2014 has been a bit quiet in terms of posts. By which I mean I’ve managed one review. In January. Since then, been to a couple of operas and a handful of Proms, but no time/energy to write about them while still even vaguely fresh in my memory. Also promised two book reviews, which have as yet failed to materialise (although these I can at least reread to refresh). In case one of my very many* readers was concerned, I haven’t been ill (well, no more than usual) or away, just final stages of doctoral thesis taking over my life, followed by job hunting, followed by new job. While playing more operas than I saw, including a Strauss hat trick (go decades having played zero Strauss operas, then three come along in the same year…)

* not very many

Also late posting this term’s concert diary, but hey.

Saffron Opera Group: Meistersinger

Wagner  Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (concert performance)

Time  2.00pm Sunday 14 September

Place  Saffron Hall, Saffron Walden, Essex

Edinburgh Players Opera Group: no longer just Wagnerians…

Richard Strauss  Der Rosenkavalier (concert performance)

Time  11.00am Sunday 28 September

Place  Portobello Town Hall, Edinburgh

Tickets  £15 requested donation

Philharmonia Britannica: Great Film Music

Klaus Badelt  Pirates of the Carribean
AJ Lerner & F Loewe  My Fair Lady
John Williams  Star Wars Suite
John Williams  Harry Potter Suite
John Williams  Schindler’s List
H Arlen & EY Harburg  Somewhere Over the Rainbow

Time  6.00pm Saturday 4 October

Place  St John’s Waterloo, SE1 8UD

Tickets  £5, £1 (U19s)

Fulham Opera Orchestral Workshop: Elektra

Two-day orchestral workshop on Richard Strauss’s Elektra, followed by evening play-through. Cast including Zoe South in title role – further info at fulhamopera.com

Time  Saturday 11 – Sunday 12 October

Place  All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak NW3 2JP

Tickets  £15/day (participation) or £10 (audience)

Amici Orchestra

Mendelssohn Hebrides Overture
Saint-Saens Symphony No.2
Beethoven Symphony No.4

Time  7.30pm Saturday 1 November

Place  St Gabriel’s Church, Pimlico, SW1V 2AD

No tickets – retiring collection in aid of Macmillan Cancer Support.

Fulham Opera: Falstaff

Verdi Falstaff (fully staged, reduced orchestration)

Time  7.30pm Friday 7 Nov, 5pm Sunday 9 Nov, 7.30pm Friday 14 Nov, 5pm Sunday 16 November

Place  St Johns Church, North End Rd, London SW6 1PB

Tickets  £25 (concessions £20) from fulhamopera.com

Whitehall Orchestra with Idil Biret

Rimsky-Korsakov  Scheherezade
Brahms Piano concerto No.1

Time  7.30pm Saturday 22 November

Place  St John’s Smith Square, SW1P 3HF

Tickets  £8/£10/£12/£15 – book online

Fulham Opera Orchestral Workshop: Siegfried Act 3

One-day orchestral workshop on Wagner’s Siegfried (Act 3), followed by evening play-through. Cast including Jonathan Finney in title role – further info at fulhamopera.com


Time  Sunday 7 December

Place  All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak NW3 2JP

Tickets  £15 (participation) or £10 (audience)


Prom 62: Webern, Bruch, Albéniz, Rimsky-Korsakov

In the past I’ve seen (and, in fact, being on the receiving end of – but that’s another story) political protests outside orchestra concerts, but until now, never seen a concert being disrupted from inside. I think we can safely assume you don’t come to this blog looking for astute political analysis; I know enough about international politics to know how little I know, and not to get into online discussions about it. So here’s a report of what I observed at Thursday’s prom.

Right in the middle of the Webern, a group of a dozen or so in the Choir area (quite near me) suddenly stood up and started shouting, and attempted to sing Ode to Joy (with their own lyrics, which were indistinct). It utterly ruined the piece, of which I happen to be very fond. Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic didn’t bat an eyelid and carried on playing. The people in the row behind the protesters poked them and asked them to sit down and be quiet, to no avail. Security staff watched for a while, then decided to take action and moved in on the area, gently ushering them out.

As the introduction to the Bruch started, another group up in the Circle started yelling. The orchestra kept going for a little while, but then, as it was clear nobody could hear a note, stopped and waited for security to move this batch of protesters out before restarting. Meanwhile, several thousand people in the audience who had paid hard-earned money to come to hear Gil Shaham play the violin weren’t impressed at being prevented from hearing him, or the disrespect shown to his and the orchestra’s performance, and started yelling back ‘out, out’. They then gave the orchestra a supportive round of applause.

Amusingly, when the Arena prommers did their charity collection chant during the interval, a few over-hyped people started calling ‘get out’ and ‘go away’ at them, not realising that it was a completely different (and music-positive) group.

In both pieces in the second half, the moment the conductor’s arms were seen to raise, more shouting started, from various locations, followed by the irritated groan of several thousand very pissed-off orchestral music fans. Mehta, with an expression of wry amusement, lifted and lowered his hands a few times, accompanied by quickly-cut-off yells. It was not possible to make out any words, apart from the odd ‘Palestine’. Some were waving Palestine flags, but then some Arena prommers whipped out Israel flags and waved them back, with jeers. The rest of the audience booed them (both camps, I think). However, once it had died down, the actual music was left uninterrupted.

