Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Kensington Chamber Orchestra, St. Peter's Notting Hill

Conductor Tom Seligman
The Kensington Chamber Orchestra, celebrating its 75th year, is an amateur ensemble playing half a dozen or so concerts a year to a high standard. You can tell this from the programming alone: whilst it's not atypical to find a group of enthusiastic part-time musicians programming Mendelssohn (Hebrides Overture) and Haydn (Symphony No. 97), less obvious were the two central works, Samuel Barber's Op. 14 Violin Concerto of 1940 and a new piece, a suite of three movements, called In Other Words, by the 26 year-old Danyal Dhondy.

The Hebrides, Op. 26 ('Fingal's Cave') is a restless showcase for the orchestra and showed well-blended strings throughout and reedy bite in the bassoons. The acoustic of the church favours the bottom end of the range; when it came to the concerto, soloist Lukas Medlam had a small balancing battle at first, but by the second movement he'd found the contralto swell in his instrument and the long melodic lines sung nicely. The lower strings had also found their groove by this stage, producing notably silky, homogenised tone. I was hugely impressed by the final movement, not only as it requires fine technique - Medlam was totally secure - but also as the conductor, Tom Seligman set off at just the right tempo to manage both the fizz and the folk-dance.

Danyal Dhondy's In Other Words (Rhapsodically - Largo - Con Fuoco) builds swells of colour and density in nicely organised structures. Reaching out with tentative woodwind ahead of broader sweeps across the orchestra, the music is composed very competently, seamless and satisfactory, evoking the internal rhythmic patterns of John Adams next to neoclassical woodwind asides. Finally, the Haydn symphony had the orchestra well warmed up and responding well to Seligman's gesture. The second Adagio movement of variations is a fine piece but the audience's favourite was the tipsy swagger of the Trio.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Eugene Onegin, ENO

When [Tchaikovsky] smiles, it's a pale smile. Edward Gardner, Music Director, ENO
Like Verdi's Don Carlos, Eugene Onegin is a fine opera: an abundance of melody, ripe for good singing and bound with high drama throughout. Also like Don Carlos the heat of the romance comes early and briefly. The descent is long and chilling. Here's what the conductor and cast have to say about their new production for ENO:

This is a curious new production for ENO of this strong, core work of the repertory. Deborah Warner mounts the piece with minimal fuss, traditionally/literally staged and without the capricious subtext-teasing that is ubiquitous and mandatory in so much contemporary operatic production. Yet for all that this is a commendably hands-off approach, there's perhaps too little direction. Dancers and actors are clearly undertaking the task of a chorus shunted en bloc between back and mid stage and the principals don't appear to have had an editing hand in the formative rehearsal ideas that have remained in the final cut, as it were.

Perhaps this has its benefits as it allows the singers to concentrate on singing the music without obstruction. Audun Iversen looks the part and is comfortable singing it although his Eugene is often as pale as Tchaikovsky's smile. It might be something to do with his neutral-vowel command of English. This is not an issue for Amanda Echalaz who manages to be affecting inbetween looking both stunned at her own consumption in love and the catastrophe of it being unrequited. This latter scene may be one of the most obscene in music, gentle, melodious, the poison of rejection delivered by intravenous drip rather than the gun of Act 2. The explosiveness - the drama and fully-formed expressions of youthful love and its consequences happily fall to an in-form Toby Spence, ably partnered  by Claudia Huckle's Olga.

For something more substantial from the production there is the arresting penultimate scene - also resonant of Don Carlos - in which Prince Gremin presents Tatyana, now his wife. Brindley Sherratt manages the tricky blend of good grace - love but awareness of having taken the much-younger Tatyana from the promises and possibilities of youth, in a set-piece aria as good as anything else that comes before. And whilst I'm on the low voices I might also mention the beautiful quality of David Stout's Zaretski, a perfect assumption of an operatic bit-part: it just made one want to hear more. I also liked the design decision to keep the silvery mirrored floor first seen as the glacial woodland grove in which the friends fight as the brilliant-but-cold floor of the urban rooms of state.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Errol Morris Does Opera

