Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Arshile Gorky at Tate Modern

I enjoyed the Tate's latest retrospective, that of American pre-war artist Arshile Gorky. Where the opening rooms are clearly intended to demonstrate his learning from a handful of select European movements and their major artists, the final rooms exhibit styles which are clearly the forerunners of the celebrated abstract expressionism of postwar American art, as well as resonating further afield, back to the conflict-riven Europe Gorky had fled, painfully, in 1915. Here's the Tate's video (played at the exit of the exhibition)



Of the pastiche pictures, for want of a better term, I liked the thick, confident impasto of the 'Cezanne's and the cross-hatched drypoint surrealist drawings. The self-consciousness of the cubist pictures and surrealist canvases is less appealing.

Gorky benefitted financially from the New Deal at which point he began to develop his own style, producing murals for Newark Airport (although the pictures constitute a personal setback as they were rejected). I rather liked the pungent, perversely as-negative coloured Central Park At Dusk (1936-42, right), which seems to embody the cumulative sense of his study of cubist-surrrealist colourism but under his own formal direction. This personal maturation is confirmed with the Miró-like pictures of the period, unburdened in comparison to their namesake in the way that the Picasso-a-like canvasses are.

The exhibition's marketing focus has been on the two remarkable canvases of his mother in room 7. The pictures are simple but invested with great focus and intent. Compared to the photograph from which he worked (right) his mother is depicted as older, and emotionally distanced with pale skin or obfuscated gaze, whilst Gorky is shown as younger, a boy in the paintings as opposed to the prepubescent man in the photo. The pictures are emotionally opaque, figuration and meaning obscured with a wilful monodimension of colour. In my opinion they show calculated restraint, allusion to great trauma through the subversion of the normal manner of depicting such a portrait.

There's another interesting aside here, notably in cross-reference with a contemporary picture, Master Bill. The outward simplicity of the pictures reminded me of the cartoon art of Elzie Crisler Segar in his Olive Oyl cartoon strip (and, perhaps inevitably, of Disney/Iwerks' Mickey Mouse), surely cartoons that Gorky would have encountered as a young man in the late 1920s. Is it possible that he is consuming and processing the culture of his adopted country in the same way in which he re-appropriated the styles and ideas of the art of the Europe he left - particularly a branch of American culture that absorbed the imagination of youngsters looking to extrapolate and make some sense of their world?

The latter half of the exhibition might help to endorse this, as Gorky combines his new technical freedom with a fresh attention to the landscape of America. The consequent work bears little resemblance to the nominally figurative titles, although the dilute paint and dripping fluidity of the strokes is clearly a techincal allusion to the title of Waterfall (I found myself immediately humming the Stone Roses track of the same name, only to recall the pertinently sub-Pollock art of their eponymous album (right).

The fluidity of the paint and its concomitant strokes is the conflagration of colour and tonal range that the early pastiche canvases didn't achieve; the abstraction circumvents the loaded figuration belligerently uninvestigated in his 'mother' double portraits. The wonderful series of Betrothal canvases are a nice series of compositional works (nice curating by the Tate here) with the ghosts of Wols, Tanguy, Miró, even Duchamp's 'The Bride...' evoked but not copied. Alas this confidence evaporates from the penultimate to final rooms as the warehouse fire destroying some of his work and the onset of cancer clearly wind his impetus.

It's a fascinating exhibition, full of life and colour, marching on through a life started in terror, worked on through the Depression and ended after the war as his younger, acolyte contemporaries (one sees more de Kooning here than Pollock) take his work forward with such spectacular success.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Music Monday

Lots of new music today, including this chance discovery (I should know better than to leave such things to chance really)

Happy Birthday Stephen Sondheim

In celebration of the master lyric dramatist on his birthday, here's a remarkable clip: Take Me To The World from Evening Primrose (my favourite Sondheim number, I think), sung in a 1966 made-for-TV broadcast starring Anthony Perkins (yes, that Anthony Perkins!).

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Cunning Little Vixen, Royal Opera


There's a pleasant irony in Rob Bryden's production (that's not it above!!) of Janácek's The Cunning Little Vixen being twenty years old, in that half the (prepubescent) cast won't have been alive. The piece is all about marrying the long, rose-tinted view backwards with the zest and restless wonder of youth. That is what this production manages with its big top staging effects and entertaining costuming, and helmed by the undisputed magus of this music, 84-year-old Sir Charles Mackerras.

