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composer, poet, critic, essayist

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Bregenz Festival 2014: HK Gruber in Conversation: 'Tales from the Vienna Woods'

In August 2014, thanks to a generous grant from Wales Arts International, I was able to visit the Bregenz Festival for Wales Arts Review. Here's the third of the four pieces which resulted, and the second interview, published in Volume 3, Issue 17.

© Bregenzer Festspiele / die3.eu
© Bregenzer Festspiele / die3.eu

Ödön von Horváth’s best known work, Tales from the Vienna Woods, takes its title from the charming – some would say sickly sweet – waltz by Johann Strauss the younger (1868). The ‘Volksstück’ or ‘people’s play’ was written in 1931, and is one of several brilliantly caustic satires in which Horváth set out to expose the venal underbelly of the interwar petite-bourgeois in Vienna and beyond. That he succeeded is clear from the way in which he was hounded by the Nazis, whose grim rise to power Horváth continued to document throughout the 1930s until his absurd and premature death on the Champs-Élysées in 1938, killed by a falling branch during a storm.

The continuing universal relevance and power of Horváth’s writing has been acknowledged by many (in the German-speaking world at least) – but it was stage director and librettist Michael Sturminger who noted its particular resonance with the musical and socio-aesthetic world of the celebrated Viennese composer HK ‘Nali’ Gruber. And it was Sturminger who persuaded Gruber to turn the play into an opera; a project made possible by an ensuing commission from the Bregenz Festival under Intendant David Pountney.

Gruber is familiar to UK audiences in many musical guises, including as a conductor, since his appointment to the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra in 2009. He first shot to public attention with the 1978 première of his ‘pan-demonium’, Frankenstein!!; a blackly comic setting of children’s poems by the Viennese surrealist H.C. Artmann for chansonnier and large ensemble. A highly charismatic narrator, singer and performer himself, Gruber’s art is characterised by an idiosyncratic combination of the serious with the popular. His music is largely tonal and has clear roots in Stravinsky and Berg among other composers (from Eisler and Krenek to Blacher and Milhaud), but also in jazz, Viennese folk idioms and 1920s cabaret, deployed to often acerbically witty effect.

Of course, Gruber is also associated with the music of Kurt Weill, who set texts of searing political and social criticism by Horváth’s close contemporary Bertolt Brecht, such as the well-known Threepenny Opera. Brecht acknowledged the influence of Horváth’s work upon his own, whilst the writer and critic Erich Kästner reportedly hailed Tales from the Vienna Woods as a ‘Viennese Volksstück against the Viennese Volksstück’; a play written for ordinary people about ordinary lives but having far more than local significance, and stripped of any illusion of neighbourly, folksy warmth or sentimentality.

The world première of Gruber’s opera Geschichten aus dem Wiener Wald (Tales from the Vienna Woods) was given to great acclaim at the Bregenz Festival on July 23 this summer, as part of a celebration of his work under the theme ‘Bittersweet Vienna’. Ahead of a weekend devoted to further opera performances and concerts of his music, and before I had seen his new opera, Gruber spoke with me about Horváth, Brecht and the background to the piece. He explained how important it was to him to remain true to the playwright’s incorporation of incidental music in the text – and, in particular, to Horváth’s highly deliberate, musically charged use of language.


Tales from the Vienna Woods 2014 © Bregenzer Festspiele / Karl Forster
Tales from the Vienna Woods 2014
© Bregenzer Festspiele / Karl Forster

Steph Power: Here in the UK, unlike in Austria perhaps, Horváth is not so well known as Brecht, despite being arguably just as brilliant and significant a playwright. Like many of his plays, the one you have taken for your opera libretto, Tales from the Vienna Woods, is all about illusion and self deception; it’s a very biting satire on people who choose to go unconscious rather than be awake to what’s happening in the world around them. But Horváth wasn’t born in Austria. How did he come to write about ‘bittersweet Vienna’?

HK Gruber: Horváth was born in Croatia, in the city of Fiume [now Rijeka] in the old Austro-Hungarian monarchy. He came to Vienna via Budapest and only began to write in German when he was twenty. ‘Hochdeutsch’ as we call it.

High German?

Yes, High German. And he could speak this language with great virtuosity. In Tales from the Vienna Woods he stipulates that the actors should not speak in dialect despite the play being set in the suburbs – in the 8th District of Vienna – and not in high society.

So, it’s set amongst the new, lower-middle class?

That’s it, the middle class. And although Horváth writes in High German, you can hear the shadows of that dialect in his language – how he does this is artistic genius! It allows me as a composer a place where I can jump in with my music. When Tales from the Vienna Woods was premièred in ’31 in Berlin it was a big success and immediately the Nazis began to threaten Horváth. After Hitler took power in ’33, he went to Austria and then, after the Anschluss in ’38,  he went to Paris – he was on the list of ‘degenerate artists’.

I can see why the Nazis would have been threatened by this play!

Yes! By the way, Horváth knew Brecht and he was a fan of the Threepenny Opera. He must have heard the première in ’28, because in his sketch book for the Tales you can see – I have this sketchbook in my composing house in Rosenberg – some sketches for a play with songs, like Dreigroschenoper [Threepenny Opera], called Tales from the Vienna Woods. And he had Weill in mind to write the songs. Later he obviously changed his mind and wrote this theatre piece instead, which became his most successful. There is much similarity between Brecht and Horváth because they were both writing critically about society. But Brecht is more the ideologue – he more or less always comes from the Marxist point of view, whereas Horváth comes from the humanistic.

But Horváth is very pessimistic.

Of course, yes – they could be brothers! But there is an interesting difference between Brecht and Horváth, especially in Tales from the Vienna Woods if you compare it with Brecht pieces: that is the element of touch – touching – Berührungen [literally ‘points of contact’]. There are moments when the audience really bursts into tears.

It’s tragic as well as comic isn’t it?

Yes! We have a lot of buffo elements in this piece but finally it’s very tragic and there are moments in the piece where you cannot stop yourself crying. For me it’s like Berg’s Wozzeck.

That’s interesting. Can you say more?

In Wozzeck, the combination of text and music also creates this effect and you cannot guard yourself against the emotion, it just comes. So this is a special gift of Horváth’s. Brecht can do it but for him it’s not so easy. Brecht writes fleisch und blut [flesh and blood] pieces, yes – like Puntila [Mr Puntila and his Hired Hand Matti – probably the only of Brecht’s plays to be describable as a ‘people’s play’ in the Horváthian sense]. But it is mostly analytical writing. Horváth is also very analytical but he uses language differently. Not only in the Tales but in all his pieces, he plays with sentences that are ready-made.

A kind of pre-fabricated language, with clichés?

Yes. So the sentences people exchange are not their own – instead they use ready-made phrases which create a kind of fake conversation. There is a statement by Horváth at the front of the play about stupidity – you probably know it?

‘There is nothing that gives one a sense of infinity as much as stupidity’ – or words to that effect.

This statement tells us everything!

It surely does! I’d be fascinated to hear how you work with this language element as a composer. There is a clear sense of emotional estrangement in the play and yet, through a corresponding literal estrangement of language, Horváth opens the door to reveal what’s being hidden. And he writes lots of silences and pauses too, where that moment of revealing can resound. How do you approach that musically?

These silent passages are very interesting because he uses them very often – on each page! In the 3rd Act for instance, he writes ‘pause’ and, later, ‘silence’ and then ‘big silence’ . It has a double function. The first function of course is a kind of echo: to allow the audience to absorb and think about an open-ended conversation that is full of associations. But the silences also have a musical function! I use all of them – they are integrated within the score and there is not a single one which I did not consider, short or long. In my music the silences are not just a fermata but are rhythmically notated, because I don’t want the orchestra to lose the pulse.

I can see you would want to maintain that focus. But it’s part of the theatre too from what you’re saying – the music and the text together?

Yes – for the pulse always to be there. For me this is very interesting because I know many conductors who do not have a lot of respect for silence! They will slow down or speed up through a silence because there is ‘nothing’ happening! But for me this ‘nothing’ is more important than the music!

That makes sense generally – but with this Horváth text I can see it could be crucial!

This is where Horváth and I have some meeting points already. He comes from the drama and I recognise that he means music! And there are many musical elements in the piece anyway because he asks for specific quotations; he says now I want to have Blue Danube; now I want to hear Tales from the Vienna Woods; Viennese folk music and marches and so on. I never use the quotations precisely, I just make allusions. You hear a few notes or perhaps the most stupid thing from the Danube [sings in a falsetto] – plip-plip … plop-plop – so you don’t have to say any more. Everybody knows what it is. It’s a link to his statement about stupidity of course!

Of course, yes! In the score, do you synchronise these quotations – or the music generally – with the stage action?

With the Strauss waltz Tales from the Vienna Woods, Horváth says in his stage instruction it should sound as if it is played by a young lady off-stage on the piano – probably her window is open and we hear her playing. I wrote it so we have the impression that she is practising; she really tries hard to get it right and she makes rhythmical mistakes, phrasing mistakes – you know [sings]: da dee, da dee, da da … daaa. So it’s all integrated. In the Third Act the girl is so angry about her mistakes that she slams the lid of the piano – bang! [bashes on the table] – and it’s synchronised with an effect on the stage so we have a slapstick moment; Alfred comes back to Valerie and she is so surprised that she suddenly says [falsetto] – ‘Ahh!’ – which is synchronised with the smash of the piano lid. So Horváth’s musical elements are used.

