Thursday, 16 March 2017

Carolyn Sampson: in song and on stage

As regular readers (thank you, darlings, thank you) will know, there are certain artists I try to champion whenever possible on this blog. And in some cases, it can be agonising to miss an opportunity to do so, through not being able to make a particular run of performances, or catch a local enough gig. So it was sheer pleasure to have the chance to see and hear one of my favourite singers, Carolyn Sampson, not once, but twice in a single week - in very different contexts - and be reminded all over again of both her brilliance and versatility.

We begin on a gratuitous Monday off work, at the Wigmore Hall lunchtime concert. Accompanying CS was lutenist Matthew Wadsworth. They are longtime recital partners, and to my shame I'd only come across MW's playing previously on a Wigmore live disc the duo had released some time ago. The programme for this concert was a lovely exercise in balance: to begin with, it presented the artists very much as equals, with MW performing several instrumental pieces solo. It also mixed old - 'usual suspects' Dowland and Purcell bookended the gig - and new. Brand new, in fact, as MW gave the world premiere of a charming new suite of pieces for theorbo, 'The Miller's Tale', composed by Stephen Goss. (For those unfamiliar, the theorbo is the giraffe of the string instrument family - lute-like body, but with a long neck rising well above the player's shoulder: extra strings to provide more bass.)

Bridging ancient and modern, at the centre of the recital, were three of Britten's folk song settings. Just as Stephen Goss tuned his guitar like a theorbo to compose the new pieces, Britten's arrangements are more often heard on the modern instrument, but here were rendered beautifully on MW's theorbo, eliding two eras seamlessly, as if we were suspended in a unique time and space just for that hour in the auditorium.

CS is absolutely in her element with this material. While the pristine beauty of the voice is in evidence throughout, her ability to communicate the spirit of each song makes her superb to watch as well as listen to. Thanks to her sensitive but never over-serious approach, it's a thrill-ride to be transported from a tender heartbreaker to one of the more cheerful and somewhat bawdier choices - performed with a customary flirtatious brio that hopefully didn't accelerate too many pacemakers in the Wigmore or Radio 3 audiences!

I was in two minds about mentioning this - in terms of his performance, it should be irrelevant - but I'll go ahead. MW is blind. While this makes me admire his abilities all the more (for example, my mind boggles at the effort that must be involved receiving and learning a new premiere score), it also illuminates the generosity and attentiveness they must both possess to work as a duo. So often, the singer is seen as 'leader' and the accompanist tends to be the one visibly 'following' - but here, the exchange seems far more mutual, even telepathic, with MW clearly listening for breathing and movement at a level I could no doubt barely imagine, and CS watching his every move. I actually felt privileged to watch: what might have been an 'obstacle', something to be overcome, in fact results in a next-level partnership, something to aspire to.

Fast forward to the end of the week, to an event I had been looking forward to for months. CS was singing Melisande in Scottish Opera's production of Debussy's 'Pelléas et Mélisande' - and we had decided to treat ourselves and make a special trip to see it in Edinburgh (where Mrs Specs also has People, conveniently enough). The pilgrimage was made even more worthwhile by the opportunity to hear the marvellous bass Alastair Miles again, after seeing his extraordinary performance as Claggart in Opera North's 'Billy Budd' last year.

[Slight spoiler alert: the run of 'P&M' has now finished, so I will be mentioning below some features of the staging, simply so I can talk about how haunting and clever I found it. You have been warned!]

As one might expect from a story that attracted Debussy, 'P&M' is an elusive, mysterious tale. I won't try to summarise every detail, but in brief: Prince Golaud - grandson of King Arkel of Allemonde - loses his bearings while hunting, and stumbles upon a lost young woman, Mélisande. She shows signs of escaping abuse from her former life (initially she won't let Golaud near her), but he is besotted and takes her with him. They marry. However, Golaud's half-brother, Pelléas is also staying at the castle, as his father is ill. Pelléas and Mélisande spend time together and become close. While Pelléas seems to fall more openly in love - arranging 'final' meetings of great import and making overtures to Mélisande beneath her window - she seems to reciprocate but holds something of herself in reserve. Meanwhile, Golaud's jealousy intensifies from spying to violent rage (dragging the pregnant Mélisande across the floor). Interrupting the tryst where Mélisande finally admits her love for Pelléas, Golaud kills his half-brother. Shortly after giving birth, Mélisande also dies (even though she is barely injured), with Golaud still torn between believing her faithful and pressing her to admit her guilt.

Trying to outline the plot in this way inevitably means passing over the opera's rich symbolism and ethereal approach to storytelling and 'reality'. Its events feel cumulative - we're aware of time passing and unseen exchanges between, and sometimes during, the acts - and we build our overall picture from what can feel like impressionistic scenes. This sense of 'disconnect' allows the characters to remain unpredictable throughout, their feelings and motives sometimes shifting, never letting us fully second-guess their intentions.

Here the performers really came into their own. CS was a revelation (I had never seen her in a fully-staged opera before). Her ability to convey lightning mood changes and complexities of character - so useful in song recitals when a protagonist's fortunes vary wildly from verse to verse! - made her an ideal Mélisande. It felt like we could simultaneously read her mind, yet never truly know her. She was especially hypnotic to watch during the scene, when - during a lighter-hearted exchange with Pelléas - Mélisande loses her wedding ring in a well. As you'd expect, we saw shock and regret, but also a half-smile as if the loss could fleetingly represent a release or escape. CS also gave us a Mélisande who could really move: sliding and balancing across beds or benches in the early scenes with an agile grace, she seemed of nature, of the forest - which I'll come back to shortly. And whatever the physical demands of the role - including leaning upside down from a window having her hair pulled - her singing never left perfection-level.

(A stunning Scottish Opera production photo, credit Richard Campbell.)

