Monday 28 February 2011

A pair of extremely contrasting musical theatre events this weekend. On Saturday to Covent Garden to see a performance of Mark Antony Turnage's new opera Anna Nicole. Then on Sunday we saw Pimlico Opera performing Jule Styne's musical Sugar at HMP Send, with a mixed cast of professionals and inmates.

There is no doubt that Anna Nicole is a terrific show, but I'm not sure whether its a terrific opera. A full review will appear in due course.

Sugar was amazing. Sugar (Victoria Ward), Jerry (Duncan Patrick), Joe (Rob Gildon) and dancers Philippe Reynolds and Adam Scown were the only professionals in the cast with the remaining roles and chorus all being taken by a group of hard working inmates. Being a womens prison of course, this meant that the women played everything, from flappers and floozies, to gangsters and lascivious old men, with remarkable success.

No, the performance wasn't perfect, but the energy and vivacity of the cast were infectious and the gangster were pretty scarily effective.

Michael Moody's production (in Kate Guinness's set) was ingenious, with audience on opposite sides of a rectangle, the beach at one end, the train and the band at the other. The draw back was that sight lines were not perfect and with a mixed ability cast, having the conductor off stage visible only via TV monitor was not ideal. Perhaps Moody felt that the occasional moment of rhythmic instability in the chorus was a small price to pay for such a brilliant use of space.

Toby Purser was the hard working, behind the scenes conductor. Designs were by Kate Guinness and Tania Spooner.

It is a strange experience, going to the theatre in a prison. But the energy, exuberance and sheer enthusiasm of the cast were infectious. I only hope that something of this rubs off when the circus leaves and life gets back to normal routine.

Friday 25 February 2011

From this month's Opera

I see from this month's Opera magazine, that Julian Anderson is writing an opera for ENO, to be premiered in 2013 directed by Pierre Audi. Now that's a combination which certainly sounds interesting and it is great that ENO have secured a production from Audi at long last.It seems to be Anderson's first opera, but he has already demonstrated that he can write sympathetically for voice. The piece is to be based on Sophocles Theban plays, so expect a nice cheerful evening!

Still in a new opera vein, Bejun Mehta is singing the leading role in George Benjamin's new opera for Covent Garden to be premiered in February 2013. His first opera was such a hit that inevitably it will be a hard act to follow, so seeing that Benjamin does in the 'big house' will be fascinating. I can't wait.

And Neil Bartlett, whom I still remember fondly from his days working on the gay fringes of theatre, is directing a new Queen of Spades for Opera North next season, with Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts, Orla Boylan, Jonathan Summers and Josephine Barstow. Quite a cast!

Covent Garden as celebrating the Wagner centenary with a new Parsifal (though I must confess to a sneaking fondness for Bill Bryden's unpopular production). And still on the subject of Wagner, Wim Wenders is cutting his operatic teeth on a new Ring at Bayreuth for 2013, nothing like starting small.

When a Man Knows - Poster

Thursday 24 February 2011

5 weeks to go

Well, its just 5 weeks to go before the first night of When a Man Knows, so we are in the midst of final planning. I have a meeting at the theatre tomorrow with the lighting designer and we're well on the way to sorting out the costumes. We commissioned this mono-print from the artist Geraldine van Heemstra and this is now gracing the posters and will appear on the front of the programmes.

I've just about got the basics of the programme book sorted out, but as it includes the libretto it runs to 16 pages! I now have to start work on producing the instrumental parts. I have already sat down with Finale and extracted the parts and laid them out, though inevitably it seems impossible to find practicable turns for all pages.

And this weekend commences the next batch of publicity.

Oh, and I have started the search for ushers and programme sellers. The list is endless!

Old Theatre programmes

Charlotte Higgins has an interesting post on the Guardian site about what to do with old theatre programmes. Some of mine have been in the attic for 30 years (first my parents attic and now mine). In a fit of enthusiasm I have sorted them into boxes by year and type and am now in the process of cataloguing the opera ones.

