Saturday, 20 December 2014

Drag as high art

Never thought I'd use that headline, at least not until I got hooked on RuPaul's Drag Race. The diplomate was sick in bed one weekend and turned to Netflix for comfort viewing. I only had to see a couple of minutes to know that this was better than daft: a game show in which queens from all over North and Central America compete for the drag crown. The path has led from watching all the series to buying a couple of tickets to see the Series Five winner Jinkx Monsoon, a self-styled Jewish narcolept from Portland, Oregon, in action at Camden's Black Cap Club. This was the consequence of re-bonding with lovely goddaughter Rosie May, studying theatre design at Central, who's good friends with hostess Meth and was amazed when, at the end of a dim sum lunch at our Soho regular, the Joy King Lau, we brought up her favourite programme.

RuPaul's Drag Race is in turn inspired by the seminal documentary about the drag balls of 1970s New York, Paris is Burning. When I first saw the film a couple of decades ago I warmed to the wit and wisdom of the participations. Watching again, I found it achingly sad: the resilience and creativity still blaze through, but how circumscribed it was by society then, how many of the folk in it met their end through AIDS or, in one case, being murdered by a client. That all seems so far off in the relaxed, anything-goes climate of this series. No holds barred on the language: one of the catchphrases comes in the 'lipsynch for your life' finale when the two competitors at the bottom have to battle it out on the catwalk - 'and don't fuck it up'. The entrants have to display their Charm, Uniqueness, Nerve and Talent; of the two lipsynchers, Ru says to one, following the Paris is Burning lingo, 'chantez, you stay', to the other, 'sashay away'.

A more charming and encouraging drag mother you could hardly find (Ru appears for part of the show undragged, as above). There are defiant mantras like 'RuPaul's Drag Show - bringing families together', and my favourite slot each season is the one in which the entrants have to drag up and make up outsiders. One deliciously skewed instance is when the grooms-to-be of engaged straight couples have to be dressed up as the bride before the couples can be married onstage. In another, older-generation gay men who fought for the rights which, among other things, make the show the happy, liberated thing it is become the 'drag mothers'. This is where I totally took my hat off to Jinkx and his/her emotionally mature response to his veteran 'drag mother', who had problems as an HIV-positive man moving easily.

Their partnership won the game, of course, and despite being bullied by an especially insecure and spiteful fellow-finalist, our Jinkx took the crown. Watch her wipe the floor with Detox lipsynching for her life to Yma Sumac's 'Malambo No. 1'. The only decent version on YouTube doesn't seem to be downloadable so click here for the link.

What's artistic? Quite apart from the sheer 'Miss Congeniality' star quality of many of the performers - who could not adore big basso Latrice Royale,  'chunky but funky'? - some, like Jinkx can really sing at the level of any cabaret chanteuse, while the inventiveness of gown, frock and wig design in the many costume changes of each episode, can be breathtaking. It's actually not so far away from the couture of pantomime dames, which gives me the pretext of a picture interlude. The other week, I took my aged P to the latest Wimbledon pantomime, Cinderella (and got to write about it for The Arts Desk). A memory that will stay with me always is ma laughing until she cried at the ponies pulling Cinderella's coach - something she remembers from her childhood - and at the animal heads in a sylvan interlude (pure Magic Flute).

Father and son Matthew Kelly and Matthew Rixon are sisters Cheryl and Mel (photographed here by Craig Sugden in images I couldn't cram in to the review). Oddly the costume designer isn't credited in the programme, but he/she has done wonders on the breakfast frocks, the girl guides terrorising little Wayne Sleep at the country fair

and - these of course have to be the pieces de resistance - the ballwear.

As for Jinkx, she is a consummate artiste. That much was evident in her all too brief, post-cold slot with brilliant pianist Major Scales at the Black Cap: every line, ad lib, grind and bump perfectly timed. The singing voice is unique, too.

