1. Go to the eclectic Women of the World Festival at the Southbank. Among musically-oriented treats today are Jessye Norman (yes), speaking at 4.30pm this afternoon; and tonight, the OAE with Marin Alsop and soprano Emma Bell in a delicious programme of Mozart, Beethoven, Weber and Schumann, part of the Queens, Heroines and Ladykillers series.
2. Go to the UK premiere of Written on Skin by composer George Benjamin and librettist Martin Crimp, at the Royal Opera House. It is a contemporary masterpiece and, although it's by two men, the story is very much about the sexual emancipation of a woman in the 13th century. I talked to its director, Katie Mitchell, about that, and the article should hopefully be out tomorrow. (Not going to see it until 18th, but I've heard the recording from Aix and found it absolutely amazing. My chat with George about the music for the ROH website is here.)
3. Spend a little time celebrating the music of women composers over the centuries whose work was discouraged, disguised or suppressed, unless it happened to be cute salon music for the home. And remember the ones who went right on ahead and did their own thing.
4. Spend a little time remembering the great female performers of the past who knuckled down to work instead of knuckling under.
5. Listen to some music by the increasing raft of gifted, dedicated and proud women composers of today, whether on stage, screen, concert hall or multimedia. A reasonably random example, but one I've much enjoyed, is this mingling of space mission, dance, special effects and music by Errollyn Wallen in Falling.
6. Remember that today's greatest women performers simply cannot be bettered.
7. Reflect that it should not be necessary, in an ideal world, to add extra celebration to the achievements of women - in the classical music world as much as anywhere, and more than some - but with sexism so desperately ingrained in our culture, it is.
8. Remember that International Women's Day is all very well, but next we have to sort out the other 364 days of the year.
Friday, March 08, 2013
Friday, March 09, 2012
As promised, for International Women's Day #2: ten women composers of now. A small selection and a personal one - kicking off with Joan Tower's Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman. Enjoy.
Wednesday, November 23, 2011
An intriguing evening at the world premiere of Errollyn Wallen and Bonnie Greer's Yes. 'Intriguing' because in some ways it succeeds, in others it doesn't, and some of its strengths also handspring its weaknesses. It seemed a work in progress, needing some nips, tucks and the addressing of some continuity issues.
But at its heart it strikes a deep, true chord: when Wallen is let off the leash of very short scenes and has the leisure to unfurl her best music, moments of great beauty emerge from the distillation of uncomfortable contemporary truths. How and why do we create in a world that is "baking in its own shit"? Thus the artist character, trying to work out what lies behind the "dark, malevolent" quality of what he's just painted, faces the existential question of any creative here and now, and it's a knock-em-dead performance by that brilliant, all-giving, stage-creature baritone that is Omar Ebrahim.
A reflective ensemble number accompanied by purling strings and pizzicato almost a la Bach or Mozart proved another highlight, evoking the classical underpinning of Wallen's eclectic contemporary idioms; and the recurring, developing chorus, ratcheting the tension, helps to bind together a tricky multi-protagonist structure. Wallen's music has - as it often does - empathy, riff-edged sophistication, high intelligence and, best of all, a big, strong heart. And much of the singing was spectacular.
The problems are that mosaic structure and the staging. The latter first: the Linbury is opened up and the black and white stage is in the centre with seats on both sides. The singers must address one side, then the other and whichever you're on, you tend to miss the words when performers' backs are turned. The brevity of the scenes and the inevitable awkwardness of moving quickly from one to the next means that the flow of drama and music is constantly interrupted, and punctuation by supposed news announcements - delivered in a tone that is unfortunately more Open University than Newsnight - do little to help. Just when you think it's getting off the ground, it stops again.
There's one format in which Yes would work brilliantly. It is TV. On film you could project writing instead of the spoken announcements, create an unbroken musical web that slides easily from scene to scene without interruption and develop each character that much more; at the moment we can only see a tantalising glimmer of them.
Greer's libretto may at times feel difficult - the words of John Stuart Mill don't lend themselves especially well to singing, and using terms like "relevance" and "diversity" risks missing the mark in the context of operatic drama rather than commentary from outside. But the threads and connections build: the phone call from Greer's mother, talking about stargazing, finds an echo in the final words from the white grandson of an East Ender. Greer's mother says, "Nobody does that but us", yet this child from another place, another culture and a family of another mindset proves that in fact...we're all the same. We are all the same: we are all human beings. Why is that always the hardest lesson for us to learn?
So, in short: Yes is maybe a success in the making, it has some wonderful moments, it is brilliantly sung, it could use a bit of rethinking and - perhaps appropriately for an opera based around a forthcoming TV show - it ought to be a film. Stand by for snide remarks from white males.
