Four score and two years ago, well, just less than two altogether, if we're being truthful, two Edinburgh based brothers established a website to review things that the Edinburgh International Festival was putting on. The only difficulty was finding a name for the thing. Where's Runnicles? was one of our principal complaints about 2007's festival (and, indeed, 2008's, the other being the absence of Mackerras, which was rectified last year).
In the time that's passed since then, our complaint has been steadily chipped away at, first as he was named the new chief conductor of the BBC Scottish (his first season is due to be unveiled shortly), followed by not one, but two concerts with them. However, all that action has been in Glasgow. Today, with the release of the 2009 Programme, marks the announcement of Donald Runnicles' first concert in Edinburgh since our foundation (you'll need Flash to view the link, via twitter, the festival, follow them here, promise a PDF download soon). On Monday the 31st August he will join the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra for a programme that includes Strauss's Don Quixote and Brahms' double concerto. I can't wait.
But, of course, the Edinburgh festival is about more than just Donald Runnicles. One of the things I like about Jonathan Mills, who must now be feeling fairly settled as he announces his third programme, is that he aims for a more coherent vision, thematically. What, then, are the themes this year?
Well, it's Handel's 250th birthday and that means opera (which Radio 3 are celebrating quite pathetically - yes it's great they're doing all the operas, but splitting them an act a day as they have been is just useless). It's been a complaint in recent years that we could have had more, not so this year. Granted, much of it is in concert, but one mustn't quibble. For the first time in a while the opening concert comes from the SCO with Judas Maccabaeus (what a shame Handel supremo Charles Mackerras is not on hand to kick start the celebrations). There is also Rinaldo and Acis & Galatea.
Elsewhere in opera, Verdi's Macbeth makes a return, last seen with Mackerras, the SCO and Violetta Urmana in 2003. This time round it's the BBC Scottish and David Robertson, who did such a fine job with Meistersinger in 2006. Wagner is supplied by a concert Flying Dutchman from the Hamburg State Opera. There is some opera on stage, including a new work St Kilda and Handel's Admento Re di Thessaglia. Interestingly, though, nothing from Scottish Opera themselves.
There's also a fair bit of ballet and theatre, but mostly beyond my knowledge to comment on at this stage, though I may well give one or two things a try.
At Greyfriars (and, honestly, extremely steeply priced for one hour in unreserved seating, some of which has no visibility at all) is a series of early evening Bach cantata concerts. Masaaki Suzuki is here on 25th August and, the one I shalln't miss, so too is Carolyn Sampson on 2nd September (she gave a stunning recital at Aldeburgh last year). One last bit of Bach comes in the final week at the Usher Hall with Gardiner on much surer ground than he has been recently with Brahms.
Things aren't perfect, and one does detect the influence of strained purse strings. The big European orchestras are notable in their absence. So too, more puzzlingly, are the big youth orchestras - where is the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchestra? Mendelssohn's Elijah is surely an odd choice, given the SCO did it here only a few months ago. It's a shame, too, that Sakari Oramo and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra aren't returning after their blinding concert last year.
However, we do have Orchestre des Champs-Elysees with two programmes and the Philharmonia under their new chief conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, in a programme including Janacek's sinfionietta and his own piano concerto. Speaking of Janacek, Charles Mackerras, the master of that composer, is here on 26th August with the SCO to perform Haydn's Seven last words of our saviour on the cross. Mahler too makes a return, not heard since 2006, with Zinman and the Zurich Tonhalle (who have received rave reviews, but whose Mahler I've found rather ordinary); oddly, they play the fourth symphony, which is the last one we heard at a festival (then from Rattle and the Berliners). There's a fair bit of Brahms this year, more than we've seen since Mackerras's 2003 cycle. In addition to Runnicles, Metzmacher brings the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin for a programme including the fourth symphony.
But I've not mentioned our third local orchestra. The RSNO have some treats in store for us too - Deneve is on sure ground (after his superb Faust earlier this year) for Berlioz's Romeo et Juliette. Earlier in proceedings, they will play a programme of new music by Scottish composers under Paul Daniel.
In the Queen's Hall what we, sadly, don't see is the return of the Jerusalem Quartet. A pity, since I was hoping to be able to show solidarity with them after the quite shameful way they were treated least year (shameful and stupid - I know a lot of people, sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, who were strong in their condemnation of the protesters and felt they'd shot themselves squarely in their feet, not least because two members of the Quartet work with Barenboim's West-Eastern Divan Orchestra). However, we do get Christian Zacharias, the Arditti and Emerson Quartets, and Britten's Phantasy Quartet.
Perhaps rather obviously, and as it did in 2003 (we've seen 2003 a lot in this piece, did Mr Mills gain some inspiration from that programme?), the firework concert is all Handel, including Zadok the Priest and part of the firework music, sadly this won't be in the original wind orchestration. The closing concert, the previous evening, features Mark Elder and the Halle for The Dream of Gerontius.
All in all, I can't wait.
Update - 27/3/09
PDF brochure now available for download here.
Wednesday, 25 March 2009
Four score and two years ago, well, just less than two altogether, if we're being truthful, two Edinburgh based brothers established a website to review things that the Edinburgh International Festival was putting on. The only difficulty was finding a name for the thing. Where's Runnicles? was one of our principal complaints about 2007's festival (and, indeed, 2008's, the other being the absence of Mackerras, which was rectified last year).
Tuesday, 24 March 2009
I want to write a nice review, I really do. And, purely on musical terms, I can, so I think what I'm going to do is just talk about that and confine my ranting to the final paragraphs (well, more or less).
Owing partly to the absence of the Usher Hall this year (something I am assured will not be the case next year, though having walked past it a couple of times recently, I'm a little concerned), it's been far too long, over a month and a half, since I last heard the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in concert. Sunday's programme was the first of two (for some reason I don't appear to have booked for the other) themed around Paris, Paris with Style being the title of part one.
Deneve began with reduced forces for Mozart's 31st Paris symphony. While there was nothing wrong with it, I have heard it in the concert hall only a few months ago (unaccountably I haven't written a review); then it was played to perfection by those masters of late Mozart: Mackerras and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Certainly the RSNO had nothing to be ashamed of, but in comparison they didn't quite have the same tightness or bounce.
