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composer, poet, critic, essayist

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Three Choirs Festival: Ashkenazy / Philharmonia Orchestra - Elgar, Sibelius, Rachmaninoff

Gloucester Cathedral, 27 July 2013

Edward Elgar - In the South
Jean Sibelius - Luonnotar
Sergei Rachmaninoff - The Bells

Conductor: Vladimir Ashkenazy
Soprano: Helena Juntunen
Tenor: Paul Nilon
Baritone: Nathan Berg

Hereford, Worcester and Gloucester may lie firmly beyond the ‘Land of Song’, but the excellence of their cathedral choirs and the passion for amateur and professional singing evident across their counties serve as a reminder that - in present-day choral terms at least - that particular cultural cliché can be overworked. Alternating annually between each cathedral, the Three Choirs Festival is one of the longest-running choral events in the world. This year, it celebrated its 286th birthday in Gloucester with the usual emphasis on tradition and, in 2013 at least, with cautious nods to the new; the latter represented most extensively by Arvo Pärt - a composer now so ubiquitous in UK programmes that even the most musically risk-averse of Three Choirs regulars must surely be familiar with his music.

It goes without saying that there would be no such questions of recognition regarding Edward Elgar, the Festival’s dominating force for much of the twentieth century and continuing to the present day. A Roman Catholic outsider from rural Worcestershire, Elgar rose after many years of struggle, not merely to be embraced by the English establishment, but - however improbably in more subtle ways - to define it in the eyes of many. For Adrian Partington, the Three Choirs’ Artistic Director (and, incidentally, the long-standing Chorus Master at BBC National Chorus of Wales), Elgar ‘is still, and probably will remain, the essence of the Festival’ and the composer was duly honoured throughout the eight days of music-making; not least, with a thrilling opening gala performance of his concert overture In the South (Alassio) Op. 50 by the Philharmonia Orchestra under its esteemed conductor laureate Vladimir Ashkenazy.

Elgar’s single-movement piece was conceived and largely written whilst on holiday to Northern Italy in 1903-4 and is one of his least complicatedly exuberant. Indeed, it came at a high point in his career, when his acceptance into society was about to be made publically unequivocal; the March 1904 London Festival at which In the South would be premièred was devoted solely to Elgar’s music - an unprecedented stamp of approval for an English composer - and he was elevated to a knighthood later that year. Regarding tonight’s programme, I had a slight concern that the opening placement of the piece would be as a crowd-pleaser before Ashkenazy got down to business with his specialisms of Sibelius and - especially - Rachmaninoff (I agree with Mark Elder, for instance, who believes that In the South is really more subtantial than a concert overture and should be accorded the significance of a symphonic poem rather than treated always as a programme apéritif). But I needn’t have worried. Ashkenazy’s terrific rendition not only opened the concert (and the Festival) in style, but it made plain the true stature of the piece. 

The big, warm sound for which the Philharmonia is so famous came into its own right from Elgar’s extrovert, Straussian beginning, with Ashkenazy clearly relishing the score’s broader phrases, without neglecting the textural contrasts and many fine timbral details - and without slipping into sentimentality. Beautifully incorporating the extended reverie of the solo viola serenade (lyrically played by Rebecca Chambers), this was a fullsome, entirely unbombastic, performance which lived up to David Owen Norris’s observation that ‘very little of what this music is about is on the surface’; something which I believe to be true of much of Elgar’s music, in stark contrast to the jingoism with which it is so often misguidedly associated. Particularly stunning tonight was the cyclic ‘descending fanfare’ so to speak, of intervals dropping by fifths, in Elgar’s depiction of imagined Roman legions crossing a viaduct near his holiday home. This was spine-tingling in the cathedral space and will resonate long in my memory.

In some ways, the Elgar was actually the highlight of the evening, as the bold, lush orchestral colours filled the cathedral with no voices to add more problematic balance issues into the reverberant space. The other two programme items suffered at times in this regard - although there was no gainsaying the sheer quality of musicianship on offer. Central to proceedings were twin centenary celebrations; the first having special significance for the Three Choirs in the form of Luonnotar (Op. 70); Jean Sibelius’s short masterpiece, which was commissioned by the Festival and premièred there in 1913. This is a wonderfully beguiling work which Sibelius composed between his Fourth and Fifth Symphonies and which hovers between worlds on many levels; from its ethereal soundscape, oscillating between light and dark colouration on the edge of tonality, to its deep, organic phrase structures that point to the radical architectural techniques Sibelius would shortly come to more fully embrace. Again, Luonnotar (at least, in the orchestral version - the piece also exists as a song for soprano and piano) hovers between solo ‘cantata’, orchestral song and symphonic poem. The supposed strangeness of its soundworld, together with the tremendous difficulty of its vocal line, led to the piece’s neglect for many years - arguably until the very same magical combination of Ashkenazy and Philharmonia with the sorely missed Elisabeth Söderström threw down the interpretational gauntlet in the late nineties. The high tessitura is challenging enough, but the Finnish text, taken from the mythological epic Kalevala, still sadly deters many non-Scandinavian sopranos from attempting the part.

Tonight’s soloist, the Kiiminki-born Helena Juntunen, amply demonstrated her vocal prowess as well as her Sibelian expertise. From ghostly floating over sustained strings to fearsomely climactic major-minor ambivalence, soprano and orchestra together were spellbinding throughout, with some fine sectional blending - particularly between brass and woodwind - adding to the heightened atmosphere. However, notwithstanding Juntunen’s expressive intensity, there is some irony in the words themselves being lost in the acoustic, as Sibelius’s setting of this ancient Finnish text can be seen as part of his ongoing attempt to assert the right to Finnish culture and national independence against the Russian domination that had prevailed in his country for over a hundred years.

Finland was at last able to claim independence from Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution there of 1917. Around that time, many Russians of the old aristocracy fled the Motherland into exile after the Communists took control. Among them was Ashkenazy’s elder-countryman Sergei Rachmaninoff; a composer with whom the celebrated pianist and conductor has, of course, enjoyed a long and distinguished association. Tonight’s performance of The Bells (Op. 35) - as might be imagined - was spectacular. Also written in 1913 (the same year, too, as Rachmaninoff’s fellow-exile and aesthetic opposite Igor Stravinsky produced his (in)famous Rite of Spring, which centenary celebrations are surely inescapable this year), Rachmaninoff also referred to it both as his ‘Choral Symphony’ and his ‘Third Symphony’; that is, until he wrote a purely instrumental Symphony No. 3 in 1935-6.

Whatever the designation, The Bells is possibly the greatest of Rachmaninoff’s secular choral works. Coincidentally, like tonight’s Elgar, it was composed during an Italian holiday, after Rachmaninoff received a copy in translation of the poem in four sections by Edgar Allan Poe from which it takes its name. Having loved the sound of Russian church bells since he was a child, and inspired by the poem’s darkening sweep from youth to old age, he now set to work in the same Roman apartment that his revered forbear Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky occupied in earlier times - the mournful ending of whose Sixth Symphony Pathétique inspired Rachmaninoff’s own death-shrouded finale in his own work. Tonight, the combined forces of Philharmonia and Festival Chorus were magnificent, with Ashkenazy seeming to conduct from inside the sound itself to produce a performance of elemental power. Of the three soloists, Juntunen again proved immensely impressive (if not so dark-hued as I personally would favour), whilst baritone Nathan Berg exuded charisma and melancholic intensity in equal measure. Alas, the undoubtedly fine tenor of Paul Nilon - from where I sat at least - was too easily overwhelmed by the huge forces of chorus and orchestra.

Overall however, the glories of this performance were many; from the rich, deep-piled carpet as it were, of the Philharmonia lower strings to the exquisite bell-like sonorities - so beloved of Rachmaninoff - in ringing brass, woodwind and, indeed, percussion; from the tight, rhythmic energy of the third movement Presto, palpable despite the cavernous acoustic, to the achingly desolate cor anglais of the final Lento lugubre (played with moving simplicity by Jill Crowther). Rachmaninoff often referred to The Bells as the favourite of his own works. Contrary to his reputation and the scowl familiar from certain photographs of him, his was a melancholic rather than a tragic disposition and the orchestral coda to his choral symphony does seem to suggest some hope within the mournful conclusion.

It would be fascinating to see for which composer the cathedral bells might be ringing in celebration a hundred years from now at the Three Choirs Festival. In terms of commissions, Luonnotar was a major contribution to the then international contemporary scene (although the Festival had actually commissioned a choral piece from Sibelius as you might expect, but which never materialised) and has now, at last, begun to be accorded the recognition it deserves. This year, there were welcome new pieces from John Hardy, Torsten Rasch and John O’Hara - but we will have to wait until next year for a major new commission from the Festival. That will appear in the form of Torsten Rasch’s projected work A Foreign Field (Echoes 1914) in commemoration of both World War I and the destruction of Chemnitz by Allied bombing in World War II; an important première to which I look forward immensely.

Published in Wales Arts Review 2.19: http://www.walesartsreview.org/three-choirs-festival-ashkenazy-philharmonia-orchestra-elgar-sibelius-rachmaninoff/

Book Review: A History of Opera: the Last 400 Years by Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker

604pp, Allen Lane, £30 hardback

In a piece for Wales Arts Review, following the recent BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition, I quoted from (and recommended) a book on opera that was published just last autumn to instant - and virtually universal - acclaim; a book which has nonetheless prompted grumbles and disagreement from admirers and the odd detractor alike, thereby stimulating debate about opera itself well beyond the small but intense world of its authors’ usual academic milieu. That book is A History of Opera: the Last 400 Years by Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker; two of the most distinguished opera experts on the planet, who offer their substantial wit, knowledge and insight to a wider public in an engrossing discussion of opera’s history, present state and potential future.

