Monday 29 September 2008

On programming genius

No sooner have we recovered, in what is going to sound suspiciously like toadying to my BBC masters but which is sincerely meant, from the Proms programming genius of Roger Wright than we find ourselves caught in the welcome crossfire of the London orchestras and their masters, battling to outstrip each other in a new look for the concert scene.

Of course heady and unexpected brews of composers and various instrumental forces have always been with us, usually in the form of major festivals where sometimes indigestible slabs of one great figure or another have been leavened by the music of their contemporaries. It now seems more the way to spread these festival themes throughout the concert seasons. Gergiev presents 'Emigre', focusing on Rachmaninov and Prokofiev, across the LSO's jam-packed series; the BBC Symphony are rediscovering the great late romantic symphonies with master trainer Jiri Belohlavek in a long-term project which currently features, for instance, one Mahler symphony per season. Vladimir Jurowski has even more head-spinning plans, with connections between seasons as well as between and within programmes. Here he is on the first night of the London Philharmonic's new season at the Southbank's Royal Festival Hall, photograph courtesy of the LPO and Richard Haughton. Downloading to this blog for some reason turns Vladimir blue, so I've taken the liberty of reproducing the photo in black and white.

The launch picked up where the same team's blistering Kashchey double-whammy at the Proms left off. But this time the shepherd's-pipe bassoon of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring snaked out of the silence left by the luminous clouds of Ligeti's Atmospheres. Ligeti's last uncanny chord cluster faded away, Jurowski continued with his clear incisive beat and on we went.

It's not the first time this has happened - two seasons ago with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, David Robertson placed the last mysterious pizzicato of the Tristan Prelude and into the space came the suspended dreamscape of Schoenberg's Erwartung (that was an easy concert for me to talk before - all three works, with Beethoven's Fifth to follow, launch in mid-air and take some time to let us know exactly where we are. Erwartung, in fact, never does so until the dreamer floats to the surface in that extraordinary filling of the last bars with uprising chromatic scales at different speeds). Yet Jurowski is an even more consistent and intellectually prepared conductor, almost frighteningly sure of what he wants and preparing his orchestra to the ultimate degree. How very different from the fitful brilliance of Gergiev, who ranges from the dazzling and quirky to the sloppy, coarse or just plain wrong.

Some found Jurowski's Rite lacking the necessary element of earth. It was obvious from his reining-in of those first reiterated chords that something was to be kept in check, but that was eventually unleashed in playing of incredible speed and precision, the earthiness just below the surface. I have never heard, nor ever will again unless this team reprises their triumph (which Jurowski often likes to do), the Dance of the Earth delivered with such clarity. It was of that order of execution - Bernstein's Mahler Five was another such - which only lets you feel and shed tears of exhilaration when it's over. And into the next space here came the steam-heat of Part Two's introduction, further graced by the most ravishing alto flute solo I've ever heard. Continuity is an element one relishes the older one gets, and so Jurowski's no-nonsense dovetailing of sections, and between every mood-swing of the final Sacrificial Dance, set the seal of mastery on this unforgettable interpretation.

I've rambled on there - let it rest - and almost ignored the first half. Those of us who had to miss Elder's Halle performance of Vaughan Williams Eight were looking forward to hearing it for the first time live: again, what supremacy of effect and orchestral colour, what fun with the Chinese gongs and the bells in the finale. Clearly Turnage's Mambo, Blues and Tarantella wasn't going to be dull, and he did his characteristically vivid stuff with drums v violin (Christian Tetzlaff) in the Mambo. But how right Richard Morrison was to describe the Blues as the Greys - here we entered the mindfug of undistinguished contemporary lyricism. Turnage can do the lyric stuff - Blood on the Floor had me in tears with the big sax solos, elegies to his brother who died from a heroin overdose - but only when he sticks closer to popular culture and abjures the swamp of serialism. Never mind; you have to keep trying with new works, and now that Jurowski and Salonen are here to lead the scene, we can be sure of a happy balance not only in the programmes but also in the audiences.

Tuesday 23 September 2008

And did those feet...

Blake's vision of a new Jerusalem was, it's generally accepted, founded on the legend of Joseph of Arimathea coming to Glastonbury with nephew Jesus on a tin-trading expedition. My Glastonbury friend, whose illness was the reason for what turned out ultimately to be an anything but depressing visit, has also read that the 'dark Satanic mills' might be a reference to the tanning factories on the other side of town, though of course the Industrial Revolution was way in the future when Blake wrote his poem.

