Sunday, March 31, 2013

Happy Pâques!

Something very cute to warm you in the chill winds of an endless Winterreise, with love from the JDCMB household, Solti and some French associates (thanks to an alert from Gretel)...


Saturday, March 30, 2013

Beethoven: Strength, Inspiration, Revolution!


There've been a few enquiries about my pre-concert talk for the CBSO & Andris Nelsons's Beethoven cycle in Symphony Hall, Birmingham, on 20 and 21 March. Here's the complete text, plus a recording of the movement I took apart via a surprise analogy that worked even better than I'd expected when I started preparing it...


BEETHOVEN, MUSIC AND REVOLUTION


Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and a very warm welcome to Symphony Hall for the continuation of Andris Nelsons and the CBSO’s Beethoven cycle. 

We’ve got to symphonies numbers 6 and 7 today and it’s a very great pleasure for me to be here to introduce them, as they happen to be my personal favourites of the nine. The sixth is, of course, the ‘Pastoral’ symphony and the seventh was once described by Wagner as ‘the apotheosis of the dance’ – though the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham had to put his own slant on that. He said, “well, what can you do with it, it’s like a load of yaks jumping about.” 

As Elvis Costello once said, talking about music is like dancing about architecture. It’s essentially intangible - but what I’d like to do today is to try to burrow into some of those intangible connections to consider how Beethoven can seem to convey to us the deepest associations between the processes of music and the processes of life and of living. And this might help to show why we think of him as a revolutionary, producing music that inspires idealism the way few others could dream of. 

Daniel Barenboim often says that music is like God because you can’t describe it – you can only describe the effect that it has. There’s no music more associated with Barenboim than Beethoven. Last year you might have caught the series he performed at the Proms with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra of the complete Beethoven symphonies. At the end of the Ninth Symphony he zipped off to the Olympic Stadium and took part in the opening ceremony of the London 2012 games – he was one of eight great humanitarians who carried in the Olympic flag together (pictured). They were dressed all in white, and shortly afterwards I interviewed him and he said he’d felt like a carnation. Barenboim has written and spoken extensively on the links between musical expression and life itself, and of music’s role in society as an art that can encapsulate the deepest and most universal of human processes. His book Everything is Connected is all about this. 

Barenboim says that “Beethoven’s music is universal – it speaks to all people”. The question is, why? How can it be that pieces written for a western classical orchestra some two hundred years ago can communicate so vividly with such a range of people today? And this music really does. 

A few years ago I went to the West Bank to report on some music education projects. Together with some musician friends, I had lunch in Hebron [pictured right - a snap of Hebron from the trip] with an amazing Palestinian lady named Sharifa, who showed us around the historic mosque where the tomb of the Patriarchs is located. Sharifa is an absolute indomitable battle-axe. She has to struggle daily with many very difficult situations. But she has extraordinary spirit and an irrepressible sparkle. Her English was good, but not perfect, and at one point we were trying to explain to her the word “inspiration”. And when she understood, she straight away asked the violinist who was with us to play some Beethoven. She loves Beethoven: she says he gives her strength. She was born and raised far from the music of the western classical tradition in a terribly troubled spot of the Middle East – but to her, Beethoven was the absolute definition of the word ‘inspiration’.

We hear frequently that Beethoven is “revolutionary”. But I wonder why he strikes us that way. His inner strength, of course, is unmistakeable. We know that in 1802 he went through a tremendous personal crisis while he was living in Heiligenstadt, just outside Vienna. He had to face the fact that he was losing his hearing, and for a man who lives body, heart and soul for music, this was the worst thing that life could do to him. In his most famous document, the Heiligenstadt Testament – part will, part explanation, that he wrote for his two brothers – he said: “Such things brought me to the verge of desperation, and well-nigh caused me to put an end to my life. Art! art alone deterred me. Ah! how could I possibly leave the world before bringing forth all that I felt it was my vocation to produce?”. 

