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.

  • Georgia O'Keeffe, ''East River from the Shelton Hotel', 1928
  • Charles Demuth, 'I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold', 1928 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.")


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...

Sunday, 24 June 2018

Well Met

Specs is on a short break at the moment, enjoying a brief trip to the Big Apple.

It's a fascinating and exciting place. I feel that I'm already amassing significant numbers of New York points, after:
  • accidentally annoying the taxi driver on virtually our moment of arrival;
  • being addressed as 'Big Guy' by the bloke at the MoMA coffee kiosk (charmed, bloke at the MoMA coffee kiosk); and
  • a group of us asking for about five different varieties in the bagel shop and almost causing a sitcom-style meltdown in the kitchen.
Loving every minute, and more pictures to come. However, at the time of drafting, my most recent adventure was getting lost in the Metropolitan Museum of Art...

"This way!"

"No! That way!"

"Young scamp! 'Tis this way after all!"

Eventually, though, one makes it to the roof terrace, and this view - my proper postcard to all of you - is the reward. See you soon!

Sunday, 10 June 2018

Acis high: the return of ENO Studio Live

Writing and posting this as quickly as I can! As I type, 'Acis and Galatea' still has five of its six performances to run, on 11, 12, 13, 15 & 16 June.

Here is the link for booking tickets - and here's why you should go...


Last night, I was at the opening performance of the new English National Opera (ENO) production of Handel's 'Acis and Galatea' - not in their usual home, London Coliseum, but in their rehearsal studios in West Hampstead, Lilian Baylis House. 'A&G' is the first of two operas being performed this year 'between seasons' under the ENO Studio Live banner - the other is Britten's 'Paul Bunyan', playing at Wilton's Music Hall in early September.

ENO Studio Live was launched last year, and the kind souls among you who read this blog regularly may remember my raving about it at the time. The initiative takes the music staff and ensemble out of the Coliseum, and lets them loose on smaller-scale works that give free rein to their imagination, dedication and talent. Let's say your favourite band (and ENO's Chorus & Orchestra are certainly one of mine) are at the level where they only play arenas - and then you suddenly get the chance to see them in a tiny venue or club. That's what ENO Studio Live is like. That's why it's so exciting.

Both of 2017's productions were in Lilian Baylis House: Dove's haunting 'The Day After', sharply contrasted by a riotous staging of Gilbert & Sullivan's 'Trial by Jury'. There was something off-the-leash, almost guerrilla-like about the inventiveness, zeal and commitment of those performances - a real 'this-is-what-we-can-do' statement of intent. Could they repeat that intensity in 2018?

Spoiler alert: Yes. Of course they can. For 'A&G', the experience is even more full-on as the seating is almost - but not quite - in the round: two rows at each side of the stage area with the action taking place on the floor space in between. On arrival, it's already possible to risk sensory overload...

To take a brief step back, into the story: Handel's 'A&G' is a pastoral opera drawn from a tale in Ovid's 'Metamorphoses', featuring a group of nymphs and shepherds enjoying - at first - a peaceful, idyllic existence. The nymph Galatea is loved by both Acis, a shepherd, and Polyphemus, a cyclops or giant. (You might also remember Polyphemus from Homer's 'Odyssey', in classical literature's most famous 'You could take someone's eye out with that' moment.)

Galatea returns Acis's affections and, horrified by Polyphemus's attentions, rejects him outright. Despite the efforts of Acis's friend Damon to calm the situation, the giant snaps when he sees the couple together and murders Acis. Her love undimmed, Galatea transforms Acis into a fountain in a semblance of immortality.

Director Sarah Tipple has staged this version in the present day. Instead of an idealised country paradise, we're at a summer bash held by 'MountainMedia', some kind of PR/marketing concern where everyone is 'across' Instagram, Facebook and Twitter 24/7, wielding phones like extensions of their actual hands, and demolishing the bottomless free bar. The nymphs and shepherds are now boisterous, excitable colleagues on the razzle. Taking my seat, my first thought was: 'This might divide people': everything is vivid, drenched in colour - the electronic screens, the balloons, the bright reds, yellows and greens of the bean bags. The thing is - from the first note, everything starts to work, the effect as 'instant' as the social media being relentlessly sent up.

While giving away the plot is not necessarily an issue with opera - I've already summarised this one here, and it's quite common to read a synopsis before a performance - I do want to talk about some aspects of the production that I found clever and interesting. So, if you're thinking of going and want some surprises, please stop reading here, with my blessing, and come back afterwards!

One gripping feature of the production was that the narrative was kept constantly moving, even though this type of opera - where the aria passages create a kind of stasis with repeated lines and phrases, while the recitative drives the plot - can resist that. The four soloists used much of this time to round their characters out beautifully, and find a complexity to undercut any temptation to see anyone as a straightforwardly black/white, good/evil persona. All are worthy of mention. Matthew Durkan's Polyphemus doesn't turn up halfway through, solely to be mocked: his awkward, clumsy misfit is onstage more or less throughout, silently, visibly wracked by his unrequited passion until he moves centre stage later on. Lucy Hall makes a playful, warm Galatea whose fateful moment of teasing, misjudged interaction with Polyphemus ignites his false hope. Alexander Sprague's Acis is hyperactive, cocky, unpredictable - nailing a character who could clearly be endearing one minute, annoying the next. And in an extraordinarily sensitive performance, Bradley Smith works wonders with Damon, hiding his own secret longing and layering everyone else's pain on top of his own. It feels almost superfluous to point out how beautifully they all sang; as it should be, their voices were completely at one with their acting, and the power and volume - when grief and rage finally take over - was devastating.