Things picked up considerably with Rossini's Sinfonia from Il viaggio a Reims, one of his many, many operas. It was fine in every way I felt the Mozart was lacking slightly. The orchestra positively sparkled, with oboist Emmanuel Laville on especially fine form in his solo.
Things only got better after the first interval (of which more anon, I'm not going to rant now) as we moved to even firmer Deneve territory with Francis Poulenc. Anyone who doubts how fine a combination this team is here clearly wasn't at their 2007 festival concert. First up was his harpsichord concerto. Now, initially I had my doubts as to how well even a more modern instrument could blend with a big symphony orchestra, but as the piece progressed these were washed away, not least by Jory Vinikour's superb playing. Some may feel the instrument lacks range, but I think this provided a showcase to the contrary as peddles were kicked to alter the texture of the instrument as needed. There was then a pause as the stage was rearranged for something even finer in the form of Poulenc's concerto for two pianos. Pianists Frank Braley and Eric Le Sage were well matched and played superbly with no hint of thumping. It was a glorious piece and once again reminded me I really must pad out my music collection as far as Poulenc is concerned. Pity those at the interval who commented that they didn't really warm to the composer and seemed to have found Vinikour's bright red socks the most interesting thing.
This was hard programming to top, and though fine, the third half (why, sorry, I was going to save that for the end) didn't entirely manage it. Ibert's Suite symphonique Paris was interesting, and superbly played, conveying various images of the city including the metro (not nearly as vivid as Nymann's DGV: Musique a Grande Vitesse) and most finely a picture of an ocean liner.
The finale was a bit of fun in the form of Offenbach and an arrangement by Manuel Rosenthal of various pieces culminating in the Can-Can. Certainly, it was extremely well played, especially from the brass (and having played the overture to Orphee aux enfers, I can note that it isn't particularly easy, though perhaps that only indicates how inept a trombonist I am myself), but the highlights were in the second half.
So what could I possibly have to complain about amid such gems? Well, first, first off it was too long (not quite so bad as the 2005 Bamberg epic) but unless there is one vast work that calls for it, three hours is too long for a concert, it would have bee more satisfying just to have the best bits (the Rossini, the Poulenc and the Ibert, say).
A bigger complaint was the presentation. Deneve insisted on talking constantly, and saying nothing of any particular interest, for several minutes before almost every piece: did we really need to know that Rossini was very fond of cooking? Compare his discussion of the different middle movements of the Paris symphony with Mackerras's detailed exposition of the differences and the history in Glasgow. But it was worse even than that, he spent the first few minutes speaking in French with a translation projected on the screen behind him. This was not half as funny as they seemed to think. The projector didn't go away: it showed largely pointless slides throughout is speaking (I have nothing against the language mind, it's just that when you're addressing an audience that doesn't, for the most part, speak it, or speak it well, what's the point?). Worse, it remained on while they played. Did we really need the first page of the score projected illegibly during the Paris symphony or a cartoon of Rossini during his piece. Worse, to make the screen visible the lights were turned down low so one didn't have nearly as good a view of the orchestra as would normally be the case (as was painfully illustrated when they faded up the lights so they could take bow).
They showed a DVD in between the Poulenc concerti, to cover the time moving the pianos and harpsichord (had they opted for a more sensible length, this could have been done in the interval). This had the potential to be interesting, but all we really learnt was that the composer scored pretty terribly at most of his subjects at school and largely blagged his way through.
It got worse. A static image is at least ignorable. In the third half we got live mixed video images, showing mostly Ibert's Paris (though in the second movement, they didn't seem to be showing the suburb). It was extremely distracting, in the manner of a TV in a pub, only worse. It would have been fine if it had actually added something; it didn't. Okay, you can close your eyes, but I like to actually watch the orchestra.
Arts organisations are supposedly struggling for cash these days, so you would think that this kind of silliness would be the first to go. We can only hope. It's a terrible shame because, musically speaking, the evening ranged from good to superb. Had it been recorded for broadcast, I'd be urging you to listen; it wasn't, but I'm lukewarm about recommending next weekand, and whether or not such things as I've moaned about get your goat too will determine whether or not you should take the trip.
Monday, 23 March 2009
If I thought six pieces of new music in one concert was impressive, Garth Knox clearly felt himself up to the challenge by playing seven, albeit none of the them premieres, in this ecat (Edinburgh Contemporary Arts Trust) concert. He faced, perhaps, a bigger challenge as one might not necessarily imagine the viola could sustain a whole concert, certainly I had my doubts. Such concerns were unfounded and Knox quickly erased them.
I've complained before about artists talking too much. Knox spoke before each piece, but it never seemed superfluous - he shared a player's insights of a kind that were not contained in the programme, comparing one piece to a bagpipe (where you cannot play two notes the same in a row, leading to the distinctive style in which they are played) or demonstrating nearly four part harmony in Bach prior to the final Berio piece.
The first piece was probably least to my taste. I had prolonged exposure to Gyorgy Kurtag at last year's Aldeburgh Festival and didn't really warm to him. Jelek suffered from many of the same problems. Certainly there were some interesting sounds now and again, but the series of fragments didn't seem to hang together as a cohesive whole.
James Dillon's Siorram, which translates from Gaelic as "in an enchanted sleep", was much better. Dreamy, impressionistic and misty, it was an interesting piece and one I'd like to hear again.
This was followed by Salvatore Sciarrino's Three Notturni Brillanti (brilliant, as in bright, nocturnes). At times highly dextrous, to the point that several composer friends I spoke to in the interval expressed curiosity as to how it was written on the score, but played very well.
The highlight of the first half, however, was Gyorgy Ligeti, who never fails to impress me, and his sonata. Sadly only the first and fourth movements were played. The piece was doubly interesting for its use of only the bottom C string of the instrument in the first movement, and while this might seem a limiting factor, it did not sound to be. I would dearly love to hear the rest of it.
The first piece after the interval was Roland Moser's Poem / Anecdote. It is not given much elucidation by a full quote of the programme note:
(That's not a mistake, the programme is intentionally blank at this point.) Moser took a poem and an anecdote and stripped them of all the words, leaving only the punctuation and lines indicating the space between. The only instruction being the that they be played in the style of a poem and an anecdote respectively. This Knox did - the extent to which it was improvised or planned was unclear, though he did say that it's different every time he plays it. Certainly, the style of the two pieces was very different: the poem romantic and slow; the anecdote witty and at times hurried (with the three bells Knox mentioned it contains coming through clearly).
