Archive for the ‘buildings’ category

John Myatt, 1931-2011

May 27, 2011

Very sad to hear of the passing of John Myatt, my beloved bassoon teacher of 40+ years ago and so much more – clarinettist, fixer, conductor, source of inspiration and outrageous jokes, printing master, guru, family friend, clown, surrogate crazy uncle…

Aged 80, John had not been well for some time.  He had been living in retirement in Suffolk, with his devoted wife Janet and their equally devoted dogs.  I feel very fortunate that we were able to drop in and see him in March this year and catch up after so many years.  He was still on great form!

Happy memories of those days in Hitchin, and later in Cambridge, when he taught me almost all I knew about how to play the bassoon (and then generously passed me on to be finished off by Roger Birnstingl, who was another huge inspiration – I managed to catch up with him too at the recent William Waterhouse celebration at the Wigmore).

On Saturday mornings I would get on my bike (more…)

Does sung English need subtitles??

May 4, 2011

Definitive answer to the Great Debate…

‘Cinderella’ at the Royal Opera House

April 24, 2011

Lovely dayout yesterday to matinee of Cinderella (Prokofiev ballet) at ROH. Rosie’s 6th birthday treat but we grownups adored it too! Glamour, magic, story clearly told, stunning sets and costumes, great music – reminding us what we go to the theatre for…

Classic Frederick Ashton choreography, with trademark Ashton figures in the hyperactive Jester (James Hay) and of course the pantomime-dame Ugly Sisters (James Wilkie and Thomas Whitehead, extremely funny). Yuhui Choe pretty and touching as Cinderella, Sergei Polunin likewise as her fairy-tale Prince. (But Rosie liked the Fairy Godmother – Francesca Filpi – best of all.)

Nice to see my old chum Mark Jonathan credited with the lighting, which was sumptuous and just right. And what a brilliant score – all the Prokofiev hallmarks of clarity, energy, ingenious and unexpected orchestration (particularly percussion, oboe, bassoon, contrabassoon and trumpet, all working incredibly hard! No ‘easy night off’ playing for the ballet in this one.) And he does that odd trick of putting a tuba on the bass line even in moving or touching passages – shouldn’t work but it does.

Not having seen a synopsis, I was fascinated by the reference to The Love for Three Oranges in the score, paralleled by the appearance of three oranges on stage… is this Prokofiev’s in-joke, or Ashton’s? Any insights welcome.

What a contrast to our dismal evening at The Tsar’s Bride earlier in the week. (No offence to Rimsky-Korsakov’s fine and sometimes amazing music, or to Sir Mark Elder’s equally fine but disappointingly ponderous conducting. But the ballet reminded us, by contrast, what a chore it is to sit through yet another grim updated staging that doesn’t fit the music and has us peering at a room full of dark-suited gents in a gloomy setting, trying to figure who is who and which one is singing. And that was just the first scene. Yes, we were sitting very high up in the Amphi! 😦

See review and photos of Cinderella at http://www.seenandheard-international.com/2011/04/09/prokofiev%e2%80%99s-cinderella-at-the-royal-ballet/

photo (c) Tristram Kenton

We have arrived in Sussex!

March 8, 2011

Better late than never (having finally got my internet connection back), this is to let you all know that after considerable tribulations, alarms and excursions, Diana and I moved into our lovely ‘new’ house in St Leonard’s-on-Sea on 17 February.

After a couple of weeks we are at last beginning to feel at home, having unpacked at least some of the 300 boxes that arrived from our two previous houses and begun to sort out what goes where.  It’s a lovely big solid 1930s house – with a huge reception hall with room for both our grand pianos (major selling point) and some endearingly quirky features of design and layout, but in great condition and beautifully maintained.

We’ve had a fascinating session with a couple of local architects, and it looks as if we’ll be able to do a certain amount of building to give us more room, better facilities and possibly even more sea views!

And on 24 February, a week after moving in, I took ‘early retirement’ from my job at the Royal Opera House.  So I’m looking forward to continuing with freelance work but also having time to look at the sea, smell the flowers, listen to (and play, or even write) some different music, and generally catch up on all the good things in life that we’ve been too busy to appreciate for the past few years.

Watch this space for more news and pictures as things happen…

Bouncing Tosca — urban myth?

January 17, 2011

Anyone who works in opera dreads the moment when a non-operatic person says ‘I know a good story…’ and it always turns out to be the one about the time when Tosca did her suicide leap from the battlements at the end of Puccini’s opera, only to reappear to the audience’s sight as she bounced up again on a trampoline.

