Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Why I applaud the Southbank's open-doors policy, despite having been knocked over by skateboarders nearby

My latest comment piece for our Amati Magazine explains all.
Did you know that London’s Southbank Centre was the third most popular visitor attraction in the UK last year? Neither did I, until quite recently. The Association of Leading Visitor Attractions announced it back in the spring; it made the pages of The Stage; and that was about it. It’s behind only the National Gallery and the British Museum and hosted an incredible 6.3m visitors in its first year as an ALVA member. Six point three million, in one year.
But it does beg a question: hang on, isn’t this an arts centre?...
Read the whole thing here. 

Sunday, October 25, 2015

All about focus: hearing Guglielmo Ratcliff at Wexford

Annunziata Vestri as Margherita, with canine companions. Photo: Clive Barda

There was no doubt at Wexford this week that Mascagni's rarely heard opera Guglielmo Ratcliff was the highlight of the 2015 festival. The opera-lovers who packed into the town's sleek wooden theatre emerged looking positively drunk on the intensity and frequent gorgeousness of its music, to say nothing of the performances of the leading roles, in which three Italian singers - Angelo Villari, Mariangela Sicilia and Annunziata Vestri - led a cast who sang their hearts out to astounding effect.

It's a fascinating case, this opera. Pietro Mascagni conceived it as a raw, green youngster, after being rejected by a girl from his home town who didn't like the new and glitzy life he was leading in Milan. Obsessed with it and its hero - a classic serial-killer who hears voices ordering him to commit murder - he worked at it on and off for many years, taking Puccini's advice not to make it his first opera, but instead to build his name with other works, and only then present it to ensure maximum impact. It was in 1895 that he stood upon the podium at La Scala to conduct it at last. Yet his one enduring success - Cavalleria Rusticana - has overshadowed it throughout the intervening century-plus.

Angelo Villari and Mariangela Sicilia. Photo: Clive Barda
Mostly that's because of the leading role. It is notoriously difficult to sing; there's no let-up to its emotional intensity (after Ratcliff first appears, in the second scene) and the quantity of high notes could send any tenor scurrying pronto for the steam-room.

Dramatic awkwardnesses intervene too. Guglielmo Ratcliff has been engaged to the woman he loves, Maria, daughter of the Count Macgregor (it's all set in romantic Scotland), but she has rejected him for scaring her with an extract of an old ballad, 'Edward, Edward', adapted by the play and libretto drawn from it for the purpose. She has twice tried to marry other men, but each time they have been found murdered at Black Rock before the ceremony. Now her new fiancé, Count Douglas, risks the same fate. Guglielmo Ratcliff, since he can't have Maria himself, is killing anybody else who tries to claim her. Ultimately he returns, the pair declare their enduring love and then he kills her and himself, interpreting the voice of Mad Margherita singing the Ballad as an order from his ghostly directors that he must do so. It turns out that his father, Edvardo, had loved her mother, Bella-Elisa, yet they had been forbidden to marry, and after she married Macgregor instead they found they still loved each other; and Macgregor had murdered Edvardo on discovering him lurking beneath Elisa's window.

Fascinating origins, there. The old ballad, 'Edward, Edward', is a dialogue between a mother and son; she asks him why his sword is covered in blood and he lies to her incrementally until ultimately confessing that he has killed his father - on what turns out to be her instigation. If that story lurks behind the many existing layers of lurking in this opera, we never quite find out. Meanwhile Ratcliff himself is apparently based on a real French assassin, Lacenaire - and if you know the film Les enfants du Paradis (which happens to be my favourite thing ever), you know Lacenaire already. He's there too, murdering some of the many men who love the free-spirited woman, Garance, whom he cannot have for himself.

Heinrich Heine's play, on which the opera is based, offers psychological complication aplenty in both the main characters and the supporting roles. The opera sometimes loses focus as a result, the second scene inordinately dominated by an innkeeper trying to teach his son the Lord's Prayer. Images of mirrors - the star-crossed lovers of the present repeating the history of their respective parents - are everywhere, and of course the castle has its resident Mad Margherita, who sings the ballad and tends the young Maria, whose mother was killed by her father when she was three months old.

What we never learn is whether Maria's real father was in fact Edvardo, which would make Maria and Guglielmo half-siblings. As they comment in the final act that even their voices are alike, you do start wondering whether there's a denouement on the way, but this - surely the ultimate dramatic climax, and a convincing motivation for the final murder and suicide - never happens. We have to infer it for ourselves - off-stage, as it were, and possibly out of the theatre - and put Guglielmo's actions down to mental illness. Presumably if it was the case, Macgregor would never have let Guglielmo go near Maria in the first place, but still...