Tuesday, November 22, 2011
"The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race... of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth." (John Stuart Mill)Errollyn Wallen and playwright Bonnie Greer (pictured: Errollyn, left, and Bonnie, in rehearsals), opens tonight at the ROH Linbury Studio. It's the story of the run-up to Bonnie's appearance on the BBC's Question Time alongside...That Politician. What emerged from her experience is a picture of the state of the nation: how we see ourselves, our country, our fellow human beings and freedom of speech. My article about it is in today's Independent. As we point out in the feature, it's not every day you hear the words of John Stuart Mill being sung at Covent Garden.
Here's a taster, from Bonnie:
"Any organisations or groups of people that prevent others from expressing a legitimate opinion, whether in print or in person, are absolute enemies of democracy...That's the reason I said yes. I'm the daughter of a man who grew up under racial segregation and couldn't speak out, so there's no way I'm going to be part of anything that won't allow a person to speak his or her mind. I think some of the great and the good were upset that I did this [appearing on Question Time]– and they were even more upset that it turned out to be OK. This is about freedom of speech and expression; about saying yes to the tumultuous nature of democracy."
Tuesday, April 05, 2011
All this week here on JDCMB, some of the stars of British musical life share their firm conviction that musical education should be available to all children, regardless of wealth. They offer their personal memories and gratitude for the opportunities that were open to them, without which they might not be where they are today. And, just as the Big Noise of Sistema Scotland releases some truly astonishing statistics about the impact and beneficial effects of its programme at Raploch - eg, 100 per cent of parents reported their children's confidence increased by music-making - they remind us that music does more for the soul than can ever meet the eye...
Today we hear from James Rhodes, Errollyn Wallen and Nick van Bloss. Over to you, guys...
Today we hear from James Rhodes, Errollyn Wallen and Nick van Bloss. Over to you, guys...
"Beethoven, Bach, Chopin, Mozart, et al, are and always will be the musical equivalent of Shakespeare, Byron and Chaucer. To make cuts in our education system that will make music-making and even music-listening the preserve of the wealthy is an appalling indictment of our society. As a child I found it was these great composers that offered a rare glimpse of something bigger and brighter than the rest of my educational world. Being able to torture my teacher with my dire piano playing, listening to Peter and the Wolf, watching a talented ex-pupil play Chopin on stage - all of these things were vital and extraordinary experiences that in some way moulded and shaped my desire to immerse myself in music and, perhaps more importantly, gave me the feeling that there was something infinitely more exciting than my rather one-dimensional and painful schooldays.
"To cut or remove classical music from the curriculum would be tantamount to substituting Shakespeare with Grisham - a cheapening and eroding of our cultural heritage that will have long-lasting and far-reaching consequences. Accessibility is a vital part of education. In the land that gave us Britten, Elgar, the Proms and Cheryl Cole, surely music education is a right and not a privilege. The success of El Sistema in Venezuela and the global inspiration it has produced should provide a clear message - the life-changing power of music is something to be treasured and supported. Music will always survive; far better it does so because of our government rather than despite it. "
"I was nine years old when, walking along my street in Tottenham, North London, holding my uncle’s hand, I confided that I heard music all the time in my head which I didn’t know what to do with. It was my Uncle Arthur who suggested that I might be a composer.
"It has been a long and winding road towards acquiring all the education and skills I needed but without the good start I had – a wonderful music teacher, Miss Beale, at our state primary school in Tottenham who taught everyone in the class to read and write music at the age of nine and who encouraged me to write my first ensemble composition for the class – Frogs and Toads – it would have been an even harder journey.
"I’ve just finished a day’s work on what is my eleventh opera. I still hear music all the time in my head and am full of plans for the future. I am never without a commission. My music has been, on a NASA mission, to outer space.
"Every single day I give thanks for the musical education which made my career as a professional composer possible. I believe that everyone who wants to, regardless of their background, should have access to the tools of this most remarkable trade."
"The days of considering music to be a mere hobby for the rich, a luxury, something of no intrinsic value, are surely over? Or are they...? Children of all ages are fascinated and stimulated by sound. They are 'wowed over' when they watch a virtuoso, thrilled when they experience a symphony orchestra. Given the chance, they're eager to pick up an instrument and ‘have a go’ - to engage, to 'create'.
"Budgetary cuts affect music education disproportionately. Students are still being taught the full school curriculum but instrumental teaching is being slashed. It is obviously the funding structure which should be amended, so that when cuts have to be made, the basic building blocks of music education are not annihilated overnight.
"The Longfellow quotation, 'Music is the universal language of mankind', may sound like a cliche, but, can we, as a society, deprive children the chance of experiencing this 'language'? The benefits of music education are numerous. It has a multitude of applications physical, artistic, cognitive, creative, social, therapeutic, intellectual... No matter who we are, it is a major force in our lives.
"It would be a sad indictment of our society if we not only ignore the benefits of music education, but if we deny a generation the chance of experiencing even a few of the wonders music has to offer. Music itself is a great survivor, but the route of passing it on to others has rarely been more fragile."