Showing posts with label CBSO. Show all posts
Showing posts with label CBSO. Show all posts

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Seeing is Believing: Norman Perryman paints the music

Last night I was describing the musical work of the painter Norman Perryman to some artistic friends who were young in the 1960s. "That's rock'n'roll!" they declared. It is. And it's also going to rock Symphony Hall Birmingham next Saturday, when Perryman and his projectors join the CBSO and Mirga Gražynitė-Tyla to perform The Sea by the composer and artist Mikolajus Čiurlionis, Lithuania's most celebrated artistic figure, one whose music is hardly ever heard in the UK – though Mirga, herself Lithuanian, is about to change all that. Čiurlionis's combination of musical and visual artistry makes him the perfect outlet for Perryman, who creates "kinetic painting" live in concert. 

Video trailer for Saturday from the CBSO:

As I have adored Norman's work for years, yet never before had the chance to see him in action in a top UK concert hall, I thought we should ask him for a guest blog. He has kindly provided one, so here it is. JD

A guest post by Norman Perryman

“What? Are you crazy? Have you ever done this before?” 

“Yes, for 45 years or so.”

For years, I’ve been trying to verbalize what I do – create a hybrid art-form of flowing colours and light in synch with the music. Unlike a framed static painting, this painting only exists in real time – for as long as the music lasts. Instead of using computer-generated images, I use my hands, as musicians do. My instrument is my paintbrush. I don’t just improvise. I memorize the score, mark it up with my choreography for brushstrokes and colours, then practise for months before the performance.

Rather than synthetic pixelated images, I prefer pure analogue fields of flowing colour that touch our emotions with their organic properties. When these watercolours are magnified with my overhead projectors onto a ten-metre wide screen as I paint, they acquire an other-worldly quality. But words fail me - seeing is believing.

Every day now in my studio, as I practise my lyrical expressionist painting for a performance of the symphonic poem The Sea, by Lithuania's national hero the painter/composer M.K.Čiurlionis (1875-1911), I feel deeply moved. By the end of this 35-minute piece I’m almost in tears, with a sense of having plumbed the depths of his “boundless longing” for a sublime mystical experience with Nature. After months of work, his music is in my blood, in my ears, day and night. I feel we know each other. It’s time now to show this to the world.

Widely regarded as one of the precursors of European modern art, Čiurlionis was steeped in the cultural philosophies of his day, in his case visualized in hundreds of paintings of mystic symbolic landscapes, seascapes and fantastic architecture. It would be totally inappropriate to try to imitate his paintings. Instead, I take my inspiration from his music to show in my own style of painting, how visual and emotional his music is. Had he lived longer, he might have become one of the early film composers, who knew how to underscore the drama of the movies. I myself underline the emotions of the music with my own movies of abstract lyrical images.  

I shall never forget the moment when two years ago the new Lithuanian CBSO Music Director Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla flipped through one of my heavily marked-up scores and exclaimed: ”Aha… you paint the music!” Then, after 20 seconds fast-forwarding through a video-trailer of my Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy, she looked at me very thoughtfully and said: “We must work together, with Čiurlionis”. The obvious choice for my fluid watercolours was The Sea.  I spent the following summer travelling in Lithuania, to soak myself in its rich culture and nature. I felt I was in the very heart of Europe. That visit and following studies played an essential part in my understanding of The Sea and of the amazing man who wrote it. 

How did it all start? As a Birmingham art-college student in the early 1950s, I couldn’t afford lunch, so my lunch-times were spent at free concerts given by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra just across the road in the Town Hall. I was wrestling with the choice of studying music or art. My compromise was to dedicate my life to finding a way of satisfying two passions, by bringing these art-forms together. Forty years later, it was the visionary Simon Rattle who recognized my ambition. He suggested working together with his CBSO and in 1993 BBC Television filmed the results in the documentary entitled Concerto for Paintbrush and Orchestra. Since then, after 25 years of performances worldwide, it feels like coming home to be back in Symphony Hall, this time via a pathway that led to Lithuania, of all places.