What happened? Was Mascagni reluctant to go down that avenue for personal reasons, because of his identification with Guglielmo's romantic situation? Were there censors to worry about? Was the similarity to Wagner's twins in Die Walküre, and to Byron's Manfred, too close for comfort? Would it risk - in an opera already completely OTT in terms of melodrama - becoming a last straw in audience endurance? One way or another, it ain't there.

Angelo Villari as Guglielmo, with Evardo and Elisa. Photo: Clive Barda
Wexford's staging, in a different way, skirts the issue too. It's a Gothic marvel visually: everyone wears white in Giuseppe Palella's costumes, and the device of the mirror that finally dominates the stage in the last act, in Tiziano Santi's set designs, is not only clever in its working of the reflections - or occasional lack of them - but in the crossing over of Maria and Guglielmo's souls to join those of Edvardo and Elisa in the final moments.

Symbolism dominates. Mad Margherita from the start is accompanied by two wolf-like hounds, very clearly people on all fours with dog heads; they turn out to be the spirits of Maria's two dead suitors. Edvardo and Elisa are represented by ghostly beings in white deer-heads, both with antlers (including the female). The director, Fabio Ceresa, explains in his introductory note that what Italian and Scottish culture have in common is the importance of legend, of storytelling, of myths and ghosts and symbolism.

Fine. But I have a bit of a problem here and again it's focus. You have, in Guglielmo Ratcliff, an opera with a hero who actually has a mind, and a very diseased one: he's a heartbreaking, probably schizophrenic serial killer worthy of Nordic Noir, and opportunities to get one's teeth into such characters in operas assuredly do not grow on trees (with the notable exception of Herman in The Queen of Spades). In this staging, though, the characters remains largely cardboard while the focus goes to the supporting imagery: the mirror, the ghosts, and goodness knows why the innkeeper has to torture his son with a hangman's rope while he tries to recite his prayer. Mascagni's focus is skewed to begin with; Ceresa's could possibly even out the admirable awareness of background with a more thoroughly convincing foreground. Notably the first act, the score of which is slow to get off the ground (though the opening music is exquisite), felt aimless.

And the singing? Meet Angelo Villari, folks.

Tenors who can sing this role obviously don't grow on trees either. Villari is in many ways a classic Italian tenor (he's actually Sicilian): enormous heft of voice, quite a few notches more powerful than anyone else's on stage, and with astonishing top notes, which come into their own in this score. Nevertheless there were quite a few insecurities at lower levels, intonation issues and a sense from time to time that the sound could be better supported; and while the tone was enormous, it did not always have the beauty and warmth that others might have to offer. It's possible that in a larger house increased distance would enable tonal substance to come through the decibels, though we'll have to wait and see. But hey. He brought the house down.

Mariangela Sicilia as Maria was another matter, proving a spot-on, radiant-toned, exciting star soprano in the making with real charisma in her voice.


And as Mad Margaret, Annunziata Vestri - complete with white contact lenses - was a class act in the extreme, a mezzo of magnificent drama and unshakeable power. Conductor Francesco Cilluffo and the excellent Wexford orchestra drew out the beauty and pathos of Mascagni's impassioned creation at every turn.

It's hard to gauge whether we're likely to see this opera again any time soon, but now that there's a very fine cast that knows it, it would be a pity if no other house scooped it, and them, up; the music may not be the equal of Puccini, but so much of it is so beautiful that I for one am itching to give it another go.

BBC Radio 3 will be broadcasting Guglielmo Ratcliff live from Wexford on Saturday 31 October, 8pm. 

Thursday, October 22, 2015

An open letter to...Frederick Delius

Dear Fritz, or Fred if you prefer,

Greetings from the 21st century. One of the best things about living in the Future is that I have a chance to write to you via a medium you never dreamed of. I love your music. Not everyone does, but you knew that and I suspect you didn't much care. The more I have learned about you, your life, your being, your impassioned determination to drain every last drop of sensual experience in your cup of life-force, the more strongly your music speaks to me...

