Thursday, 31 December 2009

Seriously OTT fireworks in Hong Kong

New Year's Eve in Hong Kong is spectacular - all those tall buildings and that dramatic harbour. Here are some of the fireworks a few hours ago - not on ITN news in UK yet. WATCH FULL SCREEN. Each year IFC1 tower is the epicentre, the rest of the city doing displays that extend the IFC one. Meanwhile the ships in the harbour let off their horns and bands play music all over the city. This is Fireworks Art on a grand scale! Below is another brand new clip, very well shot, of the rest of the fireworks display. Clip lasts ten minutes and REALLY goes wild towards the end. The crowd (about a million people on the streets and a few million at windows throughout the city and live on TV) go bananas. Fireworks are banned in HK because they're too dangerous in that population density and those crowded buildings, so once a year the whole city throws a massive communal celebration, even the boats in the harbour join in. Definitely watch full screen !

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

New Year's Eve in Weimar Shanghai

Weimar Shanghai? These are Shanghai's smart young things welcoming in 1932. Shanghai was the world's biggest metropolis in those days, vibrant, racy, ultra modern, an amazing place few in the West appreciate. New Year's Eve was the biggest party in the whole year. Lunar New Year is something spent traditionally, with family, and Christmas was for Christians (although in westernized places like Shanghai everyone had fun). So New Year's Eve was the night people went completely over the top. They used to plan their outfits a year ahead, take their furs out of storage etc. It was the biggest social event of the year. Someone I loved was "called back" on New Year's Eve the year she'd reach 100, but somehow it was comforting to think of her back in her prime with all her friends. Note the champagne, trombones, the man in the chicken suit, and traditional garments. (though look at the flash modern cut of one lady's qi pao). Notice too how sophisticated the film techniques are, quite radical for the time, easily as up to date as in the west.

This is Shanghai at the peak of its prosperity, so they've lots to celebrate. They're partying like there was no tomorrow. They were right, there wasn't a "tomorrow". A few months earlier, Japan had attacked Manchuria, but that must have seemed so far away, hundreds of miles away in swanky Shanghai. Soon civil war would break out, tearing Shanghai apart. Then the Japanese occupation, and then the Revolution of 1949, when many of Shanghai's best and brightest fled to Hong Kong and started all over again, from scratch. Refugees to billionaires, but billionaires who never forgot what it was like being a refugee and desperate. Until then, Hong Kong was a quiet backwater, but then it eclipsed Shanghai. "Someday Shanghai will rise again", said an elderly man I knew. He was right. If the west has any chance of comprehending China, it needs to understand what Shanghai meant. Weimar, on the other side of the world.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Theodora multiplies - Salzburg broadcast

Theodora took a vow of chastity, choosing martyrdom to marriage. Fortunately for us, Handel appreciated her steadfast virtue, and performances of his oratorio multiply and are fruitful. Even after a year when we've had Handel every single day, Theodora is interesting because it's quite "inward" and austere, like Theodora herself may have been.

The 2009 Salzburg Theodora can be heard online on demand for the next week HERE. This is the one with Christine Schäfer, Bejun Mehta and the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra which alone should indicate something special. Theodora is "...a product of (Handel's) late maturity, that ultimately determines one’s enjoyment of a work that avoids spectacular flights and fancies but shines with inner radiance" said the Financial Times (full review HERE)

Theodora didn't sell out, and neither did Handel. Though there are cross-dressing hijinks, this story isn't "fun". The organ dominates, for the vow Theodora has made is stern and uncompromising, and the dark sound of the organ symbolizes the depth of her integrity. The orchestration is spare, closer perhaps to the spirit of Bach than to High Baroque ostentation. Schäfer sounds girlish and fragile, which makes the strength of her resolve all the more intense. Her steeliness is more convincing than ostensibly more "beautiful" and luscious voices.

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's singing is glorious, but I couldn't stand the Glyndebourne production. Peter Sellars turned the oratorio into a Star Wars caricature. The Romans became futuristic androids in plastic suits, while the Christians languished in Grecian robes. Sellar's sci-fi setting was popular because people could relate to the story in simplistic terms, but it completely overwhelmed the music and the "real" story, which is infinitely more human and moving. In any case the Christians turned out to be the "future" not the Romans. More destructively, Sellars shifts the focus away from the spirituality in the music to the cartoon-like overlay. Pointless and destructive. The Salzburg production at least recognised the role of the music, placing the organ at the centre of the action on stage, as it is in the oratorio, and by extension, in the whole narrative. Less is definitely more, particularly in a work like Theodora which is predicated on ascetic austerity.

Another Theodora, this time from Paris in 2006. Listen to this performance (streamed online) from Opera Today. Emmanuelle Haϊm conducts the Orchestre et chor du Concert d'Astrée. Anne Sofie von Otter is Theodora, fitting in well with Haϊm's clean, unfussy approach. Theodora isn't a flight of gorgeous fantasy, but a story of strong human beliefs. The Glyndebourne elaboration perhaps made it easy on the eye rather than the mind, but why not set it in other periods where high-minded people like Theodora stand up to high-living corruption? The spartan Salzburg setting seems to have acknowledged this, and alluded to the point that there are plenty of Theodoras around, even now.

January brings London back to life

New brooms sweep clean so chimney sweeps bring good luck. To switch metaphors, what an oasis January will be after the desert of December.

András Schiff will be bringing good cheer to the Wigmore Hall with his new series, where he'll be blending songs for voice with songs for piano. He does real "intelligent programming" so look at his selections and drool even if you can't get there. First off on 6th January, he's playing Mendelssohn, Schumann and early Mahler with Juliane Banse.

On Sunday 10th, Peter Schreier will be conducting Bach at the Royal Academy of Music. Modern instruments but Schreier's brilliant. He's been conducting RAM students for years, and he's well loved. Needless to say, it's sold out but lucky me, I've got a ticket. Many tickets still available for Brecht songs on the 12th - not Schreier singing though. He retired gracefully a few years ago, while still relatively in his prime. OTOH Brecht isn't difficult so he probably "could" sing at a pinch, though he evidently has more sense.

On 12th and 14th, though, the big draw will be Strauss's Elektra in a concert performance at the Barbican. Gergiev conducts and a good line-up - Jeanne-Michele Charbonnet, Felicity Palmer, Angela Denoke, Matthias Goerne, Ian Storey. Also on at the same time, Melvyn Tan and the Škampa at the Wigmore Hall, and also Sholto Kynoch there, too.

The biggest feature for me though will be the Hans Werner Henze Total Immersion at the Barbican on 16th-17th. This is the first big retrospective since the South Bank Henze series 10 years ago. Oliver Knussen will be conducting Symphony no 4 and the UK premiere of Elogium musicum, after an afternoon that includes Voices and two films. The Barbican doesn't name the speaker for the talk, which is ominous as if they'd got anyone good he'd be advertised. These days pre-concert talks are becoming a bad joke, a platform for those who know nothing about the subject to show off about themselves, antagonizing genuine listeners. Sit strategically near the door.

Absolutely unmissable though will be opera, Phaedra, for which I booked as soon as tickets were available last year so as not to miss it. Almost the same cast as the Berlin premiere which I attended, which I'll write about closer to the time. Ensemble Modern hardly ever come to UK anymore, so that in itself is a draw. It's an amazingly powerful work, quite hard to take it's so intense, but Henze always confounds.

More clashes, as on the 16th the South Bank kicks back in action with Jurowski conducting Shostakovich. At the Wigmore Hall, the Nash Ensemble has an interesting French programme followed by Raphael Wallfisch next day. AND two concerts of opera and early music (Mingardo and Borsi) Luckily no clash with Netrebko and Hvorotovsky in recital at RFH on the 18th. The rest of the month is just as busy, so I'll write about that later.

Monday, 28 December 2009

Martinů's Field Mass broadcast

Listen to Martinů's Field Mass HERE. It's part of a very long broadcast of excerpts from summer music festivals all round Europe this year. The Field Mass comes from this year's commemorative held in Martinů's home village, so it's specially heartfelt. The sincerity of this performance brings it alive: it's not recorded "in the field" but in the church which the composer attended as a boy, which gives it a directness you don't get in more formal studio situations. It's Ivan Kusnjer, the Czech Phil Chamber Orchestra and Marko Ivanovic.

