Wednesday 28 October 2015

Good grief

*Lies down on couch, analyses self*

I hope I'm not generally thought of as the unfeeling type, but one emotional phenomenon that I've always struggled with is grief for public figures. It's always seemed to me that when death takes the famous, at that moment more than any other they are the same as the rest of us: the spotlight is turned off, and their loved ones can have the privilege of mourning in private. How could I 'share' that, even if I wanted to? Who am I to intrude, even remotely?

(To give probably one of the most extreme examples in recent history - I could not 'buy into' the mass outpouring of sorrow when Princess Diana died. Not because I had any 'pro' or 'anti' feelings about Diana - simply because she wasn't my partner, or mum, or friend. It wasn't just that I couldn't share in the grief - I felt that I shouldn't.)

And yet - this week, the esteemed film critic Philip French died, in his eighties and (mostly) retired, a grand old man of the profession. Ordinarily, I would have remarked on the sadness of the occasion - but also the greatness of the achievements - and moved on. But not this time. I felt sad, in spite of the knowledge that French had led a long life, well lived. And not through some imagined 'connection' with his family, either - I still feel that their grief belongs to them, and it is not something French's public have the automatic right to access. No: I felt sorry for me. At my loss. What on earth was happening?

(Philip French, photographed for the Observer in 2007 by Richard Saker - featuring in the Guardian website's 'life in pictures' piece on French this week - take a look here.)

I tried to think if I'd had this reaction before and one other name sprang to mind: John Peel. For the uninitiated, Peel was a unique figure in UK radio - a tireless champion of new and unusual music well into his veteran days. For many youthful listeners he was the groovy uncle who would shine a torch into musical corners you didn't even know were there: dub reggae, speed metal and grindcore, techno, indie - it was all uncharted - and uncharting - territory. Peel died suddenly in his mid-sixties back in 2004.

I'm adopted. Whether this has something to do with my 'disconnect' from public empathising, I don't know, but I certainly don't have the same impulse as those adoptees who feel they have a piece missing, and who head out to seek their biological parents. I'm not interested. I accept this must be partly linked to my good fortune at being adopted at 6 days old - so there are no memories for me of 'parentless' times or any kind of interim or substitute care. Equally, Mum and Dad are, frankly, my Mum and Dad - no-one else had the wherewithal, or the qualifications, and then the sheer stamina and gusto to shape me into a sentient being, so they deserve all the credit (or blame) going.

But if you're adopted, you are perhaps more given to thinking from time to time about how you're put together. My enviable looks and physique (*ahem*) are presumably thanks to anonymous nature, but my mind and soul are surely 100% nurture - and not all from Mum and Dad. For example, both my folks would agree in an instant that my obsession with music was almost entirely due to my grandmother on Mum's side, who got me playing and listening as soon as I could lift a piano lid. Equally, Lilian was a heroically open-minded listener herself, and I could take any old noise I was currently into, by any band, and she would give it a spin, and explain exactly why she might really like certain elements but recoil from others. One of my fondest memories of her is when I was staying with her once, and we turned on the TV to find a world-music awards show on, back when this stuff wasn't just a click away. A new soundworld to us both, we couldn't switch off and spent a happy evening discussing the performances. Lots of shared love for Salif Keita, I recall.

For all my nan's efforts, there would of course be gaps in my personality that no-one in my immediate surroundings was going to fill. Do we subconsciously keep looking all the time for people to help us complete the jigsaw puzzle of our character? If I had not been huddled next to my radio each evening, listening to John Peel, then yes - I would still like music - but would I have had the same voracious appetite for it - the need (and it is a need - I feel it) to try out every genre, to explore every musical nook and cranny that I can, and try not to miss out on anything--? No. Of course not.

And when I was discovering my inner film nut in my student days and into my twenties - with access not just to mainstream movies but all the old, foreign and arthouse films playing in the local rep cinemas - Philip French's weekly review columns were an addiction. It felt like you were receiving simple advice about which films to see - the tone was that light and concise - but actually, by the end, you had learnt so much, with French weaving in just the right amount of context and critique, so that chances were you'd suddenly be in the know about twice as many films as you previously thought. Again, like some kind of remote mentor, it wasn't that he suddenly made me like films - I always loved the cinema. But he changed the way I would watch and learn about movies, helped me understand their history and unfolded the map for me to explore.