I could go on, but we need to get to the point and it is this: Koanga. They are doing it proud at the Wexford Festival at the moment. Michael Gieleta has created a production that besides being poetic and imaginative, maintains dignity at the most difficult moments - yes, Fred, a Voodoo rite could be very difficult moment in a stage work in 2015 - and there are moments that are heart-rending, beautiful, sensitive and enthralling. Moments when you sink into that great featherbed of Delian music and find you're lost in the passing clouds of dove-grey and sunset gold and the tropical night and...the thing is, they're doing it, they're doing it without a single cut (bravo, sympathetic conductor Stephen Barlow) and there are some terrific singers to hear. Palmyra - Nozuko Teto from South Africa - is especially marvellous. Norman Garrett from the US is Koanga - tall, strong, charismatic, with a beautiful warmth to his voice - and Uncle Joe, Aubrey Allicock, is simply outstanding. The chorus sing their hearts out, too.

I keep thinking how happy you would be to see black singers from America and Africa starring on our stages, and to such a top-class level. You loved Chloe, an African-American girl in Florida; she had your child. A son - but a Palmyra to some degree, half and half. How happy you would have been, too, to know that the president of the USA shares that background today.

But you've got one big problem, Fred. It's that libretto. I'm on tricky ground here, because I'm in the middle of writing a libretto myself - more about that another time - and I am fully aware that if the work as a whole is good the composer gets the credit and if it isn't the writer gets the blame. In Koanga's case, first of all, the story has a lot going for it. It seems remarkable to us, here in 2015, that back in the 1890s you homed in on the subject of slavery, and the associated abuse and suffering and injustice, for an opera. We hear that the very first performance, presumably in cut-down form, was at the Princesse de Polignac's place in Paris - probably in that beautiful wood-panelled music room at the back of her magnificent house - and that one Gabriel Fauré was among the musicians who played in it. We wonder who played the banjos. And we imagine what an impact its topic and its insights must have made there, where they used to call you Le Grand Anglais.

The framing device - Uncle Joe telling the tragic love story to the young girls - has been made to work very well here in Wexford; the chorus takes on the story and experiences it, and there is something oddly agonising about the way that at the end they take down their homespun sun and pack it away it a wooden box.

Palmyra's ultimate rejection of Christianity in favour of the culture of her ancestors and Koanga himself must have been terrifically powerful in your time, and retains the potential to shock here in Ireland. The central conflict - the way Koanga is torn between keeping his African identity and his love for Palmyra (who is maid to Donna Clotilda and happens to be her half-sister....) - has potential for a magnificent drama.

But listen, Fred, darling - and I want this to be constructive in every way - your drama is absolutely all over the place. Really. You have great ingredients, ones that would stand a chance of working today better than ever before, but you, and your librettist Charles F Keary flunk it whenever you can. I see that the libretto was even updated in 1972, to which revelation I can only say, well, we need to have another go at it now. It's not only little awkwardnesses like the skirting of the issue in the sacrifice, or the oak tree above Koanga's ancestors' graves - oaks? In Dahomey? (That's Benin to the 21st century).

More than that. Not very much happens, and when it does, it happens so fast that you'd miss it even if it wasn't happening mostly off stage. That's ok - great excuse for yummy musical wallowing - but what is not OK is that you don't give us any development to speak of in the relationship between Koanga and Palmyra, yet expect us to believe in their all-powerful love. You need less of the chorus obsessing about bird-calls and more of the actual personalities. Palmyra's dignity when Koanga is killed is touching in itself, but you'd think she'd see what would happen when she exorts him to murder Perez the overseer who is harrassing her; and though she says she can't live without him, we don't feel her grief deeply enough in the score.

And much is confusing. Where does Palmyra go when she's abducted from the wedding, and why? Where does Koanga go when he runs away - how far, and for how long? Doesn't Palmyra have more to say and feel upon learning that she is the madam's half-sister?  (As for "Where is Palmyra?" - I regret that the current answer is "In Syria, being destroyed"...)

This could go on. I don't know if much more could be done to refashion the libretto now to suit the existing music. But if I could time-travel, as well as writing to you on the inter-era-net, I'd go to you and say: Fred, please, give me that script and I will sort it out for you. We'll home in on the real drama, the psychology, the timeless issues, we'll get rid of the embarrassed and erroneous bits and bobs and we'll fix the structure and the flow. And if we get it right together, that opera won't be confined to rare repertoire status. It will be cheered to the skies all over the world.