The finale came in form of Luciano Berio's Sequenza VI (the sixth in his series of compositions for solo instruments in the sixties). Apparently something of a challenge to play, Berio wanted four part harmony, which, obviously, the way the strings are placed, and the nature of the flat bow, is impossible on the viola in the strictest sense. The only way round this is to play very loud and very fast, creating a wall of sound. In a manner reminiscent of that Aldeburgh concert, six music stands were arrayed across the stage, and Knox traversed them and the music impressively.
He was well received and gave us a lovely Henze miniature as an encore. However, neither the finale, nor the encore, nor the Ligeti was the evening's highlight. This came from Knox's own Viola Spaces, essentially a series of etudes, they were originally devised as teaching exercises. The first Nine Fingers was so called because it is all pizzicato and all bar the left thumb are used. He showcased a glorious range of colour and texture that one seldom hears from the instrument, at times it was more reminiscent of a lute. This was followed by Ghosts, played entirely on the strings over the fingerboard (the outer strings producing no more than a hiss). It wasn't quite successful, and perhaps not quite as spooky as need be for the title, but nice none the less. Then came Up, down, sideways, round, an exercise in bowing techniques, such as bouncing it on the strings, sliding it up and down lengthways, moving it in circles and using the 'wrong' sound of the bow. It was quite wonderful.
Throughout, Knox's playing was of the highest standards technically and he performed with a nicely understated charisma. It was an enjoyable evening and makes me question why I haven't got to any of ecat's concerts in the past, certainly I shall be doing so in the future. It is a great shame, however, that the hall wasn't fuller, perhaps only seventy or so people attending. It's a pity Edinburgh is often so cool to new music, given there are so many wonders to hear.
Sunday, 15 March 2009
I was nearly caught out by this weekend's second concert from the Concertgebouw - it was an afternoon matinee and I was expecting a normal evening kick-off. Still, such starts are remarkably civilised and allow one to type up a review without staying up into the small hours of the morning and enable dinner to be eaten at a civilised time.
Sunday's programme contained just two works. In the first half was Schumann's piano concerto in A minor, op.54. The soloist was Murray Perahia, very highly regarded, but someone with whom I've never quite managed to connect. I bought his cycle of the Mozart piano concerti with the English Chamber Orchestra, which receives rave reviews and a Penguin Guide rosette and yet fails to grab me at all (excepting the first four, which aren't solely Mozart). Indeed, they initially had me thinking that perhaps the works were not for me, until I came across the likes of Barenboim, Brendel, Uchida and Zacharias. Listening to this performance, I struggled to understand why I don't like him. Technically it was a strong performance and he didn't go in for the excessive thumping I can't stand. However, for whatever reason, his playing simply doesn't seem to speak to me. Others will not (and did not appear to) have this problem. The Concertgebouw played superbly. And yet, something was lacking here too. I think Schumann, like Mendelssohn, benefits from plenty of oomph and emotion from the conductor, which is why I prefer the recordings of Furtwangler or Bernstein.
After the interval it was the turn of Bruckner and the ninth. Haitink took the start fairly slowly and the orchestra delivered perhaps their finest playing of the weekend. The best moments came with the sheer excitement they delivered in the scherzo, Haitink holding his pauses to good effect. The outer movements were a little less successful. They didn't seem to have quite the flow that was there when Volkov and the BBC Scottish played them in Glasgow recently. Haitink did bring out the Wagnerian themes wonderfully though, reminding me of the things I love about his Bavarian Ring cycle (hobbled by Eva Marton's police siren like Brunnhilde) which offers so much orchestral beauty.
Of course, it is probably true that the Concertgebouw are a finer ensemble than the BBC Scottish, and certainly their beautiful and rich sound is a wonder to hear. However, the gap is very much closer than some might imagine (and I don't just think that's a personal bias for a local team).
Often, when I write reviews, I single out one or two sections of players who have especially impressed me. I'm conscious that I haven't done that with either this afternoon's or last night's programme. During the Bruckner I realised why. The Concertgebouw is one of the most superbly balanced ensembles it has been my pleasure to hear. Nobody stands out particularly because all are playing so well. It is a treat to hear them, and you should seize the chance if you get it. They return in December for programmes that include Brahms' fourth symphony and Mahler's resurrection. The main difference will be that the conductor then will be Mariss Jansons, one who I tend to be more in sympathy with and who is, in my view, one of the finest Mahlerians around today. I can't wait. (Now if only Mr Mills could entice them up to Edinburgh for the festival, and we could hear them in the better acoustic of the Usher Hall....)
I should really stop banging on about that list of greatest orchestras that appeared in a certain well known classical magazine. However, it did put the Concertgebouw top and I've never before heard them in the flesh, though I have been impressed with many of their recordings (Bernstein conducting Mahler's first symphony, Jansons doing Strauss's Alpensinfonie and Haitink conducting Mahler's third being three that stand out especially in my memory). However, they have been high on my list of orchestras I want to hear one day. It's therefore been nice to cross them off today.
My one regret about the programme is that there was no Mahler and there is none tomorrow, and, with the wonderful richness of their sound and especially their wind, I think they have a particular affinity for the composer.
Saturday's programme started with Mozart's Haffner symphony, K385. This was very nicely played and Haitink took it at a fairly brisk tempo. While it was very enjoyable, there was little by way of the wow moments which I feel are one of the key markers of orchestral greatness. My only quibble is that I would have liked the winds more prominently balanced, but this may well be the fault of the acoustic.
The orchestra's full forces then filled out the stage for Debussy's La Mer. By a curious quirk of fate, the last time I heard this it was being played by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, of whom I'm immensely fond, and who share their chief conductor, Mariss Jansons, with the Concertgebouw. I said then that I don't care for the piece. I'm afraid Haitink and the Concertgebouw didn't change my mind. That's not to say there wasn't some beautiful and, indeed, some wowing playing. There most certainly was and the score provides some moments for an ensemble to really show off. Unfortunately, the bottom line is that I find the whole work a little banal. (This problem may now have been replaced as during the interval someone told me about a Peter Cook and Dudley Moore sketch, which I sadly cannot locate on the internet, where Cook explained that it was all about the composer's silver haired mother and her tea trolley. That's what has happened with the main theme from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake where all I can hear is Graham Garden singing I've got a lovely bunch of coconuts, that one's I'm Sorry I haven't a Clue's fault.) The work's other problem is that, try as I might, it doesn't evoke the slightest spark of the sea. Contrast this with Peter Grimes, whose virtually every bar seems imbued with its presence, beauty or power.
