Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Sheku's Shostakovich

Finally caught up with the BBC Young Musician 2016 finale on the iPlayer, watching in segments after evenings out on Thursday and Friday, and it was blindingly obvious: 17-year-old Sheku Kaneh-Mason's performance of Shostakovich's First Cello Concerto with Mark Wigglesworth conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra was one which would go straight to top of any year's best list, regardless of the circumstances. All Young Musician 2016 images by Mark Allen/BBC.

It baffles me how this sweet, seemingly diffident teenager becomes a channel for everything I've ever thought the music was about the minute he applies bow to cello. He can change colour as well as dynamic on a note. Above all the big cadenza just spoke to us like the great Shakespearean soliloquy it is (have never forgotten Oistrakh's characterisation of the solo role in the First Violin Concerto as Hamlet-like). Spellbound by all this, and seeing it all in SKM's face, it was easy to overlook how he had the best partners in the world. The wind in the first movement were uniquely bouncy and spiky, the Wigglesworth touch as we know from his Shostakovich symphonies cycle, and as Julian Lloyd-Webber pointed out, the crucial horn solos can never have been better played (kudos to the fabulous Nicholas - not David, Clemency, please - Korth).  Here's the whole thing on YouTube, courtesy of the justifiably proud father. Two minutes from the official BBC site is not enough.

No less communicative was the delightful saxophonist Jess Gillam. Only two problems about the final here, for me, at any rate - the shortage of great saxophone-and-orchestra pieces, which meant we got the quickly numbing Nyman Where the Bee Dances; and the amount of time you can listen with pleasure to the soprano sax (for me, at least given the score, not very long). Below: Gillam on the left, with wise mentor and former winner Nicola Benedetti second from right).

As for fine horn-player Ben Goldscheider (above on the right), the only face on the screen who spoke truth was Wigglesworth, in declaring that it was the most difficult of all instruments - and I would add, the most difficult to play smoothly when you're nervous. And why wouldn't our finalist be nervous? It seemed as if the splendid Sarah Willis, horn-player with the Berlin Phil and a presenter so good I've already asked if we could see her on the BBC, had been gagged into singing only praise, so I did a double take when she said how supremely relaxed he was. Not so. Surely an expert can make critical points without undermining the essential fabulousness of it all?

Anyway, Barenboim has taken Goldscheider under his wing, so he'll be fine. As will the other two - and I want to see more of the incredible Kanneh-Mason von Trapps, instrumentalists all (the parents are pianists). Here they are playing the most famous of the Brahms Hungarian Dances.

There's going to have to be an hour-long doc on the Kanneh-Masons. But on BBCs One or Two, please; it's a disgrace that this antidote to Eurovision appeared on ghetto BBC Four. Apparently the family did get to the semi-finals of Britain's Got Talent, but I wouldn't know about that, would I? And semi-finals only? Please.

Saw all too much of Eurovision on the TV in our Prague apartment - all I have to say is that Jamala, the winner for Ukraine with 1944, was worthy not so much because of her origins as Crimean Tatar but because she was the only one to connect with what she was singing about in a risible show of artifice and overkill.

To conclude, an outcry and a celebration. It's right that there has been horror at EU withdrawal of suuport for the European Union Youth Orchestra (pictured above). They shouldn't have to compete with other organisations for funding; they ARE the musical flagship of the Union (and a great orchestra by any standards, as their stunning 2014 Prom showed).

That being a given, though, it has to be pointed out that funds were badly mismanaged in the past, about which it would be unkind to say more, that someone in a position to do so has done nothing to fundraise, and that the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra raise their own money. But - repeat - it's fundamentally wrong that this most splendid of ensembles should have to go through the bureaucratic hoops for their survival (or, in this case, their demise). In the meantime, you can sign several petitions: try this one on Avaaz.

Congratulations, finally, to the ENO Chorus; having garnered one trophy at the Olivier Awards, they sealed their worldwide credentials by winning at the International Opera Awards. And this time the right people were there to claim the trophy. Deborah Davison of the Chorus (in the centre with the award in the above picture) gave a superb speech, putting much of the credit where it was due here:

The ENO chorus is an extraordinary and passionate group of artists who form the essential lifeblood of our ensemble company. Through good or challenging times, our desire to be the very best we can never wavers and we are thrilled and immensely proud that our work has been recognised in this way.

On behalf of the Chorus, I'd like to thank four people who have been instrumental in our recent work. Our indefatigable Chorus Manager, David Dyer, a man who embodies everything that is great about ENO. Our brilliant and inspiring Chorus Master, Stephen Harris, and superb Assistant Chorus Master, James Henshaw, who have lifted the musical excellence of the Chorus to an all time high. And finally our much loved and respected Director of Music, Mark Wigglesworth, a man of immense integrity and unparalleled musicianship. We have been honoured and privileged to make joyous music with him.

