Saturday, 31 July 2010

Proms 2010 - Lewis, Nelsons and the CBSO

Note - this is a review of the concert broadcast via Radio 3 and BBC 4.

One potential question mark with Paul Lewis's cycle of the Beethoven piano concerti, a major feature of this year's BBC Proms, was how consistent they would be, spread as they are between four orchestras and conductors.  Thursday's second instalment suggests that there is nothing whatsoever to be concerned about, especially since, prior to the Proms, Andris Nelsons was the only one of the four with whom Lewis had yet to work.  You would not have known it from listening and watching.


Together with the CBSO, he delivered a gentle and very well played orchestral opening to the second (or first, chronologically speaking) concerto.  Lewis sparkled from his first entry; also present was his signature clarity and a nice degree of playfulness.  Particularly memorable was his playing of the first movement cadenza which was well chosen.  There was an excellent rapport between soloist and conductor, if perhaps not quite so much as exists with Bělohlávek (but then they have collaborated intensively for the recordings).  It was a fairly straight laced reading but both beautiful and compelling.  Nelsons proved a sensitive accompanist while also showing a good feel for Beethoven, finding things he wanted to underscore in a way that occasionally called to mind Mackerras.  They rounded it off with a wonderfully punchy finale filled with lots of excitement, such that it was difficult to sit still while listening (fortunately I was listening in my living room so that wasn't a problem).  Listening to the way they played it, I wondered why I always think of it as the poor cousin amongst the concerti.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

The A-Team, or back to the Saturday afternoons of my childhood

Daah da daah, da da dum, da da da da da daah, dah da da da dum.  If that means nothing to you, then the chances are that you should probably stop reading this review right now.  If, on the other hand, it conjures up childhood memories of huddling round the TV as the evening drew in on a Saturday and watching four implausible soldiers of fortune race around in a black van with a pointless red spoiler doing absurdly implausible things, making weapons out of farm machinery and cabbages, and generally saving the little guy, all the while evading vast numbers of military police, the thought of all of which makes you smile, then read on.


I've read various reviews slating this film, but they all seem to spectacularly miss the point.  Take, for example, the Scotsman's critic who maintained the original TV show had just one memorable character, a position somewhat undermined by the admission she'd only ever watched one episode.  The A-Team was stupid, it was mind in neutral time, sit back and enjoy the ride, and what glorious fun that ride was.  Director Joe Carnahan grasps this, and delivers a straightforward update in style.

The original crack military unit were convicted of crimes while serving in Vietnam and this is easily updated to Iraq.  Yes, the plot has been altered to revolve around stolen printing plates for $100 bills, but that is pretty similar to the original reason for their incarceration (a mission to rob the Bank of Hanoi).  The remainder of the film follows the team's efforts to clear their names.  From the opening moments, where the font on the screen is the same one from all those years ago, it is clear that we are in safe hands.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Sherlock - A Study in Pink (Or, damn it if Steven Moffat hasn't gone and done it again)

I go to a fair bit of opera and often directors choose to update a classic story to a more modern setting. The upshot of this is that you can't be too surprised when Wagner's Valkyries end up looking like they've been riding motorbikes round the battlefields rather than horses. The downside is that you can all too often find yourself wondering what on earth Handel's Orlando is doing standing stark naked in what looks an awful lot like the holodeck of the starship Enterprise (the one on the NCC-1701-D for readers of a geeky persuasion).


I mention this because the directors who fall into the second camp could learn an awful lot from Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss's Sherlock. At first glance there's a lot to make a fan of Holmes nervous: the action has been relocated to the present day and the title tells us that we're getting an original story rather than a straight adaptation. But right from the outset it is clear that this is the work of fans, lovingly updating the original tales while keeping a tight grip on their spirit, with the result that, despite all the many differences, this is arguably the most faithful screen adaptation I have ever seen.

