Thursday, 31 March 2011

Zhou Xiaoyan sings Grieg

Zhou Xiaoyan 周小燕 (b 1918). One of the great Chinese singers and singing teachers. Born in Wuhan to an intellectual family, she went to France to study at the Paris Conservatoire. She sang in French and Czech opera houses before patriotically returning to China in 1947. WSestern classical music was very popular in China until the Cultural Revolution., so Zhou had a successful career giving concerts (mostly mixed recitals), making records and teaching. I can't imagine the equivalent in the west. Pavarotti ? She's still alive, living I think in Shanghai.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Literalism murders Truth - Fidelio Royal Opera House

What would Beethoven have made of modern times where, thanks to modern surveillance, dissent is more thoroughly monitored than at any other time in history ? Jürgen Flimm's production of Beethoven's Fidelio was first seen at the Royal Opera House in 2007. That was before the economic meltdown. Now things don't seem quite so carefree.

A straightforward reading of Fidelio is almost a contradiction in terms. The real message is hidden, just as Florestan is hidden, because it's too dangerous to contemplate. In 1805, the idea that one woman could bring down the system was so unlikely that an authority figure like Don Fernando had to be introduced to make the plot feasible. He's benevolent but still an Enlightenment despot. Beethoven and his audiences were not naive. They know all too well that Leonore is theory made narrative. Symbolic, not reality.

There may be no words in Beethoven's Third Symphony but it's much more than an arrangement of abstract sounds.  Because there's a narrative in Fidelio, Beethoven can be more explicit. Yet the real story is also much darker and more poignant than words can express. Such a story would not have gone past censorship if Leonore, however brave, had managed to overthrow the system.  Beethoven and his audiences were not naive. They knew very well that in the real world such things don't happen. Hence Don Fernando appears as Deus ex machina, and puts things to rights. Benevolent as he is, he's still an authority figure. He's an Enlightenment despot who can't be challenged.

Florestan is more than a prisoner, or even an ordinary man. He's an embodiment of "Der Edle, der für Wahrheit stritt" (the noble spirit that strives for Truth) . Political and philosophical concepts are so fundamentally part of the meaning of this opera, that any production that downplays the issues is a betrayal of what Beethoven believed and what the opera is really about.

Jürgen Flimm, however, takes a unswervingly literal approach, without irony or insight. No political or radical passions here. The prison isn't a mirror of society so much as decoration. Leonore (Nina Stemme) unlocks the cell doors, and out the prisoners pop, meek and mild. Anyone with experience of prisons, even "nice" ones, knows they're bursting with suppressed violence. So the wonderful chorus O welche Lust, in freier Luft Den Atem leicht zu heben ! is glorious, but it's meant to be poignant and symbolic, not literal. Things don't change so easily. But Beethoven knew the sublime music would have an emotional effect on his listeners. Spurred into sympathy, audience attitudes might change. Only then would there be any chance of real liberation.

Fidelio is a notoriously difficult opera to stage, but there are clues in the music as well as in the stage directions. Beethoven's Third Symphony (Eroica) is more than a random arrangement of abstract sounds. So Fidelio with its text is even more explicitly concerned with ideas beyond music. It's much more than a narrative, and clues to its meaning are embedded in abstract sound. Fidelity to the script, in the case of Fidelio, means paying attention not just to the words but to what's happening beneath the surface making the story what it really is.

Leonore's music in the first few scenes is agitated, conveying a sense of entrapment. Yet Stemme is directed to move from one side of the stage to another, dissipating the tension in bitwork. Fortunately Stemme has the stage nous to sing more acutely than she might normally, inhabiting character rather than making sounds for the sake of sound. Her movements are bird-like, again expressing the idea of being encaged and seeking freedom. Whether this was in Flimm's direction, or an idea by Daniel Dooner, revival director, or Stemme's natural instincts as actress, I don't know. But she's able to express more than what's strictly in the score.

Florestan isn't easy to cast. He's an unusually charismatic figure, Der Edle, der für Wahrheit stritt. Why is he so dangerous that he must be hidden in the most secret dungeon? Why does he inspire such devotion in Leonore, who's hardly a doormat? Again, Beethoven's abstract music offers clues. Tenor voice, as a deliberate symbol of purity against a dank, dirty background. That's why Beethoven, normally skimpy with stage directions, specifies a well and piles of rubbish. The vocal part sits high in the register because it represents an alternative to the other male parts, all written for low bass baritone. Florestan should, ideally, shine with glowing light, standing out from the darkness around him.

Since there have been a few wonderfully lustrous Florestans in recent years, such as Jonas Kaufmann, most others suffer in comparison. Endrik Wottrich is adequate, especially given that this unimaginative production asks for nothing more. Perhaps he'd be more inspiring in a production that made more of Florestan's alluring charisma. Here, he's not expected to be more than stock character.

Willard White is an impressive Don Fernando. The part is written for big, compelling voices, though significantly, there's little call for psychological complexity in his music. Don Fernando is a plot device as much as a person. Maybe good kings appoint good ministers, but history has shown that that's not something we can count on. Again, maybe Beethoven is commenting through music rather than through words. Similarly, Don Pizarro's music reflects repression, but John Wegner, fortunately, makes more of it than simplistic villain.

Kurt Rydl is a good solid Rocco, also vocally capable of conveying more than  he's asked to do in this production. The "gold" aria is important as it delineates Rocco's personality. He's not materialistic per se, but pragmatic. Not evil enough to kill Florestan, but weak enough to let Don Pizarro do the dirty work. Despots don't get want they want without "innocent" followers. Elizabeth Watts's Marzelline is charming, but again barely developed in stage terms. It's a waste of her very considerable talents as singer and actress. She's capable of much more. Perhaps Flimm's too concerned with the trappings of marriage, like bouquets, rather than the spirit of marriage, which is what motivates Leonore.

It says a lot about this production that one of the most successful characters is Steven Ebel's Jaquino.  Left pretty much to his own resources by the nominal Personeregie, Ebel creates the role on his own. Though the part is relatively small, Ebel's Jaquino comes over as fully thought through and convincing. In his own way, Jaquino is a male counterpart to Leonore. Both are faithful in love, both unfazed by difficult situations. Jaquino's role is to Leonore's, a recapitiulation of a main theme. Again, Beethoven's clues lie in the music, not just words.

The choruses in Fidelio are important because they represent the wider world, as opposed to the isolated characters in the main roles. The Royal Opera House Chorus is always very good. The voices in the chorus O welche Lust were very well balanced, so the effect of sound moving across the ensemble was well realized. The big choruses at the end were stunning. Heil sei dem Tag, Heil sei der Stunde, like chorale. Committment expressed with quasi-religious fervour. At last the stage is lit brightly and gloom dispelled. Flimm places neatly dressed wives and children in the chorus. But while Fidelio celebrates loyalty in marriage, it isn't really about family, per se.

Sir Mark Elder replaced Kyril Petrenko as conductor on short notice. He's nearly always good and reliable, but this time the pace was sluggish, textures spread too far and without much sense of form and dynamics.  Maybe the lacklustre production was getting to him as well.  Fidelio is so much more than straightforward narrative. Stripped of conceptual context, it's nullified, as music as well as theatre. "Wahre Liebe fürchtet nicht." (True love fears nothing). Flimm's lumpen production proves that literalism kills veracity.

PHOTOS : Catherine Ashmore, Royal Opera House (details embedded)
A better and more formal version appears in Opera Today.  Please keep checking, I'll post a link.  Please also read HERE about the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra's shockingly potent Fidelio in 2009. 

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Robert Tear

It's just been announced that Robert Tear has died, aged 72. Above one of his signature performances, from Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings (Alan Civil, Neville Marriner). Although Tear's career stretched to Mozart, Janáček and Henze, English music was his forte. A generation younger than Peter Pears and a contemporary of Philip Langridge who passed away almost exactly one year ago, Tear was active when Britten, Tippett, and the Manchester School were in their prime. I remember what proved to be his last London recital. I think he was doing it as a favour for someone as the pianist was awful and wouldn't have been able to do solo. There wasn't much left of his voice but he proved his mettle, charming the audience aimably, so they'd go home happy. Please see this informed obituary.

Monday, 28 March 2011

3 x 3 Beethoven Piano Trios new series, new ensemble, new venue

Introducing the Phoenix Piano Trio, undertaking a survey of everything that Beethoven wrote for piano trio,
containing many of the greatest works of the chamber music repertoire. Starts 10th April.