Just like it is with your actual teachers, you fall away from these influential figures. When Peel died, there was of course a chorus of 'gone too soon' but I wasn't mourning for all those shows that weren't to be. I hadn't listened for years. He'd already worked his magic on me - as had French, many of whose later columns I missed simply through not bothering with a Sunday paper. But all the same, I'd be seeking out new films, directors, genres (often on DVD, with gig tickets swallowing up my cinema money!) purely because of him - no-one else.

You will all, I'm sure, have your own Peel and French equivalents. I never met them, but they played a vital role in making me who I am. I am fascinated by the fact they are not music or film makers themselves: they are the enthusiasts who went ahead of me, who helped me to decide and articulate why I also love the artforms that they loved. Their passing makes me sad, but also thankful they were here at all; they make me nostalgic for the times when they made such an impression on me, and guilty for the years I wasn't listening. So I feel all right about grieving for them, because without them, I probably would be someone with pieces missing.

Sunday 18 October 2015

Show stoppers: Jonas Kaufmann at the Royal Festival Hall

This was always going to be an interesting one. Kaufmann is, as many of you will know, an operatic megastar: a tenor who seemingly 'has it all' - he's in demand for German, Italian and French repertoire as well as maintaining a long-standing commitment to lieder performance with pianist Helmut Deutsch. He's building up a formidable discography with albums mostly dedicated to surveys of particular composers: 'Wagner', 'The Verdi Album' and now 'Nessun Dorma - The Puccini Album'. And - there's no dodging this - his charisma and sex appeal have resulted in terms like 'Kaufmania' to describe the fervour of some of his more 'enthusiastic' fanbase. (His last high-profile appearance in London, the Last Night of the Proms, even involved some knicker-throwing ... Tom Jonas, anyone? Well, moving on...)

So, in short, around JK, there's a lot of noise. What roles he should be singing. Whether he can possibly live up to his hype - or indeed, the high ticket prices you have to pay to hear him. Whether he is 'selling out' by dipping his toes into, say, operetta (the recent album 'You Mean the World to Me').

To declare my starting position: I'm already a fan, though not exactly a fanatic. When I first got into opera, I heard more Wagner than anything else (thanks to my obsessed pal David) and the rich, expansive sound of JK - not to mention the sheer power and stamina, and the fact that German is his native language - mean he's probably at his best here. The 'Wagner' album and the DVD of 'Parsifal' at the Metropolitan Opera would perhaps be good cases in point. I really enjoy his CDs, while being aware that it's partly because of his status that he gets to make brilliant CDs. As a card-carrying lieder nut, I can appreciate his sensitivity and control on discs of Strauss and Schubert. I've seen him live in 'Manon Lescaut' and thought him little short of phenomenal - voice pinning us to the backs of our seats even in the Royal Opera House amphitheatre, and acting up a storm, benefiting from a terrific chemistry with Kristine Opolais in the title role.

Now, here he was, in support of the new record, performing an all-Puccini programme with conductor Jochen Rieder and the London Philharmonic Orchestra (the main 'house band' at the Southbank). What would it actually be like? Ultra-correct and serious? More like a gig? Somewhere in between?

To get, I suppose, something resembling a gripe out of the way first - the concert was a somewhat distant relative of the CD, which has 16 vocal tracks. Here, JK was actually performing 7 arias out of a total of 15 selections, otherwise drawn from Puccini's preludes and intermezzos. I realise comparing the classical and rock worlds isn't always helpful, but I was imagining what, say, a Springsteen concert would be like if Bruce actually left the stage for every other song, leaving the E-Street Band gamely playing instrumentals for half the gig. Your knee-jerk reaction might be: "Well - that's different" - but is it that different? Especially since we know JK is capable of singing for epic running times - I would argue tirelessness and energy are among his chief qualities.

I don't expect JK to sing an entire concert without any breathers. But the protocol of these things meant that after every aria he left the stage, then came back on after the orchestral interlude, and so on - alternating throughout. So there was a lot of stop-start-applause taking up time that could've been usefully occupied by more music. Also, I felt that billing this particular programme - which was, to my mind, a concert of exquisite Puccini with a really special soloist - as a 'Jonas Kaufmann' event rather downplayed the orchestra's role. As it turned out, the LPO were not only doing much of the 'heavy lifting' but more than that, were utterly superb, clearly alive to the sense of occasion and making a real case (should one be needed) for the excellence of Puccini in instrumental mode.

