Monday, 21 August 2017

Clapped out

I'm not sure if this is directly related to the Proms, but audience behaviour seems to be such a 'hot topic' at the moment, it might as well be in a furnace balanced on a bonfire surrounded by lava. (And since that's a fairly accurate description of being inside the Royal Albert Hall much of the time, perhaps the two are connected.)

It seems falsely linked to the increasingly tiresome 'is classical music elitist' non-issue - why try and increase attendance only to moan about the incomers when they get here? - but in fact, it strikes me that there are two entirely distinct trends going on here.

One is the general issue of people who seem to have no social self-awareness. I mean the kind of folk who talk through an entire concert, eat noisily, text, that kind of thing. I draw this out because it has nothing to do with classical music per se - it goes on everywhere. You get exactly the same thing at the theatre, cinema, other types of gig. Don't kid yourself that it's any better at a rock event because the music is amplified. Anyone who's been anywhere near the bar at, say, Shepherd's Bush Empire will know that a group who are determined to chat will literally YELL at the top of their lungs all evening to make themselves heard above the band.

This is all just rudeness. As I can't singlehandedly solve that, I leave it to one side.

I'm more troubled by what seems to exercise certain classical concert-goers in particular - that some of their fellow audience members are reacting 'wrongly' to the music. The cardinal sin here is clapping when one 'shouldn't'. Examples of bad times to clap - it is said - are: too soon at the end of a piece (for example, when the performers might be seeking a moment of atmospheric silence); between the movements of a symphony or concerto; or after every single song in a recital (when they are normally arranged carefully into 'sets').

Because we seem to now live in a world without nuance, there are those out there pretending this is a black-and-white, right-or-wrong issue. Some classical commentators have used words like 'barbaric' to describe clap-happy punters, exposing a leaning towards the internet aggression of the age, and rather forgetting their own pretensions to civility in the process.

In the real world, it bothers some, while others couldn't care less. While current practice is more reverent, many past composers would've expected frequent applause (opera is the odd genre out here, where it's still common to hold up the action and clap a great aria).


And more importantly, the musicians - who, lest we forget, the performance is actually about, not us - seem divided, too. Some don't mind it and take it as honest appreciation and encouragement; others find it off-putting and damaging to the mood they want to create. If in doubt, then, safest not to clap: but why should people be 'in doubt'? Face facts: someone who's come to their first classical recital after 50 rock concerts will find it extremely strange when the music stops and there's no applause. Especially as no-one will have told them what to expect.

That's where I'm heading with all this. For an issue that seems so divisive, I've become increasingly amazed that 99% of the time, performers and particularly venues leave it to chance. Everyone is now used to mobile phone announcements (although more of that below) and even exhortations to stifle coughing before certain chamber events. But only once, I think - as the concert was being recorded - were we given instructions beforehand to observe certain 'applause breaks'.

Why can't venues across the country - no, the WORLD - unite, and agree on a kind of handy hints sheet that can go in the front of every programme for first-time visitors, children and so on? It needs to be polite, and carefully explained. And it needs to be inclusive - don't make attendees feel gauche for not being sure what to do, or for taking a snap. It's not easy, but I'll try to get us started:

1. Please switch off your mobile phone before the concert starts. It's really important that you don't just put it on 'silent' mode. It will still interfere with people's hearing aids if you do that. Please turn it off completely.

2. If you need to cough during the performance, try and stifle it as much as possible. Take the opportunity to cough during applause if you can. Speaking of which...

3. As a rule, classical audiences don't clap between 'movements', sections or individual pieces - applause comes after a whole concerto or symphony, say, and for a smaller-scale recital, after each group of songs or pieces. It isn't always obvious when to clap - as you'll sometimes hear when a smattering of applause starts up before whoever it is thinks better of it - but take your cue from the performers. Conductors may continue holding their arms up to 'suspend' the closing notes of the piece; musicians may lower or avert their eyes as they finish. This generally means they want a short period of quiet for you to absorb what you've just heard. When they turn around, look at you and (usually) smile, that's when you clap.

