Showing posts with label Townsville. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Townsville. Show all posts

Thursday, August 02, 2018

AFCM#6: Being Anna Magdalena

It’s done! The premiere of Being Mrs Bach was yesterday at 5pm and it simply flew by. It’s almost impossible to sum it up...but the great reward, when you’ve dreamed up a project and you can see it in your mind’s eye, and then months later that image actually becomes reality and does what you want it to do - that’s a good feeling.




The original commission for Being Mrs Bach came through last summer from Kathy Stott and Tom and I took off to Leipzig to experience Bach’s environment as far as humanly possible. The trip made a big difference to the story, because there is information at the Thomaskirche, the Bach Museum and the city museum in the Town Hall that provides colour and authenticity that would not have been available to me from the comfort of my bookshelves. Anna Magdalena’s tragedy was that she gave her whole life to Bach and her family, only to find, first, that she could no longer sing - women were not allowed to sing in public in Leipzig - and then, after JSB’s death, she and her youngest daughter were left reliant on charity as, for some reason, the other children gave her little support. In 1894, when Bach’s body was exhumed so that scientists could measure his skull, hers was left behind. By the time he was reburied in pride of place in the Thomaskirche in 1950, anything that remained of Anna Magdalena had probably been blasted to pieces by allied bombing.

How to choose the right pieces from Bach’s gigantic output to include in the show was, to put it mildly, mind-boggling - especially with such an eclectic roster of astounding musicians available to take part. But as soon as Kathy let me know who my singers could be, things began to fall into place. The chance to persuade Roddy Williams to sing ‘Mache Dich’ from the St Matthew Passion to finish the show seemed almost too good to be true, and he kindly agreed to sing ‘Hat man nicht mit seinen Kinder’ from the Coffee Cantata as well. The glorious soprano Siobhan Stagg sang ‘Bist du bei mir’ - such a favourite of mine that we had it at our wedding. (You may have seen Roddy and Siobhan as Papageno and Pamina in The Magic Flute at the Royal Opera House last year....).




The Goldner Quartet are in residence - who better to tackle the legendary Unfinished Fugue of The Art of Fugue? The effect is devastating: this magnificent complexity unfurling in phase after phase suddenly peters out into silence with a few final notes on the viola. Daniel de Borah contributed not only two splendid solos - the chunky, good-natured E flat Prelude and Fugue from Book 2 of the 48 and the ubiquitous Minuet in G, beautifully embellished on its repeat - but also accompanied Siobhan and joined the Winterschool’s very accomplished student quartet and bassist Kees Boersma in the ensemble for ‘Mache Dich’. Guy Johnston played the first movement of the C major Cello Suite, just as Anna Magdalena remembers how she made fair copies, put in all the bowings and used to imagine that one day someone might find those pages in her handwriting and wonder if she wrote them herself... ;).

Funnily enough, the single most complicated part of the process was setting up the stage. We wanted everyone there all the way through for ease of running - we only had an hour - and it can be hard to tell in advance what will fit and what won’t. Solutions were found, lighting was planned, and everyone made valuable contributions to the placements and the flow.

And to judge from the audience reaction, I think it went pretty well.

It’ll be a wrench to say goodbye to Anna Magdalena and return her dress to the costume store, but I hope she may simply be awaiting a resurrection of her own, should any more concert halls or festivals fancy meeting her.

Onwards...and today I am giving the Winterschool a lecture about eight - or nine - wonderful composers across the ages who happen(ed) to be female.

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

AFCM#5: Of trumpets, sheng and whales



Pity the group of youngsters in their little motor-boat and sea-kayaks who turned up for a nice, private swim on the deserted beaches of Orpheus Island. Just as they were getting their towels out, in pulled a Sealink seacat and disgorged about 200 festival-goers and a bunch of musicians carrying some very peculiar contraptions, which they proceeded to unpack and play.

Two trumpets, a clarinet with golden keys, a rose-gold flute, a pearl-inlaid bandoneon and an extraordinary Chinese sheng took up residence for about an hour, surrounded by ecstatic music-lovers who stood, sat, lay, or knelt at their feet, or went into the water and stayed there to enjoy the performances from the cool comfort of lapping crystal-clear shallows. Tine Thing Helseth and her new husband Sebastian opened proceedings, walking out of the waves and up onto the sand as they played a Norwegian wedding march (they got married in May and are just back from honeymoon). Wu Tong performed on a Chinese flute sitting on a high rock, a la Pan, and later mesmerised us all with his Sheng playing - an amazing, colourful piece we assumed must be a sophisticated new composition of his own. Later he told us he was improvising. Pru Davis played Debussy’s Syrinx, Julian Bliss an unaccompanied contemporary virtuoso piece that sounded like Messiaen (but wasn’t), and JP Jofre, after some solos, joined him to finish with Piazzolla’s Libertango.

The sun lowered towards the waters on the horizon, Katya went swimming, Lars fell asleep and Anna Magdalena Bach deeply regretted leaving her swimsuit behind, but had a good paddle nonetheless. Artistic director Kathy, meanwhile, had the look of a pianist who’d landed the best job on the planet, and I rather think she has.



