, L'Orchestre des Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble in the brilliant Laurent Pelly production, described here - Prince kisses Frog.

Les Paladins : William Christie ".....; une oeuvre rare de Jean-Philippe Rameau. Presque oubliée, elle s'inspire pourtant des fameuses "Fables" de la Fontaine. Avec humour et surréalisme, cet opéra raconte l'amour impossible entre Atis et Argie, cette dernière étant promise au vénérable sénateur Anselme et placée sous la surveillance de l'inflexible Orcan. "Les Paladins" fut incompris à son époque, cette comédie-ballet est pourtant un petit bijou d'autodérision et de cocasserie."

 Hippolyte et Aricie ~ Emmanuelle Haim , Concert d'Astrée

Handel Xerxes ENO

"Alice Coote’s Xerxes was superbly sung, covering the full range from the short lyric arias through the virtuoso bluff and bluster to the intense pain of the extended da capo arias. Coote has a very personal way with Handel and her performance was a very individual one. Musically she took her time over some things, but showed herself equally capable of bravura passagework. Similarly, in terms of character, she projected Xerxes’ changeability quite brilliantly. Her conception of Xerxes might be rather more flippant than some, but she certainly brought out the idea that living with him was very much living on the edge."

Read the full review here by Robert Hugill in  Opera Today

Chameleon woman Li Xianglan

Yoshiko Ōtaka 大鷹 淑子) died this week, aged 94, of a heart attack. Who was she, and why does it matter? Otaka was a glamour actress who starred in the film Shina no Yoru (China Nights) (1940), using her Chinese name  and identity, Li Xianglan. Nearly everyone knows the song from that film, albeit in its racist, bowdlerized version. Just as Otaka masde propaganda films for the Japanese invasion of China, she made propaganda films for the American occupation of Japan, under the name Shirley Yamaguchi.  A "Chameleon woman", because that's the way to survive in difficult times.

China Nights is so notorious in China, that its very mention still gives some people bad memories. I approached it with trepidation. Once you get over the propaganda aspects, though, it's not such a bad movie. You can see why it convinced many Japanese at the time that they were doing good for the Chinese by invading their country,, bombing and killing. Please read my analysis of the film here. "China Nights - totally politically incorect". 

In the film, Li plays a Chinese partisan who learns to realize that the Japanese are nice people who just want to civilize the Chinese. Needless to say, this didn't go down well with the Chinese. As a symbol of Japanese oppression, she was vilified. Just as she was about to be sentenced to death, it was revealed that she wasn't Chinese at all, but a Japanese who had been adopted by Chinese. So it wasn't treason by patrotism for the wrong side.  Sher moved to Japan wherte she made more movies and becamer a member of the Japanese parliament. Her life is thus a snapshot of turbulent times. A chameleon lady, who switched names, nationalities and professions (she wasn't all that good a singer either). She was a woman who survived because she had to be what the peiople around her expected her to be. Not really so different from millions of other women after all.  What is a stereotype, after all? Below, another of her famous songs, sung in Chinese, 


Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Another conductor quits Vienna State Opera

Days after Franz Welser-Möst announced his  resignation from the Wiener Staatsoper right at the start of a new season, Bertrand de Billy has announced his resignation too.

De Billy said in an interview with KURIER-"Das Kapitel Staatsoper ist für die Dauer der Amtszeit von Dominique Meyer für mich abgeschlossen."  

"Noch in der selben Saison kehrte De Billy zurück ins Haus am Ring – für drei Vorstellungen von Gounods "Faust". Heute sagt der Dirigent: "Das Verhalten von Dominique Meyer hat gezeigt: Das war ein schwerer Fehler. Im Grund habe ich sofort danach geistig den Schlussstrich gezogen." Als sein Manager schließlich im Juli von Meyer informiert wurde, dass de Billy im Repertoire dirigieren könne, was er wolle, "aber die bereits fix abgesprochenen Neuproduktionen nicht, war dieses Gefühl bestätigt". De Billy: "Entweder will man jemanden am Haus oder nicht. Ich habe an der Staatsoper immer Repertoire und Premieren dirigiert. Mir war klar: Es hat für mich unter diesen Umständen an diesem Haus keinen Sinn mehr." Es tue ihm "furchtbar leid" um die Zusammenarbeit mit Orchester und Chor. "Aber man kann nur in einer Atmosphäre der Offenheit und Ehrlichkeit seine Leistung bringen. Es wird auch eine Zeit nach Meyer an der Staatsoper kommen."