For me it is still Horváth who is the composer of the opera because his words are already music for me. When I began to work on this piece I read his text aloud and listened to the language melody and just wrote the rhythms, the prosody, in real time. So many times in the opera you hear the text in real time as if the singers are speaking it like actors. The only difference is that I wrote the pitch, so what I did in fact was a kind of Dialogrische [generic dialogue] which is now printed – it cannot be changed  – yes, it’s fixed forever!

For me Dialogrische in an opera is also very important because if the dialogue is not organised very well, opera is for me a very old-fashioned medium. But we also have arias in the opera for which I used Horváth’s words in various ways; doubled them, repeated them, made it longer. We have a lot of ensembles. That’s the difference between Schauspiel [stage play] and opera. In Schauspiel, if three people are speaking at once it’s a problem. But in opera we call it ensemble! We can have five, six, seven people all singing at once and you can use that to help create a climax. So I used Horváth’s text for all these things – but I always had the impression that Horváth himself dictated the melodies to me.

So your musical lines, phrasing and instrumentation and so on are all guided very closely by the text, by Horváth’s dialogue structures?

Yes. My first statement when we began to work with the singers was – and I’m convinced no composer before has said this to them!: ‘Sing wrong notes – if you fail it’s no problem. But don’t miss a word; bring each word into the sound, give each its onomatopoeic quality, because we owe everything to Horváth. He is the main figure, not the composer.’ I just bring a new colour to the piece; a kind of musical ambience which, as we all hoped, is a help for the piece. Now, after the première and the second performance last Sunday I have the impression that everything worked. The dream is fulfilled – the majority of the audience and the reviewers got it, and if there is a minority, I ignore it [laughs heartily]!

That sounds fair enough!

By the way, I do not read any reviews. Not the good ones and not the bad ones – I just get some news, it’s much better. The only review I recognised so far was the Financial Times and there was just one sentence: she wrote something like, this piece is directly opposite to Falstaff in my career. And I thought oh, I always thought Wozzeck, but Falstaff, that is also a good idea.

So you mean you’ve travelled opposite to Verdi in the sense of coming now to tragi-comedy with Tales from the Vienna Woods having composed comedies previously, whereas Verdi came to tragi-comedy with Falstaff after a lifetime of writing tragedies?

Yes – I think, God it fits also with my age, yes?! I’m now 71 and Verdi, when he wrote Falstaff, was much, much older. So probably one day I could reach my Falstaff level! So the Financial Times has brought me to this idea, which might be a good idea to follow. She has inspired me!

Well, that’s part of what reviews should do I think – that should be part of their function, to inspire!

When Michael Sturminger first created this idea I was not sure that his prophecy would ever be fulfilled: he came to me at the celebration of the première of my opera Der Herr Nordwind (Mr Northwind) in Zürich in 2005 and said, ‘your next opera will be Tales from the Vienna Woods!’ I said, no no I don’t think so, but step by step he gave me literature and information, and so I became more and more convinced that I must make this opera. And now many people are telling me that they have the impression that it has always been an opera!

I must say I can’t imagine a composer better suited than you to set this play! But maybe it’s actually a good sign in the creative process – to immediately say ‘no’ rather than ‘yes’?

Well, I first said to Sturminger, Horváth does not need a composer. But that was because I was not informed about him, and that his language was very near to music in fact. So Sturminger began to write his libretto before he knew that I would do it, because he wanted to convince me!

So what happened then? How did he convince you?

One year later, in 2006, I was composer-in-residence at the Lucerne Festival, and in the very first concert, with the BBC Symphony, we did Frankenstein!! After the concert Boosey people came to me backstage [Gruber’s publisher, Boosey & Hawkes] and in front of them somebody I could not recognise because he was nearly hidden – I had the impression he came on his knees! And then he came near and I saw, oh God that’s David Pountney! He said to me, Nali we must meet in Vienna very soon. So in September we met and he said to me, you must write an opera buffa for us, you are the only one who could do it – probably he was impressed by Frankenstein!! as it’s a very funny piece!

And I said to him, couldn’t we find also something tragic, for instance Tales from the Vienna Woods?  No no he said, it should be a living writer. So years went by and we discussed many possibilities – we even had some ideas to co-operate with Monty Python. If they had written something I probably could not have resisted! But that didn’t happen and in 2010 David called me and said, Nali in fact this is the best idea, Tales from the Vienna Woods, just do it. Then I called Michael Sturminger and he came back to me five minutes later and said, here’s the 1st Act, here’s the 2nd Act, and here’s the beginning of the 3rd!

So Michael Sturminger had already virtually completed the libretto, regardless!

Yes! He has directed the piece many times before, so he knew it. I didn’t know the piece word by word but I just read the libretto and thought, aha! It has a line and it’s a story. So I said, ok let’s do this and I began. It was a long journey because I composed without a compass, I just followed Horváth’s ideas. Horváth was my compass in fact. I forgot all the ‘laws’ which are existing for composers who are writing so-called ‘new music’ – I forgot all the dictators who say you have to do this, you have to do that, you have to write in this style or that style: my style is my style. I found out, I am the system. My ears and my Unterbewusstsein [subconscious mind] is telling me what I have to do, and there is nobody else who can dictate to me.

So I think now I have discovered a full freedom as a composer – and this is good for me because my next project is a piano concerto for Emanuel Ax – for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, the Concertgebeow, the London Symphony, and the Berlin Philharmonic! And I thought, when I return to Rosenberg, ok tomorrow I will just begin to compose and my ear will tell me in which direction it will go. I will throw away the compass again and use the freedom and forget all the dictators – you know who they are!

Yes I do! – and isn’t that just what Horváth’s writing is about, not allowing dictatorship?!

Yes! You know, all of these dictators have forgotten that stupidity is waiting for them around each corner [laughs heartily]! And Fascismus – because what they are telling us mostly is a kind of fascistic idea. For instance, I have full respect for Schoenberg and I have learnt a lot from him but there is one sentence I cannot forgive him. He once said, when he discovered his 12-note technique:  ‘I have made an invention which makes sure that German music will dominate the world for the next hundred years’!

I know that sentence – that sentiment – horribly well!

This is a complete fascistic idea! Dominate anybody – why? And this is a Viennese Jew who said that! It’s very tragic and comic at the same time, so it’s a tragi-comedy. And it tells me, don’t touch any school! So: Second Viennese School, First Viennese School, Third Viennese School – no, absolute no! [Gruber was for a time – and sometimes still is – associated with a so-called ‘Third Viennese School’, along with the composers Kurt Schwertsik and Otto M. Zykan and violinist Ernst Kovacic – co-founders of the then ‘MOB-art & tone-ART’ ensemble in the late ‘60s].

So – musical freedom, no more no less?

And musical intelligence. This is a condition.

With every note counting, but in its own way and with its own expression?

Yes! – which means of course you have to develop a technique; without technique you cannot compose! So while you write, you develop techniques, but they are not there to dominate the composer, to take his freedom. When I compose I mostly recognise, aha! – here is a system. Ok, so I use that system for as long as I can, and then there comes a moment when I say, oh it’s time to change the system, let’s do something else.
That is freedom!

Monday, 23 March 2015

Bregenz Festival 2014: David Pountney directs Mozart's 'The Magic Flute'

In August 2014, thanks to a generous grant from Wales Arts International, I was able to visit the Bregenz Festival for Wales Arts Review. Here's the second of the four pieces which resulted, published in Volume 3, Issue 17.

© Bregenzer Festspiele / die3.eu
© Bregenzer Festspiele / die3.eu

Bregenz Festival, Opera on the Lake, Aug 2 2014

Wiener Symphoniker and Prager Philharmonischer Chor
Conductor: Patrick Summers

Director: David Pountney
Stage Designer: Johan Engels
Costume Designer: Marie-Jeanne Lecca
Stunt and Action Choreographer: Ran Arthur Braun
Puppetry: Blind Summit Theatre
Lighting Designer: Fabrice Kebour

Cast includes:
Alfred Reiter / Norman Reinhardt / Daniela Fally / Bernarda Bobro / Markus Brück / Hanna Herfurtner / Martin Koch / Wilfrid Staber / Eleftherios Chladt
Plus live singers from the Festspielhaus, acrobats and stunt performers, puppeteers and doubles.

Mozart’s final opera Die ZauberflöteThe Magic Flute – has enthralled audiences since its first performance in Vienna in 1791. Generically, the opera is a Singspiel; the culmination of a popular Austro-German tradition of music-theatrical works which combined song with spoken dialogue, and which Mozart now took to new heights of comedic entertainment, romantic fantasy and sheer musical and dramatic power. Anyone who loves opera will know The Magic Flute intimately well – and yet, somehow, not at all; and therein lies its continued magnetic pull. Because, as director David Pountney suggests, the work is not just richly multilayered, but full of enigmas, and robustly capable of supporting a variety of interpretations – including some of which Mozart and his librettist Schikaneder would never have dreamed.

In historical and philosophical terms, it is the esoteric symbolism of ‘Flute that has elicited the most excitement and controversy over the years. There is nothing quite like the hint of secret cult or hidden code to get the theorist’s pulse racing – especially when combined with Mozart’s seemingly baffling genius – and the frisson of mystery continues to surround the opera’s supposed Masonic subtext. Over the years, the interpretative trail has wound its way through Gnosticism, alchemy, the Kabbalah, numerology and Rosicrucian mysticism – although stopping short of divine or extra-terrestrial intervention as far as I am aware.

