Monday 31 May 2010

Scottish Opera announce their 2010/11 'Season'

Last week, Scottish Opera unveiled their 2010/11 season.  Well, I say season, the four operas they're putting on next year would be a more accurate description, which is rather a pity.  In london Covent Garden and English National Opera will manage 20 and 14 respectively.  Even Welsh National Opera can manage seven and Opera North has eight including kicking off a Ring cycle (what a pity the next stage of their Janacek series, From the House of the Dead, isn't coming up here as this season's joint production of Broucek did).  What's more, Scottish Opera is being even less adventurous than the last couple have years have been, which is saying something.

Of course, to some extent this isn't entirely their fault - the company has been teetering on the brink of bankruptcy since the glorious, though simultaneously ruinous, Ring Cycle of 2003.  Well, I say not entirely their fault, but one can argue it only had that effect due to incompetent management.  They are not helped by having the burden, rare in the UK arts scene, of a fully salaried orchestra, something impossible to justify given how much work they get.  Perhaps if this situation was rationalised they could put together a more ambitious season; in fairness this is something are trying to do at the moment (and both the Herald and the Scotsman's season launch coverage is dominated by it).

Still, let's talk about the art rather than the process and take a look at what we are getting.  Things kick off in October and November with Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro. We are told,"Internationally renowned baritone Sir Thomas Allen directs".  This seems an odd thing to tout in a director, as opposed to, say, directing, but then his credits there are comparitatively few - he is clearly at the outset of his directorial career.  That said, if the reviews are anything to go by, his Il barbiere di Siviglia at Scottish Opera a few years ago seems to have been both pretty faithful and good and had some nice comedic touches; he also sounds to be a good director of character.  In other words, in these days of director's opera, he could be very much a blessing.  All of which bodes well for Figaro.  At the podium is music director Francesco Corti whom I've yet to experience (but will at the Festival in a concert performance).

Sunday 30 May 2010

Mr McFall's Chamber with Michael Marra (and why did nobody tell me Su-a Lee played the musical saw)

I've been meaning to sample Mr McFall's Chamber for a while: several people have recommended them to me, the fabulous Su-a Lee plays with them and that's not to mention the fact that they perform at the Queen's Hall which, as well as being a generally great venue, is just round the corner from me.  For some reason, I've never quite got round to it, until, that is, last night.

For Friday's concert the core, somewhat eclectic line up, ranging from the eponymous Robert McFall and Claire Sterling on violin, Brian Schiele on viola, Su-a Lee on cello (the last three all being members of the SCO) and Rick Standley on bass (of both the conventional and electric guitar varieties) to more exotic instruments with Phil Alexander on accordion, harmonium and glockenspiel, were joined by Scottish singer and songwriter Michael Marra.

Marra proved a charismatic performer, trailing each of his songs with long, elaborate and often very witty stories (indeed, in one case, as he himself admitted, the intro was longer than the song itself).  The songs themselves ranged all over the place, from settings of Burns, such as Green Grow the Rushes, to a song about an estranged relative from an earlier generation who died in the Yukon, to the tale of Grace Kelly's Visit to Tannadice, and finishing with Frida Kahlo's visit to the Tay Bridge Bar, the latter managing to be moving, funny and surreal all at the same time.

Tuesday 25 May 2010

The Museums of Berlin (or rather, a few of those I had time to visit during my time there)

Berlin is a city overflowing with culture. And not just the musical, or rather classical, variety that my previous five blog posts covering my visit have been concerned with. There are more museums than you can shake a stick at or, by a more helpful measure, than you can comfortably visit during an eight day trip. Often they are clustered together at impressive places such as the Museuminsel (a world heritage site) or the Kulturforum (also home to the Philharmonie). Here are some brief thoughts on a few of them.


The Musical Instrument Museum


This being a blog primarily about music, I'll start with one of the less visited attractions: the Musikinstrumenten-Museum. This should be a wonder. Certainly it is filled with a wonderful range of instruments, from the might Wurlitzer organ (which one can hear live if one visits on a Saturday) to baroque violins and synthesisers of a the type used on Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here.

Monday 24 May 2010

Rossini's Guillaume Tell, or You Think You Know Rossini? Think Again.

