Showing posts with label Jonas Kaufmann. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Jonas Kaufmann. Show all posts

Friday, June 23, 2017

Hotello

Kaufmann as Otello, Vratogna as Iago.
All photos by Catherine Ashmore/Royal Opera House

One of the first rules of reviewing is: do not start by talking about the weather. So to start on the Royal Opera's new Otello by pointing out that it was the hottest first night of the year - Jonas Kaufmann's role debut - as well as the hottest June day since 1976 just isn't on. Nevertheless, it was both. In the auditorium one experienced Keith Warner's postmodern new production and Verdi's sizzling score through the gentle rattling of ladies' fans, the flapping of tickets and programmes mimicking their effect, and the upping and downing of light on rogue mobiles as certain people in my row checked Facebook every ten minutes. (Why couldn't they just have donated their ticket to a fan who would have fully appreciated the performance?)

If the audience was finding it difficult to settle, the same couldn't be said of the music. Tony Pappano, first of all, is in his element in this opera. His shaping and pacing of the drama is breathtaking: mercurial, clear, enormously energetic and deeply intelligent. The building up of the scene where Iago gets Cassio increasingly drunk is just one example, beginning almost as a pub song, joshing about, before spiralling through a queasy mephistophelian intensification into violence. The chorus's staging is often static and stylised, very far from naturalistic, but they sound simply glorious.




Again, canny pacing is everything in Kaufmann's characterisation of Otello: confident and tender until Iago plants the seed of doubt, but thereafter tumbling in stages from loss of faith through cool, calculating and controlled resolve, into increasing torment and ultimate dissolution. At ease taking command, but tentative with his new wife as she leads him to the bedroom, this Otello is a man of war first and foremost, perhaps unable to cope with the shock of his own emotions. His progress towards murder for once makes considerable sense.

Deeply convincing and vocally gorgeous, full of careful shading with brilliance reserved for the moments it most counted, this was singing in 3D. If some people expected more volume, one can only reiterate that Kaufmann doesn't do volume for the sake of it and has never been the biggest voice on the stage, just the most beautiful and intelligent one (hmm, this is my second time this year writing that). It is no reason to reject the most complex and satisfying interpretation of this role that I've yet experienced.

Marco Vratogna, replacing the originally announced Ludovic Tézier as Iago, was the wild card of the evening, bursting into our consciousnesses in impressive style. Warner's production makes him explicitly the puppet master, controlling not only those around him but the symbols of Venice, the carnival mask, the winged lion, setting the hideous process in motion with ice-cold, psychopathic glee and resembling nothing so much as a Shakespearean version of Dracula with shaven head and bat-like cloak. He could scarcely lean on a wall without making it move. Yet his raven-dark, demonically powerful voice made Iago more than merely a copybook villain. Meanwhile, as Desdemona Maria Agresta sounded vocally effortless and presented the hapless heroine as a straightforward, uncomplicated, loving young woman, trapped in a tragic situation beyond control.

Agresta as Desdemona, Kaufmann as Otello in the final scene

Visually the production has some seriously striking moments. The set design, by Boris Kudlička, involves sliding panels that shift to show us blazes of light through glass, the bedroom through latticework, Otello's face highlighted in a window frame before the final scene, and Cassio's vertiginous descent into drunkenness, amid much else. The contrast between the public and the private moments is convincingly achieved, with Iago and Otello experiencing their oppressive solitary reflections in the darkest isolation. The aptly named Bruno Poet's lighting is, throughout, not only masterful, but often magical.

However, reflecting Otello as a tragic-faced lion-caricature in a mirror, smothering him with a carnival mask and bringing on a giant dismembered lion statue are gestures that seem to over-egg the Venetian pudding in a production that otherwise mixes and mismatches its eras to occasional ill effect. The tall ship rigged with beautiful sails arriving at the back in scene 1 is far indeed from the apparently contemporary hotel-style bedroom in which the murder takes place. And the costume designs by Kaspar Glarner, while offering flowing robes for Desdemona and that splendid cloak for Iago, experience occasional misjudgments. Emilia - the excellent Kai Rüütel - is encumbered by an impossibly stiff and outsize fake-Renaissance wig, and as for Otello's gigantic harem-style leather trousers (eh?) and the blue sparkly robe - think variety-act pseudo-magician - in which he arrives to kill his wife, these did few favours to either singer or character. If the point is that the story is timeless, we know that already and this doesn't help.

There's always some plonker who has to boo the production team, of course, and despite those few weaknesses they really didn't deserve it. It's a powerful, moving account of a towering masterpiece, with musical performances of a calibre that you won't find improved upon anywhere.

Otello is in cinemas next Wednesday, 28 June, so if you can't get to the ROH, do try and catch it on screen.

Details and booking here.


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Monday, February 13, 2017

Less cheering...


Eric Halfvarson, Karita Mattila, Jonas Kaufmann, Tony Pappano & the LSO
take a bow the other night. Now it's curtains...

Oh dear. The Kaufmann Residency has come to an untimely end. Jonas has bronchitis and the concert including the 'Four Last Songs' tonight has been cancelled. Or at least postponed - the Barbican says it will be rescheduled in due course.

So there we are. That's it from London's Kaufmann Central. The discount tent has been packed away, the thermos of tea drained and the last sarnies will presumably keep a day or two in the fridge. We were very lucky to hear that glorious recital last week and the delirious thrill of Die Walküre Act I, so probably we shouldn't be greedy.

We wish Jonas the speediest of recoveries. The offer of chicken soup still stands.

Friday, February 10, 2017

A post to cheer up the Kaufmaniacs... #kaufmannresidency

Oh dear. Jonas Kaufmann cancelled his conversation session at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama today, citing a cold and apologising for disappointing the public. We wish him a speedy recovery and hope to see him for some Strauss specials on Monday. Meanwhile, for the Kaufmaniacs who'd taken the day off specially to go along this afternoon, here are some cheering bits and pieces. Grab a glass of something nice and sit back...