This has thrown up some interesting information, casting my eye over the cast lists of the operas we saw at the RNCM when students in the 70's I find that I heard such people as John Rawnsley, Richard Berkeley Steele and Robin Leggate. But there were shocks to, realising that we hadn't seen Norman Bailey as Wotan in The Valkyrie in 1975 (which means of course that though I associated Bailey with the role I never did see him in it).

Monday 21 February 2011

Free-form (1)

I have never been able to improvise, somehow I missed out on this in my early musical training. This despite that fact that one of my uncles played the piano by ear and another cousin played in a band. Perhaps it was that youthful struggles with exams left little room for free-form pianism; this plus that fact that relatively early on I started writing music as well.

My music was fully notated and has always remained so, though it must be confessed that nowadays I sometimes struggle to make our western european notation do exactly what I want to. But I am still rather wedded to the sort of control-freakery that likes to have everything down pat and leaves no note to chance. Of course, this isn't what happens.

I am sufficiently experienced as a performer of both instrumental and vocal music to know that there is a significant gap between notation and experience. A gap which must be filled by the performer. The composer's trick is to notate sufficiently so that what is played or sung matches expectations. My experiences in the last year or so turning my opera into a performed work have been illuminating in this respect.

In September I sat down with David, the musical director of the opera, to go through possible revisions and improvements to the score. One area that we considered in detail was the notation, not the notes but all the other bits and pieces which help to influence how an instrumentalist will play a score.

To a certain extent, it is easier with singers as they will usually react to the words. So that all you need is to take a little extra care with the phrasing. But instrumentalists don't have the words, you must guide them. And this means you have to sit down at the computer and go through the parts, bar by bar, thinking what exactly do I want and how do I achieve this. There are conventions to be taken into account; players of different instruments will react to signs differently, partly by convention and partly through the different physical nature of their instrument.

A superb example of someone who included everything in the score is Elgar. It is fascinating going through his orchestral scores, noting what he has written and working out why. Compare this to the music of Bach and Handel, where dynamics and other notations are rare. This was because Bach and Handel were working within a culture which had very particular ways of playing things so that the barest of notations could be used. That and the fact that both composers tended to direct their own music.

Elgar directed his own music too (and his recordings can be illuminating), but he was writing large scale scores for performance by others when he might not be present. But this late Romantic tendency to notate everything couldn't go one of course, it would make music far too complex. And of course, composers like Lutoslawski decided that allowing an element of chance in the exact notes was perfectly acceptable. Post-war composers have had to make decisions about quite what they want to notate and what not. It is remarkable what can be achieved with a minimum of notation, where the composer is accepting that the performers are co-creators rather than interpreters.

I'm not entirely certain I could go down that route. My background is in Mathematics and I like things neatly prescribed, I want to control the notes that are played. In fact, I would often be happy to dispense with detailed dynamics. But western notation doesn't really faciliate this, there is no easy way of presenting vague, user-selected dynamics; to do so is usually to simply abrogate responsibility and end up making work for the conductor who will have to arrange for parts to be suitably marked up. When it comes to some choral writing, I have often wished that we had a way of specifying not how loud a line was, but which line was dominant and which accompanying so that you could dictate which parts predominated. Quite often my dynamics are simply one solution to the problem, there are others where the relative values remain constant but the absolute ones change (e.g. you could have a loud version and a soft version).

I am aware that sometimes, you end up having to be rather fussy in your use of notation to get what you want. And of course, if there are too many extra markings the performer might get tired and lazy and not apply them all.

So I am still looking for the perfect notation.

Saturday 19 February 2011

Critic as Composer

A few years ago I attended a group of performances of contemporary opera, where over two days I saw 6 short pieces, some fully staged and others just work in progress. My companion at the performances was a librettist with whom I was planning new opera. After the operas, though we had seen much interesting, innovative and lively work, we felt that little of it was opera as we defined it. Instead we saw a variety of dramatised monologues, music theatre pieces and plays with music (dialogue pieces where the musical accompaniment is of more interest than the vocal lines).

