Thursday 29 March 2012

The Recruiting Officer at the Donmar, or, The Moment at the End of the Play

The first and last time I saw this play was at the Edinburgh Fringe a frightening number of years ago played by an excellent school company at the Venue 40 with which I was then involved. The first surprise of seeing it again a couple of nights ago was to discover how many of the lines I remembered.

As the many other critics who have got to this before me have remarked this is a lovely, funny new production. As so often the Donmar auditorium is transformed with oodles of candles, chandeliers, lanterns, beams – it looks wonderful and fits the play to typical perfection. Matched to this spot on design is an excellent ensemble cast. It was an especial joy to me to see Nancy Carroll again who brought back memories of the Almeida's extraordinary production of Waste. She is especially superb here when Silvia becomes Wilful. She is well matched by Tobias Menzies's Captain Plume. He has something of a Blackadder flounce about him but also something deeper which emerges as required to give emotional depth to the character and the plot. As the other pair of lovers, Nicholas Burns's Mr Worthy rails piercingly, and Rachael Stirling's Melinda does the best comedy accent turn I've heard for ages – but again they under Josie Rourke's direction take care not to lose sight of the humans beneath the caricatures. Finally, doing his level best to steal every scene he's in, not to mention cast his wandering eye at as many female members of the audience as possible, there is Mark Gatiss's Captain Brazen.

Sunday 25 March 2012

Classical music download stores in 2012

Nearly three years ago, I wrote a blog post asking the following question: why are music download stores so useless? It had the particular perspective of a classical music loving Mac / iPod user who cares about high quality, of which more, much more, later. In the intervening years, the landscape has changed quite a bit and a new survey is probably overdue. Sadly, while in general it has to be said that things are better, for my money they are still astonishingly far from where they should be. All too often, trying to buy high quality classical downloads is a more frustrating experience than it has any right to be.

To be honest, given the choice, I'd now buy all my music as a download at CD quality or better (and I've not picked up a couple of new releases from labels that, for reasons passing understanding, refuse to sell their material in this manner). The three main reasons for this preference are the potential for better quality, more or less instant gratification (compared to waiting for a CD to arrive in the post) and no shelf-space required, which is a not inconsiderable issue for me.

Quality will be a major feature, or bugbear, depending on your perspective, of this post. If you're happy with 320 mp3 or 256 aac, as many people seem to be, then the download market is well served by the likes of Amazon and Apple. Many people seem almost proudly to claim that they can't hear the difference, yet for some reason the same issue doesn't dog the likes of blu-ray or the HD video downloads Apple offers. That is arguably a rather spurious apples to oranges type comparison, but for me the difference is normally similarly night and day with HD audio.

Saturday 24 March 2012

In Basildon at the Royal Court, or, An Eloquent Sofa

Dominic Cooke has after this evening had his name added to my list of creators of great theatrical mysteries. This is because he has discovered a definition of theatre in the round that I was not previously aware existed. If you buy a ticket in the Stalls for this production you will be warned that visibility for all seats is occasionally obscured. This is a thoroughly misleading piece of salesmanship, as is the selling of seats in rows AA-FF at the same price as rows A-J. I was seated in row EE in a seat in the £20 bracket for which I got to spend about 75% of the show staring at the backs of the actors – Indeed, it almost felt as if I saw more faces when the performers deigned to take a curtain call in our direction than in the previous two and a half hours. The scale of Cooke's near complete lack of understanding of what doing theatre in the round requires is demonstrated in the final scene. For the first time one of the main pieces of set, a large sofa, is placed so that anyone sitting in it would be directly facing the audience members in rows AA-FF. Nobody sits on that sofa for the whole scene.I frankly had the impression that the actors were scarecely aware that there was anybody sitting in our part of the auditorium, and one certainly comes to the conclusion that not a single member of the directorial team actually sat there during rehearsals. What makes this whole business the more baffling is that the play itself is actually a classic living room narrative (with an unconvincing flashback tacked on at the end). I cannot work out from the script why Cooke thought that playing it in the round would add anything.

Friday 23 March 2012

EIF 2012, The Opera and Drama Programme


Last year's EIF opera programme was, as I think I blogged at the time, the most exciting for me since Mills took up the reins. However, Rossini and Strauss are two of my favourite operatic composers so it is possible that I was not an unbiased witness. This year's offerings are not nearly so much to my personal taste, but with one notable exception you can't fault Mills's bookings in themselves.

