Wednesday 24 February 2016

The ENO chorus: heard but not heeded

Famous last words: at the end of my Arts Desk reaction in March 2015 to Arts Council England's punishment of English National Opera, I wrote (with apologies for self-quotation): 'the artistic team is doing superlative work under difficult circumstances, delivering time after time. It would be criminal to see it disembowelled. So here's hoping newly-appointed CEO Cressida Pollock can build on what's daringly best about the company rather than plunge in with slash-and-burn techniques.'

'Slash-and-burn', unfortunately, is the way of McKinseyites like Ms. Pollock, according to a distinguished friend of mine who has had many meetings with their ilk during her years of working in the NHS. Said friend pointed out how the policy is to bring an organisation or department ruthlessly to its knees, then move on and wreak havoc somewhere else.

Ms. Pollock (not pictured in the second image by Robert Workman above: that's Elza van den Heever - I think - as Ellen Orford in the ENO Peter Grimes) started off well enough. I liked the look of her at first nights, where she seemed very engaged and to be having fun. She did indeed make a start with reducing ticket prices. Then the bombshell fell, which most of you know all about, from my banging on about it - and I'm not about to stop: 25 per cent reduction in the annual salary of the chorus (pictured up top with astounding new Verdi/Wagner soprano Tamara Wilson in the ENO Force of Destiny), accordant with a season due to run from September to March only.

That is unacceptable, unarguable, wrong. Period. Yes, money has to be saved, but there is no indication that Pollock and the Board have been listening to the alternatives put forward so far by many among the 5,800 petitioners on (the number is still rising; there's also an Equity petition which 5,000 + have signed to date). Their numbers include singers, directors, conductors, designers, actors and some of us critics. I'm especially proud to have drawn Vladimir Jurowski's attention to the situation. I thought he'd be a Mensch about it once he knew the facts and he was, writing:

 It's an appalling and unfair way of trying to resolve the financial and managerial crisis in which this wonderful company has found itself for way too long!! I have worked with ENO Chorus and know how incredibly dedicated and hard-working they are! And without its chorus no opera company would be able to carry on. It's like cutting off somebody's foot first and then expect this person to participate in running competitions -- either sadism or colossal stupidity!!! Cut its chorus and you'll kill ENO surely! And with the loss of ENO London's and UK's cultural landscape is going to suffer irreparable damage!!! We have been through similar crisis in Berlin several years ago and yet with some COLLECTIVE EFFORT all three(!!!) opera companies have been saved and continue working successfully... What ENO obviously needs now is a new talented Intendant with a new artistic policy and ideas, not a mutilated chorus!! And the Arts Council's silence is both worrying and shameful.

Jurowski and other famous names have left eloquent comments. Cressida Pollock's only 'reply' has been an unconvincing statement on ENO's website (she may have invented a new verb, 'to casualise'). But she's not addressing people directly. Yes, it's sour grapes from me that she hasn't, after a week, replied to an email I sent her. This is poor: let me use the example of the harder-working Kasper Holten at the Royal Opera in terms of a leader who's responded personally, and personably, to everyone I know. Ms Pollock has a PA, doesn't she? But no, not so much as a 'your comments have been noted' reply. (Pictured below: the ENO Pagliacci, brilliantly reworked by Richard Jones as 'Ding Dong!' performed in a northern repertory theatre - high time that returned; photo by Richard Hubert Smith).

This is the message, FYI, not different from what I 've been writing and saying elsewhere, and attempting to be constructive in asking for alternatives.

Hello Cressida (if I may),

I hope by now that you've seen enough proposals of alternative courses to be taken for ENO not to strike at its heart and its morale. It's true that something needs to give, but despite what you've written on the company website, the administration is not down to its bare bones. Does it really need 11 people in one department to raise a mere £5 million, for instance? Why are there no orchestral musicians or company singers on the board?