The title, A Study in Pink, is an obvious play on that of the first novel, A Study in Scarlet, and many of the details are shared - Watson remains an army doctor, invalided home from Afghanistan with an injured leg (conveniently there was a war there in Conan Doyle's time too); Watson's diary is reborn as a blog; there is a mysterious death, the word "rache" at the crime scene; poison pills feature prominently; Watson's trusty service revolver makes an appearance; there is implied drug use and a form of the 'three pipe problem'; Holmes and Watson meet looking for flatmates, the former making his deductions based on the latter's mobile phone rather than his pocket watch, and so on. Yet the core plot is new, a series of unexplained yet connected suicides; gone is the two part narrative, the second half set among Mormons in Utah (no bad thing, since in the book this lopsided structure doesn't entirely work).

Monday, 26 July 2010

I was Looking At the Ceiling and then I Saw the Sky

I Was Looking at the Ceiling and then I Saw the Sky, John Adams (music) June Jordan (libretto), dirs. Kerry Michael and Matthew Xia, Theatre Royal Stratford East, 2nd -17th July.

In 1995, with two mighty contemporary operas to his name, John Adams completed his first ever musical theatre piece for the Broadway stage, apparently inspired by his life-long love of West Side Story.  The result was the concisely titled I Was Looking at the Ceiling and then I Saw the Sky, and has almost nothing in common with West Side Story. It did, however, receive a solid revival at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East earlier this month.

So. There are seven Californians, all in their mid-twenties and all in emotional turmoil. Rick loves Tiffany, Tiffany loves Mike and Mike is confused about his sexuality.  Consuelo loves Dewain, but he’s back in court for another trivial misdemeanour. And David just can’t seem to get Leila to give him a chance.  Then comes an earthquake that shakes them out of their status quo, and forces them to reconsider their lives.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

I read the complete Sherlock Holmes this year - here's what I thought of them

At the start of this year I set myself four new year's resolutions.  As is the way with such things, results have been mixed.  One has been a completely failure, another more or less successful thus far, and a third that I've missed so completely I've contrived to forget what it was (actually, I have a vague recollection which, if it's correct, suggests I haven't met it either).  Only one has been a total success and that wasn't really a resolution in the sense of get to work a bit earlier, rather more of a goal: to read the complete Sherlock Holmes.

I've tried this before, a little over a decade ago, and on that occasion I stalled at around The Empty House (at the start of The Return of Sherlock Holmes) and got no further, largely as I hadn't been enjoying them all that much.  It is, therefore, something of a pleasant surprise that not only did I get through the lot in about three months, but for the most part I also enjoyed them tremendously, though some, such as The Empty House, are weaker than others.  (In a side note, I read them on my iPhone, which I've really come round to as an e-reader, provided you tweak the settings right - for those interested, I used the Stanza app.)

If anything, the series is at its weakest towards the start, with A Study in Scarlet.  In some respects the problem is that I don't think Conan Doyle has quite got the measure of writing his characters in the manner he would master it in later years.  The book is also split in two, with an investigation in part one, and part two set in America with Holmes and Watson barely making an appearance.  In fairness, much later in the series Conan Doyle to a large extent recycles the story and structure with The Valley of Fear, in a manner that is massively more successful.

Proms 2010 - Beethoven night, or Paul Lewis begins his live concerto cycle

Note - this is a review of the concert as broadcast on Radio 3 and BBC4.

Paul Lewis's cycle of the Beethoven concerti was always set to be one of the highlights of this year's Proms, or so I reckoned in my preview, and the opening instalment didn't disappoint.


Part of an all-Beethoven night, the two concerti that featured were each preceded by an overture.  First came Egmont.  Under Bělohlávek the BBC Symphony Orchestra gave a buoyant and vibrant reading.  After a fairly muscular opening few bars they continued with a nice energy and drama which, if not quite up there with the greatest readings, was nonetheless satisfying.  True, there was a botched oboe entry in a particularly quiet solo passage, but such is live concert going - the fact that it spawned a #oboefail hashtag on twitter leaves one feeling a little sorry for the orchestra's principal, especially as it was a minor blemish that didn't really detract from an enjoyable curtain raiser.

