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Twitter: @spower_steph, Wales, United Kingdom
composer, poet, critic, essayist

Monday, 21 April 2014

Some Words on John Tavener

The immense popularity of the music of John Tavener, who died on Tuesday, 12 November, belies our age of supposed hipster irony. For here was a composer who spoke simply and directly from an inner, spiritual world in ways which communicated with millions of people, regardless of whether they shared his Orthodox faith – or any belief in God.

Born in 1944, Tavener first emerged as an avant-garde composer – himself a hip, child of the sixties – with experimental works such as The Whale (1966) and the Celtic Requiem (1969). It was The Whale which first brought Tavener fame through an unexpected source. Premiered by the London Sinfonietta at their inaugural concert in 1968, the oratorio made a huge impact, and its surreal, dissonant combination of encyclopaedic narrative and electronics, with children’s voices, chorus and ensemble, so delighted the Beatles that they arranged to have it recorded on their Apple label.

But Tavener’s subsequent celebrity status engendered cynicism from the classical music establishment; a cynicism which hardly abated as the maverick composer turned away from complex modernism and began composing more overtly religious music in an increasingly transparent, tonal style based on chant, melodic repetition and a kind of meditative stillness that drew on Eastern as well as ancient Western musics and religious texts. Alongside such composers as the Estonian Arvo Pärt, this supposedly more ‘accessible’ spiritual turn led to Tavener being branded, sometimes with disdain, as a ‘holy minimalist’ – but it won him new audiences of people hungry for a music which seemed to address the mysteries of existence in ways which spoke to them directly.

The irony is that, far from ‘dumbing down’ (in modern-day parlance), Tavener himself often decried our society’s ‘huge loss of esoteric knowledge’ – at least, in religious terms – and he hoped that his music would contribute to ‘a recovery of the sacred in a new form’ in the coming together of world religions. Brought up as a Presbyterian, he converted first to Catholicism and thence to Orthodox Christianity in the late seventies at a time when a series of major health scares revealed that he had Marfan Syndrome, the condition which would eventually lead to his death.

Indeed, regardless of his more worldly persona as a young man, the mystical contemplation of death and inner life overflowed in Tavener’s music from the start; eventually touching a chord with so many across the world when his ‘Song for Athene’ was performed to cathartic effect at the funeral of Princess Diana in 1997. Prior to this, his piece for cello and strings on the Orthodox Feast of The Protecting Veil of the Mother of God stunned the audience at its BBC Proms premiere in 1989 with its piercing, luminous sound which seemed to rise and go on rising in what Tavener described as ‘an attempt to make a lyrical ikon in sound’.

Growing ever frailer, and all but dying on several occasions, in recent years Tavener found he could no longer undertake such enormous tasks as his seven-hour dusk-to-dawn vigil The Veil of the Temple (2003), but he continued to compose until his death (when he felt physically and spiritually well enough), exploring his beloved Hindu metaphysics and latterly turning back to composers such as Beethoven, Stockhausen and Mozart, who inspired him in his youth before a subsequent rejection of later Western forms. He was knighted in 2000 and remained very much in the public eye right up to his eventually sudden end, recently giving what turned out to be a final interview to the Telegraph, and joining Andrew Marr to discuss the poetry of George Herbert for BBC Radio 4′s Start the Week (recorded on 31 October).

My own first encounter with Tavener’s music was a recording of his Requiem for Father Malachy; what for me as an atheist adolescent seemed a hair-raisingly austere but compelling liturgical piece, combining an arresting dissonance with plainchant, and written in 1973 for a priest he knew and loved. It strikes me that some touching words Tavener wrote by way of programme note might well stand as his own epitaph:
As someone has said, we know and we do not know, yet know all we need, that here is a man we and the world are better for having.
He will be sorely missed by many.

The Protecting Veil and the Celtic Requiem will be performed as the culmination of next year’s Vale of Glamorgan Festival by the BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales under David Atherton on Saturday 17 May 2014.

BBC National Orchestra of Wales: Berg, Holt and Schmidt

BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 29 October 2013

Alban Berg – Violin Concerto
Simon Holt – The Yellow Wallpaper
Franz Schmidt – Symphony No 4

Conductor: Thierry Fischer
Soprano: Elizabeth Atherton
Violin: Baiba Skride
Members of the BBC Singers

According to his biographer, Norbert Tschulik, the composer Franz Schmidt was colour blind; only able to see in different shades of grey. So the irony seems cruel, then, that his music is often said to be stylistically grey, backwards-looking and – worse – derivative; so different from the progressive modernism emanating from the Vienna of his day. Indeed, Schmidt has not so much been unfashionable post-war as untouchable; a situation not helped by his monumentally ill-judged – and mercifully unfinished – cantata, Grossdeutschland of 1939; a piece which set an unequivocally National Socialist text – albeit whether by choice or coercion remains unclear. Nonetheless, Schmidt  himself and his music have had some prominent champions over the years, not least the redoubtable Hans Keller, who knew a thing or two about Nazism from bitter personal experience, and who remembered Schmidt with fondness and respect from his youth in Vienna.

Politics aside, Schmidt could certainly be found guilty as charged as a musical reactionary, for he persisted in adherence to an ‘outmoded’ style which, for many listeners still today, is all-too redolent of Brahms and, especially, of Bruckner. Schmidt was born, in fact, the same year as Arnold Schoenberg, in Pressburg in 1874, and the two men grew acquainted in Vienna, where Schmidt was well known as an excellent cellist and pianist; leading a much-praised performance of Pierrot lunaire no less, from the keyboard in 1929. Schoenberg is on record as remarking merely that Schmidt had ‘too much talent’, purportedly baffling his target, but implying that Schmidt might have done better had he been forced to struggle for his art – presumably, like Schoenberg himself did on many levels.

This programme from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales featured Schmidt’s best known and most respected work, his Symphony No. 4 of 1932-3, in a programme that was either cunningly devised or heavy-handed depending on your point of view. Personally, I plump for the former despite the preponderance of shared, weighty themes of requiems and suffering women that I will come to. For it placed Schmidt’s work in Viennese context with Berg’s Violin Concerto; by far the most popular and ‘approachable’ work of the mature so-called ‘Second Viennese School’, together with a world premiere by BBC NOW’s outgoing Associate Composer Simon Holt, thereby giving the programme an interesting slant from a ‘new music’ perspective. ‘New music’, after all, can be a relative term, as contemporaries of Schmidt were very well aware.

A pity then, that the enduringly iconic Berg Violin Concerto which opened the concert did not galvanise from the start. Indeed, the performance only really took off from the second movement; notably from the Adagio onwards, whence the soloist, Baiba Skride, took charge. Skride was in command of her own, virtuosic part throughout, applying her rich, full tone with spirit and energy. And there were some lovely, poignant touches too from the orchestra. But conductor Thierry Fischer seemed to proceed by section rather than finding the lines and phrasing which are so necessary to this concerto’s through-momentum and coherence. He made little distinction at times, for instance, between Hauptstimme, Nebenstimme (main and secondary voices – some of which are rhythmic motifs) and minor colouristic parts, so that tiny details of Berg’s orchestration seemed to take on undue importance – a distraction not helped by some occasionally awry ensemble, particularly in ritardando passages. But Skride effectively took the reins after the initial rendition of Bach’s quoted chorale Es ist genug (It is enough), physically turning towards the upper strings to lead them in an extended passage of jointly electrifying intensity which reached its climax at the chorale’s second variation. Only then was it made apparent what might have been for the entire performance.

Berg’s Violin Concerto has become known as his personal requiem. He was ill whilst composing it (in 1935) but died unexpectedly without hearing the work performed. It was written in quick, heartfelt response to the tragic death of Manon Gropius (daughter of Alma Mahler and Walter Gropius) aged just eighteen; lending the piece coincidental kinship with Schmidt’s 4th Symphony, which was dedicated to the memory of his daughter Emma after she died unexpectedly following the birth of her first child. In Schmidt’s case, however, the piece signaled a return to health for its composer, who was lifted through its composition from a precarious state of mental near collapse.

If only the protagonist of Simon Holt’s piece, The Yellow Wallpaper, and countless women of her time and predicament, had had similar access to creative work – at all, never mind during periods of mental anguish. The work is a setting of an extraordinarily courageous short story by the early American feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1890, extrapolated by David Harsent, further adapted by Holt), who dared to write about her personal experiences of post-natal depression. The story makes for enraging and painful reading, as the woman is shut inside a foul-smelling bedroom with barred windows and wallpaper which ‘color is repellant, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow.’ Holt responds with music which deftly and sensitively illuminates the woman’s descent into madness with a highly colouristic use of instrumentation, including the literal tearing of rolls of wallpaper and the placing of six sopranos and altos at random within the orchestra; all conveying symptoms of the woman’s fragmentation as she attempts to liberate herself, and the other women she hallucinates, from their entrapment behind the wallpaper.

Soprano soloist Elizabeth Atherton sang a challenging part with clarity, poise and feeling – and she was in very fine voice tonight. But her rendition was a little too Britten-esque for my liking; too safely dependent on the melodic arc for expression. Whereas a more pointed vocal delivery of consonants both hard and soft, for instance, could have produced a more intense musical characterisation without danger of over-dramatising. Indeed, Holt is scrupulous in giving virtually every syllable of his dynamic vocal part particular and often maximal articulation in the score. Moreover, a dramatic intent of sorts – if only to stress the Woman’s exhausted isolation – is signaled by his score indication for her to ‘walk slowly on to the stage’ whilst percussionists tear wallpaper at the start of the piece, and to walk slowly offstage at the end still singing; directions which were foregone tonight. It seemed unclear from this performance why the piece was broken into nine distinct ‘miniatures’ heralded by pauses rather than being through-composed. But I suspect a more idiomatic vocal approach from both soloist and ensemble singers (who were miked up but whose words were fairly inaudible) might throw an entirely different light on Holt’s structural design.

