Showing posts with label Symphony Hall Birmingham. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Symphony Hall Birmingham. Show all posts

Monday, May 27, 2013

New Perryman portrait for Symphony Hall...


This is Norman Perryman's brand-new watercolour portrait of Bryn Terfel as The Flying Dutchman. It is due to join the substantial gallery of this unique music-focused artist's work at Symphony Hall in his native Birmingham, where it will be unveiled on 7 June.

Norman writes on his blog:
"This painting is inspired by fragments of the Dutchman’s role that Bryn sang to me in our portrait “sitting” (actually standing) in a Milan apartment. He chose parts of the famous monologue “Die Frist ist um” (“The term is up…once more”) when the Dutch captain is pleading with the angel in heaven and wrestling with his fate. The mariner is condemned to roam the seas, allowed to go ashore after every seven years. But if he can find someone who will be faithful to him unto death, he will be released from his curse. Since then, I’ve been playing this opera continuously in my studio (and every other recording Bryn has made!). My paintings are always driven by the music and I delved deep into the intense emotions of the plot, from depression to disappointment, ecstasy and tragedy. It gets quite exhausting!

"Rejecting idiosyncratic images from various opera productions, I put together my own impressions of Bryn as the Dutchman, with a seaman’s hands, tanned complexion, long hair and leather long-coat and with a somewhat ambiguous expression, somewhere between desperation and a glimpse of hope. The background and brushwork suggest not only the stormy atmosphere, but the emotional drama of the surging music. Bryn’s phenomenally expressive voice and his dramatic stage presence made the creation of this painting a very intense experience." ...
Read the rest of his post about the painting here.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Beethoven: Strength, Inspiration, Revolution!


There've been a few enquiries about my pre-concert talk for the CBSO & Andris Nelsons's Beethoven cycle in Symphony Hall, Birmingham, on 20 and 21 March. Here's the complete text, plus a recording of the movement I took apart via a surprise analogy that worked even better than I'd expected when I started preparing it...


BEETHOVEN, MUSIC AND REVOLUTION


Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and a very warm welcome to Symphony Hall for the continuation of Andris Nelsons and the CBSO’s Beethoven cycle. 

We’ve got to symphonies numbers 6 and 7 today and it’s a very great pleasure for me to be here to introduce them, as they happen to be my personal favourites of the nine. The sixth is, of course, the ‘Pastoral’ symphony and the seventh was once described by Wagner as ‘the apotheosis of the dance’ – though the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham had to put his own slant on that. He said, “well, what can you do with it, it’s like a load of yaks jumping about.” 

As Elvis Costello once said, talking about music is like dancing about architecture. It’s essentially intangible - but what I’d like to do today is to try to burrow into some of those intangible connections to consider how Beethoven can seem to convey to us the deepest associations between the processes of music and the processes of life and of living. And this might help to show why we think of him as a revolutionary, producing music that inspires idealism the way few others could dream of. 

Daniel Barenboim often says that music is like God because you can’t describe it – you can only describe the effect that it has. There’s no music more associated with Barenboim than Beethoven. Last year you might have caught the series he performed at the Proms with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra of the complete Beethoven symphonies. At the end of the Ninth Symphony he zipped off to the Olympic Stadium and took part in the opening ceremony of the London 2012 games – he was one of eight great humanitarians who carried in the Olympic flag together (pictured). They were dressed all in white, and shortly afterwards I interviewed him and he said he’d felt like a carnation. Barenboim has written and spoken extensively on the links between musical expression and life itself, and of music’s role in society as an art that can encapsulate the deepest and most universal of human processes. His book Everything is Connected is all about this. 

Barenboim says that “Beethoven’s music is universal – it speaks to all people”. The question is, why? How can it be that pieces written for a western classical orchestra some two hundred years ago can communicate so vividly with such a range of people today? And this music really does. 

A few years ago I went to the West Bank to report on some music education projects. Together with some musician friends, I had lunch in Hebron [pictured right - a snap of Hebron from the trip] with an amazing Palestinian lady named Sharifa, who showed us around the historic mosque where the tomb of the Patriarchs is located. Sharifa is an absolute indomitable battle-axe. She has to struggle daily with many very difficult situations. But she has extraordinary spirit and an irrepressible sparkle. Her English was good, but not perfect, and at one point we were trying to explain to her the word “inspiration”. And when she understood, she straight away asked the violinist who was with us to play some Beethoven. She loves Beethoven: she says he gives her strength. She was born and raised far from the music of the western classical tradition in a terribly troubled spot of the Middle East – but to her, Beethoven was the absolute definition of the word ‘inspiration’.