But Beethoven’s essential strength, the revolutionary quality, if you like, is not really biographical, at least not solely. Yes, he had huge personal battles to overcome and much tragedy in his life. His ideals are certainly reflected in his works, in some more directly than others. His only opera, Fidelio, for instance, is about a devoted wife who disguises herself as a man to infiltrate a political prison and save her husband from its dungeon. But Beethoven doesn’t ever seem to have been involved with politics beyond his intellectual interest. And of course his deafness, which set in when he was only about 28, would probably have prevented him getting involved even if he had wished to. He had great social and political ideals, though, and he certainly felt the injustices of the world: he was a cantankerous, troubled individual, yet one who, under that facade, felt an enormous compassion towards humanity. 

I heard a theory recently – from the great pianist Murray Perahia – that the real meaning of the so-called ‘Moonlight’ sonata may be something beyond our usual assumption that the publisher added the title for effect. Instead, it’s possible that this heading refers to the so-called ‘children of moonlight’, a term that described the spirits of the unfortunate, the outcasts, people who were denied the sunlight of the Enlightenment – hence the polarity of sun and moon. These spirits would sing of their suffering to the world through the medium of the Aeolian harp, which is played by the wind. Apparently there is good circumstantial evidence to support the theory and it is much in tune with Beethoven’s spirit, to say nothing of the concept fitting the music to perfection. 

So perhaps there Beethoven could consciously have matched image to musical content. But what about the subconsciously revolutionary qualities in the music of his symphonies? And why can they seem revolutionary even to us today? In Beethoven’s time, this music would have sounded not just new, but shockingly new. The overt sense of conflict, the struggle between primal, motivic themes vying for supremacy, sparks flying through the extremities of his contrasts, all that would have sounded incredibly radical around the turn of the 18th into the 19th century. Beethoven was not remotely easy listening for those accustomed to graceful minuets in the background to accompany their dinner. And especially not just after the French Revolution.

But now? We’ve had Mahler, we’ve had Schoenberg, we’ve had Stravinsky, we’ve had, for goodness sake, Stockhausen and Boulez and John Cage. Why does Beethoven still inspire feelings of idealism, and even of political idealism, to ears and minds that have been exposed to so much else?

There are several levels to this. For a start, tonight’s two symphonies are totally different from one another; each is unique. But then, so is every other Beethoven symphony. And so is every single one of his 32 piano sonatas and each of his string quartets. And so on. Beethoven doesn’t repeat himself – the structures of no two works are exactly the same, and each one has not only an individual form but an individual soundworld, an atmosphere that is entirely its own.  

For instance, No.6 is the only Beethoven symphony in five movements and the only one in which three of the movements run through without a break. As for the individual soundworld, the spread-out, lyrical, tranquil melodies of the Sixth Symphony could scarcely be further away from the elemental punch and drive of the Seventh. This sense of constant reinvention, the need to push the boundaries further and further, is just one reason to consider Beethoven not only an innovator but, beyond that, a revolutionary. (And luckily we don't need Fantasia's Pastoral Symphony animation, pictured right, to push its own boundaries any further in this case...)

Now, there wasn’t so much that was new about the idea of a Pastoral Symphony by 1808. Or so you might think. Yet the way Beethoven approaches the idea is entirely new. Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons is probably the work’s most famous forerunner. Vivaldi gave us an extremely pictorial set of concertos with direct sonic depictions of birds twittering in spring, the rain driving down in the summer storm, the skaters weaving around on the ice in winter. Then there was Haydn, with his oratorios The Creation and The Seasons; yet he largely serves his texts: the musical pictures are developed to match the images that the singers evoke.

Beethoven’s difference is that although the symphony may sound pictorial, that isn’t the point of it. Beethoven wanted to evoke not images, but the feelings associated with them.  He provided a brief guide for the programme at the world premiere, with the words: “Pastoral Symphony, more an expression of feeling than painting.” This puts him in a musically pioneering strand with the world of romanticism, where feeling was at the forefront. Yet it’s almost as if he looks forward by about a hundred years towards the symbolist movement, in which emotion and image are completely fused and nothing can be taken at face value. 

