Tuesday 30 June 2015

Guillaume Tell: hitting the mark

Graham Vick, in his production for Pesaro's Rossini Opera Festival now on DVD, palpably does; Damiano Michieletto at the Royal Opera, though his imagination and stagecraft are not entirely pedestrian, misses most of the time. In my opinion. We were lucky for the Opera in Depth half-term on Rossini's last opera that the Pesaro DVD came out on Decca just in time; having discarded the DVD of the Scala version as a non-starter, I used that as the sole visual term of reference, with audio examples from the Pappano, Muti and Chailly CD sets as well as excerpted arias.

It was only when we were halfway through the six classes that Graham agreed to return after his amazingly candid and open chat about the Mariinsky War and Peace. He'd insisted that we watch the Act 3 ballet choreographed by Ron Howell*, and that indeed is perhaps the biggest triumph of a vision that insists on dealing with every bar (I think) of Rossini's score. As I pointed out in my Arts Desk review of last night's now-famously booed production, all of it is worth hearing; the problem is to make it all work dramatically. Graham said that he'd nearly turned Pesaro's offer down, then thought long and hard about how he could make it work (in rehearsals, below with - I think - excellent conductor Michele Mariotti, Marina Rebeka and Juan Diego Flórez).

He's never predictable, and he surprised us by saying that he thinks the long, scene-setting first act is the most beautiful of all. He was a bit hard on Switzerland, I thought, a most interesting country as I've experienced it, and so - inspired by an article in the 1990 Covent Garden programme - I ordered up two copies of Why Switzerland? by the author in question, Jonathan Steinberg - one for GV and one for myself. But he does in fact reflect the mountains and the lakes, somewhat obliquely, in his production.

The point, he said, about Act One, is the sense of a strong community. If you believe in that, you can make it work. There was no community, or only a fractured one, in Michieletto's warped vision.

Vick even includes Jemmy's virtuoso aria in Act Three and makes it work (Amanda Forsythe is wonderful, capped only by Nicola Alaimo's moving-to-tears 'Sois immobile'. Flórez, whom I've not always been that crazy about, is stunning throughout and Marina Rebeka just gets better as the show moves on). Then comes the ballet. All of it, all danced in a very stylised homage to Pasolini's Salò. There was actually more to give offence, blowjobs and anal sex included, than the one rather feeble attempted rape of Michieletto's unchoreographed approach to the Pas de trois and Pas des soldats (abbreviated by Pappano). So why was the Pesaro ballet cheered to the rafters and the Covent Garden flash of nudity booed? Because, I like to think, the former was incredibly strong and the latter just rather cliched.

At Pesaro, we also get the exquisite canon-trio for mother, son and sympathetic princess, which Pappano has unbelievably always insisted on cutting. Here's proof that it was there the last time I saw Guillaume Tell staged at Covent Garden in 1990. Rather odd blend of voices, and shame the intro is clipped, but at least we have it on YouTube:

As GV pointed out, this trio strengthens the women's roles at exactly the point where you think they've been marginalised. The scene of happy bread-breaking and coffee drinking is beautifully done at Pesaro. The final scene? More ambiguous. All idealistic revolutions turn sour, Vick suggests, and he made a point of locating this one in the 1920s, the last point at which such people power in western Europe seemed truly possible.

As you'll see from the review, there were plenty of good things in last night's opening, as one would expect from John Osborn and Gerald Finley on the EMI recording. I used quite a bit of them, but once the Decca CDs arrived, it was mostly over to Freni and Pavarotti for the lovers' set pieces.

We had 'Asile héréditaire' from John O'Sullivan (reincarnated, methinks, in J, likewise an heroic tenor but much too loud and a bit worn in 1929), Martinelli and Pavarotti, while Giuseppe de Luca triumphed in Tell's plea to his son (though Alaimo, I think, was even better). I loved every note; as I wrote in the 'Rachmaninov and Rossini' piece, there's always some unusual twist of phrase or instrumental colour in even the most melodically ordinary of the numbers - and very few don't rise to the lyric heights.

