Friday, 15 February 2019

Ibsen's seascapes of the soul

The National Theatre of Norway's visit to Print Room at the Coronet last year with a lacerating production of Ibsen's Little Eyolf has led to one of the most exciting collaborations in London theatre. Whatever the disasters the removal of EU free movement may mean for our cultural scene, Norway has the funds to make sure that the new company founded by the Allmers in that production, top actor Kåre Conradi, flourishes. The Norwegian Ibsen Company's first major offering, a slightly adapted update of The Lady from the Sea, maintains the level of vision we saw in Little Eyolf.

In one way, it adds to it. There's a clear distinction in the play between those Norwegians who long for freedom and the sea on the one hand and the more contained land-creatures like Wangel, who has married Ellida, 'The Lady from the Sea', on the other. So a mixed cast of British and Norwegian actors, slipping naturally from one language into another (English translation on the back wall, as in Little Eyolf, when Norwegian is spoken) suits one theme of the play.

Let's get the only weak link out of the way first. For me, Adrian Rawlins' Wangel (pictured above with Pia Tjelta; all images by Tristram Kenton) didn't quite add up: too nervy, rather unconvincing in the explosions of anger. I can't help wishing that Conradi, superb as the teacher Arnholm who returns on a misunderstanding to 'claim' Wangel's older daughter Bolette, had taken the more crucial character. But Rawlins, like Øystein Røger as a silver-fox, all-too-real Stranger, interacted well with the mesmerising Pia Tjelta, returning after her great performance as Rita Allmers in Little Eyolf to take on another of Ibsen's most compelling roles.

Proud but terrorised by her long-term images of the man who tried to claim her soul at sea, Tjelta's Ellida lets us read every emotion in her face. The voice, deep and sensual, does half the work. We're stricken with pity that Wangel as doctor plies her with pills - anti-depressants, tranquillisers? - to which it turns out he's not averse either. And then the magnificent straightening-up in the moment of decision, when the weight of constraining fantasy is lifted off her shoulders; it carries what can be a difficult moment dramatically. Much as I enjoyed Kwame Kwei-Armah's production at the Young Vic, which perhaps had a lighter touch, it didn't drive home in the same way that outward forces can also get buried and distorted deep in the psyche. A myth of the elements becomes an introspective drama. I thought of Sibelius, where dynamics of the soul are too often taken for forces of nature - the music has both, of course - and of Wagner, the second act of whose Die Walküre Jurowski described as 'an Ibsen play put inside a Homer epic'.

The test for the ensemble - this version sheds one character, Ballestad - really comes after the interval, in a sequence of devastating one-to-ones. The casting of three young people fresh from drama school is inspired. Edward Ashley (pictured above with Tjelta) manages the difficulty of making consumptive young artist Lyngstrand sympathetic even in his expectations of what a woman-as-wife should be for her husband - how daring for 1888 to have the object of his expectations challenge this so directly - while Marina Bye, fresh from the Guildhall as Bolette (pictured below with Conradi), seems to follow in Tjelta's footsteps in showing us what this girl longing for freedom, maybe at any price, is feeling at every moment.

Molly Windsor (pictured below with Rawlins) tells us who dangerous, impetuous Hilde Wangel, longing for love, is immediately, and what she will become in The Master Builder.

These are strong and yet paradoxically vulnerable women (that's the ambiguity of Ibsen's infinite depths for you). Director Marit Moum Aune has a masterstroke at the end: I shouldn't spoil it, but let's just say it's a grouping of which a modern audience wholeheartedly approves. Erlend Birkeland's set, making good use of a wide-projecting stage, gives the characters plenty of sand to play with; Simon Bennison's lighting works its magic and, when necessary, mystery.

The false note for me was the anodyne and way too persistent muzak of Nils Petter Molvær; I concede that a little might be necessary for the supposedly supernatural element, but better none at all than this. Otherwise, on with the next project. I might just go and see this one again; it runs until 9 March. Meanwhile, onwards to a Lithuanian sea-picture and Grieg's incidental music to Peer Gynt in Birmingham on Saturday. Then it's back to Norway, and a snowy inland landscape for a music festival with a difference.