I think this was true, in a different way, for Beethoven. For instance, he used to take long walks on which he’d jot down themes he thought of, some inspired by nature - and in 1803, scribbling a melody suggested by the sight of a river, he wrote "The greater the river, the more grave the tone." Those words could suggest that he’s not thinking of what he sees, but of what more that image suggests to him in terms of association, and metaphor, and his emotional response to that.

But there are processes inside the fabric of the music itself that while entirely abstract can still produce some startling results when you look at them in detail. To me, the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony represents a special summit of achievement. I’d like to draw on Barenboim’s idea that the processes of life and music are connected to show you why I think this music strikes us as revolutionary, at that deep, abstract level. As Barenboim says, we can’t describe music itself; we can only describe the effect that it has, and what I’d like to describe is the effect on us of Beethoven’s music’s inner processes and how they can well be said to mirror the processes of human thought, interaction and society.

So I’m going to talk us through the second movement of Beethoven Seven with a few images in mind suggested by a story that obviously has nothing to do with its creation - but that mirrors something about the way its extraordinary structure operates and the impression it makes on us. 

On 1 December 1955, an African-American woman named Rosa Parks was on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. The town buses practised racial segregation. The driver told Rosa Parks to give up her seat to a white passenger. Rosa Parks refused. This one simple gesture against an enormous human injustice snowballed and eventually led to her becoming an icon of resistance to racial segregation and an important symbol of the American civil rights movement. 

 It started as one person making one small gesture. But it sprang out of a situation of bleak injustice, and one basic, fundamental thought. A situation as bleak as Beethoven’s first chord and a thought about human rights – segregation is wrong - that is as primal as the rhythm Beethoven sets up for his main theme.


The very first chord progression when those low strings come in is tonic to dominant, dominant to tonic. It’s the most fundamental harmonic progression you can get. The theme is scarcely a melody – it is a motif, a rhythm, strong and memorable and simple, and it is fundamental to the whole movement. 

Next, Beethoven begins to bring in the other sections of the orchestra one by one: voice after voice takes up the motif. The voices that have already sung it move on to a counter-melody, a more elaborate thought that illuminates the basic thought by the way it sounds together with it. Others are taking notice, recognising, adding their voices, joining in. The idea is growing in sophistication.

The movement – a good word for it - continues to grow. The thoughts become more elaborate, further voices are drawn in from different parts of the orchestra, or different parts of society if you like, and the rhythm begins to move on too: to the basic pulse we now add a doubling of pace in the lower instruments and gradually the woodwind sidle in almost without us noticing. And, of course, a big crescendo, a great groundswell of support, is beginning.

Now triplets come into the accompaniment so you get a two against three rhythmic effect that sets up a sense of differing forces in friction against one another, adding even more to the tension. The woodwind and brass are making their presences felt, so the central motif assumes the character of a fanfare, and the drums come in as well, but not always at the obvious moments – this adds to the unsettling effect of this growth. It is unpredictable, you don’t know where it’s going to go. Yet still, the entire orchestra is united in proclaiming a fundamental truth and its consequences, with everyone pulling together, which is the only way people can rise up and effect a revolution...

Ah – what happened? The movement ran out of steam. A decrescendo and it’s come to a halt. What now? An idealist is needed, with a new sense of direction. A Martin Luther King, perhaps, with a dream of a better world, powered by the underlying motif that segregation is wrong. Beethoven’s motif, the essential idea, is very much present now as a pulse, a heartbeat, underneath the lyrical melody that now begins. Other voices echo the song of the clarinet – and all the time there’s that tension in the background of that three against two rhythm.

It should be as simple as a major scale down and up. But it isn’t. There’s an interruption, an obstacle, and now what happens? Back comes the melody that started as counterpoint to the first idea; now there’s a new counterpoint against this one, and faster still than triplets, as if to say it’s going to be more complicated than we thought. And the fundamental theme is almost buried in the form of quiet pizzicato under the complication of what it’s spawned, as the strings keep on discussing and bickering, as strings tend to, while the woodwind try to preserve a trajectory of eloquence.

