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 or direct from