Wednesday 26 July 2006

Tallinn Bound

So tomorrow morning, the first contingent of our choir travels out to Tallinn in preparation for our concert on Saturday evening at the Lutheran Cathedral then on Sunday morning we'll be singing at morning service at the Charles XI Church. The repertoire is basically that of our recent London concert (Sisask, Britten, R.R. Bennett, Byrd, Parsons, Merulo, Bassano) with the addition of some extra pieces (Bruckner:Os Justi, Vagn Holmboe:Liber Canticorum Vol 5, Purcell/Sandstrom:Hear my Prayer).

I'll report further when we get back.

Tuesday 25 July 2006

This month's Opera magazine

Some gleanings for this month's opera magazine:-

Charles Osborne's article on George Bernard Shaw's music reviewing has some rather nice one-liners. My favourite was:-

Miss Nordica turned Elsa of Brabant into Elsa of Bond Street by appearing in a corset.

But it is also interesting where Osborne compares Shaw's comments on singers to their recorded legacy. But other singers did not leave a record to compare to Shaw's criticism. So we are left wondering whether Ilma de Murska's voice 'was not unjustly compared to an old tin kettle' or Tamberlik has 'certain traditional phrasings which the old fashioned training used to knock into singers, usually knocking the voice out of them at the same time.

There was some discussion in the letter pages about interval length. We have noticed that the intervals at Covent Garden seem to have got longer since the rebuild.
I rather agree with the correspondents who would prefer the minimum of intervals. Given the cost of the catering at Covent Garden, I don't see why we should feel confined to the theatre for interminable intervals when there is no need.

Another subject of correspondence is the use of Sign Language interpreters simultaneously with sur-titles. Wendy Ebsworth, who signs for ENO and Covent Garden
makes the valid point that at Sign Language interpreter tries to include far more information than simply summarising the text, they also try to include info relating to more subjective things. A rather interesting point. Its easy for those of us that hear to dismiss the subject of signing, I'd like to hear from someone who actually uses the signing information to find out their views.

In Paris, the Opera-Comique cast Laurence Janot as the heroinhe in their new production of Oscar Straus's Drei Walzer/Les Trois Valses.
She seems to be quite a find, because she started out life as a ballerina before going on to become a soprano. Now that sounds like a brilliant combination for a lot of modern stagings.

And in Cologne, they've just done the Ring in 2 days, complete! The first 2 operas on the first day and the 2nd 2 operas on the next day. Sounds like a rather intense experience. I've always rather fancied the opposite, spreading the longer operas over multiple days with lots of dinner intervals. Rather than starting Götterdammerung at 4.30pm, why not start it at 2.00pm.

At Karlsruhe they gave the first European staging of Handel's Lotario, 277 years after its premiere! And in Mannheim, the opera are reviving a number of operas which lead to Gluck's reform opera. We tend to remember, just, Gluck and Calzabagi's reform operas but conveniently forget that other, lesser, masters did experiments which lead to that goal. The latest to be staged is Traetta's Sofonisba,
complete with the heroine's suicide on stage. Interestingly, the Mannheim stage also saw the premiere of Schiller's play, Die Räuber, which was the basis for Verdi's I Masnadieri.

Houston have done a new production of Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea. Whilst I can understand that to do this opera on a large scale stage requires some compromise, I feel that in this day and age replacing Nerone by a tenor (rather than a mezzo-soprano) is completely unforgivable. Is sends out all the wrong signals, saying that the look of the piece with a male protagonist is more important than the composer's musical lines. Its one of my betes noire, this use of tenors in roles like Nerone. I have seen a number of truly impressive productions with either a mezzo or a counter-tenor in the role of Nerone, so I see no need to re-write
Monteverdi unnecessarily.

Rodney Milnes's review of Thais at Grange Park Opera is one of those occasions when you wonder whether we were at the same performance. It is fascinating how some productions seem to bring out contrasting points of view in critics, whereas others get them all agreeing. Mind you, there have been occasions where all the print critics seem to have agreed and I have found myself in a minority of 1 (well 2 actually, as my partner and I usually seem to agree on our general view of a production).

Michael Kenndy's review of Show Boat at the Albert Hall is the sort of review which makes me long to have seen the production. I'm no great lover of opera in the round, but I think that we'll be booking for Showboat if they do it again (they must!) at the Albert Hall.

In the CD reviews there is a review of an opera by Gossec, someone I've heard of, but whose music is not familiar to me. Amazingly, he was a protege of Rameau AND was on the panel that failed to give the Prix de Rome to Berlioz in 1826, how's that for longevity.

On the back page Peter Alward remembers Rita Hunter in exactly the same way that I remember her. Interestingly he notes that whilst her voice was not over-large it had a focus which meant that her tone could be heard over the heaviest of orchestrations. One of my abiding memories of her is the wonderful gleaming quality of her voice. She is still sorely missed and it is difficult to see that any particular singer nowadays can sing the repertoire with the same sense of line and lack of struggle.

