Saturday, December 12, 2015

Listening to Chagall

I went to Paris for a working day-trip earlier this week and saw this extraordinary exhibition. Many, many thanks to the ever-fabulous Mikhail Rudy for showing me round it himself. The article is in today's Independent (Radar's Observations section)...

Chagall's Commedia dell'arte, 1958, from the Frankfurt Alte Oper. (c)ADAGP-Paris2015

Paris has faced dark times in recent weeks, but an antidote to the tense atmosphere following the 13 November attacks has materialised in a perhaps unexpected quarter. Marc Chagall: Le triomphe de la Musique (The Triumph of Music) is the first exhibition that the Philharmonie, the citys new, state-of-the-art concert hall, has initiated and produced. To walk into it is to be enveloped in a high-spirited celebration of colour, sound, dance and what its musical director, the Russian pianist Mikhail Rudy, terms "art total" ("complete art work").

Almost more an installation than a conventional exhibition, it brings together for the first time Chagalls designs for theatre, ballet and opera, including The Firebird, Daphnis et Chloe, The Magic Flute, a little-known ballet by Leonid Massine called Aleko, and, from the 1920s, the Moscow State Yiddish Theatre. Theres a special focus, too, on the ceiling panels that the artist painted for the French capital's Opéra Garnier, his magnificent canvas Commedia dell'arte from Frankfurt's Alte Oper, and designs for the two giant panels that hang in the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, from one of which the exhibition title is taken.

Fragile sketches for some of the projects are enjoying rare public display; and a film created by Rudy with the Google Cultural Institute views the Opéra Garnier ceiling in high definition close-up, revealing details effectively invisible in the theatre: the minutiae of brushstrokes within floral bouquets, characterful expressions on the faces of stylised figures and the fading in and out of clear, brilliant colours all accompanied by extracts from the 14 pieces of music that Chagall names as the images' inspiration. Eventually one seems almost to be hearing the painting itself.

Rudy, now 61, was a young musician of 23 seeking political asylum from the USSR in France when he first met Chagall. He was asked to perform in a concert marking the artists 90th birthday, and thereafter saw Chagall frequently during the last seven years of his life. "He always had a twinkle in his eye," he says. And he used to say that the best things in life were the Bible, Mozart and love.

Recently, Rudy devised an animation of the Opéra Garnier ceiling panels, The Sound of Colours, which is screened together with live piano music to match the images a project that Rudy says came about after the artist's grand-daughter, Meret Meyer, saw a similar work he had created of Kandinsky images synchronised with Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition and asked if he would do something similar for her grandfather's works. "I would never have dare touch them otherwise," says Rudy. In collaboration with the Philharmonie, this proved the starting point for Rudy to begin making his long-held dream of the exhibition a reality at last.

This show, and its companion exhibition Marc Chagall: Les Sources de la Musique (currently in Roubaix) will go to Montreal in 2017; next year part will be displayed at the Chagall Museum in Nice.

For Paris the timing may be coincidence, but could scarcely have been better. It's more than a feast for eyes and ears: the artists sense of joy proves a marvel for the rejuvenation of the spirit.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Who to turn to in "maturity"?

I was looking for a composer with whom to celebrate a landmark that makes me supposedly "mature" (give or take a bit) and realised that there is only one possibility.

We take him for granted. He's everywhere. We learn about him (if we're lucky) when very young. As Schnabel said, his music is too easy for children and too difficult for adults. But more and more, he becomes one of the wonders of the world, in any way, shape or form.

Enjoy our beloved Mozart.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Letters of support plead for ENO's lifeblood

Stormy weather: ENO's chorus in Martinu's Julietta. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

London stands to lose a lot more than Kasper Holten (see yesterday) at this rate. Sir Antonio Pappano (music director at Covent Garden) has written an open letter to The Times, warning that cuts to the English National Opera chorus members' contracts and the limiting of the season to a grand total of eight operas could destroy the company.

Today The Guardian carries two letters of support for ENO, one from the head of Equity's live performance section, the other from a group of ENO stalwarts and other musicians including David Alden, Sarah Connolly, Marin Alsop, John Eliot Gardiner, Stuart Skelton and Sir Willard White. Read them here.

