Thursday, 20 July 2017

Dusapin Outscape : Berlioz, baroque and Weilerstein

The UK premiere of Pascal Dusapin's Outscape with Alisa Weilerstein, Prom 7 at the Royal Albert Hall, the BBC Symphony orchestra conducted by Joshua Weilerstein (Alisa's younger brother).  Dusapin is one of the true greats of contemporary music, A high-profile and prolific composer whose work is performed by some of the top names in new music, and well represented on recordings.  For a change, that fount of skewed non-knowledge, Wikipedia, is worth reading, so kudos for whoever did the entry on Dusapin.

Long, brooding lines from the lowest register of the cello set a pulse, shadowed by bass clarinet.   The cello seems to be channeling something beyond audibility. I wondered if the piece grew from silent bars. Background noises - the tapping of wooden blocks, free-wheeling, piping piccolo.    Slow, swaying movement built up of almost imperceptible tones and intervals   Weilerstein draws out the line, which gradually levitates up the scale.  Orchestral colours change, as the cello voice rises and falls, the clarinet calling extended legato.  For an ostensibly "slow" piece, there;s a lot going on, subtle gradations created by carefully poised control.  Eventually the pace builds up, the cello weaving wild, angular lines,  then suddenly retreats to low, plaintive  lines which gradually fade.   A beautiful piece that seems to circulate in its own seamless sphere.

In the context of this programme, one might be tempted to think in terms of hyper-fervid dreams, but I think that would be pushing the case too far.  It's good on its own terms.   Like so much of Dusapin's work, it's meticulously refined and exact. If you mess with microtonality, it ends up mush ! Fortunately Weilerstein is a virtuoso, so there was no danger of that happening.  Dusapin's Outscape  is a joint commission between the BBC, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestre de l'Opéra de Paris, and Stuttgart Opera.  Joshua Weilerstein conducted on this occasion. Outscape has also been conducted by Susanna Mälkki (Paris), Markus Stenz (Stuttgart) and Cristian Macelaru (Chicago).  There's another performance in November in Porto with Baldur Brönnimann and Anssi Kartunnen.

Before Dusapin, Jean-Féry Rebel Le Chaos from the 1737 ballet Les Elémens, a good choice since this links the French baroque to modern avant garde. As I've written before (please see here), the connections are very strong indeed : music history didn't start and stay in the late 19th century.  The baroque spirit, though exuberant and audacious, predicated on the idea that civilization was an improvement on barbarity.  Hence Chaos, which which order emerges : art, not abandon.   French baroque dance was formal, almost a form of stylized exercise : thus again the need for firmness of concept.  Dusapin studied with Xenakis, an architect before he became a composer.  Hence concepts of mathematical precision and detail,  from which grew developments like microtonality.  (lots more about Xenakis on this site)   Precision isn't restrictive by any means. Clear thinking is a basic springboard for sophisticated creativity.

Romanticism wasn't "romantic" in the modern sense of the word. The Romantic fascination with death, and the unnatural was a means of pushing boundaries, of exploring dangerous emotions.  For many, that meant experimenting with mind-altering experiences in many different forms.  Drugs and alcohol free inhibitions. They're a short cut to the subconscious and the adventures within. Yet they are also an escape from reality. The interval feature on the BBC repeat broadcast is informative and worth listening to, for background on the early 19th century use of drugs.   Opiates were semi-respectable, even though the dangers were recognized.  How far Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique is drug-induced reverie or not, there's no point in speculating since it's a very fine piece of music, enhanced by dramatic extremes.  Not unlike Grand Opéra in purely orchestral miniature.  Another connection between Dusapin, who writes a lot of very abstract opera, and Berlioz.

Joshua Weilerstein is an interesting speaker.  Presumably more preparation had gone into Dusapin's Outscape, since this Symphonie fantastique was more reverie than nightmare.  It was good, though, to dwell on the less histrionic parts of the piece and focus on the orchestration. 