Something Old, Something new

I've been working on my new choral setting of Isaiah chapter 6 (the piece is still without a name) and started to realised that parts are starting to sound a bit like The Testament of Dr. Cranmer. I'm not quite half way through the Isaiah piece and its the sort of time when all sorts of doubts occur and you can become convinced that you are writting complete drivel. All you can do is continue and then revise later, in the clear light of day. So I'm going to assume that this is another aspect of this problem and now worry too much about pieces sounding alike. After all, I can hardly create a brand new sound world for each piece, can I?????

Recent CD Review

My review of Emma Kirkby's recital (with Fretwork) of Byrd consort songs is here on MusicWeb International.

A varied well-chosen programme, beautifully sung and played. Lovers of
this repertoire will want to buy Robin Blaze’s fine Hyperion disc as well,
but if you just choose one then you won’t go far wrong with this. ...

Monday 24 July 2006

Toilers at the coal-face of music

An interesting article in The Times here about the work of the BBC Symphony Chorus. The hook for the article is the musically inexperienced hack joining the chorus for the performance of the Dvorak Te Deum (rightly termed tedium by chorus members, I did it myself whilst in the London Philharmonic Choir). But still, at least he (Neil Fisher) does make it clear how much work and committment is required of the singers in such choirs. One of the reasons why I dropped out of the London Philharmonic Choir was the fact that a Sunday evening performance effectively required almost the entire weekend to be devoted to rehearsal, fun but hard work.

One thing that Neil Fisher fails to note, in the Dvorak the choruses repeated use of the word fac on its own caused a great deal of ribald hilarity.

Recent CD Reviews

My review of Alan Davis's disc of Handel's recorder sonatas is here.

And my review of Roberto Alagna's recital of French operatic arias is here.
Both on Music Web International.

Alagna brings to each aria his familiar intelligence and musicality. Don’t
throw out your Georges Thill recitals, but definitely buy this one as well. ...

Thursday 20 July 2006

Displacement activity

I've finished the piano reductions for my 2 new works, the new mass and the new piece for London Concord Singers 40th Anniversary, Ursi Carmina. So these pieces are now to the side, awaiting a trial sing through which I have planned . (I've managed to bribe a number of friends with the promise of food and we're getting together in August to try the new mass out and whatever else we can fit in.)

So I really ought to be getting back to writing the motets for Volume 2 of Tempus per Annum; I've just finished the 3rd Sunday after Easter but have plenty of Sundays to get through until I reach Pentecost (the planned terminus of this volume). Also, I've still got my tone poem based on the Sylvia Townsend Warner's short story.

But of course, I'm not doing either of these. Having had terrible toothache for the last week I have been indulging myself and now have started yet another piece, this one is a choral setting of Isaiah Chapter 6, King James Version but in my own stripped down version. I heard a chunk of it at church some time ago and was struck by the possibility of the Holy, Holy, Holy calls etc. All I have to do, of course, is get it finished before I have another bright idea.

Tuesday 18 July 2006

What's in a name

I've just been listening to a disc of Charles Avison's Concerti Grossi. He's a composer who is only just really coming into his own with a large repertoire of unrecorded pieces. But it's not his pieces that concern me here, its his name. Avison was born and brought up in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Though he met and had lessons with Geminiani in London, Avison spent most of his working life in Newcastle.

Ever since I first came across his work, many years ago, I have been perturbed by the standard pronunciation that his name receives in the English musical establishment. It is de rigeur to pronounce his name with a long ay sound, so that the A of Avison rhymes with bay, literally Ay-vis-son. But as a Northerner (albeit one further south than Newcastle) I have always felt that the first A should be short as in cat. I have tried this out on various friends who were born in the area and they all agree with me. But of course I might be wrong. What is strange, is that there is no discussion of the issue anywhere. Is this another manifestation Southern English cultural Imperialism or am I just plain wrong?

Monday 17 July 2006


Well, we have discovered an unexpected pleasure to start our week's holiday in August. We will be spending the last week in August exploring the pleasures of the Edington Festival of Music in the Liturgy, but on the Saturday we arrive Dorset Opera are performing Herodiade at Bryanston School in Blandford Forum, which is not a million miles from where we are staying.

Dorset Opera use professional soloists and orchestra but the back-stage crew and chorus are made up of volunteers, all of whom have undergone a 2 week summer-school to train them. They have a track record for doing interesting things and this year is no different, Massenet's pseudo-Biblical opera Herodiade with Rosalind Plowright in the title role, directed by William Relton.

It sounds like a grand start to the holiday and a remarkably contrast to the musical repertoire for the rest of the week.


Now is the time of year when choral activities tend to start winding down. Mid-July is usually the last London concert of the season for my choir, London Concord Singers. But now that we go off abroad each year, things continue. So having had a successful concert on Thursday at St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church, Chelsea, we are continuing to rehearse for our trip to Tallinn at the end of this month.

