Thursday 31 March 2016

Ollie and George Benjamin's Dream of the Song

Ollie and George: powerhouse pair! George Benjamin's Dream of the Song , given its UK premiere by Oliver Knussen and the BBCSO at the Barbican London.  Listen here on BBC Radio 3.  Benjamin's Dream of the Song starts at 1h:11. One of the perils of modern writing is the rush to instant judgement as quickly as possible even if such comment is so shallow as to be utterly meaningless. No point in rush if you have nothing to say! That might well be George Benjamin's motto. Benjamin works with the meticulous  pace of a medieval illuminator working with gold and precious powders.  And so I've tried to live with Benjamin's Dream of the Song to give it some of the care Benjamin put into it. I don't know if I'll succeed, but it's better than to try than gloss over it.  Thank goodness for the BBC's Listen again policy.

Dream of the Song is based on texts by three poets. Two of them lived in Granada, the jewel of Islamic civilzation, where education, art and philosophy were honoured.  Samuel Hanagid (993-1056) and  Solomon ibn Gabirol (d. approx 1050) were Talmudic scholars but also fluent in Arabic, for this was a time when Granada was a haven of tolerance in a Europe plagued with prejudice. Benjamin sets their poems with one by Federico García Lorca, the radical modernist  who was assassinated by fascist forces in Granada in 1936.  Songs silenced across the centuries: chances are that the "Dream" Benjamin is referring to is no reverie.

Significantly Benjamin blends and combines the poems into a seamless flow.Strange rustling bell sounds and a cry that sounds like the call of a mullah; "Naked" sings Iestyn Davies, the word broken into fragments but reiterated. An epigrammatic opening, opening out, like a window onto another vista. "The multiple troubles of man" The oboe calls out plaintively, its firm, clear sound probing outward as if searching across time itself.  In the central section, the countertenor's lines are haloed by a chorus of female voices, from the BBC Singers, intoning Lorca. the words don't really matter. In Andalusian art, images aren't representational but  myriad intricate patterns and colours. epitomized by the Palace of Alhambra.

Instead, Benjamin writes patterns of sound which serve the purpose of rhymes.  Brief images float into the foreground in typical Benjamin style "A girl in a garden" elides smoothly, to suddenly switch to terse staccato "tending her shrubs".  a transition built on pizzicato - suggesting the passage of time, perhaps, or splashing water, a concept fundamental to Andalusian metaphysical thought.  The women's voices herald a change of direction - bright, sharp and urgent. Then a brief pause, the silence almost imperceptibly interrupted by quiet tapping.   The male voice returns, singing strangely abstract semi harmony  "Written", Davies sings but in what /the word is unintelligible but the sound is  magically clean and pure, shining all the brighter against a backdrop of a murmuring horn.  "The stars....." Davies sings, and the sound seems to break off. But perhaps that is the point ; the music, the "Dream of Song" does not die with its makers.

Benjamin's Dream  of the Song is a milestone. It represents a return to the meticulous craftsmanship of his work before Into the Little Hill and Written on Skin, though the operas are distinctively Benjaminesque.  Although it's written for small orchestra, it's  ambitious  compared with some of his earlier output, utterly assured and confident.

Also on the programme, the UK premiere of Dreamscape (2012) by Gunther Schuller , who mentored Knussen in his youth.  Nontheless, Schuller's late  work reminds me a lot more of Knussen than of Schuller. It's quirky, humorous in an episodic way and worlds away from Benjamin's Dream of the Song.  Very good performances, too,  of Debussy Nocturnes and Stravinsky Symphony in Three Movements. 
photo of Geirge Benjamin courtesy Askonas Holt

Wednesday 30 March 2016

Wagner without ideas ? Parsifal, Vienna 2016

Wagner without ideas? Whatever Parsifal may or may not mean, ideas are its lifeblood, the flowing source of inspiration and thus of life. Christian Mielitz's staging of Parsifal at the Vienna State Opera is so bereft of ideas that it might as well have dispensed with the return of Parsifal in the Third Act. Maybe some minds like ideas-free opera. but why desecrate Wagner's most challenging opera?

There is a section of the opera world that resents the very word "regie" because they can't see past the English language connotations of the word. But all "Regie" means is that other people have tried to engage with what an opera might mean. There is no such thing as non-interpretation. No thinking person can read a score without considering how music, text and ideas connect. Basically, the anti-interpretation crowd don't want any ideas except their own. In other words, a kind of nihilism, though that's perhaps too big a word for that crowd. They should love this Parsifal, though, because it's an ideas-free vacuum, so sterile and diffident that no-one should be forced to think.

To be fair, though, there are stabs at ideas that don't go far enough to penetrate. Act One takes place in a fencing school, which is a fertile premise, since fencers use foils which vaguely resemble knightly swords, and wear protective padding like knights wear armour. They become anonymous behind their visors. But  that's as far as the concept goes. Fencers stand around posing a lot, then suddenly thrust and cut.  It's an art which depends on quick wits.. My father was crippled, but a champion fencer.. Unfortunately, this production doesn't get past the idea of costumes, flitting away from ideas without any concept of strategy.  Act Two is bathed in red light, the set decorated with overstuffed sofas, there for display, not for use, which says a lot more about the production than about Klingsor's infernal realm.  Act Three is pretty much black and white, in a drama where everything is as unblack and unwhite as possible.   From time to time there are smatterings of promise, such as Gurnemanz depicted with one arm exposed and wounded, like Wotan with his eye patch, but the ideas dry up, desiccated by their own inertia.

This production has been around for ever, though it was probably dead in the water from the start. Maybe it;s regularly revived because it's a money-spinner, designed for audiences who like non-challenge and non-intellect. But why Wagner?  Sorry RW, we don't want you and your conceptual thinking.   The 2016 revival doesn't have a whole lot going for it. Instead of Thielemann, we got Adam Fischer, who is OK, but won't stir waves.  The principals are good - Michael Volle, Falk Struckmann, Stephen Gould and Violetta Urmana - but more reliable than overwhelming, which is perfectly acceptable. I did enjoy Urmana's voluptuous Kundry, this time portrayed as a lady who enjoys the physical side of life without worrying too much about the metaphysical.  I also liked the choruses, with an unusual proportion of very high voices.  Maybe there's a very subtle message embedded here, which connects to the role of women in a misogynist environment, but I don't think Vienna runs that deep.  At the beginning of the 2014-2015 season  Franz Welser-Möst quit suddenly as Music Director after holding the post longer than most. A few days later, Bertrand de Billy quit, too.  Read more here. No-one was saying why but who knows ?  Maybe they care about art with ideas.

Tuesday 29 March 2016

Sexploitation and stereotypes : Anna May Wong and Li Li-hua

Is Anna May Wong a symbol of Chinese womanhood? To those in the west, perhaps. Her genius lay in her creation of a persona so stunningly original that she's stiill the defining icon of exotic beauty. Strikingly photogenic, she commanded the camera into submission. Modern supermodels look good because fashion stylists and photographers work on them. Anna May Wong was her own stylist, her art was her own image.  She has become an object of identity for many who look Chinese but whose connections with Chinese culture are minimal. In any environment where you're a minority, relating to others who might be like yourself is sensible human instinct.

Anna May Wong's persona was so compelling that the image has become self-fulfilling. Looks are a mirror on which other people project their own fantasies. instinctively channelling western fantasies. Instinctively, she knew her market, fuelling western stereotypes about the Orient. She was successful because in many ways she was more American than Chinese. She embodied the side of Grant Street where tourists thrill to the "Chinese experiece". Better that than being totally insular.  But looks are a mirror on which other people project what they want to see, not necessarily what's really inside.  Therein lies the danger.  Icons can replace reality, and sometimes that iconography can be poison.

