Saturday, 11 October 2008

Day One at Kings Place

Attending the opening day of a major new venue is a fascinating experience. Everything works, more or less, but every activity is taking place for the first time, and nothing runs smoothly. Visitors are not sure where they are going and are greeted by an army of guiders on entering the building. No one has quite worked out how to use the touch screen systems on the cash registers or the volume controls for the public announcements. And the pretence that the construction work has been completed on schedule is soon dispelled by the sound of hammering and sawing from the floor above.
Teething troubles only, no doubt, but there is a sense at Kings Place that everyone is out to impress. This is the first day of a week-long opening extravaganza for the venue, with its two halls hosting 100 concerts running morning, noon and night. Those who have made it in early for the first, a 9.30 am concert by the London-based Endymion Ensemble, are in a receptive mood and are ready to forgive the minor inconveniences.
The opening of Kings Place is a significant event in London’s musical life. It is the first purpose built classical music venue to open in the city since the Barbican Centre in 1982. Its business model is markedly different to those of other venues. The project is privately financed, and the venue will be expected to pay its own way, without the government subsidies that keep most of the UK’s classical music afloat. The visual and performing arts part of the Kings Place project is intended as the welcoming public face of a building that will otherwise accommodate smart offices. Which is not to say that the music venues will rely on the office rents for subsidy. Peter Millican, the CEO and driving force behind the project is confident that conference and business events hosted in the halls themselves will provide the funding they require.
One variable in this equation is the future prosperity of the area. Kings Place is located just behind Kings Cross station to the north of the city centre. The location is central enough to prosper, and the public transport links offered by the twin stations of Kings Cross and St Pancras are among the best in London, with suburban, national, and even international trains (from the channel tunnel) terminating here. Besides Kings Place, the major development prospect for the area is a project called Kings Cross Central, a housing, shopping and entertainment complex planned for a site on the opposite side of the road. But work has yet to begin there, and for now Kings Place stands in splendid isolation with its elegant modern facade of rippling blue glass set against a background of dilapidated housing blocks, various rail sheds and a petrol station.
The first impression on entering the building (after having been copiously greeted and directed) is of a distinctly corporate environment. Not surprising considering this is the foyer of an office block. The ground floor is given over to cafes, a restaurant, a small gallery facing onto the street and a very small box office. (Online ticket buying is encouraged, with airline style dynamic pricing to encourage early booking with lower prices.) Escalators at the far end descend into the basement arts space. No Nibelheim this, but rather a well lit atrium consisting of an art gallery spread across two floors and doubling as a foyer space for the two concert halls. The upper floor of the gallery is a balcony stretching around the four walls, wide enough to be considered a mezzanine but leaving enough headroom for the lower floor to be considered grand. Each day of the opening week begins with a performance of Ligeti’s Poème Symphonique for 100 metronomes, with its clockwork performers lined up around the edge of the balcony. In this context, the work is more installation art than music, as the metronomes are virtually inaudible over the ambient foyer noise.
The metronomes could be considered a statement of artistic intent, but only in that they demonstrate the diversity of the music on offer. Another unusual feature of the Kings Place project is that no single artistic director has been appointed. Short concert series will be staged with relative artistic independence, each running to just a handful of performances. The hope is that, rather than being seen to lack artistic focus, the venue will gain a reputation for diversity and appeal to multiple audience groups. Western classical music will be the core element of the programming, but jazz, world music, dance events and the spoken word will all appear on the schedules. The initial programming matches this diversity with an impressive quantity of events, suggesting that the aim of this first season is to find a foothold for the venture in as many cultural sectors as possible.
