Archive for the 'Reviews' Category

Rising by sin

KSC-M4M-2014

On Friday, I was privileged to see a final dress rehearsal of King’s Shakespeare Company’s production of Measure for Measure.  Performed as a cabaret, the production is set in Weimar Germany, and the songs make this a production to remember.  They are fast, witty, tuneful and memorable expressions of the interior lives of the main characters, and they add a depth of meaning to a play which is otherwise confusing.  It is impressive how much intellectual heft and coherence the cabaret setting gives to the play.

The production is directed by Lauren O’Hara, with music by Henry Keynes Carpenter, and the cast includes:  Rhia Abbott, Henry Keynes Carpenter, Hannah Elsy, Freddie Fullerton, Serena Grasso, William Holyhead, and Rupert Sadler.   The production is only on for five nights, tomorrow Monday 21 July to Friday 25 July 2014, at the Bierkeller in Bristol. Go see it if you are anywhere nearby.

M4M-KSC-2014-Castandcrew

Lucy Corley has a review  here.




Earth moving in Folkestone

SSQ Festival 2014

Two life-changing concerts this weekend, both including Finnish violin virtuoso, Pekka Kuusisto, and both in Folkestone as part of the annual Sacconi Quartet’s Chamber Music Festival.  The first was a  concert in St. Mary and St. Eanswythe’s Church that included the Sacconi Quartet and the Chamber Orchestra of the Royal College of Music. With PK, they performed Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, and knowing they would was the main reason for my attendance.  PK’s recording of Vivaldi is the most exciting and thrilling I know.  But this live performance was on another plane entirely.  Usually The Seasons are twee and effete and smugly complacent.  PK’s recording is not that, but rather raw and rustic.  (See my comments here.) The live performance, in contrast, was sharp and edgy, thrilling and exciting too but in a different way entirely to the recording.  If Vivaldi is usually suburban Barnet gemütlichkeit, then the recording is from the wild places of Cornwall or the Hebrides, and this performance was from the mean streets of Toxteth or Mile End.

PK’s playing as always was superb. He has an amazing ability to mimic the breathy tone of a flute, producing a sound sublime, something I have heard him do before in very different work.  Yet, at other times it was if he construed the violin as a percussion instrument, not hitting it with his hand but striking the strings in a multitude of carefully-calibrated ways with the bow.  Later, in the pub after the second concert, he agreed that this notion of the percussive violin described his intention.  Violinists often see the instrument as a sort of uncanny extension of themselves, and here was an extension that was brash, direct, and forceful – someone who is here to live out loud, in Zola’s great phrase.  How different to the twee Vivaldi of most other performances I have seen.

In addition, PK treated the work as a modern work, interpreting it afresh – moving around the stage, for example, to confront directly the other players in the various duets and rounds, having face-offs at various times, and interacting physically and with immediacy in accord with the temper of each phase of the music.  The other performers responded in kind to his enthusiasm.  The acoustics in the church were excellent, so that everything could be heard well.  This was certainly the best musical experience of my life, and I feel immensely privileged to have witnessed it.

The second concert followed straight afterwards, in the primary school across the street.  We were party to a violin and electronics meditation on Bach’s Partita in D minor, by PK and Teemu Korpipaa.  The movements of the Bach were played without modification by solo violin, and interleaved with duo improvisations on what we had just heard.  This was also sublime, and had the effect of elongating and deepening the emotions invoked by the Bach, an annotation that added to the original.  It was clear the two had worked together before, and so the annotations were profound and heartfelt.




Badly suppressed laughter

Trojan Barbie

When a group of people jointly undergo an intensely searing experience, especially one where they face a mortal enemy or opponent, a bond is created between the participants that outsiders can find hard to penetrate or even to understand.    Soldiers in battle, for example, often experience this, as good novels and films have long shown.

Last night, the audience at a King’s Players’ production in London had such an experience, and we will remember for the rest of our lives the courage and fortitude, resilience and – yes, dammit! – just plain, old-fashioned grit we all showed in the face of great odds.  Nobody left, nobody laughed out loud, nobody became an alcoholic, nobody set off the fire alarm to bring this cruel and unusual torment to an end.    During the quiet patches, those long dark nights of the soul, our focus on survival was so intense that the only sound you could hear was the swiveling of eyes.

