Thursday, 29 April 2010

No elephants ! Aida at the Royal Opera House

 It's time Verdi got attention in Aida, not elephants.The blue elephant in Graham Vick's Tamerlano almost stole the show, but elephants were pointedly banned from this new production of Aida at the Royal Opera House, London. Instead, Verdi's music takes pride of place, revealed in full glory.

Pre-performance publicity indicated that this would not be a stereotype production, but minimalist it certainly was not. Abstraction in many ways suits Aida, an opera of secrets and mysteries.

Large structures loom over the cast, for this is a drama where individuals are pitted against overwhelming forces. The simple, strong lines also permit a new kind of staging, created from light and colour.

No elephants, no circus. Instead the focus shifts onto Verdi's music itself, revealing its magnificence without distraction.  How glorious it is, heard as music!   Indeed, it's because Aida is so vivid orchestrally that we've become accustomed to associating it with grand panoramas. But music is in itself abstract. This time, the orchestral colours can be seen as well as heard. Shades of rose and ochre, scarab and peacock, amethyst and sand, glow iridescently, transforming as the music develops. Synaesthetes may overload, but this abstraction is surprisingly expressive, given the connection between visual image and  music.

Nicola Luisotti conducted with flair..Tempi were on the fast side, but better that than too slow. Freed from the restraints of cumbersome staging, the orchestra's pace matched the nervous energy in the drama. Violent moods, violent music. In the scene at the Temple of Vulcan, the Egyptians are working themselves up to a frenzy. Heightened emotion in the orchestra but less so in the dancing. The Rite of Spring style choreography would not have been out of place, but perhaps too much to expect. Strange,  distorted shapes hang from the sky, like the corpses of the dead. When the prisoners shuffle in, they look like they've been in battle. As Aida (Micaela Carosi) reminds us, the Triumphal March may be triumph for some, but defeat for others.

In the third act, when Aida sings Qui Radamès verrà, Carosi stands before a black and white panel, as stark as the dilemma before her. But when Micaela Carosi sings, the lusciousness of her music translates into washes of blue and green, evoking the dark, swift Nile and "cieli azzurri" above, her Eygptian present and memories of her native land. Carosi is a very experienced Aida. Her middle voice is secure, so the extremes in the part feel natural, rather than over-coloured. Aida is constrained, all around, by secrecy and the need for stealth, so she's a strong personality, and alert.

Marcelo Álvarez as Radames is a more conventional portrayal. He hectors, but then, Radames is a headstrong hero, eager for battle, but ennobled by the grace of love. His finest moment comes as he and Aida face death, when his voice softens and takes on a gentler tone. Marianne Cornetti was a forceful, forthright Amneris, and Marco Vratogna's Amonasro suitably subdued.

Jennifer Tipton deserves much credit for designing the magnificent light show. David McVicar proves that abstraction doesn't mean minimal, and is just as valid musically as circus gimmicks. Complete review with more photos coming up soon in Opera Today.http://www.operatoday.com/content/2010/05/no_elephants_-_.php
Photo COPYRIGHT Bill Cooper, Royal Opera House

Duel of the Dudamel agents

Fascinating inside story from The Times about Dudamel switching agents. The "why" is as interesting as the "how". What does the future hold, and where is money to be made? Films, internet and new media or boring old-fashioned stuff like making music?

New home for Garsington?

Has Garsington Opera found a new haven? Garsington Opera has now started consultations with the local community, and relevant authorities to apply for planning consent to locate the festival at Wormsley Estate, the home of the Getty family.

If anything, Wormsley will be even more spectacular. It's set in 18 acres in the lush Chiltern countryside, with an 18th century walled garden, a deer park and woodlands. Each year a special pavilion will be raised around a group of houses, built in flint in the traditional Chiltern style. The architect's drawings show an airy, attractive structure, nestling among trees.  Wormsley's only 15 miles from Garsington, even easier to get to from London. In theory, it's taxiable from Henley-on-Thames or Reading. If you have a party of four and champagne, taxi costs might not be disproportionate. Yet Wormsley's in an area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, where there are lots of huge estates, many of historic importance. Could it rival Glyndebourne?

Anthony Whitworth Jones, General Director of Garsington Opera, said: "Over the years Garsington Opera has become known for introducing lesser known works of genuine interest and artistic merit, and for attracting young and talented singers on the threshold of their careers. Our new home at Wormsley will enable us to continue that tradition in a thrilling environment, not far from Garsington, and marks the beginning of an exciting new chapter in our history."

Mark Getty added:"We are delighted to welcome Garsington Opera for a summer season each year. I see Garsington Opera forming a central part of a vibrant cultural future for Wormsley Estate. It is also important to us that Garsington Opera will bring its terrific outreach activities to benefit schools and others in the local area with an interest in the performing arts. We are very pleased to be associated with a successful arts organization which enjoys such a high reputation for excellence in its field both nationally and internationally."

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Franz Schmidt's Notre Dame in Dresden

What makes a composer "suppressed"? Franz Schmidt wasn't suppressed by the Nazis, whom he actively supported, even when they marched into his native Austria. But his music isn't heard much, apart from Das Buch mit Sieben Siegeln (The Book of the Seven Seals), which was a big success at the Proms ten years ago, conducted by Franz Welser-Möst Here's a link to Shirley Apthorp's review of Franz Schmidt's Notre Dame in the Financial Times.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Adès Power of Powder Linbury ROH

Thomas Adès's Powder Her Face is back at the Linbury Theatre at the Royal Opera House.It's a classic. Once again, Joan Rodgers sings the Duchess, supported by Alan Ewing, Iain Paton and the incomparable Rebecca Bottone, all in multiple roles.
 

In 15 years, Powder Her Face has gone from new music cult hit to an opera of international significance. The Tempest notwithstanding, it's Adès's finest work. He's gone on to fame, fortune and Los Angeles, but  hasn't recaptured the vitality of his early work. More recently, he's revisted Powder Her Face, writing a suite based on it, so maybe that will reinvigorate his creative juices.

So cherish this wonderful production directed by Carlos Wagner. The production is every bit as much of a star as the drama queen who inspired the opera itself.

"In your face" is probably  indelicate, but it describes the magnificent staging well. There's no way round the fact that the Duchess of Argyll was destroyed by hypocrisy. In the small space of the Linbury Studio, Conor Murphy's giant staircase overwhelms, but that's the point : no escape! It's a brilliant piece of theatre in itself, because it changes character in each scene. In the end, Paul Keogan's lighting turns it into a lurid neon sunset, the perfect coda to the Duchess's life.

The stairs also mean the cast can go up and down (oops) using the whole space, overcoming the cramped limitations of the small stage. Perhaps that's a reverse metaphor for the Duchess, too. With her wealth and beauty she could have lived a charmed life, if she'd conformed. Instead she grabbed life greedily, imbibing to the full.  The headless men in the notorious photos got away scot-free, as did the philandering, brutish Duke, but the Duchess's reputation was destroyed. Defiant to the end, she cocoons herself away from a world that's changing in ways she can't understand ("Buggery, legal?" she exclaims.) Her end is sordid, but she keeps her dignity, at least in delusion. Larger than life personalities just don't fit in grubby society.

The music's remarkably inventive. Saxophones and jazzy clarinets evoke the glamour of 1930's London.  "They don't know how to do parties now," she wistfully tells a young reporter. Adès' does luscious elegance, but undercuts it with sharp, dissonant edges. The luxury is illusion. Debutante balls were a meat market for the upper classes, nothing romantic.  The Duchess buys sex from a waiter. Two weeks wages for a blow job? "You can get anything with money," she cries. But others have more money, and more power. The Courts rile against her, to the prurient delight of the "lower" class, represented by Bottone and Paton in dirty macs. And when the money runs out, the Duchess is evicted.

Adès weaves elusive sounds into his orchestra. At the beginning of the second Act, he starts with solo accordion, played in a mysterious, bluesy fashion.. It makes an excellent bridge between past and present. Later, accordion, harp and piano (Adès's instrument and "voice") combine, wheezing, wailing and tensely staccato percussive blasts. It's surreal, like hearing the ghosts of the past dancing in Hell.