Of course someone has to come along and explore the small print. The legalities, the intellectualisation of the nature of that injustice. In music, that means we have to have a fugue. New motifs and counterpoints and off-beat rhythms complicate matters considerably...as we know, the lawyers always win.

...Now the original idea returns in a strong statement, together with its ideal-world dream and an argument – a tug-of-war between major and minor – that presents a continuing struggle, a perpetuated situation with nobody ready to give in. "We can change this!" "No you can’t!" In human terms it’s at this point that sometimes people get shot for their ideas.

So what’s happened to our basic idea? It seems to be pushed out into a corner – on upper woodwind, surreptitious, then passed down, whispered along from section to section, suppressed, through the lower woodwind until it reaches pizzicato. It’s going underground. The theme seems to have lost the battle. But that doesn’t change the truth of it. And in the last bars a resurgence is promised and left hanging in mid air: it will return. The human condition is the same, injustice remains injustice, and likewise, the final chord is the same as the one at the start.
 
This is the most extraordinary structure. Beethoven builds up a great climax near the beginning, then deconstructs it, suppresses it, yet proves that those ideas must ferment and rise again. 

You can take this idea or leave it - I offer it to you as one possible way of looking at the matter, and just one of many different ways. But to me, it seems to work. 

And this, I believe, is how Beethoven helps us all to change the world.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Alice's Adventures at the ROH

So did you all go to the cinecast of the Royal Ballet's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland yesterday?

It was such a full-on, energetic and brilliant performance that I felt as tired this morning as if I'd danced it myself. Er, OK, not quite. I was in the theatre this time, not the cinema - and enjoying the fact that there were so many young children around who were visiting the gorgeous ROH for the first time and falling under the spell of live performance at the age of only six or seven.

Alice is, first of all, the perfect (purrfect) ballet for anyone who has a large, striped cat.


 The outsize Cheshire Cat - a giant puppet whose limbs, tail and head are manipulated by black-clad dancers and that hence is able to come to pieces and disappear bit by bit as Lewis Carroll stipulates - is so cleverly conceived and slickly executed that you'd think it would steal the show.



But of course the rest is on that level as well. It's a virtuoso tour-de-force for every part of the company: Bob Crowley's designs, Joby Talbot's glittering music and the total choreographic effect mesh together into one madcap yet consistent world, while the level of execution (pace Queen of Hearts) is tip-top from orchestra to lighting to corps to soloists. There's no weak link anywhere in the piece.

There seems no limit to the daredevil imagination of choreographer Christopher Wheeldon or the abilities of his dancers. Steven McRae's tap-dancing Mad Hatter is a special joy...



(That's from the previous TV broadcast/DVD, with Lauren Cuthbertson as Alice.)

More great moments with Zenaida Yanowsky's spoof Rose Adage as the Queen of Hearts (hilarious, yes - but have you ever noticed that mothers in ballet stories get a really raw deal?). And the flamingos, and the scampering little hedgehogs, and the fresh, tender, striking choreography for the pas de deux of Alice and Jack - Sarah Lamb and Federico Bonelli...

Incidentally, Eric Underwood's supple-backed, strong-torsoed Caterpillar needs special mention. His smouldering power and super stage presence has stood out in quite a number of performances this season and I for one can't understand why this fabulous American, who started his career in the Dance Theatre of Harlem, is not ranked higher than Soloist. He got a huge and much-deserved cheer last night. Left: in Infra.

Particularly fascinating to see Alice at the RB two days after Giselle by the Mikhailovsky. The former is everything that the latter is not: sterling quality at every level, slick, contemporary, seamless, crazy, riotous, ironic, funny. The latter, though occasionally clunky in scenery and workaday in general level of the corps, had one thing (or two, depending how you see them) that the Royal doesn't: namely, Osipova and Vasiliev.

Lamb and Bonelli are both beautiful, technically tremendous dancers. The role of Alice is a particular workout for the lead ballerina, who's on stage and holding the show almost the whole time - a massive challenge carried off by Lamb with immense strength, charm and delicacy. But neither of these two excellent principals manipulates the confluence of time and space on stage the way the Russian duo do. They were part of the performance, key members of the Olympian teamwork; they didn't transcend it.

