Friday, 15 September 2017

Snap decisions: Specs on holiday

My job has been fairly intense in recent months, and given the old work/life balance a bit of a knock. So it was fantastic to finally get away to our 'regular' retreat in Northumberland - although this visit would be the first in three years. It was wonderful to relax, have the time and space to think and breathe... and write, without all the technical copy I have to come up with during the working day crowding my brain. My recent Proms posts were drafted in the idyllic setting of the holiday cottage.

Regular readers - or perhaps, in this case, viewers - will know about my photography hobby, and the portrait work I do with a group of friends very much represents me at my 'artsiest'. The camera always comes with me on holiday, but I'm aware that my pictures of Northumberland must run into several hundreds, with many near-duplicates and recurring subjects.

So - it's hard to explain, but this time, almost subconsciously, I largely just larked about. My mental energy was so sapped, I didn't want to 'worry' about every photo. I rediscovered the ubiquitous Instagram, which I hadn't used properly for years. I'd forgotten how the instant edit functions - a border here, some drama or trickery there - made taking snapshots just fun: nothing more, nothing less. That said, even though you're no longer quite so restricted within the app, I really enjoyed sticking, come what may, to the square ratio. It's impossible for the music nerd in me to separate that format from the traditional album cover... which added a whole new dimension to how I composed a few of the shots.

So, this isn't a showcase for my photography by any means - certainly not in the way I proudly share some of the portraiture - but it is a bit of a shout-out to Northumberland, one of my very favourite parts of the world. If you're in the mood to have a look through my holiday snaps, press on - I hope you enjoy them.

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The Angel of the North welcomes us - and everyone else - back with open arms.


The view from our cottage.


The Cragside estate is a real refuge for us - we always seem to end up going more than once on every trip. A cameo appearance from Mrs Specs here!




Dunstanburgh Castle.


The Alnwick Garden.



A sequence of photos taken at Wallington - like Cragside, another National Trust house and estate. I was extremely pleased to see whose music took pride of place at the piano. The house itself is a den of eccentricity: a library of some 3,000 books in a single room, Escher-like staircases and a blood-freezing collection of dolls' houses. (My in-laws came down from Scotland to meet us for a few days, and it's them, along with Mrs Specs, traipsing the woodland path.)








The second-hand book shops in Northumberland are of the very highest quality.


An excursion to Kielder Water, now home to some unusual art installations - in particular this secluded 'Minotaur Maze'. I should point out that Mrs Specs isn't still there.



A day trip to Newcastle-upon-Tyne, returning via Tynemouth - where (to continue the spookiness theme) we discovered the most terrifying Toy Museum on the planet. So scary, it's now called only the 'To Useum'.



There is more than one second-hand book shop in Northumberland.


Return to Cragside for a PROPER walk this time - one of those slightly mystical country treks where there is definitely more uphill than downhill. 'Invigorating'.




Where we stay. It's all farmland, with the croft and cottages at the top. The overall property is also home to a ruined castle and disused viaduct.


(Shudder.)



It's become a running joke that anywhere we have a meal out in this neck of the woods is completely deserted. This was a homely place with a slight buzz when we arrived. Looking about us after demolishing our starters, we saw this:


It is us. It's definitely us.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Piece to camera: classical music on TV

As I type, the 2017 Proms have just under a week left to run. But one feature of the season has already come to an end: the BBC show ‘Proms Extra’, which broadcasts each Saturday evening throughout the festival, apart from on the ‘Last Night’ itself.

Yesterday evening, then, was its final episode for this year. Hosted by Prombassador-in-chief Katie Derham, the programme aims to round up highlights from the previous week’s concerts and trail the treats still to come. There’s a routine: three guest musicians occupy the couch each week and, under KD’s conversational baton, add their thoughts and reflections. One of them gamely performs at the end to play or sing the show out. Some vox pops from the Prommers often feature, and David Owen Norris (a renowned UK composer-performer, here in genial boffin mode) has a ‘Chord of the Week’ spot where he explains a particular motif or technique used by one of the composers featured.

So, it’s partly a music programme… partly a television magazine… partly a chat show. Some of it is unashamedly educational, even academic – before flirting with ‘reality TV’ five minutes later. As a result of this raggle-taggle remit, it can sometimes feel a little odd. Every now and then, it also has to cope with the occasional guest ‘mismatch’. To take last night’s episode as an example, the three guests were saxophonist Jess Gillam, pianist Stephen Hough and percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie. SH – who is very loyal to the programme and always great value – found himself being asked about Bach (a composer he has chosen not to play so far), along with jazz and soul music – thanks to the Swing No End and Stax Proms appearing on the week’s agenda. He was courteous and responsive but, to his credit, completely upfront about not being able to offer much expert comment. JG, on the other hand, was ideally placed to do so.

But ‘Proms Extra’ can bring out the best in its guests too. Sometimes it gets the timing exactly right: Anoushka Shankar joined the programme a few days after performing the ‘Passages’ Prom and to all intents and purposes, it seemed as if she was still buzzing from it. Also, the sofa conversations can run into brilliant tangents as the musicians find some fertile common ground (fellow viewers may remember the terrific combination of opera singers Ailish Tynan and Stuart Skelton with gospel performer Ken Burton earlier in the season).