Now we're on to Strauss's Intermezzo, and watching FLott's Christine reminds me why I found the Garsington production so undernourishing and implausible by comparison. Now I'm back in love with the piece, having asked some big questions - or had companion Edwina made me think more about what I'd taken too much for granted - at the time of the live performance. Next year at OiF: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, La forza del destino, Boris Godunov, Enescu's Oedipe, Barry's The Importance of Being Earnest and, for the whole of the summer term, Tristan und Isolde. Do join us from September at the Frontline Club - which has airco of which we were very glad yesterday. Though inevitably a student or two began to find it too cold, and perhaps it was.

* I thought Graham was kidding when he said he'd been asked to 'direct' La bayadêre, but apparently not. He hasn't decided whether he'll do it yet. 

Sunday 28 June 2015

Because we could

That's the answer to the question 'why get married when you're already civilly partnered and you've essentially been married for 27 years?' It's a question of everything being fair and equal at last, of more rights, practically speaking. In an iconoclastic moment, the 'habibi' - which we agreed would be as close to the rather proprietorial title 'husband' as we're going to get - gave his permission for one facial shot on the blog, chosen by him. So I waive the objection that I'm not at my jolliest-looking - I assure you I was extremely jolly throughout - and not wearing my garland, one of two woven out of  favourite flowers, peonies and cornflowers, by our delightful Swedish friend Pia (on the right below) and presented by her as a complete surprise during our wedding tea party at the Garden Museum.

This is me on the day, 15 June, speaking about how glad we were to follow so serendipitously in the wake of the people's choice in Ireland ('a sad day for humanity,' according to a Catholic cardinal, a jubilant one for the majority).

I also wanted to draw our friends Claire and Howard, 18 years together, into the picture. Some weeks back, Claire and I were having a deliriously topsy-turvy time at the all-male Pirates of Penzance on its Richmond leg. She asked why we were buying into the marriage thing, said she'd always been dead against it but that a lawyer had suggested that for the sake of the legal aspect, with special regard to their two children, she and H probably should. My 'no big deal' line clinched it and they announced their banns on the same day as we got our certificate. Which meant returning to Camden Town Hall and finding, from our very delightful and warm registrar, that the form-creating might take 45 minutes on top of an extended wait. So she said she'd do most of the paperwork and post the certificate so we could get off to the party. The odious Mr Panz - featured here in the days when I called him Pantz - had promised to behave himself, though he took a chance for a nap during registration

and was generally soothed by one of his family, bridesmaid and youngest goddaughter Mirabel (she, mother Edwina and Panz were the only attendees up in Camden). Here she is admiring five of the seven princess cakes from Bagariet, the superb Swedish Bakery in the West End, which went with the champagne for the party

after which about 15 of us went on to Gypsy - me for the second time, Ma, J and goddaughter Rosie May among the rest for the first. And who could not love it? I'm so glad and proud that Ma, 84, made it up from Banstead for the tea party and the show, which was just her thing (a thousand thanks to Liz, her valiant driver and friend). I reckon Imelda Staunton, who's not missed a show so far, has added stuff to "Rose's Turn". We agreed that the ensemble is uniformly excellent.

Broadway no doubt lit the lights and hit the heights for the big American victory after the Supreme Court decided, rather surprisingly, in favour of same-sex marriages across the States. We feel privileged to have sandwiched our afternoon coincidentally between the Irish and American victories. Best of blogging friends Susan Scheid, a recently retired New York lawyer, celebrated (with the proviso that the law has been way too slow to catch up with the way we live our lives) and provided a link to the document here. Obama has been on a natural crest of a wave recently, too, handling a heckler at the White House's Pride Month party, speaking eloquently about the judgment and leading 'Amazing Grace' to commemorate the Charleston Christians massacred by a would-be White Supremacist.

