Monday, June 26, 2017

Man of the Golden West

John Adams. Photo: Vern Evans

John Adams has just turned 70. Everyone is celebrating. Everyone wants him to celebrate with them. So when is he supposed to compose? I caught him backstage during the Dr Atomic rehearsals at the Barbican a few months ago. In the resulting interview for Primephonic we talked about his forthcoming Gold Rush opera Girls of the Golden West, set in his home state of northern California, as well as nature versus nurture, the evolution of his style and the consistency of voice within that evolution - and why he feels like "a Soviet hack composer" compared to the music of his up-and-coming son, Samuel Adams.

.....Adams reflects that this “voice” could be determined as much by nature as nurture – a sort of musical DNA. “I suspect it’s almost genetic,” he comments. “If you look at Stravinsky, there’s such radical difference between the early music and the late music, yet there is some almost inexplicable identity that carries on. And I think certainly the rhythmic energy of my music and the particular harmonic language that I have comes through.  

“Once every couple of years I conduct Nixon in China [his opera of 1987] because I like it and it’s always a lot of fun. And I’m amazed how much of that opera is expressed in minimalist style, with these crazy, whimsical marriages with jazz and big-band music. I don’t compose in that style any more. But that sort of rhythmic impulse, which you also hear in the early piano music, is still there today.”

Evolution, he suggests, occurs thanks to the needs of the pieces. “Nixon is a much more consciously minimalist piece and I think that works for the certain ironic tone of the opera,” he says. “But starting with The Death of Klinghoffer, which I composed between 1990 and 91, I had to find a language that was more serious and not at all ironic. I think that was the big moment of expanding. 

“But I’m not a hidebound, by-the-rules kind of guy. I feel that every piece I compose needs its own special language – and that’s both the joy and the anguish, because you have to find out what and who it’s going to be.” ...

Read the whole thing here.


Friday, June 23, 2017

Hotello

Kaufmann as Otello, Vratogna as Iago.
All photos by Catherine Ashmore/Royal Opera House

One of the first rules of reviewing is: do not start by talking about the weather. So to start on the Royal Opera's new Otello by pointing out that it was the hottest first night of the year - Jonas Kaufmann's role debut - as well as the hottest June day since 1976 just isn't on. Nevertheless, it was both. In the auditorium one experienced Keith Warner's postmodern new production and Verdi's sizzling score through the gentle rattling of ladies' fans, the flapping of tickets and programmes mimicking their effect, and the upping and downing of light on rogue mobiles as certain people in my row checked Facebook every ten minutes. (Why couldn't they just have donated their ticket to a fan who would have fully appreciated the performance?)

If the audience was finding it difficult to settle, the same couldn't be said of the music. Tony Pappano, first of all, is in his element in this opera. His shaping and pacing of the drama is breathtaking: mercurial, clear, enormously energetic and deeply intelligent. The building up of the scene where Iago gets Cassio increasingly drunk is just one example, beginning almost as a pub song, joshing about, before spiralling through a queasy mephistophelian intensification into violence. The chorus's staging is often static and stylised, very far from naturalistic, but they sound simply glorious.




Again, canny pacing is everything in Kaufmann's characterisation of Otello: confident and tender until Iago plants the seed of doubt, but thereafter tumbling in stages from loss of faith through cool, calculating and controlled resolve, into increasing torment and ultimate dissolution. At ease taking command, but tentative with his new wife as she leads him to the bedroom, this Otello is a man of war first and foremost, perhaps unable to cope with the shock of his own emotions. His progress towards murder for once makes considerable sense.

Deeply convincing and vocally gorgeous, full of careful shading with brilliance reserved for the moments it most counted, this was singing in 3D. If some people expected more volume, one can only reiterate that Kaufmann doesn't do volume for the sake of it and has never been the biggest voice on the stage, just the most beautiful and intelligent one (hmm, this is my second time this year writing that). It is no reason to reject the most complex and satisfying interpretation of this role that I've yet experienced.

Marco Vratogna, replacing the originally announced Ludovic Tézier as Iago, was the wild card of the evening, bursting into our consciousnesses in impressive style. Warner's production makes him explicitly the puppet master, controlling not only those around him but the symbols of Venice, the carnival mask, the winged lion, setting the hideous process in motion with ice-cold, psychopathic glee and resembling nothing so much as a Shakespearean version of Dracula with shaven head and bat-like cloak. He could scarcely lean on a wall without making it move. Yet his raven-dark, demonically powerful voice made Iago more than merely a copybook villain. Meanwhile, as Desdemona Maria Agresta sounded vocally effortless and presented the hapless heroine as a straightforward, uncomplicated, loving young woman, trapped in a tragic situation beyond control.

Agresta as Desdemona, Kaufmann as Otello in the final scene

Visually the production has some seriously striking moments. The set design, by Boris Kudlička, involves sliding panels that shift to show us blazes of light through glass, the bedroom through latticework, Otello's face highlighted in a window frame before the final scene, and Cassio's vertiginous descent into drunkenness, amid much else. The contrast between the public and the private moments is convincingly achieved, with Iago and Otello experiencing their oppressive solitary reflections in the darkest isolation. The aptly named Bruno Poet's lighting is, throughout, not only masterful, but often magical.

