Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Hildegard Behrens 1937-2009

The dramatic soprano Hildegard Behrens has died in Japan. She was one of the better post-war Brünnhildes, Karajan's Salome and part of the outstanding cast in Abbado's Vienna State Opera Wozzeck.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Greenwood, Stravinsky & Birtwistle Prom 14/08

On Friday I attended this key, if eclectic concert in the BBC Proms festival. Key, as the Proms are celebrating Sir Harrison Birtwistle's 75 birthday year (1934 is a key date across the season) and are programming all the ballets of Igor Stravinsky; eclectic, as the Messiaen & Penderecki admiring rock musician Johnny Greenwood is programmed alongside these composers not as adhesive but as contrast.

Greenwood's Popcorn Superhet Receiver opened the concert. It's an absorbing collage of string sound, destabilising, seductive and occasionally intimidating. It's unsurprising that he incorporated part of it into his score for There Will Be Blood, a film that demands a third, abstract but morally opaque character off camera; a nasty noumenon, if you like. Certainly the gestures of the music seem programmatic. I enjoyed the performance, the strings of the BBCSO standing to perform.

They stayed standing up for Stravinsky's Apollo. This was arguably the highlight of the evening, a shimmering, limpid exercise of string élan. Great ensemble, great sound but emotionally rather blanched - echt Neoclassical performance, in other words. Super.

To be honest, though I'm a fervent Radiohead/Greenwood fan I'd really come to see Birtwistle's Mask of Orpheus. Actually, we saw only the second act, The Arches, a stylised, episodic re-telling of Orpheus' journey back from the depths of Hades after having gone down to retrieve his lover Euridice. It's what I'm rapidly coming to believe to be classic Birtwistle - unrelenting, slightly frenetic, constant density music of barely any tonal centre but amazingly, noteworthily orchestrated. It's a tough listen but not because you're ever straining to hear sounds - rather because it's tricky to hear any musical contour.

Indeed, many didn't manage to withstand the onslaught. Not only did the music play to an audience diminished in numbers from the first half, but there was also a steady trickle of concert-goers who three in the towel and left during the performance. I wonder how much this had to do with the imposition of the semi-staging shenanigans that all performers were required to participate in (I'm reliably informed that the BBCSO were very reluctant to wave mirrors around and fall asleep/wake up again).

Actually, for all my cynicism with regard to this stylised posturing, this is where this piece is more allied to Stravinsky's neo-classicism than one might otherwise have thought at the outset. The music, the drama is meant to be more totemic than expressionist. It's just a bit of a pity that the score is too consistently 'full' to allow dramatic ebb & flow or development.

The performances were predictably excellent. Music as demanding as this can only be done very well (especially with the composer sitting in the audience). Alan Oke, Christine Brewer and Anna Stéphany were the choice of the singers - well, Claron McFadden was also outstanding, although one can't always refer to her particular vocal virtuosity as singing. The orchestra engaged with the music hungrily and with their ears as much as their instruments. The ensemble was terrific, doing Birtwistle's orchestrations real justice. The clearly in-control Martin Brabbins and Ryan Wigglesworth probably had quite a bit to do with that.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Harry Patch and Radiohead

Today is the funeral of the final soldier to have fought in the first World War, Harry Patch. The pop group Radiohead have recorded a single which is on sale (£1) - proceeds of the sale go to the Royal British Legion.

There is a little bit of a kerfuffle about this, some accusing the band of opportunism. The argument goes that, despite all the money going to a charity fully representative of the deceased and his profile, the band will no doubt get a minimum of residual publicity. This is true. It's also the case that the band have put the B-side collection from their two year old album In Rainbows on sale less than two months ago.

What's the alternative? It's possible that a piece of music could be commissioned. We have a composer* & poet laureate, state-sponsored and royal-warranted artists that could fulfil this role without any suggestion of piggybacking personal interests on such a gesture. Yet it's a sure sign of the manner in which British society has moved on that these positions are socially invisible, ivory-tower-consigned roles that simply do not have the appeal of a free-market-leading artistic outfit such as Radiohead. For all that the band are a commercial outfit, their success and profile is mainly due to the success of their labours. People have put them in the position they find themselves by staking their money in them - it's a significant, if modern vote of confidence. And of course, having a high-profile outfit producing music that's market-tested means that the cash bonus from this episode for the Royal British Legion will be considerably more than that of a Sir Peter Maxwell-Davis, Carol Ann Duffy exercise. I'd imagine.

I think that Thom Yorke and Radiohead have behaved pretty well over this issue. Their offering makes no claims other than to honour. If in the process of making the gesture they cause a bump in interest in their own commercial corner then that's a sort of collateral issue, which reminds me of Churchill's famous statement on democracy: it being the least worst system.

* the 'composer laureate' = Master of the Queen's Music

Monday, 3 August 2009

Crystal Palace cinema campaign

An attempt by a cinema group to purchase a building formerly used as a cinema in Crystal Palace has been thwarted by a church group. The church group in question (who are not locally based) will now have to wait for a considerable period (while the property is unused) to secure planning permission for a change of venue purpose (which will likely be disruptive), unless local voices are raised in support of a cinema.

A cinema is a better idea for this building, in this place, at this time, for local people. Visit for further details.