I’m writing about ‘Proms Extra’ because I want to revisit a thought I'd already had back in the mists of time. Why is there only a show like this during the Proms? In this article so far, I’ve examined the format in some detail, teasing out the bits where I think it falters slightly – and they’re all extremely minor. It’s 90% a completely brilliant show. It’s a cosy, relaxing watch – but by that, I simply mean it’s pleasant, which in this age of rolling news, shows based entirely on people judging other people and apparently endless fictional Scandinavian murders, is a Good Thing. There’s nothing cosy or relaxing about the music it sometimes features, or the levels of insight some of the more academically-minded visitors offer. KD is extremely deft, not only at managing the interplay between the guests, but at pitching the questions at a level where all viewers can feel she might be asking on their behalf.

(I once read a nasty insult aimed at KD on Twitter, from a very famous, extremely high-minded author. It had been carefully crafted for maximum rudeness in the space available – the writer channelling all his talents purely in the service of being hurtful. What a waste. Not only a horrible thing to do – but he had clearly never understood, for all his abilities, that there are many different forms of wordcraft. To phrase questions, steer responses, improvise and guide the conversational flow, to time, while holding viewer/listener interest – these are among the arts’ quieter skills, and we’d very much notice if people like KD didn’t possess them.)


But if there’s an audience for this programme during the Proms – why wouldn’t there be one during the rest of the year, when we’re bereft of actual Prom concerts? Clearly, the name would have to change to remain sensible, but can BBC2 or BBC4 not find a home for a ‘BBC Radio 3’-style show once a week?

It used to be thought by some that music on TV no longer really works. This is mainly a complaint from the rock world – since the charts don’t matter in the way they used to, ‘Top of the Pops’ and ‘The Chart Show’ lost the backbone of their formats, and disappeared. ‘Later’ is almost the sole remaining programme devoted to showcasing music in performance. Because it brings a deliberately diverse range of artists into the studio, who all play live, it sidesteps the need to reflect record sales, but instead focuses on old-fashioned musicianship, with a definite bias towards we – perhaps longer-toothed – viewers who still cherish quite retro ideas like ‘chops’ and, even, ‘albums’.

I suspect it’s the same audience BBC4 now targets with its Friday night music programming, which is heavily based on documentaries and nostalgia. As us rock fans get old and start drowning beneath our vinyl and box-set reissues, it becomes clear that we are potentially more interested in the older music we love being expertly curated, than in hearing new stuff. A curious recent phenomenon is the onslaught of official releases of concerts and radio broadcasts by major pop/rock artists (not on their home record labels, as a rule), a kind of legitimised product to displace bootlegs… in this thirst to compare and collect different versions and recordings of the same music, how oddly like the classical music consumer the rock fan is becoming…

In his recent book ‘Uncommon People’ (which I found a witty and compelling read), David Hepworth talks about contributing factors like the lack of mystique – thanks to the internet – and dwindling desire for physical product helping to kill off the ‘rock star’ as a breed. Instead, he refers to ‘mayfly’ pop stars thrown up into the firmament by talent shows, here one year, gone the next.

So, we’re actually kidding ourselves to think that the age of music telly has passed – in the pop world, it’s just been flipped over. Instead of the hit records providing the meat of the reactive TV show, the TV show provides the hit records. If we accept that television now has this power, imagine the shot in the arm a classical music show could give the genre, even with a fraction of the ‘X Factor’s reach. (And other arts programming is getting a look-in, too. I read recently in the Radio Times that BBC Radio 4’s ‘Front Row’ has been given a TV version. I’m sure that will be great, but it won’t fill a music-shaped gap in the schedule anytime soon.)

A ‘3 On TV’ show would have an enormous amount going for it. I appreciate that with no TV footage from Proms concerts to include, more of it will rely on guests willing to perform live, but that could attract some of the ‘Later’ audience, so it’s worth doing. Also, the media teams already take cameras into radio studios: anyone following stations on Twitter will be used to photos of the musicians rehearsing or performing – and sometimes video footage too. Why note record and broadcast more of those takes?

Radio 3 already has relationships with brilliant venues in place – obviously, London is my patch so I instantly think of so many ‘Opera on 3’ episodes coming from the Royal Opera House, or the regular lunchtime broadcasts from Wigmore Hall. But it goes nationwide, broadcasting music from all the UK’s major orchestras, venues and companies. The weekly show could, exactly as ‘Proms Extra’ does, play highlights from the previous week (which listeners would find in full on iPlayer) and flag the best bits to come.

Some of the structural wrinkles could be ironed out by reflecting Radio 3 programming – for example, there would be opportunities to feature more esoteric/exotic fare under a ‘Late Junction’ banner, and ‘Jazz on 3’ would also be represented. Live-in-studio chamber and song performance – with interviews – would very much mirror ‘In Tune’ … and the brilliant Donald Macleod could discuss a ‘Composer (rather than Chord!) of the Week’.

