Saturday, October 06, 2012

Sexism with strings attached. Plus a tribute to Dame Myra

Sexism in classical music. It's everywhere in the industry and it's time someone said so and started to come up with something to begin solving the issue. So I have. Here is the piece, which is in today's Independent. Please pop over and read it.

I can't help wondering how musicians such as Clara Haskil, Maria Yudina or Dame Myra Hess would have fared in today's climate if a slinky picture was a pre-requisite. We'd be missing out on some of the greatest pianism of the 20th century. Hopefully an enlightened company like Hyperion or harmonia mundi might have taken them up - but doesn't it make you wonder who's being overlooked now?

Yesterday was the annual Myra Hess Day at the National Gallery. I couldn't go because I had a gig to do at the Linbury Studio, but it's something I'm always sad to miss. Here is some amazing footage of her playing Mozart's G major concerto K453 in her National Gallery concerts with the orchestra of the RAF.

Listen to the life she gives to every note and the wit and intelligence in her phrasing. Then ask whether she would not be struggling in the 21st century as a woman in the public eye, since her preferred concert dress probably wasn't a size 8 (British version thereof). Then ask yourself whether what we currently face in the music world is an acceptable situation. And then ask yourself what we're going to do about it.

Friday, October 05, 2012

A last-minute trip to Valhalla

Where do you sit for Die Walküre? In the Gods, of course. And the single best thing about going to Wagner? No queue in the Ladies' Room. Though apparently there was a massive queue in the Gents. Now they know what it's like for us at almost everything else.

I managed, with the help of an eagle-eyed and quick-moused pal, to get a last-minute return for the Wagner at Covent Garden last night. Amid all our yadda yesterday about dressing-down, seat prices et al, I can report that a) the amphitheatre of the Royal Opera House was very dressed-down indeed - Wagner is a long haul flight and you need to go for comfort rather than style; b) the rest of the audience didn't look excessively flash either; and c) you can see nearly six hours of opera with a world-beating cast like this one, a clear view of the complete stage and an excellent take on the house acoustic, for £61. I don't think that is overpriced, under the circumstances. Most people I spoke to had booked a year in advance. Everyone up there was a total Wagner nut, and the hush and stillness through the performance was something to marvel at.

Highlights of the evening appeared in unusual places. First of all, Sarah Connolly's Fricka: a nuanced, heart-rending, ruby-toned performance, exceptionally sophisticated and classy. Another call for someone, please, to award a recording contract, scandalously absent at present. Come on, people - Connolly is a national treasure. She's on disc. But not enough.  

This, too, was the production's one real masterstroke: the tortured relationship between her and Bryn Terfel's Wotan is the heart of the story. Often Fricka is portrayed as little more than a backroom bully, a fundamental ideologist forcing Wotan's hand over a point of malign principle (it's a common enough problem) and you always wonder why he's weak enough to cave in (a common enough problem too). Here, though, there is still a great love between this long-married couple, on both sides. Connolly made you feel every twist of Fricka's shredded heart as the faithless Wotan cradles her with tremendous tenderness. Wotan lets her win because his love for her ultimately overrides his other amours. It makes sense out of the whole story.

It was more or less the only sense we got out of Keith Warner's production, which I have not attended before. It's cluttered, fussy and occasionally worrying: there's a distinct tendency for characters to trip over the red rope that is doing goodness knows what across the stage, and over the metal thingummyjig that rears up in the middle of the set, and then there's the ladder, from which Susan Bullock apparently had to be unhooked by a stage-hand on the first night - and will something elsewhere in the cycle make sense of the three-pronged fan under which Brunnhilde falls asleep? What's it for - repelling mosquitoes? On the top of a mountain? Most of the action appears to take place in a disused storeroom or perhaps a very messy study (a bit like mine) with a black office table, a leather chaise-longue and a huge heap of discarded books. I was constantly alarmed in case someone decided to do a Nazi-reference thing by setting light to it, though fortunately they didn't. If you're going to offer a concept Walküre, then clarity of that concept helps. This one, if it exists, eludes me. And according to Fiona Maddocks, the production has actually been streamlined since last time. 

The other unforgettable performance was Sir John Tomlinson's Hunding, who could dominate the stage with his first swing of the axe and the auditorium with his first note and all thereafter. A marvellous moment when he and Terfel's Wotan come face to face - these two legends together are not something you see every day. Marvels too from Terfel himself, of course, a Wotan incarnate; and Eva-Maria Westbroek as Sieglinde, creamy-toned, all-giving and ultimately transcendental as she blesses Brunnhilde. As the latter, a feisty Susan Bullock, tiny and ferocious. Simon O'Neill as Siegmund started strong, but threatened to fade out as Act 1 wrestled him and nearly won. Luxury singing from the Valkyrie gang and, below, Tony Pappano presided over a rich-toned and rhapsodic orchestra augmented by six harps plucking away in the stalls circle. 

At the risk of sounding heretical, though, I'm not convinced Wagner is Pappano's finest six hours. He has become incomparable in Italian repertoire - Il Trittico a year ago was one of the greatest evenings I've ever had in the ROH, and I mean it. But this was rather gentle Wagner: an interpretation that roused and glowed but didn't transfigure. It needs an extra hard-edge of ecstasy that simply wasn't there, despite the glories of the singing. 

Let's face it: we go to Wagner to get high. That's why people get addicted. And if you don't get the high, something isn't quite working. And the place it needs to be generated is in the pit. It's legal. But it shouldn't necessarily sound it.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

The naked opera-goer?

Undress for the Opera from English National Opera on Vimeo.

A lorralorra bitching this morning around social media re ENO's new Opera Undressed scheme. You guessed it: whaddya know, you don't have to dress up to go to the opera. You pay £25, you get the best seat, you wear what you like, you can download a synopsis beforehand (wow!) and you can go for drinks with some of the performers afterwards. They got Damon Albarn and Terry Gilliam to make the announcement yesterday.

OK, £25 is a very good price for a top seat. Otherwise...haven't we heard it all before? Only about 50000 times.

This business of opera being overdressed and stuffy and too pricey is outdated nuff and stonsense. You have to put it in context. And in the context of London theatre, pop concerts and sporting events, opera is mostly comparable in price, and often cheaper. Ditto for the bar prices - I bought drinks for some friends at a West End theatre during the Olympics and paid a scandalous £25 for three glasses of house white. Most ordinary theatre audiences seem to be over 44 as well; at Richmond last night for a spot of Alan Ayckbourn, I think I was the youngest person there. So what? We have an ageing population, and this will become more noticeable as the next years progress.

As for dress sense, I'd be terrified of turning up to a football match or a pop concert as a newbie in case I'm too old, being over 25, or am wearing the wrong thing. The pop/fashion crowd is a heck of a lot more censorious about the minutiae of one's dress sense than opera-goers, who, honest to goodness, don't give a damn as long as you don't actually smell.

I wasn't particularly aware that anyone does dress up much for ENO. I go to a lot of press nights there and people turn up in anything from smartish dresses to jeans. I usually wear black trousers and a reasonably nice top, which is what I wear most of the time in any case when venturing beyond the comfort zone of my study and pyjamas.

It's not ENO that needs to think of this. Covent Garden is much dressier and they are doing squeaksville. As for the Salzburg Festival...I wore my very best Glyndebourne gear and still felt as if I'd arrived in mountain boots, because there didn't seem to be an evening dress there that'd cost under £800, or a necklace that weighed less than 5kg. At Die Soldaten I chatted to the chap next to me. He was a car mechanic. He'd put on a DJ for the occasion. To him, it was part of the fun.

In the end, the dressing is in the windows. These measures are superficial. What needs to be addressed is the continuing existence of those preconceptions: how/why do people think all this in the first place?

It's a prejudice, and like all prejudices it springs from ignorance. They don't know because they don't go, and they don't go because in order to like music you have first to hear it. And hear it several times, and be familiar with it, and that happens via the radio and TV. Only it doesn't - not where classical music and opera are concerned, not in sunny old Great Britain. Unless the real thing is given regular, prominent air time on mainstream television, ie BBC1, nobody is going to know that these art forms are there, let alone wonder what to wear to attend them. And they're not - only those dumbed-down "reality" or "talent" shows and Apprentice-like contests. (But for possibly a very wonderful opera now and then on Christmas Eve.)

Result of this philistinism? Most people are missing out on some of the most wonderful things in the world. Everyone deserves good music in their lives, of any type they desire. Everybody, being human and having, presumably, a soul, deserves to have that soul nourished. Nobody should ever be fed the idea that they are "not good enough" to be able to appreciate great music. It's there for everyone, and today more plentifully than ever before, if you know which button to press. But if you never hear it, you won't know it's there. The problem isn't just snobbery - it's also inverted snobbery. I'm not convinced the second type isn't the worse one.

That's what needs to be addressed: music and opera in the media, in the environment and in education, as a proud and celebrated part of our own multifaceted culture. Which it is. Sod the dress sense.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Queens, Heroines and Killer Heels

Straight to the point. WILL SOMEBODY PLEASE, FOR HEAVEN'S SAKE, GET ANNA CATERINA ANTONACCI ONTO DISC A LITTLE MORE OFTEN? Apparently she records for Naive - label of the year at the Gramophone Awards, btw - but a bit sparingly, since there's only one disc to date, 'Era la notte', made a good while ago. Wigmore Live is releasing her latest recital on CD. Otherwise...this is crazy.

Sunday at the Royal Festival Hall, and it was one of those nights you don't forget in a hurry. Music-making in 3D HD, if you like; music-making that lifts you clean off your seat while you ponder whether critics are allowed to cheer if they want to; music-making that leaves you wondering why every concert can't be just as warm, affectionate and exciting. This was the OAE and Sir Roger Norrington, with Antonacci centre stage.
The first of five OAE concerts under the umbrella of 'Queens, Heroines and Ladykillers', the concert in the event wasn't so much about ladykillers as the killer heels. Anna Caterina strode in wearing a black leather-effect satin dress with a fuschia wrap and the said accoutrements on her feet. And pow - she becomes Medea in the aria 'Dei tuoi figlia la madre' from Cherubini's eponymous opera. Medea pleads with her husband not to leave her, yet accusing him, berating him, despairing, pleading and furious at the same time. "Crudel! Crudel!" - a scene played out all too often, one feels, in every street in the land.

