Showing posts with label Benjamin Britten. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Benjamin Britten. Show all posts

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Benjamin Britten: "My Fairy-Tale Uncle"

My Yorkshire sister-in-law has drawn my attention to this wonderful memoir from a member of the Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus, which is performing the Britten War Requiem tonight at Sheffield City Hall with the CBSO under Michael Seal.

Steve Terry is supporting the performance through the Friends of Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus Scheme "in celebration of my late wife and of Benjamin Britten's genius". He knew Britten well as a youngster and has written about their friendship on the website. He remembers BB as "a fairy-tale uncle, living in a beautiful house full of treasures (Constable paintings, Rodin and Henry Moore sculptures, a gorgeous parrot) and creating the most remarkable music, which I found both accessible and intellectually and emotionally challenging."  Read it all here.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

A soapbox and an orange tree

A weekend full of anniversaries kicks off with a new weekly "soapbox" slot, which the stringed instrument dealers Amati.com have asked me to write. They've even drawn me standing on one!


You can read my first Soapbox tract here. It's about Great Britten, of course.

And so tomorrow it is the world premiere, as rehearsed reading, of my new play Sins of the Fathers, about Wagner, Liszt and Cosima, at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond. Info here. Call the box office for returns.

What does a playwright do all day once the thing is written and delivered? Well, I've been hunting for candle glue, preparing some labels for the bottle of magic wine and sourcing Wagner's dressing gown. Social media proved worth its weight in gold where the latter was concerned: an appeal on Facebook ("Urgent: need a silk dressing gown for Wagner, must fit John Sessions") has produced a friend - the real sort, not only the Facebooky sort - who inherited an antique silk red paisley number from her great-uncle that fits the bill to perfection. Now we just have to find the right something for Liszt to wear. A cravat should do the trick.

From this anniversary line-up, Verdi is missing. Only one thing for it: over to Jonas...






Friday, November 22, 2013

Cheers for BB

It's you-know-who's birthday today. I wanted to find something to post that is out of the ordinary, but close to my heart. So I've hunted down some video - from the Teatro Real, Madrid - of The Little Sweep, the children's opera that involves major audience participation in some wonderful mass songs. I had a recording of this when I was about 8 and it's one of the things that first turned me on to music. I think I wore out the LP. I still think it's a masterpiece, though the emotional content - the story of a Victorian chimney sweep boy - is even more upsetting now than it seemed then.

It is, as far as I can tell, hardly ever performed today - at least, not in the UK. Talk about BB going international. The dialogue here is in Spanish, and the singing in English, without much sense of diction, but if you don't know the music, these two videos - the very beginning and the very end - will give you a taste of it.

Have a good Britten Weekend, wherever you are. I am missing the fun as I'm a little preoccupied right now with the world premiere of my new play on Sunday afternoon at the Orange Tree Theatre. It's about Wagner.










Wednesday, October 16, 2013

More precious than rubies

Who can find a virtuous woman? And what does "virtue" mean? I had a fascinating talk with Fiona Shaw, who is directing Britten's The Rape of Lucretia for Glyndebourne Touring Opera. The first night is on Saturday and the cast includes Kate Valentine and Allan Clayton/Andrew Dickinson as the Choruses, Claudia Huckle as Lucretia and Duncan Rock as Tarquinius, among others. Part of the interview appeared in The Independent the other day, and here is the director's cut...




Fiona Shaw is worried about our view of “virtuous” women of stage, page and history. Earlier this year, the renowned Irish actress and director took the role of the Virgin Mary on Broadway; but the production, Colm Tóibín’s play The Testament of Mary, sparked protests outside the theatre by members of the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property.

“Who is the Virgin Mary? We discovered her to be a mother very angry about her son being crucified,” Shaw says. “But apparently it is sacrilege to suggest that a ‘virtuous’ woman is more interesting than the bland version that’s been handed down to us.”

This is a concept more than pertinent to Shaw’s latest project: she is staging Britten’s chamber opera The Rape of Lucretia for Glyndebourne Touring Opera. Its storyline is outwardly simple, but the emotions behind it are anything but; and its final attempt to extrapolate meaning from tragedy heightens its ambiguities. 

The story is based on a Roman legend that has been reinterpreted in many forms over the centuries. The army officers have tested their wives’ fidelity in their absence; only Lucretia, wife of the general Collatinus, has emerged untainted. This provokes jealousy among the soldiers whose spouses have strayed. To test her virtue, or indeed to prove it, the prince Tarquinius visits Lucretia’s house by night and eventually rapes her. When Collatinus returns he places no blame on his devastated wife; but rather than live under such a shadow, she takes her own life. 

“What is virtue?” Shaw demands. “It’s interesting that we meet Lucretia when she is at her most frustrated and fed up, with her husband away. ‘Virtue’ is nothing to do with not being frustrated, or with not having another glass of wine because you want to stay up; after all, it’s also virtuous to want to be awake because you can’t bear to go to bed without your husband. That doesn’t come in any guise of prudery. Lucretia’s an immediate person, not a saint.” The central role is sung by the mezzo-soprano Claudia Huckle, who will, Shaw says, give a “feisty” interpretation.