Each programme in the series is built round Beethoven's music for piano trio. A comprehensive traverse through the repertoire. Read more about the programmes HERE and also about the Phoenix Trio. .

If the Phoenix Piano Trio look familiar, well, yes they are. Impressive pedigrees! Each of them is very experienced and well-regarded. Sholto Kynoch, the pianist, plays, teaches and is a real repertoire buff - he's the creative blaze behind Oxford Lieder. Jonathan Stone, the violinist, has played in several ensembles including the Doric String Quartet.  Marie Macleod, the cellist, also plays with the Aronowitz Ensemble. Please follow the links, to read more. Chamber musicians don't usually have high public profiles, but knowing their backgrounds and networks gives a very good take on who they are. All three have worked together for years, so the Phoenix Piano Trio, though "new", comes with a long history..

What's also interesting is their interest in blending masters like Beethoven with new music that works in complement. "Beethoven was the ground breaking firebrand of his day", say the Trio, so for each programme they've commissioned a new work to fit the Beethoven. Don't let the "firebrand" tag bother you, since these are established composers. James Weeks, for example, the man behind Exaudi, one of the finest vocal ensembles around. Philip Venables, Edwin Roxburgh,  James Young (a pianist) and Cheryl Frances-Hoad. 

Five programmes, repeated in a mini-tour which starts in London and goes on to Oxford and points beyond.  In London, one of the places is The Forge, "Camden's newest hidden gem". Not yet another conversion, but a purpose built new building designed by award winning architects Burd Howard. The auditorium, seating 100, was specially planned for natural acoustics. Between the auditorium and restaurant is a big gass domed courtyard with a 6.5 metre "living wall" of plants. The outdoors indoors in the heart of town ! Read the specs for The Forge carefully as it seems like an ideal small venue for chamber and other intimate performances. Big selling point seems to be the acoustics- listen to sound samples on the website. Since The Forge is smaller than the Wigmore Hall or Kings Place, it would be a great place for conferences, weddings, parties etc. making it economically as well as audibly sound. Parking's a problem, though.Try the Holywell Music Room, Blackheath or Walton on Thames.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Vivaldi Orlando furioso Barbican

Vivaldi's Orlando furioso (1727) is the latest in the Barbican's exciting series of operas based on the theme of Orlando. Orlando was the superhero of the baroque, inspiring Ludovico Ariosto's epic poem Orlando Furioso, a huge sprawling panorama, in which Orlando and his companions have adventures in exotic places with supernatural beings yet still have strong human emotions. Absolutely in tune with the baroque fascination for drama spiced with florid fantasy. Perfect for the then "new" art form that was opera. The creative possibilities weren't lost on composers who could combine the adventures with opportunities for glorious musical elaboration.

Ensemble Matheus, its soloists and conductor Jean-Christophe Spinosi demonstrated why Orlando furioso is as vivid now as it was in the past. It was so inherently dramatic that you were caught up in its vivacious spirit: no real need to follow subtitles to get meaning. In any case, the plot is less important than the characters. Baroque audiences knew the basic story. What they came to see was how the music and singers would express it in their own way.

In this genre, everything hangs on role and interpretation. Marie-Nicole Lemieux is an ideal Orlando. She embodies the part making it come alive with depth and emotional veracity. She sings like a true hero - rich, dark and resonant, yet agile and energetic. She leaps through the elaborate ornamentations with complete ease. Just as Orlando breaks through his restraints, Lemieux's voice bursts forth free and clear. She makes Orlando's mad scene a tour de force, whipping each repetition with precision, so it feels taut and muscular. Defeated our hero may be, but Lemieux reminds us who he is and that he won't be beaten down forever. Lemieux is highly polished, but also wholly natural.  Her Orlando starts off as a fairly repressed soldier, enchained, so to speak, in his armour and helmet. By the end, through the agonies of love and loss, he's reaching deeper levels of his nature. Lemieux is so expressive that you realize that Orlando's chainmail is a kind of emotional prison, keeping him in as well as keeping out danger.

Lemieux sang Orlando with Spinosi and Ensemble Matheus on the keynote recording with Philippe Jaroussky as Ruggiero. They're a dream pairing, beautifully balanced vocally as well as in character, for Orlando and Ruggiero are two sides of the heroic image. Jaroussky's countertenor is a wonder, so pure and clear yet free from the mannerisms that affect lesser artists. No mistaking that he's male, and in an altogether more exalted firmament than anyone else. For obvious reasions, we don't do castrato these days, but voices like Jaroussky's show there's no need. Nature and Art conspire to produce voices like this, as baroque hyperbole might put it. Jaroussky and Andreas Scholl are both wonderful, but each so original and distinctive, they sound amazing in duet. Here, Jaroussky duets with violin in the gorgeous yet gracious Sol da te mio dolce amore. Later, his show-stopping Sorge 'irato nembo.

Lemieux and Jaroussky are the key parts in this opera, so the fuss made about other ccancellations needs to be put into perspective. Franziska Gottwald, replacing Jennifer Larmore at the last moment as Alcina, hasn't quite the same experience in the role, but sang convincingly. Veronica Cangemi's Angelica was lustrous, the brightness of her timbre matching the pertness in the part. Orlando will offer to do anything for her and she knows it, so she asks him to get her some water that will make them live forever. "Easy!" sings Orlando, not knowing that the water is guarded by a savage monster. So much for love.  There's a surprisingly modern kick in the baroque. All these trills about myrtles and rose blossom are elegant, stylized ornamentation, like the singing, but at its core, the drama is strikingly real.

Ensemble Matheus and Jean-Christophe Spinosi exemplify the modern French approach to the baroque. This performance was dynamic, because it was precise and animated, drawing the connection between opera and dance, which until fairly recently were often combined. No musty preciousness here! As much personality in the playing as in the singing. Drama is built into the music, so stagings don't need to be realistic. When Orlando gestures violently, Lemieux moves threateningly at Spinosi who responds. Earlier, he'd grabbed a violin and played, further integrating the music into the mise-en-scène. True to the spirit of whimsy, so dear to baroque aesthetics.

The Barbican's Orlando series began in December with Handel's Alcina. Read about that HERE and HERE. (Minkowski and Les musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble, with some of the same singers as we heard tonight) , It continues with Handel Ariodante on 25th May with DiDonato, Gauvin, Phan, Lemieux, and others (Il complesso barocco/Curtis). And don't forget, Thomas Hengelbrock (Niobe) returns to London with Ensemble Balthasar Neumann in Mozart Idomeneo in June. (Davislim, Tilling, Daletska, Antonnaci). Brilliant series, a great triumph for the Barbican.  Here is a link to Robert Hugill's review in Opera Today.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Robert Hugill When a Man Knows

"A man is tied up in a deserted warehouse.
Why is he there? The shocking truth is revealed."
When a Man Knows - intriguing title for Robert Hugill's chamber opera on 31/3, 1/4 and 2/4 at the Bridewell Theatre, off Fleet Street. HERE is my review of the performance.

Dario Dugandzic is the man and Zoe South the woman. The opera's based on a play by Alan Richardson. "I started", says the composer, "by imagining the opening with just a solo cello playing, appearing out of the darkness. Instead of an overture, there developed a prelude whose abstract quality I rather liked."
"The chamber nature of the piece meant that it would be an entirely practical proposition for me to arrange a performance. I continued to worry about the length and other drawbacks, but the idea stuck in my mind. I started drafting ideas and came up with a novel solution to the problem of it being a two-hander. The original play on which the opera is based includes copious stage directions; this is particularly important at the opening, before either protagonist speaks. By setting some of these, I was able to introduce additional voices, to give the soprano and baritone a rest and the piece would work quite well in concert. If the chorus described the action then the audience would miss the staging less. Also, the rather abstract nature of the opening rather appealed to me."

"I had to do some pretty radical surgery on the play in order to reduce it to a settable length, but this is always inevitable when turning a play into an opera. In fact it is something of a good thing. At a recent performance of George Benjamin's opera *Into the little hill*, the librettist wrote in the programme that an opera libretto should always read as if there is something missing; which there is of course, the music. A libretto should not be complete in itself, but leave space for
the music."

"The libretto was constructed around set arias and recitatives, though this scheme dissolved somewhat during the composing. The does opera arias for structure though they can merge into the recitative; the three main dialogues for the man and the woman take their structure from a ground bass. The music is generally tonal, though one of the woman's final arias uses a tone row. In style, recurring short motifs tend to predominate over long breathed melodies."

Robert Hugill's When a Man Knows is conducted by David Roblou (Midsummer Opera) and directed by bass baritone Ian Caddy. Booking details HERE Support independent companies and new creative work !!!! Robert Hugill is a very experienced composer, and his Testament of Dr Cranmer is available on CD thru Divine Art. Read more about him HERE Lots of sound samples !

Friday, 25 March 2011

Monteverdi Return of Ulysses ENO Young Vic

Monteverdi meets Reservoir Dogs! The ENO  Return of Ulysses  (Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria) at the Young Vic hits you in the face. Blood-splattered bodies, but it's all there in the libretto.  Full frontal nudity, oral sex, not quite 17th century style, but perfectly in keeping with the psychic mayhem in the opera. This is great theatre and will be a hit among the theatre crowd. Thank goodness! Another nail in the coffin to the notion that universal drama can't be updated. Monteverdi himself wasn't doing authentic Greek tragedy.

Because the Young Vic is an amazing performance space, anything feels direct and involving. It's only when the initial wow factor wears off that flaws are revealed. But first the positives. Börkur Jónsson's set is superb. All glass, everything exposed, so even when singers sit on the toilet, there's nowhere to hide. Fate will get you, there's no escape. This designer-palace looks like a kitchen showroom, too perfect to be real. Which is the drama again. And because it moves, scene changes move quickly, which keeps up the dramatic pace.

Striking set, but rather less striking direction. With a cast as large as this, Benedict Andrews has his work cut out. His solution is to have everyone doing something all the time, like Ericlea (Diana Montague) frying eggs which get thrown against walls, or Iro (Brian Galliford) in a clown mask slobbing in front of a TV. The giant film screens don't help much except fill the high empty space at the Young Vic. Maybe the idea is to make the opera feel like cinema, where many threads unfold at the same time. Maybe Andrews wants a cumulative effect of mindless, repetitive banality, against which the basic drama unfolds, but it's distracting. It's great to see Tom Randle's assets (hinted at in the text) but why does Minerva (Ruby Hughes) cover herself in flour? And why are things thrown at the walls and cleaned? I suspect there's a reason, but it's secondary to the main course. The kitchen simile can be taken too far.

Tom Randle has presence, whatever he does, so his Ulisse vibrates heroic intensity, giving depth to the stylization inherent in Greek myth and in baroque opera. Pamela Helen Stephen adds something to Penelope, too. Her faithfulness seems more like frigidity. Pity Randle and Stephen together look like Obama and Palin (thank goodness no glasses). Katherine Manley's sex mad maid Melanto is well sung and characterized, so she's a good foil to Penelope's hang-ups, Thomas Hobbs's Telemaco played straight but very well sung. Because the performance is in English, you don't miss the exqusite vocal decorations a true baroque performance needs. No discredit to the cast, some of whom, like Iestyn Morris, cannot suppress their singerly souls (good for him!). Here, the emphasis is primarily on singers as actors not the other way round.

Occasionally, a glimpse of what might have been. When Randle and Eumete (Nigel Robson) sing together, their voices are garlanded by the otherworldly sounds of the lirione, played by Erin Headley, who pioneered the instrument's revival and is its greatest exponent.

The lirione is a kind of large viol, with extra strings, so it can produce amazingly rich, wailing chords extending the singing expressively. Authentic Monteverdi continuo. Opportunities to hear period chamber performance aren't common, so it was a great pity that the orchestra was pretty much sidelined. Period instruments are beautiful to look at as well as to hear - that's why they're ornamented. Here, we had not only the lirione but also baroque guitar (one of the theorbo players doubling),and a flûte à bec (period recorder) (Rebecca Miles). Gutsy, energetic battaglias for the fight scenes, in the earthy way period instruments evoke. Jonathan Cohen conducted members of the ENO Orchestra from the harpsichord.

But did the Young Vic audience even notice? With all the emphasis on stage drama, what about the drama inherent in the music? This music is a whole lot more than soundtrack. Because the staging is modern, there's no reason why authentic period playing can't be incorporated into a modern production. Indeed, I'd suggest the mores of baroque playing add to the sense of dislocation that is central to Ulysses's dilemma. He's a relic from the past returned to a stange new world.  I'm the last person in the world to knock modern staging (I even "got" the ENO Lucrezia Borgia) but in this production, musical values were pretty much ignored as irrelevant. Busy staging is always popular because it gives the audience lots to look at rather than to think or listen. This Return of Ulysses will be a big hit because it's strong on theatre (and movie) values. But fundamentally, it really isn't any different from the many other ENO stagings made by people who don't understand music. This isn't a mentally taxing production, and makes a great show on its own terms.

Photos credit Johan Persson, ENO.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Edinburgh Festival 2011 "turning Japanese"

Will the Edinburgh Festival outshine the BBC Proms this year? Serious competition, even though lots of Edinburgh will be broadcast by BBC Radio 3 so no-one need miss out.

Big international bands! Kent Nagano conducts the lively Orchestre symphonique de Montréal in two very interesting programmes. Jonathan Nott conducts the unique Bamberg Orchestra, and Charles Dutoit conducts the Philadeplhia Orchestra in two relatively straightforward programmes. Myung-whun Chung brings the Soeul Philharmonic for their Edinburgh debut. In Korea, they take western classical music extremely seriously, so expect world class standards. The Philharmonia London (Salonen), The BBC Scottish Orchestra (Runnicles, Volkov), The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (Jurowski), the superlative Scottish Chamber Orchestra (Volkov, Ticciati, Norrington) lead the local contingent. In football this would be pretty close to Premier League (Premier League being Berlin, Lucerne and Vienna).

Then look at the repertoire! Big starter is Schumann Das Paradies und die Peri with Roger Norrington who brought the piece back into the repertoire. The first time I heard him conduct it (1998) he had to explain it to the sudience, it was so "new". It will be wonderful to hear what he does with it after all these years  Nagano's programmes are adventurous - Takemitsu and Unsuk Chin and Waltraud Meier no less, singing Mahler. Myung-whun Chung is conducting Messiaen, in which he's a force of nature.

Edinburgh are using the image of a green chrysanthemum (one of my favourite flowers) to emphasize that there'll be lots of non-western music in the 2011 Festival. Takemitsu, Hosokawa, Dai Fujikura, Unsuk Chin, all leading lights of modern music who happen to be Japanese or Korean. Even the Arditti Quartet is in on the act, though they've been playing these composers long before anyone else.  Chinese musicians too, like Yundi Li, much underrated because Lang Lang grabs the limelight, and Xuefei Yang, the guitarist, and the T'ang Quartet. Note they're all playing modern works, not traditional folk music. Modern East Asian music has a tradition completely of its own, which exists in parallel with a resurgence in traditional forms.

Asia is so huge that it really can't be spoken of as one unit, anymore than you might link the Lapps of Finland to the musicians of the Cape Verde Islands. But it's time we recognised the confluence of western and non-western music. Messaien, Debussy, Ravel, all influenced by non-western worlds. Hence the Jogyakarta Gamelan Orchestra. Gamelan captivated  audiences at the 1870 World's Fair in Paris. It's influence is huge - Debussy, Messiaen, Bartok, Colin McPhee, etc.  We wouldn't have nearly as much music for percussion without gamelan. Colonialism should be as dead in music as it is in politics (where unfortunately it still exists).

Impressive opera at Edinburgh this year too, and international, too. Jont productions are a good thing as they spread costs and make adventurous fare economically feasible., From Flanders comes the Vlaamse Opera with Rossini Semiramide,. René Jacobs conducts the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra in Haydn's Orlando Paladino (look at the singers!). Sir Andrew Davis conducts the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in Massenet's Thaïs. Again western fascination with non western themes, going a long way back. The "Chinese" opera here is a modern hybrid, a reworking of Hamlet, The Prince of Zhi Dan. It's by the Shanghai Beijing Opera Troupe. Beijing and Shanghai opera are quite different so I think this must just be Beijing opera done in Shanghai. Might be interesting, though there is a major traditional kunqu (southern, lyrical) opera Jade Hairpin in Amsterdam in June.

Even more interesting might be King Lear adapted, directed and performed by Wu Hsing-kuo and the Contemporary Legend Theatre. "Delivering a one man tour de force, Wu Hsing-kuo simultaneously depicts multiple characters, from the maniacal Lear and his ally Gloucester, to his evil, grasping daughters and the pitiful, lonely Fool. Further pushing the boundaries of traditional theatrical convention, he also appears as himself, exploring his own identity as an actor in relation to the fictional characters he portrays." goes the blurb. This sounds good as Wu is approaching the universal theme with fresh ideas, rather than doing a pastiche. Could well be the sleeper hit of the whole Festival. HERE is a linik to his 2007 performance of Lear in New York.

