Saturday 29 July 2017

Datong the Chinese Utopia - Hong Kong opera in London

From Bonnie Wong Teo, who enjoyed Datong, the Chinese Utopia, an opera by  Chan Hing-yun and Evans Chan, part of the Hong Kong Music Series Festival in London :

Three mums, of different ages, educated at the same institution in their childhood in Hong Kong, congregated in their West London neighbourhood of Richmond, Surrey, for their very first taste of a Chinese Opera, on the very last day of the Hong Kong Music Series, celebrating Hong Kong’s diverse musical landscape in Central London this summer. They were warmly greeted at the reception from delegates from the Hong Kong Arts Development Council and the Hong Kong Economic Trade office, showered with a lovely assortment of coasters and Frisbees marking the 20th Anniversary of the establishment of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region – almost like coming home!  (typical Hong Kong hospitality)
Datong was presented like a western-style opera, sung in Mandarin Chinese, with Traditional Chinese and English Subtitles which made it easy to follow. It’s a thought-provoking production which led them to question their roots in Hong Kong, their great grandmother’s generation which prided on having ‘lotus-like’ (bounded) feet as a status symbol of not having to work, and their unbounded feet now in 2017, free to roam and live their lives with their new generation in the country that once colonised the city they were born, now returned to the Mainland 20 years ago. The audience, were as expected, mainly Chinese, with the rare exception of a few like Martin (an Englishman) who sat next to them, like them, went with little expectation but with some background research, to understand the context of Confucian ideas, Life and Rebellion in the Late Qing Dynasty.

Act One commenced during the turn of the 20th century, with the young daughter of the reformist Kang Youwei, Kang Tongbi, on a boat from Hong Kong to Penang, where her ailing father was staying, Tongbi then travelled to the USA, having witnessed the second class treatment of  fellow Chinese labourers in the Land of the Free under the Chinese Exclusion Act, and then free to roam, equipped herself with knowledge, fought for the rights of women, living a life hoping to reach the state of Utopia of Confucian style as depicted from her father’s controversial book 'Datong shu'. The short Act 3 after the intermission shows Tongbi on her death bed in 1969, 2 decades after the establishment of the Communist rule in China and during the Cultural revolution – her ideals having moved but not revolutionized the Chinese society.

Are these Datong Utopian ideals relevant to the modern world? The small cast presented us with a good selection of the grand Qing dynasty dress, late Qing peasant dress, Confucian Scholar dress and a school girl dancing away with Today’s date at the very end – which ties everything together nicely across the various generations this story passed through. The orchestra – mainly western, with a long erhu solo right before the end of Act 2, and a saxophone solo of ‘Let it Be’ at the beginning of Act 3 – reminds us of the audience, East meets West, taking the best of both worlds.

This Opera asked the question: did China come to this mad crossroads due to Confucianism, or because we chose to not follow his way? Is history repeating or simply continuing its course? And to those of us here, with unbounded feet, living overseas, themselves rebellions to their cause in some form. Only time will prove whether they are Rock or Jade, the story behind Kang Tongbi’s name, a crusader for Women's rights across China.


Datong the Chinese Utopia, premiered at the Hong Kong Arts Festival in 2015 to great acclaim. In London, the cast were  Louise Kwong as Kang Tongbi, Carol Lin as The Empress Dowager and as Tongbi's daughter (an interesting reversal)  and Apollo Wong as Kang Youwei, with David Quah in supporting roles.  The conductor was Lio Kuokman, the director Tang Shu-wing. Photo credits : Yankov Wong)

Please read more about the Hong Kong Music Series  HERE (Datong the Chinese Utopia preview,  HERE  (Beyond the Senses, Chinese Chamber Muisc as Theatre) and  HERE. (Music Interflow, St John's Smith Square

Thursday 27 July 2017

More than Pictures at an Exhibition - Volkov Julian Anderson Liszt

Ilan Volkov photo: Alastair Miles, courtesy Maestro Arts
The Imaginary Museum - Julian Anderson's Piano Concerto at Ilan Volkov's Prom 16 with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, the most innovative Prom programme so far, and possibly the best performance, too.  Music doesn't exist in a vacuum, but in a continuum. Volkov's eclectic programme showed how visual images and music connect: a cross-fertilization that reflects the panorama of human experience.  Though the Prom was billed "Pictures at an Exhibition" because Mussorgsky sells, the heart of the programme was Franz Liszt';s tone poem From the Cradle to the Grave (Von der Wiege bis zum Grabe).  In April 1881,  Liszt received a drawing from the Hungarian artist Mihály Zichy. Zichy was preparing a book of illustrations tracing the role of music in life, from birth to death and the afterlife, and wished to portray Liszt as the Muse of Music on its title page.  Liszt was delighted. "Celebrated Artist!", he wrote "Your drawing about the Genius of Music is a miraculous symphony! I am trying to set it to music and shall offer it to you".

Though composed as a symphonic poem in one movement, Liszt's From the Cradle to the Grave unfolds in a series of vignettes, like the illustrations in Zichy's volume. The gentle first phase suggests, perhaps, innocence, though there's no obvious lullaby melody.  Gradually  textures develop, the tessitura growing higher until, ornamented by rich, shimmering strings and a trumpet, one might imagine the fullness of time. Then, silence and rarified calm. Although this piece isn't nearly as flamboyant as Liszt's Hamlet S104 from  1858, it's interesting because it's more inward, almost impressionistc in its abstraction. Hamlet, though, is a jolly showpiece full of colour and drama. An excellent opening piece, setting the stage, so to speak, and a counterbalance to Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, (orchestrated by Ravel), where each "picture" tells a story.  An ebullient performance, though, nicely detailed. The BBC SSO are an excellent band, and have worked so long with Volkov that orchestra and conductor understand each other well.   

Julian Anderson is a composer whose visual imagination has stimulated and inspired his music for the last 25 years. Think Poetry Nearing SilenceImagin'd Corners, The Book of Hours, the Alhambra Fantasy, Eden (sparked off by Brancusi's The Kiss) and even Symphony, which, despite its non-committal title, is vividly graphic, like a fast-flowing mountain stream such as in paintings by Sibelius's friend Axel Gallen-Kallela.  Or, more recently, Incantesimi (at the Proms last year, with its multi-level layers in perpetual orbit, reflecting early machines used to explain the universe.  Indeed, I think Anderson's best work springs from ideas sparked by visual stimuli, as opposed to literary sources. Thebans, for example, though I liked it (review here) isn't at all typical of his work.

The Imagined Museum isn't typical Anderson, either, but it's a successful new departure for a composer who writes more for orchestra than for single instrument, and this is very much a piece where the soloist (Steven Osborne) is alone, in the foreground.

On the Radio 3 broadcast, Anderson explained how moved he was by a B flat which Steven Osborne played at the end of his encore at the Proms last year, the note echoing into the vastness of the Royal Albert Hall.   That note is thus the "found object" that starts this imaginary voyage.  Thus the title of the first of the six sections is "The World is a Window"  tiny single notes, stretch outwards in space, awakening the flute, then other instruments.  Suddenly, the piano strikes off in a new direction, Osborne playing long fast-moving lines, darker sounds in the orchestra suggesting vertiginous depth. Anderson says the idea came from Janáček's study of wells in Hukvaldy.  Thus time the "echo" is the sound of an object hurtling down a well, into inner space. Another transformation and we are once again in the open, the orchestra surguing as if on the high seas, the piano flying over the waves.  The strings introduce a sea change, and the piano once more defines single note patterns against a backdrop of silence. Where are we? Although there's a programme - of sorts - you listen with your mind. In the fluttering figures in the piano line do we hear a bird, or clear water, or winds in an empty desert?   Poetry is often more evocative than prose.  You could listen to Anderson in purely functional ways,  but I think it's rewarding to listen with an inner ear and wonder how the sounds act in relation to each other, processed through the effect that they have on your imagination. 

