Saturday, 21 February 2009

Runnicles Speaks

Sadly, only in a pre-concert talk with the director of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Gavin Reid, rather than an exclusive interview (ah, but a man can dream); speaking of which, Michael Tumulty and The Herald, land just that catch. Still, mustn't grumble: it was fascinating nonetheless.

Last time, the equivalent discussion took place after the performance, moving it earlier had the bonus of being able to give us insights to listen for in the works we were about to hear. Reid began by asking about Runnicles' forthcoming departure from San Francisco Opera, where he has been since 1992 (that's sixteen seasons, for those who want to count, or a very long time for everyone else). His departure will be marked by a production of La Traviata, featuring Netrebko, and a concert performance of of Verdi's Requiem, the mention of which sparked an excited murmur: perhaps I am not alone in my fond memories of Runnicles' performance at the 2005 Festival with the BBCSSO (if only the BBC would broadcast that again).

We then got into the topic of his preparation of works. In part this stemmed from a comparison between working on a programme such as that evening's with an orchestra and preparing an opera in Berlin (a few days as opposed to several weeks). Runnicles learns every opera from the piano score first. This seems to stem from his first experiences with learning Wagner scores on his parents' piano which was, as he noted, a far from ideal substitute for the orchestra. He has an extensive collection of Wagner scores, including copies of Wagner's autograph of Tristan which, he noted, has surprisingly few corrections; it is so good that you can conduct from it.

Tristan, it seems, is very much on his mind, since immediately after playing these two concerts with the BBC Scottish he is jetting off to Dresden to conduct it. At the last minute as well. Apparently Daniele Gatti fell ill, leading to a call on Monday, just after he'd arrived in Edinburgh, asking him if he would be able to conduct the performance on Sunday, then again on the following Wednesday and Sunday. And with no rehearsal. He won't arrive in Dresden until Saturday, and you don't want to be straining your singers the day before, though he will be meeting with them. However, he knows all the singers involved and, as his recording attests, is intimate with the score. Even so, it strikes me as a daunting undertaking.

This then led to some discussion of the concert and its programme and, particularly, the works of John Adams. As he made clear, one of the advantages of working on the music of living composers is that you can actually get their input and ask them questions when preparing a score. Indeed, Adams doesn't just hand over the score but, owing to today's computer wizardry, a CD containing an electronic orchestra illustrating it. His music is, apparently, a lot harder to conduct that it sounds. Indeed, Runnicles will go to visit Adams in his studio to look over a score and get comments along the lines of "this is difficult" or "I want to hear you do this". But his operas appear to be as rewarding to conduct as they are to watch: as he said, it's good to have subject matter that is relevant.

Runnicles, of course, conducted the premiere of Dr. Atomic a few years ago in San Francisco, which tells the story Robert Oppenheimer, who lead the Manhattan project which build the atom bomb. It's a challenging work, which I saw in the cinema last autumn in a live relay from the Met (though which I never got round to reviewing). That production is about to open at ENO, and I'll be there to see it in a couple of weeks time. I wish we had Runnicles for that, and given he suggested it was one of the most difficult things he's done, it will be even more interesting to see what they make of it. From the sounds of it, the SF production was better. Runnicles described a powerful moment in the finale: as the work counts down to the test detonation the chorus look out into the auditorium, towards where the explosion is to take place. The whole thing is bathed in bright light in a manner that calls to mind the close of Messiaen's St Francis. Being able to see both the cast and audience in this manner seems to have been a profound experience.

Adams, of course, is no stranger to controversy, perhaps most notably with The Death of Klinghoffer, and Runnicles mentioned a cancelled production in Boston; even the 2005 Edinburgh festival production didn't escape protest. And yet, he also has a playful side that comes out in his titles: Dr. Atomic is evocative of comic books and then are the likes of his Short Ride in a Fast Machine.

But Adams isn't the only American composer with whom Runnicles is familiar. However, the others mentioned were all unknown to me. They form part of the Atlanta School of composers, so called for having been nurtured by Robert Spano and the Atlanta Orchestra, and to whom Adams is something of a Godfather (well, not the Godfather, said Runnicles, rather the Al Pacino character). Their music is quite accessible and interestingly, two of the recent compositions he mentioned were both percussion concerti, and had been performed by compatriot Evelyn Glennie. I love a good percussion concerto, not least for the sheer visual spectacle, so that would be something to have on the programme. Certainly, it sounds like the Atlanta School will feature next year. Aside from that, we were offered no other glimpses of what is to come; we shall have to wait until the launch of next season's programme in April, to which the orchestra have kindly invited me, to find out.

One last thing he mentioned sticks in my mind. Runnicles talked about how pianists were often opera buffs, and that the evening's soloist (Golka) was no exception. He then described, how, to his mind, the most magical pianism soared over the orchestra as does a singer.

It was an illuminating conversation, all too brief due to the nagging need to get on stage with, as I've already noted, excellent results.

Friday, 20 February 2009

Here's Runnicles - Adams, Ravel and Berlioz with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra

It was very sad when, earlier this year, fate robbed us of the chance to hear Donald Runnicles conduct the LSO in a programme of Wagner, Strauss and Mahler. Fortunately, nothing came between us and his final appearance with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra prior to becoming their music director.

The programme was somewhat eclectic, leading off with Slonimsky's Earbox by John Adams. In his pre-concert talk with the orchestra's director Gavin Reid (of which more in a subsequent post), Runnicles discussed his collaborations with the composer, most notably on the premiere of the opera Dr Atomic. It's clear he has an affinity with the composer, so hopefully we'll hear more next season. Tonight's work is named after a Russian, one of whose claims to fame is the authorship of the exhaustive Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns. Runnicles remarked that Adams' work is often deceptively difficult, in that it sounds much simpler to play than it actually is. Slonimsky's Earbox sounded difficult and the orchestra played with fiendish and impressive dexterity.

The scales permeated the work, and yet not in a way that was intrusive or overly intellectual, but rather feeling completely natural. Runnicles struck a nice balance between volume in the climaxes and delicacy in other moments. Perhaps what marked the piece most was Adams' beautiful textures, notably his use of percussion and an electronic sampler. It's always difficult to judge a new work after just one hearing, but a good test is whether you want to hear more and, personally, I can't wait for the broadcast. Principal viola Scott Dickinson played particularly beautifully, and it's nice to have the instrument brought so much to the fore for a change, and Runnicles rightly brought him to his feet at the end.

There was a brief pause while the stage was rearranged for the piano concerto, but no ordinary piano concerto: this was Ravel's concerto for piano (left hand) and orchestra in D major. It is a work I was dimly aware of, having heard it mentioned by Leon Fleisher in various interviews (Fleisher was for many years unable to use his right hand as a result of dystonia, something he has only recently regained via injections of botox). It turns out there is an interesting repertoire for left hand, owing partly to Paul Wittgenstein, brother of the famous philosopher, who lost his right arm in the first world war. Thereafter he turned his attention to increasing the material available, and one of the fruits of this was Ravel's concerto. Pianist Adam Golka was playing left hand repertoire through choice, though it is interesting, and doubtless not co-incidental, to note that he is currently studying with Fleisher. His right hand, alternately resting on his knee or gripping the edge of the keyboard, looked like it desperately wanted to be swept up into the music too.

