Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Music without Politics – A Myth Founded on Vested Interests

Once again classical music finds itself embroiled in a war, fortunately only of words, connected with the Israel/Palestine conflict. Former Archbishop Desmond Tutu has condemned plans by Cape Town Opera to visit Tel Aviv next month on the grounds that the plight of Palestinians today equates to that of blacks in apartheid-era South Africa, obliging the international community to impose similar sanctions.
The other side of the argument was represented in the press by Hanna Munitz, director of the Tel Aviv Opera, who will be hosting the Cape Town company. She was quoted as saying:"The agenda is culture and art, and definitely not politics. Both houses relate to culture as a bridge, the aim of which is to be above any political dispute."
The previous high profile intervention of the Middle East conflict in the smooth running of the classical music world came in March this year, when demonstrators disrupted a performance by the Jerusalem Quartet at Wigmore Hall in London. On that occasion too the press turned to the management to act as the voice of classical music reason. James Gilhooly, Director of the Wigmore, said that: "By disrupting performances, the protesters completely take away the whole meaning of an artistic event, which is something that transcends politics."
So what exactly is this nebulous hierarchical relationship between art and politics? The suggestion is that art has no political dimension, or rather that its functioning is unrelated to political activity.
Does anybody actually believe that? Clearly, arts administrators would have a much easier time of it if what they promoted was insulated from the outside world, with no social or political connotations. But sublimating those connotations through notions of 'transcendence' isn't going to make them go away.
And it is a myth that does the art itself a disservice. Art and music that consciously engages with political issues is a rarity these days, but it is important that audiences have the right to interpret all art and music as having a direct relevance to their social situation. Anything less and it becomes merely entertainment. The performers in the situations described above are in a catch 22 if it is their employers making these claims. So perhaps musicians should be grateful to Archbishop Tutu for highlighting the political dimension of their work. On the other hand, it is probably just as well that he is not doing so loudly from the auditorium while they are trying to get on with it.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Helmut Lachenmann Chamber Music Day QEH 23.10.10

Helmut Lachenmann Chamber Music Day: Arditti Quartet, Helmut Lachenmann (piano), Oliver Coates (cello), Clio Gould (violin), Sarah Leonard (soprano), Rolf Hind (piano), Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 23.10.10 (GDn)