On one level, the book is simply what the title suggests at face value; an historical reference book packed with information about opera composers and their works - and which the authors have carefully pitched at a general reader with a beautifully adroit, jargon-free style. But the book’s easy-going, authoritative brilliance and engaging prose do not, in themselves, explain why it has generated such eager critical attention, and why it leapt onto every half-decent ‘Book of the Year 2012’ list within a few weeks of publication; for how could this be, if opera is, as popularly perceived, a more rarefied art-form than most, appealing to just a tiny minority of people? And how, then, might we appraise the authors’ double-edged title reference to opera’s ‘last 400 years’, signalling their belief that the genre itself is actually in terminal decline?      

There is a paradox at the centre of Abbate and Parker’s thesis, and one which is keenly felt; for the book is based upon their equally passionate belief that opera at its best continues to offer the most uniquely compelling of live, dramatic and musical experiences - because of rather than despite the inherent ‘unreality’, ‘strangeness’ and even ‘preposterous’ attributes of the art-form, and to a degree which overrides the ‘ridiculous’ expense and tremendous practical challenge of its production. Their book sets out to explore the transportative nature of operatic experience, showing how conceptions of opera have changed throughout the ages to the present day - and the book is undoubtedly a tour de force. But it comes from an ultimately troubled - and in many regards ironically conservative - viewpoint as we will see, notwithstanding the authors’ bewailing of the ‘cultural pessimism that now fuels the repertory’ and which has ‘turned operatic performance into an activity policed by a reverence for the work as a well nigh sacred object - a reverence in almost all cases not present at the time it was created.’

Abbate and Parker’s History is the first single-volume of its kind to be published for a generation (a New Grove History of Opera edited by Stanley Sadie appeared in 1989 and there have been others of various types before and since, including Parker’s own (as Editor) Oxford Illustrated History of Opera, 1994). The book’s publication in itself points to a renewed appetite for engagement with the genre. Broadly speaking, as with the New Grove History, the authors choose to adopt a traditional, chronological approach to music history, also dividing it along familiarly (some might say, tiredly clichéd) national lines. But theirs is a far more vivid approach, offering invaluable information from within a gripping historical narrative in a way which reflects their lifetime’s experience, collaborative strength and the cross-disciplinary leaps into critical and literary theory, film studies and so on, that opera study has made in the intervening years. Starting at the beginning as it were, with Monteverdi and his Florentine contemporaries, Abbate and Parker show how audiences were first captivated by this strange, new type of sung theatre in the early 1600s, going on to examine, through a ‘great procession’ of key composers and iconic pieces of repertoire, various aspects of opera which have come to be associated with - or even to define - different periods of operatic history. This might sound like potentially dry theoretical stuff, but in practice, every page is littered with compelling wider arguments, fresh angles and highly entertaining remarks. Particularly good, for example, is the authors’ tracking of opera seria through Handel and Gluck, on to Mozart and the innovations of opera buffa and Singspiel. In a characteristic, creative move along the way, they grasp an opportunity to discuss the re-staging of Gluck’s Orfeo in early twentieth century Germany as a means of showing how the work has embodied classical restraint across the ages - as well as poking fun at the politics of operatic and musical fashion in that later age, when German composers unleashed an unbridled Expressionism onto a oft-bewildered public:

‘Staging Orfeo with high-minded intent ... has always signalled a reaction against theatrical extravagance. In Germany ...  Richard Strauss’s Elektra may have shrieked, raved and jumped up and down in dirty rags, struggling to make herself heard over an enormous, blaring orchestra; but never mind, Gluck’s Orfeo, brought back on stage to sing out his grief in sunny C major, restored much-needed restraint.’

Fun too, is the way in which Abbate and Parker deal with the endless controversies over national pride that have occurred throughout operatic history; whether or not, say, French opera might be superior to Italian in the eighteenth century - and, of course, whether Italy (Verdi) or Germany (Wagner) shines brighter in the nineteenth. As a renowned expert on Verdi and nineteenth century Italian opera, Parker has, to put it mildly, an interest in giving his man his due. But the authors maintain a dignified, creditable balance, whilst at the same time making serious points in their re-calibration of a debate which not only still remains oft-weighted in Wagner’s favour,* but is ultimately pretty pointless, asking, ‘Do we need to continue such ancient polemics?’ Nonetheless, they enjoy small acts of subversion throughout, such as the titling of a sub-section on the young Wagner as ‘Wagner the Italian’ in implied riposte to those who insist on characterising elements of late Verdi as ‘Wagnerian’.

By these means and many more, Abbate and Parker breathe new life into an arguably stale chronological format; not only showing how opera has changed and developed over time, but doing so from a consciously historical perspective of our own time, putting us - the audience - at the heart of the operatic experience in a way which Sadie would never have thought to in his earlier, much more formalist musicological day. They remind us that opera is an art that is performed and they set out - at least in part - to explore how our contemporary expectations and experiences of operatic performance are shaped by what we know, or can glean, of the processes of history. For instance, in tackling the intellectual snobbery displayed by Berlioz and other high-minded French contemporaries towards opéra comique, they note how ‘for certain composers, for certain audiences, the gap between speech and song ... threatened to turn into an unbridgeable gulf. We are heirs to this way of thinking’ and ‘may need new attitudes ... before classic opéra comique once again becomes something to be savoured.’

Inevitably, much of the grumbling about the book has focused on questions of which composers have supposedly been short-changed - like that same Berlioz (‘a notorious fountain of aesthetic hauteur’); given too great a significance - like Rossini; or more or less entirely neglected - like Prokofiev. And several are the works about which various commentators have somewhat fussily voiced objection, either on grounds of inclusion, exclusion or difference of opinion (like Andrew Clark’s quibble, in a review for the Financial Times, with the authors’ view on Weber’s Der Freischütz). Although such complaints are entirely reasonable in themselves, especially when a book has been marketed as ‘definitive’, the temptation to concentrate on details can lead to missing a vital larger point - albeit a hugely ironic one, given that this History is almost entirely canon-led; which is that the operatic establishment’s very reliance upon some quasi-sacred orthodox canon of ‘great’ works from the past, recycled ad nauseum, is a sign that opera today is an endangered species; a worry to which I will return shortly. Abbate and Parker allow their concern to permeate their book, however, in which a world-weary tone is detectable beneath the authentic passion and delight, and where a cynicism can sometimes peep through the wit. Manon, for example, is described as ‘Massenet at his most persuasive; and also - not coincidentally - his least Wagnerian’. As with the Gluck-Strauss quotation above, this is just one of a myriad tiny ways in which the discussion of one composer is used as a subtle means of remarking, often disparagingly, on someone else or some other topic.

This mordant style is both entertaining and enlightening for the most part, and helps to build a fascinating web of cultural cross-references. But in the truncated - and frankly cursory - final chapters on twentieth century and contemporary opera, the tone flattens and becomes morose, reflecting Abbate and Parker’s own ‘cultural pessimism’ as well as their evident dislike, for the most part, of the opera of their own time. Looking everywhere for signs of impending operatic demise, for instance, they slide from playfully expressed scepticism to far more serious - indeed far-fetched - speculation, in suggesting that an increased readiness to mourn death, found in opera written after 1920 (to wit Ravel’s L’Enfant et les sortilèges), gives rise to the ‘suspicion ... that the mourning is also for a dying art form: for opera itself.’

Melodrama aside, the issues Abbate and Parker raise are far-reaching and, in many ways, urgent. In my view, they are right to decry a mainstream, global operatic culture that demonstrably venerates the past over the present, peddling often spurious notions of ‘tradition’ in fear of real artistic change and innovation; a culture reliant on the same old war-horse operas from the narrowest of allowable repertoires, dished up in ever more dusty or incredulity-stretching guises - with new successions of singing celebrities ever-willing to re-glamourise the machine. However, whilst this might be a fair description of populist big-opera, big-money culture (hold up your hand, the New York Metropolitan), it is certainly not the case that all opera culture is now like this, with no pockets of excitement and innovation. In Wales alone, for instance, Welsh National Opera (not to mention the chamber scale Music Theatre Wales), is a company of international quality, producing programmes of real breadth, artistic vision and integrity on a relatively limited budget - and even that stalwart of tradition and high(er) finance, the Royal Opera House, has embarked on a hugely ambitious new programme in recent years, including the commissioning of important new works. So, whilst I agree with the authors to an extent, such blanket doom-mongering as the following is, I believe, not only unhelpful (with no redemption offered and no solution) but unfair to those who are achieving great things in places where opera culture is still very much alive and kicking: ‘the later twentieth and twenty-first centuries, our time, are also the time during which opera began to reside in a mortuary, a wonderful mortuary full of spectacular performances, but a mortuary for all that.’

It seems to me a question of which operatic worlds you choose to inhabit - and Abbate and Parker not only appear solely to inhabit the world of the international mainstream canon as bequeathed by ‘history’, but they make the mistake of assuming that that world is opera today and, alas, their otherwise splendid and inspiring book seems caught at times between hand-wringing over the crisis and the determination to find something or someone to blame for it. There is a range of guilty parties in their view - ‘all important symptom[s] of our operatic condition’. Advocates of ‘historically informed performance’ are one such; according to Abbate and Parker, a movement ‘sustained by cultural pessimism, by recognition of the fact that, musically, we now enjoy novelty when it comes from the past rather than the present’. Again I agree in principle - but is it down to the authenticists’ missionary zeal or passivity on the part of their detractors that there are more and more such productions of, say, ‘new-old’ operas by Handel?