The banner show is a new production of Janacek's The Makropulos Case marking a return to the Festival for Opera North (I think this is the first time they've been back since Schumann's Genoveva which is now a frightening number of years ago, but I may be wrong on this). Living as I do in Lincoln these days I've had occasion to see rather more of Opera North than previously and for my money they are currently the strongest of the three non-London majors. Among excellent work of theirs I've been able to see have been rarely performed musicals by Gershwin and Bellini's Norma. Of equal note is that they have recent Janacek pedigree under Richard Farnes's musical direction. I sadly missed their Broucek but they did a marvellous From the House of the Dead last spring.

The lead role is to be taken by Swedish soprano Yiva Kihlberg of whom I know nothing. The world wide web reveals an eclectic range of roles, many at the Royal Opera, Copenhagen, ranging from Mozart to Wagner. Of the other singers Paul Nilon I heard some years ago as a fine Lurcanio in Ariodante at the Coliseum (and I find examining his bio that he was also in the production of Genoveva already mentioned).

Thursday 22 March 2012

There's Runnicles and more - the BBC SSO unveil the rest of their 2012/13 season

The prime fillet, or rather fillets, of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra's 2012/13 season were announced a couple of weeks ago: a three concert series conducted by Donald Runnicles, each featuring an act of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde.

However, as those attending their performance of Brahms' 1st symphony tonight will find, there's much more than that on offer (subscribers will already be aware of this, as advanced information dropped through their letterboxes on Monday - I like that the orchestra tells their subscribers first rather than the press).

The first thing to note is that the Glasgow season is now 16 concerts, up one (lucky Glasgow). The second is an interesting Polish theme, featuring Chopin's piano concertos, Szymanowski (the wonderful 1st violin concerto, the 4th symphony and more) and Lutoslawski. Those wondering if they should head over to Edinburgh during the festival to hear Benedetti play the Szymanowski may like to know she's also doing it in Glasgow in November with the BBC SSO and Litton.

Another theme is dance, so works from ballet scores (Bartok's Miraculous Mandarin Suite and Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring) feature alongside Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from West Side Story and, of course, Beethoven's 7th symphony, which Wagner described as "the apotheosis of the dance". The Rite celebrates its centenary, which in turn is the reason for this strand.

Wednesday 21 March 2012

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra announce their 2012/13 Season

Last year, when the SCO launched their season, I noted it was a shame that Robin Ticciati had opted to do so with Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique rather than to turn again to concert opera, as he did in his first full season with Don Giovanni. It seems unlikely this is the reason they have decided to perform Così fan tutte, but the choice is most welcome nonetheless. Ticciati did well with the Don and I have heard excellent reports of his Così at Glyndebourne. The cast includes Sally Matthews and Christopher Maltman.

Speaking of criticisms rectified, ever since he stood in and provided some rather excellent Beethoven four years ago, we have been asking why the orchestra hasn't engaged James Lowe for a regular season concert. Alas, they have not done so this year. However, he does conduct the orchestra's family concert. In much the same way as they did with Voice of a City, the orchestra are giving a place on the stage to local school-age musicians, this time the Edinburgh Primary Schools Choir for Stephen Deazley and Matt Harvey's A Little Book of Monsters (co-commissioned by the orchestra for the occasion). It ranks among the items I am most looking forward to. Indeed, while I say it is not a main season concert, I mean it isn't lumped in with the subscription series and isn't in the evening. I'm glad to see the SCO have put it in the main section of the programme with the main season rather than hiding it away. Next year, though, SCO, you know what I want.....

Another potential highlight involves some of the soloists the orchestra has engaged. David Watkin plays Schumann's cello concerto, Alec Frank-Gemmill plays the horn in Britten's Serenade for tenor, horn and strings (one of several items by the composer to celebrate his centenary next year) and Maximiliano Martin and Peter Whelan are on hand for Weber's clarinet and bassoon concertos respectively. The eagle-eyed will note that these fine players lead their respective sections in the orchestra. That the orchestra has such talent to draw on is one of its great strengths and previous such performances have been rather special. Alexander Janiczek directing while Watkin, Whelan and oboist Robin Williams solo in Haydn's Sinfonia Concertante is similarly not to be missed. Indeed, I find these concerts a more exciting prospect than many a hired gun they have brought in over the years. (The fact that the orchestra, Martin and Whelan have recorded the Weber, due for release shortly before the concert, is probably not a co-incidence, but given previous fine wind concerto recordings they have made, I do not begrudge this.)