The combination of diversity and quantity is also reflected in the use of the available space. The main hall has only 400 seats, but there is also a second hall of 200 seats and a variety of other rehearsal, education and, of course, conference spaces. Hall two is effectively a studio space and has been designed with diversity of use in mind; the seating is movable and the acoustics tailored for various forms of amplified sound.
But the excitement in London leading up to the opening of the venue has been generated by hall one and the acoustic it offers. There has long been a feeling in London that the city’s classical music is poorly served by the concert halls in which it is performed. There is a hope that Kings Place may go some way to putting this to rights.
Stepping into the hall, the first aural impression is of leaving the ambience of the resonant atrium behind. In fact, the hall sits on rubber feet to shield it from the inevitable vibrations from the major transport hub next door. The hall is a classic shoebox, making the acoustic easier to model and control. The walls are panelled with oak with a variety of angled surfaces in rectangular recesses to texture the sound. The seating is slightly raked, providing excellent sight lines, and a balcony around all four walls also offers a range of fine vantage points. The upper third or so of the hall in linded with large rectangular arcades, and the resonance can be controlled with movable curtains behind. The sound is both warm and clear, proximity to the performers being an obvious advantage of the small scale. Inevitably, the sound varies according to position, but for my money the front of the stalls and the side balconies offer the greatest transparency. The concerts scheduled for the opening day, ten in all, included chamber instrumental works in the morning, lieder recitals in the afternoon and 18th century opera excerpts in the evening. In the instrumental works, the detail of the sound is the most impressive feature. Even the keys of the new Steinway rising to their resting positions are audible. In the vocal music, the florid resonance was the key feature, not overbearing but rich and satisfying.
Kings Place is primarily a chamber music venue, so the natural comparison is with the Wigmore Hall, the undisputed home of chamber music in London. Thankfully, the Kings Place acoustic offers a very different sound. It’s certainly clearer and warmer, but the Wigmore’s dryer, more traditional sound is likely to remain the preference of many. Whichever way, the Wigmore Hall’s status as the centre of all things chamber music in London seems secure.
But unless the new venue draws audiences away from existing halls, it is difficult to see how it can remain viable. Discussion of Kings Place in the UK media has been split fairly evenly between praise for the acoustic in its main hall and concern over its business model. The audience base for classical music in London is estimated to be around 30,000, and many are of the opinion that existing venues can more than meet this demand. To succeed, Kings Place will have to either poach business from other venues or expand this core audience through innovative programming and marketing. The evidence so far is that they are planning to do both.
The odds may be stacked against the long-term viability of Kings Place as a music venue, but Millican and his colleagues have brought sound business sense to the project, with a number of impressive supporting strands weighing in its favour. The Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment and the London Sinfonietta, the UKs leading period instrument ensemble and contemporary music group respectively have moved their offices to Kings Place, and each has been given a prime office space at a peppercorn rent. Both ensembles are now officially resident in the hall. This will bring excellent publicity, especially given how well the acoustic will match their respective sounds. Another cultural coup has been to sign up the Guardian and Observer newspapers as the first commercial tenants, papers with a reputation for thorough and enthusiastic performing arts coverage.
Kings Place is a venue with a distinctly corporate atmosphere, an arts project based on a venture capital business model. Peter Millican himself admits to having virtually no experience of arts management, but his track record with major business ventures is enviable. He is not expecting the Kings Place concert halls to make a profit, but he is expecting them to break even. Today’s financial climate makes any talk of long-term stability seem optimistic, and Millican is clearly an optimist. But he has shrewd business sense and creative ideas about how the project can work. The fine acoustic of his concert hall combined with the diversity and quality of the music he has planned for it make the venue a major asset for London. With any luck the books will balance and Kings Place will become a mainstay for classical music in capital for years to come.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Messiaen and the Twenty-First Century

