Friday, 29 May 2009

Foochow Blind Boys Band 1900 Eurasian Hybrids

Images can speak as loud as words. "Reading" images in music, opera and stage is not so different from reading a poem or a painting. There's no scientific technique, it's more intuitive, though supported by background knowledge. You just learn to understand signals.

This is an early postcard of a band of blind boys in Foochow on the China coast around 1890-1900. (Click on photo to enlarge.) Foochow (Fuzhou) was one of the "treaty ports" forcibly opened to western trade by the "Opium Wars" (1840-60), a pretty term for military invasion. The card was published by the Church Missionary Society, so these boys must have been organized by missionaries: hence brass and drums. They must have played rousing hymns. No room here for finesse. Click on photo to enlarge - the Eurasians are trumpeters and one of the horn players.

This kind of music isn't so far off traditional Chinese band music, for public events like processions, where simple, loud and bright tunes work well. Though many missionaries were much opposed to traditional culture, these boys had a place in society. Since they were taken in by missionaries they would have come from poverty stricken backgrounds. Oddly enough Chinese funeral processions adopted western melodies like Dixie, O Susanna and She'll be coming round the Mountain. They'd be played by Chinese musicians, on Chinese instruments (augmented by western brass). In fact until I was quite old I thought these were Chinese songs. How this happened I don't know. Relatively few missionaries were American, and this was long before radio. Somehow, though, New Orleans funeral jazz mixed with Chinese tradition, creating a bizarre hybrid.

Then look at the boys themselves. At least three are mixed race. There's almost no research on Eurasians, and indeed only one decent book, Vicky Lee's Being Eurasian (Hong Kong University Press 2004). Yet Eurasians were a distinct and surprisingly large community. Their backgrounds were very different, but as a disparate group, they are a mirror to the history of modern China.

Eurasians weren't accepted by the mainstream, they had to find their own way through turbulent times. In big cities there were Eurasian networks, created by intermarriage. Some families have been mixed race for 150 years. It's certainly not just Madame Butterfly situations, though they did exist. Nowadays lots of people are mixed race. But once there was a time when being Eurasian was a kind of subculture: people stuck together and gradually there was a distinct China Coast Eurasian identity. It's a world that's completely disappeared, lost forever as the few who remember pass away.

After 1949, most Eurasians became absorbed into Chinese society. They would have a very rough time during the Cultural Revolution when any hint of foreignness was a crime. A few years ago, I met a senior Chinese academic. He was obviously Eurasian, more white looking than me, though completely acculturated Chinese. He was old enough to have grown up in the Mao era, with the Red Guards and that violent paranoia. Yet he must have had a strong personality to have survived. He looked at me and I at him: we understood each other without having to put things in words. It was so poignant, a moment when history jumped into the present.

I'm interested in developing a resource for China coast subjects, especially Cantonese culture. So please let me know if you're interested. There is almost nothing in English on our South China heritage and yet now there must be thousands of people who grew up abroad or use English. And also, the uniqueness of Cantonese identity is not so obvious now people speak guoyu and think in national terms. It's important that we think of Chinese culture from a NON Eurocentric perspective particularly now that the net is dominated by the English language monoculture. Please contact me, maybe we can develop a resource.

HERE is a great resource for Sarawak Chinese culture. Most of the Chinese who settled in South East Asia (the namyang) originated along the China coast, in places like Fuzchou, which is on the periphery of the Cantonese world.

Thursday, 28 May 2009

ROH Ondine - ballet heralds Henze year


In April 2010, the ENO, London, will stage a new production of Hans Werner Henze's opera Elegy for Young Lovers. Henze is undervalued in England, which is surprising, since he spent so much time here in his youth. So, Henze lovers, we have a duty to spread the word!

So the current Royal Ballet staging of
Henze's Ondine is a must see. Henze was a sensation in the early 1950's, radical in his own contrary way. He was still only 30 in 1956 when Ondine was written, but he'd already written seven ballets : Ondine was the breakthrough that established him in the genre.

Henze had already made his mark in opera. Boulevard Solitude (1948) enjoyed a new production a the Royal Opera House in 2001: it's regular repertoire in Germany. There's a DVD available (not ROH) - enjoy! Some fifteen other operas have followed. L'Upupa, und der Triumph der Sohnesliebe was a massive hit at Salzburg in 2003. The DVD of that is fantastic!

In 2006, Henze was so seriously ill he was months in a semi-coma. His partner of 40 years nursed him through his illness, but then suddenly died himself, still young. Frail as he was Henze completed the phenomenal Phaedra, where love triumphs over death. It's incredibly powerful, even without knowing the background. I was at its premiere in Berlin, shaken by its intensity. Rupert Christensen of the Telegraph, true to form, scolded the composer for making a "farewell" that wasn't light hearted and funny! Fortunately, for us, Henze isn't a follower by nature. He's now written yet another opera, Immolazione, to be premiered in 2010. Londoners may have to wait, or go to Rome, but the Barbican is doing Phaedra semi staged in January 2010, the highlight of a Henze Total Immersion weekend. John Mark Ainsley sings, as he's done in past productions.

So get down to Ondine at the Royal Opera House and savour Henze's beautiful music. The choreography is by Frederick Ashton: beautifully romantic. The staging's deliberately retro, evoking the 19th century ballet Ashton wanted to celebrate Margot Fonteyn. Oddly enough the designs are by Lila Dinobili (b 1916) who also designed the Glyndebourne production of Henze's Elegy for Young Lovers in 1961. So indulge. This production is like a museum piece, its very antique look quite appealing in a post modernist way.

I learned the music from the CD set conducted by Oliver Knussen, so it was wonderful to "see" how it translated in dance. This was a lesson! Music for ballet has to allow for physical demands. Dancers can't float up in the air indefinitely. And there have to be episodes for extended dancing, which is the whole purpose. On audio such moments may drag but the drama is in the dancing itself. The music and choreography are so seamlessly integrated that you can see each semi quaver twitch in synchrony. Each note reflects in movement. The interplay between harp, piano, guitar and celeste is ravishing, but wait til you see the dancers express it en pointe! There's a wonderful scene where Ondine plays with her shadow, which the orchestra recreates with different textures. Then a wonderful ensemble, when the dancers form a circle, their arms undulating like a giant sea anemone. I'll never be able to hear that passage again without seeing them in my mind.
See full review HERE
PLEASE SEE ALL THE OTHER POSTS HERE ON HENZE, enter name under SEARCH There are lots


Tuesday, 26 May 2009

The buzz is on ! Lulu at ROH


The big buzz in town's the new Lulu at the Royal Opera House, London, starting June 4th. Word of mouth is spreading fast that it's going to be interesting. Lulu herself will be a mystery new singer called Agneta Eichenholz, quite famous in Sweden but unknown outside. That's very appropriate as Lulu is a mystery. Who is she really? People know her by different names.

The new ROH production sounds fascinating because Christof Loy (who found Eichenholz), has worked carefully on the characterization. He seems intrigued by the essential mystery of who Lulu is and why she's come to be the way she is. It sounds like a much more psychologically informed approach than the usual cliché that assumes Lulu is no more than a mirror, projecting what others want.

Listen carefully to the music, blanking out the words. Lulu's music speaks, elusively, even though she seems passive. She's had a horrific past that's taught her to hide herself behind survival strategies. That's exactly how abused kids function. They wreck things like a kind of pre-emptive strike because they've learned that happiness can't last.

The photo above comes from the 1929 Louise Brooks film based on the Wedekind play that inspired Alban Berg. Brooks doesn't do actorly things like emote or declaim: instead she fills space, generating energy. That's another reason for getting into the opera through the music. It hovers over the plot like an invisible presence, it speaks character.

