Thursday, 30 April 2009

Stravinsky, Haydn, Ravel and Weber - Zacharias and the SCO

Christian Zacharias's appearances with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, both as conductor/soloist and with the chamber ensemble are always worth attending. Apparently I'm not the only one who feels that way. As I made my way to my seat, I passed someone who looked oddly familiar (though I was sure I didn't know him personally). Whilst not eavesdropping, his voice certainly carried, and he mentioned how fine Zacharias was: you must, he said to a member of his party, have heard some of his Mozart? He was referring, of course, to Zacharias's series of the twenty-one main concerti (i.e. omitting the first four, which Mozart reworked rather than composed, and the two and three piano concerti) with the SCO at the 2000 festival. Sadly I didn't hear them; maybe one day Radio 3 will dust them down out of the archives, or maybe EMI will actually undelete his excellent recorded cycle. As I left afterwards, I couldn't help but notice the man had left the envelope his tickets had come in, I glanced down to see the name James Waters written on it and suddenly it made sense: the former associate director of the International Festival.

So, how did Zacharias fair some nine years later? The first thing one notices, alone in this season's conductors, as far as I can recall, is that he eschews a podium, standing instead amongst the orchestra. It strikes you that for a ensemble this size, it probably isn't necessary anyway. He began with Stravinsky's Danses Concertantes. There was some wonderfully crisp playing from the orchestra and some nice moments. However, as is often the case with the composer, the piece didn't entirely grab me.

Better was to come in the form of Haydn's Sinfonia Concertante in B-flat major. The quartet of soloists was drawn from the orchestra: violinist Ruth Crouch (in a substitution for leader Christopher George), bassoonist Peter Whelan, oboist Robin Williams and, best of all, the superb David Watkin on cello. Or, at least, so I would normally say, for one of the nicest things was the chance to have a really good listen to Whelan, the orchestra's new principal - Ursula Leveaux's are big shoes indeed to fill, and he did so very nicely and with a lovely tone. There was fine playing, though, from all the soloists (if I did find Crouch's violin a little screechy for my taste). The work bounced along beautifully and the orchestral accompaniment was fine, though I would have preferred a balance that favoured the soloists slightly more.

Following the interval, the piano, its lid completely removed, had slid to the front of the stage. Zacharias took his seat, back to the audience, score open flat on top (though he never used it) for Weber's Konzertstuck. Zacharias's pianism was nothing short of breathtaking, and made one regret that it was employed for just this one work. More remarkable, though, was how good his control of the orchestra was as well; more often than not, it seems one of the two suffers when someone directs from the keyboard. Not so here. He would slide his right hand beautifully and effortlessly nearly the length the keyboard, then raise his left to tweak the orchestra, then back to the piano as if there was nothing to it. The quality of his phrasing was wonderful too. The SCO themselves played superbly. It's not a piece I know, but one with which I'd like to get better acquainted (fortunately I notice that the SCO themselves have recorded it with Charles Mackerras and pianist Nikolai Demidenko).

After that, the closing piece was a touch disappointing; not because it was bad, just because there wasn't really a higher place to go to. The piano was pushed back again and they played Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin. This was nicely textured and featured some quite exquisite wind playing, but it was not quite the closer the concert should have had, that was the Weber.

Still, it remains one of the orchestra's finest performances this season. Waters agreed "I thought that would be worth coming to." he remarked loudly on his way out. I couldn't agree more. Zacharias returns in about a year to play Schubert's D845 sonata and the great C major symphony. For those who can't wait for that, he gives a solo recital at the festival.

Of course, for many, the concert has yet to happen: Glaswegians can catch Friday's repeat at City Halls, then they're in Aberdeen on Saturday and Inverness on Sunday.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Here's Runnicles - The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra 2009/10 Season unveiled

It is pleasing to report that Gavin Reid (the orchestra's director) hammered the final nails into to the coffin of the complaint that gave us our name as he launched the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra's 2009/10 season. Donald Runnicles will conduct five programmes with the orchestra (one third of the season) in his new role as Principal Conductor and, best of all, two of them will take place in Edinburgh, at the reopened Usher Hall (we hope - nobody I spoke to at the event seemed any more confident than me that the contractors would meet their obligations in time for the Festival). Before anyone asks, and prior to getting down to the business of what's actually on next season, I'll clear up one thing: a name change won't be fourthcoming - there's the expense of getting a new address and everyone would have to update all their links, plus, we rather like the name. However, it does go from being a tongue in cheek complaint to pointing out an embarrassment of riches (as well as the compliment it's always been).

The concert that first won me over to Runnicles, as I've mentioned many times before, was a magical reading of Mahler's third symphony at the 2005 Edinburgh festival. It's immensely pleasing, therefore, to see Mahler featuring heavily this year. The season opens with the first symphony, which Runnicles twins with the first of Beethoven (he described the two composers as cornerstones, a sentiment I very much agree with, and suggested that the two firsts were an excellent way to start the new relationship). This first concert is repeated in Edinburgh too. And for those further afield, all is not lost: the concert is going out on BBC 2 Scotland (and thence iPlayer); at least, I assume so, the press release gives a date six days before the concert. Selected performances will also be filmed for online distribution. A week later he is back with Mozart's K503 concerto, a piece by MacMillan and the Ravel's Daphnis et Chloe (complete). This last features the first performance of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus outside Edinburgh since 1991. Indeed, Runnicles, back in 1965, sang with them in the performance they were assembled for: a reading of Mahler's eighth symphony (he was in the boys choir back then). The Ravel is apparently a score that he often keeps open in his San Francisco home, an inspiration, and one which he feels contains great orchestration. Apparently this is one of the earliest ideas he had for programming with the orchestra, and he was insistent that only the complete version would do.

However, even we must concede, it is not all about Runnicles. Volkov, while stepping down as Principal Conductor, becomes Principal Guest. He leaves a compelling legacy: when totting up the premieres he has amassed in seven years, they stopped counting at forty-one. Runnicles emphasised that he wanted a project based approach, rather than some kind of my repertoire/your repertoire division of labour (I seem to remember him speaking in similar terms about his relationship with Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra). Volkov, jokingly, saw it slightly differently: "Less responsibility; more fun.". He emphasised how glad he is to be continuing his relationship with the orchestra, and their recording relationship with Hyperion. His first appearance, in October, features four works, including a Maxwell Davies world premiere, Beethoven's fourth concerto and Sibelius seven. He said he liked such programmes, not least for the challenge to the orchestra of preparing four works in three days. Later in the season he brings Dvorak's Legends and Janacek's Sinfonietta (featuring, I'm informed, no fewer than fourteen trumpets, which ought to raise the ceiling, I don't recall Mackerras using that many with the Philharmonia). There is a strong Czech theme to the season (wanting only Charles Mackerras), as the orchestra perform all of Martinu's piano concerti and Dvorak's final three symphonies (as well as The Golden Spinning Wheel, perhaps my favourite of his tone poems.

In 2010 Runnicles returns for a programme that couples Bruckner's eighth symphony, a work he described as very dear to his heart, with Wagner's Siegfried Idyll, which we know he can conduct well from his Dresden recording. His answer to Reid's speculation as to whether it might pack the hall was a simple one: yes. Then in March he is joined by long time collaborator (the pair first worked together ten or eleven years ago in Mozart, and he has since fostered her career as she has developed into Wagner and Strauss, only a knee injury kept her from singing Brunnhilde at the Met recently). Their concert includes Tannhauser exerts and Strauss songs, with Beethoven's seventh in the second half. Last time we met noticed Runnicles and this work, it was when he was an audience member for Mackerras and the SCO; I wonder how their performances will compare. This is the second concert that gets an Edinburgh repeat; however, I must note with considerable distress that the post concert coda, wherein Runnicles, at the piano, accompanies Brewer, is available only for the Glasgow leg. His final visit of the season, in late March, compliments the first, closing with Mahler's fourth symphony. Soprano Ji Young Yang, whose name is not familiar to me, is on hand. The first half features Britten's violin concerto. The only thing that could make it more perfect would be if Rachel Barton Pine was the soloist (the evening's one regret is that it seals the knowledge that we won't hear her in Edinburgh this year - please, to any orchestra managers who may be reading this, book her for 2010/11, I don't want to have to rename the site Where's Barton Pine, it doesn't have quite the same ring to it).

There's more, much more, of course (including Rachmaninov's symphonies and Shostakovich ten), and as soon as the programme is up on their website, I'll post a link to it. I'm told the introductory film will also be put up, it is notable for the high regard everyone seems genuinely to have for each other. As Runnicles remarked, coming mainly from an opera theatre background, it's obvious, and perceptible to the audience, when there really is a team based approach and everyone shares a common vision.

It was noted that ticket sales have risen by one third in the three seasons since the move to City Halls. This is a testament to what a fine venue it is (how I wish we had a replica in Edinburgh): there is a reason Mackerras now makes his SCO recordings there. But it is also a testament to this fine orchestra and the interesting programmes they've produced. The 2009/10 effort is particularly compelling (and not just because of our obvious preferences), hopefully it will allow them to buck the trend in difficult financial times. It's only a shame they have to do their concerts on the same night as the SCO....