There has been some argument over whether the BBC was right or wrong to pull the live broadcast off the air. I’m inclined to think it was a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation. I don’t really understand what last night’s behaviour was intended to achieve for the protesters, as the overall effect came across as shambolic and hysterical (which is odd, since they’d carefully advance-bought all these tickets in various bits of the hall).

And the music? The first half of Webern’s Passacaglia sounded very good – rhythmically precise and clearly-defined without being at all mechanical, and taken at a pacey tempo. I’ve written before about how important the Bruch violin concerto in Gm is to me, and when I hear it performed, unless something is wrong, I’m able to completely immerse in it. Obviously on this occasion something was wrong at the start, and it was difficult to sink into the music when not knowing if it was going to be vandalised at any minute, but it’s a tribute to the musicians that I soon forgot all about the situation and was able to be swept away as usual.

I’ve never much liked composers pastiching the folk traditions of other countries, particularly Debussy, Ravel, or – in this case – Rimsky-Korsakov partaking in the fashion for all things Spanish, and the Capriccio Espagnol, while an impressive technical showpiece for almost every part of the orchestra, was less musically effective than the ‘authentic’ Albéniz, which had some real fire to it. Stand-out instruments for me were cors both Anglais and French. Sitting in Choir East, we had something of a percussion masterclass from the large team of players directly below. It’s always fun seeing a couple of blokes belting the hell out of a set of tubular bells, one thumping the timps, and another flying round the xylophone. The down side is that it also means being near the bastarding triangle, and having to stick a finger in my ear to stop it setting my teeth on edge. I swear, I find the noise more irritating than a mobile phone going off, and when I am King of London I will outlaw the things.

Image borrowed from arts.guardian.co.uk

Image borrowed from arts.guardian.co.uk

For those of the audience with a thing for basses, this was a very happy day (I went to the matinee performance). Lots of lovely dark Russian basses, one after another, only occasionally punctuated by a bit of high voice stuff. Actually, having said that, I did like Vitaly Taraschenko, the tenor playing Grigory/Impostor. An unusual timbre to the voice, but I find it hard to describe these things more precisely. On the dark side, and maybe a little baritone-y, and with a firm attack to the notes. Tatiana Erastova was excellent too as Marina; very powerful and rich-sounding, although her vibrato was about a major 3rd wide.

The production was a traditional one which the Bolshoi have apparently been using since 1948, and used the 4-act Rimsky-Korsakov-orchestrated version of the music. Personally I would have thought that if one wanted to shorten this opera, a better choice of cut would be the stupid songs about gnats and various woodland creatures. Especially the Innkeeper’s song about her beloved duck.

The running time was advertised as 4 hours but it overran by about half an hour. This may have had something to do with the many infuriatingly long scene changes that took place; unfortunately only some of them were worth it. To be fair, Boris’s palace was pretty stunning, and the court in the Polish act was eye-catching and had elegant staircases. The painted backdrop representing the inn was naff, though, and more appropriate for a school play. The costumes were similarly varied: Boris, Boyars, royals and the people in the cathedral had huge elaborate embroidered affairs which were very effective (although looked very hot and heavy), but others fared less well, particularly Grigory in his bright orange pudding-bowl wig. Marina was also positively encrusted in glittering stage jewellery on shiny satin, to my eye more appropriate for a pantomime or drag queen.

The orchestra and chorus were generally of a very high standard, although occasionally not quite together. Alexander Vedernikov conducted, and the brass and percussion were seriously giving it some. The woodwind often seemed to be going for quite a soft-edged sound which to my ears was slightly woolly, but which is presumably their stylistic preference. The principals were all very good too – Mikhail Kazakov was a powerful Boris with a rich, deep bass voice and a convincing actor in the mad scenes. I was smitten with his voice by about 3 notes in, and he sang particularly well in the death scene. On the subject of which, his death was quite impressive, as rather than just buckle and go down knees first, or fall back into a convenient armchair (as did Riccardo in Ballo last year), Kazakov fell from a standing position to his back, on the stairs, sliding down a few steps in the process; a bit unfortunate really, as I imagine many people were not thinking about dead Boris, but the poor singer who’d just clumped down on his back on some stairs, and whether it had hurt him.

Shuisky (Maxim Paster) was nice enough but he could have done with turning the volume up a bit. This was not a problem with Varlaam (Valery Gilmanov), who, apart from an excellent sense of comic timing, had possibly the hugest voice I’ve ever heard on this stage. I do wonder what he’d be like in a bigger and non-comedy role; one can hope he returns sometime. I should also note that I wasn’t at all bored during Pimen’s long monologues, as I imagine one might be with a lesser singer than Taras Shtonda in the role.
I’m actually now very interested to hear the original Mussorgsky orchestration in order to make a comparison. Not that the Rimsky didn’t sound great, but I want to hear the two together to compare. I expect I will like both.

[Thanks to FayeXX for making notes on this performance, which aided my memory when writing this.]