Friday, 13 September 2013

The beauty of retrospective

It looks like an end-of-term line-up, though in fact this photo by the indefatigable Chris Christodoulou of cast, conductor and director of the Proms Die Walküre was taken at the mid-point of a Ring that no-one will ever forget (who ever forgets any Ring, for that, matter, but this one was special from the very first low E flat). There's an even better version, without Barenboim - who hardly stands out as the only unjolly one above - and with the immensely likeable Justin Way seemingly doing a Rhinemaiden on the laps of Terfel, O'Neill and Halfvarson, to head my Arts Desk retrospective on Wagner at the Proms.

I knew I had to honour it, having been stunned quite as much in different ways by Tannhäuser and Parsifal as I had by Das Rheingold and Die Walküre (the reason I had to miss the last two Ring instalments and the Tristan is, as I've been at pains to point out before, Norfolk and Britten related). Surely the artists would have as awed a perspective as I did? Well, they're an eminently more practical bunch, thank goodness, but I think I got some interesting results. I'd been a bit reluctant to do phone interviews as time was short, but when it seemed like the only option for a very busy Donald Runnicles, Sir John Tomlinson and Way, I took it on board and loved the results.

Runnicles, pictured in a photo from Chris's extraordinary gallery of conductors in extremis for The Arts Desk which we instigated in 2010, was a consummate pro, giving me the 200 words in almost perfect straight-off-the-top-of-the-head form. Courteous, too: 'You will be very welcome, sir, at the Deutsche Oper'. Sir John belied his title and was instantly so amiable and friendly. He'd been on a family holiday in Rome, so we talked about the new film hymning that great city, La Grande Bellezza, which I can't wait to see. He told me he'd been doing Gawain in Salzburg, and was flabbergasted when he found out that the director had a whole new concept - not working with the singers. So in effect he had to help out others who'd not done it before with the staging.

This led to the Proms's great virtue - putting the performers first, really focusing on the one to ones. Neither of us would usually say that such a context is better than a full-scale production at its best, but that special magic doesn't happen often enough in the opera house. It did with Kupfer's Bayreuth Ring, where JT cut his teeth alongside Daniel Barenboim and which occasioned my only visit there so far (and that would be enougn; I had my Bayreuth vision). There was plenty more fascinating chat once I switched the mike off.

And the beauty of retrospective? Well, I'd been thinking earlier about how much more interesting it can be to interview artists AFTER they've done something. The only reason it doesn't happen more often is because publications are reliant on the pre-performance publicity machine. But I treasure both of Richard Jones's visits to my City Lit opera class once his Welsh National Opera Meistersinger and Royal Opera Gloriana were up and running (still got to write that last up here).

It always strikes me as dishonest when critics talk about 'the best Prom of the season so far' when they won't have seen so very many;  only the most fervent of season-ticketed Prommers has the right to say so. I managed 14, and the peaks stand out. Of the Wagners, which were one long high, Act 1 of Walküre was possibly the most electrifying I've encountered live (Way's personal highlights were the whole of Walküre and Act 2 of Gotterdämmerung, where I'm told Nina Stemme really came into her own, though she's never less than dependable). Otherwise, no question: the late night Malians and Azeris, Lisa Batiashvili with Oramo in the Sibelius Violin Concerto and Yannick Nézet-Séguin's Prokofiev Fifth, the best I've ever heard. His sheer, unfeigned delight and energy shine in another of Chris's best pics.

Amazingly that whole performance, as televised on BBC Four, is up there on YouTube (not for long, I shouldn't wonder, but enjoy it while you can).

Wish I'd been there for the Spanish song and dance - astonishing to think it blazed out in the middle of the big Wagner week - and no regrets about missing the Last Night (three-line whip for friend Father Andrew's 50th birthday dinner in an excellent Nepalese restaurant). We caught it on the iPlayer on Sunday night. My, the final jamboree goes on these days, as a sort of extended showcase to the world. But Alsop's discipline and her focused energy were always impressive.

Joyce DiDonato - what a trouper, looking great, plastering over the cracks in an instrument which I've never found hugely individual, but it's still a demonstration of what artistry is all about.

Nige - well, even the Diplo-mate, usually unamused by musical comedy and like me a bit troubled by the ongoing Kennedy persona ('like a down and out Irish navvy'), was in stitches at the fun and games of the much-treated Monti Csardas. Spot all the references?