I can't overstate how crucial the intimacy between performers and audience is to ENO Studio Live. For most operagoers, to see an onstage facial expression properly is rare - at least, until a DVD comes out, or you attend a cinema relay. But the sonic difference is also key. An environment like this really brings home what matchless communicators we have in the great troupe of actor-singers in ENO's mighty Chorus. In the Coliseum, you can still perceive them all as carefully-realised individuals, making up that unstoppable wall of vocal sound. But here, with all them acting up a storm, every MountainMedia employee is enjoying their own evening, having a whale of a time. As they work the stage area, interacting with each other during the chorus sections, you can discern their separate voices depending on who is nearer to you, or further away - so the balance shifts and the blend changes, while the combined 'whole' remains glorious. I love the idea that the half of the audience on the other side will have heard a distinctly different 'mix' to me. You really are 'in it' that much.

While the staging is inevitably a little surreal (after all, the libretto is still talking about shepherds and monsters), it's completely true to itself. While its most prominent themes - love, lust, jealousy, hurt - are truly ageless and universal, it makes other superbly-realised observations along the way. The gathering's selfies, hashtags and Instagram posts - which ping up onto screens for us all to see once they're captured - start out as fun-fuelled larks. But, just like in the virtual world we're now all too familiar with, we see social media's dark side as a platform to enable insincerity, humiliation, public shaming and, ultimately, even maudlin sentimentality and empty triviality (how Galatea chooses to 'immortalise' Acis in this interpretation is genuinely chilling).

I was also intrigued by the production's commentary on alcohol. Drink is almost the fifth main character. Everyone helps themselves constantly to the bottles of booze in the cooler at the back of the stage (I assume this is just water or pop in real life, otherwise most of the cast are probably still trying to find their way home now). As a result, what starts with letting one's hair down and - in poor old Polyphemus's case - building up some Dutch courage, soon turns nasty and harmful. Brilliantly - for the audience, at least! - the players are of course getting hotter as the action goes on, and we're close enough to see this. This, with the physicality of their performances, makes the air of drunken unpredictability all the more real and tense, even though we already know it won't end well.

At an opening night, you get to applaud the 'behind the scenes' folk too, so I was glad to be there to do that. The movement director for this production is Gemma Payne, who I think deserves a huge amount of credit for choreographing such a visceral piece - whether it's the Chorus's good-natured mayhem early on, to the sudden, desperate, heart-wrenching violence - and its aftermath - towards the end.

Last, but of course not least, the splinter group from ENO's Orchestra, led from the harpsichord by Nicholas Ansdell-Evans, did a fantastic job of playing the score with real delicacy and precision - untouched by the radical treatment of its subject matter a few feet away. If anything, it proves that the music itself is as timeless as the themes. Nothing jarred, every emotion had its moment of expression: the score and the story were held in suspended animation, and so were we.

Monday, 4 June 2018

Lost, found: Sampson, Davies & Middleton at Wigmore Hall

I hardly know where to begin. Or end. I think this is the first time I've found myself starting a write-up in this precise set of circumstances.

If you're a committed classical concertgoer (and I like to consider myself one of those), it's possible to hear certain orchestral works performed reasonably regularly, or see repeat productions of an opera. But in my experience, it's quite difficult to hear the same song recital in the same city more than once. (Many of the same songs scattered, of course, among different programmes and different performers - but that's not the same.) You can spend a rapturous, fleeting hour and a half and then it's gone - if you're lucky, the radio mics are in there, or the artists record a CD of the repertoire. They may take the programme to other venues, other countries but you're extremely fortunate if they come right back and do the whole thing for you again.

But! This has just happened. (With a few tweaks.) During the 2016 Proms, one of the absolute highlights of the season was seeing Carolyn Sampson and Iestyn Davies, accompanied by Joseph Middleton, play one of the Chamber Prom series at Cadogan Hall.

I was excited about the Prom gig because I was already a fan of all three performers. CS and JM had released a debut duo album that I still think is one of *the* great recital CDs, 2015's 'Fleurs', and I'd already seen CS and ID work together in a marvellous performance of Handel's 'Orlando'. Put them on stage together as a team - what could possibly go wrong? Well, nothing, of course. The whole thing was a joy from start to finish.

The programme was a sequence of brilliantly-chosen, finely-balanced duets - with the odd solo number for each singer woven in. There were four sets of songs, grouped by composer, as follows: Purcell (in the 'realisations' created by Benjamin Britten), Mendelssohn, Schumann and Quilter. The broad theme throughout was the destabilising - for good or ill - effects of love, and the whole set has a pleasing symmetry to it, with Britten and Quilter, both looking back to some extent from the 20th century (one for music, the other for words), cradling their two German predecessors.

Quite a lot has happened since then. If - and I realise it's an 'if' - these two singers have been most readily associated with Renaissance/Baroque repertoire, then more recent work sees them casting the net much more widely. For example, CS and JM have continued building up a handsome body of work in art song, following 'Fleurs' with 'A Verlaine Songbook' and now the new record 'A Soprano's Schubertiade'. CS was also an unforgettably affecting Mélisande in Debussy's masterpiece for Scottish Opera. I also saw ID in two searing modern works at the Royal Opera House: Benjamin's 'Written on Skin' and Adès's 'The Exterminating Angel' - his edgy, unpredictable presence doing a great deal to cement the countertenor voice as an utterly contemporary weapon in audiences' minds and ears.

And somewhere in the middle of all that, they recorded and released the Britten / Mendelssohn / Schumann / Quilter set as the CD 'Lost is my Quiet'. As you can imagine, this has been played more or less to the 'melted by laser' point in Specs Towers, the memory of the concert that started it all as present as the sound coming through the speakers. If we were still in vinyl-only days, I think I'd be on my third copy at least.

Now, at Wigmore Hall, we get 'the concert of the album' (very similar, though not identical, to the Prom version) and those of us who were there the first time have the rare opportunity to come full circle. If anything, the performance this time had even more power and panache.

Both singers have a stunning clarity and purity of tone - so while CS's soprano and ID's countertenor remain perfectly distinct, they don't so much blend as 'mesh'. You can always hear both - there's no 'blur' - but they sound inseparable. So in sync are they with the material and each other, that you could be forgiven for assuming that one mind is telepathically controlling the two voices. This particularly comes across in, say, Mendelssohn's 'Ich wollt', meine Lieb' ergösse sich', or Schumann's haunting 'Herbstlied'.

As actor-singers, they generate a pleasurable tension between their 'angelic' registers and the physical expression of the more earthly, sensual subject matter of the songs. CS gives us wide-eyed wonder, tenderness and terror; ID an occasionally wracked, noble presence, at times leaning to the piano as if for support, then unfolding, straightening, to face the listeners, gesturing towards us, recharged. Mendelssohn perhaps provides two of the most striking solo moments, with ID's stately, searching 'Scheidend' contrasted immediately by CS's hyperactive, agile 'Neue Liebe'. The stage is not large, but the eye contact, easy body language and frequent smiles between them speak volumes and communicate their enjoyment of the songs directly to us.

The intimacy of the Wigmore itself - which I really felt, after seeing both CS and ID at 'opera house distance' recently - amplified the whole experience, sound and vision. The superb acoustic also allowed us to fully appreciate how versatile and sympathetic an accompanist JM is - always keeping an ideal balance with the voices whether flying round the keys at breakneck speed (the aforementioned 'Neue Liebe', or Schumann's 'Aufträge') or anchoring some of the steadier tunes with sonorous, rich tones, especially in the bass: with JM a Britten specialist, this comes over strongly in the beautiful Purcell realisations.

I've no idea if I'll ever get the chance to see and hear the 'Lost is my Quiet' programme for a third time! But there is always the disc to return to - if you don't already have a copy, buy with confidence. And for that matter, haste!

Thursday, 31 May 2018

Wigmore Wednesdays

I didn't want to let a couple of recent Wigmore Hall concerts pass by unmentioned on the blog, both providing that much-needed midweek lift on two Wednesday evenings in May. The gigs were completely separate, and in many ways couldn't have been more different (within the parameters of art song). However, both are linked in my mind by how they showcased what brilliant communicators all four of the artists are - it always feels like a particular treat when the performers seem to speak to you as well as sing.

To recall the more recent gig first: Karen Cargill, mezzo-soprano, accompanied by Simon Lepper on piano, gave a performance of French melodies, along with Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder - brilliantly sustaining the theme of intense passion throughout the whole evening.

The bar was set high from the outset, with a superb performance of one of my all-time favourites, Hahn's 'A Chloris'. It's quite a forthright song - a declaration rather than a surrender - and some of the best renditions I've heard resist over-sentimentalising it. So it was here, with SL giving the accompaniment a march-like wilfulness, leaving KC to caress the air above the notes.

As you might expect from someone with so much presence on the opera stage, KC finds the character's emotional centre in every song, and brings them to life visually with seemingly second-nature expressions and body language. Her tone is so warm and generous, yet she controls the dynamics of her voice to spine-tingling effect in the Hall - unafraid to indulge in a low-key smoulder, before unleashing (in Duparc's 'Phidylé', say) its full power for maximum ecstasy. SL is an ideal foil for someone with such a rich sound (check out his Schubert disc with tenor Ilker Arcayürek) - unfailingly delicate, it's as though his piano lines dance 'through' the vocal rather than lie beneath it.

Placing the Wagner at the end of the gig was genius programming - with such a build-up of intensity, we were fully primed for the group of songs that paved the way for 'Tristan und Isolde'. Sure enough, the two themes in particular that made their way into that opera, 'Im Treibhaus' and 'Träume' were unforgettably sublime.