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

The phantasmagoria of George Saunders

Distinguished writers can be as misleading as anyone when it comes to puffing people in their profession. I'm sure Zadie Smith reveres George Saunders, until recently confined by his own choice to the genre of the short story, even more than I now do. But it was frankly silly of her to declare that 'not since Mark Twain has America produced a satirist this funny'. Hello? Kurt Vonnegut? Philip K. Dick (whom I regard more as satirist through dystopia than a 'sci-fi author')? Without their examples Saunders' earlier work would surely not have been possible. But he has at his previous best equalled them in imagination. And with Lincoln in the Bardo, the full-length novel which won the 2017 Man Booker Prize, he seems to have produced 'a masterpiece' (Z Smith again, and I'll give her that one).

First, a bit about what I read after that - chiefly The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, which I'm glad I bought in an edition also including the 12 stories of In Persuasion Nation. Were one playing the 'first line of a book' game - details available on request if you don't know it - the real entry would probably stand out a mile when it comes to Frightening Phil:

It's one thing to be a small country, but the country of Inner Horner was so small only one Inner Hornerite at a time could fit inside, and the other six Inner Hornerites had to wait their turns to live in their own country while standing very timidly in the surrounding country of Outer Horner.

Casual introduction of alien vocabulary is very Dick-ian, and we soon take it for granted that the dramatis personae are made up of odd mechanical bits and pieces: the bolt holding Phil's brain in place 'on his tremendous sliding rack occasionally fell out, causing his brain to slide rapidly down his rack and smash into the ground'. So when nasty things are done to the Inner Hornerites, the 'dismantling' keeps explicit brutality at bay, but still somehow horrifies. Enough on that story; suffice it to say that border issues and the character of Phil, such as it is, keep it topical.  

The tales of In Persuasion Nation range from the comically disconcerting to the downright disgusting. The territory, in which commerce and mind-control come together in a sometimes plausible future, is familiar; I wonder if Charlie Brooker knew them and did likewise in Black Mirror (with very mixed results). But in the context of what's to come, the sudden deaths and casual slipping into Saunders' very own version of ghostlife at the very end of the last story, 'commcomm', show us where the essential weirdness of Lincoln in the Bardo comes from.

There's a difference, though, not just in terms of metaphysical scope but also in the setting, a very specific past time and happening, February 1862, and the death of Abraham Lincoln's 11-year-old son Willie. Not having read much about the construction, I was baffled at first: who's speaking, where and what is this character, that character? Ghosts, of course, stuck in a peculiar limbo and manifesting visuals - a gigantic member, multiple heads - which no film could easily render (I see from the below that there's been an attempt, but it limits what can be done, while Saunders' verbal imagination takes you much further).

There are incredible passages - well, it's all incredible, but I mean that in the sense of transcendent: the 'matterlightblooming phenomenon' with which angels whisk up some of the lost souls in the cemetery; the recollection of the past which an action of ghost-Willie brings upon the others towards the end of the fantasia. Why they choose to remain is unclear - vaguely, it's about to clinging on to life without realising you're dead, as I read it. But as in great poetry, you don't challenge the sense.

Saunders uses all this to give us a wide panorama of American life and characters both of that time - recounted in selections from the literature about Lincoln - and before it. There's also a very moving connection between Lincoln and two of the 'shard' souls, the spirits of black slaves. But to tell more would be to take away the magic. The aura remains. Buy the hardback Bloomsbury edition if you can, a beautiful piece of book production, and set aside a day to read it.

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Frost In Fulham

or rather West Kensington, as the Victorian estate developers called it to try and create a 'cachet'. 'Western wastes', as Henry James called it, might be more appropriate, but we do have a wonderful resource on our doorstep, Old Brompton Cemetery, maintained under the aegis of the Royal Parks as a public amenity and a superb natural habitat for wildlife - don't ask about the gay orgies the tabloids used to report on, I've seen no evidence, though it's clearly a cruising ground as well as a thoroughfare for everyone else.

I prepared to do what for me at the moment, with the stent still limiting exercise, was a big walk to Chelsea and Westminster Hospital and back last Wednesday, and it was a remarkable day for it.  Snow didn't settle here, but frost following a night of rain and wind had created astonishing patterns on the roofs and bonnets of cars just outside the flat, like the one above in the shade and this on the sunny side of the street, which could be mistaken for an aerial view of the Alps from a plane window.

J accompanied me as far as the north gate of the cemetery, where there's now a rather chic little cafe with vistas down the alleys southwards. I've managed to conceal the extensions either side here; the cafe is behind the trunk of a big plane tree.