Talk of things idiomatic returns us to the tricky figure of Schmidt and his Bruckner-esque 4th Symphony – of which Fischer and the BBC NOW gave a passionate and pretty well convincing performance on its own terms. For, whilst it is valuable and thought-provoking to hear his music alongside more ‘progressive’ work of the time, it seems ultimately beside the point to compare Schmidt’s work with that of his contemporaries – or even with those elders he emulates – in terms of  relative ‘originality’; indeed it is a moot point how far originality is a reliable touchstone for musical integrity in any case. For a great many excellent composers might fall down if such a criterion were too rigorously applied – Holt included, as the sounds and techniques used in The Yellow Wallpaper are familiar from fifty-odd years of ‘new music’, and yet the piece is surely none the worse for that.

Even so, there is much to admire in Schmidt’s music, which ultimately stems from a Schubertian (rather than Beethovenian) classicism in that it ‘constantly takes pause, recapitulates, reformulates’ as Rudolf Scholz put it, with repetitions that appear straightforward on first hearing, but which are often gradually revealed as subtle re-workings of surprisingly strong themes. Similarly, Schmidt’s ear is finer than his decriers sometimes acknowledge, as he utilises some deft melodic and harmonic turns in the 4th Symphony, for example, to shape an ambitious four movement structure played without a break, but lasting nearly fifty minutes. The idiom might be stylistically anachronistic, but the influences are varied and Schmidt nonetheless manages to evoke a world of feeling without dipping into the sentimental – and without sounding faux in my opinion but, rather, simply elegiac and unforced. Tonight, Guest Principal Victoria Simonson gave eloquent voice to the singing cello solo of the second movement that would have been very close to Schmidt’s heart. Indeed, the whole orchestra felt committed and alive to the music under Fischer’s admirably clear shaping of the work (quite different from his Berg) between its opening and closing trumpet solos.

In recent years, various aspects of the modernism that arose in the first half of the twentieth century have begun to be re-examined – not least the foundational assumption that the contrasting, revolutionary figures of Schoenberg and Stravinsky swept all before them. In any case, whatever one’s opinion of Schmidt’s actual music, I think Keller and other commentators are right to conclude that this seemingly ‘extra-historical’ composer (Bayan Northcott’s term) deserves much greater recognition. For clearly, at the very least – and notwithstanding Schmidt’s once acerbic description of Mahler’s symphonies as ‘cheap novels’ – the Central European romantic symphony did not die with Mahler, however much prevailing music history tries to teach us otherwise.

Chlöe Hanslip in Interview: Bruch Violin Concerto No.1

Given her extensive and distinguished career, it seems astonishing that the violinist Chloë Hanslip is only 26 years old. But, by the time she reached the age of ten, Chloë had already appeared on some of the world’s major concert platforms, including London’s Royal Albert Hall and Carnegie Hall in New York, having embarked on studies at the Yehudi Menuhin School aged just five at the iconic violinist’s invitation. She went on to study with the Russian pedagogue Zakhar Bron for ten years in Germany and, amongst other film appearances, was featured in the BBC 1 documentary Can You Make A Genius?, which screened in 2001. Of her many mentors, she has named the great Ida Haendel as perhaps the most inspirational.

Aged 15, Chloë’s second CD, a recording of Bruch’s 1st and 3rd Violin Concertos with the London Symphony Orchestra under conductor Martyn Brabbins, won international acclaim for her musical maturity and depth of tonal command. The disc led to Chloë winning the ‘Young British Classical Performer’ award at the 2003 Classical BRITS among other awards and accolades – the same year that she made her American and Japanese concerto debuts following her first appearance at the BBC Proms in 2002.

Chloë is now established throughout the world as a concerto soloist and chamber musician. She is continually adding to her repertoire of well- and lesser-known romantic virtuouso works and has also won praise for her championing of contemporary composers. In recent years, CDs of romantic concertos by Benjamin Godard and John Adams’ Violin Concerto have won particular acclaim and she has worked with many of the world’s leading conductors from Mariss Jansons and Sir Andrew Davis to Leonard Slatkin and Michail Jurowski, with a core repertoire that stretches from Sibelius and Shostakovich to Korngold and Britten. As a dedicated chamber musician, she has worked with Stephen Isserlis, Gerhard Schulz and Angela Hewitt among others at events such as the Open Chamber Music at Prussia Cove and Italy’s Trasimeno Festival.

On Monday 18 November, Chloë will be performing that same Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1 Op. 26 which signaled her arrival as a major talent, when she joins the Czech National Symphony Orchestra and conductor Libor Pešek for a concert at St David’s Hall in Cardiff. The programme will also include Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 (‘Unfinished’), the Overture to Johann Strauss’s opera Die Fledermaus and Dvořák’s dramatic Symphony No. 7. Chloë spoke with Steph Power about the Bruch ahead of the concert – and about touring the work alongside it’s direct forbear, Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto Op. 64.

Steph Power: You’re bringing to St David’s Hall one of the best-known and best-loved romantic concertos in the repertoire, Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 – a piece which you yourself know incredibly well; you recorded it at the very young age of 15 and have played it many times since.

Chloë Hanslip: Yes I was very young when I first recorded the Bruch! It’s such a phenomenal concerto actually – as I get older and the more I practise it, the more I find in it. And I always look forward to coming to play in Cardiff.

How has your understanding of the Bruch changed or grown over the years?

Just on a very basic level I really have got to know Bruch’s orchestration – how he combines the instruments, but also to know the individual orchestral parts. I think that’s so important when you’re playing a concerto; to know exactly what’s going on behind you. Because it’s just a very large form of chamber music really, so you have to be aware if you have a duet, say, or if you’re accompanying. For example, there’s a wonderful moment in the second movement where I have a sort of conversation accompanying the cellos and it’s just so fabulous to do that; to connect with the orchestral sections and really work with what they’re playing.

So the work you do as a chamber musician really informs your concerto playing?

Yes it does – and I love playing chamber music. It’s almost a re-set button in a way; you really listen and understand what’s going on when you’re blending a sound – which you can’t always quite do when you’re playing a concerto – but having that mentality I think is very beneficial. But also, every time I play the Bruch, I try to find something different in it. Working with different orchestras and different conductors gives you that opportunity as well, so it’s always exciting.

You’ve worked with Libor Pešek and the CNSO before I believe, but this will be the first time you’ve played the Bruch together? It’s the orchestra’s 20th anniversary this year so a celebratory time to be touring with them.

Yes it is absolutely! I first worked with Libor and the orchestra about five or six years ago. We toured some Prokofiev then, and also played Samuel Barber and Philip Glass. I loved working with them – the orchestra has a wonderful, deep sound – so I’m looking forward to working with them all again, and on the Bruch. Each conductor interprets the orchestration slightly differently if you like, and that always gives me something new to think about and work with.

At other venues on your tour together you’ll be playing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto Op. 64. What’s it like playing the Bruch and Mendelssohn back-to-back as it were in that intensive way on tour?

I enjoy it. It’s lovely sometimes to play the same concerto but I do enjoy having a varied repertoire at any one time. It keeps things fresh and I suppose you delve that little bit further if you’re constantly changing pieces because you’re so focused on that. At the same time if I was asked to play the Bruch or the Mendelssohn ten times in a row I wouldn’t complain!

When he was composing this first violin concerto, Bruch sought the advice of the violinist Joseph Joachim. But he also went to Ferdinand David, I gather; the violinist who had helped Mendelssohn twenty years or so previously?

Yes, that’s right – but I think the concertos are quite different in a way. The Bruch has a slightly richer sound if you like in terms of orchestration – although the Mendelssohn is also absolutely glorious to play; I would hesitate to say it’s more vivacious but it is lighter I think. The Bruch is a little bit more introverted. The first movement is a Vorspiel; a prelude, which is quite an unusual marking for the beginning of a concerto. The way the timpani roll starts and the violin just appears out of nowhere, it’s really atmospheric. Also the last movement of the Bruch has an incredible lyricism that’s quite unusual for a last movement.

The Bruch’s considered very much a romantic showpiece I think?

Yes it is – and the last movement is great fun to play. It’s also really dance-like and you can really get your teeth into it!

As well as your extensive romantic virtuoso repertoire, you also work with contemporary composers. In fact, the last time I heard you in Cardiff you were performing Huw Watkins’ Concertino.

I think it’s so important to have a very broad repertoire. As you say, I’ve played Huw Watkins in Cardiff – also Simon Holt, plus there’s the Glass Violin Concerto we mentioned earlier, and Brett Dean, Michael Nyman… I just find it incredibly exciting to be able to talk with a composer – you know you can’t do that with Bruch or Mendelssohn! You can read everything you like about them but you can’t actually ask them ‘what were you thinking about here?’ and ‘what’s your intention there?’

So, when you work with living composers on a new piece, in a way it’s not unlike the work Joseph Joachim did with Bruch and Brahms and other composers in his day in terms of reflecting back to them your ideas as a violinist?

I’d never thought of it like that! Yes, I suppose so! I just find it terribly exciting to get new music, to re-live that and to delve further! I’m playing the John Adams again next year and also John Corigliano’s Red Violin concerto again in New Zealand.

If Bruch were alive today and asked you about his first concerto what would you say to him about his writing for violin?

