Fulham Opera: Siegfried

Fulham Opera begin 2013 and continue their mandate of “Big Opera on a Small Scale” with the third opera in their unique portrayal of the Ring Cycle: Siegfried. An innovative staging by Max Pappenheim keeps the audience once again right in the centre of this most intimate of Wagner’s operas.

Time  6.00pm, Tue 12 / Fri 15 / Sun 17 February

Place  St John’s Church, Fulham, SW6 1PB

Tickets  and further details at fulhamopera.com

Philharmonia Britannica: Tosca

Two semi-staged performances of Puccini’s dramatic masterpiece sung in Italian. The action takes place over 24 hours in June 1800 and is dominated by the police chief Scarpia, who rules Rome with an iron rod on behalf of the King of Naples. But Rome is now threatened by Napoeleon’s invasion. Into this politically charged and bloody story Puccini poured some of his best-known lyrical arias, with wonderfully evocative orchestration.

Time  7.30pm, Sat 16 / Sun 17 March

Place  St John’s Church, Waterloo,  SE1 8TY
http://bit.ly/StJohnsWaterloo

Tickets  £15, £12 (concs), £5 (U19s)  and further details at ph-br.co.uk

Whitehall Orchestra

Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, Chausson’s Poeme for violin and orchestra, and finishing with the Saint-Saëns “Organ” Symphony No 3. Our leader Nathaniel Vallois will be the violin soloist and we are delighted to be joined again by David Bednall on the organ.

Time  7.30pm, Thursday 21 March

Place  St Gabriel’s Church, Pimlico, SW1V 2AD
http://bit.ly/StGabriels

Tickets  £9 (£6 concs)

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

PROM 11: Berlioz (The Trojans)

Last month I wrote about the dress rehearsal for this in its staged form at Covent Garden. At the time, I was very taken with the visual aspect of the performance, so was glad of another chance to hear the music, now comfortably bedded-in with all concerned, without all the running around, and with the orchestra up on stage rather than hidden in the pit. Of course, there was no huge flaming horse, but given the ambient temperature of the Albert Hall in summer (a few degrees below the Mouth of Hell), this was probably for the best.

I particularly enjoyed Anna Caterina Antonacci’s Cassandra, more than I did at the dress – now devoid of floor-rolling and nose-scraping, but with voice just as full of character and feeling, if not more so. I also appreciated Ji-Min Park’s Iopas more this time. The acoustic, of course, was not ideal – at least, in certain parts of the hall, and the smallest voices (only in the smallest of roles) were sometimes drowned; having said that, I wouldn’t have had the orchestra any quieter, as they were making a splendid noise. The extra brass were up in the gallery, from where the antiphony worked particularly well (and the bonus that they could blast the unsuspecting audience members sitting directly below and frighten the life out of them). It was good to be able to pay proper attention to the ROH woodwind section, whom I greatly admire. 1st flute Margaret Campbell was on particularly lovely form – although I’m not (yet?) a great fan of Berlioz’s flute writing – but it’s always a little bit of a disappointment not to see Philip Rowson in the piccolo chair (no insult intended to the chap who was). There were some very fine pieces for clarinet, seemingly excellently performed – I’m a bit out of love with the sound of clarinets at the moment and not being easily moved by them, so it’s difficult to judge, but given that, despite this, I still noticed it on several occasions, it must have been pretty good!

Regarding the work itself, I was more drawn to the music in Acts 1 and 2 – the ones set in Troy. In the Carthage acts, there were some very wonderful moments, but the longeurs seemed longer. At Covent Garden, even with the distraction of men running around in little leather pants, the ballet scenes dragged; here, without even that, the music – however brilliantly played – bored me silly. By halfway through Act 4 I was rolling my eyes, and if I had magic editing powers, I would have cut pretty much the entire act, apart from Narbal’s bit – or, if that made the opera a bit on the short side, have Brindley Sherratt sing the ancient Carthanginian version of the telephone directory for half an hour. That would have been  much better.

