Sunday, September 23, 2018

Ten things to learn from Das Rheingold in Brexit Island


The Ring cycle is about to begin at Covent Garden, and yesterday a friend kindly invited me to the dress rehearsal of Das Rheingold. Operas that feel pertinent to the world at large are rare animals in this stressed-out era, but the timeless issues that percolate through Wagner's two-hours-40-mins-no-break prelude couldn't be more relevant if they tried, despite concerning gods, giants, Nibelungs, Rhinemaidens, shape-shifting and a cursed ring, and Keith Warner's production makes much of this. So here are ten things our Brexity politicians (some of whom are known to adore Wagner) can learn from it.

Bloodied, worried and clinging to power: Bryn Terfel as Wotan in 2012
Photo: Clive Barda/ROH
1. Do not piss off giants. They are bigger than you and they can take hostages. You are overestimating your own power.

2. Do not break your promises. It's called cheating. Giants don't appreciate it, especially when they've given you a massive contribution to your world in good faith, building you a nice new palace and all.

3. So (see 2), don't go into an agreement with the express intention of reneging on the deal afterwards.

4. We are who we are through treaties and agreements. (This line is in the libretto and appears in large letters on the subtitle screen.) Don't ever forget it. Everything in our lives is underpinned by legal documents, treaties and agreements - from certificates for birth, marriage and even death to, er, who runs the railways. Lose the treaties and agreements and nothing works any more.

5. When diplomacy isn't working, because you're not a very good diplomat (see 1-4), you need to think creatively. Say a Nibelung has the ring of power and is causing havoc and sadism in the underworld: how are you going to outwit him? You might need help. Be careful who you choose for this exercise: make sure it is the cleverest person in your gang (not the bloody joker) and one whom everyone knows not to mess with, because it would be playing with fire.

6. Never under-write the roles of your under-goddesses. You may find that your very best contributor to your project only has a bit-part. If all you do with her is put her up for kidnap by the giants, you are guilty of sexist negligence. Think of everything she could do if given the chance.

7. What the heck are you doing putting your wife's sister up for ransom anyway? Especially when none of you can survive without the food she grows. Think things through properly before making rash moves.

8. Beware of the dragon. It's a humdinger. You need a real Heldentenor to deal with it, and you don't currently have one. So don't provoke it.

9. Love is more important than power. If you stop caring about people for the sake of building up your own wealth, it's going to end badly. Never forget: today's dragon is tomorrow's kidnapped toad.

10. A giant will not balk at killing his brother for the ring of power. And the one doing the murdering will probably be the one in the top hat.

Beg, borrow or steal a ticket. 

The first cycle opens on Monday 24 September and for Das Rheingold the cast includes John Lundgren as Wotan, Johannes Martin Kränzle as Alberich, Sarah Connolly as Fricka, Alan Oke as Loge, Lise Davidsen as Freya, Günther Groissböck as Fasolt and Brindley Sherrratt as Fafner. Tony Pappano conducts. http://www.roh.org.uk/about/the-ring

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Two hats, one post

Rattle, milking it. (Photo: LSO)
Critic's hat for the day here: I reviewed Simon Rattle, Janine Jansen & the LSO for The Arts Desk last night, but perhaps the most moving thing of all was Rattle's farewell speech for Lennox Mackenzie, who's retiring after an LSO career spanning nearly four decades. Read the whole thing here.

Other hat: on Tuesday 25 September Tom and I are giving a concert together in North Yorkshire - at All Saints' Church, Kirby Hill. Tom plays solo Bach, Beethoven and other things. I'm reading some of my prose-poems. The concert is named after one of them, VOLCANIC ASH, and is built around what happened to us when we were trapped by closed air space somewhere you mightn't want to be trapped - with themes including identity, history, trauma and brainwash. Yorkshire friends, if you like the sound of this, do join us. To book, please call 01423 326284 or 01423 323774.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Are symphonies from memory bad news for pianists?


Aurora plays from memory. (Photo: auroraorchestra.com)

If you want music to lift you clean out of your chair, go and hear the Aurora Orchestra play a symphony from memory.