Our first enemy was the play itself, Trojan Barbie, by Christine Evans.   What an appalling piece of radfem agitprop!  The writing is surely a parody of feminism, not intended to be serious, written as if by a teenager discovering poetry for the first time.  The male characters are all evil rapists and thugs, and the women are either harlots or mad.     Even the everywoman character Lotte is dotty.  Not a single character appears real or embodied, a normal human being.   No one grapples with the actual moral dilemmas of war, no one weighs pros and cons of different courses of action, not even in dialogue with one another.    What plot there is is too ridiculous to be described, but involves unexplained time travel between ancient Troy and the present-day, with scenes set in doll repair shops, Mediterranean street cafes, refugee camps, battlefields, and the odd zoo.    You couldn’t make it up if you tried.

Our second enemy, colluding with the first,  were the cast and crew.  Given the flaws of the script, one can only sympathize with actors having to make something of this.   But why would anyone even try?    Life is too short to waste it on such dross.    And if, for some reason, you had to try, why not do it well?   Why act badly?   Why run around like a horse?  Why impersonate Che Guevara and Zsa Zsa Gabor?  Honestly, the only person missing from the production was Carmen Miranda with her hat made of fruit – although, there was in fact a samba.  What was that doing there?

And the set!   It included the world’s largest collection of Barbie Dolls, a massive pink cellophone heart,  and the odd tiger.   What normal person could possibly imagine that a large stuffed animal, a children’s toy, would convince us we are in a zoo?  At first I thought it was intended as a visual metaphor for something else, something profound, perhaps a subtle reference to well-known war poet William Blake.  (“Tyger! Tyger! Burning bright, In the forests of the Night.”)   But No:  the stuffed tiger behind a cage on stage was intended to be what is was:  a tiger in a zoo.  It roared through the sound-system, and it magically moved between scenes, sometimes lolling this way, and sometimes that.  I have to say its acting was perhaps the most realistic of the evening, and I’m sure the tiger’s agent will be fielding many calls this morning.

No one would be converted to the merits of feminism by seeing this play, and lots of people would be deconverted.   But that’s the usual way with agitprop:  if you preach only to the choir, you lose the rest of the congregation.  But of course, as with all agitprop, the preaching is not aimed at converting anyone, it’s aimed at making the preachers feel good about themselves.  Shame about the poor audience, but.

However, we did make it through, we survived to the end without a single casualty.  True, we lost two hours of our life that will never be regained.  But we saw what we were all capable of under extreme pressure, we showed grace under fire, and we stood by each other right to the end.  Being under fire together has made us life-long comrades, and at the annual reunions we survivors will no doubt tell and retell our stories of the time we fought Trojan Barbie, like the Band of Brothers that we now are.

Message to Homer:  Your position as Trojan War historian is safe. No need to call your office.

 

PS (2014-04-06):  Another review is here. “The stuffed animal representing the tiger was a bit unnecessary”




Police report: “Romeo and Juliet” scam

Police report of “Romeo and Juliet” Confidence Scam:

Location of crime:  Upstairs Foyer, Greenwood Theatre, Guy’s Campus, King’s College London.

Date of crime:  Evenings of 5th, 6th, 7th February 2014.  The crime may also have been “rehearsed” before these dates on unwitting spectators.

Financial sponsors:  A group calling itself King’s College London English Literary Society.

Nature of crime:  Deconstruction of playwright’s text without single reference to post-colonial or feminist perspectives.   Co-conspirator “The Friar” tore out pages of “Romeo and Juliet” text to manifest true nature of crime.

Key victims:  William Shakespeare, women.

Perpetrator:  Unknown.   Calls himself “The Director”.   Identity: Elusive.  Real identity unknown.  May use pseudonyms: W. Nash, Rookie Monster, DPR, Edward Snowden.

