Tuesday 29 November 2016

One-offs: El Niño and The Nose

I'm actually referring to one-off classes from the past two weeks of my Opera in Depth course, but Adams' Christmas oratorio/opera and Shostakovich's Gogol extravaganza are both unique even in their composers' outputs (top images: Mujer de Mucha Enagua, PA'TI XICANA, 1999, as it appears on the cover of El Niño's indispensible first recording, and the 2012 tapestry The Nose, with Strawberries, executed by the Stephens Tapestry Studio, Diepsloot, Johannesburg, to a design by William Kentridge - part of the wonderful exhibition Thick Time at the Whitechapel Gallery, which I have yet to write about).

Adams was to go on and enrich the biblical-mythic aspect of his music in an even more complex work, The Gospel According to the Other Mary, while Shostakovich had another shot at Gogol in the 1940s, trying to set his play The Gamblers word for word, but gave up (there are Gogolian touches in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, too). Before I pass over what we talked about Shostakovich-wise the week before last - the Adams experience has rather eclipsed it - I must at least put up one more image taken by Bill Cooper of the best thing about Barrie Kosky's Royal Opera production, the multiple dancing noses.

Curiously I felt that the single class on The Nose was actually enough - I'd started by intending three - while I wanted at least another two-hour session on El Niño. All the students who spoke up seemed to fall in love with Adams' piece on the spot.  None had seen the overloaded UK premiere with Sellars overegging an already elaborate pudding with a film that hadn't been timed to fit the music; Adams admits the many shortcomings of that first production when it opened at the Chatelet in his indispensible autobiography Hallelujah Junction, which I wrote about on the blog back here). 

I started where Adams does in Chapter 12 of that beautifully written confessional, with what he calls 'the ecstatic shuddering and quivering of violins and jubilantly exclaiming voices' of Handel's 'For unto us a son is born' from Messiah. He goes on to write about the WASPy images of Christ and his disciples from his childhood, his mother's move from the Episcopalian to the Unitarian Church, and how its 'moral and intellectual training', though fine, seemed too close to Plato, Voltaire and Bertrand Russell and didn't feed his need for the 'spiritual truths' of religious mystery and miracles (the latter my own sticking-point with the New Testament). Elsewhere, to Michael Steinberg he confided 'I envy people with strong religious backgrounds. Mine is shaky and unformed. I don't know what I'm saying, and one reason for writing El Niño was to find out.'

It almost goes without saying that, as in so many of Adams' works, the light and the dark are in constant tension. That's best summed up, perhaps, in Mary's response from the St James Gospel when Joseph asks why she is weeping one moment, laughing the next, and she replies: 'It is because I see two peoples with my eyes,  the one weeping and mourning, the other rejoicing and glad'. Only the simplicity of the final children's chorus, a setting of Rosario Castellanos' A Palm Tree, offers any kind of resolution to the two-edged use of the title, 'El Niño' as both 'the child' and that phenomenon of capricious weather - though this too, one feels, is provisional: the naive leading us back towards innocence and away from the sentimental. 

Like Steinberg. I'm indebted to Adams for introducing me to the poetry of Castellanos (1925-74), one of the world's greats, it would seem - and which of us, in the UK at least, knew her work before? On the original recording, it's the incandescent Lorraine Hunt Lieberson who intones the sinuous, Spanish-faithful setting of Castellanos's childbirth chronicle,  'The Annunciation'. The interplay of poems by Castellanos and other Spanish-language writers with Biblical texts and their curious offshoots is as masterly as Britten's interweaving of the Latin mass for the dead with Wilfred Owen in War Requiem, and sometimes more ambivalent. The choruses are shattering, the writing for Dawn Upshaw stunning - more than the pure-voiced Mary of Part One, it's her anguished delivery of 'Memorial for Tlatelolco', the most hard-hitting of the Castellanos poems included, which packs the biggest punch, along with music of breathtaking complexity. This, of course, is the work's 'massacre of the innocents', the flipside of the radiant birth. More on the 1968 horror here.

But Adams also has the gift to be simple: I prefaced it with the mixture of St James' and the Latin Infancy Gospel depicting Joseph's amazement at how the whole scene stands still for the birth, sustained strings and pinprick piccolos backing up Willard White's superb natural declamation. And of course we had to end where Adams does, with the finale genius interweaving of the Pseudo-Matthew narrative where the Holy Family is fed and watered by a palm tree obedient to the Christ Child alongside the final Castellanos poem. And naturally the Flight into Egypt becomes the part of the Christmas tale which perhaps has most resonance today given the plight of those millions of refugees fleeing death and destruction.