Monday 24 July 2017

Detlev Glanert : Requiem for Hieronymus Bosch

Detlev Glanert's Requiem for Hieronymus Bosch should be a huge hit.  Just as Carl Orff's Carmina Burana appeals to audiences who don't listen to early music (or even to much classical music), Glanert's Requiem for Hieronymus Bosch has all the elements for instant popular success.  It helps that the paintings are so much part of popular culture that everyone recognizes his images of extreme excess.  Bosch's people wear medieval dress, but their actions depict the subconscious, the Id and existential guilt in operation, centuries before the concepts of psychology found expression in formal language.

Like Carnina Burana, Glanert's Requiem is highly dramatic music theatre, adapting the cataclysmic dreamscapes of Bosch's paintings into music of extremes as lurid as Bosch's images.  Glanert's Requiem unfolds in 18 episodes, rather like panels in a medieval triptych. This gives the piece structure, making it easy to follow. The teeming, sprawling  panoramas Bosch depicts could plausibly be depicted in sound, but that would probably be asking too much of most audiences.  Like Bosch, though, Glanert's piece replicates extremes. Literally heaven and hell, for the premise is the judgement Bosch faces after death.  Thus the standard elements of a Requiem Mass are interleaved with the Seven Deadly Sins.  The acrid flames of hellfire whipping against the smoke of incense.

A harsh Voice (David Wilson-Johnson, narrating) calls from above "Hieronymus Bosch!" Immediately we spring to attention.  Bells ring,. Throbbing, rushing figures in the choral line, suggesting the doomed hordes we see in Bosch's paintings. The orchestral lines veer wildly, lit by screaming brass, the chorus screaming to crescendo.   Suddenly the forces fragment and, from the silence, a slow, low penitential intonation.  An abstract Requiem Aeternam, the choral line flowing ambiguously, in almost microtonal haze. like smoke.  In Gluttony the bass (the aptly named Christof Fischesser) sings of food, his lines circular and rotund. The text may be in Latin, but the meaning is clear.  The choir responds with the long, thin lines of an Absolve Domine. reinforced by Wrath with tenor (Gerhard Siegel)  and a Dies Irae which ends with a vivid orchestral flourish. Another demon, Envy, fights back. Soprano Aga Mikolaj's fluid, curving lines mimic the lines in the "heavenly" chorus - imitation is a sign of envy!

But the serene  Juste judex prevails. But where are we? The organ solo (Leo van Doeselaar) lets rip with a frenzy that suggests a cathedral organ hijacked by Satan.  Despite the extremes of volume and tempi, the lines between heaven and hell are, tellingly, blurred. In Sloth, the soprano sings langorously, joined in sensuous duet by the mezzo (Ursula Hesse von den Steinen). Pride, Lust and Avarice appear, but the balance shifts towards the big guns : Full choir, offstage choir, and orchestra in increasingly full throttle : listen for the jazzy culmination of the Domine Jesu Christe. and the funky trumpet that heralds the Agnus Dei.

With the Libera Me and Peccatum, we are in Carmina Burana territory, bursting forth in a blaze, the earthly chorus in raucuous flow, augmented by brass and percussion and the offstage chorus singing of lux perpetua.  Big forces. But is might right ? Glanert's Requiem ends In Paradisium, here the Voice from Above recites lines from the Book of Revelation. Apocalyptic visions, marking the end of the world and of time.  Now, when the Voice screams "Hieronymus!", he doesn't add a demonic epithet.  With an unearthly low hum, the choir sings of the chorus angelorum that brings eternal rest.

Glanert's Requiem for Hieronymus Bosch was commissioned to celebrate Bosch's 500th anniversary, and premiered in Sint Janskathedraal, 's-Hertogenbosch, in April 2016.   So it's  a public piece rather than a work of inward inspiration.  It must be great fun to perform, without being particularly demanding, technically or interpretively.  It could, in theory, be performed elsewhere, much as Carmina Burana is, these days. It is admirably performed on this world premiere recording made in November 2016 with the top-notch Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam, conducted by Markus Stenz. 

Glanert was one of Hans Werner Henze's few disciples. Henze's political beliefs influenced his music,though he never sacrificed high artistic and intellectual standards. Glanert is a man of the theatre, too, with a more earthy sense of humour than Henze had, though that quirkiness isn't too obvious.  When  the ENO did Glanert';s opera Caligula, London audiences just couldn't get it.  (Please read HERE what I wrote about Caligula, which I first heard in Frankfurt).  In this Bosch Requiem, Glanert again mixes grotesque with irony. Just as the vastness of Carmina Burana appealed to Nazi taste, the vastness of   this Requiem veers on parody.  Will it be loved for its vulgarity or its irony?  Just as the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch reveal the viewer, Glanert's Requiem reveals the listener.  Please see my other pieces on Glanert and on Hans Werner Henze, click on labels below)  

Saturday 22 July 2017

Traitor Beethoven at the Proms - neutralizing Fidelio

Beethoven Fidelio at the Proms last night - can I be the only one distinctly underwhelmed?  Beethoven in these dark times should be stirring but this Prom,  Juanjo Mena  conducting the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, seemed a sop to those who'd like Beethoven neutralized, shorn of his dangerous ideas on politics, art and the human condition.  Human rights?  Down with traitors! Beethoven is an  EU infiltrator who must be stopped!  After Igor Levit's Ode to Joy on the First Night (more here) and Daniel Barenboim's speech and two Proms  (more here)  the knives are out.  Though the BBC should, in theory, be politically neutral, in practice, things don't quite work out that way: the promotion of Farage, for example. In any large community, there will always be alternate views.  That's democracy. Florestan is a symbol of freedom. Most Florestans don't have Leonores,  and tyrants aren't overruled by sudden Deus ex machina miracles.  What matters above all, even above the politics, is humanity, fairness and basic human decency.

Or perhaps this Proms Fidelio flopped for other reasons?  Stuart Skelton redeems  anything he sings in, and the cast was good enough, though uneven, some very good, others less so and some a mix. But singers alone cannot sustain an opera if the orchestral performance isn't on message. Like all organizations, orchestras go through phases.  Juanjo Mena is popular in some repertoire and with some audiences, but this Fidelio wasn't Beethoven's Fidelio.  Blaming this pointless playing on politics is kinder than blaming it on the pointlessness in the playing.

Thursday 20 July 2017

Dusapin Outscape : Berlioz, baroque and Weilerstein

The UK premiere of Pascal Dusapin's Outscape with Alisa Weilerstein, Prom 7 at the Royal Albert Hall, the BBC Symphony orchestra conducted by Joshua Weilerstein (Alisa's younger brother).  Dusapin is one of the true greats of contemporary music, A high-profile and prolific composer whose work is performed by some of the top names in new music, and well represented on recordings.  For a change, that fount of skewed non-knowledge, Wikipedia, is worth reading, so kudos for whoever did the entry on Dusapin.

Long, brooding lines from the lowest register of the cello set a pulse, shadowed by bass clarinet.   The cello seems to be channeling something beyond audibility. I wondered if the piece grew from silent bars. Background noises - the tapping of wooden blocks, free-wheeling, piping piccolo.    Slow, swaying movement built up of almost imperceptible tones and intervals   Weilerstein draws out the line, which gradually levitates up the scale.  Orchestral colours change, as the cello voice rises and falls, the clarinet calling extended legato.  For an ostensibly "slow" piece, there;s a lot going on, subtle gradations created by carefully poised control.  Eventually the pace builds up, the cello weaving wild, angular lines,  then suddenly retreats to low, plaintive  lines which gradually fade.   A beautiful piece that seems to circulate in its own seamless sphere.