The opera, which was premiered at Glyndebourne itself in 1946, must have been shocking in its day, when rape was very much a taboo subject. “I find it quite shocking still,” Shaw remarks. “It’s painful, what is being exposed, and the music is so brilliantly constructed that you feel pierced by it. It leaves Mozart standing, some of it.”

Nevertheless, the composer – famously homosexual in an era when this was still illegal – was not always at his best when creating female characters. His finest are often motherly figures, like the Governess in The Turn of the Screw; but his Queen Elizabeth I in Gloriana never becomes as real as the eponymous heroes of Peter Grimes and Billy Budd, outsiders amid hostile societies that reject their troubled or non-conforming visions of life. Lucretia is often regarded as his one truly convincing heroine; and Britten and his librettist, the poet Ronald Duncan, provide her with a wealth of concealed or unconscious depths, desires and conflicts. 

“Britten is so good at dealing with the most complex issue: what is it to have secret desires and be punished for it?” Shaw says. She has no doubt that in the opera the rape is precisely that: Lucretia refuses Tarquinius at every turn, is ultimately forced, and the act drives her to suicide. Yet there is still a suggestion of an attraction to him, upon which she refuses to let herself act. “What a hell to be put through: to be forced to do something that your moral sense would make you not do, but your instinct would desire you to do. In that way, with that double twist, the opera is nearer to a Greek tragedy than anything else. At the end she tells us the she knows the consequences of living now, admitting to desire – not to acting on desire, but to having desire – would be a blemish on her marriage. So she’s the most honourable person – and the opera throws a little light on a very dark part of our psyches.

“Britten is looking under the stone and seeing the muddy waters that lie beneath us all, maybe beneath morality itself,” she continues. “The Greeks were very good at this – but the notion of Christianity is that Jesus looked with compassion at us, but our sin is to be human, is to be flawed, is to have these contradictory feelings and try to deal with them. Lucretia is the most upright person. She is at home, passive, she made no action – but somewhere her secret desire came to her in the night. And she resisted. And yet it ruined her marriage. That’s the tragedy of it.” 

Britten adds a male and female ‘chorus’, who watch and comment on the action throughout; Shaw says that in the new production they are a present-day couple whose marriage is suffering and who work through their own issues by observing Lucretia’s story. The opera’s Christian element is articulated in their bleak yet compassionate postlude: “Is it all?” they ask.

She has introduced a further twist still: “I want it to be about the destruction of a family, not only a couple.” Lucretia and Collatinus therefore have a small daughter, an eight-year-old who witnesses the horror of her mother’s death: “It’s to do with the continuity of children; the consequences for the next generation are worth showing.” 

Lucretia, in Shaw’s opinion, is “up there with the classics,” as she declares. “It’s explores that terribly deep psychic schism that’s in us and it’s a brave and beautiful opera. Humans in it are not all terrible; Tarquinius is not a baddy and Lucretia is not a goody. That’s the beauty of opera: it allows you to meditate on the complexity of our choices. I think it’s fantastic that Britten writes so much about that. The chilly unease that he brings to most of his work is to do with the fact that the major chord of society’s vision of itself is not his experience.” 

Is Britten, then, his own outsider, that “different” figure at the heart of most of his operas? “Yes,” says Shaw. “But we all are.”

The Rape of Lucretia, Glyndebourne Touring Opera, from 19 October. Tour dates and booking online: http://glyndebourne.com/production/rape-of-lucretia-tour-2013

Fiona has also written a 'director's diary' which is out in The Guardian today.





Monday, September 30, 2013

Why THE REST IS NOISE festival will change concert-going forever

The second part of the Southbank Centre's year-long celebration of the music of the 20th century kicked off on Saturday. And as it did so, the venue released figures that prove beyond reasonable doubt that this extraordinary festival, The Rest is Noise, has not only been succeeding in attracting new audiences, but doing so as if there is a tomorrow after all. 

In short, three-quarters of people booking for these concerts  had not bought tickets for a contemporary classical event at the Southbank before. The place has sold more than three times as many tickets for contemporary classical music during the festival than they did in 2012. About 39 per cent [update] of those booking for concerts had not been to any classical concert at the centre before, and one in three people booking the whole-weekend tickets had never been to the Southbank Centre before at all.

The wake-up call is so loud that The Rest is Noise amounts to a virtual thump on the head for the musical world - or, indeed, a kick on the backside. We can't afford to ignore such numbers. And that's why programming may never be the same again. 

There's been a buzz around The Rest is Noise unlike anything I've encountered within these hallowed (?) portals in 40 years. The RFH was bursting at the seams for Britten's Peter Grimes on Saturday night, but the ferment of activity in the surrounding weekends of events - like this one devoted to the Britten centenary, including films, talks, more concerts (Noye's Fludde notably), 'bite' events (15-min talks on different yet related topics) - also feels more like the Edinburgh Fringe or Hay-on-Wye than a stuffy old arts centre. Hopefully those last four words are ones we'll never have to see together henceforth.

