Friday, 23 January 2015

Pricey Programmes

Programmes seem to have shot up in price in some places. Not a representative sample, but the ROH charges £7 – this seems extortionate;  Opera North at £5 also seems steep; Scottish Chamber Orchestra a reasonable £2.50; Glyndebourne tour £5 for three; Festival £20 for six but is much larger and doesn’t compare directly; Philharmonia £3.50 but this actually covers three or four performances; Wigmore Hall -varies £1+.

This came to mind after I inadvetently managed to buy a duplicate Philharmonia programme for myself and persuade my friend to buy one too. I said that it was only £3.50 and not worth cardiac arrest -especially given the vast sum paid to Lewes in advance for summer opera earlier in the day.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Magic Flutes

Philharmonia Orchestra cond. Diego Matheuz, De Montfort Hall

It was put to me that the Philharmonia have played the Tchaikovsky violin concerto three times in the last five seasons at the De Montfort Hall. If you think an audience might tire of it, think again, as the concert was a sell-out.
It started with a perfectly fine Mussorgsky Bare Mountain. Ray Chen’s solo in the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto may have been technically very fine, but it didn’t seem to mean anything, and he didn’t seem to feel anything. Deiego Matheuz’s pace seemed fractionally slow throughout the evening. The Rimsky-Korsakov Scheherazade was the best piece, but still seemed slightly underwhelming. The flute solos and contributions (Samuel Coles and June Scott) were consistently wonderful and beautiful, and showed the quality which Chen lacked.  
Perhaps they suffered against Pappano, Kaufmann and Westbroek. The flaw is programmatically: safe music to make books balance. But whilst they come, and in such numbers, unambitious programming is unlikely to cease; it seems a shame to abuse such a good orchestra thus. The Parisian and Nordic sessions to follow promise more.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

In defence of the tenor

Andrea Chénier (Royal Opera, Pappano cond. Orchestra of the Royal Opera House)

Kaufmann may not need defending, but Andrea Chénier is far from canonical. Last night, the first ROH production in three decades opened. Docteur Guillotine himself could not have imagined a device capable of a more powerful blow than Kaufmann and Westbroek's erotic love death (yes again at the ROH a couple are getting off by (almost) topping themselves). With dawn comes death, misery & satisfaction, as lovers, hand-in-hand head off to scaffold. From the start, it seems like a happy ending is unimaginable: it is revolutionary France and the hungry children scrounging in the salon (nobody says let them eat cake, but they might as well) do not bode well. As Robespierre arrives on the scene, a frayed red cloth comes down, followed by a slightly forlorn tricoloeur displaying his autograph and more text - probably a death warrant given how many of the Committee for Public Safety authorised - to chilling effect. Then comes a "trial" (if you have seen 'Danton', you know the drill here).Then prison. Then death.

The contemporary resonances of the themes must make it tempting to update it. But this staging plays it pretty straight and is an unabashed delight. The costumes too are superb. The aristocratic salon replete with handsome young poet, becomes revolutionary cafe with handsome young poet under observation, becomes tribunal with handsome young poet on trial; and in, prison holding handsome young poet awaiting execution. and ; a good solidity works well too / I feel almost as if I have been to revolutionary Paris.

Candlelight illuminates, from the glint of chandeliers on rococo gilt work, to the glow on the table at the cafe from offstage whence came the newspaper sellers, to the workman-like candle of a busy 'courtroom', finally giving way to dawn, as the last crack of light snuck through the keyhole of the cells, and this too then was extinguished. This was the Age of Enlightenment; indeed the Enlightenment's dreadful conclusion, for Romanticism would follow sharply against Robespierre's excesses and Napoleon's. Once the thirst for blood was awoken the thing could hardly be stopped, and the French were probably all left pretty traumatised. We didn't see priests stuck in boats and sunk here (for a start very difficult to stage & also not in the plot) but we got a sense of the crazed atmosphere. The shadows cast through two large windows at night were impossible in act 4; but perhaps I miss some smart point here about Robespierre's fatal purity as one historian had it.

The casting: well Kaufmann is one of the greatest singers going & his colleagues were a pretty good match for him. Westbroek was on fine form again, but a rather different heroine than Anna Nicole. Eddie Wade (previously seen in Traviata for Glyndebourne Festival and Tour, and Opera North’s Fanciulla) had a small part but was on great form. An embarrassment of riches. But then this is what the Royal Opera does- gets in the big names and makes a splash with them. On this occasion the dividends were immense.

The music is lovely if not all that memorable. Pappano overcomes the limitaitons of the score and makes for an evening's beautiful music. There are big numbers, and with Kaufmann and Westbroek, every last drop of juice is squeezed out of them. ‘Mamma morta’, one of Callas's favourites was deeply moving, as was the closing duet. A tear or two came to my eyes in these deeply emotional, dramatic moments.

