Saturday, 29 April 2017

For the love of the voice: Ian Rosenblatt on voices, singing & founding Rosenblatt Recitals

Ivan Magri and Ian Rosenblatt after Ivan Magri's Rosenblatt Recital at the Wigmore Hall (Photo Jonathan Rose)
Ivan Magri and Ian Rosenblatt after Ivan Magri's Rosenblatt Recital at the Wigmore Hall (Photo Jonathan Rose)
For 17 years Rosenblatt Recitals has been enabling audiences to get up close and personal with a wide range of opera singers, bringing both well known and up-and-coming artists to perform in song recitals, with many artists making their UK song recital debut and some their UK debut. Rosenblatt Recitals is the brain-child of Ian Rosenblatt, the founder of the independent City law firm Rosenblatt, and he remains intimately involved with the song recital series. I recently met up with Ian at his offices for a lively chat about voices, song recitals, unadventurous operatic casting and how a City solicitor ended up creating one of London's premiere recital series.

Sondra Radvanovsky and Ian Rosenblatt after Sondra Radvanovsky's Rosenblatt Recital at Cadogan Hall
Sondra Radvanovsky and Ian Rosenblatt
after Sondra Radvanovsky's Rosenblatt Recital
at Cadogan Hall (Photo Jonathan Rose)
One of Ian's concerns is the relatively unadventurous casting at London opera houses; he feels that there are great singers out there and that we can only get to hear them if they are brought to the UK to sing. He cites as an example, Italian tenor Ivan Magri who sang at the recent Rosenblatt Recital at the Wigmore Hall, Magri's first ever song recital (see my review). Despite making a name for himself on the Continent, Magri will only be making his Covent Garden debut in June 2017 with a single performance of Nemorino in Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore.

He thought - this amazing and wanted to do more.

Rosenblatt Recitals started in 1999 when Ian's firm sponsored a single concert. Jose Cura, at the height of his powers, had just done a Puccini album with Placido Domingo conducting and Cura was due to give a Puccini concert at the Southbank Centre, again with Domingo conducting. It was the first time that Ian had sponsored a concert and he used all sorts of excuses to justify it (his firm was 10 years old, he was 40), but essentially he did it because he wanted to. In the end, Domingo dropped out and Cura both sang and conducted, Ian comments that if you closed your eyes it sounded fabulous. He thought - this amazing and wanted to do more.

Though he went along to concerts and opera performances, he had no idea how you made such things happen, how the singers got there, how they were paid. Luckily he met a woman called Helga Schmidt who had a little black book of contacts in the musical world. She proved unbelievably helpful, she asked Ian 'who do you want to sing?'. He was a huge fan of Giuseppe Sabbatini, and so the first recital series which opened in December 2000 started with a recital from Sabbatini, with Juan Diego Florez giving his UK debut recital in January 2001. From there the recital series grew; they created an infrastructure and a team and now Rosenblatt Recitals is 17 years old and there have been over 200 recitals.

Of Rosenblatt Recitals he says 'it is what it is'.

Ian loves all types of music, especially opera and the voice, and he comments that in the early days it was only possible to hear some new singers if you got hold of a pirate tape. Even nowadays, it can be difficult to hear singers, a UK based audience does not have much exposure to the younger singers coming up in Italy except for the few which Ian feels 'we are force fed'.

The recital series was created so that people could hear a greater range of good singers, though he admits that it was a bit hit and miss in the early days. Some people look down on the series because they see Ian as providing popular entertainment within the classical music genre, 'and I am' he adds. For Ian this is a very clear aim, and he does not pretend anything otherwise; of Rosenblatt Recitals he says 'it is what it is'.

Ian sees the vocal art form is as valid as going to hear a solo saxophone player or a pianist, yet the critical reaction to Rosenblatt Recitals is somewhat mixed. Ian remains puzzled and points out that there is serious critical coverage of contemporary popular music and popular culture, but no comparable coverage of more popular classical music. He finds that there is less critical interest in vocal recitals and the voice, and that a critic like the late John Steane, who wrote extensively on the voice, is now a rarity.

There is a hard core audience that comes regularly

But whatever the critical reaction to Rosenblatt Recitals, there is a hard core audience that comes regularly, 'and they would not come if it was crap'. He admits that not every concert is great, but people come because they get a good night out. Sky Arts recorded four of the recitals, and these are still broadcast which, though Ian thinks this wonderful he does point out that it gives the nay-sayers ammunition (Andre Rieu concerts are also regularly broadcast on Sky Arts).

What makes him happy is when he goes to the front of the house at the end of a recital and he sees a huge number of smiling faces. He comments that at last week's recital by Ivan Magri, when Magri sang O sole mio as an encore, people were not only happy, some were singing along. He has been accused of being a 'canary fancier' (which he admits he is), but adds that if you like voices then Rosenblatt Recitals give you a chance to hear voices often unheard in the UK. And Ian's advantage, of course, is that he is not actually in the music business, and he is not doing it in order to get general recognition.