We hear frequently that Beethoven is “revolutionary”. But I wonder why he strikes us that way. His inner strength, of course, is unmistakeable. We know that in 1802 he went through a tremendous personal crisis while he was living in Heiligenstadt, just outside Vienna. He had to face the fact that he was losing his hearing, and for a man who lives body, heart and soul for music, this was the worst thing that life could do to him. In his most famous document, the Heiligenstadt Testament – part will, part explanation, that he wrote for his two brothers – he said: “Such things brought me to the verge of desperation, and well-nigh caused me to put an end to my life. Art! art alone deterred me. Ah! how could I possibly leave the world before bringing forth all that I felt it was my vocation to produce?”. 

But Beethoven’s essential strength, the revolutionary quality, if you like, is not really biographical, at least not solely. Yes, he had huge personal battles to overcome and much tragedy in his life. His ideals are certainly reflected in his works, in some more directly than others. His only opera, Fidelio, for instance, is about a devoted wife who disguises herself as a man to infiltrate a political prison and save her husband from its dungeon. But Beethoven doesn’t ever seem to have been involved with politics beyond his intellectual interest. And of course his deafness, which set in when he was only about 28, would probably have prevented him getting involved even if he had wished to. He had great social and political ideals, though, and he certainly felt the injustices of the world: he was a cantankerous, troubled individual, yet one who, under that facade, felt an enormous compassion towards humanity. 

I heard a theory recently – from the great pianist Murray Perahia – that the real meaning of the so-called ‘Moonlight’ sonata may be something beyond our usual assumption that the publisher added the title for effect. Instead, it’s possible that this heading refers to the so-called ‘children of moonlight’, a term that described the spirits of the unfortunate, the outcasts, people who were denied the sunlight of the Enlightenment – hence the polarity of sun and moon. These spirits would sing of their suffering to the world through the medium of the Aeolian harp, which is played by the wind. Apparently there is good circumstantial evidence to support the theory and it is much in tune with Beethoven’s spirit, to say nothing of the concept fitting the music to perfection. 

So perhaps there Beethoven could consciously have matched image to musical content. But what about the subconsciously revolutionary qualities in the music of his symphonies? And why can they seem revolutionary even to us today? In Beethoven’s time, this music would have sounded not just new, but shockingly new. The overt sense of conflict, the struggle between primal, motivic themes vying for supremacy, sparks flying through the extremities of his contrasts, all that would have sounded incredibly radical around the turn of the 18th into the 19th century. Beethoven was not remotely easy listening for those accustomed to graceful minuets in the background to accompany their dinner. And especially not just after the French Revolution.

But now? We’ve had Mahler, we’ve had Schoenberg, we’ve had Stravinsky, we’ve had, for goodness sake, Stockhausen and Boulez and John Cage. Why does Beethoven still inspire feelings of idealism, and even of political idealism, to ears and minds that have been exposed to so much else?

There are several levels to this. For a start, tonight’s two symphonies are totally different from one another; each is unique. But then, so is every other Beethoven symphony. And so is every single one of his 32 piano sonatas and each of his string quartets. And so on. Beethoven doesn’t repeat himself – the structures of no two works are exactly the same, and each one has not only an individual form but an individual soundworld, an atmosphere that is entirely its own.  

For instance, No.6 is the only Beethoven symphony in five movements and the only one in which three of the movements run through without a break. As for the individual soundworld, the spread-out, lyrical, tranquil melodies of the Sixth Symphony could scarcely be further away from the elemental punch and drive of the Seventh. This sense of constant reinvention, the need to push the boundaries further and further, is just one reason to consider Beethoven not only an innovator but, beyond that, a revolutionary. (And luckily we don't need Fantasia's Pastoral Symphony animation, pictured right, to push its own boundaries any further in this case...)

Now, there wasn’t so much that was new about the idea of a Pastoral Symphony by 1808. Or so you might think. Yet the way Beethoven approaches the idea is entirely new. Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons is probably the work’s most famous forerunner. Vivaldi gave us an extremely pictorial set of concertos with direct sonic depictions of birds twittering in spring, the rain driving down in the summer storm, the skaters weaving around on the ice in winter. Then there was Haydn, with his oratorios The Creation and The Seasons; yet he largely serves his texts: the musical pictures are developed to match the images that the singers evoke.

Beethoven’s difference is that although the symphony may sound pictorial, that isn’t the point of it. Beethoven wanted to evoke not images, but the feelings associated with them.  He provided a brief guide for the programme at the world premiere, with the words: “Pastoral Symphony, more an expression of feeling than painting.” This puts him in a musically pioneering strand with the world of romanticism, where feeling was at the forefront. Yet it’s almost as if he looks forward by about a hundred years towards the symbolist movement, in which emotion and image are completely fused and nothing can be taken at face value. 

