Thursday, October 27, 2016

Meet Barrie Kosky: a kangaroo with a nose for opera

I'm off to see Shostakovich's The Nose at the Royal Opera House tonight. It's directed by Barrie Kosky, the wonder-worker behind (among much else) Glyndebourne's award-winning Saul, an internationally sought-after Magic Flute and, imminently, Bayreuth's new Meistersinger, for next summer. All this added up to a perfect excuse to interview him, and the context of the JC adds certain extra fascinations, especially where Bayreuth is concerned. The piece appeared there in last week's issue, which you can read here.

Incidentally, he also has some interesting words re opera in translation, what's happened at his Komische Oper in Berlin, and why ENO could take a leaf out of its book.

Here's a trailer and the article is below.

Looking out at Covent Garden Piazza from the Royal Opera House, it’s easy to forget that this site, teeming with tourists, was once home to London’s most famous fruit and vegetable market. By marvellous coincidence, the opera director Barrie Kosky’s grandfather from the East End used to have a stall there. Now Kosky, 49, is inside the Royal Opera House’s rehearsal studios for the first time, staging his ROH debut production: Shostakovich's youthful masterpiece The Nose.
The Australian opera director, recently named Director of the Year by the International Opera Awards, has come a long way, and not only geographically. Having termed himself a “gay, Jewish kangaroo”, he is bounding through the world’s great lyric theatres, his fresh and original productions trailing accolades galore. 
His staging of Handel’s oratorio Saul for Glyndebourne in 2015 won a Royal Philharmonic Award and was nominated for a South Bank Show Award; Mozart’s The Magic Flute, which he directed in historic-cartoon style, has been snapped up by opera houses and festivals around the globe. Next summer he heads for Bayreuth to tackle that ultimate paean to German art, Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. 
The Nose. Photo: Bill Cooper
If his maternal grandfather in Covent Garden would be happy to see him ensconced in the Royal Opera House, so would his paternal grandmother, who came from Hungary; it was she who introduced him to opera as a child. “I was bombarded in a wonderful way from the age of seven onwards,” he says, “and by the time I left school I’d seen around 200 operas, not only the popular ones.” When he was 15 a teacher encouraged him to try directing a play at his school; browsing for one in the library he chose no smaller challenge than Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck. 
His family was a melting pot of different Jewish traditions. “My paternal grandfather and his siblings left their shtetl just outside Vitebsk, in what’s now Belarus, after a terrible pogrom around 1903,” he says. “They came to London, via Hamburg, but weren’t allowed to stay in Britain and had to go to Canada or Australia. They chose Australia, where they started a fur business.” This grew eventually to be the country’s largest fur retailer. On a business trip to central Europe his grandfather met his grandmother, “who was from a typical, assimilated, upper middle-class Budapest Jewish family.” On his mother’s side, his English-born grandparents had family members who were involved with the Yiddish Theatre in the East End; Kosky’s father, sent to Britain on business as a young man, married their daughter and took her home to Australia. 
Kosky, having come to terms with the “cities of my grandmothers”, Vienna and Budapest, has settled in Berlin, “which I love”. Yet he also remarks, “I felt I didn’t belong in Australia and would be more at home in Europe, but I still feel an outsider here. I don’t quite know where I fit. But,” he adds, “it doesn’t worry me any more!” Jewish history and culture remain a fervent passion for him, although he describes himself as a “spiritual atheist” who dislikes organised religion. 
