Saturday 31 October 2020

The show should go on

I knew cellist Alban Gerhardt (pictured above with feline companion by my good friend and best photographer of artists in the business Kaupo Kikkas) was the sort of Mensch who would respond to my plea for an Arts Desk 'First Person' piece on why Germany was wrong to send its cultural scene into a second lockdown and - by implication - why that mustn't happen here (though from what I can make out of the latest proclamation, finally given as I prepare to publish this, it will, from Thursday). 

All of us lucky enough to attend live concerts in England over the last few months - poor Scotland never got the green light - will testify as to how responsible and orderly they've been: temperature testing and handwash plus registration at the door, ushering to specially distanced seating, masks on in the hall (the artists wear them on to the platform but remove them after reaching their equally clearly-delineated places) and an equally careful exit routine (no lingering in groups to chat). The only thing I can add to everything that Alban has expressed so succinctly is that, in addition to the uneven application of rules to pubs and restaurants, the spreading-ground of schools has been overlooked, too; if only there had been proper guidelines there.

Also have to own up to the special privilege of being among the lucky few at events not officially open to the public at the Royal Festival Hall and LSO St Luke's (the tiny numbers also very carefully calibrated, the ritual of admittance and departure even more regimented). I wonder if even the filmed, livestreamed events planned will bite the dust. They're not the same, of course - you can tell the players, singers and conductors need a real audience input, though Julia Bullock was so communicative on Thursday (the hall from my seat above, Bullock pictured by Mark Allan below) - but still very welcome and will be even more precious if we're not admitted any more).

The riches between July and now have been unprecedented, starting with the brilliance of Raffaello Morales' Fidelio Orchestra Cafe recitals. What a great moment that was when Steven Isserlis stepped out in front of a public, albeit a very small one (25 people) for the first time in four months which must have felt like half a lifetime. The moment is so well captured in Nick Rutter's photograph.

FOC has been going from strength to strength, though Angela Hewitt's appearance this coming week couldn't happen owing to travel restrictions - heavenly Imogen Cooper is due to take her place. She will only do so on Tuesday and Wednesday, and then of course nothing for at least a month.

I have enough recent memories to last a lifetime, above all of the two little-great not-so-mini festivals pioneered by Pavel Kolesnikov and Samson Tsoy at the Ragged School Museum (a poleaxing sequence of masterpieces in devastating performances) and by Jonathan Bloxham's Northern Chords Festival in Newcastle last weekend. These are the truly heroic musical figures of the year, along with the Wigmore Hall's John Gilhooly. To keep the memory of the Newcastle idyll going, next stop on here will be a photojournal ot autumn light on that memorable Sunday. May the inner light continue, too. We all need it.

Footnote: Raffaello (pictured above sitting on the stairs leading to the balcony part of the cafe) got in touch last night to tell me about the situation with the 'Imo' concerts this coming week (two remain, last one on Wednesday evening). His additional positivity needs to end this piece: 'Life goes on and we are more combative than ever. I think the best reaction we can have at this point is being constructive and showing how fundamental our contribution is. The narrative has to change from one of lamenting our condition of perpetually under-considered category to one that proudly shows how relevant and necessary we are to of those tasks that we'd better get going at soon'. Hear, hear.

Friday 16 October 2020

From Firebird to Revolution, 1910-17

First term of my Russian music course on Zoom went well, by which I mean there were lots of happy students and I enjoyed every minute of it, firming up allegiances and discovering more (especially in the sphere of chamber music). In the end we covered ground from Glinka to early Rachmaninov, stopping at 1900, with a few glimpses into the future. My original idea, to devote the 10th class to Stravinsky's The Firebird as a last great synthesis of the fantasy tradition, was postponed simply because the one class I'd intended on Musorgsky's and Tchaikovsky's piano music turned into two. 

That was because Samson Tsoy had so much to say about Pictures at an Exhibition and his partner Pavel Kolesnikov, who popped up briefly at the end of that class, was happy to return a couple of weeks later. When great musicians are willing to come along, as they did for every class of my course on the symphony, you have to be flexible (pictured below by Eva Vermandel, Samson and Pavel during their phenomenal Ragged Music Festival, from which I'm still recovering: read what one of my students described as a 'palpitating' review - that's got to be better than 'gushing').

