Thursday 30 June 2005

DDay minus 1

Last night we had the final rehearsal for the Cranmer concert, which is tomorrow night at St. Giles. The rehearsal was in the lovely church of St. Botolph without Bishopsgate. Despite having organised concerts of one form or another for around 25 years I am always full of a mixture of excitement and anxiety when a concert approaches. Last night it was wonderful to hear how my own cantata, The Testament of Dr. Cranmer, and the other pieces such as Mundy's Vox Patris Coelestis came together, thanks to our talented bunch of singers

So now all I have to worry about is the logistics - refreshments, pre-concert run throughs, parking, programmes; and more importantly, where to have a drink afterwards!

Tuesday 28 June 2005

Memories of The Valkyrie

I am making great strides with my listening to the Ring, interrupted periodically with forays in other lands (plainchant, operetta by Kalman). Listening to Die Walküre, many images come to mind. The opening of Act 1 has not been done better than in Richard Jones’s Covent Garden production, where Sieglinde conjures Siegmund up out of the fire. Though the brooding atmosphere of Götz Friedrich’s 2nd production there does takes some beating.

One curiosity with a number of productions, whatever their style, is how the producer manages to reconcile the logistical demands of Sieglinde’s housekeeping with the stylised nature of the production. Wagner’s libretto calls for Sieglinde to produce food and drink etc. for Siegmund and it is rather difficult to ignore these demands completely even though the plates, mugs, bread rolls etc. might sit very oddly with the stylised nature of the set. I’ve seen no-one who managed to make this work really well.

David Pountney’s ENO production of the opera (the only part of his abortive Ring project to come to completion) was notable for the sheer grandness of the surroundings; one friend joked that Pountney had turned the protagonists into Lord and Lady Hunding. It made having a tree embedded in the grand surroundings something rather surreal.

For Act 2, nothing can beat Götz Friedrich mark 1, with Gwynneth Jones singing hojoto’s whilst clambering up the peaks of the landscape which rotated round the stage. Pountney was one of the many producers who tried to turn the Wotan/Fricka dispute into a domestic drama; his version was notable for the coolly poised image of Sarah Walker as Fricka.

In Götz Friedrich mark 2, the Todesverkundigung was marred by the unkindness of the costumes for Gwyneth Jones. The now mature soprano was saddled with going round in a pair of less than flattering leather trousers. One friend reports that the Cherau Ring at Bayreuth had the most moving version of this scene that he'd ever seen; looking at the video it is affecting, but without the special buzz of the live event.

Few producers have managed to make fight at the end of Act 2 entirely convincing. Perhaps this is a case where the magic of film might make this scene easier, when you don’t have to worry about the problems of moving real bodies about and the fact that to fly singers you need cumbersome harnesses.

In Götz Friedrich mark 1, he had the brilliant idea of making the Valkyries look like crows, but this wonderful visual image was partially foiled in the opening to Act 3 because, again, the designers had not taken into account the vagaries of the shape of Wagner sopranos, few of the Valkyries had the requisite shape to do justice to the costumes and one or 2 looked rather risible.

Pountney’s must be the most spectacular staging of the Ride of the Valkyries I have ever seen with the singers having to leap between rotating concentric rings. The whole was thrilling, and brilliantly staged, in a Busby Berkeley sort of way. But I was not sure it said anything about the opera, and the set caused immense problems for the rest of staging. Richard Jones had the brilliant idea of having the Valkyries boiling up the remains of the dead heroes to create brand new ones; something that was re-cycled, with very different imagery, by Keith Warner in his recent Covent Garden production.

For the first ENO Ring, seen at the Opera House in Covent Garden, the whole of the opening of Act 3 was reduced to a dozen pairs of feet as the sight lines were so bad that the Valkyries (and later Wotan) were all but invisible (bar their feet) at the rear of the stage.

Pountney’s complex set meant that Wotan’s Farewell had to take place at rather too great a distance from the audience, which was a shame as he staged this beautifully allowing the singers to do very little.

Allowing the singers to do little paid off in the semi-staging the Royal Opera did at the Albert Hall where John Tomlinson and Hildegard Behrens made character and personal interaction count for very much, their Act 3 was spellbinding.

For the end of the opera we get back to Götz Friedrich mark 1, despite Keith Warner’s real flames recently at Covent Garden. I could not work out why Keith Warner had place the scene in what looked like a dirty Cinema foyer; perhaps our acquaintance with the further instalments will be more illuminating. Whereas Friedrich, utilising the revolve which played a large part in this Ring, created pure theatrical magic.

