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

Saturday, 28 February 2015

Basel Symphony Orchestra: 'Three Minimalist Classics' by Pärt, Glass, Adams.

The following was first published in Wales Arts Review, Volume 3 Issue 9, May 2014.

St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 29 April 2014

Arvo Pärt – “These Words …”

Philip Glass – Cello Concerto No. 2 ‘Naqoyqatsi’

John Adams – Harmonielehre

Basel Symphony Orchestra Cello: Matt Haimovitz Conductor: Dennis Russell Davies

It is several decades since Michael Nyman and others first alighted on the term ‘minimalism’ in the late Sixties to describe the musical phenomenon then emerging from the USA and elsewhere as a parallel to recent developments in the visual arts. Not so much a style as a sensibility, this new music sent shockwaves through the academic establishment with its simple tonality, hypnotic repetition of melodic and rhythmic patterns, emphasis on process rather than motivic development and, above all, its overturning of the teleological assumptions that had characterised Western music for centuries. For those people struggling to navigate the seemingly esoteric complexities of much new music at the time – in contrast to the rising rock and pop culture – encountering the likes of Steve Reich, Philip Glass and Terry Riley in the Seventies was nothing short of mind-blowing. These and other equally individual composers were initially dismissed as enfants terrible, but together they went on to drastically alter the so-called ‘classical’ music landscape.

However, as with all loose descriptors that are seized on and become labels, the term minimalism quickly became stale for many of the composers to whom it was applied: Glass revealing his frustration with it as early as 1980, when he declared, ‘I think the word [“minimal”] should be stamped out!’ Moreover, such is the way of revolution that what was once new and liberating becomes the new orthodoxy and thence becomes history; where it continues today, minimalism is by and large very much part of the establishment, and its originators are now considered the old guard. Nevertheless, minimalism was a hugely positive development in many respects and its influence is still clearly felt. Not only did it shake loose many antiquated classical music conventions but, as Paul Hillier points out in an interview elsewhere in this edition of Wales Arts Review, it opened up different areas of classical music for new audiences to enjoy.

That minimalism was always a broad term to anyone beyond certain purists and critics is evidenced by John Adams’ inclusion in this intriguing concert, advertised as ‘three minimalist classics’, by the Basel Symphony Orchestra. Indeed, if labels are to be used at all, then Adams’ Harmonielehre, which formed the high point of the evening, is not so much minimalist as neo-Romantic; an entirely different kettle of chords, so to speak, in its post-19th century chromatic harmony and emotional expressivity. Given the charges of betrayal directed at Adams following the work’s premiere in 1985, it therefore seems doubly ironic that Harmonielehre should have been the only true ‘classic’ on this Cardiff programme. For the piece was written in response to Adams’ own struggle with minimalism, as the title – taken from Schoenberg’s influential 1911 textbook on harmony – suggests.

Today, of course, minimalist or otherwise, Harmonielehre is firmly accepted in the orchestral canon – and rightly so, as it is an extraordinary piece; utterly individual and yet managing to reference composers as diverse as Wagner, Mahler, Debussy and Stravinsky in a profound symphonic journey through aesthetic crisis to breakthrough and renewal. This evening’s performance, conducted by minimalist interpreter extraordinaire, Dennis Russell Davies, brought Adams’ glimmering textures and rollercoaster momentum surgingly to life. From the walloping E minor chords of the first movement, to the eerie dissolving and coalescing of the second movement (The Amfortas Wound) and the brilliant, almost pointillist, orchestral richness of the third (Meister Eckhardt and Quakie), there was both grandeur and delicacy aplenty from this excellent orchestra, here making its Welsh debut.

Clearly, both the orchestra and their artistic director of some five years know this piece inside out, and they plunged beneath its seething surface to produce the depth of sound so crucial to Adams’ lavish, yet translucent scoring. But for all that, I had the feeling that the players were showing signs of wear as they drew towards the end of their punishing UK tour; this being the penultimate of seven concerts presenting four separate concert programmes within a week. Not that there was anything overtly wrong or lacking in the performance, just the quiet sense that the orchestra was not as on fire as it might have been.

Still, the players had already acquitted themselves with distinction in the first half – and perhaps a fuller audience might have encouraged them further. As it was, both the Pärt and the Glass were extremely well played. Arvo Pärt is, of course, oft-saddled with the usually pejorative ‘holy minimalist’ label due to the mysticism and devotion to matters of Orthodox belief that permeate his music, as well as its apparent simplicity. That this is both misleading and unhelpful would require too much space to unravel here; suffice it to say that the composer has achieved huge popularity despite this – though it is high time that other fine Estonian composers were allowed to do more than peep out from behind his coat-tails. “These Words …” was full of Pärt’s characteristic and highly appealing resonant stillness, and would make an enticing introduction to his 4th Symphony of 2008-9, which utilises its material in the second movement, to those unfamiliar with the longer work.

Glass is another composer suffering from over-exposure in my view these days, but his music remains strangely compelling, and often refreshing to hear live, no matter that he has long since become predictable and almost literally self-perpetuating. Indeed, English National Opera’s revival of his opera Satyagraha last year was stunning in all departments. The Cello Concerto No. 2 performed here in Cardiff scaled no such heights but was given a warm and lyrical rendition by soloist Matt Haimovitz. All told, at forty minutes, the piece teetered on the edge of overlong, but Haimovitz and the orchestra just about held the interest through the seven sections; a symmetrical – and non-programmatic – arrangement of material taken from Glass’s score to the 2002 film Naqoyqatski (the third of the Qatsi trilogy documenting the relationship between humans, technology and nature). Elder statesman of ‘minimalism’ he might be despite his protests, but there is no sign yet of Glass either altering his style, or of slowing his prodigious output.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Welsh National Opera Orchestra opens the 2014 'Faith' Season with Messiaen and Bruckner

The following was first published in Wales Arts Review, Volume 3, Issue 9, May 2014.

St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 25 April 2014

Messiaen – L’ascension

Bruckner – Symphony No. 8
Welsh National Opera Orchestra  
Conductor – Lothar Koenigs

It is often said that we live in a secular age. At least, in the West today, few people show scant, if any, commitment to organised religion in any form. And yet religion, and faith in a wider spiritual sense, remains one of the most febrile areas of our collective psyche and a major flashpoint in our world; a source of meaning, reassurance and social cohesion perhaps, for those who subscribe to it – and the inspiration for much magnificent art through the ages. But religious faith so often remains a barrier rather than an encouragement to tolerance and understanding of the perceived ‘other’ beyond – or indeed within – communities. As dogma, and the expression of (usually) patriarchal power, religion continues to be as much a trigger for territorial struggle on many levels as it is a channel for hope and the profound questions of human existence. Around the world, it remains a major source of oppression, war and misery for many people.

Two opera composers who have dared to address fundamental issues of faith and religion – and the philosophical, social and political questions which arise therefrom – are Schoenberg and Verdi; the two pillars, if you will, of Welsh National Opera’s forthcoming ‘Faith’ season, which will see one of the great masterpieces of the twentieth century, Moses und Aron (in the first UK production since 1976) twinned with Nabucco; the opera that in many ways heralded Verdi’s creative maturity.
For this introductory concert by the WNO Orchestra, conductor Lothar Koenigs chose works by composers with devoutly religious beliefs whose music sought to express rather than interrogate the notion of faith: Messiaen and Bruckner. Both were Catholic and both, as it happens, were brilliant church organists, which informed their music in important ways. Interestingly, neither are known as opera composers; indeed, of the two, only Messiaen wrote for the operatic stage, but his remarkable, gargantuan single opera, St François d’Assise (premiered in 1983), is still – scandalously – yet to receive a full production in the UK.

L’ascension is an early piece in Messiaen’s overtly spiritual, yet strongly modernist oeuvre. It was written in 1932-3 – around the same time that Schoenberg completed as much as he ever would of Moses und Aron – though the Messiaen is perhaps better known in its subsequent 1934 re-working for solo organ. It is cast in four ‘meditations’ rather than ‘movements’ in a symphonic sense; each conveying in radiant, abstract tones some aspect of Christ’s ascent to heaven.*

However, it was outright patience rather than meditative transport which was initially invoked at St David’s Hall, due to a delay of well over half an hour – longer than the piece itself – waiting for a deputising player to arrive. The inevitable fluster took its toll on the opening brass which wavered before settling. Their sound, when it blossomed in tandem, was thankfully glorious, with many points of rapturous beauty throughout the orchestra as the piece unfolded; here with Stravinskian bite, there with ringing overtones and a rapt stillness. In the fourth meditation, the strings’ emergent, searing harmonies provided a thrilling complement to those divine fanfares of the first and third. Overall though, the performance never quite achieved the transcendence that it might have, nor the ecstacy that led one prudish early reviewer to comment on the work’s ‘impure atmosphere’. There were some thin, not quite blended textures in quieter passages, and a tailing-off of certain phrase-endings was just enough to revoke the sense of being pulled inexorably aloft.

After the interval, Koenigs set to with renewed purpose for Bruckner’s 8th Symphony. Nicknamed the ‘Apocalyptic’ (but not by Bruckner), many consider this the composer’s greatest achievement – though its history and reception, like much of Bruckner’s symphonic work, has been bedevilled by the so-called ‘Bruckner problem’ of its existing in numerous different versions and editions (here we heard the Haas of 1890). Bruckner famously had other problems too; not least the precarious balancing of mystical leanings with crippling personal neuroses and the secular ambition which drove him to Vienna. Once there, however, he struggled to be accepted by an establishment hostile to his musical hero Wagner; so audible an influence in the huge, grandiose symphonies (Wagner tubas and all in the 8th) to which he eventually devoted himself after composing a number of fine religious choral works.

Koenigs resolved to sweep all this aside and focus on the work’s ‘sublime journey from dark to light’, to paraphrase the programme note. Of course, abstract music is an opaque vehicle for religious – or any extra-musical – ideas. But sentiment is another question entirely, and this music hefts some mighty emotions with or without any supposed dedication to a higher spiritual force. But the enormous size of the edifice Bruckner created carries its own difficulties; his block-like thematic writing – and, indeed, orchestration (with instruments added and subtracted like organ stops) – can prove resistant to linear shaping and forward momentum. And so it proved here at times, particularly where the chosen tempo was on the slow side, as in Koenigs’ second movement for instance, and in a somewhat stop-start approach to phrasing (to stretch the organ metaphor).

That said, this performance had many qualities to recommend it; not least in the way that Koenigs drew out what, for me, is a key to Bruckner’s 8th in terms of its sheer, resonant sound. For Bruckner was Viennese in a more Schubertian sense if you will; that is, although he clearly utilised traditional principles of sonata form and so on, his structural techniques and motivic development did not necessarily adhere to Beethovenian models (though he hardly deserved Brahms’ famous criticism as a musical ‘boa constrictor’ – something that would never have been levelled at Schubert). Rather than look for ways to paint Bruckner as either solidly Viennese on the one hand, and/or Wagnerian on the other, as scholars are often tempted, better I think to see his music as a unique attempt to bridge sacred and secular, old and new, extrovert vastness and private reticence, with the sound itself being the key to his expression.

On paper, the score seems to me ponderous and repetitive – even uninventive. But in concert – for this quality can really only be encountered live – those apparently pedestrian dots can leap off the page to create music of blazing light. Here, Koenigs, assisted by largely excellent playing across the orchestra, succeeded in touching some proto-spectral heights. The Adagio was particularly full and sonorous in tonal colour; a truly physical coup for any orchestra, let alone a pit orchestra on a very late-running schedule.

