Sunday 18 August 2019

Ludovico van Beethoven - or, elitism in music, part 572

I've been on holiday - so perhaps it's inevitable I feel a bit removed from online, as well as real life, hustle and bustle. It might just be my imagination. But, dipping a virtual toe into the virtual water... is it even more full of cyber-piranhas than usual?

I know that the classical music / elitism 'debate' is always rumbling away somewhere, and perhaps never more so than when the Proms are up and running. It's a tale that can be told in newspaper editorials and opinion pieces. Are the Proms doing enough to bring in new audiences? Or are they dumbing down? Is there enough in the season to delight the casual consumer? Or is there enough that truly challenges, champions the new? As Private Eye (one of our foremost satirical magazines in the UK) might have its fictional columnist Phil Space mutter, "Will this do?"

But across the city, the Barbican played host to composer-pianist Ludovico Einaudi and, one might say, took one for the team in drawing some fire away from the Royal Albert Hall, for it to ricochet instead between its concrete towers. 

Inevitably, the newspaper that seemed to get the most confused about what it thought about the Proms laid into Einaudi's gig with the rabid fervour of a velociraptor. They weren't alone, with one of the kinder reviews dismissing the music as soporific. But one of the things that I found most interesting - and in some ways, slightly disturbing - was the subsequent pile-on in various corners of social media. Some of the vitriol came from your actual musicologists, sure, but also from self-appointed 'citizens of the internet' (as in, punters: classical music experts, afficionados and enthusiasts, I've no doubt, but wholly unofficial).

Of course, I fall squarely into the 'punter' group myself, but I prefer on the whole to only write about music or performances I really rate, find particularly interesting, or would wish to recommend. I feel that as an amateur in the field, that gives me the most pleasure, and it's how I can also be most useful - spreading the love, if you like, or hopefully drawing readers' attention to things they might enjoy or possibly miss.

And full disclosure: in this piece, I'm emphatically NOT talking about the friends I've made online who really are experts: from musicians to critics, from academics to connoisseurs. To a great extent, possibly more than they realise, most of them have taken me under their wing, not just wearing their knowledge lightly but giving it extremely generously - especially when I'm shamelessly prompting them to do so.

It's important to mention this because of what happens when matters of taste arise. To take a couple of examples that spring readily to mind: I'm a huge fan of both the composer Philip Glass and the singer Ian Bostridge - while being fully aware that they can be distinctive, polarising artists who provoke wildly different reactions in listeners. I also know for a fact that one of my music pals in particular - whose experience and appreciation of classical music is far longer-standing, deeper and broader than mine - cannot stand either of them. However, in all our conversations, this friend has never felt the need to 'school' me into a different opinion, explain to me at length how 'wrong' I am, or perhaps worst of all, simply dismiss either or both as 'rubbish' or 'useless' to my face on in my presence (virtually or in person). You're probably thinking - well, that's manners, or mutual respect. I would almost certainly agree, and can be 100% positive in this case that the respect is there. So why are so many of our experiences online of a much darker hue? As humans, are we not sophisticated enough to make this civilised behaviour universal?

To return to the Einaudi pile-on, one of the threads I read through actually shocked me in its levels of venom, contempt, even aggression. I realise that online forums like this require brevity - and, as a result, you can't preface everything with "Of course, this is only my opinion" or "Personally, I disagree because..." But as a result, it lets people off the hook very lightly who are keen for their personal viewpoints to stand as fact. This kind of language is precision-tooled to be as cutting as possible - in other words, it is not there to fuel discussion or an exchange of ideas, but to conquer the opponent. Hence, Einaudi is rubbish; is empty; is limited; is not classical music; and so on. Eventually - as battle lines are drawn and Right vs. Wrong positions are taken - contributors feel empowered to go further. One memorable comment described Einaudi's popularity as due to his fans being educationally wanting, or at least symptomatic of the failure of music education. Stupid or at best, misguided, in other words.

And at that point, I - Mr Positive, distributor of good vibes - became angry. Too angry, in fact, to trust myself to respond in the discussion itself. So much arrogance, disdain and wrong-headedness seemed coiled up in those few lines, waiting to snap open and spring on any poor fool who had Committed the Crime of Quite Liking A Bit of Einaudi. (If only they'd been brought up proper, on a diet of Cage and Stockhausen, with perhaps some John Adams if they'd been very good. And there I go, with my own sarcastic venom. It's like a virus.)

