Monday, 23 August 2021

EIF 2021 - Lonely House, or, An Outstanding Evening of Song

 When the International Festival announced that this year's programme was to take place almost entirely in tents two events stood out - this performance of Kurt Weill's songs dating from his exiles in Paris and New York, and Alan Cumming's appearance on the final weekend. This is not to say that there aren't other world class performers in this year's programme but these two shows were instances where I knew in advance that they could almost certainly transcend what I expected to be the acoustic limitations of the tents because they were shows that would have been miked under regular circumstances. In this first instance my supposition proved correct. This is the first of the four shows in the tents I've attended which transcended their limitations as performance spaces. As the songs progressed I increasingly forgot the sound of the rain, the chill in the air and was simply immersed in the mesmerising artistry of Katharine Mehrling and Barrie Kosky.

Kosky previously showed himself adept in this kind of collaboration at Festival 2019 when he brought colleagues from his Komische Oper, Berlin for a marvellous late night performance of Yiddish opera excerpts at the Lyceum. This was Mehrling's debut at the Festival, and what an electrifying performance it was. 

Sunday, 22 August 2021

EIF 2021 - Dido's Ghost, or The Perils of the Sequel

 A standout in last year's BBC Radio 3 Proms Archive season was a rebroadcast of a 2003 late night performance of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas which reminded me what a masterpiece it is. I think it is therefore fair to say that to attempt to write a sequel to it is a brave decision, and, even more so, to construct that sequel such that the new work incorporates what sounded to me like a pretty complete performance of Purcell's original.

Composer Errollyn Wallen and librettist Wesley Stace have in fact a strong idea for their new work - which is to pick up the story with Aeneas some years later in his new kingdom, haunted by his treatment of Dido. The problems lie in the execution. Aeneas's immediate mental crisis is triggered by the arrival in Lavinium of Dido's sister Anna. Aeneas offers her the sanctuary of the palace. Once there they all - Aeneas, Anna, and Aeneas's new Queen, Lavinia - proceed to take up roles in a re-enactment of Purcell's opera. I'd arrived almost as curtain was going up, so hadn't time to read the detailed synopsis in the programme which, judging by a reading after the event, might have helped. As it was I could only go with the narrative as presented on stage, and I'm afraid it just made no sense to me that such a performance would be organised in this context, nor was I convinced by the reasons provided for the characters assuming parts within the masque. That synopsis suggests that it is all being masterminded by Purcell's Belinda, except that she is now supposed to be the Spirit of the Theatre - in other words the Gods are to blame - but I'm afraid a convincing controlling spiritual power was not created as far as I was concerned. From near the very back of the auditorium I also ended up in one complete moment of confusion at the start of the Witches scene in the Purcell when it seemed as if there were two Aeneases in the action and one of them had taken on the role of the Sorceress - I think a contributory factor here may be the very minimal costuming which doesn't always help to distinguish characters.

Sunday, 2 May 2021

Remembering Michael Collins – A LUCKY man we were LUCKY to have

“Well, I kinda have two moons in my head, I guess, whereas most people just have one moon. I look at the moon, just like everybody else who’s never been there, and, you know, there it is, and I’ve always thought it was interesting, whether it was full or just a sliver, or what have you. But every once in a while I do think of the second moon, you know, the one I that I recall from up close, and it is kinda hard to believe that I was actually up there.”

Michael Collins speaking in the 2007 documentary In the Shadow of the Moon. It remains one of the greatest records of the Apollo programme, not least due to the wit, the poetry, and the sparkle of Collins’ interviews. It is also one of my favourite films, and Collins my favourite Apollo astronaut and a real inspiration, so the news of his death last week from cancer at the age of 90 was particularly sad.

Collins training for Apollo 11. Photo NASA.

Monday, 3 August 2020

BBC Proms 2020, or, A Proms Miscelleny for Week 3

Welcome to the second instalment of this rather mad combination of Previously at the Proms/What the critics said...

Monday 3rd August - Lunchtime Chamber Music - Liszt, Prokofiev (2011)

This was Katia Buniatishvili's debut at the Festival. She returned in 2018 to perform the Grieg Piano Concerto.