As I may have mentioned before, I am a bit of a Rossini fan, so when I discovered by chance that the Chelsea Opera Group was putting on a concert performance of his last opera, Guillaume Tell, I was there like a shot. It proved to be a surprising evening. I thought that I knew Rossini, but I was wrong.

Much of the programme was taken up with commentary on the strange fact that Tell proved to be Rossini's last opera even though he was then only 37. There remains disagreement about why he chose to retire, but what hearing the opera makes very clear is how unfortunate this was in musical terms. Tell is very far from being your typical knockabout Rossini with zipping, decorative arias, and choruses and ensembles dashing towards a breakneck conclusion. Yes, there are moments of this, the conclusion of the famous overture being one of them, but much of the rest is truly grand opera. So much so indeed that at times I almost thought I was about to be in the depths of the Escurial with Philip II, or crossing the rainbow bridge into Valhalla.

So far as I can tell the chorus and orchestra are amateurs and I'm afraid that in places it showed. There were a few too many cases of ropy tuning or the chorus getting out of sync with the band. The big problem, though, was a just perceptible lack of security. The overture is a good example of this. The end of the overture needs to ratchet up madly, you need to feel that sense of being driven. This is not to say the orchestra didn't get up a good head of steam but it just didn't quite have that ultimate Rossini sparkle and spring. During the interval I overheard another audience member commenting on the chorus, he obviously had some connection with the group, and was noting the loss of younger members to exams. Indeed the problem was reminiscent of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus – something of a lack of power against the orchestra in the climaxes, and some uncertainty in the fiddliest bits. A recruitment drive in the music schools would seem to be in order. Perhaps the fair thing to say is that this was a very creditable performance for an amateur group, but it just wanted that bit more zing, fire, and excitement.

Saturday 22 May 2010

Monday Night Film Club roundup - The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (not for the squeamish), and more

It's been a while since the last monday night film club. Actually, there've been a couple that I haven't got round to writing up until now. What prompted me to do so was our first outing in over a month, for some not very light Swedish cinema.


The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

I've been wanting to read Stieg Larsson's much talked about thriller for a little while now, in large part because it's been so much talked about and fairly well reviewed. I had hoped to get that done before seeing the film - I prefer to do things that way round - but in the end it was not to be.

While I was expecting some serious crime, I don't think I was ready for quite how gruesome a tale the viewer gets. Now, true enough, I probably wind up looking away from the screen more than most, but even so, the graphic scenes, particularly of sexual violence, are extremely unpleasant and difficult and troubling viewing. That said, they don't feel gratuitous either and they fit oddly well with the book's rather more appropriate Swedish title Men Who Hate Women, which really is what the story is about, rather than just a description of the title character.

The story weaves a complicated web of political intrigue as journalist Mikael Blomkvist, disgraced after losing a libel suit brought by a dishonest industrialist who has managed to set him up, is called in by Henrik Vanger, head of a wealthy industrial dynasty, to clear up the disappearance of his niece 40 years ago. He is assisted by the brilliant, dysfunctional, headstrong and traumatised young hacker Lisbeth Salander, the girl of the title.

Thursday 20 May 2010

The 2010 BBC Proms (and the Where's Runnicles pick of them)

BBC Radio 3 is not always what it could be. I, along with many others, groaned when they announced recently they'd start having a sales chart. Still, flawed though it may be, there is not another institution in the world that provides anything like the Proms. Even the Edinburgh festival, though it offers a greater diversity of art forms and fully staged opera, does not provided the same quantity of live music.

This year there are 89 concerts (13 of them chamber performances) and though one might quibble with aspects of the programme, Where's Runnicles will admit to having been on tenterhooks leading up to the announcement a month ago.

This is the year of Mahler, the 150th anniversary of his birth and the centenary of the first performance of the Symphony of a Thousand, so plenty of his work was expected. Indeed, many predictions had money on a complete cycle. We don't quite get that, though 1, 3, 4, 5, 7 and 8 are present, along with various songs. This is a bit more than normal, though not hugely so.

