Wednesday, 18 September 2019

The Emperor of Atlantis, Bold Tendencies

This was my first visit to the Multi-Storey space in Peckham, a reclaimed car park opposite the station that - on a beautiful Indian summer night like this - draw hundreds to its roof-top bar.

Inside there are lots of different spaces for all manner of goings-on. I walked past two separate art installations to reach a sealed-off performance area for the first in a run of performances of Viktor Ullman's The Emperor of Atlantis, written in the concentration camp of Terezín in 1943. The company is Bold Tendencies.

That the work was composed in such dreadful circumstances is reflected in both the quiet hysteria of the piece, and the controlled but undeniably frenetic energy of the performances. The four (OK, five, conductor Tim Burke plays a keyboard glockenspiel as well) instrumentalists - a companion familiar with the composer tells me that it was a reduced orchestration - play on the periphery of the circular space onto which the cast charge, dance, posture and fight. The tentative division between sincerity and irony which one gets at the door as they welcome the audience into the space quickly dissolves in the absurdity of the situation. The perplexing political situation of the UK in September 2019 cannot sit outside this dismissal of a fourth wall. Consequently the conclusion is less sobering than uncomfortable. Highly effective.

Eight Songs for a Mad King, Shadwell Opera

I still recall my first experience of Shadwell Opera, a performance of the Crimp-Benjamin Into The Little Hill at a community centre in Limehouse. The drug-taking in the neighbouring park had almost put me off but luckily not enough. The event was a fine, minimal-staging, maximum-quality, up-close operatic recital.

This performance of Peter Maxwell-Davies' Eight Songs for a Mad King was equally close (and equally co-opted East London), making use a performing space on top of a disused warehouse by a Hackney canal. An architectural installation - the Potemkin Theatre, an Antepavilion prize installation, had just the right aesthetic for the project: tall and aspirational but temporary and, on closer inspection, folly.

Ben Nelson gave a regal performance of this demanding, extended-voice, all-in role. The ensemble played precisely for Chris Stark. Around the sounds of a hot, Indian summer weekend (complete with the dreg end sounds of the nearby Hackney Carnival) drifted across the space. I was reminded of the end of Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex:

Gently, gently, his people drive him away. Farewell, farewell Oedipus —we loved you.

Proms at Cadogan Hall 8

This late-season chamber Prom was a tribute to composer Oliver Knussen who died last year. His music, along with that of contemporaries and younger colleagues, was performed by the newly-convened Knussen Chamber Orchestra, an elite collective of performers led by Ryan Wigglesworth.

I was in attendance principally to hear Alastair Putt's Halazuni, an older work in this composer's canon. Alastair writes

Halazuni takes its inspiration from arabesque decoration in Islamic art, and the patterns and lines therein. Such art juxtaposes the rigidity of an underlying 'tiling' with more florid elaboration, and I have attempted to represent this musically by establishing a rhythmically regular background texture, on which slower-moving, more flexible lines are overlaid.

In addition to pieces by Knussen, Birtwistle and Hans Abrahamsen there was a new work by Freya Waley-Cohen. Naiad is a short work, though to call it a miniature would be to do a disservice to its switching of pastoral perspectives, from the macro of leaf-dew to the wide angle of the open field at dawn. It's evocative and beautiful. The music was all terrifically performed and the Cadogan Hall well populated for a Monday lunchtime concert of contemporary music.

Monday, 5 August 2019

Tete a Tete Opera 2019

I was pleased to be able to catch at least one day of this year's now well-established London festival of new opera Tete a Tete, which is always a valuable place to meet and talk about the genre if nothing else. On the afternoon and evening that I went we were able to see three productions of short new works in RADA's Drill Theatre Studio.

First was BEAM, an anagram of BAME, a autobiopera (if you like) in which Nadine Benjamin performed music both accompanying her personal and professional growth, as well as part of its repertoire. Stark personal performing like this only works, as it did, if the protagonist is both professional and *good*. The Q&A afterwards was not only a useful forum but also a welcome chill out from the intensity of what we heard. This was followed by Voiceless, another tour de force vehicle for mezzo Rosie Middleton, which is still in a period of development.

Finally we saw Panter & Faulkner's The Cruel Sister, a very entertaining (not to mention polished) Grimm-like Northumbrian yarn with a nice role for a double threat Esther Mallett (singing and fiddling) and an effective role for a dancing actor, played here by Michelle Buckley.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Dialogue of the Carmelites, GSMD

I joined a posse of colleagues to go and hear the Guildhall School Dialogue of the Carmelites (in French) as we knew a cast member. It's always nice to have a localised reason for going along to see a show such as this beyond the music as it changes ones focus - especially in a grand piece such as Poulenc's Revolution drama - and leaves plenty open to be a surprise.

It's a well-costumed show and excellently lit. The cast has a big range of voices, as one might expect, but quite a bit of strength in depth. The principal parts were well-cast. We sat near the pit which was a treat, as one could hear both the orchestral blend and individual colours with great clarity in this wide, dry theatre.

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Iolanthe, Coliseum

A Cal McCrystal opera. Well, given that we had to leave One Man Two Guv'nors early having exhausted ourselves laughing in the first half, this conflagration demanded a viewing.

