Wednesday, 31 January 2007

More John Adams

An comment on my review of Sunday's John Adams concert points out that that Proms performance by the work's original dedicatee, Tracy Silverman, was outstanding. So it looks as if I'm going to have to look out for further performances by Silverman.

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Tuesday, 30 January 2007

Its now official

My forthcoming disc is now official, contracts have been signed etc. and the disc is mentioned on their forthcoming discs page. We're not recording until April, so there will be all sorts of alarums and excursions before the disc goes live, but this is step 1.

LSO and John Adams at the Barbican

At the interval of Sunday's LSO concert at the Barbican D. and I had divergent opinions of the music. It was the first of 2 John Adams concerts that the LSO are doing as part of a mini-season. Adams had just conducted Slonimsky's Ear Box and Dharma at Big Sur, this latter with Leila Josefowicz playing the electric violin.

D. had found the works attractive and entertaining, whereas I had wanted something more. They had undeniable surface brilliance and attractiveness of construction and Josefowicz's playing had been nothing short of brilliant. But the solo part is designed to sound free and improvised whilst actually being highly notated, and I felt that Adams should have trusted his soloists more. This might have led to the missing ingredients, depth and passion. Though the music was played with passion I did not feel that it expressed it, though they were full of brilliant surfaces the very construction techniques that Adams uses means that he does not allow you underneath and the very tightness of the orchestration does not allow for much additional expression from the players.

I had been hoping that this depth might come from On the Transmigration of Souls, the work in the 2nd half. But having the faintly embarrassing texts projected on screens, having the audience 'surrounded' by a sound installation of which we could only hear half and the naive nature of the texts themselves, all these contributed to the rather ephemeral nature of the piece. It was slightly moving and undoubtedly well performed, but it was too highly manicured. The work commemorates a perfectly gut-wrenching event and Adams failed to produce a work which matches that, it was too well-behaved, to neatly manicured and failed to take risks. Give me Nixon or Klinghoffer any day.

On the subject of trusting performers, Adams made an interesting comment in the programme notes. The Big Sur piece was originally written using just intonation, but at the first rehearsals Adams discovered that it is impossible for 80+ musicians to agree on the exact intervals used in the just intonation. The results could perhaps have been creative chaos, but instead Adams reverted to standard mean-tone intonation for most of the parts.

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Monday, 29 January 2007

La Fille du Regiment - again

Saturday we went to see La Fille du Regiment at Covent Garden, for the 2nd time. We were quite surprised at how well the production held up, seeing it twice in just over a week. There was still much to enjoy and the jokes did not seem stale.

The main reason for going was to see/hear Colin Lee as Tonio. It must take a great deal of gumption to replace Juan-Diego Florez for one performance in a role like Tonio. Lee's presence was no last-minute emergency, but had been planned from the start. Though, judging by the comments around us, a significant no. of the audience had thought they were going to see Juan-Diego Florez.

As it turns out Lee was almost as impressive as Florez. There were one or two moments of slight uncertainty, but his performance was notable for its confidence. Tonio's shorts suit Lee, a rather bulkier figure, than Florez, and Lee's was a slightly less naive, more knowing presence than Florez. Perhaps because Lee cuts a far less boy-ish figure on stage.

As far as the singing went, Lee was superb and received a well deserved ovation for his performance of his Act 1 showpiece, complete with the high C'.s His voice is less suave than Florez's and will perhaps develop rather more dramatically. Lee also has a rather more pronounced, but attractive vibrato which he uses expressively. If this were a competition then I think that Florez would win, but it isn't. There is plenty of room for both of them and those in the audience who came to see Florez were not disappointed in Lee. Next time, the Royal Opera ought to give him more than a single, measly performance. With adequate rehearsal time, I'm sure he could do wonders.


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Recent CD reviews

My review of Emmanuelle Haim's new recording of Monteverdi's Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda with Rolando Villazon is here.

You get to hear how one of the 21st century’s loveliest voices sounds in this music, providing you can get beyond the vexed issue of performance style. ...

And my review of Andrea Gullickson's oboe concerto disc is here.

Out of the way repertoire and musical performances, a highly recommendable disc. ...

Both reviews are on on Music Web International.

Recent CD Review

My review of the compilation, Sacred Treasures IV, is here on Music and Vision.

Friday, 26 January 2007

Plans

Well we're off to see La Fille du Regiment at the Royal Opera House tomorrow. Yes, I know we saw it last Saturday, but tomorrow has Colin Lee as Tonio instead of Juan Diego Florez. We saw Lee at Grange Park last summer and have seen him in the past at ENO, so look forward to hearing his take on this killer role.

Then on Sunday its all change as the LSO do an all John Adams concert, with Adams conducting. The programme includes his 9/11 piece, On the Transmigration of Souls, should be amazing.

Recent CD Review

My review of Windsor Castle Chapel Choir's disc of music by Sir Henry Harris is here on Music Web International.

They perform their old master's music with passion, commitment and a remarkable degree of accuracy. What more could you want? ...