Because she usually played herself in different costumes, Anna May Wong wasn't a great actress. Only occasionally do we get a glimpse of real feelings, such as when she flashes a look of contempt at actresses in yellowface who got better billing than she did. But that's what the public wanted, an inscrutable ouitsider. The word "alien" has sinister connotations.  Her roles rarely varied beyond fashinn-plate stylization: those eyes at once alluring and pointedly opaque. When she moved, she writhed like a snake, playing to the stereotype of Orientals (of hybrid type) whose temptations led to doom. In Piccadilly (1928), perhaps her most famous film, she plays an exotic dancer who hynoptises nightclub audiences but can't integrate into "civilized" society. The villain, of course, isn't society but an inscrutable Chinaman. In The Cheat (1915) Sessue Hayakawa played a sophisticate less dishonest than those around him, but paid the price for not being white. Read my piece on The Cheat HERE.  

Piccadilly gets admired because it features an oriental in a central role, rather bthan a bit part, but it reinforces unpleasant negative stereotypes. Thus it's more offensive than The Cheat or DW Griffith's Broken Blossoms (1919) where white people play Chinese but the message is radically anti-racist. Read my piece on Broken Blossoms HERE. There were more Asians in Hollywood than most realize, but Anna May Wong's movies were a step backward, not forward.

And Asian cinema was full of Asians. Movies were made in China from around 1909. Shanghai, then the biggest city in the world, supported a huge film industry serving a mass audience. Because art was an integral part of modernization and education, Chinese movies usually carried social comment, many of a quality equal to anything in the west.  Chinese cinema featured women of all types, heroines and victims, and ordinary women living normal lives (as far as film can be normal).   

Below a clip from Colourful  万紫千红 (1943. The director was Fang Peilin. The star was the then 18 year old  Li Li Hua (李麗華) later a megastar for Shaw Brothers Studio. Here she plays a starstruck young girl, so desperate for the good life that she gets drawn into the world of Shanghai nightlife. There are many Chinese movies which satirize and reverse cultural stereotypes, including fantasies with exotic dancing femmes fatales, like Anna May Wong played. The photo above is a still from Colourful, showing a high kicking chorus line, the women dressed in traditional Chinese robes. Also a still from the same movie where the chorus girls are dressed as Mickey Mouse. 

 But this is enough for now.  Please explore the label "Chinese movies" in the list on the right - this site is one of the main sites in English about Chinese film. 

Monday 28 March 2016

The Haunted Manor Moniuszko Straszny Dwór

Stanisław Moniuszko's Verbum nobile (1861)  on BBC Radio 3 on Thursday, but even more fun, Monciuszko' Straszny dwór (The Haunted Manor)  in a wonderful new production from Opera Narodowa (Polish National Opera)  The production was very high profile, created to mark the 150th anniversary of the opera's premiere at Teatr Wielki, Warsaw, and the 50th anniversary of the rebuilding of the theatre, largely destroyed in the 1939-45 war. Fifty years ago, Poland was still part of the Soviet bloc, so the significance of the opera had to be played down for obvious reasons. Straszny dwór was written shortly after the suppression of  the January Uprising of 1863 against Tsarist rule. Its message wasn't lost on Poolish audiences, and it was promptly banned by Russian cenors. The manor is haunted, but who are the ghosts?

In Straszny dwór an unspecified peace has been declared. Soldiers are returning home happily to their families but brothers Zbigniew (baritone) and Stefan (tenor) declare they won't let their swords rust: to stay battle ready, they won't even marry. In David Pountney's production, the brothers are seen with their comrades in an exuberant chorus line, which emphasizes the boys-only naivety of their vow. "Long live Bachelorhood!" they sing, hoping to live in isolation with their valet Maciej. But if aristocrats don't have heirs, there'd be no-one to keep the farm (or estate). The enemy might win by default.  Aristocrats who don't have heirs leave no-one to carry on their line. Aunt Cześnikowa  wants to marry them off.  They escape her by going to Kalimov, the manor in the forests, in the dead of winter. Aunt describes the haunted manor in lurid horror, but the music suggests that maybe the horror isn't quite what it seems. Zbigniew and Stefan aren't scared because the owner, Miecznik, owed their father debts: in a way, the manor is rightfully theirs.

It's New Year's Eve, when women are supposed to be able to see their future husbands by vaguely occult means.  The lawyer Damazy wants to marry Miecznik's eldest daughter, Hanna, and thus presumably inherit the estate, but Miecznik wants his girls to marry real men, dressed in rugged Polish garb. Since Damazy dresses in ludicrously foppish "foreign" costumes, it's clear what he stands for. Kalinow is shown as an art museum, dominated by huge paintings, familiar to those who know 18th and 19th century Polish painting. To help those who don't, there are helpful labels in Polish, if you can read that.  Not that it really matters, because the subjects in the painting strike noble, classical poses like denizens of ancient antiquity sternly observing the proceedings below them.

"Silence everywhere" sings Stefan, in a beautiful aria about moonlight which could come straight out of a Romantic dream. The manor clock, which has not struck for 1000 years, rings out a delicate melody of enchantment. It's a tune Stefan associates with his mother. In the middle of the night, Zbigniew and Stefan can't sleep,  envying their valet Maciej, who sleeps with a tear in his eye, though he snores so much, he makes the walls shake. It's not ghosts that are keeping them awake but the realization that they might be falling in love, and losing their delusions. They remember their parents, who shared their troubles and were stronger for being together than apart.  Another painting comes alive. Now Hanna and Jadwige (or their ancestors) sing together with Zbigniew and Stefan.

Politics aside, Straszny dwór is a deliciously funny opera, with cheery tunes and comic parts.  At dawn, Maciej  thinks the house is haunted, though it's  Damazy hiding in the clock. In a wildly camp vignette, Damazy tries to scare the brothers with a tale of cursed spirits. An ancestor steps out of  a painting. Have  Miecznik's ancestors come back to life. His daughters or Hanna and  Jadwiga have inherited their forebears' formidable personalities.  Pondering the brothers' ideas on being single, ancestress (or Hanna) sings "You don't know Polish women!". "A soldier's wife does not show fear", she sings, in a series of extreme trills ferocious and funny at the same time, "with a sign of the Cross, she prays for his victory'. To make the point further, the ladies in Kalinow are dressed in white, the footmen in red.

In the morning, Miecznik appears. Now we know why his title is "Swordbearer" though he didn't need to flourish his sword around before, when he was disguised as provincial gentry. The orchestra strikes up a proud mazurka , the chorus return, singing with confident glee. Pountney's set explodes in vivid colour. This staging is magical - darkness is driven away by bright light, dancers in red and white fill the stage,  Miecznik is revealed as a medieval Polish prince. Miecznik explains that his ancestor had so many lovely daughters that jealous neighbours spread the rumour.that the manor was haunted. History in a nutshell. But those who are brave defy the curse. Stefan marries Hanna and Zbigniew marries Jadwige. The manor is no longer haunted but restored to its rightful glory. Watch the opera HERE til 18 May. 
Plenty of other related posts on similar subkjects, see lists at the right column. Szymanowski is my main man (I don;t write |Chopin)

Sunday 27 March 2016

Easter Eggs on the Western Front 1916

Hunting for Easter Eggs 100 years ago.  Below Easter in Flanders 1915. Look at the Staffies !

