Saturday, 24 September 2011

eighth blackbird in Sydney


When I travelled to Bexhill-on-Sea in May to see eighth blackbird perform I didn't know they were going to alight much closer to home.  On 22 September they gave a concert in The Studio at the Sydney Opera House.  
I have been thinking about how much of the enjoyment of music is confined to the performance itself.  When I hear new music, or music that is new to me, I am unable to take as much of it as I would like away.  If I hear something I like, I want to hear it again but this is not always possible; and there is so much to hear       ( and such little time ) that music that which makes a bad impression, or none, on a first hearing is lost forever.  And when I hear something I like it is sometimes difficult to find a CD or other recording and again the memory fades.  I found an echo of this thought in Wallace Stevens' fifth blackbird:

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

Since I encountered them at the seaside, eighth blackbird has made the second change in its membership since it was founded in 1916: Yvonne Lam has replaced Matt Albert on violin and viola.
Their Sydney program included two of the pieces I heard them play earlier and four which were new to me. 

Swedish composer Fabian Svensson,  who was born in 1980, wrote his  Two Sides for piccolo, bass clarinet, vibraphone, piano, violin, cello in 2007 for the Italian ensemble Sentieri selvaggi.  It was to be played at a concert with the theme “the right to dissent”.  He says:

 Deeming it impossible to write a piece about as abstract a concept as that of the right to something, I decided instead to portray the actual concept of dissent. This was done by dividing the ensemble into two halves, one playing only in the high register, and the other only in the low register. These two groups are pitted against each other in an antagonistic and confrontational manner.

As performed by eighth blackbird, this involved the two groups of players entering from opposite sides of the room and facing each other as they played.  At the end the players left one by one as they finished their parts leaving only two for the final confrontation.  This was a lively and enjoyable piece.  An excerpt from it,played by Sentieri selvaggi, is available on the composer's website.

Next came Mayke Nas: DiGiT #2  (written in 2002 ) for piano four hands, or so the program said.  Much of it was for four forearms with the addition of rhythmic clapping.  You might describe it as the obverse of John Cage's 4' 33".  The avant guard is still around.

Mayke Nas was born in the Netherlands in 1972.   Her works include: I Delayed People's Flights By Walking Slowly In Narrow Hallways ( 2005 ) and Anyone can do it (2006)  for six completely unprepaired players, not necessarily gifted with any musical talent".  The avant guard is still around.
It's easy to be dismissive about self consciously modern performance works,  and I won't miss not having a CD of  DiGiT #2 ; but it was worth hearing and seeing it played with amazing musical and balletic skill by Lisa Kaplan and Matthew Duvall.

Dan Visconti, who was born in 1982, composed  Fractured Jams (2006) for clarinet, violin, cello and piano.   The quartet is in four movements.  Some parts of it are written to simulate a performance by players not necessarily gifted with any musical talent, though in this case talent is certainly required.  At one point the pianist drinks from a pitcher and blows across its top to make sounds.  Again, while fun to watch and hear, I think this kind of music is for the moment and not repeated listening.   The last movement is a burst of ragtime a sample of which can be heard here.   This extract is not representative of the whole piece;  it's quite traditionally musical when compared with some of the spare and aggressive sounds in the earlier movements.

Phillip Glass wrote In Similar Motion in 1969, and it's one of the pieces I heard eighth blackbird play in May.   Then I was impressed by the repetitions and other minimalist gestures in this music from the beginning of his career.  This time I heard a lot more warmth and colour in the music.  I wondered if the change in the venue was part of the reason.  I think both the hall and the performance space were smaller in Sydney and there was a much larger audience in that space.
Timothy Andres, the youngest composer represented in the program,  was born in  1985 in California.   We heard his Crashing Through Fences (2009) written for piccolo, glockenspiel and  two kickdrums.  (The kickdrums are attached to the piccolo and glockenspiel players.)  The composer says:

I was interested in creating a contrast between these innately unfeasible timbres and a long melody, unspooling over a sweet harmonic sequence .It’s an almost uncomfortably intimate sort of piece—the two instruments interact hesitantly at first, then with increasing boldness. And at opportune moments, they savagely kick each other.

I'm not sure what he means by "innately unfeasible", as the two instruments make a unique and very beautiful sound.  The explosive interruptions by the kickdrums are arresting,  but  the thought crossed my mind that it would have been nice to hear the piece without the savage kicks.  Fortunately a recording of  Crashing       ( played by Ian Rosenbaum, glockenspiel & kickdrum; Mindy Heinsohn, piccolo & kickdrum ) can be heard on the composers website.

 Stephen Hartke’s Meanwhile: incidental music to imaginary puppet plays, (2007) concluded the program.  I was fascinated by this music when I first heard it at Bexhill in May and excited to be able to hear it again.  As far as I know, it's not available on CD, though many of Stephen Hartke's music is, and I hope to explore it.  I previously mentioned that the members of eighth blackbird play this piece from memory and that it has been choreographed, so that they move about the space and form groups temporary ensembles as they play.  As with the piece by Philip Glass, the performance didn't match my recollection of the earlier one.  Everything seemed closer together in The Studio; and the sound more cohesive.  Or was it my memory?

eighth blackbird at The Studio Sydney Opera House 22 September 2011.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

