Friday, 14 September 2018

Logger rhythms: ENO Studio Live's 'Paul Bunyan'

I was quite late to this particular party. I'd managed to get tickets for 'Paul Bunyan' on the last day of its week-long run. As a result, once it opened, I had the pleasure of seeing the great reviews it received rolling in, and hearing that every last ticket had sold... combined with the agony of having to wait the whole week to see it for myself.

Now another week has gone by. The (saw)dust has settled on the production, and I've hardly stopped thinking about it since. I already know that it will be one of my absolute highlights of the year - but how to start explaining why...?

The show was the latest in English National Opera's 'ENO Studio Live' initiative, now two summers old and going from strength to strength. It's a beautifully appealing idea: outside the regular opera season, when their vast home venue the Coliseum tends to host musicals, the ENO ensemble 'breaks free' to mount smaller-scale productions. But because this is ENO's Chorus and Orchestra we're talking about, 'smaller-scale' doesn't mean there's any reduction in ambition or achievement - quite the opposite.


ENO Studio Live productions before 'Paul Bunyan' have all been staged in the company's rehearsal studios, Lilian Baylis House in West Hampstead. But this time, the setting would be Wilton's Music Hall, the oldest surviving establishment of its kind, a noble relic of sorts with a structure that seems to consist entirely of nooks and crannies. Once in the auditorium, you get a simultaneous impression of narrowness and height - which, as the show will prove, offers the ideal combination of intimate theatrics and vast sound.

'Paul Bunyan' is an operetta by Benjamin Britten, with a libretto by W H Auden. It pre-dates all of Britten's mature operas, being a product of his stay in the US, and as such the score references jazz, blues and show-tunes in a dazzling display of genre-hopping versatility. This is just one of the ways it feels very 'current', in a year when we are celebrating Bernstein, and ENO's first production of the Gershwins' 'Porgy and Bess' is only a couple of months away.

The operetta's subject matter deliberately mines American myth, focusing on Paul Bunyan, a legendary giant logger who clears the forests to usher in modern agriculture, progress over the primitive, man over nature. In a masterstroke, Bunyan himself is never seen, written as an offstage speaking voice to which the visible characters react. This gives him the aura of a 'Voice of God', for sure - but equally serves to distance him from the mayhem his innovations create.

The action walks a constant - but sustained - tightrope between the absurd/surreal and the truly affecting. Amid groups of talking trees and animals, in-fighting lumberjacks and a pair of chefs who can only rustle up soup and beans between them, several characters emerge to absorb the full impact of Bunyan's orbit. Among them are Bunyan's daughter Tiny, who suffers her parents' break-up and the loss of her mother; Hot Biscuit Slim, the cowboy who can actually rustle up a decent meal; Johnny Inkslinger, the reluctant book-keeper; and Hel Helson, the hapless foreman.

It's an 'unbalanced' work, in every sense - at moments, you feel it's properly unhinged. Equally, the first act is almost like a revue in its quickfire array of set-pieces and 'hit mumbers', while the second act is required to slow down, resolve the strands of story and supply the necessary weight, as Bunyan moves on to leave his acolytes searching for their version of America.


(The men's Chorus face the orchestra. All production photos by Genevieve Girling, taken from the ENO website.)

However, ENO's production finds the balance. I thought this was one of the most deftly thought-through stagings I've seen, precision-tooled for the venue. The orchestra were vertical rather than horizontal, arranged in storeys at the back of the stage - meaning no playing area separated us from the actor-singers. Under Matthew Kofi Waldren, they negotiated the lightning shifts in style with real pizzazz, finding that under-explored middle ground between pit and nightclub. As the story got darker, red blinds gradually drew over the players, as if twilight was descending on the stage. The recording of Bunyan's voice (a rich, booming Simon Russell Beale), neon lights and plastic props presented a kind of 'electric cabaret', conjuring up a mid-20th century New York milieu, channelling it through the history in the bricks and mortar of Wilton's, and bringing it all into collision with the enchanted forest.

The use of the space to maximise the effect of the voices was breathtaking. The opening moments would have been worth the price of admission alone, as we suddenly realised we were surrounded by the ENO Chorus, and we were inside the sound they were making. I've written before that one of the key joys of ENO Studio Live is that you get so close to the Chorus - it feels exactly like a classical equivalent of seeing a popular band you love in a small club instead of an arena. You start to hear how each individual singer, always captivating in their own right, forms their particular part of the overall blend - as they move, of course their voice travels with them and you have the luxury of experiencing a 'live', ever-shifting sound mix. However, in 'Paul Bunyan' we get to take that further still, a wall of glorious surround-sound as the choristers moved around and among us. It almost felt like being in the Chorus, without having to sing oneself: result!

But more than ever, this latest Studio Live enterprise gave the deserving Chorus - full of gifted singer-actors and always great movers - a significant number of individual parts, too. Various members morphed in and out of different roles, but I'll try and give credit as clearly as I can.