Perhaps the best way of all for everyone in the company to show goodwill is for all to take a much lower paycut than the one proposed for the chorus, say five per cent for a year or two until things turn round.  

As you will have seen from all three productions Mark Wigglesworth has conducted so far this season, the quality has never been higher. It simply can't be compromised - and above all you don't want to lose the best conductor ENO has ever had.

I should also recommend a proper debate about the issues involved. Contingents like the Friends of ENO feel badly let down by lack of consultation.

Best wishes,


The petition's been running for three weeks now, and there's been no sign of a rapprochement. A lot more people's voices need to be heard by the board - including said Friends, whose money the admin is happy to have, but not their thoughts. A student told me of one who was brushed aside by a board member in the last crisis and told to enjoy the opera, not worry his head about accounts (he happened to be a top accountant. Needless to say he withdrew his support).

I mean what I wrote about Wigglesworth as Music Director; he deserves an Artistic Director of similar vision to work with, and soon. The chorus also sang its fairly routine stuff in Bellini's Norma with sheen and passion, and to a huge ovation on first night. They did what Christopher Alden's clunky production asked them to do, and to be fair, he brought them forward on the curtain call for a second ovation. By the way, I'm not anti-Aldens; C's Britten Dream was a radical rethink that worked for me.

Make no mistake, a full-time chorus in a big company is not part of a museum culture but essential for 20th and 21st century masterpieces too: without it, no top-notch Peter Grimes, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Turandot, Julietta (pictured above by Robert Workman) or The Gospel According to the Other Mary, to cite a few essentials among the kind of electrifying music-drama ENO has been doing best for years. So, for the third time of asking - and having sent out a round robin to 150 students, with the result of five bothering to comment, I know it has to be repeated - sign and comment on The Spirit of Lilian Baylis's petition if you haven't done so already.

UPDATE (26/2) The Chorus has voted 100 per cent in favour of a strike after an Equity ballot. They were to be seen and heard earlier this morning outside ACE headquarters.

No sign of a shift from CEO or Board. This list of mostly irrelevant worthies, poorly put together, tells us all we know as to why there needs to be a clean sweep in this part of the ENO admin. Only one member has had any previous hands-on experience of opera companies.

Just read a response from ENO management to the strike proposals. No amount of arguing is going to justify the injustice of making professionals take a nine-month salary per year. No hint, even, of investigating alternative avenues (for alternatives there must be).

SECOND UPDATE (29/2) Not to namedrop, but to point out a further dimension to the argument: I was having supper with four singers of note (to put it mildly) - our beloved friend Linda Esther Gray (pictured above second from left), Valerie Masterson (left), Meryl Drower and Clare Moll - plus other spouses, and they made this point very passionately: that the chorus were such a rock and support to them when they appeared on the ENO stage. They pointed out that such experience and solidarity is especially important for young soloists and were horrified at the prospect of dissolution. Valerie has in fact signed the petition and I urged them to phrase their feelings in comments, but if they don't, this is a record of what they said.

A second e-mail  I sent to Cressida Pollock last week has also so far gone unanswered. And she has not corrected the factual errors on her ENO website statement. This does not bode well for 'listening'. No doubt the management will be trumpeting the nomination of the very chorus it's aiming to destroy, along with the ENO Orchestra, for the Olivier Awards' Best Achievement in Opera. They have to win, don't they? I'm sure Felicity Palmer, Antonio Pappano and Tamara Wilson, the other nominees, will cheer them loudly if they do.

THIRD UPDATE (5/3) Cressida Pollock's latest statement on the ENO site: quite apart from the spin and the unfair misrepresentation of the company's artists' attitude to negotiation, it contains a figure that is categorically wrong, stating ENO's need to survive on an annual budget of £12.38 million. That's the Arts Council subsidy, not the entire figure, which is twice that amount. Not impressive for a McKinseyite from an accountancy firm. The error has not been corrected despite repeated requests.