It starts around 3 hours into a 4 hour broadcast, but the rest of the programme is worth catching if you didn't get to the European festivals they came from, in Norway, Finland, Austria and the Czech Republic. Anne Sofie von Otter sings Bach with Concertus Copenhagen, Paul Lewis plays the Diabellis at Schwarzenberg, Mendelssohn chorales at Bodensee and a new Dvoràk festival with Belòhlávek. Thru the year, we get many of the big European festivals but you have to be quick to spot them on the schedules.

Transfigured Night - city version

Once I drove into Dallas just as a freak of sunlight hit the city's gleaming glass canyons, each pane reflecting another, multiplying the beams of light from many angles. Dallas is totally dwarfed by Hong Kong, which is urban theatre on a grand scale.

All year round, the Hong Kong skyline is a giant installation of light and movement but in December it goes into extreme overdrive. The vertical planes of the buildings (some of the tallest in the world) become canvases of light and colour, circuses of electric excess. This clip is fairly tame - you should see the shopping malls - and shows only one promenade on the quieter, more discreet side of the harbour, but it's close up and the comments are cute. (a woman mimics the word "merry" to her kid, it's a play on cow sounds)

Coming up : preview of what's on in January - can hardly wait !

Sunday, 27 December 2009

Swans at Swan Lake

The last time I saw Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake was when Princess Diana was still alive and AIDS was less controlled than it is today. It was shocking. Fifteen years on, society has changed so much. It's still a beautiful, intelligent production and deserves its place as an iconic Xmas show. The Boxing Day audience at Sadler's Wells was made up of large multi-generational family groups, small girls in evening gowns and furs, tourists and couples on a night out. A good mix, which will ensure the ballet remains in the repertoire.

It's a good revival because it's up to date. In the ballet within a ballet scene the bimbette's mobile goes off in the Royal Box and some of the men in the audience quite possibly patronise sleazy clubs when they're not playing paterfamilias. Although Prince Charles still gets valets to put toothpaste on his toothbrush, and his lucrative business ventures get tax breaks, the satire's less pointed these days. The electric corgi still gets a laugh, though. The Queen's quite loveable, much more of a character than the Prince.

How much did this audience relate to the first scene (the overture) where the Prince writhes in bed? What causes his discomfort? Perhaps the swans offer an alternative to the formality of the palace. Or is there a darker sub-text? The swan choreography is brilliant, observed from nature. Fingers pointed, held at right angles the palm, arms curved, so they look like the necks of swans. The costumes too evoke the shape of swans – baggy feathered culottes for weight, chests barely covered, muscles exposed. Movements are strong, too, for swans are tough creatures you don't want to mess with in real life. Female dancers are tougher than they look, but an all-male swan corps is wilder and more primitive than the usual flutter of tutus. You think, Nijinsky with his priapic tail as the Faun, doing unspeakable things to the scarf and the earth.

The scene in which the swans mob the Prince is vivid - anyone who's ever seen how swans fight over bread knows how single-mindedly violent they can be. So it's all the more tender when the leading swan lifts the wounded boy with his head, not his arms. A swan's wings are for flight, the neck and heads for more subtle expression.

Fifteen years ago, society was different and thank goodness some things have changed. Thanks in no small part to Princess Diana defying mass hysteria, kissing Aids sufferers like the big swan kisses the broken Prince. Neither of them survives but at least they have moments of tenderness. So in many ways, it's a good thing that Bourne's Swan Lake can be marketed as feel-good family entertainment.

Friday, 25 December 2009

Saudade, Saude, Boas festas de Natal

Last night a dear and cherished friend had a real Macau celebration! His Consoada (Christmas Eve repast) was Sopa de Lacassa. It is "a must for the occasion". "Main ingredients: Mai Fun (translucent noodles), small shrimps, char siu, eggs, green onions, fish stock (chicken stock, even canned ones permissible). That's all. The other repast at Yuletide-time is the New Year Morn (past midnight and onwards) repast of Canja de Frango (that is, Chicken jook or congee)" "Saudade (fond memory), Saude (health), Boas festas de Natal (Good feasts at Christmas)"

This greeting is very precious to me. There are few true Macanese around, so they're treasures. "Sopa de Lacassa" means I think "soup of the Lascars" the ancient name for "moors" which means generic Malay, hence the resemblance to "laksa", Malay noodle soup. Like the Nonyas of Malacca (Chinese/Malay hybrids) the Macanese had their own distinct culture and language, even literature and songs. A lot of poetry, still written today even though only a few hundred people speak the dialect now and they're all over 80. Perhaps the reason for the poetry is that the dialect is naturally melodic with lots of repeat words (like in Malay) and a syntax that follows sound tones (like Chinese) One day perhaps someone will set this poetry to music: it would be unique and very beautiful.

Another Macau Xmas food is Aluar, which is a lot of trouble to make, so is usually bought from ladies who make it in batches, often the same families that make balichão. Aluar is a kind of pudding made from pig lard and Chinese brown slab sugar. You eat it in tiny thin slices, it's very greasy and filling. It's not unlike the Chinese pudding you get at Lunar New Year, which is slightly lighter and is eaten steamed.

Here's a useful link to Macanese culture.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

This Xmas - explosions of ballet

Someone once told me that you have to know Russia to really appreciate Russian art. Outside, life's grim, dark, gloomy and deprived. Inside, it explodes in golden, glowing light. You don't want the magic to end. I thought of this while watching The Tsarina's Slippers (Tchaikovsky's Cherevichki) from the Royal Opera House broadcast on BBC TV2 today.

"Don't take the children" said Rupert Christiansen in the Telegraph, "they'll be bored rigid and never want to go near an opera again". True, it's a long three hours, but quite pleasant if you think of it as an escape from reality rather than an opera in the usual sense. If it's snowbound St Petersburg outside, this would be a kind of paradise.

Ignore the plot and focus on the riotous colour. Peasants in gaudy costumes, in gingerbread houses alive with folksy stencils. The palace is a confection of white and yellow, with a gold-plated statue of the Tsarina centre stage, from which emit dancers in red velvet and ermine, and brightly attired cossacks. Even the devil looks cute, against a blue and green backdrop (nice water spirits, too). It's possibly even better on TV where you get close=up details, like the courtiers' costumes with images of the palace embroidered on their hems and in their head-dresses.

Off the wall fantasy is just the right thing this year with snowstorms everywhere. The fun thing about a lot of ballet is that it's escapist, and works even when it's not mentally taxing. So I did enjoy The Tsarina's Slippers, perhaps because I was in the right laidback mood. Later on tonight on BBCTV4, there's Swan Lake at the Mariinsky. In complete contrast I'm off to Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake on Saturday at Sadler's Wells. Yesterday there was an interesting Rite of Spring on TV, with bondage gear and break dancing. A man pirouetting on his wrist, doing backflips. The audience, not the usual ballet crowd, loved it. Tomorrow there's La Bohème on BBCTV2 at 1610 GMT. Netrebko and Villazon, Bertrand de Billy and Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Follow the links to view online (no repeats) Short intervals - no ads !!!!!

photo credit :Marije van Moerkerk

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Stockhausen sends Xmas Greeting

Sacred dogma to people who don't like 20th century music is that modern music "cannot" be warm, emotional or witty. The more a cliché gets repeated, the less willing people are to challenge it. "The Rest is Noise" has become a fundamentalist's holy text. Ditch that, read a real book like Paul Griffiths. Or even listen without mufflers.

Stockhausen funny, warm and irreverent? He had lots of crackpot ideas which he couldn't see past but in many ways K H was at heart still a small boy serving at Mass, filled with wonder at the mysteries of the universe. Sometimes he's downright whimsical. Perhaps that's why Oliver Knussen loves him so much.