Known Co-conspirators:  Marcus “The Friar” Bazley, Hillary “The Counsellor” Chua, Laura “Juliet” Deering, Jackie “Lady Capulet” Edwards, Matthew “Romeo” Hodson.  Others involved in supporting the scam thought to be:  Catherine Walters, Elena Gillies, Emma Lawrence, Aja Garrod, Aggi Cantril, Sophie Omar, and Kate Gardener.  Notes found at crime scene indicate others may also have assisted, almost certainly without realizing the consequences.

Modus Operandi:  Perp takes out-of-copyright play text, reducing number of characters, even using unwitting mark in audience to play role in deception.  Play cut down and cut up, and done as crime scene investigation, with scenes “reconstructed” by “actors”.  Legal counsel present to narrate events and give illusion of objectivity.

Perp uses intelligence and wit to produce amusing, clever, and sophisticated version of play, which is used as a “script” that is then executed (“performed”) by co-conspirators in front of marks.   Performance of script of professional standard, and very realistic.  Thus, marks easily deceived and soon suspend disbelief.    Only one of the known co-conspirators is believed to actually make his living in theatre.  Remaining co-conspirators possibly being groomed.

Co-conspirators take on “roles” to execute script.  Thus, “The Friar” is a Cockney ex-junkie offering life advice to the other conspirators, along with marriage ceremonies and store-and-forward messaging services;   “Romeo” is a lovestruck young man, writing dreamily in his Moleskine; “Lady Capulet” is a tyrant of the household, a dictator of the local.    The different “roles” cleverly interleave, and jointly enable confidence scam.  Indeed, witnesses report that the acting was so intense that it approached the threshold of caricature, but without ever crossing  that threshold,  making the performances thrilling to watch.  Co-conspirators all appear to be under direct influence of Perp.

Co-conspirators use a variety of names, including real names, to confuse audience about when co-conspirators are “acting” in their “roles”, and when not.   Humour and wit used to distract attention of audience from reconstruction of double suicide, following madness of young love, set amongst inter-gang warfare in urban Italy.

Toying with nature of “acting” indicates this is crime of real sophistication by people with extensive experience in deception and illusion.   Perp and co-conspirators may have worked in Elizabethan theatre before.  Crime shows many hallmarks of two known literary deceivers and wits with Elizabethan previous, Thomas Nashe and Kit Marlowe.  Neither likely involved:  Nashe believed deceased, Marlowe either deceased (Deptford Regional Office view) or living in exile in Italy.

Production involves post-coitus scene, drugs, violence, suicide, and death.  No rock and roll, but.   One person injured by vicious slap.   Music deployed very effectively to “set the scene” and relax audience in preparation for confidence scam, and at various times during the operation to manipulate emotions of marks.

Use of Barber’s Adagio for Strings obviously intended as subtle allusion to FDR’s funeral and Oliver Stone’s film about Vietnam.  This double allusion should allay concerns of English Department about absence of references to post-colonial oppression and the wickedness of US global hegemony, as well as providing a warm glow of self-satisfaction to the one person who caught the allusions.

Related scams:  West Side Story, High School Musical.

Known beneficiaries of scam:

  1. Perp and co-conspirators
  2. KCL English Literary Society
  3. Greenwood Theatre
  4. King’s College London
  5. The Horseshoe Inn, Melior Street, London
  6. The London theatre world
  7. The audience.

Progress of investigation:  Police seeking the 132 witnesses to garner further information.

Public warning:  These people are armed with professional acting skills and very dangerous.   Perp may be serial dramaturge, intent on career in intelligent theatre or deception.  Co-conspirators capable of superb acting at the highest level.

Deptford Regional Office reports rumour that next confidence scam may take place in Copenhagen.

Conspirators also believed to hold raucous after-play parties to celebrate success of scam, involving alcohol, tobacco, witty conversation, and profound arguments about the existence of God and the nature of relationships.  Kit Marlowe would feel at home.  US State Department Advisory:  Americans visiting London particularly at risk.

Note:  Potential side-effects of scam include reviews written as police-reports, pretentiously imitating style of the production itself.




Who’s afraid of Hamlet?

The best stage production of Hamlet I have seen so far was that of Calixto Bieito, in a 2003 production for the Edinburgh Festival, which I caught in Birmingham in  September 2003.