Runnicles assured me there will be more Mahler. Sadly, he would elaborate no further. He has just done Mahler six in Atlanta, using, he told me, a tree stump for the hammer blows. I wouldn't be surprised if we had that here before too long. I also asked him briefly about the time he devotes to considering orchestral placement (such as that off-stage horn in Mahler three, or the bells in Berlioz's Symphony Fantastique). He said that was part of the fun of it: I wish more conductors so obviously felt that way.

Now if only I'd remembered to ask someone when the Berlioz is due for broadcast.

Update - 28/4/09

Season information, along with the introductory video, can be found here along with the brochures for Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen (although I wish the BBC SSO hadn't also gone in for this trend of overly elaborate online brochures, which require a login to download - I'm sure I'm not alone when I say please, just give me a PDF).

Update II - 28/4/09

I'm informed the broadcast of the Mahler concert will be on 8th October, live on BBC2 Scotland.

Monday, 27 April 2009

The RSNO bid the Festival Theatre farewell (hopefully) with Jarvi, Bruckner and Dvorak

This year's Royal Scottish National Orchestra season has suffered somewhat, owing to the ongoing problems at the Usher Hall. So much so that Sunday's concert was the final Edinburgh gig (the next two, which were to have been at the Usher Hall, had to be shelved, but so late in the day that no alternative venue could be found). It's a pity, as the resulting season finale was something of a damp squib.

Neeme Jarvi has a long history with the RSNO, so it's perhaps unsurprising to find that one of his two conductor sons, Kristjan, is now working with them. I've been curious to hear him since he recently recorded Bernstein's Mass, a favourite work of mine.

He led off with Dvorak's Scherzo capriccioso. This was fine enough, but lacked something. What that something was became clear in the electric final minutes - where had that energy been before? Early on there were also too many fluffed horn notes (and in general the section's sound was a little woolly, though this may be down to the unsuitable acoustic of the Festival Theatre, it's not quite properly hung acoustic curtain notwithstanding).

This was followed by a new trumpet concerto, well a Divertimento macchiato, and the source of perhaps the most pretentious and uninformative programme note it has ever been my misfortune to read, written by the composer himself, one Kurt Schwertsik. I can't adequately describe it, so I'll give you a flavour:

Good news from Italy: you can have your coffee, your milk macchiato.

Why not a divertimento macchiatto?: it sounds moderately stylish...

Why? Well, neither in the programme, nor with the piece, does he make the case. It continues in much the same vein. (The interesting punctuation is as printed.) The note says nothing about the number or nature of the movements and nor, really, can I, since I lost count. It was, frankly, a dull and uninspired piece. I don't recall having encountered Schwertsik before, and based on this I have not the slightest desire to deepen my acquaintance. But, you may say, surely it was worth it to hear trumpeter Hakan Hardenberger, whose biography modestly proclaims him the "greatest trumpet soloist today". As regular readers will be aware, this instantly got him off on the wrong foot with me: I dislike any sentence that contains the phrase "greatest blank": I find the notion silly and pointless. The RSNO point out to me that this label was coined by The Times; maybe, but he put it in the first sentence of his biography. However, given such a description I would expect to be blown away. I wasn't. His sound was not particularly crisp or clean and was rather thin. I felt the extended cadenza that closed the work showed him up. The sound was good at the loudest volume, but much less so in the quieter moments. If I compare what I heard from him to the calibre of the trumpet solo given by (I presume) Hannes Laubin of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, in the opening of Mahler's fifth (review here), that was trumpet playing that took my breath away, this wasn't. In fairness, that is a great work and this wasn't, and the two situations aren't comparable. Even allowing for all that, I was not as impressed. At the end of his programme note the composer says:

I expressed the fierce hope that there is more to my music than meets the ear.

If wishing only made it so, but not to these ears there isn't.

The second half was Bruckner's sixth symphony. Here Jarvi finds himself in tricky territory. In the first place it's one of my favourites, and much underrated amongst the canon. Secondly, the last time I heard it was as part of the 2006 Edinburgh Festival Bruckner cycle, and the conductor then was one Donald Runnicles. Jarvi was not in the same league and was not particularly close. His conducting style is rather more of the flouncing style (think Michael Tilson Thomas) than I care for. Often, the orchestra were a little too loud and lacking in clarity (again, much of this may be down to the venue). However, he seemed to sap every phrase of the drama and poetry that it should possess. The slow movement was taken much too slowly and lost momentum as a result, feeling almost stop start: where was the beauty? Similarly, a sense of the dramatic was missing from the scherzo. The finale underwhelmed. As with several of Bruckner's works (the fourth is another good example), the most memorable themes come before the last movement, as such it requires real magic on the podium to ensure the finale doesn't feel like you're being short changed. Jarvi, unlike Runnicles or Jochum, was unable to locate anything along those lines.

In short, it was not the way I would have chosen to end the season. Having said that, I seemed to be very much in the minority amongst the audience. Next year, hopefully, we'll be free of acoustic issues. I say hopefully, since walking past the Usher Hall lately I have my doubts it will be ready on time, so watch this space.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

Swensen and the SCO - Death and the Maiden

For the second time in a month, Joseph Swensen was once again on hand to conduct the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, this time in a programme of Schumann and Schubert. In many ways it was a programme of curiosities, but not necessarily the worse for it.

It opened with Schumann's Overture, Scherzo and Finale, op.52, not quite an overture, but not quite a symphony either. It is built of three distinct movements (and they are distinct, as one rogue clapper discovered the hard way). I tend to find Schumann needs to be played played with plenty of verve and feeling, one of the reasons I am so fond of Bernstein's interpretations of the composer. Swensen for the most part managed this, though the central scherzo fell a little flat.

The orchestra then rearranged slightly for Schumann's violin concerto. Mike Wheeler's programme note tells that publication was suppressed on the ground that it showed the composer's powers in decline following his mental breakdown. This strikes me as somewhat unfair. Certainly it was very good orchestrally, though Swensen did allow volume to rise a little too high for the hall at times. However, he also provided no shorted of oomph, no flat Schumann reading on show here. My reservations concern the performance of soloist Ilya Gringolts. Certainly I can quibble little technically (as his overly flash and unnecessary encore showed, something I've complained about many a time before). However, he didn't really distinguish himself from the orchestra sufficiently and seemed to lack passion. Obviously, given he was received well enough to play an encore, I was in a minority with this view.

But the second half alone was worth the price of admission. The winds snuck off during the interval and left the strings to play Mahler's arrangement of Schubert's Death and the Maiden quartet (D810). Mahler appears to have done relatively little work - simply giving the parts to their respective sections and bulking up the cellos with the basses from time to time. The result seemed remarkably effective and made for a superb and rich sound. Of course, it helped that the playing of the SCO was wonderfully tight. The second movement stood out especially, not least for principal cello David Watkin's contribution: the drama and force with which he played at times almost rendered the basses moot, not to mention the elan of his pizzicato playing (he might as well have been playing alone, though he managed to do so in a way that didn't seem out of place). Of course, to single him out is perhaps unfair, the orchestra as a whole were on top form and the piece was among the finest things I've heard from them all season, indeed from anyone this season. Quite how they kept together at the breakneck pace Swensen set towards the end of the finale I don't know, but keep together they did.

Next up is Thursday's concert with Christian Zacharias (of whom I'm something of a fan). Though, as I strolled past Greyfriars Kirk today I noticed them setting up there (@musogeek on twitter informs me this for a special concert celebrating Donald MacLeod's 70th birthday).

Copenhagen at the Lyceum

Copenhagen is probably one of my favourite plays. By Michael Frayn, of Noises Off fame, it is an interesting exercise in speculation, dealing with a curiosity in the history of atomic physics. The play concerns the relationship between Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, two pioneers of quantum mechanics, whose time together in Copenhagen in the mid to late twenties produced many important breakthroughs, such as the uncertainty principle and complementarity. Heisenberg then returned to Germany. However, in 1941 he made a visit to Copenhagen, then under Nazi occupation, and met briefly with Bohr. There appears to have been a serious row and their friendship never recovered, but exactly what was said has been lost to history. The play takes place in a sort of afterlife as Heisenberg, Bohr and his wife Margrethe try to pick apart the events.

They work through the meeting some four times, coming ever closer to the truth and, yet, in one of the many ways the physics is reflected in the work, oddly further away at the same time. Did he come because he wanted Bohr to spot an error he had made in his calculations, did he want to avert the development of nuclear weapons or did he want to ensure Hitler got the bomb first? We will never know, and it doesn't really matter, which is just as well, for while the play speculates, it never really finds an answer.

As someone who's studied this subject a little, it's of particularly interest. Often they describe the history of time, which was something of a gold rush of discovery, and wonderfully exciting for it. That said, I don't think such knowledge is a prerequisite. The narrative structure jumps around as they discuss 1941, the 20s, later times and the years between, flitting from one to the other and back again. Some will find this difficult, but I find it effective.

So, how does the Lyceum handle it? Well, first off a word about the production design of Neil Murray, which strikes immediately as one enters the theatre. To my mind, the play is so laced with drama, and so abstractly set, that it would likely be best served by just a couple of simple chairs, the rest left to the actors. Murray's strange white pillars, and even stranger immovable chairs with papers and busts of Beethoven (well, it could have been someone else) stacked underneath them, just looks weird and don't really help the drama. Then, at the end, to underscore, spoiler warning, that the world has not been destroyed in nuclear holocaust, we get a silly rotating projection of the earth. This is the patronisingly underlining passages from the text with a crayon school of production design.