Then those joys of Gluck: sandwiched between the Dance of the Blessed Spirits (plaudits to flautist Lisa Beznosiuk) and Dance of the Furies, 'O Malheureuse Iphigenie' - the bereaved princess's aria from Iphigenie en Tauride that Berlioz singled out for special admiration. Berlioz himself was the highlight of Antonacci's contribution: from Les Troyens, not Cassandre, this time, but Dido and 'Je vais mourire', a very long way from Purcell's lament. Again, pow - straight into character. She's mesmerising - voice, diction, personality, charisma, the works. At moments like: "Venus, rends-moi ton fils", she wields the artistic equivalent of a razor with which to slice up your soul.

I've been trying to think of other singers who are capable of effecting such a complete transformation from aria to aria, a complete sense of possession by the personality they are conveying. Domingo. Callas. Anyone else? That's the calibre of her artistry. Antonacci is not a Callas - in terms of size, her voice probably won't stretch to Tosca. But there is something about the timbre and the power of the stagecraft that really is reminiscent of her.

An insider's note on Twitter tipped us off to "clap lots so you get the encore", and we did, and we got it, and it was Carmen - the Gypsy Song from the beginning of Act II. It is about five years now since Antonacci and Kaufmann's unforgettable performances at Covent Garden; since then, a stunning development. This time the song put me in mind of Ravel's Tzigane, cranking up the tempo and the spellbound atmosphere to the taut ecstasy of the conclusion, with a sense of jazzy freedom in the singing, the melody's turns transformed into the embellishments they are. Magic. Tip-off: she is singing the role in Paris in December. Here is the Eurostar website.

Whether Haydn and Bizet were ladykillers is maybe a moot point, but their symphonies, topping and tailing the programme respectively, captured our hearts via the extraordinary hands, feet and eyebrows of Norrington. When Sir Roger gets his teeth into this type of repertoire, there are few (except possibly Ivan Fischer) to better him.

Yes, you did read that here, on vibrato-loving JDCMB - because this goes beyond such concerns. The strings of the OAE today are accomplished enough to make a beautiful sound without vibrato when necessary, but in any case this music rarely demands them to keep still for long enough to require much of it. The "battle of the bulge" in "early" music is largely over - and we won that, for now those unsightly aural spare tyres that replaced expressive notes have become the exception rather than the rule in HIP (maybe someone spotted that in Leopold Mozart's book they were just an exercise to develop bow control).

It's striking to realise that I remember, clear as spring water, every Norrington concert I have ever been to, no matter how long ago, whether I loved or loathed them - and it's usually one or the other, with very little in between. That in itself signals something. And I can scarcely believe he is 78.

Haydn's Symphony No.85 'La Reine' had everything that one longs for Haydn to have, plus some: humour, bounce, long lines, joined-up phrasing, clarity, airiness and terrific affection. Every note felt two hundred per cent alive as Sir Roger, with a flick of a wrist or finger or ankle dished up a detail, conjured a whirl of countermelody or turned the bassline into a ballet. All this was true as well for the Bizet Symphony in C, the nearest thing to Haydn ever produced by a French composer: delicacy, grace and detail were offset by true, glorious oomph. (My only period-pain all evening was to wish the first oboe would play a decent modern instrument, because to judge from the one he was using there have been some positive developments in oboe manufacture during the 20th century, and it needed it, and so does Bizet. My teeth still hurt just thinking about the second movement solo. Sorry.)

The arrangement of the orchestra on stage produced an exemplary balance - and this is important, because I often despair of the balance of treble and bass in the RFH, feeling there can be too much of the latter. It's simple. First violins to the left, second violins to the right, cellos and violas respectively left and right centre, and the double basses in a row across the back. It works even if you haven't got the brilliant Chi-Chi Nwanoku leading the basses, and if you have, and we did, that's a plus.

The OAE is on amazing form at the moment. If every orchestral concert was as delicious as this one, I'd show up every night, because then there'd be no need to stop walking on air.

Just for fun, here's Anna Caterina singing Moon River.

Monday, October 01, 2012


Tonight I'm on BBC Radio 3's Piano Keys with Sara Mohr-Pietsch and Richard Sisson, answering listeners' questions about anything to do with the piano. Part of the Piano Season on the BBC. 8.15pm

Tomorrow Angela Hewitt is giving a recital at the Royal Festival Hall consisting of transcriptions of Bach, Beethoven's Sonata Op.101 and the first ten "Contrapuncti" of Bach's The Art of Fugue. I will be interviewing her in the pre-concert event on stage, 6pm.

On Friday, English Touring Opera's new production of Viktor Ullmann's The Emperor of Atlantis, composed in Terezin and the opera for which the composer paid the ultimate price, opens at the Linbury Studio of the Royal Opera House. Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, who survived Auschwitz largely thanks to playing her cello in the women's orchestra, will be answering my questions on stage before the performance. The various pre-opera events begin at 7.15pm.

Come along and say hello.