Perhaps it was the transparency of Koenigs’ approach which helped, but on balance this evening, I found myself more sympathetic than I often am to Bruckner’s gigantic and ultimately troubled quasi-mystical world. This season’s productions at WNO offer a more enticing prospect still – and Koenigs will be in his element with the Schoenberg, which promises to be a truly extraordinary experience.

* Performances of L’ascension are rare in Wales, but like buses to heaven, two seem to have come along together this spring. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Jac van Steen, will be performing the work alongside Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 at St David’s Cathedral Festival on May 29.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

From the Archive: BBC National Orchestra of Wales - Welsh Panorama 2012

The following was first published in Planet Magazine, Issue 209, Spring 2013

BBC National Orchestra of Wales: Welsh Panorama
Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 23rd November 2012

Mark David Boden: Fuochi Distanti (world premiere)
Andrew Lewis: Eclipse
Huw Watkins: Concertino
Arlene Sierra: Moler (UK premiere)
Guto Puw: Hologram
Joseph Davies: Byzantium (world premiere)
Mark Bowden: tirlun

Conductor: Grant Llewellyn
Violin: Chloë Hanslip

“Why write for the orchestra? For one thing, it’s a very challenging problem”
(Elliott Carter 1908-2012)

The symphony orchestra has proved to be a remarkably resilient cultural institution. Having survived political and artistic turmoil in the 20th Century, and so far fending off further charges of social and musical anachronism in the 21st, it continues to thrive as the perceived ultimate vehicle of collective ‘high-art’ music-making, embodying centuries of Western classical music tradition. However, few contemporary composers get the opportunity to write for orchestra as, ironically - and contrary to most of music history - orchestras these days almost exclusively perform music from the past; commissioning living composers but rarely and, even then, reluctant to take risks with new or unknown names. The dislike has been mutual at times, with influential post-war avant-garde composers such as Stockhausen, Boulez and Cage rejecting the historical baggage of the orchestra to experiment with different kinds of ensemble and new technologies.

Nonetheless, the appetite for orchestral exploration today remains undimmed amongst many composers, and November’s Welsh Panorama showcased BBC NOW’s growing commitment to the new and home-grown by featuring a whopping seven emerging voices both from, and living in, Wales. None of the pieces performed had been specifically commissioned for the concert, but two were past BBC commissions and three had been commissioned by other orchestras, lending substance to the hope that new works might increasingly get the chance for more than the single performance that, alas, so often signals not just premiere but swan-song. Both past and present Resident Composers of BBC NOW were included; a scheme first run in 2006-9 with Guto Puw and continuing with Mark Bowden from 2011, offering close relationship with the orchestra to a promising Welsh composer in the early stages of their career.

One thing united all seven composers beyond a supposed geographical bond, and that was a preoccupation with instrumental colour - indeed, given the sylistic pluralism of today’s musical world, there was a surprising homogeneity of approach to certain elements of orchestral writing in the use of texture, light and shade and climactic gesture. The colours were mostly big and bold, and were splashed about with enormous enthusiasm; the large orchestral forces providing not just canvas and palette but creative energy, with such proliferation of quickly-changing, dazzling ideas as to risk overloaded ears (not to mention tired performers) by the end of the lengthy concert. But that is an issue for the BBC programmers rather than the individual composers, and perhaps in future we can look forward to a less ‘cram-it-all-in’ approach to the unfamiliar - or, better still, greater stylistic contrast in the types of pieces chosen. All credit to the orchestra and conductor Grant Llewellyn, who showed terrific musicianship as well as sheer stamina.

Arguably, the biggest and boldest piece was the most successful in harnessing distinctive colours to create an authentic sound-world; Byzantium, by Joseph Davies (coincidentally, by a whisker, the youngest composer at 25), combined fanfares and military tropes with whistling strings and wonderfully cheesy effects, referencing Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring along the way.

But the deeper challenge of orchestral writing is to create shape and structural coherence beyond localised colour and, in this regard, Huw Watkins’s Concertino and Arlene Sierra’s Moler stood out. The Watkins was, in fact, scored for the orchestra’s strings alone plus solo violin (beautifully played  by Chloë Hanslip) and was skillfully and naturally written for the instruments. The Sierra was also assured - and contrastingly extrovert; putting the ‘grind’ into an evocation of nocturnal teeth grinding to generate great rhythmic vitality and a superbly timed climax. Both pieces had clear ideas that had been heard, as well as thought, through.

All four remaining pieces offered good things; Andrew Lewis’s Eclipse had an effective and memorable ending (always tricky to achieve) and, as with Puw’s Hologram, some lovely textural shifts. Mark David Boden’s Fuochi Distanti contained music of glittering delicacy as well as whirling ferment, whilst Bowden’s tirlun displayed huge confidence with the orchestral medium, if relying a little heavily on loud, thick textures.

Interestingly, these four pieces and every other bar the Watkins shared a descriptive - even narrative - approach to orchestral writing, inspired by extra-musical ideas, literature or the natural world: contemporary tone poems perhaps? Watkins, too, utilised a traditional kind of drama by pitting soloist against ensemble - so the audience had many non-abstract reference points if any were needed. In terms of style, it was notable that each composer used some form of modernist, fairly dissonant but nonetheless familiar musical language (heard, say, in composers as disparate as Harrison Birtwistle and Mark-Anthony Turnage), rather than a more uncompromising, experimental language (like that of Helmut Lachenmann or Brian Ferneyhough for instance) - or, indeed, a more approachable, easier-going language such as  made popular for some years by minimalists (like Philip Glass and Arvo Pärt). It will be fascinating to hear what is unearthed by BBC NOW’s forthcoming 'Composition:Wales', with two days of eagerly anticipated free public events including workshops and an evening concert featuring pieces selected from submissions by composers throughout the nation.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Berg's 'Lulu': Welsh National Opera 2013

The following was first published in Planet Magazine, Issue 210, Summer 2013. The production (together with 'Lohengrin' and 'Paul Bunyan') earned Welsh National Opera a richly-deserved Royal Philharmonic Society Opera and Music Theatre Award that year. Very sadly, both singer Richard Angas and designer Johan Engels have since passed away: huge losses to the opera world.

Royal Philharmonic Society [RPS] Opera and Music Theatre Award - See more at: http://www.wno.org.uk/news/wno-wins-royal-philharmonic-society-music-award-opera-and-music-theatre#sthash.jK1CFJlc.dpufv
Royal Philharmonic Society [RPS] Opera and Music Theatre Award - See more at: http://www.wno.org.uk/news/wno-wins-royal-philharmonic-society-music-award-opera-and-music-theatre#sthash.jK1CFJlc.dpuf
Royal Philharmonic Society [RPS] Opera and Music Theatre Award - See more at: http://www.wno.org.uk/news/wno-wins-royal-philharmonic-society-music-award-opera-and-music-theatre#sthash.jK1CFJlc.dpuf
Royal Philharmonic Society [RPS] Opera and Music Theatre Award - See more at: http://www.wno.org.uk/news/wno-wins-royal-philharmonic-society-music-award-opera-and-music-theatre#sthash.jK1CFJlc.dpuf
Royal Philharmonic Society [RPS] Opera and Music Theatre Award - See more at: http://www.wno.org.uk/news/wno-wins-royal-philharmonic-society-music-award-opera-and-music-theatre#sthash.jK1CFJlc.dpuf
'Lulu' by Alban Berg
Third Act completion by Eberhard Kloke
Welsh National Opera, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 8 February 2013

Conductor: Lothar Koenigs
Director: David Pountney

Set Designer: Johan Engels
Costume Designer: Marie Jeanne Lecca
Lighting Designer: Mark Jonathan

Cast: Marie Arnet / Natascha Petrinsky / Patricia Orr / Ashley Holland / Peter Hoare / Richard Angas / Mark le Brocq / Alan Oke / Nicholas Folwell / Julian Close

Alban Berg’s Lulu is one of the most significant operatic masterpieces in the entire genre; a hugely ambitious, complex work of ravishing beauty, absurd black humour and utterly bleak tragedy. The opera is as notorious for its paradoxes and flaws as for its technical challenges, and the fact that Act III lay unfinished at Berg’s premature death in 1935; the music having been composed but with much still to be orchestrated. Friedrich Cerha made a completion from Berg’s manuscripts, but it was not until 1979 that the entire work was premièred after the death of Berg’s widow Helene, who withheld the third act when Arnold Schoenberg and others turned down the task - and perhaps, too, nervous that publication might expose her husband’s affair with Hannah Fuchs-Robettin, as Berg’s scores were known to be saturated with personal, coded references.

Prior to the 1979 unveiling, Lulu had been performed as a two-act ‘torso’ and it was in this truncated form that Welsh National Opera were obliged to stage their British première in 1971. But it is only now that WNO audiences have been able to experience the piece in its astonishing entirety; here in a new completion by Eberhard Kloke, allowing cuts which, thankfully, eliminate much of the overwhelming clutter from the confused Paris scene, but which also, less convincingly, omit the Quartett from the final, London scene.

No matter - the production is enthralling and spectacular; indeed, David Pountney’s Lulu is visionary in a way few can claim to be right through to that stupendous final scene, which remains shatteringly intense and at which more than one audience-member audibly exclaimed. Lulu’s story is not so much told as exposed, layer by layer, in a way completely befitting of her ambiguous status; for she is at once a mythical spirit and an abused woman-child, whose magnetic eroticism creates torment and chaos for everyone around her. As she spirals headlong, downwards towards her murder at the hands of Jack the Ripper, the bourgeois society which created her is simultaneously dismembered; its decadence and hypocrisy ultimately imploding with catastrophic results. This production is all the more harrowing for its relative lack of outright sex and violence. Rather, Pountney opts for a more powerfully suggestive portrayal, utilising a combination of surreal imagery, jazz-age burlesque, slapstick and a sort of perverse kitsch redolent of the sumptuous debauched world of Berg’s rarely performed Viennese precursor Franz Schreker, in operas such as Die Gezeichneten.

The stage set is marvellously designed, lit and costumed. Johan Engels’s chromium framework provides both a cage for the human ‘menagerie’ - sometimes replete with garish animal heads - and a gibbet for the corpses of Lulu’s husbands, which get hoisted up to dangle Bacon-esque over ensuing proceedings in more senses than one. However, far from entrapping the characters as Berg’s over-prescribed score directions can do in less imaginative stagings, this production gives the altogether excellent cast a terrific platform from which to make the roles their own, with the help of a superb orchestra under conductor Lothar Koenigs, who renders Berg’s colours and Romantic lyricism with searing intensity.

Marie Arnet’s Lulu is visually and musically stunning and is brought to life with a remarkably natural - and unbearably apt - combination of passion and detachment. Her eventual mutilation is foreshadowed from the start through the presence of a macabre but grimly humorous sculpture in place of the portrait in Berg’s score, showing Lulu as a surreal, disjointed doll; a motif extended to an enormous bed made of body parts - the inference being that this, too, is Lulu - upon which is enacted scenes of murder, seduction and betrayal alongside sheer buffoonery. The chaos and claustrophobia is contrasted with Pountney’s use of an alienating, mimetic device whereby parts of Berg’s dialogue are delivered naturalistically by actors via pre-recorded tape. Some structural clarity regarding Berg’s mirror symmetry is sacrificed thereby as with, for example, a key repeated phrase, ‘that was hard work’. This phrase is pre-recorded in Act 1, after Schön tells the Painter of his and Lulu’s affair, but sung on-stage in Act III, after Schön’s alter-ego Jack murders Lulu, thus detracting from the correlation. But overall, the device is striking and, paradoxically, helps to ground the production in the ‘real’, thereby adding to the emotional impact.