After the interval it was Beethoven and the seventh symphony. Haitink has recently won plaudits for his Beethoven, most notably with the LSO Live cycle. That hasn't completely grabbed me. Sitting somewhere I have some notes on it waiting to be typed up into a review. However, the short version is that I think the disc of the fourth and eighth symphonies is phenomenal and amongst the finest recordings of either but that the rest is fairly unremarkable. I've also heard some pretty memorable sevenths over the years, most recently Mackerras/SCO but also a thrilling reading from Daniel Harding at Aldeburgh six years ago. Haitink's view didn't entirely grab me. He is generally a conductor who doesn't go in for a lot of emotion. This can be a good thing: Leonard Bernstein sometimes went far too far the other way. But it can also feel a little cold as was the case here. The first movement was somewhat to solemn and grand, and while this works well in the eroica, in this work I don't find it convincing; I prefer sheer unadulterated joy. The transition to the main theme of the first movement should have unbearable tension, it didn't. His approach did suit the slow movement much better though. It was extremely beautiful and further enhanced by the orchestra's wonderfully rich playing. But the last two movements shared the first's problems. Certainly he took the finale at quite a lick, and yet it just didn't quite seem to sweep me away with excitement. When Mackerras played it, he left me on the edge of my seat and exhausted.
I was in a minority though as the reception was very warm (and a number of people stood), though I could hear a sound from one quarter that sounded like booing (I think the acoustic must have been tricking my ears, because that makes no sense).
So, are they the best in the world? Well, I don't like singling one out at the best of times. They do have a very special sound, and one that I think is unique. I had worried that the Barbican's notorious acoustic would remove this richness. Certainly I think hearing them in the Usher Hall or the Concertgebouw would have been better, but their special flavour was still very much in evidence. There's no doubt they play very well indeed, but so do many others. They did not absolutely blow me away as other ensembles have (but that may be the repertoire).
They're are here again tomorrow for a programme that includes Schumann's piano concerto (with Murray Perahia) and Bruckner's ninth. I hadn't realised when I was sorting out my tickets out this year, but that means two Bruckner nines in almost as many weeks; I wonder how they will compare to the BBC Scottish. Interestingly, Runnicles ranks the latter amongst the finest ensembles in the world. Of course, Haitink is a fine Brucknerian..... Watch this space.
Saturday, 14 March 2009
John Adams is not one to pick a conventional subject for an opera: Nixon's visit to China, the cruise liner hijacking that led to the Death of Klinghoffer and now the Manhattan project: the programme which developed the atom bomb.
This isn't the first time I've seen the opera, or indeed this production. It is a co-production with the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and was broadcast to cinemas in the autumn. In part then, seeing it in the flesh provides a fascinating contrast. I've tended to think the Met cinecast is a pretty good substitute for the real thing (certainly I very much enjoyed the Runnicles/Peter Grimes). Dr Atomic was powerful in the cinema; however, the biggest difference is the that the video director's fondness for close ups seems to have lost a lot of the scale of the production. I've often said that on videos and DVDs, and especially something as big screened as the the cinema, I just want a view from the stalls as the camera often doesn't go where my ear is telling my eyes to look.
During the overture, a semi-transparent screen displayed the periodic table. For reasons that were and are not clear, four were blacked out: Technetium (atomic number 43), Promethium (61), Lutetium (71) and Francium (87). Three of the four, excluding Lutetium are found in Uranium ore, but otherwise I can find no connection. Possibly some malfunction with the projector seems a more reasonably explanation. True, my A-level chemistry is some years behind me, but if you're going to do something like that there should be a reason that does not require a Ph.D to determine (suggests welcome in the comments).
The curtain rose to reveal a giant three story truck, the face of which was covered with three rows of mug shots of participants at Los Alamos, one that reads like a veritable who's who of 20th century atomic physics: here an Oppenheimer, there a Feynman, a von Neumann, Teller, Fermi and more besides. These were projected onto blinds which lifted to reveal a chorus (notable for their poor diction) of atomic physicists at work on their blackboards. It irks slightly that when the young and idealistic Robert Wilson descends from behind his portrait, it is in fact von Neumann's (leading me to think that was who the character was for the entire first act). Another minor niggle is that when the libretto describes the polyhedrons that are the basis for the arrangement of the explosives that will trigger the chain reaction, a completely different one is projected.
We then join Oppenheimer (superbly sung and acted, as at the Met, by Gerald Finley; indeed, he seems to have sung the role in every production to date and this shows in his command of it), the somewhat sardonic Edward Teller (Brindley Sherratt, also very fine) and later Wilson (Thomas Glenn) as they discuss the project.
These are three of the most complicated and interesting characters I've seen in an opera for some time. You see the culture clash between an army and a government that simply want the job done and the collection of cerebral intellectuals they have assembled to do it, prone to doubt, question and tangents. We hear Oppenheimer speculate on the extent to which science can, or should, determine policy; Teller reads a letter from a colleague requesting the scientists to petition against the dropping of the bomb; Wilson attempts to organise a meeting to consider the consequences of the 'gadget'.
We see, in the second scene, the toll the project takes on the director in his slightly dysfunctional home life and his relationship with Kitty Oppenheimer (Sasha Cooke). Some felt this wasn't then taken anywhere in the remainder of the piece, but I think its presence hangs over the work in a effective way.
The action then jumps to the test site at Trinity on the night of 15th July 1945, on the eve of the first test. A storm is raging and General Groves berates meteorologist Frank Hubbard (Roderick Earle) for failing to predict fine weather for the test, the urgency of which is dictated by a desire to announce a successful test at the Potsdam conference (between Truman, Stalin and Churchill - in truth Truman did indeed announce that they had tested a weapon of unimaginable power, Stalin gave no reaction, causing Truman to query whether he had understood; as it turned out, he already knew the details of the project due to security leaks). Jonathan Veira sings the general well enough, but in contrast to the physicists, it as one dimensional caricature, though quite funny at times, not least in his diary of the extra calories he has gained from three slices of chocolate cake here or two brownies there.
