Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Dame Gillian Weir: A personal appreciation

A article written Spring 2010, The Organ, No 351, by John Amis in 2010 on his friend Dame Gillian Weir

1965 - the First Night of the Proms, waiting for the soloist to come on to play Poulenc's Concerto for Organ, Strings and Timpani. Thinking of previous musicians who have occupied the hot seat of that organ loft in the Royal Albert Hall, behind which lurks the local Fafner, one of the most famous and biggest of organs.

Renowned organists have sat there, and some famous composers too - Bruckner, Liszt and Saint-Saëns. And in the time of the founder of the Proms there's been Marcel Dupré, Thallben-Ball, GD Cunningham and, accompanying and pedal-pointing in the direction of the codas of the Enigma Variations, Mahler 8, Glazunov's Carnival and all, dear old Berkeley Mason: mostly gentlemen of advanced years, stately as galleons and as sexy as rowing-boats.

As Gillian Weir takes her bow we can see it's all different now; she's young, she's pretty, she's slim and those are not organist's legs whose twinkle toes are going to crash the first chord, an arresting call to arms straight out of Bach. And he will not be the last composer to the ‘laid under contribution’ (favorite old-time programme-note phrase). Poulenc hints at Buxtehude, cribs a bit of Tchaikovsky's Pathétique, pops into a café chanson before remembering to finish solemnly with a bow towards Stravinsky.

In her young life, Gillian Weir had already achieved. Her first keyboard was the piano; at 19 she won The Auckland Star piano competition, playing Mozart. Soon, she came ‘overseas' studying piano at the Royal college of Music with Cyril Smith and then organ with Ralph Downes, both whom she acknowledges with gratitude: ‘they taught me how to work, how to practise, how to get behind the notes.’ She was reluctant to compete in the prestigious St Albans lnternational Organ Competition, didn't think she had a chance and had to be pushed and shoved into taking part. There she played a canny card by playing Messiaen, then practically unknown. She wowed the judges (1964) and won the prize. Clever BBC took note and booked her for this First Night of the Proms. She wowed the audience, those in the Albert and those listening at home, many millions of them, since the concert was broadcast worldwide. The critics raved and a notable career was truly underway.

Reviewing one of her concerts l wrote: ‘Dame Gillian is one of the greatest of living artists; her playing shows a perfect mixture of hand and heart, a true musician with the technique to tackle anything.’

The rest is not silence, but notes on some high spots of a long and distinguished career that shows no signs of diminishing; her playing continues to give pleasure, to show boundless energy, perception, through preparation, curiosity and a forward drive that is like an arrow on its way to the target. She tours the world and has done so many times in recitals and concertos.

Chris Bragg wrote in 2006: ‘The contribution made to the world of the organ by Gillian Weir is almost incalculable. Our instrument has hardly had such a skilled ambassador in modern times.’

The life of a concert organist such as our Weir heroine is not an easy one. By now, she knows most of the organs she plays on but getting to know them has been a major task. Getting to grips with a new one takes time; first you get the specifications, then you meet the beast itself to learn its characteristics, its strengths, it foibles; this takes hours, often the small hours when these are the only ones when the hall or church is not being used for other purposes. Every instrument is different; they can be friendly, they can be recalcitrant. Electronics have made a difference so that registrations can be set up in advance (just as fireworks can!). Sometimes the organ can seize up. A cipher rarely happens these days but I have known it to happen when Gillian plays- it seems that machines and Gillian can be at odds (particularly with her washing machines, which can flood, and her motor-cars - which can mysteriously go ‘phut!’ - I sometimes wonder if she is a poltergeist in reverse).
But these are tiny details in a life of triumphs. And formal triumphs have deservedly come her way: she is a Dame Commander of the British Empire (1996) and has been ‘doctored’ - seven times at the last count.

Her devotion to the instrument that Christopher Wren once described as ‘a (damned) chest of whistles!’ did not even stop at marriage, for she was married for 26 years to that great organ-builder of talent, Lawrence Phelps- although for much of their union he lived in his native America, Gillian near Reading in the UK.

The Dame's repertoire is vast, containing almost the entire literature of the instrument, from Buxtehude, Bach and Handel onwards, from Vierne, Widor and Jongen to Messiaen, whose complete works she has recorded. Her instrumental devotion extends beyond the mighty organ back to the smaller ones of yore; she delights in the chamber organ, playing Couperin and other early composers. She also occasionally plays (and obviously loves) the harpsichord.

Also must be mentioned Gillian Weir the Administrator and the Teacher. She excels at master-classes which she is often asked to give. She was the first woman President of the Royal College of Organists and she also served as President of the Incorporated Society of Musicians. She is also a good speechmaker and shows, when dealing with a question that she can think on her feet. She has a good brain and makes fine use of it. Not the least of her attributes is her speaking voice, which is well modulated and has a bubbly quality.

As a person Gillian is tremendous fun and good company. She can talk on many subjects, appreciates food and wine, can see a joke and make one, is broad-minded. She hates unnecessary noise and abhors smoking. She dresses well and always looks attractive. But don't ask her to work your washing machine!



Thursday, April 03, 2014

John Amis talks about Benjamin Britten at Orpington Recorded Music Society

Posted on

Former music critic, presenter and friend of Benjamin Britten John Amis spoke to members of the Orpington Recorded Music Society on Monday 22 April 2013, sharing his recollections about the composer and playing some select recordings of works written by and conducted by him too.