Sixteen years after his death, the distinctive voice of Olivier Messiaen still resonates through much of today’s contemporary music. His eclectic, yet instantly recognisable tonal palette and rhythmic ideas have helped to define the musical priorities of successive generations of younger composers. Messiaen had the unusual and enviable position of a progressive artist with a genuinely popular following. And as a teacher he seems to have taken on an almost mythical status for aspiring composers, with his classes at the Paris Conservatoire attracting pupils from around the world. Many of Messiaen’s ideas live on in the work of these pupils, but personal advocacy is only part of the story, and Messiaen’s continuing relevance to new music is evident in a wide array of compositional approaches and styles.
Some aspects of Messiaen’s legacy are easy to define. For the whole of his adult life he held the position of titular organist at the church of La Trinité in Paris. The music he wrote for the organ there virtually created a modernist repertoire for the instrument from scratch. And the ondes martenot benefited immeasurably from his advocacy. The ondes, an electronic keyboard instrument invented in the 1920s, figures prominently in a number of Messiaen’s scores, most notably the Trois petites liturgies and the Turangalîla-symphonie. The survival of this quintessentially analogue device into the digital age owes much to the established repertory status of these works.
But other dimensions of Messiaen’s art remain with us in less tangible forms, aspects of his aesthetics and musical philosophy that remain common currency among living composers. This is partly explained by his long a committed teaching career, bringing him into direct contact with the major figures of later generations. Regular performances of Messiaen’s music around the world have also helped maintain its profile. And it has proved worthy of the high exposure, losing none of its relevance or originality and continually defying its status as music of a past millennium.
Messiaen specialised in large scale music, vast organ cycles with up to eighteen movements and orchestral works requiring unprecedented instrumental resources. But in the 1950s and 60s it seemed that his most significant and lasting contribution to musical culture would be an austere piano work lasting just over three minutes. Mode de valeurs et d'intensités was written in 1949 when Messiaen was teaching at the Darmstadt summer school. The Darmstadt courses were a catalyst for many developments in post-war music, with like-minded composers coming together and sharing ideas. The biggest idea in the late 40s was the removal of arbitrary or intuitive factors in musical composition in favour of mathematically constructed rigour. Arnold Schoenberg’s theory of serialism was the inspiration for this approach. Schoenberg applied numerical sequences to the pitch content of his later works but relied on fairly traditional (not to say traditionalist) compositional techniques when it came to rhythm, articulation and musical form. Messiaen was never a serialist, but for his pupils at Darmstadt Mode de valeurs was a powerful stimulus for the advancement of serial composition. Messiaen’s short piece formalises the relationship between pitch, rhythm and attack by attributing a set duration and articulation to each pitch. The work is rhythmically complex but puts across an undeniable sense inner logic to the listener. Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen, amongst others, soon realised that this idea could be combined with Schoenberg’s system of pitch series in order to interconnect every aspect of a work’s composition with a mathematically rigorous logic. By the mid-1950s works like Stockhausen's Kreuzspiel and Boulez’ Structures, both based on this system of ‘total serialism’ were heading towards manifesto status for the new avant-garde. For a time, modernist composition in Western Europe was dominated by this approach, with its now ennobled practitioners (Boulez in particular) dismissing any other form of composition as redundant. The hegemony finally waned in the 1960s, but the combination of the complex and the rigorous lives on in many forms. New complexity, the musical ethos linked to Brian Ferneyhough and a number of his pupils and followers, including Richard Barrett and James Dillon, has inherited much from Boulez, Stockhausen and their contemporaries. These composers lead the contemporary music scene in terms of the richness and rigour of their rhythmic manipulation. Messiaen was perhaps not the only source for this elevation of rhythm in modernist composition, but his work proved an important catalyst.
Back in Paris, the idea of applying mathematical rigour to music was taking another of Messiaen’s pupils in a different direction. Iannis Xenakis arrived in Paris in 1947 after a colourful career as a teenage fighter in the Greek resistance and attended Messiaen’s Conservatoire classes from 1950 to 1952. Xenakis’ approach to music had always had a mathematical flavour, but arriving in Paris he found himself expected to study the traditional compositional disciplines of harmony and counterpoint. Xenakis was unwilling (and also apparently unable) to bring these traditional techniques to bear on his music. But Messiaen was sympathetic to Xenakis’ formalising tendencies, at the time so in line with his own, and encouraged him to continue experimenting. The result was a completely new musical aesthetic in which number theory, statistics and probability eclipse traditional forms of sound manipulation. Much of today’s computer music is indebted to Xennakis’ pioneering work, from the musical fractals of Charles Dodge and Rolf Enström to the algorithmic permutations of Paul Lansky, Morton Subotnik and even Brian Eno.
