Roger Quintana as the golfing virgin Fidel Castro in rehearsal

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Charity at Dawn

Off to the Royal Academy of Arts in Piccadilly to hear about plans for a fifteen-mile night-time 'culture crawl' around London in September, like a pub crawl only with historic buildings instead of Red Lions. It is 'curated' by former director of the National Portrait Gallery Sandy Nairne, who has persuaded employees in the selected buildings to stay up and welcome crawlers even at 3am. The exercise is a fund-raising scheme for the charity Maggie's Centres, which commissions architects including Norman Foster, Frank Gehry and Steven Holl to design and build cancer treatment clinics all over the country. Those who sign-up (400 have already done so) must commit to raising £200 for the privilege. The artist Timothy Hyman RA made weekly visits for a year with his sketchbook and framed the results for a Royal Academy exhibition. He captures the warmth. humour and sadness of the yoga classes, prostate groups and incontinence sessions. One of his pictures is The Pensive Musician, the subject a young cellist hovering outside the 'hospital', trying to make up his mind to go in. The Centres have no programme of 'music-as-therapy', although they are conscious of the beneficial effect which fine art and architecture have on patients. The Culture Crawl takes place on the night of Friday 18 September and you can sign up by visiting Maggie's Centres website.   

Monday, 29 June 2015

Apollo's Misfire

Apollo's Fire is sometimes known as the Cleveland Baroque Orchestra, although the music on the Sugarloaf Mountain disc is more folk than anything under the Early Music banner. The title is one of the Appalachian Mountains which formed a barrier to progress west for early migrants. They settled and built communities which shared mostly Celtic musics from home. Instruments are fiddle, flute, penny whistle, harpsichord and dulcimer of two types - long-necked, like a Baroque guitar, and hammered, like a zither. The music is mostly traditional and anonymous, beautifully played modal tunes of Scottish or Irish heritage, like the haunting opener The Mountains of Rhum. Some are multi-purpose, like the Farewell to Ireland / The Highlands, a thrilling instrumental folk dance. The Cruel Sister is in the ballad tradition with a sad choral refrain after each verse, vividly depicting bitter family rivalries when a suitor prefers a younger sister. The familiar is well performed though one senses a little too much effort in de-cultivating the voices for The Fox ballad or Wayfaring Stranger. The flute solo of The Butterfly evokes the deepest sadness in keening tones and Nottamun Town (presumably Nottingham) is a wonderful find, despite the curious image of a stark naked drummer with his hand in his pockets. The religious number Oh Mary don't you weep has the origins of blues and jazz in an excellent finger-clicking rendition, but the disc is spoilt at the last by two cloying items, Just before the battle and the title track Sugarloaf Mountain, which is a concoction by founder Jeanette Sorrell of her own words and the opening Mountain of Rhum melody. She lets sentiment override historical value.                 

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Cuban Missive Crisis

Off to Cuba! Except the plane takes off without me because there is a misprint on my Electronic Ticket Record and the computer refuses to issue me with a boarding card. The desk clerks shrug their impotence and though I steam with frustration all I can do is sit at a public piano in the arrivals hall, improvise a twelve-bar blues and buy a second ticket. I have to because four magazines and newspapers are expecting pieces. £900 it costs me. I send the Guardian their 700-word article. The editor says it's confused and doesn't answer her questions. She won't print it but sends me a kill-fee. Here's the article anyway: 

'Since the USA and Cuba decided to relax the restrictions on trade with each other in December 2014, tourism on the communist island has looked decidedly rosy. In May, the tourist paquet coaches filled the airport car park in the capital La Habana. It is not quite a free-for-all; tourists still have to have a solid ‘people-to-people’ purpose for coming - cultural exchanges good, lying on a beach bad – so it was the right time to hold the twelfth Bienal de La Habana the Havana Biennale, a celebration of the arts throughout the city. Some visitors even made it out to the former golf course, and swelled the local crowds at the three performances of Cubanacan, the first new opera produced in Cuba since the Revolution.

