Category: reviews

PROMS 2011

No notes, no research – just some thoughts and observations.

Prom 9: Sibelius, Bartók, Janáček

What to say about this concert? None of the works are new or unrecorded, so description unnecessary; I don’t know any of the works well enough to make comparisons with other interpretations of them. So – the Sibelius Scènes historiques were pleasant, and while they did, as promised in the concert blurb “[reveal] the composer’s lighter side”, to be honest, I’m more interested in his darker (heavier?) side, and found the 7th Symphony more meaningful and musically engaging. In both, I found myself listening particularly to all the different timbres brought out by the scoring, as the focus shifted around the different sections of the orchestra. All of the sounds coming from the Hallé were simply so nice that I probably would have been quite happy listening to them play scale exercises. What I particularly appreciated about the flute section was the richness of sound in their low registers, and they way it projected such a distance without ever sounding the slightest bit forced. The whole orchestra, in fact, had a particularly close-up, intimate feel to it, which is some achievement when playing to a crowd of many thousands in a huge space.

Enjoyed Bartók’s 3rd piano concerto, performed with great lyricism and harmonic clarity by András Schiff; there seemed particularly close rapport between soloist and orchestra, particularly in the fast alternating sections in the last movement. Janáček’s Sinfonietta is simply a super piece, and was played brilliantly, with all the fizzing energy required, but pinpoint-accurate under Mark Elder’s light fingertip control of the invisible mixing desk. It’s the only one of the pieces that I’ve actually played (piccolo part), and I had an idiot grin on my face for quite a lot of it, especially the 3rd movement. Incidentally: Oo, trombones! Trombones are great!

On a side note, I’m used to having to put up with noise made by other members of the public coughing, eating, fiddling with their false teeth and talking (including, in this case, some imbecilic American man behind me asking what Schiff was playing for his encore WHILE he was playing it), but this is the first time I’ve been distracted by the noise of a ticking watch. Yes, the elderly woman sitting next to me was wearing a watch with an absurdly loud tick, that was clearly audible in the quieter sections of the music. Especially when she raised her hand to ear level, while looking through her binoculars. I noticed it during the first piece and in the first break, politely asked her if she would mind putting it in her handbag. She seemed astonished that I could hear it, and put it to her ear to see if she could (no), and then if her companion could (no), but was still happy to comply. This was fortunate, as having the equivalent of a metronome set permanently to 60 BPM going throughout would not have been conducive to an enjoyable performance.

Prom 33: Sibelius, Grieg, Nielsen

Sibelius and Nielsen are two composers who seem to divide orchestral musicians, or at least, the ones I know. I love them both, Sibelius for his timbres and tone colours, and Nielsen because he writes for woodwind with more love and understanding than almost anyone. The two symphonies tonight (Sibelius 6, Nielsen 4) were not ones I know best, but both showed well the talents of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic. The Sibelius was particularly effective in its fine graduations of volume and texture. The Nielsen, on the other hand, required very sudden changes; the way the orchestra handled these gave me a mental image of being in a room with several doors opening and shutting in turn and then in combination, the other side of each having a completely different scene going on. Stand-out personnel were the battling timpanists (obviously), and the principal bassoon, who had an unusually soft-edged, slightly diffuse sound with languid vibrato, which was intriguing and enjoyable.

The other piece on the programme – the Grieg Am piano concerto, played by Alice Sara Ott – was one I know very well. At least, I’ve played in it enough times that I actually felt a kinaesthetic memory twitching in my fingertips in response to the 1st flute part – not all the way through, obviously, but at a few key moments, such as the lovely solo in the 3rd movement, which is one of my favourites. Cheese? Why yes it is, but it goes sailing above everything, the finest melted cheese topping (yeah, it’s not the best metaphor) with a last leap up to the top A and goosebumps all round. I found some of the tempi a little on the slow side (and got the impression that Ott did too, and was trying to push them on a bit, though couldn’t say for certain from such a distance) and the phrases joined into very long lines which could have done with a bit more definition, but that’s personal taste. I don’t seem to be very good at telling one pianist from another, because although I haven’t a word to say against Ott’s performance of the concerto, it sounded much the same (i.e. just as good) to my ears than every other time I’ve heard it. That is, apart from that time I did it in a church that hadn’t bothered to get their piano tuned properly, and one of the lower As was massively flat; A is kind of an important note in a concerto IN A MINOR, and the poor pianist kept trying to avoid it by transposing bits of the left hand either up or down the octave. Fortunately Ott did not have to do that. Neither did she make the mistake, as happened in the last performance of it that I played in, of wearing a brand new salmon-pink gown which turned out to be one of those fabrics that goes much darker when it gets wet, which in a sweltering hall resulted in massive sweat patches under each arm, mid-bosom, and, when she stood up to bow, arse too. Not that I suppose she would have cared, as long as all the music went well, and it did.

Audience noise rep0rt: One mobile phone, but an ‘old-fashioned telephone’ jingly sound which happened to be of the correct pitch to blend with the harmony of the music at that point. So, less annoying than a triangle…

Prom 66: Thierry Escaich (organ) plays Bach, Escaich, Reger, Franck, & Liszt

I like going to organ recitals once in a while. Don’t mind who’s playing what, just like having my bones rattled by the massive pipes. Preferably while lying flat on my back in the middle of the RAH Arena.

PROMS 2011: Havergal Brian ‘Gothic’ Symphony (2011-07-17, RAH)

This year, for various reasons, I decided not to do the press thing at the Proms. I’ve enjoyed writing formal reviews and probably will again, but for now am taking a break. So, no notes taken or facts researched – just some thoughts and observations as they occur.

