Friday, 5 December 2014
'Great' is a term I hope I don't splash about too much, but it's always good to know who or what truly stands out, especially in the musical and operatic world where standards are generally so high already (one can't make the same generalisation about theatre). I stick by the publicity blurb I wrote for the flyer to advertise Sioned Williams's lecture-recital at St Andrew's Fulham Fields: she IS one of the world's great harpists. And Graham Vick enters the pantheon of top directors - not that it's overstocked, in my opinion - above all for his pioneering work on opera involving the community in Birmingham. As chronicled here and on a BBC Radio 3 chat with Tom Service, I went for the first time this year, to see the Big Top Khovanskygate, and it was certainly up there with the most extraordinary operatic experiences of my life. A total immersive experience, on our feet for three hours plus and no compromises - full CBSO, no miking, quality singers, chorus bolstered by professionals.
Actually I also owe Graham a debt for introducing me to Britten's Billy Budd and tackling the crucial gay issues in it back in the 1980s. When we talked together at the Opera in Depth class the other week, I said it had such an impact because it was the first time I saw it. 'And do you not think that might have been because my production was actually rather good?', he said, not boastfully but with a secure sense of his own worth (it was; only Tim Albery's since has come close).
Sioned first, anyway. She came with harp to St Andrew's Fulham Fields, where I'm running monthly classes linked to the BBC Symphony Orchestra courses as before, chiefly because after the City Lit debacle I still very much wanted to cover the Nielsen symphonies Sakari Oramo is conducting this season. Some of the players also volunteered to make appearances as before: cellist Michael Atkinson is getting the Merchant Quartet back together to work on Sibelius's great Voces Intimae Quartet, possibly a Nielsen too. And Sioned wanted both to make up for the fact that when she'd last come to the City Lit, it was at the end of a serious illness and she hadn't the strength to bring the harp too, and to reflect on her brilliant Purcell Room concert of six new works for harp commissioned by herself (read the Arts Desk rave - which is absolutely not because I know and like her).
So this time we brave few got the benefit of her insights into the differing virtues of the commissions. The harp is perhaps the trickiest of all instruments for a composer to know the strengths and limitations thereof; Paul Patterson, who came along as stalwart supporter again, and perfectionist Michael Finnissy are masters of the art, where one of the other works had asked the impossible and impractical and a great deal of collaboration was necessary.
We heard movements and selections again, often with an illuminating running commentary on what was going on pedal and string-wise; and the biggest triumph was to get screen and sound working - if only you knew how brinksmanlike that was - for Dominic Murcott's Domestica. I found it even richer second time around, knowing now that the domestic sights and sounds were filmed, oh so artistically, by Magali Charier in Sioned's and Ali's home, and that the ticking clock slows down (you don't sense this, or at least I didn't, at the premiere, though you do feel that the harp contributions become more introspective and poetic).And, small in number though the audience was this time, St Andrew's turns out to be a wonderful venue for subtlety and magic.
Graham's visit to my Opera in Depth course at the Frontline Club has trailed a host of wondering messages from the students which have left me in no doubt of his special connection. He spoke very movingly on the sense of change since he first directed Prokofiev's War and Peace at the Kirov, as it then was, when he was still a relative youngster full of romantic idealism back in 1991 (thanks to Peter Maniura, that first visit when Leningrad was turning back into Petersburg proved a bridge for me to devoting middle life to great Sergey Sergeyevich).
Now he wonders at how modern the music is, and was keen to redress weaknesses he'd felt in the characterisation of Prince Andrey (this time played by Ukrainian Andrey Bondarenko, his Glyndebourne Onegin and the one singer on whom he actually insisted). He wanted to refer back to Austerlitz and to keep the war in the peace sequence, and the private scenes more prominent in the war half.
The second collaboration with Gergiev originated in a mad idea to do the opera on the Edinburgh Tattoo parade ground during the Festival. 'And just as when you have to think a low note when you sing a high one, or sit if necessary on stage as if you were rising up, I wanted to make it about three people.' The project failed for lack of money, but Gergiev was insistent on Vick coming back to the Mariinsky for his roughly ten-year reassessment of Prokofiev's opera (with Andrey Konchalovsky's beautifully realised but heavily cut version in between). Graham says he was surprised at Gergiev's request for an openly gay director with a track record of controversial productions.