4. This is one mainly for chamber and song events. If you're following words in your programme, please turn the pages as quietly as possible - and if you can last until the end of a section or piece to do so, even better. You're focused on the text, and - trust me - you don't know how loud that page turn actually is. Especially when everyone is doing it at once.

5. It's fine to take photos before a concert - and it's usually ok right at the end, too, during the curtain calls. But it's the height of bad manners to do so during a performance, especially on your phone - which will, of course, be switched off...

And venues - you're not off the hook, either. I've written the above on the assumption that the reader will get no help from you at all - but now's the time to step up! Two pleas from me:
  • Put applause breaks in the programmes - and announce them, too (not everyone buys a programme). [Wigmore Hall in London gestures towards this with cryptic asterisks between groups of songs - but why not just print '<APPLAUSE>' instead of the asterisks? Still, commendable effort, Wigmore.]
  • When you put a libretto or song texts in the programme, avoid page breaks within songs, or in the middle of verses. Even when people get used to the idea they need to turn the page quietly, they will often forget.
Leaving people guessing - as though the 'correct' behaviour, whatever that is, signifies membership of an inner circle - is the most alienating thing we can do. Putting people in the picture will bring them into the fold.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Of sound mind? - Sampson & Middleton's 'Reason in Madness'

I realise this is more of a catch-up than a write-up - life has been somewhat frantic lately, and I'm aware that I've managed to see and hear some superb stuff recently that I simply won't be able to write about. Not ideal. In particular, I made it to some wonderful recitals in the closing weeks of Wigmore Hall's season - not least their 'Serenade to Music' gala evening, which literally filled their stage to the point of near-collapse with art-song champions.

But one gig, in the last week of July, was sky-scraping, next-level stuff. It will surprise absolutely no-one who reads Specs regularly that the performers were soprano Carolyn Sampson and pianist Joseph Middleton. Apart, both are heroic: CS has a range of recent performances and recordings that earned her a nomination for Gramophone's 2017 Artist of the Year (I wrote more about this here)... While JM recently won the Royal Philharmonic Society' Young Artist Award, and features on some brilliant recent recital discs with Ruby Hughes and Louise Alder, alongside his group projects the Myrthen Ensemble, and the team assembled for a terrific disc of Britten's Purcell realisations.

But together, I think they're a textbook dream team. They're assembling a fine body of work rapidly and unerringly, with a real sense of purpose. Inquisitive and versatile programmers, the duo's approach to recital sets and releases tips its hat to the way albums are structured. (I'm sure this is a key reason that I feel such a connection to them - I see them as part of 'my' generation of classical musicians, who have enjoyed a rich musical diet and don't always tackle things in a strictly 'classical' way.) Rather than focus solely on 'complete works', themes dominate instead, allowing the pair to range across the repertoire finding comparisons and connections. Their first disc, 'Fleurs', brought together an astonishing range of flower songs, while the second, 'A Verlaine Songbook', used a single author's words to bring songs from 'hidden' composers like Poldowski and Szulc out into the limelight next to Debussy, Fauré and Ravel. (Interestingly, they have a recording forthcoming that is dedicated to a single composer - Schubert - and I can't wait to find out which path they've taken through his hundreds of lieder.)


(Photo credit: Marco Borggreve)

Of course, this wide-ranging strategy wouldn't work if the versatility wasn't as much in the performance as in the programme - and this latest recital, 'Reason in Madness', is probably their most thrilling demonstration of this to date. A survey of women in song who have reached - or breached - the limits of their sanity, we encounter Gretchen, Mignon, Bilitis, Ophelia et al as imagined by 11 different composers. The sequencing is truly deft: at face value, again it's like two sides of an LP - side 1 contains German lieder, and side 2 French mélodies. But there are several effects within effects.

Neat touches abound. For example, the opening trio of songs all feature women at the spinning wheel, a common motif for threadlike reason, about to career out of control. Equally, some of our heroines appealed to both German and French composers alike, giving a pleasing symmetry to the programme as the characters make 'mirror' appearances in both halves of the concert.