Amen to that. Got a little moist-eyed transcribing it. Fingers crossed that this relationship proves too strong to be thrown away permanently.

Friday, 20 May 2016

Grimmelshausen's wise fool

Don Quixote, The Pilgrim's Progress, The Adventures of Simplicius Simplicissimus: spot the odd one out among these 17th century masterpieces. Well, maybe that wouldn't be the case with German readers, who know Johann Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen's 1668 picaresque novel much better than we do. I was lucky to find a second-hand copy of Mike Mitchell's lively translation for Dedalus, and I was hooked. Can't help wondering if Wagner knew this classic, too: like Siegfried and Tristan, Simplicius - real name Melchior Sternfels von Fuchsheim - loses his mother in infancy and is brought up by others. His noble birth is supposedly indicated by his being far from a fool, brought up by a mysterious hermit in a wood to be a learned child but too often forced to play the court jester.

Unlike Bunyan's Christian, he moves through a real, not an allegorical, landscape - that of Germany, Switzerland and France during the Thirty Years War. We'll probably never know how much of his experience is the author's, whose biography is somewhat sketchy - but we do know that in 1634 Grimmelshausen fled from his ravaged home town to Hanau, under the protection of the same Colonel Ramsay who takes Simplicius under his wing. This part of the book is, to my mind, the most real and the best, with Simplicius 'transformed' into a bullcalf and speaking truth to power. He lectures Ramsay on the tribulations of being a governor; he dissects human nature and concludes his various sermons with this on the wisdom of animals, quite other than that disturbing line in Genesis, a bad start, about man having dominion over his fellow creatures:

What would you do if you lived among the animals and observed all the things they did? Then you would really have to acknowledge that it is clear that all animals have something to teach you in the special natural powers they possess in all their feelings and responses, be it caution, strength, gentleness, wildness. Each knows the others, they are different from each other, they look for what is good for them, keep away from what is harmful and avoid danger, gather what they need to feed themselves and sometimes even deceive you humans. This was why many ancient philosophers paid serious attention to these matters and were not ashamed to discuss whether unreasoning animals did not also have understanding. Go and watch the bees making wax and honey and then tell me what you think.

Grimmelshausen (pictured above)/Simplicius does not always wear his classical learning lightly - both are right to be proud of it - but there's plenty of low humour, fart jokes, no-holds-barred stuff about bodily functions. Simplicius isn't only a scholar in disguise; he's also a perfect warrior, though seemingly scrupulous if rather adept at changing sides (another truthfulness about the topsy-turvy nature of those horrible times). The picaresque leads the author and protagonist into self-contradiction, superstition as well as wisdom, brushes with the supernatural which are sometimes silly. But Simplicius is always capable of meditating on how his deeds haven't always matched up to his thoughts, how what seemed like good fortune has led him to ruin.

There are a few idylls in amidst the turbulence and horror (above and below, from Callot's engravings of the Thirty Years War's sufferings and miseries), like Simplicius's 'pilgrimage' into Switzerland:

Compared with other parts of Germany [sic], the country seemed as strange as if I had been in Brazil or China. I saw people living and working in peace, the byres were full of cattle, the farmyards swarming with chickens, geese and ducks, the roads safe for travellers and the inns crowded with people enjoying themselves. No one went in fear of enemy attack, of being plundered, of losing goods or chattels, life or limb; everyone lived secure under his own vine or fig tree. In comparison with other German states they lived lives of such pleasure and delight that, even though it seemed fairly rough, the country struck me as an earthly paradise, so that I was forever staring around me. 

War, and the absence of war: the contrasts are as simple as that. Think the European Union today (and remember how, why it came into being - Boris Trump knew it, in his book on Churchill, and seems to have conveniently forgotten). Preaching over. Anyway, Simplicius finally turns his back on the vanity of the world and returns to the kind of retreat in which he grew up, only this time he's the hermit. A classic text, then, way beyond its value as social and historical document.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Odense: springtime river walk, with tigers

The bars give the game away: the four tigers I saw were mostly lying down or on their backs enjoying a perfect spring day in their enclosure at Odense Zoo - lucky riverside walkers that these were the beasts we got to see for free.

I love this civilized and easy-going city with the feel of a small town. Went there for the first time last June the day after Carl Nielsen's 150th birthday (the link is to the second page of a report on The Arts Desk) and enjoyed the museum and childhood-home visits perhaps more than the Vienna Philharmonic's very skewed view of the Fourth, 'Inextinguishable' Symphony in the concert hall. This time we were on terra firma with the admirable Odense Symphony Orchestra supporting the three finalists of the Carl Nielsen International Violin Competition (there are also competitions for flute and clarinet, the other solo instruments for whom Nielsen wrote concertos). Something about that in my Arts Desk interview with the refreshingly honest and direct Nikolaj Znaider. A good start on my way to the interview, passing the Andersen statue near the concert hall

was a blackbird singing very loudly directly above.