Original Content: Dusapin Outscape : Berlioz, baroque and Weilerstein

Monday, 17 July 2017

Harrison Birtwistle Deep Time : Barenboim Prom 4

The UK premiere of Sir Harrison Birtwistle's Deep Time, at the Proms in the Royal Albert Hall,  with Daniel Barenboim who conducted the world premiere at the Philharmonie, Berlin, in May.this year.  Just as Barenboim's Elgar pedigree goes back a long way, so does his relationship with Birtwistle.  They've known each other since the 60's. Barenboim also gave the premieres of  Birtwistle's Exody in 1998 and of The Last Supper in 2000.

In an interview for his publishers Boosey & Hawkes, Birtwistle explained the term "Deep Time".  "...coined by John McPhee in a 1981 book Basin and Range, which refers to the idea of measuring things on a vast temporal scale beyond human comprehension such as the age of rocks. The concept of Deep Time follows on from the work of the 18th century Scottish geologist James Hutton who proposed that the processes of rock erosion, sedimentation and formation have 'no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end', a state of perpetual change...."   It's an idea which fits in well with the concepts that seem to lie beneath so much of Birtwistle's work: stratas and layers,  levels of time parallel and co-existence, puzzles, mysteries and patterns, often evolving as if generated by abstract but organic life forces.  Earth Dances, of course, and The Triumph of Time but also mysteries like The Minotaur and Silbury Air. 

Deep Time seems to evolve out of nothingness. Bars are marked in silence until sound emerges almost imperceptibly. Slow, circular figures dragging forward contarst with sparkling figures comprising short, quick-paced cells.   Rhythms build up quickly to an exuberant angular dance, which then morph into flying figures which float above the steady pulse.   Crashing metallic percussion, the growl of dark, low brass and woodwinds. Base, middle and top notes like a complex but earthy scent.  Large, dense structures and fleeting whips of high-pitched sound, propelling forward thrust.  A soprano saxophone calls, marking intervals: wooden blocks are beaten in typically wayward Birtwistle zig-zag patterns.  Planes of sound from strings and winds, suggesting boundless vistas.  Towards the conclusion, trickling, tiny fragments, quirky changes of direction, and a return to long, slow, rumbles. As the music passes onwards,  cymbals clash and long planes stretch until at last the music dissipates into nothingness once more. Not before the brass and metallic percussion assert themselves once more, in quirky farewell.  I didn't think so much of inexorably slow forces but of a multiplicity of actions on different levels.  Birtwistle is never boring!  He turned 83 this weekend, but creatively he's lithe and agile. 

Original Content: Harrison Birtwistle Deep Time : Barenboim Prom 4

Crossed and fractured lines - La voix humaine Sarah Minns

From Roger Thomas

When Denise Duval premiered Francis Poulenc's tragédie lyrique La Voix Humaine, in 1959, she wasn't exactly young. But recordings of her performing it reveal a bright, youthful voice and impressive acting skills. A regular in new Poulenc works, Duval fulfilled what the composer called for in his brief notes on the musical interpretation: [the role] "ought to be performed by a young and elegant woman. This is not about an elderly woman who has been abandoned by her lover."
At Kings Place, London, Sarah Minns, with Richard Black (musical director) an expert hand at the piano, in Poulenc's own piano version of La Voix, uses the English translation by Joseph Machlis issued by Poulenc's publisher, Ricordi, in 1977. Minns is a few years younger than Duval was in 1959 and ideally fits Poulenc's call for youth and elegance. She is also one of the most capable actors in classical singing in London. That is crucial because, to be successful, La Voix Humaine -- a 40 minute-plus psycho-drama for soprano (called, simply, Elle) in conversation on the telephone with a former, or still fleeing, lover, whose voice we never hear, with alternating emotional support and assault from the piano score -- is no place for acting wimps.
In her programme notes to this OperaUpClose production, director Robin Norton-Hale tells us that in the opera's preparation she and Minns mapped out what the unheard lover at the other end of the line might have been saying. An eminently sensible strategy, which added colour and authenticity to Minns's responses. There is clearly a back story in Jean Cocteau's libretto (based on his 1928 play). Elle's lover is already well on the run. From what Elle says on the phone it emerges that he is seeking to retrieve letters they have exchanged. And the lover has abandoned his pet dog at Elle's apartment. The dog passage is apparently sometimes cut by directors who see it as a baffling non-sequitur, but Minns's extremely sensitive delivery of the description of the dog's state -- pining for his master, refusing to eat, lurking in the hall, turning vicious -- makes it clear that the dog is a surrogate in suffering for Elle. "In spite of his intelligence, he surely cannot guess the truth."