His fascination with the inter-influence of Yiddish literature and culture, Russian avant-garde theatre and German Expressionism is feeding his work on Shostakovich’s The Nose. The choice of piece is unusual, deliberately so: “I wanted to do an opera that had not been staged here before,” he says. “It’s difficult to make your debut here, and in Mozart, Verdi and Wagner there’s too much tradition, history and opinion! I’ve wanted to do The Nose ever since I first heard the score while I was at university, but you rarely get to see a production because it’s huge and expensive to put on.”
The Nose. Photo: Bill Cooper
It is based on a surreal short story by Gogol: a man awakens to find that his nose has gone missing and is at large in St Petersburg, living a life of its own. “Gogol combines Russian folklore, superstition, the grotesque, dreams, symbolism, humour and this incredible fantasy,” says Kosky. “I also feel there’s a connection in it with my favourite Yiddish writers like Sholem Aleichem and I.L. Peretz, who I think were heavily influenced by Gogol. 
“I find the story so weird and wonderful. It has almost the logic of a dream; you never quite know what’s happening, and he never explains. But I think it’s dangerous to say that The Nose is a metaphor for this or that. I think it is a delicious piece of nonsense, much more connected with Dada and Surrealism, and with the logic of dreams, like Alice in Wonderland. It’s part parable, part Kafka, part Marx Brothers. 
“We wanted to create this weird and wonderful world of St Petersburg without being literal and without saying what the nose is or represents. That’s for the audience to decide, as in any great fairy story or myth. I think a director’s work has to leave room for those associations and interpretations from the public. That’s not to say that I don’t have a strong interpretation, but I hope that the production allows another set of them to take place.”
It sounds almost as much fun as his Magic Flute production, created originally for the Komische Oper in Berlin, where he became intendant and chief director in 2012. Since he took over, the theatre’s audience figures have shot up — in his first two years they jumped by some 20 per cent — and, intriguingly, he has now ditched the company’s policy of performing in the vernacular translation, favouring the original language whenever possible. 
“There was a time for translated opera, but with surtitles that has passed. It can sound provincial,” he declares. “Nobody wants to hear Italian opera in anything but Italian — and it sounds even worse in English than it does in German, which is pretty bad!” Wasn’t there an outcry? “Not one letter of complaint — but much celebration,” he says proudly, adding that English National Opera could profitably consider following suit.
He is meanwhile preparing his first staging for the Wagner Festival in the composer’s own theatre at Bayreuth. Wagner’s famous anti-Semitism still makes the operas a difficult prospect for many Jewish music-lovers and Kosky admits he is no exception. He recounts that Katharina Wagner, the festival’s current director and Wagner’s great-granddaughter, persuaded him to stage Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, which he had previously refused to approach. 
“Meistersinger is a piece of German ideology and German music about German ideas about music, community and nationhood and culture, written by someone who was obsessed with ideas about what being German meant. It’s the only one of his operas that is not a universal story,” he says. 
“I told Katharina I didn’t think I’d have much to say about it, being an Australian Jew. She said she thought I’d have a great deal to say about it, being an Australian Jew!”
As what he terms a “cleansing” exercise after the Wagner, he plans to tackle Debussy’s Pélléas et Mélisande and, by way of extreme contrast, Fiddler on the Roof back at the Komische Oper. 
“Fiddler on the Roof is the Jewish Meistersinger,” he declares. “I think there’s a very interesting link between Tevye and Wagner’s Hans Sachs and I’m making a point of it. Though I’m probably the first director in the history of opera to say ‘Tevye’ and ‘Hans Sachs’ in the same sentence…”
The Nose, Royal Opera House, from 20 October. Booking: 020 7304 4000

