Archive for Brighton Festival

Laurie Anderson – All the Animals

Posted in Art, Music with tags , , on May 25, 2015 by telescoper

Taking a short break from the combination of marking examinations and listening to cricket which has been my Bank Holiday Monday so far, so I thought I’d post a brief report on the show I went to last night, which happened to be the last night of this year’s Brighton Festival.

All the Animals was a show put together especially for this year’s Brighton Festival by renowned performance artist Laurie Anderson. She is most famous (at least in the UK) for the amazing record O Superman which was a smash hit in 1981; I posted about that on this blog here. A large number of last night’s audience members were clearly devout Laurie Anderson fans but I’ve never seen one of her live shows so wasn’t sure what to expect.

It turned out to be very much a one-woman show, with Laurie Anderson alone on stage. The show consisted of her telling stories about various animals, including her own pet terrier, Lula Belle, who is now sadly deceased. In between the stories there were musical interludes, with herself performing on an electric violin with various digital effects thrown in, and sometimes she accompanied herself as she performed the stories. The show was shot through with a wry humour and Laurie Anderson herself came across as a very engaging personality.

I had been told that her performances were often dazzling multimedia events, but this turned out not to be like that at all. The big screen at the back of the stage was only used a couple of times, once to show excerpts from a list of extinct animal species and once to show a couple of Youtube clips of Lula Belle. There were no dramatic lighting or other effects either. It was all very low key really. Far from the multimedia extravaganza I had anticipated.

There was enthusiastic applause at the end of the show, but to be honest I felt a little disappointed. Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed the show, and still think Laurie Anderson is a really interesting artist but I suppose I just built up in myself an expectation of something with a more exciting visual element.

So that’s the end of this year’s Brighton Festival. Still, yesterday I posted the following tweet:

I guess all three predictions proved false. England didn’t lose on Sunday and indeed are very much favourites to win the Test match as I write this. Newcastle United won their game against West Ham and avoided relegation to the Championship. And Laurie Anderson, though definitely interesting, didn’t quite qualify as “fabulous”…

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The Diary of One who Disappeared

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , on May 22, 2015 by telescoper

At the end of a very busy day before I go home and vegetate, I only just have time for a quick post about the concert I attended last night in St George’s Church, Kemptown. It was a convenient venue for me as it is just at the end of my street; my polling station for the recent elections was there too.

Anyway, the title of the concert is taken from the song cycle of the same name composed by Leoš Janáček. It’s a sequence of 21 poems about a young man who falls for seductive gypsy girl and ends up running away from home to be with her, and care for the baby son she turns out at the end of the cycle to have born. There’s also a very tempestuous piano interlude, labelled Intermezzo Erotico in the programme, which (presumably) depicts the circumstances in which the baby was conceived. This work was performed by mezzo-soprano Anna Huntley and tenor Robert Murray accompanied by James Baillieu at the piano (who also played the piano at the recital I attended last week). Three female voices also took part in a few of these songs; they were hidden away in the gallery so it was quite a surprise when they joined in.

Despite being a big fan of Janáček I’ve never heard this music before, and I found it absolutely wonderful. It involves many abrupt and unexpected changes of mood, with soome simple folk-like melodies juxtaposed with much more disturbed and fragmented musical language. At the end, when the young man reveals that he has a son, the tenor reaches up for two stunning top Cs which took me completely by surprise and sent cold shivers down my spine. I must get a recording of this work. As soon as it had finished I wanted to listen to it all over again.

The Diary of One who Disappeared formed the second half of the concert. The first was also very varied and interesting. We began with he two principal singers taking turns at performing a selection of six from a well-known set of 49 Deutsche Volkslieder by Johannes Brahms. Then Robert Murray – who looks somewhat disconcertingly like Shane Warne – performed the Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo by Benjamin Britten (his Opus 22). These were the first pieces Britten composed specifically for the voice of his partner Peter Pears and were written way back in 1940. They’re all poems about love in its various forms and I think they’re wonderful, especially Sonnet XXX:

Veggio co’ bei vostri occhi un dolce lume,
Che co’ miei ciechi già veder non posso;
Porto co’ vostri piedi un pondo addosso,
Che de’ mie zoppi non è già costume.
Volo con le vostr’ale senza piume;
Col vostr’ingegno al ciel sempre son mosso;
Dal vostr’arbitrio son pallido e rosso,
Freddo al sol, caldo alle più fredde brume.
Nel voler vostro è sol la voglia mia,
I mie’ pensier nel vostro cor si fanno,
Nel vostro fiato son le mie parole.
Come luna da sè sol par ch’io sia;
Chè gli occhi nostri in ciel veder non sanno
Se non quel tanto che n’accende il sole.