The success of such a play hinges on the performance of the three leads, and hence explains why this production is mixed. Owen Oakeshott is solid as Heisenberg, and one sympathises with the difficult position he found himself in and his attempts to justify his actions (much as one sympathises with the post-war treatment of Furtwangler). Tom Mannion's Bohr is more problematic. Time and again the play describes the hierarchy of atomic physics in terms of the catholic church - Einstein is God while Bohr is the pope. In particular, it tells of a journey Bohr took in terms of almost a papal procession. Sadly, Mannion's performance largely lacks this sense of authority and gravitas. He also trips over his technical language a little too often. Lastly there is Sally Edwards' Margrethe. This is a difficult role as the character is pretty unsympathetic and while she isn't bad, per se, I think more winning actor is required.

I can't help but feel that a number of these problems are down to weak direction on the part of Tony Cownie, I'm not at all convinced he has a terribly strong conception of the play.

As with the production, I find the lighting design a little over-active. Sound is even more problematic: again and again we get a doorbell sound; fair enough, except, on stage, Heisenberg never actually makes any accompanying gesture. Worse yet is the repeated cry of Bohr's drowning son as he reaches for the buoy, an event the play repeatedly touches on. I can't recall if this was a sound effect the last time I saw the play. Annoyingly, I can't check this in the text (I don't own a copy and when, in writing this review, I tried to buy an ebook version, I found that none exists; stupid publishers strike again, apparently). However, it just feels very tacky indeed. If it is not in the text, there is no sane reason for adding it. If it is, it would be better removed. I also query if the Beethoven snatches are scripted; I don't think they add much either.

Still, if the play is new to you, it is definitely worth seeing. If not, it's a tougher call, since this is a flawed productions.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Monday Night Film Club Roundup

Regular readers may wonder what's happened to Monday night film club. Well, for various reasons it hasn't happened for a number of weeks (actually, it took place for the first time in ages this week, but annoyingly I was down south, I'll miss it next week too). However, prior to that, I've not got round to writing up the last three films. Until now.

First off, and this should give you an idea of how far back the deficit stretches, is Vicky, Christina, Barcelona. Or, in my view, Vicky, Christina, Yawn. It doesn't, I suppose, help that I'm not a particular fan of Woody Allen's work. However, I don't think he helps himself. Firstly, there is the narration which starts off as annoying but soon becomes insufferable. As a device it can be helpful, indeed, at times, extremely effective (see Alec Baldwin in The Royal Tenenbaums or Peter Faulk in The Princess Bride), here it simply seems to be laziness. At the start it gives us potted histories of our two protagonists. This might be forgivable if it didn't keep happening, e.g. X spent the next few days soaking up the art of the city: surely this sort of thing is easily told by use of, I don't know, moving pictures, say. The problem is compounded by Christopher Evan Welch who is clearly trying to do his best Woody Allen impression. If Allen wanted a narrator who sounded like him, he should have done it himself, otherwise he would have been better going for something different. The most significant problem is that I couldn't give a damn about any of the characters, this won't bother some people, but I need to care about at least one character in a film to like it, I need to root for someone. Even Rebecca Hall's Vicky (who is mostly playing Woody in this film), disappoints in this regard, for while she starts out sympathetic, she quickly throws all this away. Penelope Cruz does well enough playing a madwoman but is too much a caricature. Jarvier Bardem is okay, but then playing someone who wants to sleep with Cruz, Scarlett Johansson (not to mention Hall), is hardly the most taxing role ever conceived. Why they all want to sleep with him is less clear. That said, almost everyone I saw it with quite enjoyed it, so it may just be me.

A vastly superior film followed in the form of The Class (in French with subtitles). This is a subtle, understated and well acted film. Written (both the book, and the screenplay) by lead Francois Begaudeau, it is based on his experiences teaching in an inner city French school, much of the rest of the class are actual students (though not playing themselves). As a former teacher, who left in part due to the stresses of dealing with unruly pupils, I was in two minds as to whether or not to attend, and certainly it is not easy viewing. It gives a pretty accurate feel of life in the classroom and the issues that arise (and tackles many difficult ones, such as students whose parents struggle with the native language and the handling of disciplinary incidents). Of course, it's difficult to know how the French and English systems differ, but it seems remarkably easy to expel pupils in France, and for a lot less than I've seen in my time. It is one of the most compelling films I've seen recently, in large part because there are no big set pieces and, more than anything, it feels like a documentary. It doesn't come across as Begaudeau having a moan, more a statement of this is how it is. It can be thoroughly recommended.

Lastly, comes Wendy and Lucy. Now, I possibly shouldn't review this at all, since I wasn't in the best frame of mind when we went. Still, even so, I think most of my criticisms would stand. As with Woody Allen's effort, I again struggled to care too much about the characters. The plot concerns drifter Wendy, en route to Alaska with her dog Lucy to look for work. Her car breaks down in a small American town and her dog vanishes after she is arrested for shoplifting. The bulk of the film then concerns her search for her dog. While Michelle Williams does a fine enough job in the lead role, I can't help feeling the film never really goes anywhere. On the one hand we never gain a full picture of her back story, while on the other, at the end I'm not quite sure what the point was.

Hopefully I'll return to Monday Night Film Club soon, as there are several things out, and coming out, that I'm curious to see.

Royal Opera House 2009/10 Season

Next year's ROH season has now been announced, not that you'd know that by having a glance at their website. The details are hidden away in the press release section (or you can skip that and follow these links for the summary, the opera and the dance).

So, what stands out? Well, first things first, the season opener (a previous concert performance notwithstanding) is Don Carlos. This is a revival of Hytner's superb production of last June, to which we gave a relatively enthusiastic review (this may be understating it somewhat). The big change is that we get Jonas Kaufmann in place of Villazon in the title role. Given he was one of the weak links last time round (and there was a sense that Pappano was having to hold the orchestra back so as not to overwhelm him), this is very good news indeed. Equally good news is the return of Simon Keenlyside as Rodrigo. Poplavskaya returns as Elizabeth, a slight shame, since she cannot act. The other concern must be John Tomlinson as the Grand Inquisitor. I know I'll upset some, but I think his voice is now in territory where he could best serve his reputation by retiring gracefully; I realise the role is very old, but it requires a voice that is not past it. Semyon Bychkov takes over from Pappano in the pit.

The other standout is the March of revival of Bill Bryden's 1990 Prihody Lisky Bystrousky, The Cunning Little Vixen, if you prefer. This is notable primarily for the presence of Janacek supremo Sir Charles Mackerras. The cast includes Emma Matthews and Christopher Maltman.

In April, this is followed by a new David McVicar production of Verdi's Aida (later in the year McVicar's excellent Figaro gets a revival, though whether Colin Davis can equal Charles Mackerras's achievement is doubtful, but Soile Isokoski will be worth hearing as the Countess). Meanwhile, downstairs in the Lindbury, Carlos Wagner's disappointing production of Ades' Power Her Face gets a revival (only worth seeing if you're desperate for some onstage nudity, as, to judge from the Google search terms people use to get to this site, a slightly disturbing number of people clearly are).

Elsewhere, Ben Heppner and Nina Stemme sing Tristan and Isolde, with Pappano in the pit. Zambello is on hand for a revival of Carmen as well as a new production of Tchaikovsky's The Tsarina's Slippers, but I won't be attending: never the biggest fan of Carmen to begin with, I'm not keen to see another Zambello after her butchery of Don Giovanni (saved only by Mackerras and a superb cast). A rather old production of Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier gets a revival, most notable for the presence of Soile Isokoski as the Marschallin. January brings a revival of Jonathan Miller's Cosi Fan Tutte.

Still, all in all, it's pretty promising. I just wish we had a house in Scotland that put on half as much.

Lastly, I don't know what, but the Royal Opera House have obviously done something to their PDF file that makes it impossible to search through the document (this is extremely annoying).


Charlotte Higgins, chief arts writer at the Guardian, very kindly gives us a link, so it would be rude not to return the favour. Her overview can be found here.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Harding and the LSO play Mahler 1 (As well as Part II of Lang Lang's residency, with Tan Dun)

For the second concert in his residence with the London Symphony Orchestra, even newer music was on the cards from the pen of Tan Dun, who also doubled as conductor in the first half. He began with the Internet Symphony Eroica, of which this was the European premiere, the world premiere having recently been given by the YouTube Symphony Orchestra. At just five minutes, the programme suggests it is the shortest ever composed (I don't know if that's true, but I wouldn't be surprised if one of the million or so Segerstam is credited with is shorter). The LSO certainly played it very well (and were joined by two of the British YouTubers) and it was a nice enough piece. All the same, it seemed a bit bland and didn't really grab me. It contained quotes, including from the Beethoven symphony of the same name. The finale, perhaps the most engaging section, seemed reminiscent of Michael Nyman's Musique a Grande Vitesse.

The composer then decided to address the audience and, as is the case nine times out of ten, didn't say anything very interesting (I had to keep muting the sound when watching YouTube Orchesta, as Tilson Thomas loves the sound of his voice far too much). He told us how wonderful a thing the YouTube project was, though he didn't in anyway justify his statement that it was the most important thing in music in years. Hmmm. He then went on to dedicate the performance to Anthony Minghella (who died just before Easter last year) which does prevent me from complaining too loudly about his decision to speak.

