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?

Saturday, 21 January 2017

Music into Words - 12 February 2017

I don't often manage to preview events on this blog - I'm usually trying to catch up rather than get ahead - but this is certainly a worthwhile exception.

Last February, I attended the first 'Music into Words' event, an evening symposium - if you will - that focused on writing about classical music. The whole affair combined a satisfying number of my favourite things: fascinating talks and discussion; the chance to meet in person a few people I'd previously known only 'virtually', through admiring their writing; and, of course, some excellent ale at a nearby pub afterwards.

A year later, 'Music into Words' is back, in deluxe format: two panels for the price of one, stretching across a Sunday afternoon - 12 February to be precise, at Morley College, London. From my perspective, there's another, even more important, difference - I'm one of the speakers.

I'm genuinely thrilled to be a part of this. While I can vouch from last year that the atmosphere is totally informal and welcoming, I will be - a little nervously - taking my place among scholars, experts and generally rather brilliant people, many of whom routinely add to my knowledge and boost my enthusiasm online. In my talk, then, I will be deliberately covering the role of the amateur blogger - what drives me to keep posting here, and who I think might be out there, reading and listening.

It would be fantastic if any of you in the London area on that day could come along - not just to support me (as monumentally welcome as that would be!) but to hear and meet everyone else. Especially - I would say - if you are quite interested in writing about your cultural passions online but haven't quite managed it yet. I'd love to meet you.

Thank you to this year's hosts and chairfolk Frances Wilson (nom de blog: The Cross-Eyed Pianist) and Simon Brackenborough (Corymbus) for inviting me to take part.

Please follow this link to the 'Music into Words' site for all the event and speaker details. Here is the brief agenda for the afternoon, taken from the Facebook page:

1.15 - Registration & welcome.

1.30 - Panel 1 with Tom Hammond, Katy Hamilton, Adrian Ainsworth, Neil Fisher (of The Times) and Peter Donohoe.
A more wide-ranging panel covering concerts and concert reviews, musicians and reviews, writing in an accessible way for the non-specialist audience, programme notes and blogging on classical music.

3.00 - Break (the refectory at Morley College will be open for refreshments).

3.30 - Panel 2 with Ian Pace, Kate Romano, Leah Broad and Peter Donohoe.
A more specialist panel looking at academic writing and the use of jargon when writing about music, writing about musical theatre and curating sound.

5.00 - Event ends (we will continue in local pub if people want to keep talking/socialising).

I've had the pleasure of writing some pieces for the Cross Eyed Pianist - if you'd like to read them, they're here:
However, please spend some quality time roaming all over Frances's site - she's a brilliantly thoughtful, inclusive and informative writer. Again, I am very lucky in the company I keep!

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Retrospecstive 2016: live

Ordinarily, I'd arrange this round-up of my favourite live music of the past year in a fairly rigid format, event by event. Looking back on 2016, however - whatever other traumas the last 12 months have visited upon us, I feel privileged to have attended such an embarrassment of melodic riches. So instead, I will - with your permission - reminisce a little and try to order my thoughts so that the singers, players and companies I want to draw to your attention will stay with you.

Regular Specs attendees will know how vocal my support is for English National Opera - in particular, their superb chorus and orchestra. How they've justified that support in 2016, giving us:
  • The breathtaking production of Glass's 'Akhnaten', visually as well as musically hypnotic, showing that the classical world has its own trance music - and finding the rawness and emotion within it.
  • An unforgettable 'Jenůfa' - injecting the heartrending story with exhilarating energy - the entire ensemble under Mark Wigglesworth unforgettable here.
  • Brilliantly inventive stagings, such as the revived 'Magic Flute', breaking all its four walls with visuals and sound represented by effects artists stageside, given life by the inspired casting of Allan Clayton and Lucy Crowe. And much later in the year, the William Kentridge production of 'Lulu', er, fleshed out the human forms with hyperactive animations, keeping us reeling from shock to shock.
  • The bedroom farce to kitchen-sink tragi-comedy of a gritty, grimy 'Don Giovanni' - Christopher Purves on terrific form as a charismatically scary take on the lothario; arresting movement as well as music and a genuine 'didn't see THAT coming' twist to shake up the old-timers.
  • And to return to the chorus, they provided an extra special treat with some extra-curricular performances of the English-language version of Brahms's German Requiem, set to piano for four hands. It was fantastic to hear this body of singers, so in sync with each other (and clearly on their absolute top form for conductor MW), up close, unencumbered and in such glorious acoustics. One of my concerts of the year overall.

