Showing posts with label David Pountney. Show all posts
Showing posts with label David Pountney. Show all posts

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Dubai or not Dubai, that is the question

When the composer Joanna Marsh moved to Dubai, she found her whole perspective shifting towards life, music and more. She has just written a new piece to mark the 100th anniversary of women's suffrage in Britain, with a libretto by David Pountney - Pearl of Freedom, being premiered at St John's Smith Square tomorrow - and I was keen to get her to tell us a bit more about writing on a feminist topic from the Middle East. Here's our e-interview.

Joanna Marsh in Dubai.
Both photos from
JD: What prompted you to write a piece about Emily Davison in particular? And how did this opportunity come your way?

JM: Emily Davison was actually part of the brief. Rupert Gough, (the current Director of Choral Music Royal Holloway, University of London) came to a performance of mine last May and mentioned that they were planning to commission a piece to coincide with the anniversary of the Representation of the People Act as Emily Davison was an alumna of the college. He asked whether I was interested.

JD: Your librettist is David Pountney - what was it like to work with him? Please could you describe the collaborative process?

JM: This is the second piece I’ve worked on with David and it felt completely different to the last one. We had a few conversations about which were the best research materials were, I sent him a book or two that I had come across and we looked through various films and bits of footage footage. He came up with the idea of using the extracts of diaries, news reports and anecdotes to recount the events leading up to the Epsom Derby of 1913 with very little, if anything, invented. There was a huge amount of material to choose from. Most of our discussions were about what could be cut without great loss. It was all very calm and considered.  

Not so the piece before which was the first time I worked with David, on My Beautiful Camel. This was a wacky comedy set in Dubai; a story I had devised with the new Dubai Opera house in mind. His libretto was a triumph of wit and humour and his experience of a lifetime in opera meant that the structure was great and did all the right things. (That has been a great bonus of working with David actually; he is brilliant on what will and won’t work dramatically). However there was quite a lot of toing and froing over the characters and their behaviour; what they would or wouldn’t be likely to do or say in the UAE etc. And there were a few really rude words that I kept trying to edge out but he wanted to keep in. He did eventually agree to dial down some of the sweariness but I felt weirdly square having those conversations. Swearing wasn’t really an issue with the Emily Davison piece!

JD: Musically, how have you approached the project? What were the biggest challenges in it for you? And has it developed/extended/changed the way you compose at all, and if so, how?

JM: From conversations I have had with colleagues I think most, if not all, composers sit there at the beginning of the composition process trying to remember how to begin. The process feels oddly unfamiliar every time. I find it very similar to a chess game. You start with an opening gambit and a rough idea of what might follow but you can’t see all that far ahead. The landscape can change in an instant as you realize you need to follow up on certain ideas and leave aside others you had thought might work. But having eight episodes of text in front of me was helpful with Pearl of Wisdom. It was visible on hard copy where the moments of greatest intensity needed to be, where the momentum had to build or relax. The conundrum was how to create a piece that felt musically balanced.

Every piece provides its own learning process: you are saying something you have not said before, it is always new terrain.

JD: How does the work fit in to your output in general - for instance, are feminist topics recurrent for you, or is this the first time you’ve tackled one?

JM: I haven’t worked on a piece with a specifically feminist topic before. The only piece I have written with political overtones was The Tower, for choir and brass, which was about the Burj Khalifa. I had just arrived in Dubai and felt ambivalent towards the place at that time. The Burj was only half constructed and something about its vast, monolithic hulk drew to mind the former greatest tower of the Arab world, the Tower of Babel.

For the text I made an amalgamation of different sources that recounted the construction of Tower of Babel by slaves in their thousands. Some of the texts were rather hard hitting, for instance one spoke of a woman having to give birth and keep on working at the same time.

JD: How did you come to be based in Dubai and how do you feel about living there?

JM: I wasn’t keen to move to Dubai. When my husband was approached for a job out there I thought that visiting might be good ‘interview’ practice’, i.e. I was up for a trip with him to look round. But when he was offered the job I was a bit shocked. Terribly naïve of me! On top of that, many friends were suggesting it was not an advisable move for a composer. But I bit the bullet and tagged along, telling myself it would only be for a few years, maybe three, max.