Lots of good recitals - Matila, Kozena, Damrau, Keenlyside, Kirchschlager etc most of which we can hear in London at the Wigmore Hall anytime. More of a surprise might be Julian Prégardien, son of Christoph. They're doing a two tenor, father and son recital, which should be interesting. Luckily, that is being broadcast so we won't miss out.

What will the BBC Proms 2011 have to offer? Hold your breath a little longer....

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Die Drei Pintos Weber Mahler UCL Opera

Ever enterprising UCL Opera presents Weber and Mahler Die Drei Pintos (The Three Pintos) at the Bloomsbury Theatre, London.  It's not obscure, and nowadays anything with Mahler's name tagged on it gets maximum attention.

But it's also an important part of the Weber legacy. It's classic faked identity farce. Clarissa, an heiress, has been pledged by her father to marry a man called Pinto whom none of them have ever seen. Pinto's father saved Clarissa's father in a war, so that's quite enough. Pinto no 1 knows a bit about bloodstock breeding, but nothing else. So Pinto No 2 thinks that reason enough for stealing the bride and her money. Meanwhile the heiress is in love with another man, whom Pinto 2 persuades to pose as Pinto 3 and fool the bride's father. Love will out! What is different from the usual happily ever after is that Pinto 1, through no real fault of his own, gets trounced.

It's very much a period piece, connected to Weber's other work. It's set in Spain because the idea of arranged marriage between grandees wouldn't work so well in a German context, though of course such things happened. Besides, audiences of the time liked exotic settings - think Goethe. Or even closer, Weber's delightful comic opera, Abu Hassan, certainly not "obscure" if Schwarzkopf and Schreier enjoyed singing it (though not together).

The Mahler connection comes in because the Weber family asked him to complete the manuscript. Mahler cobbled together bits of incomplete Weber material, and wound in familiar themes (hear the witty snip from Der Freischütz) Although Die Drei Pintos is not a million years from the folk humour of Des Knaben Wunderhorn, Mahler's priority was Weber. Die Drei Pintos is pertinent to Mahler's evolution as a composer. By 1886, he'd already completed his First Symphony, Das Klagende Lied and Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, so already he was established on a distinctive path of his own. The Mahlerian aspects of this opera come through strongest in the orchestrations, especially in the Entre'acte where he's using textures and instrumental colouring from his own time, not Weber's, but in those days people din't have recordings to compare with and weren't bothered about authenticity.

Although some of Weber's other works, like Euryanthe, are notoriously difficult to stage (ROH had a stab at that 10 years ago), Die Drei Pintos is relatively straightforward. No dragons, no Wolf's Glen, no supernatural spirits. At UCL, directed by John Ramster with designs by Adrian Linford, the staging is ultra bright and colourful. Minor concessions to Spain, like corny Spanish accents which thankfully aren't consistent, but the opera really isn't "about" Spain. But Pinto 2 (Don Gaston, Robin Bailey) has just graduated and celebrates in a bar. The universal student.  In comes ultra yokel Don Pinto (Nick Goodman) and Don Gaston sees a chance to get rick quick.

Fabulously camp and funny scenes where Ambrosio, Don Gaston's sidekick (Edward Davison) teaches Don Pinto how to chase women. Because this production is cheeky and cheerful, it can do innuendos Weber and Mahler would never have dared. Fart jokes, even, and High Camp. The mainly student audience loved it, and rightly so. At Wexford, I think the production was set in the 1930's grimly austere. Maybe the comedy bounced off well - certainly the heavy footfalls in the recording I have (not the one on Naxos) would suggest vigorous romps. The UCL production goes straight for farce, bright costumes, kitsch gypsies, and Clarissa the heiress (Lara Martins) a Schiapirelli pink minidress like Christina Onassis.

I much prefered the verve of this production to last year's unimaginative Genoveva. Somebody's thought about what Die Drei Pintos means!  And it's perfect for the audience and circumstances. Bodes well for the future, as most of the UCL crowd are generalists, not drama or music specalists. This is the crowd to convert if you want to fill houses in 10 or 15 years time.

Good performances by the principals, special mention of Lara Martins and Larissa Blackshaw with amazingly long legs. She used to be a ballerina and is a naturally gifted actress. She can sing expressively, too. Striking stage presence, aided by peacock blue outfit ( Libby Blogg/Michelle Bradbury). Hope she gets to keep the dress.

From where I was sitting, the orchestra was a bit rough on the ears, but played with gusto as student orchestras should.

Maybe one day UCL should do Hugo Wolf's Der Corregidor.  Although there is a loose Mahler connection, Wolf got his ideas from that other great German exoticist Paul Heyse. Although Der Corregidor has problems, it's based on vignettes from Wolf's Spanish Liederbook which is brilliant.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Weimar Berlin meets 30's Britain BCMG

Weimar Berlin meets 30's Britain on 21st May in Birmingham. Premieres of Dominic Muldowney's songs to poems by Betjeman, Auden and Edward Thomas, mixed with political cabaret from Spoliansky, Wolpe and Eisler - not the same old Brecht/Weill classics! Into the mix, pieces by John Woolrich and Colin Matthews. See the whole programme and book at the BCMG site.

Monday, 21 March 2011

"Inside Song" conference, London

"What do we do when we perform song live in concert? Is good art song performance really good poetry performance? What is "liveness" and what role might it play in facilitating performer creativity in concert? What is the performativity of poetry, and what is its impact (if any) on what art song performers can (and cannot) do creatively in concert? What can art song performers learn from professional actors, and poets?"

Not my words, but from an invitation to a "strongly cross-disciplinary, performance-led research event", held under the auspices of the SongArt Performance Research Group, a newly formed research arm of the Institute of Musical Research. (who did the Ferneyhough conference)

For more details, see their site The focus is on Lieder and art song, with emphasis on performance values. Very good speakers - Amanda Glauert, Kathryn Whitney and Sholto Kynoch

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Takemitsu Requiem Black Rain (Kuroi Ame)

Toru Takemitsu's Requiem for Strings (1957) was performed twice this month. On 4th March, Kazuki Yamada conducted it in his debut with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. On 11th March, the earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima disaster struck. Then a week later, the New York Philharmonic. Perhaps now Takemitsu's Requiem will get to take its place as core repertoire. It was written after the death of Fumio Hayasaka, the composer whose music is heard in the films of Mizoguchi and Kurosawa. In Japan, movies were seen as an art form almost from the beginning. Takemitsu himself was a keen film fan and wrote numerous movie scores. In the west, there's more division between genres, and more snobbery, but for men like Takemitsu, if a movie had artistic merit, it was an appropriate use of serious music. So it's fitting that Takemitsu's Requiem underpins Shohei Imamura's Black Rain (Kuroi Ame, 1989), made two years after Takemitsu's death. Full symmetry.

The film Black Rain is based on a 1955 novel by Masuji Ibuse (1898-1993), who grew up in the countryside around Hiroshima. Ibuse was with the Japanese Army in South East Asia. When the Bomb fell on Hiroshima, he was in a neighbouring village and witnessed the after effects at first hand.

It's 6th August 1945, Yasuko Shizuma is at her uncle's house near Hiroshima, where she's been evacuated to escape the fire bombing of Tokyo. Uncle Shigematsu's at work in the city. Suddenly a blinding flash, then darkness. Horrific scenes in the city. A short grotesque creature goes up to a man and cried "Brother! It's me" but the man can't recognize who it is under the burns. Only when he sees the child's school belt buckle burned into his skin does he realize the monstrosity is his little brother, covered in scars. There are real life photos of wounds like that. Be glad this is only a movie.

As Yasuko and her aunt escape in a boat, black rain falls on them. No-one knows what's happening.  Yasuko and her aunt don't seem injured.  Five year later, Yasuko has grown up in the idyllic farming village by the coast, where they still grow rice in the fields and catch carp in the river. But something's wrong. People are dying gruesome deaths, from cancer and from radiation poisoning. Because Yasuko's so pretty, she gets many marriage proposals but they fall through when people discover where she was when the Black Rain fell.

Jilted time after time, Yasuko makes friends with Yuichi, an ex-soldier with PTSD who attacks cars and bikes because he think's they're enemy tanks. He spends his time carving stone jizu (Buddhas) which Yasuko loves. One day Yuichi's mother comes and asks if Yuichi can marry Yasuko. Uncle Shigematsu's shocked as there's a huge social gulf between them and Yuichi's clearly insane. But Yasuko walks in and says that it's what she wants because with Yuichi she doesn't feel alien.