Tuesday 20 March 2012

Oundjian and the RSNO launch their 2012/13 season

Today marks the announcement Peter Oundjian's first season as music director of the RSNO. There are certainly a number of interesting concerts on the cards, though personally I would like to see more of a sense of curation, with themes running more strongly through the season.

The closest it comes to this, is the emphasis on American music to be found in a pair of concerts in February and April. In the first, Oundjian brings the overture to Bernstein's Candide, Gershwin's piano concerto in F and, most enticingly for me, Adams' Harmonielehre. The second sandwiches piano concertos by Barber and Copland between the latter's Appalachian Spring and Adams' Dr Atomic Symphony. This last is a superb piece, but then it helps that I am a fan of the opera it is drawn from. The symphony works well, or at least it did when I heard the composer conduct it with the LSO, most notably when the aria based on Donne's Batter my heart is transferred to the trumpet.

The season opens with a pair of concerts from Oundjian, the first combining Tchaikovsky's violin concerto with Shostakovich's 11th symphony The Year of 1905, the second mixing Britten's Four Sea Interludes with Brahms' 1st symphony. I'm particularly looking forward to the Shostakovich as it is probably my favourite of his symphonies.

Monday 19 March 2012

Sondheim's Company, or Third Time Round is the Charm

Note: This is a review of the repeat cinema relay of this semi-staged (actually pretty fully staged) performance from the Lincoln Centre in 2011.

It's my impression that Company is one of Sondheim's best known and most often performed shows. I came to it late, having developed a love of Sondheim through Into the Woods, Follies, Merrily We Roll Along and Sunday in the Park with George. This was the third time I'd seen it live, and on the previous two occasions somehow it just hadn't worked for me. This wasn't because there aren't wonderful musical numbers, or telling scenes, or (at least on the second occasion in Sheffield last December) great performances, but it just didn't get me emotionally in the way that those other Sondheim shows have. On this viewing, I came to the conclusion that this is because there is absolutely no room to hide in this show, and you can't afford to have any weak links. That is, it isn't enough here to get some scenes and songs right, to have a couple of individually great performances – you need an outstanding ensemble across the board – and you need them to get not just the money notes, not just the laugh lines, but those small telling little moments in which the work's emotional centre lies. It is a measure of how challenging it is in this particular show, that even this enormously talented cast can't nail everything but it is so very nearly there that I forgave them the moment or two where I felt a line needed something more.

At the centre of the performance's success was Neil Patrick Harris's Bobby. Harris has the effortless charm, grace and good looks which the part needs, but he also possessed the emotional weight to make me care about a character who can seem a little tiresome. Harris also manages the role's vocal demands, with blazing performances of Marry Me a Little and Being Alive.

The biggest other name in the line up was Patti LuPone as Joanne. Not disimilarly to Francesca Annis in the Sheffield production I thought she wasn't quite there in The Little Things You Do Together and this was the one place where I would quibble with Gemignani's tempi – I think this is a number where there needs to be a slow enough pace for the archness of it to really have its effect – and both at Sheffield and in this relay I found it rushed. However, Joanne's big number comes in Act Two, The Ladies Who Lunch, and this LuPone absolutely nailed. She nails it because she has a superb voice over which she can then lay the drunkenness, the sarcasm, the bitterness. But to really work, to slam you back in your seat which is what the number has to do it needs first that vocal quality. LuPone duly spellbinds.

Sunday 18 March 2012

From Bach to Beamish, a weekend of playing and singing by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra

For various reasons it's been a little while since I was last at a Scottish Chamber Orchestra concert, and longer since I reviewed one. To make up for that, this weekend I found myself at two within less than twenty-four hours, and rather fine they both were.

Scottish Chamber Orchestra - Sat 17 March 2012 -0059

At the centre of Saturday's programme was a piece that had jumped out at me when the season was announced this time last year: Sally Beamish's new percussion concerto. It attracted me in part because I like to support new music, but also because percussion concertos are generally rather fun as they tend to showcase a range of textures beyond that which one normally gets (they are normally also enjoyable to watch). Beamish's Dance Variations did not disappoint.