I've been lucky in my recent trips to Tallinn, Odense and most recently beloved Gottingen in that the days have been mostly free for me to play the tourist. Having spent time in the Hans Christian Andersen and Nielsen Museums, this time I wanted to pursue the river beyond the city boundaries, but I couldn't help revisiting the splendid cathedral, and caught several other churches en route. First stop, nearest to the hotel and the concert hall, St Hans, closed after the morning service.

Friday  was a day of national prayer, so the shops were shut, the Danish flags were flying and young and old alike were sunning themselves in the parks on a perfect spring day. After the hour and a half with Znaider, I made my way past the handsome collection of old houses that makes up Møntergården, the museum of the city's cultural history, with its assemblage of old buildings,

and then past an earlier Andersen childhood home

and the street which slopes down beneath it

hoping to make it as far as another model village further, Den Fynske Landsby, along the river - that would have made a nice complement to the pre-Christmas walk in Swedish Örebro. I didn't get that far, probably spending too much time going back to the very pleasing Cathedral of St Canute.

Canute/Knud IV, that same Dane who legendarily wanted to halt the tide on an English beach, was murdered in Odense, along with his brother, in the savage uprising of 1086; his bones were interred first at St Alban's Priory where he had been slain - the church was rebuilt in the 19th century but I think this building next door may be older -

and then in the first cathedral. That burned down in 1247 and the pleasant building of red-brick Gothic was planned in 1300 but not consecrated until nearly 200 years later; the tower dates from even later, 1586.

The inside is so pleasing in its calm white simplicity, reminding me of those marvellous Saenredam paintings of Dutch church interiors.

It's essentially simple, but much enriched by Claus Berg's magnificent altarpiece of 1515-25, moved here from the demolished Franciscan priory church in 1807.

How did it survive the Reformation? Probably owing to its association with the four royals whose bodies were also transferred here at that time. Hans of Denmark and Christina of Saxony have an especially fine tombstone also including their son, and likewise Berg's work.

Apart from the crypt, with its bones of Canute

and his brother, treasures and archaeological remains of the first church, there's also a grand chapel to the Ahlefeldts, which an otherwise rather sneery Marryat - according to Sacheverell Sitwell - described as 'a really noble dormitorium', guarded by Time with scythe

and some 'great coffins like travelling chests, covered with gold repousse work' - the one with crucified Christ on the lid, lying rather ruinously, adds more atmosphere.

But it was time to leave thoughts of mortality behind

and join life on the lawns below Abbey Hill

with careful star-shapes of daffodils on the lawns

and a route through to the river

which passed lawns of relaxing students on one side

Odense's main theatre, currently showing a highly-praised production of Lars von Trier's Dogville and with an interesting operatic repertoire including Mascagni's L'amico Fritz. founded in 1796 and Denmark's second oldest - a mural celebrates some of its characters (real life stage management beneath):

Leaving behind the folk in pedallos, you pass the gardens of elaborate villas with rather special huts at the bottom

and then come the tigers, mostly lazing in the first warm sun of the year

though this one did stir to lope along to another resting place, so much less distressing than the psychotic pacing one sees from many tigers in such small enclosed spaces.

The river bifurcates Odense Zoo, just as Regent's Canal does London's - this version even has a mini Snowdon aviary on the 'other' side.

Clearly I was running out of time to get to the assemblage of old Funen houses, so I crossed at the point - curses - where the scenery becomes truly rustic and walked back on the other side through the woods where 19th century Danes used to disembark for rural picnics

and alongside the main entrance to the zoo

and more pleasant green riverbank

 to the town, where I regretted not having enough time to go round Brandts, an old textile mill converted into a major art exhibition space

but did manage time enough to go inside the Gråbrødre Klosterkirke, which as I understand it is the replacement for the old Greyfriars where the Berg altarpiece used to be displayed.

It seems to be a sort of beguinage like the lovely one in Amsterdam. Refreshments were laid out for the evening service

and a blissful choir of three were rehearsing in the chapel. Pleasing, if not very old, I'm assuming. Note the hanging ship.

