Saturday 19 December 2015

Specsmas! 'Messiah' at the Barbican

Every so often it hits me (again) that there are certain masterpieces - universal, deathless works known and loved by seemingly everyone - that have so far passed me by completely.

I do feel slightly odd about this. I'm drawn to intensity/extremity - that's years of listening to scary metal and jazz for you - and perhaps that's the reason I've seen 'Elektra' (twice), 'Wozzeck', or stood through the entire Ring cycle at the Proms in a single week... without ever getting near a 'Traviata', 'Magic Flute' or 'Fidelio'. And three decades of immersion in rock/folk/pop/you-name-it before broadening my horizons must surely be why I was instantly smitten with classical 'art song'. I like hooks, riffs, tautness, precision, and always will - so maybe it's no wonder I managed to gather an embarrassing number of Schubert lieder recordings before it even occurred to me to listen to his symphonies. (Error since rectified!)

I've had further cause to think about this recently, thanks to getting handsomely lubricated at some festive office drinks. While much of the evening is hazy, I have a clear recollection of trying to convince a colleague that Schubert has more riffs than Led Zeppelin. I think this is a scientific, mathematical fact - Schubert made it past the 600-song mark, and LZ, well, didn't. But I wasn't really debating at my highest level. Instead I'm rather fearful I was trying to hum the hook for 'Fischerweise' (appropriately enough) as if it was 'Whole Lotta Love'. Oh yes. I'm all about spreading the word.

Anyway... we had booked for the Barbican 'Messiah' this year - and it suddenly dawned on me that I'd never heard the 'Messiah' performed live. Not only that, even though Mrs Specs had a couple of copies in the house (I suppose the more recent recording she bought is, in its own small way, the Second Coming) - I hadn't heard it all the way through. I felt like I had, because the 'hits' are so familiar - but that's not the same thing at all. I realised I didn't actually know quite what to expect - the best way to turn up to anything.

(This is the Balthasar Denner portrait of Handel - apparently the image is in the public domain.)

Of course, that's not 100% true. We'd booked for this particular performance (without wishing to blaspheme, there are a few Messiahs knocking about at this time of year) because of our admiration for two of the soloists, soprano Carolyn Sampson and countertenor Iestyn Davies (singing the alto part). The rest of the team were tenor Allan Clayton and bass Robert Davies (both new to us), with the Britten Sinfonia and Britten Sinfonia Voices, conducted by Eamonn Dougan.

I think I struck lucky on my first time, because everything I heard (and saw - more on this later) felt spectacularly good. Clearly, I'm still new to the work as a whole, but one hearing is enough to understand its popularity. Particularly striking to me was how seamlessly the Baroque-motorik zip (Pawel Siwczak's harpsichord seemed brilliantly hyperactive, its glorious rhythms slicing through the sound) is married to the slower passages, more about breaking your heart than the speed limit, focusing your attention not just on the 'higher' subject matter but the sheer beauty of the melodies.

I confess that the only time I've seen a Handel opera live - 'Xerxes' - I found it slightly problematic, because of the multiple-repetitions of lines that seemed to hobble the action. 'Messiah' is an oratorio rather than an opera: here, the more modest levels of repetition actually work a treat, partly because it's an appropriate topic for a more ritualistic, liturgical treatment, but also because it so mesmerises and involves you that you become caught up even further in the emotion. Iestyn Davies's spine-tingling performance of 'He was despised' was especially fine here. Then the famous choruses - especially the 'Hallelujah!' at the end of Part 2 - allow that emotion to burst, the outpouring of sound providing the much-needed release.

But lack of plot doesn't have to mean lack of drama, and some subtle touches of stagecraft seemed to boost singers and players alike. The Barbican Hall stage is wide, and a pair of soloists were seated at each of the extreme edges: CS and ID to the audience's left, AC and RD to the right. I don't know how many Messiahs use this effect, but even the fact that they had quite a long walk to come into the centre of the stage to sing created some movement, and brought out a sense of timing (Carolyn S, for example, conveyed such a sense of bliss after one of her sections that she stayed put in apparent rapture, holding the pose for what felt like a good few minutes after she stopped singing, before finally walking back to her seat).