However, reflecting Otello as a tragic-faced lion-caricature in a mirror, smothering him with a carnival mask and bringing on a giant dismembered lion statue are gestures that seem to over-egg the Venetian pudding in a production that otherwise mixes and mismatches its eras to occasional ill effect. The tall ship rigged with beautiful sails arriving at the back in scene 1 is far indeed from the apparently contemporary hotel-style bedroom in which the murder takes place. And the costume designs by Kaspar Glarner, while offering flowing robes for Desdemona and that splendid cloak for Iago, experience occasional misjudgments. Emilia - the excellent Kai Rüütel - is encumbered by an impossibly stiff and outsize fake-Renaissance wig, and as for Otello's gigantic harem-style leather trousers (eh?) and the blue sparkly robe - think variety-act pseudo-magician - in which he arrives to kill his wife, these did few favours to either singer or character. If the point is that the story is timeless, we know that already and this doesn't help.

There's always some plonker who has to boo the production team, of course, and despite those few weaknesses they really didn't deserve it. It's a powerful, moving account of a towering masterpiece, with musical performances of a calibre that you won't find improved upon anywhere.

Otello is in cinemas next Wednesday, 28 June, so if you can't get to the ROH, do try and catch it on screen.

Details and booking here.


If you enjoy reading JDCMB, please consider making a donation to its development, A Year for JDCMB. Click here.




Thursday, June 22, 2017

Hotting up at cool Fjord Classics

As if taking over the artistic directorship of Australian Festival of Chamber Music weren't enough, the inimitable Kathryn Stott has joined forces with Norwegian violist Lars Anders Tomter (both, left) to start a new chamber music festival a little bit further north: Fjord Classics. They have assembled a seriously impressive line-up of artists, including Leif Ove Andsnes, Ruby Hughes, the Skampa Quartet, Vikingur Ólaffson, Christian Poltera and many more, ready to awaken the town of Sandefjord to the sounds of music from Mozart to Messiaen, Rebecca Clarke to Janáček, Alma Mahler to Fauré. The festival runs from 27 June to 2 July. I asked the energetic British pianist what they're doing, and why, and how, because it has all happened rather quickly...


Kathryn Stott
JD: Kathy, what inspired you and Lars to start Fjord Classics?

KS: Originally Lars had invited me to work on a different project with him, but when that took an abrupt turn, we started to consider other options and were very determined to find a way to get our collaboration up and running. Where to begin when starting a new festival is both daunting and exciting in equal measure, but we were more than thrilled when Vestfoldfestspillene offered us the opportunity set up Fjord Classics under their larger umbrella. 


JD: You’ve pulled it together incredibly fast - what’s that been like?

KS: If you’d asked me this question just before Christmas, I’d say we were out of breath for a few months. Thats probably an understatement! Firstly we put a lot of thought into choosing the right venues, in particular the main festival town. When we looked around Sandefjord we knew that was the one. Lars had a number of musicians all on hold from his previous venture and I have to say their loyalty in following us through to Fjord Classics speaks volumes. From there we added more musicians as our programming took shape but obviously the pace was very fast and I look forward to next time when we can focus solely on artistic thoughts and not the logistics of setting up a new festival. Our theme, 'The Dance of Life’ by Edvard Munch, gave us amazing inspiration so let's say that was a major springboard for musical ideas both on the track and some off piste!


Lars Anders Tomter
JD: How is it different from the other festivals you’ve been (and are) involved with?

KS: As you know, since 1995 I’ve been an Artistic Director on many projects but they have all been one-offs or with no real thought to follow through. That changed when I was appointed AD of the Australian Festival of Chamber Music so I was already extremely excited to have that opportunity to be creative with a vision towards the future. With Fjord Classics, Lars and I share the role. Between us we have an abundance of ideas but I think more than anything else, we compliment each other in having different skills and approaches. I see that as so positive and an aspect of our working relationship which is to be treasured.


JD: What do you think is most attractive about it for the audience?

KS: Huge variety! This year we really went for the max in all respects and from this we will see how to continue in the future. However, our primary thoughts have always been about quality and so this is never compromised. We have gathered the best musicians and put them with the greatest of music, so what is there not to like? I hope our audience is excited by what we are offering and will hold onto memorable experiences long into the future. This is just the beginning.


JD: What are you most looking forward to in it?

KS: In a way its not so much the performing aspect myself, but seeing how the programmes come together in reality and most of all, the joy of bringing musicians together from around the world and seeing what they create. Apart from anything else, I love going to concerts, so it's a musical feast whichever way you look at it.


JD: How’s your Norwegian?

KS: What was the question? Pass…...

More details and booking at https://www.fjordclassics.com/welcome

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

MEETING ODETTE: The Swan Lake Book

I used to have a recurring dream. I was in the library, looking for a book. I knew I'd seen it once before. I couldn't find it. It was a book of Swan Lake. I would always wake up knowing there was something inside it that I wanted, or needed, but I could never remember what it was.

This isn't the cover and it probably isn't the title either,
but a kind and creative author friend came up with the image on Canva and sent it to me

I had this dream right through my childhood into my teens and beyond, in one form or another. At first it showed me Swiss Cottage Library, which was our local. On other nights I'd see myself in Foyles, looking through the ballet section for a book that wasn't there. Wherever it might be, I always knew that it was my Swan Lake book.

Then, when I was 26, I decided that as it hadn't pitched up yet, I would write it myself.

That was in 1992. Since then I have rewritten it about 200 times: differences as small as changing the names or as large as reducing the length to half its original. The first draft was, in any case, hopeless: it was full of words.