Still, damn fine opera. Glad to have discovered it, and might even get the DVD (which will have FF/skip capability…)

PROM 42: Prokofiev, Neuwirth, Bartók

As I write this, I have just realised that someone in a neighbouring flat is listening to some rather loud jazz, a man is shouting outside, probably at the car alarm that has just gone off, and there is a bee buzzing around my room. It’s not that I didn’t hear these noises until now, but I’ve been listening to some Olga Neuwirth, and had just assumed they were all samples forming part of the eclectically diverse sound collage that characterises much of her work. Remnants of Songs … an Amphigory, which received its UK premiere at this concert, is a more traditional concert work in the sense of being a viola concerto in all but name, without electronics, samples, video, spoken text, or any of the other multimedia elements Neuwirth has embraced; it is, however, a theatrical piece requiring astonishing range from viola soloist Lawrence Power, mutating from the stillness of tiny high harmonics to mournful low snatches of folky melody, frenzied bow-shredding sawing, and solo wails à la Jimi Hendrix. Within the orchestra, the well-equipped percussion section seemed to be having a great deal of fun, while during the movement  titled “… im Meer versank …” (sank to the bottom of the sea), several of the woodwind section appeared to be required to double on mouth organ – to superbly spooky effect. Although there are passing allusions to ‘songs’ from various composers and genres, the title refers specifically to Ulrich Bauer’s book Remnants of Song, an investigation of artists’ responses to traumatic events, and how these can encompass both a desperate seriousness and a mad playfulness’… [read more here]

PROM 47: Cage Centenary Celebration

Perhaps it’s something to do with the Olympics? While there are avid lifelong fans of each one of the less-frequently-televised events featured, there have also been legions of people who usually barely register an interest in sport glued to Greco-Roman wrestling, the incomprehensible varieties of bicycle race, and hours of athletes repeatedly flinging different objects across a field. Likewise, although the many ardent fans of John Cage were obviously out in force for this centenary celebration concert for the legendary iconoclast, also present were a significant number of newcomers both to the ‘genre’ (if it can be called such) and to the Proms themselves. And the majority of them stayed the distance, too – a not inconsiderable 3 1/2 hours (5 if one took the Cage-inspired ‘Music Walk’ beforehand), at least an hour of which involved seemingly-abstract soundscapes created from unpitched ‘found’ instruments such as paper, wires, an electric fan, an vast range of cacti (Branches), and the Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s instrument cases (the Marclay piece Baggage). Of course, the sound made by rustling paper is not very loud (unless it is a nearby audience member’s programme, in which case it is obviously infuriatingly so), so amplification was a major feature of the concert… [read more here]

PROM 63: Ligeti, Wagner, Sibelius, Debussy, Ravel

I bloody love Ligeti. It reaches parts of me that other music doesn’t. I’ve been having some horrid #fibrospoon* stuff going on recently, with muscle fibres randomly knotting themselves up into snarling masses of tension and pain, but when those microtonal clusters of gossamer sound settled on me, the tightness eased, and the knots began to unravel themselves. I would say that I should try it more often, but even the most high-definition of recordings doesn’t work in the same way as being hit by the actual sound waves from the actual instruments. I’ve been lucky enough to hear maybe 3 live performances of Atmosphères in the last few years, and so after a couple of minutes of letting it do its soothing work, I decided to open my eyes and actually look at the musicians for a change. It did amuse me a little to see such a famously disciplined string section as the Berlin Phil with their bows all flying chaotically in different directions (of course they were – they were all playing different parts), and the double bass section getting all excited in the piccolo lead-up to the Vertical Asymptote Bit (if you don’t know the bit I mean, listen to the piece, and you will). The Albert Hall was rammed full of thousands of people being as quiet as they possibly could so as not to miss a note; this was very pleasing – I didn’t have to poke or scold anyone! It also worked extremely well to segue straight into the Lohengrin Overture; with the most careful of gear changes, the textures were matched perfectly and the first tonal chord emerged in a sudden manifestation of reverse entropy.