Oh gosh! Honestly, I love the way he’s written the 1st Violin Concerto! It really gives you an opportunity to sing; to create some incredibly special moments with dynamics and with the accompaniment, with the support that you have from the orchestra behind. Technically I wouldn’t say it’s comfortable to play – but it lies very well under the fingers. I don’t think I would change anything in it I have to confess!

He would probably be relieved to hear that as he was apparently very nervous about composing that first violin concerto! It took him a long time to write.

Yes I think that’s true – and he revised it several times as well. But I think it’s just a great concerto and it’s very easy to see why it’s so popular. It sounds very spontaneous and Bruch gives you the flexibility to play around within the piece a little bit if you want – to do something slightly different in each concert. I think that is just one of the many reasons why it’s such a special concerto.

The Lumen Prize: Digitally Created Fine Art from Around the World

‘The fact that the screen is illuminated makes you choose luminous subjects.’

So David Hockney has commented about making art on his iPad; an emerging digital arts tool which he is not alone in finding exciting. Indeed, he is just one of a growing number of artists across the world who are exploring the creative potential of fine art made on digital platforms – not just on tablets, but across an increasing range of ever more accessible digital devices from computers to notebooks, cameras to smartphones. Notwithstanding the problematic and ultimately false distinctions between ‘fine’ art and any other kind, digital art is not new; as any designer, animator, installation artist or film-maker will tell you, it’s been around for as long as digital technology has existed. What’s new is the increasing availability and sophistication of the technology, together with greater access for ever-increasing numbers of people to a truly world-wide web for the dissemination of art works online. And the proliferation of new, tactile surfaces and interactive software is encouraging new generations of artists – of all ages – to take up what might, in traditional terms, be called ‘fine’ art on digital platforms.

Carla Rapoport is an art-loving former business journalist who has spotted the rapid increase in fine art being made digitally across the globe, and who is passionate about the need to encourage and support the very best work that is emerging. In 2011, based in Wales, she founded the international Lumen Prize to that end, and it has quickly come to be recognised by many as ‘the world’s pre-eminent digital art prize’ as the Guardian culture blogger, Adam Price put it. This second year of the Prize’s running, no doubt assisted by the draw of a distinguished panel of judges (including Tessa Jackson OBE, founding Artistic Director of Artes Mundi and Ivor Davies, President of the Royal Cambrian Academy of Art), over 700 entries were received from 45 different countries – a sharp increase on the already impressive 500-plus artists who submitted work to the inaugural prize in 2012. Accessibility is key for Rapoport, who is keen to point out that any artist, no matter how well- or little-known, ‘so long as they can get online, if they’re creating [digitally], then they can communicate their work and get it judged by an internationally renowned jury panel.’

Talking to Rapoport ahead of the announcement of this year’s winner on October 8, I quizzed her about the relationship of new digital technologies to more traditional ways of making art. We started by discussing the word ‘lumen’ and she explained that,

‘Artists have been seeking light all the way back to Rubens and beyond. The use of light is key to creating almost anything you want to do in the visual arts, so I think a lot of artists are being drawn to new technology because it allows you to work with light in a new way. I think light is the key to these new technologies.’

Asked about the continued – albeit happily shrinking – resistance to digital art in some areas of the art world, Rapoport explained that digital technology is simply a new tool. In her words:

‘If you think about the creation of oil paints, they were considered quite radical at first – the idea that you could use oil paints and not grind your own colours was considered very new-fangled and wrong! Again, with the creation of printing technology, the Royal Academy refused to recognise print makers so they had to set up their own royal society – and, of course, photography “wasn’t really art”. So each innovation of new tools has been controversial.

‘Another reason the art community has found it hard to embrace digitally created art is because a lot of the people who are good at it are also geeks! We can be threatened by the technology of a computer if we don’t understand it, but we are somehow not threatened by oil paints even if we don’t understand how they’re made.

‘There is [art-making] software that you don’t need to understand in terms of how it works, but there is also art work that requires computer coding. It will be up to curators and art historians of future generations to decide which is more “worthy”. Maybe it’s the result that’s more deserving of praise! But I think people have got used to the idea that art can stretch across a whole panoply – from performance art, architecture to installations and so on.’

This year’s winner of the Lumen Prize is by an artist who has chosen to completely immerse herself in aspects of new technology. It is an emotionally moving, CG animated film by Katerina Athanasopoulou, a Greek animation artist based in London, who utilises a soundtrack by Jon Opstad that is extremely evocative, if perhaps a little too reminiscent of Arvo Pärt. That aside – and Apodemy is a film with a commissioned score, rather than a overtly ‘multimedia’ work – the pathos of its subject is beautifully understated. Athanasopoulou describes it as a ‘portrait of Athens’ conceived ‘in a time when Europe seems to be imploding’:

‘Plato likens the human soul with a cage, where knowledge is birds flying. We’re born with the cage empty and, as we grow, we collect birds and they go in the cage for future use. When we need to access knowledge we put our hand in the cage, hunt for a bird – and sometimes catch the wrong one. Ornithology uses the term Zugunruhe to describe the turbulent behavior of birds before they migrate, whether free or caged. These two images, birds inhabiting the human soul and the distress of the migrating bird became the starting points for this film, commissioned on the theme of Emigration.’

The runner-up piece also happened to involve moving images, this time in an installation realised for the Carrousel du Louvre. Here, technology itself forms the subject of the work, as the Paris-based Bonjour Lab makes fascinating interactive play with the idea of ‘data we leave in spite of ourselves, at each of our visits on the web’. Passage is the creators’ name for a ‘sensitive setup which decrypts the visual and sound imprint of those who step near it’ inside a specially reactive room:

A third prize was awarded to a Swiss photographer based in London, Nicholas Feldmeyer, for his striking 2D piece After All; a monochromatic print which, for me, stood out among the short-listed entries for its clean, strong lines and quietly monumental scope. I was not surprised to hear that Feldmeyer cites archaic monuments, Taoism and the ‘sublime’ among his inspirations:


The Lumen Prize is run on a not-for-profit basis. Proceeds after costs are donated to the charity Peace Direct, which in turn subsidises entry fees in countries where it is active, such as Pakistan, Zimbabwe and Sudan. There is currently a charity auction running until November 6 and, building on the competition’s global reach online, fifty works (including all five prize winners) are touring to venues in New York City, Hong Kong and London in recognition of the continued importance of more traditional gallery viewing (last year the competition also visited Shanghai and Riga).

Returning to the subject of how the arts establishment and the public at large view the emerging digital field in general terms, I asked Rapoport whether reception of the exhibition differs from country to country. Perhaps predictably thus far, Asia seems most alive to art created through new technologies:

‘Hong Kong is particularly interesting because they just get it – there’s no barrier to digital art there. It’s a culture which is more accepting of technology so there’s even a kind of “oh this is a bit representational isn’t it? Where’s the edgier work?” – which is interesting – whereas in London they are more likely to go, “that’s strange” – no matter what it is! There is a big digital art community in the UK but I feel it’s been ghetto-ised and put off into a new media category, whereas in Asia, because it’s a newer art scene and younger, they’re much more open to this kind of work.’

Clearly, as well as in Asia, the field and understanding of digital art is rapidly increasing across the world. It is a medium which is already producing fine work – whether ‘fine’ art or otherwise – that speaks to a growing public at an international and local level. Moreover, closer to home, the Lumen Prize is yet another way in which Wales, and the city of Cardiff in particular, is emerging as a major player on the world arts and technology stages. It will be fascinating to see how the Prize, and the many artists it attracts from around the world, evolve in years to come.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Tasmin Little in Interview: Szymanowski and a Special Anniversary

Tasmin Little is a much loved, multi-award winning violinist whose career encompasses a wide and diverse range from international concerto and recital performances to masterclasses, workshops and outreach work in the community. She first picked up a violin aged six, and went on to study at the Yehudi Menuhin School and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where she was a gold medal winner. She is now firmly established as one of today’s leading violinists world-wide.

Tasmin has performed on every continent in some of the most prestigious venues of the world, such as Carnegie Hall, Musikverein, Concertgebouw, London’s Royal Albert Hall and the South Bank and Barbican Centres, and she has appeared as a concerto soloist with many of the world’s leading orchestras, from the Berlin Philharmonic and Leipzig Gewandhaus to the Philharmonia, New York Philharmonic, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and all the BBC Orchestras among many others.

In 2011, she won international critical acclaim and a Critic’s Choice Award at the Classic BRITs for her recording of the Elgar Violin Concerto with Sir Andrew Davies and the Royal National Scottish Orchestra. She has also been particularly associated with the music of Delius, producing a television documentary about him, The Works, for BBC 2. Another documentary followed Tasmin’s creation of The Naked Violin in 2008; a solo recital programme offered for free internet download as part of her ongoing campaign to promote as wide access to classical music as possible for people everywhere.
Her repertoire and discography are exceptionally wide-ranging, and she has given numerous World Premieres. Most recently, her newly commissioned work, Four World Seasons by Roxanna Panufnik, was premiered as a live broadcast on the BBC at the start of Music Nation weekend, leading up to the London 2012 Olympics. She remains one of the few violinists to perform György Ligeti’s challenging Violin Concerto.

In 2012, Tasmin was appointed OBE in recognition of her Services to Music. Cardiff’s St David’s Hall is welcoming Tasmin, together with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and conductor Olari Elts, on November 15 for a rare performance of Polish composer Karol Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No 2. The programme will also include Szymanowski’s Concert Overture and Brahms’ Symphony No 1. Tasmin spoke with Steph Power about the concerto – and about a special anniversary.

