Sunday, 20 July 2014

Stritch in time

So here's to the girls on the go - 
Everybody tries.
Look into their eyes
And you'll see what they know:
Everybody dies.

A toast to that invincible bunch,
The dinosaurs surviving the crunch - 
Let's hear it for the ladies who lunch!
Everybody rise! Rise!
Rise! Rise! Rise! Rise! Rise! Rise! Rise!

Sondheim composed that mighty song in Company for Elaine Stritch, specifically for her 'acerbic delivery of self-assessment', just as he wrote Gypsy's 'Everything's Coming Up Roses' for Ethel Merman and A Little Night Music's eleven-o-clock number 'Send in the Clowns' for the inimitable short-windedness of Glynis Johns. I posted one of Lainey's many versions of 'The Ladies Who Lunch' back in 2010 here.

Now Stritch has joined Ethel in a heavenly Broadway, having lived to the age of 89 still a trouper despite four decades of heavy drinking and the rest living with diabetes. David Benedict has written a wonderful reminiscence of significant meetings with this straight-talking dame on The Arts Desk, and I hope others will come up with their Stritchstories too. But no obituary is going to match the life history, at least up to 2002, of the one-woman show Elaine Stritch At Liberty, which I count myself hugely fortunate to have seen at the Old Vic. Nothing, I think, can beat the work you have to do to visualise and keep up with her on the two-CD set of that event, so having said, buy it, I shoot myself in the foot by putting up the entire film as it appears on YouTube.

One bonus of the CD set is John Lahr's brilliant essay about working on a show which ended up 'Constructed by John Lahr, Reconstructed by Elaine Stritch' (we both laughed out loud at what he reports she said to him when he handed her an autographed copy of one of his books: 'John, you gotta stop givin' me these books with your signature. I can't give 'em away'). I think he sums it all up when he writes: 'By revealing conflict, failure, and the emotional price of Broadway survival, the show could generate that ozone of anger and anxiety which is, finally, the Stritch climate'.

Yet let's not forget the laughs won by perfect timing, the impeccable cadencing of a very distinctive language. She's irreplaceable, but we will continue to rise for this very human legend. To complete the Liberty life story with a perfect epilogue offering some overlap, it's vital to watch this New York Times film. Only Stritch, perhaps, could back up her thoughts on the possibility of an afterlife with lines from The Sound of Music's 'Something Good'.

The other big death this week left me oddly unmoved: could I honestly recall any concert of Lorin Maazel's which has stayed with me, or even - despite praise for his early Sibelius and Tchaikovsky - any one recording? Well, maybe the Teatro alla Scala performance I saw of Puccini's La fanciulla del West, when I  found him in enthusiastic mode for the interview (for Manon Lescaut the following year he was just jaded and downright rude). When J told me the news of his death, my first thought was, phew, didn't write the Guardian obit, won't have to update - and then a lady from the obits desk rang and asked me to do just that; I'd completely forgotten. So I added a paragraph and the results are here.

Would I have forgotten the labours of love for Mackerras or Abbado? I hope not. I happened to be in Berlin in June en route for Dresden, catching an all-Strauss concert for which, I must be honest, I was pleased to find Semyon Bychkov had replaced him (with a better programme, too - out with the tacky music-minus-three Rosenkavalier Suite, in with an ineffable Schubert Nine). It was a beautiful summer evening with the moon rising over the Scharoun-designed Philharmonie in the interval.

 I come to love the building, especially its foyers and auditorium, the more I visit it.

Inside the first face to greet me was Abbado's: nowhere except perhaps Lucerne reveres his memory more than the Berlin Phil, so this little exhibition of some wonderful photos

and many of his best musical observations held pride of place.

A shame there's no English tome on him comparable to the several in German and Italian. Give it time.

On which note, I turn sourly to a conductor who could sometimes be almost as great in performance as Abbado - possibly still can be - but whose pact with the Putin devil must surely end his career in the west. If anyone still has any doubts about the unworkability of Valery Gergiev conducting the World Orchestra for Peace at the Proms this evening - performances in Aix and Munich have already been cancelled - watch this interview in English by a Helsinki journalist (a minute or so of Finnish precedes it). My thanks to 'Boulezian' Mark Berry for drawing my attention to it.

If you can't be bothered to sit through the rather grim spectacle, I've jotted down a few choice phrases: [Eastern Ukraine] 'is not a problem of Russia - Ukrainian people kill each other'. On Crimea: 'it was not annexation, people were voting to leave Ukraine. There were too many Nazi elements...Those who killed so many people in Kiev and burnt so many people in Odessa, the east calls them Fascists, we don't want to stay with the Fascists.' Mattila, who stated that she would not work with Gergiev again, 'doesn't understand anything in politics, she has absolutely no idea what is happening in she will look into the eyes of mothers who had children killed - there are many children killed'.