The rest of the cast also shone. Like CS, whose purity of voice can also carry a hint of more earthly, sensual sparkle when needed, each singer was a skilfully-cast tonal match for their role. I've already mentioned Alastair Miles, his warm bass emphasising Arkel's sympathy and stability amid the slow-motion chaos around him. Again, he gave a lower-key, but intensely physical performance. Arkel's literal blindness constrained AM's gestures but he was able to demonstrate the irony that, while the old man must gently lean on others for actual support, he is the one who so often provides it. Andrei Bondarenko fleshed out Pelléas admirably, his flexible baritone capturing the character's mix of assumed gravitas, blurred motives and sometimes perplexing diffidence. And Roland Wood gave a searing performance as Golaud, knotted up with relentless anguish, directing his rage inward as much as out towards his wife and half-brother.

The uniformly fine performances extended to Scottish Opera's Orchestra, conducted by their music director Stuart Stratford. In their hands, Debussy's score - which I am probably the 6,275th person to describe as 'ravishing' - waxed and waned like a kind of ceaseless, shimmering mélodie, somehow finding a way of dramatising constant change: not just the trademark water, but beneath human surfaces, shifting emotions and loyalties.

This brings me on to the staging - directed by Sir David McVicar, who must share a great deal of the credit with Rae Smith (design) and Paule Constable (lighting). The essential appearance of the background and characters takes its cue from the paintings of Danish artist Hammershoi. From the very start, we see both trees - to the left - with walls / panels centre and right, as if somehow the forest and castle are already merging. Golaud stands with his sword, a little distance from a bed where Mélisande lies. However, he - the interior in turmoil - is lost on the forest side, while she - apparently 'of' the forest, is already seemingly trapped, attached to the furniture. As the action progresses, nature starts to gain the upper hand - more and more trees 'grow' across the stage, and the caves, pools and wells spring up within the rooms.

I found this fascinating on several levels. The extraordinary lighting and set design placed the characters in a constant shadow world, whether light or dark, mirroring their emotional repression. As each scene ended, the curtains closed in from left, right and above, heightening the claustrophobic atmosphere. The overlap between interior and exterior seemed a carefully thought-through and - appropriately enough - watertight metaphor for what can be said and acted upon, and what can't. Mélisande, who once might have been a literal 'free spirit', has clearly suffered in the past, and the clearest symbol of that unrestrained nature, her hair, becomes a tool for abuse - not just from Golaud, who grabs it to drag her across the floor, but from Pelléas, who in his love seeks to entrap and control her, binding her tresses not only to himself, but to the tree by her window.

The production ends on a truly breathtaking coup de théâtre: as Mélisande fades away on her deathbed, surrounded by doctor and servants in a room full of trees, the folk onstage recede and some of the trunks lift off gently into the air. Mélisande has brought nature, the outside world, into the castle, and it will leave with her. However, stage left, Golaud's young son hands him his sword, and leaves. We realise that the two are left alone onstage, exactly as we first saw them: Golaud in identical pose by the few remaining trees, and Mélisande in the same bed. So many thoughts crowded my head as I reeled from this - it felt at once like a heart-rending reminder of the cycle of abuse that men can visit upon women; it seemed to symbolise our ongoing violence against nature (personified by Mélisande), that whenever we come into contact with it, we try to overpower, crush and ultimately ruin it... let alone the fact that it was simply a glorious visual idea, alive with intelligence and imagination, a refresh and repeat for the eyes that matched the motifs and patterns already bewitching our ears.


So often I have to write about past glories on the blog, but as long as you can access BBC's iPlayer Radio, you can hear both of these performances. For the Wigmore Hall concert, go to this link - at the time of writing, there are 25 days left to listen.

'Pelléas et Mélisande' was recorded during the Glasgow run and will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Saturday 25 March. After that, it will live for another 30 days on iPlayer Radio. Don't miss!

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Song journeys at Wigmore Hall

I realise that I'm very lucky to be able to say this - but I've enjoyed a run of activity lately which, once you factor in all the other work/life stuff, has meant that I've been to see and hear things faster than I've been able to write them up. I'm conscious there's a bit of a backlog building... so please forgive me if I go back in time a few weeks or so to tell you about a couple of great concerts I heard at the Wigmore Hall.

Both were song recitals, both shorter programmes performed without intervals, and both featured the same pianist, Gary Matthewman. That aside, though (and this is testament to GM's versatility), the experiences could not have been more different.

The first was a highly unconventional performance of Schubert's great song cycle 'Winterreise', with bass Matthew Rose in the lovelorn wanderer role. MR and GM have already released their interpretation of 'Winterreise' on disc - a desirable artefact, not just because it's such a sensitive recording, but also a beautiful object in itself. I mention this because, live, the rendition gained an extra dimension as the duo collaborated with artist Victoria Crowe (whose paintings adorn the CD package) and designer/video-maker Kenneth Gray to create an animated film that played 'in sync' throughout the entire 70-odd minutes of the cycle's duration.

I've never seen anything like this at the Wigmore. It's amazing how we just become used to song recitals running in a certain way - singer in the centre, pianist a little to the left, lights left up a little so we can choose to bury our heads in the song text... Not this time. We were in near-darkness, the performers right over to the side of the stage to give us the clearest view possible of the visuals. Although I've reached a point where I know 'Winterreise' quite well now, I wouldn't say I had anything like a complete translation lodged in my brain. But this offered a totally new way to experience it - the music guides you through the emotional twists and turns of the story, as you lose yourself in the perfectly timed images.

I've thought Matthew Rose superbly convincing in any setting I've encountered him in - recital, sacred music or opera: most recently, he shone as a highly complex, hilarious yet vulnerable Ochs in the recent Royal Opera House 'Rosenkavalier'. However, he does not 'grandstand' as a performer, immersing himself wholly to produce exactly what's needed in service of the piece, or role. Here, he was all but invisible to the audience, allowing us to focus on his voice alone, strangely 'disembodied' in these conditions. But - and I may be alone in this - there is something about listening to 'Winterreise' for the bass voice. Somewhere, when it is sung and played 'higher up', it feels like it lets in more air, but something about the combination of the 'wide', rich lower notes seems to increase the intensity for me - a more dense, claustrophobic sound. MR was truly impassioned, articulating every mood swing and providing the most chilling, resoundingly terrifying close to the cycle I've heard to date. Experimental, then, but utterly sure-footed: a confident step forward into a new way of hearing - and seeing - an established classic.