Thursday, 25 January 2007

CD Review

My review of Nigel North's 2nd volume of Dowland's lute music (Naxos) is here on MusicWeb International.

There is only one thing to say about this wonderful recital: buy it! ...

Soli Deo Gloria

A comment on one of my previous posts has brought the American organisation Soli Deo Gloria to my attention. They organise and promote performances and recordings of sacred music. Their activities include an admirable contemporary stream. Composer James MacMillan has just joined the Honorary Board of Directors and Paul Ayres has been commissioned by them to write a new piece.

Book review - A Concise History of Western Music

It is a brave person who attempts to summarise the history of Western classical music in just over 300 pages, but Paul Griffiths has done just that in his new book, A Concise History of Western Music, published by Cambridge University Press http://www.cambridge.org/uk/catalogue/catalogue.asp?isbn=9780521842945 ) It is this conciseness which is the problem, of course, how to give shape and coherence to a tradition that is multifarious and varied. But condensing this sprawling narrative into one slim volume has great advantages as it enables the writer (and the reader) to keep control of themes and enable the entirety of Western Classical Music to be considered in one sweep. Larger volumes might have the advantage of comprehensiveness. But small volumes such should have shape and elegance.

Running through Griffiths’s narrative is the concept of how time was considered. To a certain extent this is a conceit which enables him to give his sections some elegant titles, but beyond this you can sense that he is straining to express the way the different periods of music had very different relationships to musical time and pulse.

Griffiths divides his book into 8 sections as follows:-
Part 1: Time whole (14 pages)
Part 2: Time measured 1100-1400 (24 pages)
Part 3: Time sensed 1400-1630 (52 pages)
Part 4: Time known 1630-1770 (40 pages)
Part 5: Time embraced 1770-1815 (28 pages)
Part 6: Time escaping 1815-1907 (64 pages)
Part 7: Time tangled 1908-1975 (72 pages)
Part 8: Time lost 1975- (18 pages)

I have included the page counts to give an idea as to how Griffiths divides his time. This is a book that gives due weight to early music and to contemporary music; Griffiths’s narrative is so structured that Beethoven occurs almost at the centre of the book.

At first I found his language a bit too flowery, e.g. "Music, so intimately engaged with percetion, lights up the mind. Music, being immaterial, touches on the immaterial – on the drift of thought and feeling, on divinity and death". But once we move from the speculation on music’s sources to concrete history then things settle down and Griffiths’s language is generally admirably direct and clear.

There are a number of themes running through the narrative, which help to lift it from being a simple list of names and places. Firstly, Griffiths includes elements of musical analysis so that we understand the musical forms about which he is talking. One of the strands in the piece is the way musical form (and its use of time) has metamorphosed and changed, it is only when the narrative is well under way that we even get the first glimpse of the major and minor keys. His analyses are always apposite and straightforward to understand, he never seems to talk down to the reader. In the early part of the book, this sense of analysis is expanded to include bits of science in easily absorbed forms.

This first section also parallels the development of music with the development of musical notation and Griffiths helps us to understand how rooted in notation our music really is. The various elements of this strand run throughout the book, giving a clear idea of how music works and why it works the way it does.

Another strand of the book is how the present views the music of the past. This is important in a culture such as ours which seems to record everything. Initially this view of the past simply has a bearing on how we perceive the music; Griffiths makes it clear that music is not an absolute but is affected by how it is perceived and how we perform it. He reinforces this with an illuminating discussion on a piece of plainchant which can be heard nowadays but is apparently very old; Griffiths elucidates how modern perceptions and performance issues constantly re-create the music of the past.

This re-creation is made all the more apparent when we come to the music of the 20th century when Stravinsky starts creating works which are affected by past musics but as Griffiths points out "neoclassicism … owed its cool and strict rhythm not so much to the eighteenth century as to how the eighteenth century was being presented to the modern age by such performers as Landowska".

But besides seeing threads of continuity running through music history, an overview such as this is able to elucidate comparisons between contemporaries to help illuminate their musical world. Handel and Bach lived separate yet parallel existences in the same musical world. They never met and their music is apparently distinct, but Griffiths points out some helpful parallels between works written around the same time. Bach’s St. John Passion and Handel’s operas Giulio Cesare and Rodelinda come from the same period and would normally be seen as vastly different, but Handel and Bach were breathing the same musical air and Griffiths is able to detect this and help us see the commonalities between the works.

This crops up repeatedly in the book, the way the different musics of particular time have bearing on each other. Griffiths is admirable in the way he finds a similarity of purpose in late Rameau and late Handel: "Like Rameau at the same time, and very much the same age, Handel produced a series of works in which characterful action cascades into creative enjoyment, his choruses corresponding to Rameau’s dances."

I had never really thought about the parallel developments of music in the Soviet Union and in the USA in the 1930’s but Griffiths points out that in both countries composers moved away from modernistic developments - the Soviet composers under instruction from the government, but the American composers doing so apparently spontaneously. As with many other parallels, Griffiths offers no theories but simply records and allows the reader to develop ideas for themselves.

