Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Camera Obscura: Tim's Vermeer

I'm looking forward to the new year and the wealth of new films that are promised (I have a not-so-secret interest in film, for which I write a separate blog).

One of these films that has recently come to my attention is a documentary. Tim's Vermeer looks like an entertaining story about an American graphics designer who'd like to apply his expertise to the re-creation of the art of Johannes Vermeer, the 17th century Dutch master. Below is the trailer and with it, a companion piece that anyone with even a passing interest in the film, or in painting and photography, should seek out, a BBC documentary about the use of the camera obscura, Secret Knowledge, made by David Hockney almost ten years ago following his own discoveries on the subject - indeed, Tim Jenison speaks to Hockney in his own film.

Friday, 8 November 2013

Baroque sonatas, Sweelinck Ensemble, St Anne's Music Society

It has been a good six months now since the St Anne's Music Society (in tandem with the Lutheran church in the City) moved from its base in Gresham St. to St. Mary-at-hill behind Monument Station. The larger, lighter, less symmetric Wren box was the original home for Peter Lea-Cox's Bach cantatas project, upon which the Sweelinck Ensemble's assumption of music making at the monthly Lutheran Bach Vespers has been founded. The pedigree has been in place (see this previous view of a lunchtime performance) but how have the current incumbents taken to the new space and acoustic?

Well, this lunchtime concert of Austrian-centric Baroque sonatas is as good a bellweather as any for assessing whether the ensemble has settled. On the basis of a programme that included four diverse sonatas by Johann Heinrich Schmelzer, two exotic, ravishing essays in the form by Pandolfi and a Bach's IIIrd Sonata (after BWV 527) it is clear that the group are relishing the change.

The Sweelinck Ensemble have always played with fine tuning and ensemble (really, a sine qua non for a dedicated period instrument chamber ensemble) but feature a generous sonority and cultured musical gesture within that. The wider space of St Mary-at-hill accomodates this, especially in this programme of Italian inflected music. We were pointedly told of the providence of the harpsichord, a 1979 Christopher Nobbs replica of a German harpsichord of italian design modelled on one held in the Courtauld Institute, which has a broad, present, warm sonority rather like that of a large strung instrument. It's ideal for accompanying the quasi-recitativo sections, especially of the Pandolfi. In addition, Peter McCarthy spoke of his violone, a large, snake-for-F-holed, silm-shouldered 6-string piece, a Nuremburg-constructed replica of a 1640 Busch instrument, which added a wide, clean and comprehensive penumbra to the ensemble. The acoustic is alive and allows real responsiveness from the players, without the bother of an excessive reverb to manage.

As such the programme drew focus towards the performers. Schmelzer's uncomplicated, satisfying examinations of the form moved from pageantry in the first to dance in the third and dialogue - though casual, not in a demarcated  antiphonal style - for the fourth. Having established a satisfactory homogeneity of sound for these Austrian works with Philip Yeeles, Almut Schlicker played the rather more programmatic Pandolfi Sonatas alone.

These highly figurative, even vocal pieces were a clear highlight of the concert. The first, Sonata II La Cesta ('the basket'), is a sinuous piece in which the Italian DNA of the harpsichord comes into its own in a recitative-like opening before a highly chromatic ground bass section leads to a sliding cavatina. Presumably this is all about the wicker weave of the basket of the title. Less complicated but even more beautiful is the grand view from the top of La Castella, ('the castle') as Sonata IV is called. Once again a ground bass underpins the central section of the work but this is much more simple and spare. Like a Romantic poet we can gaze up at the castle walls, dance on their ramparts (an improvised plucked-bass approach to this section from Peter McCarthy was rather inspired) and then fly from them like a bird in the violins melismatic phrasing. An unusual coda of no more than two or three bars re-estabishes our vista at the Sonata's close.

This being the Sweelinck Ensemble, director and harpsichordist Martin Knizia had, naturally, programmed Bach to conclude. Strangely, after the airborne delight of La Castella, this Sonata, with its rich harmony seemed rather score-bound and worthy, though I enjoyed it's almost tourette-like gestures, especially in the counter-melody of the opening Andante.

Clearly the St Anne's Music Society have made the most of their new home. This is a fine venue for first class music making, which, along with the concurrent series of St Mary-at-hill's domestic programme makes this a significant (if apparently under-discovered!) venue for music making in the City and therefore across London as a whole.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Paul Klee, Tate Modern

There's a peculiar serendipity in visiting Tate Modern's retrospective of the German artist and teacher Paul Klee in the same week in which a hoard of modern art was found stuffed in a flat in Schwabing, near Munich. Klee - whose work is reportedly inamongst this 'Entartete Art' - was an artist touched by almost every aspect of the cultural churn of the first half of the 20th century: he found like minds and public appreciation as a member of the Blaue Reiter; when that Russian-German friendship was torn asunder by the onset of the Great War, he was protected from front line conscription as a German art teacher; in 1919 his association with a short-lived start-up communist movement in Bavaria sealed his prominence; he then joined the Bauhaus as a teacher until the rise of German National Socialism in the mid-1930s finally drove him out to America.

Through all of this Klee was a perpetual innovator. Tate Modern's retrospective shows Klee assimilating and inventing new techniques for creating art in equal measure. Cubism and its associated 3-d in a flat plane spawn a range of ideas for manipulating shapes and patterns on a canvas, which veer towards surrealism before swinging back to one of his most familiar techniques, oil-transfer (right). This tracing of a line through a piece of paper spread with a thin layer of black oil paint gives a tell-tale line with associated smudge. Klee would embellish the result with crosshatching in watercolour to lift the line into relief and give the final picture a lithographic feel.

The work really takes off with Klee's involvement with the nascent Bauhaus from 1921. His attention to his palette and his methods of combining and overlaying washes of watercolour are deeply satisfying on the eye and sit in well-balanced compositions that range from the figurative to the abstract. Much of the work is on paper; next to none of it is larger than a couple of square feet.

This explosive, fecund period lasted but a few years until the withdrawal of funding meant that the school began to be marginalised. With one eye on his vocation as a teacher and his natural instinct to investigate technical possibilities, Klee's work continued to diverge; this exhibition is not one that the absorbed visitor can really take in properly from this point on (meaning I had certainly met my saturation point!). It's a wonderful show, full of good art - that balance of the intriguing & affecting - and well curated and hung.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Iernin, Surrey Opera

This is the 100th anniversary year of composer George Lloyd. A precocious British composer, Lloyd's career in music was truncated by a violent experience in the navy during the second world war - and a no less considerable if very different reaction to modernism, and specifically serialism, in music. This year's BBC Proms celebrated his anniversary with a pair of works from his later (post 1973) Indian summer of composition. His opera Iernin which Surrey Opera have produced in London (and will shortly take to Lloyd's home of Cornwall) is from the early flush of writing music. The opera sets a libretto by Lloyd's bel canto-loving father and concerns a local myth about the standing stones of St Columb Major, supposedly women under a spell. One of the stones, Iernin, is brought back to life and - probably metaphorically (!) - bewitches a prince on the eve of his wedding.

Surrey Opera have done a handsome job in bringing this little-known opera (despite a warm premiere reception in 1934) to life. This is a fully-staged production with a 30-strong pit orchestra under Jonathan Butcher, the chief advocate of the work and responsible for the judicious balancing act of making cuts for the evening's drama whilst letting us hear the score. Still a teenager, George Lloyd's style is a difficult to pin down, though there is more of the Wagnerian tradition of expansiveness and programmatic detail in the orchestration than that of the vocal formality of Verdi. Neither does the obvious bucolicism of Vaughan-Williams weigh the score down, despite some appropriate modalism. This is original music which swirls about us like the climate that is referenced at moments in the plot and builds to regular totemic moments that reflect the old rock face of the coast.

Lloyd is never understated in anything he says and, singing the title role, Catharine Rogers undertakes a considerable workload. Hers is a noteworthy performance by any standard, paced to take her right through to the Liebestodesque conclusion but which also incoporates light passages that reflect her delight in de-petrification, fear of the locals and love at first sight. Her sound is helped by the Mitre Theatre (at Trinity School, Croydon), a long wooden box, not dissimilar to the Mermaid Theatre, London. In alt Rogers voices shines with metallic spark and the words are unstintingly clear.

The rest of the cast bring a strong, diverse palette of colours in around her. Ed Hughes gets a bit of a raw deal as the prince Gerent but makes the most of his moments; as his jilted bride Cunaide, Felicity Buckland makes the most of the final Act peroration, proving persausive not only on stage but in fact. I'm trying no to make too many Tristan-und-Isolde-isms here but Håkan Vramsmo's handsomely sung Edyrn is what you might expect Melot to be in a Tristan-prequel. The evening's 'King Marke', Bedwyr, was graciously walked by an indisposed James Harrison whilst Jon Openshaw more than competently warmed up for his later cameo as the Priest by singing the king from the side.