Saturday 26 March 2016

Mahler, silence, creativity and Holy Saturday

Today is Holy Saturday, the quiet day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. It gets overlooked because nothing seems to be happening. Quite the contrary. Holy Saturday functions  as a  Luftpause, like silence after the first movement  in Mahler's Second Symphony, and between the first and second parts of Mahler's Symphony no 8.  Ignore the silences and lose the whole meaning of the symphonies. It's hard to understand the value of silence in a world obsessed with dominant ego, the "Triumph of the Will" mentality in which blitz and bluff mean more than genuine content.  Silence  cleanses the mind and soul from the toxic pollution of white noise and babble inflicted on us like a barrage 24/7. Silence, like deep meditation, draws us inwards. It's not an easy option, which is why it drives empty vessels nuts.  The cessation of meaningless chatter is hard work, as those who practice it will attest, be they Buddhist, Christian, Quaker or whatever.

The first movement of Mahler's Symphony no 2, was inspired in part by the funeral of Hans von Bülow, who Mahler venerated. Hence the deliberate pace, like a processional, moving with purpose. Snatches of melody appear, like memories of happier times, the destination is inevitable. Frequently I cite Haitink, who has taken this movement so slowly that his orchestras can barely hold the line. But that's an insight: the body is shutting down, cooling down, heading towards obliteration. The symphony isn't called "the Resurrection" for nothing, though Mahler's theology, like Wagner's,  is freely adapted. Jesus dies, but it's not Game Over for mankind. Like grass grows again in Spring, ewig, ewig, ewig........

Like any mortal, Jesus suffered, died and was buried. This is central to Christian belief because it connects mankind and God.  It's fundamental that Jesus didn't neatly pop from one plane of existence to another without having shared the sufferings of the world. No one's ever come back from death to confirm it, but the theory is that the soul exists in limbo for a while before it heads off to the next life. Consider Elgar's Dream of Gerontius (1902) with its theologically legit text, by Cardinal Newman, where the two parts are separate, transition emphasized in the music. Thus the Purgatorio in Mahler's Symphony no 10  where the delicate first movement is followed by a scherzo where swaggering grotesques, flattened horns, shrill trumpets, echo the marches of death in earlier symphonies. Whatever it means, it's a bridge towards the Allegro Pesante, a stage in the passage of ideas. For me, the Purgatorio echoes the Wunderhorn song Das irdisches Leben: a small, plaintive cry amid larger, more dominant forces., a Luftpause with sound, so to speak.

Only after this transition has taken place can the souls progress.  The duration of the pause in Mahler Second is less critical than the fact that it is observed long enough for it to be respected for what it is.   It's not a time for letting latecomers swarm in, disturbing the moment for others, though latecomers (and those who let them in) probably don't mean to be disruptive. But what excuse is there for sticking an interval between the two parts of Mahler's Symphony no 8.? The symphony has been performed whole for a hundred years, so singers and audiences can manage fine.. In any case, the soloists have less to sing than they might in an opera and there's that long non-vocal section in the second part for them to recover.

Mahler's Symphony no 8 is a strange beast, a hybrid  that defies conventional form.  The first part used a medieval Latin hymn attributed to  Rabanus, Archbishop of Mainz (c780-856) which describes how Jesus's disciples wondered what would happen to them since Jesus had gone on ahead.  In the Acts of the Apostles, the Holy Spirit descended from heaven upon them in the form of holy flames, inspiring them to go forth into the world, spreading the Gospels.

The Pentecost is thus a metaphor for divine inspiration and, by extension, the mission embraced by a truly original, creative artist.  "Veni, Creator spiritus" connects the spirit of creation with the Spirit of the Creator.   Thus "Accende lumen sensibus", the concept of light, rising upwards linking to heaven, illuminating those it touches, cleansing them of ego, selfishness and petty concerns.  Truly original creativity, like meditative prayer, comes when the pollution of toxic detritus is expunged.  Goethe's anchorites live in humble isolation, communing only with  God.  Their art isn't Triumph of the Will bluster. Some would die like Jesus did.  Goethe also alludes to the Eternal Feminine, and by implication the connection between women and redemption. It's highly significant that, at the Pentecost, the Virgin Mary and other female disciples were present.  The two parts of Mahler's Eighth connect on very deep levels indeed.  So the silence between the two parts of the symphony serves a powerful purpose, marking spiritual transformation. Ideally, listeners should sit and reflect, not rush out to the bar, serving Mammon not the soul, mindlessly chattering not looking inwards.

Thursday 24 March 2016

Solutions for the ENO? Vision not pettiness

Recrimination is like masturbation. It's all very well, but not ultimately  productive. Myopia has  marred too much of the debate about the future of the ENO: small minds focusing on small issues, unwilling or unable to handle wider issues.  The ENO deserves better.  So read Rupert Christiansen's latest on the ENO.  It's worrying when you find  common ground with Rupert, though in person, he's always  nice to me. But then, so is David Mellor. Agree or disagree, the article's better than the woefully vacuous cut-and-paste that usually passes for opinion. 

So whither the ENO? The ENO plays a vital role in keeping the cultural ecology in this country healthy. Many people, for reasons of their own, would be glad to see it go, but the ENO's demise will damage the system long term. The fact is, the arts market is global, and will become increasingly more so with technological change.  Like it or not that means London.  London is economically, demographically, historically where it's at.  Spreading resources might serve political agendas, but that's not how things work in the real world.  Shakespeare didn't stay in Stratford.  Communal arts need a focused community in order to thrive. Micro-mini organizations just can't provide the right critical mass.  It's wiser to concentrate resources for maximum impact, rather than to water things down by multiplication.

Politicians and their stooges with their pork-barrel values cannot comprehend that you can't grow culture by diktat. The arts are not a form of social engineering. The arts are no panacea for inequality, deprivation and a poor education system. If schools could operate properly, arts organizations shouldn't need to do their job for them. Politicians love the word "accessibility" because it throws blame on the arts and diverts attention from real problems  elsewhere.

What then are the options for the ENO? The absolute fundamental is that it's an arts organization whose primary purpose is to deliver artistic excellence. And that it does, give or take inevitable misses among hits. The nature of art is risk and innovation. That was the message of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg which the ENO produced last year in a remarkably effective translation (Read my review HERE).  So innovative work isn't good box office? Think The Mastersinger, Satyagraha, Benevenuto Cellini. Sadly, there are audiences who'd prefer safe, semi-amateur work. There were some who thought that Pagliacci at the ROH should have dispensed with the irony Leoncavallo so specifically highlighted in the Prologue. We'd all become clowns to please that mob. Real success in the arts cannot be measured by sales alone.  What the ENO does best is what it should be doing. Suits may whine, but making money for the sake of making money is not a good way to go.  In the current situation, I'm not sure that mounting more productions is an option.  Maybe things like Sweeney Todd can pay the bills, but they shouldn't become what the ENO stands for.

This is where the ENO stands to make most money, by spreading costs and risks and working with other opera companies and houses, not only in the UK but abroad. It's been doing this for years, making arrangements with the Met, with Amsterdam and so on.  This is how the business works and why it is done. It's where attention should focus, not on gimmicks like a café.  The ENO can't afford to go out of town itself, but it can make money by giving other houses a  home in London and give them higher profiles, and profits to the benefit of all.  At a stroke that would integrate London with other parts of the country, like Wales, the North and Scotland. It would blow out of the water the case for diverting funds from London. The case is not regions versus London, but regions and London working together.   Building up the ENO both in terms of production and in nurturing creativity would reinforce Britain's credibility as a centre for artistic excellence in an increasingly competitive global market.

