Saturday 28 February 2015

Frankenstein and Malcolm Arnold

Sir Malcolm Arnold and Hammer Horror : a marriage made in Heaven  Four-Sided Triangle (1953) is a great classic, from the time that Britain had a thriving cinema industry. Three kids, Bill, Robin and Lena, grow up in Highdene, a perfect village, the epitome of Olde England. It's actually Hambleden in South Oxfordshire, still preserved almost intact because it's owned by a billionaire, the cottages rented to rich yuppies. Delight in the glories of the British countryside, for this is part of the story. The two young men are like twins, they've grown up together and even look alike. But Robin's dada is a millionaire, while Bill's was a feckless ne'er do well. Since Bill managed somehow to go to Cambridge with Robin, perhaps we should admire him, as does the village doctor. Very quietly, beneath this rural idyll, beats angst. Bill will never be Robin. Both love Lena, an impossibly blonde beauty who left the village for the US, but escape didn't help. She's come home to kill herself.

Robin and Bill rig up an elaborate laboratory in a shed, as one does. They're transmutating matter so they can duplicate things like gold, watches and rabbits in their own backyard. As one does.  When Lena agrees to marry Robin, Bill feels he has to square the triangle. So he decides to uses the machine to duplicate Lena. Sure enough, the experiment works. Lena now has a perfect replica Helen.  Bill and Helen go off to Dorset where they sit on the beach at Lulworth Cove. But Helen carries Lena's death wish, further complicated because she knows she's an unnatural creation and, like Lena, does not love Bill. When Helen attempts suicide, Bill tries to fix her in the machine, but it explodes into a ball of fire. Only one woman survives, but which? Fortunately class superiorty reigns, even in sci fi land. Lena and Robin live happily ever after, free of usurpers.

This film is way above the standard of later Hammer Studios horror flicks. The script was by Paul Tabori, who wrote books on the occult, which might explain the undercurrent of perversity which flows beneath this rural idyll. Snappy dialogue, well delivered by a good cast who don't ham for Hammer. The director was Terence Fisher who later made Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee into icons of the genre. Four-Sided Triangle is way above that.  The music was composed by Sir Malcolm Arnold. Muir Mathieson conducted the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.  The bizarre plot gives Arnold a chance to experiment with sound effects he might never have dared to explore in non-film music. Wonderfully discordant sounds, woven into a background which suggest tension and violence beneath a lyrical surface. The music works particularly well for the mad scientist scenes. "I'm a physicist!" shouts Robin, "not a biologist". The duality in the music reminds us that no right-minded physicist or biologist would be doing stuff as crazy as this.

Friday 27 February 2015

Bryan Hymel pops up in a grocery

Now THIS is how to bring opera to a non-opera-going audience !  Bryan Hymel pops into Central Grocery in the French Quarter in New Orleans,  a deli where he's been going since he was a kid.  Then, suddenly, he bursts into song. The customers don't want to be on camera, but wow: they are a bit edgy because of the TV cameras, but they notice That Voice.  This is the sort of semi-spontaneous, natural and friendly way to get through to people who might not otherwise think opera is for them. Exceptional singing, and delivered with enthusiasm. This is what communication should be! The customers might not rush to the opera house, but they won't forget, and they'll tell their friends. Absolutely counteracts the joyless  counter-productive type of "music education".  This is fun, and no compromise on quality!  BTW a Muffuletta is a kind of sandwich, a cross between an English muffin and ciabatta, filled with lots of meat, olives, pesto etc.

Wednesday 25 February 2015

Massenet Le roi de Lahore Sunday QEH

The Chelsea Opera Group presents Jules Massenet Le roi de Lahore this Sunday at the Queen Elizabeth Hall.  A pity it will be unstaged, because this is an opera that needs extravagant extreme visuals, in technicolor, and as over the top as possible. But we mustn't be greedy. Le roi de Lahore is a rarity. The only major production in recent years was at La Fenice, in 2005, presenting a new edition of the score by Marcello Viotti. The photo above comes from that production, which is on DVD but NTSC only. There's an informative review here in Opera Today. There's a single recording, with Joan Sutherland, but the recording quality does it no favours. Although Sutherland was only in her 50's when she sang Sitâ, the priestess, don't expect another Lakmé.

While Massenet's  Le roi de Lahore pre-dates Délibes Lakmé by only six years, they occupy different worlds. Worlds that reflect French taste for exotic orientalisme, rather than the reality of India. In Le roi de Lahore, we'll hear "Indian" trumpets blaring and and bits of local colour in the orchestra, but audiences weren't bothered by historical accuracy as long as they had a grand show. In any case, the plot is preposterous. In this pre-Islamic Lahore, the King, Alim, falls in love with Sitâ, the vestal virgin. Sacrilege! Alim is condemened to die in battle. Then things get really interesting. He gets killed. With the intervention of Indra, the Hindu deity, he comes back to life as a beggar. Dead and living sing together., Eventually, the lovers are reunited,  Even Bizet's Les pêcheurs de perles pales in comparison.  Timour, the High Priest, has a great role. 

The Chelsea Opera Group performance weill be conducted by Renato Belsadonna,  better known as the Chorus Master at the Royal Opera House, which will be good, because the choruses are the making of Le roi de Lahore, though there are many good star turns for the soloists. If this opera had been written for Hollywood in the 1930's it would have been choreographed for hordes of singing, dancing extras. With Belsadonna conducting, we'll also have an extremely good cast, some of whom are ROH regulars. Book now -some seats still available.  :

Anush Hovhannisyan soprano, Sita, Priestess of Indra
Michael Spyres tenor, Alim, King of Lahore
William Dazeley baritone, Scindia, Minister to Alim
Jihoon Kim bass, Timour, High Priest of Indra
Justina Gringyte mezzo-soprano, Kaled, the King's servant
Robert Lloyd bass, Indra, an Indian deity

Tuesday 24 February 2015

Straitjackets and Jonas Kaufmann

 "'Classical music is run like an artistic catastrophe' says Jonas Kaufmann", so screams a headline in the Telegraph. Are they that desperate for clicks? Read the comments beneath the article, which is not nearly as dumb as other things in the press, though, not only in that paper but in others. But it is worth listening to what Jonas Kaufmann actually has to say on Desert Island Discs (link here)  Kaufmann doesn't actually mention straitjackets himself, but politely acknowledges when the presenter puts the idea to him.  It's a good interview, and we learn how JK thrives on coffee, and can fix dishwashers.  Musical choices safe and predictable. He gets into the desert island spirit well. "I hope the island isn't somewhere cold, like off Iceland".

As for the "catastrophe", he's referring to the way bookings are planned years in advance, because, as he rightly says,  he doesn't know how he'll feel so far ahead. On the other hand, every singer more or less knows the repertoire in his Fach, and has an idea when and if he'll be able to achieve things, so it's not as if Kaufmann will suddenly decide he wants to sing Wotan or drop Cavarodossi.  Parts germinate, slowly, long before you start rehearsing, and things change.. In any case, it's quite common for singers to pull out at the last moment. Long ago, Kaufmann fell ill just before a performance, and Munich had to pull in another tenor who just happened to be singing something else in the house at the time, but luckily knew the part. Bryan Hymel!  Imagine going on when the audience is expecting Kaufmann, the hometown hero.

Minor houses can get away with hiring whoever's available short term, but major league houses do not operate in isolation. So long term planning is pretty much mandatory, if you want the best in the business. .Maybe small town audiences aren't too bothered, but big houses need to plan ahead. In any case, planning is just that - planning. In real life, things are a lot more flexible than they might seem.

Sunday 22 February 2015

Analyzed in context : Rattle's concert hall for London.

Simon Rattle has called for a new concert hall for London. He's right, in principle, because a city as prominent on the international circuit as London deserves  a concert hall commensurate with its status.  There's a good business case for it. If London is to remain competitive with Berlin and Paris, it needs a long-term strategy, with vision.  We're talking of a project like the Philharmonie, possibly £500 million. I suspect that Rattle wasn't simply talking off the top of his head, but might have an idea of what's best for Britain.