Prom 4: Havergal Brian Symphony No. 1 ‘The Gothic’

Before the concert, a friend of a friend opined that people in the audience were in two camps: those that had been waiting decades to hear this piece, and those that had no idea what they were letting themselves in for. I disagree. The BBC has done an excellent publicity job, and tickets sold out the day they went on sale, I imagine with many punters in a similar frame of mine to me, i.e. ‘Havergal Brian? Name rings a bell; don’t know a note of his music though. What’s that – it’s the heaviest-scored, longest, loudest symphony ever written ever ever? Sounds fun – count me in.’

Some of my acquaintance say I’m fussy about music, but it doesn’t seem that way to me. I hear a violin and go ‘Oo, violin! Violins are great!’, I hear a french horn and go ‘Oo, horn! Horns are great!’, and so on. (Of course, there are exceptions: I hear a triangle or glockenspiel and think ‘Stupid bloody noise tingtingting ow making my ears ring shut up!’) So, Mr Brian seemingly liked the sound of all the instruments in the orchestra, and included as many of them as possible, in all the different sizes. Plus a Victorian thunder machine, which appeared to be a rotating washing machine drum filled with rocks. I was misinformed that the scoring included a bass flute and was disappointed to find that it didn’t (although bass oboe and contrabass clarinet were included, which seems very unfair); however, unreliable sources on the internet inform me that bass flutes were first constructed in the 1920s, so he might not have been aware of their existence. You might think that it makes little difference to anything when among an orchestra of 200-odd, but it might well have done, as several of the quieter moments of the work were scored in a way that brought out the alto flute lines quite clearly. The 8-strong flute section were very effectively used, sometimes in more traditional solo or duet lines (played expressively and with superb ensemble), sometimes Mahler-style section playing, and at one point in an odd reversal of classical scoring, with a solo violin line accompanied by a choir of flutes.

As regular readers may know, apart from my own instrument, I’m also particularly fond of bass clarinets, all the double reeds, and tubas (as long as they’re not doing Comedy Tuba Cliche, i.e. playing stuff that sounds like it should be soundtracking a jolly slapstick skit involving rotund people falling over). The bass clarinets had some very nice solo action that could easily have been from a Wagner scene, and the oboe section all sounded gorgeous, with a particularly lovely section for cor anglais duet. Fortunately, in addition to adding much welly to the loud bits, the 2 tubas and 2 euphoniums (?) were featured not as comedy, but in a lovely slowly-building Wagnerian (again) structure of Rhein-like open 5ths. I mentioned above that I hate glockenspiels; I have no such issue with xylophones, although for some reason I do tend to find their sound intrinsically funny. Not the case here, as this concert featured the most jaw-droppingly amazing xylophone playing I have ever heard, in a blurry-armed part which I would think requires insane levels of rhythmic precision and coordination. The timp part was pretty full-on too, but at least there were 6 of them banging away (6 timpanists, that is, each with 4 timpani – spread variously around the stage area for some pleasing antiphonal effects).

I feel a little bad about not having anything specific to pick out from the hundreds of voices in the multiple choirs participating (particularly as I had friends singing). They made a great warm, rounded sound and showed very impressive accuracy of timing considering the huge numbers involved, and the complicated Spem in Alium (but more chromatic) part-writing in some sections. Some of the choral sections were very traditional and quite hymn-like, whereas others were reminiscent of Ligeti. Some of the unaccompanied sections were very long, and I heard a rumour that the pitch (unsurprisingly) drooped a couple of times, although it wasn’t enough for listeners without absolute-pitch to notice. I also heard a rumour that the soprano, Susan Gritton (at that point high up in the rafters) noticed the tuning issue and cleverly put it back on track during her solo sections. If that’s true, brilliantly handled!

This being the first performance of the Gothic Symphony since the 60s 80s, much of the comment on it has been as if it were a premiere. Those I’ve heard and read so far seem to generally agree on the fact that (a) it was an extremely impressive performance, with a great deal of credit going to conductor Brabbins for holding together and shaping such huge forces, and (b) the work itself is erratic and uneven in style and compositional structure, and that this was problematic for listeners. I can see why this might be the case for some, but wasn’t for me.

Firstly, the overall structure of the symphony, which I’m told was intended as an auditory depiction of a gothic cathedral, huge, imposing, featuring odd bits of decorative carving and grotesquely humorous gargoyles, part celestial and part militaristic. Well, yes. There were bits with different moods which might have been written by composers 100 years apart in different countries jammed against eachother without any attempt at smooth transition. But does one necessarily always want smooth transitions? Sudden swerves in an unexpected direction are exciting. These differently-textured slabs of music were not arranged neatly in an obvious pattern, but more like crazy paving, with large and small units mixed, some perhaps ‘too’ large or ‘too’ small. My companion commented that it was a wonderful moment when the organ first kicked in, full throttle (which it was), and a shame it was gone again so soon – but that as a leave-em-wanting-more tactic, it worked. In my opinion, there are some people who dislike surprises and are more comfortable knowing what’s going to happen next (in the case of orchestral music, either because they know the work or can make a fair estimate based on knowledge of the composer and/or genre) and there are some who actively like surprises and the sensation of having no idea what’s coming (and when you play or listen to a lot of orchestral music, that sensation becomes harder to come by). When listening to something that clearly isn’t following ‘the rules’, the brain can’t whirr away making its predictions in the background to try and fill up the empty space of the unheard future, and I find that quite liberating.

Another compositional aspect is the level of complexity of texture and/or polyphony of music. Or in other words, there’s a Lot Going On At Once. While I enjoy a beautiful melody, emotive harmonic change, or neatly-fitting counterpoint as much as anyone, I realised that sometimes I crave complexity. Because I’m naturally highly analytical, a part of my brain goes around pattern-spotting and problem-solving quite of its own accord, and while this – contrary to the belief of some – does not make music any less enjoyable, sometimes it can be good to give it a break. One route to this is (as above) through unpredictable macro-structures, but another, more instantaneous, way is to overload with music which has so many instruments or parts doing so many different things (yet each of them making sense), that it’s impossible to process them all at once. Of course, different listeners are overloaded by different levels of complexity: for one person, four instruments playing triadic harmonies in similar rhythms is quite enough for comfort; another person may be totally confused by bitonality or hemiola-heavy rhythms; others can hold 8-part double-fugue structures in their heads with ease. And while I find this loss of comprehensive grip an uplifting mental sensation which is almost trance-like, some people hate it.