This production set the play in a piano lounge, with chrome-and-black-leather furniture and the participants wearing modern dress.   Horatio (Karl Daymond) played the piano, and like it, was dressed entirely in white.  The music was chosen very well, with Bach before and after “To be or not to be”.   The other music was mostly jazz and the music expected of a piano lounge.   At the moment when Hamlet got Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern to confess they were working for Claudius, Hamlet pointed to Horatio at the piano, who played the theme from Dragnet (Da-ta-da-daaaa).  The music seemed to intensify the emotions of the play, and the modern dress and setting led this to seem like a Eugene O’Neill psychodrama.

Prior to seeing this version, I’d only ever considered two broad interpretations of Hamlet – the personal (Should I avenge my father’s murder?) and the political (Can I kill the King?).   This production emphasized, in between the personal and the political, the family dimensions – hence the feeling that O’Neill had written and directed it.   Adding to this feeling was the acting-out of some of the accusations made – eg, of Polonius killing his daughter (which revulsed her), and of Hamlet raping Ophelia.

The family setting was further emphasized by the absence of any attendant servants, lords or ladies, and the absence of regal attire.   The single lounge room set, with a grand piano and a drinks cabinet, also added to the cosy, biedermeier feeling.   Here, there were scenes of Claudius and Gertrude playing sexy games together in their pajamas.  As in any 20th century American drama, drinks played a large part in action:    “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”, with soliloquies.

A very nice touch was Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern arriving dressed as the Blues Brothers – dark suits, sunglasses, and briefcases.   Overall, this was a superb production.  The theatre, the Birmingham Repertory Theatre,  was about 25% full, with perhaps 400 people present.

Another modern interpretation of Hamlet, as a German comedy, was reviewed here.




Brass in Tyalgum

The Brass Band of the Queensland Conservatorium of Music is the only English-style brass band in an Australian tertiary music college, which says something about the impoverished musical taste of those who run Australian music education institutions.   Because the brass are mostly little-used in orchestral music (relative to, say, the strings, who play all the time), orchestral brass players usually also play in other brand ensembles and bands, both for the practice and to build their stamina.   So a distaste for brass band music is usually not something shared by orchestral brass players.  And a good thing too, given the high calibre of the best brass bands.

With about 100 other people, I caught the QCM Brass Band last weekend, performing as part of the 21st Tyalgum Festival of Classical Music.    The band was led by Peter Luff and Greg Aitken, both of the QCM.  The festival began in this small and isolated mountain village after some performers had experienced the very good acoustics of the Tyalgum Literary Institute Hall, the main public hall in the town.   The acoustics of the Hall are indeed excellent, although surely not of a design praised in modern architecture schools.   The Hall, built in 1908, is a single rectangle, with side walls made of wooden planks, having many windows and doors.  On one side is an enclosed verandah, open to the main room.  The roof has a single pitch and is made of corrugated iron, and there is no ceiling – the iron reflects sound well, and the undulations would send it in all directions.  Mostly, the band sat on the floor at the front beneath the stage, with only the percussion on the small stage, yet the sound in the middle of the room was clear, very full and very loud.  The reverberation was noticeable but not overly long.    Apart from rust (and thus the need for regular replacement), the only downside of corrugated iron roofs is that nothing else can be heard when it is raining.

Tyalgum lies under the calming shadow of Mount Warning, a mountain named by James Cook in 1770, and which is the first place on the Australian land-mass to see the sun each morning.   We could see the close-by mountain from inside the hall.  So it was fitting, then, that the walls were decorated with several paintings of the mountain.  Oddly, though, all these images showed the mountain from the usual eastern vantage point, yet the village itself is on the western side.   So what you saw on the walls did not match what you saw through the windows.  (For that matter, the same wrong view of the mountain is on the Festival poster and web-page.)

The Band made very good use of the space.  A fanfare by Ann Carr-Boyd was played before the concert from the upstairs front windows to people in the street.  This fanfare was repeated inside at the start of the concert, with the composer present in the audience.   Later, a piece by Gabrieli for three brass choirs was played with the choirs arranged around the hall:  At the front, 5 players in SAT (Soprano, Alto, Tenor) instrumental combination, at the side under the enclosed verandah (ATB) and in the first-floor balcony at the back (SAT).  This was superb use of space for surround sound, and stunning playing.