The act culminates with one of the most one of the opera's most powerful moments: Oppenheimer reciting Jonn Donne's Batter my heart. Finley's performance here is quite exception, helped by the fact that Donne's words are so powerful. Oppenheimer quotes poetry at various points and this is fine except Peter Sellars libretto isn't so good in comparison.
The second act is a little different. It is dominated by the wait for the test as the scientists and army personnel wait, worry and joke (and even, at Teller's instigation, apply sunscreen at one point). This is intercut with Kitty drinking at home with her maid Pasqualita (Meredith Arwady) keeping vigil. Arwardy is not bad, per se, but not to my taste and something about her performance just doesn't quite seem to gel.
We see the scientists taking a pool on the yield of the bomb: from Oppenheimer's 300 kiloton fizzle to Teller's mocking of his colleagues' pessimism by predicting more than twice the gadget's blackboard potential. We see Teller express the real concern that the bomb might ignite the atmosphere.
As the scientists prepare to watch the test it seems that ENO couldn't afford as many pairs of goggles as the Met could. Then comes a rumbling sound that appears to shake the very foundations of the Coliseum. One could nitpick and mention that the sound of the bomb should come after the light, not before, yet this way yields a better and more dramatic climax and such concerns are willingly suspended.
Overall then, it's a strong work and was given a fine performance. The way, though much of the opera, the 'gadget' hangs ominously in the background is particularly powerful. The orchestra of ENO, under Lawrence Rense, were on fine form in what Donald Runnicles himself acknowledges is a tricky score (though, obviously, we wish the maestro, who premiered the piece, could have been in the pit).
It's effective that they haven't gone for the obvious choice and quoted Oppenheimer's quotation "I was reminded of the ancient Hindu text: I am become death, the destroyer of worlds." at the end. Instead, a Japanese woman is heard begging for water. It is devastating.
The length of silence before the first applause indicates this view was shared. The production was well received by the audience, many of whom appeared to be taking advantage of a cheap deal, with the loudest cheers deservedly reserved for Finley. See it if you can.
Lots of people certainly will, and are (if box office is anything to go by). Truth to tell, I feel a little guilty having watched it at all. After all, Alan Moore, the author, was implacably opposed to any filming and demanded his name be removed from the finished project and, in general, I like to respect the rights of the author. But this is one of the most powerful comic books of all time (I won't say greatest, as many will and do, because I don't like singling one out - I couldn't single out any one of my favourites, which also include John Byrne's Fantastic Four and Mark Waid's issues 501 to 511 of the same, Moore's V for Vendetta, Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and Joe Straczynski's extremely filmable Rising Stars) so I just had to see how it would turn out.
It's difficult to say. Certainly it didn't make me cross, which is no mean feat where a comic book adaptation is concerned: see Spider-man 3 if you don't believe me. The film is very faithful in many ways. It looks right. The plot is more or less the same. A lot of stuff from the twelve issues has had to fall by the wayside though, in order to crowbar the thing into three hours: don't hold your breath for the Black Freighter (a cunning allegorical comic book within the comic book), similarly the longer written articles at the end of each issue that provide much back story have fallen by the wayside. Though, in fairness to director Zack Snyder, he keeps an impressive chunk of this as the photographic backdrop to the credits. Nor, for that matter, will you learn how Rorschach got his mask.
The film opens, as does the comic, with the murder of Edward Blake (aka The Comedian). I think this scene contains one of my problems. The fight is more violent than the comic book and much longer. This is typical of several sequences and if some more restraint had been found here, perhaps more time could have been found for other things.
Aside from omission, there is one very significant change concerning the plan of the villain (I won't spoil things be revealing it). In truth, I don't object to this as much as some may well do - the spirit of Moore's idea is preserved, and the changes serve to abridge what would otherwise have taken too much time. That said, the fact that Manhattan hasn't created cheap and limitless power already doesn't satisfactorily explain why Hollis only services obsolete cars (as petrol is in Moore's original) or how Archie (Nite Owl II's incredible flying machine) is able to take flight: it clearly isn't employing a derivative of Frank Wittle's invention.
And yet, despite retaining the spirit of the idea, somehow the end doesn't carry the same weight (my brother suggests this is down to us not sympathising with Rorschach enough, and in particular his refusal to compromise). I find the fighting between the principals at the end disappointing: too much like a bunch of people with superpowers - similarly when Nite Owl II and Silk Spectre II break into a prison, they defeat far too many prisoners. It's not even particularly special as a set piece. Moore's characters are very human, and in some ways ordinary (Manhattan excepted), and so this contradicts.
Other things come off much better. Mars is superbly done, and what is chapter four of the comic, wherein Jon (Dr Manhattan) flicks back and forth through his past, illustrating how completely differently he sees time and space, in what is one of the finest examples of comic book writing that exists, is carried off well.
Most of the performances are fairly good (and the cast is largely unknown). Billy Crudup as Manhattan, Jeffrey Dean Morgan as The Comedian, Malin Akerman as Laurie Jupiter and Patrick Wilson as Dreiberg are all good. So too is Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach. But in Robert Wisden's Nixon one wishes for half the talent of Frank Langella (it's a shame for Wisden that the character has been so perfectly played so recently).
The music is also generally well done - I find it interesting to see Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah used for a happy moment for once (in this case as the backdrop to a sex scene), this makes a change from its usual use to say something tragic has happened.
Other things work less well. Obviously, it being a film, there's no easy way to do quotes that finish each chapter, but one of the key ones "two riders were approaching", is nicely done by playing Hendrix (All Along the Watchtower). Well, nice until the line comes, and the two characters are walking rather than riding! I haven't got my copy of the book on hand to check, but there seem to be a number of moments when Moore's dialogue has been needlessly replaced with inferior work.
One of the things about the about the comic is that Moore addresses something that most comics ignore: that these people would make the world utterly different. Snyder's mid eighties don't feel quite so different as Moore's did. That, and, ultimately, the fact that Moore may well be right, that the greatness of this book just can't translate to the silver screen. Not, say, in the way that Rising Stars could (and what a fabulous trilogy that would make).
These are little things but, ultimately, it's the little things that stop this from greatness. That's why I feel somewhat indifferent about this film. It's not bad, by any stretch. And yet, it isn't great either, and the comic book was. For me, it wasn't jaw dropping in the way of The Dark Night (and to a lesser extent Batman Begins), it didn't move me or make me think in the way Superman Returns or Spider-man 2 do.
