Tag: Simon Keenlyside

WOZZECK (ROH, 2013-11-12)

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

In brief: Berg’s Wozzeck – what a piece! How has it taken me so long to get around to hearing it? The ROH Orchestra – fab! Warner’s staging – meh. Keenlyside – yep, still has it.

In long:

Sometimes I think my reactions to music are not, well, normal*. I was thinking this the other night while watching a grim post-apocalyptic drama on TV, during a scene which the composer had scored with a delightful 1960s-analogue-style microtonal electroacoustic soundscape. It had interesting textures and shapes, a pleasing scrunch to the pitch combinations, and a nostalgic touch of BBC Radiophonic Workshop about it. Then I looked at the protagonists on screen, creeping around some creepy dilapidated post-apocalyptic building, probably about to be jumped on by a creepy post-apocalyptic monster, and realised that the composer had probably intended the soundtrack to create an unsettling effect in me, rather than a pleasing and nostalgic one. And that a well-respected professional composer has probably achieved their standing by pushing the correct contextual feelings-buttons for the majority of people. (Having said that, a lot of Rachmaninov makes me feel queasy, and I don’t suppose he intended that.)

* Like I care.

Anyway, that TV show was not particularly compelling drama for me, however much I liked the music, and I’m afraid to say, the same goes for this Wozzeck. Similarly, for large stretches, the happenings on stage did not seem to gel with, or be particularly connected to, the score. What a score, though! I loved the richness of colour and texture (in huge contrast to the dull, dirty, white-tiled, mostly monochrome staging), he imaginative instrumentation, and the well-balanced architectural structure of the work (extremely well-paced and balanced by conductor Mark Elder). To me, a major part of the genius of composers like Berg is their ability to balance on a knife-edge between atonalism and (tonal) chromaticism. (Yes, there are no macro-scale key centres, but there are temporary ones, creating harmonic flow and tension, and leitmotifs for continuity.) I find this a particularly beautiful thing when done right. It was also wrenchingly tragic at times, particularly the orchestral interlude before the final scene, which, while obviously stylistically different, functioned similarly to Siegfried’s Funeral March.

Of course, having not heard the piece before, there might have been hundreds of wrong notes for all I know; I doubt it, though. I hesitate to pick out any individuals from an orchestra sounding so good, but there were some stand-outs – the tuba, for example! All the bassy things had sublime moments, in fact – double bass and bassoon sections, especially contra. Listening out for the flute section, as I always do, there was a lovely languid sensuality to be heard in the 1st flute solos, and a fun bit of whirling offstage piccolo caught my ear. Also, full props to the clarinettist in the onstage tavern band for his excellent warped, drunken, jazz-Mahler sleaziness.

Oh, did you want something about the singers?

I’m a fairly long-term fan of Simon Keenlyside, and it’s been too damn long since I last caught him doing his thing. Said ‘thing’ being singing beautifully and emotively while also throwing himself bodily, to an extent not matched by anyone else I can think of, into whatever the plot, staging and direction demand of him (which is usually quite a lot). Sometimes it’s fun athletic stuff like swinging from scaffolding, jumping over furniture, or scaling high walls with a rope (Billy Budd, James Bond Don Giovanni), sometimes rolling around on the floor in physical expression of emotional torment (Hamlet, Posa in Don Carlo, Oreste in Iphigenie, Winston in 1984). And that’s just off the top of my head – if you think of more, please do add them in the comments. Anyway, this production required him to be given an enema by John Tomlinson (ok, it’s pretend, but still, ick), and then to spend the last 20 minutes or so of the performance underwater (not pretend as far as I could tell – it was a glass tank full of liquid, in the middle of the stage, and he was definitely in it). Commitment.

Karita Mattila was a strong, full-bodied Marie, doing what she had to do to keep her kid fed, and occasionally managing to squeeze a little enjoyment out of life, despite the crushing weight of societal expectation and religious guilt. She also managed to make Sprechstimme a lot less annoying than I usually find it, which is an achievement. John Tomlinson was doing his usual (late-career) Bad Santa thing, which I thought was a little too much with the buffoonishness and not enough with the nastiness for the Doctor role.