And yet Gergiev gave him total carte blanche. Going for the contemporary meant endless meetings with lawyers about what could and couldn't be represented on the Russian stage, but Vick says he fought tooth and claw, and succeeded in nearly everything. Even, note, in the slipped-in yellow, white and blue of the screens above, played out to the choral ode in the New Year's Eve ball scene, and returning in the 'war' sequence spattered with blood.
Anyway, it all happened; he hadn't heard from Gergiev what he thought - according to Caroline of the Mariinsky Friends, he was delighted - because the conductor only appeared for the final rehearsal. Even so, Vick thinks that things have now gone so far in Russia that he would have to think twice about returning. I can't wait to see the whole thing at the Frontline on Monday week.
The other great personage who's been keeping us company through the ten two-hour classes on War and Peace - for we've been following Graham's 1991 production on DVD alongside Francesca Zambello's Paris Opera show - has been Dame Harriet Walter (seen above in the first of Helen Maybanks' photos for the Donmar Henry IV). As you'll have read if you've been following the blog, she consented to my amazement to read those chapters or sequences of Tolstoy's novel which parallel Prokofiev's more or less faithful setting of them, and she's done it beautifully. I was especially moved the other week, recording Pierre's confrontation with Natasha after the failed elopement and Natasha's encounter with the dying Andrey, to find her stopping, going back and finding a depth in the speeches that was moving to tears. We reach the last two scenes on Monday so I'm looking forward to editing her last contribution for that.
Since we would meet in the break between Saturday matinees and evening performances of Henry IV at the Donmar, I was very conscious of that background. Not that I'd have missed Phyllida Lloyd's production for the world, but I pushed that little bit harder to get tickets and finally saw it the other Saturday. Folk have been split down the middle about it, but I found it electrifying - perhaps all the more so since I hadn't seen, more fool me, the Julius Caesar also set in a women's prison; but the use of simple props and the evocation of the background seemed to me utterly fresh and always pertinent.
This was true ensemble work, rather unconventionally so since there were beautiful verse-speakers like Harriet's King, Jackie Clunes's Owen Glendower and the fabulous Ann Ogbomo as Worcester, seen here in confab with the 'enemy'
alongside new talent, in one way less experienced but in another thrillingly immediate. I couldn't get it out of my head that Jade Anouka's Hotspur - even with an arm in plaster - wasn't some hyperactive, gifted but undirected black teenager from South London.
She was heartbreaking, especially so in the scenes with Sharon Rooney's Lady Percy, That's not a role that usually makes a huge impact, but as young, stressed, poor mother, the characterisation went straight to the heart- with an astonishing touch of physical knockabout added to the mix.
For me, there were no false notes. Falstaff, maybe, should be posh, but since he was being played by a prison inmate the take still worked in conjuring him as a sarf London wideboy; I laughed a lot not only at the fear of a burst balloon in the Gadshill episode, but the muttered remembrance of it as nightmare when Falstaff dozes behind the arras. The music was superbly placed and apt, the company routines brilliant, the whole thing pacy and vibrant. And the inclusion of two key scenes from Part Two added on to a fairly complete Part One was a fair compromise, short of having both in two performances - which I'll be seeing when the RSC production arrives at the Barbican, though I don't expect it to communicate quite as well as this.
A guest who will certainly be great has been staying with us in two spells. Eszter Bránya from Kecskemet, Hungary, Kitty Lambton's former classmate when the family spent a year out there, celebrated her 19th birthday here with a delicious cardamomy cake from the Swedish bakery Bagariet complete with a Carluccio's firework candle. Our young violinist came first for consultation lessons and then for auditions at the Guildhall and the Royal College of Music - successful in the first, waiting to hear about the second, though she went straight through to the scholarship second round - and all I'll say for now is that her tone is dark and powerful, from hearing her practise, her attitude incredibly quick and responsive, her dedication that of a serious artist. She'll go far, no doubt about that.
Tonight I have a great guest for 10 minutes of my 6pm talk before the BBC Symphony Orchestra concert conducted by one of the best, Jukka-Pekka Saraste, at the Barbican. He'll be presenting together the revolutionary Part Two of Berlioz's Romeo et Juliette, Prokofiev's shattering Third Symphony and Dramatis personae by the BBCSO's Artist in Residence Brett Dean (pictured above). Brett will be joining me hot off the plane from Australia; I look forward hugely to meeting him.
