Saturday 3 November 2012

The Rest is Noise at the Southbank

From January 2012, the Southbank centre starts its year-long festival, The Rest is Noise, which is themed on Alex Ross's book detailing the history of classical music in the 20th century. I have to confess that I have slight reservations about the festival, uncertain quite how a history book (albeit a popular one) can be used as basis for a festival. Part of me worries that its all a cynical ploy to cash in on the popularity of Ross's book.

Ross sets his book in chapters which try to capture a particular moment, well demonstrated by his brilliant opening which starts with the 1906 performance of Strauss's Salome which was attended by an amazing roster of composers. The festival seems to be doing the same, with each month themed. Some work better than others. But, when confronted with the programme I have to put aside my grouches, because in terms of simple concert going there are some superb things.

Of course, in a sense these sort of concerts should be available to concert goers all the time. But if it takes an artificial construct like the festival to gee them up, then we have to be thankful for festivals.

On the festival website Jude Kelly talks about people coming to understand music differently. Perhaps. The festival is including a series of weekends looking at themes associated with the festival. The cynic in me suspects that concert goers will simply come along to enjoy the fabulous concerts.

January is called The Big Bang and looks at the early roots of modernism, with Strauss's Salome (Final scene) from Vladimir Jurowski and the LPO, much Berg,  Schoenberg and Beethoven, a very little Janacek and Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius.

February has a strand called Who are we?, which looks at the rise of Nationalism in the various areas of Europe, including a concert of music from folk pioneers including Bartok, Ives, Grainger and Falla from the Northern Sinfonia under Kathryn Tickell. Though there is an event where Mary King and 'a range of singers explore vocal music which draws on folk sources', it might have been interesting to think more laterally here and create concerts which brought folk players together with music inspired by their traditions - Bartok and Hungarian folk music in the same concert, Sibelius and the music of Karelia. That would have been dynamic.

But the main push in February is Paris from the 1910's and 1920's. Here, of course, there is a wide range of music and we include the LPO playing The Rite of Spring a little early for the centenary. Though there are other extra-concert events, it would have been nice to have included some visual element to the concerts. And, of course, there is so much material that the Princess Edmond de Polignac's salon is 'reduced' to Satie's Socrate and Stravinsky's Renard. I did rather like the idea of the concert which includes Antheil's Ballet Mechanique from the Aurora Orchestra.

March we move to Berlin in the 20's and 30's, which is cue for the LPO's performance of Weill's Die Dreigroschenoper with a strong cast of opera singers. We also get Weill and Brecht's Mahoganny Songspiel and the Seven Deadly Sins.The balance for this strand is not ideal, there is one piece of Eisler, one Hindemith (though it is his Mathis der Mahler Symphony). Perhaps a little too much of the obvious and not enough of the other daring things happening in the city at the time. Again we see that trying to take a snapshot of Berlin leaves us with so much material lying on the ground. None of the more politically charged Brecht/Weill pieces, no Krenek, Max Reinhardt, no Richard Tauber in Lehar operattas, no .., well I won't go on.

A strand across the whole of the period is America. Now, one of the problems with Ross's book is that it is a little to USA centric, particularly as things move further through the century. But the Southbank have included the essentials, and bring in some of Weill's broadway music, Korngold and Schoenberg in Hollywook, Duke Ellington and W.G. Still.

The Art of Fear is a huge strange which runs through April and may and is perhaps the most coherent, because there are sixteen concerts which allows the works chosen to be wide and varied, Orff (Carmina Burana alas rather than something more interesting), RVW, Tippett, Shostakovich and Prokofiev under Stalin, Messiaen  in prisoner of war camp, Leningrad Symphony, plus lots more.

Each of these themes gets a weekend when there will be events and debates, all to be put on the website closer to the time.

There festival's remit is so wide, that inevitably you can pick over what is missed, what could have been done. But we should be thankful that so much has been put together, that the Southbank are presenting such an amazing array of 20th century music in such tempting performances.

Further details and booking from the  festival website

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