La finta giardiniera


Con Opera at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music provides a chance to hear some infrequently performed operas and some excellent singing from the students there.  Last year I saw Die Lustigen Weiber von Windsor by Otto Nicolai, whose overture at least is well known, and the Les malheurs d'Orphée of  Darius Milhaud, an appealing work in three very short acts, which is so obscure that the only recordings of it are very difficult to obtain.
This year Con Opera is performing La Finta Giardiniera  an early Mozart opera.   It was written in 1774, when Mozart was 18 years of age, for performance in Munich.  Alfred Einstein wrote that it " was simply a local event in Munich without consequences ".    But Mozart was anxious to write operas;  and it is delightful to catch his enthusiasm in a letter written to his mother:

GOD be praised! My opera was given yesterday, the 13th, and proved so successful that I cannot possibly describe all the tumult. In the first place, the whole theatre was so crammed that many people were obliged to go away. After each aria there was invariably a tremendous uproar and clapping of hands, and cries of Viva Maestro! Her Serene Highness the Electress and the Dowager (who were opposite me) also called out Bravo! When the opera was over, during the interval when all is usually quiet till the ballet begins, the applause and shouts of Bravo! were renewed; sometimes there was a lull, but only to recommence afresh ...

The plot is not very convincing.  Most critics blame the lack of interest in,and performances of, the opera on the feeble libretto.   It is also lengthy: an unedited performance would take almost three and a half hours.  Professor Imre Palló,  the Musical Director of this production had prepared a performance version of the opera which takes about two hours.  He says that he "particularly worked on the recitatives, compressing them as much as possible without losing the story line".  I think he was right to do this.  While it would be interesting to hear all of Mozart's score, there isn't enough dramatic interest in the libretto to sustain a long evening in the theatre.   And I imagine it would be difficult for the singers and musicians to prepare and perform the piece in full.  In fact, we know from Mozart's letters that the first performance was postponed twice to allow the singers time to learn their parts.
The music is well worth hearing for its own sake and for the uncanny pre echoes of Mozart's better known and more popular operas.   He didn't conjure up Figaro and Don Giovanni from nothing - and while this might make them less super human achievements in themselves,  it's no less incredible that some of their musical ideas were formed when Mozart was so young.  The orchestration is wonderfully varied with some arias including parts for individual woodwinds which weave in and out of the accompaniment in a most effective way.  The members of the Conservatorium Chamber Orchestra played these with great effect.  The small size and excellent acoustics of the Music Workshop enhanced the clarity of their playing.
La Finta Giardiniera is described as an opera buffa, part of an established comic tradition.  However, it seemed to me on listening to some of the arias that they derived from the more formal tradition of the opera seria.  (This impression was confirmed by an article on the Mozart Project website.)  The varied styles of the music gave the performance a somewhat muddled and episodic feeing.  Though I can't be certain,  the cuts in the performing version we heard may have contributed to this as originally one aria may not have led on to the next so abruptly. 
It's also a reminder that while Handel's operas have enjoyed a recent period of great popularity and operas by other eighteenth century composers are regularly heard, there is a huge number of works leading up to Mozart which are known only to musicologists.  So La Finta Giardineira may give an idea of how the early opera buffa sounded, and can be heard as a precursor  to Mozart's mature Italian operas in more ways than one.
The jagged musical trajectory of this piece, jumping from broad comedy to angst ridden monologues, must make it a nightmare for a director.   John Milson's production, using a single set, is fluent and gives ample scope to the singers.  Con Opera performs the work with alternate casts.  The singers I heard on 17 September were excellent. 

