Showing posts with label Ed Gardner. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ed Gardner. Show all posts

Monday, October 21, 2013

Felix is back...

I'm preoccupied with Felix Mendelssohn at the moment. Right now, am between the first two of three pre-concert talks that I'm giving for the CBSO's Mendelssohn symphonies series, which is being conducted by Ed Gardner, and the glories of the music seem endless - galvanising, thrilling, visceral, quicksilver. There's nobody like Felix. Yet I'm still gnashing teeth with frustration over the way that those old slanders keep getting repeated and repeated and repeated, often by people who ought to know better.

The view of Felix as glib and shallow needs to be scotched once and for all. It comes from Wagner, who was finding reasons to damn the Jewish-born composer with rootless-Cosmopolitan syndrome. Poor old Felix was excoriated on the one hand by certain Jewish lobbies for having abandoned his faith - like he had much choice, as his parents converted and had him baptised when he was about six years old; and condemned on the other hand by anti-Semitic musicologists for the sake of it.

Glib, nothing. He was a perfectionist; he took years to polish up some of his smoothest-sounding works, among them the 'Italian Symphony' and the Violin Concerto. Even the Octet, that utterly perfect masterpiece, didn't emerge that was first go when Felix was 16, as is often thought. Yes, he was lucky, privileged, well-educated, deeply cultured; yes, he was a favourite of Queen Victoria; no, he was not spoiled, nor was he immune to suffering, as the Jenny Lind story has proved.

In my talk the other day, on Saturday afternoon, I suggested that Mendelssohn is, as Peter Maxwell Davies has called him, "the Prophet of Light": the ultimate enlightened musician, grandson of Moses Mendelssohn - philosopher father of the Jewish Enlightenment - in every way, a man and musician who reconciled apparently conflicting ideas as if they barely existed. Thus he's the shining beacon that proves to us that such a thing is possible.

Come along to Birmingham Town Hall on Thursday at 1pm for the next episode, in which I'll be looking at Mendelssohn and Victorian Britain - from the very stage on which he conducted the world premiere of Elijah. Ed and the orchestra will perform a wonderful programme including the 'Scottish' Symphony and the Piano Concerto No.2, with Martin Helmchen - another work written specially for premiere in Birmingham.

Meanwhile, have a listen to the Ebene Quartet's marvellous recording of the Mendelssohn siblings, Felix and Fanny. Anyone who needs reminding that Mendelssohn was as prone to crises of the soul as anybody who ever lived simply needs to hear the F minor Quartet. End of story.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Martinu's musical Magritte

If you like surrealism, you'll love Martinu's Julietta. It's now on at ENO in a slick staging by Richard Jones first seen in Paris about ten years ago. The set is a gigantic accordion - the sound of music being the one thing that can sometimes anchor the amnesiac population of the opera's seaside town to long-ago memories.

Michel, a Parisian bookseller, arrives with his suitcase in search of a mysterious girl whom he once heard singing. But nothing around him makes any sense - because the townsfolk can't remember anything for more than ten minutes. It sounds daft, and the incidents match that assessment. And yet...we all know people like that, and societies too. The resonance works. It works particularly well given that Martinu completed the work in 1938, when the world was a very mad place indeed.

When surrealism is at its best, the crazier it gets, the deeper it goes. I was fortunate enough to see a huge exhibition of Magritte in Vienna earlier this year, which was a revelation. With Julietta, Martinu hooks up the synapses in our minds in a similar way.

The opera is based on a play by the composer's friend Georges Neveux, which Martinu snaffled from under Kurt Weill's nose by getting to it about 48 hours earlier than his eminent colleague. Michel's final encounter at the Ministry of Dreams (photo above - photo credit Richard Hubert Smith) lends a hint of Kafka, and the circular nature of the drama, a recurring dream, a confluence with that terribly scary 1945 movie Dead of Night. Yet the absurdity lends an irresistible lightness. Does Michel really shoot his Julietta when the memories she wants to buy turn out to be nicer than the authentic ones? In which she recalls laughing at him because he looks like a stuffed crocodile?

