Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Sibelius and Stravinsky bound

'Sibelius unbound' is in fact the title of Esa-Pekka Salonen's Sibelius symphonies cycle with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Barbican. Yet it's hardly liberating: masterful at best, Salonen is curiously un-Finnish in labouring to make a point where compatriots like Berglund and Jukka-Pekka Saraste achieve a more natural flow and cut off abruptly when the music has said what it has to say. Has EPS been too long in LA, where the orchestra has a surface glamour, and very imposing lower strings for the start of the Fourth Symphony, but hard, unyielding violins, rampant brass and a woodwind section that's no match for any of the London departments in terms of sophistication?

There was at least a steely concentration and the right kind of undertow in the Fourth, launching Friday evening's concert (second in the series). Its tension was undercut for me by the arrival, in the seat next to me, of a leggy, mouthy Irish blonde who seemed so excited by the prospect of hearing a full symphony orchestra in the concert hall for the first time that I hesitated to tell her to shut up as she whispered sibilantly to her boyfriend throughout this toughest of symphonies. I thought if I did, I might put her off concerts for life. My patience paid off - once I'd given her one of our (free) programmes, which engrossed her, she sat rapt through the Seventh and said she'd certainly come again. But it was a restless audience. Latecomers having been admitted halfway through the Fourth, Salonen waited an age for them to seat themselves before launching that most daunting of Adagios. Finlandia was the encore - after the Seventh, for goodness' sake - and you could tell this is a band which plays lots of film scores: good, vulgar fun.

Wish I could have said the same for the Michael Clark Company's Stravinsky trilogy the following evening. I suppose we were expecting something cutting-edge, but it was all tired and lacking in real energy. You might think it difficult to make The Rite of Spring, albeit played (very well) on two pianos, boring - but these lackadaisical, eviscerated dancers did just that. The Leigh Bowery costumes look horribly dated (and why the toilet lids sported by two of the dancers?); there's quite a good number danced by a self-pleasuring lady in purple to the 'Spring Rounds', but the 'Danse Sacrale' - a very unclimactic solo for a bare-breasted prima ballerina alone on the stage - was anything but primal. Apollo lacked poetry - the male dancers are rather thick set and not very sexy - while Les noces saw the dancers jiggling about a bit in the midst of a mimsy chorus (the supposedly professional New London Chamber Choir), four second-rate soloists and an OK yet hardly bracing piano and percussion ensemble. At no point did Clark do anything new to make one forget the extraordinary achievements of Balanchine and Nijinska, still fresh as paint in these works. And there was more life in the flickers of emotion passing across the face of the octogenarian composer, seen conducting the Firebird finale in a 1965 film before Les noces, than in the rest of this oddly enervating evening.

Best of the weekend was a screening of four documentaries in the Brixton Ritzy's mini-Roma festival - or rather the first two, one about Roma children in a Serbian village picking up the brass band tradition, the other about grubby but idealistic kids in an encampment on the outskirts of Belgrade. The film about Guca, the incredible meeting of Roma brass groups and folk ensembles with Serbian nationalism, went on a bit - as, evidently, would the festival, which we once thought of visiting - and then there was a badly put-together documentary about Macedonian Esma, 'Queen of the Gypsies', an interesting character with her 47 adopted sons and her pleas for internationalism, but one wanted to hear and see far more of her in her younger days.

Have started Turn of the Screw with the City Lit students, already feeling a bit queasy about the subject-matter and living with it for the next four weeks, but it's a masterpiece, no doubt, and it's good to get back to Henry James. The claims Britten is supposed to have made to Eric Crozier and Myfanwy Piper about his schooltime rape and his father sending him out to procure boys do seem extraordinary, but help to account for the horrifying murk of the piece. Will have to offset it with morning doses of the many Bach cantatas up for the BBC Music Magazine awards this year.

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