Things may turn even nastier with the arrival of a very aggressive 'negotiator' taking an alleged cut of £800 a day. Not encouraging when said negotiator played a part in the destruction of Scottish Opera as we knew it.

A wise head on young shoulders has just updated a very thoughtful blog entry on the situation here. And here are eloquent words as ever from a known and trusted colleague.


Wonderful message today from Sir Peter Jonas (pictured), the only administrator in the whole sorry affair to speak sense. OK, so that's because he's very much on the side of Save ENO, but still, this is good.

The Board of ENO do not heed or take kindly to advice and are behaving autocratically and irresponsibly towards the company, employees and art form that they are charged with protecting and supporting. They also fail to raise, from within their numbers and from their network of acquaintances, enough money to take up the financial slack after squeezing the maximum amount of financial income from the company’s work. This is on its own irresponsible. They have also failed to argue and fight ENO’s corner by directly confronting the ACE and by enlisting enough support in the political arena. These failures are impeachable but the sad truth is that it is employees, artists and the art form that will suffer the consequences. Over here, on the continent (deemed as irrelevantly “foreign” by the ENO Board) we have also had out battles to save opera companies over the last 25 years but threatened companies have survived because those responsible for them directly and indirectly as well as artists and committed support staff have fought back continually with civil courage and commitment. ENO is the bedrock of Opera in the UK. If the ACE can starve it to an untimely demise then the future of all opera companies in the UK is threatened and the demise of the once proud Scottish Opera is a frightening precedent !!! Mark Wigglesworth MUST be listened to and needs a strong partner as artistic director who should be, together with him, the internal and external figurehead of the company inspiring great work and fighting for the art form, artists and a clear vision of the future. I have not seen or heard any evidence of vision in the utterances of the ENO Board or management since this crisis was made public. THIS is the true scandal. 

Final footnotes: the strike in Act 1of Akhnaten at the last performance is now off, though the troubles are far from abating, and my crucial interview with ENO Chorus members went up on The Arts Desk earlier this week.

As a reaction to their withdrawn engagement in Sunset Boulevard, not a protest, the ENO Chorus is giving three April performances in London churches conducted by Wigglesworth of the Brahms German Requiem in its London version with two pianos. Full details here.

FIFTH UPDATE (18/3) A deal has been reached, but it's far from ideal, not least because the company will still be part-time with no operas performed between March and June. Details here.

Monday 22 February 2016

Winter wanderings: Kew, Ditchling, Chelsea

So we had some real winter at last, in short spells (who knows, there may be more to come). On the weekend of the first big freeze, which coincided with Lumiere London 2016 and yielded a clear half-moon in the afternoons and evenings, we took a spin around Kew Gardens.

Snowdrop weekends arrived early at Chelsea Physic Garden,

so it was time to follow the route south-eastwards from him via the fabulous Old Brompton Cemetery - what wouldn't real-estate developers do to get their hands on its huge expanses - with its mini-St Peter's homage, colonnades and dome included

south-eastwards from home. There were in fact plenty of snowdrops in patches around the cemetery.

And I wanted to see the little exhibition of David Jones's animal paintings and drawings in Ditchling below Sussex's South Downs before it finished - that on what turned out to be the least promising of the days. The bridleway from Burgess Hill was a quagmire and took us a long time to negotiate

though it brought us out by a splendid 1703 windmill which seems to be in good hands

and the barrow just above the village looked rather impressive through bare beech trees.

The outlines of big trees in winter have a handsomeness all their own: here, an oak in a line of trees stretching northwards uphill towards the windmill

and here in Kew, a prize specimen in sharper, sunny weather.

We'd been longing to get out, do more, take four days off abroad between Christmas and half term, but workloads and dates got in the way. Still, I can't complain, when nature in London can look like this

- in other words, the Serpentine on another clear, cold morning - and a heron 

can be seen motionless among the bobbing gulls and geese near the public bathing area.