At 90 years of age, Amis still commands attention. His towering presence is matched by a quick wit, measured self-deprecation and an enviable confidence when paying close attention to sartorial detail. Never before have I seen anyone carry off bright green, pastel pink and a brown check so assuredly. This combined with the very real sense that Amis remains one of only a handful of people alive who retains a palpable connection with Britten, made him an enthralling prospect.

Many of the anecdotes he shared during the evening were familiar; many appear in Carpenter’s biography about Britten. That said, it didn’t harm being reminded of some of them, especially as it helped illustrate what Amis’ view was on the Britten bubble throughout the man’s life.

First, an explanation of how Amis came to meet at Boosey & Hawkes, soon being asked to page turn at a special concert the composer had mounted at Wormwood Scrubs in 1947 where another composer, Michael Tippett, had been imprisoned for being a conscientious objector. Tippet and Amis shared page-turning duties during the concert. So the friendship between the two composers blossomed.

Historically, I’d always seen Amis as part of Britten’s ‘inner circle’ but Amis was quick to clarify early on: he considered himself ‘less of an intimate friend, more than an acquaintance’. This was borne out in his various anecdotes involving his ex-wife Olive Zorian as first violin in the Zorian String Quartet (‘Ben and me had to sit on the floor in me and my wife’s flat following the score of his second string quartet in rehearsals because me and my wife only had four chairs and the quartet had to use them) and leader of the English Opera Group (‘Olive was the only person who didn’t know she’d been dismissed from her job at the English Opera job’ – she found out two weeks later). These and a few recollections from the tail-end of Britten’s post-operation life, put Amis squarely in the ‘observers’ bracket.

In other ways, Amis didn’t beat around the bush, referring early on in the evening to Pears and Britten as ‘boyfriends’ (Amis is the first of his generation I’ve witnessed in most of my adult life use the term so comfortably in front of a room full of elderly people). From that point on though, Amis inadvertently illustrate how his contemporaries would have referred to the composer’s homosexuality, relationships or sexual proclivities. Intimacy wasn’t shied away from, although talk of sex was frame in quaint sometimes childish terms (“the boys Britten liked were always clear in stating that yes they shared a bed with Ben, but there was never any ‘hanky panky’”).

What Amis succeeded in doing effortlessly (this presumably down to his considerable radio and writing experience) was annotating Britten’s music and music-making. Amis spoke warmly about the composer’s output, describing it has having a charm and freshness which listening to the extracts selected for the evening (included below) was difficult to deny. Amis also threw light on Britten’s nerves as a pianist and a conductor, before introducing a breathtaking interpretation of Rex Tremendae and Lachrymosa from Mozart’s Requiem the latter of which can only be described as being taken at breakneck speed, disappointingly so.

This was a great primer of some of Britten’s best known and less well-known works. Ballad of Heroes was a particular surprise, so too the similarities between the early Piano Concerto (a personal favourite) and the Diversions for Left Hand. If you’re familiar with Hymn to St Cecilia then be prepared to experience heaven on earth. Balulalow from Ceremony of Carols maintains its exquisite status.

A Boy Was Born
Ballad of Heroes
Diversions for piano (left hand) and orchestra
Sinfonia da Requiem
String Quartet No.2
Hymn to St Cecilia

Rex Tremendae and Lachrymosa from Mozart’s Requiem (conducted by Britten)
Spring Symphony

John Amis made reference to Britten’s Mozart G Minor symphonies 25 and 40 with the English Chamber Orchestra describing them as ‘tragic’ but ‘lacking the necessary humour Mozart’s music needs’

Marion Thorpe obituary

Pianist whose marriages made her a public figure

This piece was written by John Amis. Recently published in the Guardian 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/mar/07/marion-thorpe
Marion Thorpe, who has died aged 87, might well have preferred a discreetly musical existence, notably as a prime mover in establishing the Leeds International Piano Competition. But the connections that she made along the way, with marriages to the Queen's cousin and opera administrator Lord Harewood, and the Liberal party leader Jeremy Thorpe, made her a much more widely known figure, if still a very discreet one.

She was born Maria Donata Nanetta Paulina Gustava Ermina Wilhelmine Stein in Vienna, though from early on answered to an eighth forename, Marion, by which she was known thereafter. Her mother, Sophie, was tall, blonde and seemed to float through life, all Viennese charm. Her father, Erwin, was a distinguished musician, a pupil of Arnold Schoenberg, chubby and scarcely 5ft in height; the strikingly beautiful Marion took after her mother in inches, but her father in complexion and dark hair.

He was Jewish, and the family left Austria in 1938. As a music editor with the leading Viennese publisher Universal Edition, he was equipped for similar work with Boosey & Hawkes in London. I first met Marion when she was 15: after tea on Sunday afternoons she and I would play Mahler symphonies on the Steins' upright piano, with Erwin bouncing up and down behind us, shouting instructions in German.

Marion studied at the Royal College of Music and played the piano professionally, not as a soloist but forming a duo with Catherine Shanks; they played works – many by Mozart and Schubert – for four hands at one keyboard.