There's far too much "Little Britain" thinking around. There is just no way such a concert hall, any concert hall, would be a sweetener to lure Rattle to London. (See my earlier piece here.)  He'll come if he wants, for reasons of his own. (CBSO might need a new chief soon.) The Simon Rattle Concert Hall, as it deserves to be named, must be done properly, and in the much wider context of a vision for London.  Government planning doesn't happen on a whim (except for foul-ups and white elephants).  Instead, go to the source: The Chancellor George Osborne's Long Term Economic Plan for London.

The strategy identifies six key areas for development - economic growth, jobs, investment in transport infrastructure and housing, new powers for the Mayor, and for the arts, to "make London a centre of the world’s creative and commercial life, with new investment in science, finance, technology and culture. This will include a new feasibility study to develop a world class concert hall for London which will be led by the Barbican Centre.

Notice that the project will be led by the Barbican. Nicholas Kenyon helped to turn the Barbican around from being a soulless hulk to a pretty good venue.  In theory, the South Bank should be Britain's spectacular arts flagship on the Thames, but it's been run into the ground under present management and the arts policies of several governments.  Since the Arts Council England has slashed the Barbican's funding almost as severely as the ENO's, one hopes the new centre won't harm existing organizations, such as the unique Wigmore Hall (which has welcomed the proposals).

The most important thing about the Long Term Economic Plan is that it's for London.  There is just no way around the fact that Britain is a highly centralized country. Millions live within the M25, and millions more commute and visit, not only from the UK but from abroad. Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool are important but London is the Jewel in the Crown, like it or not. politicians are at last addressing reality. Get London right, and from thence good things flow, including to the regions.

Current arts policy derives from the Arts Council's "Great Art and Culture for Everyone" (2010-2020), though its roots go back much further. This updates previous plans like "Achieving Great Art for Everyone"  and "Culture Knowledge and Understanding", three grandiose statements within three years, striking in their use of corporate-speak platitudes. In substance, what they propose is placing "education" above the realities of performance and changing the very nature of the arts  in favour of some theoretical one size fits all.  But the arts aren't like that.  It's an arts policy based on the assumption that ordinary people are too stupid to value the arts without being patronized. But the arts can't ever replace good basic educational policy. Nor  can they simply be "taught": people come to the arts in their own time, and in their own way. Please see my article End the Missionary Position in the Arts.  Indeed, many "educational" measures are counter-productive and end up reinforcing the idea in many that the arts are "not for them". Education is a good thing but it should start from a much wider context, instead of diverting arts organizations from their primary purpose, which is the creation of artistic excellence.

This is also an arts policy that penalizes London, and plays on the negative resentment espoused in some quarters by those who'd like to whip up class and regional resentment. But the fact is that Britain is a highly centralized country, and that London is economically pre-eminent, and has been for hundreds of years.  Downgrading London is madness. The arts are an international business,. If London arts prosper, benefits flow to the rest of the country. It's a complete fallacy to equate audience size in live performance with true audience reach. Furthermore, even those who don't participate in classical music enjoy the wider benefits. The arts are a major industry, with numerous spin-offs. Few other countries have the riches that London has, thanks to visionary Victorians. Why sacrifice a unique heritage on which Britain's prestige is built?  Being a leftist, I'm passionately committed to the idea of readdressing inequality, but the arts are not the weapon by which it will be achieved.

So back to Osborne's Long Term Plan for London. Although it doesn't specify anything else about the arts, at least it acknowledges that London is the key to Britain;'s economic credibility and that the arts are an integral part of the economy, not a luxury to be resented.  In an election year, one must never forget the Tooth Fairy, and politicians of all types love Gravy Trains. However, it's at least an advance over the inept naivety behind current arts policy. There is a huge business case for the arts in Britain, and London should be at the helm.

Saturday 21 February 2015

Bavarian Opera to the South Pole

A new opera, commissioned by the Bayerische Staatsoper, South Pole, for January 2016. They must believe in it, because they're launching it with mega publicity.  You can order the t shirt, I kid you not.Thomas Hampson and Rolando Villazon are booked to sing, with Tara Erraught as the love interest. Director will be Hans Neuenfels, with Kiril Petrenko to conduct. If the Bayerische Staatsoper is investing so much in the opera, maybe it's interesting.

An opera, in English for Bavarian audiences, about Norwegian Amundsen and  British Scott, on their trip to the South Pole in the Antarctic, written by a Czech composer Miroslav Srnka (b 1975)  Check his website here) , "Die Musik der Oper wird mit mehrfachen, sich immer wieder anders ergebenden Überlagerungen operieren. Die beiden Erzählstränge nähern sich immer mehr einander an, treffen sich beinahe am Südpol und entfernen sich wieder voneinander. Für bestimmte Momente wird es „konkrete“ Musik geben: Beide Expeditionen hatten zur Unterhaltung Grammophone mitgenommen, Scotts Erkennungsmelodie ist die „Blumenarie“ aus Carmen (in der Einspielung von Enrico Caruso), Amundsens ist „Solvejgs Lied“ aus Peer Gynt; beide sollen in den Originalaufnahmen auch in der Oper erklingen. Andere signifikante Momente mit besonderer klanglicher Gestaltung sind das allmähliche Einfrieren und das schließliche Sterben der Scott-Missionsteilnehmer."

Read more HERE.

Composers without clothes

Igor Stravinsky and Bela Bartok. Exists one of Benjamin Britten completely starkers, too. Good for them all

Thursday 19 February 2015

Kung Hei Fat Choy ! Happy Chinese New Year !

First Day of the Chinese new Year - Kung Hei Fat Choy ! Above, the kind of poster people used to paste onto their walls to bring good fortune in the coming year. The fish represents wealth, abundance, liveliness and flowing energy. So the baby rides a giant carp with the character for happy marriage on its head (happy marriage equals fertility and the continuation of family line).  Its eyes are encrusted with pearls. Lotuses, which rise again after spending the winter buried under mud.  They're beautiful, and edible, too. The kid wears a watch and carries a camera. Also symbols of progress and success. Foreigners might laugh, but for millions of Chinese people, grinding poverty was the norm. . For the poor, posters were a bright symbol of hope. The trauma of the last 100 years in China was horrible, but the west took a lot longer to come out of the Middle Ages (though I'm beginning to wonder)   A friend told me : "Cameras and watches  Now even in the remotest provinces, peasants have smartphones". Thirty years on from Tienanmen Square....."

Wednesday 18 February 2015


"YOU DON'T OWN ME - I'm not just one of your little toys. You don't own me, don't try to change me in any way..... I don't tell you what to say, I don't tell you what to do....So please, let me be myself... to live my life the way that I want, to say and do whatever I please" ,  Lesley Gore died this week, aged only 68.  She shot to overnight fame with "It's my Party", a doleful wail about a spoilt brat rasiing hell at her own birthday party. But she was mad because boyfriend had dumped her. In 1963, Nice Girls were supposed to shut up and take abuse, maintaining a pleasant, if plastic persona. If "It's my Party" was unsettling, "You Don't Own Me" was revolutionary stuff. At the time, we didn't quite know how to take such rebellion, expressed so bluntly. Notice how the song tails off, without resolution. It's only the beginning of the story. It's taken some of us 50 years to get the message. Hail to you Lesley Gore! In 1965 women in Iran, for example, and even in Afghanistan, listened to this song and dreamed of a better future. Even in the so called progressive West, women are abused and put down, trapped in a self destructive spiral. It's not a better world. Never forget !

Tuesday 17 February 2015

What Simon Rattle could do for the nation

What's ahead for Simon Rattle?  When he steps down in 2018 from the helm of the Berliner Philharmoniker, the most prestigious job in the whole business, he'll be 63, much too young to  retire, Besides, he's such a dynamo, it's hard to imagine him lazing about. Conductors don't usually stop unless they have to, either like the inimitable Carlos Kleiber or like Takashi Asahina, who was conducting almost to the day he died, aged 93.

