Monday, June 13, 2016

They can't take that away from us... misquote Ira Gershwin.

I'm puzzled beyond puzzlement about the toxic idea that the EU is somehow putting British culture under threat and that we should gamble our economy, complete with everyone's livelihoods and kids' futures, in order to protect this oddly nebulous idea. As we've been in the EU for around four decades, perhaps we should have a look at those things that nobody has ever taken away from us, nor ever will (unless our currency plunges, our pay and pensions disappear and we can't afford anything more...which will only happen if we leave...).

Roses. Best of British, growing happily within the EU

Here's my Top 100 of British Culture, in no particular order other than putting Shakespeare first.

1. William Shakespeare
2. John Donne
3. Jane Austen
4. George Eliot
5. Henry Purcell
6. Orlando Gibbons
7. Ralph Vaughan Williams
8. Edward Elgar
9. Frederick Delius
10. The Wigmore Hall
11. Symphony Hall, Birmingham
12. Simon Rattle
13. Dame Myra Hess
14. Monty Python
15. Wimbledon
16. Lindisfarne
17. The Sage, Gateshead
18. The Peak District
19. John Keats
20. Charlotte Bronte
21. Emily Bronte
22. Glyndebourne
23. Hilary Mantel
24. Rose Tremain
25. Henry Moore
26. Turner
27. Gainsborough
28. The Beatles
29. Benjamin Britten
30. Aldeburgh
31. Kent apples
32. Scones & jam & cream
33. Sunday roast
34. Gilbert & Sullivan
35. The Isle of Eigg (well, they could take that away if we leave Europe & then Scotland leaves England as a result. But the Western Isles are among the most beautiful spots on this planet...)
36. DH Lawrence
37. Laurence Olivier
38. Mark Rylance
39. Dame Judi Dench
40. Helen Mirren
41. Colin Firth
42. The Goons
43. Just A Minute (sort of)
44. English spellings
45. Rose gardens like Regent's Park and Mottisfont Abbey
46. The boat race
47. Dartington
48. Tintagel
49. Tristan & Isolde being set in Cornwall
50. Fish & chips, which I used to like
51. The Southbank Centre
52. Trafalgar Square
53. The Kindertransport
54. Richmond Park
55. Roxanna Panufnik
56. Lincoln Cathedral
57. Errollyn Wallen
58. Stratford-upon-Avon
59. The RSC
60. The Royal Opera House
61. English National Opera...
62. Thomas Hardy
63. Pimms
64. The Two Ronnies
65. Dad's Army
66. Victoria Wood
67. Edward Gardner
68. Tasmin Little
69. Chandos Records
70. Hyperion Records
71. Wendy Cope
72. JK Rowling & Harry Potter
73. Lewis Carroll
74. AA Milne & Winnie-the-Pooh
75. Dodie Smith
76. Imogen Cooper
77. Paul Lewis
78. Hay-on-Wye
79. Salman Rushdie
80. Ian McEwan
81. Vikram Seth
82. The walk to Kingston along the river from Richmond
83. Edinburgh (+ see Isle of Eigg)
84. Anish Kapoor
85. Matthew Bourne's New Adventures
86. Judith Weir
87. The South Downs
88. York Minster
89. Durham Cathedral
90. Hampstead Heath
91. Thomas Adès
92. Michael Tippett
93. Jacqueline du Pré
94. Elderflower cordial
95. David Beckham
96. The Royal Ballet
97. Mary Shelley
98. Bram Stoker
99. Tough gun laws
100. The Channel Tunnel.

A reminder: NONE of this is "under threat" from the EU, nor ever has been, nor ever will be. British culture is flourishing quite happily within it.