Anyway, these feet and those of our mutual friend Eleanor eventually, after six hours' driving hindered by the thickets around Bristol, got to tread the ruins of the Abbey, ruthlessly laid waste (and its Abbot, Richard Whiting, executed and dismembered on Glastonbury Tor) by Henry VIII. Its form was difficult to grasp, and Pevsner was little help in this. I understand from a clear and beautifully illustrated booklet on Glastonbury, published with love as part of a series by the town's Wooden Books Ltd and written by George Wingfield, that St Mary's Chapel which later constituted the west end of the longest ecclesiastical building in Britain was completed in 1186 on the site of Joseph's wattle church.

Even more spectacular, iconic even, are the two ruined towers of the Abbey's north and south transepts, standing out against a clear blue sky. Here are a view from the east end of St Mary's Chapel and (closer) the richest, the north tower.

The whole complex is built on a special axis with the Tor, seen through Sunday morning mists in the first picture. Here it is with its attendant church as represented in a (1920s) window of the parish church, St John's...

...and here is the late 13th century tower of St. Michael at closer quarters:

Legend also tells us that Joseph returned years after the Crucifixion - in 63 AD, there's precise for you - and planted his staff on Wearyall Hill to the west of the Tor, whereupon it burst into leaf. Here's the putative, be-ribboned hawthorn:

Our Glastonbury experience was, apparently, typically extreme. By the end of a tiring Saturday, Eleanor and I were mildly hysterical about some of the folk who come to nibble on the spiritual smorgasbord served up here - the bad clothes, bad food, bad art and so on. On Sunday, everything turned round, mostly due to our uncanny experience in what would seem to be the only really good cafe in town. We discovered it through the serendipity of the alternative B&B we were staying in not providing any coffee (an aggressive act, I felt). What happened at the Lalune I feel is too private to go into detail about here, and the more I talk about it, the sillier some people find it; but we did - Nell, Eleanor and I - all three experience in very different ways the extraordinary power of a goat-headed hazelwood stick wielded by a transsexual shaman called, I think, Siobhan. She never foisted herself on us, and spoke simply and intelligently so that nothing I heard seemed incredible or phoney at the time. While the ladies listened to the shaman's even more outlandish history, I went off to look at St. John's, briefly open after communion, with the light making its way through clouds of incense smoke:

Then I went walking up the Tor with Nell's husband Geoff and dogs of character Molly and Minty. What's for sure is that after that strange meeting, all the stresses and the negative aspects of the weekend fell away and we whizzed back to London in double-quick time.

Friday 19 September 2008

Trainspotter's Bergman

This week, in the relative calm before the start of the adult-education year and the concert season, I've been catching up on movies, courtesy of LoveFilm. The trainspotting comes about because I've been ticking off the Ingmar Bergman oeuvre over the years, and have recently been plugging the gaps of the early (1940s) period. The four I'd missed until now were the first film Bergman both scripted and filmed, Crisis, his most characteristic and overwrought early work Prison, the often annoying but undeniably cinematic Thirst or Three Strange Loves (with Eva Henning and Birger Malmsten, seen above in a neurasthenic postwar train journey from Basel to Stockholm) and To Joy, easily the warmest if most sentimental of the batch.

Bergman's use of music in his films is usually very telling, and becomes increasingly leaner in the masterpieces of the 1960s. Music dominates To Joy, because both the anti-hero and the all-too pliable heroine, despatched near the start of the film in a paraffin explosion, play in an orchestra conducted by that great ex-silent actor and director Victor Sjostrom of Wild Strawberries fame. The work at the start and end of the film, framing long flashbacks, is Beethoven's Ninth, and of course it's a bit corny when the protagonist, devastated by his loss, becomes one with the rest of the orchestra and the couple's little boy wanders in to sit and listen. Otherwise, there's a lovely use of Mozart chamber music for the only happy moments of the relationship, and a very well-observed scene in which our hero attempts to play the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto and goes perceptibly but not exaggeratedly out of tune, scuppering his potential career as a soloist. There are lovely performances from the luminous Maj-Britt Nilsson and Stig Olin as the Bergman alter ego.

Olin died this June at the grand age of 87 (same as Eva Dahlbeck, the adorable Desiree in Smiles of a Summer Night, who died in March). It says so much for the vitality of Bergman characters that he remained, for me, at the age one sees him in these 1940s films. He's certainly the most interesting thing about Crisis, in which he plays a mixed-up gigolo bent on destroying the innocence of a small-town girl (Inga Landgre).