Intriguingly, given for most of its history the Proms was primarily an orchestral festival, this was the third performance of Liszt's Piano Sonata. On both occasions, it was paired with major symphonies - Bruckner's Fifth in 1984 and Beethoven's Ninth in 1989 (played by Lazar Berman on the first occasion and Peter Donohoe on the second). It's quite hard to imagine such a pairing featuring on a programme now. Liszt's music featured in the very first Proms season - his second Hungarian Rhapsody (heard in the orchestral version at the First Night) and Third Liebestraum (which Buniatishvili also plays, and which had gone unheard at the Proms between 1905 and 1997). This was the eighth performance of the Liebestraum (and its only other performance since the early days of the Festival, in Evgeny Kissin's 1997 solo recital, can be heard later in this archive season). Liszt's music overall has notched up just over 600 Proms appearances partly aided, as with Berlioz, by multiple performances in the early years of what I think Henry Wood referred to as lollipops - most frequent here was Liszt's Hungarian Fantasy. But his overall output is more widely reflected than I'd expected. The Piano Concertos have unsurprisingly appeared frequently (the First can be heard in tonight's Prom), but Les Preludes beats the Second Concerto and remained a regular feature of seasons through to the Last Night in 1963 after which it disappeared until Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra brought it back in 2009. Almost as surprising as the popularity of Les Preludes to me was the discovery that both his large scale symphonies have appeared more than once - the Dante Symphony receiving its Proms premiere back in 1904 (though it was not heard again until 1986). Henry Wood evidently had a fondness for the Faust Symphony, giving it complete on four occasions in the 30s (often alongside Liszt symphonic poems). The list even includes a performance of the rarely heard Christus in 1978 - I can't recall this being done in the UK since I started attending concerts - I wonder if that is still in the archive. 

Monday, 27 July 2020

BBC Proms 2020, or, A Proms Miscelleny for Week 2

One of the pleasures of programmes at BBC Proms concerts (one or two of the opera houses also do this) is the little information box "Previously at the Proms" telling you how many times a work has appeared at the Proms. In the absence of a Proms Guide, or concert programmes, and courtesy (for all the stats and details of performers) of the excellent Proms archive (though any faulty counting is entirely me), here follows a combination of the Proms performance history of this week's works and artists, and a compilation of what the critics said at the time (in so far as I've been able to locate their pieces). I hope the BBC will not object to this use of their publicly available archive data, but of course if they should do so we will be happy to remove this post. It is intended purely for the enjoyment of readers who may be making up for the absence of live performance by listening along to the season.

Monday 27th July - Lunchtime Chamber Music - Martinu, Dutilleux, Prokofiev (2011)

This was the fourth of Emmanuel Pahud's, to date, six Proms appearances as soloist. He first performed at the festival in 1998 in Mozart's Concerto for Flute and Harp with Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic and he'd already appeared at the 2011 Proms season to give the London premiere of Marc-Andre Dalbavie's Flute Concerto with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and Theirry Fischer. This was Eric Le Sage's Proms debut and, to date, only appearance.

Saturday, 25 July 2020

The Arts and Covid-19, or, Serious Questions for Oliver Dowden and the DCMS

On the 5th July when the government announced its £1.57 billion arts support package I honestly hoped it would mean I could stop having to ask questions of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and the Secretary of State Oliver Dowden. Sadly here we are three weeks later and there are again reasons to be seriously concerned.

Overnight on the 22nd/23rd July the Commons Select Committee for the DCMS published a report on the DCMS's (& to an extent the wider government's) response to Covid. It's an admirable document, from a Committee with a Tory majority, which lays out in detail the devastating impact which Covid has had on the cultural sector (Section 3). It makes a series of detailed recommendations for assistance to the sector (Conclusions & Recommendations, Sections 10-19), many of which have been proposed during the crisis by the sector itself. Among these are a call for extensions to the furlough scheme for these sectors where recovery will be delayed, extending the cut in VAT on ticket sales, and ensuring financial aid is not confined only to those previously receiving subsidies.