In the second interval, we spotted two audience members, pale and frown-faced, putting on their coats. They looked like ex-dancers. You'll miss the best bit if you leave now, we said. "We are not so impressed," said the man, Russian accent to the fore. "We find rather simplistic." That's your problem, mate, we didn't say. It's not a word I'd ever choose to describe a production as complex, bravura and vivid as this one. Was that, perhaps, a little indication of the different priorities of British versus Russian ballet? But next year, come to think of it, Wheeldon and Joby Talbot are teaming up again to bring us another full-length creation at the RB: The Winter's Tale. By Shakespeare. That will be very different - and interesting indeed.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

"Vasipova" hits London



Sometimes you feel lucky to be around to see certain people do certain things. Since starting this blog nine years ago, I've been aware of this frequently: it's a privilege to chart the coming-of-age of musicians like Benjamin Grosvenor and Daniil Trifonov, the birth of operas like Written on Skin and The Minotaur, the zooming to stardom of Jonas Kaufmann, Joseph Calleja and Joyce DiDonato. And I've been fortunate, over the decades since being a balletomane kid, to see many, many great dancers.

Still, the other night I had the distinct impression that if there's a ballet biscuit to take, Natalia Ospiova and Ivan Vasiliev have walked away with it - assuming their feet touch the ground long enough to actually walk anywhere.

The Russian ballet couple sometimes known to fans collectively as "Vasipova" are in London at the moment with their home company, the Mikhailovsky Ballet from St Petersburg, which they joined after a dramatic exit from the Bolshoi a couple of years ago. The Mikhailovsky may be less well-known here, yet has a distinguished history, its theatre going back over 100 years and the ballet company for around 80; it is currently under the direction of Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato. To judge from their Giselle at the London Coliseum the other night, perhaps the issue now is that their two top stars simply eclipse the rest, in the syndrome of "the best is the enemy of the vaguely OK".

The production is bright, pretty, traditional, often finely wrought in terms of drama: clear mime and some impressive detail: eg, Giselle's mother doesn't know whose wine to pour first, the princess's or her press secretary's - as a peasant she is used to pouring first for the man. A few clunky things like noisy spook-flames and a manically active tree in the second half were probably opening-night glitches, and the orchestra was reasonably impressive, but for some dodgy intonation in the big viola solo. But above all it's a vehicle for Natalia and Ivan...whom, incidentally, I went to meet on Saturday afternoon. (Oh yes, I did. And they are adorable. More soon.)

Osipova is nothing less than mesmerising. It's not just her extreme lightness, focus and flexibility that astounds - every jump seems to take place in slow motion, for instance, and a series of backward-shifting sautes in one Act II solo had the audience holding its collective breath in near disbelief. What really makes the difference is her absorption in the drama. Every move serves the story and the character, in the same way that Verdi only employs virtuoso coloratura to serve his text. There's a shudder of premonition in "he loves me not"; the mad scene is both a devastating disintegration and a desperately convincing heart attack; and Vasiliev as Albrecht delivers a final coup-de-grace to the audience with the violence of his fury when accused by Hilarion.

Act II found Ospiova's supremely ghostly Giselle, whirling around on the spot when initiated, perhaps free at last to dance as she wants, as her human heart had prevented in life; and Albrecht, forced to dance himself almost into a grave of his own, is being put through what she had to experience - a lesson in ultimate empathy. The silence of ballet, the symbolism of the lilies, becomes part and parcel of the ghostliness - can the ghost-Giselle speak to the living Albrecht her Wili sisters have entrapped? The whole means of communication has transformed since Act I.

Strange how different Osipova and Vasiliev are, yet their partnership works like a jet engine. Vasiliev's presence is a bolt of pure kinetic energy that can flatten you, while Osipova's feet work like a hypnotist's wheel. Act II resembled watching the sun dance with the moon. Both simply defy gravity - cliche, yeah, I know, but there's no trampoline in the Coli stage. And the chemistry between them is unbroken and unmistakeable. If they're in different parts of the space, though, you can go cross-eyed trying to work out which of them to watch first.