In the context of this programme, one might be tempted to think in terms of hyper-fervid dreams, but I think that would be pushing the case too far.  It's good on its own terms.   Like so much of Dusapin's work, it's meticulously refined and exact. If you mess with microtonality, it ends up mush ! Fortunately Weilerstein is a virtuoso, so there was no danger of that happening.  Dusapin's Outscape  is a joint commission between the BBC, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestre de l'Opéra de Paris, and Stuttgart Opera.  Joshua Weilerstein conducted on this occasion. Outscape has also been conducted by Susanna Mälkki (Paris), Markus Stenz (Stuttgart) and Cristian Macelaru (Chicago).  There's another performance in November in Porto with Baldur Brönnimann and Anssi Kartunnen.

Before Dusapin, Jean-Féry Rebel Le Chaos from the 1737 ballet Les Elémens, a good choice since this links the French baroque to modern avant garde. As I've written before (please see here), the connections are very strong indeed : music history didn't start and stay in the late 19th century.  The baroque spirit, though exuberant and audacious, predicated on the idea that civilization was an improvement on barbarity.  Hence Chaos, which which order emerges : art, not abandon.   French baroque dance was formal, almost a form of stylized exercise : thus again the need for firmness of concept.  Dusapin studied with Xenakis, an architect before he became a composer.  Hence concepts of mathematical precision and detail,  from which grew developments like microtonality.  (lots more about Xenakis on this site)   Precision isn't restrictive by any means. Clear thinking is a basic springboard for sophisticated creativity.

Romanticism wasn't "romantic" in the modern sense of the word. The Romantic fascination with death, and the unnatural was a means of pushing boundaries, of exploring dangerous emotions.  For many, that meant experimenting with mind-altering experiences in many different forms.  Drugs and alcohol free inhibitions. They're a short cut to the subconscious and the adventures within. Yet they are also an escape from reality. The interval feature on the BBC repeat broadcast is informative and worth listening to, for background on the early 19th century use of drugs.   Opiates were semi-respectable, even though the dangers were recognized.  How far Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique is drug-induced reverie or not, there's no point in speculating since it's a very fine piece of music, enhanced by dramatic extremes.  Not unlike Grand Opéra in purely orchestral miniature.  Another connection between Dusapin, who writes a lot of very abstract opera, and Berlioz.

Joshua Weilerstein is an interesting speaker.  Presumably more preparation had gone into Dusapin's Outscape, since this Symphonie fantastique was more reverie than nightmare.  It was good, though, to dwell on the less histrionic parts of the piece and focus on the orchestration. 

Monday 17 July 2017

Harrison Birtwistle Deep Time : Barenboim Prom 4

The UK premiere of Sir Harrison Birtwistle's Deep Time, at the Proms in the Royal Albert Hall,  with Daniel Barenboim who conducted the world premiere at the Philharmonie, Berlin, in May.this year.  Just as Barenboim's Elgar pedigree goes back a long way, so does his relationship with Birtwistle.  They've known each other since the 60's. Barenboim also gave the premieres of  Birtwistle's Exody in 1998 and of The Last Supper in 2000.

In an interview for his publishers Boosey & Hawkes, Birtwistle explained the term "Deep Time".  "...coined by John McPhee in a 1981 book Basin and Range, which refers to the idea of measuring things on a vast temporal scale beyond human comprehension such as the age of rocks. The concept of Deep Time follows on from the work of the 18th century Scottish geologist James Hutton who proposed that the processes of rock erosion, sedimentation and formation have ‘no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end’, a state of perpetual change...."   It's an idea which fits in well with the concepts that seem to lie beneath so much of Birtwistle's work: stratas and layers,  levels of time parallel and co-existence, puzzles, mysteries and patterns, often evolving as if generated by abstract but organic life forces.  Earth Dances, of course, and The Triumph of Time but also mysteries like The Minotaur and Silbury Air. 

Deep Time seems to evolve out of nothingness. Bars are marked in silence until sound emerges almost imperceptibly. Slow, circular figures dragging forward contarst with sparkling figures comprising short, quick-paced cells.   Rhythms build up quickly to an exuberant angular dance, which then morph into flying figures which float above the steady pulse.   Crashing metallic percussion, the growl of dark, low brass and woodwinds. Base, middle and top notes like a complex but earthy scent.  Large, dense structures and fleeting whips of high-pitched sound, propelling forward thrust.  A soprano saxophone calls, marking intervals: wooden blocks are beaten in typically wayward Birtwistle zig-zag patterns.  Planes of sound from strings and winds, suggesting boundless vistas.  Towards the conclusion, trickling, tiny fragments, quirky changes of direction, and a return to long, slow, rumbles. As the music passes onwards,  cymbals clash and long planes stretch until at last the music dissipates into nothingness once more. Not before the brass and metallic percussion assert themselves once more, in quirky farewell.  I didn't think so much of inexorably slow forces but of a multiplicity of actions on different levels.  Birtwistle is never boring!  He turned 83 this weekend, but creatively he's lithe and agile. 

Crossed and fractured lines - La voix humaine Sarah Minns

From Roger Thomas

When Denise Duval premiered Francis Poulenc's tragédie lyrique La Voix Humaine, in 1959, she wasn't exactly young. But recordings of her performing it reveal a bright, youthful voice and impressive acting skills. A regular in new Poulenc works, Duval fulfilled what the composer called for in his brief notes on the musical interpretation: [the role] "ought to be performed by a young and elegant woman. This is not about an elderly woman who has been abandoned by her lover."
At Kings Place, London, Sarah Minns, with Richard Black (musical director) an expert hand at the piano, in Poulenc's own piano version of La Voix, uses the English translation by Joseph Machlis issued by Poulenc's publisher, Ricordi, in 1977. Minns is a few years younger than Duval was in 1959 and ideally fits Poulenc's call for youth and elegance. She is also one of the most capable actors in classical singing in London. That is crucial because, to be successful, La Voix Humaine -- a 40 minute-plus psycho-drama for soprano (called, simply, Elle) in conversation on the telephone with a former, or still fleeing, lover, whose voice we never hear, with alternating emotional support and assault from the piano score -- is no place for acting wimps.
In her programme notes to this OperaUpClose production, director Robin Norton-Hale tells us that in the opera's preparation she and Minns mapped out what the unheard lover at the other end of the line might have been saying. An eminently sensible strategy, which added colour and authenticity to Minns's responses. There is clearly a back story in Jean Cocteau's libretto (based on his 1928 play). Elle's lover is already well on the run. From what Elle says on the phone it emerges that he is seeking to retrieve letters they have exchanged. And the lover has abandoned his pet dog at Elle's apartment. The dog passage is apparently sometimes cut by directors who see it as a baffling non-sequitur, but Minns's extremely sensitive delivery of the description of the dog's state -- pining for his master, refusing to eat, lurking in the hall, turning vicious -- makes it clear that the dog is a surrogate in suffering for Elle. "In spite of his intelligence, he surely cannot guess the truth."

But since Elle's phone conversations are fraught with deception -- about what she is wearing, where she has been and with whom (lunching with Martha?), when she has in fact been in a sleeping-pill swoon -- how do we know for sure that the dog is not still full of joie de vivre and eating well? Or maybe stiffly starved to death on the doormat. Elle's changes of mood are adeptly handled by Minns: her frustrations with the party line (nothing to do with the Parti Communiste Française -- if you are too young to have experienced one, check Wikipedia); her barefaced lying bravado (not that the unheard voice does not offer his own fair share of deception); her descent into despair, sometimes retracting her lies to the point of admitting to what is effectively a suicide attempt. Another crucial episode -- when "Madame" interrupts on the party line for the third time. Elle's anger at the eavesdropping as portrayed by Minns is visceral and scary. ("But, Madame, we're not trying to be interesting, I can assure you ... If you really find us so silly, why are you wasting your time instead of hanging up?"). In her anger, Minns powerfully reminds the audience that we too have been salaciously listening in on a private conversation for the past half hour or so.

