Thursday 31 October 2019

Taking soundings: Carolyn Sampson & Joseph Middleton, 'Four Last Songs'

A rare but welcome concert outside London for me, this, as I took the bus to my old university town and paid a flying visit to catch just one of the gigs in the Oxford Lieder festival. As regular readers of the Specs blog will know, soprano Carolyn Sampson and pianist Joseph Middleton are one of my 'favourite bands' - no recital duo has kept me so consistently enthralled, fascinated and delighted as these two. With the promise of hearing them perform the famous 'Four Last Songs' by Strauss - not on any of their CDs (yet!), and so much more familiar in their orchestral versions - this was unmissable.

In the event, the Strauss was the finale to a generous and richly varied selection of art song. The evening began in epic mode, with Haydn's 'Arianna a Naxos', a continuous suite of four songs taking us through Ariadne's gradual realisation that she has been abandoned by Theseus. The rest of the first half comprised four early songs by Schoenberg (Op. 2), and two songs from Mahler's 'Das Knaben Wunderhorn' contrasting 'heavenly' and 'earthly' life.

After the interval, we took a detour from lieder into melodies, specifically a sequence based on Louÿs's 'Bilitis' poems, with two settings by Koechlin bookending Debussy's three 'Chansons de Bilitis'. Finally, we heard the Strauss: not only the 'Four Last Songs', but a beautiful encore rendition of 'Morgen!'

I realise that was a somewhat dry, list-based description: but I wanted to quickly lay before you the embarrassment of riches ... And also, I think, to get across what an affecting and sublime experience this was, it's more pertinent to 'range across' the repertoire and keep sight of how all the material made for a perfect fit. Transporting in all senses: not just that feeling of uplift you get from the finest music or art, but also a sense of profound change, that you end the concert in a slightly different place, emotionally and - yes - intellectually, from where you started it. Talking about 'journeys' in this way - those of the heart and mind - might seem like a well-worn cliche by now, but sometimes that's simply what it is: you know that you've somehow travelled.

Previously, I had heard the duo perform recitals that generally matched or showcased particular discs. However, the overall theme of Oxford Lieder in 2019 was 'Tales of Beyond: Magic, Myths and Mortals'. Accordingly, they had assembled a mix of old and new - I understand that the Strauss, at the very least, is planned for a future recording project, while the Bilitis sequence was a highlight of their last release, the superb 'Reason in Madness'. However, as CS explained onstage, the programme as assembled for this gig explores the theme of heaven and earth: how they interact, how they differ.

This ability to choose and sequence sets of songs that just 'click' has been a feature of Sampson and Middleton's work right from the start of their collaboration. On this particular evening, more than the overall theme providing a sense of unity, there was also a deliberate build-up in intensity.

I spoke of journeys earlier, and it seems to me that, particularly since increasing her focus on art song around five or so years ago, Carolyn Sampson has partly been on an exploratory voyage 'into' her voice. I've always appreciated the combination of precision and purity she's rightly renowned for as a Baroque specialist, and the way she brings those qualities intact to art song performance is thrilling. However, in the close quarters and splendid acoustic of St John the Evangelist, I was more alive than ever to the way she inhabited each song and gave life to their characters with an ever-increasing variety of timbres and colours, accessing rounder, 'lower' tones as she stepped up the sensuality, and built at various points to moments of devastating volume and power (Schoenberg's 'Erhebung', say, or Koechlin's 'Hymne à Astarté'). The performance also underlined her skills as an actor-singer, her gestures and body language raising each song into its own miniature drama.

Joseph Middleton is the perfect partner throughout. An extraordinarily versatile collaborative pianist, he seems able to provide a 'through voice' for any array of styles - a look back at the duo's debut CD, 'Fleurs', reminds one how he and CS bring a sense of unity to a mix of so many composers. I've always loved hearing him play Britten, for example, the touch and control making instant sense, for me, of music that can seem so unpredictable or fractured. His playing has helped me to draw connections that I might never otherwise have done: in the Oxford concert, for example, I was struck how the piano seemed to 'dance through' the voice in both the Schoenberg and Debussy.

Their approach reached fulfilment in the Strauss. CS sang with delicacy and passion, and JM managed to achieve a truly 'orchestral' feel. But while a song like 'September' can feel so sumptuous in its full arrangement, here the duo avoided the sense that a piano/voice version was in any way a reduction. Quite the contrary - they laid the songs bare to some extent, the emotion more exposed, a crucial note of fragility, the complete absence of grandstanding, that befitted the work's valedictory nature. I was aware of myself applauding in an almost out-of-body sense - but at the same time, I was quite overcome, processing, not wanting to exit my suspended state for a short while. I knew I had been at a masterclass.