Finally, the last major strand that runs through the book is the role of composer in society along with how we perform music. How music was performed when written, along with sociological influences, is an important way of perceiving musical history. Other artistic and historical developments are touched on so that the can see modernism in the context of abstraction in the arts or come to feel the major effect that the French revolution had on the music and the arts in general.

Griffiths displays admirable clarity when picking his way through the many developments in music during the 19th century. He seems to be able to write about the era without obvious axe-grinding. And these are virtues which he needs in spades when approaching music in the decades after the 2nd world war. If he quotes Adorno a little to much and a little to abstrusely, he manages to make sense of the developments in music that happened during these challenging decades.

His treatment of atonality, serialism and modernism is scrupulously fair and Griffiths seems to be able to pick his way through the maze. But there is one area that he does not quite address fully. Whereas his discussions of music in the past includes information about performance practice and audience, for modernism he does not really address the central problem with post-War music making, that of the alienation of the audience. This is an area of music history which, I think, needs to be fully addressed in any major work.

Griffiths does enliven his narrative with brief biographical sketches of some composers. He does not always do this, perhaps because biography is not relevant for all composers. But there are moments when we seem to have lists of composers flashing past our eyes as we traverse the page; a problem in any work of this sort, but one that Griffiths seems to have minimised.

You can always play spot the bits missed out in this type of work. Griffiths seems to omit 19th century British composers pre-Elgar neither Stanford nor Parry gets a mention, though Ethel Smyth does.

The main narrative is followed by a 12 page glossary detailing all the specialist terms that you might need to know. Even more helpfully, this is followed by a list of further reading and listening, Griffiths suggests books and recordings which can be explored at leisure.

We have a tendency to view musical history as one of constant development. This is something that seems to be quite valid until we come to recent musical history. But perhaps even when dealing with the past, we should be wary of this model. In his closing sections on the musics of today, Griffiths introduces another, helpful, analogy – that of the labyrinth. We are no longer on a path but finding our way through a constantly expanding labyrinth and books like this help is to put ourselves in proper context.

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Wednesday, 24 January 2007

First Night nerves

Well, I've sent of the contracts (duly signed) so that the recording is almost signed and sealed - it won't be delivered, of course, until the recording sessions in April.

Usually I obsess about minor details rather than the big picture - in this case, the pitch of the organ (a bit higher than concert pitch), how much rehearsal the strings will need, logistics of getting the singers together.

But sending off the contract rather gave me some pangs. Primarily of course, whether anyone was going to buy the recording. I go through a similar crisis of confidence when writing longer works, I get part of the way through and start to feel that its all rubbish and why bother to continue. When dealing with writing music, the only way is forward and the solution is to press on and eventually I rediscover my bounce. If and when a piece is finished it gets put in the draw before being brought out again and I'm usually pleasantly surprised and rather like the piece.

Its going to have to be the same with the recording, onwards and upwards ignoring worries. Its not that I don't feel my music is worth recording, just that I tend to go through crises of confidence and am not the best promoter of my own work. Also, of course, its rather a long process from conception to delivery of the final recorded item. At the moment we are in the middle of the waiting period, looking forward to the actual sessions and hoping that arrangements work. More in due course!

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Monday, 22 January 2007

Reviewer's log

I've been a bit intermittent with it of late, but I try and write a reviewer's log for Music Web, giving thoughts on the discs I've been reviewing. The latest instalment is here.

Review of La Fille du Regiment

My review of La Fille du Regiment is here on Music and Vision.


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Sunday, 21 January 2007

La Fille du Regiment

To the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden on Saturday for Donizetti's La Fille du Regiment with Natalie Dessay and Juan Diego Florez. Quite Wonderful. A review will appear in due course.

The programme included various informative articles, including one about women appearing on stage in the guise of soldiers. But there is one aspect that neither the production nor the programme book addressed. As the opera opens, Marie has become a Vivandiere (translated as mess-girl). Now, these women were not noted for their morals and in the opera Marie has sworn to marry a member of the regiment, one of here 'Fathers'. This sexual aspect would, surely, have occurred to the French listeners, well the male ones as well, so that the entire performance would have had an underlying feel of the incest taboo, even if the stage events did not emphasise this. Thankfully Laurent Pelly chose to ignore this as well in his production.

Another area which he ignored was language. The troups, and Marie, are French, Tonio is Tyrolean and the Marquise is not French either, she's local. So there would have been a great deal of scope for mixing of accent and language in the dialogue. Something that was missed

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Publicity

I've been drafting the posters for the London Concord Singers concert on March 29th (Rachmaninov Vespers) and the FifteenB Consort concert at All Saints Margaret Street on March 18th. The results for this latter concert can be seen here. The poster includes the full programme for the concert, a mixture of 17th century Verse Anthems and my pieces.

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Friday, 19 January 2007

Radio Silence

Sorry for the radio silence, its been one of those weeks requiring planning and organisation for two of the big projects that I have on the go.