Fast forward to a few days later, and a Sunday afternoon recital with GM accompanying soprano Louise Alder. This was the kind of gig where a personality lights up a room. Here's the programme (apologies for the authentic 'on-the-train-home' bendiness of the photo - it's as if you're actually there!):

After hearing LA for this all-too-brief hour, I could have happily sat there and kept listening for the rest of the day. Clearly, the selections were calibrated and balanced for maximum delight. Seasoned Specs readers may not be surprised to learn that the Debussy songs were my personal highlight, but part of the concert's overall joy was being carried through this range of fascinating material in such pleasurable company.

In contrast to the wanderer in 'Winterreise', locked into perhaps permanent, frost-bitten darkness - in Louise Alder's programme, we broadly edged our way into the light. From Sibelius's 'Nordic noir', through Larkin's grey repression captured in gripping settings by Huw Watkins, we travel through Debussy's ever-elusive middle ground into the colourful, characterful songs of operatic titans Puccini and Verdi.

LA is a member of Frankfurt's Opera Ensemble, so it's perhaps no wonder that, while her shining tone effortlessly resounded across the Wigmore acoustic throughout, she brought her acting skills to bear on every number, upbeat or downcast. Visibly adjusting her persona between songs, and even verses - she made each selection its own mini-drama. The sequence allowed for more light-hearted antics towards the recital's close, and sent us out into the afternoon in buoyant mood.

It's also no surprise that LA is currently a finalist for the 2017 Opera Awards 'Young Singer', as well as this year's Cardiff Singer of the World. Best of luck to her in both, and we should only hear more and more of her - thank goodness.

Saturday, 25 February 2017


Something new for the Specs blog, I think - I've just discovered* (*made up) a completely new branch of aural science: one can but hope that the product of such searingly incisive new thought might be a PhD, or perhaps a Nobel. A knighthood, even...? Who knows?

Anyway. Introducing 'acaustics'. First and foremost, it's clearly a pun. Second, it's my name for a particularly peculiar, perplexing phenomenon. Namely, the First Law of Acaustics: that intrusive, disruptive noise made inside a concert hall is always loud enough to compete with the sounds you're actually there to hear.

I started thinking about this a short while back, after attending a series of gigs (different music, different venues) where the coughing in the audience seemed especially bad - like the bug was following me around, but with everyone in my vicinity catching it except me. Now don't get me wrong - although it sometimes winds me up a bit, I don't want to write a post about how terrible coughing in an auditorium is. Of course people sometimes need to cough. But what surprises me is the lack of attempt to stifle it. I can count on one hand the number of times I detect a muffled *ahem*. But I would need to be the Many-Handed Man of Many Hands to tot up the number of sky-ripping, gut-fraying, truly tubercular explosions I've experienced as an audience member. Why?

You could decide that all of these people - all of them, everywhere, independently ailing - were being thoughtless, or even vandalistic. But is that really likely? I'm wondering if in fact, it's just a poor grasp of acaustics.

My ideas on this came into focus when recently visiting the supremely enjoyable ENO production of Gilbert & Sullivan's 'The Pirates of Penzance'. Now, Mrs Specs and I had chosen to attend a Saturday matinee, so inevitably there were more kids and entire families than I would normally expect on, say, a midweek evening. But on the whole - and 'Pirates' is hardly a panto - the children were as good as gold, and I'm not the kind of showgoer who gets annoyed when little ones lean forward, or point at something excitedly, or ask a parent what's happening. I'm generally rather pleased they're there. But - and I suspect you saw that 'But' coming some time ago - the problem lay with the grown-ups (and not just those who had children with them), who thought a trip like this was basically the same as the cinema.

But it isn't. It's not a coincidence that noisy snacks and slurpy drinks are usually on sale at events which are amplified: the sound at a film or rock gig is cranked up to levels that obliterate the popcorn-munching and straw-sucking more or less completely. I'm still slightly surprised at the need some people have to undergo a full-on dining experience at the movies, and I rather feel that the word 'Technicolour' was originally coined to refer to kiosk-assembled nachos before it caught on to describe the films themselves. But at least I can see and hear them.

In a concert hall, which by definition should be constructed to enhance sound made entirely without amplification, it's every noise for itself. This, I think, goes some way to explaining why it's so often classical music fans that moan about this kind of thing, unwittingly fuelling the fire of the terminally dull 'elitism' debate.

However - at various points during 'Pirates', I was also treated to these extra audio enhancements:
  • A bloke breaking open a packet of posh crisps - yes, crisps - a few seats along, and - brilliantly - moving each tasty potato snack towards his mouth very slowly, as if his arm was the problem - then crunching down on it with maximum force anyway. He was sharing the bag with his companion (now that's a stingy date, eh, ladies?), forcing her to rummage among the surviving crisps for her portion.
  • A group of girls a couple of rows behind us rustling sweet wrappers for an entire scene. A quick glance back seemed to confirm that they had bags of Haribo large enough to keep them going through the whole of Wagner's Ring Cycle but, being kids, had actually put the whole lot away in record time. I can only assume that they were insensible on E-numbers for the rest of the show.
  • A dad who, weirdly, seemed to have bought a ticket too many, so sat himself a seat's distance away from his kids - possibly to give them a sense of slightly grown-up independence. Which might make sense, except he kept leaning across the unnecessarily long distance to stage-whisper things at them, his comments wafting up to us in a kind of blurred 'schschschsch'. Pleasingly, the children looked rather irritated by this, with 'DAD WE'RE TRYING TO WATCH THE OPERA' written all over their faces.
Again, it's very tempting to fall into the 'I'm surrounded by idiots!' trap, but I find it hard to believe that all of these folk are just rotters. It does flummox me when people can spend an entire interval chatting only to start laying out some kind of picnic or flinging their bags and clothes around once the music starts up again.