Enhancing this feeling were in fact all manner of 'suspended states': the programme was finely spun between heaven and earth; myth and reality; desire and separation; life and death... all taking place in a holy building now mostly given to the secular arts. An evening of exquisite tension, then resolution.

After every concert by CS and JM, I'm inevitably drawn back to what is already a handsome body of recorded work. As it builds, it occurs to me that they're taking their listeners on continuous voyages. Their joint programming instincts are certainly giving fans like me an education: their ability to draw together such a variety of material under compelling overall themes has meant I've been introduced to so many corners of the canon I may never have found a map to otherwise. Equally, CS - particularly on the most recent two discs, 'A Soprano's Schubertiade' and 'Reason in Madness' - is mining a rich seam on the treatment and experience of women as characters and protagonists in art song, and I'll be fascinated to see if and how this overarching motif might continue. I cannot recommend their CDs highly enough - here's a page where you can browse them all and listen to samples, courtesy of a highly reputable retailer.


Post-script: I've penned this write-up of the concert after recovering from a Terrible Cold. A few nights ago, I was feeling both rotten, yet strangely upbeat (could've been the drugs!) - but I couldn't face an evening full of screen work. As a result, I carried out an experiment of sorts, talking into my phone (totally unscripted, utterly unprepared) - partly about the gig, but also about the wider 'road trip', and how I felt about visiting my alma mater. If you're curious, and like your concert chat seasoned with ramblings about fearing nostalgia and battling oversized kettles, please feel free to watch it on this page. But the detail is in the piece above.

Monday 28 October 2019

Voice coach

Specs is under the weather... so keeping typing and eyestrain to a minimum. However, after attending a terrific gig last week that I'm bursting to talk about, I've tried a little experiment: talking to you about it, instead of writing.

I hope you enjoy this slight departure from the norm. It's obviously completely unpolished, delivered without notes, and lacks the refinements and revisions I'd apply to a normal post (yes, it's true!). My brain, let alone my voice, is clearly operating in 'low power mode'. But I thought I'd post it anyway, partly because I ramble into a corner of my psyche. But mainly because it's sincere, genuine, and even several days later (and in a fug of cold), I clearly still get an emotional buzz when thinking about the concert. That's Sampson & Middleton for you.


Saturday 19 October 2019

The Japes of Goth / Doom for manoeuvre / as you will

Most of the time on Specs, you'll find me writing about music and art ... but regular visitors will be familiar with another passion of mine, portrait photography. This is where I get to flex a few different creative muscles - so I feel it belongs on the blog along with everything else, the whole thing adding up to an online self-portrait of sorts.

One of the best things about focusing on portraiture is collaborating with friends who are willing to step in front of the lens. I've photographed Fliss and Tony, the subjects here, often: they're extraordinarily game, endlessly co-operative and - as experienced amateur actors - bring a whole host of ideas and, usefully, outfits to the enterprise.

This is the second shoot running (after my recent pictures of Suzanne here) where the day was far more loosely-planned and improvisational. I have in the past made meticulous location plans for sessions - and will no doubt do so again - but here we decided to wing it, relatively speaking, and aim for fast results in a small number of backgrounds. All I knew in advance was that they wanted to 'go goth' - which to me could embody a gloomy sincerity, or self-aware, slightly self-mocking melodrama... or all points in between. I'm pleased with these pictures: huge fun to do, and I like to think they convey the idea that 'dressing up and larking around' can be a serious business. I hope you enjoy them.

Sunday 6 October 2019

The right Response: giving ENO's new writers' scheme a chance

Do you sometimes find yourself reading a feature or article that has you spluttering a little in disbelief, leaving you desperate to return a comment or find some way of putting the opposite view across, as soon as you can? (Actually, in the current political climate, that might happen to some of us every five minutes, but never mind.) This, as usual, is about music and, as you might expect with me if you visit Specs regularly, concerns English National Opera ('ENO').

Full disclosure for anyone unfamiliar: to me, 'ENO' is its performing company - the ensemble of Chorus and Orchestra. Of course it is. I am a paying customer who enjoys writing about music; not a critic, nor a commentator on the music industry. I also know that I'm artist-led, and if I have a 'favourite band' in the classical world, it's the ENO Chorus and Orchestra: I feel that whatever type of opera or production I might see at ENO, they have never actually let me down. In particular, the Chorus have gifted me some of the most adventurous, glorious, affecting, overwhelming and - importantly - skilfully-acted experiences I've had at the opera.

