Monday 23 June 2014

Voicing concerns

Well, these aren't the kind of 'mad scenes' I'd normally be expecting.

Rewind approximately a month, and you would have found me writing something that felt profoundly odd for me at the time - a reaction/comment-type piece about how important I think it is to respond positively and humanely to those in the arts. (And by the way, in itself, it was one of the most warmly-received and appreciated posts I've published - so thank you to everyone who enjoyed and shared it - in particular, the folk at The Rocking Vicar, who gave it a second life and audience.) I wondered if I'd return to the subject. Yes, it tuns out. Sooner than I thought.

I wrote the original post in response to what seemed, at the time, an extraordinary incident. To re-cap as briefly as possible - several opera reviewers, reviewing a particular production, all homed in on one female performer in particular and commented disparagingly on her looks and physique. Sexist journalism: hardly news. Snotty arts criticism: not unknown. But the lethal combination of the two - and the licence the writers felt, independently it seems, they had to make such remarks - ignited something dormant, and fans and performers fought fiercely back.

Never an artform to do things by halves, in the few weeks since, the opera world has completely, comprehensively kicked off. Across the pond, New York's Metropolitan Opera (the 'Met') has cancelled the global cinema broadcasts of its production of John Adams's 'The Death of Klinghoffer', apparently due to fears it could provoke anti-semitic thought (the opera covers the murder of a disabled Jewish passenger during the hijack of the liner Achille Lauro). And, switching hemispheres for a moment, Opera Australia has 'released' a soprano due to appear in one of its upcoming productions, for homophobic remarks she made on her Facebook page last year.

I assume this is all coincidence rather than some kind of, er, 'operademic', and that - sad to relate - all kinds of hate-fuelled 'isms' flourish in the media and on the net, all the time, that have nothing to do with opera at all. However, in these instances, opera seems to have done in real life what it usually does onstage: dramatise and amplify these extreme emotions and reactions.

Take the soprano. While she seems to have made evasions and denials, the post in question is hideously strong, and I don't suppose the company had any real choice over their eventual decision. I say 'eventual' because it looked for a time like they would keep her - until the reaction against her, which has now itself been called a witch-hunt, became overwhelming. The perplexing thing is surely that to publish such a post on Facebook would amount to career suicide, as soon as it came to light. Whatever her future holds, I think that she has done herself the most damage. It's very easy to believe that those abusing her in return are, also, much like their target, looking for somewhere, anywhere, to point all that directionless anger.

(Image of opera CD cover, taken from the Amazon entry.)

The Klinghoffer cancellation (hmm - sounds like an undiscovered Robert Ludlum novel) seems more thorny and obscure to me the more I think about it. The official line is that overseas broadcast of the opera may in some way contribute towards currently emerging anti-semitic feeling in Europe. Bear in mind - the staging of the opera at the Met is going ahead: the director has stated that he does not believe the opera is actually anti-semitic. Only the cinema relays have been abandoned, apparently as a compromise to the relevant pressure groups protesting against the work's subject matter.

Predictably, many responses to this news have revolved around the principles of artistic licence and free speech, which inevitably make the issues seem black and white. Either you can say it, or you can't. Frustratingly, I haven't seen much material attempting to place all of this in context (which - I hasten to add - does not mean it isn't out there). This is not straightforward.

  • The opera has been accused of anti-semitism from its first airing. Is it possible, then, to mount a production now without first having taken the decision to withstand any protests it might attract?
  • Given the flak it draws for supposedly being 'elitist', I can't help thinking that opera is being credited with a disproportionate level of influence here. These relays take place on a single day (with sometimes a follow-up showing), at the same time. Then they're gone. It's tempting to think that more people are considering the racist/anti-semitic question now than if the Met had quietly got on with showing the opera.
  • John Adams and his collaborators engage willingly and repeatedly with relatively recent, difficult political subjects and demonstrate that they are alive to the complexities involved. If the problem with 'Klinghoffer' is that it doesn't make monsters of the terrorists and resists dehumanisation to present the historical context.... well, look at 'Nixon in China', which presents east/west, left/right, US/Chinese differences and tensions in an uncompromisingly sophisticated, heightened and even surreal way. His form shows awareness, not ignorance.
And to add to that, the situation also highlights the possibilities of uncovering 'ism' within 'ism' within 'ism'. Should I detect racism in the implication that audiences on the spot will understand it but those of us outside the US are too dim to handle the nuances? Is there sexism - or even 'selective anti-semitism' - in the absence of any representation of whatever comment Alice Goodman might offer? She wrote the libretto, and was herself brought up a Jew.