Periodically I've shown it to people. Literary agents, publishers, friends, family. The typical reaction from the professionals? "Oh darling, we love it, it's beautiful, but it's very, er, whimsical..." They didn't fancy whimsical. Magical realism, which had flourished while I was a teenager gobbling up Angela Carter's books, had gone out of fashion. Meeting Odette, as it became called, at least for the moment, didn't fit anywhere.

Yet occasionally one of those friends or family members would pop up after reading another of my novels or attending one of our concerts and say: "What happened to the one about the swan? That was actually my favourite..."

Therefore I thought, after the splendid job that Unbound did with Ghost Variations, that I'd run it past them, just in case. Unbound likes quirky. Unbound likes whimsical. They love things that don't "fit" easily. And it didn't bother them one jot that Meeting Odette has little in common with Ghost Variations other than an association with an actual piece of music or, in this case, ballet.

It isn't a "ballet book", though, and it has nothing to do with Black Swan or any of the ballet's various stage updatings. It's a fairy-tale for the 21st century. The story of what happens when Odette is blown off course and crashes through Mary's window in a university town in the east of England has begun to feel oddly "relevant".


This isn't the title or the cover either. This is just me messing around on Canva...

All the ducks - or swans - were in a row at last. And today, 21 June, Summer Solstice 2017, we launch the campaign for Meeting Odette.

If you've enjoyed Ghost Variations, you'll probably know how Unbound works now. It's like an 18th-century subscription model. Essentially you are buying the book before it's published, rather than after, and you get thanked for it in print. It's now called crowdfunding, of course, but the inspiration is really quite archaic. (I should add, because people often denigrate self-publishing, that this is not self-publishing in any way, shape or form. Unbound has a different model, for sure, but they are top-flight professionals. I wouldn't have the first clue how to publish my own book and wouldn't like to attempt it.)

You can go for various different reward packages at different levels. Prices start at £10 for the e-book and your name in the book. The paperback basic is £20, but there's an Early Swan deal for £15 on the first 50. A book club package includes five paperbacks and an author visit; a larger contribution gets you and your plus-one an invitation to a buffet lunch with me and some wonderful friends from inside the ballet world to enjoy food, drink and good conversation about books, music, ballet, Swan Lake and, no doubt, more. Ballet enthusiasts could also consider clubbing together for the biggest one, for which I'll come to your house or institution and give a lecture about Swan Lake itself (and you get 10 paperbacks too).

Later in the process I am hoping to add further rewards in collaboration with the Royal Opera House, where a new production of Swan Lake directed by Liam Scarlett is due for premiere in May. If you've already pledged by then, you can upgrade to one of these if you want to. The site makes it nice and easy.

On Meeting Odette's page at Unbound, you'll find a video welcome from me, a synopsis, an extract and the full list of pledge rewards. Please swan over and have a look. I do hope that you will consider backing this book, which after 25 years is very, very close to my heart.

HERE WE GO.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Brexit: Creative Industries Federation offers 7 red lines

Main Title Here


The Creative Industries Federation published an important Brexit Report last autumn, looking at critical issues for the creative industries, arts and cultural education as the UK sets its course for the cliffs. Now that "negotiations" are underway, the CIF has distilled its recommendation into seven red-lines principles.

These include:

• Guarantee the rights of EU nationals currently working in the UK;
• Retain freedom of movement for EU workers, those in education and touring exhibitions, shows, musicians and support teams
• Remain part of the EU single market and the customs union - or at least find a free trade deal that replicates its frictionless travel arrangements as far as possible
• Continue to influence the shape of the EU's Digital Single Market (DSM)
• Maintain a robust and properly enforced International Property regime. [Do you have any idea how important this is? Please read about it, fast, right now.]
• Maintain reciprocal single market access for the distribution of UK and EU member state film and TV productions and audio-visual services
• Continue to participate in EU programmes such as Creative Europe, Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+.


A HUB FOR GLOBAL TALENT: The success of the UK’s creative industries is down to the people who work within it. Britain has a longstanding reputation as an open nation that attracts diverse global talent, and it is because of this that our creative sector is world-beating. If the UK loses easy access to people, it loses its competitive edge. If it loses its creative talent, it also loses its reputation as an attractive destination for work and play. 

Read them here.

Meanwhile there would be one very simple solution, which you can guess as well as I can, but we don't seem to have the right person at the top to do that job.




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Monday, June 19, 2017

In which Dido outshines Wolfram, Rodolfo, Yeletsky and even Blanche

As London lurches from one horror to another, the only place to be last night was Cardiff, or at least in front of a TV beaming it in loud and clear. The 2017 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World final proved one of those historic-to-be occasions that do occur there sometimes: five burgeoning singers take the stage and you soon realise you don't want to miss one note of any of them. 

The victor seems to have taken some viewers by surprise, but I can't imagine why, other than the fact that she was the only performer who had not actually "won" her "round". Having grouped the contestants into a series of concerts, each of which has a winner who goes through to the final, the competition also offers a "wild card" final-round place for an extra choice. This was given to her. Her name is Catriona Morison and she comes from Scotland. (Is that why people are surprised? No one is a prophet in, etc.) Before the grand final, she had already won the Song Prize together with the Mongolian baritone Ariunbaatar Ganbaatar. We are very much in favour of joint awards when occasion demands - after all, the "there CAN only be ONE winner" trope beloved of TV talent contests serves TV way more than it serves the contestants.