Besides, sales percentages would look better if there weren't so many seats to sell. The answer is not, however, moving to smaller premises.  The Coliseum is the finest, biggest theatre in the best possible position in the West End.  If the ENO had to move, it would lose the immense benefits of being so central, which would further cut into box office. It would also have to pay commercial rents elsewhere instead of enjoying its current "rent protection" status, which would again rip apart its finances. So why the pressure to leave the Coliseum?  Changing the capacity percentage means nothing if the company loses out big time.  The sad fact is that the Coliseum is a magnet for those who'd like it turned over to commercial  interests, even though it was financed by public money.  One can understand tycoons salivating, but opera fans shouldn't be fooled. The ENO could collapse under the double whammy of losing its prime position and facing higher overheads. Better I think to look for other ways of using the building than as a café, such as closing the uppermost levels and hiring them out for other use.

The onus, therefore, isn't thinking small but thinking big.  The ENO is in a unique position because it serves an English-speaking market. English is a world language, so the marketing possibilities are enormous.  Nowadays, anyone can click onto the network whether they're in Huddersfield or Hokkaido. Salford or Seoul. They'll go where there's something compelling to listen to, not because it pleases local politicians.  Moreover, because the ENO has a commitment to the English language, it could use that to its advantage by promoting work in English. Already it has a reputation for Britten, Turnage,  Glass and Adams, which it could build on. It's brought other British repertoire to the fore, like Vaughan Williams's Riders to the Sea and the wonderful Pilgrim's Progress (see my review HERE)   Supporting modern British repertoire is also vitally important.  There is good new work in English out there, but unfortunately a public and a press that doesn't know or care.  Imagine if the ENO had nabbed George Benjamin's Written on Skin?

There's also no reason the ENO couldn't do other British repertoire like plays or concerts, which don't cost so much to mount but would draw income.  That would make the most of being so close to Trafalgar Square and St Martins in the Fields, where people go for music already.  to corner the tourist market, whi8chn iusn't just international but also British.   What the ENO really needs is vision, not suits and bean counting. But it can't do vision unless it gets support from Arts Council England, from the government and from the otherwise petty-minded public.

Wednesday 23 March 2016

Exciting Three Choirs Festival Gloucester 2016

Gloucester Cathedral hosts the 2016 Three Choirs Festival. Click here for my review of Mahler Symphony no 8.  "The Holy City and the Heavenly Kingdom" is the theme of the opening concert on 23rd July, a pairing  of Parry's Jerusalem with Elgar's The Kingdom. Especially exciting because this Jerusalem won't be the familiar version but Parry's original, uncovered a few years ago by Parry specialist Jeremy Dibble, whose 1992  biography restored Parry's true status. By setting the first verse for a single singer, Parry's setting emphasizes the provocative nature of Blake's conception. "And did those feet in ancient time walk upon England's mountains green?".  In the full choral version, we get so carried away by crowd enthusiasm that we don't question. In Parry's version, however, Blake's irony is made more clear.  And was Jerusalem builded here, among these dark Satanic Mills?" Bluntly, the answer is "No" So much for simplistic certainties. We may not get the glorious flourishes of Elgar's orchestration, but we do get an insight into Parry. Please read my piece on Jerusalem HERE

The Three Choirs Festival, though, is Elgar territory par excellence  so devotees will be out in force for Elgar's The Kingdom, which follows on from The Apostles  and would have culminated in a piece about the Last Judgement, which was never completed. It helps to imagine it, though, because it puts the Kingdom into context. The apostles are about to embark on their journey, a mission which still continues 2000 years later. For all the grandeur and vast forces,  the piece is humble though assertive. The apostles are ordinary men serving a higher cause.  This will be a showcase for the magnificent Three Choirs Festival Chorus, probably the finest flowering of the whole British choral tradition. Adrian Partington will conduct The Kingdom  with the Three Festivals Chorus, the Philharmonia Orchestra and soloists.  Read  HERE about The Kingdom at the Proms with Andrew Davis. and  HERE about The Apostles at the Three Choirs in Worcester in 2014. In the TV broadcast of the BBC Proms The Kingdom, I'm on screen a lot, a tiny figure dressed in white in the stalls near the choirs, participating in spirit.

 Although members of the three constituent cathedral choirs have been meeting annually since around 1719, the Three Choirs Festival is infinitely more than about music. It's a communal celebration of those who believe in the spiritual ideals of fellowship. Every performance starts with prayer, there's evensong each evening and the eucharist is celebrated on Sunday. Indeed, for many, singing is a form of prayer. "For God is in all things". Although I am not C of E - neither was Elgar - one of the things I love about the Three Choirs Festival is how genuinely nice  the people are. The staff could not be more helpful, and audience members welcome you like you belong.   
More landmarks of the choral  tradition follow: Mendelssohn's Elijah on Monday 25th, conducted by Peter Nardone, Berlioz Grand Messe des morts on Wednesday 27th conducted by Edward Gardner. On Friday 29th, Rossini Petite Messes solonnelle, 11,am conducted by Geraint Bowen,  A fascinating juxtaposition that evening with  "Carmina and Enigma"  Carl Orff  Carmina Burana plus Elgar Enigma Variations and on Saturday 30th,  Mahler  Symphony No 8, conducted by Adrian Partington.  

The Three Choirs Festival is also a celebration of British music and composers.  In the Cathedral on Tuesday 26th "England's Glory", music by Vaughan Williams and Butterworth, plus numerous concerts in other venues featuring composers like Gurney, Finzi, Howells, Ireland, and others, plus talks thereon. Most interesting, for me, the concert on Sunday afternoon in Cirencester which features Howells's Requiem and Philip Lancaster's new work War Passion.  As always with the Three Choirs plenty of talks on history, the Three Choirs heritage, Shakespeare (Hamlet this year), plus movies and the society lunches. For more details,  HERE IS THE FESTIVAL BOOKLET

Tuesday 22 March 2016

Whither Wigglesworth? ENO Director quits

Mark Wigglesworth has resigned as Music Director at the ENO. It's regrettable, but shouldn't be a shock. Wiggleworth's appointment was a surprise, too, when it was first announced in January last year. He was a catch for the ENO since he's a good conductor, charismatic and, to put it delicately, a personality. a strong person to have around at a time of crisis. I had high hopes. I'm shattered, but not surprised. Wigglesworth isn't a guy to take crap. Read HERE my latest pice Solutions for the ENO ? Vision not pettiness  making suggestions for marketing the ENO in the context of national and international global market.  That's where the money lies, niot in cutting staff.

At the time, though, Rupert Christiansen said "the appointment of Wigglesworth will raise eyebrows in the business........ he comes marked with a chequered track record. Ever since he appeared on the musical scene as a boy wonder and was appointed Associate Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1991 at the tender age of 27, he has been dogged by accusations that he is explosively difficult to work with: the evidence includes the abrupt termination of his relationship with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, as well as a musical directorship of La Monnaie in Brussels which lasted only months. He has never “gone steady” with any other major operatic organisation.

For a change Rupert and I  agreed. We've both been around a while. At the time I wrote"Wigglesworth gets very good jobs but doesn't necessarily conform. Being emollient is part of a conductor's job description. In fact there are several conductors who are better at pleasing benefactors and corporate interests than at making music..... Maybe Mark Wigglesworth is exactly what the ENO needs: someone who will speak his mind at a time when the ENO is being bullied into becoming bland to please a section of the public who don't really like opera, music, stagecraft or indeed anything that challenges them........In the wild game of conductor chess, who knows who will be moving where and when? Whatever happens, the next few years at the ENO are not going to be boring."

Since the start of the season in September, the ENO has been building up Wigglesworth's profile because he's good publicity.  He was an asset and they needed to keep him happy. So his departure will be construed as a major blow against,the ENOBut let's put this into,perspective.