Scholars have pointed on the one hand to the opera’s didacticism and solemn moralising and, on the other, to the often subtle irony with which Mozart seems to undercut the high seriousness – and, indeed, the high silliness – of the libretto (reputedly, Mozart did not even care for the flute as an instrument, which adds yet another fascinating aside to this endless story). And of course, there remains the not-so-small point that the theatrical foundations of Singspiel were as a straightforward vehicle for popular comedy and/or fairytale. Mozart himself referred to ‘Flute as a ‘teutsche Oper’ (‘teutonic’ in the sense of ‘for the people’), whilst Schikaneder called it a ‘grosse Oper’ (a ‘large’ opera); something never intended for intellectuals.

However, whichever way you look at it, The Magic Flute is ultimately bursting with Enlightenment ideals, optimism and vigour, as we see the freethinking, rational individual win out over the dark archaism of a superstitious, authoritarian collective. Traditionally, the evil is seen as embodied by the Queen of the Night; the mother who not only abandons her daughter Pamina, but who exhorts her to murder and who attempts to set up her sacrificial rape and marriage when she fails to comply. In Pountney’s utterly spellbinding production, Daniel Fally could be more than forgiven the odd vocal wobble in rising to the challenge of the role in more ways than one. Raised especially high above the lake and stage to deliver ‘that’ famous aria, Fally defied both the elements and gravity with cool venom, her coloratura top ‘Fs’ triumphing in a perilous high-wire act indeed.

The Queen should, of course, be a dramatic highlight of the ‘Flute wherever it is staged. But here on Lake Constance, Pountney’s production is breathtaking from the start, and not just because of the exquisite sunset lake with its distant shore lights and rippling reflections, nor the ravishingly lit, giant forest of waving grass and tumbling, abseiling creatures – nor even because of the floating hands and turtles, the hissing serpents or mighty Dragondogs which tower and blaze with fire over all in Johan Engel’s spectacular stage design. For this is opera as carnival for the mind as well as for the senses; a glorious circus of imagination and metaphysical reverie.

Pountney has created a fantastical, Shakespearean island of dreams and nightmares – and, more than that, of a very real existential struggle. Far from being the noble representative of a dawning Age of Reason as he is usually seen (and as Mozart no doubt saw him), Sarastro (sung with dark disquiet by Alfred Reiter) is contemptuous, rigid and despotic; it is he who imprisons Pamina (Barnarda Bobro in alternately feisty or innocent, ‘Sound of Music‘ guise), and he who uses her for barter; he who enforces his own brand of trial-by-element in an atmosphere of arcane ritualism, and he who, in an echo of the Queen, casually orders the torture of Monostatos for daring to disobey him. Here, Sarastro’s temple entourage are fanatical minions: part animal, part sci-fi alien thanks to stunning costumes by Marie-Jeanne Lecca, and some suggestive choreography by Ran Arthur Braun. There are echoes of King Kong in Pamina’s being tied up as sacrificial virgin on this island of primitive creatures – whilst Monostatos himself (portrayed with requisite slime by Martin Koch), becomes more, even, than a twisted servant, but a lizard-like Mr Hyde to Sarastro’s Dr Jekyll as he slips off the arriving boat in the opening scene to pilfer for his master the seven-fold seal of the Queen’s dead husband.

In this production, the opera not only looks backwards and forwards in time, but sideways and obliquely at other worlds and other possibilities, some desirable and some very much not so. The human contact is touching and convincing against a backdrop of huge, malignant marionettes; the Three Ladies are at once terrifying and beautiful in the hands of the Blind Summit puppeteers, and the Three Boys – danced and mimed live on stage but, like the Three Ladies, sung from off-stage alongside the orchestra – are scarcely less disturbing with their bulbous, Alice in Wonderland great, bald heads. And yet it is all wondrous; a spectacle quite fit for children of all ages to marvel at and enjoy.

The duet between Pamina and Papageno (the wonderful, scene-stealing Markus Brück) is a clear vocal and humanist high point. Interestingly, it is they – not the courting couples – for whom Mozart writes the nearest to an extended romantic duet in the entire opera. Here in fact, we glimpse the possibility of a successful loving friendship, not just between a man and a woman, but between people of usually distant social classes. Papageno himself inevitably looms large and slap-stick with his birdie regalia and rustic charm; a cheeky-chap foil to Tamino’s determined heroism and willingness to take the rules extremely seriously (this evening, Tamino was sung with simple, affecting skill by Norman Reinhardt).

There is always room for muddlement and whimsy in Mozart’s brave, new-thinking world – thank God or, as Carolyn Abbate has noted,* those stagey musical ‘effects’ with bells and flutes and unearthly, trilling soprano might threaten to usher in a further tyrannical, because mechanistically inhuman, age. But of course, Papageno ultimately wants to play by the rules too; to settle down to a quiet family life with his beloved Papagana (performed here by Hanna Herfurtner – who had the audience in stitches in her ‘old woman’ guise as a kind of Mad Hatter tea-lady). Papageno, of all characters, is ultimately here to comfort us with his down-to-earth naturalism and resistant foolish cheer in the face of unknown dangers; a crucial key, perhaps, to Mozart’s dramatic resolution, and which underpins the character’s own otherworldly guise.

Musically, the production struck me as beautifully, simply, more than fit for purpose. The singers performed admirably, with an attention to detail and engagement with the audience that was astonishing given the challenges of the environment. On the evening I attended, the wind gradually picked up as lightning flashed around the lake, before driving some truly horizontal rain across the set and stalwart cast. Unless you really are dead-eyed, you don’t go to this unique opera-on-the-lake to pick holes with tempi (for those who wish to know, they were often on the slow side compared to current Mozart fashions) – but perhaps to rejoice in the necessary editing that cut out some of the more ponderous moments of the opera (duetting priests, for example) and worked in favour of a tight show without fluff or interval. The Vienna Symphony performed with laudable sensitivity under the baton of Patrick Summers, and their sound, together with the singers – who were all amplified of course, whether on stage or off – was magnificently clear and balanced through the speaker system.

Here we were, in provincial, modern-day Bregenz, with an array of new technology to astound us and – way beyond that – to assist the possibilities of new global understanding. But perhaps we were not so far from the ‘Flute’s bittersweet Viennese beginnings after all. The final denouement in Pountney’s production, just as he promised, involves the destruction of the old order as the two young couples emerge triumphant into their new, Rousseauian world of equality and freedom. Our champions have travelled through and overcome a fantastical dystopia to win the possibility of… well, perhaps not entirely a utopia; after all, clemency may have been a much-touted virtue in the Josephenian Enlightenment, but none is shown here to the actual figures of the old guard, who perish along with their world. Nonetheless, the finale is the happiest of happy waving celebrations, as members of the chorus (the redoubtable Prague Philharmonic Choir) pop out to stand in the aisles in Eurovision rainbow garb, and to bounce big white balls into and over the audience. It is a great, celebratory moment after a wondrous journey, and one which cannot fail to capture your heart, even as the production has fed in spectacular fashion your senses, and your mind along the way.

* In Search of Opera, Princeton University Press, 2001

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

David Pountney in Conversation at the Bregenz Festival: 'A Unique Event in a Unique Location'

In August 2014, thanks to a generous grant from Wales Arts International, I was able to visit the Bregenz Festival for Wales Arts Review. Here's the first of the four pieces which resulted, published in Volume 3, Issue 17. This interview and profile led the edition.

As I write, Welsh National Opera CEO and Artistic Director David Pountney is deep in rehearsal for WNO’s forthcoming season: ‘Liberty or Death’. His new, twin productions of Rossini’s William Tell and Moses in Egypt will spotlight the Italian composer’s addressing of serious subjects; for Rossini was not just the creator of ‘lightweight’ comedy, romance and grand operatic spectacle, but a composer whose thirty-nine operas also encompassed the exploration of social and political issues from an individual to a national level. These issues included – at the end of his career and before he retreated into silence – the right to freedom from oppression; territory more often associated with his great supposed ‘rival’, Beethoven.

Pountney’s freshness of approach and attunement to both historical and contemporary relevance is typical of a director renowned – and sometimes controversial – worldwide for his bold, visionary productions and innovative programming. This autumn, he returns to WNO hot-foot from his eleventh and final year as Intendant at the Bregenzer Festspiele; a month-long festival which annually transforms the small Austrian town of Bregenz, nestling on the shores of Lake Constance, into a hive of operatic, musical and artistic activity.

Based around the floating Seebühne (the lake stage) and Festspielhaus, Pountney’s legacy is a festival which has excelled at combining the popular and the radical with artistic and box office success (the location will be familiar to James Bond fans, as the Festival’s 2007 staging of Puccini’s Tosca became a backdrop for spectacular action sequences in Quantum of Solace). Every performance of his production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute sold out in this, its second year, to the tune of well over 200,000 visitors. But audiences for other, less obviously crowd-pleasing events were also extremely healthy – including near sell-out for an in-depth focus on the work of HK Gruber; a contemporary composer who, as Pountney notes below, has in many ways been better appreciated to date in the UK than in his native Vienna.

Recognition for Pountney’s achievements in Bregenz has come not only in the form of the Austrian Cross of Honour, the government’s most prestigious accolade, but with the production of a book, Der Fliegende Engländer [The Flying Englishman], edited by longstanding Festival colleagues Axel Renner and Dorothée Schaeffer. This tells the story of Pountney’s decade-plus as Intendant with an affection and appreciation that is palpable in its very title, which refers back to his first ever production at Bregenz in 1989, of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman.