But I was also appalled with the realization of how tragic and complex the history of Lithuania is, despite having been the largest and one of the most prosperous countries in Europe. Many of us are ignorant of the significance of this tiny country and of the many cultural heroes it has produced. Did you know that Jascha Heifetz, Philip Glass, Bob Dylan, Sean Penn, Leonard Cohen and our celebrated author Jessica Duchen, to name just a few, all have Lithuanian roots? [another story, that - JD]

It’s been a long road, so this performance with Mirga and her CBSO in Birmingham Symphony Hall on 16  February, Lithuania’s Independence Day, is a huge milestone for me. I’m proud to play a modest part in the ongoing cultural renaissance of the city where I was born.

Norman Perryman

Norman Perryman is with the CBSO and Mirga Gražynitė-Tyla at Symphony Hall, Birmingham, on Saturday 16 February, 7pm. More info and booking here.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Whence Mirga?

Listening on the radio to the splendid Proms debut of Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla with her CBSO the other night, I couldn't help a smile or ten. Cometh the hour, cometh the woman: with a performance like that, wonderfully sculpted, full of conviction, detail and blazing emotion, it couldn't be clearer that the orchestra has snapped her up because she is a fantastic conductor, not because she is female in an era when (at last) equality is being demanded. UK listeners can hear the concert on the iPlayer here. It's also clear that quite a few people haven't much idea of where Lithuania is, or why it should produce such an excellent musician.

When Lithuania and the other Baltic states joined the EU in 2004, I was lucky enough to be invited over to the Vilnius Festival to write some articles about the place, its musical scene and its artistic history - and to do some roots-finding at the same time, as my ancestors were from there in the 18th century. Concerts were held in the beautiful Filharmonja, where Heifetz - who was born in Vilnius - made his debut as a child; and in there I heard an astonishing performance of the Tchaikovsky 'Pathétique' Symphony, conducted by Mstislav Rostropovich. It was an absolute glory: gut-wrenching stuff, with old-school Russian-style strings and distinctive vinegary trumpets, sizzling narrative, epic-scale tragedy: music as a matter of life and death.

Vilnius has a proud and distinguished musical life; it's had its problems over the decades, of course, but the influences run deep and come from powerful origins. That's Mirga's background. (She must have been about 18 when I went there, of course...)

It seems worth revisiting those thoughts, so here's the briefish blogpost about it; and below I am pasting the article I wrote then for The Strad, 2004. (It may be missing some accents and suchlike, I'm afraid.) Pics are mine, from then.

The Vilnius Filharmonja

LITHUANIA by Jessica Duchen - from THE STRAD, 2004

Local legend has identified, on a hillside in the Old Town of Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital, an unmarked site of pilgrimage for violinists. Surrounded by the tumbledown remains of what was long ago the Vilna Ghetto, ripe for redevelopment amid the turmoil of change underway all around, stands the birthplace of Jascha Heifetz – its yellowish brick and the wooden stables in its back yard probably unchanged since the day Vilna’s greatest prodigy made his debut at the Filharmonja concert hall, aged seven.

Apparently this is Jascha Heifetz's birthplace
Part of the Baltic territory that over the centuries has been carved up between surrounding powers in a variety of ways, Lithuania is home to a proud and impressive musical tradition, bearing important influences from both its heftier neighbours, Russia and Poland. Cesar Cui (1835-1918), one of Russia’s Mighty Handful, was born in Vilnius; among his teachers was the Polish-born Stanislaw Moniuszko (1819-1872), who was organist at St John’s Church in Vilnius and set to music poems by Adam Mickiewicz, the Polish poet said to have inspired Chopin’s Ballades, whose Vilnius home is now marked by a stone plaque.

Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis (1875-1911), after whom the country’s elite arts high school is named, was both a composer and a painter who pioneered abstract art in Lithuania; speaking of paintings, Marc Chagall was born in nearby Vitebsk and his canvases evoke, in fantastical images of floating violins and traditional Jewish fiddlers ‘on the roof’, the musical aspect of the once vast, artistically fertile Jewish community of this region. Vilnius was known in the 18th and 19th centuries as ‘the Jerusalem of the North’. All that was destroyed (with local help) during the Nazi invasion, and the traces of it flattened and suppressed under the subsequent Soviet regime.