But out in Dubai life immediately felt quieter and less internally pressurizing, as if I was away the ‘rat race’. There was a sudden expansion of my world, both geographically and internally. From a distance I felt like an onlooker on classical music scene and realized how profoundly I was grateful for it. I was no longer concerned about how I might fit into it, any preoccupations like that were removed as irrelevant. I just focused on my writing and that was freeing.

JD: What perspective does Middle East life give you on societal attitudes towards women and especially towards women in music?

JM: Everything shifted in my head when I learned Arabic. Up to that point I felt that Arab culture was an exotic side-show that friends who came to visit might be interested in seeing. I felt very detached from it. But the language is completely tied up in the culture and by learning it you turn the handle of the door and walk in to people’s lives rather than tapping on the window and waving from the outside. I found a real appetite for learning and threw myself into situations which I would formerly have found a bit disconcerting. I remember one day getting really frustrated by my speed of learning and went off banging on all the doors of our road to find someone willing to let me practice on them. I found Rula (from Jordan) now one of my best friends. Our conversations swing around between Arabic and English, full of the usual neighbourly gossip and life plans.

The majority of older Arab women across the Middle East are beholden to the males in their family, fathers or husbands with expectations that to us look like something out of the 1950s. But interestingly, there is a new generation in the Gulf who have been educated in the West, particularly in America and Britain. They retain their respect for their society’s traditions but have a broader perspective. Young Emirati women in particular have real drive and aspiration, and the city supports them with programmes designed to accelerate their career development. They are demographic that is moving forward with the greatest momentum. I am sure we will see significant social change in the Gulf over the next 10 years because of this.

Arguably the two most influential Middle Eastern artists of all time are women, Umm Kalthoum (Egypt) and Fayrouz (Lebanon). They are loved and respected over the whole of the Arab world. The language of Middle Eastern music interests me increasingly. I haven’t used it in my own music before as it felt like cultural appropriation but I am toying with the idea of borrowing a few idioms for a piece I am writing later this year.

JD: Do you think Dubai will become a more important centre for musical life in the years ahead?

JM: Now that there is a venue, the Dubai Opera, Dubai has a presence in the classical touring scene. That has already changed the perception of the place with a strong message that the programming now caters for an aware and educated public, (for example bringing BBC Proms to the Middle East). There has been classical programming in the UAE before, for example at the Abu Dhabi festival which is only an hour’s drive from Dubai, but Dubai has not generally reflected the programming you might find in a major Western concert hall. An iconic venue sends out a strong message but the fact that 1000 people will attend a concert in Dubai given by the BBC Singers suggests that there is a hunger for quality.

JD: The issue of gender equality in art music has become gigantic these past few years. Do you think we’re seeing a sea-change in the climate at last?

JM: It looks that way and that certainly gladdens my heart.  I have noticed a lot of noise on social media and I have been seeing posts on this from friends in the music business. But I only tend to fly back to England for premieres and spend some time during the summer when schools are on holiday so it’s difficult to get the true temperature on this issue.

My own issues with working as a composer over the last ten years have been specific to the difficulty of being a composer based in a country with no classical music tradition. The fact that I am a woman is incidental and actually hasn’t really made any difference to my work in Dubai.

JD: Any other forthcoming events you'd like to mention?

JM: I have a residency at Sidney Sussex Cambridge and the college choir is recording some of my choral music in March for release in October 2018 on Resonus. The disk will include pieces for Fretwork who are accompanying a few of the choral works.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Pride and prejudices: Tchaikowsky's The Merchant of Venice, WNO, ROH

'In sooth, I know not why I am so sad...' Antonio goes to the shrink.
All photos by Johan Persson, courtesy of WNO

When I was 14 I went to a piano recital I've never forgotten. It was by a Polish pianist who had escaped the Soviet bloc and settled in Oxfordshire. He was a friend of my piano teacher, who said I simply had to go and hear this astonishing musician. A gentle figure, bearded and sympathetic, he played with a soft, persuasive tone, filled above all with love for the music, especially Chopin - I can still hear its atmosphere now. We went backstage, shook his hand, thanked him; he was kind to the music-mad schoolgirl I was at the time. About two years later he died of cancer, aged only 42. His name was André Tchaikowsky.