Crucially, I felt this sort of statement crossed a line - a blurry line, granted, but one that most people can identify: between kindness and unkindness. And very few things irritate me more than unkindness, especially coupled with self-accorded superiority. And so, with clanging inevitability, we get drawn back into an elitism discussion again. Once you cross that line, you're no longer having a go at Einaudi (like he cares); your target is the folk who like him. "How dare they? Well, at least I can make any of them reading this feel really small."

Personally, I think Einaudi's music is ok - I can't imagine myself gathering his complete works, but I always find it pleasant when I encounter it. And that's not damning with faint praise, because there's plenty of music I find unpleasant. But like it or not, I would never assume that writing anything huge numbers of people love to listen to is easy, let alone 'limited'. Given that Einaudi seems to inspire both adulation and loathing, it seems impossible to conclude he's as bland as his detractors say he is - to provoke such responses possibly means he's doing something right..?

I don't think we can rule out snobbery here. Part of the problem seems to be that Einaudi presents himself (or is presented) as a classical composer - and this problem begets others. I think it's generally accepted now that 'classical' is simply a catch-all term to denote music that is often - but not always - acoustic and/or orchestral, of a certain vintage, and that we instinctively know is not rock / pop / jazz / dance and so on. Of course, I've already implied exclusion of contemporary classical music using electronics. The point is, the more you try to define classical music, the more it slips away from you. So it's far easier to decide what you think isn't classical. Step forward, the Einaudi issue.

He composes music in an idiom we encounter more in the 'standard' classical repertoire: piano-based instrumentals. But he functions rather more like a rock star (if a very quiet, low-key one). He performs his own stuff. He makes 'albums' rather than recordings, with pieces carrying relatively brief, memorable titles rather than descriptions and opus numbers. The use he makes of hypnotic patterns or hooks / riffs will make perfect sense to someone who enjoys the same forms in rock music or electronica. And - most annoyingly of all, maybe - he is massively popular.

(Photo of Einaudi looking blithely unconcerned by negative reaction, taken from the media area of his website. Portrait by Beniamino Barrese.)

A friend who teaches piano has said that students enjoy playing Einaudi and it enables them to find their way towards Glass, Adams, or Reich. I saw a counter-argument made to this point that surely what actually happens is Einaudi fans just buy more Einaudi, without exploring further. Even if this were true, it's hardly surprising if his fanbase retreat into the safety of his wider catalogue if classical media just spends its word count calling them idiots.

This reminds me a little of a story from about four or five years ago, when it was announced that the 'crossover' classical singer Katherine Jenkins was due to perform 'Carmen'. General consternation ensued until it emerged that she wasn't singing the whole opera as written; instead it was all the arias. (In other words, none of the connecting dialogue-style 'recetative' passages.) So, while this still sounds like a fairly impressive undertaking to me, and a plausible artistic move from someone keen to 'raise their game' or try something new, it was not a 'role debut' as Carmen and wouldn't require the usual level of stamina, acting chops and vocal power the actual opera demands. Overall, I remember a kind of sense of relief online, as if the natural equilibrium were back in balance and there was no danger after all of having to regard KJ as a 'real' opera singer.

Does any of this matter? I think it does. If there are well-meaning individuals in the classical music industry who really are passionate about opening the artform up to as many rookies as possible, then it cannot, at the same time, function as an exclusive club. It seems that Einaudi and Jenkins are not allowed in. OK - but then that means their fans are not allowed in, either. At least, not until the 'establishment' stops slagging them off.

And I don't mean - as I'm sure most of you realise - that we have to switch off critical faculties and pretend we love stuff that we don't. It's more a matter of tone, and rigour. When I write about why I like something, I really go to pains to explain why, and if I can, how. What's causing the effect it's having on me. Writing that is more negative and dismissive often gets away with that language as an end in itself - none of the anti-Einaudi pieces I saw, for all the insults, really grappled with why it could enrapture some but leave others completely cold. There was an assumption that the 'Real Readers', who obviously agree, will nod sagely, and the rest didn't really matter.