Errol Morris is everywhere on a screen near you at the moment. His latest documentary feature, Tabloid is opening on screens across the UK this weekend and the night before last BBC 4 showed his 1988 exemplar in the genre The Thin Blue Line. Here's a commercial he directed ten years ago, Photobooth, a spot for Public Broadcasting Channel PBS that won him an Emmy. The track is Di quella pira from Verdi's Il Trovatore, almost certainly recorded by the famous tenor of the 78 era, Enrico Caruso:

(hat tip -

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Herbie Hancock and Blow-Up

The BFI are showing one of the films that they seem to have on rotation down at the South Bank, Blow-Up (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966). There's a good reason for that too. It's a fine film, a thriller with philosophical complexity, it's also a lot of fun, capturing the 1960s youthquake with an objectivity remarkable for being so close to its epicentre.

Part of that now oft-cariacatured grooviness is down to the jazz score of Herbie Hancock, heard not least in the title sequence track (the first 1'20" here):


The music's typical of its time - that is to say a musical language that's rooted further back than in the standard Western tradition. It opens with the blues and rock guitar before moving across to a more European modal jazz. There's none of the orchestral romance of contemporaneous Morricone or John Barry (The Good, The Bad and The Ugly or Out Of Africa). So the music's youthful; cool, up-to-date, but not kow-towing to the populist mainstream.

In fact, with its blues and modality it has an older pre-Western tradition sense about it, something distantly African. The film too uses this veneer of the contemporary to investigate something much more universal. Perception and memory come under scrutiny. The impulsiveness that is a low-level character of much of the film also resonates with this uncluttered, dancing music. Of course, Herbie Hancock worked with Miles Davis during the Second Quintet/Blue Note period in which modality played such an important part. Yet this is a different score to that of Miles Davis' approach in Louis Malle's Lift To The Scaffold (1958). Sophisticated but bound by its urbanity, the drifting Jean Moreau reflects on herself - on her relationships and her own emotional contingency - as she wanders the streets of Paris:

Though he's clearly absorbed Davis' modal experimentation, Hancock's own modernity has burst Davis' urban veneer of cool, no longer ruminating on the found scene as an emotional counterpart of the character but questioning the meaning of the situation and the possibility of the answers yet to be found. Here's the sequence as Thomas (the photographer played by Hemmings in the film) begins to suspect that his photograph contains clues to the thriller at the heart of the film:

The music's not in Thomas' head but that of the situation. It's music that is part of the fabric of the image, not originating in the character. We remember that Antonioni was trying to make films that disengaged from the exploration of thought but rather chronicled the narrative as it found it: there's no explanation for the abandoning of the search for the missing girl in l'Avventura, just a record of the movement of the characters through and away from the episode.

Hancock's celebrated later canon with the famous Headhunters (1973) at its centre continues this aesthetic in its own way. The music, with its ritual rhythms and infectiousness has no argument or romantic meditation but impulsiveness, recording a forward-looking, investigative thrust - indeed Thrust is the title of the album consequent to Headhunters. For an example there's nothing so quintessential as the opening track of Sextant, his 1972 album: pulsing but off-kilter and using space-age sounds. The perfect marriage of the African and the experimental - just as the art work on the cover suggests:

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Gerhard Richter, Tate Modern

I have a vague familiarity with Gerhard Richter's work: I was struck, visiting Tate Britain sometime back, by one of his blurred/reportage paintings Schwimmerinnen (1965), and I visited the Serpentine exhibition of new work three years back.

On that occasion I think I got out of bed on the wrong side and had no patience with Richter's intentions. This Tate Modern retrospective is a good, well-curated exhibition that shows Richter's consistency and overrides my previous dismissiveness.

There are three types of work, two that are on show in almost every single room. The first are the photo-reproductions, paintings that retain the realism of the photo image but cast it afresh in a mist of 'blurred' paint, as if the image was fixed just as it started to blur in memory. The second are out-and-out abstracts, in which one may also bracket not-photo images, which are often precipitated from the miasma of abstract paint, i.e. emerging from the mist of memory or imagination in the opposite direction to the blurred photo images. Finally there are a number of ready-made style installations, invariably made of glass.

