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. 


Geo. said...

My four last cultural happenings, INPO, were:
1. Arianna String Quartet at the U. of MO STL, with 2 contemporary works and Dvorak's "American" Quartet. They have built a loyal crowd gradually over the years, but obviously public health concerns caused the crowd size to drop a bit (aside from putting two contemporary works on the concert).

2. Last SLSO happening here was Stephane's Bolero program the next night, which was very cleverly assembled prior to the '17 minutes of orchestral tissue without music':

John Adams: Short Ride in a Fast Machine
Honegger: Pacific 231
Guillaume Connesson: A Kind of Trane (Timothy McAllister, saxophones)
Roussel: Symphony No. 3

It took me a while really to grasp how clever the program was, in the context of "If you put Bolero on the 2nd half, you can put almost anything on the 1st half". Unfortunately, the next week, 28 hours before showtime, Stephane's planned SLSO La damnation de Faust got cancelled. No surprise, but still obviously disappointing.

3. My very last musical hurrah, in any genre, was a concert by Guster, whose name I knew but whose music I didn't. They're quite entertaining, including riffing on random topics suggested by the audience. I suspect everyone in the house had it in the back of their heads that this could be it for a while.

4. Seeing Portrait of a Lady on Fire in the cinema just before they had to close shop.

David said...

Interesting mix - and the SLSO programme is vintage SD (I don't know the Connesson - did anybody?) What a shame you never got to go to hell and heaven with Berlioz.

The cutoff was of course arbitrary. As Sue Bullock noted, she should have been singing 'I have bad nights' auf Deutsch as Strauss's Clytemnestra in Birmingham, opposite Catherine Foster's daughter, Kirill Karabits conducting the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. I was going, and hoping to deliver a second copy of Hilary Mantel's The Mirror & the Light To Sue's husband, the tenor Richard Berkeley-Steele, plus a second book I'd chosen that I thought would follow it nicely for him, since he'd come to talk about singing Siegfried in my class on the third Ring opera. At least we got to the end of that term - I am soon to download Zoom to learn how to livestream my lectures - and I am now embarking on the Mantel myself.

Hope you can occupy yourself well, and stay well, in this strangest of times.

Geo. said...

Probably very, very, very few in STL would have known the Connesson in advance. I certainly didn't. SD has recorded in with TM and his Brussels Philharmonic, though. His 2nd SLSO season promises to be very interesting indeed, if the current public health situation doesn't seriously derail it. (One gaffe, probably unintended, was that for a 2-week November festival of music featuring strong female historical and fictional characters, none of the music is by women, and many of those figures came to quite unpleasant ends. Oops.)

Kirill Karabits ranks very high on my list of conductors not yet seen live. Not sure why he hasn't been invited to STL, as he's been to Dallas as a guest conductor very recently, just to name one. I'm sure that there have been other US gigs, but I don't know them offhand.

Hope the remote teaching works out for you. That's becoming the new normal for the rest of this semester here, for sure.

I do have a load of unread books and unlistened-to CDs. So staying mentally occupied is pretty easy that way. Hope that you stay safe and well also.

David said...

Not been so impressed with what I've heard of Karabits so far, to be honest. But he does programme interestingly. I feel most rooted at the moment by having so much of Mantl Vol. 3 ahead of me. Going easy on headphoneless listening because of the neighbours but I have some CD reviews to write, and a few sets of notes to deal with (generously, the organisations have said 'go ahead' even though the events probably won't take place).

Jonathan Moore said...

Thanks for this David. Yes I met Philip at the Opera America New Works Forum in New York and he is a great person and a wonderful composer.

David said...

The next thing to a home-grown operatic genius after...Turnage (and especially Greek, of course).

Jonathan Moore said...

Yes agreed about both and of course re Mark. And grateful blushes for "Greek". Henze brought Mark and I together as part of his inaugural Munich Biennale for our very first opera. Talk about beginner's luck. In my case anyway. Take care dear David and keep up your fab posts.

David said...