HOW I DISCOVERED JONAS
This recording was the first time I ever heard Jonas's voice and I have never forgotten it. I knew nothing about him, had never even heard his name, and was sent his Strauss album to review, and out came this...voice. Blimey, guv....



WORDS OF WISDOM
Here are some choice quotes from my interview with him exactly three years ago, for BBC Music Magazine. It was February 2014 in New York, it was sodding freeeezing, the snow was piled six and a half feet high around the sidewalks and I turned up in a thick jumper, a hat that wrecks my hair and snow boots. He was rehearsing Werther intensively, but looked fresh as the proverbial daisy. We talked mainly about Winterreise. Also...

JK: “One of the key ingredients to make an audience suffer with you, feel with you, to make things credible and look and sound natural is that you must really believe in it. You need to fill up these wonderful compositions with sense, meaning and genuine emotion.

“I always refer to Herbert von Karajan’s words when he said that what we’re seeking as musicians is ‘controlled ecstasy’. The world around you – including yourself – has to believe that you are a hundred per cent this other person and only when this happens is it something real. But it’s a game, and at the beginning you don’t know how far you can go before you lose control.


“This feeling of almost flying, of almost convincing yourself you’re this other person, that’s what makes this job so exciting – and also in the end so easy, because since you ‘are’ that person, all the words you are singing or saying make total sense.”


WAAAGNER
Better? Let's have some appropriately Wintersturmerish Wagner, with thanks to the excellent quality of Medici.tv...


AND A SPOT OF LEHÁR WITH PLÁCIDO
If this next one doesn't work, nothing will! Come on, SMILE....


HOT TODDY
Last but not least, here is my dad's hot toddy recipe. Should dispel a cold in moments.

1 measure brandy (more if necessary)
A spoon of apricot jam, to taste (or alternative flavour, or honey)
A slice of lemon

Put ingredients into a mug. Fill with hot water. Stir well. Enjoy while listening to Meistersinger.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

The Wagner Evening #kaufmannresidency

Jonas Kaufmann in recital the other night. Photo: Alastair Muir/Barbican

State of being in the Discount Tent EC1 last night post-Walküre Act I: shaking a bit, hyperventilating slightly and maybe in need of a little lie-down, toast and a nice cup of camomile tea. But even the most soothing of brews doesn't cleanse that music from your system. Nothing new about saying Wagner is like a drug, but you can feel it physically in your bloodstream. It's a substance that burns you up from within via myriad points of white heat and you sense it endowing you with superhuman powers such as flight, or at least the ability to walk upside down on the ceiling. Coming down again is the difficult part.

We'll go back to that later, but first you probably want to know what the performance was like.

After opening with the Tristan und Isolde prelude, with Wagner's own concert ending (he tacks on the end of the Liebestod), Tony Pappano kept a tight rein and concentrated atmospheres in the orchestra for the Wesendonck Lieder, which Jonas Kaufmann - as far as we know, the only tenor singing them in this day and age - approached with every iota of the expertise he brought to his recital the other night. Colour, character, control, sophisticated phrasing, poised emotional content: this was a mesmerisingly beautiful interpretation, and one in which he somehow created the illusion, especially in the closing 'Träume', that he became the poetry - as if he had turned into Mathilde Wesendonck. Watching him return to his own self as the applause began was like witnessing some strange metamorphosis controlled by an invisible, internal Tarnhelm.

You'd think this demanding song cycle was enough for a singer who's recently returned after months off sick, but the second half was of course devoted to the whole of Act I of Die Walküre. A few things to consider at this point. First, Kaufmann's voice has always been about quality, not volume: never the biggest voice in the world, but simply the most beautiful and intelligent one. Also, when Bayreuth was designed for the Ring cycle, Wagner's idea was to keep the orchestra level down, with a sunken pit, so that the singers wouldn't have to yell to be heard. Last night, our Siegmund was flanked by two giant voices: as Sieglinde, Karita Mattila and as Hunding Erik Halfvarson. They stood where singers stand in concert performances: beside the conductor, at one with the orchestra. In that context Kaufmann's voice sounded like a gleaming gemstone within the entire diadem of sound-colours. But Mattila and Halfvarson (who of course hadn't sung the whole of the Wesendonck Lieder beforehand) put on the tiara and went surfing over the soundwaves.

Mattila, her tone full of complex, honeyed herbiness in the lower registers and rays of blinding sunlight at the top, seemed ecstatic, losing herself in the music and the role. Kaufmann's Siegmund was a bitter fighter on the run, filled with character and contained power, gradually regaining his passion for life and love and unleashing the full glory at full tilt when it was needed. Halfvarson proved a Hunding in whose house you'd be very afraid to stay, his towering stage presence and magnificent bass galvanising more acting contact than there had been hitherto. Pappano conducted like a man possessed, pacing the energy up to and beyond fever pitch; and one special hero is the LSO itself, but perhaps especially the cello section and its principal, Tim Hugh, who made incandescent gorgeousness out of his solos. The whole thing left even slightly-anxious-about-it people like me longing desperately for Rattle Hall to be built and give them a world-class acoustic with real shine and bloom... And yet the total effect, give or take these quibbles, was mind-blowing.

Heading back to the Tent I bumped into a friend and we said: "Great, so what time does Act II start?"

I'll never forget the first time I heard Die Walküre. I was 25 and working as assistant editor at Classical Music Magazine. Covent Garden was staging the Ring cycle and when my boss discovered I'd never seen it he said I must join him on his press tickets. I went with some trepidation; I had never even heard Act I of Die Walküre before, because I wasn't allowed Wagner, because HITLER. I remember coming out of the opera house in exactly the state above. Twenty-five years later and I know the piece really well, yet it still does that to me. Just imagine the first-timer impact.