Boosey & Hawkes's composing star at the time was Benjamin Britten. Stein oversaw Britten's work through the press, believing him to be the genius he turned out to be. Britten became like a member of the Stein family and Marion duly fell in love with the charismatic young – but gay – composer.
Britten had a great friend in George Lascelles, 7th Earl of Harewood, and in 1949 Marion became a member of the royal family by marriage to George; Britten composed them a wedding anthem. Since at that time the earl was 11th in line to the throne, the consent of King George VI had been necessary.

For a decade and more, Marion survived the transition from life in a flat in St John's Wood, north London, to living in Harewood House on a grand estate north of Leeds, sharing the housekeeping with George's mother, Princess Mary, who had the title Princess Royal. It cannot have been easy. Three sons were born in the 1950s: David, James and Jeremy. Marion spent much time travelling, in mainland Europe and farther east, especially India, and in doing so took in a lot of music, opera and theatre with George.

In the early 1960s, the earl was artistic director of the Edinburgh and Leeds festivals. He fell in love with Patricia Tuckwell – a onetime model and a violinist in symphony orchestras in her native Australia. They had a child, and Marion got a divorce in April 1967, being awarded custody of her children and a house in Orme Square, north of Kensington Gardens.

In 1963, she and the leading piano teacher Fanny Waterman started the Leeds International Piano Competition, which provided an early platform for such artists as Radu Lupu, Murray Perahia, András Schiff and Mitsuko Uchida. Their volumes of Piano Lessons have been bestsellers. Waterman became a dame, and in 2008 Marion was appointed CBE.

The pianist Moura Lympany introduced Marion to Jeremy Thorpe, who had been leader of the Liberal party since 1967. They married in 1973, but their happiness was shattered as a result of allegations brought against him by Norman Scott, a gay man with whom Thorpe was said to have had a relationship, and by Peter Bessell, a former Liberal MP who claimed that Thorpe had planned to have Scott murdered. Thorpe was committed for trial at the Old Bailey in 1979, charged with conspiracy to murder, and was acquitted.

This brought about the end of Thorpe's political career; he had resigned as party leader in 1976 and lost his North Devon seat at the 1979 election. Throughout the trial, Marion supported Jeremy, attended every court session and even interrupted a press conference. A BBC reporter, Keith Graves, asked if Jeremy had ever had a homosexual relationship. Marion shouted: "Go on, stand up. Stand up and say that again." Three years after the trial, Jeremy started to suffer from Parkinson's disease.

What with mixed feelings about her parents having different religions and the fact that her brother fought in the second world war on the German side, it is not surprising that Marion was reserved in her opinions, inclined to sit on the fence. She liked to laugh (not difficult living with Thorpe) and was good company, but did not make jokes or lead conversations. For relaxation she liked ice skating, which she was good at; and she enjoyed a bloody mary afterwards.

Thorpe and her sons survive her, along with six granddaughters, six grandsons, two great-granddaughters and four great-grandsons.

Marion (Maria Donata Nanetta Paulina Gustava Ermina Wilhelmine) Thorpe, musician, born 18 October 1926; died 6 March 2014

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

News from Putney Music Society

Next Meeting, 21 February …
A New Yorker abroad. Andrew Litton, Principal Conductor of the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Director of the Minnesota Orchestra’s annual Sommerfest and Music Director Emeritus of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, talks to Andrew Keener.
Last meeting … Remembering John AmisMany memories of John Amis were evoked by Robert Ponsonby,  Denis Moriaty and David Cairns in person and by Michael Rose, Humphrey Burton, Piers Burton-Page and many others in audio recordings.  We were also treated to recordings of John himself, talking, singing and whistling.  A talented man who will be missed by many, but after last night’s meeting still seems very present.
Items played during the meeting were:
1)     Talking about Music: signature tune (Lincolnshire Posey, arr. Grainger). Followed by excerpt from interview by JA with Dame Myra Hess (latter available on BBC Legends CD).
2)     Live presentation: Robert Ponsonby reading Michael Rose’s encomium, given at JA’s memorial concert at St Paul’s, Knightsbridge on 8 October 2013.
3)     JA talking of working at the record shop EMG Handmade Gramophones, London. 
4)     JA talking of the National Gallery Concerts during the Second World War. 
5)     Punkt Contrapunkt. Spoof Musicological discussion between JA and Gerard Hoffnung (from the Hoffnung Interplanetary Music Festival, Royal Festival Hall, 1958) (EMI Records and various sources) 
6)     JA talking of Bryanston, the Amadeus Quartet and Rawsthorne. 
7)     JA talking of Bryanston, Dartington and William Glock. 
8)     Live presentation: Robert Ponsonby reading from JA’s collection of recollections, reviews and essays, My Music in London, 1945-2000 (Amiscellany Books). 
9)     JA talking of Michael Tippett, in jail during the Second World War, turning pages for Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten in recital. 
10)  JA talking of early Aldeburgh Festival years. 
11)  JA talking of Britten ‘corpses’. 
12)  JA recalling Peter Pears’ description of JA’s singing voice. 
13)  Gardener’s Song, from A Lambeth Garland by Penelope Thwaites.  John Amis (tenor)/Penelope Thwaites (piano). (Nimbus Records). 
14)  Frankie Howerd singing Sir Joseph Porter’s song (When I was a lad...) from Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore, followed by JA interview with Howerd. 
15)  Piers Burton-Page remembering JA as a snappy dresser. 
16)  Opening credits by Steve Race from BBC Radio series My Music, followed by JA reminiscing about the show and an extract from the programme. 
17)  Live presentation: Robert Ponsonby relating three anecdotes apropos JA. 
18)  Violin Test. Extract from  JA BBC Radio programme featuring ‘blind’ test of four violins played by Manoug Parikian in front of panel consisting of Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman and Charles Beer. 
19)  JA talking of the music which consoles him when he’s down: not necessarily the ‘profound’ classics, but maybe a piece of Dowland or Faure. 
20)  Live presentation: David Cairns reading from his encomium of JA, given at the Memorial Concert mentioned in 2). 
21)  Bilbo’s Last Song by Donald Swann (words by Tolkien). Sung as a duet with Donald Swann (piano). (Nimbus Records). 
22)  JA singing ‘Ausgerechtnet Bananen’ (Yes, we have no bananas), arr Steve Race (piano). From BBC Radio programme, My Music.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Dear Friends