Now, I often, in common with many members of my family, say I don't really like Ravel. A friend sometimes remarks on this to the effect that we say it, and then after a performance say that was the exception. I'm beginning to think there is something in this and that what I mean is that I don't like Bolero (except when Jacques Loussier and his trio play it). Either way, I certainly liked the concerto. It has a dark and ominous orchestral opening, superbly played, and the first entry of the piano complements this. Indeed, for a significant time the left hand stays on the lower half of the keyboard, and this in itself makes for an effect quite unlike what one is used to for a concerto. But, as the piece develops, it gets a full outing, and an impressive workout. Golka's playing was excellent, and not a million miles from Paul Lewis in terms of an ability to find no shortage of power and force without recourse to overly-percussive thumping. Runnicles and the orchestra provided excellent and sensitive accompaniment, only crowding out the pianist in the bigger climaxes, as the composer surely intended. All in all, it was a superbly compelling performance and left me wanting to know the work better. The programme recommends a recording with Zimerman, Boulez and the Cleveland Orchestra, but I think I shall plump for Fleisher in Boston, it seems somehow right.

After the interval it was the turn of Hector Berlioz and his Symphonie Fantastique. Now, this is also a work I've never managed to fully engage with in the past. I don't think I've ever heard it in concert and neither of my CDs (Davis on LSO Live and Dutoit in Montreal) have ever quite grabbed me. However, one of the things I so admire about Runnicles is his ability to give me a fresh perspective on a piece. As I left the auditorium for the interval I had heard one person remarking that he wouldn't stay for the second half as he'd heard the piece live several times and it hadn't grabbed him either. Sure enough, when everyone else returned, there were two gaps in front of me. In light of what followed, more fool them would seem to be something of an understatement.

Things started well enough, and the daydreams of the first movement were eerie and nicely evocative. However, it was in the second movement that things became truly magical. The programme describes the ball as "a glittering scene" and glitter and sparkle and dance is precisely what the music did in his hands. It was playful and beautiful and called to mind a something Runnicles said in a talk he gave after his last concert with the orchestra, following the Vienna State Opera's playing of a waltz in Rosenkavalier and how he'd wished he could have bottled it up to carry around with him. I now know exact what he meant.

The pastoral scene was even more special. Principal oboe Stella McCracken played her solo beautifully and was then complemented by Timothy Rundle from somewhere in the ether. It was only then that I noticed he wasn't sitting in the orchestra anymore. A glance around showed the stage right door to the artists' area fractionally ajar and it is doubtless from somewhere back there that he played. I have written before about Runnicles' genius for such effects of instrumental placement and this was no exception, every bit as special as the horn in Mahler's third or the brass in Gotterdammerung. Similarly, the menacing thunder provided by the no fewer than four timpanists. The whole thing was beautifully textured and there was a real sorrow to McCracken's final unanswered oboe calls. The march to the scaffold which followed was nothing short of electrifying in its drama.

My brother heard the work in Vienna a few months back from Abbado and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra and complained that the final movement, and, indeed, the performance as a whole, was somewhat tame and lacked bite. Not so here. The closing witches sabbath was grotesque (in a good way) and full of a sense of the macabre that makes me long to hear what Runnicles might make of Mahler's seventh symphony. There were wonderfully muted horn effects and eerily sliding trombones. Then the stage door opened again, this time one half all the way, and from there the church bells tolled. But it lent them a dark and unsettling effect that, in concert with the answering dies irae theme on the brass, was nothing short of jaw-dropping. The hectic witches dance was led to a thrilling close. Throughout the playing of the orchestra was exceptional, so much so that Runnicles spent some time bringing each section individually to their feet. They all deserved it.

It's often an interesting question what distinguishes a very good performance from something truly great. I think this concert shows that distinction perfectly: the first half was excellent, but there was some greater magic at work after the interval.

As a post concert coda Golka was to play some two-handed Chopin. I didn't stay, not because I think it wouldn't have been wonderful, I'm sure it would (indeed, I would very much like to hear him again in other repertoire), but I didn't want any more notes in my head, I wanted to end the night there. Also, there was a train to catch. Hopefully, we'll get some concerts from the orchestra over in Edinburgh next season; certainly, from what I hear, this is on the cards (and maybe the Council could find a few million to build us our own City Halls; don't hold your breath on that one). The concert is due for broadcast, when isn't yet clear, but as soon as we know, we'll flag it up: it is one to be marked as unmisable.

It was only a slight shame that one man couldn't wait for the final chords of the Berlioz to die away completely before exclaiming an orgasmic yes! It's hard to be too critical of him though, I know exactly what he meant; from the loud cheers that greeted the performance, I don't think I was alone.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Festival 2006, Part II - The Mackerras Beethoven Cycle

Continuing my series rounding up the festival immediately preceding the founding of this website. I originally wrote the quoted comments on Naim Audio forum.

When the programme was announced it was a dream come true, for it contained my one fantasy piece of programming, namely Sir Charles Mackerras conducting all nine of Beethoven's symphonies, something I'd never have thought would be practical in a festival. Better yet, it was to feature, predominantly, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, with whom Mackerras has formed a very special bond.

Of course, outgoing director gave it a special twist and programmed each of the symphonies in a standalone concert at a flat rate ticket price. The only nod to the demands of so many concerts on the octogenarian conductor was that they were done out of order (as a lot of the bigger works come close together). Far from being a disadvantage, this actually provided an opportunity for him to display some fascinating links. Indeed, when the results were broadcast and issued on CD in numerical order, I found it a little disappointing.

The Beethoven concerts took place at 5.30pm, with a Brucker cycle (running with different orchestras and conductors in order) at 9.30 and a 'masterworks' series sandwiched in between. I gather this made things 'interesting' logistically, particularly when there were several large ensembles on the same evening (that first night had the SCO, the RSNO and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra), if anyone has any experiences behind the scenes, we'd love to hear them in the comments.

The cycle kicked off on Tuesday 15th August with the Erioca (with a couple of additions in [] to clarify certain points):

I found the Beethoven fascinating. In many ways it was very different from his CD account [with the RLPO on EMI]. A little slower and, in a funny way, with a lot of the orchestral contrast that I raved about with the Colin Davis cycle [how fresh and new he made it sound, by bringing out textures in the orchestration I'd not noticed before]. Indeed, I think part of this contrast was down to Davis's use of the Dresdeners (superior to Mackerras's RLPO on cd), I think it fair to say that the SCO are in a leauge above what the RLPO managed too - though, again, I think the imperfect, in places, accoustic of the usher hall, makes this a not entirely universal assessment.

I find the finale of the work doesn't always hang together but I was bowled over from start to finish. I'm so glad they're broadcasting these since this combination promises to be one of the most convincing I have heard.

I also feel the 'one work concert' idea works rather well.

Mackerras and the SCO were back in the Usher Hall just two days later for the second symphony:

Well, Sir Charles started as he meant to go on. For the last two days I've had the closing chords of Bruckner 1 ringing in my head (very unfairly given 3 stars in the Scotsman - it seems he had no real complaint with the reading but rather the work itself). Had I not been to that, it would certainly have been the Eroica instead. Now I can't get rid of Beethoven's second (and what a wonderful problem that is to have).