The opening concert of their season, on Sunday afternoon, entitled Smoke and Mirrors, found them at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, delivering a theatrically staged event – in the first half of which, through clouds of dry ice, the brilliant singer Marcus Farnsworth travelled from Schubert's Der Wanderer to HK Gruber's Frankenstein!!. A narrated link described an erupting volcano, the skies that it darkened in 1816 and some glimpses of Mary Shelley and friends writing ghost stories by the lake. This storytelling's ability to immerse us in the world and the legacy of early romanticism proved vivid and atmospheric; Aurora has Kate Wakeling as writer in residence, and I assume she penned this dramatic casing. (You can find her work in their season programme - not marketing blurb but actual short stories, literary and most attractive.)

All this was tremendous fun. No musician escaped this little production of Frankenstein!! without having to don a silly hat or find a hobby horse ogling at her, and conductor Nicholas Collon had to turn into Superman, with cloak and red lycra underpants. Frankenstein!!, if you haven't heard it, is a bit like Kurt Weill mixed with Monty Python on speed. It's totally wonderful and completely bonkers.

But after the interval came Aurora's famous speciality, a symphony performed from memory, and it was Beethoven's Fifth. Whatever this concert's conceptual presentation, this was the absolute real deal.

Do you think you know this piece? You might find yourself reassessing that notion at such a performance. Even the arrangement of the orchestral forces is theatrical - the contrabassoon entering after the slow movement to sit with the double basses, and the piccolo standing prominently beside the timpani, her interjections in the finale all the more noticeable as a result. The finale is all Handel and Haydn to begin - this was a composer who surely knew his Zadok the Priest and his Creation's Sunrise episode - with a hefty dose of Mozart's Papageno in the coda, which is one big Haydneque joke (the never-ending movement idea later taken up by Dudley Moore, of course). The slow movement - to which Collon brought a lot of con moto, increasing the challenges for the already virtuosic string players - is a close sibling of the variations in the Appassionata, Op. 109 and Op. 111 piano sonatas, the note-values dividing more and more. 

Should one have noticed all this before? Assuredly yes (if you're a critic, at least). The thing is, when one aspect of what you're hearing makes you hear something in a new way, the brain starts connecting in new ways too, and you start questioning and listening differently and noticing all manner of things that you might simply have taken for granted.

No chance of taking anything for granted with this lot. The whole thing flew. At the end the packed audience - young, on average, and maybe not just because this was 4pm on a Sunday afternoon - got up and yelled. Aurora hasn't only pushed the envelope. It's an orchestral rock star.

My question is: if these were the self-same musicians, knowing the music every bit as well, but sitting down and using the music, would it sound the same? Unless we make them do that, one  can't say, of course. I've long been a little bit skeptical about all this, mainly because I was a pianist myself and pianists have been cursed with the necessity of memorisation since the beginning of piano-time, or at least since Clara Schumann and Liszt. No wonder people tend to think we are nutty and antisocial - we are always busy, stressing out something chronic in the practice rooms, trying to learn things from memory! In recent years, more and more pianists have started to think life is just too short and have been playing from a score, often on an iPad, and I've been fully in favour of this. Because they're right: life IS too short...

And yet...


If you've ever played in an orchestra, can you imagine learning a whole symphony from memory, standing up (unless you're a cello, bass or that contrabassoon), interacting with your fellow musicians, having to concentrate even more than you would be at the best of times, having to know not only what you are playing but what everyone else is playing too and how it all fits together, and being able to see everyone else because you're not having to stare at the music? I can only imagine what a certain orchestra I know well would say if asked to do all this, and I reckon it wouldn't be a pretty form of words. But these results are transformative. There's an equality between sections, a sense of everyone interacting the way they would in chamber music. It's not only a question of breathing as one entity, becoming one big animal with lots of paws, as a great symphony orchestra with top conductor can. It's a level of concentration and communication that pulls in the audience to be part of it too.

Pianist with music and iPad. (photo: cmuse.org)
So what are the implications for pianists? If you're playing solo, then there's only one of you and you don't have to choose between staring at the music or indulging in actual interaction with your colleagues and the conductor. If you're playing Bach fugues or Messiaen or Ligeti and suchlike, I wouldn't blame you one little bit for plumping for the old iPad. It won't serve as a barrier between you and anyone else and it will ease your mind and your nerves, which can only be a good thing. 