Stockhausen muses on stars and light forms, and visitors from other planets. Michael is recognizably a relative of Michael the Archangel who appears in the old Testament and beats up the demons of death and darkness. Licht and Klang could probably occupy analysts for years the way Dylan and Tolkien kept people busy in the 60's. Stockhausen, in his sincerity, is much more genuine and creative that the crass commercial takes we usually get.

Glanz (Brilliance) from KLANG (10th hour) is a reincarnation of Harmonien, KLANG's 5th hour. It's a "magic seven" ensemble. Four low, murmuring outer voices - trombone, tuba, oboe and trumpet- and a central core of three - viola, clarinet and bassoon. Within the core, in the middle of the performance space, stands an object which glows luminously with unnatural brightness. This "shining sculpture" is part of the composition even though it makes no sound,. It seems like a pivot emitting centrifugal power. The other players (and I mean "other") circulate around it and move in orbits of their own. It's a kind of hypnotic, ritual procession. At one point the clarinet seems to break away, veering off in an ellipse, but the other instruments call him back.

The four outer core players emerge from different parts of the performance space. Suddenly appearing out of the darkness, three of them appear like angels, or heavenly messengers, their white robes illuminated by a dazzling spotlight. Perhaps there's infrared or something in this light because it casts an unearthly glow - no soap powder gets whites this white! Then the central trio bursts into song, disjointed snatches and phrases which gradually emerge as Gloria in excelcis Deo, et in terra pax in hominibus bonae voluntatis. Is this Stockhausen's Nativity -lay, with a green glowing pyramid for a crib? Stockhausen, Son of Sirius, meets The Son of Man.

Then the tuba emerges, from behind the stage, playing slowly and fitfully. "Like a bear emerging from hibernation", wrote Stockhausen. Gradually the "bear" wakes and the tuba plays a cheerful sort of melody, as if the bear was dancing in sunshine. In Star Trek, Spock and his Vulcan friends may be clever but they don't do humour. Humans are flawed but wit keeps them going even when reason falls short. Not all humour has to be obvious belly laughs. Some of the most radical is pretty subtle, which is why it's subversive - not everyone can pick up on it. Trolls, for example, go berserk if you make a pun! So KHS is giving us the gift of levity.
Please see the other posts on this site about Stockhausen - more on this site on new music than most anywhere else.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Alternative Winterreise

If a piece of music is powerful, artists will want to express how it affects them. In principle there's no reason why good music shouldn't be staged as artists, dancers and theatre people have just as much right to engage with a piece as singers and pianists.Meta-performances aren't a substitute by any means, but can help us appreciate how someone else responds. Think of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and her hospital bed staging of Bach. She sang with extra poignancy as there was so much death in her personal life she needed to deal with. So what she did was creative.

Winterreise has inspired dozens of responses, good and bad. You don't want to see Brigitte Fassbender dressed up as a nun, surrounded by Beidermeier peasants, however well she sings (yes, it exists). But Simon Keenlyside's Winterreise with choreographer Trisha Brown sparked off new ideas for me. Keenlyside is an athlete (now married to a ballerina) so he has physical presence. In this production, he didn't dance but it was very physical, the semi-invisible dancers around him formed a kind of net which caught him when he fell. It was like he was trusting in fate - he didn't "see" the dancers but they stopped him from crashing to the ground and pushed him ever onwards. Just like the landscape in the cycle.

There's also a film of Winterreise with Christine Schäfer and Eric Schneider, which many admire passionately. I haven't seen it myself but can understand why it's such a cult, it's edgy and uncompromising. I love the audio version, which I think is a different and better performance. because her high, bright soprano brings out the eerie quality of light in the music extremely well. She sounds shockingly vulnerable and yet sharp - chilling and totally in accord with the music. Indeed I can't recommend this CD too highly. It reveals aspects of the cycle no-one else comes close to expressing. Sure, it's not the usual butch male thing, but it "needs" to be heard to bring out levels of Winterreise not usually accessed.

Years ago when Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake were fairly malleable they got talked into filming the cycle with David Alden. Alden had very definite ideas, and even judicious editing can't hide the fact that he and Bostridge/Drake didn't feel comfortable with them. This was filmed in a Victorian lunatic asylum. At one stage Bostridge writhes in a straitjacket. "Let me out of here!" his eyes seem to plead. He's got good ideas of his own, far less limiting than the "psycho" scenario around which tis film predicates. It's Alden's vision, Bostridge and Drake are just extras.

Another unusual one, which I haven't seen either but heard about from others. Winterreise mixed with The Sorrows of Young Werther, two great classics of Romantic despair. The singer is Erik Nelson Werner. Very demanding role esp. as it means switching modes, adding to the sense of disorientation.

There's also been a Black Theatre of Prague version, where a disembodied voice and piano do their thing while fleeting images in black and light flicker on the stage. I know there's at least one ballet but can't remember at this moment - prompt please? And there's Hans Zender's orchestration, with Ensemble Modern, which was a good experience live because some of the musicians move about in the hall, like a ragged village band. Better than it sounds, but not quite so interesting on audio. Everyone who listens has a different perspective (which changes all the time). So exploring alternative Winterreises is like listening to someone telling you how they feel about it. It may not be the same as what you feel, but to say "never!" is like saying, never listen to someone else's opinion. Though sometimes you get Fassbender dressed as a nun.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Paul Robeson in Africa Sanders of the River

This film, Sanders of the River, (Alexander Korda – can be viewed full screen) shows colonialism at work in Africa in the 1930's. Colonialism is when people from far away Know Better and can treat natives like stupid children. Even if the motives are benevolent, it's still demeaning. Colonies may no longer exist, but "colonial" values prevail, especially in an increasingly monocultural world dominated by anglophiles. It's not that people don't mean well, it's just they don't know much or care. Tourists who think foreign countries exist mainly as places to get blind drunk in are just one of many types of "new" colonialists. So, cringeworthy as this film is, it still stands as a warning.

Paul Robeson plays a feckless African who Sanders uses to placate the locals. It's embarrassing to see him being demeaned as a "coon". But Robeson didn't sell out. We can turn that embarrassment on itself, by seeing the film as a document of society as it was, not as it "should" be. If a proud, talented Rutgers man can be humiliated because he was black, we should feel indignant that he should have been forced to do such things. At least he gets top billing, above Leslie Banks as Sanders.

He's magnificent, anyway, and what a powerful booming voice - pity he didn't do Russian basso roles. Besides, he's a serious hunk. Look at his muscles, revealed by a leopard skin loincloth - complete with tail - and when he wiggles his behind! The songs are pastiche, but there's a lot of interesting "archive footage" asd the movie was shot in part on location in the Congo. The chiefs and members of the "Acholi, Sesi, Tefik [sic= Efik], Juruba {sic = Yoruba], Mendi and Kroo" nations of East and West Africa participated as extras. hence the vivid dance scenes and processions. It's surprising how well they take to acting. Whether the routines were staged or original, it doesn't really matter, this is history captured as it was 70 years ago. There are wonderful scenes of the bush and the river, too, hippos swimming, giraffes, plains full of animals. So the movie has lasting value despite the plot.

Besides Robeson, there's another black star, Tony Wane, who plays the rebel chief Mofolaba. Who was he ? His accent's pukka Oxbridge and his presence is charismatic. Had he been white he'd have had a big career. There's also a very faint gay subtext (white guys).

Anyway enjoy the movie if you're snowed in and there's nothing on over the holidays. Lots more on this site about Africa, multiculture and black music. And more movies.
TOMORROW : stagings of Winterreise ! ballet, theatre and others !

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Alternative Xmas - anti war Lieder

Just because it's Xmas we don't all want supermarket soundtrack muzak. So I'll be doing a few alternative seasonal offerings, with original translations if possible. (Please also see what I did last December, especially the wonderful Dem Revolutinär Jesus vom Geburtstag. This is another song by Hanns Eisler, and sung by Ernst Busch, but this time a setting of a poem by Kurt Tucholsky. It's 1918. Germany has been defeated, there's been a revolution, people are suffering, many of them displaced.This is a reminder that war isn't glory and also that the British western front didn't get all the good songs. Eisler's glittery flittergold piano trembles and then disintegrates like broken glass. In this 1950's performance, Busch updates the text to say that he'll hang the Adenauers in the branches of the tree, and blames racism. As for Tucholsky, he committed suicide in 1933. He saw what was coming.