This is re-told in so many books of musical and operatic anecdotes, without attribution, that one naturally assumes it is an urban legend (along with the elephants falling through the stage in Aïda, or that awful pidgin-English synopsis of Carmen).

However… the other day, I met a distinguished gentleman (while waiting for the long-delayed start of the dress rehearsal of The Barber of Seville at the Royal Opera House – but that’s another story).  He started telling me his Tosca story, and my heart sank… until he said he had actually been there.  Heaven knows when it was – 1950s, I’d guess – but it was at the Vienna State Opera, the Tosca in question was soprano Ljuba Welitsch (‘not a small lady’) and the conductor was Herbert von Karajan (‘who was not at all amused’).  Whether it was a natural bounce or some disaffected person had substituted a trampoline for the regular pile of mattresses, history does not relate.

So now you know.  Next time someone starts telling you the old Tosca story, you can say, ‘Yes, I know.  It was…’

Berlioz — Grande Messe des Morts

October 11, 2010

Berlioz Grande Messe des Morts, Barbican Hall, Saturday 9 October 2010;  Crouch End Festival Chorus conducted by David Temple 

I played the Grande Messe des Morts with Cambridge University Music Society (in Ely Cathedral, circa 1970), so have always loved this amazing work (and the 3rd bassoon part is engraved on my brain forever).  And Diana is a Berlioz scholar (PhD) and member of the Berlioz Society, so how could we miss it.

 Conductor David Temple — despite his alarming resemblance to Alan Titchmarsh — did a great job.  He didn’t really conduct anyone except the choir, but the performance held together and the effect was overwhelming.  The Crouch End Festival Chorus delivered brilliantly — intonation, attack, energy, keeping pitch, dynamic contrasts, getting the words across, even synchronised sits and stands — all absolutely fine.  (Special bravas to the two lady tenors…)  The orchestra was the London Orchestra da Camera, which was a bit of a mystery — supposedly ‘ the country’s most talented freelance professional musicians’, but apart from the leader, John Bradbury (very fine), I didn’t recognize any of the names or faces.  They played really well — sonorous and in tune — though they could have done with more cellos and basses (6 and 4 not enough for this piece) and occasionally felt as if they could have done with more rehearsal too.  But they gave a magnificent performance.

 Tenor Robert Murray (a former Jette Parker Young Artist at the Royal Opera House) was, well, quite divine in the Sanctus, his voice floating effortlessly over the assembled company (from his position behind the orchestra but in front of the choir — a good solution).

 Slightly taken aback by the dress code — gents of the orchestra in full white tie and tails, ladies in workaday all-black (mostly trousers), choir all in black.  Conductor in a black bin liner worn outside his trousers* (an unflattering fashion also affected by Tony Pappano at the ROH).

 And I haven’t even begun to enumerate all the things that are so extraordinary about the piece.  It has been described as ‘really an opera’, like the Verdi Requiem – but it’s also an experimental laboratory of orchestration (chords on three flutes accompanied by trombone pedal notes?  Two cors anglais?  Six pairs of timpani?  Not to mention those four brass bands up in the balcony — I defy anyone to hear it live and not have shivers up your spine, if not a lump in your throat and tears in your eyes.  What an extraordinary composer.)  Well, just get hold of the Colin Davis recording and hear for yourself!

 (Once upon a time I was involved in a TV recording of the Berlioz Requiem with Leonard Bernstein at Les Invalides in Paris (Napoleon’s resting place), the venue for which the work was composed.  Just thought I’d drop that in.  Now THAT was absolutely amazing.)

 Many thanks to the Berlioz Society for our excellently placed seats.  Would be interesting to hear from anyone else who was there?  Didn’t spot many familiar faces among the (not full) audience.

 If your own orchestra or choir ever gets an invitation to perform this piece, don’t hesitate!  As I recall from a hundred years ago, it’s great fun to play as well as to listen to.  And Berlioz writes for four bassoons, so he has got to be a good thing.

* For elucidation:  David Temple actually wore an open-necked black shirt outside his trousers.  Tony Pappano sports an oversize collarless black shirt for which my boss coined the pejorative (but graphic) description ‘black bin liner’.  Comfortable, perhaps — but a disconcerting sight at recent concert performances of Les pecheurs de perles when the entire ROH chorus as well as the orchestra and soloists were in full evening dress.