However, the opera really came alive when the chorus were on stage in ensemble. The company were really excellent, coherent, well-tuned and bringing not only finesse but crucially, credibility to the staging with which Alexander Hargreaves has used to plot a course through the work. With proper attention to the costume, set and lighting design, nothing had been subordinated to what one must assume is the inevitable cash constraint - as one who has performed with the company previously, I can attest to a not-to-be-sniffed-at slush fund of goodwill from friends and performers alike. A worthy exercise for this anniversary year and one that (one hopes) will be welcomed at its homecoming performances next week.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Turandot, Royal Opera by Cinema Relay

The buzz was like a broken hive. Andrei Serban's production is well thought of but the talk was of the titular soprano, being played here by the American Lise Lindstrom (right), her 100th turn in the role. In the event, all the talk was surpassed.

I've always struggled a bit with Turandot. Not with the beautiful music which flirts with the ascendant fashion of the Second Viennese school's harmonic dissolution. Applied to the inherent rigours of the pentatonic melodies which Puccini brought a priori to Turandot such stylistic affectations are subsumed as just that. No, rather the strictures as applied to the drama mean that the first act can feel rather like a pageant, a parade of tableaux rather than scenes brewing a drama.

Though this was the case in this revival, the production (set in a courtyard, a theatre of its own) embraces the theatricality of the setup with characters in masks and much structured movement (Kate Flatt). Calaf, Timur and Liu stick out like a parody of Parsifal, Gurnemanz and Kundry in a Good Friday meadow in this environment, and so their interactions shine out with full value. This preparation also means that the entrance of Turandot herself in Act 2, complete with Tai Chi-style movement for the ritual of her riddling is both expected and all the more shocking when that facade cracks at Calaf's success.

Crowning this was the simply phenomenal singing of Lise Lindstrom. Her exemplary technique (something one can see in detail with the cinema close-up!) allowed her to act in the same reserved manner as she moved, accentuating the traumatised ice-queen bearing, rendering her music unearthly rather than hectoring. Her extraordinary control allowed for minute attention to characterisation and some wonderful soft singing in the final act. This also took the sting out of losing not only Liu (fine singing from Eri Nakamura) but also Puccini himself; for all the faithfulness Alfano brought to the completion of the score, the drama feels brought to a perfunctory or possibly facile close where the composing baton changes hands. This is rescued by the conviction of Lindstrom and the Earnest Berti, whose heroic bearing met Lindstrom's total absorption of the terrible beauty of the Princess.

Kate Flatt's over-performing choreography was particularly well dispatched by Pi/a/ong who sang well and made something 3-dimensional with their part that can often be a dramatic burden. All supporting roles were well-taken. The relay itself was better than on a previous occasion, with no intermittent music and entertaining & informative interval features. Memorable, especially the wonderful second act.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas, Royal Court

For a while watching Dennis Kelly's The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas, the first play of Vicky Featherstone's tenure as the director of the Royal Court theatre, I wondered whether we might get an ultra-reductive seven-hander storytelling of a show. The cast were sat in a line taking paragraphs of exposition in turn - and, as it turned out, more or less in character - while the cosmic backdrop curtain lit up the proximate weave of characters as they popped up in the story. Simple storytelling for a sizeable subject then.

Though I was prepared to go along with this, I must confess to being perfectly happy with a staged production slipping into action just as the titular character (Gorge = George) is about to have the Damascene experience that will change the course of his life, and charge the drama. Faced with a life's repetitive conundrum, whether goodness is synonymous with courage or cowardice, he capitulates to a capitalist's perfect opportunity. For me, the conundrum is bleached into insignificance as Gorge undertakes to follow his 3-rule scheme of acquisition and not least as the sequence (well-acted by Pippa Haywood) adopts the cosmic umbrella of the earlier set up, complete with dimmed lights and stopped time.

This solipsistic effect is even better used in the following scene in which a hotel-room drama is frozen to allow the rest of the cast to continue their Greek chorus role in situ. I also liked a nicely judged, unnerving fourth wall assault as the conviviality of the chorus seems to succumb to the animal antagonist instincts of the Ayn Rand-like creed in the play's blood. Unfortunately, the final scene doesn't has too much to do given the set-up, which suggests some sort of insight, or at least Houellebecq-style irony or dispassion. The future is flagged up as such (the performance uses a date that corresponds to the night we went, and I suspect that moves on night after night to make a point about its contemporary credentials).

That said it's well-played across the board. The writing and design make their point about the soulessness of capitalism and its attendant manipulativeness without tying itself to the most recent financial crisis. The issue of truth-telling only for relative moral expedience is a bit lost and the twist in the end relegated to a minor event. It's an evening of humour and strong intent though.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Vivienne, McCaldin Arts, Tete a Tete Opera Festival & Camden Fringe

During August I had the opportunity to see three performances of a new mono-drama by the company for whom I do some publicity work, McCaldin ArtsVivienne - commissioned by the company's producer-performer Clare McCaldin - is a sequence of six songs concerning the life of TS Eliot's first wife, Vivienne Haigh-Wood, intended for the stage. The piece is typical of the company's body of work concerning women with a literary background. The music style of Vivienne suggested itself as the Eliots loved the variety and dance culture of music hall. Indeed an early press-release for the piece suggested a range of stylistic reference in the music, from the informality of cabaret to the rather more arms-length foil of opera and with all manner of music-hall inflected variety inbetween.

This was partly to do with the interest of the protagonists. Yes, there are two. There is the figuratively present Vivienne, whom Clare McCaldin embodies in the show. There is also the absent TS Eliot, to whom Vivienne directs her conversation, pleading, scorn and ultimate bewilderment.

The absence of an implicit character is the one issue that, on the face of it, could have presented a problem to the company. McCaldin's familiar collaborator Stephen McNeff and his librettist Andy Rashleigh (a shrewd partnership, the pair having worked worked on a previous, stylised music drama after TS Eliot, The Waste Land, almost twenty years ago) found themselves without a second figure with whom to construct dialogue.

Andy Rashleigh rather brilliantly outmaneouvres the issue by peppering Vivienne's text with endless refractions of Eliot's poetry. Thus Eliot is given a voice in absentia, investing Vivienne's recollections with both succour and sarcasm. The drama is in the elliptical cadences that this half-remembered verse, midwifed by Vivienne during their marriage, provides. Her life - by being bound to Eliot - is unfinished. She is ready and waiting for the next act.

The illusion of a character in song does not automatically guarantee the same on stage in production. In his light-touch treatment of the work director Joe Austin worked hand-in-glove with his regular designer partner Simon Kenny to create a special space for Vivienne. Blank but not void, the white square is defined but not a cell. It is a platform - but for Vivienne's own, self-reflexive audience. Across the two performance venues of its summer run, the footlights of the Tete a Tete Opera Festival show were necessarily lost to the raised dais of The Forge, Camden. The early-proposed cabaret element was definitively sacrificed to these fourth walls but the clearer delineation of Vivienne as an operatic mono-drama made for a more taut experience.

Ready... Vivienne hesitates to come into this defined, pedagogic space. In both theatres Clare McCaldin entered the auditorium from the wing in character, pausing to absorb the potential and demands of the stage from its periphery. Perhaps Vivienne understands her actions and the drama they will precipitate?

Vivienne Haigh-Wood was sectioned in 1938 but the reasons are still equivocal: thought mad, as her biophysical condition was undiagnosed, it's possible that she was complicit in her own incarceration. This is a clear suggestion of the 1994 film adaptation of Michael Hastings' play Tom & Viv, right (one might note that this suggestion of self-sacrifice from an atheist for her high-Anglican husband is the ironic opposite of the dramatic twist at the heart of Graham Greene's contemporaneously set The End Of The Affair).

... and waiting. Vivienne is waiting for Eliot to return, just as she did when the poet returned from America in 1933 (where he had gone for a year's professorship and to enforce the separation from her he had long wanted). This is a where the Beckettian confines of the production space are at their most apparent; Vivienne looks outwards but her questioning of Eliot's whereabouts are rhetorical, her cries in the final song 'Belladonna' expressionist, expecting no comeback. Even the bare, white design is a limbo. In her nightshift she is poised, either prepared to dress for action, or to capitulate in sleep.

Such is the nature of Eliot's own modernism which rattles backwards and forwards between styles and sensibilities (biographer Peter Ackroyd notes that Eliot probably wanted to re-create in poetry what Joyce had achieved in the prose of Ulysses).

