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!