Showing posts with label Stravinsky. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Stravinsky. Show all posts

Friday, March 28, 2014

No organisation for Stravinsky?

It's the strange case of the missing Rite of Spring.

The launch of the Royal Festival Hall's newly refurbished organ has been dominating the Southbank Centre all this week, with a no-holds-barred festival called Pull Out All The Stops. My old friend and colleague Clare Stevens was at the recital by the distinguished French organist Olivier Latry last night and she reports on an incident that has implications far beyond the sound of the mighty "king of the instruments". 

Latry had planned to play a transcription of The Rite of Spring, apparently originating in the composer's own version for two pianos, four hands, but the programme was changed to Widor's Fifth Symphony. What happened?


Clare says: "In addition to referring to his disappointment in very strong terms in his pre-concert talk, Latry read a prepared and clearly very impassioned statement at the start of the second half apologising to the audience especially those who had booked tickets in order to hear the Rite, and explaining that Stravinsky's publishers had withheld permission, on the grounds that it would be an infringement of Stravinsky's intellectual property to play it. Apparently it is OK to play it in the US where the publishers' writ doesn't run. Latry added that he still hoped to be able to come back and play it at the RFH one day, if the rules change."

As a TV presenter once said to a tattoo artist, where do you draw the line? On the one hand, it is vitally important to uphold those laws; otherwise it is artists/creatives who lose out. On the other hand, it would also be nice to think there could be some two-way traffic and that an arrangement could be reached whereby an artist as stupendous as Latry could indeed be heard performing a work like Rite, especially for such a special occasion (apart from anything else, imagine all the work he must have put into learning the thing). Where dedication and tribute is surely a motivation, in the context of the very top level of the world's organs and organists, shouldn't the situation be rather different from the more widespread acts of piracy, cheating and unauthorised exploitation? But meanwhile this Rite - with a certain irony - had to be sacrificed.

The organ festival - which runs til June - continues this weekend with Cameron Carpenter (yes, that guy) improvising a live sound-track to the 1920s German Expressionist film classic The Cabinet of Dr Caligari tomorrow night, plus fun and games all around the centre including free taster organ lessons. Check it out here.


Thursday, June 20, 2013

"Rhythm is everything": how Stravinsky himself choreographed the Rite


Before you ditch the Rite of Spring centenary for overkill, please read this utterly fascinating essay by Robert Craft from the Times Literary Supplement.

"Rhythm is everything," Stravinsky wrote on his score. "Where there is rhythm, there is music..." His descriptions of exactly how he wants the dancers to count would probably cause some crossed pointe shoes, though.

Craft, the composer's amanuensis, records the inception of the ballet and its Lithuanian influences, especially the work of Ciurlionis; the vital input of the artist Nicholas Roerich; and Stravinsky's own plans for its choreography, in minute detail. (It also sheds some intriguing light on the great Russian's sexuality, which in turn casts unexpected illumination on his relationship with Diaghilev, and may possibly disillusion fans of Igor and Coco...)
'Moving to his piano, Stravinsky opened a copy of The Rite and played a few passages. Suddenly, in the “Augurs of Spring”, he stopped playing to criticize the music, remarking that “the really innovative element is the accents”, and “the upper parts are good enough and the bass is acceptable, but I could have found something more interesting in the middle”. His final remark, as he flicked through the rest of the score, is unforgettable: “There are good things in this, but also many pages that do not interest me at all”. This is the man who on the first day I met him said, “Music is the greatest means we have of digesting time”.'
Read the whole thing here.  Craft's new book, Stravinksy: Discoveries and Memories, was published last month.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Rite shares its birthday with....



Above, part of the first reconstruction, by the Joffrey Ballet, of the original Rite, choreographed by Nijinsky, designed by Roerich. And here, my article from The Independent (published 12 Feb) telling the story of that first night.

And... today is also Korngold's birthday. He turned 16 on the day the Stravinsky first hit the stage. He was quite a fan of Stravinsky, as it happens - there's a lovely story about when he went to hear Petrouchka and applauded and his father, the music critic Julius Korngold, tried to stop him. The young composer's response to the Rite furore either isn't recorded or hasn't reached my eyes/ears yet. One imagines the ballet might have caused Julius's blood pressure some problems.