Lastly, there’s the volume aspect. Anyone can amplify their instrument(s) through a big stack of speakers and make a deafening noise – the decibels aren’t the issue – but a hugely loud noise which is all from acoustic instruments, which fills the majority of the audible frequency spectrum, and which has the multi-layered complexity of timbres that comes from a symphony orchestra, is something very special. Douglas Adams described the effect of his fictional cocktail the Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster as “like having your brains smashed out by a slice of lemon wrapped around a large gold brick”. The climactic bits of the Gothic Symphony, even from the very back row, felt like drinking a Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster, while on a rollercoaster, in a hurricane.

I loved it.

RITES 3D (Southbank Centre, 2011-04-23)

Despite the plenitude – some might say surfeit – of 3D films gracing the cinemas in the last year or so, its use in orchestral concerts and ballet performances is still rare enough to generate a deal of interest. Of course, the fusing of live orchestral music with recorded video is not new, whether it be performances of film scores (e.g. the Philharmonia’s concert of the complete music to 2001 – A Space Odyssey earlier this month) or the multimedia collaborations of Steve Reich and Beryl Korot; likewise, the real-time manipulation of visual imagery in response to music has become mainstream on both the opera stage and in the concert hall. Of course, the melding of orchestral sound and digital imagery may be used to superb effect (e.g. in last year’s ENO/Complicite A Dog’s Life) but also such poor effect that it distracts from or diminishes the music (of which I will refrain from raking up examples)… [read more here]

Programme

Varèse: Tuning Up (sketch, completed by Chou Wen-chung)
Ligeti: Lontano
Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring

Performers

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Ilan Volkov (conductor)
Julia Mach (dancer), Klaus Obermaier (concept, artistic direction, choreography), Ars Electronica Futurelab (interactive design, technical development), Alois Hummer (sound design), Wolfgang Friedlinger (lighting design)

LOLA PERRIN – Going East (Purcell Room, 2011-03-19)

Lola Perrin’s recital began in contemplative fashion, with Abandon and Julia’s Chorus from her Silver Suite for solo piano. Having come in from the bustle, noise and bright lights of the Southbank Centre and the Embankment, the reverberating dreamy Debussy-esque chords had immediate effect in setting a peaceful mood – one could see some audience members’ shoulders visibly un-hunching as they relaxed into the evening. The energy level was soon raised, however, when Perrin was joined by elder brother Roland for a single-piano duet of G Mass, a fascinating trip through a variety of styles – one moment reminiscent of Nyman, the next Scriabin, or Keith Jarrett – all skilfully blended into a highly original whole. It was also fascinating to see and hear the two Perrins duetting, and drawing such different sounds from the same instrument; Lola’s warm, flowing groove in the bass contrasting with Roland’s spiky stabbing improvisatory style in the treble, in a way that almost shouldn’t have worked, yet entirely did… [read more here]

Programme (all by L Perrin)

Abandon & Julia’s Chorus (from the Silver Suite)
G Mass
Intertitles I
Going East

Performers

Lola Perrin (piano/synthesiser)
Natacha Atlas (voice)
Roland Perrin (piano)
Kate Shortt (cello)
Sarah Watts (bass clarinet)
Alexis Kirke (electronics)
Jonathan Bonnici (writer/narrator)
Phil Maxwell & Hazuan Hashim (film makers)

Another Purcell Room gig where I’ve walked out of the auditorium at the end and immediately bought one of the albums of the artist that they were handily selling at a stall by the door. Ms Perrin was doing a signing, but I didn’t particularly want a personal message (what with not knowing her personally), so just asked her to autograph it. Hope she didn’t think I left off my name so I could flog it on eBay…

ANNA NICOLE student preview (ROH, 2011-02-12)

Image borrowed from http://www.roh.org.uk

Recently there seems to have been even more discussion than usual in the media about the role of bloggers, journalists, reviews and previews. Thus, as clarification:

  • This was not a performance, but a dress rehearsal to which students were invited. I bought my own ticket for £10.
  • It was a separate occasion to the main dress rehearsal, to which ROH paying members were invited.
  • Judging by the effort the ROH went to in publicising this special student event by email, twitter, facebook, etc. one can only assume they want to create a buzz about the show, i.e. engagement with the performance and subsequent responses to and discussions of it are welcome.
  • This is not a review, it’s a personal aide-memoire which I’m sharing on my blog.

Initial reactions to the announcement of a new ROH-commissioned opera based on the life of Anna Nicole Smith often seemed to run along the lines of whether it was a fitting subject for opera or not. I found the arguments (for ‘not’) based on the luridness and amorality of her lifestyle and life choices rather odd, from an art form celebrating Carmen, Tosca, Salome, and Lulu. A better argument might come from the fact that many of the characters involved are still alive (although sadly not Anna or her son), and portrayed in a very unappealing light. I say ‘unappealing’ rather than ‘unflattering’ as, not being much of a sleb-watcher, I have no idea how accurately-presented the people and events are – although, for that matter, how much can the public ever know of the inward life and relationships of individuals? I assume, however, that everything’s been checked for sue-ability.

