Sunday, 10 December 2017

Sea changes: 'Left By The Sail Road' by Mark Deeks

This feature first appeared on Frances Wilson's excellent blog 'The Cross-Eyed Pianist'. For a variety of features that - alongside a special interest on all aspects of piano playing and listening - focus on wider classical music and cultural issues, please pay the site a visit here.

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This is a solo piano album of austere wonder. Composer and performer Mark Deeks hails from Northumberland, and in tribute to his home patch, the eight original pieces here are named in the county’s old dialect (the album also includes a cover version of John Ireland’s ‘Sea Fever’). A water theme runs through the record like a river, with tracks named for waves, floods, showers, ice… so we have, in some ways, a tone poem: a suite of works that, over its running time, builds a picture of the North Sea coastline in audio.

To do this successfully, there would have to be a starkness to underpin the picturesque, and MD achieves that balance perfectly – the music is beautiful throughout, but favours sparse reflection over ‘prettiness’. I think listeners of Glass, say, or Satie would find much to enjoy in these pieces: that’s not to simplify and say that MD is ‘like’ those composers – more that he also prizes the effects of a rhythmic pattern, the power of a silence, and the value of unhurried contemplation.


While the album sustains a coherent mood, close and repeated listening reveals the individual personalities of each track, the way they embody their liquid titles. For example, opening track ‘Wǽg’ (‘Wave’) features an undulating rhythm in the bass, perhaps unsurprisingly – but above that, the melody not only turns about itself in an ebb and flow movement, the chords cut across the bassline as if ‘breaking’ onto the shore. While later in the sequence, ‘Scúr’ (‘Shower’) moves the initial, insistent rhythm into the right hand, as if the rain is starting to pitter-patter onto the ground.

The superb ‘Flódas’ (‘Floods’) moves along with a more hyperactive, unpredictable gait, and ramps up the intensity until the melody almost breaks – bursts its banks. While the serene ‘Gyrwe’ (‘Wetlands’) – for me, one of the album’s absolute highlights – allows its left-hand to glide calmly while the restrained, delicately-judged interventions of the right-hand conjure up the momentary drips and breeze-driven disturbances from the reeds and grasses.

I was completely won over by this record’s confident restraint: give it time and drift through its space.

It’s also worth mentioning that, perhaps due to its steady pace and focus on melodic ambience, much of the suite sounds accessible to fellow pianists – and sure enough, MD has produced a very limited run of sheet music for the album, available to buy alongside the CD. To buy either – or, let’s not be coy – both, you can visit the artist’s Bandcamp page for the album here.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Two anti-heroines: 'Marnie' and 'Semiramide'

As can happen from time to time when juggling booking dates, I recently enjoyed a two-opera weekend - catching opening performances of Nico Muhly's new work 'Marnie' (English National Opera) and the Rossini behemoth 'Semiramide' (Royal Opera). For such an accidental and slightly odd juxtaposition, it was interesting to see these side by side: written nearly 200 years apart, but both placing strong women with dark secrets and murky pasts at their centre, asking the audience to understand and even sympathise with their passions and motivations. That both operas succeeded in doing this is a tribute to the productions and chiefly to the two mezzo-sopranos taking the lead roles.

'Marnie' is based on a novel by Winston Graham, itself far eclipsed in fame by the Alfred Hitchcock film it inspired. By all accounts, the book is a more melancholy, fatalistic affair than the movie, and it is this lower-key version that Muhly and librettist Nicholas Wright focus on. (This has led to at least one review I've seen suggesting that lovers of the Hitchcock film would inevitably be 'disappointed' by the opera - perhaps they would also, in their confusion at where they were, bemoan the lack of a big screen, special effects and popcorn? I tire of manufactured criticism like this, especially of ENO, very easily.)

The action of the opera is as much character study as it is thriller. Marnie is a career thief, with a tried and trusted MO: she gets a job, usually working with wages or accounts - then when thoroughly settled, steals whatever cash is on her employer's premises and flees. A new name, look and town - and the cycle starts again. But whatever kick-started this life of crime is rooted in some childhood catastrophe, and the action of the plot sees this repressed trauma finally break out on to the surface and bring Marnie to a kind of closure.