But characterising Messiaen as the father (or perhaps godfather) of mathematical music highlights a paradox, for the majority of his works are expressive and melodic. Pieces such as Modes de valeurs and the occasionally ‘dodecaphonic’ (to use Messiaen’s description) Livre d’orgue date from a relatively brief period of experimental activity. For Messiaen, music was essentially a symbolic medium with a power of expression that encompassed both the spiritual and the sensual. The application of rigorous compositional procedures opened up new technical possibilities, but the resulting abstraction conflicted with his desire to communicate and express through sound. In the mid-1950s he turned away from these predominantly cerebral composition techniques and turned instead to the sound of birdsong. Messiaen valued the immediacy and melodic richness of music derived from birdsong transcription. He was not the first composer to intimate the sounds of birds (Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons contain famous examples) but he was the first to integrate its melodic content as a fundamental compositional principle rather than merely a decorative addition. Major works such as Réveil des oiseaux and Oiseaux exotiques are constructed entirely of birdsong transcriptions and explore the musical potential of the irregular phrase patterns and erratic variations practiced by the birds themselves. The integration of birdsong into compositional technique has taken a number of different directions in the work of later composers. Of Messiaen’s pupils, François-Bernard Mâche has taken to analysing the sound organisation within birdsong to inform the deeper structure of his work, and Jean-Louis Florenz has combined Messiaen’s fidelity to the sounds of birds with more traditional narrative structures. Elsewhere, the Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe has introduced the string quartet to the sounds of birdcalls, evoking his homeland through its birds. Torsten Aagaard-Nilsen has drawn on birdsong as a melodic resource in his music for brass band, while the young British composer Tarik O’Regan has returned to the intrinsically vocal quality of bird calls in his recent choral work Dorchester Canticles.
From the mid-1970s Messiaen concentrated his creative energies on large-scale composition, producing some of his largest works such as Des canyons aux étoiles, the monumental five hour opera Saint François d'Assise, and his final completed orchestral work, the eleven movement Eclairs sur l'Au-delà. Often slow but never thin, these expansive soundscapes return a sense of breadth and perspective to modern music that for decades had idealised miniature forms and finely wrought textures. His devout faith played an important part in this process. These large-scale works have none of the megalomania of the late romantics. Instead he acts as a humble witness before the vastness of creation, reflecting its richness and its scope with a devotional sincerity that imbues these vast temporal spans with ritualistic significance. Not liturgical ritual (for which Messiaen considered only Gregorian chant appropriate) but rather the enactment of a deep spiritual engagement with nature and with the universe.
Messiaen’s music encouraged many modernist composers to look up from the details of their scores and to open their music up to broader perspectives of time and space. In France, the Spectralist movement, founded in 1972 by a group of composers including Messiaen’s former pupils Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail, began writing works based on the computer analysis of instrumental sounds. Having established the basic compositional material with the computer technology they then returned it to traditional instruments and wrote a string of vast but engaging works in which the inner nature of sound forms is explored. Pieces such as Gondwana by Murail or Grisey’s Les espaces acoustiques commune with their basic acoustical elements within vast aural soundscapes, and the example of Messiaen’s majestic largo movements helps them to transcend the dry technicality of their genesis.
In Japan, a country that has long had deep affiliations with French music, Messiaen’s large-scale works demonstrated how western compositional practice could operate outside of Western notions of temporal linearity and come closer to eastern thought. Toru Takemitsu, the leading Japanese composer of the late 20th century saw his music as the direct descendant of Messiaen’s and made a conscious effort to continue these temporal innovations. In Eastern Europe, Messiaen’s combination of musical breadth and the spiritual engagement provided a model for a new kind of religious music. A generation of composers in the Eastern Bloc sought to return to devotional subjects as the state imposition of secularism in the arts crumbled. Messiaen’s approach to musical time acted as a link between the earlier avant-garde experimentation of these composers and the spiritual dimension they now sought. Unlike Messiaen himself, composers such as Henryk Górecki, Krzysztof Penderecki, Arvo Pärt and Giya Kancheli combined expansive musical forms with liturgical settings, thereby fully realising the Christian dimension of this devotional aesthetic.
The second half of the 20th century was a time of rapid diversification in creative music making, and this diversity is perhaps the century’s most valuable bequest to the music of today. Messiaen appears as a catalyst for many new music traditions. Indeed, the very diversity of his output has proved to be an important part of its significance. Messiaen’s changes of direction (often within a single work) and borrowings from other cultures foreshadow similar tendencies in Stockhausen’s music, most notably Telemusik and Hymnen, and later in the whole project of musical postmodernism. Messiaen was never really an establishment figure, but nor was he an anti-establishment reactionary. Working in eras when modern music was otherwise confined by stylistic orthodoxies, Messiaen was determined to follow his own artistic path. Teaching brought him into personal contact with successive generations of younger composers, and he acted as a mentor to some of today’s biggest names. But Messiaen was first and foremost a composer, and his significance to the music of today is primarily a result of his leading by example, an example that has proved popular with modernists and postmodernists alike.