As things are, we have to make the most of a work that is, sad to say, deeply flawed. Yet there's so much in it that is so beautiful and so well worth hearing. It's one of the truisms in today's opera world that we hear basically the same hard core of masterpieces over and over and over again. When something pitches up that is not quite as good as Don Giovanni, very few people dare to take a risk on it. Come to think of it, Don Giovanni has problems too. I fear that a variety of people are going to be really, really mean about Koanga now. But if we discount human creations for not being 100 per cent perfect, we're cutting off our noses to spite our faces. We're reducing our appreciation of creativity and its worth and meaning. We're limiting our experience and our range and our internal space for the sake of - of what? That dreaded word, "snobbery" does come to mind and I wish it didn't. And if you remember, into Persian carpets a mistake is traditionally woven (as I understand it) because no human creation may be perfect in any case.

What Wexford does, Fred, is to bring us works like this, showing how much good stuff there is out there, lying neglected yet ready to be enjoyed and discovered. Sometimes they even end up entering "the repertoire". Sometimes they don't, yet they can live on in our minds as treasured memory, even if we never see them again. They broaden our minds and our understanding of our world, such as it is.

I hope Koanga will return and travel. If it doesn't, I'm glad to have been here to see it. And today in Wexford it is Mascagni's Guglielmo Ratcliff, about which the buzz around town is quite hot.

Thank you, Fred, for being you. For not selling out. For taking up life and drinking its ecstasy. And for giving us that ecstasy in the form of music. You have your devotees here and now. Know that, whatever happens, you are loved.

Jessica x

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

In Wexford

I'm at Wexford for the opening 3 days of the festival. I may be gone some time!

Monday, October 19, 2015

ENO's new La bohème: a bit too boho?

This is my review for The Independent of the new La bohème at English National Opera. Not the finest hour, perhaps, but a couple of very good performances therein... 


Corinne Winters as Mimi. Let's face it, you'd pay a fortune for a pad like this in Shoreditch...
Photo: Tristram Kenton

As opera lacks the luxury of previews, seemingly undercooked first nights aren’t as unusual as one might like. This staging of the perennial Puccini favourite by Benedict Andrews – a co-production with Dutch National Opera and new to ENO – is just the latest. Updated to somewhere vaguely near the present, it contains beautiful moments: plate-glass windows admit a golden sunset while Mimi breathes her last (set design by Johannes Schütz). Problem: you'd pay an arm and a leg for a pad like that in cool places like Shoreditch today, probably even without electricity...

But too often this production feels like a postmodern magpie collection of bohemian tropes: sparkly dresses, fake furs, Rodolfo’s typewriter, Marcello’s ballet skirt (sic), apparently emanating from a timeless Bohemia of the soul. More seriously, if Mimi and Rodolfo spend their Act I arias injecting heroin, yet this proves a dramatic dead-end, believability fades.

With the orchestra, conducted by Xian Zhang, in need of better ensemble and more pizzazz, the evening required redemption. It arrived in several very fine performances. Corinne Winters as Mimi offered bright, pure, unshakeable singing and a touchingly genuine character; Duncan Rock as Marcello bowled out charisma and vocal strength; and Simon Butteriss’s vignettes as both an estuary-style landlord Benoit and Musetta’s sugar-daddy Alcindoro were fabulous. 

Zach Borichevsky’s Rodolfo sounded warm but vocally patchy and Rhian Lois’s Musetta seemed comfortable only in the vamping-free final act. 

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Diva in waiting: meet ENO's new Mimi

Here's my interview with the wonderful Corinne Winters, the young American soprano who's about to star in the new production of La Bohème that opens on Friday at ENO. From yesterday's Independent (but I can't locate it yet on the new-look website). This fresh-sounding staging, a co-production with Dutch National Opera, is directed by Benedict Andrews and also stars Zach Borichevsky as Rodolfo, Duncan Rock as Marcello and Rhian Lois as Musetta. Xian Zhang conducts.

Corinne Winters. Photo: Kristin Hoebermann


Corinne Winters, the young American soprano, meets me at the London Coliseum. It has effectively been her artistic home since her breakthrough appearance as Violetta in Verdi’s La traviata in 2013. Her megawatt personality and quick, strong thinking remain undimmed after a full-on morning rehearsal for English National Opera’s new production of La Bohème, in which she sings Mimi, perhaps Puccini’s best-loved heroine. “I have this indestructible thing where I can sing all day,” she remarks. “It’s just the way my throat is. Some of my friends joke that I have cords of steel.” 

She must have nerves of steel, too, as some of ENO’s most contrary critics grumble when non-UK singers star in the company’s productions. Winters shrugs that off. “That doesn’t faze me,” she says. “I know why I’m here and I have a lot of support.” That emanates from many sources, ranging from the artistic team of ENO to fans on Twitter.