But since Elle's phone conversations are fraught with deception -- about what she is wearing, where she has been and with whom (lunching with Martha?), when she has in fact been in a sleeping-pill swoon -- how do we know for sure that the dog is not still full of joie de vivre and eating well? Or maybe stiffly starved to death on the doormat. Elle's changes of mood are adeptly handled by Minns: her frustrations with the party line (nothing to do with the Parti Communiste Française -- if you are too young to have experienced one, check Wikipedia); her barefaced lying bravado (not that the unheard voice does not offer his own fair share of deception); her descent into despair, sometimes retracting her lies to the point of admitting to what is effectively a suicide attempt. Another crucial episode -- when "Madame" interrupts on the party line for the third time. Elle's anger at the eavesdropping as portrayed by Minns is visceral and scary. ("But, Madame, we're not trying to be interesting, I can assure you ... If you really find us so silly, why are you wasting your time instead of hanging up?"). In her anger, Minns powerfully reminds the audience that we too have been salaciously listening in on a private conversation for the past half hour or so.

Simplicity and elegance are key features of this production, with a nod towards the 1930s. Minns wears white silk pajamas, sometimes with a fur-collared overcoat over them (set and costume designer: Kate Lane). Lane's set is minimalist and subtly lit (lighting designer: Richard Williamson). At first I thought the wire mesh panels might be overstressing Elle's isolation and mental imprisonment, all of which is more than adequately spelt out in the libretto. But I rapidly concluded that they amounted to rooms in the apartment that Elle could wander around while remaining visible. A telephone expert did suggest to me that the phone flex might be out of style for the 1930s. But nothing is perfect in this world, is it? 

Certainly no directorial overkill here. Do we really need the audience being guests at a party in Elle's apartment (she's not well enough to organise one), or videos of the voiceless lover? No, not when what is all there already in the libretto and piano score is so skilfully presented.

 La Voix Humaine continues at Kings Place Hall 2 on 6 and 20 August; on tour at Redbridge Drama Centre, London E8, on 3 October, and North Wall Theatre, Oxford, on 20 November.

 Photo: Christopher Trimble

Original Content: Crossed and fractured lines - La voix humaine Sarah Minns

Barenboim nails the Proms: Elgar, Citizen of the World

Two giants of British music - Edward Elgar and Harrison Birtwistle with Daniel Barenboim and Staatskapelle Berlin, Prom 4 Royal Albert Hall.  Barenboim's Elgar credentials go back decades to the early years of his marriage to Jacqueline du Pré, when they made exciting music together with the trendiest young crowd in the business at the time. Over the years Barenboim's approach to Elgar has matured, becoming more magisterial and more elegant.  Though Elgar was thoroughly English, was not a "Little Englander". Though celebrated by the Establishment., he wasn't born to the Establishment but made his own way. In his day, there was  integration between British and European music. Elgar was a citizen of the world well aware of what was happening around him.  

Thus Barenboim's sophisticated, cosmopolitan Elgar Symphony no 2 in E flat major, where the "Spirit of Delight" flowed with graceful confidence, truly "nobilimente".  each theme suggesting open vistas and expansive horizons.  There are hints of the kind of music one might associate with celebration - holidays at spas, gala occasions, even the Proms of Sir Henry Wood. But the mood changes. Celli and basses introduce a darker mood.  The themes return, but more urgent, descending into haunted quietude. When the expansive tutti return, they seem defiant, rushing towards frantic climax. Speaking like a poet, Elgar said that this was "a sort of malign influence wandering through a summer night in a garden"   The themes in the Larghetto were stretched,just enough to emphasize the idea of ragility, of holding onto something elusive.  "Rarely. rarely comest Thou, O Spirit of Delight" ...... "Wherefore hast thou left me now/ Many a day and night?  Far less funeral march than personal and deeply felt nostalgia for something inevitably slipping away.  

