Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Music to remember

How important is music to our lives, to our memories? And how do our lives, past and present, shape the way we listen to music?

*

Ever the trendy young thing, I went to my first-ever rock concert in my early teens: Genesis. Of course, this was not their early days featuring Peter Gabriel wandering around the stage dressed as some kind of alien allotment. I won tickets (I forget how) to Wembley Stadium to see the chart-slaying Phil Collins version of the group touring the 'Invisible Touch' album.

Perhaps this applies to many of you, but when a gig like this is your first taste of live music, it gives you a lot of strange ideas. I was bitten by the bug, and soon started seeing more bands with my pals, but I had to find out, agonisingly slowly, almost one show at a time:
  • Most gigs are, in fact, indoors.
  • Someone has gone in and taken all the seats away.
  • Not every band is going to play for about two-and-a-half hours.
  • Most concerts draw fewer than 70,000-odd people. Some of them just draw odd people.
Because I was a nipper, my gig companion on this debut venture was my hapless Dad. I wasn't fazed by this in the least - I wasn't in the least bit troubled that this might be 'uncool', and I think I realised even at the time that being 'uncool' wasn't really a problem at a Genesis concert. Different story for my Dad, though. I hadn't come into my natural birthright of a complete run of Beatles and Stones original vinyl, because both my parents appeared to have slept through the entire 60s - instead, all the great records I 'borrowed' from my father were the previous, crooner generation: Frank Sinatra, Johnnie Ray and, my favourite, Nat King Cole.

So, to my shame, I was grateful for Dad's company but thought 'Land of Confusion' might be an uncomfortably literal way of describing his experience. How wrong I was. He loved every minute. He would turn to me and say brilliantly Dad things, like "If you decide you're going to listen to this sort of thing, the louder the better." One of his cricket mates "also liked Genesis, so he knew it'd be all right". ('Dad Rock' is a term often used with a sneer, but of course it implies that the music it describes can cross generations.) And finally, the most Dad moment of all, suggesting we nip out through the encore to beat the crowds back to the station.

As far as I know, he hasn't voluntarily listened to a note of Genesis since. But I read this back, and think - yes, it was a superb concert, the band were all-conquering, but what I really remember about it, is that I was there with, and because of, my Dad. You don't always bond over familiar things - it can happen when you share something new, unusual, strange and powerful. When I play Frank and Nat, I think of my Dad's generation, what he enjoys, what he stands for. When I play late Genesis, I think about being with my Dad, and how great that is.

*

A few years back, I was in a band for a bit. Some of the people who were in the band might be reading this - and I know they won't mind my saying that, for a fair bit of the time, the whole thing was a pain in the rear end. Yes, we had our share of 'personnel issues' - not so much a 'revolving door' line-up as an empty lift-shaft - but many ragged amateur combos go through that. We had a slightly odd line-up - no bass but TWO keyboards, like a kind of 'Double Doors', at our most 'stable' - and our fortnightly rehearsal was just out of the way enough to be a hassle for ALL of us to get to. Sigh. It's amazing we lasted as long as we did.

Or is it? We all chipped in songs we had written, and there was perhaps one I wrote that I would still stand by now. The band liked it, and I was touched at the time with how they threw themselves into the arrangement. In particular, my fellow keyboard player - a really gifted musician, I should point out - had worked out a piano part so accomplished that I didn't need to play at all - just focus on the singing. And while nothing ever came of it, I got to experience that adrenalin rush of singing my song, with my friends behind me, creating a noise between them that buoyed me up, made my vocal feel like it was an aeroplane leaving the runway. We might have been in a shed on an industrial estate, but we were being MAGNIFICENT in a shed on an industrial estate. Music started it, and in a way, the music we all tried to agree on, sort out and play... well, that ended it, too. But the memory of that performance, and how we all tried to give each other the same support, chips away at my recollections of the hassles and horrors, note by note.

*

My entry into serious opera-going began with 'Nixon in China' at the 2012 Proms. But I had a couple of brushes with the form years before, on the cusp of my twenties. One was seeing a production of 'Eugene Onegin' which seemed saddled with a poor English translation ("There goes a shepherd!"). But I also ventured into the Royal Opera House gods for a production of 'Turandot', with a girl I had met at university.

We were never destined to 'go out' in the normal run of things - she was a visiting student from overseas - but that doesn't mean I didn't regard her as absolutely wonderful. The ROH provided its old-world, pre-refurbishment glamour, but it couldn't match my companion's splendour on that evening, our joint eagerness for the shared, new experience, her curiosity, her conversation. Opera can provide overwhelming drama, but that night - thankfully - it could only give joy. To this day, I cannot subtract joy from my experience of opera, my constant impulse to take only positivity from music.


*

On the subject of Promming, some of you may also know that I watched the entire Ring Cycle, conducted by Daniel Barenboim in 2013, from the Royal Albert Hall gallery with a chap called David, a work colleague of Mrs Specs with a secret double life as a Wagner nut. It's a matter of record how powerful these performances were, and the impact they had on the audiences that made it to the Hall for the whole week. But of course, the 16 hours or so of actual opera was a mere fraction of the overall time David and I spent together - queuing, eating, queuing, drinking, queuing... and then finally getting into the sweltering heat of the hall itself.

By the end of the week, it felt like we had been on the musical equivalent of a kind of survival course together - and in David's case, during Act III of 'Die Walküre' after one Pimms too many, it was literally like that. (It is a little strange to be concentrating on Wotan and Brunnhilde one minute, only to be dimly aware that the person standing next to you is slowly slipping to the floor. 'Overcome by emotion!' I assumed at the time.) But the point is - before 'Das Rheingold', we were mates. After 'Götterdämmerung', we were blood brothers. I doubt there was a topic in our twin musical universes we hadn't covered, and much more besides. He probably knows some of my darkest secrets and I've simply forgotten I told him in a fog of heat fatigue and leitmotifs.

If David and I had met in any other circumstances, we may well still be friends. There are some areas of our lives where we're irreconcilably different, of course. But the Ring experience cemented the nature of the bond we share - a ceaselessly good-natured mesh of intuitive understanding and musical codewords, a happy meeting point between telepathy and bewilderment.

