Saturday, October 27, 2012

RIP Hans Werner Henze (1926 - 2012)


Sad news this morning that Hans Werner Henze has died at the age of 86. This great, generous, versatile and often startling composer has touched indelibly the lives of everyone who knew him. Operas, ballets, symphonies, concertos, choral works, chamber music, politically engaged music - everything poured prolifically from his pen. He was mentor to numerous younger composers and his music has an unmistakeable voice, edgy, sometimes unsettling, always overflowing with vitality.

Boulezian has just published a heartfelt and thorough essay on the man and his music. Here is the tribute from his publisher, Schott's. And the BBC's news report. And an interview from December 2009 in which he talks to Tom Service.

I deeply regret that I never met Henze, but I'll never forget my introduction to his music at university, many moons ago. There, the eclectic and astounding Peter Zinovieff, who taught us "acoustics" (though his classes certainly weren't about how to build a concert hall), used to talk about Henze a great deal. Zinovieff, a pioneer of the synthesizer, was the dedicatee of his Tristan, the tape parts of which were created at Zinovieff's electronics studio. He played the last section of this work to us. Wagner; a child's voice; the heartbeat of (if I remember right) a dog. Most of us took a little while to recover!



Among the best-known of his works is Ondine, the atmospheric ballet score composed for Frederick Ashton to choreograph, and associated forever with Margot Fonteyn. Here it is by way of tribute, starring Fonteyn herself and Michael Somes.




Thursday, October 25, 2012

Songs of names, in Berlin

Meet Max Raabe, German 1920s superstar. Only he's not. He's here right now. The singer has spent his entire career steeped in the soundworld of the Roaring Twenties and the less roaring, but more complex and nuanced early Thirties, from America, Germany and more: Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, the Comedian Harmonists...

He's long been a luminary at home, but now his fame seems about to spread. Riding the crest of the "vintage revival" wave, while London theatres are foot-tapping to the irresistible strains of Singin' in the Rain, Top Hat and Cabaret, Raabe has been taken up by Decca and we can expect an album from him in the new year. On Tuesday I went to Berlin to check him out.

I love this stuff. It's not as distant as you might think. My late father-in-law - who was lucky to escape Berlin in 1936 by being sent to school in Britain - was a passionate fan of the Comedian Harmonists as a boy. When we took him some CDs of them about ten years ago, he hadn't heard them since the Thirties, but, aged over 80, he still remembered all the words. And then there was my own supposed/distant/fabled Famous Relative in New York, Eddie Duchin, a band leader and celebrity in that era, who has always fascinated me for obvious reasons. Today the dance music of the Jazz Age is difficult to classify - but it occupies a niche of its own. Either you love it or you don't, and it so happens that I do.

With his 14-piece band, the Palast Orchester, Max Raabe is playing for a week at one of the more extraordinary theatres I've encountered. The Admiralspalast Theater, on Friedrichstrasse, is among very few venues in the German capital that survived World War II and the communist era more or less intact. It's an Art Deco gem - originally opened as a bath house around the turn of the century, it morphed into a "pleasure palace" and an ice-rink before settling into theatre-dom in the Twenties following a sleek refit. The plush red and gold detail of the interior was added in the Thirties (with all that that implies) and walking in today one can scarcely help imagining the officials who might once have been there to check out the Comedian Harmonists - Germany's most successful popular group of the time, three of whose six members were Jewish and who were therefore forced to disband in 1933.

Raabe told me before the performance that his grandmother used to attend shows there as a young girl. He has been drawn to this style of performance since the word go. At the age of 12, he says, "I used to put on my father's top hat and perform songs like this..." Growing up in the Westphalian countryside, he dreamed of moving to Berlin and becoming a performer, so duly enrolled to study there as an opera singer. But along the way, he and some friends got together to form a 1920s-style band for fun, to entertain at student balls. They found themselves in demand. He's never looked back.

Perhaps this is Historically Informed Performance meets the Twenties: many of Raabe's songs are transcribed note by note and instrument by instrument from the recordings of the time. "We now have more than 500 to choose from," he declares. And they're certainly varied, ranging from 'Singin' in the Rain' itself, in English, to a delicious Cuban Rumba, to a French number or two and the Comedian Harmonists' big hit, 'Mein kleine, gruene Cactus', which got the strongest cheer of the evening. It's a little difficult to sit still in a theatre and listen to it all, because if your feet are anything like mine, they'd like to take a turn around the non-existent dancefloor. 