Thursday's concert went very well, I even sang the solo tenor part in the solo quartet in Britten's Hymn to the Virgin. It was rather too hot and contrary to the usual expectation, the church seemed to retain the heat. But now, a slightly smaller group of up will be rehearsing a slightly revised version of the concert to take to Estonia.

Tidying up

I'm always a bit lax when it come to keeping my web-site up to date, especially when referring to the lists of forthcoming and past performances. Anyway I've just done all my house-work and the site is now fully up to date. There are one or two projects coming up which are not finalised so no doubt the site will be out of date again soon. All we have to do now is make sure that my most recently premiered works are now uploaded onto my publisher's site; for this I have to produce copy and images of the printed music to go with the works, so its yet more work. Perhaps next week.

Saturday 15 July 2006

Covent Garden Ring Cycle

Covent Garden have announced details of their Ring Cycles for 2007, the first time the new Keith Warner production will have been done complete. They are doing 3 cycles (starting on 2nd October, 17th October, 26th October). Lisa Gasteen and John Treleaven return as Brunnhilde and Siegfried with Philip Langridge as Loge and Rosalind Plowright as Fricka. Bryn Terfel does Wotan in Cycles 1 and 3 with John Tomlinson as Wotan in Cycle 2. Placido Domingo is doing Siegmund in Cycles 2 and 3 with Simon O'Neil in the role in Cycle 1; Eve-Maria Westbroek is Sieglinde; Peter Sidhom, Alberich.

We have until November to decide whether to go or not. Having seen the production in parts I am in 2 minds about seeing it, but doing a complete Ring cycle in a week is a very special sort of event which can transcend the problems of the individual production. Even so, my disappointment with the last Act of Gotterdammerung has rather coloured my view of the work.

More Queering the Pitch

Apart from the 2 articles I've already mentionned (on Handel and Schubert), "Queering the Pitch", edited by Philip Brett, Elizabeth Wood and Gary C. Thomas, has a rather diverse collection of material.

Philip Brett's Musicality, Essentialism and the Closet has, I think, some interesting things to say but is rather densely written. Elizabeth Wood's Sapphonics makes some interesting links between lesbian interest and singers with high mezzo-soprano voices. But the article seems more an assemblage of ideas, a sketch for something more concrete to come. This is not helped by some glaring errors; Salome was not a French opera comique. And her discussion of Ethel Smyth conveniently forgets that Smyth actually did have a passionate affair with Henry Brewster, it was this which informed their opera Les Naufrageurs, (The Wreckers).

There is an interview with Ned Rorem which has some good things to say, though I wish the author, Lawrence D. Mass, had worked it up into a proper essay rather than printing it in question and answer format.

Lydia Hammessly tried to shed light on the reasons why Henry Lawes might have set some of Katherine Philip's woman-centric (proto-lesbian?) poetry in the 17th century. One of those curious little side-lights which can easily get forgotten and which help fill in background and show how little we know. Philip Brett crops up again with an examination of orientalism in Britten's operas.

The article Unveiled Voces:Sexual Difference and the Castrato has some interesting nuggets, but is again rather densely written. It is also written under a pseudonym, Joke Dame, which sounds too jokey in what purports to be a serious publication

These are the more interesting articles, there are also a group which seem to be more about being Gay or Lesbian than real musicology, or what I'd think of as musicology; personal chronicles and attempts to fit the musical world into the gay/lesbian world, or vice versa. Not to mention the article about the music of k.d.lang (or am I being a little too po faced).

Friday 14 July 2006

Castrati again

Well, castratos are certainly in the news at the moment. First the Exhibition at the Handel House Museum, then the TV programme, presumably there's a book on its way somewhere, but now we have the Exhumation.
By a curious chance, or peculiar sense of timing, the news has just been released about the exhumation of Farinelli's body for study as part of a year long project. I just hope that the body is not too decomposed and that the findings, when they are finally published are not just a damp squib.

The Sound of Silence - 3

This part 3 of the article, part 1 is here and part 2 here.

Ellen Harris does not attempt to fathom Handel’s sexuality. Her book covers all of the Italian chamber cantatas but she prefixes each period with a summary of what we know. Her main discoveries have been about the fascinatingly homosexual/homosocial aristocratic milieu in which Handel wrote his cantatas. Interestingly, when he ceased living with aristocratic patrons and moved into his own house in Brook Street, he stopped writing cantatas. Interestingly, also, Harris argues that when the London Handel re-edited his cantatas composed in Italy for use in London had made a number of subtle changes which removed or obfuscated any possible homosexual/homosocial reading of the cantata or its text.