Or is the fashion for ‘authenticity’ traceable to the ‘culture industry’ itself, to borrow Adorno and Horkheimer’s classic description (extremely loosely speaking) of a society in thrall to commercial rather than artistic values - an important factor in opera’s downward slide on more than one count according to Abbate and Parker - and with which I would largely agree. For, it could be argued that, however artistically motivated its practitioners might be - or, indeed, artistically deluded if you agree with the authors’ point about the impossibility of (re)creating an authentic historical musical event** - the ‘historically informed performance’ movement has been promoted hard by a music industry eager to profit from the recycling of established repertoire, but otherwise running out of options to re-dress the familiar. Not only that, but the profit ethos of our ‘culture industry’ metaphorically cheapens music across the genres from the popular to the classical. Most recently in ‘opera’, this phenomenon is encapsulated by the ghastly commercial exploitation of child soprano Jackie Evancho, whose rendition of ‘Nessun dorma’ (a highly sexual aria in Puccini’s Turandot) signals, in the words of Abbate and Parker, ‘the burial rite for opera’s fundamental ground note of adult passion, the utter loss of meaning and context for the piece’ - as if the Three Tenors money-spinning circus of yore wasn’t bad enough.

The rise of the director as the main, creative driving force in opera companies, rather than the conductor as hitherto (a current exception being the ROH with Antonio Pappano), presents another problem for Abbate and Parker, with the increasing trend for crowd-pulling - and sometimes deliberately controversial - stagings of the ‘classics’. They are also sarcastically dismissive of what they describe as ‘the amiable bricolage of contemporary opera production ... the pleasurable sense of alienation postmodern directors so reliably provide’. In fairness, a theatre-led approach can end up being at odds with the score. Attempts to ‘up-date’ operas from the past for the ‘modern-day’ can be cringe-making - and operatic experimentalism is never helped by the kind of bad press accompanying such debacles as this year’s abandoned Nazi-themed Tannhäuser in Düsseldorf. But the problem seems to me more that some directors have ‘cloth ears’ as Stephen Walsh so succinctly put it, rather than that contemporary productions per se are guilty of compromising the music-theatrical integrity of the repertoire; insensitive conductors are just as likely to be found as insensitive directors after all. It is certainly a conundrum for the authors, though, who also argue passionately against the kind of slavish adherence to the score which would never have occurred in a past wherein Mozart and Verdi, for example, often re-wrote arias and whole chunks of score to suit particular singers and differing performance environments.

In any case, the constant re-staging of the classics surely relies upon equally constant fresh interpretations. ‘Exactly,’ I hear Abbate and Parker cry. ‘And that is why opera is dying!’ Well, maybe that will turn out to be the case, and maybe not. But I, for one, am not half so pessimistic as they about the operas being written now - opera composers being an increasingly thriving breed it seems to me, whether ‘dabblers’ or no (a way they describe opera composers who don’t specialise in the genre), but whose creative efforts to expand and refuel the repertoire are dismissed by the authors on several counts; most importantly, though, for reasons which bring us at last to the very heart of their shared passion for opera:

For, central to the authors’ agenda, is their beguiling appeal throughout the History of Opera on behalf of what they see as the fundamental kernel of operatic experience; one which lurks, tantalisingly resistant to analysis, beneath all historical and biographical facts, theories and narratives. And that is the transportative power of singing; the extraordinary, sensual marvel of the human voice. Time and again, Abbate and Parker bring us back to the voice and to other fundamental, performative ingredients of this irrational and perplexing art-form that scholars have, until recently, been apt to treat purely as a dry text for analysis - whether through the musical score, or through the literary drama of the libretto, or both.

The whole book is, in many ways, a hymn to the voice, based on the idea that ‘acoustic sensuality’ is ‘opera’s fundamental note’ and, moreover, that ‘the persuasive power of pure singing had a great deal to do with the evolution of opera.’ The authors show how, throughout history, operas have been written around the voice rather than voices being called upon to adapt to opera, as expected today - and how, often, operatic roles were devised or adapted for individual singers. Hence, the demise of the castrato in the late eighteenth century and the rise of the romantic tenor post-Rossini are both phenomena which have had a tremendous impact upon the development of opera - not to mention our seemingly unstoppable love affair with the (usually tragic) soprano heroine, and such vocal developments designed around her as bel canto. Abbate and Parker remind us that ‘“aria” means air, after all’ and the book is full of references at every turn to how ‘the experience of ... operas will cause [these] questions to dissolve, for a few moments, while we are transported by little songs, carried on a blissful musical wind.’

Naturally enough, then - and completely unsurprisingly for two opera-lovers who have devoted their whole lives to pre-twentieth century opera - Abbate and Parker appear singularly unimpressed by musical turns to extreme dissonance after 1900 and by the fact that, as they somewhat obliquely put it, ‘by 1945, opera’s great undertow - the expressive power inherent in the melodic arc, as performed by a human voice - was demanding a faith that for many composers was beginning to look blind.’ For them, it seems, a relative lack of outrightly sensual, physically tactile and overtly melodic singing in operas of the twentieth century and present day signals the death knell of opera itself (though how you define those qualities is, again, open to question) - not to mention their concern about the small numbers of operas commissioned post-war which have so far found a place in the repertoire. But even largely tonal, melodic composers who are performed on a regular basis - like John Adams, for instance - fall short in their eyes; Adams’ musical style being unflatteringly described as a ‘warm bath of vast and slowly-changing sound’. 

For a book which celebrates opera so exquisitely in so many ways - beautifully describing and narrating (at least, until they arrive at the twentieth century) the story of an art-form which has survived the perils of cost, practical challenge and cultural upheaval across the ages - Abbate and Parker are astonishingly bleak about opera’s prospects in the twenty-first century. Moreover, theirs is a miserable ending, which creeps out with a whimper rather than jumping off the ramparts with a defiant shriek, as it were. Their final chapter, ‘We are alone in the forest’, offers no solution to any of the problems they bemoan; indeed, their tired dismissal of opera composing today hardly seems calculated to help a situation of supposed artistic torpitude.

It does seem fitting, then, that one of many real, practical rebuttals to Abbate and Parker’s prophecy of doom should recently have emerged to such widespread excitement from the very university department which Parker heads as Professor of Music at King’s College, London; for it is here that George Benjamin also happens to be Professor of Composition. Joining the ranks of opera composers as diverse as Harrison Birtwistle, Michel van der Aa, Unsuk Chin, Thomas Adés, Mark Anthony Turnage, Kaija Saariaho and many many others, I am certain that the composer of the acclaimed Written on Skin - Benjamin’s recent opera début and a piece which has, for once, been aptly described as a ‘modern masterpiece’ - will have much to say in the coming years about any supposed death of the art-form of which he has just proven to be so magnificent an exponent.

* Which is more than the BBC has managed to do in devising their Proms programme in this year of shared bicentenary for Wagner and Verdi. They have programmed a whole seven Wagner operas in concert - including the entire Ring cycle - to none by Verdi.

** With such compelling ‘authentic’ performances as that offered by the French period orchestra Les Siècle (conductor François-Xavier Roth) at last week’s BBC Proms (of Stravinsky’s centenary-celebrating Rite of Spring and other works), it’s hard to argue with the fascination and superb insights of the very best exponents.

Published in Wales Arts Review 2.18: http://www.walesartsreview.org/a-history-of-opera-the-last-400-years-by-carolyn-abbate-and-roger-parker/

Sound Affairs: Michelangelo Drawing Blood

Cheltenham Festival, 11th July 2013
Music: Charlie Barber
Choreography: Andy Howitt

 Michelangelo is an iconic figure of the High Renaissance, whose profound - and possibly unparalleled - impact upon western art continues to resonate down the ages. Together with Leonardo, he epitomises “Renaissance Man”; a concept representing more a creative ideal than a mere colloquialism for “polymath”. How better, then, to explore Michelangelo’s creative process than through a new piece of music theatre incorporating a wealth of multimedia in film, choreography and music both live and pre-recorded?

That is exactly what Sound Affairs set out to do in their latest, quietly absorbing production, Michelangelo Drawing Blood...

To read the review, go to Bachtrack at: http://www.bachtrack.com/review-cheltenham-festival-2013-michelangelo

Sunday, 4 August 2013

BBC National Orchestra of Wales: Watkins / Mahler

St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, 28 June 2013

Huw Watkins - Violin concerto
Gustav Mahler - Symphony No.5

Conductor: Thomas Søndergård
Violin: Alina Ibragimova

Thomas Søndergård has remarked on several occasions that he finds it absolutely necessary to perform contemporary music, saying for instance: ‘if I don’t do contemporary music, I feel it’s strange ... to go back to Beethoven’s 5th - or even Mahler’s 5th - because I need ... new colours and new ideas to go on with the standard repertoire.’ In tonight’s concert, he demonstrated just how beneficial such an ethos can be for new and established repertoire alike, by rounding off his first year as BBC National Orchestra of Wales’ Principal Conductor with terrific performances of Huw Watkins’ Violin Concerto (2010) and that very Fifth Symphony of Gustav Mahler (written in 1901-2).

Indeed, this was the first time that Søndergård has ever conducted Mahler 5, making this concert a particularly resounding success - for the Fifth is a symphony so potentially bewildering in its innovative formal design and complex orchestration (both subsequently oft-revised) that Mahler himself once despaired of its receiving a convincing performance under any other conductor than himself; after its poor reception in Berlin and Prague in 1905 under Artur Nikisch, he wrote that ‘a musical score is a book with seven seals. Even the conductors who can decipher it present it to the public soaked in their own interpretations. For that reason there must be a tradition, and no one can create it but I.’ Alas, albeit more celebrated in his lifetime as a conductor than as a composer, Mahler died in 1911 without committing his own interpretation to phonograph or gramophone for us to hear what he may have wished to pass down by way of performing tradition - and, moreover, having eschewed tempo markings in any of his scores beyond the usual broad indications. Hence, arguments continue to rage, not just about the Fifth, but about how each of his symphonies ‘should’ be interpreted.

