Monday 30 November 2009

Fantasy Messiah staging

Why shouldn't Handel's Messiah be fully staged? If ever there was a subject with dramatic potential, this is it. A living faith needs to live, constantly created anew.

Messiah is certainly not "opera" in the usual sense because, fundamentally, it's not "entertainment". Three hundred years of performance tradition pigeonhole it into a narrow niche: Protestant England at song. Yet think of the story it tells, as if you'd never heard it before. It's shocking, cosmic, "terrible" in the way Blake used the word "terrible", something too frightening to fully take in, but compelling and awe-inspiring.

Staging Messiah is also a good exercise in theoretical and practical stagecraft. It means considering the hows and whys of staging opera, in more general terms. For me, good staging comes from within the work being presented, growing outwards, not imposed from without. A good director once told me that you have to "unthink" everything you assume you know, so meaning comes through direct and pure. Since all of us, including devout atheists, carry baggage about Christian images, it's probably a good idea, to wipe clean completely of "social religion". These aren't actually relevant to the real Jesus story, and indeed are sometimes the downside of faith, and getting away from them is difficult. But it's worth trying.

Listen to that music! Handel is practically incandescent with ecstasy, charged with almost electric energy. And that text, darkness, fear, agony, suddenly blitzed away. Right from the beginning, it's about "shaking" the earth. Accounts of nuclear explosions refer to blinding light, just as religious texts do, and even some accounts of near death experience. This light is unnatural because it comes from nowhere in "normal" nature. Of course that doesn't mean depicting the Bomb, so no facile literal images needed. But the Bible does deal with Armageddon, and if we're not careful, it just might happen. Strobe lighting would have that impact, but cause convulsions in the audience, physically and psychologically. Not sensible.

It would be fascinating to work out a staged Messiah, as the real story isn't "easy". Real vision would take courage. On top of the usual hordes who can miraculously pass judgement at what they haven't seen, there'd also be backlash from "social religion", which isn't the same as spiritual belief. So perhaps no-one will dare do a truly original Messiah staging. Which is a tragedy, as the message in the story is so so strong and so relevant. But I do believe it can, and should, be done.

photo credit : Josh Summers

Saturday 28 November 2009

Xmas card Messiah ENO

It’s Christmas and the bells on tills are jingling! Deborah Warner’s Messiah at the ENO is a Christmas card writ large, designed to corner the Christmas market. “Are we like sheep?” goes Handel’s libretto. “Yes!” suggests Warner, projecting images of shoppers in a mall behind the music. This production will sell, and sell, because it looks great. But Handel it isn’t, nor is it art, nor does it have much to do with Jesus.

It starts promisingly, with a magnificent film of a big city, lights twinkling. On stage are individual actors, isolated despite the busy world around them. Modern interpretations of the story aren’t merely valid, but are a positively good thing, since humanity is universal, whatever the flavour of religion. important. A lot could have been made of this initial approach. Who was the woman ironing? What happened to the men on the DSS bench? Unfortunately these tantalizing ideas didn't develop but tapered off, dissipated in fussy detail.

At the end, there’s lots of congratulatory hand-shaking, like a parody of a Catholic Mass, but it doesn’t evolve out of what’s gone before, and comes over as an easy solution to end the show on a positive note to send the punters home happy. What does Warner mean by images of regimented community, like pews (or school benches), and the handing out of Bibles? Organized society doesn't necessarily benefit individuals any more than organized religion benefits souls. At the end, everyone may be on stage but it doesn't make them any less alone.

Handel’s Messiah is based on The Greatest Story Ever Told. It’s inherently dramatic. God becomes man to save the world by dying and being resurrected. Warner’s Messiah, however, evolves like a series of Xmas cards, each song cutely illustrated like a number in a musical. This fragments the powerful thrust of the original, where everything’s leading up to a specific goal, so its impact is woefully dissipated.

Warner's style is very busy, with lots of sub plots and diversions to entertain the eye. Here the stage is divided into two sections, actions happening simultaneously. In theory, this is a good device, but here it's used to maximize detail without expanding meaning. Then the floor itself is removed revealing what looks like real turf growing on a board. It's expensive, so why is it there? why is it pushed away? Perhaps the ENO has to support lots of stage hands and actors, which is why the moving of objects and furniture seems to be house style. Artistically, it's less valid. Indeed, it encourages superficiality, since it concentrates attention on props, not on inherent drama.

For Handel, Christmas is no more than a prelude for the Resurrection, But without the Crucifixion, Resurrection is meaningless. Warner’s production is so fixated on Christmas that the Crucifixion is negated. Even the instruments of torture are painted gold, like tacky decorations. Perhaps the real Jesus story might scare away the Christmas crowds, but I suspect it’s not cynicism that plays down the horror of the story, but an inability to deal with the deeper emotional and social implications.

Images familiar from Xmas cards are projected over the stage, and golden baubles descend, obscuring the action, like embossing on a card. Yet the paintings card makers borrow are based on genuine works of art. However well intentioned Xmas cards may be, they’re not art. They're ephemera, often tacky, and demean what they depict. They look good, as long as you don't look too closely or know the original. A bit like this production. At least there were no Santas, though there was a "Christmas Tree" or rather a tree spray painted gold like an ornament left on display long after Christmas has passed.

The closest this production comes to the heart of the drama is when Catherine Wyn-Rogers sings “He was despised”. Significantly, this is one of the few moments when there isn’t a lot of distracting action on stage, and the music at last has a chance to shine through. But Jesus is going through much more than social discomfort. Brindley Sherratt’s lucky, too, that he didn’t have to contend with a trumpeter on stage during “The Trumpets shall sound”. Poor Sophie Bevan has to sing on her back in a hospital bed and “die”. Then magically, she’s "resurrected”. John Mark Ainsley enters, gives her a gift wrapped dressing gown and immediately departs, blowing her a bemused, desultory kiss. Doesn’t it mean anything that she’s just been raised from the dead? Handel thinks it's a miracle. Here it's no big deal.

One of the positive things about this production was the way the ensembles moved on and offstage, seamlessly, in ways oratorio can’t achieve. This maintained a good flow between solo and choral pieces, and alone was justification for staging this work. On the other hand, the singing was curiously uncommitted. I never thought I’d miss conventional choirs, but even ragged ones can sing with more fervour. It was particularly disappointing since this Messiah is the culmination of Sing Hallelujah! an ambitious and laudable project for getting people all over thew country to experience the physical joy of singing. All that enthusiasm, and then this stilted performance by professionals singing nicely, but treating the Hallelujah like any other opera chorus. It works better when it's wild.

Christmas is associated with children, having lots of children in this production will guarantee success. The more ooohs and aaahs the better, and no-one ever criticizes kids. .They were lovely, and the small boy who jumps around the stage throughout certainly has admirable stamina. But using children in this saccharine way demeans them, and the central drama, like Xmas cards weaken the impact of great paintings. Of course children are symbols of innocence, hence baby Jesus, and real kids always get underfoot and clamber everywhere. Here they become props. Someone suggested to me, half jokingly, that maybe the kids might be crucified. Shocking as that might sound, there's a certain logic to it, since that's what happened to Jesus, and all kids grow up to face struggle, as part of life. Theologically and psychologically sound as that might be. it's just not going to happen.

Since Warner’s Messiah is a Christmas treat for undemanding audiences, it’s unrealistic to expect too much. There’s nothing wrong with God-free celebrations, and Christmas these days honours Mammon, not the Christian idea of God. So Warner's Messiah will be a huge hit and bring happiness to many, which is a good thing, to be commended. But it's also Handel-free, and art-free, like a true Xmas card.