Friday, 5 August 2011

Midsummer Night's Dream at ENO

Pharaoh told them his dream; but there was none that could interpret them unto Pharaoh. Gen 41:7
The new production of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream by English National Opera was powerful and fascinating.   The production was directed by Christopher Alden, three of whose productions I have seen in the last eighteen months.   Opera Australia has presented his Tosca, originally for Opera North, and Partenope, originally for ENO.  I thought Tosca was appalling and rantedabout it here.  His Partenope, which was within a now established tradition of presenting Handel’s classical stories in a modern setting, was effective in the theatre and allowed full scope to the singers.
I would like to look at why I was moved by A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when Tosca made me angry and annoyed.  Some critics were angry and annoyed with A Midsummer Night’s Dream and it is interesting to look at their reactions as well as the production itself.
Opera Australia has presented two versions of the work, the second of which directed by Baz Luhrmann was first seen in 1993.   When I wrote about a revival of thatproduction, which is set in Imperial India, I was interested in the extent to which both discrepancies between the text and the production, and the need for the audience to unravel a puzzle were important.   I want to look at how these questions affect the ENO production.
The ENO production is set in a school, probably in around 1960 when the opera was composed.  The single set is an intimidating school building. It is an exact replica of an unidentified school appearing  in a black and white photograph in the program.  
There is some mimed action at the beginning.  A tall man in a suit walks across the stage and sits against wall on the right near the front.  He takes off his tie.  A younger man in school uniform appears and sits beside him.  In synchronised movement, they both put on school ties.
The first puzzle.  Who is this man?  Perhaps Britten himself?  Perhaps Oberon?  A supernumery or a character?  And he looks strangely familiar.
I would have been saved some of the confusion if I had read the synopsis in the program:
On the eve of his wedding, a man returns to his old school.  Long forgotten memories of his schooldays come back to him in the form of a dream …
The man is Theseus in the Dream, and, I had I paid attention, I would have noted that he was sung by Paul Whelan, who I have heard and admired before and must have half recognised. 
Once the music began there was a little more confusion: on the first night, Iestyn Davies, who was to sing Oberon was ill, and acted the part which was sung from the side of the stage by   William Towers.  It took me a little time to work out where the disembodied voice belonged.  When I saw the show a second time a couple of days later, Oberon had found his voice. 
My beloved companion pointed out later that the synchronous tie tying showed that the younger man, who we find to be Puck, is the older man’s remembered self as a boy.  Or probably: the older man is mostly a bemused watcher of his younger self, but he is directly attacked by school bullies at one point.
To complete the transformation:  Oberon is a schoolmaster and Titania a music teacher, the fairies are school boys, the pairs of young lovers are older pupils and the mechanicals an assortment of school staff.
In the context, I did immediately wonder if the tall and silent figure crossing the stage was intended to represent Britten himself.  Some critics so identified him:
He is, of course, Britten, later Theseus (Paul Whelan), and in a stroke of genius on Alden’s part the boy whose lost innocence he carries with him through life – his younger self - is none other than the much-abused and put-upon Puck (Jamie Manton), plaything and fag of the manipulative Oberon whose affections are now diverted to a still younger and fresher “changeling boy”.   The Independent.
A man on the eve of his wedding and who bears more than a resemblance to the composer himself is seen visiting his old school and falling into a reverie – in the final act he is revealed to be Theseus, and what follows is a conflation of his half-submerged memories and fantasies, woven around his alma mater.  Guardian
Others thought Britten appeared as Oberon:
The cruelty is in the identification between Oberon the stealthy paedophile and Britten the boy-lover. It’s done cleverly and tactfully, with no representation of physical abuse apart from a caning session: Puck’s trauma is that, having been picked out as Oberon’s favourite, he is then passed over.
And that, we know, is what happened with Britten and his boys.  Telegraph
Since the revelations about Britten's serial infatuation with a succession of 13-year-old boys — each one groomed, adored like a young god, and then brutally discarded — some opera directors seem to have decided that all the composer's stage works must be treated as autobiographical testaments of shame. Alden characteristically carries this approach to a sordid extreme. The Times
Or a bit of both:
For this is not The Dream but A Midsummer's Nightmare, based on Britten's experiences at school and his lifelong attraction to young boys.   Musical Criticism
( not all of the critics quoted were angry and annoyed)
As I don’t think any of this is correct, it’s not a worthwhile criticism of Christopher Alden or his production.
The Puck/Theseus figure is someone who is resentful and bitter about his school experiences.  It is true that, quite apart from his befriending of boys, Britten had a peculiar obsession with his schooldays.  For many years until his death in 1976 he used Letts Schoolboy Diaries; and I learn from recent unpublished research that as late as 1970 he was using blank pages in his old school exercise books for keeping notes.  This suggests a wistful nostalgia rather than resentment.  He was apparently successful at both schoolwork and games and was not, and did not see himself as a victim, though his recently published diaries show that he thought other boys in his study were “vulgar”.   The thing that distinguished him as a schoolboy is that he wrote huge quantities of music.
 Thanks to John Bridcut’s book Britten’s Children we now know more than we are entitled to know about Britten’s friendships with boys.  The ENO program includes an essay by Mr. Bridcut containing a passage which is a summary of his book’s conclusions:
“Tongues wagged and whispered, yet all these boys looked back - often with amusement but -always with delight – at the memory of a unique and unsullied friendship.”
Although we can dispense with the idea that the production is intended as biography of the composer, it’s clear enough that it is inspired by his life and character.  I don’t understand how this can be seen as offensive.  After all, Britten wrote Peter Grimes, The Turn of the Screw and Death in Venice which are  driven by Britten’s own need to explore and imagine the very themes which some now find it wrong to associate with him.  Where is the error in finding these themes in A Midsummer Night’s Dream as well?
 I previously quoted W.H. Auden who said that Shakespeare…
"..mythalogically anthropomorphises nature, making nature like man.." so that "..mythological characters are used to describe certain universal experiences which we cannot control."
Oberon tells Titania:
Out of this wood do not desire to go:
Thou shalt remain here, whether thou wilt or no.
Just as people might be trapped in their own personality; or a schoolboy trapped in an institution which is full of emotional strings and contradictions which he doesn’t fully understand.  So in this production schoolmaster Oberon writes Out of this wood do not desire to go on his blackboard, but also amo amas amat.
If we assume that Oberon anthropomorphises forces which are out of our control, what could be a better metaphor for this than the school in which we were trapped;  and not  permitted to  even desire to escape.   
You don’t have to look far for discrepancies between the text and the production, for example why a school mistress would favour a pupil because
His mother was a votaress of my order:
And, in the spiced Indian air, by night,
Full often hath she gossip'd by my side
is hard to imagine; but I have an answer: the Dream.
Dreams can be multi faceted and strange.  Dreams can lie within dreams. Surrealism was based on dream.  Why shouldn’t a dream drawing on school memories wooze in and out of a half remembered play, studied or acted in school.  “I woke up and it was all a dream”, is an old and hackneyed storyline which is rarely acceptable.  David Alden’s own staging of Tosca Act III as a hallucination is an example.  However, Shakespeare’s play is about a dream:
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber'd here
While these visions did appear.
with at least one dream, Bottom’s dream, within it.
The Times says:
Alden has no convincing way of accommodating the six Mechanicals in his concept.
I can see overly clever schoolboys studying or performing the play imagining their sportsmaster (slow of study) and the grounds staff as the mechanicals; or even a snide and knowing schoolmaster planting these ideas in their heads.  Here the mechanicals and their play were presented as pretty broad farce, which I thought somewhat overdone.  A good deal of the comedy in this part of the Dream comes from Britten’s witty pastiche of bel canto opera in drama of Piramus and Thisby and the  subtlety of this was  lost.
The lovers were depicted as older adolescents and this notion fitted very well with their characters and music.  I enjoyed the singing of Kate Valentine (Helena) and Catherine Young (Hippolyta), Benedict Nelson (Demetrius) and Allan Clayton (Lysander).
The more I see Shakespeare’s plays performed the more fascinated I become with the protean quality of some of his writing and characterisation.  Every new production can throw new light on text which I thought was familiar, or present a well-known character in an entirely new form.  ( It’s hard to know where to draw the line between Shakespeare’s  conscious intentions and the ingenuity of some interpretations  of his plays.)
Even bearing this mind, the way in which Puck was portrayed here was quite amazing.  The text was turned on its head and somehow emerged undamaged.  Since this was Puck’s dream he was much more than the incidental character he usually seems to be.  And the much of the force of the production turned on the way in which his words were delivered.
Pucks response to Oberon's command -
I'll put a girdle round about the earth
In forty minutes.
takes on a bitter irony when spoken by a sullen schoolboy sitting on the ground and plainly intending to go nowhere  in forty minutes or ever.
Similarly Puck’s words which end the play, usually a bright and cheery good-bye:
If we shadows have offended…
are spoken by a confused and angry youth as if to say:  “ As usual I have offended everyone - as if I care …” There was no actual discrepancy with the text, it was all in the manner of its delivery.  It was a very clever idea which was carried into effect perfectly in Jamie Manton’s performance.
For me it was powerful and moving, but looking at some of the critical reaction, I wonder if a production which has too many puzzles and questions to be answered can sometimes defeat its own purpose: at least for those who get the wrong answers to the questions.