I realise this is a pipedream… but at the same time: why not? Why could it not be done? And can we do anything to get things started?

Monday, 28 August 2017

Proms round-up

While the Proms are still going strong, I’ve now bowed out, unable to get to any more of the concerts before the close of this year’s season. I made it to six gigs altogether – very happy with that – although at the same time I’m aware that it’s just a tiny fraction of what the festival as a whole has to offer.

I started the whole shebang off with a stone-cold classic, Beethoven's 'Fidelio'. I sometimes think I might be a bit odd in that I'm actually a little ambivalent about the work itself... famously, it's Beethoven's only opera, and I can't quite shake the feeling that his heart wasn't quite in it. As a consequence, I thought it both benefited and suffered from being a concert-only staging. Musically, it was a grand performance with stunning soloists: Stuart Skelton's opening 'Go-o-o-o-o-ott!' will, I imagine, be many attendees' single most breathtaking 2017 Proms moment. Louise Alder and Benjamin Hulett gave sensitively-pitched, endearing renditions of should-be lovers Marzelline and Jaquino. However, this type of production can raise certain questions - What does 'concert performance' really mean, compared with, say, 'semi-staged'? What level of acting or interacting do we expect? And is everyone doing the same thing?

Often, thanks to quality of performance, these are non-issues, but I did find myself thinking about them during this 'Fidelio' - even a potentially daft point like Leonore (the superb Ricarda Merbeth) - wearing a concert dress throughout. It might be only a concert performance but in an opera that totally depends on everyone thinking that Leonore's a man, it actually looked a bit ridiculous and rendered some exchanges nonsensical. A trouser suit - or even the same shirt/jacket combo worn by the men - might've been a neat touch. (Caveat: please note this is not a comment on any performer's looks or dress sense, and I'm fully aware, too, that opera doesn't depend on realism. This is just a point about a decision to do with stylistic direction/presentation that struck me as ill-thought-out.)

Even within my handful of Proms, I managed to sample some quite ‘extreme’ experiences. Two of these were presentations of vocal works written on such a vast scale that they don’t tend to come around too often, and when they do, it’s quite handy to have a venue the size of the Royal Albert Hall to put them in. For once – or, indeed, twice – the Hall’s famously volatile acoustic can simply be close-packed with curved-wall-to-curved-wall surround sound.

The first was Mussorgsky’s opera ‘Khovanshchina’. While ‘Boris Godunov’ remains the better-known, popular choice, this later work was an attempt at a kind of monumental national/political artwork: it centres on the pockets of society resisting Peter the Great’s reforms in 17th-century Russia, culminating in the horrific self-sacrifice of the Orthodox ‘Old Believers’ at the opera’s close. The composer never finished the opera, but after Rimsky-Korsakov resurrected and staged it, Shostakovich re-modelled the orchestration – and nowhere is this more apparent than in the terrifying finale. (Flirting with – but, in my opinion, just about conquering – naffness, the production’s only lighting effect came at the end, where the sacrificial funeral pyre was evoked by the entire Hall flickering with intense orange and red. This could have been terrible, but it was so unexpected, and so in sync with the hellish build of the music, that it worked brilliantly. Imagine being made to feel hotter in the Albert Hall. Exactly.)

Despite the opera’s wide canvas, some powerful performances from the soloists really hit home for me, primarily Ain Anger’s Dosifey and Elena Maximova’s uncompromising yet utterly moving Marfa. But the sheer scale – and the variety and quality of the choral writing, brought to life here by no less than four choirs – just made me happily surrender.


And staying with choral enormity, it was an extraordinary thrill to hear Schoenberg’s ‘Gurrelieder’ live. This Prom was magnetically attractive for a number of reasons: again, the chance to hear a seldom-performed work, but it was also this year’s ‘Rattle Prom’, with Sir Simon conducting his future charges, the London Symphony Orchestra and more or less guaranteeing the kind of atmosphere that comes with a sell-out gig. The London Symphony Chorus were just one of three troupes of singers this time round. But for all the amassed power and glory, this time round the soloists really had it.

'Gurrelieder' has quite an odd structure. There is, at least to start with, a plot: the king Waldemar falls for the maiden Tove - but the jealous queen has other ideas, arranging for Tove's murder. Waldemar curses God - bad move, generally - and in doing so, dooms himself and his men, after death, to hunt ceaselessly during the night rather than rest in peace. However, with sunrise comes renewal. Technically, the work is called a cantata - but it started life as a song cycle, and the opening exchanges between the romantic leads are in effect a sequence of orchestral lieder. Then it mutates into a kind of aria/recitative form as the Wood-Dove reports on Tove's death, and Waldemar sings his curse. These two sections are a bit like a pivot, after which the work broadens further in scope. The night-time hunt is given life by two cameos from a scared Peasant and disgruntled Fool, and heft from the male chorus, until ultimately the full choir take over to welcome the morning sun.