Monday, 20 July 2020

BBC Proms 2020, or, Archival Mysteries

This past weekend would normally have seen the start of the Proms. As with other summer Festivals that usually have a significant broadcast presence (Aldeburgh and Edinburgh for example), Radio 3 has marked it with a season from the archive. Given the restricted conditions under which we're all operating at present it is clearly a significant feat to have pulled this six week season together. The opera selection is especially rich: Donald Runnicles, Nina Stemme and Deutsche Oper in Salome, Bernard Haitink and the Royal Opera in Don Carlo, Jiri Belohlavek, Karita Mattila and the BBC SO in The Makropulos Affair, and Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin in Die Walkure (again with a very starry line-up of soloists, though my preference from that cycle would have been Gotterdammerung for another chance to hear Andreas Schager's Siegfried - the only live occasion I've been really moved by his death). It's also worth noting that, contrary to my first impression, the balance between core repertoire and new works looks pretty close to what it would be in a standard season, and there is appropriate representation of the eclectic genres and performers often seen in the late night slots. The opening weekend hadn't especially stood out for me but turned out to be gripping listening - with Birtwistle's Panic and the energy of Gardiner's Leonora particularly surprising me. All that said, there are (as with the Aldeburgh and Edinburgh broadcasts) significant limits to this delving into the archive which, bizarrely, the BBC seem disinclined to discuss in any detail.

The BBC has talked up the season as a celebration of archival treasures across four decades - but given this would have been the 125th season to go back only 40 years presents a rather truncated picture. Moreover the actual representation of those 40 years in the 2020 season is uneven. It breaks down as follows:

2010s - 28 and a bit concerts, plus 8 chamber recitals
2000s - 16 concerts, plus 2 chamber recitals
1990s - 10 and a bit concerts
1980s - 3 concerts

The earliest of those 1980s concerts comes from 1987, the other two from 1989 - so the season hardly gives much reflection of that decade. As an aside I find it striking that I haven't seen any professional journalist undertake this straightforward bit of maths.

Thursday, 18 June 2020

The Arts and Covid-19, or, Notes from an Inadequate Press Conference

The crisis in the arts sector continued to gather pace yesterday. We've already this week seen further reporting on the desperate situation facing freelancers and the establishment of a campaign to draw attention to this. On Wednesday Cameron Mackintosh became the latest figure to announce that performances will not resume until 2021 - in this case of four West End musicals (Mary Poppins, Les Miserables, Hamilton and The Phantom of the Opera). In consequence a redundancy consultation process has commenced for staff employed on those productions. Earlier in the day the Creative Industries Federation released a report commissioned from Oxford Economics predicting a £74bn drop in revenue in consequence of covid-19 and 400,000 job losses. The RSC announced it would have to go into "drastic hibernation" without "urgent support" and the latest in what has become a string of open letters from the industry was published. The signatories to this letter provide a further worrying sign. For the first time senior arts executives were prominent among those who signed. This is a critical group who have been cautious so far in their public statements. Much like the statements being issued and decisions taken at the end of last week this suggests to me that nothing concrete is coming out of whatever private discussions are going on.

So it was an interesting day for the government to decide to send Oliver Dowden, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport out to lead the daily briefing. One might have expected that he would have something of substance to say about the issues outlined in the previous paragraph. But it was not to be. Most of what Dowden had to say in relation to the areas for which his ministry is responsible was concerned with the restarting of sports fixtures (most notably football). This was in keeping with the content of his twitter feed in recent days where he responded to Michael Vaughan, former England cricket captain, asking about the resumption of that game, and celebrated the return of football but had absolutely nothing to say to the many tweets and reports of desperation and anxiety from the arts sector (as noted below this changed after the press conference).

Monday, 15 June 2020

The Arts and Covid-19, or, We Must Act Now

Two weeks ago I blogged on the crisis facing the arts sector. In the last few days it feels very much as if a tipping point has been reached as closures and cancellations gather pace and elements of the sector have begun to address the government's failures more directly. Ticket holders for the National Theatre's Christmas revival of Small Island were contacted with the news that the show has been cancelled. The Wales Millennium Centre, announcing closure until January at the earliest, declared "the situation is extremely serious and needs Government intervention and advice urgently." The Chester Storyhouse issued a statement noting "over two thirds of the country's theatres currently expect to be out of business by Christmas" and urged "the government to give guidance now about opening theatres" pointing out that "No business...can plan an opening in this vacuum." Both Scottish Opera and Welsh National Opera have now cancelled their autumn seasons. The Birmingham Hippodrome has announced a period of redundancy consultation. If major venues like the National Theatre and the Wales Millennium Centre are in this position imagine what is happening lower down the food chain.