You must be very proud to be part of history...After all, survivors are rare. I can't think of that many from the last four decades beyond Adams, Turnage - Barry, certainly.

Shin-ichi Numabe said...

I'm very glad to know that you enjoyed Bach's St John Passion by Masaaki Suzuki and his Bach Collegium Japan at the Barbican. After the concert, Masato Suzuki (Masaaki's son) hurried back to Japan to conduct Bach's St John Passion (arr. Mendelssohn, 1841) with Tokyo Symphony Orchestra on 28 March. But, alas, this concert has to be postponed under the influence of coronavirus infection. The soloists from Europe became impossible to visit Japan, and Masato himself was requested to stay at home for two weeks.

In Tokyo, as in all European cities, no concerts, no operas, no plays can be performed nowadays. Such a horrible situation happened for the first time since 2011. I sincerely hope that peace will soon return to the world.

David said...

So good to hear from you after so long, Shin-ichi, and hope you and yours are avoiding the worst. We hear that Japan, with its top legacy of personal and public hygiene, is weathering this better than many, but the loss of musical life is having strange effects upon us all. Above all my heart aches most for all the musicians, especially 20somethings, who have lost all their work at a stroke. A violinist friend of mine was saying that he is even getting cancellations for 2021. We are hoping our government is about to do the righ thing for freelancers.

We were so, so lucky to get that St John performance, and it was deeply meaningful to us even at the time. And as you gathered, I ADORE the Suzukis as human beings as well as musicians.

Shin-ichi Numabe said...

Once the postponement of the Olympic Games in Tokyo 2020 was decided, the Governor of Tokyo suddenly launched a strict policy. All the citizens have been surprised and confused.

Geo. said...

Fair point in your own evaluation of Kirill Karabits. While I wouldn't say that he's the greatest thing since sliced bread in the conducting world, from what I've heard of his R3 Bournemouth SO broadcasts, KK strikes me as a genuinely good guy and a real mensch, from hearing him in conversation with Martin Handley. This probably explains my interest in hearing him, and would also mirror your evaluation of YNS, methinks.

In the long term, we're simply going to have to learn to live with COVID-19 and comparable microorganisms. This means that some sort of herd immunity has to build up among humans. For immunity to build up, that means exposure to the virus so that one's immune system can react accordingly. Preferably, the exposure would be in the form of a vaccine, except that this isn't going to be for a while. That means only one other way to build up immunity, but the risk of that going wrong is substantial, to put it mildly. From the Johns Hopkins-run map (this link if you haven't seen it:, of the almost 500K confirmed cases worldwide to date, the eyeball stats show ~24% recovery and ~4.5% fatality. The recovered cases now all presumably have antibodies in their systems to COVID-19. (Hopefully MG-T is among that number, as you must have heard the news from the CBSO about her on this.)

David said...

Shin-ichi, I think we were all surprised that the postponement of the Olympics took so long. Once the teams started pulling out, it was only a matter of a day or two...

Geo., 'herd immunity' is a very dirty phrase for us Brits, since it would seem that dangerouns Mekon D Cummings proposed it as a basis for inaction until the government was forced to change its tune. I'd rather go with the Joe Biden line that not one single death is worth saving a point on the Dow for.

David Damant said...

The argument ( which I do NOT agree with - it seems to me that the research from Bath/Bristol is flawed - but it is an argument to be considered) is that a serious decline in an economy will produce such hardships as will lead to more deaths than those engendered by the virus. The UK government's actions to restore a good part of lost incomes, to keep people in work rather than being fired, is correct not only in providing a lifeline to individuals but also in keeping the economy ( the companies etc) in position ready to recover when the virus goes away.
On the herd argument, there is more ( I think much more) scientific opinion ( it can hardly be more than opinion on either side) to the effect that letting the virus loose will produce vast numbers of deaths, rather than that the deaths will level off due to immunity. On this point, we do not have to try to decide who is right, as the risk in adopting the herd argument is too great.
I dislike Cummings intensely, mainly because his approach to " management " is wrong for the political world, but I have some affection for the Mekon