There's a lot of sub-Sirkian women's melodrama about this film, with soupy music to boot, but it's magnificently employed in the edgy seduction scene, which takes place to the distant thud of reiterated chords from the theatre next door to the beauty salon in which the seduction takes place. Olin is also a scoundrel in Prison, cowardly pimp to a teenage prostitute rivetingly played by Doris Svedlund.

Well, that leaves just a few more Bergmans I haven't seen (Journey into Autumn, with the dream pair of Harriet Andersson and Eva Dahlbeck, and the TV series Face to Face, which sounds fairly gruelling). I garnered most of them at the two big retrospectives - at the Barbican in 1992, as part of the Tender is the North festival, and at the National Film Theatre in 2003. Both were great journies of discovery, and it was exciting to see the NFT screenings get fuller and fuller, until there were queues for returns when it came to classics like Persona and Winter Light. On which latter subject, I also read The Director, a short but atmospheric novel by Alexander Ahndoril about Bergman's struggles with his past while making Winter Light, central to which of course were his father's role as a pastor and the crisis he might have undergone had he followed in his footsteps.

Ahndoril is especially good at catching the dreamlike visions which keep breaking across Bergman's everyday life - a true reflection, one gathers from what the great man says in his autobiographical writings.

After the Bergman stint, we found the silliness of a recent French costume drama, Moliere, unwatchable after twenty minutes and reverted to the drama of great film-making in the 1950s and 60s. First we watched Fellini's I Vitelloni, about the pathos and aimlessness of unemployed small town lads - not as racy as the scam-story Il Bidone, but the desultory quality is part of the point. Last night, as consort is a great fan of the Czech writer Bohuslav Hrabal, came Closely Observed Trains, a meticulously faithful adaptation (by Hrabal and director Jiri Menzel) of the novel with a classic scene in which a sex-mad signalman franks his girlfriend along the legs and on the buttocks, 'with hilarious results' as the cliche goes. This is a masterpiece of subdued acting, and unbelievably frank (in the other sense, of course) for 'Czechia' in 1966.

Much more upbeat, finally, is the earlier of the documentaries about the Venezuelan Sistema (for news on the later one and Dudamel, see two entries earlier). Mark Newbanks of Askonas Holt kindly sent this one, Tocar y Luchar ('To Play and To Fight', the Sistema motto), when I raved about The Promise of Music, and he's right that it gets closer to the essence of the vision: if the latter occasioned tears in the eyes, this one could be measured by the bucketful.

We watch Domingo weeping at a mass 'Hallelujah Chorus', see Abbado ever-vigilant but clearly moved at a performance by disabled children and conducting the Simon Bolivars in top-notch Mahler and Tchaikovsky. We have slightly more self-conscious praise from Rattle, and go from young kids reflecting on the philosophy of playing together to the founding genius, Jose Antonio Abreu, and the first players all musing on what decades of the Sistema have meant. Not only every schoolchild in this country, but also every parent and above all every politician, should see this film.

PS (29/9) I must just add what my Argentinian friend Sylvia had to say about this. She watched Tocar y Luchar with one of her sons, and they both wept. She wants copies for all her friends. But she pointed out that Venezualans speak 'bullshit - God, flowers, sun', and yet in this case the 'bullshit' led to results, and she really wanted to know how. I love this from the hilarious Sylvia: all Latins speak bullshit except for the Cubans, maybe because of their education, and the Argentinians ('they don't speak bullshit but they lie'). Discuss.

Monday 15 September 2008

A hymn to Lynn

King's Lynn, that end-of-the-line Sleeping Beauty by the Wash, never made much of an impact on me before. It used to be a picking-up and dropping-off point on route to Burnham Thorpe, our base for five previous walks this time every year in support of the Norfolk Churches Trust.

This weekend, I saw the light. Our friend Jill's circumstances now find her ensconced very comfortably in the Benedictine Priory by St Margaret's Church, the heart of old Lynn, handsomely converted by the King's Lynn Preservation Trust. It's on the other side of the church from this view, taken from the chessboard facade of the Trinity Guildhall looking across to St Margaret's west front.

Saturday morning greeted us with mists and dew on the cobwebs in the Priory:

Usually we strike out into the depths of Norfolk and collect our churches between country miles. This time there was much in Lynn to tick off the list, including one of the richest and most beautiful medieval buildings in the country, St Nicholas - a mere chapel of ease to St Margaret and usually open only on the seeking of a key. Because of European Heritage Weekend, however, the doors beneath the huge west window were flung open. For those of you who've put cheques in the post, your money goes to preserve splendours like this angel roof, one of many in East Anglia...