Friday, June 10, 2016

A counter-tenor with a few big differences

Yaniv d'Or
Even now it's not every day that I fall lock stock and barrel-organ for something that can be broadly categorised as "early music" and isn't by Monteverdi or Bach. But Yaniv d'Or is a counter-tenor with a difference, and his new project Latino-Ladino, with his Ensemble NAYA and Barrocade, is based around traditional Sephardic songs and their legacy, extending forward as far as an incredibly beautiful new number by d'Or himself. It's got straight under my skin and I can't stop listening to the disc.

I had a wonderful interview with Yaniv the other day about how he got started, what a fight he had with various educational establishments in order to be able to sing the way he wanted to, and how he evolved this heartfelt project. Part of its driving force is about bringing people together – bridging cultural, religious and ethnic differences by finding our shared musical roots and transcending the lot.

Here's the piece (lead feature in this week's JC, out today) and below, an introduction from Yaniv himself about the project and a taster of the music. Enjoy.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

It's the first night of ENO's Tristan

[FRIDAY MORNING, 10 JUNE: OH DEAR. The trouble with writing previews is that sometimes the reality does not deliver. Warning: the value of investments can go down as well as up....

I'm leaving my original preview up here, but after seeing the performance I have to report that though it was many things, Gesamtkunstwerk it ain't.]

The last Tristan und Isolde I saw was Katherina Wagner's production at Bayreuth 2015. Interesting moments, striking designs, but by and large it was a disappointment. Firstly because there seemed no coherence between the three acts - the style of each was so different that a massive disconnect ensued. Secondly, and more importantly, it imposed on the opera a heap of stuff that simply isn't in it and ultimately subverted the whole point. King Marke is not a vicious dictator. It's not in his music or his words or the drama. And in this miserable vision's finale, he simply dragged Isolde away from the dead Tristan's bed and marched her off. Liebestod schmiebestod.

Having just seen a Manon Lescaut in Munich that didn't make much sense either until the final Kaufmann-Opolais act (which was stupendous), I started to wonder if I was going off Regietheater.

I love radical reinterpretations when they bring us new insights and "relevance" that is actually relevant to the opera as well as the supposed audience. Hats off to Calixto Bieito's The Force of Destiny at ENO, which just days ago won a South Bank Sky Arts Award. But when I talked to Iván Fischer a couple of months ago, I did begin to wonder if he was right: we need to start exploring a "third way" to present opera that does not alienate newcomers and fans alike, yet that also isn't stuck in some imaginary golden age of pretty dresses, painted backdrops and park-and-bark. Something, instead, that brings the music and the drama into one "integrated" whole.

So with Tristan and Isolde opening tonight at ENO - Daniel Kramer directing, Ed Gardner conducting, designs by Anish Kapoor and singers including Stuart Skelton, Heidi Melton, Karen Cargill and Matthew Rose - I wrote this little think-piece for the Indy about whether a refreshed take on Wagner's notion of Gesamtkunstwerk can help to save ENO. First, a foretaste of the love duet from rehearsals...

Tonight English National Opera opens a new production of Tristan and Isolde, Richard Wagner’s gigantic, groundbreaking hymn to love and Schopenhauerian philosophy. With designs by the artist Anish Kapoor, ENO’s ex-music director Edward Gardner conducting, direction by Daniel Kramer – the company’s artistic director elect – and a starry cast featuring the Australian tenor Stuart Skelton as Tristan, it promises much. ENO, strapped for cash and mired in controversy, badly needs a smash hit, other than Sunset Boulevard; hopes ride high that this could be it.

Kramer has described the production as “a very poetical, mythical, simple world that Anish Kapoor and I have created to let the music and the singers just become gods”. This feels unusually close to Wagner’s own ideal. In 1849, the composer wrote a series of essays entitled The Artwork of the Future, expounding the idea of a “Gesamtkunstwerk”: a complete art work, fusing together music, drama, design, dance and more, in which a fellowship of artists would work together towards one shared goal.

Today, though, this is radical in its own way. And here’s why.