Part of the controversy stems from Mahler’s ambiguous status as a backward-looking late-romantic and a forward-looking modernist as we will see. Such ambiguity continues to affect the reception of many composers besides Mahler well into the 21st Century in different ways - not least the still-youthful Watkins who, as he noted in an interview for Wales Arts Review, is often held to be too ‘modern’ (that is, too dissonant) by mainstream audiences on the one hand, but too ‘old-fashioned’ (that is, too redolent of post-war English music) by critics and fellow composers on the other. Notwithstanding judgements based on aesthetic taste and Weltanschauung, Watkins’ music clearly owes a debt to the Benjamin Britten he has loved since childhood. So it was fitting that his Violin Concerto was paired with Mahler for this second performance in Cardiff following its première at the Proms alongside Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5; for, as Arnold Whittall has noted, ‘a strong Mahlerian influence is evident in two of the [20th] century’s most appealing post-Romantics, Britten and Shostakovich’. Tonight, the direct line to Watkins seemed all the more apparent for Søndergård’s thrillingly insightful approach.

The soloist was the fearsomely capable Alina Ibragimova, for whom the Concerto was written. In her hands, the violin is at once an instrument of attacking virtuosity and molten lyricism, and Watkins has rewarded her with a substantial piece utilising both characters; equally intense and often switching from one to the other in a moment. A brilliant performance to match a brilliant part - not to mention a BBC NOW on superb form - was never really in doubt, but Ibragimova has matured and (if the Proms radio broadcast is anything to go by) played with even greater depth on this occasion, throwing phrases to and fro the tightly driven orchestra with acute musical sensitivity as well as dramatic bravura. Each of the three movements (subtly subverting a classically-based fast-slow-fast design) offered combinations of a kind of expressive fury with firmly balanced, more delicately ‘held’ textures. I have a slight compositional concern regarding the relationship of the first to the third movement, as the latter seems rather to echo a gesture already made in the former than to succeed in defying expectation for a second time, with another quietly subsiding ending. But the piece is beautifully written overall; Watkins’ ear is undoubtedly alive to instrumental possibility as well as harmonic colour, and the tripartite relationship between violin, harp and punctuating bass drum was particularly satisfying at various points throughout. I look forward to hearing his forthcoming Flute Concerto, to be premièred next February at London’s Barbican Centre - interestingly here, alongside a performance of Mahler 1.

Perhaps listening to Mahler may have encouraged Watkins’ impressive instinct for knowing what to leave out as much as knowing what to put in, so to speak, instrumentally speaking. Certainly, tonight’s glowing performance of the Fifth Symphony emphasised Mahler’s rich and subtle use of orchestral colour, which made such a profound impact on the younger composers he encouraged in the Vienna of his day; figures such as Schoenberg, Webern, Zemlinsky and Berg. But, for them as for the music philosopher Theodor W. Adorno, ‘more important than ... Mahler’s style are the more hidden [innovations] of his compositional method. All contemporary compositional technique lies ready in Mahler’s work under the thin cover of the late romantic language of expression.’ The grand reference here to ‘all contemporary technique’ might in fact be largely applicable to Austro-German music but, in that context, it certainly seems fair; for Mahler effectively expanded the structural boundaries of symphonic form to modernist breaking point through vast, long-range thinking, incorporating new kinds of episodic writing and variation techniques, as much as through ‘backward-looking’, romantically intensified expression. No composer since has expanded the symphony further - at least, not in terms of sheer scale and intensity of utterance.

Not only that, but Mahler incorporated all sorts of overtly ‘popular’ - and often deliberately garish - devices in his self-expressed bid to portray the ‘whole world’ in his music and to ‘make[s] objective an untrammelled subjectivity’ as Adorno put it; all sorts of ironic and parodistic sounds from hurdy-gurdies to cow bells, via gushing sentimentality, manic waltzes and terrifying marches find their brash way into his music alongside beautifully embedded folk tunes, literary references, the most exquisitely subtle harmonic thinking and passages of truly searing existential joy and angst.

In terms of the accepted ‘reading’ of the Fifth Symphony as a journey from ‘dark to light’, Søndergård and the BBC NOW did a superb job tonight - not least because the conductor seemed to succeed in laying out all such devices and underlying formal subtleties as they appeared, as it were; allowing them to bubble up in service of the score’s apparently sprawling forward momentum, rather than trying to shape them in too ‘conscious’ a way. Thus, the heavy Funeral March of the first movement seemed to dovetail into the clean, almost Beethovenian parallel world of the second movement Tempest with its echoing funeral march, leading naturally to a third movement Scherzo blessed with a lightly, ironic touch and so on. Part of this achievement was undoubtedly due to the excellence of the orchestra, who quite simply played their socks off - with particular praise owing to the exceptional Principal Trumpet Phillippe Schartz and obbligato Principal Horn Tim Thorpe.

But another crucial aspect was Søndergård’s wonderfully unfussy phrasing and, above all, his sense of clarity and pace - most notably in the fourth movement Adagietto, made famous by Luchino Visconti’s use of it to depict heart-rending loneliness, unrequited love and impending personal doom in his film Death in Venice. Unfortunately, the film (not to mention Mahler’s apocalyptic later symphonies) seems to have encouraged many conductors to treat the Adagietto like a dirge - but not here, thank God; rather, Søndergård’s quicker tempo and transparent string sound helped to uplift the movement to its more authentic and characteristically autobiographical purpose, as a love song without words from the ecstatic Mahler to his beloved Alma, whom he was shortly to marry - and thus the conductor made sense of the ensuing glorious optimism of the symphony’s climax in its fifth movement Rondo-Finale, in which many of the work’s monumental musical and emotional themes make a final re-appearance.

Altogether, this concert offered music-making of an extremely high calibre and proved a thought-provoking, as well as celebratory, way to end the BBC NOW season. As Mahler himself said of the Fifth Symphony, ‘a completely new style demanded a new technique’. Tonight, the confident programme and the expansive, generous way in which it was delivered seemed indicative of Søndergård’s ongoing ambition to develop and shape his own vision as a conductor, as well as the playing of this exciting orchestra with which he has already forged a deep artistic resonance. Personally, I can’t wait for the new season to begin this autumn.

Posted by Wales Arts Review 2.17: http://www.walesartsreview.org/bbc-national-orchestra-of-wales-watkins-mahler/

What Makes a ‘Great’ Singer? BBC Cardiff Singer of the World 2013

16-23 June, Dora Stoutzker Hall, royal Welsh College of Music and Drama / St David’s Hall, Cardiff

What does it mean to be a ‘great singer’? What are the elements that define greatness - and how do we decide if a singer possesses them? These are some of the most slippery and hotly contested questions in contemporary culture. Indeed, they are questions which go to the heart of culture itself; cutting across boundaries of musical style to show the vital importance that singing and music in the broadest sense - and the act of vocal expression itself - hold for us as human beings. Clearly, any answer is contingent upon a whole host of factors, many of which are entirely subjective and based on our different understandings of the type of music being sung; to be a ‘great singer’ of free-style jazz or blues, say, might mean something very different from being a ‘great singer’ of rock music or of German Lieder. And where might the dividing line be between the ‘great singer’ and the ‘great performing artist’, whose singing happens perfectly to encapsulate - or even to define - some essence of the musical genre in which they sing? Such questions can not only be subtle and emotive, but fraught with cultural politics - as seen, for example, in the divide between ‘popular’ and ‘art’ music that still persists for many mainstream devotees on either ‘side’ (with glitzy talent shows like the Voice cashing in on people’s desire for instant fame). But, if these questions are difficult to resolve, how much harder is it to determine what elevates a ‘great’ singer to the level of star quality; indeed, to be crowned a ‘singer of the world’? And is it a question worth asking?

If the exceptional quality and spirit of the 2013 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition is the touchstone of my response then yes, emphatically, it is a question worth asking, however difficult to pinpoint or contentious the answers might be. The competition may have become more overtly glamorous over the years as its televisual profile has increased, but it is based upon real musical substance - and, although the arias and some of the art songs are inevitably performed out of context, many of the competitors this year managed nevertheless to ‘stop time’ (as Roger Parker and Carolyn Abbate describe operatic arias as doing) with performances of real depth and insight. Indeed, this 30th anniversary year produced some stunning singers from a field of ‘greats’ - not least the glorious American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton who deservedly won both the main Concert Prize and - more controversially - the Song Prize with a combination of grace, drama, wit and intelligence, all expounded by a thrillingly opulent voice and through a staggering technique. (Singing four different characters in four different languages in arias by Cilea, Humperdinck, Berlioz and Sibelius’s orchestral song Var det en dröm Op.37 No.4 felt somehow the least of her accomplishments).

But more than anything, Barton - and all her fellow competitors to varying degrees - seemed to embody something which has come increasingly to occupy the attention of opera scholars intrigued not just by what exactly makes great singers ‘great’, but by that which makes opera itself such a compelling art form despite its fundamental absurdities - and that is the notion of presence and what that means on a performing stage; the real, physical embodiment of something - be it a character or a narrative or an emotion - from where we are transported into abstract and often transcendent worlds. And this paradoxical mixture of physicality and abstraction is at least part of the reason why it is so difficult to put into words what makes a ‘great’ singer great - whatever the genre. But any great singer somehow shares the ability to achieve - through a certain sheer physical quality of the voice and body itself as a resonating, performing instrument - a way of producing sound which is capable of transporting the listener by transcending the corporeal body from which it is born, and through which we as listeners hear it. Michelle Duncan puts it eloquently in terms of the relationship of the singing voice to language when she writes: ‘as anyone who has ever heard opera knows, the singing voice has moments where it tears language apart, or tears itself apart from language.’

