Monday 12 April 2021

From Macau through China, India and Burma: Hong Kong Portuguse in the Chindits. By Anne Ozorio

A few y years ago, Anne Ozorio,who died last August, gave me a typwscript copy of an article she had written on the experiences, after the 1941 Japanese invasion and occupation of Hong Kong, of some of the Portuguese/Macanese (many of whom had fought against the Japanese as members of the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps) or were seeking other ways to resist the invadqrs, Until recently, I had thought that the article was unpubldhed. However I now find that it appeared in 2005 in the journal of The British Historical Society of Portugal.

Here is a link to the published article  

NB There are a couple of errorso in the published version that do not appear in the typescript:

Page 120 'sit will shuld read 'sit well'

Page 124 'saw advantage' should read 'saw no advantage'

                                                                                                                                    ROGER THOMAS   

Monday 14 December 2020

Review of Grange Park Opera’s production of Owen Wingrave. By Claire Seymour

In 1954, the year in which Benjamin  Britten completed The Turn of the Screw, he wrote to Eric Walter White that he had just read another short story by Henry James with “much the same quality as the Screw”. That story was Owen Wingrave. Thirteen years later, Britten asked Myfanwy Piper to adapt it for his next opera, a “television opera” commissioned by the BBC. Owen Wingrave was first broadcast in May 1971 and staged at Covent Garden two years later. Since then, there have been a handful of productions – most recently at Snape Maltings in 2014 and by British Youth Opera in 2016 – but what many have labelled Britten’s “pacifist opera” has remained in the operatic margins.

In 2001 Margaret Williams directed a new film of Owen Wingrave for Channel 4 TV, with Gerald Finley in the title role alongside Josephine Barstow as his fearsome aunt, Miss Wingrave, and Martyn Hill as his militaristic grandfather, General Wingrave, with Kent Nagano conducting the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin. Now in 2020, the year of “opera on screen and stream”, we have a new production, on YouTube, directed by Stephen Medcalf for Grange Park Opera’s 2020 interim season , filmed on location in Highgate and Surrey over five days in September.

James’s Owen Wingrave is the son of a long line of military heroes. Surrounded by relatives with a fierce loyalty to the traditions of duty, public sacrifice, and death in conflict He is being coached for entry into Sandhurst and a career as a soldier. Owen decides that war is “barbaric” and refuses to continue his army training. His family and other acquaintances gather at the family home, Paramore, with a view to persuading him to change his mind. The old house has a macabre history, including a room in which a former Wingrave mysteriously died – “without a wound” – after striking and killing his young son, who had refused to fight when challenged by another boy. Owen continues to resist their entreaties, taunts and derision. Kate Julian, an opinionated young woman who expects to marry Owen, accuses him of cowardice; whereupon he offers to spend the night in the ill-fated room. She locks him in, and the next morning he is found dead on the same spot as his ancestor.

The conventional view has been that the opera is an expression of Britten’s long-held pacifist convictions and an attack on dynastic military traditions. In preparing the libretto, Britten and Piper studied their Marbot and Clausewitz (On War) and this and other reading furnished Piper with many a military metaphor. Indeed, against the backdrop of Vietnam the opera was viewed by one critic as “blatant propaganda”. In Max Webster’s British Youth Opera production, the opening parade of the ancestral portraits which hang in Paramore’s gallery was replaced by Brechtian placards carried by rifle-wielding youngsters (played by Southend Boys’ Choir) which brandished bills numbering the human losses incurred in the Boer War and in Vietnam, against a back-drop of a rollcall of the dead.

But the story of a pacifist resistance against a clique of grotesques rests uncomfortably alongside the private fight against disquieting revenants of whom Owen sings, “the bully and the boy … I cannot forget them … stalking their way to the room which saw their deaths … Walking, walking – these two: the old man and the boy, for ever in each other’s company”. There are essentially two stories that are not satisfactorily reconciled, and the ending struggles to serve them both.

So, behind this ostensibly straightforward tale of youthful rebellion and idealism lies a network of half-illuminated ideas and unanswered questions. What is the relationship between Owen and the former Wingrave youth, who refused to fight a childhood friend and was beaten to death by his furious father? What has happened in the locked room? And, why has Owen died? If James’ short story and Britten’s opera are not about pacifism what are they about? If one rejects pacifism as the focus of James’s tale, one might surmise that the tale is primarily a ghost story in the tradition of Poe and Hawthorne; indeed, it was published in Leon Edel's selected anthology, The Ghostly Tales of Henry James (1948). Set in the provocatively named Paramore, a country house which is a psychic repository of supernatural presences, Owen Wingrave is in many ways an operatic companion piece to The Turn of the Screw, matching its psychological intensity.

Which story should a director tell? Stephen Medcalf opts for a combination of pacifism and psychological unravelling, and largely dispenses with the paranormal: “I've given full rein to the satirical, often blackly comic aspects of the opera. Alongside that there are three serious themes: the pressure from society to conform; the courage it takes to stand up for who we really are; the destructive love of family.” He updates the action to a modern setting but visually evokes an ancestral past by filming in monochrome, the only splash of colour the blood-red wine in the glasses on the Wingraves’ dining table at Paramore (interestingly, Piper had written to Britten, “Kate’s red dress good for colour T.V. I think”.)

In 2001, Williams had similarly moved the action from its Edwardian setting to the 1950s, establishing a connection with World War II. Medcalf’s shift is more uncomfortable. The opening scenes feel anachronistic. We see Owen and his fellow Sandhurst aspirant, Lechmere, receiving military instruction from Spencer Coyle, in Coyle’s late-20th-century London home. Lechmere peers fervently at his Mac laptop on which is displayed a field map of Napoleon’s war strategies. Miss Wingrave’s militarism is suggested by her rabid obsession with violent video games (presumably this is the “black comedy” of which Medcalf speaks), while a fairly young Sir Philip Wingrave, dressed not in military uniform or formal dinner attire but in a civilian suit, doesn’t really conjure the terrifying spirit of patriarchal tyranny. The action feels a long way from the 1914-18 conflict which the visual imagery evokes.