(Sasha Cooke as Marnie - ENO photograph copyright Richard Hubert Smith)

In the sense that the story turns on some major coincidences and contrivances, you could argue that it's perfect for opera. Marnie finally gets in too deep when she takes a job working for Mark Rutland, a client of the last employer she embezzled. Mark falls in unrequited love with Marnie, but because he works out what she's up to and catches her at the safe red-handed, he is able to blackmail her into marriage. As she won't consummate the union, he then tries to rape her. (The fact that Mark is the closest we have to a romantic lead helps explain why Marnie is by some distance the most sympathetic character in the opera.) However, Mark himself partly mirrors Marnie as the dysfunctional Rutlands provide their own subplot: he's a man in charge of a family firm but with no business acumen, saddled with his feckless brother and, crucially, still under the thumb of the iron-willed matriarch. Maternal issues also hold the key to Marnie's compulsions, and it's Mark who brings matters to a head by striking a deal with Marnie for her to undergo therapy.

Where the opera succeeds, I think, is that is fully engages - and illustrates on-stage - not just the cogs and gears of the plot but even more so, what's happening in Marnie's head. Marnie herself is tracked by four 'Shadow Marnies' dressed in bold, plain colour variants of whatever she is wearing. Not merely 'split personalities', but different moods, shades of her fractured psyche: in one riveting sequence where Marnie visits the analyst, they all dovetail among themselves to take turns on the couch, the 'real' Marnie becoming just one of their number, going neither first nor last. Equally, a troupe of male actor-dancers in grey suits and hats initially appear to close in on Marnie during the first robbery - are they police, or agents? - but in fact, they take on the more nebulous role of fate, or even conscience, as they recede as mysteriously as they came - sometimes moving scenery, or even providing abstract illustration for certain scenes, such as their fevered enactment of a fox hunt.


(The shadows surround Marnie on the analyst's couch - ENO photograph copyright Richard Hubert Smith)

Most of all, while all the other characters interact realistically, Marnie gets to break the fourth wall, make eye contact with us, and confide her schemes aloud. Here is perhaps the best place to praise Sasha Cooke in the title role - possessed of a ravishing voice (playing a master of disguise demands that she 'colour' a number of different versions of her character, a vocal representation of the Shadow Marnies' visual effect), but also a brave, brilliant actor. Resisting any temptation to make us love or pity Marnie, she fully embodies her myriad contradictions - cold fury, cruel beauty, fragile strength.

Muhly's use of voice types created some intriguing character tension. So often, the female lead is a soprano: playing on the 'mezzo as villainess' cliché gave us the opportunity to hear SC's deeper, resonant tone envelop us more or less throughout the whole opera. Daniel Okulitch is a bass-baritone, giving Mark an air of steely capability that turns out to be entirely false. While counter-tenor James Laing, in a superbly volatile performance as younger brother Terry, could use his pitch to convey the dangerous unpredictability of an overgrown adolescent.

Overall, the score felt pacey and urgent - the use of strings to build suspense was in fact more or less the only thing that reminded me of the Hitchcock film, and I'm sure the nod was deliberate - but melodic and poignant, supportive of the singers and story. I was most impressed by the choral writing - it felt to me that Muhly understands full well the particular versatility and accomplishment of the ENO chorus and wanted to draw this out. The ENO choristers have always excelled in functioning as a fearsomely tight unit, but when needed, are able to flesh out every individual as an observable character in their own right. In their key scenes as workers or onlookers commenting on the action, Muhly mostly resisted a unison approach to give what sounded like 'pockets' of the chorus various comments at different times, creating a more realistic 'bustle' effect: the moment when they hit the pub and place their orders at the bar may have been welcome light relief, but truly sophisticated and memorable for all that.

I hope 'Marnie' finds its place on a recording and in the repertoire - it has lingered in my mind with a kind of implacable staying power in keeping with its title character's resilience. Please note - especially if you won't make it to a performance - that BBC Radio 3 are currently scheduled to broadcast it on Saturday 9 December.

In 'Semiramide', the crimes of the main character are writ somewhat larger - literally, in fact, as the opera is lavish in both setting and length, and some years before the action even begins, the Queen conspired with her confidante, Assur, to murder her husband, King Nino. Their son, Ninia, disappeared. I'm fearful of describing the convoluted plot, as I'm absolutely convinced I'll leave out something crucial. But in a nutshell (assume this is quite a large nut)...

Semiramide has to name a successor, who will both become king and take her hand in marriage. There are three main contenders: Assur, her old confidante, who expects to be rewarded for his faithfulness; Idreno, an Indian king; and the fearless soldier in charge of the Assyrian army, Arsace. Romantically, there are sundry complications: Azema, a princess seemingly destined for 'trophy wife' status among these nobles, is in love with Arsace. However, Idreno loves Azema and, while he would like the throne, would much rather marry Azema than Semiramide. In turn, Semiramide has tired of Assur's attentions and has fallen for Arsace. In fact, no-one likes Assur, primarily, it seems, because he's a dolt.