"I'm standing in front of the rubble of Germany, singing a Christmas song. What's round me was once the envy of the world. It's different now, we grumble. I hum, quietly, hardly noticing the refrain of my childhood, O Tannenbaum!"

"If I was Knecht Ruprecht ( the chimney sweep that follows St Nicholas) come to this Brimborium (jumble), I'd show the German public, I'd sweep it all away. The last crumb onto the snow, the alley brushed clean. I'd festoon it with your branches, O Tannebaum!"

"I look at the Knisterkerzen (paper decorations) . Whose fault is this misery? Why have we had such blood and pain? Germans with the patience of lambs now live as brothers of the cannon. I dreamed my old dream: strike down the the warmongers, don't believe those brutes anymore! Then sing in freedom the Christmas song O Tannenbaum ! O Tannenbaum! how your leaves shine !"

The photo shows "Ostpreussiche Flüchtlinge" on their arrival in Elbing during the First World War. See the carts pulled by horses, farmers fleeing from the east. Click to enlarge. Soon afterwards, Elbingers would be refugees too.

Friday, 18 December 2009

A Winterreise Adventure

Last night I didn't just talk Winterreise, I lived it. Just as we left James Gilchrist's recital at Kings Place it started to snow. Atmospheric, since it hardly ever snows in London.

"You call that snow," sniffed my Siberian friend. But we get excited because it only snows (or slushes) maybe once every 5 years and last year was the first serious snow for 20 years. So cheerfully we set forth. As soon as we reached the motorway, out of the dark came a sudden blizzard, which dropped 20cm of snow in 90 minutes. Because no-one is used to such conditions, it was mayhem.The wind howled like in a typhoon, except that it was freezing, throwing sheets of snow against the windscreen. Complete whiteout. Passing a big crash on the other side (4 cars 1 truck) we decided to call it quits, and as soon as we could left the car which couldn't go up a hill, and walked the rest of the way.

Scary as this journey was, it was a good experience. Everyone knows the words, but what is the deeper sensation? A singer I knew once walked across the country carrying a backpack, giving Winterreise recitals along the way. It made him feel the music more because he'd struggled on the way. For me, the blizzard made me feel how we take things for granted. The man in Winterreise looks at familiar landmarks, but they're no longer what they were.

Snow absorbs sound, but just as it deadens background hum, it lets details spring out in stark contrast. One of Jorma Hynninen's recordings captures this effect. He sings quietly, mutedly, yet sharpens certain passages : the black crow against white clouds, pregnant with snow. The post horn sounds over long distances because it doesn't blend into the background.

Snow transforms. Part of my journey went through an industrial slum, but now it was covered with a pure, white blanket. Even the metal barriers and dustbins looked magical. The man in Winterreise's feelings are painful because they're raw. As he proceeds, they change. By the end, the girl is left behind in more ways than one. Even in his deepest anguish, the man sees beauty in the landscape around him. Listen to that piano part, the images of water! Beneath the frozen ice, the river surges. Melting droplets trickle, sharp figures sparkle, like icicles. Once I heard Imogen Cooper play Winterreise so magically, it made you "feel" the cold, the dark and the flashes of light. Wolfgang Holzmair seemed to be listening, taking in what nature might have to tell the man, even though he can't quite understand.

Landscape as a mirror of emotion: an aspect of Winterreise often overlooked when we focus on the pain and intensity. As James Gilchrist said before the concert, the protagonist goes through a huge range of feelings, from bitter anger to lyrical tenderness. And in this performance, with Anna Tilbrook as pianist, he certainly showed the range of feelings involved.

Landscape in the Romantic imagination is also part of meaning. Sometimes the song Die Nebensonnen has been dismissed as evidence that the man on the journey "must" be insane because he sees three suns in the sky and relates them to his lover's eyes. On the contrary, in extreme cold, the light of the sun can refract, so it appears as multiple images. I chose this photo because it captures the way the sun in dense blizzard conditions glows with an unnatural brightness: the glare can make you snowblind. It's a natural phenomenom, but hyper real and piercing. So what, then, does the Leiermann signify? Is he an illusion or a real beggar, feral, like the deer whose tracks the man follows in the beginning. This aspect of interpretation can impact on performance.

And snow can be dangerous. Someone was supposedly killed in the accident I passed. If the man in Winterreise was bent on death, all he had to do was lie under the Lindenbaum and the cold would soon lull him forever. Significantly, he passes the graveyard and goes beyond. Maybe the man does die, or go mad, but one surprising aspect of the cycle is that he chooses to keep moving on, even though it wouldn't take much effort for him to let the snow end his troubles.

As for the recital? Thoroughly satisying! Gilchrist doesn't have one of those lusciously creamy voices that draw attention to their own beauty at the expense of the music. If it's not a glorious instrument, though, he uses it intelligently, so you're drawn to what the music might mean. There are hundreds of Winterreises to listen to, but Gilchrist makes his personal and direct.

Someone told me that this concert was being recorded for CD. The acoustic at Hall One at Kings Place is so perfect that it's a disadvantage. It's so clear that it can expose all but the best. Yet, because the hall is small, the biggest names don't often appear. So using Kings Place for making recordings offers benefits to audiences and gives recordings a nice "live" ambience.

Please see my other posts on Gilchrist, Schubert and Kings Place
Photo credit

Thursday, 17 December 2009

The strangest Rosenkavalier?

A reader sent me a DVD of Der Rosenkavalier from Zürich in 2004. "Watch out for the kitchen," he said. Kitchen? The second act, bei Faninal, takes place in the kitchen. Sophie is awaiting the Silver Rose, which symbolizes her induction into the nobility. It's a big deal event, as Der Rosenkavalier arrives in great pomp and splendour to present a what is, after all, not your average supermarket bouquet. Of course she's in her grubbies, cooking.

In principle, mis–en-scène isn't a problem if there's a purpose to it. That's how drama works, it pricks us from complacency. Try as I could, though, I couldn't understand this. Perhaps Sophie is Cinderella, plucked from the scullery to marry the prince, after all she isn't bluebloode. as Ochs keeps reminding us. On the other hand, Faninal is rich, which is part of the attraction. She's not kitchen class like Ochs's other women. Sophie wants to be humble, but hiding in a kitchen cupboard doesn't do it.

Then the crucial moment where Octavian and Sophie lay eyes on each other. The music shows it's magic. It's probably not that easy to show erotic chemistry between two straight actresses but Malin Hartelius and Vesselina Kasarova as S and O really don't look comfortable. Opera singers are primarily singers, and most need to be convinced to act well. Here they seem to have been coached for pantomime acting. Raised eyebrows, grimaces for grins, tics etc. On stage you can get away with that. Three hours of filmed close-ups kills the point. Poor women, I thought, it's not their fault they look like Marcel Marceeau.

Perhaps the director (Sven-Erik Bechtolf) took Strauss at face value when he said the opera was just face, music for comedy. Der Rosenkavalier is loved because audiences love marzipan and icing. But beneath the surface there's a story that isn't sweet. It would be interesting to see a production that emphasized the dichotomy between outward display and inward decay. It would shock the marzipan set but at least it would be faithful to the score. Doesn't anyone get it, that this rose is beautiful and strongly scented. but a total fake? A lot like many marriages.

This production looks nice enough, elegant, clean lines and huge windows. Even the phantom trees in the Marschallin's bedroom aren't a bad idea because she is leafless and barren, like the trees are and visually they bring the "outside" indoors, which is what keeps happening throughout the opera. The principals are always being intruded on, by lackeys, merchants, shysters, more lackeys and petitioners, and of course, kids crying "Papa!" It adds to the dramatic tension, and the sense that this orderly aristocratic world is always on the verge of being submerged from beyond. In this production, the servants at the inn are insects, with insect heads. Crawlers, geddit, vermin? Actually, it works rather well and adds to the humour. But details like this aren't enough to save the whole.

