Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Who cares: fandom, and letting go

Although I write mostly about music - and more often than not the classical variety - on this blog, I do like to try and represent all of my cultural/creative interests at least to some extent. Which is why you lucky, lucky people also get treated to my photography, say, or my occasional write-ups of art exhibitions. Television rarely gets a look-in, but anyone close to me in the real world will know I've been a 'Doctor Who' nut for all my sentient life. So it's impossible for me to resist writing about the recently-announced new Doctor... I hope you will trust me to negotiate the minefield as best as I can.

For any readers unfamiliar with 'Doctor Who'... er... well, where do I start? It's a British science-fiction TV show, broadcast on the BBC, that started in 1963. The brilliant opening premise was that the lead character (usually called just 'the Doctor', but 'Doctor Who' gets used, too) was a being, not of this Earth, whose spaceship was also a time machine. In line with the old-school BBC remit to educate as well as entertain, this meant that he - and whoever was travelling with him - could go to a distant planet in one story, then a known historical event in the next. Wherever they landed, there would be problems to be solved, wrongs to be righted, people to be saved. The possibilities were endless.

I would guess that two key decisions in the programme's early days sealed what we'd now probably call its immortality. First, there was a weekly cliffhanger - even between the end of one story and the start of the next - to keep the youthful Saturday tea-time audience in suspense for a whole week. Then, three years into the series, it became clear that the ailing actor playing the Doctor, William Hartnell, would need to retire. In possibly one of the most inspired ideas ever in the history of TV, the show's writers reasoned that - as an alien (a 'Time Lord', to be exact) - there was no reason why the Doctor couldn't have several lives, and 'reboot' himself into a new actor - at the time, second Doctor Patrick Troughton. This came to be known as 'regeneration', and because of it, 'Doctor Who' has been going in one form or another ever since. Because the current Doctor 'dies' (usually after a particularly extreme or emotionally resonant sacrifice), regenerations have always been surrounded by publicity. Equally, the next Doctor is an entirely new incarnation and the actor can bring whatever they like to the role, giving the show regular fresh starts and shots in the arm.

The version of the show as most people know it now has been going since its triumphant re-launch in 2005. One TV movie aside, it had been off the air since cancellation in 1989, but its astonishingly loyal fanbase (and I include myself here!) had always kept the show 'alive' through their insatiable appetite for video and DVD releases, novels and audio dramas, often starring original Doctors and companions.

The 'new' version of the show kept the old one's continuity - so it kicked off with the Ninth Doctor (rather than a new 'First'). Leaving aside film spin-offs, parodies and so on, there have been twelve 'official' Doctors, plus, well, an extra one. I'm going to list them because they all share the credit for the show's longevity. Also, you may notice a couple of things they all have in common.
  • Doctors 1 to 7 (the 'old' series): William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy.
  • Doctor 8 (the mid-90s TV movie): Paul McGann.
  • The 'War Doctor' (an incarnation between 8 and 9 that we met in flashback, so to speak): John Hurt.
  • Doctors 9 to 12 (the 'new' series): Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, Matt Smith, Peter Capaldi.
As 'Doctor Who' mythology has grown (obviously you can build up a hell of a lot of back story in 50 years), so have people's perceptions of what the show could or should represent. Every Doctor up to and including Capaldi has been a white man. Since the Doctor is a shapeshifting alien, some folk have been asking for some time why we've yet to have a female Doctor, or Doctor of colour. And now - at last - we can put one of those questions aside for a while at least, with this week's announcement that Jodie Whittaker will take over as the 13th Doctor when Peter Capaldi regenerates his way out of the series this Christmas.

(Photo of Jodie Whittaker is by Colin Hutton, copyright the BBC.)

Changing the sex of the Doctor might not seem very controversial to a casual observer, and God knows, in this day and age it shouldn't be. Yet here we are. Reactions have been, shall we say, 'wide-ranging' - some easier to classify than others. Clearly, there is sexism in SF fandom (as there is everywhere) - those people moaning that the Doctor simply 'is' a man, without really articulating why they object, are openly sexist full stop, or struggling with a sexist impulse they may or may not be able to recognise within themselves. What doesn't help is the extremity of some of these reactions - they'll 'never watch again', or even more bewilderingly, 'their childhood has been ruined' - as if Whittaker's Doctor really CAN travel back in time and retrospectively make their young lives a misery. But not all the reactions are so easy to explain, or so clear-cut. I was interested to see responses lamenting that the Doctor would still be white. I was also curious to see far more women than I expected lambasting the gender change and using much the same language as the chaps when doing so. Luckily, by far the most numerous reactions I saw were just thrilled by the whole idea. I don't think Whitaker will want for support when she takes over.

It is a strange circumstance that a kids' TV show is expected to carry all this on its shoulders. If the writers hadn't come up with regeneration all those years ago, the issue wouldn't even be there to discuss. And because the show is so ancient, its earlier years in particular bear all the sexist hallmarks you'd rather wish it didn't - not only is the Doctor always a bloke, the companions are mostly women who had to do a lot of screaming in between having things aliensplained to them. Attempts were occasionally made to get away from this. A female Time Lord called Romana travelled with Tom Baker's Fourth Doctor, even regenerating herself from Mary Tamm into Lalla Ward. And before that, Third Doctor Jon Pertwee's first series, to my mind, is a wonderful anomaly from start to finish - longer, more complex stories overall, in some cases lasting for 7 weeks, with a scientist Liz Shaw (played by Caroline John) as the Doctor's companion - with the two characters developing a healthy mutual respect. But this was seen as a failed experiment and for the next series, the more 'traditional' Jo Grant (Katy Manning) was introduced. At least, to the writers' partial credit, the Doctor was openly annoyed by Liz's departure.

But no-one that today's show is actually aimed at are like me, getting all misty-eyed about the early 70s. Many children watching Who will just drift in and out of it as they please, and like all us 'old' fans, will probably remember 'their Doctor' - man, woman, animal, vegetable, mineral - with the most affection. People of my vintage who for some reason have been glued to this show for decades - not just 'fans', perhaps, but 'The Fans' - are surely a little different, and the ludicrous reactions to major change in the programme say, I think, far more about fandom than they do about 'Doctor Who'.

Because this is the risk, the terrible investment of being a Fan, isn't it? We put so much of our hopes, our dreams, our lives into the thing we obsess about, that we want it to go on reflecting those parts of ourselves back to us. (And this applies to anything it's possible to become geeky about - I don't want any reader getting all sneery over this devotion to a TV show, because you see EXACTLY the same thing in opera fandom, for example, or any artistic genre or discipline.) For the most seriously afflicted (and I think I've managed to largely dial myself back from this), it becomes harder and harder to actually like what you love - your vast knowledge and carefully amassed bank of opinions put you into 'judgement' mode ahead of a more simple 'enjoyment' setting... and breaking out of that spiral is so hard. There are those who haven't enjoyed a single episode of Who in about three or four years - they don't like the current showrunner, say - but still struggle on as eternally-suffering Fans. You just want to say - relax. You're clearly not a fan anymore. It doesn't matter - let it go. So easy to say. So difficult to do.