And so back via Andersenville

to the hotel to freshen up for the final of the Carl Nielsen Competition.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

ENO 2016-17: a half-good season

It came as a bit of a shock to see the full list of English National Opera productions for the coming season and realise, as one blogger put it, that the ones you'd heard promising rumours about amount to just about all there is. This is what the reduced schedule looks like in practice, and it's not right for a national opera company. Another commenter pointed out that it's chorus-lite: none for Lulu or Partenope, a big Te Deum in Tosca, the least good bits of The Pearl Fishers, very little in Don Giovanni, men only in Rigoletto. No Britten or Tippett. In fact no opera on the big scale for which ENO was made. The only familiar works offering much chorus presence are The Pirates of Penzance (photo of Mike Leigh's production below by Tristram Kenton) and The Mikado, the latter touring to Blackpool in what looks like a patronising gesture to The Regions (English Touring Opera serves there, of course). Of course if Miller's dazzling-white production turns more people on to opera, so much the better.

Only compare this with Opera North's far more enterprising season: much the best of the major companies from my perspective: plenty for the chorus to do in Billy Budd (men only plus boys, but what choruses), Suor Angelica (women only, but smaller roles, too), The Snow Maiden (oh, if only we got it down here!) and Turandot.

The unknown quantities at ENO are the new operas. Daniel Schnyder's Charlie Parker's YARDBIRD at the Hackney Empire gives us the promise of a very fine American tenor, Lawrence Brownlee - though as everyone is well aware it's time to balance transatlantic visitors with building up a UK-centric ensemble of soloists again. I wouldn't put much money on Ryan Wigglesworth's The Winter's Tale from the few full-scale works of his I've heard - and when I saw him conduct the BBC Symphony Orchestra, he was the second worst non-maestro I've seen there or anywhere else (the worst has to be China-approved Long Yu). How ironic when he bears the same surname as Mighty Mark, one of the world's BEST conductors. I hope, of course, for better on both RW fronts.

The forthcoming Don Giovanni I had the huge pleasure of learning more about at Lilian Baylis House (pictured up top; it's in West Hampstead, a hell of a cycle from West Kensington) when I interviewed Richard Jones, our only visionary opera director (let's say it again in case the message hasn't sunk in), and the wholly delightful and natural Christine Rice (singing Donna Elvira, one of our great three homegrown mezzos - Sarah Connolly and Alice Coote being the other two). This was a selective event for patrons and would-be patrons, and I think we had fun. The period will be, if I remember Richard's words aright '1946-2007' (very specific!), a closed society, deeply religious like the original Spanish milieu.

Richard is giving DVDs to the cast at the first meeting - I forget some of the choices, but Clive Bayley, the Leporello, is getting Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy, which may well be referenced (a certain freeze-frame of Robert De Niro's character greeting Jerry Lewis in a car was mentioned - the two pictured below in another scene). Christopher Purves's protagonist will have no redeeming features about him. RJ recalled a narcissist he met on one ill-fated venture overseas - no naming of either here, for obvious reasons.

It will be Richard's first major Mozart - he took on a Cosi for Scottish Opera during his trainee years at Glasgow's Citizens Theatre, but recalls it with horror. Funny that both Christine and Richard think Cosi tougher than Don G to pull off (I've seen at least three good productions of the former, only one so far of the latter - Deborah Warner's at Glyndebourne). The problem with Don G, our director finds, is how to keep the flow, especially in the second act where you have to hear both Don Ottavio's 'Il mio tesoro' - Don O will not be a wimp, since he's being played by Allan Clayton - and Elvira's 'Mi tradi'.

I imagine Mark Wigglesworth, working with RJ for the first time, will not make that feel a problem, to judge from his pace-perfect Magic Flute. Heading off tonight to hear another who, I'm sure, will keep Flute lively in concert - the inspiring Ivan Fischer, whose Budapest Festival Orchestra has just had its municipal budget cut by three quarters. And we think we have problems with the philistines here in London...

In the meantime, one piece of good news for next season: Ivo van Hove, my new-found hero, is back for three Toneelgroep Amsterdam spectaculars at the Barbican next season, as well as Hedda Gabler at the National and an opera which I can't mention scheduled for a later Royal Opera season. I'm delighted that Toneelgroep's Roman Plays, which I didn't see first time round, will be back, and while I lament missing out on their Scenes from a Marriage, another Bergman-scripted double, of After the Rehearsal and Persona, looks very promising indeed.

Richard Jones had been to see Kings of War, not sure whether on my ardent recommendation or not, and loved it, especially the take on Henry VI (another image from designer Jan Versweyveld, von Hove's long-term partner, shows a bespectacled Eelco Smits surrounded by Janni Goslinga's Queen Margaret, Fred Goessens' Cardinal and Robert de Hoog's Suffolk). Why did they all seem so real, I asked? Because, he said, they've  mostly worked with van Hove since they were 18, and because KoW had a six-month rehearsal period. Utopia in the theatre, if the talent and genius are right.