Wednesday, 27 January 2010

I like Despina, she’s not quite as stupid as Dorabella.

I visited the Royal Opera House last week to interview Helene Schneiderman about her role as Despina in the upcoming revival of Jonathan Miller’s Così fan tutte. She has sung Dorabella in the same production, so she is going from victim to collaborator in Don Alfonso’s scheme. In this production, Despina is not in it for the money, she just wants to have fun. In fact, the whole production sounds like a lot of fun. It opens on Friday (29th Jan at 7pm). In the mean time, you can read the interview here.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

34 Year Old Opera Fan: a Demographic Anomaly?

Reading Rupert Christiansen’s review of the Royal Opera’s newly revived Rake caused me a few concerns. Firstly, I thought the review itself is grossly unfair: ‘a superficially bright idea’, ‘precise to the point of being pedantic’, ‘no fun at all’. I have my own issues with Stravinsky’s score, but in my view the fault is his alone. And it takes a stern sole indeed to miss the fun in this production.

But on a more personal note, I was even more worried by the demographic that the Telegraph’s dating service has allotted for me on the basis on my online reading. My possible mates, as selected for the page on which the review appears, are lined up above. Am I exceptional in enjoying opera in my early-(OK, mid-)thirties? Of course, none of these gentlemen would seem out of place in a Covent Garden audience, Alf1 is even suitably attired. But with no disrespect to him, Seabirdsailor or John555, you guys are just not my type.

Friday, 22 January 2010

The Rake at Covent Garden: Too Spectacular for its own good?

Just a few despatches from the opening night of The Rake’s Progress revival at Covent Garden. Most readers will already have seen the spectacular production stills from the previous staging (the concept is Hogarth’s London transferred to 1930s Hollywood), though I have to say it is even more breathtaking in the flesh. The revival has a new cast, and all put in excellent performances. Top honours go to Kyle Ketelsen as Nick Shadow, followed at a hair’s breadth by Toby Spence in the title role. Spectacle is the key to this production, and the staging of each scene combines jaw-dropping visual innovation with a loyalty to the essence of the story. And the direction is impeccable, with every potential visual gag or sly interaction exploited to the full.

But there is one serious flaw in the whole conception, and it’s the music. I don’t want to come over all Adorno about Stravinsky’s neo-classicism, but the music in The Rake’s Progress really is at the workaday end of his Mozartian spectrum. Certainly, it is skilfully crafted, and his arias and recitatives do everything the story needs. But that’s all they do, and the work is functional to a fault. In more modest stagings, the composer’s lack of ambition is less glaring, but in a spectacular production like this, you begin to wonder why so much effort was put into making something so visually powerful out of such a slender musical offering. Bizarrely, the scene changes become the focus of the audience’s attention. Cast and orchestra do everything they can for Stravinsky, but the uncharacteristic modesty of his score puts his music in an unusually subsidiary position to the spectacle.

Monday, 18 January 2010

New Album from Amy Dickson

If you haven’t yet heard of classical saxophonist Amy Dickson, you’re about to, and in a big way. She is on the front cover of at least one leading music magazine next month, and her new album has been singled out as an ‘Editor’s Choice’ in another. On it, she plays the Philip Glass Violin Concerto, a movement of John Tavener’s The Protecting Veil and Michael Nyman’s Where The Bee Dances, the first two works in her own transcriptions. I met Amy last week to discuss the project. Read the interview here.

Friday, 15 January 2010

NYJO approaching stop time?

It is perhaps unsurprising that arts funding in the UK is approaching a precipice, especially if Jeremy Hunt has anything to do with it. Even so, it is distressing to hear that the National Youth Jazz Orchestra is on the ropes. The coverage of the story in the Times doesn’t inspire much confidence either. According to them, NYJO’s primary claim to fame is that Amy Winehouse used to sing with them. I can’t help wondering how much they make out of their regular, and always successful, Ronnie Scott’s residencies. But don’t worry, salvation is at hand, the campaign to raise the funds needed has the support of the all-party parliamentary jazz appreciation group. That’s a relief.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Maurice Murphy MBE

A great concert by the LSO yesterday evening, Elektra with Gergiev (you can find my review here). Something interesting caught my eye in the programme: Maurice Murphy, the orchestra’s former principle trumpeter has been awarded an MBE in the New Year Honours.
Last year I was doing some research on brass bands in the late 1950s, and looking though back issues of British Bandsman from the time, I repeatedly found photographs and articles about the new star signing by the Black Dyke Mills Band, a very young Maurice Murphy on solo cornet.
Fast forward to the late 1970s, and to the title sequence of Star Wars. That’s Maurice Murphy at the top of the brass section through all those riveting fanfare sequences. He deserves his MBE for that session alone in my opinion. Congratulations Maurice!
You can listen to an interview with Maurice, produced by the LSO for his retirement in 2007 here.