My composing background is vocal and choral music though I have worked in cabaret, written musicals and staged one opera. But as a writer and listener, I am intensely interested in opera, its production, historical development and how the genre is developing in the contemporary world. The problem with being both a critic and a composer is that when you have a critical view of a performed work, it is difficult for this not to spill over and for the composer to wonder whether they could do better. Or conversely, when the critic admires a new work, then it can be difficult for the composer not to feel a little jealous. This is a faulty position to take as each composer is different and the process of creating an opera doesn’t occur in vacuo, it arises as complex sequence of events which involve a number of different participants. Very rarely does a composer simply sit down to create an opera and write exactly what sits in their head.

In the past, opera composers were often part of a system. Opera companies routinely produced new work and young composers had access to professional librettists and a variety of potential outlets for their work. The big effect of this was that the composer could learn from failure and go on. This ability to fail has, largely, been lost. Even Wagner, who notoriously tried to control as much as possible during the creation of his operas, had his journeyman period when he worked in opera houses and produced operas which didn’t work first time.

New operas are now rather more major events. Much more hangs off them, putting great pressure on composers to get things right first time. The opera commissioning and producing process is complex and difficult to stop. So there is real danger of work reaching the stage which ought to have been radically altered at birth. I’m sure that we have all attended new operas where we have felt that the work ought to have been performed in a radically different form, the feeling that within an uninspiring longer work, lies a fine short one. Though sometimes the converse can be true, having heard the original and revised versions of Birtwistle’s Gawain, I felt that the piece was stronger in the original and that in the desire for concision something had been lost.

In order to help combat this, the workshop system has developed, so new operas are tried out before full production. Whilst this is laudable in theory, I have attended some contemporary pieces which seem to have been work-shopped to death; the workshop process having gone from enabling a composer to hear their work, to stifling the innovative and dramatic instincts. Composing by committee only really works if the composer has a strong enough personality to dominate the process.

This isn’t something new of course. An opera house like the Paris Opera was a positive machine for producing opera; any composer dealing with it was in danger of losing control. Berlioz remained true to his genius and got his fingers burned with ‘Benvenuto Cellini’ as a result, only composers with strong personalities (or genius which transcended restrictions) such as Rossini and Verdi, produced worthwhile work in this environment.

One problem for the contemporary composer is the lack of professional librettists. With the drop in the number of new operas being produced at major houses, there are few people who specialise in writing opera libretti and have the experience to construct a good libretto. In a recent programme note for George Benjamin’s ‘Into the Little Hill’ it was stated that a successful libretto should feel incomplete, something lacking; the missing element being, of course, the music. Too often modern librettos are all too self sufficient, leaving little room for the composer at all, with a result that the music is merely illustrative. Music in opera should be essential; it isn’t like film music which is just there to heighten emotion.

Post-war opera has been heavily play based, with stage drama being a strong influence on the operatic form. But few composers and librettists are entirely talented at turning a play into a good libretto. Britten and Pears re-construction of Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Nights Dream’ is a paragon in this respect. But what often comes out nowadays is what I call the play with music. Vocal lines are cast as continuous arioso and the orchestra comments on and colours the line. Interest is too often in the orchestra and vocal lines seem to chug along, rather than developing memorable dramatics. This isn’t just a case of tonality versus modernity. Composers of both casts have been responsible for producing uninteresting works. In recent years Harrison Birtwistle, Thomas Ades and George Benjamin have all shown that dramatic operatic work is possible, without talking down to the audience.

What we have lost is the feeling for opera as a distinctive, known form. In the past young composers worked in an environment where it was clear what opera was. This gave them something to match themselves against; and, if they were iconoclasts, something to struggle against. But in the current environment, composers have to invent the form for themselves. To go back to the operas I mentioned at the beginning, there were examples there of composer/librettist pairings attempting to re-invent the form for themselves. But lacking historical insight and perspective, they simply came up with something jejeune. But composers should be allowed to fail and I hope that the composers in question were encouraged to try again, but better.

Two composers whose career path has approached those of opera composers in the past are the late Stephen Oliver and Jonathan Dove. Both of whom have produced a large body of variety work, developing their craft over a period of time. Dove’s opera ‘Flight’ is successful partly because the form used is historically informed, aware of what operatic form has been in the past. And Michael Berkeley’s operas written with David Malouf have been notable for the deft way Malouf’s librettos leave plenty of room for the music.