First off, our concert on March 18th at All Saints, Margaret Street. Its tricky enough getting a rehearsal schedule together which allows all 6 of us to be present, but we've had to fix up rehearsal venues and an organist. This latter has been a bit challenging regarding schedules, but luckily we've managed to get Paul Ayres to play for us, so we'll be in safe hands. Mind you, we have had to be a bit creative with the rehearsal scheduling. All I have to do now is get the music in a fit state for Paul to play from!

Then things also started moving on the recording front. I've been finalising contracts with the record company, via email luckily. Also, rehearsal schedules had to be addressed here and venues, both fixed now for the string orchestra which is one less thing to worry about. Another item on the worry list is the pitch of the organ at the recording venue, its a bit above concert pitch (not as much as a semi-tone). I think we'll be able to work round this, but its one more thing on the list.

In a couple of weeks time I'm off to visit the recording venue and see the organ. Also on the cards is a meeting with the record company's PR person. It almost feels as if we might be doing a recording! I've finally sent the conductor all the scores we'll be doing and have to address myself to the vexed question of producing the string parts - always a tedious business.

We're rehearsing for the March 18th concert tonight, and then we are off to the Royal Opera House tomorrow for the new production of La Fille du Regiment, can't wait!

Monday, 15 January 2007

The same, only different

We recently were listening to The Scissor Sisters first album, it was on top of the display in my local library so I thought, what the hell! They are a group about which I've seen and heard a lot but never really sat down to listen to their music, except for the odd track.

What struck us, when listening was how much we'd heard it before. The sound world of the disc is very reminiscent of the original gay disco boom, which of course was when D. and I paid a lot of attention to popular music. It is fascinating the way pop culture constantly needs to re-invent itself, re-using elements of the past. Its not just music, but fashion does something similar.

Whereas Western art culture is heavily based on the unchanging artefact (a score or work of art), the idea being that things develop towards the perfect artefact, in pop culture there is no such development, the moment is all. It matters not that the artefact might have been used before, what matters is what you are doing with it at the moment.

This, of course, has had a big influence on some of the major names in modernism, where the move away from the fully notated score and the concept of an artefact, is quite important.

But there is another fascinating parallelism, the world of the baroque. Where composers were constantly pressured for something new, it was newness that mattered. Everyone recycled and re-used pre-existing material, whether it was your own or someone else's. If you read about the constant pressures on Handel, you can see parallels with our own pop culture. Not only the expectation from the audience to produce something new, but the constant striving to make each revival of a work new and different, no matter what the total effect on the work's artistic integrity.

What is fascinating is that nowadays we decry some of Handel's revivals of his works, where he cut and pasted all manner of music to create new versions which were weaker than the original. But to contemporaries do not seem to have worried about this in the same way, they were concerned for the ephemera of the moment, whether the singers were good and whether the songs were knew.

Reading biographies of baroque composers you often feel that their lives were closer to key figures in pop culture than contemporary composers. Handel as George Michael!!!

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Sunday, 14 January 2007

News season Great Performers at the Barbican

The 2007/2008 Great Performers season has started booking at the Barbican. As usual, ridiculously early but how can one resist such a good selection of concerts. It seems to be a feature of concert life in London that the big institutions are opening booking earlier and earlier (at least it seems that way, I've not kept a proper record of it).

But the 2007/08 season at the Barbican includes Les Arts Florissants doing Landi's Il Sant Alessio (no, I hadn't heart of it either). Magdalena Kozena doing Handel arias, Emmanuelle Haim and Le Concert d'Astree doing Handel's Dixit Dominus and Bach's Magnificat, the Sixteen doing Messiah, Natalie Dessay doing Italian operatic arias, Vivaldi's opera Tito Manlio, Handel's Flavio, Ian Bostridge singing in Bach's St. John Passion, Mozart's Idomeneo and Britten's Billy Budd (this latter with the LSO), Thomas Quasthoff and Bernada Fink in Bach cantatas and Andreas Scholl doing Handel cantatas. Plus of course various more modern musics, including another Golijov premiere, Saariaho's Adriana Mater, recitals by Juan Diego Florez, Roberto Alagna, Cecilia Bartoli (no programme for this one, which is a bit naughty) and Gergiev and the Vienna Philharmonic much much more.


As a member you get 20% discount, which certainly makes a big difference to ticket prices. It means that we can just about afford to sit in half decent seats in the stalls instead of way back in the circle.

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Thursday, 11 January 2007

30th London Handel Festival

The brochure for the 30th London Handel Festival has dropped through my letter box and we have sent off our application for tickets. As ever, the selection of works is mouthwatering.

The main oratorio performance is Solomon with a cast including Iestyn Davies. And the opera performances this year are of Poro in a production which is co-produced with the Benjamin Britten International Opera School and directed by Christopher Cowell.

