Sunday 7 February 2016

In the footsteps of Mackerras

It was hard sitting on the news for so long: the six of us privileged to spend a long but rewarding day adjudicating the final for English National Opera's Mackerras Fellowship, which offers a promising conductor a chance to work in depth with the company for two years, more or less made up our minds at 6pm that evening. Details and approval needed thrashing out by Mark Wigglesworth and the trustees of the Fellowship, but my suggestion that since we couldn't agree between us on two, we should split it, was essentially adopted. Thus the two were chosen, still young by conducting standards - Toby Purser, enterprising founder of the Orion Orchestra,

and Matthew Waldren, whose conducting of Delibes's Lakmé at Opera Holland Park I'd already admired, with only a qualification about pace (photo by Fritz Curzon).

They're no spring chickens, and I suppose we might have hoped for a) younger talent and b) a woman or two, at least in earlier rounds, but you have to choose the best. I also had a soft spot for Christopher Stark, co-ordinator of the Multi-Story Orchestra which gives concerts in a Camberwell car park (I have yet to hear one). He spoke very eloquently and clearly - we could hear every word right at the back, from where we were sitting just behind the brass and alongside the percussion - and showed flashes of brilliance, especially for Tom's first aria in The Rake's Progress, which he's conducted.

The snag with the morning's three competitors was that they didn't really seem to take into account the singers, standing on a platform just to the conductor's left, and slightly behind him. This was the first time any of them had got their hands on the ENO Orchestra, sounding rich and lovely from the start, so it was perhaps understandable that most of the work went on orchestral detail. And I wondered if there had been more liaising with soprano Eleanor Dennis, mezzo Rachael Lloyd, tenor Rupert Charlesworth and baritone Matthew Durkin in the piano sessions the day before, but apparently not.

So it was hardly surprising that, when Waldren got Charlesworth to come and stand right in front of the orchestra, my vivacious fellow-outsider whom I already know and like a lot through a mutual friend, Phillip Thomas, and from our Brunch with Brünnhildes, that great Wagnerian soprano Susan Bullock, exclaimed 'thank you, God!' Sue and I were additions to a panel that already included ENO Head of Music Martin Fitzpatrick, Senior Artistic Advisor John McMurray, Head of Casting Sophie Joyce and of course Mark himself.

Waldren was the only one we witnessed to make true music-theatre with both singers and orchestra; the Dorabella-Guglielmo duet from Cosi really changed and developed as a result. Invidious to say too much about the other conductors, but here's the weirdest thing: the one who baffled us the most was the players' favourite, adduced from a questionnaire they'd been given. And yet from the minute he stood up in front of them, the orchestra suddenly lost all its tonal beauty and sounded a bit like a brass band. It may just be that this was in the dead spot of the day, mid-afternoon, but I remembered John Carewe's comment that the sound of an orchestra adapts to a conductor the minute he or she first raises the baton.

The main point is that, as I've already written in replies to comments on previous posts, I found it one of the most exhilarating if exhausting days of my professional life, and I learnt a huge amount (never noticed, to take one small example, that a harp softens the processional theme of the Mastersingers - two of the competitors drew attention to it). Discussions at lunchtime and afterwards were very lively, and I found the perspective of leader Janice Graham - she who played Leonora's theme in Act Two of The Force of Destiny so seraphically - especially fascinating. I must have been nuts to go on to the first of Dudamel's concerts with the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela - by the time I reached the Festival Hall I just wanted to sleep. But there's no kipping through Stravinsky's Petrushka or The Rite of Spring, even in erratic performances.

This is perhaps the right moment to hail a by all accounts fabulous new Music Director for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, 29-year-old Lithuanian Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla. I haven't caught Gražinytė-Tyla in action yet but Richard Bratby, who heard a specially scheduled CBSO concert with her in January, is someone whose opinion I trust completely. I asked him if he'd react on the morning of the announcement for The Arts Desk and he did so, beautifully. It's especially felicitous for another potentially great Balt to follow Latvian Andris Nelsons.

Bad times, not artistically but financially, for ENO just got worse with the Board's proposal to cut salaries for the chorus by 25 per cent. As last year's Mastersingers triumph showed most powerfully at a similarly vital time, they are a backbone of the company; I know Richard Jones especially adores them. If morale drops just at the time when Mark Wigglesworth is invigorating, by all accounts, everyone who works there, it could be the beginning of the end. I don't know the figures - I must find out - but bearing in mind something has to give, I wonder whether it shouldn't be in the very large administration. Why are the artists always the first to suffer? If you want to defend the company, you should sign both the petition set up by 'the Spirit of Lilian Baylis' and the one on Equity's site.

As with Mastersingers last year, one in the eye for the ludicrous Arts Council 'punishment' which had just been meted out, along came a first night yesterday of such brilliance that one could only wish to fight the proposed cuts with fiercest might (pictured above, ENO principal flautist Claire Wicks in the first of production photos by Robbie Jack). I hadn't much enjoyed Simon McBurney of Complicite's production of The Magic Flute the first time round; this revival was as different from the ENO premiere as day from night. Much of that must be ascribed to the electrification of Mark Wigglesworth and his players, raised up virtually to stage level as before so that the interaction between singers and orchestra could only be the stronger (and there was no problem at all hearing just about every word).

It's a truism that pace is everything in Mozart, but I hadn't really taken that on board until I heard Jonathan Cohen conducting a Glyndebourne on Tour Marriage of Figaro that just zinged; you thought, especially in the first two acts, 'how on earth does Mozart keep it up?'