Uncle and aunt are falling ill. Somene's been eating aloe leaves in the garden (reputed to cure radiation sickness). Uncle thinks it's his wife. She, however, worries about Yasuko who seems perfectly healthy. One day she spots Yasuko undressing. There are weals on her skin and her hair is falling out. Shigematsu takes Yasuko to the river to catch carp. They spot the "King of the Carp" more than a metre long, leaping out of the water, strong and healthy. "I've never seen him before, in all these years!" gasps Shigematsu, hoping it's an omen. Soon Yasuko's so sick, she's taken away to hospital. Shigematsu says "If there is a mutli coloured rainbow, she'll come back." But you can see from his eyes he knows it won't happen.

There isn't a real soundtrack in Black Rain. Mostly it's just conversation, sound effects and silence, without distraction. This ma the movie feel intimate, enclosed, enhancing the sense of tense secrecy. Takemitsu's Requiem pops up in small snatches at key moments, such as when the aunt realizes Yasuko isn't well. At the end, when Uncle Shigematsu's eyes follow the ambulance down the valley and survey the hills and fields around him, the Requiem wells up, austere and moving, yet at one with the scene around him.The movie itself is beautifully shot - long, loving panoramas of rice fields, traditional farm houses and close-ups of leaves seen through sunlight. Excellent, sensitive acting and direction. I think I read the book when I was an undergraduate, because I remember how poetic the author's descriptions were.

Takemitsu's Requiem wasn't written about Hiroshima or the Bomb, but the war experience scarred the Japanese people as well as the countries they occupied.
Sometimes art helps people to cope with trauma - Yukio and his bizarre granite Buddhas, for example. It's also important to remember that Japan was itself occupied by the Americans until 1952 and hard news about the Bomb was suppressed. Please read about Masako Ohki's Hiroshima Symphony, written at a time just like that pictured in the film. There's a whole raft of creative responses to the period, which will be worth studying. For western people, it's almsot a blank page, but perrhaps Japanese musicians and writers can fill us in.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Berg Lyric Suite decrypted - Audi, Amsterdam Sinfonietta Barbican

This wasn't just another concert. It was Liebestod, a truly unique exploration of Berg's Lyric Suite. Berg's piece is a compelling work, whose mysteries were only revealed about twenty years ago when the composer's letters to his lover Hanna Fuchs-Robettin were released. Both were married, and the relationship was fraught with secrecy. Berg's letters are so expressive that they lend themselves well to staging. Hence Liebestod, created as a Gesammstkunstwerk in its own right by Pierre Audi and Janine Brogt for the Amsterdam Sinfonietta and ECHO, the European Concert Hall Organization.

Berg was obsessed by cryptic messages, numerology and ritual patterns. Cross-references are planted everywhere as clues, both musical and literary. Audi's Liebestod is a surprisingly effective navigation aid through Berg's psyche. It looks backward to Berg's formative influences, and forwards, towards a new synthesis betwen music and abstract film in Michael Van de Aa's Up-close (2010)

Berg saw parallels between his love for Hanna and Wagner's relationship with Mathilde Wesendonck and Wagner's creative sublimation through Tristan und Isolde. Doomed love, redeemed only through death or art. Berg is so specific that he uses the Tristan chord in the Lyric Suite as a deliberate hint at its deepest meaning. Audi doesn't simply preface the Prelude from Tristan und Isolde but uses an arrangement for an all-strings chamber orchestra (Adrian Williams). The music's familiar, but heard in a new way. Textures are starker than in full orchestration but this sharpens the sense of strangeness. The ensemble churns, adrift of its orchestral bearings, but that expresses the sense of psychic dislocation which connects to Berg's other music, like Wozzeck and Lulu.Now you can really hear the first violin (Candida Thompson) calling out to the first viola. When the Tristan chord appears, it seems distorted as if heard in a dream. Yet the relationship in the notes is the same, it's the instrument that's changed. We're in Berg territory as much as in Wagner.

The actor Jeroen Willems emerges on stage as the last notes of the Prelude fade into the beginning of the Lyric Suite. He hums the music, making the connection seamless. He holds a wine glass, a reference perhaps to Berg's song cycle Der Wein and also the "Wine of the Solitary" Berg reads of in Baudelaire. He quotes Berg directly. "Have you noticed that our initials intertwined are also the first and last notes of the Tristan theme? Hanna Fuchs and Alban Berg, HFAB...B-F-A-B flat." Then you hear the viola play it and the meaning is painfully clear.

Again, it's the Lyric Suite but not quite as we're used to. This time, instead of four instruments, it's arranged for larger forces (partly by Berg himself in 1928, the rest by Theo Verbey in 2005). This balances the intensity of the spoken passages and emphasizes the extreme "madness" Berg speaks of. Words and music intertwine, too, though the music isn't as abstract as might seem. "Darling Dodo is there in the pulsating C-C of the viola, Munzo in a motif with a Slav tinge...". You could read Berg's letters and listen to an ordinary performance, but in Audi's Liebestod the effect is dramatically vivid.

The extracts are also extremely well chosen and presented with musical insight. It covers Berg's fascination with numbers and secret portents, the course of the affair, and the significance of the quotation from Zemlinsky's Lyric Symphony. Publicly, Berg dedicated the Lyric Suite to Zemlinsky, but privately he made it clear that the real dedicatee was his "Distant Beloved" (yet another cross-reference). Then, when you hear the quotation in the Adagio appassionato in movement 4, it's strikingly poignant. "Du bist mein Eigen", unspoken and unstated.

"But you must understand that this music is in a ceaseless process of becoming, never 'is'", writes Berg. Just as Berg absorbs Wagner and creates something of his own, so his music inspires others. Michael van der Aa's Up-close experiments with images of mirrors, distorted and converse. The soloist, Sol Gabetta, plays her cello yet also interacts with the actress in the film. The actress, Vakil Eelman, looks like Gabetta from behind, but when she turns round, her face is haggard and etched. It feels like she's carrying the "madness" of ages, which Berg spoke of. Van de Aa's music murmurs and wails, like the forest Eelman is seen wandering through. A modern day Ewartung? Eelman copies what looks like a periodic table, and operates a strange machine whose purpose is unclear. A symbol not so much of mad science but the kind of emotional alchemy obsessives like Berg adopt to order their lives.

As stand alone music Up-close would work quite well. It's more coherent than After Life last year at the Barbican, But hearing it outside the context of Audi's Liebestod has a purpose. What Van der Aa is doing is integrating music and visual images in a deliberately provocative way. Music is supposedly "abstract", but as Berg has made clear, worlds of allusion and meaning can be embedded within. Film is usually more explict, but Van der Aa's film is non-explicit, in the way dreams are. Clues eveywhere as to meaning, but deliberately no answers. You're thrown back, once again, to the Lyric Suite and to Berg's mysterious conundrums. You're disoriented, because you've lost your bearings. And you're back to the beginning of Liebestod too, adrift on an ocean of strange emotions, and back to the spirit of Berg's music.

PLEASE go to Bachtrack for a formal version of this review. Bachtrack is a wonderfully useful interactive source of performances live and in the cinema, in the the UK, in Europe and the US.

John Steane 1928-2011

John Barry Steane died Thursday, aged 83. His books are such classics that I'd imagined he was some unapproachable Parnassian figure. Yet the warmth of his personality came through even in his writing. He was formidably erudite, yet not stuffy. Underpinning his encyclopaedic knowledge was genuine wisdom and an open heart.  Significantly, he didn't set out to be a music writer until he was mature and fulfilled himself in  many ways. Now he's gone it feels like the end of an era.
Here's the fullest tribute of all - Barry Millington.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Kaspar Holten to succeed Elaine Padmore

News just in. Kaspar Holten has been appointed Director of Opera at the Royal Opera House, London,  to suceed Elaine Padmore when she leaves at the end of the 2010/11 season.

Holten, 37, has been Artistic Director at the Royal Copenhafgen Opera since 2000. He was behind the Copenhagen Ring (2003-6) released on DVD to great acclaim in 2008. He's created more than 60 productions worldwide. He's also interested in opera on film. He's made Juan, a modern take on Don Giovanni which will be released later this year. Features Christopher Maltman stark naked ! Let's get that at ROH

In the announcement, Tony Hall, Chief Executive of the Royal Opera House, said: "I am thrilled that Kasper Holten is to join the senior management team.  He has done some fantastic and innovative work as a stage director and at the same time he has confirmed the Royal Danish Opera's status as a major player in the international opera world."  