To cut a (really) long story short: Semiramide announces Arsace as the, er, lucky winner - but the ghost of the murdered King chooses this moment to make an appearance and rather ruin the atmosphere. The birds come home to roost. The High Priest reveals to Asarce that he is, in fact, the long-lost Ninia, saved as a boy by one of the brethren. As a result, not only is the marriage to Semiramide now impossible, he must also avenge his father. Inclined to spare his mum, he tells her the whole story and heads off to kill Assur. In turn, Assur, driven over the edge, vows to murder Asarce. In distress, Semiramide goes to pray and all three of them end up in the darkness of Nino's tomb. Thinking he is striking Assur, Arsace kills Semiramide by mistake. Assur is taken away, leaving Arsace to take the throne.

While it's easy to make light of the melodramatic mayhem, the opera easily transcends its storyline. From the opening moments, the score is gripping - the overture is very highly regarded and, by previewing some of the work's great tunes (the kind of technique we're more used to in modern musicals), presents you at the outset with a medley of sheer magnificence. Conducted by their boss, Sir Antonio Pappano, the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House played with tireless vivacity and variety, making a long opera seem much, much shorter. It's quite something to sit back at the end of any 4-hour performance and think - 'I'd happily just stay here and listen to that again.'


(ROH poster graphic for 'Semiramide')

The production, by David Alden, relocated Babylon to a more modern, but still exotic, dictatorship: bright colours, military iconography. The costumes for the women in particular seemed intriguing, and meaningful: Semiramide moved from flamboyant regalia to a dark night-dress - not only showing the character's mental shift from ruler to potential lover, but underlining her vulnerability and forthcoming loss of power. Azema - shaved head and literally weighed down by her gold outfit - was the personification of a prize, untold riches to be given or traded.

With one (understandable) exception, the singers were phenomenal. While Semiramide is a soprano role, mezzo Joyce DiDonato sang with exquisite power, with the greater 'weight' to her voice arguably allowing her to embody the Queen's troubled complexity more completely. With Arsace also a mezzo 'trouser role' - here the superb Daniela Barcellona - their voices in duet seemed to blend particularly closely and lend a kind of audio-irony to the characters' initial ignorance of their being mother and son. Lawrence Brownlee sang Idreno with bravura agility and precision, and Jacquelyn Stucker - charged with a very physically demanding interpretation of the role (especially given the costume) - imbued Azema with both frustration and dignity.

The only slight technical hitch was Michele Pertusi as Assur in Act 1, who seemed quiet - no wonder, it turned out, as he had fallen ill. (He had already replaced Ildebrando D'Arcangelo in the role, so hopefully this isn't the curse of Nino working its way through a succession of basses.) At the interval, Mirco Palazzi took over at short notice and sang the role with much greater, er, 'Assur-ance'. [Eh, readers?] In an opera that revolves around strong female voices, Assur is one of the much rarer male roles to have a full-blown 'mad scene', and I feel grateful to have heard it given by someone on peak form.

Two real events, then: a handsome world premiere, and a triumphant production of a marvellous, if all-too-rarely staged classic. I'm now aware that this post might almost be long enough for Rossini to set it to music - so I will end here.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Personal space: Rachel Whiteread at Tate Britain

I imagine it's fair to say that the artist Rachel Whiteread is still best known for her major 'public' works. In the UK, she won the Turner Prize in 1993 with 'House', the concrete cast of an entire derelict residence (now itself demolished), and in 2001, provided one of the pieces for the temporary outdoor location on the 'fourth plinth' in Trafalgar Square. This work was a resin cast of the actual plinth, placed upside down on the top to form a vertical double image: imposing, haunting and demonstrating a strangely austere wit.

I've also never forgotten seeing her Holocaust Memorial on a trip to Vienna several years ago. It's a large room-shaped cast, but with the appearance of a library turned inside-out: the exterior walls are lined with bookshelves, and the books have their pages, rather than spines, facing outwards. Not only did Whiteread's aesthetic approach capture the industrialised horror of its subject matter, the work seemed to illuminate this suppression of history, knowledge and identity: the attempt to not only wipe out the physical presence of an entire people, but also the very idea of their existence.


(The model of the Holocaust Memorial.)