Simplicity and elegance are key features of this production, with a nod towards the 1930s. Minns wears white silk pajamas, sometimes with a fur-collared overcoat over them (set and costume designer: Kate Lane). Lane's set is minimalist and subtly lit (lighting designer: Richard Williamson). At first I thought the wire mesh panels might be overstressing Elle's isolation and mental imprisonment, all of which is more than adequately spelt out in the libretto. But I rapidly concluded that they amounted to rooms in the apartment that Elle could wander around while remaining visible. A telephone expert did suggest to me that the phone flex might be out of style for the 1930s. But nothing is perfect in this world, is it? 

Certainly no directorial overkill here. Do we really need the audience being guests at a party in Elle's apartment (she's not well enough to organise one), or videos of the voiceless lover? No, not when what is all there already in the libretto and piano score is so skilfully presented.

 La Voix Humaine continues at Kings Place Hall 2 on 6 and 20 August; on tour at Redbridge Drama Centre, London E8, on 3 October, and North Wall Theatre, Oxford, on 20 November.

 Photo: Christopher Trimble

Barenboim nails the Proms: Elgar, Citizen of the World

Two giants of British music - Edward Elgar and Harrison Birtwistle with Daniel Barenboim and Staatskapelle Berlin, Prom 4 Royal Albert Hall.  Barenboim's Elgar credentials go back decades to the early years of his marriage to Jacqueline du Pré, when they made exciting music together with the trendiest young crowd in the business at the time. Over the years Barenboim's approach to Elgar has matured, becoming more magisterial and more elegant.  Though Elgar was thoroughly English, he was not a "Little Englander". Though celebrated by the Establishment., he wasn't born to the Establishment but made his own way. In his day, there was  integration between British and European music. Elgar was a citizen of the world well aware of what was happening around him.  

Thus Barenboim's sophisticated, cosmopolitan Elgar Symphony no 2 in E flat major, where the "Spirit of Delight" flowed with graceful confidence, truly "nobilimente".  each theme suggesting open vistas and expansive horizons.  There are hints of the kind of music one might associate with celebration - holidays at spas, gala occasions, even the Proms of Sir Henry Wood. But the mood changes. Celli and basses introduce a darker mood.  The themes return, but more urgent, descending into haunted quietude. When the expansive tutti return, they seem defiant, rushing towards frantic climax. Speaking like a poet, Elgar said that this was "a sort of malign influence wandering through a summer night in a garden".   The themes in the Larghetto were stretched,just enough to emphasize the idea of fragility, of holding onto something elusive.  "Rarely. rarely comest Thou, O Spirit of Delight" ...... "Wherefore hast thou left me now/ Many a day and night?  Far less funeral march than personal and deeply felt nostalgia for something inevitably slipping away.  

Thus the wildness of the Rondo, swirling cross-currents, cut off mid flow in a short,  sharp climax. .   Elgar wrote, enigmatically, "Venice and Tintagel" , referring possibly to pleasant times he'd enjoyed in the past, both places being popular with turn of the century travellers. There are even hints of tea dance music and jazz.  Think Thomas Mann Death in Venice, though Elgar got there first., completing the symphony before the novella was published. In the circulating themes and sense of constant movement, perhaps we can imagine the idea of throngs of tourists, each on individual voyages, which will inevitably come to an end. The bustle and wild, whipping lines with which the movement ends certainly suggest hurried departure.   Elgar and his peers weren't to know that the era of European expansion was soon to end, but we cannot blank out our awareness of the war and what followed. Nor should we : music isn't just ink on paper.  Art engages the soul.  Thus the final movement, the  Moderato e Maestoso,  seemed to glow, the last chords fading slowly, like dying embers.  Dignified and very moving.  

At Prom 2 the previous evening, Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin had performed Elgar Symphony no. 1 in A flat major (1908) together with Sibelius Violin Concerto (1904) with soloist Lisa Bathiashvili. Two works by almost contemporary composers, written within a similar period.  Interesting combination, but not nearly so intriguing as Prom 4 pairing Elgar Symphony no 2 (1910) with Harrison Birtwistle's Deep Time (2017).  Since that's an important new work, it deserves a piece all on its own, which I've written about here.  

But one more observation on Elgar the European.  For their encore on Saturday, Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin launched into the famous Elgar Pomp and Circumstance March no 1.  Brilliant wit !  That piece has become hackneyed in the popular mind, having been associated with jingoism, flag waving and Last Night of the Proms silliness.  Which is ironic since pomposity is not a good thing.  "Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!"  Othello is in agony, having been tricked by Iago into doubting Desdemona.  His past victories and the status he won through war have come to naught. He'll end up losing everything. Because he's listened to a fraudster!   It was wonderful to hear the piece played as serious music and as a proper concert work. Refined and stylish, yet also beaming with good humour. How many in the audience "got it" I wonder ?

Friday 14 July 2017

Secret messages ? First Night of the BBC Proms 2017

Secret messages? The First Night of The BBC Proms 2017: as always a thrilling sense of occasion. But what occasion, and who was it really for?  These are questions that the BBC and Proms team need to address. It's not enough to rely on formula.  This year we've seen what happens when politicians function like robots. spouting empty slogans on autopilot.   Big institutions like governments can't hang on to power "by right", but must earn their place. The evening kicked off with a new British work, to show how hip the Proms Team are.  For a change real music! Tom Coult's St John's Dance is an interesting exercise in perpetual motion and tempi, engrossing enough to hold attention, without being too taxing. Certainly better than some of the mindless pap we've had some seasons.  But beware! St John's Dance was a form of mass hysteria, where people kept dancing on, unheeding to their deaths.

Sir Henry Wood created the Proms on the principle that people were perfectly capable of learning if inspired by excellence and extremely high standards. His vision doesn't apply today when arts policy aims for the lowest possible denominator, on the assumption that people are too stupid to cope with anything that isn't dumbed down.  If arts managers don't have faith in their own product, how can they hope to convince others? And where is the real market?  Even the BBC has twigged that it's a fallacy that the arts depend on audiences who don't like serious music.  So why not put that into practice? The whole thrust of British arts policy is reductionist, uncreative and wrong.  White Papers might repeat the same old assumptions but that doesn't mean they're right and can't be stopped.  British arts policy is fundamentally misguided because it does't reflect economic reality.

Until such time as policy makers have the guts to question, we can but hope that some centres of excellence remain.  Like Beethoven, for example, whose vision and courage we need more than ever in this era of small-minded shallowness.   How wonderful to hear Igor Levit playing Beethoven's Piano Concerto no 3 in C minor, with Edward Gardner conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra.  Fact is, excellence is by its very nature elitist.  Ordinary people are perfectly capable of smarting up rather than dumbing down.  Hooray!  This is what real music is all about: raising horizons.  For his encore, Levit chose Beethoven's Ode to Joy, transcribed for piano by Franz Liszt.   Culture doesn't exist in isolation: it crosses borders.  The arts business is international and must remain so.  Not long ago,  Her Majesty the Queen opened Parliament wearing a blue and yellow hat.  She's not allowed an opinion, but she's no fool, and she's not easily swayed by populist media.  Long may she reign!

Extravaganzas are part of the fun of First Nights of the Proms, so this year we had John Adams's Harmonium.   Four hundred and fifty singers - the BBC Symphony Chorus and BBC Youth Choir, joined by additional forces, ranged all round the back of the stage at the Royal Albert Hall.   Impressive to look at, and very well performed.  Harmonium predicates on huge swathes of sound composed of tiny cells   Sometimes the singers aren't singing text but creating planes of wordless noise.  Not being a fan of the composer, I won't comment on the piece as music, but everyone seemed to be having a good time.  The whole musical part of the Prom over in record short time to allow endless chatter and self-promotion on the part of BBC marketeers.

Each year I cover 30-40 Proms, so please keep coming back.  Please see my other pieces on the Proms, this year and in the past and on the Proms and Arts Policy. 