So why is the new ROH production causing such interest? Michael Volle is singing the critical role of Dr Schön, who's known Lulu since she was a girl. He's her extreme opposite, a powerful magnate who seems to have it all, but is destroyed. Volle has worked with Loy before – last year in Munich they did Hans Werner Henze's Die Bassariden.

"I knew he would not do anything conventional but that he would try and get into the characters and find the key to their personality”, says Volle. Loy’s does this by working closely with the singers from the start. “We talk a lot about the role. He tells you his thoughts about the background and what he imagines the character is like and then you have to find a way to express it. He is one of those directors who knows and loves the music so well that he can make it easy for a singer to find his way into a character. He doesn’t try anything artificial you can’t understand. It’s more like putting flesh and bones on the score”.

“There are productions where there are a lot of sexual things on stage”, adds Volle, as if Dr Schön’s motives are simply erotic, for men (and women) lust after Lulu. But in this production, it’s more complex. “Only one kiss”, says Vollle, "and a few bits of touching. There’s no need to show nudity and violence. It’s shocking how much violence there is in it anyway”. Suicide, murder, implied paedophilia, and Lulu seducing Alwa on the very sofa his father bled to death upon, all easy subjects to play up to scandalize an audience. Yet Loy’s approach is not sensational for sensation’s sake. “What I like about Loy’s work is that he does not do Yellow Press”.

“It’s very tragic. Terrible things have happened to Lulu in the past, and it’s affected her so she can’t trust anyone, or be content”, says Volle, explaining the psychology behind this production. “She must always destroy the happiness of others ”. Lulu wrecks Dr Schön’s engagement but she’s unhappy when she marries him herself. “She loses interest because she doesn’t have to fight for attention anymore. In this production that tragedy is made very clear. There are lines which show Lulu does have feelings for Dr Schön, but she’s damaged, and hurts others because she’s been hurt so much herself”.

Volle is also happy with the Royal Opera House production because it’s being developed so closely with the conductor, Antonio Pappano. “He is a gift”, says Volle, “He was there at the first rehearsal, and he knows the piece inside and out. He gives so much input and ideas about the music”. With Berg, details count. “The more you hear in it, the more you discover”, says Volle. This is significant, as Volle knows Berg’s idiom well, having sung the title role in Wozzeck.

One of the minor subplots in this opera is the idea that wealth and status are worthless without deeper values. In Act 3 the banker's shares turn out to worthless, and of course Dr Schön's wealth does him no good. Perhaps Michael Volle's own background gives him insight, but he's an experienced singer who specializes in roles with depth of character. His Graf Tamare in Franz Schreker's Die Gezeichneten is exceptionally well realized. That's one of the great early 20th century operas.

Read more about Micahel Volle and about the new ROH production HERE. I'll be writing more about Lulu and this production in the next few weeks.

TRY TO GO ! As Volle says, on first hearing, it's shocking, but the subject is shocking. This is not a plot whose issues you can be complacent about. And listen to the music. It's not that difficult or strident, and a very good performance brings out its clarity and oddly enough its beauty. There is a very good DVD of the Glyndebourne production of 1996 where Christine Schäfer is compelling. Far and away the best orchestrally is the CD set with Pierre Boulez conducting. This isn't an easy opera to do. Many versions have weak points and there's one I would actively dis-recommend. So bear this in mind, and go to this Lulu and make the most of it. PLEASE READ THE OTHER POSTS on this blog re LULU, which include reviews, interviews, and a whole movie downlaod ! Not only this Loy production but Cheereau too and other thoughts on the opera. Go to the labels list on right and click on "Berg".

Monday, 25 May 2009

Prof. Henry-Louis de La Grange, Mahler 's greatest biographer

This day, 26th May, marks the 85th birthday of Professor Henry-Louis de La Grange. Prof. de La Grange is the world's foremost authority on Gustav Mahler. Last year he published the fourth volume of his monumental biography of the composer. It's probably the most significant in the whole series, because the years covered were full of incident. Mahler was going through radical changes in his life, and producing masterpieces like the 8th and 9th Symphonies, and Das Lied von der Erde.

The book is extremely important because it sheds so much new light on the composer. He died at a point when, perhaps, he might have been starting a whole new phase. He was only 50, entering a period when many composers are just reaching maturity.

Professor de La Grange's work has huge implications for how we appreciate Mahler's music. The more we understand about what made the composer tick, the better we are able to understand the way his music came about. Biography is thus an extremely useful tool for informed interpretation. It enhances performance, and deepens the way we listen. Mahler performance practice has benefitted so much from Professor de La Grange's insights. He has contributed so much to Mahler studies that, frankly, there is no way anyone can claim to "know" Mahler without knowing his work.

Read "Mahler Triumphant", a detailed synopsis of the volume HERE. It's written by Hugh Wood, the composer. It's an excellent description, so take the time to read it thoroughly..

This fourth volume is the culmination of a lifetime's work. The bust on the cover was made by Rodin. Anna Mahler, the composer's daughter, who was a sculptor, also made a bust which now stands in pride of place in the Médiathèque Musicale Mahler in Paris. It was bought by Mahler people all over the world to celebrate Professor de La Grange's 80th birthday. That's how much the author is loved and respected.

Mahler has been Prof. de La Grange's career. But he's had a remarkable life himself. He studied with Alfred Cortot, and the library contains the Cortot archives. He's been involved in music on many levels: he was one of the regulars at the Domaine Musicale concerts Boulez organized from 1954. At the first concert none other than Jean Cocteau arrived, in a flowing cape. Professor de La Grange is a modest man, preferring to keep the spotlight on Mahler, but his own life is a mirror of 20th century intellectual life and is worth volumes too. His parents were fascinating people too – his father, a French count, one of the first pilots in the early days of flying, his mother a lively patron of the arts. Such interesting people, no wonder they produced such an interesting son.

So Happy Birthday, Professor de La Grange, may you prosper! I can't begin to express how much admiration and affection I have for him and for his work. You need this book if you care about Mahler. Of all four volumes, this is the most important because it covers the most turbulent years and some of the more complex symphonies. Please explore this blog where there's LOTS on Mahler : original material, inspired by Prof de la Grange's pioneering work - see Mahler 10th posts for example

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Requiem for a young poet


Currently available for listening (4 euros for 48 hours) on the Berliner Philharmoniker website is Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Requiem für einen jungen Dichter, Requiem for a young Poet.

It's worth watching because the video is very sensitively filmed. The camera work is remarkably prescient about what's happening in the music. Zimmermann wrote figures that seem to be something quite different from what they are: the camera focuses on objects in the auditorium from odd angles, so at first you think it's abstract art. The camera also understand the visual aspects of this panoramic piece of music. It pans to the roof of the Philharmonie, where small lights are scattered. In the darkness, they shine like stars in the firmament. The score itself is dramatic, about a metre long, with complex diagrams and markings, so we get close-ups of the particular passage being played as it looks on paper – this is well informed filming par excellence! Even if you don't like the music, this video is worth watching as an example of how good film can enhance the musical experience.

The downside is that there's no text but again that's no bad thing, because you're forced to listen more carefully. The whole concept is music as an aural world, with snatches of sounds half heard, sometimes live and close, sometimes recorded and from a distance, multi-dimensional. So much fuss is made of how Stockhausen does this in Hymnen, but Zimmermann was doing this at the same time, with infinitely more human input and sophistication. Zimmerman's collages are carefully chosen to represent key sound images of the 20th century. Hitler, Pope John XXIII, Ezra Pound and Mao Zedong, Stalin and a jazz quintet and a snatch from the Beatles (this was 1968 after all, it was obligatory, though it sounds naff today). It's like a documentary in sound, historically well informed, structurally planned rather than haphazard porridge. Leagues sharper than Stockhausen! The nearest comparison is Luigi Nono's Prometeo, written nearly 20 years later.

The soloists, vocal and instrumental, are very good, though
Eötvös as conductor is a little soft focused. This music is a painful scream by a very literate composer who cared about what was happening in the world around him – Vietnam, the Greek junta, Dubcek. Soon after, Zimmermann committed suicide in despair. This past is still relevant, if anything even more now that protest is neutralized. Get hold of the recording by the Holland Synfonia, conducted by Bernhard Kontarsky, issued by Cybele late in 2008 (pictured above). It's good and comes with a 76-page booklet with facsimiles of the score, which are useful for decoding the layers of sound. You don't need to "get" it all. Make the effort to listen and put it together, says Zimmermann. That's how we experience history, we process what we hear. in many ways and hear things differently in different contexts. For me this is a deeply rewarding work, inspiring feelings about the last century and how history comes to be written/processed. Stockhausen doesn't provide repeat musings in quite the same way.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Cross-cultural firecracker label


This is a firecracker label. There used to be lots of small firecracker factories in Macau, where firecrackers were rolled, filled and tied by hand. Lots of accidents, fires, etc. At new year, when I was a kid, the streets would be littered a foot high with spent firecrackers, often with others hidden below waiting to explode. Our neighbour used to buy a long string of fireworks, suspended from the roof, and then lit. Obviously safety hazard in modern high rise cities, so they were banned in Hong Kong after the 1967 riots. Which is why Hong Kong now does the biggest and best public displays.

Firecrack factories were dangerous places, and sometimes they would explode, killing everyone. No workers rights, child labour. Macau was one of the centres of firecracker making, usually on the outer islands. My uncle Herculano took us to visit one once. The kids were just tying strings of firecrackers together, or filling gunpowder with their fingers - no safety procedures.

This label comes from a Macau firecracker factory. It is so unselfconsciously multicultural, it's fun. Whoever designed this probably wasn't too bothered about accuracy, but it's lively and would have sold well brecause the images, odd as they are, symbolize auspicious things like wealth and health. People do firecrackers to drive away bad spirits and bring good fortune, so it makes sense. The sacred white elephant comes from Buddhist mythology, and the risque half naked foreign goddess comes from Greek myth. She's holding what appears to be a cornucopia asnd the staff of medecine. And the angels, very un-Chinese, like the goddess and crown ? That's the clincher. The word "Macau" (O mun or Ao men) appears in the little gold boxes at the top. But in the old days, people were often illiterate, but they could see the symbols and know where the firecrackers came from.

At right is the original. See the angels? This image is the official seal of Macau, "the city of the name of God". The granite plaque was made to commemorate the incorporation of the city in 1557. The figure is the Virgin Mary, surrounded by saints. So the man who designed the firecracker label was on the right track. Click on the photos to get high-resolution details. PLEASE SEE OTHER POSTS on this blog for more cross culture ventures and how to read icons - see Macau, Chinese culture etc on the labels list on right.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Opera and Lieder bridged by Wolf























Lieder and Opera are different worlds, where different values apply. In opera, a singer has to compete with others, with the orchestra, the set and even the plot. In Lieder, singer and pianist have to create whole worlds on their own in the space of a few minutes.

Hugo Wolf's songs are often called "operas in miniature" because each contains so much action they're like condensed sagas. Wolf's piano parts act like commentary, often wry and subversive.

On 19th May, those who'd booked for Netrebko and Hvorotovsky missed out because they cancelled, but Lieder fans were OK at the Wigmore Hall with Wolf's Italienisches Liederbuch.

The 46 songs in the collection aren't a cycle, and don't form a narrative. Instead they're like a kaleidoscope of "Italian" life, romanticized through Austro-German imagination. Wolf panicked and got seasick on his only attempt to get to Italy, but these songs burst with colour and energy, each a mini drama in itself. Dissolute monks seduce girls whose mothers trust men in robes, a girl wants an "older man" – aged 14! Sometimes it feels like you're listening in on a moment from a much larger story. Why are the lovers scrapping? How can a man's heart leap clean out of his chest and go looking for his girlfriend?

Plenty of drama then in these songs, so the temptation is to play it up to the hilt with expansive action. Yet, fundamentally these songs are still Lieder where what you hear is only the beginning. It's not enough just to create a character. Lieder is about frames of mind, abstract ideas as well as literal stories.

Christian Gerhaher knows this, singing with clear focus, convincing without help from costumes or narrative. But with Lieder there is always something deeper and invisible. Take the song, Schon strekt' ich aus im Bett. A man jumps out of bed and heads for the streets where he plays his lute. But it's no serenade. Wolf sets the last stanza with a strange, meandering cadence. It sounds like the strumming of the lute, yet also evokes the man's relentless wandering. "Many a girl has been moved by my song" go the words, but his music "is wafted away in the wind". Nicely elusive. Is the man a rake, or do the girls dump him despite his songs?

The soprano, Mojca Erdmann is very young, so she's at the stage where she needs to show what her voice can do technically. Hence the starry diva moments like the flourish at the end of Ich hab' in Penna. Impressive, but not in balance with the song. Sure, the girl in the song is bragging about having lovers in every town, but it's more effective with a touch of subtle humour. The difference between opera and Lieder is that Lieder is close focus, thoughtful and intimate. As the first song went in this recital went, Auch kleine Dinge können uns entzücken (even small things can delight us) . "Think of the rose" it continues, "it's small but smells so sweet".

Tim Ashley said much the same about this concert but less gently. read HERE

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Peter Grimes ENO stagecraft (part 2)

"Too much sex and politics" is the usual rallying cry of those who don't like opera staging. But sometimes sex and politics are part of what the composer wanted.

There is sex in Peter Grimes, and politics too. The nieces sell their prettiness for money. And why are the townsfolk so down on Peter Grimes in an age when kids from the workhouse were treated as disposable commodities? The beauty of this new Alden production at the ENO is that he doesn't go for prurience. The nieces are little girls. However coy and culpable they may be they are too young to be predators. "Why should we be ashamed ? We comfort men from ugliness".

There's no escaping the fact that Benjamin Britten had a thing for pre-pubescent boys. David Hemmings and Scherchen junior were adamant that there was no sexual contact, and that Britten seemed more like a boy himself. Perhaps something happened to him when he was that age, fixing him forever in a fantasy world "before the fall"? It's a theme that recurs throughout his work. The apprentices become Tadzio. Is Britten grappling with his own sexuality? By modern standards, he'd probably be arrested even though, like the folks in the pub "we keep our hands to ourselves".

These days it's almost impossible to conceive of a time when homosexuality was illegal . In Britten's time even a whiff of scandal could scupper a man's career. Yet Britten never denied his orientation, which was in itself an act of courage. So Peter Grimes can be read fairly clearly as support for privacy and respect in a climate of malicious gossip. Maybe that's why Auntie looks butch ? After all, the neices are careful not to fool around til she's out of sight, another tiny detail that throws the usual assumption that the Boar is a brothel. In early 19th century Suffolk ? Perhaps implausible.

Britten was taken from his mother aged 13 and sent to boarding school where he was miserable. School was a posh kind of workhouse where boys were sent for their own good, possibly to be brutalized. Ellen and even Auntie are substitute mothers. What attracts Peter to Ellen is that she represents the nurturing he never had, even though he keeps his hut neat and orderly. Ellen's fallen middle class, so she can look pretty. Auntie's got up mannish, which doesn't necessarily mean she's a butch movie lesbian. She's a single woman running a business in a tough world.

Alden divides the men and the women of the parish when they march out of church. A barrier runs diagonally across the stage, men down one side, women down the other. Yet in real life it's not so clearcut. Auntie and Ellen do men's work, Peter would perhaps be less brutish if he knew how to. When the women talk about their lives, they form a knot, dragging Mrs Sedley in despite her resistance. She, too, was a woman once though she's shrivelled up now with meanness.

