Monday, 31 January 2011

Barbican Beethoven and ENO Borgia

End of month reminder :

Lucrezia Borgia at the ENO tonight.  Useful background resources. Full streaming performance and libretto, photos and detailed synopsis HERE  ENO production details and Quadcast HERE

Barbican 2011-2012 bookings now open. Obviously no-one is forced to buy all a year in advance, but for everyone, some things are more priority than others. I got my Rattle/Berliner Phil tickets last year, wish I'd got more as they disappeared fast. Lots to think about ! Two summaries here, Orchestral and chamber, and Opera and vocal. Good luck!

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Jurowski Das Klagende Lied, LPO

Vladimir Jurowski's third Mahler Das klagende Lied with the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the South Bank was fun.  This time, it wasn't being recorded, but more relaxed, which is no bad thing with this work, which benefits from a whimsical touch.

The tenuous Mahler connection between the programmes on 26th (reviewed here) and 29th was dutifully marketed in Tuesday's mid concert talk, but the real reason for these programmes was that the LPO had planned to tour Hungary. The trip fell through but the programmes remained. This makes much more sense in musical terms.. The real focus was clearly on separate Austrian and Hungarian traditions. It also makes sense as the RFH debut of Barnabás Kelemen, the energetic young soloist in Bartók's Violin Concerto No 1 .And in programming terms, it reveals a much deeper inner logic, connecting dreams and atmospheric abstraction. Hooray - my faith in Jurowski is confirmed.

For Mahler's Das klagende Lied is almost more tone poem than cantata. Jurowski's wonderful in Das klagende Lied because his attention to detail and fine tuning enhances the Romantic glow.  Indeed, the text is a poem, and the soloists' parts don't exist as "parts" as such. Jurowski gets the atmospheric flow so well that it makes the strange storyline seem plausible. Magic, created from pure music.

Throughout the piece, there are echoes of Wagner, specifically snatches of Das Rheingold and Siegfried's Journey down the Rhine. Das klagende Lied tells of dishonesty and retribution, of young heroes who aren''t completely what they seem. Mahler isn't borrowing in a haphazard romantic way but deftly using the references to expand what he's writing. "Pop up windows" in a sense because they open out onto wider vistas. In essence, he's already exploring the idea of embedding song in symphony. An experienced listener will also pick out snippets that will form Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and Mahler's Symhony no 1.

It's a fundamentally different approach to writing music that unfolds as narrative. There are many references, especially in the choral parts, to Carl Maria von Weber, another of Mahler's heroes.  Weber's operas are wonderful as music but not frequently performed as they're not specially stageworthy. The drama is in the music itself. Already Mahler is using musical form as theatre in itself, without needing to go down the opera route. The solo parts are subsumed into the orchestra like extended instrumental colour. The choruses are full of character. Individual pairs of singers stand out from the ensemble, giving depth and connecting with the soloists. Two trebles add an otherworldly eeriness. An off stage orchestra is heard from afar, reinforcing the idea of two worlds co-existing, reality and the supernatural.

Royal Festival Hall acoustics do not favour solo singers. Oddly enough, it helps when they're positioned above the orchestra rather than arrayed in front, even if they have to sing over the orchestra. Melanie Diener, Christianne Stotijn, Michael König and Christopher Purves were very good, but the London Philharmonic Choir augmented by members of the Glyndebourne Opera Chorus, were extremely good. Since Das klagende Lied depends so much on a good chorus, they certainly helped make this performance a success. Less so the positioning of the off stage orchestra. Playing in the Green Bar, sometimes with the doors to the auditorium closed, isn't ideal. No matter how good the players were, the effect was unnatural. Positioning them in boxes is often a better solution.

More on Ligeti, Kelemen and Bartók in a longer, more detailed version of this will shortly appear in Bachtrack, an excellent database for keeping your concert and opera diary up to date.(NOT all Bach!)  If Zemlinsky's Lyric Symphony is of interest there's lots on this site about it because I've ;loved it and lived with it many years. Please use search butten, too many different posts.

Milton Babbitt Obituary

There's a well-informed obit in the NY Times on Milton Babbitt, "A Composer who gloried in Complexity". Read it HERE Strange isn't it, how serialism is more connected with American composers but always blamed on Europeans? As someone once said, the 12 tone system was a springboard not a straitjacket.

Death of the German Emperor - McGonagall

So spake William Topaz McGonagall, never one not to enjoy a funeral, turning his flinty gaze upon Berlin, and the Begrabnis of the Kaiser.

"YE sons of Germany, your noble Emperor William now is dead.
Who oft great armies to battle hath led;
He was a man beloved by his subjects all,
Because he never tried them to enthral."

"Twas in the year of 1888, and on March the 16th day,
That the peaceful William's remains were conveyed away
To the royal mausoleum of Charlottenburg, their last resting-place,
The God-fearing man that never did his country disgrace."

T"he funeral service was conducted in the cathedral by the court chaplain, Dr. Kogel,
Which touched the hearts of his hearers, as from his lips it fell....

"Then there was a solemn pause as the kings and princes took their places,
Whilst the hot tears are trickling down their faces,
And the mourners from shedding tears couldn't refrain;
And in respect of the good man, above the gateway glared a bituminous flame."

"And as the people gazed on the weird-like scene, their silence was profound;
And the shopkeepers closed their shops, and hotel-keepers closed in the doorways,
And with torchlight and gaslight, Berlin for once was all ablaze.
The authorities of Berlin in honour of the Emperor considered it no sin,
To decorate with crape the beautiful city of Berlin;
Therefore Berlin I declare was a city of crape,
Because few buildings crape decoration did escape."

Read the whole sorry tale here and more on the Bard

Saturday, 29 January 2011

Bronfman Bartók Piano Concerto no 1


Yefim Bronfman plays Bartók's Concerto for Piano no 1 in Japan in 1994. Altthough this isn't the "greatest" performance, it shows the precision that underpins Bartók's music. The popular image of Bartók as "wild" is simplistic. Bartók himself was a virtuoso pianist, which is perhaps why he knew the complex interweaving of themes would work if performers had the skill that comes from technical discipline. Nothing haphazard in this music, nor indeed of anything  the composer wrote. Folk origins don't mean sloppy. The wildness springs from a firm grip of structure. Read MORE here about Bronfman playing this with Salonen and the Philharmonia in London, part of the Infernal Dance series at the South Bank.

Friday, 28 January 2011

Bartók Salonen Philharmonia Infernal dance, Important series

Infernal Dance - Inside the World of Béla Bartók is is this year's South Bank Special, a series of concerts over 11 months spanning Bartók's career. Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra.  It's quite an endeavour - and a Celebration Goulash is being served at the EAT café in his honour (good quality and only £4.85)

It's an important series, since Bartók's place in 20th century music cannot be overestimated. In many ways, it's Bartók who carries Stravinsky's legacy in new directions, influencing composers as diverse as Szymanowski and Elliott Carter. 

Significantly, the first concert in the series started with Bartók's Kossuth (1903). It's an explicit statement of intent, for Lajos Kossuth was a nationalist leader who tried to break Austrian hegemony in 1848, the year of Revolutions. Also significantly, Bartók had been studying Richard Strauss, whose popularity has overshadowed his influence on music history. Kossuth was regarded  by Bartók's contempoaraies as "very, very modern" with its clear references to Ein Heldenleben, which Bartók had transcribed for piano. Today it's fairly straightforward and programmatic, but Bartók was only 22. Salonen and the Philharmonia captured the sense of optimism well, so the climax was particularly poignant. As Kossuth is defeated, the Austrian Imperial anthem appears, distorted, and echoes of Magyar themes surface. Vienna, city of dreams, didn't wash with Bartók.