It’s a fine poem in itself but Britten’s setting of it is both beautiful and imaginative. I’m guessing that it’s extremely difficult to sing because the vocal line is very complex and has some very challenging intervals. You can almost imagine it being part of a bel canto opera…

The first half of the concert closed with the Seven Gypsy Songs (Opus 55) by
Antonín Dvořák, by far the most famous of which is Songs My Mother Taught Me.

It was a very fine recital with some lovely music, beautifully sung. In fact the singing was so nice a blackbird outside the church decided to join in during the first half. It was a nicely balanced programme tied together by two recurrent themes: Gypsies and love (and sometimes both at the same time). TheI particularly enjoyed the blend of familiar and unfamiliar. For example, although I know the Sonnets by Britten I’ve only ever heard the classic Britten-Pears version so it was interesting to hear it performed by a very different singer.

Benjamin Appl and James Baillieu

Posted in History, Music, Poetry with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 16, 2015 by telescoper

Yesterday evening I crossed the border from Brighton into the Labour stronghold of Hove (actually), All Saints Church to be precise. The purpose of my mission was to attend a recital of songs by German baritone Benjamin Appl accompanied at the piano by James Baillieu. This was my fourth Brighton Festival event in as many days, but the shows I have attended have been very different so I have no regrets about booking this particular sequence.

This recital was performed in the nave of All Saints Church in a sideways configuration so the musicians were on one side rather than at the end towards the altar. I have never been to this venue before but it’s quite a regular one for musical events. I suppose they use this arrangement for the more intimate kind of music-making, such as the singing of Lieder, so the performers can be as close as possible to the audience.

The programme consisted of songs either from or inspired by Eastern Europe. The concert began with three fairly well known songs by Franz Liszt based on poems by Heinrich Heine but then continued with six Heine settings by Anton Rubinstein (his Op. 32) which I’d never heard before. These songs are direct and uncluttered and I found them rather charming. The first half closed with The Biblical Songs by Antonín Dvořák, his Opus 99. Based on extracts from the Book of Psalms these very touching works were written when the composer heard his father was gravely ill.

After a short interval and a quick glass of overpriced Pinot Grigio, we continued with Six Songs Op. 90 by Robert Schumann, who also provided the finale with his intensely moving Requiem which was written later but subsequently added to the Opus 90 collection. In between these works by Schumann we heard a selection of songs from Terezin (German name Theresienstadt) the site of a concentration camp. These pieces are much lighter than the art songs surrounding them in the programme, but are invested with a deep sense of tragedy by the circumstances in which they were composed and also performed. The song Wiegala, for example, is a lullabye written by Ilse Weber, a Jewish lady who worked for some time as a nurse in Terezin. She sang it for countless children destined for the gas chambers, and when the time came for her and her son to be murdered she sang it for him too as they walked together to their deaths.

As an aside here I thought I would plug a CD of music from Terezin I bought a while ago that features Anne Sofie von Otter singing some of the heartbreaking songs written by the inhabitants of Terezin. It’s highly recommended, though I have to admit I find it hard to listen to it without bursting into tears.

What struck me most about this recital is that the greatest Lieder are often very simple and often very brief. Some of the greatest songs by, for example, Schubert areas simple that only a genius could have written them
I think it’s the focus that gives each its power and the variety within each collection means there’s always something to hold the listener even in a long programme. Yesterday I complained about the limitations of a programme featuring only one voice, yet this one also featured only one voice but was an unqualified success. The difference, I think, is that these songs were meant to be performed the way we heard them last night…

I really enjoyed this concert. Benjamin Appl has a wonderful baritone voice, and very few vocal mannerisms or affectations. He just lets the music do its stuff. It was an amazingly mature performance for such a young man.I shouldn’t forget the flawless accompaniment provided by James Baillieu either.

Apparently Benjamin Appl was the last private pupil of the late Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. That provides me with an excuse to include this version of the song Morgen! (Tomorrow!) Opus 27(4) by Richard Strauss, which was performed last night as an upbeat encore to an evening of intensely emotional music.

Und morgen wird die Sonne wieder scheinen
und auf dem Wege, den ich gehen werde,
wird uns, die Glücklichen sie wieder einen
inmitten dieser sonnenatmenden Erde…
und zu dem Strand, dem weiten, wogenblauen,
werden wir still und langsam niedersteigen,
stumm werden wir uns in die Augen schauen,
und auf uns sinkt des Glückes stumme Schweigen..