Monday, 11 January 2010


After my grumble last week about the lack of Mahler available on SACD, I notice that the Chicago Symphony own label has finally embraced the technology and released an SACD Mahler 2 with Bernard Haitink. Judging by the Urlicht on the cover CD of this month’s Gramophone, it could be something special. It’s probably fairly ponderous, if Haitink’s track record is anything to go by, but as Simon Rattle has repeatedly shown, there is nothing wrong with a steady pace when it comes to Mahler 2.

Speaking of which, an article by Tom Service in today’s Guardian gives a run-down of ‘Must-have Mahler’ recordings. Rattle’s 1987 2nd Symphony account is there, and I’d certainly agree that it is a must-have. A nod to Bernstein is inevitable in such exercises, and Service has plumped for the Vienna Philharmonic 5th recording. While I would grudgingly agree, I can’t help the feeling that his 1963 2nd Symphony with the New York Philharmonic would have shown his Mahlerian talents to better effect. And then put Zinman in for the 5th?– that’s a must-have too.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Milton Babbitt’s Lighter Side

I was recently reviewing a new CD of Babbitt’s Clarinet Quintet (by the Phoenix Ensemble, Innova 746 – it’s good, but the Feldman coupling is better - my review his here) and was struck by a passing comment in the liner notes. The work is apparently infused with jazzy rhythms and is at the breezier end of Babbitt’s aesthetic. I needed this pointing out as it sounds typically crunchy to me – not that there is anything wrong with that of course, that’s just the way I like it. But one interesting fact was used to demonstrate Babbitt’s lighter side: in 1946 he wrote a Broadway musical! Broadway, it hardly needs to be said, wasn’t interested. The mind boggles, but it seems that Babbitt has had a soft spot for musical theatre throughout his life. The failure of this one project was apparently one of the reasons he abandoned that path and instead ensconced himself in the Princeton electronic music studio.

The work is called ‘Fabulous Voyage’ and is a theatrical retelling of Homer’s Odyssey. Dawn Upshaw and James Levine gave a few of the numbers an airing in 1999, and Allan Kozinin of the New York Times came away particularly impressed by “Penelope’s Night Song”. Could it be time for Broadway to make amends for this slight? For opponents of Babbitt’s atonal sounds (and indeed of his aesthetic dogmas) it may well be too late. It could have been an impressive dual career though, and success on the boards might have tempered some of the composer’s more intolerant opinions of composers who weren’t following his chosen path.

And it all might go to explain another conundrum. Stephen Sondheim famously studied with Babbitt, and like Cage with Schoenberg, I’ve always wondered what common musical ground there could have been between teacher and pupil. Well, now I know. I’m struggling to get my head round the idea of Babbitt as a light-hearted melodist though.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Gustav Mahler: his SACD time will come?

The Mahler anniversary bonanza of 2010-11 (that’s 150th birthday followed by centenary of death) seems of be off to a quiet start, but I can’t help the feeling that we will have had more than our fill of the man 24 months from now. I say that as a passionate Mahlerian myself, but one who is struggling to think what else the orchestras of the world can possibly do with his work, having spent the last 20 years or so more than making amends for their previous neglect.

One thing they could do is fill the gaps in the composer’s SACD discography. His are symphonies that make great showpieces for recording technology, and just as the composer’s centenary in 1960 ushered in the era of stereo recordings of his work, so the 150th looks set to mark the start of the SACD era of Mahler recordings. Or so I hope. Could it be, in years to come, that folks look back on these years and think first and foremost of the David Zinman cycle with the Tonhalle? He is my top choice among the current Mahler heavyweights, but perhaps history will judge him too mainstream. Mariss Jansons could yet become the Mahlerian of our times, although on the evidence of his recent BRSO 7th Symphony recording, his interpretations are likely to remain on the peripheries for some time yet, if only for their bold originality. Then, of course, there is Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra. It is unlikely that they are going to get as far as a full symphony cycle in the near future, but it is a tantalising idea. I have to say that I am itching to invest in one or all of these propositions, but perhaps I’d better wait until the end of next year and see what, if anything, the industry has up its sleeve.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Highs and Lows of 2009

Happy New from OrpheusComplex! How was 2009 for you? My attentions were diverted from blogging for most of the year (sorry about that) as I was putting all my spare hours into concert and CD reviews for the website MusicWeb International. So I’ve been to plenty of concerts and got a good flavour of the London classical scene over the year. Without further ado then, here is a whistle-stop tour of London concert life in 2009.

It started on a low note for me with Vladimir Martynov’s Vita Nuova played by the LPO. I won’t go on at length about the failings of the piece (there was plenty of that in my review), but I will say in retrospect that the Jurowski’s bravery in programming it is all too rare. He may have been banking on Mark Padmore’s star qualities to appease critics and audiences. If so it didn’t work. However, all was forgiven come November when Jurowski headed a Schnittke festival with same forces. I was involved in that myself so I’m probably biased, but the phenomenal standard of the orchestra’s playing put Schnittke’s music in a new light for me. It was the festival that the BBC SO ‘Seeking the Soul’ event in 2001 should have been.