The opera is also about the Revolution and has a role for the young Fidel Castro. This might seem rash, but the languishing 88-year-old dictator comes out of it quite well. It is set in the days of idealism in 1959, when treading in their army boots on the once exclusive turf of El Country Club, golf clubs in hand, surrounded by the abandoned houses of the middle classes who have fled to America, Fidel and his lieutenant Che Guevara, fly-half for the Buenos Aires University rugby fifteen, decide to build a University of Arts on the fairways. An appreciation of art was a principal ingredient in the founding of the nation.

They choose the architect Ricardo Porro, but his curvaceous Gaudi style designs displease the Russians, the project is abandoned, and the relationship with Castro falters, which provides the dramatic tension. The story is by American librettist and producer Charles Koppelman who conceived it twelve years ago after reading Richard Loomis’ Revolution of Forms. The bittersweet conclusion pits the failure of the project (two of the schools are ruins), against the success of the schools as students and teachers moved into the incomplete buildings anyway and over time have created one of the most art rich cities in Latin America. The city becomes a gallery during the Bienal, established after the Russians departed in 1992. Paintings hang in shop fronts in the old town and sculptures line the Malecon, the two-kilometre crescent-shaped sea front, which was pedestrianised on the first weekend with couples dancing to Salsa on every corner. 

The instruments of Salsa are classical, strings and wind. Drums are congas not kits. Those who devote themselves to playing them command huge respect in Cuban life. In a country of unbelievable poverty, where even an academic scientist earns only 50 dollars a month, a career in music is a way out. Salsa is big business. Porro’s music school was one of the ruins, but the music faculty took over the Country Club’s main building. Some of the ceilings have fallen in and the wicker now is shabby, but the rooms resound with scales, arpeggios and technically demanding modern sonatas. As session musicians, they may never play anything as challenging again, but what Salsa the trumpets blaze!

The music of Cubanacan is by 77-year-old composer Roberto Valera, formerly principal of the music faculty of the opera’s plot and therefore responsible for the country’s own sistema, that is, the arts in combination on a single campus, mutual and competitive. Valera studied in Cuba of the 1950s and won a scholarship to Poland after the Revolution. One hears the dissonances of Polish modernism driven by the propulsive energy of Cuban rhythms in the score. The orchestra comprises Camerata Romeu, an all-women string ensemble whose sweet tone and thrilling precision testifies to a music system of Venezuelan effectiveness. Only the oil-wealth is missing. Clarinettist Flavia Perez plays on stage during the finale with smooth, smoky tone. The winds are from the national opera company, Lirico Nacional, whence too the principal singers. Students from the schools make up the robust chorus and take spare seats in the pit making valuable contacts among the professionals.

The opera is staged in front of the School of Plastic Arts, a voluptuous complex of domes and tunnels, inspired by a female spirit of creativity from the local hybrid religion Santaria. Koppelman consulted Porro before he died in 2014, and he insisted this was the source of his inspiration. The spirit tussles with Castro over Porro’s fate. French director Charles Chemin had to compromise with the performers who refused to uninhibit themselves to the extent he wished in the interpretation of el Presidente’s feelings. They are understandably wary. Although Cubanacan had an untroubled passage through the censor’s hands, utopia is still a police state.'

Sunday, 21 June 2015

See a Conquerng Hero

Off to St John's Smith Square to hear Handel's oratorio Joshua, written in 1747 between 19 July and 19 August to a somewhat clumsy libretto by Thomas Morell. Stephen Layton conducts the Brook Street Band, the Holst Singers and a group of top class soloists who enter from a waiting room at the side each time they sing. The orchestra begins in a low gear but as soon as the superlative choir enters with the summons Ye Sons of Every Tribe Attend, we are off, careering smoothly with Layton at the wheel from chorus to recitative to aria as Joshua's tale unfolds. The Holst Singers are bright, alert, finely tuned, precise over the running semiquavers, and clear of diction even through the complexity of the fugues. They seem to have Handelian choruses in their blood with their balanced lines and simple eighteenth century confidence. It doesn't occur to anyone that the heathens of Jericho didn't get exactly what they deserve in the terrifying fire and brimstone chorus Almighty ruler of the skies at the start of Act II. 