Rewind to the Wednesday before that: I heard Roderick Williams sing Schubert's final song cycle, 'Schwanengesang', accompanied by Iain Burnside. This was something of an event, as RW and IB had performed all three Schubert cycles at Wigmore Hall in a single season - so, it was very much part 3 of a 'trilogy' and had the pleasing atmosphere you might associate with the fulfilment of an ambition.

'Pleasing atmosphere' is perhaps not the phrase you'd associate most readily with 'Schwanengesang'. After the deliberate storytelling of 'Die Schöne Müllerin' and 'Winterreise', it's something of an oddity. While it seems clear Schubert intended the songs to be performed together, there is no real narrative: the cycle is made up of seven songs setting verse by Ludwig Rellstab that mostly deal with absent lovers, then six based on similarly bereft poems by Heinrich Heine. The cycle is now almost always performed with Schubert's very final song, 'Die Taubenpost' (words by Johann Gabriel Seidl), at its close.

The songs that make up 'Schwanengesang' were written very near the end of Schubert's life. He knew time was running out (in the end, it was his publisher who named and issued the cycle after the composer's death). So, it's natural to look for doom and gloom in 'Schwanengesang', and you will find it - perhaps most starkly in the terrifying 'Der Doppelgänger'.

But it seemed to me that RW and IB were onto something a little different, and I heard things in this performance that made me think about the cycle afresh.

RW is renowned as a masterful interpreter of English song. I wonder if performing that repertoire to UK audiences over the years - engaging the listeners head-on, sure in the knowledge they are understanding every word - has fed directly into his approach to Schubert and other art song in different languages. So personable, intimate and involving were his renditions that I felt I was with him every step of the way, feeling every syllable without needing to follow the text in the programme.

He has a baritone's 'heft', as you would expect, but there's also a kind of malleable, warm flexibility to the voice, something that conveys agility, vigour. IB's robust, fleet accompaniment drove them forward, bringing out something assertive in the more upbeat songs ('Frühlinggssensucht', 'Das Fischermädchen') and even charging the immortal 'Ständchen' with a near-spiky electricity.

Schubert died so young that, while his style audibly developed, there is no true 'mature', or even 'late' work, as we would normally understand those terms. In the hands of this duo, the energy that Schubert may have lacked in life is still vibrant in his music: writing against the dying of the light.

(All photos taken from artist or artist management sites. Credits: KC - K.K.Dundas, SL - Robert Workman, RW - Groves Artists, photographer unknown?, IB - Gerard Collett.)

Saturday, 26 May 2018

Twit parade: some (more) of my favourite songs...

In the heady, halcyon days of autumn 2016, I joined in when some of the classical music folk I know and love on Twitter started sharing some of their favourite songs, using the entirely sensible hashtag #SomeOfMyFavouriteSongs. Everyone occupied the hot seat for a week, posting a song a day - then, seven selections later, would hand the baton onto someone else.

I archived my choices in a blog post here, with a few sneaky 'bubbling under' inclusions bringing the playlist up to 10.

This year, we all pitched in for a second round. I still tried to keep to my arbitrary rules (essentially: choose a different composer every day, to avoid just posting Schubert). But even without my trying or consciously thinking about it, I drifted towards a few more selections away from the usual voice/piano template - so this time round, there's two guitars, two orchestras, and a lute.

As before, here are my choices saved for posterity - along with another three extra songs for added value! I hope you enjoy them.


Ireland: 'Sea Fever', performed by Roderick Williams and Julius Drake.

Britten: 'The Big Chariot', performed by Ian Bostridge and Xuefei Wang.

Hahn: 'Néère', performed by Véronique Gens and Susan Manoff.

Schubert: 'Nachtstück', performed by Christoph Prégardien and Tilman Hoppstock.

Cara: 'Fugga pur chi vol amore', performed by Carolyn Sampson and Robert Meunier.

Glass: 'Evening Song', performed by Douglas Parry (from 'Satyagraha').

Adams: 'Batter my heart', performed by Gerald Finley (from 'Doctor Atomic').

Bonus tracks!

Schubert: 'Suleika I', performed by Gundula Janowitz and Irwin Gage.

Chausson: 'L'albatros', performed by Marie-Nicole Lemieux and Daniel Blumenthal.

Simon & Garfunkel: 'For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her'. (This feels to me as much an 'art song' as a pop or folk number. I think it's because it travels exactly where it needs to.)

Monday, 14 May 2018

Class act: 'Lessons in Love and Violence' at the Royal Opera House

The 2012 opera 'Written on Skin' is a modern phenomenon. Already widely produced, with the Royal Opera House reviving it a mere four years after its first run there, its place in the repertoire seems assured. And no wonder: it's such a striking, original work - I feel sure that its stature will only grow further as the years pass.

'Written on Skin' was composed by George Benjamin, with words by Martin Crimp. (Crimp describes his contribution as 'text for music', rather than a libretto.) Although they had worked together before, it was their first full-length opera. Quite a debut.

Now, their new collaboration, 'Lessons in Love and Violence', is in its premiere run at Covent Garden. I could not have been more excited about seeing this, than if you'd wired me up to an excitement machine and turned it up to 'maximum excitement'. At the same time, I realised that I was a little concerned - how do you follow up something so well-received? Reproduce it, almost? Or 'reject' it and go to another extreme? A halfway-house?