At the very least the cinema relay on 29th January is worth catching.

Overall: a fine start to the operatic year. And another name off the 'must hear' list.

Full cast:
Conductor: Antonio Pappano
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Andrea Chénier: Jonas Kaufmann
Maddalena de Coigny: Eva-Maria Westbroek
Carlo Gérard: Željko Lučić
Bersi: Denyce Graves
Madelon: Elena Zilio
Contessa de Coigny: Rosalind Plowright
Roucher: Roland Wood
Pietro Fléville: Peter Coleman-Wright
Fouquier-Tinville: Eddie Wade
Mathieu: Adrian Clarke
The Incredibile: Carlo Bosi
Abbé: Peter Hoare
Schmidt: Jeremy White
Major Domo: John Cunningham
Dumas:  Yuriy Yurchuk
Royal Opera Chorus
Director    David McVicar

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Show some respect

If you have nothing better to do in the portion of the afternoon reserved for luncheon than eating, then a short concert will be likely just the thing. If you have to work or do something productive, then it might serve as a major interruption. The Leicester International Music Festival (no probably hadn’t heard of it- great concerts in want of proper advertising indeed, I was pointed to it in September this year only because it was included in events in FT for the week ahead, and rather shame-facedly caught one concert only. Other things I don’t like about it include unreserved seating.) runs a series of luncheon concerts on Thursdays.
On Thursday this week, James Gilchrist and Anna Tilbrook's recital had sold out. But before the museum shop (which doubles as ticket desk) could tell me in sorrowful tones I was to be disappointed, a lady came up to me and asked if I wanted to buy her ticket. Was this some elderly scalper? – why don’t you want it, I asked her – her husband had passed away. The sort of encounter which might have given Schubert grounds for a song.
I don’t usually bunk off, but a programme including Schubert and Poulenc seemed all the excuse one might need. Sitting in the large picture gallery of the New Walk Museum, we got a series of glimpses into dark wintry forests clinging to the Rhine, with the odd burst of sunlight in the first portion of the concert. Then Poulenc for some French (Metamorphoses- landed somewhat oddly after this); and then the English portion –Vaughan Williams, Quilter, Finzi Gurney and Bridge were wallowing in the sun. As an encore William Denis Browne’s setting of a Brooke poem – but I couldn’t be entirely sure. This added yet another weird dimension to it all. A useful site here on War Composers. So programmatically an odd assemblage. More meze than a set meal. And if you are bolting your concert back in an hour (less than a long interval at Glyndebourne for example), then it needs to be coherent and digestible. As it was we were out the forest and blinking in the sunny uplands.And then the poignancy of world war one. It all felt a bit superficial in that sense.
Despite the large room, with fairly unfavourable acoustics, the German songs were loud and clear, even if I wondered if Tilbrook’s fingers were slightly too heavy at times: the noise was just slightly too loud. Gichrist was in fine voice, but his characterizations seemed not to marry up to the text too well, but did seem to be acting rather than signs of exertion. With the final portion of the concert given over to English songs some of the highest notes seemed to be at the absolute limit of Gilchrist’s range; or there was some odd stylistic effect – I am not familiar enough with the pieces to preclude this.
Serious musicians such as these deserve respect. Well any musician does. An audience which spent much time fidgeting with libretti – why can’t they turn pages quietly? Really very badly behaved. But nice big print meant some turned their pages before a song finish with disturbing frequency; all unnecessary as few songs were split over pages and there was plenty time to turn in between. So a lot of frankly rude behaviour. The worst example was an usher(!) seated near us. The museum needs to close off sufficient rooms to ensure that the cries of children astonished by the dinosaurs or whatever, do not creep in. This was a further distraction and detraction. 

Overall: good enough music-making, but an odd programme. A “monoglot” programme would have been finer. But please give them some respect.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

January Lights

Busch Ensemble (Wigmore Hall)
The dark days of January need cheer desperately, and the three bright young things which are the Busch Ensemble (Omri and Ori Epstein and Mathieu van Bellen playing piano, cello and violin respectively) did just that in the Wigmore Hall on the 2nd.
The Schubert Sonatensatz in B Flat and Beethoven’s Trio in D Major Ghost made for a fine first half. I thought technical brilliance but a lack of emotion. The Tchaikovsky Piano Trio, however, which comprised the whole of the second was stunning. Unbound emotion. In a polite-but-firm voice we were informed that flattered by the loud approbation indicated by the packed hall, they would not offer an encore on artistic grounds. And what might follow that thundering conclusion to Tchaikovsky?
Overall: a blazing start to 2015.