Sunday, March 17, 2019

Korngold dream sequence...

Guys, guys...wait...what.....

So, here we go. Jonas Kaufmann is singing the role of Paul in Korngold's Die tote Stadt at the Bavarian State Opera, starting on 18 November. And Kirill Petrenko is conducting, and Marlis Petersen is Marietta and if the announcement on Twitter hadn't been accompanied by a slightly worrying cartoon, I'd have fallen off the proverbial chair. One has of course been hoping for years that Kaufmann might do this. (One might even have mentioned such a hope when interviewing him five years ago, just in case - if he was already thinking about it by then, the cards were not revealed.) But gosh, I hope I'm not dreaming.

This video introducing the production suggests that director Simon Stone could well do it proud. (And indeed - update - a Die tote Stadt fan on Twitter tells me he has attended Stone's production in Basel and that it was "the best I've ever seen".) "We must go through the dark times so that we can see the light again," Stone says. "That's what's so great about the piece." Kaufmann meanwhile points out that the work contains just about everything that happened in opera between 1850 and 1950, which makes it "pretty difficult".

This opera, with its extended dream sequence, has in the past been an occasional magnet for 'dirctoritis': I've never quite recovered from witnessing Olaf Bär having to sing the Pierrot Tanzlied dressed in a black basque, angel wings and high heels. It's a work with a lot of heart and a lot of heartbreak; it carries a strong message about love and loss that was all too pertinent in the wake of World War I when the opera was premiered. That was, I'm convinced, one reason for its extreme popularity in the inter-war years - though its generous, atmospheric score and powerhouse roles for the lead singers might just explain something too. 

Speaking of dreams, yesterday I logged on to the Deutsche Oper Berlin site to see if they were doing their hugely successful production of Korngold's Das Wunder der Heliane again, and it suggested to me that they were, in late April and early May, and I even checked T's calendar to see if he'd be free to go and see any of the performances together, and he wasn't. Then I checked back later - only to find it had completely disappeared. Dream sequence again (or just last year's website)? At least that production is due out on DVD in May. Pre-ordering is available, even if tickets are not. 

Meanwhile in the US, the whole of the Bard Festival is built around Korngold this summer. Not least among the treats on offer will be the US staged premiere of Das Wunder der Heliane, conducted by the marvellous Leon Botstein. The festival also contains a concert performance of Die tote Stadt, a rare performance of the Piano Concerto for Left Hand, the Piano Quintet, the Symphony in F sharp, the Passover Psalm and much, much more. Music by Korngold's contemporaries, peers and mentors sets the context, spanning the worlds from Heliane to Hollywood with much in between.

Korngold now has what he has needed the most: top-level international advocacy. With Leon Botstein at Bard, Kaufmann, Petersen and Petrenko in Munich and Christoph Loy in charge of Heliane in Berlin, there's no doubt about the take-up, the appeal and the power. But there's only one thing missing: a real presence in the UK's opera world. One staged production of Die tote Stadt has come to Covent Garden, ever, many years ago. And that was that - which is frankly nuts. Perhaps Korngold is perceived as too European for one lot of Brits and too American for the others. It's time this changed. Thxbi >books plane to Munich<. 

Friday, March 15, 2019

Sarastro gets a sympathy laugh

Wow! Thomas Oliemans as Papageno.
(All photos courtesy of ENO, (c) Donald Cooper)

It's not every day that Sarastro announces "This is the most important assembly we've ever held - the decision we are about to make is of grave importance" - only to find half the audience giving him a belly-laugh. But then, it's not every day that The Magic Flute feels so relevant to our needs that the whole of the House of Commons should be frogmarched into the Coliseum and made to study every word of it. This Magic Flute has got...bells.

ENO's production by Simon McBurney is back for another revival, and gosh, it's just better and better: the storytelling could not be clearer, nor the inventiveness, nor the meaning. In Mozart and Schikaneder's Enlightenment fairytale, wisdom, truth and love battle against the forces of darkness – lies, ignorance, superstition, vengeance, violence. (Sounds familiar?) And the forces of good triumph. (Yes!) Along the way, in their quest, the young couple Tamino and Pamina are tested to their limits, and protected by their steadfast devotion to each other and the power of their music. (Double yes!)

