Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Terra at the Print Room


The Coronet in Notting Hill is the sort of theatre that the well-dyed in Hackney dream of. 'Shabby-chic' does not do justice to the crumble, chill and red-low lighting of a 1898 theatre that once hosted Sara Bernhardt. The bar is the stall circle with a piano, holding the drinks, wedged against the seating rake; the stage is propped on a temporary ceiling above so that the dress circle becomes the front row of the auditorium. It's classy and it's cosy.

Its yesterdayness also makes it a good place to see Terra, the third in a series of 'elemental' dance works contrived by choreographer Hubert Essakow. Terra's narrative might be dystopian or Jules-Verne-adventuring. A new poem by Ben Okri chapter-heads each sequence with wide words concerning existence. That may sound a bit wooly but it works as a warm perspective on the set design, a superb tall, contemporary Pompeii, from Sofie Lachaert and Luc d’Hanis.

The company dance very well in ensemble on a small stage, with occasional solo stand-outs (I was particularly struck by Estela Merlos' prologue and the strikingly accomplished dancing from child dancer Constance Booth. Technically the show is as well contrived as the dancing with sharp lighting and careful amplification of both a single voice and the performance area. The company dance to a new score by Jean-Michel Bernard, an established film score composer, who has produced a thoughtful collective of styles from French turn of the century Fauvism to the mid 1970s Mwandishi/Headhunters funk of Herbie Hancock, invoking the rhythmic asceticism of Stravinsky along the way.

Not a compulsive patron of (contemporary) dance, I must only rely on my first instincts for being theatrically absorbed to tell me whether what I had seen was any good. I thought Terra was terrific. Above all, if this is typical in the wider vernacular of contemporary dance it might have been a good example of how one could go about watching it. There does appear to be some sort of narrative but this is under the lock and key of the choreographer's imagination, leaking out into that funny gap between the abstraction of technique, or form, and the programme of an objective story. The value of the performance lies in the conviction of the performers and the opportunity that affords the audience to conjure their own ideas. I found I had plenty of space to let my imagination wander, which I take as a sign of success.

Friday, 12 February 2016

Martland, Reich, Andriessen at the Barbican

On Tuesday I went to hear some music by Louis Andriessen. I'd heard some stylistic pastiche on the radio not a fortnight ago and was intrigued. La Passione, a piece he had written for the evening's soloist Cristina Zavalloni was a different kettle of timbres to that which had tempted me into the hall - but I loved the orchestration (the oily sounds of electric guitars and a sugary cymbalon) and some of the harmonics produced by high oboe writing were special to hear. Whoever has the money, please spend it on teaching children about the fact that music like this exists and, maybe, even giving them lessons on a double reed instrument so that they can feed their interest or even have a go, not on a glossy new hall for the consequently diminishing number of those who managed to get that education.

Whoa... ranting aside, the most impressive encounter of the evening was in hearing Steve Reich's Desert Music performed live and in full (it's not quite a hour long, without a break). You can hear it here as the concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 (at 26m45s). Apart from the concentration required to maintain the unbroken tactus which changes only in the tempo on half a dozen occasions, it's a test of stamina for all musicians, particularly percussionists and also for the singers. The 10 strong Britten Sinfonia Voices used microphones to... well, I'd be interested to hear exactly what the principal need for the microphones is. Clearly it's necessary for the voices to be heard at all. There's also a great deal of dynamic grading but this is where I start to wonder whether the mixing desk or the artists are in charge of this element of the ensemble. I didn't get a chance to speak to anyone about 'mic technique' afterwards.

I'm genuinely interested. It's important to say that, though highly defensive of the need for artists to learn how to perform acoustically and audiences to listen in the same space, I don't have a problem with this in this piece - amplified and even processed sound in this instance is the aesthetic. The singers were amazing: it's tricky music to pitch and outright difficult to sing. Bravo.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Rite of Spring, Sasha Waltz Company

Last week I went to see the Sasha Waltz & Guests Company dancing a triple bill at Sadler's Wells. Actually, I was, like many, there to see the company dance the Rite of Spring, or Sacre [du Printemps] as they were calling it.