Thursday 23 June 2005

Next stage

We had the first rehearsal for the Cranmer concert last night, at St. Giles Cripplegate where we will be performing on Friday 1st. It didn't help my nerves that the church was only opened dead on 7pm so I had visions of us holding the rehearsal in the square outside St. Giles; at least the weather was hot.

Jonathan Cottle came along, so we were able to try out the choir and cello piece properly, it works very well and doesn't sound too much like John Tavener. The 4 Introit Motets from Tempus per Annum seemed to be surprisingly tricky, but I've never been very good at assessing how difficult my music is to sing. But I was pleased with their effect, though not without the odd twinge of worry that everyone will fine them boring; I'm always prone to such anxieties before a concert.

My review of Grange Park Opera's Maria Stuarda is now on the web here complete with some handsome photos. We're off there again on Saturday, to see South Pacifc.

My fit of activity on Monday, writing music with music paper rather than computer (as said computer was defunct) seems to have paid off. I have nearly finished transcribing the results and have 2.5 new motets for Tempus per Annum I'm rather pleased with them, though of course they need their faces wiping a bit before they are really done.

Wednesday 22 June 2005

At last night's Salomon concert

To St. John's Smith Square last night for a concert by the Salomon Orchestra conducted by Robin Ticciati. The orchestra are London's leading non-professional orchestra; having been founded in 1963 by a group of college friends, they were once described as the oldest youth orchestra in existence.

That said, they are an extremely good ensemble and put on some amazing concerts of pretty tricky stuff. Their Strauss Alpine Symphony last year was tremendous, particularly as the size of the orchestra meant that took up a sizeable chunk of the auditorium in St. Johns. They did a concert for me in 2003 when they premiered 3 of my orchestral works and we keep talking about maybe doing another based around my setting of Rilke's 2nd Duino Elegy for baritone and orchestra.

Last night they were conducted by a very young conductor, Robin Ticciati, fresh out of Clare College, but he is certainly a name to watch. If he can produce as fine a performance now of Mahler 5 think what he'll be like in 10 year time. In fact last night seemed to be youth night as the orchestra was joined by Guy Johnston, BBC Young Musician of 2000, for a fine performance of Schumann's Cello Concerto.

It is a long time since I have heard Mahler 5 (its a long time since I've heard any Mahler symphony in concert) and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. D. did as well and I think it might have been his first Mahler, so perhaps we'll be going for more

I note that Damian Thantrey, who sang the title role in the performances of my opera Garrett in 2003, will be doing Mahler's Ruckert Lieder with the orchestra in February (along with the Rachmaninov Symphonic Dances), definitely a date for the diary

In fact there were a number of performers there last night with connections to my music. Besides the members of the octet who accompanied The Young Man and Death in 1998; one of the horns played the solo part in the premiere, at Burgh House, of the first version of my song cycle Songs of Love and Loss, then one of the clarinets played the solo part in the revised version of the song cycle (also at Burgh house, but also recorded at Belsize Music rooms). Another of the horns played the solo part in my cantata Memorare, which was premiered by London Concord Singrs. This cantata has 2 movements in common with Songs of Love and Loss. A remarkable series of coincidences.

Monday 20 June 2005

Grange Park (again)

Re-reading the reviews, so far, of this year's operas at Grange Park I am struck again by how often the country house milieu seems to imbue to critical reaction. I don't think that Garsington Opera suffers from quite the same image problem, though they do get some critical reviews. Perhaps because Garsington's programming cannily mixes in a number of rarities (Rossini and Richard Strauss) which appeal to critical sensibilities. Perhaps also, because Garsington engage better (or better known) conductors; orchestral sound is one of Grange Park's weaknesses.

But for us, the great advantage of Grange Park over Garsington or Holland Park is that the opera takes place fully indoors in a theatre which seats just 530; perfect for their chosen repertoire. So for the moment we remain devotees.

Normal Service

The PC engineer came this morning and replaced the motherboard on my PC, so in theory we are now back in business. I spent the weekend writing music on music paper, a very curious experience. Usually I simply scribble on paper and then work the scribble up into a piece of music on the PC.

This week's Classical Music magazine has a large piece on the forthcoming Cranmer concert. It reads very well, but the picture of me is so pink that I look as if I've drunk a couple of bottles of red wine. They have just quoted the St. Giles Cripplegate website as a web link and frustratingly the site was down this morning. Not a good sign.