The Magic Flute in person, with attendant bird action
The ingenious designs by Michael Levine turn the spines of books into pillars of the temple of wisdom, and Papageno's birds are their fluttering, faithful leaves. Wisdom, enlightenment itself, comes through studiousness, learning, books, self-discipline, the embrace of art and culture. The transformative effect of music saves Tamino and Pamina's lives and Papageno's too. There is something uniquely moving about a work by one of the greatest musical geniuses who ever lived that pays such a direct tribute to the art to which he devoted his short life.

The Magic Flute is open to infinite numbers of interpretation and reinterpretation, but McBurney's is the only production I've seen in which the emotional climax - the tests of Fire and Water - actually are frightening: an extended, roaring engulfment of flames followed by a magical flood in which Tamino and Pamina must swim for the spiralling surface. There's magic and whimsy aplenty - the sets are live-drawn, the sound-effects produced by a Foley artist in real time (she even has to dodge the attentions of Papageno), and the prince and Papageno are respectively attended by the orchestra's flautist and keyboard player, trotting up from the pit when needed - until Papageno learns to play his own bells.

Rupert Charlesworth (Tamino) and Lucy Crowe (Pamina) swim for their lives
For this revival the musical performance is a little uneven, but chiefly splendid: Lucy Crowe's Pamina brought a blazing emotional gravitas, Thomas Olieman's Papageno a grumpy yet irresistible charm. Brindley Sherratt's Sarastro simply couldn't be bettered (and, um, I think he was speaking those crucial lines perhaps not 100% "in character" which, under the circumstances, is fine with me). Julia Bauer's Queen of the Night delivered her arias with a concentrated punch of energy, making up in scariness for anything lacking in projection. Rupert Charlesworth as Tamino was slightly the opposite, with a powerful tone that nevertheless did not fully bloom into the sort of open generosity one might long for at the top. The Three Ladies had luxury casting in Susanna Hurrell, Samantha Price and Katie Stevenson, Daniel Norman was a splendid Monostatos and Rowan Pierce's Papagena so appealing that you'd wish her to have a great deal more to sing.

Ben Gernon's conducting felt a little hard-driven and businesslike, at least in the first half; there was sometimes too little space for the music to breathe and it seemed to lack the sense of lightness and air that can add the final touch of Mozartian warmth; but in the second half, Papageno's high comedy with the tuned wine bottles and Lucy Crowe's heartbreak aria oddly enough sorted things out as if simply through the power of Mozart himself. And the upside of the briskness is that the drama does bowl along, keeping you on the edge of your seat all the way through.

The performance was dedicated - as McBurney announced at the end - to the memory of its translator, Stephen Jeffreys, who died last autumn. His English version sparkles and twists and shines.

And did we come out of the Coliseum to find that wisdom had prevailed down the road in Westminster? Not quite - and yet, there's progress. Perhaps a parliament trip to this show might help them put the final pieces into place to save us all from the forces of darkness...

Go see. You'll laugh and cry.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Just a little encore by Hamelin...

We're possibly entering a new golden age of the composer-pianist, methinks.

Stupendous recital by one of the very finest, Marc-André Hamelin, at the Wigmore Hall the other night. It included (among much else) one of the most beautiful and emotionally devastating accounts of the Schumann Fantasie that I can remember, plus a goodly number of encores, one of which was Hamelin's own Toccata on L'Homme Armé. This wild and wonderful creation was commissioned by the Van Cliburn Competition for the 2017 competitors to play as a set piece.

Some of us trotted backstage to say hello afterwards and I couldn't help remarking that I would have liked to see the competitors' faces when they opened up that score for the first time. "Oh," said the ever-modest Marc, "it's not really that difficult..."

Have a listen, above.

Saturday, March 09, 2019

Crossing the line of dreams

Roxanna Panufnik and I have been working on our first collaboration since Silver Birch. It's being premiered this week in Baltimore under the joint batons of Marin Alsop and Valentina Peleggi. Yes, both of them. It's for double choir, double orchestra and two conductors. And it is about two powerful women (by which I don't mean either them or us, at least not first of all...).

