Tuesday, 31 January 2012

The Appeal Of New Music

Following the announcement of a festival of music based on the best-selling book The Rest Is Noise by New Yorker Alex Ross, The Guardian's Alex Needham has written an article noting the apparently refreshed appeal of new music. It's an absorbing piece. Two things caught my attention.

Firstly there is the idea that audiences might want to go and hear difficult modernist music (I hesitate to use 'contemporary' as a post-war catch-all) as a challenge or even as a purge. 'Contemporary' vocalist Barbara Hannigan (watch her performing Ligeti) suggests that audiences may undertake to attend a concert as
It's almost violent – but you know you're going to come out of it feeling a sense of release... [the audience] come out with a feeling of being changed, of accomplishment
Quite apart from the idea of putting one's self on trial physically, this also tallies with the sense of the event. The article quotes Jurowski
I came out of Pli Selon Pli very deeply fired up and inspired by it, but it only gets played once or twice a decade in the UK. Even more so than film or visual arts, we have to have not only promoters but performers who are willing to pay the extra expense of rehearsing new pieces and of taking a risk and knowing how to conduct these very difficult works
The idea that a piece is sufficiently difficult and rare to demand only the best performers increases the sense that it demands a level of endurance. It also brings me to my second point.

In a world of post-modernity in which aesthetic parameters have been dissolved (see this recent article by Alain de Botton) audiences need a new framework in which to make decisions about the authenticity and worth of art. The paradigm has shifted, and rather radically. In the absence of a majority opinion or mainstream criteria there is the scarcity or uniqueness of an event: think of the difference in commercial worth of an original artwork or one of a set of its print editions. More than this - the digitisation of media and the convenience and quality with which this can now be delivered means that people are once again seeking out the event, not only as a unique phenomenon but also as something removed from the (media-saturated) usual.

Mounting pieces that challenge an audience not to walk out in disgust, self-respect, boredom or protest is one thing. A more difficult - a more constructive proposition requires mounting work that doesn't confront but has its own appeal. It requires good music that has an intrinsic appeal. The issue with so much contemporary music is that the issue of the music doesn't exist at all. Rather the issue that the performance instigates is outside the music.

Take this small list. I'm thinking of
  • disgust - an reaction to atonality in music written using rigorous systems. The self-discipline of the composer may be admired at the same time as (because) the music is aesthetically confrontational
  • self-respect and boredom - works like Cage's 4'33", which are valid, even useful philosophical statements but hardly intrinsically beautiful compositions, and may give the impression of condescention or playing with the audience
  • protest - where the subject matter is overwhelming the focus. The Death Of Klinghoffer at ENO will be scrutinised during the press lead-in not because of Adams' score but because of its still-current political ramifications (the Middle East). Coverage of the Greer/Wallen opera Yes at the Royal Opera's Linbury is another example, in which the press had next to nothing to say about Wallen's score but plenty to say about Greer and the political subject matter of which she was an inextricable part
I like the idea of a festival that suggests a royal line from the established canon of pre-modernity to the very present. It's good to curate a concert that shows the contiguous line of music composed for its own sake. I hope that there will be a chance for Ross to programme a performance of the Liebestod beside Radiohead's Idioteque, for example maybe via Paul Lanksy's electronics. Needham's article identifies a very real concert-going trend and offers some explanation and justification for it. What it doesn't do is explain why - in the words of the quoted Ea-Pekka Salonnen - if
People are interested in what's happening right now.
we aren't being presented with music that's happening right now but music that forms the post-war avant garde - music of reaction rather than pure invention. That's an unresolved problem with which the article ties itself up.

Monday, 30 January 2012

Wagner Dream, BBCSO, Brabbins

A conspicuously rich weekend of opera concluded this evening with the first UK performance of Jonathan Harvey's Wagner Dream. A fictional extrapolation of Wagner's regrets at not having completed his Buddhist stage work Die Sieger, the opera involves a singing cast dramatising the story of the girl Prakriti and an acting ensemble playing out a meta-drama of Wagner's distended, visionary death. The programme is available to download here.