Interestingly, as I rode the bus from work to the Usher Hall, I couldn't for the life of me recall the work at all (and it isn't one of Beethoven's most memorably tuneful). However, the moment it started I knew exactly where I was and I knew what movements were coming next (for some reason I always have this problem with this work). However, in one of the hallmarks that separates good conducting in Beethoven from bad, the notes never seemed to fall exactly when I expected - Mackerras holds this sort of drama better than any in this repertiore.

The orchestral colour was had the same variety that I mentioned in my review of the third. Interestingly, and this struck me in the third too, Mackerras was a little more understated on the podium than I have seen him. Perhaps this is a sign of just how well he knows the SCO and vice versa.

However, the excitement with which they played this work made it all the more disappointing that the hall was much less full than on Tuesday. Beethoven's less favoured works seem to suffer in this regard and, as Mackerras shows, unfairly so.

The final instalment of the first week came on Saturday 19th August with the 5th symphony:

Mackerras's CD Beethoven cycle is my favourite, but, if I am being brutally honest, its weak link (to the exten it has one) is the first movement of the 5th which doesn't quite surprise in the way the rest does and has rather too steady a tempo. Not so last night. Sir Charles gave a magnificently powerful reading with some absolutely lovely playing throughout. This was the sort of 5th where the whole finale had you on the edge of your seat, jaw dropped and mouth dry. It is the same kind of exhilaration I had when I first heard the 7th from Harding. I put that experience down to the novelty of the symphony but that cannot have been the case here - suffice to say I now cannot wait until next Saturday's 7th.

Another thing that struck me is how much you get from a cycle (even if not in order). You could hear that the 5th in some ways mixes sucessful elements from 3rd and 2nd (in many ways, the opening bars are a progression from he eroica, yet it shares the same sort of codas that mark out the ends of outer movements of the 2nd). It was unsurprisingly well sold and (which I thought nice) a lot of (almost entirely) well behaved children. I think one of the real strengths of this format is it opens a concert up to children by providing such a brief programme.

The Beethoven cycle resumed on Tuesday 22nd August with the arguably too famous sixth symphony, the pastoral:

I must confess that the 6th is probably my least favourite Beethoven. I think the first two movements can drag a little and the best stuff is in the middle. Still, Mackerras played them about as well as I've heard (save E Kleiber on disc with the Concertgebouw, albeit rather poorly recorded). The third movement was quite lovely (especially the bassoons) but I was stolen by the 4th - never have I heard it sound quite so convincinly like a storm: all the textures, rain, wind, thunder, etc., seemed to be there in the concert hall.

For those more knowledgeable I might pose a question. Is Beethoven better with a small band? I think we're hearing things in this cycle due to the different balance between the strings and other groups that one doesn't normally hear with larger groups (save perhaps Davis with the Dresdeners).

Thursday the 24th and it was the turn of the fourth:

Thursday saw the Beethoven continue with the 4th (unfairly maligned by some as a step backwards among his works). I must say, it's one of my favourites and I don't much agree with the oft printed assertion that it is Haydnesque.

Still, Mackerras and the SCO gave it a wonderfully energetic reading with some stunning playing throughout (save perhaps one slightly fluffed entry from the horns).

Interestingly, I observed above just how restrained Mackerras has been in his conducting (and, I suspect partly due to issues with his arms, his style seems to have changed somewhat), however, he has been getting more dynamic and energetic as the series goes on - it is a remarkable performance from a man approaching his 81st birthday.

Week two's Beethoven concluded on Saturday 26th August with the wonderful seventh, and what a seventh:

I don't know how much I can really add to Ian's WOW in describing the Beethoven 7th. Probably my favourite of all the symphonies, I first met it in a stunning, edge of the seat kind of reading, given by Daniel Harding and the Bremen chamber orchestra he was about to leave (indeed, this at the Maltings was their penultimate concert together). I will not describe again (as I think I have done so several times here before), but suffice to say it set the bar very high indeed and I have always been chasing down that perfect reading on CD, especially one with as energetic a finale. I have not yet been sucessful (though several have come very close).

Mackerras and the SCO more than rose to the challenge in what was possibly the highlight of the series so far. The way he held the tension with the solo flute just before the main theme comes in the first movement was unbearable, in a good way. The joy of the third movement was divine. But the 4th movement astonished even me. I don't think I've ever heard it so fast [since then I've heard if faster, on CD from Dudamel, and discovered you can take it too fast], and the energy on display (given he's approaching his 81st birthday) was staggering. This the more interesting because for the most part I think he's been taking things that bit slower than his RLPO cycle on disc. However, it really was quite something. [On a side note, Donald Runnicles, who was about to conduct the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in Bruckner's 6th later that evening, could be spied elsewhere in the dress circle.

With barely a pause for breath, the cycle continued on Sunday 27th August with the 8th symphony:

Sunday night saw Beethoven 8 (and the penultimate appearance of the SCO in this cycle). I have recently raved about Colin Davis's epic reading (an almost Mahlerian approach to this work - I don't mean it sounds like Mahler, more that his reading drains in the same way and has a similar feeling of distance travelled). Mackerras comes from another direction entirely. Much brisker but none the less very satisfying. One of the things that really struck me is that in a symphony that is often seen as a soft of safe filler between 7 and 9 (and somewhat neglected as a result), was how dangerous Mackerras made the work feel. That and the extraordinary playing of the principal cello [David Watkin] in the minuet.

Wednesday 30th August saw the final appearance of the SCO in the penultimate concert, which, conversely, featured the first symphony:

Fortunatley, things returned to form [this not in respect to the other concert, but rather a reference to a couple of evenings of interminably bad drama] with last night's Beethoven and the final from the SCO. They have played wonderfully for this series and did so once again. Mackerras conducted a superb first (perhaps the finest I have heard). There was some extraordinary string playing in the third movement and the most witty reading of the finale I can imagine. The Philharmonia are on duty for the 9th tomorrow. I can't wait.

The final concert in the series, on Friday 1st September, was marked by a change in forces from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra to the Philharmonia. This occasioned some moaning the Scottish press, especially from Michael Tumelty in the Herald. In a article the title of which contained an unfortunate typo, referring instead to a 'Mozart' cycle, moaned as to how the brilliant SCO were being robbed of this last concert. I agree they had played superbly and would made a good ninth too (when the concerts were broadcast Donald McLeod said one was in the works, but this has never materialised). However, the original plan was actually to split the cycle roughly fifty/fifty between the two orchestras, however it wasn't practical to get the Philharmonia up for that length of time, so in the end their contribution was pared down to one. Regardless, it was good to have their heft for the 9th (though, if anyone from the SCO is reading this, I still want to hear them do it with Sir Charles, either on the CD or in concert - it would make a good season opener).

Well, tonight's Beethoven 9th was very fine indeed. Mackerras opts for pretty brisk tempi (as he has done throughout, and in this work for reasons very well laid out in his liner note for the [EMI] cd set). What moved me most was the wonderful second movement which he played with a lightness of touch that I have rarely, if ever, associated with it - more usually it is heavy and serious (and too often ponderous). The slow movement was lovely, and those key chords I have gone on at lenght about on the Beethoven thread sent shivers down my spine.