Friday 16 March 2012

The 2012 Edinburgh International Festival

As regular readers will know, Edinburgh festival programme launch day is eagerly awaited in the Pollard household (or rather households). This year it didn't get off to the surest start as I found myself contending with water coming through my ceiling, not, as SCO violinist Rosenna East noted on twitter, quite the deluge I was expecting. Still, such crises were not sufficient to upstage the artistic announcement and by lunchtime I was in full planning mode, aided by highlighter pens, colour printers and my trusty Lamy 2000.

The first thing to note is that unlike the last two years, which had strong overarching themes, there is nothing similar to tie everything together this time round, which is a little bit of a shame. However, this isn't a vast problem given there appear to be a lot of good things.

Saturday 10 March 2012

Dvorak's Rusalka at the Royal, or Much Ado About Nothing

If you have been reading the papers you might be forgiven for imagining that something provocative and exciting is going on down at the Royal Opera House. It seems the production was offensive enough to some to provoke opening night boos, and sufficiently engaging to others to provoke one fellow critic to denounce the booers as philistines (boulezian). As far as I could see there is nothing here to get particularly excited about.

Part of the problem is unquestionably the opera's story. Now I must confess that owing to a rather exhausting week at work I fell asleep during part of Act One but aspects of the story do seem a bit obscure. It concerns a water nymph, Rusalka, who wants to experience human love. A witch, Jezibaba (who in this production resembles a fairly decrepid elderly Eastern European bag lady with a cat which undergoes remarkable transformations in size) agrees but says she must sacrifice her voice. According to the synopsis if she then does not attain love she will be cursed by the water powers. Naturally enough, having initially ensnared the Prince, he promptly loses interest. Rusalka's voice is apparently restored by conversing with the water goblin, Vodnik whose motivations in the piece seemed confused. In Act Three it appears the prince is also cursed by having abandoned her, Rusalka having killed herself in despair appears to him, and kills him with a kiss before commending his soul to God. Among other problems quite why it is speaking to the water goblin that establishes she has not attained love, and why God is suddenly introduced into the equation at the end were particularly notable.

The production team faced with this relocate the action from woods, pools and fairy tale castles to a brothel. Beforehand I had expected, given reactions, to feel that this was violently at odds with the text. This was not how it struck me. Some of it seems to work fairly well – the idea of the other water nymphs as rather bored prostitutes, Jezibaba as the forbidding Madam. The production also benefits from the fact that the directors are capable of creating the right tensions between the characters at certain points – most successfully when relations are breaking down between the Prince and Rusalka in Act Two. However there are incongruities, Rusalka appears in mermaid costume at the beginning, and the water goblin's costume and appearance doesn't ever quite seem to fit with the brothel setting in which the nymphs are placed. In Act Three there are outbreaks of performers being given silly things to do by the director, the nymphs/prostitutes ransacking Jezibaba's handbag, Jezibaba messing around with a lot of high heeled shoes while Rusalka is lamenting her fate but these are far less serious than in many productions. The biggest problem to me is that the sordid setting does conflict with the unearthly beauty that the text implies Rusalka possesses for the Prince, and overall there is a sacrifice of fairy tale magic which might possibly have strengthened one's emotional engagement with the characters.

Wednesday 7 March 2012

Here's Runnicles, with Tristan und Isolde

The full launch of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra's 2012/13 season is still a couple of weeks away (scheduled for 22nd March), but it was a pleasant surprise yesterday afternoon when an e-mail arrived from the BBC SSO announcing what seems likely to be the biggest highlight (or, if it isn't, part of a very exciting season indeed).

Concert opera is a cornerstone of Runnicles' relationship with the orchestra, indeed it is how they first came together, for a performance of the Berlioz's Les Toyens way back in 2001 at the Edinburgh festival. Since he became chief conductor it has featured in their regular season too: in 2010 they opened their season with the first act Die Walkure and last November we were treated to Runnicles' own arrangement/abridgement of Der Rosenkavalier. Next season they go one better, bringing us the whole of Tristan und Isolde, in part to mark Wagner's bicentenary in 2013.

There is, it must be noted, a slight catch. Presumably in part for economic and logistical reasons, it is not a single concert performance, but rather will be spread over three with one act each in September, November and April. This formula has worked well for Runnicles before, with similar arrangements providing the basis for his recording of the work with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Christine Brewer in 2002/3 (review here). And, indeed, it makes for three blockbuster concerts rather than just one.