So, being barely aware of the real Anna Nicole’s existence, apart from a dim idea of some tarty blonde who’d married a doddery old rich guy (and even then, getting her confused with Lolo Ferrari), I was impressed by the character created by librettist Richard Thomas, director Richard Jones, and soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek. While being vain, ignorant, greedy, irresponsible, and half a page full of other dislikeable traits, Westbroek’s Anna was still, somehow, likeable; she brought across both huge self-belief and fragility to create a surprisingly complex and completely believable character – more so, perhaps, than the Duchess from Powder Her Face, with which the work has certain similarities of form. I’ve seen Westbroek twice (I think) before, recently as Elisabeth (Tannhauser) and previously in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, and am of the opinion she just gets better and better as a singer, and is also a superb actor – especially given the range required for just the three roles I’ve seen her in. Also somewhat transformed from when I last saw him (as Gandhi in Satyagraha) was an unrecognisably geriatrified Alan Oke as J Howard Marshall II, descending to the stage in his chairlift, and later getting dolled up in gold shellsuit for party time. Being a rehearsal, it’s not appropriate to discuss all the individual voices, but I can’t miss an opportunity to mention Gerald Finley (Stern – Anna’s lawyer/lover and all-round slimy villain of the piece), from whose mouth Never Comes An Unlovely Sound.

It’s not unusual to see an opera production full of contemporary sets and costumes, or hear a libretto full of 20th/21st century cultural references (and Swear Words to snigger at); however, it did strike me that given how common it is to see updated Handel or Mozart characters in jeans, snorting coke and telling eachother to fuck off (extra obscenities interpolated into recapitulation sections), I had to remind myself now and then that this was not a trendy updating of anything, but a tale of people who wore jeans, snorted coke and told eachother to fuck off. When Anna is shown working in a fast food stall near the start, it actually means she fried chickens for a living, rather than, say,  a commentary on social underclasses through the ages; when she is shown going to a strip club, the pole-dancers aren’t jazzed-up Rheinmaidens, they are literally pole-dancers that she met; this literalism took some getting used to. Unfortunately, this also means that a rousing chorus of “boobies, titties, funbags, dingdongs” (or something along those lines) isn’t a bad translation of an old text but actually the words the librettist chose. To be fair, the libretto is witty in parts, appropriately idiomatic, and contains what are some very funny lines, when well-delivered. Those who saw Jerry Springer: The Opera will know the kind of thing to expect.

I don’t actually know any of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s music, although the name is familiar enough that I feel I really ought to. I read that he has eclectic musical tastes, including a particular fondness for jazz, and the genre-blending in this work was certainly done more smoothly and skilfully than many composers manage. I got something of a Sondheim vibe from it; although tbh I don’t know much of Sondheim’s oeuvre either, the varying of discordant rhythmic sections with periods of laid-back lyricism reminded me a few times, musically, of Sweeney Todd. The standard orchestra is bumped up with saxes, electrics, kit, and a generous visit to the percussion cupboard; none of these things appear intrusive or unexpected, in context. There are recurrent melodic motifs which add continuity, and even some tunes one might leave humming (not that I particularly require hummable tunes in a piece of music, but there are those who do).

One thing, I felt, was missing. Early info about Anna Nicole implied there would be a ‘blowjob aria’, and I was rather looking forward to doing the first musicological comparison of this particular microgenre (i.e., with the one in Powder Her Face), but it wasn’t what you’d call an aria at all. Marshall just emits a couple of (musical) groans, from where he is hidden behind a crowd of chorus, then Anna wanders out, wiping her mouth. Oh well.

All in all, the story succeeds to some extent in both tragic and comic aspects (and there are death scenes of both kinds), has pleasant and intelligent, if not boundary-pushing, music, delightfully gaudy and tasteless sets, and performers who throw themselves into their roles with gay abandon. It also makes its (one) point as a critique of the shallowness of celebrity culture: when one of the cast members, early on, wandered on in a black bodysuit with a camera on her head, I thought it was silly, but as the story continued, increasing numbers of individuals in the crowd scenes were replaced by anonymous black-camera-people, until at her death, they are all that is left – this proved an arresting and poignant image on which to end.

A DOG’S HEART (ENO/Complicite, 2010-11-20)

Image borrowed from http://www.eno.org

One of the ENO’s great strengths is its willingness to experiment with new works, and another is its collaborations, both with other opera companies and other artistic disciplines. A Dog’s Heart fits into all these categories, being the UK premiere of a new work, the production involving collaborations with De Nederlandse Opera, theatre company Complicite and puppeteers Blind Summit ; an exciting prospect, indeed.

Director Simon McBurney described himself as having no konzept for his first foray into opera, but worked on it “by listening to the music and reading the story over and over again”, which proved an excellent decision, in this case. The story is Mikhail Bulgakov’s 1925 surreal satire of the Soviet regime, banned until 1987, and, nearly a century later, startlingly relevant, containing as it does themes of class distrust, media distortions, bureaucratic officiousness, and vanity-fuelled experimental surgery. It is also quite ridiculous, centring on a stray dog who, when his testicles are replaced with those of a human, becomes human in various other ways (such as growing a human face, walking upright, and developing a taste for vodka, tobacco, the works of Engels, and balalaika music). Transformed into operatic form, the tale thus deserves inclusion in the fine tradition of Russian absurdist satirical opera, alongside Shostakovich’s The Nose and Schnittke’s Life with an Idiot.

Although a well-established composer in other forms (though not yet very well-known in the UK, apart, perhaps, from some of his chamber music), A Dog’s Heart is Alexander Raskatov’s first full opera. As a woodwind geek, I confess my eyes lit up before a note had even been played, on spying in the pit an expanded section including alto flute, contrabassoon, saxophones, and that rare beast, the contrabass clarinet. Throughout the work, Raskatov makes great use of extremes of register, contrasting the growling contras with piccolos and violin harmonics, and also makes wonderful use of the full diversity of timbres available. The tonal palette is also varied, sometimes atonal, sometimes polytonal, and now and then dipping very effectively into traditional harmony with fragments of Russian folk song, Soviet march, or Orthodox church music (with hints of Stravinsky, Shostakovich, and even Mussorgsky). However, I nevertheless found the music quite difficult to engage with. This had nothing to do with the dissonance, but with the long periods of very irregular, spikily strident rhythms and pointillist note patterns; despite, or perhaps because of, the pinpoint-accurate bite of Garry Walker’s orchestra, it made everything seem unnecessarily agitated and over-dramatic, which was fine for scenes such as the bloody operations, but less so for accompanying a convivial glass of vodka between friends. It may well have been Raskatov’s aim to suggest the unease and agitation constantly present just outside the walls of Professor Preobrazhensky’s comfortable flat, but a constant high state of tension cannot be sustained indefinitely; it loses its power. I found myself longing for a change: some legato, longer melodic lines given to an instrument, or even some longer-sustained notes. This wish was answered immediately in Act 2, particularly in the lovely but brief duets between the Professor and devoted assistant Bormenthal (baritones Steven Page and Leigh Melrose), and I enjoyed the music of the second half significantly more than the first. However, I ended the opera with my fingers literally stuck in my ears, due to the unbearable volume of sound generated by giving an opera chorus megaphones!