The reduction of Britten’s orchestra to a duo of piano and percussion was inevitable, given Covid restrictions, but it does deprive the score of its suggestive power. Gone are the sweeping harp flourishes that might come from Quint’s magic casements and which convey Owen’s rebellion; the horn melody that identifies him and communicates his riposte to his bullying grandfather during their off-stage interview; the low tuba which announces his disinheritance (reminiscent of Grimes’ defeat by the Borough); the woodwind chords and gamelan-like shimmer which evoke the ascendancy of love during Owen’s Act 2 “peace aria”.

The pounding, percussive chords of the Prologue, which accompany the parade of portraits and signify the rigid militarism and repressive psychological grip of the Wingrave family upon its young heirs, still make their mark though – even if the sepia portraits that we see at the start turn out not to be imposing family portraits staring fiercely down from the walls of an ancestral gallery but just a huddle of photographs on a hallway table.

One element of the original 1971 film that was criticised was the producers’ over-literalism in the ghost scenes, even though Piper had urged: “The [televisual] technique should be used, not to create ghostly appearances, making figures walk out of frames etc but simply to draw attention to the hallucinatory powers of a heightened imagination.” In Medcalf’s production, Owen seems more haunted from within than without (there’s a nice touch when, in Hyde Park, a troupe of mounted officers ride by, we see them only as reflected in Owen’s eyes). This Paramore is no Bly; just a large smart house in the Surrey stockbroker belt. When Owen approaches his family home, he looks up at a window framing the formidable female trio who will harass and harangue him for his dishonour and cowardice (and decides to enter by the back door), but there is little sense of the past.

During Owen’s interview with his grandfather, which takes place “off-stage”, the Wingraves gather agitatedly outside the door; the domestic mundaneness of the décor deprives the scene of its tense melodrama – I half expected Miss Wingrave to put a glass to the wall to better hear and relish the young man’s lambasting and humiliation. The locked room itself is a concealed servant’s door at the end of a corridor on the top floor. It seems too nondescript to house the Wingraves’ guilty secrets or to evoke the repressed emotional currents that James tells us haunt Paramore. The legend-ballad, sung by the Narrator (and here complemented by just a single treble rather than Britten’s Chorus), which frames Act 2 seems blanched of its power to connect past and present, to establish a historical perspective by which the violent destruction of innocence is seen as part of a recurring pattern at Paramore. Disappointingly, Medcalf makes no use of the cinematic devices – montage, intercutting – which might have reinforced such tragic connections.

If the Wingraves are an unlikable clan of near caricatures, then Medcalf has assembled a terrific cast to embody them – many of whom in fact sang in the 2014 Aldeburgh production, though not necessarily in the same role. Ross Ramgobin’s lyrical baritone conveys Owen’s artistic sensibility – “Courage in war is false. Courage in peace, the kind that poets know wins everything.” – but he does not neglect the fierceness of Owen’s convictions and the strength of his determination. Both elegant and intense, the sweetness of the “peace aria” suspends time much like Billy Budd’s “far-shining sail”  but there is also a surprisingly vehement anger and almost Grimes-like defiance at times, in his self-defences and as he implores the family portraits, and we are reminded that Owen is, after all, a “soldier”.

At Snape, James Way appeared as Sir Phillip’s nurse and as the ballad-singing Narrator; here his ardent tenor is just right for Lechmere’s impetuosity and over-enthusiasm, and he captures, too, both the immaturity and remorse that Lechmere displays in Act 2 – gulping down his wine during the fraught dinner party, flirting naively with Kate, and then, fearful of his friend’s fate, anxiously seeking the guidance and support of his mentor, Coyle.

Susan Bullock reprises her fearsome Miss Wingrave, shaping the phrase and enunciating the text with clarity and control, even as her fictional ego descends into histrionic ranting. Richard Berkeley-Steele partners her as he did in 2014, singing with elegance as Sir Philip Wingrave, though he never quite commands and terrifies. Mrs Julian and Kate are a thoroughly nasty pair: Madeleine Pierard captures the former’s hyper-nervous restlessness while Kitty Whately is fittingly unsympathetic as Kate. Her mezzo-soprano is powerful and domineering, but always expressive, and her final duet with Owen creates terrific dramatic tension as he asks her to leave Paramore and share a new life with him. Kate fails Owen and, at the close, the tear-smudged black kohl that shadows her eyes doesn’t touch one’s heart.

Only Spencer Coyle and his wife seem possessing of genuine human feeling. William Dazeley blends authority with balanced judgment, and evinces a genuine affection for young Owen and respect for his ideals. Janis Kelly (who sang Mrs Julian in 2014) is superb as his empathetic wife, a welcome source of wisdom, calm and kindness.

At the close of Owen Wingrave there is just a locked room and an unanswered question: what happens behind the locked door? Some have suggested that the secret chamber houses not only the ghosts of a repressive military tradition but also the spirit of repressed love. Why does Owen die? Is it a choice between conformity and “living”death” and defiance and “literal death”. For some, such as George Bernard Shaw, Owen’s death is a “dispiriting fatalism” but for others it is a private and public validation of self.

One might argue that Owen violates family tradition and as a consequence is either punished or dies to atone. Or, that Owen is a brave soldier and, despite his family’s disdain, dies like a brave soldier. As the esteemed Jamesian scholar Leon Edel stated: “Owen wins his grave”. Both Shaw and Virginia Woolf challenged James about the ending of the play, The Saloon, which was based on his short story, the latter complaining that, “The catastrophe has not the right relations to what has gone before.” James responded to Shaw’s criticism: “There was only one question to me, that is, that of my hero’s … getting the best of everything, simply: which his death makes him do by, in the first place, purging the house of the beastly legend, and in the second place by creating for us, spectators and admirers, such an intensity of impression and emotion about him as must promote his romantic glory and edifying example for ever.” Although he stubbornly rebels against the militaristic traditions of his family, he shows courage and valour in accepting Kate Julian's challenge to sleep in the haunted room, fully aware of the legend and his danger. His moral victory is achieved only through death: the “beastly legend” is now eradicated and the ghost exorcised. Owen “wins with his life”. If he had lived, James retorts, then he would have been a failure.