*

Greater love hath no woman than to attend a Billy Bragg concert with a migraine. But this is what Mrs Specs did for me - in the early days, she's happy to admit, when she was possibly still trying to impress me a little. She didn't tell me, of course, until afterwards (I'm not a monster) but I can only imagine, with some guilt, how a stridently-bellowed 'Between the Wars' must have affected someone who could barely focus between paracetamols.

A better experience for us both followed with the Buena Vista Social Club gig at the Royal Albert Hall (again). Both mad about each other as well as this music, we came to the gig on equal terms - a sound we both adored, neither of us bestowing it upon the other. Still learning how to be a couple, this was one of the concerts that taught us to dance with each other, shed self-consciousness, give in to happiness.

The audience ended up in a very genteel form of disarray, as people half-forgot to orbit their seats, and began to cut some rug in the nearest available proper space. During a closing slow song, Mrs Specs dropped into a seat on the end of a row, and I contentedly just sank onto the staircase where I was, leaning against her legs, head level with her lap, her hand resting on my shoulder.

*

You will all have read that, earlier this week, a suicide bomber struck at Manchester Arena, as fans were leaving an Ariana Grande concert. I can only add my sympathy and support to anyone affected, as I can't begin to imagine what any of them are going through. I was moved to see various comments across the media - 'normal' and social - highlighting that this was a musical event (and specifically one that would attract the young) and expressing bitter regret that something designed to give pleasure and encourage unity should be shattered in this way.

I nurture the hope that in the recovery process, music will play an inevitable, invaluable part. Ariana Grande was of course horrified by the attack and has cancelled dates out of respect - however, I truly believe that the bond her music creates between her fans will be crucial to what helps them get past any lasting fear or terror. What the terrorist sought to ruin, will in fact be instrumental in aiding the healing - the polar opposite of his aims.

I also recalled the remarkable book 'Being Dead', by Jim Crace, which takes as its starting point the violent death of its central couple, but then deliberately sets out not to 'resurrect' them, but to restore the vividness of their lives through stories and recollections.

And then I simply kept recalling. Music, sounds and events dotted through my life, that somehow add up to something indestructible... its power to create, shape and energise. To bring to life friendship, love, harmony, belonging, and hope.


Sunday, 14 May 2017

From harmony to discord: Myrthen Ensemble / 'The Exterminating Angel'

I won't forget Saturday 6 May 2017 in a hurry. Thanks to my haphazard attempts at the usual intricate rocket science (or 'booking', as some people call it), I was packing out the day with not one, but two musical events: a lunchtime recital, followed by the opera in the evening. But it was no ordinary recital, and no ordinary opera.

At Wigmore Hall, the Myrthen Ensemble were taking their turn in the venue's epic concert series 'Schubert: The Complete Songs' (I'm trying to get to as many of these as possible). Most of the gigs so far have featured voice/piano duos, apart from a few exceptions where veteran accompanist and Schubert guru Graham Johnson brought together several soloists at a time to tackle some of the lieder for more than one singer.

This, though, was different. While the multi-participant sessions I mention above inevitably had a slight 'scratch band' feel to them (and no less enjoyable for that), the Myrthen Ensemble are a 'proper' group. Although, as their membership is made up of accomplished soloists, you could use the word 'supergroup', even. At their centre is pianist Joseph Middleton - regular Specs readers will know I'm an admirer of his playing, in particular his work with Carolyn Sampson, but his obvious flair for collaboration is no doubt crucial to the dynamic of this larger band.

The founding vocal line-up alongside JM is Mary Bevan (soprano), Clara Mouriz (mezzo), Marcus Farnsworth (baritone) and Allan Clayton (tenor) - although guest singers also feature, and when I've seen them live (including this occasion), Nicky Spence has taken the tenor spot. Their superb 2016 debut release, 'Songs to the Moon', was a double disc, bringing to mind the obvious comparison with Frankie Goes To Hollywood. [*needs work*]


(This brilliant photo, from the album cover sessions, I believe, is by John Alexander.)

This is so good a team that choosing highlights was impossible, and it feels totally unnecessary to single anyone out from a group with such a warm rapport. While they all got to sing solo or in various combinations, it was an utter joy to hear the four-part selections, as in the closing 'Gebet' and 'Der Tanz'. One gift they all share is the ability to communicate their own individual styles even when singing together, so if you wanted to 'follow' one of them for a while - MB's shining tone at one end, MF's crystal-clear basslines at the other, or CM and NS providing the rich colours in between - it was quite easy to do so. I just found myself locking into one voice after another, and never once began thinking in terms of 'preference' - only about how well the overall sound was working.

The occasional glance to the side of the stage, where the singers not 'on' at any given time were sitting, showed them as avid listeners, with as much invested in their colleague's performances as their own. I hope these particular stars align again soon, especially if there's room in schedules for recording: a follow-up album would be very welcome.

Slight change of mood, then, in the evening, for Thomas Adès's latest opera, 'The Exterminating Angel', at the Royal Opera House. The intriguing plot - if that's the right word - is closely based on the 1962 film of the same name by surrealist Luis Buñuel - so, if you've seen neither the opera nor the movie and want to avoid spoilers against a potential future viewing... please stop reading!

To sum up the scene: Edmundo and Lucia, the Marqués and Marquesa de Nobile, are hosting a post-opera dinner party. The guests are all either fully aristocratic or at the very least part of the well-to-do upper class - with the possible exception of Leticia, the lead soprano in the opera the party have been to see, invited as a guest of honour. By contrast, the servants - seemingly gripped by a collective unease - leave the house just as the dinner gets going, abandoning Julio the butler to attend to the guests' demands by himself.

In a disconcerting opening sequence that confirms something is amiss, the guests arrive twice - as no-one as there to take their coats, they circle round back towards the door and re-enact the same movements. However, after dining, they head to the main drawing room for music: Blanca, one of the guests, plays piano and they urge Leticia to sing some more. But as the night wears on, one thing they don't do is leave - even though they are not locked in, or incapacitated. And the more they think about, or discuss leaving, the greater their inertia, and the longer they stay put. Days pass - and we see the servants, and eventually the military arrive outside to carry out a rescue... but they too succumb to a kind of paralysis and can't bring themselves to enter the mansion.

