Saturday 23 March 2013

EIF 2013 - The Music Programme in more detail

In a sensible change, the launch of this year's Edinburgh International Festival programme was slightly less frantic than is traditionally the case. In past years, booking has opened on the day of the launch, but this year we had fully 24 hours to digest the programme first. This was just as well as it featured some tough choices, though for me at least somewhat front loaded with the most clashes at the start. I've already offered my first impressions, but since public booking opens today, here, a little later than planned, are my fuller thoughts on the music programme. (My brother looks at theatre and opera here.)

The task of kicking off the festival is in the hands of honorary president Valery Gergiev, though not as one might expect with either of his regular partners, the London Symphony Orchestra or the Mariinsky. Instead he takes up the baton (or more likely the toothpick, as is his preference) with the RSNO for Prokofiev's 3rd piano concerto and Alexander Nevsky. It's unusual that we're not getting a single work but on the positive side, this should prove a far more exciting and appropriate curtain raiser than the damp squibs of the last two years.

This year sees a reasonable crop of visiting orchestras, chief among them the exceptional Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Mariss Jansons. They were last here way back in 2007, Mills' first season. They impressed me so greatly that I travelled to London for a series of appearances they made at the Festival Hall over the following years (with programmes including Bruckner, Shostakovich, Strauss and Mahler). Sadly they have not been back lately, making their visit all the more welcome. For my money, this is one of the very best conductor / orchestra teams in the world and is absolutely not to be missed. Jansons is no slouch in Mahler 2 either, one of the works they're bringing, as he proved with the Concertgebouw at the Barbican a few years ago, rivalling the man himself for offstage brass placement. Be warned, he will almost certainly observe the five minute break Mahler marks in the score between the first and second movements (not a decision I agree with, and one which last time prompted me to fear seriously for his health).I'm even keener to hear what they can do with Tchaikovsky 6.

Peter Oundjian and the RSNO present Má vlast

While I've long been familiar with Smetana's Má vlast, it is only comparatively recently that I came to love it. That was as a result of a glitteringly persuasive account from Jiří Bělohlávek and the BBC SO at the Proms two years ago, so fine it swept me away completely even without being in the hall. Alas it has not been issued on disc.

A slight problem with having an experience like that is that nothing that follows quite seems to recapture it. This was the first time I've heard the piece in the flesh and so the fact that while I found the performance good, it didn't sweep me away, may owe something to that context.

Generally the playing was of a good calibre. The strings shone particularly, especially in some of the fierce chords found in Tábor. Oundjian's interpretation was rather what I have come to expect from him: solid, and often at his best in the realisation of some of the big climaxes. And yet, at the same time missing that extra x factor. In the smaller moments particularly he didn't let the score bloom and open up as it can. Interestingly, since it was the movement he chose to describe in his talk, for me Šárka fell flattest of all. He had said all the right things, but somehow he didn't bring them out.

Friday 22 March 2013

EIF 2013 - The Opera and Drama Programme


The 2013 opera programme is dominated by two returnees. It begins on the opening weekend with a new production of Fidelio from Opera de Lyon who previously visited the Festival with Porgy and Bess in 2010 (which I missed) and in McMaster's last Festival with two superb productions (a Weill double bill and Tchaikovsky's Mazeppa). According to the International Festival's Twitter account, Jonathan Mills apparently claimed at the press release that this production was one of the 2013 Festival's boldest offerings. This seems a remarkable claim when a) Fidelios are two a penny and b) there is an awful lot of other programming in this year's Festival which given what I regard as the general conservatism of Edinburgh audiences is remarkably bold. I can only assume that the basis for Mills' claim is the production's concept. Apparently director Gary Hill is to set the opera “on board the doomed spacecraft Aniara as it hurtles towards infinity” (to quote the Programme guide). A little digging suggests that he may be thinking of a poem by the Swedish Nobel laureate Henry Martinson entitled Anaira (I haven't read it). More concerning is the fact that Hill's background seems to be almost entirely in video installations – apart from some kind of loose staging of works by Edgard Varèse he doesn't appear ever to have directed an opera before and I'm afraid the London stages in recent times have been littered with disasters resulting from putting opera into such neophyte arms. The other immediate question raised by the description in the programme book is whether Hill has realised that the opera has a happy ending – presumably the doomed spaceship is going to turn out in fact not to be. The production opens in Lyon towards the end of this month, so more information may then be forthcoming. Kazushi Ono, the company's principle conductor, conducts. He previously conducted the Ravel double bill and Hansel and Gretel at Glyndebourne, but lists no other UK operatic engagements in his biography – I heard good reports of the former. Erika Sunnegardh sings Leonore having previously sung it in Frankfurt and the Met. She and most of the other singers will all be new to me.