Thus the wildness of the Rondo, swirling cross currents, cut off mid flow in a short,  sharp climax. .   Elgar wrote, enigmatically, "Venice and Tintagel" , referring possibly to pleasant times he'd enjoyed in the past, both places being popular with turn of the century travellers. There are even hints of tea dance music and jazz.  Think Thomas Mann Death in Venice, though Elgar got there first., completing the symphony before the novella was published. In the circulating themes and sense of constant movement, perhaps we can imagine the idea of throngs of tourists, each on individual voyages, which will inevitably come to an end. The bustle and wild, whipping lines with which the movement ends certainly suggest hurried departure.   Elgar and his peers weren't to know that the era of European expansion was soon to end, but we cannot blank out our awareness of the war4 and what followed. Nor should we : music isn't just ink on paper.  Art engages the soul.  Thus the final movement, the  Moderato e Maestoso,  seemed to glow, the last chords fading slowly, like dying embers.  Dignified and very moving.  

At Prom 2 the previous evening, Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin had performed Elgar Symphony no. 1 in A flat major (1908) together with Sibelius Violin Concerto (1904) with soloist Lisa Bathiashvili. Two works by almost contemporary composers, written within a similar period.  Interesting combination, but not nearly so intriguing as Prom 4 pairing Elgar Symphony no 2 (1910) with Harrison Birtwistle's Deep Time (2017).  Since that's an important new work, it deserves a piece all on its own, which I'll write later.  

But one more observation on Elgar the European.  For their encore on Saturday, Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin launched into the famous Elgar Pomp and Glory March.  Brilliant wit !  That piece has become hackneyed in the popular mind, having been associated with jingoism, flag waving and Last Night of the Proms silliness.  Which is ironic since pomposity is not a good thing.  "Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!"  Othello is in agony, having been tricked by Iago into doubting Desdemona.  His past victories and the status he won through war, have come to naught. He'll end up losing everything. Because he's listened to a fraudster !   It was wonderful to hear the piece played as serious music as a proper concert work. Refined and stylish, yet also beaming with good humour. How many in the audience "got it" I wonder ?

Original Content: Barenboim nails the Proms: Elgar, Citizen of the World

Friday, 14 July 2017

Secret messages ? First Night of the BBC Proms 2017

Secret messages ? The First Night of The BBC Proms 2017 : as always a thrilling sense of occasion. But what occasion, and who was it really for ?  These are questions that the BBC and Proms team need to address. It's not enough to rely on formula  This year we've seen what happens when politicians function like robots. spouting empty slogans on autopilot.   Big institutions like governments can't hang on to power "by right", but must earn their place. The evening kicked off with a new British work, to show how hip the Proms Team are.  For a change real music ! Tom Coult's St John's Dance is an interesting exercise in perpetual motion and tempi, engrossing enough to keep attention, without being too taxing. Certainly better than some of the mindless pap we've had some seasons.  But beware ! St John's Dance was a form of mass hysteria, where people kept dancing on, unheeding to their deaths.

Sir Henry Wood created the Proms on the principle that people were perfectly capable of learning if inspired by excellence and extremely high standards. His vision doesn't apply today when arts policy aims for the lowest possible denominator, on the assumption that people are too stupid to cope with anything that isn't dumbed down.  If arts managers don't have faith in their own product, how can they hope to convince others ? And where is the real market ?  Even the BBC has twigged that it's a fallacy that the arts depend on audiences who don't like serious music.  So why not put that into practice ? The whole thrust of British arts policy is reductionist, uncreative and wrong.  White Papers might repeat the same old assumptions but that doesn't mean they're right and can't be stopped.  Britisdh arts policy is fundamentally misguided because it does't reflect economic reality.

