Sunday, March 31, 2013

Happy Pâques!

Something very cute to warm you in the chill winds of an endless Winterreise, with love from the JDCMB household, Solti and some French associates (thanks to an alert from Gretel)...

Friday, March 29, 2013

Alice's Adventures at the ROH

So did you all go to the cinecast of the Royal Ballet's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland yesterday?

It was such a full-on, energetic and brilliant performance that I felt as tired this morning as if I'd danced it myself. Er, OK, not quite. I was in the theatre this time, not the cinema - and enjoying the fact that there were so many young children around who were visiting the gorgeous ROH for the first time and falling under the spell of live performance at the age of only six or seven.

Alice is, first of all, the perfect (purrfect) ballet for anyone who has a large, striped cat.

The outsize Cheshire Cat - a giant puppet whose limbs, tail and head are manipulated by black-clad dancers and that hence is able to come to pieces and disappear bit by bit as Lewis Carroll stipulates - is so cleverly conceived and slickly executed that you'd think it would steal the show.

But of course the rest is on that level as well. It's a virtuoso tour-de-force for every part of the company: Bob Crowley's designs, Joby Talbot's glittering music and the total choreographic effect mesh together into one madcap yet consistent world, while the level of execution (pace Queen of Hearts) is tip-top from orchestra to lighting to corps to soloists. There's no weak link anywhere in the piece.

There seems no limit to the daredevil imagination of choreographer Christopher Wheeldon or the abilities of his dancers. Steven McRae's tap-dancing Mad Hatter is a special joy...

(That's from the previous TV broadcast/DVD, with Lauren Cuthbertson as Alice.)

More great moments with Zenaida Yanowsky's spoof Rose Adage as the Queen of Hearts (hilarious, yes - but have you ever noticed that mothers in ballet stories get a really raw deal?). And the flamingos, and the scampering little hedgehogs, and the fresh, tender, striking choreography for the pas de deux of Alice and Jack - Sarah Lamb and Federico Bonelli...

Incidentally, Eric Underwood's supple-backed, strong-torsoed Caterpillar needs special mention. His smouldering power and super stage presence has stood out in quite a number of performances this season and I for one can't understand why this fabulous American, who started his career in the Dance Theatre of Harlem, is not ranked higher than Soloist. He got a huge and much-deserved cheer last night.

Particularly fascinating to see Alice at the RB two days after Giselle by the Mikhailovsky. The former is everything that the latter is not: sterling quality at every level, slick, contemporary, seamless, crazy, riotous, ironic, funny. The latter, though occasionally clunky in scenery and workaday in general level of the corps, had one thing (or two, depending how you see them) that the Royal doesn't: namely, Osipova and Vasiliev.

Lamb and Bonelli are both beautiful, technically tremendous dancers. The role of Alice is a particular workout for the lead ballerina, who's on stage and holding the show almost the whole time - a massive challenge carried off by Lamb with immense strength, charm and delicacy. But neither of these two excellent principals manipulates the confluence of time and space on stage the way the Russian duo do. They were part of the performance, key members of the Olympian teamwork; they didn't transcend it.

In the second interval, we spotted two audience members, pale and frown-faced, putting on their coats. They looked like ex-dancers. You'll miss the best bit if you leave now, we said. "We are not so impressed," said the man, Russian accent to the fore. "We find rather simplistic." That's your problem, mate, we didn't say. It's not a word I'd ever choose to describe a production as complex, bravura and vivid as this one. Was that, perhaps, a little indication of the different priorities of British versus Russian ballet? But next year, come to think of it, Wheeldon and Joby Talbot are teaming up again to bring us another full-length creation at the RB: The Winter's Tale. By Shakespeare. That will be very different - and interesting indeed.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

"Vasipova" hits London

Sometimes you feel lucky to be around to see certain people do certain things. Since starting this blog nine years ago, I've been aware of this frequently: it's a privilege to chart the coming-of-age of musicians like Benjamin Grosvenor and Daniil Trifonov, the birth of operas like Written on Skin and The Minotaur, the zooming to stardom of Jonas Kaufmann, Joseph Calleja and Joyce DiDonato. And I've been fortunate, over the decades since being a balletomane kid, to see many, many great dancers.

Still, the other night I had the distinct impression that if there's a ballet biscuit to take, Natalia Ospiova and Ivan Vasiliev have walked away with it - assuming their feet touch the ground long enough to actually walk anywhere.

The Russian ballet couple sometimes known to fans collectively as "Vasipova" are in London at the moment with their home company, the Mikhailovsky Ballet from St Petersburg, which they joined after a dramatic exit from the Bolshoi a couple of years ago. The Mikhailovsky may be less well-known here, yet has a distinguished history, its theatre going back over 100 years and the ballet company for around 80; it is currently under the direction of Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato. To judge from their Giselle at the London Coliseum the other night, perhaps the issue now is that their two top stars simply eclipse the rest, in the syndrome of "the best is the enemy of the vaguely OK".