(The all-singing, all-juggling ENO ensemble in 'Akhnaten'. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith.)
While the ongoing season has its fair share of delights still to come, the Coliseum still has a cloud over it, its company embattled. But this ensemble is a National treasure, and I would still urge you to support them as much as you possibly can.

One other company was gamely vying for my affections over the year, though - Opera North. After first completing their innovative, dramatic concert staging of Wagner's Ring operas year by year - and, essentially, calmly nailing it - in 2016 they were ready to take the UK by storm. Lining up a series of complete cycles in several cities, the company made a rare visit to London. Lucky us. Camping for a week in the Southbank, we were treated to the cumulative power of the onstage orchestra, under the unflagging leadership of outgoing musical director Richard Farnes (what a send-off!)... and a group of magnificent soloists who sang and acted for all the world like they were broadcasting to millions. (Which, with the radio broadcasts and the forthcoming streaming of the filmed performances, they hopefully are.)

After such an extraordinary experience, Mrs Specs and I vowed to support Opera North and hear more of them when practical and possible. In early December, we went to Edinburgh to catch their Puccini double bill and, even more excitingly, a terrific production of 'Billy Budd' - superbly cast (three such powerful leads in Roderick Williams, Alan Oke and Alastair Miles) and inventively realised.

(Opera North's publicity artwork for 'Billy Budd'.)

An ongoing theme of the year - and part of what made it so pleasurable for me, I think - was the opportunity to see some of my favourite artists more than once, cropping up in different guises and scenarios.

Mezzo Alice Coote featured in two of my favourite concerts of the year. She was an electrifying Angel, alongside Allan Clayton (again! hurrah!) and Gerald Finley, in Elgar's 'The Dream of Gerontius' (performed by the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under Sir Mark Elder). But I also want to rewind back to January for a gig I loved so much, I half-worried it would spoil me for anything for the rest of the year. This was a song recital in Middle Temple Hall, with AC accompanied by Julius Drake on piano. The duo are long-standing, frequent collaborators - their live 'Winterreise' on the Wigmore Hall label is one of my desert-island renditions - and this was perfection: a programme to dream of, performed with passion and commitment. Schubert and Strauss lieder (I was in heaven already), followed by Elgar's 'Sea Pictures'. AC brings to every song the same levels of characterisation and depth you might expect in full-blown opera - her voice is clearly a thing of beauty, but also conviction and power. The Elgar - so much more familiar in the orchestral version - gave JD a chance to produce a precise, but truly immense sound to match. No-one in the audience felt the lack of any other players. An early highlight that's still etched indelibly into my memory.

I've long admired both Carolyn Sampson and Iestyn Davies - so it was great to see them both perform in my first proper live 'Messiah', at the Barbican, just before Christmas 2015. Even better, I witnessed them work their magic twice more in 2016. I loved the concert staging of 'Orlando' at the Barbican with the English Concert, featuring ID's steely, unsettling Orlando and CS's delightful Dorinda. And again - back to song, my particular weakness - they came together again for a chamber Prom featuring songs by Purcell (in Britten's realisations), Mendelssohn and Quilter. The joy of hearing such beautiful - and beautifully matched - voices in the relatively intimate Cadogan Hall was only enhanced by the obvious chemistry between the duo, and the piano accompaniment from the great Joseph Middleton - in his element with both the company (he is CS's regular recital and recording partner - you should buy the two discs they've released so far IMMEDIATELY) and the material - especially the Britten. (Again, he's behind a recent double CD of the complete Purcell/Britten set - it's a must.)

(Photo of Carolyn Sampson by Marco Borggreve.)