The opera is both diamond hard and brittle, but then, that's the subject. The Duchess wasn't a nice person even though she was a product of the circles she moved in, and the men around her are worse. Her sexuality is compulsive, and fundamentally unerotic. (It's the role, not Rodger's portrayal.)  Perhaps the maid gets more fun. Bottone's high-pitched shrieks at the top of her register (an Adès' trademark) are well deployed. She's the voice of anarchy. Her voice rips through the silky surface of propriety. In the end it's not she who gets screwed, whatever the Duke might think..

Monday, 26 April 2010

Pedro Amaral O Sonho London Sinfonietta

The London Sinfonietta premiered Pedro Amaral's chamber opera O Sonho last night at London's Robin Howard Dance Theatre. It's based on an unfinished play by Fernando Pessoa, the eccentric genius of Portuguese literature (pictured here).  Pessoa's whole life was an art form. He's the Edgard Varèse of literature, pioneering new ways of interpreting reality and identity (see more here)

Dreams exist for a purpose. They mean something, but by their very nature, they don't follow the rules of reason. Yet what is reason? Many cultures use dream as altered reality. As Pessoa shows, it's possible to use dream creatively.

Amaral's approach is robust. His music is highly dramatic, full of assertive character, very much an active protagonist. The English translation is projected onto a backdrop, as if it's materialized straight off Pessoa's ancient typewriter, another invisible "person" operating in another dimension. Still, as in a dream, specific words don't matter so much as the overall emotional impact.

Pessoa (Jorge Vaz de Carvalho) appears. Like a master of ceremonies, he opens the show with the provocative words "I see before me, in the transparent but real space of dream, the faces  and gestures of Caeiro, Ricardo Reis and Alvaro de Campos" (the personalities through which his work was channelled). They flank him, dressed like him but clearly "not" him.

Salome is a role in a play Pessoa's writing, but now she comes alive. Carla Caramujo is a force of nature, her voice adding nuance and individuality to what she sings even if the words don't make much sense. She lives in an enhanced dream state. It's a mystery to her why she's asked for something so gruesome as the head of St John The Baptist, whom she recognizes as a kind of soulmate, for prophets dream of things that have not yet happened.  But is the head she sees (we have to imagine it) that of the saint or a common criminal? Salome's never quite sure,  and that conflict is the essence of her dilemma.

Amaral's  unusual choice of instruments integrates the ideas in the play into the music. He calls it "dédoublement", because this is more than simple shadowing. A disproportionately large number of celli, which in theory might seem unbalanced, but in practice, works beautifully. They are  led by the harp, deepened by double bass, xylophone and marimba. This is Salome's music, shimmering and sensual, but with a strong basic pulse in the harp ((Helen Tunstall). Three flutes add a distinctive second "personality" - some very inventive passages there that might be developed in future works, perhaps. Amaral is still in his 30's but O Sonho is a surprisingly mature, assertive work.  The subject matter may confuse on first hearing, but once you make the conceptual leap that meaning is "beyond" words, the music speaks for itself. One particularly well written passage interplayed conventional singing with long, wordless ululation. It was mysterious, like dream, yet also evoked a sense of the desert that surrounds Salome, where horizons dissolve in haze, and the sands constantly shift their shape.

Amaral's music is very distinctive. It's hard to describe him in terms of others because he sounds so much himself. O Sonho really deserves to be heard again, better publicised and in a bigger hall.  The staging, by Fernanda Lapa, is excellent too, showing how much can be done with minimal resources if the person directing knows what the opera is about.  The whole cast, singing and non singing, on stage and off,  seem passionately committed: this really feels like tight ensemble work.

The Gulbenkian Foundation was created by the Gulbenkian family who were genuine art lovers.  They could have made an impact in anywhere in Europe, but chose Lisbon, where the ambience fitted their cultivated, individualistic values. The Gulbenkians would be proud of what the Foundation does to promote works like O Sonho, iconoclastic but creative and very distinctive.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Henze - Elegy for Young Lovers ENO Young Vic

Catch Hans Werner Henze's Elegy for Young Lovers at the ENO Young Vic. In German-speaking countries it's almost part of the standard repertoire because it's brilliant, one of Henze's greatest operas.  It's rarely performed in England, which is ironic because it was written in English, to a libretto by W H Auden and Chester Kallman. What's more, Benjamin Britten haunts the opera as an unseen presence. Elegy For Young Lovers could in many ways be the greatest British opera Britten didn't write.

Elegy for Young Lovers  is about a poet, Gregor Mittenhofer, who can't write. He's an emotional vampire, stealing his ideas from other people, whom he ruthlessly discards when they're no longer useful.  He's enormously successful, courted by the powerful,  cosseted by a band of sycophants who pander to his whims. He's ruthless, prepared to send his lover to her death when she's no longer useful to him.  W H Auden never had much respect for Britten, so Britten's success must have been galling. Along comes Henze, already making huge waves in the opera world.  Mittenhofer is Auden's attack on Britten, where it hurts. Henze, though, stands up for Britten by embedding references to Britten's non-Auden music into his own.

In any case,  as Henze knew full well, the world is full of crooks who get ahead by manipulating others. Hitler, for example, who could fit the Mittenhofer bill many times better than Britten might. The mountain inn, with its viewing terrace, is as remote from reality as Berchtesgaden. Or Valhalla. Or Blair and Mandelson. Or any talentless nonentity surrounded  by an adoring coterie.

So Elegy for Young Lovers may have been written by Henze, a German, but it's about Britten and Britain and deserves far more British interest than it gets. For one thing, orchestrally, it's extremely sophisticated. The surface lyricism is eroded by twisted melodies, angularities that erode sentimentality before it has a chance to take root. It's like Mittenhofer himself, who seems so smooth and urbane, but is poison.  Henze writes stirring crescendos, but is most telling in quiet moments. When Mittenhofer speaks, horns wail sour notes : "This man is the Devil"

Stefan Blunier conducts.  He's unknown in Britain, but his pedigree is very good - see his website. He currently conducts at the Komische Oper, Berlin, specializing in interesting repertoire. The orchestra was tucked away in a loft above the stage at the Young Vic, Luckily for me, I was sitting where I could watch Blunier close-up.He's expressive without being ostentatious. He clearly has personality, getting such good rapport with the ENO Orchestra that they play Henze's quirky idiom like it comes naturally. The "blizzard music" in Act 3 was extremely well realized, though, unfortunately, the staging detracted.

Having learned Elegy for Young Lovers  from the famous recording with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, it was more difficult to adjust to Steven Page's Mittenhofer.  DFD doesn't do slithering, slimy and sibilant too well, but his voice is just so much richer and deeper that Page doesn't stand a chance in comparison. Nonetheless, he looks the part . Had the staging been more in keeping with the opera, Page would have had more scope to show what he can do.

Jennifer Rhys-Davies was superb as Hilde Mack, the woman who sees visions which Mittenhofer turns into poetry.  This is a wonderful part, with some of Henze's wittiest writing. At first, Hilde's deluded,  so the part is parody "mad scene". Later when she rejects Mittenhofer's scams, Hilde becomes Brünnhilde. But Henze (who at this stage in his life mocked Wagner) emphasizes the transformation by giving her manicly exaggerated coloratura, which Rhys-Davies executes with feisty humour. .

Kate Valentine sings Elizabeth Zimmer, Mittenhofer's young lover. She's statuesque, an advantage in this production where she's not called upon to develop the role much past ingénue. Together with Robert Murray's Toni Reischmann, however, she comes into her own., because Murray defines his own part so well. This Toni is an honest, solid soul, the complete opposite of Mittenhofer. Murray may not have movie-star glamour (nor Mittenhofer's wealth) but you can see why a girl in that position would be charmed.  In the final duet, Murray's voice warms, sparking Valentine into similar lyricism. They're freezing to death, but their music cocoons them in their final illusion.

Mittenhofers can't survive without flunkies, so Lucy Schaufer, as Lina, Mittenhofer's gofer, has almost a  bigger part than he has. Without her, and those like her, men like him would never survive.  Again, Schaufer's full potential wasn't served by this staging.  The character is an aristocrat, yet she humiliates herself and becomes an accomplice to murder. In Germany, where the Hitler aspects of Mittenhofer would be more obvious, Lina's role could be expanded in a very pointed way. Crawlers crawl bec uasee they can share in the Nutcase's reflected glory./ It's in their interest to keep the tyrant going. Here though, Schaufer wasn't called upon to give her best. Similarly, William Robert Allenby as Dr Reischmann (Toni's Dad) and Stephen Kennedy as Josef Mauer, the general factotum, are capable of more.