I'd also intended to go straight on from the first term to Soviet music. But it occurred to me that those seven amazing years from 1910 to 1917 could take a term of their own, albeit one of seven classes (taking a break and mapping out the possible up to Christmas meant I ended up with that number). Here's the plan. We start on Thursday 29 October and each class runs from 2.30pm-4.30pm (longer under certain circumstances). £10 a class so £70 for the term. Special guests TBC, though two top pianists have already shown willingness. UPDATE (19/11) Seven classes have evolved into eight, due to an enrichment not unlike the one we had in the first term.

 1: The Firebird and the end of a tradition  29 October

Stravinsky's first ballet for Diaghilev - the exotic exported to Paris - reflected the fairy-tale compendium of its scenario with homages to the fantasies of his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov and others, but also nodded to the harmonic experiments of Scriabin and looked forward to the rhythmic revolution of The Rite of Spring. I'll be placing it in the context of the 19th century tradition as well as the early years of the 20th century. Pictured above: Mikhail Fokine and Tamara Karsavina in the 1910 Ballets Russes premiere.

2: Petrushka and Russian popular song  5 November

Stocked high with highly original treatments of familiar folk/urban song, Stravinsky's fairground ballet of 1911 features a radical use of orchestration which owes its originality to Tchaikovsky's example. But it is also startlingly modern in the scenes featuring the pathetic Russian Pierrot come to life. Hungarian-born conductor Gergely Madaras is our special guest.

3: The Rite of Spring I: mostly melodic and traditional  12 November

Often overshadowed in the stress on rhythmic iconoclasm is Stravinsky's use of singing themes - only three of them this time taken from folk sources. Again, the mix of modernism and tradition is startling. Pictured above: maidens in Nicolas Roerich's designs for the Ballets Russes premiere of 1913. Andrew Litton, whose BIS recordings of Petrushka and The Rite of Spring are such a revelation, joined us for this class, and going with the flow meant we were only halfway through what needed to be said and demonstrated about the work. A second hour was intended the following week, which stretched to two - hence the offer I've just made of a free eighth class.

4: The Rite of Spring 2: polyrhythms and unfathomable accents  19 November

Andrew's return yielded more fascinating chapter and verse, and the return of Catherine Larsen-Maguire gave us insights into the writing for bassoon - her instrument before she changed to conducting. Leonard Bernstein in his Norton lecture 'The Poetry of Earth', Pina Bausch's choreography and Stravinsky speaking again on the aftermath also joined the party.

5: ''Footballish' pianism and audacious orchestral tricks: the young Prokofiev  26 November
First appearing on the scene in the same St Petersburg Evenings of Contemporary Music where Stravinsky made his debut, a young Conservatoire student quickly created a sensation. With special focus on Prokofiev's first two piano concertos, early piano pieces and the Scythian Suite derived from his first ballet music for Diaghilev, Ala and Lolly.

6: Rachmaninov's The Bells and his Vespers as part of the revived Russian Orthodox tradition  3 December
The rediscovery of ancient church traditions only really took off in the early 1900s, and was flourishing when the revolution put a stop to so many schools of choral music. Before that happened, though, it produced its greatest synthesis-masterpiece, Rachmaninov's numbers for the All-Night Easter Vigil known as the Vespers, in total contrast to his choral symphony inspired by Edgar Allen Poe The Bells.

7: Scriabin: mystic chords and apocalyptic visions  10 December
Boris Pasternak thought him 'warped, posed and opinionated' but also as bright as the sun in his music; Prokofiev found his harmonic discoveries a millstone weighing down his options. But there's no doubt that Alexander Scriabin was a true original
8: On the eve of an earthquake  17 December
What kind of music were the Russian composers creating as the February and then the October revolutions broke? Prokofiev's diary gives a special insight into where he was and what he was doing at these times, with cinematic descriptions of being caught up in the chaos of Petrograd early in the year. We also look at Rachmaninov's last great compositional flowering before exile and the need to tour as pianist slowed down his creativity.
Do join us - and if you can't do so on the afternoon, I send out recordings (video if film is used, audio otherwise). You don't need to have attended the previous course. If you're interested, just send me a message with your email: I won't publish it, but I promise to respond.