The piano concerto that followed was more interesting than the symphony. As with yesterday's Bartok, this too had a fairly percussive piano part, something Tan Dun specifically mentions in his programme note. That said, it left plenty of opportunity for Lang Lang to show his more delicate side. Again, this was played well though in some ways it seemed to lack structure. In particular, it felt like he wasn't sure quite where best to end the piece. Unlike a lot of new music, I wasn't left with the wish to instantly listen again for the things I missed.

Better was to come after the interval in the form of the main reason for my trip south: Mahler's first symphony. Now, I'm a bit of a fan of the composer and have far too many recordings of his work (over ten complete cycles of the symphonies and many more individual recordings). One of the problems is that this makes me a pretty tough customer to please when it comes to live performance, as the RSNO will be aware, and even the best performers haven't come away unscathed. As noted in yesterday's review, I've had some reservations previously about the Harding/LSO partnership. However, Harding has also shown himself to be more than adept with Mahler's work. This is hardly surprising from a conductor who has studied with two of the great Mahlerians of the day (Rattle and Abbado). His recording of the fourth, with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, of whom he is the principal conductor, is one of my favourites and his reading of Cooke's completion of the tenth with the VPO is about as good as they get (and comes as close as any to convincing me that it was right to complete it, though still doesn't quite manage it).

In the end, Harding and the LSO did not disappoint and right from the opening bars, that quiet sustained string chord, it seemed something special was in store. The last time I heard the work, earlier this year in Greyfriars Kirk, it was from an amateur scratch orchestra. This was remarkably good, but underscored something I'd not thought about before, namely just how difficult that opening is. My playing experience extends only to brass (and pretty poorly at that), but playing quietly is much harder than loudly, and the calibre of such playing is always a good yardstick. The LSO strings were superb. The movement provides a tour as Mahler passes a simple theme around the sections and nowhere did they disappoint. Unlike in yesterday's Bruckner, one never got the sense of a detail that Harding hadn't quite exposed as much as he wanted. The offstage brass were good too (and, unlike for Davis's Verdi Requiem, genuinely offstage). He brought off the climaxes with clarity and drama. The second movement danced along with beautiful colour. My one reservation with performance concerns one of my favourite passages: the opening of the third movement where the timpani accompanies a solo bass in the Frere Jacques motif. Or, normally so. Harding chose to have the whole bass section play it. Now, the programme, as ever, provides no elucidation on this point. However, Phillip Huscher's liner note to Haitink's recent Chicago recording (superbly played but a little lacking in passion) informs us that Mahler in fact played around with the passage but had originally intended it to be played by the entire section, but most sections were not up to this so instead opted for a solo. I don't know if Mahler himself would have judged the LSO bass section as being adequate, however, in my view they weren't. Not because they played it badly, mind; they didn't, on the contrary their playing was exemplary. It's just that eight people playing very quietly can't inject the same character that one soloist can (this may be what Mahler himself found). For me, Harding didn't make the case for reverting (neither, for that matter, does Haitink). The result was rather tame and lacking in feeling in comparison to what we're used to. The movement was otherwise excellent and there, as throughout, he built and released tension well. So too the finale. After the first big climax, I wasn't quite sure how he was going to top that for the close, and yet he ratcheted the tension back up unbearably until releasing it in an almighty deluge. For added drama, Harding brought the horns, a trumpet and a trombone to the feet. It was simply stunning. It was, also, quite simply the best thing I have heard from the LSO all season. So good that nothing, not even the epidemic of coughing, the woman with the jangling bracelets behind me, or the lady to my right who was unable to sit still for more than a minute (in general it was a pretty fidgety audience), could spoil it.

You can catch it on Radio 3 on Thursday evening. I would, probably forlornly, hope that it gets a release on CD. However, so soon after the Gergiev recording that seems unlikely. This would be a shame, Harding's approach is infinitely preferable to Gergiev, who conducts Mahler like a man late for an appointment.

Lang Lang's residence continues with concert at St Luke's on Thursday and a solo recital on Sunday (both are sold out). For those who can't get tickets, there's always Friday's online conversation. I'll next see the LSO in June for Paul Lewis and the Emperor (can't wait).

Lang Lang's LSO residence, Part I - Bartok and Harding's Bruckner

I've wanted to hear Lang Lang for a little while now. Sometime ago, I saw him on a documentary where his discussion of the opening of Beethoven's fourth piano concerto intrigued me. The more so as I then read a piece in Gramophone written, I think, by Hillary Finch, which described him as Bang Bang, without any real justification for the rudeness, and since it conflicted with what I had seen, I was curious. I must confess, however, that he was not the primary reason I booked these two concerts (that was because I wanted to hear tomorrow's performance of Mahler's first symphony). However, it seems fairly clear that the reason these have sold out is the pianist, not least from the frantic snapping of pictures as he came on stage (I say sold out, though from where I was sitting, there were a noticeable number of empty seats, doubtless people who were unable to make it).

The first half of the concert was occupied by Bartok's second piano concerto. Lang Lang's playing was pretty percussive, but given the composer and the work, this seemed entirely appropriate (indeed, it is difficult to judge whether he really is a thumper; it would be nice to hear him in, say, a Mozart concerto as well). However, he did display delicacy when called for, especially in the slow movement. There was also a wonderful dramatic flair to his playing. Providing accompaniment, the London Symphony Orchestra and Harding were on superb form. I've had my doubts based on earlier concerts this season about whether they are a good fit, whether there is a lack of chemistry between them. There was no evidence of that in the Bartok and they gave quite the best performance I've heard from them this season. The quiet playing by the strings was especially impressive, as was the work of timpanist Nigel Thomas. The only flaw was that, once again, I've managed to book all my LSO concerts not on keyboard side (note to self, engage brain when booking next year's tickets).

After the interval it was the turn of Anton Bruckner and his fifth symphony. One or two of those there just for Lang Lang clearly hadn't known what they were letting themselves in for as several left after the first movement (I happen to think this is pretty rude unless a performance is truly dire, and this certainly wasn't - I've never done it). They were very much in a minority though, as the brief round of applause that followed the first movement attested. It was a solid reading, if not so fine as the Bartok (and there where ghosts of the aforementioned lack of chemistry). There were times when Harding was clearly trying to bring out one detail or other (especially from the winds) but didn't quite balance the rest of the ensemble so that it could be heard properly in the balcony; how much of the blame the Barbican's tricky acoustic deserves here is worth asking. Harding is to be congratulated for not falling into the Bruckner trap of everything becoming samey, on the other hand, at times it did not have quite the flow that the best interpreters bring. The slow movement was beautiful, and, once again, the LSO's strings were the stars of the work but the brass could have been crisper. The scherzo could have been more visceral though. The finale built to a glorious Brucknerian climax, if a little loud, but at that point I don't mind.

Tonight's second instalment comprises Tan Dun's Internet Symphony (written for the Youtube Symphony Orchestra) and piano concerto, with the composer himself conducting. After the interval comes Mahler's first symphony. I can't wait.

Monday, 20 April 2009

Beethoven and Brahms from Jordan, the Philharmonia and Vogt

Spending a few cultural days in London, as I'm wont to do, I found myself without anything planned for Sunday evening. I think I had initially intended to have a night off, but when the time came I didn't feel like that. Sadly, nothing much musical was happening at the Barbican (which would have been convenient), but a quick glance at the internet showed an enjoyable looking Philharmonia programme. Sadly, the South Bank Centre has now started piping in music. Walking past the ground floor bar before the concert started, some Beethoven was blaring over a sound system so horribly tinny that it would flatter many a kitchen radio. Please, if anyone at the South Bank is reading this, piped music is awful, for the love of god stop it, or, rather, Pipe Down. But, I digress.

The last time I encountered Philippe Jordan, he was conducting the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester at the 2006 Edinburgh festival for a rather fine performance of Mahler's fifth symphony (I'd post a link to the review, but I haven't got to that point in collecting the archive reviews from that year). This time the concert followed the traditional overture, concerto, symphony model with works from Beethoven and Brahms.

Beethoven's The Creatures of Prometheus was the curtain raiser. (Not too long ago, I heard James Lowe conduct the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in the complete ballet.) Taking a fairly brisk pace, Jordan gave a crisp and energetic reading with the Philharmonia's playing up to their usual high standards.

The chairs were then rearranged to accommodate Lars Vogt, or, more particularly, the piano he was to play Beethoven's Emperor concerto on (the work making its second appearance in my concert going this season, the first having, once again, been with the SCO). It is, perhaps, not the ideal thing to report, but what stood out first and foremost about the performance was Jordan's beautifully judged accompaniment. The orchestra's playing was superb, Beethoven at his dynamic best. Vogt's playing, on the other hand, was not entirely to my taste, but then I am extremely fussy about pianists. He thumped much of the time, striking the keyboard harder, and in a more percussive manner, than I feel necessary. His playing also felt a little rushed and something in the music seemed to get lost as a result: some of the majesty. Surprisingly, then, the slow movement was sublime, with Vogt caressing the ivories as gently as gentle can be. He and Jordan held the tension very well in the transition into the finale (a moment that ought to tease the audience to the edges of their seats and beyond). But then the thumping returned, though not quite with avengeance, as flashes of that delicacy still came through. Of course, as some will note, more than delicacy is required in the work. However, Vogt could take a lesson from the likes of Paul Lewis who can get all the power they need without thumping. The finale was fairly good none the less, not least for the orchestra's rich playing. (Bafflingly, my favourite is not among the four recordings the programme recommends, the more confusing since it features the Philharmonia, conducted by Menges, with Solomon bringing unparalleled majesty.) I'll hear the Emperor for a third, and hopefully final time, this season in June when Lewis plays it with Davis and the LSO. That should be quite something.