I really appreciate all the warm, caring and loving messages I have received in the past week.

Many of you have asked for details of the funeral and memorial services.

The funeral will take place on Tuesday 20 August 2013 at 11am at St Sepulchre-without-Newgate Church, Holborn Viaduct, London EC1A 2DQ (directions below), followed by a short service and burial in Aldeburgh on Wednesday 21 August at 12pm, at St Peter & St Paul's Parish Church. All welcome.

A memorial service will be held on Tuesday 8 October at St Paul's Knightsbridge.

Love, Isla

Isla Baring OAM
Tait Memorial Trust
London, Friday August 2nd

Dear Friends.

Darling John died peacefully last night at the Chelsea and Westminster – I was with him at the time.

I will miss him enormously, but shall remember all the wonderful times we shared together with so many of our dear friends, and so grateful for the music which brought us together. As Humphrey Burton says, “the very spirit of music…unforgettable and irreplaceable”.

Love, Isla

Isla Baring OAM
Tait Memorial Trust

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Damnation of Faust

'Damn braces: Bless relaxes' William Blake

Goethe's Faust gripped the imagination of the civilised world. Hector Berlioz was gripped amongst those; he couldn't wait to start setting it to music. A vast cantata was his work although its dramatic possibilities have spawned many staged versions, thousands of performances in the Paris Opera where forty years ago I saw the fattest Marguerite and Faust ( memorable also because Dinh Gilly was the most mellifluous Faust ever).

The latest performance was given in the Royal Festival Hall on April 30 and it did full justice to this (mostly inspired ) work conducted by veteran  conductor Charles Dutoit with the orchestra whose director he is - the Royal Philharmonic, superbly supported by the London Symphony Orchestra Chorus, in the finale by the New London Children's Choir.

There are three protagonists : Faust himself , Marguerite and Mephistopheles. Faustsings like  mo st French tenors of his century, including the fashionable high C (Tenors visiting Rossini were told to park their high Cs  in the cloakroom before entering his drawing room).

Berlioz brilliantly avoids fully characterising the golden plaited Marguerite by giving her two of the most exquisite, touching and poetic songs in all music. 

Mephisto scoops the pool. this devil doesn't have quite all the best tunes (only most of them). His is the weirdest music, the most Berliozian, electric, he is the ear catcher. Sir Willard White has been singing this part as long as I can remember but he is still the best, musically as outstanding as his voice. He has a resonance only ever equalled by the great Paul Robeson.

The unforgettable orchestral moments were duly unforgettable - the three piccolos squirming about like eels, the graceful Sylphs , the eloquent viola solo and the Hungarians so brazenly brassy.  It was a great evening, only  slightly let down, as usual, when the bracing stops and the final heaven starts to bless too long.

A Mad Ariadne

This season is Vladimir Jurowski's thirteenth and last season as Music Director at Glyndebourne. If he is sad to go it is nothing to the our sadness that he is going. Because he is a great musician and conductor, moreover his principles are of the purest. His ego is minimal; his ambitions are entirely for the good of music. If there is one weak spot it is that he has not spoken out against productions that he must surely know go against the intentions of the composer.       

But that is a general operatic malaise of our time and as far as I know Solti was the only one who ever rebelled and said he would not direct a production that contravened the composer's intentions. On the whole conductors either go with the producer's ego flow or they give in because they need the money. It was known, for example, that Haitink disliked certain productions while he was director at Covent Garden but forbore to make protest.                  

The buck is in the court of the direction of the opera house. Nowadays there is no overall boss who is willing to say yea or nea; it needs a Diaghilev or a Ninette de Valois director to override if a production looks like being contrary to the wishes of its creator. Such overall directors with good taste and general cultural expertise do not exist anymore it seems.                                                     

Nowadays it appears that a director is chosen, for whatever reason, and is given a free hand. So that by the time of the first rehearsals, the die is cast and it is too late for anybody to protest.  