...and this colourful 1675 tomb to Sir Thomas Greene and his wife:

St Margaret's is less of a piece - the nave had to be replaced in the 1740s, at a time when neo-Gothic was hardly the order of the day - but contains the two largest and most elaborate brasses in the country, with Robert Braunche's peacock banquet for Edward III illustrated at the feet of the gentleman and his two wives, and splendid misericords like this one:

The other religious buildings in Lynn are a real mixture, including a Quaker Meeting House in an old pub and crumbling, soon-to-be-restored All Saints now in the midst of a housing estate, but another treasure and recently much-publicised symbol of the town is the leaning octagon tower of Greyfriars.

After this we headed out to clock up our miles. South Wootton surprised us with a Norman font, monster faces at each corner...

...while another Norman font at St Lawrence Castle Rising has a striking lady's head carved on a corner of the rim:

Just to give a taste of the open air, here's the longest stretch we walked, along the River Babingley from Castle Rising to West Newton...

...after which it was all Edwardiana-and-later around the Sandringham Estate. The refreshment-givers and form-signers at St Peter and St Paul had all gone off to Evensong at Norwich Cathedral, but we were happy to be greeted by this handsome St George in a memorial window to the local fallen of the First World War.

Then, 14 miles and 17 churches later, it was a case of hitting Sandringham for Sandringham's sake at 6.10 before catching the last bus back to Lynn, baths and steaks.

I hesitate to overdo the history-ramble with more on Lynn, but as Sunday was the town's special heritage open day, I think a few more shots, this time of the profane as well as the sacred, might not be taken amiss. Let's start with a full-frontal view of the Trinity Guildhall.

We were curious as non-celebrants to observe the morning service in St Margaret's, and found ourselves rewarded by a jolly and intelligible preacher, Curate Christopher Wood; by a humble choir of local teachers doing a perfectly nice job on Bruckner's 'Locus iste'; and by a first-class organist clearly drawn to the famous instrument installed in 1754 at Charles Burney's behest. Then we watched a cannon being fired by Cavaliers on the harbour, nosed around the enormous wine-storing undercrofts beneath Bank House, admired Norman brickwork in a solicitor's on King Street, were admitted to the 1729 Masonic Temple around which the hotel rooms of the Duke's Head have had to be accommodated (photography welcome; how times change!)...

...and enjoyed a vivid, enthusiastic lecture on the Hanseatic League and Lynn's vital part in it by local historian Paul Richards. This is the 'oversailing' upper floor of the Hansa Warehouse in which the talk took place.

Finally, we joined all sorts of jolly locals in an hour-long queue to see inside the bizarre Red Mount Chapel, built in 1485 as a wayside shrine for pilgrims to Walsingham, and the wait was worth it to see the fan vaulting of the Upper Chapel.

So, what will happen to Lynn? It's such a cuspal place, full of gems and unusual townhouses (as well as some of the friendliest folk in Britain), and yet it hasn't quite made the grade nor (hurrah) hit the tourist trail, perhaps because it's not really on the way to anywhere. The Festival needs to be revitalised with themes that will draw crowds from London and elsewhere, but at the moment there aren't enough of the appropriate lodgings or gourmet restaurants for that. Yet the Cambridge effect could spread northwards beyond Ely. And all this is less than two hours from King's Cross by train.

Thursday 11 September 2008

A farewell and a mini-scandal

I like to think that Vernon Handley, who died yesterday at the age of 77, might have enjoyed this heaven's-eye view of last night's Prom (another from Chris Christodoulou's excellent BBC stable of snaps). It was uncanny how well the programme served as a tribute to him: in preparation, I'd been listening to his recording of Vaughan Williams's Sinfonia Antartica, and while Martyn Brabbins and the BBC Symphony Orchestra made an even more sombre job of impassive nature (no funny flopping penguins in this interpretation), it was neither conductor's fault if the work doesn't hang together as a symphony. At best a suite of filmic snippets which do at least sustain a certain icy mood - and the opening, dominating theme is magnificent - it all sits much more happily in the straightforward, well-told story that is Scott of the Antarctic (Ealing Studios, Charles Frend creating plausible frozen wastes). That I found very moving when I saw it earlier this year. In fact, music plays an even bigger part there than VW's score reveals: the entertainments which the explorers use to celebrate Christmas on board ship provide a nice divertissement in the middle of the film.

