Tuesday 18 September 2012

Last Two Nights of the Proms

A week or so late, but at last I'm managing to write up my 'report' on the Big Finale, which for Mrs Specs and I, was spread across two nights. The Last Night of the Proms was, as usual, on the Saturday - but we had been unable to resist the Prom on the Friday night before.

In some ways, the Penultimate Night of the Proms was very modestly programmed but performed by giants: the mighty Vienna Philharmonic (conducted by Bernard Haitink) tackling two pieces, one each side of the interval. Haydn's 'London' Symphony, then Richard 'not the waltz bloke' Strauss's Alpine Symphony.

I hadn't heard the Haydn before. It was his last symphony - only his 104th, the slacker - but it's hard to imagine a less valedictory work. Possibly because he spent the 14 years remaining to him on other, perhaps weightier stuff - oratarios and masses, it would appear, but with a light sprinkling of chamber music to cleanse the palate.

It's tempting - if no doubt massively simplistic, but hey! that's my habitat - to think that he might have given up on the symphonies simply because he knew this one was perfection. It sounds 'easy', because it is lovely. That's not to say it is light, or minor - rather that it is not aiming to challenge or provoke. It wants to make you smile. Admittedly, there is a bit of 'Adagio' at the start, but it's not long before Haydn goes 'Ha! Got you there!' and ups the pace to a happily melodic dance pace, reaching its zenith in the Minuet & Trio. A half-hour of pure pleasure.

The Alpine Symphony - WARNING, NOVICES! Not even a symphony! - is in fact a 'tone-poem', in other words, the music throughout is specifically designed to evoke something real-world or visual. Now - I love everything I've ever heard by R Strauss, so I'm not really impartial here. If you like the soprano voice, seek out his 'Four Last Songs' - you will melt like an ice lolly, in a furnace, dangling inside a volcano, on the sun. Or the famous theme from 2001 - that's RS as well ('Also Sprach Zarathustra').

The Alpine Symphony lasts a full 50 mins with no pauses for breath, although Strauss itemised the individual sections of the piece carefully. It depicts a day in the mountains and glacier from sunrise to sundown, and even 'tells a story' of a tricky expedition where the climbers reach a summit then leg it down as a storm kicks off. The whole thing is tremendously captivating and exciting, but trust me - if you get the chance to see an orchestra 'do a storm', take it. The percussion guys at the back were larging it with actual SHEET METAL in their arsenal for some proper thunder and lightning action. It's always refreshing to see classical players behaving with the same in-your-face gusto that you'd expect at other types of gig. Life-affirming.

(And they went down a, er, storm, too - so much so that the whole orchestra encored, with a piece by Johann 'yes! the waltz guy!' Strauss. Slightly odd but very delicate after the Alpine tour de force. Haitink is adored by the Proms crowd - a delicate figure himself now, but all the energy clearly goes into the conducting.)

So - to the Last Night itself. I think there's actually a bit less to say about this, partly because if you're interested in the Proms at all, you probably know what the last half-hour is always like. We bought into it completely. We had flags. We had a HAT. Okay, there were two of us, so one hat was obviously a bit limited in scope, but Mrs Specs made up for it with antennae with crowns on.

And there were really three of us, because our classical music guru David was also there (a few rows along) and his total, all-consuming love of the occasion was infectious. (David loves the Proms so much, I think he feels the same way about Proms the way I do about food - except that David would go to more than three square Proms a day if he could.) We wondered if the climax of the concert would 'get to us' emotionally - would we tear up at 'Jerusalem', or the anthem? Answer: no, because the main atmosphere at the Last Night is 'Huge Party'. Everyone is just larking about. With an eye on bar profits, I can only assume, the Hall opens a good 1.5 hours before the start time (for other Proms, it's much closer to 45 minutes) so a large percentage of the attendees are 'adequately refreshed' and, in a good way, it shows.

Which makes the rest of the concert all the more interesting. It's clearly programmed for gnat-like attention spans, and that's not a criticism. This Prom has its sights on revellers and casual TV viewers, and if you don't like one thing, something else will be along in a minute. It's like one of those 'Only Classical Album You Will Ever Need' compilations, except that it's live, and rather excitingly off-piste. Yes, we had evergreens 'Nessun Dorma' and Bruch's first Violin Concerto (and both 'stars' of the night, tenor Joseph Calleja and violinist Nicola Benedetti were brilliant value) - but I was also treated to unfamiliar (to me) Shostakovich, Massenet and Dvorak. In particular, there was a charming duet between violin and voice by Leoncavallo, called 'Mattinata'.