But this is no doubt all due to the Second Law of Acaustics: that those making the noise are, themselves, unable to detect other acaustic phenomena. Does a serial talker ever get annoyed by someone else's sweet wrapper? Apparently not. I am genuinely fascinated by this kind of 'hive mind' journey towards a listening experience being somehow not enough in itself: that it isn't a proper occasion unless, ironically, you've made it a little more like your front room, with the attendant discussion over snacks.

At the recent Music into Words conference I took part in, Kate Romano spoke fascinatingly about the more fractured way we 'consume' music these days and whether that could feed into programming. I certainly think there's important work ahead in allowing people to absolutely 'be themselves' at concerts and they should not be intimidated into staying away while the rest of us sit in serene, immobile attendance. One example that instantly springs to mind is Wigmore Hall's concerts specifically for kids, or for carers and their patients. But more than that, multi-genre gigs in a relaxed environment, where people's expectations are managed and more audience freedom encouraged, would be a wonderful way to break down barriers, not just between audiences, but in the music itself.

In the meantime, though, I cling to my suspicion that ignorance of acaustics - which is, as you know, a very new field - is all that prevents wilfully noisy audience members from realising the level of disturbance they currently create. If any of you believe you suffer from this affliction, please feel free to consult me for further information. I'm extremely reasonable.

Monday, 20 February 2017

Music into Words 2: Write-minded people...

At the Music into Words conference a week ago, I had the pleasure of meeting and listening to some brilliant people, speaking about our shared obsessions: music itself, and the joys and traumas we encounter when we write about it.

As I've mentioned before, I was asked to be on the panel this time. I was a little nervous about this. Writing about music was one thing, but speaking (publicly) about it? - that was new. But this was far outweighed by how pleased I was to be taking part, and the realisation that I did, in fact, have a few things I wanted to say.

The afternoon was split into two sessions: part one had a broadly 'generalist' flavour.

Tom Hammond - a conductor and artistic director - gave us a performer's perspective, pointing out that online music writing could help provide a service that the more traditional media often can't: covering events held outside the major cities (especially London), or given by artists who might not be in the major glare of the spotlight but should be more widely known. You only have to look at Tom's schedule to see the enticing variety of more local concerts he's involved in. I saw Tom's talk as something of a wake-up call - I certainly stick very close to London venues (largely a necessity in evenings after work), but perhaps at weekends I could roam more?

Visit Tom's website.

Katy Hamilton - a music writer and presenter - spoke about the art of programme notes, and the need for narrative/storytelling when preparing listeners and audiences for what they are about to hear - sometimes extremely swiftly, and under a brutal word limit. This talk chimed with me particularly because it felt like the professional version of what sometimes goes through my mind when starting a post: what is it I really need to tell people, and how? Of course, I have as many words as I want - Katy manages it much more concisely and elegantly - as you'll discover if you read her excellent blog.

Visit Katy's website.

I spoke third (and last) in the first session. You've obviously found my virtual home already, but if you'd like to read the talk I gave about amateur blogging, go to my previous post, here.

[Here you can see Frances Wilson, giving the welcome, then left to right: the seat shortly to contain Ian Pace, Leah Broad, Neil Fisher, Katy Hamilton, Simon Brackenborough (chairing), Peter Donohoe, Kate Romano, Tom Hammond, me (furiously editing my talk up to the last minute, by the looks of things). Thank you to Mary Grace Nguyen for the great photo - I recommend to you Mary's blog Trendfem, which you can find here.]

The second half of the conference had a more academic focus.

Leah Broad - currently researching music and theatre at Oxford - spoke about exactly that, alerting us to the tantalising canon of music written for theatre that's barely come to light (compare, say, film music, so much of which lives for ever in soundtrack albums). When I think, for example, about the new Globe Music label, which looks set to put out music composed for Globe productions, or the success of a show like 'Farinelli and the King' - it seems to me that Leah is working on exactly the right thing at exactly the right time - I can't wait to hear more of (and hopefully write about) her findings.

Visit Leah's website.

Kate Romano - musician, composer, writer, event programmer, consummate all-rounder - looked at the fascinating subject of how we 'curate' or 'use' music. She contrasted the traditional concert - a unified, focused event based on a theme or work, say - with how we actually consume music: something far more elusive and fragmentary - phrases from the radio, earworms, hearing children or neighbours practising instruments, adverts, and so on. Could this kind of listener experience be turned round to influence programming. I was rather inspired by this, as thoughts of multi-genre, multi-channel gigs pinged around my brain. Kate intends to develop these ideas further - very much looking forward to seeing, and hopefully hearing, what ensues.

Visit Kate's website.

Ian Pace - pianist and musicologist - examined the use of jargon in academic music writing. As someone who is, in a way, professionally trained to avoid jargon wherever possible, I found this intriguing. In its place - between writer and reader of equal knowledge - it can offer clarity as well as economy, but Ian drew our attention to some truly horrendous examples where densely-packed, pretentious prose bullies the unsuspecting reader into submission and only serves the ego of the author. We learned the magnificent term 'me-search' to describe such malpractice.

Visit Ian's website.

I thoroughly enjoyed giving my talk and, even more so, listening to the others - but of course, an event like this really flies when the discussions start. The questions from the audience fully used up the time available. Two illustrious guests sat on the panel with us - concert pianist Peter Donohoe and Deputy Arts Editor of The Times, Neil Fisher - and each offered frank and illuminating insights that dovetailed between our talks and the wider contributions.

As the afternoon progressed, we also had the pleasing sense of the conference rippling outwards, with the #MusicintoWords hashtag appearing in some lively Twitter exchanges - as well as a pleasing transatlantic endorsement from the eminent US critic Alex Ross.

The event could not have happened without the brilliant efforts of the organisers, Frances Wilson (The Cross Eyed Pianist) and Simon Brackenborough (Corymbus), whose own blogs are both must-follows. Frances has compiled a superb Storify compilation of the tweets surrounding the event here.