The production is bright, pretty, traditional, often finely wrought in terms of drama: clear mime and some impressive detail: eg, Giselle's mother doesn't know whose wine to pour first, the princess's or her press secretary's - as a peasant she is used to pouring first for the man. A few clunky things like noisy spook-flames and a manically active tree in the second half were probably opening-night glitches, and the orchestra was reasonably impressive, but for some dodgy intonation in the big viola solo. But above all it's a vehicle for Natalia and Ivan...whom, incidentally, I went to meet on Saturday afternoon. (Oh yes, I did. And they are adorable. More soon.)

Osipova is nothing less than mesmerising. It's not just her extreme lightness, focus and flexibility that astounds - every jump seems to take place in slow motion, for instance, and a series of backward-shifting sautes in one Act II solo had the audience holding its collective breath in near disbelief. What really makes the difference is her absorption in the drama. Every move serves the story and the character, in the same way that Verdi only employs virtuoso coloratura to serve his text. There's a shudder of premonition in "he loves me not"; the mad scene is both a devastating disintegration and a desperately convincing heart attack; and Vasiliev as Albrecht delivers a final coup-de-grace to the audience with the violence of his fury when accused by Hilarion.

Act II found Ospiova's supremely ghostly Giselle, whirling around on the spot when initiated, perhaps free at last to dance as she wants, as her human heart had prevented in life; and Albrecht, forced to dance himself almost into a grave of his own, is being put through what she had to experience - a lesson in ultimate empathy. The silence of ballet, the symbolism of the lilies, becomes part and parcel of the ghostliness - can the ghost-Giselle speak to the living Albrecht her Wili sisters have entrapped? The whole means of communication has transformed since Act I.

Strange how different Osipova and Vasiliev are, yet their partnership works like a jet engine. Vasiliev's presence is a bolt of pure kinetic energy that can flatten you, while Osipova's feet work like a hypnotist's wheel. Act II resembled watching the sun dance with the moon. Both simply defy gravity - cliche, yeah, I know, but there's no trampoline in the Coli stage. And the chemistry between them is unbroken and unmistakeable. If they're in different parts of the space, though, you can go cross-eyed trying to work out which of them to watch first.

Some critics seem perturbed by the size of Vasiliev's leg muscles. Since he can do THAT (right), I personally wouldn't grumble.

They're here until 7 April. Don't miss the chance to see them.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Brewer sentenced to 6 years

Michael Brewer, formerly conductor of the National Youth Choir and before that director music at Chetham's, has been sentenced to six years imprisonment for a catalogue of abuse against a pupil at the school in the 1980s, the late Frances Andrade. His wife, Kay Brewer, was sentenced to 21 months.

There is more information in the Independent here and the story has been extensively covered on the TV news. Pianist Ian Pace has much more to say on the matter, plus further links, here, and he has organised a petition calling for an inquiry.

The judge's sentencing remarks are available to read in full here. Among many other things, he says this:
"Indeed, perhaps one of the few positive features to have emerged from this case is the resulting close scrutiny of the seemingly wider acceptance of this type of behaviour amongst those who should know better."
It is essential now that the institutions involved in these appalling events should be able to "bounce back" and clear their reputations in order to keep on educating the finest young musicians in the country. We need specialist music schools for gifted children; the entire edifice should not be demolished because of these events. Regulations have been changed, the modus operandi is different now and the whole climate is notably (and thankfully) more censorious today.

But psychological abuse by teachers as well as sexual abuse needs to be under scrutiny - something that the more outspoken of my interviewees have talked about over the years, incidentally, regarding advanced music colleges in mainland Europe and the US as well as here. Some very prominent figures have reminisced about their studies in a pretty dim light. I can think of one musician who left his home country because of such abuse, another whose experience in New York seems indefensible, and several who have said that after studying with x or y they had to find ways to put themselves back together in a musical or artistic sense...and heaven knows what else. Many of the teachers involved are now deceased, but the syndrome is, arguably, more difficult to guard against. Perhaps that is the next step.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Korngold for beginners

Yesterday at The Rest is Noise we had fun introducing newcomers to the wonderful world of Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Ben Winters of the Open University gave a fascinating talk about the composer's years in America; the two of us then had quite a wide-ranging discussion, and some interesting questions came from the audience. Later on, I took part in a "bites" session with a political economist, a film historian and an art historian; each of us picked a topic that involved America finding its voice in the first half of the 20th century. Mine was Korngold and opera; I played, among other things, an extract of Marietta's Lute Song from Die tote Stadt.

It's easy to think Korngold has been rehabilitated, especially now that I've been on his case for more than two decades, but after the talk several people wanted to know, wide-eyed and open-eared, what this opera was and where they could hear more of it. It's so beautiful, they said. Why do we never hear it? The extract was too short, they said. They wanted to hear the rest.