To put that thought into context, our view is in the photo below - I've never quite been that 'on top' of an orchestra before.

It made me appreciate a number of things afresh. The sheer physical effort and dexterity needed - the visible movement going into the enterprise, the 'single organism' tautness of the sound, through to the deftness required even to turn pages. And the broad smiles on all of their faces, aware - I hope - that they were playing a blinder. And while I expect an overall 'mood' to prevail when seeing a single opera, hearing so much disparate Puccini from all points of his career really brought home to me the filmic sweep of his sound, so consistent from earlier, lesser known works right up to the 'greatest hits'.

So... I was a bit miffed on the LPO's behalf. But if you think that means my overall response is negative... well, think again. On its own terms, it was a terrific concert. At the side and near the front, we had horns and the lower strings more or less beneath us... so I was thinking, JK's probably doing brilliantly if we even hear him ok over here. And the point is: he delivers. He does, in fact, take the affair very seriously. He is in formal dress, and aside from some pleading arm gestures, moves very little. You realise that it's all there, in the voice - yes, there's the unstoppable volume, blasting like a JCB through the orchestra, but also the timbre is working its emotional magic as well. It took me and my untrained ear a while to get used to the variation in the voice 'up top' - at quieter moments it almost seemed to have changed into another sound, a bit more tender, 'lieder-y' (technical term). I tried to explain what I meant to my learned Twitter friend David, who explained that it was probably use of head rather than chest voice to negotiate those passages.

(Regular readers of the blog - thank you, darlings, thank you - may have realised that 'Twitter David' and 'Wagner David' are two separate people. Clearly, the learning from this is that if you have any kind of musical question, simply ask the nearest person called David and they will be happy to help you.)

But in the end the variation in tone simply brought to the fore another side to this roaring talent. The sequence might've been bitty, but it was clever: the obscure choices upfront, followed by arias belonging to characters JK has played recently and has right at his fingertips, allowing the intensity and excitement to build: Des Grieux in 'Manon Lescaut', Cavaradossi in 'Tosca', and Dick in 'La Fanciulla Del West'. The famous aria from 'Tosca' ('E lucevan le stelle') was beautifully handled, with the audience hanging on every word (no mean feat, given that one attendee chose this aria to fall into a coughing fit so flamboyantly tubercular, it sounded like they were actually exploding). My personal highlight was 'Una parola sola' from 'Fanciulla' (one of my favourite operas in any case), delivered with appropriately desperate melodrama and gusto.

The closing number of the concert, then, was to be 'Nessun Dorma' itself ... thanks to Three Tenors / World Cup etc, surely one of the most widely known and loved arias ever. Again, to be cynical, there are solid commercial reasons for naming JK's Puccini CD after the song, but I can't imagine how terrifying it must be as a singer trying to make your own personal stamp on it. However, anyone who saw JK perform this at the Last Night of the Proms will know that the tune just pours out of him - I've added the YouTube video to give you an idea. The version we heard was without choir, and some of the quiet notes were quieter - but we couldn't have asked for more from the climax, JK seemingly summoning up the power of at least three tenors, the searing, soaring notes filling the auditorium - you could be fooled into thinking the roof had actually been raised.

Three encores - pleasingly upping the Kaufmann content of the evening! - sent us happily into the night. JK was astonishing and, since I'd never heard him 'up close', still an absolute vocal revelation to me. But thanks to the LPO under Rieder, and perhaps most of all Puccini, I will remember the occasion as a thrilling team effort.

Tuesday 6 October 2015

Recital round-up: back at the Wigmore Hall

I last wrote up some visits to the best venue in the universe, Wigmore Hall, back in August. Hardly any time seems to have passed and the hallowed space is open again after the summer break. For reasons I'll go on to explain, if anything my trips there are likely to increase further... and I even astonished myself when I sat down to gather my thoughts for this post and realised I'd been to six concerts this season already.

With that in mind, I will have to settle for giving you just brief impressions of each gig - since they were all beautiful, and worthy of mention. If the survey approach does nothing else, I will be happy if it conveys just how lucky we are in London to have a place like this - that allows us to enjoy such virtuosic performances in a relatively intimate, and acoustically immaculate, setting.

(A note on the clips: I wanted to share some of the songs that I particularly enjoyed from the concerts, but often those particular pieces have not made it to CD or YouTube recorded by the same team. So, to avoid any unnecessary compare/contrast antics with contemporary performers, I've pasted in historic renditions by the great Lucia Popp, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Nicolai Gedda.)