Saturday, 16 August 2008

Boulez conducts Janacek

Boulez is a popular figure at the Proms, just look at the Arena queue. He filled the RAH with an all-Janacek programme, quite an achievement. Apparently Boulez is new to this repertoire, but you’d never guess that from these performances, which thrive on his trademark combination of expressive intensity and detailed precision.
The Glagolitic Mass is an ideal work for the Proms, especially with this line-up (Simon Preston’s organ solos are worth showing up for alone), but I couldn’t help the feeling that the timing was unfortunate. The work is an unapologetic endorsement of pan-Slavism, a political philosophy that has motivated expansionist policies in Russia since the Tsars. The reviews of this concert will, no doubt, be broadly positive, but will appear in newspapers with stories of Russian aggression in Georgia on the front pages.
Or perhaps I’m taking the music’s history too seriously. The Sinfonietta, which opened the concert, was originally conceived as music for a gymnastics tournament, so maybe Boulez is looking instead to the back pages and programming a celebration of the indoor events at the Olympics.

Sunday, 3 August 2008

Stockhausen Day

Congratulations to the BBC for their Stockhausen Day in the Proms on Saturday. The works presented covered an impressive range of Stockhausen’s output, despite all being either pre- or post-Licht era. The first concert included two Klang works and Kontakte, bookended with two (that’s right, two!) performances of Gruppen. The idea of offering repeat performances of new and unfamiliar works in the same concert is not new, but is usually reserved for shorter, denser works, Webern or late Stravinsky. Gruppen runs to almost half an hour and so dominated the programme through is double presentation. I suspect that the logistics of arranging the orchestra (the BBC SO) into three separate groups, two of which were in the arena, made it seem sensible to maximise the return. I’ve no complaints though; both were wonderful performances, with the BBC SO once again demonstrating their specialist skills in this repertoire.
Paul Hillier and the Theatre of Voices also proved themselves to be both competent and comfortable with Stockhausen’s eccentric scoring and performance directions in Stimmung in the late-night concert that followed. The work is known to most (me included) primarily from recordings, and the recording recently made by this group cannot be recommended too highly. But witnessing the spectacle and ceremony of a live performance of this most ritualistic of works takes the whole concept to another level.
And, of course, Karlheinz Stockhausen recently passed to another level himself. The two Klang works in the earlier concert (one a premiere, the other new to the UK) must therefore be considered as amongst his very last utterances. Harmonien for solo trumpet didn’t do very much for me, but Cosmic Pulses, a purely electronic work, demonstrated why the composer is still worthy of his god-like status in electronica circles. Computer music with 3D spatial projection must be one of the few musical genres for which the Albert Hall is ideally suited. The work takes a group of straightforward musical ideas and runs them simultaneously through permutations of duration, pitch and location. Complex and mesmerising sounds result from this deceptively formulaic process, with the ear continuously drawn around the hall by gradually evolving motifs. The work concludes with each of these streams ascending, both in pitch and location to the speakers around the top gallery. The spinning continues, and the music gradually diminuendos as it seems to lift above the roof of the hall. A final goodbye perhaps, from a spirit who understands its proper place to be far above the earth; a signal pointing straight to its ultimate destination in the Sirius star system.

Friday, 25 July 2008

Troubled Light? Troubled Indeed

So I finally made it to the Proms. And what’s to report? Well, there are a few changes; the fountain filled with inflatable dinosaurs has gone from the arena (I don’t think it will be missed), and the programme cover now sports a psychedelic red and yellow colour scheme. But it terms of the artists and programming, little has changed. Tonight’s offering involved a provincial BBC orchestra (the BBC National Orchestra of Wales with Thierry Fischer), the premiere of a worthy but uninspired BBC commission (Troubled Light by Simon Holt) and a crowd-puller in the second half (Pictures at an Exhibition) that completely failed to pull the crowds.
Simon Holt, the BBC NOW's composer in association, looks destined to be domesticated by the BBC so that he can provide them with a steady stream of uncontroversial works to demonstrate their commitment to new music without upsetting anybody. Troubled Light is a work in five short movements, each based on a poet’s descriptions of light and colours. Predictably, this gives rise to inscrutably complex but widely spaced woodwind chords, shimmering away in a mezzo piano continuum. Growls, slides and pedals in the brass punctuate this and give a semblance of logical musical progression. Everyone expects an unusual percussion effect or two, and Holt obliges with bowed cymbals and friction drums. The composer’s reputation currently rests on a number of impressive short chamber works, and he surely intends to redress the balance with a significant orchestral output for the BBC NOW. In this piece, he seems to be presenting us with all the instrumental effects that he has been waiting all these years to include in an orchestral work. Many of them are very interesting, it’s just a shame he didn’t do us the honour of crafting them into a coherent piece of music first.