It would be so interesting, on the one hand, to rewind the clock, air-lift Julius Korngold out of Erich Wolfgang's personal equation, let the lad study with Schoenberg and hang out with the avant-garde crowd and see how he ended up writing... But on the other hand, if he had done that, would he have come into contact at the crucial moment with Max Reinhardt? It was thanks to Reinhardt that he first went to Hollywood in 1934. He might not have escaped otherwise.

Anyhow, an actual staging of Das Wunder der Heliane has turned up on the Internet, so here is Act I. It's from Brno, with a setting that makes vivid reference to the fact that the opera shared its own year of birth with Fritz Lang's Metropolis. It is conducted by Peter Feranec and directed by Johannes Reitmeier. The second part is available to view on Youtube as well.



Tuesday, February 12, 2013

A hundred years ago already?

(OK, OK, I promise I'm never, ever going to say again that I'm on holiday and won't blog for a week. Apologies for typos in the past few posts - I was working on a shiny-screened laptop in brilliant Egyptian sunshine....... Now back. Bit chilly here, i'n't it?)

My birthday tribute to The Rite of Spring - a piece of music without which my life might have been very different - is out in today's Independent. (Own obligatory book plug here.) Below, please find the director's cut. First, here's a fascinating interview with Monica Mason, Kenneth MacMillan's original Chosen Maiden, about the making of his version, with extracts of dancing from the amazing Ed Watson, the most recent male Chosen One at Covent Garden, among others.







THE RITE OF SPRING
Jessica Duchen

It was probably the most cataclysmic moment in the history of music. On 29 May 1913 the curtain rose at Paris’s Théatre des Champs-Elysées on the new ballet Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring), choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky to a score by Igor Stravinsky. Minutes later the place was in uproar. This event set the music of the 20th century in motion as surely as the shooting of Archduke Franz Ferdinand 13 months later heralded a terrifying new age in warfare, politics and society. 

Speaking recently at the first night of the Southbank Centre’s year-long festival of 20th and 21st-century music, The Rest is Noise, the artistic director Jude Kelly termed this era “the age of violence”. And in 1913 The Rite of Spring was indubitably the most violent music the world had yet heard. Harmony is slashed, cubic, multilayered. Often the orchestra effectively plays in two keys at once. Melody, when it is present at all, is fragmentary, suggesting the ambience and contours of folk songs. Rhythm drives the whole thing, but those rhythms – elemental, driven, clashing – are anything but predictable, throwing the listener about like a runaway train. Stravinsky sets up a pattern only in order to shatter it. It has been suggested that the work contains “a touch of sadism”. 

The ballet’s story is indeed cruel. An imaginary ancient tribe sacrifices a young virgin to propitiate the god of spring. We are hapless witnesses as the Chosen Maiden is selected, glorified, then forced to dance herself to death. It is a gut-wrenching idea that could seem almost to tap into a primitive bloodlust. Whether or not that was deliberate on Stravinsky’s part, or Nijinsky’s, is something we’ll probably never know. 

Stravinsky claimed that he had the idea for the ballet in a “fleeting vision”. But someone else needs to receive more credit for dreaming it up: the ballet’s designer, the Russian artist and philosopher Nicholas Roerich, who was far more deeply engaged with matters of folklore – besides Theosophy and occult mysticism – than the composer himself. Stravinsky’s earlier ballets drew on fairy stories and Russian folk music, but the wellsprings of horror that underlie The Rite are never fully present. Stravinsky certainly developed the scenario in collaboration with Roerich, and later the artist was furious to see his crucial role in its creation downgraded while the composer hogged the glory. 

Not that there was much of that to be had from the hissing and cat-calling on the first night. The protest broke out shortly after curtain-up. Stravinsky fled the auditorium and observed the rest of the performance from backstage: “I have never again been that angry,” he recalled. Serge Diaghilev – the impresario behind the Ballets russes de Monte Carlo, responsible for commissioning all concerned – was nevertheless rather satisfied with the outcome. Even then, there was no such thing as bad publicity.