In the end, I needn't have worried: I think their solution is clever, intriguing and masterful.

The source story is essentially the tale of Edward II - possibly most familiar as depicted in Christopher Marlowe's play (although I won't forget certain parts of Derek Jarman's film adaptation in a hurry). In Crimp's treatment, a number of key characters remain the same, but King and kingdom are unnamed, and the action is pared down with scalpel-like precision.

While society seems on the brink of collapse through war and poverty, the King lavishes endless riches and attention on his favourite - and lover - Gaveston. Isabel, the Queen, appears at first to tolerate - if not relish - the situation. The army supremo Mortimer tries to make the King see sense, but Gaveston manages to provoke Mortimer into seeming disloyal. The King promptly banishes Mortimer, setting in motion a chain reaction of horrific events where no character escapes the consequences of their actions.

(The brilliant production photos are by Stephen Cummiskey, copyright ROH. Here is Barbara Hannigan as Isabel, Stéphane Degout as the King, and Gyula Orendt as Gaveston.)

The opera is so new, I'm actually reluctant to include specific 'spoilers'. If you don't know the story of old and resist reading the programme's synopsis beforehand, you'll reap the benefit in extra suspense.

The whole approach of 'Lessons', I think, is interesting in itself. The key creative team returns from the first production of 'Written on Skin': that is, as well as Benjamin and Crimp, we have the same director, Katie Mitchell, and set/costume designer, Vicki Mortimer. Covent Garden regulars will no doubt remember her 'split-screen' production of 'Lucia di Lammermoor' (with the stage divided in two, so you saw what the 'off-stage' characters were doing on one side, with the main events unfolding on the other). which along with 'Written on Skin' showed an interest in controlling and compartmentalising the vast space of the ROH stage. With 'Lessons' it's no different: this time, the space significantly reduced almost to a widescreen cinema screen size, emphasising the claustrophobic dead-ends the characters find themselves in. The compact staging also allows the main room, where we see most of the action play out, to 'move' between scenes, changing our view of what is - and isn't - 'on-screen'. You could also suggest that the casting of soprano Barbara Hannigan, who created the role of Agnès in 'WoS', is a further point of reference between the two - but more of that a bit later.

So.... why are we opera-goers (those of us in the UK / London, at any rate) being invited - dared, even - to deliberately compare 'Lessons' with 'WoS'? Is it meant to be a kind of sequel? Did 'getting the band back together' seem like a safe option? I think there's considerably more to it.

Obviously, I've no idea what they'll do next, but it seems to me there's a 'Benjamin and Crimp project'. I've always been drawn to authors, composers and artists that repeatedly explore ideas that matter to them in myriad different ways (off the top of my head: the novels of William Golding, the music of Philip Glass, the photographs of Andreas Gursky), and I wonder if we are seeing something similar develop here. It isn't just the themes they choose to explore - the relevance that distant, historical crimes can still have to our behaviour today; the turmoil of confused sexuality; the terrible, hereditary effects of abuse; what strength and weakness really are; what happens when the line separating life and art goes out of focus...

GB and MC also seem to be fashioning their own 'form' of opera. I think it's telling, in a genre that has traditionally venerated the composer over the librettist, that GB and MC are very much seen as a partnership. (I think - love 'em or loathe 'em - that you can see a similar relationship in recent years between John Adams and Peter Sellars, working towards a kind of impressionistic 'reportage' version of the genre that's entirely their own patch.) Benjamin's music and Crimp's words are so closely-linked that the score clings to the vocal lines like hands around a twisting rope, and the never-ending tense rumble of the orchestra (on terrific form) veers as much into sound design as any kind of conventional musical accompaniment. A brief example - as many of you will recall, often before going in to see a play or opera with some violence in it, you'll see a 'Warning! Act 1 contains a gunshot' sign, or similar, and sure enough, when the moment comes you get an almighty bang of a sound-effect. Although a gun is fired onstage in 'Lessons', the sound is made entirely within the orchestra itself. Elsewhere, as characters collapse or go off the rails, the score seems to 'break' along with them, like a coiled spring finally snapping. In another section, what I'll only refer to as the 'palm reading' music, for a matter of seconds, plays like a soundtrack might, forcing you into a state of terrible anticipation...

Voices in similar registers blend and clash - the intimacies of the male lovers are expressed by two baritones as King and Gaveston, while further sexual tension is generated between Isabel (soprano) and Mortimer (tenor) - so every duet feels very 'close', narrow and intense. At times, it feels there is barely any room to breathe.

Along with Mitchell, Benjamin and Crimp have created a universe of sorts, which is characterised by a sense of the detached supernatural - 'Wos' had its angels struggling to make sense of the protagonists' impulses, 'Lessons' gives Gaveston an enigmatic aura that moves from his ability to manipulate the King into something even more dangerous. Mitchell and Mortimer (Vicki, not army chap) use certain devices - characters slow their movements down to freeze time, clothes and one's state of dress/undress take on symbolic significance - that echo the earlier opera, without re-playing it.