And so to Glyndebourne' new production of Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos which I saw May 25, the third performance. Contrary to what I had heard: music fine, production bad, I found the staging of the Prologue quite acceptable, dear old Thomas Allen in superb form as a commanding , irrepressible Music Master, in good voice, Kate Lindsey a spirited sympathetic Composer although without the vocal warmth of Jurinac or Soderstrom. But post-interval, what do see?  A replica of wartime Glynders, a makeshift hospital ward and just to date it, attaché cases marked ENSA, blimey, Zerbinetta's going to play Gracie Fields! And Laura Claycomb is just as vocally agile as Gracie was but she is the least sexy 'Netta ever seen. In her aria she is always surrounded by nurses and even straitjacketed at one point, poor girl. This whole episode became like Mad Scenes from Ariadne. Anybody seeing this as their first Ariadne should ask for their money back, it's a travesty of the intentions of librettist Hofmansthal and composer Strauss. One is told that this is the début production of Katharina Thoma (why should we pay her college fees?).  
Once again, incidentally, we are paying good money to hear musicians busting their guts out to give us a superb musical performance whilst on stage the producer is busting her guts out to go against the intentions of composer and librettist.

The Finnish dramatic soprano Soile Isokoski gave a beautiful rendering of the deserted heroine, playing the title-role. The final duet when Bacchus rescues Ariadne is often an anti-climax but not in this performance mainly because of the excellent singing and presence of the Russian heroic tenor Sergey Skorokhodov, kitted out as air pilot. The harlequins were allowed to look like clowns but the Naiads were playing nursey-nursey. O what a tangled web this German producer wove!   And what an insult to a great composer and a great opera!
Shall we drink a glass of Lachrymae (John) Christie?

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A Land Cruise in Turkey

With my Oldie came an offer of an eight day trip around S.E. Turkey for a derisory sum that included fares, hotel accommodation, guide but not the two main meals of the day. Catch somewhere? A few extras, that's all. So this Oldie went for it, my ever- loving tagged along (single beds only, no spacious ' matrimonial') and we had a really good week. The tour had as its highlight a visit to Ephesus which never fails to delight and amaze, three hours of sheer joy culminating in the double storey Library.

We travelled in a not quite full coach. The admin firm is German but our driver Ibrahim, handsome boy, and our guide Nazim were both local Turks. The quality of the guide can make all the difference. No praise would be too high for Nazim: totally literate with only the slightest of accents, no bothersome vocal bad habits and a command of English that not only told all you wanted to know but was capable of summarising Turkish history and politics and, moreover, making good jokes as if English were his mother tongue. And he saw to it that we were punctual even to the point of some pretty early starts.               
The hotels varied but were always adequate but were different each night but one. At one place we had amateur belly dancing but on our last evening we had a company which was not only outstanding but was tireless in its efforts. It is not easy to transmute physical energy into art but this troupe from Anatolia had the audience thoroughly stimulated and worked up.          

If there was a weak spot in the tour it was those lunches and dinners that we shelled out for. No one starved or lacked adequate nutrition.  But it was boring to have buffets all the time: chopped up salad to begin with followed by chicken or rather dry beef, plus rice and it all seemed to have been cooked and dished up the same way. I am sure that most of us have enjoyed excellent Turkish cuisine in England. I suppose it was to do with the costing of the tours. But each of the hotels was large with big restaurants serving many groups, all with these everlasting boring buffets.
If there is a repeat next year of a similar nature, we shall be on it.

2 New Britten Biographies

Both books are entitled: BENJAMIN BRITTEN. Paul Kildea's is sub-titled A Life in the Twentieth Century, published by Allen Lane, 666p, £30. Neil Powell's sub-title is A Life for Music, 512pp, £25, Hutchinson.

Melancholy was surely Britten's temperament, yet he composed some of this century's happiest music. I need only mention the finales of the Young Person's Guide to music and the Spring Symphony. He was blessed with triple gifts; a genius of a composer, as a pianist-partner supreme, and one of the best conductors of his time. No wonder that Michael Tippett thought him the most musical person he had ever encountered. Yet Ben needed to be reassured, as a nervous performer, always having recourse to strong drink before lifting his baton. There is a story of a friend finding him hopping about on a carpet in an Amsterdam hotel: if he could get to the door without treading on a line of the pattern it would prove that he was a good composer.

Yet making music must have given him pleasure. And he was a happy traveller; likewise he enjoyed his food (nursery fodder – weak tummy) and drink. He was a voracious and wide-ranging reader, poetry and prose, and he must have taken pride in his expert settings of various languages besides English. In his setting of our native tongue he showed himself a master, a worthy follower of Dowland and Purcell. He could open the ears of his listeners to fresh thoughts about words that he made always audible and that he positively illuminated. Sometimes he botched spellings but he wrote thousands of fine letters (now duly published). How did he find time to accomplish what he did? His powers of concentration must have been almost superhuman, likewise his ability to work long hours. His various devoted helpers sometimes could not keep up to his pace – sometimes twenty pages of full score a day. When did he get time to think and dream?

He was always happy to be with children (even little girls sometimes!) He frequently fell in love with boys but, as two of them testified, David Hemmings and David Spenser, there was never any 'hanky-panky' (they both used that expression) even though they sometimes spent time in his bed. Happiness there was but also a certain melancholy that Leonard Bernstein described as emotions not quite meshing. His childhood days seem to have been his happiest and I think he always regretted their passing. Nevertheless composing was his keenest joy, a joy reflected in the subtle charm that delights us, a charm that never cloys. With time there was less of that charm – the experience of visiting Belsen left its mark.