The first line translates as “And tomorrow the Sun will shine again…” Here is Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing it:

 

Being Both

Posted in Music, Opera with tags , , , , on May 15, 2015 by telescoper

My third consecutive Brighton Festival event of the week was Being Both, which featured mezzo soprano Alice Coote along with the English Concert under the direction of Harry Bicket (at the dreaded harpsichord). The music for the evening was all provided by George Frideric Handel in the form of a wide selection of arias from his operas and oratorios. It wasn’t just a concert, though. Alice Coote acted as well as sang, and various props and visual references supplemented her performance. There were also few extras who spent most of the show painting a slogan on a screen behind the orchestra: “You who are more than one thing, You who exceed expectations”. I added the comma myself.

When Handel was writing operas it was pretty typical for the heroic male lead to be played by a castrato, so these parts were scored for rather high voices. It was only much later in the history of opera that these roles became associated with tenor voices. The register in which a castrato would naturally sing is somewhere around that of a female contralto or mezzo soprano or a male counter-tenor. Modern stagings of Handel’s operas therefore tend to cast the leading make character either as a counter-tenor (male), as a “trouser role” for a female singer, or simply as a female character with no attempt to disguise the singer’s gender. The latter option can be extremely interesting as it allows the production to cast an interesting light on the way gender influences our preconceptions about character. In Being Both we saw Alice Coote singing some roles that were intended to be sung by male artists and others by female artists; since it was the person singing and “being” both it successfully blurred the distinction between these roles as well as poking a bit of fun at the dated attitudes represented in the texts.

The best part of the performance was Alice Coote. She has a gorgeous voice and commanded the stage in superb style. As for the English Concert, I was alarmed by some truly awful horn playing in the opening number, but the brass section wasn’t used at all after that and the remainder of the orchestra (mainly strings) played pretty well. It’s the “semi-staging” that troubled me most. The use of props was unsubtle and gimmicky and the overall feel of the production rather pretentious. I found the slow painting of the slogan behind the orchestra a distraction both from Alice Coote’s performance and for the music. It seemed to me to be saying “if you’re not enjoying the show why not watch some paint dry as an alternative?”

Wonderful artist though Alice Coote is, I did find myself wishing for a bit more variety in the vocal parts. Handel’s operas involve an enormous range of contrasts in different combinations of different voices. Hearing a series of excerpts all performed in the same register by the same artist robs the works of the dramatic interplay that makes Handel’s operas and oratiorios so special. I suppose that just tells you that I find an proper Opera a much more interesting experience than a string of arias performed out of context.

The Beautiful Cosmos of Ivor Cutler

Posted in Music, Poetry with tags , , , , on May 14, 2015 by telescoper

Now fully in Brighton Festival mode, last night I went to the Theatre Royal for the first night (and indeed the English premiere) of The Beautiful Cosmos of Ivor Cutler, which continues until Saturday at the same venue. The show is a collaboration between Vanishing Point and the National Theatre of Scotland and continues at the Theatre Royal until Sunday (17th May).

If you don’t know who Ivor Cutler was, he was a Scottish poet and songwriter who gained a cult following through his many appearances on BBC Radio programmes, notably with John Peel. I was introduced to him by an undergraduate friend of mine, Richard Allen, himself a Scot, who loved Ivor Cutler’s poetry and had many cassette tapes of performances by the poet in which he either spoke the poems or sang them to a musical accompaniment, often a harmonium. I loved listening to Ivor Cutler’s voice on these recordings, which added an extra dimension of lugubriousness to the whimsical and at times downright bizarrely comic verses. Many of his poems are about the various bizarre ways in which people try (and usually fail) to communicate with each other. Some of these are joyously silly but they also, like the very best jokes,  convey quite profound things about the limitations of language. Here, for example, is Ivor Cutler’s inimitable hymn to the joy of Morse Code:

Little Black Buzzer is one of the pieces included in The Beautiful Cosmos of Ivor Cutler, but the show is far more than a collection of the poet’s work. It’s also an exploration and celebration of the life of one of the great eccentrics, from his impoverished childhood, through his period of critical and popular success, his long relationship with another poet, Phyllis King , and his old age in which he suffered from dementia, arthritis and Parkinson’s disease. Music and poetry, life and death, joy and sadness, comedy and tragedy are all woven together in a fitting tribute to a unique individual who lived an extraordinary life.