Berg’s predilection for allusions to people and musical works beyond the piece at hand is honoured in this production in many ways, including various filmic references in place of Berg’s actual film sequence, from Hitchcock (Lulu’s murder) to silent film (various mimed roles). A major Wagnerian trope also acknowledges Schigolch - Lulu’s supposed father/lover and, certainly, her pimp - as the rotten core of the drama; an aspect of Berg’s musical and dramatic design that is often overlooked (indeed, whilst parallels between the composer Alwa and Berg himself are much discussed, no commentator to my knowledge has noted the significance of Schigolch’s wheezing asthma as a condition Berg himself suffered from). Crucially, Schigolch alone survives the carnage. Like Lulu, his origins and identity remain a mystery, but Pountney has him double as Berg’s Animal Trainer and master of proceedings dressed as Siegfried’s Wanderer (wonderfully performed by Richard Angas); the further analogy with Wotan in deep, riddle-setting disguise also cleverly suggesting Lulu’s own mythical kinship with Brünnhilde and - as we see with Lulu’s suitors, who age in her absence whilst she is in gaol - Freia, Goddess of Eternal Youth.

Pountney’s Lulu might reference the Twilight of the Gods but for WNO and lovers of innovative, deeply penetrating opera, it heralds both a British landmark and the start of a new and exciting programme that will see no less than eight new productions staged as part of themed seasons in 2013-14 alone (Summer 2013 sees Wagner’s Lohengrin twinned for his 200th anniversary with the late Jonathan Harvey’s Wagner Dream). Wales, it seems, is throwing down the gauntlet to other opera companies within the UK and on the international scene. Perhaps those doom-sayers who predict the death of opera as an art form might just be a little premature.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Paul Hillier in Conversation

The following conversation was first published in Wales Arts Review Volume 3, Issue 9, ahead of the 2014 Vale of Glamorgan Festival: http://www.walesartsreview.org/paul-hillier-in-conversation/

Paul Hillier is a multi-award winning choral director, renowned world-wide for his superlative performances of a wide range of repertoire. With a catalogue of over 100 recordings, since the 1970s he has been at the forefront of early music and, latterly, of new music in particular; often combining the two with highly inventive programming across musical periods and cultures. 

In 1973, Paul formed the Hilliard Ensemble, devoting his energy to the quartet for many years before moving to California in 1990 where he formed the Theatre of Voices. Between 1996 and 2003, he was Director of the prestigious Early Music Institute at Indiana University, but found he missed the performing life, and so returned to Europe to take up the position of Principal Conductor of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir in 2001, which he held until 2007. During that time he moved to Denmark and also became Chief Conductor of Ars Nova Copenhagen (2003), a position he still holds.

Paul has strong, longstanding ties with some of the key composers of our time, including Arvo Pärt and Steve Reich, about whom he has published books (1997 and, as editor, 2002 respectively), together with numerous anthologies of choral music, for Oxford University Press.
In 2008, amongst other projects (and having been awarded an OBE in 2006), he became Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the National Chamber Choir of Ireland (now Chamber Choir Ireland), which he will conduct in two concerts at this year’s Vale of Glamorgan Festival to include the UK premiere of Tarik O’Regan’s Acallam na Senórach: an Irish Colloquy (scored for chamber choir, guitar and two bodhráns; co-commissioned by the Choir, premiered in 2010, and recorded by them to critical acclaim).

Paul took time out of a busy schedule of rehearsals ahead of the Festival to talk with Steph Power about a range of topics from minimalism to Acallam na Senórach, to Schoenberg.

Steph Power: As a choral director, you’ve been in the vanguard of both early music and contemporary music: two areas of repertoire which may be distant historically but which, in stylistic terms for many composers writing today, have a close musical kinship. How has that ongoing relationship, as it were, between these musical periods developed over time for you?

Paul Hillier: I’ve always had those interests – I suppose it just never occurred to me not to – and I’m also strongly interested in everything that happened in between those periods; it’s just that I got hooked into doing more early music than anything, especially with the Hilliards. Once you get known in one area you tend to get asked to do the same thing over and over, naturally enough. And then I started to do more new music again in, I suppose, the ‘90s. As I’ve gone into just conducting rather than singing, new music has become, I would say, the main thing for me rather than early music.
I think the reason for that is that I just enjoy working with composers and presenting music that people have written today. It just seems to me the very natural thing to be doing. In literature, we all read some books from the past, whether it’s a hundred years ago or much older, but it’s the new stuff that grabs our attention, and it’s the same with music – except that somehow there’s this idea that tends to be around, that a lot of new music is difficult and therefore people don’t want to come and hear it and so on. I just don’t believe that, although I certainly recognise that those inhibitions – if we can call them that – are there. I think people are misleading themselves actually, and a lot of new music is much more easy to enjoy and listen to than it might appear.

I wonder if that perceived difficulty with new music began to change for audiences in the ‘70s when the sensibility, if you like, of minimalism began to emerge? – Though I think ‘minimalism’ was and remains a very problematic term, but nevertheless it seems to have stuck!

Yes – I certainly think that minimalism had a very positive influence and it’s been a bit of a gateway for people into other kinds of new music. On the other hand, there are still a lot of people involved in new music who look down their noses at what is referred to – as you say, with difficulty – as minimalism. So in a sense it doesn’t solve all the problems, but I do think it’s provided a way in for a lot of people.

It’s interesting that the rise of minimalism seemed to coincide with a huge surge of interest in ancient music – medieval music and so on.

I think that’s true. Somehow I’d inherited all that stuff and was doing it anyway – I was following my instincts you know, and then suddenly I realised that it does, in many ways, all tie together rather well, and rather a lot. But it wasn’t planned that way.

No, I’d suppose that things that turn out to be of the zeitgeist are probably never planned! It’s a fascinating subject – that bridge between ancient and modern – and it relates very particularly to Tarik O’Regan’s Acallam na Senórach.

Yes, it’s interesting because we haven’t done the piece for at least two years I think, if not longer. I’ve just been looking at it and remembering the piece, as it were, and getting back into it. It’s always different when you go back to a piece – we did it for quite a lot of performances too, and so have already performed it over quite a long period. But inevitably, one’s perception shifts a little bit in the intervening time, and I think the thing I’m most struck with, actually, is how well made the piece is.

Yes, it’s beautifully written.

It’s a completely tonal language that Tarik uses, and yet there’s a certain freshness about it – it’s not like a lot of new tonal music where you feel, oh well, they’ve just ignored what happened historically. I do feel with Tarik that he knows full well what’s going on, that this is the way he writes. And I think just from the technical point of view it’s a remarkably good piece with a lot of stuff in it – and of course I wouldn’t say I’d forgotten, but I’d stopped thinking about the piece, so it was interesting to revisit all those things – both the way Tarik writes for the voices, and the way he writes for the guitar and puts the two together and so on. It’s very fresh and very imaginative.

Originally, I commissioned a smaller piece with the idea that we would then expand it into a much larger piece. Of course that’s actually what happened – which is quite nice because often those ideas don’t get followed through. But this one did I’m very glad to say. So we had a ten-minute piece which was performed quite a few times, but just in Ireland, and then this longer piece was written with the addition of the guitar; the original was a cappella and then Tarik modified some of the material and built this much longer piece, which is basically a short concert by itself.

What I was looking for was a piece that told a story. I’d reached the point a few years ago when I decided that one of the problems with presenting new choral music – let alone new music, but new choral music – to audiences, is that a lot of the pieces don’t really connect with them; not because of any difficulty in the music, but because there is no narrative, there is no reason for the audience to be interested in the text. You know, with another setting of ‘Kyrie’ or whatever, the music has got to be very good to grab people. So I started asking composers for pieces that quite simply told a story in some way or other, and of course that’s exactly what Acallam na Senórach is – it’s a set of stories in a way. And of course the piece is tailored for the Irish identity of the Choir but, having said that, not all the singers are Irish and certainly only a few of them have really an idea of how to speak Irish. So it’s a piece that other choirs can also do, and are doing.

Part of the universal appeal of the piece, it seems to me, is to do with that bridging of time and change through a mythology which is particular but has a wider resonance. It traces the 12th century Irish text, Acallam na Senórach, which takes us from the pagan times of ancient Ireland, with the old warrior kings and the belief in faerie and so on, to the era of Christianity with the coming of St Patrick. So much of the piece is about a dialogue between those two very different worlds.

Yes absolutely – you put your finger right on it. It’s the sense of dialogue that interests me in this piece. And also, it’s very dangerous these days I think, to write a purely Christian piece which relies on, well, being Christian! Because obviously, the majority of people are no longer involved in that – unless it’s a Christmas piece perhaps. But people can connect to Tarik’s piece without necessarily going the whole way towards the particular belief. It is a piece of history, it’s not a religious tract as such.

No. And Tarik uses the guitar and the bodhráns – the frame drums – as part of the narrative process. The guitar is almost a character in its own right; it’s the instrument of the otherworld and of magic, that is capable of putting people to sleep or of waking them up.

Exactly. It’s also the instrument that gives the singers a rest [laughs] – which in a piece of that length also becomes something to think about!

Yes indeed!

The other interesting thing is that the drums were only added rather late in the day. At one point we had the two players in – they’re traditional players – and Tarik had them just improvise. We didn’t use the improvisation – it was fantastic, but it threatened to take over the piece, it was so long and of itself – but it was a wonderful step and I think having them in there is not just a piece of traditional music colour, but sets the stage in a very powerful way.

Perhaps that’s also part of the work’s universal appeal, in that all cultures seem to originate musically with voices and then with drums -

– and a lot of cultures have some kind of plucked instrument, if only just to play along with telling stories. I think that’s a very good connection, yes.

On the surface, a harp might have been a more obvious instrument for the context, but the guitar part also carries Arab and Persian influences, which speak to Tarik’s own wider interests and background.

Yes, with a harp it would have become a little bit more clearly a kind of Irish colour piece – that would have been dangerous. I mean it would have been interesting too, but the guitar was the wiser choice.

That idea of the local and the global co-existing within the narrative is interesting; as you say it’s a long piece, but I think what sustains that length is both the focus on and breadth of the narrative.

– and by global, meaning the idea that the piece is using ways of telling a story that are common to different cultures.

Perhaps that might be one of the legacies, too, from the ‘70s and ‘80s; with people becoming more aware of non-Western musics and other traditions from Orthodox chant to Ghanaian drumming and so on?

Absolutely yes, we want more – more pieces with drumming of that kind, though I haven’t been able to do anything about it yet!

Would you agree that, although we in the West have started to show more respect for other cultures musically, we still have a long way to go in considering them on equal terms with our own, generally speaking?

Yes. I think the trouble is that so many other musical cultures are sort of borrowed, but then it doesn’t go beyond that and we get this kind of ‘world music’ which is fusion. And I personally am not the slightest bit interested in ninety-nine percent of it – but I am strongly interested in hearing regional traditional music from different places – it’s a whole different thing. But when it just becomes a way of adding colour then I fall asleep.