Wonderful opera, superlative orchestral playing, good singing: all add up to an excellent evening, which should not be missed.  Where the experience fell short was the direction, by Fiona Shaw. There were a great many good moments in this staging, but the problem was that there were too many moments, one after another, without any real focus.  So many details compete for attention that the overall impact is overload. Some details are of primary importance, some secondary, some tertiary, but when they'll all piled up they wipe each other out.

The ever-widening crack in the floor, for example, would be powerfully dramatic, but it's lost among the debris of bear suits, projections on tables, flickering lights, period what-nots and busywork. Some serve a purpose, some confuse. So Mittenhofer plays with teddy bears? Sure, Lina nannies him, but he's manipulating a weakness in  her. He lets her infantilize him, but it doesn't follow that he's infantile, far from it. Similarly, why the holy water stoup? Of course there's something unholy in this place but it's not developed enough to make it worth pursuing. Similarly, the video projections were good, but with so many different things happening at the time time they didn't get their due.

Henze's Elegy for Young Lovers deserves to be a big hit because it's a fantastic opera and as such will always succeed.  There is  a great deal more to this opera than this diffuse, superficial staging suggests. It's certainly more than gimmicky camp. But for the time being, paring it down might be more effective.  Perhaps when this production is revived, as it should be, it shpul;d be extensively revised so the focus can be sharpened. and made more acute. One thing will have to be faced. Auden may have said the plot was about Yeats, but that it is about Yeats. Britten was alive and powerful. Auden was being arch, because he was not stupid. A bit of background knowledge, about the opera, the composer, the background and the music would have gone a long way in this case.. Luckily, most ijn the aiudience do not know Henze or his music, so director opera in this situation isn't an issue. It's not a good idea to base a production around Yeats and the "Irish" connection because it's a red herring. Basing a production around Yeats and the "Irish" factor delimits the opera, it's not a good idea.


Speaking of tightening focus, I'll be revising this too. New Improved version to come in next few days Please seee other posts on Henze on this site (lots!, including  Henze's Phaedra and Britten's Phaedra)

Friday, 23 April 2010

New Royal Opera House Aida 2010

A brand new production of Aida at the Royal Opera House starts next week. It's David McViicar, so expect thoughtful. This time the emphasis is on the drama and the music, circus secondary.. For mty review of the production please see HERE.http://classical-iconoclast.blogspot.com/2010/04/no-elephants-aida-at-royal-opera-house.html

"Aida isn’t about elephants and camels and spectacle, although many people think it is", says conductor Nicola Luisotti in an interview with Simon Thomas HERE.  "Nearly all scenes are with two or three people – Aida and Radames, Amonasro and Aida, Amneris and Radames....The power struggles of Church and State are very strong. We see that in the world today. In Italy, the Pope is enormously powerful. Politics and Religion are very much with us now and they are very important to Aida. People follow anyone who says he’s connected to God. Still. The end of the opera is decided by the priests not by the King. It’s about today as much as it’s about Ancient Egypt." 

"McVicar has a vision that’s completely different”,says Micaela Carosi (pictured) who is singing Aida. She's  created the role many times, several times with Zeffirelli, at Busseto, at the Met and elsewhere, and is an Italian repertoire specialist. For her, this new production is "Like singing Aida for the first time". 

“He wants us to think about the origins of the characters and why they do what they do. It’s not just slaves, triumphs and so on. Instead we focus on motivations, on the human side of the story. Aida is a princess, not an ordinary slave. She knows about political matters”, says Ms Carosi. When Amonasro is brought in as a captive, Aida’s first thought is for her father. “Tu! Prigioniero!” she says, with great feeling. But he whispers back “Non mi tradir!” (Do not betray me). “From that moment”, Ms Carosi says, “the drama changes”. Aida loves Radames, but she must protect her father and her country. “Duty first, love second. You do not often see this side of Aida”, she adds,”but it shows she has a very strong personality and a lot of courage”. Read the full interview HERE.

BBC Proms 2010 August September

Almost down to earth after the first two weeks of the 2010 Proms. Simon Rattle conducts Tristan und Isolde Act 2 with Ben Heppner, Violeta Urmana. Rattle's conducting the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Period instruments. Before that, a concert of organ transcriptions of Wagner's greatest hits. 

Early August brings a crop of newish music. Pierre-Laurent Aimard will be playing but not in a programme up to his usual level (Nott conducts). On offer this week : Julian Anderson, Toru Takemitsu, and George Benjamin. The one to go for is the l;ate night Prom on 6th August. George Benjamin conducts the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, great programme - Knussen, Luke Bedford, Hans Abrahamsen.

Last year some idiot said that the Royal Albert Hall wasn't the right place for Mahler. Evidently not someone who's heard Mahler before, or at the Proms, where even mediocre performances  can sound atmospheric.  And there have been many utterly stupendous Mahler Proms, like Claudio Abbado's M3 a few years back.. Runnicles, with all respect, isn't in that league. Gergiev conducting M4 is more worrying. It's the symphony he has most trouble understanding. Camilla Tilling sings it very well but still.....No doubt , though, the crowds will be raving this gleefully. Especially, I suspect,  the fellow who thinks Mahler doesn't belong in  the Proms.

Much more worthwhile will be Ingo Metzmacher's M7 on 10/8 with DSO Berlin. This Prom includes Schreker Der Ferne Klang (Nachtstück) and Korngold's Violin  Concerto. More than most conductors, Metzmacher's championed suppressed music without falling into the trap of making it overly retrogressive. Instead, he brings out its originality and genuine musical value.

On 3/9, Rattle's back with the Berliner Philharmoniker - Mahler 1 and Beethoven 4.  The next day, they're doing a programme of Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Wagner and Strauss. Karita Mattila sings the Vier letzte Lieder.

There's been a lot said about the "two" Last Nights of the Proms. The usual jingoistic thing is still on, but there'll  be a replica of the 1910 Prom.. Much less bombastic, much more music oriented. The significance?  Part of the reason the jingoistic Last Night remains is because people think it's traditional, but it's not.  The 1910 Prom shows that the "modern" Last Night is not sacred at all. Now that is a  REALLY radical idea. 
Please subscribe or bookmark the home page here  if you like reading about the Proms. Usually I cover about 40 Proms and hopefully in an informed, non-superficial way. So if you want to join the party, please keep coming back !

Thursday, 22 April 2010

BBC Proms 2010 - seriously hot - July

At last, the BBC Proms 2010 programme is announced. This is my summary for July, there's another on August0-September., and one on Proms Customs, too. Also, coming up, extensive coverage of whole season ! Year after year, the same format, hopelessly predictable. But it's a routine that works. Why change what isn't broken? Planning for an audience of millions, all over the world, isn't easy and it's horrendously difficult to pack so much into one comprehensive series. The really big surprise this year is the sheer quality of the programming.

Of course the season starts with spectacular, and you don't get more spectacular than Mahler 8th. Having heard it at the Royal Albert Hall before, I can assure you that it's the perfect venue. Not so sure with Bělohlávek, though. Much as I love his work, Mahler isn't really his thing. But who cares, this will be a blockbuster.The First Night of The Proms (July 16) is a huge social celebration, and Mahler these days is a fashion statement.

Opera always features in the Proms, even though the stage is small. This year's Wagner must is Meistersinger day - study day and performance together,, and Bryn Terfel, too! And if this isn't enough, next day, it's Verdi Simon Boccanegra with Placido Domingo, Joseph Calleja, Marina Poplavskaya and more. (read my review of the ROH performance HERE)

This first week  is SERIOUSLY HOT.  There will be bloodthirsty fights in the queues and the touts will be out in force flogging tickets at hyper-inflated prices. But wow, will it ever be a knockout first week. Thank goodness the opera houses of the world take summer breaks. Everyone, internationally, will be glued to the radio and internet.broadcasts.  You bet there'll be TV coverage, too.