Also - the left side, with the soprano and alto, seemed very much 'the side of the angels', heaven; while AC's warm, rich tenor and RD's subterranean, but agile bass represented earth, on the right. This supports the text, as the soprano and alto focus on Christ, while the tenor and bass more on the activities and reactions of the people interacting with him. The two worlds are finally brought together with 'O death, where is thy sting?', as the alto and tenor, 'meeting' at both sides of the podium, sing a duet.

I also liked the way that the only time a soloist looked anywhere other than outwards towards the audience was during 'The trumpet shall sound', when RD turned to face trumpet-player Paul Archibald (superb) in acknowledgement that this section was also a true duet. Earlier in the evening, we had already heard the trumpets, but from a window halfway up the back of the stage - the closest the Barbican could get to celestial!

Although I've made specific mention of two players, I would have to give equal credit to everyone in the Sinfonia and Voices. With the Barbican's acoustic, you sense there really is no hiding place for groups of this size (every instrument apart from the violins was represented on stage by only one or two musicians). Under ED's direction, they were pin-sharp and expressive - sometimes individually audible, yet completely tight, the ideal orchestra working as 'single organism'.

In the end, though, the soloists give the piece its character. CS was absolutely in her element: combining breathtaking accuracy with real beauty, committed, heartfelt, graceful. ID seems able to achieve a superhuman purity of sound, coupled here with a fitting serenity. AC's singing had real attack, making a character of his part, refreshingly 'non-stately' and bringing a personal, engaging and earth(l)y voice into the mix, while RD was sonorous, portentous - exactly the heft needed to underpin the others.

A genuinely glorious achievement.


Thank you, everyone, for reading the blog - I really appreciate the support.

Work mayhem in the run-up to Christmas - plus the imminent Invasion Of The In-Laws! - mean that, while other stuff takes over, I'm likely to put my Specs away now for the holiday season. I'll be back as early as possible in the New Year with my usual look back at the old one.

In the meantime, I hope you and yours have a happy, peaceful and - hopefully - musical Yuletide.

Saturday 12 December 2015

Chorus lines: speaking up for the arts (again)

At the time of writing, London opera has been enjoying - or rather, enduring - another few headline-making days. Seemingly a plague on both our houses. At the financially-embattled English National Opera, talk of cuts to the chorus, and a reduced number of productions - while over at the Royal Opera House, director of opera Kasper Holten announced he would be leaving in 2017 to return with his family to Copenhagen.

I'm sad to see Holten go - I'm an admirer of his work and it feels a little like he's just getting started. Of course, opera productions take years to plan - so in his 'early days', like any new arrival to a similar post, he was overseeing many of his predecessor's plans come to fruition. To all intents and purposes, he really is only on the point of making his mark. (Emphatically so, with the magnificent 'Krol Roger' this year.) In turn, even after he steps down, his legacy will last until around 2020. I really think he's a force for good, and am looking forward to seeing what plans he has in store for the next few years.

In contrast to what will hopefully be a smooth transition at ROH, ENO seems beset by turmoil. Famous musical and operatic names have rounded on the apparent proposals, only for ENO to respond rather vaguely about necessary cuts; effectively, thanks for your input etc - that's all very well but you don't have to solve the problem. (You can read the Telegraph's piece about this here.)

I don't have The Answers, of course. I so wish I did. But I do have some questions. It seems to me (and many others, I believe) that the only folk really likely to suffer from this are the singers and players - and I am with them. Excuse my naivety in putting some of these thoughts out there, when I know relatively little about 'business' - but then we're living in a world where business people who know nothing about talent or creativity make decisions that affect artists' lives.