A more formal version of this will appear HERE shortly. With photos. Please see my other posts on the Messiah, on Handel, and on stagecraft. Since this performance i've been thinking how The Messiah could be staged well. It does lend itself to staging, because this is the ultimate Ideas Story, and lends itself to being expressed in many ways. It should be possible to do an intelligent staging if the ideas come from within the score itself. The faith Handel depicts is universal, and if faith is universal, it adapts to all circumstances. There's no reason why the Messiah can't be dramatized, if done with respect, for the music and for the ideas behind it. HERE is a short bit on staging the Messiah, and its implications for the theory and practice of stagecraft.

Cantonese Cajuns

Cajuns and Cantonese! Jambalaya sung in Chinese by San Ma Tsai, in the 1950's. San Ma Tsai translates as "New Horse Boy", I don't know his real name but that's his stage name. He was an opera singer and comedian who loved doing satires like this. "I've go the threads, I look cool, I'm known as Ma Wong!" (Horse king, cowboy dude). Later in the clip are other comedians who did this well. The skinny one with glasses used to do nerdy roles, hilarious!

Thursday 26 November 2009

Turkeys for Enid Blyton

Readers in the US, enjoy a good holiday! The values of Thanksgiving are good, lots to be grateful for.

Brits have Enid Blyton. Last week a reader told me about his defining Blyton moment. It was a story about a Cub Scout doing "bob a job", which is when small boys do good deeds for minimal returns.

In this story (details vague after 50 years) a woman asks a kid to clear her huge shed of garbage. "If you do it right I'll give you extra treats". So the kid clears the shed which, as anyone who's ever done such things, is no small task. So the kid did his best and asked for the treats. "Ha Ha!" said the mean woman, "You don't get the treats because I hid them under the rubbish you didn't clear!" Some will admire that, but my friend, aged 9, was disgusted. One person's "clever" is to others sick, devious, manipulative. So this reader asked "What would Richmal Crompton do?"

Richmal Crompton composed stories like puzzles. William's mother's doing a fund raiser for the local church. William, being a scruffy little punk, doesn't do parish parties, so he wanders off. He meets a frazzled looking man who has missed his train, and there's not another til late afternoon. "Come to the village fair" says William, though the man is clearly a very posh London sophisticate. "At least I'll get tea" says the man. So the unlikely pair repair to the shabby village hall.

Some time before, William had done bob a job for someone who exploited child labour, and cleared what he could of her pile of rubbish. The woman reneged on her promise of goodies but let William keep an odd looking urn which caught his eye. "It's utter rubbish!" said the woman, sneering. Proudly William bestowed the urn on his mother. "It's not my thing," said mother, "but it might make someone else happy. Let's put it in the jumble sale so it might raise something for charity."

Strange posh man, bored witless at the provincial village fair looks at the jumble stall. Suddenly he shrieks "An Etruscan urn!!!" The posh man turned out to be a Sotheby's dealer. The hideous urn William found in the trash sold for enough to do all the charity the village needed and more besides. "Crikes!!" said William, content with a bag of sweets.

So check out Richmal Crompton and her William books. AND CHECK OUT STEPHEN HOUGH here on Thanksgiving in its widest sense : take a few minutes out to warch the videohe's included. My gift to you.

Wednesday 25 November 2009

A sweet way to go gay

Make up your own risqué comments. This ad just begs for them. It comes off a great blog I follow called Musty Moments. "Scouring history for cheap laughs". Who said working in archives can't be fun !

Villazonistas unite - Don Carlo streamed

Three more days to watch the full performance of the original (2008) Don Carlo at the Royal Opera House. Villazon, Keenlyside. Poplavskaya. Pappano conducts, Hytner's director. Follow this link to watch online, on demand til Saturday night. All 3 and 1/2 hours incl extras! Fabulous, watch it loud and full screen.

It's wonderful that such things are possible on public TV. The BBC is funded by a licence fee paid by taxpayers. This of course drives hard line extremist capitalists crazy. Rupert Murdoch thinks the BBC is "competition" and wants it crushed. Ironic, huh, that someone who believes in free market forces needs politicians to help him control the market ?

Maybe he'll succeed as there are plenty of folks who think only in terms of greed, not good. And those are the very ones who can be bought. When such folks have power, that's all the more reason for ordinary folk to stand up for the ideals behind the BBC charter "to entertain, educate and inform". The BBC, despite its hangups, serves the public good and supports whole industries in music, news and creative arts. Much better that public money should go to such a project than on guns, dodgy politicians, dubious bail outs and so on. Oops ! sorry ! NOT guns, they don't arm or support the troops in Afghanistan.

Tuesday 24 November 2009

Wolfgang Rihm - et lux et al

Wolfgang Rihm's Et Lux had its UK premiere last weekend at Huddersfield ( for more on the Huddersfield Festival which continues this week please see HERE) It's different because it brings together the Arditti Quartet, who do ultra modern, and the Hilliard Ensemble, who sing early music. Rihm has experimented with odd combinations before, like his refiguring of Bach, but this is quite new.

Ivan Hewett was there. Here's what he said "After a wispy single-line introduction from the quartet came a pure euphonious vocal chord. It was light but shadowy, a stunning moment of "darkness visible".......Often, the music tipped towards harsh dissonance, though always in a soft voice.....someimes, the quartet seemed to fight the voices with plucked and scrubbed sounds, sometimes it was like a second four-part choir." Read the full review HERE.

Looking ahead, there's a Wolfgang Rihm Total Immersion at the Barbican in London in March. See HERE for details. Wow ! Lots of previously unheard work and Rihm will be there himself to talk to.

Monday 23 November 2009

The White Ribbon - Haneke

Michael Haneke's film The White Ribbon (Das weisse Band) at the Barbican is worth rushing out for. I was going to wait for the DVD (also available on download) but I'm glad I didn't wait. It's won the Palme d'Or at Cannes but that alone means little: this a very compelling movie whatever the accolades.

It's set in 1913, but framed by the voice of an old man recalling events that happened long ago when he was the village teacher, and says "it might explain what happened later". Don't, however, fall into the trap of assuming it's some kind of pseudo-history. This film is about human nature and could apply anywhere.

The village preacher punishes his kids by making them wear a white ribbon to remind them to be pure in heart and mind. He loves them and genuinely believes he's guiding them well. By the standards of the time it wasn't so unusual to think masturbation caused death. So purity as ideal and symbol. But the story isn't nearly as simple as you'd think. Many dangerous things are happening in this placid little village. Someone causes the doctor to fall off his horse. Two children are brutally tortured. A barn is burned, cabbages in a field decapitated. Who is doing these things and why? Are the events even connected? As the old man says, perhaps the greater damage was that it created a climate of suspicion, everyone sniffing out evil, even where it wasn't. Then the real "white band", the villagers' innate purity, was lost forever.

This film doesn't do stereotypes. The Baron is the main employer but he's not a remote capitalist exploiter. With status come feudal obligations. He knows the locals personally. When a woman is killed in an accident in his barn, her son wrecks the cabbage patch. Then the Baron's son is beaten up - he hangs out with the local kids, too. Yet the Baron tells the village he knows it wasn't the woman's son. In any case, he tells the villagers, Felder (the woman's husband) is so straight and so upright, he'd die rather than be sneaky.

What's interesting, too, is that the narrative is oblique. It's a series of vignettes which hint rather than explain. The teacher sees the preacher's son walking dangerously on the edge of a bridge. "Now I know God doesn't want me to die", says the kid. His little brother looks after a wounded bird. The steward's son has pushed the baron's son into the brook (this time he's quickly saved by the steward's other son). When questioned by his father he denies it, but as the father leaves the boy plays the baron's son's flute - it's proof, without the need for words.