Holten officially arrives in September, but since lead times for opera seasons are long, he already has interesting plans.  He says  "I had promised myself to focus more on my artistic work when my contract in Copenhagen expires this summer after 11 exciting years. But if there is one job in the world that I cannot resist, it is this one. To work with Antonio Pappano, Tony Hall and Peter Katona in what I regard as the leading opera house of the world is an incredible opportunity for me".
And here's Rupert Christiansen in the Telegraph. 
photo : Miklos Szabo

Frocky Horror Show

Tony Palmer's Parsifal on TV last night was a Blast From the Past as they say on pop radio. Supposedly made in 1998 but more like a time capsule from the 70's, The Decade That Taste Forgot. It's not really a documentrary about Parsifal but a random stringing together of clips from various movies, pop shows, news items, etc, thrown together in a self consciously "groovy" way. It's even more shallow than those Bad Taste LP covers that make you howl. This isn't film making, it's schoolboy crib minus a point of view.

Palmer lucks out when he finds good talking heads, like the Orff wives or Ursula Vaughan Williams, who was a masterpiece in her own right. No-one could talk about RVW's sex life better than she and she did it with such wit that it enhanced the image of the man. In Parsifal, Palmer could get no-one but David Gutman and Karen Armstrong, who used to be a nun and became a very minor celeb talking about religion to people who aren't actually interested in the subject.

The real Mystery of this Parsifal is how Palmer got the Holy Grail that is Plácido Domingo. Perhaps Domingo thought he was making a legit opera film. He's a great communicator and knows what he's talking about. It's a tragedy that the film he could have made wasn't made. On the other hand, the production that's featured in this film is so corny, it's embarrassing.

Instead we have a coy Dance of the Seven Veils with bits of Raiders of the Lost Ark and obligatory Nazi footage to disguise the fact there's nothing on underneath. There's so much to think about in Parsifal and what Wagner might be getting at. But don't look for it in this film. It's so superficial and self indulgent that it makes Stephen Fry seem coherent in comparion. And using images of war and the dead exploits suffering for cheap thrills. It's simply not acceptable.

Before the RVW film was released, Palmer claimed to have been rejected by the BBC on the grounds that "Mr Williams" didn't merit coverage. Big fuss! Then it turned out that Palmer himself had concocted the fake message to get sympathy. Such immaturity. But anyone who sees this film won't be surprised.  On the other hand, maybe this film is another infantile publicity stunt that promotes nothing but Palmer's ego.  Don't be fooled. Please read what Mark Berry at Boulezian said about the screening last year.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Messiaen Et Exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum Rattle Japan

Six Chernobyls at Fukushima? Worst nightmare scenario. We're all involved, not just those in Japan even if we're not affected because we are all human beings. Those helicopter pilots risking their lives to stop meltdown. Like in the movies only real. And their courage may be in vain.

Because Olivier Messiaen's Et exspecto resurrection mortuorum is about the End of the World, it's scary to listen to at this fragile time. But maybe this is, after all, the time to listen to what it really means. There is a deliberate Japanese connection, since Messiaen visited and loved Japan.  He is emphasizing universal spiritual values which apply to all, Christian or not.

Note the orchestration. No strings! The Quartet for the End of Time can be heard as a prototype. Twenty years later, and after nuclear war became a reality, Messiaen goes for maximium power. Massed percussion forms the bedrock of Et exspecto, for it represents the earth itself, ripped asunder by the Apocalypse. Specifically Messiaen uses six giant Asian gongs, more powerful than tam tams. Gongs call the faithful to order. Ritual progression is very much part of this music's structure, so gongs mark stages in its raga-like plateaux. Metallic percussion, too, rather than timpani, for dissonance. Pitched cowbells, and a gigantic set of tubular bells which ring out like an organ, the composer's personal instrument. Against the percussion,woodwinds create birdsong or the sound of wings in flight. Brasses range from small D trumpet to Wagnerian tuba. What would the Final Judgement be without trumpets?  Messiaen wants strident, not resonant.This work is, after all, about waking the dead.

The ritual character of Et exspecto is underlined by quotations from different parts of the Bible. It's a Via Crucis which unfolds in stages. First: "From the deepest abyss I cry, Lord hear me!", which is what Jesus is supposed to have called out in his time of agony. Massive dark chords like tectonic plates, shifting inexorably. The brass like the rumbling of some deep fissure, which explodes into wild, screaming chords and ends in a single, piercing shriek. Hearing this after Sendai is painful. Then silence, extremely important as it marks an invisible, inaudible transit.

In the second section, a moment of calm reassurance, for Christ has risen from the dead. Diaphanous textures, which grow into quirky, jerky angles. The movement of birds, intuitively darting in crazy angles so they can't be caught. As Messiaen the ornithologist would have understood. Birds are fragile, but they evolved from dinosaurs, and survived. Even greater stillness marks the beginning of the third section, but now the tubular bells toll, calling like the bells in a church. The woodwinds describe an even more powerful bird theme - a bird from the Amazon jungle, apparently, which has existed outside civilization. Messiaen is referring to creation itself, connecting the Beginning and End of Time. In Christian belief, an Angel blows a trumpet and graves open. Hence the darkening "earthquake fissure" theme.

Wild,  jerky figures associated with the "birds" start the fourth section, which soon  the percussion explodes. When these gongs crash,  it feels like blinding light, a shocking, flashing thunderbolt in sound. At this moment, I can't help but think of the cataclysmic light of a nuclear explosion. Ironically, it's the Resurrection, start of a new era.

The final movement almost defies description. Powerful ostinato, gongs and blocked percussion, repeated over and over, driving the point in so there's no mistaking its force. Gradually the music turns, like a juggernaut. The image of an eternal wheel, perhaps propelling the music ever forward. Messiaen uses the quotation "And I heard the voice of an immense crowd". It's an immense crowd becauase all who have died in the past have been raised from death and suffering. (That's assuming God doesn't discriminate between faiths). That's why the whole orchestra marches forth in unison. Gradually the pace builds up to an overwhelming climax. It's not a march in conventional symphonic terms but owes its structure, perhaps, to Japanese gagaku, which inspired Messiaen's ground-breaking Sept Haïkaï, written in 1962, soon after Messaien returned from Japan, and two years before Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum.

In Sept Haïkaï,  the image is a “floating gate”, the torii at the Miyajima shrine in Japan. The red arches stand alone in the sea, as if suspended between earth and sky. It is a gate, but to what? The arches stand amid a panoramic open  landscape. As the weather changes, as time changes, the surroundings change dramatically. Photo by H Orihashi. Read more about Sept Haïkaï HERE.

Every time we listen to a piece of music, we're influenced by what's in our lives at the time. All performances are different and most have some insight to offer. I don't think at the moment I could have coped with Myung-Whun Chung's geological version at the Proms in 2008, it's just too graphic. There's a very good Simon Rattle performance available on BBC Radio 3 at the moment, recorded at his recent concert at the Barbican with the LSO. With the Berliner Philharmoniker in Berlin recently he did a marvellously vigorous Mahler 3, which really brought out the mountains and what they mean,, so he could perhaps do Et Exspecto with a similar granitey monumentalism. But I'm glad that he took a more esoteric approach this time, which connects better to the spiritual meaning of the piece. For sure, the spiritual message meant much more to Messaien than the graphics. The all-time best recording remains Pierre Boulez - unsurpassed for its balance of grace and intensity.

For Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum means "In expectation of the resurrection of the dead". It's not meant to be oppressive or gloomy. It was commissioned as a memorial to the French war dead, but Messiaen was  having no truck with militarism or even national glory. Instead he comes up with something so unique and so universal he wanted it performed in the Alps,. So if the Christian form of this piece bothers you, remember that for Messaien, God resided in Nature, and mountains were Nature's cathedrals. So Rattle's Et Exspecto comes at just the right moment, when we need to think about the unprecedented series of disasters facing the people of Japan. While foreigners scramble to leave, a million ordinary Japanese are still out there in the open, without food, water or shelter. They've already lost everything and can't escape.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

OperaUpClose TOO close ?

OperaUpClose productions have been so successful that the company won an award at the Olivier Awards last weekend. Now a darker side to the story  has officially come into the open.  Read this report that's just surfaced on the BBC.  The company claims they told singers the jobs were voluntary so they would not get paid. This needs to be properly established as a matter of principle.