Harris’s book is pretty substantial, she covers every single one of the Italian continuo cantatas along with many other. Besides discussion the works in context she provides a good chronology for the cantatas along with the texts and translations of the continuo cantatas. But it her attempts to elucidate the background to the composing of the works that stay in the mind, her discovery of the apparently highly sexual milieu in which Handel wrote them.

There are times when Harris attempts to read too much into the subject matter and background to the cantatas. But with such a careful author as Harris, you come away thinking that there are so many small pointers that there must be something in it.

One final point, we have a tendency to think of Handel as the middle-aged bon viveur of legend. This is the image that most commentators project onto their reconstructions of his personality. But there is another Handel, the young attractive Saxon. Harris includes in her book a reproduction of a now lost image of the twenty year old, Handel. The image of a slim, attractive young man; just the person to capture the hearts and imaginations of randy Cardinals.

Like Handel, with Schubert we are reduced to close readings of small gestures. Granted there are more pointers, such as his close male relationships. And we do have more information than we did for Handel. Most of these issues are covered by Maynard Solomons in his paper “Schubert and the Peacocks of Benvenuto Cellini” (published in 19th Century Music in 1989(. The title is a reference to an entry in his by Eduard von Baurenfeld that Schubert “Schubert somewhat ailing (he needs "young peacocks" like Benvenuto Cellini”. We have never fully elucidated this and Solomons takes is to be a double-entendre and that the peacocks refers to young male sexual partners. This issue of Schubert’s sexuality is one that troubles commentators, despite the increasing consensus. There has even been an article in Early Music which attempts to cast doubt on Solomons paper by denigrating his understanding of Benvenuto Cellini’s Peacocks, but the argument goes far beyond that.

So a recent biography of Schubert went so far as to grudgingly accept that Schubert was at least bisexual, but there has never been a study of how this might affect our view of his music. This is where Susan McClary’s article in “Queering the Pitch” sheds some light on the issue. She does not rehearse the pro’s and cons of the argument, instead she considers things from a musical point of view, examining the musical construction of some of the later works.

We cannot now know for certain what Handel or Schubert’s sexual proclivities were. But I think that it is important for us to accept that the record is silent on the subject and not to try and fill the silence with noise of our own making. That the vision of Handel as a vigorous, heterosexual man must be just as much a figment of a biographer’s imagination as the image of him pursuing choirboys under the watchful eye of an Italian Cardinal.

Thursday 13 July 2006

The Sound of Silence - 2

The first part of this article is here.

If we turn to the evidence on Handel, there is little detail and the musicologist must try any read much into little. I had always assumed that Handel was heterosexual on the basis of the 2 surviving comments about his affairs. The Electress of Hanover’s comment, in a letter to her daughter, that Handel was coming to town with Vittoria Tarquini and that they were in a liaison. Unfortunately there is little else to link Handel and Vittoria, it is not even certain whether she was even in his opera, Rodrigo, in Venice at the time. The 2nd comment is a marginal note by George III in his copy of Mainwaring’s biography, to the effect that Handel tended to have affairs within his own circle of musicians.

Both the early books on Handel, Mainwaring’s biography and Hawkins’s A General History of the Science and Practice of Music treat the subject with some curious circumlocutions which Gary C. Thomas convincingly argues were being used to cover up Handel’s real sexual preferences. But of course this is all subjective.

What is possibly more telling is the resounding silence in the rest of the evidence? Though Handel’s autographs survive in large quantities, indicating that he took a degree of care of his papers, we have hardly any personal effects. The lack is so considerable that it would seem to indicate a definitive removal of material rather than sheer carelessness.

We must be careful, at this stage, not to read too much into the silence; not to rush in with sounds of our own making. After all, there are examples of other figures who chose to ensure that their personal papers were destroyed simply out of a sense of privacy. Elizabeth Gaskell was one of these, she requested that her daughters destroy all of her letters and papers – and she had nothing particular to hide.

In Handel’s case, we are reduced to close readings of various statements of his biographers. This is the nub of Gary C Thomas’s essay in “Queering the Pitch”

These are subtle readings and it is difficult to be sure, but the most interesting aspect remains the determination of commentators to project their own concerns into the silence.

To be concluded tomorrow

Recent CD Review

My review of Roberto Alagna's Berlioz recital is here on Music Web International.

Berlioz sung by a singer of great musicality but this recital is a little too
bitty for comfort. ...

Wednesday 12 July 2006

The Sound of Silence - 1

I’ve recently been reading 2 books that shed some interesting side-lights on the subject of composers and their sexuality. The first is new, Ellen Harris’s "Handel as Orpheus: Voice and Desire in the Chamber Cantatas" and the second is quite old, but was ground breaking, "Queering the Pitch", edited by Philip Brett, Elizabeth Wood and Gary C. Thomas.