What to say, briefly, about our late maestro Vernon (I hesitate to call him by his nickname of 'Tod' which always seemed curiously fate-freighted - 'Ist dies etwa' der Tod?' - though apparently it was a childhood sobriquet derived from the way he used to 'toddle')? He's left such a noble and handsome discography behind. I must admit I didn't care to follow him into all the stagnant backwaters of British music - though such hilarious baggy monsters as Bantock's Hebridean Symphony remain in my cabinet of curiosities (poor old Gran, as Elgar said). Even so, I don't suppose I'll ever hear Howells' Hymnus Paradisi in concert again, as I did in Guildford Cathedral when Handley was the humble head of that town's excellent orchestra. As I mentioned in an earlier entry, his Job as well as his VW Fourth were beacons for the Royal Philharmonic when it was going through a rough patch. My favourite recording of his is Elgar's Falstaff, alternately sumptuous and tender. Obits to date have appeared in The Times, The Daily Telegraph and The Independent.

Brabbins seems to be another man whose talents aren't fully appreciated: surely he should have been up for the BBCSO Principal job? He's a great trainer, as I discovered from my all-too-brief participation in the Orkney Conducting Course (no, as we've purposefully left our telly reception up the spout, I haven't been watching 'Maestro', but I know from the BBC Music Magazine article that the sensations many of the celebrities had that the music was coming out much slower than they thought they were conducting it were very much mine in tackling the slow movement of Beethoven 2). At any rate, Martyn turned in a distinctive Planets , 'Mars' crackling from the start and 'Mercury' so delicate (Liz Burley did very artistic things with the difficult celesta part). It's always an Albert Hall treat to hear the ladies' voices up in the gallery at the end, vanishing into nothingness.

This was also my Last Night of the Proms, and a better tribute to Roger Wright's programming there could not have been. It was something of a celestial marathon: not only did we have the two British musings on the metaphysical, but between intervals a percussion sextet made up of the very appealing O Duo and former BBC Young Musician of the Year Adrian Spillett's 4-Mality thrashed away at Pleiades, Xenakis's now-classic score from 1979 (you can't say the programming was prescient when this concert was carved in stone; the coincidence with the launch of the Big Bang machine under the Alps was pure serendipity). Here they are dominating an Arena full of ear-plugged Prommers (another photo by Chris Christodoulou).

I was spellbound by every second of this forty-minute Happening. One sad man decided to boo minutes into the first sequence, and then people started leaving in droves, both young and old. I can understand aural sensitivities; 'Metaux' has each of the six players attacking a 'sixxen' made up of nineteen metal plates. But you could only reel at the precision and range of the playing. My ears, at any rate, survived intact, and my very liberal minded friend Edward, a youthful 80, encouraged me to join him in a standing ovation.

That's it, then: 12 Proms for me, each containing various wonders, and only two major disappointments - Yakov Kreizberg's unfathomable Dvorak Sixth and Stephen Hough's bad night with the 'Rach Two' (clearly the near-collapses at the start of the finale were unlucky, but why set such an unrelenting tempo in the first place?) The BBC World Service had chosen wisely, as it turned out that night, to take only Stephane Deneve's Roussel Bacchus et Ariane Suite No. 2 and a coasting, effortless-seeming La Mer. I was in the box commenting with the ever-enthusiastic Mark Lowther, and we were lucky to have good performances to rave about (I believe the edited programme is being broadcast on the World Service this Saturday night, UK time). It's a bit of a snag for the presenters that they still feel obliged to gush even if the playing or the work isn't up to scratch. I couldn't have done that for unfortuate Stephen's Rachmaninov, but as it turned out I didn't have to.

Otherwise, highlights of my necessarily limited season? The sound of the LPO under Jurowski in Rimsky and Stravinsky, with Petrenko and the RLPO in the Rachmaninov Symphonic Dances a close second; the intimate sheen of Volkov's Beethoven Sixth, very surprising; the hallowed silences for the Dies Irae sequence of Belohlavek's Verdi Requiem; and first-time pleasures - VW Piano Concerto and Ninth Symphony, Thea Musgrave's Rainbow, and now of course the Xenakis. I wouldn't put Anders Hillborg's Peacock Tales on the same level, but with clarinettist Martin Frost exercising his parallel talents as a mime artist, it was good theatre (this and the next photograph again courtesy of BBC/Chris Christodoulou):

Oddly the BBC didn't televise this Prom. It also boasted, of course, puppylicious conductor of the moment Gustavo Dudamel, and reinforced what a disciplined, careful master he already is, pulling out the stops only when all hell needed to be let loose in the Symphonie fantastique.