Thanks to a generous grant from Wales Arts International, I was able to visit the Bregenz Festival this summer to experience firsthand Pountney’s work within this unique European context, at the confluence if you will, of Austria with Switzerland, Luxembourg and Germany; to get a sense of how his international outlook and experience informs his work at WNO – and vice versa of course, as his association with WNO stretches back to his groundbreaking Janáček productions there of the 1970s, in co-production with Scottish Opera.

Since Pountney became Artistic Director of the company in 2011, WNO audiences have quite literally been both ‘shaken and stirred’ by his thought-provoking and entertaining themed seasons. The day after my arrival at Bregenz, he spoke with me in his office overlooking the lake stage about many aspects of his work at the Festival and beyond; about staging The Magic Flute on the lake, and about his parting theme for the Bregenz Festival this year: ‘Bittersweet Vienna’.

© Bregenzer Festspiele / Karl Forster
© Bregenzer Festspiele / Karl Forster

Steph Power: Running an opera festival – albeit one that takes place every year – must demand a very different approach from running a national opera company. Can you say something about the contrasts?

David Pountney: Yes, I think the main thing is that the entire purpose is different. A festival to my mind should be ‘a unique event in a unique location’ – that is the phrase I use. So the idea of a balanced programme is nonsense; actually you’re supposed to make an extreme programme. Over the eleven years, I think we’ve made more and more extreme programmes really, which is great. And sometimes, when the opportunity’s been there, we’ve made some really very stringent programming. In the Weinberg year, for example, we played twenty-three pieces by this totally unheard of composer – that’s a kind of extreme programming. [Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s extraordinary opera about Auschwitz, The Passenger, received its long-overdue world première at the Festspielhaus in 2010.]

An ‘immersive’ programming.

Right – and another phrase I use is ‘no escape’! That is, we don’t offer any Brahms and Dvořák and Schubert and all that stuff! Whereas, if you’re running a theatre that is the daily bread of a community, then you’re obliged to take a completely opposite point of view, which is to try and give a balanced programme; to offer different things to that community and give them a balanced diet. And of course the whole work rhythm of a festival is incredibly different. A festival is a kind of endless foreplay and very hectic action, whereas a theatre that’s year-round has a quite different feel about it!

I can imagine! – and has to support an in-house orchestra and chorus throughout the year and so on?

Yes. We have very low infrastructure at Bregenz really. We go from around forty employees to 1,500 over one weekend, which has all kinds of weird logistical consequences [WNO directly employs some 230 people year-round with, of course, an array of freelancers per production].

You’ve talked in the past about there being an unnecessary distinction between the serious and the popular in contemporary culture. I found a nice quote where you say, ‘the blunt separation of art from entertainment is false and irrelevant’. That feels very powerful, especially in the light of something you said in our last conversation about Schoenberg; about how, in Germanic culture, there’s been a suspicion almost of entertainment because of the Nazis having tainted the idea of the popular.

Yes, through their demagoguery.

It seems to me that the popular and the serious are brought together beautifully in your theme this year of ‘bittersweet Vienna’.

That’s true, and of course the distinction is shown up by Nali Gruber’s music [HK Gruber is known as Nali], which is not afraid to embrace Kurt Weill. As it so happens, I began my ten years as Intendant at Bregenz with a programme featuring Kurt Weill.

Including two rarely done early pieces I believe – The Protagonist and Royal Palace – at the Festspielhaus in 2004?

That’s right. For me, he was absolutely the embodiment of the identity of this festival, which is a combination of the radical and the popular; that’s what Kurt Weill did. It just so happens that we’re ending with Nali who is a great Kurt Weill specialist – he sings and plays and conducts a lot of his music, and he, himself, also embodies that aesthetic, in that he’s not afraid to use jazz and waltz and popular idioms. As a result, he has on the whole been somewhat ostracised by the Viennese establishment, which regards him as a rather eccentric outsider; he’s better known actually in Britain and other places than he is in Austria, so this has been a big event for him, to have this kind of recognition here. But you could hear that last night of course [a performance of Gruber’s opera Gloria – a Pigtale at the Landestheater]. That’s basically a sort of jazz band opera, but written with an astonishing sophistication and delicacy.

Indeed, yes, with incredible detail – what scoring!

Absolutely brilliant, the score is just breathtaking. Tales from the Vienna Woods is an equally sophisticated piece of work. But Nali very much embodies that, and of course that’s something that is meat and drink to this festival. Because the other thing that makes Bregenz almost the opposite of the WNO is that we’re 80% self-financed here. Our subsidy has been frozen since 1997, so it’s now worth well over a million less than it was.

That must present an enormous challenge on lots of levels?

Well, we have much more flexibility than WNO because we have the possibility of generating very large sums of money.

With the lake stage [which has seating for 7,000 people]?

– With the lake stage – and of losing it too! A rained-out Saturday night, which we had last week, costs us 400,000 Euros because the run is sold out; we have no further seats to offer people as chances to come back again. So all the people who don’t have the so-called house tickets, have to be paid back if we’ve performed for less than a hour.

Goodness, that’s living on the edge in more ways than one isn’t it, with the weather?!

Well, we do build that in of course. After two performances we’re insured anyway so the maximum we can lose is 800,000 Euros.

Which still seems a huge amount! Just thinking about ‘bittersweet Vienna’ for a moment, it strikes me that The Magic Flute is a wonderful foil for Nali Gruber’s music, but there’s also something about ‘Flute itself embodying both the bitter and the sweet. That opera is sometimes seen as all sweetness if you like – in romantic terms at least – and it’s not at all; to me there’s a lot of nightmare in it.

Very much so, and you’ll see in this version that, actually, Sarastro is a very sinister character. Sarastro belongs in jail in my book! – and so that darkness is definitely exploited. And of course two people try to commit suicide in The Magic Flute!

Plus the sexual violence and threat thereof!


But it’s often the Queen of the Night who is labelled the ‘baddie’ in plot terms – people sometimes don’t get beyond that.

Well, I think all of that just comes about because people treat Sarastro as the ‘goodie’. And actually, the minute you distrust Sarastro the whole piece becomes totally logical because it’s then a piece about the modern figures – the people with the modern music, Pamina and Tamino – being the future, and the process of the piece is to make Sarastro and the Queen irrelevant.

Right, so together Sarastro and the Queen of the Night represent the old order?

Yes, they both die in my Magic Flute. They die in the last minutes, the final battle. And what we always said was, ideally – and that’s why the setting on the lake stage is this primitive island with primitive creatures on it – because that whole world is primitive, with these hierarchical authorities – really what should happen is that the whole set should just sail off and sink into the Bodensee! Because it’s over, it’s finished, and the world belongs to the rational, enlightenment future. If only!

If only, yes, indeed! So is there something here about the questioning of what is ‘natural’ – on many levels, but especially, what is ‘human nature’- within that fairy tale setting? People often talk about the Enlightenment as something that pitched rationalism against instinct, for instance – and I wonder whether that’s another false binary which the opera addresses?

Well in The Magic Flute you have the instinctive person who is another of the people who are going to be part of the future, and that is Papageno. So in a way that is catered for in the piece.

With Papageno it’s interesting that Mozart physically mutes him – what a thing to do to an opera character! – so he can’t speak let alone sing.

Yes! – if only for a short while.

And then one of the tropes in it involves speech. Tamino has to remain silent – whilst Papageno is accused of chattering too much, which is something women are often accused of!

Indeed, and they are accused of it in The Magic Flute. What is it? ‘Ein Weib tut wenig, plaudert viel.’ [‘A woman does little, chatters a lot’. Said by one of Sarastro’s Priests.]

But that whole idea of the battle of the sexes is there as well in the piece – perhaps in terms of the new generation coming in and having to find their own way based not on power, but as equals, based on reason?

Yes perhaps, I don’t know; that is, Mozart and Schikaneder [the librettist] thought of it differently, but it’s interesting how well the piece responds to being looked at in that way. For example, right at the very end of the piece, it’s Pamina who leads Tamino through the trials. Now I’m sure they were not making any kind of feministic statement in those days but it’s just a little example of the way in which the piece has such flexibility that it can take an interpretation that I’m sure Mozart and Schikaneder never had in their minds. Obviously they saw Sarastro as a kind of Freemason, an example of the future, but they littered the piece with enough problems that it remains open. The whole identity of Monostatos for example is… Well, you’ll see – a solution to that is proposed in the first seconds of the production. You’ll need to be awake and watching!

Now that’s intriguing – and I can’t wait to see it [you can find my review here]. I can see the three ‘Drachenhunden’ of the set now out of your window – the ‘Dragondogs’. What are they in your production – are they guardians of the island, or keepers of the Masonic fire in some sense?

There isn’t any Masonic reference in this production really. Yes, they’re guardians of a primitive world I suppose. And of course they fulfill a very important – not really practical but necessary – function in terms of defining proportion. Because you have no proportion out there on the lake stage, there’s no frame. When you’re sitting there as part of the audience, you can’t see anything that would give you a sense of size. So one of the things that as a director you have to do on the Seebühne is to define the proportions of the space, which can be different in each piece. And they are very different from one production to another, because you’re not confined within a predetermined foot-print, such as is dictated by a proscenium arch. Some productions spread out with lots of water in between and some concentrate together, and some go upwards.