It is a remarkably tricky piece to pull off though. There are a number of children's roles, which are indeed assigned to children. This has its own charm but presents balancing issues. Added to this, the score is an etiolated affair, delicate and skittish. The effect of full orchestral bloom can be, consequently, overwhelming - the first act dream, the second act love duet and the glorious, life-affirming close to all three - but there's a lack of argument which I'd find frustrating were I not simply flushed with a genuine joie de vivre at the onwards rush of melody and the proto-hippie nature-wonder.

In this run of performances, the Vixen is sung by Australian Emma Matthews, with whom I was unfamiliar. She's everything Janácek's Vixen should be, singing and acting hand-in-glove, a golden, present tone never obviously having to fight for space with all manner of on-stage shenanigans. Above all, she makes it sound easy, which it is not.

With its lifecycle-of-fox foretext, this piece is about the Vixen but I often wonder if the Forester is the key principal. Christopher Maltman performed this role quite beautifully, treating the stretches of arioso as if the whole opera were yet another of Janácek's dramatised song cycles. There was such comfort in his voice - to those of use of a certain age in the audience - as he puts the Forester about his business, managing his work, friends and domesticity with equanimity and great warmth. Just so, very touching (and good, unobtrusive support from Robin Leggate & Jeremy White in this too).

Perhaps the most startling drama of the evening was off-stage, as it was announced that Emma Bell, due to play the Fox had been taken ill (she has had an emergency operation to remove her appendix). This is a shame as Bell is a thrilling singer-actress. However, with commendable resolve the Royal Opera went to Bell's cover, the Jette Parker Young Artist Elisabeth Meister, to take over. This was a remarkable debut under the circumstances. More than just secure, Meister is charismatic, entertaining and a natural fit with Matthews, singing freely and with considerable dynamic control into the bargain. The inevitably rowdy curtain call was well-deserved. I also enjoyed Matthew Rose's poacher, perfectly cast.

A delightful production of a delightful but - and this is a caveat to meet head-on - tricky opera. The pit is a petri-dish of treachery in this respect. Naturally, with the man one might consider the greatest living interpreter of Janácek there was no bother... though I felt that there were strange, temporary bald patches. Mackerras is not a young man any more (indeed, he took his fulsome curtain call from the podium). Whilst the music that irradiated from the stage and pit was halcyon, unfettered by artifice, I also felt its wit was a mite blunt.

Altogether a special evening to be in the Covent Garden auditorium. As if to make the point, a howl of horror from a toddler as the Vixen is shot in act 3 was greeted with a titter of compassion from the audience, a sure sign that the opera had hit its mark well before the curtain.

Hidden corners of the music industry #1

Someone drew my attention to a singer who is making a modest ripple in her own peculiar niche of the industry. Patricia Hammond has signed a deal with Sony to record a track on a nostalgia album. She's written a piece in today's Telegraph about her work which is very well worth reading, at once exposing the coalface of the profession and the professionalism that it necessitates as well as the unique rewards for all involved.

Of course, thought I've called this post - and possible sequels - 'hidden corners', I'm hardly the one uncovering it. Indeed the only reason that it's come to my attention at all is because of industry investment.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Katya Kabanova, English National Opera

With English National Opera's new Katya Kabanova, we get the next instalment of David Alden's striking, realist Janáček productions. The bar had been set high by his previous ENO staging, a strong Jenůfa. I remember then, as now, an unusually steep rake to the stage. Indeed Patricia Racette's intensely characterised Katya is required to walk along the edge of it, which, along with placing an icon on her drawing room wall, exposes Alden's tendency to over-egg.

Generally allergic to being patronised in a theatre, I'm happy to recall that this didn't bother me too much. Janáček in general - Katya in particular - is powerful, compressed opera, made up of of pulsing (aching) units of music that seems to burst from one another. The music tends to the extreme and demands action of the same heightened realism. The 'walking a tightrope' analogy may be trite in itself but the rather uncomfortable sensation I had watching Racette undertake her direction* is entirely in keeping with the score. There's plenty more where that came from, too.

It's a staging of mixed fortunes though. I loved the simplicity of moving the diagonal backdrop to the opposite diagonal for the exterior-to-interior change of Act 1 but I didn't buy the highly stylised staging of the Act 3 storm. In general though, I think the uncluttered set design works in the piece's favour. Neither does Alden try to do too much fill it.

The singing is very strong, Racette well-cast on vocal grip alone. She's partnered with Stuart Skelton who I found a good but not overwhelming Grimes. His Boris may be summed up in the same manner. The less hysterical parts of Vanya and Varvara were quite beautifully sung and acted by Alfie Boe and Anna Grevelius, whose contrivance of honest, youthful love overcame both the metaphor and impracticality of the hard stage rake.