I think this was true, in a different way, for Beethoven. For instance, he used to take long walks on which he’d jot down themes he thought of, some inspired by nature - and in 1803, scribbling a melody suggested by the sight of a river, he wrote "The greater the river, the more grave the tone." Those words could suggest that he’s not thinking of what he sees, but of what more that image suggests to him in terms of association, and metaphor, and his emotional response to that.

But there are processes inside the fabric of the music itself that while entirely abstract can still produce some startling results when you look at them in detail. To me, the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony represents a special summit of achievement. I’d like to draw on Barenboim’s idea that the processes of life and music are connected to show you why I think this music strikes us as revolutionary, at that deep, abstract level. As Barenboim says, we can’t describe music itself; we can only describe the effect that it has, and what I’d like to describe is the effect on us of Beethoven’s music’s inner processes and how they can well be said to mirror the processes of human thought, interaction and society.

So I’m going to talk us through the second movement of Beethoven Seven with a few images in mind suggested by a story that obviously has nothing to do with its creation - but that mirrors something about the way its extraordinary structure operates and the impression it makes on us. 

On 1 December 1955, an African-American woman named Rosa Parks was on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. The town buses practised racial segregation. The driver told Rosa Parks to give up her seat to a white passenger. Rosa Parks refused. This one simple gesture against an enormous human injustice snowballed and eventually led to her becoming an icon of resistance to racial segregation and an important symbol of the American civil rights movement. 

 It started as one person making one small gesture. But it sprang out of a situation of bleak injustice, and one basic, fundamental thought. A situation as bleak as Beethoven’s first chord and a thought about human rights – segregation is wrong - that is as primal as the rhythm Beethoven sets up for his main theme.


The very first chord progression when those low strings come in is tonic to dominant, dominant to tonic. It’s the most fundamental harmonic progression you can get. The theme is scarcely a melody – it is a motif, a rhythm, strong and memorable and simple, and it is fundamental to the whole movement. 

Next, Beethoven begins to bring in the other sections of the orchestra one by one: voice after voice takes up the motif. The voices that have already sung it move on to a counter-melody, a more elaborate thought that illuminates the basic thought by the way it sounds together with it. Others are taking notice, recognising, adding their voices, joining in. The idea is growing in sophistication.

The movement – a good word for it - continues to grow. The thoughts become more elaborate, further voices are drawn in from different parts of the orchestra, or different parts of society if you like, and the rhythm begins to move on too: to the basic pulse we now add a doubling of pace in the lower instruments and gradually the woodwind sidle in almost without us noticing. And, of course, a big crescendo, a great groundswell of support, is beginning.

Now triplets come into the accompaniment so you get a two against three rhythmic effect that sets up a sense of differing forces in friction against one another, adding even more to the tension. The woodwind and brass are making their presences felt, so the central motif assumes the character of a fanfare, and the drums come in as well, but not always at the obvious moments – this adds to the unsettling effect of this growth. It is unpredictable, you don’t know where it’s going to go. Yet still, the entire orchestra is united in proclaiming a fundamental truth and its consequences, with everyone pulling together, which is the only way people can rise up and effect a revolution...

Ah – what happened? The movement ran out of steam. A decrescendo and it’s come to a halt. What now? An idealist is needed, with a new sense of direction. A Martin Luther King, perhaps, with a dream of a better world, powered by the underlying motif that segregation is wrong. Beethoven’s motif, the essential idea, is very much present now as a pulse, a heartbeat, underneath the lyrical melody that now begins. Other voices echo the song of the clarinet – and all the time there’s that tension in the background of that three against two rhythm.

It should be as simple as a major scale down and up. But it isn’t. There’s an interruption, an obstacle, and now what happens? Back comes the melody that started as counterpoint to the first idea; now there’s a new counterpoint against this one, and faster still than triplets, as if to say it’s going to be more complicated than we thought. And the fundamental theme is almost buried in the form of quiet pizzicato under the complication of what it’s spawned, as the strings keep on discussing and bickering, as strings tend to, while the woodwind try to preserve a trajectory of eloquence.

Of course someone has to come along and explore the small print. The legalities, the intellectualisation of the nature of that injustice. In music, that means we have to have a fugue. New motifs and counterpoints and off-beat rhythms complicate matters considerably...as we know, the lawyers always win.

...Now the original idea returns in a strong statement, together with its ideal-world dream and an argument – a tug-of-war between major and minor – that presents a continuing struggle, a perpetuated situation with nobody ready to give in. "We can change this!" "No you can’t!" In human terms it’s at this point that sometimes people get shot for their ideas.

So what’s happened to our basic idea? It seems to be pushed out into a corner – on upper woodwind, surreptitious, then passed down, whispered along from section to section, suppressed, through the lower woodwind until it reaches pizzicato. It’s going underground. The theme seems to have lost the battle. But that doesn’t change the truth of it. And in the last bars a resurgence is promised and left hanging in mid air: it will return. The human condition is the same, injustice remains injustice, and likewise, the final chord is the same as the one at the start.
 