There are an attractive selection of lunchtime concerts, the annual St. Matthew Passion performance on Good Fridy and of course the Handel Singing Competition. This year, at one of the lunchtime concerts Paul Ayres will be giving a programme of Handel's organ music together with news works for chamber organ inspired by Handel's music. The new works will chosen from those submitted to a Handel-inspired composition competition.

Most of the concerts take place at St. George's Church, Hanover Square, though Adrian Butterfield is giving a concert of English violin sonatas at the Foundling Museum. The advantage of St. George's Church is that it was Handel's parish church. This disadvantage is that sight lines are mixed and the comfort poor, the seats become very hard after 3 hours of Handel oratorio!

Full detail's at the Festival's website.

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SPAV Concert

On Sunday we went to see the all women Schola Pietatis Antonio Vivaldi in their concert at St. George's Church, Bloomsbury. The group are attempting to re-construct the sound of Vivaldi's choir at the Pieta by using an all female group (including women basses). My review is here on Music and Vision.

You might also care to visit the group's Website where you can hear a recording the group made in 2005.

The further good news is that there are plans afoot for further performances in London.

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Monday, 8 January 2007

Recent CD Reviews

My review of Pergolesi's Stabat Mater from David Daniels and Fabio Biondi is here
A fine new version, perhaps mainly for David Daniels lovers, but if you don’t have a recording then consider this one.

The review of Danzas Tuba is here .
Might not be very high on everyone’s wants list but I urge you to try it, you will discover some interesting repertoire and some very fine playing. ...

And a disc of Bach transcriptions for saxophone ensemble here.

All the review are on Music Web International

Sunday, 7 January 2007

Opera Review - The Enchanted Pig

The Young Vic's 2006 Christmas Show was The Enchanted Pig, a musical tale by Jonathan Dove and Alasdair Middleton. In some ways, a rather daring enterprise as the theatre had re-opened with Dove's community opera Tobias and the Angel. Dove and Middleton do not bill their new piece as an opera, but it is through composed – not spoken dialogue, and half the cast are opera singers.

It is written to be accessible to family audiences. Dove's musical style is essentially tuneful and lyrical but he is not content with just finding a tune, the many melodies in the piece are combined in various ways to produce wonderful ensembles. Whilst the musical style might not be entirely to the taste of the many children that were there when we saw the piece on Friday, it certainly did not put them off and they enjoyed it immensely.

Dove's music is reminiscent of Sondheim, Into the Woods is obviously an influence as regards plot and music. But Dove creates more melodic melodies and modifies the sharpness of Sondheim's music.

The plot concerns the young Princess Flora (Caryl Hughes) and her two sisters (Kate Chapman and Akiya Henry). When their father King Hildebrand (veteran opera singer John Rawnsley) goes to war they disobey his orders and read the book of Fate, played by another veteran opera singer Nuala Willis. What they read must come to pass so the 2 elder sisters marry kings (Joshua Dallas and Delroy Atkinson) and Flora must marry a pig (Byron Watson). When the pig takes her home, Flora warms towards him and this partially breaks the spell that is on him so that at night he turns back into a handsome man. The pig says that Flora must have patience and trust him but she is impatient and with the help of an old lady (Nuala Willis again) she tries to cure the pig. But the old lady is the witch that enslaved the pig and Flora's impatience has meant that he is now fully enslaved and is taken away to marry the old lady's daughter (Kate Chapman).

To win her pig/husband back Flora must travel the world and wear out 3 pairs of iron shoes. This she does, on the way meeting various people who teach her the different meanings of love. First Mr and Mrs North Wind (John Rawnsley and Nuala Willis) hilariously played as gruff Northerners who explain, in an infectiously to-tapping number, that despite their manner they still love each other. Then the Moon (Joshua Dallas) for whom love is mysterious and he never meets the one he loves (presumably the Earth). And finally the Sun and his girlfriend Day (Delroy Anderson, wearing only a pair of sparkly swimming trunks, and Akiya Henry) who are carefree young lovers.

With these people's help she finds her pig/husband and breaks the spell. This part was perhaps the weakest as Flora has 3 days to do it in, before the wedding. And she has 3 gifts (from the North Winds, the Moon and the Sun) to help her. So basically we get the same material 3 times, each repeat shortened and varied, enlivened by the wedding preparations.

By the end of the opera Flora and her husband have learned the virtues of patience and endurance and learned about the many varieties of love. All told within the context of a story which was accessible and enjoyable to both adults and children. A considerable achievement for Dove, Middleton and their hard working cast.

It was lovely to see Rawnsley and Willis again, they both contributed a considerable amount of theatrical experience to the production and also seemed to be having a good time. In fact, the whole cast did.

As can be seen from the above, apart from Caryl Hughes and Byron Watson all the cast played multiple roles and when not playing a role, sang in the chorus. Hughes and Watson coped brilliantly with their long, taxing parts and there wasn't a weak link. No amplification was used, but both actors and opera singers balanced each other very well and conveyed the drama very well. Diction was pretty good and with the help of James Fulljames's imaginative production, I don't think that anyone could have difficulty understanding what was going on.