There were some moments to treasure.   The open side doors allowed a sudden breeze to blow away the music of the tenor trombone during the Vivaldi.    As with any music from this period, intonation was difficult, particularly for the horn player, and at times for the two solo piccolo trumpets.   With lots of fast-moving duo passages (the horn with one or other trombone) – very typical of Vivaldi – creating havoc for the three performers accompanying the soloists, it is perhaps not surprising that one trumpet soloist had a look of absolute astonishment on his face when the players ended the third movement together.

The pieces for the full ensemble were all well played, although perhaps more attention was needed to choreography of the percussionists.   Some of the 5 people who were at one time or another on stage in the percussion section appeared unfamiliar with that part of the band.

The complete program was:

  • Ann Carr-Boyd:  Britannia Fanfare
  • Aaron Copland:  Fanfare for the Common Man
  • Antonio Vivaldi:  Double Trumpet Concerto (arranged for 2 piccolo trumpets, french horn, tenor and bass trombone)
  • Leonard Bernstein:  Excerpts from West Side Story
  • Giovanni Gabrieli:  Canzon Septimi Octavi Toni for 3 brass choirs
  • Henry Purcell:  The Fairy Queen
  • Philip Sparke:  Music of the Spheres.

Some of the same players were seen here.




Moscow Soloists in London

This past week I attended a concert in the Cadogan Hall by the Moscow Soloists String Chamber Ensemble, led by violist Yuri Bashmet.  The concert seems to have attracted many in London’s large Russian-speaking community, and there were idling limousines outside the Hall.

Although technically the playing was very proficient, the concert and the performance left me disappointed.  First, everyone on stage was dressed entirely in black, even the soloists.   Was this a convention of undertakers, I wondered?  Second, almost nobody smiled, again not even many of the soloists.   Why so glum?  Third, a grand Steinway was used for the first concerto, and then remained stuck there on stage, like some silent, brooding animal.   All the movements of furniture between pieces was done by several of the ensemble members, rather than by the Hall staff, and it is true that the piano was moved a few inches.  But not out of the way, nor offstage.   It therefore blocked the sound (and the view) of the ensemble, and meant that the sound we in the audience heard was not projected uniformly to us.   Where I was sitting on the right-hand side of the hall I heard the two cellos and the lone double bass well, but not the violins, who were hidden by the piano.    I regard this failure to move the piano out of the way as unprofessional, although who was to blame for it is not clear.  Surely, the Hall staff should have moved it aside.

And the glumness!  The first item played was Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in D minor (BWV 1052) with soloist Ksenia Bashmet.  Her playing was technically excellent, although not from memory.   But the music was played with such po-faced seriousness, and without any apparent emotion.   This concerto is one of the great humorous compositions of all time, perhaps the greatest before Shostakovich’s Piano and Trumpet Concerto.  A few minutes with the score would tell you the composer was having fun as he wrote it, since it is filled with adornments and flourishes, completely unnecessary and joyful in the extreme, which feel exactly right under the fingers.   This music was written by someone who really liked playing a keyboard.   Moreover, the first movement has a rondo form, with the first theme returning and returning and returning, as if without end.   There is even a solo cadenza, which would traditionally be placed near the end of the movement, which here comes in the middle;  so even after we hear the cadenza, the movement still does not end.   This is Bach having fun.   But where was the fun or the joy from these performers?   Perhaps the fact that Ms Bashmet was not playing the music from memory meant she had had not yet internalized the score sufficiently to allow herself to have free reign with its interpretation.  This performance was not a patch on the last time I heard this concerto played – by Joanna MacGregor in Cottonopolis, a few years ago, whose physical joy at the music was evident from from the get-go.

Similarly, for Mendelssohn’s D Minor Violin Concerto, played by Alena Baeva.   Again the playing here was technically excellent, although also not from memory.   However, only in the third movement did we hear some emotion – at last, some passion and joy from the soloist in what is a very joyful movement.   The earlier movements were played, in contrast, without great passion, although very well.