I also wrote recently about the mezzo-soprano Alice Coote, following her superb performance of Handel arias at the Proms, with the English Concert. Now I was at the WH only just over a week later to hear her sing a full programme of lieder by R Strauss, Wagner and Wolf, accompanied by Julius Drake. Although I have heard AC in recital before, hearing this particular concert so close to the Handel evening was fascinating - to me it underlined how consistent her approach is, whatever the material.

AC seems to me one of the most generous of performers. It isn't just a case of 'giving everything you've got' - it's more that she inhabits each song so completely, it's as if she has fashioned it into its own miniature opera. While Wagner's 'Wesenonck Lieder' were understandably placed as the climax of the concert (how better to finish than a heart-rending 'Traume'?), the song that still haunts me is Strauss's 'Geduld' ('Patience') - a tale of love denied, so searingly rendered here that I caught my breath at several points. JD, always brilliantly chameleonic when required, tracked every change in mood and intent like a telepath. An extrordinary night.

At my only lunchtime concert of the season so far, I saw a soprano whose appeal perhaps rests in taking a polar opposite approach. I first heard Anna Caterina Antonacci sing live in a concert given by the Royal Opera House orchestra, performing Chausson. Utterly enigmatic, she came to life when singing, then during the instrumental passages, just rested within the music, swaying gently, eyes half-closed. It was as if we, the audience, weren't there - and I mean that as a compliment. At the Wigmore, she was performing two pieces by Poulenc (with Donald Sulzen on piano), both based on works by Cocteau: the first, 'La dame de Monte Carlo', is essentially a long song portraying the resolution of a woman ruined by gambling to throw herself into the sea. But the main event, 'La voix humaine', lasts a full 40-odd minutes - a 'chamber opera' for one woman, depicting her character's side of a final telephone conversation with her lover. It's a fully-realised monologue in song, played with chair, desk and phone. While the shorter number was beautifully sung, it was amazing - almost a transformation - to see ACA snap fully into character for the drama. Electrifying, and electrified, as if suddenly plugged into the mains. Constantly on the move, negotiating with ease the variety of tone in the piece, from half-spoken admonishments (whether to the lover or the hapless 'wrong number' who won't go away - all unheard, of course) ... through to passages of fury, fear or fragility, ACA delivered a real tour de force. As it went out as a Radio 3 broadcast, I'm rather hoping it will surface as a CD at some point....

(This photo of Anna Caterina Antonacci was taken at the Wigmore Hall. It's from her management website - Askonas Holt - and is copyright Benjamin Ealovega.)

One of the reasons I'm back at the WH so much is their programming of a hugely ambitious project: the Complete Schubert songs. Allowing for the odd repeat, and inclusion of some Franz in certain mixed programmes, the enterprise is going to take some 40 concerts, over the next two years. I'm planning to attend as many as I can (dropping a ticket price band in many cases, so I can go to more gigs with a clear conscience!) but of course my chances of seeing them all without some kind of clash are pretty slim.

The series has got off to a resolutely baritonal start. Florian Boesch gave the launch concert, accompanied by Graham Johnson, then played the Hall again two nights later, this time with Malcolm Martineau on piano. Again, the marvellous, rare opportunity to hear the same singer perform with two different pianists in such quick succession was rewarding and instructive. GJ is surely the elder statesman of lieder accompaniment, author of the definitive 3-volume tome on Schubert's canon, and the driving force behind so many of Hyperion Records's art song collections. And to me, his playing even felt scholarly, pristine, the music an inseparable part of the man. FB, then, dominated the evening, with perhaps the best results in those songs that dialled down the volume slightly, such as the sublime 'In der Mitternacht'.

It was another story in the next concert. MM is one of my favourite pianists anyway (out of them all - soloists or song/chamber specialists). He has such an expressive, free-flowing signature sound - especially perfect, in my opinion, for French song - but always there 'in the mix', whoever he is accompanying, in whatever genre. I also like the way that he allows his moods (primarily enjoymnent!) to show - bringing the accompanist 'into character' as well as the singer. Partnering a robust, invincible voice like FB (and they are collaborators of old, with at least four discs together: the 3 great Schubert song cycles, plus an album of Schumann lieder), MM - without sacrificing any of his fluidity - somehow ramps up his own presence, so that the pair deliver forceful, yet always sensitive, renditions. 'Im Walde' was a textbook example of this, its incessant bubbling piano rhythm ideal for MM, who was still ready with the necessary oomph (technical term) to deliver some suitably intimidating bass figures. The brew was no less potent in the encore, one of the most beautiful renditions of 'Nachtviolen' I have heard.