In terms both literal and metaphorical, ‘opera can make us forget’; by which the authors of that comment, Parker and Abbate, mean that great operatic singing can make us forget not just ourselves for a moment of time, but to forget that we are watching something unreal on a stage. Hence, we forget all sorts of absurdities in the plot and the unreality, say, of a Violetta dying of tuberculosis yet still able to sing in the most sublime way (as happens in Verdi’s La traviata). Indeed, the whole point of opera is that it actually relies upon such absurdities and inconsistencies in encouraging us to take flight as it were, into the world of the action on stage and away from the ‘real’ of the everyday; the very fact of drama that is sung is, of course, itself inherently ‘unreal’. But, paradoxically, in order to facilitate such flight, a great opera singer needs to have that sheer, heightened presence in a literal vocal and physical sense, as well as being entirely convincing on emotional and musical levels.

Far from being about some supposed ‘beauty’ of tone, then, great operatic singing is about something even more rare and elusive. As David Pountney put it, to possess an inherently ‘beautiful’ singing voice can even ‘get in the way’; after all, how many opera characters are simply - or at all - ‘beautiful’ and no more than that? It is far more important that a singer should have the ability to embody the fullest range of human emotion, from murderous rage to passionate desire via wistfulness and comic insolence. Indeed, what does ‘beauty’ really mean in an operatic context? I would argue that, in operatic singing at least, true beauty has little to do with some perceived perfection of vocal utterance, but rather with that indescribable combination of the physical with the metaphysical. And, in terms of physical beauty - what the singer looks like - whilst it is increasingly true that productions now aim for more ‘authentically real’ casting than hitherto, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa is by no means alone in worrying that young - usually female - opera singers risk endangering their very instrument by starving their body in the pursuit of concepts of beauty that ultimately make no sense on the operatic stage - if anywhere.

Although great operatic singing may not be about technical ‘perfection’ per se, it does nevertheless presuppose an entirely sure and practiced technique; something without which the voice cannot function and certainly cannot grow and develop over time. Coming back to the competition, obviously, it offered an opportunity to compare and evaluate the participating singers on a technical as well as a musical level, which gave the audience some great insights into the physical demands of art song and operatic singing, and hence an intriguing peek under the bonnet as it were and into the engine of opera itself. Cardiff Singer is one of the most prestigious competitions world-wide precisely because of the BBC’s excellent coverage across the media platforms - although it must be said that the commentary on the BBC2 Wales highlights programme skittered into the inane at times. And must we shove microphones up people’s noses to ask them idiotic questions about how they’re feeling when they’ve just walked off stage? Of all the ways to ‘bring us back down to earth’ as it were after a performance, this is surely one of the most crass. But then, alas, this is ‘classical music’; a species of culture which seems to strike such fear into the hearts of broadcasters that they feel they must somehow bend over backwards to make it and its practitioners ‘approachable’ for viewers.

Thankfully, the sheer amount of coverage more than made up for the occasional gushing moments,  and much of the commentary was fascinating and superbly done - Mary King in particular stands out as an articulate and passionate ambassador of great singing, together with Iain Burnside on BBC Radio 3, whose insights regarding song repertoire were a great asset. Cardiff Singer also happens to be justifiably famous for the informed passion of its live audience, as well as its genuine, personal warmth - not to mention the outstanding skill and generous encouragement of the two official piano accompanists, Llŷr Williams and Simon Lepper, with the resident orchestras, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and Welsh National Opera Orchestra (conducted by Jun Märkl and Graeme Jenkins). This year, both orchestras acquitted themselves with aplomb, but Märkl excelled in his rapport with the singers, leaving one wondering whether some singers who found themselves working with the nonetheless solidly able Jenkins may have felt they drew a somewhat shorter straw.

But equal playing fields often prove as chimeric as they are laudable to aim for. At least, however artificial the environment, competitions can be an opportunity for singers from nations with less strong or younger opera traditions to showcase their abilities internationally (this year saw the first competitor ever from Egypt, the soprano Gala el Hadidi, join entrants from sixteen other countries). It may be hard to expect singers from cultures as far removed from Western operatic traditions as Egypt, China and South Africa to compete on equal terms with Italians or Russians. But no German or French singer made it through the audition process to appear in Cardiff on this occasion - and, in any case, to compare sopranos with bass-baritones (as will inevitably happen on an operatic stage shared by sopranos and bass-baritones), is already a case of comparing ‘apples and pears’ - not to mention ‘varying degrees of ripeness’ depending on the age and experience of the singer concerned as Donald Macleod put it.

And Cardiff Singer is unique in offering participants the chance also to compete for a Song Prize based on art song and Lieder repertoire - a contest which turned out to be controversial this year as some felt the marvelous English tenor Ben Johnson should have won the prize with his beautifully considered recital. For, of all the Song Prize finalists, it was he alone who constructed a programme around a poetic theme; conjuring an interior world of exquisite fineness and depth with settings of sonnets by Shakespeare and Petrarch (by Britten, Schubert, Parry and Liszt). Alas for Johnson, his voice, presence and the recital he performed may have been undoubtedly great, but he was competing with a frankly astounding figure in Barton, who not only also managed to draw the audience into the more intimate world of art song (proving an extraordinary interpreter of Brahms and Sibelius), but who did so without compromising the range of expression in a voice that is enormous in scale. So it was wonderful to see Johnson win the richly deserved Dame Joan Sutherland Audience Prize. But the fact is, whether one ‘likes’ competitions or not, opera itself is a hugely competitive world for singers - and mainstream opera is an increasingly global phenomenon, with singers who take differing approaches to a vast song repertoire.

In many respects, the popularity of Cardiff Singer is due to its unique atmosphere, which makes it a celebration of the art of world-class operatic singing as well as an intense and high-stakes competition; as each of the twenty young singers (selected from a field of over 400) took care to point out, every competitor - and certainly every finalist - stands to benefit massively as a professional from the coverage that the competition affords, as well as the experience of competing against other superb singers. It is not just the main Concert Prize winners whose careers can be propelled into stellar realms as Bryn Terfel can famously testify, having been pipped to the post of the main prize in 1989 by a certain Dmitri Hvorostovsky (after having won the Song Prize). Post-competition, the making of a career is as much about finding the appropriate role for the voice at a particular stage of its development; not taking on too much too soon and risking damaging the voice in the long term. Again, as Terfel can testify, a bass-baritone capable of taking on Wagnerian roles, for example, takes many many years to develop and mature.

Ultimately, great singing in opera is so sought after because it is only through the performance of the voice that the ‘truth’ of opera is made apparent to us. Only then can the fundamental dualism which divides the subject and the object - meaning the audience and the performer but also the physical body and the transcendent voice - be shattered such that we can enter those fantastical realms that paradoxically speak so profoundly to us of the realities of human emotion. Choosing one voice as the greatest amongst great voices is bound to come down to subjective matters in the end - and must, in a top-level competition like Cardiff Singer, be based on achievement on the day rather than perceived potential. But, whatever one’s perspective, and regardless of whether one agrees with the judges’ various decisions, it is clear that the voices of all these exceptional young singers have the potential to continue resonating on stage and off for very many years to come.

For further investigation of the operatic voice and how we hear it try the following:
A History of Opera: the Last Four Hundred Years - Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker (Allen Lane, 2012)In Search of Opera - Carolyn Abbate (Princeton University Press, 2001)Metaphysical Song: an Essay on Opera - Gary Tomlinson (Princeton University Press, 1999)

For those with access to JSTOR:
Music - Drastic or Gnostic? - Carolyn Abbate (Critical Inquiry 30 No.3, Spring 2004) The Operatic Scandal of the Singing Body: Voice, Presence, Performativity - Michelle Duncan (Cambridge Opera Journal, Vol.16 No.3, Nov. 2004)

Posted by Wales Arts Review 2.16: http://www.walesartsreview.org/what-makes-a-great-singer-bbc-cardiff-singer-of-the-world-2013/

Friday, 26 July 2013

BBC National Orchestra of Wales: Ketting / Bartók / Prokofiev / Mussorgsky

BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 11 June 2013

Otto Ketting - Symphony No. 1
Béla Bartók - Piano Concerto No. 3
Modest Mussorgsky - Khovanshchina: Act 1 Prelude
Sergey Prokofiev - Symphony No. 7

Conductor: Jac van Steen
Piano: Jean-Efflam Bavouzet

Tonight’s concert was by no means the last in which Jac van Steen will conduct the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, but it was his final appearance as Principal Guest Conductor; a position he has held for eight years (and will take up for the Prague Symphony Orchestra in September), during which time he has helped to make the orchestra the excellent ensemble it is today. Van Steen has been a forthright champion of contemporary music in particular and many Welsh composers have benefited from his skills as a workshop leader, as well as a concert interpreter, in initiatives such as the annual Composition: Wales event. So it is in keeping with his pioneering spirit that this farewell programme should have offered not just two works by major 20th century composers (and a third piece arranged by another), but the UK première of an early piece by a Dutch compatriot of his barely known to UK audiences: Otto Ketting, who died last December aged 77.

Fittingly enough, the theme of the evening was ‘entrances and exits’ - meant irrevocably in the case of Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 3 and Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 7 (as well as the Mussorgsky extract); the last works their composers wrote before they died. Ketting’s youthful Symphony No. 1 (completed in 1959 when he was just twenty-four), was the ‘entrance’ item on the programme - although here too, ‘endings’ were palpable beyond van Steen’s tribute to his late friend, in that direct musical references to Alban Berg’s final works (the Violin Concerto and incomplete opera, Lulu) are embedded in the piece itself; a clear homage to Berg and his teacher Arnold Schoenberg. Indeed, Ketting nails his loyal stylistic colours so firmly to the mast that it proves difficult at times to hear his individual voice. But what colours he paints! The Symphony is sumptuously vivid and the material - purportedly the first use of serial technique by a Dutch composer - is organised with a precocious formal exuberance, which the BBC NOW rose to match with some superb playing after a brief wobble in the upper strings. This is beautifully wrought music, and, if we agree with Ketting that ‘music should be about emotions and experiences, time and surroundings – besides being about music – no matter to what extent these are concealed or stylized’ - then it is also successful music.