The last time I heard Brahms fourth symphony in the concert hall, it was also with the Philharmonia. That was around four years ago, in a concert they gave in the Anvil in Basingstoke (back before I lived in Edinburgh). The conductor was Charles Mackerras so, of course, it was a thrilling tour de force and an extremely hard act to follow. Under Jordan, the first movement cast doubts. It took a long time to get going and didn't have nearly the drive or boiling tension of my favourite performances. However, the final few minutes of the movement were very exciting. The subsequent slow movement was beautifully played. This was followed by a wonderfully energetic third movement and a finale that was nothing short of thrilling. For the most part, then, a very fine performance. The orchestra were, by and large, superb, especially principal flautist Kenneth Smith in his solo. The only blemish was that there appeared to be something a little wooly about the horn sound (not something I would expect from a team who gave such a blinding rendition of Schumann's Konzertstück for four horns and orchestra at Aldeburgh last year).

Actually, there was one final blemish. As I left the hall, the moron in charge of the piped music had decided to play the third movement of the Brahms. With the Philharmonia's lush tones still ringing in our ears, the last thing anybody can have wanted was this parody.

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Blood Brothers (or is the length of time a show runs for in inverse proportion to its qualify)

It's well known that the dross Andrew Lloyd Webber writes (or, more accurately, plagiarises) runs for years and years, despite any redeeming features; your author would like little more than to see the look on his face following nil points for this year's British Eurovision entry, which he has penned. On the other hand, Stephen Sondheim's work of genius Assassins closed after fewer than a hundred performances. Unjust is inadequate by way of description.

Something similar might be said of Willy Russell's Blood Brothers, though, in fairness, it is a cut above Lloyd Webber. It tells the story of the Liverpudlian Johnstone brothers, or rather twins, who were born and died on the same days (that's not spoiling anything, though, since you learn that right at the start).

The show is currently in its 20th year at the Phoenix Theatre. I wonder if I'm alone in finding this prospect slightly depressing. One of the joys of theatre is variety. During the Fringe, the venue I'm involved with runs 10 to 15 productions. It would be, frankly, beyond dull if we were stuck with the same show for all three weeks. I don't know how the staff have stood it for twenty years. I found myself feeling terribly sorry for the building: somehow it just seems wrong (as one exits there are posters of the shows from its history, but it seems history has ended).

Before I get on to critiquing the show, a word about the programme. To call it a programme wouldn't be correct, though. It is a glossy brochure celebrating the history of the show, it tells me nothing about the actors or musicians we saw, there is only an insert giving there names. This is just plain wrong. I want a memento of the performance I have seen, not least to aid me in writing a review (which is why none of the cast of musicians are credited, despite solid performances).

So what of the show itself? Well, it tells the story of Mickey and Eddie, separated at birth. One grows up in poverty, the other wanting for nothing. Both mothers forbid their sons from seeing each other, but in the end tragedy ensues.

Now, in and of itself, this is a promising premise. Unfortunately, there are numerous problems with the execution. Russell is responsible for the lyrics, book and music and so takes almost all the blame. The music is okay, though pretty repetitive and nothing especially remarkable. The book and lyrics provide the more critical failings. The prose, especially of the narration, is horribly banal in its predictability (cringeworthily so in some of the rhymes). The lyrics are not much better: one wonders if Russell had a bet going as to how many times he could work Marilyn Monroe into it (if you used this as the cue for a drinking game, you would be well and truly under the table by the interval).

Another significant failing concerns the plot itself. Despite efforts to keep them apart, the twins become friends and swear blood brotherhood (with music a pale shadow of its equivalent in Don Carlos). Much of the action, especially in act one, takes place when Mickey and Eddie are children. They are portrayed by the same actors throughout. In fairness, they do this pretty well (though they are caricatured children); unfortunately, they don't seem quite as convincing as adults. However, the current cast is pretty uniformly solid: there are no dreadful voices or unclear diction. When Mickey turns eighteen, he loses his job and suddenly forsakes Eddie. It isn't really convincing why. There then follows a chain of equally unconvincing events that lead to their deaths. These should be profoundly distressing, and doubtless Russell had chosen to inform us of them at the start to heighten the inevitability of the tragedy. This might be the case if the relationships and actions felt more real. Sadly, somehow, at the end I just didn't care all that much. I didn't feel invested in either of the twins or their relationship, or their relationships with mutual friend Linda. This is largely because almost all the relationships and characters were completely one dimensional. If Russell had done his job right, I would have been devastated.

We were clearly in a minority, and many people seemed to have loved it (and must have for it to have run twenty years). It wasn't dire in the manner of, say, Covent Garden's recent Beggar's Opera and it was reasonably watchable (though I did spend a fair amount of time thinking about other things, fairly productively as it turns out).

If you're looking for a night of fine musical theatre in London, however, my advice is to head a little further down the Charing Cross Road towards Trafalgar Square and catch A Little Night Music at the Garrick (we saw this at Christmas at the Menier Chocolate Factory and it is quite simply in another, and altogether superior, league).

Friday, 17 April 2009

So late it's topical again - Charles Mackerras, Artur Pizarro and the SCO

As regular readers may know, while I've lately been getting most of my reviews typed up pretty promptly on the night of the concert, it is not, and was not, always thus (last June's visit to Amsterdam for St Francis still sits firmly in the pages of my notebook, for example). However, just occasionally the concert becomes topical again in such a way that can make a five month old review seem almost timely.

The time was 7.30 on 31st October 2008, the place City Halls in Glasgow. One of the prospective highlights of the 2008/9 Scottish Chamber Orchestra season when the programme was launched this time last year was, as ever, the appearance of Sir Charles Mackerras. Annoyingly (and doubtless due to the Usher Hall being out of commission), the Edinburgh leg never took place, moving instead to Perth. Given the programme included Beethoven's fourth concerto, possibly my favourite piano concerto, I couldn't really miss the concert, so I caught the train to Glasgow. The main reason a review didn't follow soon after was that my brother was very selfishly having the Edinburgh leg of his wedding the following day (an unfortunate date, since the BBC Scottish were doing Messiaen's Des Canyons aux Étoiles... that night).

So, why is this topical again? Well, having performed the third and fourth concerti, the team then went on to record those and the fifth for release on Linn Records. The result is due out shortly. The Beethoven was flanked by two Mozart symphonies which, thankfully, they are soon to commit it to disc, also on Linn (the same Linn who released Mackerras and the SCO's prize winning recording of the last four symphonies).

To take the Beethoven first, then. We know from their past experience with the symphonies that Mackerras and the SCO are something of dream team when it comes to Beethoven. How then, could they go wrong in the concerti? Actually, I'd heard them do the fourth once before (also with Pizarro) in a rather fine 2006 concert which also included Haydn's 96th symphony and Mozart's Posthorn serenade. Now, in fairness to Pizarro, I'm not really able to objectively review the fourth concerto. This is Kempff's fault. His was the first I bought (the later stereo account with Leitner and the Berlin Phil) and the one I fell in love with. Kempff's delicacy is, perhaps, uniquely well suited to the soft solo piano opening. Other pianists can play softly and delicately though. What makes Kempff so special is his use of his own cadenzas. Beethoven's (of which I believe there are two) don't ever seem to fit quite, doubtless this is a sacrilegious view. The Beethoven cadenza that seems to be played most often is rather showy, the other less so. However, neither seem right in the same way Kempff's simply restatement of the opening theme does - giving the opening movement a wonderfully rounded feel. Probably I listened to Kempff too many times before hearing anyone else, but the result is that performances using other cadenzas just don't quite feel right.

Pizarro selected a fairly subdued cadenza (which I think was one of Beethoven's, but I'm not certain), but didn't quite equal Kempff. A bigger concern was that the clarity of his playing wasn't quite what I would like. I suppose in the years since I first heard him, I've been spoilt rotten by Paul Lewis in this regard, but Pizarro did seem to jumble his notes slightly in the larger moments. Certainly it was nothing like the mumbling style of Richard Goode, but it was a little like a singer whose diction was such that not quite every word could be understood. However, there were no such concerns on the orchestral side, and under Mackerras's direction the SCO were as fired up as they had been for the symphonies two years earlier. Rich and yet agile, beautifully textured with plenty of power when needed, yet never overwhelming the soloist. All I could think was how wonderful a combination they would make with Lewis.

The Beethoven was flanked by two Mozart symphonies: the Paris (31) and Linz (36). Paris was the curtain raiser, and what a start. The opening allegro was given a wonderful bounce and sparkle and the orchestra's playing was impressively tight. Then Mackerras courted disaster: he turned to address the audience. He did so because the Paris has two slow movements: the original in 6/8, which he was told was by the commissioner was too long and in the wrong time signature for the French capital, and the replacement in 3/4. This being Mozart, both are excellent and one wouldn't like to choose. Mackerras didn't on his Telarc recording with Prague Chamber Orchestra or in the Glasgow concert (and doubtless he won't on the forthcoming Linn recording either). Instead, he gave a brief and insightful account of of the differences and then played them one after the other. The first was marked by beautiful playing. The second was much shorter, lighter (in part a consequence of the reduced scoring) and more humourous, and Mackerras brought out this out well. It was rounded off with a thrilling finale, superbly judged and played.