That seems to me a hang-over from the bad old days [including Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail for example] where music from other cultures was used to add ‘exoticism’ rather than being respected in its own right.

Exactly. I’ve worked with Steve Reich a lot and he always makes the point that, although he was strongly influenced by African drumming for example, he’s not writing imitation African music, he’s writing his own music. There are certain technical things that are connected but there’s no fusion involved. And I think Steve’s kind of approach is the one that interests me strongly.

Who do you think are the younger – Western – composers who are carrying on directly from Reich in that regard?

Well, off the top of my head there’s the Bang on a Can group of composers.

David Lang, Julia Wolfe…

…and Michael Gordon. In fact we’re doing a piece in Glamorgan by Michael and one by David. It was Steve Reich who put me on to them years ago, and so they are the next generation. Although unfortunately they’re no longer – like most of us – as young as they used to be! But from the younger generation still, there are a lot of brilliant players I must say, who now take this sort of music in their stride; it’s no longer difficult for them – or at least that’s the impression they give – so this is a progress too.

In terms of other repertoire, I’ve read that you’re interested in doing some Hindemith and Schoenberg. Is that still on the cards?

Oh yes, I’m planning to do various works by both composers. I’ve always been very interested in them, but it’s been a question of priorities. I’ve realised, though, that unless I make the choice to actually do it then I won’t get round to it! And I think both composers are difficult to programme; again, because of the perceptions that people have about what their music is like, which I don’t think is really true: Hindemith is not dry and Schoenberg is not difficult. Well, he can be, but it’s something else when you actually get involved with the music. He was a composer who tended to write under inspiration – it’s not as if he’s writing music by numbers. He writes from emotion, and that’s really what the audience has to connect to I think.

And Hindemith, now there’s a man who spent a lot of his life performing renaissance music and you can see the impact on his own; it’s not imitation early music, but you can see the connections there. Though I don’t think that’s the reason I’m doing it – but obviously that’s a fact, too, which is interesting to me.

Musical barriers can be so false and unhelpful can’t they? With minimalist music for instance, I think people often don’t see the rigour in the writing there, certainly of the best composers. And on the other hand, with Schoenberg, people often ignore the sheer expressivity of his music because they’re so fearful of what they see as the ‘maths’ of it!

Yes that’s true! I think one of the problems, though, of doing a lot of new music – where it is difficult – is simply because of the time versus money element.

Rehearsal costs for one thing!

Just having the amount of time at your disposal to do it properly. And that’s getting more difficult, not less, as time goes on. So the money’s falling away and one has to be even more committed for the sake of it.

Sadly, yes – would it were otherwise.
Just to return briefly to Tarik’s piece, if I may before we finish, it feels a very interesting work for you to be bringing to Wales; it’s a bardic piece if you like, being performed in a country which, of course, has its own rich bardic history of music and poetry – where Cymraeg is a living language and is also expressed through a strong choral tradition.

Yes, I hadn’t thought of that connection actually, and the piece is in a mixture of Irish and English so is in a sense bilingual. I don’t think there are people in Ireland who would speak only Irish.

As in Wales, where perhaps a tiny few older people might speak exclusively Welsh now.

When I stop to think about it, it’s a long time since I was in Wales – it will be interesting to come back. I have sung at the Vale of Glamorgan Festival actually, but it was years and years ago – maybe even thirty years ago!

Well, it will be good to welcome you back to Wales, and fascinating to see how Tarik’s piece is received, together with the Choir’s following lunchtime concert. Many thanks for talking with me.

It was a pleasure.

Friday, 13 February 2015

Under Milk Wood: an Opera by John Metcalf

The following review was first published by Wales Arts Review, Volume 3, Issue 7, in April 2014:

At the time of posting, February 2015, the opera has been shortlisted for an International Opera Award for best world premiere 2014, together with five further operas from around the globe.

Taliesin Arts Centre, Swansea, 3 April 2014

Music: John Metcalf Libretto: Dylan Thomas adapted by John Metcalf
Director: Keith Turnbull Music Director: Wyn Davies
Singers: Elizabeth Donovan / Helen Jane Howells /  Gweneth-Ann Jeffers / Paul Carey Jones / Michael Douglas Jones / Karina Lucas / Richard Morris / Eamonn Mulhall
Instrumentalists: Pamela Attariwala / Deian Rowlands / Jose Zalba Smith / Paul Stoneman

Photo: Kirsten McTernan

Dylan Thomas’s iconic radio ‘play for voices’, Under Milk Wood, was over twenty years in the writing. Decades later, John Metcalf’s opera adaptation of the piece has taken more than six years to bring to the stage; a long enough echo of that original drawn-out genesis to tell of the love and care that Metcalf has invested in the project. So it was timely that his opera should premiere in the year of Thomas’s centenary, and equally apt that it should be in Swansea’s Taliesin Arts Centre; named for the progenitor of Wales’s bardic tradition, and located in the town in which both Thomas and Metcalf were born – the principality’s best-known poet and foremost opera composer respectively.

Thomas first mooted a different title for his play: The Town that was Mad. Based on his beloved Laugharne and other homes or hang-outs of earlier days, it is a rich, polyphonic concoction of over sixty larger-than-life inhabitants of the fictional seaside town of Llareggub, rubbing along together (so to speak) in often ironic isolation. The overall portrait is at once affectionate, optimistic and ribald. Yet the name of the town alone – ‘bugger all’ spelt backwards – reveals the ambivalence Thomas felt towards small-town life, and more generally towards the land of his fathers. Today, of course, in a wry turn of cultural identity, his own name has been co-opted to become synonymous with ‘brand Wales’. But for many years after Thomas’s premature death in 1953 (not just from booze but from a combination of serious ailments and medical quackery), the Welsh literary establishment responded to his work with disdain, as Raymond Williams has noted; labelling Under Milk Wood, for instance, as ‘a vulgar, Anglicised betrayal of “Welshness”’.

Metcalf’s setting of the play contains none of this gritty sub-text, but is a straightforward homage to Thomas’s bucolic creation and to the genius of his language. That Metcalf achieves this without fatally compromising that language, so celebrated for its musicality – and, moreover, in a way which sets forth his own musical vision, whilst necessarily cutting a good deal of the original text – is a testimony both to the composer’s skill, and to his self-assurance in navigating what might have been choppy cultural waters indeed. Richard Burton famously described Under Milk Wood as being ‘all about religion, sex and death’ and a ‘comic masterpiece’ to boot. In choosing to emphasise the pastoral, romantic lyricism of the work, Metcalf gently reiterates those themes without upsetting any Dylan Thomas applecarts, and without lifting the lid on the piece itself to examine the more complex psychological forces at work.

However, the resulting adaptation is palpably heart-felt and highly entertaining, and must surely have a wide appeal beyond the ever-growing legions of Thomas fans. Eschewing conventional operatic narrative, Metcalf retains the non-naturalistic approach of Thomas’s radio play, and builds on its occasional ditties and more frequent musical indications to have the characters express themselves in song throughout. Metcalf’s idiom is entirely tonal, and the approachability of his score belies its complex intricacy on a number of levels; dramatic structure, for instance, is cleverly devised through a circular manoeuvre around the chromatic scale starting and finishing at C major, to run parallel with Thomas’s 24-hour schematic from ‘starless, bible-black’ night, to blue day and round again, this time to a night of stars.

A band of five musicians, directed from the keyboard by Organ Morgan in the delightful form of Wyn Davies, double on a range of instruments from ancient to modern; crwth to violin; lever harp to concert harp; percussion, flutes and more. Director Keith Turnbull makes imaginative use of the musicians’ presence on stage, where they join eight singers, including the central, blind observer Captain Cat (Michael Douglas Jones), to become a truly integrated cast. Together, singers and musicians give voice to over thirty characters through a score which they have clearly rehearsed with loving attention to detail.

There are many affecting vignettes. Highlights include the songs of Polly Garter (Elizabeth Donovan), sadly mourning her dead lover Little Willy Weazel, and the comic duo of deceased Messrs. Ogmore and Pritchard (Richard Morris and Paul Carey Jones respectively), united in their trembling before the living spectre of Mrs. Ogmore-Pritchard (a suitably dragon-esque Gweneth-Ann Jeffers). By opting for a floatier feel than Thomas’s earthy bawdiness and cheerfully suppressed quasi-violence, Metcalf’s take on Under Milk Wood tends more towards light, happy dream than a warts-and-all surreality; a mix clearly present in the original, but made psychologically deeper there by Thomas’s more macabrely tinged, dysfunctional core. Indeed, whilst Thomas is never less than affectionate towards and forgiving of his eccentrics, Metcalf occasionally tips overly into whimsy – especially with Rosie Probert, Captain Cat’s lost love; a role nonetheless extremely well sung by Karina Lucas. That said, Metcalf’s humour has its own charm, which captivated the packed Swansea audience with its soft lilt and pace, helped by uniformly fine acting and Turnbull’s unfussy staging.

One of the most successful aspects of the production is the use of foley, or pre-recorded sound effects, combined with live, mic’d and acoustic sounds (water pouring, horns honking, plastic teeth chattering), created by both singers and instrumentalists to form a rich aural tapestry which dovetails particularly well with the percussion. The paradoxical sense of time passing and timelessness that Thomas captures so well is thereby enhanced in Metcalf’s opera, as sounds appear from all directions with or without visible source, functioning as both present and memory. Paradoxically again, this device helps to emphasise the feeling that we are watching a kind of visual radio play; a form that Metcalf shows to be wholly compatible with opera in its broadest yet most intimate sense.

Thomas was undoubtedly a maverick in his day, and his wayward life so often garners more attention than his actual work: as Seamus Heaney once put it, ‘Dylan Thomas is now as much a case history as a chapter in the history of poetry’. Ironically, in this centenary year, there is the risk that Thomas-the-export will become overly synonymous with that aspect of Wales which insists on looking backwards to the past rather than forwards to the future culturally speaking. So it will be interesting to see how Metcalf’s opera contributes to the critical discourse around the work of this brilliant, but once-divisive figure – or indeed, whether Metcalf succeeds in evading those questions altogether, as one senses he might prefer.

In an entirely different way – and with an altogether quieter temperament – Metcalf is himself a maverick; unafraid to go against the grain, both in his own music (unabashedly tonal when extreme dissonance was the norm, for instance), and in his ongoing, highly successful directorship of the Vale of Glamorgan Festival. Under Milk Wood is his seventh opera and stands as a joyful, personal and universal celebration of Thomas’s spoken play, and yet also of the singing voice, as the composer succeeds in his avowed aim of ‘singing his heart out’. Certainly, Metcalf remains true to the (then) modern-day folk-tale essence of Thomas’s vision. On its own terms, the opera is a great success. In a wider sense, whether Metcalf has gone a little ‘gently’ into this particular ‘good night’ of Thomas’s, so to speak, might ultimately be a matter for history to decide.

Photo: Kirsten McTernan

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Stockhausen’s Mantra: Bangor New Music Festival – INTER/actions

The following review was first published by Wales Arts Review, Volume 3, Issue 6, March 2014: http://www.walesartsreview.org/stockhausens-mantra-bangor-new-music-festival-interactions/

Powis Hall, Bangor University, 15 March 2014
Xenia Pestova, Pascal Meyer – pianos, percussion, electronics
Jan Panis – electronics

A joint enterprise between Bangor New Music Festival and INTER/actions festival-symposium of electroacoustic music.