The music is hugely kaleidoscopic, scored for a chamber orchestra, percussion and a chorus all amplified and mixed beside a range of pre-recorded music relayed in speakers extending from the stage into and around the back of the auditorium. Never has the Barbican's Total Immersion series, examining composers over a weekend of their music, seemed more apt. A late surge in interest in the concert meant that the balcony was opened to concert-goers but there was no time to re-work the already-set sound system. For many then the 'surround sound' element of the experience was only available at a vicarious remove.

None of this detracted from the quality of musicianship. Despite great clarity not only in the scoring but also in the tonal density of the music (there is often a great deal of Eastern style chords built on natural harmonics and penta- or small unit- tonic cells) the vocal lines can be quite exploded and extreme. Claire Booth is well-known for her involvement in this modernity and sang with the sort of assurance that might make you believe it was Poulenc. Less well-known for this is the tenor Andrew Staples, singing the object of Booth Prakriti's affections, Ananda. The aria in which he describes the background of his order's master Siddharta is the gilt, light-filled showpiece of the work and Staples sang it beautifully, as if Ferrando had taken over for a moment. Siddartha, the Buddha himself, was sung by Roderick Williams. Moving and singing with an inimitable composure he inhabited the person of the Buddha even without the long baritone melismas that Harvey writes for this extraordinary character. Simon Bailey has a deeper quality to his baritone, though the same clean line, a lovely character to have in tandem with the voice of Siddharta, given that, as Vairochana, he was singing  the equivalent of the angel Gabriel. Hilary Summers and Richard Angus as Prakriti's mother and a Brahim elder were the voices of caution on either side.

Orpha Phelan's staging put the action on two levels so that the singers could remain distinct from the actors - the dream from the reality. This was elegant and worked nicely, with the actors supplying the real-time human interaction that the formalised action of the singers might have shut off. It also provided a perinent link with the music. Naturally, the story within Wagner's 'dream' is the opera proper but the music incorporates both narratives. There are subtle, echt-Schopenhauerian quotations both from Parsifal - when Prakriti is asked 'what she knows' - and, later, Tristan & Isolde, when the idea of renunciation of desire is being discussed. Elsewhere there is often an Ivesian confrontation in the music, two musics at odds. Much of the lyric, operatic, material has the dramatic quality of appearing out of the cacophony. The chosen few of the BBC Symphony Orchestra played marvellously. Along with a quartet of singers (a core group of the choral ensemble Exaudi) everything was performed with a diaphanous sense of poise, essential in a sound-design performance. The dependable Martin Brabbins may have had quite a say in this security. A fascinating and non-ironically sensuous evening's music - and perhaps, even more importantly, a substantial philosophical experience as well.

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Der Rosenkavalier, ENO

David McVicar's Scottish Opera production of Der Rosenkavalier at English National Opera
is lost in some space of time. The single, crumbling Regency backdrop has lost the battle with creepers. The front of the stage has the cobwebbed gilt of candles (and Paul Constable's lighting perpetuates the idea of a candle-lit performance). 'Once upon a time*' says the design as do the rising and falling chandeliers, pulling focus like a camera at the extremities of the story. This, then, is a soft, loving view of this fin de siecle romantic comedy.

Played fairly straight, there are small nudges against the fourth wall, notably as Valzacchi sets up the Act 3 honey trap.There's also the familiar ENO trope of an embellishment, this time in the form of Ericson Mitchell's Mohammed. Not the usual child-page, rather he is a pubescent, certainly appraised of the goings-on of the Marschallin's boudoir and who may even be next on the list. I like the production though, allowed to be human and occasionally very funny despite (because of being) held in the period at the arm's length of '*Es war einmal'. The stage direction is organic, coming from the score, particularly in Act 3. In this respect I particularly liked the spacing of characters across the extremities of the front of the stage. At first it seemed a little distended but proved to work hand-in-glove with the expansiveness coming from the pit. Ed Gardner's finest reading to date, the conductor dared to allow the music space to sound and settle. The riot and fury didn't disappear into frenzied clouds of  fuss though, with the orchestra responding to that Strauss-characteristic of a the ensemble as a collection of soloists. Power came with the precision. The pit is as grand and glorious a voice as those coming from the stage.