Interior of the Filharmonja
But today Lithuania’s musical life is flourishing. Its ensembles include two symphony orchestras, the Lithuanian Opera and Ballet Theatre with its own orchestra in Vilnius and the State Music Theatre in Kaunas, two chamber orchestras in Vilnius and another in Kaunas, and a lively choral and chamber music scene. Add to that the ambitious Vilnius Festival, which has run every June for ten years, several annual festivals of contemporary music and three high-level musical competitions, including a violin competition named after Heifetz, and the importance of music becomes clear as daylight. Folk music, particularly song and dance, is ever popular (the local stringed instrument is the ‘kanklés’), and international jazz festivals bring visitors flocking to Vilnius and Kaunas each year; also taking place is a gradual resurgence of interest in Klezmer and the Jewish folk music of the Vilna Ghetto.

Among today’s most celebrated Lithuanian-born soloists are violinist Julian Rachlin and cellist David Geringas – the latter has particularly championed the music of Anatolijus Senderovas, once a childhood friend, now a leading Lithuanian composer, who has written a concerto and a number of solo and chamber works for him. Lithuania has a strong quartet-playing tradition; and although the Lithuanian String Quartet, for many years the country’s leading chamber ensemble, has now disbanded, others are doing well, notably the MK Ciurlionis Quartet and the Chordos Quartet which places considerable emphasis on contemporary music.

The Gates of Dawn
This is currently in abundant supply. The director of the Vilnius Festival, Gintautas Kevisas, also director of the Vilnius Opera and Ballet Theatre, says that he wants composers ‘to feel that they are a very significant part of the community’; he is eager to encourage this with an annual Festival commission. The 2004 festival’s world premiere was the Duo Concertante for violin, viola and orchestra by Vytautas Barkauskas, who won the prestigious National Prize in 2003 for his Violin Concerto, Jeux. His Duo Concertante is dedicated to the memory of an extraordinary figure in Lithuanian history: Chiune Sugihara, Japanese vice-consul in Kaunas (then the capital) in 1940, who saved 6,000 Jewish refugees from the Nazis by issuing them with transit visas although his government had forbidden him to do so. In tribute, much of the Duo Concertante is modelled on Japanese music. Its premiere, with violinist Philippe Graffin and violist Nobuko Imai as soloists, drew an enthusiastic response; Imai has now arranged its Japanese premiere for the Tokyo Viola Space Festival in May 2005.

This year, the Vilnius Festival commission is a new ballet score from Senderovas. Senderovas, Barkauskas and numerous other Lithuanian composers have been enjoying increasingly international profiles since Lithuania declared independence from Russia in 1991. As Barkauskas says, preparing for a previously unthinkable visit to Japan, ‘It’s like springtime!’

Lithuania is at an ‘interesting’ point in its history, caught in a tug-of-war between Communist legacy and capitalist aspiration. Experiences in some musical organisations are symptomatic of this ideological transition: most notably, last year the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra ejected its 77-year-old conductor, Saulis Sondeckis, who had been at its helm for 44 years, after a heated, vociferous and very public power struggle. During the Communist years, such appointments were jobs for life. This – as every musician I met in Vilnius agreed – has to change.

Nevertheless, most music in Lithuania is still state-run. The National Philharmonic Society, the umbrella organisation under which musical organisations were centralised under the Soviet regime, is still in place and is generally regarded as a positive way to protect musical life, preferable to exposing every organisation individually to the uncertainty of market forces. Young talent is still nurtured by a network of state music schools across the country, and also by the sizeable Ciurlionis School, which admits the most talented pupils in music, ballet and fine art. When I visited Vilnius, I found that most of the musicians and arts administrators I met had been educated there. 

Unsurprisingly, the dominant force in Lithuania’s string teaching is the Russian school. At the 2004 Vilnius Festival, hearing the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra performing Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony conducted by Mstislav Rostropovich, and the young Lithuanian conductor Robertas Servenikas leading the specially-formed Vilnius Festival Orchestra through Mozart, Stamitz and Barkauskas, it was easy to imagine oneself sliding back in time by 30 years. The LNSO’s style is intense and creamy, reminiscent of recordings by the finest USSR orchestras, while the Festival Orchestra’s approach was lively, spirited and clear, but without a trace of influence from the sinewy sounds, inspired by period instrument performance, that now dominate many European chamber orchestras.

The Heifetz Hall is in the Jewish Community Museum
The LNSO’s concertmaster, Almina Statkuviene, explains the benefits of her colleagues’ unity of style: ‘Because we have all trained in the same system – we are almost all graduates of the Lithuanian Music Academy – we play together very naturally, with the same technique. Our principal conductor, Juozas Domarkas, has been with the orchestra since 1964, but we have none of the tensions that some other orchestras are currently experiencing! He studied in St Petersburg with Ilya Musin and Mravinsky and has brought some excellent traditions with him.’