 Karlheinz Stockhausen was – and has remained since his death in 2007 – a hugely influential figure in postwar European music. Brilliant, charismatic and controversial to the point of divisiveness, he and the arch polemicist, Pierre Boulez, more or less dominated a generation of composers who, together, formed what Luigi Nono described in 1958 as the ‘Darmstadt School’: a reference to the Darmstadt International Summer Courses for New Music at which many composers from all over the world continue to gather each year. However, it is the period between the early ‘50s and early ‘60s to which Darmstadt’s reputation as a cauldron of musical revolution largely pertains, with Stockhausen as primary magus.

At this time in Darmstadt – in a Germany struggling to come to terms with the reality of the horrific war machine it had so recently unleashed – a diverse collection of young and understandably angry avant-gardists determined to sweep away the past. With Stockhausen and Boulez at the helm, they explored new techniques and electronic technology (Stockhausen was also based at the public broadcasting studio NWDR in Cologne from 1953), adopting radical new stylistic and ideological approaches to composition. Counter-intuitively perhaps, the more strictly controlled the compositional processes they devised,* the wilder and more exhilaratingly free their music seemed to sound. But personal clashes between the composers could be fierce; especially with those who dared to espouse an (apparently) opposing aesthetic to the Stockhausen/Boulez paradigm, such as John Cage and Morton Feldman, who visited Darmstadt from the USA.

Eventually, musical differences pulled the Darmstadt School apart. But Stockhausen continued to explore new worlds of technique and expression, and he remained in the vanguard of the younger generation of central European composers; not only one of the most talented, but perhaps the most uncompromising, not to mention – either wondrously or infuriatingly depending on your point of view – one of the most egocentric and, frankly, one of the most bonkers (for example, he later insisted that he originated from Sirius). Many have hailed Stockhausen as a genius but others, far from seeing him as having broken with pre-war modernist traditions, have blamed him and others of the Darmstadt School for taking European ‘art’ music (for want of a better term) further down an already esoteric and intellectual path in defiance of public understanding. Today, composers of all stylistic stripes still have to overcome enormous scepticism, and often antipathy, from the mainstream in order to get their music performed in anything other than tiny, niche settings – if it gets performed at all. This applies especially, of course, to composers who write in more dissonant or experimental idioms.

However, fashions come and go – and one would think that audiences would be used to dissonant music by now in our ‘post-postmodern’, movie-loving age. But, whilst Stockhausen’s precursor, Arnold Schoenberg (via Schoenberg’s pupil Anton Webern), currently seems in some circles to be blamed for everything that’s wrong in life bar the price of milk, performances of Stockhausen’s opera Mittwoch aus Licht by the Birmingham Opera Company attracted huge interest in 2012. Cynics might say with some justification that that interest was more to do with Stockhausen’s expensive ‘stunt’ of incorporating a Helikopter-Streichquartett; one helicopter for each member of a string quartet performing and transmitting live midair to the audience in the auditorium below. But, whatever his faults and eccentricities, like Schoenberg, Stockhausen was a fantastically innovative and – yes – highly musical composer, who wrote many iconic works, of which Mantra is a prime example. Indeed, those of us present at Powis Hall in Bangor on March 15th were doubly lucky for, not only is this amazing piece very rarely programmed, but the piano duo of Xenia Pestova and Pascal Meyer, together with Jan Panis (Stockhausen’s former assistant), who realised the electronics, performed it outstandingly well.

Stockhausen wrote Mantra in 1970. It was the first of his pieces to utilise full, conventional music notation since Mikrophonie I and Mixtur of 1964, after a period exploring chance procedures and graphic scores. Indeed, Mantra opened the door to what turned out to be a crucial phase in Stockhausen’s compositional development, based on what became dubbed his ‘Formula’ technique, and leading ultimately to that gargantuan seven-opera cycle, Licht, of which the aforementioned Mittwoch is a part. Lasting around seventy minutes, Mantra is altogether more modest in resources, yet is hugely demanding to play in terms of instrumental virtuosity, intensity of concentration and sheer physical stamina. All three aspects were impressively evident in the Bangor performance.

Mantra was conceived on a journey by car from Madison, Connecticut to Boston during which Stockhausen ‘heard this melody … I had the idea of one single musical figure or formula that would be expanded over a very long period of time … I wrote this idea down on an envelope.’ Structurally, the piece is fairly simple at root, although its unwinding is immensely rich and imaginative. Without ‘blinding with science’ in describing Stockhausen’s pitch techniques, it is cast in thirteen sections, each of which repeats and stretches in various extraordinary ways a 13-note melody, which comprises the ‘Mantra’ of the title. To quote from Andrew Lewis’ excellent programme note: ‘Each note of the mantra has its own duration, dynamic and – crucially – it’s own musical characteristic. It is these thirteen characteristics which grow to become the defining materials of the work.’**

In addition to an enormous number of notes – which, as Pestova and Meyer demonstrated so beautifully in Bangor, have to be performed with absolute precision in order to realise the multi-layered temporal processes at work – the two pianists each play a woodblock and crotales, and vocalise a variety of sounds at points in the work. Moreover, each pianist controls a ring modulator, which alters their piano’s sound to create a dense palette of colours and sonic possibilities. The acoustic sounds intertwine with these treated sounds, which are diffused through loudspeakers via a mixing desk. Of course, with changing technology, the analogue equipment Stockhausen originally specified has been difficult to source for some time, so, with the composer’s permission, Panis devised a digital means of realising the electronic element. It is thanks to Panis, therefore, that modern-day performances of Mantra such as that here in Bangor are possible.

Not only did the electronics work superbly well, but the piano duo did clear justice to Stockhausen’s athletic piano writing and creative daring; including, I would argue, the composer’s desire to capture the correct ‘vibration beyond the idea’ so to speak, in a piece which reflects his 1960’s exploration of the relationship between sound and the mystical or spiritual. Mantra also contains an important and highly visual theatrical element, as the pianists literally face each other down at various points, with challenges and counter challenges which range from the profound to the genuinely funny. Pestova and Meyer’s performance radiated excitement, a taut dramatic sense and good humour in equal measure. Their understanding of the score has clearly deepened over years of performing and recording it together, and they held the audience spellbound from start to finish in one of my concert highlights of 2014 so far.

In 1972, Roger Smalley wrote that, ‘with its rich textures and formal power I believe that in Mantra Stockhausen has produced the finest chamber work since Schoenberg’s String Trio of 1946’ – itself one of the finest works of the twentieth century. Based on this stunning performance of Mantra, I find it hard to disagree with him.

*  through so-called ‘total serialism’, for example, in which all musical parameters – not just pitch but dynamics, timbre, rhythm etc. – are composed according to systematic procedures.

**  published as a CD liner-note to Pestova and Meyer’s recording of Mantra, available on Naxos records.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Cardiff Cutbacks: Who Listens to the Auditoria?

The following article was first published in Wales Arts Review Volume 3, Issue 5, Feb 2014:
Since writing, the Welsh Government has made further budgetary cuts to the Arts Council of Wales...

‘World-class’ is a descriptor that is bandied about with blithe disregard for proportion these days, whatever the subject. But there is an auditorium in Cardiff which unites audiences, composers, performers, critics, architects and acousticians in agreement as being within the world’s top ten for quality of sound – and that is St David’s Hall. The venue’s modernist facade, squashed awkwardly within a tired concrete and glass shopping mall, might not be to everybody’s taste – and the dated interior decor and facilities make ‘tatty’ and ‘inadequate’ seem like compliments respectively. But it is the sheer, timeless excellence of the acoustic which makes this concert hall amongst the best of the best anywhere in the world.

Designated the ‘National Concert Hall of Wales’ upon its official opening to the public in 1983, St David’s Hall represents more than sonic treasure for a generation of concert-goers. Shockingly though, like Cardiff’s historic New Theatre – and in keeping with many brilliant and successful arts and theatre companies, venues and museum programmes across the capital – the future of the Hall is in jeopardy. With reverberations echoing far beyond the city itself, the Labour-run Cardiff City Council, which owns the Hall, is seeking to privatise the running of both it and the New Theatre – possibly to sell them off altogether. In total, the Council have approved budget cuts of over £50 million for 2014-15 and, whether or not the venues are sold, the axe is swinging across the arts and services for young people and the vulnerable as if in some bizarre, Tory-directed slasher movie. Sadly, the damage will be all too real to Cardiff’s arts and social infrastructure, and to the city’s reputation as a centre for the arts, if this desperate, short-termist programme goes ahead.

There are many who can write far more eloquently and knowledgeably about the position regarding theatre than I, and who are doing so elsewhere in this edition of the Wales Arts Review. Suffice it to say that the news that Sherman Cymru (not ‘just’ a theatre company / venue either, by the way, but an excellent – and commissioning – cross-arts resource embracing ballet, music theatre and more) stands to lose its entire £160,000-plus funding is scandalous.

But I do know that, in musical terms, St David’s Hall is also a vital resource – not to mention an historic one – which lies at the centre of a proud tradition of music-making that signifies Wales’ right to a seat at the top table of international culture. It is the spiritual – if not the actual – home these days, of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, and it continues to host a plethora of top orchestras, conductors and soloists from around the world – not to mention an increasing number of iconic rock and pop musicians from Steve Vai to Billy Bragg – who are all drawn by that fine acoustic, to the only purpose-built concert hall in Wales. If anything, the programme at St David’s Hall needs redoubling in pioneering spirit, and to be promoted harder and better; certainly not to be compromised or – God forbid – ended by the venue’s being sold off to a developer. If that were to happen, it would amount to an act of unforgivable cultural vandalism which would undoubtedly affect Wales’ standing as a musical nation.

Last week, I spoke about the situation with the Arts and Theatre Manager for Cardiff Council, Roger Hopwood, and he was very keen to stress that no decision has yet been made regarding St David’s Hall or the New Theatre beyond budgetary cuts; that the Council are currently ‘looking for alternative operators’ and ‘working to examine all the options’, and that this ‘does not mean “sell” at this particular moment’. He stated that a report on all the options will be available for discussion early in the new financial year, and that the Council will make a decision from there. At this stage, then, Hopwood was unable to give me any assurances that the BBC NOW will be able to continue in its current role as Orchestra in Residence at St David’s Hall. [Up-date - they will be for the time being.] Moreover, the sheer scale of the cuts already agreed by the Council, and statements on record by Councillor Russell Goodway, the Council’s finance cabinet member and architect of the 2014-15 budget, hardly give grounds for optimism that the forthcoming report will focus on what’s best for the arts or the people of Cardiff:

‘We are trying to find an outside provider who would be prepared to take the venues over. I am more optimistic about finding a company to take on the New Theatre than I am about St David’s Hall. We are talking to Live Nation, the firm that runs the Motorpoint Arena, about the possibility of their taking on the New Theatre. We are also talking to the Wales Millennium Centre about the possibility of taking on the shows currently put on in St David’s Hall. What’s important is bringing people into the city to see the shows, rather than the buildings they see them in.’

Let us unpack this statement a little. Of course, the WMC is in Cardiff Bay, not the city centre – and already has its own full schedule of events. But, quite apart from that, the last sentence in particular seems staggeringly cavalier towards the different venues and their respective capacities and artistic remits, and is wholly dismissive of (not to mention ignorant about) the importance of venues in themselves. After all, such buildings carry an historic, communal and architectural meaning above and beyond the programme of shows they present.