Should you go and see it? If you read and love the book, you'll probably have to. I'm curious if you'll feel the same way. If you haven't, you've nothing to lose, and you may enjoy it, but your money would be better spent on the original: it will last longer and reward more greatly.
Sunday, 8 March 2009
As promised, in part three of my series rounding up the 2006 Edinburgh festival, which took place before the founding of this website, I tackle the Bruckner symphony cycle. In contrast to the Beethoven, which was one conductor, only two orchestras and out of chronological sequence, each Bruckner had a different conductor, there were many orchestras and the programme ran in order from one to nine (the zeroth and study symphonies were excluded).
The concerts all started at 9.30pm and so some (such as the Blomstedt eighth) ran to nearly 11pm. Again, like the Beethoven, it provided an opportunity to savour each symphony in isolation (or nearly so - often the 'masterwork' that McMaster had programmed in between left one a little musically full up).
As before, I originally wrote the quoted comments on Naim Audio forum. Similarly, I have sometimes added new comments (italicised and in square brackets). I have also made corrections to one or two typos, or added a full name here or there, and these changes are not indicated.
The cycle started on Tuesday 15th August 2006, already that night we'd had Beethoven's Erioca and Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, so one could all too easily have been tapped out. Fortunately, Sakari Oramo was on hand to wake us up:
However, the highlight of the evening was !SHOCK! not Mackerras! Instead, a disappointingly sold Bruckner 1 from Oramo and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. I have always been rather fond of this work and they played it to perfection. Oramo's energy on the podium is quite something and the way he held the tension in the work was just wonderful. I strongly recommend tuning in when BBC Radio 3 broadcast it in September (the other Bruckner performers now have a very tough act to follow).
I'd also add that I've never before (or since, for that matter) seen someone quite so hyperactive on the podium. He leapt around like a man possessed, arms waving in almost a blur, like a caricature. It calls to mind a comment by Mackerras some time ago that some conductors do a lot, others do a little, yet both methods can be equally effective (contrast Oramo with, say, Volkov).
Speaking of whom, while Ilan Volkov has had great success with Bruckner, his reading of the second wasn't quite so brilliant. It's worth noting that Thursday 17th's concert was one of only two occasions when the numbers of the Bruckner and Beethoven matched up.
This evening's second concert was a touch disappointing in contrast. Volkov and the BBC Scottish were on duty for Bruckner two, so I had high hopes as this team have impressed me greatly ever since I first heard them at a festival concert a few years back when they played Bluebeard's Castle.
And they played well tonight - some of the string playing and the woodwind (especially the bassoons) was wonderful. However, as whole, it didn't quite seem to hang together. Perhaps because this was the earlier version (where Bruckner placed the movements andante-scherzo) or perhaps because unlike the four other people I was with, I had not managed to have a glass of wine (or two) before hand. Interestingly though, of the 3 recordings I have, I notice both Jochum and Solti play it the same way with only Tintner choosing the later version [I no longer have the Tintner cycle, on Naxos, as I found it very dull]. I shall have to have another listen to Jochum some time and see how he pulls the work off [I still haven't got round to this yet...].
Certainly, it lacked the visceral excitement that Oramo and his band bought on Tuesday (but, in fairness, I think only part of that was down to Oramo, the rest to Bruckner himself).
Again it was disappointingly sold - I expect because the work is less known - it will be interesting to see how the crowds are for 4, 7, 8 and 9. I hope Runnicles gets a good one for 6 (which is one of my favourites). Then again, there seems to be a strong negative correlation between the size of the audience and the quality of their behaviour!
Saturday 19th brought Scotland's other big orchestra, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, for the third symphony:
Later in the evening we had Bruckner's 3rd from Herbig and the RSNO. I barely know the work but enjoyed it very much (even if I am finding the RSNO just too loud in places). I had felt that hearing the cycle might be a problem and things might get samey, but interestingly I'm not; indeed, I think it's remarkably illustrative of the way he developed.
The first Bruckner of week two came from the RSNO again. On Tuesday 22nd August the fourth symphony was preceded by Beethoven's sixth and Brahms' first piano concerto (from Goode, Fischer and the Budapest Festival orchestra):
I'm also wondering if 3 in a night is a mistake. Last night finished with the RSNO and Deneve playing Bruckner 4. It was an obscure edition of the score and, in my view, justly so [According to the programme, the Bruckner-Schalk-Lowe revision 1886-7]. I think any performance of the 4th is hard as in some ways the finest tune is the scherzo. Still, if that is what you come out humming, something has gone wrong [Contrast this with Jansons recent effort with the Bavarians].
None the less, it was interesting and I'm very glad to have heard it. More interesting to me though, is how the orchestra played for Deneve. I don't know if he's simply not a Brucknerian [Certainly the orchestra have played superbly for him in other repertoire], or perhaps the orchestra is getting Bruckner fatigue from its rather heavy schedule, but up until last night I was thinking I had them rather unfairly placed 3rd in the list of Scottish orchestras in my head [The more eagle-eyed may note this as being somewhat hypocritical given my rant against the Gramophone's list. I no longer keep any such list in my head.]. However, here again there was some rather patchy playing at times (including a very poor trumpet entry and a flautist who didn't quite seem there).
It also marked an interesting contrast to Mackerras. I may have said above that I don't think I've ever seen an orchestra as ruluctant to take a bow when instructed as the SCO are for him in the Beethoven (a former professional musician I know says they only do this for conductors they like). Interestingly, most orchestras you see go some way in this direction (if not to the SCO's recent lengths). Last night, almost before he had gestured they were on their feet.
Thursday the 24th, and it was again three in a night. Again, the first two protagonists had been Mackerras/SCO for Beethoven's fourth and Fischer/Budapest Festival for some Strauss. An ensemble new to the cycle then joined us for Bruckner's fifth:
However, 9:30 and Bruckner was wonderful. I think with the 5th we are into the area of symphonies I really love. The Rotterdam Philharmonic played wonderfully for Ingo Metzmacher and I was glad to be a little further back (some of these Bruckners have been so loud my ears have hurt ever so slightly). I love the way Bruckner builds this work and the way that towards the end so many of the themes from earlier movements make a return. If I had a criticism, it would be that some of the pauses could have been held a little better - there was perhaps not the absolute tension that sometimes is there. Still, after the 1st of Oramo, I have enjoyed this the most of the cycle. I cannot wait for Runnicles in 6 this evening.