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Possibly my best interview ever

I've been away in Prague to meet the harpsichordist Zuzana Ružičková [from whose name a few accents are probably still missing]. She will be 90 in January and her recording from the 1960s-70s of Bach's complete keyboard music is being released on CD for the first time to celebrate her birthday (on Warner - more details here.)

Her most famous contemporary student, Mahan Esfahani, was there too - and, as you can see, we had the sort of fun time that people don't often associate with harpsichords. But that's these guys all over: the sort of joie-de-vivre and sonic imagination that bounces out of their playing can make you think this supposedly rarified early keyboard is the queen of all the instruments. I've been having a sneak preview of the Bach discs and they are a revelation.

Zuzana survived Terezin, Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. She and her husband, the composer Viktor Kalabis, then had to contend with the communist directives of the Czech Republic. And then came the early music movement. We talked all afternoon. Full results due out in the next little while.

Prague is possibly the most beautiful city I've ever seen. And interesting, too, to note that it was here that Beethoven had his famous rendezvous with his Immortal Beloved, supposedly on 3 July 1812. More of that soon, as on Saturday I'm off to the Midlands to speak about this extraordinary history at the Bromsgrove Beethoven Quartetfest, during which the Dante Quartet is playing all the quartets.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

TONIGHT we're at Leighton House

TONIGHT: We're thrilled to be giving the 'Ghost Variations' concert to open the Kensington & Chelsea Music Society's new season, at the gorgeous Leighton House Museum, 12 Holland Park Road, London W14 8LZ. Music by Ravel, Bartok, Mendelssohn, Brahms, FS Kelly, Hubay, Schumann, played by the fabulous David Le Page (violin) & Viv McLean (piano), narration by muggins based on 'the strangest detective story in music'. Leighton House is home to an incredible Turkish-style foyer and exhibits including paintings by the pre-Raphaelites, notably 'Flaming June' (above). 7.30pm start. Book signing to follow. Do join us if you can. Booking at WeGotTickets, here.
David Le Page. Photo: Natasha Bidgood

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Pure Joy

Murray Perahia's new recording of the Bach French Suites really is pure joy. Have a look at the trailer...

It so happens that helping to make this short film is one of the most memorable things I've done this year, drafted in as the off-camera interviewer. It was the morning the Brexit vote result was announced, the day the sky fell in, and hearing Murray Perahia talk with such passion, directness and purity about the suites, why he plays them as he does, and what Bach means to him, and sitting close by while he played extracts of them - all this provided the inspiration to keep on keeping on, to refocus on the solace and wonder that music can bring into life no matter how grim the outlook appears. I hope you love his playing here as much as I do.

Monday, October 10, 2016

A cheesy weekend in Wensleydale

At least, the cheese came home with me. Wensleydale, natch, with cranberries. It has a small yet special role to play in Alicia's Gift and it's nice to find a seriously good one.

Meanwhile, Alicja Fiderkiewicz and I were delighted by the warm welcome of the Wensleydale Concert Series in Aysgarth Parish Church, and much enjoyed working together for the first time.

Alicja, who hails from Warsaw, trained at the Central Music School and Conservatoire in Moscow and is sought after as recitalist and teacher. She got in touch a while ago having noticed that the concert involved her name! In her hands, select pieces in the usual programme are replaced with the likes of Szymanowski and Bacewicz (WHAT an amazing composer!) and there's Chopin and Debussy to die for. Here are a few photos from Saturday.

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

How to turn a film into a concert

If you were among the thousands of people who last Thursday lapped up the Royal Albert Hall showing of Independence Day with the score played live by the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, you'll probably know by now that live film music is the concert trend de nos jours. The advance of digital technology has made it possible to strip out the music from the soundtracks and replace them with live orchestras while retaining the dialogue. Experience is proving there's a real appetite for the results.

Now classic after classic is being adapted. And one of the people at the forefront of the craze is the producer and presenter Tommy Pearson. I wanted to find out how it all works, and he's the man to tell us.

North by Northwest, coming up fast

Ahead of the first one to be done at the London Coliseum with the orchestra of English National Opera - Alfred Hitchcock's North By Northwest, with its blistering-hot score by Bernard Herrmann, coming up on 27 November - I asked Tommy a few questions...

JD: You're involved with a magnificent series of live film score concerts. It seems there's a huge explosion of enthusiasm for big-screen films with live orchestra at the moment. What's your role in all of this, and why is now the time for it to happen?
TP: I’ve been involved in film music concerts for a long time now, presenting and producing, and it’s been fascinating to see just how popular film music has become in the concert hall. When I first started in broadcasting (at Radio 3 in 1993) film music was still a dirty word and a lot of orchestras were nervous about performing it, simply because the people running the orchestras were either completely ignorant of it in the first place or didn’t think it was any good. 

There was also the problem of access to the music itself; since film composers recorded the music for their film in a studio and then left it at that and moved on, the orchestral parts and scores were packed away and often never seen again (and studios were terrible at looking after them). But slowly and surely, film music started to appear more in concerts, the composers would often attend, and orchestras saw that a new audience was coming to see them - an audience that might not have ever been to an orchestral concert before. Now almost every orchestra in the world performs film music in concert at some point in the their season, which is fantastic. On Saturday, I’m hosting two concerts at the Royal Albert Hall with the RPO featuring the music of John Williams - both performances are sold out. That’s a lot of people!