Stephen McNeff's music reflects this with fluid movement in and out of pastiche with a brisk piano scoring that suggests a skeletal, Weill-like club band. Then a sudden, startling brake in motion exposes the appropriation of style as nothing more than that and Vivienne is left just as 'lost, lonely and scared' as - without rhetoric - she says she is. Indeed this is the central moment of this score, the least opaque, the most intimate and honest music, in McNeff's authentic vernacular. No more the 'tomfoolery' (Andy Rashleigh's own word), the displacements of dancing, nostalgia or the simple (Freudian) procrastination of thinking about it all.

In each performance that I saw of Vivienne, Clare McCaldin and her pianist Libby Burgess had completely absorbed this febrile characteristic. Meticulously enunciated lyrics, coloured by the musical setting, meant that the opera was alive, able to alter shade or temperament quickly. In consequence, gestures could be small, be they the shifting bias of a tempo change or a movement, even a look; somehow Clare McCaldin managed to make a distinction between the mind's-eye reality of a post-coital Bertrand Russell in the next chair and the thousand-yard stare at an Eliot who is there in neither fact nor promise.

By the close, the desiccated truth of Vivienne's isolation renders even the piano superfluous. She is ready and waiting but to no purpose. Perhaps, as Eliot himself famously said, 'in my end is my beginning', and, caught in this circularity, Vivienne bloodlessly intones 'stick her in a long book until it's all over' (in the repetitive style of the famous 'This is the way the world ends' denouement of The Wasteland itself). Like the evanescent Pincher Martin or - also stuck, hallucinating, on a rock - Tristan (referred to by both Eliot and Rashleigh), the protagonist is oscillating between life and extinction until one is indistinguishably the other.

Being part of the backroom team for Vivienne meant that I was willing the piece and its production to succeed. However, the unequivocal success of the show - which, despite my identification of its raw emotional kernel, is also a riotous and occasionally risqué entertainment - came as a pleasant surprise to the company. Further performances in London are planned, though the nature of the staging is yet to be determined.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

A visit to the British Library: Propaganda and Benjamin Britten

I had wanted to have a look around the Propaganda Exhibition at the British Library since it opened and took my chance today, in this its last week. In the event I had mixed feelings. There is a lot of stylised information, quotations on mannequins largely aphorisms explaining what 'propaganda' means (the term comes from the Catholic Church who set up an office in the early 17th century for 'propagating the faith'). The point about the nature of propaganda is that one is never sure to which degree the information is original, authentic or simply true: with a broad international base I found that I was ignorant of a lot of the background to slogans, sounds and artefacts; in addition the unforgivably poorly-lit text notes with exhibits seemed to have been ignored - never was such annotation needed more!

Still, it was nice to see a constructive analysis of the London Olympics (2012) on video, and other footage: a 1940s mashup of Leni Riefensthal's The Triumph Of the Will with The Lambeth Walk is a particular delight.

Also in the British Library at the moment is a modest exhibition (in the Folio Society atrium) dedicated to English composer Benjamin Britten, whose 100th birthday will be celebrated in November. Britten travelled to America in 1939, in part to escape the antagonistic atmosphere for conscientious objectors to the war, yet still engaging in propaganda of a sort by writing a march for the Peace Pledge Union (the score is on display).

Back in the UK, and his reputation established, he wrote the War Requiem for the reconstruction of Coventry Cathedral. This was premiered in the space in 1962 and the exhibition has an autograph score and a press cutting from its first, positive reception. In October I am taking part in a trip to perform the War Requiem in Shanghai, which - 50 years after the Coventry premiere - will be the first performance of the piece in China.

Friday, 30 August 2013

The Crocodile, Tete a Tete Opera Festival

One of the most popular operas of this year's Tete a Tete festival, The Crocodile - an adaptation of Dostoyevsky's novella of the same name - turned out to be a riotous delight. Little expense had been spared in producing this black comedy (in which a writer is eaten by the eponymous reptile, a sort of Expo exhibit, before it is discovered that he is actually alive and determined to take a sabattical in his new environment). A two-tier set with a staircase behind which an orchestra of a dozen or so play throughout held a similarly sized-cast. The buffoonish hosts (Leandros Taliotis & Kris Belligh) and [un]fortunate writer (Graham Neal) are engaged throughout in an underplayed class war with Christina Petrou's maid, recalling the setup of Puccini's Rondine which had only just finished playing over the other side of London at the Royal Opera House. The finesse of this quartet dovetailed well with the nicely controlled Guignol of the posh guests (James Soller & Jane Webster), a reporter (Alexander Beck), a familiar figure for those of us who had seen the not entirely dissimilar Orango a few months ago. The ensemble was well-seasoned with the more parlando deliver of Peter Corry in a raconteur role.

If the ensemble was crowned with the remarkable coloratura (and stage bravura) of Kristy Swift as the author's wife then the piece is well and truly pimped in Alex Sutton's production as the almost magic realism of the situation is exploded in a every conceivable trappings of the most extravagant ticker-tape reception. Even if the piece can't quite hold its own high-rev opening throughout, it certainly ends with all its showbiz artillery well and truly exhausted. And, of course, at its heart is a crocodile, marvellously manipulated on-stage and then touchingly danced in postlude by Caroline Mathias.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Black Sand, Tete a Tete Opera Festival

Imagine if some nincompoop - hey, maybe some visionary - had run two reels of David Lynch's Mulholland Drive and Blue Velvet over one another simultaneously. That's partly the effect of the spooky Americana-opera calling itself Black Sand (a fallen angel-style version of the Sandman).

Nathanael - James D Hall, acting winningly as well as singing under the hem of his countertenor range - is determined to confess his paranoia to his girlfriend before they go steady, an early trauma getting psychologically blended with the horror of dreamtime. He can't seem to determine what is waking and what is dreaming though. The opera is based on the short story by ETA Hoffmann - the idealised object of Nathanael's very real affection is even called Olympia, as in the mannequin-perfect soprano of Offenbach's opera on the same subject. As Olympia, Caroline Kennedy is not called upon to dispense show-stopping coloratura, but sings with an undeniably affecting line. Nicolas Dwyer's Sandman, though game-show slick on the outside, sings with a rougher hue (and great range) which helps direct our allegiances; his chorus of Alexandra Mathew, Rose Stachniewska & Oliver Marshall are the over-painted mid-west cartoon grotesques of a Lynchian Club Silenzio.

An additional character of the opera is the sound design. The incessant industrial hiss, familiar from another of Lynch's canon, Eraserhead, is persistently evocative and irritating. It seems to be sampled from the various interjections that jump out across the fourth wall as if the background noise of 1950s American media is suddenly coming to life in the auditorium.

With all this going on, Na’ama Zisser's score gets reduced in memory to a functional tapestry of reasonably paced episodes matching the drama (this is a boon, not a dismissal!). The production is sound and the whole tight and effective. I'm not sure I understand it all the time but I certainly feel it.

Battles Within And Without, Re:Sound

With the Tete-a-Tete and Grimeborn Festivals in London and the variety of the fringe from Camden to Edinburgh, there is a great deal of operatic experimentation on offer in the next few weeks. Manchester-originated music theatre company Re:Sound have got ahead of the 'season' with an intriguing show staging baroque and 20th century choral music.

Battles Within And Without moves its psychological, emotional and reported conflict into the demonstrable open, staging music principally designed for concert performance. The drama and narrative of Judith Weir's Missa del Cid and Monteverdi's Madrigali Guerriri e Amoroso (with the additional Si Dolce) are nothing without the dramatic gesture, even in bare performance and this was the purpose of the show.

By way of acclimatisation, the company first performed contemporaneous choral works in a conventional concert manner. Gesualdo's motets from the Responsories got a treatment that was rather more concerned with the colour and chiaroscuro of the music (and the dying light outside) than the oleaginous, sexual underbelly of its progressive harmony, in keeping with its liturgical texts and the church (St Magnus the Martyr) hosting the performance.

James Macmillan's Bring us O Lord God and Herbet Howells' Take him, Earth, for cherishing were excellent programming choices alongside the Gesualdo, of a consistent harmonic mobility.

The staged works, the second half of the evening, received a comprehensive work-over, within the means and imagination of the company. Those not singing in any given Monteverdi madrigal might be accompanying the performance on instruments from the (expected) harpsichord to the (unexpected) accordion. The staging - interspersed with abstracted audio-visual screening, and punctuated with carefully manipulated lighting - moved from literal role-assumption to more responsive choreography. Particularly impressive was the ensemble singing in music that is often inherently fluid, quasi-parlando (the performance is given without conductor).