Monday, 21 July 2008

La Bohème with a Limp

Physical ailments are never far from the character’s minds in La Bohème. Fitting, then, that the new revival of the Covent Garden staging went ahead without recasting, even after Roberto Aronica, its Rodolfo, tore a knee cartilage in rehearsals. He is now walking with a limp and with the aid of a stick. The director John Copley, apparently took this in his (able-bodied) stride and adapted the production accordingly. The critical reaction has been largely positive; Tim Ashley observed that the limp 'looks incredibly natural - as if this were the way Puccini always intended the role to be played'.

Reading this, I was reminded of a recent episode of the Simpsons, in which Homer becomes an opera singer (Season 19, episode 2). It transpires (for typically convoluted reasons) that Homer has a fine operatic tenor voice, but only when he lies flat on his back. The episode culminates in a performance of La Bohème with Homer in the lead role and the staging adapted to accommodate his unusual condition. At the Royal Opera’s curtain call, roles were reversed, with Cristina Gallardo-Domâs as the recently deceased Mimi assisting the still living (if slightly lame) Rodolfo onto the stage. Fortunately for her, Aronica’s condition was not as disruptive as Homer’s, and she was not required to rise from her death bed repeatedly in the closing scene to allow Rodolfo to sing each of his lines lying down.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Charles Hazlewood at Glastonbury

Just a brief dispatch from the Glastonbury Festival. It’s been a spectacular one, good weather, great music and good times had by all. For me, the highlights included Franz Ferdinand, Pete Doherty, Joan Baez, the Brian Jonestown Massacre, Leonard Cohen, John Cale, Ben Folds and, curiously, a set by the conductor, pianist and broadcaster Charles Hazlewood.
His role for this performance was as keyboard player and generally hands-off co-ordinator. The group he had assembled was as distinguished as it was varied and included the composer Graham Fitkin (also on keys), Adrian Utley (the bass player from Portishead), the cellist-cum-reality-TV-star Matthew Barley, jazz sax legend Andy Sheppard, appropriately new age percussionist Tony Orell and all-round surreal sound source Will Gregory from Goldfrapp on synth, sax, sampler etc. The music of Terry Riley formed the basis of the repertoire, with his greatest hits forming the basis of stylistically sympathetic improvisations. These were interspersed with lighter offerings from Moondog, who was described by Hazlewood as ‘one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century’ before adding ‘who spent most of his life living rough dressed as a Viking’.
‘In C’ set the ambient mood. Hazlewood described it as the musical equivalent of a lava lamp, and in this performance that wasn’t far off. ‘Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band’ was a vehicle for Andy Sheppard’s soprano sax improvisation, with the other players ‘ghosting’ harmonies and atmospheric obbligatos. We were treated to a premiere from Graham Fitkin (didn’t catch the name), which consisted of a heavy repeated note minimalist continuo from the keyboards with semi-improvised solo lines above. The term ‘industrial minimalism’ is a little too sophisticated, ‘loud minimalism’ is closer. Like ‘In C’ but turned up to 11.
They weren’t exactly headlining, the slot was at 12 noon on Friday on an out of the way stage called ‘The Glade’. It was well attended though. A respectable crowd turned up at the publicised time and virtually none were put off by the forty minute sound check overrun. Most, I think, had been attracted by the final work on the programme ‘A Rainbow in Curved Air’. This too was freely interpreted, as if it were a standard from the shared pre-history of ambient electronica. It proved to be the ideal piece for this combination of acoustic instruments and high power amplification. And when those overdubbed analogue synth riffs kicked in at the very start, filling the whole field with warm ambient sound, it was absolute magic. The first great set of a memorable weekend.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Stomach Staples & Strauss