So look. I have faced the Wagner-and-Hitler question again and again, and thought it through ad infinitum. The issue is difficult, it's painful, it's complex and for years I felt that avoiding this music was totally justified on historical grounds. Yet it has got to the point now where I could almost feel I was swindled. I was denied, then denied myself, this consciousness-altering musical marvel, this view from the summit of summits, because of Hitler. But that lets Hitler win. Now we must reclaim the music. The greatest music in the world - and this is some of it - should belong to us all. Nobody should be denied the experience of any form of great art because someone, somewhere, is telling them "this isn't for you".


Sunday, February 05, 2017

Black magic #kaufmannresidency

Back on stage! 

The one problem with recitals by Jonas Kaufmann is the absolute scrum at the ladies' loos. The Barbican's facilities are confusing because there are two entrances, one at either end, and sometimes there is one queue, usually two and occasionally three. During last night's interval they brought in ushers to do a spot of crowd-control.

The fans were out in force and for good reason. This concert by Kaufmann and "his" glorious pianist Helmut Deutsch kicked off the Barbican's Kaufmann Residency, four events between last night and 13 February. It was also the charismatic German tenor's first recital in many months, marking his return to performance with Deutsch after his lengthy period of recovery from a haematoma on a vocal cord (his first return to the stage was as Lohengrin in Paris, just two weeks ago). It must have been a relief to many that he was there at all. A slight air of tension hung over the auditorium as the beginning was slightly delayed and an unspoken anxiety of the "er, is he OK?" variety seemed to shiver through the waiting rows.

He was. And he started by thanking everyone for coming along, which got a laugh - many people booked their tickets a year ago and Kaufmaniacs have flown in from all over the world. He then explained that the iPad on its stand was there because this was his first recital in a while and it was simply to make sure he didn't make any any any mistakes. This introduction was to be one of the few light moments of the evening: the artists had selected a programme of dark, disturbing repertoire, the type that excavates the soul and holds it up for forensic examination. Kaufmann's depth of tone and actorly intelligence suits this repertoire exceptionally well. He is, as ever, the ideal tenor for those who really prefer baritones.

Deutsch and Kaufmann: a peerless partnership
Let's hear it for Helmut Deutsch, whose long and distinguished career as pianist, Lieder specialist and teacher seems to have reached its apogee in his work with Kaufmann. This musical magic is utterly a joint effort - and what singer could be so lucky as to have a pianist partner (don't even think about calling him an "accompanist") whose tone is so radiant, whose dynamics are so ideally judged, whose creation of atmosphere is simply peerless and whose support is ideal at every turn. If Kaufmann is Margot Fonteyn, then Deutsch is Rudolf Nureyev, lifting him effortlessly, letting him shine, while remaining a dazzling artist in his own right - though Deutsch is probably a bit more self-effacing about it than Nureyev might have been. The two together become more than the sum of their parts, the partnership a living entity in its own right.

Schumann's Kerner Lieder Op.35 was perhaps the closest set he ever composed to Schubert's Schwanengesang. A sequence of songs rather than a cycle, they are united by the poet Justinus Kerner's undertow of threat and despair: often composer and poet fuse to a degree that it is impossible to be certain whether Schumann is delving into Kerner to craft the poet's essence in music, or whether he has perhaps found in Kerner the perfect means to capture his own. He was much under the influence of Schubert at the time and Schubertian hints surface occasionally in the music: a Rosamunde rhythm in 'Wanderlied', subtle switches between major and minor in 'Erstes Grün' - and not so subtle ones in the set's showstopper 'Stille Tränen'. The final three songs, beginning with that, are united, too, by the rhythm of the text; Schumann makes the last two essentially into one, reiterating a questioning, lost-sounding figure with a cumulative effect that can be deeply unsettling. "Why are you so ill?...Nature heals me, but man will not let me rest," says Kerner. Schumann's likely syphilis? Schubert's? (And can one help but reflect that the music business may have put rather a lot of pressure on our performer of late?) In the final song, 'Alte Laute', the poet says he is trapped in a bad dream from which only an angel can wake him; and right now so is the world, and for a few moments the musicians on stage and their audience were entirely as one.

Kaufmann's core strengths are many, but two were of special value here. One is his quietness: reserving the big, open notes for special moments alone, his eloquence is as soft and dark as mink. It combines with that other magic ingredient, expert storytelling, to the effect that instead of going out to the audience by projecting at full tilt, he makes us go to him, creating an atmosphere of mesmerising intimacy that seems to shrink the hall. Every word and phrase has character and meaning, each song a base shade of voice colour specific to its needs; such is Kaufmann's ability to inhabit the music's secret spaces that you would understand the poet and composer's message even if you couldn't hear the words, though you always can. Control is vital, and the pacing that goes with it: the long build-up from near-whisper to full-on belt-out beauty in 'Stille Tränen' hit home. Kaufmann is a supremely controlled singer; in the partnership of head and heart, it's the head in the driving seat all the way, with the perfect understanding of how to prompt our hearts.

It's difficult to understand why Henri Duparc's mélodies are not performed in every song recital everywhere in the world, or why he might ever be considered obscure or somehow difficult. The French composer, a friend and contemporary of Fauré's, offers a heady synthesis of sensuality and seamless poise, the music bathed in luminous colour. Deutsch found the light within the richly written textures and Kaufmann the subtle lines and shaping: 'Phidylé' is allowed to sleep undisturbed in a radiant dream until the poet anticipates her kiss with a renewed power, 'Le manoir de Rosamonde' is terse, frightening and verging on the tragic as the poet flees the dog-bite of love and leaves its land undiscovered, and the set is framed with two Baudelaire poems about distant dwellings - 'L'invitation au voyage' and 'La vie antérieure', each evoking an idyllic landscape that is simultaneously within the soul.