The government's response, inadequate through this crisis, meanwhile reached new depths. You'll recall that the last time we saw the minister, Oliver Dowden, he was announcing task forces. Since then there has been no word on what the task forces are doing, or when they can be expected to report (somebody in the press should be doing an FoI request for the minutes of their meetings). About the only sighting of Dowden was an interview with the Evening Standard a few days ago in which he claimed "I am not going to stand by and see our world-leading position in the arts and culture destroyed" and the reporter claimed, presumably on the basis of what Dowden said to him, that "the deal is almost done" with the Treasury. Perhaps needless to say no further announcement has yet followed, and, in what felt to me like the ultimate insult, as the announcements of prolonged closures and cancellations came out on Friday the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport was retweeting the Cabinet Office's announcement that the government would not seek an extension to the Brexit transition period.

Thursday, 28 May 2020

The Covid-19 Crisis, or, What Should the Arts Sector Do?

Over the last ten days or so the scale of the crisis facing the Arts has at last started to be brought before the public. The Globe, the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh, a group of major organisations, and now the Southbank Centre have spelled out in stark terms the financial doom staring the sector in the face as it is forced to spend through its reserves just to survive. The Financial Times provided a good overview yesterday. Already venues have failed in LeicesterSouthampton and in Southport. If major organisations like these are facing collapse, consider how much worse the situation will be further down the food chain where organisations have little or nothing in reserve. Yes the Arts Council is doing its best with emergency grants to organisations outside the national portfolio (my twitter timeline in recent days has had plenty of groups issuing thanks) and now with emergency grants to freelancers (a group ill-served by government support mechanisms in general during this crisis and whose support at the moment is scheduled to be cut off completely at the end of May). But it is horribly clear that the crisis in its scale and likely duration dwarfs what support the government has so far offered.

Yet the Secretary of State Oliver Dowden and his Department have been slow to respond and reluctant to acknowledge just how deep the crisis is. As a regular audience member very worried about the fate of venues and art forms that are a huge part of my life I have had little sense that the government is particularly engaged by the crisis. Only on 20th May did Dowden, rather oddly sent out to lead that day's press conference, address the situation in a prominent public forum. Unfortunately all that he announced as far as the arts was concerned was a "renewal task force". Some criticised the membership. While not being wholly convinced on that point, the much more serious problem was the proposed focus of the task force which was "to develop creative drive the return of sectors." The only mention of finance offered no sense of the scale of the crisis facing the sector: "the Taskforce will look to see how creative new approaches could help sectors thrive in future, building on existing channels of government support...".

Sunday, 15 March 2020

Susanna at the Royal, or, Opera in a Time of Pandemic

This was one of the strangest live performance experiences I can recall. Not for the performance itself, which was well sung and played in a production which had strong elements but didn't quite cohere. No, it was strange rather because of the external health crisis and the way that kept impinging, do what I would, on my mind as I watched and listened.

I had havered for the last few days as to whether to attend. I have found it difficult, both in my professional life and in relation to this performance to be sure institutions in this country are doing the right thing in carrying on when universities and arts venues on the continent are closing down for weeks. Let me be clear - I am quite specifically not making a judgement on whether the policy is right, I am not qualified so to do, but talking about how I have felt. Nevertheless, in the end I decided I would attend this performance. The run has been sold out since booking opened but there were enough empty seats to suggest others had reached a different conclusion, and I saw at least one audience member in their seat wearing a face mask.

Wednesday, 4 March 2020

Fidelio at the Royal, or, And Then the Curtain Rose on Act 2

Note: This is a review of the matinee on Sunday 1st March 2020.

At the interval of this performance it seemed as if we were heading for a solid, if not a stellar afternoon. Then the curtain rose on Act 2 and I realised we were in for a very long fifty minutes.

But let us start with the music. This is generally a strong if not, from where I was sitting, outstanding set of singing performances. Lise Davidsen (Fidelio) clearly has a voice of enormous power which punched through physically to the Amphitheatre in a way few singers do. She does her best to carry off dramatically the increasingly unconvincing direction. She also delivers some of the more intimate moments with great character - for example the Act 1 Quartet (which was probably the single most satisfying moment of the whole performance). But in some of the exchanges I'd have liked more flexibility and variation in volume. We were asked for our understanding of Jonas Kaufmann (Florestan) before the curtain rose so this was not an occasion on which to judge his capacities in the role - he sang creditably under the circumstances. There was finely sung supporting work from Amanda Forsythe (Marzelline), Robin Tritschler (Jaquino) and Georg Zeppenfeld (Rocco). Simon Neal brought a rich bass to Pizarro but didn't always cut through the orchestra at full tilt.