I've nearly fallen into this trap. Back when Peter Capaldi was cast (a move that itself was 'weighted' at the time against ageism accusations - Tennant and Smith had very much cemented the idea of the 'young' Doctor), there had been speculation about a woman taking over the role. For the time being, this would remain just a notion. I wrote a post, just thinking through what I made of this. First and foremost, I love the show so much that I knew if they cast a woman, I'd be totally on board - seeing what the showrunners and new Doctor would do would just be utterly irresistible. But because of my 'old fart' fan status, I also saw the issue in term's of the show's continuity - as if that matters a jot. Lalla Ward's Romana had left the show in the late seventies by going off into an alternative universe to have her own adventures. I speculated that instead of casting a woman in a role that had been played by 12 men - which could be seen as tokenistic and force her into a performance that somehow had to reflect their 'maleness' (most Doctors have had moments when they reflect or refer to older versions of themselves), how would it be if we had a spin-off following up Romana's story, which would carry none of the same baggage?

A few years down the line, I realise how daft that is. (Although I'd still watch it!) The programme makers, clearly sensing a change was long overdue, have carefully laid the groundwork for it. In a guest return appearance, Paul McGann's Doctor was offered a choice of genders to regenerate into - and in Capaldi's tenure we've had a female incarnation of the Doctor's arch-enemy the Master (Missy, superbly played by Michelle Gomez as a kind of Satanic governess), as well as a military general on the Doctor's home planet switch sexes on regeneration.

By taking that kind of care over the internal workings of the programme, the showrunners are looking after us - the old-timers, the 'Fans'. They're being nice - but listen, we don't matter. Not anymore. We're the viewers from yesterday, not today. Today's kids - all those girls, as well as boys - the Doctor belongs to them all. (S)he is TV's ultimate role model, whose sole mission is to do good wherever - and whenever - it's needed. How second-rate my old idea was - giving the woman a spin-off. How embarrassing.

Now that it's actually happening - the new Doctor IS a woman - I only have to register and acknowledge how excited I am about the whole scenario to realise that they've finally done what needed to be done. Of course, she has to be the Doctor herself - the main event, the hero. Anything else would be 'less', and nothing less will do. Jodie Whittaker is a great choice, too, I believe - yes, she's been fantastic in everything she's done so far, but she also has the Doctor-ish quality of combining a slightly off-kilter CV which prevents anyone pinning her down or stereotyping her, with a certain element of mystique: a feeling that we don't yet know what she's capable of. Rightly or wrongly, we are asking her to be a pioneer: but in fact, isn't the truth simply that she's perfect for the role?

I still don't want this to be tokenistic. I am a firm believer that creative people should be allowed to do what they like, but I hope for several things: 1 - I hope they don't fall over themselves to try and 'explain' the change: we've seen it a couple of times now, it happens, let it be 'normal', so that JW is 'the Doctor', rather than 'a female Doctor'. 2 - Keep casting women: people who refuse to get used to the idea need to get used to it. 3 - And of course, surely the Doctor will be non-white one day, too.

Only a matter of time.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Music for a smile

A short while ago, a friend suggested I create a 'cheerful' playlist. Never one to sidestep a musical challenge, I threw myself into the task - and fairly quickly came upon some interesting conundrums ('conundra'?). Or perhaps dilemmas. ('Dilemmae'?)

As I think most people who've ever tried to write songs can testify, it comes more naturally to use the form to exorcise heartache, let off steam, or make protest. Trying to produce something genuinely happy - especially if it involves lyrics - can all too easily result in overly sentimental gloop or gush. The line between affability and naffability is a thin one.

We can all appreciate the more complex, forward-looking work of the later Beatles - but somehow bottling the brio of 'I Want to Hold Your Hand' and 'Can't Buy Me Love' ... surely these are achievements just as magnificent and unknowable.

During my researches (among both the records I owned, and beyond), I surprised myself over and over at our seemingly innate resistance to upness. How the best 'summer' songs - 'Summertime', 'California Dreamin', 'The Boys of Summer' - are actually wintry in tone, wistful, even slightly sinister. Or there's Abba, whose brightness of sound and unstoppable melody generally smuggled heroically dark and miserable verses into your subconscious.

So happy hats off to my 'Feelgood Fifteen' below. I think all of these tracks are genuine providers of fuss-free, good cheer. To me, the pop songs nail a celebratory, catchy tone but avoid flirting with teeth-clenching horror. I found an upbeat Schubert song that isn't about drinking (and seeing the slightly scary pianist Sviatoslav Richter unmistakeably rocking out during the performance is an added grin inducement). Some of the tracks, especially the instrumentals, aim to provide uplift - not only with a tune that lightens the mood, but with an energy rush - a sense of purpose. And, with one of my favourite songs of all time to finish, a gentle note of real confidence and hope.

Please enjoy responsibly!


Tegan & Sara: 'U-Turn'

Herbie Hancock: 'Watermelon Man'

The Move: 'Fire Brigade'

'Return of the Saint' Opening Theme

The Trammps: 'Disco Inferno'

Marc-André Hamelin: Gigue from 'French Suite, no.5' (Bach)

Elbow: 'Magnificent (She Says)'

Crowded House: 'World Where You Live'

Booker T & the MGs: 'Fuquawi'

Dietrich Fischer Dieskau, Sviatoslav Richter: 'Fischerweise' (Schubert)

Belle and Sebastian: 'Wrapped Up In Books'

AC/DC: 'Rock 'n' Roll Train'

Penguin Café Orchestra: 'Heartwind'

P J Harvey: 'Good Fortune'

Sally Timms & Jon Langford: 'I Picked Up The Pieces'

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Soul music: 'Gerontius' at the Southbank

Let's hear it once again for the singers and players of English National Opera (ENO). Following the recent positive news that the company has now been restored to the Arts Council's National Portfolio, hopefully more stable times are ahead for the Chorus and Orchestra after what must have been a seemingly endless spell of uncertainty.

That said, the ensemble seem to have responded to ENO's behind-the-scenes issues by giving increasingly thrilling and unforgettable performances - not just as part of the regular season but in a series of 'breakout' events. These have taken them out of the confines of their home venue - the London Coliseum - and potentially to new, inquisitive audiences. They took an English version of Brahms's German Requiem on a brief tour of London churches. More recently, they organised and performed two short operas for the ENO Studio Live project: small in scale, large in ambition, 'The Day After' (read my write-up here) and 'Trial by Jury' showed off to perfection their talent, enthusiasm and versatility. Given in an auditorium carved out of a large space in their West Hampstead rehearsal studios, ENO Studio Live - which we're promised will return next year - brought a kind of rogue, maverick sensibility entirely in keeping with the company's expertise and objectives: accessible, engaging material that still stimulates and challenges the eyes, ears and mind.

Last weekend, they presented something different again: Elgar's 'The Dream of Gerontius', performed at the Southbank Centre as part of its choral festival. Part of the publicity blurb referred to its being 'staged'... which was perhaps the wrong word to pick: but more of that later.

'Gerontius' does not normally have a staging of any kind. It's a choral work, but certainly not an opera and not even really an oratorio (like the 'Messiah'). Its dramatic impetus, so to speak, is of a man's journey through death into the afterlife - namely judgement, purgatory and the promise of eternal life. (Elgar took extracts from a longer poem by Cardinal John Henry Newman for his text.) However, at the same time, it seems to combine spiritual meditation with ecstatic imagination.