The only reservation comes with the finale. Not anything to do with the conducting or the orchestral playing (the Philharmonia were wonderful, especially their string playing and timpanist - I was also impressed by how much better the horns were than for Blomstedt the other night). Indeed, they proved exactly why Michael Tummulty writing in the Herald was so wrong when he complained the SCO should have done this. The Philharmonia provided a larger and richer sound so utterly different to the smaller band (and so sucessful in this work) that could never have been achieved. And anyway, to augment the SCO sufficiently could have wiped away much of its charm. No, the reservations concern the chorus (the soloists were broadly speaking fine, especially alto Catherine Wyn-Rogers). I have said before that the Festival Chorus are not first rate, indeed, I do not even think they are close to being the finest chorus in Scotland (the SCO one is wonderful, though would have been too small, the Edinburgh Choral Union are great); however, it was a terrible shame the Philharmonia didn't bring their own chorus. The diction was poor and the was a slight lack of clarity. However, it wasn't awful, and the direction and playing more than made up for it. However, it does make the quotes in the programme seem faintly ironic: "one of the three great choirs of Europe" says Herbert von Karajan (it must be a little while since he was in a position to judge!).

I feel supremely lucky to have had the chance to hear Mackerras conduct all these symphonies and it really has a dream come true. I can't recommend them highly enough when they come to be broadcast. The freshness he has brought to these works (along with an energy that would be beyond many half his age) has really been something.

A couple of final points should be added concerning those broadcasts and the subsequent CD issue on Hyperion. The are in certain respects a major disappointment. Not, you understand, musically, they couldn't remove the magic but the engineers did try their best to do so. These are among the most terribly recorded discs I've had in recent years, that's one thing when you've unuearthed an ancient treasure from the archives, but in 2006 it simply shouldn't be the case and is unacceptable, the more so given how well Linn have been recording the orchestra lately. The main complaints are that the sound is extremely harsh and, second, that a lot of the detail has been lost. Given one wonderful highlight was the details he found in the score, this is a bitter pill. The wind section, who played so remarkably throughout, are particularly poorly served, especially, say, in the third movement of the sixth symphony. The Hyperion CDs, which came more from rehearsals, are better, but are still not as good as they should have been. Producer Bill Lloyd and engineers Matt Parkin and Mike Hatch, I'm looking at you. Before anyone blames the Usher Hall's acoustic, which I anyway think is good, I'd only note the fine recordings that Philips, DG and most of all Telarc have made with the same forces, in the same location, which suffer none of these troubles. That said, they are a nice memento and well worth picking up.

The concerts remain one of the finest experiences I have ever had in the concert hall and I regard it has a tremendous privilege to have been able to attend them all. They are memories I shall treasure for the rest of my life.

Monday, 9 February 2009

Festival 2006, Part I - What Delayed Runnicles?

As I did with the 2005 Edinburgh festival, now seems good time to round up the reviews I wrote during the 2006 festival on the Naim Audio forum (they weren't done here as this website didn't exist yet). You can view the full thread here.

Actually, first review didn't pertain to the International Festival, but rather the Fringe, and qualifies as a shameless plug as it was of a production at my own Venue 40, an adaptation by the Edward's Theatre Company of 1984:

As an Edward's virgin, sitting in the Meeting House foyer an hour or so before they go on, talk inevitably turns to their long association with the venue and some of their past successes (including plays about imprisoned writers after which the audience has been reduced to tears) and you can’t help but wonder if this is setting expectations impossibly high.

From the moment you enter the theatre, Big Brother is watching you, whether from the telescreen that dominates the simple set or the two seated columns of cast members dressed in their party uniforms. An eerie electronic music hums in the background. Throughout the play this music is used to great effect, conjuring up the same mundane claustrophobia of an awful situation from which there is no escape that Adam’s Death of Klinghoffer managed at last year’s International Festival.

The use of space is impressive too. The dystopian film had wide open spaces and to get that sense in such a small theatre is no mean feat. This is helped by a wonderfully choreographed ‘chorus’ of actors who, in many ways, steal the show. Their mimed routines of the daily grind of life as tiny cogs in a vast machine is superb, and its repetition devastating.

Not everything works perfectly. When we first encounter a rat, it doesn’t seem this is truly Winston Smith’s worst fear. When Winston and Julia confess themselves to a party official, it seems a bit too rushed (such moments are perhaps inevitable when cutting a work down, but they are few).

Winston and Julia are convincing both as lovers and Winston in his despair at society. But in many ways the show is stolen by the supporting cast. The way in which the ‘chorus’ switch so effortlessly and convincingly from party workers, to prols, to thought police. The two children, desperately eager to witness an execution. The beauty of the prol woman (no more so than when she sits peeling the potatoes), captured every bit as elegantly as the film.

The production is most haunting, though, in its modern parallels. A party worker’s savouring of the reduction of the language yet further, and the possibilities this brings. The ‘two minutes hate’. But, perhaps most powerfully, when Smith’s interrogator talks of power as an end, not a means, one cannot help but think of certain politicians today.

It’s a production that leaves you utterly drained, if not in tears, and well understanding the comments in the foyer.

One last note, don’t waste a thought on how the rats will be brought off – when it comes it is both wonderful and chilling.

This was hotly followed by some dire news: what promised to be a wonderful concert from Donald Runnicles and the Orchestra of St Luke'swas cancelled, owing to the sudden hysteria over an a plot to blow up airlines and which meant that musicians were not allowed to take their lethal cellos and tubas onto aeroplanes (they could trust them to the hold, but there are various reasons, from risk of loss, damage in handling and environmental conditions, why you simply wouldn't do this). Then home secretary John Reid was responsible for this scandal and will not be forgiven. The programme was to have included such works as the Siegfried Idyll and a late Mozart symphony (I forget which).

Indeed, it was a bad year for cancellations: the first performance of Troilus and Cresida had to be abandoned at half-time due to a malfunction in the complex stage apparatus. Fortunately, my ticket was booked for later in the week.

My 2006 International Festival did in the end get going with a double bill so good I went to see it twice (after all, I had nothing to do now on the night of the Runnicles concert). This was in the form of a Weill/Brecht double bill of The Seven Deadly Sins and The Lindbergh Flight:

I was at a stunning Brecht/Weill double bill (which is running and the Festival Theatre for the next two evenings, approximately two hours, at 7.15) and I cannot recommend it highly enough. The fact that director Francois Girard is also a film director shows and aides this very much. Indeed, from a production standpoint this is one of the most satisfying operas I have been too.

As a work, The Lindbergh Flight is not the most satisfying in the catalogue. Celebrating the first transatlantic flight, it comes from early in the Brecht/Weill partnership and it could be argued this shows. Brecht's decision to introduce each part with an actor playing him shows that he likes the sound of his own voice rather too much and without enough cause. However, once the curtain rises all such doubts are removed. The set is stunning [sadly the pictures I linked to have been taken down from the EIF website].

The 'plane' moves in an arc from one side of the stage to the other, in front of the world map, as the drama progresses. There are so many nice touches - the 5 clocks, each an hour faster than the last, all moving slowly round. The countries that make up the backdrop are, in fact, in front of the rear screen onto which there are some excellent projections. It's well played and sung, but I suspect that with a poor production it would drag. This, however, is a joy to watch.

The Seven Deadly Sins is far superior, both in terms of the text and the music. I am a little reluctant to describe it as an opera, almost more a cross between opera and ballet.

The story tells of Anna I and II (essentially two halves of the same character). II is played by 7 different dancers, each of whom goes through a sin as Anna goes on her quest to earn money for her family back in their home state (as she does so their house rises at the back).