But, for opera directors the question is not just why Owen die, but how he dies. Medcalf’s solution is in keeping with his decision to excise the supernatural element of the tale. Spoiler alert: this Owen is found lying face-down on the patio beneath the window of the locked room, a victim of his own psychological schisms rather than paranormal haunting. But, it’s still not clear what pushes Owen to suicide. Is it Kate’s rejection? Or, shame? After all, he’s been taunted by Sir Philip, “Insulting the family name, dragging our name in the dirt – disgusting!” But, when challenged by Kate to sleep in the haunted room, Owen declares, “I thought I’d done with that, with the Wingraves and the house. Would you drag me back? The anger of the world is locked up there, the horrible power that makes men fight: now I must take it on.” This suggests that his self-sacrifice is an act of heroism.

In contrast, Medcalf’s conclusion seems to deny James’ argument that his hero gets “the best of everything”. though it is in keeping with the spirit of the domestic tragedy that Medcalf creates. It’s not really a solution to the opera’s conundrums, though. A master of indirection and obliqueness, James’s only directorial instruction for The Saloon was that at the closing climax the stage should be plunged into darkness. Perhaps ambiguity may speak more powerfully than artistic closure?

Owen Wingrave – Ross Ramgobin, Miss Wingrave – Susan Bullock, Sir Philip Wingrave – Richard Berkeley-Steele, Mr Coyle – William Dazeley, Mrs Coyle – Janis Kelly, Lechmere – James Way, Mrs Julian – Madeleine Pierard, Kate Julian – Kitty Whately, Narrator – Richard Berkeley-Steele, Boy Bugler – Chloe Morgan; Director – Stephen Medcalf, Conductor – James Henshaw, Video Production – Fintan O’Connor, Sound – Tom Marshall, Piano – Chris Hopkins, Percussion – Craig Apps.

Grange Park Opera, 2020 Interim Season, streamed on YouTube.

Claire Seymour is the author of The Operas of Benjamin Britten: Expression and Evasion


Postscript by Roger Thomas: Anne Ozorio on Owen Wingrave and War

The late founder of Classical Iconoclast, Anne Ozorio, wrote some interesting pieces on Owen Wingrave that complement Claire Seymour'sr review. See:

Anne Ozorio was vociferously averse to romantic notions of the military and of warfare. She was born in 1951 into families that had grim memories of the Batte of Hong Kong (the Japanese 1941 invasion of the British colony, the brave but ultimately fruitless defence, followed by harsh, often murderous Japanese occupation until 1945). The Japanese assault began on 8 December 1941 and Hong Kong forces surrendered on Christmas day. Anne's forebears lost two family members in the Battle – an uncle of Anne, Gunner Manuel Heleodoro Ozorio (in an action that amounted to and was tried as a Japanese War Crime) and a great uncle, Private William Markham. Others in the family, including Hong Kong resident Macanese, English, Anglo-Chinese, Norwegian, and a Shanghai-born Iranian national,were held as prisoners of war or civilian internees, or took refuge in neutral Macau.

  Anne recalled how the older members of her family found themselves unable to celebrate Christmas even decades after 1945  Rather, they sank into a gloomy, dpressive mood. Anne, who as a historian unearthed important documents in the archives on the Battle of Hong Kong and taped interviewa with veterans, to an extent took the family mood into her adult life (“I hate Christmas”, she sometimes said), though she wrote scintillating pieces on Christmas music on this blog.  Nor could she bring hersrlf  to  hate the Japanese. On the contrary, almost every 6 August she blogged sensitively about the bombing of Hiroshima/Nagasaki and about the music that sprang from these Japanese tragedies.

For the adult members of her family in the post-war years, things brightrned up from Christmas gloom only with the New Year, when the ladies of the Hong Kong Macanese community liberated their mink coats from cold storage and partied the night away.  

Sunday 18 October 2020

Harawi 12 years on

Gweneth Ann Rand sings Messiaen’s song cycle Harawi, with Simon Lepper, piano, at Wigmore Hall this evening at 7.30 UK time. A free live video of the performance will be available on the Wigmore Hall website for 30 days (with donations to Wigmore Hall funds welcome).

Anne Ozorio wrote a review of Rand’s (then Gwenerh Ann Jeffers) Proms performance of Harawi in 2008. (Please see here AND here). “Easily the best Messiaen singer of  her generation,” Ozorio wrote in another blog post.

Thursday 8 October 2020

She had a lot to teach me – Remembering Anne Ozorio, Number 2

Music critic CLAIRE SEYMOUR (Opera Today) recollects the
phenomenal knowledge, writing skills and generous advice of 
Anne Ozorio, who would have been 69 today 
“I’m a large Eurasian, and I’ll wear something bright.  You won’t miss me!” Anne’s response when I asked how I might recognise her when we first met, at an evening recital at Wigmore Hall during 2008, was characteristically no-fuss and direct.  And, there she was when I arrived – smiling brightly, chatting vigorously, bustling among the other concert-goers in the foyer, many of whom recognised Anne and greeted her warmly.

Our paths crossed when I was asked to join the Opera Today team of music reviewers based in London.  Both of our lives had been driven by a passion for music: listening, reflecting, writing about musical performances, recordings and experiences.  But, in very different contexts.  Whereas my background had been a rather conventional ‘academic’ one and most of my writing undertaken for ‘scholarly’ purposes, Anne later told me of how her listening experiences, from her earliest years, had led her to a career in music journalism and broadcasting.  I still know little of Anne’s personal life and career.  But, I realised from our conversation that first evening at Wigmore Hall that – vivacious, witty, knowledgeable, her chain of thought quickly making connection across diverse fields – she had a lot to teach me.