The aristocrats' disintegrating sense of decorum is savagely satirised - early on, the women are uneasy that the chaps are removing their jackets - but before long, they're all sleeping on the floor in the same room, unwashed, all sense of good manners in tatters. The true nature of some of the characters' relationships and situations is revealed, and several of the guests don't make it out alive. Finally, Leticia notices that for the first time, they have all somehow arrived back at the places they were all standing when they became 'trapped' (in an echo of the 'double' opening). Running through the movements again, they find this has broken the 'spell' and they cautiously, but successfully, leave the room. In a superb twist ending, the staging then has them meet the rest of the cast outside the house - the returning servants, the army, the townspeople and so on - only for the whole ensemble to find they can't leave the stage. (I think this is a supremely clever alternative to the film's ending, where the aristocrats give thanks at church for their freedom only to disappear among the congregation - who then discover they are trapped in the church. The movie closes with a brief scene of fighting on the streets, followed by sheep being led into the church as gunshots are still heard on the soundtrack.)

The choice of this particular story for an opera is itself a stroke of genius, as it conjures up certain kinds of tension that feel rather new: for example, instead of a traditional opera being given a modern, controversial makeover, the subject matter here is so 'out there', it almost demands to be told straight. Indeed, within the confines of the room, we witness love, sex, death, incest, attempted murder, potential human sacrifice and double suicide... so the high-octane emotions and actions are quite enough to stand shoulder to shoulder with any grand (guignol) opera.


(This brilliant photo, of my crumpled ROH cast leaflet, is by me.)

Adès seems to thrive on these tensions musically (he also conducts these performances) - woven among the orchestra, we hear - at various relevant points - the early (and eerie) electronic keyboard instrument the ondes Martenot, what sounds like a full-blown drum kit undergoing some serious punishment... and a delicate Spanish guitar. The score feels extreme - not as in difficult or alienating, far from it - but relentless and provocative. He places some of the most intense characters at the wide points of the vocal range, which increases the sense of strain and panic. In this, he's aided immeasurably by a heroic cast. Amanda Echalaz as Lucia and Audrey Luna as Leticia negotiate some astonishingly high passages, and Iestyn Davies - so good in roles requiring some edge and menace to undercut any 'angelic' countertenor clichés - was hugely impressive as perhaps the most dangerous loose cannon in the room. At the other end of the audio spectrum, the closest the opera gets to a bedrock of sense and sanity is the doctor, sung by John Tomlinson in his subterranean bass.

But I mention these folk first largely to make a dramatic point, because all told this was an absolute luxury cast, working as an ensemble - like the recital from earlier in the day, I don't want to single anyone out! Ed Lyon and Sophie Bevan (sister of Mary from the Myrthens - allowing me to achieve a rare 'double Bevan' in one day...!) generated frantic chemistry as the doomed lovers. A further array of arresting, characterful voices - Thomas Allen, Frédéric Antoun, Sally Matthews, David Adam Moore, Anne Sophie von Otter, Christine Rice and Charles Workman - all fleshed out the guests' various collapses into convincingly three-dimensional distress, each wrestling with their individual secrets and demons. Apologies to anyone I've accidentally missed out, because the teamwork on display here was remarkable: jointly ratcheting up the mood until almost everyone reaches breaking point together, negotiating some intricate stagecraft - and still sounding so convincing. Bravi, in all sincerity.

The final layer of magic was the inventive staging. Fitting the story's black comedy, there were some winning visual and aural coups. Before we went in, a tolling bell filled the ROH's passageways, and a small flock of real sheep were already onstage. (They eventually turn up in artificial format to become dinner for the starving aristos.) Later in the action, two characters - dead by their own hands - were dragged offstage, then the false pool of blood they lay in was dragged off after them. And the 'door' of the room itself, impassable and implacable, was a huge empty gateway, with literally 'nothing' keeping the characters in their self-imposed prison. This revolved depending on which parts of the house we needed to see.

What did it all mean? Well - a common interpretation would suggest that the toffs are the ruling class / bourgeoisie, whose ivory-tower inertia will spell their end. But - and this seems to be Buñuel's original, open intent - it resists a thorough-going explanation. The collapse of 'society' inside the room can reference all manner of dystopian fiction (as a William Golding nut, I thought of 'Lord of the Flies'), and it may all come down to little more than 'we're all doomed!'

Given current world events, perhaps this is what made the opera feel like such an urgent piece of entertainment - but with its snappy, economical text and haunting visuals (both courtesy of librettist and director Tom Cairns) and Adès's ceaselessly inventive music, it was an exhilarating way to ride out the horror.

Stop press: Thrilled to note that in the week or so since I saw this rather unusual 'double bill', Joseph Middleton has been given the Royal Philharmonic Society 2016 Young Artist Award... and 'The Exterminating Angel' - for its initial performances in Salzburg with the same cast and production before coming to London - won 'World Premiere' at the 2017 International Opera Awards. Both richly deserved.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Happy endings: great 'outros'

It might seem odd to say that what really makes some songs great is the way they end - but the outro is a great, mystical dark art. How a record plays out is crucial to making you listen to it again - and want to reach that ending once more.

I heard the Roxy Music track below playing somewhere recently - quite by accident (I really need to dig my Roxy albums back out from some far-flung corner of the Specs shelving labyrinth). And I found myself not wanting it to end. As a result, this sent me on a quest to retrieve some of my favourite song outros, and list 10 of them below, making a case for each. For maximum convenience, I've also included the point in the song where I believe - correctly, of course - that the outro starts. I hope you enjoy them.

Roxy Music - 'More than This'


2:45. Bryan Ferry is always the centre of attention, a kind of supernova of suavity, his mannered vocals Roxy's real signature sound through at least two distinct phases (avant and après garde, you could say). But so laidback does he seem, that he shuts up before the song reaches the three-minute mark, job done. Its gentle groove is allowed to run on, just being lovely, no real embellishments or showboating. The video reinforces this, with Ferry sitting, motionless, back to the camera, watching his own band.