Monday, 27 June 2011

Two Boys

I hadn’t heard of Nico Muhly until early last year when I read that he had been commissioned by the Met in New York to write an opera based on a bizarre attempted knife murder in England in 2003.   I found a detailed account of the crime in a 2004 Vanity Fair article by Judy Bachrach .   The weird scenario would make a fascinating contemporary opera.  I was also glad of the introduction to the Nico Muhly’s music, which I began to explore.

The opera, Two Boys, with a libretto by Craig Lucas, has now been composed and performed at the English National Opera which has co- produced it with the Met.   It opened at the London Coliseum on 24 June, in what might well be a trial run for performances in New York said to be scheduled for 2013.  In any event, Peter Gelb the General Manager of the Met was there, seated one row behind the composer, literally breathing down his neck.

As I keep saying, it’s very hard to grasp new music at a first, and often only hearing.   The effect is multiplied in the opera theatre where text, singing, movement, staging and so on, while essential to the experience, distract attention from the music itelf.   This is certainly the case here as the production by Bartlett Sher is fast moving and visually stimulating.  I have never seen such an inventive and proficient use of projections and the overall effect is breathtaking.

As related in Vanity Fair and elsewhere, the case on which the libretto is based was the first in which anybody  in England had been charged with inciting his own murder.  A teenage boy was almost fatally stabbed in a laneway by another boy.  The victim had, by assuming various persona in internet chatrooms, convinced an older boy that his murder was required in the interests of national security.  This narrative with all it’s bizarre details could be the apotheosis of the cliché truth is stranger than fiction; but it happened. 

Opera is famous for incredible plots and amazing coincidences but Two Boys is anchored in fact. It is a work which might be the more easily dismissed as fanciful if it were not.   As it seeks to bring the ability of opera to open up and explore experience to a contemporary theme, it should not be seen as a surreal fantasy.

The story is presented as it appears to Anne Strawson, a (fictional) detective sung by Susan Bickley, who investigates the stabbing.  At first the crime is inexplicable; but as the investigation develops and she learns more of the  ways of the internet and its chat, things become clearer until, as in the original,  the common use of an eccentric spelling of the word “maybe” by various chat room inhabitants establishes that they were all invented by the victim as part of his scheme.

The opera follows the facts of the actual case fairly closely; in both the older boy, called Brian in the opera, and sung by tenor Nicky Spence, is 16.   The victim, called Jake here, is, I think, younger than the actual victim.  He appears first in one of his chat room identities sung by baritone Jonathan McGovern, but as the story develops in his younger and real state sung by treble Joseph Beesly. 

The internet itself is a character, partly sung by the chorus murmuring and voicing, and partly in the orchestra with minimalist phrases which I thought were more reminiscent of John Adams than Philip Glass.  Mr. Muhly is the first composer to capture the virtual cloud in the same way that Debussy and Britten have captured the sea.   The internet will never be the same again.  As I am writing, I can hear a ceaseless whir of activity somewhere beyond the modem.

 Meanwhile, chatroom ID’s and text appear as projected images with all the speed and urgency of the net itself.  Often fully sung words are represented in surtitles by chat language: asl, brb and cu and so, on which made me cringe and resolve, at the time anyway, never to type them again.  There was never any meh.

The original events might be explained, at least partly, by the younger boy’s infatuation with the older.  The original is followed closely here, down to the instruction given by the victim that his assailant was to say "I love you, bro," as he knifed him. Liebestod in a back alley.

 Infatuations like this and the associated sexual games have been the stuff of memoirs and “coming of age” novels for a long time now, and I doubt if there is much new to be said about them.  I suppose some relationships go completely off the rails and end violence but this is surely rare.  What is peculiar here are the internet and the invention of chat room characters by the instigator/victim; not to speak of the credulity of the older boy.