The Palast Orchester, full of spirited and amazingly versatile musicians, does all the tricks of the time: coordinated standing and swooping, switching from instrument to instrument (sousaphone to string bass, sax to clarinet, and, more unusually, trumpet to violin). For one song with a naval theme, two of the trumpeters brought in a basin of water and blew a bubbly refrain or two through it. (Left: the sousaphone player warms up before the show...)

The style is slick, light, elegant, rhythmic. There is no soup. Wit and whimsy are uppermost; and even in the more romantic numbers, there's a careful balance between irony and a sincere heart. But there are a few nice little updatings: the use of projected images from time to time so that we can see the musicians in close-up; and a specially made Muppet-style figure who crosses the projection now and then, just enough to raise a gentle laugh.

And, speaking of updating, Raabe writes his own material as well, in style. "I want to capture the same kind of wit and elegance you find in the songs of that era," he says - indeed, his nonchalant presentation style, unfussed and very smooth, takes its cue from the world of Cole Porter himself. His opening song on Tuesday was one of his own: it describes a party at which every celebrity you can think of is present, including Karl Lagerfeld and Lars von Trier, but our protagonist is "only here for you...". Past style meets present-day preoccupation in a sort of musical Heston Blumenthal of unlikely yet excellent flavour.

But in performing the songs of the era, it's all about credit where credit is due, and Raabe always introduces the number with the names of its composer and lyricist. "When the Nazis came to power in 1933, the music did not disappear," he says, "but the names did. Great names, like Friedrich Hollaender, who worked with Max Reinhardt..." Hollaender composed, among other things, the music for Die blaue Engel, starring Marlene Dietrich. He was, of course, forced to escape Germany and made his way to Hollywood. "There were so many fantastic composers and writers whose names had to disappear. We always say the names."

Is this Raabe's song of names, then? (pace Norman Lebrecht). Is he restoring the lost world of these refugee songwriters, bringing them home at last to the land that betrayed them? Is it all part of the ongoing, protracted healing process - present, but always painful - that you see all around you in Berlin? It's tempting to think so. But Raabe just smiles and says: "I think that would be oversignificant. We are just here to entertain."

I think he is doing a little more than that. Who knows, maybe that's one reason he's going global.







Monday, October 22, 2012

Socks for the Lilac Fairy?


The other day the Royal Opera House held a Q&A session on Twitter with two of the Royal Ballet's top stars, husband and wife team Marianela Nunez and Thiago Soares. Fans tweeted their questions and at 5pm Marianela - everyone's favourite Lilac Fairy and Odette right now - and her lovely resident prince picked a selection and answered them online. The questions ranged from favourite roles/choreographers to issues about dancing around difficult sets to the challenges of a dancer's physical regime. One fan even asked Marianela what her shoe size is... because she wanted to knit her some socks.

It struck me that I've never heard a classical music fan offer to knit socks, or indeed anything else, for a favourite soloist. A test tweet I put out, pondering why nobody's yet offered to provide Lang Lang with home-made gloves, produced a flood of snide witticisms. One person said mittens would do better. Another quipped that perhaps Schumann's hand-stretcher would do him some good.

OK, so perhaps Lang Lang [left] wasn't the best choice... and it was probably a little unfair on our dancers... But the attitudes of ballet fans and music fans to the top practitioners of their art is so different that I started wondering why.

Ballet fans queue outside the stage door for autographs. They send or even throw flowers (well, they used to, pre recession). They offer to knit socks. They want to know what the stars eat, or don't eat. They're disappointed yet concerned when a favourite dancer is off with an injury; they wish them a speedy recovery. They trot back to the same production time and again to test out the different casts and enjoy the compare-and-contrast process (our friends at The Ballet Bag often post about this). There's a high degree of sympathy and rather a lot of love. Ballet fans seem to be seriously nice about their enthusiasm.

And classical music fans? Be too successful a musician and they start to hate you. Be a woman and you risk having to fight a patronising, sexist atmosphere. Bring out a recording and someone will tear it to bits online if not in print. Give a concert and someone will bring in a recording device without your agreement - and the halls won't even stop them. Hold a political opinion and someone tells you to shut up and play, or shreds your musicianship because they don't happen to like your views. Suffer injury or be ill - especially if you're a singer - and you get a reputation for cancelling and letting people down. Hey, they've paid a lot of money for their seats and that apparently means you can't lose your voice even if you have. And you don't get true adulation until you're over 60. Our fans not only don't like their soloists; it often seems they don't even respect them. If you're a fan, be enthusiastic about a favourite performer and you're regarded as a non-critical idiot who's over-impressed, or suffering a post-teenage crush, or second only to a stalker.