Nina Stemme is the Marschallin, so expect luscious singing. She looks far too young to be convincing. Few divas will stand for being made to look unglamorous, but Stemme's acting seems curiously uninvolved, particularly against the antics the others are forced to get up to. Alfred Muff's Baron Ochs is almost a relief in comparison. His voice isn't as lovely as hers but he comes over as a lovable buffoon, an ageing rock star perhaps whose "wife doesn't understand him, so it's alright". Dirty, silly, but not menacing, he's John Cleese in damask.

On the other hand, Franz Welser-Möst gets nice, clean playing from the orchestra and the interludes are nice to watch, as well as hear. Thanks for lending me this DVD. I'm glad I saw it but didn't pay bog money for it. What a wasted opportunity this production was, some good ideas, but overall pulling back from the deeper implications. This has made me appreciate John Schlesinger's production at Covent Garden even more. There's a lot in the sets there that evoke good ideas and shouldn't be lost. Maybe after 25 years. someone could sit down and think, look at what we've got here. How do we bring it out anew? PLEASE see my OTHER posts on Der Rosenkavalier by using the search or labels on right.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

500,000 Xmas Lights, one house

I always secretly wanted a Dancin' Elvis Nativity Scene and reindeer pouring over my roof but never had the time, money - or sheer guts! Watch this full screen - a house with 500.000 Xmas lights in all shapes and forms. Inside there's a Santa praying to Baby Jesus in a crib! Bears wearing clothes riding horses ! Mickey Mouse playing a guitar ! I lovce the wild imagination that went ointo this. Probably lights up the whole neighbourhood. When he switches on the whole town browns out. Imagine his carbon footprint! But it's a wonder to behold, especially in this recession. This year there are almost no displays around, not even small ones in windows. Last year they were all over. So I guess we should appreciate this guy while we can. There used to be a website which featured the most extreme displays, but it's disappeared. I love the homeliness of the presentation too - this is genuine folk art! Good honest kitsch elevated to an art form, not "high art" dumbed down to kitsch.

Interview with Henze

Interesting interview with Hans Werner Henze tied to next month's Henze Total Immersion weekend. What's really odd is why anyone would look up spotify for Henze ? It's not like his music is unknown or hard to find? "Does not compute"

Meanwhile you can hear the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (very good) playing Henze's First Symphony in Edinburgh last Saturday on BBC Radio 3 online on demand internationally Conductor is the very young but well regarded Robin Ticciati. Click HERE til Monday night GMT Listen to Ticciati talk about gigging in small Scottish islands with the orchestra. They';ve got Magdelan Kozena singing Mahler too (not bad!)

Moderate Mussorgsky, Modest Schumann, Messiah

Squirrels hoard nuts to see them through winter. I go out in early December so I won't get withdrawal symptoms during the musical drought over the holidays. So sometimes I hoard more than I should.

Sergei Leiferkus can be very good indeed. A few years ago he did an excellent programme of Shostakovich satirical songs which had the predominantly Russian speaking audience cracking up with delight. They didn't need texts to get the wry humour! Leiferkus is a vividly expressive singer, who can get his message across even if you don't speak Russian. Even on recordings, he sounds animated, drawing you into the story.

Mussorgsky is another of Leiferkus's specialities, so I was looking forward to hearing him sing The Songs and Dances of Death at the Wigmore Hall. He delivered well, appreciating that full force isn't necessarily the way to do horror. The cycle starts with a lullaby, but the baby is dead. In Trepak, a drunken peasant is lulled into falling asleep in the snow: he'll never wake again. So when the Field Marshal appears, he's come to harvest dead soldiers. Leiferkus chose a moderate approach, though its dramatic impact may have been lost on those unfamiliar with the cycle. Only with the last songs, The Seminarist and the immortal Mefistopheles's Song did Leiferkus ignite into his best mode.

Perhaps he should have gambled on an audience interested in Russian song and done a whole programme of what he does best. There's plenty of repertoire, and Leiferkus has sung most of it, from Rachmaninov to Prokofiev and more. If he did want to sing in German, he might have done better to stick to songs that lend themselves to dramatic declamation, like the zanier songs of Wolf or Loewe. His Schumann Liederkreis op 39 might have been OK elsewhere but in the Wigmore Hall echoes of exceptionally beautiful performances lie heavily on the memory. This simply wasn't his thing - odd phrasing, intonation, lack of nuance. A pity because he could have had more fun singing what he really enjoys, and given the audience good value, too.

Afterwards at dinner, I was assaulted by the sort of Xmas-themed muzak that's generated by machine. Yow! One song about "the Holy Bible", as if there's an "Unholy" Bible. So if you need escape there's a very interesting performance of Messiah on Wednesday 16th at 7.30 at St Johns Church, Downshire Hill, Hampstead NW3 1NU. It's going to be different because it's transcribed for string quintet, trumpet, organ and choir, and the soloists are good - Matthew Rose, Sophie Bevan, Andrew Staples and Catherine Hooper. Normally you'd pay more than £10 to hear them and you wouldn't get mulled wine and mince pies thrown in.

Moreover, it's in a good cause. It's been organized by Vignette Arts (it's the Vignette Choir) which is the brainchild of young professionals working in music, media, architecture & the civil service. It aims to give both financial aid and high profile performing opportunities to promising young artists. So this is a Messiah to get to if you can.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

James Gilchrist Die Schöne Müllerin

James Gilchrist is singing Winterreise at Kings Place on Thursday 17th - the highlight of the month for me. Should be atmospheric, since the weather's turning cold and the room at Kings Place is ideal for Lieder. He's very good indeed, and Winterreise suits his voice and style.

There are dozens of recordings of Die Schöne Müllerin, but this new CD by James Gilchrist stands out from the competition because it’s distinctive, and interpretation of great insight and sensitivity. The key to singing Lieder is understanding what it means. I don't like "operatic" versions which distance the singer from the rawness of the experience, and I don't like smooth versions which blank out the knots. Gilchrist may not be in the league of Schreier, Wunderlich or Goerne, but his version is psychologically well observed and is a significant contribution, even if you have dozens of recordings already.

Die Schöne Müllerin is filled with sunny, pastoral images, but it isn’t a pretty story. Gilchrist and Tilbrook demonstrate how Schubert builds the young miller’s hyperactive extremes into the music. Long before psychology taught us about mental illness, Schubert observed with almost clinically observed accuracy. Gilchrist and his pianist Anna Tilbrook observe the startling contrasts in the music. The young miller is unbalanced. He has violent mood swings, hears voices and kills himself when reality doesn’t match his delusions. Now he might be diagnosed bi-polar.

Disturbed as the miller may be, Gilchrist doesn’t judge. Indeed, this is a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal, for Gilchrist takes the young man on his own terms. When the miller is happy, Gilchrist’s voice lights up with glee. When harsh truth encroaches, Gilchrist’s tone hardens, reflecting the young man’s bitterness. You can hear the manic energy that propels Das Wandern, the piano part relentless beating out the steady rhythm. When the miller spots the mill in Halt!, Gilchrist’s voices rises with excitement. In Mein! – note the exclamation marks – the miller is so sure he’s go the girl that his joy reaches fever pitch.

Yet this brightness is unnatural. Again, this is psychologically astute, for in the young miller’s mind there are no shadows, only the glow of madness. When it dawns on him that the girl might fancy someone else, his heightened mood switches to anger. One moment he sings of Die liebe Farbe (the beloved colour), and the next it’s Die böse Farbe (the hated colour). Gilchrist’s voice takes on a harsh edge which is perfect in the circumstances. In a cycle like this, emotional truth is far more important than superficial prettiness. The spirit of the brook is speaking through the young man, and it’s malevolent, like a supernatural demon.

Gradually the spirit of the brook takes control, submerging the young miller long before he drowns in its depths. Unable to resist, the lad talks to the brook. In Der Müller und die Bach, Gilchrist pauses imperceptibly, as if he’s really listening to another entity. It’s eerie. Tilbrook’s assertive style works well, because the brook is in control now. Compare the meekness of the miller’s lines with the dominance of the piano part. “Du meinst es so gut” (you mean so well) the boy tells the brook, unconcerned that suicide is an extreme solution to being jilted. In fact, he probably doesn’t register on her radar.