New seasons have been opening and stunning in the meantime. What a scorcher is the National's Edward II, a Young Vic kind of show in a usually much more conventional space.

Attractive John Heffernan (pictured for the NT by Johan Persson) didn't dominate, but only because it was such an ensemble production. On Monday lunchtime, heavenly Anne Schwanewilms's Schumann Op. 39 Liederkreis was a perfect partnership with Roger Vignoles (only connect: when I met him after Kozhukhin's Prokofiev triple bill, he expressed his surprise at the connection between the Seventh Sonata's Andante caloroso and Schumann's 'Widmung', and here he was playing it). Anne's website man and a loyal student of mine, Howard Lichterman, introduced me to her and I took a shot of the perfect duo which wasn't professional enough to appear on TAD.

A renewed Weill crush has just been put on hold as I rediscover Paul Bunyan in the wake of the British Youth Opera staging (which was good, but not as dazzling as their staging of Cimarosa's The Secret Marriage). I fiercely defend the total brilliance of the collaboration with Auden, which given that I've also been listening to The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny strikes me now as a determinedly optimistic riposte to Weill and Brecht. If you have any criticisms about the poetry, just ask who apart from Da Ponte, Hofmannsthal or Brecht could come anywhere close to the best of this genius text.

I went back to the Plymouth Music Series' 1988 classic recording, coinciding with the epoch-making Aldeburgh revival, and I don't think it can be beaten for American authenticity. Love Pop Wagner as the balladeer. And isn't this Britten's most unambiguously joyous stage work?

New seasons elsewhere: the now old chestnut about the 'show solidarity' petition and the Met opening rumbles on, with signatures being added all the time and further dissatisfaction with Gergiev, who now echoes Putin's equation of homosexuality with paedophilia: disgraceful (scroll down the Onegin piece and the comment at the foot of the companion article on The Arts Desk for an update). Michael Petrelis and his loyal companions have been making the right kind of stand at the San Francisco Opera opening gala - ie no disruption of the performance itself, in which married lesbian soprano Patricia Racette stars - and have got a very decent statement out of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra (how could it not so reply with Michael Tilson Thomas at the helm?)

I love this photo of a grande dame* showing her solidarity with the friendly protest before the opera gala - from Petrelis's blog, courtesy of him and the photographer Bill Wilson. What a great redemption of that famous Weegee shot in which two overmadeup socialites with tiaras sweep in to the Met past a gaping pauper.

So towards an annual interlude: our walk for the Norfolk Churches Trust. Jill has planned out a route of 15 or so miles and 13 churches. The forecast, alas, is for less good weather than we've had over the past few years. Maybe that will encourage folk to give more generously - though I hope I don't have to invoke the kind of disaster scenario we experienced back in 2006. By way of reminder, here's last year's report and a photo of St Margaret, King's Lynn, alongside which we stay each time, so it's always our starting point.

And, at last, another sunny farewell. This one will mean going over to a page on the Emerging Indie Bands site where godson Alexander's Lieutenant Tango has just been feted. Makes me wonder why he never enlightened me over the 'kwela beat', and what it is. Happy to plug away at a third track, 'So, Go', because, while the million-sellers J sometimes plays on his iPad - following a Facebook commendation, just dipping - sound like dross to me, this is dance music with a genuinely creative edge.

*The lady, Michael now tells me, is glamorous grandmother Joy Venturini Bianchi, owner of San Fran's Helpers House of Couture, at 74 still a redoubtable socialite and staunch friend of the gay community. For the charitable origin of 'Helpers', read the linked article. What a woman! I love the comment on fashion's Alexander the Great: 'McQueen, Jesus Christ almighty. I have a dress by him with a hood so chic that I can't even stand it.'


Susan Scheid said...

Well, I'm breathless just reading this! I had read the TAD piece earlier, and thought that was such a great thing to do. I was particularly struck by what Tomlinson said: "It’s the great strength of these Proms performances that the more opera in the theatre is heading in a rather technological direction, with the singers relegated to the sidelines in favour of a spectacle, an image, it’s incredibly refreshing to go back to what opera is about, which is about interactions between singers, the dramatic impact of the one to ones."

And I do love the conductors gallery. Such great shots once again this year!

Good luck with the Norfolk walk. I hope the weather treats you all right.

Howard Lane said...