I don’t need to describe the production in detail because there’s a video trailer that gives a very accurate idea:

My verdict on The Beautiful Cosmos of Ivor Cutler is that it’s the best thing I’ve seen in a theatre for decades. If you’re in Brighton then get yourself to the Theatre Royal and see this show. You won’t regret it.

P.S. The Beautiful Cosmos of the title comes from this poem, which I have posted before:

You are the centre of your little world
and I am of mine.
No one again we meet for tea
we’re two of a kind.

This is our universe…
cups of tea.
We have a beautiful cosmos,
you and me.
We have a beautiful cosmos.

What do we talk of whenever we meet:
nothing at all.
You sit with a sandwich,
I look at a roll.
Sometimes I open my mouth,
then shut it.

We have a beautiful cosmos,
you and me.
We have a beautiful cosmos.

You are the centre of your little world
and I am of mine.
No one again we meet for tea
we’re two of a kind.

This is our universe…
cups of tea.
We have a beautiful cosmos,
you and me.
We have a beautiful cosmos.

Britten Sinfonia

Posted in Music with tags , , , on May 13, 2015 by telescoper

Time for a lunchtime post while I eat my sandwich.

Last night I went to a Brighton Festival concert at the Brighton Dome by the Britten Sinfonia, featuring a programme of Mozart, Haydn and Stravinsky. The choice of pieces was made to explore the connections between two great composers of the classical period (Haydn and Mozart) and the Stravinksy’s much later neoclassical compositions. The similarities of structure and performance style are fairly obvious because Stravinsky was striving to make them so, so this point doesn’t need to be laboured although it does provide a good excuse to perform the pieces together. For me the real interest in the concert was partly in the works themselves – some of which I hadn’t heard before – and in their differences rather than their similarities.

The concert opened with Mozart’s Overture to the Opera Idomeneo, an energetic and dramatic work full of tumultuous climaxes that set the tone for the evening. That was followed by an excerpt from Act I Scene 3 of Stravinsky’s Opera The Rake’s Progress. To be honest I generally prefer Stravinsky when he’s not being neoclassical, but I do think The Rake’s Progress is a great opera and probably his greatest neoclassical achievement. It’s also the first time I’ve ever been to a concert in which the conductor, in this case Barbara Hannigan, turned around on stage and started singing or as I might put it more accurately, the first concert at which the star soprano also doubled as conductor. Anyway, whichever way round you think of the performance, she was great: a superb voice and suitably theatrical stage presence.

The first half of the concert closed with Symphony No. 49 in F Minor by Joseph Haydn, nicknamed La Passione. I’m by no means an expert on Haydn’s symphonies – many of them sound much of a muchness to me – but this is definitely an interesting one even if you’re like me and have difficulty telling your Sturm from your Drang. It’s a brooding, tempestuous work with some surprisingly modern characteristics, especially in the sudden changes of key and use of syncopation. My heart did sink when I noticed a harpsichord would be featuring in this work, but it says something for the piece that I enjoyed it as a whole despite the jangly intrusions.

Haydn wrote this while shortly after he had started work at the palace of the Esterhazy family in Austria, which had its own orchestra. An interesting quote from the programme reveals how much he enjoyed the freedom his employer gave hime:

I could make improvements, additions or cuts, and could try out daring effects. I was separated from the rest of the world, with no-one to disturb me or torment me, and so I had to become original.

I think originality in science works in the same way!

Anyway, after a glass of wine in the bar, it was back for Part 2 which opened with another Mozart overture, this time for the Opera La Clemenza di Tito, which was first performed in 1791 (just a few months before the composer’s death) followed by a concert aria Bella mia fiamma, addio (also by Mozart) performed by Barbara Hannigan again. The story goes that Mozart was pressurised into writing the latter piece and extracted his revenge by producing music that is a real challenge to sing. It has subsequently become celebrated test piece for female singers, a test that Hannigan passed with flying colours.

Finally we heard the suite of music composed by Stravinsky for the ballet Pulcinella. This was all new to me and I enjoyed it enormously, not least because of some very fine playing by the brass and woodwinds of the Britten Sinfonia. Although this is clearly neoclassical music, the similarities that struck me were less about the Mozart and Haydn we heard earlier in the concert and more with Benjamin Britten. Whether that was a deliberate choice or not, it provided a very nice ending to the concert for me.

I couldn’t fault the orchestral playing throughout the concert. Some of the music was extremely virtuosic but they were never showy, and I think they got the emotional feel of the pieces just right. The only other thing that struck me was that the orchestra, billed as a chamber orchestra, was much larger than I’d expected, so it produced a fuller sound that imagined beforehand.