Why this discrepancy? Looking at the questions for Marianela and Thiago [right] on Twitter (hashtag #askthedancers), it seems that many come from people who themselves dance, professionally or semi-professionally or just for fun (like me), or did so as kids. They're concerned with issues of daily life: how do you eat, manage injury, spend your spare time if there is any? Ballet fans identify with the dancers. There's always someone they'd like to be, given the chance. They understand the processes better because they do it themselves, or have done at some point.

Now, I'm not saying that concert and opera-goers don't play and sing, because a lot do. Yet the degree of ignorance about what it takes to be a top-flight musician is much more extreme. Anyone can see how devoted, indeed possessed by the profession, a dancer must be; but some concert-goers don't even realise that a pianist has to practise every day ("Do you have a piano at home, then, love?" someone asked a well-known soloist friend of mine. "What's your day job? D'you work in a bank?").

The sheer physicality of musical performance is frequently downplayed in favour of the high-falutin' issues of poetry, philosophy, historically informed whatever, artistic fulfilment and so forth. That means that little consideration is given to, for example, performing conditions. The number of excellent musicians who have to face their craft being hobbled by the effects of freezing cold venues, lack of food or even tea, or lousy, badly-maintained pianos doesn't bear thinking about. International soloists travel much more than star dancers. Nobody seems eager to make air travel any pleasanter anytime soon, but the toll it takes on the body and mind can be severe. Why do we still expect soloists to function like automatons and regard them as unprofessional if they're unable to give 500% in an unheated venue on a snowy day after a long, stressful journey? Our lack of understanding of the profession means that we often don't let them do their best, even though that is all that they want to do.

Perhaps it is time to start communicating a little better regarding the absolute slog involved in a high-level musical career. Injury may not be quite as hefty an issue as it is for dancers, but it is really not that different. Being a professional musician involves intense physical labour, yet the number of performers who suffer serious injury or illness yet are simply denigrated for their own absence is quite alarming.

How to tackle these issues? Ideally, more people should learn to play musical instruments themselves. We need to identify more with the people who perform the music we love, and that means learning their craft from inside. Meanwhile, maybe we need to hold knitting lessons for classical music fans. My first pair of gloves will probably go to Benjamin Grosvenor.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Friday Kaufmann

I've been neglecting you, dear readers. I'm on a crazy diet to try to fix the stomach problems I've been having since this time last year - it is officially stress-triggered, by the way (many of you know what happened this time last year). I've been a bit preoccupied trying to find things I'm allowed to eat.

That means treats have to be aural rather than oral...so here is Jonas Kaufmann in Lohengrin. Anja Harteros is Elsa. Production by Richard Jones for Bayreuth. Kent Nagano conducts.


Wednesday, October 17, 2012

A dancer-director hits the ground running

More ballet! I had the first interview for a national newspaper with the new director of the Royal Ballet, Kevin O'Hare. I found the one-time Birmingham Royal Ballet premier danseur thinking big, with a strong, clear vision for where he wants the company to go from here. Among the highlights we can look forward to are a triple bill in November of ballets from the three hottest British choreographers associated with the company - Wayne McGregor, Christopher Wheeldon and Liam Scarlett; a new one-act ballet by Alexei Ratmansky, probably to the Chopin Preludes (wonderful idea!), and more new three-acters in the future.

Incidentally, Osipova left the Bolshoi last year together with her partner Ivan Vasiliev, and their new company, the Mikhailovsky Ballet, appears to be OK about her making guest appearances elsewhere. Ratmansky was director of the Bolshoi for five years up to 2009.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

A firebird as a swan

It's been noted everywhere, since Natalia Osipova hit town the other day, that the Russian prima ballerina assoluta-in-the-making isn't necessarily a natural Odette. She's more firebird than swan, setting the place so much alight as Odile in Act III that it's no surprise everything goes up in smoke at the end. On the other hand, why should Odette be a moaning minnie? A swan is strong, fierce and near-supernatural, a favourite symbol of mythical purity and grace, the creature that leads Lohengrin and seduces Zeus. And, incidentally, a swan can break a man's arm.


Osipova's swan is Odette with a modern twist: fabulously musical, she goes into slow motion with those wonderful ritardando spins, or chooses an arabesque angle all her own, her Bolshoi training's super-extension a vivid contrast with the expert ensemble but contained style of the Royal Ballet corps. We may want to see her leap, but she wants to act - and for good reason. Her Odette is slow to trust yet quick to love, which makes her betrayal all the more tragic; and Osipova gives us an inspired moment before she throws herself into the lake that is the instant Odette cracks. Visibly, before she embarks on her final mime, she realises she can take no more: now her mind is made up and nothing will stop her. Acosta's Siegfried follows her, of course. But it is Rothbart's death that we see on stage, and the ferociously marvellous Gary Avis seems to drown in a turbulent lake of vengeful swans. We experience our heroine and hero's last moments vicariously through his.