Susan Bickley knocked me out in The Gambler last month and I was salivating at the prospect of her Kabanicha, which didn't disappoint. I also really liked John Graham-Hall's Tichon, although I always see Graham-Hall rather than his character on stage. It's a personal thing.

Above all, I really loved Mark Wigglesworth's sculpting (a carefully chosen word here, as he kept a tight gesture-to-sound/phrase ratio on the go) of the score. The music's a slippery beast, loving but tourettish and yet it always rang out with purpose. The company orchestra were above averagely good. A satisfying evening in the Coliseum.

*Of course, I might not have been quite so flustered had not a soprano managed to fall off the front of the stage (also in a Czech opera) at Glyndebourne last year.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Guildhall Concert with Double Pianos

Last night LSO ST Luke's hosted a mixed programme of unusual pieces, including two commissions. Clearly the evening's main draw was Stravinsky's Les Noces and, with the necessary four pianos (two Pleyel double pianos on this occasion, no less) dominating the performing area, the rest of the programme had been tailored to suit.

Someone with good sense had clearly made themselves heard in suggesting that, under the circumstances, new music could be commissioned from composition students. First of these was Alasdair Putt's Cascabelda, a term embracing not only the orchestration but also the subject matter of the Stravinsky to come. This was an excellent opening to the programme, succinct, bright and diaphanous music full of allusion and impression. I would have liked to have heard the piece again having accustomed myself to the timbral world of available orchestration - however, part of the appeal seemed to be in its mercurial character and finite span, the glitter of the sound rendered brilliant in memory rather than in repetition.

Bernstsein's Chichester Psalms was the first repertory makeweight of the concert. With the chorus under-rehearsed, there seemed little composure in the unpacking of the melody, dispatched with a mechanical lack of interest. Daniel Keating-Roberts did a competent job of psalm 23, although this first genuine solo spot did bring up the questionable decision to place the soloists behind the line of the pianos, quite a way back from the audience.

The second of the two commissions of the evening was Jonathan Pontier Domestic Scenes. Pontier used all the available forces, with the chorus as an effective backdrop of tidal sprechstimme. The soloists, again placed just in front of the chorus, were barely audible - much of their role was spoken too and it didn't give them enough with which to project. I'm afraid that much of what appeared to be either wit or melodrama was lost.

After the interval, a suite of music for the double pianos, Milhaud's Paris op.284. The exchanges between the pianos were well-handled (ensemble is always tricky for such a collective). The music is all things French - brief, occasionally sentimental - and Milhaud - bitonal, dynamic and showy.

Finally the Les Noces, which I feared would be a bit rough given the foursquare Bernstein earlier. Not a bit of it though. This was a robust outing for this cantata-after-the-Rite-of-Spring, with the high soloists (Particularly tenor Edward Lee) really cutting through the texture, overcoming the balancing hazards of the staging. A super flourish to crown a thoroughly engaging concert.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Oscars 2010

More or less as expected then. The Oscars, subjective nonsense but essential industry focal event gave us some quality awards for women (Bigelow, Bullock, Mo'Nique), although missing a trick for not garlanding Carey Mulligan. Well done everyone. Now go back to work.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

BBC under scrutiny

Here's what I think following the news of cutbacks at the BBC.

I've listened to a total of 5 minutes of BBC 6 Music since it started being broadcast and I've never listened to the Asian Network. As such, if they go, I won't miss them.

However, I have stumbled upon Radio 1 and BBC3 (TV) shows from time to time (this may be partly as I used to listen to Radio 1 a bit twenty years ago). Whenever I do I always regret it.

I have just got rid of my PC card which means I am now without a television. I listen to BBC Radios 3, 4 and 5Live, visit the website daily and, from there, watch streams of news and iPlayer TV shows which I might like, usually BBC1, 2 and 4 (either in arrears of their broadcast or live). All of this content is invariably very good, particularly the news coverage, which, though still trying to find the right balance of 'watchability' and informativeness is thoroughly dependable.

The upshot of all of this is that I would be happy to pay my licence fee despite the fact that I don't have a television.

I'm also happy to pay the licence fee in support of a station like Radio 6 Music or The Asian Network which I don't listen to, in the same way that I pay taxes which are channelled into state benefits.

I am not happy to pay the licence fee in support of Radio 1 and BBC3. I recently caught part of a radio interview, conducted by John Humphrys, in which he talked to young people - the core Radio 1 and BBC3 audience - about their BBC media habits. They said that in general they
  • didn't watch television
  • tend to use the internet - but not the BBC website, labelling it uninvolving
and yet they would be prepared to pay the licence fee anyway as they would get a television after leaving home because it's nice to have 'background noise' (they said they liked having adverts on web pages, which probably amounts to the same thing).