Judith Weir's Missa del Cid, as the starting point of the project, incorporated the entire company again. Taking it in turns to narrate between the more formal mass sections, the group continued to use the minimal stage furniture of boxes, introduced during the Monteverdi, adding scrims and veils of scarlet material. I felt that this was the most effective sequence of the evening, essentially because of the more settled harmonic basis of the music, allowing the performers greater ensemble security from which to hazard expression and allow the drama out. The evening I attended was also attended by the composer; I can only imagine that she would be satisfied by treatment and performance alike.

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

David Bowie Is, V&A Museum

Yes, he certainly is. David Bowie - despite being a feature (in sound) of the Olympic Closing ceremony last year - has never been as present as he is now, with a new album backed with a squall of new videos, released over the period of this retrospective exhibition at the V&A. Set out, initially, as a classic chronological show, the contents quickly break down into an emporium of costume, influences in literature, theatre and fashion all bound in an ether of sound played on speakers in rooms and on the site-responsive headsets with which we are all issued.

A classic culture chameleon, it is impossible to pin down a definitive Bowie, though the museum have done a good job with the opening piece, a Kasui Yamamoto-designed bodysuit (right) that is at once preposterous, exotic and really cool. The full gamut of design is there, from Bowie's own precocious insistence on designing his immature bands' outfits to the famous looks of Ziggy Stardust, Thin White Duke and Diamond Dogs right through to Alexander McQueen's rotting-Britpop jacket.

There is a room showing excerpts of Bowie's film roles (a letter from Jim Henson dating from Labyrinth is touching) and a remarkable stage show of The Elephant Man in which Bowie played John Merrick without prosthetics. More exceptionally, there is footage of an aforethought unfilmed tour in 1974 when Brecht was on Bowie's mind. Yes, it's very spare...

Perhaps inevitably for a show about a man who dissolves himself into composite styles of his adoption, one of the most impressive exhibits was an original cardboard cut-out of Oscar Wilde, used by Peter Blake in his montage for the Sergeant Peppers album cover.

This is what is being passed on here, Bowie's sense of imagination and wonder; how he was drawn to all sorts of ideas, not to have and to hoard, but to reproduce in his own image. I got no sense throughout the show that Bowie's intent was one of trying to shock or subvert. Rather, he seems to be holding himself up, like an exhibit: "I think like this today. Is this cool? I think it is. It might even be worth something. What do yo think?"

It's not a perfect show. The portable sound packs could be temperamental (and no amount of thumping the stop button would turn it off!). The lighting design meant that it was often impossible to read wall-mounted notes - that and the crowds, at this, one of the busiest London exhibition I have been to. I missed there being a handout guide, not least as I like to make notes. Instead we were given a postcard telling us when we could see a relay in the cinema. Perhaps the museum had capitulated to the manifest impracticalities of marshalling so many through so small a space.

Bowie has the last word though, his irrepressible charisma drawing you in and through the exhibition despite niggling privations - rather like the character himself, pulling the dreaming adolescent through the torpor and minute concerns of middle class suburban life with songs and a sense of something altogether greater, wilder and more wonderful.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Benjamin Zephaniah, Club Inégales

Topographically speaking, if you want to edge your way into the North London jazz scene, then Club Inégales is probably the best (closest!) way forward. Tucked away under a law firm just off the Euston Road, the 'club' refers to the people that gather there - Peter Wiegold and his band, and the various diverse collaborating artists who join them - rather than the venue itself ('Double Orders', which is actually the lawyers' private bar, generously lent out to the musicians).

Google maps notwithstanding, the venue may be easy to access but the music makes no concession. On this evening we were to hear the Rastafarian-Beat poet Benjamin Zephanaih both alone and then with the band. All improvised, the three tracks of the band's set were clearly indebted to the sound world of late sixties fusion Miles Davis (one can hear the sound of both In A Silent Way and Big Fun. Indeed, large screens advertise a recent studio recording in homage to the trumpeter) The form moves between sparing musical gesture and groove, using electronic processes to transform sounds. In the first number Criminal Negligence Joel Bell's electric guitar (on this occasion) started the process in just this fashion, creating a mirage of sound as a leaping-off point, only to take his part in the improvised discussion later on.

Second in the set, Stuff, had the barest suggestion of compositional form to it, but only in that there were various thematic ideas written down in blocks, with a starting point once again decided on at the last moment (a good feature for Martin Butler's piano here). Finally the group went all in for groove proper - although, with an ethnic twist, working a number in 11 beats to the bar after a South Indian model. Rowland Sutherland's flute shone throughout this first set, and the whole band played with purposeful articulation in the lines of their solos.

For his part, Zephanaiah spoke as much as he recited, giving us characteristically open-eyed poems about multiculturalism (he's an advocate) and a charismatic, forceful meditation on Stephen Lawrence. There's a lot of humour in his work though; unafraid of subversion and parody he had the audience shouting 'be happy' to a series of modern conundrums that needle us all in an updating of the popular song.

There is great rhythm in Zephaniah's work and so the final set the brought him together with the band was the evening's most rewarding. Closing with the celebrated Rong Radio Station was not only a crowd-pleaser but a driving number but the intensity had already been established with Naked, where the evocative power of processes allied to the instruments (here, Torbjorn Hultmark's trumpet) showed itself every bit as powerful as the grooves.

The whole evening was compered by bandleader Peter Wiegold in a clubbable, informal style, though he takes time to talk about the backstory and make-up of the music. All this I imagine to be the right formula for such events and I'm looking forward to seeing what's coming up in their autumn season.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

From the diary of Virginia Woolf, Wigmore Hall

Part of a 'Perspectives' series curated by the pianist Julius Drake, this recital was an augmented single span taking all its words from the diary of Virginia Woolf. The central cycle was Dominic Argento's From the Diary of Virginia Woolf of 1974 performed by Drake with Sarah Connolly. Beside them Fiona Shaw read further extracts selected (and lightly staged) by Kate Kennedy, a Cambridge English Professor specialising in Modernist English literature and music.

The last time I heard the cycle was in a final recital ten years ago. High calibre performers then failed to lift it from the page or stage; despite the ascetic circumstances of the performances I felt that the blame should be partly ascribed to the piece. Here - ironically 'despite' the world class of the performers - I felt that the effectiveness of the eight song cycle was down to the obscure riches of the piece, exposed not so much through interpretation as clarity of presentation. Fiona Shaw's demonstrative reading of pertinent diary extracts interpolated between the songs was part of this exercise in illuminating the texts, particularly effective in highlighting the humour near the surface of the diaries. Of course, everything felt quite at home in the decorous art deco interior of Wigmore Hall.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

One Man Two Guvnors, Theatre Royal Haymarket

Finally. It's been running in London (since opening at the National Theatre two years ago) on Haymarket, where it's booking until next year. Given that, a look at the trailer doesn't really seem to do it justice:

In fact, the show is an all-out assault on the fourth wall, an audience-incorporating farce that embraces silly in a slick patois of script and stand-up comedy.

At the head of this is the tireless Rufus Hound. The night I went he dealt with a conspicuous mobile telephone ring with exemplary adjustment of the script in hand (he was discussing a putative wedding 'ring' - you get the idea) - preserving the fragile sense of a proscenium arch before blowing it away with a circus-level stunt involving cashew nuts.

From there the show charges on with no quarter given to tentative heckling or malfunctioning props. It was impossible to tell whether a conversation with someone in the audience about their 'humous sandwich' was real or not, despite Hound doubled up in giggles, as the show flowed on without stumble. Even the bit parts can manipulate their stage-hand walk-on roles given the right temperature and timing. Slapstick abounds. It is extremely funny and the climactic crossed wires of trying to serve both adopted 'guvnors' their lunch in opposite hotel rooms is the high-point of the show.

The third act is necessarily rather more downbeat, like talking the audience off the hysteria-ledge (though it scarcely gets less silly, with musical interludes increasingly tending towards the drunken party pieces of North London students). The end is a big singalong and the slick curtain call taken equally by the live in-house band, The Craze, is a model for all West End shows, of whatever genre.

Monday, 1 July 2013

Gregg Edelman, Crazy Coqs London

Just before the weekend I caught another set at Crazy Coqs, the (newish) cabaret bar that's bar of the Brasserie Zedel complex just off Piccadilly Circus. The multiple Tony-nominated actor Gregg Edelman had come over to sing a selection of Broadway numbers from the centre ground of the tradition of the Great White Way.

This was a exemplary evening of compering and performing, in the style one would expect sitting in some dowtown NY bar any given night of the week. Inbetween numbers by Lerner & Lowe, Sondheim and Kander & Ebb there were stories from his performing experience and introductions to the songs. We were even party to a little tale of his visiting Fred Ebb's brownstone where a mesmerising morning's singalong culminated in the composer John Kander writing a song specially for Edelman. This is the joy of an evening such as this - that one is invited to bear witness to the incremental growth of the Broadway/American Songbook tradition through the actual personalities and practitioners passing on the songs themselves.