Claire Mitcher, Rebecca Stockland and Susanna Tudor-Thomas (above) combined the narrator role with a trio of wild geese, offering a sassy commentary on events: on stage for almost the entire duration, they pulled off the difficult trick of sounding gorgeous - running the gamut from sultry to sarcastic - while nailing the physical comedy. This set the pattern, though, for their colleagues. David Newman made an indelible stamp - eh, readers? - as the world's most dedicated postman, and - with Morag Boyle, Michael Burke and Paul Sheehan - formed part of the Quartet of the Defeated, an absolute showstopper of a blues song, delivered straight and all the more chilling for it: 'You don't know all, sir, you don't know all' (below).


Tenor Graeme Lauren and bass Trevor Bowes were superbly (mis)matched as Sam and Ben, the useless cooks: so heartfelt was their acting that, unexpectedly, I found myself thinking, 'I could actually go some soup and beans' - they never let their ludicrous personas get in the way of their powerful delivery.

Deborah Davison, Fiona Canfield, Amy Kerenza Sedgwick, Suzanne Joyce and Jane Read were genuinely terrifying as the woodland elements and animals mocking Helson's failure. While Robert Winslade Anderson, Adam Sullivan, Geraint Hylton, Ronald Nairne, Paul Sheehan (again!), Pablo Strong and Andrew Tinkler were on whip-smart comic form as a variety of Swedes, lumberjacks and farmers. Sophie Goldrick and Lydia Marchione were suitably slinky, disdainful feline foils to guest artist Fflur Wynn's sentimental dog Fido.

I could, quite easily, list the entire Chorus here and I apologise if I've unwittingly left anyone out. But the whole point of naming them is to recognise the distinct mark each member makes on the production.

A true company project, all the remaining soloist roles were taken by singers on the ENO Harewood Artists scheme. Elgan Llyr Thomas was memorably wracked as the conflicted Inkslinger, Rowan Pierce heartrending as Tiny, Matthew Durkan a humorously drawn yet fearfully intense Helson, and William Morgan a heroically confident Slim. These four handsomely carried the final moments of the show where, without disturbing Britten and Auden's closing words and music, they skilfully shifted the mood, through their acting alone, to flip the American Dream into Nightmare.

Congratulations then to director Jamie Manton, himself an ENO Studio Live veteran after directing the first in the series (Dove's 'The Day After'), and his creative team, for reviving this piece, which seems so peculiarly relevant to our current situation. In 'Paul Bunyan', for all its fabulous comedy and derangement, there is damaged nature, reckless humanity, environmental change, techno-fear, mental instability, bullying, broken homes, latent racism, intolerance, the rise of a new world order. Light on its feet, the production manages to examine, criticise or condemn these as appropriate - following through to its downbeat conclusion - while still sending you out of the Hall feeling thoroughly entertained and energised.

Which finally brings me back to the mighty Chorus, whose collective star wattage forms the absolute backbone of ENO Studio Live, and creates much of this energy, almost to the point of sending electricity coursing through the seats. I hope this show, along with its forerunners if possible, can be revived and - perhaps more importantly - recorded, so we have it for posterity. That said, the sky's now the limit: what will they perform - and where - next summer?


Monday, 3 September 2018

Queasy listening: a pick-me-up playlist

Well, I've been feeling pretty sorry for myself. A trifling matter in the Grand Scheme of Things, I realise, but a wretchedly sharp broken tooth has been driving me to distraction. With no recourse to the dentist for a few days, I am having to be extremely careful when eating and - no doubt to Mrs Specs's temporary delight - try not to talk too much. Imagine! - when two of my chief pleasures in life are (a) food, and (b) banging on about things.

Inevitably, I've sought musical solace. Not able to concentrate on anything too long-form (back on the shelf with you, 'Götterdämmerung'), I've been digging out favourites ancient and modern, making new discoveries and generally pinging about YouTube and Spotify with the attention span not of a gnat, exactly, but perhaps a sloth with toothache.

The playlist that has resulted is - to dip into academic musical jargon for a moment - 'all over the shop', but the common thread is that listening to every track here made me feel better. Not just medically, so to speak - temporarily forgetting my Ailment for four minutes at a time - but uplifted and somewhat renewed. I hope you enjoy it.


Practical footnote - YouTube videos don't always stick around for ever, so the playlist repeats at the end in a version for Spotifiers. However, I recommend watching some of these videos if you can, particularly the deliriously silly 'Funky Town' - it's my new ambition to feel as excitable about life in general as the drummer in Pseudo Echo clearly does.

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Poppy Ackroyd (featuring cellist Jo Quail): 'Quail'


Sandrine Piau, Jos van Immerseel: Debussy - 'De grève'


Iron & Wine: 'Woman King'


Mathias Eick: 'Oslo'


Pseudo Echo: 'Funky Town'


Trio Aristos: Per Nørgård - 'Pastorale'


Talking Heads: 'Found a Job' (Live)


Susan Graham, Malcolm Martineau: Ned Rorem - 'Early in the morning'


Sky: 'Scipio (Parts I & II)


Thomas Dunford: Bach - 'Chaconne' (from Violin Partita no.2)


Robbie Robertson: 'Somewhere Down the Crazy River'


Grant Green: 'Django'


Alice Coote, Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, Marc Albrecht: Mahler - 'Um Mitternacht'


David Bowie: 'I'd Rather be High' (Venetian Mix)


Kronos Quartet: Terry Riley - 'G Song'






Tuesday, 21 August 2018

Scatter shots across the bow: Sieben's 'Crumbs'

Sieben is the alter ego of Matt Howden, one of our most original musician-songwriters - and an artist who will already be familiar to those of you who have kindly followed this blog for some time. It's always a joy to write about his records and performances, partly because you can never quite be sure what he'll do next. All the evidence is in front of you - all the building blocks are there - but he'll push them in a confounding new direction, taking something that might resemble a formula then wrangling it, in front of your very ears, into a sound you've simply not heard before.