Home from home: Anne Ozorio at Wigmore Hall on 23 November 2019. This was Anne's last of hundreds of visits to Wigmore Hall  - see this.
 (photo: Roger Thomas)   

One important thing that I learned was that there was not just one way of listening, evaluating and writing – and that by broadening and developing my own, rather entrenched, habits and style, I could gain new understanding and pleasure.  My own writing was, and still is, I fear, rather formal and painstaking.  Anne’s pieces – reviews, commentary, interviews – for Opera Today and for her idiosyncratic and eclectic blog, Classical Iconoclast, were dynamic, succinct, funny – sometimes quite satirically or pointedly so. – as well as incredibly well-informed.  Whereas I honed in on a detail and got stuck there, chewing over every inference and intimation, Anne skilfully brought together a wealth of such details – her quick ear and mind instantly absorbing and responding – and assimilated them within an almost impossibly diverse cultural and historical embrace.  There was never a single superfluous word.  The reader was hooked from the first pithy utterance.  Anne’s pieces were a kinetic kaleidoscope of knowledge, ideas and personal responses, brought together into a perfectly controlled form.  She taught me the importance of developing a personal voice that could present one’s opinions in an open-minded but confident way; of writing both for myself and for others; of seeing and appreciating the significance of the bigger picture.

She also showed me the practical ropes.  Back in 2008, Anne welcomed me warmly to the London team of reviewers, encouraging me through her generous praise but also suggesting that I might be more selective and pointing me toward things that she thought, invariably rightly, would be of particular interest and satisfaction to me.  I’m sure that this was partly to save me from my own workaholic tendencies.  But, more than this, Anne’s intuition and insight – about people as much as about the music and performances that we were sharing and discussing – were both sharp and sensitive.  Quietly but thoughtfully, she made sure that I had new opportunities; and, then, would just as unobtrusively offer some honest guidance – and probably a few warnings too! – to ensure that I was able to gain the most from them.  Preparing to conduct my first interview with a singer, at the Royal Opera House, I was pleased to receive an email from Anne with some honest words of advice, and a review of the dos and don’ts.  She combined a no-nonsense pragmatism with diplomacy and kindness, and I benefited enormously from her guidance.

Later, when her health made it more challenging for her to deal with all the daily chores of scheduling, emailing and organising on behalf of Opera Today, she suggested that I might like to take over some of her responsibilities.  I like to think I’m an efficient and reliable ‘administrator’, but there are unspoken traditions and rules in the world of classical music and here, again, Anne introduced me to them with foresight, tact and thoughtfulness.  Performers, box offices, media relations companies, artists’ agencies: they all like things done a certain way – often they all like things done a different way! – and Anne knew the ins and outs better than anyone.  She took me inside this world and showed me the workings.  I couldn’t have had a better mentor.

I enjoyed countless lively exchanges with Anne over the years: in person, at Wigmore Hall, at the Proms, at the Royal Opera House, in foyers, between the concert hall aisles, at press party gatherings after the show; and by email after events that we’d both enjoyed – or not enjoyed!  As time passed, and her health (though never the sharpness of her mind or pen) became a little less robust, she became a less frequent presence in the opera house or concert hall – though if there was something that she really wanted to experience, then Anne would be there.  And, if she couldn’t be, then the words flowed no less profusely, nor less productively and perceptively.  I used to read her regular reviews of the BBC’s radio broadcasts of the Proms concerts, and ruefully reflect on how much I hadn’t heard even though I’d been at the Royal Albert Hall the night before.

Problems with her eyesight and mobility were never going to stop Anne.  I never heard her complain.  In fact, the only comment I do recall her making about having to reduce her active concert-going was typically forthright: “I may not be able to attend the performance, but I can still hear the music.”  Anne began more regularly to write CD reviews, and a glance at the Opera Today archive will attest to the diversity of her cultural experience and the depth of her powers of integration and evaluation.

Anne’s lifetime of musical memories, and her love of the art form, informed every piece that she wrote.  And, if it’s a cliché, then to suggest that the expanse, eclecticism and depth of her knowledge was ‘lightly worn’ is both true and captures nothing of the effortless sweep of Anne’s writing.  The title of her blog was apposite: she was indeed a radical, sometimes subversively so, and an individualist.  But she was also one of the most sincere, warm-hearted people I have known.  Many was the time when a small parcel would thud, unannounced, onto my doormat: a new book or CD recording that Anne thought I would enjoy.  My memories of Anne won’t fade: she was too full of life, fierce energy and passion, and kindness.  Generous, funny, intelligent, and indomitable.

More blogs soon Remembering Anne Ozorio

Thursday 3 September 2020

Mr Wu and Beano — Remembering Anne Ozorio, Number 1

Anne Ozorio and her brother Joe at the Ozorio family mausoleum in Happy Valley, Hong Kong

Anne Ozori told me abou Mr Wu as we waited for a Barbican Hall concert on January 10, 2007. The next day I typed up from memory what she had  said. So it is not pure Anne Ozorio, but the next best thing. Anne said I would have loved Mr Wu. I can see why. By ROGER THOMAS

Anne Ozorio’s fathr was Joseph Maria Augusto Ozorio. (His Macanese nickname was Beano.) There has been a José (or Joseph or Joe) in every generation of the Ozorios since they started appearing in the Macau parish records when these were initiated at the beginning of the 17th century. Beano had a great friend in Hong Kong called Mr Wu. Mr Wu was an extremely rich, flamboyant businessman whose businesses included generic pharmaceuticals such as aspirin and the sourcing of medical supplies such as cotton wool. Beano was a senior government pharmacist.