So I was very curious to see the Rachel Whiteread retrospective at London's Tate Britain. I was having trouble even picturing how it would work - for a start, I'd hardly seen anything she had produced contained within an indoor location. Brilliantly, the show bats off any concerns along these lines at the outset. On arrival in the Duveen Galleries (the huge central halls), RW's 'One Hundred Spaces' installation - resin casts of the 'gaps' underneath various chairs - guide you towards the main exhibition area like an array of vast cats' eyes.


When you reach the corridor-like annexe in front of the exhibition doors, the major public works are presented through a range of photographs, plans, video footage and scale models. The models in particular are a great idea: they give you a view of the piece that you couldn't actually get in real life, and they also 'scale you down' mentally so you don't go in expecting to see something the size of 'House'.

Although, to be honest, it almost feels like you do. I can't think of an exhibition I've been to in recent years where the 'hang' has been so important, and so clever. On walking through the entrance, you find yourself in a corner of a colossal, single space. The map on the leaflet, which in most exhibitions typically guides you from room to room in sequence, here simply indicates the type of work you can find in each part of the sprawling, open area. So, while you can plan a route of sorts, and identify the phase or series of pieces you're looking at, it's far easier after a bit of acclimatisation to just wander around and absorb the sheer 'presence' of the sculptures, visiting and re-visiting pieces as something about one of them reminds you of one of the others. I did a circuit of the room 'on duty', as it were, sensing I was almost certainly going to want to write about it, and taking the photos for this post on my phone - then I put it away and spent at least twice as long again in the exhibition, just looking and thinking.


Two large-scale works do, in fact, dominate the space. 'Room 101' casts the room in Broadcasting House (former home of the BBC) where George Orwell worked, and which apparently inspired the infamous torture chamber in '1984'. Its apparent featurelessness again brings to mind the implacable, faceless bureaucracy of the novel, while at the same time forming a somehow pleasing monument to the old BBC building, the doorways, windows - even the plug socket - remnants of the former energy.


'Stairs', meanwhile, is cast from the staircase of a building where Whiteread lived, itself an old warehouse and, before that, synagogue. As the leaflet points out, the wear and tear on the stairs is testament to all those that had come and gone in the premises: but I was hypnotised by the surreal nature of the piece - the way it seemed only the two flights in balance were keeping it upright, and how the 'spaces' cast still looked like stairs but could no longer be climbed.


Surrounding these were a host of smaller works, some of them from early in RW's career. Seeing many of these more modest casts - furniture, utensils - made me realise why perhaps it is I'm such a fan of RW's work, even though I wouldn't say I necessarily liked every individual piece. But I recognise that I'm strongly drawn to art of any discipline where the practitioner works away at central themes with obsessive commitment - minimalist classical compositions, drone/riff-based metal or electronica, the paintings of Rothko, the novels of Golding. I felt this exhibition drew out a timeline of sorts for Whiteread, with 'House' as a kind of pivot: many of the earlier pieces seem to be a working-out, establishing a style, method and template leading up to a literal magnum opus. Then afterwards, the later work, which includes 'Room 101' and 'Stairs', while inevitably reducing again in scale, seems to display a constant refining and interrogating of ideas. The dimensions visibly contract as space takes over from form, and we see arrangements of boxes, casts of doors and windows, paper casts of shed walls... edging steadily from 3D to 2D. Absence - we see the merest fragment of an original location - replaces the oppressive presence of the earlier, bulkier pieces. She even calls her more recent large casts - cabins and sheds in secluded areas - 'shy sculptures', removed from any prominent view.

As well as making the viewer acutely aware of physical space, all of the work seems to inspire a range of mental reactions and responses. I found much of the exhibition inescapably political. For example, the bookshelves with only the outline shapes of the books remaining (work made that would lead to the Holocaust Memorial) seem to represent something so current: library closures, dismissal of expert knowledge, unthinking uniformity. Or the works on paper surrounding the development of 'House', where property is erased, vanished from the street. The constant motif of substance filling spaces illustrated, to me, claustrophobia, displacement, the stress of modern urban living, the fragility of our surroundings.




Emphasising these thoughts was - as I mentioned before - the superb way the exhibition was arranged, to the point where you almost felt you were in a Whiteread space yourself. The stone colours of the gallery toned so well with those of the exhibits (in particular, I was struck by how the boxes pieces were echoed by their environment), and the single-room layout meant that there were endless ways you could 'interact' with the work as a viewer.


For all of these reasons, I would rate this exhibition as a must-see if you are in the area, and at all intrigued by artists with a singular vision of this power and consistency. Rachel Whiteread runs at Tate Britain until 21 January 2018.