Harriet Tubman
source: National Geographic
Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi, India, and Harriet Tubman, who saved hundreds from slavery in America before, during and after the Civil War, obviously never met in real life. But they were near-contemporaries and both gave their lives to the cause of freedom for their people. Harriet Tubman lived to a ripe old age and was venerated as 'Moses'. Rani Lakshmibai was killed in battle at the age of 29. The Rani has recently been the subject of a major biopic, but we wrote this piece before we knew about that. Harriet Tubman's previous musical incarnations include a whole opera by the wonderful Thea Musgrave, which is long overdue for a revival or three.

Rani Lakshmibai
Source: Real Bharat
The piece is called Across the Line of Dreams and you can hear it in three concerts on 14, 15 and 16 March, the first in the Music Center at Strathmore, the other two at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is joined by the University of Maryland Concert Choir. More info and booking here.

Here is an introduction to the piece, which Roxanna and I have written for the programme. We hope you'll enjoy this extraordinary dream meeting...

ACROSS THE LINE OF DREAMS – Celebrating Harriet Tubman & Rani Lakshmibai
Words: Jessica Duchen (JD)                      Music: Roxanna Panufnik (RP)

JD: In Across the Line of Dreams, two choirs with two conductors tell the stories of two extraordinary women who gave everything to save their people.

Harriet Tubman and Rani Lakshmibai came from opposite sides of the world and, of course, never met - but they had more in common than you might think. 

Both were born in the 1820s. Each decided to fight for her people’s freedom. Each underwent a change of name, symbolising a new, altered state of being. Each held fast to her faith. And each risked her life for a cause greater than herself. Both have passed into the realms of legend.

RP: Each heroine is represented by one conductor, one choir and half of the orchestra – Harriet has woodwinds, brass and percussion and Lakshmibai is accompanied by harp, piano and strings.

JD: Born Araminta (‘Minty’) Ross in Dorchester County, Maryland, around 1822, Harriet Tubman fled slavery in 1849 and became active in the ‘underground railroad’, a network that aided the escape of slaves from the deep south of the US, via which she helped to rescue dozens. Having taken her husband John Tubman’s surname, she adopted her mother’s first name to reinvent herself. She was nicknamed ‘Moses’ for leading her people to freedom. She died in 1913 aged about 90. 

RP: Harriet was fervently Christian, so some of her music has a hymn-like quality with a drone figuration often heard in spirituals. Not much is known about her ancestry, but it is believed that her maternal grandmother, Modesty, was brought to the US on a slave ship from West Africa and was thought to be of the Asante (a.k.a. Ashanti) tribe, who came from Ghana. Therefore I’ve used Ghanaian drum patterns to drive her music. While researching Asante music, I came across Joseph S. Kaminski’s excellent book Asante Ntahera Trumpets in Ghana– in it, he has transcribed a signature motif, from Asantehene’s mmentia musicians“Atoto wore sane” which means: “We are removing the knot”. This refers to a legendry knot that could only be untied by the true ruler, yet can also describe Harriet’s brave missions. 

Manikarnika in childhood
Source: Real Bharat
JD: Rani Lakshmibai was born Manikarnika Tambe in Varanasi, by the Ganges, in 1828. Married off to the Rani of the princely state of Jhansi, she took the crown after her husband’s death. Their only child died in infancy, after which she adopted a young boy, Damodar, intending him to inherit her throne. The controlling British East India Company refused to recognise him as heir and attempted to exile Lakshmibai. When a major rebellion took place against the British in 1857, and was horribly crushed, she led her forces into battle herself. She died of her wounds, aged only 29. A British officer paid tribute to Lakshmibai after her death, terming her “the bravest and the best”. 

RP: There is a famous lament “Babul Mora” about Lakshmibai, written by the Nawab of Lucknow, after the battle in which she lost her life. It mourns her leaving her family and all she knows behind, as she is taken away to be married to Gangadhar Rao, and it now exists in many versions. It was originally written in the Bhairavi mode, with which I have created my own lament. I have also composed my own “Powada” – a popular heroic or military ballad, which was used to eulogize heroic leaders. Again there are many examples of this form, but a common musical thread is a declamatory delivery of repeated singenotes, followed by a descending scale (for which I’ve used the Bhairav, Purvi and Ãsãvan modes). We finish, at the end of Lakshmibai’s life, with a return to the Bhairavi lament.