With nothing resembling traditional arias, the majority of the singers were restricted to natural speech-patterned recitative – essentially, pitched conversation – which, while allowing them to demonstrate technical dexterity in navigating Raskatov’s gymnastic leaps, left little opportunity for expressiveness of phrasing or even, really, much of their tone quality to come through. The women in particular suffered in this way, with, for example, Elena Vassilieva producing a clever amalgam of speech and canine growling (as pre-op dog Sharik’s ‘unpleasant voice’),  Sophie Desmars’s role (as dog-man Sharikov’s short-lived fiancée) consisting of a series of (very well-executed) skittering squeaks, and Nancy Allen Lundy (as hysterical maid Zina) leaping around both vocally and physically – hammy mugging which many of the audience seemed to find hilarious, but which I found as irritating as trying to listen to a symphony with a hyperactive toddler running in and out shrieking for attention. Countertenor Andrew Watts (last seen being savaged by werewolves in The Duchess of Malfi) appeared here as, variously, man, woman and dog – as Sharik’s ‘pleasant voice’ providing rare moments of expressively eloquent longing (usually directed to a sausage).

While the various humans have supporting roles, the dog/man Sharik(ov) succeeds in being the most convincing and fully-realised character, in all his forms. Thanks to outstanding design (inspired by a Giacometti sculpture – see the original here) and deft puppetry skills, a half-formed skeleton dog is perfectly brought to life, and when reborn in the form of a gleefully repellent Peter Hoare, yaps, whines, scratches, swears, and makes a virtuoso performance of behaving in exactly the way one might imagine a dog in human form to do.

Complicite are particularly admired for the visual aspects of their productions, and, my reservations about the score aside, for this reason alone I would recommend this show to anyone who enjoyed their recent A Disappearing Number, or who has an appreciation for innovative staging. I myself particularly enjoy the recent trend for multimodal mixing of text with set (as in Satyagraha) and the incorporation of pre-recorded or live video projection effects (as in Le Grand Macabre), and all of these were imaginatively and wittily used throughout, to create a succession of incredibly striking images interacting in real time with the characters’ actions. There are too many of these to list, and in any case, I am disinclined to give out ‘spoilers’ which might lessen the effect – the gasps of surprised delight and smatterings of spontaneous applause were too clearly in evidence.

During A Dog’s Heart I was variously amused, appalled, irritated, touched with joy and sadness, and eventually left the theatre pondering the nature and meaning of humanity. And if that is not the mark of a successful piece of theatre, what is?

[Review written for and reproduced here with the kind permission of Opera Britannia.]

DON GIOVANNI (ENO, 2010-11-06)

Rufus Norris’s new production for the ENO began with what looked like a gang of hooded teenagers in black, with matching T-shirts and sinister masks, messing around with a large coil of electrical wiring. Were they perhaps leftovers from last week’s Halloween revels? That would be contemporary indeed. The ‘hoodies’, when not whirling the blocks of scenery around, appeared to be under the command of Don Giovanni, although quite why Halloween Gang would be doing the bidding of a slobbish 1980s-styled Jonathan Ross lookalike was unclear – the uneradicated power of money, privilege and fame, perhaps. Leporello, in turn, appeared to have stepped out of a time capsule from the 1970s, the epitomy of Northern working class cliché, while Masetto was a 1950s teddy boy. Updated, then, but somewhat inconsistently so. That description could also cover Jeremy Sams’s new ‘translation’ of the libretto, which was, for the most part, strenuously updated to the late 20th century (e.g. Masetto being speared in the “arse” with a toasting fork he’d “nicked” from “bloody bastard” Don Giovanni’s “disco”), but now and then slipping back into the more traditional territory of “wooing” and “ruing”… [read more here]

Performers

Iain Paterson (Don Giovanni), Sarah Redgwick (Donna Elvira), Katherine Broderick (Donna Anna), Brindley Sherratt (Leporello), Robert Murray (Don Ottavio), Sarah Tynan (Zerlina), Matthew Best (Commendatore), John Molloy (Masetto)
English National Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Kirill Karabits (conductor)

Production team

Rufus Norris (director), Ian MacNeil (set designer), Nicky Gillibrand (costume designer), Mimi Jordan Sherin (lighting designer), Finn Ross (projections designer), Jonathan Lunn (movement director), Jeremy Sams (translator)

IN THE PENAL COLONY (ROH, 2010-09-15)