Here is Anthony Dowell coaching Marianela Nunez, Thiago Soares and Christopher Saunders in the climactic pas de trois - from the Royal Ballet Live webcast last April. (I love how the pianist gets totally carried away - and the thing that Dowell describes as "the Judy Garland moment"...)



Back to Osipova & Acosta: it was the Black Swan pas de deux that sent everyone nuts, and with good reason. Osipova works the audience with the instinct for timing, and virtuoso teasingness, of a prize comedy actress, though her interpretation is certainly not about laughs. In her solo, she goes into a phenomenal series of turns and extensions with that trademark slow control; then seems about to do it again on the other side, until, with a glance into the auditorium, seems to say "nah, maybe not...". The smile she flashes at the conclusion would have set the house aflame even if the sequence of fouettes - and whatever else it was that she did in those famous spins, which were doubles with knobs on - had not already done so. Acosta's whirls themselves drew a loud whoop of joy from somewhere in the stalls in mid flow: like Papageno, I think he could have won a few auditorium marriage proposals given the chance. He is a dancer who, like Dowell, can own the stage with the move of one arm and can hover in the air for what feels like a whole minute when allowed, in the Black Swan finale, to leap. If only they would bring back Siegfried's Ashton solo in Act I...

Speaking of which, it hasn't escaped any critic's notice that this production is a wee bit past its sell-by date. The lurid designs, for a start. The schlock-Gothic Act III is more Rocky Horror Show than royal ball. Rothbart looks, as owl, like a cross between Rod Stewart and, unfortunately, Jimmy Savile (what has Rothbart been doing to his troop of bewitched maidens anyway?), and later, in the ballroom, more like George Michael on a really bad day. However powerful Gary Avis's acting - and no character dancer could be more so - it's hard to take Rothbart seriously in this get-up.

But though it's the designs that cause the most complaint, I have to add my usual bug-bear about the limited benefits of supposed "authenticity". Going back to the original text as far as possible means that we lose all the old RB production's gorgeous Frederick Ashton contributions (except the Neapolitan Dance, which would probably cause a balletomanes' riot if chopped). In Act I, it's not only Siegfred's solo that I miss, but also the old Ashton waltz. David Bintley's choreography for the waltz, apparently based on an original-version 'Dance of the Stools' - the wooden sort, I hasten to add - is irritating, fussy and chaotic and the maypole adds nothing at all except clutter. Meanwhile Act IV is missing some of my favourite music - the clarinet-led, Russian folksongish lament - jettisoned in favour of a pretty but interminable waltz, when there are waltzes galore elsewhere already. Also, Ashton's Act IV made spectacular use of possibly the most dramatic piece in the whole score, which does not come into this version at all. The current staging does win on drama in Act IV - but at a price.

But hey. We weren't there for the production, but for Osipova - and it was her night all right. I was sitting next to a dance critic of long experience and some renown who remarked that bringing in a star like Osipova is a move that could inspire the whole company, showing them all what's really possible. And going home, I bumped into Brian, My Ballet Teacher, who was in ecstasies, saying that Osipova had delivered moments in the role as he had never seen them done before. Brian has lived and breathed classical ballet all his life - he used to dance leading roles with London Festival Ballet and his classes are gloriously poetic and Vaganova-inspired - and he knows what he's talking about.

The orchestra, under Boris Gruzhin, was on mostly excellent form - what a treat to hear such luxury Tchaikovsky - and it's hard to imagine the violin solos played more wonderfully than they are by concertmaster Vasko Vassilev, whose deep amethyst tone is now an essential part of Royal Ballet Tchaikovsky classics as a brand. Please, Kevin O'Hare, couldn't we have him go on stage for a curtain call?

The Mikhailovsky Ballet - of which Osipova and her usual partner/husband, the utterly incredible Ivan Vasiliev, are members - is coming to Britain in the spring. Doing, among other things, Swan Lake. If the First Couple of Dance are there, buy, beg or steal a ticket.






Friday, October 12, 2012

Alma's gift?

Phone call from Simon Usborne at the Indy yesterday asking what I made of the "prodigy" Alma Deutscher, who has just been spotted and tweeted about by Stephen Fry. She's seven. She plays both the violin and the piano extremely well and has composed an "opera" as well as a piano sonata or two. Read his feature here.

So, here she is. What do you make of her?