Another thing I heard which moved me to smile through tears was a group of friends and colleagues of the late Reverend Clementa Pinckney on the BBC World Service, remembering him with laughter and affection as remarkable senator as well as good religious pastor, proving by their very testaments how 'alive' he still is. Oh, and let's not forget Charlotte Church's amazingly good speech at the End Austerity Now demonstration march (which I couldn't attend because we were still basking in Sicilian food, footpaths, sun and sea). There's an awful lot of good in this struggling world, despite the daily chronicles of suicide bombings, persecution of gays in countries less fortunate than ours, Putin's dangerous lies and IS pathology.

29/6 Another reason to be cheerful, even as the Greek state totters. Courtesy of Greenpeace:

Wednesday 24 June 2015

Bergen curators

Norway, Denmark, marriage, Sicily: these are my excuses for slim pickings on the blog for the past few weeks, and I've got a lot to catch up on. All three places yielded the most wonderful times, but maybe my happiest memories in terms of meeting new people who seemed just as interested in me as I was in them (Danes not great in that respect, or maybe it's a politeness thing) have come from the trip to Bergen.

You'll probably recognise the open, friendly face up top: it belongs to Leif Ove Andsnes, who met me in the cafe of one of the four galleries by the central lake, Lille Lungegårdsvann, and who curated two concert specials I'll never forget (Sibelius melodramas plus in an old masonic hall, Kurtág and Liszt in Grieg's villa at Troldhaugen, with the composer's own Steinway as centrepiece: read all about them on The Arts Desk). The ladies in the middle are curator of the Ole Bull House-Museum on Lysøen island Berit Hogheim and the most comprehensive, disciplined and enthusiastic of guides there, Inger Carter. And below them is Sigurd Sandmo, whose titles are Director of the Composers' Homes (around Bergen) and Director of the International Edvard Grieg Piano Competition, standing on the roof terrace at Troldhaugen.

All four are Bergen trained or raised and gave me the greatest insights into this wonderful town, cut off from inland Norway until the late 1980s (I think there was a road from Oslo before then, but that was it). Indeed, the tendency before that was to be closer to England and Scotland over the seas than to the heart of the homeland, to which there were no passable roads before the big changes came.

I owe most in terms of extending the information to Lysøen (Kieron Tyler, it turned out, had got there before me on his trip to Bergen's Jazzfest). Ole Bull has to be one of the most fascinating figures in the history of music: probably because his music died with him, all bar a few pieces he composed for the violin, and he hailed from before the era of the gramophone, only Norwegians really know him as an heroic figure. Clearly a showman too, but a true democrat who never forgot the people to whom he should really be playing.

I want to read a biography of the great man, but Inger certainly gave us some choice details. Bull Senior ran the Swan pharmacy in Bergen, founded in 1595 (I'm told the swan sign is still there, but didn't have enough time to seek out the shop). In 1818 at the age of 8, talented young Ole auditioned for what would in time become the Bergen Philharmonic, becoming its leader at the age of 10 (I think I've got this right, if that's what Inger meant by 'first violinist'). He picked up his love of folk music playing with the locals on his grandmother's farm, and skived off school to play with the "slustril" folk (=sour milk, regarded as low-graders in Bergen society). In 1851 he co-founded the first native-language theatre in Norway and the following year engaged 23 year old Henrik Ibsen as artistic director. On the site now stands a grandiose 1911 building with a bug-eyed statue of Ibsen outside.

Bull's violinistic prowess was compared to Paganini's, but alas he left no recordings and his fame, internationally at least, ended with his death. A handsome fellow, he caused the ladies to faint in recitals and carried a bottle of smelling salts (here in a glass case) to revive them.