Yefim Bronfman was soloist for Bartók Concerto for Piano no 1 (1926), perrhaps accounting for the huge, enthusiastic audience. This was serious pianism, Bronfman's sure sense of direction assertively negotiation the constant variations of theme. It's an intricate piece, so the balance Salonen got from the Philharmonia was well judged.

But it was in the Miraculous Mandarin that the Philharmonia truly came alive. This was the piece that so ahocked Konrad Adenauer that he banned further performances in Köln. In music history terms, the Miraculous Mandarin stands part way between  Le Sacre du Printemps and Alban Berg's Lulu. Indeed, I was reminded of Lulu Act Three, even without the "Jack the Ripper" references. Could Berg have been thinking of Bartók?

Sound is treated in huge blocks - reminiscent of Stravinsky, polarizing the protagonists by polarizing elements of the orchestra. "Infernal Dance" is an apt metaphor. The movement in the music creates its own dramatic choreography. At times, Mark van der Weil (chief clarinet) throws himself physically into the music, increasing its intensity. Yet Bartók was adamant that the piece was not ballet but pantomime. The action comes direct from the orchestra. Sharp, angular attack, too, from brass and percussion - the "metallic" elements shine, dangerously lethal.  Bassoons and oboes growl, creating tension and mystery. The chorus wails. No need for explicit text setting, for this "Greek chorus" communicates beyond words. And above all, the clarinet rises above all like an elemental force of nature, threatening and alien, yet also savagely liberating. Bartók's exploring strange worlds outside the western mainstream, seduced by the challenges he hears.

This Infernal Dance Bartók series with Salonen and the Philharmonia will get even more interesting as it ventures into later Bartók. Read more about it here on the Philharmonia website. There's a video where Bronfman, Salonen and a Hungarian folk group Musikas get together, and performances of the folk music that inspired the composer so intensely. Later in the series there'll be a complete, 6 hour performance of Bartók's 153 Mikrokosmos. Kurtág and Ligeti fans will be queueing, and fans of Cage.  The series culminates in Noveber with a semi-staged performance of Duke Bluebeard's Castle (John Tomlinson and Measha Brueggergosman). Surprisingly, there's been little media interest in this important series. One newspaper dismissed the whole thing as "ill-advised", without giving any reasons whatsoever. Yet that sort of triteness is what passes for journalism these days. The Philharmonia is one of Britain's finest orchestras and Salonen's done a lot of Bartók, who's hardly unknown. Anyone seriously interested in music will appreciate what the South Bank, the Philharmonia and Salonen are doing.

The whole series is being broadcast by BBC Radio 3 live and online. This one goes on air 3rd February. For a review of the second concert (Cantata profana, Music for strings, perc and celeste and the Rite please see HERE)     
For my review of Duke Bluebeard's Casstle, read HERE.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Jurowski Zemlinsky Lyric Symphony South Bank

High hopes for Vladimir Jurowski's Zemlinsky Lyric Symphony with the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall tonight :after a wonderful performance of Peter Eötvös Shadows. It was an unusual set up - soloists in the centre of the orchestra, brass and winds backwards to the audience, so their sound was naturally oblique. A large ensemble, yet conducted with such sensitivity that Eötvös's gossamer textures shone beautifully.

Similar refinement for Liszt's Piano Concerto no 2. Alexander Markovich isn't the most restrained of pianists, but tonight he seemed transformed. Beautiful lambent passagework, well integrated into the orchestra, superbly well judged.

Jurowski is a master of fine detail and balance, which can be virtues with pieces like Zemlinsky's Lyric Symphony where so much is happening throughout the huge ensemble. On the other hand, too much attention to detail blurs lines and dulls colours. Zemlinsky structured the symphony, of alternating song and orchestral interlude. It's almost a series of concentric circles, each section in its own orbit, but given horizontal coherence by short snatches of theme that return, as if in cyclic motion. In Indian cosmology, the Sacred Wheel is the symbol of time and growth, erosion and renewal. Thus Zemlinsky incorporates the gist of Tagore's text into the very substance of his music. Like a wheel, the Lyric Symphony surges forward as its sections turn, but the movement needs to be made clear rather than submerged in detail.

Melanie Diener was excellent.  The fourth song is in many ways the critical moment in the whole symphony. Diener understood that the voice should sound young and fragile, but it's also powerful, for it represents the future. That combination of vulnerability and forcefulness isn't easy. The Lyric Symphony is infinitely more than a sex romp,  just as Das Lied von derr Erde is more than a hymn to alcohol abuse.

Zemlinsky is careful to emphasize the still, watchful mood, so the words Sprich zu mir, Geliebter penetrate, even though they're quietly enunciated.Around the words, he writes detail - stings and weinds murmuring like the trees in the text, but critically they are background, receding into the distance. The beauty of the moment is lost when the background intrudes on the voice.
 
Thomas Hampson showed the gravitas of greater age, which isn't at all inappropriate in this music. He made his final lines glow with meaning : Ich halte meine Lampe in die Höhe, um dir  auf deinem Weg zu leuchten. An artist like Hampson always has something to show us. Jurowski had much better soloists than Salonen had two years ago when he conducted Zemlinsky's Lyric Symphony with the Philharmonia. Yet Salonen's reading was more focused, although his orchestra needed much  more rehearsal time, having exhausted themselves into a magnificent Gurrelieder shortly before. I5 rem9nded me of old recordings where technical stanadrds are poor, but there's verve.

Orchestrally, what would have helped Jurowski and the LPO was less attention to minutiae, more to the overall dynamics. Rich as Zemlinsky's textures are they're not Hollywood so much as delicately transparent washes, c9ontrasted with moments of glory. Träume laasen sich nicht eingefangen (Dreams don't let them selves be captured). As Jurowski demonstrated in Liszt and Eötvös, he can do gossamer beautifully, so why not apply the restraint to Zemlinsky? Details are wonderful,, but when they're all over polished and given equal weight, textures become congested and hold up flow. The Wheel should move forward easily, not become enthralled to its own beauty.

Please look at my numerous posts on Zemlinsky, (Here on LS, a symphony I lived with and loved for years) Jurowski, Mahler, Schoenberg and related composers. PLENTY on this site, take the time to explore.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

New Greek by Young Turk Turnage

Vintage Turnage returns! Music Theatre Wales, which produced the shocking Philip Glass In the Penal Colony last year, is reviving Mark-Anthony Turnage's Greek. It's a "re-working of the Oedipus myth for the age of discontent".

Commissioned by Hans Werner Henze in 1988, it's an angry protest against Thatcher's Britain. What followed Thatcher, however, makes anything she did seem oddly innocent in comparison,  even selfless, if misguided. At least she read policy briefings and didn't deliberately invent things to please George W. Invading the Falklands was a no-brainer compared with invading Iraq, Afghanistan etc. Greek was the piece that helped make Turnage's name, so it will be interesting to compare it with Turnage's new Anna Nicole, premiering next month at the Royal Opera House. The inspiration for that was Beyoncé.

The New Greek by the Young Turk Turnage is being directed by the same team who did In the Penal Colony, headed by director Michael McCarthy. Simon Banham designs and Michael Rafferty conducts. On past form this should be good. Music Theatre Wales is small, but impressive. Singers include Marcus Farnworth, Sally Silver and Louise Winter. The tour starts in Brecon, Wales, on 2nd July then moves to the Cheltenham Festival on 7th July, and thence to the Buxton Festival. Possible London dates in the autumn? Incidentally, Music Theatre Wales is working together with Philip Glass on a new piece based on Kafka The Trial. If In the Penal Colony was anything to go by, The Trial from this team should be gripping.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Mahler Das klagende Lied not opera

Vladimir Jurowski conducts the LPO in  Mahler's Das klagende Lied on Saturday at the Royal Festival Hall. For the review please see HERE For a much more detailed review of DkL (Gardner) please see here. He opened the 1997 South Bank season with a marvellous performance of this work, so it's definitely worth going to. Mahler generally eludes Jurowski who for a long time skirted round the edges with less demanding pieces like Blumine and Totenfeier. But with Das klagende Lied, Jurowski shines. That in itself says something about the composer.