There is the bite that the music and lyrics of Brecht and Weill has at its best. Gun-Brit Barkmin is superb as Anna I and the choreography is a joy to watch (and I'm not normally much of a fan of ballet). The libretto is nice too.

Throughout both pieces, the playing of Opera de Lyon under Roberto Minczuk is excellent, as is the singing of the chorus. The set design of Francois Seguin also deserves a mention.

This is playing tomorrow and Wednesday and if you are in the area I urge you to go (I may even go and see it again now that I have a night off due to the St Luke's cancellation).

That's all for now, but there's plenty more to follow (including the legendary Mackerras/SCO Beethoven cycle, the Bruckner and Abbado's Magic Flute).

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Mackerras, The Philharmonia, Bronfman, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Tchaikovsky 6 and an ophicleide

A what? You might well ask, if, like me, you don't recall having seen one before. Well, more anon. It's always a treat when Sir Charles Mackerras teams up with this superb orchestra, but Sunday afternoon's programme (a repeat of a concert given on Thursday) was something special, even by those high standards.

They led off with Mendelssohn's Overture, A Midsummer Night's Dream, doubtless occasioned by the current bicentennial celebrations of the composer (in related news, it emerges that there are a jaw-dropping number of unpublished works, though it does seem that quite a few of these are fragments). Now, in my experience, Mendelssohn needs to be done with plenty of drive and energy, otherwise it can easily fall flat. However, with Mackerras on the podium, lack of drive and energy are never a concern. More interesting, he has recorded the overture with the period ensemble the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, something I've been meaning to sample. As he often does with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, he had persuaded some of the players to turn in their instruments for earlier models: horns and trumpets were natural, the timpani also seemed to be period. Lurking next to the trumpets was a strange looking creation that, by a process of elimination from the orchestra list, had to be an ophicleide (the picture on the link confirms this), which turns out to be a precursor of the tuba and euphonium, though, mouthpiece notwithstanding, its design was more reminiscent of a saxophone. Elsewhere, the playing was of a distinctly historically informed flavour. The results were excellent. The orchestra provided a showcase of their talents, especially in the incredibly delicate playing of the opening. The piece bubbled along with drama and joy and proved a fine curtain raiser. I'll have to pick up the OAE disc (it includes the rest of the incidental music for A Midsummer Night's Dream and the Italian symphony).

Also worth noting, the orchestra seemed to be having a lot of fun. The wide grin on the face of Tony George (the ophicleide player - perhaps the instrument is not often needed in the Festival Hall, more's the pity given his playing) was lovely to see, but it was widely shared. Indeed, there seemed to be the same joy in making music that one finds in an amateur ensemble, though there was nothing amateur about the playing. Similarly, and perhaps it was just that I was sitting quite close to front, there was a real sense of the communication between the players, in a way one normally only notices in a chamber ensemble. It only confirmed the view I've aired before that this orchestra is rather special.

There was a brief gap while the stage was rearranged, and the piano moved into place. This would be the second time I'd heard Mackerras perform Mozart's K491 piano concerto in the last year or so (he previously did it in Edinburgh with Alfred Brendel and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra at the Festival). Tonight's pianist was Yefim Bronfman. Mackerras provided a powerful introduction and Bronfman's slightly subdued opening notes gave me pause for though, would this be another all to common example of mismatched approaches? I needn't have been concerned. Bronfman displayed every inch the fire needed to match the propulsive accompaniment. And yet, it was a sensitive accompaniment too, never did Mackerras tread on the pianist's tones. There was delicacy to Bronfman's pianism too, and it was a beautiful and unmannered performance with no thumping in sight. Perhaps not quite having the clarity that Paul Lewis does, but a compelling performance nonetheless.

The real meat came after the interval with Tchaikovsky's sixth symphony. Recently, I've heard an illustrated talk Leonard Bernstein recorded about this symphony, which demonstrates how much of it is build up from simple scales, the genius being that it doesn't appear simple at all. Mackerras gave a thrilling reading, from the soft opening bars onwards there was a gripping tension which, every now and then, he would release in the most almighty avalanche of sheer orchestral power. He frequently did not hang about, yet the control and discipline of the orchestra in the fastest moments was something special to hear and they kept up with him splendidly. He found delicacy and tenderness too, where the score called for that. The slightest half-smattering of applause followed the thrilling conclusion of the scherzo. In lesser hands the adagio can underwhelm in comparison. Not so in this case: the climaxes were heavy with emotion and Mackerras provided a transporting reading that faded to a quiet yet powerful conclusion. Playing was superb throughout, and while individual sections may have impressed at times, such as the winds or the horns, not least for the effect they gave, almost of off-stage brass, when stopped in the final movement, to single any out seems unfair given the uniformly high calibre of the ensemble.

All in all, one of the most satisfying concerts I've heard in a long time (indeed, one that has a compelling claim on the yellow jersey for best concert of the season thus far). The array of microphones indicated that it was being recorded for release on the orchestra's own label (either as a download, or, hopefully, on CD; previous achievements include an excellent Schubert 9th, if not quite so fine as his SCO recording, and Mahler's 4th). Mackerras may now be 83, but you'd not have had an inkling of this if you'd been sitting in the hall with your eyes closed, or, indeed, if you sample these superb performances when the CD releases come, which can't happen soon enough. Sir Charles next joins the Philharmonia on Thursday for a programme that includes the K466 concerto and Elgar's first symphony, sadly I must be back in Edinburgh before then. After that, it is Wagner chunks with Christine Brewer on 10th December. I can't wait.

Dvorak's Requiem - Jarvi and the London Philharmonic

The first thing I noticed, when glancing at the LPO website before setting out for this concert, was that Karen Cargill was in it, this only a month since we last came across her in another requiem (Verdi's).

Dvorak's Requiem is a rather different work. It is performed less often and, frankly, there seems good reason for this. That's not to say it's a bad work, far from it: not only was this an enjoyable performance, and one I'm very glad to have attended, but it is also always interesting to hear a work for the first time. However, it does not seem to have the same clarity of vision as the Verdi, nor the quite the same spiritual power. It is not transporting in the same way.

There are some fine moments, and some good fireworks along the way, especially in the Offertory, the Hostias and the wonderful Angus Dei. However, it doesn't quite seem to hang together as a whole. Compare, say, to his seventh symphony, which I have recently had cause to examine in some detail: there the work has a binding sense of structure and purpose.

For, we were told, 'artistic' reasons, an interval was added. The work is divided into two parts, and the fact that the first ends with an 'amen' would seem to support that it was written with this intention. But that only suggests it was written for the same bygone age where the Verdi requiem was performed with an interval (as is the case in the DVD performance from Giulini and the Philharmonia in 1964). You wouldn't dream of doing that these days, and I would suggest you shouldn't with the Dvorak either. That said, I did find the second half hung together better structurally.

Neeme Jarvi is a fine and unmannered conductor, who previously impressed me at the Festival two years ago doing some Sibelius. He drew superb playing from the LPO, again making me question how any self-respecting critic can suggest the LSO is the only British orchestra among the world's greatest.

The soloists were good too. Cargill has impressed me several times before, and did so again tonight with her beautiful and powerful voice. However, she was finely matched by both soprano Lisa Milne and bass Peter Rose. To the extent there was a weak link in the quartet, it was tenor Peter Auty, whose voice didn't always have quite the power one might have liked.