But the masterstroke of the sequencing is in the way the duo control the mood, and build the intensity. The lieder half is appropriately sorrowful and wracked - moving through heartrending Brahms and Schumann, then reaching a kind of mini-climax with Wolf's edgy Mignon settings. Then, we have a sort of 'reset'. The French sequence adds that unmistakable air of unsettling, near-chanson eroticism with Debussy's Bilitis songs an inevitable highlight - but all heading towards the tour-de-force at the close of the set: Poulenc's 'La dame de Monte Carlo'. This epic tale of a woman meeting her ruin at the gambling tables is more like a mini-opera, a perfectly dramatised 15-minute 'short' (similar to his earlier one-woman opera, 'La voix humaine').


The entire concert was bliss, but something seemed to happen in that second half to make it feel like the recital equivalent of a plane leaving the runway and soaring into the air. It's tempting to speculate that after the Verlaine songs, then a sublime performance as Mélisande for Scottish Opera, something about the French choices here powerfully ignite CS's skill at undercutting an air of innocence and light with gentle melancholy one minute, then high-octane sensuality the next. Her singing is so pure and expressive that you could hear all these emotional shifts in the voice alone, even if closing your eyes.

However, because the songs were so dramatic in nature, both performers - I count the piano in this as much as the voice - were able to fully act. JM's swooning, startling dynamics notwithstanding, CS of course had to carry most of the visual attention. And seeing someone really act in the close quarters of the Wigmore Hall is a different experience from the distance that normally exists between singer and audience in an opera house. I was locked in so closely to CS's performance, I'd have probably dived after her into the sea at the dying notes of the Poulenc.

This, I think, is the crowning element of genius in the 'Reason in Madness' programme - that the visual and musical performance coalesce into something genuinely unsettling and intensely moving. The care taken with the concept results in the cumulative power of the songs overwhelming you, in the best possible sense. A clear contender for my recital of the year.

It's fantastic news that this set will also be taking its place in the duo's ongoing series of recordings at some future date. (Given the ace acting involved, it would also make a superb performance DVD - look to something like the film of 'Winterreise' with Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake for a precedent. Are you listening, BIS Records?)

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Mind you, in other news, we have a lot to thank BIS Records for... as the next Sampson / Middleton recording to actually hit the shops is 'Lost is My Quiet', in September. They're joined by countertenor Iestyn Davies for a typically insightful range of songs from Purcell (again, adapted by Britten), Mendelssohn, Schumann and Quilter. To my knowledge, this specific set started life around the time it was performed as a chamber Prom: I was there (read more here) and it was quite something, a great atmosphere helped by a winning chemistry between the two singers. I can't wait to hear the recorded versions. (And while on the subject, isn't this one of the best classical music album covers in years? - like a rock album sleeve, but cooler!)


Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Paintbox: Pink Floyd at the V&A

Spoiler Alert: If you're a Pink Floyd fan in London's orbit, you probably know about the V&A PF exhibition and you won't need any persuading from me that you should go. Of course you should - in many ways, it's glorious and utterly epic in scope. However, I do talk below about the 'hang', for want of a better word - the way the show is put together, and a few of the surprises (positive and negative) in store. So - if you've not seen it yet and want a totally 'fresh' experience, please stop reading here, with my blessing. Maybe come back after you've been, though, and see if you agree with me.

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London's Victoria & Albert Museum describes itself as 'the world's leading museum of art and design'. A bold claim, but one that sums up very well the V&A's seemingly roving brief to highlight those areas where art and design meet, and somehow capture that tension in its historical and cultural context. I've lost count of the brilliant exhibitions I've seen there that I would never expect to find anywhere else - from Middle Eastern contemporary photography to aesthetics during the Cold War.