Sunday 11 October 2020

Round and round the Ragged School

Four times in all, three for the advertised concerts in the phenomenal Ragged Music Festival organised by pianists and partners Pavel Kolesnikov and Samson Tsoy, a fourth for a spontaneous 'musical party' scheduled for 6pm on the third day of the festival; expecting amuses bouches, we got three full, meaty sonatas plus a Mozart finale and the Schubert Fantaisie. Read more about the event, which has blitzed me and spoiled me for everything else for some time to come, here on The Arts Desk.

Two years ago we found a house in a terraced row close to Mile End tube which seemed perfect: it had a garden, and even a dog seemed possible when I discovered the green lung that runs from south to north (where Hackney's Victoria Park takes over). In the end, the additional costs proved impossible and we stayed put in the west But I loved the area, and I love it even more now that I know it embraces the Ragged School Museum, reached by a walk from the tube through aforementioned green lung. What's been done with urban nature here is so impressive, starting with the green bridge joining up the two 'wings' of Mile End Park over five lanes of the M11 near the station.

As Isabella Tree points out in her must-read Wilding, this is (or was at the time she wrote the book) only one of two land bridges in the UK. The Netherlands, she reports, has 62 such 'ecoducts', so there's a lot of catching-up to be done.

I know Erica Davies, its enterprising director, from Freud Museum days (I think she was just beginning there when my year as a guide under the Manpower Services Commission scheme came to an end). We shared a table, at a respectable distance of course, when Samson gave his first recital with Alina Ibragimova at the Fidelio Orchestra Cafe (a momentous meeting which led to the phenomenal musician's collaborations with Pavel, Samson and their friend/mentor Elisabeth Leonskaja here). But I knew nothing more than the slightest hearsay about the RSM. I can see why the pianists fell in love with the place as an atmospheric setting for their festival. All concerts took place in the former boys' schoolroom on the top floor.

A brief history is given here on the RSM website, but let me paraphrase and quote from it. Irish doctor Thomas Barnardo was horrified by conditions in the East End of the mid-19th century, not least an appalling cholera epidemic, and set up schools to provide free education for children whose families wouldn't otherwise afford it (even where they might have been admitted elsewhere, if they couldn't afford decent clothes, they would be excluded. Not in Barnardo's set-ups). 

In 1877, 'Barnardo’s Copperfield Road Free School opened its doors to children and for the next 31 years educated tens of thousands of children. It closed in 1908 by which time enough government schools had opened in the area to serve the needs of local families.

'The buildings, originally warehouses for goods transported along the Regent’s Canal, then went through a variety of industrial uses until, in the early 1980s, they were threatened with demolition.

'It was then that a group of local people joined together to save them and reclaim their unique heritage. The Ragged School Museum Trust was set up and the museum opened in 1990.' 

Richard Griffiths Architects won a competition to set about sensitive conversion in 1988, but more remains to be done, and they will be involved again in a major renovation. As it is, of course, I love the multiple staircases and the odd showpiece like the schoolroom where thousands of children still learn what it was like to be educated here in the 19th century, My distinguished student Robin Weiss went and was rapped over the knuckles for writing with his left hand.

Clearly much remains to be done over the next few years, and I like the idea of a cafe with a terrace on to the canal at the back, but I hope the essential character won't change. 

The display on the ground floor is very informative

and benefits from local donations, including charity collecting tins and boxes,

At any rate it was all remarkably atmospheric on a weekend where it hardly stopped raining. On the Sunday we had a very cosy lunch at the Afghan/Persian restaurant Ariane before the 3pm concert. Warmly recommended for setting, starters like the mix of salad leaves and herbs called sabzi khordan with lavash bread cooked in the nearby kiln

and a menu of food most of us won't have had in this shape or form - when we travelled round Iran, all we ever got in restaurants was cholla kebab with a raw onion - but the main dishes seemed rather underspiced. Still, it's right opposite the museum on the other side of the 'lung', so that was useful for not having to get too wet moving from one place to the other.

Finally, a few more pics of the occasion itself, which is still reverberating with me a week later. Here's a photo Samson proposed of the line-up - five out of the six performers: Andrei Ioniță, Samson, Alina, Elisabeth Leonskaja and Pavel.