Head of strings at the Lithuanian Academy of Music is violist Petras Radzevicius: he is also principal viola of the LCO and has been a crucial lynchpin in establishing the Jascha Heifetz Violin Competition. He has taught at the LMA since 1963 and served as head of department since 1987. Currently, he says, the string department holds 12 professors and around 80 students.

On Gediminas, looking towards the cathedral
‘After the war, in the early days of the Soviet occupation, some young musicians from Moscow arrived in Vilnius,’ he explains, ‘and from that time onwards the Russian school of playing, in those days considered rather progressive, established itself here. All the professors in the string department today are students of those original Russian teachers, and many of them also went to Moscow for postgraduate studies with pupils of David Oistrakh.’ A good handful of foreign students come to the Academy each year, he adds: ‘Lithuania is known as a good place to study the Russian style.’

Nevertheless, some of Lithuania’s younger musicians, especially those who have studied abroad, are impatient with the pace of change. Mindaugas Backus, principal cello of the Lithuanian State Symphony Orchestra and cellist of the Chordos Quartet, came to Britain to spend two years at the Royal Northern College of Music; the contrast, he says, proved revealing. He feels that musical attitudes in Lithuania need to be updated to take in stylistic developments in the wider musical world as well as more positive responses to personal enterprise. ‘The mentality in Lithuania remains to a large extent very Eastern European and there is a lack of choice,’ he explains. ‘Part of the problem is that so many young people leave the country; I think they should come back and help to carry things forward to new generations here!

‘Things are improving gradually,’ he adds. ‘People are working hard and the atmosphere is hopeful. EU membership makes it easier for us to travel and to invite people from abroad to give masterclasses and perform, although resources are still scarce. And when you go overseas, it’s very nice to stand in the EU Passports queue at immigration!’

Lithuania, poised on its cusp between old and new, looks set to become a fertile ground for musical development in the 21st century. It has long enjoyed that potential. And it may at last be on the road to fulfilment and international recognition. JD

Sunday, April 24, 2016

JDCMB Long Read: The Sounds of Shakespeare

There was a lot of Shakespeare around yesterday - extravaganzas at the Globe, the Southbank, Stratford-upon-Avon live on TV (incidentally, if you were watching that you will have seen our fabulous novel-concert violinist partner, David Le Page, leading the Orchestra of the Swan behind all those great actors). I felt privileged to be able to make a small contribution to the celebrations, giving a pre-concert talk at Symphony Hall, Birmingham, where the young conductor Lahav Shani was at the helm for a programme of three different versions of Romeo and Juliet.

As a fun Long Read for Sunday, here's the text of my talk.

JD's Talk for the CBSO, 23 April 2016

Happy Shakespeare's Birthday! I think everyone has a Shakespeare concert tonight. Theres all manner of readings and music in almost every venue I can think of. Everywhere we look, people are celebrating his birthday and marking the 400th anniversary of his death, and really, for an author who walked amongst us so many centuries ago, this is simply amazing and wonderful.

And why not, when Shakespeares works are full to bursting with music? It's not only in the sound and flow of his language, which is full of the richness, the variety and the  colour of music in its own right. There are songs in almost every play, serving many different purposes from Desdemonas Willow Song in Othello, which is a premonition of her own doom, to the high spirits of It was a lover and his Lass in As You Like It and the pain of unrequited love in Twelfth Nights Come Away, Come Away Death. There are dances to close, masques, balls and general fun to music in many of them. And there's music in the text, too: Lorenzo and Jessica sit upon the moonlit grass to hear sweet music in The Merchant of Venice and discuss how it moves them; Prosperos Isle in The Tempest is full of noises; and of course Orsino in Twelfth Night starts the play with the line If music be the food of love, play on.

Shakespeare has inspired more composers than any other single author, indeed probably more than anything extramusical except the Bible: over 300 works, from Purcells The Fairy Queen right through to Thomas Adess opera The Tempest. Lets not forget how far Shakespeare travels in space as well as time. Ghosts of The Tempest haunt Mozart's opera The Magic Flute. In Paris Berlioz was in thrall to Shakespeare; Mendelssohn was too, in Germany; and later Korngold in Vienna and Hollywood. Verdi in Italy wrote three magnificent Shakespearean operas, Macbeth, Otello and Falstaff. And some of the greatest Shakespearean music comes from Russia and is by Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich.