While Two Boys follows the original story faithfully in these respects, it adds something which changes the story from a true crime story with music into a work with emotional force.  I have mentioned that in his true person the victim is sung by an alto.  The fictional victim,Jake, is a boy soprano in a church choir.  We see him in this role in a scene set in a church in which Brian, the older boy, is a member of the congregation.  Some Anglican liturgy is sung and Jake sings a solo piece, all the time staring at Brian.  Brian sings “Why is he looking at me”.   ( I have no text so quotes might not be right.)     The music stands apart from what has been heard so far.   It is, I think, the keystone of the work, in the same way the Sunday Morning scene in Peter Grimes, marks the point from which it is impossible to turn back the sky.

Later, the choirboy victim says how he wanted to be remembered  after his murder– for beautiful singing.   The music in the church scene is not unique, Nico Muhly has written a lot of church and other choral music.  And, he was himself an accomplished soloist in an Anglican church choir.  At some point, I realised that it wasn’t  true crime with ingenious internet music but a moving personal statement.

The high point of my career as a boy soprano was singing Christopher Robin songs to a Methodist Church social evening; quite a different level of achievement from that of a chorister who learns to read music, takes part in innumerable performances of great music and, if a soloist, performs at a level he will never reach again, even if he continues to sing as an adult. There is a combination of childhood innocence with a very high level of accomplishment.   Then his voice breaks and it is finished. 

I don’t think Two Boys is saying that, in any literal sense, discarded altos are at risk of ingenious suicide plots, but this thread gives the piece an emotional appeal which would be absent if only the detective story were told.  It can even be seen as a more general allegory of lost innocence.   Apart from the fascinating internet music, it seems to me to be the basis of the musical and emotional structure of the work.  And as I said, I haven’t properly heard all the music yet.  I know for one thing that there are gongs somewhere which are a tribute to Britten and his use of them in Death in Venice.  I missed them completely.

Back to the Coliseum on Wednesday to hear the gongs !

Sunday, 15 May 2011

eighth blackbird

I had heard of eighth blackbird without knowing much about them, and when I saw they were performing at the Barbican in London, I thought it would be an opportunity to catch them.  As well as performing a lot of Steve Reich they had a more varied program which included something by Missy Mazzoli whom, and whose music I happened upon in New York last month; but this program was shown as sold out.  Then I saw they were repeating the program at the De La Warre Pavillion in Bexhill-on Sea, and in a spirit of adventure I set out to find them there.  It proved to be an excellent adventure:   I heard an exciting concert, experienced the decayed surroundings of Bexhill-on-Sea, saw an interesting building, and learned something of the ninth Earl De La Warr, who was a prominent politician in his day but whose chief memorial is the Pavillion.
A  tourist website describes Bexhill-on-Sea as “frozen in time”; but if it were frozen it would be better preserved.  I stayed at the Cooden Beach Hotel a couple of miles from the Pavilion.  It was pleasant and well run.  I could have chosen a bed and breakfast where “guests are given their own key”, or a larger hotel half of whose population is “resident guests”.  I may have seen some of the residents, as while walking around I was met with the special accusatory stare that inmates of old peoples’ homes give to strangers on their territory.

The colonnade built to celebrate the coronation of King George V was being renovated but Union Jacks still flew proudly above it.  Further along the seafront the Royal Air Forces Association’s Albatross Club was open, but the café next door was no longer operational.  A business called AMUSEMENTS was closed and boarded up.  It had offered ALL WINS PAID IN CASH, but how this happened when following advice of Sussex Police NO CASH KEPT ON PREMISES, I cannot say.
The De La Warr Pavillion which stands near the sea immediately behind the Colonnade, was opened in 1935.  It was the first public building the in the UK built in the modernist style.  Its architects, Erich Mendelsohn  and Serge Chermayeff won a competition for the design of a building that would be “simple, light in appearance and attractive, suitable for a holiday resort”.   It was damaged by bombs in the Second World War and then fell into disrepair.  A refurbishment commenced in 2003 and it re-opened to the public in 2005.

It is still the most modern building in sight, everything around looks Edwardian at the latest so it must now be much the same part of the landscape as it was when first opened.  It has exhibition halls, balconys overlooking the sea and a restaurant as well as a concert hall.  The concert hall interior had some contemporary features and might have been altered in the refurbishment.
The Pavilion was built at the instigation of Herbrand Edward Dundonald Brassey Sackville, 9th Earl De La Warr, who was Mayor of Bexhill, among other duties, in the nineteen thirties.  According to the wiki he was the first hereditary peer to join the Labour Party and held a number of ministerial positions between 1923 and 1955.
It will delight genealogists to learn that a De La Warr, known as Lord Delaware at the time, was governor of the Jamestown Colony, and the Delaware Bay in the seventeenth century and is thus the source of the name of the bay, the state of Delaware and other places in the United States.  So what better place to hear eighth blackbird flown in from Chicago.
The name eighth blackbird comes from the Wallace Stevens’ poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird :

I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.
Leaving aside the gnomic conclusion, it’s a very suitable verse for this group.  As I was listening, I realised that a feature of all the music they played that night was texture and rhythm.   You can hear these in almost any music you listen to, but a lot of modern music seems pared down to texture and rhythm alone.  I am increasingly drawn to these aspects of music and particularly in performances where I am close to the players and can hear sounds that get lost in a large auditorium or on record.
It was lucky then, from my perspective that only about 40 people came along to hear eighth blackbird in a hall that would have held many more.  I know this is exceedingly selfish but I hate crowds and will most likely never again hear eighth blackbird in such a personal way.
The group was formed in 1996. It’s present members are:
Tim Munro, flutes
Michael J. Maccaferri, clarinets
Matt Albert, violin & viola
Nicholas Photinos, cello
Matthew Duvall, percussion and,
Lisa Kaplan, piano
Their nominated instruments don’t do full justice to their skills.  I think all of them played percussion at some stage, and at at least three played harmonicas of various shapes and sizes. 
The program was:
Missy Mazzoli: Still Life with Avalanche (2008)
John Cage: Aria (1958)
David Lang: these broken wings (2007)
Philip Glass: Music in Similar Motion (1969)
Thomas Adès : Catch (1991)
Stephen Hartke: Meanwhile (2007)
It was a journey from self-conscious modernism to the less anxious music of the present time.
My introduction to Missy Mazzoli’s music was her Death Valley Junction  played by the JACK quartet in New York last month.  Still Life with Avalanche, was similarly approachable and lyrical, with the exception of the avalanche: the piece represents the composers response to a rural landscape in New Hampshire punctured by news of a relative’s death.  As a listener, I don’t usually find such programs helpful; there is no way the music itself can convey the details.  As there was no printed program, I didn’t know details of the composers inspiration until it was explained after the piece was played.
The explanation was given by Lisa Kaplan, who was interrupted mid sentence by weird vocalising from Tim Munro.  He sang the voice part in Aria by John Cage.  This is a very strange work and I have since discovered some details of it here.  I didn’t have any of these details at the concert, but the notes explain that while it was written for Cathy Barbarian, who was a suburb interpreter of contemporary music - but quite dissimilar in voice and appearance from Mr. Munro - it can be performed in all kinds of ways by all kinds of people.
I was also unaware at the time that Tim Munro is the only member of eighth blackbird who has joined since its inception, or that he is Australian.  Had I known, I could have shouted the occasional Cooee as he walked through the hall singing and vocalising in many tongues.  No one would have noticed.
The accompaniment included something that looked and sounded like a conch shell and ended with a music box playing There’s no place like home.
It was fun to hear this work, but it is, I think, an example of how strained musical ideas became under modernist influences which have thankfully now retreated.
Next came David Lang’s these broken wings, a 16 minute work in three movements.  This was my introduction to the music of David Lang.  He is a member of Bang on a Can, a collective which promotes new music.  (In 1992, they brought the Bang on a Can All - Stars into being.)
these broken wings was commissioned by eighth blackbird and first performed in 2008.  Its title suggests some whimsical association with birds if not blackbirds but nothing was said about this and the music gave no clue.
Music in Similar Motion written in 1969, must have come soon after Philip Glass established his familiar minimalist compositional style.  The repetitions and layers of sound reminded me of how exciting and different his music sounded when I first heard it, and how soon I tired of the novelty.  It was my mistake to be so easily turned away. His music has changed and developed with time, and I enjoyed the concert he gave in Sydney earlier this year and am still playing the records I bought after hearing him.
Speaking after the piece was played Lisa Kaplan mentioned a notice posted outside the hall …
and wondered if the prohibition was somehow connected with her music blowing onto the floor.  The performance was not affected; I think it was a copy of the full score she had on the piano and played from without missing a note.
I first heard Thomas Adès  Catch played by the Australia Ensemble in 2008.  It was the first of his music I had heard.  Although I have heard more since, including during his appearances as conductor and pianist in Sydney last year, I have a way to go before I hear as much in  Adès  as I could.  So I was pleased that I heard a lot more in Catch than I did the first time.  The clarinettist is required to move around and play on the move, which Catherine McCorkill did at the Australia Ensemble concert; but I don’t think I saw her play while running really fast across the stage as Michael J. Maccaferri did this time.
Stephen Hartke’s Meanwhile: incidental music to imaginary puppet plays, the last work on the program, was also commissioned for eighth blackbird.  The composer was inspired by Asian puppet theatre, and the piece is an amalgam of impressions from Japanese Bunraku, to puppets in Vietnam, Indonesia and Turkey.  It is in six short movements played without a break.  It is presented in a staging in which the instrumentalists move around to form different groups and configurations.  This emphasised their amazing skills, doubling of instruments was involved, and everyone played from memory.  The music was rhythmically complex, as was much of the other music played, and it was perfectly realised without a conductor in sight. It was a fascinating piece and a perfect ending to a great concert.

eighth blackbird at De La Warr Pavillion Bexhill-on-Sea  12 May 2011

Sunday, 8 May 2011

The Met’s 2007  production of Orfeo ed Euridice has been revived this year, with Antony Walker conducting; and I saw its opening night.

I had heard this production via the Met’s radio broadcast in 2007 and remember it as probably the most thrilling opera broadcast I have ever heard.  The countertenor David Daniels sang Orfeo in a way which gave the familiar music a different and vital sound.  I imagine that, like me, many people were introduced to Gluck’s Orfeo by recordings of Kathleen Ferrier singing I have lost my Euridice, in her rich and distinctive voice.  Opera Australia’s production gave the role to a tenor with good effect.  However, I felt that David Daniels performance was not only beautifully sung, but also added a completely unexpected emotional edge.

Later the same year, I heard David Daniels in the theatre for the first time in Handel’s Julius Caesar in Chicago and was disappointed that his voice seemed to be swallowed up by the huge space of the Lyric.