The two middle soloists in the first half, Dinara Alieva (soprano) and Alexander Buzlov (cello), did smile at us after their performances, but their chosen music was less intellectually enriching.  Buzlov played a theme and variations by Rossini, something the audience seemed to like more than anything else they heard, but which I found superficial in comparison with the Bach or Mendelssohn.  I did  not stay for the second half, the concert already running too long.

Overall, I believe these performers were technically very proficient as musical performers, but not superb as communicators of musical ideas;  sadly, they did not achieve their potential on this occasion, and seemed to lack any group spark or chemistry.  Perhaps this was due to the presence of the brooding piano, obstructing complete interaction with the audience, or perhaps there were other reasons.  Oddly, the ensemble did not tune up on stage at the start of the concert:  I wonder if this explained the lack of social chemistry evident.

References:

Here is a review of the concert by Hugo Shirley of The Telegraph, who likewise noticed an absence of passion.

The photo shows the Christmas Lights in Sloane Square, near to Cadogan Hall.  Photographer:  Javier Lopez Pena (a member of the Matherati).




Ein Deutsche Hamlet

Earlier this month, I caught Schaubuhne Berlin’s Hamlet at the Barbican London.  What an amazing ride!  This was Hamlet as a comedy – contemporary, knowing, witty, and alive.   I imagine the experience is the closest we could come to a modern version of the experience that Shakespeare’s own audience would have had.  The play was presented in German (mostly), with English surtitles.

The performance began with the words from Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy, ending with “and perchance to dream”.  Was all that followed, then, a dream?   We were confronted with grainy, silent black and white images of people in dark formal dress, like newsreels of pre-war Eastern Europeans.  Again, was this a deliberate allusion, perhaps a reminder of the last time we all were happy innocents prior to a great crime.   Only after some time did we realize that the film we were seeing was not some collection of past newsreels, but live shots of the actors at the back of the stage, taken by young Hamlet wielding a hand-held video camera.

The first scene of the play then was the burial of old Hamlet, with lots of theatrical dirt and hose-pipe rain.    The dirt and often the rain were present throughout the performance, like some muck that stuck to everyone regardless of how often they cleaned it off.  The funeral degenerated into farce, and then the real fun began: the wedding of Claudius and Gertrude was presented as a typical Balkan wedding, with kitschy music, belly dancing, drunken announcers, and even  -  a very funny touch of realism here – someone firing off a machine gun.  We learn this was Laertes!

Much of the humour, in the German theatrical tradition perhaps, was slapstick and not to my taste.  Why did Hamlet have to wear a fatsuit, for example?   Some of the humour, however, was witty and clever.  Three times the actors turned to the audience, the house lights going up, and we then became part of the action.  The best of these times was during the late soliloquy of Claudius (Act 3, scene 3) – when he seems to confess:  “O my offence is rank, it smells to Heaven.”  Claudius played this scene as an episode of a Jerry Springer show, coming down as the compere into the audience to ask our opinions of the offence.

Several times, too, the actors pretended to lose their place or forget their words (in German), so looked up to the English surtitles to see what they should be saying next.  Similarly, great fun was had when the court was informed that Hamlet intended to stage a play.  Well, Claudius was informed, not so much a play as a theatre-piece (“theaterstuck”); Claudius repeated this word with all the disdain one can imagine a man of his age and class having for avant-garde theatre.  This was very funny.   Even the final death scene, although mostly serious, was played for laughs, with all us knowing that it was an act and not for real.

Because the cast was small (six actors), there was much doubling.   A different coloured wig transformed Gertrude to Ophelia, and the transformation of the actress, Judith Rosmair, from a middle-aged, Jacqueline Kennedy-lookalike  to teenage girl was immensely convincing.  Her voice, her words, her stance, her mannerisms, her movements – all changed, and instantly.  And how clever to allude to Mrs Kennedy-Onassis when portraying Gertrude!  Hamlet was played by Lars Eidinger.

This was “Hamlet” done brilliantly, original and thought-provoking.   And immensely funny.   Superb!