But the big irony is that for pianists, the convention is to memorise solo works and play chamber music from the score (indeed, the pianist is usually the only one who has the full score in front of him/her). While the set-up of the chamber music circuit would probably make this idea deeply impractical, I can't help thinking it should be the other way around. It's in chamber music that memorisation would be most useful to all concerned, facilitating that interaction. That's not to say it doesn't work as things are. It's just that in an ideal world.....

Well, we don't have an ideal world, in any way, shape or form. But Aurora shows that with enough vision, ambition and determination, transformative experiences are still possible. Bravi tutti.




Friday, September 14, 2018

Being joyous, outside parliament?

In these febrile times, I think it takes some courage to march around Westminster singing and playing the Ode to Joy. This is precisely what two brave Simons - baritone Simon Wallfisch and violinist Simon Hewitt Jones - and their friends have been doing on a regular basis for months and months and months. They are spreading togetherness and, well, joy, they say, to help heal this divided nation.

Given the grim future that's at stake for every one of us if the government pushes ahead with "hard Brexit", we should all go and join in!

Thursday, September 13, 2018

In Dicte's Denmark, the music's not so noir...

Aarhus Cathedral, with blue sky and bicycles

You may know, if you've ever looked at my profile, that I'm a Nordic Noir addict. And it so happens that Denmark – Aarhus in particular (the city of Dicte) – has long represented a home from home for me and Tom. His first job was with the Aarhus Symphony Orchestra, several decades ago, and he still goes back to play with them from time to time. I’ve just been there with him for a week and took in a hefty dose of vitamin D in that extraordinary Scandinavian sunlight. And I could hardly help soaking up an atmosphere that is so pleasant, so relaxed and so kind of wholesomethat it shows up, in no uncertain terms, just how batty things have become here in Brexit Island.

For instance, the Danes have no problem creating lanes in which their many cyclists can function without being squashed by lorries or running down pedestrians. It’s not rocket science. Nor, it seems, do they have any trouble building concert halls. The Musikhuset’s latest addition, about ten years ago, along with wonderful facilities for the (fee-less) conservatoire, boasts a splendid acoustic, a compact shoebox design and plenty of space backstage, complete with lovely Danish-design wooden floors throughout. 

Rooftops with Town Hall bell tower
I arrived just in time for the opening of the Aarhus Festival: a jamboree of music for all, street art, food, exhibitions, yoga, kids’ events et al, that takes over the town centre for ten days every September. One little proviso: I have to recommend that if you go for the festival and you value your sleep, try staying somewhere a bit out of town. We were dead centre, and an Irish band singing ‘Old Macdonald had a farm, ee-ei-ee-ei-oh’ at 1.30am wasn’t quite what we’d had in mind. 

But over at the Musikhuset it was a different story. The Aarhus Symphony Orchestra had joined forces with the festival and the Elbphilharmonie Summer Festival for some concerts with the American singer and composer Shara Nova, and as the festival’s curtain-raiser they presented a special performance attended by Queen Margrethe of Denmark, who gave a speech to declare the festival open. 

You can imagine the buss and fother that would have ensued at an event like this in London. In Aarhus, no problem. There was a little extra security. The smiley, extrovert monarch spoke from the podium with jokes and no notes. Shara Nova gave her all in Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s The Seven Deadly Sinsand some songs of her own, with the sympathetic conductor Andreas Delfs keeping a hand on the balance and vivid instrumental colour. Some people who don’t usually like ‘crossover’ declared themselves delighted by the whole thing – muggins included, very moved by Shara’s empowering, self-aware, open-hearted songs.  


With Shara Nova and Delfs, the Aarhus team had just become the first Danish orchestra to play at the Elbphilharmonie – and the recent signing of Leif Segerstam as principal guest conductor is another bright feather in their cap. As things are clearly on the up, I took the chance to talk to the CEO, Kristian Rahbek Knudsen, about how, in his two years in post, he has been pulling out all the stops to put the orchestra firmly onto the international map.