I do worry that some observers see anything that's 'crossover' or genre-bending as 'dilution' - as though approaching the classical repertoire or sound in any kind of modern way can somehow ruin or sully what's already there. But whatever one may feel about it, artists are already walking tightropes between genres. This can be in their practice - take Anna Meredith, who records electronica albums while carving out a successful career as an orchestral composer, or Max Richter, who operates as if there is no difference between his soundtrack and 'straight' classical projects. Or it could be more a matter of marketing - for example, the way young musicians Sheku and Isata Kanneh-Mason, Jess Gillam or Martin James Bartlett have released debut CDs that present mostly traditional repertoire in an album rather than recital format. (This approach seems to be becoming more widespread and, as a result, enabling musicians to put together really interesting and rewarding programmes on disc - so long may it continue.)

I think it's too easy to forget that technological advances now tend to mean we will never re-create the way certain music develops again. Massively obvious example to illustrate the point: there will never be another Beatles. It simply couldn't happen - not just because uniting four particular blokes who were so much more than the sum of their parts in such specific ways would be so improbable - but because people consume, access and buy (or not) music so differently, the conditions for their mega-stardom are irreversibly historical.

In the same way, the elevated, preserved-in-aspic way we sometimes view classical music will no longer do. For hundreds of years, what many people think of as 'classical' encompassed both popular and avant-garde music of its time. And ideally, it had to have instant staying power, as we couldn't record it. Fast-forward to the last century and suddenly there's jazz, pop and rock as we know them, all vying for the listener's attention. I sometimes wonder if this is why some contemporary classical music gets a reputation (deserved or otherwise) for being difficult or lacking melody - challenging rather than welcoming ... because most people go to one of the other, younger genres for their quick fix - a 'tune they can hum' from a chart hit - and come to modern classical when they're ready for a more complex dish that will take longer to digest.

Maybe one of the classical music world's next challenges will be deeply bound up in the language its adherents use. Instead of moaning about people taking a softly, softly approach and steadily making their own way through a route that should, apparently, be beneath them... why not focus on one or two modern composers you really want to champion and find a positive means of expression to promote and excite interest in them?

It comes down to this: there are those who will always look down on others for a relative lack of knowledge. (It doesn't seem to matter if this lack is real or merely perceived or assumed.) And I've certainly encountered it in other areas of my interest where there is - depending on your point of view - extreme expertise / niche knowledge... or plain ol' geekery. Other genres of music; the art world; cinema; SF fandom - no doubt you can think of examples from your own familiar haunts.

I think we're asking the wrong question. Classical music is just going to go on being whatever it is - whatever that is. It's just people. Are people too elitist? Are we? Are you?

Sunday 11 August 2019

Re-marriage: a return to the Royal Opera House 'Figaro'

This isn't so much a review or a write-up, so much as ... a reflection. The performance I'm thinking about while typing this belonged to the most recent run of Mozart's 'The Marriage of Figaro' at the Royal Opera House, London - which ended last month (July 2019).

(All photos by Mark Douet, from the ROH website production gallery.)

Despite being obsessed with music for pretty much all my life, classical was the 'genre' I became fully immersed in the most recently - after rock, folk, jazz, you name it. (I don't think this is uncommon - while the classical world is right to encourage and pursue younger audiences, I believe that many 'older ears' come to it naturally in good time. Perhaps that's for another day, another post.)

As a result, I still consider myself a relatively 'young' opera-goer. There are still plenty of operas I've yet to see or hear at all, especially live. To the amusement of some of the opera experts I've befriended, I seem to have stumbled through the repertoire at times in a slightly bizarre order. One of my earliest operatic experiences (since developing a serious interest) was the entire Ring Cycle at the 2013 Proms: a baptism of fire if ever there was one, particularly when self-immolating in the furnace-like gallery of the Royal Albert Hall in summer. Sheer curiosity meant I had 'Elektra' and 'Wozzeck' under my belt before going anywhere near a 'Tosca' or 'Traviata'. I've two 'Akhnaten's to one 'Aida'. So it goes.

But it has now been long enough for me to see certain operas more than once, and have my appreciation of the work enriched by witnessing more than one interpretation. For example, I was very fortunate to see one of my favourite operas, Britten's 'Billy Budd', in two productions, fairly close together. For me, Orpha Phelan's version at Opera North gave us shattering contrasts, Roderick Williams's sunniness giving us a naive, endearing Billy, like a lamb to the slaughter before Alistair Miles's devastating, wracked Claggart. It was a masterclass in turmoil, entrapment.

