Wednesday, 18 September 2019

The Emperor of Atlantis, Bold Tendencies

This was my first visit to the Multi-Storey space in Peckham, a reclaimed car park opposite the station that - on a beautiful Indian summer night like this - draw hundreds to its roof-top bar.

Inside there are lots of different spaces for all manner of goings-on. I walked past two separate art installations to reach a sealed-off performance area for the first in a run of performances of Viktor Ullman's The Emperor of Atlantis, written in the concentration camp of TerezĂ­n in 1943. The company is Bold Tendencies.

That the work was composed in such dreadful circumstances is reflected in both the quiet hysteria of the piece, and the controlled but undeniably frenetic energy of the performances. The four (OK, five, conductor Tim Burke plays a keyboard glockenspiel as well) instrumentalists - a companion familiar with the composer tells me that it was a reduced orchestration - play on the periphery of the circular space onto which the cast charge, dance, posture and fight. The tentative division between sincerity and irony which one gets at the door as they welcome the audience into the space quickly dissolves in the absurdity of the situation. The perplexing political situation of the UK in September 2019 cannot sit outside this dismissal of a fourth wall. Consequently the conclusion is less sobering than uncomfortable. Highly effective.

Eight Songs for a Mad King, Shadwell Opera


I still recall my first experience of Shadwell Opera, a performance of the Crimp-Benjamin Into The Little Hill at a community centre in Limehouse. The drug-taking in the neighbouring park had almost put me off but luckily not enough. The event was a fine, minimal-staging, maximum-quality, up-close operatic recital.

This performance of Peter Maxwell-Davies' Eight Songs for a Mad King was equally close (and equally co-opted East London), making use a performing space on top of a disused warehouse by a Hackney canal. An architectural installation - the Potemkin Theatre, an Antepavilion prize installation, had just the right aesthetic for the project: tall and aspirational but temporary and, on closer inspection, folly.

Ben Nelson gave a regal performance of this demanding, extended-voice, all-in role. The ensemble played precisely for Chris Stark. Around the sounds of a hot, Indian summer weekend (complete with the dreg end sounds of the nearby Hackney Carnival) drifted across the space. I was reminded of the end of Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex:

Gently, gently, his people drive him away. Farewell, farewell Oedipus —we loved you.

Proms at Cadogan Hall 8

This late-season chamber Prom was a tribute to composer Oliver Knussen who died last year. His music, along with that of contemporaries and younger colleagues, was performed by the newly-convened Knussen Chamber Orchestra, an elite collective of performers led by Ryan Wigglesworth.

I was in attendance principally to hear Alastair Putt's Halazuni, an older work in this composer's canon. Alastair writes

Halazuni takes its inspiration from arabesque decoration in Islamic art, and the patterns and lines therein. Such art juxtaposes the rigidity of an underlying 'tiling' with more florid elaboration, and I have attempted to represent this musically by establishing a rhythmically regular background texture, on which slower-moving, more flexible lines are overlaid.


In addition to pieces by Knussen, Birtwistle and Hans Abrahamsen there was a new work by Freya Waley-Cohen. Naiad is a short work, though to call it a miniature would be to do a disservice to its switching of pastoral perspectives, from the macro of leaf-dew to the wide angle of the open field at dawn. It's evocative and beautiful. The music was all terrifically performed and the Cadogan Hall well populated for a Monday lunchtime concert of contemporary music.

Monday, 5 August 2019

Tete a Tete Opera 2019

I was pleased to be able to catch at least one day of this year's now well-established London festival of new opera Tete a Tete, which is always a valuable place to meet and talk about the genre if nothing else. On the afternoon and evening that I went we were able to see three productions of short new works in RADA's Drill Theatre Studio.

First was BEAM, an anagram of BAME, a autobiopera (if you like) in which Nadine Benjamin performed music both accompanying her personal and professional growth, as well as part of its repertoire. Stark personal performing like this only works, as it did, if the protagonist is both professional and *good*. The Q&A afterwards was not only a useful forum but also a welcome chill out from the intensity of what we heard. This was followed by Voiceless, another tour de force vehicle for mezzo Rosie Middleton, which is still in a period of development.

Finally we saw Panter & Faulkner's The Cruel Sister, a very entertaining (not to mention polished) Grimm-like Northumbrian yarn with a nice role for a double threat Esther Mallett (singing and fiddling) and an effective role for a dancing actor, played here by Michelle Buckley.