Thursday 13 July 2017

Datong, the Chinese Utopia, in London

Datong, the Chinese Utopia, grand finale to the Chinese Music Series in London, the biggest ever showcase of Hong Kong culture presented in the west, comes to the Richmond Theatre on 27th and 28th July. Datong, the Chinese Utopia, has been described as "a century of Chinese history distilled into three acts". The opera, composed by Chan Hing-yun to a libretto by  Evans Chan,  examines  China's recent past through the lives of 19th century reformer Kang Youwei(康有為) and his daughter Kang Tongbei ( 康同璧).  Kang Youwei (1888-1927) was a scholar from  Nanhai, near Foshan in Guangdong province, whose ideas on the modernization of China appealed to the young Guangxu, inspiring the "!00 Days Reform" in 1898, which was soon suppressed by the ultra-conservative Dowager Cixi. The Emperor was imprisoned and Kang Youwei went into exile.  The title of this opera refers to Kang's book, the Datong Shu (大同書) revealing a vision of a global utopia of human equality and solidarity, where divisions of race, class and gender would no longer apply.

The opera begins during the Cultural Revolution, when the Red Guard movement demanded a new world order based on the abolition of the past.  Kang's daughter, Kang Tongbi, lies on her deathbed, her daughter beside her.  Years before, things were so different. Kang Youwei believed that feudal family structures kept China backwards, and that women should be equal to men. Thus Tongbi travelled the world, studied abroad and held feminist values, the prototype "New Woman" of early 20th century modernization.

Kang Youwei's ideas on reform were complex, confronting capitalism, religion and social organization, and so wide ranging that  they are recognized on both sides of the modern Chinese political divide. In his lifetime, and in exile, his ideas on equality brought him up against widespread racism.  In this opera, we see Kang meeting with President Theodore Roosevelt in the wake of anti-Chinese leglislation then sweeping the United States, We also see Kang Tongbi chiding foreigners who treat Chinese as lesser beings.  Lots of food for thought. In times of tyrbulence and division, we could do well to consider Datong The Chinese Utopia as an opera and as an introduction to Kang';s ideas.

Datong the Chinese Utopia, premiered at the Hong Kong Arts Festival in 2015 to great acclaim. In London, the cast will include  Louise Kwong as Kang Tongbi, Carol Lin as The Empress Dowager and as Tongbi's daughter (an interesting reversal)  and Apollo Wong as Kang Youwei, with David Quah in supporting roles.  The conductor is Lio Kuokman, the director Tang Shu-wing.  A film about Kang Youwei by Evans Chan premiered in 2011.  (see clips below) . Please read more about the Hong Kong Music Series HERE  (Beyond the Senses, Chinese Chamber Muisc as Theatre) and 

HERE. (Music Interflow, St John's Smith Square) (Photo credits : Yankov Wong)

Wednesday 12 July 2017

Véronique Gens Visions from Grand Opéra

Ravishing : Visions, Véronique Gens in a glorious new recording of French operatic gems, with Hervé Niquet conducting the Münchener Rundfunkorchester.  This disc is a companion piece to Néère, where Gens sang familiar Duparc, Hahn, and Chausson mélodies. Here Gens presents extracts from Grand Opéra, reflecting her Tragodienne series of operatic arias.  Visions is a stunner, rich and so rewarding that you want to rush out and hear each opera as a whole.  This might be easier said than done, for some of the operas here aren't well known. Thus, all the more reason to get this recording because some real gems are included which  you've almost certainly not heard done as well as they are done here. Véronique Gens is a great pioneer of French repertoire. So intoxicating is this recording that if you come to it as a taster, you could end up addicted.

Visions - visions of ecstasy, religious or romantic, exotic dreams and horrifying nightmares, virgins, nuns and heroines, plenty of variety, yet each piece a work of theatrical imagination  Alfred Bruneau's Geneviève (1881) for example, from the cantata the young Bruneau dedicated to Massenet.  The piece begins with a dizzying evocation of a storm. If this sounds Wagnerian, the scène lyrique that rises from it is decidedly French. "Seigneur ! Est-ce bien moi que vous avez choisi?", for she is just a shepherdess tending a flock.  But the nation needs her, and  she must put her mission above herself. From César Franck's Les Béatitudes (1879),  a moment of quietude interrupted by the fierce scream that introduces the récit et air de Leonore from Louis Neidermeyer's Stradella (1837), its rhythms influenced by Rossini, enhanced by florid vocal frills.  Benjamin Godard's Les Guelfes (1882) is represented by an orchestral prelude  introducing a song describing Jeanne d'Arc's journey to Paris, her way lit by angelic harps.  

From history to fantasy, Félicien David's Lalla Rookh (1862).  French orientalism gloried in exotic images. This song is exquisite, its delicate perfumes warmed by the beauty of Gens' clear, pure expression.  It also evokes the aesthetic of the Belle Époque. Thus a song from Henry Février's Gismonda (1919) a reverie with tolling bells where a solo violin shadows the voice.The protagonist is a nun, but longs, without much hope, for sensual love. Camille Saint-Saëns's arrangement of Étienne Marcel's Béatrix is altogether stronger stuff . Cello rather than violin, and mournful winds and a resolute vocal line. Béatrix knows that the love she knew will never return. "O Beaux Rêves évanouis ! Éspérances tant caressées!". This song is reasonably well known, and Gens does it beautifully.

This selection from Jules Massenet's La Vierge (1880) begins with an orchestral interlude. The Virgin Mary is about to die. The mood is subdued.  But the Gates of Heaven open showing the Virgin a vision of Paradise.  "Rêve infini, divine extase, l'éther scintille et s'embrase!" Gens voice glows, illuminated by rapture. After that explosive high, we return to the relative sedate Blanche from Fromental Halévy's La Magicienne (1885)  who chooses the cloister, and to the prayer of Clothilde from Georges Bizet's Clovis et Clothilde (1857). Another song whose loveliness lies in its simplicity, again ideally suited to Gens's clear, pure timbre.  .To conclude, L'archange from César Franck's Rédemption (1874) a vision of the End of Time.  "L'homme rebelle n'obéit pas", and God, in anger chastises him.  "Mais que faut-il pour son pardon? Après des siècles d'abandon , une heure de prière!"  A rousing and rather cheerful end to a very good recording.

Monday 10 July 2017

Abendstern Tannhäuser - Bayerische Staatsoper Munich

Wagner Tannhäuser at the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich,  with Klaus Florian Vogt, Christian Gerhaher, Anja Harteros and Georg Zeppenfeld, conducted by Kiril Petrenko.  That the singing was brilliant is no surprise, since these singers are so familiar that what they do isn't "news", though I'll write more later.  What was a surprise was the staging, or rather the thought that went into the dramaturgy.  The Overture seemed to make no sense at all. Venusberg represents unbridled sexual excess. Wagner's description is unashamedly explicit - Sirens are bathing - naked - in waters pouring from a cave hidden by cliffs, lit in lurid flesh tones. A vagina !  Modern audiences couldn't cope. Yet here we saw maidens in Grecian garb, as elegant as marble figures.  An Abendstern Venusberg? "Wie Todesahnung, Dämm'rung deckt die Lande,umhüllt das Tal mit schwärzlichem Gewande". Venusberg aping Wartburg? Upside down, I thought, at first.  But maybe that was the point. Venusberg and Wartburg represent opposite poles. Venusberg symbolizes sex, creativity, and life: Wartburg symbolizes denial and death. Which, in fact, is more "pure"?  Thus the Cupids around Venus's couch are unformed blobs of flesh: a shocking image, but again that might be the point.  Venusberg is tainted. Tannhäuser needs to get away if he is to develop.  