It is always tempting to look for embryos of later development in a composer’s beginning pieces  (regarding Ketting, I simply say that all the music of his I have heard has more than repaid the listen). Likewise, ‘late’ works are habitually viewed through the lens of impending mortality - whether or not the composer knew his or her end was coming and regardless of their age. Final works in particular are often scrutinised for some kind of artistic apotheosis, or whether they might show the composer turning back to earlier or simpler styles perhaps as the end looms; the apparent paradox of creativity and death, it seems, holds us in thrall. Bartók and Prokofiev were both terribly ill and in precarious wider situations as death approached. The Hungarian had been in exile in America since 1940, longing for his homeland and struggling to make a living. He and his wife Ditta were concert pianists and it was for her - rather than to a paid commission - that he wrote his Piano Concerto No. 3, apparently as a birthday gift, but in all likelihood too, as a means for her to earn an income after his death. The piece is strikingly different to the more angular percussiveness of Bartók’s previous Piano Concertos and its neo-classical refinement and light, lyrical tone have widely been seen as both a pre-death distillation, as it were, of his maturest style and the culmination of a return to simpler idioms heralded by his reconnection with folk-inspired verbunkos in 1938 (in Contrasts and the Violin Concerto No. 2).

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, tonight’s soloist, has performed and recorded all three Bartók piano concertos to great acclaim and proved a brilliant and effervescent interpreter on this occasion with the solid support of BBC NOW. Lucid textures and elastic rhythms were delivered with elegance and panache, with just the odd hint of brittleness, but with particular clarity in the third movement’s imitative counterpoint - as well as wistful poignancy in Bartók’s second movement paraphrasing of Beethoven’s ‘Solemn Song of Thanksgiving’ from the A minor String Quartet Op.132, celebrating a recovery from illness that Bartók was not to share.

Prokofiev was another composer-pianist who had also known exile, but he returned as a celebrated international figure to the now Soviet Russia in 1936 (having left post-1917 revolution) - alas for his enduring moral reputation at home and abroad, just as Stalin’s murderous show trials were reaching their peak. As Stanislav Richter dryly put it: ‘Principles weren’t exactly his strong point.’ Despite a successful career, his final years were clouded by the humiliating denunciation it is plain he never expected from the authorities in 1948, leading to his painfully forced written admission that ‘beyond doubt I have been guilty of atonality ... I [now] intend to aim at a clear musical speech that shall be acceptable to my people.’ Hence the melodically-rich, romantic, backward-looking style of his late works can be seen as coming from a desperate need for official redemption rather than some gathering quietude before death.

It is extraordinary how much hostility the final Symphony No. 7 has generated, regardless of its popularity with audiences. Richard Taruskin has pronounced it ‘saccharine stuff, and the most unlistenable of all to any who know what bloody hands coerced the pretty sounds.’ How ‘pretty’ those sounds are is, indeed, a matter of opinion and I personally wince at the underlying bleak sardonicism in this symphony; perhaps more so even than at that in Prokofiev’s most aggressive works, such as the late-futurist Symphony No. 2 (1924-5). Tonight’s performance superbly emphasised the work’s equivocal nature with van Steen coaxing rounded melodic warmth and genuine melancholy from his entirely willing and able orchestra, without neglecting the frequent acerbic asides and ominous undercurrents (I know of no other composer more threatening with a tinkly glockenspiel). The big, open textures of the first movement were beautifully balanced by an at times dystopic waltz (with wonderful, raspberry brass) and a third movement which proved how far from being sedative Prokofiev’s nominally sedate Andantino espressivo can be. The fourth movement simply got more painfully expressive - to my ears at least - the more apparently cheerful the mood.

But before the Symphony came a rare chance to hear the Act 1 Prelude to the opera Khovanshchina by Mussorgsky; a 19th century compatriot of Prokofiev’s, who contrastingly remained in many respects an enfant terrible his entire, short life (he died alcoholic and destitute in 1881 aged just forty-two, leaving Khovanshchina uncompleted). This gem was performed in the fine arrangement made in 1958-9 (around the time Ketting was composing his Symphony No. 1) by Prokofiev’s younger colleague and rival Shostakovich, whose political and musical reputation - also in contrast to Prokofiev, and regardless of the enduring popularity of many of Prokofiev’s works - has, post-Cold War, enjoyed a far more positive press. Admittedly, for Prokofiev, there was no real chance of a thaw so to speak, in the sense that he happened to die the exact same day as Josef Stalin on 5 March 1953 and, hence, did not live to see any softening of the system. He was also buried on the same day as the dictator’s funeral. Reputedly it was Shostakovich - the man who had suffered so greatly under Stalinist dictat for so many years and who had found Prokofiev to be a ‘hard man’ who ‘didn’t seem interested in anything other than himself and his music’ - who lingered longest at his fellow composer’s graveside with his face an unreadable mask; unreadable, perhaps, as Prokofiev’s final symphony ultimately proves to be.

Published in Wales Arts Review 2.16: http://www.walesartsreview.org/bbc-national-orchestra-of-wales-ketting-bartok-mussorgsky-prokofiev/

Interview: Huw Watkins - Composer and Pianist

Composer and pianist Huw Watkins was born in Blackwood in 1976. His breakthrough came at the young age of twenty-two, when his Sonata for Cello and Eight Instruments was premièred to wide acclaim by the Nash Ensemble. Since then he has risen to become one of the most well-regarded musicians of his generation in the UK.

Huw spoke with me ahead of the second performance of his Violin Concerto by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales with soloist Alina Ibragimova, for whom the work was commissioned by the BBC Proms in 2010.

The interview was published in Wales Art Review 2.16: http://www.walesartsreview.org/interview-composer-and-pianist-huw-watkins/

SP: You established a firm relationship with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales very early in your career; after they performed your Sinfonietta in 2000 they commissioned a Piano Concerto and you yourself played the solo part in the première with them in 2002. Did you find that working with BBC NOW at such an early stage helped you to find your orchestral voice, as it were, as a composer?

HW: Yes I was very lucky to have the chance to work with an orchestra early - and regularly too. I’ve written a few pieces for BBC NOW and they’ve performed other pieces of mine. It’s very difficult for composers to get opportunities to have professional orchestras play their music so I’ve certainly appreciated that over the years.

More recently your Concertino was performed by BBC NOW - with Chloë Hanslip as soloist.

Yes, she did a fantastic job - that was fun! And I grew up listening to BBC NOW. My first experience, I suppose, of proper orchestral concerts was at St David’s Hall with them in the eighties. And I think they’ve just got better and better, particularly recently!

Yes they have for sure - which bodes extremely well for your Violin Concerto I think! Who were your earliest compositional models? I gather you were taught by Robin Holloway and Alexander Goehr, and then by Julian Anderson. But what music were you really drawn to early on?

Well, I think Britten actually. Benjamin Britten was a huge influence throughout my teens and I love all the early twentieth century masters like Bartók, Stravinsky, Ravel, Shostakovich - all those people. Then, when I went to university, I immersed myself in more radical contemporary voices. Sandy Goehr in particular was an interesting figure to study with because he’s incredibly well connected and is just one of those very rare composers who’s good at talking about music! It’s not something that composers tend to be all that good at!  

Yes - and he’s very steeped in what we’ve known as the Second Viennese School [Goehr’s father was the conductor and Schoenberg pupil Walter Goehr].

Definitely steeped in that. I mean, his father knew Schoenberg - not to mention Messiaen, Boulez and so on. So there were lots of connections from him and stories - he’s a very good story-teller as well.

You’ve written a lot of pieces for solo instrument plus ensemble of various sizes - as well as a lot of chamber music and so on - and seem to favour fairly traditional, classically-based forms. Do you have a compositional model in mind regarding the writing of concertos in particular?

Well no, not really. Lots of composers have written violin concertos recently I think - partly because there are so many brilliant enterprising violinists around who want to commission them. I suppose mine is like a classical piece in that it’s in three movements but beyond that, the actual material I hope is new and fresh and original. Of course, because I’m a performer as well I’m very aware of classical models and I find it inspiring to take things as a starting point but I wouldn’t want to think of myself as a sort of ‘neo-classical’ composer.

That can be a real catch-all phrase can’t it?

Yes, it can mean all sorts of things - usually slightly disparaging ones!

Yes that too, even when applied to past figures like Stravinsky.

Exactly, yes!

So would you say that your concerto writing is most informed by your own performing? - because obviously you’re a virtuoso solo pianist and accompanist in your own right. Do you see yourself as following any tradition as a composer-pianist?

Yes, it’s a tradition that’s sort of gone away a little bit but there are still people who are - Thomas Adés is the example that leaps to mind; but yes, I can’t imagine any other way of working. I can’t imagine why I would be a composer if I wasn’t a pianist and why I’d be a pianist if I wasn’t a composer. I think the two are very closely linked for me. I think that’s one of the reasons I enjoy writing concertos actually - I like the unashamedly virtuosic aspect of it. I like pitting one soloist against a huge orchestra and find all of that really inspiring. Especially when you’ve got somebody like Alina you know who’s a brilliant, brilliant player - so captivating.

She’s an incredibly fiery and intense player!

Exactly, yes she is. She’s wonderful - intelligent and accurate as well.

Could you say a bit about the Violin Concerto itself? How did it come about?

Well, I’d written a solo piece for Alina, the Partita; an unaccompanied piece when she was a BBC New Generation Artist [2005-7]. We got on well and had done concerts together - I’d been playing for her as an accompanist. So I think she just really wanted to make a concerto happen! I’m not sure who exactly made the decision but, well, the Proms then commissioned it and I said ‘yes’ very quickly!

What sort of thing might an audience look out for when listening? Are there any particular aspects - or landmarks so to speak - that they might listen for?