Martinu is a hard sell and difficult to describe, especially as all most of us know of him is that he was born in a Czech bell tower and went on to lead an ever-shifting existence in the European vortex of the 1930s and, ultimately, the US. He was a great Francophile, though, and adopted Paris as home for some years. His music is not easy to pin down: hints of Debussy, virtual quotes from Stravinsky, some luscious love music in Act II that pulls in somewhere between Szymanowski and Rachmaninov. The voice of Martinu himself, however, is less obvious than the voices of others: at times, he seems not so much crocodile as chameleon. He offers us moments of great beauty and delicious, light-touch humour. Textures in the main are thin, allowing the words to project easily, the lines drawn with a deft swish of colour from a well-chosen instrument or two - often more Matisse than Magritte. It is a good opera, imaginative, fun, whimsical - and it's a joy to experience something as gently batty as this in an art form that frequently takes itself too seriously.

Of course, if you don't like surrealism, or imagination, or anything that isn't quite on the same level as Mozart, Puccini or Wagner, then you probably won't get it. A good few didn't. That's their problem. Why does every piece of music we hear have to be perfect? Yes, the best is the enemy of the good - but it doesn't invalidate those corners of creation in time that do have quality, if just a fraction less of it. They provide context, richness, insight and much to enjoy, even if not everyone can write The Magic Flute. And unusual, good-though-not-perfect works sometimes offer a welcome new experience, along with an angle that makes us think differently about their world and ours. If we heard nothing of opera but Mozart, Puccini and Wagner, life wouldn't be half so interesting.

Sterling performances all round: Peter Hoare more than holding the stage throughout as the mystified Michel, the Swedish soprano Julia Sporsen shining in every way as the red-haired Julietta, and vignette appearances by such fabulous personalities as Susan Bickley, Gwynne Howell and Andrew Shore, to name but three. Ed Gardner made Martinu's score both sensual and sparkly. Verdict: go see.

Here's an insightful review from The Observer by Fiona Maddocks.

Friday, May 04, 2012

The Flying Duchen

Let's get to the heart of this right away. How can we "do" Romanticism in an age of cynical post-modern irony? I don't pretend to have the answer, but the question is a hefty one. And Jonathan Kent's new production of The Flying Dutchman at ENO asks it full on. That is not the least reason it is so effective. Whether or not the director intended to do so, he's sunk his teeth into one of the big artistic conundrums of today. It deserves to be brought into the open.

We see Senta first as a child in pink pyjamas, watching the waves through a giant skylight; she craves her father's affection, but he is unable to deliver any and pushes off to sea, leaving her with a book of fairy tales for company. The Dutchman manifests as her imagining, her interior living, if you like, of such a fairy tale - as children do, as we all do if only we remember, casting her father one of its characters, and the Steersman too - who sings his quiet song with rapt nostalgia and falls asleep on the floor, where little Senta covers him tenderly with her duvet. The Dutchman and his ship arrive in a terrific coup-de-theatre, he in full Mr Darcy getup, while the ship wouldn't disgrace Errol Flynn's in The Sea Hawk. And Daland's eagerness to marry the stranger off to his daughter without noticing that said stranger is one of the Undead is all too convincing, because Daland is a stranger to love and values nothing but money.

Senta, meanwhile, grows up to be Orla Boylan - except that she doesn't. She's still living that fairy tale, her emotional world twisted into an alternative reality by the lack of emotional substance around her. She works in a factory making ships in bottles - the set (designed by Paul Brown) is magnificent, with a vast window and plenty of wood suggesting past glories for this Norwegian one-ghost suburb. Her refuge is the image of the Dutchman: her own longing, her own clinging to belief in the redemptive power of love and compassion. There's none of that in her real world. Even Erik (sung by Stuart Skelton, who is an absolute knockout of a Heldentenor) is no answer. He's a security guard at the factory and there's a hint of violence, born of frustration, in his treatment of her; this big guy doesn't know his own strength. And the other girls pick on her: she's the mildly deranged fat lump in the pink dress (Primark?) who pooh-poohs their sluttishness.

And then the boys come back from sea, they have a piss-up in the factory and they try to gang-rape her. In the song to the Steersman they're egging him on, as their leader, to do the deed. Remember that nostalgic first song he had in act 1? Everything now is inside-out and upside-down. The ghost ship chorus - beamed in by amplification from somewhere offstage (a bit of a pity soundwise) comes to Senta's aid and scares everyone off, but the event pushes her over the edge and, exhausted and already dead within, she breaks a beer bottle and stabs herself with it. She is destroyed by the society in which she lives. Jonathan Kent shows us the death of a soul.

