Monday 29 June 2020

Glyndebourne magic at home - Ravel L'enfant et les sortilèges

L'enfant et les sortilèges - Teapot (François Piolino) Child (Khatouna Gadelia) Chinese Cup (Elodie Méchain) Credit Simon Annand
 Glyndebourne at home, minus the garden. Champagne and strawberries optional. But a glorious chance to experience once more the magic of Ravel L'enfant et les sortilèges, in the Laurent Pelly production.  In L'enfant et les sortilèges, the world is seen through the eyes of a child, still full of wonder, too young to be locked into rigid assumptions : innocent, yet still  aware that there might be darker forces lurking just beyond.  This isn't an opera that can be approached literally, with the judgementalism that some adults might prefer.   Pelly, however, captures its elusive delicacy, where magical thinking co-exists with an awareness that harsh reality will eventually intrude, even on the pure in spirit.  "L'enfant et les sortilèges" said Pelly, "lasts about 45 minutes, but has the depth of an opera of three or four hours".This production's timeless, endlessly refreshing. What a joy it is to experience its freedom again via Glyndebourne streaming, especially in these times when it seems that the world seems bent on self destruction.

The combination of this L'enfant et les sortilèges, from 2012, with Pelly's much earlier L'heure espagnole underlines the freshness of Pelly's conception.  In  L'heure espagnole the adult figures are cynical, as inhuman and as inhumane as the clocks Torquemada surrounds himself with. Machines can be controlled to suit. Torquemada's a classic case of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, where process means more than goal, the need to regulate a mask for existential anxiety.  Concepción thinks she can escape by playing men off against each other, but she, too, is operating on clockwork. Everyone in  L'heure espagnole is trapped in an infernal machine they don't even recognise : no-one's happy, or innocent.

The 2012 Glyndebourne cast was brilliant - Stéphanie d'Oustrac and Kathleen Kim, for starters ! Altogether unforgettable !  Please see my original review from the premiere  and also my interview with Laurent Pelly.

Sunday 21 June 2020

The New Babylon - Kozintsev, Trauberg and Shostakovich

Dimitri Shostakovich's first film score, for the 1929 film by Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg, The New Babylon (Novyy Vavilon). The film makers were part of a co-operative known as FEKS (the Factory of the Eccentric Actor) that thrived on the daring new possibilities offered by film as an artistic medium,  thriving on futurism and the avant garde. The subversive spirit of the 1920's squeezed into political orthodoxy.

Like the film makers, Shostakovich was young and idealistic : this was his first commission for the movies. (the score to be played live at screenings). Cinema was a truly innovative art form, in that it appealed to mass audiences who might not otherwise have been drawn to “art”.  By the standards of the day, The New Babylon was daring. By working on it, the youthful Shostakovich was right in the centre of what was artistic avant garde in Soviet terms. He didn’t have the relative luxury composers in the west had, of conducting and teaching. He needed the movies to make a living. What is intriguing is how much film influenced the development of his music.  Thus the brassy militaristic marches, interposed by manic crowd scenes, chreographed to highlight excess and abandon.

The film celebrates the Paris Commune, dutifully showing images of downtrodden workers, capitalist degenerates, effete officers, healthy peasants and other stereotypes. The plot is simple: the downtrodden rise up against the system with some vague idea of “getting rid of the bosses” but are soon crushed by the military. The acting is banal. The heroine uses one pained expression for every purpose. It’s a relief when she suddenly falls out of the plot, her place taken by a minor actress who really can act, so much so that her personality seems to enliven the screen, even if she’s long dead and forgotten.

This being a propaganda film, the plot doesn’t bear analysis. One moment the washerwomen struggle with weariness. Once they’re told they’re free they suddenly wash with such hysterically manic vigour they get soaked through in the process. If only it were that simple….. The climactic scene is one where the communards and the bourgeoisie face each other in a stand-off. Of course the communards are supposed to be expressing contempt for the depraved ways of the capitalist class, proving their moral superiority and ultimate victory. Perhaps it’s the bad acting again, but the distinct impression I got from the scene was that the actors playing the communards would much rather have been enjoying sinful hedonism.  Perhaps the film was banned because it portrayed the degenerate capitalists with too much glee. They may be a drunken lot with rotten teeth, but they sure seem to have a good time. At least they get to do it in satins and lace. Indeed, the decadence is portrayed with such historical detail that in one brief shot, I’ll swear I saw why the Can Can was so scandalous! Mixed messages, then, in this film.

Shostakovich's score is a delightful riot of witty set pieces, such as the Marseillaise and variations thereon, Can Can music and a maudlin Tchaikovsky piano solo to match the onscreen scene where a communard plays an instrument consigned to the barricades. Moreover, there are obvious “scenery” effects, such as gunshots, the trundling of carts, cannonades and so on. Subtle this isn’t. Someone somehow managed to edit film and music in such a way that they are perfectly synchronised.  When I first saw the restored fim, back in 2006, I wasn't too impressed by the cinematography, but re-watching after all these years, I appreciate it a lot more for what it is.  We're all puppets, the film seems to suggest, caughtup in situations beyond our control.

