Friday, 20 March 2020
Four last happenings
By 'last', I mean 'for now' - the big shutdown happened, on the 'advice' but not the command of a weak government, on Monday afternoon - and under 'happenings', I include two concerts and two operas. At three of the events there was a decent distance between audience members (because so many didn't come), and at all four the astonishing phenomenon of hardly any coughing or fidgeting. A background of intense silence makes so much difference to a live performance: it really is the ideal of Britten's 'magic triangle' (composer, performers, spectators).
Such was very noticeably the case with Masaaki Suzuki and his Bach Collegium Japan giving a heart-piercing and unflinchingly dramatic performance of Bach's St John Passion at the Barbican on Tuesday 10 March. I've written about the concert on The Arts Desk (likewise the ENO Marriage of Figaro on Saturday evening and the stunning LSO concert on Sunday, a searing farewell as it turned out, which is why the lion's share of this article will be devoted to the new opera already covered on TAD). Images up top and when we come to Denis & Katya by Clive Barda.
What I haven't mentioned was the splendid lunch some time back now hosted by the concert manager of Masaaki and his equally delightful (and talented) son Masato, Hazard Chase's James Brown*, in a very pleasant, intimate room of 2 Brydges Place. I went not to be wooed, but because I already respect Suzuki senior so completely and wanted to talk Bach with him - that we did, and so much else besides. Pictured above clockwise from 7 o'clock are James, Moegi Takahashi of BCJ, my good friend of a fellow writer Nahoko Gotoh, James's hyper-efficient and engaged daughter Damaris Brown, who's one of the best PRs, Masato, Martin Cullingford of Gramophone, Masaaki, Roderick Thomson also of Hazard Chase and myself.
Had I not gone, I wouldn't have learnt about the extraordinary cantatas-plus lunchtime event Masaaki was giving with superb Royal Academy of Music students the following afternoon, nor that Masato had taken up the (unadvertised) conductor-harpsichordist's place in a Milton Court concert that evening as part of the Barbican's Bach weekend (not a fan of Benjamin Appl's, and that seeming prejudice was only fed by the event, but MS's part in it was beyond reproach. Both events reviewed here).
Bach-crazy as I always am especially after events like that St John, I was doubly delighted to be able to turn to the new BCJ recording of the St Matthew Passion - perfect in (eco-friendly) presentation and a similarly direct interpretation. Perhaps I should return to it at a closer-to-Easter point when I have time to listen more carefully, but it will certainly have a place of honour on the shelves alongside Gardiner and, yes, Klemperer (for the opposite pole, which is fine if the intensity is there). Another passion-play of sounds took place in the same venue the night before the shut-down: an LSO programme which was already impressive on paper, of Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis and bludgeoning/desolate Sixth Symphony separated by another deep masterpiece, Britten's Violin Concerto. No praise could be too high for the performers; for review link, see above.
Having been spellbound by Philip Venables' opera 4:48 Psychosis, a powerful setting of Sarah Kane's amazing play, I was keen to see his latest work, premiered and toured (for a bit, before the ban set in) by the always enterprising Music Theatre Wales. Denis & Katya came to the Southbank's Purcell Room for two nights, and I went to see it with my excellent colleague Alexandra Coghlan (Stephen Walsh had already covered its Welsh opening for The Arts Desk).
Well, Venables, this time in conjunction with a layered text from Ted Huffman, has done it again. Within the 70 minutes of Denis & Katya we never meet the two Russian teenagers who barricaded themselves in a summer cabin, shot at the TV set, a police van and even the visiting mother of one of them, all the while broadcasting their antics on the video app Periscope to the damaging responses of online watchers. With his more lyrical episodes, Venables makes one's heart ache for the waste of life at the end of it, mired in the unknown: did the 15-year-olds kill each other, or were they killed by the police (such a possibility in Russia, alas)?
There are only two singers, Emily Edmonds and Johnny Herford, who set up the action with a spoken prologue and then take on, singly or together, the roles of teacher, friend, neighbour and others in variously treated words (Russian included). Four cellists from the London Sinfonietta at both sides of the acting space add their propulsion to timed beeps on a video conversation about a programme on the subject, a kind of rondo theme to begin with. New expressive kicks come with the pacing round of a medic, and finally the deliberate lack of any film footage is broken with a film of a train leaving the station at Strugi Krasnye, where the catastrophe took place. The later stages are formed by a kind of passacaglia which gets twisted by tonal descents and a grim plunge (oddly parallel to the terrifying final descent of Sean Shibe's electric guitar in Georges Lentz's Ingwe), just as the train journey takes us into darkening woods.
So the structure is as sure in effect as the substance. This is another utterly gripping music-theatre piece from Venables which is here to stay, pity and terror held in perfect counterpoise. There was abundant laugh-out-loud wit in Joe Hill-Gibbins' staging of Figaro, which I'm so glad reached its one and only performance on Saturday night, but less of the necessary depth in the later stages. Visually, it was spare, but a gift to the photographer, so in addition to the photos which punctuated the review, I've included a further gallery of Marc Brenner's splendid work for ENO - head over to The Arts Desk for the cast.
In one last burst of careful indulgence, if that's not an oxymoron, I was totally buoyed up by a fifth spectacle, of the Titian poesie at the National Gallery on its last day before closing for the foreseeable future; but that's for another blog entry. UPDATE: I ought to add before I do the full works that the Gallery was mostly deserted, but the Titian exhibition room was fuller than I'd anticipated - though it was still possible to keep 2 metres away from everyone else. Empty West End freaked me out and I won't be cycling into town again for the foreseeable future.
*Update: I am so shocked and saddened to hear that the management agency has just gone into voluntary liquidation. I know that James and his team were honourable people; I don't know the circumstances, but the current horror must have everything to do with it.