This is an aria, indeed an opera, for anyone who has ever loved and lost.

Here is an interpretation of Marietta's Lied from the opera film Aria (1987), with some exquisite shots of Bruges, where the opera is set. (Warning: involves a bit of arty nudity.)

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Korngold and The Rest is Noise

Anyone coming to the Southbank today for The Rest is Noise? This weekend the festival has reached America and I've been roped in to help show how Korngold did too.

At 12.30pm in the Purcell Room, I'm introducing Ben Winters from the Open University, who'll talk about Korngold in the US, which we'll then discuss further, and there'll be time for audience questions. At 5pm I'm also joining in an hour of short talks around American topics to bring in the matter of Korngold and opera - that will be in the Blue Bar, Level 4, Royal Festival Hall. (Yes, I know - it wasn't an American issue, but a Viennese one. But that is sort of the point...)

Please join us!

If you haven't been able to get to this extraordinary festival, you can listen to some of the talks on the website: here is the link to the Berlin in the 20s-30s section, beginning with Alex Ross on 'How music became so politicised':

Friday, March 22, 2013

In which Kaufmann says he "can't wait" to sing Tannhauser

Go for it, Jonas!

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.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

A bit of Bach for Easter?

Like, er, nine hours of it with John Eliot Gardiner and friends? Sounds OK to me. He's putting on a Bach Marathon at no less a venue than the Royal Albert Hall, with a stellar line-up of soloists and speakers. It's on 1 April and it is no joke.
It's a kaleidoscopic celebration of the single most seminal figure in the history of music, whether in works for one violin or for full chorus, soloists and orchestra. Alongside the concerts, lectures and discussions draw in a plethora of experts both musical and scientific, and the day culminates in a complete performance of the B Minor Mass. Gardiner's the man of the moment for Bach. He's fronting a new BBC documentary about the composer, which is being shown the day before the RAH bonanza, and his biography of Bach will be published in the autumn. Somewhere along the way he might have time to stop and celebrate his own 70th birthday, but don't count on it - he's a very busy person.

"It’s a celebration," says JEG. "Really, a celebration of the decade since we did the Bach cantata pilgrimage. Working through the cantatas in such a concentrated span led to me and the group reacquainting ourselves with the really big pieces – the B minor Mass, the two Passions, the Christmas oratorio, etc – and one’s whole perspective on those pieces has changed as a result of the cantatas. One sees them not as isolated peaks but as being part of the whole connective tissue of Bach’s church music. The cantatas are really the foundation of it all and the passions, the Mass and the oratorios are outcrops: they grew out of the cantatas. 

"Our original plan was to do the St John Passion in the first half and the B minor Mass at the end. Unfortunately we couldn’t raise enough money to make that work, but what we have now is still an incredibly rich cross section from both ends of Bach’s life, in many different genres. The violin D minor partita, the cellos suites, the Goldberg Vairations, lots of organ pieces and the best of the motets. We have one of the earliest but also most magnificent of the cantatas that he wrote for Easter Day, and then the culmination is the B minor Mass."

Intriguingly, though, the Bach Marathon seems to be part of a growing trend in the classical music sphere towards grand-scale occasions packed with tempting talks and bonus treats. 

They're all at it these days. The BBC Symphony Orchestra has scored major hits with its Total Immersion days devoted to contemporary composers such as Jonathan Harvey, Oliver Knussen and Toru Takemitsu. The Barbican is shortly to have a May Marathon weekend, curated by the hotshot young American composer Nico Muhly. Meanwhile BBC Radio 3 has taken to devoting a week or so of its schedules from time to time to the work of just one composer and, this year, a whole month to the Baroque era. And over at the Southbank Centre, the year-long festival The Rest is Noise is going further still, with weekend after weekend devoted to concerts, talks and films exploring 20th-century culture, setting the developing story of classical music in crucial context. 

Gardiner has strong views on the necessity of this development. “I think it puts the spotlight on how limiting one-off concerts can be,” he says. “They can, of course, be fantastic. But when things are loosened up from that unit of a single event and related to a much wider experience, it allows people to get their shoulders underneath the surface of the water and relish what they find there – whether it’s in terms of variety of genres, a much broader approach towards a single composer or a phenomenon like The Rest is Noise. I think it shouldn’t be regarded as something freakish or exceptional. It should be welcomed as a corrective to the fixation on individual concerts.” He is convinced we’ll be seeing much more of this in future.

I reckon he's right. There’s a growing appetite for events at which we can learn a lot about one topic very, very quickly. It’s possible that pressures on people’s time and energy mean a one-day feast is more likely to draw a crowd than an ongoing course. But perhaps the crucial factor, certainly in the case of Gardiner’s Bach, is that it is more about celebration than didacticism. Everyone can take from it what they want: you can go to a single concert, or to the full gamut, plus lectures on the universality of this composer’s art by the likes of the science writer Anna Starkey and the jazz musician Julian Joseph. 