Bird-life was frenzied in Kew on that even colder day. Somewhere up in this Spanish chestnut a woodpecker was drilling.

J did get him on camera eventually, for ocular proof, but it's probably not worth reproducing the results. The flash of red against the green was the giveaway. The parakeets which have now multiplied up and down the Thames were screeching away as usual, though this one seems puffed up to keep warm in the freeze

while gulls were just sitting or standing on the ice.

Further advances towards the spring were apparent on the way to the Physic, not least in Paultons Square

and either side of Chelsea Old Church's tower.

A little further along Cheyne Walk, I dropped my camera through the railings having snapped this perfect white camellia flower

and fortunately an American resident answered our frantic calls on the bell and allowed me to wander into the bushes to retrieve it.

 Peppers and grapefruits are thriving in the CPG

and I brought back for the window boxes specimens of Crocus chrysanthus 'Gypsy Girl'

and Fritillaria michailovskyi

which are doing well among the still-flowering scented pelargoniums.

These were art-ful walks. I'm now very familiar with the best of Old Brompton Cemetery, not least the prize tomb designed by Burne-Jones for Frederick Leyland (d. 1892), ship-owner and patron of the Pre-Raphaelites

while to the south in the same line stands an old gothic sarcophagus in Sienese marble, a singular monument for Leyland's son-in law, the artist Val Prinsep (d.1904).

Don't know much about this one, but I like the comedy and tragedy masks either side of the muse.

I've enjoyed the Serpentine Gallery simply for wandering through: the most recent exhibition, which closed last Sunday, has ephemeral objects in day-glo colours by Dublin-born Michael Craig-Martin (b.1941)

nicely placed in the rooms

above all the cassette and torch beneath the central dome.

Transience was the exhibition's title, and that just about says it all.

Our friend Tilly had drawn our attention to the David Jones exhibition in Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft. It's a beautifully designed gallery - though 30 years old, it must have had a makeover and a huge injection of cash recently - and very educative on the group of artists gathered round Eric Gill when he came here. I didn't realise we were seeing its conglomeration of buildings across the pond as we walked into the village.

The first main room is currently hosting the 'Wunderkammer' of beloved Mark Hearld, two of whose gouaches we snapped up in Ledbury long before he become the cynosure of all prints and greetings cards.

Folk art and toy animals which have informed his prints, drawings and paintings share the cases.

Gill's two garden rollers are beautifully carved. As the museum's blurb to an online photo (this is mine, as are all except the ones of the Nye drawing and the elephant painting), 'Gill’s two garden rollers demonstrate his importance both as a sculptor and as an exquisite letter cutter. The rollers also reflect the two communities in which he lived; one was carved for the weaver Ethel Mairet’s home in Ditchling, while the other was cut to Gill’s design by David Kindersley for Gill’s home in Buckinghamshire'.

I liked his profile portraits, especially the ones of David Jones in pencil and coloured crayon, drawn shortly after Jones had come to Ditchling in 1921

and of Ditchling resident John Nye, who had been killed in the Battle of the Somme by the time Gill completed this portrait from a photograph, possibly as a memorial.

Can't say many of the Jones animals enthralled me - should have gone to the bigger Pallant House exhibition in Chichester before it closed today - but there's a sketch for the famous elephant

which perhaps I like even more for its simple lines and touches of colour.

In its own humble way the church, handsomely placed on a hill

with an over-restored interior and only the odd treasure, like this monument to Henry Poole (d. 1580),

was doing its bit with an exhibition of another sort, summing up the iniquities of hostility towards refugees

and the appalling persecutions (including the throwing of gay men off high buildings) these people face at home. Katie Hopkins' odious Daily Mail definition of refugees as 'cockroaches' is given its full, disgusting context, too.

Bravo, or brava, that vicar.