Has working with the Seebühne changed your thinking as a director, in terms of the ways you might use a more conventional space such as WNO’s at the Wales Millennium Centre? 

I don’t think so – you have to think very differently out on the lake. Some of the solutions that we’ve adopted are to do with that, actually. For example, in my view the Three Ladies are not really solvable on the lake stage. Because what you’re trying to do out there all the time is to push people apart; if you have a love duet, you want that love duet to have ten metres between the duettists, and then you get this fantastic, epic tension out there. As soon as you have three people standing around like this (moves cups together) it looks totally boring, but if you do that with the Three Ladies (moves cups apart) then the musical ensemble falls apart. And so that’s why we decided to represent the Three Ladies with puppets, sung from inside, where the orchestra is. You get an ideal musical cohesion but then you can have three fantastical figures on the stage who incorporate an idea which fits the scale out there.

So I presume the puppets can be large.

They’re very large, yes.

Ah, so there are the three large dragondogs and the three ladies… what do you do with the three boys? – It’s full of ‘threes’ actually this opera isn’t it, to the great joy of the Masonic interpreters!

It is! Well the three boys are performed by dancers and are also sung from inside.

Without yet having seen it! – but hearing you speak and looking at the stage – the ‘Flute seems to me a fantastic opera to stage here. There’s a phrase I believe you’ve used for the lake stage productions: ‘intelligent spectacle’.

Yes that’s my phrase.

I think Mozart would have loved that!

I’m sure he would!

As we’ve touched on, The Magic Flute is full of all kinds of different ideas related to the Enlightenment. I’m intrigued by how Tales from the Vienna Woods might echo that in a sense, albeit in a very different way. Horváth’s play [of the same title], which Gruber has used for his libretto, is full of bitter irony and detachment and estrangement – he takes the idea of reason and shows what happens when reason is perverted and people go passive; when people don’t take responsibility for their actions or thoughts. How does that come into your ‘bittersweet’ theme?

Well obviously Horváth’s title Tales from the Vienna Woods comes from the title of a Strauss waltz. So he is suggesting that the play might be some delightful operetta-ish Viennese confection when it’s the absolute opposite of that in fact, and is really a very bitter piece. The play is also punctuated by scraps of music all the time – the poor girl playing that exact waltz on the piano off-stage! And actually Horváth wrote on the manuscript of one copy of the play, ‘Music by Kurt Weill’. He obviously imagined that that might be possible, which also suggests this bittersweet flavour as it is very much the way one describes Kurt Weill’s music. So yes, they are connected and Magic Flute is also a kind of confection – it has a lot of charm and so on – but as we’ve said, it has these very dark aspects.

The ‘Flute also has a tension between the natural on the one hand and the artificial or mechanical on the other – which I guess might be another Enlightenment theme – with lots of musical and technical effects. There’s a kind of literal acoustic ‘magic’ in the piece, with music onstage and offstage that the characters respond to, the pipes, the glockenspiel/celeste and the flute itself, that are intentionally ‘supernatural’ rather than ‘natural’.

And there are certainly lots of different musical styles which are chosen with a very definite structure. The music for the Queen is basically like Handel really, and the music for Sarastro is going back into a sacred tradition. So those two characters have archaic music – we’re being told they’re out of date already. Whereas Pamina and Tamino’s arias are exceptionally modern, even for Mozart – because they both have a kind of ‘stream of consciousness’ aria in fact, which puts them on a different plane. Then you’ve got the street music with Papageno – his whole aspect – so there are very clear musical signals as to how to read the story.

In terms of that ‘incidental’ music Horváth wrote into his play, I’ll be fascinated to see what Nali Gruber does with it – if indeed he follows the play to that extent – because the music Horváth requests is very specific. Particular waltzes and so on.

Actually, Nali follows the play very closely. It’s really a sort of dialogue piece basically.

It seems to me that in the UK, Bertolt Brecht, who in some ways might be comparable in terms of artistic and political temperament and dramatic skill, has been far better known than Horváth. Is that still true do you think?

Yes I think that is true. The National Theatre have staged Tales from the Vienna Woods [in 1997 and, in a new version, in 2003]. I guess it’s the only play that’s really known of Horváth’s, whereas obviously with Brecht there are many more. Of course, Horváth’s output includes Figaro gets a Divorce – which is going to turn up at some point… [the play transports characters from Mozart’s opera into a chaotic modern situation.]

Ah – that IS intriguing… and are there any plans to bring Nali’s opera to the UK at the moment?

Not as far as I know. I would love to bring it to WNO but I don’t know how we would manage that.

Well I sincerely hope you can! [You can find my review here]. Within Austria, what’s the relationship like between the Festival and Vienna? You’re very distant here from the capital.

Very distant. There hasn’t really been any significant relationship with Vienna other than the fact that we borrow their orchestra [the Wiener Symphoniker, which also performs a series of concerts each year at Bregenz].

Obviously WNO is a national opera company. Are there specific differences in the way opera is viewed in Austria as opposed to Wales or the UK?

Well, the politicians turn up on the opening day; every festival opening the President of Austria is here. This year the Prime Minister came too and a couple of other members of the Cabinet were present. And that’s regarded as normal. Whereas in Wales, although I’m sure various members of the Assembly do come from time to time, there isn’t a sense of them, or of the First Minister automatically coming to the first night of a season at WNO. Obviously a festival is a bit different for the reasons that we’ve discussed, but then of course the whole entourage goes on from here to Salzburg Festival a week later, so you do get the sense that it’s considered much more a central part of Austrian culture. Although equally, as I said, we’ve had a frozen subsidy for a long time – since ’97.

Yes, that’s horrendous.

That’s got to come to an end now, it’s got to be changed. But the festival has managed to do quite well nonetheless – which of course doesn’t encourage them to give us more money!

That’s ironic isn’t it? But ‘bittersweet Vienna’ is at least an Austrian theme from their point of view…

Yes – most of my other themes have not been Austrian. We’ve done Kurt Weill as I say and we’ve done Nielsen.

Maskarade, right?

Yes. We’ve also done Szymanowski, we’ve done Weinberg obviously, we’ve done André Tchaikowsky, Judith Weir, Detlev Glanert – who’s German – but this 2014 Festival is actually very Austrian because we’re doing Nali, then also the ‘sitcom opera’ tonight [Life at the Edge of the Milky Way, touched on briefly here, penultimate section] is by Bernhard Gander, who’s a young Austrian composer. And obviously The Magic Flute is very Austrian.

Also, the other music-theatre piece which is being premièred, Trans-Maghreb, has an Austrian composer [Peter Herbert] and librettist [Hand Platzgumer, with Ingrid Bertel]. It’s turned out logically, as I was doing Nali Gruber, that there would be a certain Austrian emphasis this year, but it’s not something that I’ve felt obliged to do. I suppose I felt that at least one of these three composers that I’ve commissioned this year should be Austrian really – I mean, fair enough!

Am I correct that you’ve given five major world premières here in the last five years?

Yes, in the last five years.

Which is a great record.

We’ve done, I think, twenty-two world premières altogether if you include the smaller-scale pieces!

Which is greater still! Will there be any further correlation with your ‘British Firsts’ series at WNO, having brought over Robert Orledge’s completion of Debussy’s La chute de la maison Usher?

Well I’m hoping that the final one will be a production from here actually… to be confirmed…

Ah, we’ll wait and see! I gather that Nali’s opera was originally planned for 2013 but that he needed more time to complete the score. When programming, do you always have in mind a Plan B in case events force a change?

Actually no, not at all! And originally I wasn’t going to do this extra year here either, but there was a big muddle about the succession, and then they appointed someone who didn’t turn up – or anyway was sent back again before he could even start! – so then I was asked to take care of this extra year. Then the situation with Nali came along – and actually I think André Tchaikowsky really found me; it was quite, quite funny. [Last year saw the posthumous première at Bregenz of Polish composer André Tchaikowsky’s The Merchant of Venice, directed by Keith Warner. Which, incidentally, was awarded ‘Best World Première’ at the 2014 International Opera Awards. Tchaikowsky lived from 1935-1982. He died in Oxford, and was no relation to the Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky].

So how did the Tchaikowsky opera come about at Bregenz?

Well, I’d done the Weinberg portrait in Leeds and a Russian musicologist called Anastasia Belina-Johnson came up to me and said, oh you’ve done Weinberg, now you have to do André Tchaikowsky, and I sort of went, ‘What?!’ It rang a bell because in fact he had played through a part of The Merchant of Venice to a group of us at English National Opera – in 1982 I think, in the first year I went there. We hadn’t done it for one reason or another, and very shortly after that, Tchaikowsky sadly died and the opera had fallen out of my mind really.

Anyway, so this woman mentioned it to me on this particular day in Leeds, and the very next day I flew to Warsaw. There I was, in the foyer of the Grand Theatre in Warsaw, and from the far corner of this huge marble foyer, a little figure came out and came up to me from across the whole foyer and said [in a heavy Polish accent] ‘Ah Mr Pountney, oh yes, now you’ve done this Weinberg you know the next thing you have to do is André Tchaikowsky’. So I went [looking up] ‘ok ok, I get the message’! I thought, well I have to do something! I got the piece and we had some play-throughs down in Wales and I thought yes, ok. So when Nali came up with a revised timing I knew exactly what to do! But it was chance. André Tchaikowsky’s dybbuk!

And when you return to Wales – very soon – you will be thrown immediately into rehearsal for new productions of two Rossini operas!