These thoughts have been very much in my mind because I spent a lot of last two years writing and revising my new opera ‘When a man knows’. Here the critic has to defer to the composer, and is affected by the complexities of the development of opera. Whilst I know that working with an experienced librettist is an ideal, exigencies have meant that I have set my own libretto based on an existing play. In June 2010 we gave a concert performance of the opera as a form of workshop to try out the work before a full production. This generated sufficient enthusiasm for us to repeat the experiment in August 2010 when a director, Ian Caddy, was present. Afterwards I sat down with both Ian Caddy and with musical director David Roblou to talk about changes to the opera before we staged it in March 2011. This was a fairly painful process as it entailed cuts for dramatic purposes. All composers are subject to the desire to keep music because they are fond of it, rather than because it is essential to the opera. In fact we lost only around 5 minutes of music, and I did manage to keep some dear old friends, but the resulting opera is tighter and more dramatic. You’ll be able to find out when we stage the piece at the Bridewell Theatre on March 31st.

So the critic as composer finds himself breaking his own rules. The most that the composer can hope for is that the new work will have a dramatic life of its own, that it will move audiences to laugh and cry in the right places.

Friday 18 February 2011

Recent CD Review

My review of the Naxos CD of Giles Swayne's choral music is here, on MusicWeb International.

This is contemporary choral music at its best, and it is available at super-budget price.

Wednesday 16 February 2011

Review of Belisario from Chelsea Opera Group

My review of Chelsea Opera Group's performance of Donizetti's Belisario, conducted by Richard Bonynge, is here on Music and Vision (subscription site).

Street Scene

The Young Vic are bringing back their production of Street Scene in the Autumn, from 15 Sep to 1 Oct. We missed it the first time round, so we are looking forward to it this time. Directed by John Fulljames, choreography by Arthur Pita with the BBC Concert Orchestra and the Southbank Sinfonia sharing the honours in the pit (not that the Young Vic actually has a pit).

I first saw the piece in a one-off charity West End performance one Sunday night with a terrific cast which include Janis Kelly as Rose (a role that she would repeat with ENO) and also including various celebrities in smaller roles, Alec McCowen doing a rather nice soft shoe shuffle. The piece had immense power and energy. Something which wasn't quite repeated in David Pountney's production for ENO, with its big set piece production numbers. The first half of the musical is rather long, with so much plot to expound, and Pountney didn't quite solve this. So I'm looking forward to seeing the piece again.

Sunday 13 February 2011

Fairy Queen at the Queen Elizabeth Hall

When originally produced, Purcell's The Fairy Queen was the equivalent of a collaboration between the Royal Opera and the National Theatre with sets which would have been a credit to Cecil B de Mille. In its time it was a popular and fashionable show, raising enthusiasm seen nowadays in musicals rather than more high-brow art.

The problem from our point of view, is that Purcell's music has only a tangential relationship to the play's plot. And of course, the restoration play is only vaguely reminiscent of Shakespeare's original. No amount of research can recapture the original spirit in modern performances. We learn that the scene with the Chinese Man and Woman makes reference to Queen Mary's passion for Chinese vases and orange trees which were King Williams symbol, hence the whole scene would be seen as a compliment to their Wedding Anniversary. This doesn't help us in modern performance, where we struggle to make the finale fit our modern day concepts of how a work should be coherently constructed.

Perhaps we wouldn't struggle with it if Purcell's music wasn't so great. The music, some 2 hours of it, forms a substantial item in its own right but does not quite make a satisfying whole, consisting as it does of a series of disjoint masques with linking numbers. Benjamin Britten attempted to solve the problem by re-ordering and re-shaping the music, but this sort of interventionist approach dropped out of fashion with the period performance movement. Now Philip Pickett and the New London Consort have had another go. At the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Friday they performed The Fairy Queen in a production by the Mexican director Mauricio Garcia Lozano.

Pickett has re-ordered Purcell's music to create a more satisfying and coherent whole. And Lozano has applied a new plot to this. The results could have been rather precious. 9 singers and 5 circus artist come together and travel to Arcadia, after a degree of social and erotic interaction they pair off happily. It is debatable whether Pickett's new ordering of the music is any more satisfactory than before, but I hold no torch for performing the piece exactly as originally; so that if it worked for the New London Consort, then fine.