The company helped to propel the Australian tenor Stuart Skelton to stardom; Winters could be next. At 32, she has everything: the voice, the charisma, the looks, the intensity, the acting. The rounded bloom of her high notes made her Teresa a highlight of Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini in Terry Gilliam’s brilliant 2014 production. Her Violetta – touching, vulnerable and vocally flexible, melting or brilliantly edgy as necessary – apparently won her several years’ worth of further engagements. 

Nevertheless, Winters didn’t know opera existed until she was 17. “In suburban America, it’s not part of life – we never even hear about it,” she says. She is from Frederick, Maryland. “My father was a lawyer, but he was an amateur rock musician and had a fantastic ear,” she remembers. “We used to sing Beatles songs together – he would take John Lennon’s line, I would take Paul McCartney’s, and we’d sing in harmony. That was my entrée into singing. 

“I started with a choir and loved it. I thought I would keep doing that on the side – I wanted to be a writer or a psychologist. But then it was time to apply for colleges and I didn’t want to stop singing, but I’d never taken a voice lesson in my life. So I took one when I was 17 and the teacher said, ‘You have a powerful operatic voice’. I thought, ‘What?’”

She trained first as a mezzo-soprano, only discovering later that her true voice was higher and stronger; and the penny dropped in earnest when she finally attended her first opera, which was La Bohème. “The first thing was the wall of sound that hit me and the vibrations I felt in my body,” she says. “I was completely blown away by the sheer power of the unamplified human voice.” In effect, she had found herself: “The mezzo roles I’d been doing didn’t suit my temperament,” she remarks. “Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro was fun, but Mimi is heart-on-sleeve, heartfelt, raw. That’s who I am.” 

Tatyana in Eugene Onegin

Her first decade in the profession was tough: “Ten rejections for every ‘yes’,” she says. “You have to be persistent to deal with that.” All that changed after La traviata. This season she faces a concentrated patch of debuts, including Desdemona in Verdi’s Otello, in Antwerp. Last year she released an album of Spanish songs, upon which Plácido Domingo commented that her voice has “such a charismatic, opulent sound”. Next season she sings at the Royal Opera House. Her “dream role” would be Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, she says, though she thinks she would not be ready to tackle it for another seven years.

In July Winters moved permanently to the UK. Personal life takes a back seat to her singing at the moment, she adds, but she is thriving as a Londoner. “Most of my work is here or in Europe, and I love the theatre, the ballet and going to museums,” she says. “London’s culture is so rich that I can do something different every night.” 

When it comes to convincing newcomers of the worth and relevance of opera, though, she senses there is more work to be done. “I feel many opera houses are getting their marketing to young people wrong,” she declares. “I think it’s the sheer power of great singing that makes people come back. We have to trust that – and to trust the fact that a 17 year old will know if they like something. The young people on Twitter say, ‘We just want to hear great singing – we don’t need gimmicks to come to the opera’. If gimmicks get people through the door, great. But we need to go back to the root of it.

“As with any learned art form,” she notes, “if you don’t know about it you tend to think you don’t like it. I once thought I didn’t like opera. Look at me now – I’m obsessed!”

La Bohème, English National Opera, from 16 October. Box office: 020 7845 9300

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Trifonov in rehearsal

The Philharmonia Orchestra is playing proud host to the pianist Daniil Trifonov at the moment. He's playing all the Rachmaninov concertos. Last week I was lucky enough to catch the concert that included both No.4 and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. The Observer's critic didn't mince her words: "He is, no other word, a phenomenon." Hear hear.

The orchestra has been sharing a video clip of the rehearsal for the 'Rach Pag', and it was such astonishing playing that really you have to see it too - it's here.

The Trif is back on Thursday: beg, borrow or steal a ticket.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Oranges, lemons and La Calinda...

I'm counting the days until the Wexford Opera Festival. Ten at present. Very pleased to be going back this year to an event of which I've loved every minute the times before that I have been there, and this year they're doing Delius's Koanga, a blink-and-you-missed-it rarity (it was done once at Sadler's Wells in 2007 and I blinked and missed it - or may have been away in Bosnia at the time - a pity one can't be in several places all at once). Posted below is a short piece I wrote for yesterday's Independent about why it's so special. 

First, here's Sir Malcolm Sargent, with an introduction to 'La Calinda' that isn't terribly accurate about its setting. The opera is set in Louisiana. It was Delius himself who was on an orange plantation in Florida...of which more in a mo.