Newcomers to Mahler always ask why Mahler didn't write operas, since he was a great opera conductor. But once  you really get into Mahler, the answer is clear. Mahler's main drama was his own search for existential meaning, ie an internal spiritual journey. Opera, by its very nature,  is about characters and plot, even when there's a deeper purpose, as in Wagner. Lots more reasons, which both Prof Henry-Louis de la Grange and Donald Mirchell have gone into.

Mahler began writing Das klagende Lied when he was only 17. There are references to Wagner - impossible for an impressionable young man then to ignore - and references to Carl Maria von Weber, whom Mahler also revered. At the time the photo was taken Mahler was embarking on a completion of Weber's Die drei Pintos, partly as a favour to Weber's family. But consider Weber as opera composer. Even Der Freischütz is better known in orchestral performance than live theatre. Fundamentally, Das klagende Lied is a cantata where the voices are embedded into the orchestra, like extended parts, not developed as characters, though there is a loose narrative.

Jurowski's Das klagende Lied is wonderful, I think, because he can access it with semi-operatic verve, following the story as it unfolds. The structure doesn't matter so much as the colour, and excitement serve as thrust. Listen for thr thrilling writing for harp and trombone (especially atmospheric in Der Speilmann) and layer after layer of hunting horns, distant and just present on the horizon. Like the Ring, Das klagende Lied is about theft and retribution, but on an altogether more domestic scale. Mahler's voices don't overpower the pastoral Wunderhorn intimacy.  There aren't any big, deep themes in this piece - the composer's still in his teens. But it's indicative of where his focus will lie - in songs and symphonies informed by song.

Recommended recordings :  Nagano, Chailly, Boulez and Rattle. Oddly enough, Haitink isn't on fire, though his soloists are good. I think Das klagende Lied needs a light, effervescent touch so the colours don't get bogged down in anything too profound.Actually, perhaps Jurowski might consider conducting this with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. It would suit the muted timbre of period instruments extremely well. Tomorrow, Jurowski's conducting Zemlinsky. Please read the TWO pieces i've written about Zemlinsky's Lyric Symphony this month, HERE and HERE.

Monday, 24 January 2011

The Portuguese Nun - Eugène Green

Reactions to The Portuguese Nun (Eugène Green, 2010) say as much about the viewer as the film does. It's fantastic, but at first everything seems to be wrong.

Julie, a French actress (Leonor Baldaque), arrives in Lisbon to shoot a movie, but no-one else has arrived. A tram moves through the city's vertiginously steep cobbled streets. Houses are perched at strange angles, but you're lulled, for Lisbon really is like that. Then you realize something's not right. The streets are completely deserted.  When other people appear they stare directly at the camera, making uncomfortable eye contact. Actors don't do that, nor ordinary folk. Movement is unnaturally stilted, shots held long after they should move on. Then you realize that it's deliberate. You're being nudged into an alternative reality where time and logic don't apply.

Every encounter is extraordinary. A stranger is about to kill himself and changes his mind on meeting Julie. His apartment's lit by candle. Then as mysteriously as he came, he disappears from the story. Julie meets a six-year old boy, Vasco, in a largo (small open square). In a disco, she's picked up by a man whom she decides is the reincarnation of Dom Alfonso, a gay king. Even stranger he agrees. In a streetside chapel a young nun prays in ecstasy, sleeping only between Matins and Lauds.  By now your antenna for logic should be vibrating extreme alarm. Something's definitely very odd..

Then it dawns on you that the movie is like a dream, where things move in slow motion, where every word carries portent, and every incident is pregnant with meaning though it's not rational or followed through. Dreams are like that. Logic is irelevant but they feel intuitively right. Eventually Julie confronts the mystery nun in the chapel. (Julie's playing a nun in the movie, and filming it in the same place). "I am laying a siege on God" says the nun. She prays contemplating ectasy in the full faith that God's mysteries will reveal themselves in their own way even if we don't notice. The original nun Julie's acting about lived in a time when convents were so dissolute that people stopped believing and Portugal was "for once, in the avant garde". So says the nun! Ironically, this is one small detail that's true, woven into the narrative blurring the joins between reality and fantasy.

The dialogue between Julie and the nun in the chapel is utterly surreal, yet, as in the most wonderful dreams, it feels like profound revelation, though it doesn't make logical sense. Yet for Julie, it's a turning point,  and she realizes that the point of life is to do good for others. She adopts Vasco. which might work in a movie but isn't nearly so simple in real life. Julie's clear, unsettling stare and heavy brows remind me of baroque Madonnas - or the children who saw the Virgin at Fatima. There is nothing logical in what they saw, but their miracle - or dream - has still managed to inspire.many, whether or not it's objectively "true".

Then you start to wonder what else there is in this dream fugue where simple things carry such weight? Why does Julie speak fluent Portuguese although her Portuguese mother died when she was a child? How can a child like Vasco exist without papers? And who are the film crew anyway, they're all speaking Portuguese, not French. We know that Eugène Green the director doubles as the film director Eugene Verde,  But who is Eugène Green?. There's a film called The Not So Great Eugène Green but he's not involved in it. The main site with info is called "Little white lies". The man himself doesn't leave much of a paper trail.  The Telegraph critic states outright that he doesn't know Green's work. The Observer critic claims to,  so perhaps  he might explain. Is there a bigger story here than meets the eye?  Is  Eugène Green as mysterious as Julie?. He's fascinating, anyway as he's created an audaciously imaginative movie that will utterly confound those who take things too literally.

"Life is too important to be taken seriously". Humour often disguises wisdom. Then the hints make sense. "I don't like French films" says the hotel clerk, "Too intellectual". This is a French film, yet the key is not to be intellectual but to drift into its gentle, unpretentious good humour. Dreams fall apart when you're too self conscious, but then you lose their magic.  That's why I loved The Portuguese Nun (currently screening at the ICA). In its quirky, understated way it's sending up the whole idea of art as a conscious process, and telling us, perhaps, to stay cool and absorb without always having to be "right". And as for Eugène Green? He reminds me strongly of Fernando Pessoa, whose surname simply means "person". Pessoa created multiple identities who each wrote in individual, distinct styles. Truly amazing personality and work.  Surreal, baroque, Kafka with warmth, wit and colour. Pessoa is a lot like Lisbon itself, operating on many different levels of time and place at once. Hence the film's loving vistas of narrow cobbled streets and dizzying angles, the tower of Belém, and the idea of a nun from the past (based on a novel) and a movie about a movie being made about her. Devious puzzles! Pessoa lives! Get the DVD when it comes out and enjoy it with a bottle of tinto.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Grieg plays Grieg - resurrecting the mammoth

 Here, Edvard Grieg plays his own A Butterfly on a piano roll made in 1906. Under the surface noise and primitive sound capture, enough remains that we get an idea of what Grieg himself sounded like, as a pianist.  There are numerous ancient recordings like this about, remastered, cleaned up and reissued. On this site you can hear Mahler play Mahler, (transcriptions of songs and symphonic segments), Debussy and Rachmaninov playing Debussy and Brahms playing Brahms.

Now there's a new reconstruction from Simax records, specialists in Scandinavian repertoire. Two enthusiasts, Sigurd Slåttebrekk and Tony Harrison, have recreated Grieg in a new recording Chasing the Butterfly. What they've done is a mix of cleaning the original and replaying it on Grieg's own piano the low tech way - fingers and feet on keys and pedals. The result is such that you can play Grieg and Slåttebrekk together and marvel at the similarity. Please read the article here in the Financial Times for more detail. 