The first concerto was much after the style of their recently released studio set (review to follow in due course), notable most of all for the fact that conductor and pianist were in perfect sync, not something that always occurs.  Bělohlávek's accompaniment was energetic and punchy, and yet always well balanced in support of Lewis.  He, in turn, played with the authority and sparkle we have come to expect and never lost his clarity no matter how rapid things got.  That said, I think I might have preferred a slightly less showy cadenza in the first movement.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Proms 2010 - Semyon Bychkov and the WDR Symphony Orchestra, Köln, undertake a little mountaineering

Note - this is a review of the concert broadcast on Radio 3.

Semyon Bychkov has impressed me when I've heard him in the flesh, such as with a dazzling reading of Dvorak's Carnival Overture with the London Symphony Orchestra.  On the evidence of Tuesday's broadcast, this flair is not lost by being on the other end of a live relay.

In some respects, the prelude to act one of Wagner's Lohengrin was something of a low octane start.  Yet the quiet opening presented him with a nice showcase for the WDR Symphony Orchestra, Cologne's fine players.  Slow and gentle with some fine and shimmering textures on display, it served notice that this was going to be a rather special evening.  Mixed in with the quiet and poetic beauty was a fine and weighty central climax all of which rather made you wish the rest of the opera was to follow.

They were then joined by Viviane Hagner for Mendelssohn's violin concerto and together they raised the energy by several notches.  It was a lively reading and there was an excellent rapport between soloist, conductor and orchestra.  Hagner played very well, with plenty of character and displaying some wonderful textures.  Having said that, the outer and more vibrant movements were significantly more successful, full of sparkle and detail, than the central andante which wasn't quite so compelling.  What impressed most was how very fresh they made this familiar piece feel.

Friday, 23 July 2010

La Cage aux Folles, or, The Risk of Seeing a Show a Second Time Pays Off

Despite the fact that it is July, it is New York City, and there is a heat wave going on, I have contracted a vicious sore throat and a head cold (I blame being frozen inside by the air conditioning and boiled outside by the heat).  Consequently, by the time it was time to set off for the theatre on Tuesday night I was beginning to wonder if an evening on the sofa might have been the more sensible course of action.  However, a friend of a friend had warned me that Kelsey Grammer was about to take a few days off, and I had already arranged for another friend to join me at the Longacre Theatre so the die was cast.  Joyfully as it turned out.  This is the only show I have seen this summer which genuinely deserved its standing ovation (unless of course one assumes that the standing ovation granted to Elaine Stritch at Night Music was in recognition of her services to forgetting the script).

I saw this production for the first time, like Night Music, when it premiered at the Menier Chocolate Factory.  As with Night Music, I was curious to see how it would play in a larger theatre.  Then, as now, Douglas Hodge was playing Albin, but Philip Quast has been replaced as Georges by Kelsey Grammer.  I expected Hodge to be good; he was outstanding.  I was curious to see Grammer; I did not expect the superb performance he gave.

Unlike Night Music, which I felt had lost some intimacy, La Cage succeeds in having it both ways.  It is grander than the original Menier production – or at least it certainly feels that way – I am pretty certain no large inflatable beach balls were hurled about the tiny Chocolate Factory auditorium.  At the same time, even in the Mezzanine, one still feels very much part of the club atmosphere – because Grammer, Hodge and the Cagelles take care to deliver their performances well beyond the front row of the stalls.  Moreover, the crucial intimate moments still come across, particularly between Hodge and Grammer.

Three Mackerras Memories

I wanted to wait until my brother had been able to post his thoughts and feelings about the passing of the great Charles Mackerras as he has a far deeper knowledge of the range of Mackerras's music making than I.  But I did want to record three Mackerras memories by way of a coda.

I was lucky enough to be living in Edinburgh for many of the years when Mackerras was giving annual performances at the Festival.  When I first moved to Edinburgh I was a regular opera-goer but made only occasional visits to the concert hall so that I was unfamiliar with what much of even the standard orchestral repertoire.  This the International Festival quickly began to change, and Mackerras's performances were a big factor in that, in particular his symphonic cycles with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.  Others will inevitably cite the famous Beethoven cycle in 2006, and of course that was very special.  But what really lives on for me is his Brahms cycle which included the two piano concertos from the incomparable Christian Zacharias.  It was the first time I had heard the four symphonies, and I have never forgotten the experience of the First.  This is a piece that struggles and wrestles before winning through to victory in the final moments of the fourth movement.  Mackerras built the tension up and up until that moment of victory in an utterly overpowering way.