For my article Analyzed in context : Simon Rattle Concert Hall for London, see here.

So what's next for Simon Rattle? There have been rumours for ages that he'll take over at the London Symphony Orchestra, which isn't nearly in the same league as the Berlin Philharmonic, but then nothing is. In any case, there'd be a gap in the succession, since Gergiev and Harding are due to step down at the end of 2015. At this level, interim arrangements are hard to arrange. Salonen's contract with the Philharmonia ends 2017, while Jurowski's with the LPO has been extended to 2018.  Conductor chess also has to take in other changes on the European circuit. What if Thielemann gets Berlin? Or Nelsons? Barenboim might want the job, but who knows?

Rattle's been quoted as saying he'd like a new concert hall in London  Oh yes, we do!  So much has changed in acoustic engineering and architecture since the Royal Festival Hall and the Barbican, so the case for a state of the art flagship for London is pretty clear.  But in the present circumstances, where the anti-London bias prevails, that's problematic.  But you can't slot a new mega hall in just anywhere: it has to be central enough to be within reach of most of the population, and connected to the international circuit. Effectively that means London. Politicians like big capital projects because they win votes and mean largesse for contractors and so on.  But so what, if the whole reason for having a concert hall is being eroded, with cuts to funding for orchestras, without proper school-based music education, and with the BBC/Arts Council fixation on easy listening?  The ACE has slashed the Barbican's budget almost as savagely as it's slashed the ENO's, though the cuts are spread over different genres.

Even if a few hundred million could suddenly be magicked up, what about the commitment to support and endorse the performers within?  It's good software that makes things happen, whatever the hardware. Boris Johnson's  vanity project "Olympicsopolis"  doesn't even come close to addressing the real issues of the music  business. And even if Rattle won his point, it would take 25 years to fulfil.  Like, when he is 84.

In Birmingham, Rattle transformed the landscape, showing how  culture can benefit a city's identity and economy. Now London needs a charismatic communicator who can reverse the trend towards philistine destruction. London, and the nation, needs Rattle more than he needs us. I'd like to think of him  slacking off and playing with the kids, but he is much too precious an asset to miss out on.  At left, a photo of Rattle and the American conductor Calvin Simmons in 1975, when Rattle was conducting Glyndebourne. Simmons died aged only 32. Honour conductors while you can.

Monday 16 February 2015

Simon Rattle Berlin Philharmonic Mahler 2 London

Simon Rattle has been conducting Mahler's Second Symphony since he was a teenager. He's conducted it with the Berliner Philharmoniker many times, also with the same opener, Helmut Lachenmann's Tableau for Orchestra, and also with the same soloists (photo above was taken at the Philharmonie in Berlin).  Yet Rattle and the Berliners are so good that they can make even the familiar sound fresh and spontaneous. Nothing routine about this performance!  (Available here in audio for 28 days.) If it's possible to imagine Mahler 2 performed en fête, this was it. The players were relaxed, yet energized, clearly enjoying their second London residence in a few years, eager to share their love for the symphony with a new audience. And "celebration" is absolutely a valid interpretation of Mahler. The symphony isn't titled "The Resurrection" for nothing.

The Allegro Maestoso is marked "mit durchaus_ernstem_und_feierlichem_Ausdruck" for it was inspired by the funeral of Hans von Bülow, Mahler's mentor.  But it begins with a great burst of energy:  gravity doesn't preclude fervour. Many years ago, I heard Bernard Haitink conduct this movement with tempi so slow that his players struggled to maintain a line. It felt as if the body were gradually switching off and shutting down. It was terrifying. I could hardly draw breath. Rattle's tempi weren't so extreme, but he observed the sense of deliberation. This is a march, but with a purposeful destination. For many of us who love Mahler, the excitement in his music comes, not from rabble-rousing rush, but from this sense of intelligence. Hence the importance of  observing detail, marking each stage of the descent: the pastoral passages suggesting memory, the quiet pizzicato "footsteps" that scurry forwards, the horn calls that introduced the sudden, spiralling denoument.

Thus were we prepared for the warm breezes of the second movement, (particularly lustrous harp playing). and the third, marked "In ruhig fließender Bewegung" with its references to the world of Des Knaben Wunderhorn.  The departed may be dead, physically, but Nature is working its miracles. The "Fischpredigt" passage began with a  bang, the quirky woodwind melody leaping energetically, the strings surging with energized power. From this emerged the Urlicht.  Magdalena Kožená is better in this part than she gets credit for, because the honesty in her singing was truly "aber schlicht", pure, like the elusive violin part around the voice, so, when the music explodes in the last movement, we appreciate the contrast. Splendid, full-sounding strings, then the magic of the offstage trumpet, suggesting heaven: a true piece of theatre on Mahler's part, but filled with metaphysical meaning. Tiny, delicate pizzicato lead to soaring passages which suggest panoramic vistas, the "mountains" of Mahler's Third Symphony which Rattle and the Berliners do so well (read more here).  Then the cataclysmic "earthquake " which suggests Messiaen  Et exspecto resurrection mortuorum, another Rattle/Berlin Phil favourite (read more here). Wilder and wilder, as if purgatory itself were being ripped apart. Exquisite winds and strings - what else would one expect from the Berliners  The LSO and CBSO choruses intoned softly, like penitents in procession, over which rose Kožená and Kate Royal's voices.

As Mahler wrote of the finale “what happens now is far from expected: no divine judgement, no blessed and no damned, no Good and no Evil, and no judge”. And “there is no judgement, no just men, no punishment and no reward….. just a feeling of love which illuminates and fills us with blissful knowledge of all existence”. So what if this wasn't the most divine, most ideal performance? It was a great experience.

The BBC is marking Simon Rattle's 60th birthday in a big way. Most of the concerts in this London residency are being broadcast, audio on BBC Radio 3 (here) and some on BBC TV I-player (here) .   Although I've written about the Mahler concert, the Sibelius concert are even better.  Be cautious with the documentary about Rattle and his career (here), which comes over like an advertisement, surprisingly amateur for an occasion as high profle as this. Talking heads filmed in pseudo vox pop style, not once but twice! Technical naffness aside, the subject himself is fascinating, so fast forward past the first 25 minutes.

Sunday 15 February 2015

Opera Houses and Houses for Opera

Imagine an opera house lilke this on the banks of the Thames. It's the home of the Valencia Opera,  designed by Dr Santiago Calatrava, completed in 2007. It's so beautiful that perhaps it should be part of the international opera circuit. But what really makes a house is what happens inside. In the current non-debate about the ENO there have been calls to turn it into a trendy café or to scrap the building altogether. Are things that easy ?

Firstly, the deal with which the ENO occupies the Coliseum means that it doesn't have to pay commercial West End rents. It might move somewhere less convenient, thereby driving away part of the audience, changing its demographic, which has a knock-on effect on what it does, artistically.  Even if an alternative place could be found, there's no guarantee that the Coliseum could be sold profitably enough at short notice to make the transition worthwhile. Though, quite possibly, there are those who would welcome the chance to profit from a bargain, if such a sale were forced.  Not good for ENO, though.

Second what you see upfront in an opera house is only the surface: backstage is a warren of workshops, rehearsal rooms, technical support, dressing areas etc. Which is why most houses outsource so much to other premises.  Part of the ENO business plan is to consolidate this support in one area, but that might be asking too much.  Thirdly, the Coliseum is the largest theatre in London, and never easy to fill.  Most West End theatres are significantly smaller, and most shows don't run into profit unless they've been going on a long time. Do we really want a single opera to run for months, exactly the same every night  How would that affect singers and players?  At the other end of the scale, what about the Raymond Gubbay route, filling the Royal Albert Hall with water to do Madame Butterfly for people who don't actually like music but want a good night out.  Which is fair enough, but art it ain't.  The ENO can't really move back to Sadler's Wells, which is way too small. Shows may sell out in small spaces but so what if the overall take is reduced? Quality cannot be judged by capacity figures alone.

