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