The second returnee is Barry Kosky, a Mills regular. This time he brings a double bill of Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle and Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. Apart from the fact that I have some doubts as to whether these two works will pair well together, I can't say that I am thrilled by the prospect of more Kosky who has not impressed me on previous outings (here's what I said about his ghastly Poppea in Mills's first year). The productions were originally staged in Frankfurt in 2010 and reviews for both plus a selection of images may be found here and here. Regrettably none of them are in English. Surprise is always possible, but I'm not optimistic.

Tuesday 19 March 2013

The 2013/14 RSNO Season

Perhaps it's the fatigue of four programming announcements in eight days, but I'm afraid I can't get too excited about the Royal Scottish National Orchestra's 2013/14. In part, this may be because while a number of the individual works or concerts catch the eye, there is little by way of theme or overarching structure to tie them together.

The sole thematic exception is the programming of a number of works by Britten, including a his War Requiem, conducted by Peter Oundjian, who starts his second season, and featuring Susan Gritton among the soloists. This perhaps goes some way to explaining the absence of the work, and indeed the composer, from the Edinburgh festival this summer.

The Britten is not the only big outing for the RSNO Chorus. The other, which comes at the end of the season, is a performance of Mahler's titanic 8th symphony, again under Oundjian. That Erin Wall is singing will please those who recall her stunning voice when she sang it under Runnicles at the festival in 2010.

Friday 15 March 2013

Here's Runnicles: The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra announce their 2013/14 season

Announcements appear to be like busses. You wait months for the Edinburgh Festival programme and then barely have you had time to digest it when two orchestras fire out their announcements. However, I must say that I rather like the fact that the BBC sent their announcement to the general public before the press.

Given the amount he's here these days, it's hard to remember there was a time when you couldn't hear Donald Runnicles conduct a concert in Scotland for love or money, outside the odd festival appearance. It's a little sad, therefore, that the orchestra has scaled its Usher Hall appearances back again from three to two, though the blame can probably be laid at the door of Edinburgh's audience who sometimes don't know a good artistic thing when it sets up and performs in front of them.

One interesting aspect of the season is the choice to pair Mahler with Britten. It's not a coupling that obviously jumps out at me so it will be interesting to hear. As we weren't swamped in Scotland during the anniversary year, three symphonies doesn't feel excessive, especially when two, the 5th and 9th, are conducted by Runnicles, always a sure Mahlerian. I'm particularly interested to hear the pairing of the 9th and Part's Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten which should work well.

The 2013/14 Scottish Chamber Orchestra season

Next year will mark the 40th birthday of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and their celebratory season has a lot to like. Following on from the model of Ticciati's most successful opening concerts, it begins with a performance of Berlioz's Béatrice Et Bénédict. The cast includes Karen Cargill and John Tessier in the title rolls along with Sally Matthews and others. That said, if I had a reservation, it would be that I think there are other composers and operas to which the SCO would be better suited.

Towards the other end of the season, the principal conductor presents what for me is his most intriguing pair of concerts, mixing Ligeti, Dvorak and Haydn. Early on in his tenure he delivered some impressive performances of Ligeti and some exceptional Haydn symphonies which were among the finest I've heard. Add to this Stephen Isserlis for the Dvorak cello concerto and they should be well worth hearing. In between, Ticciati directs a complete survey of Schumann's symphonies, though for me the most exiting aspect of those concerts is Paul Lewis performing Mozart's 25th concerto.

There are interesting guest conductors, both new and old. Christian Zacharias's return, after a couple of seasons away, is most welcome. His programme in December features Mozart's K271 concerto, Jeunehomme, along with Haydn's La Reine symphony, some Poulenc and some Ravel. Meanwhile towards the end of the year John Storgards is on hand for Sibelius's beautiful 6th symphony coupled with MacMillan and Vaughan Williams.