It was a terrific experience, a company some 50 or so strong giving themselves over to the bizarre meters but irresistible rhythm. I noted a few things: the most impressive was how the formation of small groups doing similar things in different places on the stage gave a very strong, almost gravitational sense of the space. It felt like projecting the topography of the space, as it they were creating tension between them by dancing in synch. I hadn't felt as pulled into something since I went to see Donald Judd's sculpture at Tate Modern.

One very interesting impact however was when the culmination of the piece was taken over by a solo dancer. This is in the programme of the work itself, which describes a chosen individual dancing him/herself dead.

What was fascinating was my reaction to the decision to have the dancer dance the final stretch naked. Initially I simply assumed that - as in opera or theatre productions where characters remove all their clothes - it was simply a poor choice, a nuclear option to heighten an already hysterical pitch of drama. I was wrong. The dancer who then doubled the tempo and traces of the previous spasm-like choreography had little inhibition, with good reason. Her body was totally of a part with the content of the music.

Monday, 31 August 2015

Southwell Music Festival 2015

Marcus Farnsworth conducts at the Southwell Music Festival
What do we mean by a festival? My first reaction is celebration: practitioners and enthusiasts gathering together to focus on their mutual interest. I've thought a little about the nature of a festival as it can connote a market mentality, people bringing their finished products to the stall. Well, selling or parading achievements isn't the atmosphere of the Southwell Music Festival. Now coming to the end of only its second year, this celebration of classical music is active and purposeful, focused on musical immersion and enthusiasm, commitment and finesse.

Scratch the surface and you immediately discover a reservoir of support for the Festival's instigator and Artistic Director Marcus Farnsworth. This isn't (just) because he grew up here. It isn't even really because his hard-won success as a singer and conductor means that he can call on established musicians of high calibre to come up to the East Midlands to join him.

No, in this Festival Marcus and his colleagues work hard to achieve excellence in music and to engage their audience at that highest of levels. This Festival is where the celebration of music is active and purposeful in performer and audience alike.

With the Minster (where Marcus was a chorister) at the centre of the town it's inevitable that it is also at the centre of the Festival. A performance of Mendelssohn's Elijah was the gala event on Saturday night. A case in point, this wasn't just another parochial run-out of a familiar repertory oratorio. Andrew Foster-Williams assumed the character of the titular prophet, performing without a score. This brought the drama to life and he took the performers with him: Old Testament shock and awe brought frosted silences and rocked the nave floor in turn. Even bats in the crossing behind the performers could be seen circling in panic whenever Mendelssohn intimated God's wrath.

Of course this music is nothing without its exposed, plaintive moments in which to reflect. Indeed they're the heart of a work like Elijah, the heart of much music, especially within a church building. The following morning's Eucharist Mass used a setting by Stravinsky - complete with accompanying wind octet - whose cool, opaque neoclassicism allowed only reflection. It was a crisp tonic to the grand sentiment of the previous night. An ecstatic but crystalline account of Messiaen's great communion motet O Sacrum Convivium offered an alternative and less psychedelic vision of heavenly assumption than that which had been conjured in Elijah the night before.

Photo: Nick Rutter
The Minster is a handsome space. More importantly it has an unrivalled acoustic (it really does). This Festival is not bound by the Christian purpose of the Minster. The Sunday evensong saw the programming of Giles Swayne's Magnificat, a virtuoso choral work that one performer cheerfully admitted he'd never performed in the liturgy before. Similarly the late night choral concert at the start of the Festival titled Voices on Water used the space to illuminate the performances (literally too, as it's evocatively lit with candles).

In a warm working relationship between church and Festival there's no tension though and the following night's concert of Haydn's Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross was all the richer for not only the building but also the proximity of Jonathan Clark's fine sculpture Stations of the Cross nearby.

The Festival has exhibitions from various local art bodies running in parallel. One of the most striking of these tie-ins was in fact not an exhibit at all. Rather, Musical Draw invited artists to come in to an open rehearsal and sketch the performers at work. An excellent initiative, this promotes a high level of interdisciplinary work as well as dismissing the artificial barriers that separate the musicians and their audience. Crucially, with tasks in hand there are no unnecessary distractions. Again, this is a festival focused on active, purposeful celebration.