Sunday 14 June 2020

Keeping live music alive - Royal Opera House live from Covent Garden

Lots to listen to this weekend : Live from the Royal Opera House, London, from the Rudolfinium Prague with Simon Rattle conducting the Czech Philharmonic and Magdalena Kožena, Britten from Aldeburgh,  Britten on Camera documentary on BBC TV 4, plus the LSO tonight (John Eliot Gardiner, Mendelssohn) plus much more.

"Doing our best to re animate the spirit of this gorgeous house" says Antonio Pappano in the introduction. And the ROH is glorious - it's heartbreaking to see it empty and its grand traditions silenced for the forseseeable future. That is WHY we need concerts like this, to remind us of what we might lose forever, if we don't take this crisis seriously.  Most musicians are freelance : they can't suddenly end up on the dole or get jobs filling boxes at Amazon. Like athletes, they need to keep training to keep their skills.  All that expertise gone to waste. The Royal Opera House is the second largests arts employer in this country, after the BBC, and contributes greatly to the economy. It is significant that far too many music fans do not recognize the role of live performance in keeping music alive.  Typical sneers on the net from "music lovers"- "we don't do live in my neck of the woods", "too many classics around already", "We only need Youtube" and most shameful of all, "We don't need professional musicians, amateurs are enough".  We're not just up against a pandemic and financial disaster but up against music fans who can't even comprehend the role of live performance in music-making.  

Above all, live performance is a communal activity, which constantly regenerates artistic growth.  The ROH is huge, not particularly suited to chamber recitals, but at least the company is making an effort, not, like the South Bank, giving up and closing down while keeping governments grants. So we might have to pay £4.99 to view later ROH concerts, but so what ? We should all be doing something to help.  In recent years, the notion that everything should be free is delimiting experience and poisoning growth.  The ROH website (as always) is full of petty complaints but it's not hard to access the concert (which starts a few minutes in) and remains online for repeat listening  There is a certain amount of echo at the beginning of the film before the mikes adjust by the time the performance starts.  Louise Alder sings Britten On this Island, and Toby Spence sings Butterworth A Shropshire Lad, and Gerald Finlay sings Mark-Anthony Turnage Three Songs  and Finzi Fear no more the Heat of the Sun.   The pianist is Pappano himself. For opera regulars, "Au fond du temple saint" from Bizet The Pearl Fishers, an opera that's notoriously difficult to stage, and Handel "Tornami a vagheggiar" from Alcina.

Since the ROH is also the home of the Royal Ballet, Francesca Hayward and Cesar Corrales dance the world premiere of a new pas de deux, choreographed by Wayne McGregor to Richard Strauss Morgen! , Louise Alder singing the Lieder.  Listen to McGregor describe why the arts must not be left to desiccate by default.  "And tomorrow the sun will shine again (Und morgen wird die Sonne wieder scheinen)  And that support needs to be coming from listeners like ourselves.

Friday 12 June 2020

Roderick Williams - defeating cultural apartheid in Lieder, Wigmore Hall

Roderick Williams sings Schumann Frauen-Liebe und Leben at the Wigmore Hall with pianist Joseph Middleton, highlight of an unusual programme Williams calls "Woman's Hour" because it features Lieder that highlight the lives of women.  As Williams says, Lieder aren't necessarily gender-specific, but works of imaginative expression.  So composers and poets were male, but that didn't stop them from caring about how women might think or feel.  The idea that songs should be rigidly classified as male or emale is cultural apartheid, a regressive demeaning of the very values of humanity that Lieder, and indeed the whole Romantic movement, stand for.

Towards the end of the last century, Schumann's Frauen-Liebe und Leben came in for flak from some Lieder fans, thereby ruining it for female singers who risk being attacked for being "anti-feminist" if they like it.  But surely serious Lieder fans should have known better.  Nineteenth century women may not have had equal opportunities but they were human beings with feelings, and even  now, women who chose love and marriage are not traitors to their sex.  Hating Frauen-liebe und Leben says more about the haters than about the music.

Adalbert von Chamisso (1781-1838) was a progressive by the standards of his time, a man of the world and open minded, and a friend of Madame de Staël who was no Handmaid's Tale.  In these poems, Chamisso describes a young woman as she matures and develiops her identity. She becomes strong enough to handle being on her own.  Schumann, too, was not repressive. He knew that Clara was the top celebrity pianist of her time, forging a career without the support of managements and modern PR teams. She'd fought her father in court for the right to marry. Not the sign of a shrinking violet.  She was the breadwinner, continuing to work long after Robert's death. Though neither she nor Robert knew it at the time, Frauen-liebe und Leben was almost prophetic. Schumann's setting is delicate but it's not "effeminate", but rather reflects tenderness and intimacy.