Tuesday 12 March 2013

First thoughts on the 2013 Edinburgh International Festival

So, the excitement of Edinburgh International Festival programme launch day is here again. Full thoughts will follow later, when such matters as work aren't inconveniently getting in the way, but in the meantime, a few first thoughts. (These were snatched on the bus and over lunch breaks, so please forgive the odd typo.)

Where is he?

With the BBC SSO, as expected, conducting the closing concert. This, too might have been expected since its Verdi's anniversary we're getting the Requiem. Runnicles does a good one, these same forces opened the festival with one in 2005. This time there is the added bonus of stunning soprano Erin Wall.

Wednesday 6 March 2013

Konwitschny's Traviata at ENO, or, Oh Will They Never Learn

This is one of those occasions when no one can say they weren't warned. The advance publicity is careful to point out that the opera has been cut (something one feels so many current opera directors frequently yearn to do). The programme is even more explicit, Konwitschny having written his own version of the synopsis. It includes such memorable declarations as “he is a socially awkward bookworm” (Alfredo) and (of the conclusion of Act One) “In the midst of her philosophical and at the same time erotic reflections, Alfredo again points the finger of blame, whereupon she flounces off....” I can think of nothing in the text which suggests this of Alfredo, and I have clearly been utterly mistaken in previously thinking that the end of Act One sees Alfredo essentially pleading with her to trust in his love for her. The translation is not the one that I am perhaps overly familiar with from the classic Charles Mackerras recording and if I had time and a native Italian speaker to hand I should very much like their opinion on it. I strongly suspect it was being messed around with to fit Konwitschny's ideas about what the piece is about.

We'll come back to some of those a bit later, but a word must first be said about the performance's one outstanding feature: Corinne Winters's Violetta. I cannot remember a recent occasion where I have heard this kind of role performed so superbly at the Coliseum. Vocally she is really outstanding. Unfortunately there is a resultant problem – which is that the emotional richness of her musical portrayal only makes more obvious the emotional emptiness of the production in which she is stranded. Of the other two key roles, Ben Johnson makes a manful attempt at Alfredo but can't quite match Winters. Anthony Michaels-Moore's Germont pere growls his way through the part (with the occasional swoop) and I would have wished for a little more variation in tone and volume. But overall they are solid enough. The minor roles are well sung, and the ENO Chorus is in excellent voice. I had grave misgivings in advance about Michael Hofstetter's conducting after hearing him butcher Bach in Edinburgh a few years ago, but he is like other things solid enough, although there were places where I thought his tempi too slow (most conspicuously in Germont pere's great aria pleading with Alfredo to return home).

Sunday 3 March 2013

Port at National Theatre, or, Just Go. Seriously.

I have developed a dubious habit of collecting theatres. This has meant that apart from the Christmas children's show and a couple of non NT productions I haven't missed a show on one of the National's three main stages since 2011. I mention this because it has meant that I am going to a lot of things which I might previously not have bothered with partly because I want to keep the run going. Apart from the fact that Marianne Elliot was directing it, there wasn't much else in advance that I was specially looking forward to about this. All of which goes to show that sometimes the best things come upon one most unexpectedly.

Port is first and foremost a really powerful play. As a story it is very simple – an oft told tale of a disfunctional family centred on the daughter, Rachael (the superb Kate O'Flynn). But just because it's simple doesn't lessen it as a work. Partly this is because Simon Stephens writes real poetry. This may seem suprising given that there is quite a lot of swearing, but for me this is like the swearing in Black Watch or D.C. Moore's The Swan. You could not tell this story about these people without it. It takes perhaps a scene for the ear to adjust and after that it just fits. The second thing about Stephens's writing is he captures those awful moments of trying to find words to express the hardest things. There are places where you can just feel the emotions under the surface that want to break out and can't. Perhaps the best way to sum up the play is that it feels emotionally true, and heartbreaking.

The play is ably supported by another excellent piece of work on the directing side from Marianne Elliot. As with The Curious Incident she's partnered by Scott Graham as Movement Director. I honestly can't think of another British director currently from whom one has this sense of care about the physical side of the performance. This manifests itself in the way the scenes flow into each other, in the awkwardness (which never feels staged) of the teenage encounter in the bus shelter, but also in those wonderful little moments I've talked about before which convey so much with so little. I could make a long list of them from this production, but I would single out O'Flynn hiding behind her locker door smiling as Calum Callaghan's Danny awkwardly tells her how much he likes her, and the early part of the hotel room scene with its undercurrent of breakdown.