The first is essentially a survey of Handel’s Italian chamber cantatas but Harris has found some interesting links between the cantatas and their begetters which seem to derive from a homosexual mileu. The second book is an assembly of essays by gay musicologists and whilst many of them are ephemeral, two in particular strike resonances, Gary Thomas’s essay on Handel’s sexuality ("Was George Frideric Handel Gay?": On Closet Questions and Cultural Politics) and Susan McClary’s essay "Constructions of Subjectivity in Schubert’s Music" on Schubert’s music and his possible sexuality.

The first question that you might ask is does all this matter? To many commentators, the dwelling on the possibility that a composer such as Handel or Schubert might be gay or re-assessing Beethoven’s attitude to women, says more about the writer’s attitude to sexuality than to informed opinion about the relevant composer.

Unfortunately there is a resounding silence in the archives when it comes to detailed information about the sexuality of many 18th century figures. Not only this, but 18th / 19th century habits are not 21st century ones and close male friendships can be read in a variety of ways (see Alan Bray’s books on these matters, "The Friend" and "Homosexuality in Renaissance England"). The fact that Schubert lived for most of his life with a close male friend can be read as proof of his being gay, but against this another commentator can provide examples of how men did develop close, non-sexual relationships. A further area of dispute is the tendency of heterosexually inclined commentators to take the example of one relationship with a woman to be proof that the person in question was heterosexual.

The hetero/homo-sexual identities really only developed in the mid 19th century though they were starting to in the 18th. For many people in Handel and Schubert’s times, there was no such thing as sexual identity, simply sexual acts. And acts with persons of one sex did not preclude acts with persons of another.

What we end up with is defining relationships according to that dread word, homosocial. A word coined to enable us to say that someone’s relationships are predominantly male orientated and could possibly involve sexual relations, but they might not. (see the Wikipedia entry)

Though modern commentators might regard themselves are balanced and enlightened, it is unfortunately true that most, when writing on their chosen subject, fill the resounding silence of the subject’s sexual identity with detail of the commentators own imagining.

To answer the question, does it matter? The answer is yes, because the issue seems to matter so much to other commentators. If everyone would let well alone, perhaps it would be different. But they don’t. Paul Henry Lang in his biography of Handel invented a whole series of female liaisons for Handel, apparently because he could not be content with the speaking quality of the silence around Handel’s sexuality. Similarly, Donald Burrows in the recent biography refers to Handel’s possible relationship with Vittoria Tarquini as "the only rumour of a sexual liaison during Handel’s career for which there is sufficient evidence to deserve serious consideration". The fact that this biography was written after Brett’s article would seem to indicate a side-swipe at the article. But apart from this comment Burrows keeps a magnificent silence on Handel’s relationships. Whereas Jonathan Keates says "The assumption that as a lifelong bachelor must perforce have been homosexual is untenable in an eighteenth century context, when the vagabond life of so many musicians made marriage a hindrance."

Perhaps even more tellingly, Susan McClary in her essay on Schubert in "Queering the Pitch" tells of her presentation of her paper about Schubert’s sexuality to the 1991 annual Schubertiade at the 92nd Street Y in New York The audience were just unable to accept even the possibility of Schubert’s being gay.

Part 2 to follow tomorrow.

Tuesday 11 July 2006

Final Run

Tomorrow is the final rehearsal for the London Concord Singers concert on Thursday, at St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church, Cadogan Street, Chelsea. We're doing a rather interesting (singers code for challenging) programme of music by R.R.Bennett, Sisask and Tormis plus a selection of early motets. Usually with such a programme you get one chance only to get things right, but this time we get more than one as we're taking many of the works to Tallinn at the end of July.

Monday 10 July 2006

It never stops

Having vowed I was going to have a rest from planning concerts, after my recent Chelsea Festival Concert coming on top of the concerts we did in March, I am already having ideas about possible future concerts. But I'm going to try very hard to not act on any of the ideas. At least just yet. Its just that events and things conspire against me.

I've been thinking of doing a programme, with a small group of people and wanted a hook to hang the programme on. This got me thinking about verse anthems and Orlando Gibbons. It turns out that a friend as access to a selection of Gibbons anthems and recently gave me scores to 3 of them, they'd been edited by a friend of hers. So now I've got no excuse. Prior to that, we'd recently done This is the Record of John at church and it has set me thinking about doing these verse anthems with voices singing the viol parts worldlessly - probably sacrilege I know, but I rather fancy having a go.

Then yesterday at church (St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church, Cadogan St. Chelsea), we sang Palestrina's Mass Aeterna Christi Munera, one of my favourites and I happened to read the editor's introduction in our vocal score. It talked about the possibility of transposing the work down and singing it with ATBaB, which chimes in with another idea I'd had. I've been rather taken with Andrew Carwood and the Cardinall's Musick's recording of the Byrd Masses with the 4-part mass transposed down. This had set me thinking about doing a concert with no sopranos, just alto, tenor, baritone and bass. Familiar music but heard in an unfamiliar way. Another staple at St. Mary's is Gascogne's lovely motet Caro Mea and this is another work which I think would take to downward transposition. Not sure if either of these concerts will come off, but at the moment its fun to plan.