Reconstructions fascinate because we assume that we're hearing how the composer would have wanted the music played. But it's dangerous to assume that these very early recordings have any kind of interpretive authority. Real performance traditions developed from full, live concerts. These early recordings were semi-experimental. Recording technology 1880-1920 had major limitations. Often they ran only a few minutes - sometimes as little as 120 seconds - so performances had to be tailored to fit the medium, not the other way around. In any case, performers knew that most people wouldn't be listening to cylinders except as snapshots of the real thing. Because the technology was expensive, often only one take was made, not necessarily the best. And many composers aren't specially wonderful performers (compare Debussy and Rachmaninov). When we think of recording, we're referencing 90 years of "proper" recordings. But those who lived pre-1920 did not think in those terms at all. Yiou can almost imagine Mahler sniffing: "If you think you MUST play X at those tempi, you're nuts".

So resurrecting the Mammoth in music history is fascinating, but of limited real application in terms of performance practice. What makes music isn't slavishly following some sacred rule, but bringing out the spirit in the music. It'll always be personal, created afresh by intelligent, capable performers. Still, it's fascinating to listen to these ancient clips that preserve a moment of a composer's life even though he and those helping him make the artefact are long gone. Below is Brahms, playing for Thomas A Edison in 1889. (Also see Edison's film of Hong Kong in 1898  on this site, and his films on Native Americns dancing in 1894):

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Phantom of Chinatown - Keye Luke full download

Yellowface movies aren't easy for "real" orientals to watch because too often they show stereotypes that range from ludicrous to offensive. Yet there were many exceptions and several genuine Chinese and Japanese in Hollywood. Phantom of Chinatown (1940) is an important movie because it stars Keye Luke as Detective James Lee Wong and overturns many clichés about Chinese stereotypes.

The character started out as pulp fiction, set in opium dens etc which must have seemed deliciously exotic. In the movies, he was created by Boris Karloff, so when Keye Luke took over it was significant. He'd become famous as Charlie Chan's No 1 son to Werner Oland's Charlie. Oland was extremely popular in China because he was sincere and presented the role in a positive way. Keye Luke was also a factor, since most young, aspirational Chinese could relate to him as someone who was westernized but didn't sell out.

Phantom in Chinatown starts off as typical overblown adventure - ancestor of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Explorers have raided the Ming Tombs and brought back an ancient scroll so valuable that the Professor who led the expedition is murdered. Immediately the American detectives blame Win Lan, the Professor's Chinese secretary, played by actress Lotus Long, who was second or more generation Chinese American. Indeed she looks so meat and milk fed she looks almost white. American detective asks if Win Lan had chop suey for lunch.. "No", says French butler (a caricature, though benign), "She had a cup of coffee and some apple pie". Like any good American. Next, Jimmy's cook, who banters with Keye Luke as an equal. It's a vignette for actor Lee Tung Foo, who hams it up brilliantly. "My name is Fu". he says. Says Jimmy "But in America, it's Phooey". Subtle, but you get the drift.

The cops decide Win Lan must be the killer - she's "inscrutable" after all. Luckily, Jimmy phones the "elders of Chinatown", speaking, as western audiences expected, in convoluted filigree. "Chinese style". Keye Luke hams it up so it's hilarious. That's what they audience want, so they get it laid on thick. Next day Jimmy turns up at the Professor's house to find labourers casually dismantling the sarcophagus of "the" Ming Emperor. As Jimmy says casually "They tell me that the Chinese are digging up the body of George Washington in return". Later the corpse falls out of a broom cupboard - as if!  It turns out that Win Lan is an agent of the Chinese government. The real killer's exposed and the secret of the scroll is returned to China. The movie itself is pretty much standard detective thriller of the time, but Keye Luke adds something extra. Enjoy full download below:

Dhammapada Corp


Dhammpada is  a collection of sayings of Buddha but you don't need to be Buddhist to benefit.  A singing version in translation of sections of the work, created by Ronald Corp is being premiered at Shoreditch Village Underground on 6th February. There's also a CD release on Stone Records. Musically this is in the westerrn tradition,  which is as it should be: since the wisdom is universal. Aspara, a SATBass ensemble sings the vocal segments. Nice performance. The singing is interspersed with recordings of bells, chants and drums made on location in Ind[a at places where the Buddha lived, so those who like atmosphere can relate to this. Generally westerrn music about non-western spirituality doesn't work for me for various reasons but I quite liked this CD because it's simple and unpretentious. 

Friday, 21 January 2011

Barbican 2011-2012 Opera and vocal

That's Einstein on the beach. Note the natty pose, the shorts and his darling sandals!  The Philip Glass opera Einstein on the Beach  is a joint production between the Barbican, de Nederlandse Opera (big recommendation) and others. High profile, but tickets don't go on sale until April 2011 though the performances aren't til May 2012 - and look at the prices! (which is why you want to get in while cheap seats exist).

Gergiev conducts Wagner Parsifal with the Mariinsky on 3 April 2012, concert staging, which might be OK, and one night only. Nothing like Haitink, I suspect. He's conducting Stravinsky Oedipus Rex on 15/5 which he does wonderfully and The Soldiers Tale and Renard two days before - a good package, I think. Weber, Der Freischütz 19-21 April might be interesting but a real must is Louis Langree Mozart La Clemenza di Tito on 22/2. Excellent cast - Schade, Garanca, and the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie. The Barbican is well suited to intimate opera, as this year's current baroque opera series demonstrates. They: should play to this strength by doing more.

Lots of wonderful choral works, the best being Szymanowski's Song of the Night, I think, with Boulez on 8th May, but lots of competition.  One of this year's Total Immersion Days features Arvo Pärt, so we can be sure of divine harmonies. Simon Keenlyside sings in Mendelssohn's Elijah on 7/3/12 with the Britten Sinfonia. Gerald Finley in Walton's Belshazzar's Feast and Bostridge in Britten's War Requiem. Other opera, too, such as Opera North's Tchaikovsky Queen of Spades and Jonathan Harvey's Wagner Dream, during the Harvey total Immersion. This was featured at the Holland Festival some years ago, mixed reviews. Lots of other vocal treats - recitals by Hvorostovsky, Borodina and Andreas Scholl.

But there are more things that really shouldn't be missed, not because they're starry, but because they're rare. First, on 4/11, Arthur Honneger's dramatic oratorio from 1935, Joan of Arc at the Stake, (Jeanne d'Arc au bucher), then on 6/11, music to accompany Carl Th Dreyer's 1928 movie The Passion of Joan of Arc. It's an amzing film, thought lost for many years. It pre-dates his spooky Vampyr (1932) but in some ways it's more innovative with its dramatic angles and close-ups. Marin Alsop conducts.

Also a must will be Anton Dvořák Jakobin (The Jacobin), complicated plot, rarely performed. If anyone can carry it off and make it convincing, Jiří Bělohlávek is the man. He chooses his singers well and doesn't compromise. Since the performance isn't til 4th February 2012, there'll be lots of time to prepare beforehand. Just because bookings open so early, there's no compulsion to buy everything at once. There is so much going on in London all year that the detailed Barbican programme is a boon. You can organize your diary around it and prepare by listening and learning in advance. PLEASE SEE my summary of the Barbican 2011-2012 ORCHESTRAL programme.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Barbican 2011-12 Orchestral

The complete Barbican 2011-12 season is available for priority booking from 24th January, but many very good things can be booked now. Some will sell out in a flash, so get a list ready to go asap.