The Live Film genre has really developed out of this renewed popularity. Technology has had a lot to do with it (see below!). But the hunger for hearing film scores performed live has naturally developed into hearing entire scores played live to a whole film, which is ironic since that’s the way movies were presented before sound was invented! And as audiences demand more for the their money and are looking for more ‘event’-like shows, this genre is a great way to enjoy a film they love, with an orchestra playing the score live, creating a very special experience. And the studios are finally realising that this is a very effective way of reminding audiences about their back catalogues!

JD: What's involved in preparing these massive works for public presentation? For instance, where are the scores held, and how are they reconstructed?
TP: It differs from project to project. North By Northwest has taken about 5 years to get off the ground, working with Warner Bros, the rights holder, and dealing with the various estates to get the right to do it in the first place. But we also discovered that a lot of Herrmann’s score, because the film was originally mixed in mono, appears on the dialogue track. When we perform scores live, we have to remove the actual music soundtrack so that we replace it with the live musicians playing it instead. With modern films this is relatively easy because the music is on its own, separate track; so we can simply remove it without losing anything else (like sound effects and dialogue). But with earlier films (NBNW is 1959), this isn’t always the case. So, we have an amazing company in Los Angeles, Audionamix, who is, as we speak, digitally removing all the music on the soundtrack. It’s an incredible process and I don’t pretend to understand how they do it. They also removed the orchestra from the soundtrack to West Side Story so it could be performed live, but with the singing on the film completely intact - amazing. 

Herrmann’s music in NBNW, though, needs very little editing. There’s quite a bit of music that he recorded that wasn’t used in the finished film and there are quite a lot of cuts in the cues that are in the film. But nothing complicated. 
That’s in complete contrast to my most recent production, Independence Day Live, which was premiered at the Royal Albert Hall last week. That score took 9 months to reconstruct! David Arnold, the composer of the score, wrote and recorded the 2 hours of music in LA 20 years ago. So everything we had was handwritten by David’s orchestrator, Nicholas Dodd. And, once the score had been recorded, it was then often hacked to pieces by the editor, as the film was re-edited or the director made different choices about which bits of music to use where. So when we came to do Independence Day Live, we had to work ‘backwards’: we had all the original scores and the final movie soundtrack and had to make them the same, so that when we performed it live it would all work in synch. It was a huge, very complicated job and I asked a friend of mine, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, to do it - he reconstructed the score and put it into Sibelius, then the copyists produced all the scores and orchestral parts. 

The other important element is the conductor and how he/she synchronises all the music with the film: the score must fit the film exactly. This means creating a version of the film that only the conductor can see (on a screen in front of them on stage), which has all sorts of things on the screen: timecode, which is locked exactly to the version that the audience is watching; a visual click, which is a counter showing bar numbers and beats in that bar, so the conductor can always be in time; and various visual aids that also mean the conductor can ‘hit marks’ in the film (for example, when a door slams and the music also plays a big beat at exactly the same time). 

Most of these projects take about a year to put together and I spend a lot of time working with the studios, not just on the legal contractual stuff (and there’s a lot of that!) but also preparing the film itself and making sure it looks as good as it can. We almost always use computer files these days and play the films out via laptop. Amazing really. 

JD: Bernard Herrmann is one of the all-time greats as far as I'm concerned. Please tell us something about him and why you feel North by North West is a prime candidate for this treatment? Might this showing help to cast new light on his music?
TP: Herrmann is one of the greatest voices in film music, no doubt about that. And the films he did with Hitchcock are surely the best work of both men. Herrmann is very well represented in film music performance and orchestras have been playing his scores for years: you’ll often hear the Vertigo overture, the Psycho suite and the North By Northwest overture in concert. And there are full versions of Vertigo and Psycho as live film performances which have been done all over the world.