I didn’t know Sibelius 4 at all. I should have done, as it was on the programme for an orchestra repertoire course I was on the other year, but there were, that afternoon, as frequently happens, more flutes around than required, and I generously volunteered to take the afternoon off (in favour of a hot bath to soak a set of arms and back not used to 8 hours a day of playing). Anyway, when I turned up for dinner, the other flutes rounded on me, suggesting I’d only pretended to be reluctantly stepping down because I secretly knew that it was an awful symphony and wanted to get out of playing it. This was Very Unfair, both to me, and, it turns out, to Sibelius. It is not an awful symphony at all; it is rather lovely – although on the dark, stark side, and possibly a disappointment to anyone expecting Big Tunes like in No.5. There was one bit I hated, to be fair – anyone guess what? – yes, some incredibly obtrusive walloping glockenspiel, that had me fantasising about taking a machine gun and blowing the bastard thing to smithereens. I mean the instrument, of course, not the player, who was presumably only doing what the score and maestro required of him. Fortunately, from a Law n Order point of view, I had no access to firearms or the percussion area. Or, for that matter, to Jonathan Kelly, whom I do not know personally and so would have probably alarmed by giving a massive hug, just for playing such beautiful oboe solos. (Yes, I really like oboes. This is not news to anyone. Or is it? I was out the other night with old friends who were somehow surprised to discover that I really like curry and tennis, so who knows…)

In the second half there was something of a change of pace with Debussy and Ravel. If Sir Rattle thinks Jeux is a worthwhile piece of music, I’m perfectly happy to take his word for it and assume it’s me that’s missing something, but – meh. Whatevers. Doesn’t do it for me at all. Daphnis & Chloe, on the other hand, was absolutely brilliant. The woodwind were nice and prominent, as it should be, and from my Upper Choir seat I could hear more of the detail in their parts than I’d dared hope. Admittedly I did have a brief thought of how I’d like to be at a sectional rehearsal for the piece, so I could hear all the lovely bubbly ripply stuff just once, minimalist-style, without the distraction of the soppy string tunes. I also felt a litle ashamed of myself for having, when the orchestra first came on, noting the 1st flute only as Not Emmanuel. It was in fact Andreas Blau, and he played the the extremely demanding Ravel really damn well, so much so that at the end, Sir Rattle ran through the orchestra and gave him a big hug before anyone else. (I’ve sometimes been hugged by appreciative conductors after concerts, but that tends to be down the pub after they’ve had a beer or two, not on the actual stage. Maybe if I get to play D&C one day, and don’t bugger it up…) The final section of the piece had all the fire, fury and kick you could desire, and was not in the least diminished in excitement by its technical perfection (as at least one sniffy critic said). The audience would have liked an encore, but honestly, what would you follow an ending like that with? Let’s leave the table comfortably full after an imaginative and varied 5-course meal, not stuffed to ickiness by an extra helping of pudding.

* Don’t look it up. I made this word up.

Carl Nielsen had an exceptional understanding of the nuances of woodwind instruments, and when playing the parts he wrote for flautists, the affection is almost palpable. Towards the end of his composing career, he thought of different orchestral instruments as having distinct personalities, and composed their interactions accordingly. While Nielsen may have once said that “the composer has had to follow the mild character of the instrument” (source: The Carl Nielsen Society), and while there were certainly periods in his Flute Concerto in which the flute floats tranquillo above the rabble, there are also moments of impatient spikiness, and the liquid, sinuous cadenzas – as played by LSO principal Gareth Davies – contained bursts of fire… [read more here]

Programme

Bartók: The Miraculous Mandarin (Suite)
Nielsen: Flute Concerto
Zemlinsky: Die Seejungfrau (The Mermaid)

Performers

London Symphony Orchestra, Xian Zhang (conductor), Gareth Davies (flute)

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.