The “riot at The Rite” has been the subject of endless scrutiny. Doubt has been cast on whether it really amounted to a riot at all; noise, yes, but fist-fights, probably not, though around 40 people are said to have been thrown out of the theatre. In all likelihood the disapprobation was directed at Nijinsky’s eccentric and ungainly choreography, rather than Stravinsky’s efforts; after all, with so much noise, the music was scarcely audible. Commentators have pointed to all manner of issues at stake that night, from a faction in attendance that was loyal to Diaghilev’s better-established choreographer, Mikhail Fokine, to the sensitivities of a French audience beleaguered by the tense atmosphere that prefigured World War I. But some composers who heard it were not happy either; Puccini attended on the second night and dubbed it the work of “a madman”.

Stravinsky emerged from the fracas dispirited; he feared that the hostile reception would shatter the momentum he had achieved following enthusiastic responses to his first two ballets, The Firebird (1910) and Petrushka (1911). But just under a year later, The Rite was rescued when the conductor Pierre Monteux championed it at the Casino de Paris, purely as a concert piece. Allowed to stand or fall on its musical merits, The Rite rose triumphant. 

Today The Rite of Spring has achieved a popularity that Stravinsky could only have dreamed of on that notorious first night. It is a tribute to him that even after a century in which every traditional parameter of music – tonality, rhythm, melody, sonority – has been subverted or destroyed, this work has lost none of its power. In a year dominated to excess by composers’ anniversaries – Wagner, Verdi and Britten – The Rite, only about half an hour long, is enjoying a similar celebration in its own right. 

If anything, its power has increased with familiarity (no doubt helped along when Disney animated it with volcanoes and dinosaurs in Fantasia). It is a concert staple, a modern classic. Last year the London Symphony Orchestra and the conductor Valery Gergiev performed it in Trafalgar Square; a 10,000-strong audience turned out to cheer it on. In the theatre, numerous choreographers have turned their hand to its reinterpretation, from Kenneth MacMillan’s geometric marvels to the heartbreaking terror of Pina Bausch’s version for her Tanztheater Wuppertal. 

We can expect plenty more of it this year. Sadler’s Wells is to stage a celebration entitled A String of Rites, including Michael Keegan Dolan’s choreography of The Rite for Fabulous Beast, a large-scale community project and a new, full-evening ballet by Akram Khan, entitled iTMOi (in the mind of Igor), with new music by Nitin Sawhney, Jocelyn Pook and Ben Frost. And first, the work features in a concert in The Rest is Noise, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. It’s clear that as it reaches its hundredth birthday Stravinsky’s most famous score has become as perennial as spring itself.

The Rite of Spring features in The Rest is Noise at the Royal Festival Hall on 16 February with the London Philharmonic conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Box office: 0844 875 0073

MUSIC THAT SHOCKED
Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde (1865)
Wagner’s opera changed the face of music when later composers fell under the spell of its harmonic language; but its eroticism scandalised many listeners. Clara Schumann wrote: “It was the most repulsive thing...To be forced to see and listen to such sexual frenzy the whole evening, in which every feeling of decency is violated …I endured it to the end since I wanted to hear the whole lot!”

Georges Bizet: Carmen (1875)
Bizet’s opera was a flop when it first opened at Paris’s Opéra-Comique. It broke the conventions of the venue’s repertoire by ending in murder and tragedy; and the sexually liberated Carmen was regarded as a scandalous, immoral heroine. The opera’s many admirers included Nietzche and also Tchaikovsky, who was greatly influenced by it, but Bizet died three months after the world premiere and never saw its success.

Richard Strauss: Salome (1905)
Strauss amplified Oscar Wilde’s play about the lust-maddened princess and her demand for the head of John the Baptist with music that mixed sensual beauty with claustrophobic and violent excess. Salome’s final scena over the severed head culminates in a chord that encapsulates her depravity so thoroughly that tracts have been written about this moment alone. The opera was banned in London for its first two years. Strauss set out to shock – and succeeded.