The eighth, of course, we are getting in Edinburgh from Runnicles. At the Proms, it provides the opening concert with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Bělohlávek, for my money not as fine a Mahler conductor as some, though it is a good few years since I've heard him in any. His soloists look less impressive, though he does seem to have massive choral forces arrayed (numbering over four hundred); then again, the Albert Hall requires more oomph - I've never been to a big choral concert in the Usher Hall and thought it was too quiet. I've waited ages to hear a Mahler 8, now suddenly you can't move for them. Only the other week Elder did it with the combined forces of the Halle and the BBC Philharmonic. Of course, if you want to see it, you can probably forget it, since it's already sold out, just as Edinburgh's Runnicles one is (though the Prom will be televised, along with 25 others).

Sunday 16 May 2010

Denève rounds out the 2009/10 RSNO season with an eclectic programme

There's a moment in the first episode of the classic sitcom Frasier where his father complains that nothing in the flat goes with anything else. It is, explains Frasier, a style called eclectic, the guiding principle of which being that so long as one selects items of sufficient quality they will work together. It could be argued that this philosophy also underpins some of Stéphane Denève's programme selections. It doesn't always work, such as when he was looking for bedfellows for the Faure requiem, but in the season finale, things came together nicely.

Indeed, the comparison with the Faure is the more apt since then the work that should have been last was placed first. Not so on Friday. Here, Denève started with the symphony, rightly realising that Janacek's Taras Bulba packed the bigger punch and belonged at the close. But, before that, he turned to the audience to speak. The audible groan from someone close by me suggests I'm not alone in not caring for this. And, yet, credit where it's due: this time he spoke both briefly and informatively. Audience statistics aside, he explained that the Elgar cello concerto and Taras Bulba were written at about the same time before pointing out that, despite being very different pieces, they, as he put it to much topical humour, worked together as a "musical coalition".

He didn't explain how Schumann's 4th symphony fit in, but did explain that, with themes running through it, it was almost a symphonic poem, or symphonic fantasy as Schumann had thought of calling it. Certainly Denève played it accordingly, barely pausing for any gap between the movements. I always feel Schumann does best when played with plenty of oomph and a good dose of romanticism, and certainly the reading had no want of energy. There was some good playing from the orchestra and a nice heavy finish.

Saturday 8 May 2010

Avatar - or, James Cameron steals another three hours of my life

I don't like greatest lists, as regular readers will know. Similarly, I don't like X is the worst [blank] of all time. That said, if one were assembly a list of the worst films of all time, Titanic would certainly make my cut. I can remember few times where I have been so bored or where I have cared so little about the characters. At the time one comedian described it along the lines of "My heart will go on, and on, and on, and on.... a bit like the [expletive deleted] movie!". If I'd been in the cinema I might have walked out, as it was I was in my room at university, but since my flatmate was also watching it (and more shockingly enjoying it), there was no escape without being very rude.

That said, James Cameron has made some decent films which are often great fun: True Lies is a work of genius, in my view; both the Terminator films a full of enjoyable carnage; the first couple of Alien movies have a lot going for them. A big new sci-fi flick should therefore be right up his street, especially given he's pioneered new production techniques, etc. That seemed to be a reasonable view to take. Not to mention the fact it enjoyed tremendous success at the box office and had won awards (though, of course, both those statements could equally be made of Titanic).

This is, I'm sure I have read, but cannot find a reference as I write this, a film that Cameron first conceived while at school. Certainly this is the only charitable explanation for why the dialogue feels like it was written by a twelve year old. Particularly in the opening section, as ex-marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) arrives on Pandora, it really is so cringe-worthily hackneyed and bad that it has to be heard to be believed. This is a film screaming out for a competent script-doctor, though one wonders if even the likes of Joss Whedon could save it. More than that, though, the dialogue is loaded with exposition, frustratingly so as, in scenes staged to catch the audience up, characters explain to each other things that they surely already know, and know that each other know. Then, to make it topical, there's a sentence in Sully's opening narration about the recession that's hit earth which appears to have been tacked on with all the subtlety of a blue catering plaster slap bang in the middle of somebody's forehead.