Of course, I'd like to do Crossing again soon, having premiered it at the Chelsea Festival. That performance was rather limited by the logistics of performing with organ at St. Mary's Cadogan Street (the sight lines are less than ideal and the distance between console and conductor rather large). So it would be nice to do it again soon in a venue more conducive to performance with organ accompaniment. Then again, I'd like to revive my Requiem, this time performing it alternating movements with organ music by Messaien or Dupre. The list is endless.

I am also starting to assemble the libretto for a work based on Isaiah Chapter 6, mainly because I was rather taken with its language. I'm probably going to set the King James Version, but I need to read a couple of others first, just in case.

One final thing that's bubbling around is a work based on the idea of the resurrection. But I need to try and come up with an interesting selection of texts, so that might have to wait.

Photograph of Constanze Mozart

Rather amazingly the Guardian carries a story about a photograph of Mozart's widow Constanze. Apparently taken in 1840, it shows her with a friend and his family. She was born in 1762 so would have been 78 when the picture was taken. The picture does not really tell you much about her, she looks amazingly severe and is looking down. But of course, all early pictures are a miracle because of the long exposure time, sitters rarely look natural. But there is something haunting about looking at a photograph rather than a drawing or painting. And to see a photograph of the wife of someone who is so associated with the 18th century is just amazing.

Sunday 9 July 2006


We finally got around to watching the movie version of Chicago the other night. I was surprised at how successful it was and how much I enjoyed it. I know that, nowadays, actors can get a lot of technical help when it comes to singing but Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renee Zellweger and Richard Gere impressed me with the confidence of their singing and the way they seemed to be able to do something with the song.

But the element of the film that I enjoyed the most was the way that it returned the staging of the musical numbers to their Vaudeville roots. Kander and Ebb's original songs are each cast in the form of a particular genre of Vaudeville song, right through to Roxy Hart's husband's soft shoe shuffle, Mr Cellophane This is something that is completely ignored in the stage version current in London (originally staged by Bob Fosse I think) with its emphasis on what it likes to think is sexy choreography.

The film is not perfect, but I loved the way Rob Marshall blended the Vaudeville with the more naturalistic bits. It was pure film and would be impossible to do on stage, which was brilliant as a more stage bound production would not have worked so well.

King Arthur

Mark Morris's production of King Arthur on Friday, at ENO was more enjoyable than some reviews had led me to believe but also less than it might have been.

The set was very plaing, just consisting of a few drop curtains, the odd platform, free-standing doors and a selection of props. It opened with the cast coming in and sitting in a circle. Some had partial costumes as if rehearsing for King Arthur. Whilst they sang the solos in the opening choruses to Woden, the dancers filed past as if creating a processing of warriors, but in rehearsal costume. The chorus were in the pit.

Each scene was staged like this, the dancers in rehearsal costumes, the singers in a variety of wigs and partial costumes. Each episode was staged appropriately but there was no dramatic linkage between them, no connective tissue. It was almost as it we were watching a the movements of a ballet where the linkage between movements was the dance itself. This was emphasised by the banishing of the chorus to the pit.

This was a shame, because in the production of Rameau's Les Paladins which came to the Barbican, dance was to the fore and the chorus was integrated with the dancers. I was not too keen on the production of Les Paladins but far prefer their method to Mark Morris's banishment of the chorus.

The treatment of the chorus is understandable, perhaps, because the production is a co-production between ENO, New York City Opera and others so must be mountable in a variety of different companies. Economics probably mean that it is impossible to do the work to integrate each different opera chorus into the production.

The result, though billed as opera and organised by ENO, was to make it seem as if we were watching a dance work which happened to have singers in it as well.

This was a great shame because an opportunity was missed. Mark Morris's choreography can at times seem obvious and trite but there were moments in King Arthur where he matched Purcell's rhythms beautifully. In the long chorus about lovers for instance, the singers (in a variety of deshabille) were on a platform and turned the the audience in groups as the dancers moved around them. The result was satisfying and rather moving. I began to wish that someone had had the guts (and the money) to stage the semi-opera properly with suitable regard for the dramatic scene changes necessary with Mark Morris doing the movement. The result could have been stunning rather than just satisfying.

In the Cold-Genius section, Andrew Foster-Williams sang from inside a fridge freezer, which was an amusing wheeze. My main complaint was the Foster-Williams was encouraged to force his tone in the opening, cold bits, which affected his tuning and destroyed the sense of line in Purcell's music.

For the final section of the work, after the plot has finished and the celebrations start, where Purcell and Dryden create a celebration of England, Morris (and costume designer Issac Misrahi) place the set pieces in the context of a circus. I think this was just a decision, just a way of presenting the disparate elements but it did contain an element of send-up. The dancerscostumes themselves were rather imaginative and had an element of nostalgia. For Fairest Isle Morris calmed down and had Mhairi Lawson just sitting on a plaform in front of a tree, the result looked very Jackanory! For the final, glorious Chaconne, Morris again hit on the perfect complement (and compliment) to Purcell's music and produced a bold and complex Maypole dance.