Edelman was joined at the piano by a London based pianist, James Church, who was playing well-judged arrangements of the songs; the duo did a great job of finessing a performance that, as these things are, was probably put together on minimal rehearsal.

Sunday, 30 June 2013

Gloriana, Royal Opera

A second trip to the cinema in as many years to see a staged production relayed live, I was pleased to get an opportunity to see Britten's Gloriana in this the composer's centenary year. The Royal Opera has turned to one of its most reliable directorial collaborators, Richard Jones, to create a production that will not only make the famously unsuccessful drama live but also rehabilitate it. Without giving too much away - especially for those familiar with Jones' fondness for meta-drama and actual physical staging-within-staging - the set-piece forms and solipsist-narrative to be found in the piece are grist to the director's mill, especially in this the 60th anniversary year of the coronation.

I saw the relay in the reliable, beautiful Curzon Mayfair. Like the last time I went to see such an event, facsimilie copies of the cast lists available at the Royal Opera House were available... and music irrelevant to the production was played in all the gaps. I have less of an issue as I have done previously as I am becoming inured to the vernacular of such a screening. I think that the short introductions and descriptions that bookend the relay proper are tastefully done too.

The broadcast is well (i.e. discreetly) directed, especially as - as I have already alluded to - it is particularly necessary to keep all the stage, including the periphery in view if not at all times then regularly. Most important in this respect was 'the spirit of the dance', played by Andrew Tortise, strongly sung but, moreover, utterly engaged throughout as an anxious director mounting the historical masque concerning Elizabeth I for an audience that includes her successor. In a touch of unstinting detail, the assistant chorus master of the Royal Opera Stephen Westrop took to the stage in academic gown to conduct the choral dances.

Susan Bullock was wonderful as the queen herself, interior focus as the isolated monarch a real benefit of the camera close-up. Toby Spence as her lover Essex was credible... as was Essex's wife, played as a 3-D deer in headlights by Patricia Bardon. Elsewhere Brindley Sherratt as the minstrel and David Butt-Philip as the Master of Ceremonies (extraordinary costumes both) made much of minute parts.

The opera suffers from trying to be too many things for too many purposes. Yet there is good music within. It doesn't make for a comprehensively satisfying evening's opera but this production does it great service.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Juice, St. Giles Camberwell 2013 Concert Series

Last night I made my way down to Camberwell to attend a concert as part of the St. Giles Concert Series. A functioning church across the way from the important South London Gallery, the church is another stop on the strip that works it way down to the increasingly celebrated Peckham Car Park, an unlikely but successful performance venue. With the recent launch of the Camberwell Composers' Collective - some of whose music was being performed - it's clear that the area has acquired its own artistic significance in London.

I had come to hear my friends and colleagues Juice, an all-female vocal trio who have been performing new and experimental music together for ten years. I'd heard the group in the past but only as part of larger events. This was also an opportunity to hear some of the music from their recent, well-received album Songspin.

There are plenty of benefits to any live performance that playing the album cannot give the listener. The group's in-built sense of theatre is foremost among them and this is how they started, with the ululations of Suzanne Rosenberg's Herding Call coming from the sanctuary and transepts of the church. A lot of Juice's material explores the hinterland beyond the identifiably sung; in the first of the music written by the performers themselves, Kerry Andrew's own Lunacy uses techniques suggested by the work of the great American vocal inconoclast Meredith Monk to extend Rosenberg's opening palette of sonorities. It also introduced the acoustic of the space (surprisingly clear and present, despite the background traffic noise) and Andrew's own effective, bassoon-timbred contralto sound, as physical a texture as it was audible.

More conventional music and singing came with Emerald and Saphire [sic], music by Piers Hellawell originally for the Hilliard Ensemble). The group work extremely hard to make their text communicable, paring the sung sound right down so that vowels are not distended in a trade off with projection or volume. This was most plain in one of the most successful sets of the evening, a quartet of love songs: Roxanna Panufnik's Faint Praise, a setting of a naughty Wendy Cope text (there is clearly a distinction between poems to be read alone and to be performed!) was followed by Anna Meredith's Heal You. A highlight of the evening, this laid back work with its well-judged glissandi took on the character of a central American slide guitar ballad. Dai Fujikura's Away We Play was certainly a contrast with neurotic, consonant led ensemble-stitching before the calm was revisited in Jim Moray's folksong setting.

Alongside the clarity of the performance, Juice maintain a welcome sense of informality in their performance by talking about the music between sets, just as well as the preparation of props for Laurence Roman's Hilaire Belloc settings was fraught. Still, the theatricality of the trio brought the narrative of these fables into relief. Rather more sober in narrative was Anna Snow's own Seven Star Girls. A complicated rhythmic introduction gives way to a lovely barcarolle-in-alt, as the text and music together pull us through mountain-top mist. To complete the native compositions Sarah Dacey's arrangement Cruel Mother is a harmonically febrile work relying on tuning as focused as anywhere else in the programme.

To finish, the group gave a polished rendition of their CD opener, Paul Robinson's Triadic Riddles of Water, music of Reichian clarity and complexity (but more succinct!) that brought us back to the spatial antiphony and play of the opening. A notably high-quality concert for the Concert Series to have secured the event was well-attended and received, to the extent that that inevitable CDs-available-at-the-back actually sold out. The artistic stock of the Camberwell-Peckham axis continues to climb.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013


It's been a fortnight of arts awards. Amongst the most high profile - and certainly the most worthwhile - were the RPS Awards. As Ivan Hewitt wrote in the Telegraph, 'Nothing delivers a good time as infallibly as real quality, and there was plenty of that on display'.

Yet it's a throwaway line from another bash, the TV BAFTAs that stuck in my mind. Olivia Colman, winning the first of two awards, accepted her awards with the words 'turns out it does matter.'

Yes. It matters. In the non-mainstream world of music-making that is classical music it can be very difficult to get honest feedback of any sort, let alone appreciation. By this I mean all manner of non-reception, from the complaints of the wall of silence from audition panels (for which one has often spent hard cash as well as time and effort) to the experience, such as mine last month, of performing to an audience fewer in number than that of the performers on the stage.

In the performance hinterland between college and the major institutions there are countless opportunities to perform, especially in London. The social media revolution means that advertising these events is easy and non-intrusive. Friends and colleagues, more than ever, can attend through choice rather than a sense of duty.

Those friends and colleagues that populate audiences offer welcome support. Moreover, it's great to get congratulated by those one doesn't know. There really is some reward in knowing that these people - whatever their background, or understanding of music or performance - have been affected by the event.

However, for the career musician, especially those trying to develop new work, having more concrete feedback is really useful. It's good for the artist to be able to consider; it's good for the artist to be able to share. Above all, especially for an ephemeral art like music, it is priceless having something that fixes the performance in time and fact.

On the face of it, the ease of digital creation, self-publication and dissemination might make this seem much easier. Functionally, it is. What becomes difficult, probably in direct proportion, is a sense of objectivity. Where does one find an aesthetic bulwark in the midst of this ocean of creativity and, correspondingly, of taste and ideas?

More than this, publishing opinions remains a tricky area. It's not difficult to see this. Either one is a paid-up critic or one is informally recording their own reaction to the event*. In other words the writer either feels insulated from any personal relationship by professional objectivity or excluded from being objective by their personal relationship.

Awards ceremonies, like those mentioned above, are a pleasant fudge in this respect. It's an entirely positive forum, where goodwill and celebration smothers any implication of others' work being less good. They make a virtue of being cheerfully partizan. It's how I run this blog.

In the classical music business proper (unlike its ersatz, pop-hybrid counterpart) success is built and maintained, principally, in the manner of a conventional career, i.e. incrementally, consistently and meritocratically. Yes, like any part of the entertainment industry, the sense of success is susceptible to the false gods of hyperbole, celebration of an artist's work based on concomitant issues - sales, fashion, personal investment and the like. That doesn't mean that voicing that recognition, from Tweeting, blogging and podcasting to hard publication and broadcasting doesn't count for a great deal. It might turn out to matter.

* Originally and parenthetically, 'one mustn't forget, blog = biographical log*, i.e. it's about the person writing it'. No, blog = 'web log', of course, pointed out to me since publication, so removed. I hope the broader point of the writing being personal still stands

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Shostakovich Orango, Philharmonia & Voices, Esa-Pekka Salonen, RFH

The other day a friend of mine was talking about a thought experiment that became a bestselling book. The Invisible Gorilla refers to selective attention, where significant incongruity may be filtered out if one's focus is elsewhere. The experiment came to mind once more as I watched a semi-staged performance of the Prologue of Orango, an unfinished opera by Shostakovich, given by the Philharmonia and Philharmonia Voices under the direction of Esa-Pekka Salonen as part of the The Rest Is Noise season at the Royal Festival Hall.