And the whole evening kicked off with a brand new work by Mark Simpson called 'sparks', seemingly included just for its Mrs-Specs-scaring qualities (although I rather enjoyed it).

This is an occasion so utterly steeped in tradition that you could easily imagine it wading through a quagmire of Empire-era pea-soup-thick treacle. This year in particular, some of our successful Olympians made a cameo-appearance to an understandably wild reception. But the Last Night also succeeds in the rather less predictable aim of sneaking some relatively unusual spice in with the sugar. It definitely moved me. But for two-thirds of the running time, it jangled my brain more than my heart.

Tuesday 11 September 2012

Janice Whaley: the Sequel!

And in a break from the advertised programme... 8-)  I have two more Proms to write about - including the genuinely unhinged Last Night - but that can wait for a day or two. Especially since we have months stretching out in front of us with no Proms. The memories can only comfort us.

Instead, I'm going to revisit another of my favourite subjects - Janice Whaley - who announced a new campaign on Kickstarter today, making this probably my most topical blog entry yet. *places finger on pulse*.

Most of you reading this will have probably read my first post about Janice, but just in case you haven't, it's here. Please read through it if you can and play some of the videos I posted. For now, I will be ludicrously brief.

Janice's gifts are at the exact meeting point between sublime vocalist and precision engineer. Her first release was an impossibly bold statement (at least, until she made it possible) - 'The Smiths Project' - every single Smiths song performed with just her voice. Layer upon layer of seemingly infinite variations of sound, all fed from larynx to laptop and mixed with some kind of natural (yet painstaking) genius.

Post a video? Oh, ALL RIGHT THEN. 'Rubber Ring' it is.

Then she discovered she was a brilliant songwriter as well, and her album 'Patchwork Life' emerged as something by turns uplifting, eerie and certainly fully-formed. Crucially, it isn't in any way reminiscent of The Smiths. Again, it's 90% voice but with some piano and percussion samples. More than a capella, more than electronica. Here's 'Megalodon' from the album.

Why go back and blog about Janice for a second time? Well, I mentioned the campaign earlier, and if you want to call this an 'advertorial', be my guest. I want as many people as possible to visit Janice's page and back her music. It's a genuine pleasure, actually, to return to an artist after only a couple of months and find how far things have actually moved on.

For a start, Janice has now received some support to hire a marketing specialist - so all of a sudden, she will now be cropping up in more record shops and on more radio stations in her native US. It's easy to sound glib about this sort of thing, but absolutely everything Janice has accomplished musically has been achieved against a more fraught and relentless background than you would ever imagine from the glacial calm of her work (again, see my earlier post). The business support will free up more of her time to focus on her music and her growing fanbase.

The latest campaign - says this totally biased fanboy - has everything the discerning and sophisticated music lover could want. There is a wild - wild, I say - array of packages to choose from. Because some of us are now starting to collect her music (and making suitably arcane format requests), the lead items in the new offers are on limited edition vinyl. But scratch the surface (ho ho ho!) and all of her back catalogue is there on download or CD as well. I don't believe you will regret a single note of anything you buy.

Here ends the message from our sponsors. If my writing about this woman's music communicates half the enthusiasm I feel for it - and a minute fraction of the pleasure the records give me - then it will have worked. It's not the first time I've written about Janice Whaley, and it won't be the last, either.

Other musicians are available. But very few of them are as original and talented as this one. Investigate.

Thursday 6 September 2012

More Proms: Nixon ... and Cameron

Last night I went to 'The Opera' for only about ... (*counts on fingers*) ... the fourth time in my life. As this was the Proms, it wasn't a fully-staged affair, more of a concert performance - but of the whole work. I was slightly apprehensive, as the opera in question was 'Nixon in China', the first by contemporary composer John Adams, and first performed in 1987, only 15 years after Nixon's visit to Mao actually took place. (The folk sitting next to me began to discuss where they were in 1972 when the trip made the news. Felt quite young, which is pretty unusual at gigs these days...)

I suppose I am a textbook 'casual' opera fan - I own a few on CD, but if pressed, I'm more familiar with particular arias or excerpts from opera compilations or TV. Any I've tackled before in their entirety have been the conventionally accepted classics - Puccini, Verdi ... oh, and I saw a production of Tchaikovsky's 'Eugene Onegin' in my student days. More of that later.