The singing was uniformly excellent and the cast, especially James Gilchrist, had to put up with some pretty odd wigs and costumes. Gilchrist had a wonderful knack of making his tenor ring round the Coliseum without it ever seeming forced; the perfect way to sing Purcell in this big house. The other stand-out singers was Mhairi Lawson who managed to project perfect Purcell singing whilst chaos went on around her; though there were moments when her smile seemed to become rather too fixed.

Jane Glover was in charge in the pit and musically this was a superb evening. Chorus, Orchestra and Soloists gave us a fine version of Purcell's music, if you closed your eyes you could be in heaven. It was only Dryden who was turning in his grave.

Friday 7 July 2006

An interesting article in the Guardian by Robert Thicknesse about his attempt to reconstruct what a Greek chorus would sound like by getting Roxana Panufnik to write something using the reconstructed rules of Ancient Greek composition. Unfortunately, its being broadcast on Tuesday July 11th at 1.30pm (on BBC Radio 4) which precludes listening for many of us.

We're off to ENO tonight for our last opera of the season, Purcell's King Arthur in the new production by choreographer Mark Morris. He's dumped the Dryden text and reviews have been many and varied. I look forward with interest, but I'm not holding my breath.

Recent CD Review

My review of Le Jeu de Robin et de Marion is here on MusicWeb International.

Very much a mixed bag, but certainly a worthwhile attempt. ...

Thursday 6 July 2006

Decisions, decisions

The booking form has arrived for the Royal Opera House Winter season. This includes the new production of Donizetti's La Fille du Regiment, starring Juan Diego Florez and Natalie Dessay. Colin Lee is singing one performance and having seen him do an aria from it at the concert at Grange Park last Sunday, we are very tempted to hear him do the role live. But we also want to see Florez and I don't thing the budget runs to both (front Amphitheatre seats are £61.


I've not yet managed to get to the exhibition on Castrati at the Handel House Museum but last night's TV programme on BBC4 gave an excellent preview of the subject. Presented by counter-tenor Nicholas Clapton (who has curated the exhibition), gave a fine over-view of the subject but was prevented from being rather dry by the more gruesome aspects of the subject. We had a detailed description from Clapton about exactly how the op. could be done. A segment where Clapton visited Farinelli's grave was a bit unnecessary.

What made the programme fascinating though, was the inclusion of quite a bit of technical detail about the castrato voice. First they played the same piece of Handel sung by a treble, a mezzo-soprano and by Clapton himself. This was interesting, though throughout the programme the recording seemed to do Clapton's voice no favours, which was a shame. He has a warm voice, with a pronounced vibrato and it was this latter which came to the fore in the TV programme, though I'm sure heard live he sounds more relaxed.

The programme used a technical specialist from York University to describe the mechanism of the castrato voice and to attempt to synthesize the voice by combining recordings of existing singers.The recordings for these involved a treble and a tenor singing the same aria. The tenor first sang an octave lower and then bravely managed to sing the aria at pitch in full voice, no falsetto.

One interesting curiosity was a young American male singer whose voice did not fully develop at puberty so his vocal chords are not as thick or as long as an ordinary adult male. The resulting sound is rather feminine sounding, due to his training I expect, but he has rather more depth of colour at the higher end of his range than a falsettist.

At the end of the programme they played the synthesized voice, it did not quite sound like a live voice but it successfully sounded other worldly and strange, though a combination of tenor and treble it did not quite sound like either.

The subject of Moreschi, the only castrato to be recorded, came up during the programme and they played one of his recordings. He was quite old when the recording was made and his technique owed much to the 19th century way of doing things, so his recordings sound a little strange to us. One point they did not raise, which came up once in a BBC Radio 3 programme was that he could actually have been a falsettist, specialising in singing high; masquerading as a castrato as at the time of his youth this had more kudos in the Sistine Chapel Choir. I've no idea whether this theory is valid or not.

Wednesday 5 July 2006

Recent CD Review

My review of George Malcolm's recording of the Handel Concerti Grossi is here on MusicWeb International.

Not too many modern instrument performances of these concertos in the
repertoire … this one has been re-issued at an attractive price. If in doubt,
do try it. ...

Reductio ad absurdam

I seem to be in piano reduction mode at the moment. I'm doing one for my new piece Ursi Carmina which is going to be premiered on Nov. 18th at the London Concord Singers 40th anniversary concert. I am also scheduled to do one for my new mass (now complete, hurrah). I find it is useful therapy doing these as playing through the resulting part can result in all sorts of interesting ideas cropping up. I also provides an alternative view of the shape of the piece.