There was also an unusual number of movements in the Linz which closed the concert, in the programme at any rate (where the opening Adagio-Allegro was split in two). Fortunately, on the stage we got a tour de force. The quality of the playing was stunning, from the opening movement through to the thrilling finale. To say I can't wait for these recordings would be putting it mildly. Still, with a summer studio date I suspect we'll be luck to hear them before Christmas. The power, sparkle and agility of the orchestra was quite something to have heard.

Throughout the evening, one was reminded just what incredible energy Mackerras possesses, particular given he was a couple weeks away from his eighty-third birthday.

Having got through the recording, Pizarro turned up in the Queen's Hall on the Sunday of the following week for a chamber concert. In the first half, the pianist was alone for book one of Debussy's preludes. Never the greatest fan of the composer, I found it rather dull and lost track of the movements, but it felt like rather more than twelve.

After the interval came Schubert's piano quintet in A major, The Trout. Despite being joined by some of the orchestra's finest musicians (violinist Christopher George, violist Jane Atkins, bassist Nicholas Bayley and the great David Watkin on cello) it didn't seem to catch fire and felt a little leaderless. I don't think it was helped by the piano being positioned rather far back. The reading also erred too much on the fast side for my tastes.

I realise only two days ago I had a rant about how great the chamber concerts were, and in general they are (this would seem to be the exception that proves the rule).

I await the new CD with interest and a review of that will follow here... though it's probably best if I don't make any promise as to when that might be!

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra 2009/10 Season

Unlike a week on Monday (when I've scored an invitation to the press launch of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra's 2009/10 season), I had to make do with downloading the brochure and then leafing through the copy they'd kindly sent first class once I got home from work. Which is by way of explaining why I'm writing this tonight whereas the The Herald and The Scotsman had theirs ready for press this morning. (If anyone from the SCO is reading this, any chance I could get on that mailing list? Contact details can be found on the left.)

But I digress. At first glance, the programme is rather nice, certainly I find the blue cover much more appealing than the RSNO's rather garish gold. I'd also note that the SCO's is a much greener effort (only two significantly smaller pages longer, despite nearly twice as many concerts). That's not important though (for heavens sake let's not lose perspective and get bogged down in silliness over cover design), what matters is what's inside. And there things are even better. Last year, I remember feeling wowed by the RSNO programme (so much so that I dashed to Glasgow for several that were not occurring here), this time round the tables are turned. It makes me very much regret that I have other commitments on Thursdays which make me more selective than I'd like (perhaps a few more trips to City Halls are in order). I'll confine myself to discussing the Edinburgh season, though brochures for Glasgow, Aberdeen and St Andrews are also available (the Glasgow programme should be pretty similar for the main concerts, the Aberdeen and St Andrews seasons being quite a bit smaller).

First things first, and I'm not going to start with the big thing that, judging from the papers, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra want everyone to start with; instead, those things that I won't be passing up for anything. There are two of these. Predictably, Charles Mackerras's appearance with the orchestra in January is one of them. He plays Mozart's Haffner (35th) symphony and some Strauss, which he's been doing a fair bit of lately, in the form of the first horn concerto and Le Bourgeois Gentillhomme. The second is the reappearance of Paul Lewis, and again with Andrew Manze (the two teamed up back in January for Mozart's K595 concerto). This time the programme contains Beethoven's third concerto and Schubert's 6th symphony. There's a good bit of Schubert this year, of which more anon.

Those aren't the dominant theme of the brochure, however. That honour goes to Robin Ticciati, the orchestra's new Principal Conductor, of whom I've heard promising things. He conducts five programmes, most of which look pretty unmissable. Carelessly, though, I know already that I'll be missing the first. This comes on Saturday 12th December in a programme including Henze's chamber symphony, Mahler songs (with Magdalena Kozena singing, doubtless being a Rattle pupil has helped him secure the conductor's wife - from the looks of things, the Dunard fund's cash has helped too) and Brahms' second symphony. The programme also highlights another point - the dropping of the Adventurer brand for new music. Having said that, almost all the new music is still in the Saturday concerts, and still programmed with easier stuff, so it will be interesting to see whether this will boost attendance at all, I hope so. But, as is the way with these things, I'm in London that weekend for a double bill from Jansons and the Concertgebouw. Still, I will be able to hear him the following Thursday for a programme of Faure and Berlioz with the wonderful mezzo Karen Cargill, whom we've often praised and who features heavily next season, and Haydn's Clock symphony (101). Berlioz is big too, as when Ticciati returns in February it is for L'Enfance du Christ (again with Cargill). His final two programmes include Ligeti, Mozart, Bartok and Beethoven. All in all, it looks very promising and most interestingly chosen.

Other potential highlights include Maximiliano Martin playing Weber's clarinet concerto, Oliver Knussen's appearance for Maxwell Davies' fourth symphony and Stephen Osborne playing Mozart's K595 concerto. Amongst the most enticing is Christian Zacharias. His programme is interesting, not least because the orchestra doesn't feature in the first half, which is simply Schubert's D845 sonata. This is followed by the Great C major symphony, D944 (the ninth, or not, depending on how you count). Given the quality of the orchestra's recording with Mackerras, and the fact that I adore the work and haven't heard it live for five years, I can't wait.

After his fine performance this season, it's nice to see James Lowe return to the podium for a dissection and performance of MacMillan's Tryst, something that, in a feat of creative accounting, takes place before the opening concert. It's a shame, though, that we don't hear him in a full programme too.

It's not quite all positive. While programatically almost everything grabs me, there are one or two things I'll steer clear of as I don't care overly for the conductor involved (Elts' programmes, though I may go to May's Ligeti/Sibelius concert in spite of myself, Richard Egarr and probably Louis Langree, though he is doing Schubert's unfinished..). My greatest reservation concerns the chamber ensemble concerts. I've praised these repeatedly and, in my view, they are one of the crown jewels of the SCO's seasons. To see them cut from three to two is, therefore, deeply disappointing, particularly when one remembers that there were four in the 2007/8 season; at this we will have none by 2011. This decline should be arrested and reversed post haste. Of those we're getting, one features Karen Cargill, the other Brahms' sextet and more. The loss is the more galling when one notes that there are still four Cl@six concerts. I've made my feelings very clear about these before and I find it baffling that the orchestra still has the nerve to programme anything in a hall so manifestly unsuited to the performance of live music.

Another complaint is the variety of the programme, or, rather, the lack thereof. For example, there is just one Mozart piano concerto this year, and while I don't object to that, per se, I do find it annoying that Osborne is playing K595 which is one of the two programmed this year: the man did write 27 (depending on how you count) and most of them are great, give us some of the unjustly neglected ones. Similarly, the closing concert features Beethoven's fourth concerto (which Pizarro played this year, albeit only in Glasgow, and again a couple of years before that). Indeed, looking through the programme shows too many works, given the vast repertoire available, that have appeared either this season or last: Beethoven's fifth, sixth and eighth symphonies, Mendelssohn's third (not to mention The Fair Melusine, which unlike most of the others listed isn't even a terribly great work), Prokofiev's first, Mozart's Prague, Beethoven's third concerto, Dvorak's wind serenade. I wouldn't mind so much, but there's great stuff that they haven't played lately and could: the symphonies of Dvorak and Sibelius (we'll have had two of the latter over the last three seasons). What about rounding off the torso of this year's Brahms cycle doing some more Schumann. Wouldn't Mendelssohn's London symphony have made a superb showcase for the chorus rather than dusting off The Scottish for the third time in three seasons (EDIT - 2009/08/25 - as noted in the comments below, Mendelssohn didn't write such a symphony, I meant the second symphony, Hymn of Praise). I know we're in Scotland, but come on! Enough already, you'll wear it out.

It is a pity that Rachel Barton Pine is not appearing (we must pin our hopes for a Scottish appearance on the BBC) and it would have been nice to hear Frans Bruggen after illness kept him from us back in December.

However, such niggles aside, it is a very compelling programme. I await the BBC Scottish with interest so I can get down to the business of booking (I need to know what clashes with Runnicles' Glasgow appearances, which annoyingly will likely be on Thursdays too, before handing over any money). In order to end on a positive note, I'll point out that Truls Mork has a CD coming out with the orchestra in a couple of weeks, the featured work is Hallgrimsson's cello concerto. I loved their performance last year, so the fact that they've recorded it is a wonderful surprise. Lastly, the season will mark a welcome return to the Usher Hall for the bigger concerts (though I'll believe that when I see it: it still looks worrying unfinished to me, it is an ominous sign that the opening concert there is a programme of unfinished works).

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Best left buried - Red Dwarf: Back to Earth

There's a line in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (spoiler alert if you haven't watched season five of the show and might one day want to). Buffy and Dawn's mother has just died and Dawn tried to do a spell to bring her back. Buffy says: "Tara told me that these spells go bad all the time: people come back wrong.". In the end, she breaks the spell at the last minute. It's a shame Doug Naylor didn't learn the lesson here.

This list of great TV shows, many of them sci-fi TV shows, cancelled before their time is long and illustrious: Futurama, Sports Night, Studio 60, Farscape, and, of course, Firefly, to name but a few. (A surprising number of those begin with an F.) Babylon 5 very nearly joined them but was granted a last minute reprieve on another channel, though it did not come through the process unscathed.