His travels and success abroad became so legendary that Ibsen modelled, at least in part (and I hope only in part, because though he was quite a philanderer, Bull seems to have been something of a Mensch), the character of Peer Gynt on him. Peer's travels in Egypt coincide with the fact that Bull climbed the Cheops pyramid in Giza and played his famous folk variations on top. Wish there was a photo of that. In America he set up an (ultimately unsuccessful) Norwegian farmers' colony in Potter's County. His second wife, after an unsuccessful first marriage to a genteel Frenchwomen he'd met in Paris while studying with Vuillaume, was Sara Thorp, a senator's daughter (he was 60, she 20). And then, with daughter Olea in tow, they came to settle on Lysøen.

He bought the entire, 12 km long island. A farm had been there since 1670, but a new home was needed and in collaboration with the architect Conrad Fredrik van der Lippe, he designed a 'mini Alhambra' with a Russian onion dome and stars of David, Indian suns and Arabic symbols woven into the main room's fabric.You can see at least two of them here.

30 local carpenters worked on the project using wood from the island. The Bull family took up residence in the summer of 1873. Eight years later he returned, ill and exhausted from yet another American tour, to die in the Villa Lysø. Sara, a talented musician, played the Mozart Requiem on the piano - his own invention, a piano that would not need tuning, needed tuning after two months, but there was no possibility for that so it was converted into a large piece of furniture - and he died clutching his favourite flora (and Norway's national symbol), a bunch of heather. The house remembers this in its various arrangements.

Ole's granddaughter Sylvea kept the house on, visiting regularly from the States, and in 1974 she turned it over to the Bergen division of the Norwegian Society for the Protection of Ancient Monuments. Though the main room - a splendid concert hall where, alas, I wasn't in time to catch a recital -  and an annex museum room are all there is to see, that's quite an 'all'. Many of his splendid violins are here, including a Guarneri, and his Amati turned up recently, to be given an inaugural recital. The silk flag from New York mixing the Norwegian design with the stars and stripes was his most treasured memento.

My own time on Lysøen was very special indeed, thanks to the convivial company of Inger and Berit, who took me off to the bijou cafe for waffles and coffee before I took a walk round the back of the house

up to the island's highest point

and back through verdant woods and a silent lake to the villa.

Then we returned to the fun ferry steered by a retired Norwegian navy man, saw the house shining on the island from the mainland docking point at Buena Kai

and drove back to Bergen. I had just enough time to buy more fresh fish at the harbour before a revelatory concert in the wonderful old Håkonshalle of the castle given by the young Norwegian string group Ensemble Allegria and the phenomenal Lawrence Power (both concert photos by Thore Brødreskift).

And then, with a rainbow appearing over Bergen harbour, it was into  another taxi to Troldhaugen for my own private tour of the grounds with Sigurd before the 10.30pm concert (which I've written more about over on The Arts Desk). This is the villa c.10pm, and the distant mountain outlines could still be seen against red in the sky through its windows nearly two hours later

Would love to have heard a recital in the new concert hall too, with its view down to Grieg's composing hut and the lake

which we then went to see via the oddly Mycenean tomb

on which Edvard's and Nina's names are carved in quasi-runic letters

but 40 of us in the house was something unique and unrepeatable. Here's my own shot of Grieg's piano before the recital began.

Bergen's in-town museums are splendid, too. I met Leif Ove in the cafe of KODE 2, but I'd spent hours in 3 and 4. 3 has the superlative collection of Rasmus Meyer to complement its own Munch collection, second only to the one in Oslo. The artist was prolific but never less than a true original; I was fascinated by the self-portrait he painted while in a classy asylum - from this time onward his paintings became more optimistic and colourful - but sadly no postcard was to be obtained. Good old Wikimedia, then.

Which other Norwegian artists impressed? Harriet Backer, certainly, in just a couple of pics from a whole wall of her stuff - still all those domestic scenes about which Munch complained, but this is rather lovely -

and a new wing devoted to Nikolai Astrup, sometimes too gaudy and sentimental, but a good chronicler of Norwegian happy days.

I love the woodcuts especially - there was a wall of Beltane fires in oils, but not I think anything like this:

And the reproduction doesn't quite catch the uncanny light of 'Clear June Night'.