This year's all day composer is Beethoven on 21st July -  no symphonies til later, piano works first. But again, who cares, when we get pianists of the calibre of Paul Lewis and Maria João Pires.?  On 27th, though, Beethoven symphonies 1 and 5 plus the Violin Concerto in D major, with Hilary Hahn, Paavo Jarvi and the Deutsch Kammer-philharmonie, Bremen.

Luckily, British composer day this year features living composers and some of the best, too. Simon Holt's A Table of Noises gets its London premiere on 26th July, and on 28th, Oliver Knussen conducts the BBCSO in Birtwistle, Colin Matthews and Luke Bedford's Outblaze the Sky. The BBC is supported by taxpayers, but in return, the Proms gives British music such exceptional coverage that the payback is huge. These are important composers, and the world needs to know. For those who need British to mean Victorian, there's Hubert Parry Symphony no 5 which is pretty good. And of course TWO Dr Who Proms days this year.

And that's just the first few weeks in July - two more months coming up next. Looks like £400 will be a minimum outlay. This is one of the best Proms seasons in recent memory for quality. The anti-BBC crowd will be gnashing their teeth in sour rage this year because the Proms are so good. Nothing drives those Alberichs crazier than when the BBC delivers well.

The bad news this year is the booking fee. 2%, of total cost plus extra fees. Many people spend £300-400 for the season which means a whopping £7 on top of an already significant expense. The arena is not an option for many, so it's certainly not a realistic alternative. Poor folks, the disabled, etc just got to realize power lies with money. But perhaps we should be grateful, though. If Rupert Murdoch and his cronies get their way, there'll be no BBC anyway.
PLEASE also see Proms in August and September.  Subscribe or bookmark this site if  you like reading about the Proms.  Each year, I write about 40 or more Proms and hopefully in an original, non-superficial way. So if you want to join the part , please listen -  live, online and on the radio and remember Classical-Iconoclast.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Ruttmann and Eisler experimental film


Walter Ruttmann's masterpiece, Berlin: Der Sinfonie der Grossstadt (1927) can be seen in full on this site HERE.  Above, though is his op 3 from 1924, described as a Lichtspiel, a "play of light", where the action  is generated by the very process of filming itself.   Visually, they're not a patch on other experimmental films of the period, such as those by Marcel Duchamp, Fernand Léger, Hans Richter, Man Ray, Viking Egglund and so on.  Indeed, Ruttman's op 4 (1925), a symphony of black and white stripes looks static compared with Duchamp's Anémic Cinéma (1926) where the lines form psychedelic whirling spirals, inspiring many Op Art copies in the 1960's. Conceptually, though, Ruttman's films are adventurous because they are experimenting with the very idea of  using a visual medium in a non-visual way, deliberately challenging the senses.

The film above is interesting too because it was meant to be heard with Hanns Eisler's Passacaglia. No sound recording then, but I think this was meant to be screened together with live performance. Cinema musicians in the 1920's were far more sophisticated  than many assume today. Thousands of formally trained musicians worked in cinemas, hotel lobbies, restaurants, ocean liners etc. Some were of course playing popular dance tunes, but in theory there's no reason why they couldn't play art music. This film bridges the social divide. It also combines film with music. (See Leger's film, also 1924, with Antheil's music in Ballet Méchanique HERE on this site).

Thus it connects to Berlin der Sinfonie der Grossstadt,  made only 3 years later, where visual images function like musical elements, . Like a symphony, the film is structured around movements each of which develops a theme. Within each theme, images move and intertwine, creating a collage almost more musical than purely visual.  Again, conceptually, it's an altogether different way of thinking about film. It's an apotheosis of film as art.  It doesn't pull emotional heartstrings in the way that, say, The Thief of Bagdad or The Sheik whipped their audiences into a frenzy. No "movie stars", but real people going through their normal lives.

Perhaps I shouldn't read too much into this politically, but there may well be a connection between the way swashbuckling movies play on primitive emotions, and celebrity stars substitute fantasy for individual freedom.  Perhaps Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will can be seen as a type of Hollywood extravaganza. albeit with particularly evil subjects. There is a line of descent from D W Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, and thus a loose connection even to Cecil B DeMille's more lurid "religious" biopics. Poor Ruttmann, whose experiments with modernsm were decidedly entartete, ended his life working at Ufa. At least, when Eisler went to Hollywood, his views on film were different. .

Europe's Tragedy - Simplicissimus

This is the "Defenestration of Prague", an incident that sparked off  the bloodiest conflagration in Europe before the 20th century.  It's a scary image, bearing  in mind what happened to Jan Masaryk in the early years of the Cold War. 

K A Hartmann's Des Simplcius Simplicissimus Jugend, (read my review HERE). ("Covert Resistance - An anti-facist, anti-war opera written in Germany while the Nazis were in power?") inspired me to find out more about the Thirty Years War.

By odd coincidence, the recording came out soon after the publication of Peter H Wilson's Europe's Tragedy : a history of the Thirty Year's War (2009)  It covers the period more comprehensively and intensively than anything else in English before. It shows how tensions in society erupt into conflict. This was the real "First World War" because all Europe was involved, and overseas empires. At 1000 pages it's not light reading, yet gripping enough that it can be followed as narrative.  Wilson's methodology is sound, his prose clear. A model reference work. This is an extremely important book because it shows how modern Europe was shaped. What happened nearly 400 years ago impacts on us today.

Back to Simplicius Simplicissimus  the saga that grew from The Thirty Years War.  There's a new edition. "Nun ist er lebendiger denn je. Denn in Reinhard Kaisers Übersetzung liest sich das Werk endlich nicht mehr verstaubt und verquält – man versteht, welcher Lebensquell damals der Bezug auf das abendländische Erbe war" Read more about it HERE

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Holland Festival 2010, Amsterdam

The Holland Festival in Amsterdam is one of the most adventurous European festivals. The current Varèse 360˚ weekend at the South Bank was created for last year's Holland Festival. What happens at the Holland Festival first, happens elsewhere next. It's interesting because it proves that ordinary, mainstream audiences don't have any problem dealing with innovative , imaginative fare.

This year's keynote opera is Benjamin Britten's Curlew River. It's a joint production with the Edinburgh Festival (Olivier Py) presented by Opéra de Lyon, so catch it in Amsterdam from 3rd June. Michael Slattery sings the Madwoman, with the Lyon cast.

Since Curlew River was inspired by Britten's experiences in Japan, this opera ties in well with another Holland Festival speciality: Japanese classical theatre. This year features Noh, specifically a variant called "Noh with Bonfire",  traditionally presented once a year at the Shinto temple at the base of Mount Fuji. It's a production by Umewaka-kai, the National Theatre of Japan. The great star is Umewaka Rokuro Gensho, the 56th head of an illustrious family that has been presenteing Noh for hundreds of years. Noh masters are revered. like royalty, but a lineage based on artistic merit. They're doing four different plays over two days.  Japanese Noh fans from all over Europe (and Japan) will be there. So should Britten fans because it's a rare opportunity to hear this uncommon opera in context.

They're doing Pygmalion, too, but Rameau's dance opera, not the usual GBS play. It's special because it's the first collaboration between William Christie, Les Arts Florissants and the Trisha Brown  Dance Company.  This matters a lot, because much baroque opera was created around dance, and Rameau in particular. Hearing this music in concert is nowhere near what it would have meant to the composer. Trisha Brown is one of the top modern dance companies, so this will be seriously good dance, not "pastiche baroque".

Later in June, René Jacobs leads the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin in Don Chisciotte  in Sierra Morena, a Cervantes opera by Francesco Bartolomeo Conti. Although this was first seen in Innsbruck in 2005, it's a rarity. With Jacobs and his specialist orchestra and cast (dancers, too), this should be good.

The Holland Festival is also doing a new version of Harrison Birtwistle's The Corridor, premiered last year at Aldeburgh. This time, it's completely new. Those who weren't impressed last year might have to think again. The staging will be Pierre Audi, no less, and Reinbert de Leeuw conducts the ASKO /Schoenberg Ensemble. With all respect to the first production, this version looks to be all the more accomplished and sophisticated. Elizaberth Atherton and John Graham Hall sing.