While the Deborah Warner production, also at the Royal Opera House recently, went a little more below the ocean surface. I found slightly more sinuous threads running through the piece: from emotional continuity to mystical ambiguity. It would be easy to say that deploying a often-shirtless Jacques Imbrailo as Billy would ramp up the homoeroticism, but this also gives the character a bit more gusto, confidence, agency in male company, especially as he morphs into a near-Christ-like figure towards the end, blessing Vere ahead of his 'crucifixion' (we see him adopt the posture of the cross, but the actual hanging is off-stage - instead, he 'ascends' a ladder to an unseen scaffold).

Equally, Toby Spence's Vere received his officers while still at peak relaxation, wrapped in his bathrobe; Brindley Sherratt's remarkable Claggart was a more louche, calculating figure - how each man addresses these underlying (or less underlying) impulses drives the inevitability of the outcome.

It's not a matter of preference - although in all honesty, you can probably tell that the Warner version is more fresh in my mind. It's more that seeing such two different approaches serve to underline the richness of the opera itself: it's the same music, same libretto, but so much to investigate and unpack.

But my return trip to 'The Marriage of Figaro' - having seen it before at the ROH - marked one of the very few instances I've seen the same production of the same opera more than once. (I realise the longer I go to the opera, the more often this will happen, but at the moment it's still quite a novelty.) But if anything, the differences between the two experiences seemed even more profound, to the extent that I started to think about the opera in a completely new way.

Because I have a definite preference for the more recent performance, I'm not going to mention anyone involved in the earlier run by name. (If you were desperately keen to find this stuff, you'd be able to. But there's no point, nor need. That initial visit, in David McVicar's gorgeous period staging, is a really cherished memory: it had a superb cast in great form, and I came away completely on board with why this is one of the best-loved - and probably best - operas ever written.)

Fast forward to last month, then, and I was back to see 'the same thing' again - but, of course, with a new cast, who seemed particularly intriguing. Figaro - groom, schemer, joker in the pack - was Christian Gerhaher, a baritone I'm more used to admiring for a modest, subtle recital persona and caress-like voice. The Count was sung by Simon Keenlyside, whom I'd previously only heard on the opera stage in roles of visceral, compromised pathos: Rigoletto, Wozzeck.

The ROH had also drawn attention to perhaps a more arresting casting decision. Cherubino, the page in the throes of adolescent randiness, is most often portrayed by a mezzo-soprano - leading to some delicious 'meta' comedy in a scene where the character has to disguise himself as a woman, in the process becoming more like the singer playing him. However, this time round, countertenor Kangmin Justin Kim was taking on the role.

I have to say, for me this all resulted in an operatic 'scales falling from eyes' moment - as if my appreciation for 'Figaro' suddenly had a blu-ray level clarity after several years watching a battered old VHS tape. While it's perhaps obvious, for example, that power is a crucial theme - the Count's compulsive philandering is only possible because of his exalted position - I had previously felt that the 'meat' in the opera was rooted more or less solely in poignancy: Susanna's seemingly inescapable predicament and the Countess's anguish balancing the more farcical game of wits the men must play out. And of course, that's all still there.

But this performance had the upper and lower hands between characters rise and fall like a graphic equaliser, shifting undercurrents like Warner's 'Budd' - but here, constantly disturbing the balance of power. And remember, nothing about the staging had changed, so this was all in the acting, singing
and direction.

Gerhaher's Figaro was of course quick-witted and humorous, but he had none of the 'Mission: Impossible' confidence of his inability to fail, nor the bravado of the court jester. Gerhaher filled in the other, more feasible side of his personality: his desperation to protect, and hold onto, his younger bride-to-be, the sense that he really was living on his wits.

And why this desperation? Because of Keenlyside's interpretation of the Count, which must be one of the finest performances I've seen on an operatic stage. The Count could be buffoon-like (making his deplorable actions bearable to watch), charming, a spoilt brat in the grip of a mid-life crisis. Keenlyside can do all of that - but again, in a performance that a Twitter friend of mine described as worthy of an Oscar - he filled in the gaps, unafraid to put a genuinely dark spin on the Count and imbue him with a sense of real menace. Keenlyside's speciality of barely-contained, coiled energy made this Count a real threat: he could get violent; he could just take what he wants. The only actual restraint on him is that this is nominally a comedy.