 De Billy's much less diplomatic than Welser-Möst, but in both cases whatever the triggers might be, problems have been simmering for some time.

Dvořák Symphony no 8 José Serebrier

New Dvořák Symphony no 8 ! José Serebrier continues his highly esteemed Dvořák series. Read my review of his Dvořák Symphony no 9 (The New World)  and see why Serebrier's approach is so distinctive. Enjoy !

Sunday, 14 September 2014

ENO Otello - all the makings of a great classic

Verdi Otello at the English National Opera. Definitely worth seeing, especially when things have settled after the premiere. The set is so stylish that it would have been an overwhelming experience at the Royal Opera House with a top notch international cast and conductor and sung in Italian. Fundamentally, opera  costs money. Economies of scale are utterly  relevant.  It just does not make business sense to throw money at micro mini opera companies and pub opera, while squandering the existing body of experience we have inn the ENO and ROH.  This new ENO Otello is good, but how much better it would have been in a climate which recognizes that serious art needs serious support.

This Otello has huge potential, and should get the recognition it deserves. This beautiful set, designed by Jon  Morrell, is  extraordinarily versatile.  Sets as good as this take real expertise, and a genuine sense of creative vision.  Morrell's strong basic structure reflects the  drama itself,  where the characters are caught by unrelenting fate. Onto this bedrock, Adam Silverman's lighting designs are powerfully evocative/ We saw lightning strike, and discordant, disturbing switches of light and darkness. This storm suggests that cosmic forces operate behind the drama that is to follow. The same basic set adapts easily to depict the walls of an Italianate palace,  not in Venice but in Cyprus, a fortress. Hard marble elegance and crumbling paintwork, as one sees so often. Otello is a hero who has achieved great public honours,  but his success is a facade. Yet he's insecure. Iago destroys him by manipulating his inner weakness.

This staging is so expressive that it told the story with great effect and really needs to be revived, soon, perhaps even in  a bigger house with cast and conducting to do it justice. Edward Gardner is dearly loved  and even more popular now he's moving on. Read my "What Bergen means" HERE.  He's good but he's not necessarily an instinctive Verdi conductor. We shouldn't let our fondness for Sexy Ed make us forget that not everyone can be exceptional in everything.  Some very nice playing though: the Song of the Willow was poignant enough that my companion thought of the Shepherd in Tristan und Isolde.  Verdi needs more passionate extremes, perhaps even a sense of madness, especially in an opera about how a great man can be destroyed by irrational emotion.

An excellent Otello in Stuart Skelton. He had the force to evoke Otello's power, but not at the expense of sensitivity. Although it's no longer acceptable to stage Otello painted up like a Black Minstrel, we must never forget wny Shakepeare made Otello a black man. Against all odds, he's risen to power in a society ruled by powerful families who don't value outsiders unless they're useful. Cyprus is a fortified colonial outpost, not part of the metropolitan Establishment in Venice. The lightness in Skelton's timbre is good at creating the more sensitive side of the character. Skelton's Otello is a likeable man, with whom one can sympathize, but he's not quite demonic enough.  Otello is a tragedy because the character kills what he loves most. Otello  might be a seething cauldron of complexes, but Skelton's much too lovable to terrify, though he sings so well,  It's not face paint that makes a good Otello, but the way his personality is expressed.

The contrast between Desdemona's "whiteness" and her husband's "blackness" underlines the gap between them; a gap so deep that it's resolved in violence. Leah Crocetto looks the part, and has nice, round plummy tones. But there's a lot more to the role than niceness. Crocetto's singing was good, but more suited to concert performance. Good singing too from the rest of the cast, Allan Claytron's Cassio shone. Significantly, he wore a blond wig, which might be another reason for Otello's insecurity. Jonathan Summers sang Iago, and  Pamela Helen Stephen sang Emilia, his wife.  Peter Van Hulle  sang Rodrigo, Charles Johnston sang Montano and Barnaby Rea gave more to the small part of Ludovico than it usually gets.

All these relationships are important, and written into the music and libretto. David Alden is an excellent director, but the dynamic in the first two acts was relatively subdued, becoming much tighter in the third and fourth acts. In a livelier cultural climate, Alden could have done more with the veiled undercurrents in the drama, but these days short-term success dictates art.  David Alden is one of the grand old men of British theatre and opera. John Berry, ENO Artistic Director, presented Alden with an award marking Alden's thirty years at the ENO, starting witha Mazeppa a production that apparently had audience members fighting in the aisles.  The present obsession with small scale might leave us with nothing but pub opera, which might suit some. But for me, really good opera needs audacity and the resources to think big and bold.