Labels: Brett Dean, Donmar, Graham Vick, harp, Harriet Walter, Henry IV, Phyllida Lloyd, Prokofiev, Shakespeare, Sioned Williams, St Andrew's Fulham Fields, Tolstoy, War and Peace
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Speaking of Graham Vick, I got my first sampling of his work recently in NYC, with the Met Opera's revival of DSCH's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in GV's production. I have to admit to some curious reactions as to some of the stagecraft (e.g. the presence of a Trabant-like car in the same space as the wedding reception), although in the end, keeping in mind the dictum that if a gun is put on stage in Act I, it will be used in Act III, GV's stage decisions did make sense in the end, more or less. (Although I'm still miffed that the singer who was the Orthodox priest made the Catholic sign of the cross, rather than the Orthodox sign, in contrast to the chorus, who got it correct.)
Will be interesting to see how your interaction with Brett Dean goes. David Robertson has brought him to St. Louis a few times and has championed his work here in the past several years.
I would have loved to hear Sioned Williams talk about those commissions. I’ve always appreciated the harp’s contribution within the orchestra, but have only recently become aware of it in a solo role. (John Metcalf’s Mapping Wales was my introduction, and it’s still a favorite of mine.) Your comment that “the harp is perhaps the trickiest of all instruments for a composer to know the strengths and limitations thereof” strikes a chord. I remember being tremendously impressed with Molly Joyce’s composition “Rain in My Head” for solo harp as seeming such a natural fit. On the other hand, another contemporary piece for solo harp I’ve run across, I think by Birtwhistle, seemed to fight the harp every step of the way. (This reminds me, by the way, that the fine young harpist Emily Hoile—who played Molly’s piece—is currently a member of the Karajan Academy. How fine it would be if she had the chance to study with Williams some day.)
As for Opera in Depth, as I’ve said before, your class members are oh, so lucky to be part of that. Vick on his changes in conception for War and Peace over time must have made for fascinating listening. I do hope I’ll have a chance to see Walter in action. Henry IV is one of my very favorite Shakespeare plays.
I’m also intrigued by your comment “that first visit when Leningrad was turning back into Petersburg proved a bridge for me to devoting middle life to great Sergey Sergeyevich.” I suspect you’ve probably written about that on the blog before I knew you were there, but if not, I, for one, would love to know more about your own journey toward Prokofiev and his music.
Last not least, it’s always nice to hear about the new ones coming up. I hope you’ll keep us posted as Eszter Bránya makes her way along.
PS: Will we be able to hear your talk on BBC Radio 3?
Geo., re trabbie and wedding, it looks like we have the same with the tank in the peace scenes. The topography is obviously not realistic. I look forward to seeing the W&P production (which was livescreened earlier this year, but I missed it). GV isn't usually one for clutter, unlike Pountney. Indeed, he likes best to reflect the audience in spare mirror images: I now wish I'd seen his infamously stripped back rehearsal-style Cosi at Glyndebourne. The Figaro from then was spare but beautiful in white; the Don G much excoriated for having everyone wading in excrement, but again as I didn't see it I can't judge.
Brett Dean was very natural and easy (though we played to an audience of five, when it's usually been 100 or so on previous occasions - the BBCSO has suffered audience catastrophes this season, though I see they filled the concert with young folk as they hadn't done three weeks ago, the smallest gathering I've ever seen in the Barbican). Sadly it wasn't recorded. We chatted for a quarter of an hour, and the other half an hour was me on Berlioz's Romeo seul and Prokofiev's Third Symphony, with some sound snippets.
The concerto for Hardenberger, Dramatis personae, was always intriguing and very individual in its scoring. Writing for wind and brass soloists seems to bring out the best in today's composers (I'm also thinking of Lindberg's Clarinet Concerto for Kriiku, and Widmann's ad absurdam... for trumpeter Nakariakov. This was in that league. I want to hear it again). Saraste has amazing rhythmic tension and the whole programme was flawless - he even gets a special sound from the orchestra. The most moving moment for me came in Saraste's exquisite choice of encore, Sibelius's Scene with Cranes - special genius even by the side of Berlioz and Prokofiev (oh, the timing of the two clarinets introduced in a string world).