The Philharmonia had some grand plans in 2009 as well. Like the LPO (and just about every other orchestra) they have a young(ish) Eastern European conductor who has raised their game considerably over the last year or two. In fact Esa-Pekka Salonen has had more than enough time to settle in with the orchestra, although we don’t see as much of him in London as many of us would like. But when he is here, he makes his presence felt. In 2008 he brought us a spectacular (and almost year-long) Messiaen festival, while in 2009 he followed it up with a spectacular (and almost year-long) festival of Viennese music from 1900-1935. I missed the Gurrelieder that opened the season in February (and I’m still kicking myself), but got to the Wozzeck with which it closed. What a show! Intense, passionate singing and playing throughout, a strong cast headed by the peerless Simon Keenlyside, and an abstract video projected visual installation, which divided the critics, but which I thought was great. All in all, probably the best show I’ve seen in London since, well, the Tanagalîla with which they opened their Messiaen festival in 2008.

Mark Padmore returned to the RFH in Holy Week to bring us his take on the Matthew Passion. He has taken Joshua Rifkin’s one-to-a-part approach to a new extreme and done away with the conductor too. Instead he takes a workshop approach, doing everything in his power to get the performers to feel the emotion and interpret the work both individually and collectively. How strange then that the results seemed so conventional to me. Not in a bad way, but he was really just playing out the internal logic of today’s period performance conventions to their absurd extremes. There wasn’t much press interest either, perhaps because he has done the same thing with the John Passion a few times in the past, or more likely because all the critics bypassed the performance and made a beeline for the Barbican, where the Gewandhaus were giving an old-school Matthew Passion, with modern instruments boys choir, and most significantly of all, Thomas Quasthoff.

I got to a few good recitals at the Wigmore. The Seven Last Words interspersed with the Gesualdo Tenebrae Responsaries was an interesting one. Or it seemed like pretty radical programming to me, until I heard from a contact in Cologne that the singers who performed the Gesualdo, the Hilliard Ensemble, cooked up a similar ruse for a concert over there the following week, but that time mixing up their Gesualdo motets with the movements of Mahler 7. A little more than London audiences could stomach I suspect. Of the other star-studded recitals I got to at the Wigmore, my favourite by a good stretch was the Wolf Italianisches Liederbuch performed by Mojca Erdmann and Christian Gerhaher, both young, phenomenally attractive and superhumanly talented. No wonder the TV cameras were there. And imagine my joy on putting my hand into my stocking on Christmas Day and pulling out the new Harnoncourt recording of Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust, which features them both, and which doesn’t disappoint.

Where else? A mixed bag from the Barbican I thought. The LSO played magnificently under Haitink, ok under Colin Davis and dreadfully under Daniel Harding. I didn’t get too much by the BBC SO, but their George Crumb day was a treat. Just a shame they couldn’t have stretched it to a whole weekend.
And speaking of the BBC, what a dismal Proms programme. Roger Wright has sensibly dropped the ‘themes’ that his predecessor had running through the season, but he hasn’t come up with much to replace them with. For all that though, I got along to two, the Dresden Staatskapelle and the Leipzig Gewandhaus (I see a pattern emerging), both orchestras putting the local sides firmly in their place.

There were one or two treats at Cadogan Hall for anyone willing to venture into the wilds of Chelsea. The Norwegian Chamber Orchestra performed with Lief Ove Andsnes, an elegant little concert framed by Mozart’s 14th Concerto and Beethoven’s Third. The Tallis Scholars brought us some Reformation era choral music, conclusively demonstrating that Catholics know how to have a good time in a way that Protestants do not. The Stratford-based Orchestra of the Swan performed a new work that they had commissioned, a clarinet concerto by Joe Phibbs, the soloist Sarah Williamson. A fabulous piece and a fabulous player, but where was the audience? Oh well, their loss.

Lastly, and by no means leastly, there was an impressively varied programme at Kings Place in 2009. An evening of Haydn opera arias from the Classical Opera Company was well received, in IRCAM ‘residency’ intrigued and satisfied in equal measure, the Endymion’s excellent performance of Morton Feldman’s Crippled Symmetry was a small but significant step towards proper recognition on the London stage for one of the 20th Centuries most distinctive voices. And then there was ‘Collage-Montage’, a reconstruction by Pierre-Laurent Aimard of a concert he had staged at this year’s Aldeburgh Festival. An experimental effort at best, I would have to say, but an all-too-rare opportunity to hear performances of Boulez and Ligeti from the greatest pianist ever to have tackled their works.

All in all, then, a good year for classical music in London. Most promoters continue to schedule diverse and often challenging works, with little apparent concession to the financial climate. And orchestral standards continue their exponential rise, the Philharmonia and the LPO the stars of the year as far as I am concerned. And to look forward to? Well, Gergiev is conducting a concert Elektra in the second week of January and then there is the BBC SO Wolfgang Rihm weekend in March. And how about an evening with the New York Philharmonic with their new conductor Alan Gilbert and their new commission, EXPO by Magnus Lindberg. A packed couple of months, and that’s just at the Barbican. Bring it on!