Sunday, 5 November 2017

Lost in Franz

The work/life/blog balance has been heavily weighted towards work/life in the last couple of weeks. To calm myself - and I hope bring you some peace and pleasure too - here's a playlist of Schubert lieder.

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Elly Ameling, Irwin Gage: 'Atys'


Fritz Wunderlich, Hubert Giesen: 'An Sylvia'


[Here's Sylvia!]

Sylvia Schwartz, (pianist shrouded in mystery): 'Du Bist die Ruh'


Werner Güra, Christoph Berner: 'Nachtstück'


Bernarda Fink, Gerold Huber: 'Romanze'


Ian Bostridge, Julius Drake: 'Wilkommen und Abschied'


Barbara Bonney, Geoffrey Parsons: 'Auf dem Wasser zu singen'


Christian Gerhaher, Gerold Huber: 'Fischerweise'


Ruby Hughes, BBC Philharmonic Orchestra (Juanjo Mena): 'Litanei auf das Fest Aller Seelen' (arr. Max Reger)


Peter Pears, Benjamin Britten: 'Die Taubenpost'




Monday, 23 October 2017

Grand designs: Opera North's 'Little Greats'

While I realise we are spoilt for cultural choice in London, I am still greedy enough to wish that Opera North were also just down the road. I encountered the company for the first time when they obligingly visited the capital, to perform their magnificent Ring Cycle at the South Bank - and since then, Mrs Specs and I made the trip to Edinburgh to catch their superb Puccini double bill and 'Billy Budd' on tour.

This time, we met them on their home turf, in Leeds. The latest Opera North season is made up of the brilliantly inventive 'Little Greats'. Instead of presenting three or four evening-length operas, ON have chosen six one-act works, each lasting from around 45 to 80 minutes. Tickets were available separately for every performance of every opera, to give audiences maximum flexibility - however, for practical purposes, most (if not all) 'visits' were programmed as double bills. The company mixed up the scheduling throughout, giving people access to almost any combination they fancied, and allowing some surprising juxtapositions.

Fascinated by the idea, I looked into the logistics of a trip. However - as a non-local, I found my booking decision made itself. I worked out that if Mrs Specs and I went on the final Friday evening and Saturday afternoon/evening performances, we could see all six. Rude not to, in fact.


Here are the six operas, then, in the order we saw them:
  • Friday evening: Janáček's 'Osud' ('Destiny'), with Ravel's 'L'Enfant et les sortilèges' ('The Child and the Magic Spells').
  • Saturday afternoon: Bernstein's 'Trouble in Tahiti', with Gilbert & Sullivan's 'Trial by Jury'.
  • Saturday evening: Leoncavallo's 'Pagliacci', with Mascagni's 'Cavelleria rusticana'.
[Seasoned opera-goers will know that it's in fact a longstanding tradition to perform these last two together - although more commonly the other way round (resulting in their joint nickname 'Cav/Pag'). However, the fact we saw them as a pair was simply circumstance - earlier in the season, there were several opportunities for punters to combine each one with a selection from the other four.]


ON's General Director, Richard Mantle, writes that a key aim of the 'Little Greats' season is "to explore the boundless variety of opera" - and here they certainly succeeded. Even the classic coupling of 'Pag' and 'Cav' - which both represent the short, sharp shock of Italian opera at its most visceral - had undergone a kind of interrogation of their differences: 'Pagliacci's theatre group in a chaotic state of rehearsal realism, mayhem holding sway even before the bloodshed becomes a reality... while 'CR's characters inhabit a more surreal, suspended limbo where their conversations and actions criss-cross - yet the storytelling maintains its clarity right through to the chilling conclusion.

'Osud' is an astonishing work that, to my mind, belongs properly in the repertoire. Its flashback structure (emphasising the characters' inexorable journey to the 'destiny' of the title) and self-perpetuating plot - about a composer who uses the disasters in his life to fuel his opera-in-progress and, as a result, can never complete it - give it a thoroughly contemporary 'meta' feel that would make it a natural bedfellow to a piece like 'Written on Skin'. 