In the first, shorter part, the dying Gerontius is surrounded by 'assistants' (his friends and attendants) and he is blessed by a priest. As he 'crosses over' and the work moves to its longer second section, the same double chorus return as choirs of angels and demons, and the Angel of the Agony intercedes for Gerontius's soul to pass through purgatory into heaven. Both the priest and Angel of the Agony are written for low male voice - while they could be portrayed differently, most productions cast the same person. This seems telling: Gerontius is fading into unconsciousness in part 1, and is a disembodied Soul in part 2 (he can't see the cackling demons). He doesn't look, he listens. Perhaps this is why Elgar wrote a purely choral work: it's a 'vision', but for ears, not eyes, with Gerontius seeking some continuity into the next world (at one point, he hears his praying friends' voices amid the celestial chorus).

However, he's not alone, as his heavenly guide - the Angel (not 'of the Agony' this time) - steers him towards glory. The work builds and builds until Gerontius undergoes judgement - a momentary encounter with God - in an overwhelming orchestral climax, soothed by the Angel's gentle promise to return for him when his purgatory is over. As befits this reconciliation between suffering and paradise, Elgar's music makes anguish beautiful, the contrast between moments of quiet and resounding, overlapping waves of harmony (or dissonance) keeping the listener both riveted and comforted. 100 or so minutes - no interval - felt more like ten.

I thought this performance had the feel of a real event to it - certainly it was a celebration of all things ENO. The excellent soloists were all familiar to me from ENO productions first and foremost: Gwyn Hughes-Jones (Gerontius) a winning Walther in 'Mastersingers', Patricia Bardon (Angel) so powerful in the title role of 'The Gospel According to the Other Mary' and Matthew Rose's tender Marke in 'Tristan'. Each made their mark fully on the work this evening: GHJ a sustained sense of wonder and resolution; PB's warm voice like a balm for the senses - and absolutely unforgettable work from MR, especially in his first appearance as the Priest, somehow harnessing a typically tender, sensitive interpretation to a resounding volume that seemed to make the hall itself expand.

ENO's Orchestra, under renowned conductor Simone Young, and as ever the mighty Chorus - here forming a kind of super-group with the fine BBC Singers - did what they do so well on the operatic stage: become characters as necessary (here ranging from angelic to satanic), inhabit the material as individuals or groups, while remaining fearsomely tight as a whole unit.

Finally, a few words about the 'staging', which - to be honest - wasn't. ENO didn't force any extra narrative or unlooked-for interaction between the soloists. More accurately, it was a lighting concept - conceived by the designer Lucy Carter. Essentially, the visuals were restricted to a bank of lights looming over the stage, directing precision beams or rays at various participants at crucial moments. Of course, what this actually meant was that for most of us, the experience was one of darkness, rather than light. We couldn't read the text in our programmes, which I rather liked: in the same way as when ENO Studio Live dispensed with surtitles, it forced you to focus on the words as they are sung, and surrender more fully to the music. Arguably, a more conventionally-lit 'straight' performance would have included more visual distractions than this pared-down limbo (appropriately enough).

The opening seconds were supremely effective - as a single beam shone down on Young, ready to begin... as if a sacred energy was about to be channelled through the conductor to the orchestra and singers. After that, it did take me a good 5 or 10 minutes to get used to it - but I found my efforts were rewarded. I rather enjoyed - in the absence of following a text - the way we were 'directed' to look at the chorus as they were variously characterised by ultra-violet or white light, seeming to ignite their white shirts. Tumultuous instrumental passages were accompanied by beams ranging across the orchestra. I'd be interested to know if anyone with synaesthesia in the audience felt that these colours complemented, or contradicted, what we were hearing.

But just as Gerontius is taken from life, this visual treatment took us from the concert hall. It wasn't a classical concert, Jim, as we know it. It did feel like a kind of suspension, with the swirling music pressing down on us, or propping us up.

I've seen some social media discussion since where some folk have been rather dismissive of a 'staging' (or what you will) like this. I won't name names or anything: these are all people I respect and admire, and that fact that I don't agree on this particular issue doesn't change that one iota. But the recurring themes were along the lines of: It's not an opera/oratorio - it doesn't need this kind of treatment, why do it? It was never intended to be performed this way. All stagings of choral works along these lines are hopeless. And so on.

*Sigh*. Sometimes I do think it would be nice to think in these kinds of absolutes, but I just can't do it. For a start, I think the question of how works are 'intended' to be performed is highly nuanced - particularly since you cannot assume anything about a composer's non-existent 'future' - the whole "if Mozart was around today, he'd be writing techno!" business. I like to think he would give it a go, but we just don't know. The situation is impossible to construct. Anyone writing operas before the age of recording 'never intended' us to listen at home without any acting or scenery. Anyone writing on early instruments 'never intended' us to play their pieces on modern ones. But we just disregard all of this: partly because it suits us, but partly - surely - because the music comfortably survives these variations.

If we can have concert-only performances of operas, I don't see why we can't have visually innovative versions of 'Gerontius'. We don't know if Elgar would approve or not, and it doesn't matter. Traditional performances of the work will always take place, as I hope this one will again - plenty of room for both.

ENO, in particular, looks to engage and stimulate its public. Just like ENO Studio Live presented opera with an almost punk sensibility - not just in style but in circumstance - so this 'Gerontius' touched on aspects you might associate with theatre or cinema, or perhaps a rock gig, where such lighting is the norm. This can only enhance interest from people who might not want a classical concert in pure classical concert form. Before anyone lets their pince-nez drop in horror, I'm not talking about the dreaded 'dumbing down' cliché, or starting each symphonic performance with the conductor shouting 'Good evening, Barbican!'

The way to embrace a newly-intrigued audience is, I'm convinced, not to radically change everything about what you do - but to illuminate why what you do is not so very different. ENO and co did not 'add' to Elgar's masterpiece anything that wasn't already there in the music - but they laid it out before us, gave it a new dimension, identified a way of seeing and hearing 'Gerontius' that guarantees some of us will be talking about the performance's power for some time to come. Keep doing this, ENO.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Shutter delight

Longer-term Spectators will know that from time to time, I post some of my photography here. To me, the blog is my 'cultural diary', so to speak - and the joy and satisfaction I get from taking photographs is as crucial a part of my artistic make-up as music, art or writing.

I love portraiture most of all, and I am very lucky to have some exceptionally game friends who are happy to play their part in front of the lens. The collaborative aspect is one of the most rewarding and liberating aspects of photography for me, since what I mainly do the rest of the time - writing - is essentially solitary. The small price I pay for 'working' with these folk is that, of course, sometimes it feels an age goes by between sessions because our busy lives get in the way.

So - I have particular cause to be grateful to Suzanne, who immediately stepped up to the task at short notice, when I realised that the deadline for a competition I wanted to enter was much sooner than I'd thought. Sharing an interest in the 60s portraiture (and bonding over a Terence Donovan exhibition in particular), we decided to pay tribute with some pictures meant to evoke a similar mood and, ideally, era. In no time at all, Suzanne - a real expert in mastering an authentic look - was coming up with 'test selfies' where she'd already nailed the outfits and even the correct make-up. I repeat: I am very fortunate in my partners-in-crime.

