Friday, 27 June 2008

From Oklahoma to Turangalila

Only in London, I'd guess, could you leap within an hour from a 'Thursday pops' concert in a classical Greek setting to a complete performance of Messiaen's Turangalila Symphony. As for the Messiaen, I doubt if I'll be doing it again: Neeme Jarvi, stepping in (which is the reason I went, as he's my hero) for an unwell Mariss Jansons with the Royal Concertgebouw at the Barbican, had the right idea, which was to keep it all as speedy, light and clear as possible. Jean-Yves Thibaudet is at his slick best in this 'lurex music' (as my pal Ed Seckerson unforgettably labelled it), and you can always depend on my old friend Cynthia Millar for some luscious swoops on the ondes martenot.

Yet what does it all amount to? It's a fascinating score to read, but easily three movements too long, and the effect is of surface. Celia Ballantyne of Harmonia Mundi was a bit startled when I said it was 'light music', but here's the paradox: an hour earlier, I had been more touched by a BBC performance of Sullivan's Iolanthe Overture. I reasoned you could achieve deeper effects with a genuinely inspired sentimental melody than with a vast orchestra writhing in erotic agony and ecstasy.

Now the context of the Iolanthe, as you may have gathered from the first photo, was a unique one in my experience. When I met with Janet Obi-Keller of the City Lit and Ann McKay and Alison Walker from the BBC Symphony Orchestra last week to discuss next academic year's course, Ann and Alison flagged up the Proms publicity stunt 'Out and About', and I was very curious to see what they'd get up to in the British Museum (other venues yesterday included St Pancras Station and Habitat on Oxford Street). I was directed to the 'Elgin Saloon', where beneath those glorious if mutilated figures from the pediment of the Parthenon were many familiar faces from the BBCSO masquerading as the 'BBC Light Orchestra' under John Wilson, doing their best in the bathroom acoustics with the 'Westminster Waltz'.

Then we had a splendid Oklahoma Overture - 'Jud Fry is dead' sounded especially menacing in its monumental context - and as I left for the Barbican, Coates's 'By the Sleepy Lagoon' (the Desert Island Discs theme) was bringing smiles to the audience. Alas, I never found out what other parts of the museum were going to play host to more BBC ensembles.

It's been a 'lite'ish week, necessary to offset all those obsessive Rachmaninov Etudes-Tableaux recordings. Bernstein's Candide at ENO turned out to be no better than I've found it on three other occasions: a few hit songs, ambitious idea in adapting Voltaire going horribly wrong and awful half-hours of nothingness (how do you turn so sharp and short a pamphlet into a real Titanic of a musical?) I don't think, however, that the production was at fault. Robert Carsen's instinct for beautifully lit stage pictures meant that there was luxury - this being a co-production with Paris and Milan - without overload, and I thought the 50s America transplant worked for the most part, though it resulted in some geographical confusion and an over-larded McCarthyan auto da fe. The end is chilling, if obvious: while the assembled company belt out the optimism of making their gardens grow, a big screen projects images of our crumbling planet. The telly is the overriding metaphor, screening the 'Volt-Air' channel - here, in the first of three production shots by Catherine Ashmore, is ever-improving lyric tenor Toby Spence as Candide in an especially desolate moment...

...while Cunegonde as Marilyn was a conceit that went on a bit, but meant that 'Glitter and be gay' became 'Diamonds are a girl's best friend':

Miking did coloratura soubrette Anna Christy few favours, and generally showbiz was in short supply: I know American accents are difficult, but Bonny Bottone's voice coach had not got good results. Towering charisma came from our Beverley Klein, the best Mrs Lovett I've ever seen and stealing every scene here as the monopygous Old Lady, and from Alex Jennings, our actor with the biggest and most operatic vocal range. He trebled effortlessly as a properly period Voltaire, a Tom Lehrerish Pangloss and a street-sweeper Martin, Pangloss's pessimistic double (difficult scene to bring off, but it half worked here).

How sad to think that Carsen's brilliant idea of having the utterly superfluous five rulers as politicians of the present - or, in two cases, very recent past - didn't go down well in Italy (apparently they resented that clown Berlusconi in tricolore trunks). What else could possibly work as well as this?

Yes, that was funny. But Bernstein's ambition to do G&S doesn't often work: it's all too knowing, and goes on a lot longer than the Victorian geniuses ever did. Give me the fresher spirits of On the Town any day.

Mention of G&S does allow me to take centre stage for a bit. On Friday, at the cabaret launch of St Andrew's mini music festival, I reprised the Lord Chancellor's Nightmare Song from Iolanthe. How strange to be doing it in front of the high altar (I crossed myself when the darkness has passed towards the end). I didn't have the full weaponry I'd enjoyed at Charleston some years ago (sight gag courtesy of Richard Jones's production of The Queen of Spades):

But I did keep the nightcap and bedshirt. Here I am without the nightcap and with the leading light of St Andrew's powerhouse team, Father Martin Eastwood:

Alas, tied down as I was to the Building a Library script most of the weekend, I missed several other events and couldn't make the choir rehearsal for the Festival Evensong. But I went to it, and heard Father Martin's bold introit as well as the three commissioned works, of which I liked the 'Nunc Dimittis' of Peter Aston's 'St Andrew's Service' with its pastoral decoration from the organ and Humphrey Clucas's sweet setting of the Lord's Prayer. The Bishop of London gave a theatrical but still somehow heartfelt hymn of praise to the power of music in his sermon. More of the same will certainly be forthcoming at St Andrew's and I hope they'll welcome 'my' quartet from the BBC Symphony Orchestra in Elgar and Vaughan Williams.

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