The company says  this proves why they need public funding. Yet any company, no matter how small, needs to operate on a sound business model. OperaUpClose productions are successful and seats sell well. So there's money there even if it isn't much. Even they admit they're a commercial success.

But any official body would be mad to fund a group that can't be transparent. If public funding goes to anyone, it should go to those who are professional in the way they run their business. There have been rumours for a while, but I don't do gossip. What Equity needs to do is gather the evidence and investigate. Not only La Boheme but other ventures. In these difficult times, singers are pressured into doing things for free, but their dedication isn't something that should be exploited. Singers are also put under pressure not to complain because they won't get the openings. It's a vicious cycle. As cuts hit further other companies might think they can get away with treating singers like fodder. If Equity slips up on this one, things will get worse.

"We've been able to get away with it," says OperaUpClose, because "we are lucky to have such great audiences." But that's not the point. Sure, companies have always exploited singers and actors, but it's still unethical. Public funding? No way.

Yakov Kreizberg

Yakov Kreizberg, the conductor, has died at the age of 51. Since most of his career was outside the UK (although he conducted the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra)  he's not nearly as well known here as his brother Semyon Bychov. Since I don't like obituaries written like they've been cribbed off wikipedia, I've been looking for some that are personal. Thankfully, Stephen Hough has written something moving and sincere. Another worthy memorial is HERE on Evan Dickerson's blog, which always has things no-one else covers, and does it well.

Aida Royal Opera House

Verdi Aida returns to the Royal Opera House. First time round everyone seemed to hate it because there were no elephants. But surely Aida tells the story of oppression? Even the love interest gets crushed, literally.

This time round Fabio Luisis conducts instead of Luisotti, Alagna instead of Álvarez. Borodina, Michael Volle and Brindley Sherratt provide better than average support. I was sorry about Micaela Carosi because she's a genuinely nice person. She didn't project well last time, but she's done the role numerous times and knows it well. Liudmyla Monastyrska's voice I don't know. A stronger cast makes for a better production.

Two thoughtful reviews: Claire Seymour in Opera Today and Edward Seckerson. First time round there was a lot that I liked about McVicar's production. It addresses the drama at the core of the opera. As Seckerson puts it "The cleverest thing about his staging – I cannot for the life of me work out why it was greeted with such derision on its first outing – is that it honours the operatic grandiosity of Verdi’s camply picturesque Egypt but feeds big-time on the pagan rituals and inter-ethnic barbarity."  Empires are theatre. They subjugate their victims by massive displays of power and brutality. Hence the blood and guts and maidens dancing in the gore.

Aida is an opera that needs extremes. I enjoyed the Bregenz Aida because it was so extreme and even set on water. Such chutzpah! Pity the voices were inaudible, but what do you expect from open air?  This opera's very relevant for modern Europe where immigrant underclasses prop up the prosperous.  It's much darker than kitsch and elephants. But the shock and awe factor is essential too. Imagine a really shocking Aida that does both gritty and over the top? But who'd be able to sing over that tumult?
photo : Bill Cooper. Royal Opera House

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Godzilla and the Sendai Tsunami

The Sendai earthquake and tsunami have obliterated  most of the coast of northern Japan. Photos of the disaster liook like Hiroshima and Nagasaki sixty-five years ago.  Ground Zero, all over again. So I felt guilty that I was thinking of Godzilla (Gojira)at a time like this. But one survivor did say, "It's like a horror movie" so maybe I'm not alone. Godzilla films are much deeper than plain schlock.

Godzilla rises from the oceans, part dinosaur, part sea god, leaving a trail of radioactive footprints.  He appears first in an idyllic fishing village - a lot like the Sendai coast -- then marches on to Tokyo which he rips apart with his fiery breath. All the might of the military are tuned on him. Here, he's tearing apart electricity towers. But guns and bombs don't work. Finally, he's killed by a good scientist who sacrifices himself, not to stop Godzilla, but to destroy the dangerous weapon he has invented.The scientist had wanted to save Godzilla to studyhi, but was overruled.

Godzilla is a post-nuclear King Kong, but with far more troubling connotations. The original Godzilla movie (1954) was made less than 10 years after Hiroshima so the implications are obvious. "I don't want it to be like Nagasaki again" says the pretty cub reporter. But it also connects to deep-seated anxieties about military/industrial power. Japan is vulnerable because it has few natural resources other than the drive of its people. By watching these films, audiences could exorcise their fears, rationalizing them in the way nightmares defuse terror. Community spirit is a way in which people can support each other when havoc reigns all round. But the underlying message is clear: don't mess with nature. "I don't think he was the only Gojira" observes the prfessor at the end."As long a man keeps experimenting with weapons, another Gojira will arise, somewhere in the world".

Most people n Japan may live in cramped apartus filled with kitsch, and use metro systems so crammed they have to be pushed on board but the fundamental, ideal aesthetic is harmony. And war is the most obscene distortion of nature. With Fukushima in our minds we should take heed of what Godzilla stands for. He's not a villain. No simple answers. In the film, when Tokyo is destroyed, school girls sing a Hymn of Peace. It's dignified, elegant, an extremely moving expression of hope. At the end, the theme returns as the people salute the scientist who gave his life to protect the community. It's not armies that bring peace, but the altruism of ordinary human beings.

As I was reading up to write this I came across an article in the NY Times on the exact same theme. Read Japan's Long Nuclear Disaster Film by Peter Wynn Kirby who actually lives not far away in Oxford. 

Monday, 14 March 2011

Wagner Das Liebesverbot - full download

While listenng to Walter Braunfels Die Vögel, I decded to look up Richard Wagner's Das Liebesverbot. Hit gold again with Opera Today, where there's a FULL streaming download of Liebesverbot with complete libretto! It's a live performance frrom Manchester in 1976 conducted by Edward Downes. Maybe not an ideal performance but it's not an opera you hear every day. Good for study purposes. For all we know it might surface again soon.

Japan earthquake Sendai tsunami

The scale of disaster in Japan is on such a scale that no-one can help but be moved. Or maybe not. No food, water or blankets in Sendai but the British Ambassador and retinue use precious resources to go there to gladly confirm "No British casualties". As if nationality matters in a horror like this? It was arrogant imperialist attitudes that contributed to the Second World War. And I'm speakng as someone who knows. My uncle and family friends knew Sendai well - as wartime forced labour - but they'd be the first to care about the people caught up in this disaster.

So think of the people of Kandahar in Afghanistan who raised £30,000 in three days "It's not much" said their local mayor, "we are poor, but we want to help". It's the thought that counts. No goverrnment or country can cope with a situation like this way beyond wildest nightmares..At the end of the day it's ordinary individuals who bear the brunt of things. One of the videos showed a pile of hundreds of cars. "A used car yard" said the voice over. Actually, the cars were in the dockyards carpark. That morning their owners left them and went to work. How many are still alive?

What really is amazing is those people. A man goes from room to room begging for news of his wife. He bows in gratitude even though no-one knows. An elderly woman gets pulled out of rubble,  her leg broken, and apologizes for being "work". Another man had a message from his elderly father.  "I'm fine" the old man texted. "It's snowing". But when you're 80 and out in the open, that's no fun. A hundred aftershocks a day, some massive. Is the old man still OK?

There's probably lots of suppressed hysteria, but outward panic only makes things worse in the short term. In some societies, there'd be people running around with guns, looting, stomping on others. In New Zealand, while the family of a woman killed in the rubble wept on primetime TV, someone went and burgled their home. And there are rougher places than NZ.

At last, stories are reaching the media from ordinary people. For me the  most important of all:
Survivors are weary but resolute, and Families bound by hope and despair.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Holland Festival 2011

What happens at the Holland Festival happens for the rest of us. Messaien St Francis of Assisi, and Complicité's A Dog's Heart, and the amazing Janáček From The House of The Dead conducted by Boulez. Amsterdam is where it's at, so pay attention.

This year's big feature is Wolfgang Rihm's new opera Dionysius which premiered July 2010 in Salzburg. "Friedrich Nietzsche’s late cycle of poems Dionysus-Dithyrambs ...... The production shows how the god of intoxication manifests himself in the philosopher, who, ailing from syphilis, has gone mad. His erotic, platonic and traumatic relations with the most important women in his life are given form in music, staging and movement. Pierre Audi asked Jonathan Meese, an artist who has often dealt with Nietzsche in his works, to devise the visual component of the performance. Rihm chose not to use a linear narrative, but opted for the more Dionysian approach: a kaleidoscope of scene". De Nederlandse Opera, so the performances will be good. Photos and details HERE. It runs 8, 12, 16, 19 and 22nd in the Westergasfabriek, literally an old gas container. Let's hope this one comes to London.