Any earlier review of the Berlin production is here.  And a Liverpudlian blog devoted to Hamlet is here.




Balmain boys don’t cry

One of my great-great-great-grandfathers, William Graham Peverley (1811 – 1893), established a ship-building business in East Balmain, Sydney, in 1853 or 1854.    The location was east of St Mary’s Street and south of Pearsons Wharf,  an area which is nowadays a harbourside park, Illoura Reserve.  The suburb of Balmain had been named for Dr William Balmain (1762-1803), a surgeon with the First Fleet, and later Principal Surgeon in the colony of New South Wales, who was first granted land on the peninsula.   They have always bred them tough there - the saying is: Balmain boys don’t cry.  Among the residents have been two Premiers of NSW, Sir Henry Parkes and Neville Wran, neither someone to mess with, and the State MLA for Balmain in recent times was the very tough Dawn Fraser, Olympic swimmer and publican, elected as an Independent.

It therefore felt like a chance meeting of a long-disappeared friend to enter the Church of St Giles-in-the-Fields in London’s West End this week, and discover it had been Dr Balmain’s home church upon his return to Britain in 1802.   At the back of the church is a plaque erected by The Balmain Association.   The church was the venue for a performance of Handel’s Messiah, by Solistes de Musique Ancienne and Siglo de Oro, under the direction of  the latter’s founder, Patrick Allies.   This was the second time I have  seen SMA perform, having heard their superb Sloane Square concert earlier in the year.   This time they had an audience of about 50 people, perhaps one quarter of the church’s capacity.

Despite the empty seats, the acoustics of this church were much better than that of Holy Trinity Sloane Square, and the performance was just superb.    St. Giles has two long parallel first-floor balconies, each about 1/4 of the width of the building, running the length of the church, and these two overhangs, together with their supporting columns and multiply-surfaced stone decorations, created strong reverberation, with a medium-duration delay.  The result was to make the choir and orchestra sound at least 5 times their size, filling the space with sound.   Even sitting at the back of the church, the sound was both warm and clear, something rare in churches, whose acoustics usually make concert performances sound either fuzzy or cold.   As with their previous concert, SMA made use of the space, having two of the trumpeters in Part I play from the left balcony.

This was one of the greatest Messiahs I have ever heard.  All the vocal soloists were excellent, and projected well.  Similarly, we could hear well the instrumental soloists (which was not the case in the earlier SMA concert).   Unfortunately, the program notes did not list the names of the soloists specifically; I was only able to infer the name of one vocal soloist, William Morrison, who’s aria in Part I was extremely clear and very moving.  Joel Newsome’s trumpet solo, on an instrument with cylindrical valves, on “The trumpet shall sound” in Part III, was also very powerful.    I left the church uplifted and  inspired.

I had not known before reading the program notes that Handel’s librettist for The Messiah, Charles Jennens (1700-1773), was a supporter of the Stuarts, and that his words for the oratorio – people in darkness awaiting a redeemer who returns in triumph and glory, etc – could be taken as political commentary on the Hanoverians, even as late as this (1741).

A very different experience last night, in another London church, St. Sepulchre-without-Newgate.  This was a performance of (excerpts from) Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and his Mass in B Minor, by the Medici Choir and the Brandenburg Baroque Soloists.  The church this time was overflowing, with perhaps 250 people seated and more standing at the back.    The acoustics of this church with its much higher ceiling and absence of balconies was very different to that of St. Giles.  The performers were not raised above the audience, and their sound disappeared upwards; it seemed not to come back to us.   Sitting behind a column meant I head some sounds with clarity — those of the choristers I could see — while  other singers and the orchestra were fuzzy.   For the most part, the soloists sang without projecting their voices.  At first, I thought this was due to the acoustics, but on occasion the soloists did project, and the difference was noticeable.   Why would a professional opera singer, as these soloists were, not project, I wonder?  Why not seek to fill the space one is performing in?  The lady who sang “Schlafe, mein Liebster” in the Oratorio, was particularly disappointing, filling powerfully the ears of the lucky people in the first row, it seemed, and no one else.   Those of us at the back of the church could barely hear her.   Was this due to some silly authentic-performance notion or a Lutheran disdain for aural spectacle, perhaps?