I rate both operas so highly that I honestly couldn't express a preference - especially after only one 'listen' to the new one. But there are plenty of ways where 'Lessons' arguably takes a great leap forward in the execution. For sure, it doesn't have a figure to touch the heart in the way that Agnès did in 'WoS'. However - it has bent a 'bigger' source (the relatively well-known source material) to its purpose; it's more relentlessly paced; and its plot is more ruthlessly logical - instead of self-sacrifice, the characters unwittingly engineer their own fates.

I will be fascinated to see these operas - I hope - in ten or twenty years' time, when each has gone down its own path and we perhaps see wildly different productions of each, by different creative teams. I feel that 'Lessons' as we now have it can certainly stand by itself - at the same time, I think knowing 'WoS' inevitably adds a few extra layers to the experience that it doesn't necessarily need, but which resonate nonetheless.

(Barbara Hannigan as Isabel, Peter Hoare as Mortimer.)

I should add that for the first run, Benjamin wrote each role specifically for this superlative cast. Everyone involved is a compelling actor as well as singer. If I had to pick stand-outs, it would probably be the three leads. As ever, Barbara Hannigan's astonishingly fleet, utterly driven vocal characterisation is complemented by how physically fearless she is - in Isabel, there's initially self-control, a surface-level femme fatale in chic outfits, never without a drink or a smoke... but the steady falling-apart on the inside is all there in the increasingly loose body language and brittle gestures. Peter Hoare (Mortimer) has been one of my favourite singers for some years. (For his performances in ENO's 'Jenufa', 'The Queen of Spades' and 'Thebans', I would personally offer him the keys to the city.) His ability to sound both passionate and sinister marks him out as a truly distinctive voice and dynamic stage presence. Stéphane Degout finds vulnerability and tenderness in the deeply-flawed King, without ever losing sight of the steel the character must once have possessed.

There are a few performances left if you act quickly, with tickets still available for them all. (Click here for the 'Lessons' page on the ROH website.) I'm also really pleased to see that it's being filmed on a couple of nights... with luck, then, a DVD might follow.

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Intimate settings: Julia Kleiter, Christoph Prégardien & Julius Drake at Middle Temple Hall

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.

Although this concert took place some time ago now, Julius Drake has two more recitals lined up for 'Temple Song 2018' - with Angelika Kirchschlager on 24 July (performing Schubert's 'Winterreise') and Gerald Finley on 2 October (performing final songs by Brahms and Schubert). Click here for more information.


Songs by Schubert, Schumann and Mendelssohn

Middle Temple Hall is an exciting, unconventional space for a song recital. Somehow austere and ornate all at once, it generates a self-contained, imposing atmosphere before a note is even played.

Its layout also gives many of the audience members a slightly different relationship to the performers. I think of most venues – especially other prominent chamber venues in London like Wigmore Hall or Milton Court – as having a ‘portrait’ shape: rows of seats roughly matching the width of the stage, stretching back a certain distance. Middle Temple Hall, when set up for concerts, is ‘landscape’. The artists take their positions at the centre of one of the long walls, and the listeners spread out to the sides. As a result, more of the audience than you might expect are close to the action – and closer to the sound.

This intimacy really does change everything. My companion and I managed to sit only a couple of rows back on the left side – as piano obsessives, we were delighted at the perfect keyboard sightline and the privileged view it gave us of Julius Drake’s performance. And for these emotional, highly-charged song choices, it was at times overwhelming to be only a few feet away from the singers, to feel their voices at a near-physical level.

And what voices. During the opening selection of Schubert songs, Julia Kleiter’s rich, versatile soprano ranged from a searching tenderness in ‘An den Mond’, to an arresting desperation at the climax of ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’. Christoph Prégardien must be one of the finest lieder singers of our age, able to convey warmth and clarity even when hitting the ground running in the very first song of the evening, ‘Wilkommen und Abschied’.

Julius Drake curates recitals regularly for the ‘Temple Song’ series, and this programme was expertly put together to bring out the best in all three musicians. I was surprised at first that the evening began with a Schubert ‘hits’ set of sorts, but it soon made perfect sense. Allowing the singers to take turns at appropriate points and pace themselves, the selection in fact highlighted JD’s virtuosity. I’ve described him in the past as one of the most purely exciting accompanists to catch live – and so it proved again, as we heard ‘Wilkommen…’, ‘Gretchen…’, ‘Versunken’ and ‘Der Musensohn’ carried off with such facility and flair, while never upsetting the balance between piano and voices.

The evening then built in intensity. The Schubert half of the programme was all Goethe settings, the final seven lieder a dramatic sequence combining the ‘Mignon’ and ‘Harper’ songs drawn from the novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjarhe. After the stand-alone choices, these mournful, moving laments had a devastating, cumulative effect until finally we heard, for the first time in the evening, the two voices together in one of only two song duets Schubert composed. A masterful change of mood, allowing us some welcome time to reflect during the interval.