Steph Power: I understand that your performance of Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No. 2 in Cardiff will be a special event for you?

Tasmin Little: Yes, it will be my 1,400th professional performance! I feel very happy that it’s taking place in Cardiff because it was at St David’s Hall that I gave one of my very first professional concerts back in 1984 or so. I came to do the Delius Violin Concerto with Yehudi Menuhin and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and I remember being very excited because everybody had spoken about St David’s Hall and what a beautiful hall it was to play in. I was still a student then but I was beginning to do some concerto engagements and I felt incredibly posh playing in such marvellous company in such a beautiful acoustic! And here I am, 1,400 concerts later, returning to St David’s Hall, so it’s a very nice venue to be celebrating that particular occasion in.

You’ve championed Delius throughout your career – and you received your OBE last year, which happened to be the 150th anniversary of Delius’ birth.

It was such a special year to get the OBE because of Delius’ anniversary, and I played the concerto at the BBC Proms which was a great joy. But of course there were the celebrations for the Queen’s Jubilee too so that made it feel like a rather nice year to get that OBE!

Your OBE was in recognition of your services to music. Part of that has been your ongoing community work. How are the Naked Violin and the project around that going?

It continues to grow and and it takes me into the community quite regularly. It’s also taken me abroad. I’ve gone to China and to America twice earlier this year; the first American visit was working with school children, introducing them to aspects of the repertoire, and that was really marvellous. I wouldn’t be surprised if we were heading towards three-quarters of a million downloads by now and the idea is that the Naked Violin music will simply stay up on the web for people to listen to or download just as they choose. But the community work is very much alive and breathing and evolving.

Alongside Delius – and Elgar of course – Eastern European music has also been a long-term love of yours.

Very much so!

Speaking of Szymanowski, his Violin Concerto No. 2 – like the 1st Concerto and all his works – is not played so often is it?

No, it’s a work that, sadly, has been neglected in the concert hall and I’m not at all clear why. There are certain pieces that are not very often played and you can see why they’re not played! But with the Szymanowski I’m genuinely baffled as to why this piece is not played pretty much in every concert season, because it’s incredibly vibrant and colourful. It’s very passionate. Szymanowski’s music is on a grandiose scale anyway, particularly with regard to orchestration – he writes so beautifully for orchestra. I’m often riding on top of the wave of a marvellous volume of sound in the Szymanowski, but it’s got so many different moods; there’s contemplative music, very rhythmic, punchy, driving music and there’s a beautiful cadenza that’s bang in the middle of the piece.

It is an extraordinary work – and that cadenza in the middle gives the violin a very structural role in the piece overall as it pulls together the strands of the first part before going into the next part.

It is a mixture of a cadenza and a sort of development section if you like. The violin goes off into a kind of reverie, thinking of some of the themes that have been played up until that point and full of interesting effects with harmonics and pizzicato, with lots of different double-stopping – there are many notes played at once. And then this leads rather dramatically into the second major part of the concerto – it’s all in one movement lasting about twenty minutes with three parts if you like; the first part, then the cadenza, then the second part which is like a fast movement as it were, very rhythmic.

But there’s also Szymanowski’s use of folk material. At one point I’m playing in a sort of pentatonic scale that’s against a droning effect a bit like a bagpipe, and there’s lots of interesting different types of scales – almost Middle Eastern if you like – so that adds a real exotic flavour. Then it builds up to a tremendous climax where all the themes are brought back, including the opening theme of the piece, intermingled with all sorts of rhythmic ideas. He brings the whole together at the end into a very exciting and triumphant conclusion.

You can also still hear the Viennese influence that was more pronounced in Szymanowski’s earlier work. This is his Op 61 and a rather late piece.

Yes, and it was written for his dear friend the violinist Paweł Kochański who was unfortunately very unwell at the time Szymanowski was composing it.

It’s sad that Kochański died shortly after giving the work’s premiere in New York in 1933.

I remember reading that that led Szymanowski to feel ambivalent about the piece – he associated it with his friend’s death. So I wonder if, in some small way, that was why Szymanowski didn’t push it more and therefore it didn’t quite have the upbringing it should have had, as it were, bearing in mind the greatness of the work!

I believe Kochański had a hand in writing that cadenza – he worked very closely with Szymanowski on a number of his fiendishly difficult violin works.

Yes – I don’t know to what extent he would have influenced exactly the notes that were written for instance or the double stopping, but I would imagine that there must have been a huge amount of involvement from Kochański. I believe he may have stayed with Szymanowski while he was composing it.

It strikes me as a fascinating partnership between a wonderful instrumentalist and a composer. Are you aware of that when you play the piece?

Yes I think so, with this particular piece. There are some concerti where the violin is playing alongside the orchestra in certain places but in this piece you really are the protagonist right the way through. I’m calling to mind for instance Brahms’ Violin Concerto where he chooses to give the oboe the main theme for a very extended period in the second movement. There’s nothing like that here. There are a couple of very wild and marvellous tuttis – but even those are in short supply. It’s very much focused on the violin throughout.

I found a lovely quote from Simon Rattle who said ‘It has always amazed me why the violinists of the world do not play at least one of Szymanowski’s concertos.’

[Laughs]. Yes, I know Simon really loves Syzmanowski’s music! I do hope it comes more into the repertoire – I mean it’s not done very often full stop! You’d be hard-pressed to see anyone perform the piece and it’s just incredibly sad. I hope that in Cardiff, people will really get a flavour of what an amazing work it is, even if it’s very unfamiliar to them. But I think they’re a very musical audience, very open-minded! Even on a first hearing it’s just so exciting and there’s such energy to the work that I really hope they’re going to enjoy it.

Friday, 18 April 2014

'Brass Without Boundaries': Arcomis and a Concert by the London Sinfonietta

Arcomis International Brass Event, 10 – 13 October 2013

London Sinfonietta, St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 12 October 2013

Luciano Berio – Call – St Louis Fanfare
Harrison Birtwistle – The Silk House Tattoo
Luciano Berio – Sequenza V, for solo trombone
Witold Lutosławski – Mini Overture
James MacMillan – Adam’s Rib
Timothy Jackson – Two Haiku

It’s not often that the London Sinfonietta ventures across the Severn Bridge. Indeed, to my knowledge, the last time they did so was for another Arcomis event; the inaugural festival in 2011, which celebrated all things flute in a packed weekend of concerts, workshops, recitals, masterclasses and happenings for people of all ages. Two years later and the Cardiff-based Arcomis returned with a new theme: ‘Brass without Boundaries’. The main performance venue had shifted from the BBC Hoddinott Hall to the larger St David’s Hall (with Cardiff University and the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama) but the ethos and drive remained the same, with an emphasis on top, international performers and exciting, innovative events exploring and celebrating brass instruments from every angle.

As you might guess of a festival which involves the UK’s premier contemporary music ensemble, the core of the Arcomis project is the promotion and commissioning of new music. But Arcomis’ approach is beguilingly easy-going and far from the usual up-front, ambassadorial stance of new music festivals. The hope is that the emphasis on exceptional performers and the sheer excitement they bring to their instruments will lead new audiences to discover new music through the very thrill of those sounds. Moreover, the inclusive programme spanned a wide range of music old and new across many genres, with ensembles from Superbrass to the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, National Youth Jazz Orchestra to the comedic Mnozil Brass, and world-class soloists such as trumpeter Tine Thing Helseth and horn player David Pyatt. It was an impressive undertaking to say the least and one deserving of congratulation to Director Adrian Hull and his team.

I spoke with Adrian ahead of Saturday’s London Sinfonietta concert and he told me that he’d worked for over eighteen months to make this happen, and was grateful for the support of many people, including Phillippe Schartz (Principal Trumpet at BBC NOW), the BBC NOW producers and staff of St David’s Hall in particular. He described the aims of Arcomis International Events thus: ‘We come at it from a new music point of view but it can be entertaining, world-class, world quality. Part of the idea is to give a boost to all the great music that goes on in this area, in Wales and the South-West, with so much happening in London.’

He also spoke of some of the themes running through this year’s event, which quietly commemorated five, major anniversary composers – the first four of whom happen to have been linked by friendship and/or influence: Benjamin Britten and Witold Lutosławski (birth centenaries) with Francis Poulenc and – scandalously neglected elsewhere – Paul Hindemith (fifty years since their deaths). The fifth composer, of course, is the great Luciano Berio who died a decade ago this year and who did so much to pioneer new ways to write for solo instruments. As Adrian says, ‘There are threads there but they don’t necessarily need to be in people’s faces. It also helps us to be coherent in programming and to give it a bit of variety and to give a focus on new music without it being too much.’

The London Sinfonietta concert featured works by Berio and Lutosławski alongside composers happily very much alive and kicking: Harrison Birtwistle, James MacMillan and Timothy Jackson (who also happens to be Principal Horn with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and who was present to hear his Two Haiku for brass quintet).

But before that came a foyer fanfare performed by the Arcomis Brass Quintet – one of ten fanfares specially commissioned by Arcomis; all bar one popping up at different points of the festival in the public area of the Level 3 St David’s Hall lounge (the tenth took place in the RWCMD foyer). Appropriately to the ‘Sinfonietta programme, this particular piece was Michael Zev Gordon’s Fanfare-Epitaph: Homage to Witold Lutosławski, a short, brilliant work of bright and dark contrast based on the Polish composer’s own Epitaph for oboe and piano and played here with great oomph and relish.