Vegetation on those graves still in the shade was attractively frosted

but in the full sun, the snowdrops were thriving.

Intriguing mosses and lichen on stone. They thrive in graveyards because of the absence of pesticides/herbicides.

The avenue fringed by London planes, leading to mini-homages to Bernini's piazza and St Peter's itself, told me why I think of late January to mid February as a golden-brown sort of time; the incipient leaves are that colour.

The path I'm photographing contains two interesting monuments off to the right, including the above to Valentine Prinsep, which turns out to be a copy of a 13th century Sienese original - I included it in a much more galanthocentric post some time back -

and, undoubtedly the cemetery's finest artwork, Edward Burne-Jones's design for the resting place of art patron Frederick Leyland. This, too, I blogged about as far back as 2009, but the sharp winter light helps define the patterning.

The path to the south, looking towards the west colonnade,

and a nearby broken column. I understand from paintings that it symbolises the decline of the classical with the coming of Christ - or so I'd thought, though J says that in this context it can stand for a life cut short - but here the comparison is with towering new construction taking place all around this protected ground.

So towards the oval 'piazza' - looking north

and past what I take to be Faith, Hope and Charity.

The angel whose hand 'holding' a bunch of daffodils I featured at the end of the blog post on Stephen Johnson's new work holds it still.

Colonnade from the south end

and exit notice,

before I pressed on to the hospital (good news, by the way: I heard on Friday that the operation is set for Tuesday 12 February. Only six more days of this restricted lifestyle to go.

Heading back,

passing more promise from the copper beech which is always so beautiful in the summer,

I took a route through the eastern quarter, which gives different perspectives on  'St Peter's' and with its pine trees against a blue sky suggests more Mediterranean climes, especially by the lion memorial.

There are some smaller-scale monuments here.

The vegetation on this side, all ferny, will grow lush in a few months' time. Meanwhile, nearing home, the magnolia stellata is in bud. Hope the frost doesn't get it.

Saturday, 2 February 2019

Mirga and DG: a contract to get excited about

OK, so when Andris Nelsons signed up to Deutsche Grammophon, fine, wise choice on the company's part, but did the world need more recordings of Bruckner and Shostakovich symphonies (good as they are)? When his Lithuanian neighbour to the south of Latvia Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla (pictured above in what seems to be a nice new image by Andreas Hechenberger) brokered her deal, news of which has been released today, she clearly had take-it-or-leave it ideas about the repertoire she wanted to record.

Repertoire which will actually enrich us rather than just give another 'conductor's interpretation of...' (though I'd have been very happy if they'd gone for her individual and loving way with the Tchaikovsky ballets). The first release in May will be of Weinberg's Symphony No. 21, which the composer tentatively suggested might be called 'Kaddish', with the combined forces of the CBSO, Kremerata Baltica and its presiding genius Gidon Kremer - I raved about the live performance, coupled with Shostakovich's Fifteenth Symphony, here on The Arts Desk - and his Second Symphony (Kremerata Baltica only). Next are works by Mirga's fellow Lithuanian Raminta Šerkšnytė with the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra , Vilnius Municipal Choir and Kremerata Baltica. DG haven't specified what 'works by British composers' will be on the cards in the third project, to celebrate the orchestra's centenary.

It was serendipitous news on a day when I was working on a note for the performance she'll be giving with the CBSO of The Sea by Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis (1875-1911), her country's greatest composer. I'd expected to find this half-hour symphonic poem a bit wispy and second-rank, but it's astonishingly good. Listening to two recordings (by Svetlanov, right up his late romantic street, and  Gintaras Rinkevičius with the Lithuanian State Symphony Orchestra he founded in 1989 - I presume that's the same as the 'National' SO cited above), it's obvious how the young composer had absorbed the sound-worlds of Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra and Ein Heldenleben. Yet he eventually makes something of his own in the hypnotic nocturne that follows the storm. 

Not sure what to make of the art which took over in the final years of Čiurlionis's all-too-short life - he was committed to a psychiatric hospital with a severe bout of depression in 1910, and died of pneumonia there the following year, having never seen his baby daughter - but clearly there's a synaesthesic connection. The two above pictures are part of A Sonata of the Sea, painted in 1908. The first is entitled Allegro, the second Andante and the third Finale.