Anyway, I'm full of it, just back. Wasn't going to write it up for TAD but it cries out for coverage. Will sleep on it.
Not much of a story re the Petersburg trip in '91, Sue; it was just a happy chain of events. Peter Maniura was compiling the programmes for the LSO's Prokofiev centenary celebrations with Rostropovich, I told him I had some very unfashionable ideas about the depth of the Soviet-era works, he commissioned me and an already big love coincided with the right time for a new biography, which followed some years later.
BTW, noting what Geo has said, I, too, saw the Met's Lady Macbeth, also the first Graham Vick for me. Fascinating, though sometimes I did wish the staging had been less broad, so as to let Shostakovich's own humor come through more strongly. (I also wasn't drawn to Westbroek's characterization--it was almost as if Anna Nicole had walked onto the set.)
Back to Prokofiev, now, you may say not much to tell, but this is tantalizing, too: "I told him I had some very unfashionable ideas about the depth of the Soviet-era works." Do I take it "depth" was not seen as an attribute of those works at the time?
Yes, I was wondering what your thoughts about LMoM might have been, since I knew you went. Sorry you didn't rate Westbroek - she's very good on an Amsterdam DVD. Don't care for the voice so much in Puccini, but she's quite a presence and a fine actress.
Back in the 1990s the Stalin cantatas were just written off, the Fifth Symphony was taken at face a value as the 'triumph of the human spirit' (SSP's own officialspeak) and the Seventh as 'music for children'. Attitudes have changed and the obvious masterpieces - the three so-called 'War' Sonatas and the First Violin Sonata - are played more than ever now. By the way, I remember Jukka Pekka talking about the Sixth Symphony and saying he found the pain in it 'almost unbearable'.
On Westbroek, it's clear she's "got the goods," and I certainly would be pleased to have the chance to hear and see her again. In this case, it was more a matter of the conception of the role. As you know, my experience is limited, and my judgments correspondingly so. The characterization I have with which to compare her Lady Macbeth is Galina Vishnevskaya's in Katerina Izmailova (a version which has its own issues, as we know), which I found more affecting. I was thinking again this morning about Vick's production, which I hope at some point to have a chance to see again. This is going to sound a little bizarre as an analogy, but the impact for me was something like that of Mel Brooks's best films (The Producers and Blazing Saddles). In each case, there's an over-the-top, throw-the-kitchen-sink-at-it sense, a humor so ferocious it verges on and sometimes tips over from madcap to pure madness. While not everything thrown may stick, it's certainly a valid approach for a work like this. I kept thinking, as I watched, I wonder what Shostakovich would have thought.
Thanks, too, for your further comment on the Prokofiev. So much like the historical trajectory/tendency to dismiss certain works of Shostakovich, don't you think?
On another note, re-reading my comment on the harp, I hope I didn't sound too von Meckish. I was so taken with thinking about what you wrote it sent me back to recalling my own "personal journey" into the world of music for harp.
I have been to many of the countries in the world run by unpleasant regimes and I am convinced that contacts can help a bit or can help a lot. On the other hand cutting oneself off achieves nothing and is in a sense self indulgent.
I would agree that Putin's speech this week was amazing. One can hardly believe it. But what is achieved by not going there?
Sue, I don't know what 'von Meck'ish might mean in that context, but I certainly didn't mean to ignore your harp comment. You'd said what was needful under the circumstances. Must ask Sioned what her connection with John Medcalf might be - he certainly sounds like more of a gent than one of the composers who shafted her so boorishly.
I think you're right about throwing all sorts of madness at a piece like LMoM - after all, that's what the young Shostakovich does, after all. Rather surprised to hear Graham assert that Prokofiev and Stravinsky were the two great Russian composers of the 20th century. He seemed to comparing operas, and by the highest standards, he thought, Lady Macbeth is brilliant but... I kind of know what he means. If only Shostakovich could have written an opera at the age (hardly great) Prokofiev worked on War and Peace.