I had a fascinating chat with Wu Tong on the boat: he showed me how the Sheng works. I may have described it as a kind of “bagpipe”, but it really isn’t. It’s a mouth organ. Literally. It’s a collection of pipes, in a round cluster, played by blowing with fingering as appropriate - a sort of mix of accordion, clarinet and church organ rolled into one astounding instrument about the size of a trumpet. It is immensely sophisticated and the lack of anything entirely similar in western music is rather striking - though Wu Tong tells me it may have had a bearing on the development of the organ in Europe, far predating its invention. Sample it and him here: https://youtu.be/mybsLx7RyIo.

On the return journey the excursion turned into a sunset cruise, albeit a slightly choppy one, and we took a detour to look for whales. The light dimmed, the planets brightened above, we could see the Milky Way from the upper deck, as well as Venus and Mars (which is closer to the Earth than at any time for ?xx years), and the starlight dappled the bouncing waves...until just as the last of the day was fading, a jet of water blew into the air nearby, a stampede to starboard nearly capsized us and a baby humpback whale and its mummy were there, ready to put on a display for us since they knew full well we couldn’t infringe their copyright by filming in the night. They danced under the surface, with smooth, dark backs curving above now and then, and let fly with joyous blowhole fountains, hopefully egged on by the oohs and ahhs aboard.



I don’t know whose bright idea it was to create a music festival in such a place, but frankly...I’d like to send them some chocolate.

Loads more photos on Instagram (my account is jessica.duchen). And now I am off to make final preparations for Being Mrs Bach, which is at 5pm TODAY at the Townsville Civic Theatre. Til later...

Saturday, July 28, 2018

AFCM #2: Home from home...

There’s that moment when after a 24-hour journey you peer out of the plane window at the country you’re about to visit and you see...Australian sunlight. I haven’t been here for 15 years and had managed to forget its unique nature. The quality of it is like opals, brilliant and translucent and full of gold, ochre and purple. You have to screw up your eyes against it, or rush for sunglasses. Strong, pure and irresistible, as if shot in technicolour, it makes you wonder if the Land of Oz was so named for a good reason. Toto, we’re not in Kansas any more...

We’ve made it to Townsville, in the dry tropics of Queensland, and now it’s the morning after the night before...and that was the night after the day after the journey before. We left London with two big suitcases on Tuesday night, spent a pleasant few hours in Hong Kong airport and arrived in Sydney on Thursday morning...with one big suitcase. Sole free day in Sydney was supposed to be spent happily reuniting at leisure with my aunt, whom I hadn’t seen for 15 years, but this turned into a hasty and frazzled coffee in between frantic calls to the airport where we’d shunted from office to office for about three hours upon arrival. The case arrived 24 hours after we did and has joined us here. At least it wasn’t the one that contained my Anna Magdalena costume.


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All in all, I can think of worse places to hold a chamber music festival. We’re staying - along with all the festival artists - in an apartment hotel near the marina; the sun is pouring into our new home-from-home across the cluster of lilttle boats  this morning, the Strand beside the sea awaits exploration, as do its gelatarias, there’s a massive seafood bar across the road and yesterday’s opening concert was a heap of musical joys.

It was full of fresh, startling ideas, juxtapositions and collaborations, with Tine Thing Helseth and Katya Apekisheva shining amid an all-star line-up for the Saint-Saens Septet, eight cellists plus wonderful Siobhan Stagg in the Villa Lobossome amazing new timbres from marimba, sheng and bandoneon in world premieres by JP Jofre and Paul Stanhope, and a completely barnstorming performance of the Chausson Concert by Kathy Stott, Alexander Sitkovetsky and the Goldner String Quartet. The big concerts take place in the Townsville Civic Theatre, a sizeable modern hall from which last night’s concert went out live on the radio - splendidly hosted by Mairi Nicolson, whose interviews with the musicians while the stage set-up changed were fun, interesting and sympathetic.

Backstage, of course, it’s hard not to think “YIKES, I have to do the Bach show HERE?”, given the impressive scale of the whole thing - but with a chance to catch up with old friends like Kathy, Katya and Guy Johnston and to meet new ones over artist drinks-and-eats post-concert, the nerves quickly dispel. For performers in festivals like this, the treat is exactly that: to work with colleagues you’re meeting for the first time, forge new connections, spark ideas into being, and while away the post-concert wind-down over Australian beer or wine in which jet-lag becomes but a memory and lost suitcases all part of life’s rich pattern. I’ve now met many of my Bach show colleagues, Roddy Williams, Siobhan Stagg, Pavel Fischer, Kees Boersma and the Goldner String Quartet, among others. And out front in the audience, one can’t help noticing the way that people are running into one another as festival regulars over years and years, catching up in (where else) the queue for the ladies’ loos (“How are you? We met four years ago right here!”) and, better still, over ice-cream in front of the theatre, under the full moon.

A last thought for the morning: this is winter. It’s 28 degrees and there is simply no sunlight in the world quite like this. It’s going to be one amazing week.

Update: I think I’ve worked out how to bring the photos in from Instagram, but please visit my instagram account to see some more.