One day, the teacher encounters Frau Wagner, the midwife, who's rushing off to town because she "knows" who the perpetrators are. It turns out that the doctor, who'd been sleeping with her and his own daughter, has disappeared with the kids. But the midwife doesn't come back either. The local kids are at the doctor's house, trying to look in. Why has the midwife barricaded the windows, in a tiny Dorfchen where doors are left open to all?

The teacher remembers how the band of kids were present at all the strange incidents. He doesn't know (though we do) that the preacher's daughter killed her dad's pet canary by spiking it with nail scissors. The teacher questions the kids, but they're so used to clamming up, they act innocent. So he goes to the preacher, who goes berserk, as any parent would, although it's not just his kids. He threatens mayhem on the teacher if word gets out. But he doesn''t act. Nor does the midwife return. All is unresolved.

Much has been made of the sensational parts of the story, such as the doctor's son seeing his dad and sister in bed, but the film is about wider concepts like taking responsibility. Hence old peasant Felder, whom the baron had exonerated, is found having committed suicide right after the barn where his wife died is razed in a dramatic fire. The baron's wife says she's leaving him, not because there's another man but because she doesn't want her kids growing up in this unhealthy environment. And perhaps the teacher becomes a tailor because his girlfriend's father - a totally direct man who gets straight to the point and doesn't do chat - asks him why he didn't take over his dad's business in the first place.

Watch the trailers HERE 
Get the DVD HERE

Because English language audiences don't know anything about Germany other than Hitler, they might see The White Ribbon as a simplistic allegory about the war. But Haneke connects the story to 1914 for much more complex reasons. Anglophiles assume the First World War was the Western Front, not realizing that the devastation on the Eastern Front was infinitely greater. Both world wars stemmed from events in central and eastern Europe, rather than from the western peripheries. But history is written to suit the winners, and English is so dominant a language that it pushes other accounts out of the picture.

Setting The White Ribbon is that specific time and place adds extra resonance if you think beyond Anglophone assumptions. We might deduce that the film is set in East Prussia because of the reference to Frederick the Great as flautist, and to general knowledge about north German society. German communities, were established as far as Russia around 1000 years ago, nominally under the control of various kingdoms, but effectively self-contained. Hence the Junkers, on whom so much is blamed. In practice, though, feudal throwbacks maintained different values. Üb immer Treu und Redlichkeit bis an dein kühles Grab. Honest and honourable until the grave.

The German communities of Prussia and beyond no longer exist. They were subject to ethnic cleansing in 1918 and again in 1945. Of course that doesn't diminish what happened to Jews and Communists in Nazi times. But the point of the film is that evil comes from human nature, and innocents suffer. Everyone gets caught up in the madness, culpable or not. Which is why real purity comes from being direct, like the teacher's girlfriend's father, and the old peasant widower.

Like the period it depicts, Haneke's The White Ribbon ends in a kind of of limbo. The teacher never finds out what happened because he left the village soon after. Then the war came, overturning everything. By the time the teacher became an old man, the world he knew was obliterated. What happened to the people? Where did they end up, what did they do?

The photo is a real family, taken around this period from an archive collection. No one knows who they are or where they ended up, but in the moment when the photo was taken, they're preserved forever happy and smiling.

Sunday 22 November 2009

Mahler 10 Harding Mendelssohn Tetzlaff

Because Mahler didn't complete the Tenth Symphony, performance needs to be open ended, recognizing that we'll never know what might have been. What a conductor hears in the material is just as informative as what we might assume we know.

That's why I found Riccardo Chailly's Mahler 10th with the Leipzig Gewandhaus at this year's Proms so fascinating. Chailly brought out aspects of the Eternal Feminine: a concept quite explicitly developed in the 8th Symphony. Connecting the 10th to the 8th is perfectly valid, for Mahler is on both sides of the divide in his life, before and after the crisis with Alma.

Daniel Harding and the London Symphony Orchestra's Mahler 10 at the Barbican on 20th November was altogether tougher and sterner, more cognizant of the horrors in the piece, so in that sense is a more conventional reading. In the alternating themes of the Adagio, Harding hears duality too, but develops it into a complex shifting between polarities. The themes circle each other, interweaving rather than firmly connecting. Mahler and Alma, perhaps, since the composer marked his manuscript with so many references to the woman he loved.

But Harding hears the Adagio as a prelude for what is to come. As sao often in Mahler, beginnings set the stage for ultimate resolution in a different form. The Adagio isn't an end in itself. Perhaps Alma wanted only the Adagio to be performed because she wanted to maintain a romantic image of her marriage. Obviously Mahler adored her. But the manuscript shows that he was going further. As Harding has said, the “famous “scream” chord in the first movement, a nine-note dissonance, is an astonishing cry of anguish …. "it’s pure Edvard Munch in music”.

Dissonance of the soul, teetering on an abyss of something terrifying and new. The duality, in Harding, is unsettling, uncomforting. Some performing editions try too hard to "complete" the 10th, smoothing out the angularity, but Cooke III lets them hang. Thus, in the second scherzo, Harding kept the LSO tightly reined in, so they don't cover the jagged edges Mahler left incomplete by "normal" orchestral colour. In his recording with the Vienna Philharmonic, Harding's careful control was even more shocking, because the VPO is an orchestra for whom stark chiaroscuro almost doesn't exist. But that's the whole point. We don't know where Mahler was heading, we can't paper over the aural gaps.

Hence the hollownesss, particularly well shaped in the second (and most incomplete) scherzo and in the Finale : the drumbeats here truly sounded strangled, cut off in mid flow, minimal resonance. The fireman's funeral GM and Alma watched in New York moved him deeply, exactly why we'll never know. But the fireman was cut down in his prime, so the drumbeats are both dirge and truncated heartbeats. Good as the LSO is, the Vienna Philharmonic recording shows just how chilling a performance can be (for a review see link above).

Alma was Mahler's muse, but she wasn't a benevolent deity. She scratched out the second part of its title "oder Inferno", and cut away the bottom half of the title page which may have contained a poem she didn't like. GM loved her but he was smart enough to know her love for him was utterly conditional. He may have won her back but that didn't mean she might not leave again. Alma loved playing angelic nurse to ailing husband, but when he was gone, she went back to Gropius. And, by praising Alma's rather banal songs, Mahler was making compromises with his artistic instinct, even if that was understandable in the circumstances. So Harding's tense, disturbing approach to the symphony is psychologically as well as musically astute.

Most of the audience at the Barbican on Friday night seemed to have come for Christian Tetzlaff's Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. Tetzlaff's amazing and this is one of his showpieces. Divinely fluid playing, rewarded by unusually prolonged applause. Yet part of the magic was due to the orchestra, too, because Mendelssohn wasn't writing for a demented violinist-as-demon . Here the LSO got to demonstrate their delicacy, carefully micromanaged by Harding without losing the whimsical spontaneity in the piece. Pairing Mendelssohn with Mahler was a very good idea, for the poised balance in Mendelssohn contrasts with the wavering polarities in Mahler. Yet both pieces were executed with sensitive, musically informed intelligence.

Saturday 21 November 2009

Elisabeth Söderström passes away

Elisabeth Söderström passed away yesterday 20th Nov. Here is an obit written by Alan Blyth some years ago. So many memories ! Strangely enough, in the last few days, I've been thinking about her rendition of Sibelius's Se'n har jag ej frågat mera. (Since then, I have asked no more). It was odd, as I haven't thought about it in ages. But I pulled it out again, and it's marvellous, and a great way to remember Söderström.