Some critics seem perturbed by the size of Vasiliev's leg muscles. Since he can do THAT (right), I personally wouldn't grumble.

They're here until 7 April. Don't miss the chance to see them.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Brewer sentenced to 6 years

Michael Brewer, formerly conductor of the National Youth Choir and before that director music at Chetham's, has been sentenced to six years imprisonment for a catalogue of abuse against a pupil at the school in the 1980s, the late Frances Andrade. His wife, Kay Brewer, was sentenced to 21 months.

There is more information in the Independent here and the story has been extensively covered on the TV news. Pianist Ian Pace has much more to say on the matter, plus further links, here, and he has organised a petition calling for an inquiry.

The judge's sentencing remarks are available to read in full here. Among many other things, he says this:
"Indeed, perhaps one of the few positive features to have emerged from this case is the resulting close scrutiny of the seemingly wider acceptance of this type of behaviour amongst those who should know better."
It is essential now that the institutions involved in these appalling events should be able to "bounce back" and clear their reputations in order to keep on educating the finest young musicians in the country. We need specialist music schools for gifted children; the entire edifice should not be demolished because of these events. Regulations have been changed, the modus operandi is different now and the whole climate is notably (and thankfully) more censorious today.

But psychological abuse by teachers as well as sexual abuse needs to be under scrutiny - something that the more outspoken of my interviewees have talked about over the years, incidentally, regarding advanced music colleges in mainland Europe and the US as well as here. Some very prominent figures have reminisced about their studies in a pretty dim light. I can think of one musician who left his home country because of such abuse, another whose experience in New York seems indefensible, and several who have said that after studying with x or y they had to find ways to put themselves back together in a musical or artistic sense...and heaven knows what else. Many of the teachers involved are now deceased, but the syndrome is, arguably, more difficult to guard against. Perhaps that is the next step.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Dear Valery, please bring us back the spring...

On the day the LSO and Valery Gergiev played in Trafalgar Square last spring, the rain stopped and the sun came out. Mostly it rained for four months solid, so this was quite an achievement. Now we've all had enough of the freezing, grey, endless winter that's been engulfing the UK (fyi, it's thought that as 80% of the Arctic ice has melted, it's shifted the Gulf Stream, which used to stop this from happening, so we're stuck with it. Climate change in question? The climate has already changed...).

So we need Gergiev to do something about this, please. Or maybe we need to make a sacrifice PDQ to propitiate Yarilo the sun god (a member of the cabinet would do nicely). For the time being, here is Gergiev with the Mariinsky Ballet in a complete performance of The Rite of Spring, with the original choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky and designs by Nicholas Roerich. It'll warm up your computer, if nothing else.

Meanwhile, I am confined to my Sarah Lund sweater. Hope they don't mind if I wear it to the Coliseum tonight to see Osipova and Vasiliev dance Giselle.


Monday, March 25, 2013

Korngold for beginners

Yesterday at The Rest is Noise we had fun introducing newcomers to the wonderful world of Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Ben Winters of the Open University gave a fascinating talk about the composer's years in America; the two of us then had quite a wide-ranging discussion, and some interesting questions came from the audience. Later on, I took part in a "bites" session with a political economist, a film historian and an art historian; each of us picked a topic that involved America finding its voice in the first half of the 20th century. Mine was Korngold and opera; I played, among other things, an extract of Marietta's Lute Song from Die tote Stadt.

It's easy to think Korngold has been rehabilitated, especially now that I've been on his case for more than two decades, but after the talk several people wanted to know, wide-eyed and open-eared, what this opera was and where they could hear more of it. It's so beautiful, they said. Why do we never hear it? The extract was too short, they said. They wanted to hear the rest.

This is an aria, indeed an opera, for anyone who has ever loved and lost.

Here is an interpretation of Marietta's Lied from the opera film Aria (1987), with some exquisite shots of Bruges, where the opera is set. (Warning: involves a bit of arty nudity.)