Ariadne auf Naxos opens with an extended backstage prologue, in which cast changes are imposed at short notice by unseen authorities. The history the Royal Opera’s current production seems to be a case of life imitating art; Deborah Voigt was initially booked for the title role but was then sacked because she was too large for the costume. She finally appears in this, the third revival having lost around ten stone through a gastric bypass procedure. Celebrity stomach surgery is currently hot news in the UK, with the daytime TV presenter Fern Britton recently at the centre of a tabloid hypocrisy witch hunt for secretly having her stomach ‘stapled’ while advocating more traditional weight loss regimes to her viewers. No surprise, then that Deborah Voigt has also come under tabloid scrutiny (although slightly more surprise that it is deemed worthy of a front page slot in the Metro, London’s freebie commuter celebrity gossip rag). In fairness, though, Voigt has been very open about the whole affair. It was she who broke the news of her having been dropped from the production, and she has given numerous interviews on the subject since (including this one) and has even appeared in a YouTube self parody, in which she confronts the black cocktail dress that was the initial source of her woes.

But something doesn’t add up. Peter Katona, the casting director who made the decision to sack Voigt from the first production, was adamant that she would not look right in the dress that he had planned for the part. The opera has a 1930s setting, but could hardly be described as revolving around the styling of this single dress. Voigt does indeed look more agile in her now less-than-Wagnerian frame, but the amount of movement required is minimal and could surely be tackled by an overweight singer, even one weighing twenty five stone.

Whatever their reasons, the management have finally come round to the right choice for the part. It took Voigt the first ten minutes or so to settle her voice into the role, but after that she was pure Strauss. She still has the projection and support of a singer of her earlier frame, though a slight brittle edge is now apparent. Most importantly though, she has the star quality needed for the final scene, and her closing duets with Robert Dean Smith as Bacchus carry the evening.

The ravishing bitter-sweet closing scene is Strauss’ party piece as far as opera is concerned, and I couldn’t help the feeling that, in the case of Ariadne, it is the work’s single redeeming feature. The story is ludicrous, even in opera terms (it is about a pantomime troupe invading the performance of a classical tragedy), and the characters are stubbornly two dimensional (perhaps that’s why Voigt had to slim down to fit the role). But it all trundles on for a few hours until it is time for the grand closing scene. Sadly, the performance took a similar approach, with competent but uncommitted playing up until the closing numbers. Mark Elder conducts with a firm hand, and emotions are never allowed to boil over. Perhaps he was just trying to maintain some order in this bizarrely incoherent score, but more Staussian passion would have been welcome throughout, not just in the send-you-home music.

Friday, 13 June 2008

Welcome to Orpheus Complex

Welcome to Orpheus Complex, London’s newest classical music blog. I’m a slightly lapsed musicologist and composer but ever committed concert-goer. This blog will be about the classical events I get along to, and as it is already June, you can expect a strong Proms focus in the coming months.

But first a word or two about the title of my blog. Cursory research (i.e. Googling it) suggests that I’m not the first to have thought up the term ‘Orpheus Complex’. The New York based composer and artist Elodie Lauten writes eloquently (here) about the Orpheus complex as the psychological consequence to the artist of working in a ‘time of cultural devaluation’. A kind of Freudian superstructure for writer’s block perhaps? One of the composer’s ‘neo-operas’ is entitled Orpheo, suggesting that she takes the classical references slightly more seriously than I intent to.

The notion of an Orpheus complex has also been invoked by Terence Dawson in an article about Woody Allen’s Deconstructing Harry (abstract here). Dawson’s abstract makes the point that the persistence of mythical analogies in 20th century arts and criticism is mainly a result of masculine thinking, as women seem better able ‘to free themselves from identification with the mythic pattern.’ We men all have lessons to learn from the ladies then, and perhaps no one more so than Woody Allen.

‘The Orpheus Complex’ is also the name of a mime-based stage work performed by Theatre de l'Ange Fou in London in 2005, a work based, not surprisingly, on the myth of Orpheus. This too appears to be a highly appropriate use of the term and far more apposite than my own misappropriation. In fact, you are unlikely to find any deep psychology in the posts that follow. Mythical archetypes will also be notable by their absence. To the authors, artists and scholars mentioned above I offer my heartfelt apologies for using their terminology in vain. The fact is, I just think it sounds good.