All this makes us anticipate Adams' own performance with the LSO on Sunday all the more, even though it's only two years since I was blown away by the first performance I heard to present the music in its unadorned glory. Meanwhile, only a couple of hours after I'd finished Monday's class, quite a few of us had moved on to the Barbican for something completely different - the European premiere of Gerald Barry's Alice's Adventures Under Ground. Read all about it on The Arts Desk. The magnificent seven singers are pictured below with Thomas
Adès conducting the Britten Sinfonia; image by Mark Allan.

Gerald had promised to follow up his first visit to the class earlier this year with another, but a final rehearsal yesterday afternoon meant that wasn't possible. Never mind, he'll be back soon, not least - I'm certain - for the first UK staging of his new opera.

Sunday 27 November 2016

Team BBC Music: the champions

Yessiree, and by quite a margin, let's not be modest. Here we are above with three bottles of champagne to split between us: left to right, myself, Daniel Jaffé, deputy editor of the BBC Music Magazine Jeremy Pound, editor Olly Condy and Helen Wallace. We were pitted against at least a dozen other teams from the world of recordings, agents and magazines 'Downstairs in the Phoenix', Cavendish Square, for the annual Nordoff-Robbins Classical Music Quiz.

The charity it's in aid of does wonderful work in the field of music therapy - read all about it here - so it was all in fun and fundraising and not about the winning. Hell, no, of course it was, since we won...and can we gloat just a moment to say that the Gramophone team came somewhere in the middle (and it's rotten being mediocre, as I knew from a more general, if essentially EU-based quiz at Europe House where we'd drafted in a chap to cover pop, media and sports questions who got NONE of them...these things smart).

It has to be said that quiz-setter James Jolly and I have quite similar tastes, and there were a LOT of opera questions. Got us off to a good start, too, that the 'mystery voice' we heard snippets of across all the rounds happened to be Anne-Sofie von Otter, whom both James and I had interviewed a week or so earlier. But I did recognise the voice before I twigged the connection. I don't suppose anyone else would have done so for at least a couple of rounds since there was little hint of Swedishness in her deep and beautiful tones, and since early references were to cooking and guinea pigs - not connected, I hasten to add. The subject's closer-to-home interests were not cited.

We had to commiserate gamely with our delightful neighbours, Gimell, clearly in a rare moment of getting something right behind Jeremy, Olly and Helen above, since there were hardly any early-music questions, and next to none on the contemporary. My chums, all with editorial experience including regular perusal of images, were good at getting the parts-of-faces pictures and matching couples (at both of which I was next to useless), and I surprised myself by working out the diva anagrams. It was a delicious bonding experience, anyway, though I was surprised at how few other people I knew in the room. And it took all our minds off current non-musical affairs for a couple of hours, which had to be a good thing after the American election. The first time I found myself in a room full of people after that horrible day, we all exploded with pent-up fury.

That was at a lunch to augur the forthcoming year of Cello Unwrapped at Kings Place, where I was delighted to meet Nicolas Altstaedt, Ayanna Witter-Johnson and Natalie Clein, among others. Above, Natalie with fellow cellist and now programmer Helen.

Finally, with a tenuous link to competitions, I haven't been following Strictly Come Dancing, though I know that Ed Balls finally left the show last night, having given the UK the biggest laugh and best entertainment this autumn (and this is a man I didn't think had a sense of humour). I can't resist posting as an aide memoire the 'Gangnam Style' sequence as a magnificent token of concentration over aptitude, with the glorious Katya Jones adding high style.

Wednesday 23 November 2016

Two paths to a Greek beach

We all need a breather from the 'real world' at the moment, whatever that actually means: retrench so that you can return refreshed to face the most important struggle people of my age and younger have ever known. Otherwise we'll all just crumble and be of no use to anyone. So before I overload on Greek culture ancient and modern, I'm going to start the Nafplio/Spetses travelogue stretch of the blog with two golden afternoons and evenings less than a month ago (hard as that is to believe).

My old university friend Louise lives in Nafplio (Nauplion), where she carries on running the Paralos Gallery, formerly of Athens, selling antique prints, maps and books, which she set up with her beloved husband Panagiotis (he died far too young last year). Nafplio is a place the beauty of which can't have struck me when I came here in 1983 as part of a picaresque adventure and road journey masquerading as an Edinburgh University research project (we in the Greek department each had to write a report on a visit to a place of historical or literary significance - I chose Pylos and Sphacteria, better known long since the days of Thucydides Book 4 as Navarino bay in the south-west of the Peloponnese). Apart from memories of two dogs stuck together in the headlights when we emerged from a restaurant, having argued over an item added to the bill we'd never ordered, the only thing I recall is swimming here and hearing another tourist howling with agony having trodden on a sea-urchin (which I'd done as soon as we drove into Greece and stopped for a dip).