The performances match the power of the staging. The chorus, for a start, is possibly the best I've ever heard at ENO. Orla Boylan's Senta gives everything in her Ballade; there may be issues about pacing and stamina, as in the scene with Erik she began to sound strained and tired, but she summoned reserves of strength for the final scene that made her Senta seem cousin not so much to Isolde (as Wagner later saw her, rewriting the ending post-Tristan - we got the early version at ENO) but Brunnhilde, facing a test of fire instead of water.

Clive Bayley is a magnificent and all too believable Daland; James Creswell as the Dutchman is strong and even-toned, though could maybe use more variety in vocal colour to put across the emotional content, rather than relying too heavily on diction - it's good to hear all the words, but it sometimes distorted the ends of his phrases. Tenor Robert Murray made much of the Steersman aria, which in the grand scheme of the staging acquired extra dramatic significance. But Skelton just about steals the show, despite his character having too little to do. He tweeted the other day that he was off to New York to sing in Die Walkure at very short notice (jumping in for Kaufmann). Lucky Met.

Still, there's big stuff happening at home, and it is happening most of all down the pit. This is Ed Gardner's first Wagner. And from the moment the lights go off and the orchestra plunges into the deep end, we plunge with them. They grab us by the throat and don't let us go for the full 135 minutes (no interval, thanks). The intensity is fabulous, both at the opera's wildest moments and its stillest; the pacing is excellent, passionate, convincing. This seemed the case after that glorious Rosenkavalier a few months back, but now there's no doubt about it: ENO is busy growing a great conductor.

So, I was wondering how we do romanticism in an anti-romantic age. And then I went to see a preview screening of the 3D film of Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake, which is being released into cinemas worldwide on 15 May starring Richard Winsor (and very good it is). And there's the prelude. The child prince in bed, in his pyjamas. His mother comes in; he reaches out to her, she backs away. He has a fuzzy swan by way of comforter. He has a nightmare vision of the real swan. And the action commences. Remind you of anything?

Now, I'm not suggesting for one moment that this Dutchman production borrows anything from anybody, but the general atmosphere and logic of the concept is quite prevalent enough for different directors to arrive at the same scenario from contrasting positions. The Flying Dutchman story has plenty in common with that of Swan Lake. The lead character's fantasy world becomes his/her reality, encroaches on actual reality, then destroys him/her.

And today, we can't take it on its own terms, the way Wagner or Tchaikovsky intended; we have to interpret and explain it, because it seems nobody will buy into it otherwise. If a twisted mind through lack of a parent's affection is becoming the dramatic cliche of today (taking over from child abuse, which has been used ad nauseam), there may be a good reason for it.

It's one of those odd things about Romanticism, though, that it involved plenty of cynicism. It was the composers, not the writers, whose senses of humour and awareness of irony sometimes fell flat. The Flying Dutchman is based on a story by Heinrich Heine, whose bite is much fiercer than his eloquent bark. In Heine, the ending of the tale - the suicide of "Mrs Flying Dutchman" - is cynical as hell: the only way a woman can be faithful to this man unto death, he suggests, is if she dies right away. Wagner makes a virtue out of this, but that's not how Heine wrote it. Just as Schumann, setting Heine's songs, avoids the razor edge of this poet's fearsome blade and refuses to laugh or sneer with him, so Wagner goes a stage further and creates his own philosophy out of it - perfumed, feverish and egotistical it may be, but it's alive and well and blazes out of the music. Heine, one suspects, would have been livid.

And Romanticism? Its music still has the strongest appeal to audiences for classical music - not all, of course, but a distinct majority. You want "popular classics"? You get Tchaikovsky. So it is not dead. Twisted, certainly, but defunct, not at all. Most of us still, somewhere, believe in the redemptive power of love - don't we? - and the current craze for vampire movies suggests that maybe we even want to believe, at some level, in the supernatural. But the destruction of a soul through lack of love, and that lack of love, and tenderness, and compassion, and kindness, and idealism, as a comment on our society, is taking hold. Maybe we should take notice.