In Tannhäuser, Wagner develops his ideas on the role of art in life. Tannhäuser is a precursor of Walter von Stoltzing, the two Siegfrieds and Parsifal, who don't spring fully formed from the start.  Hence the Sirens at Venusberg, firing arrows, an image that doesn't make sense til we journey a while with the production.  If you don't know what you're shooting at, don't shoot! You might just be wrong. Wagner's heroes start out thinking they know everything. They only grow when they learn to learn.  Nothing wrong with that, as Wagner shows.  In our own time, when anti-intellectual populism prevails, Wagner's message is frighteningly prescient.  Like the Knights of the Grail, the Knights of Wartburg are aggressively insular, blocking out ideas other than their own, resenting dissent.  Tannhäuser could have an easy life playing their games, but he chooses not to, striking out on his own. He searches for truth whatever the forces against him. And Elisabeth sides with him, sacrificing herself.  Tannhäuser may never unlock his Grail, but redeems himself because he has vision. For Wagner, religion "is" art, so the quest for artistic integrity can never end.   An artist seeks enlightenment, not playing to the crowd.  Thus the Grail Knights desiccate until they learn compassion. What will happen to Wolfram and the Minnesingers of Wartburg with their sterile dreams and inhibitions? An insular community based on denial, and hatred of women in particular, isn't conducive to creativity. 

The best Tannhauser I've ever heard live was Johan Botha (read my tribute here)   Klaus Florian Vogt comes pretty close: two voices of exceptional beauty and purity.  In fact, I can't think of any time when I haven't loved what Vogt's done, even outside opera.  Fortunately, the action in this production was understated  - "Abendstern" stillness - so we could savour the voice and its subtle nuances.  Vogt's voice is glorious, but he can convey Tannhauser's weariness, suffering and, at last, humility."0 Wolfram, der du also sangest, du hast die Liebe arg entstellt!"  and later "Hör an, Wolfram, hör an! Inbrunst im Herzen, wie kein Büsser noch sie je gefühlt, sucht' ich den Weg nach Rom"  When Tannhauser sings like that, Wolfram is eclipsed.  Even in small, trelatively unobtrusive moments, Vogt excels: "Heilige Elisabeth, bitte für mich! "  The voice is luminous, Vogt;'s face glowing as if lit from within. . 

Christian Gerhaher is the Wolfram of choice these days, after his  astonishing breakthrough in the part seven years ago.  He's had his ups and down in recent years, so it was good to hear him back on form here: much better than in Vienna in 2015 though not quite as astounding as in London.  I've been listening to him since he was young and unknown, nearly fifteen years ago and have his first CD.  He's an opera fan's idea of a Lieder singer, better in opera than in art song, though it would be nice if he'd broaden his repertoire.  I'd like to hear Matthias Goerne as Wolfram in the alternative cast, with a darker, more mysterious timbre.  Anja Harteros we hear a lot of live, too.  So what if she doesn't do the Met ? The European market is huge, the population's coming up to 750 million.  Rich as her voice is, there's a sensitivity to her singing that suits houses like Munich and London (ROH capacity 2200). She's an unusual Elisabeth, but interesting. Elisabeth's a strong, independent-minded person who stands up to the bullies in her community.  Harteros's Elisabeth is no warrior. Her weapon is prayer. Hence the air of humility which Harteros brings to the part expand characterization, and makes the role even more sympathetic.  Georg Zeppenfeld, another much-loved regular, creates a forceful Hermann, Landgraf von Thüringen.  Unlike Wolfram and the other Knights, The Landgraf is decisive: a Gurnemanz, a leader among conformists.  Elena Pankratova's Venus was full-throated and voluptuous. As always, minor parts and chorus at the Bayerische Staatsoper are wonderfully cast.

Kiril Petrenko conducted. The Overture and other orchestral passages were written to accommodate dancers, so a certain amount of rhythmic liveliness is in order, In many productions, the dancing is much more exuberant : Venus hosts orgies, and her sirens dance in order to seduce.  Petrenko's tempi were on the slow side, more langorous than orgasmic, but coolness works better with the "Abendstern" imagery, and the idea of the Moon. (Wagner would,of course, have been familiar with Goethe and his relationship with the Duchess of Weimar.)  The orchestral playing was well judged and rather elegant, again matching the marble and silk stylishness of the staging.  I would have liked more punch in the Pilgrimage music to emphasize themes of movement and physical travail.  Still, in music as good as this, there's plenty of room for interpretation.

Excellence from Munich is pretty much the norm. What's "news" is the staging,. It's controversial because it's not simplistic, and can be unsettling. Lots of stylized symbolism and abstraction, but also a lot of detail to reward careful observation.  Plinths with key words like "Kunst" spell things out to make things clear.  Amidst the sterile orderliness, a glass case with squirming, indistinct objects, like trapped life forms.   Rocks are seen, from which gold can be extracted - a metaphor for Tannhäuser's development as man and artist. The Minnesingers seen wrapped in white, like nuns and curtains like shrouds. This is by no means as strange as it seems, since they are a mystical order, vowed to purity and self denial.  To Wagner and to Tannhäuser, asceticism is living death, a rejection of creative growth.  The Minnesingers don't know what they're missing because they block out the world.  That's why they're so scared when Tannhäuser praises Venus.  Tannhäuser and Elisabeth sing to each other in front of tomb-like structures with the names "Klaus" and "Anja" carved thereon. An interesting if quirky way of reinforcing the idea that art is an act of creative imagination, made by living people. 

The director, Romeo Castellucci, is new to me. He seems to do a lot of theatre work, hence perhaps the formal, stylized abstraction of the designs, costumes and lighting.  Much more intriguing, though, is the thought that clearly went into the dramaturgy, by Piersandra Di Matteo and Malte Krasting. Opera is more than ear candy. Especially opera by Wagner, for whom ideas, drama and the human condition were inextricably linked.  These days the word "concept" is used as a swear word, but all it means is joined-up thinking, connecting different ideas, examining things from different perspectives. Di Matteo and Krasting understand how the music connects to ideas, and how this opera connects to Wagner's other work and even extra-musical concepts like classical antiquity. The staging is a lot closer to the libretto than meets the eye.  Tannhäuser is allegory, a fantasy, a work of art about art.  How else does a medieval German hook up with a Greek Goddess? And as Tannhäuser discovered, an artist needs to create to live, to keep learning and keep developing.  He chose the more difficult path to Rome. The Pope didn't understand, but too bad.  His loss, not Tannhäuser's.

Saturday 8 July 2017

Music Interflow - Hong Kong Music Series SJSS

Starting the Hong Kong Music Series in London, Music Interflow- a Dialogue of Two Cultures at St John's Smith Square. Presented by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council,  the series shows what Hong Kong has achieved, in a city with a thriving creative community.  This concert, organized by  Professor Lo King-man, demonstrated the varied influences which have gone into making Hong Kong a uniquely vibrant artistic force.  Hong Kong has a lot to be proud of! In Britain, people's ideas about Hong Kong are shaped by western media, so this Hong Kong Music Series is important. The two major highlights are yet to come - Beyond the Senses,Chinese chamber music as music theatre (Read preview HERE) and Datong : the Chinese Utopia, an opera that examines the modernization of China through the lives of 19th century reformer Kang Yu-wei and his feminist daughter.  British audiences owe it to themselves to pay attention.

Professor Lo King-man (pictured in the middle above) has been one of the great figures in the Hong Kong arts scene for five decades.  He was Director of The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts,  the equivalent of the Royal Academy of Music, the Royal College of Music and the Guildhall School put together.  Under his leadership, the Academy introduced degree programmes, and specialist schools including one for Film and Television, a major industry in Hong Kong and source of the New Wave in modern Chinese cinema.  He also set up the Centre for Chinese Traditional Theatre Studies  In Hong Kong, music education is part of the school system, and standards are extremely high.   Thus the Academy for Performing Arts is built on strong foundations.  Now retired from the Academy, Professor Lo is Artistic Director of Musica Viva, an organization supporting performance.