Of course, the eponymous ape-man who is brought on like a pale imitation of King Kong (right, in the film of the same year as the opera fragment, 1932-3) was very much the centre of attention in Irina Brown's staging. But then, the fact that the work was shelved, unfinished and unperformed (it was proposed as a stage work to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the October Revolution) suggests that the Orang wasn't so much The Invisible Gorilla as the MacGuffin in a satirical work, at odds with the hagiograph expected of the composer. Man-as-beast was clearly the metaphor of choice in the 1930s. Where the humanity of King Kong was being asserted, so Berg's Lulu (left incomplete at the composer's death in 1935) draws an explicit parallel with the bestiality of men. The prologue of that opera invites the audience to attend the 'menagerie', referring to the cast indiscriminately as various animals. All of this pre-dates the disappointed anti-Stalinism of Animal Farm by a decade.

There is plenty of satire in Shostakovich's score for Orango, most of it bold-gestured style-pastiche. Yet as Gerard McBurney, who reconstructed the recently discovered piano score, pointed out in the pre-performance talk, the pastiche also, er, apes rather more sober, canonised works of the Russian repertory, from Tchaikovsky's 4th Symphony to Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov. Indeed, in this performance a 'classic' propaganda film of a girl working a sickle in a field (a sop to a gathered crowd for whom the promise of the ape is not seen as sufficiently 'unusual'!) over-lays the most Westernised part of the score, a laid back dance number with the trademark brush work of a jazz kit drum. Shostakovich's playful eclecticism clearly strayed into the politically transgressive.

The skeletal staging embraced this. Philharmonia Voices were uniform in Miss USSR sash-costumed ensemble as a herd of Communist true-believers. Impressively fine-tuned for three days rehearsal, this included maniacal flag waving, a blissed-out pastoral dance with sunflowers and the veneration of their copies of Pravda (cunningly concealing their scores), led by the foreman baritone of Ashley Riches.

A small ensemble (partly from the ranks of Philharmonia Voices) took roles the front of the stage. Observing this scene of national festival either through binoculars (to suggest the scale of the pageant) or recording it in word or film (to suggest its significance), the titillating subject of the opera holds less interest than the state's achievements - the reverse of The Invisible Gorilla. However, worn down by the sweet tongue of Ryan McKinny's Entertainer, they agree to suffer Orango (Richard Angas), or at least the banana-munching Zoologist (Allan Clayton). A showman cut from the Entertainer's cloth he cannot help but invite trouble, offering Orango a snifter before letting the ensemble get a little closer... the panic that sets in as Orango gets a bit grabby is brought to a stop only with Elisabeth Meister's scene-stealing running scream straight out of the stalls door and the Zoologist's tranquiliser syringe (for me, uncomfortably recalling the sedation of a protestor at an inquiry into the Russian Kursk tragedy in 2000).

The farce comes to an end with the chorus congealed further in identity behind masks (rather like in the Royal Opera's The Minotaur, or even the LSO's recent Oedipus Rex) and the Zoologist munching his way through the bananas intended for his charge. The Philharmonia orchestra, masters of the immediate assimilation of style and equal to the most taxing of individual or corporate passages are ideal for this high-spirited score. Esa-Pekka Salonen enjoys himself without capitulating the shady history of the work's non-completion to its surface appeal. I had also forgotten about the discreet amplification/enhancement that had been overt at the start.

The piece itself is, inevitably, disposable - there simply isn't enough material to make the characters more than their avatars. It's well worth the outing though and certainly helped contextualise the performance of the fourth symphony, given in the second half; as Gerard McBurney noted, the final bookend to this period of Shostakovich's compositional style.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Gary Hume, White Cube Bermondsey

The YBAs still have their appeal for me, so the promise of a new work - a sculpture, no less - by Gary Hume pulled me over to the White Cube's franchise in Bermondsey (always been a sucker for Gary Hume). Indeed the gallery itself is quite a draw for me, a newbie to the site. I wasn't disappointed by either.

The gallery has a super, wide open forecourt, making it look like a municipal building of the late 1950s. The doors are tall, heavy and give onto a wide foyer and corridor down the centre of the building. Plain, serviceable gallery space, as suggested by the name of the chain. It's not disimilar to either its parent White Cube in Hoxton - or even the Gagosian on Britannia Street, King's Cross. Uniformity of space is fine by me, as long as there it is to the advantage of the work on display.

Hume's Liberty Grip is a tall bronze, constructed from reproductions of the limbs of shop mannequins. There was a fair bit of curatorial guff about figurative suggestion (a hand) and mischief or irony. I saw a bit of Magritte in it, maybe even Degas. It is shown in a room called 9x9x9, presumably as these are the dimensions in metres. Goodness knows how they moved the piece in.

The main room of the gallery is currently home to a major exhibition of the print work of Chuck Close. The space is indoor recreation centre-sized, with a central block creating an effective display ring. There is also a smaller room showing Eddie Peake's performance installation Adjective Machine Gun later in the week. All we had to look at was a bloke in a body stocking on roller skates, which is a bit Hipster for Bermondsey, frankly.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Detatched, Rachel Whiteread, Gagosian London

It felt about time to revisit the super space in Britannia Street (near King's Cross) operated by Larry Gagosian. The current exhibition that occupies all the floor space is Detatched, a arrangement of work by Rachel Whiteread.

In the main hall are three concrete casts of the interiors of sheds, works which lend their name to the exhibition. These are familiar works, dull, massive blocks that occupy space to no end, resolutely the opposite of the secreted interior from which they are cast. Of course, each one of these building casts makes one mindful of the purpose to which now-saturated space might have been used. The claustrophobia of using a garden shed, traditionally a place of retreat, of quiet and rumination is a clear metaphor.

Turning that mataphor inside out is the adjacent room which houses a number of doors cast in coloured resin. The original doors would have been solid, of course, the casts created to invent some sort of space in that mass; permeable to light they become even more permeable to the imagination. Moreover, a door occupies a space separate from it, filling out a doorway. This is the sort of metaphysical examination that one may well be expected to indulge in when faced with one of these pieces. The resin door exists, even if one can see through it. However, the inside of a door isn't an obvious place to imagine as a space - not even semantically (when 'inside the door' is used in coversation, it invariably means inside the room on the other side of the door). Equally, a doorway is really referring to the frame that creates that doorway. In fact there is nothing there.

So much for the simplest of conceptual artworks (though the coloured resin casts are rather beautiful on their own terms). The lobby area of the gallery houses a number of pieces in which everyday items are painted, plated or cast from different material to revise their worth. A cardboard beer bottle pack is made from precious metal and plaster. Here is a step further from Duchamp's Fountain, where more than the moniker of 'art' is being conferred on an unlikely object, rather our modern-day associations of value and exclusivity are being churned up in a single piece. I was reminded of Jeff Koons' 2009 exhibition at the Serpentine with its steel-cast replica inflatables.

Beside this are a number of cardboard boxes, collapsed back to their original envelope and painted silver. The reassertion of the two-dimensional packaging is completed with the introduction of a small piece of coloured celluloid film, like a window (dare one say, a stained glass window, with all those ecclesiastical associations). Flat in a frame, the window is redundant. Applied to the completed boxes, it is a way of looking into its space, beyond its container-function.

Monday, 25 March 2013

Bach St. John Passion, St. Anne's in the City of London

There are a surprising number of ways in which to experience J.S. Bach's operas-in-all-but-name concerning the death of Jesus Christ in the run-up to Easter. Invariably, performances are given as a concert in order to encourage a paying audience and hire the necessary professional musicians.

Yesterday I participated in just such an event (though with free admission and a retiring collection), in which the performance formed the central part of an act of worship hosted by the Lutheran church at home at St. Anne and St. Agnes Church in the City of London. This special Bach vespers saw the St. John Passion prefigured by a traditional choral prelude and hymn, broken up with a brief homily between Parts 1 & 2, and with a motet by Jacob Handl and prayers to conclude (it was also the first time in memory that I have attended a performance of a Bach Passion in a church that concluded without applause).

No doubt, the appeal of the Sweelinck Ensemble, resident ensemble of the church's adjunct St. Anne's Music Society, giving a performance of the work for free within the nominal service of vespers was responsible for a full house. And not just a full house, but a space in which chairs were brought in from the adjoining office to allow elderly latecomers to sit, if space could be found between those standing. It was heaving. Whether the slowly dissipating news that the Lutheran church and its concomitant Music Society are due to leave St. Anne's where both have existed for almost fifty years had inflated a potential audience/congregation with sentiment cannot be said. Whatever the cause of the packed church, it was an extraordinary situation to experience from any perspective. Singing the part of Christ meant that mine was at its very centre.