It is a wonderful song, one of Sibelius's greatest and most intense. Yet so understated and dignified. In youth a woman used to ask why summer ended so soon. Then, when she learned of life, she questioned no longer. "Deep in her soul", she has "come to know that beauty is transient, and that happiness does not last".

On the DVD, she sings against a filmed landscape of mid winter, with heavily snow laden trees reflected in the waters of a lake, a symphony in grey and white, as abstract as a painting. It is incredibly poetic, a poignant way of expressing music in visual images - a five minute masterpiece of the art of filming music. When Söderström appears, she's filmed in soft focus, lit with luminous shimmering light. She's quite mature, about 55 but this adds to the depth and dignity of her performance. We are fortunate that Söderström lives forever on recordings.

Secret Chinese restaurant, London

London's best kept secret Chinese restaurant is open again! Loon Fung is the wholesaler who supplies most Chinese restaurants in the London area, huge floorspace where you can buy rice by the tonne, cooking oil in industrial cans, and saucepans a metre in diameter. Huge choice of vegetables, UK or China grown and air freighted. These taste different, much stronger, so they're worth the price and carbon footprint. Come here too for serious, ripe tomatoes that don't taste like cardboard. And Chinese supermarkets are the only source in UK for A&W root beer!

People travel for miles to stock up, so it's common sense to give them a meal before their long trek home (and to cook for others). The restaurant, above the Alperton store, is upstairs through a side entrance. Opening hours the same as the shop, so emphasis is on dim sum and Chinese fast food.

The last caterers were very good, these new ones less so, but it's convenient to have decent Chinese food without a big ceremony and fuss parking. This time I had an excellent congee (jook) flavoured with lots of chicken knuckles. Congee is basically rice soup, a sort of watery porridge – Chinese comfort food. When in doubt, eat congee! Cures all ills. During the Japanese occupation when there was famine, congee kept people alive. Much less impressed by the char siu which was truly horrible, weedy and stale. Other people were eating noodles and whole fish, which looked good. Choose things that have to be cooked not microwaved and you should be fine.

If you want banquet quality, there are other places, but Loon Fung is convenient for basics. It's also next to a Sainsbury's megastore. One day I might get lucky and get invited to Royal China Club in St John's Wood (Club in Hong Kong connotes very very upmarket) This week I'm going to Phoenix Palace in Glentworth Street (off Baker Street). There are two Royal China's in Baker Street, one a pretentious and expensive pseudo tea house with expensive (but decent) teas. Royal China in Queensway is where everyone goes, so much so now that most of the customers aren't Chinese anymore, but the food's so good that it's worth waiting in line for an hour. There is a restaurant upstairs at Hoo Hing megastore on the A406, and above Wing Yip in Croydon, South London but neither are good - I walked out of the Wing Yip thing in disgust.

Later today : review of Harding Mahler 10 and Mendelssohn Violin Concerto (Tetzlaff) at the Barbican last night

Friday 20 November 2009

Henze launches Barbican new operas season

PLEASE NOTE there are 15 Posts on Henze on this site and more coming, including reviews of Phaedra, both in Berlin and in the Barbican. Please use search facility at right Hans Werner Henze's Phaedra at last comes to London in January, keynote of special immersion weekend in Henze's wonderful, far-ranging music. Devotees booked their tickets a year ago, but you can still get them now from the Barbican. Henze is the greatest living German composer, by miles. He's not given nearly enough recognition in the English-speaking world because in 1968 he put his principle before profit. He supported the revolutionary ideals of the time, went to Cuba and protested against the Vietnam war. End of lucrative deals: DG had just issued a mega retrospective of his symphonies, so they lost out badly. But they stood by him and are now reissuing the recordings to new audiences who now realize that maybe Henze had a point.

Henze is an institution. If anything in old age and infirmity he's even more creative. Phaedra is a crucial point in his life and music. It's a passionate statement about love, and the power of love to triumph over all obstacles, including death. Personally it had huge emotional resonance for Henze because his lover of 40 years died suddenly while it was being written. This lover had just nursed Henze himself through a traumatic near death illness which left him incapacitated for months. So there's no separating the personal from the musical in this powerful work. When the work premiered in Berlin in 2007 one writer sneered that it wasn't funny enough and that Henze shouldn't end his career like that. Another moaned it was in German! Well, Henze didn't end his career and has gone on to write yet another opera, to be premiered in Rome in May 2010.

Henze's previous opera L'Upupa was cheerful and whimsical but the composer has written so much else. Indeed, his work is notable for its extreme range. Phaedra is a very tightly crafted, intense chamber opera, austere and yet other-worldly. In London, we'll be getting Ensemble Modern, who've made it a key part of their repertoire, and John Mark Ainsley.

Read more about it HERE on What's on Stage. Simon Thomas has interviewed Angela Dixon about the Barbican's special season of new European operas. The special season will include Peter Eötvös's Angels in America and Michael van der Aa's After Life. Read about them in the link.

Thursday 19 November 2009

Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival 2009

The Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival starts Friday 20th November. This is Britain's biggest new music festival, and has been going for decades, though some years have been a lot better than others. This is where to go for the hip in new European music. Huddersfield is an industrial city up north, expensive to get to if you live in the south, but BBC Radio3 will be broadcasting some highlights. Lots of composers, few know outside specialist circles, plus some of the greats - this year features Louis Andriessen.

Read this year's programme HERE. The hot item on 20/11 will be Wolfgang Rihm's -ET LUX- UK premiere, performed by the Arditti Quartet, so closely associated with the composer, and the Hilliard Quartet.

Pity the BBC won't be doing this , but they're devoting 90 minutes on 28 November to the festival and to Jonathan Harvey's Mortuos Plango, which is being done as a full installation tomorrow. Normally Harvey is not my thing, but this piece is fabulous, and made Harvey's reputation way back. It's about different levels of time, expressed by mixing bells, a boy's voice and electronic sound: it' would be moving to hear as live installation in a church. Lots more Harvey during the festival as he's "featured composer". Piano works on 21/11, followed by the Ardittis playing string quartets, including works by James Dillon and James Clarke.

Another not miss if possible is David Sawer's Rumpelstiltskin with the BCMG. This received rave reviews when it was premiered in Birmingham recently. Conducted by Martyn Brabbins and directed by Richard Jones, it's evidently a major event, which won't be quite the same audio-only. Pity it's coming nowhere near London.

Bas Wiegers brings the Nieuw Ensemble from the Netherlands for several concerts : look at the one which has Luca Francesconi, Gérard Pesson and Stefano Bellon (24/11). But the big draw will be Louis Andriessen Day on Nov 25th at which the composer himself will be present. The afternoon concert brings smaller scale works (Cristina Zavalloni sings) and in the evening a two piano feast - including De Staat transcribed for pianos, and the Hague Hacking (which grew on me after repeat listening) and the companion pair, A very sharp trumpet sonata and A very sad trumpet sonata. These are whimsical miniatures but extremely inventive, full of witty ideas.

Emmanuel Nunes day on 25th. Nunes is well known in Europe, unknown in UK, He spent his working years teaching in Paris, but now he's retired and back in Lisbon, his own work should get higher profile. At Huddersfield Noriko Kawai (excellent) will be playing his masterpiece, Litanies de feu et de la mer 1 and 11. Read THIS description of his work from IRCAM. Listen HERE for sound clips of Litanies, and HERE for a description of the Guild CD. Quatuor Diotima premieres his Improvisation IV - l'électricité de la pensée humaine the next evening.