Perhaps the elephant in the room is, after all, changing audiences. The last ten years have seen a disintegration of the values of tolerance and openness. Where once some could preach "the End of History", now we're plagued by ignorance, bigotry and fundamentalism of all kinds.  Once, mature thinking came gradually, through a process of listening and learning. Now anyone can be an instant expert  thanks to Google and mass media.  So maybe the battle for the arts is already lost.

HERE is a link to an informative article in the Economist about opera as a business. Opera houses operate in co-operation with each other.  Scrapping one house impacts on the whole industry, worldwide.  Much of the current non-debate focuses on micro issues, like not liking a composer, or details of particular productions, when what we really need is an appreciation of how the business works. A few weeks ago, I addressed some of the issues here, in my article "Radical Rethink".

Friday 13 February 2015

Purcell King Arthur Wigmore Hall Early Opera Company

Henry Purcell's King Arthur with The Early Opera Company at the Wigmore Hall: or its full title,  King Arthur or The British Worthy which makes a subtle difference. King Charles II.had commissioned an extravagant series of paintings for the state apartments at Windsor, depicting the King as a latter-day King Arthur. Windsor wasn't open to the public, so John Dryden's play was a means of amplifying the message.  Unfortunately, the King died, and his successor, James II, was overthrown. The "Glorious Revolution" of 1689 ushered in a new era of Protestantism  and Parliament. It was in the interests of the new monarchs, William and Mary, to present themselves as British, so Dryden was able, with a few changes, to turn his play into a vehicle glorifying the doughty, independent British spirit, while still using the distant past to remind people of a more turbulent recent past. 

Four hundred and twenty five years after its premiere, King Arthur still stands for something quintessentially British. Nearly everyone knows some of the songs, like 'Fairest Isle' and the 'Cold Genius', which has enjoyed an afterlife in avant garde performance art.  At the Wigmore Hall, Christian Curnyn and the Early Opera Company gave us a shortened version of Dryden's five-hour spectacle, leaving out the dialogue but giving us the incidental music by Henry Purcell.  The advantage is that we can concentrate on Purcell's music. Even scaled down for the Wigmore Hall, the impact was substantial,  at times almost too loud for a small performance space (I was in Row P) . Fortunately, the soloists sang clearly  so there was no real need to follow the text. In any case the plot is simple, a series of set pieces and masques with different airs, ritornellos and passacaglias, and passages for trumpets, depicting battle. Here the valveless instruments blare with heady, anarchic abandon. Early music isn't bland or boring.

This isn't the King Arthur of Victorian legend,  but a hero who beats up heathens and villains to unite Britain in harmony and order. Despite the elegant formality in the music, hints of violence are never far away. There's attempted rape, and a risqué seduction scene where naked sirens try to beat King Arthur with black magic. Arthur's lover, Emmeline, gets turned into a tree and gets hacked by Arthur's sword, but her tribulations are symbolic. Like the nation, she owes everything to the King.. At last, Saxons and Britons are united as one great nation. Everyone sings along, including, sometimes, the audience.. 
Good soloists - Joélle Harvey, Mhairi Lawson, Samuel Boden, Nick Pritchard, George Humphreys and Oliver Hunt. This isn't an opera that predicates on psychological nuance,  so they conveyed its true spirit with the enthusiasm and gusto that makes it sparkle. King Arthur is becoming quite fashionable, with fully staged performances elsewhere. But the Early Opera Company gave us a delightful and idiomatic reading. We could use our imaginations. 

Save the ENO : British culture and phoney class war

The Arts Council England has announced that it's placing the ENO in a "special funding arrangement" and removing it from the portfolio of national organizations given a place at the funding table. Within that two-year period, the ENO will have to present accounts on a monthly baisis and meet milestones set by the ACE, in return for a short-term £I million grant to repair the rumoured shortfall in this year's budget. That there is a shortfall is hardly surprising as the ENO's new business model has yet to kick in.  On the surface, this looks simple enough that some observers think the ENO is "saved".  It's an irony that the ENO is housed in a building called the Coliseum. Photo above shows the sacking of Rome, by the Visigoths.

The ENO has never been a money cow. The primary purpose of any arts organization is to produce good art. Even the ACE acknowledges the role the ENO has played with groundbreaking work. But good art means taking risks: no arts organization is foolproof. For every Satyagraha, Peter Grimes or Mastersingers  there are bound to be some flops, just as everywhere else. That's the nature of the business. I don't hold much hope for aspects of the new business plan which predicate on duplicating what the West End already provides, ie smart cafés. One thing the ENO's critics miss entirely is that all opera companies these days operate in connection with each other, nationally and internationally. Scrapping the ENO would have a drastic knock-on effect on the rest of the industry. The loss of the ENO would create such a huge hole in the business that it would take more than a few million to fix.  The ACE, and the government, needs to think long term, and on a wider scale. Read more about what I've written on the interconnectedness of the industry HERE.

Far too much emphasis has been placed on the recent resignations. Henriette Gõtz was a lovely person but not experienced enough to deal with the scale of the problems the company faces, which go back way before she was even born. Strangely,  part of the ACE measures is to look for a "qualified" Executive Director, which is a bit rich,  given that the ACE is itself headed from Classic FM whose claim to wider arts policy nous lies in suggesting the formation of education "hubs". Or a Head of BBC Radio 3 with no broadcasting experience. Obviously education is part of arts policy, but only as an adjunct: it can't replace the wider context of arts education in schools and adult education. Yet the interim ENO Executive  Director is a man probably better placed than anyone else to solve problems  Anthony Whitworth-Jones (more HERE) oversaw the new building at Glyndebourne and came to the rescue of Garsington Opera when Leonard Ingram died. Look at Garsington Opera now.  Whitworth-Jones also wasn't part of the turbulence that hit the ENO three years ago, so he carries no baggage. If the ACE sincerely wants to set the ENO on a good footing, they'd be wise to back someone who just might, against all odds, be able to do the job.

There are some who'd like to replace tha arts altogether with, for example, performance theatre. That kind of writing is to journalism what busking is to grand opera.  Fact is, the arts are an important  part of this nation's economy.  London is a critical player in the world arts network, bringing in unquantifiable cultural and foreign policy influence. It's not clever to scrap the nation's patrimony simply because Harriet Harman's constituents don't go the the ROH (read more HERE). Everyone in this country has a stake in the continued health of the arts, whether they're directly involved or not.  The ENO has a unique place because it connects to English theatre tradition, from Purcell and Handel to Philip Glass and more. It's also championed British opera, which strictly speaking didn't exist before Benjamin Britten. It's also a springboard for nurturing English-speaking singers, some of whom, like Stuart Skelton and Iain Paterson, have developed international careers. Scrap that and it would cost a whole lot more to fix the mess the industry would then be in.  So what if only a minority enjoy the arts? Only a minority work in the banking system, so should we stop propping it up? If we were to support things with mass appeal,  maybe the state should be funding pornography. Some have been known to claim that on expenses.
But does the ACE, and whatever government that supports it, really want to save the ENO. The current ACE policy was set up under the last administration, but the present government has endorsed it without demur. It doesn't matter that much whether a Minister of Culture  like Sajid Javid, should be a luvvie. What really matters is whether he has a sensible business head (in which case being a luvvie is a disadvantage). The fundamental problem is that the arts do attract votes. Thus it's tempting for politicians like Harriet Harman to use the arts as a weapon of class war.

Unfortunately whipping up class hatred against the perceived "elitism" of the arts grabs headlines, and feeds resentment. There will always be thousands more who think that the arts don't matter because they don't participate. There's infinitely more mileage in stirring up class resentment than in explaining the wider role of the arts in the economy. The ACE's anti-London bias is part of this Phoney Class War. London dominates the UK because it's big, demographically and economically.  Downgrading London arts funding won't do anything to redress that balance. But "regionalism" buys votes, especially if it comes in the form of big capital projects where everyone benefits, except artists. Never forget the Sheffield National Centre for Popular Culture which looked PC but fell flat. No-one advocates London because the constituency for the arts is spread too thinly. Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, is far too busy with his pet Olympics project, which the government has funded to the tune of £141 million, which only marginally impacts on the realities of performance. For that kind of money, one could do a lot for the rest of London arts.