Britten was a genius. He was modest… up to a point. He sacrificed his life to this art, his health too. Maybe that was why he also sacrificed many of his friends and colleagues when they transgressed – or he thought they did. The list of his 'corpses' is long and distressing. He could be cruel as well as wonderfully kind.

Both of these biographies deal fully and fairly with the life and works of Britten. There are no conspicuous gaps. Powell veers towards the literary angle which is understandable because he is also a poet. There are a few opinions one could argue about in both books but nothing serious. Kildea thinks more highly of Owen Wingrave than most of us who find it curate's-eggish, that the plot inspired neither BB nor us (Walton called it Owen Windbag), likewise Powell favours the cantatas, academic or pitying more than most of us and he is 'down' not on Jemmy Legs but the novice-flogging scene in Billy Budd. But these are tiny pimples on the flesh of two fine bodies of work, well produced, difficult to choose between them. If you are in funds, splash out on both. Here follow a few notes which I add from my long knowledge of Ben and Peter:
There's no need for Pears
To give himself airs;
He has them written
By Benjamin Britten.

Punch spoke the truth. There is no performer in musical history who had so much music, most of it can be called great music, written for him as Peter Pears. From Grimes through to Death in Venice via song-cycles, folk-song arrangements, cantatas, canticles; the tally is unique. And Pears repaid the gifts with his gifts. Britten thought that nobody was a better artist than his life companion.

Peter doesn't come unscathed in these biogs. He had many peccadillos. He was also often impatient with Ben being ill so often. He was also not interested in Ben's works written for others to perform. And he could be wildly jealous when Ben fell in love: Arda Mandikian told me that during the production of Turn of the Screw in Venice she got little sleep in her hotel bedroom next to Peter and Ben, because they screamed at each other all night because Ben was so blatantly besotted with Miles-David Hemmings. It was a sexless affair that ended abruptly on the day that Hemming's voice broke; apparently Ben had no further contact with the boy from that moment on.

Ben and Peter were better at engaging than dismissing. My wife was a victim. Olive Zorian had been leader of the English Opera Group Orchestra for some years when she heard that she had been given the chop. Every member of the orchestra knew that she was to be replaced but nobody had told her.

Ben loved games. Cricket when he was very young, later tennis and croquet. His swerving serve could only be returned if his opponent stood practically in the netting (as I found myself). One day he was playing croquet at the Red House with frequent Aldeburgh Festival performer and first Miss Jessel in Turn of the Screw, soprano, Ben managed to manoeuvre his ball from just behind the line with a croquet that got him actually through the hoop. Incredulous, Arda exclaimed: "Oh Ben, how do you get your balls in round the back." He replied "Well, I've had a good deal of experience." (Game, set and match)

He was determined to win and could get shirty if he didn't. He placed a ball as skilfully as he set down a note, always knew how a note could be sung, bowed, blowed or hit, how the singer(s) could find the note.

When he wrote the Nocturnal for the guitarist Julian Bream Ben swotted up by getting hold of a technical manual so that when Julian pointed out that one or two passages were not possible Britten apologised but asked Bream if he'd thought of using this fingering or that position. Julian goes away, follows Ben's suggestions and finds that they work. The harpist Osian Ellis had a similar experience; he changed an octave passage for the sake of convenience. Sometime later when rehearsing for a repeat performance of the new piece (Suite for harp) Britten asked him if he would try out his original disposition of the hands as written); Osian tried it and found that, of course, the composer was right.

One day after lunch with Erwin Stein and his family in St. John's Wood, Ben sat apart at a table writing dots in a manuscript. After some minutes he joined us for coffee, saying that he had just written the final notes of the full score of Peter Grimes. Historical moment.

Later I sat with Erwin in the Stalls of Sadler Wells A1 and 2 for the première of Peter Grimes – June 7, 1945, another historical moment, this time for Britten and opera in Britain. After the performance I supped with Michael Tippett and his poet friend, Brean Douglas Newton.

The choice of the opera to re-open the house after the war had been the subject of much contention; older members of the company (Edith Coates, for example, who played Auntie in the opera) had wanted to kick off with Aida or even Merrie England but the new work proved to be an inspired choice, the finest full length opera an English composer had ever composed and brought to performance literally epoch-making as well as making the name of Benjamin Britten famous throughout the world (and another biff in the eye for those who still thought of the UK as Das Land ohne Musik).

Kildea does Britten one disservice by stating that the composer was suffering from syphilis. Britten's own doctor says this is not true and that Kildea has not properly checked all the medical reports. Whatever is the truth of the matter the damage is done and somehow Britten's reputation will suffer.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Lutoslawski Festival

A Modern Master

A cellist sits down and begins to play, not a tune but a pulse, steady, as if going for a walk (orchestra tacet). Solo communion, starts to doodle a bit but maintains the walk, orchestra still silent. Strike? No, there is a sudden BLAST from the trumpets, a quiet foreign note, aggressive. More instruments join in. In a sense this could be called a concerto for it is a soloist against the orchestra. And so Lutoslawski continues. It is more like a cartoon then any concerto heard before, but a serious cartoon, not a funny Hoffnung one. No ordinary concerto form, obvious tunes or subjects first or second but gestures, over twenty minutes of them. Once the listener accepts this, the time is well spent.