Dick Bird had designed basic set which used the whole theatre, meaning that the production (including Flora's flying through the air) happened in and around the audience a truly magical thing for everyone, but especially the children.

Dove had imaginatively scored the piece for a 5-piece band accordian (occasionally doubling piano), harp, percussion, trombone, cello and double bass. The results were magical and enchanting and at no point did the musical accompaniment feel undernourished; in fact I was amazed at the ravishing sounds that Dove had conjured. The band was directed from the accordian (now that's a first) by either Ian Watson or Edward Hessian.

This was a magical evening for us and for the many, many children in the audience. It is the sort of piece that more people should be doing, something that is not just children's theatre but enables the whole family to appreciate real, unamplified, sophisticated musical theatre.

The show is only on till the end of January but then it goes on tour.


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Friday, 5 January 2007

Plans

A couple of slightly out of the way events this weekend. First off, we're going to The Young Vic theatre tonight to see their show, The Enchanted Pig. Its a sort of opera by the ever wonderful Jonathan Dove. The cast includes the veteran opera singers John Rawnsley and Nuala Willis. As it is their family Christmas show, it is a modern take on the fairy tale theme. Its a co-production with The Opera Group, so it is going on tour later this year.

Then on Sunday we are going to a concert called Vivaldi's Women at St. George's Church, Bloomsbury. This is presented by SPAV (Schola Pietatis Antonio Vivaldi), a group dedicated to presenting the music that Vivaldi wrote for the girls of the Pieta in a form that he would have recognised, viz. with an all female choir. The group uses women tenors and basses, quite a feat. Their work is supported by researcher Micky White, who lives at La Pieta and researches Vivaldi's life and work. She will be speaking at Sunday's concert. It promises to be a fascinating afternoon.

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Stylistic Challenges

When the period practice movement started going, the performers were generally all specialists; this was particularly true of the singers. It was rare for a well-known singer from the standard repertoire to cross over and record with a period group. This did happen, Ileana Cotrubas made a striking contribution to Handel’s Rinaldo, showing that she could keep her vibrato under control and blend with singers well versed in period practice. And when Joan Sutherland recorded Athalia with Christopher Hogwood, though she did not really blend, the nature of the drama was such that Sutherland did not stand out too much.

But gradually things changed and younger performers became comfortable crossing between the 2 worlds. ENO’s early performances of Handel’s Julius Caesar were cast with singers who had a long Handel pedigree (Janet Baker, Valerie Masterson, Sarah Walker); not strictly period practice performers, but singers who had worked extensively singing this style of music with the most advanced of the modern instrument groups such as the English Chamber Orchestra.

When ENO re-mounted the production many years later it was cast from singers from their roster. Listening to it on the radio, I was struck by how much of the period performance practice had made its way into the opera house. The ENO Orchestra at this time was streets ahead of the Royal Opera House in terms of introducing period practice to their modern instruments. This has continued, whereas the Royal Opera tends to employ outside period bands ENO uses its own orchestra. The recent Orfeo successfully blended their own musicians with key period practice personnel. This does not always work, the Bach Passion performances were an uneasy mixture of old and new with the gambas rather standing out. After listening to one of these performances, I came to understand Vaughan Williams’s antipathy to using the viola da gamba and the harpsichord in his large scale, modern instrument performances of the St. Matthew Passion at the Leith Hill Festival.

But since then, things have moved on even further and there is a whole generation of singers who move effortlessly between the two worlds. This involves an element of compromise. Anyone who listens to Ian Bostridge’s recording of Monteverdi’s Orfeo under Emmanuelle Haim cannot help but be impressed with his performance but notice how is style and technique is very individual and not completely in harmony with period practice.

I must here confess a prejudice and state that for me, the idea Monteverdi tenor is someone like Nigel Rogers who sings with an edge to his voice, not too much vibrato and wonderful line and crystal clear ornaments. The issue of line and of ornaments bothers me.

On a couple of recent recordings of Monteverdi and of Cavalli I was impressed by the way singers who specialise mainly in 19th century Italian opera, fitted their voices to the 17th century vocal line. But I was disturbed by the use of vibrato, the singing of the high tenor line in a very open throated tone, the concentration on beauty of vocal sound rather than a good line and a distinctly 19th century attitude to the shape of ornaments. On one recording, the tenor was impressive but consistently too loud, probably because of the tessitura of the part.

Half of me gets annoyed by these compromises. But the other half appreciates being able to hear this music sung by some of the best voices of our generation. And there’s the nub. Monteverdi, Cavalli, Handel, Vivaldi et al wrote for some of the finest voices of their generation. Their music needs style, technique and fine vocal quality. To hear the finest voices of today in this repertoire would be quite something and is desirable, even if we have to impose compromises.

For some voices, the stylistic gap is too wide; I’m not sure that Pavarotti would have ever have been quite suitable for Bajazet in Tamerlano. But Tom Randle has made quite a career flitting between later opera and Handel’s meaty tenor part. When I heard him there was a stylistic gap between him and his fellow singers, but it was not too disturbing and worth it for hearing such a fine voice in this music.