It proved an apt prelude to a classic ‘new music’ concert by the ‘Sinfonietta players, exploring a wide range of sonic possibilities within the loosely modernist perspective of six works written between 1966 and 1998. The line-up varied from solo instrument to full brass quintet, as in the opening Call – St Louis Fanfare (1985) by Berio. Like much of Berio’s music, the piece explores the title from a number of perspectives; musically here through the calling back and forth of hocketing trumpets and a literal calling of the players by voice into their instruments. But as a fanfare, the piece itself is a call to the audience to listen, as Berio disarmingly put it, ‘before the feast begins’. On the basis of this performance, the work is a feast in itself; full of subtle textural and tempo changes.

The ceremonial ambience continued into Birtwistle’s The Silk House Tattoo (1998), a substantial work with a characteristic theatre element. Cast in four sections, two trumpeters moved around a central snare drummer in a circle; now static, now marching. The spatial aspect held a subtle acoustic and visual drama, and every tiny nuance was audible here and, indeed, throughout the concert, from rich, full-throated tones to muted pianissimo, delicate flutter-tonguing and precise, singing quarter tones.

In concerts involving a variety of instrumental line-ups, stage management often creates its own theatre as the stage is re-set between pieces – not always helpfully at that. Here, at least, the whole process was relaxed and gracefully done and the next two pieces were the highlights of the concert: Byron Fulcher’s winning performance of Berio’s Sequenza V (1966) for solo trombone and Lutosławski’s brilliant single-movement Mini Overture (1982) for quintet. Fulcher appeared in costume as Grock, the clown of Berio’s inspiration, and was effortlessly equal to the composer’s virtuoso self-described ‘theatre of vocal and instrumental gestures’, revolving pathos and humour around the single enunciated ‘why’? As for the Overture, it was stunningly performed (with a welcome pivotal role for the horn), making the most of the composer’s array of colours, contrasting articulation and precise rhythmic passages within the ebb and flow of the now building, now arrested momentum.

Harmony was to the fore in MacMillan’s Adam’s Rib (1995), which opened with exquisite, dark, open chords. Here the tuba and trombone came into their own, underpinning the whole with long, held notes of a deep resonance in two richly scored Chorale sections either side of a contrasting fanfare. The Two Haiku (1997) by Jackson which closed the concert were neatly drawn and sturdily well written for the instruments, if somewhat formulaic in character, but packing much detail into a series of evocative vignettes.

Overall, the London Sinfonietta created an oasis of top-quality music-making far away – but in no sense divorced from – the shoppers in Cardiff city centre close by. And that was the point of Arcomis’ ‘Brass Without Boundaries’, which placed the ‘Sinfonietta alongside kids’ workshops and big jazz concerts as just one of many performances by exceptional players over the four days of the event. When congratulated on his achievement in pulling it all together, Adrian Hull’s modest response summed up both his own terrific enthusiasm and the buzz around the festival:

‘It’s nice that people come along and that they’re keen about it. The support has been incredible. It’s also fine if people don’t like things as well – that’s what it’s there for! Honestly, doing this session here [an open workshop performance with Mnozil Brass], when I’ve just come from the ‘Welsh College with a load of toddlers having a go on trombones, and now to the London Sinfonietta – it’s sublime!’

Poulenc 50 Years On, Shostakovich in Wartime: BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales

St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 4 October 2013

Francis Poulenc – Gloria
Dmitry Shostakovich – Symphony No. 8

Soprano: Marita Sølberg Conductor: Thomas Søndergård

This year sees the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Francis Poulenc, who collapsed suddenly with a heart attack on 30th January 1963. Henri Dutilleux – who himself died earlier this year – purportedly once described his elder compatriot as ‘a point of reference’, adding that ‘in this capacity, France needed a musician like him following Chabrier, whom he adored.’ Certainly, Poulenc is the best known and most accomplished composer of his erstwhile fellows in the Groupe des Six of the 1920s; a loose association of chic enfants terrible*, who were guided by Eric Satie and who often found themselves hanging onto the coat-tails of the (in)famous Igor Stravinsky.

In his lifetime, Poulenc grew resigned to his place as a minor composer in comparison to such figures as the iconic, colourful Russian who, by the ‘20s, was largely based in France. Poulenc himself was often seen as ‘colourful’ – although, in his case, the epithet more often took the form of disparagement as a lightweight prankster, based on the urbane, witty and apparently flippant music of his earlier years. In truth, people were often challenged by his seemingly opposing positions – not least as an openly homosexual bon viveur who drew ever more devoutly towards his Catholic faith following the shocking death of a lover in a car accident in 1936.

In the latter part of his life, Poulenc composed many pieces for the church but his style remained essentially light-hearted and neo-classically refined; freshly original but based on such ‘old-fashioned’ cornerstones as a fluent melodicism and simple tonal harmony with a dissonant bite. As he himself once said, ‘I am a musician without a label.’ But this has hardly prevented audiences from appreciating his music, as they did enormously tonight at St David’s Hall, in a sprightly and touching performance of the Gloria by the combined BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales, together with soprano soloist Marita Sølberg, under Principal Conductor Thomas Søndergård.

It turned out to be a night of anniversaries, and no doubt Poulenc would have loved the spontaneous rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ which greeted a happily surprised Søndergård from an audience already won over by his easy rapport and impressive first year at the helm. Not only that, but tonight was the 30th anniversary to the day of the first ever rehearsal of the Chorus – and their first ever concert with Søndergård to boot. Characteristically open and generous regarding other composers – however different from himself – Poulenc may also have appreciated being paired with Shostakovich on this occasion; a Russian who – in his intensely grief-laden Symphony No 8 at least – represents an entirely contrasting figure to the man famously described as ‘half monk, half delinquent’ by the critic and musicologist Claude Rostand.

Poulenc’s Gloria was written a year or so before his death and is an intriguing example of his idiosyncratic marriage of sincere religious feeling with sheer, tongue-poking delight at life (quite literally, as it was in part inspired by frescoes of angels doing just that). Søndergård’s reading of the work looked set to take its cue from the latter cheekiness as, after a dignified introduction, the conductor took off at pace with the first entry of the Chorus. However, things settled by the ensuing Laudamus te and, from then on, clipped, bouncing accents were nicely balanced by a poignant tenderness – albeit at times lacking the broad phrasing that would have allowed the Chorus to shine completely in the hall’s acoustic (no doubt this did not affect the radio broadcast). But overall, the performance was one of great sensitivity and incision, aided by the stunning clarity and rich, creamy tone of Marita Sølberg, whose faultless pitching and top register gave the performance exquisite focus. Her Domine Deus – in both third and fifth movements – and the final ‘Amen’ were mesmerising.

If Poulenc represented the ‘point of reference’ for French music, it is Shostakovich who has become the musical byword – in the Western popular imagination at least – for endurance in wartime and artistic resistance to totalitarian oppression. Inevitably, in a history so fraught with propaganda on all sides, there remain many contentious issues surrounding Shostakovich’s role in Soviet Russia and the extent to which he may or may not have been a dissident. Arguments over the authenticity of certain texts published under his name (like his largely discredited memoirs, Testimony) represent only a fraction of the battles still being fought over him by scholars.**

All of this adds further levels of irony to the utterly devastated and devastating music Shostakovich composed ‘about’, or inspired by, war – of which his Eighth Symphony is a stupendous example. Whether the music can be said to be ‘about’ Hitler or ‘about’ Stalin; whether it is ‘about’ the terrible pogroms against Jews and dissenters pre-Second World War*** – or whether it is simply Shostakovich’s own personal response to horror, loss and trauma – is ultimately unknowable. But it is highly unlikely that listeners who have even the least knowledge of Shostakovich’s biography or the symphony’s background can truly put all that aside and do what Gerard McBurney pleaded for in tonight’s programme note, which was to focus on the music alone, without such external baggage of interpretation.

Nor would that necessarily be ideal – albeit that notes in themselves are of course neither ‘political’, nor ‘emotional’. What we can do, perhaps, is choose to listen consciously; aware of the paradox that, on the one hand, all musical expression is on some level a political act (including Poulenc’s) and that, on the other hand, Shostakovich today is, in many ways, still as subject to interpretation, polemic and revisionism as the historic tool of propaganda he fought not to become.

Unlike the previous, more belligerent ‘Leningrad’ Symphony (1941, more usable as propaganda therefore more acceptable to the authorities), the emotional tenor of the Eighth is the unrelenting ‘pity’ of war, to echo Wilfrid Owen. Composed in 1943, in the midst of a long and terrible conflict which can barely be imagined, it is a threnody, if you will, for humankind – and it appears surprisingly rarely on concert programmes compared to other Shostakovich symphonies. In this hugely convincing performance, Søndergård drew out the agony with some slow tempi but without tipping into the maudlin. The rich strings of the BBC NOW were key to prolonging the tension, with a long-range dynamic understanding built right from the start, as extended, thematic line after line was taken up and morphed by brass and woodwind into melodies of, at times, unbearable anguish. The opening Adagio – Allegro non troppo, of course, features the cor anglais solo most often associated with just that emotional extreme and here, Sarah-Jayne Pormoguer played it with immense empathy and pathos.

Indeed, this symphony relies as much on the emotional stamina of the many soloists from each section as their musical ability, and the playing tonight was as magnificent as we have come to expect from a BBC NOW which is growing ever more in stature. Plaudits are due to all, but Eva Stewart was outstanding (I never thought I would find a Shostakovich piccolo part ‘soulful’), as was principal trumpet Phillippe Schartz – particularly in the third movement – with oboist David Cowley in the fourth… the list simply goes on.