A fan presents Kaufmann with a bouquet at the end
Finally to Britten, and if you don't know the Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, it's time you did. Britten's settings in Italian, written in America during WW2, prove as expert as his English operas, and while this was a chance for Kaufmann to show his stylish Italian alter-ego, he also showed us how Britten's sensitivity was in its element in those moments of self-discovery, rising from the subconscious to catch the artist off guard, faced with the pain of his own passions. Britten's style occasionally can almost resemble Prokofiev here, especially in the third song, 'Veggio co'bei vostri occhi un dolce lume', which could have stepped out of a slow-motion dream-vision ballet; and Kaufmann again excelled in mezzo voce reflection, narrative and revelation, with heroics saved for when they were most needed, such as the final song, 'Spirto ben nato' - noble soul. Yes, exactly: this singing, this partnership, is noble soul incarnate, in its finest sense - happily, undimmed despite all.

One encore - Strauss's 'Nichts' - but there's plenty more to look forward to in the week ahead, which culminates in that composer's Four Last Songs.

And a good interview with Kaufmann in the Sunday Times, by Lynn Barber, here.


Friday, February 03, 2017

Welcome to Kaufmann Central!



He's back. Presented the other day with the Special 'Victoires de la mystique classique' Award in France, Jonas Kaufmann sang Rota's 'Parla più piano' (aka The Godfather) at the ceremony. This was it.

Now is the winter when my discount tent is pitched on the concrete outside the Barbican Centre. In these grim times we need something to look forward to, and if you happen to be a "Kaufmaniac" the ultimate thing to look forward to is about to happen, right here in sunny London.

Jonas Kaufmann is presented with the Special 'Victories de la musique classique' award in Paris. Photo: Edouard Brane

'Der Jonas' is coming to town for The Kaufmann Residency at the Barbican Centre. Between tomorrow (4 Feb) and Monday week (13th) he is giving three concerts and an open interview. Some of his fans here have been nail-biting a little over the past months while he has been off, recovering from what was apparently a hematoma on a vocal cord. The pessimists among us wondered if the residency would actually go ahead.

The other week, though, Kaufmann made a triumphant return to the stage in Paris as Lohengrin, and there's no sign of fading ambition. A new recording is coming out shortly (UK release in April), in which he sings the whole of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde. And in case you haven't heard, news is out that a concert performance of Tristan Act II is planned for New York in April 2018. One hopes that may indicate the ultimate Wagner tenor role sidling gently into the repertoire...

He gave an interview to Paris Match talking about his return to the stage, saying that everything is going rather well.

Vous dites avoir eu encore des soucis de santé. Comment allez-vous ?
Je vais très bien maintenant, ma voix aussi. On a déjà fait des répétitions, tout est impeccable, grâce au temps de repos imposé. Mais ça a été un moment difficile à passer pour moi, d’autant que je ne suis pas quelqu’un de très patient. J’aime vraiment agir, prendre tout en main. Et j’étais là à attendre, sans avoir la possibilité d’accélérer les choses. Personne ne pouvait me dire si ça durerait deux semaines, un mois, deux mois… En quatre mois, l’hématome s’est résorbé. Tout est redevenu normal, les conditions sont donc idéales. Ce n’était pas mon premier choix de recommencer avec “Lohengrin”, même si j’ai déjà tenu le rôle plusieurs fois. Je connais cette production que j’aime beaucoup. Avec cette orchestration de Philippe [Jordan], j’étais sûr qu’il n’y aurait pas de risque. Donc, je suis très content.

Anyway, back to London. Here's what's happening. Everything is sold out, but do try for returns.

4 Feb: Recital with pianist Helmut Deutsch

Schumann Kerner Lieder, Op 35
Duparc
‘L´invitation au voyage’ 
‘Phidylé’ 
‘Le manoir de Rosemonde’ 
‘Chanson triste’ 
‘La vie antérieure’
Britten Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, Op 22


8 Feb: Wagner

Wagner Prelude to Tristan und Isolde
Wesendock 
Lieder
Act I from Die WalküreJonas Kaufmann tenor
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Antonio Pappano 
conductor
Karita Mattila soprano
Eric Halfvarson bass


10 Feb, 2pm, Milton Court: In Conversation

Jonas Kaufmann in conversation with young singers at Milton Court. 

Jonas Kaufmann talks to and works with aspiring singers from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama: an unprecedented chance to witness a master-musician discussing the practicalities and fundamentals of his craft in the informal atmosphere of Milton Court.


13 Feb: Strauss, Elgar, Korngold

The Four Last Songs. Yes, they're originally for soprano. Yes, that's just fine. And yes, the programme opens with Korngold's Schuaspiel Overture, which I have never before heard live and certainly not in London, and this requires its own pre-breakfast celebratory somersault.

Korngold Schauspiel OvertureStrauss Symphonic Interlude from Intermezzo, Träumerei am Kamin
Strauss
‘Ruhe meine Seele’
‘Freundliche Vision’ 
‘Befreit’ 
‘Heimliche Aufforderung’
Elgar In the SouthStrauss Four Last SongsJonas Kaufmann tenor
BBC Symphony Orchestra

I am intending to go to the whole lot. For the duration, JDCMB is becoming KAUFMANN CENTRAL. I'll be reviewing the performances, reporting on the conversation and keeping the Kaufmaniacs up to speed on how it's all going. Yes, it's escapism. Yes, I need that and so do a lot of us.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Wagner summer twilights

Meistersinger in Munich: Jonas Kaufmann as Walther. Photo: Wilfried Hösl

I've been away for a couple of weeks in Germany and Switzerland, starting the trip with two Wagner performances which might resurface somewhere in this year's Chocolate Silver Awards for Best Opera and Weirdest Moment respectively (admittedly there's plenty of the year left for others to exceed, but they'll have to try hard...).

