Archive for August 2008

Garden Opera: Don Pasquale

August 27, 2008

Another August Bank Holiday, another Garden Opera performance in the magical setting of the Observatory Garden in Greenwich… (so it must be a year since I started this blog!  Hey!  Happy birthday to me!)

Alas, no idyllic weather this time, but at least the rain held off.  The audience was enthusiastic but not a full ‘house’ – where were the Burghers of Blackheath?  Not all in Tuscany, surely?  Perhaps put off by the weather, or by the relatively unfamiliar opera on offer?

Donizetti is mostly known for his prolific output of bel canto operas on serious or historical subjects, but he was also a dab hand at comedy, managing to combine swift-flowing action with hilarious patter songs, gentle lyricism and (as my friend Diana noted) some eyebrow-raising sudden key-changes.

Ernesto, the tenor lead, has probably the hardest task in Don Pasquale, having to play the soulful romantic while all about him are embroiled in comedy.  Alexander Anderson-Hall rose bravely to the challenge, having to work hard at times but to fine effect.  He could also ‘do’ the comedy when required.

Catherine May, as Norina, was a treasure – huge expressive eyes conveying every nuance of surprise, horror, complicity, teasing, play-acting and genuine affection.  And she could do the high notes too!

James McOran-Campbell, charismatic as ever (and with a green corduroy three-piece suit to die for), made Dr Malatesta into an untypically youthful but convincing and very funny conspirator.  Last but not least, as the eponymous Don Pasquale Deryck Hamon was a hoot – all arms and legs in confusion, infuriatingly pompous, ridiculous when trying to be ‘with it’, yet winning our sympathy for his plight.  And he had the low notes…

Bernie Lafontaine provided deft orchestrations for his hard-working six-piece band, which once again sounded convincingly like a whole orchestra.

Stage direction was by Duncan Macfarland (of the Royal Opera House) who updated the action to the ‘late 1970s’, explaining that it was a time when 1960s counter-culture collided head-on with the bourgeois values of middle England, thus enabling him to retain the conflicts of the original while playing down the now-unacceptable social stereotypes of Donizetti’s day.  (This did mean losing the bite of the final ‘moral’, in which ‘When an old man wants to marry, he’ll only make a fool of himself’ became something harmless about ‘losing a guidebook’…)

Designers Neil Irish (sets) and Dulcie Best (costumes) rose to the challenge brilliantly.  (more…)

Prom: Gürzenich Orchestra, Mahler 5 etc.

August 23, 2008
Angelika Kirchschlager

Angelika Kirchschlager

After the previous night’s Prom – when Jiři Bělohlávek drew a lovely light, fluffy sound from the BBC Symphony Orchestra in Dvořák’s bouncy and witty Slavonic Dances, and Janáček’s beautiful but maddeningly unfocused little-known early opera Osud – what a contrast yesterday to hear the rich glowing sound of the Gürzenich Orchestra of Cologne under Markus Stenz.

Their weird back-to-front programme – Mahler 5, some Schubert songs, Beethoven’s Overture Leonore No. 3 – turned out to be a re-creation of the first performance of the Mahler in 1904 (I hadn’t realised it had been written for this orchestra).  Plus – to bring us up to date – a chunk of Stockhausen, which succeeded in driving a lot of the audience away after the Mahler (rumour has it that it was scheduled to be a separate late-night Prom, but perhaps the Powers That Be had thought no one at all would have turned up).  As it was, the Albert Hall was respectably full but not bursting.

From the first tutti, the Mahler had an authentically ‘European’ sound:  big, colourful and full of character, supported on the cushion of those gorgeous strings – especially a phalanx of eight double basses across the back of the platform, where they became the beating heart of the orchestra, always supporting, always making their presence felt even in the softest pianissimo (and all bowing ‘underhand’ in Continental fashion).

Varieties of orchestral layout are a continuing fasciation;  the oddity of this one was that the brass were ‘back to front’, with the trumpets on the outside and the trombones and tuba nearest the middle.  This had the bonus of placing the tuba next to contrabassoon and double basses – good idea.  If I am not mistaken, the second violins sat opposite the firsts in the Mahler, but the violas went there for the Beethoven.  (The Stockhausen had a weirdly random layout, not explained in the programme).

‘A symphony must be like the world – it should embrace everything’, said Gustav Mahler:  it could be claimed that Mahler’s Fifth is the greatest of his symphonies, and one of the greatest of all symphonies (and I’m not just saying that because of its terrific contrabassoon part!).  The Gürzenich Orchestra gave it all they’d got, which was indeed plenty, although both the first trumpet (in his opening fanfare) and the first horn (in his solos in the huge Scherzo) were not entirely accident-free – though they improved once they had got over their opening wobbles.  Yet somehow, despite tremendously characterised and colourful wind playing, the sound remained slightly one-dimensional and the performance didn’t ever quite take off.  When Markus Stenz reached the final bombastic peroration, it didn’t seem to have earned its place in the scheme of things.  And heaven knows what he thought he was beating at the beginning of the (admirably unsentimental) Adagietto.

Stockhausen’s Punkte was a kind of smudged pointillist canvas (more…)

more Proms — Messiaen, Varese

August 20, 2008

Still piling on the Proms — 14 so far I think. 

Disappointments:  Boulez conducting Janacek‘s Sinfonietta (careful, not exciting) and Glagolitic Mass (I am not at all convinced by the reconstructed ‘original’ version, which seemed muddy and diffuse.  Composers’ second thoughts are usually the right ones!). 