The opening concert for the Queen, he tells me, means a tremendous amount to the orchestra – as did the unusual excursion across to northern Germany the previous week. “It was a fantastic experience for everyone to play for a sold-out Elbphilharmonie,” he says. As for the royal concert, “This is the gala opening of the Aarhus Festival, but it’s also a chance to reach an audience of invited guests who might not normally come to our concerts: a chance to reach a lot of decision-makers and potential sponsors, and of course to mark that the orchestra is a significant player in the cultural life of the city and region.” 

Kristian Rahbek Knudsen
If you haven’t been to Aarhus, you mightn’t have heard the orchestra live before: they have hardly toured in years. “They have been concentrating on playing some very good concerts here in our hall, but now we are making it an orchestra for the entire city,” Knudsen explains. “We’ve been doing a lot of outdoor events, not just preaching to the converted. But we’re doing that through high-quality programming. 

“For instance I’m generally not a fan of the crossover genre, because too often you’re adapting material for a symphony orchestra and it’s never quite there, but what I love about Shara Nova is that she’s a composer in her own right: we’re playing full-blown compositions by her for a symphony orchestra. The genre is more towards the popular, but her compositions are brilliantly done. That’s what ties this programme together.” 

And taking Weill to Germany – wasn’t that coals to Newcastle? “We knew it would be challenging for Hamburg to take an American to sing Weill with Brecht lyrics in English in Germany with a Danish orchestra, but I think it worked tremendously well. It’s always fun to be a little naughty with programming!”

Other symptoms of Knudsen’s shake-it-up approach are one-hour Saturday afternoon concerts that are deeply family friendly, equally attractive for children, the evening-avoiding elderly and the parents in between. Education is at the heart of Knudsen’s aims: as part of the European Capital of Culture projects in 2017, the orchestra “adopted” all new babies in the city, sending parents an app full of music, and sending players out to give infant-friendly community concerts for them. About a thousand families took up the offer, says Knudsen, and the aim here is to follow the children with music up to school; and after that, every schoolchild in the city has the opportunity to hear the orchestra twice during his or her school days. Essentially the orchestra should travel with them until their education is complete.  

As for new forums for performance, the orchestra recently played at a heavy metal festival, performing music from cartoons and computer games - “We had an audience of 20,000 headbanging heavy-metal fans – they are traditionally nerdy and intellectual, with a lot of niche interests, including an overlap with the audience for computer games, and it was a huge success.” But the vital thing, he insists, is never to compromise on the standards: “We’re working on new formats and howwe present things, but we never go into dumbing down what we present.”

Musikhuset - interior (photo: CFMøller.com)
The orchestra seems to be finding itself working a bit harder than usual. “But when I took over, I had the distinct impression there was a huge appetite among the musicians to bring the orchestra out and create a much bigger awareness of its activities within the city,” says Knudsen. “We’ve also started up a fundraising initiative based on the UK/US model, and the musicians are queuing up to come and play for these sponsors. It’s something we needed to do.”

This is despite the fact that the organisation receives 80 per cent of its funding from the public purse – half from the government, half from the town. “We now have a suggestion from the Ministry of Culture to increase our funding for the next four years, through a dialogue we’ve had with the minister and a lot of key politicians in parliament trying to explain our situation,” Knudsen says. 

I wonder how to halt the bright green tint that is creeping over my skin with envy at the thought of the continual financial struggles of UK orchestras - which, let’s face it, aren’t going to get easier any time soon. 

Yet Denmark does need to fundraise. “I think it’s important to have a third revenue stream, besides public funding and our ticketing income, that is a solid fundraising operation,” says Knudsen. “Every cultural institution needs one now and it’s a good way of creating a buffer against any potential cuts.” Already he has seen results: “We’ve been very lucky. For the first time a local foundation is sponsoring the full costs of two chairs for the orchestras, and Leif Segerstam’s post as principal guest conductor has been partly funded by a charitable foundation as well.”