He is entitled to believe all this if he wants - though of course war quickly spawns atrocity on both sides, and no doubt there are refugees pouring into Russia - and if there were no political or humanitarian aspect to his work, we could note it and move on. But following his unequivocal support of Putin's re-election campaign and his jumping to be included on a list of signatures approving the Crimean occupation, a slightly more objective stance than this would be needed to justify his post at the head of a 'Peace' Orchestra (which has suffered already from scandals of funding in the recent past). I state this here because the driving force of The Arts Desk thinks I just want to 'pick a fight' with a conductor I used to respect, and always enjoyed meeting. So no more space to sound off there. (Update, Monday: photo by Chris Christodoulou from last night. No kerfuffles have been reported so far, more shame on the British public).

I do think a valid comparison is to be made with Vladimir Jurowski. No, he isn't living in Russia and he doesn't have to work with the regime. But it was still courageous of him to address a Moscow audience back in May about the gay aspect of Britten's War Requiem, how Britten and Pears were officially criminals for many years, how even Wilfred Owen was gay. No doubt which of those two conductors these two composers, snapped after a Moscow Conservatory performance of Britten's works in 1966, would applaud. One only has to remember Shostakovich's setting of Yevtushenko's 'A Career' at the end of his Thirteenth Symphony to know what he might be thinking of Gergiev were he still alive.

My thanks to Gavin Dixon for drawing my attention to the film of Jurowski's speech (in Russian, linked on Gavin's blog entry), and also most recently for a description of a Socialist-Realist style reworking of a dodgy opera as Crimea in St Petersburg, which would be funny if it weren't so ominous a sign of history repeating itself.

On a less heinous scale, Long Yu, the conductor of last night's China Philharmonic Prom which I didn't hear, is a party apparatchik who even if he were a decent conductor already holds more prominent posts than is healthy for a man in his position. That he's atrociously poor I can attest from the worst conducted performance I've ever heard, a spectacularly testudinal Elgar Cockaigne Overture with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. I have it from the horse's mouth that the players themselves stopped the whole thing falling apart as early as the tenuto in the second full bar. The orchestra petitioned their general manager to make sure they never worked with him again, but he said he couldn't guarantee it where big bucks from China were concerned.

Heigh ho, things at the Proms, which began well enough on Friday night, should start looking up again from tomorrow onwards. On Tuesday I'll be chatting with Sara Mohr-Pietsch and Hugo Shirley in the Proms Plus Intro, 4.45pm at the Royal College of Music down the steps from the Albert Hall, before Glyndebourne presents its Rosenkavalier semi-staged to the South Ken colosseum (I doubt if Richard Jones will have much to do with it; he was disappointed in what he felt were the singers overdoing his WNO Meistersinger at the Proms). I postponed a work trip to Italy by a day in order to take part, and much as I keep moaning that the Proms should have done Strauss proud with more arcane semi-staged operas like the fabulous Feuersnot, of course I'm pleased to be able to hear Rosenkavalier live for a fourth time this year.


David Damant said...

I am an amateur in the world of music, but I did listen to the "Chinese Prom" and I thought that the performance left a lot to be desired. But as so many musicians coming out of China are so splendid I thought that I might be wrong.

There is a theory going about these days that the best way to run a free market economy is to run it under the umbrella of an authoritarian regime. Well, it worked in Singapore and now ( it is said) it seems to be working in China.Apart from the fact that a good deal of China's economic success has different origins which would have worked under any regime, I believe that it is clear from history that efficient political institutions do not flourish in an authoritarian structure. Rather strangely, this is illustrated by your report of the appointment of an apparatchik to a post as conductor without the necessary an authoritative regime this sort of appointment ( and decision mechanism) will be occurring in all areas of government and hence - well, there we have inefficiency and decisions which in some fields will be dangerous. I have some hope for China as they are so flexible of intellect.......apparently when Nixon opened up to China Zhou Enlai ( number two to Mao) was astonished and delighted to talk to a brilliant intellect like Kissinger, after years of struggling with the heavy and tedious Russian mindset

David said...

I fear it may take a lot more than a shift from authoritatian regime to stop this sort of cronyism - after all, a look at some of the other countries where it flourishes shows that plus ca change...

But Laineybabe's the thing here. Listen to her!

Laurent said...

When I think of Elaine Stritch I associate with her all the qualities you think of in an entertainer and an artist who can captivate people. She was a great lady and luckily with technology she will remain with us.
We saw Guerguiev in Salzburg a few years ago and it is sad when an artist decides that he has to support a regime, I would think that his reputation alone is sufficient and he does not lend his voice in association with Putin's action. It is all politics and he may think that he is making friends at home for the sake of financial support.
As for Long Yu, he is touted as a preeminent and accomplished blah blah blah. This is so typically Chinese propaganda, quality does not matter, the show does. The bigger the better, and money can buy everything. This is what is happening everywhere, the Chinese government pays and makes demands because funds are scarce they impose their view. Sad indeed, the public thinks it is great.