The Lads in their Hundreds

Posted in Music, Poetry with tags , , , , on May 6, 2015 by telescoper

So last night I had my first experience of this year’s Brighton Festival when I went to the Theatre Royal in Brighton to see a show called The Lads in the Hundreds, performed by a group from Comédie de Picardie which is situated in Amiens, capital of the Somme region of France. The cast for yesterday’s performance consisted of just four people: Tchéky Karyo (actor); Edmund Hastings (tenor); Michael Foyle (violin); and Edward Liddall (piano). The performance consisted of dramatic recitations by Karyo (mostly in French) interspersed with music, mostly settings of English poems by English composers such as Ivor Gurney and George Butterworth, as well as a couple of instrumental numbers including a beautiful pared-down version for piano and violin of The Lark Ascending by Vaughan Williams which  was, apparently, how it was first performed. The title The Lads in their Hundreds is taken from a poem by A.E. Housman which was among those set to music and included in this show.  Young Edmund Hastings performed this and the other songs with a bright clear and very English tenor voice, dressed in the uniform of a British soldier of the period. Overall the poetry and music create a very poignant blend that brings together moving expressions of loss and remembrance for the fallen of the First World War with stark descriptions of the horror and brutality of conflict.

I particularly wanted to see this show because I had studied (and much admired) the British poets of the First World War when I was at school, especially Wilfred Owen, but knew nothing of French war poetry of the same era and was very keen to find out more. Although I haven’t studied French since O-level, I am glad these verses were performed in their original language. Poetry can be translated, of course, but it rarely gains anything in the process and often loses a lot. Despite being at pains to drink French wine before the performance to assist my powers of recall, I did struggle a bit to follow some of the poems with my schoolboy knowledge of French, but that difficulty was far outweighed by the expressive sound of verse that can only be achieved when spoken in the language in which it was conceived. A couple of the poems were performed in English, including one with a musical accompaniment in the form of an arrangement of the beautiful Andante movement from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony for violin and piano. That combination took me completely by surprise and had me at the brink of tears.

It’s interesting that the poems echo the savagery and futility of war in much the same way as the poems of Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon, but the music chosen is quite different in that it draws greatly on English folk music and is consequently quite nostalgic in character. Perhaps the “English Pastoral” style particularly associated with Vaughan Williams was an attempt to cope with the trauma of the First World War by evoking an idyllic representation of the English countryside as a world apart from the horrific realities of the Somme. French poetry and English music together created a whole that was much more than the sum of its parts. It was an evening that was both fascinating and deeply moving and I’m glad I made time during a busy week to attend it.

To end with I thought I’d include the poem I mentioned earlier that was performed to music by Beethoven. The poem is called The Andante and is by Albert-Paul Granier, an officer in the French artillery, whose name was completely unknown to me until yesterday but who wrote poetry which bears comparison with that of any other poet of the Great War. He was killed in action in 1917. To prove that there are exceptions to every rule, this poem is exquisite even in translation (by Ian Higgins):

The rain, endlessly unravelling;
the rain, shovelling at the mud the whole sullen day;
the rain, unendingly sobbing its toneless chords;
and the whispering wind, crumbling the cloud into drizzle . . .

Why, this evening, am I haunted so
by that majestic andante
from the Seventh Symphony?

Its chords, as magnificently simple
as the triumphal arches of the ancients,
hold me in a vast enchantment.

Its harmony is velvet to my soul,
its murmur a caress that soothes
the melancholy as we pick our way
along the bank of this canal.

The rain has never stopped . . .

The mud is all long, snaking rivulets of agate
and clouded onyx, chopped into splashes
with every drawn-out hoof-fall of my horse.

The rain has never stopped, the whole lead-blue day.

The andante
gently eases my resentment
with its divine serenity . . .

Ah, those Sundays, not two years ago —
the Sunday afternoons,
the lamp-lit hall,
the huge orchestra a single mind and spirit
in every flying bow-tip:

The miraculous fluid
a fountain spreading up to the galleries, then
falling like snowflakes onto souls laid bare,
like springtime sunlight through stained glass
on a girl’s communion veil.

The andante,
the andante is gentle, with a touch of sadness,
like an autumn evening over ponds,
or the voix céleste of an organ;
and my chrysalid soul
weaves itself a wonderful cocoon
from this aching blessedness,
on the purple silk weft of the rain.