I'd certainly forgotten how the beaches seem a million miles away from the modest bustle of the old town, in what amounts to a national park with the great Venetian fortress (more of that in future) overshadowing the cliff path.

On our first afternoon we walked from that end, past the tempting strand just below the lower fortifications to look back on them

and on past thoughtfully planted bougainvillea

and sandy-striated rockfaces

with the only sounds the sea - there weren't even any motorised boats - and surprisingly plentiful birdsong to a modest beach with a few folk on it that day (there was nobody else the following day, when we arrived a bit later).

Yes, the water was delicious in early November and amenable to long-term bobbing. This shot is actually from the next swim, as the light would suggest, but no harm in introducing it prematurely.

Louise and I apres-swim

and the other two at the distance J prefers.

The sun was setting as we began the walk back, now more populated by walkers and joggers from the town,

and the rocks took on an orange glow

while sound led us to the inhabitants of the holes in them. Anyone identify this little fella?

Just before we got back the car park,

the sunset was good for silhouettes of the plants and shrubs that have either self-seeded or been carefully selected by the municipality to enhance the delight of its citizens.

Second full day in Nafplio, and more elaborate examination of the sights plus a late leisurely lunch meant that Louise drove us to the beach at the other end of the walk rather later than we'd set off on the Wednesday.

This time we had the beach to ourselves (again, if you can identify this thrift-like plant, I'd be grateful),

and the bliss of observing the full sunset, including the colour-change of the atomic-looking cloud straight ahead, while resting after the swim.

A crescent moon appeared on poetic cue

and Venus beneath it, eventually (almost impossible to see at this distance).

I had the mystical sensation of floating rather than walking back, all the while looking at this. What does Newman's Gerontius say of his post-death experience? 'And gentle pressure tells me I am not/Self-moving, but borne forward on my way'.

Thus we reached the car on the beach in the last glimmers of light. Life stripped down to its most delicious essentials. Followed, of course, by elaborate meals chez Louise and at a fine fish restaurant on successive evenings.

Monday 21 November 2016

Petition: keep the Queen clean of Trump


Just took my first steps as a clictivist on Change.org - yes, I know, it often doesn't achieve much, but petitions HAVE turned things around if the numbers get high enough. Sign, if you agree, this agenda to make sure the May-propelled plans for Trump's state visit come to nothing. I tend, if anything, towards small-r republicanism, but I admire HRH's life in public service and reckon it would be a shame if her final years were overshadowed by meeting such a bigot. As one friend wrote, she's had to meet some nasty men in her time but this one's in a whole different league.

The signers have been rather few after my first bout of group e-mailing, but I've had some interesting conversations with friends who aren't sure, or disagree. My response is that that it would have been just about acceptable if the President-elect had spoken out against his most threatening supporters, the KKK, and the wave of hatecrimes which have already, as with Brexit, used the result to legitimise violence and make people afraid; and, above all, if he hadn't appointed to sit at his right hand a neo-Nazi, White Supremacist, call it what you want but 'alt-right' is too weak*. This from Occupy Democrats nails a great deal in no uncertain terms.

Feel free to continue the conversation here. And meanwhile, continue to be angry and find ways of channeling your anger.UPDATE (23/11): Dan Rather has spelled it out in a viral Facebook message reproduced here. BUT THEN...I just read he HAS disowned them. That, and the promise not to 'jail Hillary', are a start. To say, however, that he knew nothing of Bannon's connections to the 'alt-right' and say that Breitbart is just a bit of fun was disingenuous in the extreme. Long way to go in other areas, too.

*and, much as I hate to reproduce it, this is what Trump needs emphatically and specifically to refute before ANYBODY has anything to do with him. He is supported by Neo-Nazis. Use that name and don't follow Bannon's rebranding of 'alt-right'.

Saturday 19 November 2016

Images and sounds of war

Two very different experiences this week. Yesterday evening's showcased the incredible power of the well-edited documentary footage filmed during the Battle of the Somme, with the most sensitive of scores from Laura Rossi, played simultaneously with the film by the BBC Concert Orchestra under John Gibbons at the Royal Festival Hall (most images courtesy of the Imperial War Museum which organised the event). And, on Tuesday, something I felt I had to see, though Helen Wallace reviewed in for The Arts Desk: the UK premiere staging of Karl Amadeus Hartmann's opera Simplicius Simplicissimus (production photos by Max Lacome; pictured below - the ever-fine William Dazeley and company).