Any orchestral performance stands or falls by its teamwork, however, and particularly so in a symphony of this monumental scope. And BBC NOW are, quite clearly, a team. Shostakovich’s Eighth has an unusual, five-movement structure and is sometimes apt to feel like a series of gaunt climaxes – complete with brutal outbursts, marching marionettes and titanic major-minor clashes – interspersed by great, dark stretches of no-mans-land, interminable in length (however appropriately so). But Søndergård was able to rely on the collective sensitivity of his players to intuit his direction, allowing shapes to coalesce and disperse with some fine dovetailing of phrases back and forth between sections of the orchestra – and, indeed, from section to section of the work. This was true of each movement, but was most hard-won tonight in the final fourth and fifth; parts of which can drag cruelly, but which Søndergård managed to steer with great poise on the right side of bleak isolation.

Cadences are, to my mind, unusually crucial in this work, serving as points of departure as well as arrival – and they are vital moments of tension release in Shostakovich’s rolling, crushing orchestral machine. Perhaps Søndergård expressed it most succinctly in his post-concert Q and A, when he spoke of needing to ‘find the meaning of the sentence’ in the piece. On many levels, ‘finding the meaning’ of this work is a loaded concept for the reasons I’ve discussed. But navigating securely from cadence to cadence – as it were from sentence to sentence – and, within those, slipping adroitly from key to key, seems to determine the success or otherwise of its overall shaping from a grim C minor to an eventual C major just as harrowing. Perhaps it is not too outlandish to suggest that composing these harmonic and melodic ‘sentences’ into a symphonic form so quickly – in just forty days or so – is part of what enabled Shostakovich not merely to stay sane, but to express in such plain terms, a profound universal humanity in the midst of such unending destruction and despair.

* including Darius Milhaud, Georges Auric, Arthur Honegger, Louis Durey and – trailblazing as a woman – Germaine Tailleferre.

**  to the extent that a book, pointedly entitled The Shostakovich Wars (by Allan B. Ho and Dmitry Feofanov) was published in 2011 to counter the hitherto allegedly ‘definitive’ text on the subject, Malcolm Hamrick Brown’s A Shostakovich Casebook (pub. 2004).

*** From Testimony – ‘the war brought much new sorrow and much new destruction, but I haven’t forgotten the terrible pre-war years. That is what all of my symphonies, beginning with the Fourth, are about, including the Seventh and Eighth.’

Opera Review: Greek by Mark-Anthony Turnage: Music Theatre Wales

Music Theatre Wales, Weston Studio, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 1 October 2013

Music by Mark-Anthony Turnage
Libretto by Steven Berkoff based on his original stage play of the same name
Adapted by Mark-Anthony Turnage, Jonathan Moore

Cast: Marcus Farnsworth / Sally Silver / Louise Winter / Gwion Thomas

Directed by Michael McCarthy
Conducted by Michael Rafferty

‘Bollocks to all that’. When Greek first erupted onto the stage at the Munich Biennale in 1988, this final, angry dismissal from tragic hero Eddy, seemed for many to sum up the angry-young-man attitude of the opera’s composer Mark-Anthony Turnage – as if his main character’s rejection of fate, moral taboo and the social ‘plague’ of what was then Thatcher’s Britain were not enough. Certainly, Turnage and co-librettist Jonathan Moore had hit on the perfect script for ‘just kicking out at things’ (if you pardon the pun) in Steven Berkoff’s modern-day reworking of Sophocles’ Greek tragedy Oedipus. Turnage had been just 23 when he won a scholarship to study with Hans Werner Henze, and it was the veteran opera composer who encouraged him to write Greek; inspiring in Turnage a greater political awareness which would explode in this, his first work for the stage, alongside a growing discontent at his long-held ‘problem … with only a certain amount of people from a certain class listening to this [classical] music’.

In the event, Greek earned Turnage widespread, and deserved, accolades as a composer. It also earned him the inevitable, exaggerated ‘bad boy’ reputation from a titillated arts media, who took the bait of expletives launched from a supposedly hallowed operatic stage – not to mention such deliberately crass enticements as, ‘Fancy my mum? I’d rather go down on Hitler’. Thankfully, there’s a great deal more to this work than school-boy shock tactics and, propelled by his hardcore, bitter tale of patricide and incest, Turnage has risen in the intervening quarter century to become one of the most successful and established composers in Britain, irrespective of his music and persona continuing to divide opinion.

Not only has Greek entered the international repertoire, but it has withstood the test of time despite its specific setting in 1980′s England – as Music Theatre Wales showed once again in this revival of their award-winning 2011 production, here receiving its long-awaited Cardiff debut as part of MTW’s own 25th anniversary celebrations. Indeed, the piece has a powerful contemporary relevance for an ‘austerity Britain’ beset by widening deprivation and social injustice. Turnage’s faux East End accents might sound dated now but, sadly, his metaphoric, curse-induced ‘plague’ is all too familiar in today’s rancid culture of corporate and political greed – and Michael McCarthy’s production thrives on the parallels. For the point is that Eddy and his family are as humanly real as they are cartoonish caricatures and hapless victims of fate and, as such, they are timeless and universal. Moreover, McCarthy seizes the raw drama of their predicament and marries that with Turnage’s deeper socio-political implication to produce a brutal picture of what is in some respects England – or Britain – or many a nation – today.

A powerful sense of deja-vu emanates from the stage, as McCarthy’s video stills of the 2011 riots remind us of Brixton and Toxteth in the early ‘80s. I was a South London teenager then, and I remember the police and the smell of exhilarated terror on the streets, even as I recall the tales of police brutality and racism each time I see footage of innocent people – bystanders or protesters – struck down by them today. Turnage’s riot scene – like his entire, modernist bricolage score – is neither gratuitous nor chaotic, but carefully designed for maximum impact, and the exemplary MTW ensemble (eighteen players conducted with requisite bold precision by Michael Rafferty) rose to the occasion; shouting, whistling and whacking drums or plastic riot shields beneath the loudhailers and belted-out slogans of the terrific four-strong cast. In the ideal, tight confines of the Weston Studio, the audience was effectively kettled, if only for a brief moment of time.

But Greek is not all visceral rage or mob violence by any means and that same, terrific cast also gave eloquent voice to the tragedy, tenderness and, indeed, humour of the story. Marcus Farnsworth was (again) astonishingly good in his reprised role of Eddy; a bored, bewildered young man, who leaves home after his parents warn him of the prophecy that he will kill his father and sleep with his mother. Of course we all know that he will end up doing just that. For, unknown to Eddy, he was adopted as a baby and the waitress he falls in love with and marries – after murdering her husband in a cafe brawl over a piece of cheesecake – turns out to be his real mother, and the murdered man his father. Farnsworth portrayed Eddy’s casual aggression superbly and his dawning, awful realisation that the prophecy has come true was hair-raising, and remarkably convincing alongside Eddy’s manifest vulnerability, loyalty and fundamental good heart in wanting to rid the streets of the ‘plague’ and the vengeful Sphinxes.

Those Sphinxes were embued with sluttish wit and style by Sally Silver and Louise Winter who, together with a Gwion Thomas who was by turn, Alf Garnett bigot, marauding copper and decent family man, tackled three roles apiece with tremendous verve – and without tipping over the top into slapstick, which would be all-too easy to do. The acting, singing and spoken dialogue was mostly excellent (some miked-up passages were a little hard to catch), but there were stand-out moments of sheer delight; Winter segued her song of grief over her dead husband into one of love for Eddy with great dignity and eloquence and Silver was both very funny and moving as Eddy’s doting (adoptive) Mum.

Turnage’s fast-moving score mirrors the frenetic, confrontational action as well as the several sincerely loving exchanges between various of the characters – but especially between Eddy and his guileless Wife. Clearly, by this point in his young career, Turnage was an orchestrator to reckon with, but he also demonstrates a ferocious talent in weaving his own highly individual style from a mishmash of audible influences from Stravinsky to Shostakovich (in rhythmic dissonance), with Birtwistle-like expressionism, a Britten-esque feel for melodic inflection and the obligatory jazz and hard bop (with male ensemble members sporting white dickie bows and black suits like a dance band). I could have sworn I detected ‘My Old Man’s a Dustman’ too, somewhere in the mix, along with snatches of football chant.

All this would be extremely impressive regardless of Turnage’s then young age. But what really intrigues me about Greek is the fundamental conservatism which Turnage captures so vividly, and which belies the in-yer-face surface of the work; the kind of upper-working / lower-middle class aspirational conservatism which deluded people into believing that ‘Maggie is our only hope’ – a delusion which Turnage himself seems to have shared as a teenager: ‘Age 16 I was buying the Daily Telegraph … very Essex – but in my early 20s I became very anti-Thatcher and anti-Conservative.

However, it is hardly any conversion to socialism which forms the basis of Turnage’s possible way forward, nor any real repudiation of the ugly materialism of the world he depicts. Rather – perhaps surprisingly, or perhaps not – he offers us love. Having ignored the appalling homophobic 1980s’ association of the word ‘plague’ with AIDS, associating it instead with Thatcherism – and notwithstanding tasteless puns on ‘motherfuckers’ – he exhorts us finally to reject false moral strictures and to simply accept loving for what it is: ‘We only love so it doesn’t matter, mother’. It is a profoundly humanist point of arrival and seriously meant beneath the opera’s mouthy exterior. Ultimately, in Greek, Turnage but clothes his journey to it in the slightly embarrassed, macho brusqueness of a brilliantly able Essex boy in more beguiling ways than one.