Helmut Lachenmann wants us to listen in a new way. What he means by that can be difficult to put into words, he'll use expressions like 'playing the piano rather than playing on the piano', which don't necessarily make things any clearer. Fortunately, his music – all his music in fact – makes the point explicitly, and with an immediacy that makes his alternative approach to sound seem almost intuitive.
One of the events of the Chamber Music Day was a discussion with the composer. At 75, he is of the immediate post-war generation of German composers, and like all of his contemporaries, he spent the early years of his career searching for ways to resurrect the German musical tradition from the apparent impasse it faced in the 1950s. Being a German composer, Lachenmann is an artist who deals with tradition and seems to continually reconcile what he does with what has gone before. However, that is something you'll only realise if you hear him talk; his music seems miraculously unencumbered by tradition.
It turns out that one Lachenmann's most significant early influences was John Cage. At the talk, Lachenmann mentioned 4'33" as a work in which the listener is obliged to listen differently, to explore new ideas of what music is. This is the deep level at which Lachenmann seeks to alter our perceptions, and any performance of his music takes us back to the basics: we have a concert hall, performers, instruments and an audience – that's all you can take for granted. If his works engage with musical tradition (and I still have my doubts), it is through the radical reinterpretation of the performance situation.
Lachenmann's project is surprisingly insular. At a time when composers around the world are increasingly obliged to take on cross cultural and multimedia influences, Lachenmann continues to explore a distinctively personal sound world. In practical terms, this means that performers have to submit wholly to his aesthetic. He regularly collaborates with performers, but judging by what he expects of them, this must surely be because musical notation is unable to express exactly what he needs them to do. Lachenmann is the godfather of extended performance techniques, and the production of almost every sound in his works is the result of an instrument being used in an unusual way.
Fortunately, the Arditti Quartet have the measure of this music. The expertise they brought to the first concert, spoke of many years of deep engagement with the composer's work. They take on the extended techniques as if they were second nature. To give an idea of the sort of thing we are talking about, the concert featured: the back of a violin being played with the bow, bowing the tail piece, the head, the pegs and the bridge of the cello, plucking violin strings with the tensioning nut of the bow...the list is seemingly endless. But the coherency of these performances lay in the fact that the performers didn't treat any of the techniques as if they were unusual, and for Lachenmann they are not, they are the basis of his aesthetic.
The two works in this first concert, the 1st and 3rd String Quartets were written in 1972 and 2001 respectively. The difference between them is remarkable. In the first, there are virtually no pitched sounds (in typically Cageian fashion, Lachenmann takes little interest in the distinction between sound and noise). He talks about 'perforated sounds', and the timbres produced by the various performing techniques could well be thought of as an array of different levels of perforation. In the 3rd Quartet, pitched sounds are the basis of most of the textures, and there are a surprising number of instances of notes being produced on the strings of the instruments with the hair of the bow. But the radicalism remains, as if Lachenmann has spent the intervening years claiming traditional timbres for his personal sound world. Consonances and chords appear, but even then, Lachenmann ensures we are listening to them differently, as if all their former meaning had been stripped away.
The evening concert began with the composer himself performing the piano suite 'Ein Kinderspiel'. These early pieces are a kind of manifesto, setting out his radical ideas in simple terms. So in one work he plays a chromatic scale from the top to the bottom of the piano. The reason? Well, Lachenmann is of the opinion that the banal in music equates to no music at all. So this chromatic scale is merely a medium. In the composer's words, it means that rather than playing a chromatic scale of the piano, he is playing the piano on a chromatic scale. There then followed two solo works, played by cellist Oliver Coates and violinist Clio Gould. Both handled the music well, and were able to make all of the unusual effects sound, but neither were quite up to the level of the Ardittis in terms of their fluency with Lachenmann's language.
The final work was a song cycle entitled 'Got Lost'. Soprano Sarah Leonard and pianist Rolf Hind are seasoned Lachenmann performers, and this was a very impressive performance. The composer spent many years incorporating vocal music and language into his work, a project that was initially focussed on his opera 'Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern' and later on a series of spin-off projects, of which this is one. Predictably, perhaps, we are in a world here of Cathy Berberian vocal effects, singing into the case of the piano, plucking the strings, striking the soundboard with a hammer. Personally, I find Lachenmann's innovations with string technique superior to his piano devices, although his most significant innovation with the instrument has been to treat the keyboard as a resonant body and explore the sounds that can be produced without actually striking the keys. It is an interesting piece, and the most recent of the works on the programme, demonstrating that even in his 70s, Lachenmann is as inquisitive and adventurous as ever in the continuing expansion of his distinctive and utterly original sound world.
Gavin Dixon