Image borrowed from http://www.roh.org.uk

Philip Glass’s best-known operatic works – the ‘Portrait Trilogy’ of Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha and Akhnaten – focus on iconic figures driven by inner vision and conviction to change the world for the better. Einstein, Gandhi and Akhnaten – though overcoming strife and difficulty on the way – achieve their destinies, and their music, while containing periods of tension and aggression, is ultimately uplifting. The making of the representative for Planet 8 (from Doris Lessing’s novel), which followed these, showed a darker side, dealing as it does with the extinction of an entire human(-oid) species, but still ended in transfiguration and hope. At first glance, Kafka’s short story In the Penal Colony appears to inhabit a very different kind of world, the central construct being a gruesome machine for the torture and execution of transgressing prisoners, the central character being an officer devoted to its maintenance and operation. However, from the grotesque context emerge not only themes of violence, degradation and obsession, but also of epiphany, transfiguration and redemption. The formal structure of the drama is also, clearly, something that was likely to appeal to the composer’s classicist sensibilities. Rudolph Wurlitzer’s libretto and stage directions follow Kafka’s original story closely, with the dialogue between the Officer and the Visitor (Explorer or Traveller in some translations) which makes up the majority of the text faithfully preserved, and the Visitor’s private thoughts becoming short soliloquies. The music, while consisting of recognisable Glass-isms from the start (minor triad-based oscillations, superimposition of simple and compound quaver rhythms, etc), keeps the main repetitive structures within the strings (reminiscent most of his Dracula quartet), allowing the voices freer and longer melodic lines than in much of the music mentioned above.

Glass describes In the Penal Colony, along with his other smaller-scale stage works (including Orphée, performed at the Linbury five years ago) as “pocket operas”, requiring only a few performers and “sets you could put in a couple of suitcases”. In director Michael McCarthy’s production with Music Theatre Wales, the four nameless characters (Visitor, Officer, Soldier and Condemned Man – of which only the first two are singing roles) are shrunk to three with the removal of the Soldier role, an excision which in fact makes very little difference. Also on stage and visible throughout, positioned behind the dramatic arena, are the six musicians – string quintet and conductor Michael Rafferty. Simon Banham’s set, while not quite fitting in a suitcase, is spare in the extreme, consisting of table, chair and ladder, plus a few small props. This may be disappointing for those hoping to see a full physical recreation of the magnificent flaying machine, but the aim is (as I understand it) to provoke the audience to exercise their own imaginations and picture the horrors so vividly described by the Officer. In Joanne Akalaitis’s 2001 New York production, the emphasis on the fictional nature of the events portrayed was enhanced by the addition of Kafka himself (or rather, an actor playing Kafka) scribbling in notebooks and reading journal fragments; not having been present for that performance I cannot make a fully informed judgment on the idea, but am, on the whole, glad that this was not the case here. Perhaps surprisingly, the visible string players did not ground one in the reality of sitting in a theatre, watching the telling of a story, but rather had something of a Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps feel, musicians imprisoned in a concentration camp, playing to the end.

Omar Ebrahim brought a hysterical, flashing-eyed zeal to the role of the Officer, first lovingly describing his machine and his idolised Old Commander who created it, declaiming with missionary fervour its power to bring enlightenment to criminals and the community, desperately begging the Visitor to help save it (and him), and, on realising his era was ending, seeking his own redemption – unsuccessfully – by offering himself as the machine’s final victim. Ebrahim’s secure, full-throated baritone rang out powerfully, but he also produced a gentle, lyrical tone in both upper and lower registers during certain more contemplative moments. Particularly interesting was the way he and the strings shifted between more vigorously rhythmic and more romantically legato versions of the same melodic figures. The machine, of course, is horrible, and its creator sadistic, but for a while we see/hear them via the Officer’s loving eye.

Michael Bennett had perhaps the more difficult character in which to convince, the sociologist Visitor being a fine example of Kafkaian moral ambiguity: first bored and disdainful, perpetually uncomfortable, and while he eventually takes a stand against the execution of the Condemned Man (although approving that of the Officer), seems to do so more in distaste and embarrassment than ethical imperative. In the early scenes, there were distinct balance issues between Bennett and the gorgeously rich and full-toned lower strings, with him appearing and disappearing in the ‘mix’ while singing, but this acoustic problem did not persist (and I gather was not a problem at all from other parts of the auditorium). At the start he was also a somewhat uneven in tone, but this may have been a function of the dynamics, as his sound became fuller, smoother and with a particularly pleasing purity in the higher-lying passages. The opera does not contain arias in the traditional sense, but the moments in which the Visitor reflects by himself – with growing intensity of feeling – were very fine. I often find it difficult to make out singers’ words, so the fact that both Bennett and Ebrahim were so clear in their enunciation was a definite bonus.

The Condemned Man, a dumb presence throughout, was inhabited with unnerving intensity by Gerald Tyler. Like an abused dog, he cringed when struck, beamed with thankfulness at being given a scrap of food, gazed at the two men in hopeless desperation to understand, and, grotesquely, sometimes copied the Officer’s gestures in a pathetic attempt to please.

After so much abstract or indirect portrayal, it was quite a shock, when the Officer finally sets the (invisible) machine upon himself, to suddenly have very visible blood spraying and splashing on his back. Although the denouement is certainly shocking, and intentionally so, I found this sudden leap into realism rather jarring. Also, while I liked Sound Intermedia’s threatening industrial hum in the background, the explicit grinding and dripping noises seemed somewhat bolted-on. However, these are small points. Overall, the production was visually effective and musically interesting throughout. While I have difficulty seeing it winning over new fans to Philip Glass or contemporary chamber opera, those familiar with the genre should definitely take advantage of the rare opportunity to hear this work.

Music Theatre Wales’s production of In the Penal Colony will be touring until 17 November.

[Review written for and reproduced here with the kind permission of Opera Britannia.]

PROMS 2010

My Proms visits this year – some formal reviews (links), some informal thoughts and observations.

PROM 2: Wagner (Die Meistersinger)

To tell the truth, I was unconvinced of the wisdom of spending 6+ hours in a hot tin can, listening to an unstaged concert performance of my least favourite* Wagner opera. However, it was really very enjoyable indeed. Yes, even Act 1, which has the potential to be deathly dull, but was in this case brightened immeasurably by Pogner, or rather by Brindley Sherratt’s special ability in making the most undramatic, static characters’ narratives implausibly gripping.