I reviewed both events for the Critics' Circle website: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg on the final night of the Munich Opera Festival, starring Wolfgang Koch as Sachs and Jonas Kaufmann as Walther, conducted by Kirill Petrenko - a dark-hued, clever, detailed, fascinating, roller-coaster production by David Bösch, set in 1968; and Parsifal at Bayreuth, the new and fervently anti-religion production by Uwe Eric Laufenberg, with Klaus Florian Vogt in the title role. The editors have entitled this one, with perspicacity, 'Twilight of the gods'.

'Weirdest moment' goes to the latter evening. Eating out with friends afterwards, we found ourselves in the same restaurant as Angela Merkel, who had been at the opera too, and she was perfectly friendly when some members of our group bounced up to her to explain how desperately sorry and embarrassed we are about Brexit.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Jonas follows his Meistersinger stage debut with...

Quite a party. Photo: http://horizonteentdecken.de
OK, so you make your stage debut in Wagner's longest opera, then you go along to the first night party and start doing a spot of jazz? Only if you're Jonas, and you are. Here's the report: http://horizonteentdecken.de/der-meistersinger-jonas-kaufmann-als-crooner/

Reviews from Munich, and tweets by critics who were there, suggest that we who are due to see this later in the year (I'm heading for the last night of the BSO Festival on 31 July) are in for a musical treat, and that the modern-dress production works really well, give or take a predictable boo or two.

There's a video showing extracts at the Bayerische Staatsoper's magazine site:
https://www.staatsoper.de/medienseite.html?type=0&tx_sfstaatsoper_pi6%5Bimage%5D=17569&tx_sfstaatsoper_pi6%5Bproductions%5D=1144&tx_sfstaatsoper_pi6%5BmediaSettings%5D=mediathekPage&cHash=5c918baa3f7b8a8662501bef73388119

And let's have a quick fix of the preview:



Closer to home, Glyndebourne's revival of the David McVicar production is about to open, on Saturday, starring Gerald Finley as Hans Sachs. Details and booking here.

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Tears, fears and healing at BBC Music Magazine Awards

The most touching moment of the BBC Music Magazine Awards, held last night at Kings Place, was when the Instrumental Award winner took the platform. Cellist David Watkin received his prize for his CD of the Bach Cello Suites from the hand of Sir John Eliot Gardiner, in some of whose orchestras David was lead cellist for around 20 years.

What was left unsaid was that this immensely-praised CD has had to be his last; in summer 2015 an autoimmune condition called scleroderma forced his retirement from the instrument. He continues to blaze across the early music skies, though, as conductor and devoted teacher.

In his acceptance speech he made the powerful point that if our field of music is to continue at all, we have to educate as many people as possible about it; and he gave his own children a special thank you. Storytelling, he said, is the single best preparation for giving a good musical performance, especially reading aloud to kids. His two have been treated to his rendition of the whole of Narnia and Lord of the Rings. "If you want to prepare, find some children and read to them. And do the voices!" he advised.

He accepted the award, too, on behalf of all undersung continuo cellists, those beings who often find themselves standing in the rain after playing every note of a long oratorio while a soloist who's sung for ten minutes of it swooshes by in a limo, splashing them as they go...

Just one highlight, there, of a terrific line-up to celebrate the best and most honest music-making on CD. Other winners included conductor Sakari Oramo, two of whose discs were nominated in Orchestral, and who won for his Nielsen Symphonies Nos 1 and 3 with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic; Rachel Podger and Brecon Baroque for their Vivaldi L'Estro Armonico; and the splendid young Schumann Quartet were there to perform a piece of Ives from the disc that scooped the Newcomer of the Year award.

Rosalind Plowright accepted the DVD award for Dialogue des Carmélites from Paris, directed by Olivier Py; she remarked that she was the only British cast member in a line-up of leading French singers as the doomed nuns, and had been asked to audition for the role to make sure her French was up to it. "I got the job," she declared. Record of the Year was the winner in the Opera category: Aida, starring Anja Harteros and Jonas Kaufmann, conducted by Sir Antonio Pappano. The fabulous baritone Ludovic Tézier stepped up as the cast's representative to collect the prize.

A special plaudit to the choir Tenebrae, who won for a disc of Brahms and Bruckner motets that was recorded in support of Macmillan Cancer Care. They were there and sang Bruckner's 'Christus Factus Est', and very gorgeous it was. We should all buy that CD.

You can see the full list of award winners and hear extracts from the discs here.

Many of the guest award presenters - including Ed Balls, Clemency Burton-Hill and James Naughtie - reflected on how playing the piano in public had proved far more frightening than standing at the dispatch box or broadcasting to three million people on the radio. But one award was presented by "Dr Christian" - the medical presenter of such popular-health TV programmes as Supersize Versus Superskinny - who made an impassioned speech about how important music is to him, and to so many of his patients as a veritable medicine for healing. Indeed, he thanked the music profession from the medical profession.

A beautiful evening, all in all, and one that left a tug at the heart. You realise the impermanence of things. You realise the dedication, effort, time, vocation and sacrifice that goes into the making of music and the vital nature of its support for our souls. It takes so long to build up that expertise and the structures that support its existence. It can all be swept away in the stroke of someone's pen. We can't let that happen if we want future generations to experience the joy and life-enhancing beauty we've been lucky enough to have ourselves. In Canada Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has just earmarked nearly $1.9bn for culture and the arts. Here, though, music education is fighting for its life and entire communities stand to be deprived of it and of the performing arts due to local authority cuts. And meanwhile, this is happening... Let's get a grip now, once and for all. Factory reset of human values, please!

Friday, April 01, 2016

Shock: London's new concert hall to be crowdfunded

In a move that has shocked the UK arts world, the government has let it be known that it will not be providing any cash towards the new Centre for Music in the City of London. Instead, the project's board members will be expected to raise the necessary money by crowdfunding. "It's a scheme that has worked perfectly well for everything from orchestral tours to new product design," a spokesperson for the DCMS pointed out. "Why not a concert hall?"