The London Philharmonic Choir, under Neville Creed were superb, whether in terms of diction, power, or, as in the closing moments, delicacy. Indeed, their contribution was one of the highlights of the performance and it ranks them as one of the finer choirs I have heard in recent years.

It seems, from the presence of a great many microphones, that the evening was being recorded for posterity, and doubtless release on the orchestra's own label. While it will not rank as a must buy, it is probably a should buy if you've never heard it before.

A couple of interesting notes remain. First, the organ, which sounded slightly wimpy, appears to have shrunk after the refurbishment, taking up less that half the space it used to. I'd be keen for any light anyone can shed.

Secondly, in the Foyer on the (I think) blue side, at any rate, the box office side, there is a wonderful work of art: a sculpture of a symphony orchestra made of card, the card is covered with a score of a Beethoven symphony. Superb stuff. The plaque tells you it was made by a prisoner. Nothing wrong with that, you might think. Indeed, nice that someone who's harmed society has put something beautiful back into it. To be applauded, you might argue. Unless, of course, you were the somewhat disturbed gentleman who told me, and everyone else in the men's room on level two during the interval, how awful it was that the work of a convicted criminal (probably, he said, a murderer, though any evidence he may have had to substantiate this was not presented at the urinal) was on display when his own was not. He changed his tune somewhat, and that it was a good thing the person's work was on display as it showed the kind of world we lived in. I decided that discretion was the better part of valour. However, I suspect there is probably a good reason his work is not on display in the South Bank Centre.

Update: 7-3-2009

Well, this explains why the organ looked so funny (thanks to my father for spotting the story). Apparently it was taken out for restoration and the job is only half-finished. This means it can be used for works like the requiem but not for solo recitals. We wish it a speedy recovery, though contrary to the article's title, there does not appear to be a fund for its restoration. Apparently we will hear it in its full glory in 2011.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

A night at the ballet

When we booked the Royal Ballet's programme of three short works, it was done largely on the strength of the Seven Deadly Sins. As I noted when I saw it at the Edinburgh Festival two and a half years ago in a production by Opera Lyon:

The Seven Deadly Sins is far superior [to the Lindbergh Flight], both in terms of the text and the music. I am a little reluctant to describe it as an opera, almost more a cross between opera and ballet.

The story tells of Anna I and II (essentially two halves of the same character). II is played by 7 different dancers, each of whom goes through a sin as Anna goes on her quest to earn money for her family back in their home state (as she does so their house rises at the back).

As well as an impressive production, it also appealed for the excellent combination of Bertolt Brecht's words and Kurt Weill's music. The two other works, Carmen and DGV: danse à grande vitesse were pot luck. Interestingly, or perhaps because of the expectations, The Seven Deadly Sins was not the evening's high point, not even close.

The Seven Deadly Sins was ruined by a lack of bite in every respect. In the first place, the contribution from the pit, commanded by Martin Yates, was absolutely lacklustre. On the stage things were not much better. Martha Wainwright as Anna I was amplified. Now, this may have happened in Edinburgh, but since I didn't note it, I would be surprised. This was unsubtly done and her entire narration seemed something of a monotone. Where was the cutting satire? Where was the edge to questions such as "Right, Anna?". In these times where greed has wrought ruin on the financial system, such parallels should be even more powerful. They were not. I suspect the move from German to English may not have helped, but then the text used was worked on by Auden so it shouldn't be a let down.

On stage, too, things seemed dull. As the Annas journeyed across the states, there seemed little sense of travel. The family back in Mississippi, for whom the Annas toil, are present on a gantry above, which does not resemble the house. The way this rose, as they flung money about as the work progressed, was infinitely more powerful during the Lyon Opera production. Indeed, I thought the script called for the house to rise - it's difficult to tell because the Royal Ballet haven't bothered with a synopsis for any of the works. Folks, when you're charging £5 for a programme this simply is not good enough. Similarly, there were no surtitles and, while Wainwrite was clear enough, the chorus were not. This doubtless helped reduce the drama.

From a dance and choreography perspective, things were also fairly uninspiring: for a work filled with sex and depravity, it seemed remarkably dull in these regards.

After the first interval we returned for Carmen. Fortunately, while we had been at the bar, there had been a change in the pit and Pavel Sorokin was now in charge. The difference was unbelievable, suddenly the Royal Opera orchestra was playing to the standards one expects, it was taut and full of energy. This was doubtless helped by Rodion Shchedrin's wonderful arrangement of Bizet's score (Bizet not ranking amongst my favourite composers normally), not least the colour brought by the bevy of xylophones. It also made over-familiar tunes sound fresh where too often the appear tired.

On the minus side, Royal Ballet had once again decided that we didn't need a synopsis. Well, not having seen the opera before, and only owning one recording which I can't have listened to very much, I did. The ballet was not so clear that such was not required. I know I've moaned about this already, but it is such a glaring oversight that it bears repeating.

However, it was vividly coloured by designer Marie-Louise Ekman and engagingly and amusingly choreographed by Mats Ek. Especial highlights would include the cigars in the Habanera (what a shame one man's match didn't light), the smoke wafting up added wonderfully to atmosphere. I also like the circular touch of beginning and ending with Jose being executed (note, the execution is not mentioned in various online synopses so it may be an invention of the ballet). Tamara Rojo stands out particularly as Carmen, not least for the way she struts about the stage.

Not the greatest of works, certainly, but tremendous fun.

Another interval and another change in the pit, this time Daniel Capps stepped up for Michael Nyman's DGV: danse à grande vitesse. This also gets no synopsis, but we'll let them off since it's really an abstract work and so doesn't require one. Composed in 1993 for the Lille Festival and the opening of a TGV line (train à grande vitesse, France's high speed trains and the fastest in the world, excluding those that use magnetic levitation). Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon notes that "You can really see the countryside rushing by." How right he is, and so well suited is the piece for dance that it is a surprise to learn it was not written with this in mind.

The music is minimalist, and in many ways quite repetitive. And yet, it isn't: it changes, varies, evolves and builds in the most magical way. It conjures train travel so perfectly: the speed, the mix of the sameness of the carriage and the variety rushing by outside.

Wheeldon's work is stunning too, complementing the music perfectly. The ensemble rocking in the background at the start, like a gaggle on a tube train gripping the handles above, is delightful to watch. They capture the scenery whizzing past and generally just bring the music to life.

The abstract form at the back of the stage provides a train-like image, and also an effective screen for some of the action to take place behind. There is the wonderful quieter, slower, night time section (which the lighting matches wonderfully) and then the magnificent finale, accentuated by the three snare drums which have been placed just to the side of the stage in the stalls circle.

It's very difficult to describe in a way that does it justice and, sadly, Opus Arte (owned by Covent Garden) does not seem to have had the sense to record this onto DVD for posterity. What a pity. This astonishingly vivid piece is one of the more remarkable things I've seen and thoroughly to be recommended. Its 26 minutes alone justifies the price of admission.

Friday, 6 February 2009

Not the Cameo Monday Night Film Club - Frost/Nixon

This week, Monday Night Film Club once again absented itself from its regular home. The reason: Frost/Nixon has still to make it to the Cameo (doubtless because they are still running Slumdog Millionaire ad nauseam and which, while good, doesn't quite seem to deserve all the praise heaped upon it lately, it doesn't feel a fraction the film of either Milk or this). Instead, we repaired to the Film House, which may have a nicer bar, better food and an amazing range of real ale for a cinema, but sadly also costs nearly three times what a Cameo card gets you on Monday night.