That's just the opera. The music programme''s interesting, too: Boulez, Ensemble Intercontemporain, Uchida, Tetzlass, Mullova, Queyras, a George Benjamin premiere conducted by David Robertson and much else. Visit the Holland Festival site HERE.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Horenstein Conducts Hanns Eisler in Global Warming Movie


Anyone who enjoyed the Edgard Varèse weekend  would probably love Hanns Eisler. His music is accessible because, as a passionate socialist, he believed that music was meant to communicate with people. His usual image is that he writes simplistic agitprop. But in fact,  his music – particularly the chamber music – is exquisitely beautiful and sensitive.  Above is his Kammersymphonie op 69.  (1940)  The camerawork in this film is outstanding. If it wasn't for the horrible narrative, this would be an exquisite work of art. Technically, it can't have been easy to set up these shots. To appreciate how good it is, just watch some of the embarrassingly bad Virgil Thompson movies of the period. It's also better than the Joris Ivens movie Regen, though Eisler's music for that is the famous, and wonderful Fourteen ways to describe the Rain.  The subject is amazingly up to date, too - volcanoes and global warming!

The conductor is Jascha Horenstein, often associated with Mahler and Nielsen. Horenstein and Eisler were boyhood friends. Horenstein conducted several Eisler movies, like The Forgotten Village,  but White Flood (Kammersymphonie) is the best.

Eisler also wrote for the movies, long before he went to America. As early as 1929 he realized how movies could be expanded with sound recording. His seminally important Kuhle Wampe is on this site here (complete download). Eisler didn't lose his integrity when he found success in Hollywood. Though he won an Oscar, his music made movies into art. Eisler represents an aesthetic for popular movies different to Korngold or Miklos Rosza.  Eisler got kicked out by the US House Committee on Un-American Activities. A fewe years later,  he supplied an atmospheric score to Alain Resnais' 1955 film about the Holocaust, Night and Fog.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Varèse 360˚ South Bank (1) London Sinfonietta

Queues for returns at a “new” music concert? David Atherton conducted the London Sinfonietta in the first concert of the Edgard Varèse 360˚ weekend at the South Bank. Judging by the crowds at Queen Elizabeth Hall, Varèse could have filled the RFH. Eighty years ago, Varèse really was shockingly avant garde but now he’s permeated modern culture and reaches a wider audience. No Varèse, no IRCAM, no experimental music or art. Musical archaeology come alive!

Ionisation was surprising in 1933 because it’s orchestrated solely for percussion instruments. The concept, though, is ancient. Much non-western music is percussion based, so the seeds for Ionisation were sown decades before, when non-western music first became known in Europe. It connects, too, the “primitive” that fascinated modern art.

Ions are tiny particles that build up to form larger units. Ionisation foresees fragmentation, the idea of cells of sound multiplying into complex structures. Atherton emphasized the point further by following Ionisation with Density 21.5 for solo flute. Michael Cox showed how a single melodic instrument can develop many different simple motifs. Dances for Burgess fits well with this group, because it’s relatively delicate. Chou Wen-chung, who worked closely with Varèse, noted that it was sketched during work on the much more ambitious Déserts. As Chou says, “This whiff of a dance is like a wildflower, swaying in the wake of a desert storm”

John Tomlinson is a much greater artist than the sort of fans who simply chase celebrity for the sake of celebrity will ever realize. Those who admire his Minotaur, though, will appreciate why he sang Varèse‘s Ecuatorial. He doesn’t need the money, he does it because the voice part is interesting. The whole piece is a work of intertwined contrasts. Sometimes Tomlinson sings, sometimes intones speech, veering towards abstract chant. His dark bass adds ballast to the two cellos Theremin (Jonathan Golove, Natasha Fanny). Their surreal, ethereal wails represent an alternative to conventional instruments, and bridge the gap between acoustic and electronic music. Ecuatorial refers to the lost tribes of the Maya, so a performance links mysterious past with the incomprehensible present, which is “primitive” in its own way.

Exaudi is a wonderful ensemble, equally adept in medieval polyphony as in ultra contemporary music. In Études pour Espace, they intone the different moods of the fragmented texts, weaving words with orchestration.

Varèse’s music is theatrical, so enhancing it with visuals is very much in keeping with his ideas about connecting the senses. Déserts was thus the triumph of the evening. .The Queen Elizabeth Hall became a giant 4 dimensional theatre, visual projections covering walls and ceiling. This highlighted the flow between physical and non-physical music. We’re so used to electronic music now that the shock value has long worn off. Experiencing Déserts like this is a reminder that multimedia is a very old idea indeed. Like many artists of his time, Varèse believed there was a connection between different art forms. The video started with images vaguely suggesting sand particles thrown up in a sandstorm. Yet again, the concept of small particles making up a larger whole.

There’s LOTS MORE on Varèse on this site, use the search facility and labels. There’s even a full download of the 1921 silent film Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. The film’s being shown at the South Bank with a newly composed soundtrack, but you can watch it here wihile listening to recordings by Varèse himself. (I picked multiple Nocturnales because that fits amazingly well.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

ENO new season 2010/11

Ten new productions in the English National Opera 2010-11 season, EIGHT of them originated by ENO. That's a healthy sign in these "doomed" times.  Joint productions seem to be the way forward in an increasingly international business. The downside is that small, independent houses with unusual repertoire get sidelined, but the upside is that co-productions offer bigger returns for investment. Plus, you don't need to travel and raise your carbon footprint. For better or worse, opera is multinational..Read the full press release here.
 
New seasons always start with something spectacular, so high hopes for Gounod's Faust from 18th September. It's a co-production with the Met, directed by Des McAnuff. Is the Met discovering French rep? Anyway, for Toby Spence alone it will be worth going to.

The other big news is that the ENO's starting a partnership with the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich. That's a truly top class house, with a taste for intelligent innovation. Like it or not, Germany is extremely important in artistic terms, so chances are that this will bring a genuinely international perspective,. Watch out for Simon Boccanegra next spring.

In October comes another new production,  Handel's Radamisto directed by David Alden. This is a co-production with Santa Fe Opera. one of the livelier US houses: should be good.  Although Faust will bring in the punters, Radamisto may bring in the core ENO audience, since it's Handel, one of ENO's mainstays. Christopher Alden (David's brother) is directing Benjamin Britten's A Midsummers Night's Dream next year. Fascinating, David and Christopher in each other's territory! Christopher's hit The Makropoulos Case comes first, though, in September, days after Faust. Two Faustian pacts in one week.

Paul Daniel makes a much welcome return to the Coliseum, conducting a new production of Lucrezia Borgia. Daniel's extremely good, as older ENO patrons will remember. I'll go to this for him. It's good to hear a range of different conductors. Edward Gardner's conducting Faust, Simon Boccanegra and The Damnation of Faust.

I'm more wary of the "new music" operas coming up. One's a new work by Nico Muhly, as yet unnamed. Muhly's wildly fashionable, a marketing manager's dream. Quite a bit of his music was heard in London recently, but even with Padmore singing, I was not at all impressed, even on multiple hearings. Very self-conscious music, aware of its market and the value of sounding like wannabe pop flavoured Benjamin Britten.  A Dog's Heart by Alexander Raskatov might be interesting. Simon McBurney ( Russian specialist and brother of Gerard) directs.This is receiving its world premiere at the Holland Festival this year, where Martyn Brabbins will be conducting.  The Holland Festival describes it thus "...part of the Russian absurdist tradition.......Raskatov presents an imaginatively emotional take on the absurd story of a surgeon who implants a human pituatory gland into the brain of a stray dog.    the dog becomes a rude and immoral apparatchik for the soviet Department for Eliminating Vagrant Quadropeds". Rude is better than pretentious, at least it can be funny.

Next Easter, Parsifal - but no details as yet.

photo : Xavier de Jauréguiberry

London Sinfonietta Pedro Amaral O sonho

 Biggest secret in town! The London Sinfonietta premieres Pedro do Amaral's chamber opera O Sonho (the dream) on 25th April, not in the usual Sinfonietta venues but at the Robin Howard Dance Theatre in Bloomsbury. (book here it's hard to find otherwise, although you might have to phone the box office –– the theatre's online booking is flakey) It's a Sunday, so no congestion charge and relatively easy parking. Multiple good reasons for going. Pedro Amaral's a seriously interesting composer, very much his own man. What's more, the opera's based on Fernando Pessoa's unfinished drama on the theme of Salome.