Sunday, March 24, 2013

Korngold and The Rest is Noise

Anyone coming to the Southbank today for The Rest is Noise? This weekend the festival has reached America and I've been roped in to help show how Korngold did too.

At 12.30pm in the Purcell Room, I'm introducing Ben Winters from the Open University, who'll talk about Korngold in the US, which we'll then discuss further, and there'll be time for audience questions. At 5pm I'm also joining in an hour of short talks around American topics to bring in the matter of Korngold and opera - that will be in the Blue Bar, Level 4, Royal Festival Hall. (Yes, I know - it wasn't an American issue, but a Viennese one. But that is sort of the point...)

Please join us!

If you haven't been able to get to this extraordinary festival, you can listen to some of the talks on the website: here is the link to the Berlin in the 20s-30s section, beginning with Alex Ross on 'How music became so politicised': http://therestisnoise.southbankcentre.co.uk/explore/berlin-in-the-20s-and-30s/#1

Friday, March 22, 2013

In which Kaufmann says he "can't wait" to sing Tannhauser



Go for it, Jonas!

Three easy ways to get into opera

La Voix Humaine from washmedia on Vimeo.

1. Combine exploring opera with your passion for the piano. If you're heading to the Institut Francais's big three-day keyboardfest, It's All About Piano - starting today and running through Sunday - catch the screening of Poulenc's one-woman opera La Voix Humaine, filmed with the one and only Felicity Lott - with piano accompaniment, in which version it's been recorded for the first time, delivered by the brilliant Graham Johnson. Sneak preview above. The screening is tonight at 8pm - and if you turn up at 6pm you can hear Nick van Bloss play the Goldberg Variations and a four-hands programme from Lidija and Sanja Bizjak at 7pm.

2. Pop over to CultureKicks for my latest post, which is called "How to get into opera in under six minutes". You'll find a quick guide to Rigoletto, a film of its astonishing quartet 'Bella figlia d'amore' and a short explanation of why it shows to perfection what opera can do that just cannot be done nearly so well in any other art form... (Lovely editor there then said "What about Wagner?" to which the response can only be: "Well, what about Wagner...?" Watch that space.)

3. Listen to Andris Nelsons conducting. I've just been in Birmingham doing some pre-concert talks for the CBSO's Beethoven Cycle, which he, their music director, is doing for the first time. Honest to goodness, guv, this guy is amazing. Not sure I've seen anything so purely energetic and with so much warmth since...well, who? Jansons? Solti? The atmosphere in Symphony Hall - which was sold out - really had to be experienced. Nelsons, who hails from Latvia, cut his musical teeth as an orchestral trumpeter and started off, as so many great maestri do, in the opera house, and he's married to the soprano Kristine Opolais, who's currently wowing ROH crowds in Tosca.

He conducted his first Ring Cycle at the age of 26 and is now a favourite at Bayreuth. Hear his Beethoven and you can tell why. The structures are clear, but the emotion is allowed to blaze: there's enough rhythmic strength to build a castle, but enough flexibility to let in the sunshine. The characters and personalities that shine out of each of Beethoven's symphonies are as distinct as those of any opera. Perhaps, in this conductor's hands, music is inherently operatic?

It was an absolute privilege to have introduced this extraordinary concert. Great turnout for the talks, too, especially for yesterday's matinee, where a door-count estimate suggested we had nearly 500. Thanks for your warm reception, dear friends, and I hope you all enjoyed hearing about the slow movement of Beethoven 7 through the narrative of Rosa Parks and the American civil rights movement. 

Last but not least, it was a special treat to run into our old friend Norman Perryman, the musical "kinetic artist", whose beautiful paintings and portraits are part of the Symphony Hall visual brand. Here he is beside his magnificent picture suggested by Elgar, Gerontius, which hangs in the foyer at level 4. Glad to say he was in town to start work on a portrait of Nelsons.





Wednesday, March 20, 2013

A bit of Bach for Easter?