Gerald Barry / Thomas Ades / LSO

June 8, 2010

Extraordinary concert at the Barbican on Sunday night (6 June) – Thomas Adès conducting the LSO.  First, his orchestral work …and all shall be well, inspired by the familiar mantric words of Julian of Norwich.  Superficially simple and tonal, with instruments doodling up and down scales – but strange smeary things were happening en route in a particularly Adès-ian way.  And a glittering final chord with a high major third floating on top – Aha!   Stravinsky Symphony of Psalms, I thought to myself.  And I knew that if you had said this to Adès he would have replied ‘Any fool can hear that’.

I have not always been convinced by his music, but he certainly has immense gifts and a distinctive voice.

Then a major (over-long) pause for platform rearrangement – and the fun of watching a second Steinway come up in the magic Barbican lift.  Zoltán Kocsis played Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 1 from 1926 – very bristly and percussive.  The featured timps and percussion were brought to the front of the stage (Kocsis’s idea or Adès’s?), thus enabling us to see every detail of Bartók’s demands for different sticks, different ways of hitting a suspended cymbal, and so on.  Just a pity that the lady playing tam-tam was hidden behind the piano and largely inaudible.

The performance was not quite successful:  because of the layout, woodwind and strings seemed somewhat muffled, and ensemble was very rocky at times (better in the morning rehearsal, I have to say).

After the interval, a little Adès showpiece – These premises are alarmed;  more lovely sounds, though as by now I was sitting in my ‘box’ it was hard to hear.

Then the UK premiere of Irish composer Gerald Barry’s one-act ‘opera’, La plus forte (The Stronger), a setting of a Strindberg play translated from Swedish into French (because it was originally commissioned by Radio France) and performed with English surtitles – which is where I came in.  Because of various complications I won’t go into here, I was sight-reading the score on no rehearsal, so things were a bit hairy for me.  But in fact Gerald Barry’s score is so clear and clean, and soprano Barbara Hannigan’s amazing singing is so direct and precise, that I had no difficulty following.  Phew!  She was extraordinary – every note, however stratospheric, exactly in place (even after unaccompanied silent bars!), immaculate French (she is Canadian), and apparently (I couldn’t see much from where I was) brilliantly subtle ‘acting’ in the role of the increasingly neurotic wife who gradually realises that her silent café companion has had an affair with her husband.  (And we loved her appropriately over-exuberant frock and hat.)

Gerald Barry’s music has flummoxed me in the past – I’ve tended to think ‘It will be all right when he’s put the expression marks in’;  very aggressive, few slurs, sometimes very loud, lots of unisons and sforzandos, much machine-like repetition.  But once I had got my ear in, the music was just right for this piece, conveying all levels of expression from calm to watchfulness to nervous tension, playfulness, hysteria, rage, and even belly-laugh humour at times.

And finally, three dances from Adès’s early opera Powder Her Face, full of the student exuberance of youth – plenty of pastiche and fun and games – but showing a composer already completely in control of his fertile imagination.  And, not incidentally, showing himself these days a conductor completely in control of his players (who were having a whale of a time).

What a great Prom programme the whole concert would make!  BBC please take note (if you haven’t already).

Diana’s comment was that the liberating, ear-opening thrill of the whole concert, and particularly the Barry, must have been equivalent to the effect on its first audience of , say, Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique;  marvelling at sounds, colours, effects and all sorts of things that music could do that one would never have imagined to be possible.

As I said – an extraordinary concert.

photo of Barbara Hanningan (c) Marco Borggreve

The Orchestra of St Paul’s…

April 26, 2010

…at St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden, yesterday (Sunday 25 April 2010), conducted by Ben Palmer.

The concert began with the overture to Mozart’s Don Giovanni, beginning with a riskily fast tempo for the ‘slow’ introduction – the spooky music for the arrival of the statue of the dead Commendatore at Don Giovanni’s supper table;  but Ben Palmer knew what he was doing, and it worked.  The ensuing Allegro was a bit of a scrabble, the strings not quite in tune yet, the trumpets and timpani drowning everything out at their entries in the echoey acoustic of St Paul’s.  (Solution?  Harder timp sticks?  Just mark all their dynamics down a bit?  Make each entry a very quick diminuendo from a fortepiano?  Shame, as the ‘straight’ natural trumpets made a great sound, as well as looking terrific.) 

And the Overture ended with an awkward and stylistically out-of-kilter concert ending (necessary because in the opera itself the Overture doesn’t ‘finish’ but segues into the first scene in a different key).  Nul points to whichever publisher perpetrated that one – there are much simpler solutions that work fine.