Full review of the performance is HERE

Fernando Pessoa didn't exist! Or rather he mega existed. in the form of at least four separate identities, each with his own elaborate persona, who corresponded intensely with each other in literary journals. Rather like the trolls that inhabit internet discussion groups, but Pessoa's personas didn't chatter for the sake of chatter. They were erudite and actually had something worth saying!

Pessoa inhabited multiple worlds in real life, too. Born in 1888 in Lisbon, he grew up in South Africa. The  experience of living as a European (but not only one type of European) in Africa moulded his ability to skip between different and parallel worlds. When he settled back in Lisbon, he was the epitome of turn of the century European spiv, spending most of his time in coffee shops talking literature. On the surface he was a punctilious bourgeois. Inside a wild, intensely oddball plethora of ideas. His life "was" artistic creation. Imagine Varèse, Salvador Dali, Richard Benjamin, Magritte and Shakespeare all mixed as one. He lived the highly perfumed Portuguese hybrid of baroque and Romanticism, electrified by ultra modern surrealism. No wonder he needed multiple personalities. He continues to inspire multiple interpretations today. The photo here is just civic sculpture, but the photo makes it look like Pessoa's head is flying, disembodied.

What will Pedro Amaral's O Sonho sound like?  He's a quiet, self effacing person (extremely good looking)  but a musician, not a talker. (Get to the show by 6.15 when he's being interviewed).  The first time I heard his music, it was being conducted by Peter Eötvös, (one of Amaral's teachers). It didn't make much sense. The next time I heard the same piece, Amaral himself conducted.  It sounded completely different, vibrant and vivid,  "Crenellations" he had described its quirky up and down rhythms.  To me it felt like a dragon uncurling itself, ready to take off into flight. Here is a sample of Amaral's O Sonho :

Edgard Varèse meets Jekyll and Hyde


Edgard Varèse 360 weekend coming up at the South Bank in London. This is a major retrospective, first experienced last year at the Holland Festival. Everything about Varèse will be included - nearly all his known works (his output wasn't huge), plus films, workshops etc. Included is the famous film Poème électronique, made with Le Corbusier and Xenakis for the Philips Pavilion at the 1958 Expo in Brussels. (You can see it free in advance here on this site) But what's less well known is how Varèse was interested in the movies. Film was avant garde in 1920. No way was someone like him going to miss out on something that was both new art and new technology.

Varèse apparently appears in Adolf Zukor's 1920 silent movie Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. I'm not sure which part he plays, since there are several actors who look garishly gaunt and haunted in this movie. Since it's a silent film you can switch off the sound and listen to Varèse's own Nocturnal, which fits the movie perfectly..In fact it's so in tune with the film, it's scary. (mute sound on film, view full screen, repeat the sound from the audio clip above) Try it,

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Wilhelm Killmayer - Artist of the Air

"Silence liberates us. It helps us to listen to ourselves. Music can make us forget ourselves. It can also make us become aware of ourselves.".- Wilhelm Killmayer

It's a very zen comment, it expresses more than meets the eye.  Killmayer's music's clear, cogent, transparent. and incredibly beautiful.  It's radical because it's the complete opposite to the  way prescriptive, materialistic society.operates. .Wolfgang Rihm adores him.

Here is an article. "Wilhelm Killmayer, Artist of the Air" by Sandeep Bhagwati on what Killmayer showed him. "Muddles occur when people try and order the world - the world by itself is not muddled. So the opposite of muddle is to let sounds sort themselves out....."every sound is my friend" Killmayer once said. You respect friends, you are attentive to them, you listen and you let them breathe and have their own life"

The article is just a draft, but in many ways that's good, because Killmayer's music doesn't "teach" but stimulates the listener to open his or her own mind.  "So much white space on his manuscripts" someone once exclaimed, but they aren't blank. They're filled with feelings, possibilties, horizons opening out into unseen panoramas. I'm trying to write about some of Killmayer's most accessible works, Wilhelm Killmayer: Heine-Lieder but each song expands so much, I can't find the words. I'm caught in rapture, hardly daring to move, they're so magical..

Monday, 12 April 2010

Mahler in Manchester Mondays

Mahler, Manchester, Monday - ten weeks of Mahler from Manchester's Bridgewater Hall will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 over the next ten weeks. Various conductors traverse the whole sequence 1-10.

Last week Gianandrea Noseda conducted the First Symphony.  Noseda's been conducting the Manchester-based BBC Philharmonic for nearly 10 years now, so this was as good a performance as you'd get from a team so used to working together.  The concert was hyped by an obsequious presenter on the BBC last week, so I refused to listen until a trusted friend told me how much she'd enjoyed it. And yes, it was very good! Not one for the ages, but very well paced, lively, lucid, a sense of freedom and even smiling good humour. Even the big cataclysm came off with  a sense of irony, which is good. When you're young, you pride yourself on defeating monsters. How could you be a "Titan" unless you can prove something? So the more hyper the drama, the better, even if it's nothing like the real dramas of life to come. The point is that glorious, exhilarating finale, which Noseda and the BBC Phil  did with great panache. Indeed, one of the best Noseda performances I've heard.

Tonight, Markus Stenz conducts the Hallé in Mahler's 2nd Symphony, and next Monday, Vassily Sinaisky conducts Mahler 3 with the BBCPO. Hopefully, the BBC will use different presenters and speakers, and try not to aim the series at the lowest common denominator. Many people are completely new to Mahler, but not all. And for those new to the composer, that's all the more reason for commentary that's well informed and challenging,..

The "selling point" of this series is that each concert will be prefaced by a new commission, which is good. Marina Mahler, who does listen to a lot of new music, is quoted in the programme as saying "If you don't like new music, you don't understand Mahler". It's common sense.  All artists carry the past with them, but if they have any integrity they are original, they're saying something new.   Because there's so much money to be made from Mahler, there's pressure to repackage him as mainly "Romantic",  operatic, Wagnerian, because that sells better than new ever will. But this conveniently overlooks Mahler's interest in Schoenberg and other new music of his time. And the fact that he died aged only 50, cut off in his prime. What might he have done had he lived another 30 years?

Paired with Mahler 1 was Kurt Schwertsik's Nachtmusiken.  It's "Mahlerian" in the sense that it's a mix of different styles and images, but it's not very original. Mahler didn't do allusions  for their own sake. Allusions aren't the same as pastiche. Schwertsik's a pal of H K Gruber, but without the craziness that makes Gruber distinctive. Tonight Friedrich Cerha Like a Tragicomedy (Cerha was the man who completed Berg's Lulu). On broadcast, each concert is supplemented with live recordings of Mahler performances from all over Europe this year - not the usual standard commercial issues.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Anna May Wong Piccadilly - cultural critique

A reader asked, "What's your take on Piccadilly, Anna May Wong's 1929 film?" Anna May Wong (pictured left) is so dazzling that she mesmerizes. It's almost impossible to see the movie without being hypnotized by her powerful presence. But there's more to the film, and you really have to be fully bi-cultrural to connect to the deeper cultural clues.

The film starts off as routine 1920's glamour. In the Piccadilly nightclub, posh patrons carouse, spending money while watching a dancer, all furs, feather and fluff. Downstairs, in the scullery, the staff are distracted by a girl who dances while washing dishes. Note, it's white working women who love her for what she is, regardless of her race and beauty.

Her name is Shosho, which isn't Chinese, but this was a movie made for audiences who didn't know any difference. When she's not working Shosho wears standard flapper outfits, cloche hats, striped tops etc. just like any other British girl (if they look like supermodels). She eats steak and mash in a typical London greasy spoon, (like the retro Quality Chop House on Farringdon Road, only the real 1920's version). Boyfriend, called Jim, is Chinese but also acculturates white, as many did even then. He wears a western cloth cap and could be any working-class Londoner.