The snag - and this is why I can't go back to see Latrice - is the amplification, so distortingly loud I went temporarily deaf in my left ear. And it was pointless in that one could hardly catch a word of any of the songs. I wouldn't want Jinkx to leave the drag circuit, but she's good enough to wow much larger and more mixed audiences than this. Watch her fly. And, whoever you are, watch all of RuPaul's Drag Race as a chunk of pure seasonal escapism and joy.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Silver foxes

By and large, I'd rather hear the first two - Finnish conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste and Swedish trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger (photographed by Marco Borggreve), whom I encountered together in a stupendous BBC Symphony Orchestra concert a couple of weeks ago - than the third, were he still alive. Whatever his good qualities, Herbert von Karajan was vain, tyrannical, egotistical and a control freak. I lost most respect for him when I saw that in all his carefully calculated films he has his eyes shut. The point is pithily made in the excellent 'Great Conductors of the Past' DVD where we move from the ocular knife-twists of Fritz Reiner to the narcissist Karajan and then on to the wonderful, eyes-wide-open George Szell. What an insult, said spirited BBCSO trumpeter Martin Hurrell when we brought this up in one of our BBC Symphony Orchestra class - 'I'd shut my eyes back, and what would he say to that?'

Well, many musicians lost their jobs for much less. John Bridcut's superb documentary screened on BBC Four brings a reality check to the Karajan myth. Yet weirdly I did shed a tear or two in the narrative of his death. It's a Greek tragedy, really, a saga of hubris finally brought low when the musicians of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra who had put up with his arrogance and personal disregard for so many decades turned against him. He went out hand in hand with the Vienna Philharmonic, who hadn't experienced the worst excesses, but still, just as nearly all politicians end their career in failure, so this musical operator who strove for godhood turned out only to be a man after all.

There are plenty of testimonies in the documentary to the special magic, and one contributor wondered whether collegial work with a conductor could ever reach the same heights as inflexible autocracy - to which the answer can be given with a one-word example to the contrary - Abbado. By the way, do get hold of the Lucerne memorial concert in his honour just released on Accentus. I wrote the notes, and a couple of days ago ten copies arrived in the post - most of them quickly earmarked as special seasonal gifts. Though the opening movement from Schubert's 'Unfinished' Symphony is played to an empty podium, Andris Nelsons pops up as a natural and again - unlike Karajan - a considerate successor.

I came to feel that most Karajan performances were more about him than the music - the glossy sound was applied indiscriminately, great when it worked, inappropriate when not. Oddly, I liked his Italian opera the best, above all his recordings of Don Carlo, La bohème, Madam Butterfly and Tosca (surprisingly, more the second one with Ricciarelli and Carreras - did ever an operatic love duet sound more swooningly sensuous than this Act One number). There were some luminous sounds in his later CDs; the documentary reminds us of the special way he lit the sunset epilogue of Strauss's Eine Alpensinfonie

I wish I'd seen him live. I stood outside the Festival Hall before his last London concert - Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht and Brahms's First Symphony - and was about to buy a ticket for £40 off a tout, only to hear a loudspeaker message to the effect that fake tickets were being sold, so I backed off.

The best antidote to the extremes of autocracy in the documentary comes from the humour of the players, above all James Galway, whose beard annoyed Karajan when he was a Berlin Phil principal, and so the 'maestro' replaced him on the post-soundtrack film with a colleague.

Bald players were given wigs; the audience was made up of cardboard cutouts. Most of the shots were from the four cameras trained on Karajan; usually the orchestra just appeared as the instruments, not the players (as in the case of the flautist who did appear; only his fingers were seen).

Did Karajan have friends? Not that anyone knew. Did anyone in the orchestra love him? No - there was respect, but not love. I won't go into further details: just watch and be charmed by the contributors, especially Galway, Anne-Sophie Mutter and Jessye Norman.

Now, thank goodness, it has to be about friendly collaboration. If you're a natural master, like Abbado, you just make the players think it's coming entirely from them. Among the best now, I rate Jukka-Pekka alongside Vladimir Jurowski as the conductor with the most supremely elegant and yet economical technique, the dour exterior concealing huge feeling.

I remember being hugely impressed by his comment about Prokofiev's Sixth Symphony, which he conducted some years back at the Barbican, that there was so much pain in it that he found it almost unbearable.