ENO's image for Tristan
There’s a Facebook group called “Against Modern Opera Productions”. No, really, there is. It loves “beauty” and often pours vitriol upon “Regietheater”, the director-led concepts that have dominated European lyric stages for the past several decades. Some critics, academics and opera professionals watch its hatred with a fascination of horror. It feels reactionary; as if operas’ blood-and-guts tales of sex and violence can only succeed if prettified for some imagined 1950s golden age. Yet this group currently boasts well over 35,500 “likes”. That’s enough people to fill the beleagured London Coliseum for nearly a fortnight.

Is the operatic audience really in revolt against Regietheater? Recently the Hungarian conductor Iván Fischer told me in an interview here that he was seeking ways to develop “organic, integrated opera performances”. In his view, the disconnect between staging and music that can result from focus on supposed originality in the former and on historical accuracy in the latter has run its course. It’s become a cliché and it’s time for a change.

When Regietheater is inspired and coherent, when it truly casts valuable new light on a familiar masterwork, there is nothing better. I admire and enjoy the finest of it. Yet reluctantly I’m starting to agree that the operatic sphere needs to find new types of approach less likely to put off newcomers and frustrate fans. Success stories seem to be thinner on the ground than duds and in certain territories audiences have started to vote with their feet. As for the singers, I once asked the tenor Joseph Calleja what the most outrageous thing is that a director has asked him to do on stage. His answer: “Singing the Duke of Mantua [in Verdi’s Rigoletto] wearing a monkey suit.” The production was set on the Planet of the Apes.

Tannhäuser at Bayreuth Enrico Nawrath/© Bayreuther Festspiele
A couple of years ago I attended Wagner’s Tannhäuser at Bayreuth, the festival founded by the composer himself. It was staged as an opera-within-an-opera: a supposedly futuristic society putting on a show. The set was dominated by a huge processing machine glooping away throughout; the concept must have cost a pretty penny to design and produce, yet added to the opera…precisely nothing. Last year the same festival’s new Tristan und Isolde imposed a vicious, dictatorial character on King Marke that simply isn’t in the music or the drama. And the lovers had to sing their heavenly duet with their backs to the audience.

That festival appears still to be able to afford controversy, indeed to court it. But in the UK cash for opera companies is ever more difficult to come by and increasingly requires justification. If a new staging of a popular piece goes clunking to an early death, there’s a sense of tragic waste. Yes, artists and companies need space to fail. But that space is getting smaller every year.

Still, the Metropolitan Opera in New York has not been enjoying much success of late with supposedly safe, traditional productions. The current season is projected to reach only 66 per cent of potential box office revenue, its lowest ever. Some punters, and even some critics, would like ENO to stay safe and traditional too: middle-of-road productions of popular repertoire for middle-class audiences. But that’s not how London works these days, or New York. These audiences can mingle eager newbies with knowledgeable, cosmopolitan types; and none like to feel they’re being fobbed off with something predictable and second-rate any more than with something pretentious or incoherent. If opera houses want audiences, they have to find out how that audience functions now and what its needs are. These are not the same as the 1950s. They’re not even the same as the 2000s.

And so a radical readoption of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk principles might hold some answers, along with Fischer’s “integrated” approach. It’s possible to be wonderfully imaginative, sophisticated and stylish while working in harmony, rather than in a seeming struggle between inherently opposed ideals.

If Kramer can indeed bring ENO a strong, simple, transcendental Tristan, perhaps he can signal a way forward for the troubled company. Can Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk save ENO? It’s time to find out.