A very interesting detail is the way the nieces change after they're propositioned by Swallow. One of them wears a sailor suit, the other a kind of army drab. For the first time, they're different, playing at being adult. But the military is male dominated. What does it mean? The beauty of images liken this is that they are meant to stimulate thought, around and beyond what's immediately grasped. That's what good direction does.

Alden's crowd scenes are brilliantly choreographed. The townsfolk move in formation, like a single unit. Alden has them making hand gestures, upwards and down, so the effect is multi-dimensional, constantly in motion - like a shoal of fish. Because their costumes are drab, the whiteness of their hands and faces catches the light, like the glint of fish, writhing in a net. It's beautifully subtle, for throughout the text, there are references to "glitter", the "glitter of waves" and so on. This also underlines the musical phrases, short cascading flurries that sparkle against longer sonorities.

The excellent Opera North production centred round a net on stage, for good reason. Alden turns the crowd itself into a net, for in a way, they're all as trapped as Peter Grimes, though he's the one trying to break free.

Alden has the drummer centre stage, on his own, not part of the mob, which is often the case. This intensifies the impact of the drumming. There is no way of getting round the significance of Britten's position as a conscientious objector when the rest of the country was caught up in war frenzy. There's no war in this opera, unlike its companion piece Billy Budd. Rather Britten is dealing with the impulse that drives people towards warlike behaviour, whatever the actual cause.

When the Rector and the lawyer find Peter's hut empty, they're relieved. Yet even if there's no case, Mrs Sedley is out for blood. Peter must be punished, right or wrong. So the crowd sing "Who holds himself apart.... Him who despises us We’ll destroy" Peter must be destroyed not for what happens to his boys but because he's different, doesn't go to pubs, and thinks about rising above his station. The boys are just an excuse. "Dullards build their self esteem by inventing cruelties" sings one of the lawyers.

Hence the crowd as mindless shoal, or penned in at angles on the stage. They raise their prayer books , or lift their arms in diagonal salute. The references are subtle at first, but towards the culmination out come little Union Jack flags. This will incense a lot of people, but it's definitely in line with what Britten knew at first hand. Alden's not insulting the flag : it's the mob who insult it, by using it as a cover for their selfish cruelties. Ironically, it is fear that makes Peter drop the rope when he hears the mob approach. It's in the score.

One image I still don't understand is the fleeting glimpse of Peter, back from sea, observing the crowd unseen. He's wearing an animal head. Is this a reference to primitive sacrificial rites? Or to the idea that men are animals? Or even to Birtwistle's Minotaur, who looked like a monster but was the only untainted soul? Again, that's why intelligent stagecraft is so stimulating, it makes you think. Throughout Peter Grimes runs the idea of not making quick assumptions, so this is an opportunity to put the principle to practice.

The final scene is overwhelmingly beautiful and bleak at the same time. Sea merges with sky, the horizon very distant and obscure. That's exactly what the coast around the North Sea looks like. There are few cosy harbours. If Britten wanted Middle England he'd have lived in a suburb in the Home Counties. It's also apt as a metaphor, because it shows that rigid boundaries are not the only way, in nature as in morality. We don't need detail, for where Peter Grimes has gone is beyond our ken, where we can't possibly see. The set allows the music to take precedence. It wells up like a swell on the ocean :

In ceaseless motion comes and goes the tide
Flowing it fills the channel broad and wide
Then back to sea with strong majestic sweep
It rolls in ebb yet terrible and deep.

Monday, 18 May 2009

Peter Grimes ENO stagecraft (part 1)

A friend, who knows more about theatre than I ever will, praised the new production of Peter Grimes at the ENO. “It’s what opera direction has been leading up to for 30 years”. These days opera directors are condemned on autopilot, as if hate were a badge of honour. Of course there are some seriously moronic productions (not all avant garde or German). But operas are staged so their meaning can be enhanced. As stagecraft, this new production, by David Alden, vividly elucidates the essence of Peter Grimes.
The set is spartan. Immediately this is metaphor. Large flat planes cross the stage, like huge panels of weathered timber. Life in fishing villages is tough, the locals exposed to the elements like their surroundings. The bleakness on stage suggests at once the landscape and the desolation of those who live in it. Yet bleached timber can be beautiful. Its texture is irregular and it takes on myriad hues as the light changes.
Wide open spaces are important to the meaning of this opera. Britten contrasts the wild, unpredictability of storms with the ordered ritual in church, the endless horizons with cramped, closed spaces. Thus the courthouse, where Peter is not convicted, is fairly open plan, the crowd penned into a corner, writhing. The pub, The Boar, (a savage animal) is evoked simply by a row of solid over stuffed sofas : immobility and solidity, the illusion of comfort. Yet the storm rages, roads are flooded. The flat planes that enclose the pub careen dangerously as if at any moment they might be blown in by the gale. Auntie doesn’t believe in shutters. Lightning flashes suddenly. No wonder the nieces are scared.
Auntie’s nieces are often depicted as hardened prostitutes, for they are part of the pub's attractions. Although they're obviously complicit, there is ambiguity about their role. Hence their strange twin like behaviour. Little about them is straightforward. Depicting them as very young schoolgirls makes a lot of sense, though, for the suggestion is that they are, like the apprentices, Britten’s quintessential innocents, doomed to be corrupted.
“Is this a Christian country? Are pauper children so enslaved that their bodies go for cash?” cries Boles, when he hears a new apprentice has casually been “purchased”. He has a point. In some productions, the preacher is ridiculed like a comic book nazi or buffoon. Here, though, he’s not unsympathetic. When Swallow tries to “buy” one of the girls, there’s a connection between the nieces and the boys, often lost in less subtle productions.
Alden further reinforces the similarity between the girls and boys by having the nieces smack their toy dolls when they’re upset, as children do when they can’t deal with their own feelings. John the new apprentice also acts like an abused child, rolling up in a foetal position, too terrified to speak.
Then when Peter faces his dilemma in Act 3, Alden doesn’t have him do a wild “mad scene”. Instead, Peter seems to crumble inwards, curled up and rocking himself mindless, just like John did, just like a trapped, tortured animal. It’s incredibly painful to watch, as violent anguish at least is “adult”. The implication is that Peter, too, was an abused child, who treats his boys harshly because he knows no other way to interact. Their vulnerability reminds him of something he’d prefer not to deal with, so he lashes out. Significantly, the only time we see solid looking “brick walls” in this set is in Peter’s hut, where the walls tower like a prison, bathed in eerie green light.
This isn’t a bad rationale for Grimes's behaviour. He is brutal, but it’s directed inward, too. He asks Ellen,“Wrong to try, wrong to live, right to die”. It’s a warning, a sudden but revealing flash of insight. This production implies that Peter’s whole life has been one long, slow suicide, his attempts to better himself a cry for help. When he does face fate, it’s with curiously dignified resignation, as if he’s rehearsed the moment since he, too, perhaps was a boy from the workhouse.
Please see part 2 of this which deals with the more controversial aspects - sex, politics etc. In fact I think it says even more about the staging, the opera and Britten, but then I'm prejudiced, I wrote it. You can find it by scrolling up or looking under the subject labels on right under Britten. Look under "stagecraft" too if you want to read analyses of the stagecraft in other operas. There's more on Britten including some off the wall stuff ! This is a seriously good production, because it brings out so many deeper levels in the opera, often missed. As my friend said, it needs to be seen again and again. And read the score before deriding this production. If it's "not what Britten intended", then someone should get Britten to rewrite the opera, and make Mrs Selby the heroine.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Mahler 8 Boulez Berlin

“So far I have employed words and the human voice …….t o express symphonically only with immense breadth”, said Mahler of this symphony. “But here the voice is also an instrument ……. used not only as sound, but as the bearer of poetic thoughts”.