David said...

Exactly, Laurent. If music is indeed above politics, as Gergiev claims, he should have just said 'no comment': no-one, not even Putin, compelled him to say any more once he'd jumped to join the pro-annexation list. But he proves that the kind of person targeted by Yevtushenko and Shostakovich in 'A Career' will always be with us.

Re your WW1 posts, there was a rather melodramatic but not ineffective Guardian post paralleling the events of July 1914 with July 2014: a separatist group with a shady larger power behind it committing an outrage - the difference being that then it was intentional, this time a horrific mistake up to a point. Absolutely terrifying.

You must come and see the World War One galleries at the Imperial War Museum, which I found so traumatic. It was the film of shell shock sufferers which just about finished me off.

As for China, yes, now it's a case of l'argent fait tout.

Roger Neill said...

I first saw Stritch in Sondheim's COMPANY in London in 1972. The epitome of the Broadway star. Unforgettable.

David said...

Crikey, Company 1972 - that's history. I really entered the picture for the London premiere of Sweeney Todd (Sheila Hancock, Dennis Quilley): knew it was a masterpiece from the start, when many were scratching their heads.

Anonymous said...

La Stritch, niece of the famous ultra-orthodox Cardinal Samuel Stritch of Chicago used to come into my health food shop in Coutts complex and was invariably a complete bitch, ordering staff around, shamelessly jumping queues in a swaggering yankee arrogance, and demanding refunds for supposedly faulty items she had purchased without producing said bad organic peaches, "off" pear juice etc. Needless to say, none of the staff could remember selling her said items earlier. Quite a "wee whilely" in Purgatory for that grand dame, me thinks. Enjoyed your interview with the Pietch, tho my digital reception was very bad.
John Graham, Edinburgh

David Damant said...

I wonder if Britten would have chosen different plots for his operas if he were alive and writing now, rather than at a time when the gay world was in a cultural prison? Less emphasis on situations centred on young men - as in Peter Grimes, Billy Budd, Death in Venice. Less need to concentrate on this aspect of his predicament?

In his comment on Jurowski Gavin Dixon gives his opinion that Jurowski was maybe exaggerating the gay aspects of the War Requiem to emphasise his point. It was in my view anyway a pity that he called the work gay, as the male nature of war and fighting, and comradeship between men, are different from sexual attraction. Evolution has produced a camaraderie between men which is good for going out to fight other men and to kill animals. Not always a valuable characteristic, but not the same as being gay.

[I am aware that there is a theory that all relationships straight or gay are based on sex, but that is one of those propositions which it impossible to prove or disprove, and therefore meaningless]

David said...

Well, John, you know what they said in the profession about 'Stritch' rhyming with....

'Pietsch' almost does too, though I'm merely being whimsical there, absolutely not casting any aspersions in that amiable lady's direction.

If Britten hadn't concentrated on aspects of his own personality, David, I doubt if we would have had such disturbing depths in the operas. He seems closer to the self-confessional world of Mahler, Wagner and to an extent Janacek than to the more objective love of different worlds shared by Mozart and Strauss.

I don't think Jurowski did call the War Requiem gay, either. As Gavin doesn't understand Russian, and since I couldn't make all of the speech out because of the distant amateur recording, maybe we should suspend judgment on that and just take the bigger view of his admirable stance. You're off on a bit of a tangent there, I fancy.

David Damant said...

Despite detailed searches I cannot find the original quotation from Freud I have been looking for. But the point he makes is that when the emotions are engaged the intellect has to follow, so that in addressing various questions the conscious intellect comes to the conclusions that the emotions dictate. Thus the statements by Putin and others can be genuine beliefs although not rational. Under communism the leaders of the USSR, trapped in their world view, believed ( for example) that there were conspiracies everywhere. As a result their diplomacy was distorted. Nevertheless this was their strong view, and we can see the same attitude now, in the claim that the West has been ganging up on Russia, and that the shooting down of the Malayan plane was an action by Kiev to lay the blame on Russia. I am not sure that hitting at Putin through sanctions really addresses this problem

David said...

I fear it's all much more simple and base. Putin grew up in a system which taught him it was better to lie so as not to give the 'enemy' any advantage. It's been lies all the way here, from 'we have no intention of entering the Crimea' to 'we have nothing to do with the insurgencies of eastern Ukraine'.

Should we be surprised? For many years now anyone in Russia trying to tell the truth at a higher level has been liquidated. There's been too much equivocating for too long. This man is never going to play by any rules. No more appeasement.