Wisely, in Amsterdam they do music in context.  On 4th June, Wolfgang Rihm's Quid est Deus?, "a mysterious cantata" for choir and orchestra. Also, Belgian composer Wim Henderickx's sixth and latest installment of a grand cycle Tantric Circle, dealing with astronomy and metaphysics. Both composers will be on hand to discuss (in English).

The Holland Festival is also doing Mozart The Magic Flute, but with a difference - it's the fabled Peter Brook production, heard in Paris December 2010. There's also a Tchaikovsky Eugene Onegin.  Much more distinctive, though, will be The Jade Hairpin on 11th and 12th June. This really is special. It's kunqu opera, the oldest form of opera in the world, dating from the Ming Dynasty. It's considered the most poetic and refined form of Chinese opera. The Jade Hairpin is one of the great classics of the repertoire, written in the late 16th century, about star crossed lovers.  Sung in Mandarin with Dutch subtitles, but the plot is easy to follow through gestures and costumes. I'll write more about it later, since this is the only site that covers Chinese AND western opera. The production is led by Wei chunrong. Read more about the recent Beijing performance of this opera by this troupe HERE.  

Another  rarity on 13th June : Erik Satie’s Uspud, "a bizarre ‘christian ballet in three acts’, featuring a host of ghostly appearances, like the Church, saints, martyrs, demons and Christ on the cross. The ballet has the crucifixion as its central theme" Being Satie, it's not going to be religious but oddball. Reinbert de Leeuw conducts, always good.     

And if you miss Britten's The Rape of Lucretia at Aldeburgh, you can catch it in Amsterdam on 15th June. Same cast - Ian Bostridge, the most idiomatic of Britten singers, Angelika Kirschlager and Oliver Knussen.  Big series too on Xenakis. with concerts and an exhibition and a focus on the films of Schlingensief.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

The real value of a good music education

What is the real value of music education? Is it to produce robot performers or to produce people who are artists in some less tangible way? Thinking of Orff and Kodaly has made me wonder: why music education, especially in places where there aren't many resources or outlets for formal music making? Being a true artist is more than robot production. A really good basic music education sparks off something deeper in people, so whatever they go on to do in life, it sticks with them in some small way. That's why I think music education is an essential part of the curriculum.

I don't know what system they had in the school I attended.  From kindergarten, we started the day with activity. Moving, clapping, banging triangles and tambourines.  Some of the kids were already getting piano lessons at home, but in school, the emphasis was having fun, not producing music. Mental and emotional stimulation - calisthenics for the soul.

Because this was a good school, there were thousands of applicants for each place. Huge pressure, but pressure can inspire as well as destroy. Everyone knows about the Oxbridge syndrome where students who were top in secondary school suddenly come adrift in a milieu where everyone is mega bright.  Although my school was for the academically gifted, we were instilled from the start with the ethos of "giving". The idea was that the world gave us so much, we would give in return. Lots more fancy terminology possible, but that's what it meant. You are part of society, not out for yourself. So music was part of that process. "Listening to others" as the Orff Schulwerk teacher said.

It used to drive other schools crazy that we won nearly every single prize for singing, reciting and orchestra in every single music festival for more than 60 years. But for us it wasn't competitive, it was fun and emotionally satisfying. "To be the best you can be, whatever you do."

In Chinese society, pressure to strive comes from a historical background. If your children benefit, then suffering can be borne. Even by Chinese standards, Lang Lang was cruelly treated by his father. But he fought back. He's a lot more independent than he gets credit for, which is part of his appeal.  So what if he's not divine musically? He's admired for who he is. I don't have much time for Tiger Mothers who are getting so much attention in the western press, because they operate outside the communal context. It's their spineless husbands who can't stick up for their kids in a different environment.
Pressure does not "have" to be negative and joyless. Enjoy this clip of 10, 11 and 12 year olds doing their best and having tremendous fun. The teacher herself grew up in that system. Once she too was little, banging a triangle and having fun.

Friday, 11 March 2011

O Fortuna ! Carl Orff, conundrum

Everyone knows Carmina Burana, even if they think it's the sound track to TV ads. Ironic then, that Carl Orff should be the subject of O Fortuna, the 2008 documentary by Tony Palmer. Because Carmina Burana is so familiar, responses to Carl Orff himself are coloured by "TV thinking", superficial, ill informed and kneejerk, like the cliché that Carmina Burana is a Nazi tract. But Orff deserves deeper analysis. He was a conundrum, a complex person who concealed his inner life even from himself. He's a conundrum. Yet his legacy benefits millions who don't care or know much about European music or history.

Palmer's documentary doesn't attempt psychological depth but presents material that might otherwise lurk in archives. Orff's daughter Godela appears, as do Orff's last two wives. At least one of them is dead. I don't know when the interviews were made, or by whom, but they're valuable sources.  The footage of the last wife, Liselotte, is vivid and moving, probably seen for the first time.

Michael  Kater appears too, to add perspectiuve. "Orff wasn't a Nazi, he hated what they stood for", he says, but Orff also didn't make life difficult for himself. He figured that when Pfiztner and Richard Strauss died he'd be the most important composer in the Reich. Big consideration. Always broke, he accepted money from the State, but that didn't automatically compromise him.  Ralph Vaughan Wiliams and Sibelius did so too. More worrying was that he didn't help Kurt Huber, whose White Rose cell resisted Hitler, yet later claimed he'd actively helped. It's relevant that Karl Amadeus Hartmann, who knew everyone involved, treated Orff with sympathy. Unless you've lived in a closed totalitarian state, moral ambiguities are hard to judge. Perhaps Orff felt survivor guilt and needed to convince himself. A warped way of making amends, but, as Kater says, "psychologically significant".

Orff's other legacy was Schulwerk, the concept idea that music was a fundamental source of expression. One of the most remarkable moments in the film comes when a Schulwerk teacher tells of a first year child in a war zone who came to school deeply withdrawn. Her family had been massacred in the night and the child didn't know what to do, so she went to school. Later, there's a clip of children with learning disabilities using the system as therapy. What the film doesn't do is connect the Schulwerk ethos to the wider issues of Orff's personality. By its very nature the concept eschews wealth, power and status. It's based on the simplest forms of expression, as simple as using the body. "Everyone has a voice within themselves" says another teacher.  "We don't listen to each other, we don't listen to ourselves.... but you cannot make music without listening. Orff teaches us to listen for more than notes, to listen to others and to the world around us in which we all live".

The film doesn't make the connection between what Orff's system teaches and who Orff was as a man, but I think they are inextricable. Godela Orff spoke about her father's childhood fascination with puppets and fantasy. Theatre is a form of expression through which you can explore feelings and ideas without necessarily putting yourself in jeopardy. Orff wasn't personally warm and giving, perhaps because he was quite vulnerable within. Hence the contradictions in his life. Yet he intuited how others could find themselves.  He couldn't deal with reality too well, but he recognized that the process of becoming a whole person was through expression.

Curiously the film hardly deals with Orff''s music at all. It's loosely based around a semi staged performance of Carmina Burana, but the music isn't integrated into the narrative. Yet, since it's the one piece everyone knows, it does need confronting. Listen to its angular rhythmic shapes and the violent surges of sound. These fool many into thinking it's a Nuremburg rally in music. But then listen carefully. The texts depict a medieval world where life was short and barbaric, where pleasure had to be grasped in an almost animalistic way before inevitable death. Strictly speaking not all that different from living in the 20th century. Godela claims that the piece was at first greeted with stunned silence until she cried out, "Listen you bastards!". Maybe she too muddled memory with wish, for young girls don't dare confront Party brass like that. Quite likely that the audience didn't know what to think as these brutal jagged rhythms do have an affinity with "primitive" non-white music. Orff had lived through the Weimar after all. Normally music like this might have been considered degenerate, but the audience was fooled by the fake Germanism. Remember Hartmann and Simplcius Simplicissimus.

What I really didn't like about the film was that it started with an ad and ended with an ad. Brand names prominently emphasized. We know the music is used in ads, but this is so blatant that it turns the film into a commercial. Orff was morally compromised because he took the easy way with the Reich. Is the film morally compromised since it has no qualms about commercial exploitation? Pretty tacky.  I'm sorry but this ruined the integrity of the film for me. Orff, for all his faults, wasn't crass.