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

LPO Vänskä Szymczewska RFH 13.10.10 Review

Magnus Lindberg: Al Largo (UK premiere)
Felix Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto
William Walton: Symphony no.1
Agata Szymczewska violin
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Osmo Vänskä conductor
Royal Festival Hall 13 October 2010
Magnus Lindberg used to say that he never wrote slow music. Clearly then, a work entitled 'Al Largo' marks something of a departure. For better or worse, it is certainly out of character. His work is always distinctive, and if you're familiar with his earlier works you'd certainly recognise him from this. But it is interesting to hear what happens to his music when he slows it down. Suddenly you realise just how Romantic it all is. He is a composer who works in gestures, in emotive devices that create a human level beneath the industrial/modernist surface. Take that surface away and you start hearing a lot of Strauss, Mahler even. It does seem like a regressive step, although Lindberg was never an aesthetic polemicist. You can't accuse him of hypocrisy, but I'm tempted to accuse him of selling out.
But tempo apart, all the usual Lindberg traits are there. Every single texture and line has an icy purity, a real focus and conviction that is all too rare in new music. And there are fast passages in this piece, each a welcome reminder of earlier times, that feel for multiple agogic levels with the fastest layer a sort of base unit for other, more complex rhythmic processes. His orchestration is as acute as ever too. This is a really tough score for the orchestra, but their efforts are well rewarded. In general though, the work is experimental at best, a promising indicator of wider artistic horizons ahead for its composer, but not a patch on his earlier music.
Potential is also the word that springs to mind when listening to the young violinist Agata Szymczewska. On the strength of this performance, I suspect she is going to be one of the great violinists of our times. She's not there yet though, not quite anyway. Her reading of the Mendelssohn was cautious and, dare I say it, naïve. That might be down to her age; she was born in 1985, meaning that many of the violinists playing this concerto on the London stage today have been been doing so since before she was born. We certainly get a new approach from her, and it is wonderful to hear a performance that is so unencumbered by performing tradition. She goes easy on the rubato, and tends to articulate the phrasing through subtle dynamic shifts rather than by emphasising cadences. Perhaps it is not naivety, perhaps it is sophistication, but I like the way she rescues this music from the worst Romantic excesses it is often subjected to; you could easily play Mendelssohn as if it were Wagner, but I suspect neither composer would thank you for it. Szymczewska is not quite as secure with her articulation as she needs to be, especially with such a well known work. Paradoxically, her tuning in the fast passage work was better than in the slow sections. Like Lindberg, her musical home is clearly the presto.
It is a real joy to watch Osmo Vänskä work. He has a small, spindly frame, and by eschewing tails in favour of a simple dinner jacket he just looks like just another member of the orchestra. But the energy that he transmits from the podium is phenomenal, and he has a seemingly inexhaustible repertoire of gestures and physical expressions, most of which involve his whole body.
He is just the man for Walton 1, a work where energy and drive are paramount. There are subtleties to the work that he overlooks, especially in the various ways that phrases join or are separated by rits and caesuras. But his approach works just as well and it involves pushing through the music and relying on the sheer momentum that the orchestra can offer. A top notch orchestra is clearly an indispensable aspect of this sort of approach, and it is clear that this is a man who has carved a distinctive interpretive niche by only working with the best. The strings and brass really gave it their all, and special mention should go to Lee Tsarmaklis, whose round yet penetrating power was the decisive factor in the success of many of the climaxes. Great playing from the lower strings too, all the strings actually, I don't think I've ever heard the ostinatos of the first movement or the fugue theme of the last punched out with such clarity. The slow movement was a little fast I thought, resulting in some slightly congested woodwind solos. But then everything in the symphony was fast, and it always seemed to work out in the end. In this work, Walton is always working towards a climax, but it is never the sort of climax you are expecting and it usually comes before you are expecting it. That is why Osmo Vänskä is the ideal conductor. He knows how to pull surprises out of his hat, and he knows how to make well-known music sound fresh and new just through microscopic changes in the placement of chords. Walton thrives on that stuff, and Osmo Vänskä clearly does too.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Review: LSO Barbican Hall 12 October 2010 Siem, Dvořák, Janáček

Sasha Siem: Trickster
Dvořák: Violin Concerto
Janáček: Glagolitic Mass

Colin Davis conductor
Michael Francis conductor
Anne-Sophie Mutter violin
Krassimira Stoyanova soprano
Anna Stephany mezzo
Simon O'Neill tenor
Martin Snell bass
Catherine Edwards organ
London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra

How do you make meaningful contact between new music and non-specialist classical audiences? The LSO/UBS Soundscapes commissioning programme is based on the principle that there is a young generation of composers out there who won't see it as a compromise to their artistic integrity to go against the Modernist rhetoric of their teachers and produce something palatable. And true enough, there are a good number of young composers who thrive in this sort of situation, but while exposure is always good, I'm not sure they are being put in the best light. The commission stipulates a limit of five minutes, ensuring that the work will be dwarfed by what follows. The première is also insulated by the fact that it is led by a different conductor, as if to ensure that the programme proper is not tainted by the association of new music.
In the face of all these constraints, both practical and artistic, Sasha Siem has made the most of the opportunity offered by the commission. Her work 'Trickster' makes a virtue of its short span, it is punchy and full of surprises, but not over ambitious or straining against the 'audience friendly' requirements. In fairness, the musical material is slight, and there is often a sense that the continual repetition of motifs is only to fill the time rather than to further any minimalist agenda. But what it lacks in thematic ingenuity it makes up for in drama and in subtlety of orchestration. She likes the device of interrupting pianissimo chords with full orchestral tuttis and visa versa. She is also adept at creating large scale orchestral textures in which every player is doing something both unique and essential. There seemed to be everything but the kitchen sink in the percussion section, despite the fact she was only writing for two players. In sum, a successful fulfilment of a commission with questionable aims, and a frustrating suggestion that Siem has much more to say but was being denied the chance.
It was good to see Michael Francis on the podium for this work. London audiences have few chances to hear the work of the generation of talented British conductors who are now in their 30s because, surprise surprise, Germany and America offer them the chances that they don't find here. Francis is up there with the best of them, and this score really gave him a chance to shine. Every bar seemed to be in a different asymmetrical metre, and he took it all in his stride.
Dvorak's Violin Concerto, in my opinion, fully deserves its obscurity. The themes are hackneyed, the orchestration is serviceable at best, and the structure manages to be both morbidly formulaic and waywardly incoherent. Anne-Sophie Mutter evidently disagrees, and made a passionate argument for the work's virtues with this performance. There is a lot of Bohemian folk-fiddling in her playing, more I suspect than the composer would have sanctioned. She also made a big thing of the abrupt gear changes, suddenly launching into a new theme at an unexpectedly fast (and occasionally slow) tempo. I don't find her tone particularly elegant, but the grainy, guttural sounds of her lower register fits well into the rustic feel of her performance. She also has an impressive knack of creating a wide, embracing tone at the lowest end of the dynamic spectrum. That is a real asset in the slow movement, and is also a big help in combating the sullen acoustic of the Barbican Hall.
Speaking of which, the idea of performing the Glagolitic Mass here seems counter-intuitive to say the least. Does the hall have space for a choir? No. An organ? Nope. A reverberant acoustic suitable for a mass setting? Forget it. And yet, the performance of the Mass in the second half was a real triumph, and to a certain extent that was thanks to the hall rather than despite it. Having the huge forces of the orchestra and the choir in such close proximity, both to themselves and to the audience, seemed to intensify the experience. Many of the movements end on a climax that is suddenly cut short. But by not having to wait for the decay, the continuity with the following movement was all the stronger. And there was nothing wrong with the electronic organ; it had all the power you could want, and Catherine Edwards rendition of the solo movement came close to upstaging the entire choir and orchestra.
But everybody excelled in this performance. The orchestra performed with the kind of searing intensity they usually reserve for Gergiev. The choir coped well with the arcane language, and managed to hold their tuning even in the loudest passages. The four soloists also proved equal to the task. Simon O'Neill again demonstrated why he is becoming the tenor of choice for all the supercharged roles. He was always in tune, with a round yet penetrating tone, and most importantly, he was always audible, even when the full orchestra and choir where going full whack.
There is no sign of Colin Davis letting up I'm pleased to say. It isn't an easy piece to conduct, the Glagolitic Mass. The frequent changes of tempo and mood need somebody with years of experience in the opera pit. And the sustained intensity of the work needs energy and stamina reserves a conductor half his age would struggle to muster. But he continues to produce wonders with the LSO. Long may he continue.
Gavin Dixon