Apparently, ENO's 'management team' will take 'several months' to work through these proposals and come to a decision...
  • How many people are on this team? Maybe that number could be halved. Maybe the decision would then take half the time.
  • Is any money being unnecessarily spent on external help/consultancy, or any convenient expert likely to come in and say what a good idea cuts would be?
  • Cuts of any kind are by definition short-sighted. They're always a reaction to "Find extra money! Now!" directives from state or shareholders. What if a future Government places more restrictions on funds? You could make more cuts. But post-cuts, the time to grow will come again, and you start from a much worse place than you were in before, arguably unable to truly repair the damage.
  • Instead of cutting, what money-making opportunities have been explored? I know seat pricing has been controversial, so I think the ENO team need to show clearly that they've investigated that deeply. Also, they are staging musicals - I imagine this does bring in a few extra quid, but it can only ever be short-term. Musical audiences are transient and go to the show they want to see, wherever it's playing. ENO could possibly do more to build its longer term 'fanbase', in the way that, say, Wigmore Hall does.
  • Equally, ENO doesn't have a shop; it's only just started doing cinema relays, and operas seem to be rarely recorded or filmed for commercial release. What about putting the amazing chorus and orchestra centre-stage for concerts, similar to Pappano's gigs at the ROH?
I'm quite sure that corporate types could tell me why any or all of this wouldn't work. To a certain extent, I don't care. If you're management experts, think innovatively and make some of it work. From a creative perspective, I can tell you what definitely won't work: reducing the chorus. (I can live with the idea of fewer productions, if it creates an atmosphere free of financial stress for those working on them, and longer runs for those shows, giving more people a chance to go.)

(This photo is of the ENO production of Verdi's 'The Force of Destiny' - taken by Robert Workman.)

Forgive me for getting a bit emotional about ENO's chorus - but they are recognised as one of the finest ensembles of their kind, in the world (as testified by their shortlist place in the 2015 International Opera Awards). They don't just have the power - they have a group subtlety and company bond that makes them particularly good at establishing joint character, whether an intimidating crowd or heavenly choir. They all - all of them - act, all the time... and this has stood some of them in good stead as they've more than adequately covered for absent soloists, or taken on a more individual role in the action.

If you had the world's finest thoroughbred racehorse or sports car at your disposal but needed to trim your belt, you wouldn't lop off a leg or a wheel. Yes, you'd save some cash with no more travel to all those pesky meetings or venues ... but you might also find that the ability of your prized possession to do its job properly and maintain not just its, but your, reputation has been somewhat hampered. Was it you tearing round that course or track? No.

I realise there is more than one way to 'cut' a workforce. You can shorten hours or contracts if you don't want to reduce actual numbers. I would say, however, that applying anything like this to ENO's singers (or players) would be stupidity. That sound does not come from a casual approach - it's from constant, regular, intimate practice, rehearsal and performance, developed over time. And that sound will resonate, I'm afraid, how ever many managers come and go in the meantime.

I'm reminded a little of what we keep reading about the BBC. God knows, it needs a structural shake-up but the only solution we ever seem to hear about are cuts to programmes and channels - in other words, targeting the programme-makers - the people who in fact make the Beeb the beacon of quality it is - instead of the internal machinery. And the BBC has an part-educational remit bound up in its State support - I think it's all too easily forgotten that ENO was created in a similar spirit, bringing English-language versions to as wide an audience as possible. Whatever beef the Arts Council have with ENO over funding and management issues, it would have done well to consider the organisation's wider aims that matter somewhat more than instant profit.

This whole affair ultimately made me think about art and music, and how we relate to them. I was saddened, for example, to see some of the callous social media traffic following both Holten's announcement and the ENO story. Obviously, there were lovely messages of support. But - 5... 4... 3... 2... 1 - and out they came: never been impressed ... surprised he was asked to stay that long ... what would we miss if they went altogether? ... well, I never liked [insert person/production of choice] anyway...