The plan had been to walk along the ridge of the downs back to Hassocks via a fascinating-sounding medieval painted church at Clayton, but it was beginning to drizzle again, the light was fading and so we took a bus back to Burgess Hill. Plenty still to explore here. As a sunset coda, here's a walk we took back through Kensington Gardens from visiting Teddy and his owners last Sunday.

And I'll end where I started, with a half-moon and bare branches, exactly a month on from the first shot.

Thursday 18 February 2016

Living with Shostakovich 9

Recorded my Building a Library script Tuesday last for broadcast on BBC Radio 3's Record Review (as CD Review has now been re-named), 9.30am this coming Saturday morning. Obviously I'm not going to give anything away about interpretations, but it's the first time I've found myself with a neat set of examples that didn't need editing down and down - in fact the total came to several minutes under the three-quarters-of-an-hour mark, but I felt I'd communicated what I wanted with all the right connections. The only drawback, as on previous occasions, was that several respectable middle-of-the-road versions didn't make the script.

How did I feel at the end of two months with this most curious of Ninth Symphonies, having suggested it in the first place? Surprisingly churned up, with the darkest portions of the work running round in my head. Never believe anything the public Shostakovich said about his works. He knew he was going to get stick for not producing a triumphal ode to the end of the war after the externalised tragedy of the Seventh and the much deeper soul-searchings of the Eighth. Even so, to describe the Ninth as being 'dominated by an airy, serene mood' is absurd.

Amazing how the fallacy has clung to so many of the liner notes for the 28 recordings I listened to. Doing a Building a Library on those alone would be fascinating in itself.I jotted down some of the plums, won't shame the writers by naming them in just a few examples: 'unquestionably the wittiest and most cheerful of all his symphonies'; 'tiny, undramatic and transparent'; 'the composer really is celebrating the end of the past years of war'; 'a pronouncedly classical piece full of enchanting cheerfulness and bright colours...innocuous traditional symphonic close'. Pictured below: the nearest portrait of Shostakovich I could find to the year of the Ninth: the composer at Bach celebrations in Leipzig, 1950.

If you tot up the passages of unequivocal cheerfulness, they total less than three minutes out of an average 23. And even that's doubtful: note the sarcastic trill in the opening, Mozart-Haydn theme. Outer movement developments are fierce, even violent; the transformation of the finale's neutral main theme into a goosestepping parade should be terrifying. I'm not proposing any Ian MacDonald-style 'Stalin subtexts' here - he goes too far in suggesting that the slow movement sheds 'crocodile tears of mourning'. The clarinet melody is a sad, limping waltz, no two ways about it, preferably taken at a moderato pace sufficient to show that, not as an Adagio, but there are persuasive examples at the much slower pace.

As for the bassoon solo, as tragic and lamentatory as its cor anglais equivalent in the Eighth Symphony? One proponent of 'happy symphony' concedes it could be 'a homage to the dead on a day of general rejoicing'. But, in the words of the dubious Shostakovich in Testimony, they are beating the symphony to rejoice. That's not my fancy, it's there in the dissonances and the chromatic twists added to initially straightforward material. Below: Monty with Marshals Zhukov and Rokossovsky and General Sokolovsky of the Red Army leaving the Brandenburg Gate in 1945.

One should never forget that Shostakovich's aim is to entertain as well as to chasten, to give the orchestra its rewards - and all the woodwind have their moments in the sun (though the oboe's is very brief). It's a wonderful, a perfect work, especially in dialogue with its vast(ly different) but similarly five-movement predecessor - in both the last three movements run without a break - and I hope something of that perfect originality comes through on Saturday. Any Building a Library worth its salt should be as much about the subject as the performances, taking you through the piece and pointing out its treasures, and a short symphony is in many ways the perfect candidate for that.

Top image: Shostakovich's greeting to Sibelius on his 80th birthday, inscribed with formal congratulations and a quotation of the finale's main theme. Snapped during my heavenly five hours at Ainola; discussed in context here