My feeling is that she's very good, for her age, but I don't think she is an actual "prodigy", let alone, heaven help us, a "new Mozart". She's a seriously gifted kid who's been very well taught (and whose "shy and softly spoken" father hasn't demurred from uploading her efforts to Youtube). She's having lessons at the Menuhin School, which is exactly what should be happening. A top-notch training, good nurturing and please, no record companies yet, and she could become a fabulous young artist...in seven to ten years' time.

A prodigy in the Benjamin Grosvenor or Evgeny Kissin sense tends to play with both technique and musical maturity far beyond their years. Alma is certainly advanced, but she doesn't do that.



As for "writing an opera"...Now, look. I first tried to write a "novel" when I was 12, and I finished it, and it was about 50 pages long, and I was very excited that I'd managed it, and I showed it to Mum and Dad and they were thrilled, as of course they would be, but we didn't have Youtube or E-books then and nobody would have dreamed of putting it out there for all and sundry, and I'm very glad because it would be bloody embarrassing now. It's great to do things young, but one day you really are not going to want your starter efforts being gawped at...

More worrying is the fact that where music is concerned, maybe the public is just too ignorant to know the difference any more?

For those who are interested in the life-imitating-art spooky side of novel-writing, I regret to say that Alma's father's name, Guy, is also the name of Alicia's father in Alicia's Gift (which was published in 2007) and of course Alicia's name begins with an A too, and this kind of thing does keep on happening, turning up out of the blue 3-5 years after hitting the page... For the same reason I now know how the Hungarian Dances characters' last conundrum would finally resolve itself.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

How to get Bach in a big way

A tip-off from James Rhodes just sent me over to a thing called Reddit and there, dear friends, I found this. An introduction to JS Bach for complete beginners. Someone going by the pseudonym of "voice of experience" who can explain exactly how counterpoint works, and does so with more clarity than the whole of certain music faculties I could mention, in language that not only reads easily but is, as you'll see, kind of contemporary. The response? A thread of comments that begs, nay gasps, for more. There's a hunger for explanations to put across what the masterpieces of music are all about, and no need for those explanations either to be the equivalent of chewing sawdust or to airbrush out the difficult bits. Give it a go.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Voice of Russia picks up on the sexism in music article

This is an interview I did earlier today with Alice Lagnado for The Voice of Russia UK radio station about my article on sexism in classical music: http://ruvr.co.uk/2012_10_08/90585573/

Sunday, October 07, 2012

The Classic Brits: time to call time?

Friends, Londoners, countrymenandwomen, lend me your eyes. Please read this coruscating demolition of the surreal universe of cultural crap that is the Classic Brits Awards Ceremony. It's been written for the Sinfini blog by the pop-culture journalist Paul Morley, who'll be familiar to anyone who watches BBC2's Friday night Review Show. His account leaves me convinced that it's time to call time on this ten-tonne barrel of ghastliness and close it down once and for all.

Fasten your seatbelts. http://blog.sinfinimusic.com/paul-morley-reviews-the-classic-brit-awards-2012/

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Sexism with strings attached. Plus a tribute to Dame Myra

Sexism in classical music. It's everywhere in the industry and it's time someone said so and started to come up with something to begin solving the issue. So I have. Here is the piece, which is in today's Independent. Please pop over and read it.

I can't help wondering how musicians such as Clara Haskil, Maria Yudina or Dame Myra Hess would have fared in today's climate if a slinky picture was a pre-requisite. We'd be missing out on some of the greatest pianism of the 20th century. Hopefully an enlightened company like Hyperion or harmonia mundi might have taken them up - but doesn't it make you wonder who's being overlooked now?

Yesterday was the annual Myra Hess Day at the National Gallery. I couldn't go because I had a gig to do at the Linbury Studio, but it's something I'm always sad to miss. Here is some amazing footage of her playing Mozart's G major concerto K453 in her National Gallery concerts with the orchestra of the RAF.

Listen to the life she gives to every note and the wit and intelligence in her phrasing. Then ask whether she would not be struggling in the 21st century as a woman in the public eye, since her preferred concert dress probably wasn't a size 8 (British version thereof). Then ask yourself whether what we currently face in the music world is an acceptable situation. And then ask yourself what we're going to do about it.


Friday, October 05, 2012

A last-minute trip to Valhalla

Where do you sit for Die Walküre? In the Gods, of course. And the single best thing about going to Wagner? No queue in the Ladies' Room. Though apparently there was a massive queue in the Gents. Now they know what it's like for us at almost everything else.