We went to Grange Park Opera on Sunday. The first of our 2 visits this year. The weather was kind, glorious sunshine and a gentle breeze, which made the the whole experience even more delightful. Northington Grange is such a remarkable place and the new theatre makes such good sense of the surviving buildings

We saw a wonderfully stylish perfomance of Maria Stuarda with Majella Cullagh and Janis Kelly. A stunning evening.

Evidently, next year Grange Park Opera plan to do Massenet's Thais. An opera which I first saw staged by the RNCM as a student in Manchester in (I think) 1974, with Robin Leggate as Nicias. I have always had a soft spot for the piece and look forward to seeing another staging of it.

Thursday 16 June 2005

Crash, Bang, Wallop

This morning I went to my PC at 7.15am as usual, only to discover that there was no power. After lots of investigation I came to exactly the same conclusion. So now its over to Technical Support at PC World. Until then, I'm reduced to doing my emails from the Internet booth's at my Gym, ho hum.

This sent me scurrying to my back-ups, only to discover that the last one of my music is moderately recent but no exactly fresh and that my email database and accounts are way out of date on backup. I always intend to backup regularly, but never quite get around to doing it, till something like this happens.

I've finished the 3rd movement of the Magi piece; I started in the middle, so I set the best known passage of Lancelot Andrewes' sermon first. I have now set to work on the opening. He starts with quoting the relevant scripture passage about the Magi in both English and Latin, cue for a rather fun setting of the 2 passages together, well sort of, in 2 different keys - something I'm always rather fond of.

I've now reached the stage of having all sort of doubts about the piece, and worrying about variety etc.; a phase that always seems to happen.

I've resolved to write some more songs. I keep doing this (resolving to, not actually doing), but always get a bit stumped over lyrics. I can see I'm going to have to haunt the poetry section of the local library

Off to Eugene Onegin at ENO; the delectable Gerald Finley, in the title role, has received fabulous notices.

Tuesday 14 June 2005

Images of the Rhinegold

I am currently listening to a complete Ring cycle for a review; something of a novelty for me, as I rarely listen to the entire Ring in anything like one go. The curious thing about the Ring on disc is how strongly, for me, Wagner’s music evokes the images of past productions that I have seen so that you are listening whilst watching a video compilation of your own making.

For the opening of Rhinegold the image evoked is always the opening of the first Götz Friedrich Ring at Covent Garden which we saw in its last revival in, I think, 1984. Just a bare stage, almost filled be a huge rectangular playing area. Then you think, did it move? Surely it moved. And slowly, as the music builds the rectangle spins faster and faster. The Rhinemaidens scene was less successful, as seen from the rear Amphtheatre. The playing area lifted up to reveal huge mirrors beneath, these reflected the Rhinemaidens, playing beneath the stage. This must have been highly effective in the stalls, as you would just see the mirrors with their wavy images. But we saw the mechanics as well, being high enough up to see the real singers as well.

The best Rhinemaidens that I have seen was probably at Hungarian State Opera where they used lasers for the Rhine and the Rhinemaidens frolicked in a stunning wash of laser light.

It was the Hungarians who gave us a memorable descent into Nibelheim as this scene utilised the whole of their fine stage facilities. The set for Valhalla simply rose, to reveal the set for Nibelheim beneath, so that Wotan and Loge’s descent actually kept them in the same place on stage as the set moved upwards. The only drawback was the faint whirr of the stage machinery acting as a background to Wagner’s music!

For the final scene, memory returns to Covent Garden in 1984. I’m not sure why Götz Friedrich’s stage picture was so evocative, but it has stayed in the memory. The rectangular playing area has converted to a set of steps leading up from the front of the stage to the distant image of Valhalla at the rear. As the Gods climb up, stepping over the Fasolt’s body, they walk in a stylised manner. It might have been the age of the set, or it might have been Friedrich’s intention, but it seemed somehow appropriate that the Valhalla was a rather dusty and not at all the gleaming halls of the imagination.

I’ve just started listening to Valkyrie, so no doubt more images will be occurring to me.

Monday 13 June 2005


We went to see Handel's Jephtha at the Coliseum last week. Sitting in the 4th row of the stalls, we had few complaints about the audibility of the words though the chorus could have worked rather harder to project the text. Still, I'd be curious to know how the text sounded in other parts of the house

My review of the opera is now up on Music and Vision

Thursday 9 June 2005

A Word in Your Ear

So, it seems that ENO are finally planning to introduce surtitle (see article in The Guardian). This has long been on the cards and, given the Coliseum's rather intractable acoustics, not surprising.