 I came to North By Northwest in a roundabout way. A friend of mine works at Warner Bros and he’s a huge film music fan. We were just talking one day about live film concerts and I asked which classic films Warners owned; NBNW came up and I immediately seized on it since it’s one of my favourite films and has such a terrific score. Of the three greats - Vertigo, Psycho, NBNW - it is easily the most family-friendly and funny, so I went for it. When deciding which films to present in this way, I’m always trying to look for a great film which also happens to have a great score; it’s not enough for the film to just have an amazing score, it’s got to be something a general audience will want to go and see (since these projects are always quite expensive to produce). 

For me, North By Northwest is the perfect film. And Herrmann’s score is a masterclass in musical economy and drama. It’s been fascinating looking at his original scores and seeing what he does with the tiniest amount of material, how he develops it, uses it in so many different ways. There’s only 50 minutes of music in the entire film, yet it’s used so well, in exactly the right places for all the right reasons, that it makes a real impact, dramatically and artistically. I wish a lot of modern scores were like that!

It will be great to hear the detail of Herrmann’s score. At times in the film, the music was mixed quite low so it’s often difficult to hear it. But when we do it in the Coliseum, we’ll hear every detail which is an exciting prospect.   

JD: Why at ENO? Is it a one-off, or might they do more? 
TP: I work with U-Live, the promoters; we put these projects on together. The idea of doing one of these projects in a London theatre came up and I think there had been a casual conversation about it with someone at ENO and it all developed from there. I think it’s a great idea; the Coli is a wonderful venue, with a decent number of seats, and the screen will look fantastic, filling the whole front of the stage. It’s going to be like the early days of film, with the orchestra in the pit playing the score. If North by Northwest works well, we are definitely looking at making it a regular relationship. 

JD: It seems extraordinary that we still have to combat snobbery towards film scores when so much great music is contained in them. What are your thoughts on that? 
TP: To be honest, I don’t really care about the snobbery. There’s room for everything. Back in the days when the snobbery actively stopped film music from being performed, it was definitely a problem. But now film music is everywhere, so who cares about the snobs? In my experience, most people in classical music who are snobby towards film music are doing it through ignorance: they think they know about film music, but probably haven’t actually listened to any for decades. The main accusation thrown at film composers is unoriginality. And it’s certainly true that film music does, a lot of the time, have a sound of its own (taken from Strauss et al and fashioned for the cinema by Max Steiner, Korngold, Alfred Newman and the other early masters); plus, the extreme time-constraints that film composers have to work to are astonishing: 2 hours of music written in 3 weeks is not unusual, so of course there are going to be musical shortcuts.  

But anyone with even a passing knowledge of the music of Jerry Goldsmith, Danny Elfman, Elliot Goldenthal, Hans Zimmer, Howard Shore, Alexandre Desplat, Tom Newman, John Powell, Harry Gregson-Williams, Michael Giacchino, Johann Johnannsson (I could go on) will know that there’s a lot of brilliantly original music out there. 

And are we really saying that none of the great classical composers ever took influences (or even stole) from other composers? 

There’s also the question of money: many people in classical music think that every film composer is fabulously rich and therefore cannot be a proper composer. Of course, film composers can do very well, but it’s only a tiny fraction of them. And in fact there’s never been less money in film music than right now. 

All the greatest film composers manage to combine creative and artistic credibility with huge popularity, which is not easy when dealing with a large number of studio suits, all of whom have an opinion on the music, the demands of the director who often knows nothing about music and cares even less, a producer trying to save money, and virtually no time in which to actually create the music. I have a huge amount of respect for film composers and I love working with them. 

There’s a lot of great film music and a lot of crap film music. It’s the same as any other genre of music. 

JD: Which other films would you most like to see reconstructed for live orchestral performance?
TP: ’m always on the look out for new projects and I have a few next year that I’m really excited about (but can’t mention yet!). I’d like to do a Korngold score since it would be a great play for the orchestra, but accessing the music and dealing with the films themselves (technically) might be rather challenging. And I’d do anything by Elliot Goldenthal because he’s a genius. His score for Batman Forever is, in my opinion, one of the finest (and certainly one of the most outrageous) scores of the last 25 years; trouble is, I think the film is awful!