Absolute top of my list will be Riccardo Chailly's Beethoven Symphony series with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.  Chailly and the Leipzigers were made for each other, a match that's transformed them both.  Symphonies 2 and 5 on 25th October, Symphonies 1 and  7 on 26th October. Then on November 1 and 2, symphonies 8,3,6 and 4.  And on 3 November the glorious 9th Symphony. When Chailly and the Gewandhaus did Beethoven 9 on 1/1/2008 it was a fantastic experience, even though they'd jetted in overnight from having played it the night before in Liepzig. They should have been the ones to be shattered. Instead they shattered us with their passionate, animated performance.

If that's not enough, John Eliot Gardiner's conducting Beethoven 1 and 9 on 15th December. And then Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducts the Missa Solemnis with the Royal Concertgebouw on 22 April 2012. Get out a mortgage if you must, all these Beethoven concerts will be special.

Lots more Beethoven at the Barbican of similar stature - Mitsuko Uchida (Piano concerto no 3) on 2nd and 4th October. Elisabeth Leonskaja at LSO St Lukes on 10th Nov plus Evgeny Kissin  (2nd March), Martha Argerich (24/3)  and Murray Perahia (26/2/12). Lots of other pianists like Nicholas Angelich,, Barry Douglas, Shai Wosner and Llyr Williams. Some of these will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3, but there's nothing like being there live.

From February 16th to  18th, Alan Gilbert brings the New York Philharmonic to London for four sure-fire hit concerts - Mahler, Lang Lang, etc. When Gilbert got the New York job, I thought "YAY!!!" as did many of my friends, who've confirmed he was a good choice. He's eager, charismatic and not afraid of the 20th century.

Starting 28th October, a Sibelius series. Sakari Oramo and his wife Anu Komsi present Sibelius 3, Luonnotar and a premiere of Lindberg's Eino Leino Songs. Jukka-Pekka Saraste brings Sibelius 6 and 7 on 16th December, and also a Kurtag premiere with Hiromi Kikuchi, Kurtag's close associate.  David Robertson, too, whose Sibelius is usually very strong. His Proms Sibelius 2 was under par because they'd spernt all their reherasal time on Turnage's Hammered Out and though they could do Sibelius on auto pilot, but too much Turnage ruined the mood. But the really unusual programme is the one Neemi Jarvi's doing on 13/4/12  - Sibelius 2, plus Einar Englund (1916-1999) and Erkki-Sven Tüür (b 1959) and Balys Davarionas.(1904-72). This will be an important concert because Jarvi brings together key Finnish and Estonian composers all of whem the conductor knows well. Red letter this one.

Another interesting concert in May 2012 will feature the "Sibelius Academy Three", schoolmates Esa-Pekka Salonen, Kaija Saariaho, Magnus Lindberg and their friend Karita Matila. 

There'll also be a long Valery Gergiev series which should be good, too - Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky etc., the music he does best. Impossible to be bored when Gergiev's really connecting. Lots of Bruckner, too, with Haitink and Harding, and Belohlavek doing what he does extremely well, too.

And then, Pierre Boulez. Look at the programme on 29/4/12 - Debussy, Scriabin Poem of Ectasy and Szymanowski Violin Concerto no 1. The CD is ground breaking, an absolute must, so the live concert should be unmissable. Hear Scriabin and Szymanowski in true, blazing colour! Christian Tetzlaff, too. On 8th May, Boulez conducts Szymanowski's Symphony No 3 (The Song of the Night) with the same soloist, Steve Davislim as on the recording, though not the same orchestra, the Weiner Philharmoniker but the LSO know Boulez well. Programme includes Boulez specialities, Bartok Violin Concerto No 2 (Znaider) and the Concerto for Strings, Percussion  and Celeste.
PLEASE SEE My summary of the Barbican 2011 2012 Opera and Vocal offerings

Il barbiere di Siviliga

From all accounts, Aleksandra Kurzak is the reason for going to the Royal Opera House's second revival of Rossini Il barbiere di Siviglia. This production, though, will forever be haunted by Joyce DiDonato's accident, when she bravely continued singing from a wheelchair. That's style! Congratulations to Kurzak for making this show her own.

If you do need DiDonato (of course you do) she's singing the role again today on BBC Radio 3's afternoon opera slot, repeated online for a week. This is the LA Opera production of Il Barbiere, in gleaming black and white - looks good in photos. Nathan Gunn and Juan Diego Florez as well. The photo comes from a 1913 Russian production.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Beat Furrer London Sinfonietta and Facebook!

Beat Furrer is on Facebook, where you can hear lots of clips of his work. A good idea, since this performance of his music by the London Sinfonietta at QEH was underpowered and uninspired. If you didn't know Furrer's music beforehand you'd be wondering why he's so highly regarded in Europe. But it does need sharp, idomatic performance, so stick to the recordings (on Kairos the classiest contemporary music label of all) and to what Furrer's posted on Facebook. Listen to Claudio Abbado conduct Face de chaleur).

Furrer's reputation has grown from solid foundations. Twenty-five years ago, he founded Klangforum Wien, one of the most exciting new music ensembles. He's charismatic, energetic and inventive, and his music has depth. Much more satisfying to listen to in the broader stretch than the more publicized Helmut Lachenmann. Furrer is not clever surface flash, but emotionally rewarding, and reveals itself the more the more you listen. The concert's being broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 12th March and will be available on demand for a week. Listen for Presto, though, where Joihn Constable and Michael Cox do the snappy wit extremely well.

Here's a preview of what I''ve written , full link HERE on Bachtrack, the excellent performance database.

"Highlight of the programme was Nuun (1995-6) almost a classic by  contemporary music standards. Scored for two pianos and pairs of other instruments, it's a series of constantly evolving dialogues that repeat and re-form in myriad combinations. Nuun flows like a river in flood, with dizzying whirlpools of sound, often circular, but dominated by a powerful kinetic thrust. The two pianos, played by Rolf Hind and Zubin Kanga, act like a kind of mad dual metronome, shaping rhythyms that disintegrate, reintegrate and re-surface like undercurrents propelling the piece forward.  The two clarinets (Mark van der Wiel and Andrew Webster) form a secondary pair of "metronomes", also at opposite sides of the platform, giving underlying coherence to the wild turbulence around them. The high bright B flat clarinet merges with the darkness of contrabass, creating mysterious, delicious confluence. Later a sequence of extremely short-breathed chords opens out, adding clarity. Densely-textured as Nuun is, it's inventive, imaginative and expressive. The recording, on Kairos, is much more vivid than this live performance would suggest, but that's because it's Furrer's own orchestra, Klangforum Wien (conducted by Peter Eotvos) for whom Furrer's idiom is second nature. The London Sinfonietta will get there in time.

Before the concert, Furrer spoke about a visit he made to Istanbul where he heard an imam calling the community to prayer. The voice moved from chest to head, creating resonances which could carry over space. The result was Xenos (2008) which has since inspired to Xenos II (2009) and Xenos III (2010). Long, firm brass chords call out confidently, replaced by gentler woodwinds. Again, the idea of dialogue and communication. Particularly striking, though, was the extended quiet section, where chords seem to oscillate in relative silence. Also interesting was the use of accordion (Ian Watson), bringing in an altogether unexpected but apposite element. Xenos feels like sublimated voice. Towards the end the piece dissipates gently, in low murmurs like the sound of breathing......"