The clue to all this is that Luto likes to play games, to juggle, to match, to oppose (compare Hesse and his Glass Bead Games). Not fun and games maybe, but games nevertheless. The cello part is certainly no joke. Composed for Rostropovich, it needs a master to tackle it. On March 7 in Festival Hall it got one! The tall young Norwegian Trulls Mørk more than filled the bill.

Witold Lutoslawski (1913 – 1994) was born into silver-spoon stock but had to contend with trials, troubles, wars, poverty and a totalitarian state – Poland was rarely free from trouble. But Luto was clever and diplomatic enough not always to be the mouse in contests with the state.  He was left to compose educational music for many years. He won prizes and gradually emerged as a composer in his own right. He became internationally known and was able to compose and travel abroad. During the war when concert halls were closed he played – piano duets in cafes with composer colleague Panufnik.

There was something catlike about Luto: dapper, with impeccable manners, he pursued his own course, belonged to no school or sect; in addition to his successful compositions he was also an excellent pianist and conductor. At the Dartington Summer School he also was much in demand as a teacher of composition, not the 'do it my way!' kind such as Hindemith or Nadia Boulanger, more of the 'Lets do it your way but better' variety.

George Benjamin's New Opera

A Cardboard Turkey?

Opera houses feel, quite rightly, that they are in duty bound to mount new works; if they didn't they would not get subsidies. But what about the quality of the new works performed? Maw, Maazel, Caligula, Turnage, Birtwistle? Not a great deal of musical worth there for the majority of true music lovers.

And now we have five performances of Written on Skin by George Benjamin (b.1960) a co-commission and production with Covent Garden and no less than four other opera houses, Aix-en-Provence, Amsterdam, Toulouse and Florence, a rare honour and outlook for a composer (and a % for his agent!). The text is by Martin Crimp and the plot is about a book which you might think a bit weird for an opera. It is based on an old legend from Occitan (yes, the same name Provence as the firm that nowadays makes intriguing scents.)  

The protagonists  are: a so-called Protector, a wealthy landowner addicted to purity and violence who considers his wife Agnes 'his property' (but she doesn't) – thoroughly non P.C. but the action takes place 800 years ago. There is a chorus of Angels and a Boy (on stage he looked middle-aged and sang like a counter-tenor). There is quite a lot of sexual shenanigans; the Boy gets murdered and Agnes suicides. The text is not very appealing and the music matches it. The score does not frighten the horses but seems to have no particular character, quite violent at times (not always parallel with the words) music neither didactic, systematic, nor melodic or pleasure seeking, e.g. neither serial nor cereal.

The action was busy, supers dressing and undressing the landowner frequently, much scuttling round the bed. I asked my companion why the supers on the first floor kept on moving about in slow motion. She said 'that’s modern, you know'. Good set by Vivki Mortimer and the production seemed to fit the action which was frequently punctuated by light changes to indicate a new scene. There was no interval; the opera was in three parts, 15 scenes, two hours duration. The audience applauded generously (as they always do these days, my booing was not audible).

Cast: the Protector – Christopher Pruves, the Boy – Bejun Mehta, Agnes – Barbara Hannigan; the composer conducted.


Down-Dating in Art

Literally Zeitgeist means 'time-ghost' but it has come to signify the expression of a period of time. Art can transport you backwards in time, and also to a particular place: think Pelléas, think Mahler, think Elgar and, here and now, think Kurt Weill/Berlin/Die Dreigroschenoper. Actually this ballad opera has performed the trick twice: firstly in 1728 with The Beggar's Opera, the father of the genre of ballad-operas; and then, exactly two hundred years later in Berlin, with text by Bertolt Brecht and music by Kurt Weill (It also had another British life when it ran in Glastonbury and then London for over two hundred performances in the Twenties).

Weill composed his music so that singing-actors could perform. He scored it for a dance-band combo: cello, bass, flute, clarinet, bassoon, trombone, percussion, keyboards, bandoneon, banjo and mandoline, guitars, and pairs of saxes and trumpets. Vladimir Jurowski conducted but couldn't keep his hands off the piano, sharing it with the always excellent Catherine Edwards, first-class all of them, a superbly decadent racket, more Cabaret then Cabaret. Choir and orchestra of the London Philharmonic were on top-obviously-enjoying-themselves-form, bunched together in a rhomboid, all span and spick in white and black. The soloists were tip-top: Sir John Tomlinson/Peachum, gutsy and guttural, Felicity Palmer as sleazy as all get-out, Mark Padmore/Macheath as smooth as a Comedian Harmonist and what do you expect of a Jenny whose name is given in the programme book as Meow Meow? Right, you got it.

We owe a lot to the conductor, Vladimir Jurowski; this is his last season in Sussex where he has done wonders and as director of the LPO where he has done consistently marvellous work and devised really interesting programmes, as witness this Dreigroschenoper.  Hey, Mister Jurowski, thank you and …. what about bringing the whole lot of you to Glyndebourne to perform the opera on the stage? (The hills would be alive with the sound of Kurt Weill).

Onegin in Barn

In the depths of the Hampshire countryside is a wapping great barn with a V-shaped roof, partly brick-walled. It seats about two hundred, has a stage behind it, with an orchestra of twenty-five, previous members of South Bank Sinfonia with director Simon Over. The chorus consists of a score of students; the cast is singers under thirty mostly. This is Bury Court Opera lined up for its annual show, Eugene Onegin, whose plot was near to the heart of Tchaikovsky because he, like Onegin, had received a letter in which the writer confessed love. But the composer, unlike Onegin, married the girl despite his homosexuality. Tchaikovsky spoke of his dislike of Onegin's treatment of Tatyana in refusing her advances.      