Catriona Morison
In a grand final of astounding singing from most of the competitors, everyone displayed splendid, rock-solid technique. Most had planned their programmes well. The voices glowed and blazed and dazzled. Louise Alder, the English soprano, scooped the audience prize, as well she might: she's got it all, from top notes to absolute charisma. The men, even if ultimately outdone, were stunners too. The Australian tenor Kang Wang had a big following, was out to please and is clearly going places, though I thought he had a slight tendency (nerves perhaps?) to rush in the Lensky aria. But Ariunbaatar Ganbaatar, who has already won the International Tchaikovsky Competition's singers' section, offered an account of Yeletsky's aria from The Queen of Spades, with sapphire-dark shining tone, that came so much from the heart that any Lisa in her right mind would have to drop the plot and fall straight into his arms. Anthony Clark Evans's Evening Star aria from Tannhäuser was scarcely less satisfying,  and both baritones gave us the Prologue from Pagliacci, each so superb that I for one would never have been able to choose between them. Stardom awaits the lot.

What did Catriona do that was different from the others? Well, she sang Dido's Lament by Purcell.

She also sang Octavian from the first scene of Rosenkavalier, and a few other things, but frankly those pale, given what she did with the Purcell. The Lament is close to the hearts of very many music-lovers in the UK, of course, but partly because of that, it's the sort of piece we can sometimes take too much for granted. Catriona not only wrung us out with her emotional veracity, but made us feel we were recognising this music's extraordinary power and beauty for the first time. Thanks to her, it seemed that Purcell could outshine Wagner, Tchaikovsky and Puccini, never mind the bel canto stuff, plus Louise's beautiful extract from André Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire. As Danielle de Niese commented, when the technical level is so high all round, the judges have to look beyond that... 

Where has she been all our lives? Actually, at Wuppertal Opera. A lot of surprise emerged on Twitter when the hosts for the evening mentioned in conversation that Germany has 83 publicly funded opera houses and 1/3 of the world's opera takes place there, but yes, they do, and they get things right: their audiences are accustomed to attending, they do rare repertoire, they present challenging productions and their ensemble companies help to train up fabulous youngsters from all over the world. Most of the best opera singers of today have done stints as company members in Germany. Some of them don't come home, which is why a British soprano, Catherine Foster, has been singing Brünnhilde at Bayreuth to great acclaim, yet nobody here has heard her... 

End of rant. Please go and listen to all five singers on the iPlayer now, and let their artistry speak for itself. 




Sunday, June 18, 2017

JDCMB Summer Cooler

I haven't found the words I need to express the horror of the emotions we're all feeling here in London about the Grenfell Tower tragedy. It does symbolise, to the ultimate degree, a lot of what is wrong in the UK's social set-up today, but I don't think I can add anything sensible to the argument or assessment or comfort. Even consoling music feels inappropriate at the moment.

Life has to go on, so I'm simply going to offer you my own recipe for a refreshing drink on a very hot afternoon.




JDCMB Summer Cooler

Ingredients (to serve 4):
Fresh mint leaves
Petals of 1 smallish pink rose
2 pink grapefruit
Vanilla paste
Ice

Put the mint leaves and rose petals in a teapot and pour on boiling water. Leave to steep. Squeeze the grapefruit and strain the juice into a jug (unless you like "bits", in which case don't strain it). When the mint and rose tea has cooled, mix it with the juice - test the flavour until the balance of quantities is as you like. Pour into glasses and sweeten with a soupçon of vanilla paste (I use about a 1/4 teaspoon per glass). You could use honey instead if you prefer more sweetness and less vanilla. Pile in some ice. Garnish with a spring of fresh mint and a few rose petals.

If you fancy an alcoholic version, add a splash of Pimms. Alternatively - well, I haven't yet tried adding prosecco, but one suspects that would be unlikely to do any damage to it.

Enjoy in the sunshine. Accompany with fresh summery music such as Ravel's G major piano concerto, Fauré's Ballade - or the final, tonight, of the Cardiff Singer of the World Competition, which promises to be very exciting indeed.


Please consider supporting JDCMB's development over the year ahead. https://www.gofundme.com/jdcmb

Friday, June 16, 2017

Welcome, Primephonic streaming!

Nice to be able to bring you some good news today. A new high-definition streaming service, designed specifically for classical music, is being launched in the UK and USA by Primephonic, and it serves to tackle several of the biggest streaming frustrations for us all.

The company is a Utrecht-based online store that for a couple of years has had, as its USP, the downloading of studio-quality recordings. As any classical aficionado knows, sound quality has been a big problem for music on the Internet and Primephonic's capacity to bring us an improved experience has been a breath of fresh air in a muddy world. Every track is available to download in 16-bit FLAC file format, i.e. CD quality, and some are more sophisticated still, with availability in studio quality and "premium pro-studio quality" (explore the options here and in more detail here). They now have more than 100,000 tracks available to stream in high-res.

For the streaming service, Primephonic is also aiming to improve the experience for listeners and creators in two further ways: better metadata, which has long been a stumbling block online, and should improve the searching capacity that we need; and crucially, payment to providers. Instead of paying out per track listen, Primephonic plans to pay per second. This should hopefully ensure that more money goes to the classical labels and thence to the artists themselves - it stands, at the very least, a better chance of getting into the bank accounts of musical creators than it does at the moment.