Sure enough, come Saturday 26th August, Donald Runnicles did not disappoint with the sixth (perhaps my favourite of all the symphonies). Interestingly, Runnicles was also to be seen in the grand circle of the Usher Hall, listening to Mackerras's thrilling reading of Beethoven seven with the rest of us. Sadly, he was just too quick for me in leaving to obtain an autograph. It would be fascinating to know what he thought of the performance.
Next up came Runnicles and the BBC Scottish for Bruckner 6 (interestingly, or perhaps not, Runnicles had earlier been in the audience for the Beethoven). In some ways, this only heightened my regret that the Orchestra of St Luke's weren't able to make it.
He went at the Bruckner in a way I wasn't really expecting: this was not the biting tension of Herbig in the third, but something altogether more subtle yet no less compelling. The adagio in particular was beautifully lyrical.
There was a lovely moment in the finale when Runnicles was almost dancing on the podium and one could hear the orchestra dancing with him (this in marked contrast to some of the performances I've heard in recent days when the connection between the movements of the conductor and the sound heard is altogether more vague).
For me it was the highlight of the Bruckners so far (and well worth tuning in for when broadcast). And further indication, if any was needed, of what a fine conductor Runnicles is and why it's a crying shame he works so much in the states (well, good if your live out there, obviously, but I'm being selfish) and doesn't have a bigger discography [As readers will know, this is changing for the better, for those of us in Scotland anyway]. The orchestra seemed to have greatly enjoyed working with him too (they certain cheered and applauded him most enthusiastically).
It also served to indicate just how subjective these things can be - the power and impact that he conjured for the final bars was really something. But I was reminded that we'd heard the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra do the same piece last year, which prompted me to dig out my comments [see here for the full post]:
The second half was a good reading of Bruckner 6. Sadly the work suffers from the same problem as much of his writing, namely it gets a little repetitive at times, it is also one of his many works in which he neglected to save the best for last.
A year on and I find out how wrong I was - only going to show what a difference an interpretation can make.
The following day, Sunday 27th August, came the seventh and the return of the RSNO, this time with conductor Claus Peter Flor. I am not certain that the below represents an objective judgement. Already that evening we'd had a superb Beethoven 8th, followed by a magical and transcending performance of Messiaen's From the Canyons to the Stars.... Three in a night was certainly a mistake on that occasion:
And so to Bruckner. I'm no huge fan of the 7th (I think I prefer 6 or even 1) but it does have some lovely writing. And while Flor and the RSNO played very well (indeed, I have been struck how much better the orchestra have played for both their guests than they did for their chief conductor - see the 4th). However it lacked fire and didn't quite come off. Perhaps I am judging unfairly though, for whenever the music stopped it was the the Messiaen I could hear ringing in my mind.
The penultimate work made use of the Philharmonia, in town to play Beethoven's ninth two days later. On Wednesday 30th August they were joined by Herbert Blomstedt:
Later in the evening, Blomstedt led the Philharmonia in Bruckner 8. I must say, I found the playing a little ropey in places (strings and timpany were outstanding, but there were too many fluffed entries from the horns). I didn't really warm to Blomstedt's reading. The first two movements were nothing special one way or the other, but he really lost me in the third - all the beauty seemed to be lost and it was interminable [It was on the long side, as readings go, and would certainly not have fitted on one CD]. Indeed, the whole thing lacked tension. By the time the finale came, I must confess I was probably a little past caring. However, I was alone (save for the handful who had walked out [In fairness, this may have had more to do with the misleading programme which suggested all concerts in al three series lasted 'around an hour', which was sometimes off by more than half]), as everyone I went with loved it and the cheers rang out very loudly.
I wondered later how much of this is down to edition - he used the earlier Nowak (1887, I think [The programme states Bruckner-Schalk revision, 1890, ed Nowak]). My favourite reading of the work is from Furtwangler using the Haus edition which, it seems, is frowned upon these days. Then again, it strikes me that issues of edition alone shouldn't hold a work from being convincing. Either way, it makes me want to listen to the various ones I have on disk again [This I have done, and Furtwangler remains my favourite.].
The finale came on Friday 1st September and we were joined by another BBC orchestra, this time the London based BBC Symphony under Jiri Belohlavek:
The Bruckner series didn't end quite so convincingly. It was interesting to hear Belohlavek conducting the BBC Symphony (and I must say that I think the orchestra have been somewhat unfairly maligned in the press as they played well). However, his conducting suffered from many of the problems I noticed when he did Mahler 9 last year, albeit with the RSNO. The first 15 minutes or so didn't really hang together and thus the first movement dragged rather. The scherzo is one of Bruckner's finest, in my view, and they played it very well. As they did the lovely adagio, which I especially enjoy for all the Wagnerian 'influence', especially from Tristan.
So, was I right to attend all nine? I did miss a performance of Tchaikovsky's Mazeppa that was, by all accounts, superb. It is also certainly the case that some nights would have been better without three works (and I wouldn't have traded the Messiaen for anything). Still, I'm glad to have heard the nine in concert like this. Mills, the new director, hasn't repeated these symphony cycles. A shame, since others are ripe for it (how about eight concerts of Schubert and Sibelius, if you count Kullervo, or a cycle of Dvorak?). The logistics were certainly tight and the hall was often not as full as it might have been and so perhaps the economics just don't work. Who knows, perhaps Mills may offer us something along these lines when he launches the 2009 programme in April...
Saturday, 7 March 2009
I'm not sure if I ever have, even at Aldeburgh, where there is no shortage of new music. Certainly in Edinburgh it is a quite exceptional quantity. The concert was given by the Edinburgh Quartet and took place in St Giles Cathedral and, best of all, was free.
The six works came from the pens of six students at Napier University's Ian Tomlin School of Music (the Edinburgh Quartet are the resident ensemble of the School). I've attended several of the Quartet's concerts at the Stockbridge Parish Church this season which I've very much enjoyed (though not got round to reviewing). Those programmes (the next is this coming Wednesday) have featured a Haydn quartet and a Mendelssohn quartet, with something more modern sandwiched in between. They have played Mendelssohn with plenty of the energy and gusto which I think he needs in a good interpretation. In the last concert they also gave a compelling reading of Bartok's third quartet.