It was a close run thing, I almost didn't make it as the snow caused the buses on Gorgie Road to grind to a halt. However, having nagged the club's founders to put the film on the itinerary for a few weeks now, I wasn't about to miss it. After a mad dash through the less than clement weather on foot as snow had forced traffic to a halt, I made it with time to spare for a glass of the bar's very fine freshly squeezed orange juice, from their equally fine juice squeezing machine.

But what of the film itself? Well, it tells the story of David Frost's famous interview with Richard Nixon in 1977. The film is based on a highly successful stage play by Peter Morgan, which I sadly never saw, and both leads have wisely been retained.

The film opens with some archive footage setting the scene, namely Watergate and the resignation of Nixon in 1974. This includes such items as Nixon's resignation speech, which is sensibly given by Langella rather than using archive Nixon footage, which might only confuse. David Frost, then working in Australia, sees the news and decides that he must get an interview with Nixon. The film chronicles his attempt to do so, putting his own money on the line in the process.

Michael Sheen, as Frost, and Frank Langella, as Nixon, offer standout performances. Sheen in particular embodies Frost and his mannerisms, and while Langella may not physically be a dead ringer for Nixon, he has the voice and it is a powerful portrayal. Matthew Macfadyen is good as producer John Birt (who would later go on to do his best to wreck the BBC and then act as a 'blue sky thinking' advisor to Tony Blair, refusing to testify before parliament) and therefore, manages something of a miracle in not leaving one despising him completely. Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell are superb as the journalist and writer who assist in preparing for the interview. Kevin Bacon is very strong too as Nixon's post resignation chief of staff Jack Brennan.

Director Ron Howard keeps the tension high, though one does wonder what goes on in his mind sometimes - according to an infuriating advert that has been playing in the Cameo in past months, he hired the two helicopter pilots who flew Nixon away from the White House to repeat it as this was authentic. How it's authentic to have people who are now by some way too old for active service isn't quite clear. One thing that doesn't entirely work is the elastic portrayal of time: it feels like we're only a few months from the resignation when, suddenly, a screen caption informs us we're in 1977 for the interviews.

What emerges particularly interestingly is how small a segment the famous 'apology' part of the interview is in terms of a larger, and duller, whole. This also begs the question of historical accuracy. One has to assume the interviews themselves are faithful - certainly a record must exist of these, so there is no need to fictionalise (and any twisting would be easily exposed). And yet, wikipedia, indicates both that there are problems with the overall accuracy and, more interesting, the extent to which Frost actually drew the apology out of Nixon. It should also be noted that by this point in his career, Frost had many big interviews under his belt rather than being completely green as the film implies. Nixon's use of profanity is also criticised. He is famous for this, but mainly due to the infamous [expletive deleted] which occurred throughout published tapes. Interestingly, the words excised were not nearly as severe as this led people to think.

Elsewhere, more licence has doubtless been taken. In two key scenes especially so. Nixon was clearly a damaged individual. It is amusing on the various occasions when he his referred to as a Quaker, since his actions would have him as anything but. Clearly deeply insecure and deeply uncomfortable in social situations. He abused his power hideously, and yet there were aspects of his legacy that were good and lasting (such as the decision to float exchange rates or the start of normalising relations with China). As always, though, it is impossible to know the mind of the man, which only makes the two scenes in question all the more interesting. Both are private conversations between Frost and Nixon. In the first, Nixon drunkenly calls Frost. Wikipedia notes that Brennan maintains this is fiction and that Nixon rarely drank. Perhaps, but volume one of Kissinger's memoirs, covering the first term of the presidency, gives examples of just such calls. And even if not, Nixon's explanation of what drives him is among the most convincing parts of the film and helps provide a convincing explanation of his behaviour.

Plenty of niggles then, none of which stop it from being a great and extremely compelling film, and, I would suggest, a valuable insight into the two men.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

Lazarev and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra

Recently, it was announced that the RSNO's truncated Edinburgh season would be further shredded as the last two concerts, which had at least been expected to make it to the Usher Hall, would no longer take place (though they are offering free train travel to catch the Glasgow equivalents). In some respects, that made Friday's Festival Theatre offering the more precious. But, sadly, only in some respects.

By coincidence, less than a week after encountering him at the Festival Hall with the Philharmonia, Alexander Lazarev once again crossed my concert going path and, again, there was a high proportion of Russian music on the menu, though this time it was much less familiar to me. Owing to a need to build up flexi time for my trip to London next weekend, I had worked late, and almost decided not to go; it was something of a rush as it was. From the first notes, I was wide awake and most glad to have come.

He began with a Dvorak tone poem, long amongst my favourite parts of that composer's repertoire. The Water Goblin was the particular offering. Lazarev gave a lively and engaging reading, displaying many of the hallmarks he had found with the Philharmonia, not least bringing out from the orchestra an impressive co-ordination and dexterity in the faster moments. However, there was no shortage of tenderness to accompany this and, in general, he was much more convincing this time in the transitions between loud and quite moments.

Then things started to go wrong. Actually, in truth they had begun to go wrong fractionally sooner. This being the festival theatre, there was a front of house manager who is incapable of doing their job properly. During the quietest moment of the Dvorak, several people were let in noisily to the dress circle. Indeed, people seemed constantly to be being admitted. Why can they not wait of a suitable break like every other venue? For that matter, why on earth do they print on their tickets a warning to that effect, since they never stick to it. I have made this complaint before, but clearly I need to make it again. Would the theatre's management please give their FOH team the necessary instruction and if they still won't learn, hire some competent people: this isn't difficult to do right, if you don't believe me, visit the Royal Opera House.

Unfortunately, things went awry musically as well as violinist Alexandra Soumm took to the stage. She was to play the Glazunov violin concerto, a work new to me. Sadly, where the Dvorak had been invigorating, the Glazunov was soporific and even staying awake through the single movement (though three section) work was a bit of a challenge, too much of a challenge for the gentleman two rows in front of me who dozed throughout. It wasn't the case that the orchestra played badly, just that the work seemed to hold little of interest. Written in 1904, it only made me think how many better and more exciting concertos had been passed up.

Perhaps there are wonders in the work which can be brought out by the right soloist, certainly it would be interesting to know what Rachel Barton Pine would do with it. Interestingly, she was the last violin soloist we came across in the venue, and what a contrast. Soumm was uninspiring and found little of interest in the score.

Fortunately, better was to be had after the interval in Borodin's second symphony. The programme didn't attempt to sell it short, with Robin Versteeg describing it as arguably the greatest achievement in Russian symphonic writing (which brings to my mind a line I'm certain is from Humphrey Littelton to the effect that something is not an argument that anybody has ever won; infuriatingly, I can't remember to what he is referring, answers on a postcard, or in the comments please). Certainly it was a nice enough piece, but greatest? Even if I didn't take against sentences that run along the lines of "greatest ever...." I'd struggle with that. It seems a pretty poor cousin next to the passion and drama one finds in such works as Tchaikovsky's 6th (speaking of which, Mackerras conducts it with the Philharmonia next Sunday) or Shostakovich's 11th. It seemed much more a collection of ideas that happened to have been put together, rather than being bound in a common vision. While I'm glad to have heard it, I certainly won't rush to do so again. The orchestra played well, though Lazarev had them rather too loud rather too much of the time.