Everyone knows and loves Rolf Hind as a pianist, so there'll be interest in his own work, A jasmine petal, a single hair, seven mattresses, a pea I've only heard one of Hind's pieces, the title I can't remember but it was interesting enough that I'd like to hear this. He'll be playing the UK premiere of a work by Lisa Lim, whom I've also heard but less memorably. Frederic Rzewski is also a big name pianist, and here will be playing his own Nanosonatas Books III to VI. Also featured will be a Danish composer, Jexper Holmen, completely new to me and Rebecca Saunders' premiere Disclosure. Read more about her on this blog, her music intrigues me, its so tactile.

As always, the last Saturday night in any festival is the big night and this one has the London Sinfonietta, Jonathan Harvey and Richard Barrett. Barrett's Mesopotamia has its world premiere, and will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 on 28 November, available online worldwide and on demand for a week on the BBC website. "Inspired by artefacts found on ancient archeological sites, Richard Barrett's Mesopotamia has a "dense, multi-layered structure that imitates the successive destruction and re-building of communities throughout history. Scored for 17 instruments and electronics, the piece forms the fifth part of a series of compositions collectively entitled resistance & vision", says the blurb. Barrett and his partner Paul Obermayer will be doing the electro acoustics, and there'll be two vocalists. More electro-acoustics next night, too, with Enno Poppe and Wolfgang Heiniger, Tiere sitzen nicht. "Animals don't sit". Poppe's work is very conceptual, and with such a concept, anything's possible.
Read about Rihm's Et lux and the forthcoming Rihm immersion day at the Barb HERE

Wednesday 18 November 2009

Ma Sicong - why Chinese composers matter

Ma Sicong (1912-1987) is important because he was a major Chinese composer who wrote western classical music, but influenced by Chinese traditional music - think Bartók, Ravel, Janáček creating their music from folk forms. Some of Ma's music is seriously good.

Ma is also important because his life reflects what happened in China during his lifetime. His parents were Guangdong intellectuals: this southern province, often the source of rebellions, produced Sun Yat Sen and other leaders of the movement that overturned 2000 years of imperial rule. (Later his father was asassinated in Japanese-occupied Shanghai.)

Ma was a child violin prodigy, who went to Paris to study when he was only 11. staying ten years. Many Chinese intellectuals trained in Paris and Berlin at that time - like Zhou Enlai the grand eminence behind the Communist Party and the composer Xian Xinghai. This was a fascinating generation - gifted, adventurous, idealistic, which should really be better documented. Like most of them, Ma returned to China after the Japanese invasion, to help the country. After 1949, Ma, like all intellectuals, had to serve the Revolution. His 2nd Symphony celebrates the big civic works that were needed to modernize the country. Yet, like Shostakovich and Prokofiev, Ma retained his integrity and identity, perhaps best expressed in his chamber music. He was a virtuoso violinist and a charismatic, much loved teacher.

During the Cultural Revolution, he became a target of the Red Guards, but his sympathisers helped him make a dramatic escape, first to Hong Kong, then to the US. He died in exile. Now that trauma is over: Ma's ashes have been returned to Guangdong, and honoured. Please read the wiki entries in Chinese and English : they're well informed. But above all, listen to his music. Please read about Ku Hsiao-mei's recording of Ma's music for violin and piano. There are sound samples to listen to if you follow that link.
There is plenty of Chinese music elsewhere on this site - it needs to be better appreciated for what it is. It's sad that such a huge part of human experience isn't enough understood in the west.

Tuesday 17 November 2009

Berlin, Die Sinfonie der Grossstadt - download

This is "Berlin, Symphony of a Great City", Die Sinfonie der Grossstadt, a film made in 1927 directed by Walther Ruttmann. A symphony, but a silent movie? Partly they didn't have the technology then but this film actually works better with silence, for many reasons.

First, you concentrate on the images and the way they flow together to create a "symphony" in the original sense of the word, a weaving together of images. And what images - trains moving into the heart of the city, the lines so carefully choreographed that they move almost into one another, telephone cables crisscrossing in the sky, the innards of a telephone exchange dissected to show how thousands of lines cross and don't cross. The S Bahn and U Bahn and recognizable stations. This is abstract art, using real images, incredibly beautiful. Even now it looks modern, but in 1927 this was truly avant garde, for it celebrates state of the art technology.

Second, there's no need for narrative as this film depicts the life of a big city, teeming with people, each with individual narratives of their own. Each has his or her own life beyond what's caught on film, They've come from somewhere and will be going off to somewhere else, but for a few frames they're immortal, caught on screen. Most of them probably never knew they were being filmed. All of them are now dead, even probably the laughing babies in their prams and the kids scampering in the gutter (an image that any modern parent would howl at).

Third, the film doesn't judge. It's not some simplistic Marxist dialectic. All people and objects were filmed as they existed. The monk watching the demo, the beggar seeking alms, the old woman painfully climbing up the stairs to a church, rich and poor, old and young. A black man smiles in one shot, and in the background of another, two Indonesians in sarongs walk past - no explanation. A pretty girl in pale silk, her scarf blowing in the breeze, caught forever in motion. Animals and humans, lions and street dogs, beggars and government big brass. A little girl tries to pull her dolly pram up some steps, but fails. Two slightly older girls walk past, with looks that say "What a baby". A tram speeds past an elaborate 19th century hearse, pulled by horses.

Horses and streetcars, trains and tiny propeller airplanes that take us up for an aerial view of the city - almost unprecedented back then. The plane is Lufthansa but not the Lufthansa we know today. Everything seems excitingly modern - the bride and her family look as if it's the first time they've been in a car. Yet so much they take for granted is unknown to us now : elaborate puppets in shops, and in the streets musicians playing strange hurdy-gurdys we cannot hear. There's a procession of men dressed in weird costumes - they're advertising salt, of all things. And the footmen around the official building wear 18th century costumes - no one bats an eyelid, it must have been normal uniform. Footmen? yes, coaches with horses, straight out of Frederick The Great.

The film is like a symphony too in that it works in "movements" or Aktes - transport, food, night. And like a symphony it flows together theme by theme, images juxtaposed impressionistically to create the feel of a great city, alive and thriving. These aren't actors, but real people, There's hardly any mis-en-scène except perhaps the sequence with the dangerous ride in the funfair spliced with the desperately unhappy woman and the horrified crowd waving at something fallen from a bridge. I'm not sure whether Brecht and Eisler's On Suicide was written before or after this film, but it's a climactic moment. "In diesem Lande, und in diesem Zeit... there should be no melancholy evenings, or high bridges, over the water...... for these are dangerous...." But the image, now, is poignant because we know the film was made on the precipice of German history, even though the filmmakers didn't know it then.

Everyone in this film is dead now, even the babies in their prams. We know what was going to happen in Berlin barely five years later, and the apocalypse to come. The thing about history is that it's happening around us all the time. We don't know it as it happens, because it "becomes" history only in hindsight, when things seem to fall into analyzable place. The film makers are presenting us with an almost - not quite - objective source material which we can interpret in ways they probably could not foresee. History is no more than an ordering of documentary materials according to principles that might not be evident at the time they happen. That's why history is an art, and much more dangerous than the way it's taught in schools. It should be a search for truth, but often it's a way of rearranging reality to serve a purpose.

I tried to think of music to go with this but it's impossible, It would deface the dignity of these images, which bear silent testimony to a world long gone, which sometimes we can still catch echos of today. Better to switch off the world around you, and sit suspended in time, alone, for an hour, and watch this amazing film as it unfolds. This movie can be watched fullscreen and freeze framed if you want to check details.
Please see my other posts about Berlin, Furtwangler, The Wall, and German history

Monday 16 November 2009

Enid Blyton vs Dr Seuss

It's some Enid Blyton anniversary and that means a big marketing push, which is fair enough, people need to make a living, it's churlish to pretend otherwise. Enid Blyton, or Enig Blyter as John Lennon called her in an early book of poems, is the most popular British author, which makes her important. But what does that say?