“It’s a chance in a lifetime,” says Gardiner. He hopes his audience will take away “a sense of how unbelievably varied Bach’s oeuvre is and what a towering genius he is. One can perceive just from listening to his music what an enormous impact he had on subsequent musicians, both in classical music right up until our own times, but also in the worlds of jazz and of pop music. It can all be traced back to him.” 

Bach Marathon, Royal Albert Hall, 1 April, 1pm onwards. Box office: 0845 401 5045

Monday, March 18, 2013

Alicia's Gift concert is up and running

The ALICIA'S GIFT concert-of-the-novel is up and running. Viv McLean and I have five dates in the diary for November-December, and more on the way.

I've started a Facebook page to help keep everyone in touch. Please feel free to like us if you like liking things, like; and, dear promoters, check in for details of how to book us for your concert series. You want this one, y'know. It's topical. It's all about what a talented child does to the family, and what the family - and her teachers - do to her. And it's stuffed full of some of the loveliest piano music on earth.

Here's the page:

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Reading and talking

I've been talking to some interesting people recently...

The unbelievable Edward Watson, who is dancing the lead role in Mayerling at Covent Garden next month. The crazed Crown Prince Rudolf is, weirdly enough, the only ballet prince he's played, other than Albrecht in Giselle, who's not really that princely. A dancer with his levels of drama, flexibility and power would probably be wasted chasing after a swan. Catch him first in the equally incredible The Metamorphosis.

A composer called Nimrod - who, as it turned out, lived next door to me in West Hampstead 20 years ago, except that we never met. The Philharmonia played a work of Nimrod Borenstein's the other week with Ashkenazy conducting, and has commissioned a new piece from him for June at the RFH. He's also writing a violin concerto for Dimitry Sitkovetsky. He's a live wire who thinks big, and talked to me (for the JC) about finding his voice and what he's doing with it now that he has.

It's All About Piano! Francoise Clerc, the one-woman dynamo at the heart of the Institut Francais's classical music programming, has put together an absolute bonanza of a piano festival, which will take place over three days next weekend, 22-24 March. Star performers include Imogen Cooper, Nick van Bloss, Charles Owen, Katya Apekisheva, Cyprien Katsaris and Anne Queffelec; there's a chance to hear some rising stars including a raft of the most gifted budding virtuosi from the Paris Conservatoire, a modern American programme from Ivan Ilic, jazz from Laurent de Wilde, talks by Steinway technicians, children's events and plenty more. When did London last have a piano festival like this? Um. Pass. This is for Classical Music Magazine and you'll need to be logged in to read the whole article.

Meanwhile, if you're in Birmingham on Wednesday evening or Thursday lunchtime, I'm doing pre-concert talks for the CBSO to introduce Beethoven's Symphonies Nos.6 and 7. Andris Nelsons conducts them both. Very privileged to be allowed to hold forth about my two favourite Beethovens, let alone to complement such an event: there's a major buzz about Nelsons' Beethoven cycle and Symphony Hall is apparently packed solid.

And next Sunday at 12.30pm I'm at The Rest is Noise to introduce a talk about Korngold in America and discuss the issues around him with the Open University's Ben Winters. In the Purcell Room, and part of the ongoing festival's American Weekend. (We're not in the current listings PDF as far as I can tell, so this may be a late addition!)

Friday, March 15, 2013

Friday Historical: Cortot plays Chopin Op.10 No.3

Today - the Ides of March - is the anniversary of my sister's death. Claire died on 15 March 2000 of ovarian cancer, aged 45. 

I remember that I had been reading a book about Alma Rosé, daughter of Arnold Rosé and niece of Gustav Mahler, who ended up conducting the women's orchestra in Auschwitz, where she later died. The book quoted the lyrics of a song set to this melody, which used to be played there. All that terrible day I had this piece on the brain. Here it is, in memoriam.

Who needs the Ides of March when it's Red Nose Day?

For our friends overseas who might be puzzled as to why the British should suddenly start wearing red foam noses on the Ides of March and, worse still, trying to be funny, Red Nose Day is all about Comic Relief, a big charity effort that campaigns for "A just world free from poverty". As our government's policies are about to push a great many more children into poverty (it is estimated that by the time of the next general election in 2015, about half the UK's children will be living below the breadline), there's never been more need for this.

I'm all for Red Nose Day. I have a red nose. It lives on my desk lamp and twinks at me. It keeps my perspective level. And it's just a red foam ball, and if things are really rough it can sit on my nose for a minute, and it works every time. It was a present from one of my favourite interviewees ever: the adorable Rolando Villazon, who in his spare time is Dr Rolo, working with the Red Noses in Germany, clowning for children in hospices and hospitals. It's kept me sane. (Thus far, anyway.) That's one reason Comic Relief is such a great idea - because laughter is the best therapy on earth.