No doubt some in the media will tut-tut cleverly and find a way to blame the ENO for its own demise. But situations like these are never the fault of any one individual. Basically, we don't really know for sure who is behind what and why, though I'm pretty sure things are not what they seem. Remember how Martyn Rose slammed John Berry for "being the problem". Berry's been gone for ages. But it's much easier for the media to churn out stale old mantras than to analyze the situation.  The ENO is not facing a  crisis because of any one individual, or group but because its funding has been savagely cut by Arts Council England.  Blaming the Board is a bit pointless when it has no room to manouvre.

A lot of people would have a lot to gain if the ENO were to collapse,  and its assets, such as the Coliseum, were stripped. But that's myopic. In the long term, the ENO is a vital part of the industry for the whole of Britain, as well as beyond.  When will the media wake up?

Please see my numerous articles on the ENO, on arts policy in this country and more, specifically:

ENO Radical Rethink:
|The ENO Chorus and the Death of 1000 Cuts
The Case for a Concert Hall in London - Wider Perspectives

For Belgium : Alphons Diepenbrock Die Nacht

For Belgium.  Alphons Diepenbrock (1862-1921) Die Nacht (1911) to a poem by Hölderlin, conducted by Bernard Haitink, soloist Janet Baker

My translation, slightly adapted for today's situation. Hölderlin is hard to translate at the best of times. The breaks above representing Diepenbrock's  setting of the poem. Note how Diepenbrock describes the violin, the traverse of the mood and the crowing cocks

The city is quiet, all around. The lights in the streets have gone dark.
Vehicles rush past, torches aflame.
The joys of the day forgotten, people go home,
Winners and losers, a thoughtful head wonders,
grateful for the day's work.
The market place lies empty, no grapes, no flowers, bereft of human activity.

But a lute (violin) sings from a
shining, amazed, garden far away. 
Perhaps the player is someone who loves,
 or some lonely person is thinking of lost friends
and of childhood days past and of fountains
ever-flowing and fresh, splashing onto beds of flowers,

In the dimming light, bells are heard, ringing  the numbers of the hours,
 like the Guardian of the Night.

Now comes a breeze, over the hilltops and groves.
Look !  the moon, a reverse image of our world, creeps
and the night falls full of stars : indifferent to our worldLy cares
Shining,  astonishing, the moon traverses the skies above mankind..
Yet, in the mountains beyond the city, cocks are crowing with the rising dawn.

Monday 21 March 2016

Both innovators - Harnoncourt and Boulez

Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Pierre Boulez  each in their own different ways, transformed  performance practice, and, indeed, the whole way music is approached in modern Europe.  It wasn't simply a question of repertoire. Both conducted Janáček and Bruckner, for example, but drawing comparison between their recordings is just plain stupid. Good conductors find something to say about the music they engage with. That's why we keep listening, again and again, learning from the different approaches of conductors who care enough about the music to keep uncovering what lies within.   Even within the worlds of "modern" and "historically informed", the range of difference between conductors (and composers) is so great as to make direct comparison irrelevant.

To appreciate the links between Boulez and Harnoncourt, we need to escape the straitjackets of terminology and focus instead on the deeper philosophy that motivated both conductors.

Both began their careers in an era when technology changed the market for serious music.  Within a very short time, the recording industry reshaped public perceptions.  Music became a standardized "consumer product", where what counted was how things were sold. Any product designed for the mass market has to appeal to the maximum possible audience. This changes the balance from creative development to "what the buyer expects".  Not the same thing.

Harnoncourt reacted against this by rethinking instruments and the physicality of sound.  Historically informed practice gets a bad reputation because many assume that it's fetish. But as someone said, "We don't eat baroque food". We can't be as baroque people were, so perfect authenticity just isn't possible.  But we can rethink and learn.  It's a myth that smaller ensembles are somehow "weaker". Consider the audacity and adventure of the Renaissance, of the Age of Discoveries, of the Reformation and Counter-Reformastion, and of Louis XIV, whose vision wasn't fettered by petty concerns.  The dominance of 19th century industrial-era values are not the only way to go. In fact, the Romantic Revolution and the changes that followed was far more radical than some realize.  History doesn't stay frozen. Neither Harnoncourt nor Boulez were rebelling per se, but processing the concepts of innovation that have always been behind genuine creativity. It's significant that both Harnoncourt and Boulez were hated by some in their profession precisely because they didn't play the game.Hence the nasty myths that circulate about them being "dangerous".

Ironically, the use of period instruments is a red herring.  It's not so much what you're playing with, as why.  What really counts is fidelity to the composer and what might have been behind his work. Modern music played on modern  instruments reflects this fundamental fidelity.

Coming of age during the war, when performances were limited, and recordings relatively rare, Boulez went back to source, learning directly from scores.  Like Harnoncourt, he was thinking afresh.  The silly myths about him as demon do not  tally with reality. He was exceptionally erudite, with a strong grounding in philosophy, literature and music history and knew the music of the past, even if he didn't conduct or record much. It was enough for him that others were doing that. Intellectually inquisitive, he liked exploring fairly uncharted territory, hence his fascination with Debussy, Schoenberg, Stravinsky and the twentieth century.  Hans Rosbaud knew what he was doing when he persuaded Boulez to start a second career as conductor. Boulez saw himself primarily as a composer, and said that shaped the way he conducted.  Because he had such respect , he was not an "interventionist" nor imposing his ego.  All performance involves interpretation, but interpretation should be based on reasoned understanding.  Boulez's passions were white hot, all the more intense because he didn't do things for show. 

What Harnoncourt and Boulez had in common was a fundamental respect for music, and for the composers they conducted.  Both had uncompromising integrity. Neither courted the popular market. To them, the idea of music as "consumer product" was anathema.  Instead they cultivated excellence, pursuing the highest possible standards. It's not for nothing both created their own orchestras, amd frequently worked with smaller ensembles where every individual musician was part of the creative process. And they weren't alone. Think Claudio Abbado, with whom Boulez worked closely, and of William Christie, who shared Harnoncourt's values but with a very different style. Strong personalities with distinctive styles but not corporate market-driven egotists.  Perhaps that's why there's such variety in modern European music. Maybe not as much as could be, since ultimately the business has to deal with economic and social realities. But without people like Harnoncourt, Boulez and those with their lively, open minds, we'd be a whole lot worse off.

Pleaseuse the labels below to read my numerous posts on Harnoncourt, Boulez , baroque and modern music

Saturday 19 March 2016

Good Fortune of the Ting Clan

Folklore meets cinema and traditional ways meet modernity in a liitle-known but well-crafted Cantonese movie from 1951 丁財兩旺 Good Fortune of the Ting Clan. It's comedy but, as with most good Chinese film,works as social commentary. Sixty five years after its release, it's a window onto the past the younger generation might not know.  Worth a closer look !   In a country village a woman gives birth to quadruplets ! All are "fat and white" denoting health. The father weeps, because they already have five other children and can't afford another 4. Meanwhile, the father's simpleton brother comes in and announces that their pig has delivered a litter of 12. In folklore, multiple children signify good fortune. Will there be good fortune for these peasants after all ?

Meanwhile, far away in the big city, a rich man's wife prays to the Buddha.  She doesn't have children and her husband has taken on two gold-digger concubines, who don't have children either. Rich man reads in the newspapers about the quads. They are "Tung Heung" ie, they come from his native village, and his clan, so effectively by custom they're "family". So the rich couple go back home to the countryside, and adopt the poor couple's eldest son Sai Ngau (Little Ox), a typical old-fashioned country nickname. Poor mother rebels against husband but the kid is gone. Little Ox gets a "proper" name, Ka Keung, and grows up in luxury in the city.He goes  to upper middle school and comes back a gentleman.  He brings great happiness to rich Mr and |Mrs Ting, who are reconciled, the concubines banished.  His natural mother, however,  has never forgiven his father for giving him away, so Dad and simpleton uncle go off to the city, where the rich couple welcome them as family. It's an example of the extended family of a clan with the same name and origins, of intra clan adoption and the role of women, both wives are assertive personalities, not meek .

