Thursday 29 December 2022

Zoom courses: from Vaughan Williams to Nielsen

What an enriching term it's been on the orchestral front (opera, too, but that's another story). The ten autumn classes on the British symphony from 1907 to 1960 had anniversary genius Vaughan Williams at the core. I came to love those of the nine symphonies I'd either had a problem with - the Third and the Fifth, so much more going beneath the surface and not at all the placidity I'd imagined - or didn't know well (above all Eight and Nine). 

The biggest revelation was how much VW can extract from a couple of chords or an enharmonic shift, often with a distinctive turn of phrase above them. You've got a colossal case right at the start of A Sea Symphony. And then I realised that the stomach-flipping sequence towards the end of Pastoral Symphony's exposition - in that case, B flat minor to G major and back - fuels more explicit conflicts in the embattled symphonies to come. Deryck Cooke made a brilliant analysis of the Sixth focused on the essential elements of musical vocabulary it exploits so originally. Even the English-idyll intervals which can sometimes get a bit repetitive (think Lark Ascending) can be transformed according to the harmonies under them - the melancholy-hallucinatory Ninth is a striking example. 

The big enigma remains about the multitudes contained within VW's outwardly lovable and wholesome personality. Whence all that violence and discontent in 4, 6 and 9 especially? He rarely discussed his music in autobiographical terms, though John Bridcut's documentary puts its finger on some of the "passions". I think second wife Ursula gets too big a role, but the frustrations he must have felt looking after the invalid first, Adeline, immobilised by arthritis. I wonder if some of the floating wastes have to do with her frozenness. Telling that after her funeral he came back and threw a chair across the room in rage. Just came across this photo I hadn't seen before of them together back in 1917 (and of course VW's service in WW1 must have been another source of anguish).

This was also a good opportunity to listen more intently to the cycles I had to hand - Boult's and Handley's. And then at a lateish stage, when I found YouTube helpful for showing the score above another performance, I discovered Bernard Haitink's recordings with the London Philharmonic: surpassing the others for the intensity and extremity of the pianissimos, the tonal beauty throughout. Haitink doesn't often do electrifying, but his Sea Symphony is just that. What a remarkable range of sympathies he had. 

A student who didn't join last term told me I needed more than 10 Thursday afternoons to accommodate other figures on the scene. But by stopping at 1960, I ruled out the later Tippett symphonie (which baffle me) and more on Malcolm Arnold. Still, while I know his Second and Fourth Symphonies well, the First came as a revelation. The first movement has great gestures, but the finale is a tour de force from start to finish. This is an electrifying performance from Rumon Gamba and the BBC Philharmonic not available on CD.

There's an even more sophisticated brilliance about Walton 2, which reveals more every time you hear it. I still don't think I've grasped the slow movement yet, but the others show this fastidious composer adding to his palette and making forms which take the art of the symphony in yet another direction. 

Let's see if enough folk are attracted to the next term, focusing on Nielsen's magnificent six, but with more than sideways glances at Berwald, Stenhammar and Langaard. Here's the flier: click to enlarge for details and let me know if you're interested. 

Tuesday 13 December 2022

A Brno Advent dozen

On 1 December, having just returned from an exhilarating weekend seeing two productions by the opera/theatre director I consider one of the most visionary in the world, Jiří Heřman, and steeped in the spirit of a very Czech advent weekend in Brno's centre, I thought I'd mark each December day up to Christmas with an image on LinkedIn from that glorious city. Now that I've reached a dozen, I'll be reverting to London and Dublin, but I thought I might preserve the dozen here. I started above with the big wooden crib outside the New Town Hall. I'll use the original captions for the rest.

2: the people of Czechia's second biggest city love their animals. Dogs everywhere, but in the Zelný trh (which translates inelegantly as 'Vegetable Market', literally 'green', now given over to Xmas stalls) I also saw a gentleman with two cats - a Persian on his back, another in a basket. He eventually set them down to have a stroll around - the crowds parted and looked on in amusement.

This, by the way, was at the start of a very lovely Sunday spent with friend and Opera in Depth Zoom class student Barbara, who came up on the train from Bratislava. I've added one here above she took of my trying to talk to the unbiddable Persian. Another friend, Juliet, will be amused, because this cat was the spit of one looked after in Jerusalem when she and her partner Rory were there, name of Zorah, always addressed with 'so naughty!'

3:  back to the wooden-figure crib in front of the New Town Hall. Walk behind and you'll be rewarded with these splendid goats (?) and storks.

4: more hustle and bustle in
Zelný trh, and this time from cats to dogs, which the citizens walk around the centre in large numbers. Note the eyeing up of the wee black creature by the canine on the right.

5: third shot of the wooden Nativity - elephant's eye view, looking across to church of St. Michael.

6: barrel organ player in Zelný trh. I remember being struck by the quaint sounds around the streets on my previous visit - a very characterful fellow used to turn the wheel outside the Jesuit Church.

7: returning to Zelný trh after a walk with Barbara to the Augustinian abbey where Janáček received his schooling - covered in a previous post here -  and Mendel made his discoveries (and excellent duck and cabbage pancakes at Skanseen).

8: the rainbow light shimmer in front of the National (Janáček) Theatre, stunningly renovated, has been temporarily replaced by snowflakes. Walking back after Heřman's sunning production of 'From the House of the Dead/Glagolitic Mass', which I urge you to watch for free on OperaVision.

I can take another diversion from the advent 12 just to show you one stand of the exhibition in the foyer relating to both works, taking in some of the audience looks at the same time.

9:  the beautifully-proportioned Mahen Theatre = 140 years old, recently refurbished and still playing host to smaller-scale National Theatre productions - is where all Janáček's late operas were first performed. Nicky Spence's performance with Julius Drake of The Diary of One Who Disappeared was a highlight of this year's Janáček Festival.

10: expert choral sounds emerged from a small 1931 shopping precinct as I walked towards the National Theatre for a performance of Nabucco. These young people were rehearsing with their choir master - superb. Music is everywhere in Brno.

11: street cleaners taking a break in Náměstí Svobody, Freedom Place, known affectionately as Svoboďák. The Christmas tree here springs from a tradition established by the writer Rudolf Těsnohlídek, of Cunning Little Vixen fame, and a rather extraordinary story of a baby girl he found in the woods which led to the founding of a strikingy designed children's home. Full details here: 

I found another edition of Těsnohlídek's novelized Vixen, complete with Stanislav Lolek's charming illustrations in the original newspaper serialisation, in Brno's No. 1 bookshop, Janáček ordered up his music here.

12:  this very short tram which travels the centre is so beautifully lit up for Xmas - I'm afraid I didn't snap it twinkling in the dark, but you get the gist. Images 13-25 will first return us to London, then move on to more shining lights in Dubin. 

Previous posts on Janáček in Brno here, the city's churches here and its amazing functional 1920s and 30s architecture here. My last article on the big city festival is here on theartsdesk. Post on the latest operatic experiences due there soon.