Tristan and Isolde, English National Opera, London Coliseum, from 9 June. Box office: 020 7845 9300

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Opera North's treasurable Ring: a guest review by Timothy Fancourt QC

Regrettably I haven't been able to attend Opera North's much-lauded Ring cycle myself, but a great friend and passionate Wagnerian Timothy Fancourt QC has, and he's offered us a guest review. Below, delighted to run it. JD
Orchestra of Opera North and conductor Richard Farnes in Leeds Town Hall. Photo: Clive Barda


 Following Ring cycles at the Proms (2014) and at Bayreuth (2015), this reviewer headed to Leeds Town Hall last week with no sense that anything inferior was about to be served up by Opera North. Indeed, after the egregious nonsense of the Bayreuth production, the simple, semi-staged and beautifully lit production of Peter Mumford was a revelation of how effective the drama in the Ring can be when the music is allowed to speak largely for itself. Wieland Wagner would have approved heartily.

The four operas have been built up by Opera North over the last four years and have received hugely commendatory reviews in the process. This year the Ring is presented as a full cycle, in the traditional format of a week with days off in between. It is of course a totally different experience: the musical language develops and mutates over three nights, so that by Götterdämmerung every note derives dramatic and musical resonance from the events in the 11 hours that have preceded it.  The same themes permeate the whole, but take on different colours and nuances as the story develops.  The demands made of the audience are considerable, but so are the rewards. 
The first word must go to the orchestra of Opera North and the conductor, Richard Farnes. The orchestral playing was of a very high quality, one or two minor lapses of concentration excepted. It is clear that the orchestra has benefited greatly from the incremental building up of the Ring over years, and the considerable technical demands of the music were met with aplomb throughout. What is also clear is that there is a huge commitment and level of enthusiasm about the project and the music. It is easy to see this when the orchestra is on stage, exposed to full view, but also in the corridors and on the steps of the Town Hall in the intervals, where cast, musicians and audience happily exchange thoughts and compliments. The majority of the orchestra was on stage 15 minutes before each opera started, and numerous players remained on stage after each lengthy act, practising for the one to follow.
Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke as Loge. Photo: Clive Barda
Mr Farnes’ conducting is a revelation too (to those who have not enjoyed it previously). In London it is easy to forget that other parts of the country boast conductors who really do understand Wagner’s music and have it in their blood. His conducting style is calm and his beat clear: no histrionics; no heaving and subsiding with the musical flow. In Das Rheingold, which overall was the least convincing performance, the music was sometimes a bit one-paced, without time to breathe on occasions, and without bite and zip when needed to lend colour to the black comedy being enacted on stage. The ensemble went awry for a while at the start of Scene 4, where the vocal lines and the orchestral commentary are at their most complex. But the difficulty of conducting with one’s back to the actors/singers must be considerable, and overall Mr Farnes achieved a wonderful sound and cohesion. A special mention for Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, whose Loge was beautifully judged and acted, a personification of flickering fire, volatility, insecurity and cunning.

In Die Walküre, the orchestral sound blossomed fully and the effect was powerful and beautiful in equal measure. Some lovely moments in the woodwind in the middle section of Act 2 (and later in Act 2 of Siegfried) will stay long in the memory. Leeds had a Siegmund (Michael Weinius) and Sieglinde (Lee Bisset) to relish, and each acted with great delicacy of expression and movement and sang to a very high standard. Indeed, one had to pinch oneself to remember that all this was being presented in Leeds Town Hall and not in the Metropolitan Opera. Reginald Goodall used to say, with only a hint of irony, that he was not sure that he had really mastered the end of Act 3 of Die Walküre.  I have never heard it more perfectly judged and played than here: the beauty and colour of the music deliciously set off by the shocking personal tragedy happening on stage, for which equal credit is due to Kelly Cae Hogan (Brünnhilde) and Robert Hayward (Wotan). Ms Hogan sang wonderfully well: she is confident, technically secure, acts well, and produces a beautiful but well structured sound. 