So now BBC Radio 3 has been putting its shoulders to the historically-informed, 18th-century wheel... The station is currently devoting a whole month to a Baroque Spring (much of which I've missed as I'm having a purple Wagner patch and it doesn't fit too well, and meanwhile it's been snowing) and five top presenters are competing to see whose choice is Top of the Baroque. Tom Service does a spot of rap to Couperin. Suzy Klein brought in the Swingle Singers to see if they could Handel a spot of Hallelujah... Click here to watch their efforts and pick your favourite.

Here's my pick of the bunch: Sara Mohr-Pietsch decided to take up the cello from, um, scratch, and learn the bassline of the Pachelbel Canon...and then she invited her friends into the studio to join in on whatever came to hand or lip...

[UPDATE, 22 March: have removed the video because it starts playing automatically whenever the blog page loads up...please follow the links above to find it instead.]

Thursday, March 14, 2013

As easy as A, B, C?

I've written a post for the site about why we need urgently to address the issue of language for talking about music. The term "dumbing down" is essentially a misnomer: a more correct term is "de-skilling". With a whole generation forcibly removed from musical literacy and terrified of learning the necessary bits and pieces - however easy they really are - how are we to keep talking about music at all? Read it all here:

Culturekicks, btw, is created by the same team that used to run the late lamented and daftly dumped Spectator Arts Blog, and it has kept the latter's archive of brilliant posts by brilliant writers...including yrs truly. More power to their elbows.

A solution to vocal problems? Oh yes! Oh yes!

Argy-bargy at the Royal Opera House press conference yesterday: in the course of a highly operatic morning, Tony Pappano had a go at everyone about the misinformation and conspiracy theories that circulated around the Robert le Diable cast changes a few months back.

Leaving aside the possibility that the work itself is jinxed and should just be quietly buried...what happened, Pappano said, was this: first Florez decided against moving into heavier repertoire, following an unhappy experience with the Duke of Mantua; next, Diana Damrau got pregnant; and though Maria Poplavskaya was ill, she then recovered and went back into the show because her doctor said she was was well enough to do so. The saga with Jennifer Rowley is another issue altogether...

Apart from that, there's plenty good stuff next season including a recital on the main stage by Jonas Kaufmann, who'll also be singing in Puccini's Manon Lescaut; three Strauss operas for the composer's anniversary year, including Karita Mattila in Ariadne auf Naxos; Faust with Calleja and Terfel; Les Dialogues des Carmelites with Magdalena Kozena on stage and Simon Rattle in the pit; a new production of Parsifal; and a lavish, expensive staging together with the Royal Ballet of The Sicilian Vespers. In ballet, there'll be a full-length creation by Christopher Wheeldon based on Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale, with a new score by Joby Talbot, and Carlos Acosta will be in charge of a new staging of Don Quixote. Sales are up, with ballet reaching 98% of box office and opera hot on its heels (so to speak). More opera 13-14 news here. More ballet 13-14 news here.

Still, it was clear that TP is fairly fed up with singers who cancel, and that it does happen more than it used to.

What to do? Maybe the ROH needs to invest in some vibrators.

This is not a joke. (At least, I don't think it is.) Just look at this news from the University of Alberta:
Vibrators are being used by researchers at the University of Alberta to help give actors a little bit more vocal power. The team of researchers found that pressing the sex toys against the throats of actors helps to give them improved projection and range – vocally, of course.
“You can actually watch on a spectrograph how vocal energy grows,” said David Ley, who worked on the project. “Even when you take the vibrator off, the frequencies are greater than when first applied.
He said he has used this method with singers, schoolteachers and actors, and so far the vibrator technique has always worked...
Ley headed over to a local love shop in search of some hand-held vibrators in order to test out whether they could help release various forms of muscular tension. He was looking for a vibrator with a frequency somewhere between 100 and 120 hertz, which is close to the range of the human voice. Once he applied the vibrator to an actress’ neck over the vocal cords, she was able to produce striking results.
(As reported on RedOrbit - Your Universe Online - read the whole thing here.)

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Oh, my ears and whiskers!

Christopher Wheeldon's madcap, rainbow ballet of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is coming back to Covent Garden on Friday and it will hit the big screens live on 28 March. I went down the rabbit hole to have a chat with two of its stars, Lauren Cuthbertson and Edward Watson. The piece is out in The Independent today - and Lauren also talks about what it was like when her Knave, Sergei Polunin, walked out with no notice last year.