The news caused me to cast my memory back to the so called 'glory days' when you could hear the singers' words. I saw the ENO regulary on tour as student in Manchester in the early '70s. We were poor, so we sat at the back of the Gods in the Opera House. And, I'm afraid to say, words rarely made it up to that level. We were heavily reliant on the printed plot summaries in the programmes and the odd word that carried. This was certainly not the direct communication that people sigh about. I have vivid memories of my first 2 instalments of the Ring; many quarters of an hour went by with me wondering what on earth the singers were going on about.

The ENO's reputation for verbal clarity was, I think, based on a quite small group of singers. Even in the stalls or upper circle of the Coliseum, in the 70's and 80's, it could be difficult to hear what some singers were saying. I have heard Josephine Barstow give some superb performances (Octavian, Arabella, Elisabeth de Valois ....) but rarely could understand a word that she sang. By contrast, you seemed to be able to hear every single word that Valerie Masterson sang; she has always been my paragon of textual clarity. I vividly remember a late performance of Der Rosenkavalier with Masterson singing the Marschallin. During the long monologue at the end of the first Act I heard words and phrases that I never heard before or since. She communicated with wonderful clarity and seemed to be speaking directly to you.

It will be interesting to see how the singers themselves react to the presence of surtitles. I await developments with interest.

Tuesday 7 June 2005

Back into the swing

I've just finished tinkering with my song cycle, Quickening. It was written for voice, viola and piano setting Christina Rosetti poems (though bizarrely, we ended up premiering it with a male counter-tenor rather than a woman.

Having been asked, ages ago, if I had anything for female vocal ensemble I conceived the idea of re-casting it for womens voices and piano. I've always liked arranging and re-arranging things; the act of fitting things together so that they appear quite natural rather than being obviously a construct.

The optimum number of singers seemed to be 3, so I have now re-structured the piece for 2 sopranos and a mezzo and piano. I think it works rather well, but there are always bits that rather hit you in the face when you try things out. I've sent the piece off and just have to hope that it is like

Monday 6 June 2005

The Print Shop again

Last week, besides recovering from our holiday, we took delivery of a new printer, another HP Laserjet to replace our existing ailing one. This time, it does double sided printing automatically - bliss.

It proved an unexpected boon as last week I came home to a request to supply 120 copies of one of my motets from Tempus per Annum, to go to America. This on top of printing the flyers for our Cranmer concert.
At first things did not go well with the new printer, but once I'd twigged that it worked better connected via a new USB cable rather than the old printer cable, everything went well. So for a goodly part of last week the new printer showed its mettle by churning out motets and leaflets

Said motets are now duly posted and on Saturday we leafleted various venues around the Barbican, so I have been able to get round to doing something constructive, like writing music again!

Wednesday 1 June 2005

Back Home again

Well we're back home again after a 2 week tour of the Western Isles of Scotland. 2 weeks when we managed to avoid emails and world news. I've come back with a clutch of CD's of Gaelic music. One, bought from the shop at Iona Abbey, is a compilation of historical recordings made by Edinburgh University's School of Scottish Studies, The Carrying Stream, from Greentrax records. A lovely mixture of Gaelic songs, Gaelic Psalm singing and piping, with the odd Scots song and folk tale. A good taster and a fine record of a dying tradition.

Another in the clutch (and currently my favourite), is Salm (pronounce Salam) and Gaelic for Psalm. It is a disc of Gaelic Psalm singing. A distinctive genre, in which a precentor is joined by a congration who sing their own ornamented variants of the melody. So that the result is not a standard uniform hymn singing, but a glorious melange - free heterophony. This disc is not historic, but is a modern attempt to record the best of the tradition, recorded in Back Free Church on Lewis. This volume Salm volume 1 is the first of 2 (or three) and is also available from Greentrax records.

Another disc was less of a success, instead of buying a historical compilation of Pibroch, but turns out to be a compilation of teaching aids with various distinguished pipers speaking and singing in order to teach the Pibroch. It includes a couple of tracks of full piping but was not quite what I imagined and rather a specialised taste. Unfortunately, it will be difficult to find the time to go back to the shop in Portree (on Skye) and ask if I can change the disc!

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