Mr Wu was indeed highly flamboyant. He had a cowboy-style belt with a massive buckle that he liked to wear around town, going to the bank, etc (à la rhinestone cowboy). Except that the big stones set in Mr Wu’s belt buckle were scores of diamonds, not rhinestones.

Mr Wu had his rough side; he had connections with the “Green”as opposed to the “Red” Triads of Shanghai.“Yes I’ve had people killed,” he said, “you had to in order to survive, but I never killed anyone personally.” But he was also cultured. He was from a wealthy family in mainland China with a recorded history going back 800 years and had made a personal fortune before the Chinese civil war of the 1920s, the Japanese occupation and the communist revolution. His business interests in China included farms and vast tea estates. As a young man, he had studied the violin under several distinguished teachers. He was also a long-time school chum of one Zhou en-lai, later the People’s Republic’s founding prime minister and foreign minister.

Come the late 1920s there was civil war between the Communists and the Nationalist Kuomintang. But there was also internal civil war in Shanghai within Nationalist ranks involving the “Red” and the “Green” Triads. Despite Mr Wu’s links with Zhou en-lai, he refused to join the Communists and stuck with the Green faction of the Nationalists. With the defeat of the Japanese and the impending victory of the Communists in the late 1940s it was time for Mr Wu to retreat – to Hong Kong.

But before heading for the island, Mr Wu took a sensible initiative: he swallowed a large number of diamonds. So after going to the toilet in Hong Kong and cleaning things up, Mr Wu started his Hong Kong business career with a substantial amount of capital. Meanwhile, in China, Mr Wu’s businesses, including his tea estates, were expropriated by the Communists, but not for long. With the People’s Republic firmly entrenched in 1949, the Zhou en-lai connection kicked in. Mr Wu’s tea estates were returned to him. In later years, if you went to tea with Mr Wu in Hong Kong you were served the finest tea from his mainland estates.

Mr Wu was, as we saw, a trained violinist. And he had a piano in his office. What does a wealthy music lover with a violin background do? He sought out a very fine violin. For Mr Wu that meant a fabulously expensive 17th-18th century Guarneri. “Stradivarius violins are rubbish,” reckoned Mr Wu.

It is said that antique violins stored away permanently  lose their sound quality. They need to be regularly played. So Mr Wu engageed an Italian violinist resident in Hong Kong called (like the playwright) Dario Fo to regularly play in his office on the Guarneri. Beano was often invited to these sessions. And the Guarneri also came out from the vaults for public concerts at which Fo played. The high point of the evening was not so much the music as the arrival of the Guarneri with its armed guard.

Beano’s frriendship with Mr Wu was in part built on business. Beano, as Hong Kong’s chief pharmacist, realised that the colony and its people were being ripped off in the supply at inflated prices of generics such as aspirin and basic medical goods by the quasi-UK government agency the Crown Agents for the Colonies. This monopolistic intermediary supplied a wide range of inputs to the UK's Crown Colonies.

Mr Wu could source goods of equivalent quality much more cheaply than the Crown Agents. That included cotton wool out of China. As Mr Wu said: “Cotton grows in China; it doesn’t grow in Lancashire.”

The cotton wool contract agreed with Mr Wu by Beano led to litigation against the HK pharmacy department and Beano. The Crown Agents claimed a legal right to its monopoly trade. The case got through the Hong Kong courts and ended up in the final court of appeal for the colonies, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London. Triumph for Beano and the Hong Kong peope (and Mr Wu!). No such legal right exists, the Privy Council judges ruled

Anne Ozorio claimed there was nothing that could be construed as corruption in the Mr Wu/Beano relationship. But Mr Wu set Beano off on an antique-collecting path with the gift of a 19th-century green jade snuff bottle that Anne later owned for a while. And Anne, as a secondary-school pupil, became a crucial agent in Beano's quest for antiques. Anne got to know Mr Wu, who advised Beano that she could be of great help. “She knows all about Chinese history,” he said.

Anne started to frequent the antique dealers’ shops. The shop-owners were prepared to explain things to a young schoolgirl that they wouldn’t confide to a grown man. Soon, as they got to know her and her father, she was allowed to take items home “on approval” – a Ming vase here, a jade statue there, secreted in her schoolbag.

Later, university student Anne is rushing along the street to get to a History lecture. A vast chauffeur-driven limousine draws up. “Hello Anne,” says Mr Wu. “Get in the car. And why are you running?” “Because I’m late.” “And why are you late?” “Because I don’t have a watch.” “You silly girl. Come to tea with me tomorrow.”

At tea the next day Mr Wu brought out two watches, a plain gold one and one studded with diamonds. You can have whichever you want, he said. “I’ll have the plain one,” said Anne. “I’d be scared that the diamond one would be stolen or I’d lose it.”

One day, Mr Wu told Beano that he had disowned his eldest son, who had gone to the US to study aeronautical engineering at MIT. Why? Because the boy had married an (admittedly rich) American woman. “I don’t want half-breed grandchildren,” said Mr Wu. “And what do you think I am?” said Beano, laughing. Beano was half Macanese, a quarter German and a quarter Filipino.

Another day, Beano received a sharp summons from Mr Wu. “Beano, come to my office straightaway.” Beano arrived to find a convoy of cars with armed guards and some mystery Americans on board. Beano was put in one of the cars and they drove to Hongkong & Shanghai Bank where they were taken down to the vault within the vault within the vault. The Americans were museum people from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC who had heard about an exquisite object of great value and had requested a viewing. Out came an amazingly carved jade statuette that was made for a Chinese Emperor. “No touching,” said Mr Wu as the Americans gasped in wonder. “We’d like to buy it,” they said. “No way,” said Mr Wu. “But you owe me money anyway – the insurers charged $85,000 extra cover premium for it to be allowed out of the vault.”

Mr Wu is now dead of course. As is his friend Beano – and Anne.Where’s the jade from the bank vault? Anne reckoned Mr Wu would have made arrangements for it to be sent back to China. Perhaps the Guarneri went there too.