The effect of this is to create a story where the characters don't, to all intents and purposes, interact. The soloists each have the chance to create their own small universe in the spotlight, and what a mighty cast we had here, doing just that. The two leads, Simon O'Neill and Eva-Marie Westbroek, both gave heart-rending and passionate accounts of their characters. But I felt particularly lucky in that certain singers I really admire (largely from seeing them give great performances at English National Opera) were part of the supporting cast: mezzo Karen Cargill's gorgeously sorrowful Wood-Dove, Christopher Purves's mighty bass personifying the Peasant's boom and doom, and the fantastic Peter Hoare's searing tenor, perfect for the Fool's understandable mix of lunacy and resentment. Baritone Thomas Quasthoff (now mostly retired from classical song) rounded out the line-up in the Speaker role at the end, effortlessly proclaiming above the orchestra, even in a role without actual notes!

At the other extreme, it won't surprise regular Specs readers (thank you, darlings, thank you) to find that I managed to get to an art song Prom - the 6th in the sequence of chamber Proms held on Monday lunchtimes at Cadogan Hall. I was actually surprised to find that this was soprano Christiane Karg's Proms debut - not the case, of course, for her marvellous accompanist Malcolm Martineau. Together, the pair gave a scintillating programme of mostly French mélodies, but with an outwards glance towards the exotic: it was exciting to hear Castillian songs by Guridi (take note: it is possible to break the heart by means of a song with the opening line, 'I don't want your hazelnuts') - and Schéhérazade songs not from Ravel but Koechlin. More familiar but no less welcome were songs by Duparc, Ravel, Hahn and, bringing matters to a lush yet laconic close, Poulenc. It's hard to praise this programme and performance too highly - perhaps the best word is 'immaculate': CK married a pristine tone with superbly judged acting and movement, and MM just inhabits this material - in the opening Duparc, it felt almost like he was simply breathing the notes, caressing them into existence.

In perhaps a rare Schéhérazade double, I did get to hear Ravel's song suite this year too, as part of an inventive programme concocted by conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen for the Philharmonia Orchestra and Voices. It's perhaps significant that Salonen himself writes music, as all three parts of the concert seem to represent in their own way the composers acknowledging earlier influences - Stravinsky's 'Canonic Variations' based on the Bach cantata 'Vom Himmel hoch, da komm' ich her'; Ravel's Schéhérazade songs nodding towards Rimsky-Korsakov; and John Adams citing Bruckner as one of the inspirations for the evening's main event (given the ongoing celebrations for Adams's 70th birthday year) 'Naïve and Sentimental Music'.

I had a wonderful time at this concert. I love John Adams's music (that piece was the reason I went) and to watch and hear orchestras weave those cascading patterns across each other never loses its appeal to me. Add to this the joy of discovering a new (to me) singer, Marianne Crebassa, who sang the Ravel with maximum gorgeousness: very pleased to read of her upcoming CD of French song, which will include the voice/piano version of the suite.

Finally, an absolute personal highlight of the season for me will always be the 'Passages' Late Night Prom - the first ever live performance of the original 1990 album made by Ravi Shankar and Philip Glass. Clearly this has me written all over it ('minimalist' classical, especially Glass, world music, exploration of musical patterns/repetitions - you name it), and it was everything I hoped it would be. Anoushka Shankar (a sitar virtuoso in her own right, but - as Ravi's daughter - with a personal as well as professional affinity for the music) led her ensemble of Indian classical musicians but joined the terrific Britten Sinfonia under the overall director of conductor and Glass specialist Karen Kamansek. As if I didn't have enough good vibes about this gig already, KK had conducted the astonishing recent ENO production of 'Akhnaten' - what better recommendation?

'World music' is, ironically, a 'Western' genre: the music itself was already out there in the world, of course, but a kind of UK/US 'gathering of thought' promoting, accepting and adopting music from other cultures is perhaps most easily understood as a late-80s/early-90s rock phenomenon: Paul Simon's 'Graceland', Peter Gabriel's Real World record label and establishment of WOMAD, the globe-encompassing indie of Dead Can Dance, John Peel's embrace of African bands on his show... these are examples that come initially to mind. But it's a wholly unsatisfactory summary (missing out, for instance, George Harrison's fusion efforts as long ago as 'Sgt Pepper', or the way punk-era bands like the Clash and the Police reached out musically to reggae).

'Passages' could be said to belong in the vanguard of any such world music movement, but in fact, to me it seems to occupy its own space. Rather than 'adopt' a sound, the two composers seem to be saying: this common ground already exists, and here is how we find it. It's interesting to me that even the title, 'Passages', suggests linkages, correspondences - not simply a 'journey' from one sound to another. It's not 'fusion', as in an attempt to make a connection - more a statement of recognition that despite wildly variant approaches (the musicians on the original record were working with completely different systems of notation, and KK had to re-arrange the cycle accordingly to reconstruct the album live), you can arrive at a complete musical synthesis, as if the notes are already there, just waiting for you to arrive from separate starting points.

The joy of performing this work was written all over the faces of the musicians. The Britten Sinfonia played with astonishing precision and discipline, yet looked like they were having the time of their lives. Controlling the patterns and rhythms, keeping the motor steady while accommodating awe-inspiring soloing from AS and her group, KK kept her own movement minimal - almost a human metronome, communicating as much with glances and signals as with the baton. For a late-night Prom, this was absolutely packed - a pleasingly diverse audience for a piece of music that emphasises our points of communion, our closeness.