There's certainly unbearable tension in the subcutaneous horrors of the Third, its material taken mostly hook line and sinker with unchanged orchestration from the world of the infernal opera The Fiery Angel. What most amazed me at the concert the other week was the sound Saraste brings with him - silvery-steely, so apt for this work as it was last season for Shostakovich's Fourth. There's a spring-heeled quality, perfect rhythmic definition, avoiding portentousness but never lightweight.

I'll bet Brett Dean was impressed by the orchestral maneouvres in his Dramatis personae, inspired by Hardenberger, the trumpeter who gave the premiere and the performance we heard. With the rhythmic underpinning superbly negotiated by Saraste with characteristic clarity, this came across as the most impressive work of Dean's I've heard yet: some leave me cold, but there was an element of theatre here - as, we agreed in our pre-performance chat, there is to a degree in all music - which stopped it ever being mere mood-music.

Writing for a personality makes such a difference: several of the contemporary concert works I've enjoyed most over the past decades have been concertos: Widmann's ad absurdam for Sergei Nakariakov, Magnus Lindberg's Clarinet Concerto for Kari Kriikku, now this. Of course there's entertainment value in the Ivesian meeting of marching-band music and a thornier idiom towards the end, inspired by a scene from Chaplin's Modern Times, but the instrumental ideas are always fresh and haunting. And I want to hear it again soon - which should be possible when it's finally broadcast (I thought it went out live on 5 December, but that slot was taken by a BBC Philharmonic concert, so it must be scheduled some time soon)..

Meanwhile, unmissable on the Radio 3 iPlayer for the next three weeks, is the recording of the last and, for me, the most astounding orchestral concert of the year,  Sakari Oramo's championship of Rachmaninov's Spring, Nielsen's Second Symphony and Busoni's Piano Concerto with one of the few soloists able to master it, Garrick Ohlsson.

I'd taken the students through 'The Four Temperaments' the previous evening, and we came out on a high, as we did at the concert's interval, but to my amazement the Busoni trumped even that, if only because it's like nothing I've ever heard, and like most folk there I'd never heard it live. I try to articulate my confused thoughts about it in my Arts Desk review.

As a coda to the year, though, and to the first concert, nothing could have been more spellbinding than Saraste's encore to mark Finnish Independence Day and the impending Sibelius celebrations, the magical 'Scene with Cranes' adapted from the incidental music to Kuolema. What could be spookier than the introduction of two clarinets to the string textures for the sound of the accompanying birds? Here it is as a wintry epilogue, albeit not in Saraste's audience-stilling performance. Leif Segerstam was always going to be slower, but he's still a master.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

A bird room in Bamberg

It's not strictly for the birds: upstairs you can gain, as the Bamberg Natural History Museum's leaflet puts it, 'an overview of the different phyla of the animal kingdom, beginning with the lowest and ending with the highest organized living species'. But what hits you as you enter the blue, white and gold early neoclassical Vogelsaal are the birds: European in and above the central cases, exotic around the walls.

The reason this was always going to be a highlight of my long-anticipated trip to Bamberg, Germany's most beautiful town of the ones I've seen (and it would, I think, be impossible to surpass in the whole of Europe, up there with the Italian gems), was the way that Simon Winder sold it to me in his freewheeling encyclopedia of the Teutonic weird and wonderful, Germania.'The real reason for mentioning Bamberg,' he writes with typical hyperbole of a city with one of the world's great cathedral areas, 'is that it contains perhaps the most wonderful room in the world. There are many grander, more original or more powerful rooms, but in the admittedly implausible context of being forced for no conceivable reason to choose one, it would have to be the prince-bishop's Natural History Museum in Bamberg'.

The history is a little confusing as applied to the exhibits. The Nature-Cabinet was founded by enlightened Prince-Bishop Franz Ludwig von Erthal, pictured above with ancestors and stones beneath him, as a source of wonder for the ordinary Bambergers - almost too late, since secularization soon spread to the left of the Rhine in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars. Bavarian troops marched in seven years after Franz Ludwig's death and the 'independent ecclesiastical principality of Bamberg' was no more. Franz Ludwig, incidentally, did make far-reaching reforms in education, the legal system, care for the poor and health: I had the good fortune to be staying in what in 1789 was the most modern hospital in Europe.