And there’s the rub. Vocal technique has moved on so much that it is almost impossible for a singer to cross boundaries without some sort of compromise. But it’s worth it to hear great voices in great music.


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Wednesday, 3 January 2007

Candide, Can-do, Can-don't

Last night we finished catching up on the BBC4 transmission of Bernstein's Candide in the new Robert Carsen production from the Chatelet Theatre. Well, it still had Bernstein's music but what we saw and the dialogue that the singers spoke was a long way from the original.

There have been various attempts to solve the riddle of Candide but a number of relatively recent productions have seemed to do so. Harold Prince produced a version which ran well on Broadway and a number of UK companies have expanded on that, notably the thrilling version at the National Theatre with Simon Russell Beale. As a counterpoint to this, the LSO have continued to build on their Bernstein relationship, he conducted the work with them and they have done concert performances of it since. Though these tended to present the work in a rather inflated version, the lack of amplification and the presence of opera singers meant that the aural experience was vastly improved.

At the Chatelet we had, mainly, opera singers but also amplification; I gathered this from reading reviews, it was not really possible to tell from the TV. But most problematically, Carsen has chosen to re-work the plot as a modern satire moving from JFK's White House to the present day. This means that, though there are a number of dazzling individual moments, the whole adds up to even less of a collective event than did Bernstein's original.

Also Carsen's version aggravates a weakness of the original, the songs don't always (well, hardly ever) originate with the plot they seem grafted on. This was made most obvious with the Old Lady's Tango, I am easily assimilated. As sung by the ever wonderful Kim Criswell, this was some of the best performing of the evening, but it seemed perverse that the musical no. took place on the deck of an Ocean liner, why a tango, why the gay waiters.

By the middle of part 2, we had ceased to care about these characters. In fact, they were hardly characters at all; a problem in the original that Carsen made worse.

Lambert Wilson gave a dazzling performance as Voltaire, Pangloss and Martin, playing Voltaire in French and the other 2 in English; quite brilliant, but Voltaire's part seems to have been expanded. This is quite understandable when presented with a French speaking audience, but particularly in act 1 this lead to a serious feeling of alienation as Voltaire carried the plot and the singers just popped up to sing.

William Burden was fine as Candide, but he lacked youthful charm. Anna Christie was unimpressive as Cunegonde, though some of the shrillness may have been due to the amplification. John Daszak was wasted in his multiple roles, even when called to sing; he just does not have the sort of voice for this music. He should stick to Peter Grimes.

Mind you, I am willing to admit that I am pretty resistent to opera on TV. There are too many distractions and it is too easy to wander off and make pot of tea or something. So I'm not going to pass final judgement on the piece. After all, it is a co-production with ENO and La Scala. So in theory I should be able to see it live at the Coliseum. But La Scala have already announced that they are not taking the production; the management deny it has anything to do with the scene where an actor dressed only in underpants dances round wearing a Silvio Berlusconi mask! So we'll see whether the show makes it to the UK and what it will be like then. After all, Laurent Pelly's La Belle Helene seemed to undergo a sea change (for the worse) when it crossed the channel.


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Tuesday, 2 January 2007

In this month's Opera magazine

This month’s opera seems to have a mini-theme running through it. There are three different mentions of Almaviva’s Act 2 aria from The Barber of Seville, the one that is usually cut and which Rossini re-cycled for Cenerentola’s final aria. Philip Gossett, in his new book, evidently refute the defence of the traditional cutting of the aria, which is good news. But Julian Budden, in his review of the opera performed in Florence, is virulent in his dislike of the aria, describing it as ‘a shameless concession to a star singer’ and he describes Rossini as being happy to see the aria dropped. Though of course, that might be because of its difficulty. At the New York Met Juan Diego Florez impressed Martin Bernheimer when the aria was included in performances there.


In the editorial, the editor looks forward to possible performances of a group of operas which were all premiered in 1907: Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh, Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet, Messager’s Fortunio and Dukas’s Ariane et Barbe-Bleu. I’ve seen Fortunio (Grange Park Opera did it a few years ago), but would welcome the chance to see any in this list, but I’m not holding my breath.

There is a profile of Elaine Padmore, to mark the Royal Opera’s 60th birthday. It is heartening to learn that she’ll stay ‘until I’m too old to work’ After all the problems and changes of the 90’s it is good that there is now a stable regime in place. I could only wish that the same could be said of the ENO.

Covent Garden is going to be getting the new Robert Carsen production of Gluck’s Iphigenie in Tauride which debuted in Chicago. I can’t wait; I’ve still got vivid memories of hearing Eiddwenn Harrhy in the Kent Opera production at the Edinburgh Festival in the late 70’s.

One interesting little snippet though, in 1951 Sir Thomas Beecham conducted performances of Balfe’s Bohemian Girl at the Royal Opera House, little chance of that coming back I suspect. The list of operas with the most performances at the Royal Opera House over the last 60 years offers no surprises, with Puccini coming out top.