A friend of mine was brought up with warm fuzzy memories of Noddy, one of Blyton's best known characters, but moved to the US while still young and was cut off from the Blyton mystique. As an adult, she returned and to her delight found a first edition of the first Noddy book. Then she read it. Nostalgic dreams shattered forever. Noddy is a naked boy who falls off the back of a truck full of small naked boys who are being transported somewhere unknown. He sits at the side of the road, crying, when an elderly man dressed as a garden gnome picks him up. The old man is known as "Big Ears". Freudian, huh ? Old man and naked boy walk off hand in hand. Then a policeman comes along, and as you'd expect stops and asks what's happening. "I'm taking him to live in my house to be my boy". "That's OK then". Yes, well....

By this stage my friend was heartsick, knowing she could never share this with her kids. Then she came to the chapter where an industrial slum is inhabited by golliwogs. Golliwogs weren't originally racist though the world in which they were invented was. But Blyton's use of golliwogs differs from relatively benign things like the badges that came with Robertson's jam who, like Barbie dolls "did" things like play golf (middle class aspiration) and so on. Blyton's golliwogs were clearly a comment on the "new Britain" of the late 40's and early 50's when the frst big wave of Caribbean and Indian immigrants came and settled in places like Slough, not far from Blyton's home in the lush (all white middle class) Home Counties. Immigrants are poor, and have to make their way in society, but Blyton has them as gutless chancers. Blyton's golliwogs were so obviously offensive that they were removed a few years later.

Cleaning up Blyton is just as offensive because it creates the image that she represents something pure and innocent, an idyll of Britishness that far-right political parties like the BNP can hold up as a shining example of what might have been. The Blyton thing is founded on fallacy.

Even outside Noddy, there's something nasty lurking behind green hedges. The Secret Seven and the Famous Five spend all their time hunting down criminals. This isn't innocent. Normal, decent people don't sniff out evil in all things. In Blyton's world, criminals are easily identified because they're outsiders - gypsies, strangers, anyone who doesn't conform. Why bother to do the detective bit ? Simply lynch someone who doesn't fit in.

It's bizarre that so many novelists think kids should fixate on solving "crimes". What does that say about their psyches and the psyches of their readers? Blyton doesn't do much altruism, kindness and gentleness of spirit, the things that really make a difference in this world. Perhaps they're so far beyond her, she couldn't understand. The Salem Witchhunters talked Christianity but didn't know what it meant.

About the only positive role model Blyton creates is George, the girl who thinks and acts like a boy, the first transgender icon in juvenile literature. A gay friend once told me that George gave him hope that there were alternatives to gender stereotypes.

Now they''re re branding Blyton, and new editions are coming out and a book by a relative. Even her nephew, Carey Blyton, is being promoted, though his connection to his famous aunt wasn't that close. Carey Blyton's music isn't obscure. Of the hundreds of minor British composers, he was relatively successful. Ten years ago, when Carey was still alive, Ian Partridge recorded some of his songs, which I eagerly listened to. I tried hard but they were so bland. I tried the chamber music too, but got nowhere. That said, he's still better than some of the obscurities I've studied in my time, but great composer he is not. Some of his fans admire him because he wasn't "politically correct". Often political correctness goes too far but there are reasons for not celebrating regression.

The antithesis to Enid Blyton is Richmal Crompton. Crompton was a liberated, single woman who started writing in the 1920's. She created a character called William, an irrepressible rebel who didn't conform to anything. A truly free spirit, his adventures satirized the society he lived in - his Edwardian parents, his teachers and the Bright Young Things of the 20's. William deals with Nazis and Mussolini, and with Establishment prudes and bullies, like the Brains Trust. One of the stories satirizes Wagner and extremist Wagnerites. Another develops William's reaction to the phrase "Es war einmal".

William befriends tramps and hobos, typical figures of the Depression, stealing food for them and sometimes finding that they weren't always quite the soulmates he thought they were. But the fact is, he doesn't assume evil in everyone. Richmal Crompton is everything Enid Blyton isn't.

You'll have to track down Crompton's original William books, as they were cleaned up in the 1960's to fit genteel taste, in response to the Blyton market. There's a whole world of social change in William books. His parents gradually lose their servants, and come in contact with the modern age and war. William's enemy is a spoiled little girl whose parents are pretentious new rich, who think greed rules society. "I'll sthcream and I'll sthcream!" is the little girl's ultimate threat when she's thwarted. Power by hysteria, not reason.

I was lucky because I inherited a collection of first edition William books. Some of the ideas were way over my head because Crompton didn't dumb down. But kids are smart enough to find out about stuff they don't know. Which is how I found out about the British Brains Trust and the whole world of Establishment certainty. Thanks to my great uncle, I was inoculated early to think like William. The whole "More William" book (1923) is online HERE.

On the other hand, thank God for Dr Seuss ! Like Crompton, he didn't create a fantasy childworld, but dealt with real life thru child-level images. Some of the Dr Seuss books are for adults, and deal with things like nuclear war, but kids relate to them too. But the real beauty of Dr Seuss is that he writes about genuine goodness and purity, not fraudulent innocence.

Horton the elephant hatches the egg a lazy bird abandons. He sits on it through storms and disasters, when all around him say, give up. But when the baby bird is born, he's rewarded by love. Books teach kids about life. Better they should learn from Horton than from most of Enid Blyton.

Sunday 15 November 2009

ENO's Duke Bluebeard's Castle not Bartók's

There's no such thing as non interpretation. Even reading a score is a form of interpreting what it might mean. When we listen, or go to a performance, we're listening to someone's interpretation. It might not match our own. But nothing is necessarily "right" or "wrong" : what it depends on is the rationale behind it.

The ENO Duke Bluebeard's Castle certainly is riveting as theatre so it's certainly worth seeing (at least for £15 thanks to the Independent). But how does it reflect the opera? And why is this production so popular?

Daniel Kramer, the director, comes from a theatre background, so he knows how audiences connect to headline sensations like the Fritzl case. When the fifth door opens, it reveals a warren of cubicles, from which groups of children emerge, the implication being that he imprisoned his wives and bred with them. At the end, Judith lets Bluebeard impale her with a sword. These images aren't in the score but that doesn't necessarily make them "wrong". The problem is that tabloid sensationalism thrills but does not go behind the headlines. And the whole point of this opera is about what's hidden from the surface.

Of course Duke Bluebeard is insane. But portraying him as Josef Fritzl or Phil Garrido is demeaning, to the opera and to the many victims, known or unknown, of such crimes. For one thing, there are Fritzls everywhere - several in Britain recently, which the jingoistic press plays down. If it's only "Austrians" who do such things, "we" don't need to look in our own backyards and face what might be lurking there. At least Judith wants doors opened, not closed!

Moreover, Fritzl's victims did not welcome or choose their fates. Judith, on the other hand suddenly walked out on her family and fiancé on the eve of a marriage that would have given her a castle warmed by roses and sunlight. Bartók's libretto could not be more explicit that it was Judith's conscious and deliberate choice to follow Bluebeard willingly. He certainly keeps warning her, but she's obsessed by the idea that she and only she can bring him happiness. She is not a passive victim.