I would not have necessarily predicted that I would be sitting here, typing, and thinking about enormous questions of human rights, through the prism of opera. It seems to me that all three situations here have something to do with that cliche - 'free speech'. A noble idea, so often bent and shaped into the conviction that anyone can say what they like.

Free speech is not an ideal term because it comes with a cost. People have paid up to and including the ultimate price so that we can have it. For it to work universally, we need to bear with the idea that along with the exchange of knowledge, ideas and respect, we will get prejudice and hate speech. Then we deal with that accordingly - not because we are intolerant and inflexible, but because we are intelligent and insightful. We need to spend time and effort making sure we use such a gift wisely.

To come full circle - it brought me down to read the editorial in the latest issue of a leading UK opera magazine, which leapt to the defence of the critics I referred to at the start. It repeated the insults - one in the heading of the leader. It made out the reviewers were being 'mild' in comparison to the ire they drew. It discussed bad costume, as though the woman receiving the slight should in some way take comfort from being somehow 'made' ridiculous. After a full page, it expressed the apparent hope the 'debate' would not be 'reignited'. And chiefly, it seemed, among its objections was that the critics' critics 'knew little about opera'. Ah well, then. No wonder. What can you expect from such rabble?

Of course, the editor can think these things, and has a right to say them. But he should have had the grace not to say them. Opera - like all art - is for everyone; those knowing a little less about it might have tried 'Klinghoffer' cheaply at the movies and had their musical and political brains fired into life; or gone to hear the opera that kickstarted all this and loved every note without a thought for historically appropriate bodyshape or costume. How much use is it to know everything about opera if you know so little about people?

Saturday 14 June 2014

Bass nature: 'Winterreise'

While discovering more and more about opera - and as a result, falling in love with 'the voice' and what it can do - it's perhaps not surprising that I've also developed a mild addiction to classical song. The genre encompasses work in many shapes and sizes, but the type of song I'm talking about in this post is possibly the most well-known: 'lieder' - that is, songs setting German poetry to music, usually for voice and piano only.

Poetry? Just voice and piano? You might be tempted to think, then, that lieder (or song in general) is a kind of low-key alternative for when you're not feeling quite robust enough for an opera; when all you really fancy is a snack, not a four-course meal. Not a bit of it. The often exquisite combination of beauty and intensity found in great song can have as profound an effect on the emotions as any full-blown orchestral drama - and probably the most celebrated example of this is Schubert's 'Winterreise'.

Schubert was not by any means the first composer to tackle 'songwriting', but he is arguably the foremost. Leaving aside personal taste, there are probably two 'claims to fame' that give him this potentially definitive placing. To start with, he was incredibly prolific, with over 700 songs to his credit. The pianist Graham Johnson managed to record them all (with the help of some 60 singers) for Hyperion Records. It took over a decade - with the CDs being released as they went along - but the resulting 'complete' box set (one day... one day...) holds 40 discs and looks like you might need to keep it in your piano.

And secondly, he wrote two song cycles that are now regarded as immortal high watermarks of the genre: 'Die Schöne Müllerin' (literally the "Lovely Female Miller", I believe - bit odd in English - so usually given as "The Fair Miller-Maid", or similar) and 'Winterreise' ("Winter Journey"). He may even have invented the idea of a song-cycle itself, but the available intelligence seems a bit vague - 'Die Schöne Müllerin' is apparently the earliest example still in regularly-performed repertoire, but I suppose that could mean that Schubert's predecessors tried and failed to successfully create an extended sequence that lasted or worked so well. (Wikipedia mentions the earlier Beethoven work 'An die ferne Geliebte', or "To the Distant Beloved", where the 'narrative' is musical rather than textual, and while the songs are linked, they do not tell a story. So you can vote for Ludwig or Franz according to your personal preference! Phone lines close at....)

