Thursday, May 15, 2008

Book Review

Listening to the Twentieth Century
Alex Ross
Pp 624
Fourth Estate £20

This book is well worth the money – the best survey I’ve come across, a worthy successor to Constant Lambert’s Music Ho! Which came out in 1834, wildly witty, entertainingly opinionated but wise at times. Alex Ross’s survey is more inclusive, also wise, not many jokes but entertaining, informative and eminently sane; and inducing compulsive page turning.

Both books preface with Shakespeare: Lambert has “The Music Ho! Let’s to billiards”; Ross has “…the rest is silence…. why does the drum come hither?” Ross does not scintillate like Lambert but the writing is good, reading more like a historical novel than a textbook.

Ross begins, interestingly not with Schoenberg or The Rite of Spring but with the premiere in 1906 in Graz of Richard Strauss’s opera Salome (dedicated to an English banker!) Apparently Mahler was there and Berg, Puccini and possibly Adolf Hitler and, in imagination, Adrian Leverkühn. Ross’s range is almost incredibly wide, he seems to have researched everything there is to know or has been written about the music, the composers and the times they lived in. Like Lambert, Ross thinks that Sibelius was a good way forward, even though many took the atonal path, perhaps for the general bad. Ross is good on jazz (as befits a writer many of us know and admire for his/her articles in the New Yorker), overpraises Copland, and sums up well Berlin in the twenties and the Soviet scene. There are very good sections on Kurt Weill, Peter Grimes and Wozzeck. Messiaen, minimalist and the latest trends, ways forward and dead ends all receive lively comment.

Quibbles; apart from Britten, our British worthies get short shrift, Tippett just mentioned, Adès considered over-rated; and Ross seems to point an accusing finger by smearing Strauss: “On the day that Capriccio was finished, 682 Jews are killed in Romania, 1500 in Latvia” and more in the same vein. Not nice, surely not germane.

Did you notice that I referred to Alex Ross as he/she? That’s because the jacket blurb refers to the author as he, whilst in the preface Ross thanks her husband. Never mind, which way Tiresias/ Ross dresses, he/she has written a mighty fine important book.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Viva la Diva

Did you know that Darcey Bussell could speak lines? Or that Kathleen Jenkins could dance? Pop along to your local arena then, and find out for yourself. I popped along to mine (May 10), which happens to be The Dome (remember The Dome?), which seats - eight thousand? During some boring moments of a rehash of The Red Shoes I started doing some sums: 8000 seats, average ticket price £50, crikey that’s a lot of moolah. Mind you, there were quite a lot of artists, technicians and managerial staff to pay, plus the hire of the Dome and shepherds to make sure us sheep got through the car parks and approach walks plus restaurants and shops to our seats.

So what kind of a show did the divas cook up? At least the programme book (price £10 – wow!) told us that the living divas (Bussell and Jenkins) had devised and written the entertainment themselves. Unhelpfully the programme book did not tell us what the items were, or give any credits to composers. The performing area consisted of a stage and a small upstairs space. The central part of the arena, stalls, are on the flat. Never mind, the audience can either look at that stage (performers look rather small) or at either of two large screens on which television cameras project the dancers and singers. Lots of dancers, about a couple of dozen, very good, hard working in a three-hour show (too long but you feel you are getting your money’s worth).

There are about twenty items, based on the work and songs of famous stars and shows of yesterday, stars of screen and records, Callas, Astaire, Charisse, Kelly, Garland, Day, Bassey, Piaf, Monroe, plus Chorus Line, Busby Berkeley, Bob Fosse and the Red Shoes numbers and a flamenco dance and chunks of Carmen and the Barber of Seville.

There is a lot of crossover and Darcey gets to do some snippets of ballet and they are brilliant, especially part of Elite Syncopations (Scott Joplin) and Red Shoes; her showbiz routines do not come off so well but she surprises us at the end with some spirited and efficient tap dancing.

Has Kathleen Jenkins swum into your ken yet? Did you know that she is the only singer in musical history simultaneously to hold the number 1,2,3 and 4 positions in the classical album charts, only last year? Her Piaf is not very good but her Rossini Una voce poco fa was, despite the fact that on certain notes she displays a king sized disfiguring judder.

What both Darcey and Kathleen have is charming personalities, beautiful faces and good figures. But they are short of sex appeal. Their costumes are gorgeous and they both can take the stage (and the screen). The show sometimes falls between the stools of televisions and theatre but on the whole it is efficiently done, imaginatively staged and the supporting dancers and band are first rate.

The audience? Well, the arena was absolutely packed. Where did they all come from and who were they? Middle class, those around me came from Purley, Streatham, Chelsea and Notting Hill Gate. Mostly middle aged, no foreigners, all white. They applauded dutifully but not over enthusiastically, not surprisingly since they were watching screens rather than the distant performers. I had the feeling somewhat that I was a prole in some 1984 entertainment, sitting in a vast arena, watching distant figures on a screen. But there was not Big Brother, only two talented likeable Big Sisters.