Whatever the competition outcome, I was thrilled with the results of the session. Here are my favourite pictures from the day - I hope you enjoy them.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Radio Carolyn

The Friday before I write this, Gramophone magazine announced the shortlist for its 2017 Artist of the Year Award. Everyone on the shortlist is at the very top of their field. This is a survey of recognised excellence, and it's up to us - The People - to decide who in particular stands out among such company.

I have a lot of time and admiration invested in several of the artists on the list - it includes a few of my favourites - but nonetheless, I know who'll be getting my vote: Carolyn Sampson. Allow me to become a little evangelical about this.

As you'll see from the links I include below, I've written about CS several times. I'm naturally hooked on her voice, beautifully bright, with an agile and precise technique that has perhaps meant that she's been chiefly associated with Baroque music - even though she has turned her hand to much besides. However, in the last few years, I've been following her work with increasing interest and admiration, as her versatility has come to the fore - there's the sense of an artist exploring ideas and opportunities with a kind of zeal, finding and meeting new challenges. Perhaps the key instance of this is her relatively recent move into art song - aided and abetted by the superb Joseph Middleton: the duo producing two of the finest voice/piano albums of the decade. It's also scientifically impossible to come away from one of her performances without being soothed and uplifted.

(Photo for the sleeve of 'A Verlaine Songbook' by Marco Borggreve.)

In case you haven't got round to clicking the link yet, here's the summary Gramophone itself provides in the shortlist announcement:

"Winner of the Recital Award a couple of years ago, Sampson features on no fewer than three Round 2 recordings (Purcell songs, Haydn’s The Seasons and Mozart’s Mass in C minor) and is clearly at the peak of her powers – a lovely singer and a much-loved member of any ensemble."

These are all superb discs - and you can hear selections from a couple of them below. The Purcell album is particularly fine, I think: it's a Wigmore Hall Live CD, and captures all the joyous intimacy of that venue. (Brief technical-hitch based digression: I try and use YouTube where possible for sharing tracks but hardly any of the music I needed for this post was on there - so I've just gone for broke and used Spotify throughout - apologies to anyone who might not use it or have access to it. Just buy the records! You won't be sorry.)

Purcell, 'Not All My Torments Can Your Pity Move':

Haydn, 'The Seasons: How Refreshing to the Senses':

But I'm going to assume Gramophone MUST have been restricted by word count - because CS's last 12 months have been significantly more action-packed. I realise that the magazine's focus is recorded output (rather than live concerts), so please savour her contributions to these excerpts from a marvellous recent 'Missa solemnis' and a great new recording of Bach cantatas...

Beethoven, 'Missa solemnis': 'Kyrie':

Bach, 'Weichet Nur, Betrübe Schatten - VII: 'Sich üben im Lieben':

And as if all that wasn't enough, the latest Sampson/Middleton collaboration, 'A Verlaine Songbook', also appeared within the last year. (I wrote about this magical album in more detail here.) It's impossible to pick just one highlight, so I'm allowing myself two.

Debussy, 'Green':

Szulc, 'Clair de lune':

I could go on - especially if we do widen the survey to onstage work. In Scottish Opera's recent production of Debussy's 'Pelléas et Mélisande', CS was dream casting as the doomed heroine. As someone who can radiate pure joy in her recital performances, CS channelled this skilfully into a still enigmatic but also very physical, almost mischievous portrayal that made the descent into despair and tragic conclusion of the story all the more heartbreaking. AND she managed this the same week as a glorious recital with lutenist Matthew Wadsworth (for a fuller write-up of both, go here)...

CS and JM have another irresistible recital programme up their sleeves (I can only hope this makes it to CD, as well) - it's called 'Reason in Madness' and it reaches Wigmore Hall on 26 July. Here are the treats on offer:

and, if you're in or around London at the right time, here is the handy link for you to buy your ticket. I don't need to persuade you further, do I?

But in the meantime, whether you can make the gig or not - vote Sampson!

Friday, 9 June 2017

Helpful notes

In recent weeks, when the real world has shown so much ugliness, I felt drawn towards creating a playlist where the selections would have little in common, other than their sheer beauty. Yet again, music is the balm, the antidote. I hope you enjoy these choices.


Ian Bostridge, Julius Drake: Schubert, 'Litanei Auf Das Fest Allerseelen'

Kate Bush: 'The Sensual World'

Dead Can Dance: 'Ullyses'

Nick Drake: 'Cello Song' [Peel Session version... with a flute instead!]

Brian Eno: 'The Big Ship'

Peter Gabriel & Sinead O'Connor: 'Blood Of Eden'

Susan Graham, Roger Vignoles: Hahn, 'A Chloris'

Joni Mitchell: 'Carey'

Nigel North: Dowland, 'Mrs Winter's Jump'

Penguin Café Orchestra: 'Music For A Found Harmonium'

Simon & Garfunkel: 'For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her'

Strawberry Switchblade: 'Deep Water'

Vox Clamantis & Weekend Guitar Trio: 'Mandatum Novum'

Martha Wainwright: 'Far Away'

Yuja Wang: Scarlatti, Sonata in G major Kk427

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Future's bright: ENO Studio Live - 'The Day After'

Regular visitors to this blog - thank you, darlings, thank you - will already be familiar with my epic admiration for the ensemble at English National Opera, and in particular its chorus. I'm not alone in this - they rightly attract awards on the world stage.

But to bring this down to a personal scale - in the time I've been going to the Coliseum, they have never let me down: not once. Whatever the opera, whatever the production, I find it increasingly impossible to imagine any group of performers being better at doing what they do. It's not just the fantastic sound they make - their skilled acting means they always appear to behave like a group of real individuals rather than a nebulous mass, yet their evident internal bond and commitment to the material makes them one of the most rock-solid, tight-knit units any conductor and soloists could wish to have in support. And without wishing to 'sentimentalise' - they don't need it - their onstage brilliance has remained undimmed throughout the traumatic business issues engulfing ENO in recent years, which must have hit them all so hard.

Now, it's time for them to have their moment, you might say, in the sun.


'ENO Studio Live' is the umbrella name for a new venture which allows ENO's 'homegrown' performers and directors to present smaller-scale productions away from the Coliseum, in Lilian Baylis House. (This West Hampstead venue is fascinating in itself: by day, it's ENO's rehearsal space, and in a former life, it was the Decca recording studio.) First up is Jonathan Dove's intriguing one-act opera, 'The Day After'.

I should say that I only use the phrase 'smaller-scale' to describe the dimensions of the auditorium and stage areas. The ambition on display here is planet-sized.

As soon as we enter the building, everything feels different. This has the welcome atmosphere of intimate, upfront fringe theatre: the cast and musicians are already in place, most of them tucked up in blankets, semi-visible, on the stage. None of us are more than about 11 or 12 rows away. All the rigging and stage lighting is prominent, fixed in place - almost like you'd expect if you wandered onto a film set where all the gubbins the camera conceals is suddenly right before your eyes. Instead of an elaborate backdrop, the lion's share of the chamber band is semi-concealed behind the performance space. There are no surtitles, so you have to concentrate hard at first - a move that pays real dividends. A sudden plunge into darkness, and the opera begins.