Some entry-level information: Sieben in its purest form is MH entirely solo. A jaw-droppingly intense, virtuosic violin player, he rejoices in a slightly unusual set-up: vocals, fiddle, both fed into an increasingly complex bank of pedal technology. As a result, he becomes his own full band.

He loops not just sections of songs - lending many Sieben tracks a signature, addictive groove - but live effects, creating beats with strikes to the side of the violin, or scratching his chin against it to sound like a shaker or hi-hat. He overdubs himself onstage, cloning himself into a string section or providing a distorted metal bassline. Part of the thrill of a Sieben show is seeing just what he has to do to make the sounds he needs: I'll never forget the first time I saw him nail a backing vocal by singing it into the violin pick-up instead of the normal mike, a second voice echoing all around us, but seemingly at a distance, slightly distorted.

In contrast to this potentially restrictive set-up, Sieben on record is all about leaving any so-called limitations for dust. Each album is in some way a reaction to or consolidation of the ones that came before it. Emerging during the century's first decade as part of an underground 'dark folk' scene, MH created a series of albums representing an absolute high watermark for that genre: a gifted lyricist, he would experiment as much with words as music: 'Sex and Wildflowers' crafting a new botanic vocabulary to underpin its love poetry, and 'Ogham inside the Night' pursuing the ritualistic links between nature and language.

But after making such accomplished, definitive statements - what next? Refinement and reinvention. Freed from country matters, the Sieben identity somehow becomes more fully-formed, yet more elusive, in parallel. Gradually, MH's lyrics have abandoned the pastoral for the personal and political, while the sonic exploration continues: 2012's 'No Less Than All' a restlessly intense shapeshifter; 2014's 'Each Divine Spark' conversely one of his most intimate, beautiful achievements; then the astonishing 'Old Magic' project (mostly 2016), which collected three EPs into an epic masterpiece that set history and modernity, rural and civic, on 10-minute collision courses with each other against some of his most skyscraping arrangements yet.


('The Other Side of the River', taken from 'The Old Magic', 2016.)

But none of these releases - none - prepares you for the latest Sieben album, 'Crumbs'. This is a record of its time, for its time, born from unchecked anger. Protest anthems, Sieben-style, there's no room for ambiguity in the songs' meanings - instead, the rug is pulled from under our feet with a satirical, almost vaudevillian atmosphere that makes you smile against the despair.

It's a punk album. No accident, surely, that the font on the CD credits resembles the Crass stencil. (The artwork is full of satisfying touches - not least in the photos, where instead of a shooting stick or fencing sword, MH's weapon of choice is of course his bow.) Training his sights on the world's current Brexit/Trump axis of nastiness, 'Crumbs' roars out of the traps with a clutch of songs that once again reboot our hero's musical approach.

'I Will Ignore the Apocalypse' sounds like previous Sieben - strummed, isolated violin strings - for all of 30 seconds, before the military drum tattoo starts (Tom Didlock guesting for a few songs on an actual kit), panicked air-raid siren fiddle whirrs into the landscape and MH starts looping his vocals round in an obsessive call-and-response. 'Coldbloods' continues the momentum, with the looped voice in the background chanting rhythmically, emphasising the pounding beat and tightly-wound riff.


('Coldbloods', taken from 'Crumbs', 2018.)

Then 'Is It Dark Enough?' almost pushes this style to breaking point, playing two styles of vocal against each other - robotic repetition against a world-weary croon - so cleverly woven that the two lines intersect at certain points in the lyric while the tenser-than-ever percussion taps away in agitation and the fiddle line ascends, conveying terror in the way only furiously-scrubbed strings can.

As the album continues, you realise how closely the arrangements fit the concept. Even if a song starts innocently enough with a single melody or beat, chaos soon takes over. Elements that sound at first like they should be in completely different songs are made to clash ruthlessly, then in fact gel perfectly. 'Here is the News' is pure cabaret - mannered, queasily jaunty vocals - but set against hyperactive drum-and-bass, and metallic violin that sounds like a jolt of electricity about to burn out the headphones. 'Sell Your Future' manages the feat of combining what sounds like a doom-laden string quartet of sorts, with an off-kilter breakneck electronic riff (the intro almost seems to feature 'wobbles', as if to convey warping) and declamatory near-rapping. Even when the drums temporarily fall away in the middle, there's no pause for breath in the onslaught.


(The official video for 'Sell Your Future', taken from 'Crumbs', 2018.)

In the words of John Lydon (on PiL's 'Rise'), 'anger is an energy' - and that could be this album's strapline - however dark the subject matter, the sheer fury and commitment makes for an endlessly exhilarating listen. None of the songs outstay their welcome - as soon as MH has pushed each one as far as it can go, it suddenly stops dead and the next one picks up the baton. At its most experimental end, the album features several tracks lasting mere seconds, as if snatches of tracks caught between radio stations on the dial, the listener realising there's no escape from the nightmare these songs address.