Mackerras could also provide a wonderful tonic.  One year at the Festival I subjected myself to an eleven hour French play of typical EIF tedium.  The next day I had tickets for Charles Mackerras, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Barbara Frittoli and Anna Caterina Antonacci in Donizetti's Maria Stuarda.  Now I don't usually like Donizetti but the playing was so invigorating, the divas were so amazing, that I was just swept along.  At the interval I got chatting to a fellow audience member, discovering that she too had suffered through the eleven hour French play, and that the Donizetti was inspiring in us the same reaction.

The Addams Family, or Oops They Did It Yet Again, or Please, Please, Please Stop

The Addams Family is a classic of what passes for the New Musical in today's world.  Take a well-known TV programme, or comic book character, or famous singer's back catalogue.  Throw shed-loads of money at the production (this one has the most moveable set since the London revival of Oliver and as many pointless special effects as Shrek the Musical, two other notable turkeys).  Hire a couple of Broadway Names.  Result: The Tourist Audience will feel comfortable, and they will come and see it.  I'm delighted that lots of them seemed to be having a rapturous time.  That doesn't get away from the fact that this is A New Musical by numbers.  It doesn't stink quite as totally as Shrek, but it's a damned close run thing.

The problems are legion.  The story is a rewrite of Addams Family Values.  The rewrite removes virtually all the humour (there are approximately three good gags in a two and a half hour show) and transforms a quite witty plot in which Uncle Fester falls in love, Pugsley and Wednesday are sent to summer camp, and the family is threatened with normality, with a desperately sappy plot in which Wednesday falls in love with a decidedly unprepossessing boy from Ohio.  As an aside I suspect the influence of the High School Musical franchise here – presumably children can't be expected to take an interest in the love affair of an uncle, but only in that of two prepubescent teenagers.  Leaving this aside, it is just possible this exceptionally rickety structure might have worked if I'd believed at any point, in any of the characters.  Unfortunately, what is presented is a set of caricatures.  The emotional soul has been surgically removed from this whole show.  Indeed, as things go on one is forced to the conclusion that the writers realised they couldn't do emotion and so resorted to pointing out to us at every turn how fake the whole enterprise is.  That might have worked if the music and lyrics were any good.

Andrew Lippa (a man whose credentials appear pretty thin for this kind of enterprise) is responsible for them.  He appears to be competing for the mantle previously held by Lord Lloyd Webber of writing One Song to the Tune of the Same Song.  The style is easy listening, the lyrics pile cliché upon tedious cliché.  There is no more emotion to be had here than in anything else in the show.  Furthermore, the whole piece is a bizarre throwback to an earlier age.  It is rather as if not only Stephen Sondheim but even Rodgers and Hammerstein had never happened.  This is a modern version of an old-style musical, with playouts so they can change the set, and kick-lines and jazz hands de rigeur in the choreography.  The songs do not move the plot on, there is rarely any reason for the characters to sing, except it is at least a couple of minutes since the previous number, and there are frankly too many of them.  The difference with the best of that earlier time is obvious, George could write a tune, Ira could turn a lyric.  Even Shrek had one good number (even if it did happen in the first five minutes).  Bebe Neuwirth (Morticia Adams) tries her best with “Just around the Corner” but it isn't enough.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Proms 2010 - Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

Note - this is a review of the concert broadcast.

Roger Wright's answer to the question of how does one top an opening concert of Mahler's 8th symphony was always set to be big event: a concert performance of Wagner's massive comedy, all too infrequently staged in this country, with the added draw of a top name singer headlining it.  In the end, it proved more than up to the task.