Arnold Schoenberg: String Quartet No.2 (1908)
“I feel wind from other planets,” runs the Stefan George poem that Schoenberg set for soprano and string quartet in this ground-breaking work. So did its audience. The planet in question was the final movement’s experiment in “atonality”: a piece written without any tonal centre, giving an impression of floating, unrooted dissonance that exists for its own sake rather than for its relativity. More than a century later, the effect still sounds radical.

John Adams: The Death of Klinghoffer (1991)
Based on the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists, Adams’s opera fell foul of ferocious international sensitivities. Planned productions were cancelled and some responses expressed horror that the work should dare to portray the emotions of characters on both sides. After 9/11, an article in the New York Times accused it of “romanticizing terrorism”. Its UK stage premiere finally took place at English National Opera last year, to considerable acclaim.




Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Reflecting on the Rite


It won't have escaped the notice of canny JDCMB fans that 2013 marks the 100th anniversary of Stravinsky's seismic ballet score, Le sacre du printemps, or The Rite of Spring [above: dancers of the Ballets Russes in the original version].

A special website has been set up for the occasion by the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill: https://www.theriteofspringat100.org/ One section is 'Spring Encounters: Reflections on the Rite', and for this Will Robin asked me to contribute a post about my own relationship with the music.

It so happens that the ballet score inadvertently inspired my first novel, which was called, er, Rites of Spring. (Book plug: paperback here, Kindle edition here.) So I wrote about how and why, and what it tells us about the ballet, the music and life today. Here's the link to the piece.

https://www.theriteofspringat100.org/reflection/spring-encounters-jessica-duchen/

Friday, November 16, 2012

Who is this Petrushka anyway?


Puppet or dancer? Entertainer or symbol? If the latter, symbol of what? The premiere of the multi-media Petrushka in Wimbledon the other night, which I previewed here, was an evening to remember.

For pianist Mikhail Rudy it's the culmination of years of dreaming and planning. It began when he took Stravinsky's own Three Dances from Petrushka (piano arrangements made for Rubinstein, who never played them, apparently - too difficult, the story goes...) and set about transcribing the rest of the complete ballet score himself, with lurking visions of what could one day be done with it in terms of visual interpretation. Micha writes of a childhood impression of a puppet show:
"I could tell that behind the curtain there was an unsettling human form, which made my heart thump. I called him The Great Puppeteer. Invested with an extraordinary power, he was able to breathe life into his creations, to make them dance and laugh, or fall in love, but, at his least whim, he could melt them down at will into a spoon, like a character from Peer Gynt, or cut off their heads as if they were poor Petrushka. I was hypnotized by his limitless power, and I identified with his creatures. Were my emotions real or imaginary? I'm still looking for the answer."
"In the little theatre where the drama of Petrushka and the Ballerina is played out, one piece of wood – the piano – brings to life other pieces of wood, at the behest of a magician in a black suit. Perhaps one should play Petrushka in a top hat, surrounded by white rabbits and ladies sawn in half whose reflections keep on multiplying in mirrors… The piano giving the illusion of an orchestra, which in turn gives the illusion of marionettes, who in turn make us believe in human feelings."
Now, realised as a multi-media film by IWMF director Anthony Wilkinson, with dancers from Rambert and Matthew Bourne's New Adventures and absolutely mesmerising puppetry from the Little Angel Theatre, the Petrushka project presents Micha with an almighty challenge: playing this plethora of colourful fairground activity, inner anguish, mechanistic irony and mystical symbolism is quite tough enough without having to coordinate one's every movement with a movie. The result? It works its magic from first snowflake-drenched moment to last.

The puppeteer sees his own impish, teasing, rebellious creation achieve acrobatic wonders, undergo very human suffering, and ultimately elude him altogether. The poor puppet's head is unscrewed, his sawdust emptied on the ground, his carcas left in a cardboard box - only to reappear beyond grasp, argumentative as ever, a spirit in his own right that can never be destroyed.