The threat to the chorus is particularly noxious - because over the past few years ENO's chorus has been among the best in the business. Many, many times they've proved the highlight of the performance: their vibrancy, accuracy and intensity in The Flying Dutchman was unforgettable, for example, ditto The Death of Klinghoffer, and in Benvenuto Cellini the way they belted out "Applaud and laud all art and artisans!" with such relish will stay with me for a very long time. Indeed, were I to list all the works in which ENO's chorus has proved its very best feature, this would be an overlong blogpost.

But what's really insidious is the underlying sense that perhaps the chorus is believed, somehow, by someone, somewhere, to be something that can and should be chopped back. That it doesn't really need to be there. That it's subsidiary to the "star" soloists, a poor relation to the business of a tenor hitting the high notes.

Guess what? The chorus is the lifeblood of opera.

Can you think of many operatic masterpieces that could survive without their chorus? For the majority of great opera composers, the chorus is a character - often the central character. Peter Grimes is all about the chorus, which becomes the seething almost-lynch-mob of the Borough. Parsifal's choruses are integral to the music's detailed, mesmerising tapestry. Anyone fancy Nabucco without the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves?

And by the way, being an opera chorus member isn't something just anybody can do. If one thinks "chorus" and pictures a nice amateur choral society trotting out Messiah with one rehearsal a week and scores to read from, that's not what's going on here. Opera choruses are not keen amateurs; they are seasoned professionals who learn everything from memory, have to work with those demanding directors, have to do very strange things sometimes (in Munich's Manon Lescaut the Bavarian State Opera Chorus had to bob about in fat suits...) and work extraordinary hours for not a great heap of remuneration*. The soloists are the cherries on the cake. The chorus is the cake.

"Without them there is no ENO" declares the luminaries' letter.

Applaud and laud all art and artisans, please: once more from the top!

* Note: in some German houses the chorus is rather well paid, in some cases earning more than some of the soloists.

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Kasper Holten is going home

Sad to receive the press release this morning informing us that Kasper Holten, director of opera at the Royal Opera House, is to leave his post in 2017, after his new production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg opens. Here's his letter.

Kasper Holten. Photo: Sim Cannetty-Clarke
Dear Colleagues,

I am writing to you as I want to share with you that I have decided to leave my position at The Royal Opera in March 2017.

I love working at ROH – and with all the amazing colleagues here – and it feels very painful to let go of that in 2017. But when I moved to London, my partner and I didn’t have children. Now we do, and after much soul searching we have decided that we want to be closer to our families and inevitably that means we make Copenhagen our home where the children will grow up and go to school.

So when Alex offered me an extension of my contract for another five years beyond summer 2016, I have decided only to ask for an extension of seven months, giving the ROH time to plan for my succession and for me to continue the work as long as possible. I will therefore leave my position in March 2017 after Tony and I open our new production of Wagner’s Meistersinger here at ROH. But my work isn’t done yet, so please don’t do too many farewells quite yet!

I will continue to work hard for The Royal Opera until the day I leave, and Tony and I will put strong plans in place for The Royal Opera until 2020 and beyond, with a varied repertory and many exciting new commissions and productions.

It is with a very heavy heart that I send you these lines, but at the end of the day this decision has been inevitable for me. I am deeply grateful to ROH and to all of you for the amazing adventure it has been to work here – and will continue to be for a while yet!

Warmest regards


Kasper's resignation is part of a trend that I suspect is on the increase: the best  overseas professionals deciding to leave the UK for pastures a little more reasonable. London's insane housing prices, the shockingly dreadful state of our school provision system (I know nobody with children who has not gone through a nightmare or many when finding places to educate them), the distances that people have to travel between work and home and the time it takes to do so - these make family life in the capital an affair so stressful that one can't blame anybody who can move to a more civilised environment for wanting to do so. If we leave the EU, moreover, it's likely to become more difficult still to engage and retain the best European experts. 

Kasper is an often brilliant director, a dynamic and inspiring character and always a joy to interview. We'll miss him, but understand his decision.

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Chips, blocks and Barenboims

Here's my latest Editor's Lunch feature for The Amati Magazine. It's Barenboim. Michael Barenboim. He had some jolly interesting things to say, too...

Here he is in the work that is helping to establish him as a force to be reckoned with in his own right: Boulez's Anthèmes II.