The programme included detailed back story for all the characters, who were modern day archetypes (the shop girl, the career girl etc.). But frankly, we could just as well have been watching a group of people undergoing some sort of new-age group therapy. The sheer preciousness of the concept could have been annoying, but Pickett and his cast performed Purcell's music with such conviction and with some style, that little else mattered.

Lozano's production utilised suitcases to provide structure and context on stage (there was no set as such). Within this there were some striking moments and some supremely beautiful ones. Ed Lyon's beautiful account of If Love's a sweet passion was followed by I press her hand gently sung by a small group of singers sitting casually at the back of the stage. Simple, but somehow moving.

The main roles were sung by Joanne Lunn, Ed Lyon and Michael George, supported by Dana Marbach, Faye Newton, Christopher Robson, Tim Travers-Brown, Joseph Cornwell and Simon Grant.

Lunn gave a stand out performance, with Juno, Night and the Plaint; this latter performed almost as a piece of catharsis after therapy, which luckily did the piece no harm. Lyon was Autumn and the Chinese Man, bringing what is quite a strong and vibrant voice to bear in a stylish way. Veteran Bass Michael George was of course the drunken Pot, Sleep, Winter and Hymen. George's voice is perhaps not as resonant as it was once but he retains a sense of style in this music, a good range and a strong stage presence.

Dana Marbach and Faye Newton divide the remaining soprano solos, each impressive and appealing with Marbach as a glamorous Femme Fatale singing Mysterie and Spring. Newton was a soprano Mopsa to Simon Grant's Corydon in a straight-forward non-camp version of the duet. Elsewhere Grant was a slightly disappointing Phoebus

Veteran counter-tenor Christopher Robson turned in a hauntingly beautiful solo as Secresie. Timothy Travers Brown was a slightly unlikely Summer, performing the solos as a gay school teacher in shorts. Joseph Cornwell as a middle aged biker provided strong support.

Instead of dancers, Lozano used circus artists from the Circus Space (Kaveh Rahnama, Lauren Hendry, Jose Triguero Delgado, Tink Bruce, Boldo Janchivdorj). These 4 were embedded with the singers forming a seamless blend of characters. The acrobatics proved surprisingly evocative and effective in the dance movements. Never have I seen juggling so poetic.

The singers in the ensemble formed the chorus, sometimes singing en masse and sometimes just 4 voices. Pickett's instrumental ensemble was similarly small, just 1 instrument per part, a total of 15 players.

The performance was surprisingly involving, with all singers contributing stylish accounts of Purcell's music. Whilst one could fault Lozano's production for the preciousness of the concept, the main sign of a good production is surely the strength of the performances the director gets from the singers. on this basis Lozano and Pickett's Fairy Queen was a great success indeed.

Saturday 12 February 2011

Grainger Edition

This year is the 50th anniversary of Grainger's death. Next weekend there is a weekend long commemoration at Kings Place. But also, Chandos have re-issued their Grainger Edition recordings in a glorious 19CD box set, containing some 23 hours of music. Whilst the recordings do not cover every single thing that Grainger wrote, they certainly do give a fine overview of the wonderful breadth of his work. There is an illuminating review of the box set here, on the MusicWeb International web-site. The set is available for around £45.00, so what are you waiting for!

Friday 11 February 2011

Recent CD review

My review of Weser-Renaissance Bremen's disc of Lassus's Sybilline Prophecies and Christmas Motets is here, on MusicWeb International.

Cordes and his musicians fall just short of bringing these pieces to life.

Thursday 10 February 2011

Estonia Philhamonic Chamber Choir

To the Cadogan Hall on Tuesday for a concert by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir under their conductor Daniel Reuss. Whilst the hall was busy, it was by no means full which was surprising given the reputation of the choir and the fact that the concert included two very substantial works by Arvo Pärt.

They opened with Mendelssohn's Three Psalms Opus 78, which are are works that I know from singing them rather than listening to them in concert. Reuss's tempi seemed somewhat on the swift side, losing something of the grandeur of Mendelssohn's piece and it was only in the final psalm, Mein Gott, warum has du mich verlassen? that the performance seemed to come together. Things were not helped by the rather indifferent solo singing in the first psalm, Warum toben die Heiden?. All the soloists in the Mendelssohn and the other pieces in the programme came from the choir and, the opening psalm apart, were excellent.