Because of its sheer theatrical impact, this massive symphony will always be stunning. But as Mahler so explicitly states, the vast forces are bearers of "poetic thoughts", so powerful that they need ambitious expression. It's not spectacle for the sake of spectacle, not a circus for pulling stunts of sheer people management. Central to its meaning is its relationship to Mahler's music and ideas as a whole.

The theme “Veni, Creator Spiritus” runs throughout this symphony, so there’s no mistaking how much the idea meant to the composer: ignore it at your peril. The music is a powerful affirmation of life and of the spirit of artistic creation. In many ways it is perhaps the most critical of all Mahler symphonies because here he crystallizes many of the ideas he’s developed up to this point. It also occupies a critical turning point in his work, clearing his horizons for Das Lied von der Erde and the 9th Symphony. “Come, spirit of creation” expresses the idea that through emotional awareness and creativity, we can reach transcendence.

Faust is redeemed by faith, and by love. Nit-picking pedants are right, it's not rational. But it's so strong that it seemed to Mahler "like a vision” which struck him “like lightning”, making him write so quickly that the notes seemed to fly onto the page as if they were being dictated.

In April 2007, Pierre Boulez conducted the Eighth in Berlin with the Staatskapelle. It was one of the great experiences of my life. Boulez seemed to hear the symphony as profoundly liberating: after all, Faust beats the devil and is raised up to heaven. Sin is expunged, purified in a blaze of light. Boulez never loses sight of the ultimate destination, even though he's clear on detail. Accende lumen sensibus was heralded by a particularly bright, celestial fanfare. He not only highlights the trombone and trumpet passages but respects how they change with each recurrence. The magnificent coda at the end of the first movement was electrifying, because it marks the crucial transition.

The performance was explosive, as would be expected from a section where the words Gloria ! Gloria ! repeat with increasing ecstasy. Yet it's not simply excitement for its own sake. The textures build up and multiply, so detail wasn't buried under the crashing drums and glorious, full-throated choruses.

The slow, non-vocal section that opens the Second Part of this symphony is crucial to understanding the “poetic thoughts” in the text. Interpretation, thus is even more critical, because there are no words as clues. This part of the symphony refers to the final scene in Faust, where Faust is raised to Heaven. Goethe places the scene in a bizarre landscape inhabited by anchorites, complete with tame lions who pace about stumm-freundlich (placid and peacefully). It’s a direct reference to a medieval concept depicted in paintings of the period.

Mahler not only knew Goethe’s poetry, but was also familiar with its manifestations in art. It was so important to him that he writes into the manuscript: Bergschluchten. Wald. Fels, Einöde. (mountain gorge, forest, cliff, desert). Again, the vision of anchorites helps express the musical texture of the symphony. In art, the hermits inhabit surreal perspectives, sometimes even hovering over the ground, and here we have Pater Ecstaticus auf and ab schwebend (soaring up and down). Later the angels lift Faust’s soul and they fly off in der höheren Atmosphäre. There’s movement everywhere, which Mahler translates into music that soars and flies ever upwards in different levels. Boulez manages to capture this multi-dimensional effect again by respecting Mahler’s details.

Almost unbelievably pure, high woodwinds ascend ever upward, followed by glorious strings, deepened in tone by brass. Boulez (who loves art and collects paintings), is painting colours with sound, creating craggy shapes with the steady horizontals of pizzicato and percussion. The overall palette is of shimmering light: even the cymbal is played relatively quietly. This is much more effective than letting it crash for dramatic effect. Instead, its resonance blends subtly into the diaphanous textures, all the more effectively because the musical effect reinforces the spiritual imagery.

Then, out of the stillness, rise chords in ascending procession, anticipating the entry of the choir. When the voices join in, it’s like a pilgrimage, the quiet reverential singing underlined by pizzicato-like footfalls. Boulez is evoking Tannhäuser, a connection which Mahler almost certainly would have appreciated. Again, he does this by extremely precisely defining the different textures and colours, so that they literally seem to shine. The famous off-stage trumpets were exceptionally effective in the clean acoustic of the Philharmonie, truly adding an unusual, celestial layer to what was happening on stage.

For all its highly charged spirituality, this symphony is profoundly personal and intimate. Thus the poignant solo violin part, pitted against the massed choir, and the delicate celeste and mandolin among the grand instrumentation. It’s dedicated to Alma. Mahler’s wife and muse. She was the Gretchen to his Faust. Read Professor Henry-Louis de La Grange's monumental biography of the composer for background. The Fourth volume, A New life Cut Short is absolutely essential reading, for it covers the turbulent last years of Mahler's life. The book sheds great insight, an invaluable aid to appreciating what made Mahler tick.

However badly Alma was to treat the composer, she was his inspiration. So it is Das Ewig-Weibliche that draws us heavenward, as the Chorus mysticus tells us, the Eternal Feminine, embodied in the Mater Gloriosa, “Jungfrau, Mutter, Königen, Göttin”.

Alma's diaries place Mahler in a bad light because she blamed him for not letting her become a composer herself. It's true, but he was hardly the monster she makes out. He wasn't a fool: her music isn't remotely in the league of his. Yet he did pay for her music lessons, even with Zemlinsky after their marriage. After the trauma of her affair with Gropius, he berated himself for not respecting her more. Alma's resentments may cloud our image of Mahler, but by the standards of his time, he was remarkably liberal. The two parts of the symphony may seem different on a superficial level, but they connect conceptually, as the "creative spirit" is made concrete through love, and the power of a specifically female nurturance.

Throughout Mahler’s work, figures repeat, sometimes used in different ways, but also, importantly, like leitmotivs, symbolising more than the notes alone convey. This performance was part of the Berlin cycle of Mahler’s symphonies, that preceded the more publicized (in the Englsih speaking world) New York sequence. The performance was thus deliberately enhanced by hearing it in the context of the grand panorama of Mahler's work as a whole.

For example, there are recurring references to Das himmlische Leben, so intimately linked with the Wunderhorn symphonies. Yet there are passages in the Second Part which use ideas from what would become the song Von der Schönheit.Just how far Mahler had developed the ideas at the time he was writing the Eighth, I don't know, but we know the song now and can’t escape the reference. Similarly, when we hear the soprano and altos sing about the reinen, reichen Quelle (pure rich spring) that sustained the Saviour in the desert, we can’t help but think of the lotus-pond that will appear in Das Lied von der Erde.

In the finale, the chorus sings Alles Vergängliche ist nur ein Gleichnis (all things transitory are but parable). Old concerns are obliterated in new, heavenly inspiration. The symphony culminates in ecstatic glory. Light, and specifically the intense, divine light of spiritual illumination, runs throughout Mahler’s work with clear, undaunted commitment. In many ways it’s even more important than the usual assumptions that dominate conventional commentary, because it focuses on solutions and goals. Mahler deals with death and darkness, but his music inevitably heads towards a goal of resolution – resurrection, rebirth, transfiguration, and the power of Primeval Light. More than most, Boulez has contributed to this new, challenging "light infused" perspective on Mahler's music. From this springs the clarity of his textures, the clean, precise detail and the unswerving focus on overall architecture.

What Boulez illuminates is Mahler’s unceasing search for answers to eternal mysteries. What Boulez does is based on sixty years of knowledge of the composer's music and life, so his approach is deeply felt and thought through. He isn't heart on sleeve indulgent. Instead, he lets the music speak, bringing the listener closer to source, so to speak.

There’s an adage that says the more you know something, the more you realise just how much there is yet to learn. From what we know of Mahler, we can deduce that he was an innovator not a conformist. As is Boulez, like Mahler himself an intellectual and individualist. We can never stop learning, because there is so much we've yet to fathom. Professor de La Grange's fourth volume stresses that Mahler was possibly on the verge of a new phase when he died. We'll never know how, but this open ended concept makes the Tenth Symphony so tantalising.