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All Proms are broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, then remain on iPlayer for 30 days. Here are the links (where possible) to the concerts I've written about above. Unfortunately, 'Fidelio' has already gone - some of these only have a few days left, so please make haste!

'Khovanshchina'

'Gurrelieder'

Christiane Karg & Malcolm Martineau

Adams / Ravel / Bach arr. Stravinsky

'Passages'

Monday, 21 August 2017

Clapped out

I'm not sure if this is directly related to the Proms, but audience behaviour seems to be such a 'hot topic' at the moment, it might as well be in a furnace balanced on a bonfire surrounded by lava. (And since that's a fairly accurate description of being inside the Royal Albert Hall much of the time, perhaps the two are connected.)

It seems falsely linked to the increasingly tiresome 'is classical music elitist' non-issue - why try and increase attendance only to moan about the incomers when they get here? - but in fact, it strikes me that there are two entirely distinct trends going on here.

One is the general issue of people who seem to have no social self-awareness. I mean the kind of folk who talk through an entire concert, eat noisily, text, that kind of thing. I draw this out because it has nothing to do with classical music per se - it goes on everywhere. You get exactly the same thing at the theatre, cinema, other types of gig. Don't kid yourself that it's any better at a rock event because the music is amplified. Anyone who's been anywhere near the bar at, say, Shepherd's Bush Empire will know that a group who are determined to chat will literally YELL at the top of their lungs all evening to make themselves heard above the band.

This is all just rudeness. As I can't singlehandedly solve that, I leave it to one side.

I'm more troubled by what seems to exercise certain classical concert-goers in particular - that some of their fellow audience members are reacting 'wrongly' to the music. The cardinal sin here is clapping when one 'shouldn't'. Examples of bad times to clap - it is said - are: too soon at the end of a piece (for example, when the performers might be seeking a moment of atmospheric silence); between the movements of a symphony or concerto; or after every single song in a recital (when they are normally arranged carefully into 'sets').

Because we seem to now live in a world without nuance, there are those out there pretending this is a black-and-white, right-or-wrong issue. Some classical commentators have used words like 'barbaric' to describe clap-happy punters, exposing a leaning towards the internet aggression of the age, and rather forgetting their own pretensions to civility in the process.

In the real world, it bothers some, while others couldn't care less. While current practice is more reverent, many past composers would've expected frequent applause (opera is the odd genre out here, where it's still common to hold up the action and clap a great aria).


And more importantly, the musicians - who, lest we forget, the performance is actually about, not us - seem divided, too. Some don't mind it and take it as honest appreciation and encouragement; others find it off-putting and damaging to the mood they want to create. If in doubt, then, safest not to clap: but why should people be 'in doubt'? Face facts: someone who's come to their first classical recital after 50 rock concerts will find it extremely strange when the music stops and there's no applause. Especially as no-one will have told them what to expect.

That's where I'm heading with all this. For an issue that seems so divisive, I've become increasingly amazed that 99% of the time, performers and particularly venues leave it to chance. Everyone is now used to mobile phone announcements (although more of that below) and even exhortations to stifle coughing before certain chamber events. But only once, I think - as the concert was being recorded - were we given instructions beforehand to observe certain 'applause breaks'.

Why can't venues across the country - no, the WORLD - unite, and agree on a kind of handy hints sheet that can go in the front of every programme for first-time visitors, children and so on? It needs to be polite, and carefully explained. And it needs to be inclusive - don't make attendees feel gauche for not being sure what to do, or for taking a snap. It's not easy, but I'll try to get us started:

1. Please switch off your mobile phone before the concert starts. It's really important that you don't just put it on 'silent' mode. It will still interfere with people's hearing aids if you do that. Please turn it off completely.

2. If you need to cough during the performance, try and stifle it as much as possible. Take the opportunity to cough during applause if you can. Speaking of which...

3. As a rule, classical audiences don't clap between 'movements', sections or individual pieces - applause comes after a whole concerto or symphony, say, and for a smaller-scale recital, after each group of songs or pieces. It isn't always obvious when to clap - as you'll sometimes hear when a smattering of applause starts up before whoever it is thinks better of it - but take your cue from the performers. Conductors may continue holding their arms up to 'suspend' the closing notes of the piece; musicians may lower or avert their eyes as they finish. This generally means they want a short period of quiet for you to absorb what you've just heard. When they turn around, look at you and (usually) smile, that's when you clap.

4. This is one mainly for chamber and song events. If you're following words in your programme, please turn the pages as quietly as possible - and if you can last until the end of a section or piece to do so, even better. You're focused on the text, and - trust me - you don't know how loud that page turn actually is. Especially when everyone is doing it at once.

5. It's fine to take photos before a concert - and it's usually ok right at the end, too, during the curtain calls. But it's the height of bad manners to do so during a performance, especially on your phone - which will, of course, be switched off...