That Prom also reminded me of happy days with the Gothenburgers and Neeme, especially when Dudamel gave his own very slow and idiosyncratic reading of their favourite encore, the Interlude from Stenhammar's The Song. Cha-cha-ing brass in the second encore have become a Dudamel trademark, of course, and the gentleman sitting next to me didn't like it at all. But, yes, young Gustavo is a force for the good, and what's taking place in Venezuela is definitely as Rattle described it, the most important thing happening in the musical world today. I succumbed to Dudamel's incredible charisma in a phone interview as I was preparing a note for the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra's forthcoming disc of Tchaikovsky Five and Francesca da Rimini. I was impressed by the spontaneous directions in which he led the conversation and by the way he stressed the Venezualans' indebtedness to 'Maestro' Jose Antonio Abreu, the founding father of the Sistema which takes kids off the streets and gives each an instrument. Every schoolchild in this country should be given the opportunity to watch the DVD about the Sistema and the Simon Bolivar's Beethoven Eroica in Bonn.

I defy anyone not to be moved to tears by this. Maybe the message is becoming swamped a bit by the media circus, but it remains the same and the essentials of human communication in music have never been spelled out more vividly. Dudamel ends the documentary by saying very simply: 'When every child has access to culture, the world will be a more mature and sensitive place'. It sounds like something out of The Magic Flute, but why not?

PS (12/8): It seems my feelings about the phone chat were reciprocated. Now this is going to seem like the most outrageous piece of personal trumpet-blowing, but other musical bloggers do it so much more often, and in any case why not admit to a little glow of pride? It's always nice to hear good news. Anyway, Mark Newbanks of Askonas Holt e-mailed me today and wrote: 'Gustavo asked me to tell you that he loved the text you wrote for DGG. When I saw him in Berlin, he added that he seldom encounters a journalist who asks such good questions, contributed so well to the dialogue and was also able to turn it into something "so beautifully written as an end product". So, congrats.' Nice to know. What makes me even happier is that, as Mark later added, Abreu was looking over Dudamel's shoulder and agreed. Well, what's sincerely done is sincerely received.

So, on with the new season, which will see the long-overdue return of the Simon Bolivars to London - and on, too, with (a phrase I no longer hesitate to use) London's new Golden Age. With Jurowski heading a dazzling LPO season embracing an unorthodox celebration of Tchaikovsky, his contemporaries and his successors - see the Southbank Centre’s ‘Revealing Tchaikovsky’ webpages which link to my introductory article - Esa-Pekka signing in at the Philharmonia, Belohlavek consolidating old-mastery at the BBCSO and Gergiev providing challenging programmes at the LSO (albeit with some egg on his far from curate-like face, as many of us now feel), we can't go far wrong. The Proms have proved that the regional orchestras are all in fine fettle, and of course in the opera world we have ever-collegial Antonio Pappano at Covent Garden and young Ed Gardner facing an unusual season at ENO. Yes, we've never had it so good. If only the sell-out phenomenon and all-ages crowds of the Proms can be maintained at the Barbican and on the South Bank. I do believe we're getting there, but instrument-learning and what is now a virtually non-existent music appreciation set-up in schools still have a long way to go to ensure the audiences of the future.

Tuesday 9 September 2008

Phew, What a Scorcher!

Or: My Night with Sex Beast, by Top Totty Anna. Well, it happened last night: readers of the Murdoch tabloid The Sun took advantage of the Royal Opera's special offer for Zambello's showbiz production of Don Giovanni, and I hope they had a blazing good time. A different one, certainly, from the kind you might have experienced at New York's Metropolitan Opera in the 1940s, as wryly snapped by that genius Weegee in 'The Critic' (I was reminded of this in a thread on La Cieca's brilliant, and we both decided to use it around the same time):

This Sun-at-the-Opera business has, however, occasioned more fuss even than the nonsensical Norrington non-vibrato at the Proms (wot? I hear you Sun readers ask). All to our amusement, I might add: the BBC Music Magazine reports The Sun's response to outraged Charlotte Higgins of The Guardian: 'Blow them. They can have a night in with their mung bean sandwiches and discuss existentialist feminism. We'll be down the opera having a knees up'.