At last, he drowns himself, merging with the spirit of the brook. “Böses Mägdelein”, Gilchrist snarls. Even though the boy is past caring, the brook remains vindictive because it’s irrational. Even when the boy is dead, the brook remains so manipulative that it tries to control the girl. Gilchrist and Tilbrook reach the psychological core of this remarkable song cycle, yet do so with surprising humanity. Deluded as he was, they make you identify with the boy’s vulnerability. When he’s destroyed, his fate seems horribly unfair.

The clarity of this performance is matched by the clarity of the translation by Richard Stokes. It’s lucid and direct, a bracing antidote to the devious spirit of the brook. There are many new recordings of this cycle, every year, some more aggressively marketed than others. This recording, by the small independent label Orchid Classics, deserves more attention because it’s so original. These days huge multinationals are creating a monomarket, squeezing out innovation, so it's important to support lively small independents like Orchid. And with this DSM, you're getting something very original, too.

I've been following Gilchrist's career since first hearing him at Ludlow way out in rural Shropshire at the English Song Weekend organized by Finzi Friends. This is "the" major English song festival, the biggest one of all. This year's programme is just out so I'll write about it shgortly This year really is the best ever. I've heard Gilchrist sing both DSM and Winterreise before - follow the labels on right to read about him at Oxford last year.

Monday, 14 December 2009

The terrifying prospect of Elliott Carter

A reader sent this interesting clip from the Baltimore Sun about a concert to mark Elliott Carter's birthday last week. The pianist was Joel Fan – famous enough that even I know who he is, and Baltimore is of course home to the Peabody Institute. The Carter piece in question was the fairly early Piano Sonata. Nothing else in the programme was scary (Bolcom, Kirchner) So where was the audience?

In every country the audience dynamic is different but the Baltimore writer knows his city. So what is it that generates an audience of 5 (two employees, one journo, two paid seats ) Tim Smith wonders about it and gives clips of Carter's music to show it isn't so bad.

Long ago I often used to be the sole person in audiences but that was for seriously experimental free improvisation, at places like The London Musicians' Collective, where everyone else wanted to gig and my pal was there to tape things. Maybe my presence was "performance installation". Now though the LMC is well established as part of the scene. But Elliott Carter is infinitely more mainstream even though for many people he's more famous for being 101 than for his music. Last year even the shopkeepers in Aldeburgh were all agog about the 100-year-old composer in town, and some were intrigued enough to actually go hear him.

What does draw audiences? Perhaps there's too much negativity now. Oddly enough the internet may be a factor. Far from providing information it often promotes disinformation. Having an opinion is more important that how that opinion is formed. most people go along with what they hear: that's how things work. If Alex Ross says something then it "must" be right and no one dares demur. And so things perpetuate themselves. S0metimes I wonder if we're entering a new age, where mass opinion counts more than free thinking. Fifty years ago, Darwin was accepted. Now "creationism" is taking over. Maybe most people would like the clock put back 150 years but that doesn't mean it should happen.

The answer isn't that composers should write "for the public". There is a difference between music as consumer product and as art. Almost by definition, an artist is an individual who does original things. Some artists, like Richard Strauss, are good enough to clothe their work so crowds flock in. But he's worlds away from the kind of hack who writes mainly to catch the market. Of course there's plenty of very good popular music and some is art, but art is about integrity, doing what needs to be done whatever the market wants.

Yang Xianyi - my kind of guy

Yang Xianyi is dead and we should care, because he was a remarkable man, like a window connecting two worlds. His death, aged 95 by Chinese reckoning, marks the end of an era. It's like losing your last, beloved grandparent. His life is an inspiration because, despite hardship, he had integrity.

As the foremost translator of his time, he knew that he could spread knowledge and understanding. Ultimately that transforms the world more than politicians ever can. In his own quiet way, Yang stood for principles more powerful than governments and regimes. And after Tienanmen, he also stood up for freedom. Will his values live in a world that doesn't value learning ?

That's him when he was young, with his gutsy wife Gladys. She was English, but born in China and dedicated to the Chinese culture. First Oxford grad in Chinese. She ended up depressed and broken but was a fighter too. A remarkable couple. Read the Times obit of Yang HERE, it's so moving. His autobiography White Tiger is available from Amazon, And if you have any translations from Chinese, chances are they are by Yang or Gladys.

coming up - a truly odd Rosenkavalier a reader sent me, and an interesting account of a high-profile Elliott Carter concert where no one turned up .

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Luke Bedford at the Wigmore Hall

The name Luke Bedford will be familiar to those who follow new music and this site, but his name should one day be familiar to all. There are hundreds of new music composers around, but even among the good ones he stands out. And I'm not the only one who's been thinking that for a while. He's been appointed composer in residence at the Wigmore Hall, one of theworld's top chamber music venues.

His Chiaroscuro (2002, rev 2005) was played last night by the Fidelio Trio. It's a surprisingly mature work for such a young man (he's still just 31). As another composer in the audience said, "not a note wasted". In painting, chiaroscuro is the black and white outlines over which colours are painted, to give them depth. The skeleton of the work. It's a good working method for composers too. In painting, artists without strong ideas muddy their colours with too many brushstrokes. Same with composers, who disguise weak ideas in a deluge of diversionary notes. Luke Bedford writes music with the passion of a Chinese brush painter. Every note counts, with maximum purpose. You don't need to fill in the background if your basic image is focused and powerful. (The picture is part of a large, dramatic scroll depicting the nine dragons of mythology, painted in 1244 by Chen Rong. Enlarge for detail.)

Bedford's Chiaroscuro is muscular, spare but not minimal: definitely a piece to hear again. The piano part works like a foundation, cello and violin diagonal and vertical against the throbbing piano horizontal, a sort of multi-dimensional energy. "There is a constant shift between stable and more mutable areas", writes Bedford, "much of the piece is in an uneven 11/16 time signature, creating the effect that the ground is not entirely stable beneath." The whole concert was recorded for later broadcast on BBC Radio 3 Hear & Now and will be available internationally, online and on demand.

Ed Bennett was a name new to me but I was impressed too, by his For Marcel Dzama (2007) where he himself played the electronics on a laptop (in the Wigmore Hall!). Again, the vitality was striking. The music grows in three plateaux, rising to a rhythmic finale, where the quirky voices dance wildly together. The electronics hovered elusively in the background like a veil of mist : more effective than being overtly dominant. Sometimes I found myself wondering "what's that" rather than thinking "sound desk showing off". A good thing. Only when I got home and read the programme notes did I discover the piece was inspired by a Winnipeg painter, Marcel Dzama, whose work apparently is filled with oddball characters.

Perhaps the performance was so lively because members of the Fidelio Trio are friends who work together in various combinations : their zest and committment made the music vivid.

Thomas Larcher's My illness is the Medicine I need (2002) was scheduled several months ago as part of a Larcher series, see earlier links) but postponed, so I was eagerly anticipating this performance. It's a strange, piece which seems to search probingly without conclusion. Perhaps because the ideas are taken from snippets from interviews in a magazine (Benetton!). They are fragements, soundbites from people's lives, evidently complicated lives filled with anomie. ""I don't like freedom. The world frightens me." Gradually a hint of terror creeps in "I think people are brought here to be killed....once they give you an injection, you instantly stop hearing voices". Conceptually it's fascinating that Larcher can string together discrete ideas to create a coherent mood, but the naturally meandering form such a process seems to take is less easy to grasp. Patricia Rozario sang, nicely, luxury casting as they say in the movies, but maybe not quite right for the idiom.

This concert was part of the Soundings project, organized by the Austrian Cultural Forum, who often do imaginative things for art in this country. Composers grow when they grow as human beings, so every experience becomes a factor in how they work, even if it's not overt "influence". So it was good to hear Für Bálint András Varga by Johannes Maria Staud (b 1974). It's a five minute miniature, which flits past so quickly you're taken by surprise.