According to Veronica Neo, the company's head of business development, "Primephonic provides a way for streaming to give back more than ever to the classical music industry and a sustainable way for fans to support their favourite artists. As a 100% classical music service, 100% of the revenues stay in the classical industry."

I've been writing for Primephonic's website for a couple of years, doing CD reviews and occasional features (most recently, a big piece about Philip Glass for their just-published print magazine). It's a great pleasure to be involved with a company that has homed straight in on those problems, is determined to find a way to solve them and is thinking big about the possibilities for the future.

You can get a free 30-day trial subscription to Primephonic or sign up for £14.99 per month, here.



Please consider supporting JDCMB's year of development by donating here at Go Fund Me

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Meaty Hamlet

When I glanced down at the carrier bags and saw the two gigantic volumes of score, I realised the chap next to me on the Glyndebourne bus was none other than the composer of Hamlet, Brett Dean. "Why Hamlet?" I asked. He grinned: "Why not?"



Hamlet should be a gift for any composer - glorious soliloquies, poetry known to the entire land if not the whole world, a story of bottomless depth and endless possibilities for reinterpretation. It's not as if nobody has set it before: if I remember right, there are around 14 earlier versions, with Ambroise Thomas's effort the best known (though as Saint-Saëns said, "There is good music, bad music and the music of Ambroise Thomas...") Brett Dean's humongous new work for Glyndebourne, though, seems set to shred all competition into musical flotsam and jetsam.

Jacques Imbrailo, John Tomlinson, Allan Clayton
Photo: Richard Hubert Smith
One thing you cannot do if you're turning a play like Hamlet into music is treat it with kid gloves. Dean and his librettist, the distinguished Canadian director Matthew Jocelyn, haven't. They have used only about a fifth of the actual play: Jocelyn has taken it to bits, reassembled it, restructured, redepicted, redreamed. After all, it takes, on average, about three times as long to sing a word as to speak it, so if you set every last line of Hamlet you'd end up with about 15 hours of opera. It would be possible to do it in other ways, retaining more of the poetic monologues which here are often boiled down to a mere handful of lines. But then something else would have to give; one might lose the grand sweep of the dramatic total, the ensemble work, the sonic colour with its imaginative flair.

Although you may find your favourite moments are missing ("Alas, poor Yorick" is in, but "To thine own self be true" is not) the work is masterfully structured. The impression, musically, is rather like a giant symphony of Mahlerian proportions plus some; dramatically it is full of different levels, new insights, magnificent company challenges and a vivid variety of pace and richly explored possibilities.


Symphonic Shakespeare

Allan Clayton as Hamlet
Photo: Richard Hubert Smith
The opera's scenes seem to correspond roughly to the movements of a symphonic work in which the intensity rarely lets up. First, an opening dramatic exposition with slow introduction - Hamlet mourns his father at the graveside before we plunge into Gertude and Claudius's wedding party, at which the prince is drunk and disruptive; and the arrival of the Ghost, all the more chilling for the tenderness between Hamlet and his dead father.

The second main section opens almost as a scherzo, with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern played by two skittish countertenors, and culminates in the play-within-a-play - lavishly decorated with a totally brilliant onstage accordionist plus deconstructed lines from Hamlet's soliloquy that pop in as self-referential touchstones. The 1hr 45min first act closes with the desperate confrontation between Hamlet and Gertrude and the murder of Polonius - a great central climax that leaves Gertrude psychologically eviscerated. We all need the long interval to get our breath back.

Allan Clayton and Barbara Hannigan as Hamlet and Ophelia
Photo: Richard Hubert Smith
Next we turn to Ophelia's madness, death and funeral - an eerie slow movement, full of startling writing that includes a good proportion of the work's best and most interesting music. The dramatic pacing is notable here, building up to an absolute cataclysm as Hamlet cries "I loved Ophelia"; similarly cathartic is the multifaceted finale, with the sword fight and multiple murders that nevertheless retains Horatio's determination, as the match is agreed, to up Hamlet's quota of prize horses to 11. The rest is...silence.

The opera has been planned with Glyndebourne's auditorium in mind. A group of singers take their places in the orchestra pit - and sometimes in the balcony - being used, effectively, as instruments.  Indeed, almost everywhere you look there are people singing, thumping instruments or doing strange things with unusual percussive gadgets... The LPO tweeted this image from the score:



Electronics are subtly woven in, whether using sampled (apparently pre-recorded) extracts of the singers' lines or setting up atmospheric rumbles and roars. Even the more conventional aspects of the instrumentation are clever, clear, often ingenious; for instance, the countertenors of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are aurally shadowed by two clarinets almost trying to edge one another out of the way. As for the designs, Ralph Myers places the action in a Nordic Noir type of design featuring shiftable Scandic white walls with huge windows; Alice Babidge's costumes are contemporary in style, which makes Claudius's crown look faintly ridiculous, but I suspect it's meant to be. Neil Armfield's direction is so organic a part of the work that it is hard to imagine it done in any other way.


To thine own self be true...

To say that it's a superhuman effort, and not only for the composer, is not saying enough. Dean and Jocelyn have risen to the challenge of transforming the play with fearless aplomb, and in so doing have created giant roles for their lead singers.