Moreover, concerts that are suitable for St David’s Hall are by no means necessarily transferable to the auditoria at WMC. St David’s Hall is a 2,000 seat purpose-built concert auditorium (not a 1,500-seater, as an October 2011 update of a 2004 report commissioned by Cardiff from Right Solution Ltd into a proposed conference centre erroneously states), whereas the WMC’s BBC Hoddinott Hall, for instance, is far smaller. When the BBC NOW moved into its new home there in 2009, it was primarily intended to facilitate rehearsing, recording and outreach work.

Indeed, the BBC NOW describes Hoddinott Hall as ‘primarily a rehearsal and recording studio, but [which] also provides the opportunity to give concerts to audiences of around 350.’ Clearly, Hoddinott Hall is neither large enough, nor has the right acoustic environment, to host either BBC NOW’s, or any other full-sized orchestra’s, concerts of classic orchestral repertoire – nor was it ever designed to do so. Such concerts continue to attract substantial live audiences at St David’s Hall and, in the case of BBC NOW, further audiences across the UK and beyond through broadcast by BBC Radio 3. In addition, the venue is one of the most televised in the UK thanks to such events as the bi-annual BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition, which brings global attention to the city via various media platforms, in addition to the live audience the competition attracts from around the world.

Nor would WMC’s Donald Gordon Theatre be a substitute for St David’s Hall. The Donald Gordon might seat a comparative 1900-odd to St David’s 2,000, but, as its name suggests, it is a theatre; clearly designed for stage shows and opera rather than orchestral and small ensemble concerts, or the kind of rock, pop and jazz gigs at which St David’s Hall excels. Otherwise, why should the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera choose to perform its regular, season-opening concerts at St David’s Hall, as it continues to do, rather than at the WMC?

Surely the only likely benefactor of a threat to St David’s Hall would be the rival venue Colston Hall in Bristol (2057 seats) which – in contrast to St David’s – has had the benefit of a substantial makeover in recent years. Of course, in classical music terms, Bristol has long been touted as a possible re-siting for one of the many orchestras currently based in London, as arts managers look to address the problems of London-centric UK cultural provision. How would we in Wales answer this potential competition for the south Wales audience, say – irrespective of budget cuts and threats to our major arts venues in Cardiff?

In any case, the question remains, how far has this council budget been rushed through without proper scrutiny? There are letters on public record from members of the Economy and Culture Scrutiny Committee (February 10), which have voiced concerns to the Cabinet, that ‘… the timescale allocated to the current Budget Process no longer appear[s] fit for purpose … Members of this Council received the budget proposals two working days before our papers were due to be dispatched and the time period has denied us the opportunity to conduct independent research, or properly identify appropriate external witnesses to provide a counterpoint for the evidence provided at meetings by officers and Cabinet Members … there is a risk of Scrutiny Councillors having to take information provided on budget savings “on trust” without being able to reach their own empirical judgements.’

This is hardly the way to decide any budget, let alone make decisions about such sweeping, devastating cuts. But ‘take it on trust’ the Council has done, as the budget, including the proposed ‘savings’ was approved to go ahead in late February, despite these and other objections to the budget’s unduly complicated presentation.

Surely, we all know from personal experience that this is a ‘time of austerity’, to quote the usual phrase, and that cuts in public services were bound to continue biting ever deeper across the board. But, just to restate a long-established truism about public investment in the arts, Welsh National Opera (for instance) estimates that, in terms of financial generation alone, the company brings five times the amount of money into the local economy than the Arts Council of Wales provides to them in grants: not just financially, but artistically and socially, a grant is far from being a ‘gift’ or ‘handout’, but an investment with very real returns.

But then Cardiff City Council are eager it seems, to make new investments – and are now at the procurement stage – in a very different, corporate direction. The report by Right Solution Ltd to which I allude above is a manifestation of the Council’s ambition to build a new conference centre and ‘multi-purpose venue’ in the heart of the city as part of an enormous growth plan encompassing new housing, roads and other infrastructure. According to a Cabinet report of January 2014, ‘the Multi-Purpose Arena project is a long standing Council priority and is widely regarded as the next major infrastructure investment required to support Cardiff’s development into one of Europe’s most “liveable” capital cities. The project involves the delivery of a circa 12,000 seat Indoor Arena, a circa 1500 seat conference auditoria, meeting rooms and circa 8000 sq m of exhibition space to enable the full range of international conferences and business events and premium entertainment and sporting events to be delivered in Cardiff.’

All well and good perhaps, except that – quite apart from any other objection – there is no mention here of any specific concert auditoria along, say, the St David’s Hall lines; a very different beast, I would suggest, from the kind of large-scale arena or conference auditorium that the Right Solution report describes (the latter with an emphasis on moveable floors and seating arrangements, and the provision of ‘banqueting and breakout’ facilities, but no mention of acoustic properties). Corporate-oriented yes, arts-oriented no. Effectively sidelining artistic considerations in this proposed venue is shortsighted, not to mention philistine – and just plain ignoring of the everyday needs of Cardiff citizens.

For what does it mean to make a capital city ‘liveable’? There is no specific mention of the arts at all beyond a tiny paragraph in a very lengthy and substantial report that briefly cites ‘shopping and entertainment’ in Cardiff as part of the potential draw for prospective conference clients. You would never know from this document – nor from any of the official literature surrounding the conference centre project – that Cardiff and wider Wales are currently experiencing a golden age of arts innovation, achievement and opportunity. If this proposed ‘multi-purpose venue’ goes ahead, but turns out to mirror the bland, grey desert of the Cardiff Bay residential developments as many people fear it will, then I worry indeed for the city’s cultural and community soul.

Interestingly, the Council does acknowledge its corporate competition; indeed, the Council cites this as a reason for pressing ahead with the conference centre project. For both Newport and Bristol are also looking to build conference centre/arena facilities along the very lines that Cardiff proposes (a ‘Wales International Conference Centre’ at Sir Terry Matthew’s Celtic Manor Resort, and a £91 million proposal backed by the Bristol City Mayor for the Temple Meads development site respectively). But what guarantee is there that Cardiff Council does indeed have the ‘sufficiently strong basis’ that Director of Economic Development Neil Hanratty insists that it has to pour money into such a venture, in direct competition with these other cities – particularly in light of the Council’s apparent determination to jeopardise one of the very assets Cardiff has to offer: namely a diverse and thriving arts scene befitting a (so-called) capital city? Please pardon the pun, but if Cardiff Council is unable to capitalise on the fantastic arts venues and providers already existing in prime locations in or near to the city centre, then this surely does not bode well for their marketing and management of any future cultural project.

Returning to grassroots level and to music, just over a year ago, Cardiff Council took the musically and socially disastrous step of cutting provision for peripatetic instrumental tuition for school pupils; instead, delegating the £173,000 Music Development Fund (which ensures access for disadvantaged areas) to schools and raising tuition fees 11%. Not surprisingly, in January 2014, the Cardiff County and Vale of Glamorgan Music Service revealed that there has already been a 10% drop in take-up for instrumental lessons and that 100 fewer children are now attending the county’s twenty-four music ensembles.

Ultimately, we need to ask ourselves not only ‘who listens to the auditoria?’, but ‘what price politics in the “land of song”?’ For it seems – given the Council’s determination to invest in a major new conference/big entertainment hub – that it is political will as much as public money which is at issue here. Either way, it is not just Cardiffians who now stand to lose large swathes of precious artistic resource and cultural heritage, but the people of Wales and beyond – and with immediate, devastating effect. Irrespective of any proposed sale of venues, the repercussions will stretch far into the future indeed.

Monday, 9 February 2015

Sinfonia Newydd: a Percussion Explosion

The following review was first published by Wales Arts Review, Volume 3, Issue 4, Feb 2014:

Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 20 February 2014

Mark David Boden – Urban Loops
Ed Scolding – Thrown
Ray Leung – Totem
Yfat Soul Zisso – Go!
Nathan James Dearden – Friction
Gabriel Prokofiev – Concerto for Bass Drum and Orchestra

Soloist: Joby Burgess
Conductor: James Southall

Photo by Alex Vann
Photo by Holly Evans

Across the UK, initiatives abound to find new audiences for the diverse kinds of music that are often lumped together in record shops as ‘contemporary classical’ or ‘new music’. Such descriptors can be vague and confusing for composers and listeners alike, but attempts to categorise different types of new music often end up missing the point; ‘indie-classical’ being one of the more contrived tags of recent years. For most composers, getting their works performed is difficult enough without having to run the twin marketing gauntlets of genre and niche. For young or less well-known composers, it can be nigh-on impossible. So it is refreshing to see a fledgling ‘new music’ group in Cardiff – to stick with the catch-all phrase – which does not describe itself in fancy, hip-sounding terms. Sinfonia Newydd is a ‘commissioning, training, performance and promotion platform for Wales’ young emerging music creators’. It may not make for snappy headlines, but hurray for the simple inclusivity of that statement, and for Sinfonia Newydd’s ambition.

Based at the RWCMD, the Dora Stoutzker Hall made a fitting venue for the ensemble’s professional launch following its official inception nearly a year ago; actually the culmination of several years’ work that has already seen an impressive 36 young composers commissioned and nearly 100 works showcased through various festivals and other events. This evening was a part collaboration between Sinfonia Newydd and the East London club-night and record label Nonclassical. Whether this particular moniker is here to stay remains to be seen, but ten years after composer Gabriel Prokofiev adopted the name in antithesis to stifling classical concert traditions (and, yes, he is related to ‘that’ Prokofiev – he’s a grandson), Nonclassical has become distinctly trendy. Offshoots are popping up at venues across the UK and Europe, at which classical music is presented, mixed and re-mixed as if it were rock or electronic music.

However, aside from Prokofiev’s DJ sets in the RWCMD foyer at points in the evening, this was a regular new music concert with an emphasis on Welsh or Wales-based composers. The theme for the evening was ‘A Percussion Explosion’, perhaps inspired by Nonclassical’s recent ‘Pioneers of Percussion’ festival. Here in Cardiff, a chamber orchestra/ensemble of mostly young musicians gathered on stage under talented Music Director and conductor James Southall to play six works: four world premieres by past or present Cardiff students (two from the RWCMD, two from Cardiff University), flanked by the world premiere of a Tŷ Cerdd commission for Sinfonia Newydd’s Associate Artist, Mark David Boden (graduate and now staff-member of RWCMD), and the Welsh premiere of Prokofiev’s Concerto for Bass Drum and Orchestra.

This last piece was given top billing, with the solo part performed by brilliant percussionist and Nonclassical mainstay artist, Joby Burgess (who also played timps in Boden’s piece). Cast in four movements, Prokofiev’s Concerto is a surprisingly conventional piece, exploring the timbral possibilities of the bass drum’s skin and rim, and combining these sounds with the orchestra to create different moods. I’m not sure why it should be news that the bass drum is capable of sonic variety, and Prokofiev’s effects felt somewhat stock-in-trade in percussion terms. Nonetheless, he generated a colourful palette, eschewing the instrument’s more obvious rhythmic connotations despite his programme note’s reference to the ubiquity of the kick-drum in everyday life.

Boden’s Urban Loops, which opened the programme, was ostensibly inspired by the distinctly un-four-to-the-floor style that is drum and bass, although the piece had greater contrast and less unrelenting speed than this might suggest. Alternately boppy and dreamy material was explored in swirling layers, with occasional explosive punctuations from the five solo percussionists which were wont to overwhelm the orchestra. The piece – like the Prokofiev – would benefit from editing, but was largely effective in its building of discrete sections, and it, too, went down very well with the audience.