More substantial was Eduard Steuermann's transcription for piano, cello and violin of Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht. This is such a wonderful work, that reduced forces bring out its essence. Steuermann (1892-1964) was a pianist who studied with Schoenberg himself, who passionately believed in the idea that transcriptions taught musicians to concentrate on fundamentals: why and how a piece works, not the fancy wrapping. A lesson in the art of composition which should be remembered today.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Elliott Carter's late, late style - new recording

Elliott Carter has lived so so long that his Late style has developed into Late Late style, as he puts it. Some people are senile aged 25 and never grow. Carter keeps being inventive and developing! His later style is pristine. "I don't have time", he quipped, but this discipline instils a purity and preciseness into his more recent work. The beauty of chamber music is that it's direct, precise, lucid: no time to waste in meaningless elaboration. In his "youth" Carter's work was breathtaking for its complexity, but complexity that was carefully structured and defined. Now it's zen-like, no less sophisticated but distilled.

To celebrate Carter's 101st yesterday I listened to Dialogues and the Boston, Cello and Asko concertos again, conducted by Oliver Knussen. It's part of the series on Bridge Recordings, essential listening for any serious Carter fan. These pieces date from 2000-2003, Dialogues in particular being a seminal work. Luckily, I was able to attend these pieces live, Maybe I'll write about the disc in more detail later.

A while back I attended a concert curated by Pierre Laurent Aimard which showcased Dialogues with other pieces, demonstrating its significance in the body of Carter's music. The last time I heard Dialogues was with Boulez and Ensemble Intercontemporain, on Carter's birthday last year, so any comparison with that would be unfair on anyone. Pity, though, that no one picked up on the brilliant programme put together by Pierre Laurent Aimard, a man who knows what he's doing. It was so interconnected, so witty! It included Carter's tribute to Goffredo Petrassi on Petrassi's 80th birthday. The tribute worked. Petrassi lived another 20 years, passing away just short of his 100th. Carter and Boulez, who are friends from way back, have often paid tribute to each other. For all we know, Carter could be writing something for Boulez's centenary in 16 or so years!

News though is advance publicity for a new recording to be released in Februray 2010. This will be Vol 8 in the Bridge series and will include the Horn Concerto, Sound Fields, Wind Rose, MAd Regales, On Conversing with Paradise and many other very recent pieces. Premiere recordings, of course but again, I was lucky to hear most of them live and on BBC broadcasts. Hooray for socialism! The British taxpayer funds these things so Carter's music can be heard and appreciated by the whole world.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Ballets Russe in cinemas, and BBCTV4 tonight

On 22 December, cinemas across UK will be screening a live HD transmission of the Opéra National de Paris production honouring Les Ballets Russes, Diaghilev and Nijinsky. They're doing La spectre de la rose, L'après-midi d'un faune, Petroushka and the Three Cornered Hat - click HERE for more info and a link to a video.

Seeing the ballets is extremely important, because the Ballets Russes were profoundly influential on the growth of modern music, and indeed modern music and creative sensibilities. Visual arts transcend language and cultural boundaries. They communicate in an uncommonly direct way. Nijinsky wasn't an articulate person, but he showed with his body how ideas could communicate non-verbally. That's him as the faun, shocking enough now, amazingly revolutionary in the days of the Ballets Russes.

To understand 20th century music, you need to understand how modern sensibilities were shaped by non-verbal art forms. It's about getting away from explicit rules and prescriptive forms. Looking for clues to the modern other without understanding the role of visual arts is like looking for oranges on a pine tree. You can't appreciate orange juice if you don't know what oranges are.

S0 see the film transmission at your local cinema or get to Paris for the real thing (plus exhibition). If you can't get to either, there's a special Ballets Russes night on BBC TV 4 on Friday 11th December. See HERE. Can be watched online and on demand for a week. This too is part of a series on Russian art. It's not the Paris Ballet but the Royal Ballet. They're doing The Firebird ! There will be an interesting documentary, too. Pierre Boulez, so deeply rooted in Debussy, Stravinsky, and much else in 20th century art, will be talking about music in this visual art context.

PS The documentary was very good - recommended ! The Firebird was interesting but not sure on the performance. Orchestrally especially. Alas, ballet isn't available on repeat, but the documentary is, so watch that from the BBC website follow link) Another Diaghilev documentary next week.

And Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake starts a short run at Sadler's Wells. This is the radical mostly male production first seen in 1995. Swans are tough creatures, not at all soft and fluffy, so it's an extremely intuitive approach, to Tchaikovsky as well as to the whole idea of dance as expression that goes deeper than words.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Gilt and guilt - Rosenkavalier past and present

Der Rosenkavalier at the Royal Opera House is getting flak because the sets look antiquated. Personally I think it adds to the mood of nostalgia, the idea that what is past can never return. So for me the ROH Rosenkavalier is beautiful, not because of the rococco decor but because the set evokes something deeper and more poignant than ornament. Indeed, gilt and guilt would be a better mindset because the opera is a gilded critique of society and material values.
I've pulled up a few clips of Rosenkavaliers past for comparison.

In her gilded cage the Marschallin reflects on the way people are horse traded like objects. If she can help it, she's going to do some good for others, like saving die kleine Sophie from a horrible fate. Pity the film quality is so poor, but look at Schwarzkopf's acting !

This is a much clearer film. Sophie is beside herself with excitement because she's overwhelmed by the ceremony of being presented with a silver rose. No way an innocent girl can see past the glamour : one good thing about the ROH Schlesinger production is that a light is shone on Octavian as he enters - he's a shining knight, like Lohengrin. Though he doesn't know it. he's come to save Sophie/Elsa. Strauss and his audiences might have got that reference. What's annoying about the Salzburg set (whole film is available) is that, while pretty it's not bright. Look at the tack black figures on the wall, not baroque silhouettes but something you'd find in a 50's cafe. And the floor in Faninal's mansion. Live, the audience wouldn't have seen the full impact, but a floor as elaborate and dominant as that doesn't add to the narrative, unless it's a very veiled reference to the oppressiveness of wealth. I don't think so as it's not borne out by much else. So Schlesinger at the ROH looks better and better.

And now the final trio, where The Marschallin gives up her last chance of happiness so that Octavian and Sophie might build a relationship based on love, not avarice. This time, the set is good because the tavern looks grubby and decrepit. It's a place used for sordid transactions, dishonesty, selfishness. Horrible as it might look, though, spiritually it's not so different from Faninal's palace, or Baron Och's illustrious ancestry. And the squalor makes the Marschallin shine out even more. She's the shining knight this time, lit up by the glory of her good soul. So who's the Rosenkavalier after all? Maybe it really is her, rather than Octavian, because it's she who makes their union possible. They'll end up like dust like everyone else but at least for a moment, there's hope. I'd love to see the ROH Rosenkavalier revived again, but with more focused direction and tighter performances. Life can be breathed into the old thing yet, just as the Marschallin brings new life to Sophie and Octavian. PS Please see what I wrote about the revival of Elektra (Charles Edwards) earlier this year - muich better than the original !

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Der Rosenkavalier at the Royal Opera House

In dark, damp December we need good cheer, and Der Rosenkavalier at the Royal Opera House delivers colour and spectacle. Indeed, it's not entirely a disadvantage that the staging is antique. Obviously the costumes (Maria Björnsen) are new-made, and the sets (William Dudley) have been refreshed, but the air of musty decay is deliberate, because it's an essential part of the narrative.

The passage of time haunts Der Rosenkavalier. The Marschallin knows she'll never be young again, and accedes to a new generation. Strauss depicts a Vienna that by 1911 was about to be swept away. Even Octavian and Sophie have long gone. At its 1984 premiere, John Schlesinger's production was state of the art, so seeing it after 25 years is like looking back into the past. What would Christmas be without reminiscence and fond memories?

There are those who think operas should be museum pieces, preserved forever at the moment of birth. In real life, though, every revival is a new work because the people involved are coming new to it. Even if they've sung the roles many times before, the specific demands of performance create a new dynamic. Directing revivals isn't easy, because everyone has to be inspired all over again.