I can see why Independent Opera chose it. The original, Grimmelshausen's picaresque novel, is a tragicomic indictment of the horrors of the Thirty Years War from one who lived through it and undoubtedly put a lot of his experience in to the book (I seem to be the only person among those I met on Tuesday night who's read it, albeit long before I knew the operatic event was imminent; I blogged about it here). Hartmann's opera, which only appeared on stage in 1957, over a decade after he completed his first version, just isn't equal to the subject. Yes, there are good pastiches of the Stravinsky/Hindemith/Weill style, but also tedious didacticism not in the book, woeful word-setting - or so I deduce from David Pountney's tough English translation - and very little original invention. Indeed, the best tune, which appears at the end of the Overture and returns for the summit of Simplicius's climactic monologue, rips off the March from Prokofiev's Op. 12 piano pieces. That's not parody, it's plagiarism.

Musically, this was a strong enough evening. All sang well, especially the male ensemble, and Timothy Redmond ardently shaped the contribution of the Britten Sinfonia. But it was all much too big and loud for the Lilian Baylis Studio at Sadler's Wells. A reduced orchestra would have helped, but substantial operatic voices like that of Adrian Thompson, singing the sympathetic Hermit who educates Simplicius in the forest, only added to the hectoring tone at close quarters.

The production, by Polly Graham, was awkward, if not as downright dismal as Gerard Jones's mishandling of Handel's Oreste in another venue unsuitable for the scale, Wilton's Music Hall, which I reviewed for The Arts Desk the previous week. Graham favoured too much heavy symbolism, making movement and motive unclear, and it was a big mistake to dress up Stephanie Corley's admirable Simplicius (pictured above) as a middle-class schoolboy, Sue Perkins-alike when bespectacled, carrying around a notebook. That was supposed to project forward to his keeping a record in maturity; but it accorded ill with the idea that the child grew up in abject poverty, unable to read, write or use proper names.

There were a few good stretches, like the brooding first interlude embracing a Lutheran chorale. But even this was lessened for me by the constant chatter and ostentatious behaviour of the director, sitting two seats away from me. She also rocked the row with laughter at what frankly wasn't funny, to me at any rate. Unprofessional behaviour, only suitable at a final rehearsal, not a performance.

Insensitivity could never be levelled at Laura Rossi (pictured above), the film composer who responded so movingly to the five 'acts' of Somme footage originally screened as wartime propaganda. Apparently cinemagoers scoured the screens for glimpses of loved ones, and I too was on the lookout for my paternal grandfather, Captain George Nice of the Fifth Dragoon Guards, who served in France all the way through the First World War and whose Croix de Guerre-winning action the following April is certainly chronicled. Apparently this assemblage had a score in the first place, but one made of already existing ballads, songs and snatches which, we're told, sounded too triumphalistic a note at times. The only foot Rossi puts wrong, in my opinion, is the swelling apotheosis, which should subside into ambiguity a bit quicker as we see the German prisoners of war - lucky survivors, IMO - bound for England.

Best of all in the score is the rumbling atmosphere broken by perfectly synchronised timpani thwacks as the big guns go off. I kept thinking of Owen's 'Sonnet On Seeing a Piece of our Heavy Artillery Brought into Action' ('Be slowly lifted up, thou long black arm') in the appalling sequences showing the loading and firing of huge weaponry).

The pity and the horror, which no drama can properly recreate, are there, but also the ordinary humanity of soldiers marching cheerfully towards something they can't imagine, and the decency with which the German prisoners seem to be treated. There's a structure here - the walking 'quite friendly up to Death' and the preparations in the first two parts, the shock of the attacks at the heart of the film, and the bleak aftermath in parts four and five.

If only there were sound to eavesdrop on conversations. Anyway, this is something every single human being should see, and complement it with the talking heads of First World War survivors reminiscing in old age. Never again, we may say, but Assad's Syrian government and the Russians are at it harder than ever in Aleppo, as a renewed plea from heroic Dr Hamza al Khatib on Change.org yesterday desperately reinforced. Update: today (Sunday) I read that East Aleppo's last hospital has been destroyed.

Friday 18 November 2016

Around Trottiscliffe: to be a pilgrim

Been wanting to do sections of the Pilgrims' Way in Kent ever since visiting churches like St Peter and St Paul Trottiscliffe (pronounced 'Trosley') on a first day's acquaintance with music@malling last year. This year's festival lunchtime attendance should have been followed by a walk, but the post-op stent was still giving such gyp so we limited it to a perambulation around West Malling. From the minute the stent came out, normal service was instantly resumed, so a proper half-day's hike was in order.