And venues - you're not off the hook, either. I've written the above on the assumption that the reader will get no help from you at all - but now's the time to step up! Two pleas from me:
  • Put applause breaks in the programmes - and announce them, too (not everyone buys a programme). [Wigmore Hall in London gestures towards this with cryptic asterisks between groups of songs - but why not just print '<APPLAUSE>' instead of the asterisks? Still, commendable effort, Wigmore.]
  • When you put a libretto or song texts in the programme, avoid page breaks within songs, or in the middle of verses. Even when people get used to the idea they need to turn the page quietly, they will often forget.
Leaving people guessing - as though the 'correct' behaviour, whatever that is, signifies membership of an inner circle - is the most alienating thing we can do. Putting people in the picture will bring them into the fold.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Of sound mind? - Sampson & Middleton's 'Reason in Madness'

I realise this is more of a catch-up than a write-up - life has been somewhat frantic lately, and I'm aware that I've managed to see and hear some superb stuff recently that I simply won't be able to write about. Not ideal. In particular, I made it to some wonderful recitals in the closing weeks of Wigmore Hall's season - not least their 'Serenade to Music' gala evening, which literally filled their stage to the point of near-collapse with art-song champions.

But one gig, in the last week of July, was sky-scraping, next-level stuff. It will surprise absolutely no-one who reads Specs regularly that the performers were soprano Carolyn Sampson and pianist Joseph Middleton. Apart, both are heroic: CS has a range of recent performances and recordings that earned her a nomination for Gramophone's 2017 Artist of the Year (I wrote more about this here)... While JM recently won the Royal Philharmonic Society' Young Artist Award, and features on some brilliant recent recital discs with Ruby Hughes and Louise Alder, alongside his group projects the Myrthen Ensemble, and the team assembled for a terrific disc of Britten's Purcell realisations.

But together, I think they're a textbook dream team. They're assembling a fine body of work rapidly and unerringly, with a real sense of purpose. Inquisitive and versatile programmers, the duo's approach to recital sets and releases tips its hat to the way albums are structured. (I'm sure this is a key reason that I feel such a connection to them - I see them as part of 'my' generation of classical musicians, who have enjoyed a rich musical diet and don't always tackle things in a strictly 'classical' way.) Rather than focus solely on 'complete works', themes dominate instead, allowing the pair to range across the repertoire finding comparisons and connections. Their first disc, 'Fleurs', brought together an astonishing range of flower songs, while the second, 'A Verlaine Songbook', used a single author's words to bring songs from 'hidden' composers like Poldowski and Szulc out into the limelight next to Debussy, Fauré and Ravel. (Interestingly, they have a recording forthcoming that is dedicated to a single composer - Schubert - and I can't wait to find out which path they've taken through his hundreds of lieder.)


(Photo credit: Marco Borggreve)

Of course, this wide-ranging strategy wouldn't work if the versatility wasn't as much in the performance as in the programme - and this latest recital, 'Reason in Madness', is probably their most thrilling demonstration of this to date. A survey of women in song who have reached - or breached - the limits of their sanity, we encounter Gretchen, Mignon, Bilitis, Ophelia et al as imagined by 11 different composers. The sequencing is truly deft: at face value, again it's like two sides of an LP - side 1 contains German lieder, and side 2 French mélodies. But there are several effects within effects.

Neat touches abound. For example, the opening trio of songs all feature women at the spinning wheel, a common motif for threadlike reason, about to career out of control. Equally, some of our heroines appealed to both German and French composers alike, giving a pleasing symmetry to the programme as the characters make 'mirror' appearances in both halves of the concert.

But the masterstroke of the sequencing is in the way the duo control the mood, and build the intensity. The lieder half is appropriately sorrowful and wracked - moving through heartrending Brahms and Schumann, then reaching a kind of mini-climax with Wolf's edgy Mignon settings. Then, we have a sort of 'reset'. The French sequence adds that unmistakable air of unsettling, near-chanson eroticism with Debussy's Bilitis songs an inevitable highlight - but all heading towards the tour-de-force at the close of the set: Poulenc's 'La dame de Monte Carlo'. This epic tale of a woman meeting her ruin at the gambling tables is more like a mini-opera, a perfectly dramatised 15-minute 'short' (similar to his earlier one-woman opera, 'La voix humaine').


The entire concert was bliss, but something seemed to happen in that second half to make it feel like the recital equivalent of a plane leaving the runway and soaring into the air. It's tempting to speculate that after the Verlaine songs, then a sublime performance as Mélisande for Scottish Opera, something about the French choices here powerfully ignite CS's skill at undercutting an air of innocence and light with gentle melancholy one minute, then high-octane sensuality the next. Her singing is so pure and expressive that you could hear all these emotional shifts in the voice alone, even if closing your eyes.

However, because the songs were so dramatic in nature, both performers - I count the piano in this as much as the voice - were able to fully act. JM's swooning, startling dynamics notwithstanding, CS of course had to carry most of the visual attention. And seeing someone really act in the close quarters of the Wigmore Hall is a different experience from the distance that normally exists between singer and audience in an opera house. I was locked in so closely to CS's performance, I'd have probably dived after her into the sea at the dying notes of the Poulenc.