Yet the biggest surprise to me of the six was the Bernstein. Familiarity with 'West Side Story' alone would suggest the ability to mix some of the most joyous music with gritty, bittersweet and even tragic situations, and the almost carefree elision of jazz and classical styles. But it seems this was all there, 100%, in his first opera-in-miniature. 'Trouble in Tahiti' is a day-in-the-life story, lasting well under an hour, which we spend with Sam and Dinah, a married couple who have lost the ability to communicate. Each day, it seems, they could reach a point where they talk it through, but instead they bicker, avoid each other, then seek refuge in a movie before 're-setting' for the following day. In a genius touch, a Greek chorus role is taken by a doo-wop style trio on the radio, singing their hymns to the perfect suburban life which we watch and hear going so poignantly wrong. Despite the fierce bravura of 'Cav', 'Pag' and 'Osud', this was in fact the Little Great that got to me the most, brought me closest to tears.


In comparison, the Ravel and G&S works are confections. In the former, a naughty boy is banished to his room, only to have everything he has abused - from the formerly inanimate objects in his room to the animals in the garden outside - come to life and turn on him. 'Trial by Jury', on the other hand, is almost beyond farce: a blurry rush of lunacy that delights in its own daftness - an early work that seems to have G&S testing each other's limits without worrying about niceties like plot or logic. However, part of the collective genius of this project is that these lighter pieces were delivered with as much care and conviction as the others, giving both the light and dark side of opera equal worth and weight.


I knew before seeing these operas that I would almost certainly post about them, and I reasoned that I would write about all six in turn, perhaps a couple of paragraphs on each. But in fact, that has proven impossible. This is because, while each one works perfectly well by itself, the cumulative effect of seeing all the Little Greats in fairly quick succession is to realise how unified the season is overall: there are references and continuities that don't make or break one's enjoyment of each individual opera at all - but they can enhance the experience if you want them to.

For example, the shared nature of the operas as 'blink and you'll miss them', momentary suspensions of disbelief is embodied in the visual presentation. While several directors were involved, Charles Edwards designed all the sets - and in each opera they present a temporary enclosed world that the characters to some extent manipulate and dismantle onstage - from the fading front room of 'Tahiti', the looming cross on the church wall in 'Cav', the disintegrating classroom in 'Osud', the bedroom imperceptibly giving way to the outdoors in 'L'enfant'... to the rehearsal area itself in 'Pagliacci' which, neatly, features designs for the other five Little Greats pinned up onto the sets. Equally, we see or hear constant reminders of time in all the productions, whether the characters are society gossips staring at a clock face willing 10am to arrive ('Trial'), a radio chorus trying to time their entrances and exits accurately ('Tahiti'), villagers heeding a tolling church bell ('Cav') or in fact the personification of a broken clock ('L'enfant')!


For all this pleasing unity, perhaps the most thrilling element of the Little Greats for audiences will prove to be the wonderful performances. It was a privilege to hear the Opera North orchestra in such clarity (when used to the sheer size of London houses and, accordingly, sitting much further away from the action - everything here was several times clearer and louder) - in particular the string section, setting their stall at the outset as engines of terror in the Janáček. The chorus, too, not only made a great sound - providing the entire cast, solo parts and all, for 'Trial by Jury' - but proved masters of physical comedy and movement: I'm thinking in particular of the crowd scenes in 'Osud' and, even more so, the rowdy players just about keeping the action in 'Pagliacci' on the sane side of anarchy until the shocking, closing tableau. My admiration for players and singers alike increased with every performance: the sheer versatility on display, in such compact circumstances.

The season also encouraged brilliance from the soloists, who would from time to time reappear as a result of fascinating casting. Giselle Allen gave two studies of the wronged woman - the down-trodden Mila in 'Osud' and the repressed Santuzza finally reaching breaking point in 'Cav' - both given gorgeously yearning voice, yet so distinctly characterised as to feel at first like two different sopranos. Rosalind Plowright also appeared in the same two operas, as a mother-figure in each: in the former a dangerous loose cannon, vocally fearsome, while in the latter, a more uptight, withdrawn individual with a more resigned, brittle tone. It was also a joy to see singers taking relatively small roles in some productions come to the fore in others: for example, two of the supporting players in 'Osud' went on to dominate 'Pag' - Peter Auty as a heartbreakingly unhinged Canio opposite Richard Burkhard's terrifyingly malevolent Tonio, attacking every syllable with all-too-believable venom.

It's so hard to single people out when this whole enterprise was so clearly the result of a committed ensemble. But I would have to mention Wallis Giunta, who switched overnight from the bolshy defiance of tearaway boy in the Ravel - played tenderly and convincingly as a proper junior 'trouser role' - to the longing and disquiet of Bernstein's Dinah. I'd also pay tribute to the acting (as well as singing) of John Graham-Hall, utterly inhabiting the lead role of Zhivny in 'Osud' - fragile nerves, paranoia, panic, obsession - only to spend the rest of the evening, thanks to Ravel, as either a tea-pot or a tree-frog. That really is range.