The other day I was talking to a Russian conductor about the way Shakespeare has inspired composers. Growing up in Russia, he had got to know the plays in translation notably from the fine mid-20th-century versions by the poet Boris Pasternak, the author of Dr Zhivago. Exploring the different translations available, he had been interested to see the way every era coloured Shakespeare in its own way. The 19th-century translations were, he remarked, almost too beautiful. They played up the romanticism, smoothing out the earthy elements. He felt that it was only in the 20th-century that the translators really began to understand the full scale and complexity and variety in Shakespeare - the way the boundaries between what we think of as his genres are blurred, for instance; the comedies are often potentially tragedies that end well, and the tragedies offer plenty of comic elements along the way.

So: Shakespeare in translation is filtered through a mediator, and that mediators time and place, and what reaches the audience or the reader is therefore a personal vision, an interpretation. This sounds like something second-hand yet if you think about it, thats also how the plays reach us in the theatre, through the interpretation of a director and actors. The amazing thing about Shakespeare is that he can be reinvented time after time, and hes so strong that he always comes out on top.

If every translator filters Shakespeare through the style and preoccupations of his or her own day, so does every composer. Translating Shakespeare into music is a huge challenge as well as an inspiration, and every person will choose something different to respond to as the creative cogs begin to whirr. Not only the time, place and personality of the composer are involved, but also the purpose of that particular work.

Therefore what we have in tonights concert is incredibly varied, even though all three pieces are inspired by the same story: Romeo and Juliet.

I'm sure you know the story, but in case, let's recap quickly. The Montagus and the Capulets, two distinguished families, are mortal enemies, though we never learn why (which is clever: Shakespeare doesn't let us take sides). They kill each other in swordfights on the streets of Verona. Romeo is the Montagus' son. Juliet is the 14-year-old daughter of the Capulets. Romeo and his friends Mercutio and Benvolio gatecrash the Capulets ball; there Romeo meets Juliet and they fall in love. Later Romeo talks to her while shes on her balcony and they plan to go to Friar Lawrence and get married in secret. Friar Lawrence complies, hoping this will end the traditional enmity. But immediately afterwards, Mercutio and Juliets cousin Tybalt start fighting again. Romeo tries to stop them, but Tybalt kills Mercutio, Mercutio blames Romeo for getting in the way and proclaims "A plague on both your houses," as he dies. Romeo kills Tybalt. The Duke of Verona banishes Romeo. He spends one night with Juliet, then must leave. Friar Lawrence gives Juliet a potion that will make her appear dead. She will be entombed in the family vault. Hell summon Romeo, wholl come back, shell wake up and theyll run away together. But the message doesnt reach Romeo instead, he hears that Juliet is dead, and he goes to her tomb and takes poison. Juliet wakes to find him dead and stabs herself. Over their lifeless bodies, the families are reconciled at last.

A portrait of Tchaikovsky (photo: Wikipedia)
Its an eternal human story. Its about crazy love and senseless hatred, about adolescence and the complexity of guiding young people, about friendship and loyalty, and nuances of human emotion are explored on every single page. The theme of love goes through it all not only love between the star-crossed young pair. Love of different types and degrees exists between the young friends, between parents and children, between Juliet and her nurse, between Romeo and his teacher, Friar Lawrence, and even especially in the ballet between the implicitly youthful Lady Capulet and her nephew Tybalt.

Were hearing three versions tonight, by Tchaikovsky, Bernstein and Prokofiev, but there are absolutely heaps of others. Berliozs is part opera, part incidental music, part oratorio. Theres an opera by Gounod in which Juliette wakes up in time to sing a duet with Romeo before he dies. The soundtrack of Zeffirelli's film of the play is by Nino Rota and celebrated in its own right. There was even a fine song by Dire Straits back in the 80s. And, less well known, the slow movement of Beethovens first string quartet, Op.18 No.1, was reputedly inspired by the tomb scene.