My other main reason attending this concert was, of course, to hear Bryn Terfel. I’ve enjoyed him in every opera I’ve heard him sing, but particularly in Wagner, and his Hans Sachs was really something special. In addition to some gorgeous singing, his inhabitation of the character brought out the humorous, mournful and contemplative aspects to perfection. Christopher Purves’s Beckmesser was also genuinely funny — a silly and pompous man but without the nastiness he is sometimes given.

The vocal (and physical) acting of the cast made this so much more than a standard declamatory concert performance, and in fact better to watch than at least one staged performance I’ve seen. Dare I say that I also found it helpful not to have surtitles? Knowing roughly what the characters are wittering on about but being spared the exact words left me free to give my full attention to the music; attention which it very much deserved.

(* Least favourite of the 8 I actually know – also including Ring, Tristan, Parsifal and Dutchman. Haven’t got to grips with Tannhäuser or Lohengrin yet.)

PROM 18: Dean, Mahler, Shostakovich

I found Brett Dean’s ‘Amphitheatre’ pleasant on the ear and atmospheric, but I have to say, I am having some trouble remembering any details about it afterwards. As for the selection from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, while Mahler’s music has been steadily growing on me since university, it’s a slow process, and I’ve made a lot more progress with the symphonies that I have with the songs. Some of them are quite definitely beautiful, but others are somewhat irritating, and those in between I find too short for me to really get a grip on. Nevertheless, Ekaterina Gubanova’s voice sounded gorgeous (right from the back of the circle), and she performed them with such charm and affinity for the music that it would have been impossible not to enjoy.

I have mixed feelings about the second half. Shostakovich 10 is one of my all-time favourites, and I know it very very well. On the positive side, I think this is such a wonderful symphony that it would have to be a poor performance indeed (which this obviously wasn’t) for me not to be moved; on the negative, I couldn’t help picking up various tiny errors that in most pieces I would probably miss. Also, as a result of having performed it a few times, I found myself unintentionally focusing even more attention than usual on the woodwind section, and in particular the piccolo. All clearly excellent players, the micro-section ensemble playing (e.g. the three flutes) was very good indeed, but the and gelling within and between the orchestral sections perhaps less so. In general, the faster, louder passages worked the best — for example, the frenzied second movement was stunning — whereas the sparser passages sometimes could have done with a little more nuance of colour and dynamic, in particular, daring to drop down to a real pianissimo (which only the clarinets really did).

In an aside note, this was a particularly bad concert for selfish, arrogant audience behaviour. There have been various debates in various forums on the old clapping-between-movements chestnut, and although I’m firmly on the side of showing appreciation at the end of a piece of music rather than in the middle of it, I can see why sometimes, after a brilliant cadenza or particularly exciting movement, applause might be spontaneous, and on rare occasions, even welcome. But how can anyone listen to the magical time-stopping piccolo solo that ends the first movement and hangs in the air, and then want to break up the brief pregnant silence before the second movement launches, by slapping their hands together? And if only the clapping was all… While I’m very much in favour of letting children experience orchestral music from an early age, for the sake of other audience members who have parted with their hard-earned cash to hear some music, it might be worth waiting until said child is capable of sitting quietly for more than five minutes at a time. And if Shostakovich had wished the quiet, contemplative moments of his symphony to include the chattering of some teenage girls, he probably would have written it into the score. Yes, I’m touchy about this. But I do think it’s both disrespectful to the musicians pouring their hearts out on stage, and selfish to assume that your conversation is important enough to be worth disturbing the listening experience of the people around you. Anyway, in this case the talkers were sitting right in front of me, so it was not difficult to lean over and politely request they keep their voices down during the music. And then tell them again, less politely. And then administer a quick kick to the seat when they started up yet again.

Rant over 🙂

PROM 21: Berlioz, Wagner

A bit of a mixture, this one. At some points it sounded sublime, at others, frankly, a bit ropey. Simon Rattle’s interpretation of the score and shaping of the music was superb, and there were a lot of lovely sounds coming from the OAE, particularly the warm, rounded    tone of the strings. However, Wagner’s woodwind writing can be tricky in terms of intonation, and unfortunately there were moments where this showed; in the brass, there was great enthusiasm, which sometimes incurred the sacrifice of accuracy. (These issues, interestingly, did not show up in the Berlioz at all.)

Of the singers, Franz-Josef Selig was a wonderful rich, dark King Mark, and the other highlight was Sarah Connolly’s Brangäne, with a particularly wonderful moment being her voice echoing down from the castle tower (i.e. Gallery). Violeta Urmana’s Isolde sometimes seemed underpowered — although I’m quite prepared to believe this was due to the vagaries of the Albert Hall acoustic — and unfortunately, Ben Heppner appeared to be in some vocal distress at the upper end of the vocal range; however, they both pulled out all the stops for So sturben wir, the heart of the act, to great emotional effect.

PROM 35: Ligeti, Tchaikovsky, Langgaard, Sibelius

“Countless thorns: silence. My silence: the beating of my heart … Night.” So began tonight’s concert, with Ligeti’s setting of Sándor Weöres’s poem Ejszaka (Night). Introspective in feel, and with every word of the text described in the harmony and texture, it set the scene for what at times was quite an other-wordly evening of music. While this short piece and its companion, Reggel (Morning) show the young Ligeti exploring tone clusters and harmonic layering, they provided opportunity for the double choir to display a variety of tone colours, dynamic changes and rhythmic vocal effects.

As Night segued smoothly into Morning, so did Ligeti into Tchaikovsky. With only the tiniest of pauses, Thomas Dausgaard directed his attention from choir to orchestra, Henning Kraggerud appeared as if from nowhere, and before anyone had had time to even think of coughing, shuffling or clapping their hands, the concerto had started. This was more musically effective than one might have expected, perhaps due to the Ligeti ending on the notes D and A, and the violin concerto being in D major… [read more here]

PROM 41: Scriabin, Stravinsky

I nearly didn’t go to this concert. And that would have been a mistake, because it was absolutely wonderful. However, at some point during the afternoon it occurred to me: LSO – Gergiev – Firebird – er, what were you thinking? So after my meeting I jumped on the tube, legged it down to South Ken, and totally prommed it like it was the 1980s. By that I mean, up in the Gallery (with a cooling breeze and loads of personal space), lying down on the floor with my eyes shut (because I have no need to look at another orchestra – I see orchestras all the time and they usually look much the same), alone (because when I was a teen I knew even less people who shared my taste for 20th century orchestral music than I do now), and even with some chocolate and a detective novel for the interval. Great stuff.

