Saturday, 27 September 2014

In principio

(Bach and Vivaldi: an inaugural concert by St James Baroque Soloists, St James the Greater, Leicester).

There is surely some excitement to be had in any attending the first of anything. Last night the St James Baroque Soloists gave their inaugural concert. An assemblage of eighteen young professional soloists, accompanied by the Musical and Amicable Society’s violins (four); violas (two); cellos (two); bass, oboe (two) and organ – of the more portable variety. So something between chamber and orchestra. A nice size for the space, which has remarkably good acoustics. St James the Greater does quite a good job, I would suggest of advertising its concerts. And whilst it fills for the Sixteen, sadly it did not for this. Regrettably the programme was reticent about the group or the individuals. I would have thought these bright young things would like to advertise their wares. 

Perhaps I just imagine that there is a slight whiff of snobbery about Vivaldi: you listen to that when you are interminably on hold to the gas board. It has been much reduced of late years, and concerts like this will do no harm. It seemed like the Bach might have been included to prove the seriousness of the programme on offer. 

The programme opened with Bach’s ‘Komm Jesu, komm’, but the rest of the evening was Vivaldi’s. ‘Versicle and Response’ and ‘Beatus vir’ before the interval; after the interval the Musical and Amicable society played his ‘Concerto for Cello and Strings in A Minor. The stand-out piece, for me, followed this, with ‘Stabat Mater’ sung sublimely. ‘The Magnificat’ drew the evening successfully to a close. A modest audience showed exactly as much enthusiasm as they dared in an ecclesiastical building: one would like perhaps to shout bravo, but somehow it seems like it would be a bit off – unlike the music. Generally the male voices were stronger I would suggest, but the best voice was female – a lady in a pale blue dress. But I can’t tell any more than that, as it seems a secret and they don’t have a website. Perhaps they are just too busy concentrating on music-making. Great things may well come. 

Matthew Haynes, apparently the music director of the church, conducted: the quasi-buffoonery of being seen to jovially start applause &c didn’t add to the evening in my view. A young group need to learn what to do with themselves – where to look and what to do with their hands - when they aren’t singing. Even if the performance lacked the sheer emotion which this kind of music can deliver, it was technically, really very good. 
Overall: watch this space.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Concert at a museum

(Chamber music at the New Walk Museum as part of Leicester International Music Festival)

There seems almost to be a cloak of secrecy over the Leicester International Music Festival. People I know have a vague inclination it is taking place. But it is far too condensed – and unless you were minded and able to take holiday (or are retired, as is so often the presumption), then it would be impossible to get to most of them. It also makes for an expensive week. I would think it would be much better if it were spread out over a few months. The lunchtime concerts, have the misfortune of being run on Thursdays, 1-2, so are not generally accessible. 

I only managed to get to one this year, which was the coffee concert (no sign of coffee) at 11 am on Saturday morning. A really nice time for chamber music. It has taken me nearly a week to make some notes.
The programme consisted of three pieces which were new to me.

The first was a contemporary piece ‘Déjà Vu’ by Czech composer Lukáš Sommer. This was the kind of spare, relatively difficult contemporary music, which does not transfer to recording well. The composer himself had come to hear the performance, so it might reasonably be inferred that it isn’t performed to frequently. 

The second piece was Mahler’s ‘Piano Quartet in A minor’. According to the programme, ‘there is little that suggests the Mahler to come’. I couldn’t disagree more- it as shot-through with pure Mahler, reminiscent of his lieder, most obviously Lieder eines fahrenden gesellen.
The final piece was the most substantial – Smetana’s ‘Piano Trio in G minor’, which offered more in to which one could get ones teeth stuck.
So the concert offered three delightful new pieces of music – all before luncheon. 

If only the programme told us more about the performers: Giovanni Guzzo, Marina Chiche, Philip Dukes, Guy Johnston, Katya Apekisheva, Charles Owen.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Whop ‘em out.

(Rigoletto, Royal Opera, Royal Opera House, cond. Maurizio Benini)

I have been told directors pay per nipple per minute; assuming this is true and that something similar applies to chaps likewise, then the meter must have whirred this evening. And presumably that’s where the money went, as it didn’t go on a top-flight cast, conductor or production. I do not make a prudish rebuke: nudity is not of itself a problem provided that it adds something. And the lack of coherence in the production altogether means I am not even sure to what it might hopefully add. It served no purpose other than titillation, but that was the only apparent purpose of the first act. I feared, at this point, it was going to be a long evening. 

The revellers at Rigoletto's orgy wasted no time getting going with things. Within a few minutes the stage was filled with topless lady and one unfortunate (or fortunate) chap had relieved of his trousers by some enthusiastic females. Girls kissed girls, boys kissed boys, and you were meant to be shockingly amused. Yet it was so effortfully done; it was just de trop. The orchestra could not be accused of getting after it. It took a good thirty minutes to warm up and this score doesn't allow for that.