Part 2 brought another change of approach. First, CP took centre stage to perform four settings of Heine by Schumann which were essentially rejected ‘out-takes’ from ‘Dichterliebe’. Then both signers sang Schumann duets. This pattern was repeated for Mendelssohn – however, JK took the solo section (again, based on Heine texts) before we heard more duets. While these songs had their fair share of heartbreak, this part of the concert was less concerned with lingering, brooding angst – instead giving us the joy of contrast between Schumann’s near-hyperactivity and Mendelssohn’s more stately reserve. CP and JK – who happen to be uncle and niece – looked and sounded especially comfortable when performing the duets, treating us to suitably special interpretations of lieder that one doesn’t get to hear as often as one would like. Their encore, a glorious version of Schubert’s other duet, the sublime ‘Licht und Liebe’, brought the evening full circle in the loveliest way imaginable.

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Seasonal cheer: 2018/19 at ENO

It's no secret (well, not to anyone who regularly reads this blog, anyway) that I'm a card-carrying champion of English National Opera's endeavours - so their yearly season announcement is the one I look forward to the most.

This week, we heard what ENO has to offer during 2018-19 - and I'm genuinely excited by what's in store. Especially given the fact that it's still building back up to full strength (see posts and news stories over recent years, ad infinitum), it has pretty much everything I'd look for in a new season, from my punter's point of view. One of my favourite productions of all time is returning; there are pieces I have never seen at all; there's a brand new opera to look forward to; and at least one heroically 'out there' idea. Here's the line-up for the 'main season' at the Coliseum.
  • Strauss: 'Salome' - 28 September to 23 October 2018
  • Gershwin: 'Porgy and Bess' - 11 October to 17 November 2018
  • Donizetti: 'Lucia di Lammermoor' - 25 October to 5 December 2018
  • Britten: 'War Requiem' - 16 November to 7 December 2018
  • Puccini: 'La bohème' - 26 November 2018 to 22 February 2019
  • Glass: 'Akhnaten' - 11 February to 7 March 2019
  • Lehár: 'The Merry Widow' - 1 March to 13 April 2019
  • Mozart: 'The Magic Flute' - 14 March to 11 April 2019
  • Bell: 'Jack the Ripper - the Women of Whitechapel' - 30 March to 12 April 2019
In fact, it's difficult to decide what I'm most excited about.

When Phelim McDermott's production of 'Akhnaten' debuted in 2016, I really thought it was akin to perfection. Loving Glass's music helped, of course (I know he divides opinion). But ENO's Orchestra really have the measure of this composer, oiling its clockwork rhythms and injecting a soul into the machine. Up on stage, the ENO Chorus mastered not only the vocal demands but also intricate, tightly choreographed movement (juggling included!) that gave the score an extra dimension. With several of the cast returning - including the superb Anthony Roth Costanzo in the title role - this promises to be unmissable a second time round. I'm going again. At least once. Ideally with everyone I've ever met.

Also worth mentioning the return of 'The Magic Flute' in the shape of Simon McBurney's brilliantly inventive production - and featuring the irresistible lead pairing of Lucy Crowe and Rupert Charlesworth.

'Salome' is a particularly intriguing prospect, kicking off a season that artistic director Daniel Kramer says will explore masculine/feminine relationships and question or interrogate the patriarchy. This new production will be directed by Adena Jacobs, renowned for theatrical work very much in line with the season's theme. Can't wait to see what she does with her terrifying lead character.

I am thrilled to have the chance to see 'Porgy and Bess' - I feel like I know and love almost all the songs (although in truth, I'm probably more familiar with the Miles Davis album than the original work). While I confess most of the cast are not known to me, ENO-watchers will no doubt jump at the chance to hear Latonia Moore again, after her superb performance as Aida last season. And it will be good to hear Americana enthusiast extraordinaire John Wilson - well-known for his show-tune revivals and extravaganzas at the Proms but, top tip, check out his Copland CDs on Chandos - conduct at ENO for the first time.

'Porgy and Bess' requires a specially-assembled chorus - but obviously, I look forward especially to productions that make the most of ENO's own Chorus. Apparently, both these ensembles will join forces for the staging of Britten's 'War Requiem'. Britten, like Glass, is another composer for which ENO has a definite 'affinity' - and this is a signature project for the new creative team, with Kramer and music director Martyn Brabbins joining forces. (This is also the first season they have programmed together since their appointments.) Add to that the involvement of Wolfgang Tillmans - a photographer who, in my opinion, makes a great deal of startling, powerful work - plus soloists Emma Bell, David Butt Philip and Roderick Williams... it's a must.

(Also pleased to note that 'Lucia', 'Merry Widow' and 'Bohème' all feature Choral input! The first two will also lift the hearts of ENO regulars for featuring the wonderful Sarah Tynan in the lead roles: her recent star turns as Partenope and Rosina still linger happily in the memory.)

The same leadership team of Kramer and Brabbins are collaborating on Iain Bell's new opera focusing on the women living in fear for their lives during Jack the Ripper's reign of terror. We're promised a 'showcase for the entire ENO ensemble' (according to the season brochure), not to mention an incredible cast. Also good to see that this is a co-production with Opera North, another admirable company, and an alliance that could see new operas like this get an extended lease of life around the UK and hopefully a stronger push into the repertoire.