Yes! To me this is actually a marvellous opportunity to encounter a great composer who had entertained the world with countless masterpieces. Then, right at the end of his composing career, he engaged historically for the first time with a real political subject in William Tell. Because we live in a time which is dominated, really, by the disasters caused by people’s aspirations to freedom, it’s very interesting to see this topic being discussed in the first real political opera since Fidelio.

Rossini has so often been unfavourably compared to Beethoven as a ‘lightweight’ but actually to ignore or discount William Tell – and indeed even the far earlier Moses in Egypt – as serious opera is a huge mistake.

Yes. Moses in Egypt actually starts out sounding like Beethoven – it starts out sounding like something out of the Missa Solemnis!

Doesn’t it! Well I look forward to the season. In the meanwhile, to Mozart and Gruber! Many thanks for speaking with me.

David Pountney’s production of The Magic Flute at Bregenz is available on DVD (Unitel Classica). His production of William Tell opens at the Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff on Friday September 12. Moses in Egypt opens there on Friday October 3.
From 2015, Elizabeth Sobotka takes over as Bregenz Festival Intendant, the first woman to hold the post. She has been director of Graz Opera since 2009.
A revival of Dominic Cooke’s surreal staging of The Magic Flute has been programmed by Welsh National Opera for Spring-Summer 2015. For those – like me – who have yet to see it, WNO promises that it will be ‘warm and witty’, ‘irrepressibly entertaining’, and ‘featuring an angry lobster, a newspaper-reading lion and a fish that is also a bicycle’.
And why ever not?

Monday, 16 March 2015

Gregynog Festival 2014: Flemish Radio Choir: World War I Commemoration

The following was first published in Wales Arts Review, Volume 3, Issue 14, July 2014

The Music Room, Gregynog, near Newtown, Montgomeryshire.

Stephen Wilkinson (b.1919) – Dover Beach
Joseph Ryelandt (1870-1965) – from Missa, Op. 111; Kyrie
Herbert Howells (1892-1983) – In Youth is Pleasure
Frederick Delius (1862-1934) – On Craig Ddu
André Laporte (b.1931)- From Songs of Innocence: ‘Introduction'; ‘the Lamb'; ‘A Cradle Song’
Ryelandt, arr. Bo Holten – Weemoed (Melancholy)
Hubert Parry (1848-1918) – From Songs of Farewell: ‘There is an old belief’
Howells – Inheritance

Kurt Bikkembergs (b.1963) – Im Nebel
William Walton (1902-1983) – A Litany
Peter Warlock (1894-1930) – The shrouding of the Duchess of Malfi
Edward Elgar (1857-1934) – Death on the Hills, Op. 72
Vic Nees (1936-2013) – De Profundis
Raymond Schroyens (b.1933) – from Pentalpha: ‘O als ik dood zal zijn’
Howells – Blessed are the dead
Piet Swerts (b.1961) – War (Gregynog Festival commission)

Flemish Radio Choir
Director – Bart Van Reyn

A quick glance at the above programme suffices to show that this début concert in Wales by the Flemish Radio Choir brought together many compositional strands. The theme of the concert – like that of the entire Gregynog Festival of which it formed the culmination – was war; specifically here as for the Festival’s second half, World War I. Across Wales there have already been a number of arts events offered this year in centennial remembrance of that appalling conflict, which shattered so many illusions of Western civilisation along with countless lives across Europe and beyond. But, for Festival curator Dr Rhian Davies, the Great War has long been a subject of particular music-historical interest. Gregynog 2014 bore many fruits of her decades of devoted research into previously undocumented and unpublished material.

Davies was especially keen to unearth ‘the fascinating lost narrative of the Belgian refugee musicians who were helped to safety by [famous philanthropists and artistic patrons] Gwendoline and Margaret Davies [no relation] and their stepmother Elizabeth’, formerly of Gregynog Hall in Montgomeryshire. This choral concert sought to bring Wales and Flanders together once again in discovery as well as commemoration, with old and new works by little known Flemish composers programmed alongside pieces by key English figures of Edwardian musical life and later – some with direct links to Wales (Warlock himself lived for a time in Montgomeryshire and Delius’s On Craig Ddu made a lovely addition to the programme). Of the thirteen composers performed, five are still living, with two – including Piet Swerts, composer of this year’s Festival commission – born very much post-World War II.

However, despite spanning many decades and springing from many diverse lives, nearly all the works chosen had in common that each was written in an individual style firmly rooted in Western choral traditions traceable to the 19th century; this concert was not about the dissonant – and often dissenting – modernism bursting onto European concert platforms at the time of WWI, but rather a quieter, but equally deeply felt, personal reflection and anguish. Of course, the Great War’s social and political consequences are still unfolding a hundred years on. But perhaps the most intriguing aspect of that time as revealed by this wide-ranging programme of miniatures and extracts was the palpable sense of uncertainty, nostalgia and loss shared by a large swathe of English composers in particular at the passing of an era in many respects already long gone by the outbreak of war in 1914.

The concert had a narrative arc intended to reflect the changing fortunes of many soldiers in the trenches – which, interestingly, of these composers, only Jules Toussaint-De Sutter actually became, as a cannoneer at the Yser front in 1917. Accordingly, the programme went from carefree youthfulness and idealism to disillusionment and despair upon encounter with the horrific realities of war. Text settings of a brightly optimistic folk character (such as Howells’ In youth is pleasure) and other songs of innocence and farewell (Laporte’s ‘The Lamb’, Parry’s There is an old belief), quickly gave way to grim musings upon death (Elgar’s Death on the Hills, Op. 72) and desolate expressions of religious belief (Nees’ De Profundis), culminating with Swerts’ simple and evocative setting of the profoundly moving ‘Rhyfel’ (‘War’) by Welsh poet Hedd Wyn – who himself, of course, became all too familiar with the trenches, dying at the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917 aged just thirty.*

It was thanks to the impressively well-modulated performances of the choir under conductor Bart Van Reyn that the concert avoided becoming disjointed, with so many short pieces being asked to convey so much intensely poignant history. The choir’s sound was richly balanced and nuanced throughout, with fine attention to articulative detail – although, for me, the performances became almost too smooth emotionally one upon the other; each piece emphasised superbly crafted phrasing and rounded consonants, all executed with such dynamic control and polished ensemble that, perversely, the cumulative effect became almost disturbing as an imagined foil to the boredom, terror, filth, mayhem and carnage that would surely have characterised life at the front.

However, the sheer poise of the choir was eloquent of dignity in the face of man’s inhumanity to man. After all, the concert hardly set out to paint a picture of raw emotion or of a battle front, but to give voice to a generation if not entirely lost, then struggling against inconceivable odds to find its way. And in that it generously succeeded, with each piece seeming to add yet another layer to a tale of mass upheaval and suffering comprising countless individual experiences from the heart-warmed to the traumatised. On the one hand, thorny issues of politics and pacifism were neatly avoided with this choice of repertoire but, on the other, the lack of any kind of overtly nationalist sentiment or propagandist statement was a relief.

Compositionally, the Howells and Warlock stood out for their taut expressivity and subtle economy of vocal part-writing, and it was most satisfying to hear composers such as Ryelandt, Nees and Schroyens alongside familiar figures of the English establishment, without the Belgians’ works being reduced to curios; Brussels, after all, is nearer to London than is Edinburgh, and it is about time that we in the UK stopped treating the so-called English Channel and North Sea as cultural barriers. On that score, Wilkinson’s Dover Beach was a worthy addition, if not perhaps the strongest – but there was real poignancy in Hedd Wyn’s poem having been set by a composer hailing from the land wherein the poet fell. Swerts brought his piece off with requisite grace, albeit straining my interest in repeated sequential cadences by the end.

Indeed, if there was any discernible harmonic trope throughout the concert, the resolution of gentle dissonance would have been it. But the clear highlight for me happened to be the most harmonically adventurous work: Kurt Bikkemberg’s Im Nebel, a setting of Hermann Hesse’s exquisite poem about wandering in the mists – surely an apt metaphor for many kinds of no man’s land. This had vivid, colouristic cluster chords which pulsed with energy, making the most of the choir’s impeccable sonic richness. These days, it is a refreshing change to come across a composer whose musical style has apparently gone from gentle modal romanticism to atonality and a more daring use of contrapuntal rhythmic techniques rather than the other way around. I look forward to hearing more of Bikkemberg’s music, grateful that it was this moving remembrance of World War I from the Gregynog Festival which led me to it.

* Coincidentally, the bard’s chair which was draped in black in remembrance of Hedd Wyn upon his posthumous victory at the National Eisteddfod was hand crafted by a Flemish carpenter, Eugeen Vanfleteren, who had fled to England at the outbreak of war and settled in Birkenhead.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Fall of the House of Usher': Getty and Debussy at Welsh National Opera

The following was first published in Wales Arts Review, Summer Fiction Issue, Volume 3, Number 13, June 2014.