This gives a further fillip to my longing to visit the third of the Baltic countries - the first two, Estonia and Latvia, I love and respect beyond measure - to see Čiurlionis's house in Vilnius and the gallery containing his pictures. I also ought to think of travelling up to Birmingham to hear the concert, since I'm hooked on the work now. Here's Svetlanov's performance, a bit rough around the edges but right in spirit.

Tuesday, 29 January 2019

Johnson and Carduccis play Johnson

As in our national treasure clarinettist Emma Johnson (pictured right) and the Carducci Quartet (above, Matthew Denton, Eoin Schmidt-Martin, Michelle Fleming and Emma Denton) giving the world premiere last Thursday of Angel's Arc by my very good friend Stephen (no relation to Emma). This was his second big event at the Cadogan Hall; back in 2016 his orchestral homage to Bulgakov's cat-demon, Behemoth Dances, was performed here by the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra and Pavel Kogan following its Russian first performance. I couldn't make it, but I've since heard a recording.

Apart from its strange and reflective inner core, Behemoth Dances couldn't be more different from the quintet for clarinet and strings. Obviously the forces make a difference, but this is somehow more personal, Stephen reflecting back on his troubled teens from the perspective of a more recent grief . Placed after Brahms's Clarinet Quintet and an interval, and before Mozart's great example, it had a different dynamic, the clarinet more apart and clearly leading in a very vocal way (how many other composers today make the instrument sing like the human voice? I'd love to hear a soprano or tenor-and-string-quartet work from SJ) To me the strings were more bent on effects to create atmosphere, though there's a lively central section with a riff passed around the players - Behemoth inside out - which Stephen calls 'a nocturnal scherzo, whose sweet-sour alternations recall the moods (and some of the colours) of Mahler's haunted symphonic scherzos'; what came to my mind was more the extraordinary boogie-woogie-plus-tappings core of Shostakovich's Thirteenth Quartet.

But I don't want to do the usual critical thing of citing influences, other than those Stephen intended; I certainly caught a paraphrase of several bars from the Andante con malinconia of Walton's First Symphony, which he did mention in the note (and we both know a bit about malinconia). I was so proud of my perceptive artist companion, Pia Östlund, who 'got' and encapsulated the bigger picture much better than I did, and with little knowledge of the background; she described it as personal and introspective, but at the same time so spacious. We both agreed that the ending was pure metaphysical poetry. Stephen hoped it would convey gratitude as well as grief, and it does. I'm sure he couldn't have wished for a better performance, and the players were all so subtly fused in the Brahms and Mozart (loved the little transcription of Mozart's 'Ave verum corpus' as the encore, too).

Without being told I wouldn't have got the hidden reference which connects to Behemoth Dances through cats: in this case the most undemonic and human cat I've ever met, the late Agatha (I always called her A-GAAA-ta as in the Freischütz heroine), one of the few who could turn my dog-loving head. Expanding on his original programme note in a blog guestpost for Jessica Duchen, Stephen noted how Agatha's death triggered off recent griefs for his splendid father-in-law Canon Harold Jones and his aunt, Elizabeth Johnson. 'Playing around on the piano it struck me that I could make a kind of Schumann/Shostakovich-style cipher out of the letters of Agatha's name: with Te (sol fa) representing B, plus H from German notation, it gave A-G-A-B-B-A - a chant-like motif very like the haunting plainsong phrase "Lux aeterna" I'd used in Behemoth Dances.' Agatha, you will never be forgotten (cue repeat pic above).

Quality time with Agatha staying at the Johnson-Jones residence in Sutton St Nicholas was interspersed with hearty walks. And this connects very much with the new work, because Angelzarke on the West Pennine Moors was a favourite walking and cycling haunt of the young Johnson. Now he walks with greater peace of mind, for the most part, with Kate at his side. Another personal shot, then, from a May 2011 (!) ramble we took with the JJs up and around and down Skirrid Fawr.

I have to evoke those bluebells seen from the lower slopes again, because they offer promise of the spring which seems so far away still.

Even so, the snowdrops were out in force around some of the Brompton Cemetery graves as I cycled to yet another appointment at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital yesterday - as far as I'm prepared to go on a bike at the moment -

and someone had thoughtfully placed a bunch of daffs through the arm of a stone angel.

Praying I'll have had my op - still not scheduled - and be free of the stent when spring does arrive, so I can walk much further than I do now.