Vlaamse Opera in Ghent have recently completed a complete cycle of Puccini operas (over 15 years) with Robert Carson as producer, quite something.

Back on the subject of Covent Garden, Anne Williams-King made her debut as Katerina in Lady of Macbeth of Mtsensk when Eva Maria Westbroek was ill. Warwick Thompson was impressed and I hope that we see more of Miss Williams-King at the Garden.

Richard Law reviewed Philip Gossett’s new book (see above) and it sounds fascinating, one of our leading scholars discussing Italian opera and how it is performed, even commenting on the personalities involved; castigating such well known singers as Caballe and Sills. Mind you, Law gets off to a slightly poor start by comparing Gossett to Wilamowitx-Moellendorf, I’m not sure that many people have heard of him (I hadn’t).

It is interesting that Gossett subscribes to the view that a definitive Ur-text version of Italian Romantic opera is impossible, the form was too flexible and the composers tended to treat the performers as collaborators. Evidently the Ricordi publishing house are very co-operative when it comes to opening their archives to scholars but Verdi’s heirs are not.

As is evident from my discussion of the cut aria in Rossini’s Barber, Gossett is pretty anti cutting, but more particularly he is against traditional cuts – the blind acceptance of a cut because it has always been done. We need to get beyond this and be more careful with such things. This sort of thing is still news, after all the apparent disagreement between John Eliot Gardiner and Christoph Loy at the beginning of rehearsals for the new production of Mozart’s La Finta Giadinera meant that Loy departed the production. He’d wanted to use existing cuts whereas Gardiner wanted to examine things and choose the cuts specifically for the production – an entirely sensible attitude it seems to me.

One are where I part company from the reviewer, Richard Law, is on the subject of Verdi’s Don Carlos. Law proclaims himself a lover of the opera in Italian whereas I prefer the original French version, perhaps because of my fascination with French Grand Opera.

The gradual internationalisation of opera performances means that odd things crop up in odd places. Krenek’s Johnny Spielt Auf received a new performance in Argentina. The Faroe Islands (population 50,000) saw their first performance of an opera by a native composer, Sunleif Rasmussen. Hilary Finch’s review was complimentary and I must look out for the forthcoming CD. The Berlin Staatsoper saw a new production of Maria Stuarda. Not in itself unusual, but when set as a re-run of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane the results are certain to rouse curiosity at least.

Wexford has a new artistic director. Under the previous one, creeping internationalisation meant the critics worried that the festival was losing its distinctive Irish feel. Under Canadian David Agler things look set to improve. The festival has its own orchestra now, employing Irish musicians rather than an Eastern European orchestra and the number of Irish singers seems to have increased. And of course, they are building a new opera house. I can’t wait.

Graham Vick’s new production of The Makropoulos Case in Copenhagen seems to have had what the recent ENO production lacked, a superb diva in the title role. In this case it was Gitta-Maria Sjoberg; a name new to me, but she looks superb in the picture.

Scottish Opera’s new production of Handel’s Tamerlano does not seem to have gone down well, which is a shame. It was a daring/imaginative/foolish piece of programming and would have been quite a coup to bring off, but the opera is tricky. I’ve never yet seen an entirely satisfactory production, though the Cambridge Handel Society came pretty damn close. Independent Opera did better with their production of Orlando at the Lilian Baylis Theatre, though Hugh Canning was luke-warm about William Towers’s acting. We saw the production and I was impressed with Towers. Canning also moaned about cutting an hour’s worth of music. This is something that I used to worry about a lot but as I’ve got older I must confess that I do rather like getting home at a reasonable hour, so welcome discreet cuts. Though Independent Opera’s were rather more indiscreet I suspect.

Opera North’s Peter Grimes got mixed reviews from Michael Kennedy, though he says it was very powerful. Friends who saw the production loved it. The company's production of La Voix Humaine seems to have suffered from an occasionally over dominant orchestra. I have found this before in this work, a proms performance with Felicity Lott a few years ago could have done with a far stronger hand from the podium. I suspect that conductors relish Poulenc’s luxuriance a little too much and forget the type of soprano voice for which the role was written.

Duchy Opera performed Ethel Smyth’s The Wreckers in Truro. Now I do wish I’d been there. I love The Wreckers. I saw a superb performance at Warwick University in the 1980’s (one that knocked the later Proms performance into a cocked hat). Sensibly Duchy Opera have reduced the orchestration to make the piece more viable, but even more sensibly they have commissioned a new translation from Amanda Holden. It is appalling that the work has never been performed in its original French; the librettist Harry Brewster was a poet who wrote prose in English but poetry in French so his libretto was in French. The original English version was a thrown together stop-gap when performances in French fell through (there was a slight possibility of Messager bringing a French company to Covent Garden and producing it, now that would have been something). I’d like to thing that this might lead to more performances, but I won’t hold my breath.