Micha is aligned at once with the puppeteer/magician, wearing the turquoise and gold cloak of the character throughout his performance (but no top hat, rabbits or sawn-in-two females...). The pianist is the puppeteer; the piano is the puppet. And it escapes. The spirit of art and of creativity is something we think is ours and that we can control. But maybe, instead, it is this spirit that comes to control us. It's more than we think it is: independent, elusive, immutable.

Despite a lifetime of familiarity with Petrushka's music, story, choreography and concept, this dazzling mingling of artforms in a quiet Wimbledon sidestreet was the first time the work truly made sense to me at its deeper level. Bravo Micha, bravo Anthony and bravi bravissimi Little Angels.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Aces ahoy at Wimbledon

Amid sighs of relief and big cheers for President Obama, back home in Blighty the countdown to the International Wimbledon Music Festival has begun. Coins have been tossed, warm-ups enacted, the end of the court selected, Federer is set to play Murr...oh, well, maybe not yet... Actually, Roger Federer (pictured right) is rumoured to be a major enthusiast for classical music. But even without him, there are some aces to be served in SW19 in the weeks ahead. Because we have here a festival director, Anthony Wilkinson, who's determined to move heaven, earth and a lot of amazing people to transform south-west London into a magnet for marvellous music-making.

Now, there's some amazing news about my play A Walk Through the End of Time, concerning Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time, the festival's performance of which at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, has been sold out for weeks. (Article about it from the Independent, here.) It seems that such is the demand for tickets that they have decided to offer another performance, later the same afternoon! It will start at 5.15pm. We are immensely grateful to Henry Goodman and Harriet Walter for agreeing to do this, and to Anita Lasker-Wallfisch too. Box office: 020 8940 3633. Website is here - if the extra show isn't on it yet, just call the box office and ask to be put on the waiting list for tickets.... Here's Anthony announcing the glad tidings last night:



The play is in seriously good company. The festival kicks off on Saturday 10 November with a glorious Purcell jamboree starring Susan Bickley, Robin Blaze, Njabulo Madlala, James Bowman and Malin Christensson. And it's beginning as it means to go on, because every concert is a highlight in its own right. Catch the Messiaen Quartet for the End of Time itself the night after the play in the expert hands of the Nash Ensemble; thrill to the wonders of Christine Brewer singing Strauss and Wagner (yes, in Wimbledon!); enjoy celebrity recitals by violinist Alina Ibragimova and her family, as well as cellist Zuill Bailey and starry young guitarist Xuefei Yang; and absolutely don't miss Piers Lane and Patricia Routledge in Admission: One Shilling, the story of Dame Myra Hess and the National Gallery Concerts in the Blitz. Twenty-three events in all, and the whole lot are world class. Here's the full programme, so have a browse and book soon.

Perhaps the most exciting, though, is the Petrushka project, specially created by the IWMF with the pianist Mikhail Rudy. "Micha" is one of the last of the true old-school Russian artists, having trained at the Moscow Conservatoire with Jakob Flier and subsequently defected with a flood of international attention, to say nothing of some brushes with the KGB, in 1977. His autobiography (left) is fascinating, and reading it is excellent for polishing your French. In recent years Micha has taken in a big way to multimedia projects - I've already reported extensively on his marvellous theatre version of Spilman's memoirs in The Pianist (soon to return to Britain, we understand) and the beautiful animated Kandinsky film for Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, which he brought to Wimbledon last year.

Petrushka goes even further. Some years ago, Micha took the three pieces from the Stravinsky score than already exist in transcription for piano solo, and set about transcribing the rest of the work. Now he, Anthony Wilkinson, choreographer Claire Sibley and the Little Angel Theatre have collaborated to bring together all the elements that feature in the original concept of Petrushka: live music, ballet and puppetry. I've had a sneak preview of the entire film, produced and directed by Anthony, and can bring you an extract, below - and there is some truly extraordinary stuff in it. I will never understand the magic by which expert puppeteers can appear to infuse a piece of wood and string with actual life - and that magic, of course, is what Petrushka is all about. See it on 14 November.