Both the cycles are based on series of linked narrative poems by Wilhelm Müller. The earlier work is a romantic tragedy - young man loses the affection of the miller's daughter to another, then apparently drowns himself in the brook (the final lullaby is actually in the voice of the water, soothing him to sleep). 'Winterreise', however, is rather more enigmatic. Again, the narrator loses his love to another - but we find this out in the first verse of the first song. What follows is a brilliantly-worked 'abstract' journey that, on one level, depicts our storyteller leaving town and the failed romance behind him. However, the natural phenomena he encounters - wind, snow, ice - are all made to reflect back on his deteriorating mental state, so that it's as much an inward voyage as an outer one. The final song, 'Der Leiermann' (meaning an organ-grinder or hurdy-gurdy player), has him musing whether to accompany the 'strange old man' - yes, the stranger could be Death, perhaps, but the circular drone of the hurdy-gurdy - chillingly reflected in the piano accompaniment - could also mean that the journey is in fact never-ending. Tempting to draw this conclusion, when the opening song is called 'Good Night' - as if we could drop in on the traveller anywhere in the cycle and listen through until we got back to where we came in.

Schubert was dying when setting 'Winterreise', and many have speculated about how much his knowledge of how ill he was must have found an expression in the melancholy, maturity and mystery of the cycle. I don't doubt it - but the layered interrogation of the narrator's mind is all there in the original poetry. Schubert's genius is to find exactly the right melody and accompaniment, 24 times over, to bring to life both the internal and external worlds of the traveller. I've added a series of YouTube videos here - for consistency, they are all from the same version, which is also rather interesting to look at: a specially-filmed 'arthouse' presentation from 1997 with Ian Bostridge (then looking positively adolescent), the superb tenor who somehow conveys fragility and edginess without losing any vocal power, with seemingly telepathic pianist Julius Drake. I've included a selection just to demonstrate how the piano's 'character' aligns with the song's subject.

The second song describes the wind on a weather-vane - and you can hear the staccato spin, stop and switch in the accompaniment.

Song 4 - 'Numbness' - is clearly a marvellous showcase for the singer, but the piano generates such agitated speed while seemingly trapped for much of the track on a jittery, insistent repeated bass figure, unable to move freely.

Song 8 - a 'look back' - has the narrator stumbling in his haste to leave town - and JD emphasises the panicked 'running' between IB's breathless phrases:

Finally, here is the meeting with the hurdy-gurdy man (listen for that circular, melancholy figure):

A great deal of classical song is available in versions for different voice ranges, so male and female soloists up and down the entire scale have the opportunity to make their mark on the canon. 'Winterreise', originally written for tenor, occupies a rightful place as a 'rite of passage' for many singers and there are a dizzying number of recordings available. There is a kind of 'grandfather' of renditions by the great baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau from 1962 - and there have also been some thrilling (and well-reviewed) versions in literally the last year or so by people you might have a fighting chance of hearing perform it live. Superstar tenor Jonas Kaufmann has made it his latest album, and given the sheer heft of his stage voice, it's fascinating to compare his 'caged tiger' with the 'I really might be about to fall apart' Bostridge approach. I also love the brilliant new recording by baritone Gerald Finley and the spectacular live CD by mezzo Alice Coote (on the Wigmore Hall label). Perhaps it's no coincidence that both of these latter releases feature Julius Drake on piano.... did my recent first experience of 'Winterreise' live. This concert was in Middle Temple Hall, organised by the Temple Music Foundation. Singing with JD this time was the great bass Sir John Tomlinson. I'd seen him in a Proms 'Parsifal' and Royal Opera House 'Wozzeck', so I knew what a charismatic chap he is. I was intrigued by what it would be like to see and hear him up close. (Middle Temple Hall has a shallow, wide auditorium layout, so you are fairly near the performance area provided you do manage to bag a seat somewhere near the centre.) I'd also noticed - in my ongoing hobby of surfing Amazon and trying to resist buying more versions of 'Winterreise' - that in general the number of bass recordings seems to lag behind the number of other registers, and JT in particular seems to have no recorded or even performance history with the work at all. (Please correct me if I'm wrong, someone.) So, while it seems odd for someone with a 50-year career to be singing anything for the first time, it crossed my mind that we might actually be witnessing something a little out of the ordinary.

And so it proved. The rumble of JT's booming voice (also reflected in the lower piano arrangement) felt physical - vibrations I could detect from my seat - in a way I would usually associate with some of the louder rock gigs I go to. This was the polar opposite of the unstable, neurotic Bostridge characterisation - a version laden with grit and determination, a wilful and visceral throwing off of the shackles to the old town and old love. Of course, JT is a great singing actor - so not only could we assume (if we wanted to) that he was merely taking on the persona of a younger man, but also his faraway looks and total absorption in the music made it easy to believe that the events of the tale could easily have happened in his youth and this was the same narrator years later, still on his inner/outer journey, still trapped in the cycle. Only difference now is the voice is deeper. It's appealing to imagine this immortal character living over and over again through all the different voices that have taken on his songs, drifting down (on the male side) through tenor, baritone then bass, as he ages. (It's also impossible to cast aside the notion that older soloists in the closing stages of their careers might bring a 'while I still can' element to 'Winterreise', and who knows what additional poignancy the closing songs in the sequence might carry for them?)