But I'd never seen any contemporary opera. How 'challenging' was it going to be? And the subject matter - would it be just ... silly? If by now you're wondering what the hell I was doing there - it's because I love Adams's instrumental music. Seek out 'Shaker Loops' or 'Short Ride in a Fast Machine' if you don't know them (there's a Naxos disc containing both). Adams often seems to be described as a minimalist composer but not, I suspect, in the sense that everything is basic and bare; more that a fixed number of ideas are fully turned over and explored. He is totally unafraid of hooks and repetition and, surely, for any of us who have come to classical music after, say, electronica or metal, it seems like a very natural way to put a track together.

So I was curious about how this would translate to opera. Answer: with absolutely zero fuss. The libretto, by Alice Goodman, is an endlessly fascinating piece of poetry in its own right. It banished my fears that an entire opera sung in English might just strike me as odd after hearing the indecipherable beauty of performances in another language. (I've now decided that the old production of 'Onegin' is to blame for this prejudice - that was sung in translation and I've always remembered one of the nerve-shredding climaxes to an act being graced with the words: 'There goes a shepherd. The world is at peace. I'm not.')

The action of the story is by turns satirical and surreal. Richard and Pat Nixon arrive in (the then) Peking and a series of events take place across the first two acts: Dick and Mao's first verbal sparring match; a welcome dinner for the US party; Pat's sightseeing tour; and finally an extraordinary section where the Nixons watch a ballet performance that features the violent punishment of a peasant girl and, basically, get stuck in and try and help her out. My immediate reaction to this is that it symbolises the wider action, suggesting the US blundering in to try and engage foolishly with a culture and people they can never understand. Who knows?

Mao's wife - a terrifying creature who is portrayed as the engine driving her husband's actions - emerges as a key figure in this scene as she sings a climactic aria about power and revolution. Like Lady Macbeth, she uses visceral, anatomical imagery to convey her conquering any potential weakness. After the mayhem subsides, the final act features the story's main players - from East and West - reflecting quietly, not only on the visit, but on their lives and careers. There's no attempt at realism by this point - the characters' thoughts zig-zag across each other as though they could almost converse, but they cannot all be in the same room or space at the same time. The dialogue is both abstract and affecting, leaving you - deliberately, I'm sure - in two minds about where your sympathies, if any, might lie.

Excitingly, Adams was there himself, to conduct. And his music was in fact - just as I expected. The same repetitive hooks and driving rhythms but with colourful and evocative touches - the use of sax, for example, to add a jazz feel (at one point Pat sings, 'I like it when they play our tunes'). Somehow he finds the meeting point between 'riffs' that one could arguably recognise as his own, fully-formed style, and motifs that are reminiscent of Chinese music - especially when played on synthesiser, so you can't readily fit the noise to a familiar instrument. I also think he must have a highly attentive ear for speech and how to match the music appropriately - for example, characters speaking in an 'aside' would suddenly sing more quickly and quietly.

I was absolutely rapt for every single minute. I want to mention one bit of stagecraft in closing - all the more brilliant because, at the Proms, performances like this are only ever 'semi-staged', if that. One of the original huge moments in the opera is the landing of the American plane at the airport. Musically, it's tremendous, but in 'proper' productions, an enormous plane facade is used on stage to deliver the Nixons into the action. Instead, last night, as the music built to the jet's arrival, the chorus began passing a model aeroplane along the row, above their heads. It then went down to the row below, that little bit nearer to us, until finally, one of the chorus gave the plane to Nixon, who by this time was walking down the steps to the stage. Nixon took it without missing a beat, then presented it as a gift to Mao later in the scene. Genius.

I should also quickly mention the Proms matinees Mrs Specs and I caught last weekend. Both were recitals by Cameron Carpenter, a virtuoso organist, of Bach - and other pieces (some by the performer) influenced by the great wigateer. Carpenter is certainly eccentric - he comes across as a kind of Morrissey or Marc Almond of the organ, and performed on both days in a sleeveless t-shirt and sequined trousers. (More of this sort of thing.) His brief half-time interviews with the Radio 3 bloke were full of pithy quips and wry observations, but crucially - and I appreciate this wouldn't have been amazing for the radio audience - he simply appears to be doing things that humans cannot do.

He arranged one piece for pedals only, so he could lean back on his chair and rest his arms. The noise he was making with his feet alone seemed to render the rest of the machine unnecessary. He mashes up material - some of which was never intended for the organ in the first place - from different composers to create new organ works. And even better than that, he's DESIGNED a portable digital organ, which - once built - will allow him to tour freely with whatever repertoire he likes and not rely on any unpredictable pipe organs he might find in various venues. Chap!

iPlayer links for the next few days (so don't tarry) - 'Nixon' starts here, and Cameron Carpenter starts here.

Always good to catch the chap in the picture, too. Surely we can get him onto the Proms stage one day...?