Each work from a different composer in a different era transforms the play into something new and personal. Tchaikovsky, as a young man in Moscow in 1869, produces a so-called Overture though a tone-poem might be a better description of it. Prokofiev, in soviet Moscow in the 1930s and 40s, created a score specifically to be danced, and found all manner of demands being placed on him to that end of which more in a moment. And Leonard Bernstein in New York in 1955, working with his dramatist Arthur Laurents, the lyricist Stephen Sondheim and the choreographer Jerome Robbins, created in West Side Story something more than a musical, a work for the people in which all the creative team gave their very best work.

First, Tchaikovsky. Its an early work, suggested to Tchaikovsky by the composer and frequent mentor to that generation of composers, Balakirev. The premiere was a flop. Balakirev suggested changes, Tchaikovsky more or less obeyed, and it was...still a flop. It wasn't until 1886 that a final rethink by the now much more experienced composer provided it with its title fantasy-overture and its splendid coda.

Tchaikovsky would have known the play from one of those comparatively naïve, prettified translations. I think he must have identified deeply with the notion of star-crossed love; it wasnt easy to be gay in 19th-century Russia and he suffered terrific internal struggles over this all his life. Perhaps an identification with the subject matter might enhance the work's intensity, but actually I suspect that this work's runaway success in our times is 99 per cent down to sheer hard graft. He finds in Romeo and Juliets story an almost classic Sonata form, with a substantial introduction and that coda. The whole notion of sonata form is conflict and likewise with drama. In the standard pattern of sonata form, two principal themes contrast with one another, aided and abetted by a few others, and their potential is selectively explored in a central episode known as the Development. Tchaikovsky creates these two themes in, first of all, pugnacious fighting music that represents the enmity of the Montagues and the Capulets, and secondly the gorgeous melody that represents the lovers. The wealth of detail is amazing: listen out for the irregular accents in the fighting music which could almost depict clashing swords, and in the love music the glimmers of harp which could suggest the glint of moonlight. The development centres on the music of conflict and rather than mingling it with the love theme, Tchaikovsky brings in the other important musical idea: the one we hear at the very beginning; it feels as if it could have been modelled on the unaccompanied choirs of the Russian orthodox church. 

This theme represents Friar Lawrence and his attempts to calm the conflict by bringing Romeo and Juliet together. It provides the introduction, the coda and some of the middle too, sounding strongly through the fighting in the development, as if reminding us of the context in which Romeo kills Tybalt. The coda begins with a funeral march and as the work comes to its close the chorale, smoothing things, extrapolating good from tragedy, gives way to the love theme turned more or less upside down and the final chords are from the fight theme, in reconciliation. In short, Tchaikovsky takes the very essence of the story, turns it into pure musical structure and imbues it with his own time and place firstly with his intense romanticsm and also by bringing in the Russian orthodox flavour, which you wouldnt have found in 15th-century Verona or Stratford upon Avon.

Nor would you have found much of it in Stalins Russia. In 1935, Prokofiev was living safely abroad. Stalin, it seems, was eager to lure him back to Moscow, and Prokofiev was not so difficult to lure. He liked the idea of writing accessible, enjoyable music that could be appreciated by a wide audience, he felt out of step with the avant-garde contemporary music of Europe, notably serialism, and the rise of the Nazis was doing nothing to encourage him to stay in the west. Offered the tempting bait of creating a ballet of Romeo and Juliet for the great Bolshoi, he took it. He returned to live in Russia and began work on a scenario with the dramatist Sergei Radlov. They reformatted the story on quasi-revolutionary lines, concentrating on the struggle between generations more than the family rivalry. Quite incredibly, they planned a happy ending! Prokofiev even wrote it. It was unearthed and performed about eight years ago and apparently it contained a lot of C major chords

But in 1936 everything changed: Stalins purges were reaching their height, and the chairman of the newly created Committee on Arts Affairs, which enforced Soviet ideology, dissolved the entire administration of the Bolshoi. Romeo and Juliet was postponed, then shelved. Next, it was agreed that it would be performed at the Kirov in St Petersburg in 1940. Then: more trouble. The choreographer Leonid Lavrovsky wanted more dances in order to show off his company and Prokofiev was forced to rewrite and rejig swathes of it, creating plenty of short showpiece numbers, making the orchestration denser to sound more socialist realist and restoring the original tragic ending, apparently on Stalins demand. Which is perhaps surprising coming from Stalin. It was finally performed at the Bolshoi in 1946, with the specific aim of sending Churchill a signal about Russias cultural involvement with Britain and its Immortal Bard. Ironic that such a masterpiece as this is actually not what Prokofiev had envisioned at all.