A mixed bag then. Roll on next year when the RSO will, with any luck, be back in their regular home (oh, and Donald Runnicles will have taken up his post with the BBC Scottish).

Update: 23/2/09

Well, after an arduous (okay, highly entertaining) few weeks listening through almost my entire collection of I'm Sorry I haven't a Clue recordings, I've finally tracked down the quote. For those who care, it comes in Volume Seven of the BBC's releases of the show, on track seven of disc two. In the words of the late, great Humph:

The teams are going to sing for us now in the round called Just a Minim. This is a musical version of the wireless classic Just a Minute, hosted by Nicholas Parsons, who is arguably the wittiest man on radio [long pause] though it's not an argument anybody's ever won.

Fifteen hours of listening well spent, you will doubtless agree (for some reason I started with the anniversary special).

Hands of Ruin - Subterranean

A little while back, I reviewed my cousin Colin (who records as Hands of Ruin)'s first EP, Falling Light. More recently a second has been released, entitled Subterranean. One big difference is that this is released under a Creative Commons licence, meaning it is freely downloadable, and, so long as credit is given, can be remixed, if your in to, or up to, that. Given the obvious conflict of interest, this review carries the Shameless Plugs tag.

Before tackling the new disc, I want to address some comments in my earlier review which serve to underscore a fascinating distinction in how the two of us think about music. I'd described things in terms of instruments, there was one comment in particular about a bass guitar, assuming that the track had been electronically synthesised in that manner. However, this isn't the case, rather he works in terms of sound waves - starting possibly with a sine wave, distorting it, interrupting it, filtering it, stretching it, or something else, and then layering these things in order to put the sounds together. Coming mainly from the classical sphere, I instead think much more in terms of instrumental sounds (though I've been helped in relearning the trombone by thinking of the physics of the instrument).

At first listen, it seems rather different to Falling Light. Less vivid, and arguably darker. Thinking, still in classical terms, what I would call the orchestration, or instrumentation, seems sparser. There is something barren about the musical landscape he is evoking, but in a good way.

The disc begins with Entering and a series of interrupted and distorted chords. This short track seems to serve mainly as an introduction to what follows, which is Subterranean Flames, intriguingly titled as the second version. This is built upon a similarly altered series of chords, and yet with a more spacious feel.

Track three, entitled Earls Court, starts and, indeed, seems dominated by a musical jumble of static. Behind this a Martin Luther King speech seems to have been added (at least, I think it's King, it is hard to be certain with the distortion).

The final track, The Long Hour, is very nearly as long as the rest put together. This opens with a sound not unlike strange electronic rain drops falling on a strange electronic tin roof. Big echoing chords are then built atop this, though as the piece progresses these become darker and more confined, more underground, before fading away to nothing.

Interestingly, it doesn't feel all that Subterranean to me. Evocative of a desolate place, certainly, but more open than enclosed.

These tracks don't appear to be built up in the same way as Falling Light's felt as though they were. There it often felt like elements were added throughout the track with the scaffolding then being removed at the finish; here the forms seem much freer (Subterranean Flames being an exception to this).

Again, however, it is a fine effort and one which rewards repeated listening. And, this time it's free to boot, so what have you got to lose? Pop over to the Hands of Ruin site and download it, and if you like it, why not pick up Falling Light, if you haven't already.

Where's Runnicles eagerly awaits the next instalment.

The Milk Train - How far it came, and how far it has yet to go

A little while back, I was in the cinema and there was a slew of trailers, all of which I wanted to see. This is, to say the least, unusual. One of them was Frost/Nixon (of which, hopefully, more next week), the second was Milk.

Dedicated readers of this blog will already be familiar with the story of America's first openly gay elected official, Harvey Milk. This is because his life story has been dramatised before in an eponymous opera. Donald Runnicles conducted the world premiere and also a CD recording, which we reviewed a year and a half ago.

I would put in a spoiler warning, and, indeed, I warned friends off reading reviews that gave away that Milk is assassinated. However, since that is revealed in practically the first sentence of the film, there seems little point. That said, I will not go so far as the Metro and reveal the assassin's identity. Of course, I knew this going in, but there was still some suspense. In some ways, revealing the death at the outset is an effective, and well tested, trick for heightening this.

The film covers a much shorter period than the opera, which broadly, very broadly, charts Milk's whole life. Instead, Gus Van Saint limits himself to just the last eight years. This is probably a correct decision, since it is the politically and historically interesting portion of Milk's life (one of the people I saw the film with remarked that they'd have liked a little more of his personal life, but I disagree - the personal lives of celebrities are rarely as interesting as their public achievements). The film is narrated by Sean Penn, as Milk, recording a tape of his political last will. Such a tape genuinely existed, and was featured at the close of the opera, so one assumes this dialogue is faithful.

At the start of 1972 Milk and his lover Scott Smith move to San Francisco and to the Castro neighbourhood. Here he sets up a camera shop but is ostracised by more conservative elements of the local community and harassed by the police. Milk begins to organise, at first boycotts of unfriendly merchants, but this soon moves into a series of election campaigns, culminating in his successful run for city supervisor.

Along the way there are some powerful moments of history, not least the fight again proposition six, spearheaded by the likes of evangelical singer Anita Bryant (a move to allow gay teachers to be fired). There is an especially strong scene where Milk debates the issue with an opponent in ultra-conservative Orange County, blithely asking how on earth they meant to identify them and where he fights back against efforts to conflate the issue with paedophilia. We also see his political skill, as he uses mobs and protests to advance the cause and how he uses an ordinance that became known as the "pooper scooper law" to build support more widely (indeed Wikipedia indicates that a photo opportunity where he stepped in the offending substance was carefully planned).

Supporting roles are very strongly filled, particularly by Josh Brolin as a rival, and more conservative, supervisor Dan White and Emile Hirsch as Cleve Jones; as a fan of the show Alias and the musicals of Sondheim, it's great to see Victor Garber as Mayor Moscone. In the closing credits we see photos of actors and the people they portray side by side, the resemblances are striking (the more so as the performances indicate that they were not chosen solely on that basis). It's also interest that Diane Feinstein, a fellow commissioner, and now a senator for California, taking such a marginal role, particularly when she features relatively prominently in the opera.

The film ends with archive footage (as is often blended in through the movie) of the candlelit march in his memory. This contrasts poignantly
with the more raucous marches he has earlier led to city hall. It is a film very well worth seeing.

However, overall it paints a picture of a man who genuinely made life better for a persecuted minority. And yet, and yet... One cannot help thinking back to November and the result of another ballot in the golden state, proposition 8, which banned gay marriage. Such bans have sprung up across the union. Doubly depressing that this took place in the year another minority made it to the white house. Even here in Britain we are not immune. On Thursday evening I read in the Scotsman of the indignation of a mother whose children had long since been taken from her; the source of her outrage, however, was that they were now to be adopted by a gay couple. The Milk Train has a way to travel yet.

(Interestingly, the expression, The Milk Train, meaning the movement Milk spawned in his campaigns, and which forms the basis of a big number in the opera, finds no mention in the film.)