More blogs soon Remembering Anne Ozorio

Thursday 27 August 2020

Anne Ozorio 8 October 1951--22 August 2020

Anne Ozorio (right) with soprano Sarah Minns in 2011 

(photo: Roger Thomas)

Sadly, the owner of this blog, Anne Ozorio, died on 22 August 2020. A few days before she left us, Anne asked me to keep Classical Iconoclast alive. In no wayy can I hope to rival or replace Anne's broad-based expert writing – on classical (and some popular) music and opera, film (especially from China/Hong Kong and Weimar Germany) and Chinese/Hong Kong/ and Macanese culture and history. For a start I would like to tell existing and new readers more about Anne and her background, based on things she told me and somewhat random research we did together over the past 14 years. 

Coming soon, so keep checking the blog. And Anne's blogs from 2008 to 2020 will always be worth exploring.

Roger Thomas

Wednesday 15 July 2020

Secrets of the Sahara - Le Désert and L'Atlantide

Secrets of the Sahara !  Two magnificent evocations of the Sahara and its seductive mysteries : Félicien David's Le Désert (1844) an ode-symphonique, and Jacques Feyder's film L'Atlantide (1921).  Both are long term favourites, but the soundtrack in the restored version of the movie is pretty banal, so I muted and played Félicien David's Le désert instead.  The combination worked extremely well !

Perhaps it's because the rhythms of Le désert so strongly resemble the rhythms of a caravan of camels marching single file through the desert. Scored for narrator, orchestra, tenor and choir, the piece unfolds at a steady pace, unhurried yet purposeful.  For thousands of years, caravans like these have crossed the desert : it is as if  the endless sand dunes (depicted by the strings) defy Time itself ; the tracks of the caravan erased as soon as the caravan has passed.  David lived in Eygpt from 1833-35 so the atmospheric exoticism feels drawn from lived experience. Le désert  was sensationally successful in its time, and was to influence the whole genre of French orientalism. If it isn't as well known today, other than to fans of the genre, this might be because it doesn't fit modern ideas of form. David wrote operas, but Le désert is neither opera nor conventional concert piece and requires fairly large forces which make it relatively tricky to programme. In David's time, this form was relatively common (think Berlioz) so it needs to be appreciated as such.  This means performances of a vey high and idiomatic standard.

David's depiction of the sound of Arabic/North African music aligns to sounds very different from the western tonal scale.  The role of narrator is fundamental, holding the piece together and giving it shape.  Dawns rise and nighgt descends : As darkness falls,  the tenor sings the exquisite "O Nuit!"(Hymne à la nuit), suggesting the night sky with boundless horizons. This song is a tour deforce for a very high tenor or countertenor in the tradition of Grand Opéra. By far the best recording to get is the one with Cyrille Dubois and Zachary Wilder, tenors; Jean-Marie Winling, speaker; Accentus, Orchestre de chambre de Paris, conducted by Laurence Equilbey from 2015.  The few copies left on the market retail over £50 so if you have it already, treasure it and accept no imitations.  Dubois's timbre is unique. His voice soars to stratospheric heights, then swoops downwards while remaining elegant. "Le chant du muezzin" resembles the call of a muezzin, carrying over great distances, calling the faithful to mark the start of a new day. Another reminder of the vast distances of the desert, and of the timelessness of experience. 

Eighty years forward to Jaques Feyder's film L'Atlantide,  innovative on many levels.  This, too was innovative, shot on location in Algeria in the desert, employing Algerians in major supporting roles and dozens of locally-recruited extras . No fake blacking up, and earnings for local people. the difference between French colonialism and other forms of colonialism, including Hollywood could not be more pointed.  The sand dunes themselves provide an underlying narrative, which no set of the time could imitate.  The scenery is authentic, too,  showing native villages as they were at the time, and spectacular mountain cliffs.  Even the indoor scenes were assembled on site, using regional textiles like carpets, combined with stylized designs reminiscent of the fashion for "primitive" alien cultures, that made the Ballets Russe so popular. To audiences in 1921, this must have been a revelation to people who weren't used to seeing foreign places in such deatail, or, indeed, to moving images.  L'Atlantide became a box office hit, also starting a trend for films set in exotic places, like The Sheik (1926) with Rudolph Valentino, and Pabst's 1932 remake of L'Atlantide starring Brigitte Helm, both made with assumptions that western values went unquestioned.

Like David's Le désert, Feyder's L'Atlantide employs cyclic narrative. A Frenchman (Lt Saint-Avit) is found wandering in the desert, maddened by thirst and bizarre visions.  Only towards the end do we realise  he's telling his tale back to front. Back to the beginning : he's invalided back to France under a cloud.  suspected of being involved with the mystery disappearance of his friend and mentor, Captain Morhange. Two years previously, a French expedition had been massacred  and the leader Lieutenant Massard had been captured.  Morhange and Saint-Avit approached the desolate mountains of Tidefest, taking shelter in a cave at the approach of sandstorm. Inside, they found insciptions in early Greek with the name "Antinea". Danger lurks. Their faithful guide is poisoned and they turn to a Tarqui from Haggar, Cegheir ben Cheik who suddenly appears, to lead them deeper into the caves below the mountains. Cegheir ben Cheik intoxicates them with hashish. He's smoking Lt. Massard's pipe.  The Frenchmen are catured and taken to the palace of Ahaggar. Both men are bathed, massaged and treated well but they don't know where they are, or why.  In the place’s archive, they meet a librarian who tells them that they are in the centre of Atlantis, ruled by Altinea, descendent of the first Atlanteans. He takes them to a tred marble room filled with solid gold sacrophagi and pins a name on the latest arrival "Lt. Massard", whom Morhange had seen jumping to his death. These are the husbands of Altinea, who die, insane, when she rejects them.  Only one has ever escaped and he made his way back, unable to break the spell. 