'Think Opera? Think Again!': Music Theatre Wales in Conversation

Music Theatre Wales is the UK’s leading contemporary opera company. Specialising in chamber opera and music theatre, the company has produced and toured thirty operas since its inception in 1988 – fourteen of which have been new commissions. MTW has won a TMA Award for Outstanding Achievement in Opera (2011), a South Bank Sky Award (2013) and been nominated for an Olivier Award (2013).

In a wide-ranging discussion, Co-Artistic Directors Michael McCartney (Director) and Michael Rafferty (Conductor) talked to Steph Power about MTW’s current production of The Killing Flower by Salvatore Sciarrino, and other projects past, present and future, as well as the company’s vision of opera and music theatre.

The Killing Flower is being performed at the Wales Millennium Centre tonight and touring.
This 25th anniversary year, MTW also tours their award-winning production of Greek by Mark-Anthony Turnage, Ping by Vasco Mendonça and Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies.

Steph Power – Sciarrino is recognised as one of the most significant composers working in Europe today. So it seems extraordinary that Music Theatre Wales’ production of the Killing Flower is not just the the first ever staging of that work in the UK, but it is the first full staging of any opera of his here!

Michael McCarthy – It’s certainly exciting for us to be the company bringing this important international work to the UK for the first time, and exposing audiences to a whole different palette; a different way of thinking, writing and performing opera. But Sciarrino’s written plenty of operas!

SP – Yes, and this piece has been recorded several times.

MM – And yet, most people go ‘Who? Never heard of that’! We just have to get the work out there because it’s a serious miss in the UK musical world, let alone the UK opera world.

SP – Absolutely.

Michael Rafferty – It’s difficult to understand because, if Killing Flower was a really off-the-wall piece and hadn’t gone down well in other countries, that would be different. But it’s an established work on the continent and Sciarrino is an established figure. Although the problem with people listening on CD is that you have to hear it live, to experience it. He forces you to really listen. And you certainly don’t get that from a minute of YouTube!

MM – You have to feel it – sound is a physical thing, there, in the space. It’s about the gesture of making sound and hearing and feeling it – that’s why Sciarrino’s work is so extraordinary as theatre music. It has that concentration, intensity and the power of the single gesture of sound. It’s just so strong.

SP – You’re reminding me of something that relates to Mauricio Kagel’s work; Kagel’s ideas about instrumental theatre, where he proposed a music in which the gestures of the musicians contribute as much as the sounds they make.

MM – Sciarrino’s not doing that deliberately, but that’s what I experience with his concert music and his opera – that physical aspect. Not just watching the musicians play or sing, but being in the space in which that sound is somehow being emitted and communicated. The liveness of Sciarrino’s sound is acute and special. There’s something extraordinary about how he makes you listen – like no other music I know.

SP – Yes I agree, it’s very singular.

MR There’s something very primal about it as well. The sounds go in on a quite subliminal level – they work on a level which is below or above what you might take as being accessible.

SP – I understand that you’ve arranged the set so that the audience is actually a part of it?

MM – Yes, the audience will sit inside the set with the singers and ensemble.

MR – This is in performances from now on; at Buxton Festival [where MTW performed the UK premiere], we had to have a pit and a more formal staging. We thought that you wouldn’t be able to hear the sounds – but you could hear everything. It was amazing! There is a conservatism in the UK – even about other new operas – that there has to be a big bold expression that speaks to a big opera house. But you can write something that’s incredibly soft, with three ppps as Sciarrino does, and with sounds which rarely use traditional techniques and it can communicate to an audience. In a way it’s a lack of imagination on the part of people who have been programming up until now.

MM – and knowledge.

MR – But when the audience is there listening, they get it and the number who’ve said, well it just worked, and who couldn’t believe that something that was so quiet for most of the time – and then sometimes three or four fffs! – could have that effect. But Sciarrino draws you into such an intimate world. He invites you into this extraordinary palette of sounds rather than ‘pushing’ his expression out.

SP – How did you find working with the performers, both singers and instrumentalists, to introduce them to Sciarrino’s particular sound-world?

MR – I think what’s really interesting is that, although it’s ‘different’, it’s not alien – the music is immediately understandable. It’s so much about the sound and the expression. The notation looks relatively complicated on the page but the sounds are immediate and once you’ve absorbed how to do it, for the singers it’s actually very vocal so there is an instinctive understanding. The singers know where it’s coming from, even though it may be hard to learn from one juncture to the next. It’s so much about the fleeting feeling.

MM – The musicians have talked about the different techniques, the different sounds the instrumentalists have to make. From the singers’ point of view, it’s not this verismo stuff, it’s not heart on sleeve, and so they have to think slightly differently. It’s actually incredibly hard to memorise because of the level of detail involved; almost every note has its instructions and you have to follow them because that’s how Sciarrino communicates how it should be. Every note has to be thought about with dynamics and expression, and then in its context, and then in its dramatic import. It’s very demanding – but we like it like that!

SP – Jane Manning has said that the term ‘extended vocal techniques’ is a misnomer in a way because vocal techniques are vocal techniques – whether sung or otherwise! I think that’s true of instrumental techniques also.

MR – Yes! With the Flower ensemble, they’re lapping up the different techniques and interesting new sounds. And again there aren’t so many techniques that are way-out – there’s a lot of harmonics and playing behind the bridge for the strings, breath sounds, it’s not so different. The saxes have got slap-tonguing and so on.

SP – So, not unfamiliar really, for anyone who’s heard or played different kinds of contemporary music. Is there any heightened sense in which those musical sounds form part of the theatrical performance?

MM – I would say that, in many ways, for all pieces you try to work from the musical score outwards, but I think perhaps more so here. For me, the music suggests very strongly the dramatic approach – it says so much about the atmosphere within which the characters think and feel. The actual story of the drama is quite slight in a way; I mean it’s about powerful things, but it’s not a ‘big’ story and it’s not about narrative and the consequences of events. It’s about what happens to these people in the interplay between them and in particular within their own individual thoughts and feelings. You have to sustain an extraordinary level of tension for over seventy minutes and there’s a defined ‘band’ within which a great deal happens, so the music inevitably for me suggests ways of behaving for the performers. Yes, absolutely.

MR – Sometimes Sciarrino works in a way you don’t even notice. There’s a scene in which the violins are playing a note that’s so high that some other ensembles have thought it must be a mistake and have put it down an octave. But it’s there and it’s so high that it’s just about beyond hearing range for some people and almost sounds like a bow noise. In the theatre you maybe think that there’s just singing at that point, that there’s no other sound. But this note from the violins has been going on for twenty, thirty seconds, then it stops. And then you notice that there’s been something there before.

SP – What a completely different world from Turnage’s Greek – from chalk to cheese!

MM – A million miles away from Greek, yes! With Greek – you know everything is absolutely there!

MR – The Turnage is strong and overt and in-your-face!

MM – But no less sincere, or powerful or intense. We took our time to come to Greek. We needed a space between the first performances that it had in the UK and a couple of revivals to appraise it and look at it fresh. I personally was slightly concerned whether this is an opera only of its time because it was so 1980s. Great then, but what now we’re twenty-five years on? Where does that leave the piece musically, theatrically and of course in it’s political message? So what was exciting for us when we first did this production two years ago, was that the piece came up smelling of roses. It’s just incredibly vibrant and if you play it with sincerity it’s all there. I think that’s what Mark responded to when he came into the rehearsal and he could see that the whole company were committed and were doing our best to find this blazing energy that’s there. And in fact he just changed the text for the riot scene – putting in the text that he wanted originally, which wasn’t deemed ‘suitable’ by the BBC at the time. And it captivates, it conveys the energy that that scene should have. But it’s also a fabulously well crafted piece of work. Finding that text [by Steven Berkoff] my God that was so right for him, it just worked! But a lot of the music is instinctive and I think all the better for it in a way.

SP – As a company, you’re now celebrating your 25th anniversary. Do you see yourselves as having emerged from any tradition or traditions?

MM – We’ve established our own tradition! But I think we do, yes, in terms of the model of the company – but not necessarily in terms of the artistic output, because I think the work is very broad. We started out with Maxwell Davies, we’ve gone to Harrison Birtwistle, to Michael Nyman and Philip Glass, we go to Sciarrino and Turnage and that’s fantastic. The people we’ve commissioned have been equally diverse: Eleanor Alberga – John Hardy, indeed, in those early days – Huw Watkins and Stuart MacCrae. But I think the model of the company comes actually from Benjamin Britten – in this year of years [Britten’s centenary]!

SP – I was about to ask whether Britten was an influence?!

MM – Yes, through the English Opera Group, that’s the starting point.

MR – Well that’s one of the influences. The other one of course is the Pierrot Players.

SP – Which then became the Fires of London.

MM – and looking to Europe most definitely, so there’s a dual track which does come into one really. But in terms of the British root, English Opera Group commissioning small scale pieces that worked in a different operatic way. There’s no question that that had a very strong influence on what was going on operatically. And the English Opera Group commissioned Birtwistle’s Punch and Judy.

MR – We have a modern way of working – of touring and of size – but we don’t have any musical school and the core really is a kind of extreme expression I think. Eight Songs for a Mad King is obviously an overt form of that but then the Sciarrino is that too at the other end of the scale. The key isn’t that we’re about any sort of expression but that it’s an intense expression and an intense experience of theatre.

MM – It’s opera up close, that you experience right up inside. I think the intimacy is a very important aspect of that, so the scale is a great strength, it’s not just opera on the cheap! We often describe the company as being about the power and passion of opera on an intimate scale, but it’s also adventurous and demanding and can be provocative in its language and sometimes in its message. And that’s right because it’s a contemporary form that has emerged out of a really exciting art form that’s been going for hundreds of years.