All change, then, for a third Schubert recital by Henk Neven (also a baritone) and pianist James Baillieu. I had never heard HN before, but he's a singer of real charm - and stamina. Most of these concerts will necessarily include some of Schubert's less frequently performed works - I wonder how often singers choose to programme 'Der Taucher' (which means 'The Diver'), an epic, tragic adventure story that must last some 20 minutes. It made me think a bit of a classical precedent for those Dylan songs that involve characters called 'Blind This' and 'Jack of That' and go on for hundreds of verses - except this can boast more than its fair share of melodic thrills and spills, especially near the end when JB gets to go off the deep end in a furious instrumental break. Other highlights for me were the gathering pace and urgency of 'Ganymed' (the duo are clearly drawn to the dramatic), and the good-humoured yet ultimately wistful 'Fischerweise' (which - I warn you now - should probably carry a weapons-grade earworm warning...)

(I love the casual, intimate nature of this clip with DFD singing with Sviatoslav Richter. You'll enjoy watching SR, who as the song progresses - and especially from around two minutes in, increasingly gets his groove on..!)

Finally, a pairing I'd been hoping to hear live ever since getting hold of their recording of Schumann's 'Dichterliebe': tenor Mark Padmore, accompanied on fortepiano by Kristian Bezuidenhout. I'm addicted to the sound of the fortepiano, and have really enjoyed KB's performances in several settings - as part of Rachel Podger's chamber Prom band, for example, as well as solo. MP's unearthly, unique voice has an almost choral quality (he's famed for playing Bach's Evangelist roles), a near-angelic timbre with seemingly infinite flexibility as he glides above the chiming accompaniment. The ringing tone of the fortepiano only enhances the holy/spiritual effect.

The recital was, at face value, a date based on their new CD of songs by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, but Schubert even made his way into this programme - including another epic, the much-loved 'Viola' (hopefully he'll feature when they next record). But I think the laurel goes to the Beethoven masterpiece 'Adelaide' - its secular, lovelorn theme somehow elevated by the devotional, hymnal repetition of the title make it a perfect fit for the MP/KB combination. One of my gigs of the year - I hope this duo goes on to build up a handsome body of work (and air it all live at the Wigmore as they go along, naturally!).

Friday 2 October 2015

In character

If you've taken a look at some of my recent photography posts, you may recall that I've started work on a specific portrait project. I have an overall concept in mind, which I admit (again) I'm hesitant to describe too closely on here before it really starts to come together. But for now, what's making it different and exciting for me in these early stages - and hopefully for my friends too - is that they all have a chance to inhabit a persona or character outside themselves.

Clearly, they all bring parts of their own personality and nature to the sessions, and in turn, to their portraits. And in turn, I have tried to 'cast' the characters appropriately, in the hope that my tireless volunteer models will feel a connection to their fictional counterparts.

I'm anticipating I will need about two days' photography with each person, with possibly a third 'wrap-up' re-match to capture anything 'missing'. I've already posted from my first shoots for the project with Suzanne and Ellie - and as things turned out, I recently completed 'Day 2' sessions with them both (before starting work at all with anyone else!).

Following up the first sessions relatively quickly paid real dividends. I was amazed at how focused I felt, drawing on what happened (and what didn't) in the 'Day 1' shoots ... just a perhaps understandable buzz at the sense of having a Real Plan, a mental blueprint to follow.

Suzanne and Ellie were able to re-capture their characters, and they both carried off the subtle changes required brilliantly. Suzanne's persona in these pictures is a visibly more confident version of who came before; while Ellie was tasked with showing two quite separate sides of one woman. From a practical point of view, Ellie's session also came with some interesting (self-inflicted) limitations. Making use of her newly-occupied abode before any art reaches the walls - and in a 2-hour 'window' before commitments drew us elsewhere - the session had a good-humoured intensity about it as we decided on the hoof how to make the best use of the space, light and time. As ever, thanks to both for entering into the spirit of the project so wholeheartedly. I hope you enjoy the portraits.