This is the most extraordinary structure. Beethoven builds up a great climax near the beginning, then deconstructs it, suppresses it, yet proves that those ideas must ferment and rise again. 

You can take this idea or leave it - I offer it to you as one possible way of looking at the matter, and just one of many different ways. But to me, it seems to work. 

And this, I believe, is how Beethoven helps us all to change the world.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Three easy ways to get into opera

La Voix Humaine from washmedia on Vimeo.

1. Combine exploring opera with your passion for the piano. If you're heading to the Institut Francais's big three-day keyboardfest, It's All About Piano - starting today and running through Sunday - catch the screening of Poulenc's one-woman opera La Voix Humaine, filmed with the one and only Felicity Lott - with piano accompaniment, in which version it's been recorded for the first time, delivered by the brilliant Graham Johnson. Sneak preview above. The screening is tonight at 8pm - and if you turn up at 6pm you can hear Nick van Bloss play the Goldberg Variations and a four-hands programme from Lidija and Sanja Bizjak at 7pm.

2. Pop over to CultureKicks for my latest post, which is called "How to get into opera in under six minutes". You'll find a quick guide to Rigoletto, a film of its astonishing quartet 'Bella figlia d'amore' and a short explanation of why it shows to perfection what opera can do that just cannot be done nearly so well in any other art form... (Lovely editor there then said "What about Wagner?" to which the response can only be: "Well, what about Wagner...?" Watch that space.)

3. Listen to Andris Nelsons conducting. I've just been in Birmingham doing some pre-concert talks for the CBSO's Beethoven Cycle, which he, their music director, is doing for the first time. Honest to goodness, guv, this guy is amazing. Not sure I've seen anything so purely energetic and with so much warmth since...well, who? Jansons? Solti? The atmosphere in Symphony Hall - which was sold out - really had to be experienced. Nelsons, who hails from Latvia, cut his musical teeth as an orchestral trumpeter and started off, as so many great maestri do, in the opera house, and he's married to the soprano Kristine Opolais, who's currently wowing ROH crowds in Tosca.

He conducted his first Ring Cycle at the age of 26 and is now a favourite at Bayreuth. Hear his Beethoven and you can tell why. The structures are clear, but the emotion is allowed to blaze: there's enough rhythmic strength to build a castle, but enough flexibility to let in the sunshine. The characters and personalities that shine out of each of Beethoven's symphonies are as distinct as those of any opera. Perhaps, in this conductor's hands, music is inherently operatic?

It was an absolute privilege to have introduced this extraordinary concert. Great turnout for the talks, too, especially for yesterday's matinee, where a door-count estimate suggested we had nearly 500. Thanks for your warm reception, dear friends, and I hope you all enjoyed hearing about the slow movement of Beethoven 7 through the narrative of Rosa Parks and the American civil rights movement. 

Last but not least, it was a special treat to run into our old friend Norman Perryman, the musical "kinetic artist", whose beautiful paintings and portraits are part of the Symphony Hall visual brand. Here he is beside his magnificent picture suggested by Elgar, Gerontius, which hangs in the foyer at level 4. Glad to say he was in town to start work on a portrait of Nelsons.





Monday, February 20, 2012

Perryman's paintings blog

One of the great treats the other day in visiting Symphony Hall, Birmingham, was the chance to lap up the sight of some wonderful Norman Perryman musician portraits backstage. The VIP room is full of them - Cecilia Bartoli, Valery Gergiev, Jessye Norman and more: artists captured in action, with the motion of colour around them evoking the particular energies of their music-making. They also have Rostropovich (left), which is one of my favourites.

Now Norman, who is about to undertake a major new "kinetic painting" project with no less a pianist than Pierre-Laurent Aimard in such delectable locations as the Aldeburgh Festival, has started a new project all his own: he is blogging his autobiography A Life Painting Music. 

It's nearly as colourful as his pictures. You can find the latest episode here.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Friday Historical: Szymanowski plays Szymanowski

Tomorrow evening I am doing a pre-concert talk about Szymanowski at Symphony Hall, Birmingham, where the doughty CBSO, Ed Gardner and friends are performing the elusive Polish composer's Stabat Mater (more info on their site here). The talk will be along the lines of "Introducing Karol" - though I'm a tad aware that people in Birmingham are probably among the UK's most Szymanowski-aware, following Simon Rattle's championship of him and the magnificent recordings that resulted in the 1990s.

Do come along and say hi if you're in the area. Meanwhile, here is a Friday Historical of Szymanowski playing one of his own Mazurkas.