The Cure - 'A Forest'


3:10. I do like mad, spooky songs that genuinely seem to be about mad, spooky things. (See also 'Home by the Sea', by Genesis.) Here, the protagonist is lured into the forest by a recurring female voice - but there's no-one there. Whether it's a ghost or the singer's psychosis doesn't really matter - to him, it's real. For the final minute or two, the band ratchets up the tension, musically illustrating the increasing desperation, climbing higher and higher - until he gives up, perhaps out of breath. The guitar echoes away and the song closes on the bass's juddering heartbeat.

Belle and Sebastian - 'Lazy Line Painter Jane'


4:30. In direct contrast to 'A Forest', this exhilarating single closes in giddy ecstasy. I think that B&S have retained their understated charm throughout their whole glittering career, but in their early days, there was a bit more of this barely-controlled clatter, their enthusiasm almost threatening to de-rail them. It's hard to imagine a song that captures so well the illicit excitement of a night out with some potential low-key rudery. Even the mighty guest vocals of Monica Queen give way to the swirling recklessness of a group sounding like they're not sure how or when they're going to stop.

Rainbow - 'Stargazer'


6:00 (ish). Metal outros are not like other outros. This track might be preposterous (as if that's a bad thing), but it contains limitless pleasures. In particular, the vocals and drums are touched by something monumental. However, it's in this list because - when you think Ronnie James Dio is simply going to launch into another chorus - he just keeps singing... and singing.... and singing. I don't think it's a case of 'ad lib to fade' as such - the vocal melody remains tightly worked out and there are repeated phrases - but it hammers home the fantastical horror of the story with a totally straight face. Extra points, too, for rhyming 'rising' with, er, 'hori-zin'.

Iron Maiden - 'The Wicker Man'


3:48. On the subjects of metal, fantasy and horror... Iron Maiden arguably came back from the dead with this track. Their most popular frontman, Bruce Dickinson, returned to the fold and it's surely no accident that the track sounds full of adrenalin, fast and playful. (For a metal band, Maiden write excellent pop songs.) I love this outro because it captures that 'We're back' confidence - not with any actual words, but with a completely gratuitous "Woah-oh!" chant that arrives out of nowhere, designed purely for adoring fans to bellow back at them from the arena floor.

Fleetwood Mac - 'The Chain'


3:04. Or: 'the Formula 1!' Justly more famous than the three minutes preceding it, this is one of the great 'musical snippets' in all of rock music. An indelible bassline, so - not wishing to spoil it - when the guitar arrives it's a propulsive monotone that increases the urgency without trampling on the low-end tune. There's also something very satisfying about a band stringing disparate sections together to make a single song called ... 'The Chain'.

Radiohead: 'Karma Police'


2:30. Radiohead - whether in their earlier, rockier incarnation or their more glitchy and elusive current guise - have always been masters of building tension to a glorious moment of release ('Planet Telex', 'You and Whose Army' right through to 'Burn the Witch'). But 'Karma Police' sustains this when, the song all but over after about two minutes, bursts into an almost oppressively catchy chord sequence with an unforgettable final line ('Phew! For a minute there, I lost myself') - itself eventually disintegrating along with the song behind it.

The Smiths - 'That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore'


2:10. Another testament to the power of a chilling, repeated final line: the Smiths could be arch and humorous in their supposed misery, but this plays it relatively straight. Channelling despair into a kind of psychedelic mantra, the record sounds like what it's about. As Morrissey intones 'I've seen this happen in other people's lives, and now it's happening in mine', Marr wrestles a bending, churning riff from the guitar, slow but unstoppable. One of the great false endings, too: even when Morrissey is silenced, the band come back, overwhelming him. This part of the track was chopped off for the single version - toweringly daft decision.

Talking Heads: 'Found a Job'


3:15. The jerky, circular hook that sees this track through to its conclusion almost sums up Talking Heads's overall brilliance for me - almost maddeningly addictive, off-kilter but so tight and precise. Tina Weymouth's bassline is understandably the star turn, but listen to David Byrne's stop-start rhythm guitar, too. So bare and nonchalant, it sounds like what it is - wires being disturbed to make a pulse. If ever proof were needed that a song can be almost purely about its outro, it's in the celebrated Talking Heads concert film 'Stop Making Sense' - the band, with no explanation, dump a whole verse of 'Found a Job' and hurtle towards the instrumental ending. The late, great Jonathan Demme films them from the side, in a line, moving in sync, a living sine wave:


The Beatles - 'I Want You (She's So Heavy)'


4.37. Hang on... wasn't there that other Beatles track with the famous outro...? Well - yes, I could've picked 'Hey Jude', I suppose! But surely the most powerful extended ending in the Beatles catalogue is this, the climax to side one of 'Abbey Road', cutting to silence as it hits the run-out groove. Apparently one of the very last times the four were all in the studio together, this might have pushed an envelope or two (along with 'Helter Skelter', it points the way towards metal, and the eight minute running time nudged it towards prog and psych) ... but as the clamour increases to eventually overwhelm the layers of guitar - you realise you're listening to the Beatles implode.

Over and out!

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Global warning: John Adams's 'Doctor Atomic'

Last week, I went to see a concert performance at London's Barbican of John Adams's great 2005 opera 'Doctor Atomic'. Since current world events have turned our attention all over again to nuclear weapons, this portrait of Oppenheimer and his colleagues in the run-up to creating the first atom bomb felt queasily topical.

The gig itself is rooted in a far happier enterprise - celebrations for John Adams's 70th birthday, and the conductor himself was here to conduct the BBC Symphony Orchestra, plus the BBC Singers and a group of fine soloists. This team are underlining the opera's place in posterity. The concert followed recording sessions for the Nonesuch label - exciting news: while two productions have made it to DVD, I'm not sure there's an existing CD version. And this performance was recorded to go out in the near future on BBC Radio 3 - which means it will also spend a month on iPlayer. So, if you're at all curious to hear 'Doctor Atomic', you'll have no excuse for missing it!