 The arts have become a pawn in the dismantling of this nation's heritage. Once, schools had decent music and arts programmes.  Arts organizations are expected to do the work schools used to do. Obviously, some form of "education" is essential but we need to rethink the whole concept of arts education. Instead, we have an arts policy that stakes so much on the need to replace that shortfall in basic arts education by forcing arts organizations to take up the slack, to the detriment of their primary purpose, which is to create art.  Instead of creation, we now have  a navel-gazing tick-box mentality, based on meeting targets instead of creativity.  There's also a lot more to arts education than teaching people what to think, like the ludicrous "Ten Pieces" programme. Some of these projects work counter-productively, reinforcing the notion that the arts are unapproachable. We can't expect the arts to carry the burden of changing a society when what causes inequality stems from something much more fundamental.

 But do politicians really care?  Or is chasing the short-term vote more fruitful?   Britain is now infinitely more diverse than in the old cloth-cap tribalism of class war. People of all classes and ethnic backgrounds are relatively upwardly mobile and aspirational. That's where the future really lies. A potential renaissance of the arts, if intelligently addressed, and not in the patronizing way it's done at present, where the emphasis is on dumbing down, not smarting up. Heed the prescient warnings of Hans Sachs! A society without culture falls apart. (Read more here.)

Wednesday 11 February 2015

Power at the Wigmore Hall

Lots on at the Wigmore Hall this week.  The Wigmore Hall's plans for 2015-16 (of which I'll write more later) , Purcell King Arthur with the Early Opera Company and, on Thursday 12th,  Lawrence Power and Simon Crawford-Philips in a interesting programme, Britten: Suite for violin and piano,  York Bowen's Phantasy, Huw Watkins Fantasy, Colin Matthews Four Moods asnd Esa-Pekka Salonen's Pentatonic Etude for solo viola (world première)

Monday 9 February 2015

Rattle Sibelius Barbican LIVE plus Conductor Chess

Simon Rattle at the Barbican this week, conducting the Brerlin Philharmonic in all the Sibelius symphonies.  Tickets sold out almost as soon as they went on sale. Luckily, the concerts  will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 HERE HERE and HERE.  Rattle has been conducting Sibelius since early days at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. He's good. With the  Berliners, he has an orchestra that did Sibelius with Karajan.  Enjoy! This is what the BBC does well and best. Long may this commitment to quality outlast current fashion. You can also listen to Rattle and the band doing Sibelius on the Berliner Philharmoniker Digital Concert Hall.

On Saturday night, Rattle and the Berliners  do Mahler Symphony no 2 and Helmut Lachenmann's spectacular Tableau,  "a short, intense work which uses a huge conventional orchestra to unconventional ends. It's a perfect foil to the Mahler, a typical Rattle juxtaposition designed to make an audience sit up and think."  You bet!  This will also be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 HERE

Rattle  was the wildly charismatic whizz who turned the CBSO from a small-town band to one of the great orchestras in this country. The CBSO has aince become a springboard for Sakari Oramo and for Andris Nelsons, Edward Garner regularly works there too. What the Berliners needed when they chose Rattle in 2002 was a man who could develop the orchestra's profile. Obviously it was a superlative orchestra, and still is, but Rattle opened things out in other directions, helping to usher in the Berliner Philharmoniker we have today, with its international focus and adventurous programming.  There's a lot more to conducting than waving a stick.

After the Berliner Philharmoniker, there are no further peaks to conquer. Rumour has it that Rattle will take over at the Londoin Symphony Orchestra, where he's much loved. The band isn't as stellar as the band in Berlin, but Rattle's job would be to grow the LSO and the Barbican. In a way, back to his roots. Speaking of roots, the photo shows Rattle when his hair was dark - that's a natural Afro!

This week Alan Gilbert suddenly announced that he'll quit the New York Philharmonic. I don't know the inside story and I won't make wild guesses as to who might replace him.  Gilbert has conducted the Berlin Phil almost as many times as Dudamel, who Rattle took on as a protégé right from the start, and is bankable, if not musically demanding.  Soneone's got to pay the bills! Orchestras do not choose chief conductors on a whim. Any really significant orchestra (and its board) has some kind of vision for the future. and looks for a good fit.

Conductor chess is a game of skill, and genuine knowledge. I've discussed the Berlin succession before (follow my label Conductor Chess below and on the right)  Always, always, ask the questions first before speculating on answers. Where does the Berlin Philharmoniker want to go in 10 or 15 years.  Does the NY Phil want to go backwards or forwards.  As for Alan Gilbert, I hope he'll return to Europe  where his musical interests seem to lie.  There are huge differences between the US and Europe in terms of music, culture and audiences. Europe is the biggest pond of all, in which the biggest fish swim. That said, I don't think Gilbert will get Berlin, but there are other jobs coming up soon.

Sunday 8 February 2015

ENO Vindicated - Mastersingers of Nuremberg : Wagner's prescient warning

In Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Wagner affirms the importance of the arts in forging cultural identity. This The Mastersingers of Nuremberg at the Coliseum is a timely reminder why the ENO is vital to the creative health of this nation. For Hans Sachs, the arts are an essential part of the identity of his beloved city. Get to this production, which runs until 8th March, if you care about the arts in London.

It is a rare privilege to catch this production, which hasn't been revived since it was first produced by Welsh Natiional Opera in 2010. It was a vehicle for Bryn Terfel, who five years ago was new to the role. (Read my review here.)  The ENO budget doesn't run to Terfel,  who, in any case is busy with Der fliegende Holländer (more here). But it does the next best thing, by bringing Iain Paterson back to this country. Paterson is one of the Wagner singers of choice these days,  but in the early stages of his career he was a company principal at the ENO.  His first fully staged Hans Sachs is a triumphal home-coming. Paterson's characterization of Hans Sachs is refreshingly individual. There's no reason why Sachs should be an old man past his prime. Forty-something  Paterson makes us feel Sachs as a strong and vigorous man who stands up for his principles. In the Act III scene where Sachs encourages Walter, Patterson conveys genuine empathy, showing how maturity is a continuum, a constant process of learning and sharing.  When Paterson sings "Mad, mad, eveything's mad" (Wahn! Überall Wahn), he suggests the way a man of Sachs's wisdom might feel in  a world where basic human values are going awry: ineffably moving. One day, Paterson will be an outstanding Sachs. Hear him now at the ENO, so you can remember his staged debut. 

Gwyn Hughes Jones is an impressive Walter von Stolzing. Although he needs to work on the very top of his range, overall he has an interesting and very fresh voice. He starts singing the Prize Song lying flat on his back,  a handicap  which I think must be deliberate because it's one of the worst positions to sing in,  but his innate lyricism wins over. This Prize Song was illuminated by sincerity, flowing naturally with unforced freedom. Also very impressive was Nicky Spence's David, vibrant, cheeky and irrepressible. Sachs gives David a hard time, but nurtures him so he, too, will take his place as a master craftsman. The significance of apprentices in this opera cannot have been missed by the chorus, not all of whom are young, but who provide firm support., The ENO chorus is excellent. Even those who weren't part of the Harewood scheme seem galvanized by its ideals. The ENO is a great house for developing the singers of the future, providing a unique springboard for English-speaking talent in a business where most work isn't in their native language. Even the relatively small but crucial role of the Night Watchman (Nicholas Crawley) was well delivered, though his costume tried to steal the show.