Next came the reason we were there – my niece Rosie Burton playing the Hummel Bassoon Concerto.  There is something of a shortage of decent bassoon concertos (well, if you don’t count the 36 or so by Vivaldi, and one that probably isn’t by Rossini); the teenage Mozart wrote one, which is famous because it is by Mozart but is really not up to much (though you wonder what the other half-dozen or so he is alleged to have written might have been like).  Weber wrote the greatest of all, in 1811;  and that’s about it, apart from a few modern ones.  No Beethoven, Brahms Dvořák or Elgar… And then there’s Johann Nepomuk Hummel. He was an interesting chap – student (and lodger) of Mozart, pupil of Haydn and Beethoven, wrote some fine (and very jolly) chamber music, including the wittiest Wind Octet ever written;  and he wrote his Grand Concerto for Bassoon in 1805.  It isn’t heard very often, because it is VERY difficult:  not only is there lots of whizzing about in semiquavers, but the writing is awkward and un-bassoony – double octaves, huge skips and ever-widening arpeggio patterns – so the piece is even harder than it sounds.

Rosie did a fantastic job, performing with note-perfect accuracy, style, polish and fun, and above all with a gorgeous sound:  warm, rich tone, smooth and nutty, and totally under control at all times.  I am very envious! – and very proud.

After the interval, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 in D – an ‘early’ work that isn’t heard as often as it should be or used to be. Ben Palmer once again went for broke in his daringly fast tempi, but they paid off.  And this time the stabs of trumpets and timpani were perfectly judged, providing Beethovenian ‘punctuation’ with point and clarity but never drowning the rest of the band. 

The gently lilting ‘slow’ movement was refreshing – special praise for Tom Hardy on bassoon, along with the other woodwind principals – though I would have preferred just a little more room to breathe for the bouncy cello theme:  the tempo is Larghetto, after all. 

Conversely, the Scherzo felt as if it could have done with being even quicker.  But it made its Beethovenian mark, especially the moment in the Trio when the unison strings say ‘We’re going to play in F sharp major now’ and the rest of the orchestra says ‘Oh no you’re not!’

The Finale was an absolute rocket, and brilliantly effective.  Occasionally it seemed to totter on the verge of rushing out of control, but never quite did.  Ben Palmer captured perfectly Beethoven’s shock tactics and rough wit in the handling of the opening ‘yah boo’ motive, and conversely the hushed moment in the Coda when pizzicato cellos and basses step down and down into new harmonic realms, ‘as if’, in the words of Sir George Grove quoted by my brother Tony in his programme note, ‘we had passed through a door and were in a new enchanted world’.

Talking of which, one small disappointment was the presence of just one double bass – who was, however, always rock solid and perfectly audible;  but even with a small orchestra one surely needs two or three basses, especially as Beethoven himself apparently preferred to have more basses than cellos. 

Nevertheless, this was the most exciting and compelling performance of Beethoven 2 I have heard in a long time, or possibly ever;  by this time the orchestra was perfectly in focus and in full steam, and Ben Palmer brought it to life and made sense of the piece in ways I had certainly never heard before.  Great concert.

more about the orchestra on their website: http://www.orchestraofstpauls.co.uk/

Philip Langridge CBE (1939-2010)

March 8, 2010

Another sad piece of news – the passing of Philip Langridge. A wonderful, intelligent English tenor, with a distinctive voice, great musicality and a huge range of repertoire (BBC Radio 3 marked his passing with ‘Comfort ye / Every valley’ from Handel’s Messiah – beautifully sung of course, and repertoire I had never associated with him before. How typical).

Probably my earliest memory of him is as Tom Rakewell in a student production of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress in Cambridge, probably in 1969 or 70.  (The conductor was Antony Beaumont, director David Pountney, harpsichordist Mark Elder.)   Besides Philip’s voice, I remember his cream-and-brown ‘co-respondent’ shoes (it was a modern dress production).

All I ever want is to be true to the piece, the words and the character; to the whole thing, its meaning and so on. When we are true to what we do that is what makes great art. If you try and nudge it in a certain way to try and make it better for you or make you more famous then that’s boring. The public are not stupid and they may not have studied many hours what you are performing – some have, but many haven’t – but you can always tell when somebody means something and when they don’t.