Tchaikovsky could not have foreseen that Onegin would be cherished and survive whereas his other operas with much more conventional scenarios would not be anywhere near as successful. T gave his operatic masterpiece to students for its premiere. He was surely right to do so for Onegin works much better in more intimate surroundings than the bigger houses and Bury Court proved it once again. Well produced by Sebastian Harcombe sympathetically, simply, and without any of the current production nonsenses we suffer the opera went to the heart as it should do. Tchaikovsky would have been as pleased as the audience was on March 16th in Hampshire (I think).
The singing was uniformly satisfactory neither reaching the highs (or lows) of opera houses where the average ticket price has many noughts. Ilona Domnich born St Petersburg trained London was a thoroughly convincing Tatyana, good voice and looked extremely beautiful; she broke more hearts than Onegin's in that final duet. Gerard Collett was her Mr Ruthless, eloquent; surely Onegin was right to put her off, they would never have been happy. The husband Gremin (Welsh James Gower was young for the part but musically satisfying (perhaps he died soon enough for Onegin to have another go at widow Tatty?) Andrew Dickinson (Lensky) got better and more convincing as the evening went on. Anglo-Czech Lucia Spickova was a charming Madame Larina. The weather that evening was horribly cold and wet but after half an act the music and performance had warmed us all up.

West Side Story

Bernstein in Clink

Just beyond Devizes in Wiltshire there was a sign with the word OPERA written large. This targeted the venue of a performance that evening, March 10, the last of four, of Bernstein's West Side Story in HM Prison, Erlestoke, in an enclave, low buildings; with high wire mesh walls (you would need strong wire cutters to evade the security). Close on five hundred men are locked in with a staff of 400 'carers'.

The cast consists of prison inmates except for the male lead Robin Bailey, 'Jet' – well cast, fine voice in the Romeo role, and the ten girls headed by Welsh soprano, Caryl Hughes, every inch and beautifully sounded note a 'Juliet'. These were professional, the rest residents. There were five hundred closely packed in the audience, all duly finger-printed and ticketed, a captive audience in two senses because the performance was first class.

Like the score itself. If only one work by Bernstein were to survive, West Side Story surely should be that one, together with Rosenkavalier, Turandot through to Peter Grimes and other Britten  numbers. Interesting that at least three of the masterpieces of the 20th century are hybrids, in corporating music of a popular style, jazz, musicals and so on. West Side begins with jazz and ends (somewhere) with a number that is almost Brahmsian. Inspiration ran high with at least half a dozen hits and masterly continuity. Toby Purser directed a small combo that did justice to a work that goes to the heart and is emotionally provoking.

The production (Nikki Woolaston) was of a thoroughly professional standard, dancing, costumes to match.

The idea of prison performances was conceived by Wasfi Kani, music director of Pimlico Opera and I remember seeing Sweeney Todd some twenty-two years ago in Wormwood Scrubs (in the murderer's wing!) Each year sees performances in various gaols in London and the home countries. Authorities, inmates and audiences have all enjoyed the experiences. How many prisoners have gone straight as a result is not known.

Youth at the Helm

A Cracking Good Concert

The playing of student and youth orchestras took a vast step forward when advisers and administrators realised that style is only acquired by experience; that teenagers can cope with Prokofiev and Mahler more readily than Bach, Mozart and Haydn.

In the plethora of concerts sometimes there is one that makes life joyful, when programme, performance and even acoustics are just right. The event becomes an experience, routine is banished. Such an occasion was the concert in the Cadogan Hall on February22 played by the orchestra of Chetham's School, Manchester. It was a most satisfying and exhilarating event. The conductor, Paul Mann, had a perfect rapport with his players who gave him and the composers whose work they played all that was asked for, the result exceeding the sum of the items. O.K., some of the solos lacked the refinement and superior virtuosity of famous orchestras that I have heard give superlative accounts of the Symphony No 5 of Shostakovich under Stokowsky and Bernstein but the spirit was thrillingly right. it all worked: the strange flute reference to Carmen in the opening movement, those low growling horns and macabre trumpets, the piano pickingups, the eloquence of the slow movements strings, the sardonic E flat clarinet in the Waltz, the ecstatic trumpet solo in the finale and the thundering coda's resolution, everything was realized. And the acoustic in the Cadogan being so much smaller than the RFH, Barbican or Bertie Hall made the audience much more than usually involved, even overwhelmed. Our ears were saturated, our hearts touched and our senses palpably stirred.

The first half of the concert was equally satisfying: first, Britten's farewell to the orchestra, his folk-song suite A Time there Was. Such innovatory combinations of sound and, towards the end, that heart-rending cor anglais solo that seems to stammer its life away.

Britten's valediction was followed by Prokofiev's impetuous entry into the concerto repertory, his number 1 with just about the most striking opening of any concerto, yearning, aspiring and quite gorgeous. The soloist was Yuanfan Yang (BBC Young Musician competition winner), still the slip of a boy but already a giant of the keyboard. The concerto is all bits and pieces but it somehow gels when played for all it is worth – and more. 

This was an evening to remember!