For me, Red Dwarf doesn't really fall into this category, doubtless some will take issue with that. It had a decent run of eight series and around fifty episodes. It has been said that quality declined after the split of the creative partnership of Rob Grant and Doug Naylor, certainly the final two series, where Naylor went it alone, didn't have quite the same sparkle. The BBC decided not to renew it for a ninth and, despite rumours of a movie that have refused to die, nothing materialised for the following decade. Until, that is, the end of last year when it emerged that digital channel Dave (best known for its endless reruns of BBC shows such as Top Gear and Red Dwarf itself) was resurrecting it for a multi-part special to air over the Easter weekend.

It's not clear if the three part script that is the result, entitled Back to Earth, was the basis for the movie script that Doug Naylor has been pitching in the intervening years; however, if it is, it provides a depressingly simply explanation why nobody has made it: to call it terrible would to be kind. They should have left it in the grave, with its reputation more or less in tact. Instead, Doug Naylor appears to have decided the try for the George Lucas award for defecating on the memories of a once fine franchise.

First things first: any other annoyances would be rendered nil if the thing was funny. After all, it was always a sitcom. But it wasn't. Indeed, the extent to which it was unfunny in the first episode was quite painful: the Cat's pun confusing the words testicle and tentacle (which Lister promptly explained, just in case the viewer only had an IQ in single digits) was a case in point. Similarly, Rimmer listening to music, oblivious, as the crew battled for their lives. Of course, Rimmer's cowardice is nothing new, but it used to be very, very funny: compare Back to Earth with the genius of him demanding that Kryten go at both the front and the rear so that he is safe. The Cat's purple wetsuit was funny, so too were Kryten's inflatable arm bands (though if memory serves, we've seen those before), but it wasn't enough. Episodes two and three are a little funnier, but not by much. The car converted to look like Starbug is reasonably amusing - but how come the crew know how to drive it?

Too many of the jokes were metafictional in jokes. Indeed, the episodes as a whole were one great exercise in metafiction: examples include a joke at the sci-scanner's expense, and how it always knows everything, or the Cat describing something as worse than Rimmerworld.

Any show, and particularly any sci-fi show, requires a degree of suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience. When you take away the humour, this audience member becomes less forgiving. Aside from a line on the screen indicating the time passed, not a mentioned is made of how Red Dwarf was saved from imminent destruction at the end of series eight (though apparently the DVD contained an alternate non-cliffhanger ending), or how Rimmer is a hologram again, or why the crew is all dead again, or what's happened to Kochanski (this last is actually explained in the end), or, well, I won't go on, you get the idea. Some in online forums maintain the show has done this before (Lister's pregnancy was never explained). I don't remember clearly enough, but I suspect I was forgiving of that because the show was still funny.

So what actually is the plot? (If you don't want spoilers, skip the next two paragraphs.) Well, a monster has moved into the last remaining water tank and the crew go down to fight it. It seems to be a dimension jumping squid and a new holographic science officer, who has randomly shown up, posits using it to take Lister home so that he can repopulate the species. This she does and episode two begins, and begins with a wholesale tearing down of the fourth wall. Our crew are transported into our world, where a new three part special of Red Dwarf is about to air. They accept their fate as fictional characters pretty blithely and set off in search of their creators to beg for more time, or rather not to die.

It then all gets a little Blade Runner - rather too Blade Runner actually. The trouble is, Doug Naylor is no Ridley Scott; indeed, it's been a while since I last saw it, but Scott's film was probably funnier too. They visit their creator in a pyramid structure reminiscent of the film that's appeared next to the Houses of Parliament, calling into question whether they have, in fact, crossed over into our world after all. Of course, Red Dwarf has spoofed before - the Casablanca spoof that is Camile being among the most prominent examples, but it wasn't quite so rammed down your throat. It's also worth noting that the Casablanca spoof was actually funny. It's worth noting that the 'characters tracking down their creators' thing has been done before. Indeed, the Fantastic Four did it in issue 511 (by Mark Waid), which remains one of my favourites, but that isn't the plot in and of itself: it is a means of expressing how far the family will go for their fallen comrade. In Blade Runner it says something profound about the relationship between man and god. Here, frankly, it's just embarrassing. Naylor resolves all this with the laziest get out in all of writing: it was all just a dream. Worse than that, exactly the same get out as they used at the end of series five in Back to Reality: the suicide squid (though in this case we are told it is a female squid that provides elation, although the only person for whom it's done that is Lister, and then only at the very end). Needless to say, this plot was infinitely funnier the first time round.

The absence of Holly, in either the Norman Lovett or Hattie Hayridge flavours, is notable. Perhaps those two had the sense to request a script before signing on. I'm sure it was fun for the cast to get back together for a reunion, but they could just have gone out for a meal, it would have been cheaper and it wouldn't have tarnished their reputations.

As I said, the list of great shows cancelled before their time is long, but the list of shows that went on too long is, well, longer. Red Dwarf now firmly joins it (if it hadn't already with series eight). Apparently Naylor wants to do a 10th series (no - not ninth, the episodes are replete with references to a ninth series, which was allegedly the funniest, perhaps it had a fictional co-writer, which doubtless would have explained the inconsistencies). I've loved the show for many years and would count myself as a fan, which means I take little pleasure in writing this. I hope they leave it there. I hope everyone else will know better and won't try to flog this horse any deader. I hope to still remember the show for its good times. If you missed it on Dave and are considering the DVDs, you'd be well advised to save your money and thereby your memories.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Oliver, or an evening of insanely mobile set and unbelievably appalling acting

I first suspected that something had gone spectacularly badly wrong with the London revival of Oliver when I realised midway through the first half that I was more interested in the struggles of the mothers around me to control their children than I was in what was happening on stage. My plight was confirmed when I had a serious attack of hysterical laughter during the murder of Nancy and the suicide of Bill Sykes. The show’s descent into farce in its closing moments is virtually its only redeeming feature. Otherwise it is a nearly indescribable disaster. Nevertheless, in the interest of our readers, I shall endeavour to recreate for you something of the atmosphere of this dross.

The first problem is unquestionably the show itself. Bart’s music and lyrics are weak throughout. The various characters, with the exception of Fagin and Oliver, have almost nothing with which to work to establish themselves. Success therefore depends more than usual on quality performances from all concerned. Convincing acting is needed if empathy is to be created over the weaknesses of the text. Which brings us to the second problem – basically there was not a single decent performance from anyone in the company.

Those who followed the TV show which selected Jodie Prenger to play Nancy will know that three Olivers were also selected. For unexplained reasons we saw a fourth Oliver. I cannot reproduce his name as the insert from my programme is probably still under the seat in the theatre but I regret to say he was not up to the task. Anybody can have the misfortune to fluff a big note, especially at that age, as was the case in Where is Love. The larger problem was his acting – he just didn’t really stand out among the other children, and he delivered his spoken lines and sang his songs with all kinds of odd pauses as if he didn’t really understand them. A director could perhaps have provided some guidance to help him but here, as elsewhere, there was precious little evidence of direction at all.

Rowan Atkinson was out with a hernia and replaced by his understudy, Tim Laurenti. He gave a perfectly fine performance, but there was nothing special about him – classic understudy material. Jodie Prenger as Nancy was hampered by the bizarre miking (which made her near inaudible in Om-Pa-Pa) and by bizarre staging (which meant that during As Long As He Needs Me one was constantly distracted by people removing tables from the stage) but she was not as impressive as she was on the TV show – I suspect this is a case of the camera being kind. It is perhaps worth noting that Jesse Buckley does not suffer in this way in the stellar A Little Night Music.

The rest of the cast, including I regret to say Julian Glover, should be heartily ashamed of themselves. Their acting would disgrace a high school production of this show. It is difficult to tell whether anybody gave any direction at all but if they did it seemed to be confined to shouting louder, and hamming every line up to the nth degree. Even worse than this were the various fight scenes. Sykes’ murder of Nancy should be spine-chilling – here it was the cue for my descent into hilarity. Prenger fell over before a blow had connected, behind a conveniently placed lamp-post, and Sykes proceeded to pound the area behind the lamp-post with his staff in such a way that one never for a moment believed that a blow was connecting with anything other than the stage. When he began to exclaim Quasimodo style "the eyes! The eyes!” the farce was complete.

While this appalling acting dragged on, the set whizzed around with insane rapidity. This is a London of the most animated architecture I have ever seen. Bridges whizz up and down, bedrooms rise and fall, the set alters course with pointless regularity. To begin with the effects are quite impressive, but pretty soon this disappears as the movements of the set become ever more unnecessary. The disjunction between set and show reaches a climax in the scene when Bill Sykes is supposed to fall to his death from the London rooftops. Having had upteen London bridges high above the Drury Lane stage thus establishing a sense of a multiple-level London, for this key moment, the suicide took place as if from a first floor balcony. Of course Sykes hopeless acting didn’t help to convince one that he was really plunging to his doom.

A brief word is necessary about choreography and miking. The former was one of those odd occasions where somehow it just didn’t quite match up with the music – it was all very smart and slick but it just didn’t quite fit. The miking was dreadful – Julian Glover was about the only person who delivered his lines audibly – the diction of the rest of the company was abominable and another cause for shame. Everything seemed to be at the same level throughout – it is possible to mic intelligently (for example foregrounding different performers in their solo numbers) and something should be done to rectify this forthwith.

