Sunday 28 February 2010

Typical Hong Kong Lai Cha Cafe

This is a typical Hong Kong old-style cafe. Anyone who knows Hong Kong will wax nostalgic! "A good lai cha," says the boss, "should be fragrant, tea flavoured and waat (an untranslatable term which means something like good mouth feel). This cafe is in Saiwan, a very typical working class neighbourhood, where foreigners don't go.

"My customers are regulars, I see them every day, we're like family", says the boss. "Lai Cha" is a Hong Kong invention created in 1904 when Liptons did a competition to promote sales of western tea in China. Impossible feat ? It worked ! Lai chai uses lots of Liptons tea (never Chinese tea) placed in a sieve and boiled in a coffee pot on a stove, so the brew is as thick as coffee. It caught on because people didn't drink coffee in those days.

Because lai cha is strong, it's always served with lots of evaporated milk, sometimes tinned milk, but never fresh cow milk, because cows don't do the tropics. In this place it's served in a tea cup. Most places serve in a glass tumbler. Note the customers in the clip drink it with a tumbler of Chinese tea handy to refresh the mouth as lai cha is almost like soup.

It's a great breakfast drink because the caffiene high and the sugar surge keep you buzzing all day.

The shop opens at 6 am and serves daan tarts, chicken buns and polow bow (pineapple buns, so called because the topping looks like pineapple, but no pineapple is used in making it). "When my customers say the lai cha's beautiful, it makes my heart burst with joy". That's is the mark of a happy man!

Saturday 27 February 2010

Rime of the Ancient Mariner

"Water, water, everywhere/Nor any drop to drink". The lines have been used so often it's become a joke, but they come from Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the classic goth horror poem. Please read THIS article here.

"Ahead of its time , a tale of dark obsession", writes Duncan Wu. "There is something deeply primitive about the itinerant sea-dog in the poem. What could be more so than a man who commits a thoughtless act only to be punished for it eternally? “'With my crossbow/I shot the albatross,' he says, giving no explanation. How often do we commit thoughtless acts we later regret? Coleridge’s insight is that sometimes we can neither know nor explain why we behave as we do. We act and then suffer the consequences. "

See what I mean? Excellent, evocative writing. I was so fired up I looked up the South Bank staging which is on tonight and Sunday. Alas, these days the South Bank site is worse than ever but finally I found out that it's an adaptation with music, props, cars and kids. Probably a lot of fun but I'm put off by someone's comment that those who don't go should be "despised". So I won't go. But Wu's article mentions a new biography of Coleridge. Is it William Christie's Samuel Taylor Coleridge : a Literary Life (2009)? If Duncan Wu writes about that, I'd love to read it.

Friday 26 February 2010

Satyagraha ENO Glass 2010 London - review

Please note a proper formal review will shortly appear in Opera Today which will be different to these - pithier ! It's a good site, please visit as it's crammed with repertoire commentary and downloads.

Philip Glass's Satyagraha at the English National Opera, at the Coliseum, London, proves that modern minimalism can be extraordinarily moving. The secret is to open your soul, as Gandhi did, when he searched the Baghavad-Gita for inspiration.

Glass's repetitive cadences vary little, so you worry that the musicians will get RSI. Yet listen carefully, and the repeats vary in microtones, gradually shifting gears into different cadences. This unrushed monotony is as natural as breathing. Hindus chant the word "Om" endlessly, until the vibration enters their bodies, allowing their minds to float, beyond consciousness. So it is with Glass's music, informed by other and older traditions than western music.

Once you break free of any dependence on conventional musical form, Glass's strange, hypnotic cadences start operating on you with you hardly being aware. Your focus shifts inwards, beyond outward form. There was exceptionally idiomatic playing from the ENO orchestra, conducted by Stuart Stratford. When the orchestra took their bows, parts of the audience went wild with enthusiasm. Clearly an audience that knows new music, or accepts it on its own terms. Satyagraha is the biggest selling contemporary opera the ENO has produced, and possibly the best.

The text is in Sanskrit, which most people, including Indians, don't understand. This is deliberate because what Gandhi discovered was that words and meaning aren't the same thing. Hence the scene from the epic myth of Arjuna. The hero's enemies are puppets, men with sticks who crumble when moved. Scene titles appear, like chapter headings in books, but what unfolds on stage isn't narrative. Tolstoy and Tagore appear in panels above the stage. You don't really need to know who they are: the idea is that you'll want to find out more, later, when you're "outside the box" of the performance.

There are so many amazing images in this production that it's hard to take them all in at once. Some are striking, like the giant puppets that descend menacingly on Gandhi, corralled by bigots singing hahahaha. Others are elusive, like the fish which materializes in the second act. It doesn't matter if we don't get them all. Like words, images are hints of meaning, not meaning in themselves. Rarely have I ever seen a staging that expresses the spirit of an opera so well. Because Glass's music is so unusual, and his text obscure, staging in this opera is even more important than usual. Phelim McDermott, Julian Crouch and Improbable and their team have created a theatrical masterpiece which is sensitive and well-informed.

The staging is so atmospheric that the simple clean lines of the Third Act come as quite a shock. Gandhi sits front stage while a man ascends a ladder. The reference is Martin Luther King. who adapted the principles of Satyagraha to the Civil Rights Movement. At the premiere in 2007, I thought this act was too abrupt a change from the sepia-tinted mystery that had gone before, and that the image of King waving to the clouds was contrived, as if designed for American audiences who might not care who Gandhi was. Since then, Barack Obama has become President, espousing similar non-violent methods. No government in the world has coped with the global meltdown or the war in the Middle East. Yet somehow people expect Obama to have solved all that and more in barely a year. Reading some of the hate directed at him makes you remember that we haven't really "reached the mountain top".

On the other hand, the spareness of this Act hones in on Alan Oke as Gandhi. Perhaps it's significant that until this stage in the opera, Oke sings with an ensemble or remains relatively quiet. Now he's centre focus. He sings two extended "arias", the first with its references to "athletes of the spirit" who hold steadfast unto death. The second is more lyrical for he's expressing transcendence. Oke has matured into the part, and is singing with greater depth and dignity than three years ago. He's in his element now. You don't need to know the exact words he's singing, because he conveys their sense with such conviction. Also more comfortable, in the role of Miss Schlesen, is Elena Xanthoudakis: some lovely flights of lyrical beauty. This production is musically even better than before, superb performances all round. Photo credits : Alastair Muir/ENO Please note, these photos are COPYRIGHT and used with permission

Wednesday 24 February 2010

Glass Satyagraha ENO preview

See REVIEW above !
After experiencing Koyaanisqatsi twice, I thought I was inoculated against Philip Glass. However, a friend, who knows the opera insisted that Satyagraha was different, and good. Since my friend's tastes are more conservative than mine, it was a recommendation to act on. We went to the 2007 premiere at the Coliseum. He was absolutely right: Satyagraha is amazing! The ENO production, directed by Phelim McDermott, was streets ahead of the Stuttgart production my friend had enjoyed before.

Satyagraha doesn't sound promising in theory, because it's sung in Sanskrit and Glass's repetitive monotones drone on shapelessly. But for once, that's the whole point, that words alone are meaningless. Real change is brought about when people think and act. The story is set in Mahatma Gandhi's youth, when he still believed that conventional, middle class ideas could change things. While he lived in South Africa, he was a facsimile of the British middle class intellectual, agitating through the press, hoping thus to change the entrenched colonial system.

His big breakthrough came when he switched to direct action. By swapping his tweed three-piece suit for a simple cotton loincloth, he was making a truly radical statement: you don't change the power structure by playing its own games. So no more pamphlets and newspapers, no more polite posturing. The Empire wasn't going to budge an inch. "Satyagraha" means firm conviction in one's beliefs, not pitting violence against violence, but changing the way people think on a much deeper level. It's still a radical approach, and applies today and to many aspects of life.

That's why in the ENO production shreds of newsprint fall from the skies, tying the stage up in knots. Indian peasants couldn't read, but they knew what their livelihood came from. Textile mills in Northern England prospered, marginalizing traditional Indian commerce. Gandhi's battleground was boycotting Manchester and supporting cottage industry in Indian villages. In iteself, that's no big deal, but it symbolizes a truly radical shift in the power structure. So that's why Philip Glass's libretto's in Sanskrit. You have to let go of "words" in order to reach deeper, intuitive understanding. But as the saying goes, "it's easier for a camel to go through a needle's eye than for a rich man to enter Heaven" - ie you've got to ditch the material to reach the spiritual. So Gandhi with no possessions other than his begging bowl brought down the might of the British Empire.