There is a recording of the Berlin Boulez Mahler 8th, made a few days after the Philharmonie performance. I also have a tape of the live broadcast. They are brilliant – you "need" to hear them if you want to engage with of this wonderful symphony.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Erich Korngold rarity with MANIC video

Mahler connection. Erich Korngold's father was Julius Korngold, the formidable music critic who dominated Vienna in Mahler's time. Naturally when little Erich showed signs of being a prodigy everyone who was anyone in town knew about it, including Mahler, who called him a genius. Hardly surprising, for his piano sonatas (written when he was 11 and 14) are wonderful. Having such a powerful father was perhaps not entirely a blessing, but Erich seems to have been much too nice a guy to do a Mozart to his dad. Now Brendan Carroll, author of the famed "Erich Korngold : the Last Prodigy" (1997, 464pp) has created a tribute to Korngold, so we can all share. The sound comes from a very rare test recording made in the course of making a film. It's accompanied by photos from private collections, some of which haven't been seen before.

Lots of movies for which Korngold wrote music appear on Youtube, and also snips of his other music. But the clip below is worth singling out because it is a total scream! "It's NEW! It's DARING! It's from WARNER BROS!"

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Mahler sequence Carnegie Hall NY Boulez Barenboim 1-5




















It's interesting, how the Carnegie Hall publicity for the Mahler symphonies series makes it sound like a Barenboim cycle with Boulez guesting. True, Barenboim conducts the Berlin Staatskapelle, so it's his orchestra. But even he credits Pierre Boulez as the main man when it comes to Mahler. Boulez has conducted the Staatskapelle for years, and they have tremendous rapport: it's almost physically palpable when you're in the hall with them.

So far the first five symphonies have unfolded. The First Symphony can survive most conductors because on one level it's a man's statement of intent. But there's more to it. Once I heard Frühbeck de Burgos conduct it. He managed to temper the young man brashness with the warm hearted wisdom of an older man who's experienced the ravages of life. It was like looking forwards and backwards at the same time : emotionally astute, but hard to describe. FdB records little, he doesn't get the credit he's due.

The Second Symphony is Mahler's big breakthrough into a new realm of spiritual insight. Mahler was a man to whom ideas and concepts were extremely important. That's why Pierre Boulez brings so much to Mahler. It's a fallacy that intellect and emotion preclude each other. Boulez's emotions are passionately intense, all the more so because he doesn't dissipate himself in self-indulgence. This pure, focussed intelligence is in many ways more true to the Mahler we now know through the researches of Prof. Henry-Louis de La Grange, the greatest Mahler biographer of all time (he will be pretty impossible to top).

Gene Gaudette was at both the First and Second symphonies. Of the Second he wrote: "Less than a minute into the concert, I was asking myself if this was indeed the same orchestra I had heard the previous night....... The musicians sounded like an entirely different orchestra – an ensemble, if one would excuse the term, resurrected." " Boulez is one of the least interventionist of conductors, and his punctilious adherence to the score yielded results that were almost contradictory: a performance that was both true to the score and unexpectedly passionate. Staatskapelle Berlin took on a deeper sound, more colorful sectional playing, and better balances" Read the whole review HERE.

Elizabeth Barnette, who is specially sensitive to conducting technique, watched Boulez during the Third Symphony. "He has never has been a very theatrical conductor, and at age 84 he has refined his technique to the point of achieving maximum effect with minimal gestures. Rather than trying to beat the music into the orchestra he draws it out, molds it with his hands, and simply "exudes" the music, "Ausstrahlung" in German, projecting his ideas and concept onto an orchestra." Boulez's recording of this symphony is lyrical. He gets the mighty Vienna Philharmonic to sound fresh and lithe, colours transparent and glowing. Obviously the NY performance would have been different, but it sounds like it was pretty good. Read Elizabeth's comments HERE.

The Staatskapelle's playing in the Fourth Symphony was technically the best of the series so far. Read about it HERE. The third movement is utterly compelling, a transition from death to new life expressed through abstract notes. That coda! But everyone loves the final movement. There are lots of ways of singing it, from the sturdy faith of Jo Vincent with Mengelberg to the exquisite, gossamer purity of Christiane Oelze on the Stein chamber reduction. I like very light and fragile, for the singer is a dead child. Yet she's singing of earthly pleasure - FOOD! So sensual delight is perfectly apt. I've heard Dorothea Röschmann sing this, with Daniel Harding, a recording I didn't get at first but since have grown to love.
Röschmann specialises in charming ingénue roles, so she can be convincing as a little girl in heaven pigging out to her heart's content. It's in the text and the gutsy music.

Symphonies One to Four connect to the magical, folksy world of Des Knaben Wunderhorn, so the Fifth heralds a new direction. This symphony lends itself to all kinds of treatment. Hell-for-leather versions can be exciting, and probably define the popular idea of what the symphony should sound like, but it isn't the only approach. Mahler himself was clear about the Fifth being "chamber-like" and there are conductors around who understand. What did Gene Gaudette make of Barenboim's Fifth ? Read the whole piece HERE. Although I wasn't there I'd tend to second his comments on Quasthoff. The Rückert songs require great finesse, even lightness of touch, and lie a little high for him. CHECK above about Boulez Mahler 8th in Berlin, 2007. Also other Mahler posts on this blog and more coming soon.

Peter Grimes & Billy Budd, soulmates? ENO

In Britain, we get plenty of Britten and to a high standard. Productions can't get away with being merely good, they have to be excellent. From all I've heard so far about the new Peter Grimes at ENO, it's superb. Alden places the action in the 1940's, no pretence that this is the 19th century, as is often the case. This is Britten, who knew things about prejudice the original poet George Crabbe either didn't know or couldn't express. There isn't a word for British McCarthyism, but the mentality did exist, and in many forms. HERE is Edward Seckerson in the Independent, in his usual perceptive , trenchant mode, pulling no punches :

".....Even Gerald Finley's Captain Balstrode has one arm – bitten off by a shark, perhaps, or one of the locals.....But the really scary thing about Alden's production is the way in which these assorted grotesques morph into a single entity – a brutal force moved about the stage like a shoal of carnivorous fish. The climactic manhunt is the alcohol-fuelled by-product of a party in which Alden lays on a hellish vision of middle-England. The Union Jacks come out, and so does the hatred of a united national front. And the ENO Chorus – sensational throughout – are now simply overwhelming."

Grimes and Billy Budd, soulmates ? I can't wait til Saturday. Since wroiting this I've been and seen. Look at what I've written about Alden's staging in the posts marked Peter Grimes ENO parts 1 and 2.
LOTS on Britten on this blog. Scroll up or look at the labels on the right or look HERE

Monday, 11 May 2009

Sensible solutions for the South Bank Show

So the South Bank Show is folding after 32 years. To those outside the UK or under the age of 50, this was a ground breaking arts magazine on British TV for many years, covering a broad spectrum of interests in a lively way. Now it's being canned. Hordes moan, especially, it seems, people who didn't watch the show anyway, and were part of its decline.

So it's good to read some practical common sense from Rupert Christiansen in the Telegraph. (I finally caught up reading). His solution is to put the best programmes on an online archive, so those who really want to watch it can do so as and when they can. Much better than being forced into a specific timeframe and never seeing the show again. Plus it would generate a decent income.