Joshua is sung by Nicholas Mulroy who makes his recitatives explicit with hand gestures and facial expressions even for Morell's casual non sequiturs, such as his reminder to spare widow Rahab whom he has not mentioned before. Morell's script is particularly prone to expressions which have changed altered their meaning since he wrote them, like the final chorus Great Jehovah is our awful theme, the 'dreadful sound' of an earlier number, or countertenor Alex Potter's 'blooming maid'. Potter has an impressive presence as the young warrior Othniel and a powerful voice in the Bowman mould, easy over the high notes, rich below and with a metallic fibre in the middle range. He is especially effective in the power-aria Heroes when with Glory burning so that one wonders why it takes Chris Purves' imperious bass Caleb so long to embrace him as a son-in-law. This happens after the chorus's See the Conquering Hero, to the well known hymn tune first used in Judas Maccabeus, but used again in Joshua for its popularity. 

Soprano Rachel Ambrose Evans sings the sensible Achsah, daughter of Caleb and beloved of Othniel, with brilliant tone though she slides rather readily over the runs. She sings Hark tis the Linnet however with sparkling clarity and delicious engagement with the obbligato flute and fiddle. It's the stand-out piece not least because it is one of the few da capo arias in the oratorio, the fashion for them having waned with the demand for fewer hold-ups in the dramatic scheme. Two or three in an evening marks them out as special. Layton is a master of dramatic pacing in these Handelian oratorios and others conducted by him in the series at St John's must be among the capital's highlights over the coming months. 

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Legal High

Some unaccompanied QCs are loitering at the door of Temple Church awaiting their partners. I too am unaccompanied as my date is late. We are in good company as it is the six unaccompanied cello suites by JS Bach we have come to hear performed by the cellist Raphael Wallfisch. Their independence of any duo partner once gave them the appearance of exercises, as if it weren't seemly to appear in public without a keyboard chaperon, but in the age of individualism, few works better represent our existential isolation. The ear interprets the absent harmony, especially in the sparest movement of all, the Sarabande to Suite No5, which snatches single notes from the air and which Wallfisch plays with cowering, humble expression, like a defendant quietly pleading before a judge. He sits on a dais erected between the choirstalls which are packed as if by jurors. He plays the suites in the order 1, 6, 5, interval, 4, 2, 3. No1 relaxes the evening with its fluent familiarity, the phrases pouring from Wallfisch's fingers with unruffled confidence. He switches instruments for the scordatura No6, recalling events from a different angle. The double-stopped Sarabande, rich with emphatic bowed chords for the first time, is an explicit corroboration of the previously hinted harmony. His Gavottes have a spring in their steps, the first with its catchy tune, the second with its musette drone, simple as a folk dance. He plays Nos 5 and 4 from the score, unsure of his memory. This accounts perhaps for a more restrained and deferential performance of these works. The Fifth is also for lutenists, but none could compete with the smooth lightning speed of Wallfisch's Bourree II. His echo effects in the Fourth are the delicate whispers of a conscience. The rest he plays by heart, although he has a lapse in the last, his concentration failing as his marathon nears the finishing line. This fallibility mars the ending a little, but not enough to detract from the overall eloquence and calm persuasion of his account. The jury's verdict is immediate: overwhelming applause.      