I understand that people's needs are different. In the same way that I am prepared to fund stations I simply don't use but understand as part of a social contract, I am prepared, in principal, to fund stations I neither use nor understand. To me, Radios 1 and BBC3 constitute 'background noise', a sort of conscious version of static interference. That may be their purpose - each to their own.

My problem comes when I listen to a station such as Radio1 and hear not something of interest, nor 'background noise' but something actively divisive and cynical (in particular I dislike Chris Moyles' radio show which perpetuates prejudice and dismissiveness as being cool).

If the question is 'is the BBC licence fee good value?' then I unequivocally reply yes. £150 annual subscription not only to get a wide range of fine media services (and more) but also to maintain a world-leading standard for the same and concurrently represent this country is not only good value, it's actually a bargain*.

*For context, the basic Sky bundle is advertised at £28/month or over £330 anually

Philip Langridge, 1939-2010

News arrived yesterday of the death of the English tenor Philip Langridge. Like all that leave us abruptly, this has been a shock. I never saw Langridge live in a staged principal role but I heard him on record and in broadcast on a number of occasions. I remember a radio broadcast of a visceral, taut Winterreise (with David Owen Norris) which stopped me from getting on a train once, caught as I was in its spell. Many talk of the metaphysical assumption of Grimes for Tim Albery at ENO. I find his Captain Vere (Billy Budd) also for Tim Albery at ENO just as affecting, even via DVD. Clearly Langridge was not only a fine singer but also a convincing actor.

Above all I understand that he was a colleague of good humour, warmth and generosity to peers and impressionable students alike, belying the frostily nominal 'industry' in which he excelled. To engender admiration from both sides of the proscenium arch is notoriously difficult. It is because Langridge achieved this that his loss will be all the more keenly felt.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

La Clemeza di Tito, Quintessential Opera

Another off-the beaten track performance of intermittently dusty operatic repertoire, another cast of good, young workaday singers. In fact this cast proved to fulfil the really rather impressive claims of the programme: the majority seem to be working hard in the mezzanine of singing work where covering roles in the top tier of companies is the next step after considerable experience as provincial principals and major house choruses (Glyndebourne seems to be their common experience).

La Clemenza is a difficult opera. It's a pageantry drama - roughly equivalent to latterday courtroom drama - there's not a lot one can stage, semi- or otherwise. The cast performed in modern-but-appropriate dress (Verena Gunz' Sesto and Ciara Hendrick's Annio literally in trousered role) with a chorus (uncredited, but one assumes the Unitarian Chapel's resident choir) on the opposite side of the stage to Edmund Connolly, directing the music from the piano.

Clearly this was a performance that would rely very heavily on a uniformly high level of singing and indeed, this is what made the evening successful. Leading from the front was Paul Hopwood's eponymous Cesare Tito, consistent, warm and ringing in a well-blended, well projected manner, dismissing the abject acoustics of the chapel with an imperiousness equal to his character. Strident or soft, his singing exhibited confidence and consistency that encouraged and was met with the same throughout the cast.

That's not to say that the other five singers simply gave us more of the same. Part of the pleasure of pared down performances such as this is being able to concentrate on the particularities that allow each to create their own character-space. Lisa Wilson had Vitellia's coloratura under such control that she could manipulate it from scheming to seductive, coyly blowing Sesto's fringe with a well-placed consonant ('aletta') at will. Verena Gunz's golden mezzo-soprano is a strong, plangent instrument, affectingly used. Equally luxuriant, Ciara Hendrick's Annio was a study in deceptive ease, in a discreet performance of lovely, quiet, present singing. Torna di Tito was worth waiting for. Stephanie Bodsworth's gilded her Servilia with generous tone to a particularly pleasing top - again, the shortcomings of the building were exposed. Publio is a more functional role, although consequently oft-used in what I think of as the best music in this opera, the ensembles. Paul Sheehan made more of Publio's sole aria than the score deserves, demonstrating that his rigour wasn't simply channelling itself into highly professional diction and acting.

The music was given a good outing here, with the chorus well-drilled (by Duncan Aspden) and Edmund Connolly making all the right decisions in tempi and pacing at the keyboard. Whilst the basic staging worked perfectly well I felt that this group might have benefitted from a dedicated director just to tease out the drama to stand alongside the singing. Still this was a good way to hear the opera and profoundly encouraging indication of the state of domestic operatic performance.