Allan Clayton's Hamlet may prove the ultimate making of this rising-star British tenor. He is on stage almost all the time; we rarely see anything from anyone else's point of view. A doomed, bearlike desperado, he travels from agonised grief through madness real or imagined and out the other side to the fury of his final (expertly performed) sword fight with David Butt Philip's Laertes. It's a huge sing for this often classically-oriented performer - we have loved his Mozart and Handel although, most recently, he was pushing the boat out further as David in Meistersinger - and he proves himself not only in glorious voice but a master of the stage in every way. For Barbara Hannigan's Ophelia, Dean has created ethereally high, dizzyingly complex arabesquing lines, offset by Sarah Connolly as a persuasive Gertrude, hard-edged in character but mellifluous and radiant of voice. Sir John Tomlinson is the Ghost, as well as the Lead Player and the Gravedigger - an intriguing alignment of the three figures - and owns those scenes with his outsize presence and sepulchral tone.

The chorus frames the action with plenty of impact, plunging into "Laertes shall be king" to launch the second half with maximum oomph. There's also a rewarding plethora of smaller roles, luxuriously cast: Rod Gilfrey as Claudius, Jacques Imbrailo as Horatio, Kim Begley as Polonius and Rupert Enticknap and Christopher Lowrey as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. As for Vladimir Jurowski's conducting, I doubt anyone else could have pulled this off even half so magnificently.

I am reliably informed that some of the stage blood found its way onto a first violin part in the orchestra pit. At least, I think it was stage blood. Pictured left...

You can see Hamlet in a cinema relay on 6 July. Other performances can be found and booked here, and we are promised that the opera will be included in the Glyndebourne tour, with David Butt Philip taking over in the title role.


If you've enjoyed this review...please consider supporting JDCMB's development over the next year by making a donation at this link: https://www.gofundme.com/jdcmb





Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Hall half full, glass half empty?

You know the old trope about optimism/pessimism. (No, this post is not about the general election or Brexit.) The glass is half full - or half empty? Which are you?



I'm tending, these days, towards the enjoy-what-you've-got-while-it's-there attitude. I shall drain my half-glass to the last drop - and if I can get a refill, great.

But the same thing can sometimes apply to concert halls. What if you are the soloist who walks into a big auditorium and sees a sea of empty chairs alongside the half that are occupied?

I'm wondering this because I recently went to a recital so disappointing that I didn't want to review it (no, I won't say who it was). The hall was half full. Or, if you prefer, half empty. Perhaps it was an awkward day, or too close to a nasty event that was in the news, but attendance wasn't good. Did this put off our performer?


Hedge backwards

The atmosphere was singularly odd from the start. One way or another, he seemed curt, uncommunicative and peculiarly lackadaisical. He walked on looking as if he'd just got out of bed, or been dragged backwards through the proverbial hedge. He then pressed down the pedal and bowled off at the speed of a sound that didn't match the work he was playing. His tone was shallow, hard and lacking in colour or character. A phone went off towards the end of one piece and my pal and I exchanged glances, in case it was the composer calling to say "Oi, mate, slow down a bit, innit". And then we had to listen to him do to a glorious piece of Bartók the musical equivalent of what the Russians did to Budapest in 1956.

Of course, we can't know for sure what is going on behind such a strange performance. It could be that something deeply upsetting had just happened to him. Maybe he wasn't well, or suffers from devastating stage fright. Perhaps he'd been caught in transport chaos, or had jet-lag, overslept and missed the alarm clock and really had just got out of bed. Yet I wonder how many people in that hall - and it was a lot of people, even if only at half capacity - might have found themselves reflecting that they felt as if this performer didn't want to be there and couldn't be bothered playing his best to so small an audience?


Speak up!

There are different ways artists could handle a difficult evening in a concert hall. They might make an amusing little spoken introduction explaining that they've had to take antihistamines that have fried their brain, therefore the performance might be a bit off. That would at least establish a friendly connection. Or they could change the programme and introduce it with an informal and personal explanation (except our guy had changed his already, without explanation or, as far as I could tell, any logical planning detectable in the sequence of pieces).

If someone is perfectly well, though, and not suffering a situation that can be communicated and then healed by the music, there's a responsibility that comes with presence on a platform that has been graced in the past by the likes of Richter and Gilels. The hall may only be half full, but people have bought tickets, invested time, effort and goodwill in attendance and, mate, they are on your side. They want to hear you play some good music wonderfully. It's your job to deliver. Because if you make them feel - however unintentionally - that you don't want to be there, you hold them in contempt and you really don't give a damn, they're not going to come back for more next time. We want to have sympathy for someone who has a great reputation but is off form on this occasion. We want him to be OK. But it's got to be a two-way process.

I can't remember the last time I didn't stay for the second half of a recital. But on this occasion we decided at half time that we'd got the idea and needed a drink. The hall's loss was Pizza Express's gain.


While you're here...please consider supporting JDCMB's development over the next year by making a donation, however large or small you like, at this link: https://www.gofundme.com/jdcmb





Sunday, June 11, 2017

Please support A Year for JDCMB

I've been thinking about this for a while, so here goes.

I have launched a campaign on GOFUNDME to seek some financial support for JDCMB, because I reckon the only way I can do that without selling my soul is to ask you, my readers. Here is my page and below is the text you'll find there. https://www.gofundme.com/jdcmb

There's a link at the top of the sidebar on the right if you fancy donating at any point later, but it would of course be nice if you did it right away...

THANK YOU!