Highlights:  Barenboim‘s East-West Divan Orchestra (why did nobody explain their name in the programme?  It’s from a book of Goethe poems, I think) — I feared the worst from his VERY slow upbeat at the beginning of Brahms 4, but it was fine.  Great the way the players all lunge and sway about in a most un-English fashion!  Special praise for bassoonist Mor Biron, who was, I thought, the best of the solosts in Haydn’s Sinfonia Concertante, then excellent in the Brahms, and finally wide awake and full of character in Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale at the late Prom — another highlight, thanks to Patrice Chéreau‘s craggy, louche, hilarious, touching and very French rendering of ALL the characters (and the Narrator). 

More highlights:  Jennifer Bate playing Messiaen on the mighty Albert Hall organ:  L’Apparition de l’église eternelle is a piece I have always loved (an early work), its ‘granitic’ columns of sound rising mysteriously from nothingness and then sinking back again, like an immense and slightly sinister science-fiction version of Debussy’s Cathédrale engloutie.  Then La Nativité du seigneur in all its hour-long splendour, quite wonderful and with a shattering ‘Dieu Parmi Nous’ at the end.  Whoooo!

Last night — Tuesday 19 August — was a (very thinly attended) feast of live orchestra (BBC Scottish) plus electronics — more Messiaen (the late and pretty Concert à quatre), Varèse, and Jonathan Harvey (including an ambitious if over-long new work, Speakings, using the orchestra as a giant speech synthesiser:  interesting sounds, but I was put off by the inelegant ‘bending’ noises the players had to make — especially the oboe — which I know was the point of the piece but struck me as undignified…). 

Harvey’s electronic warhorse, Mortuos plango, vivos voco, featuring a bell and his choirboy son, was a knockout — the composer himself presiding, like a gently beaming silver-haired angel, at the sound desk.  But the highlight for me was Varèse’s Poème electronique — an amazing feat of technology for 1958, clever, imaginative, funny, and — at eight minutes long — not outstaying its welcome.

I’m certainly not complaining about any of ‘my’ Proms — a continuing feast of all kinds of music and such a privilege to be able to experience ‘live’.  Time for several more before I have to return to real life!

.

 

photo of Messiaen by Malcolm Crowthers (c)

photos of Italy

August 10, 2008

Following my wonderful jaunt to play Rossini’s La Cenerentola in Umbria, here is a photo album for your edification and enjoyment.  Click on the link below:

http://www.photobox.co.uk/album/59739568

album by PhotoBox

Proms: Chen Yi ‘Olympic Fire’, Duke Ellington ‘Harlem’

August 9, 2008

Returning from my wonderful Italian jaunt (see earlier post) I was expecting to find my Prom season ticket waiting on the doormat – but it wasn’t there.  Huge thanks to Sheila at the Albert Hall Box Office for sorting out a replacement and personally delivering it into my hands!  (Let’s hope the kleptomaniac postman is enjoying the Proms, along with my missing Glyndebourne programme, not to mention the undelivered rude letter from the Bank…).

Only two days into my Prom-going, and last night (Friday) I was knocked off my feet by two stunning performances which must surely be highlights of the whole season.  First of all came Chen Yi‘s Olympic Fire, commissioned – not surprisingly – to celebrate the opening of the Beijing Olympics.  I must admit I was expecting some spineless ‘Yellow River‘ piece I would dutifully have to endure before the evening’s main menu of Rachmaninov and Vaughan Williams… but no, this was a knockout.  Chen Yi (previously unknown to me, I confess) was born in 1953, studied in China and the USA, and now divides her time between posts in Kansas City and Beijing.  Her music is a fruitful creative fusion of Chinese and Western influences: Peking Opera and regional folk music and instruments, side by side with Stravinskyan orchestral glitz and glitter.

Hotfoot from watching TV coverage of the Olympic opening ceremony and the lighting of the flame, I felt ‘Olympic Fire’ was perfectly in tune with the occasion – plunging headlong into tremendous energy and excitement, taking no prisoners, stretching all players (especially the brass) to the limits of their technique but not beyond;  a gentler middle section brought lyrical string writing and one of those Chinese cymbals that change pitch after you hit it (how do they DO that?).  The end of the piece erupted in an astonishing timpani ‘break’, a moment of glory for Matt Perry among all the glories of the RPO.

Leonard Slatkin has frequently been criticised for his limp or ineffectual conducting, but here he seemed to be absolutely in command of the challenging score (unlike the succeeding Rachmaninov Paganini Variations, where he seemed to be constantly on a razor edge trying to guess what, if anything, the glamorous but wayward Russian pianist Olga Kern was about to do next).

Amid storms of cheers and applause, a reluctant figure was brought forth:  Chen Yi turned out to be a tiny, shy, bespectacled roly-poly figure in a woolly cardigan, beaming broadly. 

There was one shout (‘FREE TIBET’, I think), which was received in puzzled silence.  I think 5,000 people realised that politics had nothing to do with the case (despite memories of the famous ‘Freedom for Czechoslovakia’ shout at the Prom in 1968 – but that’s another histoire…)

By the nature of the commission, I fear that opportunities to hear Chen Yi’s piece will be limited, which is a shame;  I can’t wait to hear it again (in a live performance, to get the full effect).  The Prom is repeated on Radio 3 on Wednesday 13th, in the afternoon.

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Then the Late Prom (more…)

FOUND!

August 9, 2008

 Well, well.  After a year and a half of commenting and submitting stuff to FOUND Magazine’s Find of the Day, I see that they have finally published one of my Finds!  Apparently it can take several years for a Find to show up, as they get so many, so I’m honoured.

Thanks, guys!

To read all the comments – witty, illuminating and otherwise – click HERE.