However, ENO is of course business as well as pleasure. Behind the scenes, things have rarely been rosy in recent memory. Financial mismanagement, Arts Council 'special measures', high-level but short-lived appointments ... all of which seem to have resulted in two key outcomes. First (particularly under the previous regime), terrible uncertainty and stress for the ensemble, who were and are the least deserving of such angst. Second, an ongoing rift between the opera media establishment - primarily critics - and the ENO administration that seems to show no sign of healing.

I know some people online see me as just an ENO 'cheerleader'. When it comes to the singers and players, I accept that label proudly. When it comes to behind the scenes, not necessarily (for example, I openly bemoaned the shocking treatment of the Chorus in the wake of the special measures). The point is, I don't confuse the two. When others willingly do this, I see the harm, and my hackles rise.

I've written before, for example, about a critic using up word count for a review, by attacking the ENO top brass of the time and openly advocating the company be shut down and re-formed. Personally, I don't think criticism exists in a moral bubble: if you reach the point where you hate the way a company is run so much, you are explicitly calling for job losses and damage to livelihoods, you should probably start focusing more on what's happening onstage than off.

The friction continues, partly I believe because the current CEO, Stuart Murphy, is an enthusiastic mouthpiece for the company on social media - so makes himself a target. Murphy's background is not in opera, meaning that some have been dismissive of his appointment from the start. The impression one gets as an observer is of an insoluble disconnect: a certain group who deride anything the incomer/upstart says or does; and a hands-on new broom who publicly bristles at the constant brickbats.

Obviously, there are misfires (ENO's own 'water-gate', where outraged attendees were made by apparently rather unsubtle security staff to pour away water from any unsealed bottles - the horror!). And some initiatives simply come up against pure cynicism - for example, the recent scheme to offer free balcony tickets to under-18s on Saturday nights drew a volley of snark about unsold seats in the Coliseum.

Ah - seats in the Coliseum. This brings us bang up to date. The most recent ENO scheme comes in two linked parts:
  • Critics will no longer receive the offer of a 'plus-one' ticket when they attend to review a show. (For context, taking a guest for free is clearly a 'perk', and recognised by critics as such. However, these extra tickets are so common among arts institutions that ENO is singling itself out with this decision.)
  • Instead, ENO is offering regular tickets to new or budding writers - chosen from a group of applicants - to try and hone their reviewing skills and have their pieces published on the company's website. This part of the scheme is called 'ENO Response'.
You can imagine how many critics have reacted to point one.

Like the scheme itself, my own reaction has two distinct parts. I'm pretty neutral on the 'plus-one' issue: there is an argument that, as ENO has been singled out for bad finances in the past, it could make a solo stand on cutting down on freebies. However, this doesn't wash, as one of Murphy's marketing initiatives has been to invite celebrities to ENO who then talk online about their lovely evening at the opera - hopefully reaching legions of potentially interested followers.

The thing is, the Coliseum really is very, very hard to sell out. There's room for everyone - critics, guests, celebs, the paying audience (lest we forget) and now the ENO Response review team. In itself, I think ENO Response is a fantastic move. You might say - "well, you're an amateur music writer, you would think that". Precisely. It is an unconventional, slightly outside-the-box idea. More of this sort of thing. (And more a little later.) Detractors pounced on it immediately - isn't this taking the expertise out of opera writing? How could these rookie reviewers be impartial? To which the reply is surely: we don't know. It's a new idea. Let's wait and see.

Sadly, I think that Murphy was mistaken in linking these two actions - which could easily have been presented as quite distinct. There was no need to frame it as ENO Response (along with the slebs) 'taking the tickets away' from the critics. It could only maintain any ongoing bad feeling. If a point was being made, I feel it has backfired - and now the genie is out of the bottle.

This season, ENO are running an unusual series of operas all based around the Orpheus myth. One critic, who seems to have grudgingly liked quite a lot about the opening performance of 'Orpheus and Eurydice', instead decided to tweet about how much he hated the refurbished foyer and champagne reception. I read a review today of 'Orpheus in the Underworld' which claimed that ENO routinely murdered operetta - citing poorly-received productions of 'The Merry Widow' and 'The Bat', but somehow neglecting to mention its extremely popular 'Iolanthe' from last season. So, I worry that in the eyes of the critics, ENO are facing another phase of doing nothing right.