Bryn Terfel, as Hans Sachs, was very good indeed; he sang well and commanded the Albert Hall stage, not to mention making it through without seeming to tire - by no means a given.  True, his acting was at times a little over the top, but in a concert performance this is a pretty minor quibble.  Excellent though his performance was, he by no means upstaged the other principals.  Christopher Purves's Beckmesser was a particular treat, clearly sung and superbly acted, making one wish to have seen him in the stage version - his misplaced joy in thinking he had obtained a winning song was wonderful (indeed, his exit prompted a flurry of applause - I can understand why), so too the way he climbed atop a chair to sing it.  Then there was his mounting fury at Sachs's mischievousness as he attempted to serenade Eva (Terfel thumping his shoe furiously with the hammer) - Purves looked like he might burst a blood vessel.

There were also good performances from Amanda Roocroft as Eva and Ramond Very as Walter and Anna Burford impressed greatly as Magdalene.  However, it is a massive ensemble cast, and assembling one that is uniformly of the highest standard is, much like any Wagner opera, a near impossible task, and lower down the batting order things were less solid.  Andrew Tortise's David was somewhat weak in chasing away Beckmesser in act two and David Soar's Nightwatchman was disappointing.  However, comparatively speaking such blemishes were minor.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Charles Mackerras – What he meant to me and why I'll miss him so much

It may come as something of a surprise, especially given the title of this blog, but Donald Runnicles is, in fact, not my favourite conductor.  Of course, I'm pretty loose with my affections and have many favourites, but with a gun to my head, the honours would go to Charles Mackerras, who died on July 14th 2010, aged 84.
What follows isn't really an obituary, although it will have aspects in common with one, it's meant more as a personal reflection on the way he touched and shaped my musical life and experiences; an attempt to explain, if I can, why he was my favourite.  This isn't a short article either; if you want that, there are plenty of others elsewhere.  But for me, none of those seem to capture properly what made him so special.
I first met Charles Mackerras through his recording of Mozart's 40th symphony with the Prague Chamber Orchestra.  Actually, more accurately, what I should say is that I first met him through James Bond.  A big fan of Bond, one day at the age of fourteen or fifteen I was watching The Living Daylights.  Fans will know that near the start Bond attends a classical concert.  I asked my father if we had a recording of the piece being played, which turned out to be Mozart's 40th symphony, and indeed we did.  At the time I was wrestling with my GCSE maths coursework and had read that Mozart made you cleverer, or something to that effect, so I promptly decamped to my room with some squared paper and the disc.  I fell in love with both the 40th and the Jupiter and played them pretty endlessly for a couple of weeks.  To what extent it was Mackerras, Mozart, or just the fact that I'm actually quite good at maths, I don't know, but the result was the maximum score and I came to swear by the works.  I haven't had an exam for years now, but listening to the finale of the Jupiter beforehand used to be a regular ritual.

Monday, 19 July 2010

A Little Night Music, or, for the love of God give Stritch an earpiece

Around this time last year there was a controversy in the New York theatre world over an actor in an off-Broadway play who had had trouble learning the script and had resorted to an ear piece.  It then emerged, if I remember correctly, that Angela Lansbury had used one.  At the time I was a little sceptical about the justifications advanced for this.  After my experience this afternoon I can only say that the marriage of Elaine Stritch to an earpiece is an absolute necessity.  This is because, to paraphrase Flanders and Swann, not only does Elaine Stritch not know her second line, she doesn't even know her first.  God knows what the cast, not to mention the poor prompter, are going through with this because it is further complicated by what, for want of a better word, we shall call the Stritch Style.  The Stritch Style has two elements – a booming delivery, and the long, pregnant pause.  If she pauses long enough, she appears to reason, she might remember her line. The challenge for her colleagues, and indeed the prompter, is to try and discern at what point intervention is required.  In any show, this would be a serious problem, but in Night Music it is especially so because Madame Armfeldt so often has to move the action forward,

Needless to say, these difficulties cast something of a pall over Act 1.  Nor are they the only ones.  In London, Anne Egerman was played by Jessie Buckley in her first leading role.  She was very very good.  Here Ann is played by Ramona Mallory.  She looks very beautiful, and has a somewhat uncanny resemblance to Bernadette Peters, but her delivery of lines is almost as maddening as Stritch's.  She inserts asinine giggles and laboured pauses, uses various rather bizarre accents, and has a manner of snatching her breath during musical numbers which tends to destroy the sense of the line.