This, I think, is the crowning element of genius in the 'Reason in Madness' programme - that the visual and musical performance coalesce into something genuinely unsettling and intensely moving. The care taken with the concept results in the cumulative power of the songs overwhelming you, in the best possible sense. A clear contender for my recital of the year.

It's fantastic news that this set will also be taking its place in the duo's ongoing series of recordings at some future date. (Given the ace acting involved, it would also make a superb performance DVD - look to something like the film of 'Winterreise' with Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake for a precedent. Are you listening, BIS Records?)

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Mind you, in other news, we have a lot to thank BIS Records for... as the next Sampson / Middleton recording to actually hit the shops is 'Lost is My Quiet', in September. They're joined by countertenor Iestyn Davies for a typically insightful range of songs from Purcell (again, adapted by Britten), Mendelssohn, Schumann and Quilter. To my knowledge, this specific set started life around the time it was performed as a chamber Prom: I was there (read more here) and it was quite something, a great atmosphere helped by a winning chemistry between the two singers. I can't wait to hear the recorded versions. (And while on the subject, isn't this one of the best classical music album covers in years? - like a rock album sleeve, but cooler!)


Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Paintbox: Pink Floyd at the V&A

Spoiler Alert: If you're a Pink Floyd fan in London's orbit, you probably know about the V&A PF exhibition and you won't need any persuading from me that you should go. Of course you should - in many ways, it's glorious and utterly epic in scope. However, I do talk below about the 'hang', for want of a better word - the way the show is put together, and a few of the surprises (positive and negative) in store. So - if you've not seen it yet and want a totally 'fresh' experience, please stop reading here, with my blessing. Maybe come back after you've been, though, and see if you agree with me.

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London's Victoria & Albert Museum describes itself as 'the world's leading museum of art and design'. A bold claim, but one that sums up very well the V&A's seemingly roving brief to highlight those areas where art and design meet, and somehow capture that tension in its historical and cultural context. I've lost count of the brilliant exhibitions I've seen there that I would never expect to find anywhere else - from Middle Eastern contemporary photography to aesthetics during the Cold War.

In 2013, the V&A mounted the extraordinary 'David Bowie is...' - a monumental survey of the Starman's career, told mostly through album art, costumes, memorabilia and, of course, music. The audio guides worked through magic* (*possibly not actual magic) that allowed them to 'pick up' an appropriate number from Bowie's vast catalogue to soundtrack whatever exhibit you were looking at. A self-curating, sympathetic playlist: Sound and Vision.

Now, it feels as if we might be witnessing the creation of a formula. 'Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains' is an equally huge crowd-magnet of an exhibition that works in a very similar way to its Bowie-based ancestor. So much so, in fact, that I found it impossible not to make comparisons between the two as I walked round.

What makes some musicians, for example, appropriate subject matter for an art exhibition in the first place? Their key skills are normally more evident on record or on stage. The V&A's interest in Bowie and Floyd - apart from getting trillions of people through the doors - is surely that both acts took control of visual media to enhance their artistic statements. But with very different aims.

Bowie - a solo artist - was so often his own canvas. He seemed to absorb his artistic interests into himself, moving through a succession of identities, wearing and personifying his music. This may of course have been a way of concealing his 'true' self, but he was not in hiding - some part of him was clearly flamboyant, confident and in-your-face. Pink Floyd couldn't be more different: to me, it seems they've always wanted to vanish - and their groundbreaking visuals, from which they themselves were almost always absent - allowed them to do this. (The only two albums I can immediately think of where they featured on the cover are 'The Piper at the Gates of Dawn', where they are distorted through a lens, and 'Ummagumma', where they feature in an optical illusion.)

In their early days, their live gigs featured a light show - and the first room we see plunges us into darkness save for some swirling shapes and projections, an array of posters and fliers displayed around us. Then, as we move on, the exhibition begins to take on its slightly odd shape - mirroring the band's slightly oddly-shaped career. It's in two halves, I would say: a relatively low-key, muso-friendly approach takes us up to 'The Dark Side of the Moon', when broadly speaking they were making albums as we would understand the term (however weird and wonderful). Then, with 'Wish You Were Here' as a kind of pivot, we suddenly move into Concept Floyd and the show explodes into sensory overload accordingly.

My favourite Floyd album is 'Meddle', so my heart really belongs in that first section of the exhibition: more geek than freak. With early singles pouring into my ears ('Point Me At the Sky'! Bliss!), there was one display case after another to gladden the eyes. Each album had its own nook or cranny (I'll come back to this), with relevant photos and sleeve art - not to mention a generous number of guitars - to advertise its merits and memories. It felt a bit dreamlike, as if one could walk through the pages of a scrapbook.


(My favourite Floyd album: 'Meddle'.)

Around the 'Dark Side' / 'Wish You Were Here' era, the rooms suddenly get larger. One gloriously indulgent display of instruments steps outside the chronology slightly (is it wrong to covet the drums with the hammers from 'The Wall' on them?) and introduces some interactivity, with the opportunity to mess around with the mix of 'Money' so you can fade the individual parts in and out. I would've liked a bit more of that, with some of the spacier songs. Mind you, if you'd stuck me in front of a bunch of faders and let me loose on something like 'Echoes', I'd never have left.