So why is she so determined to "save" the Duke? What is so compelling about him? The Fritzls of this world do their crimes to hide their nothingness, but Bluebeard in the opera is more complex. He has it all - a castle, wealth, a sinister reputation and possibly charisma. Clive Bayley has to portray Bluebeard as a craven nonentity, twitching uncontrollably, whining rather than menacing. Obviously, he's screwed up inside, but there was something compelling about him that made Judith fall madly in love. Listen to his music. It expresses the tension between Bluebeard's outward magnificence and inward corruption. The opera is a journey into the horrors in his soul. It's the castle that trembles, not the man. And with something much more troubling than bad nerves.

Of course the man "is" the castle but the image - and the music - is much more powerful than the pathetic mess this Bluebeard is, right from the beginning. The horror in the music is so profound that revealing too much too soon dissipates its energy. That's another reason why revealing the children behind door 5 isn't smart. Sure, it gets "wow!" from the audience but it's not the wow! Bartók meant. The fifth door reveals "the fair and spacious country" the Duke rules. It doesn't have to be literal, but taking the idea to mean Fritzl's domination of his kids is a step too far. Even then, it might work if the image were supported in other ways, but it isn't. And the madness - or evil - goes far beyond sex, possibly even beyond and before Bluebeard. Bluebeard is a kind of Faust, who has everything, but cannot be redeemed by love.

Michaela Marten's buxom, upfront Judith had a lot of potential. Her Judith is no fool, and it would have been interesting if the production had focused more on Judith's personality and motivations. They go deeper than having her claw open the fly of Bluebeard's trousers. Maybe one day, we'll hear her in a production where she's not wasted.

Each door reveals some aspect of Bluebeard's might, but first impressions soon turn to blood and gore. Bartók doesn't spell out what the mysteries are. By the time we reach the last door, our imaginations should be tantalized so we're doing the staging in our own minds. Which is actually quite a terrible prospect, given what we might have hidden in our own psyches. But here it's neatly spelled out and spelled out early in a fairly narrow Fritzl context. As theatre it's dramatic, but what's "not" shown is often much more frightening.

Usually Bluebeard's Castle is paired with Schoenberg's Ewartung, highlighting the hallucinatory psychic delusion in each work. It's perfectly reasonable to pair it with Stravinsky's Rite of Spring because both also deal with the idea of purification versus pollution. Judith chooses willingly to enter Bluebeard's realm, just as The Chosen One chooses to die to save the earth. Fabulous Beast's Rite, directed by Michael Keegan-Dolan, has some good basic ideas, but could use more rigour. The animal heads appear in the 1913 original, and the nakedness and cross-dressing has a point. But visual images can be interpreted in different ways. After the men procreate fruitlessly with the ground, (the Rite is about fertility totems), white objects fall from the ceiling. Is it snow? Or cocaine, or dandruff or cigarette ash? Since the piece started with people smoking, maybe it's the latter. But that shows how visual images need to be supported consistently, rather than randomly thrown in.

Edward Gardner's conducting was too sedate and accepting. He must have been tryng not to upstage the productions. Maybe he should think more about Judith, who cared enough to take risks. She may not have escaped but she proved something and changed the status quo.
photo credit

Saturday 14 November 2009

Snow White? Seven Dwarfs? NOT Disney!

NOT Disney! A movie satire from Hong Kong in the early fifties. It's even more hysterical when you realize that each of the Seven Dwarfs is a famous Chinese opera singer or comedian. Or both in the case of Leung Sing Por, the fat guy. He was a brilliant opera singer, who took to straight drama and to comedy so well that he had two simultaneous careers - cannot imagine a western opera star with such guts. All the others are big and medium names, each well characterized. Snow White here has an Alsatian, who acts, too. And her big number in the movie is "Somewhere over the Rainbow" which she sings when she enters the dwarfs' "Bavarian" dwelling.

Friday 13 November 2009

Janàček From The House of the Dead Chéreau

Janàček's From The House of The Dead opens in New York this week. How will it be received? This is a grim opera set in a Siberian prison in Tsarist times. Anyone expecting saccharine fairy tales is in for a shock. But Janàček, despite his love for folk idiom, isn't folksy. The cute picture postcard image of "tourist" Janàček is far from what the composer, and his music, is really like. Even The Cunning Little Vixen packs a lethal punch if you really think about it.

From the House of The Dead is in some ways Janàček's masterpiece even though it was unfinished on his sudden death. Always a late developer, in his 70s he seems to have been entering a new, wilder creative phase. Whether he saw Wozzeck or The Rite of Spring, I don't know but he would have heard about what was going on. A lifelong Russophile, he would probably also have had an idea how things in Stalinist Russia were turning out, too, by 1927.

Janàček's work was known in Britain fairly early: the Sinfonietta is dedicated to an English supporter and Rafael Kubelik who knew it conducted at the Royal Opera House after the war. Then the Iron Curtain came down. Even in Czechoslovakia, the authorities didn't give Janàček his due as one of the culture ministers was a foe of the composer. And since most operagoers don't speak Czech or Slovak, Janàček's operas have reached the public in English translation where the edgy, dissonant speech patterns of the language he loved so much were neutralized. So it's now time for a reassessment.

Pierre Boulez discovered Janàček in the 1960's from reading the score of The Diary of One Who Disappeared, which heralded Janàček's burst of new work in the 1920's, so he came to the composer with completely fresh ideas. In 2007 I went to Amsterdam to hear Boulez conduct From The House of The Dead after having heard glowing reports from the Salzburg premiere. It was fantastic - crackling with energy, intensely passionate, a statement so powerful it's not so surprising after all that this opera wasn't considered "popular". Now, thankfully, we can hear it without compromise.

“Janáček adapts the absence of conventional development in folk music”, said Boulez after the Amsterdam performance. He used "found sounds" like the clucking of chickens in his yard and uses idioms beyond the Austro-German core. The repetitive pulse varies through changes in rhythm, tone and direction. The refrains “Hou, hou, hou!“, and “Chi, chi, chi!” and even “Ach…ach….ach!” function as if they were abstract parts of the orchestration.

"This opera is “primitive, in the best sense”, said Boulez, “but also extremely strong”, like the paintings of Léger, where the “rudimentary character allows a very vigorous kind of expression”. Thus, there are “many cases where you cannot find the logic in how the rhythmic notation changes from one ostinato to the next….so you have to take a little freedom”.

Freedom matters in an opera about prison. Into the closed world of the camp, come two alien creatures, the political prisoner Gorjančikov and the wounded eagle, "The Tsar of the Skies". Both get away in the end, but it's luck, not logic, and we don't know if they will survive even when they're free. The world is irrational: the prisoners are engaged in mindless make-work, sorting scraps, building a ship (in landlocked Siberia). They put on plays in which they act out stories from societies in which they no longer belong.

In New York, they won't be getting the full Boulezian blast as Esa-Pekka Salonen will be conducting. Luckily, he's good and won't be quite so hard for conservative audiences to take on board. The New York soloists also aren't in the same league as the ones who sang in Europe. But they'll be getting the production by Patrice Chéreau.

Chéreau doesn't do decorative. From the outset, Boulez and Chéreau both attended rehearsals, so the ideas developed with an understanding of the full orchestral score. Actors were used to explore the body language and dynamic of the characters, so the singers had more to work with when developing their vocal approaches. “Coherence”, said Boulez "between ideas, music and drama, is the basis of the interpretation."

The production reflects the score intimately: each physical movement has its basis in something in the music, whether it's the "threshing" sounds as the prisoners work, or the stylized acting in the plays the prisoners enact. Ensemble blocking is very strong, for this is an opera where individuals act within wider groups, just as the prison is a microcosm of society.