In 2013, the V&A mounted the extraordinary 'David Bowie is...' - a monumental survey of the Starman's career, told mostly through album art, costumes, memorabilia and, of course, music. The audio guides worked through magic* (*possibly not actual magic) that allowed them to 'pick up' an appropriate number from Bowie's vast catalogue to soundtrack whatever exhibit you were looking at. A self-curating, sympathetic playlist: Sound and Vision.

Now, it feels as if we might be witnessing the creation of a formula. 'Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains' is an equally huge crowd-magnet of an exhibition that works in a very similar way to its Bowie-based ancestor. So much so, in fact, that I found it impossible not to make comparisons between the two as I walked round.

What makes some musicians, for example, appropriate subject matter for an art exhibition in the first place? Their key skills are normally more evident on record or on stage. The V&A's interest in Bowie and Floyd - apart from getting trillions of people through the doors - is surely that both acts took control of visual media to enhance their artistic statements. But with very different aims.

Bowie - a solo artist - was so often his own canvas. He seemed to absorb his artistic interests into himself, moving through a succession of identities, wearing and personifying his music. This may of course have been a way of concealing his 'true' self, but he was not in hiding - some part of him was clearly flamboyant, confident and in-your-face. Pink Floyd couldn't be more different: to me, it seems they've always wanted to vanish - and their groundbreaking visuals, from which they themselves were almost always absent - allowed them to do this. (The only two albums I can immediately think of where they featured on the cover are 'The Piper at the Gates of Dawn', where they are distorted through a lens, and 'Ummagumma', where they feature in an optical illusion.)

In their early days, their live gigs featured a light show - and the first room we see plunges us into darkness save for some swirling shapes and projections, an array of posters and fliers displayed around us. Then, as we move on, the exhibition begins to take on its slightly odd shape - mirroring the band's slightly oddly-shaped career. It's in two halves, I would say: a relatively low-key, muso-friendly approach takes us up to 'The Dark Side of the Moon', when broadly speaking they were making albums as we would understand the term (however weird and wonderful). Then, with 'Wish You Were Here' as a kind of pivot, we suddenly move into Concept Floyd and the show explodes into sensory overload accordingly.

My favourite Floyd album is 'Meddle', so my heart really belongs in that first section of the exhibition: more geek than freak. With early singles pouring into my ears ('Point Me At the Sky'! Bliss!), there was one display case after another to gladden the eyes. Each album had its own nook or cranny (I'll come back to this), with relevant photos and sleeve art - not to mention a generous number of guitars - to advertise its merits and memories. It felt a bit dreamlike, as if one could walk through the pages of a scrapbook.


(My favourite Floyd album: 'Meddle'.)

Around the 'Dark Side' / 'Wish You Were Here' era, the rooms suddenly get larger. One gloriously indulgent display of instruments steps outside the chronology slightly (is it wrong to covet the drums with the hammers from 'The Wall' on them?) and introduces some interactivity, with the opportunity to mess around with the mix of 'Money' so you can fade the individual parts in and out. I would've liked a bit more of that, with some of the spacier songs. Mind you, if you'd stuck me in front of a bunch of faders and let me loose on something like 'Echoes', I'd never have left.

After 'Wish You Were Here', the show pulls off perhaps its most shamelessly engineered but, all the same, rather great visual coup. You go through a small corridor where the angle is such that it's impossible to really see what must be in the next, much larger room. Once you pass through and turn to your left, you're unlikely to be ready for a truly colossal space that feels almost aircraft-hangar like in its enormity - and in it, there's a replica of part of Battersea Power Station (the 'Animals' cover art), alongside 'The Wall' itself and, most terrifyingly of all, the Teacher from that album and film, looming malevolently with his trademark headlamp eyes. This whole section has a certain flawed magnificence - for all the ambition surrounding the 'flying inflatable pig' Animals shoot, the part of the story that stays with you is the plastic porker freeing itself from its tethers and floating off into the nearest flightpath.


(The cover art for 'Animals', taken from the V&A website. Design: Roger Waters; Graphics: Nick Mason; Realised by Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell at Hipgnosis.)