And there are some grand and glorious voices coming from the stage. Not necessarily at the same time, mind. John Tomlinson's Ochs fulfils the irony of the Marschallin's introducing of him: 'I know that voice'. His triumph is a comic one, managing all the text as if reading it by the bedside. Equally, as the Marschallin herself, Amanda Roocroft sang with coloured mezza voce and crisp text. The Act 1 monologue was not authoritative but deeply touching. Sophie Bevan's Sophie found the night's biggest ovation and with good reason. This is no performing blonde, no blue-blood Olympia, but a vibrant, sympathetic young woman. The Marschallin asks her to quieten down in Act 3 probably as the older woman feels genuinely threatened.

Commanding the show in a surprisingly decorous manner though is the titular knight. Sarah Connolly sang very beautifully, but behind the character. The yokel accent of Act 3 was a case in point, an entire stretch of dialect simply to set up a disposable in-joke with the Oswestry native Tomlinson. All of it sung though. The high-gilt armour that is Octavian's costume in the second Act couldn't be worn by a figure more deserving of garlanding for artistic heroics. Elsewhere the Madeleine Shaw's Annina, Jennifer Rhys-Davis' Marianne (the chaperone) and Mark Richardson's Commissar demonstrated the rewards of casting to a high level in depth. Notably great singing from these three.

Der Rosenkavalier is long-winded lyric theatre, its Achilles heel being that it too readily adopts the over-egging that it apes in music and matter. The quality of much of the singing, respect for the score and playing of the orchestra in this ENO production dealt with that the long way around, refusing to cut corners. Admirable.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Il Prigionero, Philharmonia at RFH

Tonight I found myself at an Amnesty International event. I say found, as I had intended to attend a concert which included a rare opportunity to hear Luigi Dallapiccola's single-stretch opera Il Prigionero. What with the concert also comprising Beethoven's fifth symphony, as well as Amnesty's iconic lighted candle as part of the operatic semi-staging, there was no getting away from the political context of the works performed.

The symphony itself was a peculiar affair, as if the orchestra were waiting to see where the conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, was taking them. The opening gestures asked questions, lacking reportage or even drama. The amplitude of the dynamics was also odd, violent but not always contiguous. It was as if the performance were predicated on the work of he second half (certainly all eight double basses were retained for both pieces). That said, the fugue subject of the third movement rose with impeccable ensemble from the low strings. This was also the first time I had heard the ghost of the knocking theme in the violas in the second movement. In fact, the violas were the prize section of this performance, managing a vocal quality in the first movement where all else seemed comparatively complacent. Ensemble was never an issue then, only purpose.

Il Prigionero is a surprisingly tonal serial work, wearing its structural formality without shame. That said, it sits closer to the mainland of Wozzeck than the promontory of Bluebeard's Castle, with Berg's lyricism and orchestration a more consistent feature than the flashes of Bartok's soundworld. The orchestra is large and made one hell of a sound. As Dallapiccola's compatriot company Pirelli maintains though, power is nothing without control. Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia have proved over their few seasons together that they do control at high torque, carolling the spasms and sheer voluminousness of late romantic and modernist masterworks without hedging their bets. Il Prigionero is a curiously classical composition but its rigour doesn't preclude expressionism in the music's core. The punching and stabbing of the orchestra, written into the rhythmic complexities of the music is the uncomfortable heart of Il Prigionero (and gives the lie to the sinister, oleaginous Inquisitor - sung as such by the routinely excellent Peter Hoare - whose promises are about as cast-iron as the candle he takes it upon himself to snuff out).

Oxymoronically, the most explosive expressionism of the work is reserved to what amounts to a direct, thematic quotation. The prisoner believes that he has been set free when he sees that his cell door is open. Emancipation comes in the form of a colossal C major chord, scored for everything in the auditorium, including the organ and chorus; this is the hammer blow of the fifth door of Bartok's Bluebeard but more pertinently to this concert, the opening of the final movement of Beethoven's symphony.

The incisiveness of the performance started from the very back of the room then. Philharmonia Voices did not hide behind their amplification, singing with an axe-head of ensemble and bite. Even organist Iain Farrington managed to conjure the same from the console beside them at this moment. Sectional ensemble seems to be a defining character of the orchestra. Certainly the thrust of the performance gained from the cleanliness and incisiveness of, above all, the brass and upper string attack. The harp and woodwind textures seemed more like glitter than the mist being pumped into the auditorium as a result of this clarity.

With all this, Lauri Vasar as the eponymous inmate couldn't have asked for a better platform upon which to spend an hour bemoaning his bondage. The baritone took full advantage of it with text and notes in total alignment. This was a compelling performance as lyric as it was dramatic, an honest, plangent ribbon of sound and words tied between the failing will of his mother, sung well by Paoletta Marrocu, and Hoare's cynical Inquisitor (with Brian Galliford and Francisco Javier Borda as the thugs guarding him). David Holmes' simple but stark lighting finessed the evening.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Don Giovanni, Royal Opera

A revival of Francesca Zambello's production of a decade. It looks rather like this:

The age shows in no other way than the natural drift of the purpose of the population on stage and the mute spirit of the original conception buried within. I rather enjoyed it although the abstraction pulls hard at the seams of reality, not least in the Act 1 finale where the party descends into farce as the peasant chorus semm to not have noticed that the wall-to-wall mural is a trompe d'oeil. It's all just a little peculiar.

The singing isn't entirely uniform either. The best comes from Finley as the Don who is on top of every single note, even when he appears to be shouting. Beside him is Hibla Gerzmava's Donna Anna whose apparently effortless artistry only exposes its mechanics in the coloratura of Non mi dir. Katerina Karneus is a super comic stage presence but I missed a little opulence of sound - and similarly for Lorenzo Ragazzo's Leporello (for both, a hair-splitting privation). In this testosteroney show there were some big barrelled voices on stage, Marco Spotti's Commendatore projecting out into the auditorium without hectoring. Most entertaining was Adam Plachetka's Masetto who caused the women of a certain age beside me to chirrup audibly. Matthew Polenzani sang Ottavio well and dared to try a super quiet piano in the recap of Dalla sua pace.

Down in the pit Constantinos Carydis was very much in control, although one wished his grip would relax just a mite: a scampering overture followed by a drunken barn dance for the wedding party was probably the wrong way round (and so it continued). This is an entertaining show though, not least through Maria Björnson's design's, and I enjoyed my evening in the theatre.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

La Traviata, Royal Opera

Finally, maybe 19 performances in (even the cast have lost count, apparently), I have been to see one of the shows in the Royal Opera's gargantuan run of Richard Eyre's La Traviata (Paul Higgnins directing the revival). It's a nicely straightforward production with Bob Crowley's vertiginous design trompes for the Act 1 party and the Act 2 gaming scene adding notably gloss.

The cast I had on this evening were led by Ermonela Jaho as Violetta, apparently as consumptive as her character during the first Act but rather affecting during the third. Stephen Costello was secure as Alfredo where Jaho was flaky - but where Jaho was indisputably in character Costello was a little mummy's-boy for the tearaway lover. I'd looked forward to Paolo Gavanelli's Germond very much, and the Italian delivered exactly the sort of tone required by the over-parochial father, although its pushed, tickly-vibrato quality reminded me of Aage Haugland at his least convincing. None of the trio really seemed totally at home on stage but then the third cast in a *cough*-numbered revival will always be guests at their own party.

Of the second-tier roles, Justina Gringyte was less of the Austen-irritant that Flora can be reduced to. Later generations of Royal Opera basses in Jeremy White and Robert Lloyd were as reliable as tectonic plates as the Marquis and the doctor. Maurizio Benini favours brisk tempi and the leggiero this demanded favoured the cast. I thoroughly enjoyed the performance for all the nit-picking above, though I have to say I still await earth-shattering Verdi at the Royal Opera House.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

LSO Panufnik Young Composers Workshop

Yesterday I went to hear a colleague's composition as part of this day-long workshop. Two three hour sessions accomodate seven composers (Duncan Ward and Mihyun Woo may have to forgive me for not talking specifically about their own pieces, performed earlier in the session I attended).

Alastair Putt's Tocco is an economical piece. Alastair is interested in the juxtaposition of heterogenous and homogenous sound; Tocco looks to examine a homogenous, 12 note chord through heterogenous perspectives. This is co-incidental with the technique of change-ringing, a logical method for composing a peal of bells, the method by which the heterogeny is constructed. Transpositions to the 12 notes of the chord create rapid figures in the instrumental parts. It makes for effervescent textures. It's fun.

Above all it seemed to sing in the space. A comment from an orchestra's spokesman asked about Alastair's awareness of the LSO ST Luke's space (a rather 'live' or resonant acoustic in general, though it was acoustically adjutsed to be as 'dead' or dry as possible for the session). Though Alastair's preparation of the score had taken a rather more pure path than being prepared for a specific acoustic, it was clear that the music was singing in the space.

This may be ascribed to the aesthetic rigour that Alastair had ascribed to the work through its change-ringing process. The transpositions, which are a series of fifths, open up natural resonsnances. It's no surprise that at the opening of the music one recalls the air and light in the opening statement of Berg's Violin Concerto or Britten's neoclassical cantata Phaedra (this latter work also employing a bell as part of the texture). Interestingly, the piece ends with a sustained low note. A statement of the ecclesiastical character suggested by Tocco (translated as 'touch', it may also mean a short piece for church bells) it also has the advantage of providing space in which the various remanants of the stacked up harmonics created by the preceding music may breathe out. For all its Allegro character (noted by conductor James MacMillan as typical character of works given the three minute compositional limit of this workshop) there is space for Tocco to sound in an almost perfumed manner.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

The Need For Critique

Without critics the enterprise falls apart. Everyone offering his art on the free market knows that. Wherever the guild of reviewers is rationalized away, the PR agencies of the entertainment corporations take over. The outcome of that has been apparent for some time and can be seen in regional newspapers as well as on private radio stations and the TV establishment: a hollow imitation of culture, impertinently tarted up with the unrevised press release jargon.
Thomas Quasthoff, The Voice (Pantheon, 2008)

Monday, 2 January 2012

Acoustic Performance 1: Value

Last night I finally got round to seeing The Buena Vista Social Club. Wim Wenders' documentary concerns a group of old but vital Cubans who used to play at one of the musical hotspots of Havana and were rediscovered after more than a decade of neglect by American musician Ry Cooder. The film culminates in footage of a live performance given at Carnegie Hall as part of a tour promoting the album that they recorded with Cooder under the same name as the film and after whose success the film was green lit.

So far so good. But I was a bit put out by the sound quality of the concert footage. Wenders' film is largely shot on digital cameras in 1998 and so the quality is always going to be, er, investigative compared to what we are accustomed to 14 years hence. But that isn't the bone of my contention. It's quite clear that the sound quality in the hall is also rather poor, blocks of claustrophobic sound crowding one another out, imbalancing onstage ensemble. This is a great shame as the sound of the individual artists as heard at various points throughout the documentary are delicate and brim-full of acoustic interest.

Clearly what the audience at Carnegie Hall are responding to is not simply the music but a composite of the already-heard album as well as the unique back story of the performers. What they cannot be reacting to is the unmediated sound of the performance.