Siegfried is sometimes regarded as the weak link in the cycle. Not here. The orchestral playing was nothing short of superb throughout, with Mr Farnes finding space and colour for all the subtleties of the music. A great deal depends on the eponymous hero, of course, and Leeds was very lucky to have a recently-engaged Lars Cleveman, who sang to a very high standard, with lovely bright tones, clear diction, faultless intonation and considerable reserves of energy. His voice was well contrasted by the character tenor of Richard Roberts (Mime), whose acting skills were deployed to memorable effect as the evil, scheming dwarf. The musical high at the start of Act 3, with Wotan, Erda and Siegfried, suffered something of a fall when a different Brünnhilde was kissed awake. Ms Broderick unfortunately fell short of the very high standards of the rest of the cast and the musical intensity was lost, which was a great shame. (Ms Hogan will sing throughout in London.)

Götterdämmerung is and was the pinnacle of the cycle. A different Siegfried was with us, Mati Turi, who, while not reaching that heights that Mr Cleveman reached, let no one down, despite some dryness and lack of colour at the top of his range. The show was once again stolen by the orchestral playing and by Ms Hogan, whose scene with Waltraute (Susan Bickley) in Act 1 was exquisitely performed, a telling portrayal of human characters who were once godlike and close but who now live in different worlds and no longer speak the same language. A very well sung Gunther (Andrew Foster-Williams) and Gutrune (Giselle Allen) contributed to the awful denouement, manipulated almost to the point of success by the Hagen of Mats Almgren. Mr Almgren, with resonant deep bass voice and German pronunciation that seems to emanate from some primordial middle earth, had been a fearsome Fafner and was no less fearsome in this opera, bringing off a superbly chilling Rhine watch scene in Act 1 and the Siegfried’s Ende trio with Gunther and Brünnhilde at the end of Act 2. No one doubted that Ms Hogan would steal the show at the end, which she did, unforgettably.

So palmes d’or for the orchestra, Mr Farnes and Ms Hogan, and one other character who I have not mentioned so far, but who appears throughout the cycle. The anti-hero Alberich, who is cruelly abused by the gods and then disdained and dismissed by his son, who for the merely human misjudgement of preferring wealth to love sets the whole disaster in motion and is condemned to misery. It is a wonderfully ambiguous part, and in Das Rheingold has some of the best musical lines; here it was sung to perfection by Jo Pohlheim, whose lovely bass-baritone easily captured the true character of the villain-victim.

For those who missed it in Leeds, it is touring Nottingham, Salford, London and Gateshead. London sold out its cycle in May last year, within days of going on sale, such is the renown of this Opera North production and the dearth of Ring productions in the capital. For those lucky enough to have a ticket, this really is a Ring to treasure. 
Timothy Fancourt

Friday, June 03, 2016

Conchord takes off

One thing about living in south-west London that's difficult to ignore is the presence of planes. In this otherwise tranquil corner of the capital we're blessed with riverside walks, the open greenery of Richmond Park with its deer, green parrots and running routes, and historic town centres around Kingston, Twickenham, Barnes and Richmond which each have a distinctive character to enjoy. Still, there are planes, on their way into or out of the airport up the road. In the old days of Concorde, you'd hear a far-off whistly noise at 5pm every day, and if you were outside you'd run for cover because the roar as it came in on the Heathrow approach was absolutely unbelievable.

But now Conchord of a much more welcome kind is coming to Twickenham. Recently I had a call from my very old friends Danny and Emily Pailthorpe. Dan is principal flute with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Emily, originally from the US, is a superb oboist. Some years ago they founded the London Conchord Ensemble, a chamber group of like-minded musicians to focus on woodwind repertoire; and their Conchord Festival has tried out a couple of locations in the past. This year, though, they're bringing it home to Twickenham, where St Mary's Church - a beautiful venue a stone's throw from the town centre and virtually on the river - will be the centre for three terrific days of music-making starting a week from today (10-12 June).

It really is packed with treats, featuring baritone Roderick Williams, actor Simon Callow, pianists Alistair Beatson and Julian Milford, violinists Daniel Rowland and Michael Foyle, cellist Thomas Carroll, conductor Duncan Ward, with works ranging from an all-Bach opening to Stravinsky ballets and The Soldier's Tale, and delights from Debussy, Duparc and Dvorak.