Benignly British - Last Night of the Proms 2014

Last Night of the BBC Proms 2014. Thousands were there, having fun, and thousands more at open air Proms all over the country. I was at Otello at the ENO – new production by David Alden. I'll write about that in a few hours, please come back – it was good! The real Last Night of the Proms was  a thrilling Beethoven Ninth with the Leipzig Gewandhaus (reviewed here)  So the Last Last Night of the Proms is Silly Season, a time to unwind and ham things up.

Sakaro Oramo in tails and a Union Flag waistcoat!  And Malcolm Arnold to set the right tone of doggedly British dottiness. The BBC Singers, The BBC SO Chorus, the BBC SO and conductor Sakari Oramo joined forces for Arnold's Peterloo Overture. "I felt again the passion of a great nation burning...the libertine philosophers no longer held sway, ". New words, methinks. At least Arnold had a sense of humour. Havergal Brian didn't and many others won't. 

I loved the BBC camera work, the scene shot from way up in the dome. Literally, "off the wall". Sakari Oramo hams things up with a demented grin. Wow, he's a natural TV persona. Some real music in the mix – Janine Jansen playing Chausson Poème with a straight face, and a rarity – Richard Strauss's Taillefer, a mini-oratorio about a peasant following William the Conqueror to "Eng-ger-land".  Strauss sending up Grand Oratorios and Mock Medieval Tradition.

Roderick Williams sang Rule Britannia. In recent years this feature of the Last Night has been camped up so much that there's no more room for novelty. Williams took a radically different approach. Previously he'd joked about waving a Jamaican flag. Perfectly reasonable – where would Britain be without West Indians and their descendants? At one stroke, the Proms would connect to millions of people otherwise excluded form the sometimes belligerant jingoism of the past. On the other hand, Williams is sharp enough to understand thast such a gesture might be patronizing, Much, much better that Williams chose sincerity, idealism and conviction.  His eyes shone. No gimmick, no jokiness, but absolute faith in,meaning  For me, one of the great things about Britain is that immigrants can become somebody, hard as it might be. That's what inclusiveness is really all about.

Sakari Oramo is  a natural party animal and born communicator. He takes his coat off to reveal  a Finnish flag on the back of his waistcoat.  But in his speech he addressed serious issues. "Music isn't just about knowledge and technical things, it's about love and appreciation.... Music is history, it's culture, it's a universal language to those who are open to it. It's science, it's geography, it's physical education. It develops insight. It's therapy for those who need it. Music is a wonderful high speed dual carriageway to the human mind and innermost emotions" 

Last year there was a big fuss because Marin Alsop was the first female conductor to conduct a Last Night. But so what? One person's self-congratulation means nothing when millions of women (and men) around the globe struggle simply to stay alive. Being a conductor is not only irrelevant in the wider scheme of things, but reinforces the idea of western supremacy, Far from promoting  feminism, it set the cause back,  This year's LNOP with its non-grandstanding,  gentle good humour could do a lot more in terms of bringing people together.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra Beethoven 9 Prom London

The Last Night of the Proms is a wonderful party, but for music lovers the Real Last Night of the Proms is the night before, with Beethoven' s Symphony no 9. No music more symbolic of the Proms ethos than this wonderful symphony. This year, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra did the honours. This was a very special Prom indeed, for Leipzig's Beethoven tradition is even more glorious. The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra has been doing Beethoven since Beethoven was "new music" and a living composer.

What a sense of occasion and what a rewarding performance! The famed "golden" sound of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra came vividly to life. Alan Gilbert was vindicated, too. I've heard this orchestra do this symphony twice live with Riccardo Chailly. Gilbert's approach was less dynamic, but he had a steady feel for the way the structure of the symphony builds up. Like a series of progressive waves, oddly enough like the "marches" in Mahler Second/Mvt 1, but much better defined here.  Gilbert's approach is quiet, rather than boisterous, but this in itself brings out the strengths of this orchestra. Such control from the double basses and lower strings - it's not at all easy to hold lines so long barely above the volume of a whisper. Incredibly beautiful. Wow, can the Leipzigers play! Muted, glowing, and full of meaning: Beethoven is slowly revealing a miracle, which unfolds from (controlled) chaos.