A group of experts has been assembled to devise the pledge rewards for the scheme, aiming to reach £270m by the end of this year. While details are yet to be confirmed, it is understood that ideas mooted include:

£5: MUSIC. A ticket to a concert in the first season;
£10: CAFFEINE. A ticket plus a coffee or tea in the first season;
£100: GRUB. Two tickets and a light meal in the canteen for you and your companion;
£500: SELFIE. You may go backstage and take a selfie with Sir Simon.
£1000: CHAMPERS. You may bring a bottle of champagne backstage and present it to a musician of your choice.
£10,000: KNICKERS. You may throw knickers to a musical star of your choice in concert at the hall. (NB Jonas Kaufmann incurs a premium of £2,500.)
£50,000: PHILANTHROPIST. All of the above, plus a suitably sycophantic interview in one of those magazines that supports the privatisation of absolutely everything.
£100,000: NAME. All of the above, plus an orchestral player renamed after you.
£250,000: NAME IN LIGHTS. All of the above, plus your name to be flashed in lights every night across the entire City from a big screen atop the hall.
£500,000: TICKETS. All of the above, plus tickets for every performance you wish to attend at the new hall for the rest of your life;
£1m: LUNCH: Lunch with a cabinet minister of your choice and whoever becomes London Mayor in May, at the closest Starbucks to Westminster (net donation to project: £500,000, once expenses are deducted).
£2m: CHOCOLATE! All of the above, plus a lifetime's supply of high-quality chocolate, not lower than 85 per cent cocoa solids.

JD particularly likes the sound of the final option, and once the film of GHOST VARIATIONS has scooped all the Oscars, starring Kristin Scott Thomas, Helena Bonham Carter, Colin Firth and Sebastian Koch, directed by George Clooney, she hopes to participate with enthusiasm.




Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Jonas is coming to stay

Jonas Kaufmann in Gstaad. Photo: Raphael Faux
As the remnants of Storm Jonas blow into Britain (this means: it's gonna rain), some news from the Barbican should soon have Kaufmaniacs queuing up through the City of London. The actual Kaufmann is to have a ten-day residency at the arts centre in February 2017, featuring among other things two big Richards. He will be doing:

• a Lieder recital with Helmut Deutsch;

• Wagner! A concert including Act I of Die Walküre, with Winterstürme und alles, with Karita Mattila as Sieglinde and Eric Halfvarson as Hunding, LSO conducted by Tony Pappano. Plus the Wesendonck Lieder in the first half;

• Strauss! A programme with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jochen Rieder in which repertoire includes Strauss Lieder and...the Four Last Songs. I am especially pleased to report that this programme will open with Korngold's Schauspiel Overture...

• A public interview;

• Workshops with students from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama

The Four Last Songs - for tenor? well, why not? As long as the transposition works with the orchestra, there really shouldn't be a problem. Alice Coote has sung Winterreise to powerful effect. Kaufmann has already done glorious things with the Wesendonck Lieder. In the end, it's artistry that counts. Bring him on.

Of course, our hurricane-naming system in the UK differs from that of the US, so when Storm Jonas arrives on these shores its name changes to Gertrude.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Wintersturm Jonas

A very big snowstorm is apparently making its way towards the US's east coast. It's been named Winter Storm Jonas.

Can't help wondering if these things are named by an opera fan. What better excuse to have a quick Kaufmann Wagner fix?

Monday, September 21, 2015

Ever seen a violin like this before?

Testing a 'conical' violin made by Wolfgang Stegmüller of Munich

It's unlikely. Its inventor has patented it, so only he and his son can legally produce instruments to this model. It's 'conical' - the back is smaller than the front, so the ribs fan out and the effect on the sound gently but distinctly resembles a megaphone.

I met the inventor of the conical violin, Wolfgang Stegmüller, via a rather extraordinary coincidence in Munich this summer. We were hanging about backstage (my OH often plays in the Bayerische Staatsper Orchestra during the annual July festival) hoping to say hello to a certain very wonderful tenor, who was singing in Manon Lescaut that night, and while waiting we got talking to a fellow waitee who turned out to be a neighbour of his. When she heard what I do, she began to tell me about her friend the luthier who had invented a new design of violin. In a craft that dates back to the baroque era pretty much unchanged, you don't hear the words "new type of violin" very often, so I pursued the matter - and there he was in Schwabing, working with his son, also named Wolfgang, who trained in violin making in Cremona. We went to visit them and spent a fascinating day together, talking, looking, playing, listening and eating. My resulting article is up now at The Amati Magazine, here.

The Stegmüllers have now decided to come to the UK to display their work at the Amati Exhibition, which takes place at the Langham, London, on 1 and 2 November. And there, following his sell-out, knockout performance at the last Amati Exhibition earlier this year, the sensational Roby Lakatos will be back to play to us again, this time joined on the platform by the exciting young British violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen, who wowed the Wigmore Hall yesterday morning. Tickets are on sale now, so be there! More info and booking here.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Last Night of the Proms: Kaufmaniacs alert

Jonas Kaufmann is going to be the first non-Anglo-Saxon to sing Rule, Britannia at the Last Night of the Proms. This morning he turned on the charm for the BBC Breakfast interviewers, who look rather thrilled throughout. Here's the clip:



Meanwhile, a fan site on Facebook brings us this priceless tract about the Dolce&Gabbana outfits he will sport for the occasion. I'm sure something has been lost in translation, but am still pondering the likely effects on the crowd of black lace slippers, 'English' flag, and 'frog'.