".....Part of the London Sinfonietta's mission is to promote music as a living art. Hence the Blue Touch Paper project, where young composers are mentored by more experienced composers. Beat Furrer worked with Naomi Pinnock, whose pedigree is impressive. She's also worked with Wolfgang Rihm and Brian Ferneyhough, Michael Jarrell and Olga Neuwirth.  Her Words (2010) received its premiere in this concert. It's based on a string of words, which don't fit grammatic logic but convey impressionistic meaning. Pinnock further breaks the words down so the listener can deduce deeper meaning from the combination of instrumental sound and word fragments.  Pinnock's learned a lot from Furrer, whose opera Begehren (which I love) communicates the Orpheus myth through snatches of oblique poetry, expressed through the orchestra as well as by voice, communicating to the psyche as well as through the conscious mind. Pinnock creates some interesting effects, The humming clarinets are very effective, as is the accordion. The cimbalom (Chris Bardley) adds an otherworldy presence. Pinnock wrote the piece around Omar Ebrahim's voice, which is amazingly agile and expressive, even when what he sings is so condensed the text is submerged. "
HERE is a link to a great review by Lloyd Coleman a young composer who was at the rehearsals  I loved reading this, and recommend it ! Writing about music is an exercise in engaging with what you hear, thinking and feeling. It's not easy, even with practice, becauyse it throws you into yourself as you're doing it. So cheers, Lloyd, keep it up!

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Donizetti Lucrezia Borgia - FULL download

Come hither, this portrait of Lucrezia Borgia seems to say. She's so young it's unhealthy and look what she has in her hand. A symbol of Dad's day job. And on her chest a symbol of what Dad really stood for. Danger !

A new production of Donizetti Lucrezia Borgia starts at ENO soon, but in the meantime, enjoy free streamimg download of a performance from Milan in 2002 on Opera Today. FULL opera, libretto, discography, even a link to production photos of the same production.  etc. Cast includes Marcelo Álvarez (young and lively), Mariella Devia and others. Conductor : Renato Palumbo. Teatro degli Arcimboldi. Please click on the link bold and blue and enjoy. This is a complete Lucrezia Borgia package, useful resource!

Monday, 17 January 2011

Eschenbach Zemlinsky Lyric Symphony - why it's tops

Thinking again about Zemlinsky's Lyric Symphony, pulled out the Eschenbach recording again and it still gives me goosebumps. It was the first recording to use Anthony Beaumont's revised edition based on the manuscript, as opposed to what was previously published. This alone gives it an edge over the nearest contender, Riccardo Chailly (and Eschenbach's soloists are the best in the business). Because it's the smallish Capriccio and not one of the Big Bucks labels, it doesn't get the marketing it deserves. Anway here's what I wrote about the recording when it came out fresh. If anything, my admiration has deepened with time.

"It's groundbreaking because it's informed by recent discoveries about Zemlinsky and his style. Anthony Beaumont is the most perceptive of Zemlinsky scholars. His research into Zemlinsky's ideas and methods resulted in a complete re-edition of the score, revealing its true, lucid beauty.

In the 1920’s, Tagore was wildly popular in progressive circles because his rejection of materialism ran counter to the values of the time. Remember, India was still a colony. Embracing Tagore's spirituality was a kind of liberation. By using Tagore as the basis of this symphony, Zemlinsky is doing more than adopting pseudo-oriental exoticism. He knew what Tagore represented. He's not looking backward, but forward.

This performance shows with penetrating clarity just how imaginative Zemlinsky’s writing was. No muddy meandering here. Eschenbach and his soloists have thought the whole symphony through. This is an interpretation with vivid insights, gained not only from the score itself, but informed by an understanding of the music of his time.

Thus those rich drum rolls that lead into the symphony announce things to come, as drum rolls should be – quite literally a “curtain raiser” for a cosmic adventure. Immediately, refreshingly clear brass introduce the three note figure that recurs in myriad guises through the whole symphony. Then, softly, out of the orchestra, the baritones voice enters, quietly but with intense depth and feeling. “Ich bin friedlos” (a variant of the three note figure). Goerne is just over forty, still not at the peak of his powers, and yet it’s hard to imagine any singer delivering such authority and nuance to these words. The way he curls his voice around the vowels is utterly delicious – Meine Seele schweift in Sensucht, den Saum der dunkeln Weite zu berühten. You don’t need a word of German to enjoy the richness of his tone.

Berühten, becalmed. Yet this music is anything but listless. It reflects the overwhelming “thirst” in the text for distant, unknown horizons and the “Great Beyond”. Goerne sings Ich bin voll Verlangen with eagerness, then shapes the next words “und wachsam” with warm, rounded, sensuality. It’s delicious to hear two different, but valid feelings, in the space of a few seconds. Make no mistake, this music is about seeking, striving for something yet unknown, which grows from a pool of stillness.

A lovely skittish violin solo introduces the second movement. Schäfer’s voice with its pure, light quality expresses youth better than most of the sopranos who’ve sung this part. She may sound almost breathless with excitement, but she’s far too assured a singer to lose the musical line, Mutter, der junge…. the vowels underline each other., opening out. For the first time we hear an almost Bergian leap in the voice, when Zemlinsky decorates the line Zieg mir, wie soll mein Haar… Both the image and the sudden leap will recur later in the symphony. For the moment, Schäfer colours it with warmth, as though blossoming into womanhood before our ears. The music illustrating the exotic procession is one of the rare overtly “oriental” touches Zemlinsky indulges in. In the tumultuous postlude, the full orchestra surges forth, complete with drums and cymbals, yet the echoes of the three note theme gradually assert themselves as the soprano song blends seamlessly into the next baritone entry. There’s no narrative, we never discover how the girl and prince meet, if they do at all. The erotic tension and waves of sound owe much to Wagner, but also to Berg and Schoenberg. Goerne’s singing in the third movement is some of the most beautiful in the whole symphony. It is quite breathtakingly sensitive and nuanced. Du bist mein Eigen, mein Eigen, he repeats, each time with intense, but nuanced feeling. These notes, too, are repeated throughout the symphony.

The fourth movement, expands the symphony into new territory. Again, an exquisite violin solo sets the mood, which deepens with cellos and violas. Schäfer’s voice cleanly rings out Spricht’s du mir Speak to me! The line here is tender, yet also discordant, with frequent sudden leaps in pitch which are decidedly modern. So, too, is the indeterminate tonality, creating at once lushness and unreality. The music seems to hover as if it were the stuff of dreams and unconscious. It’s atmospheric, pure chromatic impressionism. There are murmurs of Spricht’s du mir, and again the painfully beautiful violin, and sinister, dark woodwind. This song is sensual, but it’s no excuse for sentimental indulgence, and the orchestra plays with well judged reticence. . It is, after all, a movement about the silence of intimacy. Nur die Bäume werden im Dunkel flüstern (only the trees will whisper in the dark),

The fanfare with which the fifth movement starts seems to drive away the strange mood that had prevailed before. It may seem relatively conventional music but this is emotionally amorphous territory. When the sixth movement starts, there’s no mistaking the modernism here. Horn and bass clarinet inject a darker, discordant mood. Schäfer’s extensive experience in new music means she copes effortlessly with those sudden tonal swoops while still keeping sensual beauty. She makes “mein gierigen Hände” sound genuinely eager. This is Ewartung, minus the harsh dementia, and all the more complex for that. The mood is rocked by rhythmic melody, as the singer becomes aware Träume lassen sich nicht eingefangen (dreams can’t be made captive). Only then does the voice rise in horror, punctuated by a single, fatal drumstroke. Has it all been an illusion ? It’s not clear, nor on what level, but that’s what makes it so intruiging. Zemlinsky wisely leaves the ideas floating. Instead, he lets the music segue, mysteriously, into the final movement.