Now that the new Mass is complete (well, in the first draft) I need to find a name for it. Calling it Mass in A minor seems rather a cop out, especially as though each movement starts in A minor, they very rarely stay in that key very long. The Mass is built round the renaissance idea of each movement starting from the same incipit. So perhaps, Incipit Mass (????), or even Mass which starts in A minor - this might sound better in Latin, I suppose.

Despite the wonders of modern technology, I'm curious to hear the new mass sung by real voices so hope to have a sing through in August. I'll report back!

Tuesday 4 July 2006

On Sunday we made our final visit to Grange Park Opera, this time for a recital rather than an opera. Using the set for their production of L'Elisir d'Amore, complete with tea waggon, Bruce Ford, accompanist Ian Burnside and sundry Friends gave the first recital to be hosted on the Grange Park stage.

Bruce Ford started with a group of Italian salon songs, 3 by Mercadante and 1 each by Gomes, Donizetti and Rossini. I must confess that I have a rather small appetite for these songs and was rather impatient for the bigger fare. It was perhaps not helped that Ford's voice has developed a pronounced vibrato which, though not unattractive, was more suitable to the larger scale items than the more intimate songs.

Janis Kelly, as the first friend sang Elizabetta's opening aria from Donizetti's Maria Stuarda. This is a role that she sang at Grange Park last year and her command of the genre was impressive. She projected a real image of the regal Elizabeth. Though her voice lacks the ideal warmth for this style of music, her command of musical line and fioriture were impressive. Kelly and Ford then followed this with a touching performance of Parigi, O Cara the Act 3 duet from La Traviata.

David Stout was a new fact at Glyndebourne. He has only recently finished on the opera course at the Guildhall. He is singing Papageno in next year's Magic Flute at Grange Park. As a taster of his Mozart he gave us a fine rendition of the Count's aria from Le Nozze de Figaro. I look forward to his Mozart as he has a good sense of line and an appealing stage presence. Finally he and Bruce Ford sang Au fond du Temple saint from Bizet's Les Pecheurs de Perles.

Ford opened the 2nd half with Where'er you walk from Semele and an aria from Kalman's Countess Maritza. Ford displayed his customary elegance in the Handel, but I was did find his vibrato a little intrusive. He managed the switch to operetta very well and sang the Kalman with consumate elegance and style, moving from English to German.

Then Rebecca von Lipinski, who sang the Countess in the current Grange Park Le Nozze de Figaro and who will be singing the First Lady in next year's Magic Flute, gave a rather careful rendition of Come Scoglio from Cosi van Tutte. Whilst it was not the most idiomatic performance, it is much to her credit that she did not come to grief in this most taxing aria.

Then Colin Lee made his single appearance in the evening. Lee is singing Nemorino in the current Grange Park production of L'Elisir d'Amore but in the new year he will be sharing the role of Tonio in La Fille du Regiment with Juan Diego Florez at Covent Garden. As a taster for this he sang Ah, mes ami, Tonio's stunningly taxing aria complete with its row of 6 top C's. Lee's performance was truly brilliant and appeared quite effortless. I look forward to seeing him at Covent Garden next year. I must confess that, even though it was supposed to have been Ford's evening, I would love to have heard much more of Colin Lee in this type of repertoire.

The remaining 4 singers then concluded with 4 party pieces. All seemed far more relaxed than previously. Rebecca von Lipinski managed something almost as difficult as singing Mozart, bringing off a Noel Coward song. She sang Zigeuner quite beautifully, without ever seeming to overwhelm the song with her trained operatic voice, quite a skill. Bruce Ford the gave us Britten's Ploughboy, Janis Kelly did a lovely version of Paris from Sondheim's Follies, the words altered to fit the occasion with many Grange Park references. Then finally David Stout, who did a degree in Zoology, sang The Bird and the Beast by Celius Dougherty, a composer I had not come across before. Its hilarious text apparently written by a 10 year old boy. Stout proved a very apt performer, again showing an appealing stage presence.

There was one encore, when Stout and Kelly left the audience clamouring for more after there rendition of a Victoria Wood song. The evening was nothing if not eclectic!

The songs were introduced by Ian Burnside and the performers. Whilst this gave a charming intimacy to the evening, it meant we did not have the words. Which was a lack in the foreign language songs. Still,the evening was a charming success and I hope that Grange Park repeat it.

Recent CD Review

My review of Tavener's Lament for Jerusalem is here on MusicWeb International.

While I did not quite believe the extravagant claims made for the piece in
the CD booklet, I enjoyed this performance immensely. If you are
interested in Tavener’s music and like fine singing, then buy this disc. ...

Sunday 2 July 2006

Its our final visit of the season to Grange Park Opera today. Instead of an opera its a recital from Bruce Ford, which should be interesting. He's not someone that I've ever heard in recital.

Review of Nixon in China

My review of John Adams's Nixon in China at the ENO is here on Music and Vision.

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