Delius’s Koanga is the opera I have waited all my life to see. Stagings are so rare that if you blink, you miss it. Yet the work contains one of the composer’s best-loved pieces, ‘La Calinda’, with its irresistible oboe solo that seems all mingled smiles and tears; my husband and I both love it so much that we walked out to it after our wedding ceremony. Now, at last, Koanga is being presented complete at the Wexford Festival, Ireland – the best friend anywhere of deserving, under-performed operas.

Delius, 1907
Unfortunately it is rare for a good reason: its distinctly tricky story, based partly on the novel The Gradissimes by George Washington Cable. Koanga is an African king and Voodoo priest who has been brought to Louisiana as a slave. He loves Palmyra, the mulatto daughter of a slave girl and a white plantation owner, and agrees to convert to Christianity to marry her. But the overseer wants Palmyra for himself; everything goes horribly wrong and the tale concludes in tragedy.

Just imagine the problems such a scenario presents for a creative team in 2015. Its director, Michael Gieleta, whose staging of Maria by Roman Statkowski took Wexford by storm in 2011, nevertheless points out that the issues Koanga raises are absolutely current: religion, sexual abuse, power and of course race.

Blacking up is not an option. “The characters are defined not by their skin colour, but by their body language and by their relationships,” Gieleta says. “This is about captors and captives.” Koanga and Palmyra are played by two exciting young singers, the American baritone Norman Garrett and the South African soprano Nozuko Teto; and Gieleta’s preparations for the production included holding dance workshops in South Africa.

Back in 1895, Koanga might have seemed an unlikely topic for a British composer – but Delius had his own reasons for choosing a tragic love story set amid the toxic race relations of the Deep South. Born to a German immigrant family in Bradford, he moved to Florida in 1884, aged 22, to run an orange plantation. Here he fell in love with an African-American girl, whose family would previously have been slaves – and she bore his child. Later he returned to the US to look for her and their son. They had vanished. She may have gone into hiding for fear he would take the boy away.

This startling episode was confirmed by Eric Fenby, Delius’s amanuensis, in a recorded phone conversation with the violinist Tasmin Little, who researched the topic in 1997. Fenby was well aware, too, of how close Koanga was to its composer’s heart. “Usually, once a work was written, Delius's interest in it would wane,” he wrote. “For Koanga, however, he showed concern as though it held some secret bond that bound him to his youth in Florida. It was the one work he deplored in old age he was never likely to hear again...”

Clearly Fenby regarded Koanga as the work that was inspired by Delius’s lost love and the child he never knew. Its conductor at Wexford, Stephen Barlow, confirms the special nature of the work: “The libretto may be a bit clunky,” he says, “but some of the music has the great, sensual sweep of Delius at his finest.”

And if ‘La Calinda’ feels like smiles through tears, perhaps that was with good reason all along.  

Koanga, Wexford Festival Opera, Ireland, 21-30 October. Box office: +353 53 912 2144

Friday, October 09, 2015

You know that nightmare that you're turning pages for Brahms and this happens?

Page-turning may be the most terrifying job in classical music, but the other day violinist Anna Reszniak - in normal life concertmaster of the Nürnberg Symphony Orchestra - stepped into that role and saved the day for violin and piano duo Christian Tetzlaff and Lars Vogt as they tacked Brahms's Scherzo from the 'FAE Sonata'. Her cool head and professional demeanour kept the music on the rails - and the stands - at the Sendesaal Bremen, and earned her a guest star spot at the curtain calls. Brava, Anna!

We know FAE stands for Joseph Joachim's motto 'frei aber einsam' (free but lonely), but I bet there were some alternatives interpretations flying around after that...

Thursday, October 08, 2015

The Brontës' piano comes to life

Linger - Ailís Ní Ríain @ The Bronte Parsonage Museum from Ailís Ní Ríain on Vimeo.

Tomorrow the Irish composer Aílís Ní Ríain launches a fascinating new project at the home of the Brontë family in Haworth, Yorkshire. She has written six new pieces specifically for the literary siblings' own piano - the sound that might have lived alongside the creation of Emily's Wuthering Heights, Charlotte's Jane Eyre and Anne's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

Aílís and the Brontës' piano
The project, entitled Linger, has been recorded and its component pieces will be played in the various rooms of the Brontë Parsonage Museum, where they can be heard until 4 January. There'll also be a concept album based on The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

Aílís, who was born in Cork and whose composition teachers included Nicola LeFanu, Kevin Malone and Adam Gorb, has lived in northern England for 20 years and is currently based near Haworth. She says:
The pieces are composed to 'lock into each other' when heard at a distance. In essence, Linger is a large work for six intertwining, contrapuntal voices which are separated into six rooms in the Brontë home. Elements of each piece will 'drift' or 'leak' out of each room forming a sonorous space all of its own on and near the stairwell. Visitors are invited to dwell in quiet contemplation and thought; to linger.”
The piano itself has undergone a three-year restoration process and Aílís says it is "beautiful".