When Matthias Goerne did a programme with  Frauen-liebe und Leben and Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder some audiences went apoplectic, but again that says more about themselves.  It's always easier to hate something different than take it on board.  He did this programme at the Wigmore Hall in 2006 where audiences in general know what Lieder is about and aren't threatened by any deviation from recieived wisdom. He revealed the innate beauty of these works, and the fundamental dignity of human expression.  If Lieder fans (or self styled Lieder fans) can't cope with that,  they desreve to stick with kitsch and schlock.  

Williams and Middleton extended to programme with Lieder by Schubert and Brahms, also portraits of women with feelings and minds of their own, and Clara Schumann's Liebst du um Schönheit, which is pleasant enough but proves the case that some women can decide for themselves where their true talents lie. 

Wednesday 10 June 2020

Night Mail 1936 - Art and covert socialism

Available now on BFI player, Night Mail, the pioneering documentary produced by the General Post Office film unit released in February 1936.  It's fairly unique, a factual documentary about train services,but it's lifted out of this into the realm of art, by its sensitivity to the subject. Real railwaymen and postal workers, not actors : nothing faked. It's an idea that connects back to the futurism of the 1920's and 1930's and even further back to to William Morris's concepts ideas of art and socialism as continuum.  Mail sorters are seen putting letters into pigeonholes : repetitive rythmic movements which streamline the process, their movements almost balletic.  Then, look at the trains themselves - engines puffing, pistons moving, travelling in orderly, organized lines across the country.  Much more than mundane mechanical process ! Even the sound of steam rushing through the chimneys and the banter of the workers sound like music. The Postal Special is so efficient that letters and parcels posted in one area can be sorted and bagged on the train within half an hour.  On this orderly efficiency, rests the prosperity of industrial Britain.  Night Mail was created to boost the morale of low paid workers, but also as public relations. On this orderly efficiency rests the prosperity of industrial Britain.

Night Mail is "industrial poetry" so it's perfectly apt that it should end with poetry and music.  W H Auden's poem captures the rhythms of  machines and men, working in unison, while opening out to the world beyond - letters of every kind, from all over the world, communicating human stories of every kind.  Th very young Benjamin Britten picked up on this context, his music replicating the lines of the text to brilliant effect.  Produced and directed by Harry Watt and  Basil Wright,  this film is also influenced by Alberto Cavalcanti who had made Rien que les heures (Nothing but time) - a day in the life of Paris, from 1926,  not unlike WaltervRuttman's Berlin : Symphony of a Great City (read more here). Very much in the spirit of futurism and creative modernity.  Sadly, some things don't change. Cavalcanti was poised to head the GPO film but was cut off as he wasn't British. He returned to his native Brazil, then returned to Europe, East Berlin and France.

Friday 5 June 2020

People or pianos ? Good for Yuja Wang !

Yuja Wang (Photo : Julia Wesley)
On her Facebook page Yuja Wang has spoken out on the image of a piano trashed in the protests after the murder of George Floyd #blacklivesmatter :

"Pianos will continue to be crafted with love and care, music will be shared to unite and uplift people during this time of crisis, and stores will be rebuilt, through the hard work and generosity of their communities. What we can’t rebuild or replace, however, are human lives. Those are the most precious thing of all, and we must safeguard the lives of people whose voices aren’t being heard."

"Human expression takes many forms. It has to, especially when marginalized voices are not being acknowledged, and are met with hatred and judgement. I hope you will look at this powerful image and recognize everything that it is trying to say to us."
".....when marginalized voices are not being acknowledged and are met with hatred and judgement"  Think on that. The vicious abuse aimed against her for saying that abolutely proves the case.  Racism is endemic ; indeed you could argue that some sections of western society would collapse if they didn't have targets to hate, whatever the target might be.  Right wing extremists are only the tip of the iceberg, (or rather inferno).  Their values tap into a mindset that runs so deep that even supposedly decent people who vomit at DT & Co happily accept the way his agendas have permeated.  Too many Uncle Toms, too. It's the whole Cold War mentality of good guys versus subhuman bad guys, the "good guys"  assuming the moral imperative, however much double standards might apply.  Yuja Wang knows first hand how petty minded and vicious some people can be. So all the more her courage deserves respect.

If pianos are more important than the millions of lives damaged and lost through racism,  that says something about society.  True artists use their instruments to create something more sublime than material things.   In any case, what kind of artist uses white painted pianos, anyway ?

Sure, mass gatherings in times of pandemic are not a great idea for infection control.  But racism is even more contagious than COVID and it kills even more.   strange, usn't itbhow the same poeple who believe in their freedom not to respect disease limitation suddenly advocate it when other people are concerned.   Like the woman who claimed to be a feminist because domestic violence has spiralled during lockdown. As if domestic violence would disappear overnight if lockdown stopped? Or the man who complained because he's isolated for weeks, so therefore no-one else should be out demonstrating, yet doesn't complain about yobs who cheerfully ignore anything other than their own needs.  #onlymylife matters