Many thanks to anyone who came along, took part, pitched into the online debates, or got involved and supported the event in any way. I understand plans are already afoot for the next one - exciting stuff! - and let's keep the conversation going in the meantime.

Monday, 13 February 2017

Music into Words 1: What Specs said...

Yesterday (Sunday 12 February), I had a fantastic time taking part in the second 'Music into Words' conference - focusing on writing about classical music - which I previewed here. It was a privilege to be part of a panel whose learning, experience and insights have given me so much to think about. As soon as possible, I'll post a follow-up piece telling you all about it - and include as many links and references as I can muster, so that you can find out more about the personalities involved and the topics covered.

In the meantime - to keep a bit of the momentum going - here is the talk I gave. (Obviously, I roamed from the script occasionally due to mild nerves and the occasional over-enthusiastic hand gesture - but this is essentially what I said.) I was there to speak about amateur blogging - how I got started, why I do it, and what I thought the whole enterprise was for... I hope you enjoy it.


Hello, everyone.

I carried out a little light self-analysis for this talk and thought hard about why I write about music… I was slightly troubled at first that words like ‘obsession’ (how I feel about music) and ‘therapy’ (how I feel about writing) came into my head.

But in fact, the way I started writing about classical music mirrors, quite closely, the way I started listening to it. I was into pop and rock at school, then in my student years widened my listening to folk, jazz, world music, electronica… Yet despite these nomadic listening habits, classical music still seemed somehow apart, a whole new universe, and I just wasn’t an astronaut.

Some of you here – if you like reading about music across a range of genres – may remember ‘Word’ magazine. It's long gone now, but it encouraged its readers to post reviews and articles on its website that the mag would cherry-pick from and publish - and I got a couple of pieces printed.

So, this was when I realised how much I enjoyed trying to put how music made me feel into words. It added another layer to a CD, or made a gig live again. I do actually write for a living, but about finance, benefits, tax and so on. While I’m sure that many of us do get quite emotional in all sorts of ways about tax, we’re not talking about the rarefied high that music can give us.

Eventually, something ‘unlocked’ and I became ‘ready’ for classical music. I had married someone who loved choral music and we began to go and hear it seriously. A friend of ours, devoted to the Proms through his three favourite things in life - grandeur, classical music, and Pimms - started getting us along to those, which in turn got me more familiar with Radio 3.

Meanwhile, in record shops like Rough Trade, I would stray into the modern composition section and hear the likes of Adams and Glass, who spoke to me instantly. Of course, it's a simplification to say a composer like Philip Glass is bound to appeal to rock fans because of riffs and repetition – but I have often been simple. I am hooked by hooks. I’m an opera nut now, not thanks to a Tosca or Traviata but the Proms performance of ‘Nixon in China’ in 2012. Then Mr Pimms suggested I 'Prom' with him at Barenboim's entire Ring Cycle in 2013 - a literal 'baptism of fire', standing at the top of the world's largest steamer, immersed in that sound... After that, there was no going back.

And it hasn’t escaped me that favourite kind of classical music – art song – appeals to me so much because I can’t help but hear it underpin all those other songs that came later. Whatever links and connections along these lines may be already obvious to anyone steeped in classical music, to someone coming from the 'rock' side, they're like a series of epiphanies. Then, finding that many of classical music's elements pushed the same buttons – that there really was no need for it to be separate – made me realise that I would end up writing about it, and in such a way that it would not have to be separate. And since I had no idea where, I decided to start my own blog.

Amateur blogging comes with pros and cons. I can write whatever I like (within libel laws) – but of course I have no ‘credentials’ – I’m aware that I back up my thoughts in a non-academic, perhaps more speculative and descriptive way; I'm learning in public. I’m not a critic, I’m a punter. As a paying customer, I tend to go only to events I expect to enjoy in the first place. So, while I am always completely honest, I never call my posts ‘reviews’. I enjoy the luxury of focusing on works and performances I like, or love, and aiming to spread some of that joy

It is hugely rewarding to be unashamedly enthusiastic and evangelical about particular artists or composers one likes. Anyone reading ‘Specs’ will know that I champion certain artists – like Jo Quail, for example. She’s a cellist who composes her own music for electric cello and loop station – her pieces build in layers that she can re-create live, in real time. She self-releases her own albums, and thanks to her 'underground' rock background, she’s as likely to be found supporting bands in an Islington goth night as she is staging her own concerts in churches and concert halls. I see her as 100% contemporary classical, but totally under the radar when it comes to labels like NMC or a a venue like the Wigmore. And these artists that fall between the cracks in the music scene, also do so in the music press, and I feel it’s up to me – us – whatever our personal causes, to get them out there to wider attention.

So… No rules! No editor! And of course, no readers – not for some time, although it’s a pleasure to see ‘Specs’ building up its audience now. It is, of course, completely Adrian-shaped - an online self-portrait. It is mostly about classical music, because I'm mostly 'about' classical music – but I also write about anything else I feel like including.

I’m comfortable with that because I think my core readership, if I have one, is ‘me’ – or at least the ‘me’ of five to ten years ago. Always looking for the ‘way into’ other music. One of the best reactions I get is when someone I might already know through a rock or folk connection feeds back on classical piece I’ve posted – ‘that sounds amazing, never heard of him/her/it but I’m checking them out after reading that’. That's always the aim.

Those here of around my vintage will remember when we had more Megastores – those huge record shops – and the classical section was often in the basement, behind glass and a closed door - maximum isolation - as if the sensitively-eared needed protection from the cacophony outside.

It worried me at one time that classical music media was at a similar remove. What was the ‘way in’? Now – seemingly when the rock press is headed for oblivion more quickly - I'm really encouraged to see BBC Music Magazine including jazz and world music in its reviews (again, reflecting programmes like 'Late Junction' on Radio 3), and Gramophone seems to be following suit. Online, it will be thanks to events like this and up to all of us, I think, to keep sharing our enthusiasms and tell each other what's out there. I’d like to think that, even in its own small and irregularly-updated way, ‘Specs’ is helping to hold the glass door open.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Key player

Writing up a recent gig at the Barbican...