But you won't need one. It's a shining, shattering work - exhilarating and ultimately devastating. The opening scenes of the opera take place the month before the first atom bomb test, when the terrifying implications of what they have created are fracturing the bond between the scientists. Oppenheimer's colleagues Teller and Wilson both have grave fears about the weapon, with Wilson potentially agitating the team against its use. Oppenheimer warns him against interfering in politics, but is himself profoundly troubled, as the following scene at home with his wife Kitty shows. We then fast-forward to 15 July 1945, the night before the test. Weather conditions seem about to scupper the exercise, but the formidable General Groves will not countenance any delay. Over the remaining 24 hours of the story, we move between the test site and the Oppenheimer residence, where Kitty and the family's Native American maid Pasqualita remain. As tensions rise, the bomb is finally detonated, and the final sounds we hear are voices of Hiroshima survivors (where, of course, the bomb would be used in anger only a few weeks after the test).


The libretto, part-written/part-assembled by regular Adams collaborator Peter Sellars, weaves together speeches, thoughts and opinions from existing documents by or about the characters concerned, with quotations and allusions to poetry and myth outside the 'reality' of the opera's scenario. (I was reminded of the similarly wide-ranging balance of the mystic and realistic in the two Adams/Sellars oratorios, 'El Niño' and 'The Gospel According to the Other Mary', which I also love.)

What makes this technique particularly appropriate for 'Doctor Atomic' is that Oppenheimer was a well-read man particularly drawn to poetry - so in his moments of highest anxiety, it is only too fitting that he retreats into his beloved verse. The key highlight here is almost certainly Oppenheimer's aria 'Batter my heart', which is a setting of a John Donne poem that articulates the torment of one wracked between good and evil. Poetry and storytelling link Oppenheimer to his home and family: Kitty's first appearance is unexpectedly sensual, as she tries to soothe and rouse her husband out of his gloom with the words 'Am I in your light?' - actually a quote from a poem by Muriel Rukeyser.

Listening closely to the words heightened my awareness of the voices. This may sound facile, but bear with me: it's easy to take certain operatic vocal conventions as read without thinking about them too hard. Often, the hero is a tenor. Often, the villain is a bass or baritone. Often, the heroine is a soprano. And often, mezzos are cast as femmes fatales or blokes, giving rise to the 'witches, bitches and britches' line. Obviously, these are not universal, but they're the case routinely enough to become clichés of a sort.

But I was newly struck here by how Adams had the characters' registers fit their mental state and role in the drama. Teller (Brindley Sherratt), nearly crushed by the weight of his fear and knowledge, sings in an ominous bass - as does the immovable, ultimately responsible General (Aubrey Allcock). Oppenheimer (Gerald Finley), suspended between breakdown and release, holds the piece together with his fleet baritone. The other baritone role is Hubbard (Marcus Farnsworth), the weather forecaster, who must also - at a more modest level - sing the line between expert self-assurance and uncertain conscience. The tenors are those more or less given over to panicked action or drama: Wilson the rebel (Andrew Staples) and Nolan (Samuel Sakker), the captain who tries to give Groves graphic warning of the bomb's effects. In all, the men's roles convey the unbearable claustrophobia - both physical and mental - of their situation.

Where any release is possible - however short-lived - the two women provide it: Kitty (soprano Julia Bullock) attempting to lighten her husband's spirit, and let some space into the sound; Pasqualita (mezzo Jennifer Johnston) voicing the warmth of home. As the countdown continues, both women's psyches will be as profoundly affected as the men's.

I found the soloists uniformly excellent. Although - and who knows, possibly because - they had to stay relatively close to their positions, their singing and movement were so convincing that I didn't for a second wish it had been fully-staged. Clearly working as a tight ensemble (brilliant to look forward to their recorded version), the adrenalin of performance seemed to translate perfectly into the tension of the opera. From small touches of characterisation (I'm still thinking about Finley's omnipresent cigarette and Staples's flimsy leaflet), to carefully-controlled body language and exchanged glances - every performer made an indelible contribution that supported the others. And it would be remiss of me not to award lofty praise to the BBC Singers who, as chorus, chanted both pure science and apocalyptic visions like a single horror-struck organism.

None of this would be possible, of course, without Adams's score. As a fully paid-up fan of his work, I was expecting to like and admire it, but I hadn't banked on being so profoundly moved or disturbed by it. While parts of 'Doctor Atomic' are undeniably beautiful, there is sonic terror here, too: layer upon layer of sometimes grinding, pulsing intensity that place you mid-maelstrom. The BBC Symphony Orchestra, in a suitably vast incarnation, visibly (and audibly) relished the chance to play the piece for the composer as if their lives depended on it. I don't think anyone there that evening is likely to forget those closing moments, a kind of horrified catharsis as the explosion faded and the players turned their lights out one by one, leaving us in a moral, as well as visual, void.

Eternally topical, unflinching, magnificent.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Six-pack

I've become increasingly aware in recent months of some great CDs finding their way into chez Specs (how does THAT happen?!) - and my increasing failure to tell you about them. So, weighting the content towards the music itself rather than my ramblings for once, here are a few recent records that make me come over all evangelical.

Jethro Tull: 'The String Quartets'
Being something of a proglodyte, I adore Jethro Tull - and while this disc might look like Ian Anderson could be trading on former glories, I actually think it really works. The songs translate successfully, helped by the frontman's flute (not a euphemism) which gave the originals such a timeless feel in the first place. This selection is the arrangement for 'Locomotive Breath', re-christened 'Loco'.


Elliott Smith: 'Either/Or - Expanded Edition'
I'd always considered myself a huge fan of Smith's music. But it was only when this re-issue of my favourite of his albums was announced, that I realised how hard I had found it to play the CDs following his awful death - now some 14 years ago. Revisiting this record, I found myself binge-listening to his whole body of work, and falling in love with his seemingly inexhaustible supply of melancholic melodies all over again. The appropriately named 'Either/Or' is the precise 'bridging' point between his early albums' whispery acoustic and the later, more robustly produced material. The expanded edition adds some fascinating finds, including his demo of the gorgeous 'I Figured You Out' - a song he found surplus to requirements but recorded beautifully by Mary Lou Lord. But this choice here is 'Alameda' from the original track listing - both firm and fragile, the delicate web of a tune spun over a steely shuffle. Lovely moment when the second verse - and the bass - seem to arrive in a hurry.