For the most part, the contrasting of sectional blocks seemed the preferred formal design of the evening, with less emphasis on, say, motivic development. Ray Leung’s piece was perhaps the most intriguing exception, and his Totem was short and nicely atmospheric, having been inspired by a novel about wolves. Coincidentally, the work shared stylistic characteristics with Ed Scolding’s Thrown, an engaging piece based on echo delays (both pieces also featured an unwinding oboe theme). Nathan James Dearden’s Friction was soundly conceived in its pitching of swooping strings against jazzier, repeated figures.

Each of the four ‘inner’ pieces showed the promise of their respective composers. But the highlight of the evening was Go! by Yfat Soul Zisso. This piece showed real character and sensitivity to orchestral voicing in its simple structure, alternating stasis and movement. A succession of well-constructed and nicely ‘heard’ chords explored elements of the harmonic series and, ironically, Zisso’s microtones illicited some of the best tuning from the ensemble’s strings all evening.
Overall, this was a highly entertaining concert, and the audience greeted the bold – but entirely achievable – programme with enthusiasm.

 The main area Sinfonia Newydd will need to address going forward is that Southall’s players were clearly very willing, but not always as characterful, alert to ensemble – or even as accurate – as one would like. This might seem a tough observation for what was effectively the inaugural concert of a fledgling group with barely two pennies to rub together. But new pieces can stand or fall by how they are performed – and the energy and potential is there for Sinfonia Newydd to go places if performance standards can be made a priority. Of course that means further financial support will be needed specifically to fund players and rehearsals. Sinfonia Newydd, and the many diverse young composers whom they are so admirably promoting, are thoroughly deserving of the decent shot at success that could provide.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

BBC National Orchestra of Wales: Mahler, Symphony No 9

St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 7 February 2014
Gustav Mahler – Symphony No. 9
Conductor: Thomas Søndergård

Gustav Mahler did not live to conduct his Symphony No. 9, nor even hear it performed. Instead, it was his close friend Bruno Walter who premiered the work in Vienna, June 1912, over a year after Mahler’s death from illness linked to a heart condition. In a cruel twist, the heart diagnosis had come right after the death of the composer's young daughter Maria in 1907 – a dreadful blow on top of his ongoing marital problems with Alma Schindler-Mahler, and the political difficulties at the Vienna Hofoper (now Staatsoper) which would see him first head for America later that same year.

The conjunction between Mahler’s untimely demise (he was just 51 years old), these setbacks and the so-called ‘curse of the 9th’ has – unsurprisingly – led many to read a strongly biographical narrative into this monumental symphony; the final completed work, moreover, of a composer known for his extremes of emotional expression and predilection for personal references. Indeed, Mahler quoted from his own Kindertotenlieder in the work’s final bars, and as close a commentator as Alban Berg famously described the searing first movement as his ‘premonition of death’.

Yet, in a sense, the 9th was as much Mahler’s ‘New World’ symphony as it was his ‘farewell’, for he wrote to Walter from New York in 1909 that ‘I see everything in a new light – feel so much alive.’ Perhaps Arnold Schoenberg got nearest the truth when he remarked that ‘[Mahler’s] ninth is most strange. In it, the author hardly speaks as an individual any longer … this symphony is no longer couched in the personal tone.’ In other words, Mahler had stepped far beyond self-expression or personal narrative into a new realm of universal latitude.

But whatever the biographical content or meta-musical implication of Mahler’s 9th, both Berg’s and Schoenberg’s remarks encompass the intense, often simultaneous juxtaposition of joy and pain which lies at its root; a paradox seemingly unresolved, yet wrestled and somehow come to terms with by the extraordinary, peaceful close of the final movement. It is a profound journey, and one which gives any orchestra, no matter how hallowed, pause for thought. So it was thrilling to hear the work navigated with rare and compelling insight by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Principal Conductor Thomas Søndergård at St David’s Hall. The sheer emotional acuity and dexterous musicianship was remarkable, from the sweep of the symphony’s unconventional slow-fast-fast-slow four-movement design to the myriad, tumultuous details of its complex inner workings. Translucence, bite, energy and deep pathos – it was all there and delivered with entirely unselfconscious virtuosity.

The very opening of the symphony showed how seriousness of intent need not assume ponderous, heavy phrasing. Here, the hesitant harp and horn motifs (ascribed by Leonard Bernstein and others somewhat fancifully to Mahler’s irregular heartbeat) led to a beautifully balanced, rhythmically light and yet wholly supported main theme from the second violins. This quickly combined with other elements from across the orchestra into a movement of real power and majesty, yet painful ambiguity. Such was the hallmark of the entire performance, which was a masterclass of nuance, contrast and finely honed phrasing. It would be impossible to name each superb soloist and section, but in the first movement, the duet between flautist Matthew Featherstone and horn player Tim Thorpe was outstanding… to add to the excellent harpists, a liquid bass clarinet, some fantastic bassoons, brass and string sections – including the magnificent double basses who propelled things from beneath with impressive sensitivity to the harmonic foundations they were laying.

A key factor was that Søndergård and his players trusted to Mahler’s precisely marked articulations and dynamics without fuss or over-emphasis – in itself, no mean feat. Decisions of bowing, muting and orchestral timbre, for example, were not just thought through, but applied with grace and instinctive understanding. This, together with Søndergård’s intelligently-paced tempi, expressing both the urgent propulsion of the music and its juxtaposed, almost reluctant stasis, unlocked subtle depths of line and colour which I personally have never experienced aside from reading the score.

The two inner movements, often so bewildering and chaotic, were beautifully clear – notwithstanding the ambitious speed with which Søndergård tackled the frenetic waltz which bursts in at Tempo II of the second movement scherzo. The contrast paid off; pointing the differences between the waltz – in Mahler’s day a sophisticated, often sexualised urban dance form – with its slower, more countrified cousin, the Ländler. Both were satisfyingly ‘somewhat clumsy and very rough’ as indicated by Mahler, and together, through three distinct tempo sections, led palpably to the ‘very defiant’ third movement Rondo-Burleske. As for this latter, if Søndergård had any qualms as to how clear its architecture would be, he need not have worried. Whirling and rasping from manic activity to abrupt stillness and back, he took the orchestra and audience on a wild rollercoaster ride on the brink of instability with expert control.

Drawing on chamber as well as orchestral skills – and superbly led by orchestra Leader Lesley Hatfield as ever – the musicians played as one. In the long, slow final movement, the sheer poise with which the extreme high register of violins was set against deep, dark contra-bassoon summed up the relaxed confidence behind this dignified, yet cathartic journey into final repose. The entire work’s haunting pathos seemed encapsulated by ‘cellist Victoria Simonsen’s short, heartrending solo and the rapt final bars which followed.

BBC NOW and their conductor can’t be praised highly enough. As for the audience, the long, hushed and reverent silence after the final notes died away said it all. An ending of real, if necessarily equivocal, tranquillity after the storms of bewilderment, anger and bitter grief – and a fitting tribute, as Søndergård later explained he had intended, to the late and very great Claudio Abbado.

Friday, 6 February 2015

WNO’s ‘Fallen Women’ Season: an Interview with Mariusz Treliński

Mariusz Treliński Photo: Jacek Poremba Rights owned by Teatre Wielki
Mariusz Treliński
Photo: Jacek Poremba
Rights owned by Teatre Wielki

Mariusz Treliński is Artistic Director of Poland’s Theatr Wielki – National Opera. He first made his name as an award-winning young filmmaker in Poland in the 1990s, directing Farewell to Autumn amongst other films. Mariusz’s opera debut came in 1999 with a highly acclaimed production of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. Many diverse operas have followed on the international stage, and Mariusz is now firmly established as an opera director. He has retained a particular love for Puccini, with further productions of La bohème (2006), Turandot (2011) and now Manon Lescaut for Welsh National Opera (in a co-production with Teatr Wielki, Warsaw and La Monnaie, Brussels).
Alongside the Puccini, Mariusz is also directing a new production of Hans Werner Henze’s take on the Manon story, Boulevard Solitude, as part of WNO’s ‘Fallen Women’ season. During rehearsals, he took time out to talk with Steph Power about the two productions and his vision of Manon.

Steph Power: You’re here at WNO to direct two very different composers’ perspectives on Manon’s story; Puccini’s Manon Lescaut and Henze’s Boulevard Solitude. What’s your starting point regarding her character?

Mariusz Treliński: Each time I have directed Manon Lescaut it has brought deeper insights, but for me the most important thing in both the Puccini and the Henze is a certain picture of Manon, and her name is the key. In French, the word ‘Manon’ consists of an impossibility: ‘ma’ means ‘have’ or ‘my’ – ‘mine’: ‘I want to have something’. But ‘non’ means ‘no’ – ‘I can’t’. So together: ‘you can never have me’. She’s ‘Ma-non’, an impossibility, someone with a thousand faces. You cannot define who she is.

How do you go about creating that on stage?

It’s very difficult to play as well as to create this kind of character! I’m working with the singers to create certain effects to show that Manon has many faces and reflections – that Manon is what men want to see in her. This perspective is very risky of course, because the Puccini was written at the end of the 19th century – a period which was very chauvinistic, when it was always about the woman in a man’s world and where women were often punished if they didn’t conform. You can see this in Verdi’s earlier opera, La traviata, where Violetta has to die so that society can breathe again. Of course I hate this chauvinism because I see it completely differently from a contemporary perspective – but the story is like it is. So what I’m trying to build with Manon is not reality, it’s men’s obsession – and also men’s fear. I’m not saying who Manon ‘really is’, I’m looking carefully at the perspective of the men – ‘if I see you and I don’t know who you are, but I think you are like this or are like that, it’s my imagination about you’.

So Manon is a male conceit, effectively meaning different things to the different men around her?

Yes. For Geronte, she’s like a luxury toy. He’s played with Manon as if she’s a plastic doll and he’s more concerned with the amount of money he has to pay to be with her. He’s not engaged emotionally. For her brother Lescaut, it’s similar but different because – looking realistically from our perspective today – he’s a kind of pimp; someone who sells women, who treats them like their own property. So Lescaut takes care of Manon, but as he would a good horse. In his hands, she is someone to sell, to market for the best price, and there’s a real sorrow about this. Then suddenly, in des Grieux’s eyes, Manon is a vision of love, she’s his fantasy of the perfect woman. And, to be honest, whichever Manon she is, she cannot be as the men want. Obviously no-one can be a toy because you have your own life and feelings, you cannot just be a thing for sale, and you cannot just be an idealised vision. These pieces are part of a puzzle and together they build a picture of Manon – something which happens on the stage, but it doesn’t happen because it’s Ma-non, impossibility! That’s the main idea of this production. To show this, for example, I use doubles of Manon on stage.

Yes, I’d read that you’d broken up Manon into different parts as a character. That also strikes me as an interesting way of showing that she’s something but she’s also nothing.

Exactly – let’s talk about these different parts! In Puccini’s opera, I was trying to build Manon firstly in the eyes of a group of men, then we see Geronte’s perspective, then Lescaut’s, then that of des Grieux. Then we have the final Act 4, which for me is a very challenging moment because Puccini takes us into the desert – a place like nowhere. I always try to treat opera libretti very seriously, especially from a psychoanalytic point of view. So here, what does the desert symbolise?