I would be lying if I didn't say the experience had its surreal moments. For this 'winter journey', we were all packed in a sweltering hall on what must've been one of the hottest nights of the year. During the most demanding songs, JT went the colour of beetroot, wiping sweat from his brow - and it is quite disconcerting to have a man of considerable years sing 'Mein herz!' ("my heart!") repeatedly while clutching his chest for emphasis. But he knew exactly what he was capable of - he didn't remove his jacket or take a sip of water throughout the whole 70 minute sequence. He seemed, in no time, to simply relax into it, open up that fathomlessly rich voice, and assume the character. Drake found exactly the right balance between background and ballast. Despite the pile of 'Winterreise' CDs forming an icy, forbidding tower near the hi-fi, I would love to hear the two of them record this.

Sunday 8 June 2014

Jo Quail: the fire beneath the cauldron

Greetings. I enjoy writing this blog for all kinds of reasons: it gives me the opportunity to 'think out loud' about art and music that interests me; I can keep a record for posterity of performances, exhibitions and experiences that have thrilled and excited me. But the single most exhilarating thing is to spread the word about people, artists and musicians I love.

Regular visitors here (thank you, darlings, thank you) will almost certainly recall Jo Quail's name, and the enthusiasm and admiration I have for her music. For those unfamiliar, a quick summary. Jo writes contemporary classical/folk pieces of originality and depth, designed for her to perform on her electric cello and loop station. At the same time, she is a fearless and innovative player, able to merge sublime melodies with unstoppable rhythms, equally comfortable with complex harmonies and freeform improvisation. On stage, this all comes to life as, solo, she gives one virtuoso performance after another. Co-ordinating hands on bow and cello with feet dancing across the loop pedals, she builds herself up in layers - gathering in elements of folk and electronica - until she becomes a one-woman chamber orchestra.

June is a red letter month for Jo and her fans. The new album, 'Caldera', is out on the 30th, with a launch gig in London a couple of days beforehand. (The amazing cover, by the way, was photographed and designed by Karolina Urbaniak - here's her website.) So, if you're yet to hear Jo's music, now is a perfect time to make that discovery. The album has already had a couple of, well, 'singles' released into society. To start with, watch this:

(video directed by Richard Wakefield of FX Media)

'Adder Stone' contains so much of what really fires me up about Jo's music - the bookending sections powering along with the drive of any rock record, the overlapping tunes developing into longer lines and circling back towards the bassline, and the tense magnetism of the ambient passage in the middle. (Plus, isn't it just a joy to watch? The matching earthy tones of the armour-like dress, church interior and the shore ... where the cello is seen merging with the sand and rock. Great stuff.)

And a live version of the track 'Laurus' is available to download from the Chaos Theory website - a little way down the homepage. (Chaos Theory are a terrific bunch, putting on events showcasing all kinds of underground and alternative artists, so have a good look around the site while you're there.) Here is a brilliant live video of 'Laurus' - not the same performance as the download - where the director, Michael Fletcher (see more of his work here) has done a fantastic job of showing the sheer skill and speed of Jo's hands and feet as the track takes off. I hope this prompts you to download your own copy of the track, because it is particularly special - recorded in a church acoustic, the clarity is exceptional, and spine-tingling moments like the descending run of notes (2.22 in this video), are more spellbinding in their beauty than ever.

If you're in London on Saturday 28 June, try and come to the album launch concert at the Islington. It will be an extraordinary night - the record live in its entirety, in an intimate venue. There are a limited number of tickets available, in two 'levels' - with a copy of the album - signed! - included (here), or 'admission only' (here). And if you can't make the concert, follow this link to Jo's website, to find out more and pre-order a copy of the album.

If I had unlimited funds and resources, Jo is one of the select group of musicians whose work I would press into the hands of everyone I met. Her music is original, powerful, seductive, soulful and inspiring. Seemingly founded in something ancient and classical, there is mystery, mischief and modernity layered over the top, resulting in a beautiful strange brew. Take it in.