Sod's Law, though, along with the ROH website, reveals this morning that poor old Lauren is not able to go on for her three performances after all. Seems to be the lingering effects of the ankle surgery. We wish her the speediest possible recovery. Sarah Lamb replaces her, and Yuhui Choe takes over the performances that Sarah was previously scheduled to do. Meanwhile, watch the ROH news page for more of my interview with the wonderful Ed, in which we talk about Mayerling.

On Saturday afternoon, incidentally, I went to the (mostly) excellent triple bill of Apollo, 24 Preludes (the new Ratmansky to orchestrated Chopin) and Aeternum (new Wheeldon) and three quarters of the cast - six out of eight dancers - had to be replaced in the Ratmansky. The last-minute line-up did provide a chance to enjoy the radiant dancing of someone who seems to be a real "one to watch" - Melisssa Hamilton, who hails from Northern Ireland and won a Critics' Circle Award in 2009. More about the programme when I've got a mo.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Andras Schiff and a different kind of holy grail

If there's a holy grail for pianists, it is probably Beethoven's 'Hammerklavier' Sonata, Op.106. Those performing the Final Three Sonatas are plentiful these days, but ask any pianist about their Beethovenian inclinations and mostly it'll be the mighty H that they will treat with the most  respect/kid gloves/freakin'terror. It is a Missa Solemnis of the keyboard, a Grosse Fugue for ten fingers and one brain. If you hear a good performance - one that shows the intricate mastery of the counterpoint, the searching existential embrace of the adagio and the strength of the core spirit that must win through, to say nothing of the seeds of nearly a century of music that followed it - it can feel a little like seeing a unicorn, so startling, unbelievable and inspiring is the result.

There was indeed a unicorn at the Wigmore Hall last night.

Continuing his series of the complete Beethoven Sonatas, Andras Schiff, tackling them in chronological order, has reached the late works and put together Opp.90, 101 and 106 in one programme, performed without a break. After bowing a couple of times he sat down to play an encore. What could follow the 'Hammerklavier'?

He stayed silent, smiling to himself and Wilhelm Backhaus's Bechstein for a moment longer than was comfortable, just long enough to think "Andras, nooooo..." - but happily it was a yes, for what comes after 106? Why, of course...109. Whole of it. Light relief, perhaps, after the unicorn? We still remember the time Schiff played the whole Wanderer Fantasy as an encore while giving the complete Schubert Sonatas 15 or 20 years ago. Those attending his Final Three Beethovens on Friday are in for a treat.

It can take a Bach expert to bring out certain truths in late Beethoven. This music isn't primarily emotional, but spiritual, philosophical, wise and human on the grandest scale. All of this Schiff is ready for in a way that few others can match. Sensibly, he waited until his fifties to tackle the complete Beethovens and his tone has deepened, strengthened and broadened to encompass the sonatas' demands. There's seriousness of purpose yet no portentousness in this playing; a powerful spirituality matches a deep affection, and respect is gently tempered with character-enhancing flexibility.

In Op.90 Schiff brought out the tense, unresolvable dialogue of the terse first movement and the Schubertian expansiveness of the songful second (cue a sense that this is where Schubert's D959 finale came from); for Op.101 the contrasts of counterpoint and recitative bounced and sparked off one another. This exquisite work was one of Wagner's favourites, incidentally. Though it seemed out of vogue for a while, I've heard at least two other pianists perform it just in the past few months, and good it is to see it returning in force.

Even a pianist who can memorise and whirl through the complete Bach 48 will admit that the 'Hammerklavier' is a tough call, but in Schiff's hands it is, first and last, all about counterpoint; and it's also a sonata that exists, metaphorically speaking, not in three but eleven dimensions, allowing us to time-travel through the parallel universes of musical creation in a matter of moments. The first movement and scherzo had a fiery, elemental energy that never scorched or scarred the grass beneath the feet; the adagio was a monumental exploration, with many questions and the tragedy invoked of few answers; and the vast final fugue...well, any hats in the hall were duly doffed. 

And for the whole sonata you listen in awe as the history of music flashes in front of your ears, feeding in and out: Bach's immeasurable treasure in The Art of Fugue, Brahms's Piano Sonata No.1 and Symphony No.4, Liszt's spiritual questing, Schumann's close-knitted multilayers and wondrous battiness, Wagner's Parsifal (yes), entire structures of Mahler, and the thorniest moments of Schoenberg, everything seems to spring from this mighty well that is the deep, nourishing and insatiable fount of Beethoven's genius.

Odd to think that the word 'Beethoven' apparently means 'beetroot field'. There's an example for the wonders of human potential.

The clarity of Schiff's touch was enhanced by the olde-worlde tone of his ex-Backhaus Bechstein (coming home to what used, of course, to be the Bechstein Hall before British Deutschophobia around the First World War forced a name change to Wigmore). It's a strong, beautiful old piano, with that woody, characterful Bechstein sound (I wrote about it rather fulsomely after the Lucerne concert in November) that offers a distinctive personality in virtually every octave; over the course of the cycle in many cities Schiff has fused his vision with the instrument's tone and brings out the best in it.