Gandhi's inspiration came from Ancient Sanskrit texts. Appropriately in this production, a primeval battle scene is enacted by gigantic puppets, evoking the juggernauts of Indian tradition. They tower over the stage, and are extremely elaborate and detailed. They are meant to “shock and awe” . But puppets they are, however formidable. As the puppeteers step down from their stilts, the giants disintegrate, and we see that they are hollow constructs made by ordinary men.The image is extremely powerful, and important, because it captures the soul of Gandhi’s struggle.

Moreover, the puppets are made of newsprint. The printed word was important, and Gandhi’s journal Indian Opinion was widely read. Throughout this production, images of newsprint appear – banners of paper, as if fresh off a printing press, papier maché creations, images of newspaper headlines superimposed on the backdrop. The images appear relentlessly but ultimately, words alone are meaningless. “Action”, says Gandhi, is a form of “spiritual exercise”. The Satyagraha movement revolved around simple living, focused on idealistic communes where humble tasks were shared by all, regardless of race or status. Later in the opera, as the movement gains momentum through strikes and civil action, festoons of newsprint are torn to shreds, the debris swept away by bands of actors with small brooms – just like peasants in India. Even more striking is the scene where the stage is criss-crossed with what seem to be shining ribbons of light, carefully woven into a maze-like pattern. It’s visually stunning, but the lines are then revealed as sticky tape, transparent but impossible to unravel.

Even Glass’s minimalist technique seems to work in this particular context. The very repetitiveness of it means that a listener doesn’t need to focus on every note. Instead, the imagination can float “over” the notes, so to speak, the better to concentrate on meaning. It’s very similar to Buddhist chanting where single sounds are repeated over and over until they blend into the subconscious, freeing the mind from temporal concerns. It’s not a technique unique to Buddhism, of course, but it works. On closer examination, though, Glass’s music is surprisingly natural, rather like the normal rhythm of breathing. Accordingly, the vocal parts, while demanding, are not forced. Indeed, some sections are quite beautifully lyrical, such as the long aria (if you can call it that) for Gandhi in the Final Act.

In the final act, cadences rise ever higher, “climbing a ladder” aspirationally, just as the Martin Luther King character does on stage. It’s also tricky music to perform, as missing a bar, or fluffing a note would disrupt the organic flow.

Once word gets round that Glass is not to be feared, this production will be appreciated for what it is. I sincerely hope so, because its complicated philosophic content may well be more difficult for audiences to cope with than Glass’s music per se. But it’s an excellent production and deserves to be a hit. Photo credits : Alastair Muir/ENO Please note these photos are copyright and used with permission

"Anyone can do this job" Patrick O'Connor

Patrick O'Connor has passed away. I was shocked to realize how young he really was, as he looked eternal, like he's stepped out from the Bible. He seemed beyond time. Please read his obituary. "Anyone can do this job" was what a US Immigration official said about Patrick's job as a music critic. And yes, the official was right. Anyone sentient has an opinion, which is what art is about: you're supposed to respond in whatever way you can. It doesn't matter at all what the opinion is, but how it's arrived at.

Patrick was good to read because he did more than reactions. His opinions put things into context, stimulating you to learn and think and feel beyond the short term. So much opinion's just about consuming product, taking. Patrick, on the other hand, gave. HERE is an example. The concert was cancelled, but Patrick understood why it would have been important, and what it signified, so what he wrote endures. Ultimately that's much more valuable than "I love/hate". At the end of the day, whether one likes or hates anything isn't worth a bean. It's "how" knowledge is processed, and used towards greater understanding and insight. Knowledge makes a difference, but even then it's not quite as important as things like sensitivity, perception, humanity. These aren't things you can learn, like getting a B Mus and thinking you're God. Buddhists teach that "not" being full of oneself is the path to wisdom. Writers like O'Connor, John Steane, Michael Oliver, Neville Cardus, are/were all "ordinary" people but they put what they had to the benefit of others.

Tuesday 23 February 2010

Kurt Streit takes on Tamerlano - interview

A timely interview with Kurt Streit in Opera Today. Go read it there (always interesting things and download streaming). But it's hot news so here's a peek:

"Kurt Streit is singing Bajazet in all performances of Handel’s Tamerlano at the Royal Opera House, London. Placido Domingo, who was to have sung five of the seven performances, pulled out suddenly due to illness. Since this will be Streit’s debut in this role, it's daunting. He's ending a run as The Marquis in Prokofiev’s The Gambler this week and starting Tamerlano next week, so he's singing two major roles in two productions, back to back.

Streit's facing quite a challenge. Barely an hour before the premiere of The Gambler, I asked him if he was bothered by first night nerves. “It all has to do with how well rehearsed the production is”, he said. Although he wasn’t scheduled to sing Bajazet until mid-March, Streit is experienced and professional. He’s jumped into roles at short notice before, though taking on such a big, new role in such unexpected circumstances is quite a feat.

“Rehearsals are critical”, says Streit. “Long ago”, he adds, “I used to have fun in rehearsals, and get serious for performances, but I realized that there was a better way. Instead, I decided to think of rehearsals as seriously as performance, so there was a more consistent build-up towards creating the character. Nowadays, I’m always singing right from the start. I don't mark anymore. The voice and bodywork grow from the music straight from the beginning.”

“When it's all worked out in rehearsal, the voice is where it wants to be. So much has gone into building the character that the role comes naturally. These days, my mantra is that there’s no real difference between rehearsals and performance, they flow together”.

Streit has sung many Handel roles but this is his first Bajazet. How does he find his way? “I work with the nuts and bolts, reading the score and libretto carefully. I try to figure out the “arrows”, finding directions to motives and actions. Who wants what, from whom and why?What’s the character projecting to the public, and what’s his private image? What makes the role distinct?”.

“Bajazetcomes from a long line of kings. He’s so aristocratic that he has trouble with the idea that he’s been defeated by Tamerlano who once was a nomadic shepherd. He’s so stubborn that he can’t adapt. Unlike most characters, he doesn’t have an arc, he doesn’t develop. So all he can think of is death.”

“Tamerlano is the villain in Bajazet’s eyes, but at least Tamerlano has the ability to change the way he thinks. Bajazet assumes he thinks for everyone else. “I speak for my daughter”, he says, expecting her to take poison.”

When Streit sang the Marquis in The Gambler, he was able to make a fundamentally unsympathetic role seem almost human. Gamblers were, in Prokofiev’s account, shallow. But shallowness doesn’t make great music, which is why that opera came to life orchestrally only in the final act. Streit had to expand the character by his acting, since Prokofiev’s spare, experimental score didn’t give much to work with. “The Marquis is trying to hide his feelings”, says Streit. “I had to find those physical things that gave him away inspite of himself.”

For Streit, opera is drama, and acting is part of a singer’s job. He likes “thinking roles” like Aschenbach in Death in Venice, or even Emilio in Partenope (which he sang in Vienna last year). One critic said, “If only there were Oscars for the art of acting in opera”, a sentiment understood by those who appreciate singers like Streit and John Tomlinson whose acting methods impressed him so much while they were working on The Gambler.

Tamerlano will be directed for the Royal Opera House by Graham Vick. “It’s good when directors reach out to singers and work together to reach deeper levels in a piece”, says Streit. He’s worked with directors like Christof Loy and Claus Guth, who “don’t treat singers like puppets on strings”. Even concert performances of opera work best when the singers have previous experience from full stagings. “We remember what we’ve learned from good directors.”

Striet is creating his first Bazajet in unusual circumstances. His approach will, naturally, be very different from Placido Domingo's, because they come from different backgrounds. The memory of Domingo's Bajazet (from past performances and the DVD) will stay in the minds of many in the audience. Even today, audiences attuned to late 19th century grand opera need to adjust to a true baroque aesthetic. Streit made his name in baroque and in Mozart, so he'll have something different to bring to the role. Given the unexpected circumstances in which he's taken on the part, he deserves respect."

