Thursday, September 27, 2018

You're gonna rise up singing



One of the events I'm most looking forward to in London this autumn is ENO's first-ever staging of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. John Wilson is conducting it and the starry cast includes Nicole Cabell as Bess, Nadine Benjamin as Clara, Eric Greene as Porgy, Gweneth-Ann Rand as Serena, and more (see the line-up here.)

I was going to write something about what a masterpiece of an opera it is, how Gershwin perfectly blended those different musical idioms into a work with total integrity and deep empathy, and how it is often done as a musical, but not the full-whack operatic creation it really is, so grab a ticket while you can - but actually all you need in order to be persuaded is a taste of the heavenly voice of Nadine Benjamin singing 'Summertime', above.

On 11 October they're going to rise up singing. Book here.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Ten things to learn from Das Rheingold in Brexit Island


The Ring cycle is about to begin at Covent Garden, and yesterday a friend kindly invited me to the dress rehearsal of Das Rheingold. Operas that feel pertinent to the world at large are rare animals in this stressed-out era, but the timeless issues that percolate through Wagner's two-hours-40-mins-no-break prelude couldn't be more relevant if they tried, despite concerning gods, giants, Nibelungs, Rhinemaidens, shape-shifting and a cursed ring, and Keith Warner's production makes much of this. So here are ten things our Brexity politicians (some of whom are known to adore Wagner) can learn from it.

Bloodied, worried and clinging to power: Bryn Terfel as Wotan in 2012
Photo: Clive Barda/ROH
1. Do not piss off giants. They are bigger than you and they can take hostages. You are overestimating your own power.

2. Do not break your promises. It's called cheating. Giants don't appreciate it, especially when they've given you a massive contribution to your world in good faith, building you a nice new palace and all.

3. So (see 2), don't go into an agreement with the express intention of reneging on the deal afterwards.

4. We are who we are through treaties and agreements. (This line is in the libretto and appears in large letters on the subtitle screen.) Don't ever forget it. Everything in our lives is underpinned by legal documents, treaties and agreements - from certificates for birth, marriage and even death to, er, who runs the railways. Lose the treaties and agreements and nothing works any more.

5. When diplomacy isn't working, because you're not a very good diplomat (see 1-4), you need to think creatively. Say a Nibelung has the ring of power and is causing havoc and sadism in the underworld: how are you going to outwit him? You might need help. Be careful who you choose for this exercise: make sure it is the cleverest person in your gang (not the bloody joker) and one whom everyone knows not to mess with, because it would be playing with fire.

6. Never under-write the roles of your under-goddesses. You may find that your very best contributor to your project only has a bit-part. If all you do with her is put her up for kidnap by the giants, you are guilty of sexist negligence. Think of everything she could do if given the chance.

7. What the heck are you doing putting your wife's sister up for ransom anyway? Especially when none of you can survive without the food she grows. Think things through properly before making rash moves.

8. Beware of the dragon. It's a humdinger. You need a real Heldentenor to deal with it, and you don't currently have one. So don't provoke it.

9. Love is more important than power. If you stop caring about people for the sake of building up your own wealth, it's going to end badly. Never forget: today's dragon is tomorrow's kidnapped toad.

10. A giant will not balk at killing his brother for the ring of power. And the one doing the murdering will probably be the one in the top hat.

Beg, borrow or steal a ticket. 

The first cycle opens on Monday 24 September and for Das Rheingold the cast includes John Lundgren as Wotan, Johannes Martin Kränzle as Alberich, Sarah Connolly as Fricka, Alan Oke as Loge, Lise Davidsen as Freya, Günther Groissböck as Fasolt and Brindley Sherrratt as Fafner. Tony Pappano conducts. http://www.roh.org.uk/about/the-ring

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Two hats, one post

Rattle, milking it. (Photo: LSO)
Critic's hat for the day here: I reviewed Simon Rattle, Janine Jansen & the LSO for The Arts Desk last night, but perhaps the most moving thing of all was Rattle's farewell speech for Lennox Mackenzie, who's retiring after an LSO career spanning nearly four decades. Read the whole thing here.

Other hat: on Tuesday 25 September Tom and I are giving a concert together in North Yorkshire - at All Saints' Church, Kirby Hill. Tom plays solo Bach, Beethoven and other things. I'm reading some of my prose-poems. The concert is named after one of them, VOLCANIC ASH, and is built around what happened to us when we were trapped by closed air space somewhere you mightn't want to be trapped - with themes including identity, history, trauma and brainwash. Yorkshire friends, if you like the sound of this, do join us. To book, please call 01423 326284 or 01423 323774.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Are symphonies from memory bad news for pianists?


Aurora plays from memory. (Photo: auroraorchestra.com)

If you want music to lift you clean out of your chair, go and hear the Aurora Orchestra play a symphony from memory.