Superb singing, yet again. The Leipzig Gewandhaus Choir , the Leipzig Opera Chorus and  Leipzig Gewandhaus Childrens's Choir sing with the same rich resonance as the orchestra with which they  are associated.  The sound is something special. The London Symphony Chorus must have enjoyed working with them. Even better, the soloists. Dimitry Belosselskiy's voice rang out powerfully, commanding rapt attention in a packed Royal Albert Hall.  Steve Davislim equally impressive. I adore this singer, who can sustain phrases almost beyond human possibility, and make them float, seemingly without effort. We can't see his lungs but we can hear his total mastery oif technique. On this occasion he was putting his heart into his words: absolutely stirring, the clarity of his timbre shining, just like the brass behind him. Davislim's lyrical, too, creating the sense of quirkiness that worked extremely well with what was happening in the orchestra. To Beethoven Turkish troops with their pipes and drums, must have seemed wildly exotic. The Leipzigers , refined and lush as they are, defined the jaunty rhythms we've heard so often we take them for granted, without noticing why they're there.

"Deine Zauber binden weider,
was die Mode streng geteilt:
Alle Menschen werden Bruder,
Wo den sanfter Flugel weilt"

Absolutely, it matters that Beethoven is referring to exotic strangers, including them in the community. The word "Freude", (Joy) recurs repeatedly, but what kind of "joy" is it that intoxicates with such exhilaration? This joy has the power to break down divisons, even in war zones. For Beethoven, perhaps it was music. An orchestra epitomises that kind of shared commtment and focussed purpose.  
And so the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra showed its soul.  Leipzig has always had liberal political traditions. Felix Mendelssohn was one of its great conductors. When the Nazis pulled down Mendelssohn's statue from outside the Gewandhaus building, the mayor of the city tried to protest. In 1989, thousands of East Germans fled west, provoking a crisis in the DDR. The protests that started in the nearby Nikolaikirche, supported by Kurt Masur and many members of the orchestra, led to the overthrow of repression and the reunification of Germany.
A few weeks after that, the Leipzig Gewandhaus came to Oxford, to the Sheldonian At that stage, we still thought the Soviets might march in, as they'd done before, so the occasion was extremely charged, emotionally. 

On the Real Last Night of the BBC Proms this year, the mood was happier and more relaxed - Freude in every sense. How glorious it felt - orchestra, choirs, soloists, conductor all on the same page literally, performing their hearts out. The choruses wore red and black - pretty meaningful - and the instruments glowed gold, bronze and silver.  in the background  turquoise and sapphire lighting, and a beam highlighting the bust of Sir Henry Wood, who helped create the Proms. He's long dead, but if he could sing, he'd be joining in too!

Nowadays it's fashionable to call for the end of the BBC. Sure it does bad things, but where would we be without it? Consider.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra Mahler 3 BBC Proms London

(For my review of the gorgeous Leipzig Gewandhaus Beethoven 9 Prom  Gilbert redeemed please see here).  Because Riccardo Chailly was scheduled to conduct the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in Mahler's Symphony no 3 at the BBC Proms, (Prom 73), tickets sold out within hours. All my friend could get were pricey seats in a box in the Grand Tier. The Leipzigers and Chailly are so good and their Mahler so distinctive that the cost seemed a good investment.  The acoustic in the Grand Tier really is good, though you can hear every cough and dropped booklet resonate around the building. Perhaps that's why I didn't feel entirely bad about Alan Gilbert replacing Chailly at short notice (Chailly broke his forearm). The sound quality meant that details were finely formed, and the very quietness in some passages indicated thoughtful engagement with some of the ideas in the symphony.

Like Mahler's First and Mahler's Seventh, the Third can take a variety of interpretations, from the black, haunted humour of Horenstein,  to the blazing sunshine of Abbado, to the vigorous mountaineering of Rattle, and the exceptionally poignant Welser-Möst at the Proms in 2005.  I also have a soft spot for Eugen Szenkar's  recording, made soon after the war with musicians who hadn't been able to play Mahler for 20 years. If you want a Mahler as street fighting man, that's worth hearing (and quite valid since Mahler's politics were leftist). My gut instinct is that Gilbert has something interesting to say, but perhaps not on this occasion and not with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. That's much more than can be said of some other conductors.