Nightclub boss hires Shosho to dance in the nightclub. She drives a hard bargain. She has artistic control! "expensive costume or I don't dance". They head off to a seamy dive in the slums that sells "oriental", but it's a howler if you know oriental. Not Chinese at all, but fake samurai outfits and Japanese celluloid statues. Lots of other clues, easily missed, like Anna May Wong's messy, unpracticed handwriting when she writes Chinese.. Then the Total Cultural Mayhem of her dance. Apparently she designed this scene herself, based on drawings of Thai dancers, completely different to Chinese dancers. Nudity, moreover, is a western concept, completely unacceptable to Chinese sensibilities in those days.

Poor Jim has to dress up like a tourist souvenir and play a Japanese samisen, seated between two candles, which in Chinese symbolize funerals. Maybe, just maybe, all this kitsch is intentional, the implication being that all orientals look the same to whites.
Shosho takes nightclub owner to a lowlife pub. "This is MY Piccadilly", she says. In the club are all races, having fun until someone objects to a drunk white woman (very well acted) dancing with a black guy.

Shosho is a huge success in the nightclub, grabs headlines in the newspapers and snares the boss. They go to her home, which is approached again through slum alleys but opens out to a huge, opulent art deco palace, cluttered with "oriental antiques". Non-Chinese audiences would think "Wow!". Chinese audiences would be appalled. To Chinese, seeing Buddhas in this ludicrous context is like Catholics seeing Madonnas and crucifixes tarted up in a tacky brothel. It's not unlike the white dancer's house, which is also ultra kitsch, but without "cultural sins", only sins of taste. Shosho happens to have a dagger on the wall for decoration (again a Japanese thing, very un-Chinese). After all, "orientals" are dangerous - look at Shosho's nails, trimmed to a sharp point.

Shosho is seen to attack the white dancer, who turns up in this den, but she's shot dead herself. Nightclub owner is put on trial. But of course he's innocent and the white dancer, too. The killer is Jim, the "Chinaman".What do you expect from "Asiatics", the film seems to imply.

Piccadilly (1929) has been re-released by the BFI, because it is an important film, and extremely well made. It does annoy real Chinese audiences because it depicts all "orientals" as being the same, which they are not, and plays up the "inscrutable" caricature. The killer "has" to be Chinese, for example.  Indeed, when I first saw the film, I wasn't sure whether it was pro or anti Chinese, racist or anti-racist. But in 1929, the film makers didn't have much choice. At least Piccadilly manages to expose racial prejudice, even if it does end up playing along with stereotypes.  Anything more direct would have been dangerous. Yet on the other hand, it's a fine line between exposing stereotype and reinforcing it.

But still, I see this film as a China Chinese, so can't help but wince with distaste.  To me and my friends, AMW was quite unknown until we came to the west. Subsequently, I've been rerading up on her reception when she visited Shanghai in the 30's.The Chinese film industry even then was huge, vibrant and progressive but AMW didn't fit in (she was miles taller than anyone else). The industry had many American-borns involved, as directors and producers as well as actors, so it's not true that she was rejected for being fundamentally foreign. Ruan Lingyu (a Cantonese whose Mandarin was lousy) was compared to Marlene Dietrich. So why did AMW, who worked with Dietrich, fail in China? Perhaps she was too closely identified with "inscrutable stereotypes". Fundamentally she was more foreign than Chinese, which is perhaps why she's easier to accept from a non-Chinese perspective. In contrast, Warner Oland, who waqs white, was loved in China because his Charlie Chan depicted Chinese in a funny, but non-racist way.

Please see my earlier post Piccadilly Revisted, about Anna May Wong as an icon for modern overseas Chinese.  That's understandable as for many, they've grown up in western culture and need an image of a Chinese to admire. In practice, though, there are many, many more iconic Chinese role models. Indeed, Chinese cinema is extrremely important in that it was part of Chinese modernization and 20th Century culture.  So I hope that Chinese raised outside Chinese culture, and non Chinese too   for that matter, will strive to learn more about Chinese cinema and the way it shaped modern Chinese values. Unfortunately, there's not much written in English about Chinese film to explain the symbolism and context. So on this blog, I try to write about Chinese film. Even if you don't speak Chinese, I try and do enough that films can be underrstood, a bit.  Please look under the label "Chinese movies" for more. 

Even in Hollywod, there were Chinese and Japanese (Sessue Hayakawa) who bucked prevalent racism and didn't sell out. Or Keye Luke, an American who found his Chinese roots. Lots of Chinese cinematographers, like James Wong Howe. Lots of interaction between Chineser movie people in China and in the US. It's a huge field, which reflects the diaspora. Eventually all the world will be multi culture, so we need to understand.

There is a FULL DOWNLOAD of AMW first silent movie, which is far less racially compromised, despite being so early. See short clip HERE which links to full download. I've also written lots on film and cross cultural issues.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Varèse - the First Wild Man of music


Coming up soon, Edgard Varèse 360 weekend at the South Bank Queen Elizabeth Hall. Varèse was the first Wild Man of modern music. He was a huge, ferocious man, so the "untamed" image fits his life, too. LOTS ON VARESE on this site including clips and FULL download of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Modern art was a rebellion against the overstufffed sofa respectability of the 19th century. Instead, artists (of all types) became interested in things that weren't bourgeois. Gauguin quits France for Tahiti and paints dusky (non Christian) maidens in lurid colours. Picasso discovers the "primitivism" of African art. Cezanne looks at French landscapes, deconstructing them tio their essentials and reforms them in craggy, non-literal forms.

So much nonsense is written about modern music being "unemotional" and rule bound. The whole point of modernism was to react against the monolith of convention. So Debussy gets into Japanese art, Baudelaire into forbidden lusts, and the Jugendstil movement generates rebellion. The Second Viennese School is no more than a product of that loosening of restrictiveness, and a search for new forms.

So Varèse is a good symbol of modernism because his music's readily accessible, especially to people who don't necessarily have a grounding in classical form. People who've grown up with rock, jazz and progressive music can relate to Varèse. Frank Zappa was one of his biggest fans.

Some of Varèse's music like Ecuatorial and Amériques is immediate and graphic, kind of Braque in sound. He loves "unknown" territories, jungles in dark continents and concrete urban jungles, complete with car sirens.  He has rough edges, but that's part of his appeal.  Connect to Varèse, and the rest of modernity falls into perspective.

Elliott Carter lived round the block, for example. Carter's work is much more complex and intellectual, but at heart, he too imbibes from that same wild, unrepressed source of creativity.  Nowadays it's fashionable to knock Pierre Boulez because he has no time for being "popular" and dumbing down. But his reserve masks intensely passionate innovation. Boulez was one of Varèse's champions, before most anyone else.  There are two completish box sets of Varèse, Boulez and Chailly, both essential. I find, though, that I keep going back to Boulez becxause he hears the fundamental intelligence in Varèse, beneath the wild man surface, which to some extent was carefully cultivated. There's plenty on this site on Varèse and composers (and architects) connected to him, so please use labels at right and search.

Friday, 9 April 2010

More Africa at the British Museum

 The Ife Bronzes at the Kingdom of Ife exhibition (read here and here) is fantastic - get to it, even if you don't normally do visual art. It's important because it shows a completely different way of thinking about art history and cultures. It inspired my friend who loves Africa to take me to the regular British Museum African gallery.

Africa is a huge place with many completely different cultures, so squeezing its art into one small gallery is a bit frustrating. Imagine if all European art, from Lapland to the Azores, from Iceland to Turkey, from prehistory to the present was all crammed together on one room. But that in itself shows how little the west understands non-western cultures.

Because Africa is so diverse, in theory it's not a bad idea to arrange the gallery on themes like textiles, woodwork, pottery etc, so you can see the range of different styles.  But it's a bit like a jumble sale. This exquisite ivory piece depicts a mother goddess. It was made in the great empire of Benin 500 years ago. photo credit It's odd to see her several feet from a mass-produced modern T shirt.

It's good to see "modern" nonetheless, because it shows that art thrives in modern cultures too. One striking exhibit is a chair made from guns. After the war in Mozambique ended, people were encouraged to exchange their guns for farm tools - swords into ploughshares. Because Africa isn't wealthy, people reuse things in inventive ways. So there's a "tree" made of metal and a video of how it came to be made. Once the Museum of Mankind (now sadly defunct) did a whole exhibition of African "recycling" showing how creative ordinary  people can be.