Oh it’s difficult to give somebody a guide - but focus on the violin, she leads it. Well, it’s a ‘proper’ concerto in the sense that occasionally the violin drives the music and occasionally the orchestra sort of eggs her on or interrupts. So listen to the relationship between the violinist and the orchestra, which is very dramatic and even aggressive - and then sometimes quite lyrical.  

So you have a dynamic relationship with the play of contrasts and opposites happening throughout the piece?

Exactly, there’s a lot of that - particularly in the last movement. There’s a lot of shifting rhythms and sudden changes of character. It’s quite intense, but there are other moments throughout where it relaxes - and I quite like not ending things as you’d expect. The first movement ends actually in a quite still, suspended way. Also - the whole piece - even though it works up to a huge virtuosic climax - fades away in a rather sort of sad, wistful manner. I quite enjoy doing that; pulling the rug from under your feet!

And so there are beautiful, lyrical moments which come throughout the piece and not just where you’d ‘expect’ to find them, in the middle movement for instance?

Well, thank you, yes, that’s a quality of the violin that I definitely didn’t want to neglect. It’s difficult for a composer to write a tune these days without it sounding hackneyed! - but I did also want to write lyrical, lovely-sounding stuff. Well I’ve done my best!

Your brother Paul happens to be a virtuoso cellist and I believe your dad played the viola as well?

Yes, exactly!

So you’re steeped in strings really - and as an accompanist too.

Yes I love working with string players and I love the string-piano chamber music. That’s where I’m happiest I think, as a player, with that repertoire - actually rather than with solo piano music.

Would you say that’s helped to give you a special feeling or empathy in writing for stringed instruments?

I hope so, I’ve always been around string players. I did try to learn violin myself once, not very successfully! I don’t really remember how the violin works from the inside, but sometimes that can be a bit of a handicap actually - knowing too much about the instrument - as it can lead to not taking risks. I like to trust that, in the end, a player will be able to play what I write; whereas, if you knew that much more about the instrument itself, you’d be more ‘careful’. Alina can play anything really, so she loves being challenged and stretched and I wanted to try to write something that she’d have to work at!

How do you embark upon writing a piece? Does your initial inspiration tend to be purely musical, or do you rather get ideas from extra-musical sources or perhaps colleagues or family and friends?

It can be all sorts of things. It’s usually purely abstract; a musical idea. I usually spend time improvising and experimenting at the piano just jotting down everything until the ideas I like come to the surface. Occasionally there might be something extra-musical that might inspire me - but those things might be private and I don’t tell anybody about them. But they do sometimes happen.

What would you say is your main area of compositional interest - or areas perhaps? Do you find yourself thinking structurally, say?

I think about harmony a lot, and choosing the right notes. Again the word ‘acceptable’ is such a loaded term - and I certainly don’t mean ‘safe’ - but I want to write something that people can respond to without feeling they need PhDs or years of study. And I also want to write something new that excites me, so I think the challenge is finding something that does both really. And it’s down to harmony; basically, I think that’s the most important element for me.

Do you start with motivic cells and go from there, how does it work?

I don’t know, I feel like I’m in the dark half the time! I don’t have a real system - I wish I did because it would be easier! It’s mainly instinct and taste I suppose, and there are a few little things that one does, obviously, as a composer, that are ‘tricks’. But I certainly don’t have a system or a method like a lot of composers have - not with my recent music.

It sounds as if communication with an audience is very important to you.

It’s really important. And I’m aware that, on the one hand you’ll always get somebody in the audience who thinks it’s just horrendously modern and, on the other hand, you have your critics  and other composers who think the opposite - that it’s too old-fashioned. So you can’t communicate with everybody but, yes, communication is absolutely important for me. I’d hate for nobody to understand what I was on about.

This month you’ve had another big performance, in addition to the Violin Concerto with BBC NOW; the première of the Little Symphony with the Orchestra of the Swan - which, I believe is for string orchestra?

Yes that’s right. I’m composer-in-residence for them for a couple of years from 2012-14. They’re a lovely, enterprising chamber orchestra based in Stratford-upon-Avon. This is the first big piece I’ve written for them - although it’s called Little Symphony! - it’s a quarter of an hour in length. Yes, it’s been very exciting.

Do you have any plans to write a full-scale symphony? It strikes me that you’re a sort of symphonist in waiting in some respects - but you might disagree?

Well, I don’t know if I would call something ‘symphony’ but certainly, there is something in the pipeline, for me to write a big orchestral piece in the next couple of years. I can’t say too much more about it probably - but fingers crossed it’s all going to be confirmed! That will be a fun challenge! In the meantime there’s another concerto - a flute concerto actually - for the London Symphony Orchestra and their Principle Flautist Adam Walker, who’s an amazing young player in his early twenties. And actually Daniel Harding, a friend of mine, is going to be conducting it so that’s the next big project which I’m looking forward to enormously. 

In tonight’s performance of the Violin Concerto, the piece will be performed alongside Mahler’s 5th Symphony. Actually, at the Proms première it was paired with Shostakovich’s 5th - which might be significant if you were the sort of composer who was obsessed with number symbolism!

Yes - it’s got to be paired with a 5th symphony! No, seriously, but it will be lovely to have Mahler 5 alongside it. That’s a great piece and I’m very happy whatever it’s paired with, but it’s nice for the Concerto to be alongside such a masterpiece, if a little bit intimidating!

Are there any plans to record the Violin Concerto?

Yes, there is a plan. I don’t know whether you know about the NMC label?

I do, yes. Your disc was one of the first in the series of twelve that they’re producing of British composers.        

That’s it, yes, and they’re hoping to record the Concerto some time. At least - they’ve got a really interesting idea around those new violin concertos I was talking about; there’s a Harrison Birtwistle concerto and one by Colin Matthews that they’re thinking of perhaps coupling mine with - so that will be exciting and I hope that project comes off! And before that, I’m really looking forward to hearing the concerto here in Cardiff.

Best of luck Huw and thanks for talking with me.


Thursday, 27 June 2013

HowTheLightGetsIn: A Festival of Philosophy and Music

Talks / Debates: Hay-on-Wye, June 1 2013

In last fortnight’s issue of Wales Arts Review, Gary Raymond made a compelling case for arts criticism as an art-form in itself; a kind of writing which, at its best and most passionately engaged, not just distills and evaluates works of art, but springs from the same creative drive to explore the arts and their place within the wider culture. I too hold that good, enlivened criticism helps to enable artistic understanding and participation - and hence the arts themselves - to grow, and I believe that, central to this, lies the inter-relationship between the arts and the world of ideas, as well as the senses and emotions. Critical thinking and debate are as vital to the arts as to science, politics, history, philosophy - indeed, any aspect of a society aspiring to well-being for itself and its citizens.

HowTheLightGetsIn is a festival of philosophy and music which celebrates ideas and, as such, it is itself to be celebrated. Each year, the festival has a theme. This year, it was ‘Errors, Lies and Adventure’; investigating notions of truth and contingency, and the idea that new discoveries often seem to come from mistakes and ‘errors’ of thinking. On June 1, the sub-theme was ‘the Transcendental’, explored in gloriously diverse ways - and through many more talks and debates than one person was able to get to - in the sense of how we might venture beyond perceived limits of knowledge or understanding.

If there was one discernible thread running through the five events I attended, it was a celebration of paradox; perhaps encapsulated by the day’s highlight for me, an event curiously entitled ‘This Debate Has No Title’. But first came an event concerning a subject close to my heart: ‘Music’s Mystery’ was billed as a debate about whether theories to ‘explain away’ the power of music are a) possible or b) desirable (taking as a cue Pythagoras’ theories of mathematics and harmony). I am glad to say that none of the panel - made up of composer Joanna Bailie, physicist Michael McIntyre and science-writer Philip Ball - ultimately answered ‘yes’ in either regard, although Bailie was alone in showing no interest whatsoever in reductive analytical theories. Rather, she espoused the post-Cageian view that all sound can be music and that it is simply a matter of perspective, whilst quietly pointing out - for those who insist on seeing significance in a supposed correspondence between musical and mathematical ability - that Bach’s ‘maximising of the potential of the tonal harmonic system’ is ‘not the same as [his] being good at maths’.

Actually, to make a general point here, it does seem perverse that a festival focusing on music as well as philosophy, and at which a composer is invited to debate, should offer no live performance of their music - nor of any live contemporary art music, which is an art-form that often seeks consciously to explore matters philosophical, albeit in sonic form. Neither McIntyre nor Ball seemed ever to have heard Bailie’s music - and Ball seemed frankly uninterested in it - which is all too familiar in terms of the ongoing general malaise so often greeting contemporary art music. (You can hear Bailie's wonderful Symphony-Street-Souvenir below):

Alas, Bailie was not so eloquent as her musical hero John Cage might have been in putting their common aesthetic case, allowing McIntyre and Ball to go largely uncontested in their differing formalist approaches (regardless of Gabrielle Walker’s largely excellent chairing). Some interesting areas were touched on but I also found myself frustrated by the lack of a musicologist - or, even better, a philosopher of music - on the panel (Nicholas Cook or Lydia Goehr maybe?). Ball was keen to demonstrate that musical meaning can be found in such phenomena as the interruption of expectation through manipulation of harmony, and asserted that this is a key area of investigation for musicologists. But, whilst it is accepted that harmonic resolution or lack thereof is an important factor in our emotional response to some kinds of music, this kind of thinking is now largely confined to areas of music-scientific research within clinical psychology and neuroscience rather than musicology per se (a notable research team has been music-theorist Fred Lerdahl and linguist Ray Jackendoff, inspired by the very 1950s writings of Leonard B Meyer that Ball referred to in this debate); for very few musicologists now choose to privilege harmonic analysis over other musical parameters such as rhythm and timbre - precisely because harmony is only important to certain kinds of (largely western) music and in certain ways. Moreover, less and less musicologists conduct musical analysis in any form these days, choosing to look at issues of historiography, performance and cultural context, say, rather than technical aspects of musical composition, as indicators of music’s function and meaning. Nevertheless, Ball spoke interestingly and lucidly, as well as neatly refuting Wittgensteinian notions of music as logical process; contending that the whole point of music is that it bypasses logic.