Here you could only feel the cumulative effect at an incandescent lick, which is probably why I found myself weeping with sheer pleasure just into the Act One Quintet. But there was plenty of space for Tamino's and Pamina's great arias to breathe. And I doubt if I''ll ever see a better, and certainly never a more sympathetic, pair than Allan Clayton and Lucy Crowe.

Clayton (pictured above with the Three Ladies, Eleanor Dennis, Catherine Young and Rachael Lloyd, and also of course above that with Sarastro's brotherhood) has a flawless technique and a fearless sense of engagement; what joy to hear a real tenor in the role after all those choral-scholar ombre pallide.

I wept again at lovely Lucy's 'Ach, ich fühl's' and almost sobbed out loud at 'Tamino mein' - as one should. The buzz in the house at the end was palpable. I won't go into further detail - my colleague Alexandra Coghlan has said it all on The Arts Desk - except to give a special accolade to the Three Boys (Jayden Tejuoso, Fabian Tindale Greene and Louis Lodder), perfectly together with the orchestra throughout,

and to say that the production which had left me cold first time round now seemed near-perfect; I laughed a lot. So, a huge triumph again for ENO. And Wigglesworth has now proved his versatility with Shostakovich, Verdi and Mozart in the first half of the season.


Susan Scheid said...

I can only imagine how exhilarating this had to be. It would have been wonderful to be able to be a fly on the wall, as well. Your anecdote about the harp softening the processional in the Mastersingers is so telling, isn't it? I've been very grateful for the advent of performances on DVD in which one can see a conductor from the vantage point of the orchestra (BTW my first ever was "the Zenith," all thanks to you, of Abbado conducting the Lucerne in Mahler's 9th. I've since bought up every available Abbado/Lucerne/Mahler DVD and am slowly making my way through them, every one a treasure.) What you describe here also puts to mind three performances by the Juilliard Orchestra, one conducted by Wigglesworth with a magnificent performance of Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem, a second with Vladimir Jurowski conducting a dazzling performance of early Shostakovich, and the last by a conductor whose name I don't recall. Nor do I recall what the music was—but what I do recall was the lesser quality of performance, including miffed entrances. These offered my first direct experience of what a difference a conductor makes to the same ensemble, and what a difference it was!

Speaking of ENO, last week, I saw the ENO/Woolcock production of The Pearl Fishers at the Met, and what you might have thought about the conducting was on my mind. Noseda had conducted all except the performance I saw, to enormous praise. Our conductor was Antony Walker. His modulation of dynamics in support of the singing and action on the stage seemed to me far more sensitive than Frizza's in Maria Stuarda. I don't recall a single instance in Walker's case in which the orchestra drowned out, or at least muffled, the singing, which seemed to happen with regularity under Frizza. I could be well off the mark on this, but that was my impression at the time.

David said...

Well, Sue, I suppose to be fair Bizet's score is infinitely more interesting and delicately scored than Donizetti's, but your point is about sensitivity of balance between orchestra and singers. Penny Woolcock's production, by the way, was one of John Berry's gambles at ENO, and I'd say that more of them paid off than not. The opening image is ravishing, isn't it? And while I was afraid that too much social significance would be grafted on to a plot of purest hokum, what in fact happened was that the sparing amout of it simply dignified the characters.

You know I have, let's say, a blind spot as concerns Bellini and Donizetti unless the top divas happen to be singing, so I'll be interested to see how your Msrjorie Owens shapes up as Norma at ENO soon. Of course we now know that Tamara Wilson could cut the mustard, so I hope Owens is of that ilk.

Susan Scheid said...

David: Absolutely, that opening image was ravishing, as well as much else. Your point about the difference between the scores is well-taken, strongly noticeable to me, too, even on a first hearing of each opera. (This also validates a bit, for me, my response to both Donizettis I've seen, in which I thought the scoring seemed fairly bland.)

It's quite possible the scoring is what I'm responding as much as anything else, though perhaps not entirely. One thing that comes to mind is that our soprano in The Pearl Fishers wasn't Damrau, but Amanda Woodbury. While she seemed to me and my friend a little underpowered, her voice carried over the orchestra throughout. My assumption was that she was aided in that, not only in the delicacy of the scoring, but also, using your great phrase, by the conductor's "sensitivity of balance.'

But in all of this, I am truly reading the tea leaves, rather than speaking from any real knowledge!

David Damant said...

You really are at the head of your profession. I note your comment on the integration of orchestra and soloists. The mirror image of that question might be the singing of arias as concert pieces, outside a performance. Somehow, they seldom succeed

David said...

One thing I do know, Sue, is that Bizet scores I think all the main arias for the three principals lightly and sensitively. I think it's really a chamber opera for the most part, would love to see it at Glyndebourne (it was doing an Opera Bite script for that company that converted me to the music after I'd sat through several dumb stagings of what seemed to me a hokey melodrama. Which, essentially, it is, of course).

How kind, Sir David. Not sure why concert arias would be a 'mirror image', but I usually hate galas and don't go to one-singer 'best of's, not even if it's Jonas Kaufmann (incidentally, I saw a Met gala recently included Andrea Bocelli - I like to think that if I were one of the truly great and good of the operatic world, I wouldn't consent to appearing in the same evening). A good programme can provide interesting links, as I remember the Britten Sinfonia doing with Roderick Williams - best so-called Champagne Aria I've ever heard - and, I think, Sophie Bevan (or maybe it was Carolyn Sampson) in linking arias from Don Giovanni with a couple from The Rake's Progress