Easy to forget Nigel Kennedy's superb musicianship amidst his embarassingly larky attempts to be cool. I was wowed by his rising lark, however, slightly less so by Joyce, and switched over to Resonance FM to hear a superb and eclectic mix of LPs played from a new record lending library in Stoke Newington. Vinyl rules, oh yes it does!

Even Nige's artistry doesn't permit him to rubbish conductors, as he did in some recent interview I read, and I'd love to see some more of these baton-tastic arm-waving pics, they're terrific.

Only ran to 2 proms this year, partly Wagner's fault, as no way do I have that amount of time to invest in queueing and promming.

Anonymous said...

Thought I'd jump in about the Kennedy performance. YouTube also has a much shorter version by Anton Kontra with Victor Borge - Borge who was often seen in telecasts during my childhood and who seemed such a lot of fun then. I'm too sophisticated for his silliness now, of course, so I was a set-up to be lured into watching Kennedy and ending by enjoying him thoroughly. Entering with his crazy hair, he is certainly a departure from Borge in his tux, looking the serious musician, until he started in. Spot all the references? Heavens, no, my ear can't hear as fast as he plays - did I hear the opening notes of Beethoven's Fifth? Marin Alsop was a really good sport and appeared to have a much fun as Kennedy. There's another duo popular now, Igudesman & Joo - on a rainy Saturday, check out "Rachmaninov Had Big Hands," featuring small-handed Joo playing chords using long wooden templates supplied by his partner ( You see I had that reference at the ready - so much for my grown-up sophistication! -- Elizabeth

David said...

Well, Sue, here we are back and still chilled by the wind and rain around Houghton Hall today, but after an early squall our Saturday walk was dry and the skies cleared by 5.30pm, so we got our usual sunset. And we saw, as usual, wonders I hadn't been expecting, great and small.

Yes, Howard, I fulminated against the conductors nonsense over on TAD, and wonder whether the throwaway remark about a misappropriated voting card for Glenda Jackson will get Nige into trouble; an investigation is afoot...There's a link to this year's TAD gallery, and in the comment at the bottom I've also linked to the previous three yearsworth.

Yes, Elizabeth, Beethoven 5, bits of cadenzas and the violin's first entry in Tchaik Violin Concerto, Four Seasons, I forget off the top of my head what else.

I was introduced to Igudesman and Joo last December by a delightful violin duo who came to my class from the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Sent to'Rachmaninov had big hands', I moved spellbound on to several others, one of which I've put up in this blog entry extolling my discovery

David Damant said...

How splendid to see Tomlinson's comments on productions, as mentioned by Susan....another powerful point he made was to say that directors-designers (designers !) seem to say " Oh, unfortunately there's some singing going on. Why don't you stand over there and sing" A total work of art is one thing, an unbalanced work of art is another. One review of a Glyndebourne Magic Flute a few years ago said after describing the production added " The music however has not been modified" !!!!! I wonder if this bizarre concentration on direction-design results from the fact that we can now hear the best singers in the world ( past and present ) in the privacy and comfort of our own homes, so what ( operas houses seems to ask) can the live performance offer in addition? A lavatory on the stage, very often, or in the case of Lulu, two ( as noted by the late David Fingleton)

David said...

Interesting points, Sir D, likewise Sir JT, but of course it's not a cue for NOT trying to provide the Gesamtkunstwerk. I still maintain Richard Jones is doing it every time, with stunning designs and lighting as part of the picture. And there are younger theatre directors at last coming up through the ranks who I hope will break - as Carrie Cracknell already has - into opera.

And I'm afraid 'two loos' Lulu is about the level of the late David Fingleton's reviews, God rest his soul. The rudest man to press or box office I've ever met. Sure he had a good side.

BTW, Howard, what is Resonance FM, where is it to be found and what kind of vinyl was it playing? The LP lending library sounds intriguing, too. Takes me back to the little library in Sutton where I first borrowed 'The World of Joan Sutherland' and opera sets on the basis of their covers (an intriguing Rigoletto picturing Reri Grist and Cornell McNeill (sp?) in costume against a richly laden table and a tapestry).

Howard Lane said...

Resonance104.4FM to give it its full name is a London station run by the London Musicians Collective, broadcasting on 104.4 and online -

It has a listen again facility using soundcloud. The presenters can be irritating and amateurish but it has an interesting and varied mix of contemporary and not so contemporary music, talk and community group stuff. Collector Johnny Trunk with his Original Sound Track show is usually good value.