Until such time as policy makers have the guts to question, we can but hope that some centres of excellence remains.  Like Beethoven, for example, whose vision and courage we need more than ever in this era of small minded shallowness.   How wonderful to hear Igor Levit playing Beethoven's Piano Concerto no 3 in C minor, with Edward Gardner conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra.  Fact is, excellence is by its very nature elitist.  Ordinary people are perfectly capable of smarting up rather than dumbing down.  Hooray !  This is what real music is all about : raising horizons.  For his encore, Levit chose Beethoven's Ode to Joy, transcribed for piano by Franz Liszt.   Culture doesn't exist in isolation : it crosses borders.  The arts business is international and must remain so.  Not long ago,  Her Majesty the Queen opened Parliament wearing a blue and yellow hat.  She's not allowed an opinion, but she's no fool, and she's not easily swayed by populist media.  Long may she reign !

Extravaganzas are part of the fun of First Nights of the Proms, so this year we had John Adams's Harmonium.   Four hundred and fifty singers - the BBC Symphony Chorus and BBC Youth Choir, joined by additional forces, ranged all round the back of the stage at the Royal Albert Hall.   Impressive to look at, and very well performed.  Harmonium predicates on huge swathes of sound composed of tiny cells   Sometimes the singers aren't singing text but creating planes of wordless noise.  Not being a fan of the composer I won't comment on the piece as music, but everyone seemed to be having a good time.  The whole musical part of the Prom over in record short time to allow endless chatter and self promotion on the part of BBC marketeers.

Each year I cover 30-40 Proms, so please keep coming back.  Please see my other pieces on the Proms, this year and in the past and on the Proms and Arts Policy. 

Original Content: Secret messages ? First Night of the BBC Proms 2017

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Datong, the Chinese Utopia, in London

Datong, the Chinese Utopia, grand finale to the Chinese Music Series in London, the biggest ever showcase of Hong Kong culture presented in the west, comes to the Richmond Theatre on 27th and 28th July. Datong, the Chinese Utopia, has been described as "a century of Chinese history distilled into three acts". The opera, composed by Chan Hing-yun to a libretto by  Evans Chan,  examines  China's recent past through the lives of 19th century reformer Kang Youwei(康有為) and his daughter Kang Tongbei ( 康同璧).  Kang Youwei (1888-1927) was a scholar from  Nanhai, near Foshan in Guangdong province, whose ideas on the modernization of China appealed to the young Guangxu, inspiring the "!00 Days Reform" in 1898, which was soon suppressed by the ultra-conservative Dowager Cixi. The Emperor was imprisoned and Kang Youwei went into exile.  The title of this opera refers to Kang's book, the Datong Shu (大同書) revealing a vision of a global utopia of human equality and solidarity, where divisions of race, class and gender would no longer apply.

The opera begins during the Cultural Revolution, when the Red Guard movement demanded a new world order based on the abolition of the past.  Kang's daughter, Kang Tongbi, lies on her deathbed, her daughter beside her.  Years before, things were so different. Kang Youwei believed that feudal family structures kept China backwards, and that women should be equal to men. Thus Tongbi travelled the world, studied abroad and held feminist values, the prototype "New Woman" of early 20th century modernization.

Kang Youwei's ideas on reform were complex, confronting capitalism, religion and social organization, and so wide ranging that  they are recognized on both sides of the modern Chinese political divide. In his lifetime, and in exile, his ideas on equality brought him up against widespread racism.  In this opera, we see Kang meeting with President Theodore Roosevelt in the wake of anti-Chinese leglislation then sweeping the United States, We also see Kang Tongbi chiding foreigners who treat Chinese as lesser beings.  Lots of food for thought. In times of tyrbulence and division, we could do well to consider Datong The Chinese Utopia as an opera and as an introduction to Kang';s ideas.