Perhaps that which I can't dispassionately describe is the music itself. However, the complete assimilation of the story by evangelist Julian Forbes was reflected by Clara Kanter's ardent Es ist vollbracht, rendered as emboldened rather than cowed by the central act of martyrdom. No-one familiar with St. Anne's would have been surprised by Emily Atkinson's pure-but-plangent soprano; however, even the wiring of the building seemed knocked sideways by the sheer weight of David Soar's Pilate whose first utterances appeared to overwhelm the stage lighting! The chorus, Eclectic Voices, were in the thick of the drama, raucous and reflective by turns. The viola da gamba of Mary Pells and violin d'amore of leader Hazel Brooks were notable obbligato highlights of Martin Knizia's admirable Sweelinck Ensemble.

The performance (that was in German) is due to be repeated in English (the Pears/Holst edition) at the Union Chapel, Islington on Friday. The high grade of music-making will be repeated. The wider purpose of the performance involving the community and promoting a holistic, spiritual foundation of the work is offered.

What cannot be replicated is the continuation of such music as part of the fabric of both building and tradition that St. Anne's Church has come to represent. The support of an overwhelming, health & safety-defying capacity audience is testament to the appetite for fine musical performance and worship co-existing within Wren's church of 1680 - a space built five years before the birth of Bach, and in whose ideal acoustic Bach's music has found its home and integrated purpose in London.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

19th Century Opera Scenes, Morley College

The BBC football commentator John Motson was once asked what his job's routine involved. He replied that on top of the Premier League games which he covered weekly he would also make a point of visiting lower and non-league fixtures at least once a week, to keep abreast of the grass roots, maintain some perspective and maybe even see some rough diamond of talent emerge.

Motson's work sprang to mind as I attended an evening of opera scenes at the adult education institution Morley College in South London last night. The evening consisted in an evening's contiguous performance of eight opera extracts. The simple musical and stage arrangement - piano and conductor, lit stage with a pair of tables and chairs - is no doubt a function of Morley's modest resources, but also representative of the focus on the essentials that put acting, movement and, of course, singing as a priority in presenting an operatic scenario.

The 19th century repertoire in question is not to be undertaken lightly. Even with the pared-down accompaniment, played with conspicuous musical restraint by Kelvin Lim (with Philip Headlam conducting), the gestures the music and its drama demand can often be grand, taking in considerable amplitude of techincal and emotional range. This was certainly the case in the section of Verdi's Luisa Miller, Thomas' Hamlet and the closing stretch of Verdi's Don Carlo (the Act 4 'Justitia' ensemble), and of course in the selected extract of Meyerbeer's La Prophete, (Grand Opera in name). For these, particularly, the emphasis was in moving fleuntly through the blocking that director Joe Austin had prepared, maintaining an unfussy staging without collapsing into a static concert delivery.

For the other extracts - two delightful outtakes of Verdi's Falstaff, a duet from Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore and a sparkling trio from Berlioz's Beatrice and Benedict - the linking conceit of the space representing a cafe lifted and framed the discursive basis of these ensemble scenes. When not involved in a scene, singers also took on acting roles to supplement the drama (or in one case to supplement an indisposed singer from the 'pit' - pragmatism being the first and most important lesson in theatre!). Costumes and props were kept to a minimum, no doubt provided by the performers as appropriate but comfortable for performing.

The outcome was a very sure and entertaining evening, the emphasis properly being on the work and its drama. And yes, there was some impressive singing. Away from the big houses or other well-trailed professional productions one can often feel cut off from this essential part of the operatic experience. It was nice to re-connect with some of that in this situation.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Stage Notes with Sound And Music, Royal Opera House

Today I attended an event, Stage Notes, curated by the charitable foundation Sound And Music  and hosted by the Royal Opera, which gives those attending a chance to hear from leading professionals in the world of opera. The event had been successfully trailed earlier in the previous week on Twitter using the hashtag #soundingout, which seems as accurate a description of the nature of the event as anything else.

In three stages, the day gave us a panel discussion - that pictured above, with Judith Weir, Martin Crimp, Laura Bowler, Oliver Mears and Jonathan Reekie, chaired by Susanna Eastburn - followed by rather more practical presentations from John Fulljames and composer Jennifer Walshe, concluding with the creative trio of Huw Watkins, David Harsent and Julian Philips discussing the collaborative process.

In fact, the collaborative nature of opera was a theme almost from the start of the day. Judith Weir offered that part of the attraction for her of writing opera was the ability for the composer to break the invisible bounds of solitary work and create in tandem or more. The end of this opening discussion came full circle to this issue. Why do opera at all? To pursue the elusive experience of a number of art forms working simultaneously, seemed to be a popular answer to this tricky question.

Inbetween there were rather more prosaic tips from the panel. Martin Crimp warned against trying to write too much music into a text, as that was what the composer was there to do. For him, one should be prepared to write 'the forgotten novel' the anonymous, stand-alone text on which the aggregated artwork of an opera can be built and shine all the brighter. Jonathan Reekie agreed and was also in agreement with Laura Bowler's insistence that an opera composer should have spent plenty of time experiencing straight theatre.

I was a little concerned that there didn't seem to be a great deal of mention of singers and writing music that would be geared to getting the best from sung drama and storytelling (although Reekie did make the point that writing sundry work for the voice is a pre-requisite exercise). Similarly the opera audience wasn't addressed particularly and a Q&A question that asked about the future climate of opera was as hedged about the market for opera as it was about the direction and potential of creative talent currently in the ascendancy. Digital media and its impact on the nature of the creation of opera  was similarly raised but not particularly picked over, save for positive noises about accessibility.

After coffee John Fulljames gave a tricolon deconstruction of the important tenets of producing opera: Direction and the parallel role of the Dramaturg ('who works out how one could stage this opera, not how one could do this particular staging of this opera'); the audience - 'nothing puts off a commissioner more than failure to be prepared to engage with a potential audience'; and a reminder of the essential emotion of the artform, a welcome reminder that there's no shame in working with sentiment.

Fulljames handed over to the secret weapon of the afternoon, the energetic, entertaining but deadly serious composer Jennifer Walshe. Making no bones about being an auteur (citing the likes of Werner Herzog, the filmmaker, as a model or at least an analogy) she gave all sorts of examples of how she would simply get on and do lyric drama. On the face of it a lot of what she had to say directly contradicted the formal niceties of individuals and their experiences of collaborating (Martin Crimp's being drawn to the simultaneously sensuous and intellectual components in his collaborator George Benjamin's prior work, for example). For Walshe, tiny sparks of interest or problem-solving would fall on and flare from the bone-dry tinder of her company which she would encourage to offer ideas on a daily, experimental basis. The only formal structure seemed to be her executive responsibility. Thought this struck me as capricious, when I asked how this squared with what Fulljames had said about engaging with the potential audience, she gave the consistent meta-answer that she didn't see the audience as a demographic but as a body of humans. this may be unsatisfactory to a producer but it's honest, something that can be worked with.

The nature of events such a these is that they are rather general. One can take from them what one wants. I was there in a very general capacity, to gauge a sense of opera's climate and direction and to hear from the pragmatic and creative poles across which the electric current of live lyric drama sparks. There was very little aesthetic discussion (I left before the final quorum of contributors, so more may have been mentioned there). It seemed to me that not much has changed in the nature of the artform - nor in the content which it makes its subject. The question that many might have liked to have debated at greater length in this company, what is opera?, was wisely left segregated for another forum.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Written On Skin, Royal Opera

George Benjamin's new opera Written On Skin brooks no half-measures on paper. A first class cast with one of the most independently-minded directors in the UK made this austere work one of the hits of the Aix Festival last year. I, for one, was delighted to get the opportunity to see the production on stage* as I had watched part of the broadcast from Aix online which felt as if it did the split level, multiple-focus staging few favours, not to mention the inevitably poor acoustic reproduction of my stereo hardware. Here's the trailer for the Royal Opera's production (on the main stage):

The apparently straightforward plot involves a proud, proprietorial man hiring a boy to write a book as a hagiograph, only to cause sexual and psychological emancipation in both the homeowner and his young wife, ending in tragedy. Yet the production gives the impression that something else is at work: around the staging area of the plot is a complex of rooms that suggest the manipulative hand of higher beings, angels (as they are actually referred to) perhaps, gods or something more prosaic and familiar to us today - politicians or scientists.

Certainly the discussions, morals and behaviour of the characters is based upon an older, conservative moral code that one might reasonably refer to as religious. One friend suggested the dress is middle eastern. Another saw the group as rural 19th century Russian and I felt the setup might have been rural American Lutheran.