Usher House

Music and text by Gordon Getty
Cast: Jason Bridges / Benjamin Bevan / Kevin Short / Anna Gorbachyova / Joanna Jeffries

La chute de la maison Usher

Music by Claude Debussy
Text by Claude Debussy after Edgar Allan Poe
Reconstruction and orchestration by Robert Orledge
Cast: Anna Gorbachyova / Mark Le Brocq / William Dazeley / Robert Hayward
Director: David Pountney
Video Projection Designer: David Haneke
Conductor: Lawrence Foster

The Fall of the House of Usher -  Robert Hayward (Roderick Usher) & Anna Gorbachyova (Lady Madeline photo: Stephen Cummiskey
The Fall of the House of Usher -
Robert Hayward (Roderick Usher)
& Anna Gorbachyova (Lady Madeline
photo: Stephen Cummiskey

Edgar Allan Poe’s short story ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ was published in 1839. Poe was just twenty years old and yet, a mere decade later, his short life wrung by tragedy and strife, he would die in circumstances arguably as mysterious as any to be found within the gothic horror or detective thriller genres he did so much to create. In his native United States, lurid tales of depravity and alcoholism, madness and suicide coloured his posthumous reputation, propelled by a campaign of spite by Rufus Wilmot Griswold; a literary rival who claimed to be Poe’s executor but who spent many years attempting to destroy his hard-won name.

Even today, it is Poe himself who remains as much associated with all things macabre and darkly twisted as are his brilliant short fiction and poetry. Poe’s vivid, febrile stories have, of course, not only inspired generations of writers and artists, but spawned a vast catalogue of homages and adaptations on paper, stage and, latterly, on screen; in 1998, Don G. Smith counted eighty-eight feature films alone based on Poe’s work across thirteen countries, spanning early expressionist cinema to Hammer horror and beyond. (1) That number has surely increased in the new millennium, with a fresh and apparently insatiable public desire for vampires, ghouls and zombies.

Pop culture aside, it is in France that Poe’s undoubted literary stature has been most appreciated historically. Baudelaire takes much of the credit for this, as his translations of Poe seized the Symbolist imagination of authors from the Belgian writer Maeterlinck to the French poets Verlaine and Mellarmé. So it is hardly surprising that Debussy – whose first opera Pelléas et Mélisande (1898) adapted the highly suggestive Maeterlinck play of the same name – should have looked to Poe in his search for further libretti. As early as 1903, Debussy started composing an opera on another Poe story, the blackly comic ‘The Devil in the Belfry’. For a while, he considered teaming ‘The Devil’ with ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ in a double-bill of one-act operas, before abandoning the comedy in 1912. Debussy was becoming increasingly obsessed with ‘Usher’s’ tale of monstrous familial doom. However, despite working on La chute de la maison Usher from around 1908, that opera too lay incomplete upon his premature death in 1918, as a man drained, ill and weighed down by history. In Robert Orledge’s words, Debussy had grown too close to the main character Roderick Usher, ‘whose mental breakdown Poe had identified with the crumbling House itself.’

In Poe’s story, and in both operas which formed Welsh National Opera’s own one-act double-bill this season, the House of Usher is at once a malevolent physical entity and a cursed ancestral lineage. How far Gordon Getty might relate to either phenomenon can only be guessed, but WNO have the House of Getty, as it were, to thank for the funding which made this production possible – and indeed, their entire five-year project of British Firsts, of which it was a part. Offering the world stage premiére of Getty’s Usher House in return (it is surely disingenuous to suggest the reasons were entirely artistic) seems to me a small price to pay, however thin the composer-philanthropist’s own material.

As it was, director David Pountney did a frankly extraordinary job of presenting the operas back to back without the Getty coming off too much the worse by comparison to the Debussy – that is, theatrically speaking at least. Indeed, Pountney, together with an excellent production team, strong casts and Lawrence Foster’s committed WNO Orchestra, created an evening of chilling and compelling drama. Utilising twin, related stagings, Poe’s tale was told from two different angles, bringing Robert Orledge’s entirely creditable completion of the Debussy to Britain for the first time since its premiére at Bregenz in 2006.

In keeping with the traditions of Poe on film, the basis for Pountney’s success was his cinematic vision, ironically making the most of the very thing for which Debussy and now Getty have stood accused with their respective Usher scores; namely, producing music more suited to film than to opera. According to Carolyn Abbate (who has herself produced a working completion of the Frenchman’s score), ‘what Debussy managed to write is exhausted and silly, for while what he provides is not directly onomatopoeic, the music has the gestural redundancy reminiscent of bad film music.’ (2)

To my mind, the notion that music for film should by definition be of less intrinsic value than that for opera is spurious. (3) But in any case, Pountney managed to transcend any such issues in either score by choosing to create atmosphere rather than action; moving away from conventional narrative opera to re-frame both Getty’s and Debussy’s musical gestures to mesmerising effect. Thus the House itself was restored to its function as the central ‘character’ in Poe’s story, with wonderful gliding sets comprising large-scale images of Penrhyn Castle by video projection designer David Haneke (designer Niki Turner). In the Getty, the references included Hammer Technicolor and Harry Potter, but invested with real emotional power. Here we were sucked into baleful ancestral halls to be leered at by living portraits en route to utter destruction, only to be crushed anew in the Debussy by stark black and white stone and shadow, as the very walls grew ever larger and more coldly threatening before ultimate collapse. The literal, sheeting rain at the end of each opera spoke eloquently of sorrow and loss.

The Fall of the House of Usher Benjamin Bevan (Roderick), Joanna Jeffries (Lady Madeline), Jason Bridges (Poe) Photo: Stephen Cummiskey
The Fall of the House of Usher
Benjamin Bevan (Roderick),
Joanna Jeffries (Lady Madeline),
Jason Bridges (Poe)
Photo: Stephen Cummiskey

Since Debussy failed to complete his opera, some have questioned whether Poe’s ‘Usher’ is actually suitable as a basis for a libretto; after all, the final implosion of the house and the swallowing of its unfortunate inhabitants might be startlingly dramatic but, otherwise, there is little actual plot. However, as Pountney amply demonstrated on a direct, visual level, there is much to ‘see’ in the heightened supernatural tension and psycho-emotional nuance with which Poe’s writing is loaded. It is the inner drama and structural symbolism which matter. And this is where Debussy’s / Orledge’s setting of the text wins clearly over Getty’s adaptation, which latter opts for a pedestrian and unvaried 19th century narrative treatment with, it must be said, scant literary or musical imagination. For not only does Debussy heighten Poe’s already claustrophobic and menacing atmosphere with sparse but tautly impressionist music, but his characters and their relationships are similarly fraught with erotic and other anxieties.

In the Debussy, many of Poe’s mysteries are left tantalisingly hanging: What exactly is Roderick Usher suffering from? Are he and his co-afflicted twin sister Madeline lovers? What is the significance of Roderick’s burying her alive – so familiar a trope in Poe’s oeuvre, together with that of twins. And why does Debussy alter this in his piece to have the sinister figure of Le Médecin commit the evil deed instead? What is the role of fate in the piece, and of the narrator who arrives from outside to witness the destruction of a family amid the ‘weeping stones’ of their House, isolated within a blasted landscape? By comparison, Getty’s wordy adaptation, lifted immeasurably by this production and the sheer musicianship of the singers and orchestra, seems not just mundane but wilfully naive in its refusal to plumb any kind of psychological depth.

Further points are raised when one considers Poe’s ‘total’ theory of the short story, of which ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ is an outstanding example. In Poe’s view, the brevity of the form allows the writer to unify all elements of the work, including close details of technique and style, towards a single effect; the aim being to transform mere narrative into a perfectly integrated work of art. This idea has more than a hint of – dare I suggest – Gesamtkunstwerk. In any case, viewed through this lens, Getty’s score falls painfully short of the writer’s innovative vision, with hammy pastiche (complete with Addams Family harpsichord at one point) and cardboard characterisation. Having Poe himself appear as narrator hardly adds to the subtlety. But Debussy’s score (and Orledge does an excellent job of realising this) at least attempts, for example, to rise to Poe’s challenge of the senses, as the composer utilises his trademark lush and colouristic harmonic palette to suggest the neurasthenia which torments Roderick Usher – and which Debussy himself spoke of suffering as, unbeknownst to him at first, his rectal cancer gradually took hold.

Unsurprisingly, Debussy’s vocal style is more nuanced than Getty’s unrelenting declamation. The Frenchman too is wordy in his way, utilising the kind of constant parlando reliant upon the rhythms of French speech rather than outright ‘song’ which some have criticised in Pelleas – but which, again, lends itself beautifully to the building of atmosphere and tension within Debussy’s overtly sensuous sound world. Casting the three male roles as baritones brings further intrigue to his Usher score, with the suggestion that all three characters could be aspects of the same person.

In both operas, the casts were immensely capable and well-matched. Kevin Short and Mark Le Brocq made twisted medics in the Getty and Debussy respectively, whilst Jason Bridges (Poe) and Benjamin Bevan (Usher) grappled heroically with sheer wordage in the former. William Dazeley was – forgive me – appropriately dazed as Usher’s L’ami in the Debussy, whilst the vocal highlight came in that opera courtesy of Robert Hayward, who made a superbly moving Usher; the only character to express substantive vocal and emotional release. If only either composer had allowed us to hear more of Anna Gorbachyova’s twice-enticing Madeline – but at least Pountney gave her character a more extended stage presence by means of dance (the alternately cataleptic and frenzied Joanna Jeffries).

Despite the shortcomings of the Getty and the challenges of the Debussy, this twin production was a great success overall. Indeed, Pountney’s staging was all the more impressive given the essential lack of mystery in the former’s material, and the problems caused by Debussy’s self-identification with, and failure to complete, the latter. It is to Pountney’s credit that he entirely avoided the potential pitfall of making Poe’s terrifying phantasms too concrete and too present, but kept the audience hovering in a subtle netherworld of dream / nightmare. Getty and Orledge should have been thrilled by the results on more than one level, for surely Welsh National Opera have given both operas as committed and convincing a performance as either are likely to receive anywhere.