Last year I produced Planet of the Apes (1968) live in concert at the Royal Festival Hall and that was a dream come true as Jerry Goldsmith’s celebrated serial score is my all-time favourite. It’s a true original. I can’t wait to do that again. So I’d love to do more Goldmsith too. 

But stay tuned, because next year will see some really diverse projects coming your way!

North by Northwest Live, London Coliseum, 27 November 3pm and 7.30pm. Booking here.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

RIP Sir Neville Marriner

So sad to hear today of the death of this wonderful conductor.

I interviewed him back in 2009 for the magazine of the Musikverein in Vienna, an interview that was translated into German and didn't come out in English at the time, so I hope my lovely editor there will forgive me if I run it now, in a slightly shortened form, by way of tribute.

Interview with Sir Neville Marriner (2009)

In 1958 a young orchestral violinist in London gathered together a small ensemble of musical friends to play for fun, with no conductor. Nobody knew that this would be the start of one of the best-loved orchestras in British musical life: the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields. The violinist’s name was Neville Marriner; and when a venture into larger repertoire eventually demanded that someone must conduct, as the leader it had to be him. The rest, as they say, is history.

The orchestra celebrated its golden jubilee in 2008 with an intense programme of touring. Frequently it still performs without a conductor – Marriner, now 84, says he is “a sort of godfather” to it. Yet he and the ensemble have remained virtually synonymous to their enthusiastic audience, not least thanks to the vast number of recordings they made during the industry’s heyday, which coincided with the orchestra’s early years.

Sir Neville Marriner. Photo: (c) Decca
...Performing in Vienna carries a sense of occasion. “It’s the focal point of classical music in Europe,” he says. “I think it is the ambition of every musician in the world to perform in the Musikverein. Other places would be the Philharmonie in Berlin, La Scala in Milan, or Carnegie Hall, but somehow the Musikverein takes precedence – you want to prove yourself in the heart of the classical music tradition. There have been so many great performances in there that you’re challenged every time you step onto the stage.”

It’s quite a distance to the Musikverein from Marriner’s relatively humble origins in Lincoln, where he grew up in the shadow of one of the UK’s most beautiful cathedrals. His father was a keen amateur musician: “He could play the piano and the violin and he conducted the local choir. Although he was a builder, his life was really about music. I don’t think I ever went to sleep as a kid without some sort of music going on in the house.” Aged 13, the young Neville went to London to play to the principal of the Royal College of Music. “The examination he gave me was absolutely terrifying! And he had a beard and the Victorian manner to go with it. But I knew it was a turning point in my life.”

At the RCM, Marriner studied with two extremely distinguished violinists: Albert Sammons and WH “Billy” Reed. “On the first day at college, you discover that although you might have been the brightest spark in your particular area of the country, suddenly everyone plays better than you do and it’s quite alarming!” Marriner recalls wryly. “Billy steered me through that, and Albert was very helpful later on.” Reed was the leader of the London Symphony Orchestra and had been Elgar’s closest consultant when writing his Violin Concerto. “Billy had the first pages of the Elgar Violin Concerto – he kept the manuscript because there were so many of his suggestions in it that he felt he’d virtually written it himself. Certainly most of the technical passages that Elgar himself couldn’t have achieved were entirely due to Willy’s advice.”

It was partly an encounter with another legendary violinist that made Marriner decide to hang up his violin for good. He spent some years in America studying conducting with Pierre Monteux, and in 1969 he founded the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. “In Los Angeles, Jascha Heifetz was one of our neighbours – and after playing in a string quartet with him, I thought maybe it was time to stop!” He doesn’t miss the instrument: “It was a sort of albatross around my neck, because if you don’t work each day you feel guilty. I had lived with that discipline for 30 to 40 years – it was quite a relief to give it up.”

His orchestral experience proved invaluable when he began to conduct. It’s intriguing that many conductors begin instead as pianists; but both routes, he suggests, have advantages and simply produce different styles on the podium. “If you’ve played in orchestras, it’s useful because you understand them psychologically: you know how hateful it is to be pushed into doing something that you don’t really like, and musically speaking you tend to know what the musicians would prefer you to do. As a pianist, though, you can learn the score at the piano in half the time it takes when you’re a string player with an instrument that involves just one line. The pianist-conductors speak more in musical generalities; if you’re a string player you tend instead to identify particular instruments and their problems.