When I first started JDCMB back in 2004 I could never have envisaged that I’d still be writing it in 2017. It was a complete accident. What were these strange new things called “blogs” anyway? I set up my site to find out. Thirteen years on, JDCMB is attracting more readers than ever and, in the perhaps surprisingly polarised, occasionally vicious and hysterical world of classical music commentary, is often termed by its devotees “the voice of reason”. 

I would love to take JDCMB to the next level and I suspect that you, my readers, would appreciate that: there’d be more regular posts, more exclusive content, more interviews and reviews, perhaps a spot more multimedia. At the moment it’s ad hoc – and I know it could be improved tenfold if I just had enough time to put into it. And time, “in this day and age”, is £. 

Who benefits? You do! Thanks to you, I could write much more of the “content” that you enjoy reading.

Over the years JDCMB and I have weathered a few slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and come through still fighting for the values I, and you, believe in.


JDCMB wants to represent:

• A voice of reason

• Encouragement of the finest and most idealistic in music-making

• Writing about music, ballet, books and related topics in an informal, entertaining yet informative way

• Spreading the message of the unique power of music

• Rejecting trollishness

With your support, I could do a lot more than I can at the moment.

There’d be interviews... 



...reviews and travel reports


…and even occasional moments of glory...



And the only way to seek financial support for JDCMB without actually selling my soul is to ask my readers for their backing. I know there are quite a lot of you out there and [coughs] you’ve been enjoying free content for many years. Please will you consider stepping up and supporting the site?

Here’s my plan. I’m seeking a total of £5,200 in order to fund writing JDCMB to the tune of £100 a week for one year. In that time I intend to build up the readership still further, post at least twice as often as I currently do, and make the site not just a diversion, but an essential read for those who feel they are “my” audience. If this goes according to plan and has the desired result, we can then think about where to go next. 

The sooner we get started, the better, so please make your pledge now!

To say that I would be grateful to you forever and a day is not saying enough. I shall post a list of JDCMB Patrons at the end of 2017 and again at the end of this first year of funding to thank you officially and publicly. And if all this goes well, I’m hoping to build up a supporters network for which we can develop special offers, get-togethers, concerts and more. 

Meanwhile, if JDCMB speaks to you, that makes me very happy. 

Thank you a thousand times.

Jessica

Thursday, June 08, 2017

An election on Schumann's birthday



It's Schumann's birthday. Here is Steven Isserlis, one of today's greatest Schumannians, in his Cello Concerto. The composer finished its proofreading six days before he threw himself into the Rhine.

There's a bitter irony that this Brexit-focused general election is on Schumann's birthday. It's hard to know what to do when it is so clear that our country, like Schumann, is on the point of cracking up, in many, many ways. Unless some kind of miracle takes place, it may not recover in our lifetimes.

Please go and vote today. Think of Mrs Pankhurst etc. Voting with brains intact is all we can actually do to try to better our own future.

Incidentally, I stumbled over a fascinating documentary that Steven made about Schumann back in the 1990s. Here's part 1. There's more.

The clinching image of Ghost Variations is the tipping from glory days to terminal struggle (Jelly d'Arányi), sanity to madness (Schumann), freedom to fascism and war (the world) - converging into the same cliff-edge moment. Yet the tipping point is not so easy to find: things happen so slowly, and we are so eager to think the best - the "don't worry, it'll be fine" mindset - that we don't realise what's really going on until it's too late... Schumann's Violin Concerto was the last orchestral work he completed before his suicide attempt and confinement in a mental hospital. It's a story for today and has become so tenfold since I began working on it six years ago.




Monday, June 05, 2017

Silver Birch: We are all connected



"One chance to do something brave..."

It's all happening. On Saturday I went along to High Wycombe to see a rehearsal of Silver Birch for the first time. The Garsington Youth Company and some of the Adult Community Chorus were in extremely fine fettle and working their socks off, together with the Garsington music staff, the repetiteur, our director Karen Gillingham, the designer Rhiannon Newman Brown, the Foley team from Shepperton Studios, our producer Kate Laughton and many more. I came back reeling a bit.

I'm a novice librettist. OK, I've put together other words to be sung or acted, but this is the first time I've been involved in a complete, fully staged, top-notch, bells-and-whistles creation of a whole brand-new opera. And of course if you've been going to operas for more than 40 years and writing about them and reviewing them for half of that, you think you know what it takes. Or...er...maybe you don't.

Here's a little of what it's really taking to make this opera, after it's been written. This is leaving aside the devising process, the research, the writing, the composing - more of that another time.

Suzy and Patrick working with the youth company
The singers have to learn their roles. That may sound obvious, but it includes, for Silver Birch, a lot of young people and amateurs, and they have been rehearsing every week since the new year. They've all been auditioned. They had to prepare for those auditions and some who prepared for the auditions would have been rejected and would have been disappointed, and people had to audition them and make those decisions and tell them who was in and who wasn't.

The soloists - whom I haven't yet seen in action - have to get to grips with brand-new roles while also being busy with whatever else they're singing at the moment - for instance, our leading lady, Victoria Simmonds, is currently singing Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni at Opera Holland Park. Our conductor, Garsington's music director Dougie Boyd, has his hands full conducting The Marriage of Figaro. And don't get me started on what language orchestral musicians use while practising, at home, a new work they've never seen or heard before.

The director, Karen, has to map out the drama and then rehearse it all. The choreographer, Natasha, is in charge of a small group of brilliant youngsters who suddenly launch into breakdancing in the middle of the drill scene. Rhiannon has to find a way to make the silver birch tree grow, among much else. During the course of the rehearsal, the adult community chorus members are summoned one by one for costume fittings - someone has to make those costumes.