Boulez chose a tenor to sing Aljeja : it's more logical than using a soprano, and makes better musical sense, too, because the male voices balance in a more subtle way. Perhaps the idea of a soprano stems from the sexual tension inherent in the narrative, which Chéreau doesn't fudge. Of course homosexual acts happen in prison, even if they reflect power struggles rather than love. Nowadays we're mature enough not to be prissy about such things. In any case I hardly noticed them until I saw the close-ups on the DVD. (Get it, it's the top recording now, leaving all others behind.)

Chéreau doesn't use a real eagle, because that would be cruel and in any case hard to stage. Instead, he uses an elaborate mechanical bird, which looks quite magnificent, certainly aspiring to more than the brutal existence the prisoners endure. The bird is also metaphor: like the prisoners, it's a toy of fate, and cannot really fly away. Still, it represents hope even if it may not come.

What New York audiences will make of From The House of The Dead and of Chéreau's no-nonsense approach, I don't know. It does confound the usual clichés about the composer and about foreign directors. But the whole point of performance is to hear what someone has to say, and in Janàček, there's a lot we don't already know. Read Iron Tongue of Midnight HERE, with links to the New York Times.

Wednesday 11 November 2009

Hindemith Das Marienleben Isokoski

Hindemith's Das Marienleben has a formidable reputation, but is rarely heard. Soile Isokoski could change all that. Her new recording is magnificent. The 1948 version lasts an hour and is a tour de force, but tours de force need singers capable of achieving them. Das Marienleben needs an absolutely top-notch singer to do it justice. (Glenn Gould knew nothing about singing !) Isokoski is the first really big-name singer to record it since Gundula Janowitz 20 years ago. Moreover Isokoski sings with such fervent sincerity, the cycle becomes a statement of the human soul, as well as a great work of art.

Isokoski's recording, with pianist Marita Viitasalo, on Ondine is the new benchmark, not that there's been much competition. This is a performance that puts paid to all those ideas about whether the first (1922/3) version or the revised (1948) versions are better. Isokoski understands what the cycle means, and brings out its depths with the dignity and grace it deserves.

The photograph (click to enlarge) is the Stuppach Madonna by Martin Grünewald. See the faces, painted so they glow with an almost supernatural luminousity. Behind them stand buildings which represent the church and power, but the figures aren't really "of this world". Like the lilies in the foreground they represent something far purer and more rarified. When Grünewald painted it in 1518, he didn't realize how his world would be changed, irrevocably by the Reformation. Hindemith knew, and quite possibly that meant even more to him after he'd been forced into exile from Europe.

Sensucht lies heavily on Das Marienleben : it's the story of a life lived behind momentous events. Instead of writing about Jesus, Rilke focused on Mary, without whom the Jesus narrative would not be what it became. For Hindemith, it's deeply felt, hence the revisions, made not just as musical theory but because he cared about it. So much for the nonsense that "objective" music isn't emotional. Theories are fine, but good performance is real experience.

This is the secret behind the beauty of Isokoski's performance. She believes in it sincerely and communicates her love for the work. Hers is one of the loveliest voices around. She's exquisite in Mozart and Strauss. Her Strauss Vier Letzte Lieder is one of the best. She'll be singing the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier at the Royal Opera House in December. Despite her megastar status, Isokoski has always sung music she cares about, even if it's not commercially viable, which is more than can be said about some of her rivals in opera! Obviously she sings Sibelius perfectly, but it was she who showed how interesting other Finnish composers, like Sallinen, Madetoja, and Merikanto can be. She created the market. Her recordings of Finnish hymns weren't made for glamour, but because they're dear to her heart.

Das Marienleben is much like Messiaen's Vingt Régards sur l’Enfant-Jésus, not simply because of the subject, but because it unfolds contemplatively. The very first song, Geburt Mariã. was inspired by a passacaglia in Biber about the Resurrection, so the whole cycle is, in a sense, built around it. The beautiful first chords on the piano already hint at the ultimate purpose of Maria's life. The piano part is reverential, but the voice soars with supressed excitement at the miracle to come. Rilke's texts are lovely, but wordy, so there's no chance for easy strophic setting. Instead Hindemith makes a virtue of the long, flowing lines, often using breaks within the written line, rather than at the end, to create a sense of fluid movement.

Mariae Verkündigung describes the Annunciation. It starts with the same reverential pace that began the cycle, but grows to a crescendo of agitation when Maria realizes what the angel means. Then the calm figures return, and Isokoski blooms with confidence, "Dann sang der Engel seine Melodie".

The more distinctive songs aren't the obvious ones like Geburt Christi but those where Maria faces challenges, as in Rast auf der Flucht in Ägyptien, Vor der Passion and Pietà. Theologically, these are key moments, but Isokoski also makes them feel intimate and human. Her voice is naturally pure and lucid, but she colours her words with genuine emotion, to express the depths of Maria's personality. She wasn't picked by God for nothing. When Jesus turns water into wine, Maria rejoices, but her tears of joy will soon turn to blood. Hindemith paints the words "Blut geworden war mit deisem Wein" sensitively, "geworden" curling on itself, "diesem" and "Wein" stretching outwards towards what is to come.

The pain of Vor der Passion and Pietà gives way to tender reconciliation when Maria meets the Risen Christ. Her destiny is fulfilled, so the three final songs form a sort of inner trilogy which rounds out the cycle. Some wonderful moments here, when Maria, alone, faces O Ursprung namenloser Tränen-Bäche vowels meantto be sung with huge, open-hearted affirmation. When Maria dies, Rilke describes her passing wie ein Lavenderlkissen eine Weile da hineingeliegt, like a lavender pillow that leaves its scent even when it's taken away. Hence the confident, bright key of the final song, Vom Tode Mariä III, and the adamant ostinato in the piano at the end. "Mann, knie ihn, und sie mir nach und sing !" She's dead, but in a better place.

Isokoski and Viitasalo performed Das Marieleben in recital at the Wigmore Hall on Tuesday 10/11. Because the cycle isn't familiar, the audience had their noses buried in the text, rather than listening. But as my friend commented, "it's not like we don't know the story". Isokoski's German is excellent, and easy to follow although the way the words are set on the page in Wigmore Hall format, it wasn't easy to find your place in the middle of lines if you'd been listening and needed to look back. Also it is a long cycle, and some of the songs are six or seven minutes. It was a good idea to pause after the birth of Jesus, and to darken the hall between his death and resurrection, because it gave a structure, which reflects the structure in the music. Nonetheless the audience wasn't as attentive as they could have been, which quite spoiled the mood of hushed mystery. Performance is interactive, and Isokoski may have picked up on the lack of attention.

One thing the Wigmore Hall audience had that those who get the CD won't get was a decent translation. Ondine has used a 1923 translation which is horribly mawkish. Far better the clear, direct Richard Stokes translation which is much, much closer to Rilke's style.
A neater, punchier version of this is in Opera Today.

The Things We Do For Art

Last night I dreamed of Winterreise......

The hall was hushed, a man was singing. Then he started to croon, and clicked his fingers in time to the beat. He decorated Schubert with Shooby dooby doo, smirking how well he could make the lines "rock".

Fast asleep. I leapt out of bed, landing on my ankle, twisting it so badly that it's now swelled up to my knee. I can't walk. Luckily I dosed up on prescription strength Naprosen.

The Things We Do For Art.

Dulce et decorum est

"Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! -- An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning."

"In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning."

"If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, --
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori."

Wilfred Owen in 1918
Read the whole poem HERE
Look up what I found on George Butterworth in the military archives (more accurate than material in the only bio)
And HERE is a piece by Robert Fisk, who's written so powerfully about the Middle East. He expands the meaning of 11/11 beyond the First World War to all conflicts. "But this I would say, standing in view of God and eternity, I realise that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone."