Wednesday 30 June 2010

Placido, Simon Boccanegra, ROH and my Dad

 Placido Domingo isn't a tenor, a baritone, or even a singer. He's a phenomenon. Dozens of people queued outside the stage door waiting for him to arrive at The Royal Opera House for tonight's Simon Boccanegra. Placido needs flowers? As one fan told me. "He's jetting off tomorrow to sing Parsifal". But people need flowers as a symbol to thank Placido for being who he is, and being so much a part of our lives.

Hearing Placido is a privilege. His voice may be showing slight signs of strain, but let's face it, hardly anyone still sings at 69, and then not major roles. Or juggles major responsibilities on several continents (sometimes all within a week). He's brought Italian opera, indeed, any opera, to the world. In Japan he'd be declared a Living National Treasure.

I grew up listening to Verdi because my Dad adored Italy, Italian culture, art, movies and opera.  So much so that when I rebelled in my teens I took up Wagner, to drive him mad.  Years later when my Dad was ill, he was in a coma. We put headphones on him and played Italian opera tapes.  Even though he was unconscious, his face would relax and soften - blessed relief.  So tonight at the Royal Opera House, hearing one of Dad's favourite singers and favourite operas was a very moving experience for me. I kept thinking how proud he'd be, how happy I'd made it to Europe and the ROH, which he never did.

Because my Dad was so interested in Italian art and architecture, he would have loved this production. The sets are stunningly beautiful. Checkerboard marble, curved arches. See the photo above, that's the Doge's Palace. Painterly is wonderful, but the drama seems to step out of a canvas in a marbled hall. One very good telling point, easily missed is the graffiti on the walls. These evoke both frescoes and punk scrawl, for the plebs were a powerful; force in 14th century Genoa.  It's an important part of Simon Boccanegra's personality - vagabond outsider who upsets plebs and patricians, and has to keep fighting to stay alive..

Apart from the graffitti, this production doesn't make much of that aspect of Simon Boccanegra, or the darker dramatic undercurrents.  It's so painterly that the singers don't need to move much, just stand and deliver. For movement, drama and vivacity, you have to depend on the music. Verdi didn't write that delicate but telling oboe solo for nothing, nor the sounds of the sea as Simon B lies dying.  It's not, by any means, a sedate opera but this production works well if you think of it as a beautiful canvas.

In any case, this audience came for the stars. Placido, of course, but also Joseph Calleja, Ferrucio Furlanetto, and Marina Poplavskaya.  Fans love stars, however they sing, but this was the best all round singing all season, and not only at ROH.  Pllacido comes on and everything racks up into high gear.  I'll write more about this performance tomorrow, and in a more formal way, but for now, this will suffice. (Please see Opera Today where it is, with photos)

Coming up : SIX operas in nine days!  Including Glyndebourne Don Giovanni. Keep coming back to this site for the next few credit

Tuesday 29 June 2010

Boulez Aldeburgh Ensemble Intercontemporain Carter Ligeti

Pierre Boulez brought Ensemble Intercontemporain to Aldeburgh. This is a major coup, which London venues can't easily arrange. But Aldeburgh can bring Boulez and his amazing orchestra to a hall seating barely 500, in a small country town, because Pierre-Laurent Aimard is Festival Director. They go back together since Aimard was a boy.

This grand finale to the Aldeburgh Festival was much more than a concert, it was a consecration. Ligeti, Boulez, Carter on the programme, but many others invisibly present because of their close connections: Messiaen, Stockhausen, Kurtág and so on. Boulez may not have conducted at Aldeburgh before - he's too expensive - but his "family" of composers have been an integral part of the Festival for years.

Edgard Varèse was the "First Wild Man of Modern Music". Boulez was one of his earliest champions. Varèse didn't have electronics or computer facilties: Boulez created IRCAM so composers of the future would have access to the best technology and support from other creative minds.  It was fitting that the concert should start with Varèse's Octandres. It's not his most famoue piece, but perhaps the most "classically" pure. Seven winds, one double bass -- no klaxons, so no extramusical baggage, but thoughtful exploration.

It was a good prelude to György Ligeti's Chamber Concerto (1969-70) expanding the concept of single instrument protagonists develops into music of delightful but deft complexity. Technically, Ensemble Intercontemporain are of course flawless, but this was truly inspired.  Superb musicianship is liberating, These players don't need to "think",  they play with instinctive freedom. Boulez's conducting style is understated, the merest jerk of a finger, the most refined twist of the wrist, but Ensemble Intercontemporain are so much in tune with him, they catch every nuance.

Some of the most amazing playing in the quieter passages, where the line floats seamlessly even though it's taken up by different instrument.. Perhaps another example of what Ligeti meant when he said his music levitated, like a helicopter. Catch this performance when it's broadcast on BBC Radio 3 online, on demand, internationally for 7 days from 30 June. Studio recordings may be more perfect, but this live performance had élan, vivacity, sparkle. "Breathtaking" is an over-used cliché, but in this case it was apt: you didn't want to breathe lest you miss a moment.  A very well kmown composer/conductor was sitting near me. He sat transfixed.

What are Years is the title of  Elliott Carter's new song cycle, an Aldeburgh commission, in association with the Lucerne Festival and Tanglewood. Aldeburgh is now up there with the biggest. Britten would be thrilled, though some of the British press would rather it became a provincial backwater.  The cycle is to poems by Marianne Moore. Five songs, a group of four which cohere, the final song leading into an unknown, new direction.

Moore's disjointed combinations of phrases without structure suit Carter's vocal writing. Although he was a singer himself (glee clubs and chorals in college)  he doesn't set text in a "singerly" way. Instead, he makes much of Moore's jerky rhythms, sudden bursts of expression, deliberate holdings back and silences. What are Years is certainly not poetry reading but music revealing itself through the framework of text. The voice acts like an instrument, probing and eliding, stretching and pulling the words as if they were abstract music. Claire Booth has the measure of the piece, interacting well with the orchestra, whose role here is critical, enveloping the fragmented nature of the text with a flowing, serene line that suggests the passage of time.

Natural then that Boulez and Ensemble Intercontemporain ended with Boulez's Dérive 2, written for Carter's 80th birthday, nearly a quarter of a century ago. Now Boulez himself is older than Carter was then. But age is irrelevant when a mind is fertile.  Perhaps that's why Dérive mutates, growing in the imagination. Boulez's music is strongly organic, in the sense that it evolves from deep roots, and grows vigorously. following a definite trajectory, excursions spiralling outwards and growing branches of their own. Again, Ensemble Intercontemporain played vivaciously, energetic but elegant. For me, one of the joys of Boulez's music is the sense of inventiveness and renewal. It may look "difficult" on the printed page, but musicians like Ensemble Intercontemporain reveals its innate liveliness.

Anthèmes II is another Boulez growth-piece, where the violin is augmented by electronics. Jeanne-Marie Conquer and the IRCAM sound desk make sounds that twine round each other symbiotically: which is which, who's leading whom? It's a sophisticated piece, yet approached with wit.

Hearing Dialogue de l'ombre double in the intimate performance space of the Britten Studio at Snape was wonderful. because seeing the movements intensifies the impact of the shifts in sound. It's like a dance bwetween clarinet (Jérôme Comte) and electronics, so seeing Comte change position marks stages in the ritual. The tiniest change of position means a change in sound dynamics. It's a concerto that uses the acoustic of performance space, and sound inaudible to the human ear . Hence the electronics, which pick up things that exist, but we couldn't otherwise hear. It's a multi-layered work, where the boundaries  between clarinet and electronics are deliberately blurred, teasingly up-ended. You have to listen acutely to pick up the subtle shifts and counterbalances, but it's immensely rewarding, especially enhanced by darkness and light as in this performance. Comte emerges from the shadows. Is he playing or is it the sound desk? Again, it's playful and organic, formidable but not at all frightening. If only Varèse, John The Baptist of modern music, could have been with us, too!

Monday 28 June 2010

Early Music is Modern Music - Aldeburgh

Early music is as much part of Aldeburgh as new.  The 19th century Austro-Gedrman tradition has shaped what most people think of as "music", but it's a relatively recent tradition. Think of western music from a wider perspective, and the straitjacket of what music "must" be starts to collapse.  So many modern composers have turned to early music for inspiration that it's a good idea to listen to early music in order to appreciate what modern music is coming from.

In some ways, the Huelgas Ensemble is the Ensemble Intercontemporain of early music. In France, early music is hugely popular and on a more adventurous scale. There's a renaissance in "modern" early music and new commissions, which has hardly touched the Anglophone world. In England, the closest we get is Exaudi, highly recommended! So when the Huelgas Ensemble came to Blythburgh Chiurch (top picture)  as part of the Aldeburgh Festival, it was special.

The Huelgas Ensemble, founded and conducted by Paul Van Nevel in 1970, grew from Schola Cantorum in Basle (where Andreas Scholl trained), so it combines scholarly erudition with extremely refined performance. Think of the great cathedrals, which were built with precision, long before computer aided design.

The Huelgas sang Clemens non Papa (Clement who wasn't a Pope), Orlandus de Lassus,  Thomas Ashewell and Nicolas Gombert, a programme of the 16th century when Europe was going through cataclysmic upheaval, the certainties of the Middle Ages being shattered by new ideas. The serenity and perfection of this music salved souls, if it didn't save them. The Huelgas's purity of tone and carefully woven harmony was beautiful. They didn't stand in rigid lines, but moved in a circle.. Singing in church was about filling space effectively. Later that evening, Pierre Boulez's Dialogue de l'ombre double showed how sound dynamics shape the form of music. IRCAM isn't all that far from the early music.

The concert is being broadcast on BBC Radio 3 online, on demand, internationally from 28 June for 7 days.

No wonder early music speaks to modern composers and modern times so well.  Complexity, but based on sound architecture and detail.  A few years ago, at Orford, near Aldeburgh,  I heard Exaudi sing some of Brian Ferneyhough's complexities, lines crossing each other, tracing and intertracing like medieval vaulting. 

Please have a look at Iron Tongue of Midnight. Some journalist thinks that science proves the human brain cannot cope with the "Difficulty" of modern music. I won't give the original link, because it will send traffic to a fool, but read the link.  If science knows anything about the brain, it's that the brain's potential is so huge, we don't know the beginning of it. Quoting one source is like saying that the world must have been created in seven days, because the Bible says so. Creationism spreads because it's always easier not to make an effort, whatever the rewards. Music evolves, and adapts. But Creationists don't like Evolution, of course..

At Aldeburgh this year there's been a huge focus on science and art, specifically the neurological basis of creativity.  I don't have time to write that up just now, but keep reading, I'll get it done during July. The picture shows what can happen when people refuse to think. All along the Suffolk Coast, the cliffs are crumbling, just like in Peter Grimes. There once was a huge seaport at Dunwich, now hundreds of metres under the sea.  But this church, at Covehithe, wasn't destroyed by the sea but by men, in the Reformation and after.

Gerald's Glyndebourne Don Giovanni

Great pic of Gerald Finley lazing in the sun at Glyndebourne. You can tell it's a recent shot, because the lawn is parched dry. Read the story HERE. Hope the gardens are OK! But seriously, one goes for the music, doesn't one? And it sounds like this one will be good. YES IT IS !!!!!! I went 7 July, review com ing up soon- watch this site ! LOVED it PLEASE SEE my FULL REVIEW HERE

This weather bodes well for Garsington, too, where I'll be Wednesday.

At Aldeburgh, there are more wildflowers than ever: eglantine, honeysuckle, poppies, daisies, cornflowers. Combination of late Spring and sudden midsummer heat has brought the full season together in one massive display. Go, even if the Festival is over, because it's wonderful. Birds, too, nature reserves all over and organic farming which doesn't wipe out habitats.

Aldeburgh - Bach Mass crowd flock to Boulez and Carter

Pierre Boulez and Ensemble Intercontemporain came to the Aldeburgh Music Festival. It was the big finale, and such an important concert that I'll write about it in depth later. First, though, the first of the two days with Boulez and Ensemble Intercontemporain, one of the most amazing orchestras in the world.

Nearly every year at Aldeburgh, Bach's Mass in B Minor gets an outing because it's perfect for Snape. This year, John Eliot Gardiner conducted, guaranteed to sell out within hours. Car park packed with tour buses, full of Bach Mass fans. But the wonderful thing is, many of the Bach Mass crowd came hours early, and heard Pierre Boulez talk to Pierre-Laurent Aimard. They stayed for the concert after the talk - Boulez Incises for Piano, Sonatina for Flute and Piano and Elliott Carter's Duo for Violin and Piano (Dimitri Vassilakis (p), Emmanuelle Ophèle (fl) Hae-Sun Kang (vn))

What's more the Bach Mass Crowd listened attentively. No-one brainwashed them into thinking "Difficult is Dangerous". Maybe they didn't all get it, but they were prepared to listen and think for themselves.  Surprisingly warm applause!  Maybe this audience related to Boulez because he's their own age group, but it felt sincere. A million times better than the stagey fake applause that happens in some places where people think they're proving something by standing up to clap, even for rubbish.

Boulez isn't the demon some sensationalists make him out to be. Nadia Boulanger hated everything about him,. One of the reasons for the schism in American and European tastes springs from Boulanger's jealous antagonism to Messiaen and anyone who might challenge her view that early Stravinsky was what modern music should be. Including Stravinsky himself, later on.

French music's always been different from Austro-German music, said Boulez, and the Nazis weren't going to promote modern music. So French musicians were isolated, especially during the Occupation, when Boulez was studying with Messiaen.  He learned Webern from scores, also hard to come by. Hans Rosbaud was his mentor, indeed, it was Rosbaud who asked Boulez to conduct at short notice when Rosbaud fell ill. Boulez took the train to Germany, and started another career. Learning from the score has been Boulez's mantra ever since. That's why he set up Domaine Musicale, so new music could be performed by top musicians who cared about it. From Domaine Musicale to Ensemble Intercontemporain, and to IRCAM.

Boulez talked about John Cage "from whom I learned so much", about American poetry and painting, which influence his music. Boulez's knowledge of European art and literature is formidable, though he didn't mention it in the talk.  He gave up on serialism and other isms decades ago, "It was too boring. Why twelve tones when you can have so many other possibilities?". But Schoenberg showed the way. Boulez and Aimard discussed various works, Le marteau sans maître, the Piano Sonatas, Cummings ist der Dichter.  They could have gone on much longer, but even at Aldeburgh, time schedules intrude.

Later, there was a screening of the film, Piano du xxe siècle, where Pierre-Laurent Aimard talks through Boulez Piano Sonata no 1, almost bar by bar, showing why it's so interesting. Aimard knows what he's talking about and is so enthusiastic it illuminates the full performance even if you already know the work. It's a wonderful film, made in 1985. lots of extras as background, like a shot of "Boulez's school report", Messiaen's comment on the official record of the Paris Conservatoire. "Un tel musicien! Il aurait un grand avenir."

The film is part of a series for French television, but is most certainly not dumbed down. Boulez, Messiaen, Stockhausen, Ligeti, each documentary filmed to enhance the music itself.  For this film, says Aimard, "we aimed for a risk taking element with the camera, keeping its movements  and gestures improvised, albeit prepared with the greatest of care in order to correspond to the extremely active and free gestures of the music".

Is that the secret of promoting music ? Not just new music, but all music. The film engages with a specific piece, describing how it works and how it came to be. Intelligence, imagination and freedom of spirit - just like the piece itself. No wonder Messiaen used this piece as basic teaching material.  He wanted his students to think,  and create original work. Those who hate  "difficult" music have only themselves to blame.

Friday 25 June 2010

Aldeburgh and Hugues Cuénod

Aldeburgh and Hugues Cuénod -  much deeper connections than you'd think.  Hugues Cuénod, who turns 108 tomorrow (see main posts on him on this site) went to Aldeburgh nearly every year. Britten, of course, had a passion for Monteverdi, Bach, early polyphony, Elizabethan lute songs etc. so naturally they had a lot in common. (If you get to Red House, see Britten's collection of baroque and early music scores). Britten transcribed Bach, folk song and much else: eclectic mixes have been a feature of Aldeburgh since the start. The tradition goes on, with Birtwistle transcriptions of Bach, etc etc. "Montage Collage" is central to the whole idea of Aldeburgh.

Britten loved hosting artists from far away - he was instrumental in helping Shostakovich and getting him established in the West. Fruitful exchange of ideas and it spurred new work. So naturally he wanted to write music he, Pears and Cuénod could perform together. But the two tenors could not have been more different. "Like harnessing a horse and a steer" said Cuénod, diplomatically. This year is Peter Pears centenary, so Aldeburgh is full of him - film, exhibition, talks, walks. And as for me, I'll be celebrating the quirky mélange that has always been Aldeburgh. Right from the start, this frisson has inspired new work, new music, new artists.

Please explore this site, where there's lots on Aldeburgh, Britten, Cuénod, Carter, Messiaen, Aimard, Knussen, Benjamin and connected themes. Look at the photo at the top of this page - also "Aldeburgh" in the sense of eclectic mix. Orchestra of animals, procession to a Chinese Buddhist abbot.  One day I must write more about that place, where there are/were hundreds of things like that. Below a clip from Aldeburgh Music showing why Aldeburgh is such a great experience.

Thursday 24 June 2010

Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Composer? Collage Montage

Collage creates something new from found objects getting the mix right in a creative way. Pierre-Laurent Aimard's Collage-Montages are artistic creations in their own right.  This year he's put together Collage-Montage 2010 for solo piano, which is now available on BBC Radio 3 for seven days online, on demand.  Do listen, it's great fun.

First time round I listened unprepared. Your ear catches recognizable fragments and then suddenly they switch into other things. Whimsy! Yet this is a purposeful collage, with intelligence behind it. Next time round, listen analytically to the logic and the way the forms act on each together.

On third listening, it's sheer delight, absorbing the myriad colours and shapes, and the lively sense of movement. A kaleidoscope for the ears!

Collage-Montage 2010 evolves in five movements  like a miniature symphony. Prélude élémentaireSostenuto and Capriccio speak for themselves, but into this Aimard throws real caprice, "3x3" and Cloches d'Adieu for a finale.

The first section starts with fragments from Ligeti's Musica Ricercata no 1, composed around a single A which leads to a D,  via Bartok, Schoenberg and Webern to Boulez's Notations (no 8)  where the two notes repeat. In Sostenato, the goal is to sustain seamless flow from a minimalist moment in Kurtág’s Játékok to a fulsome conclusion, via Janàček, Skyrabin and Beethoven (Diabelli v20)

Then Aimard gets really provocative, in 3x3.  Patterns within patterns. First, ragtime moves from Scott Joplin to Stravinsky's Piano Rag to Georg Benjamin's Relativity Romp. It's balanced by three waltz fragments (Schubert , Stravinsky, Ligeti) and three pieces based on mechanical movements, parts of Birtwistle's Clocks, Lyadov's Un tabatière á musique and a moment in Stockhausen Tierkreis.
 No fewer than eight pieces in Capriccio, rounding Beethoven themes with Scarlatti, Joihn  Cage and Schumann. The combination's so witty, I burst out laughing, it's so light hearted.  Cloches d'Adieu plays with the idea of bells as coda: Delightful switchbacks, Tristan Murail, Ravel (Gaspard de la Nuit)  and of course The Great Gate of Kiev (Mussorgsky).  "The goal", says Aimard, "is to be a little lost while travelling from place to place....mixing fore-knowledge with the unexpected."   

He's being modest. Humorous as it is, Collage-Montage 2010 is meticulously constructed, lots of internal links, very carefully planned. Thirty seven fragments in 80 minutes. Not a note wasted.

The talks at Aldeburgh this year really up the intellectual ante. Music and the Brain, they're modestly called but dwell on the science behind performance and perception.  Before this concert, there was a talk called "The Pianist's Brain, a two-part Invention", where Eckart Altenmüller spoke about how hands and brains work together to produce music. Not dumbed down, this Aldeburgh.

The picture above is Kurt Schwitters Spring Picture (1926). Schwitters did a lot of collage, bringing together ordinary objects like scraps of newspaper and formal painting. He was  a pal of Hannah Hoch. Some collages are a bit obvious. I chose this picture because it's subtle, magical, a lot like Collage Montage 2010. .

Wednesday 23 June 2010

Hugues Cuénod, 108 - Happy Birthday!

Aged 10, Hugues Cuénod attended a concert celebrating Camille Saint-Säens's 78th birthday. Saint-Saëns played  piano with Ignace Paderewski,while Felia Litvine sang. That was 1913. This weekend, Hugues Cuénod reaches his 108th birthday. He still lives in Vevey, in Switzerland, where he was born. He's frail now, sleeps a lot, but still has his wits about him.

Cuénod's famous in the Anglophone world because he made his debut at the Met in his 80's. But the Met isn't the world. Cuénod trained in Vienna and Paris in the 1920's, singing whatever amused him - operetta,  Mozart, Krenek's Jonny spielt auf in 1928, and "Negro spirituals" which he learned from a black American tenor, and recorded in the 1930's.

He didn't hear Pelléas et Mélisande til 1922, but knew many of the people involved with it, including both Mary Garden, Debussy's choice for Mélisande, and Georgette Leblanc, Maurice Maeterlinck's mistress, for whom he'd written the libretto. LeBlanc told him a story about how she and Maeterlinck were canoodling in a park when her husband appeared. Maeterlinck shot up a tree to hide. The scene went into the opera!

Cuénod sang Bach with Vincent D'Indy (in French) and knew the severe, "Protestant" Bach tradition in Geneva. He met Nadia Boulanger in 1934, just when she needed a singer to illustrate her teaching of Monteverdi, thus making him the first "modern" Monteverdi specialist. Boulanger was no purist, playing piano rather than harpsichord or fortepiano, and with heavy-handed gusto, but they made Monteverdi exciting and fun.  He also sang Cavalli and other early operas.. Without Hugues Cuénod, the baroque revival of the 20th century might not have happened so quickly..

Yet, as Cuénod cheerfully says, he's never taken life too seriously. Boulanger was notoriously demanding. Igor Markevitch, also a Vevey boy, and friend of both, called her "Herr Doktor" behind her back. Cuénod could defuse situations with his easy, laconic humour.  He, after all was the man who could croon like Jean Sablon so well that he formed a duo with a soprano, called Bob et Babette, to sing French language pop songs. There's a great photo of them in 1937, looking so wholesome and sweet it's almost a joke!

Cuénod also knew  Noel Coward, whom he described to an  interviewer as "an English Sacha Guitry". They did a thing called The Green Carnations which was so openly gay, even Coward was worried how it might go down. Maybe the public didn't twig. When Switzerland allowed gay marriage, Cuénod was one of the first to take advantage, marrying in his late 80's. They're still together, after 40 years.

 Of course, Cuénod knew Stravinsky, their circles connected in many ways. Stravinsky wrote Sellem the auctioneer in The Rake's Progress for him, a short but characterful role, making the most of Cuénod's dramatic strengths. (one of his favourite roles was the Stammerer in Smetana's The Bartered Bride). Everyone in the business went to the premiere, and Cuénod's opera career blossomed better than any agent could have dreamed. That's how he was asked to sing The Captain in Wozzeck at La Scala with Tito Gobbi.

Cuénod also became an enduring fixture at Glyndebourne.. He was also a regular at Aldeburgh, for many years. Britten wanted him to sing duets with Peter Pears, but it didn't work out because their voices and styles were too different. "Harnessing a horse with a steer", said Cuénod, discreetly.
So Happy Birthday Hugues Cuénod, and many more to come!
Photo credit : Charles Sigel

Tuesday 22 June 2010

Terezin Theresienstadt Nash Holzmair Wigmore Hall

Is this an ordinary family making music? Look closely. Dad and the little girl are wearing  yellow stars. This is a drawing from Terezin Theresienstadt, by Helga Weissova-Hoskova, who was a teenager then. She survived and was at the Wigmore Hall for the Nash Ensemble's tribute last weekend.

Lots of people had come in from Israel and the Czech Republic. But the music of Theresienstadt speaks for everyone, because it shows how people can be creative in the most adverse situations, and that art has value, against all odds. That's why its significance resonates for all humanity.

Because camp conditions were strained, no huge Wagnerian orchestral extravagance. Instead, focus on chamber musi, song, things that ordinary people can do. Ilse Weber's poems and songs are loved because they are so simple and down to earth. They weren't meant to be fancy High Art but they  are moving because of their context. Terezin-Lied came from Emmerich Kálmán's hit operetta Countess Maritza,. Everyone knew the tune, so changing the words gave it another level of meaning. Trained voices not needed, everyone could sing along together.

Wolfgang Holzmair's song grained voice suited the songs he chose for this concert, which included Carlo Sigmund Taube's Ein jüdisches Kind, Zigmund Schul's Die Nicht-gewesen and Viktor Ullmann's Drei Lieder op 37.  Taube's song is gentle, but haunting: Ullmann's songs more barbed. Holzmair's diction sharpened well for Der Schweizer, savage satire on the Swiss Guards and the Pope. The original poem  was written in the late 19th century by Conrad Ferdnand Meyer, a Swiss radical. Another pointed adaptation.

The Nash played Gideon Klein's String Trio, written in camp in 1944. Perhaps this is the piece being played in Helga Weissova-Hoskova's drawing? It doesn't matter, but the thought gives the music extra poignancy. Klein's music is so elegant that it's good to hear whatever the context, but on this occasion, the connotations did take on extra meaning, and rightly so. Holzmair sang Klein's song in the encore. including the wonderful Lullaby.
Hans Krása's Brundibar is famous all over the world these days, performed in many languages. At the Wigmore Hall, in the presence of people who took part in the original performances, it was unique. The Nash  played two Hans Krása works for string trio, the Passacaglia and Fuga, and Tanec, so Brundibar can be appreciated in the wider context of the composer's work.

The Nash Ensemble came out in full force for the second evening concert, which placed Terezin music in the wider context of Czech music. Here, too, adaptation and renewal. Smetana's Overture to the Bartered Bride, but in a new arrangemnt by David Matthews (who was at Aldeburgh the previous day).  You can see a a film of the opera on this site HERE, in full, It's quite unusual, because it was made in the UFA studios in Germany during the Third Reich but features Czech singers and looks like it may have been filmed in Bohemia. It's in German, which is no big deal, as opera was frequently sung in different langauges in the past, but it does make you wonder about what was going on in UFA despite the official Nazi control..
Then Petr Pokorny's arrangement of Krása's Brundibar for 13 instruments. Although the opera is worth hearing because it's such a good piece for children's voices, hearing the Suite highlights the composer's orchestration. As music it works well, especially when performed by top notch musicians, which isn't always the case with the opera. 

For me the high point of the evening was Erwin Schulhoff's Duo for violin and Cello. Schulhoff wasn't in Terezin. He was a Communist and non-religious, which made him an outsider both in Nazi Germany and in Czechslovakia.  The Duo dates from 1925. It's quite remarkable. Its starts with brio, hurtling incisively into the first theme: no messing about. The violin (Marianne Thorsen) flows a long melody at the upper ends of the range: exquiste. The cello (Paul Watkins) listens, pauses, then repeats the melody in  a lower timbre. The second movement is a Zingaresca, gypsy dancing, but muted, a nostalgic memeory rather than a dancer in the here and now. The Andantino's edgy, decidedly modern. Strings plucked, jerkil : folk music this is not, despite the references. The final movement, marked Moderato, sounds almost pentatonic, alien to the Austro-German tradition. Part way it breaks off in false ending, then resumes, brighter and firmer.

Ian Brown played Viktor Ullmann's Piano Sonata no 6, writtten in Terezin, and Holzmair returned to sing Krása's Three Songs and Pavel Haas's Four Songs on Chinese Poetry.  Enjoy these and more on his CD, reviewed HERE.on this site, where there's plenty more Theresienstadt and suppressed music. The second evening concert is being broadcast on  BBC Radio 3 on Monday 5 July and will be available on line on demand for a week.

Monday 21 June 2010

George Benjamin Into the Little Hill Aldeburgh

For my main review of George Benjamin's Into the Little Hill at the Linbury, Royal Opera House, London, please see HERE.

Major composers like George Benjamin, and major developments like Into The Little Hill don't pop up all the time. So it's important that Benjamin and his opera be showcased at Aldeburgh Festival. Hearing it at Aldeburgh is specially resonant for those who genuinely know and love the Festival (as opposed to tossers who mouth off).  Britten's vision was to create a place where creative new music could be heard, Thoroughly English as he was, he had little time for stereotype "Englishness" in music. Aldeburgh is not 3 Choirs On Sea.

Fundamentally, Britten and Aldeburgh have always stood for a much more cosmopolitan, progressive approach. Heinrich Schütz to Shostakovich, all part of a grand vision that crosses boundaries of time and genre. In Billy Budd, Officers Redburn and Flint "don't like them Frenchie ways". Britten doesn't like them, and writes grotesques around their roles. He should rise from his grave and smite the redneck bigotry we have today.

So Benjamin's Into the Little Hill is relevant.  It's loosely based on the fairy tale about a conformist community who rat on the piper who rids them of vermin. So he rats on them and takes their kids. Martin Crimp's text is bleak. The howling mob demand "Kill! Kill! and you have our vote",. When it suits the Minister to defend rats, he does, but when it means being re-elected, he'll sell his principles. But the story isn't nearly as straightforward as that.

A "man with no eyes, no nose, no ears" materializes in the Minister's little daughter's bedroom. He invades the sanctuary through dreams and through music. "With music I can reach right in /march slaves to the factory/ or patiently unravel the clouds"  Sinister as he is, he's morally neutral - "The choice is yours" he says to the Minister.

Into the Little Hill operates like a half-remembered dream, flotsam flowing out of the subconscious, the reverse of rats and children disappearing into the bowels of the earth. Precisely because it's imprecise, it works on many levels. It's unsettling because we're used to order and explicit meaning. Benjamin doesn't create "roles". Mezzo and soprano sing and speak snatches of phrases, part narrating, part expressing different facets of the story. The Minister morphs into his little girl, who morphs into the sinister Man with No Face..In a dream, things fade if you look too closely, so in Into the Little Hill, the secret is to let it act on your unconscious.

The whole opera pivots on ideas of dissimulation, concealment, crawling into dark recesses, nothing is safe from being gnawed away. So the music here is cloaked in disguise. You hear something eerie, or harps or bells. Sure enough, there's a cimbalom right in the heart of the orchestra. You hear something tense, tinny and shrill: it's a banjo, and conventional strings being played like banjos, strings plucked high up the shaft, not bowed. Much emphasis on low-toned instruments like bass flute and bass clarinet, whose sensuous, seductive themes weave through the piece like a narcotic night-blooming flower. At one point it sure feels like there's a sound so high pitched that the human ear can't quite hear it: but rats can hear at higher frequencies than we can.

The staging, by The Opera Group, (director : John Fulljames), fits the music and the semi-narrative. The Man with no Face operates through music : the London Sinfonietta play on stage, behind a gauze curtain, vaguely visible behind the action.  The stage is dominated by a huge circular frame. "I can make rats drop from the rim of the world" says the man with no eyes. "But the world, says the minister, is round". "The world - says the manm- is the shape my music makes it; the choice is yours"

The floor is scattered with black, soft objects. At Aldeburgh, you can get close enough to touch and smell the acrid stench of rubber. The orchestra and singers must be aware of the smell all the time, unpleasant and sinister. It's an amazing extra dimension, completely lost on those in the posh seats. The man with no face has senses like sight and hearing though he doesn't seem to have the means. The audience doesn't twig but the performers have it all round them. Like music, smell can't be seen but it operates on people. That's also why the opera starts with the image of orderliness trying to sweep the debris, trying to impose neatness onto something that defies order. 

Brilliant decision to pair Into the Little Hill with Luciano Berio's Recital 1. This, too, starts with a cleaner, sweeping the same black stuff. At first it seems like it's a mistake, then you're seduced by the actor's elaborate tattoos. How does a woman whose body is a work of art become a cleaner? And that, in a single frame, is what Berio is after, the concept that things aren't necessarily quite what they seem.

Recital 1 is a showcase monologue for mezzo, which Berio wrote for Cathy Berberian, as a tribute to her range, and to her past. Susan Bickley is magnificent, as the diva spouting stream of consciousness, singing half formed snatches of different music, randomly shifting back into declamation. Sometimes she speaks directly to the audience. I had to force myself not to answer her calls, even though that would have extended what was happening ion stage into the audience, which is not a bad idea, given how Berio is playing with different levels of reality. We could have improvised, Susan and me!

Recital 1 is an inventive game of puzzles, so Berio packs as much into it as he can. It tends to make the idea go on a little longer than it needs, but that's OK. They don't write music this intricate too often. It goes with Into The Little Hill extremely well: maybe they'll be the Cav and Pag of the 21st century.  Last year, Birtwistle's At the Greenwood Side was just too oppressive to be heard with anything else. So hearing Into the Little Hill with Berio is an altogether different experience, far more sympathetic.

Superlative performances, especially from Susan Bickley, who carried off the rour de force that is Recital 1 and followed with the demanding, atmospheric main draw. Bickley is wonderful, at her prime. Claire Booth was excellent too. Some women in a delicate way can't cope with the smell of rubber, so all the more to her credit!  To be honest, Bickley and Booth have Benjamin, and indeed most contemporary British music sewn up, if it can be. Oh, for a DVD of Bickley and Booth and the Sinfonietta, of this production!

In Into The Little Hill, the interplay between the two voices is extremely important.  On the recording, Hilary Summers and Anu Komsi are too different, making the piece deceptively straightforward and confusing, Bickley and Booth, on the other hand, have voices that complement each other so closely that it adds an extra, disturbing element to the piece because their balance is so subtle. 

The photo above shows the Martello Tower at the end of the harbour at Aldeburgh. It was built to repel Napoleon and dangerous ideas from the Continent, like democracy and the metric system. As it happened, Napoleon was more interested in Russia. The tower is on a little hill, as solidly built as a hill itself. Lots of interesting ideas might grow from thinking about it, and Benjamin's masterwork together, but that is, as the Man with no eyes might say, "Your choice"

Please see my other posts on Benjamin, Aldeburgh, Britten and The London Sinfonietta.

Polishing gemstones - Royal Opera House Young Artists

“We are like rocks”, says Simona Mihai, the young Romanian soprano, about the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme at the Royal Opera House. “They are like jewellers. They grind us and shape us, so we are being polished. Stage by stage, we’re being worked on, so we can sparkle, like gems”.

“This is the most incredible opportunity” says Kai Rüütel, the Estonian mezzo soprano just at the end of the first year of the scheme. “Never in my wildest dreams could I ever have hoped for something as good as this!”

Read why Simona and Kai are so enthusiastic in this interview with them about the Royal Opera House's Young Artists Programme in Opera Today. Both of them are vivacious, bubbling with happiness. Cheerfulness spreads. I had a great time, so maybe it'll brighten your day too, to  read the article. Simona and Kai will be singing Pousette and Rosette in Massenet's Manon starting Tuesday 22nd June. Simona Mihai is covering Anna Netrebko, no less. "It's wonderful working with her". This is an inside story about how it feels to be behind the scenes in an opera house, working towards a production.
Here's a link to a fanblog on Simona Mihai

Saturday 19 June 2010

Aldeburgh - Britten-Pears Alumni

Britten never was an insular Little Englander. Contrary to some of the nonsense in the press this week, the Aldeburgh Festival was never regressive, Central to Britten's vision was the idea of promoting new music and new talent. Anyone who really knows and loves Aldeburgh - and Britten - knows what the Britten-Pears programme means and why.

Britten and Pears would have been delighted, I think, by this concert of works by young composers who've been through the Britten-Pears Programme. Six young composers, and a young conductor, Hugh Brunt, who stepped in at the last moment but clearly is in tune with this music and mentality.All six composers are in their mid-20's but already quite distinctive, certainly not clones of Britten or anyone else.

Lauri Supponen (b 1988), from Finland, uses the essential elements of conventional symphonic orchestra, but pares them down to single instruments - one violin, one viola etc. Hence the title, Fras which means phrase. As he says, it's about the particles that make up speech.

Much Krazy Kinetics in Francesco Coll García's Piedras. "The rhythm", he says "stable and unpredictably unstable at the same time, envelops the melting middle section." The madcap sprightliness made me think of the surreal cartoons of the 1920's when cartoons were avant garde art.

This spirtit of fun infused Joanna Lee's archy interviews a pharaoah. I hadn't read the programme notes, so this came as a shock to me. Does anyone else remember archy and mehitabel the Don Marquis cartoon  and poem series of the 1920-40's? Always lower case for them because the cartoon series was supposedly written by a cockroach who jumped key by key on a typewriter in a newspaper room. He has the soul of a poet, she, an alley cat, is a Queen.  Imagine a cockroach interviewing a pharaoh, utterly deadpan and matter of fact. Lee's music captures that sense of scratching, tapping edginess. The vocal lines creep and leap, like archy's droll lines do.

The singer was Sonya Knussen, the Muse of Higgeldy Piggeldy Pop and Where The Wild Things Are. She looks like her dad but much prettier and has both her parents' flair and personality. Richly coloured voice shading towards alto. With good training, she'll get the polish and refinement she deserves. Oddly enough my Dad was a serious archy and mehitabel fan, so I wondered where Lee and Knussen fille got their archy from.

Christopher Gendall's Forest for the Trees was interesting, as was Nancie Eloise Gynn's Shadow of the Wind, both descriptive mood pieces. Edward Nesbit's Dance Portraits appealed greatly. It starts with a slow pas de deux between double bass and bass flute proceeding in the space of a few minutes into four sections. Dance as strategic game, figure shadowing one another Good ideas, here.

These six pieces were preceded by Webern, Stravinsky, Castiglioni and Stockhausen, performed by the Britten Pears Composers Ensemble. All Oliver Knussen favorites, and for good reason.  Proof again that those who claim to "know and love" Aldeburgh and think it's a regressive, anti-foreign Britten-only festival are nuts. Clean lines, stylized processions, humour and wit: good things for young composers to master. Perhaps the influences are still a little too strong (several composers use piano strings plucked inside the frame). But that's the spirit of Aldeburgh, too, learning the past while proceeding forwards. LOTS more on Aldeburgh and new music on this site, please explore. Look up tabs on Benjamin George too and Into the Little Hill, which I saw last year and heard again this week and will go to yet again in July at the Linbury.   It is a very important work and desreves another special piece which takes a bit longer and I'm so rushed at the moment. So please keep looking.

Friday 18 June 2010

Maureen Forrester RIP

Maureen Forrester has passed away. Here is a nice "Canadian" take on her which shows what she meant to Canadians ".....the embodiment of earth-mother, reigning queen and good sport made her the shining model of what Canadians want a diva to be." It's moving because it isn't like all the standard bios that the media will trot out. The writer knew what she meant, personally.

Maureen Forrester meant a lot to me though only through recordings. This is one of the best, I think, with Fritz Reiner (More on the same stream). You can't know Mahler singing til you've heard her, such depth, such warmth, such refinement!  There are lots of Mahler mezzos and of course we need to hear them all!  Her career as a singer ended too early and she suffered a long twilight, but Maureen Foirrester is way up there in the constellation.

Thursday 17 June 2010

Lang Lang - not a Michael Jackson

Lang Lang "the Tiger Woods" of music? Here is a link to an interesting article by Paul Kendall. in the Telegraph.

A lot of the negativity surrounding Lang Lang comes because he's successful and he's foreign. Those who'll go bananas on Dudamel will piously sniff at Lang Lang, Yet flamboyance is part of performance. Imagine if we saw Paganinni or Chopin or Paderewski or other Demon Musicians of the past?

So what if he makes big money? The key to understanding him is to understand where he comes from. His parents pushed him, but they weren't so very different from many people in their situation.  His culture is one that's always strived for excellence, but it's not about yourself. You're only one individual in a stream that includes your ancestors and descendants. Let yourself down, you're letting them all down. The individual, too, exists as part of society. Let the community down? Not morally comprehensible.

So Lang Lang has to be what he is because that's what people expect of him.  He cannot let them down. Material success means a lot to people who have been seriously poor.  It's not a hypocritical culture that pretends money doesn't make a difference.Lang Lang's success is a symbol that anyone has the potential to make it, not success for its own sake..

So he's got to be a showman because that's what people expect from him, and he's honourable enough to respect that he has responsibilities other pianists will never need to face.  He can't be judged in the same terms. The wonder is that he's a lot less screwed up than he could have been.  He could have become Michael Jackson, for example. But he isn't. He stood up to his Dad, after all, which not that many kids dare do (especially not Chinese kids). So there's strength of character in him.

Sometimes when I listen to Lang Lang, I feel that there's a greater artist inside, trapped by the need to serve the public. In itself that makes me respect him. And that schedule, those commercial pressures and the social pressure that comes from being a national symbol. No other musician has ever faced such things on such a scale. He's a sharp businessman but he also enjoys playing. He's driven, but it doesn't come over as pathological. Workaholics get a buzz like an adrenalin high. Some of them actually thrive, as long as they have inner stability. It's a paradox, but that's life.

Because he's enthusiastic about playing, that comes over too.  One of his trademarks is that he works with kids, as if by being good to them he's exorcising his own trauma.  This too slots into the idea of a "worthy man" serving the people, which goes right back to traditional ideas of giving back if you've had good fortune.. Sure, his sponsors get publicity, but so what ? The kids and their audiences sure seem like they're having fun, which is what music making "really" is, not just virtuoso display. By having fun, he counteracts the pressure that millions of kids are forced to feel.  In the long run, Lang Lang's influence is positive.

"Fame itself, he says, should never be the objective. 'Of course I hope everybody can achieve their dreams, but my point is, don’t drive yourself crazy to become something that maybe you don’t want to be. For me, still today, it’s the enjoyment. The reason why I perform every second or third day is because I love it. It’s not because, this night I get paid so much. On stage I find myself."  "So, is he happy? After leading such a pressurised life for so long, many suspect he’s on the verge of burn out. 'I’m extremely happy,’ he says, smiling and placing his precious hands behind his head. 'Whether I’m teaching or whatever. Being on stage is the best thing. It’s like “wow”, it’s a totally different world.’".

Tuesday 15 June 2010

Big Butter Jesus is toast

SPREAD the word, Big Butter Jesus is toast! Everywhere in the news you'll hear about how lightning struck the 60 foot Jesus looming over a highway in Ohio. Here's the song that made it famous. Thank God that there are folks with a sense of humour. Maybe He has taste, too. Grotesques like this appear all over the world, a kind of primitive folk art, funded by big bucks. In Queensland, giant pineapples, in Baghdad, Saddam's gigantic arch of swords, in England the angel over the M1 motorway that looks like Nazi insignia. The song's a scream. "Garth Brooks outta string cheese, Virgins outta olives" Acid social comment. There's hope in this world when people can laugh.

Gloucester 2010 - 3 Choirs Festival

Gloucester 2010, the hip new tag for the 3 Choirs Festival, which started in 1719. The longest-running music festival in the world!  It began as a meeting of the choirs of the cathedrals of Gloucester, Hereford and Worcester.and has shaped the course of English music. The massed choir tradition, the genteel propriety, the jolly unassuming mentality, all these threads flow from the 3 Choirs ethos.

The photo shows the fan vaulting in Gloucester Cathedral. There's plenty to look at too. Indeed churches are best seen at night, when shadows and light accentuate the stonework.

Every year, 3 Choirs opens with a church service, because piety is fundamental to the 3 Choirs purpose, though it's genuine piety, they don't force it on anyone else. This is the Holy Grail of religious singing. Try and catch the Complines, Evensongs, and Eucharists, because these are authentic, sung by people who believe. For people like me it's a kind of secular worship, but for many 3 Choirs people, it's central to their lives.

Elgar, of course, was a Catholic, at a time when Catholicism certainly wasn't Establishment, but 3 Choirs was part of his life, as he himself is central to the 3 Choirs Festival. This year The Kingdom on 7th August. This piece suffers sloppy performance, so avoid most "local" versions and go for the ultimate best, which is 3 Choirs. This will be spectacular, as they pull out all the stops for Elgar. Soloists are Roderick Williams, Adrian Thompson, Susan Gritton, Pamela Helen Stephen.  I'm sitting behind stage and choirs to be "within" the atmosphere.

Sunday of course is one of the big social days, with religious services as music, and hearty roast lunch. Oddly enough the big evening concert is Mahler 2, obviously chosen for the massed voices parts.  Of course M2 is spiritual, but fundamentally Mahler's mindset is too quirky to really fit group worship. Besides Evensong will be Finzi, Lo, the Full Final Sacrifice, which should be wonderful.

Gloucester 2010 will be important too because they're featuring early music in-depth. The Pipe and Tabor Society is hosting several events, Venetian and Renaissance and early English music, including a talk on one of the earliest notated carols, with origins in Gloucester itself.

Because I left it too late, I can't get to Ian Venables' talk on the orchestral music of Ivor Gurney - front line, first person research, as Venables, a good composer in his own right, is a Gurney devotee. Frustrating as anything, because it follows the Gurney Society Lunch, where all the serious fans will be. After that, a concert where Gurney's A Gloucestershire Rhapsody, Mendelssohn "Scottish" and Schumann Piano Concerto . Martyn Brabbins conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra. In London this would be a big draw,  yet here it's just one of many gems. In the evening, Monteverdi L'Orfeo.

Pity they didn't switch Monteverdi with the concert on Fri 13th which includes Gurney's rarely heard The Trumpet, and Finzi's Intimations of Immortality, with James Gilchrist, who sings it better than anyone else.  But maybe that's because the concert includes Elgar's Sea Pictures and it's Elgar Day, with talks, and the Elgar Society Lunch (important social event).

Many people who go to 3 Choirs stay the whole time, so mix and match is a good idea, but for others, it's a long drive, so concentrating connected works is better for them. For example, I'd love to go to the Roderick Williams concert on Saturday morning, but it will mean staying overnight, which is pricey. He's singing Finzi, Butterworth, Gurney, Venables and Moeran. He's just recorded a Butterworth CD with the Sussex songs. I'm looking forward to that, even though I loved Mark Stone's pioneer recording.

3 Choirs is a must if you've any interest in English music, medieval to modern. Hearing lesser known composers like Joubert (who isn't "that" lesser known, Gilchrist has recorded his songs) at 3 Choirs puts their work into context. Those who go to 3 Choirs for the whole week and soak up the social side and history know what they're doing.

This year, 3 Choirs introduces massive technological revolution - online booking for the first time! Yow! The bad news is that it's bug ridden, and no doubt they'll streamline it for next year. But it's a step in the right direction. Still, the fact that the system's so clumsy is actually quite charming, and says a lot about the innocence of 3 Choirs, which is a good thing. You can get a whiff of the old system when you hear the recorded message on the phone. Miss Marple, tweed suits, sensible virgins cycling to church through country lanes etc. .That England still does exist, so savour it while you can. PLEASE READ my more detailed reviews and articles on Gurney, Parry, Finzi, Elgar Butterworth and 3 Choirs. Use search or labels at right

Monday 14 June 2010

Yannick to head Philadelphia

Yannick Nézet-Séguin has been appointed to conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra from 2012. He looks about 14, but he'll be 37 by then, about the same age as Eugene Ormandy and Riccardo Muti were when they took the job. People just look fresher these days because we're more health and fashion conscious.  "It's only when the Pope starts to look young you worry", quipped someone.

There's a story in the Philadelphia Inquirer. "The offer came after  Nézet-Séguin had made only two visits to Verizon Hall in 2008 and 2009, meaning the orchestra has had less contact with him than with any other conductor since 30-year-old Leopold Stokowski came sight-unseen in 1912. Blair Bollinger, bass trombonist with the orchestra and a member of the search committee, said the young conductor's "energy" and "enthusiasm" made him the choice. "It just kept coming back to chemistry," he said. "It's so hard to describe in words."

Not so long ago, conductors were slammed on principle because they weren't geriatric. Nowadays learning to shave seems to mean instant superstardom.  Both extremes are nonsense. What matters is how they conduct, and allowances have to be made so a conductor develops properly and isn't pushed by false expectations. At 30, it's not easy for any conductor to have vision, so gut instinct does come into the equation. But "what" gut instinct ? My gut instinct, having heard Nézet-Séguin, is that he's capable of good things, if they nurture him. Perhaps Philadelphia may have learned after all these years since Eschenbach left, that good conductors don't pop out of cookie cutters.

Again, the sad drama of Dudamel. He is basically good, but instead of growing through experience, he became a media monster adored by those who think noise means music. It wasn't fair on him, or on music, but he's too established now  to escape. Even the very newspaper that made him an overnight sensation in the first place has turned nasty. Shame, not on Dudamel, but on the shallowness of those who "went caracas". So shallow that they've forgotten where and how it all started.

So good luck to Nézet-Séguin, to Philadelphia, to Alan Gilbert and to all who listen because they like music, not the packaging.

Sunday 13 June 2010

Terezin Theresienstadt Children Brundibár

These are the children of Theresienstadt, or Terezin (depends whether you come from east or west). They're singing cheerfully but  those who made the film were connected to those who would murder the children. The full propaganda movie can be downloaded, but I can't do that. It's too awful; there is a surreal scene where a prisoner is beating steel to the soundtrack of the cancan.....mail me if you want the link. There are actually two films, this one from 1942 and another recently unearthed.

This coming weekend the Nash Ensemble will be holding a weekend of Theresienstadt/Terezin music, films and talks, and some survivors will be there - maybe some of the children in this very film.  I've been writing about this for months, so use the search facility at right and go to the Wigmore Hall website. There'll be a short bit on Hans Krása's Brundibár an opera written for the children of the camp. It's not as powerful as Viktor Ullmann's Der Kaiser von Atlantis but Krása was trying to cheer the kids, not depress them. Brundibár gets performed all over the world, in many languages and rightly so. Kids need to know.

Here is a link to an excellent article in the Observer by Ed Vulliamy about the Nash Ensemble's Theresienstadt project at the Wigmore Hall.

You don't need to know Italian to be moved by the film below. These kids are even happier, their eyes shine, they're so innocent, even though they've already seen things no child should ever experience. It's like this everywhere, no matter how barbaric the world is, kids are kids, and they are pure. .I used to do a lot of work about war and camps (not Europe), and those who were kids would remember differently from those who were older and wiser. Which is a mercy. (My mother is in some very famous newsreel photographs, she just happened to be around when the camera crews came by.)

Gold and Straw : Rumpelstiltskin, BCMG

Martyn Brabbins in makeup? I almost didn't recognize him made up as a corpse. Brabbins was conducting the BCMG in David Sawers's Rumpelstiltskin starting the Spitalfields Music Festival, London.

St Leonard's Church, Shoreditch, has been semi-derelict for years. It's surrounded by bars, drunken hordes, a pervasive smell of vomit, police sirens every five minutes. Perfect venue then for Rumpelstiltskin, a fairy tale so grim even Disney stays clear.

Bankrupt miller fools bailiffs, saying daughter (Bryony Perkins), can spin straw into gold. Ugly dwarf pops up, saves girl by spinning straw to gold. Girl marries King, gets rich. When dwarf returns for his payoff, girl cheats, steals secret from dwarf and reveals his name. So dwarf explodes into many pieces. What kind of moral does this tell?

Musically this was gold. Musicians on stage as part of the story, interacting with players. This was good, music itself as "theatre", the players moving from time to time to solo among the action. One ensemble with Brabbins, muffled tuba, trumpet, horn, clarinets, oboe, flute, bassoon, bass - dark, ominous. Smaller ensemble led by harp, with violin, viola, cello. But the groups merge and change, so following the musical lines is part of the action itself, like a puzzle "spun" from different threads on different levels. Interpretively, it expresses the strange changing alliances in the story, for the miller's daughter's forced to keep switching loyalties.

As theatre, perhaps it was more straw, but straw is useful and serves an important economic purpose, if you're a farmer. It's a subtle comment, then, on the values of the folk in this story, who want what isn't theirs and don't appreciate what they have. No wonder the 40's Austerity Britain costumes and props, "Make do and mend".

Stewart Laing's staging is simple but effective. It's a boxlike structure that serves as mill, palace and Rumpelstiltskin's hut. Again, apposite because they're all the same, and all prisons of a kind. The box is built of reclaimed hardwood panels. Cheap but very beautiful : these panels were once something good, not the trashy MDF we get today.

No singing, no dancing, no acting. Richard Jones directs stylized, mime like movement. This will throw those who think all opera, ballet etc must conform to late 19th century models. It confounded me but not for those reasons. For me, the music was so inventive that it told the story better than the rather thin narrative. Rumpelstiltskin works best as music, and in the imagination. .

Amazingly vivid images. Grinding, repetitive sounds - mill wheel, spinning wheel. Brass and woodwind create peals of bells for the Royal Wedding, tense, scratching plucked strings creating the Miller's daughter's terror, trapped in a box trying to save her dad but knowing he's nuts. Rumpelstiltskin's music's suitably twisted, though not quite as harsh as it might be. But maybe that's because I sympathize with him (in this case her, played by Sarah Fahie). Rumpelstiltskin came to help, after all, he's the only honest one in this grasping lot. And he gets killed.

The acting is more exaggerated mime than dance. It could be perfect for enthusiastic sixth formers (though they couldn't do the music the way BCMG plays). But maybe that's the point, as my companion said. Maybe it's supposed to be silent movie melodrama, for these characters are cardboard, without depth, while Rumpelstiltskin has a background, though we don't know what it is. He's an outsider, living in the wild wood. Maybe he's lonely. The kid's worth more than gold to him. A parody of Mime and Siegfried?

Anyway, the tale's picaresque. As my perceptive pal said, it's like L'histoire du soldat, overlaid with Rusalka.  It will be very good on CD. Even if all that remains of the acting is the sound of pounding footsteps, that will work as part of the music.The percussion in this piece is made by human feet. Humble, like straw, but worthy.

Pity Rumpelstiltskin had to compete with George Benjamin's Into the Little Hill openiong at Aldeburgh on the same night. Both pieces are fairy tales with huge mythic possibilities. Benjamin's altogether in a higher stratosphere, There's enough gold in this music to make Rumpelstiltskin a keeper, And as for the straw, as I said, that too serves a valid purpose.

Photo courtesy BCMG, Keith Pattison

Saturday 12 June 2010

Cat Pianist

this pic is going viral, but it's so good ! Thanks to wh oever dreamed it up !

Friday 11 June 2010

Aldeburgh Music 2010 starts today Britten Pears

The Aldeburgh Music Festival 2010 starts today. Every year, my pilgrimage. There is just so much to hear and do.  PLENTY about Aldeburgh (and Britten) on this site, so please keep coming back. I'll be going to lots.  Here's a summary of this year's Festival.  Major themes this year include: Peter Pears celebration, Pierre Boulez celebration, Music and Sensory Experience talks, plus lots of good music and other events.
This year's featured opera is George Benjamin's Into The Little Hill. Does it mark a complete change in style for the composer? I don't know, but it's excellent.. Paired with Luciano Berio's Recital 1 it should come over really well. Read about the London performance last year, which I attended. If you can't get to Aldeburgh, it's being repeated at the Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, in July.

Above is a good short about the Aldeburgh Festival, so watch it if you haven't been and see why it's so loved. Click on the labels at right for more on Britten and more on Aldeburgh.

Thursday 10 June 2010

Rossini Armida Garsington musically informed production

The Metropolitan Opera in New York did Rossini's Armida earlier this Spring. This Garsington Armida was completely different, but by no means the lesser experience.  At the Met, Armida was a vehicle for Renée Fleming, designed to showcase her coloratura talents. At Garsington, the emphasis was on Rossini, and on the dramatic heart of the opera.

The theatre at Garsington is tiny, capacity only  517, smaller than the 1500 seat Real Teatro di San Carlo but this is not necessarily a disadvantage, as Armida is almost more baroque than bel canto. David Parry has conducted no fewer than 7 Rossini operas at Garsington (one planned for next year). He's currently Artistic Director at Opera Rara, so he's attuned to period performance.

Parry emphasized the inherent purity of Rossini's orchestration. It's carefully structured, clean, built on almost symmetrical foundations, from which extravagant flourishes can take flight. Indeed, images of M C Escher's drawings came to mind. Escher's flights of stairs and archways resemble Rossini's musical architecture. The vocal parts soar, run after run, ascending to ever greater heights. Sudden leaps and decelerations creating a strong sense of movement. Parry kept the lines clear and uncluttered, revealing the clarity of Rossini's ideas, which seem to reference Handel and Gluck.

The production takes its cue from the musical logic. A well known critic described the Act One set with its row of chrome and leather chairs as "Ikea", the Swedish design warehouse. And why not? The principle behind Swedish design is a fusion of function and classic elegance, an apt metaphor for Rossini's style in Armida..

The theatre at Garsington is temporary, but solid enough to withstand inclement weather. Designer Ashley Martin-Davis brings the struts and metal framework into the opera, by simply painting them red and black. It's an intelligent comment on the action, for this Act takes place in the camp of the Crusaders (also tented, like Garsington, one presumes).

The Franks (and Italian Rinaldo) belong to a military order with semi-religious vows, but Rossini very deliberately doesn't identify them with the Knights Templar. Torquato Tasso's original poem, on which the narrative is based, dates from 1580. but connects to traditions that long predate the Middle Ages. In painting, the protagonists are usually depicted as idealized Greeks or Romans. In any case, Armida is a fantasy, for Armida is a sorceress who can use magic.  Audiences in Rossini's time had no delusions that the opera was "historic". Indeed, the idea of priests succumbing to temptresses would have been only too obvious, and Rossini couldn't risk offending the all-powerful Church.

Military orders are highly disciplined, and these paladins have vowed to repress love and earthly pleasures. Martin Duncan has the men move in orderly procession. They troop up parallel flights of stairs - the structured music, the Escher ideas, coming together beautifully. They're ascetically garbed in black, reinforcing the idea of an austere sect. The costumes, stark as they are, are beautiful - elegance and simplicity again.

Armida is justly famed because it affords glorious coloratura display. But it's important not to forget the context. Armida and Idraote and Goffredo's Knights are polar opposites. The opera pivots on the dichotomy between love and duty, pleasure and higher ideals. Indeed, Armida's singing shines all the more brightly when the context is given due respect. Armida's luminous gardens wouldn't be so tempting if they weren't such a contrast to life in the regiment.

A small, temporary festival like Garsington does not do megastars, so it's pointless to compare Jessica Pratt's Armida with Renée Fleming or Maria Callas. Instead, she brings youthful energy to the part. If her ornamentations aren't too flamboyant, she reaches the high peaks in the score, and acts well with her voice. She comes over as a warm hearted spirit, so when Rinaldo leaves her, you sympathize with her pain. In Dove son io? she finds the different stages of emotion. It's not all piercing frenzy, but gradations of feeling.

Because the balance in this production isn't entirely one-sided, the male parts take greater prominence. Victor Ryan Robertson sings Rinaldo with pluck. He brought a sense of wonder to his Dove son io!, a deft parallel to Armida's final aria. The contrast between "hero" Rinaldo who kills for honour and "lover" Rinaldo, conquered by sensuality, was clear.

For such a young singer, Bogdan Mihai's Goffredo had vocal authority and physical presence.  Nice richness to his voice which will serve him well. He doubled as Carlo with David Alegret singing Gernando and Ubaldo. Alegret paced the long Gernando recitatives carefully, so the sudden explosions up the scale at the end of long phrases were very effective. 

Christophorus Stamboglis singing Idraote and Astarotte was impressive too. His voice has character, so it was almost a pity the parts weren't large enough to show his full measure. Nicholas Watts sang a nice Eustazio.

Naturally, or rather supernaturally, Armida's gardens in Acts 2 and 3 were vividly coloured. Now the male chorus appeared as blue-painted demons, hiding behind the infrastructure of beams that evoked both forest and ocean at the same time. When the nymphs appeared the audience gasped in delight. They were stunning, pale pink top to toe with glittery skirts, moving like exotic flowers.  The choreography was simple, more group movement than dancing, but it supported the singing, rather than distracting from it. Gradually the male figures emerged from hiding and embraced the nymphs chastely. The choruses re-enacted Rinaldo and Armida's relationship. It was another sign that this production developed from an understanding of the music and the opera.

Those who know the gardens at Garsington will be familiar with the strangely twisted topiary trees in the parterre garden the theatre opens onto.  As we filtered out after the performance, the garden was lit with emerald light, the more famous large shrubs picked out in mauve.  It was unearthly, as though we were experiencing Armida's garden for ourselves. Imagine Garsington staging Tannhäuser! That is part of the magic that is Garsington, where stage and reality interact.  .

This production, though, could easily be transported to another theatre. Indeed, any theatre suited to chamber opera. It's much too good to be missed.  Perhaps Garsington might consider joint ventures? In the long term that might be a way forward.
FULL REVIEW with pics here in OPERA TODAY

Wednesday 9 June 2010

Rossini Armida - Callas 1952 full streaming download

Two major stagings of Rossini Armida this year, at Garsington and the Met, New York. Complete contrast, but one which shows that it's not how much money you throw at a production but what artistic values go into it. Garsington wins, hands down.

Obviously Renée Fleming is way above the league of most anyone else so the Met prod was worth hearing, though not seeing. Particularly as La Renée may not be singing it for many more years. I'll be writing about Garsington later today. But here is Maria Callas  in the role.