Music Interflow began with six pieces by Hong Kong composers written for Chinese instruments. Tradition adapted for concert hall, capturing the sense of personal imagination that is so much a part of Chinese chamber music. Some pieces were for ensemble, some for soloists, Xu Lingzi's Guzheng particularly impressive. Clarence Mak's Meditation on Mount Jingling inspired a dizzying virtuoso display showing the potential traditional instruments can provide in terms of colour and expressiveness.  A strikingly original piece. Doming Lam is another great figure in Hong Kong music, his place in Hong Kong music represented by his Three Night Songs of Li Bai, an early work, where the piano line is western, but the vocal line is Chinese.  Read more about Doming Lam and Clarence Mak HERE.  Appositely, three Britten Songs, followed, arranged for two voices and piano. Britten was fascinated by non-western music while still in his thirties. Perhaps his awareness of norms beyond the western canon animated him as a composer: he represents a new. and highly individual thread in British Music.  Britten and Pears did spend time in Hong Kong but weren't able to experience Chinese music in the community it came from. Things didn't happen that way in 1956. Significantly, Doming Lam Three Night Songs of Li Bao dates from almost the same time, in 1957. Imagine the Music Interflow if society had been different.  Read my article Britten and Pears in Hong Kong. Also see Britten : The Prince of the Pagodas.

Equally eclectic was the second part of the programme. Six Miniatures of Yin and Yang (Meilina Tsui):  Western music but with a distinctive Chinese personality.  Yet more unusual perspectives: Holst's Venus and Jupiter, from the The Planets, transcribed for two pianos.  "Yin" and "Yang" in an entirely western context! Just as the concert had begun with Chinese chamber ensemble, it ended with western chamber ensemble with Frank Bridge's Three Idylls for String Quartet and Ottorino Respighi's Il tramonto, with a setting of Shelley's The Sunset in Italian.  Superb singing from Carol Lin (in sparkling gown in photo above). The piece is dramatic, like a miniature opera, where multiple moods are portrayed in the space of roughly 15 minutes. A tour de force. Lin floated the word "O" so it felt eternal, as it should, but even better was the elegant richness of her singing in the tender, lyrical passages that make this piece so moving.   

Performers featured : Mary Wu (piano), Nancy Loo (piano) Alexander Wong (piano), Xu Lingzi (guzheng), Carol Lin (mezzo), Colette Lam (soprano), Ho Siu-cheong (dizi), Chan Pik-sum (erhu), Zheng Yang (violin), Wei Ningyi (violin),  Chris Choi (viola) and Xu Ting (cello)

Composers featured: Tsui Wai-lam, Lui Man-shing, Chan Man-tat, Meilina Tsui, Doming Lam and Clarence Mak, Holst, Britten, Frank Bridge and Respighi

Please see my other pievces on Chinese music, Chinese movies, Chinese historyand on Hong Kong. This is one of the very few sites which covers Chinese culture and arts in English.  And I cover a lot on British music, especially Britten.

Friday 7 July 2017

7/7/37 - a world event unmarked in the west

7th July 1937 - 80 years since the  start of the Japanese invasion of China.  The "Marco Polo Bridge Incident or 七七事變 is a hugely important anniversary, prelude to the massacre of Nanjing, the conquest of Shanghai and the war in the Pacific.  Luguo Bridge (as it's known in Chinese) was strategic because it's so close to Beijing, the symbol capital, though the seat of government had been moved to Nanjing by the Nationalists just ten years before.  Manchuria  was invaded in 1931, but 7/7/37 was an attack on the core of the nation.  Chinese from all regions took part in the resistance in the North. Eventually, the war moved South, too, precipitating one of the largest mass population upheavals in world history. No-one in China remained unaffected.  Effectively 7/7/37 marked the start of a cataclysm that's engulfed China for decades, its repercussions still being faced today. Mao and the Communist Party, for starters. To understand the present, it is absolutely essential to understand the past, and from the perspective of those who experienced it.  Nowadays it's fashionable to think in simplistic terms. There are some who'd even deny the impact of the Opium Wars. Imagine the situation reversed.  But the present doesn't exist in a vacuum. Identity is reshaped, distorted and revised, but the broader the perspective, the less likelihood of getting boxed into corners. Polarization is the enemy of truth.  Thus the more we learn, the better we can interpret.

Wednesday 5 July 2017

Saint-Saëns Le timbre d'argent, Paris F X Roth

Camille Saint-Saëns Le timbre d'argent from l'Opéra-Comique, Paris, a joint production with the Palazetto Bru-Zane. A performance so vibrant and vivid that it should bring Saint-Saëns's operas back into the mainstream.  Saint-Saëns was just  30 when he completed it, quite an achievement for a young composer who had hitherto written a few works for chamber ensemble.  Le timbre d'argent (The silver bell) is an ambitious piece, in the extravagant tradition of Grand Opéra   It has all the elements of French operatic style - a spectacular plot enlivened by fantasy and the supernatural, showpieces for singers and chorus, lively interludes for dance and unusually imaginative orchestration. Heard here in the 1913 full  edition prepared by the composer, the opera straddles 19th and 20th century French music theatre.  The plot is based on Faust, and clearly inspired by Berlioz and Gounod with whom Saint-Saëns  was connected.  The stylish vivacity in the orchestration is wonderfully realized by the Orchestre Les Siècles  conducted by François-Xavier Roth, The choir is Accentus, no less, and soloists include Edgaras Montvidas and  Hélène Guillmette.

It's Christmas and the choir are singing jolly songs  "Noël ! Noël !"  Hélène (Hélène Guillmette) and her maid Rosa (Jodie Devos) are singing, too.  But Conrad (Edgaras Montvidas) moans about his miseries. Perhaps it's a wry joke on the composer's part to set the part for a tenor with a heroic timbre who can't really be as sick as he thinks he is.  A chill sets in, the violins trembling, chords breaking off in fear. Again we hear the merry choir "Tra la la" but the dance turns to death march.  Spooky winds, swirling figures but Conrad keeps singing"I am cursed!  Worse is yet to come.  The strings buzz madly then diminish.  An alphorn (?) calls and angels sing in the choir.  An apparition appears out of the brume. "Flee, flee, J'ai peur " sings Conrad. Is it Conrad's doctor Spiridion (Tassis Christoyannis)?  Or Mefistofele?  Conrad's fevered mind can't tell. Spiridion gives Conrad a magic bell to soothe his spirit.  Thus, the pure clean ring of a silver bell. and a scream.  ,Dums roll, violins spin dizzying patterns., the brass calls, the choir sings alarm.

A long orchestral interlude represents Conrad's journey through space and time   He is fixated on the vision of a dancer, who symbolizes, the epitome of beauty.  The dancer dances, but doesnt sing. In an opera full of singing, that's a telling note.  The music zings, but with an unnatural glow,  angular, crazy rhythms, hurtling forward, brass and strings pumping along. Spiridion's lines are long and curving, like a serpent. He's tempting Conrad, an innocent in Eden.  The musical,writing is almost cinematic. A wailing solo violin suggests a village musician. Or the Devil, who has the best tunes. Thus Hélène's showpiece aria.  "Le bonheur est chose légère", is haunted.   But the harps, strings and choir suggest  that all is not yet lost.  There are comic moments, like an aria for baritone (Spiridion) mocking marriage, deliciously vulgar, almost music hall.  Another wonderful orchestral entr'acte, whizzing strings  punctuated by ebullient percussion. The choir sings a raucuous song: the punctuations suggest glasses being raised, or high-kicking dance.   The libretto includes references to dancers playing roles in the action, but I only know the audio.  The mood changes to horror. "Maudit, maudit" sings Conrad, as he realizes the price that must be paid fir his quick-fix cure. Some innocent soul dies when he profits.

More musical, adventures in the Third Act, portrayed through orchestration: suggestions of folk song, almost, like bagpipes. The choir sings a jolly chorus "Bonjour! Bonjour!".  But Conrad's song , though lyrical , is pensive.  He's thinking of  Hélène.  She joins him in a duet, their voices fluttering around each other like the butterflies in the text.