Andrew Shore sang Sixtus Beckmesser, portrayed in this production as venal rather than evil. Rachel Nicholls made her ENO debut as Eva. She's very young indeed, creating Eva with more enthusiasm than refinement, which fits the part fine. Madeleine Shaw sang Magdalene. The Mastersingers were James Creswell, David Stout (very good), Peter van Hulle, Quentin Hayes, Timothy Robinson, Nicholas Folwell, Richard Roberts, Stephen Rooke, Roderick Earle and Jonathan Lemalu.

Richard Jones's productions, designed here by Paul Steinberg, are bright and upbeat, perfect for comedy, but Jones's work is almost invariably even more astute about music and meaning. The Mastersingers wear identikit uniforms,  the apprentices snappily marching about with the paraphernalia of office. I loved the the giant pretzels, representing the baker's guild. Significantly, Jones doesn't portray the townsfolk as automatons. Buki Schiff's costumes range over a 500-year period, and cover different regional styles and social classes. The mastersingers aren't the only ones who uphold "Holy German Art" : without this community of individuals, Nuremberg might not thrive as it did. For "Holy German Art" flourishes in many forms. The frontcloth shows a montage of German thinkers from Sachs's time to the present. You don't need to identify them all. As in the opera, part of the fun comes from learning afresh.

Sachs's Nuremberg was prosperous, but the Midsummer festival commemorates times of war and famine. The townsfolk go to bed on Midsummer's Eve, but it doesn't take much to rouse them to riot.  As if released by devilry, they swarm over the stage, their arms raised in diagonal salute.  If nice, supposedly artistic people can mindlessly destroy what they have, we cannot be complacent. Beckmesser very nearly got the Mastersingers to kick Walter out of town. Were it not for Hans Sachs and his non-conformist wisdom, where would Walter be, or Nuremberg, or the future of art ? This Mastersingers of Nuremberg at the ENO  gives much fuel for thought.

Please also read my other posts on Wagner, Die Meistersinger, stagecraft etc.  Also, my post on the current situation at the ENO "Radical Rethink". Unlike some, I think it's sickening to "enjoy" seeing people kicked when they are down.

photos : Catherine Ashmore 

Friday 6 February 2015

Aldeburgh Music Festival 2015 details

Booking for the 2015 Aldeburgh Music Festival starts soon. Plan ahead. Serious music values, properly marketed.  Benjamin Britten believed that good music could speak for itself, and that audiences had the intelligence to rise to the challenge. Thank goodness for Roger Wright as Chief Executive and Pierre-Laurent Aimard as Festival Director

From Britten to Britain's greatest living composer - Harrison Birtwistle, whose new opera, The Cure, opens the 2015 Aldeburgh season. Nearly 50 years ago, Birtwistle's Punch and Judy featured at Aldeburgh - so shockingly original that Britten and Pears are alleged to have walked out. The scandal didn't hurt Birtwistle, whose reputation thrived on the publicity. It's almost impossible that Britten, who knew how to read a score, could not have known what Punch and Judy would be like. Aldeburgh meant too much to Britten that he''d risk wrecking the festival with something bad. It's a tribute to Britten that he could value talent even when it wasn't quite to his taste: an attribute one should respect. .

"Taking as its starting point Jason’s triumphant arrival home with the Golden Fleece, The Cure casts an intense focus on the magical rejuvenation of his father by his sorceress lover Medea. ‘I came across a few lines from John Gower’s poem Confessio Amantis, says Birtwistle, ‘that describe the moment when, at night and under a full moon, Medea goes out to gather herbs with which to make a potion that will rejuvenate Jason’s father Aeson: Upon hir clothes gert sche was, / Al specheles and on the gras / Sche glod forth as an Addre doth... It seemed, to me, like a beginning... and so it was.’ Geoffrey Patterson conducts the London Sinfonietta. Elizabeth Atherton and Mark Padmore sing. I wrote about The Corridor HERE, five years ago. This Birtwistle double bill moves to London at the Linbury later in June.

From Birtwistle to Pierre Boulez, arguably the most influential musician of his time.  Aldebutrgh marks his 90th birthday with numerous concerts and films. George Benjamin  and François-Xavier Roth conduct two concerts with the highly regarded Mahler Chamber Orchestra, two very good programmes worth writing more about. Boulez, and also Benjamin, Bedford, Ravel, Schubert and Mozart. Somewhat different, on 17th (Susana Malkki) A Pierre Dream , an "acoustic and theatrical journey through a lifetime of musical adventures, innovations and discoveries performed within a specially commissioned design by world renowned architect Frank Gehry". mixing "live performance of works spanning over six decades of his creative career with rare on-screen archival footage and new interviews."   This is followed by what might be a more substantial study day into two key Boulez pieces,, Livre pour quatuor and the Piano Sonata no 3. Plenty more Aimard, Benjamin, and Knussen,  through the rest of the festival , always rewarding.

Aldeburgh doesn't do the current fashion for superficiality. Instead of routine Britten done indifferently, this year Aldeburgh is doing an in-depth, serious exploration of Britten's Prince of the Pagodas.  When this was revived at the Royal Opera House in 2012,  it was met, in some circles, by incomprehension that was shameful, especially considering that there are whole books on the subject.  Even without reading, who could miss the non-western influences?  The Prince of the Pagodas  is so unorthodox that it opened new doors for Britten. The ballet will not be performed in full, though a film of the Kenneth Macmillan production will be screened.  Knussen will be conducting extracts.  The Study Day, on 25/6  will go into Britten's interest in the Far East, which dated back to his youth and his relationship with Colin McPhee. Aldebugh's also doing a Gamelan workshop and screening films about the ballet. Utterly fascinating - I've written a lot about it HERE and HERE

Early music and baroque always feature heavily at Aldeburgh, reflecting Britten's interest in forms outside the 19th century western tradition.  Andreas Scholl is giving concerts and masterclasses. The Monteverdi Choir are doing three concerts of Bach and Mozart. For the first time in years, no Bach Mass in B but an even more intriguing mix of other works.  I'm apassionate Aldeburgh devotee and go to as much as I can every year ! Please look at the lables on the right and click on previous year's festivals and about the town which I love so well. Also, this is the biggest Benjamin Britten site around.

Here's the link to the Aldeburgh Music website

Thursday 5 February 2015

Strange rumblings from the Edinburgh International Festival

What's happening at the Edinburgh International Festival 2015? An announcement has been doing the rounds but it isn't a season announcement.  M\aybe any publicity is better than no publicity but what does that tell us about the new management under Fergus Linehan. Maybe they're aiming at the tourist market who book for the experienece, rather than for the music. EIF is very much a feature of the tourist circuit. Australians, for example, don't come of age unless they go there. Americans tend to do Stratford-on-Avon

So the EIF is getting Lang Lang, Vassily Petrenko, Anne-Sofie Mutter, and a mix of largely un-named "Scottish" and "young" performers. That's all very nice, but for a festival that purports to be "International" shouldn't it be offering a bit more? Luckily for the rest of us, the BBC has been broadcasting about a dozen concerts a year, a very important extension of the festival's reach.

The really exciting news is that the EIF is doing Sibelius Kullervo to mark the 50th anniversary of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus, and also Berlioz Grand messes des morts.  The former is quite a coup since the piece was only put back into circulation some 20 years after Sibelius's death, for many reasons.  It's a remarkable piece with all the pros and cons of being a very early work - raw, passionate and in many ways so wild that one might imagine some of the reasons for its suppression.  Again, a great thing for the EIF Chorus, but who are the soloists  ? If the EIF had musical nous, they'd market this more.

*Musical firsts* are the world premiere of André Previn’s Nonet   and the Scottish premiere of Festival co-commission James MacMillan’s Second Percussion Concerto., the latter being significant given MacMillan's role as the best-known Scottish composer. No Judith Weir, whose explorations of Scottish stories would be fascinating for locals and visitors alike.  Only a vague hint as to what else is on offer :  "Stories of love, money, magic and ghosts come alive in major narrative musical works including The Rake’s Progress, Kullervo and Petrushka.  Since Kullervo features rape, incest and suicide, those who come for love might be shocked.  So we'll have to wait til March 18th to find out more.