1 – The Poe Cinema, Jefferson: McFarland, 1998.

2 – In Search of Opera, Princeton University Press, 2001.

3 – Come to that, I don’t believe film music is necessarily less worthy than concert music either. See Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman of the Dunes from 1964, with music by Toru Takemitsu for a start, and then there is Béla Tarr’s frequent musical collaborator Mihály Vig… but the list is endless. Staying with La chute de la maison Usher, watch out in the autumn for Charlie Barber’s forthcoming tour of Jean Epstein’s classic silent film with his own music performed live.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Four Major Welsh Composers: a Tŷ Cerdd Showcase with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales

The following was first published by Wales Arts Review, Volume 3, Issue 12, June 2014.

BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, June 7

Alun Hoddinott – Overture, Jack Straw
William Mathias – Concerto for Piano No. 2
Grace Williams – Fairest of Stars
Daniel Jones – Symphony No. 10

BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Soprano – Elin Manahan Thomas
Piano – Llŷr Williams
Conductor Grant Llewellyn

The launch of Tŷ Cerdd Records at the Wales Millennium Centre on June 5 signalled a much-anticipated resurgence for Music Centre Wales, and the start of a significant project in Tŷ Cerdd’s bid to put Welsh classical music on the map. It also heralded the inauguration of an annual Tŷ Cerdd conference, with an array of workshops, talks and discussion forums on various aspects of Welsh music held this year over the weekend of June 6-8. Central to proceedings was a Saturday evening concert by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. This aimed to showcase the kind of hefty, serious works to be found in the Tŷ Cerdd Welsh Music Archive, and to draw attention to the four major – indeed foremost (if you pardon the pun) – Welsh composers of the twentieth century: Grace Williams, Daniel Jones and, of a younger generation, William Mathias and Alun Hoddinott.

If less familiar these days for his actual music, Hoddinott is at least likely to be a subconscious presence in the minds of Cardiff concert-goers as the dedicatee of this evening’s venue, the BBC Hoddinott Hall. In fact, he composed a boggling number of works – some 300 all told – across a vast array of genres from short orchestral pieces like the Jack Straw overture heard here, to symphonies, concertos, operas and chamber works. Born in Bargoed in 1929, Hoddinott studied at University College Cardiff, returning there to become Professor and Head of the Music Department from 1967-1987. He continued to compose right up until his death in 2008, producing music that is often darkly brooding, and written in a densely chromatic idiom more international than nationalist in outlook; Bartók and Hindemith, for example, were inspirational figures alongside English contemporaries such as his friend Alan Rawsthorne.

Jack Straw is hardly the most substantial of Hoddinott’s works, but packs much feverish activity into its concentrated five minutes, detailing the exploits of an important political figure; not the former foreign secretary, but one of the leaders of the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt. From jaunty dotted rhythms to dark fanfares, growling strings and vibraslap effects, colourful episodes flash by at breakneck speed before an oddly sudden fullstop on a major chord. With an ebullient Grant Llewellyn at the helm, the BBC NOW practically cartwheeled through it all before turning their attention to what turned out to be the most satisfying item on the programme: Mathias’ Piano Concerto No. 2.

Mathias was an almost exact contemporary of Hoddinott and the two mirrrored each other’s pedagogical roles, as Mathias became Professor and Head of Department of Music at the University of North Wales in Bangor from 1970-1988, amongst many important positions in the community including directorship of the North Wales Festival. He was born in Whitland in 1934 and studied at Aberystwyth University before heading to London’s Royal Academy of Music in the mid ‘50s. Here, he came into contact with the latest musical developments from continental Europe, but quickly decided that the avant-garde was not for him; ‘great meaningful simplicity is far more difficult to achieve than complexity. In our time we have had too much of the latter and too little of the former.’ These famous words, uttered not long before his too-early death in 1992, summed up his life-long attitude to his art; a vigorous, entirely unsentimental – and quite un-nationalistic – romanticism.

Mathias’ choral music in particular is much loved around the world but his piano concertos are generally agreed to be his best works, and the second, played here with loving attention to detail by soloist Llŷr Williams, marked the onset of his mature compositional development. Premièred at the 1961 Llandaff Festival, the spirit of Tippett is alive, if not consciously invoked, in each of the four contrasting movements. And yet the sound world is indubitably Mathias’ own, with a warm abundance of ideas and radiant, entirely unselfconscious scoring. Indeed, the most striking feature of this concerto is not so much its formal integrity nor the brilliance of its solo part – which are undoubted – but its sheer energy and generosity of spirit. Here, the BBC NOW rose to support Llŷr Williams in kind, albeit with the occasional untidy passage, supplying rhythmic verve, deep, sweeping strings and a rich sectional interplay. This is a superbly-written, substantial piece by any standards, and long deserving of entry into the concerto canon. Happily, this evening’s performance (with those untidy passages re-done) was recorded to form part of a forthcoming CD of Mathias’ music to be issued in November by the newly-launched Tŷ Cerdd records – only the second time the concerto has been committed to disc.

The second half of the concert offered further interesting works, if not of the concerto’s calibre. Barry-born Grace Williams (1906-1977) was not only a ‘Welsh composer’, but remains to this day oft-labelled a ‘woman composer’ – as distinct from simply being a ‘composer’. That both qualifiers might still be regarded as novel in some arenas is a situation long demanding of change, and Williams undoubtedly suffered as a woman in an almost exclusively male environment. She is the only composer of these four to have embarked on serious studies in Central Europe – in Vienna with Egon Wellesz after studies in London at the Royal College of Music in the 1930s alongside such luminaries as Britten (she turned down a request to become his assistant). Much of her music shows an equal urge towards intense Germanic romanticism and a perhaps more ‘Celtic’, but certainly highly personal and nature-inspired, sound world, towards which she increasingly turned after moving back to Barry in 1947.

Fairest of Stars (1973), a setting of words from Milton’s Paradise Lost for soprano and orchestra, is a poignant reminder of Williams’ regret that ‘when people see my … folk song arrangements and Fantasias … it is so easy for them to forget that I also write full scale serious works.’ Far from the fey suggestivity of the title, this piece is thickly Straussian in both texture and seriousness; too much so, I would argue, for the soloist on this occasion. Elin Manahan Thomas has a voice of striking beauty, and which can shine in other repertoire, but it is simply not weighty nor rich enough to carry this part. Here, the winner was the orchestra, who embraced with great vigour Williams’ sensuous, almost erotic palette of surging runs, harp glissandi and complex, full-bloodied strings.

Density and concision were twin features of the final work on this solid and absorbing programme, composed by a good friend of Williams’ and a fellow struggling freelance. The name Daniel Jones will be familiar to audiences not so much for his centenary in 2012, but for another of his close friendships; that with Dylan Thomas, whose own centenary has become all but inescapable this year. Fewer might be aware that Jones is one of the most inventive and prolific symphonists Wales has yet produced, with an intriguing, unique style pitched somewhere between romanticism and modernism; a sometimes uncomfortable marriage in Jones’ case, which may well have contributed to his having fallen between the cultural cracks.

Born in Pembroke, Jones’ family moved to Swansea, from where he left for the Royal Academy of Music and thence, after travelling in Europe, to study with Patrassi in Rome. After the war – spent at Bletchley Park as a code-breaker – he resettled in Swansea, eventually producing thirteen symphonies amongst other, considerable pieces (including eight string quartets) before his death in 1993. The Symphony No. 10 heard here dates from 1980 and is a somber work punctuated by tolling bells, with tense, dissonant writing which utilises the composer’s trademark ‘complex metres’. Harmonically too, Jones had a method, if not a system per se; each of his first twelve symphonies is based on one of the twelve notes of the chromatic scale. This 10th revolves around C sharp.

Judging by the BBC NOW’s scrappy ensemble in places, it is not just obtuse music, but also difficult to play (or at least, demanding of serious rehearsal time); though as much down to the composer as the performers, Llewellyn and orchestra struggled to find an overall direction, whilst the second movement 3 + 3 + 2 rhythm, for example, sounded more like 3 + 3 + 2 and-a-half. Clearly, Jones is a composer not to be underestimated, and I look forward to hearing a performance of this symphony which makes clearer whether or not his design of constantly thwarted striving can be made to work in practice. Highlights of the BBC NOW rendition here were Robert Plane’s brief clarinet solo in the third movement and moments of genuine ambiguity, rather than confusion, which surfaced through the seething mass of argument and counter-argument.

Investigating more of Jones the symphonist would certainly be worthwhile. Indeed, a forthcoming festival ‘My Friend Dylan Thomas’ organised by the Bangor University School of Music in association with Pontio (October 25-30, part of DT100) has not only been named for Jones’ memoir of the poet, but will feature a BBC NOW performance of his Symphony No. 4, dedicated to Thomas’s memory. Not only that, but the festival will feature new works by living Welsh and/or Wales-based composers John Rea, Guto Pryderi Puw and Andrew Lewis. Hopefully – and especially now that Tŷ Cerdd is getting the bit between its teeth – this and other events offer the prospect of the BBC NOW and further ensembles throughout the land taking up the cause of Welsh music with renewed vigour  – and not just in celebration of poets (however iconic), or in niche concerts, but on its own merits and as part of general repertoire.