Cue for an extended sequence in which the country bumpkins discover modern life. Horrified by the cost of a rickshaw they think they can pay less by riding "third class" by sitting on the step not the chair. The poor Tings in their country rags have brought chickens as gifts. The chickens run round the rich Tings' palatial mansion. The poor Tings bounce on upholstered sofas, and are shocked by big beds. They cover the lamps because they don't know how to switch them off. Next morning, they're up at dawn, like country folk, while the rest of the house is still asleep. They panic because doors aren't shut by latches, but by strange devices we recognize as doorknobs. They discover the bathroom. "We could keep fish in that ", says one of them seeing the bathtub. The brothers try to lift the sink off the wall, as if it were a basin.  Water comes out of taps ! Rich Ting takes Poor Ting to the office. Untranslatable discussion of business terms and social protocols.  

The Tings meet the Big Boss and Miss Cheung Meyling,  a nightclub singer, who fancies handsome young Ka Keung. Miss Cheung sends a message to "That Mr Ting sitting next to Yuk Hwa" (Ka Keung's girlfriend and the secretary in his father's office), not realizing that the bumpkin beside the girl is  also a Mr Ting. Assignation goes wrong. She then concocts a plan to get Ka Keung to spend the day with her so he has to leave the office, where he's in charge while Rich Ting has gone abroad.   Poor Ding is expected to take over but he's illiterate. When he's asked to sign something, his brother says "Just mark a number ten" says his brother, (number 10 written in Chinese like a cross.)

More misunderstandings.  Poor Ting thinks Miss Cheung  fancies him but she's using him to get close to Ka Keung (not realizing their real relationship). There's a wonderful scene in which glamorous Miss Cheung takes the Tings dancing in her nightclub. Her bare shoulders would have been shocking to real country bumpkins, but they join merrily in the fun.  In real life the actress who plays her was a well-known singer.  Poor Mr Ting sings along too : he was played by Yee Chau Sing, a character actor with, I think, some training as a singer, which wasn't uncommon then.  Miss Cheung is touched by the simplicity of the brothers because .they don't treat her as a pariah for being a nightclub singer. Then Poor Mrs Ting turns up with her 8 remaining kids, all screaming "Daddy".

Rich Mr Ting and wife return from abroad and come across the scene. Poor Mrs Ting sees Ka Keung and says "That's my Little Ox!"  Ka Keung, who didn't know he was adopted is in for a shock. Rich Mr Ting explains and tells Ka Keung to acknowledge his birth parents and his whole bunch of siblings.  "How can you abandon your family?" he cries at his natural father. Then he announces he will marry Yuk Hwa, his schoolmate, and go back to the countryside to educate the poor  The rich Tings are proud of him. The poor Tings are reunited, and Miss Cheung announces she'll marry Poor Ting's good-natured brother Ah Choy.  So good fortune for the Ting clan all round.!

Friday 18 March 2016

Not Finzi for Beginners - Introit, Collon, Aurora Orchestra

This new recording of works by Gerald Finzi is not "Finzi for Beginners". Its virtues will be lost on those who don't actually know Finzi or what he stood for.  Finzi fans, though, will "get it", because it  shows how the composer's  creative legacy continues to live on. Anyone can listen to the standard versions of Finzi's work. This disc hows how Finzi inspires musicians who respond and engage with his music, extending performance possibilities. It's not for nothing that the recording was made possible thanks to the generous support of the Finzi Trust.

First surprise : the Amen from Finzi's Lo the Full,  Final Sacrifice Op 28.with no organ and no voices!  Of course nothing matches the glorious wash of colour with which Finzi gilds the word "Amen", but in Paul Mealor's orchestration for strings and alto saxophone we hear the underlying melody. Since Mealor composes mainly choral music , this is an insight.. This "Amen" sounds like a prayer.  In Mike Sheppard's orchestration of The Salutation,  Dies Natalis Op 8/5, the voice part is replaced by alto saxophone (Amy Dickson), making the listener appreciate just how magical the human voice can be. The instrument just isn't quite as flexible, but we all know the words: this is a chance to relax and savour.  In Who is Sylvia ? Sheppard substitutes horn ( Nicolas Fleury)  for voice. The line is more primitive, reminding me of the kind of horns Shakespeare might have been familiar with.  The strings extend the palette.

Most successful are the orchestrations of piano song, such as Rollicum-Rorum and To Lizbie Brown , Fear No More the Heat of the Sun and Come away, come away Death. We may lose the perfection of the originals, but we gain an understanding of how they work.  Finzi loved the poetry of James Elroy Flecker, and set his To a Poet a Thousand Years Hence in which the poet imagines his successors far into the future. It didn't matter what they did, as long as they shared his reverence for art. As I listened to this recording, the final stanza of the poem rang true:
"Since I can never see your face,
And never shake you by the hand,
I send my soul through time and space
To greet you. You will understand.

Nicholas Collon and the Aurora Orchestra also do "straight" Finzi - the Three Soliloquies from Love's Labour Lost, the Intrada from Dies Natalis Prelude Op 25,  Romance Op 11 , A Severn Rhapsody and a very lovely Eclogue, where Thomas Gould's violin soars evocatively over the orchestra. At the heart of this recording is Finzi's Introit in F major, Op 6 for violin and small orchestra. Gould's playing is plaintive yet very moving. An Introit is an antiphon sung by a choir as the priest approaches the altar at the beginning of the ceremony . Hence the gentle but firm processional nature of the piece and the rapture of the violin part (Thomas Gould again)  Perhaps this recording isn't "Finzi for Beginners" but it's still a good introduction for those who approach Finzi with respect. 

ENO Chorus - latest news

The ENO has struck a deal with Equity whereby the ENO Chorus will be employed on nine-month contracts August to April inclusive. It's not an ideal solution for many obvious reasons - how are the chorus members going to afford living in London without incomes? In theory, they will have first right of refusal should the ENO  create other work during the summer, butt hat's not guaranteed. Still, what choice do either the ENO or Equity have? The cuts are happening not because the ENO board wants them but because the company's budget was slashed by the Arts Council England, for reasons still not entirely transparent.  Cuts are apparently being made in  executive salaries, and management positions aren't being filled. The problem doesn't lie with Cressida Pollock, or with the Board of the ENO, but with the punitive loss of funding. Current arts policy in this country simply does not recognize the importance of the arts in the economy or how the ENO is integrated into the system.

Will the ENO die a Death of 1000 Cuts? Are the cuts to the Chorus just part of a wider strategy? Maybe some would prefer micro mini companies and semi-amateur performance, sharing the goodies round rather than concentrating them where they're most effective. Please read my articles:

|The ENO Chorus and the Death of 1000 Cuts
The Case for a Concert Hall in London - Wider Perspectives

Thursday 17 March 2016

François-Xavier Roth LSO Ligeti Berio Barbican

At the Barbican Hall, London, François-Xavier Roth conducted the London Symphony Orchestra. With Roth, always expect the unexpected.  Those who think he's like any other conductor don't understand him at all. Appropriately, he headed the LSO Futures project which involves much more than concerts but offers an in-depth immersion into the process through which orchestras and composers work together to bring performance to life. Roth's theme was the way the concept of symphony has adapted and transformed by contrasting two pillars of modern music, György Ligeti's Atmosphères with Luciano Berio's Sinfonia, 

It's hard to believe that Ligeti's Atmosphères was written 55 years ago, for it still sounds shockingly fresh. Schoenberg horrified audiences in 1908 when he included two movements for voice in his String Quartet no 2, the second of which, Entrückung, floats between keys, evoking the other-worldly, mystical rapture Stefan George described in his poem. The famous first line runs  "Ich fühle luft von anderem planeten." but its last strophe is perhaps even more significant : "In einem meer kristallnen glanzes schwimme-- Ich bin ein funke nur vom heiligen feuer -  Ich bin ein dröhnen nur der heiligen stimme." (In a sea of crystal clarity, I swim, I am only a spark of that Holy Fire, I am only a whisper of the Holy Voice).   I quote at length because this illustrates the eternal search which inspires good artists to seek new frontiers and original means of expression.