There's a big Astrup exhibition coming to the UK in 2016. I think you'll be rather impressed if you don't know his work.

In between the various KODE buidings on the city's inner lake

is the Kunsthalle, and this was hosting the festival's main exhibition, about which I wanted to write on TAD but didn't have the space. Featured artist Ane Hjort Guttu's new body of work, and let's use the words of the blurb, investigates 'issues of power, freedom, the role and responsibility of the artist as well as the possibilities and limitations of political art'. All these are well distilled in her 46 minute film Time Passes. A timely piece of work given the current Norwegian debate on the prohibition of begging on the city streets and the question of the (very large) number of Romanian Roma folk. The earnest and ever so slightly humorless art student Damla (played by actress Damla Kilickiran) takes up a place near Bergen's station with an articulate and touching Roma woman whose thoughts are duly given as she sits in the public library.

Damla starts out 'sitting' as an artwork for her studies at the college, but withdraws as she becomes more troubled about its possibly exploitative value. The film itself is not without lightness of touch - I love the students' discussion about Breughel's Landscape with Icarus and how Auden sees it in 'Musée des Beaux Arts' (very germane to the film's subject: ordinary life goes on alongside immense suffering).

We last see Damla at her friends' graduation exhibition, in a space which mirrors the one we're sitting in (I'm pleased with this picture, but I wish I'd caught a good frame from the film, too, though it's just possible it might be the last scene so the room within a room would be appropriate).

Time Passes is also a hymn to Bergen, for all the problems of everyday life, and Leif Ove celebrated it, too, in his interview narrative of his early days here. I didn't have a chance to reproduce much of what I transcribed on TAD, so this seems like a good place for it. 

There was a Czech teacher at the Bergen Music Conservatory, Mr [Jiří] Hlinka, whom I got to hear about. I came as a 15 year old and had some private lessons from him, and he said you should come over next year and start at the conservatory. So I did, and he was a very important inspiration to me. I was a rather shy, introverted boy from a provincial island, I didn’t have professional musicians around me, I needed someone to show me the passion and commitment and life of music, someone every day telling me the importance of contrasts in the music, the storytelling, showing me all the possibilities. It had such an impact on me and made me realize I couldn’t do without music. He was into the Russian school, whatever that actually means, maybe there is a system at least for children, or the sense of movement at the keyboard. But anyway he had played for Gilels and even once for Richter, who was also my idol in the first years. Later on I changed my tastes and came to know Lipatti, Michelangeli and many others, and became much more diverse, but first I was crazy about Richter.

Bergen was important because I’d never heard a professional orchestra – well, as a 14 year old I played with the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra, and the Mozart D minor Piano Concerto was my first experience of hearing these sounds. But then I came here and first concert I went to had Mahler One in the second half, and I was blown away, I thought is this what an orchestra can do? Simply to come and hear it and get those impulses, getting to love the orchestra, getting to love chamber music, because in my first year at conservatoire I played with a viola-player, a mezzo-soprano, and I loved that and used as much time on that as my solo studies, almost. It was a tiny conservatoire, under 50 students, and the quality was up and down, but I had a great teacher, I was so dedicated, as a piano student music was the only thing in life for me during the first few years

The festival was a very important inspiration. In 1987 students could sign up as volunteer ushers, which meant you got a free seat. I look at the programme for that year now, and there was so much going on, so many singers - Lucia Popp, Katia Ricciarelli, Teresa Berganza; in the Håkonsaal [pictured below with the Borodin Quartet] they had a great singer every night. 

Four or five song recitals also blew me away. That was so exciting, we felt that the world came to our little town. Now it's not quite as unique in Norway as it was then, it really was the national event. It still holds that position, it's still the biggest arts festival in the Nordic countries, I think. But then it made such an impression. It remains a bit of a fairytale for me.