British Museum - Ife African bronzes

On 4th March a new exhibition opens at the British Museum, Kingdom of Ife: sculptures from West Africa. Ife was a powerful nation that existed in what is now Nigeria 700 years ago. This culture produced bronze sculptures so beautiful and naturalistic that they seem alive. Indeed, their haunting authority has meant they were revered as icons by the Yoruba people.

The story of Ife is shrouded in mystery. There were several extremely advanced civilizations in Africa before the European era, quite unknown to the west, even now. Sculptures like these were made by people with sophisticated artistic values, technology and the means to invest in objects like these. As a small child I used to dream about the "lost kingdoms" of Africa, albeit seen through the distorted image of Rider Haggard and Tarzan comics. The reality of places like Ife, Benin, Zimbabwe, and Nubia is even more remarkable.

And if the story of Ife is amazing, so is the story of how these bronzes ended up in the British Museum. Looted from the Yoruba people by adventurers, real-life Indiana Jones. Even Wole Soyinka, who won the Nobel Prize, gets pulled into a smash and grab raid to return a stolen bronze to Africa. This exhibition should be exciting, an antidote to the omnipotence of the west. HERE is an extremely well written, inspiring article from the Financial Times. Great photos ! PLEASE note, there's another post on this subject HERE. Although this is a classical music site, it's got a lot on African culture and history (and other art exhibitions eg baroque art V&A)

Sunday 21 February 2010

Josef Suk Asrael and Janáček The Eternal Gospel

Vladimir Jurowski conducted Josef Suk's Asrael last night in a blazing performance that shows why this symphony is coming into its own 105 years after it was written.

Asrael is the Angel of Death in the Bible. The picture is Josef Suk's wife, Otilie Dvořàk, who died suddenly not long after the photo was taken. The baby much later became father of Josef Suk the violinist, who's thus a direct descendant of two major Czech composers.

The shock of Otilie's death compounded Suk's grief over the death a year before of her father Antonin Dvořàk, who was Suk's mentor and own father figure. Asrael, Symphony for large orchestra was Suk's way of exorcising the trauma by channelling it into music.

The symphony is monumental, built on two huge sections like pillars. The scale is panoramic, even cinematic in the way its moods progress in distinct episodes. By emphasizing dynamic contrasts, Jurowski keeps momentum, so the traverse keeps moving towards its resolution. Big as the piece is, what’s striking is its understatement and quiet dignity. Brass fanfares, for example, are deliberately muted so they sound numb and hollow. It’s a jolt, since brass often heralds triumph.

Solo instrumentals are pivotal. There’s a dialogue between Kristina Blaumane’s cello and Alex Venlizon’s first violin. Cellos feature strongly in the first part, generally understood as a portrait of Suk’s dead wife. The composer himself played violin. So beneath the tumult, there’s surprising intimacy. It isn’t just the image of a biblical angel that comforts Suk, but the memory of his happy marriage.

In this unusually well planned programme, another angel appears. In Janáček’s The Eternal Gospel, the angel comes from the Book of Revelation. The poem, by Jaroslav Vrchlický (1858-1912), is a "modern" take on Revelation, based on a 12th century mystic's vision of the end of time when "wealth, all possessions, gold, jewels and fortune will turn to mire". It's incendiary stuff, attacking the "she-wolf of Rome". It even knocks Jesus, who "only stooped to man". Raising St Francis oif Assisi above Christ isn't something a 12th century monk would or could do. This is clearly Vrchlický's poem, not Joachim di Fiore, but an adaptation. It's uncompromisingly radical, way beyond piety or even nationalism. Janáček, passionately anti-clerical, could spot a cogent bit of blasphemy.

The Eternal Gospel was written around the First World War, when the destruction of the old order did seem apocalyptic. This was a critical point in the Czech struggle for independence. The “Allelujahs!” here aren’t religious, but political.

The piece also represents a critical point in the composer's development. In 1917, Janáček was poised between his "old" style of writing and the breakthroughs he'd reach with The Diary of One Who Disappeared and what was to follow. The programme notes cite the Glagolitic Mass, but we wouldn't have the major operas, and much else, without the incendiary transformation that The Eternal Gospel really represents.

Adrian Thompson substituted at very short notice for the scheduled tenor, so his performance was truly remarkable. He sings almost the whole 20 minute piece, and in Czech, a tough language to master. His diction was so clear that it was easy to follow the text throughout even for non-Czech readers. He was clear, even above large orchestra and choir. An impressive achievement, for which he deserves major praise. (He's recorded this for Hyperion, which I haven't heard, I only have Benno Bl;achut) Sofia Fomina, singing the Angel, had less to do, because Janáček isn't that interested in the angel, except as justification for the wilder sentiments expressed in the tenor part.

The evening started with a lacklustre Taras Bulba. Perhaps Jurowski and the LPO were saving their energy, because we can hear that piece anytime. Much better that they concentrated on The Eternal Gospel (by far the greater rarity), and Asrael, and carried them off with such conviction.

This concert was recorded and will be broadcast on on Wednesday 24th Feb and available on demand for a week thereafter. Listen, because Jurowski's approach is thoroughly individual. It's a keeper. There are many recordings of Asrael, which is fairly well known, but Jurowski meets the standard, easily.
Coming up soon : Diary of One Who Disappeared !

Saturday 20 February 2010

Frank Martin News

Part 1 of Frank Martin's Mass for Double Choir a capella, from Westminster Cathedral, conducted by James O'Donnell (the rest is on Youtube). At the end of April, there'll be a series of Masterclasses on Frank Martin performance in The Hague. This should be good, because Elly Ameling, Jard van Ness, Paul Badura-Skoda and Peter-Lukas Graf will be involved. Registration is now on. Please see the Frank Martin website for more details.

There's also a new recording of Golgotha, out next month, released by Harmonia Mundi. Daniel Reuss conducts. More details HERE.

Friday 19 February 2010

Mark Stone recording - George Butterworth

Mark Stone is a "rising star" on the song and opera circuit - he's currently The English Gentleman in Prokofiev The Gambler at the Royal Opera House for example. As you can see from this photo, he's got presence! He also runs his own recording company Stone Records. Latest release in a good series is The Complete George Butterworth Songbook. This really is the first complete recording of Butterworth's songs, which makes this CD a must for anyone into English song, as well as for anyone who likes Stone's elegant baritone.

Ralph Vaughan Williams may be the big name in English music, but without George Butterworth, there might not have been RVW, at least not as we know him now. They were friends in English folk music circles, but it was Butterworth who pushed RVW to write symphonies.

In fact RVW's 2nd Symphony, "London" is dedicated to Butterworth who was instrumental in pushing RVW to write it. Butterworth himself was eclipsed because he burned all his unpublished work when he went to war in 1914. Mysteriously, he told no-one in the army that he was a composer.  A fascinating story - what went on in the mind of that repressed, brooding figure? When Butterworth was at Oxford, a don is supposed to have remarked, "There goes more Red Revolution than in all Russia" - this after the 1905 uprisings!

That's why Butterworth's songs are interesting. They're not as sophisticated as the lovely orchestral piece, Banks of Green Willow, Butterworth's best known work, but they reveal a more personal, contemplative side to the composer.

The two best known cycles, A Shropshire Lad and Bredon Hill are to poems by A E Housman. Housman was also fascinated by a mythical English past, populated by hunky yeomen doing manly things in pastoral landscapes. On a deeper level. though, they deal with Housman's inner issues, so they're quite modern in many ways. Housman's protagonists often reveal their vulnerable, naked necks: a metaphor perhaps. Because both Vaughan Williams and Butterworth set the same poems at the same time, it's easy to compare their different approaches. RVW's versions are freer and more lyrical, which is why they're such masterpieces. Butterworth's are very good, and perhaps more thoughtful, as if the composer has sensed that he might have more to say when he's more mature. Except that Butterworth neve did mature. He stopped writing when he became a soldier. Had he survived, what might have emerged from his creative hiatus?

Butterworth's Bredon Hill is observant, the "noisy bells" pealing in circular patterns, warning the young couple that they can't escape. Mark Stone and Stephen Barlow realize that what makes Butterworth is sincerity: more restrained and introspective than RVW but assertive. In On the Idle Hill of Summer, Butterworth creates a very subtle strangeness, where the line wavers, the way summer haze blurs firm boundaries. Stone's clarity blends well with the delicacy of Barlow's playing.