Out of nowhere, an extraordinary song finally slows 'Crumbs' down - 'Forge a Better World'. Assembled with real maverick confidence, this brief ray of optimism is almost a ballad, with moments of genuine reflection and actual silence - but still the wail of the fiddle prevails, giving even this hopeful moment an ominous, industrial edge.

'Crumbs' might sound like pretty much nothing else on earth, but for the longer-term Sieben-watcher, it's a pleasure to hear certain elements of previous incarnations still in there. Some of the cavernous, expansive bass sounds and one-man orchestra density will thrill fans like me who have a special fondness for 'The Old Magic'. Perhaps most of all, MH's gift for wordplay and unusual coinages - so skilfully deployed all the way back to the 'pastoral' albums - is now used to razor-sharp effect. Against some prosaic, familiar phrases - 'here is the news', 'roll-up, roll-up' - unexpected Siebenisms appear to pull you up short and make you listen again: 'heart trumps hate', 'pig-pin-prick eyes', 'a Brexit-ear in which to scream', 'grain-shake lies'. Themes of making, building and rebuilding - recurring Sieben themes - here have extreme resonance, as the album imagines the task of putting the world back together when 'a better nature will endure'.

A triumph out of tragedy, 'Crumbs' is testament to what's possible when an artist tackles something unexpected and unpredictable by bringing their full range of talents to bear on it. It's as if Sieben had been keeping dynamite in the violin case, waiting for something to ignite it. Fearsomely good.

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Practical points. The best way to enjoy 'Crumbs' is on CD. There are two bonus tracks, which are well worth having: 'Coldbloods' and 'Here is the News', arranged for a full band. Not only is it a novel delight to hear Sieben tracks performed in such a way, it's also an eye-opener on the complexity of the versions he achieves with just the violin and loops.

You can buy the disc from the Matt Howden / Sieben online shop here.

CD and download are also available on Bandcamp here - remember, if you go 'digital only', you don't get the two extra tracks.

Friday, 17 August 2018

Garden, city: New York (slight return)

A few weeks ago now, I posted some photographs from a recent visit to New York (first time for both Mrs Specs and me) and - in possibly this blog's first-ever cliffhanger - promised a follow-up entry with some more snaps.

Last time, the pictures fell into two definite groups: our walking the length of the inspiring elevated garden, the High Line, followed by various awestruck pictures of the famous NY panorama. You can find that post here.

This closing follow-up is a far more meandering selection, but I hope you still enjoy our flying visit to the city.

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The swiftest of strolls through Central Park...



A couple of musical pilgrimages. No opportunity to attend a performance this time, but I desperately wanted to see the Lincoln Center complex and pay homage to the Metropolitan Opera. Its shop - along with the Juilliard Store - proved irresistible.

Browsing in the Juilliard, it struck me how rare it seems these days that stock in record shops (well, ok, record shops are quite rare these days, but that aside) is shelved right down to the floor. I spent half my time in there literally clambering about on all fours, or delving carefully, but firmly, into the Sale goodies like an archaeologist on a dig. I reflected that to do this at length, in comfort, it was probably best to be student age, rather than my 'early onset grey' vintage.




For any fan of the genre, the Met Opera store is basically heaven on earth, in handy CD, DVD and Blu-ray formats. It made me pine for the old Royal Opera House shop - if it isn't restored to its former glory once the current works finish, I'm just going to have to keep going to New York.


One musical 'moment' occurred entirely inside my head, though. Walking through much of NY, in my opinion, feels to an out-of-towner like inhabiting your own movie - but I wasn't necessarily expecting to imagine myself in an album cover. As soon as I set eyes on this tenement wall, however, Led Zeppelin's 'Custard Pie' fired up in my mind's ear, and I imagined the residents of the 'Physical Graffiti' sleeve lurking behind these windows.


Managed to squeeze in a few hours at the Guggenheim. A real bonus was the major Giacometti exhibition - I had missed it, or one very much like it, at Tate Modern last year. The sparse consistency of the sculpture was so suited to the museum's unique hang, spiralling around the central hall.



Our local green space for a significant part of our stay: New York Botanical Garden (in the Bronx):


 


 


… and its sibling, Brooklyn Botanic Garden (here the serenity of the Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden):



But to finish, some more evidence of how easy it is in NY to simply look around and about... and especially up... and stop short.









Sunday, 5 August 2018

Holding all the cards: 'Mary's Hand' at Holy Cross Church

With a single act, just one role, and a score requiring only three musicians, new chamber opera 'Mary's Hand' is outwardly modest and compact. However, in terms of its scope, ambition, and ultimately, its emotional impact - it's anything but.

The sole character in the opera is Mary I of England, or Mary Tudor - resurrected to talk us through her life - to set the record straight. After all, she has been on the wrong side of history for several centuries. A devout Catholic, she spent her reign trying - and ultimately failing - to undo the Reformation. That she burned 283 Protestants at the stake in the process (along with, no doubt, her involvement in the demise of Lady Jane Grey), earned her the infamous nickname 'Bloody Mary'. Staring out at us from formidable portraits by Hans Eworth or Antonius Mor, she seems destined to remain the shadowy flipside to her bright, shining half-sister, Elizabeth I - 'Gloriana'.