JD: Across the Line of Dreamsis in three parts. The first section is devoted to Harriet Tubman. There follows a contrasting episode telling the story of Rani Lakshmibai. Finally we imagine a dialogue showing the two women’s similarities, differences and inspirational natures. 

RP: This is where the two conductors come to the fore – Harriet’s music is in 4 and Lakshmibai’s simultaneously in 5. I was determined that while these two women retained their unique musical identities, they would merge to create a driving energy.

RP: I am deeply grateful to Joseph Kaminski for allowing me to use his transcription of “Atoto wore sane” and to the Asantehene who, through Kaminski, authorized the use of this chant for educational and artistic purposes. Also to Justin Scarimbolo for 19thcentury Indian music, Richard Williams & Richard Widdess for their introduction to Powadas and James Gardner for trying, heroically, to teach me Ghanaian drumming. Thank you, most of all, to Marin Alsop and Valentina Peleggi for commissioning the work, along with Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Jessica and I have loved every step of this process.
JD & RP, 11thDecember 2018

Friday, March 08, 2019

In praise of IWD

It's International Women's Day, and you know it. You couldn't not know it, really. The astonishing thing is that ten years ago, you wouldn't have. The annual event on 8 March has rocketed in public consciousness, becoming a calendar landmark in a few short years, chiefly thanks to a certain number of people making a great deal of noise about it and programmers in crucial places looking on and thinking "Y'know something? They're right. Let's do this."

It's especially so in the music world, where the chance to make restitution for centuries of neglect and, frankly, the squishing of women artists has been embraced by concert halls, broadcasters, conservatoires and more.

You'll find fantastic things happening today everywhere - but IWD has become, hearteningly, about far more than just one day. BBC Radio 3 has a week of celebration and an all-female schedule of composers today. The conservatoire Trinity Laban is running its Venus Blazing programme all year, putting music by female composers in the spotlight, and a special lunchtime concert today features, amongst much else, Errollyn Wallen singing some of her own songs. At the Southbank there's the annual Women of the World festival, and at Kings Place Venus Unwrapped is a splendid series running the length of the season with a series of marvellously and meticulously programmed concerts highlighting music by women. The seriously buzzing trade fair Classical:NEXT is themed around women in music this year and its innovation award is devoted to this field - come to Rotterdam in May if you can. There are Clara Schumann festivals galore: Classical:NEXT has homed in on her bicentenary, and there's plenty to hear in London and a festival in Leipzig in September just for starters. Conductors are on the rise at last, perhaps fighting an even more difficult battle, but again with key decision-makers thinking: "Y'know something? They're right. Let's do this." One result is the marvellous work of the Royal Philharmonic Society's RPS Women Conductors training and similar programmes springing up around the world, from the Southbank (with Marin Alsop) to France to Texas.

I could go on, but you get the idea. This stuff is happening, so strongly, when ten years ago it wasn't. Things have changed. Things can change further. Things will change further. And in an era when so much around us is being changed for the worse, in political terms, it is more heartening than ever to see positive developments in the artistic world.

And it makes sense. In 2019 gender equality should be simply a no-brainer. We may deplore the fact that it's taken so long to happen, but now there's no excuse for it not to - and every chance to celebrate. In the end, with more music and more artistry to develop and enjoy, it enriches everybody, regardless of gender.

Brava bravissima to all!

Here are four of my top choices to listen to today. I've gone for historical figures this time, just to show that there's a massive hinterland of super music to explore...

GRAŻYNA BACEWICZ: Concerto for String Orchestra

Tasmin Little and John Lenehan's new recording of violin masterworks - just out on Chandos.

World premiere recording of Viardot's operetta on a libretto by Ivan Turgenev - yes really, at long last, with an all-star cast - Eric Owens, Jamie Barton, Camille Zamora, Michael Slattery... I jumped for joy when I saw this one!

The legendary Russian pianist and friend of Shostakovich was a heck of a good composer in her own right, but who knew? Here she is playing three of her own Etudes.