If I were planning a festival programme myself, I think it might look much like this. Please come and enjoy a weekend of world-class music by the Thames! Twickenham is about 20 mins by train from London Waterloo via Vauxhall and Clapham Junction.

Here's the full programme and you can book tickets here.

Friday 10th June, 8:00pm Ticket price: £20Opening Concert: An Evening of Bach

This opening concert showcases soloists from London Conchord Ensemble playing well-loved pieces by JS Bach, musical master of the Baroque. Featuring the Oboe d’amore Concerto and Flute Suite, with its famous dancing Badinerie, the programme culminates in the eternally popular Double Violin Concerto.
JS Bach – Concerto for Oboe d’amore in A major, BWV 1055
JS Bach – Suite in B minor for flute and strings, BWV 1067
IntervalJS Bach – Suite for Solo Cello No. 3 in C major, BWV 1009
JS Bach – Concerto for 2 Violins in D minor, BWV 1043
Emily Pailthorpe oboe Daniel Pailthorpe flute Thomas Carroll cello Daniel Rowland violin Michael Foyle violin London Conchord Ensemble

Saturday 11th June, 3:00pm 
Ticket price: £20Piano Four Hands Recital

In a tribute to the great ballet impresario Serge Diaghilev, this afternoon begins appropriately with the languid dreaming of Debussy’s Faun before showcasing the catchy tunes of Dvořák’s Slavonic dances. In a rare treat, Stravinsky’s elemental The Rite of Spring is played in its original piano fourhanded version.
Debussy arr. Ravel – Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Dvořák – Slavonic Dances (selection)
IntervalStravinsky – The Rite of Spring (original version for piano four hands)
Julian Milford piano Alasdair Beatson piano

Saturday 11th June, 7:00pm 
Ticket price: £30A Night at the Ballet

Star actor, writer and director Simon Callow joins London Conchord Ensemble to narrate The Soldier’s Tale, Stravinsky’s Faustian tale of a soldier who makes a pact with the devil. Structured like a ballet evening, with intervals separating each work, the evening also features one of the most beloved works of chamber music, Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence.
Prokofiev – Quintet in G minor, Op. 39
IntervalTchaikovsky – Souvenir de Florence, Op. 70
IntervalStravinsky – The Soldier’s Tale
Daniel Rowland violin Simon Callow narrator Duncan Ward conductor London Conchord Ensemble

Sunday 12th June, 2:00pm 
Ticket price: £10Mash-up the Music: A Family Concert

Wiggle in your seat with an exciting mix of energetic rhythms and flowing melodies. Bring your family and don’t miss singing and clapping along with James Redwood and his friends to a bouncy spiritual and a lively sea shanty! London Conchord Ensemble will introduce their instruments and play some musical highlights from the festival.  This event will be particularly special for 4 to 12-year-olds and their families.
Children must be accompanied by an adult at all times. Entry for under 3 years is free and they do not need a ticket (lap seated).
James Redwood presenter London Conchord Ensemble

Sunday 12th June, 7:30pm 
Ticket price: £30Final Concert: Bohemian Rhapsody

In this grand finale, the international baritone Roderick Williams thrills us with sensual French songs by Duparc and Ravel, featuring some of the highlights of the song repertoire. We also hear the world premiere of his melodic composition for three instruments. Combined with the bohemian charms of the Martinů and Dvořák quartets, this final concert of the festival will send us out with a dance in our step.
Martinů – Quartet for Oboe, Violin, Cello and Piano H315
Duparc – Songs
Ravel – Chansons madécasses
IntervalRoderick Williams – Rhapsody for Flute, Oboe and Cello (world premiere)
Dvořák – Piano Quartet No. 2 in E flat, Op. 87
Roderick Williams baritone London Conchord Ensemble