What makes this recording important, though, is because it includes rarities, even Requiescat, a miniature based on Oscar Wilde juvenilia which Butterworth makes surprisingly touching. The cycle, Love Blows as the Wind Blows, is to poems by William Ernest Henley. R L Stevenson based Long John Silver on Henley, who had one leg and a big personality, though he wasn't a pirate. Christopher Maltman and Roderick Williams have this in their repertoire, but recordings are hard to come by. Stone's voice is more flexible than Jonathan Lemalu's, so Stone's performance is more nuanced.

The Eleven Folk Songs from Sussex were based on real folk songs "collected from the wild" so to speak. Butterworth assiduously collected folk song and dance because he wanted to preserve what was left of pre-industrial popular culture. His settings are probably faithful to the originals, but they're art song, too. Folk tradition isn't fixed, but changes and grows, as Butterworth knew. There's a nice clip of Stone singing A Lawyer he went out on his website HERE. It can't have been lost on a man as sensitive as Butterworth that folk songs dealt with grim subjects, even when their melodies were jolly. Twentieth century emotional dissociation? These ditties aren't "simple". Stone's singing gives them dignity. For these alone, this disc is significant.

As an extra bonus, there's a short clip of a film made on 12th June, 1912. Butterworth is Morris Dancing, apparently, in Kelmscott, that centre of Arts and Crafts aesthetics. Morris dancing was "new" to art then, having been observed by the middle classes only in 1899, when Cecil Sharp happened upon a troupe of Headington locals dancing on Boxing Day. For Sharp and his followers, this was a Damascus moment, which shaped their future lives. I've seen stills before, but never the whole film. Brief as it is, it's a remarkable document because it shows how carefully formal the dancing was, part ethnographic record, part pleasure. Butterworth is the short, stocky fellow with a moustache, exorcising his repression with jigs, bells and colorful ribbons.

Please also see my review of Roderick Williams's complete Butterworth songs   Williams is much more experienced and is a specialist in this genre, so any comparisons aren't fair. Serious Butterworth fans need both. Stone's recording  was the pioneer, and it has extremely good programme notes - the Naxos one are rubbish. Beside, Stone Records is an enterprising independent company run by musicians.  Naxos isn't.

Wednesday 17 February 2010

Steve Reich, eat your heart out! Ewe drumming

Eat your heart out Steve Reich! These are ordinary village kids in Ghana just having fun. They are so young yet look how they respond to the music and how subtle and natural their gestures are. And with each plateau in the drumming, the kids pick up on the different rhythms. Then each set builds up to an elaborate, intricate dance, and then back to pairs again. Thank the Ewe people, from whom Steve Reich learned about drumming in the first place. Watch the baby who's already picking up the moves, though he's barely 2.

Tuesday 16 February 2010

Frank Martin Der Sturm full recording streamed online

Although Frank Martin's Der Sturm (1952-5) gets regular outings, there aren't any full recordings on the market. So this is a rare opportunity to hear the whole opera, fully streamed from Opera Today. Click on the link, it's worth hearing. There's a synopsis, and a link to the complete libretto. There's also a link to a clip of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the famous storm scene at the end.

It's a fairly recent perfomance (2008) conducted by Thierry Fischer, recorded at the Concertegouw, Amsterdam. Robert Holl sings Prospero. Simon O'Neill is Ferdinand, Dennis Wilgenhof is Caliban and Christine Buffle sings Miranda. As Antonio, Prospero's crooked brother, James Gilchrist doesn't have a huge part but he does it so distinctively that the second Act brightens up. Last autumn, there was a broadcast of the full opera on the BBC, I can't remember the conductor (Chailly?) but the streaming on Opera Today is the nearest thing most of us will get to the whole opera short of attending a performance.

Monday 15 February 2010

Prokofiev, suppressed modern? Alexander Nevsky

Hearing The Gambler at the Royal Opera House last week was an excellent experience because it showed Prokofiev at the start of his career. It gives perspective on his later, more popular work. Prokofiev, after all, chose to return to Russia instead of seeking a profitable career in the west, like Stravinsky.

Admittedly, the early Soviet era was idealistic, and for a time even encouraged modernist, radical art. Inevitably though, Prokofiev had to bend to Stalin. He, too, is a "suppressed composer" not really so very different from Hartmann and some Germans under the Third Reich.

Depressing irony, given that Russia and Germany were locked in a struggle to the death. In this context, it's bracing to watch Alexander Nevsky, the film by Sergei Eisenstein, with music by Prokofiev. The Soviets and Nazis were implacably opposed despite their unsteady pact that collapsed when Hitler invaded the USSR. The film, made in 1938 has a clear message: The Russian people won't give in.

Obviously, as a propaganda film, it's polarized. The Teutonic Knights are shown in costumes that dehumanize them . They wear helmets with cross-shaped slits that make them look like fools with leaky buckets on their heads. There's even an evil monk playing an organ, like the Phantom of the Opera. In one frame four knights line up: the Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The wars between the Slavs and the Teutonic Knights were horrific, as was the invasion to come. So the shots of Germans throwing babies into fires is pointed.

In the film, religion is specially singled out as evil. Lots of shots of crosses, white robes, ceremonies, far more detailed and explicit than the stylized Russian churches, glimpsed in the background. Only at the end, there's a splash of Russian Orthodox images, when the dead heroes are brought into town. But it's clear that the war wasn't won by the church. The message of this movie isn't just anti-German. It reminded Soviet audiences that all religion is "the opium of the people". And, as one peasant cries, "You can't trust the rich, they'll sell out to anyone".

Alexander Nevsky, by contrast, is pure. He won't join the Mongols though they offer him glory. "Better to die in your own land than leave it." Interestingly, Alexander and his men sport Lady Gaga haircuts, more blonde and "Aryan" than the Nazis, who hated Slavs. Let's not forget, the Soviets didn't like Jews.

Einstein's crowd scenes are magnificently filmed. Wide angle frames, panning out over horizons, so you can watch battle formations move in choreographed diagonals. Many shots where the horizon is in the bottom quartile of the screen, vast expanses of sky above.. Stalin didn't like "modern art" but what Eisenstein is doing is extremely modernist. almost abstract art. Indeed, everything is so clean and stylized it's like art deco - no blood, guts and mud here. When the Russians tear their prisoners apart, the camera recedes. Even the Battle on the Ice isn't particularly icy or grim, it's more like ballet. Or an Expressionist movie. Eisenstein created the genre.

Prokofiev's music had to be shaped to fit the movie, so he couldn't write without restraint. The soound quality on the film transfer is so awful, you can barely hear the orchestra. Listen, instead with a CD to hand. Then you realize how Prokofiev disguises discordant, awry rhythms behind scenes where such music will be "appropriate", like the Battle on the Ice, which criss-cross themes that evoke the idea of warring forces. The fanfares of Russian horns don't sound ostensibly "modern" if you're looking at men in medieval robes blowing primitive horns. In the last scene, Prokofiev's music's fairly straightforward, but Eisenstein's directing isn't. He shows a panorama of Russians holding spears upright, like a forest stretching endlessly,, a spiky and quirky image. "He who comes to Russia with a sword shall perish by the sword". The Soviets probably loved the film on this level, but Eisenstein and Prokofiev undercut the propaganda with something more subtle.

HK Gruber hits Manchester

Manchester is in for lively times with HK Gruber as composer/conductor of the BBC Philharmonic, one of the BBC orchestras family. Hopefully that means we hear more of him and his zany ways. Håkan Hardenberger is premiering Gruber's latest work, Busking, on 27th February. Boosey & Hawkes describes it as a "jazzy work for concertante trumpet, accordion and banjo with string orchestra. The solo line-up draws parallels with Picasso’s painting Three Musicians, depicting bohemian music-making with carnivalesque overtones. In musical terms Gruber’s soloists function as modern equivalents of a baroque trumpet coupled with organ or harpsichord continuo, perhaps as heard on the streets of New Orleans."

You couldn’t invent someone like HK Gruber. Nothing, I suspect, pleases him more than discomforting the pretentious, even when he himself becomes pretentious. Which he can be when he's on a roll. Sometimes, he's full of it. I remember his South Bank retrospective in the early 80's, which he called the Second Second Viennese School. Schoenberg have no fears.

But Gruber shakes up complacency. I love the motto “Life is too important to be taken seriously”. It could certainly be Gruber’s, too, because under the mayhem there’s purpose. He revives a Viennese and German tradition that used anarchic satire to make serious comments on society. Which is why he's a chansonnier and cabaret artiste (note the last divaesque "e"). His Frankenstein! is amazing - he did it at the Proms in 2006 and it's available on CD. He's less impressive conducting other people's work, but his own music is varied enough that there's probably something for everyone.

Sunday 14 February 2010

Happy Babies and Chairman Mao- Chinese New Year

Kung Hei Fat Choy! Sun Nien Fai Lok! Today is the Spring Festival, the first day of the Chinese New Year, the biggest party in the whole year. It's primarily a family festival, because family implies stability and prosperity. Having babies means there's a future, and fat, happy babies mean the present is rosy, too.

At the New Year, people clean the house out thoroughly and redecorate, so they start with a clean slate for good luck to linger. For poor people one simple way to brighten things up is to put up brightly coloured pictures.

This is an example of the typical New Year posters. Two happy babies, one a girl. They're riding on a carp, which means prosperity, and they're holding lotus flowers and pods which symbolize lots. In fact at New Year, everyone eats candied lotus root and lotus nuts. I used to have a favourite poster of a boy with watermelons - green and red and lots of melon seeds, which mean abundance. Another I liked showed the 100 Babies, another popular theme,. In real life 100 babies crawling on each other might not be so much fun.

These posters were cheaply mass produced , noit meant to last like works of art, but they were a lot of fun. They were also a quick, direct way of communicating with peasants and humble folk so they acted as a kind of "newspaper" for those who couldn't afford, or read newspapers. Much has been made of how images of Chairman Mao became part of the mythology. So what? Mao was a revered figure, a kind of modern God, So why wouldn't people use his picture as an image of success? It's not merely propaganda. Like films, posters were a vehicle for disseminating modern ideas. That's why there were posters of happy babies in space suits, driving cars or tractors and holding objects of value like TV sets. That's how folk traditions rejuvenate. They welcome the new, not reject it.

Saturday 13 February 2010

Narcisscus - Chinese New Year customs

Kung Hei Fat Choy! Chinese New Year's day 14th Feb, inaugurating the Year of the Tiger. One of the loveliest symbols of the Lunar New Year is the "Water Spirit Flower" (Sui Sien Fa in Cantonese) or Water Narcissus. These are always grown in water, without soil, to symbolize purity and bring good luck. They are grown indoors, timed to bloom in time for the festival.

These are the true Chinese cultivar, sturdier, shorter and extremely fragrant. The nearest western variety is Paperwhite which can also be forced but doesn't smell as sweet and is taller and floppier. The Chinese bulbs can also stand being carved before the leaves shoot, so the leaves grow out in ornamental forms.

Every home will have a bowl of these narcissi, also a branch of plum blossom and a small orange tree. Or at least a lot of mandarin oranges and tangerines, which are called "kum" in Chinese which is the same as "gold", ie prosperity for the New Year.

Click on the photo above to enlarge extra detail, it's wonderful! It was taken at the Chinese New Year Fair at Victoria Park in Hong Kong. (you can tell it's Hong Kong - the girls are wearing shorts in January). That fair has been held for nearly 150 years, it's massive, sells all kind of festive items, even tree-sized plum blossoms.

Tonight Chinese families feast, so tomorrow they can visit and receive visitors and nibble sweet snacks all day. All shops and businesses are closed except for toy pedlars happy to divest small kids of their lai see, gifts of money in red paper packets. Materialistic kids used to sing a song that went, "one dollar don't want, ten dollars, into the purse!"(At the exchange rate of 1 euro to 10 HK dollars, it's fair enough)
photo credits one and two.

Friday 12 February 2010

Roulette in Sound : Prokofiev The Gambler ROH

The word “Casino” spelled out in glittering lights. Prokofiev’s The Gambler has arrived at the Royal Opera House, London. In Roulettenberg, all life is concentrated on one singleminded object: Greed. Prokofiev’s music doesn’t waffle. Gambling is a compulsive mania. Prokofiev’s notes pound out at a manic pace, figures whirring and swirling like a perpetual motion machine. A roulette wheel in sound.

Orchestras are often compared to powerful machines: here, Antonio Pappano turned the Royal Opera House orchestra into a precision engine, all its elements whirring together, making Prokofiev’s score come alive vividly. Pappano gets such animation from his players that the mad ride feels exhilarating. In the last Act, Alexei’s at the table, but all the gamblers are willing him on. It’s a form of mass hysteria. Prokofiev’s music reaches fever pitch, as though caught up in an adrenalin rush. Yet Pappano keeps a tight rein. For all the wildness, discipline prevails, for the machine, like Fate, is relentless.

This tension between the “machine” of compulsion and the “freedom” of nature runs throughout the opera. The hotel runs like clockwork, an unnatural cocoon where everything’s provided. Yet there is an outside world. Dostoyevsky deliberately uses “international” characters, Frenchmen, Germans, Russians, Englishmen, to remind us that the spa is a vacuum that pulls people in from other lives.

Why, one wonders, does Paulina need Alexei to prove his love for her by provoking the Baron and Baroness? They aren’t gamblers, but what do they represent? In Dostoyevsky, they’re in a park, “civilized nature” in a mountain resort. In Richard Jones’s production, the park becomes a zoo. Dramatically this is wonderful, because it makes the distinction clear. Wild animals are on display – but which are the ones in cages? A seal does tricks for the tourists (congratulations to the dancer in the seal suit!) Nature is “tamed”, forced into meaningless routines.

Richard Jones’s hyperbright, comic book idiom is ideally suited to The Gambler because it highlights the anti-naturalism of the spa. The lighting is extreme because it’s artificial. The Jazz Age staging is stylized, dissociated from tradition. Significantly the most “sympathetic” characters, Alexei, Pauline and Babulenka (Roberto Saccà, Angela Denoke and Susan Bickley) wear costumes which hint at Russian folk embroidery (Nicky Gillibrand). Perhaps it means something that Babulenka decides to return to Moscow and the “villages” she owns, and take Paulina with her. Alexei, too, is a "wild card", the unpredictable cog in the machine. Maybe he represents a primeval Russian "type"that can't be suppressed ? Unlike the vapid cosmopolitan patrons of the spa.

Saccà and Denoke are vivacious, but Susan Bickley’s Babulenka is a delightful surprise. The General has gambled on her dying, but she defeats the odds. Bickley’s voice is fluid and vigorous. This Babulenka really has been rejuvenated by her flutter at the tables, so when she’s crushed, it feels even more tragic.

The message of the opera is pretty clear. No-one beats the odds, no-one escapes fate. Yet the characters are not pawns. The General (John Tomlinson) and the Marquis (Kurt Streit) emerge as real people, not stereotypes, so their demolition is moving. Tomlinson’s voice is ageing, but he handles the trickier vocal passages with aplomb. His acting is superb, giving the role levels that could easily be missed. Everyone knows Blanche (Jurgita Adamonyte) is a gold digger but Tomlinson makes us realize that the General’s deluded because he’s a needy person within. As his aunt says, bluntly, “You’re no General”.

Kurt Streit’s Marquis is an even more enigmatic figure. Beneath that calculating coolness, he too is driven by forces he can’t handle. Streit’s voice expresses personality, expanding the role beyond the text, which in itself reveals little. Streit shows why the Marquis keeps lapsing into French. It’s not “because” he’s French, but because he’s archly trying to distance himself from others. Pauline saw something worthwhile in him, but he can’t do emotional involvement and needs to slip away.

The subsidiary roles in this opera are important, because they extend the drama, like ripples in a pond. Mark Stone’s Mr Astley is a mystery figure: perhaps the next Marquis? John Easterlin’s Prince Nilsky will be dumped by Blanche when his money runs out. The vignettes are wonderfully achieved – proof that the Jette Parker Young Artists scheme pays dividends. I loved the witty counterpoint of the Tall Englishman (Lukas Jakobski) and the Fat Englishman (David Woloszko).