Max Richter: 'Orlando: Modular Astronomy' from 'Woolf Works'
Sadly, I haven't made it to a performance of 'Woolf Works', the ballet by Wayne McGregor based on three of Virginia Woolf's novels. However, the score is a haunting, addictive suite by Richter that stands up brilliantly by itself. With clear appeal to someone like me who worships at the Glass altar (among others), the 'Orlando' section variations in particular are resourceful, inventive and welcoming. They manage to conjure up a meeting point between the cerebral, restless personality they celebrate, and a life-affirming physicality for dance.


7JK: 'Ride the Solar Tide'
Regular readers (thank you, darlings, thank you) will know how much I admire Matt Howden - aka Sieben - who records his solo material with voice, violin and a loop station. Pushing constantly at these parameters, he manages to use his apparently restrictive set-up as a springboard for one heroically inventive and original album after another. However, in his collaborations - such as the mighty Rasp record with Jo Quail and this project with Maciek Frett of Polish industrial band Job Karma - he can really let rip. Dark folk and industrial/noise have long seemed to be unlikely but steadfast 'counter-culture' bedfellows, and in 7JK you have a full-on merger, with Matt's swirling, pulsing fiddle barely contained by the electronic rhythms beneath it. Placing Sheffield firmly within the outer reaches of the solar system, the whole album is a surreal, sinister yet mischievous treat - this track, 'Barry the Astonishing', a great entry point. Channel your inner Estonian!


Cavern of Anti-Matter: 'Blood-Drums' and 'Void Beats / Invocation Trex'
Cavern of Anti-Matter is the latest band from Tim Gane, one of the chief masterminds behind the much-missed Stereolab. Anyone who cherished that group's ability to produce driving, 'motorik', groove-laden anthems while simultaneously sounding so laidback and nonchalant will find much to enjoy here. Without Laetitia Sadler's understatedly cool vocals, this is inevitably a different and slightly less 'sensual' proposition. Instead, there's a kind of techno-fury added to the gloriously analogue mix - real drums propelling synths set to maximum 'squelch'. Two CDs released in quick succession: both great. This is the title track to 'Blood-Drums'.


Lavinia Meijer: 'The Glass Effect'
With one CD entirely devoted to Philip Glass already under her belt, harpist LM has returned to the source, but this time with a luxurious two-disc release that places more Glass arrangements alongside complementary works by a range of contemporary composers (such as Muhly and Arnalds). A great and satisfyingly epic listen, but it's almost impossible for me to tear myself away from the PG compositions themselves - and here is an example, Etude 17.



Sunday, 9 April 2017

Eyes (and ears) front: 'Meistersinger' and 'Carousel'

It's hard to imagine how my latest two visits to an opera house could be more different. The last time I was in the Royal Opera House, I saw the new production of Wagner's 'Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg', while my trip to the London Coliseum yesterday was for Rodgers & Hammerstein's 'Carousel'.

And yet, rightly or wrongly, they seem to share a link that - once I started mulling it over - I found hard to shake off: that their 'offstage' circumstances are bound to influence and colour the way they are received and discussed.

'Meistersinger' was Kasper Holten's farewell production as the ROH's Director of Opera. He heads back to his native Denmark (where he has said he wants his young family to settle), earlier than we might have expected. Both his own productions and overall tenure at the ROH seem to have provoked mixed reactions, and the fact that he was bowing out with an opera featuring a bunch of reactionaries resisting artistic progress didn't go unnoticed. Personally, I'd guess that a new production of 'Meistersinger' must've been in the works for some years, longer than KH would've been deciding whether to stay on or not - but I don't know, and I don't particularly want to know. The 'critique of the critic' - if that's how one wants to view it - is all there in the opera already.

I saw three operas directed by KH - 'Don Giovanni', 'Krol Roger', then 'Meistersinger' - and they show to me, at any rate, a definite consistency of approach which appeals to me personally. Without going into all-out 'Regietheater' (the practice of reinventing source material - think modern-dress Shakespeare - but increasingly a by-word for a director-as-dictator pushing interpretation to the limits, sometimes steamrollering over the received wisdom about the composer's intentions) ... we are invited into 'Kasperworld', a slightly surreal - but not 'unreal' - domain where unexpected visuals add a further dimension to what we hear. For example, the projections in 'DG' included the writing of the anti-hero's conquests across the background - while the number of his seductions can be sung for comic effect, the endless list of names brings home his horrendous treatment of hundreds of women. 'Krol Roger', a brilliant psychodrama, was enacted around a large effigy of the king's head, with dancers moving like synapses within, playing out the mental struggle.

And so, onto 'Meistersinger', where the scenes are blurred, so that characters can occupy the same space on stage but 'be' in any location - Sachs's workshop, the meeting hall, the streets. The set also revolves, so that some of the action is played out 'backstage', without anyone breaking character. While I'm still not sure this worked 100% dramatically, I liked the idea - one thing constantly running through the opera is artifice: everyone is putting up a front of some kind. Both Sachs and Eva have to skirt round the fact that he might have won her, and she might have gone for him; Beckmesser is barely holding himself together; Walther is striving to be something he isn't - and David pretends to be something he isn't when teaching him. Spoiler alert: the most infamous example is the ever-problematic ending, where Sachs seems to 'snap' out of his progressive outlook, go back to being old-school and praise heritage German art. For this, KH had a clever twist up his sleeve, where Eva flees the scene rather than submit to Walther, who - against his initial instincts - ends up going down the trad route and joining the elite.

With this in mind, I found the 'theatrical bubble' presentation appealing and stimulating. It needed great performances to carry it, and I felt we got these: stand-outs for me were Bryn Terfel (unsurprisingly) who, I felt, caught particularly well the underlying melancholy of Sachs - no mean feat to sing so powerfully yet convey a kind of weary resignation in the acting. Rachel Willis-Sørensen was superbly cast, giving Eva a strong-willed maturity that made her convince opposite both Sachs and Walther (Gwyn Hughes Jones) and give the surprise ending a meaningful foundation. Hanna Hipp and Allan Clayton brought Lena and David - who could so easily be a sub-plot 'mirror couple' - to comic yet tender, emotionally-sung, three-dimensional life.