I managed, with the help of an eagle-eyed and quick-moused pal, to get a last-minute return for the Wagner at Covent Garden last night. Amid all our yadda yesterday about dressing-down, seat prices et al, I can report that a) the amphitheatre of the Royal Opera House was very dressed-down indeed - Wagner is a long haul flight and you need to go for comfort rather than style; b) the rest of the audience didn't look excessively flash either; and c) you can see nearly six hours of opera with a world-beating cast like this one, a clear view of the complete stage and an excellent take on the house acoustic, for £61. I don't think that is overpriced, under the circumstances. Most people I spoke to had booked a year in advance. Everyone up there was a total Wagner nut, and the hush and stillness through the performance was something to marvel at.

Highlights of the evening appeared in unusual places. First of all, Sarah Connolly's Fricka: a nuanced, heart-rending, ruby-toned performance, exceptionally sophisticated and classy. Another call for someone, please, to award a recording contract, scandalously absent at present. Come on, people - Connolly is a national treasure. She's on disc. But not enough. [Connolly, left, not in character.] 

This, too, was the production's one real masterstroke: the tortured relationship between her and Bryn Terfel's Wotan is the heart of the story. Often Fricka is portrayed as little more than a backroom bully, a fundamental ideologist forcing Wotan's hand over a point of malign principle (it's a common enough problem) and you always wonder why he's weak enough to cave in (a common enough problem too). Here, though, there is still a great love between this long-married couple, on both sides. Connolly made you feel every twist of Fricka's shredded heart as the faithless Wotan cradles her with tremendous tenderness. Wotan lets her win because his love for her ultimately overrides his other amours. It makes sense out of the whole story.

It was more or less the only sense we got out of Keith Warner's production, which I have not attended before. It's cluttered, fussy and occasionally worrying: there's a distinct tendency for characters to trip over the red rope that is doing goodness knows what across the stage, and over the metal thingummyjig that rears up in the middle of the set, and then there's the ladder, from which Susan Bullock apparently had to be unhooked by a stage-hand on the first night - and will something elsewhere in the cycle make sense of the three-pronged fan under which Brunnhilde falls asleep? What's it for - repelling mosquitoes? On the top of a mountain? Most of the action appears to take place in a disused storeroom or perhaps a very messy study (a bit like mine) with a black office table, a leather chaise-longue and a huge heap of discarded books. I was constantly alarmed in case someone decided to do a Nazi-reference thing by setting light to it, though fortunately they didn't. If you're going to offer a concept Walküre, then clarity of that concept helps. This one, if it exists, eludes me. And according to Fiona Maddocks, the production has actually been streamlined since last time. [Above, Bullock & Terfel, pic by Clive Barda.]

The other unforgettable performance was Sir John Tomlinson's Hunding, who could dominate the stage with his first swing of the axe and the auditorium with his first note and all thereafter. A marvellous moment when he and Terfel's Wotan come face to face - these two legends together are not something you see every day. Marvels too from Terfel himself, of course, a Wotan incarnate; and Eva-Maria Westbroek as Sieglinde, creamy-toned, all-giving and ultimately transcendental as she blesses Brunnhilde. As the latter, a feisty Susan Bullock, tiny and ferocious. Simon O'Neill as Siegmund started strong, but threatened to fade out as Act 1 wrestled him and nearly won. Luxury singing from the Valkyrie gang and, below, Tony Pappano presided over a rich-toned and rhapsodic orchestra augmented by six harps plucking away in the stalls circle. 

At the risk of sounding heretical, though, I'm not convinced Wagner is Pappano's finest six hours. He has become incomparable in Italian repertoire - Il Trittico a year ago was one of the greatest evenings I've ever had in the ROH, and I mean it. But this was rather gentle Wagner: an interpretation that roused and glowed but didn't transfigure. It needs an extra hard-edge of ecstasy that simply wasn't there, despite the glories of the singing. 

Let's face it: we go to Wagner to get high. That's why people get addicted. And if you don't get the high, something isn't quite working. And the place it needs to be generated is in the pit. It's legal. But it shouldn't necessarily sound it.


Thursday, October 04, 2012

The naked opera-goer?

Undress for the Opera from English National Opera on Vimeo.

A lorralorra bitching this morning around social media re ENO's new Opera Undressed scheme. You guessed it: whaddya know, you don't have to dress up to go to the opera. You pay £25, you get the best seat, you wear what you like, you can download a synopsis beforehand (wow!) and you can go for drinks with some of the performers afterwards. They got Damon Albarn and Terry Gilliam to make the announcement yesterday.

OK, £25 is a very good price for a top seat. Otherwise...haven't we heard it all before? Only about 50000 times.