Image borrowed from www.musicweb.uk.net

Image borrowed from http://www.musicweb.uk.net

I believe strongly in recycling one’s rubbish, so when the curtain went up for Bluebeard, I was pleased to see the ROH were re-using the pile of rubble from Götterdämmerung earlier in the year. Or maybe it was left over from some building work? Anyway, it was spread all over the stage (along with a huge broken chandelier – from Phantom of the Opera?), and I was initially concerned that Albert Dohmen (Duke Bluebeard) and Christine Rice (Judit) would trip over a plank and skewer themselves on a rusty nail or something, but happily they were sure of foot.

This may sound like I’m being rude about the visual aspect of the performance. I’m not; it was actually really effective. The castle walls and doors were fairly plain and sombre, but the way different coloured lights were used could change the character each time a door was opened, and there was a real sense that the castle itself was alive, and malignant, almost another character, conspiring in the ill doings of its master. If you’ve read the novel House of Leaves, you may have an idea of what I’m getting at. There was a stunning visual moment at the opening of the 5th door, when the walls slid apart to reveal a huge moon, and it was very effective (if not very subtle) that the 7th door seemed to appear from nowhere to loom hugely over a tiny Judit. (Dead psychological, innit.)

The orchestra were on good form as usual, and while I always find myself involuntarily listening out for the woodwind, in this performance I also particularly noticed the percussion section, who had plenty of interesting stuff to do.

The singing, to me, seemed of very high quality, and while I probably wouldn’t rush out to see anything purely on the strength of Dohmen or Rice, I’d be pleased to hear them again. I don’t know this opera well enough to really comment on their portrayal of the characters, but I did rather like the way Dohmen seemed to add just a slight touch of wry humour to Bluebeard, in his deadpan delivery of lines like ‘My castle does NOT sparkle’ and ‘Yes, that is my torture chamber’. I wish they hadn’t dressed him in a dreary office worker’s suit and tie, though.

A while back I was discussing the Bluebeard concept with a friend, and he said he thought of it as very much ‘a bloke’s opera’, pointing out that it’s a resonant (even archetypal) story – a man starts a relationship with a woman, and it’s going well until she starts digging in his past. She keeps hassling him to know more and more, even though it makes her jealous and eventually ruins it all. A man needs his privacy. However, although I can understand that interpretation, I think the gender of the characters is incidental, and could equally well apply the other way around. After all, it wouldn’t be such an unusual story if a woman started a relationship with a man, and at first he thinks she’s perfect, but then he is irrationally horrified when he finds out that she has a past, and loved other men before him (some probably with bigger knobs than him, too) and maybe done other stuff that he doesn’t approve of… People’s histories. Jealousy. Total inability to just let things lie. And a castle that drips blood. Excellent stuff.

____

And then, in the second half, Erwartung. This was using the same set as Bluebeard ended with, which is slightly cheeky, as Schoenberg was apparently particularly insistent that the forest should be represented naturalistically (i.e. a forest, not a pile of rubble, a chandelier and a big door). It did work, though, and to be honest, not knowing the work whatsoever, I wasn’t sure if The Woman (Angela Denoke) was literally wandering round a forest at night being scared by stuff, whether she was dreaming, semi-dreaming, hallucinating or just barking mad. Having read up on it afterwards, I now know that she was literally supposed to be in a forest, but that the bloke in black who was wandering round with her and occasionally grabbing at her isn’t actually doing so in the original. Now I understand why people were talking about there being ‘a twist’: The Woman happens to find a sword lying around (one of Bluebeard’s) and carries it around, occasionally stabbing at dark shapes in the forest that scare her, one of which happens to be Bloke in Black, which is a quite valid explanation of why she should later discover his corpse on the ground. The fact that the two characters were dressed like Judit and Bluebeard was probably not necessary for the drawing of parallels, but worked.

I really liked the sound of Denoke’s voice, especially in the lower register. The music, although pleasant, I have to say really didn’t grab me hugely, so I’d be very interested to hear her sing something else, quite different, in the future.