We started from the station in nondescript commuter town Borough Green, but you're quickly out and even negotiation of the two motorways whose roar is rarely completely out of earshot wasn't too much of a bind (unlike last year, when a tunnel was flooded and we had to walk half a mile along the motorway). This bank on the ascent to one bridge, for instance, was wild-meadow rich.

Wrotham is sandwiched between the two motorways, but you wouldn't know it once you're close. I'm not sure, since we approached it round the back

and never saw the drive, but I think this is Ford Place, described by John Newman in the Pevsner guide as 'an interesting fragment, one wing of a large Elizabethan or Jacobean mansion' with much later additions, I'm guessing.

Once past the horse paddocks, the North Downs are truly in view

and then a tree-lined lane leads to Wrotham, where we had an excellent lunch in The Bull.

The ensemble of the main square, inclining upwards towards the Downs, is a good one, with handsome St George dominating. 14th century with a 15th century tower.

It was closed for a restoration project that will now be over, but we did at least walk under the west passage, the like of which I've only seen in Walpole St Peter

and past graves in the churchyard casting long Autumn afternoon shadows.

The cemetery's extended further up the hill

and then, negotiating the muddle of motorways, the Pilgrims' Way heads eastwards.

At first we walked a very pleasant undulating lane, taking detours off it when herds of cows weren't in prospect. This kind of prospect is familiar from Powell and Pressburger's A Canterbury Tale.

Into the woods, it felt even more like we were following the footsteps of Chaucer's pilgrims. Except for the odd disruption like two blokes on motor bikes using the path.

Then we were above Trottiscliffe, with good views down - albeit slightly marred by telegraph poles and wires - to the church.

We had another treasure to pay homage to first. Perhaps the most atmospheric stretch of all was the one heading down to Coldrum Long Barrow, the neolithic site which was the discovery of the walk. Interestingly enough, the people heading up the hill were the only other walkers we encountered on the entire route.

Dating has suggested that the first burials took place between 3085 and 3055 BC, and the site was in use for another 200 years.

The sarsens of local sandstone were placed against all sides of the raised rectangular mound and are now fallen all around.

Most have fallen, but thanks to major preservation work in the 1920s, and the ongoing stewardship of the National Trust, this marvellous site seems safe.

You really feel like you're in the middle of nowhere here, with the motorway roar entirely absent (the M25 has bent away from the downs here). As you do in the ensemble of Norman church and 18th century houses nearby.

'It is a characteristic, if not a particularly picturesque, group,' sniffs Newman, but how many such groups can boast such a beautiful setting? As along the South Downs, there's something especially magical about religious buildings nestling beneath a hill with the sense of nothing beyond (even if a few roads do go over the Downs).

The interior, which we first had leisure to gape at during occupancy of a box pew for Sami Junnonen's flute recital last year, is essentially simple but made up of various odd components, not least the outsize organ.

Strangest occupant is the huge pulpit, designed in 1775 by Henry Keane for Westminster Abbey (or St Margaret's Westminster; accounts differ). It found a rather humbler home here in 1824.

Needless to say, the real oddity is the palm tree which supports the sounding board.

The 18th century altar rail, also not originally destined for this church, is very handsome too.

One original feature is the mix of medieval canopies and Trinity in a north window of the nave.

Last but not least, the local folk leave plentiful pots of jam for sale near the entrance, all labelled with a fine image of Bishop Gundulf/Gundulph from a more recent stained-glass window, so seminal a figure in West Malling, too.

We fairly hoofed it out of Trottiscliffe

passing a lone pheasant in a field

and back towards Borough Green, leaving the larger loop continuing the Pilgrims' Way eastwards for another excursion. This meant walking along a not too busy road with fine views to the right, albeit dark clouds gathering above,

and another, hard-to-make-out barrow

before heading under one motorway and finding a handsome house just to the south with Dutch gabling.

At the main road, J, anxious to get back to town, decided to pursue its hideously busy route while I headed southwards back into lovely woodland

and then up towards Borough Green just beyond Platt Woods.

We both caught the same train, incidentally. And I know from the ten minutes of the busy road I still had to walk how interminable much more of it must have seemed. Time has different values according to circumstance.

These new discoveries mean that we now know excellent walking routes reachable within an hour by trains going in all directions from the centre of London - north around Essex, west to the Chilterns and Ashridge, south to Lewes and the South Downs and eastwards here. Such riches.