"The Last Night of Proms" is the most important on screen musical event in the world, with over 11 million viewers featured on the BBC Channel from the UK, USA, and Australia as well as across Asia and most of Europe. For this special occasion the German renowned tenor, Jonas Kaufmann will wear Dolce&Gabbana.The concluding event of the concert season composed of eight weeks where a full symphonic orchestra held concerts even twice a day, will take place the 12th of September at the Royal Albert Hall in London.
Jonas Kaufmann will be the first non-Anglo-Saxon voice to interpret "Rule, Britannia!".
For this occasion, Jonas will wear two Dolce&Gabbana looks: in the first part of the concert Jonas will wear a 3-piece Martini Suit in jacquard wool, with a pique plastron tuxedo shirt in white, polishing the look with slipper shoes in silk faille.
While interpreting "Rule, Britannia!" Jonas will flaunt a long velvet jacket with black lapels detailed with black and white polka dots, satin ties and black silk frog, a double-breasted wool vest with black tuxedo pants. The look is completed by slipper shoes in black lace, a gold brooch with the English flag expressly created for the event and a black silk bowtie.
Jonas Kaufmann will be the first non-Anglo-Saxon voice to interpret "Rule, Britannia!".For this occasion, Jonas will wear two Dolce&Gabbana looks: in the first part of the concert Jonas will wear a 3-piece Martini Suit in jacquard wool, with a pique plastron tuxedo shirt in white, polishing the look with slipper shoes in silk faille.While interpreting "Rule, Britannia!" Jonas will flaunt a long velvet jacket with black lapels detailed with black and white polka dots, satin ties and black silk frog, a double-breasted wool vest with black tuxedo pants. The look is completed by slipper shoes in black lace, a gold brooch with the English flag expressly created for the event and a black silk bowtie.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Return to the magic mountains 1: Manon Lescaut in Munich

You may think you're on holiday. It depends, though, what you mean by "holiday". I've been away for two and a half weeks, but this time has been brimming over with music, serendipity and a good few marvels of both. Every day has brought something new, a character from past or present, a startling contact or renewal, a joy or amazement, a revelation or insight or several, and I may need to take them one at a time...

I headed first for Munich and the Bavarian State Opera, steamy in the midst of a massive heat wave; here the final night of the annual Opera Festival brought Jonas Kaufmann and Kristine Opolais together again for Puccini's Manon Lescaut, relayed to the city on big screens and webcast to the world. This was the production by Hans Neuenfels that at the start of the season saw Anna Netrebko drop her participation, citing "artistic differences".

The square outside the Bavarian State Opera prepares for the relay

It's a bit of a mixed bag. The relationship of Manon and Des Grieux and its development is by far the most convincing element, and so it should be; the final act, the two of them in extremis, is a searing tragedy, full of struggle - Manon's passion fighting against the invasion of death, thumping the ground to bring back her despairing lover to her side. Opolais blossomed vocally and dramatically in the role to an even greater extent, perhaps, than she did at Covent Garden last year; Kaufmann simply soared along at the summit. Fine singing throughout in the supporting roles and chorus - but I am not sure I will ever get my head around the necessity for this chorus to wiggle about in fat-suits and pink wigs. Alain Altinoglu's conducting too brought patchy results: the opening tempo felt extremely fast, and some of the accompaniment was too loud, but often - not least in the intermezzo - it held a gorgeous eloquence.

Here Neuenfels, Altinoglu, Opolais and Kaufmann explore and explain the concept and the challenges of the opera.





A few days later, discussing the issue of the fat-suits and other potentially dubious details with friends who loved the production, I tried to see it their way: it shows Manon and Des Grieux defying convention, a pair of individualists in a world in which everyone else looks and behaves the same (except, presumably, for the Dancing Master, who turns up bearing some resemblance to an orang-utan, perhaps a refugee from Munich's old Rigoletto production set on the Planet of the Apes). As the introductory film declares, Manon and Des Grieux are seeing the world around them as nothing more than a preposterous installation compared to their love. Yet Jonathan Kent's production at Covent Garden last year spoke far more to me of the darker truths of this story in an incarnation for today's world, where it remains the most "relevant" opera of them all.

So what's the essential problem with Manon Lescaut? It could just be that the original book is a short, terse, taut, action-packed, 18th-century thriller. It shows us Des Grieux torn apart by his passion for a girl who wants to have her cake and eat it and whose charm makes her attractive, but who is more anti-heroine than sympathetic lead. Romanticising her never quite works, and that is not the fault of Puccini, nor of any director: it's simply that Abbé Prévost's novel is too finely wrought to allow such a metamorphosis. Maybe that is why this opera, which blossoms with phenomenal music from start to finish, still does not have quite the same currency on the stage as Madame Butterfly or La Bohème. If any director has found a way to make the drama work 200 per cent, I haven't yet seen it.

More on the joys (?) of Regietheater shortly - from Bayreuth.

But even with all these reservations, it was a tremendous performance and an unforgettable evening. Oh, and if you'd managed to get backstage at the Staatsoper that night and you had this photo, you'd put it on your blog too.



Friday, July 17, 2015

None shall sleep listening to this

Trailer for Jonas Kaufmann's new album of Puccini. What other singer could possibly promote a new album with a recording of Caruso and get away with it?

Resistance is pointless. Turn up the volume and wallow.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Kaufmann concert fracas goes to the Old Bailey

A row at the Wigmore Hall, of all places, has ended up going to court at the Old Bailey, the Telegraph reports. A disabled concert-goer, Alison Harvey, was allegedly rammed with her own wheelchair and was "sent sprawling" when she asked a man who was standing in her pre-booked space to move. 
Harvey is reported as telling the court: "I couldn't believe this from a normal person at Wigmore Hall, a place where it's so old fashioned, I regarded it as like a home. It's somewhere you just feel totally safe and lovely - it's always been a joy to be there."
The concert in question was the jam-packed song recital by Jonas Kaufmann on 4 January. 

Full story here.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Open air spectaculars - or muddy field gigs?


Hope you enjoyed that all-star Munich outdoor opera concert t'other day. I've been having a chuckle over Amanda Holloway's piece over at Sinfinimusic.com about the highs and lows of summer spectaculars, from "extreme page-turning" to dive-bombing herons, so delved into my archive to find something I wrote for the Independent a few years ago on a similar topic. As the clouds are gathering today, it seems worth rerunning.