The Festival is an open book. There are at least as many free and fringe events as there are ticketed performances. Equally, leading people towards the music is a task not only for the media operations that see performances recorded or discussed in programme and social media alike but also for the performers themselves. Marcus clearly enjoyed introducing performances - not as common as you'd think - and the outing of a particularly tricky work, Thomas Ades' Arcadiana, came with its own carefully prepared pre-performance talk in situ from the Associate Director Jamie Campbell.

Libby Burgess and James Baillieu prepare to perform Stravinsky
There is also élan. This great modern programme on the Sunday evening concluded with Festival favourites Libby Burgess and James Baillieu tackling Stravinsky's Rite of Spring for four hands. It is an expression of a festival such as this that such an arrangement should be tackled not to impress but interrogatively, to seek out its music. At the end of a brilliant performance we applauded keyboard skill of the highest order - and the genius of a composer who wrote down music we couldn't presume to hear on our own.

We come to the end of the Festival celebrating music in the best way a Festival can, incorporating everyone. The Come & Sing Mozart Requiem about to take place in the Minster offers both the musically well-read and curious a hands-on opportunity to try it. The 'well-read and the curious' characterises everyone who lives near to and supports the Festival in all the manner of ways it is necessary to do so for such an operation to thrive. It is active and has purpose. It is the best sort of celebration of music.

Monday, 1 June 2015

Ludlow English Song Weekend


I spent Sunday at the Ludlow English Song Weekend, a festival convened principally on behalf of the Finzi Friends but taking in all sorts of composers, performers and events that are pertinent to English song. Powered by the clearly indefatigable pianist, writer and broadcaster Iain Burnside the festival (as that is what it is) is clearly successful and building for the future. This year's was broadcast and recorded for the first time on BBC Radio 3.



I attended a pair of recitals. The first, titled Exalt and Crown the Hour, offset Finzi's cycle A Young Man’s Exhortation with English songs by largely living English-speaking composers. John Mark Ainsley has an inimitable way with song, at once conversational and yet artful - and probably answers all the question posed in the prior discussion about the nature of English song in a single performance of the Finzi cycle. Clare McCaldin was equal to the rather more exotic range of text and music in the interleaved contemporary songs, giving accounts of compositions by Martin Bussey and Geoffrey Allan Taylor, both present, as well as a gallery-galvanizing account of William Bolcom's The Crazy Woman.

After lunch we returned for the final concert of the weekend, His Name was Dream, celebrating the poetry of Walter de la Mare. John Mark Ainsley came back for his second recital of the day beside Marcus Farnsworth and Anna Huntley. Howells and Lennox Berkeley rubbed shoulders with a lovely Armstrong Gibbs set.



The weekend attracts a super audience who sit in the dry acoustic of the Ludlow Assembly Halls (or St Lawrence's Church) in total, attentive silence and then do all their talking over a cup of tea or perhaps choose to browse through the scores and books on offer in the foyer. In fact, it turned out to be a fine, sunny day in the end and many of us went out into the market between recitals to buy jam and cheese or just enjoy the sight of this pretty town that features explicitly or, moreover, implicitly in many of the songs to which we had been listening.