During the summer, ENO goes walkabout with two collaborations:
  • 'Dido', a new version of Purcell's 'Dido and Aeneas' for teens upwards at the Unicorn Theatre from 11 May to 2 June 2019.
  • A production of Britten's 'Noye's Fludde' at the excellent Theatre Royal Stratford East, with local talent performing alongside the professionals!
If you're an ENO 'Solo' Friend (sounds a bit lonely, but there are lots of us), you can start booking from 8 May. Yikes, 'tis nearly upon us. Otherwise, booking opens to the general public from 22 May.

Here's a link straight to the ENO website - go take a look. I hope you will join me in seeing as much of the season as possible.

Sunday, 29 April 2018

Liner notes: a trip to the V&A

Isn't it great when an experience - concert, play, film, exhibition, you name it - takes you completely by surprise and blows you away? That happened to me this weekend when I went to see the exhibition 'Ocean Liners' at London's Victoria & Albert Museum - commonly known as the V&A.

For those of you unfamiliar with the V&A, it's in a kind of 'museum quarter', South Kensington, which is also home to our Natural History Museum and Science Museum. These latter two are solid family and tourist attractions, wielding dinosaurs, blue whales, machinery, and lots of buttons to press - arguably, between them, they're the main reason South Kensington can often look a bit like one of those dystopian horror films, where the children have killed all the adults and taken over the world.

Sitting alongside these two cauldrons of mayhem, the V&A is a little like the eccentric cousin who couldn't settle, wandered abroad for decades and come back with a whole load of interesting stuff to show and tell you. Self-branded as 'the world's leading museum of art and design', its broad remit allows it to lay before you the ways various peoples and places have chosen to present themselves - a kind of global image bank, covering anything from fashion to furniture, musical instruments to architecture.

'Ocean Liners' initially sounded a little niche to me. Mrs Specs, a student of old-world society and glamour, suggested we go and I was happy to accompany her - I knew that at the very least I could expect to see some superb examples of graphic design in the various posters and advertisements that would be on display. That sort of thing always, er, floats my boat.

Those stylish images are more or less the first thing you see on entering the exhibition. When we emerged, blinking, a couple of hours later, it was clear we'd been absolutely knocked for six, heads full of unforgettable imagery, dozens of top facts that we hadn't previously been aware of, and that all-important sense of wonder. You could add in a slightly chilly sense of imposter-nostalgia for an age that we didn't actually experience, and was of course, far, far from perfect.

Alive to potential social media enthusiasm, the V&A allows photography throughout the exhibition (except for a few fragile artworks which presumably could suffer if visitors started flashing at them)... so for the rest of this post I will try and say relatively little, and trust that the snaps I took will give you a sense of the show's scope and scale... an idea of how fascinating it turned out to be.

Rest assured, though, that these images are only a scratch - or perhaps a ripple - on the exhibition's surface. If you are from or around the area and can see this, please try and go - it's on until 17 June.


The size and grandeur of the great cruise ships was a key point of emphasis in their publicity material - not just in the posters, as you'd expect, but in other materials: like the illustrated booklet comparing the length of the Queen Mary to the world's tallest buildings.

(I was also pleased to see one of my favourite poster designs - which had, to my mind, a strikingly modern, abstract/symbolic feel - somehow echoed in a later, futurist painting. One point to flag - the poster was too high up for me to get a decent shot, so this is not my photo. In a moment of supreme cunning, I have captured the design from the - ahem - accompanying fridge magnet image.)

The exhibition also evokes the sheer vastness of the liners with some exquisite scale models...

...including this staggering cross-section (I hope the second shot will convey the level of detail - we could have looked at this for hours):

There are plenty of artistic representations of the luxury to be found on board - by the first-class passengers, at least - including the most well-appointed playroom I've ever come across (even Mr Punch - or someone similar - seems to be somewhat taken aback)!

(...take a closer look...)

The V&A's major exhibitions do their utmost to place you inside a space, give the experience three dimensions, and 'Ocean Liners' is no exception, with actual examples of panelling, décor, furniture and other features preserved from the ships. 

The largest room in the exhibition has an almost playful feel, bringing fashion and glamour to the fore - we go briefly 'on deck' in front of a projected ocean, and turn to find a 'virtual' representation of a long staircase down towards an imaginary ballroom dancefloor.


But the exhibition never loses sight of the social and historical environment through which these ships sailed. The rigid passenger hierarchy is clear from the Cunard poster showing how much of the vessel's space was accorded to each class, and later advertisements - as the age of cruise ships began to fade with the arrival of flight - reflect the way travel itself seemed to become more widespread, even democratic.

Finally, war casts its inescapable shadow over the water. As the liners were pressed into military service, they wore the striking 'dazzle' camouflage paint. The medal you can see below - depicting the sinking of the Lusitania - has the strange distinction of being used as propaganda by both Germany (claiming the ship was carrying out military duties) and then Britain (calling out the Germans for the attack on civilians).

I was perhaps most struck by these two exhibits - a Madonna & child and a Torah ark - displayed side by side, both from the Queen Mary. With Europe about to enter another period of darkness, many passengers seeking a new life - and safety - abroad were Jewish. As such, the liner housed both a chapel and synagogue. Given current world events at the time of writing, I think this diptych of inclusivity will haunt me for some days.