After 'Wish You Were Here', the show pulls off perhaps its most shamelessly engineered but, all the same, rather great visual coup. You go through a small corridor where the angle is such that it's impossible to really see what must be in the next, much larger room. Once you pass through and turn to your left, you're unlikely to be ready for a truly colossal space that feels almost aircraft-hangar like in its enormity - and in it, there's a replica of part of Battersea Power Station (the 'Animals' cover art), alongside 'The Wall' itself and, most terrifyingly of all, the Teacher from that album and film, looming malevolently with his trademark headlamp eyes. This whole section has a certain flawed magnificence - for all the ambition surrounding the 'flying inflatable pig' Animals shoot, the part of the story that stays with you is the plastic porker freeing itself from its tethers and floating off into the nearest flightpath.


(The cover art for 'Animals', taken from the V&A website. Design: Roger Waters; Graphics: Nick Mason; Realised by Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell at Hipgnosis.)

The rest of the show struggles a little to live up to this. Poignantly for the diehard fan, the Wall-building more or less symbolises the collapse of the classic line-up. The great disappearing band - represented so often visually by Storm Thorgerson's ceaselessly inventive sleeve art - were finally at the point of alienating themselves from each other.

Eventually, Pink Floyd soldiered on for some years without Roger Waters and produced some great work - but things had inevitably changed. It's jarring to see a black and white David Bailey publicity shot of the band - how can such a great photo seem so ordinary? And as if Team Floyd sensed something really vital was missing, the sleeve concepts for albums like 'A Momentary Lapse of Reason' and 'The Division Bell', and the use in concert of the circular screen showing constant animations and footage, became ever more grandiose. The rooms here are a little large for what there is to show in them - it's tempting to feel this captures the slightly more empty experience of Floyd without Waters's teeming, cynical imagination to rough up David Gilmour's more natural melodicism, and Richard Wright's and Nick Mason's smooth musicianship.

I feel like I've been quite critical of this exhibition, when I don't really mean to be. It was terrific fun, wonderfully indulgent for a Floyd fan, and you will simply be presented with one brilliant reason after another to celebrate such a wilful, strange and yet completely successful and - ironically for committed shadow-loiterers - communicative group.

I do have reservations. The V&A often seem to shoot themselves in the foot with the layout of exhibitions like this. I went on what I hoped would be a relatively quiet weekday and it was still absolutely mobbed, resulting in bottlenecks throughout the entire early part of the exhibition. 'Dark Side of the Moon' has a glass display case - obviously an exhibit of MASS interest - in a dead end of sorts, meaning that no-one could get a look at it until the bunch of folk before them had finished - yet each group were forced into blocking the other's ability to move out and around. This seems odd given how unnecessarily huge some of the spaces were later on - for example, a huge video room containing, well, nothing at all. Also, the initial room with the swirling light show was in fact so dark, it was impossible to look properly at all the art on the walls.

And one very specific point, simply because I was a little baffled by it. The Pink Floyd story is, in places, a truly sad one. Their first frontman, Syd Barrett, departed the band after succumbing to psychedelic drugs, or mental illness, or both: eventually, he withdrew from the public eye (and died in 2006). When the band fractured, it seemed like relations between Gilmour and Waters were so acrimonious that there could be no hope of reconciliation - emphasised when the 80s model of the band carried on without him. And the story now seems over for good, with the death of Wright in 2008. But - unless I overlooked something - the exhibition completely overlooks one of the most joyful episodes (for the fans, anyway) in their entire career: when the four-piece did in fact re-unite for the Live8 gig. It was a great set, and there was something honest about it - clearly not entirely comfortable, they all must have felt that the cause was bigger than them, and played a blinder accordingly. Even if everything had been sweetness and light, I don't think anyone expected some kind of permanent reunion - their subsequent careers showed that Waters and Gilmour had genuinely moved apart artistically. But as a thrilling gesture and possibly the only time that the band acknowledged that all people wanted - finally - was to see them, the blokes, play together - no concept, no artifice... it's a hard moment to beat. I missed being reminded of it.

[** EDIT ** - It turns out I did miss something! There is a video presentation right at the end (which I only managed to catch a small part of - it was packed) which I'm reliably informed features footage of the Live8 performance. This is excellent news, and makes much more sense. However, please bear in mind that I noticed nothing whatsoever signposting the fact the video included Live8, or making anything of the reunion performance at all - which in itself seems a little odd to me. All the same - if you go, that's where the Live8 reference is lurking. Thank you to Twitter pal John for letting me know - much appreciated.]

But all in all, I was reminded of so much else - which is why, despite my 'issues', I'm recommending the exhibition. Pink Floyd are one of that breed of groups who enjoyed universe-conquering success while still remaining heroically strange. This show allows you to wallow not just in their unique music, but in the arty, surreal world they created, that conveniently existed in its own right, alongside the songs. Casual listeners, proceed with caution, but proceed nonetheless. Floyd fans - you've probably been already.

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!

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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.