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Pop - The Question

Baritone John Potter is behind this ECM project to create a song halfway between pop and classical, neither so crude as to deter trained artists, nor so complex as to deter untrained ones. He chooses the lute song for treatment and, but for its five-four time signature, the first piece, John Paul Jones' Al son de los arroyuelos with lyrics by the 16th century's Lope de Vega, almost fools me. Its prominent bass and strummed lute chords behave like a basso continuo. The performers include two lutenists and two singers, Potter himself in plain, appealing, text-clear tones and Anna Maria Friman who is a good matchwith consistent brightness from head to chest. The newest lyric is Sting's Bury me deep in the greenwood which sounds like the oldest and is full of folk poem cliches. Frustratingly, no song texts are provided. The composer Sting, of course, has experience of lute songs from his Dowland episode, although the music for Bury me falls short of the model, which always has some contrapuntal element. The disc also features the In Nomine by Picforth, Dowland's enigmatic contemporary of whose work only this extraordinary exercise in cross-rhythms survives. It is instrumental and doesn't even pretend to fulfil the brief. The three Thomas Campion songs are performed straight with only a little 'pop' voice production to justify their inclusion while the re-working as lute songs of Warlock's setting of John Fletcher and Moeran's of Housman are the most attractive items on the disc, new uses for the lute song, a form we are becoming more and more used to. Despite Potter's best intentions, the disc still falls firmly in the art music camp, but there's nothing wrong with that.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Homogeneous Genius

It was possible to tell the difference between a Steinway and a Yamaha last night at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London. There isn't one! Any sense that the Japanese instrument was a tad brighter or the American warmer was imaginary. Piano duo Alice Sara Ott and Francesco Tristano swapped instruments with the pieces, so it wasn't a question of his and hers; they also had no preference. Each retained the same stool, however, carrying it across the stage as they changed ends like tennis players to the audience's amusement. Tristano had his extended to full height though he is very tall. In fact he stood for half the first piece, his own arrangement of Ravel's Bolero, his left hand damping the string he was hammering with his right in the steady side drum rhythm. His ostinato needed no score but Ott frantically flicked the pages, rendering the melodic element with different colours as the imaginary orchestral instruments joined the growing ensemble, accuracy taking second place to effect. The piece was almost too long, the range of possibilities a single keyboard can produce almost exhausted when the key-change came. Almost. Roars of approval thickened the applause - as if they'd played the last item not the first.

The hall was packed, the atmosphere electric. The players relaxed into Ravel's arrangement of two movements from Debussy's Nocturnes. Nuages drifted by on dreamy whole tone scales, silken under their touch. Fetes showed Ott's agility in the jig. The thrill of the duo is its synchronicity, the proof of one player's timing given by the other. They passed muster in the warped three-time of Ravel's La Valse, sharing the rhythm in looks across the lidless instruments. Tristano is also a practitioner of club scene electro music and his improvisatory A Soft Shell Groove Suite mesmerised rhythmically so that the audience responded immediately to Ott's invitation to clap the beats, like an enamoured pop crowd, though, personally, I am suspicious of such dumb obedience.

Ott had the bassoonist's job in Stravinsky's own piano duo arrangement of his Rite of Spring. She conjured the lonely call across the steppe and seemed able to mould even the dying tone of the struck keys. Throughout one heard the orchestral instruments clear as day in the Steinaha / Yamaway tone, the hungry bowed chords in the dance of the sacrificial virgins, the flute in the final pay-off. Perhaps there was too much bashing in the end, as the similarity between the thunder in the Ravel came too close to that of the Stravinsky which is the drawback with homogeneity of tone. For all the thrills of a magnificent evening, a UK debut for the pair, it suffered just slightly from lack of contrast, a rather a preponderance of one against the other. The Mozart encore, four hands at one keyboard, was an intimate delight.

This is the last concert in the current season's International Piano Series. It resumes in October with top Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt playing Scarlatti, Bach, Beethoven and Liszt.                    