(Hanna Hipp and Allan Clayton, in Clive Barda's great production photo, copyright Royal Opera House 2017.)

'Carousel', meanwhile, is the latest in a series of musicals playing at the Coliseum while English National Opera ('ENO') is between seasons. But there has been a bit more 'between seasons' than usual, with ENO's business woes resulting in the decision to make the 2016/17 season shorter and less resource-heavy than usual.

I've made no secret in the past on this blog of where my sympathies and loyalties lie when it comes to ENO: they're with the company (small 'c') - by which I mean, the Chorus and Orchestra. As a punter, it's quite clear to me they are an exceptional group of musicians and I want to see them treated with maximum appreciation and respect, and given as much gainful employment as possible.

[STOP PRESS: As I type this, the Olivier Awards are being announced. ENO's 'Akhnaten' has won Best New Opera Production, and Mark Wigglesworth - their previous Music Director who sadly resigned - has won Outstanding Achievement in Opera for conducting ENO's recent 'Don Giovanni' and 'Lulu'. I couldn't be more pleased.]

The 2016/17 season - while it had some great shows which I loved - could and should have used the Chorus, in particular, more than it did. The musicals are potentially controversial because they historically bring in talent rather than use what ENO have already - but at the same time, the organisation are quite upfront about using them to generate income from the Coliseum when it might otherwise be dark.

Encouragingly, however, 'Carousel' is using the ENO Orchestra and Chorus alongside a song 'n' dance ensemble, which made me feel more comfortable about going along to support it. It's a musical I happen to like - at least in terms of the songs - and it was a chance to take my mum and dad to the Coliseum. (Phase 1 in a long game, aiming at getting them along to an opera.) However, the lead roles are not taken by opera singers, as I generally experience them - but 'crossover' classical stars Alfie Boe as Billy and Katherine Jenkins as Julie.

I had a really good time at 'Carousel' - I think it's a show that will give everyone exactly what they want to take from it. [With my blessing, please stop here if you want to avoid spoilers.]

Lots of it, I thought, was absolutely terrific: the Orchestra are on majestic form, as are the Chorus, simply adding more and more weight to my existing conviction that they can do absolutely anything, brilliantly. For a 'semi-staging', the set was a lot more inventive than I was expecting - attractive, static backgrounds gave a feel for location, while wooden platform proved endlessly all-purpose as the action required. I particularly enjoyed the pathway being constructed for Billy to walk on while he was actually performing the 'Soliloquy' number - it added to the impression of his being lost in thought, with only the theatrical machinery there to support him. And there are two thrilling dance sequences - the overture (a reverse run-through of the entire story) and the heart-rending sequence showing Louise (Billy's daughter) grow to adolescence.

AB and KJ both gave sincere, committed performances. I actually found this aspect of the show the hardest to get used to: the singers were miked up. This is not to criticise the leads at all - I can honestly say that I've never really followed their careers because they don't tend to perform repertoire in the way I want to hear it. But I'm used to hearing people in the Coliseum sing with that much power and conviction without amplification - so the point is, it simply sounded different. I took a long time to get to grips with it. But there is absolutely no question - we were surrounded by fans of both performers, who clearly loved every minute. And it's hard to imagine anyone with an emotional investment in either or both of the stars coming away disappointed. It actually made a welcome change from what one unfortunately sometimes hears on exiting the opera house or concert hall - certain attendees (casualties of extreme fandom, which can so easily damage the ability to simply enjoy oneself), racing to be the first to pick holes in a production or performance to their companions.

Here is some sample text from a recent review of ENO's 'The Winter's Tale' - I don't really want to name the reviewer:


I tweeted these 'grabs' when I saw them because they are everything I dislike in music writing. The lower one has that horrible 'Inner Smirk-le' tone that we are all sneering at a shared, hated production (well, I loved 'Thebans'). But the one on top seems to imply that if there's any difficulty or issue floating around a company or production, then it can and should be used as a kind of ammo, to back up whatever negative stuff one might want to say about it.

I reject that ill-meant smugness totally. As unlikely a pair as they may be, 'Meistersinger' and 'Carousel' have both reminded me how important it is to take what we see and hear onstage for what it is: a heady concoction of ideas, talent, effort and commitment, brought alive by gifted, dedicated people. We should never take them for granted.

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Identity crisis

Huge decision for me, but I've been mulling it over - and saving up - for some time. After putting up for most of my life (since I realised at about age five or six that I couldn't read the words flashing up on the television) with my glasses, I've had enough. I've never managed to cope with contact lenses, either - partly due to just finding them uncomfortable, and no doubt also thanks to a prejudice against them since seeing one of my teachers clean his with his own saliva. (I had glasses by then, so I can assure you, that's definitely what he was doing.)

So - I'm going to have corrective laser eye surgery and get rid of the d____d specs once and for all. But - at that point, as perhaps you might - I gave pause. No more specs. Would that mean no more 'Specs'?

It's clear that once I get the op done, I can no longer call this blog by its current name. It wouldn't make any sense. I'm reluctant to let 'Specs' go, and the thought of having to build its enormous, loyal fanbase back up because no-one has any idea what it's called anymore fills me with dread. But it has to be done. To ease the problem, I've decided to get anyone who'd like to be involved in on the act and help me re-name the site.

I have made a start, but I'm not really that happy with my ideas so far:
  • "Spexit", obviously. Not only would this be a nod to my old post about the referendum, but it would represent the cutting-edge satire for which this blog is justly famed. But I don't just want to jump on some kind of transient political bandwagon.
  • "Specsavers", in that I'm saved from having to use specs any longer. But the name sounds familiar.
  • "Corrective Laser Eye Surgery", in that it would be directly equivalent to what I use "Specs" for now. But I don't think it has the necessary 'zing' to it, somehow.
  • "Eyes". Bit dull. Everyone has those.
  • Possibly something else that I have to wear all the time. "Pants"?
As you can see, I'm struggling. Any ideas would be greatly appreciated, not only by me, but by the vast number of site visitors who will probably be reluctant to type "Pants" into their search engines. Prizes should, perhaps, be awarded to those of you who check the date of this post before getting in touch.