Overall this production looks like a show in the third year of its run, rather than one which has only been on stage since January. And it raises the intriguing question of who is responsible for this horror. Cameron Mackintosh very clearly indicated his preference for a different winner of the BBC show – did Jodie’s selection lead him to wash his hands of the whole thing? Rupert Goold is credited with reviving Sam Mendes’s staging, but he has had so many employments in the last year and there was so little indication of direction that one wonders if his sole contribution to the proceedings was to tell the stage hands when to move the next bridge into position. (It is also possible that this show is more evidence for my strong view that Goold is being massively over-rated – I thought his Patrick Stewart Macbeth was abysmal – but since this was a revival and a collaboration I reserve judgement on the point).

I am left with two really depressing thoughts. First, I shudder to think what this revival indicates about the West End audition process. It is incredible to think that any of these disgraceful adult performers can possibly have secured their parts through a competitive audition – if they did so then the auditioners must have been drunk, deaf, blind or blackmailed. Secondly, it is sad to think that many of the children in the audience may have been getting their first taste of a big theatrical show and will go away thinking these kind of standards are a fair indication of the medium.

All those responsible for this mess should hang their heads in shame. At least the ghastly ENO Kismet was an amusing train-wreck with the bonus of one superb performance from Michael Ball. There is nothing redeeming about Oliver at all.

Symphonies in C - The Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Litton

For their third concert in less than a week, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra built their programme around two symphonies in C. No shortage of those, you might quite rightly say, but fewer titled specifically Symphony in C, as opposed to, say, Symphony Number Something (there's an interesting title for a post-modern composer). I can think of only two, the two that we got tonight: those of Bizet and Stravinsky.

Stravinsky was first up. Right from the start the SCO were on fine form, horns and bassoons standing out particularly in the finale. However, Stravinsky is quite a way from being my favourite composer and I felt that Andrew Litton didn't quite give his reading the drive and edge that was needed in the opening two movements. The allegretto was much more compelling, so too the finale. And yet, somehow, the piece didn't quite work for me structurally. However, Litton was a good judge of volume and, despite large forces, including three trombones and a tuba, did not overwhelm the Queen's Hall, as sometimes happens.

After the interval came the Bizet, which was much more successful and danced along beautifully. Composed while he was still a student, one can hear the seeds of ideas that would later bloom in the likes of Carmen (particularly during the finale). At the close of the concert, Litton hesitated, not quite knowing which members of the orchestra to bring to their feet first. I know how he felt. From principal cello David Watkin, with one hand dramatically posed on his leg, delivering driving chords in the third movement, to Alison Mitchell's superb flute playing at the work's close, or the sheer beauty of the slow movement (which my neighbour decided was the perfect time to noisily leaf through his programme), the playing was superb.

But the real highlight came just before the interval. Everyone but the strings left the stage and, in their place, soprano Sally Matthews came on for Britten's Les Illuminations, a series of settings of poems by Rimbaud. In her programme note, Janet Beat tells us that he stumbled across them whilst staying with Auden's parents. In my view, it's something of a shame that he didn't set some Auden instead, as the poems in and of themselves don't entirely grab me. Fortunately, Britten's settings do. What struck me, particularly after the Stravinsky, was how, with a much smaller and more limited ensemble, Britten managed to find far more richness and variety. The SCO strings were exemplary. Litton proved a good accompanist. Matthews provided a wonderfully dramatic interpretation, making me think she'd be well worth seeing in the opera house. However, I had some reservations concerning her voice: it seemed a little on the thin side and with slightly more of wobble than I care for (but, as regular readers will know, I'm far too picky about this). Such reservations are minor: it was a fine evening. On an interesting side note, my Britten conducts Britten box (volume 4) has the role sung by a tenor (Peter Pears, though you could probably have guessed that).

That puts the SCO three for three. I hear them next on Saturday the 25th when Swensen is back with Schubert and Schumann, then on 30th April for what promises to be one of the real highlights of the season: Christian Zacharias for a programme including Haydn's sinfonia concertante (with David Watkin as one of the soloists).

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

There's Runnicles (and one or two others) - The 2009 BBC Proms

It must be a good day or so since the last publication of an arts programme, so let's have another. Today it is the turn of the BBC and the 2009 Proms. And very interesting it looks too.

By means of some creative accounting (adding up all the Proms in the parks), they get to 100 concerts, a nice round number for the press release. Still, past that and the world's greatest classical music festival slogan (don't get me started on world's greatest again, we'll be here all evening and for all the wrong reasons), there is some rather fine stuff, and, in particular, a lot more big names than we're getting in Edinburgh. But you'd expect that: the Proms' funding is nice and secure, the more so with recent licence fee increases, whereas Edinburgh's corporate sponsorship will have suffered (I don't think we'll see too much money from RBS and the Bank of Scotland in the near future).

In such a vast programme it's difficult to know where to start so, in the absence of a better idea, and because it's in our name, let's begin in late August with Donald Runnicles making what will hopefully be the first of many appearances there as chief conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in Prom 55. The programme comprises Adams' Slonimsky's Earbox, which they played in Glasgow recently, Mozart's K466 concerto (with pianist Shai Wosner) and Strauss's Symphonia Domestica. A completely different programme to the one we're getting in Edinburgh a few days later.

But there's more than just Runnicles on offer this year, and here are a few things that have caught my eye. First off, Mackerras is on hand for, not one, but two Proms. To begin with, in Prom 12 we get Elgar, Delius and Holst's Planets with the BBC Philharmonic. Then, and much more the treat, especially after his stunning 2005 HMS Pinafore, we get some Gilbert and Sullivan in the form of Patience. Mackerras is joined, as he was then, by the BBC Concert Orchestra, this time coupled with the likes of Felicity Palmer, Toby Stafford-Allen and the ENO Chorus for Prom 35. There is only one reservation: why on earth is this semi-staged production not being televised when the straight orchestral concert is? I simply cannot comprehend what decision making process can possibly have been behind this. The 2005 Pinafore was wonderfully dramatic. (Runnicles isn't being televised either, in case you're wondering.)

Probably the biggest treat, and one I'd be dashing south to catch if it didn't fall slap bang in the middle of the Edinburgh Festival, is the triple appearance of Barenboim's magnificent West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, amazingly celebrating its tenth birthday. He begins in Prom 48 with some Tristan and Isolde and Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, follows this the same evening with a chamber concert including Mendelssohn's octet in Prom 49. Then, on Saturday 22nd August, in Prom 50 comes a concert performance of Fidelio. This orchestra are wonderful, both in terms of what they represent but more so in the sheer joy with which they play, and which they provoke in their audience. I've only been luck enough to hear them once, at the 2005 Edinburgh festival, where they were rather special.

The BBC Scottish also show up under the baton of Ilan Volkov in Prom 38 for Ravel's La valse, a world premiere cello concerto by Unsuk Chin and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and then again in Prom 40 for more Stravinsky and Beethoven 9 (not on the last Friday, which will surely upset a lot of people, to which I say good as the people who will get upset by this tend to annoy me), soloists include Rebecca Evans and Anthony Dean Griffey. I should probably mention my local band: the SCO are in town for Prom 20 under Seguin's baton for a programme including Stravinsky's Pulcinella, Schumman's piano concerto and Mendelssohn's Reformation (and the wonderful Karen Cargill joins them to sing). As ever, the BBC Symphony Orchestra gets much of the heavy lifting, but does provide some potential treats: Prom 8 brings Simon Keenlyside (notable recently for his superb Don Giovanni and even finer turn in Don Carlos) and Thomas Trotter for a programme that includes some Vaughan Williams songs and Saint-Saens' organ symphony and in Prom 30 they are joined by Oliver Knussen.

Some things tear me: as in Edinburgh, the sublime Joyce DiDonato joins the OAE, albeit for a slightly different programme. Sadly, here, as there, the price is too high: Roger Norrington conducts. Similarly, that most impressive of youth orchestras, the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, are here for Prom 65. While they play Ligeti and Schoenberg, they also play Also sprach Zarathustra and Kindertotenlieder with a baritone (and I don't find that works, even when it's a singer as fine as Mattias Goerne). Worst of all, Jonathan Nott is conducting them and I didn't warm to him during his 2005 residence in Edinburgh. I'll probably still listen though.

In the chamber music programme are the Jerusalem Quartet in PCM7 (who I'd love to support, not least because of the shameful way they were treated when they were in Edinburgh last year; sadly they too clash with the Festival) and the Belcea Quartet in PCM3 for a programme including Britten's second quartet, their CD recording of which is rather special.

One area, where the Proms scores highly over this year's Edinburgh programme is in the quantity of big European orchestras showing up (though no Americas - the credit crunch?). Jansons brings the Concertgebouw for Proms 61 and 62 between them including Sibelius 1, Haydn 101 (Military) and Shostakovich 10 (I've heard him play similar pieces with the Bavarians to great effect: Haydn and Sibelius & Shostakovich). Haitink brings the LSO for Mahler 9 in Prom 5, a symphony he's had much greater success with than last year's 6th. On the penultimate night, Mehta brings the Vienna Philharmonic for a programme including Brahms 4 (they are also there the night before for Schubert's 9th, which would be a must for me, except that I don't much care for Harnoncourt, I may give it a try though).

More than enough to be getting on with then. If only it didn't have to be on at the same time as the Edinburgh festival.