Like I said, the set was mostly a large, dull whitish laboratory, in which poor soldier Wozzeck is poked, prodded, constantly insulted, and given beans to eat for extra pay. (NB If anyone wants to pay me to eat my beans, that could be a nice little earner. I like beans.) Taking one of Marie’s lines literally  – something like “we poor people only have a tiny corner of the world”, a small corner of the stage was painted black and designated her home (thus ensuring that people in the Left Slips seats would risk !Health & Safety! by standing up and leaning over the railing to see, every time a key interaction was set there). Marie also commented that she only had a tiny mirror, whereas the stage had a huge tilted mirror at the back, allowing them occasionally to do visually effective set-pieces with reflections of beds, peasants and bloodstains. I’m an opera fan, so I don’t mind if characters are singing about throwing/retrieving their knife in a lake, but actually drop it on the floor then jump in a fishtank; there was some water – close enough. Likewise, characters singing about hearing a voice in the darkness, when the person in question is quite silent and spotlighted right in front of them; I’m just happy the red blood-effect gave me some colour to look at, at last.

I can’t quite put my finger on why this production worked so well for me musically but not dramatically, despite the excellent leads – I think overall, it was the sense of disconnectedness between stage and pit. The last time this happened so severely was Pierrot-pants Pelleas. Anyway, I look forward to hearing the music again, and perhaps comparing different productions in the future…

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PROMS 2009

I’ve been asked to review some of the Proms for other websites, which is nice, but they don’t allow me to publish the same material anywhere else, including here. So, opening paragraphs and then links to the rest, which I believe is not infringing anything.

PROM 8: Vaughan Williams, Wigglesworth, Stanford, Harvey, Weir, Saint-Saëns

The University of Cambridge turns 800 this year. Believed to have awarded the first Bachelor of Music degree (in 1464), the university is also the connection between all the composers, conductors, soloists and choirs in this concert. The Cambridge connection is stronger in some cases than others: of the composers, Vaughan Williams, Stanford, Harvey and Weir are alumni, Wigglesworth is a lecturer, and Saint-Saëns once conducted a concert there (although he was awarded an honorary degree for his efforts). Davis, Keenlyside and Trotter also all studied at Cambridge, and the chorus was conflated from the choirs of various colleges. Some critics have questioned the BBC’s decision to centre a concert around one single university – will all universities in the UK be offered a Prom concert for significant anniversaries? – but in truth, for many of us in the audience, this was irrelevant, and the draw was simply an interesting programme combining the new (Wigglesworth, 2009) with an old favourite (Saint-Saëns).

Vaughan Williams wrote the score to Aristophanes’ The Wasps for a 1909 college production. The overture mixes the modal patterns of English folk music with contemporary French influences, and requires quite a firm hand from the conductor and superb ensemble playing from the orchestra to maintain structure and avoid dissolving into mush. Fortunately, these were both present, Davis conducting with a steady tempo but a light touch, so the piece moved along well; the strings perfectly together during the pizzicato and spiccato passages. The woodwind blended seamlessly, with individual parts unobtrusively emerging for solos, such as Daniel Pailthorpe’s gentle woody-toned flute… [read more here]

PROM 20: Stravinsky, Schumann, Mendelssohn

Pulcinella was the hero of many comic episodes from the Neapolitan commedia dell’arte tradition. The ballet Pulcinella was originally the idea of Russian impresario Sergey Diaghilev and his protégé, the dancer and choreographer Léonide Massine, who became fascinated by the half-comic, half-tragic character after encountering him in Neapolitan puppet theatres. For the music to this ballet, Diaghilev commissioned Stravinsky to arrange and orchestrate a recently-discovered trove of music by 18th century composer Pergolesi (although it later transpired that a substantial proportion of this had been misattributed). Stravinsky read the music and “fell in love” with it, and so his neo-Classical period began. Diaghilev may not have been altogether pleased with Stravinsky’s melding of 18th century melodies with his own subtly distorted harmonies and distinctive irregular rhythmic patterns, but to a contemporary ear it is this blend which is of such interest and appeal – a blend of styles brought out well by the Scottish Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