Soile Isokoski is one of the greatest Strauss singers of our times. Her experience and reflective, emotional depth could have made this an exceptionally well-rounded Marschallin. Isokoski's voice has a smoky, wistful timbre that captures the Marschallin's true personality. For whatever reason, in this production, Isokoski's subtle approach seemed sidelined. Because so much is going on in the second act, it's easy to forget how the Marschallin permeates the opera even when she's not present. She was kleine Resi, just as Sophie is now. What happens in Faninal's mansion may well have happened in her paternal home. She may not appear again until the end, but it's "her" story, reprised anew.

Because the production is so high on visual values, the balance shifts to Octavian, who is, after all the Rosenkavalier, the personification of youth and the future. Sophie Koch is good, even her slight weaknesses play well into the character's immaturity. More gusto in the "dialect" passages would have been welcome, connecting to the social satire in the plot. Who knows what Octavian might become when he grows older? Lucy Crowe's Sophie is well acted, bringing out the spoilt brat parts of the role. Octavian could end up eaten alive. Strauss had Pauline, so he knew very well that in real life marriages don't follow the "rules" of society.

Indeed, there's a strong element of subversion in this opera, often overlooked in the frills and frou-frou. Strauss sends up the social order, parodying Viennese waltzes, depicting the baseness of aristocratic rule. Peter Rose's Baron Ochs is suitably brutish. Even a nobleman as debased as he would have been marginally literate, but von Hoffmansthal points out his illiteracy twice, so it won't be missed. Strauss builds similar crudity into the music, which Rose might have made more grotesque, but it wouldn't have worked against Kiril Petrenko's fairly civil and well-behaved conducting. It was good to hear two other Grandees of British opera, Thomas Allen and Graham Clark, as Faninal and Valzacchi.

This revival (directed by Andrew Sinclair) won't go down as one of the great moments in perfomance history, because it lacks the fire and pain that lies in the score. Nonetheless, it's still immeasurably better value than the usual level of "festive fare" on offer at this time of the year. Even if it's muted, it's still a decent artistic experience. Please also see production pictures and review on Opera Today.

PLEASE SEE my other posts on this Rosenkavalier, including a defence of the 1984 design. Also look up Elektra - also a revival but better than the premiere

Rosenkavalier memories

Tonight I was at Der Rosenkavalier at the Royal Opera House. What memories it brought back ! Many years ago I had a very dear friend called Elizabeth, who loved this opera passionately, in fact it was she who helped me appreciate its sterling qualities. She developed cancer and one day her husband wrote me to say she was gravely ill in hospital. She had a favourite young conductor, so I wrote to him out of the blue. "You don't know me from Adam but you do know E."

A few days later I had a delighted message from E, saying how she'd felt gloomy when suddenly there was a delivery, a huge bouquet of roses from the conductor who'd tracked down her hospital number. He knew her love of Rosenkavalier, so he ordered silver-pink roses, with silver trim. It made her day. She eventually did pass away, but she's never been forgotten. One day the conductor came to London and I managed to see him. "Do you remember?" I asked him and he beamed. He and I never met before or since, but we share good credit Jess Keast

Swords? Cross-dressing? Marriage? On a completely different note here is a clip from a Cantonese movie. Two girls are fighting because they both want to marry a young scholar. Actually, he's a woman dressed as a man. "He" is Yam kimfai, one of the greatest of all Cantonese opera stars, whose speciality was singing male roles. Usually it was classical things and opera, but she also played cross-dressing roles in drama and comedy - including one movie where she's (a male) tutor to a rebellious kid and teaches him to like studying. The kid? Twelve-year-old Bruce Lee.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Simon Holt- - Witness to a Snow Miracle

Simon Holt's Witness to a Snow Miracle (23 mins) features on Hear & Now, the BBC Radio 3 new music programme. It's a wonderful, lively, imaginative piece of great emotional depth. Simon Holt's one of the top British new music composers, and everything he does "needs" to be heard, but this piece is one of the his best so far. It uses contrasts: a girl gets burned alive because she won't conform, and suddenly, in Spain and in June, snow falls to ease her agony. And who are the witnesses? The perspective changes, so it's never too obvious or explicit. Listen HERE for the link. It can be heard on the BBC Radio 3 website on demand until late Saturday night GMT.

"Good music doesn't ever get finished," says Holt. Good composers don't stop thinking. Holt's big hit back in 2004 was the music theatre work Who put Bella in the Wych elm? based on a mystery in the 1940's when a woman's corpse was found in a tree associated with witchcraft. The case is still open because it defies solution, it's beyond easy explanation. Was the woman a witch or a sacrifice? A medieval event in modern times. Perhaps that's why it still grows in Holt's creative imagination. The Sharp End of Night refers to the moment the evil deed is done. Exquisite playing by Chloe Hanslip. The violin can sound elusively sensual, seductive, yet evoke demonic madness. No wonder the fiddle is associated with the Devil.

Holt's revision of Syrensong can be heard too, and his very early Minotaur Games. The concept may sound sub-Birtwistle, but musically it's very different. (It was commissioned by Peter Maxwell Davies).

Holt's music has a way of growing on listeners too. I resisted his music theatre piece Sueños a few years ago because it seemed too explicitly a reference to film noir and Buñuel in particular, but it was memorably sung by Roderick Williams, who has taste when it comes to good music. Gradually it fell into place for me and now I'm desperate to hear it again (perhaps without staging). I was less impressed with Troubled Light at the Proms, not every work has to be a masterpiece. Last year, Holt's Disparate was the first piece heard at Kings Place,. Ther building was so new, the builders were still at work, so Melinda Maxwell's solo oboe had unplanned percussion interjection throughout! The delicate elegy was a tribute to Maxwell's mother who had passed away, so in a way the unintended hammers added a note of protest. Good things shouldn't end.

Good in-depth programmes like this are important especially for new music which otherwise doesn't get an audience except live. Composers need exposure to grow and improve. Recordings take years to catch up. In fact, apart from NMC's Boots of Lead, Feet of Clay there isn't all that much even though Holt is a big name. Listen to clips of the music there on the Chester Novello site, and of course the NMC site.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Polyphony lives in Alabama

Polyphony lives ! This is one of Charles and Ira Louvin's greatest hits. Their close harmony is so tight, it's almost symbiotic, as if each voice grows out of the other. Like twins, intuitively completing each other's sentences. Ira (b 1924) was the tall, haunted looking brother, the creative fireball who wrote many of the songs and played a strange mandolin he built himself. His is the high tenor and does descant that can reach countertenor heights, truly surreal.Charles (b 1927) sings the steadier lower part.

This kind of harely accompanied harmonic singing was what people did in isolated mountainous areas in the Bible belt. No easy transport, no mass communications. People were dirt poor and made their own entertainment. Somewhere along the way, part song left the church and became folk idiom. Traditional folk tunes from Europe adapt, hymns become popular song. It's very creative.

This song, one of their greatest hits, develops like Lieder : anxiety, self doubt, sudden reversal on denouement, but understated and sincere. Love in that chaste, tentative but deeply felt 19th century way. It's even Allnächtlich im Traüme !

What I love about the Louvins is that they're so unself conscious that they they can be kitsch, because they're so totally sincere. It's refreshing. They sang a lot of goispel songs, but all that piety didn't help the troubled genius of Ira Louvin. By age 30 he was alcoholic. He married four times, and attacked at least one of his wives. Charles couldn't cope and the duo split up. In 1965 Ira was killed in a drunken car crash. Eeriely, many of his songs were about the evils of drink and drunk driving in particular - another very Liederish irony. Charlie's still performing, aged 82, he wrote a song remembering his brother which makes me weep.

Below is a rare clip from a radio show they did in thhe early 1950's. In those days people just turned up at the studio and sang and talked - no fancy takes. It's the real thing, not so far from performing live at home or with friends. They are so unsophisticated that they ask the audience to send dollar bills in the post to buy songbooks. (People used to buy song books then so they could sing the songs themselves, before records became common. I love the innocence of this clip, it comes from another world.