Oh yes, and Op.109. A chance to relax in its intimacy, ineffability and transparency after the rigours of the 'Hammerklavier'; yet the wonder remains undiminished as the variations - close indeed in spirit to Schiff's beloved Goldberg Variations - gradually unfold from simple sarabande to floods of dazzling stardust, before enwrapping them again in an almost matter-of-fact recapitulation. As if to say, "Now you know what's hidden inside this modest exterior, you'll never look at anything in quite the same way again."

Here is Andras himself, talking about the 'Hammerklavier' at the Wigmore Hall in his lecture series there (2004-6).

Saturday, March 09, 2013

A feminist opera by two men

Written on Skin is that, and much more too. I found it intriguing to get its director Katie Mitchell's perspective on the challenges of staging it, and I've also been talking to its composer, George Benjamin. Part of the result is in the Independent today, there's my longer chat with George on the ROH website, and the full version of the Indy piece with Katie's comments is below. First, here's the ROH's video... I'm a little miffed about missing the first night, but will be going on 18 March.

According to the director Katie Mitchell, it was not so much a standing ovation as “an eruption” that greeted the world premiere of George Benjamin’s Written on Skin. A rapturous response for contemporary opera is a tad rare, to say the least, but at last summer’s Aix-en-Provence Festival critics and public alike were swift to declare this one a masterpiece. Now it is coming to the Royal Opera House (it is a co-production between five international theatres and festivals) and a new CD, recorded at Aix, is also testimony to the extraordinary quality of its music, text and performers. 

Based on a 13th-century Provençal story entitled Guillem de Cabestanh – le coeur mangé (“The Eaten Heart”), the opera brings together this leading British composer’s precisely wrought music and an original text by Martin Crimp. A group of present-day angels, world-weary and vengeful, awaken from the medieval dead three people: the Protector, his wife Agnès and a character named simply the Boy – in fact one of the angels – to re-enact the worst moments of their lives. 

The Protector commissions the Boy to create a book of illuminated manuscripts, which are “written on skin”, to portray his glory. Agnès – illiterate, oppressed, bright and furious ­– begins a passionate affair with the Boy and demands that he enters this fact into his book. Questioned by the Protector, he lies, saying that his lover is Agnès’s sister; but Agnès berates him for his untruth. The facts revealed in writing – which Agnès cannot read – the Protector murders him, then forces Agnès to eat a meal which he later declares was the Boy’s heart. Agnès defies him: nothing he can do will erase the taste. Before he can kill her, she leaps from a window to her death. 

As Crimp’s libretto presents it, this dark history is anything but realistic. Each character narrates his or her own actions while living them; medieval depictions rub shoulders with contemporary evocations of multi-storey car parks, motorways and red shoes; the two worlds bleed imagery into one another. The sectional set design by Vicki Mortimer reflects this by placing the love triangle’s action alongside a contemporary studio for the controlling and observing angels – one of whose wings are literally written on his skin. But within this artifice, Benjamin’s music is virtually a form of hyper-realism, highlighting the nuances of the emotions as if placing them under a microscope, with a delicacy of orchestral texture that allows each word to be effortlessly audible. 

Benjamin is a notorious perfectionist, relinquishing his music so slowly that it can seem positively reluctant. Despite his early start – he was only 20 when a work of his was first performed at the Proms – at 52 he still has fewer than 40 works to his catalogue. Following a triumph with a 35-minute drama, Into the Little Hill, also to a libretto by Crimp, Written on Skin is his first full-length opera. And there is a chance that this work may open his floodgates at last. 

“While I was writing it I became a complete recluse,” Benjamin says. “I stopped conducting, I stopped travelling, I almost stopped teaching and I devoted myself, all day, every day, every week throughout the whole period, to a degree of concentration and submersion in work that I’ve never experienced before. But it came out, for me, very quickly – the whole process, once I got down to composing, took under two and a half years. It seems that when I have a text by Martin Crimp, wonderful people to write it for and a context which seems harmonious and welcoming, then my speed of composing is roughly eight to ten times faster than is normal for me.” 

Perhaps that means that he is, at heart, an opera composer? “I think there’s something in that,” he acknowledges – and confirms that he and Crimp are now discussing their next project.

“The wonderful thing about Martin’s librettos is that they tell simple stories very directly,” says Benjamin, “but from an unpredictable angle. The words are of extraordinary clarity, but the theatrical form and the approach to narrative are highly individual. This beckons my music. If it was a completely normal, everyday setting, I wouldn’t feel any need for music. And this unusual construction, while rigorously clear, is the magic spell that allows me to write music to his words. I depend on that a hundred per cent and my objective is to serve his text and bring it to life.”