Meanwhile, on the BBC Radio 3 Messageboards, one Reiner Torheit - an ex-ENO staff member based in Moscow, we gather - comes up with a wide range of headings for sundry operas, of which I include a few:
The Cunning Little Vixen - "Hop Off, You Frogs!"
Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk - "Freddie Starr ate my mushrooms!"
Siegfried - "Volsung ejected from Big Brother House"
La fille du regiment - "Girl in care billetted with thirty Frog squaddies"
La traviata - "Toff's totty coughs up at last"
La Boheme - "Hop Off, You Frogs!"
Peter Grimes - "Local Man in Copycat Canoe Death Mystery"
Tosca - "When will this knifing spree end?"
Les mamelles de Tiresias - Phwoaaaaaaaar!!! (see p3)

Other contributors were quick to point out that Platee and L'enfant et les sortileges were also up for "Hop Off, You Frogs!" Later one Burning Doge came up with a good headline: 'I SHOULD CIO-CIO! "Nippon back over 'ere!" says snubbed seaman's sexbomb' (OK, OK, you pedants, that should be 'seaman's snubbed sexbomb'). This one could run and run.

Sunday 7 September 2008

Kashchey rides again (and again)

The legendary screaming skull – not to be confused with a recently deceased conductor – has a fair bit of mileage in Russia’s most magic-minded scores. I never thought I’d see the day when the ogre's two chief appearances coincided, but such is the persuasive force of the charismatic Vladimir Jurowski that on Friday at the Proms Rimsky-Korsakov’s miraculously concise one-act opera Kashchey the Immortal preceded Stravinsky’s complete Firebird ballet, the last big fling of the folk-tale fantastical. You can read more about the folk-tale background and the music in my Proms notes on Kashchey the Immortal and The Firebird.

I should admit that I’d been slightly apprehensive about the circumstances. This was the State Visit of the Maternal to the Proms, and I feared she might fidget in bits of Kashchey and the first half of The Firebird – after all, there are usually what even the most partisan among us might call longueurs. Not so in Jurowski’s spellbinding interpretations, nor was dear mama anything but gripped throughout, and virtually on the edge of her seat. Prepared, as ever, to the ultimate degree, Jurowski had in any case picked such a dazzling team of Russian singers for the opera and conjured the most bewitching sounds in the ballet that there were no grey areas. In terms of the tone-quality, I’d go so far as to say that I’ve never heard a conductor or an orchestra (the London Philharmonic Orchestra, now sounding like no other) project the individual timbres of the instruments so sharply into the chasms of the Albert Hall. Rimsky’s magic orchestral carpet, and its strikingly differentiated sonorities, complemented some of the most lustrous singing the Albert Hall will ever have heard (and that only a week after the dream combination of Urmana and De Young in the most hallowed portions of the Verdi Requiem). It was Straussian-soaring Tatyana Monogarova’s bad luck to be a mere sweet princess to the doughtiness and allure of that rare bird the true Russian contralto Elena Manistina – and in any case Kashcheyevna’s aria is always the highlight of a lyrically rich score. Voynarovsky, the comic-grotesque Kashchey, we know and adore from the Glyndebourne Betrothal in a Monastery – he can convey so much character and comedy with such economy. And it was a luxury to have a professional (quasi) opera chorus in the BBC Singers.

In The Firebird the orchestral principals took over the gallery of supernatural characters. I’ve never heard piccolo phrasing of such crystalline precision as Stuart McIlwham's, and that was only the tip of the iceberg. Getting virtually inaudible pianissimos in the velvety acoustics of the Albert Hall has been quite a speciality this year, but Jurowski staked all on the tremolos of anticipation as Kashchey’s magical kingdom vanishes and day breaks. If only the audience could have been complicit in the silences earlier, as they so impressively had been in the Verdi Requiem the previous Sunday.

There was an even stranger disjunction at the Royal Academy on Saturday morning: the world has now come to Vilhelm Hammershoi, that spare Danish lover of limited palette and dark interiors, so a day before closing you could seldom get close to the walls and floorboards of Strandgade 30, the Copenhagen apartment which looms largest in his artistic output. Yet somehow one could forget one’s colourful neighbours and feel lost in the often depopulated spaces of his pictures. Midway through the exhibition I did wonder why Waldemar Januzsczak in his article in The Times had felt so depressed and demoralised by the Hammershoi ethos – why, I thought, equate any moral failings you might perceive with the actual quality of the art? In any case, the things in the Strandgade rooms – a dish of butter, a coffee-cup, a stove, a punchbowl – seemed to have more of a mysterious life of their own than Mme. Hammershoi, usually seen from behind.

Yet in the last two rooms I did feel oppressed, like Januzsczak, by the empty streets and spaces, with a delicious frisson of horror at Hammershoi's claustrophobic vision of a baroque great hall (Lindegarden). A limited vision, then, but one explored to the full and – until the later years – shot through with strange optimisms and shafts of light.