Gather round, you lot. That's enough. Time to shut up.

Many of us tweet, post and blog - and within the context of a review or critique, we're perfectly within our rights to make constructive as well as positive comments and be honest about our reaction to something. (I rarely post negatively, I realise that - but that's my choice.) Could I suggest, however, that outside that environment, and against a background where these people - the ones that work incredibly hard to provide those hours of entertainment that you so casually dismiss, often in fewer than 140 characters - are facing real uncertainty and pressure ... you simply put a lid on it? Thank you.

We're in a situation where more than anything, we should demonstrate not just support, but also kindness and appreciation for our singers, musicians, or any type of artist. The arts are for us: they enrich our lives, widen our horizons, release our emotions and stimulate our soul to make us more than machines. But this is not about us - for once, this is about them, the creators, who fall victim to the most astonishing thoughtlessness from the corporate world, the political arena, right through to the booing louts in audiences and armchair attacks from the cyber-lazy.

It's time for us fans and patrons of the arts to say, loud and clear: they are as vital to our quality of life and wellbeing as healthcare, education, or any other indispensable service you care to name. These people, and what they do, are precious: imagine life without them, and the effect that would have on you... then speak and act accordingly.

Sunday 6 December 2015

Keeping the cold in: 'Voices of the Winter Hearth'

I wanted to write a few words about a terrific event I visited last Friday. As happens so often, there's a mild thread of guilt running through the lines of this blog post, as the exhibition I'll be describing is now over. However, some of its key elements endure, so well worth drawing to your attention all the same.

The show itself was called 'Voices of the Winter Hearth', installed in the belfry at the top of a spiral stairwell in St John on Bethnal Green, London. Curated by Joanna Vale and Renaud C Haslan, and bringing JV's poetry together with work from RCH and a collective of like-minded artists, it was a sequel of sorts to their first exhibition at St John's just over a year ago, 'Tales from the Autumn House'. To commemorate the final day on both occasions, cellist Jo Quail was asked to put together a programme to add sound to the already multi-media experience.

Regular readers of the Specs blog (thank you, darlings, thank you) will know how highly I rate Jo Quail's music, and indeed it was through wanting to hear her live in an acoustic setting that I came along to the autumn exhibition in the first place. Then, she performed in the actual stairwell with the audience curving round above her: the result spellbinding as ever, in its beauty and strangeness. This time, the performance would be candle-lit, in the main area of the church, as she had called in reinforcements in the shape of Robyn Sellman and Laura Lee Tanner, singers in the brilliantly versatile electro-classical band Autorotation.

I arrived ahead of time to look at the exhibition before the music started. The first incredible thing to note is just how perfect the location is for a display like this. The higher you ascend, the dimmer the light, and you experience a kind of increasing 'visual chill', until you get to the very top and realise the room itself is in near-darkness. As JV later explained to the audience, the aim was to conjure up an atmosphere of winter as our ancestors experienced it: no artificial light or heat, remote, even intimidating. What they might have seen and felt is brought to life in the chillingly vibrant art - I particularly liked RCH's work (the 'Estonian Church' below), the haunting photography of Asia Schmidt, and Sarah Turpin's otherworldly illustrations. These images below are from the event Facebook page (link below) - photos, top to bottom, by Olga D Kay, Marcus Tylor and Renaud C Haslan.

JV's evocative poetry, itself image-rich, was appropriately displayed as art among the pictures, representing the mythological/folkloric tales that would've been exchanged over food and fire by our forebears. Using a heightened, densely-packed language, the verse made you feel the power of a saga or epic condensed into a handful of lines - I'm still thinking of ravens as 'ragged black flags', and probably always will

The installation was also 'total', earth and branches underfoot, barely-lit - again, replicating conditions from literally darker ages. To appreciate what you were seeing properly, you had to take the time for your eyes to adjust, or go back and look at certain images or words again. I feel that the word 'interactive' is over-used now, to the point where anything electronic, or where you have to push a button or click a link might qualify for the tag. But this experience was truly interactive - you had to accommodate the exhibition physically, as much as it accommodated you: not only waiting for your eyes to adapt, but peering closely at almost hidden objects, leaning into constricted spaces. Treasures were not simply laid out before you, but instead, waited to be discovered.