Interestingly, Jones organizes the crowd scenes in long, narrow lines, reiterating the idea that life in a casino is shallow. But full marks for Prokofiev. He builds many elements into his score, replicating the cosmopolitan nature of Dostoyevsky’s story. A man near me heard Gershwin. The music certainly has the sharp timing and hyperbole of film. In the dissonances and especially in the dramatic scene where Alexei’s on a winning streak, I thought of Berg. When you think about when the Gambler was written, it starts to make sense. At the time, Prokofiev, caught up in the world of Stravinsky and modernism was experimenting with new forms of expression. Later, the Soviets weren't so sympathetic. Not all opera has to be Verdi. Thirty years later Stravinsky's Rakes Progress is an experiemnt in stylized structures

The key to The Gambler, I think, is to remember that it's a study of obsessive, irrational behaviour. Hence the nature of the music and sparse, didactic form. The opera is almost more like a play in its pace and texture. The plot is not difficult to follow. It's much clearer than the novel. It might be an idea to watch one of the movies based on Dostoyevsky. I've only seen the Karel Reisz film from 1974 but it left a huge impression on me.

Wednesday 10 February 2010

Laci Boldemann, von Otter, Swedish discoveries

This is the recording which features Laci Boldemann's 4 Epitaphs, which so stunned audiences at Anne Sofie von Otter's recital at the Wigmore Hall in 2003. The 4 Epitaphs are based on Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology (1915). That too is a remarkable work. Masters writes fictional epitaphs, each of which tells the story of the person supposedly buried beneath. Ollie McGee denounces her abusive husband. "In death, I am avenged". Sarah Brown tells her lover to tell her husband "There is no marriage in Heaven. But there is love".

Each of these miniatures is so intense that the "personalities" come alive. Laci Boldemann's settings are similarly terse and direct. He gets straight to the point, expressing the "person" by inflections in phrasing and syntax, rather than through ornamentation. The songs feel like speech, just as you'd expect from gritty pioneer folk who don't mince words. The songs are scored for string orchestra, with textures clean and free, evoking wide open spaces perhaps, or the other plane that is death. Amazing songs! A pity we had to wait til 2009 for their release. Anne Sofie von Otter's delivery is perfectly judged, dignified and unsentimental.

A pity, too, that Boldemann set only four of Masters's 244 vignettes. But in a way that clarity illuminates them. Boldemann was an interesting man. His parents were relatives of Aino Sibelius, and they hung out in artistic and music circles in Finland, Germany and Sweden. Nonetheless, Boldemann (1921-69) was drafted into the German Army but luckily became a POW, and spent time in the US. One day perhaps we'll hear programmes with his chamber music and these wonderful songs. I've found THIS but no other details.

Another discovery on this CD ( from DG) is Hans Gefors (b 1952) Lydias sånger. (rev 2003) It's an ambitious cycle, giving von Otter no respite : she has to sing against the Gothenberg Symphony Orchestra for half and hour without a break. Fortunately Kent Nagano conducts with sparse elegance. This is a saga-like dramatic narrative, so the range is demanding, too. The piece is loosely based on Hjalmar Söderberg's novel A Serious Game recounting an affair between a married woman and a music critic, so references to music and literature abound. Texts include Heine, Michelangelo and Bizet's Carmen. Gefors's setting are free enough that his work doesn't feel like an adaptation, but rather a series of mood pieces that create an ambience that may reflect the feelings in the novel rather than literal events. Some gems here, like The Sphinx , an unusual Heine poem that's defied most composers. Gefors captures the enigma. O schöne Sphinx! O löse mir Das Rätsel, das wunderbare!

Another world premiere starts the CD : Anders Hillborg, .....lontana in sonno....(2003) It's atmospheric, and von Otter sings the discursive phrases with sensitivity, matched by Nagano's restraint.

The Gefors and Hillborg pieces were commissioned for Anne Sofie von Otter. She's a wonderful singer, but eventually all singers retire. Hopefully, she'll be with us a long, long time. But she has done so much for unusual and new repertoire, and for Scandinavian music in particular, that her legacy will be greater and more lasting even than her singing. Twenty years ago, there were people who didn't know the songs of Grieg or Sibelius, far less Petersen-Berger or Stenhammer or Boldemann, and big names like Fischer-Dieskau didn't sing them. (Schwarzkopf did, and loved Luonnotar) Partly this is because an inordinate number of these songs are written for female voice - I don't know why. But von Otter has brought them out into the mainstream, where they belong, alongside the great German and French classics.

Street Angel 馬路天使 1937 - iconic Chinese Weimar

Street Angel (Malu Tienshi) (馬路天使, 1937) is  one of the best-loved Chinese movies of all times. It's "Chinese Weimar" in the sense that it's an art film but deals with social issues. In China, film played a crucial role in modernization. Film could reach ordinary people, and show things more directly than words might do. It's perhaps the best known Chinese film of its era in the west, where its full significance is perhaps lost.  It's certainly not a comedy as some western observers assume. There's also much more to it than love story ! It deals with bad social conditions, in which people are exploited, a metaphor for the fate of China at the time. The hit song itself has a message : when will peace and happiness return ?

It's also an icon because the star, Zhou Xuan (1918?-1957), was one of the great actresses and singers of her time - Monroe, Garbo, Dietrich all in one person, but still, in  Chinese circles revered for what she did and represented.  This was the film that launched her career. Here, she's barely past puberty, but what presence and sweetness! Later she became a diva, but her life was tragic and she died young, which adds to the mystique of this early film. The songs, too, are important. Though they were composed by Hu Leting, via the medium of film they became embedded so deeply into public consciousness that even today the songs are still hits, sung by popstars. Not so different from Heidenroeslien, which many people think of as "folksong" though it's Goethe and Schubert. These songs are beautiful, but they appeal, too, because they evoked an idealized past and nostalgic innocence.

Although there are subtitles to this film, I can't get them to work. But there's a very good translation HERE which you can use. It's good because it explains some of the background. When the people in the film discuss Mexican dollars, they're referring not only to the currency imposed (not by Mexico) in the 19th century but also to foreign control

Nonetheless, Street Angel is fundamentally a story about ordinary simple people and the way they deal with the problems of life. Zhou Xuan plays a very young girl who's perhaps been bought as a child to be trained to make money for the old musician. Her older "sister" (not a real sister, but that's what people called each other) has ended up a prostitute. The implication is that's what's going to happen to sweet little Xiao Hong (which means "Little Red"). Traditional values, perhaps, but the movie is reminding the audience, it's not a good thing, and maybe you don't have to sell yourself to get by.

The "hero" Xiao Dan, is Chen Shaoping, the trumpeter. Significantly, he plays the western trumpet in the kind of band that was common in China until fairly recently. These bands used to play at funerals, weddings, shop openings etc marching in the streets, playing a combination of Chinese and western tunes on a combination of western and Chinese instruments. Until I was quite old I thought "Dixie" and "She'll be coming round the mountain" were Chinese tunes. So Chen's job symbolizes something. Xiao Hong gets her hair cut into a bob and moves in with Chen. Chen's a magician, too. Watch that sequence when he gets Xiao Hong pinned to a wall. Significantly, as the film progresses, the "real" Chen emerges. At home, out of the public eye, he plays an erh hu, a traditional folk instrument, which endears him to Xiao Hong a pure Chinese girl.

When Chen and friends help Xiao Hong to get away from the local thug, audiences would have understood the wider meaning: that people can stand up to corrupt society and find a better life. It's also a funny movie - watch the scene where Chen's trying to get business for his friend's barbershop, and who turns up? Bald monks! And then they shave the thug's enforcer, cutting his hair like a traditional baby which is real provocation.

The other characters also connect to other things. One of the men covers his walls with newsprint. That wasn't uncommon in those days when people were desperately poor, but it shows how deeply newspapers penetrated society and spread ideas long after they ceased to be "news". Ephemeral perhaps, but still valid. At the end, the film pans from the alleyway hovel, up over a wall and onto a shot of an idealized skyscraper. A symbol of modern progress, which happens in many films, including western movies of the time. But there's more to it.  The reference is to the scenes behind the opening credits (which include the bronze lions outside the original HSBC offices). Poor people like the ones in this film wouldn't in their wildest dreams go to places like these, so the introduction is a lot more significant than the usual "scenery" introductions that became common in later Chinese movies.