And brilliant music, yes. I didn’t know a note of the Scriabin, so think perhaps I won’t even try to go into any descriptive detail – I just allowed myself to be swept away by it. Firebird, though, I know well – it was probably the first piece that really turned me on to Stravinsky, but also it’s one of the orchestral flute parts* I’ve spent the most hours practising, as it is bloody difficult. (Well, it was difficult for me – daresay it’s a piece of cake for Gareth Davies!) Anyway, this was a well-nigh perfect performance of it: that so-important precision of rhythm and ensemble, coupled with equally-important fire, energy and fluidity. Also, while it can be impressive when sections blend smoothly (e.g. at last week’s DNSO concert), for this kind of music, each of the instruments must have its own character that stands out from the rest, and this was very much the case here – and throughout the orchestra from top to bottom, too. However, deserving special mention… some absolutely stunning oboe playing from  Emanuel Abbühl** (and I’ve heard a lot of very good oboing in my time) and gorgeous molten lava firebird-ing from Gareth Davies, particularly in their Pas de Deux (ok, technically Ivan and the Firebird’s P de D). Sparks flying from Sharon Williams on pic,  contrabassoons like a bad tempered lion waking up after a heavy night at the oasis***, and if I go on I’ll end up listing the whole orchestra. LSO are ace, and so is Gergiev, and so is Stravinsky. And all for £5! It’s times like these I love London.

* Suite (1945 version) in a 2008 Whitehall concert

** Couldn’t see a damn thing from where I was, so assuming all woodwind soloists were as indicated in programme. Please let me know if inaccurate.

*** From the LSO’s entertaining and informative blog

PROM 43: Pärt (St John Passion)

Arvo Pärt began work on his setting of the St John Passion in 1980, the point at which, frustrated by the demands of Soviet officialdom, he finally left his native Estonia and moved his family to Austria. His original and distinctive mature compositional style, known as tintinnabuli, however, was by this time well established, and of which this piece is a prime example. Pärt said “I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me.” Passio, of course, is not entirely monophonic, but the musical forces and their deployment are comparatively spare, with nothing extraneous.

Large portions of the text – those narrating the unfolding events – rested on the shoulders of the quartet of voices who together represented the Evangelist. Micaela Haslam (soprano) is familiar from her group Synergy Vocals (regular collaborators with Steve Reich), has an impeccable record in performing and directing the work of contemporary composers, and her performance of Pärt was as perfectly-judged an interpretation as one would expect from an expert in the field… [read more here]

PROM 46: Mosolov, Pärt, Ravel, Scriabin

This concert was a little different from the others in that I didn’t know any of the pieces well, and the composers are not favourites of mine, but all in the I-should-probably-listen-to-more-of-their-stuff-as-I-might-quite-like-it category.

If you want to get an audience’s attention right from the start, Mosolov’s The Foundry is a good way to go about it. Great fun. My companion’s comment was “This piece should be played at every concert – it’s brilliant.” Me, I’m wondering about hire costs, and if I can get it onto the programme for one of the orchestras I play with?

Pärt is definitely a composer I’ve been meaning for a long time to investigate further, but although I very much enjoyed his St John Passion on Tuesday night, his 4th Symphony left me a little cold, although it had some lovely passages, and it seemed most of the audience were in raptures. Will give it another go on iPlayer, but I expect I’ll like it better when it’s complete, and he’s added all the brass and woodwind parts. Or perhaps he wrote them, but the printer ran out of ink halfway, and they thought because it was the UK premiere, nobody would know any better.*

I expect Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand is one of the pieces familiar to everyone but me. Frankly, half the notes in the fast passages could have been wrong and I wouldn’t have known (although I’m assuming they weren’t), but it was, again, a lot of fun, and performed with great energy and a fair dollop of showmanship by Bavouzet. From our East Choir seats we had an excellent view of his left hand flying up and down, which was very entertaining, although perhaps made me listen to the music in quite a different way than I would have with no view. Thinking about it, I probably even listen differently to musicians if I’m watching them from the front or back: sitting behind an orchestra makes me feel like I’m a part of it, and with a conductor face-on I watch him or her too closely, catching myself filling my lungs on upbeats, etc., so it’s not unreasonable to suppose different parts of the brain might be activated by the different views. I also noticed for the first time how intricate Salonen’s hand and finger movements are when conducting – interesting, but I don’t necessarily want to be observing and analysing in this way at concerts.

My only prior relationship with Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy was that I once had to sight-read the 1st flute part, and was concentrating too hard on the rather black pages to be thinking about whether I actually liked the work or not. Fortunately, it turns out I do like it. And despite my reservations about watching music being played rather than devoting myself entirely to the auditory experience,  it did also benefit from the visual spectacle of all the speed-blurred fingers and bows, a conductor practically dancing on the podium, and the will-they-won’t-they precarious wobbling of the giant tubular bells whenever the percussion chap gave them a wallop with the hammers (which was frequently and energetically). In fact, the Philharmonia percussion section were particularly impressive throughout the concert, with other stand-outs being the trumpet(s), horns, and cor anglais.

* I feel the need to point out that this is not meant seriously. In the interval, we were making tongue-in-cheek comments about members of the percussion section having an easy job, just hitting a big drum with a stick now and then while the string players had lots of different notes, and got a telling off from a nearby audience member who happened to be a percussionist, righteously indignant about any perceived dissing of his section.