So why, given these problems, would I still recommend you see this show (even if you saw it when it was originally done in London; if you saw it in New York with Angela Lansbury I suspect the case is far weaker and must rest on how much you admire Bernadette Peters)?  To begin with, there are some excellent supporting performances.  Bradley Dean was apparently a stand-in as Carl-Magnus.  All I can say about that is that it is a crime this man is labouring in the chorus – he was superb – his delivery of In Praise of Women a highlight of Act One.  Equally good is Leigh Ann Larkin as Petra, who gives a mesmerising performance of The Miller's Son.  The greatest strength of both these performers is they understand the need for subtlety in this show – something which Elaine Stritch has long since discarded along with the script.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Come Fly Away, or The Show that Fell Between Two Stools

After an afternoon of searing racial drama, I decided to opt for something musical for the evening performance, and after some dithering decided to try something a bit different.  Come Fly Away follows in the increasingly worn pathway of all the other recent musicals which have looted the back catalogues of a variety of famous singers and proceeded to string often depressingly thin plots onto their backs and proclaim them A New Musical.  That soubriquet is very much in evidence here.  However, Come Fly Away, is a little bit different.  Basically, this is a piece of modern dance which just happens to be choreographed to Frank Sinatra's songs.  Frankly, I can't quite see how this can really be made to square with the generally accepted definition of a musical, and I can't help suspecting that it is being called A New Musical in order to attract the audiences who have already flocked to Momma Mia, We Will Rock You and so on and so on.  Be that as it may, having disposed of the question of genre the next question is does it work as a piece of modern dance, and the answer is well frankly no.

In fairness I suppose I am bound to acknowledge that the show does attempt to have a plot, albeit one so loose as to be practically meaningless.  The whole event takes place in a bar, against a soundtrack of 30 odd Frank Sinatra hits.  As far as I could discern you have one young ingenue couple falling in and out of love, and two men fighting over another woman (I think one of my problems may have been that I found it really rather difficult to work out why two men should have been fighting over this particular woman, but anyway, moving on...).  On the plus side, and a remarkable technical feat this, you do get Sinatra singing all the numbers, with support from a marvellous live big band, and a rather bland Featured Vocalist (her programme credit), Hilary Gardner.

So what exactly is the trouble with all this?  Well first, clearly I was likely to have a bit of a personal problem with the show in that I like to have characters who engage my emotion, and a flimsy plot such as this one is unlikely to create characters who will do that.  Despite this, I have been entranced by modern dance in the past, Impressing the Czar at the Edinburgh Festival being the prime example.  This did not happen here.  As far as I'm concerned Twyla Tharp's choreography often didn't fit with Sinatra's music, and it quickly became rather repetitive.  I'm not saying that the dancers weren't all very good, or that there weren't some breath-taking moments, but I found myself spending far too much of the time wondering how what the dancers were doing was supposed to match up with whatever number the disembodied Sinatra was then singing.  And that, indeed, was a further problem: Sinatra's musical performances, particularly ballads like One for my Baby and September of My Years had far more emotion than much of what was happening on stage, such that I wanted to just close my eyes and listen to him, which I'm sure was not the effect that Tharp was hoping for.

David Mamet's Race

In 2008 I was fortunate enough to be able to see David Mamet's superb play, November, during its original Broadway run.  The play was an absolutely blistering disection of the American body politic in the dog days of the Bush II Administration.  Mamet's script, combined with unforgettable performances from Dylan Baker, Laurie Metcalf, and above all Nathan Lane made for an unforgettable evening.  I therefore had high hopes for Mamet's latest play, Race.  Rather like Promises, Promises, this show is a bit of a mixed bag.

First, to my mind, this just isn't quite as brilliant a play as November – although I have to acknowledge that the subject matter of the latter is particularly close to my heart.  Particularly at the beginning of Race there are rather too many comparisons of the court room to a theatrical performance – which point is made with more punch in the musical Chicago – indeed it is really impossible not to see/hear echoes of Billy Flynn in Eddie Izzard's performance as Jack Lawson.  Second, the ensemble cast, while still very good, are not quite so outstandingly brilliant as their compatriots were in November, there was the odd fumbled exchange and audibility was occasionally a problem.