'The Day After' has its roots in Greek myth: Phoebus, god of the sun, allows his son Phaeton to drive the chariot that pulls the fiery star across the sky. Phaeton, however, isn't up to the task and loses control of the horses. The sun dips too close to the earth, causing widespread drought and devastation. The opera imagines these events from the survivors' viewpoint. The five still figures on stage come to life and discuss their plight - and are soon joined from both sides by the rest of the chorus. In an attempt to come to terms with what has happened, the wider group encourage the leads to re-enact the disaster and 'take on' the personas of the key players.

The action takes place in a kind of surreal limbo where everything apart from the underlying legend itself is modernised: from references to fashion and celebrity culture, to the gang of heroically foul-mouthed bullies who set upon Phaeton when he boasts about his dad. Ingeniously, the chariot itself is a mash-up of natural and mechanical tech: we still encounter the horses, but the machine also seems powered by fuel cans, glowing from inside with the sun's energy. The sun itself is represented by floodlights emerging from the venue's rigging.

To my mind, the effect of this is to make the action immediate, and as a result, more affecting. Everyone in every civilisation was 'modern' once. Who are we to laugh at the idea of a sun chariot falling to earth when we have managed to overheat our planet all by ourselves? ('The Day After' was originally performed outdoors, at Fort Rhijnauwen in the Netherlands, with highly elaborate visual effects but smaller vocal forces. The composer prepared a special 'full chorus' version for ENO's production.)

And crucially, the emotional depth and versatility of the performances bring the poignancy and horror home. All the soloists were remarkably adept at switching between characters. Rachael Lloyd was chameleonic as the survivor least interested in re-telling the story (she nearly spits out her rage at the futility of the exercise), transformed into Phaeton's mother. William Morgan also neatly inverted his diffident young man into the dangerously cocky Phaeton - taking the character through a horrendous rise and fall and injecting his tenor with real terror.

It's truly exciting to note that the three leads I've yet to mention are all drawn from the ENO chorus, and all gave fiercely individual, unforgettable performances. Susanna Tudor-Thomas invested her survivor with a weariness that still admitted a glimmer of hope. Claire Mitcher played, with heartbreaking poignancy, a younger woman identified with Phaeton's abandoned love. Her song asking to be remembered was, for me, one of the show's quietly powerful highlights - a rendition of understated but undeniable beauty, so sensitively sung and acted, it was as if the opera was momentarily suspended until we were all ready to carry on. Robert Winslade Anderson unleashed several chariots' worth of charisma as Phoebus, his commanding bass convincingly god-like, but not above (or below) a jittery note of panic as he realises his terrible mistake.

The score felt dizzyingly, restlessly imaginative. As far as I know, there's no recording, so I'm relying on memory from the one listen - but exciting, propulsive motifs illuminated the story: Phaeton's journey east to find Phoebus has him travel through the 'music' of several countries, and one extraordinary moment had four of the soloists simulate an echo, 'travelling' up the voices, register by register. James Henshaw conducted, and as he's ENO's chorus master, perhaps it's no surprise that he created such a successful sonic blend where the voices had the edge, but were punctuated and challenged by the orchestra at every turn. (Particular shout out for timpanist William Lockhart, who - hidden from our view - seemed possessed by the spirit of John Bonham and ignited the evening with roof-threatening rhythms.)

A huge amount of credit should also go to director Jamie Manton (who also took the striking publicity photograph), designer Camilla Clarke, lighting designer Tom Mannings and movement director Jasmine Ricketts... between them, they have created a highly specific universe where the build in visual intensity matches that in the music. It's a testament to the gritty, burnt, decaying feel of the props, and costumes that the real-world nuts and bolts of the venue interior are soon forgotten.

Being so close to the action only brought into focus the sheer authority and class of the chorus, who not only created a glorious wall of sound, but also moved so hypnotically. The intimacy of the venue made the electricity of the performance almost palpable - whether having some of their colleagues out front as soloists somehow made the link even stronger, I can only speculate, but the connection and interaction between leads and chorus looked and felt invincible from where I was sitting. Even though the opera takes us (literally and figuratively) into very dark areas, the overall experience - vibrant, urgent, exhilarating - shone brightly indeed.


IMPORTANT: At the time of writing, there are still two evenings left in 'The Day After's brief run. If you can go, you really should. Click here for the page you need on ENO's website.

The second in this year's brace of ENO Studio Live productions is the Gilbert & Sullivan short comic opera 'Trial by Jury'. It's also coming up fast: you can find details here.

A few final thoughts: ENO's original mission was - and is - to make opera widely available and accessible - hence the commitment to performance in English translation, for example. For anyone even vaguely tempted to dismiss opera as 'elitist', 'posh', 'exclusive', 'difficult', or 'old-fashioned'... any of these endlessly daft ideas that somehow seem to keep resurfacing - look more closely at ENO Studio Live.

The venue had a buzz closer to the feeling I associate with rock gigs - and the volume felt a bit more like that, too (although of course no-one required amplification). There was something almost renegade about it - the rough-at-the-edges surroundings, the wit and inventiveness, the obvious joy taken by the ensemble in bringing something to life entirely from within themselves.

If any ENO management were to read this...? I would counsel you: ramp up the ENO Studio Live activity and advertise the living daylights out of it. Target the young, students, the fringe theatre crowd. Someone who sits in the ROH stalls for 'Turandot' may not get this, but someone who stands in the yard at the Globe will. Get some of it broadcast or recorded - I would like to have seen BBC Radio 3 here, or even (depending on the opera) BBC Radio 6 Music. Time to get all this in-house brilliance out of the house.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Music to remember

How important is music to our lives, to our memories? And how do our lives, past and present, shape the way we listen to music?


Ever the trendy young thing, I went to my first-ever rock concert in my early teens: Genesis. Of course, this was not their early days featuring Peter Gabriel wandering around the stage dressed as some kind of alien allotment. I won tickets (I forget how) to Wembley Stadium to see the chart-slaying Phil Collins version of the group touring the 'Invisible Touch' album.

Perhaps this applies to many of you, but when a gig like this is your first taste of live music, it gives you a lot of strange ideas. I was bitten by the bug, and soon started seeing more bands with my pals, but I had to find out, agonisingly slowly, almost one show at a time:
  • Most gigs are, in fact, indoors.
  • Someone has gone in and taken all the seats away.
  • Not every band is going to play for about two-and-a-half hours.
  • Most concerts draw fewer than 70,000-odd people. Some of them just draw odd people.
Because I was a nipper, my gig companion on this debut venture was my hapless Dad. I wasn't fazed by this in the least - I wasn't in the least bit troubled that this might be 'uncool', and I think I realised even at the time that being 'uncool' wasn't really a problem at a Genesis concert. Different story for my Dad, though. I hadn't come into my natural birthright of a complete run of Beatles and Stones original vinyl, because both my parents appeared to have slept through the entire 60s - instead, all the great records I 'borrowed' from my father were the previous, crooner generation: Frank Sinatra, Johnnie Ray and, my favourite, Nat King Cole.