“Because I’d been playing the violin most of my life, I’ve always thought that the physical gestures I made were much more natural than if I’d been sitting at a piano and hunching my shoulders. I often remember Solti, who was all shoulders and sometimes made rather uncomfortable gestures, compared to, for example, Monteux, who was a violin and viola player and always looked so comfortable as a conductor.”

The Academy began life, as Marriner puts it, as “refugees from conductors”. At first, it was simply a group of players who, though excited to work in symphony orchestras, felt that they wanted “to take more responsibility for expressing their own musicality”. For the first two years they played informally at Marriner’s house and had no intention of performing. “We only began because the keyboard player, Jack Churchill, suggested it.” His Sunday job was playing the organ at St Martin-in-the-Fields, the famous 18th-century church on the corner of Trafalgar Square in London. “He said that we could always give a concert there. We were rather grudging about it, but eventually he persuaded us. Then someone asked us to make a record – and it all happened. We were stuck with it!”

Much influenced by the musicologist Thurston Dart, Marriner found himself and the Academy at the forefront of what would become a revolution in performing style. “Having played in symphony orchestras for a long time, I used to feel there was something that we weren’t quite catching,” he explains. “The bulk, the weight of the sound, couldn’t quite bring off certain qualities that were latent in the music. The texture was the first thing the Academy aimed for – a transparency, vitality and virtuosity that you couldn’t achieve with a hefty symphonic sound. That was our earliest ambition. The great thing about the Academy was that, being a small group, we were able to discuss these things; sooner or later we achieved a style that seemed to suit everyone.”

Since then, he adds, the ‘early music movement’ has become somewhat beset by what he terms “navel-gazing”. “The extreme types of early music performances I find a little bit tedious and not necessarily helpful,” he admits. “It’s sad that symphony orchestras don’t really play Haydn and Mozart any more. They play Beethoven, but critics turn their noses up, and that’s a loss. But there are some very good contemporary groups of players who specialise in early music and sort of early instruments – even if the instruments are reproductions and were made yesterday!”

With 2009 marking the bicentenary of Haydn’s death, Marriner is glad that everyone will have a chance to reassess the composer’s work, not least because Haydn is constantly overshadowed these days by his pupil and friend, Mozart. “Interestingly, Haydn showed much more mastery of the orchestra in his early years than did Mozart,” Marriner says. “I always think of Haydn as the precursor of Beethoven: the late Haydn symphonies and the early Beethoven ones overlap very much stylistically and in their technical achievements. In many ways he was more important to the tradition of classical orchestral writing than Mozart.”

Looking ahead, Marriner insists he has no intention of retiring. “I think I’ll die before I retire,” he remarks. “I’m planning my diary into 2012. Mostly it’s a sort of hangover from being young, unsuccessful and terrified to look in the diary and see nothing. That sensation never seems to go away as you get older.”

As for the orchestra, though the musical climate in general has never been tougher he is confident that the Academy will weather the blast. “I’ve always hoped they will keep their fundamental objectives – a form of stylistic integrity – and because they are known to have achieved this they will always be desirable,” he says. “The public seems to stay with them, and I think as long as they insist on keeping their standards, they’ll survive very well.”

Saturday, October 01, 2016

Don Giovanni disturbs and dazzles at ENO

Wanted... Mary Bevan as Zerlina and Christopher Purves as Don Giovanni
Photo: Robert Workman
WANTED. A huge poster of Christopher Purves as a gangster-like, shaven-headed Don Giovanni, states as much. He's wanted for murder...but also, for other things, by every woman who crosses his path, to say nothing of the occasional bloke. Sensuality, magnetism, confidence and the knowhow of the older man, backed up by threat, are working their illogical yet eternal magic.