Several more opportunities for dancing.  Exotic "oriental" music, vaguely Arabic, before the orchestra explodes in a climax that might be a storm. From the tumult whizzing figures arise from the strings, flying figures perhaps suggesting winds of change.  Music as scenic as this stimulates the imagination, its pictorialism exists in the mind, not in reality.  A fanfare of brass announces another chorius "Tra-lala", so vigorous that you're drawn in.  Again, the music is punctuated by fierce outburts, "Un, deux, trois, quartre" , sings Conrad, while the orchestra beats time behind him. More ominous percussion, but the mood is broken by the voice of Hélène, singing a melody so pure and lovely that her voice suggests what the true timbre d'argent might be: not Spiridion's silver object, but Hélène herself.  Spiridion resurfaces.  Hi song, though sinister, is oddly moving.

Another orchestral interlude, marked by melancholy violin.  Conrad's torn between Spiridion and  Hélène. The bell rings in the orchestra, tolling like a church bell.  The orchestra joins in with fulsome melody. Hélène calls.  Conrad responds.  Thunder strikes, but from the tempest in the orchestra we hear the sound of harps, and the solo violin again, its melody now firm and clear. The line rises upwards then descends, and the orchestra sings a gentle song, not quite a lullaby.  The female voices in the choir sing of love.  has the crisis passed? In the distance the choir sings a hymn.  Possibly, it's still Christmas.  "Mon coeur!" Conrad cries.  The bell theme returns, quietly.  Conrad and Hélène unite at last, in duet, surrounded, haloed by the orchestra. The choir sings "Alleluja!"  With a final. affirmative crash, the opera ends.  Conrad's saved, by love.  Listen to the broadcast here. 

François-Xavier Roth, has a thing for Saint-Saëns. He's conducting Saint-Saëns's Piano Concerto No 5 in F major, 'Egyptian' at the Proms on 16th August, together with the Bacchanal from Saint-Saëns. Samson et Dalila. which Philippe Jordan conducted at the Opéra National de Paris last year (Read more here).  The Palazetto Bru-Zane, which organized this production of this  Le timbre d'argent, also presented Saint-Saëns Prosérpine last year with Véronique Gens, conducted by Ulf Schirmer.

Monday 3 July 2017

Lieder on a battlefield - Schubert Körner Schlegel Wigmore Hall

Liederabend on the battlefield! Not Schubert at the piano, but Theodor Körner, poet and freedom fighter.  On the night of 26th August 1813, Körner played the piano and sang for his comrades into the early hours. The next day, astride his horse, and dressed in black Lützower Freikorps uniform, he was shot, and died, aged only 21.  The Lützower volunteers fought a heroic resistance against the forces of Napoleon. Many of them were intellectuals, but as soldiers they lived rough, often camped in dense forests, living amid nature, sometimes aided by peasants. All the elements of the Romantic spirit ! Romanticism and the very idea of German identity was thus forged through steel.  Literally Schwertlied, (the song of the sword) the patriotic poem Körner wrote for that final Liederabend depicted above. "Hurra, du Eisenbraut! Hurra!"   Körner's mystique was that, even in battle, he was an artist, and had a death wish, another Romantic meme.  One can imagine the impression Körner made on Schubert, a geeky kid from a poor background.

Thus the background to this recital in the Wigmore Hall's Complete Schubert Songs series. Here Schubert's settings of Körner were presented with settings of Friedrich von Matthisson, Friedrich von Schlegel and his brother August.  The Körner songs chosen, however, were more light hearted than heroic.  Sängers Morgenlied I  D163 and II D165 follow the same text, the first setting somewhat tentative, the second more developed.  These were written within the same few months in 1815, when Schubert also wrote Liebesrausch I D164, and II D179, the first a fragment, the second with palpitating figures in the piano part, suggesting the fervent heart in the text.  Also from this period but more individual were Liebeständelei D 206 and Das gestörte Glück D309, two songs of coy flirtation.  When Markus Schäfer, the singer at this Wigmore Hall concert, recorded these songs with Ulrich Eisenlohr some years ago, his voice was light and agile. It's still charming, though he has to push the lines a little more.

Schubert's settings of Friedrich von Mathisson are more varied.  Entzükung D413 (1816) and Stimme der Liebe D418 (1816) are somewhat impersonal declarations of love, one lit by bright sunlight, the other by sunset. The rhyming couplets in Liebenslied D508 (1816) don't inspire Schubert to great  heights. Interestingly, Mahler, drawing his text from folklore, wrote a rather livelier Scheiden und meiden.  Skolie D507 (1816), however, is a drinking song. For a moment we were back to the youthful vigour of Körner and Burschenschaft societies. Vollendung D579a and Die Erde D579b were discovered in the 1960's. D number apart they bear no resemblance to the well-known Der Knabe in der Weige D579.

Friedrich Schlegel as a young man
Just as Schubert was inspired by  the ideaism of Theodor Körner, he was inspired by the idealism of Karl Wilhelm Friedrich von Schlegel (1772-1829), another, though older, contemporary.  Schlegel's cycle of poems, Abendröte"Alles scheuint dem Dichter redend, denn er hat den Sinn gefunden, und das Allein einzig Chor manches Lied aus einem Munde".  The Gods of classical antiquity fade and Nature itself takes precedence.  The poems are vignettes : mountains, rivers, bushes, stars, a small boy and a butterfly, described in naturalistic terms.  Schubert wrote the songs in random order, from 1819 to 1823, the most prominent,  Die Abendröte.D690, last of all, though it forms the first part of the group on Schubert's manuscript. Its undulating piano lines suggesting the downward movement of the sun and the awakening of sensuality. "Berge, himmelan geschwungen" in every sense.  

Whatever Schubert's intentions may have been, the group of 7 of the 11 settings when performed together in this order has a certain logic. In Die Berge D614 (1819), the vocal line rises upwards, "Sieht uns der Blick gehoben", the middle section of the last word suddenly rising to a peak.  The piano part is confident, almost swaggering and upbeat.  In the middle strophe the pace quickens, strong single chords for emphasis.  With Der Knabe D692 (1820), we're down to earth once more, the high tessitura suggesting youth and fragility.  Der Fluß D693 (1820), is one of Schubert's most famous songs, its sensuous curving line flowing like a river. The vocal part soars and dips : there are parallels between this song and Schubert's last great masterpiece Der Hirt auf dem Felsen (D965) (read more here).  Perhaps the protagonist is a young shepherd looking down from a mountain to the river below. creating a nice connection with the other songs in this group.  With Der Schmetterling D633 (1819) we return to brisk, sunlight physicality, the piano part suggesting flapping wings. Die Sterne D684 (1820) recaps the mood of nocturnal repose in  Der Fluß  while the text of Die Gebüsche D646 (1819) reiterates the mood of the first song, Abendröte.: "Durch alle Töne tönet im bunten Erdentraume.ein leiser Ton gezogen Für den, der heimlich lauschet". 

August von Schlegel
Augmenting the settings of Friedrich von Schlegel, four settings of poems by his brother August Wilhelm von Schlegel (1767-1845) less successful in a material sense, but also influential, and cosmopolitan.  Lob der Tränen D711 1818, Die gefangenen Sänger D712 (1821), Wiedersehn D855 (1825) and Abdendlied für die Entferne D856 (1825) plus one of Schlegel's translations of Shakespeare, Ständchen D889 (1826) "Horch, horch, die Lerch!"   Ace programme planning!  Markus Schäfer with pianist Piers Lane gave an earnest performance, but the choice of songs was so erudite that it was well worth enduring the horrendous traffic jams in central London before and after the show.  Hyde Park was mayhem, roads blocked for 50,000 fans and Justin Bieber.  Meanwhile, at the Wigmore Hall, our minds were focussed on philosophic ideals.

This review also appears in Opera Today