As I write, the Little Greats have closed in Leeds but now head out on tour to Hull, Nottingham, Newcastle and Salford - so, if any tickets remain, please get to some or all of them if you can. Just like that astonishing interpretation of the Ring, these productions have the stamp of a company with sky-high ambitions, backed up with the imagination and talent to achieve them.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Parent company: my folks vs opera

Since retiring, my mum and dad have probably focused on the normal 'H'-related activities (home, holidays, and inevitably, a bit of hospital) - but there are signs they've acquired a slight taste for adventure. Taking travel as an example, they were essentially UK-bound thanks to a shared fear of flying - one reason I know probably every centimetre of the Isle of Wight - but in later years, seemingly possessed, they've boarded Euro-bound coaches to some further flung regions on the continent: and more power to them.

It's also starting to happen in other areas, too. For a recent Mothers' Day, Mrs Specs and I took them to the Royal Opera House: not for an actual show, but for the treat-laden afternoon tea. However, as the special occasion merited, members of the chorus performed arias with piano accompaniment throughout the session. It was a superb afternoon, but the big surprise towards the end was when Dad announced: 'You know - I'd like to go the opera one day.' Mum: 'Me too. If it's anything like this - that would be lovely.'

I instantly said: 'Well, that's great! Leave it to me.' I was overjoyed. This really was new. Dad was Team Sinatra. Tribe of Elvis. Mum probably last put a record on in 1964. We'd always had bonds culturally - books, films, TV - but music only tangentially. To hear them express an interest in anything to do with classical music awakened that impulse in me that perhaps every child recognises when there's a chance to fix something up in their 'field' for their parents: to give a bit of all that nurturing and education back.

I had a few problems to negotiate. Which opera? It would need to have 'proper' melodies (I love a lot of contemporary stuff, but this visit was not about me.) Thanks to Dad's fear of heights, I needed to find the exact point in the auditorium between affordability and terra firma. Couldn't be too long, either, or Mum could fall asleep and Dad's leg would fossilise - the last thing I'd want would be for him to stand up for the interval only to tip serenely over into the next row. So that's 'Parsifal' out. In the end, I spotted that 'Tosca' (with one of my favourite singers in the title role) was coming round early next year at the ROH. Perfect - a real thriller of a 'starter' opera: tense, tragic, tune-packed.

I can't wait for the date to arrive and see what they make of it. In the meantime, a conversation I had with Dad today indicates the learning curve may be steep-ish... it began with Mum saying 'You were at the opera all weekend!'


(The Coliseum, home of English National Opera, where I was 'at the opera all weekend'.)

Me: Well, sort of. I just ended up getting tickets two nights running. 'Aida' on Friday, 'The Barber of Seville' on Saturday.
Dad: Ah! 'The Barber of Seville'! Heard of that.
Me: Yep. You know, 'Fiiii-ga-ro', that one. Laugh-out-loud funny. Brilliant.
Dad: He's married, isn't he?
Me: No. [Pause.] Oh. You must be thinking of 'The Marriage of Figaro'.
Dad: Yes, exactly. He's married.
Me: No, I mean - 'The Marriage of Figaro' is a completely different opera. Mozart. 'The Barber of Seville' is by Rossini.
Dad: [A facial expression which says 'I am tolerating this, for now'.]
Me: Figaro is a character from some old French plays, and the operas are based on those. So, while the composers are different, 'The Barber of Seville' is a bit like a prequel to 'The Marriage of Figaro', in story order.
Dad: So he does get married.
Me: YES but not in the opera I saw on Saturday. He gets married in... well, in 'The Marriage of Figaro'. In 'The Barber of Seville', he helps a nobleman rescue the woman he loves from the clutches of her guardian.
Dad: But he's involved with some woman downstairs, isn't he? They're in on it together?
Mum: Don't look at me, dear.
Me [after some moments]: Well. The woman, ok, is upstairs. A prisoner in her own room, so to speak, but yes, she's in on what they're doing - she wants to escape.
Dad: No no no, she's downstairs. The people go down a trap door, and she puts them in the pies. She's in on it, with Figaro - right?
Me: That's Sweeney Todd, Dad.
Dad: THAT'S IT! I knew it.