It's worth it alright. This Iolanthe from ENO is colourful and detailed (a tremendous final flourish from the late Paul Brown), with an extra proscenium and illustrated wing flats actually opening the theatrical experience out to the audience rather than presenting further 'fourth walls'... though part of this outreach to the audience was set in motion at the beginning by the actor Clive Mantle, who comes on in the guise of an Edwardian health & safety fireman to gentle rib the audience, introduce and then joke with the conductor (Timothy Henty) as well as popping up occasionally to extinguish sundry on stage pyrotechnics.

It's possible to argue that the music isn't always trusted to carry the show, with exhaustive pursuit of gags during lyrical moments - but then, what director hasn't tried to inject Handelian da capos with some fresh stage action? The chorus is in its element with almost every single individual essaying their own character in any available sliver of space (recurring jokes include the Screamer, the Repeater, the Drunk Lord, the Fopp) and in a fine supporting cast of animals of various states of animation, there's some excellent, understated work with a puppet dog.

And there's wire work.

And acrobatics...

... you get the idea. I might add that the principal singing is really rather good too, from the impeccable patter of Andrew Shore's Lord Chancellor to Ellie Laugharne's canny Phyllis and

And juggling

... and Bens Johnson & McAteer. We the audience also had a chance to sing but I wouldn't want to end on a damp note, which we can leave to the weather that put very few off an entertaining evening in St Martin's Lane.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Pierrot Lunaire, CWSO, Guards Chapel

Natalie Raybould preparing to perform Pierrot Lunaire
This was an unusual concert to attend by any reckoning - and that's before the weather turned very cold and snowy the night before. Luckily the audience wasn't put off, so there was a quorum of well over a hundred to hear the Countess of Wessex String Orchestra play 'Moonlight in Paris' themed pieces in the Guards Chapel on Birdcage Walk.

Programming is a funny art, and this classically eclectic mix walked the line between inspired and 'just making the criteria'. Vive la difference as intrepid and rather chilly audiences say in the Moonlight in London (although the obligatory National Anthem was indeed obligatory). So, we heard a Lully Overture, a fine, succinct Milhaud Symphony, mellifluous meditations by William Lloyd Webber and Fauré and a (Alto) saxophone concerto by Glazunov, excellently played by a member of the Irish Guards, Andy Braet.

I'm told that the ensemble are trying to programme repertoire outside what is familiar for all sorts of reasons and this is to be commended, as is their conductor Major David Hammond, who is ambitious enough to embrace this idea. It's a peculiar situation watching a uniformed unit, with a formal stage mannerism in keeping with their military basis playing music of a range of affect & temperament (and wit the shameless contemporary touch of reading off iPads with pedal turners).

All this cognitive chicanery was just warm-up for the single work after the interval though. Soprano Natalie Raybould has been performing Schoenberg's expressionist song cycle Pierrot Lunaire for the best part of twenty years and it shows. With its neither fish-nor-fowl vocal styling of Sprechstimme (the words of the poem are spoken but to the pitches and their duration specified in a conventional score) it is important to have a performer who not only knows precisely what they are doing but is also prepared to leave the page behind and grip the audience by its overcoat (put back on after the interval, since you ask).

This was a riveting account of Albert Giraud's poetry (in German, translated by Otto Erich Hartleben) in which the non-German speaker, such as this author, was able not only to hear the text but also understand it. This was also through the carefully detailed rendering of the score by the orchestra (a string quartet with two woodwind and the organist of the Guards Chapel, Martin Ford, on the piano), the most richly realised performance of the evening. Natalie Raybould's technique is something marvellous to watch and hear, pitched speaking of great colour and dynamic, with such a syllabic clarity that it appears her mouth is doing all the acting. My concern that a small group of military students behind me, who had expressed delight in seeing their first double bass earlier in the evening, might have found this a stretch was also put to rest as not a soul left the building until the performers has returned for a genuinely rapturous curtain call.

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Salieri First the Music Then The Words, Lunchbreak Opera

There are three arteries by which one hears of shows going on in town: the company; the piece; or the performers. I'd heard that Caroline Kennedy was going to be performing in this one act four-hander in St Botolph's near London Liverpool Street, which is a strong recommendation in itself, though a new company and a little known Salieri piece concurrent with the National Theatre's Amadeus revival sealed the deal.

Lunchbreak Opera are a string quartet conducted from the harpsichord by Matthew O'Keefe. The instrumentalists sat at the back of the hall, by the door, which meant that the audience (which included a number of charming and engrossed 6-8 year olds on half term) was thrust forward to the front of the performing area. Salieri's opera was apparently performed without much cut (we were probably working to an 18th century Viennese idea of a Lunchbreak, then, at 85 mins) but plenty of style and energy. The cast had bent the Regency of St Botolph's parish hall to their whim with vigour, humour and considerable costuming effort, not to mention generous singing, despite reels of recit. No doubt the ensemble issues that plagued the early performance I went to were resolved by the end of the full week of performances.

There was style and sonority aplenty here so one looks out for their next adventure.