'Mary's Hand' doesn't seek to excuse, or exclude, these actions. Mary's opening line is "I am the one you do not like", and she confronts the executions straightaway. Deeply religious she may have been - and throughout history, religion has often been a violent matter - but her willingness to put so many 'heretics' to death seems to have caused considerable revulsion even at the time. What other peculiar, contradictory aspects were there to her character? And by examining these, can Mary be 'explained'?

Brilliantly, Di Sherlock's libretto - without insisting on a final, all-encompassing answer - focuses on restoring Mary to three dimensions. To bring the Queen from the dark into the light, Sherlock seizes on two key traits from a part of Mary's personality less prominent in the history books: her fun side.


(Clare McCaldin as Mary I, photograph by Robert Workman)

First, Mary's love of card games, which provides the opera's storytelling motor. Mary's 'hand' is in fact a set of playing cards - "Royals only!" - with each one representing a figure in her life - and a few 'trick' cards in there for good measure. The court metaphor is superbly worked through - hearts are those she loves; diamonds guard their wealth and position; clubs are the intellects; and spades are the threats ("those / who speak to me of Death"). One of Mary's most chilling lines is delivered as Anne Boleyn, the Queen of Spades, secures the affections of Henry: "She so perverts him / Red turns to Black" - and the King switches suits from Hearts to Spades. (I wonder if this malevolent 'sleight of hand' is also a nod to opera's first 'Queen of Spades', Tchaikovsky and Pushkin's supernatural avenger?) Enemies are challenged to put their "cards on the table", and addressed as "Knave!"

Another masterstroke is that the opera itself is ruled by the cards. While there is a fixed opening and epilogue, and certain sections belong together, at several places Mary invites an audience member to choose a card. Their selection dictates who Mary tells about next. This means the precise order of events can be 'shuffled' with every performance. As stagecraft, it succeeds on a number of levels - we are drawn even more closely into Mary's imagined 'world' through interaction; the need for subtle ad-libbing from the performer (as well as the readiness to jump into the opera at several different stages) brings a heightened sense of spontaneous electricity to proceedings; and it beautifully reflects the fragmentary state of Mary's psychology, the jigsaw puzzle we were all engaged in completing.

Second, Mary was keen on fashion. She starts the opera wearing a spectacular reconstruction of the dress she wears in her coronation portrait. As more of her thoughts and feelings are exposed, so she sheds the outer layers of her outfit. As this is a new opera with, I hope, many more performances to come in future, I am actually aware of 'spoilers' - and even though many facts of Mary's life are on record, the interpretation and insights of the opera's final scenes are deliberately delayed and worth experiencing unforeseen ("You shall hear how nature did play false / when last I play this card"). So, without going into too much detail - more than just a simple show of 'undressing', the costume in which we last see Mary has its own powerful symbolism (sacred? medical?), as much as the surface robes we see her reassemble, empty of their wearer.

Martin Bussey's elegant, expressive score makes maximum use of seemingly minimal resources. Written specially for the mezzo-soprano performing the role, Clare McCaldin, Mary's part deftly moves between spoken word and sung passages. In a performance that's somehow both handsomely relaxed and precision-sharp, McCaldin at first negotiates almost patter-like passages that draw us in with speech while seasoning the text with sung notes.

The effect is a 'best of both worlds' hybrid - the musicality and cathartic power of opera, combined with the intimacy and immediacy of a monologue. McCaldin has stage presence in, er, spades: from her almost seductive coaxing of audience members to choose their cards, to her absolute command of Mary's moodswings with lightning changes of expression (gossiping to the Queen of Diamonds card representing her best friend Susan; collapsing into tears at the key line "The Queen does not weep").

Sometimes, she speaks to confide in us, before switching instantly to a public, sung, forceful 'exterior' Mary. And from the mezzo space, there's power to be had from going high as well as loud: there's an especially astonishing passage - dealing with the burning of the bishops, Cranmer included - where McCaldin sings several terrifying, vehement runs, from a low speaking tone to a piercing cry at extraordinary speed, like flames coursing up the wood.

Alongside such a powerful vocal performance, the musicians still manage to make their mark. At times, it felt like Gabriella Swallow's cello followed Mary, eccentric, at times hyperactive, at others mournful, with bursts of percussive noise and staccato reaction. Meanwhile, Heidi Bennett (trumpet) and Clare Hoskins (oboe and cor anglais) possessed a kind of heraldic grace - at some of the opera's most poignant moments, Bussey skilfully combines these forces, as if Mary has to give in, smothered by the court machine. At other times, he has the players hold back totally, giving McCaldin the space to sing out into the church unaccompanied.

Even the setting was perfect. Holy Cross Church in St Pancras almost became a character in its own right, with visually apt spots for Mary to sit, kneel, pray … and even the pulpit (delivering one glorious section, "The birds of summer are flown...", as a haunting, haunted aria). While it would be lovely to think this opera might be recorded one day, as written and performed it's a truly multi-sensory experience, making best use of its close-quarters visual richness in tandem with the taut, evocative soundworld. Well played, indeed.

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'Mary's Hand' was staged by McCaldin Arts at Holy Cross Church as part of 'Tête à Tête the Opera' Festival.

You can find out more about the opera on the McCaldin Arts website, and read the libretto in full here.

There is currently one more confirmed performance taking place next spring, at Pinner Parish Church, 7.30pm on Saturday 27 April 2019.

Friday, 3 August 2018

Passion players: Carolyn Sampson, Joseph Middleton - 'A Soprano's Schubertiade'

This feature first appeared on Frances Wilson's excellent blog 'The Cross-Eyed Pianist'. For a variety of features that - alongside a special interest on all aspects of piano playing and listening - focus on wider classical music and cultural issues, please pay the site a visit here.

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In 2015, when Carolyn Sampson first joined forces with Joseph Middleton for the recital disc ‘Fleurs’, it was more or less her first venture into art song. Up to that point, many people would have associated her most closely with the earlier end of the repertoire, her crystalline voice gracing Bach, Dowland, Handel, Lully, Monteverdi, Purcell and others besides. But that overlooks her occasional forays into more modern eras: discs of Esenvalds and Poulenc, say, or Tavener at the Proms. One senses it was only a matter of time before song came calling.

Joseph Middleton is surely one of the finest and most well-regarded accompanists working today. He is currently Director of the Leeds Lieder festival, and he received the 2016 Young Artist Award from the Royal Philharmonic Society, whose jury described him as ‘a born collaborator’. As well as a superb sound – more of which later – he has a real flair for interesting, inventive programming that gives so many of his recordings an album-like unity.

‘Fleurs’, an album of English, French and German songs all with a floral theme, was an absolute revelation to me. First, there was the opportunity to hear the purity of CS’s tone inhabit such intimate and intense settings, then to appreciate JM’s ability to honour the different composers’ styles while maintaining a consistent ‘feel’ across the whole disc.

The pair obviously clicked, as – seemingly on a mission – they have been fast assembling a distinctive, irresistible body of work. The two subsequent CDs, ‘A Verlaine Songbook’ (theme – Verlaine’s words set by a variety of composers) and ‘Lost is my Quiet’, featuring countertenor Iestyn Davies alongside CS in a programme of lovestruck duets, have been equally captivating. Now for number four, and in all honesty, it’s probably their most sublime achievement yet.


Full disclosure: Schubert is my favourite composer, and ever since I heard CS and JM were planning an all-Schubert disc, I’ve been more or less ticking off the days to release one-by-one on the calendar. At the same time, would my expectations be unreasonably high? Could this possibly be as good as I hoped it would be? Here’s why I think it is.

While this disc is their first dedicated to one composer, the duo have still pushed the programming aspect further, to find their own way into such a vast catalogue of lieder. As the title of the album suggests, the tracks chosen focus on Schubert’s ability to compose such powerful, deeply-felt songs for and about women.

As a result, the album includes some of the indelible ‘greatest hits’ you might expect – but CS and JM have kept the integrity of any suites they belong to: for example, ‘Gretchen Am Spinnrade’ comes with the Britten completion of ‘Gretchens Bitte’, and ‘Der König in Thule’; while the famous ‘Ave Maria’ is the third in the sequence of ‘Ellen’ songs, all included here. The disc’s generous running time also features all four ‘Mignon’ and both ‘Suleika’ lieder.

‘Suleika I’ opens the programme, and is as good an example as any to illustrate the telepathic connection the duo seem to share. The early part of the song demands that JM play with great tenderness, but at great speed, as the accompaniment shimmers beneath lyrics speaking of burning heat cooled by the stirring wind. CS, taking full advantage of one of Schubert’s loveliest vocal melodies, shapes her tone and timbre to be part confessional, part conversational. The power and excitement rise – the dynamics of the piano and voice in perfect sync – then subside into the steadier sensuality of the closing, repeated verse. It’s the first five or minutes, containing an album’s worth of delights.

Two of the ‘stand-alone’ songs are also particular stand-outs for me. Like the ‘Suleika’ songs (words by Marianne von Willemer), the lyric used for ‘Romanze’ was also written by a woman, Wilhelmina Christiane von Chézy. Perhaps understandably, this draws out an exquisitely tender rendition from CS. As the voice sighs its way towards the end of each verse, JM subtly increases the volume of the left hand, as if the bass could buoy the singer up. The very last ‘Herz’ is as heartbreaking as the final line describes.

This is followed by ‘Blondel zu Marien’, which starts as almost a steady, stately serenade. However, as each of the two verses progress, they build to a complex sequence dominated by a spine-tingling downward cascade of notes, punctuated by trills and decorations that demonstrate exactly why CS’s combination of vocal beauty and agility make her such a natural communicator in art song.

I could enthuse like this about every track on the disc, from the tragic dignity of ‘So last mich scheinen’ (the third Mignon song) to that Everest of lieder, the 13-minute ‘Viola’, where both navigate the changes in mood as if a single unit.