This final song is full of interpretative possibilities. The protagonist accepts that the affair is at an end, yet is dignified and positive. Lass es nicht eine Tod sein, sondern Vollendung (let it not be a death, but completeness). Even love is sublimated in creative rebirth. Lass Liebe in Erinn’rung schmelzen und Schmerz in lieder. Let love ache and melt in memory, in song. The dignified calm with which Goerne sings confirms that the protagonist has reached that “Great Beyond” he sang of in the first movement and has found the horizons he sought.. This time, the violin returns, playing a sweet, plaintive melody. while the orchestra echoes the word Vollendung, Vollendung. Then there’s another transition. A warmer note, like a breeze, enters on the strings, and the wavering halftones resolve from minor, gradually, to major. With infinite depth , Goerne sings that last phrase Ich halte meine Lampe in die Höhe, um dir auf deinen Weg zu leuchten. I hold my lamp up high to light your way. .Lovers must part, for life has a higher purpose. “zu leuchten” is sung with such goodwill, that you feel that whoever embarks on the next phase will be going armed with knowledge and faith gained by those who care enough to light them on their way. The postlude is led by a distant woodwind, a reference to the flute that called in the very beginning of this journey. There are echoes, too, of the Du bist mein Eigen theme, emphasizing the sense of fulfilment. Gradually the wavering half tones resolve, and the music moves from minor to major, concluding in another shimmering plane of colour. .

Anthony Beaumont, in his analysis of the symphony, said “often the singers are engulfed in a dark forest of orchestral filigree work. In performance, the score requires Mozartian grace and precision. For all its abandon, this music reveals its true beauty and power only if performed with discipline and cool headed restraint”. Eschenbach recognizes its profoundly spiritual qualities, keeping the textures clear, letting them shimmer through unsullied. It’s the very purity of the orchestral playing that sheds light on the dynamics of the scoring. The soloists voices complement each other perfectly, and are in turn complemented by the elegance of the orchestral sound."

Lots more on the Lyric tymphony, Zemlinsky, Etc on this site, please explore.

Zemlinsky Lyric Symphony NOT Mahler

Next week, Vladimir Jurowski's conducting Alexander Zemlinsky's Lyric Symphony with the LPO at the South Bank.  It will be fun to compare it with Esa-Pekka Salonen's glowing account with the Philharmonia in 2009.

There's a lot more to this symphony than often assumed. Zemlinsky himself compared it to Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde but that was wishful thinking on his part. Both use exotic themes and merge song with orchestra, but structurally and conceptually they're different. Indeed, I think the more you know both works, the more they seem to diverge. The world changed drastically in the 15 years between the two  pieces.  Zemlinsky was caught up in the fashionable esoteric circles of the post-war years like many others seeking an alternative to ruined Europe.  Much wiser, then, to discard the old Mahler canard and think about what makes the Lyric Symphony unique on its own terms.

Even in terms of Zemlinsky's output as a whole, the Lyric Symphony stands out, like a sudden effloresence blazing out in a sudden flash of glory. And what does the Lyrisches mean? Zemlinsky uses a German translation of Tagore which to Europeans in the 1910's and 20's represented "ancient eastern wisdom". Musically, too, it's daring, as if Zemlinsky's approaching iunknown shores. Debussy, Ravel, Scriabin, Szymanowski, Janáček, all adventuring into new worlds wherre mainstream western traditions don't apply. Later in  life, Zemlinsky experiments with jazz but nothing like the wild freedom that inspired the Lyric Symphony.


To assess any performance, it helps to know the piece well, and its context and background. I originally learned the Lyric Symphony from the Bernhard Klee/BRSO recording from 1982 with Duesing and Söderström. She's wonderful, but the rest doesn't really hold together so well. There are several very good recordings and one major dud. Recommended: Eschenbach, Orchestre de Paris, Goerne and Schafer. This one's based on Beaumont's lucid edition, and shines with spirituial and musical conviction. Chailly, Royal Concertgebouw Amsterdam, Marc, Hagegård, is also excellent. The ancient Gabriele Ferro recording with Nimsgern and Dorothy Dorow is worth searching for as it's gloriously over the top. You also need to know Anthony Beaumont's recording because Beaumont knows what he's doing and has insight. Orchestra and soloists are OK but don't come near Eschenbach and Chailly. The dud is Conlon, but that in itself illustrates the significance of this symphony in the wider spread of Zemlinsky's music. Conlon immersed himself in the composer's work, but the Lyrisches escapes him.

Also, read Beaumont's biography of Zemlinsky, which is the benchmark, extremely well researched and analyzed. There is another more recent book, which doesn't come remotely near in terms of quality. Not recommended, not even as an introduction. and unless you know Beaumont, you can't assess the new book properly. Beaumont's book is not at all difficult to read but is not at all superficial. It's based a real understanding of the background and sources, so is an reliable, balanced work for general background as well as for Zemlinsky. Beaumont sets the best case for Zemlinsky, man and musician in his own right. He's much more interesting than the "late Romantic" pseudo-Mahler label would suggest. The Lyric Symphony is very much a work of its time - the 1920's - and should be assessed in proper historical context. Zemlinsky, after all, was extremely well connected, and knew Schoenberg, Korngold, Schreker, Berg and so on. (LOTS on this site, and in depth about these composers and this periiod, one of my specialities)

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Pollini Project, South Bank

Maurizio Pollini returns to the South Bank this year for a  concert series, "The Pollini Project". What they mean by "project" I don't know, as an artist of that stature is hardly a "project". Perhaps it's a tag to describe five disparate recitals that span most of Pollini's repertoire.

On 28th January, Bach The Well-tempered Klavier book 1. 15th February, Beethoven  Piano Sonatas  op 109, 110, 111. Nicely balanced with Schubert Piano Sonatas D 958. 959. 960 on 26th February.An opportunity to compare both composers as well as three works from the same period of each. You probably "need" both concerts. Oddly, Beethoven is nearly sold out but some good "piano side" tickets left, while swathes of Schubert seats left but not the coveted piano sides, all of which are sold. What does that say?

Then the one I booked a whole year ago, not knowing that Prince William would finally twig that you can't date someone for 10 years and not commit. They lose face and the Brand suffers. Chopin 24 Preludes, Debussy Etudes Book 2 and Pierre Boulez Piano Sonata no 2,. Lots of tickets left but all on the piano side are completely booked. This is a sign that those going know what they are doing. (discounts if you but all 5 concerts) The kind of audience who don't care as long as it's someone famous are scared off by anything remotely new (Debussy for goodness sake!)  But audiences who know the music know why they want to see Pollini's hands. (Please see my post Pumpkins pop Pollini)

On 25th May, Pollini wickedly mixes Chopin Berceuses and Barcarolles with Stockhausen Klavierstuck VII and IX. Again, the smart money has booked the Blue Side solid. If someone of Pollini's musical intelligence picks Boulez and Stockhausen, he's making a statement.This is a pianist who can do anything he wants so when he choses what he loves, pay attention. The Boulez Piano Sonata is a fantastically beautiful work, and Pollini is arguably even more charismatic than Aimard.
 photo credit : Mathias Bothor and DG

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Ilan goes to Iceland

Ilan Volkov has landed the post of Chief Conductor of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra.  Iceland punches bigger than its size as there's a lively new music scene. Over the next three years Volkov's conducting a total of 25 weeks, but even better, he gets to start a new festival of new music.

Says the Director of the Iceland Symphony, "Ilan is among the most exciting conductors of his generation and we are thrilled that he has accepted the position...under his artistic leadership, the Iceland Symphony Orchestra will continue to secure its place among the finest and most progressive orchestras in Northern Europe ... The stunning façade of Harpa - Reykjavik Concert Hall and Conference Center - is designed by visual artist Olafur Eliasson and is sure to become an iconic image for the region".