In 1803 another collection, from the Banz monastery, was moved in to the Natural History Museum and Father Dionysius Linder raised the collection to a whole new level. Throughout the rest of the century, mostly under his successor Andreas Haupt, the focus on avian species led the hall to take the name 'Vogelsaal'.

Let Winder add some flavour:

The cases themselves are a monument to a specific, pretty neo-classical moment in design that enjoyed pyramids, bobbles and high little galleries [one could add the putti and the gold busts of naturalists ancient and modern]. Everywhere there are stuffed animals, skeletons, piles of hedgerow birds' eggs [hence the section title, 'A glass pyramid filled with robin eggs', which again may be slightly overegging the pudding]

...The room requires no soundtrack; so many historical spaces need sprucing up with some mental Bach or Mozart, but the stuffed creatures and the delicate architecture chase off that kind of extra, as though you have come through to the exact, silent heart of Enlightenment idealism.

I also like Winder's delight at the way the 'stolid purpose' of the Prince-Duke's practical museum is underlined by 'fun extras' like 'a glass obelisk of hummingbirds' placed at one end of the room.

Upstairs it just gets wackier. I'm not sure what the order is in the combination of grinning stuffed monkeys and stones in the vestibule - maybe higher and lower orders represent both the start and the end -

or the rather mangy, lonely stuffed lion on top of a cabinet full of skeletons

but out in the upper gallery

you turn left for invertebrates first - sponges and cnidaria like coral,

before moving on to fish at the south end, below a portrait of (I'm guessing) Andreas Haupt

where old and new labels mix in delicious confusion, and on to amphibians and reptiles: frogs and toads

and snakes in jars.

Let Winder take over again for the 'Pomological Cabinet', 'wax models of all the edible fruits of Franconia (accidentally preserving just how small fruit used to be)'.

These strange masterpieces were designed to cut through the wilderness of folk names for different kinds of plum and pear and establish a definitive name and definitive appearance. Some of the fruit are somewhat damaged, with holes in the thin wax both destroying and enhancing the illusion of exact ripeness and desirability. They were made in the 'Landes-Industrie-Comptoire' of Friedrich Justin Bertuch in Weimar between 1795 and 1813, and the fact that most of the cultivars have been lost adds to their ephemeral quality.

On the way out of a room I was very reluctant to leave, I descended the staircase past antlers attached to early 19th century model deers' heads

and out in the courtyard there's a splendid old black walnut tree.

Life is all around the Natural History Museum in the Inselstadt, enlivened by the presence of the university and its students. The lively Grüner Markt is still the place of choice for fruit, vegetables and flowers, here attracting a couple of nuns in front of St Martin's Church

while a place where I spent several happy hours, surrounded by folk of all ages, none of them on mobiles or laptops (was there a house rule?), was the Cafe Müller.

Its clean white lines reminded me of our dear friend Marta's favourite in Vienna, the Cafe Prückerl. I could get just as attached to this place if I lived here - and while Berlin might make more sense for a life, I can imagine the bürgerlich perfection of this place would be fun for half a year.

Anyway, there it is, a post I've been wanting to put up for months. Too many bright ideas come and go under pressure of work, but I feel I still haven't done extraordinary Bamberg full justice despite the Arts Desk piece, the little Hoffmann homage and this. Cathedral and riverside still on the list, but they may have to wait some time.

Friday, 5 December 2014

Great guests

'Great' is a term I hope I don't splash about too much, but it's always good to know who or what truly stands out, especially in the musical and operatic world where standards are generally so high already (one can't make the same generalisation about theatre).  I stick by the publicity blurb I wrote for the flyer to advertise Sioned Williams's lecture-recital at St Andrew's Fulham Fields: she IS one of the world's great harpists. And Graham Vick enters the pantheon of top directors - not that it's overstocked, in my opinion - above all for his pioneering work on opera involving the community in Birmingham. As chronicled here and on a BBC Radio 3 chat with Tom Service, I went for the first time this year, to see the Big Top Khovanskygate, and it was certainly up there with the most extraordinary operatic experiences of my life. A total immersive experience, on our feet for three hours plus and no compromises - full CBSO, no miking, quality singers, chorus bolstered by professionals.