The adult community chorus members are devoting lashings of time and effort to taking part. One of them happens to be Siegfried Sassoon's great-nephew (he was a great help to me in the background research for the opera) and for much of the time he is standing pretty much next to where Bradley Travis will be portraying Sassoon, or at least his ghostly presence.

The music staff are working flat out. Suzy Zumpe leads the music side of the rehearsal, teaching the youth company how to memorise the tricky details of Roxanna's score. "Nothing can grow in this soil" is a line that returns several times, the last note held a different number of beats on each occasion - she finds a trick to help them remember how many and when. And she sings all the female soloist roles herself when they need filling in, with her sidekick Patrick singing all the male ones and the repetiteur, James, bowling along through the piano score.

The stage manager and assistant stage managers are zipping around moving the post that represents the silver birch, adjusting markings, constructing and deconstructing things, and someone has already erected the substantial skeleton two-level set in this school hall. Cups of tea materialise, kindly brewed by one of the assistants. Someone has brought food for the staff's lunch, plus sustaining snacks. One person remarks that during the course of this week they've eaten their body weight in dried fruit.

Everyone has to get there and back. Rhiannon has been stuck on the M25 for hours. The team of three Foley artists (aka our sound-effects gurus) have come up from Shepperton, been to Wormsley to have a look around the theatre and now have come to High Wycombe to see how they will be integrated into the battle scene. And at this point Patrick absolutely excels himself as stand-in sound effects, doing fighter jets, machine guns, mortars and more with vocals alone.

The full score is spread out on a table, a giant publication that has had to be created, proof-read and printed. So has the piano score - the chorus members clutch copies printed with the magic name PANUFNIK in big letters on the front. Someone at Edition Peters had to organise all of that. Every rest, every semiquaver, every word has to be in the right place.

Natasha, who runs a small dance company that specialises in traditional folk dance as well as youth work, can see everyone is knackered and leads a cool-down session at the end of the afternoon. Now the kids' parents are presumably going to have to come and pick them up - indeed, a couple of proud mums have been watching the proceedings for a while. Meanwhile Kate has to organise absolutely every practical detail of absolutely everything, yet seems utterly unflappable and even finds time to drop me back to High Wycombe station.

Final scene. That post in the middle is the silver birch, growing tall and strong.

I do have to take notice and learn some lessons. It's too late to change anything in my text, but I've now twigged that it's really, seriously not a good idea for singers to have a word ending in "t" directly followed by one beginning with "d" and that a few unintended consequences can include the command: "Let's go from 'Driblet'". The kids are unfazed by this, but I quietly sink through the floor.

Over at Garsington, it will be all go, too. People have to work the booking mechanisms, send out the tickets, tell people about the trains, set out the picnic tents, stock the bar, direct the parking. The audience has to find its way to Wormsley. Will they come out at the end singing the Silver Birch Song? I think so - I can't get it out of my head.

We are all connected. All these people, hundreds and hundreds of them, are connected by the one purpose of making this new opera reality. Everyone is connected. Everyone could potentially have their life changed in some way by this thing. To say "we're all in it together" is not enough. This is not a "community opera": it's a community. To stage any opera would mean creating a community, even if the opera has existed for 400 years. This one happens to be new. And it happens to be ours.

I'm not sure I'll ever be quite the same again.

Silver Birch by Roxanna Panufnik is on at Garsington Opera on 28, 29 and 30 July. Get your tickets here.

Friday, June 02, 2017

Happy birthday to Sir Mark Elder!

Sir Mark Elder. Photo: (c) Chris Christodoulou

Sir Mark Elder, music director of the Hallé Orchestra, is 70 today.

Last night he conducted the Manchester 'We Stand Together' Concert, a massed-orchestra event that was pulled together at the Bridgewater Hall in less than a week to fundraise for the families of victims and the injured of the Manchester Arena terrorist attack. The Hallé, the Manchester Camerata and the BBC Philharmonic joined forces and among their soloists were mezzo-soprano Alice Coote, vocalist Clare Teal and Elbow front-man Guy Garvey. Tickets were free and the Manchester Evening News reports: "Elder and his orchestra looked visibly moved by the rapturous applause and cheers to the variety of musical works on the programme".

Time and again, Elder has taken a stand, taken a lead and been given the kudos his stirring, sterling music-making deserves. There's always room for more, too. Let's raise a glass to him today.

Thursday, June 01, 2017

Good for Goode

Richard Goode. Photo: Steve Riskind
Richard Goode cast Beethoven and Chopin in a long shaft of light from Bach's most audacious and complex keyboard Partita, No.6 in E minor. I reviewed his recital in the Southbank's International Piano Series last night for The Arts Desk. Read it here. 


With Goode, a recital is all about the music (that might sound like stating the obvious, but one can’t guarantee it with every pianist these days). The veteran American has an unassuming stage presence, taking to the piano as if sitting down to demonstrate a musical point to friends in his own living room. There is nothing flamboyant in his manner, nor in his musical concepts: simply the sense that he has lived with this music for decades and is pleased to play it for us. He uses a well-thumbed score and a page-turner; no Lisztian feats of memory, and no iPad. The magic is in the tone itself...

PS: Goode turns 74 today. Happy birthday to a much-loved maestro of the piano.