Monday, October 05, 2015

Scriabin and gone, but marvellous

Stunning encounter with Scriabin's Third Symphony at the RFH the other night made me realise I never posted on JDCMB the article I wrote about him during the Proms, all about the grandiose excesses and giant dreams of this very tiny Russian (honestly, you should see his evening suit, which is on display in his flat in Moscow...). Oliver Knussen, who was conducting the Poem of Ecstasy and arranged some piano pieces for orchestra which were played on Saturday evening, had some fascinating things to say, too. It was in the Independent on 1 August. Here goes.

Scriabin's Bechstein, in the composer's Moscow apartment

A tiny man with a vast imagination, Alexander Scriabin is possibly the most intriguing of the composers whose anniversaries are marked at this year’s Proms. He died aged only 43 exactly a hundred years ago and the Prom on 6 August features his Poem of Ecstasy, a work that represents the very pinnacle of his exotic, even erotic musical language.

The late Ken Russell once wrote a radio play entitled The Death of Alexander Scriabin, in which the composer encounters the occultist Aleister Crowley; the notion is fictional, yet has its appeal, for the spellbinding darkness of Scriabin at his best can resemble musical black magic. From an aristocratic and military family in Moscow, he started out composing piano music much influenced by Chopin, but later became preoccupied with mysticism and theosophy. He dreamed of creating as his magnum opus a multimedia work, Mysterium - “a grandiose religious synthesis of all arts which would herald the birth of a new world,” he wrote – for performance in the Himalayas, but did not live to complete it.

The British composer Oliver Knussen is conducting the Poem of Ecstasy at the Proms; he says he has been under Scriabin’s spell since boyhood. “The uniquely sensuous and hypnotic harmonic world, fabulous orchestral colours, and textures teeming with Fabergé-like detail have exerted a powerful attraction for me since my teens,” Knussen says. “It's especially seductive music to accompany the time when one's hormones are ragingly active – but the fascination has deepened over the years. 

The museum curator displays Scriabin's lightbox
“Scriabin’s mystical side was of enormous creative importance to him; his writings belong firmly in the world of Madame Blavatsky, et al; and the self-glorifying messianic ambitiousness certainly got out of control towards the end of his life,” he remarks. “But it is the quality and originality of the music itself that is most important. Scriabin made his own surprisingly rational way into a world of extreme chromaticism completely independently of Schoenberg. One wonders how this might have developed had he not died at 43.” 

Scriabin’s Moscow apartment is now a museum: the composer’s piano takes pride of place and is often played by visiting pianists making a pilgrimage; and his diminutive evening suit is on display - he was just over five feet tall. On his desk stands a wood-mounted circle of six different-coloured electric bulbs, which can light up in various combinations. 

This modest device aided and abetted Scriabin as he composed his Prometheus – The Poem of Fire, an attempt to bring his synaesthesia (the correlation of two senses, here sound and colour) directly into his music. Colour in relation to tone is written in to the score at one point; orchestras sometimes attempt to include it with the use of coloured light. Knussen does not quite approve: “It’s most often an embarrassment unless done with great care and taste,” he says. “Scriabin's music is too strange and subtle to be treated as some sort of proto-hippie/rave lightshow.” 

It is also too significant and influential for that. The Poem of Ecstasy was considered startlingly modern on its first hearing in 1908: “Prokofiev in his diary says that he went to a rehearsal together with Miaskovsky and that neither of them understood it at all,” Knussen recounts. “But Stravinsky certainly did; although he was rude about Scriabin in later life, neither The Firebird or Le Rossignol would sound as they do without Scriabin in the background. 

“I myself have been profoundly influenced by Scriabin’s harmony,” he adds,  “which to me is embarrassingly easy to hear in, for example, my Third Symphony, Where the Wild Things Are, and especially my piano music. As I said, once you're hooked, you're hooked.”

Friday, October 02, 2015

Maestro Lucidity

I record all my interviews on my iPhone and sometimes, as you know if you have one, these little contraptions decide they know how to spell people's names better than you do. While I was saving my interview with Fabio Luisi in Zurich a couple of weeks ago, some predictive text happened and what I ended up with was Fabio Lucidity.