The sound coming out the pit made even less sense – during the first act in any case. There wasn’t enough of it, and of what there was it was at the wrong speed, with the emphasis in the wrong places.Illness meant Saimir Pirgu replaced Pieo Pretti as the Duke. Once Pirgu warmed up, he was very good towards the end. Perhaps this was very short notice, as again, in the first act he was weak. Gilda (Eri Nakamura) clearly had a beautiful voice but it was shrill at the top end and it didn't sound right for the part. It lacked the warmth needed and which is exemplified so beautifully by the callas recording. This is not a round of the Flagstadt 1943 recording was better but an illustration of the major weakness would be provided by a cursory listening to the Callas 1955 recording which exudes warmth and tenderness. It was generally slow and quiet and failed to allow Verdi’s score to truly shine.

In smaller roles, Elizbeth Sikora made a wonderful Giovanna – and her costume was one of the few which really did add to things. It was dark until low on the shoulders when it turned white, creating a strong horizontal line, supported by superb and dignified deportment. Somehow it felt a bit like Whistler’s mother had started singing. And taking bribes. Alexandr Tsymbalyuk  made for  a villainous assassin. A storm, reminiscent of Verdi's rather better known one in Otello. No organs here but plenty of thunder; and it signals change and doom and tragedy to come  The star of the show was Rigoletto (Dimitri Platanias),  his deep voice, again once warmed up, was splendid, and made in particular for a touching but not particularly moving end. 

It also all highlighted what a weird story this is. The appalling treatment of Gilda, so pointless, so cruel, carries no repercussions for anyone other than Gilda and her tormented father.
It was all being relayed to large screens – I am enormously in favour of these things, but it meant it started three minutes late, and that there were increased inter-scene and inter-act pauses for explanations to the assembled masses. 

It was a decidedly un-charming production. The so very common house rotating in the middle was used here to tolerable effect. Perhaps it hadn't been kept up since DG's unfortunate departure to the underworld from the ROH production earlier this year.

After a break the pace really picked up and so did the musicians' game. Indeed by the third act, if was really quite good and had gained intensity.

Overall, I think this showed a lack of rehearsal time. There are not many performances of this, and the changes in cast mean that it lacks time to gel. Even the curtain call was somewhat clumsy. I am starting to wonder if the Royal Opera needs to do fewer productions and rehearse more. 

Generally an unattractive, uninspired and incoherent production;  but some good singing made this not unenjoyable: better as it went along. 
In repertoire until 6 October.

Friday, 12 September 2014

The sound of Jimmy Choos on red carpet

Mark-Anthony Turnage, Anna Nicole (Royal Opera House, cond. Antonio Pappano)

Few composers are more intrepid than Mark-Anthony Turnage. He doesn’t baulk at the idea of four-letter words, and indeed is happy to conjugate them In his most recent opera, Anna Nicole for the Royal Opera House, the audience are treated to an evening of contrasting halves. The work clips along at a remarkable pace. The first – instrumentally sounds like it is from the same book as Britten’s Paul Bunyan –the representation of the hope of the American Dream in cheery tones and melodies; the second is a descent into despair, and is more ‘operatic’ – the words and notes are longer, more repetitive. Without a doubt, this is highly enjoyable – you will laugh which is fine, because that was the idea. 

Stand aside gentle Hogart: this is a Rake’s Progress for our age. And it’s far from gentle. Anna wants the sound of Jimmy Choos on red carpet and will do anything to get it: erotic dancing, plastic surgery, ‘gold digging’ and exposure.  On the day the media responded with fervour to the trial of Oscar Pistorious – or rather its verdict, it seemed apt to watch the self-destruction and ‘suspicious’ death of a son in his mother’s arms. One could certainly draw parallels – the media obsession at least. 

An all-star cast is used for this revival. Regrettably, the brevity of a revival rehearsal period shows: nobody seemed quite sure what to do with their hands. But it sounded spelndi. Eva-Maria Westbroek led the charge. It might not be the longest opera, but it is almost all singing (a three-bar overture and short interlude excepted). It needed a cast – or chorus – of many. The orchestra made a biggish sound – but I did not see in to the pit. 

Susan Bickley made a very fine mother to Anna – this gave her a chance to shine – hovering around the leading lady as she did to Brunnhilde as  Waltraute for Opera North this year. It seemed a shame to have the magnificent Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts hold such a small role, butit was done very well. Rod Gilfry sang a creepy opportunistic and slick Stern. Alan Oke proved yet again why he is one of the 
foremost singers of his generation. 

The weakest voice was Jason Broderick’s, as the injured teenage Daniel – his acting was up to scratch however, and one was reminded of Wagner’s dictum about preferring actors who couldn’t sing to singers who couldn’t act. The brochure indicates this was his debut, previously having been on the television & c. – so a little charity might not be unreasonable here. 

We all crave something (more opera tickets perhaps?); it's what you are prepared to do for it that matters. If you did opt for more opera tickets, there is much to tempt in the forthcoming season. I am looking forward to the Trsitan and the Andrea Chenier. Something for the dark months.
Overall: you will laugh, but probably not cry.

A revival of the ROH production opened the 2014-15 Winter Season. No cinema relay, but this production available on disc – the only available recording. Further performances 13, 16, 18, 20, 24 September.