SP – How do you go about balancing the more ‘Britten-esque’ operatic model – for want of a better term – alongside the more European, perhaps even ‘anti-operatic’ model of music theatre, if you like – I’m thinking in terms of the creative tension that exists between those two poles? – In any case, to do Greek and Killing Flower at the same time, and pairing Ping with Eight Songs, there are tremendously powerful contrasts right there!

MM – In the end, we spend a lot of time finding pieces that we are inspired by, that we feel we can communicate and do justice to – and feel that this is work that has to be seen and heard. It has to work. We can’t be stuck on any tracks in particular.

MR – No, we can’t be hung up on any model and we also need to explore. Not necessarily the edges, but everything that’s going on now as far as we can. In classical opera there’s a handful of works that are done by the major companies – it’s a sort of masterpiece culture. I suppose in a way we’ve focused on intensity of expression because each piece has to work theatrically.

MM – All the elements have to be in the right place. I think sticking a transcendental piece, say, into an inappropriate studio or theatre would be to shoot yourself in the foot. So you have to get those things right and all the time we’re thinking how do we best do this piece that we believe in? How do we make this work, how do we communicate it? Because we want to share the passion and inspiration that we get from these pieces and to deliver the same experience that we’ve had.

MR – We share the journey. Obviously we do the pieces that we think are fantastic but maybe not all of them will enter the long term repertoire. But just doing it now and letting everybody follow that with us, rather than saying this is ‘the masterpiece’ – we’re saying: this is exciting -

MM – Try this!

SP – So yours is an anti-museum culture?

MM - Yes – it has to be!

MR – Yes, definitely a living culture. Being able to talk to the composers rather than wondering, what was that composer thinking in the 16th Century?! We decided very early on that we wouldn’t do reductions. We did a Mozart opera early on but after that we said no – it’s always going to be the full experience, not like a string section reduced to only four string players. Our composers know that they’ve only got four strings so they have to write in a way that sounds right to make it a total experience with those forces. So you’re never thinking, oh I wish the rest of the orchestra was there! Because that is the orchestra!

MM – It’s about protecting the integrity of the work.

SP – Kent Devereaux said in 1991: ‘To assess contemporary opera, is to confront the institution of opera. Opera is arguably the art form most dependent on the institution for its lifeblood … To reclaim opera has become in many ways a task of redefining the term.’ What do you make of that?

MM – That’s good. I think we’ve been doing that since the start. All of the repertoire we have chosen both simultaneously respects the form but challenges it and sets out to provoke and refresh. The physical model we work on, the belief in the intimacy, is something that flies in the face of most operatic experience – and the baggage of opera. We are constantly fighting expectations and preconceptions. There are so many preconceptions about what opera is.

MR – The scale is an interesting one because many people say, well one day you’ll graduate to produce a big opera! Some of the pieces really only work in small venues but, as you get more successful, people say, well there’s a bigger theatre! But we have to reply, well this piece only needs a scale of 200 seats or whatever. In a way, doing the Turnage and Killing Flower in such venues is ideal for these works. Fifteen instruments in a venue that size can have a huge impact – and you can hear the tiny sounds as well.

MM – You see, the choice to stage the Sciarrino in the Donald Gordon Theatre [main stage at the Millennium Centre] and bring the audience onto the stage and into the set itself – which is what we’re doing in Llandudno and in Swansea Grand – the three number one venues, the three opera houses of Wales! – what we’re saying is very deliberate; that this is opera too, but God it’s different! But it is real opera – music makes the theatre work and vice versa.

SP – ‘Opera’ is very associated with ‘grand opera’ in the popular imagination. But opera’s not necessarily about ‘scale’ on any level is it?

MM – No it isn’t – and Kent is right there in terms of the institution sometimes, the houses. This is the Boulez thing you know [Boulez once famously said that ‘the most elegant solution of the problem of opera was to blow up the opera-houses’]. Sometimes the houses themselves dictate the form. But nothing could be worse than saying you have to write in a certain style because that’s the building we’ve got.

MR – And an orchestra on salary.

MM – It boxes the form in and it’s crazy.

SP – Do you find that there’s a different attitude on the Continent from here in Britain?
MR – You do find that there’s a greater variety and openness amongst certain circles.
MM – You have to find those places really. Obviously there are many countries and many different houses with different artistic policies – and we sit here in the UK and go, ‘Europe can do it’. But the truth of the matter is that there are more institutions in Europe who are performing contemporary, challenging work, you know, really taking that step forward, than there are in the UK.

SP – You have to seek them out?

MR – Yes. There are one or two festivals that are very open like Strasbourg and Aix en Provence and Munich Biennale. But certainly, I think when we played in France we felt some of the greatest sympathy with the work. We did Punch and Judy in Paris and even in Strasbourg – that was a project we did along with the main opera house – you got the impression that the audience were just more interested to see what was going on. It felt like an openness.
But certainly some of the music you hear on the Continent, you think that might be hard to introduce in the UK – but I also do think that will be our future.

SP – Right – that’s fascinating!

MM – We have to do that.

MR – We’ve tended to do a lot of British and occasionally American works – you know Philip Glass and Philippe Boesmans – but I think going to the future we’re looking more towards Europe and further afield. So we can bring those experiences to this country.

MM – And so our own repertoire is ever wider. I think that’s important too.

SP – I look forward to hearing more about that! In terms of ‘classical’ composers, very few these days only write opera or music theatre works. So I wonder whether there’s potentially a different kind of dialogue today – or fluidity perhaps – between dramatic writing for the stage and instrumental writing for the concert platform, which might be influencing the development of both?

MM – I think there’s been a tremendous effort, quite possibly post-Darmstadt, for composers to have a greater influence over the nature of the theatre and of the event itself and there is a fluidity there, which pushes what we understand opera to be. Where that takes us I don’t know because part of the mission for us at MTW is to have equally good dramatists working in opera as we’ve got composers. And composers have to understand that, so it’s always going to be a challenge both ways. Not all composers can write opera. Good opera composers have very powerful, perhaps instinctive, dramaturgical sensibilities.

MR – One thing that’s quite interesting is that some composers who write in a particular way instrumentally, when they get to write an opera, they have a different way of writing. Pastiche is always the danger area! The most successful composers operatically are the ones that find the subject matter that suits their music.

MM – But also those who don’t try to bend what they do because they think an opera has to go like that. As soon as a composer think like that, they’re on the wrong track. George Benjamin’s a fantastic example here. His first operatic sketch was The Little Hill, a fascinating kind of vignette trying things out – then the next thing that happens is this passionate, extraordinary outburst which is pure Benjamin and yet a whole new language. Now he just wants to write opera because he’s discovered it! It’s fantastic.

SP – Yes I think he’s produced something very exciting in Written on Skin.

MM – And Max did that with those chamber operas. The Martyrdom of St Magnus [1976] in its own way is quite a radical work, a real step forward. The Lighthouse [1979] is more straightforward but still pushes at the boundaries of what opera was at that point and it’s proved to be an important launch-pad for us.

MR – Yes you know, focused on madness and extremes! Whereas Sciarrino seems to focus on intimacy  – and Philip Glass something else.

MM – Glass has this mood, this dramatic power as well, amazing control of mood and expectation.

SP – I believe Glass is setting Kafka again for you – following your performances of In the Penal Colony? [MTW produced the UK premiere in 2010.]

MM – He is indeed. He’s offered to write us a new piece and he’s recruited Christopher Hunt to write the libretto so, yes, another Kafka. And it suits him – he’s quite amused by that. He says, oh you guys seem to like these dark pieces!

MR – Yes, that really worked in his Fall of the House of Usher [Glass’s opera after Edgar Allan Poe of 1987] and there’s a natural progression. The Kafka seems to sit alongside that.

MM – And with the Trial you know, that’s been in his head since he was a teenager. He’s been wanting to write this piece for a very long time and so this is really nice.

SP – You’ve commissioned many works over the years.

MM – Yes fourteen operas now.

SP – And you’re working with young composers through your ‘Make an Aria’ project?

MM – Yes, that’s become a really interesting programme for us because it’s absolutely about what we do, which is to ask: what is it like to write new opera? What is new opera? How do you bring text and composition together to create a moment of drama that couldn’t exist in any other form? So we just took the idea of: solo performer, a moment of opera, an aria. Which might be a very old fashioned idea but it still works.

MR – Also it’s too big a thing to write a whole piece. A lot of composers have maybe written five-minute pieces, so to be confronted with that time scale, there are just too many things. So crystallizing a moment of maybe five operatic minutes allows an experience to happen. In a way it’s good for any composer to remind them this moment has got to work rather than thinking how am I going to fill out the space of the opera!

MM – We’ve discovered that it’s great for the composers and actually the audiences really like it because they also get an insight into the process of writing opera and the huge challenges involved. We’ve done one at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and are just about to start one with Oxford University, partially in collaboration with the Oxford Playhouse. We like it because we’re meeting composers along the way and we learn with every experience as well, it’s great.
Each of the ‘Make an Aria’ projects concludes with a public masterclass where we invite seriously experienced opera composers to join us. We’ve had Birtwistle and Judith Weir and Nigel Osborne and we’ve had Turnage – and we’ll carry on. It’s also really good for us to have that ongoing dialogue at the point of creation.

SP – In our own discussion today, we’ve considered many aspects of MTW’s work and how you think about opera and music theatre. Is there a pithy way of describing what Music Theatre Wales is all about?

MM – Well, yes, a kind of catch phrase for Music Theatre Wales would be ‘Think opera? Think again’!

MR – Yes, that’s about it!