Datong the Chinese Utopia, premiered at the Hong Kong Arts Festival in 2015 to great acclaim. In London, the cast will include  Louise Kwong as Kang Tongbi, Carol Lin as The Empress Dowager and as Tongbi's daughter (an interesting reversal)  and Apollo Wong as Kang Youwei, with David Quah in supporting roles.  The conductor is Lio Kuokman, the director Tang Shu-wing.  A film about Kang Youwei by Evans Chan premiered in 2011.  (see clips below) . Please read more about the Hong Kong Music Series HERE  (Beyond the Senses, Chinese Chamber Muisc as Theatre) and 

HERE. (Music Interflow, St John's Smith Square) (Photo credits : Yankov Wong)

Original Content: Datong, the Chinese Utopia, in London

Ravishing Véronique Gens Visions

Ravishing : Visions, Véronique Gens in a glorious new recording of French operatic gems, with Hervé Niquet conducting the Münchener Rundfunkorchester.  This disc is a companion piece to Néère, Where Gens sang familiar Duprac, Hahn, and Chausson mélodies, here Gens presents extracts from Grand Opéra, reflecting her Tragodienne series of operatic arias.  Visions is a stunner, rich and so rewarding that you want to rush out and hear each opera as a whole.  This might be easier said than done, for some of the operas here aren't well known. Thus, all the more reason to get this recording because some real gems are included which  you've almost certainly not heard done as well as they are done here. Véronique Gens is a great pioneer of French repertoire. So intoxicating is this recording that if you come to it as a taster, you could end up addicted.

Visions - visions of ecstasy, religious or romantic, exotic dreams and horrifying nightmares, virgins, nuns and heroines, plenty of variety, yet each piece a work of theatrical imagination  Alfred Bruneau's Geneviève (1881) for example, from the cantata the young Bruneau dedicated to Massenet.  The piece begins with a dizzying evocation of a storm. If this sounds Wagnerian, the scène lyrique that rises from it, is decidedly French. "Seigneur ! Est-ce bien moi que vous avez choisi?", for she is just a shepherdess tending a flock.  But the nation needs her, and  she must put her mission above herself .From Cèsar Franck's Les Bèatitudes (1879),  a moment of quietude interrupted by the fierce scram that introduces the récit et air de Leonore from Louis Neidermeyer's Stradella (1837), its rhythms influenced by Rossini, enhanced by florid vocal frills.  Benjamin Godard's Les Guelfes (1882) is represented .   by as orchestral prelude  introducing a song describing Jeanne d'Arc's journey to Paris, her way lit by angelic harps.  

From history to fantasy, Félicien David's Lalla Rookh (1862).  French orientalism gloried in exotic images. This song is exquisite, its delicate perfumes warmed by the beauty of Gen's clear, pure expression.  It also evokes the aesthetic of the Belle Époque. Thus a song from Henry Février's Gismonda (1919) a reverie with tolling bells where a solo violin shadows the voice.The protagonist is a nun, but longs, without much hope, for sensual love. Camille Saint-Saëns's arrangement of tienne Marcel's Béatrix is altogther stronger stuff . Cello rather than violin, and mournful winds and a resolute vocal line. Béatrix knows that the love she knew will never return. "O Beaux Rêves évanouis ! Éspérances tant caressées!". This song is reasonably well known, and Gens does it beautifully.

This selection from Jules Massenet's La Vierge (1880) begins with an orchestral interlude. The Virgin Mary is about to die. The mood is subdued.  But the Gates of Heaven open showing the Virgin a vision of Paradise.  "Rêve infini, divine extase, l'éther scintille et s'embrase!" Gens voice glows, illuminated by rapture. After that explosive high, we return to the relative sedate Blanche from Fromental Halévy's La Magicienne (1885)  who chooses the cloister, and to the prayer of Clothilde from Georges Bizet's Clovis et Clothilde (1857). Another song whose loveliness lies in its simplicity, again ideally suited to Gens's clear, pure timbre.  .To conclude, L'archange from César Franck's Rédemption (1874) a vision of the End of Time.  "L'homme rebelle n'obéit pas", and God, in anger chatises him.  "Mais que faut-il pour son pardon? Après des siècles d'abandon , une heure de prière!"  A rousing and rather cheerful end to a very good recording.

Original Content: Ravishing Véronique Gens Visions