Altinea wants Morhange but he will not be seduced. Altinea is like a wild animal, slithering like a serpent, eyes always alert to her prey.  Those palpitations might have seemed erotic in a more buttoned up era, but to modern eyes, they're overacted. still, she must have titilliated the audiences  of 1921 who thought vamp was sexy. Why doesn't Morhange respond ? In France, he had decided to take holy orders as a monk, but the Abbott told him to return to Algeria first, to test his destiny. Hence the crucifix and beads (not a rosary) he wears, which is not standard uniform. To get revenge, she feeds Saint-Evit narcotic cigarettes and gets him to smash Morhange's skull with a silver hammer. Yet Morhange forgives him, as Christ did.  The original novel, by Pierre Benoit, would have appealed to audiences brought up on Catholic morality. Rejection makes Altinea mad with grief: she sees crucifixes shining everywhere and lets Morhange be buried according to his own religion.   Luckily for Saint-Avit, he's been befriended by Tanit-Zerga, Altinea's assistant, who wants to escape and return to her home  in Gao, from which she was taken in a raid by slavers. She arranges a camel, and the two make a plucky escape, aided by Cegheir ben Cheik.  In the desrt, though, their camel dies, and when they reach a well, it's dried out. Tanit-Zerga dies, with a mirage of Gao in her mind. Thus we return to the beginning, when Saint-Avit was found, lost in the desert.  But, like Morhange and others before him, the spell of Altinea haunts him, and he wrangles a posting back to the desert, knowing full well that he is compelled by some unknown, irrational force. 

Saturday 11 July 2020

Two Pastorals : Beethoven Symphony no 6, Knecht Le portrait musical de la Nature

Two pastorals : Beethoven's Symphony no 6 "Pastoral" op 68 and Justin Heinrich Knecht Le Portrait musical de la Nature , with Bernhard Forck conducting the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, part of the ongoing Harmonia Mundi series where Beethoven's music is presented in thoughtful juxtaposition, geared towards listeners already familiar with the basics of Beethoven.  This recording examines Beethoven's Symphony no 6 in the context of pastoral traditions in European music, which evolved from the17th century and adapted to the Early Romantic aesthetic. 

Justin Knecht (1752-1817), a generation older than Beethoven, was an organist and composer who lived all of his life in Upper Swabia.  Knecht described Le Portrait musical de la nature as a "Tongemälde der Natur oder Groẞe Symphonie" (a tone painting in the form of a large symphony). In the first Allegretto, Knecht's written description suggests a scene where the sun shines, zephyrs blow, and brooks flow merrily through a valley where birds call, shepherds pipe and shepherdesses sing. An Arcadian idyll, embraced for centuries by painters, writers and musicians.  Knecht's  detaied commentary helps, since this movement describes tranquillity, its flow gentle and elegant.  The greater part of the piece - four of the five movements - address the progress of a storm. allowing for more spirited musical depiction.  In the second Allegretto, as Knecht wrote, "Der Himmel verdunkelt schnell", the sky clouds over and "der Donner grollt" presaging the storm to follow in the third movement where "der Bergstrom wälzt seine Wasser mit entssetzlichen Lärm" and gently subsides in the brief third Allegretto.  At last "Die Natur ist von Freude erfüllt" and idealized serenity is restored. 

It is known that Beethoven knew Knechts's theoretical writings, but there is no direct documentary evidence that Beethoven knew Knecht's Le portrait musical de la natureNonetheless,  Beethoven's structures are similar enough he may well have been aware of it.  But  Beethoven goes far beyond replication. In an era when symphonic form was relatively new, it was perhaps inevitable that Beethoven should respond to the pastoral genre by writing a "modern" symphony.  Beethoven's symphony is highly original.  He "provides a reinforcing counterpart to the underlying structure",writes Peter Gülke, and achieves "more concrete and radical programmatic effects  the murmuring brook, the trio of birds,  the character of the oboist of the village band who comes in too late several times  and its bassoonist who can only play three notes, the sudden thunderclaps...." Charming as Knecht's Le portrait musical de la nature is, Beethoven's symphony is altogther more sophisticated.  His landscape portrays the storm in the context of the lives of people who live in the countryside, the storm part of the wider cycle of Nature.  His titles refer to emotional states : "Erwachen heiterer Empfindungen bei der Ankunftauf dem Lande", and "Frohe und dankbare Gefühle nach dem Sturm". As Gülke says, the initial notes "come so close to the character of bird calls that it is only a tiny step to Nightingale - Cuckoo -Quail, in which Art and Nature finally become one."  Gülke also compares and contrasts the Fifth and Sixth symphonies, premiered together in the Vienna concert of 22nd December 1808.       

Although there are so many Beethoven Sixths on the market, this recording is well worth attention because the performance, by the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, is that of a specialist ensemble with a strong background in 18th and early 19th century repertoire.  They have just released a new recoring of Beethoven's Symphonies 1 and 2. (There are other recordings of Knecht but they're not nearly as well performed).  Period-informed performance does make a difference with Beethoven, and especially with the unique aesthetic of Symphony no 6.  Period instruments  highlight the "pastoral" delicacy in the orchestration. This free-spirited lightness of touch evokes the simplicity and purity inherent in the idea of a population living in harmony with Nature. There is a strong underlying sense of pulse, that feels as natural as breathing.  Because there is no sense of rush, details can be lovingly savoured, without pressure. Natural horns and simple percussion sound as they might have been heard in countrysides where people depended on Nature for sustenance, where hunting and harvests depended on understanding their connection to the natural forces around them. Clear, pure winds, sprightly strings and more than a slight touch of cheerful good humour. Even the storm, vividly portrayed, does not need to be heavy handed or brutal : the countryside survives, refreshed.   Beethoven's Pastoral is no disembodied, idealized landscape but one which evokes the spirit of life.                                                                                                                                                                      Please also see my review of Beethoven Symphony no 9 and The Choral Fantasy, also in this Harmonia Mundi series,  with Pablo Heras-Casado conducting the Freiburger Barockorchester.                                                                                                              