The point here is that the truth is just out of reach. Everything about the staging, the design, even the story - rendered in a comic-book, speech-bubble form by the characters (e.g. the man sings '... said the man,') - leaves the sensibility of the production floating, standing off itself.

The result is to concentrate the attention on the aesthetic, the music and the singing, the deliberate movement of the cast. Benjamin's music is carefully orchestrated, the sustained strata of sonorities not a blanket but a series of diaphanous veils through which the voices don't have to force. The orchestra colour consequently comes from the timbres of individual instruments rather than harmonic hues. Similarly the voices of the cast experiment with parlando extremities (which the spare orchestration allows at a simple dynamic level). The equivalence of style and substance is confirmed by the use of a staircase in the final act reminiscent of one of the key works of the aesthetic movement, Burne-Jones' The Golden Stairs (right).

By the end of the opera, I was unsure whether I was watching genuinely metaphysical action or a satire; whether the principal plot was in the 13th century past of Martin Crimp's source text or in a dystopian future beyond the angels' 'present'. However the emotional trajectory and deliberate action of all on stage delivers a strong impression that is worth the considerable debate that happened in Bow Street afterwards.

*I saw the dress rehearsal

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Madrigali dell'Estate - McCaldin sings McNeff

I've been in the unusual and ultimately enviable position of watching the birth of a solo recital disc for the past ten months. As that soloist, the mezzo-soprano Clare McCaldin has been preparing to record music that Stephen McNeff has been writing for her over a few years. This video gives you an idea of what the disc is about.

This debut recital disc is an admirable record of varied contemporary works. Full of good, interesting music that represents the composer Stephen McNeff's aesthetic, it is also well performed by any standard, Clare McCaldin giving an attractive recital through the competent negotiation of considerable technical demands. The disc is an unflagging showcase for both musicians whose stamina in invention and charisma means there is no filler. Of course the high-end professionalism of pianist Andrew West and George Vass' Orchestra Nova Ensemble are, in this situation, not so much support as part of the weave of the fabric (and naturally, as a friend and colleague of the artists, I'd be inclined to say all this even if it weren't quite the case).

What's equally interesting to me however is to have had the inside track, watching the project come to fruition. In this digitally settled second decade of the 21st century, it might appear an easier operation to record, edit, publish and distribute a selection of music. This is simply not the case.

The space, equipment and engineering expertise to record an hour's poised, acoustic music requires a considerable outlay - or the unqualified support of a forward thinking outfit such as the record company Champs Hill, which has benefitted this project.

Though the music is original and personal to the performers, the web of publishers with whom the well-established composer works must be consulted and paid, as must be the extraordinary instrumental musicians appearing on the disc. The labour of raising funds through applications and the suchlike is considerable.

Moreover, without a dedicated, project-managing record company organising all this due process, the artist whose vehicle this is must assume the role of pulling it all together. This means ensuring the smooth running of the many facets of the project over the crucial recording period whilst trying to compartmentalise sufficient energy and focus to render an appealing record.

At this level - as in most day-to-day self-employment in the music industry - there is no insurance for illness or other insurmountable administrative hiccoughs. As a result, the discipline and technical assurance at this, the lower tier of commercial production, is essential not simply to produce good, marketable music but also to ensure that recording happens at all. One can imagine all this. Yet what's fascinating is that we listen to and appreciate the result on its own merits without the distraction of this backstory, however noteworthy. And that's how it should be.

Madrigali dell'Estate is available for download or CD purchase from amazon.co.uk or direct from champshillrecords.co.uk

Monday, 11 February 2013

Aubrieta Ensemble, Lauderdale House

Last night I went to hear a new chamber ensemble tackling some 19th century quintets. The Aubrieta Ensemble played Hermann Goetz's 1874 Op. 16 quintet and Schubert's Trout at Lauderdale House, the Arts & Education-leaning space on the Highgate foothills. '... formed in 2012 to give London’s finest orchestral musicians the opportunity to perform the rich chamber music repertoire', the Aubrieta Ensemble - on this occasion an all-women quintet - gave a fierce rendition of Goetz's remarkable late quintet.

The music is caught right in that late 19th century craw between the classicism of Brahms and the almost figurative character of Wagner and exhibits both the rigour of the former and the harmonic daring of the latter. Goetz was still young when he completed the work, which has vigorous themes. The attack and strong mid-low range sonorities of the group thrust itself off the back wall of the performing space, making its argument insistently.

If Goetz's quintet is the work of a young man then Schubert's quintet is the work of a child. This hugely accomplished composition, especially for a 22 year old, is celebrated for the variations of its final movement which use the melody of Schubert's own song of the same name. The quintet capably toggled their performing back not only to reflect the more pastoral, lyric style of the earlier composition but also to accommodate the extremely long, singing lines. A pleasant, range-showcasing debut for the group, whose leader Victoria Mavromoustaki, also gave the Schubert Sonatina Op. 137 with her sister Eleni at the piano.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

A Bigger Splash, Tate Modern

If there was a spread of schools emerging in the post-war international art scene then the predominant trend may well have been performance art. This is the subject of A Bigger Splash, Tate's composite exhibition at the Modern. Hockney's eponymous painting which is one of the two big draws of the first room is probably the least appropriate work on show! The juxtaposition of a two-dimensional background to the contrived (and, yes, fairly effective) dynamism of the splash that suggests a recent dive into the pool is meant to involve the viewer in the action of the scene. However Pollock's drip painting on the other side of the room has all the visceral vitality that Hockney's lacks and connects the piece to the action of the artist, even without Hans Namuth's short film showing the manner in which Pollock set about his work. It's that lack of calculation - or, more accurately, the manner in which Pollock takes it out of his own hands - that is a characteristic of the exhibition.

Consequently, one of the other characteristics of the works of the show is that of naturalism in all its chance and chaos*. There is a difficult Rubicon in these facets of the art, replacing representation with recording, interpretation with capturing. This resulted in two distinct impression through the rest of the exhibition: the first, one of post war artists trying to re-establish an aesthetic/ethical framework for their art; the second, the art becoming increasingly personal - therefore corporeal - therefore disturbing.

So chance in painting would come through the shooting of canvases (Nikki de Sant Phalle) and dripping not a brush but one's feet on a swing arrangement (Kazuo Shiraga). Damien Hirst used both of these techniques in his butterfly works (hatching cocoons on a canvas) and with the spin paintings (using centrifugal forces to dictate the flow of paint).

Direct human intervention is most famously essayed by Yves Klein, where (female) models would dip themselves in paint and roll on a canvas. A film available in the exhibition shows the important addendum to these works, that is an audience at their creation (complete with a string trio playing music, literally underscoring the importance of the event itself).

Finally with Viennese Actionism this direct recording in paint of the action of the artist matures. The artists wrestle with one another and enact all manner of (mock-)violent and sexual encounter in paint and other media but without producing a final work. The performance is the work and photographs of the event in place of final canvases in the room attest to this. With no end objectivity to these events or happenings it becomes difficult to see what the end result is intended to be, let alone what the conclusion of the argument actually is.

Inevitably the transformation or annihilation of the self would be an extension of this technique, redundant though it is. There are a pair of rooms in which artists reconfigure their own gender or take on alternative personae. Marc Camille Chaimowicz's imaginative reconstruction of Cocteau's apartment tries to do that to another artist. Only Edward Krasinski's application of a blue tape (noteworthily close to Yves Klein's Blue) at a fixed height across a room, re-configuring the perception of depth and dimension, succeeds in really re-appropriating one's sense of the nature of action in space. Equally, Helena Almeida's mixed media works, like Inhabited Painting (1975, right) re-touches photography, with a simplicity not unlike John Stezaker, in an obvious but nonetheless pleasantly confusing manner (more YKB!).

There are records of political acts as part of performing art with videos of the IRWIN group placing a black square in Moscow's Red Square, not to mention Chinese artists re-appropriating the culturally complacent calligraphic art with their own body-and-ink performance acts. The exhibition ends with the trompe l'oeil works of Lucy McKenzie twisting the screw of contrivance once again by creating a constructed space for actual inhabitants. This is also the art of the matte artists in film; on reflection I was surprised not to see the background of such familiar films as Hitchcock's The Birds or the like.

This exhibition is an enlightening but by no means comprehensive inventory of performance art. Though there are many tributary schools and pieces, I'm not sure one can do this exhibition without mentioning Fluxus. It stands as a useful catalogue of the post-war cultural struggle to re-appropriate art and aesthetics. The works themselves - when there are any, itself an indication - are rarely of intrinsic aesthetic appeal. I found the greatest value in the exhibition was the conversations the different rooms and exhibits initiated between me and my companion.

*One also notes that the music of this period was about to get the same treatement as the likes of John Cage began to experiment with guidelines for improvisation and the construction of musical works through chance operations.