To begin with, the programme was really enticing - bringing together three composers covering such a range of styles, it gave pianist Helmut Deutsch the chance to display his versatility and virtuosity. The first half was perhaps, you might think, more familiar terrain: Schumann's 12 'Kerner Lieder', which Deutsch performed with a kind of propulsive sensitivity, keeping the tone delicate but - where the songs demanded it - fast, disciplined and precise, perfectly judging the sequence's overall move into more sombre territory.

After the interval, five Duparc melodies - bringing with them rippling cascades of notes, so even and fluent that HD's fingers seemed hardly at times to touch the keys. The near-indefinable 'sway' that seems to inhabit French art song in particular was fully realised and tangible here. What a fantastic contrast, then, to close the recital with Britten's Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo: knotty, unpredictable, with the fractured beauty of Italian edifices.

It made me realise how often art song recitals are themed with perhaps more unity, and nothing wrong with that: as an audience, you stay in the same stylistic place, with perhaps a single-country programme or sometimes, of course, showcasing just one composer. Or where the mood is consistent throughout - all love songs, say. But here, we had the privilege of seeing and hearing the pianist in fully chameleonic mode, able to switch soundworlds 'before our ears': I enjoyed this performance so much that Deutsch has now become one of my 'must-hear-whenever-possible' musicians, whoever the singer he is partnering with. Accompanying him tonight, in fine voice, was tenor Jonas Kaufmann.


As a card-carrying geek when it comes to accompanists, please forgive my slightly curmudgeonly 'reverse write-up' above. I mean every word - I thought Helmut Deutsch's playing was utterly marvellous that evening, for all the reasons I outline, and I had something resembling an epiphany about him. And while most coverage of song recitals focuses on the singer - I guess the clue's in the phrase 'song recital' - and even more so when it's Jonas Kaufmann, I couldn't help being irritated by the reviews I read that seemed almost unaware there was anyone playing the piano at all. One in particular reserved about seven words for the accompanist, two of which were, obviously, 'Helmut' and 'Deutsch'.

But of course, Kaufmann is huge news - all the more so, because he is only recently back after several months' recuperation from (squeamish readers, look away now) a burst blood vessel on his vocal cords (hnnnnnnng!). I'm glad to report that although he seemed to betray signs of initial nerves - he apologised for using a tablet as a safety net, since he was recital rusty - he soon settled down and assumed complete control.

The Barbican's acoustic - sometimes a bit too good, amplifying everyone's slight tickle of the throat into a tubercular hack - will never replicate the intimacy of a Wigmore Hall gig, but it allowed JK to use his great dynamic gifts. Despite huge reserves of power, he unleashes the fury only sparingly, and performs art song with great restraint (his 'Winterreise' with HD is a good example of this on disc). In this way, he drew in the cavernous hall around him, and left the audience in raptures. The final Britten song was particularly fitting, with a glorious unaccompanied passage - exactly what you'd expect from a composer in love with his singer.

(Even for those few minutes, however, I missed Helmut Deutsch's exquisite accompaniment...)

[PS: The great portrait of Helmut Deutsch is taken from the Europa Tickets website, but I couldn't see a photographer credit anywhere.]

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Skin deep: latest visits to the ROH

Three fascinating trips to the Royal Opera House in recent weeks - although only to see two operas. One was the shatteringly powerful contemporary work 'Written on Skin', by George Benjamin, which I'll come onto below. The other was R Strauss's 'Der Rosenkavalier', which - unusually for me - I saw twice.

I know many opera and ballet fans make multiple visits in a single run, and often - particularly on the ballet front - the reason is simply to catch every cast. I confess that I don't really do this - I'm too much of a tart. I tend to go and see any given work once in any run, with the aim that I have more money available to see different operas/recitals/gigs (all genres!) and buy recordings. This situation was a bit different, though.

Two major roles in this new production of 'Rosenkavalier' - the Marschallin and Octavian - were being shared: Renée Fleming and Alice Coote for five performances, and Rachel Willis-Sørensen and Anna Stéphany for the other three. The unavoidable effect of RF's mega-stardom meant that it was much easier for Mrs Specs and I to get seats for the other cast, and were quite content to do so. However... I started to feel 'opera junkie's twitch' (well-known condition). It looked reasonably certain that this production (also playing at the Met in New York in April/May) would be RF's farewell not only to one of her signature roles, but in all likelihood to 'full' opera performances altogether. I had never seen RF in an opera before, so this was looking like my only chance. Add to that the fact that AC is one of my very favourite singers ... and my cave-in was inevitable. Solo this time, I snapped up one of the affordable tickets remaining in the 'slips'.

'Rosenkavalier' is such a rich, rewarding opera that it's hard to know where to begin when describing it. The surface layer is romantic comedy: Princess Marie-Thérése - known as the Marschallin (as wife of the absent Field Marshal) - has a young lover, Count Octavian. (Octavian is a 'trouser' role, sung by a mezzo-soprano.) One morning, their state of illicit bliss is disturbed by the arrival of Baron Ochs, a noble but somewhat coarse cousin of the Marschallin who is in town to arrange his marriage to Sophie, daughter of rich businessman Faninal. Ochs wants the Marschallin to recommend an envoy to deliver the traditional engagement token of a silver rose to Sophie on his behalf. In the meantime, in a bid to avoid discovery, Octavian has disguised himself as 'Mariandel', a maid. Unfortunately, Ochs - a compulsive womaniser - is rather taken with Mariandel and won't let 'her' escape. Amused by this, on an impulse the Marschallin suggests Octavian deliver the rose.

Ochs's visit coincides with the morning invasion of subjects looking for money and patronage, so the Marschallin gets ready to face the day. Criticising her hair and make-up team for ageing her, she has a moment of clarity about time passing and, giving in to her mood, tries to break with Octavian - telling the indignant boy that he is bound to leave her for someone younger sooner or later. It turns out to be sooner.