The arts won't be damaged by the show's demise. No way, when there are so many other factors around. The real problem is that technology has moved on. Way back in the early 70's, sitting in front of the box watching whatever was on worked because there was no other game in town. Thus, thousands of people who might never have consciously chosen to watch arts programmes became hooked on the Jacqueline du Pré documentaries. Suddenly, the world discovered that classical music was fun. Those Nupen films probably did more for music in the long term than most other things in the media. But television is no longer a medium of choice. The Jacqueline du Pré films are now available on DVD, where they can be watched at will, and repeated as often as one wishes. That's probably the way to go, cherry picking the best of the hundreds of SBS back issues and making them available. Then if people still don't watch, it's on their own heads.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Harmonics is me - Salvatore Sciarrino

The identity of the violin soloist for this performance of Salvatore Sciarrino's Caprices was a secret until the very last moment when she walked in. Carolin Widmann! This was a bonus as she knows Sciarrino and had polished her interpretations with the man himself. "Why do you only do harmonics?" she asked him once. "Because I am harmonics," was the whimsical reply. Enigma, and gentle humour, that's Sciarrino all over. "The man", says Widmann, "seems to walk just above the ground,"

That should be no surprise to those who love his music, (see the earleir post below or via label) which seems to hover in a rarified atmosphere, pitched so high it's almost beyond human hearing. Nowadays we have so much aural overload that it's easy to forget how to listen to simple purity. It's a bit like watching ants : we don't notice them but they communicate and have busy lives. Sciarrino's high registers are there because the music is always on the threshold of floating away, elusively, if we don't listen carefully enough. This sensibility involves the listener rewarding him or her with a different perspective. It's the complete opposite of the new fashion for music as consumer product, imbibed mass rally style. To think that Dudamel was on this same platform last week.

Sciarrino's music isn't difficult though. It's intuitive and life affirming, so you can just chill. In any case Sciarrino's music springs from tradition, so even those who know nothing of new music can find points of entry. Widmann demonstrated. She played a passage from Paganini's Caprices and then the same from Sciarrino's: a direct quote but reinvigorated in a different way – sheer, pure light, as if from another plane of existence. "This music is like learning a new language", she added, with its unusual aesthetics and quirky technical challenges. At one stage, Widmann's fingers were poised at the extreme upper end of the neck of her instrument, while sweeping her bow in dizzying diagonals. The notes refers to the "brushing" of strings with the bow rapidly alternating between tasto and ponticello. This is music to be watched for maximum impact, because the sounds are so elusive you can't grasp them on recording alone.

Of the six Sei Capricci (1976) tonight we heard only I, II, III and the all important VI, the biggest section, which pulls together what's goe before and ends with a short pause and joyful flourish. Like a smile ! Then ten members of the Philharmonia materialised for ...da un divertimento. This is an early piece, from 1970. more "concrete" in the sense that the forms are easier to grasp. The larger ensemble also means more space to let ideas grow, so can hear subjects and reiterations etc. What's already there is Sciarrino's way of making things sound quite unlike what you'd expect. The bassoon, for example, sounds remarkably lithe for an instrument normally so resonant. Then the bassoonist, clarinettist and oboist pull out the reeds from their instruments and blow them through their cupped hands. This may sound silly on the written page, but in performance it's very effective. It's the essence of a mouth blown instrument, pared down to basics, the sound so quiet you could miss it if you weren't paying attention.

This was the second to last in the "Music of Today" series, created by Julian Anderson at the South Bank. It's been wonderful, hearing good new music presented intelligently and by someone who knows what he's talking about. Let's hope the series repeats next season. Or gets picked up by the BBC, whose "Hear and Now" slot could use major refurbishment.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Romance of the West Chamber 1927


Xi Xiang Ji, The Romance of the West Chamber is perhaps the greatest classic in Chinese literature. It was written by Wang shifu (1260-1336), based on a story written five hundred years before. It's inspired operas, films, even comic books, so central is it to Chinese culture.

This clip (French subtitles) is from a movie made in 1927. The heroine Cui yingying is missing her lover. She's in a monastery mourning her dad, but the wicked local warlord wants to carry her off. So his army attacks the sanctuary. Look at the props and sets - these are real antiques ! The battle scenes are ambitious, filmed on location. Technically this was state of the art for the time. Many more sophisticated versions have been made since, with colour and sound and superb actors but this one is special because it's like a window on the past. Look at the pagoda in the background in one scene- at least 12 tiers! Not so long after the "soldiers" scrambled up those barren hills, war broke out in the "real" world. Perhaps now that stretch of countryside is urban, but on film, it's preserved forever.

Read about more about the film on The Chinese Mirror HERE

Friday, 8 May 2009

Salvatore Sciarrino - cool dude

This smooth dude is Italian – of course, look at the natty shirt and watch! You bet he has nice pointy shoes. Salvatore Sciarrino (b 1947) is one of the biggest names in new music. On Sunday 10th May there’ll be a free concert of his music at the South Bank London. We’ll hear one of his Caprices for solo violin, and …da un divertimento for 10 esecutori (performers).

The photo is specially apt as it shows the composer enjoying an espresso in the ancient town of Città di Castello in the Umbrian foothills, where he lives. The ambience of the town inspired his Quaderno di strada (2003), 12 canti e un proverba per baritone e strumenti. The CD notes are poetry. “Umbrian light…that spawns gentle, ephemeral shadows and is engulfed by the intangibly secret web of voices filling the mysterious night”. Sciarrino’s music is magic, elusive as if it adopts “the mobility of air, captured its nocturnal buzzing sounds with a net veil and transformed them into fluctuating sonorities, roaring and murmuring”.



There are texts to these songs, aphoristic snatches from Roman classics to Rilke. They are fragments that suggest moods the music elaborates. The voice plays with the words of a strange phrase seen on a wall in Perugia. Se non ora, quando? se non qui, dove? se non tu, chi?(if not now, when? if not here, where? if not you, who?” Long sweeping phrases are taken up by trumpet and oboe, later by violin, scratching along like something tossed in the wind. Simple, yet very expressive. 

Sciarrino doesn’t use easy signposts but wavers in ambiguities. Everything floats, shimmers, turns sudden corners. It’s not, though, like impressionist painting made up of dots, pretty on the surface but devoid of depth. On the contrary, meaning is central to Sciarrino’s music, though its precise content depends on how the listener puts together the clues in sound. This is profoundly emotional music, though it doesn’t crudely pull the heartstrings. It’s enigmatic, tantalizingly elusive, best approached perhaps through listening inwardly.
It’s also technically astute. Sciarrino knows baroque technique, adapting sillabazione scivolata (slipping syllables) for extra vocal flexibility. “A supporting note is held”, he explains, “crescendo decrescendo – and then breaks off suddenly in a very rapid sequence of small intervals whose pitches are almost indeterminable, often falling, - stepwise glissandi, so to speak”. 

Structurally, the cycle is elegant. Each miniature is distint yet leads into the next while the last part stands apart like pithy summation. Here the instruments (hard to distinguish for they’re used in unusual ways) do a syllabic cakewalk, short jerky rhythms, yet expanded by miniature glissandi within notes. The words deconstruct, too, into jaunty particles, like a merry dance. Put together they say Du cose al mondo non si ponno avere d’essere belli e di saper cantare. Someone please translate ? 

There is a recording, on Kairos, Otto Katzameier and Klangforum Wien, conducted by Sylvain Cambreling. Sciarrino is published by Ricordi, and there are many other recordings. His work for solo piano is particularly beautiful – the Nocturnes are a good introduction. 

A few years ago I heard Nicolas Hodges play Perduto in una città d’acque.(Lost in a city of water). This came to Sciarrino as he sat with Luigi Nono as Nono lay slowly dying. They hardly spoke, but communication doesn’t depend on words. “The words in a sentence were often punctuated by strands of sleep”, said Sciarrino, “and the meaning wandered, towards dreams, towards that nucleus of warmth”. What may seem to be long moments of silence in this piece seem more like moments of intense, intuitive listening. Structurally, it is based on a series of two note chords, but it is the reverberations between the notes that is fascinating. The sounds linger across the silence, the vibrations continuing after a note is struck. The occasional flurries of harmony highlight the profound dignity of the stillness. One set of chords is deliberately flat and hollow, like the mechanical ticking of a metronome – the passing of time, dripping water drops, a frail heartbeat.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Mahler Cycle New York - Boulez and Barenboim bring Berlin to NY.