If an enterprising composer out there would like to write 'The Demon Barber of Seville', my Dad's going to love it.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Beat poets: The Disappointment Choir's 'Vows'

I should say upfront - as I normally do when posting about the Disappointment Choir - that they are friends of mine. Full disclosure and all that. Luckily, that's never been an issue when it comes to spreading the word about their music. It's superb.

As one might expect from a duo with separate lives, day jobs and families, new music from Rob and Katy doesn't always arrive quickly - but when it turns up, it's worth many times the wait. These are exciting times for Choir acolytes, as the new album 'Vows' (their second full-length after 2013 debut 'Polar Ships' and interim EP from 2015 'To the Lake') arrives at last, in just a few days' time: Friday 6 October.


I'm pleased to report that 'Vows' is exactly the follow-up album one would want the band to make. From the outset, they were singular enough: an adult, melancholy sensibility - a mournful indieness that would comfort fans of the Magnetic Fields or the National - made buoyant on sparkling keyboards, synths and samples - think Pet Shop Boys in their more reflective moments. A couple of the songs on 'Vows' that exemplify this - 'Need Someone' and 'Centre of the World' - date from the EP, and are clearly too gorgeous not to find a home on a proper album.

But elsewhere on the record, there are new games afoot that push the DC sound into further realms of genre-scorning magnificence. While the production is hardly in-your-face, there's something a little more souped-up in the engine, and the inventiveness has certainly been turned up to 11. Take the first song released ahead of the album (for older readers, the 'single', if you will), 'Heartstrings'. Here it is:


I think it's almost possible to audit scientifically why 'Heartstrings' is such a glorious, affecting pop record. I shall use bullet points:
  • The verse is as immediate as some of the best choruses.
  • Then the chorus is a real winner as well.
  • The gentle, but insistent propulsion all comes from the melodies - the constantly moving synth bass makes your head nod and foot tap, but the percussion is quiet, almost a suggestion.
  • It's also the song's drive, its sense of purpose, that helps make it uplifting and wistful at the same time.
  • Where the lyrics repeat most busily, they actually match and encapsulate the exasperation of the character in the song.
  • Vocal harmonies have always been one of the band's strengths. Unlike, for example, the more familiar idea of groups with a seamless 'blend' of voices (siblings like the Everlys or Beach Boys, or Simon & Garfunkel, say), Rob and Katy have entirely distinct singing styles and timbres. So, while on the first few listens, you still get a unified feel for the overall tune, repeated plays reward close attention as you can follow each voice quite clearly and appreciate how the vocal lines dovetail around each other.
  • The song probably has the best-deployed "Oh-ho-ho" in recorded history.
  • When you get to the outro to find how THAT verse and THAT chorus can in fact be sung at the same time and sound amazing, it's a proper musical 'punch-the-air' moment.
  • And finally, the song doesn't outstay its welcome. So you play it again.
Two of the most extraordinary songs on the album are full-on dancefloor monsters. '1971' sounds for all the world like Daft Punk (armed with their vocoder) and Chic invading the Home Counties, its three minutes sporting massed anthemic chants, relentless synth bass and a genuine contender for a Deathless Disco Couplet: "It doesn't matter what's making the sound / If it's shaking the ground". Even a keening, 'Heroes'-style guitar makes an appearance towards the end.

And the opening track, 'A Quid's Worth of Free Advice' could be one of the best things they've ever done. Again, it's possible to hear them meld, and even surpass potential influences: the dancing blips nod to the 80s heyday of Depeche Mode and Erasure, while the brilliant interplay between the guitar and backing out-Electronics Electronic. But as both the Choristers increase even further in confidence vocally, the singing means this couldn't be by anyone else as Rob's regret-filled agility and Katy's forceful purity carry a lightning call-and-response through the verses.


I could go on: there's the winning closing moments of '2½ Minute Love Song' where each of the pair seem to happily inhabit their own separate record; the unstoppable 'Captain, 15' with its soaring vocal line, approximately 37 different versions of the main rhythm, and instrumental break worthy of the atmosphere of 'Telstar'; the gorgeous 'That's When We Fall', mining its poignancy from the way all the instruments appear to initially hold back from the beat. Eleven tracks in all, precision-tooled to keep both the ears and brain fully occupied.

If you're struck by what you hear, then please support the band, and we'll have more of this heady, powerful pop brew to look forward to. You can order 'Vows' on various formats, all the way from a mere phantom digital option, to a (no doubt synthesised) bells-and-whistles vinyl/CD/bag - yes, BAG - combo for those of us who appreciate something a little more luxurious. All Disappointment Choir-related sonic riches can be found here on their Bandcamp page. Make haste!