I've said this before, but it's always hard to write about new works: one only hears them once and so must rely on the limited notes one can make. It is harder after hearing six new works in a row. Often you wish for a recording to explore further (as I do in a number of the cases from this concert). For some this may be a blessed relief, in that this review of a fifty minute concert is shorter than many of my epics reports.
First up was Steven Kelly and his Quintet in D minor, for which the Quartet were joined by saxophonist Rocio Banyuls Bertomeu (another Napier student). The saxophone lent the work an interesting texture, though the acoustic of the cathedral was not kind to it and I didn't hear it as clearly as I would have liked (even sitting close enough to read the cello part). Good then, but something to hear elsewhere to form a better judgement.
He was followed by Kirstie Hazelwood and Fall, for string quartet, so named for the American name for autumn. This satisfying work had a nicely autumnal feel to it, especially in the central fugal section.
Stuart Murray-Mitchell's Reflections, also written for string quartet, was something of a work of acoustic experimentation. In his programme note the composer talks about how it would sound different performed in another space. The more experimental sections of the work were the most interesting and worked best and it was one of the compositions I most wanted to hear again, perhaps next time in a space like the Queen's Hall.
Ailig Hunter's Geideabhal was for mezzo-soprano (Clare Brady, singing well, also a Napier student) and string quartet. There was no text, but all she sang was "Ah". This gives a clue to the nature of the work, which was rather minimalist for my taste (then again, I adore John Cage's 4"33 and many other minimalist works). His note talks about five paintings, each of a single colour, and the way the view of these changes with the light. A nice idea, but I didn't get the sense of any of that from the score.
The penultimate work, Fragments by John Eccles (and for this reason earns this review a shameless plug tag - John is a friend and the reason I knew about and attended the concert) was also for string quartet. It was also built on just a few foundations:
The piece is constructed from a very small set of musical ideas, primarily a simple four note rising phrase and a slightly longer lyrical theme based around a scale. The latter, only played by viola and 'cello, is used as a short recitative to separate the four main sections of the music.
This demonstrated just how much could be done with a very little, in contrast to the preceding work. Like some previous works, it too had a very quiet opening, but the Quartet played it better (quiet playing is always, in my view, a good test of a musician). The third section "more agitated and the music becomes more chromatic and dissonant" was particularly fine. In my admittedly biased view (and others I was with, who were similarly biased), it was the highlight of the evening.
The evening closed with Fraster Burke's Piano Quintet, with the composer taking the piano part. His note talks about the two themes being based one on a jazz and the other on a classical style and ending as one rather than it being a competition. Being a fan of both classical music and jazz, I enjoyed it, though I felt that the jazz was very much the dominant theme throughout the work.
All in all, a fascinating concert and a most enjoyable hour. I wonder if I'll ever top six....
Until two weeks ago, I hadn't got over to Glasgow for anything in the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra's 2008/9 season (I was very sad to have missed From the Canyons to the Stars.... last year, a favourite Messiaen piece of mine; however, I couldn't really pass up the Edinburgh leg of my brother's wedding). I wanted to get to the Beethoven ninth at the start of the season too - but Thursdays have become rather congested this year. However, like buses, you wait ages and then suddenly you're in City Halls twice in two weeks.
This time round the orchestra's outgoing chief conductor, Ilan Volkov, was on the podium for a programme that once again combined the romantic (in Bruckner's unfinished ninth symphony) and the modern (with the Scottish premiere of Jonathan Harvey's Speakings). Those who want to actually hear the results, rather than read about it, can, until next Friday, catch the full concert on the BBC iPlayer.
I don't think I've heard anything by Harvey before and Speakings, for orchestra and live electronics, which had its UK premiere in last year's Proms, is certainly rather different. The orchestra is augmented with electronics from IRCAM (the Institute for Research and Coordination Acoustic/Music, founded by Pierre Boulez in 1970) and two rows of the stalls had been given over to them, Harvey and their equipment. However, it did not seem to be the use of synthesisers that I might have expected. Instead, Harvey often seems to use them to augment orchestral instruments, blending with them or extending notes. Mixed with this are the baby noises of the first section and the Gregorian chanting of the final section. The climax at the end of the middle section was particularly powerful. It was an interesting and compelling work.
The orchestra showed their aptitude for Bruckner two and a half years ago in Bruckner cycle that was one of the backbones of the 2006 Edinburgh festival. Then they gave a superb sixth with Donald Runnicles and a less compelling second with Volkov (in the next few weeks I should get round to posting the archive reviews). At the time, I wondered how much of this difference was down to the work, the second, in my view, is not one of the composer's greatest achievements and it should be noted that the playing of the orchestra was excellent. Thursday's reading of the ninth confirmed that view. It was little short of masterful.
The first thing that really stood out was how unmannered and understated Volkov's conducting was. A clear beat, something which, during my recent forays playing the trombone (badly) in an amateur orchestra, I've been very appreciative of, but little of the leaping around the podium that marks some in his profession. However, he seems to have no difficulty getting the orchestra to do what he wants and to play with impressive variety. Part of this may be in his face: I was sitting quite close to the stage, in the raised seating area at orchestra level, and every now and again he turned enough for me to catch a glimpse. I won't try to describe the looks, since it would probably take more than a thousand words, but given the reaction they gave me in the audience, I'm sure they had an effect on the players.
Volkov started slowly and, in the company of the best Bruckner interpreters, managed to avoid even the slightest hint of repetitiveness that his works can sometimes have. He seemed content to just let the music speak: alternately beautiful, angst-ridden, thrilling or dramatic. He was helped by the superb playing of the orchestra in bringing out the richness of the score (the basses stand out, not so much because they were playing better, everyone was excellent, but because I was particularly close to them, giving their entries an extra oomph). It was captivating from the start to the haunting final bars.
The post concert coda was to be the orchestra's principal trumpet together with IRCAM and I was sorely tempted. However, I wanted to leave with the Bruckner ringing in my head. I think that's the problem with these codas - they are often highly appealing, but if the big work of the night has been done right, somehow you often don't feel like anything more. Perhaps we'll get it on the radio though.
I should make one final note. I've spoken out before about conductors speaking before concerts. The last two BBC SSO concerts have been introduced by the orchestra's marketing manager Stephen Duffy and it hasn't annoyed me in the same way, or, really, at all. Thinking about it, I suspect the reason is that he does so in a manner that is short and to the point, and not rambling for several minutes without really saying anything of note, as has sometimes been the case.