The new concert hall, which opens in May, would have been planned in the heady days when there was money aplenty in Iceland. Yet in times of austerity, sometimes intregrity survives when glitz fades away. Volkov's got integrity and maybe the energetic Iceland scene will be bracing. Volkov's still conducting the Israeli Opera and BBC Scottish and guesting all over Europe. In the past I was lukewarm about his work, though he's respected by many, such as Susanna Mälkki. But two concerts he conducted at the 2010 Proms were extremely good. He was so much invigorated I wondered what's he on? I think it was the orchestras, the London Sinfonietta and Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, who are specialists in their field.  Read more here : Volkov conducts Cage and Feldman (contender for best Prom) and conducting Bedford, Benjamin etc. I hope Iceland gives him good service. (Photo : Simon Butterworth from ICA)

Friday, 14 January 2011

Qing Ming on the River - scroll in action


Qing Ming on the River (清明上河圖)(Ching ming seung ho toh), one of the great iconic paintings of Chinese heritage. The original was painted by Zhang Zeduang (張擇端)(1085-1145). It shows the Song Dynasty capital (modern Kaifeng)on the Huanghe (Yellow River) in north east China.The painting is 5.3 metres long, (210 inches) but narrow because it was painted on a scroll, which can be "read" as the scroll unfolds. Panoramas like this were painted for the nobility, who could study their realm in private contemplation.

The Qing Ming Festival is held in mid-spring, so people go out into the countryside to sweep the graves of their ancestors, which especially in the far north have been cut off by harsh snowbound winter. Qing Ming is thus a festival to celebrate nature and the arival of new life. That's why the scroll depicts the Imperial city bustling with activity. The market's busy, the streets are full of people. Merchants on camels enter the city gates from the west. Along the river many different types of boats, cargo vessels, pleasure boats, etc, their sailors piuctured pulling ropes, sailing, shouting to each other. In the town, teahouses and streetfood stalls. Beggars and rich men, children, workmen and old folks. There are hundreds of figures in this painting, so following it is like a glimpse into another world.

Panoramas like this unfold like film, though of course silent and in one dimension. Most people will never see the actual paintings close-up like Emporers did, so there's a vogue for putting them on film for all to see. Last summer, in Shanghai, there was a fantastic animated version. As vieweres moved through the hall, the figures moved, as if they were alive,. (Animations are much more popular in China than in the west).

Modern technology applied to ancient art. But the purpose is exactly the same, the idea being that we can look in on an experience documented by a painter 1000 years ago for others to learn from. Below is a clip of the Hong Kong exhibition last November. There was a moat between the audience and film, extending the idea of the river. Daylight turned to night, lanterns illuminated, and you could see inside houses in 3D.  It took about half an hour to progress through, huge crowds, all chattering away with wonder, mobile cameras flashing. But I think that was very much a part of the experinece. The painting was meant to show the people, and now the people themslves are part of the show. Listen to the excited comments "The kid's chasing a pig". "The boats are moving!" Outisde the cooked food stall, someone says "Exactly like now!" which is absolutely true. I've found a series of high quality film of the whole thing but for starters here's a short clip. BEST watched FULL SCREEN and volume down.There's also a HD professional quality version with close ups and well informed commentary from Hong Kong TV. Click on the link, as it's good though not in English)

Huddersfield Festival on the BBC

Sort of!  The 2010 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival programme looked really good. Rebecca Saunders as composer-in-residence, for example. Saunders is one of the most exciting British composers though she lives in Berlin and is oriented towards the German scene. Mentor, Wolfgang Rihm, no less. Read more about Rebecca Saunders on this site and also on the Huddersfield website which has videos, soundclips and an interview with her. For her, it would have been worth attending.  November, though, is a busy time for me and Huddersfield is far away, and for that kind of money you could go to Berlin, so I thought I'd catch up with the BBC broadcasts.

Sure enough, for the next five weeks each Saturday night, highlights from the Huddersfield Festival  can be heard live, online and on demand. Which is excellent because the music reaches thousands more, and broadcast rights help cover costs. Usually the BBC is scrupulous about telling us what pieces and which composers will be played. Now you have to guess and look back at the Huddersfield site for help. Obviously those keen enough to tune in will be listening anyway, but it's cumbersome and inconvenient.  Contemporary music needs sensitive marketing (especially with the image Huddersfield throws up).  The BBC blurb tells nothing. Surely a bit of finesse wouldn't go astray?

Is this a sign of some new BBC policy? Another programme features music from Turku and Talllinn. But what music? Admittedly this is a programme about tourism and junkets, but it would be nice to know. (We can all guess Arvo Part etc)  Maybe audiences don't want music anymore but lifestyle decor. But personally I think, in times of restraint amny business should concentrate on key product. Cut the extras like trips abroad, boxes at the Proms, celebrity presentters etc and stick to music. MORE JOBS LESS JUNKETS (read link!) Indeed, on hearing the programme, all my fears were realised. Two presennters not one and the music  treated like it was an intrusion. Interviews with festival director and musicians OK because they care about what they're doing, though the director could have been edited, which is normal practice. With contemporary music you need to get people to think, wow, I want to hear more. Here, you have to fight the impulse to switch off.  Too much emphasis on window dressing presenting, the product itself down the tubes. Defeats the whole purpose of broadcast. Maybe I shouldn't have said "more jobs" but real jobs. Notice the BBC website now has a tab for "presenters". Wrong perspective.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Lucky encounters - the remarkable life of José Serebrier

Youth orchestras from South America get huge publicity but even more remarkable is the story of the very first of all, before the term "youth orchestra" became current. It was the Uruguay Orchestra, organized by José Serebrier. "When I was still in short pants,” Serebrier says, “I took it into my head that I would create a Festival of American Music”. He'd started the orchestra when he was 11 and three years later they performed in front of the President and were photographed in the newspapers.  In their repertoire they even had Charles Ruggles, Edgard Varèse and one of Serebrier's own works. Ambitious enough by any standards, but in Uruguay in 1949 this was truly remarkable.


Serebrier's whole life has been a series of amazing, remarkable adventures, but the story behind his own First Symphony is so wonderful that it's worth telling again, especially now that it's been released on a new Naxos CD. Serebrier is one of the most prolific conductors in the world, with over 200 recordings, including the celebrated Glazunov series and the famous recording of Charles Ives Fourth Symphony, generally considered "unplayable" at the time. Yet Serebrier is a composer, too. The Naxos release is a collection of his own major works.

At sixteen, Serebrier went to Philadelphia to study at the Curtis Institute. One day, while crossing a busy street, he bumped into a man and dropped the manuscript of the composition. "The stranger was a cellist, rushing to the airport to join the Houston Symphony. He instinctively asked if he could carry the score along to show to Leopold Stokowski,....  I had another copy, so I agreed, not expecting anything from this gesture. Few conductors would take such an idea seriously. A couple of days later, the Curtis telephone operator started giving me messages to call Mr Stokowski. I was sure it was a joke, as I used to leave messages for other students to call Bernstein or Rubinstein. Eventually, the Institute’s Director, Efrem Zimbalist Sr, called me to his office. “What are you doing? Maestro Stokowski called me to say he’s been trying to reach you urgently for two days!” We called from his office. There was this highly accented voice telling me: “We tried doing the première of the Charles Ives Fourth Symphony but it proved impossible. Orchestra can’t get past first bars. Need a première. Press invited: Time magazine, Life, UP, AP. We do your symphony première instead of Ives. Please bring music. Rehearsals start in two days.”

And so by a sheer stroke of luck, Serebrier's career was launched. He became Stowkowski's close associate. There are historic clips of the two of them conducting Ives's Fourth on Serebrier's  website.  which is worth looking at because it's lively, packed with information and down to earth - like the man himself! Not long ago., Serebrier recorded Stokowski's Bach transcriptions. We're so used to purist Bach now that the CD was a reminder of the freedom with which music was once made.

Naxos has released quite a lot of Serebrier's own music but the new CD is a good  introduction. It includes Nueve, a concerto for Double Bass and orchestra (1971, two pieces inspired by tango, the "Winter" Violin Concerto and the new They Rode into the Sunset,- Music for an Imaginary Film (2009) Simon Callow narrates!  Read more about the pieces HERE.