Intriguingly there is an Opera Hour with Richard Scott but I haven't heard it yet. The record lending service is in Stoke Newington and that's all I know about it, except it has some fine records, African and rock and jazz stuff on this show, but who knows what else they have.

Susan Scheid said...

Just thinking further about the Tomlinson exchange here: of course I'm a novice, but yes, yes, operas, after all, are meant to be SEEN, as well as heard (as Shostakovich said about The Nose). It's a shame when things get so out of balance, as, for example, in the Lepage Ring, about which wanderer noted that Terfel dropped out because he didn't want to put up with the sets. Interesting for me to realize, in my limited experience, that the Kentridge production of The Nose was my first, and really so far my only, live experience of what I, at least, experienced as the "whole package," and it was absolutely thrilling. (I'm on the point of deciding to go again this year, to see if that initial thrill holds up on a third viewing.)

I do hope you have warmed up by now, and I look forward to snaps of your sunset and all else.

David said...

Thanks for all that, Howard: most curious

Sue, I wish we'd got a whiff of (from?) the Kentridge Nose (though it was screened, of course). Instead we were briefly saddled with the ultimate in high-tech singer-dwarfings in the Mariinsky production, a million miles away from the Moscow Chamber Opera production - much loved by Shostakovich - which I saw on its last legs in Brighton many years ago.

The Nose is also a classic case of a work that doesn't function well in concert.

Autumnally cold here. I needed a scarf as I pedalled back from the very so-soish Royal Opera Figaro last night.

Susan Scheid said...

David: This is off-point, but if you haven't seen this, I think you may find Adams's comments in this NY Times article of interest. The article is primarily about the upcoming US premiere of the Sax Concerto under the baton of Alsop--ah, in that there is at least a small connection to this post--but Adams is quoted on the state of composition today. He's creating QUITE a stir in some quarters.

wanderer said...

Oh London. It's London you know. From where I sit it is all about London. Does this happen anywhere else in the World? I don't think so. Brilliant really.

Interviews after the event make so much sense. Everyone is so ready to move one - next please - next, but to linger and savour and reflect is another thing lost with the age of rapidity. What a fine idea David. Do it.

Excuse me if I repeat something you or others have already noted, but regarding that Met Onegin, isn't the replacement director the 'friend' of she who had to withdraw at short notice (it is from ENO isn't it?). The irony continues. I think everyone, well the male couples, should wear Tchaikovsky and friend masks to the opening night.

David Damant said...

The dropping out by Terfel because of the sets encourages me to propose that the greatest singers - say the top 40? - should form a group who would appoint a Scrutiny Committee, and if the production/design for a proposed opera failed the agreed tests then none of the 40 would appear. And the first test would be that the production and design should serve the music

David said...

Wanderer - well, you know, I am not so much a smug Londoner as a delighted publicist for what it can offer. You're right. Berlin comes close, but still. We have ludicrous choices to make.

Yes, Fiona Shaw used to live with Deborah Warner and would be a brilliant spokesperson; I can't imagine she doesn't care passionately about what's going on in Russia.

And the Tchaikovsky/Kotek masks are a superb, easily doable idea. Copy from photo, label accordingly and walk in arm in arm. The many heterosexual supporters could do it too. I don't think the idea of standing through the Prelude is a good one - all action should be peripheral but strong.

David - I take the point, the objective is good, but it sets a dangerous precedent. Think of all those singers who don't get the whole picture, and the old reactionaries (we've seen them crop up time and again). John Tom and Bryn would be the sensible, experienced ones, but others would jump on the bandwagon. As for conductors, even Sir Charles was not exactly progressive when it came to productions (how he hated Jones's Handel in Munich...)

David said...

Oh, and Sue, apologies - I was holding off until I'd accessed the piece. McAllister speaks well and Adams is the very touchstone of common sense for me. Here are the wise words from that NYT article, fridge-magneted to remind me.

'“We seem to have gone from the era of fearsome dissonance and complexity — from the period of high modernism and Babbitt and Carter — and gone to suddenly these just extremely simplistic, user-friendly, lightweight, sort of music lite,” he said. “People are winning Pulitzer Prizes writing this stuff now.”

'Acknowledging with a laugh that he might sound like a curmudgeon, he added, “If you read a lot of history, which I do, you see that civilizations produce periods of high culture, and then they can fall into periods of absolute mediocrity that can go on for generation after generation.”