On delivering the rose, Octavian and Sophie fall for each other almost instantly. They are driven closer when Ochs arrives and shocks Sophie with his ill-manners. It's becoming apparent that Ochs will do extremely well financially out of the alliance, but behaves as though bestowing his nobility on the Faninals means it is him doing them the favour. Ochs is at first amused when Octavian gallantly tries to tell him Sophie loves him rather than the Baron, but when things get a little nastier Octavian accidentally grazes Ochs with his sword. Seizing his chance to get rid of the young nuisance, Ochs bawls the house down as if under attack. Octavian leaves, but begins to ensare Ochs in a trap: writing to him as 'Mariandel', he arranges a rendezvous the next evening in a dodgy tavern.

Unable to resist, Ochs meets his potential 'final fling' as planned, but after toying with him for a while, Octavian and his co-conspirators unleash hell - a woman arrives (several kids in tow) pretending to be his abandoned wife and starts creating chaos, in time for the arrival of the police - and Faninal. Caught in this most textbook of compromising positions, Ochs starts pretending Mariandel is his fiancée and denies knowing Faninal and Sophie. Deeply hurt, Faninal is overcome and ends the marriage arrangement in an instant. The Marschallin arrives, and sorts everybody out with authoritative grace - making sure Ochs removes himself from the scene with relatively little fuss, and 'releasing' Octavian to be with Sophie.

Clearly, then, the opera has good humour to spare and moments of outright farce. But it possesses a kind of stealth melancholy that increases as events develop. I'm often reminded when I see or hear a Strauss opera that he was also a masterful composer of tone poems: here the music tracks the action so closely, you almost 'absorb' - rather than merely listen - the fact that everyone is singing. From the breakneck speed of Ochs's verbose outpourings to the delicate, dovetailing melody of the famous trio performed near the end by the Marschallin, Sophie and Octavian: the orchestra is almost a second chorus, aware like Marie-Thérése that all things must pass. Strauss also has fun with deliberately different musical styles - from the love-song performed by a visiting Italian singer to the insistent ear-worm of Ochs's favourite waltz.

It's also an opera about appearances and façades: about people and things not being what they seem. The central gender 'double swap' - that a woman plays a man (Octavian) who plays a woman (Mariandel) - drives much of the comedy, but there are other identity games. Two scheming hangers-on, Annina and Valzacchi, switch allegiance at the drop of a hat and Annina assumes the disguise as Ochs's 'wife'. Much is made of Marie-Thérése and Octavian's multiple names, whether it's the titles they assume or their pet names for each other - how they act as Quinquin and his Bichette is significantly different from when they are Count Rofrano and the Marschallin. She implores him in Act I not to be 'like other men' - by the end of the opera, when he has transferred his affections to Sophie, she acknowledges that, in fact, he is just that.

This production - set when the opera was first performed (1911) rather than its 'actual' 18th century timeframe - ratchets up these elements. All of the characters' intrigues are under the watchful eyes of family portraits (including the Field Marshal right above the Princess's bedhead). Director Robert Carsen has fun emphasising the tavern's use as a den of iniquity, with both the innkeeper and house band in sympathetic drag with Octavian. The later setting also points up perhaps the final façade - that of this aristocratic breed in its entirety: Ochs's insistence on receiving payment from the bride's family (normally it's the other way round) is dramatised as a real make-or-break moment for the character, a hint of desperation behind the money-grabbing; and a final coup-de-theatre allows the young lovers to fade into darkness as a montage of the Field Marshal and his comrades falling in battle takes over the closing seconds of the opera.

I was overjoyed by all the performances, and so glad I made the effort to go to both 'versions'. It was fascinating to see the different interpretations of the two Marschallins and Octavians. I tried to watch RF as a 'neutral', and clear my mind of any potential poignant real-life echoes about 'letting go' and moving on. But she was simply a delight to see and hear - although the role fits her like a glove, the performance was alert and full of depth, in particular during Act 3 when the character must find reserves of steel to deal with Ochs when arguably at her most fragile. RWS's portrayal felt understandably a little lighter, and really shone when trying to contain her mirth at the first appearance of 'Mariandel'.

Both AC and AS worked wonders as the young Count. Perhaps fittingly, AS - performing opposite RWS - seemed a little more playful. It felt to me that with AS, the 'joke' lay in the fact of trouser roles: look - this is really a girl! - and accordingly, her Mariandel in seduction mode seemed to 'reverse out' of the drag slightly. On the other hand, with AC, the joke is 'inside' the action with Octavian its victim - her version was every inch a boy, and that boy was still there within Mariandel, convincingly 'female' one second but slightly clumsy the next, all layers present and correct.

It would be wrong to leave 'Rosenkavalier', however, without mentioning a performance which - to my mind - was part of the glue holding it all together: Matthew Rose as Ochs. It would be very natural to portray Ochs as a cartoon villain, an unbearable boor, but Rose - a performer of great sensitivity - avoids this. He allows his Ochs to deepen as the opera deepens. At the start, he is all bluff and bluster, but with an air of emptiness, the suggestion that this galactic level of self-confidence is possibly all a front. Rose's bass resounded fulsomely around the house, but his supersonic, panicky chatter as events escalated was revealing and precise. His body language gradually lost its swagger along with the character's dignity. Ochs could be presented with no redeeming features, but Rose sings and acts him into a very real, fallible and even vulnerable product of his environment - a fully three-dimensional rendition, which I hope we'll see again.

[A digression on the slips - in my case, the 'Upper Slips'. These are benches, high up at the sides. If you are thinking of coming to the opera for the first time, these seats can represent quite a bargain. Not just on price, in fact - but it's as if the house is making a bargain with you: you sacrifice some of the view - as you can see in my photo (which is on 'panorama', so please forgive its slightly distorted bendiness), you lose sight of the stage's near corner - but the sound comes straight up at you. I paid about £20: the 'posh' seats can be around ten times more. And other very reasonable tickets are available - for example, in the standing sections. So do investigate.]