Friday 7 May 2010

There's Runnicles - Götterdämmerung in Berlin

In it's first three instalments, Gotz Friedrich's Ring delivered a fairly solid production. At the same time, Runnicles has confirmed that he is one of the leading Wagnerians today and drawn some pretty special playing from the orchestra - it was a nice touch when, after more than fifteen hours of music, Runnicles brought them all to the stage at the end.


The final night began well with an effective staging of the Norns, something that can often drag. Red ropes criss-crossed the stage in front of the seated and blindfolded singers. They sang pretty well, though the first Norn, Liane Keegan, sounded a little underpowered. That said, a little too much smoke, a hallmark of this production, poured out when the curtain rose and, unfortunately, one of the ropes didn't snap as it should have.

It was change time again in the cast: Brunnhilde was, thankfully, back to Evelyn Herlitzius, though she was a little screechy to begin with and not always quite as precise as might have been liked. That said, her acting was superb and she was infinitely preferable to Janice Baird who we got in Siegfried. Gone too was the Siegfried of Stefan Vinke and in his place came Alfons Eberz. He benefitted from not having a cold, but could have had more power and was a less good actor. Still, as a pair, they had massively more chemistry.

Monday 3 May 2010

Elts and the SCO play Ligeti, Tüür and Sibelius to a half empty Queen's Hall

I've said it before, but I'll say it again: I wish Edinburgh audiences would be little more adventurous. True, the seats did fill up somewhat in the last five minutes before the concert started, avoiding a quite shocking level of attendance that I had thought might be occurring, but the hall still seemed a lot less than half full.

I myself had some doubts about attending. I've only been to one concert conducted by Olari Elts, in fact his first as principal guest conductor (actually, I think that may be incorrect, and it's possible I've also heard him in one of the Cl@six concerts). That was an all Sibelius programme, where he spoilt the 7th symphony by rushing it. However, this time Ligeti was on the billing too, as was a world premiere and, especially given the above paragraph, I'm always keen to support that. Not to mention it was a Saturday concert, which are usually much more convenient for me than the SCO's regular Thursday gigs. All in all, reason enough to give Mr Elts another shot.

Things started off splendidly with Ligeti's Concerto Romanesc. I've yet to hear a piece by the composer that failed to impress me and this didn't prove to be the exception. Once again I was struck by how much variety Ligeti seems to have in his work. The piece opened with a slow, gentle and lyrical first movement which was both rather nice and unexpected. Thereafter it built to something akin to frenzy. There was some absolutely cracking playing from the orchestra and a visceral energy and excitement, not to mention some superb solo work from guest leader Alexander Janiczek (on a side note, it's been ages since I've seen Christopher George in the leader's seat). Most of all, though, it was tremendous fun - I must seek out a recording. The eagle-eyed would have spotted a door at the end of the balcony opening just before it started and someone peeking through. This transpired to be for the offstage horn. He was placed to good effect, even going downstairs for some portions, but the effect didn't quite have the magic Runnicles would bring.

Saturday 1 May 2010

Britten's War Requiem - Denève and the RSNO

The Usher Hall has played host to some historic concerts. One, particularly, springs to mind as I write this review. At the 1968 Edinburgh festival Giulini conducted the Philharmonia in a performance of Britten's War Requiem with the original soloists for whom the roles were written and with Britten himself directing the Melos Ensemble. By all accounts it was extraordinary (I know a few people who were there), certainly the similar recording, albeit with different soloist, made at the Albert Hall on BBC Legends is quite something.

There've been other performances since, including one with the RSNO led by one Donald Runnicles, at the 2000 Festival. This week it was the turn of Stephane Denève and the RSNO. Denève took a fairly slow view, running close to ninety minutes, but never feeling sluggish. He captured the drama of the climactic moments, but was also sensitive in the quieter ones.


In an interesting move, he elected to conduct both the orchestra and the chamber ensemble, composed of orchestral principals and situated to the conductor's right. This didn't seem to cause any problems though, and the playing of all the forces was of a high standard, crisp and well co-ordinated. That said, having never heard it live before, I wonder if something extra might have been gained from such a division - certainly it was done on both recordings involving Britten that I'm aware of [note - I'm certain someone told me that someone else conducted the chamber ensemble on Britten's own Decca recording, but if so it isn't credited and I can find no reference, so my mind may be playing tricks on me].