I suspect some silly notion at play.   Bach’s music in the Mass was “improved” by the addition of a new section composed by director John Baird for this concert.  One has to admire the self-confidence of someone willing to try to complete what Bach did not himself finish.  However, the real absurdity for me, and evidence of a lack of musical seriousness, was to end the concert with the congregational singing of Christmas carols:  rather than leaving with the sound of Bach in one’s ears, instead it would be, “We wish you a merry Christmas”.  It was important for me that my ears and mind be not so corrupted, so I left before the end.   What a contrast in integrity of musical purpose between these two concerts!  And how great again were the Solistes de Musique Ancienne and Siglo de Oro.




Mendelssohn in Wigmore Street

At Wigmore Hall last night was a thrilling performance by the Scottish Ensemble, a string orchestra, together with Scottish pianist Alasdair Beatson. The program comprised works by Stravinsky and by Mendelssohn.  Both the Stravinsky pieces were  rhythmically complex, but hard to parse otherwise – melodic invention, as so often with this composer, was absent and large-scale musical form, if indeed any was present, was not discernible from a single hearing.   I have remarked before that music instantiates or executes a thought process, and some music involves thinking processes that are alien to me.  Most of Stravinsky’s late music is in this category, while that in his middle phase (in the so-called NeoClassical style), while not alien, is quite often banal.  Yet his early music speaks to me profoundly. Last night’s two pieces were clearly challenging to perform well, with the subtle rhythmic interactions and off-piste counting, despite their unpleasant listening.

What I lost there, however, was more than compensated by the Mendelssohn.  The first half saw the Ensemble play two of his Four Pieces for String Quartet, which really should be called “four pieces for String Quartet”, since the composer never grouped them together in this way.  The fugue of the first piece, furiously intense, gives the lie to the claim one still sometimes hears that Mendelssohn’s music lacks profundity or intensity.   The playing and cohesion here was superb, and as always with this fugue, spine-chilling.  It would be nice to hear this group play some of Mendelssohn’s 12 string symphonies, particularly the fugal movements of the later symphonies.

The real excitement last night came with Mendelssohn’s Concerto for Piano, Violin and Strings, in which Alasdair Beatson played piano and Jonathan Morton, solo violin.   Morton also joined in the ensemble parts when not soloing.  I know this piece very well, although I can recall only once hearing it in performance.  The placement of the performers was somewhat strange, with the high and middle  strings behind the piano (and hence behind the upraised lid), dulling their sound.

In any case, the performance was thrilling in the extreme.  Beatson captured the many, varied moods of the piano part – from church-like chorale harmonies, through rolling, lieder-style accompaniments for a cantabile violin, to a tempestuousness that made the instrument sound like an angry, rampaging animal.     You can tell how good Mendelssohn was as a pianist himself just by listening to this part, and also how much he enjoyed playing.   The first movement, particularly, has flourishes of pleasure and delight throughout.  Strange, then, was the positioning on stage of the two soloists, with the violinist standing behind the pianist.   The first movement has such witty interplay between the two performers – calls-and-responses, mimicry, quoting, and transforming, etc – that for each player not to be able to see the eyes of the other seems untenable.   I cannot imagine young Felix on piano and Eduard Rietz, his friend and violin teacher, for whom this music was written, not facing each other and smiling with each returned flourish.

Like the Australia Chamber Orchestra, most members of the Scottish Ensemble stand while performing.  As with the ACO,  this strikes me as an insidious type of ageism, and is entirely unnecessary.  Only young or very fit people can do this, and one wonders at what average age of ensemble members will the group regain their commonsense.    Also, for the historical record, Beatson’s pages were turned by one of the hall staff:  even the stage-hands at the Wigmore can read music, apparently.

Program:

Stravinsky:  Concerto in D

Mendelssohn:  Capriccio and Fugue from opus 81 (arranged Morton)

Stravinsky:  Concertino (arranged Morton)

Mendelssohn:  Concerto for Piano, Violin and Strings in D minor.

A review of another concert in the same tour, in Dundee, is here.

This concert is listed in my concatenation of live music events.