At the Waldbuhne, of course, they seem to have a way of getting it right, sparklers and all...but closer to home, it's low-flying Smarties and birdshit in the harp...






......What could be nicer than a classical summer spectacular? To the audience, it’s the perfect night out: take some friends, a picnic and a bottle of wine and enjoy some beautiful music in the leafy open air. Maybe the evening will finish with a thrilling firework display. But be warned: the duck noises you hear during the slow movement of the symphony may not actually emerge from a duck. It could just as easily be a disgruntled musician lurking behind the scenes with a quack machine, bent on sabotage.

At their best, outdoor summer concerts are fun for everybody, including the musicians in the orchestra. At their worst, though, the conditions in which the players have to operate, combined with awkward journeys, long, difficult programmes often catastrophically under-rehearsed, all for payment that’s little better than an insult, can mean that disgruntlement is the best they can hope for. A “rank-and-file” musician is usually paid a flat fee of £80 for such a day, including the performance, one three-hour rehearsal and the time it takes to travel to often out-of-the-way venues. These concerts are known in the profession as “muddy field gigs”. But the freelance musicians I spoke to were so anxious about complaining of the way they’re treated that they asked me to change their names, citing the risk that “we might never work again”.

The biggest hazard – which will come as no surprise – is the British “summer” weather. We’ve all shivered our way through such concerts under umbrellas. Jane, a harpist, recounts, “You spend a lot of time leaping around after the sheets of your music as it blows away! One time it rained so hard that a lake formed in front of the stage and outside buses were turning over in the mud.” Michael, a violinist, recounts stories of driving rain across the platform during Rossini’s William Tell Overture (“Never had the storm music seemed so appropriate!”) and doing gigs “wearing long-johns and jeans under my concert suit”.

Jane faces all kinds of extra problems in transporting her instrument: harps are large, expensive and heavy. “I always try to drive the harp up to the stage’s back entrance and once I drove over the central power cable and all the electricity went off! I often have to be towed back to the road afterwards because otherwise I get stuck in the mud with the car wheels going round and round. And if you’re on a beach you have to watch out for the tides.” Worse, “a few weeks ago a bird shat on my harp. Right into the mechanism. It’s almost impossible to clean it out.”

Indignities don’t only come from birds. One violinist recalled a “Last Night of the Proms” programme during which his valuable Italian instrument was damaged by some flying Smarties from the audience. Another musician had just experienced an outdoor concert in the north of England at which an excessively jingoistic presenter, clad in Union Jack outfit and hat, had found it amusing “not only to make quips slagging off ‘frogs’ but also to pick out members of the orchestra to humiliate. He was saying to the audience things like, ‘This is Mary, she got her roots done just in time for this evening’ or ‘This is Lizzie, she’s pregnant – ooh, we know what you’ve been doing!’ Nobody ever asks if a presenter peddling racist attitudes and personal insults is OK with us and there’s absolutely nothing we can do about it.”

So much for the compères – what about the star turns? A big-name singer earns thousands or upwards for a big outdoor gig, while the orchestra plays for peanuts. That’s fine, says Jane – as long as those soloists really can sing. “I did a concert with one famous singer who actually couldn’t. He’d had to have some of the music transposed down because he couldn’t reach the high notes. We started off laughing, but by the end he was so bad, and being paid so much, that it stopped being funny. He was kind to us in the band, but at one point in the rehearsal he declared, ‘Sorry, I’ve got some technical problems,’ and the first horn called out, ‘We all know that, mate!’”

All the players were keen to stress that “muddy field gigs” can be useful and, on a good day, enjoyable. They’re an excellent way for young musicians to jump in the deep end, learn the repertoire and perform it on minimal rehearsal (“after which anything seems easy,” comments one musician). “You never know which the good gigs are going to be,” Michael remarks. “The ones that sound the most glamorous are frequently the worst, while ones that you might think will be dubious can be wonderful experiences. One of my best was a free local authority gig near Huntingdon with a little chamber orchestra. It was cold, but we had the most fabulous show. That was because the conductor, John Wilson, was terrific. He insisted on us using loads of vibrato to get a big, fat, Hollywood tone – it sounded fantastic, it was great music-making and the audience loved it.”

Sometimes, though, it’s just too much to take. “Once we were in a big park at the end of the season when the weather was chilly,” Michael recounts, “and it was a bad date all the way through. There was a generator the size of a lorry churning out diesel fumes right next to the stage. We had a huge programme, almost three hours of music, including ‘The Ride of the Valkyries’ which sounded ludicrous on a tiny orchestra with virtually no rehearsal. I was sitting on the inside third desk [row] of the first violins and the lighting strip stopped just in front of us so my desk partner and I couldn’t read our music and we got colder and colder – lighting helps to keep you warm.  As the evening went on, my desk partner became more and more furious. And at the end, in the 1812 Overture, the fireworks were right next to us and when one huge one went off beside us, he just lost it. In front of 6,000 people. He stood up in the middle of the piece, got his fiddle case out from under his chair, wiped down his violin and bow meticulously with a cloth, put them away, jumped off the stage and went home! Afterwards he thought he’d be sacked. But he’d had such a terrible evening and been so angry about it that the management didn’t dare go near him.”

But these highly trained, accomplished and dedicated musicians agree that the worst indignity of all is that audiences will come to a concert like this and assume that “that’s what classical music is”. “Some outdoor concerts are good,” says Jane. “But usually you turn up, you freeze, you have only a top-and-tail rehearsal, there’ll be a bad soloist who’s married to the director, and it’s amplified so you don’t know what it really sounds like. These concerts are part of our job, they’re good experience, people enjoy them and we shouldn’t be too precious about them. It’s a fun evening. But surely not at the price of people thinking that that’s all there is to classical music?”