The opening concert of their season, on Sunday afternoon, entitled Smoke and Mirrors, found them at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, delivering a theatrically staged event – in the first half of which, through clouds of dry ice, the brilliant singer Marcus Farnsworth travelled from Schubert's Der Wanderer to HK Gruber's Frankenstein!!. A narrated link described an erupting volcano, the skies that it darkened in 1816 and some glimpses of Mary Shelley and friends writing ghost stories by the lake. This storytelling's ability to immerse us in the world and the legacy of early romanticism proved vivid and atmospheric; Aurora has Kate Wakeling as writer in residence, and I assume she penned this dramatic casing. (You can find her work in their season programme - not marketing blurb but actual short stories, literary and most attractive.)

All this was tremendous fun. No musician escaped this little production of Frankenstein!! without having to don a silly hat or find a hobby horse ogling at her, and conductor Nicholas Collon had to turn into Superman, with cloak and red lycra underpants. Frankenstein!!, if you haven't heard it, is a bit like Kurt Weill mixed with Monty Python on speed. It's totally wonderful and completely bonkers.

But after the interval came Aurora's famous speciality, a symphony performed from memory, and it was Beethoven's Fifth. Whatever this concert's conceptual presentation, this was the absolute real deal.

Do you think you know this piece? You might find yourself reassessing that notion at such a performance. Even the arrangement of the orchestral forces is theatrical - the contrabassoon entering after the slow movement to sit with the double basses, and the piccolo standing prominently beside the timpani, her interjections in the finale all the more noticeable as a result. The finale is all Handel and Haydn to begin - this was a composer who surely knew his Zadok the Priest and his Creation's Sunrise episode - with a hefty dose of Mozart's Papageno in the coda, which is one big Haydneque joke (the never-ending movement idea later taken up by Dudley Moore, of course). The slow movement - to which Collon brought a lot of con moto, increasing the challenges for the already virtuosic string players - is a close sibling of the variations in the Appassionata, Op. 109 and Op. 111 piano sonatas, the note-values dividing more and more. 

Should one have noticed all this before? Assuredly yes (if you're a critic, at least). The thing is, when one aspect of what you're hearing makes you hear something in a new way, the brain starts connecting in new ways too, and you start questioning and listening differently and noticing all manner of things that you might simply have taken for granted.

No chance of taking anything for granted with this lot. The whole thing flew. At the end the packed audience - young, on average, and maybe not just because this was 4pm on a Sunday afternoon - got up and yelled. Aurora hasn't only pushed the envelope. It's an orchestral rock star.

My question is: if these were the self-same musicians, knowing the music every bit as well, but sitting down and using the music, would it sound the same? Unless we make them do that, one  can't say, of course. I've long been a little bit skeptical about all this, mainly because I was a pianist myself and pianists have been cursed with the necessity of memorisation since the beginning of piano-time, or at least since Clara Schumann and Liszt. No wonder people tend to think we are nutty and antisocial - we are always busy, stressing out something chronic in the practice rooms, trying to learn things from memory! In recent years, more and more pianists have started to think life is just too short and have been playing from a score, often on an iPad, and I've been fully in favour of this. Because they're right: life IS too short...

And yet...


If you've ever played in an orchestra, can you imagine learning a whole symphony from memory, standing up (unless you're a cello, bass or that contrabassoon), interacting with your fellow musicians, having to concentrate even more than you would be at the best of times, having to know not only what you are playing but what everyone else is playing too and how it all fits together, and being able to see everyone else because you're not having to stare at the music? I can only imagine what a certain orchestra I know well would say if asked to do all this, and I reckon it wouldn't be a pretty form of words. But these results are transformative. There's an equality between sections, a sense of everyone interacting the way they would in chamber music. It's not only a question of breathing as one entity, becoming one big animal with lots of paws, as a great symphony orchestra with top conductor can. It's a level of concentration and communication that pulls in the audience to be part of it too.

Pianist with music and iPad. (photo: cmuse.org)
So what are the implications for pianists? If you're playing solo, then there's only one of you and you don't have to choose between staring at the music or indulging in actual interaction with your colleagues and the conductor. If you're playing Bach fugues or Messiaen or Ligeti and suchlike, I wouldn't blame you one little bit for plumping for the old iPad. It won't serve as a barrier between you and anyone else and it will ease your mind and your nerves, which can only be a good thing. 

But the big irony is that for pianists, the convention is to memorise solo works and play chamber music from the score (indeed, the pianist is usually the only one who has the full score in front of him/her). While the set-up of the chamber music circuit would probably make this idea deeply impractical, I can't help thinking it should be the other way around. It's in chamber music that memorisation would be most useful to all concerned, facilitating that interaction. That's not to say it doesn't work as things are. It's just that in an ideal world.....

Well, we don't have an ideal world, in any way, shape or form. But Aurora shows that with enough vision, ambition and determination, transformative experiences are still possible. Bravi tutti.




Friday, September 14, 2018

Being joyous, outside parliament?

In these febrile times, I think it takes some courage to march around Westminster singing and playing the Ode to Joy. This is precisely what two brave Simons - baritone Simon Wallfisch and violinist Simon Hewitt Jones - and their friends have been doing on a regular basis for months and months and months. They are spreading togetherness and, well, joy, they say, to help heal this divided nation.

Given the grim future that's at stake for every one of us if the government pushes ahead with "hard Brexit", we should all go and join in!