"Pan erwacht: Der Sommer marschein ein", Mahler described the huge first movement in his original drafts. Pan, the god of wild open spaces, mountains., music and sexual danger. Perhaps the "marches" here aren't literal, pastoral rather than urban or  military, but what matters is the progression of ideas giving rise to a relentless series of forwards movements.  Mahler worked on this symphony in the Salzkammergut, where valleys and lakes are hemmed in, almost claustrophobically, by huge mountain ranges. Mahler, a keen hiker (and rider of early mountain bikes)  would have understood mountains as challenges to be conquered in the brief Alpine summer. The First Movement can be read as a panorama of peaks, each opening out to new vistas, pushing towards a resolution that might ultimately be spiritual transcendance. Thus the "panpipes" in the horns and the winds, and the significance of off-stage brass: something invisible is pulling the symphony, and the listener ever higher and further away from an earthly plane.

When Chailly conducted the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra the fit wasn't quite so good, because the Amsterdam orchestra had its own great Mahler tradition. But when Chailly moved to Leipzig, to conduct the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, with even older traditions (though not in Mahler),  the magic worked perfectly right from the start, vindicating Donald Mitchell's high praise for him. The Leipzigers are famed for their warm, golden sound, which fits perfectly with Chailly's strengths. I hate using national labels but they might explain why the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and Alan Gilbert don't have quite the same chemistry. Throughout the First movement of this Prom, it felt as though the Leipzigers had their own approach to Mahler (nurtured by Chailly) while Gilbert is an American conductor.

The all-important brass entries seemed odd, as if the players were following some instinctive volition, rather than following Gilbert. His signals were pretty straightforward, but these players are so good they can almost conduct themselves. Gilbert didn't define the "marches" or the mountains" quite as monumentally as they can be done. Rather, he stressed the quieter passages, as if creating an aubade of aural texture. This is perfectly valid for it connects to the idea of dawn and regrowth : the hunter dies, but the animals go on. Gilbert's attention to detail brought out the bird song and hushed, chirping sounds in the undergrowth. Those kukkuks, the flute melodies,  the hushed murmuring strings  and hints of Mahler song: very Des Knaben Wunderhorn. I kept thinking of Messiaen. The formative years of Gilbert's career were spent in Lyons, where Nagano laid the foundations of another distinctive European tradition. But Gilbert works in New York, where he has to blend in with expectations there.  So Gilbert falls between different stools, so to speak. But he's much more interesting than many other conductors. I suspect, one day, he'll find his niche and get the respect he's due.

Gerhild Romberger
As the performance continued, the match between conductor and orchestra tightened. There were many very good moments , especially in the Misterioso, and the final section blazed with warmth and a sense of fulfilment. The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra is so wonderful that just letting them get on with what they're good at would have worked better in a high-profile gig like the Proms. But full credit to Gilbert for trying to do his own thing, Maybe he will, soon, and shake up an orchestra without the sumptuous stature of the Leipzigers.

The most perfect part of the evening for me was the singing. It usually is, but this singing was wondrous. Gerhild Romberger was superb: not flashy, but self effacing and all the more convincing for that. She let the rich resonance of her voice command attention, and it filled the vast barn that is the Royal Albert Hall. Her "O Mensch" felt truly plaintive, as if she were weeping for the death of the old world and giving birth to the new. The eerie woodwind twining around her voice sounded like an instrument from the ancient past.  The Leipzig Opera and Gewandhaus Choir (women's voices) and Leipzig Gewandhaus Children's Choir (delightful Bim-bams) provided support almost as lustrous as the great orchestra they work with so well.

NEW DELIGHTED to report that Beethoven Symphony no 9 went extremely well!  I've heard Chailly conduct Beethoven 9 with this orchestra twice live. Brilliant! Alan Gilbert isn't Chailly but he's vindicated. Excellent sense of build-up in the first movement, pinpointing details which will emerge later in the symphony. How do the double basses play as quietly as that?   A freer and more sponatneous performance altogether - Gilbert and the Leipzigers meshing together well.  Orchestras at this level know what they are doing when they choose a conductor. Dimitry Belosselskiy magisterial in the bass part. Steve Davislim astounding - he can string phrases out without seeming to need space to breathe.  As he sang, I noticed how the jauntiness of his part was matched by the jauntiness in the music around him. The "Turkish" pipes and drums, perhaps? If I have time I'll write more.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Yannick Nézet-Séguin dirigiert Bartók und Mahler

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts Bartók and Mahler 1. Enjoy the broadcast video HERE. Gil Shaham  is the soloist in the Bartók Violin Concerto No 2. The orchestra is the BR Symphonieorchester