I think at the end of the story Puccini takes a different perspective completely, taking us out of the world. We are removed from one of the most important discourses of the opera, which is about money and love; about the tension between these two things, and the question how can we have both? Suddenly, in the desert, Puccini tries to see this problem from the outside – as if from a different dimension. In this production of Manon I have set the story in contemporary times. The place of action is a railway station which is not defined because it’s a story about travelling. In the plot we go to le Havre, to Paris and to the desert. But for me it’s a metaphorical journey into our minds, going from station to station, deeper and deeper into addiction and a loss of independence. Des Grieux dissolves into Manon, becoming weaker and weaker. At the end of Act 3 it’s like the end of the ‘real’ story because both characters ‘die’ – that is, they look as if they do; it’s not staged concretely but what’s important is the feeling that they are dead. We now see several Manons, each following the other, and at that moment des Grieux becomes surrounded by pieces of his past, of his memory – the Manon who was loving, the Manon who was provoking, tempting – all her shadows.

How, then, do you see Act 4?

Suddenly the last act comes as a life after life – an Elysium. Act 4 for me is the most important part of the production because I put the pieces together – actually, you can never put the pieces together, but I try to see the story as if in a broken mirror. You see thousands of reflections and you know the story will never finish. It’s beautiful in Prévost’s book that, at the end of the story, Manon is dead and des Grieux lies on her grave for several days [both operas are based on Abbé Prévost’s short novel, L’Histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut, published in 1731]. He cannot let go of her – he’s also half dead. For me this moment in the desert was the inspiration to build a more contemporary sense of those dualities – love or not love; love or money; whether Manon is angel or demon – because all these expressions are so naïve. Here, suddenly we just see what is there: the man and his fantasy of Manon – and that this dialogue will never end. I close the opera with the infinity and the circle.

It seems you’re suggesting that des Grieux rather than Manon is the centre of the drama – because it’s in his mind that all this is happening. Is that fair?

It’s exactly what you are saying, it’s des Grieux’s perspective, his subjective narrative, and it’s happening in his head. I go even further with the Henze, in Boulevard. Here, in this libretto, the main word for me is Orpheo, which des Grieux mentions obsessively in the second part of the opera – his idea of him and Manon that ‘I’m Orpheo, you’re my Euridice’. Let’s forget about the naïve interpretation of the Orpheo story – that story of going to hell in order to bring somebody back from death – but look closer at it. What does this actually mean for us? It’s about somebody who cannot let go of their relationship with someone who’s dead. It’s about somebody who’s looking back, looking to the past, but trying to do something that’s impossible. Because the paradox in the Orpheo story is that you can look back but you cannot look back; you can take Euridice from Hades if you never look back, but the only way to take Euridice from Hades is to go back into the past – which is looking back!

Yes it’s impossible isn’t it? And this creates an existential dilemma.

Exactly yes. It’s cruel and clever because it means that we are trapped emotionally in one place, unable to go forwards or backwards. It’s like in Prévost’s novel – you are with Manon, lying on the grave. You cannot go forward and you cannot go back. And for me, the Henze story, it’s the combination of a circle, with Eurydice situated all the time in the bar, and with the action going forwards and backwards, as if scrolling through a DVD. Henze sets up and analyses that backwards-forwards situation again and again, constantly trying to understand what’s impossible to understand: who is this person? And once again, her name is ‘Ma-non’. Once again we have this impossibility of understanding what is impossible. And for me, Henze’s story is really Orpheo’s; somebody who is trying obsessively to go back and solve a situation which cannot be changed because it has happened.

I understand that the two productions will be utilising the same or very similar sets. Can you say something about that?

Yes, this was David Pountney’s proposition. In the Henze, we have a railway station once again, but different in that it’s like different parts of an organisation – it’s partly a station and partly a bar, and there’s also an apartment – it’s difficult to describe! But the middle part is the bar on a station and in this place we find somebody who cannot go home; he cannot stop to sleep because he is still attached to Manon as if through an umbilical chord. I understand that this interpretation of the Henze is quite radical, but I always deeply try to read and understand the libretto. And all this information is there. Why is Orpheo mentioned so many times? It really means something, especially with Henze’s music, which is very hallucinogenic, like a drug or an altered reality.

It’s very obvious reading this libretto that Henze’s story is not intended to be realistic, that it’s a kind of hallucinogenic subjective journey into the mind. But what’s interesting here – which is very contemporary and makes me very happy – is that 90% of libretti are very naïve; with Manon Lescaut the deeper subject is fantastic but the way the story is written is naïve. But with Boulevard Solitude, it’s different because Henze knows this and he’s written a libretto which is sarcastic – it’s ironic, it’s grotesque. For example, he often utilises poetic lines in certain rhythms to create repetitions which point out the stupidity of life – as if in a soap-opera. He uses irony to create distance so we can see that what we feel many times to be tragic is really just grotesque. Because the story of Manon and des Grieux happens everywhere; the story between men and women has something impossible about it. There is a gravitational power that pulls us together but a power that says this is impossible, that we can never understand each other. What’s fascinating is that we really want to understand each other because we cannot live without that. Of course, we know after Freud, Jung, Lacan, all these people, that this is far more complicated than a simplistic question, say, of intuition versus logic. Because all men are partly female and all women partly male inside. But generally this meeting between the two sexes is an unfinished conversation and these operas are also about that. About our wish to have somebody to really be with – ‘it’s Manon and only Manon and we’ll be together away from the world around us’ – this is naïve and wishful thinking.

You also referred to a dialogue between love and money?

Yes, this is another very modern aspect of both libretti. Of course we all want to be idealistic and choose love, but life is not so simple. Manon is saying ‘what’s the problem? I was with a different man, it was just for a few hours, now we have money – let’s spend time together now and have fun.’ I think Manon was very shocking in Prévost’s time! For us in Poland, when it came out, it would have been what we call a ‘pink book’ – of erotic perversion. And it was taboo, especially for Catholics.
But Manon is saying what many women and men are saying now, two hundred years later; ‘I’m sorry, please be relaxed – I go to the city and do business, then I come back to be with you.’ If you ask me in this interview which I think is more important, love or money, I would say love. But the demands of real life are such that in theory we say one thing, and in practice, it’s completely different. I think this discourse is very interesting.

Obviously the whole area of the ‘fallen woman’ in opera is a key one, and many people are asking, what might this look like from a woman’s point of view? As you say, the whole social context is now so different from when Prévost, and later, Puccini were writing – even from the 1950s of the Henze.

Of course I’m limited in opera because I can only add pictures and counterpoint to the music – the story is like it is. Puccini’s story is beautiful, very emotional, but far more sentimental. Henze is very intelligent, colder, but very deep and radical. I really love what he did because there aren’t so many operas talking about liberty on that artistic level. I started out as a director in movies. So what I’m trying to say, I say through pictures. Of course through the eye, by the position of the body, say, you can create distance, you can have ironic contact. In the Henze, visually, we have the man in the railway station with circles and circles of people going around him that he cannot stop – the policemen, the prostitutes, the businessmen – whilst he is going forwards and backwards. But with Puccini, it’s like a line with many perspectives and suddenly the broken mirror. Also, with Puccini, you’ll see that I use the language of art in ways I think all people can enjoy – you don’t need to know anything of the history. For example, there are things from Hitchcock’s Vertigo – like what does it mean to watch a woman in a frame? If I want to say something about love and woman being only man’s imagination I often use a frame to show that it’s me watching her. That was a fantastic idea of Hitchcock’s – to use mirrors and frames to call attention to perspective.

I understand that you draw on film techniques a great deal in your opera productions?

Yes, I cut by light.

Ok. And I believe you’ve mentioned David Lynch in relation to Manon. Can you say how he’s inspired your production of the Puccini?

Absolutely, with David Lynch you’ll see many things here, especially Mulholland Drive and Blue Velvet. In Mulholland Drive there’s a very clear moment where we have two women and, just like we’ve been discussing, a ‘true’ story – but we don’t know if it’s ‘real’ or a schizophrenic picture from our mind.

So, Lynch’s surrealism is important?

Yes, that was my first inspiration; that Manon can be different characters – and the idea of Act 4 comes from here, as one Manon comes to replace another. But Lynch’s story is far more black and white – she is an angel and a demon. In our production, Manon is not judged – I think one of the lessons of these operas is not to judge her or to say who’s right or what’s more important, love or money. I’ve thrown out this kind of situation. I see just two people who want to build something together and they cannot – both are trying to find the solution. There’s also a complicated Oedipus triangle in the piece which is to do with Geronte: in simple terms, in many films about the mafia, say, we have a young naïve boy who wants to be with a girl, but the girl is in the hands of a very old, very powerful man who is very dangerous – if the boy touches the woman he’s shot. This has multiple meanings and symbolism. In Prévost’s book, we have the same scenario. There is the father, then we have a young des Grieux who wants to be with Manon, but he feels afraid. Fear is symbolised by the power of father – like in Don Giovanni with the Commendatore, that position of father, of God – someone who’s powerful.

Let’s say that Geronte has this Oedipal triangle. He symbolises the evil powers in charge of Manon. In the movies the scenario goes, ‘I’d be with you if it weren’t for the mafia or the father or the law or the church’ and so on. And what we do with Geronte – you remember Denis Hopper who played in Lynch’s Blue Velvet?

Yes – he wears the oxygen mask and takes it on and off to sniff at the woman if I remember correctly?

That’s it – we are doing a similar scenario with Geronte. He’s a king of life, a rich and powerful man. We never decide if he’s mafioso, but he can do anything, he can have all the girls – except that he’s impotent. We use the same element from the David Lynch movie, so he’s sniffing and touching Manon but never using her. By that I was trying to suggest something about that fear perhaps – that ‘Manon is not with me because the most powerful and angry man is keeping guard. If not for him then it would be simple.’ And Geronte is like a master of ceremonies in his own house – a theatre within a theatre – who plays with the doll of Manon, trying to turn the tables on her. In this production, Manon has all the men in her hands and now in this theatre ‘we can have the mannikin of Manon – now she’s ours, now she will say yes.’ That is the man’s revenge on the woman. Of course you can go deeper still but the most simple story is just somebody who’s really on their guard, who is dangerous and very strong and, at the moment of this turning point, we are trying to show that Manon is really just plastic – that of course it’s our reflection; we project her but from different perspectives. And maybe that’s nothing – maybe just wooden parts.

It seems we’re talking about power at the end of the day – the battles between the men as to who gets Manon -

– yes it’s a battle! We set her up, we fight for her, we take her, we kiss her, we touch her. You know, that was the perspective of the 19th century but what I am trying to say is that this is not a story ‘about’ Manon, it’s only men’s hallucination in a men’s world – and often it’s a men’s problem because if you want to define what love does you cannot. Roland Barthes wrote A Lover’s Discourse, which was fantastic. He asked what love means; he pointed out that if you live in a city, there are millions of people. Of those, hypothetically one hundred or so can interest you on the basis of type – colour of hair or intelligence, say. But how does it happen that from this million we choose this one hundred, and from this one hundred, one person just like that and say – ‘yes I love her’. This is exactly what Shakespeare wrote – love is like an elixir that changes what we see with our eyes – there’s no logic to it. We use the perspective of the frame and we see Manon – but it’s not Manon, it’s just my eye.

So we’re back to it being the story of the gaze, not the ‘reality’ of Manon.

Yes – it’s about what men want to see.