Have a great weekend!



Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Tale of two operas: ENO round-up

English National Opera - or ENO - has now come to the end of its 'main' 2016/2017 season at the Coliseum. What with all of its widely-reported behind-the-scenes woes making the programme slightly shorter and sharper than before (fewer productions, under-use of the chorus) ... I still came away from my last two visits of the season feeling happy to support - and hugely grateful for - such a fine company.

Although the two operas in question are vastly different, in their own ways they each represented some of the best ENO has to offer. One, 'The Winter's Tale', was a brand new work by composer Ryan Wigglesworth (based - for the best, I would say - on the Shakespeare play rather than the David Essex Yuletide hit), while the other was a revival of Christopher Alden's production of Handel's 'Partenope'.

Rory Kinnear directed the new opera, and one thing I suspect his involvement guaranteed was that the piece kept total faith with the original's 'problem play' status. While this is one of several late Shakespeare works that explore the hinterland between comedy and tragedy, the laser-sharp focus of this tight two-hour adaptation underlines how full the story is of tension and suspense. The cylindrical set emphasises the royal family's 'shut-in', ivory-tower insularity (besieged by the chorus's disgruntled mob), breaking open at moments of trauma and revelation.


(Production photo from ENO website, credit Johan Persson.)

The end of Act I in particular - where great disaster befalls Leontes as he loses his wife and son, then banishes the daughter he doesn't believe is his - was utterly nerve-jangling, with the mighty ENO chorus on audibly intimidating form, ratcheting up the intensity with every line. The score (conducted by the composer) was a co-conspirator - at one crisis point, when I thought I'd reached my limits of excitement and unease, a drum-kit jazz break burst into life, pushing me further towards the edge.

The production as a whole brandished a cruel wit in keeping with the story's dark tone. Statues to the king's vanity foreshadowed the image of the queen Hermione that will mercifully come to life at the opera's close. Shakespearean purists may have been disappointed that Antigonus didn't 'Exit, pursued by a bear' - except that as he retreats from the Bohemian cost, the stars of the Plough - 'Ursa Major' - twinkle above him. In a nice casting touch, the superb Neal Davies sang both Antigonus and the role of the Shepherd, as if he never actually gave up his duty of care to Perdita at all.

Iain Paterson - who gave such a tremendous performance as Hans Sachs in the recent ENO 'Mastersingers' - was on blistering form as Leontes, showing how monumental anger can give way to all-consuming grief. The whole cast in fact - Samantha Price and Anthony Gregory endearing as the young lovers, Leigh Melrose as Polixenes - who comes so close in his own rage to repeating Leontes's mistakes, and Sophie Bevan as a wounded, defiant Hermione - all in terrific voice, but at the same time, clearly directed with as much attention to acting as singing. As a result, we experienced something very raw and immediate: human, domestic emotion under attack from enigma, coincidence and magic.

If 'The Winter's Tale' showed us the questing, challenging, 'contemporary' ENO, then 'Partenope' gave us its irreverent capacity to innovate and delight. This production places Handel's soldier-queen into Paris of the twenties, highlighting that the opera is surely far more concerned with matters of the boudoir than the battlefield.


(Production photo from ENO website, credit Catherine Ashmore.)

It allows for some brilliant commentary on the costume and cross-dressing: Partenope dominant in top hat and tails; a woman playing a man in a 'trouser' role (Arsace), alongside a woman playing a woman playing a man (Rosmira). Emilio, the invader/observer, is styled as the photographer Man Ray, whose surreal aesthetic gave the staging much of its beauty and humour: from the use of masks (not just as symbols for concealed identities, but also a kind of protection and reluctance to engage), to the 'big reveal' as Emilio's nude photo helps Arsace to realise how to, er, expose Rosmira...

The six-strong ensemble were all at perfect ease in their roles. Sarah Tynan was an electric, exquisite Partenope, nonchalantly prompting everyone else in the opera to fall head over heels for her; Rupert Charlesworth combining a really powerful vocal presence with a clever, consistent and edgily comic demeanour as Emilio. The women in drag were both wonderful: I'm in awe of Patricia Bardon's versatility (having seen her before as the Princess in 'Suor Angelica' and in the lead role in John Adams's 'The Gospel According to the Other Mary'), here as the torn Arsace, and Stephanie Windsor Lewis seemed to be having the time of her life as Rosmira, in disguise as the bluff and at times heroically sweary Eurimine. Matthew Durkan as Ormonte and James Laing as Armindo were winning foils, with the latter in particular squaring up to some demanding physical comedy - including delivery of a key aria while hanging from a staircase.

While it will be hard to handle the ENO withdrawal symptoms, I should add here that there are other opportunities between now and next season to hear the great chorus and orchestra in action.
  • If you like musicals, the 'big ticket' at the Coliseum across April and May is 'Carousel', starring Katherine Jenkins and Alfie Boe. ENO's chorus and orchestra are the backbone. While anything from the 'fact' of the production to its starry casting has excited plenty of social media opinions, I really rate 'Carousel' - so I'm taking my folks, and an open mind.
  • 'ENO Studio Live' is a new initiative, presenting more modest, but still fully-staged operas at Lilian Baylis House. Particularly exciting to my mind is its remit to cast chorus members in main roles. There are two productions this year: Jonathan Dove's 'The Day After' (which I'm definitely going to), and Gilbert & Sullivan's 'Trial by Jury' (which I fear I may have to miss).
  • And there are two performances at the Southbank of Elgar's 'The Dream of Gerontius', with the company supporting a Dream cast: Gwyn Hughes Jones, Patricia Bardon and Matthew Rose.
I've focused on company performances here but there's still more - from Silent Opera's Janacek adaptation to a new work about jazz giant Charlie Parker at the Hackney Empire - so please take a look at ENO's website and support them if you can.

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

Acaustics

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.