Of course, the economics of the recitals don't work

Ian Rosenblatt and James Baillieu after Tara Erraught's Rosenblatt Recital (Photo Jonathan Rose)
Ian Rosenblatt and James Baillieu
after Tara Erraught's Rosenblatt Recital
(Photo Jonathan Rose)
Of course, the economics of the recitals don't work, Ian points out that no-one performing the classical music repertoire can make a profit because economic ticket prices would simply be too high. It isn't just the cost of the artists' fees, there is the hire of the hall, a marketing team, travel and rehearsal costs. And then there are additional costs if you want to do other things such as record concerts.

So Ian's firm continues to sponsor Rosenblatt Recitals and at the moment he is content for this to continue, but he has to make lots of money to be able to do it and cannot predict how he might want to place his resources in the future. Add to that, there is the issue of the venue. He has no idea how long the Wigmore Hall will continue to let them hire the venue (Rosenblatt Recitals is one of the few promoters privately hiring Wigmore Hall), and so the issue is not so much will he continue to sponsor the recital but where will the series go if it has to leave the Wigmore Hall.

Having experience putting concerts on at the Wigmore Hall, St John's Smith Square, Cadogan Hall and the Royal Albert Hall, Ian has a rather low opinion of venues finding them generally unhelpful to promoters. Despite the hire fee, film fee, ticket commission and sales at the bar, he feels venues do not generally do much to help put bums on seats.

A reflection of Ian's personal taste

80% of the programming at the recitals is a reflection of Ian's personal taste, but he is constrained by the willingness of artists to come, the difficulties of matching schedules and the general vagaries of the music business. He keeps his ears to the ground and now that the series has developed, agents and managers within the music industry think that it is a good thing for artists to be in the season.

One year, 12 of the artists who had Rosenblatt Recitals went on to get Covent Garden contracts as a result. After the soprano Ailyn Perez's Rosenblatt debut she got lots of offers, and tenor Stephen Costello had to get a passport in order to travel to the UK for his recital, he had never been out of the USA. So the team does not have to go searching like previously but some artists have proved elusive. Jonas Kaufmann was intended to give a recital in 2004 but he became famous and similarly with Rolando Villazon. The Mexican tenor Javier Camarena had his London debut at Rosenblatt Recitals in 2014 purely by accident, as the series had had a cancellation. Ian had seen Camarena on YouTube and heard about his sensational debut at the Metropolitan Opera, and so asked him whether he was free. The result was a thrilling surprise (see my review).

Whilst the selection of the artists reflects Ian's tastes, the repertoire is more of an issue. This is partly because young singers often just don't have the variety of repertoire, and often are restricted to what they are singing at the moment. By contrast, some singers have had to be persuaded to include opera arias (something the audience rather expects). But Ian admits that it is not easy to tell people what they want.

The recital series does sometimes throw up surprises

Javier Camarena & Ian Rosenblatt after Javier Camarena's Rosenblatt Recital (Photo Jonathan Rose)
Javier Camarena & Ian Rosenblatt after Javier Camarena's Rosenblatt Recital
(Photo Jonathan Rose)
One of the advantages of the recital series is that it does sometimes throw up surprises, and we both recall a young Italian tenor who sang Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte, Ian adds that he sometimes wants to hear something different, he finds modern lieder singers can be 'a bit homogenised' and would like to persuade more opera singers to venture into this repertoire. His ideal tenor remains the late Alfredo Kraus whom Ian refers to as 'just class', mentioning Kraus's Royal Festival Hall recital two years before his death, which he opened with 'Ah mes amis! (with its famous sequence of top C's) from Donizetti's La fille du regiment.

For 15 years from the age of 34 Ian took a weekly singing lesson with the baritone John Noble

When I ask Ian how musical he is, his response is intriguing. For 15 years from the age of 34 he took a weekly singing lesson with the baritone John Noble. He did it mainly because he wanted to understand the repertoire and, in fact, it was good for his business career as it gave him an hour a week of his own time. He comments that if his lesson went well, he was happy for the rest of the week.

Ian is a baritone, and as a result of the lessons he knows a lot of the arias used in the  recital series, this is both amazing and distracting. He has the music in his head and is often looking at it technically rather than simply enjoying the performance. It has also given him a feel for the repertoire, what people could or should sing, and here our discussion takes a fascinating turn into the delights of Tosti's songs (particularly the French ones which are rarely done).

As a result of Rosenblatt Recitals, he has got to know many of the singers, with some becoming friends and staying with him when they are in London. So he and his wife (Emma) have a lot of singers in and out of the house, and he is surrounded by amazing voices.

Rosenblatt Recitals' 2016/17 season continues on 9 May 2017 at the Wigmore Hall with a recital by Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen, and the season finishes with a recital by the Argentine bass Nahuel di Pierro (5 June 2017)

Rosenblatt Recitals on Planet Hugill

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