The remaining items on the programme were all either Scandinavian or Estonian and something in the temper of these works seemed to suit the choir better. Whereas, in the Mendelssohn, their rather characterful, focussed tone seemed to lack warmth and grandeur, in Pärt, Sibelius and Kreek they seemed entirely apposite.

The performance of Sibelius's Rakastava, in the mixed choir version, was entirely apposite and everything it should be, wonderfully atmospheric. The first half concluded with Pärt's Magnificat, written in 1989. This is a magnificently austere piece and the choir's performance was nearly faultless, their tone quality suiting the work's character perfectly. All that was lacking really was a suitable acoustic, Cadogan Hall is really rather too dry for this style of choral music.

The second half opened with a sequence of works by the Estonian composer Cyrillus Kreek (1889 - 1962), who was highly influential in creating a body of work for Estonian choirs and who devoted much of his time to collecting folk songs. He collected around 6,000 tunes and produces more than 500 folk song arrangements. His Psalms of David were written in 1923, these are sober, austere works which impress by their balance, clarity of word setting and directness of harmony. They deserve to be better known within choirs in this country. There then followed 3 of Kreek's arrangements of Estonian religious folk songs, works which had a far more direct appeal and charm.

Finally, we heard 5 movements from Pärt's mammoth Kanon pokajnen (Canon of Repentance). The movements performed were Ode VI, Kondak, Ikos, Ode IX, Prayer after the Canon. This is Pärt at his most austere and gnomic. At times the ikon-like unchangeability of the pieces threatened to degenerate into stasis, but the choir's secure grip of Pärt's vocal lines and the intensity of delivery from both choir and excellent soli ensured that it did not. Some of the vocal writing is rather merciless and the choir were superb in their delivery and confidence. I think that the performance would have been helped a great deal by a warmer, more resonant acoustic would would have allowed Pärt's tintinnabulations to resound rather more; we were sometimes aware of the spare textures, without the benefit of an aura of harmonic resonance from the acoustic. But this was a welcome opportunity to hear an intense performance of a wonderful piece.

Finally the choir gave us a clutch of folk songs as encores.

Tuesday 8 February 2011


As part of pianist Gary Matthewman's Lied in London, we heard a private recital of Schubert's Winterreise on Sunday, with bass Matthew Rose. I must confess that I've always been uneasy about performing Schubert's songs in transposition, though I have to agree that this is me being rather precious. After all, the sound and pitch of Schubert's own pianos would have been vastly different from a contemporary grand piano such as the one Gary Matthewman played on Sunday. And any objections I might have had about adjustments that might have been made were swept away by the sheer interpretative power of Rose's voice. Heard in a large drawing room with an audience of less than 100 people, this was both intimate and powerful and we certainly needed a strong drink after Rose and Matthewman had finished the recital.

But to return to Schubert's songs, I supposed the biggest problem I have is when the vocal line is transposed an octave so that a person of a different sex can sing it. Now, Schubert might have been happy to let this happen? Did he perform his songs for female voice himself? If he did, then I can hardly complain. But Schubert's piano parts are so perfectly constructed, that to completely alter the relationship between piano and voice by moving the voice part up an octave (or down) is surely an awkward move. Perhaps I need to do more research into this subject.

Monday 7 February 2011

Review of Lucrezia Borgia

My review of the ENO's new production of Lucrezia Borgia is now on-line here, at Music and Vision. Its a subscription sight but you do get hi-res images of the production.

Friday 4 February 2011

Recent CD reviews

My review of a reissue of Offenbach from the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra is here.

For a bit of fun at budget price you can’t go wrong.

And my review of the rarity from Rossini's maturity, La Gazzetta, is here.

Charmingly effective … you might well be entranced.

And finally, my review of the 1950's recording of Menotti's The Consul is here. All three reviews are on MusicWeb International.

The original recording of The Consul is a vividly dramatic and highly atmospheric.

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