It's a joy to see several disciplines combine to make such a satisfying whole: along with the words, the art featured paint, print, collage, photography, 3D work - and the eerie dusk of the hang meant that it wasn't always immediately obvious what was what. The last night's music only enhanced this effect.

The church itself was candlelit around the stage/choir area for the performance. Jo Q started the evening solo, with a performance of Bach's D minor Cello Suite. It is always a pleasure to hear JQ play Bach, and the suites have long taken up residence in her soul as well as her hands. But the cyclical, flowing lines of the Bach, spread like tree roots from the earthy, wooden tone of the cello made it the perfect choice for an exhibition concerned with myth and mystery - when even elements of the creation and purpose of the suites themselves remain uncertain, and for years they were all but unknown, until their re-discovery in the 20th century.

Then Robyn and Laura from Autorotation joined JQ on stage to bring all the various aspects of the exhibition together. They had created musical settings - allowing the performance to be part-composed, part-improvised - for four of JV's poems, to piano and cello accompaniment. Gorgeous piano hooks courtesy of Robyn (which again featured some appropriate dischord/resolution cycles to match the seasonal theme), punctuated by seemingly spontaneous but precision-accurate cello from Jo - from bass line, to melody, to sound effects ... all helped underpin Laura's virtuoso vocal delivery, from perfectly-articulated and audible spoken word to a wolf howling - in tune - and all points in between.

The sequence of songs was so arresting, that it made me greedy for more. There is of course a rich tradition of classical art song, taking fully-fledged stand-alone poetry and setting it to music - one could look back to Schubert and his dramatisations of the otherworldly in his lieder... or perhaps only as far - and closer to home - as Britten's numerous folk song treatments. It would be lovely to see these musicians take this forward and allow JV's words to leap even further from the page than they do already.

The evening closed with the beautiful 'Between the Waves', from JQ's forthcoming album, its oceanic grandeur enhanced by Robyn and Laura's abstract vocals - performed on the night for the first time! This is one of my favourite things about JQ in a live setting: tunes are always living, evolving creatures, developed and developing in performance. I have never known her miss an opportunity to involve other musicians to re-interpret or collaborate on new incarnations of pieces - often improvised, just to see what they will bring to the sound, or where the overall enterprise will take them both. (In fact, Autorotation have a nifty track record for doing this, too - and the mutual appreciation between them and JQ has led to some brilliant gigs.)

So - for all the remarkable individual talents on display, the final evening of 'Voices of the Winter Hearth' showed how much artists of all kinds have to offer each other in collaboration, and that in joining forces to bring the past alive, point the way towards countless possible futures.


For those of you who'd like to find out more:

St John on Bethnal Green is a magnificent venue (designed by Sir John Soane), and an established hub for the arts - not to mention the satisfyingly well-stocked bar on event evenings. It contains the specially-commissioned and unforgettably haunting 'Stations of the Cross' paintings by Chris Gollon, in themselves an absolute must-see.

Here is Jo Quail's website ... or if you are on an unstoppable, and understandable, quest to hear her most recent music as quickly as possible, her Bandcamp page contains an exclusive version of 'Gold' from her forthcoming record, and the 20-minute masterpiece for strings, percussion and choir, 'This Path with Grace'.

And here you can find all things Autorotation - including a very handy Soundcloud jukebox. Their back catalogue is also available at very reasonable prices on Bandcamp, so don't tarry...

The 'Voices of the Winter Hearth' Facebook page is still up, with more photos and info about JV's work and the collective of artists who took part.