So, to my shame, I was grateful for Dad's company but thought 'Land of Confusion' might be an uncomfortably literal way of describing his experience. How wrong I was. He loved every minute. He would turn to me and say brilliantly Dad things, like "If you decide you're going to listen to this sort of thing, the louder the better." One of his cricket mates "also liked Genesis, so he knew it'd be all right". ('Dad Rock' is a term often used with a sneer, but of course it implies that the music it describes can cross generations.) And finally, the most Dad moment of all, suggesting we nip out through the encore to beat the crowds back to the station.

As far as I know, he hasn't voluntarily listened to a note of Genesis since. But I read this back, and think - yes, it was a superb concert, the band were all-conquering, but what I really remember about it, is that I was there with, and because of, my Dad. You don't always bond over familiar things - it can happen when you share something new, unusual, strange and powerful. When I play Frank and Nat, I think of my Dad's generation, what he enjoys, what he stands for. When I play late Genesis, I think about being with my Dad, and how great that is.


A few years back, I was in a band for a bit. Some of the people who were in the band might be reading this - and I know they won't mind my saying that, for a fair bit of the time, the whole thing was a pain in the rear end. Yes, we had our share of 'personnel issues' - not so much a 'revolving door' line-up as an empty lift-shaft - but many ragged amateur combos go through that. We had a slightly odd line-up - no bass but TWO keyboards, like a kind of 'Double Doors', at our most 'stable' - and our fortnightly rehearsal was just out of the way enough to be a hassle for ALL of us to get to. Sigh. It's amazing we lasted as long as we did.

Or is it? We all chipped in songs we had written, and there was perhaps one I wrote that I would still stand by now. The band liked it, and I was touched at the time with how they threw themselves into the arrangement. In particular, my fellow keyboard player - a really gifted musician, I should point out - had worked out a piano part so accomplished that I didn't need to play at all - just focus on the singing. And while nothing ever came of it, I got to experience that adrenalin rush of singing my song, with my friends behind me, creating a noise between them that buoyed me up, made my vocal feel like it was an aeroplane leaving the runway. We might have been in a shed on an industrial estate, but we were being MAGNIFICENT in a shed on an industrial estate. Music started it, and in a way, the music we all tried to agree on, sort out and play... well, that ended it, too. But the memory of that performance, and how we all tried to give each other the same support, chips away at my recollections of the hassles and horrors, note by note.


My entry into serious opera-going began with 'Nixon in China' at the 2012 Proms. But I had a couple of brushes with the form years before, on the cusp of my twenties. One was seeing a production of 'Eugene Onegin' which seemed saddled with a poor English translation ("There goes a shepherd!"). But I also ventured into the Royal Opera House gods for a production of 'Turandot', with a girl I had met at university.

We were never destined to 'go out' in the normal run of things - she was a visiting student from overseas - but that doesn't mean I didn't regard her as absolutely wonderful. The ROH provided its old-world, pre-refurbishment glamour, but it couldn't match my companion's splendour on that evening, our joint eagerness for the shared, new experience, her curiosity, her conversation. Opera can provide overwhelming drama, but that night - thankfully - it could only give joy. To this day, I cannot subtract joy from my experience of opera, my constant impulse to take only positivity from music.


On the subject of Promming, some of you may also know that I watched the entire Ring Cycle, conducted by Daniel Barenboim in 2013, from the Royal Albert Hall gallery with a chap called David, a work colleague of Mrs Specs with a secret double life as a Wagner nut. It's a matter of record how powerful these performances were, and the impact they had on the audiences that made it to the Hall for the whole week. But of course, the 16 hours or so of actual opera was a mere fraction of the overall time David and I spent together - queuing, eating, queuing, drinking, queuing... and then finally getting into the sweltering heat of the hall itself.

By the end of the week, it felt like we had been on the musical equivalent of a kind of survival course together - and in David's case, during Act III of 'Die Walküre' after one Pimms too many, it was literally like that. (It is a little strange to be concentrating on Wotan and Brunnhilde one minute, only to be dimly aware that the person standing next to you is slowly slipping to the floor. 'Overcome by emotion!' I assumed at the time.) But the point is - before 'Das Rheingold', we were mates. After 'Götterdämmerung', we were blood brothers. I doubt there was a topic in our twin musical universes we hadn't covered, and much more besides. He probably knows some of my darkest secrets and I've simply forgotten I told him in a fog of heat fatigue and leitmotifs.

If David and I had met in any other circumstances, we may well still be friends. There are some areas of our lives where we're irreconcilably different, of course. But the Ring experience cemented the nature of the bond we share - a ceaselessly good-natured mesh of intuitive understanding and musical codewords, a happy meeting point between telepathy and bewilderment.


Greater love hath no woman than to attend a Billy Bragg concert with a migraine. But this is what Mrs Specs did for me - in the early days, she's happy to admit, when she was possibly still trying to impress me a little. She didn't tell me, of course, until afterwards (I'm not a monster) but I can only imagine, with some guilt, how a stridently-bellowed 'Between the Wars' must have affected someone who could barely focus between paracetamols.

A better experience for us both followed with the Buena Vista Social Club gig at the Royal Albert Hall (again). Both mad about each other as well as this music, we came to the gig on equal terms - a sound we both adored, neither of us bestowing it upon the other. Still learning how to be a couple, this was one of the concerts that taught us to dance with each other, shed self-consciousness, give in to happiness.

The audience ended up in a very genteel form of disarray, as people half-forgot to orbit their seats, and began to cut some rug in the nearest available proper space. During a closing slow song, Mrs Specs dropped into a seat on the end of a row, and I contentedly just sank onto the staircase where I was, leaning against her legs, head level with her lap, her hand resting on my shoulder.


You will all have read that, earlier this week, a suicide bomber struck at Manchester Arena, as fans were leaving an Ariana Grande concert. I can only add my sympathy and support to anyone affected, as I can't begin to imagine what any of them are going through. I was moved to see various comments across the media - 'normal' and social - highlighting that this was a musical event (and specifically one that would attract the young) and expressing bitter regret that something designed to give pleasure and encourage unity should be shattered in this way.

I nurture the hope that in the recovery process, music will play an inevitable, invaluable part. Ariana Grande was of course horrified by the attack and has cancelled dates out of respect - however, I truly believe that the bond her music creates between her fans will be crucial to what helps them get past any lasting fear or terror. What the terrorist sought to ruin, will in fact be instrumental in aiding the healing - the polar opposite of his aims.

I also recalled the remarkable book 'Being Dead', by Jim Crace, which takes as its starting point the violent death of its central couple, but then deliberately sets out not to 'resurrect' them, but to restore the vividness of their lives through stories and recollections.

And then I simply kept recalling. Music, sounds and events dotted through my life, that somehow add up to something indestructible... its power to create, shape and energise. To bring to life friendship, love, harmony, belonging, and hope.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

From harmony to discord: Myrthen Ensemble / 'The Exterminating Angel'

I won't forget Saturday 6 May 2017 in a hurry. Thanks to my haphazard attempts at the usual intricate rocket science (or 'booking', as some people call it), I was packing out the day with not one, but two musical events: a lunchtime recital, followed by the opera in the evening. But it was no ordinary recital, and no ordinary opera.

At Wigmore Hall, the Myrthen Ensemble were taking their turn in the venue's epic concert series 'Schubert: The Complete Songs' (I'm trying to get to as many of these as possible). Most of the gigs so far have featured voice/piano duos, apart from a few exceptions where veteran accompanist and Schubert guru Graham Johnson brought together several soloists at a time to tackle some of the lieder for more than one singer.