The Met is a big theatre too, and I wondered if this production is the largest Orpheus and Euridice ever mounted.  There is a chorus of about 75 members and 22 dancers.  The set is made of large mobile structures that move and reconfigure from time to time.  At one point, Orpheus is seen on a large metal fire excape which descends from above and partly disappears into the floor of the stage.  This is not, as I wrongly guessed, the stairway for the ascent from the underworld: there is a different more stygian configuration of the set for that.

The chorus is located on three levels of the inside of a cylindrical structure which forms one element of the set.  Each member of the chorus is dressed as an historical figure: Henry VII, Abraham Lincoln, Ghandi etc.  The idea is that the performance of the ancient myth is being observed by figures from history.  Their vantage point could be three of the circles of hell, but I’m not sure if we are being asked to identify which three; the identification of the figures is a little distracting, but for me the performance was too engrossing to be troubled by a game of Trivial Pursuit.

The use of dance in this production is a real stroke of genius.  There are, as mentioned, 22 dancers and their style is completely modern.  They dance during the choruses as well some of the more specific dance music.  A program note explains:

“ For the Met’s production of Oprheo ed Euridice, director and choreographer Mark Morris and Music Director James Levine (who conducted this staging when it was new, in 2007) returned to Gluck’s 1762 version from Vienna, written in Italian for an alto castrato and later revised for Paris productions.  Their intent was to stay true to the composer and Librettist’s original ideas by stripping away additions from late revisions, including the Dance of the Furies, which Morris feels breaks the flow of the opera.  The Dance of the Blessed Spirits, which was part of the original 1762 version, will be heard but without accompanying choreography.”

The use of dance gave a sense of vigour and excitement to the whole show.  It helped solve what I believe to be a problem in staging more intimate works, including Mozart, on the Met’s huge stage. For example, in 2006 I saw the Met’s Idomeneo,  (which available on a video in a  Luciano Pavarotti  performancedating from the early nineteen eighties).  The stage action, and emotional force of the opera, seemed to get lost among the huge pillars and monumental staircases of the set.  Here, however, the staging adds what is needed to make a work of this kind viable in the large space. 

David Daniels'  performance as Orfeo met the expectations aroused by the 2006 broadcast.  His voice was not lost in the space and he was able to add an elusive quality which I have not otherwise heard in a countertenor which gave the role the emotional edge I heard in the radio broadcast.  He was well supported by English soprano Kate Royal as Euridice and Lisette Oropesa, who first appears on a swing from above, as Amor.

Antony Walker, as musical director of Pinchgut Opera in Sydney has given us so much musical pleasure over the last ten years; so it was very exciting to chance upon his debut at the Met. Although the more appropriate size of the production had something to do with it as well, his performances of Idomeneo in the City Recital Hall Angel place in 2006 following close on my hearing the Met production I have mentioned  seemed to me at the time to have everything which the New York production lacked. 

Now the situation was reversed.  A small space was replaced with nearly 4000 seat Met auditorium and the familiar forces of the Orchestra of the Antipodes and Cantillation with the Met Orchestra and a chorus of 75.  The Met orchestra was quite a small ensemble for Orfeo, but I didn’t count the players.

My long term planning was effective, and I had an excellent view of the conductor’s podium from our seats in row B of the Orchestra.  The conductor’s podium at the Met is raised so that the Maestro can always be seen.  The two seats directly behind him are sold at a discount to compensate for the obscured view.  I heard a story this year of how this came about – at first the podium was lower and the conductor didn’t obscure anything.  Then Herbert von Karajan came to the Met and required to be elevated into public view.  After that, no conductor was prepared to work in the old, less conspicuous position.

In any event I had an excellent view of Mr. Walker at the podium; his face illuminated by the lights from the music stand.  On his arrival, there was a pause, some eye contact with the musicians and we were away with a lively account of the overture.   With 75 historical figures to indentify and some outstanding singing, I didn’t spend much time conductor watching and can only say that the overall performance was completely satisfying.   At the conclusion, it was nice to see the dancers’ applause when Mr. Walker appeared.   They played an important part in the success of the performance and obviously appreciated the support from below.

Orfeo ed Euridice, Metropolitan Opera New York, 29 April 2011

Sunday, 24 April 2011


The Met has revived for the first time the John Cox production of Richard Strauss’ Capriccio first seen in 1998 with Kiri Te Kanawa as the Countess.  The production brings the period forward from the eighteenth century to the 1920’s.   There is a sumptuous and elegant set designed by Mauro Pagono with costumes and interior design by Robert Perdiziola.  I think Capriccio is an opera which actually benefits from being performed in a 20th century setting rather than the original one, as, apart from some period pastiche for dancers and singers who perform during the action, the music  belongs, with Strauss, in the 20th century and it fits the production so well that occasional period references in the libretto can easily be ignored.

Capriccio can be looked at in two ways:  as a comedy of manners which requires attention be given to the text and as musical theatre which creates a unique situation or mood as only opera can.   In this case a mood coloured by Strauss’ distinctive musical voice.

 The Met does not use surtitles.  Instead there is a small screen on the back of each seat which displays the words and translations.  I discovered this year, that in some seats, I can no longer read the screens, although sometimes the screen a row in front is readable.  I doubt if a special pair of bifocal glasses for the Met would be justified.  These screens are multilingual and the person in front of me, whose screen was legible to me, chose to read the German version.  I couldn’t follow the text but was very happy to hear the music and enjoy the general atmosphere, in the same way I experienced opera before surtitles.