But perhaps it’s wise to finish on ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’, an extraordinary song by any standards, but famously composed when Schubert was only seventeen. The piano represents Gretchen’s spinning wheel, and by extension, her (in)ability to focus on operating it as she is distracted by thoughts of Faust, the man she loves. As a result, the accompaniment endlessly orbits around itself – apart from one key moment – while the voice rings out above it, ranging from hesitancy to unchecked passion. It’s hard to imagine a song where it’s more vital for the two performers to track each other with such precision, while conveying such extremes of emotion.

CS and JM absolutely nail it. As in the very best performances of this song I’ve heard, the pace only starts with exact regularity, until the movement begins to shift constantly with Gretchen’s concentration. JM audibly changes the way he ‘leans’ on the keys, spikier here, lengthier there, as if to capture the changing pressure on the wheel. CS is utterly in character and expertly paces the build-up to the astonishing ‘breakdown’ near the end of the song when the wheel stops altogether. After the climactic “sein Kuss!” she takes a breath, and then another, her Gretchen clearly reeling before gathering herself and sending the wheel spinning again.

Moments like this not only help elevate the disc from being brilliant to something of an instant classic – they also prompt me to mention the fantastic production by Jens Braun, recording at Suffolk’s Potton Hall. All four of the Sampson/Middleton CDs were made in the same conditions, and the space within the sound really helps you to feel like you’re in the room as private audience – especially if you use a decent pair of headphones.

This is the kind of album I could talk about until you physically stopped me; I can imagine pressing copies into the hands of friends. It’s everything I could have hoped for, and more.




Sunday, 22 July 2018

Pressure drop

After yet more frantic work intensity, I found myself relaxing into music that was familiar and welcoming. Chasing down YouTube videos, I was reliving tracks (ancient and modern) I adored but hadn't listened to in ages … or finding myself suddenly seduced by more recent discoveries, all over again.

A playlist of sorts emerged, and if there's a theme, it is that 'release' I was searching for. All of these selections push whatever internal button I have that lets some pressure escape through the valve - whether it's through sheer beauty, infectious joy, distraction and agitation, highly-wrought emotion or catharsis … you'll probably realise which tunes belong to which category! But all of them rocket me out of my universe and into theirs, which was very much the point.

I hope you enjoy the line-up. YouTube videos come and go from time to time, so I've also added a Spotify version of the playlist at the end.


Let's go: "It is YOU..."

*

Toots and the Maytals: 'Pressure Drop'


ABBA: 'Arrival'.


Schubert: 'Impromptu D899, op.90, no.4' (performed by Maria João Pires).


Laurie Anderson: 'O Superman'.


Duparc: 'Chanson triste' (performed by Elly Ameling, Dalton Baldwin).


Portico Quartet: 'Clipper'.


Debussy: 'Reverie' (performed by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet).


Belle and Sebastian: 'Play for Today'.


Arvo Pärt: Fratres (performed by the 12 Cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra).


Amayenge: 'Munise Munise'.


Olivia Chaney: 'IOU'


John Adams: 'Phrygian Gates' (performed by Ralph van Raat).


Procol Harum: 'Cerdes (Outside the Gates Of)'.


Miles Davis: 'Shhh / Peaceful'.


Radiohead: 'Staircase'.


Wagner: 'Lohengrin, Prelude to Act 1' (performed by Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Andris Nelsons)


Daft Punk: 'Giorgio by Moroder'.


Paul Simon: 'Hearts and Bones'.


Spotify version:







Wednesday, 11 July 2018

What lies beneath: America's Cool Modernism

Writing quickly as I can feel the pressure of a deadline. This weekend, Mrs Specs and I made a trip to Oxford to see the exhibition 'America's Cool Modernism: O'Keeffe to Hopper' at the Ashmolean Museum. It turns out we just managed to get ourselves organised in time, as the closing date is Sunday 22 July. So, you have about a week and a half left to go - and if you can, you should.

Here's the description of the show's concept from the Ashmolean's website:

"This is the first exhibition to explore the 'cool' in American art in the early 20th century, from early experiments in abstraction by artists like Georgia O’Keeffe, Arthur Dove and Paul Strand to the strict, clean precisionist paintings of Charles Sheeler and Charles Demuth ... In the Jazz Age of the ‘roaring’ 20s, and the ensuing Great Depression of the 30s, many American artists expressed their uncertainty about the rapid modernisation and urbanisation of their country by producing work that had a cool, controlled detachment and a smooth, precise finish."

I wanted to quote that exactly, for a particular reason. It's a technically and no doubt academically accurate description of the artists in their proper context, of course. But my gut reaction - the way the work made me feel - was anything but cool and detached. To me, many of the pieces were possessed of a broiling energy, something seething beneath the surface - even in their spaces and silences.

Even Georgia O'Keeffe's rendition of a relatively serene East River is framed by industry, bisected in the exact centre of the picture by a smoke-belching chimney.


The exhibition includes several other O'Keeffe works, some of which marshal her swirling floral lines into abstraction. I was particularly struck by a painting actually called 'Black Abstraction' which appears to represent a migraine-like tunnel vision experience. Sweeping black curves around a small disc of light, I could recognise its monochromatic distance - but at the same time, to me it said mental malfunction, turmoil.