Surprisingly there are are very few genuine Mahler cycles. Most are compilations put together by marketing people to sell fancy boxed sets. But Mahler, more than any other composer, wrote with surprising consistency. It's been jokingly suggested that his entire opus constitutes one huge symphony. To use Boulez's term, Mahler "has trajectory", a purposeful direction even if the outcome is never guaranteed. Right from the beginning, we hear a distinctive voice. Again and again, Mahler 's preoccupations are explored in different ways : light and darkness, death and transcendence. A true Mahler cycle is an opportunity to hear how the ideas develop. The problem is that very few conductors get a chance to do the whole oeuvre with the same orchestra in a short period of time. That's why the Carnegie Hall cycle of Mahler symphonies which starts today in New York is so interesting.

Boulez and Barenboim have been doing Mahler series in Berlin for several years. With each new performance, their ideas develop. Now Boulez and Barenboim have taken the Berlin Staatskapelle to New York. Two conductors, yes, but they've been working together on the concept with this orchestra for a long time. This is probably as close as it gets to a true cycle as is practical. The division of material is thoughtful, too.

The cycle starts with Barenboim conducting Symphony No 1. Like his hero, Mahler is striding out into the unknown, confidently overcoming obstacles in his way. It's a young man's symphony, full of bravado, so even Gergiev's one dimensional bluster expressed valid points. The three more mature Wunderhorn symphonies are a more sophisticated prospect altogether. Boulez will be conducting all three in succession. Death to resurrection in the Second and Fourth Symphonies, but in very different ways. How will the Third fit in? It, too, can be a journey from trudge to exultation. It's more nature-oriented, harking back to the early songs and Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen which the First quotes, but not in quite the same way. Boulez will also be conducting the Sixth and Eighth Symphonies connecting yet again to ideas of spiritual growth. Of course similar ideas inhabit the Fifth, Seventh, Ninth, and Das Lied von der Erde, but Barenboim's take thereon is going to be different, though he's known Boulez's exceptionally lucid Mahler for many years.

THIS is a link to the Carnegie Hall site with quite good programme notes.

For a preview of what this cycle might be like, look at Mark Berry's blog Boulezian, and go back to April 2007 to see what he wrote about the Berlin series. Perceptive writing, very informative. I attended only the Eighth with Boulez, but it was one of the great experiences of my life. Many of my friends will be at the concerts (all of them !) so I might update this with reports. But read Mark on boulezian.blogspot, he's very good !

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Alan Gilbert stuns Berlin and NY


Three years ago, Alan Gilbert stepped in at Berlin at short notice for Bernard Haitink, no less. An intimidating debut, even for a fairly experienced conductor like Gilbert. No one was expecting miracles from the young and relatively unknown conductor. But he surprised the sophisticated Philharmonie crowd. So he was asked back. Three weeks ago he conducted Dvorak and Martinu's 4th Symphony. Said the Berliner Morgenpost, Gilbert "demonstrated everything he has as a conductor and musician. They’re not often the same thing. He ripped Bohuslav Martinu from the perpetual twilight that has been so negligently inflicted upon him, and, with an enlightened performance of the Fourth Symphony, demonstrated the gravitas, greatness, and originality of this
master. A musical panorama of great density came to the fore; for Gilbert and the curious orchestra (which last played this symphony 20 years ago) knew exactly how to put it across – with utmost intensity.”

I heard the concert before reading anything and heartily concur. The Berliners are of course such a good orchestra that they can play on auto pilot, making everything sound good, even when they're being conducted by someone engaged for "crowd appeal" as was the case recently. With Gilbert, they are genuinely animated – you can see the difference in their body language and the way they respond musically as if they're enjoying the experience. Gilbert loves Martinu, and has done so long before the anniversary, so his enthusiasm must have come through to the orchestra. This was lively, Martinu with wit and energy. Very impressive! Gilbert knows that this orchestra won't be fooled by flashy showmanship, so he gets through to them through his love for the music. The whole programme is intelligently put together. Dvorak's Noon Witch complements the sense of magic and menace in the Martinu symphony, for example. Hear the conductor talk with Emmanuel Pahud, the flautist, no mean soloist himself. Hear and watch for yourself on the Berliner Philharmoniker site.

Gilbert 's taking over as Music Director at the New York Philharmonic in September, replacing Lorin Maazel. Will notoriously conservative New York audiences cope with the contrast ? Last week, he conducted Martinu 4 again, which hadn't been heard in NY since 1986, so perhaps it was almost "new music". Gilbert is refreshing because he's a real musician's musician. A few years ago, when he brought the Lyons orchestra to London, something went seriously wrong. You could feel the players panic as the performance disintegrated. Yet Gilbert pepped them up, and pulled them back on message. They were playing Mahler's 7th Symphony, where horrible nightmares are vanquished by dawn. Never had the finale sounded so heartfelt !

When Gilbert's appointment at New York was announced there were some nasty remarks from people who had no idea how he conducted, although he has sound experience and a good reputation in Europe, particularly for a man still young. Yet he's a native New Yorker. His mother is a violinist at the NY Phil so he'll be his mother's boss. But Gilbert is the real article. He's a serious hunk, (six foot five), but what makes him so interesting is that he's not celebrity for the sake of publicity, but an intelligent and thoughtful musician. LA may grab headlines, but Gilbert could give New York musical substance.

But will it be appreciated ? Martinu is hardly difficult or cutting edge, and indeed is firmly rooted in the mainstream. Yet, according to a reliable report, the NY audience walked out even before the piece started. Obviously they are such experts that they can judge without needing to hear.

Sunday, 3 May 2009

Apple blossom time with Elgar


May is apple blossom time, so it's a nice time to do an Elgar pilgrimage. Worcester is apple growing country, and though you can't get into commercial orchards there are plenty of trees to see - they even grow wild in hedgerows. The lilacs are out and the first roses and lilies appear soon - definitely a good time to get away to the countryside. New asparagus just out in the local farm shops, and "home" made cakes !

The popular image of Elgar comes from things like Pomp and Circumstance, as if the man were a stolid, complacent pillar of the Establishment. Visiting his birthplace at Broadheath on the outskirts of Worcester is a reminder that his roots were decidedly humble. He was an outsider, who struggled hard to attain his later status : nothing taken for granted.

In 1857, the cottage was semi rural. The small gate at what is now the bottom of the garden opened out on a quiet lane. Now the house is approached through a car park in what was once the backyard, but in Victorian times, the family would have walked uphill from town. The garden, now gloriously planted in the ornamental "cottage garden" style, would have been functional, probably filled with vegetables and fruit, maybe chickens, as well as flowers. Inside the ceilings are low, the floors uneven, rooms on different levels, as if built at different times. It must have been cramped and dark, cold in winter, feverishly hot in summer. Another good reason to visit before the summer and the crowds.

Inside there are various relics of Elgar's family and life. One thing I look out for when I visit are the embroidered samplers. Some child worked hard to make them, probably tired and in dim light : all the more reason to admire their quality. More specifically Elgar-related is the museum in an adjacent building. It's large and airy and has a very well chosen series of exhibits. Currently there's a special show called "From the cradle to the grave" which runs til Xmas 2009. The cradle would have been in the small first floor room overlooking the garden. The grave is a few miles up the road in Little Malvern. One of Elgar's rented homes is in Worcester itself but you can't go in. But the museum is good, and of course you can't miss the cathedrals. There is also a cycle route if you are keen, which takes in the whole area.
Photo by Roger B