In fact, it's not inappropriate. I had a wonderful long interview with him that traversed his background, training, attitude to opera directors, what it's like working with Christian Gerhaher and much more. But the paper wanted the bit about the perfumery he runs on the side, so that piece appears below and I will offer more of the interview at a later point.

Luisi is in London today with the Zürich Opera, performing Wozzeck in concert at the Royal Festival Hall. I saw it whole, with Andreas Homoki's production, in Switzerland, right after the interview, and it is absolutely amazing and if you're here, you should go. I found it amazing, incidentally, that any conductor would do an interview all of two hours before curtain up on a new production, first night of the season, an opera he's never done before. But that, dear readers, is Maestro Lucidity for you.

UPDATE, 8.42am: I've just heard that unfortunately Christian Gerhaher is not well and won't be singing tonight. His place will be taken by Leigh Melrose, who sang Wozzeck at ENO and was terrific. So, still go.

Fabio Luisi. Photo: Barbara Luisi Photography

You might think that being principal conductor of two world-class opera houses would be enough to keep anyone busy. Fabio Luisi (56) divides his musical time principally between the Zürich Opera and the Metropolitan Opera in New York. He is at the helm for the Swiss company’s forthcoming visit to London’s Royal Festival Hall, opening the Southbank Centre’s International Orchestras Series 15/16 with a concert performance of Berg’s opera Wozzeck, starring the German baritone Christian Gerhaher.

But this soft-spoken maestro from Genoa has a startling extra strand to his life: he has his own perfume business, FL Parfums.

“I was always interested in perfumes,” Luisi says, “and one day I thought: why don’t I try it for myself? About four or five years ago I started to read, to get informed, to try by myself to make mixtures. I had a teacher and continue to learn. It’s a continuous learning process; it never ends.”

He likes to use essential oils in his scents – indeed, has recently qualified as an aromatherapist. Some of the perfumes are inspired by music; two are named for elements of Debussy’s La mer – Jeux du Vagues and Jeux du Vent – and for another, Invincible, Richard Strauss’ Alpine Symphony was his chief “muse”.

Luisi’s personal balance of ingredients – whether in music, life or perfume – include focus, sensitivity and organisation in what one imagines are equal parts. Slight, wiry, not remotely flamboyant, he directs the energy where it needs to go: into the creative task in hand, whatever it may be. Most perfume hobbyists might never consider turning a passion into a business – but for Luisi, perhaps if something is worth doing, it is worth doing thoroughly? “Possibly,” he agrees, laughing. “I can’t stand it when people do not care about quality.

“To be a perfectionist is a challenge,” he admits. “I try to do it well. Why are we doing this?” Music, that is. “It’s not for the money! For the audience? Yes, for the audience – but also for the respect of what we are doing. I think how much energy, thought, passion and time Alban Berg put into Wozzeck; I feel forced to do it well for him, for the work itself, and to show the audience how great this opera is.

“Sometimes I can do it, sometimes not as good as I want,” he adds. “But my father always used to say, ‘You have to try not harder - harder is not enough - but hardest. Then if you don’t achieve that goal, even if you are a little bit behind it, the result will still be good. But if you don’t aim for the best, you will never achieve any goal.’ And this is right.”

His father was a conductor, as it happens – a train conductor. Every small boy’s dream? “Mine too,” Luisi smiles. “Sometimes he would take me on the train in the driver’s cab. I loved him and I loved his job.”

Zürich Opera, Southbank International Orchestras Series, Royal Festival Hall, London, 2 October. Box office: 0844 875 0073

Thursday, October 01, 2015

"I played a radiated piano" - Martha Argerich speaks in Hiroshima

An actual interview with the extremely press-shy Martha Argerich has appeared in a Japanese newspaper after the great pianist visited Hiroshima. 

In it she reveals that she played a piano that had been subject to radiation from the atomic bomb that destroyed the city in 1945, saying: "It was very much taken care of and had a lovely sound. I know the story of Akiko (Kawamoto, who played the piano). She was not obviously injured (by the atomic bomb) but the next day she died (of radiation) at 19."

She also declares that both the Holocaust and Hiroshima must be remembered as human tragedies, and speaks about her recent collaborations with Daniel Barenboim: "I have no musical disagreement with him, until now at least."

Read it all here.

Here are Argerich and Barenboim playing a Schubert duet by way of encore...