Communication is also an important thing and if we do not communicate what we are doing – or what the music is doing – what is there left?
[from the interview referred to below]

Modest, unassuming, never a diva, always ready with a smile and a friendly word – Philip was one of music’s gentlemen.  I am proud to have worked with him at Glyndebourne, ENO and the Royal Opera. In the ground-breaking production of Janáček’s Osud at ENO he gave a harrowing performance as the composer Zivny, playing the tricky onstage piano part himself. With his wife Ann Murray he made a memorable double-act in Berlioz’s Beatrice and Benedict at ENO.

I treasure his recordings of Britten and Tippett and others, and memories of live performances including Schubert’s Winterreise at Blackheath Halls (with David Owen Norris). I also treasure the postcard he sent me from Aldeburgh (a watery watercolour scene with ‘Dawn’ from Britten’s Sea Interludes in a stave across the sky) in response to my congratulations on his CBE in 1994.

Energetic to the end, he could be seen leaping around the stage as Loge in Wagner’s Ring, or in more sedate (but vocally demanding) roles in Berg’s Lulu or Birtwistle’s The Minotaur.  Ever ready to learn new or unfamiliar music, at the age of 70 it seemed he would go on for ever.

Farewell, Philip.  And thank you for the music.

Deepest condolences to his wife Ann Murray, and his children including Anita and Stephen.

Obituary by Barry Millington here:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2010/mar/07/philip-langridge-obituary

and a nice interview with Philip:

http://www.musicweb-international.com/SandH/2009/jan-jun09/langridge_interview.htm

Reed Rage bassoon quartet

February 23, 2010

Definition: Reed Rage. An affliction commonly found in double reed players, especially bassoonists. Less serious than Reed Neurosis suffered by oboe players. It involves leaping up and down on reeds that don’t work or stabbing them into music stands…

 So… way back in October, we turned out to the wilds of Hampstead for a concert by REED RAGE, a brand new bassoon quartet which just happens to have my niece Rosie in it…

 More about them, and biographies of the four players (and their instruments), from their website – a very swish production which I suspect Tom had a hand in:

 http://www.reedrage.co.uk

 They are Rosie Burton, Alex Davidson, Llinos Owen and Tom Hardy.  The occasion was organised by Hugh Rosenbaum, who hovered over the proceedings like a benevolent but slightly anxious mother hen (and wrote a glowing review for Double Reed News afterwards! – Issue 89, Winter 2009, page 33).  The tiny room at Burgh House was packed to the rafters, and extra chairs had to be sent for to accommodate all the bassoonists, pupils, relations, friends and other interested parties who were eager to squeeze in.

The three girls are all alumnae of the Southbank Sinfonia, and Tom is a veteran of – well, lots of things.  Each of the four had a terrific, characterful sound, and as a quartet their blend, unanimity of attack, discipline and intonation were a joy.  Most of the contra duties fell to Tom, although Alex’s Big Bertha got a look in too.

The programme managed to avoid the usual bassoon quartet chestnuts (though it would have been nice to hear Alan Ridout’s Pigs played really well) and instead gave us wide-ranging repertoire, from Senaillé and Fucik to Prokofiev, Stravinsky and beyond, mostly in arrangements – the arrangers including Boris Turner (a.k.a. Rosie Burton), Graham Sheen, and Andrew Skirrow (who turned out to be an old chum of Tom’s).

The concert also included the European premiere of Dance of the Polar Bears by Gernot Wolfgang, enterprisingly commissioned by a consortium (including Hugh Rosenbaum) from this highly regarded Austrian-born composer, who currently lives in Los Angeles.

It was concentrated, jazzy and lots of fun – and very difficult (as I know from having taken part in the first UK read-through… but that’s another story).  Some of the audience thought it perhaps outstayed its welcome;  I was too busy listening to notice.

The programme concluded with The Lone Arranger by Philip R Buttall;  we were invited to count the number of quotations from familiar works that crept in along the way.  I’ve forgotten the answer…

But the highlight for me was probably Andrew Skirrow’s arrangement of The Poacher (which tickled Hugh Rosenbaum, as he had laid on Lincolnshire Poacher cheese for the interval – and very nice it was too). 

 Here is an audio clip, courtesy of Tom:

[click on the arrow — and wind the volume up to max…] 

The point of writing this review now – four months after the event – is that Reed Rage has unfortunately been in abeyance since Llinos was involved in a rather nasty car accident.  We’re glad to hear she has completely recovered, and wish her well;  meanwhile, Reed Rage are gearing up for another evening of delights – so watch (and listen to) this space…

 Thanks to Tom for the invitation to write this piece, and for the audio clip.  And to the Reed Rage website for the picture.