Monday 1 September 2008

The middle of humanity... something that never concerned this unfortunate gentleman. It takes cynic-of-choice Apemantus to tell Timon of Athens (Simon Paisley Day, pictured here by John Tramper in Lucy Bailey's production at Shakespeare's Globe) that neither his excessive, passive-aggressive generosity nor the extreme misanthropy to which it has indirectly led ring true for most of us: 'The middle of humanity thou never knewest, but the extremity of both ends'.

It's the kind of line that strikes like a bolt from the blue. Having puzzled over the earlier acts of this problem play, which turn out - some of them - to have been written by Thomas Middleton, I began to warm to the Lear-like rankness of Timon's curses. And then Shakespeare, as ever, strikes a sane note. The same sense of revelation happened to me in another difficult and mostly unlikeable work, All's Well That Ends Well, when the blabbermouth Parolles is stripped of all he had to live by and declares: 'Simply the thing I am shall make me live'.

So three cheers (or juicy curses) to the Globe for staging comfortless Timon, which I've only ever seen as Stephen Oliver's not very memorable opera. It turns out, I read after the event, that most of the elements I had problems with were Shakespeare's (and/or Middleton's) fault: the obscure settings-up of the early scenes - when in any case I was feeling dead tired from cycling through the treacle of a sticky London day - and the abrupt introduction of a character, Alcibiades, who should be Gloucester to Timon's Lear but never gets developed properly. I felt a bit antipathetic to the mishmash costumes, too, though the idea of crows or harpies stalking the net above us groundlings gathered power. Surely this timeless myth of profligacy and intemperance could work very well in modern dress? And Timon, though his character remains problematic, is a gift of a role to a great actor: all those speeches of disgust! Simon Paisley Day struck me as slightly too nice and civilised a chap to know the 'extremities', though he spoke the verse/prose very clearly. The whole experience reminded me why I love the Globe, which I'd deserted post-Rylance. We'll be back for Merry Wives on Sunday, as I guess it will be the perfect introduction to Shakespeare for the son of friends of ours.

Another problem play about a man who never took the middle way, another event approached with no great hopes which possibly made me relish it all the more: Saturday saw the end of Afterlife, Michael Frayn's play so lambasted by critics and audience but too interesting and germane a subject - Max Reinhardt and the idea of Salzburg's now-immortal Everyman - for me to ignore. So I caught the last matinee, and found it mostly beguiling. Elegance is the keynote, which the director of Ariadne auf Naxos's backstage business would have admired: elegant designs by Peter Davison, elegant direction from long-term Fraynite Michael Blakemore, supremely elegant acting above all from Roger Allam and Peter Forbes (who played Herr Schultz all those years ago in the university production of Cabaret, wherein I twirled trays as a waiter alongside Simon Russell Beale's somewhat less dramatically gifted brother - now a doctor - Andy. We all knew quiet, self-effacing Peter would go farthest, and he has, especially now that he's coming up to the right age to play the older man).

So what have so many people hated? Apparently the slipping in and out of rhyming couplets (the Everyman style as rendered by Hofmannsthal and adapted by Frayn - though this is by no means an entire play in verse, as some seem to think); the fact that not much happens; the sketchiness of Reinhardt (apparently a man whom no-one really knew or understood). All I know is that while my companion and the distinguished actress who was her neighbour weren't impressed, I enjoyed it all. Am I too easy to please?

It was hard not to be happy on a glorious late-summer afternoon, at last, on the South Bank. Outside, Watch this Space, the ten-year-old festival of open-air theatre now enterprisingly run by Angus McKechnie and given a special European kick this year, celebrated with a juggling homage to Freddie Mercury (alas, I arrived too late for this) and an Indian dance company. The opening night back in early July was a hoot: a party in a splendid NT space which including juggling tangoistas preceded by a weird experimental-dance number from inmates in pyjamas, Tango Sumo. Here they are sugaring the rather bitter pill of their unsettling show with stardust. Please note the European Commission logo:

Saturday was a brighter day, with the world out and about on the South Bank - there is now a wonderful bar set-up outside the Festival Hall where you can perch on a chair and watch allsorts go by beneath. Alas, this serenity didn't last, and it was in torrential rain that I made my way to the classiest Verdi Requiem I've ever heard at the Proms on Sunday evening. More about that, maybe, anon: I'm happy for now just to enjoy the afterglow.