It's a live performance from Firenze in 1952. Callas is barely 30 but she connects to the fire within Armida, who is a sorceress, neither bimbette nor fag hag, both of which are elements in the image but not central to it.  So Rossini set in the Crusades? Realism, no. Dotty as the Crusaders may have been, they didn't get transported to supernatural worlds. What commander would be so dumb as to go and fight an enemy that doesn't exist? Oops, lots of them....

Naples audiences in 1817  would not have been fooled that Armida was "about" Crusades. They knew plenty, plenty about priests who broke their vows, seduced by temptresses. And Rossini knew he might end up in jail if he was too explicit.

Listen to Callas and drool. Look at the tenors, too - Francesco Albanese, Mario Filippeschi, Alessandro Ziliani, Gianni Raimondi, Carlo Stefanoni, Orchestra e Coro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Tullio Serafin (conductor)  Cick HERE for full streaming download on Opera Today . Extremely comprehensive notes, full libretto, synopsis. This is a seriously good resource!  The sound quality isn't good, but this was the first modern performance, so it's of historic value. Review of Garsington Rossini Armida coming up soon. and listen to your heart's content. .Photo by Poussin, who painted Armida and Rinaldo in most UN-medieval dress, nearly 200 years before Rossini wrote the opera. And Roman soldiers wore skirts, not shorts, so Poussin is updating that, too. Besides, what you'd see in this pose should not be revealed.

Tuesday 8 June 2010

Sing Along Carmen First Opera in 3D

Tonight, there's a big-screen broadcast of Carmen from the Royal Opera House beamed live at various locations. There will be "Sing Along" events too, which sounds like fun! Everyone knows the tunes and singing is physically rewarding even if the person next to you might not like hearing you. Still, that's what's good about Carmen. Carmen is one of the people, she'd be out in the streets too singing if she could. (Watch your wallet, though.)

Here is the full link to the review of this Carmen which appears in Opera Today. Bear in mind that it's being filmed in 3D high definition, the first opera 3D film ever made. Because of the way films are made, preparations are made well in advance. Chances are camera crew, director etc. were in on rehearsals. They can't just turn up and shoot.

Let's hope the rain holds off as Sing Along Carmen to big screen could be good.   Last night at Garsington it poured. But really posh folks are used to getting wet in muddy fields.  It was Rossini's Armida, light years more artistic than the brain-dead Met Armida this spring. More on that soon, watch this space.

Monday 7 June 2010

Habanera in Chinese

New improved version of the classic Habanera from Ge Lan (Grace Chang) complete with English subtitles. It comes from the film Wild, Wild Rose in which Ge lan plays a night club singer. A Nice Boy comes to play piano in the club, he's a classical musician and hates lowlifes. So she makes him play arias which she then deconstructs. Hilarious! Below she's seducing him to Johann Strauss. Also snips from Rigoletto, Puccini etc. They fall in love, but she's "owned" by a gangster. Nice Boy shoots gangster and goes to jail. Eventually Wild Wild Rose kills herself so Nice Boy can go back to original Nice Girl and start a new life.

Sunday 6 June 2010

Subtle Carmen? 3D film Royal Opera House

Everyone knows the tunes from Carmen, even if they don 't know they come from an opera. So it's good that the world's favourite opera is now to become the world's first 3D opera film. 3D is a higher grade version of 2D High Definition currently available. It's been used in Avatar, the hit sci-fi fantasy, so it could bring a whole new audience to "the opera experience". 

Carmen is an ideal choice. We're so familiar with it, we forget how dramatic the plot is: crime, sex, blood and murder. Slutty women, men in cute uniforms. Carmen could have been written for the screen. In fact, lots of movies have already been made, so why not the opera itself?

Francesca Zambello's revived production is perfect too, because it's visually stunning. Watching it last night in the Royal Opera House, I kept imaging what a good film director might focus on, because this is a production that lends itself to being seen from different angles. In the auditorium, for example, it's easy to miss the small ensembles high above the stage, "on the ramparts" so to speak, who have a panorama on the village the seated audience don't see.

 Townsfolk mill about doing things, washing themselves, selling things, leading a live donkey across the stage (courtesy of Island Farm Donkey Sanctuary).  This is a set that just begs for the quick shots and pans you can do in film.  Interpretively, this busyness is valid, because Carmen and Escamillo have public images they need to pander to. Would Carmen be quite such a terror if she didn''t have an image to live up to? And Escamillo is the media darling of his time, adored because he risks his life to give the crowd a thrill.

Visually, this Carmen is stunning. The town glows in earth tones, ochres and reds. The smuggling scene's mysterious, sinister blues, greys, greens : The last scene outside the bullring is harshly lit, empty. Carmen has nowhere to hide, dark shadows loom.

The ensemble scenes are particularly effective. The children are wonderful, each distinctively individual and fun. They dance sequences are great. Even though you can tell the professional dancers from the dancing singers, that's part of the charm. The Toreros, of course are magnificent - they move like the dancers they are, and such costumes! Maximum impact is what it's all about. These peasants have grim lives, they need circus. Perhaps that's why Zambello created the religious procession in Act 3 which doesn't make sense otherwise. The Church is theatre too, and images of Jesus are often covered in blood. (If I were filming this, I#'d do a shot of flickering candles, snuffed out).

Part of the fun watching last night's performance at The Royal Opera House was imagining how it would grow  First Night Syndrome affects every production, but this time there's the film to think about too.  So much is hanging on the success of the film, which is a historic first.

Christine Rice's dark good looks make her a good choice for the part.  Her singing is precise and attractive, but a wild abandon would liven the characterization.  Carmen's lowdown, mean and dirty. Rice is well bred and lady-like, not really the sort of girl who sticks men's heads up her skirt to taunt them. She shows the softer sides of Carmen's personality better, such as in the card game trio with Frasquita (Elena Xanthoudakis) and Mercédès (Paula Murrihy), all three singing particularly well. A wonderful vignette.
Aris Argiris's Escamillo has huge potential. The "public" and "private" Escamillo co-exist, but often the public version dominates. The Act Two entrance is so dramatic that it overshadows all else -in this production, horse and all - but what was interesting for me was the way Argiris conveyed the double edge of the song. Escamillo's describing the spectacle of a bullfight, yet there's a wistful vulnerability when he sings of the "dark eyes" that are watching him.  This is important, for what Escamillo and Carmen have in common is this inner sensitivity other people cannot see, but which they recognize in each other.

Butch Escamillos we can hear any time,  but this one's much more interesting because it's subtle. Film can show details easily missed in an auditorium, so Argiris's characterization will "grow" to advantage in close-ups.  The part is written in an unusual way. The big entrance is dramatic, but it doesn't last long.  In the confrontation between Escamillo and Don José, the part is written more conventionally. In the final act, Escamillo doesn't have very much to sing at all.  But therein lies the intelligence of Bizet's approach.

It's not the macho big moments that really make Escamillo, but the short, concealed glimpses of who he really is.  Escamillo makes his entrance, then disappears as quickly as he came. The critical part in this scene isn't the flashy showmanship, but the moment when he glimpses Carmen.  The love duet lasts only moments, but again, it's powerful because it's understated and private. Argiris's Escamillo is much deeper than the usual playboy image. Because film can focus on intimate detail, we'll be able to appreciate this much more thoughtful approach to Escamillo. Indeed, this may also reveal the true depths of Christine Rice's Carmen.

It's significant how Bizet contrasts the two couples, Carmen and Escamillo and José and Micaëla. The former don't actually sing all that much, but the latter sing on, and on. Since the latter pair are more c9onventional, their parts are written more conventionally too. Brian Hymel's Don José struggled vocally in the first act, but by the final, and critical final act, he was in better form.  He'll be heard to advantage as the run progresses, and in the film. Singing, unlike bullfighting, isn't sudden death.

Maija Kovalevska's  Micaëla, on the other hand was superb from beginning to end. Sometimes,  Micaëla  seems like a minor part because she's just a kid, but Kovalevska's solid vocal authority brings out the role's hidden  power.  Micaëla travels into smuggler's dens to find José. She's more of a man than he is, sweet as she may be. Indeed, she's a protoype of Carmen herself,  because she, too, is independent and takes risks for love. It's her Covent Garden debut too, but she's sung the role at the Met and in Munich. She has impressive experience elsewhere too.

Since Carmen's so familiar, we think we know it. But prerhaps there are things in it we could still discover. I'm looking forward the the ROH film, 3D or not, if it's well directed . The stage direction could be tightened up, movements sharpened and French diction improved, but all in all, this was pretty interesting.

A much better version (with pix) of this is on the Opera Today site, where there's also an interview with Aris Argiris and details about the 3D film. The film is being made for the 3D audience rather than an opera audience as such.. There aren't many films for this kind of cinema, so wjy not give them a bit of culture with their usual fare? Dozens of adaptations of the Carmen theme exist, including one with Beyonce. So anyone who gets hysyterical about Carmen in 3D is a fool and a snob..