Actually I also owe Graham a debt for introducing me to Britten's Billy Budd and tackling the crucial gay issues in it back in the 1980s. When we talked together at the Opera in Depth class the other week, I said it had such an impact because it was the first time I saw it. 'And do you not think that might have been because my production was actually rather good?', he said, not boastfully but with a secure sense of his own worth (it was; only Tim Albery's since has come close).

Sioned first, anyway. She came with harp to St Andrew's Fulham Fields, where I'm running monthly classes linked to the BBC Symphony Orchestra courses as before, chiefly because after the City Lit debacle I still very much wanted to cover the Nielsen symphonies Sakari Oramo is conducting this season. Some of the players also volunteered to make appearances as before: cellist Michael Atkinson is getting the Merchant Quartet back together to work on Sibelius's great Voces Intimae Quartet, possibly a Nielsen too. And Sioned wanted both to make up for the fact that when she'd last come to the City Lit, it was at the end of a serious illness and she hadn't the strength to bring the harp too, and to reflect on her brilliant Purcell Room concert of six new works for harp commissioned by herself (read the Arts Desk rave - which is absolutely not because I know and like her).

So this time we brave few got the benefit of her insights into the differing virtues of the commissions. The harp is perhaps the trickiest of all instruments for a composer to know the strengths and limitations thereof; Paul Patterson, who came along as stalwart supporter again, and perfectionist Michael Finnissy are masters of the art, where one of the other works had asked the impossible and impractical and a great deal of collaboration was necessary.

We heard movements and selections again, often with an illuminating running commentary on what was going on pedal and string-wise; and the biggest triumph was to get screen and sound working - if only you knew how brinksmanlike that was - for Dominic Murcott's Domestica. I found it even richer second time around, knowing now that the domestic sights and sounds were filmed, oh so artistically, by Magali Charier in Sioned's and Ali's home, and that the ticking clock slows down (you don't sense this, or at least I didn't, at the premiere, though you do feel that the harp contributions become more introspective and poetic).And, small in number though the audience was this time, St Andrew's turns out to be a wonderful venue for subtlety and magic.

Graham's visit to my Opera in Depth course at the Frontline Club has trailed a host of wondering messages from the students which have left me in no doubt of his special connection. He spoke very movingly on the sense of change since he first directed Prokofiev's War and Peace at the Kirov, as it then was, when he was still a relative youngster full of romantic idealism back in 1991 (thanks to Peter Maniura, that first visit when Leningrad was turning back into Petersburg proved a bridge for me to devoting middle life to great Sergey Sergeyevich).

Now he wonders at how modern the music is, and was keen to redress weaknesses he'd felt in the characterisation of Prince Andrey (this time played by Ukrainian Andrey Bondarenko, his Glyndebourne Onegin and the one singer on whom he actually insisted). He wanted to refer back to Austerlitz and to keep the war in the peace sequence, and the private scenes more prominent in the war half.

The second collaboration with Gergiev originated in a mad idea to do the opera on the Edinburgh Tattoo parade ground during the Festival. 'And just as when you have to think a low note when you sing a high one, or sit if necessary on stage as if you were rising up, I wanted to make it about three people.' The project failed for lack of money, but Gergiev was insistent on Vick coming back to the Mariinsky for his roughly ten-year reassessment of Prokofiev's opera (with Andrey Konchalovsky's beautifully realised but heavily cut version in between). Graham says he was surprised at Gergiev's request for an openly gay director with a track record of controversial productions.

And yet Gergiev gave him total carte blanche. Going for the contemporary meant endless meetings with lawyers about what could and couldn't be represented on the Russian stage, but Vick says he fought tooth and claw, and succeeded in nearly everything. Even, note, in the slipped-in yellow, white and blue of the screens above, played out to the choral ode in the New Year's Eve ball scene, and returning in the 'war' sequence spattered with blood.