While the gallery is bookended to some extent by its 'headline' artists - Hopper's 'about-to-happen' atmospheres dominating the final section - perhaps the greatest pleasures of an exhibition like this are the discoveries you make along the way. Highlights for me included:
  • The 'empty building' paintings of George Ault - especially 'Hoboken Factory'. The factory has two storeys, a lower level which appears to be the original 'traditional' warehouse-style building, but with a glass upper floor on top, presumably a later extension. As the accompanying text points out - the bottom half is in darkness, but the glass section radiates light - and this beneath glowering black clouds. Again, the technique suggests an unsettling, alien quality; so why did I find it fascinating on almost a horror-movie level? I can only say that I felt that light pulsing, so vividly was it rendered. It didn't feel like a mere optical illusion or surreal gesture - more that there was action in that building, something terrible happening that we cannot see.
  • The magnificent etchings of Louis Lozowick, bending the straight lines of New York and Minneapolis into folds and cascades, somehow giving the cities back their three dimensions.
  • More buildings without people from Niles Spencer, but here, like a kind of proto-pop-art Escher. The colours leap from the canvas and the lines / structures create their own movement (staircases, railings, angled roofs) so that your eyes constantly range around the pictures, occupying the scene yourself.
  • The kinetic power and graphic-design sensibility of Charles Demuth - cryptic inscriptions; tilting skyscrapers and citadels; sun, shadow and neon signs. His depiction of a fire truck hurtling towards the onlooker (based on a poem by friend William Carlos Williams, or here, simply 'BILL') - not in any sense a realistic painting but a kind of Impressionist/Vorticist mash-up: the truck itself is an immaculately controlled, but still indistinct red shape - however, its shining 'No. 5' races relentlessly towards you, reaching you in three instantaneous flash-moments. The buildings at the side of the street seem upended in the chaos. Yes, the painting is immaculate - but doesn't its energy simply explode out of the frame?


  • Perhaps the most telling images in the whole show are from Joseph Stella, who seems to sum up the otherworldliness of much of this work by conflating familiar urban sights with explicitly religious symbols: telegraph poles and wires become crosses, windows reflect coloured light, turning them into stained glass. 

Was this movement of sorts an unconscious joint attempt to somehow contain these rapid developments that couldn't necessarily be controlled? The exhibition displays a fantastic tension between art that seems to embrace the change - etchings that show sun-streamed skyscrapers leaning outwards, imposing themselves on the viewer - and that which would almost suppress it - such as the rural yet pristine landscapes of Charles Sheeler and Ralston Crawford.

For me, the 'coolness' of this work was somehow fed through a modernism machine that generated excitement, foreboding, forward thinking, and paranoia. You can keep your distance all you like: the future is still coming for you.

Faster than you think, in fact: remember, the exhibition is only on until 22 July. (The catalogue is affordable, and handsome, with excellent reproductions - but all of this art, with its strange auras, deserves to be seen first-hand.) Here's the Ashmolean website, for more detail.

(Images:
  • Georgia O'Keeffe, ''East River from the Shelton Hotel', 1928
  • Charles Demuth, 'I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold', 1928
...as tweeted by the Ashmolean Musuem. Follow them on Twitter here.)

Thursday, 5 July 2018

High Line to skyline

I had never been to New York before, so to me, the place was almost fictional. Does every first-time visitor experience this weird thought process? In some ways, NYC seemed utterly familiar, through hundreds - surely, thousands - of films and photographs. So, when I actually got there, walking its streets and staring up at its skyscrapers, it felt more surreal, as if I was playing a role in my own movie. Virtual and actual reality combined.

Obviously, I snapped away myself, hoping to bottle my own memories so they don't get lost among the New York images that belong to everyone. As regular Specs readers will know, I put my photography on the blog from time to time - whether it's the portraiture work I produce in collaboration with friends, or simply my personal record of trips and travels. I hope that visitors enjoy its occasional appearance as another spoke in the blog's overall music/art/culture wheel.

So this is the first of perhaps a couple of posts recalling our New York trip. Here, I've divided the shots into two groups.

High Line

I took this set of pictures across a couple of visits we made to the High Line, the remarkable elevated park - regenerated from disused rail tracks - above the west side of Manhattan. While the High Line gets busy, its leafy path feels like an oasis of sorts as the daily chaotic routine continues beneath it. The whole route offers surprising and captivating views of brand new, cutting-edge architecture bedding in alongside historic tenement buildings and warehouses - as I hope these pictures show.








("What do you mean, you don't like heights? You're a pigeon, Eddie.")







Skyline

It's impossible not to photograph it. It doesn't matter if millions of people have done it before, from exactly the same vantage points. (Perhaps some of you have a local view that you're drawn to, and like to snap. For example, if you're familiar with London, you may know Tower Bridge, an iconic landmark crossing the river Thames. From the nearby London Bridge, you get a classic view of it, which I can't help photographing more or less every time I see it. In NYC, whichever way I turned, I had that feeling intensified to what felt like the power of 100. I don't know how New Yorkers go anywhere or get anything done.)

We love a viewpoint, and took as many opportunities to survey the city as we could.

From the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art:


From a coach!


From the observation deck of the Empire State Building. (This was around 11pm to midnight. It's open to 2am.)




From the Staten Island Ferry:


From the 'Top of the Rock' - that is, the Rockefeller Centre observation deck:



 

To be continued...