But what moved me to anger - and ultimately to write this post - was an opinion piece in the latest issue of BBC Music Magazine. I won't name the writer or quote at too great a length (I feel that if you want to read chapter and verse after this, it's only fair you buy the magazine). But I believe it crosses a line, and should be called out for it.

Understandably, the feature goes through some of the objections I've mentioned above. It uses words like 'vindictive' and 'hostile', and suggests that ENO is opposed to a 'free press'. (For balance, I think we need to remember that it's the guests who can't come for free anymore, not the critics.)

Then the writer goes into out-and-out pettiness. The ENO Response writers are due to receive feedback from Lucy Basaba, who runs a website called Theatre Full Stop. Choosing sitting ducks for targets, our correspondent selects some examples of what they feel is bad writing from the website, and harumphs them onto the page, as though that somehow debunks Basaba's entire editorial or mentoring abilities. They also overlook the fact that ENO has chosen someone independent to do this - an important point, I'd have thought.

Then there's the false 'it is me?' reverse arrogance. For example: "am I just an old fuddy-duddy, imagining there should be a link between opera criticism and a working knowledge of opera?" They follow this with a conveniently ill-judged bit of promotion from Murphy about wanting people to "review opera more emotionally" - which they then dismiss as "superficial twaddle". They say that ENO's management reckon they can bypass critics in favour of "sycophantic bloggers and self-generated hype". I will also quote this sentence in full: "Don't pretend to be training new opera critics, just because you are giving away free tickets to amateurs, then putting their grateful effusions on your own website."

Let's leave aside the fact that, for someone who scorns emotion in music writing, this person is getting considerably exercised. But are they really so disdainful towards ENO that they feel the need to slag off anyone associated with it, in particular up and coming scribes who are hopefully nurturing twin passions for writing and opera?

The piece has acute tunnel vision, but with no light at the end of it. Where to start?
  • ENO does have an outreach mission, remember. It might suit critics to believe ENO are just 'pretending', but if ENO Response runs as described, they are actually arranging coaching for new writers. It's not a cruel hoax. Let's not forget that all organisations ideally carry out this sort of thing in such a way that will also reflect well on them. Opera Holland Park were rightly praised for the film where they introduced a group of football fans to opera - cannily taking them to a Royal Opera House performance rather than their own back yard - and of course it was both a genuine and sincere barrier-busting exercise AND spectacular PR for Opera Holland Park.
  • Encouraging new writers is not a bad thing. I thought we were supposed to be concerned that audiences for classical music weren't young and vibrant enough. I thought we were supposed to be worried about music and arts education - let alone critical thinking - being squeezed out of the school curriculum? So, if our education system won't do anything ... ENO: "Let's bring on some new, exciting writers." Establishment: "I hardly think that's appropriate."
  • Tarring a wide group of people with the same brush is a bad thing. "Sycophantic blogger"? Enchanté.
  • Did this critic in particular never start out? Or did they spring into action fully-formed, with all their opera knowledge? Is it really so awful that this lucky group of people will get to work on their music writing on the job, with what amounts to some financial help? It will be worth it if it only aids them in finding their voices. After all, there are lots of ways to write about music, not just criticism. When I've been asked about my blog, I never use words like 'review' or 'criticism', because I'm not trying to do what critics do. For me, it is about a head and heart response, or examining my own thoughts and opinions about what I've seen or heard - I usually call Specs a 'cultural diary', and once referred to it in a talk as 'learning in public'. It's a way of communicating recommendations, enthusiasms and - yes - emotions to people. If some of the Response writers decide they want to do that, that would also be fine. Much like the Coliseum - there is room for everyone.
Deadlines no doubt playing a part, the Music Magazine piece must have been handed in a while ago now, while the first ENO Response reviews have only just appeared on the website. They are thoughtful, considered - and by no means sycophantic - reactions to the show: light years away from the "grateful effusions" predicted by our sneering columnist.

If ENO Response continues in the same vein, it could achieve something really good - which makes it worth trying. I like to think that the trainee writers could feel they can approach the professionals for advice, too, without fear of being rugby-tackled into the orchestra pit. I hope the critics remember that some of these rookies will have been following their work and look up to them as writers to emulate. Assuming that absolutely everyone involved - the professionals, the amateurs, the ENO board - cares about the future of opera and music writing, that's the real way forward.