Showing posts with label Sir Frederick Ashton. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sir Frederick Ashton. Show all posts

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.




Sunday, July 17, 2011

Up close with Osipova and Vasiliev



My ultimate night off is a trip to the ballet. Yesterday I treated myself to a spot close to the front at the Coliseum to see Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev, the young supernovas of the Bolshoi Ballet, in Sir Frederick Ashton's Romeo and Juliet. I sat near enough to hear Osipova breathe and to watch the rippling of Vasiliev's impressive leg muscles.

I've always been curious about this ballet. Ashton is a big favourite and this is one of his that I've never seen before, since it's not often done in London. It was created for the Royal Danish Ballet and apparently was bequeathed  in Ashton's will to the dancer and director Peter Schaufuss, whose company was responsible for its nine-performance visit.

Here in the Big Smoke we're steeped in the Kenneth MacMillan version, and it's hard to forget about it while watching this very different, exceedingly condensed account. But while MacMillan's is a grand-scale company piece, full of dazzling solo spots and set pieces for the corps de ballet, Ashton extracts the essence of Shakespeare's poetry and focuses on nothing else - as if Romeo and Juliet has become a Shakespeare sonnet. The corps - or the few couples representing it - have little to do; the ballroom scene looks more like a preamble to a family dinner party; and the lovers are dead at 9.30pm, by which time (if I remember rightly) Covent Garden has usually just killed off Tybalt. Having so said, I've no idea whether or not this was precisely Ashton's original or if it has been further truncated for this run (other reviewers have suggested so).

It didn't strike me as the vintage Ashton of gems like La fille mal gardee and A Month in the Country. Yet it has many moments of poetic beauty in the several pas de deux that feature ecstatic, open-limbed lifts and lavish backbends; Juliet flourishes in intricate and skittering choreography, and there's fantastic character development for her that leaves the rest of the cast in the shade. Direct references to Shakespeare are enjoyable: the lovers, meeting for the first time, make much of their touching palms (see left); Mercutio 'bites his thumb' at Tybalt; and of the relationships on stage, perhaps the most touching of all was that between Juliet and her nurse (who's feistier than MacMillan's equivalent and gives the importunate page boy a good thrashing). There's much gazing over shoulders while, unusually, the dancers are required to turn their backs on the audience. Generally, though - musical as it remains - it seemed to lack the degree of focused imagery and points of crystallisation in which so many of Ashton's other ballets excel.

Osipova and Vasiliev aren't natural Ashtonians, and the surrounding Danes proved interesting company in every sense: while it seemed that the Bolshoi pair were making a great effort to rein in their natural athleticism and immense technical prowess to suit Ashton's poetic restraint, the bouncy and lyrical Danes let rip. Alban Lendorf of the Royal Danish Ballet brought the house down as Mercutio: as in Shakespeare, it's more of a character role than the moony Romeo, and Lendorf's acting ability had the chance to exceed that of his star colleague. Dancing next to Vasiliev in purely technical terms must be a huge challenge, too, and Lendorf met it at literally every turn. Showpieces for Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio found Vasiliev giving us those glorious leaps and his magically controlled spins that flower into slow motion at the end, but Lendorf's multiple whirls (wonderfully on-the-spot) would put many Odiles to shame; and Robin Bernardet as Benvolio offered seriously dazzling footwork.

Their Tybalt, Johan Christensen, was a renegade Goth type, a problem child with a major anger management problem; slightly hard to believe in Lady Capulet's passion for him, but his sword fights are magnetic and that roll down the steps when Romeo kills him must be jolly painful.  Super support, too, from Schaufuss himself as Friar Laurence; and his daughter, Tara, had a lively and tender solo spot as Mercutio's girlfriend.

But it was Osipova's show. She's an astounding dance actress, growing before our eyes from teasing child to awakening woman, from furious teenager to desperate and decisive suicide, making every high-set developee and every last pas de bourree into an expression of character. At times I nearly feared for Vasiliev, since his Juliet outacted him and his Mercutio nearly stole his limelight.

On balance, though (pun unintended), I don't think he needs to worry. What a gorgeous pair they are, these two real-life lovers: magnetic, flexible, passionate, all-giving artists in the grand sense of which the Bolshoi tradition has never lost sight, and imbued with a charisma that makes it physically impossible to glance away while they're on stage. Never mind the production's shortcomings in terms of lighting/sets/costumes: this was a night to remember.

More previews from the Peter Schaufuss Ballet's run-up to the run here: