Saturday, 26 October 2013

Iernin, Surrey Opera

This is the 100th anniversary year of composer George Lloyd. A precocious British composer, Lloyd's career in music was truncated by a violent experience in the navy during the second world war - and a no less considerable if very different reaction to modernism, and specifically serialism, in music. This year's BBC Proms celebrated his anniversary with a pair of works from his later (post 1973) Indian summer of composition. His opera Iernin which Surrey Opera have produced in London (and will shortly take to Lloyd's home of Cornwall) is from the early flush of writing music. The opera sets a libretto by Lloyd's bel canto-loving father and concerns a local myth about the standing stones of St Columb Major, supposedly women under a spell. One of the stones, Iernin, is brought back to life and - probably metaphorically (!) - bewitches a prince on the eve of his wedding.

Surrey Opera have done a handsome job in bringing this little-known opera (despite a warm premiere reception in 1934) to life. This is a fully-staged production with a 30-strong pit orchestra under Jonathan Butcher, the chief advocate of the work and responsible for the judicious balancing act of making cuts for the evening's drama whilst letting us hear the score. Still a teenager, George Lloyd's style is a difficult to pin down, though there is more of the Wagnerian tradition of expansiveness and programmatic detail in the orchestration than that of the vocal formality of Verdi. Neither does the obvious bucolicism of Vaughan-Williams weigh the score down, despite some appropriate modalism. This is original music which swirls about us like the climate that is referenced at moments in the plot and builds to regular totemic moments that reflect the old rock face of the coast.

Lloyd is never understated in anything he says and, singing the title role, Catharine Rogers undertakes a considerable workload. Hers is a noteworthy performance by any standard, paced to take her right through to the Liebestodesque conclusion but which also incoporates light passages that reflect her delight in de-petrification, fear of the locals and love at first sight. Her sound is helped by the Mitre Theatre (at Trinity School, Croydon), a long wooden box, not dissimilar to the Mermaid Theatre, London. In alt Rogers voices shines with metallic spark and the words are unstintingly clear.

The rest of the cast bring a strong, diverse palette of colours in around her. Ed Hughes gets a bit of a raw deal as the prince Gerent but makes the most of his moments; as his jilted bride Cunaide, Felicity Buckland makes the most of the final Act peroration, proving persausive not only on stage but in fact. I'm trying no to make too many Tristan-und-Isolde-isms here but Håkan Vramsmo's handsomely sung Edyrn is what you might expect Melot to be in a Tristan-prequel. The evening's 'King Marke', Bedwyr, was graciously walked by an indisposed James Harrison whilst Jon Openshaw more than competently warmed up for his later cameo as the Priest by singing the king from the side.

However, the opera really came alive when the chorus were on stage in ensemble. The company were really excellent, coherent, well-tuned and bringing not only finesse but crucially, credibility to the staging with which Alexander Hargreaves has used to plot a course through the work. With proper attention to the costume, set and lighting design, nothing had been subordinated to what one must assume is the inevitable cash constraint - as one who has performed with the company previously, I can attest to a not-to-be-sniffed-at slush fund of goodwill from friends and performers alike. A worthy exercise for this anniversary year and one that (one hopes) will be welcomed at its homecoming performances next week.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Turandot, Royal Opera by Cinema Relay

The buzz was like a broken hive. Andrei Serban's production is well thought of but the talk was of the titular soprano, being played here by the American Lise Lindstrom (right), her 100th turn in the role. In the event, all the talk was surpassed.

I've always struggled a bit with Turandot. Not with the beautiful music which flirts with the ascendant fashion of the Second Viennese school's harmonic dissolution. Applied to the inherent rigours of the pentatonic melodies which Puccini brought a priori to Turandot such stylistic affectations are subsumed as just that. No, rather the strictures as applied to the drama mean that the first act can feel rather like a pageant, a parade of tableaux rather than scenes brewing a drama.

Though this was the case in this revival, the production (set in a courtyard, a theatre of its own) embraces the theatricality of the setup with characters in masks and much structured movement (Kate Flatt). Calaf, Timur and Liu stick out like a parody of Parsifal, Gurnemanz and Kundry in a Good Friday meadow in this environment, and so their interactions shine out with full value. This preparation also means that the entrance of Turandot herself in Act 2, complete with Tai Chi-style movement for the ritual of her riddling is both expected and all the more shocking when that facade cracks at Calaf's success.

Crowning this was the simply phenomenal singing of Lise Lindstrom. Her exemplary technique (something one can see in detail with the cinema close-up!) allowed her to act in the same reserved manner as she moved, accentuating the traumatised ice-queen bearing, rendering her music unearthly rather than hectoring. Her extraordinary control allowed for minute attention to characterisation and some wonderful soft singing in the final act. This also took the sting out of losing not only Liu (fine singing from Eri Nakamura) but also Puccini himself; for all the faithfulness Alfano brought to the completion of the score, the drama feels brought to a perfunctory or possibly facile close where the composing baton changes hands. This is rescued by the conviction of Lindstrom and the Earnest Berti, whose heroic bearing met Lindstrom's total absorption of the terrible beauty of the Princess.

Kate Flatt's over-performing choreography was particularly well dispatched by Pi/a/ong who sang well and made something 3-dimensional with their part that can often be a dramatic burden. All supporting roles were well-taken. The relay itself was better than on a previous occasion, with no intermittent music and entertaining & informative interval features. Memorable, especially the wonderful second act.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Vivienne, McCaldin Arts, Tete a Tete Opera Festival & Camden Fringe

During August I had the opportunity to see three performances of a new mono-drama by the company for whom I do some publicity work, McCaldin ArtsVivienne - commissioned by the company's producer-performer Clare McCaldin - is a sequence of six songs concerning the life of TS Eliot's first wife, Vivienne Haigh-Wood, intended for the stage. The piece is typical of the company's body of work concerning women with a literary background. The music style of Vivienne suggested itself as the Eliots loved the variety and dance culture of music hall. Indeed an early press-release for the piece suggested a range of stylistic reference in the music, from the informality of cabaret to the rather more arms-length foil of opera and with all manner of music-hall inflected variety inbetween.

This was partly to do with the interest of the protagonists. Yes, there are two. There is the figuratively present Vivienne, whom Clare McCaldin embodies in the show. There is also the absent TS Eliot, to whom Vivienne directs her conversation, pleading, scorn and ultimate bewilderment.

The absence of an implicit character is the one issue that, on the face of it, could have presented a problem to the company. McCaldin's familiar collaborator Stephen McNeff and his librettist Andy Rashleigh (a shrewd partnership, the pair having worked worked on a previous, stylised music drama after TS Eliot, The Waste Land, almost twenty years ago) found themselves without a second figure with whom to construct dialogue.

Andy Rashleigh rather brilliantly outmaneouvres the issue by peppering Vivienne's text with endless refractions of Eliot's poetry. Thus Eliot is given a voice in absentia, investing Vivienne's recollections with both succour and sarcasm. The drama is in the elliptical cadences that this half-remembered verse, midwifed by Vivienne during their marriage, provides. Her life - by being bound to Eliot - is unfinished. She is ready and waiting for the next act.

The illusion of a character in song does not automatically guarantee the same on stage in production. In his light-touch treatment of the work director Joe Austin worked hand-in-glove with his regular designer partner Simon Kenny to create a special space for Vivienne. Blank but not void, the white square is defined but not a cell. It is a platform - but for Vivienne's own, self-reflexive audience. Across the two performance venues of its summer run, the footlights of the Tete a Tete Opera Festival show were necessarily lost to the raised dais of The Forge, Camden. The early-proposed cabaret element was definitively sacrificed to these fourth walls but the clearer delineation of Vivienne as an operatic mono-drama made for a more taut experience.

Ready... Vivienne hesitates to come into this defined, pedagogic space. In both theatres Clare McCaldin entered the auditorium from the wing in character, pausing to absorb the potential and demands of the stage from its periphery. Perhaps Vivienne understands her actions and the drama they will precipitate?

Vivienne Haigh-Wood was sectioned in 1938 but the reasons are still equivocal: thought mad, as her biophysical condition was undiagnosed, it's possible that she was complicit in her own incarceration. This is a clear suggestion of the 1994 film adaptation of Michael Hastings' play Tom & Viv, right (one might note that this suggestion of self-sacrifice from an atheist for her high-Anglican husband is the ironic opposite of the dramatic twist at the heart of Graham Greene's contemporaneously set The End Of The Affair).

... and waiting. Vivienne is waiting for Eliot to return, just as she did when the poet returned from America in 1933 (where he had gone for a year's professorship and to enforce the separation from her he had long wanted). This is a where the Beckettian confines of the production space are at their most apparent; Vivienne looks outwards but her questioning of Eliot's whereabouts are rhetorical, her cries in the final song 'Belladonna' expressionist, expecting no comeback. Even the bare, white design is a limbo. In her nightshift she is poised, either prepared to dress for action, or to capitulate in sleep.

Such is the nature of Eliot's own modernism which rattles backwards and forwards between styles and sensibilities (biographer Peter Ackroyd notes that Eliot probably wanted to re-create in poetry what Joyce had achieved in the prose of Ulysses).

Stephen McNeff's music reflects this with fluid movement in and out of pastiche with a brisk piano scoring that suggests a skeletal, Weill-like club band. Then a sudden, startling brake in motion exposes the appropriation of style as nothing more than that and Vivienne is left just as 'lost, lonely and scared' as - without rhetoric - she says she is. Indeed this is the central moment of this score, the least opaque, the most intimate and honest music, in McNeff's authentic vernacular. No more the 'tomfoolery' (Andy Rashleigh's own word), the displacements of dancing, nostalgia or the simple (Freudian) procrastination of thinking about it all.

In each performance that I saw of Vivienne, Clare McCaldin and her pianist Libby Burgess had completely absorbed this febrile characteristic. Meticulously enunciated lyrics, coloured by the musical setting, meant that the opera was alive, able to alter shade or temperament quickly. In consequence, gestures could be small, be they the shifting bias of a tempo change or a movement, even a look; somehow Clare McCaldin managed to make a distinction between the mind's-eye reality of a post-coital Bertrand Russell in the next chair and the thousand-yard stare at an Eliot who is there in neither fact nor promise.

By the close, the desiccated truth of Vivienne's isolation renders even the piano superfluous. She is ready and waiting but to no purpose. Perhaps, as Eliot himself famously said, 'in my end is my beginning', and, caught in this circularity, Vivienne bloodlessly intones 'stick her in a long book until it's all over' (in the repetitive style of the famous 'This is the way the world ends' denouement of The Wasteland itself). Like the evanescent Pincher Martin or - also stuck, hallucinating, on a rock - Tristan (referred to by both Eliot and Rashleigh), the protagonist is oscillating between life and extinction until one is indistinguishably the other.

Being part of the backroom team for Vivienne meant that I was willing the piece and its production to succeed. However, the unequivocal success of the show - which, despite my identification of its raw emotional kernel, is also a riotous and occasionally risqué entertainment - came as a pleasant surprise to the company. Further performances in London are planned, though the nature of the staging is yet to be determined.

Friday, 30 August 2013

The Crocodile, Tete a Tete Opera Festival

One of the most popular operas of this year's Tete a Tete festival, The Crocodile - an adaptation of Dostoyevsky's novella of the same name - turned out to be a riotous delight. Little expense had been spared in producing this black comedy (in which a writer is eaten by the eponymous reptile, a sort of Expo exhibit, before it is discovered that he is actually alive and determined to take a sabattical in his new environment). A two-tier set with a staircase behind which an orchestra of a dozen or so play throughout held a similarly sized-cast. The buffoonish hosts (Leandros Taliotis & Kris Belligh) and [un]fortunate writer (Graham Neal) are engaged throughout in an underplayed class war with Christina Petrou's maid, recalling the setup of Puccini's Rondine which had only just finished playing over the other side of London at the Royal Opera House. The finesse of this quartet dovetailed well with the nicely controlled Guignol of the posh guests (James Soller & Jane Webster), a reporter (Alexander Beck), a familiar figure for those of us who had seen the not entirely dissimilar Orango a few months ago. The ensemble was well-seasoned with the more parlando deliver of Peter Corry in a raconteur role.

If the ensemble was crowned with the remarkable coloratura (and stage bravura) of Kristy Swift as the author's wife then the piece is well and truly pimped in Alex Sutton's production as the almost magic realism of the situation is exploded in a every conceivable trappings of the most extravagant ticker-tape reception. Even if the piece can't quite hold its own high-rev opening throughout, it certainly ends with all its showbiz artillery well and truly exhausted. And, of course, at its heart is a crocodile, marvellously manipulated on-stage and then touchingly danced in postlude by Caroline Mathias.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Black Sand, Tete a Tete Opera Festival

Imagine if some nincompoop - hey, maybe some visionary - had run two reels of David Lynch's Mulholland Drive and Blue Velvet over one another simultaneously. That's partly the effect of the spooky Americana-opera calling itself Black Sand (a fallen angel-style version of the Sandman).

Nathanael - James D Hall, acting winningly as well as singing under the hem of his countertenor range - is determined to confess his paranoia to his girlfriend before they go steady, an early trauma getting psychologically blended with the horror of dreamtime. He can't seem to determine what is waking and what is dreaming though. The opera is based on the short story by ETA Hoffmann - the idealised object of Nathanael's very real affection is even called Olympia, as in the mannequin-perfect soprano of Offenbach's opera on the same subject. As Olympia, Caroline Kennedy is not called upon to dispense show-stopping coloratura, but sings with an undeniably affecting line. Nicolas Dwyer's Sandman, though game-show slick on the outside, sings with a rougher hue (and great range) which helps direct our allegiances; his chorus of Alexandra Mathew, Rose Stachniewska & Oliver Marshall are the over-painted mid-west cartoon grotesques of a Lynchian Club Silenzio.

An additional character of the opera is the sound design. The incessant industrial hiss, familiar from another of Lynch's canon, Eraserhead, is persistently evocative and irritating. It seems to be sampled from the various interjections that jump out across the fourth wall as if the background noise of 1950s American media is suddenly coming to life in the auditorium.

With all this going on, Na’ama Zisser's score gets reduced in memory to a functional tapestry of reasonably paced episodes matching the drama (this is a boon, not a dismissal!). The production is sound and the whole tight and effective. I'm not sure I understand it all the time but I certainly feel it.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Battles Within And Without, Re:Sound

With the Tete-a-Tete and Grimeborn Festivals in London and the variety of the fringe from Camden to Edinburgh, there is a great deal of operatic experimentation on offer in the next few weeks. Manchester-originated music theatre company Re:Sound have got ahead of the 'season' with an intriguing show staging baroque and 20th century choral music.

Battles Within And Without moves its psychological, emotional and reported conflict into the demonstrable open, staging music principally designed for concert performance. The drama and narrative of Judith Weir's Missa del Cid and Monteverdi's Madrigali Guerriri e Amoroso (with the additional Si Dolce) are nothing without the dramatic gesture, even in bare performance and this was the purpose of the show.

By way of acclimatisation, the company first performed contemporaneous choral works in a conventional concert manner. Gesualdo's motets from the Responsories got a treatment that was rather more concerned with the colour and chiaroscuro of the music (and the dying light outside) than the oleaginous, sexual underbelly of its progressive harmony, in keeping with its liturgical texts and the church (St Magnus the Martyr) hosting the performance.

James Macmillan's Bring us O Lord God and Herbet Howells' Take him, Earth, for cherishing were excellent programming choices alongside the Gesualdo, of a consistent harmonic mobility.

The staged works, the second half of the evening, received a comprehensive work-over, within the means and imagination of the company. Those not singing in any given Monteverdi madrigal might be accompanying the performance on instruments from the (expected) harpsichord to the (unexpected) accordion. The staging - interspersed with abstracted audio-visual screening, and punctuated with carefully manipulated lighting - moved from literal role-assumption to more responsive choreography. Particularly impressive was the ensemble singing in music that is often inherently fluid, quasi-parlando (the performance is given without conductor).

Judith Weir's Missa del Cid, as the starting point of the project, incorporated the entire company again. Taking it in turns to narrate between the more formal mass sections, the group continued to use the minimal stage furniture of boxes, introduced during the Monteverdi, adding scrims and veils of scarlet material. I felt that this was the most effective sequence of the evening, essentially because of the more settled harmonic basis of the music, allowing the performers greater ensemble security from which to hazard expression and allow the drama out. The evening I attended was also attended by the composer; I can only imagine that she would be satisfied by treatment and performance alike.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

From the diary of Virginia Woolf, Wigmore Hall

Part of a 'Perspectives' series curated by the pianist Julius Drake, this recital was an augmented single span taking all its words from the diary of Virginia Woolf. The central cycle was Dominic Argento's From the Diary of Virginia Woolf of 1974 performed by Drake with Sarah Connolly. Beside them Fiona Shaw read further extracts selected (and lightly staged) by Kate Kennedy, a Cambridge English Professor specialising in Modernist English literature and music.

The last time I heard the cycle was in a final recital ten years ago. High calibre performers then failed to lift it from the page or stage; despite the ascetic circumstances of the performances I felt that the blame should be partly ascribed to the piece. Here - ironically 'despite' the world class of the performers - I felt that the effectiveness of the eight song cycle was down to the obscure riches of the piece, exposed not so much through interpretation as clarity of presentation. Fiona Shaw's demonstrative reading of pertinent diary extracts interpolated between the songs was part of this exercise in illuminating the texts, particularly effective in highlighting the humour near the surface of the diaries. Of course, everything felt quite at home in the decorous art deco interior of Wigmore Hall.

Monday, 1 July 2013

Gregg Edelman, Crazy Coqs London

Just before the weekend I caught another set at Crazy Coqs, the (newish) cabaret bar that's bar of the Brasserie Zedel complex just off Piccadilly Circus. The multiple Tony-nominated actor Gregg Edelman had come over to sing a selection of Broadway numbers from the centre ground of the tradition of the Great White Way.

This was a exemplary evening of compering and performing, in the style one would expect sitting in some dowtown NY bar any given night of the week. Inbetween numbers by Lerner & Lowe, Sondheim and Kander & Ebb there were stories from his performing experience and introductions to the songs. We were even party to a little tale of his visiting Fred Ebb's brownstone where a mesmerising morning's singalong culminated in the composer John Kander writing a song specially for Edelman. This is the joy of an evening such as this - that one is invited to bear witness to the incremental growth of the Broadway/American Songbook tradition through the actual personalities and practitioners passing on the songs themselves.

Edelman was joined at the piano by a London based pianist, James Church, who was playing well-judged arrangements of the songs; the duo did a great job of finessing a performance that, as these things are, was probably put together on minimal rehearsal.

Sunday, 30 June 2013

Gloriana, Royal Opera

A second trip to the cinema in as many years to see a staged production relayed live, I was pleased to get an opportunity to see Britten's Gloriana in this the composer's centenary year. The Royal Opera has turned to one of its most reliable directorial collaborators, Richard Jones, to create a production that will not only make the famously unsuccessful drama live but also rehabilitate it. Without giving too much away - especially for those familiar with Jones' fondness for meta-drama and actual physical staging-within-staging - the set-piece forms and solipsist-narrative to be found in the piece are grist to the director's mill, especially in this the 60th anniversary year of the coronation.

I saw the relay in the reliable, beautiful Curzon Mayfair. Like the last time I went to see such an event, facsimilie copies of the cast lists available at the Royal Opera House were available... and music irrelevant to the production was played in all the gaps. I have less of an issue as I have done previously as I am becoming inured to the vernacular of such a screening. I think that the short introductions and descriptions that bookend the relay proper are tastefully done too.

The broadcast is well (i.e. discreetly) directed, especially as - as I have already alluded to - it is particularly necessary to keep all the stage, including the periphery in view if not at all times then regularly. Most important in this respect was 'the spirit of the dance', played by Andrew Tortise, strongly sung but, moreover, utterly engaged throughout as an anxious director mounting the historical masque concerning Elizabeth I for an audience that includes her successor. In a touch of unstinting detail, the assistant chorus master of the Royal Opera Stephen Westrop took to the stage in academic gown to conduct the choral dances.

Susan Bullock was wonderful as the queen herself, interior focus as the isolated monarch a real benefit of the camera close-up. Toby Spence as her lover Essex was credible... as was Essex's wife, played as a 3-D deer in headlights by Patricia Bardon. Elsewhere Brindley Sherratt as the minstrel and David Butt-Philip as the Master of Ceremonies (extraordinary costumes both) made much of minute parts.

The opera suffers from trying to be too many things for too many purposes. Yet there is good music within. It doesn't make for a comprehensively satisfying evening's opera but this production does it great service.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Juice, St. Giles Camberwell 2013 Concert Series

Last night I made my way down to Camberwell to attend a concert as part of the St. Giles Concert Series. A functioning church across the way from the important South London Gallery, the church is another stop on the strip that works it way down to the increasingly celebrated Peckham Car Park, an unlikely but successful performance venue. With the recent launch of the Camberwell Composers' Collective - some of whose music was being performed - it's clear that the area has acquired its own artistic significance in London.

I had come to hear my friends and colleagues Juice, an all-female vocal trio who have been performing new and experimental music together for ten years. I'd heard the group in the past but only as part of larger events. This was also an opportunity to hear some of the music from their recent, well-received album Songspin.

There are plenty of benefits to any live performance that playing the album cannot give the listener. The group's in-built sense of theatre is foremost among them and this is how they started, with the ululations of Suzanne Rosenberg's Herding Call coming from the sanctuary and transepts of the church. A lot of Juice's material explores the hinterland beyond the identifiably sung; in the first of the music written by the performers themselves, Kerry Andrew's own Lunacy uses techniques suggested by the work of the great American vocal inconoclast Meredith Monk to extend Rosenberg's opening palette of sonorities. It also introduced the acoustic of the space (surprisingly clear and present, despite the background traffic noise) and Andrew's own effective, bassoon-timbred contralto sound, as physical a texture as it was audible.

More conventional music and singing came with Emerald and Saphire [sic], music by Piers Hellawell originally for the Hilliard Ensemble). The group work extremely hard to make their text communicable, paring the sung sound right down so that vowels are not distended in a trade off with projection or volume. This was most plain in one of the most successful sets of the evening, a quartet of love songs: Roxanna Panufnik's Faint Praise, a setting of a naughty Wendy Cope text (there is clearly a distinction between poems to be read alone and to be performed!) was followed by Anna Meredith's Heal You. A highlight of the evening, this laid back work with its well-judged glissandi took on the character of a central American slide guitar ballad. Dai Fujikura's Away We Play was certainly a contrast with neurotic, consonant led ensemble-stitching before the calm was revisited in Jim Moray's folksong setting.

Alongside the clarity of the performance, Juice maintain a welcome sense of informality in their performance by talking about the music between sets, just as well as the preparation of props for Laurence Roman's Hilaire Belloc settings was fraught. Still, the theatricality of the trio brought the narrative of these fables into relief. Rather more sober in narrative was Anna Snow's own Seven Star Girls. A complicated rhythmic introduction gives way to a lovely barcarolle-in-alt, as the text and music together pull us through mountain-top mist. To complete the native compositions Sarah Dacey's arrangement Cruel Mother is a harmonically febrile work relying on tuning as focused as anywhere else in the programme.

To finish, the group gave a polished rendition of their CD opener, Paul Robinson's Triadic Riddles of Water, music of Reichian clarity and complexity (but more succinct!) that brought us back to the spatial antiphony and play of the opening. A notably high-quality concert for the Concert Series to have secured the event was well-attended and received, to the extent that that inevitable CDs-available-at-the-back actually sold out. The artistic stock of the Camberwell-Peckham axis continues to climb.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013


It's been a fortnight of arts awards. Amongst the most high profile - and certainly the most worthwhile - were the RPS Awards. As Ivan Hewitt wrote in the Telegraph, 'Nothing delivers a good time as infallibly as real quality, and there was plenty of that on display'.

Yet it's a throwaway line from another bash, the TV BAFTAs that stuck in my mind. Olivia Colman, winning the first of two awards, accepted her awards with the words 'turns out it does matter.'

Yes. It matters. In the non-mainstream world of music-making that is classical music it can be very difficult to get honest feedback of any sort, let alone appreciation. By this I mean all manner of non-reception, from the complaints of the wall of silence from audition panels (for which one has often spent hard cash as well as time and effort) to the experience, such as mine last month, of performing to an audience fewer in number than that of the performers on the stage.

In the performance hinterland between college and the major institutions there are countless opportunities to perform, especially in London. The social media revolution means that advertising these events is easy and non-intrusive. Friends and colleagues, more than ever, can attend through choice rather than a sense of duty.

Those friends and colleagues that populate audiences offer welcome support. Moreover, it's great to get congratulated by those one doesn't know. There really is some reward in knowing that these people - whatever their background, or understanding of music or performance - have been affected by the event.

However, for the career musician, especially those trying to develop new work, having more concrete feedback is really useful. It's good for the artist to be able to consider; it's good for the artist to be able to share. Above all, especially for an ephemeral art like music, it is priceless having something that fixes the performance in time and fact.

On the face of it, the ease of digital creation, self-publication and dissemination might make this seem much easier. Functionally, it is. What becomes difficult, probably in direct proportion, is a sense of objectivity. Where does one find an aesthetic bulwark in the midst of this ocean of creativity and, correspondingly, of taste and ideas?

More than this, publishing opinions remains a tricky area. It's not difficult to see this. Either one is a paid-up critic or one is informally recording their own reaction to the event*. In other words the writer either feels insulated from any personal relationship by professional objectivity or excluded from being objective by their personal relationship.

Awards ceremonies, like those mentioned above, are a pleasant fudge in this respect. It's an entirely positive forum, where goodwill and celebration smothers any implication of others' work being less good. They make a virtue of being cheerfully partizan. It's how I run this blog.

In the classical music business proper (unlike its ersatz, pop-hybrid counterpart) success is built and maintained, principally, in the manner of a conventional career, i.e. incrementally, consistently and meritocratically. Yes, like any part of the entertainment industry, the sense of success is susceptible to the false gods of hyperbole, celebration of an artist's work based on concomitant issues - sales, fashion, personal investment and the like. That doesn't mean that voicing that recognition, from Tweeting, blogging and podcasting to hard publication and broadcasting doesn't count for a great deal. It might turn out to matter.

* Originally and parenthetically, 'one mustn't forget, blog = biographical log*, i.e. it's about the person writing it'. No, blog = 'web log', of course, pointed out to me since publication, so removed. I hope the broader point of the writing being personal still stands

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Shostakovich Orango, Philharmonia & Voices, Esa-Pekka Salonen, RFH

The other day a friend of mine was talking about a thought experiment that became a bestselling book. The Invisible Gorilla refers to selective attention, where significant incongruity may be filtered out if one's focus is elsewhere. The experiment came to mind once more as I watched a semi-staged performance of the Prologue of Orango, an unfinished opera by Shostakovich, given by the Philharmonia and Philharmonia Voices under the direction of Esa-Pekka Salonen as part of the The Rest Is Noise season at the Royal Festival Hall.

Of course, the eponymous ape-man who is brought on like a pale imitation of King Kong (right, in the film of the same year as the opera fragment, 1932-3) was very much the centre of attention in Irina Brown's staging. But then, the fact that the work was shelved, unfinished and unperformed (it was proposed as a stage work to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the October Revolution) suggests that the Orang wasn't so much The Invisible Gorilla as the MacGuffin in a satirical work, at odds with the hagiograph expected of the composer. Man-as-beast was clearly the metaphor of choice in the 1930s. Where the humanity of King Kong was being asserted, so Berg's Lulu (left incomplete at the composer's death in 1935) draws an explicit parallel with the bestiality of men. The prologue of that opera invites the audience to attend the 'menagerie', referring to the cast indiscriminately as various animals. All of this pre-dates the disappointed anti-Stalinism of Animal Farm by a decade.

There is plenty of satire in Shostakovich's score for Orango, most of it bold-gestured style-pastiche. Yet as Gerard McBurney, who reconstructed the recently discovered piano score, pointed out in the pre-performance talk, the pastiche also, er, apes rather more sober, canonised works of the Russian repertory, from Tchaikovsky's 4th Symphony to Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov. Indeed, in this performance a 'classic' propaganda film of a girl working a sickle in a field (a sop to a gathered crowd for whom the promise of the ape is not seen as sufficiently 'unusual'!) over-lays the most Westernised part of the score, a laid back dance number with the trademark brush work of a jazz kit drum. Shostakovich's playful eclecticism clearly strayed into the politically transgressive.

The skeletal staging embraced this. Philharmonia Voices were uniform in Miss USSR sash-costumed ensemble as a herd of Communist true-believers. Impressively fine-tuned for three days rehearsal, this included maniacal flag waving, a blissed-out pastoral dance with sunflowers and the veneration of their copies of Pravda (cunningly concealing their scores), led by the foreman baritone of Ashley Riches.

A small ensemble (partly from the ranks of Philharmonia Voices) took roles the front of the stage. Observing this scene of national festival either through binoculars (to suggest the scale of the pageant) or recording it in word or film (to suggest its significance), the titillating subject of the opera holds less interest than the state's achievements - the reverse of The Invisible Gorilla. However, worn down by the sweet tongue of Ryan McKinny's Entertainer, they agree to suffer Orango (Richard Angas), or at least the banana-munching Zoologist (Allan Clayton). A showman cut from the Entertainer's cloth he cannot help but invite trouble, offering Orango a snifter before letting the ensemble get a little closer... the panic that sets in as Orango gets a bit grabby is brought to a stop only with Elisabeth Meister's scene-stealing running scream straight out of the stalls door and the Zoologist's tranquiliser syringe (for me, uncomfortably recalling the sedation of a protestor at an inquiry into the Russian Kursk tragedy in 2000).

The farce comes to an end with the chorus congealed further in identity behind masks (rather like in the Royal Opera's The Minotaur, or even the LSO's recent Oedipus Rex) and the Zoologist munching his way through the bananas intended for his charge. The Philharmonia orchestra, masters of the immediate assimilation of style and equal to the most taxing of individual or corporate passages are ideal for this high-spirited score. Esa-Pekka Salonen enjoys himself without capitulating the shady history of the work's non-completion to its surface appeal. I had also forgotten about the discreet amplification/enhancement that had been overt at the start.

The piece itself is, inevitably, disposable - there simply isn't enough material to make the characters more than their avatars. It's well worth the outing though and certainly helped contextualise the performance of the fourth symphony, given in the second half; as Gerard McBurney noted, the final bookend to this period of Shostakovich's compositional style.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

19th Century Opera Scenes, Morley College

The BBC football commentator John Motson was once asked what his job's routine involved. He replied that on top of the Premier League games which he covered weekly he would also make a point of visiting lower and non-league fixtures at least once a week, to keep abreast of the grass roots, maintain some perspective and maybe even see some rough diamond of talent emerge.

Motson's work sprang to mind as I attended an evening of opera scenes at the adult education institution Morley College in South London last night. The evening consisted in an evening's contiguous performance of eight opera extracts. The simple musical and stage arrangement - piano and conductor, lit stage with a pair of tables and chairs - is no doubt a function of Morley's modest resources, but also representative of the focus on the essentials that put acting, movement and, of course, singing as a priority in presenting an operatic scenario.

The 19th century repertoire in question is not to be undertaken lightly. Even with the pared-down accompaniment, played with conspicuous musical restraint by Kelvin Lim (with Philip Headlam conducting), the gestures the music and its drama demand can often be grand, taking in considerable amplitude of techincal and emotional range. This was certainly the case in the section of Verdi's Luisa Miller, Thomas' Hamlet and the closing stretch of Verdi's Don Carlo (the Act 4 'Justitia' ensemble), and of course in the selected extract of Meyerbeer's La Prophete, (Grand Opera in name). For these, particularly, the emphasis was in moving fleuntly through the blocking that director Joe Austin had prepared, maintaining an unfussy staging without collapsing into a static concert delivery.

For the other extracts - two delightful outtakes of Verdi's Falstaff, a duet from Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore and a sparkling trio from Berlioz's Beatrice and Benedict - the linking conceit of the space representing a cafe lifted and framed the discursive basis of these ensemble scenes. When not involved in a scene, singers also took on acting roles to supplement the drama (or in one case to supplement an indisposed singer from the 'pit' - pragmatism being the first and most important lesson in theatre!). Costumes and props were kept to a minimum, no doubt provided by the performers as appropriate but comfortable for performing.

The outcome was a very sure and entertaining evening, the emphasis properly being on the work and its drama. And yes, there was some impressive singing. Away from the big houses or other well-trailed professional productions one can often feel cut off from this essential part of the operatic experience. It was nice to re-connect with some of that in this situation.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Stage Notes with Sound And Music, Royal Opera House

Today I attended an event, Stage Notes, curated by the charitable foundation Sound And Music  and hosted by the Royal Opera, which gives those attending a chance to hear from leading professionals in the world of opera. The event had been successfully trailed earlier in the previous week on Twitter using the hashtag #soundingout, which seems as accurate a description of the nature of the event as anything else.

In three stages, the day gave us a panel discussion - that pictured above, with Judith Weir, Martin Crimp, Laura Bowler, Oliver Mears and Jonathan Reekie, chaired by Susanna Eastburn - followed by rather more practical presentations from John Fulljames and composer Jennifer Walshe, concluding with the creative trio of Huw Watkins, David Harsent and Julian Philips discussing the collaborative process.

In fact, the collaborative nature of opera was a theme almost from the start of the day. Judith Weir offered that part of the attraction for her of writing opera was the ability for the composer to break the invisible bounds of solitary work and create in tandem or more. The end of this opening discussion came full circle to this issue. Why do opera at all? To pursue the elusive experience of a number of art forms working simultaneously, seemed to be a popular answer to this tricky question.

Inbetween there were rather more prosaic tips from the panel. Martin Crimp warned against trying to write too much music into a text, as that was what the composer was there to do. For him, one should be prepared to write 'the forgotten novel' the anonymous, stand-alone text on which the aggregated artwork of an opera can be built and shine all the brighter. Jonathan Reekie agreed and was also in agreement with Laura Bowler's insistence that an opera composer should have spent plenty of time experiencing straight theatre.

I was a little concerned that there didn't seem to be a great deal of mention of singers and writing music that would be geared to getting the best from sung drama and storytelling (although Reekie did make the point that writing sundry work for the voice is a pre-requisite exercise). Similarly the opera audience wasn't addressed particularly and a Q&A question that asked about the future climate of opera was as hedged about the market for opera as it was about the direction and potential of creative talent currently in the ascendancy. Digital media and its impact on the nature of the creation of opera  was similarly raised but not particularly picked over, save for positive noises about accessibility.

After coffee John Fulljames gave a tricolon deconstruction of the important tenets of producing opera: Direction and the parallel role of the Dramaturg ('who works out how one could stage this opera, not how one could do this particular staging of this opera'); the audience - 'nothing puts off a commissioner more than failure to be prepared to engage with a potential audience'; and a reminder of the essential emotion of the artform, a welcome reminder that there's no shame in working with sentiment.

Fulljames handed over to the secret weapon of the afternoon, the energetic, entertaining but deadly serious composer Jennifer Walshe. Making no bones about being an auteur (citing the likes of Werner Herzog, the filmmaker, as a model or at least an analogy) she gave all sorts of examples of how she would simply get on and do lyric drama. On the face of it a lot of what she had to say directly contradicted the formal niceties of individuals and their experiences of collaborating (Martin Crimp's being drawn to the simultaneously sensuous and intellectual components in his collaborator George Benjamin's prior work, for example). For Walshe, tiny sparks of interest or problem-solving would fall on and flare from the bone-dry tinder of her company which she would encourage to offer ideas on a daily, experimental basis. The only formal structure seemed to be her executive responsibility. Thought this struck me as capricious, when I asked how this squared with what Fulljames had said about engaging with the potential audience, she gave the consistent meta-answer that she didn't see the audience as a demographic but as a body of humans. this may be unsatisfactory to a producer but it's honest, something that can be worked with.

The nature of events such a these is that they are rather general. One can take from them what one wants. I was there in a very general capacity, to gauge a sense of opera's climate and direction and to hear from the pragmatic and creative poles across which the electric current of live lyric drama sparks. There was very little aesthetic discussion (I left before the final quorum of contributors, so more may have been mentioned there). It seemed to me that not much has changed in the nature of the artform - nor in the content which it makes its subject. The question that many might have liked to have debated at greater length in this company, what is opera?, was wisely left segregated for another forum.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Written On Skin, Royal Opera

George Benjamin's new opera Written On Skin brooks no half-measures on paper. A first class cast with one of the most independently-minded directors in the UK made this austere work one of the hits of the Aix Festival last year. I, for one, was delighted to get the opportunity to see the production on stage* as I had watched part of the broadcast from Aix online which felt as if it did the split level, multiple-focus staging few favours, not to mention the inevitably poor acoustic reproduction of my stereo hardware. Here's the trailer for the Royal Opera's production (on the main stage):

The apparently straightforward plot involves a proud, proprietorial man hiring a boy to write a book as a hagiograph, only to cause sexual and psychological emancipation in both the homeowner and his young wife, ending in tragedy. Yet the production gives the impression that something else is at work: around the staging area of the plot is a complex of rooms that suggest the manipulative hand of higher beings, angels (as they are actually referred to) perhaps, gods or something more prosaic and familiar to us today - politicians or scientists.

Certainly the discussions, morals and behaviour of the characters is based upon an older, conservative moral code that one might reasonably refer to as religious. One friend suggested the dress is middle eastern. Another saw the group as rural 19th century Russian and I felt the setup might have been rural American Lutheran.

The point here is that the truth is just out of reach. Everything about the staging, the design, even the story - rendered in a comic-book, speech-bubble form by the characters (e.g. the man sings '... said the man,') - leaves the sensibility of the production floating, standing off itself.

The result is to concentrate the attention on the aesthetic, the music and the singing, the deliberate movement of the cast. Benjamin's music is carefully orchestrated, the sustained strata of sonorities not a blanket but a series of diaphanous veils through which the voices don't have to force. The orchestra colour consequently comes from the timbres of individual instruments rather than harmonic hues. Similarly the voices of the cast experiment with parlando extremities (which the spare orchestration allows at a simple dynamic level). The equivalence of style and substance is confirmed by the use of a staircase in the final act reminiscent of one of the key works of the aesthetic movement, Burne-Jones' The Golden Stairs (right).

By the end of the opera, I was unsure whether I was watching genuinely metaphysical action or a satire; whether the principal plot was in the 13th century past of Martin Crimp's source text or in a dystopian future beyond the angels' 'present'. However the emotional trajectory and deliberate action of all on stage delivers a strong impression that is worth the considerable debate that happened in Bow Street afterwards.

*I saw the dress rehearsal

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Barb Jungr, Crazy Coqs, Brasserie Zedel

The marvellous new space in the Brasserie Zedel, The Crazy Coqs, is designed with the 1930s heyday of club performance in mind. The intention is that it should host the variety that one associates with the more all-embracing nature of Cabaret. Yet Barb Jungr's Cabaret evening had no props or stunts and, as she herself told us, not much talk either. This was an evening dedicated to the austere central axel of the Cabaret show, song.

The Crazy Coqs stage is not dissimilar to the crescent dais of Wigmore Hall's performance space and for all the informality of Barb Jungr's approach (gracious, effusive but still dry with North-Western wit) and the fuscia-shaded lamps on the tables at which we drank, this was a recital. The comparison with the Wigmore is conscious. Though the emphasis on acoustic connection is simply not a priority to the Cabaret artist, who typically uses amplification, the concentrated focus on the content of a song and the ever-mobile relationship between words, melody and the intention of the composer in putting them together is what brackets the popular singer and the recitalist together (indeed, one might just read the end of Edward Seckerson's brief note on the death of Richard Rodney Bennett to get a succinct idea of what the best musicians think of the implied segregation of popular and 'art'-song).

The theme of Barb Jungr's set (just over an hour without a break) was 'To The River' and took in a number of celebrated songs with that went up to and sometimes past the water's edge. I first began to realise I was watching the real thing at the slow-but-sustained rendition of Waterloo Sunset. This was the first song of the evening to achieve that tricky alchemy whereby the song is stripped of its famous performance history (a hit for The Kinks) to live afresh under its own terms.

This occupation of a song was a subject of some discussion afterwards. This is the second area where pre-war classical recital repertory differs from Cabaret, where song is brought alive from a page but popular song increasingly has to disentangle itself from the vocal and charismatic stamp of its celebrated performer (yes, usually just one).

Reclaiming a song from its pungent recorded history is more than a question of changing its arrangement, manipulating its melody and introducing an alternative voice. These are cosmetic adjustments to the song. Such re-appropriation of the song as a vehicle for the performer is easily overdone; it is the part of Cabaret to which I am allergic, when it brews self-indulgence and nondescript emoting.

This is not the way of Barb Jungr. She sings inside the song, not out in front of it. Joni Mitchell's River seemed to be a simple-pleasure number about a stretch of water for Jungr, dramatically curdled at the end with the realisation it was a fantasy to get to a lost lover. At the centre of her performance were a pair of songs, Old Man River, 'one of the greatest songs of the Old American Songbook' followed by Bruce Springsteen's The River, which she describes as 'perhaps one of the greatest of the New American Songbook'. Calmer than The Boss' striding approach Jungr's is narrated with all the pathos of barely realised youthful liberty fresh in the foreground.

Jungr's gift is in building and maintaining the temperature and trajectory of the song. She also has what I take to be a thoughtful microphone technique, meaning, as I understand it, changing the proximity of the mic to not only control dynamics but also the curious chemistry between the amplified voice and the acoustic voice in a room modest enough for that to have its own colour and coercion. Naturally all this combines in some drama on stage which was well-managed with the house sound and lighting engineer. Jungr was performing with the pianist Simon Wallace who moved between some carefully wrought arrangements to looser improvised backings. His style is decorous rather than tending towards the more baroque stylings of jazz, though a harmonically kaleidescopic break in an extended middle eight showed that he was probably holding himself back.

We did get a number with harmonica but we didn't get any Bob Dylan. I'm more than tempted to return to hear what this unique performer does with those songs.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Salad Days, Riverside Theatre

It's great to be able to get a third chance to go and see Tete-a-Tete's Salad Days at the Riverside. A sold-out hit when it was first produced at the Riverside in 2009 (and once more since) this modest, energetic, unfailingly English - with the possible exception of pronouncing the word 'niche' in the American 'nitch' - postwar vaudeville is all technicolour sunlight & smiles.

I haven't enjoyed myself so much in a theatre for a long while. All facets of Bill Bankes-Jones' production conspire to delight, from the astroturf stage in the round to the bright yellow backcloth. A pre-curtain conceit of having the cast show you to your seat as if at a university graduation also sets the tone, not only of welcome and proximity, but also the unstinting professionalism of the in-character cast who never laugh at the sixty-year old show but always with it.

Above all in this respect is the meticulously tooled English enunciation, which allows the book to breathe afresh and the cast to smile relentlessly. This is particularly noticeable in the piano-pianah number (like the Gershwins' Let's Call The Whole Thing Off) where middle-class and estuary divisions spill over one another, clear and rich. Dance numbers are just as finessed and often song and dance occur at the same time. If you're on the front row, as I was, you might even get an idea of the effort involved by the spray of sweat.

This is my second, unashamedly upbeat show of the new year (Jack Frost counts as 2013 for me!) and also has plenty of pantomime-style touches, with minor audience participation in an infectious dance set piece and a song about singing, right at the end. There's also plenty of pun-work in the text but it's delivered without winking (though the drummer in Anthony Ingle's fine four-piece band is prepared to help point the jokes).

The ideal show to escape the bunker mentality of cold old London town in January.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Jack Frost's Christmas Adventure, St. John's Smith Square

Pantomime is best with the family. I didn't have a clutch of 5-year olds to hand but recognising one or two friendly faces on the stage and sitting behind an involved family of seven meant that I got the full effect of this new Christmas-themed children's musical staged at St. John's, Smith Square. The interior of the concert hall had been shrunk down with black curtains, making the audience space shallower and narrower (no seating under the galleries), a sensible decision that brings the audience closer to the front of the stage - and made little of being part of a modest audience at eleven o'clock on a New Year's eve morning.

The performance is a modest affair in scale too. A six-hander with a live band also of six (including the composer Jeff Moore directing from the piano) Jack Frost's Christmas Adventure is performed on a bare stage with a 'snow machine' at the footlights and a frosty seat for the eponymous Jack at the rear. The familiar backdrop of a window looking out into the square has been left in preference to a special backcloth. With this decision to keep the interior aspect of the auditorium more used to recital and orchestral concert and with the performers singing without amplification in the space, St. John's has retained its character.

The cast of a half-dozen have to work fairly hard in this situation. Though the songs are straightforward enough for the well-trained voices there is a great deal of choreography, as a necessarily high-energy child-centric show demands, as well as the unfamiliar demands of stretches of spoken dialogue and interaction. Matthew Sharp's Jack was excellent in the title role, managing a wink behind the gruff premise (his new type of snow has caused him to fall out with Santa and he's refusing to make any snow for Christmas) and slightly alarming make-up. Jack's son and Santa's daughter (Nick Allen & Joanna Foote) are the conventional lovers and Jane Webster eschews the Grotbags approach to the 'evil' Anti-Freeze with good reason: not only is the happy-ending an all-inclusive affair, but her lament of a final number benefits from her proper singing.

Above all I loved the rather more outrageous, crowd-pleaser characters, peripheral to the story but essential to the snap and crackle of the panto at this show's heart. Melanie Lodge played her Elf as a charismatic Essex blonde with wildly elastic emotions (and poses). She shares the stage with Peter Willcock's furry-white-onesie clad Polar Bear, quietly keeping the flame of the panto dame and leading the inevitable singalong number with some technical tips thrown in.

Rachel Barnett's book is played straight by director Bernie C. Byrnes; this is a lean musical that knows it's a panto but doesn't overplay the sentiment and concentrates on telling the story. Jeff Moore's music grins with melody (was that the Sussex Carol popping up in a first half number?) and there was plenty of interest from the young girls in front of me when instruments - particularly the horn - were featured.

In fact in the final analysis there's no better arbiter than the children who laughed a great deal and were more than happy to join in, though it must be said there was a little restlessness at the second of two ruminative numbers so soon after the interval. The honesty and charm - and bubble and foam of the snow machine - of the piece and performance were irresistible to children whether in age or at heart, as the opening number suggested.