Yet, despite these caveats this remains a play that ought to be seen.  This is really because of the narrative's second story.  Ostensibly, we are concerned with whether or not a wealthy white guy, Charles Strickland (Richard Thomas), has raped a black girl, who may, or may not, be a prostitute.  But very quickly the centre of the drama becomes the way in which the two lawyer partners, and the young black Ivy League female graduate they have recently hired, respond to this case.  This response becomes a disturbing exploration of the racial lies and deceptions we perpetrate on each other, the assumptions that rule our conduct, the things we cannot say, and the cold hard reality that nobody is immune.  Mamet makes appallingly clear the different and devastating powers that skin colour, and, beneath it, America's complex and difficult racial past can still arouse, and the play really catches fire as it explores the effect of the case on the racial perceptions and relationships within the office.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Proms 2010 - Mahler 8 from Bělohlávek and the BBC Symphony Orchestra

It was, perhaps, the obvious choice to open the 2010 Proms in this double anniversary year for Gustav Mahler.  There is nothing, anywhere in the repertoire quite like his 8th symphony:  epic scale, both in orchestration but also the somewhat disparate nature of the two halves, the second of which can, in the wrong hands, prove a little sprawling.  Jiří Bělohlávek didn't win me over the last time I heard him in Mahler (a performance of the 9th symphony with the RSNO at the 2005 Edinburgh festival).


His take on the 8th was a big improvement, yet not without a few flaws.  I always feel that the opening bars of the work are almost the musical equivalent of making you feel like you've been hit by a train (in a good way, if that makes any kind of sense), yet under Bělohlávek they didn't have quite that impact.  Having said that, he built the drama as the first part progress and worked his forces into to an awesome climax (one I can't wait to hear in the flesh in Edinburgh in a month and a half).  In addition, while this work is most famous for its titanic moments, it does contain some quieter passages of incredible beauty, and Bělohlávek generally brought these out well.

The singing of the soloists was solid enough, but nothing that quite wandered into the realms of breathtaking or outstanding.  The amalgamated chorus came together very well, providing a rich and weighty sound; they also impressed in the quieter moments, providing a fabulous sort of heavy piano. The boys' chorus was especially fine.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Promises, Promises, or, Sometimes Things Just Work Without Reason

At about 5pm this afternoon, after a rather frustrating day in an archive which shall remain nameless (as I need them to let me back in tomorrow) I decided to go and see what was on-sale at the TKTS booth in Times Square.  I was rather hoping that this might include The Addams Family, but it was not to be.  My second choice had been David Mamet's new play, Race, but as I made my way through the hordes, my eye was caught by a billboard for Promises, Promises, which prominently displayed Kristen Chenoweth's name, add the fact that seats were on at a 50% discount at the booth and there was no contest – especially as Broadway Grosses suggest I could turn up there practically any night in the next two weeks and get a discounted ticket for the Mamet.

Despite the presence of Chenoweth, undoubtedly a performer for whom the epithet “star” might have been coined – if by star you mean, as I do, a performer from whom one cannot take one's eyes every moment she is on stage – there are all sorts of reasons why this show really shouldn't work.  Let me give you just three.  One – parts of Sean Hayes's performance of the male lead where he seems to be under the delusion that he is still playing Jack in an episode of Will and Grace rather than the quite different character of Chuck Baxter.  Two – much of the ensemble choreography – this is one of those shows were there is something of a disjunction between movement and music.  Three – Kristin Chenoweth picking up a guitar which Sean Hayes just happens to have lying around in his apartment and launching into an almost unbearably twee rendention of I'll Never Fall in Love Again (a moment however blessedly enlivened in this evening's performance when Chenoweth caught her dressing gown on the tuning peg and both performers ended the number practically dissolved in hysterics).