A year featuring a new Jo Quail record is automatically great, especially since it usually means we get a stunning launch event to go with it. The latest album, 'Five Incantations', is essentially a five-part suite for  cello and electronics - a gorgeous sonic journey through the elements, by turns insistent, reflective, challenging, soothing - and rewarding throughout. Deliberately crafting the suite to be playable solo, live, from start to finish, JQ performed the entire album in sequence as the centrepiece of her concert set. It had exactly what we all hope for when hearing a favourite record live: everything we love about the album, but to the max. The dynamics were emphasised in the wonderful acoustic setting (St John on Bethnal Green), so the slower sections seemed to cradle the entire congregation, while the louder passages - with their immense beats generated from striking the cello body - threatened to dislodge the belfry. We were quieter than church mice, until our riotous (and wholly deserved) applause at the end.

It was a joy to see Paul Simon at the Royal Albert Hall. I've seen him a couple of times in the past - once at Wembley Arena, back in my teens, when we were so near the back I could barely make out the man himself. I also went to the Graceland 25th anniversary bash in Hyde Park. Both great gigs, but this felt particularly special. PS seems to be enjoying a 'late-period' golden age, with two excellent recent albums housing a clutch of new songs that can hold their ground against his formidable catalogue. Perhaps as a result, the chap we see onstage is a witty, cheerful and generous performer (with no sign of the slightly aloof/serious aura one might have associated with him previously). Two and a half hours of bliss, ranging across his whole career (including the Garfunkel years), seemingly a lifetime of shiver-down-the-spine moments (the drum intro to '50 Ways', the saxophone solo in 'Still Crazy...', 'counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike', 'the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls'...) I was welling up then, and now, as I type this, I'm welling up again.

Serious aloofness - of the BEST possible kind - is now more in P J Harvey's line. Always worth listening to, but in the past something of a chameleon in both sound and image, her most recent two albums - steeped in social commentary and violence at home and abroad - have formed the basis of a live show that, in its own way, is dramatically and disturbingly spectacular. A group of besuited, slightly grizzled men (partly drawn from in and around the Bad Seeds' orbit) form one of the tightest backing bands imaginable: percussive and propulsive. PJH herself - all feathers and foreboding - utterly commands the stage, purely through the power of her delivery. There is no banter with the band or audience - just the austere, searching lyrics. However, at the Brixton gig we attended, a couple of slips meant we got a glimpse behind the armour as she succumbed to some very human corpsing. A severe but sensational experience.

(Barbican image of IB credited to Lightmap.)

Finally, Ian Bostridge gave a fearless performance in 'The Dark Mirror' at the Barbican - a staging of Hans Zender's interpretation of Schubert's 'Winterreise'. IB has a long association with this song cycle, and the production - probably impossible with anyone else - had him interacting with DVD recordings of his younger self singing the same music some 15 years ago. The chamber orchestra, formed from Britten Sinfonia, gathered at the side of the stage like a scratch band - keeping the necessary balance between the Schubert 'spine' and the largely respectful but, at times, deliberately queasy and jarring cabaret-style arrangements. Netia Jones directed IB not only through his own past, but against a stimulating, shifting collage of graphics and text - a little like being immersed in a 90-minute Saul Bass title sequence. What higher praise?

Reading this back, it suddenly leapt out at me that two venues which have both given me more than their fair share of delight during the year have not been mentioned at all: the Royal Opera House and Wigmore Hall. Here, I've surprised myself. It's interesting that in casting my mind back over 2016 for events that 'stand out', I've perhaps unfairly overlooked 'comfort' venues that provide such consistent entertainment.

Certainly, the ROH had its fair share of excellence to my mind. On New Year's Day, we treated ourselves to the 'Cavelleria Rusticana / Pagliacci' double bill, staged thoughtfully as stories set in the same town. I loved the production of Enescu's 'Oedipe', with its extraordinary performances from Johan Reuter in the title role and Marie Nicole Lemieux as the Sphinx. And the current season kicked off with a supremely confident turn from Sonya Yoncheva as Bellini's 'Norma'.

Wigmore Hall continues to offer one great evening after another, particularly in song. Many of my visits are to do with the Schubert complete songs project, and I'm hoping to write a special post about that as it draws to a close next summer. But what a privilege to hear such artists as Susan Graham, Anna Bonitatibus, Jamie Barton - to name just a few of the visitors it's so rare to find in such intimate surroundings... It's rather too easy to take it all for granted - something one should never do. This will give me much food for thought in 2017.