Friday, 29 May 2015

Turangalila, Philharmonia, RFH

I first heard Messiaen's Turangalila-Symphonie on a BBC Radio 3 broadcast in, oh, 1992? If I thought it was loud and exotic then, little has changed. Well, maybe the 'loud' bit. Last night the Philharmonia played it with a gleeful, punchy ensemble (but were never raucous). It was fun - and enlightening - to watch as well as hear. The double basses (10 of them) have a frightening run at one point, which, like much of the piece is all about texture rather than melody.  The celesta is featured. I don't know the score, so having two of them might be required or it might be an indulgence. It was fab, whatever the intention. And their glitter was cut, just, with a marimba behind them. I mean, all the textures had some sort of timbral modification: the Ondes Martenot and the low strings; the clarinet, er, versus the Ondes Martenot (the latter deploying a fun, buzzy quality at this point). One exception might have been the blitzkrieg of the Philharmonia's trumpets, owning the trump prefix (it is now) of their instruments. But then, for all their panache and, yup, brassiness this was all of a part with the strange, homogenised aesthetic of the performance, a largely opaque sound that admitted wonder but not rumination, tenderness though not necessarily warmth. Turangalila doesn't strike me as a soul-searching work but a forward-fixed spasm of optimism. Even Pierre-Laurent Aimard played with antic gesture, the music of totems. Esa Pekka Salonen is the most secure of conductors and his unequivocal beat electrified orchestra and audience alike. There has rarely been a more exhilarating and, frankly terrifying entreaty to crescendo for either to have watched. There was some Debussy in the first half played with some style and finesse but I remember little more of it after this eighty-minute shaman-stomp.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Sonia Delaunay, Tate Modern

So much colour! Even in the first pair of rooms, the Fauving was pretty extreme as first-decade-of-20th-century portraits were essentially vehicles for Sonia Delaunay's experiments in colour Simultanism. This is the important term we learn at Tate Modern's Delaunay retrospective, the idea that juxtaposed colours have different colours than when they stand alone. The result might have taken her down a cubist path: instead she blew her experimenting wide open to include textiles. Commissions for clothing designs followed and, up the the second world war, work was plentiful.

As you begin to come back on yourself on the 3rd floor of the Tate though, things seem to have stalled. The panels for the International Exhibition of Arts and Technology in Modern Life aside, there does not appear to be much development of her style beyond the darkening of the palette. Perhaps the designs and colouring of the Madrid period work (either side of 1920-ish) were a sufficiently pungent template. I loved the Flamenco pictures and some of the 1920s Parisian fashion designs. And then I got a little tired.

Friday, 8 May 2015

Anyssa Neumann, Bach Suites, Blackheath Halls

Today was the day after the UK general election. Regardless of one's own political stripe it was a remarkable morning, difficult to take in and process: expectation confounded, assumptions swept aside. All the release of the prior five week's pressured campaigning was as shocking as it was a relief.

I was glad of an opportunity to get out to Blackheath Halls to hear the American pianist Anyssa Neumann give a psyche-rinsing recital of Bach for keyboard. It was also a good opportunity to experience a concert in the recital room. Recently refurbished, it's a clean, pale shoebox to seat around 100 with decorous Farrow & Ball-like curtains and stained glass cresting the sizeable windows.

Anyssa played the French Suite No.1 BWV 812, Two-part Inventions Nos. 14, 6 & 4 BWVs 785, 775, 777 and the English Suite No. 5 BWV 810. There is an unobfuscated finesse to her execution, picking out voice-leading not with spotlighting but with focus. The measured rhetorical opening of the French Suite invited attention to the lines: no teasing Gallic filigree here but the assurance of a well-lit path. I heard the Sarabande through the prism of the dizzying political change of the morning as a sober but stoic argument, the campaign post-mortem if you like. Though the closing Gigue recalled the political frenzy with destabilising, impulsive flourishes it was held in check by the newly-established sobriety in the bass (these were my own metaphorical images, of course, but the consistency of this narrative reflects the integrity of the performance as a suite).

In fact the lower voicing of Anyssa's performance was a tremendous feature of this recital. One might also credit the instrument and the room. The sound in the space is clear and alive but without any superfluous reverberance. I loved the sound of the piano, especially in the lower register, with copper-vessel tone that lent a slightly different character to the sound of rising scales, like a proper baritone singing back up into the middle of the counterpoint. There is no information about the Bösendorfer on the Blackheath Halls website (perhaps the Semi Concert Grand Model 225 with sub-contra notes blacked out at the lower octave) but it's an instrument to cherish.

So I encountered this recital as a grand displacement metaphor. That's OK, I think - the clarity of the sketching out of the music on the piano allowed me to untangle my thoughts and iron them out. The rest of the audience was local, appreciative and as actively silent as the acoustic: a nice, natural consensus in music on a day when consensus elsewhere might have seemed rather awkward.