McIntyre’s interest also focused on musical pitch but was - unsurprisingly for a physicist - more overtly scientific, encompassing pattern, musical memory and ‘organic change principles’ - including the idea that the harmonic series is a kind of ‘Platonic object’; a series of concepts that he went on to develop more closely in relation to perception itself in a fascinating and highly entertaining talk which he gave after this debate, entitled ‘Lucidity, Science and Acausality Illusions’. I confess to being suspicious of his somewhat glib references to ‘rules’ of musical harmony, which smacked of an outmoded text-book approach to music (not to mention his sweeping generalisation that the music of the Darmstadt School is ‘dead’). But there was nothing old hat or unsophisticated about his notion that we humans perceive a model of reality rather than an actual reality, shaped from unconscious, ancestral memories and by our biological need for simple, coherent patterns. Rather than make a doomed attempt to convey his highly complex ideas, I would urge anyone wanting to know more to read his paper ‘Lucidity and Science’ and, in particular, Part II: ‘From Acausality Illusions and Free Will to Final Theories, Mathematics and Music’ at: http://www.atm.damtp.cam.ac.uk/mcintyre/papers/LHCE/lucidity-science-II.pdf

Philip Ball popped up again on another fascinating panel later in the day, with philosopher Christopher Hamilton and psychoanalyst Mike Brearley, for a discussion about the Enlightenment; namely, whether the Enlightenment has bequeathed us a legacy of false ideals and ungrounded optimism such that ‘Nasty, Brutish and Short’ - the debate’s provocative title by way of Thomas Hobbes - is actually all we can reasonably expect of life. Opinions were duly offered pro and con - citing social and medical progress on the one hand, against Schopenhauerian illusions of freedom and the fragility of the human mind on the other. But, interestingly, no-one posited the idea that the Enlightenment might still be occurring; that it might, as the philosopher Jürgen Habermas and others have argued, be an ongoing project so to speak, despite the recent, now exhausted, distraction of the post-modernist turn. Whether this is a consideration that might alter the issues at stake - or make the answers more or less relevant - is perhaps beside the point, but the assumption that the Enlightenment is a matter of history is as intriguing as it is widespread.

Here, Hamilton and Ball proved the strongest debaters, with many interesting points made concerning key aspects of Enlightenment thinking, such as teleological notions of progress and the valorisation of reason; Hamilton pointed out, for example, that Christianity has played a key role in western society’s coming to laud the individual over the collective, as it is an inherently selfish religion in its focus on the ‘saving’ of the individual. Ball spoke of his frustration with rose-tinted, overly simplistic notions of Enlightenment ideals, given the lack of secular, truly democratic concepts found within 18th century thought, and the diverse nature of the philosophies, politics and social thinking active at that time (notably through the writings of Rousseau and Voltaire). All panelists agreed that, whilst social progress is palpable since the onset of the Enlightenment, there have been differing levels of scientific progress on the one hand and moral progress on the other, and that, whilst a state of war is now more of an aberration than the norm for western societies, there is no room for complacency because - as Brearley pointed out - human nature has not changed and ‘civilisation’ remains but a surface veneer.

One of the sharpest and most celebrated challengers of that veneer of civilisation, and the hypocrisy and failure of moral courage which lie beneath it, is the writer Oscar Wilde. In a talk/semi-performance event, literary critic Terry Eagleton set out to explore ‘The Doubleness of Oscar Wilde’, promising to ‘strip[s] the mask ... to reveal the depths that lurk beneath the gentlemanly facade’. I’m not sure what I expected, but I was disappointed that this turned out to be an ‘audience with’ Eagleton in which he more or less read extracts from his 1989 play Saint Oscar - a play currently out of print, but yielding many such talks over the years, variously titled ‘The Contradictions of Oscar Wilde’, ‘The Ambiguities of Oscar Wilde’ and so on. Eagleton’s main point was that Wilde straddles more cultural opposites than many people (still !) realise: as an Irishman/English ‘gentleman’, socialite/sodomite, socialist/would-be ‘aristocrat’ and so on. Clearly, notions of dialectics were but a sleight of hand away and, sure enough, Eagleton managed to cite Karl Marx in answer to a question about whether he could name a contemporary writer who has inherited Wilde’s brilliantly withering combination of pinpoint critique and merciless, un-self-sparing wit.

To be fair, Eagleton did at least cop to evading the question. But the taste of circular self-reference lingered after the event - if perhaps less sourly than it might have done, in the light of that superb, aforementioned ‘debate with no title’ earlier in the day, and to which event - though, admittedly, via my own sleight of hand - I come at last:

This was a discussion which aimed to explore the very phenomenon of self-reference as a paradox ‘found in mathematics, art and philosophy from the Greeks to Derrida’, with the help of panel members from each of those disciplines: the mathematician Peter Cameron, literary critic Patricia Waugh and philosopher Hilary Lawson (coincidentally, founder of HowTheLightGetsIn). The proposal was that such paradoxes, far from constituting problems to be resolved, might themselves ‘hold the key’ to deeper truths. Each panelist had the customary four minutes to outline their position before debate ensued, and Cameron kicked off with some playful examples of self-referential paradoxes. He held up a series of statements written on cards, beginning with  “the statement on this card is false”; which statement, he explained, can also be - logically speaking - true. He then held up another card on which was written “the statement on this card is true” - which, of course, can either be true or false - but not both as the first statement can be. From here, he went on to talk about the creative opportunities that such paradoxes afford for mathematicians, referring to the theoreticians David Hilbert and Kurt Gödel, who first grappled with crises of paradox and inconsistency in mathematical logic in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Waugh took up the baton, speaking of the many ways in which literature - in particular, post-modern literature - actively engages with self-referential paradox; as happens, for example, when words are used to describe worlds, thus bringing those worlds into existence. Citing Samuel Beckett as a clear example, she described various circular ways in which language can refer to itself through the play of signifiers - and through the phenomenon of the narrator; an “I” both inside and outside the framework of the narrative, from whose dual positioning also arises the ‘instability of changing the self in the act of naming’. Literature, she concluded, amounts to ‘lies’ that have a ‘tremendous cognitive power’.

For Lawson, self-referential paradox has been a central problem of philosophy for the last 120 years, culminating in the post-modern circularity of ‘there is no truth’ and the consequent undermining of meaning. But, he maintained, it is language that is divided, not the world; that is, truth and falsity is a function of the system, not of the world itself. The problem arises when we see language as the point rather than a tool; for language is merely a way of ‘holding the world in order to make sense of it.’

It was agreed amongst the panel that some kind of closure of the system, so to speak, is necessary in order to make sense of the world. Much discussion ensued about the ongoing search for the resolution of paradox across the disciplines, with Lawson maintaining that most 20th century philosophy involves the language and perception of closure. Some fascinating points were made; for instance, regarding realism - which was described as a ‘mistake’ because it relies on a concensus of reality that always breaks down at some point. Indeed, Waugh suggested that the problem of self-referential paradox can be traced back to the Renaissance, when perspective was introduced into painting - and that art has been grappling with the problem ever since. In her view, a ‘yearning for the real’ is a key aspect of modernism; shown, for instance, by the constant cycling of assertion and negation through solipsist reflection that can be seen in James Joyce, as well as in writers that also straddle post-modernism such as Beckett and Jorge Luis Borges - for whom ‘the search for closure is presented as a kind of nightmare’.

Cameron picked up on Borges’ fascination with mathematical paradoxes and agreed that his writing utilised this fascination in seeking always to keep open the possibilities. But he disagreed that scientists would necessarily be threatened by Lawson’s proposal to imagine that we simply cannot describe the world; for, in Cameron’s view, mathematics is actually ‘the engine that drives description of the world’ - precisely because it holds the world conceptually rather than mistaking its description of the world for the world itself. Indeed, for Cameron, mathematics is the place wherein we can learn most about human beings because mathematics is entirely human-created and, therefore, a ‘closed’ world.

The panelists agreed that the imprisoning circularity of post-modernism was more or less burnt out and that, now, what is needed is a kind of neo-pragmatism, since irony is fine in art, but not fine in politics, say, where solidity is needed in order to act. And they agreed that, whilst we have no choice but to go on with the attempt to resolve the problem of paradox in order to ‘close the world’, in the final analysis, human maturity could be defined as the ability to live with doubt and uncertainty, and a truth that may not be ‘true’ but nevertheless ‘good enough’.

This debate amounted to a dizzying and quite thrilling hour in the company of thinkers who were not just articulate, but intellectually generous, and who sparked off each other with brilliant ease (helped by exemplary chairing from author and filmmaker David Malone) - and I hope, if nothing else, I have given a flavour of the sharp and creative thinking on display. The event epitomised for me the best of HowTheLightGetsIn; a place where questions are asked in the knowledge that asking questions rightly begets more questions than answers - and a place where the question ‘why?’ is understood to be at least as important as ‘how?’, and infinitely more exciting than the mere factual engagement of ‘what?’, ‘when?’ and ‘where?’. Nevertheless - as shown so beautifully in this particular debate - HowTheLightGetsIn aims not simply to interrogate meaning for its own sake, but to sift ideas for their practical utility in the world rather than in abstract realms of language alone. In both regards, the festival seems to me to be highly successful. May it continue to grow, remain free of celebrity clap-trap, and never lose its intimate feel.

Published by Wales Arts Review Vol 2 No 15: http://www.walesartsreview.org/howthelightgetsin-a-festival-of-philosophy-and-music-2/