Roth may not have included Schoenberg in this concert (with a full orchestra, not chamber ensemble) but Schoenberg's innovative spirit hovers over Ligeti's  Atmosphères. like an invisible guiding spirit.  In  Atmosphères Ligeti dispenses with conventional pitch and form, creating instead ethereal "atmospheres", planes of sound where pitch seems to disintegrate,  The long, reverberating opening chord gives way to other planes.   What form there is, is created by subtle changes of direction and density. Long hollow chords which seem to move from some extraterrestial plane, heralding a rumble from which other planes of sound arise. Low brass pulsates, and the strings shimmer, like rays of light stretching outwards,sublimated into silence.  Ligeti's  Atmosphères. holds a special place in Roth's heart. It was premiered by Hans Rosbaud, who created the SW German Radio Symphony Orchestra of which  Roth is Chief Conductor, the orchestra now sadly doomedRead HERE about how Roth protested in mega high profile about the demise of the orchestra and its pioneering principles 

Berrio's Sinfonia with its concepts of confluence as form furthers George's mystical vision, that so inspired Schoenberg : Ich bin ein dröhnen nur der heiligen stimme.  The artist channels something greater than himself. Hence the idea of water, of a flowing river broadening until it reaches the ocean,. We are right back swimming in George's "Kristallen Meer"   And, to paraphrase a line from Sinfonia, "The spirit of Schoenberg hangs in the cool, clean air". .I've written many times  about the synthesis and innovation in Berio's Sinfonia - please READ MORE HERE and HERE

There is so much in Sinfonia,  so many directions and elusive cell-like fragments, it's fundamental to respect what Boulez called "trajectory", that is. direction and purpose. This performance was wonderfully taut and vigorous, rather like the fish leaping around while St Antonius preaches. They represent a powerful life force that can't be contained by sermons. Roth, the LSO and Synergy Vocals interact like chamber performers, responding to each other, while propelling the music forward. Words emerge like signposts : "Keep going, keep going" and later "Stop!" but the music propels ever forward.  Thunderbolt ostinato, screams of protest. Berio  also incorporates different levels of reality, such as the mock emcee naming the performers of the night: this part of the score always varies.  Sounds seem to clear, just as in passages of Ligeti's  Atmosphères which is specifically named and cited, but this is  by no means the end. Pitches hover and sounds rise upwards. In this performance Roth and his forces seem to create the aural image of an aircraft engine readying for takeoff, an absolutely appropriate metaphor for the way the sounds levitate. Yet here was joyous, dance-like back and forth liveliness. Quelques contradictions, as a voice called out.  Fragments of words are lobbed like tennis balls between singers : the vocal balance here so tight that it was easy to spot the different timbres. 

In between these two cornerstons of modern music any other music would inevitably pale.  Elizabeth Ogonek's Sleep and Unrememberance is based on a poem by a Polish poet, written as she confronted deathOgonek develops an idea thatb time and space can be compressed, and that perhaps, ultimately what we cling to as important might be only a dream. It's a big, ambitious piece, resplendent with glossy textures and broad sweeps of sound, highlighted by eddies and flurries for contrast.  I kept thinking how successful it would be in Los Angeles, probably because of its shiny polish, but also because it reminded me of Esa-Pekka Salonen or Thomas AdèsOgonek was a member of the LSO's Panufnik scheme, through which young composers are nurtured in memory of Andrzej Panufnik, whose influence on British music thus lives on. 

Wednesday 16 March 2016

Boris Godunov REVIEW Royal Opera House

Mussorgsky Boris Gudonov at the Royal Opera House with Bryn Terfel. Here is a link to Claire Seymour's review in Opera Today, the most detailed and perceptive of all.

"Terfel’s Boris is no histrionic monster. And if, initially, he seems to hold something in reserve emotionally, this later seems to be part of a carefully judged slow-release of growing torment, which builds unstoppably to tragic confrontation and catharsis. Terfel finds the man beneath the stateliness; this is a father whose love for his children is tactile, intense and unwavering. He trades the simple attire of a boyar for the glittering glamour of his creme and gold coronation robes, but at the close Boris is a dishevelled, pitiful figure — body and mind in disarray: grey-haired, fur-coated, bare-footed, staggering and swaying like a wild Old Testament prophet. The contrast between Terfel’s physical stature and psychological vulnerability is deeply poignant. -"

 See more at: "
photo credit : C Ashmore, Royal opera House

Tuesday 15 March 2016

Bread and circuses - Boris Godunov, ROH

Modest Mussorgsky Boris Godunov at the Royal Opera House, London with Bryn Terfel, in the original 1869 version rather than the tarted-up 1872 version revised by Rimsky-Korsakov.The second version is popular because it adds pretty girls,  kids, battlefields  which is fine. Opera "is" circus, meant for thrills and spills. But opera is also theatre, where drama is part of meaning.   Mussorgsky's original is dark and claustrophobic, like Boris's mind, closing in on itself, grappling with self doubt. The revision has show tunes, ballet interludes  and other distractions to draw attention away from Boris's predicament, and away from the very tension that makes the drama so disturbing.

Barely a year ago, Valery Gergiev brought Boris Godunov to London with the Mariinsky Opera, who might, one assumes, know what they're doing with Russian opera. They did the original version, adding the Innkeeper's song which adds fun to the proceedings without changing the fundamental impact of the original.  Vladimir Putin rules with an iron fist, like Tsars of old, but he, like Boris, has to watch his back. No-one comes to that kind of power by being cute and cuddly.  Gergiev and the Mariinsky are where they are because Putin supports them. Go figure, then, when they do Boris Godunov.  It wasn't a surprise at all that Gergiev turned up late for the Barbican performance (and even later for the next evening's concert).   Whatever held him up must have worked, for Gergiev's conducting was astonishingly uninhibited, fuelled with courage and disdain for time-serving trivia. Though there were technical blips in Gergiev's conducting, the orchestra and the singers know the opera - and their charismatic boss - so well that they, too, became inspired  by Gergiev's devil-may-care verve.  Circus audiences wouldn't understand.

Eight years ago  the ENO did Boris Godunov in the original version at the Coliseum. Edward Gardner conducted. Much as I love him, he couldn't match Gergiev's almost demented bloody-mindedness.  The production was by Tim Albery. The set was grey and barren, like the shelves of a Stalin era supermarket, perhaps, where the populace were grateful for any scrap they could scrounge.  That’s why the Tsars and the Church were able to overwhelm the peasants. Their authority was built on being able to dazzle the serfs into submission.  No wonder the peasants are terrified that somehow the world will collapse if they aren’t dominated by a Leader.  Of course their piety is enforced by  brutality, but the confluence of credulity and servitude tells us something about totalitarian regimes. If people want to believe, they’ll believe anything.  This is why False Dimitris figure so much in Russian history. The dead Tsarevich can't actually wield power but symbolically  becomes a saint and thus connecting to the power of the Church. Like the Church, this  isn’t rational, but it scares the wits out of Boris.I don't usually like Tim Albery's work, but his Boris Godunov was effective because it concentrated colour with power.  Give the public "bread and circuses" to keep them cowed.