My beloved companion had a different problem, the woman in front of her allowed her hair to fall down over the back of her seat obscuring the screen.   What is the correct etiquette here?  Is one permitted to throw the hair back over the seat or re-arrange its fall?  Remember that a whispered request would create a small disturbance for others; and might well lead to a regrettable altercation.

Renee Fleming sings the Countess in this production.  I have now heard her in La traviata, Thaïs, and Rosenkavalier;  and feel that her voice is best heard in Strauss. “Creamy” is a bit of a cliché but is the best description I can come up with for her lower register.   I doubt if I will ever hear the Strauss soprano roles better sung.

La Roche, a theatre director, was the English bass Peter Rose who we have heard with Opera Australia as Baron Ochs and Osmin.  It was a pleasure to hear him in a role which seemed to suit him so well; and which contains extended passages, including La Roche’s famous defence of the theatre, which he enhanced with beautiful singing.

Flamand was Joseph Kiaser,who I have heard as Tamino at the Met and who is clearly developing a great international career.  Olivier was sung by Russell Braun, who I failed to identify until reminded by a program note that he was Chou En-lai in Nixon in China which I saw in the HD transmission.

Although all the singing was close to perfect, I was impressed with English mezzo Sarah Connolly as Clarion.  At times she seemed to outsing Ms. Fleming a little; and it maybe that Ms. Fleming needed to preserve her voice for the great final scene which she sang so brilliantly.  It may be poor memory on my part, but I had the impression that the final monolog in which the Countess is faced with a decision between poet and composer – words and music – was somewhat detached and ironic; but Ms. Fleming brought an emotional intensity to it which was quite thrilling.
Capriccio by Richard Strauss, Metropolitan Opera New York, April 19, 2011

Friday, 22 April 2011

Taka Kigawa at Le Poisson Rouge

I had read some reviews of concerts at Le Poisson Rouge, a new venue, founded by musicians, in Bleeker Street, New York.  It is “dedicated to the fusion of popular and art cultures in music, film, theater, dance, and fine art, the venue's mission is to revive the symbiotic relationship between art and revelry; to establish a creative asylum for both artists and audiences.”  Its programming is varied but includes classical and contemporary music performed by established artists. 

I was eager to find out how music worked in an alternative venue, obviously at some distance from the formality of a concert hall.  As it happened, the first opportunity for me to experience the venue was the result of terrible events, a concert given to benefit the victims of the earthquake and Tsunami that occurred on March 11th in Japan, by pianist Taka Kigawa.   The concert also introduced me to the music of a number of contemporary Japanese composers. 

I don’t know much about night clubs or cabarets but Le Poisson Rouge is definitely some such place: there are no tickets to be collected, people wait in line to be identified and marked by a rubber stamp on the hand and to be fitted with a robust paper bracelet before admission is granted.  After this processing, I passed down steps, worn hollow in the centre by the ceaseless tread of drunken feet; and by the light of a flickering lamp above the door I made my way into a large very dark room with a small stage in one corner and a bar along the far wall.

Through the gloom one could dimly catch a glimpse of bodies seated in strange fantastic poses, bowed shoulders, bent knees, heads thrown back, and chins pointing upward, with here and there a dark, lack-lustre eye turned upon the newcomer.  Most sat at long tables in front of the stage, behind which were tall tables surrounded by bar stools, yet to be occupied.  I found a seat with a good view of the stage and the piano in a raised area furnished with settees and coffee tables.  Soon all the seats were occupied and latecomers had to stand - this was a first-come, first-served partially seated event.
 Mr. Kigawa grew up in Nagano currently lives in New York.  He studied at Shinsyu University, Tokyo Gakugei University  and The Juilliard School in New York. 
The venue works very well for music.  Although drinks and food are served during the performance I was only aware of this activity when consciously paying attention to it.  The audience is as quiet as you would wish.  And the atmosphere of the place adds an exciting new element to a recital.
There is a small stage and the Yamaha piano, while perfectly adequate, is not a concert grand.  I enjoyed Mr. Kigawa’s playing and  would like to have the opportunity to hear him play in a more formal setting on a larger piano.
The program included Joule by Dai Fujikura (b.1977) a student of Pierre Boulez.  Haiku for Pierre Boulez by Toshio Hosokawa (b.1955), atardecer/a…retraced by Hiroya Miura (b.1975) and Crystalline by Karen Tanaka (b.1961 ).   The pieces were short and overall characterised by the spare piano sounds which I associate with serial music; but, unexpectedly, Haiku for Pierre Boulez  which included some striking lyrical passages,  was the least Boulezian of the group.  For me, it was an brief introduction to some composers I didn’t know, and it wouldn’t be reasonable to complain I didn’t hear any individual voice.
We also heard from a more familiar Japanese name, Toru Takemitsu, Rain Tree Sketch II (In memorium of Olivier Messiaen).
The generous program also included more familiar works from Mr. Kigawa’s repertoire:
Chopin’s Ballade in F minor  Op. 52 and Prelude in C-sharp minor Op. 45
Debussy’s Images, Book I
Ravel’s Pavane pour une Infante defunte
Stravinsky’s: Trois Mouvements de Petrouchka.

Altogether, Mr.Kigawa played for over two hours without a break; and even added some encores, ending with a peaceful rendition of Bach’s C major prelude which somehow reflected the sad events which led to the concert being given.

A Benefit Concert for Japan at Le Poisson Rouge, 2 April 2011