Not the easiest task to segue neatly from 'Der Rosenkavalier' to 'Written on Skin' although I was intrigued to note that this run also featured a role farewell. Barbara Hannigan - who created the central character Agnès when the opera was first performed in 2012 and during its 2013 performances at the ROH - is now retiring from it. (Two of the performances this time round featured Georgia Jarman as Agnès, but I didn't get to this one twice!)

I came to see 'Written on Skin' in the slightly odd position of already knowing that I absolutely loved it. Deservedly, it has received wide exposure - the very first performance (at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 2012) came out on CD, and the Royal Opera House released it on DVD from its run a year later. Hearing nothing but good things - and slightly aggrieved at only just missing it (I got into serious opera-going the following season) - I bought the DVD, and was knocked sideways. So, I was thrilled when this rather swift revival was announced.

The central plot is based on a medieval Occitan legend. (Occitania was an area covering southern France, Monaco and accompanying bits of Spain and Italy.) It concerns a tyrannical landowner, the Protector, who commissions an artist, the Boy, to produce a book in his honour. The Protector's wife - who he treats as an object, just another possession - is initially suspicious of the Boy but in fact develops a strong attraction to him. She challenges him to depict a 'real woman' in the book that he could desire. They begin an affair during which Agnès - announcing her name for the first time - starts to conquer her repression. Her new aura of confidence disturbs the Protector, causing him to dream that the book shows Agnès and the Boy in bed together. She provokes him to confront the Boy - who, in turn, pretends that he has been with Agnès's sister Marie (the Protector is initially happy to believe this, as Marie, visiting earlier with her husband John, was openly scornful towards the book project). Agnès is furious at the Boy's lies and demands that he create an image that will force her husband to accept the truth. The Boy leaves the Protector and Agnès a new page - with writing on it rather than pictures. Agnès cannot read - but the increasingly distraught Protector reads it aloud, to find it describing the illicit relationship, as Agnès had wanted. The Protector kills the Boy and serves up his heart to Agnès - when he tells her what she has eaten, she rages in defiance that the taste of the Boy's heart will be with her forever. Avoiding the Protector's efforts to catch her, she runs upstairs to throw herself off the balcony.

Powerful stuff in itself, but the opera diffuses any potential lapse into melodrama with its thought-provoking storytelling method. The action in fact begins with impassive observers in modern dress - we discover they are Angels - who appear to oversee and monitor all of time. Treating the events of the main plot as a kind of case history, one of the three singing Angels takes on the role of the Boy (the other two will later embody Marie and John) to re-enact and experience the tragedy as a participant.

This leads to one of the most curious features of the text, by playwright Martin Crimp, a regular collaborator with Benjamin. The characters describe their own actions aloud - for example, in the middle of her delivery, Agnès will suddenly sing "said the woman", and then carry on. The same applies to all the characters. I've read that some have found this jarring, but to me it's a stroke of genius - a reminder that this is not happening before our eyes - it's someone reading a file, telling the story, from the most detached point of view imaginable. It's one of the many ways, the opera creates tension, because the words push us away, as the music draws us in.

As this is the 'first' staging of the opera - the revival is of the original production - the way Katie Mitchell has visualised and directed it will almost certainly help define how these two worlds collide.

(Production photo by Stephen Cummiskey, from the ROH website.)

The Angels work in a sterile, modern environment (shades of Powell & Pressburger's 'A Matter of Life and Death'?). MC has said he was partly inspired by the strange appearance of angels in the margins of medieval manuscripts, and KM has them operating on the edges accordingly. The 'old' story is warm with the colour of parchment ('written on skin' refers to the creation of early books) and busy with content, in contrast to the off-white emptiness of the Angels' offices. I'm not familiar with a great deal of KM's work, but I do remember liking her controversial 'Lucia di Lammermoor' at the ROH, which showed two scenarios - what the men were doing and what the women were doing - playing out simultaneously.

Here she carries off something similar, but what I found particularly impressive was the choreographed movement involved - while we focus on the main story, the Angels (visible throughout) slow down to move at a glacial pace compared to the action of the legend, beyond normal time. As the legend draws to its climax, however, and we return to the Angels' perspective, Agnès's race to the roof slows down to a near-stop and the supernatural regime reasserts itself. The physical acting is thrillingly precise. As this celestial audit involves 're-awakening' the dead, the Angels initially - and on occasion, at later stages - help the medieval characters, who seem initially confused, as if they're not sure why they've been re-animated, move around and find their places.

(It was wonderful to watch this live and be able to see the whole stage - as good as the DVD is, and I would recommend it wholeheartedly - there you gain some great close-ups, but lose a lot of the overall visual effect.)

When the two spheres properly intersect, it makes for chilling drama. Understandably, this usually revolves around the Boy. Musing in the woods, the mask temporarily slips and he tells the Protector he's thinking of when the forest will be under concrete a thousand years later. Towards the end of the opera, when he clearly sees the Protector is about to kill him, he experiences real terror and runs to the door between the two 'worlds' to escape - but the other Angels usher him back in to see it through.

GB's score has moments of heart-rending glory but more than anything, it's supple, sinewy, and spare - revealing of detail and, in a manner as far removed as possible from the soaring swoon of a lyrical, romantic opera, it's built to create and increase sexual tension. The role of the Boy is for countertenor, never allowing you to forget his heavenly origin: but Iestyn Davies is perfectly cast, somehow lacing the purity of his tone with a laconic, wry edge. He brings his typically steely approach to create a more earthly incarnation. Christopher Purves is a marvel of confused aggression as the Protector. And while Barbara Hannigan seems to have a total-immersion, method-style approach to anything she does, it's hard to imagine a more 'complete' performance than she gives here: not only with the startling versatility of her voice but her impassioned physicality. From quiet, still, passive to raging, intense, dominant - in 90 minutes, she shows us every aspect of this 'real woman' and her transformation.

The ROH has commissioned a new opera from Benjamin and Crisp which will apparently be with us as early as next season. Is it too soon to get excited?