This, though, was different. While the multi-participant sessions I mention above inevitably had a slight 'scratch band' feel to them (and no less enjoyable for that), the Myrthen Ensemble are a 'proper' group. Although, as their membership is made up of accomplished soloists, you could use the word 'supergroup', even. At their centre is pianist Joseph Middleton - regular Specs readers will know I'm an admirer of his playing, in particular his work with Carolyn Sampson, but his obvious flair for collaboration is no doubt crucial to the dynamic of this larger band.

The founding vocal line-up alongside JM is Mary Bevan (soprano), Clara Mouriz (mezzo), Marcus Farnsworth (baritone) and Allan Clayton (tenor) - although guest singers also feature, and when I've seen them live (including this occasion), Nicky Spence has taken the tenor spot. Their superb 2016 debut release, 'Songs to the Moon', was a double disc, bringing to mind the obvious comparison with Frankie Goes To Hollywood. [*needs work*]

(This brilliant photo, from the album cover sessions, I believe, is by John Alexander.)

This is so good a team that choosing highlights was impossible, and it feels totally unnecessary to single anyone out from a group with such a warm rapport. While they all got to sing solo or in various combinations, it was an utter joy to hear the four-part selections, as in the closing 'Gebet' and 'Der Tanz'. One gift they all share is the ability to communicate their own individual styles even when singing together, so if you wanted to 'follow' one of them for a while - MB's shining tone at one end, MF's crystal-clear basslines at the other, or CM and NS providing the rich colours in between - it was quite easy to do so. I just found myself locking into one voice after another, and never once began thinking in terms of 'preference' - only about how well the overall sound was working.

The occasional glance to the side of the stage, where the singers not 'on' at any given time were sitting, showed them as avid listeners, with as much invested in their colleague's performances as their own. I hope these particular stars align again soon, especially if there's room in schedules for recording: a follow-up album would be very welcome.

Slight change of mood, then, in the evening, for Thomas Adès's latest opera, 'The Exterminating Angel', at the Royal Opera House. The intriguing plot - if that's the right word - is closely based on the 1962 film of the same name by surrealist Luis Buñuel - so, if you've seen neither the opera nor the movie and want to avoid spoilers against a potential future viewing... please stop reading!

To sum up the scene: Edmundo and Lucia, the Marqués and Marquesa de Nobile, are hosting a post-opera dinner party. The guests are all either fully aristocratic or at the very least part of the well-to-do upper class - with the possible exception of Leticia, the lead soprano in the opera the party have been to see, invited as a guest of honour. By contrast, the servants - seemingly gripped by a collective unease - leave the house just as the dinner gets going, abandoning Julio the butler to attend to the guests' demands by himself.

In a disconcerting opening sequence that confirms something is amiss, the guests arrive twice - as no-one as there to take their coats, they circle round back towards the door and re-enact the same movements. However, after dining, they head to the main drawing room for music: Blanca, one of the guests, plays piano and they urge Leticia to sing some more. But as the night wears on, one thing they don't do is leave - even though they are not locked in, or incapacitated. And the more they think about, or discuss leaving, the greater their inertia, and the longer they stay put. Days pass - and we see the servants, and eventually the military arrive outside to carry out a rescue... but they too succumb to a kind of paralysis and can't bring themselves to enter the mansion.

The aristocrats' disintegrating sense of decorum is savagely satirised - early on, the women are uneasy that the chaps are removing their jackets - but before long, they're all sleeping on the floor in the same room, unwashed, all sense of good manners in tatters. The true nature of some of the characters' relationships and situations is revealed, and several of the guests don't make it out alive. Finally, Leticia notices that for the first time, they have all somehow arrived back at the places they were all standing when they became 'trapped' (in an echo of the 'double' opening). Running through the movements again, they find this has broken the 'spell' and they cautiously, but successfully, leave the room. In a superb twist ending, the staging then has them meet the rest of the cast outside the house - the returning servants, the army, the townspeople and so on - only for the whole ensemble to find they can't leave the stage. (I think this is a supremely clever alternative to the film's ending, where the aristocrats give thanks at church for their freedom only to disappear among the congregation - who then discover they are trapped in the church. The movie closes with a brief scene of fighting on the streets, followed by sheep being led into the church as gunshots are still heard on the soundtrack.)

The choice of this particular story for an opera is itself a stroke of genius, as it conjures up certain kinds of tension that feel rather new: for example, instead of a traditional opera being given a modern, controversial makeover, the subject matter here is so 'out there', it almost demands to be told straight. Indeed, within the confines of the room, we witness love, sex, death, incest, attempted murder, potential human sacrifice and double suicide... so the high-octane emotions and actions are quite enough to stand shoulder to shoulder with any grand (guignol) opera.

(This brilliant photo, of my crumpled ROH cast leaflet, is by me.)

Adès seems to thrive on these tensions musically (he also conducts these performances) - woven among the orchestra, we hear - at various relevant points - the early (and eerie) electronic keyboard instrument the ondes Martenot, what sounds like a full-blown drum kit undergoing some serious punishment... and a delicate Spanish guitar. The score feels extreme - not as in difficult or alienating, far from it - but relentless and provocative. He places some of the most intense characters at the wide points of the vocal range, which increases the sense of strain and panic. In this, he's aided immeasurably by a heroic cast. Amanda Echalaz as Lucia and Audrey Luna as Leticia negotiate some astonishingly high passages, and Iestyn Davies - so good in roles requiring some edge and menace to undercut any 'angelic' countertenor clichés - was hugely impressive as perhaps the most dangerous loose cannon in the room. At the other end of the audio spectrum, the closest the opera gets to a bedrock of sense and sanity is the doctor, sung by John Tomlinson in his subterranean bass.

But I mention these folk first largely to make a dramatic point, because all told this was an absolute luxury cast, working as an ensemble - like the recital from earlier in the day, I don't want to single anyone out! Ed Lyon and Sophie Bevan (sister of Mary from the Myrthens - allowing me to achieve a rare 'double Bevan' in one day...!) generated frantic chemistry as the doomed lovers. A further array of arresting, characterful voices - Thomas Allen, Frédéric Antoun, Sally Matthews, David Adam Moore, Anne Sophie von Otter, Christine Rice and Charles Workman - all fleshed out the guests' various collapses into convincingly three-dimensional distress, each wrestling with their individual secrets and demons. Apologies to anyone I've accidentally missed out, because the teamwork on display here was remarkable: jointly ratcheting up the mood until almost everyone reaches breaking point together, negotiating some intricate stagecraft - and still sounding so convincing. Bravi, in all sincerity.

The final layer of magic was the inventive staging. Fitting the story's black comedy, there were some winning visual and aural coups. Before we went in, a tolling bell filled the ROH's passageways, and a small flock of real sheep were already onstage. (They eventually turn up in artificial format to become dinner for the starving aristos.) Later in the action, two characters - dead by their own hands - were dragged offstage, then the false pool of blood they lay in was dragged off after them. And the 'door' of the room itself, impassable and implacable, was a huge empty gateway, with literally 'nothing' keeping the characters in their self-imposed prison. This revolved depending on which parts of the house we needed to see.