And yet, despite these and other irritations this show has something, in some ways the other side of each of the disadvantages I've just listed.  For every moment when Hayes's campness is ruining the characterisation there are softer, underplayed moments that make you believe in him – I would say firmly that if he stopped playing to the gallery of Will and Grace fans who are undoubtedly attending this show because of that connection he could give a really striking performance.  Leaving aside the number previously mentioned, Chenoweth's performance is constantly heart-breaking – brittle, edgy, vulnerable.  She has three stunning ballads (Knowing When to Leave, Whoever You Are and, perhaps above all, A House is Not a Home) which are achingly sad.

More fundamentally, this is an intrinsically interesting musical which deserves a revival, even if it is not completely a success.  The book has plenty of good sharp lines in it.  While one can be forgiven for thinking at the beginning that this is material done more brightly by Frank Loesser in How to Succeed in Business or by Richard Morris, Jeanine Tesori and Dick Scanlan in Thoroughly Modern Millie much of it is actually far closer to the world of Sweet Charity.  It is really quite unclear, or at least it was to me, whether there was going to be a happy ending.

Monday, 5 July 2010

The Where's Runnicles Album of the Week - Jochum conducts Bach's B minor Mass

This is a special record for me; it is the record that won me over to this magnificent piece and convinced me of its greatness.  I had owned a recording for some years, that by John Eliot Gardiner, the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists.  It was part of a multi disc box containing Bach's major choral works and I'd listened to them all but the Mass never grabbed me.

Then, a couple of years ago, I put on the Gramophone cover CD.  I seem to recall the thing I wanted to listen to was Giuseppe Sinopoli's live Dresden Mahler 4.  The exert was so small it wasn't possible to judge anything and before I knew it the CD had run on to one of the most magnificent things I had ever heard.  The kind of magnificent thing where you have to stop what you're doing and are frozen to the spot.  It was the Sanctus from the B minor Mass, as played and sung by Eugen Jochum and the Choir and Symphony Orchestra of Bavarian Radio.


It was on the CD as the person at the back of the magazine who was picking their favourite music had mentioned it.  Actually, though, he hadn't mentioned the Jochum specifically, so perhaps that was just the favourite choice of someone at the magazine, or perhaps the mention was just edited out, or maybe it was random chance.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Aldeburgh 2010 - Boulez and the Ensemble intercontemporain

It is, perhaps, hardly a surprise that Aimard brought arguably France's most prominent living composer and conductor to the Aldeburgh festival.  Indeed, in some respects, the surprise is that this is his first visit.  Given his age, despite looking remarkably spry for his mid 80s, it may also be the last.  Surprising, then, that it wasn't sold out.  True, it was a somewhat challenging programme, but no more so than many others.  But then the Mahler Chamber Orchestra didn't sell out last year.  Interestingly, the audience demographic seemed markedly different from the rest of the week (either that or the pharmacies of Aldeburgh have been doing a roaring trade in hair dye).  As a relatively young person who often worries that in the future there may not be an audience for the kinds of concerts he likes to go to, this was encouraging.

They began with Octandre by Edgard Varese.  Unfortunately it didn't do very much for me.  It was discordant, screechy and didn't seem to amount to terribly much.

Fortunately much, much better was to follow in the form of Ligeti.  The more Ligeti I hear, the more I am impressed by two things: that no two pieces seem alike and that they are reliably excellent.  His Chamber Concerto proved no exception.  As ever, there was a clever use of orchestration, which included two keyboards per pianist, playing pianos, harpsichords and synthesisers, leading to some wonderful textures.  Making it even more magical it was not always entirely clear where the analogue instruments ended and the digital one began.  The work built to a brilliantly frantic climax in the third movement and featured some of the most aggressive pizzicato playing I've ever seen.

Ligeti was followed by Carter (who was celebrated at last year's festival) and the world premiere of his What Are Years, a setting for soprano of poems by Marianne Moore.  Not only were these good poems but they were well sung by Claire Booth, though it was still good to have the text in the programme (why we got the text for this and not the Britten on Thursday I cannot understand - clearly it isn't just a question of the language).  Carter's settings proved imaginative and nicely coloured.