But that is our gain, because Prokofiev, creating an entire ballet, could explore the aspects Tchaikovsky's short piece could not: there are bustling street scenes, full of life and humour; theres Juliets nurse, with whom Romeo and his friends flirt fabulously; there are masses of dances, dances at the ball, dances for the townsfolk, dances for Juliets friends. Prokofiev might not have wanted to create them, but theyre wonderful and really true to Shakespeares spirit, adding verve, humour, life-force, and character too. Theres a particularly delightful moment which if you see the choreographer Kenneth Macmillans version with the Royal ballet, he gives to Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio, in which they disguise themselves with much glee before going in to the ball. You feel their youth, their energy, their earthy humour and Romeos premonition that something extraordinary is about to happen. 

The balcony scene is heavenly of course, this being a ballet, Juliet doesnt stay on her balcony very long, coming down to dance a pas de deux with Romeo instead. But Prokofiev, for all his glorious melodies, never slips towards the sentimental even at its most tender theres a dark undertone to this music and his personal harmonic language gives it a subtle, unstable and slightly astringent soundworld, typical of Prokofiev.

We have Balakirev to thank for Tchaikovsky's score, and a choreographer to thank for Prokofiev's. And we have another choreographer to thank for conceiving the idea that became West Side Story. It was Jerome Robbins, who suggested to Leonard Bernstein writing a musical based on Romeo and Juliet. Originally it was going to be East Side Story and the warring families were to have been respectively Catholic and Jewish. First mooted in 1949, it didnt get off the ground. But the creative team Bernstein, Robbins, Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim reconvened in 1955 to try again, discussing what was then called juvenile delinquency. They explored the idea of the gang replacing the family young people joining violent gangs as a way of belonging to something a scenario that's still very much with us now.

The scene moved to the Upper West Side, and the gangs became self-styled Americans on the one hand the Jets, in which our hero Tony has been mixed up versus the Puerto Rican immigrants of the Sharks, led by Bernardo, whose sister is our heroine, Maria. Of course, the twist is that the Americans who are warring against the immigrant Puerto Ricans are themselves the children of immigrants.

The creative team ditched the less plausible elements of Shakespeare, like the sleeping potion and Maria does not die. Instead she delivers a powerful speech over Tonys body; she takes a gun and declares that she, too, can kill now because she has learned how to hate. Its a devastating moment, because it demonstrates so clearly how these cycles of violence are self-perpetuating.

Heres a wonderful description by Laurents of the creative team's aims: We all knew what we did not want. Neither formal poetry nor flat reportage; neither opera nor split-level musical comedy numbers; neither zippered-in ballets nor characterless dance routines. We didn't want newsreel acting, blue-jean costumes or garbage can scenery any more than we wanted soapbox pounding for our theme of young love destroyed by a violent world of prejudice. What we did want was to aim at a lyrically and theatrically sharpened illusion of reality…”

Musically, the scenario provided Bernstein with some choice material. The Puerto Rican aspect meant he could get his teeth into Latin American music in a big way its rhythms permeate the song America and the dance scene at the Gym, which we hear as the Symphonic Dances, with the famous Mambo. The Jets are represented at first by jazzy rhythms, finger-clicking, a cat-like prowling in the shadows. And the songs range from the anthem Somewhere to a brilliant bit of satirical comedy in Gee, Officer Krupky, when the Jets joke about telling the policeman that theyre good underneath and its their circumstances that have made them delinquents one of them says Im depraved on account Im deprived! Set bang on in its creators' own era and city, its verve, poetry, earthiness, raw passion and violence is actually incredibly true to the spirit of Shakespeare's original.

Its fascinating to see that now West Side Story is undergoing a metamorphosis. It's starting to cross in earnest from the Broadway theatre to the opera house. Im off to Salzburg in a few weeks time to see Cecilia Bartoli as Maria. And I think its going to be done at Glyndebourne. I think that's great. This top quality work deserves that top quality treatment.

One last thought. I think the question of filters such as a translators Shakespeare, a composers Shakespeare, teamwork Shakespeare is pertinent in many areas. What we see in the media, from Facebook to the national news, is always someones interpretation. We have to remember that what we take as information from other people is rarely pure fact. Theres a filter of time, place and perspective on almost everything. Take that home and have a think. And enjoy the concert. Thank you very much.