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.