Again, this cinematic record dates from 1998. Since then we have had the digital media explosion, which has enabled the high quality reproduction of audio-visual performance both recorded and live, from all sorts of performances. It has also democratised the distribution of such material, allowing previously market-marginalised artists (such as The Buena Vista Social Club performers might once have been described) to be heard.

Furthermore, one of the counter-intuitive spin-offs from the digital explosion has been the general interest in live performance. The fact that high quality reproduction is widely available and many more people are able to see & hear performers up close as-live means that hearing performers actually live has acquired a new desirability.

Yet this is still a rather pseud full-circle. Gigs these days are still amplified and mediated by a sound engineer, elements which come between the performer and audience whatever the quality of the equipment and the artistry of the engineer. And if further proof is needed that audience's prize proximity itself alongside the quality of the performance content, one only need refer to the irony of a consistent proportion of the audience watching the performance through the screen of a phone's camcorder, on which they are recording the performance rather than engaging exclusively with it.

On the periphery but disconnected from this helix of audio-visual media are the performers and their art. As Alex Ross put it in his book Listen To This,
For better or worse, classical music no longer inhabits a separate room; it is in the mix. At the same time, classical music stands partly outside the technological realm, because most of its repertory is designed to resonate naturally within a room.
'Classical music' because Ross is talking within the frame of that genre, such as it is one, but it also applies to any music that is performed by any number of musicians reacting between themselves, to the characteristics of a space and to the attentiveness and responsiveness of their immediate audience. There is a separate discussion to be had about the art of using a microphone and how a different intimacy is achieved through that - but that's the same discussion as acting for the camera rather than on a stage, both live situations requiring the physicality of projection which is the hallmark of true live performance.

UPDATE 3/1/12: Tenor Alfie Boe has suggested that Royal Opera and ENO performances are routinely amplified. Tweeting singers largely disagree. Hat-tip - intermezzo.typepad.com

Acoustic Performance 2: The Future

My previous post is simply a revisiting of an old theme - the impossibility of replicating acoustic (musical) performance. There is little more to be said.

It comes as I stopped to consider other intermediary/media dependent art. For example, I find it very difficult to buy into the process of motion capture, or as it has recently been re-monikered, performance capture in animated film production whereby screen actors have their features and performances rendered in digital graphics (interestingly I find characters created digitally from scratch and voiced by actors much easier to stomach). Indeed Tacita Dean's installation for the Tate Modern turbine hall is a piece not only created in celluloid but also about the basic medium of film, looking back with a conservationist's vigilance at the art of capturing images rather than the digital transcription of them.

Equally, the upcoming Damien Hirst retrospective designed to coincide with the cultural periphery of the Olympic Games reheats not only old arguments about the aesthetics of the most recent movement in British art, the YBAs, but also asks thorny questions about the creation of the works that constititue the canon. This morning there is a story that newly appointed OM David Hockney, via his own upcoming RA show has taken a swipe at Hirst for failing to have a hand in the execution of works to which he puts his name.

The warning noises created by the likes of Hockney and Dean demand attention. Yet, at the same time, we can find a proliferation in the use of live performance relay. The broadcasting of theatre, opera, dance and the like has never been so easy, widespread and immediate: last summer I watched (part of!) a live performance of Glyndebourne's Meistersinger on my desktop computer at home with entirely acceptable picture and sound, perfect synchronisation and no 'buffering' glitches. As the ubiquity of access via digital media means that you can see almost anything at any time, the necessity of having acoustic-dependent performance confined to a single auditorium space means that such performances are comparatively non-existent. Relays, broadcasts, documentaries and other media which bring audiences into the space - however synthetic an experience of the art that may be - is the manner in which to keep the door open, to advertise the presence of the art and to educate the public as to what they might expect. The experience remains another thing altogether but the use of digital media is essential now as it is no longer simply a phenomenon of interest but the vernacular.