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Ffing Brilliant

The pianist Artur Pizarro begins volume one of his Complete Rachmaninoff Piano Works series with the 22 Variations on a Theme of Corelli Op42. It's a still, clear, glowing sound which emerges with the opening statement of the theme known as La Follia. Pizarro's touch is restrained throughout, held in check by the need to clarify  Rachmaninoff's twentieth century version of Baroque detail. He gives the seven-foot Yamaha CF6 the lightness of a spinet, yet one constantly senses the longing to test the nought-to-sixty power of the instrument in the composer's mighty 1931 version of Piano Sonata No2 Op36 which follows. If the first movement roars, the middle has oceanic breadth and swell, and the last power-drives home only occasionally exceeding the speed limit. Thereafter to close the disc, the six Moments Musicaux Op16 are a gentle and welcome descent. The first volume has a second disc including the seven charming Morceaux de Salon Op10 with the lapping Barcarolle as recorded by the composer and the nine Etudes-Tableux Op39 of which the Lento Lugubre stands out in Pizarro's deeply-felt playing. It's rather old-fashioned spelling the composer's name with double ff instead of v, and Pizarro's control over the same in the music has a sense of tasteful, old-style finesse to it. The estimable Odradek label has another exquisite piano disc on the market.  

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Nine Days' Wonder

It is Shakespeare's 561st birthday and, because he died celebrating his 52nd, it is  his 399th death-day as well. The fact that it is also St George's Day is almost too much for anyone to swallow, but there you are. You couldn't make it up. Or maybe you could. Anyway, it is time to start my re-creation of the Nine Days Wonder, the 100-mile morris dance from London to Norwich, performed by Shakespeare's clown, Will Kemp, in 1600. After a morris dance at the Globe Theatre (4.30pm) with the Blackheath Morris Men, and a short performance in Southwark Cathedral (5pm) with the comedian Athur Smith and the singer Jane Jones, I shall dance over London Bridge in the direction of East Anglia. I will be wearing  doublet and hose, a hat with bells and carrying a lute on my back. The itinerary is as follows: Romford (23 April), Brentwood (24 April), Chelmsford (25 April), Braintree (26 April), Long Melford (27 April), Bury St Edmunds (28 April), Thetford (29 April), Hingham (30 April), Norwich (1 May). I am doing this in my position as Hon General Secretary of the Critics' Circle to draw attention to the difficulties of trading in words in the internet age when the commodity has never been cheaper. We are awash with writing and drowning in free information. Writers give away their words free to the devouring computer and have no idea, because nobody buys them, whether they are worth anything. 'In the beginning was The Word,' says the Bible. It was the start of everything. Now it may be the end. I'll give you one other quote, which is more fun. 'Amazing!' said the filmmaker Sam Goldwyn on seeing Shakespeare's Hamlet, 'and all done with a feather!'

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Wonder of a Week's Work

I was thoroughly impressed by the National Youth Choir of Great Britain at the Queen Elizabeth Hall last Sunday. The singers, aged between 17 and 23, rehearsed intensively for a week in Oxford and then presented a, antirely a capella concert, half of which they sang from memory. They performed the close jazz harmonies of arrangements created for the Kings' Singers, Take 6 and the Swingle Singers like seasoned professionals. It was an ex-Swingle who conducted them, Ben Parry, a man with a magical touch. He choreographed the performance too with slick, no fuss movements across the stage and even wrote the words to his arrangement of the Mozart of Figaro Overture - Look at that! He's such a prat! - a brilliantly executed setting of phrases overheard at many a tired rehearsal. He shared the podium with Tom Bullard who had arranged some of the classical items, including the excellent version of Schubert's Erl-Koenig in persuasive German, the solo split into characters, narrative, father, child and Earl-King and performed by a foursome enjoying the stage against a chorus rendering the galloping piano accompaniment as nimmana-nimmana-nim-nim-nim with only the slightest of knowing smirks here and there. Tuning, diction and precision rarely lapsed and the four members of the Swedish ensemble The Real Group who joined them for the last numbers were visibly impressed. Together they gave the world premiere of Anders Edenroth's Water which made its universal message - the gift of water is for everyone - movingly.