Unknown to me at the time, Tchaikowsky (or Czajkowski, assumed instead of his real name, which was Krauthammer) was a composer as well. His magnum opus, a piece that obsessed him for the last 25 years or so of his life, was an opera based on The Merchant of Venice. Having endured a traumatic wartime childhood that entailed escaping the Warsaw Ghetto and more (Anastasia Belina-Johnson's hair-raising account of his story in the opera programme is well worth a read if you can get hold of it - see also the trailer for the documentary above), Tchaikowsky had more than a vested interest in Shakespeare's story of prejudice and revenge on the Rialto.

The opera was almost finished at the time he died, but had been rejected - to his immense disappointment - by ENO. It was one of the team for whom he had played it, director David Pountney, who homed in on it a few years back and finally put on the world premiere at the Bregenz Festival in 2013; he then programmed it also at Welsh National Opera. The other day, WNO brought it to the Royal Opera House for a London premiere and last night I went to see it.

Lester Lynch as Shylock
The reality is that it's a mixed bag. It contains seriously strong moments. It also possibly needed more editing (I suspect one could lose at least 15 minutes without damaging the fabric) - and a more straightforward staging than Keith Warner presents, a little truer to the spirit of the original Shakespeare, perhaps would not hurt it either. The best music and drama emerges after the interval in the courtroom scene, when Shylock and Portia's speeches provide the opportunity for some heartfelt, probing exploration and genuinely emotional expression - which culminates in Portia's demolition of Shylock. He eventually collapses to lie insensible at the front of the stage; and the anguished orchestral interlude which follows seemed to enter more deeply into his state of mind than most of the word setting in the rest.

The overarching musical style is of its time, with very busy orchestral writing mostly in atonal, bubbling, chattering, occasionally bumbling strands that make life interesting in the wind section, but rarely, in the first half, settle into anything clearly shaped. The coalescence and concentration of the string writing after the interval helps to lift act 3 to another level - and the orchestra was in splendid form, cogently conducted by Lionel Friend.

A strong cast delivered the piece with enormous commitment and often relish. Lester Lynch's warm and eloquent baritone was a fine fit for Shylock and the soprano Sarah Castle made much of Portia as an imperious, exceptionally cruel character, precise in tone and able to cut splendidly across the sometimes frenetic orchestra. Mark Le Brocq was outstanding as Bassanio, but his friend Antonio, in the person of the counter-tenor Martin Wölfel, had a more challenging time with a role that does not sound sympathetically written for its voice type. Lauren Michelle and Bruce Sledge did all they could with the ungrateful roles of the ungrateful Jessica [not really my namesake - JD] and the more than vaguely unpleasant Lorenzo: plenty of hard-driven singing, but little character development.

Keith Warner's production accentuates the fact that the play is about prejudice on every level: the anti-Semitism that has followed Shylock all his life and drives him to seek an unconscionable revenge; the failure of anybody to recognise in the accomplished "doctor of law" the figure of Portia, an actual woman (plus Nerissa as her clerk); and the racial digs at Portia's unfortunate first two suitors, with whom Warner seeks temporarily to lighten the mood in the Belmont maze, if with a bit of a sledgehammer.

Martin Wölfel (Antonio) and Mark Le Brocq (Bassanio)
Tchaikowsky has homed in, furthermore, on a gay understrand between Antonio and Bassanio. Warner amplifies this by hinting at a parallel scenario for Portia and Nerissa, but also confuses things by introducing some rambunctious humping for Portia and Bassanio almost the moment he has picked the lead casket - something not only out of character for them in the play but also for the opera, which is costumed and set (with designs by Ashley Martin-Davis) in the fin-de-siècle era. That setting extends to opening and closing tableaux in which Antonio is on a couch talking to Dr Freud. The issue of racial prejudice is taken even further by having the Jewish characters portrayed by black singers.

It's tempting to feel that Warner has used that sledgehammer a bit too often to crack this complex walnut of a work. But there is good sense as well. Although it is the anti-Semitic victimisation of Shylock that emerges as agonising front-runner in this battle of the prejudices, Tchaikowsky and Warner alike wisely avoid adding or subtracting from Shakespeare's approach to it. Hideousness is present on both sides; judgment is not passed. These attacks each feed the other's poison. This is how it is. And was. And probably ever shall be.

So - it's not perfect. It's true, at heart, to the play and its complexities. It's also a lifetime's work that needed its creator's existence not to be cut short in the process. But it's good, extremely good, to have it on the stage at all. Plaudits to all who have made it live at last.

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