Like, er, nine hours of it with John Eliot Gardiner and friends? Sounds OK to me. He's putting on a Bach Marathon at no less a venue than the Royal Albert Hall, with a stellar line-up of soloists and speakers. It's on 1 April and it is no joke.
 
It's a kaleidoscopic celebration of the single most seminal figure in the history of music, whether in works for one violin or for full chorus, soloists and orchestra. Alongside the concerts, lectures and discussions draw in a plethora of experts both musical and scientific, and the day culminates in a complete performance of the B Minor Mass. Gardiner's the man of the moment for Bach. He's fronting a new BBC documentary about the composer, which is being shown the day before the RAH bonanza, and his biography of Bach will be published in the autumn. Somewhere along the way he might have time to stop and celebrate his own 70th birthday, but don't count on it - he's a very busy person.


"It’s a celebration," says JEG. "Really, a celebration of the decade since we did the Bach cantata pilgrimage. Working through the cantatas in such a concentrated span led to me and the group reacquainting ourselves with the really big pieces – the B minor Mass, the two Passions, the Christmas oratorio, etc – and one’s whole perspective on those pieces has changed as a result of the cantatas. One sees them not as isolated peaks but as being part of the whole connective tissue of Bach’s church music. The cantatas are really the foundation of it all and the passions, the Mass and the oratorios are outcrops: they grew out of the cantatas. 

"Our original plan was to do the St John Passion in the first half and the B minor Mass at the end. Unfortunately we couldn’t raise enough money to make that work, but what we have now is still an incredibly rich cross section from both ends of Bach’s life, in many different genres. The violin D minor partita, the cellos suites, the Goldberg Vairations, lots of organ pieces and the best of the motets. We have one of the earliest but also most magnificent of the cantatas that he wrote for Easter Day, and then the culmination is the B minor Mass."

Intriguingly, though, the Bach Marathon seems to be part of a growing trend in the classical music sphere towards grand-scale occasions packed with tempting talks and bonus treats. 

They're all at it these days. The BBC Symphony Orchestra has scored major hits with its Total Immersion days devoted to contemporary composers such as Jonathan Harvey, Oliver Knussen and Toru Takemitsu. The Barbican is shortly to have a May Marathon weekend, curated by the hotshot young American composer Nico Muhly. Meanwhile BBC Radio 3 has taken to devoting a week or so of its schedules from time to time to the work of just one composer and, this year, a whole month to the Baroque era. And over at the Southbank Centre, the year-long festival The Rest is Noise is going further still, with weekend after weekend devoted to concerts, talks and films exploring 20th-century culture, setting the developing story of classical music in crucial context. 


Gardiner has strong views on the necessity of this development. “I think it puts the spotlight on how limiting one-off concerts can be,” he says. “They can, of course, be fantastic. But when things are loosened up from that unit of a single event and related to a much wider experience, it allows people to get their shoulders underneath the surface of the water and relish what they find there – whether it’s in terms of variety of genres, a much broader approach towards a single composer or a phenomenon like The Rest is Noise. I think it shouldn’t be regarded as something freakish or exceptional. It should be welcomed as a corrective to the fixation on individual concerts.” He is convinced we’ll be seeing much more of this in future.


I reckon he's right. There’s a growing appetite for events at which we can learn a lot about one topic very, very quickly. It’s possible that pressures on people’s time and energy mean a one-day feast is more likely to draw a crowd than an ongoing course. But perhaps the crucial factor, certainly in the case of Gardiner’s Bach, is that it is more about celebration than didacticism. Everyone can take from it what they want: you can go to a single concert, or to the full gamut, plus lectures on the universality of this composer’s art by the likes of the science writer Anna Starkey and the jazz musician Julian Joseph. 


“It’s a chance in a lifetime,” says Gardiner. He hopes his audience will take away “a sense of how unbelievably varied Bach’s oeuvre is and what a towering genius he is. One can perceive just from listening to his music what an enormous impact he had on subsequent musicians, both in classical music right up until our own times, but also in the worlds of jazz and of pop music. It can all be traced back to him.” 


Bach Marathon, Royal Albert Hall, 1 April, 1pm onwards. Box office: 0845 401 5045