Friday 3 July 2020

Freiburger Barockorchester, Heras-Casado : Beethoven Choral Fantasy and Symphony no 9

Beethoven Symphony no 9 "Choral" in D minor, Op. 125, and the Choral Fantasy   in C minor op 80 with soloist Kristian Bezuidenhout, Pablo Heras-Casado conducting the Freiburger Barockorchester, new from Harmonia Mundi.  In this Beethoven anniversary year, it is good that there are ventures which probe more deeply into the composer and his music. The year started with reconstructions, in full performances concerts throughout Europe, of the concert of 22nd December 1808, in honour of the composer, in Vienna which included the Fifth and Sixth symphonies, concluding with the Choral Fantasy providing a grand finale, Beethoven himself playing  the piano part.  Perhaps it says something about the stamina of modern audiences that some could not understand the ambitious scale of the programme. The Choral Fantasy is in many ways the embryo of  Beethoven's Symphony no 9,  now an anthem of hope and unity, all over the world.

Although the Choral Fantasy wasn't successful at the 1808 concert for many reasons, it is hardly a neglected work. The Adagio begins with a substantial section for solo piano, for this is very much a piece for piano, supplemented by orchestra and voices.  The familiar "Ode to Joy" motif is introduced first by the piano, then elaborated by different sections in the orchestra.  A concerto, in effect, the piano very much part of the evolution of the whole. Not for nothing is the Choral Fantasy in the repertoire of many fine keyboardists.  Kristian Bezuidenhout on fortepiano is complemented by the Freiburger Barockorchester, whose period sensibilities enhance finer textures and a "personality" in the approach which feels more intimate and direct, very much in keeping with the idea of individuals interacting as individuals, gradually building up towards communal expression.  Just as in the Choral Symphony, the choir and vocal soloists in the Choral Fantasy enter only in the final Allegro, which has been purposefully reached as a result of what has gone before.

The character of these performances make this new recording a strong recommendation even in a market saturated with Beethoven Ninths. The vivacity and vigour of the Freiburger Barockorchester works extremely well with this symphony, given its fundamental message. "Alle Menschen werden Brüder" was a radical concept in the context of its time, when authoritarian regimes were giving way to new ideas, which included the freedom of the individual, and the right to tolerate self-determination.  It is significant that Beethoven replaced the text used in the Choral Fantasy (by Christoph Kuffner) celebrating the harmony of Nature where "Nacht und Stürme werden Licht" with the even more explicit Friedrich von Schiller Ode to Joy.

Beethoven's Symphony no 9 perfectly captures the revolutionary spirit of the Romantic era, and of the ideals Beethoven held so deeply.  What would Beethoven, Schiller and their contemporaries think of modern societies where such values seem to be in retreat ?  While this symphony is expressive with the full blast of a large modern orchestra and massed voices,  the Freiburger Barockorchester, with their appreciation of the more intimate soundworld of Beethoven's time, also bring out the human scale and personal warmth in this symphony. The power of this piece lies in the way Beethoven uses individuals to create a greater creative whole.  The Freiburger Barockorchester have also recorded a superb Beethoven Leonore (the 1805 version of Fidelio) with René Jacobs, livelier and more spirited than John Eliot Gardiner, emphasizing the originality of Beethoven's writing for the two female roles, who are much more developed than in the 1814 version. It is essential listening. The Freiburger Barockorchester have recently released a new recording of Beethoven's Piano Concertos no 2 and 5 "The Emperor" also with Kristian Bezuindenhout and Pablo Heras-Casado.

The superb playing of the Freiburger  Barockorchester is enhanced by Heras-Casado's direct, vivid style, and by the quality of the soloists,  Christiane Karg, Sophie Harmsen, Werner Güra and Florian Boesch.  Their voices are exceptionally well-balanced, and operate in consort with each other, which is also part of underlying meaning. Not a weak link here, as is sometimes the case with lesser performances.  The choir is the Zürcher Sing-Akademie, also very rewarding. 

Monday 29 June 2020

Glyndebourne magic at home - Ravel L'enfant et les sortilèges

L'enfant et les sortilèges - Teapot (François Piolino) Child (Khatouna Gadelia) Chinese Cup (Elodie Méchain) Credit Simon Annand
 Glyndebourne at home, minus the garden. Champagne and strawberries optional. But a glorious chance to experience once more the magic of Ravel L'enfant et les sortilèges, in the Laurent Pelly production.  In L'enfant et les sortilèges, the world is seen through the eyes of a child, still full of wonder, too young to be locked into rigid assumptions : innocent, yet still  aware that there might be darker forces lurking just beyond.  This isn't an opera that can be approached literally, with the judgementalism that some adults might prefer.   Pelly, however, captures its elusive delicacy, where magical thinking co-exists with an awareness that harsh reality will eventually intrude, even on the pure in spirit.  "L'enfant et les sortilèges" said Pelly, "lasts about 45 minutes, but has the depth of an opera of three or four hours".This production's timeless, endlessly refreshing. What a joy it is to experience its freedom again via Glyndebourne streaming, especially in these times when it seems that the world seems bent on self destruction.

The combination of this L'enfant et les sortilèges, from 2012, with Pelly's much earlier L'heure espagnole underlines the freshness of Pelly's conception.  In  L'heure espagnole the adult figures are cynical, as inhuman and as inhumane as the clocks Torquemada surrounds himself with. Machines can be controlled to suit. Torquemada's a classic case of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, where process means more than goal, the need to regulate a mask for existential anxiety.  Concepción thinks she can escape by playing men off against each other, but she, too, is operating on clockwork. Everyone in  L'heure espagnole is trapped in an infernal machine they don't even recognise : no-one's happy, or innocent.

The 2012 Glyndebourne cast was brilliant - Stéphanie d'Oustrac and Kathleen Kim, for starters ! Altogether unforgettable !  Please see my original review from the premiere  and also my interview with Laurent Pelly.