What did it all mean? Well - a common interpretation would suggest that the toffs are the ruling class / bourgeoisie, whose ivory-tower inertia will spell their end. But - and this seems to be Buñuel's original, open intent - it resists a thorough-going explanation. The collapse of 'society' inside the room can reference all manner of dystopian fiction (as a William Golding nut, I thought of 'Lord of the Flies'), and it may all come down to little more than 'we're all doomed!'

Given current world events, perhaps this is what made the opera feel like such an urgent piece of entertainment - but with its snappy, economical text and haunting visuals (both courtesy of librettist and director Tom Cairns) and Adès's ceaselessly inventive music, it was an exhilarating way to ride out the horror.

Stop press: Thrilled to note that in the week or so since I saw this rather unusual 'double bill', Joseph Middleton has been given the Royal Philharmonic Society 2016 Young Artist Award... and 'The Exterminating Angel' - for its initial performances in Salzburg with the same cast and production before coming to London - won 'World Premiere' at the 2017 International Opera Awards. Both richly deserved.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Happy endings: great 'outros'

It might seem odd to say that what really makes some songs great is the way they end - but the outro is a great, mystical dark art. How a record plays out is crucial to making you listen to it again - and want to reach that ending once more.

I heard the Roxy Music track below playing somewhere recently - quite by accident (I really need to dig my Roxy albums back out from some far-flung corner of the Specs shelving labyrinth). And I found myself not wanting it to end. As a result, this sent me on a quest to retrieve some of my favourite song outros, and list 10 of them below, making a case for each. For maximum convenience, I've also included the point in the song where I believe - correctly, of course - that the outro starts. I hope you enjoy them.

Roxy Music - 'More than This'

2:45. Bryan Ferry is always the centre of attention, a kind of supernova of suavity, his mannered vocals Roxy's real signature sound through at least two distinct phases (avant and après garde, you could say). But so laidback does he seem, that he shuts up before the song reaches the three-minute mark, job done. Its gentle groove is allowed to run on, just being lovely, no real embellishments or showboating. The video reinforces this, with Ferry sitting, motionless, back to the camera, watching his own band.

The Cure - 'A Forest'

3:10. I do like mad, spooky songs that genuinely seem to be about mad, spooky things. (See also 'Home by the Sea', by Genesis.) Here, the protagonist is lured into the forest by a recurring female voice - but there's no-one there. Whether it's a ghost or the singer's psychosis doesn't really matter - to him, it's real. For the final minute or two, the band ratchets up the tension, musically illustrating the increasing desperation, climbing higher and higher - until he gives up, perhaps out of breath. The guitar echoes away and the song closes on the bass's juddering heartbeat.

Belle and Sebastian - 'Lazy Line Painter Jane'

4:30. In direct contrast to 'A Forest', this exhilarating single closes in giddy ecstasy. I think that B&S have retained their understated charm throughout their whole glittering career, but in their early days, there was a bit more of this barely-controlled clatter, their enthusiasm almost threatening to de-rail them. It's hard to imagine a song that captures so well the illicit excitement of a night out with some potential low-key rudery. Even the mighty guest vocals of Monica Queen give way to the swirling recklessness of a group sounding like they're not sure how or when they're going to stop.

Rainbow - 'Stargazer'

6:00 (ish). Metal outros are not like other outros. This track might be preposterous (as if that's a bad thing), but it contains limitless pleasures. In particular, the vocals and drums are touched by something monumental. However, it's in this list because - when you think Ronnie James Dio is simply going to launch into another chorus - he just keeps singing... and singing.... and singing. I don't think it's a case of 'ad lib to fade' as such - the vocal melody remains tightly worked out and there are repeated phrases - but it hammers home the fantastical horror of the story with a totally straight face. Extra points, too, for rhyming 'rising' with, er, 'hori-zin'.

Iron Maiden - 'The Wicker Man'

3:48. On the subjects of metal, fantasy and horror... Iron Maiden arguably came back from the dead with this track. Their most popular frontman, Bruce Dickinson, returned to the fold and it's surely no accident that the track sounds full of adrenalin, fast and playful. (For a metal band, Maiden write excellent pop songs.) I love this outro because it captures that 'We're back' confidence - not with any actual words, but with a completely gratuitous "Woah-oh!" chant that arrives out of nowhere, designed purely for adoring fans to bellow back at them from the arena floor.

Fleetwood Mac - 'The Chain'

3:04. Or: 'the Formula 1!' Justly more famous than the three minutes preceding it, this is one of the great 'musical snippets' in all of rock music. An indelible bassline, so - not wishing to spoil it - when the guitar arrives it's a propulsive monotone that increases the urgency without trampling on the low-end tune. There's also something very satisfying about a band stringing disparate sections together to make a single song called ... 'The Chain'.

Radiohead: 'Karma Police'

2:30. Radiohead - whether in their earlier, rockier incarnation or their more glitchy and elusive current guise - have always been masters of building tension to a glorious moment of release ('Planet Telex', 'You and Whose Army' right through to 'Burn the Witch'). But 'Karma Police' sustains this when, the song all but over after about two minutes, bursts into an almost oppressively catchy chord sequence with an unforgettable final line ('Phew! For a minute there, I lost myself') - itself eventually disintegrating along with the song behind it.

The Smiths - 'That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore'

2:10. Another testament to the power of a chilling, repeated final line: the Smiths could be arch and humorous in their supposed misery, but this plays it relatively straight. Channelling despair into a kind of psychedelic mantra, the record sounds like what it's about. As Morrissey intones 'I've seen this happen in other people's lives, and now it's happening in mine', Marr wrestles a bending, churning riff from the guitar, slow but unstoppable. One of the great false endings, too: even when Morrissey is silenced, the band come back, overwhelming him. This part of the track was chopped off for the single version - toweringly daft decision.

Talking Heads: 'Found a Job'

3:15. The jerky, circular hook that sees this track through to its conclusion almost sums up Talking Heads's overall brilliance for me - almost maddeningly addictive, off-kilter but so tight and precise. Tina Weymouth's bassline is understandably the star turn, but listen to David Byrne's stop-start rhythm guitar, too. So bare and nonchalant, it sounds like what it is - wires being disturbed to make a pulse. If ever proof were needed that a song can be almost purely about its outro, it's in the celebrated Talking Heads concert film 'Stop Making Sense' - the band, with no explanation, dump a whole verse of 'Found a Job' and hurtle towards the instrumental ending. The late, great Jonathan Demme films them from the side, in a line, moving in sync, a living sine wave:

The Beatles - 'I Want You (She's So Heavy)'

4.37. Hang on... wasn't there that other Beatles track with the famous outro...? Well - yes, I could've picked 'Hey Jude', I suppose! But surely the most powerful extended ending in the Beatles catalogue is this, the climax to side one of 'Abbey Road', cutting to silence as it hits the run-out groove. Apparently one of the very last times the four were all in the studio together, this might have pushed an envelope or two (along with 'Helter Skelter', it points the way towards metal, and the eight minute running time nudged it towards prog and psych) ... but as the clamour increases to eventually overwhelm the layers of guitar - you realise you're listening to the Beatles implode.

Over and out!