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.