I had a chat with Jude Kelly (artistic director of Southbank Centre) and Gillian Moore (head of music) about what they've been trying to do with The Rest is Noise, and why. You may remember that a few years ago Daniel Barenboim did the complete Beethoven sonatas cycle at the RFH in two weeks. At the time, I wrote this article, declaring that the runaway success of the series proved that what really draws audiences in is anything but dumbing down: instead, we long for the big, immersive, profound experience, where you give a lot and reap more than you sow. It turns out that this wasn't a coincidence.

"When I first came in as artistic director, the first thing that happened in classical music was that an agent said Barenboim was going to do the Beethoven sonatas over a year," Kelly says. "I said: no, let’s do it over a fortnight. They thought that was too much to offer; I said no, that’s what we want to do. And it was a huge success. That gave me the courage to think that these big ideas are what we should be championing." 

Gillian Moore adds: "The idea of programming 20th-century music boldly and constantly is for me so strong – I’ve always tried to do that. But this is a very big idea that really can help us achieve it. Linking with Alex Ross’s book, we’re not slavishly following it, but using its atmosphere as a stimulus. It’s all about putting music in its cultural context of history, science, what was happening, what people were thinking, at the time."

She continues: "Music is not isolated from the world of ideas. Sometimes in classical music we can behave as if it’s its own thing, going along on tram tracks without relating to intellectual ideas. But talk to any composer about politics or life sciences and it absolutely does. So to appeal to people who are culturally curious, but who might think classical music is not for them, especially 20th-century classical music, we are talking about more of our music being linked to broader cultural questions." 

(This relates to another of my own old bug-bears - about the isolation of musical biographies in bookshops, tucked far away from the general biography section which might feature writers, artists, philosophers and actors, among others. That's where musical creators and performers belong, too. Nowadays, of course, you're lucky if you can even find a bookshop.)

Kelly, who has been artistic director of the centre since 2006, says she is often struck by how many extremely well-educated people, interested in theatre, politics, economics, history, science and more, tell her that they never attend concerts of classical music. "But all of that makes up music - so let’s contextualise the whole thing," she says. If you only want to listen to the music, that's fine, of course; but now there has to be a further option as well. 

"I can't speak for other places, but for Southbank it provokes the question that doing a single concert with no other information around it other than programme notes isn’t a proper offer," she says, when I ask what the implications are for future programming. "If any of the orchestras want to do that, it means their assumption is that the audience is already familiar with the repertoire or are certainly very comfortable with classical music. 

"My passion is about how you reach lots of other people who aren’t familiar and aren't comfortable. Obviously just playing the concert in itself hasn’t been doing that. I’m very committed to extending this idea of the wide open school, the offer to do music studies and history studies and science studies all in one go - and making the live performance of music and contemporary dance and contemporary art a central way of understanding  how our societies work."

Having had no thorough academic musical education at college level, she adds that when she wanted to fill in the gaps, the solution she was looking for simply didn't seem to exist: "a course on how you learn and understand the history of classical music". This education is what's been lacking; this is why so many people, when you tell them you're involved with classical music, look afraid and say at once, "I don't know much about classical music". That absence of knowledge intimidates them and, instead of proving an attraction to learn something, it keeps them away. 

"I’m interested in the fact that people are excited by the complexity of science and the complexity of ecosystems, but classical music, which is a version of all of that, stays away from them," Kelly says. "We’ve partly got ourselves to blame - the art industry has often spoken in language that suggests this is for people with fine feelings or that you have to go on some sort of escalator before you can get there and people don’t know what the starting point is." 

"I think we’ve got to be much more welcoming and much less judgemental," Kelly adds. "I think we can seem judgemental about people who don’t know much about classical music. We should say, 'Great, if you don’t know anything about it then you won’t have any prejudices...'" The Rest is Noise website is a huge bonus where this is concerned, preserving many of the talks, "bites", etc, on demand. Visit the Explore section here.

The bonanza of this festival, which includes study evenings, "breakfast with..." sessions exploring the technical workings of music, screenings of films, events for children, and countless other elements, may not be easy to replicate elsewhere - though I'm sure that this is just the beginning for the Southbank. Still, the thinking, and the resulting sales, carry a few big, strong simple messages for all. It's about having courage to think big and to lead from the front. "The big lesson for me is about the scale of an idea," says Moore. "Sometimes you have to do something really big and bold for it to cut through." 

The full programme for the rest of the Rest is here. And now we've reached the point where many of the composers are alive and some of them are kicking. We can certainly expect to see Philip Glass, Steve Reich and Sofia Gubaidulina in London in person for good chunks of the next part. 

What of the future? Don't dismiss this event as a one-off. What's become clear is that the rest is just not noisy enough.