Rather like the Benday dot cartoons of the Pop Art movement, so the brushed-metal blurring of the (invariably grey) paint palette in the photo images is designed to draw attention to the nature of paint and painting. It's interesting that in a piece such as Ferrari (1964, right) the German text printed under the original photograph redprodcued is left intact, sharply realised. It's the image in which Richter has his interest - it's ability not only to represent but also add value to the image, to represent the dynamic reality of the car or at least its potential. There are many other pictures of people, for whom the blulrred image suggests a vibrant quality: the bleached-colour picture Negroes (from the same year) could be a still from a VHS-taped news report from African, the rudimentary 24 frames a second unable to fix the dynamism of the figures sharply.

Inamongst these pictures are distributed a number of landscapes-turned-abstract; beach & sea-scapes whose density overburdens their own reality. I really liked the aerial pictures of urban areas, particularly the Townscapes, again fixed as if from Pathe footage of wartime bombing raids - or as it occurred to me refraction-warped versions of the Warner/Village Roadshow production ident that plays at the opening of feature films - the image of dreams (right).

The monochromaticism of the blurred photo images is the strongest link with the abstracts. Room 4 has a number of these pictures which, in the artist's words
...makes no statement whatsoever... Grey is the welcome and only possible equivalent for indifference...
Still, there are also highly colourful abstracts in the same room, the colour charts which - in isolation at the Serpentine - I had found so pointless. Here, thecharting of the colour takes on its actual point, to disassociate each colour from its neighbour, to render the justapoisiotn of the colour without scheme, so that it becomes exhibited for its own sake. With this going on, the depth and tonal tide of the grey abstracts actually seem structurally rigorous, with one, Grey Streaks (1968) actually resonating in the manner of a Bridget Riley composition.

At the far end of the first thrid of the exhibition is a strange hiatus of a room, including a blurred photo recreation of Titian's Annunciation (1535 - so, a painting of a photo of a painting, a theme to recur later) and realist paintings of clouds, i.e. figures that are already abstracted by their own perpetual motion.

This stylistic ships-in-the-night has a moment of palette-fission and the great coup of the exhibition as, without warning, Room 5 explodes into the technicolour Twomblyism of Room 6. The pictures are almost unbearably noisy on the eye with both collisions of colour and techniques of paint application, like a volcano spitting a rainbow of magma. Versions of these paintings, which left me cold, persist until the end of exhibition with only the possibility of a figure buried in the wash of Abstract Painting (1990, right) and the explictly overpainted photographs of Room 11 marking technical islands in the kaleidoscope. As Richter says - with this consistency that wins me round, even when the straight-up aesthetic doesn't:
[the abstract paintings] visualise a reality which we can neither see nor describe but which we may nevertheless conclude to exist
Alongside these can be seen dogged version of the blurred photographs, sometimes, in the case of his daughter Betty or his wife Sabine (in Reader, 1994, right), where the blurring is replaced with compositional variation, the figures no longer posing for a photo lens but instead taking up a pose as if for a portrait by a master, such as Vermeer. A painting of a photo recreating a painting. This rigour in investigating the purpose of paint, photography and representation finds itself again technically exhausted in Room 11 where a tableau of close photographs of of the surface of a painting of a photograph are displayed to investigate the possibility of a figure remaining intact. It doesn't but I like the tenacity of the idea.

Throughout the exhibition, the counter-Duchamp readymade glass has pared down the idea of an installation as something that may convey meaning instead to something that may hold or rfelct it, when it is examined. The early angled windows have different quanities of light reflected - 100% more than the two panes in the subsequent Grey Abstracts room, as they are over-painted (one cannot have and eat cake). The mirror of Room 6 is another piece that I would have groaned at were it not consistent with this investigation, ending in the stacked panes of Room 12, producing their own, blurred reflection of the viewer.

By the final room I had found the logcial thread of viewing that allowed me to disregard the aesthetically opaque abstracts without concern and relish the painted reportage-reworking of the 9/11 attack picture September (2005, right), a work as searching but dispassionate as the Baader-Meinhof pictures of Room 9. This is a meticulously prepared and mounted exhibition of intense, rigorous painting that might not readily appeal to the eye by certainly rewards the mind.