Sir David, that remark sounds a little dour given the riches we've been talking about. We've been here before, and my response is the same as it was the last time: much cutting-off may be self-indulgent, but not if you're gay and worried for your personal safety in the current Russian climate. I know Richard Jones won't go there again, and doesn't want his Rodelinda to go ahead. And this was Graham Vick talking after spending quite a lot of time there this summer.
Why be surprised by Putin's speech? It's a natural development. But I do begin to share some views that he really doesn't have a long-term policy re the Ukraine, and the persistence of the unforeseen is beginning to get to him.
But where do we stop? All over the world the gay issue is a minority one compared with the repression of women ( sometimes vicious)and the denial of democracy ( widespread). Do we cross off all those unhappy countries from our list for the sharing of the riches you so eloquently set out for us? Ideas change and can be changed but not by isolation
You miss the point (again). Do I have to spell it out? It's not SAFE for gay people to go to Russia at the moment. And I, for one, wouldn't be able to bite my tongue if the issue arose.
I was offered a trip to see the Vakhtangov Theatre's Onegin in Russia right now. Apart from the fact that I hated the company's Vanya, I had to add that I wouldn't have gone to Hitler's Germany in the mid-1930s either. And no, that's not a foolish comparison.
Now, can we talk about this War and Peace which, by watching, we ARE sharing (you're invited to the screening)? I hardly need to add the subtext, which is that I imagined it would be a nationalist pageant and instead discover that it's an emblem of all the paradoxes that still abound in that maddening but wonderful land.
I guess that I rate E-MW more highly in this production overall perhaps than Susan S., although granted, she did have to deal with the oddities of GV's production. In Act I, when Katerina & Sergei get down & dirty, not much is left to the imagination stage-wise, even when they 'do it' behind the fridge. It now makes me wonder if she has ever sung the role in a production set in the original period of the story. Rather curiously, as a side note, from a distance, one could almost mistake James Conlon for Gergiev in his hairline and in his not using a baton (although I don't think Conlon would descend to using a toothpick).
That is interesting about Gergiev recruiting GV for work in Russia on War and Peace, which makes me wonder if a modest element of cognitive dissonance is operating in VG's head, regarding gay people. His support of Putin and Putin's homophobic policies is appalling and beyond the pale, of course. Yet it seems that on the level of individuals, VG might care about talent more than anything, in sort of a "don't ask, don't tell" way of thinking. VG has worked with gay singers like Mariusz Kwiecien, for example, without any more friction than usual, that I can tell.
Sorry to hear about the audience number problems at the BBC SO this season. Which concert was that smallest gathering you've ever seen at the Barbican? I can hazard a guess, but that would be presumptuous of me. Are the general problems due to programming, or lack of marketing efforts? I hope it's nothing to do with Oramo, who seems to be a real shot in the arm for the orchestra, from what I hear.
It's probably cold comfort to say this, but the BBC SO is far from alone in trying to fill the hall for concerts. Here in St. Louis, in the past few years, literally one whole section of the hall has been written off in terms of counting ticket sales. In other words, if every seat in Powell Hall is sold except for the Terrace Circle section (the one that is written off), the hall is considered "sold out". Of course, if one wants to, one can simply just sit up there, since that actually has the best sound in the hall. I often have a whole row to myself.
That's good to read about BD's 'Dramatis personae'. I wonder if Robertson will try to bring that work to St. Louis at some point. Small side closer for you about Brett Dean; when he played his Viola Concerto here last January, he took a seat in the viola section in the 2nd half for Beethoven 3.
Thanks so much, Geo., for taking eloquent time in your response. I'd say not much is left to the imagination in Shostakovich's 'pornophony' for that scene either, up to the wilting trombone. Jones had a rocking wardrobe. And I wonder if any of us has EVER seen a 'period' LMoM. We all know that DDS was satirising the police of his time, for instance. And bored housewives in stifling societies still exist everywhere - though not so many resort to murder. I can't say I'd cry out for a production set in the 1860s in the same way as I still occasionally want to see a 'period' Figaro or Boris (now the exception rather than the rule, so that soon it's THOSE productions which will shock the most).
Cognitive dissonance re Gergiev - did you see his response to the outcry over the equation of homosexuality with paedophilia? It was basically 'some of my best friends are gay' but didn't take back those words - and now, of course, the 'Ukrainians are all Nazis and mass murderers' line has just made things worse. His response back then and my response to his response on The Arts Desk here.