Shanghai was created as a result of the shameful Opium Wars. It became the world's biggest metropolis, with huge textile industries, and the centre of trade between China and the West, but its success was poisoned because it was controlled by foreign states who had "concessions" and extra territorial rights, imposed by military force. They were in China to exploit its resources but ultimately could not care less about the benefits to the country. So the enforced prostitution scenario, and the thgug's bullying, in Street Angel is very pointed indeed. That's the kick that makes this film a lot more than cute melodrama.

The film was made by Mingxing, the studios founded by Lai Man Wai "father of Chinese cinema. Read more about him HERE. The director, Yuan Muzhi, came from Ningpo, like the Shaw Brothers, but what different paths their careers would take. Threy ended up billionaires. Yuan, like trumpeter Chen, declared for the CCP in 1949. Zhou Xuan lived in Hong Kong for a while but became mentallyu ill, and died young.

Monday 8 February 2010

George Benjamin, 50, London Sinfonietta

George Benjamin turned fifty last week. He's been composing since he was 7, seated at his first piano, improvising the music he heard in his imagination. The Queen Elizabeth Hall was packed with composers, conductors, and musicians for the London Sinfonietta George Benjamin at Fifty tribute, but in many ways, the measure of his stature was seeing him completely alone, playing his Piano Figures (2004). Benjamin's now one of the world's greats, but this connected him to the instrospective boy he was long ago, embarking on a voyage of discovery.

Piano Figures is a series of ten miniatures each built around a mood growing from a simple motivic cell. As in many things in life, "simple" doesn't mean "easy". These pieces don't demand extreme virtuosic technique, but they do challenge the mind. Each vignette builds on a mood or image ("Spell", "In the mirror", "Whirling") but moves on swiftly without exhausting the possibilities. While this isn't a showcase, it's valuable because it turns the player back onto himself, to think and dream, just as Benjamin started out all those years ago.

That sense of rapt listening comes through in Viola, viola (1999). This time, the contemplative dialogue is between Paul Silverthorne and Eniko Magyar. This is music about listening, as well as about making sound: intelligent listening is an underrated skill. Themes bounce between each player, the balance constantly shifting. Long, exploratory lines, countered by affirmative semi-staccato, a pulse connecting, then gracefully receding. Matthias Sperling and Rachel Krische have created a ballet Duet, duet, around Viola, viola. It seemed very sensitive to the flow of the music. At one point the dancers freeze mid air, arms and bodies stretched without touching. They hold the position for a brief moment, then the pulse changes and they move onwards. This is such thoughtful, contemplative music that it needs concentration, so I ended up listening to Silverthorne and Magyar. Fortunately, the dancing was filmed by BBC Radio 3 (which does podcasts), so there will be opportunities to listen and watch again.

Benjamin's At First Light, was written when he was only 22, after the success of Ringed by the Flat Horizon. It was inspired by J M W Turner's Norham Castle at Sunrise, pictured here. Cue for wavering colours and impressionistic effects showing Benjamin's debt to Messiaen, and to Messiaen's hero Debussy. As Benjamin says, the idea was to create music that shows how objects can be formed in "punctuated, clearly defined phrase", but then "melted into a flowing, nebulous continuum of sound".

It's imaginative, more original than the slightly earlier A Mind of Winter, another landscape in sound depicting a winter scene in Wallace Stevens's The Snow Man. Claire Booth sang the vocal part well, but even she couldn't make this piece feel that, as music for voice, it isn't little more than relatively straightforward orchestral song, albeit in a modern style. Still, it's worth hearing to show how far Benjamin has changed and learned from the past. His opera Into the Little Hill is a masterpiece where he's at last achieved his potential as composer for voice. I was one of the lucky ones who heard it in full at the Linbury Studio (please see HERE) Get the CD and get tickets at Aldeburgh and the Almeida this summer.

The London Sinfonietta showed their true colurs in Palimpsests (1999-2002). Such vibrant, animated playing! Such energy and sense of purpose, even though the directions are often wayward, reflecting the initial concept of "palimpsests", medieval documents where different layers of writing are superimposed, often at contrary angles. Like Viola, viola, there are double elements, but here they co-exist rather than communicate. One element is defined by lively polyphony, four flutes and four clarinets acting as "voices". The second element is unusual too, eight double basses and eight violins/violas - no cellos. Three harps, plucked like giant celli. Thundering brass, led by high trumpet, a cataclysmic rolling rumble.

The trajectory and sense of form in Palimpsests reminds me of Boulez, who premiered this work and to whom it is dedicated. Because there's so much nonsense about modern music, the energy and almost organic vivacity of Boulez's music is often overlooked. As Benjamin said in his pre-performance talk with Julian Anderson, Boulez's music is underrated. The talk was good, overthrowing some miscomprehensions, like the idea that spectralism derives from Sibelius (Alex Ross). Messiaen was much too nice a guy to roll in his grave. More likely, he's chuckling, up there in Heaven.

Listen to this programme on 13th Feb on the BBC Radio 3 website (see "Hear and Now") , online and on demand for a week. Sound samples HERE on the London Sinfonietta website.

Donizetti revealed - Lucia di Lammermoor at ENO

Please see the full review in Opera Today with big, fabulous photos HERE.

"Donizetti’s original concept of Lucia di Lammermoor is revealed in its true glory in this ground breaking production by the English National Opera, first heard in 2008. The opera is loved in its familiar form, but the new critical edition reveals the depth of Donizetti’s musical creation.

Donizetti’s music is so lyrical that we could be lulled, but he understood the true horrific nature of the narrative. In his time, the glass harmonica was believed by some to induce insanity. In theory, it’s surreal drone would have added an extra frisson of danger to early performances, enhancing the dramatic impact. Restoring the glass harmonica makes good dramatic as well as musical sense, even though the full impact may be lost on modern audiences used to horror movies and the ondes martenot. This ENO production, directed by David Alden, and designed by Charles Edwards, significantly places a luminous green object left stage, glowing menacingly. It represents the glass harmonica, played in the pit by Alexander Marguerre, one of the few glass harmonica specialists in the world. It reaffirms the importance of the musical character in this opera.

Two centuries of flamboyant performance practice have shaped our assumptions, but the evidence is that Donizetti’s approach was more restrained. There’s plenty of drama inherent in Lucia’s personality, so this production shifts the balance back to the inherent drama in Donizetti’s music. Anna Christy’s high soprano isn’t as magnificent as, say, Maria Callas, but it fits well with the cleaner bel canto aesthetic. Christy also evokes the fragility so fundamental to Lucia’s personality. Her timbre is clean and pure, almost shrill at times, but that’s psychologically astute. When Lucia finally breaks down in wild frenzy, it’s all the more disturbing.

This Lucia’s still in the nursery, playing with dolls, wearing a dress that shows her ankles. When Enrico (Brian Mulligan) fondles her legs, it's shocking. But then selling his sister into marriage is shocking too. Nonetheless, Enrico recoils in horror at what he’s done and regresses, playing with a toy cart. Mulligan’s baritone is surprisingly delicate, so even if his physique isn’t child-like, he conveys the idea that Enrico — just like Lucia — doesn’t want to grow up and face the struggles that adulthood brings.

Donizetti Italianizes Sir Walter Scott’s fantasy of Scottish myth. Because the setting is ambiguous, this set design (by Charles Edwards) plays an important role in commenting on and expanding the themes implicit in the drama. What we need to know is that once powerful , families have been destroyed. In hues of grey, green and white, we see the faded glory of a marble mansion falling into ruin, paint peeling, windows boarded. Lammermoor is on the brink of collapse. Lucia is being traded off so the family can survive. Enrico’s not a craven brute, but a victim of overwhelming circumstances.

The mad scene takes place in an alcove above the main stage, complete with curtained backdrop. The marriage chamber becomes a stage where the ritual of marriage is acted out. This is Lucia’s “sacrifice” on the altar of social pressure. Even though Arturo is kind, losing her virginity is an act of violence, to which Lucia responds with extreme force.