This business of opera being overdressed and stuffy and too pricey is outdated nuff and stonsense. You have to put it in context. And in the context of London theatre, pop concerts and sporting events, opera is mostly comparable in price, and often cheaper. Ditto for the bar prices - I bought drinks for some friends at a West End theatre during the Olympics and paid a scandalous £25 for three glasses of house white. Most ordinary theatre audiences seem to be over 44 as well; at Richmond last night for a spot of Alan Ayckbourn, I think I was the youngest person there. So what? We have an ageing population, and this will become more noticeable as the next years progress.

As for dress sense, I'd be terrified of turning up to a football match or a pop concert as a newbie in case I'm too old, being over 25, or am wearing the wrong thing. The pop/fashion crowd is a heck of a lot more censorious about the minutiae of one's dress sense than opera-goers, who, honest to goodness, don't give a damn as long as you don't actually smell.

I wasn't particularly aware that anyone does dress up much for ENO. I go to a lot of press nights there and people turn up in anything from smartish dresses to jeans. I usually wear black trousers and a reasonably nice top, which is what I wear most of the time in any case when venturing beyond the comfort zone of my study and pyjamas.

It's not ENO that needs to think of this. Covent Garden is much dressier and they are doing squeaksville. As for the Salzburg Festival...I wore my very best Glyndebourne gear and still felt as if I'd arrived in mountain boots, because there didn't seem to be an evening dress there that'd cost under £800, or a necklace that weighed less than 5kg. At Die Soldaten I chatted to the chap next to me. He was a car mechanic. He'd put on a DJ for the occasion. To him, it was part of the fun.

In the end, the dressing is in the windows. These measures are superficial. What needs to be addressed is the continuing existence of those preconceptions: how/why do people think all this in the first place?

It's a prejudice, and like all prejudices it springs from ignorance. They don't know because they don't go, and they don't go because in order to like music you have first to hear it. And hear it several times, and be familiar with it, and that happens via the radio and TV. Only it doesn't - not where classical music and opera are concerned, not in sunny old Great Britain. Unless the real thing is given regular, prominent air time on mainstream television, ie BBC1, nobody is going to know that these art forms are there, let alone wonder what to wear to attend them. And they're not - only those dumbed-down "reality" or "talent" shows and Apprentice-like contests. (But for possibly a very wonderful opera now and then on Christmas Eve.)

Result of this philistinism? Most people are missing out on some of the most wonderful things in the world. Everyone deserves good music in their lives, of any type they desire. Everybody, being human and having, presumably, a soul, deserves to have that soul nourished. Nobody should ever be fed the idea that they are "not good enough" to be able to appreciate great music. It's there for everyone, and today more plentifully than ever before, if you know which button to press. But if you never hear it, you won't know it's there. The problem isn't just snobbery - it's also inverted snobbery. I'm not convinced the second type isn't the worse one.

That's what needs to be addressed: music and opera in the media, in the environment and in education, as a proud and celebrated part of our own multifaceted culture. Which it is. Sod the dress sense.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Queens, Heroines and Killer Heels

Straight to the point. WILL SOMEBODY PLEASE, FOR HEAVEN'S SAKE, GET ANNA CATERINA ANTONACCI ONTO DISC A LITTLE MORE OFTEN? Apparently she records for Naive - label of the year at the Gramophone Awards, btw - but a bit sparingly, since there's only one disc to date, 'Era la notte', made a good while ago. Wigmore Live is releasing her latest recital on CD. Otherwise...this is crazy.


Sunday at the Royal Festival Hall, and it was one of those nights you don't forget in a hurry. Music-making in 3D HD, if you like; music-making that lifts you clean off your seat while you ponder whether critics are allowed to cheer if they want to; music-making that leaves you wondering why every concert can't be just as warm, affectionate and exciting. This was the OAE and Sir Roger Norrington, with Antonacci centre stage.
 
The first of five OAE concerts under the umbrella of 'Queens, Heroines and Ladykillers', the concert in the event wasn't so much about ladykillers as the killer heels. Anna Caterina strode in wearing a black leather-effect satin dress with a fuschia wrap and the said accoutrements on her feet. And pow - she becomes Medea in the aria 'Dei tuoi figlia la madre' from Cherubini's eponymous opera. Medea pleads with her husband not to leave her, yet accusing him, berating him, despairing, pleading and furious at the same time. "Crudel! Crudel!" - a scene played out all too often, one feels, in every street in the land.

Then those joys of Gluck: sandwiched between the Dance of the Blessed Spirits (plaudits to flautist Lisa Beznosiuk) and Dance of the Furies, 'O Malheureuse Iphigenie' - the bereaved princess's aria from Iphigenie en Tauride that Berlioz singled out for special admiration. Berlioz himself was the highlight of Antonacci's contribution: from Les Troyens, not Cassandre, this time, but Dido and 'Je vais mourire', a very long way from Purcell's lament. Again, pow - straight into character. She's mesmerising - voice, diction, personality, charisma, the works. At moments like: "Venus, rends-moi ton fils", she wields the artistic equivalent of a razor with which to slice up your soul.