The orchestral concert with the smallest audience I've ever seen was just wonderful but was never going to sell: Respighi's Trittico Botticelliano, Dean's The Annunciation and Strauss's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (incidentally, I've just had my proposal to cover that most delightful of suites for Radio 3's Building a Library turned down on the grounds that it's not popular enough. But once people started listening, they'd surely be entranced. Suffice it to say that I'm verey happy with the alternative we agreed upon, which I don't think I'm allowed to divulge just yet).
BBCSO concerts never sell that well - they just can't catch the audience they get at the Proms, yet it's not much more expensive. They've never been so badly sold as this, though. In marked contrast, the equally hard-to-sell (I'd have thought) LPO programme with Jurowski (Szymanowski, Scriabin, early Rachmaninov) was packed and full of enthusiastic youngsters who were the first to stand at the end. The knockon effect of the Southbank's The Rest is Noise festival has been fabulous.
Incidentally the very nice guy who played my sound snippets said he was part of a generation (in their 20s) who'd had no kind of classical music education at school, a kind of black hole, but that the next bunch are likely to be better schooled now we've reversed the ignorant policy to some extent. It still bafffles me why Beethoven and Mozart should not be part of everyone's general knowledge in the same way as Shakespeare and Dickens. Mind you, I'm not sure that art appreciation is much better - all the young people I know reject Titian and Velazquez as 'old art' and head straigh for crappy Renoir or not at all crappy Picasso (or even, God forbid, Hirst and Emin).
Sorry about the late reply, but I wanted to give the BBC SO/Pons concert a listen via iPlayer in the interim. Very good concert indeed, with Pons getting a nice rich sound from them in the Respighi in particular. Good snappiness in the R. Strauss as well. Very good work from the BBC SO and BBC Singers in the Brett Dean, even if I found the listening somewhat uneven. Some very good parts alternated with, IMHO, kind of generic 'clotted modern music' chromaticism, but then I've had similar reaction to other of Dean's works that I've heard, from R3 and the works of his that Robertson has led in St. Louis. Yet even if I don't always like the results, I have the greatest respect for Dean's musicianship and talent, and to add the icing on the cake, he does seem to be a really nice guy.
That's really unfortunate to read about the BBC SO's marketing problems with their Barbican concerts. You would think that they should be able to translate a good portion of the audience over from Proms attendance to the Barbican during the rest of the year, unless it's not that simple (which it never is, of course). Not that I'm a marketing guru at all, but I wonder if the BBC SO could do something like a special for Proms attendees who've not been to the Barbican, kind of a first-time discount. Plus, if budget cuts for R3 are in the works, one wonders if that will stretch resources even more. I always understood, perhaps naively, that the BBC orchestras were a bit more immune from market pressures thanks to funding from the license fee (but I don't know fully about that either; wikipedia to the rescue later, I guess), as opposed to groups like the LPO, which don't have that BBC cushion, I suppose.
In the case of the LPO, I wonder if having a charismatic figure like Jurowski helps to sell the orchestra. I sort of quip to my orchestra acquaintances here that VJ could almost be an Armani model, if that makes sense in this context. (He's never conducted in St. Louis, and never will; too big for us now.) Plus, perhaps the LPO just knows that they have to sell harder. How their non-VJ concerts do at the box office would be another question. I have that recent LPO concert with Szymanowski et al. on my mental to-listen-to list as well; must get to it.
Valuable suggestions all, Geo. I don't know how much the BBC orchestras' hands are tied by the Beeb's restrictions, and as a commenter on the Arts Desk article points out, the marketing department for the main season has a much lower budget than the one for the Proms.
But I do also wonder how much flagging-up of these concerts happens on Radio Three, a ready-made marketing tool. Classic FM sells concerts, or at least used to, with endless on-air pluggging, so there must be a creative way.
Yes, VJ is an asset and looks ever more glam with each new season (he used to be very plump, I saw from an old photo). That he's also a Renaissance man and a thorough rehearser is the cake on which the former is icing, of course. But Oramo is doing wonderful things now, too. You must hear the whole of the Rach/Nielsen/Busoni spectacular. I want a recording of the latter NOW.
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