Segerstam. (Photo: auroramusic.se)

Pulling Segerstam aboard for three years seems a significant coup, alongside the recent contractual renewal of Aarhus’s well-liked chief conductor Marc Soustrot, also for three years. “Segerstam is legendary in many ways, and infamous!” Knudsen acknowledges. “But we had him here last year and it was a great experience. It’s going to be really exciting. We’re planning to do some live recordings while he’s here: there are several composers he’s never done on disc before so we’ll see if we can create some exciting live recordings out of that.” One of his hopes is that in due course the orchestra will be able to create an app on which subscribers can listen to its beautifully high-tech recordings.

“I would like the orchestra to be a force to be reckoned with,” he declares. “Aarhus is the second city in Denmark. If you look at second cities in the rest of Scandinavia, they all have internationally significant orchestras and I think we should be the same here.” Effectively, then, they want to be the Bergen Philharmonic of Denmark? “Certainly – and I think that is perfectly within reach.” 

Could we learn something from Knudsen’s ambitions back in the bigger but more beleagured UK? (UK population: 65m. Denmark: 5m.) Is it perhaps easier for a city the size Aarhus to build up its civic relationships with its flagship orchestra than would be the case in the competitive, stressed-out UK capital? “You couldn’t reach all the schoolchildren in London - but you could try,” Knudsen insists. “You could go some of the way. It’s important to see the orchestras as educators and builders of culture. The LSO has been very successful with that and I’d love to see more funding allocated by the British government to support such activities.”

Personally I’d like to see more funding allocated by the British government to anything that is not Brexit. “It’s a worrying prospect for the British orchestras in general, what’s going to happen,” Knudsen agrees. “I think there are ways to work around it, but it’s going to be disruptive. I can’t see anything positive coming out of it, and I think this is becoming clearer to the British public.”

Knudsen is well placed to judge: he lives in Cambridge and divides his time between England and Denmark. His wife is a neuroscientist based at the university and Knudsen himself was formerly a fellow there in chemistry. “I’ve lived in the UK for 15-16 years, so it’s home,” he says. “After my time in Cambridge I was doing a lot of work in business consultancy and I was wondering what the next step should be when someone pointed out this position. I was born in Aarhus, it’s my native town and I’d played the violin in the orchestra while I was studying – so I thought this could be a wonderful way to combine my various activities.”


A stroll by the Kategatt on Denmark's east coast
In forthright Scandinavian style, Knudsen remarks that when he came into the job, the orchestra was in “a bit of a pickle”, following years of consecutive cuts and a funding crisis. “The orchestra was burdened by a big debt. In 2017 we managed to generate a surplus and pay off that debt in one year, when it had been foreseen that we should do it over 10 years. Being debt-free is wonderful, and we are aiming to be on budget this year.” The increased audience during the European Capital of Culture year helped, he adds, and he has reduced certain costs, using fewer extra players. “But we’re trying to secure the orchestra’s long-term financial future and its position in the city, and I think we have reached that point.”

So how does he do it? “I think dialogue is important, explaining to decision makers what an orchestra does,” he says. “There has been a tendency in Denmark that the way of communicating has been angry shoutouts in newspapers telling the politicians how incompetent and stupid they are – and that’s not very useful! You can get a long way by having good and constructive dialogue with politicians, to explain what we do and what the benefits of it are. And we are taken seriously.”

Hallelujah...

The next step, though, is to create a wider, international awareness of both the orchestra and Aarhus itself, and what an attractive place it is to live. Are you a good orchestral player looking for a strong orchestra, a pleasing environment and a wonderful Scandinavian attitude to family life? Come and get it. Even the language is not as difficult as it might sound. Tom insists that it’s just like English, only 1000 years out of date (yes, I know, I know…).

“We offer a good salary, it’s a full-time, contract job, and it’s a perfect place to live and raise a family. You can afford nice, big accommodation, which would be impossible in London” says Knudsen. Harsh, but true. “We have four-hour rehearsals [UK orchestras usually do six hours per day] and it’s a fairly benign workload. I’ve seen how hard people work in London and it’s amazing.” 

Indeed, Danish society is set up to facilitate a work-life balance that’s fast becoming impossible in the UK. “I’ve seen so many of my female colleagues in UK giving up their careers to have children,” says Knudsen. “In Denmark you can have children and have a career. We have the infrastructure for it. 

“We’re going to hire more musicians and we have an international blend of players already. We welcome good players from all over the world to join us.”

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