Sunday, 18 May 2014

In a tent

Kovanschina (Birmingham Opera Company & CBSO)

From the outer-reaches of the operatic envelope, Graham Vick delivered a tour de force. Cognoscenti don’t want to shout too loudly about BOC because it might become too difficult to get tickets. And there aren’t that many: the whole audiences to the handful of performances wouldn’t fill Symphony Hall, for example.  The tent in Cannonhill Park, had a small encampment of protestors outside. Most of these were probably part of the Company, but the chap with an Amnesty International petition, might not have been. Seeing the tent, I feared even an orchestra as mighty as the CBSO might not fill it with sound. (Spoiler: they did. And the singers and chorus were up to the task.) 
 We could take pictures at this -unusually, but without flash: so the quality is imperfect.  They give a sense of things nonetheless.

When corralled by menacing police officers into a very large tent for our own safety, but warned not to touch the evidence, we were not disappointed. The tent had space for a large political rally, a small chapel, a press conference, and an office. The tricks and wheezes employed were all exceptional.  
The evidence was actually the chorus, on the floor, in body bags.
The police arrived
This was different in many ways from standard productions. Firstly, It was a promenade affair, so you walk around, look and see.  Secondly, it was sung in English, with which I do not generally agree. But the titles couldn’t work in this context, and in Russian it would be almost impossible for anyone to get much sense. It appeared to be quite a liberal translation, newly made by Max Hoehn, and it worked.
That Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts whom we recognised from Opera North’s sublime Peter Grimes in the autumn, which would have broken a heart of stone, was singing gave us a certain degree of excitement. 
Who or what might happen next was impossible to know. On several occasions someone whom I assumed to be a fellow operagoer starting full-pelt or commenced acting or dancing. The evening incorporated a series of flash mobs. All this might almost be verging on the quotidian in certain parts of the theatrical world; in the opera arena, this is unparalleled. It is stretching the form as far as possible. However delightful another Bohème might be, delights await outside the obvious comfort zone, one is rewarded. Like the plot-free Satyagraha at the Coliseum last year, for example. 

Vick surprised throughout the evening, and kept some ammunition for the finale. The closing  scene involved a mass suicide: when was predictable from the unfurling of plastic bags. The rustling of them all as the orchestra fell silent was deeply shocking. 
Vick promises ‘[o]pera for a 21st century city and its many peoples’. Unlike every dumbed-down affair, Vick attracts people by reimagining the discipline in a direct, creative and imaginative way. That’s why the tickets sell out doubly-quick. Surely standing for three and half hours would put off many. Yet this production would make a wonderful introduction for a first-time opera-goer. I’d be willing to bet they’d be back for more. 

Overall: theatre of the unexpected: beyond compare.  

70, not out

Nyman anniversary concert (Royal Philharmonic Orchestra)

Quite astonishingly, this got 2 stars from someone whom I presume is not an ordinary reviewer for the Guardian. I can at best characterise the Guardian review as inexplicable were they in the wrong room? or simply didn’t they ‘get’ it? The four pieces were all markedly different demonstrating Nyman’s diversity, but at the same time, exhibited some classic Nyman elements. From a hundred paces, you could say it was there, but you might not say quite what it was. Some of the catchy elements for Nyman have served as leitmotifs throughout his work over decades.

The first piece was the wonderful, dynamic and, I think perhaps surprisingly moving, Draughtsman’s Contract suite. This is the piece, I suggested to my friend, she most certainly would recognise. At the same time there was an undoubted thrill to the composer himself conducting. This wasn’t a case of trotting out the same material, but it is a living thing constantly being revised on the score and indeed on the stage by the composer. Of course no music is anything other than alive, unless it is on a shelf in the archive. Even recordings change with transfers and re-mastering at periodic intervals. But here the changes are beyond technology, part of the on-going creative process.

Nyman handed the conducting baton to Josep Vincent. The UK premiere of Violin Concerto No 1 was a sparse, different affair altogether; rendered painfully tender by Alexander Balanescu, utterly visceral.
After an interval gin and tonic, John Harle a most impressive solo performance in the revised version of the Saxophone Concerto (where the bee dances) another UK premiere. 

The final piece of the evening was yet another UK premiere, of Nyman’s second symphony. This was an excellent uplifting piece on which to end. Overall, the concert took me by surprise. Opportunities to hear his music live are relatively rare, so this was the first time for me. I was astonished by how moving it was. Understanding this dynamic better, I will be sure to continue to build my library of his recordings.

The final fillip saw Nyman appear from the audience and leap up on stage: it suggests his projected cycle of nineteen symphonies may well be completed; if they are not it will not be for want of energy. The next will be the one he has prepared, characteristically reinventing and reworking previous material, will by for the Hillsborough memorial concert. He spoke about this on a special Front Row on 5th May, and you may still download the podcast of this. It includes excerpts from the concert.  This willingness to revisit is not repetition  as such, but rather I think reflects a continuing endeavour.

Overall: 70, not out.


The essential purpose of this blog, is that of an aide memoir; if anyone stumbles across it, then intelligent discussion, as in all things, is always welcome. It is primarily about opera and ‘classical’ music in its broadest conception; doubtless other things will appear.