I turn to photographer Eva Vermandel for a few more pics I wasn't able to use in the Arts Desk review: to complete the line-up, clarinettist Nicolas Baldeyrou

and this intriguing shot of Samson, Leonskaja and Pavel in their trio effort at the end of the Brahms waltzes sequence. 

I love it that you can't tell EL is smiling from her eyes, but then you look at the reflection in the piano lid. What a miracle that she could come, and how ecstatic she seemed at the end of proceedings. As were we all - but I even wonder if the artists didn't end up less exhausted than the audience. It's demanding work, being an active listener...

Saturday 3 October 2020

To the end of the world with Wagner

Just over three weeks ago, my Siegfried class on Zoom left the hero and Brünnhilde about to make passionate love on the mountaintop. Just after Wotan-as-Wanderer took his leave a couple of weeks early, John Tomlinson came along to talk especially about the unforgettable experience of working with the late, great Harry Kupfer on the last truly first-rate Bayreuth Ring (I haven't been since - I was so lucky to see that one - but I have it on the authority of all top Wagnerians that what I state is true). Very generous with his time, his tributes to his fellow singers and above all how there's no room for uncollegiality when you're dealing with such superhuman demands - he was quite damning about the world of Italian opera to work in by comparison.

Now we face das Ende, aka Götterdämmerung, The Twilight of the Gods. and it's a daunting task: for this longest opera in the tetralogy, probably 10 two-hour sessions on Monday afternoons won't be enough, so I'll have to be especially careful with the time. I'm delighted that the Wagner Society of Scotland, which 'commissioned' the Zoom Siegfried since for obvious reasons I couldn't make my third annual visit to Gartmore House in the gorgeous Trossachs for a full-on extended weekend of 11 lectures, has members who want to continue: that means that if Gartmore is 'on' next September, we'll move on to Tristan und Isolde. The morning mists from last September up there - in an extraordinary late summer heatwave - seem appropriate for when we reach the Dawn Duet in the second class.

And my profound thanks to the Wagner Society of London, which forwarded my flyer and has given me a considerable upturn in numbers which were already rather good. Below is the pdf - for details in a readable size, click on it to enlarge. And email me to enrol, if you like the look of it. The beauty of Zoom is that you don't have to be present 'live' - I can send out video and/or audio recordings after the event.

Anselm Kiefer's response to Wagner (two of his massive canvases reproduced above) is much on my mind, as I'm delighted to see that Alex Ross devotes a few pages to him towards the end of his magnificent cultural history from the composer's time to the present day, Wagnermania. I've just reviewed it for the BBC Music Magazine, but 180 words weren't enough to give much chapter and verse, so here are a few things that especially struck me. All are related to the paradoxes of Wagner and his legacy, which of course survived the Twilight of the Nazis to rebound more vitally and ambivalently than ever. 

 In 1924 the Kirsteins of Boston took advantage of Bayreuth's first season after the First World War. They were advised by staff at the hotel where they had reservations to go and stay with a 'co-religionist', and they saw nasty displays of 'patriotism', Yet teenaged Lincoln (pictured above somewhat later) was so impressed by this world 'profoundly dedicated to the realization of the unreal' that more than two decades later he co-founded what would become the New York City Ballet with George Balanchine. 

In 1936 the Afro-American sociologist, writer and civil rights activist W E B Du Bois visited Bayreuth. The date is extraordinary, since Hitler had already begun his commandeering of the Wagner shrine. Du Bois discovered that German antisemitism 'surpasses in vindictive cruelty and public insult anything I have ever seen; and I have seen much'. Yet at the same time he could stay where he wanted and be waited on. The contradictions are merely parallel to those in Wagner and his works. As for anyone thinking that Wieland Wagner broke the mould in 1961 by casting Grace Bumbry as the first 'black Venus' in Tannhäuser, Luranah Aldridge - by all accounts an impressive, true contralto Erda, was chosen by Cosima Wagner to sing one of the Valkyries at Bayreuth in 1895 (illness intervened).

Ross also reminds us that in The Great Dictator, released in 1940, Chaplin uses the music of Wagner's Act 1 Prelude to Lohengrin twice:  with negative connotations as background to an hysterical send-up of Hitler, and in the great peroration to 'a new world, a kindlier world' towards the end of the film. As I wrote in the review, Wagner will always be bigger than any homages, denigrations or misappropriations can portray him.