Friday, 13 October 2017

Michelle in another millenial cafe

I asked for a coffee and a croissant, so I got that I guess. The pastry was a bit tired and the espresso was a portmanteau of the less appealing bits of artisanal north London (machined coffee served in a miniature bed pan).

So, I settled down to browse the Metro (you're getting the idea) and idly reflect on another grey Friday morning. Drive My Car came on the cafe radio, which caught my ear, as did the subsequent Norwegian Wood. Ah, they've got Rubber Soul on Spotify, or something. I considered the picture of Paul McCartney I'd been looking at in Sunday's Observer, a byline image to promote a new Michael Caine documentary, My Generation, about the cultural phenomenon of the 1960s.
“There was a lot of snobbery then. It was terrible. There is a lot now too, but it can’t really hurt anyone because we don’t give a toss any more,” he said.
Then - out of track order - Michelle.

Michelle is one of the greatest (pop) songs ever written.

It just starts, without intro. It's written by a boy - Paul - addressing a girl ('Michelle!'), himself (ooh, 'these are words that go together well') and, last of all, us, telling the story.

He tries again, warming to the theme. Here's the songwriting Beatle, in his bedroom, guitar on lap, as unconcerned by his crush being foreign as he is playing the guitar left-handed. Paul still has the novelty and cosmopolitan funk of a Hamburg basement club still in his nostrils. He's going to try some French, and see what goes together well.

Sod it.

'I love you, I love you, I love you!' he blurts out, the tune suddenly grasping at the home note of his key signature. Frankly, all that studied melodic craftsmanship (a Gitane-tangy tritone between the second and third notes; French) can just wait in line between all he wants to say. And yet, that very line, all he wants to say, sits over the most nonchalant (one even has to use an adopted French term) harmonic sleight of hand. Because he has said it. Hey, Natasha Beddingfield probably paid her mortgage with the same tricolon crescendo in These Words, 40 years later.

And Michelle gets it. It's not the only words he knows that she'll understand. The words don't matter - the learning doesn't matter. He doesn't 'give a toss' in that moment. The worry about education doesn't matter, the pre-grammar-schooling that Michael Caine worries has excluded so many of My Generation from their potential, doesn't matter.

There's no posturing in Michelle: no lengthy introduction, no mansplaining of who Michelle is or what she means. George (is it George?) sits in the other corner of the middle eight spinning a slowhand curl of musical smoke, ruminating.

Middle eight? Nope, until I find a way of talking about this miniature masterpiece that Hugo Wolf would have been quietly pleased with, I will say the only words I know that you'll understand about the bits inbetween verses that have no chorus in the quietest of pop masterpieces.

Friday, 6 October 2017

Mahler 3, Philharmonia, Festival Hall

"It was voted the tenth-greatest symphony of all time in a survey of conductors carried out by the BBC Music Magazine." (via Wikipedia)

Well, tenth-greatest isn't where I would put it, even following a highly polished performance such as this. The Philharmonia performed Mahler's 3rd Symphony last Sunday afternoon at the Royal Festival Hall, a special event that was streamed online and also captured for some sort of VR event (part of their Virtual Orchestra series?). I guess it's the familiarity of the music, the length of the piece and the faintly daft fourth & fifth movements... but then I always have to factor in the hangover association of hearing the piece at the Barbican 20 years ago when the person next to me tried to unwrap a sweet throughout the whole of the finale.

Personal pecadillos aside it was just nice to come and hear the Philharmonia giving a concert performance of a single work, and one that is a classic example of an orchestral showpiece. I enjoyed the concert in so many ways for this alone: the ensemble, following Esa-Pekka Salonen's beat as if on the end of a cord; the brilliant woodwind throughout; the ensemble of the cellos, who I often mistook for a single instrument; ferocious but nonetheless meticulous trombones, as if a Formula 1 car had been asked to corner in the melodic minor; the ensemble (have I mentioned the ensemble yet?) of the timpani in the final throes of the work - absolutely astonishing, utterly memorable.

In addition to this were the women of Philharmonia Voices and the (off-copy) boys of Tiffin School, precise in tone, text and decorous choreography as Salonen segued the Threnody of the final movement from the close of the prior Knaben Wunderhorn setting. I had a splendid seat for such an event, halfway up the balcony where I last sat, ooh, again, 20 years ago to hear Waltraud Meier essay Wagner, a good place to take in the sweep of the substantial, impressive, if unfashionable concert hall and a piece of music that could have been designed for it. And we all listened carefully - without intrusive sweets - for the full hour and a half.

Friday, 15 September 2017

Dead Club, Fuel Theatre, The Place

The first rule of Dead Club is... well, actually, it's wear the hat. This remarkable dance (+ theatre & song) piece was a classic punt on a tip on an otherwise routine Friday night for which we cashed a significant return. This is the promotional video...

... which, like many expectations going into the studio at The Place on the Euston Road, was immediately confounded. There is bittersweet cabaret but there the visual equation ends.

Instead there's a dazzle-ship striped dais with standing places, party hats (as mentioned, wear it) and a sophisticated lighting design that masks entrances and exits, and functions as a wheel of fortune as might have been imagined by David Lynch.

The cut and thrust of the work (no cutting but plenty of thrust) is, probably, a surreal narrative that imagines the sub-liminal experience of death. Or perhaps it's a fun version of purgatory, complete with song, party (games? hats.) and costuming. I noted that it's not a dissimilar subject matter to Hofesh Shechter's Grand Finale, playing up the road at Sadler's Wells.

However, let's just step back for a moment of sobriety. We went to see Dead Club on the same day as what appeared to be another attempt to bring great violence to London transport (this was the explosive device at Parson's Green). At the time of writing, we understand that about two dozen people have been injured but that no-one has been killed. To see a show in which the protagonist (such as there was one) wandering the stage covered in ash was a close, if entirely serendipitous, conceit.

But then, that's a point, if not the point. '... it might be you' is part of the marketing text; hackneyed but not waffle. It might be you, or me, whether or not it's an end that comes in flame. It probably won't be an end that's ushered in by, to take an image from the show, a sort of six foot Wimbledon ball boy, but then for all its inevitability, death is so unique, absurd and, well, just difficult, there's no imaginative limitation on how bizarre our death might actually be.

On a day when the possibility of death is visited on a society through a (possibly) stale-minded outsider's dislike of that society's way of life, I welcomed a chance to get involved in theatre that had a go at owning it. It's more than defiance, actually, it's purposeful. And I had fun on the way.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Hofesh Shechter, Grand Finale, Sadler's Wells

For me, a classic punt on an unknown on a Tuesday evening in London. For the excitable mass, opera director friend I bumped into in the interval and those who had seen the Royal Opera's Orfeo & Eurydice from 2 years ago, the Hofesh Shechter Company is the bomb.

Well, a bomb perhaps. Grand Finale is a piece that explodes with noise and energy and may represent the aftermath of some actual armageddon. The character of the work follows the title though - for all the desperation of the characters' furious, relentless steps and movement (imagine the CD player stuck on the final minute or so of the Rite of Spring), the mercurial twisting from conflict to consolation, there's plenty of wit and the blind fun of dancing together in the face of 'the end'. The show benefits from an entertaining sextet of musicians popping up occasionally to leaven the extraordinarily powerful sound system. It was fun to realise one was enjoying watching people dancing in club (yeah, showing my age) though I was less convinced by a relatively still sequence involving a bubble-blower in the flies, which seemed to capitulate its purpose to the stage picture. The full house went nuts for the company and eponymous choreographer afterwards.

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.