In an age in which subtlety is not generally much valued, Mozart's operas seem to be getting harder to stage. They defy easy classification. Just when you think one of them will be tragic, it makes you laugh; and you decide something is a comedy of manners, only to have it kick out your guts. So what to do with Don Giovanni, that peerless "dramatic comedy" about sex, violence and hellfires, in a 21st century inured to the first two and disbelieving of the third?

Whatever you think about that, you may not have foreseen the utterly brilliant twist that the director Richard Jones brings to the denouement in his new production for English National Opera. It's tempting to spill the beans, but suffice it to say that whatever puzzles you in Act I, such as the presence of a Leporello look-alike, may come home to roost after the interval; and that the dizzy episodes of mistaken identity assume a more important position in the drama than usual. Problem: the meaning of the end is changed. But one can puzzle over that conundrum only to decide (as I did) that it's so flipping clever you just don't mind.

Clive Bayley (Leporello), Christopher Purves (Don Giovanni), Caitlin Lynch (Donna Anna)
Jones's set designer, Paul Steinberg, offers a gloomy, impersonal scene full of doors, resembling a dingy hotel sometime before mobile phones were invented; a phone box has a vital role to play. Looming yellow streetlights and a desultory party scene do little to liven it up. Act I begins with Giovanni rapidly servicing a stream of black-clad female clients (plus a man); the attack on Anna is transformed into a sex game, the sounds interrupting her father's session with a hooker in the room opposite. Derangement soon seeps in around the edges - perhaps the result of the constant hot-cold manipulation Giovanni foists on those around him. Elvira is basically nuts, as are strange shivering, gyrating dancers at the party; by the start of the final scene, Leporello too is losing it a bit.

If that feels glum and confusing, don't worry: most of what's going on is setting up what's to follow in part II - a key moment of which involves Giovanni's Serenade as a phone call, the effect of which upon Elvira's infatuated maid almost exceeds John Cleese's Russian in A Fish Called Wanda. Jones astutely counters this with Anna's 'Non mi dir' likewise delivered to Ottavio at a distance - however tangled in the wire you are, it's still a sorry way to chuck your fiancé for a year, especially when he is as wonderful a singer as Allan Clayton.

Allan Clayton as Don Ottavio. His expression was common to many of us by the end.
Photo: Robert Workman
Mark Wigglesworth is back in the pit he recently elected to leave when he resigned as ENO's music director. His Mozart certainly shows us what the management has lost with his departure. He's a rare, self-effacing conductor, modestly picking (mostly) excellent tempi, accompanying (mostly) ideally and leading a light-stepping, supple account of the score. One tricky moment when the stage and pit parted company will probably vanish with the first-night nerves. Meanwhile we wish, wish, wish he was staying.

The cast is very fine, with Clayton outstanding in the two tenor arias and the American soprano Caitlin Lynch as a characterful and precise Donna Anna. Christine Rice is quite a surprise as Donna Elvira; we more associate her with mezzo roles, yet her voice seems to be growing in both range and amplitude. And even if I'm not entirely comfortable with the idea that Elvira is off her trolley - she is far too subtle and fascinating a character for that - Rice brings her a convincing sense of desperation as the love she loathes simply refuses to die. Zerlina is Mary Bevan, pure-toned and full of warmth, clad in white while all around wear black. Nicholas Crawley is a strong, bitter Masetto and James Creswell as the Commendatore delivers a magisterial cameo.

But it is the double-act of Christopher Purves and Clive Bayley as Giovanni and Leporello on which the show hinges, and they don't disappoint. Purves's soft, velvety, sensually nuanced singing brings an edge of sinister magic to the Don; Bayley, as professional sidekick, is deeper and louder, yet meshes beautifully. The relationship is splendidly worked, full of details such as a much-lived-in drinks-serving ritual; and even if their modus vivendi seems balanced and settled, the master's more than callous treatment of the servant proves that any suspected affection is in fact non existent. You can be left wondering how many Leporellos the Don gets through, each one perhaps presented with the same glasses and red wig.

Would one really be irresistibly seduced by this Don Giovanni? Personally I wouldn't buy a second-hand cat-basket from him, let alone a car. But ahhh...there's the voice, that voice... He can call my landline any time.

Don Giovanni, ENO, to 26 October.