Anyway, it all happened; he hadn't heard from Gergiev what he thought - according to Caroline of the Mariinsky Friends, he was delighted - because the conductor only appeared for the final rehearsal. Even so, Vick thinks that things have now gone so far in Russia that he would have to think twice about returning. I can't wait to see the whole thing at the Frontline on Monday week.

The other great personage who's been keeping us company through the ten two-hour classes on War and Peace - for we've been following Graham's 1991 production on DVD alongside Francesca Zambello's Paris Opera show - has been Dame Harriet Walter (seen above in the first of Helen Maybanks' photos for the Donmar Henry IV). As you'll have read if you've been following the blog, she consented to my amazement to read those chapters or sequences of Tolstoy's novel which parallel Prokofiev's more or less faithful setting of them, and she's done it beautifully. I was especially moved the other week, recording Pierre's confrontation with Natasha after the failed elopement and Natasha's encounter with the dying Andrey, to find her stopping, going back and finding a depth in the speeches that was moving to tears. We reach the last two scenes on Monday so I'm looking forward to editing her last contribution for that.

Since we would meet in the break between Saturday matinees and evening performances of Henry IV at the Donmar, I was very conscious of that background. Not that I'd have missed Phyllida Lloyd's production for the world, but I pushed that little bit harder to get tickets and finally saw it the other Saturday. Folk have been split down the middle about it, but I found it electrifying - perhaps all the more so since I hadn't seen, more fool me, the Julius Caesar also set in a women's prison; but the use of simple props and the evocation of the background seemed to me utterly fresh and always pertinent.

This was true ensemble work, rather unconventionally so since there were beautiful verse-speakers like Harriet's King, Jackie Clunes's Owen Glendower and the fabulous Ann Ogbomo as Worcester, seen here in confab with the 'enemy'

alongside new talent, in one way less experienced but in another thrillingly immediate. I couldn't get it out of my head that  Jade Anouka's Hotspur - even with an arm in plaster - wasn't some hyperactive, gifted but undirected black teenager from South London.

She was heartbreaking, especially so in the scenes with Sharon Rooney's Lady Percy, That's not a role that usually makes a huge impact, but as young, stressed, poor mother, the characterisation went straight to the heart- with an astonishing touch of physical knockabout added to the mix.

For me, there were no false notes. Falstaff, maybe, should be posh, but since he was being played by a prison inmate the take still worked in conjuring him as a sarf London wideboy; I laughed a lot not only at the fear of a burst balloon in the Gadshill episode, but the muttered remembrance of it as nightmare when Falstaff dozes behind the arras. The music was superbly placed and apt, the company routines brilliant, the whole thing pacy and vibrant. And the inclusion of two key scenes from Part Two added on to a fairly complete Part One was a fair compromise, short of having both in two performances - which I'll be seeing when the RSC production arrives at the Barbican, though I don't expect it to communicate quite as well as this.

A guest who will certainly be great has been staying with us in two spells. Eszter Bránya from Kecskemet, Hungary, Kitty Lambton's former classmate when the family spent a year out there, celebrated her 19th birthday here with a delicious cardamomy cake from the Swedish bakery Bagariet complete with a Carluccio's firework candle. Our young violinist came first for consultation lessons and then for auditions at the Guildhall and the Royal College of Music - successful in the first, waiting to hear about the second, though she went straight through to the scholarship second round - and all I'll say for now is that her tone is dark and powerful, from hearing her practise, her attitude incredibly quick and responsive, her dedication that of a serious artist. She'll go far, no doubt about that.

Tonight I have a great guest for 10 minutes of my 6pm talk before the BBC Symphony Orchestra concert conducted by one of the best, Jukka-Pekka Saraste, at the Barbican. He'll be presenting together the revolutionary Part Two of Berlioz's Romeo et Juliette,  Prokofiev's shattering Third Symphony and Dramatis personae by the BBCSO's Artist in Residence Brett Dean (pictured above). Brett will be joining me hot off the plane from Australia; I look forward hugely to meeting him.