I've been trying to think of other singers who are capable of effecting such a complete transformation from aria to aria, a complete sense of possession by the personality they are conveying. Domingo. Callas. Anyone else? That's the calibre of her artistry. Antonacci is not a Callas - in terms of size, her voice probably won't stretch to Tosca. But there is something about the timbre and the power of the stagecraft that really is reminiscent of her.

An insider's note on Twitter tipped us off to "clap lots so you get the encore", and we did, and we got it, and it was Carmen - the Gypsy Song from the beginning of Act II. It is about five years now since Antonacci and Kaufmann's unforgettable performances at Covent Garden; since then, a stunning development. This time the song put me in mind of Ravel's Tzigane, cranking up the tempo and the spellbound atmosphere to the taut ecstasy of the conclusion, with a sense of jazzy freedom in the singing, the melody's turns transformed into the embellishments they are. Magic. Tip-off: she is singing the role in Paris in December. Here is the Eurostar website.

Whether Haydn and Bizet were ladykillers is maybe a moot point, but their symphonies, topping and tailing the programme respectively, captured our hearts via the extraordinary hands, feet and eyebrows of Norrington. When Sir Roger gets his teeth into this type of repertoire, there are few (except possibly Ivan Fischer) to better him.

Yes, you did read that here, on vibrato-loving JDCMB - because this goes beyond such concerns. The strings of the OAE today are accomplished enough to make a beautiful sound without vibrato when necessary, but in any case this music rarely demands them to keep still for long enough to require much of it. The "battle of the bulge" in "early" music is largely over - and we won that, for now those unsightly aural spare tyres that replaced expressive notes have become the exception rather than the rule in HIP (maybe someone spotted that in Leopold Mozart's book they were just an exercise to develop bow control).

It's striking to realise that I remember, clear as spring water, every Norrington concert I have ever been to, no matter how long ago, whether I loved or loathed them - and it's usually one or the other, with very little in between. That in itself signals something. And I can scarcely believe he is 78.

Haydn's Symphony No.85 'La Reine' had everything that one longs for Haydn to have, plus some: humour, bounce, long lines, joined-up phrasing, clarity, airiness and terrific affection. Every note felt two hundred per cent alive as Sir Roger, with a flick of a wrist or finger or ankle dished up a detail, conjured a whirl of countermelody or turned the bassline into a ballet. All this was true as well for the Bizet Symphony in C, the nearest thing to Haydn ever produced by a French composer: delicacy, grace and detail were offset by true, glorious oomph. (My only period-pain all evening was to wish the first oboe would play a decent modern instrument, because to judge from the one he was using there have been some positive developments in oboe manufacture during the 20th century, and it needed it, and so does Bizet. My teeth still hurt just thinking about the second movement solo. Sorry.)

The arrangement of the orchestra on stage produced an exemplary balance - and this is important, because I often despair of the balance of treble and bass in the RFH, feeling there can be too much of the latter. It's simple. First violins to the left, second violins to the right, cellos and violas respectively left and right centre, and the double basses in a row across the back. It works even if you haven't got the brilliant Chi-Chi Nwanoku leading the basses, and if you have, and we did, that's a plus.

The OAE is on amazing form at the moment. If every orchestral concert was as delicious as this one, I'd show up every night, because then there'd be no need to stop walking on air.

Just for fun, here's Anna Caterina singing Moon River.






Monday, October 01, 2012

Busybusy

Tonight I'm on BBC Radio 3's Piano Keys with Sara Mohr-Pietsch and Richard Sisson, answering listeners' questions about anything to do with the piano. Part of the Piano Season on the BBC. 8.15pm

Tomorrow Angela Hewitt is giving a recital at the Royal Festival Hall consisting of transcriptions of Bach, Beethoven's Sonata Op.101 and the first ten "Contrapuncti" of Bach's The Art of Fugue. I will be interviewing her in the pre-concert event on stage, 6pm.

On Friday, English Touring Opera's new production of Viktor Ullmann's The Emperor of Atlantis, composed in Terezin and the opera for which the composer paid the ultimate price, opens at the Linbury Studio of the Royal Opera House. Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, who survived Auschwitz largely thanks to playing her cello in the women's orchestra, will be answering my questions on stage before the performance. The various pre-opera events begin at 7.15pm.

Come along and say hello.