Lucia is clearly unstable long before the wedding. She sees the ghost of a dead maiden, and falls suddenly in love when Edgardo kills a wild animal at her feet. Blood, love and death inextricably linked. Even in Donizetti’s time, some would have intuited the connection, but the Victorian costumes (Brigitte Reiffenstuel) in this production allude to images of rigid respectability. Beneath the buttoned up bombazine, sexual repression corrodes, just like the rusting windows in the Ashton mansion. Obviously, Lucia wants to die because she’s let Edgardo down by signing the marriage contract. But she’s also choosing death to avoid losing her innocence.

Edgardo (Barry Banks) is just as weighed down by family tradition as Enrico is, but he’s already lost everything but his father’s tomb. Here he’s dressed in a kilt, the last remaining wild Highlander in a new world of Victorian propriety. Walter Scott’s novels about a lost past appealed to the Romantic imagination because they offered an alternative to convention, in an era before there was a vocabulary for psychological concepts. Perhaps that’s why Alden has Edgardo killing himself with a gun instead of a sword. Edgardo, a throwback to a wild Highland past, can’t buck “modern” society.

With Lucia, Edgardo and Enrico destroyed, the future, as such, rests with figures like Raimondo Bidebent (what a name!). Clive Bayley’s portrayal is sympathetic — no Calvinist hellfire and brimstone here. Even when he attacks Normanno (Philip Daggett), he’s not specially vindictive. But he doesn’t understand the passion that drove Lucia and Edgardo. Something’s been lost in this new world of genteel reticence.. This superb production of Lucia di Lammerrmoor does justice to the drama and to the depth of Donizetti’s music, revealed in this lucid new edition.

Sunday 7 February 2010

Kinshasa Symphony premieres in Berlin

Le seul Orchestre Symphonique de RDC à Kinshasa
Uploaded by pollux91. - Watch more music videos, in HD!On 17th and 18th February, the film Kinshasa Symphony premieres at the Berlinale, the 60th Berlin International Film Festival. Hopefully that will give the documentary the publicity it deserves because it's a wonderful project. The film (by Claus Wischmann and Martin Baer) is subtitled "Symphonie im Grossstadt-Slum", which, if you've seen Berlin Sinfonie der Grossstadt, makes sense.

"Kinshasa Symphony" shows how people living in one of the most chaotic cities in the world have managed to forge one of the most complex systems of human cooperation ever invented: a symphony orchestra. It is a film about the Congo, about the people of Kinshasa and about music."

The Congo isn't a wealthy place. Basics westerners take for granted (like electricity) don't come easy, and life's a struggle. Yet these musicians are so dedicated that they find time to practise nearly every day. They make their own instruments! No one can justify a million pound Strad here. They also make their own uniforms and share scores with each other. Yet they persist. The Kinshasa Symphony is the only orchestra in central Africa. People in the west have no idea how tough life can be in other places. I can't say how much I admire these people for their dedication. We in the west could learn something from them about true values.

Please read about the project HERE. It's a good cause. I hope the news will be picked up in the western media and the film shown around the world. Please pass this clip on. These people deserve respect.

Saturday 6 February 2010

More Glass harmonica

Thomas Bloch, one of the great modern masters of the Glass harmonica plays Mozart. And below the famous scene from Kuhle Wampe with the street musicians playing some kind of keyboard which sure looks and sounds like a glass harmonica, but is a harmonium. The droning fiddle is a musical saw. The weird sounds waft upstairs to the tenement... horrible atmosphere at home with the brutish father. And then the son jumps out of the window... This is a lousy clip, but shows the critical moment in the film. Watch the full movie on this site HERE (full screen facility too)

Friday 5 February 2010

Groundbreaking Lucia di Lammermoor ENO

FOR SATYAGRAHA, 2007 and 2010, please click HERE and HERE. Please see formal review of Lucia HERE. These are first thoughts. Lucia di Lammermoor is pure theatre. Walter Scott's novel reinvents Scotland as pre-Victorian potboiler. Donizetti adapts it to High Romantic Italianate melodrama. Far from being set in any specific time or place, this opera inhabits a strange world of the imagination. All the more reason for intelligent interpretation. David Alden's production of Lucia di Lammermoor, at the English National Opera, breaks new ground because it draws power from the tension between the lyrical music and the horror of the narrative.

Because setting in this opera is so ambiguous, the set design itself plays a significant role, commenting on and expanding the ideas implicit in the opera, adding a deeper layer of meaning. The background's too complex to explain. What we need to know is that two families have been involved in a fight to the death. With hues of grey, green and white, this set design speaks of faded glory, marble halls neglected and left to ruin. This set reminds us that Lucia's family is on the brink of annihilation. Enrico isn't simply a brute forcing his sister into marriage. He's desperate for survival, and Lucia is the last weapon left to him.

Donizetti's music is so beautiful that it lulls us, but that's part of the horror. The object left stage, glowing a luminous green, represents the glass harmonica. The instrument is actually played in the pit by Alexander Marguerre but Alden and Charles Edwards, who designed this evocative set, make sure we don't lose sight of what we hear. The strange, hypnotic drone of the glass harmonica was believed to induce insanity in those who heard it, so Donizetti wasn't using it purely for surreal musical effect. Its very presence signals danger. Donizetti's audience would in theory have picked up on the implication, that they, too, might go mad like Lucia, through no fault of their own. The conductor, Antony Walker, made sure Marguerre (one of the few glass harmonica players in the world) got a bow, but unfortunately the Coliseum audience didn't seem aware why. Surely they're not saturated with theremins ?

Updating the costumes (Brigitte Reiffenstuel) to buttoned-up late Victorian also added to the interpretation. Real 16th century Scottish Calvinists probably didn't waltz. but for Donizetti, the wedding party had to be joyful, to contrast with the brutal transaction the wedding celebrates. The "Victorian" context also draws out the subtext of sexual repression in this opera more clearly than Scott or Donizetti would have dared. It's perfectly valid. Lucia might be traded for power and money but her personality isn't stable. She sees ghosts, and grieves for her mother, but falls instantly in love with Edgardo when he kills a wild animal right in front of her. Blood, death and love inextricably connected in her psyche. No wonder losing her virginity drives her to stab Arturo, even though his advances were kindly.

Anna Christy's Lucia is portrayed as a child still in the nursery, playing with dolls in a narrow single bed. Shocking as that might be, it's perfectly in keeping with the meaning of the opera. Christy's tones range towards shrillness, but that is much more in character, and valid for the part. Callas brought out the more erotic, sensual side of the role, especially in the frustration of the mad scene, but Christy emphasizes the vulnerability.

Some might look askance on Enrico's fondling her. But Enrico is tragic too. In this production, Alden has Brian Mulligan play with a toy cart, as if this Enrico doesn't want to face the grown-up world any more than Lucia does. It's a masterly insight, enhanced by Mulligan's unchildlike physique and timbre surprisingly delicate for a baritone.

The mad scene takes place in a stage with curtained backdrop above the main stage. This, too, is insight, for it depicts marriage as a public ritual. By rejecting sex, Lucia is also rejecting society. Perhaps Christy's Lucia is drawn to this Edgardo because he, too, is a misfit. The role was sung by Barry Banks (after 18/2 by Jaewoo Kim). Edgardo's family history weighs heavily on him (hence the portraits on the walls) but essentially, Edgardo is an outsider, the last primitive Highlander in a civilized "Victorian" milieu. What is unusual in this production is that he kills himself with Enrico's gun instead of his sword, but even that could be explained, given the idea that Edgardo represents a way of life that's become outmoded, doomed as he and Lucia are in the "proper" world of bonnets, watch fobs and bombazine.

With Lucia, Edgardo and Enrico destroyed, the future, as such, rests with figures like Raimondo Bidebent (what a name!). Clive Bayley's portrayal of the parson is sympathetic - no Calvinist hellfire and brimstone here. Even when he attacks Normanno (Philip Daggett), he's not specially impassioned or vindictive. In short, this Raimondo represents a counter to the extreme, inflamed passions that drive Lucia and Edgardo to their deaths. Alden's approach to Raimondo via Bayley adds yet another element to the opera, but it reflects Sir Walter Scott's concept of a lost past, and Donizetti's non-literalism. The English translation, by Amanda Holden, complete with rhyming couplets, was unsettling if you're used to the Italian, and had its funny moments but that, too, enhanced the sense that there's something not quite natural in the realms of Ravenswood.

A more formal and technical review will appear shortly in Opera Today.