That, he adds, is what opera is for. “To me, opera is many things; but one thing is that you come to an evening, it does something to you and you come out a little bit changed. It should confront serious and profound things within us – because that, in a way, is why people sing.”

Katie Mitchell’s task has been to match the action – often visceral and violent – both to this special structure and to some extraordinary musical coups-de-théâtre. And there are two female orgasms on stage, for the story is at core about erotic rights and freedom, which Agnès asserts against the odds. “Agnès is made free sexually and that’s rather amazing,” Mitchell says. “It’s a tremendously feminist piece, which is thrilling in ‘planet opera’.” Feminist slants in opera – traditional or contemporary – indeed remain all too rare. 

Throughout the piece, Mitchell adds, “we had to construct a world where modern-day angels could talk as they do, yet where simultaneously the medieval story could run as it does. And we had to try again and again to find a means of staging the end that was as good as the music.” Without betraying the entire secret of the opera’s most startling moment, let’s just say that Benjamin does something utterly breathtaking with a glass harmonica.

At the Royal Opera House, Benjamin conducts his opera himself. The Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan – who is also a trained dancer – stars in the extremely physical role of Agnès, the British baritone Christopher Purves is the Protector and Bejun Mehta, the celebrated American counter-tenor, is the Boy/Angel. 

 Mitchell has no doubt that Written on Skin will be a modern classic. “It’s a remarkable work in every way,” she says. “That was palpable on the opening night in Aix. The brilliance of the composition and the libretto has an immediate and concrete effect on people. I think it will outlive us all.”

Written on Skin, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, is on now. Box office: 020 7304 4000

Friday, March 08, 2013

Seven - no, EIGHT - things to do on International Women's Day

1. Go to the eclectic Women of the World Festival at the Southbank. Among musically-oriented treats today are Jessye Norman (yes), speaking at 4.30pm this afternoon; and tonight, the OAE with Marin Alsop and soprano Emma Bell in a delicious programme of Mozart, Beethoven, Weber and Schumann, part of the Queens, Heroines and Ladykillers series.

2. Go to the UK premiere of Written on Skin by composer George Benjamin and librettist Martin Crimp, at the Royal Opera House. It is a contemporary masterpiece and, although it's by two men, the story is very much about the sexual emancipation of a woman in the 13th century. I talked to its director, Katie Mitchell, about that, and the article should hopefully be out tomorrow. (Not going to see it until 18th, but I've heard the recording from Aix and found it absolutely amazing. My chat with George about the music for the ROH website is here.)

3. Spend a little time celebrating the music of women composers over the centuries whose work was discouraged, disguised or suppressed, unless it happened to be cute salon music for the home. And remember the ones who went right on ahead and did their own thing. 

4. Spend a little time remembering the great female performers of the past who knuckled down to work instead of knuckling under.

5. Listen to some music by the increasing raft of gifted, dedicated and proud women composers of today, whether on stage, screen, concert hall or multimedia. A reasonably random example, but one I've much enjoyed, is this mingling of space mission, dance, special effects and music by Errollyn Wallen in Falling.

6. Remember that today's greatest women performers simply cannot be bettered.

7. Reflect that it should not be necessary, in an ideal world, to add extra celebration to the achievements of women - in the classical music world as much as anywhere, and more than some - but with sexism so desperately ingrained in our culture, it is.

8. Remember that International Women's Day is all very well, but next we have to sort out the other 364 days of the year.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Welcome to Solti's first sponsors!

JDCMB has a brand-new sponsorship scheme!

A happy cat means a happy blogger. While I blog for free, the cost of Solti's cat food has been increasing beyond inflation. Instead of covering the site with irrelevant ads, I'd much rather offer promotional space to supporters of JDCMB - whether commercial organisations, fine-hearted individuals or both - in return for a modicum of sponsorship for the companion without whom our cat(ch) phrase would not be "music, ballet and writing, with ginger" and without whom we could never have started the annual Ginger Stripe Awards.

Here's how it works.

You'll see the THIS MONTH'S SPONSORS box in the top right-hand corner. You can sponsor Solti's cat food for one week for £7.50, one month for £25 or another length of time as negotiated with JD. In return you get a personal thank-you from Solti's chief-of-staff, your name and links prominently displayed for the agreed period, and hopefully plenty of hits on your site from our readers. Additionally, you have the satisfaction of knowing you are helping to support the assistant-in-chief of your favourite blogger and hence keep JDCMB up and running.

As there's no limit to that cat's appetite, there is no limit to the number of sponsors who can join us at any one time.

Click here to send me a message and become a sponsor! 

Easily manageable either by PayPal or a good old-fashioned cheque.

I'd like to extend a hearty welcome to Solti's inaugural sponsors: ViolinSchool, which offers online and offline tuition for violinists of any age and level.