'On the subject of commercialism and marketing in new music, Mr. Adams said, “What I’m concerned with is people that are 20, 30 years younger than me are sort of writing down to a cultural level that’s very, very vacuous and very superficial.” '

Susan Scheid said...

I often feel just as wanderer does about music in London. Is there anything like the Proms elsewhere in the world? I also love the Tchaikovsky mask idea, and as David notes, it's certainly suitable opera wear for anyone who attends of whatever stripe!

On David D's point, would that such a thing could work, but I'll confess that what it brought to mind immediately for me was RAPM and the like.

David, on the Adams, yes, those were the paragraphs to which I was alluding. Of course it's a news quote, so we can't know what he actually said, but I'm sure, from other comments I've heard him make, that this is a strong concern of his (and mine). I am, though, sorry it was so broad brush. There are, after all, young composers who are brave enough not to follow the crowd (just as he was when he was younger in the face of Babbitt et al) and talented enough to write superior music that deserves our attention: Andrew Norman, Dylan Mattingly, Shawn Jaeger, and Lembit Beecher are some I would name. That said, Adams is a strong supporter and champion of young composers, and in that guise alone more than entitled to throw down the gauntlet. This craven seeking after the pop audience is, to my mind, doomed to failure, if not downright suicidal. In the wake of it, all that makes classical music so endlessly nourishing is lost. (In writing this, I recognize I've come a "fer piece" from where I started out a couple years ago.)

David said...

Agreed, Sue. Directors must be allowed to make their own mistakes. I hate to think of such brilliant (to me) productions as Rupert Goold's Turandot for ENO not getting past the drawing board because a committee is aghast (like I was before I saw it) at the idea of its being set in a Chinese restaurant.

On the other hand if I were on the artistic management side of the Salzburg Festival I hope I'd draw the line at a director - and I haven't checked to see who it was since John Tom brought it up - who has no interest in working with the singers...

Yes, broad brushstrokes indeed in the NYT piece. I can imagine JA's targets, though, Nico Muhly surely among them (and of course the ghastly Glass is still churning out the same old.. which was the lingua franca when JA and Steve Reich started out. Kudos to their genius for evolving.

As for the Tchaik/Kotek maskmaking, I passed on wanderer's idea to Andrew Rudin, composer-originator of the petition to the Met, and he's putting it to his committee tonight. Inspired! Maybe they can screen outside the Met that scene from Ken Russell's The Music Lovers where Richard Chamberlain tries to escape Glenda's pube-flashing in the railway carriage.

It still seems that too few singers/directors/conductors are willing to league with the peaceful protest. Disappointing.

wanderer said...

Thanks for that David, passing the idea on to your connections; I feel quite chuffed. Oh, to be there.

Off topic - Debbie has been in contact, and plans are afoot. She'll stay with us for a few days at the outset of the tour.

David said...

Wish I could be there too. Maybe Sue can? But I do love the instant connections with the San Fran and NY protesters - it's so easy to be in touch.

Meanwhile, the farcical side of the horror goes on. Defending the ludicrous state-sponsored film I've already mentioned, the Russian Minister of Culture says there is 'no proof' that Tchaikovsky was gay. You could probably make a little book out of all the explicit diary and letter references. Bozhe moy, even the sly Furtseva wouldn't have been stupid enough to say that.

So you meet Derek before we do, and Debbie gets to see your place before we do. If the bonds that link us all weren't so strong, I'd be envious...

Susan Scheid said...

David: Popping this here as it's a bit more germane to the post and accompanying comments. Saw Anna Nicole tonight, and, not that I need to tell you, but how right you are about Turnage. Wonderful music. I thought Richard Jones's production was wholly effective and suited to the subject matter. (I'm assuming this is the production you also saw?) I did find the subject matter itself problematic, as I anticipated, but based on what I saw and heard here, I look forward to more from both Turnage and Jones.

David said...

I'm so glad Anna Nicole reached New York to correct the half-cock impressions of The Tempest (and the soul-dead Written on Skin to come). Interesting that your reservations about the theme remain; mine were swept away by the sheer charm of Eva Maria Westbroek, though I suspect the real-life lady had nothing like as much heart. Curious to know what your heroine was like.

I think what really got to me were the elegies for the drug addicted son. Turnage lost a brother to heroin addiction, and that rings true. You must listen to the searing sax laments of Blood on the Floor, one the most disturbing and moving modern pieces I know.