Tuesday 3 February 2015

Radical Rethink? ENO heritage

English National Opera is being mugged, from all sides. The headlines have focused on the recent resignations but that's hardly news. There have been wars within the ENO for decades, long before Henriette Götz was even born.  The resignations are not the story in themselves. Unfortunately parts of the London print media are more focused on click bait than on debate. Hence the lopsided non-logic that passes for informed opinion. When someone gets mugged on the street it's interesting to see how people react. Some, I suspect, wouldn't have a clue,  other than to busy themselves taking selfies.  For my latest piece on the ACE special measures on ENO, please read HERE

Keeping the ENO afloat is vital to the artistic health of this country  The ENO was founded 60 years to meet a specific market, and has survived, pretty much, because it serves a purpose. Paris supports more than one opera house, so does Berlin, why not London?  There are many different types of opera, with different styles and different audiences. If  anyone suggested closing down the rest of the West End, there'd be an uproar.  The ENO does have an identity, even if that's lost on those who don't actually know much about the genre. When it was founded (by a woman) it was meant to bring opera to English audience, which at that time were fairly insular. Not all that long ago, English people didn't eat garlic and thought olive oil was for cleaning the ears.  In the years after the war, the ENO was, like the NHS, an idealistic vision of what might be.

The ENO and the Royal Opera House complement each other, they aren't meant to compete. Neither house on its own can do as much without the other. Both link up to opera houses abroad, thus connecting London to an international network of opera in different forms and styles. The ENO, for example, has very strong ties the Dutch National Opera (De Nederlandse, as was). Pierre Audi, the DNO's artistic director, was once a hugely important figure in London theatre, part of the lively scene behind the Almeida Festival,. He was also connected to the ENO in its Powerhouse glory years. The Coliseum and Het Musiektheater are not so different in terms of size and the hipness of their audience. In theory, the ENO could form useful alliances with many German opera houses, although increasing anti-intellectual, anti-European trends would probably nip that in the bud.  But why not Aix or other houses?  The ENO's Magic Flute met more appreciation on its travels, as did Castor et Pollux. At the other end of the scale, the ENO has links with the Met. The Met uses the ENO to try out new productions  before they go to New York. It's pretty much standard procedure that new productions start off in relatively small house like Madrid or Lyon, so they have time to settle. The Met was obssessed with Nico Muhly and invested heavily in him, test marketing him through the ENO. It was just as well. Despite the extravagant marketing, like so many manufactured boy band sensations, Muhly didn't deliver, despite the packaged  patina of pseudo Britishness and Brittenness. But the Met carried a lot of the cost. The ENO has done relatively well out of the deal.

So the ENO doesn't tour around the UK.  That was, I believe, part of its charter, so as not to suppress smaller regional houses. Opera North used to visit London regularly at Sadler's Wells (another Lilian Bayliss project), but now it's grown too big for that small theatre. Instead, it's doing unstaged productions at the South Bank.  The Royal Opera House, for example, is expanding its reach by hosting visits from Music Theatre Wales, Scottish Opera and the like. Politicians and the Arts Council England have a vendetta against London, but the fact is that British opera houses don't operate in isolation.  The ENO has long hosted productions by other companies, like the Mariinsky. It's a perfectly reasonable source of income, even if  that stretches to hosting musicals (with costs borne by outside producers).  Indeed, I'd ideally like more inter-regional co-operation. Bringing companies into London is a good idea because the London audience is big and companies can make money. The Royal Opera House's Linbury Studio Theatre is far too small for purpose, so the Coliseum could have a much greater role to play.

Much has been said in social media this week about the ENO's contractual obligation to use the English language. When the ENO was founded, this made sense, since operas were frequently done in translation. So this cultural closed market nurtured careers like that of Charles Mackerras, whose English language  Janáček defined the ENO for many years.  However, the recording industry took off in the 1960's: everyone learned fro vinyl. CDs, DVDs and started to travel. By the time Lord Harewood died, the imperative for English had ceased to operate. Yet it would be over-simplistic to suggest that the ENO should stop doing opera in translation. Some operas, such as the recent Puccini Girl of the Golden West sound great in  English (especially in idiomatic translation). If the ENO were to switch to original languages, it would run up against the Royal Opera House with its budget for real mega stars – with which the ENO could never compete. 

Another advantage of keeping English at the ENO is that it provides a unique nurturing ground for training native English speakers. The ROH's Jette Parker Young Artists Scheme trains the best singers from all round the world. The ENO's young artists programme  benefits singers whose first language is English, giving them a unique grounding. The ENO has nurtured singers like Stuart Skelton, Roderick Williams, Roland Wood in recent years, and numerous more in the past. Nothing to be sniffed at!  It would be stupid to destroy this reservoir of expertise, which no micro mini companies can do as well on their own. Musicians congregate in London because its size and European links create opportunities that aren't easy to replicate.

It doesn't make sense for good non-English speakers to learn a part in English when they can get work elsewhere in the original language or in their own. Since there are quite a few very good English singers working regularly in Europe, it would be a good idea to attract them back to London. That would immeasurably enhance the image of British singing. 

English language opera, from Purcell to Philip Glass, has always been part of the ENO identity. Mark Anthony Turnage wouldn't be headlining at the ROH if he hadn't shot to fame via the ENO. It's also perfect for Benjamin Britten, whose idiom is closer to chamber opera than grand opera in the French and Italian sense.  Birtwistle, Benjamin and Adès can fill the main auditorium at ROH, but less obviously bankable names are a safer bet at the Coliseum, which is why it's a good choice for newer music. Brian Ferneyhough's Shadowtime premiered at the Coliseum. The problem lies not with the ENO but with audiences conditioned to flee from modern opera, hardly knowing what it means. If even a big name like Julian Anderson is met with incomprehension by critics who ought to know better, what hope has the general public?  There is an adage, that cities get the opera houses they deserve. Has London dumbed down so much that it can't support the ENO?

Please see my numerous other posts on arts policy , the ENO and also this one on Anthony Whiteorth-Jones.

Sex Worker’s Opera, Arcola Theatre - BRILLIANT critique

Thoughts on the Sex Worker’s Opera, Arcola Theatre, London, January 26-30, 2015  by Mark Bridle

Challenging assumptions about both prostitution and opera, the Sex Worker’s Opera is a polemical union of art form and real life. It’s perhaps closer to anti-opera than High Art, though anyone familiar with the stagings of Calixto Bieito’s work as a director, which mashes-up Mozart into a psychedelic vision of semi-pornography and violence, would have recognized a similarity in how opera can be deconstructed. Largely using sprechgesang as its expressionist medium, and eschewing lyricism as voices teeter on the edges of a tonal super-structure, the model is operatic Weill or Berg.
 Weill’s Die Dreigroschenoper isn’t a peripheral influence, though. That opera’s Socialist critique of a capitalist world could be said to infiltrate the libretto and narrative of the Sex Worker’s Opera. Each and every story, including those which are related on walls via projectors from global chatrooms, tell a universal tale of exploitation, of relationships between the oppressed and the oppressors and of that ultimate capitalist transaction: the exchange of money. The amoral, anti-heroic, unsentimental diaphragm of Weill’s opera coalesces neatly with the human bondage, real and implied, of the Sex Worker’s Opera so the work becomes part comedy, part satire, part political commentary, part moral outrage and part aesthetic entertainment.

Opera, of course, is an almost ideal medium to expose the hidden underbelly of prostitution. Almost as long as opera as an art form has existed, composers have drawn on its victims and anti-heroines. Verdi’s La Traviata, from 1853, scandalized audiences, less from its subject matter rather than the sympathetic portrayal of Violetta - and the fact audiences identified with her. Condemned largely by the Catholic Church (which in its hypocrisy both condemns prostitution as well as using it for its own ends) offers a neat contrast to the over-sentimentalized glitzy portrayal of prostitution in the 1990s that so drew the ire of feminists - Pretty Women. Puccini turned to prostitution twice in his operas - firstly in Manon Lescaut (1893) and finally in La Rondine (1917). Magda, the heroine of La Rondine, is in many ways the antithesis of Verdi’s Violetta: Magda relinquishes love in order to return to the profiteering of other relationships. The choices she makes are much closer to the narratives of the Sex Worker’s Opera than the dewy-eyed sentimentality that brings salvation to Violetta. Tortured, damaged bodies, unwanted pregnancies, broken relationships, fantasies and fetishes, miscommunicated dialogues - these are the everyday realities of Sex Worker’s Opera and they bring us closer to our final composer, and one of the most tragic figures in all opera - Berg’s Lulu.

 Lulu is the antithesis of every other prostitute in opera - she marries multiple times, never finds true love, assumes a number of identities, murders her second husband (but escapes imprisonment with the help of her lesbian companion, Countess Geschwitz). In Berg’s (incomplete) third act Lulu becomes a streetwalker and picks up a serial killer, Jack the Ripper. There are no happy endings for her - not even death by grief. Berg’s opera is the closest we get to Victorian Whitechapel (though it applies equally to modern day Santiago, or any other city), the existential hell of society’s hypocrisy towards the capitalist bargain, and the sexual predator and oppressor as murderer. In one narrative from the Sex Worker’s Opera a statement is read out listing the number of victims of prostitution during 2014 - just under 150 globally underlining the murderous endgame that is often the mass grave of its victims. The political polemic of the opera may skew towards a feminist critique, despite the fact that today prostitution is a universally genderless profession, but that doesn’t expiate the message of the opera that prostitution can be violent and has its own holocaust of victims. The fictional Lulu has never seemed more real when seen within the context of what the Sex Worker’s Opera challenges us to see with open eyes rather than defined prejudices. There is no room for sentimentality or passiveness in this staging (that act of passiveness challenged from the very opening with a call to riot and protest against the staging of the opera itself by the ‘mother’ of one of the sex workers.)

 The astringency of both the singing and the orchestral accompaniment works mostly to the opera’s advantage. Whilst there are conventional operatic set-pieces, such as a duet and a trio, and the sex workers themselves act as a kind of chorus, they lack conventional meaning in an operatic sense. The duet, between a client and sex worker, and which utilizes the only male singer in the cast, is distinguished by some genuinely lyrical singing - but how much better it would have been to have challenged the stereotype of the male/female client relationship if the male had been the sex worker. A trio, at the opera’s close, is accompanied by ever more violent whipping, linking bondage and vibrato in an uncommonly imaginative way.

The orchestration itself, scored for clarinet, violin, cello and piano, recalls in its instrumentation Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps and it shares with Messiaen’s chamber work a degree of vulnerability and emotional engagement. Messiaen’s piece was written in a concentration camp (and utilized what instruments he had available) and if his work is imbued with a more Catholic, harrowing sense of reflection the Sex Worker’s Opera uses the instrumentation differently. Whilst Messiaen is both more plaintive and more emotional in his use of the clarinet, for example, here it is used more as a voice to add depth to the singers’ stories, and it’s often embellished with a cruder (though no less affecting) tonality. Where Messiaen doesn’t use the clarinet for large stretches of Quatuor (the last ten minutes, for example) here it is a central performer in its own right. The orchestration seems just right, it has to be said; anything larger and it would overwhelm many of the voices. There’s a pungent resonance to much of the orchestration and one gets the impression improvisation is a key element of it.

The Sex Worker’s Opera is engaging, often funny, and raises a fundamental question about how we treat sex workers in society. I doubt it claims to scale the artistic heights of works by Verdi, Puccini and Berg but on its own terms it is a challenging and provocative production.

Marc Bridle

Monday 2 February 2015

Wolfgang Rihm Tutuguri Barbican Percussion Day

Wolfgang Rihm's Tutuguri is legend. Everyone's heard of it but not many have heard it first hand, live, because it's just too massive. Organizing a  performance must be a logistical nightmare. We've waited nearly 35 years to hear its London premiere, hosted by the Barbican Centre, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, as part of the Total Immersion Day on Percussion. The wait was worth it! Recordings don't do Tutuguri justice. You have to be present to feel the sheer physical power of the experience. Even in Rihm's vast body of extravagant, expressive work there's nothing quite like it.

Tutuguri (1980-83) is every bit as much a work of theatre as music. Even before the players entered, half the audience was taking photos of the stage. You can see  some of them in the photo above – it was quite a Light Show. The stage was laid out for a massive and very unusual orchestra.  It was crammed with desks and instruments, the front half strings, winds,  brass, a harp and piano. Invisible sounds are beamed around the auditorium by mixing desk. Four massive tam tams are placed in  upper balconies. So many different types of percussion were being used that it would take a sharp-eared specialist to identify them all. Somehow, a singer (in this case Leigh Melrose) struggles to keep on top of things, spitting out percussive single syllables, like cries of pain, until his voice cracks in exhaustion. Melrose's throat and lungs must take ages to recover. But Tutuguri is a ritual of endurance.

Rihm's  model for Tutuguri was a piece by  by Artonin Artaud (pictured) , the actor and theatre theorist whose ideas have great influence on modern theatre, film, dance and music. (Tutuguri was originally choreographed). Very briefly, he believed that communication could exist on multiple levels.  Texts don't have to be spoken, nor even rational.  In Tutuguri, the soloist and invisble choir (on tape)  utter sounds in single syllable bursts of staccato, which don't have meaning in themselves: it's up to the audience to intuit the connections themselves.  If, of course, there "is" any meaning we can deduce. Artaud was fascinated by primal states of experience that cannot be articulated - hence the animalistic grunts and piercing screams. Orchestra and singers all on the same communal level.  Rihm's use of percussion is absolutely deliberate. because percussion reflects the rhythms of the human body, heartbeats, breathing, movement.

Ritual is a means of throwing off the restrictions of normal behaviour and entering alternative realms of consciousness. When Artaud travelled to Mexico in 1936 and encountered the  Tarahumara people, he understood why they used peyote as part of ritual magic.  He'd spent most of his life in institutions where he'd been subject to ECT and chemically induced altered states. In the supposedly civilized west, shamans come in other forms.

In Tutuguri,  Rihm uses the tight formality of ritual to create a framework. Steady pulsations build up synchronicity with the involuntary rhythms of the body. At each barely imperceptible plateau, tension is released by high, piercing sounds of flutes and horns. While the emotions released by this music may be primal and inarticulate, Rihm's musical self-discipline is highly sophisticated. Interactions between different instruments are complex - at times you can almost feel the back and forth flow between  the players, as if they were engaging in a dance using sound instead of their bodies. The structure is intricate, almost maze-like, creating patterns and counter-patterns on many simultaneous levels. Thus  Tutuguri is very "sculptural", almost tactile. We can hear how the 30-year-old Rihm has absorbed the spatial awareness of Nono and Stockhausen and adapted it to large symphonic form. We can also hear how Rihm influenced a whole new generation of composers, even indirectly, like Rebecca Saunders. In Tutuguri, the music moves, like a living creature, magicked up from sound.

Eighty minutes of pulsating energy gave way to a thirty-minute interval necessitated by the vast changes on stage, which killed the intensity which had gone before.  Rihm has since learned that extravagance has its price. The final, fourth part of the piece seemed harder to comprehend. The percussionists now stood alone, doing their thing in different forms and combinations, interspersed with the crashes of the giant tam tams – very J Arthur Rank, and worryingly predictable. With Kent Nagano as conductor, the BBC SO  was led by a master who understands the form and its idiosyncrasies, and drilled the orchestra into a performance so tight and bouncy that a friend who knows Ghanaian drumming said the players of the BBC SO would have been respected there.

Tutuguri showed the BBC doing what it does best, presenting good music, done well.  It';s good that the BBC SO  does outreach educational ventures, which those who took part must have enjoyed, but a section of Steve Reich happy clapping before Tutuguri proves only that the new BBC era of non-musical targets and box ticking is intruding on core musical values.