This was the young Nézet-Séguin’s first appearance at the Proms, and in his enthusiasm for the occasion he quite made up for the lack of ballet dancers by positively dancing on the podium, spending much of the time on tip-toes, sometimes crouching almost below his stand or, on expansive sweeping gestures, with his feet leaving the ground entirely. This supremely high level of energy was infectious, judging by the lively and full-bodied playing of the orchestra throughout the performance… [read more here]

PROM 37: Glass (Violin Concerto No.1, Symphony No.7)

There is always a special atmosphere at Late Night Proms. Starting after 10pm, they tend to have a relaxed, laid-back feel, and although generally less well-attended than those occurring at a more conventional hour, attract the devoted fans of the non-mainstream composers featured. Of course, in this case, it would be a stretch to describe Philip Glass as non-mainstream, as, particularly thanks to his film scores, he is probably one of the most famous and instantly identifiable of contemporary composers – a fact reflected in the high turnout to hear this performance. However, minimalism has not been featured heavily at The Proms, and this is the first time they have devoted a concert to Glass’s works. In a special bonus for fans, the 72 year old composer himself attended the concert, and appeared on stage at the start. Welcomed warmly, Glass spoke for a few minutes about the Violin Concerto, historically one of his most popular works (and which should now properly be called the Violin Concerto No. 1, as a second has recently been composed, and will receive its UK premiere next year). Telling of how the piece was dedicated to his deceased father, who had a particular affection for violin concertos, he added “When I was asked to write a violin concerto I decided to do a piece that I thought he would like, and I hope I succeeded; there seem to be a lot of fathers who like it, so..!” [read more here]

PROM 50: Beethoven (Fidelio)

This concert performance of Fidelio, Beethoven’s only opera, marks the 10th anniversary of the creation of conductor Daniel Barenboim and writer Edward Saïd’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. Although Fidelio is generally a well-loved work, its choice for performance by this particular group of musicians has a special resonance and symbolism: not only was it the result of a long and bitter struggle by the composer himself – in his own words, “Of all my children . . . this is the one that causes me the most powerful birth-pangs and the most sorrows” – but the subject matter is the fight against tyranny and political injustice, and the human spirit’s capacity for love and passion for freedom. Ten years ago, at a time when Israel had severed diplomatic links with Syria and Lebanon, and tensions were growing in the Middle East, Barenboim invited music students from these regions to a workshop combining orchestral playing with intercultural exchange, complemented by lectures and discussions. There are currently musicians from Palestine, Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey and Spain (the current host nation for the workshops), and where possible, on each desk an Arab player is paired with an Israeli. It cannot be easy for the young players to put aside political and cultural differences, but Barenboim insists that a symphony orchestra is the perfect template for democracy, involving expressing oneself while simultaneously listening intently to the voices of others, adding that he does not see his creation as an “orchestra for peace” but an “orchestra against ignorance”… [read more here]

PROM 65: Ligeti, Mahler, Schoenberg, R Strauss

Although this concert was not billed as a ‘themed’ Prom, it did not go unnoticed that the first and last pieces achieved a great deal of their widespread fame through inclusion in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. However, the programme pieces are also linked by Mahler, who supported Schoenberg in his early career (as well as giving this orchestra its name), Nietzsche’s philosophical writings, which influenced Mahler and Strauss, and the compositional emphasis in all these works on timbre and tonal colour. There can be few composers more fascinated with the timbre than Ligeti, and Atmosphères is a showcase for the huge range of timbral combinations possible from a symphony orchestra. Although the piece is nearly fifty years old, and instantly recognisable, the close tone clusters of the opening, and shimmering micropolyphonic textures in the strings still sound truly unearthly. Complete continuity of sound, poise and serene intensity are vital for its successful performance, and the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester were quite capable of providing these. The different instrumental groups shifted in and out of focus seamlessly – including the one singularity in the structure, where a rising piccolo cluster gives the illusion of asymptotically ‘going off the top of the scale’, only to re-emerge as a growl in the double basses – until the last brushed piano-strings whisper… [read more here]