On the night, Micha performs the music live to the film. The costumes, incidentally, are designed by students of the Wimbledon College of Art. And the whole thing was made possible by a grant from the Arts Council England, the Lottery Fund, the Tertis Foundation and a donation from Mr and Mrs Kutsenko. This Wimbledon performance should be the first of many, as the plan is to tour this project nationally, and internationally too.

Next step? What about a world-class concert hall for Wimbledon? I'm not joking. Watch this space.




Sunday, March 18, 2012

No word from Tom...

No word from Tom... he has been sent to perdition by the devil in disguise.



"Love hears, Love knows, Love answers him across the silent miles and goes..."

But as Scottish Opera stages The Rake's Progress for the first time in 40 years (opening night was yesterday), I had a bit of a ponder about why operatic rakes are so damned irresistible. Short version in The Independent the other day. Full-length director's cut below.



Things do not look good for Anne Truelove. “No word from Tom,” she sings, while her beloved vanishes to London, led astray by the sinister Nick Shadow. That is just the start of her problems. Stravinsky’s neoclassical masterpiece, The Rake’s Progress, concludes with a heartbreaking scene in which Anne sings her Tom a lullaby as he dies by inches in the lunatic asylum of Bedlam.

What does Anne see in this wastrel anyway? David McVicar’s new production for Scottish Opera – the company’s first staging of the work for 40 years – will no doubt offer insights of its own. But in general, women in operas do love their rakes too much. And so do we. From Monteverdi’s Renaissance glories onwards, through centuries of operatic drama, it’s not the devil who gets the best tunes: it’s the cads, the bounders, the nogoodniks. 

They cause heartbreak at best, multiple deaths at worst. Some redeem themselves musically, like Monteverdi’s Nero in L’incoronazione di Poppea. Having murdered and executed in order to secure a throne for his mistress, he finally sings with her such a heavenly duet that we forgive them everything.

Others get their come-uppance. Mozart’s Don Giovanni is dragged away to hell by a ghost, and good riddance to him. Puccini’s Lieutenant Pinkerton has to witness the suicide of his former beloved, Madame Butterfly. Perhaps we enjoy their punishments vicariously, for in real life there is usually no such satisfaction, unless it lies in watching news reports of the fall of Silvio Berlusconi. 

But even in opera it doesn’t always happen. The Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto is awarded one of Verdi’s most memorable melodies – and he gets away with everything, blithely unaware that the heroine has given her life to save his, while he sashays on towards his next victim. Typical tenor, some would say.

Yes, the good guys are left standing while the rakes loop the loop around our hearts. Don Ottavio, the kind, upstanding fiancé of Donna Anna and possessor of a pair of fine arias, is a wimp of the first order beside Don Giovanni and his sidekick Leporello; he is way too nice to be interesting.

Tom Rakewell manages to remain hero rather than villain, since his fate is not really his fault: Nick Shadow – the devil in disguise – has planned it all. Tom’s decline and fall is not punishment, but tragedy. His secret is nevertheless quite clear. He is that great operatic rarity, a well-rounded character.
That may explain the appeal of those stage rakes: we see more sides of them, especially their human frailties, and perhaps that inspires their composers to greater heights than a bland, single-facet ‘hero’ could. 

Wotan of Wagner’s Ring Cycle is the ultimate example. If it were not for his philandering and the punishment meted out for it in Die Walküre by his wife, the rest of the saga would not happen at all.
Wotan is the most fascinating figure of the Ring, his tortured self-questioning making him more human than superhuman. His anguished farewell to his daughter as he puts her to sleep in a circle of fire is, IMHO, the most beautiful passage in all four operas. Meanwhile, Siegfried, touted as a great hero, is a brawny dolt whom it is hard to empathise with, let alone like.

But in the end, this is all about human nature. Many are the women who have fallen for the irresistible rogue rather than his sensible brother with a faithful heart and a proper job. It’s always been that way and probably always will; and if opera reflects this, that makes it all the more true to life. 

Bring on the Rake, then – and the great music that goes with him.

The Rake’s Progress, Scottish Opera, opens at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, on 17 March.  Box office: 0844 871 7677