Ideally, good opera would balance substance and showmanship, but fundamentally circuses without bread aren't nourishing. (bread can be fun if it's good)   Consider the "Nabucco syndrome" with its austere set reflecting the invisible One True God. It's just as well that some of the London audience weren't Hebrew slaves. They'd have apostated quicksmart to graven images and golden calves   Full review HERE in Opera Today.

Monday 14 March 2016

Farewell to Stromness and to Max

Peter Maxwell Davies is dead. In his long career, there were many different "Maxes". Something for everyone, which may be part of his appeal. In later years he was appointed Master of the Queen's Music, an accolade not all that many composers would relish, though Judith Weir is a wise choice of successor.

In his youth Maxwell Davies was part of the "Manchester Group" (NOT 'school), the epicentre of the British avant garde at the time, mixing with figures like Alexander Goehr and Harrison Birtwistle, whose The Fires of London Maxwell Davies eventually inherited.  From this period came Eight Songs for a Mad King (1969) yet also Seven In Nomines (1965) blending themes from John Taverner with  entirely new work. The fifth of the seven sections is pivotal. He described it as a "realization of circular canon, with the plainsong on a cross inside a circle", almost as if he were setting a graphic shape to music. The last time I saw Maxwell Davies in the flesh was when he shared a stage with Harrison Birtwistle in a tribute to Pierre Boulez.  Some in that audience weren't old enough to remember the Manchester years.

In 1971 Maxwell Davies moved to a remote croft in the Orkneys. The spartan landscape, its mysterious past and its very remoteness inspired a new stage in the composer’s creative evolution. He met the poet George Mackay Brown, whose Fishermen with Ploughs provided the text for Maxwell Davies' From Stone to Thorn. The connection with poetry is so strong that the vocal line predominates, the orchestration, in comparison, is fairly conventional, Maxwell Davies’ identification with Orkney also manifested itself in his sponsorship of the Stromness Festival and commitment to the islands' preservation. The first Stromness Festival was ushered in with the Hymn to St Magnus, based on a twelfth century manuscript. It begins with an adaptation of the original hymn, opening out to the complex, dramatic Sonata Prima which seems to evoke the seascape and the ancient legend. In the Sonata Seconda, the whole panoply of percussion bursts forth in a controlled cacophony, underpinned by strings and clarinet. It is as if the bells of church litany, ships bells at sea, bells as signals of distress and of worship, were all participating in a grand theatrical vision.

Max never lost his interest in Italy, where he studied with Goffredo Petrassi. Almost like a latter-day William Walton, this Italian connection  warmed Maxwell Davies's work. I have a soft spot for the slight though sweet Roma Amor (1998)

There's lots and lots more Maxwell Davies to be had, including operas and symphonies, but for me, what will endure of his work might just be the least self conscious, and most intuitive,  the piano interludes  from the Yellowcake Revue (1980) which packs a  punch, written as it was in a frenzy of passionate protest against uranium mining in the Shetlands. I've only heard the full version once, with the fiery Tourist Board Song ( "Oh come to Sunny Warbeth") with its eerie uranium glow., which is a pity, because it's good.  The first piano interlude, Farewell to Stromness is hypnotically beautiful, evoking the timeless spirit of the islands, pristine, pure and unpolluted.  I've often wondered if there was a connection between Farewell to Stromness and Paul McCartney's Mull of Kintyre. (1977) : two songs that have seared themselves into the way we Sassenachs perceive Scotland.

FX Roth Luciano Berio Sinfonia

François-Xavier Roth conducted the LSO in Luciano Berio's Sinfonia at the Barbican Hall, London, the culmination of a two-concert series that also featured Ligeti Atmosphères, Thomas Adès  Chamber Symphony, Schoenberg Chamber Symphony (for contrast) and two world premieres, Darren Bloom's Dr Glaser's Experiment and Elizabeth Ogonek's Sleep and Remebrance. a weeping programme, and an audacious pairing of Adès  and Schoenberg. From Roth, we can always expect the extraordinary, As Luciano Berio said "The unexpected is always with us".

Berio's Sinfonia was written in 1968, one of those watershed years in history, like 1848, when the world seems to undergo a massive sea change even if the results aren't clear for a while. 1968 was also a pivotal year for music. I remember reading about The Raft of the Medusa, (read more |HERE) not yet realizing who Henze was - I was just a kid - but aware it was something I had to find out about.

Berio's Sinfonia symbolizes so much of what 1968 meant - openness and the will to explore,  a sense of endless possibilities, and an awareness that our perceptions of life are shaped by complex and multipole networks of human experience.

Berio describes the Sinfonia  as an "internal monologue" which makes a "harmonic journey". It flows, like a river, bringing in its wake the streams and springs which have enriched it, adapting them and changing them, surging ever forwards towards the freedom of the ocean. It's filled with subtle references to many things: to Cythera, one of the cradles of Greek civilization and the home of the goddess of regeneration.  Sinfonia is truly a "symphony that contains the world" but it is by no means just collage. It's so original that it rewards active, thoughtful listening. 

Quotes from Mahler's Symphony no 2 run through the Sinfonia, like a river, sometimes in full flow, sometimes underground.  Mahler 2 is called the "Resurrection" because it's based on the idea that death isn't an end but a stage on a journey to eternal life.  There are quotes from at least 15 other cpmposers, but specially significant  are references to Don, the first movement of Boulez's Pli selon Pli ( which means fold upon fold, ie, endless layers and permutations) (Read more HERE)  Don means gift, so this is like a gift  from one composer to another. What has gone before shapes what is to come, but absolutely central is the idea that creativity never ends, but is reborn anew.  Stagnation is death.  Incidentally one of the best recordings of the Sinfonia was conducted by Boulez, who relished its audacity. 

"For the unexpected is always upon us"  illuminates the deliberately obscurantist miasma of the text, partly based on Samuel Beckett, though there are also phrases from Claude Lévi-Strauss, the anthropologist of myth. The style is often almost conversational.  so you're drawn into what's being spoken, only to be confronted by something elusively confusing. You navigate, as on the rapids of a river, by paying attention and being intuitive, Once I heard an apparently true anecdote about someone who built a machine that could write music.  Along came Berio, who twiddled a few knobs and buttons and created something genuinely original.  The machine's inventor was not pleased.  That's the difference between real art and fake.

Berio had a quiet sense of humour. When he quotes Mahler's Des Antonius von Paduas Fischpredikt (read more here) , he knows the fish don't understand and will keep fighting.  Perhaps Berio knew that some folk would never "get" Sinfonia, but he wasn't bothered as he didn't need to prove anything.  Traditionally -- if that's a word which can apply to someone as lively as Berio -- the texts have been semi-spoken at odd pitches, using tuning forks and impossibly clipped British accents, which adds to the sense of quixotic unreality. At the end, the performers name and thank each other -- reality playing tricks with art.

Berio's Sinfonia connects, too, to many other works of the period, such as Stockhausen's Hymnen  (read more HERE) and to Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Requiem for a Young Poet (Read more here).  All three pieces "open windows" in different ways onto other aspects of life, culture, history, literature and music. All attempt a creative and original synthesis of human existence. Not easy goals to achieve. Indeed, I'm not sure that music like that can be written today in times where so many prize insularity and fear diversity.  François-Xavier Roth strikes me as an ideal Sinfonia conductor because his background lies in the adventurousness of the baroque, which has animated his passion for the avant garde. (Read more HERE)   Feview of the second concert coming soon.