The rest of the show struggles a little to live up to this. Poignantly for the diehard fan, the Wall-building more or less symbolises the collapse of the classic line-up. The great disappearing band - represented so often visually by Storm Thorgerson's ceaselessly inventive sleeve art - were finally at the point of alienating themselves from each other.

Eventually, Pink Floyd soldiered on for some years without Roger Waters and produced some great work - but things had inevitably changed. It's jarring to see a black and white David Bailey publicity shot of the band - how can such a great photo seem so ordinary? And as if Team Floyd sensed something really vital was missing, the sleeve concepts for albums like 'A Momentary Lapse of Reason' and 'The Division Bell', and the use in concert of the circular screen showing constant animations and footage, became ever more grandiose. The rooms here are a little large for what there is to show in them - it's tempting to feel this captures the slightly more empty experience of Floyd without Waters's teeming, cynical imagination to rough up David Gilmour's more natural melodicism, and Richard Wright's and Nick Mason's smooth musicianship.

I feel like I've been quite critical of this exhibition, when I don't really mean to be. It was terrific fun, wonderfully indulgent for a Floyd fan, and you will simply be presented with one brilliant reason after another to celebrate such a wilful, strange and yet completely successful and - ironically for committed shadow-loiterers - communicative group.

I do have reservations. The V&A often seem to shoot themselves in the foot with the layout of exhibitions like this. I went on what I hoped would be a relatively quiet weekday and it was still absolutely mobbed, resulting in bottlenecks throughout the entire early part of the exhibition. 'Dark Side of the Moon' has a glass display case - obviously an exhibit of MASS interest - in a dead end of sorts, meaning that no-one could get a look at it until the bunch of folk before them had finished - yet each group were forced into blocking the other's ability to move out and around. This seems odd given how unnecessarily huge some of the spaces were later on - for example, a huge video room containing, well, nothing at all. Also, the initial room with the swirling light show was in fact so dark, it was impossible to look properly at all the art on the walls.

And one very specific point, simply because I was a little baffled by it. The Pink Floyd story is, in places, a truly sad one. Their first frontman, Syd Barrett, departed the band after succumbing to psychedelic drugs, or mental illness, or both: eventually, he withdrew from the public eye (and died in 2006). When the band fractured, it seemed like relations between Gilmour and Waters were so acrimonious that there could be no hope of reconciliation - emphasised when the 80s model of the band carried on without him. And the story now seems over for good, with the death of Wright in 2008. But - unless I overlooked something - the exhibition completely overlooks one of the most joyful episodes (for the fans, anyway) in their entire career: when the four-piece did in fact re-unite for the Live8 gig. It was a great set, and there was something honest about it - clearly not entirely comfortable, they all must have felt that the cause was bigger than them, and played a blinder accordingly. Even if everything had been sweetness and light, I don't think anyone expected some kind of permanent reunion - their subsequent careers showed that Waters and Gilmour had genuinely moved apart artistically. But as a thrilling gesture and possibly the only time that the band acknowledged that all people wanted - finally - was to see them, the blokes, play together - no concept, no artifice... it's a hard moment to beat. I missed being reminded of it.

[** EDIT ** - It turns out I did miss something! There is a video presentation right at the end (which I only managed to catch a small part of - it was packed) which I'm reliably informed features footage of the Live8 performance. This is excellent news, and makes much more sense. However, please bear in mind that I noticed nothing whatsoever signposting the fact the video included Live8, or making anything of the reunion performance at all - which in itself seems a little odd to me. All the same - if you go, that's where the Live8 reference is lurking. Thank you to Twitter pal John for letting me know - much appreciated.]

But all in all, I was reminded of so much else - which is why, despite my 'issues', I'm recommending the exhibition. Pink Floyd are one of that breed of groups who enjoyed universe-conquering success while still remaining heroically strange. This show allows you to wallow not just in their unique music, but in the arty, surreal world they created, that conveniently existed in its own right, alongside the songs. Casual listeners, proceed with caution, but proceed nonetheless. Floyd fans - you've probably been already.