Keenlyside's vocal abilities are immense: but his supreme skill at singing the way he does while nailing such a varied and complex arsenal of physical gestures and movements ... at times I wonder if his particularly combustible combination of these talents is unique. His hyperactive characterisation - where he can be crooning sweet nothings in one direction while frantically gesturing annoyance in another, like a man possessed - made him almost impossible to tear your eyes away from.

But for all the apparent diffidence, Gerhaher's maturity and quiet resolve make Figaro and the Count feel evenly matched. There was one moment that I think will stay with me for ever. In Act 3, the Count is still worrying away at Figaro about who really jumped from the Countess's window and, for maximum confusion, Figaro suggests that both he and Cherubino could have done so - a clearly, befuddling and nonsensical idea. But such was Keenlyside's terrier-like persistence and Gerhaher's wearied frustration, that the exchange built up real tension, culminating in Figaro snapping at the Count outright (broadly, "If I jumped, he might have done as well" / "He, as well?" / "WHY NOT?!"). Gerhaher suddenly increased his volume - and his mass, leaning over the Count. Keenlyside, naturalistic to the core, stopped dead still then visibly flinched, before continuing. In that few seconds, the duo hinted at a long-standing relationship where, although not in title, Figaro has at times held sway over the Count, as much as the other way round.

Add to this the fact that we had an 'actual' male Cherubino. Kim gave a really winning performance: being the correct sex is arguably a significant head start, but you lose the gender-play aspect I mentioned earlier. So why do it? It seems to me that successfully channelling this character is more about convincing as a lovestruck teenager, as Cherubino wrestles with his adolescent pangs of desire. But once you do cast a chap, Cherubino seems like less of a lovable, forgivable irritant and more like a nuisance, even a threat. The decision undercuts our willingness to believe he could pass for a woman (generating a slightly different take on the comedy) and makes him more physically imposing. It all chimes in with this interpretation's willingness to bring out the male characters' dark sides, to place before the audience the actual consequences of men's propensity to behave in this way.

Because - for all that I've focused on the men - the key female roles also received interpretations to match. Julia Kleiter's Countess still commanded sympathy from us as she laments the state of her marriage, but she was equally commanding in other ways, deftly managing Cherubino and, ultimately, subduing a finally-defeated Count at the opera's close. And Joélle Harvey's spirited Susanna, fizzing with vibrancy and determination, was the foil Gerhaher's Figaro needs, restoring some joy to a character whose sparkle, we sense, has been dimmed over the few years since 'The Barber of Seville'.

(I should probably also mention that with John Eliot Gardiner conducting, the orchestra had both a suppleness and 'attack' that fully supported this - to my mind - more complex and thorny reading.)

I'm sure some opera experts among you who find your way to this post will think or say (no doubt genially), "Catch up, slowcoach! Of course 'Figaro' is a multi-layered opera - all of this is self-evident!" I can take that one on the chin - I haven't been in the thick of this stuff for as long as you.

But it led me to some really useful and rewarding realisations and conclusions. On the artistic side, for example, it made 'Figaro' even more of a companion, to me at any rate, to the other Da Ponte operas. I could get an instant feel, I think, for the fathomless maturity and intricacy of 'Don Giovanni' and 'Così fan tutte', their refusal to let you relax into either a comic or tragic frame of reference. 'Figaro' has taken a second run to reveal something similar to me.

Whereas on the practical side, while I've always assumed I understood what a 'revival director' does, only being able to compare/contrast in this way has brought it home as a tangibly exciting and revelatory role - and I have Thomas Guthrie to thank in this instance for all the new and challenging insights I felt this version of 'Figaro' gave me.

Still fresh out of the starting blocks for me, then; still turning important corners.

Thursday 1 August 2019

Art of glass: Chihuly at Kew Gardens

Kew Gardens is currently home to a glorious array of glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly. Yesterday evening, I dashed round the exhibition in Mrs Specs's company, and enjoyed the spectacle so much  (I'm talking about the sculpture in particular, although I'm obviously dazzled by Mrs Specs as well), that I've vowed to fit in a second visit.

I should have time. The exhibition lasts all through the summer, closing on 27 October. Try to get along if you can - the show is an exhilarating match of work to setting. Find the details on the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew website, here.

Beautiful to gaze at and enormous fun to photograph. I hope you enjoy the snaps.