And 'fairytale' is exactly what his two concerts with friends young and contemporary - Sibelius's magic mix of spoken poetry and instrumental magic, Kurtág's kaleidoscope of quasi-naive fantasies with Liszt's sighs and swoons - will always remain for me. But what we still need to explore are the mountains and glaciers inland. I caught only a glimpse of them on the flight back.

Tuesday 9 June 2015

Tillykke med fødselsdagen, Carl Nielsen

That's a Danish happy birthday to the mighty and yet oh so human Nielsen, 150 today and, as befits a Gemini, a man of many faces (not just the two). Thanks to the Danish Royal Library via the Embassy for permission to reproduce the photographs here*.

Still ringing in my ears from the last concert in Sakari Oramo's Nielsen symphonies cycle with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, as topsy turvy as Gilbert and Sullivan as well as more profound, the variation finale of the Sixth Symphony strikes me as a quintessentially Geminian endgame. Every mood is here, and Nielsen still can't really decide on what should  have the last word (a burp, or fart, from the two bassoons isn't exactly conclusive). I'm more than ever convinced that this had a huge influence on Shostakovich - above all in the desultory waltz sequence of the Fourth Symphony's finale, not to mention a glock launching another first movement, that of Shostakovich's Fifteenth - also, surely not coincidentally, a symphonic last will and testament.

Anyway, I find myself immensely privileged to be here in Copenhagen on the day, keenly awaiting my first live acquaintance with Saul and David, the most important gap to fill in anniversary or for that matter any year. And last week it was Sibelius melodramas in a stunning programme put together by Leif Ove Andsnes at the Bergen Festival, an even more unrepeatable treat. Tomorrow, off to Funen for house-museums and a concert in Odense (the Vienna Philharmonic under Franz Welser-Möst, not the first name that springs to mind for the fire of the Inextinguishable - they turned their noses up at the Danes' proposal of the Espansiva, more fools they - alongside Sibelius's Four Lemminkäinen Legends). Then back to London on Thursday in time to talk to Vladimir Ashkenazy at 6pm before his all-Sibelius blockbuster with the Philharmonia on the Southbank.

Projects here have an enviable level of funding. This website, along with the associated catalogue put together by the Royal Library complete with full scores to follow, is hugely impressive.  Every letter that Nielsen wrote, and much of what was written to him, has been published in nine volumes to date (one to go, I believe). There will be a two-volume selection in English, translated by my linguistically gifted colleague David Fanning. We know Nielsen was a remarkable writer, thanks to a translation by Reginald Spink - it reads extremely well - of his classic My Childhood (My Funen Childhood, to translate directly from the original title). It's shameful this translation isn't currently in print, but you can probably pick up a second-hand copy. Let me end by quoting from the introduction:

It has often surprised me how little we realise that the moment a child receives a strong impression, one strong enough to remain permanently in the memory, then that child is really a poet, with his own distinctive gift of receiving the impression and reproducing or merely retaining it. Poetic talent, I imagine, is fundamentally the faculty, the gift, of distinctive observation and perception. Thus we have all at one time been poets and artists, each after his manner. The rough way in which life and adults summon the child from its beautiful world of poetry and art to harsh, matter-of-fact reality must, I think, be blamed for the fact that most of us forfeit these talents, with the result that the divine gift of imagination, innate in the child, becomes mere day-dreaming, or is quite lost.

The great poets, philosophers, scientists and artists are only exceptions that prove the rule.

For Danish musicians, Nielsen's special genius is that he kept his childhood simplicity for the extraordinary number of popular songs known and sung by all his countryfolk - albeit unfamiliar outside Denmark - and yet had such radical, unrepeateable visions in his great symphonies, concertos and operas. There's also the question of darkness and depression versus manic energy, but that's a whole other issue for future discussion.

*I learnt only today here in Odense that the series of 'grimasses' were taken in the mid 1880s at a photographic studio far from Nielsen's usual haunts for the benefit of a girlfriend in front of whose family he acted out stories, doing all the voices and faces.