But it is frustrating if you want to find out more about the amazing wall of bronze plaques, each depicting vivid scenes.  They were obviously important to the people who made them as they're crafted with great skill and detail. There are about 1000 of them, and apparently they can be read as a saga, rather like an infinitely more sophisticated version of the Bayeux Tapestry. photo credit   Yet they're a mystery as no-one knows how to decipher their meaning. (Click on the photos to enlarge)

That's the paradox about museums. Because the public sees them as tourist attractions, they have to cater for everyone, and for mass taste, so they can't really do comprehensive or penetrating. Not long ago there was a protest about moving the V&A's musical instruments to the specialist Horniman Museum. While I've no time for the V&A's fad for trendiness, the point of museums is that they exist to protect the objects in their collections. Museums exist for research, conservation and education. What's on display is only ever the tiniest fragment of what exists. We may not know "now" what things are, but if they're not cared for they won't be around for someone to interpret in the future. And displays change all the time, which is why it's good to revisit museums regularly, not simply as tourists.

Thirty years ago I visited a huge exhibition about Benin at the Museum of Fine Arts in San Francisco. Nothing like it had been seen on that scale in the US before. It was magnificent, because Benin was magnificent. A whole bunch of schoolkids were being shown round. They came in antsy and fidgetty, because that museum wasn't the kind of place kids from the slums hang out.  Luckily, they had a good curator.  He explained what Benin was, and how much respect it was due. The kids were wonderstruck, their eyes wide  with amazement.  They walked into that exhibition as punks, but they walked out confident and happy.  Benin taught them that African culture and history is something we all can be proud of.

It's relevant for classical music, too. All this fuss about making it "accessible" implies that people are incapable of dealing with complex things. Those SF ghetto kids went to a serious, non-dumbe-down exhibition, and had no problem getting what it meant.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Götterdämmerung Berlin Rattle - the movie

Currently on the Berliner-Philharmoniker site, there's a film of Götterdämmerung. Go to "Digital Concert Hall- archives - specials")  There's a trailer to watch, and, if you want the whole film, it's 15 euros for 48 hours. This I think is the performance from Berlin last year, but it's the same production that was at Aix and recently in Salzburg. Please see boulezian and intermezzo for their reports. Excellent photos, too.

This Götterdämmerung was my Easter treat, sort of, because it's a thoroughly decent performance. Rattle has a good feel for Wagner's majestic, sweeping themes. Maybe not the blackest of Götterdämmerungs, but that is OK.  Indeed, a really dark interpretation wouldn't fit well with this production, by Stéphane Braunschweig. It's stylish and quite attractive - clean lines, nice, simple black plinths for The Hall of the Gibichungs. Which makes you realize how empty their palace is and how sterile their lives really are.

The colour scheme is black, white, red, symbolizing, perhaps another Reich which used power for evil means: Alberich's true successors. So for me, Mikhail Petrenko's Hagen was interesting because he acts the "apparatchik" aspects of the role so well. This is where the film comes into its own, you can see close-ups of his face, so the subtle grimaces and tics register.  Petrenko's Hagen is a conniving  lowlife who uses the sytem for the sake of manipulating power. Watch how Petrenko whips up the mob: they wail, his eyes are dead. At least Alberich had a goal, to stomp on anyone bigger than himself. This Hagen is a cold-blooded fish without redeeming graces. A well-observed characterization.

Ben Heppner's Siegfried is the perfect counterbalance. Heppner's not young and is a bit pudgy..  But that's fine, too, because arguably, Siegfried isn't really a hero at all. Without all the background that goes before, in a stand alone Götterdämmerung, his weaknesses are revealed.  There's no need to present Siegfried as an athlete, Think of all the middle me who delude themselves.  Being fearless means nothing if you're easily manipulated.  Being a hero means nothing if you promptly dump the treasure you've won.  If Siegfried had any sense he'd have stuck with Brünnhilde instead of squandering his good luck. Wagner's no fool. Those who let themselves be taken in by the Hagens of this world can't really plead "magic".

Brünnhilde's the real hero of this opera, and indeed, of the whole Ring cycle, because she's the one that doesn't play power games.  She's the one who saves Sieglinde, gets immolated for her kindness and then gets screwed (in many ways) by the kid she saved. And when she gives the Rhinemaidens their ring, they'll probably lose it again, because they, too, are fools.  Katarina Dalayman's
Brünnhilde is pretty good but a bit too Aryan maiden, and indeed an anoionymous memeber of a group of clones..

That, I think is the weakness of this production. The basic premise is promising, but it's not fully explored or developed.  It's not Dalayman's fault, it's the production's inability, for whatever reason, to push the ideas too far. Understandable, perhaps, because the Nazi thing has been done so often, it's become a cliché for lazy minds to fall back on. And Germans are not the only ones fooled by evil rulers.

So the production pulls back because the real message is still too explosive to face.  Wagner's saying things that are frighteningly valid today. But you can't reallly expect too much danger or relevance in high-profile productions.  Still, I'm glad I heard this, way above average playing. _lease ex[plore this site - plenty on Wagner, stage craft, etc.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Before Die Gezeichneten - Franz Schreker - Der Geburtstag der Infantin

Franz Schreker's masterpiece, Die Gezeichneten opens this weekend in Los Angeles, under the name "The Stigmatized". It's worth preparing for, because the plot's complicated and quite unsavoury (child abduction and rape). Much isn't "revealed", but rather intimated, which to me is one of its strengths. Please read what I've written about the  2005 Salzburg production. Orchestrally, it's outstanding, Nagano is intense, wonderful transparent textures despite the density of the score. Moreover, he doesn't over-romaticize the grimmer depths. See HERE, too, for my original piece with video clips from the DVD

Another way to prepare for Die Gezeichneten (it's not such a difficult word to learn) is to listen to Schreker's much earlier Der Geburtstag der Infantin. .It's based on the Oscar Wilde story, The Birthday of the Infanta (read full story here)

The Infanta is privileged, but there's tragedy in her past. Her mother died after her birth, her father's still distraught. She lives in ultimate luxury, because her dad's the King of Spain and rules the world. As a birthday gift, some noblemen buy a boy from the forest to amuse her. He's utterly guileless, talks to birds etc, completely the opposite to the claustrophobic artifice in the palace.The boy entertains the Infanta who tosses him a white rose. Later he walks into a secret room of mirrors and sees a monster. He's terrified. His heart breaks when he realizes that the "monster" is himself, an ugly dwarf. "Huh," sneers the Infanta, "I don't want anyone with a heart near me". Who's the real beauty here, the princess or the dwarf?

So the parallels with Die Gezeichneten are clear. Why didn't Schreker make anything more of it then, in 1908?  Perhaps it's because it was written to showcase the talents of the three Wiesenthal sisters who, like Schreker himself, moved on to other things.The original manuscript was lost til the 1980's though there's an arrangement in Schreker's hand dedicated to Willem Mengelberg in Amsterdam.

Der Geburtstag der Infantin.is pretty straightforward scene setting (Schreker was only 30), but the music's gorgeously rich and luscious. That's the life the Infanta leads, where everything's grand luxe, and, like her palace it's meant to be stunning. But Schreker wasn't a Romantic escapist. The point of the story is that the Dwarf is the purer soul. The Infanta's music is beautiful, but that's an illusion. Schreker, whose mother was an aristocrat, and grew up in privileged circles, wasn't unaware that the rich use people like toys. Die Gezeichneten, written with the collapse of the Austrian empire, allowed him to explore these ideas much further.

The critical point in Der Geburtstag is the final scene where the boy enters the hall of mirrors and is destroyed by self-knowledge. Sudden, strident strings that break off, tiny tentative figures, overwhelmed by violent trumpets, percussion, basses. The boy's melody tries to surface but it's smashed. Schreker is moving away from music for dance, even though the Weisenthal sisters weren't "ballet dancers" but avant garde modern dance pioneers.

Further music to explore: Schreker's Der Wind (see clip below) which was written for Grete Wiesenthal the year after Der Geburtstag der Infantin, and has some of the strange, not-quite-Romantic ambienceof Zemlinsky's Der Zwerg, a one act opera which, if paired with Der Geburtstag would make an interesting programme. And of course Die Gezeichneten, or "The Stigmatized" as I hope it will not come to be known.