Thursday 29 August 2013

EIF 2013 - Ensemble musikFabrik, or, Why did nobody tell me about Zappa before?

One of the real strengths of Jonathan Mills's tenure as Artistic Director has been the increased presence of contemporary music in the classical programme. It has also been encouraging this year, having attended most performances which could be placed in that category, to see what seems to be larger audiences at these events. I can remember occasions when merely playing one new piece in an otherwise safe Edinburgh programme was enough for attendance to plummet. This strand of the programme reached its Usher Hall climax last night (there is still Olga Neuwirth's new opera to come at the King's) with Ensemble musikFabrik's outstanding tribute to Frank Zappa.

Zappa was in fact only part of a very cleverly devised programme also including John Cage and Edgard Varese. The programme note begins from the premise that Varese is the link and that otherwise Cage and Zappa actually don't have much in common, but my impression from the performance was that this was actually not the case. There seemed in particular to be distinct parallels in use of percussion and rhythmic complexity between Cage's Credo in US and a number of the Zappa pieces.

Monday 26 August 2013

EIF 2013 - Beckett's I'll Go On, or Outstanding. Just Go.

After a disappointing two weeks of theatre, the International Festival is ending on a high with the Beckett mini-Festival if the first performances I've attended are anything to go by (and I still have Michael Gambon to look forward to on Saturday).

In advance I anticipated great things of this adaptation of Beckett's trilogy of novels, Molloy, Molone Dies and The Unnameable performed as it is by Barry McGovern who was outstanding in last year's adaptation of Watt. This show lives up to that promise.

As last year, McGovern is mesmerising. He delivers Beckett's superbly crafted text with expert precision, no mean feat particularly in the last part of the show when the pace is rapid and unrelenting. McGovern never loses meaning, but also brings out a whole range of emotions from humour (the ludicrous logical dilemma of the sucking stones is a high point) to the black despair. It's a masterpiece of acting. Around him a spare set and simple lighting provide just the right amount of atmosphere.

Sunday 25 August 2013

EIF 2013 - Oper Frankfurt Double Bill, or, Mr Kosky Is Indecisive

I didn't have especially high hopes of this pair of productions in advance, though Barry Kosky is clearly highly rated by some within the opera world including the Komische Oper, Berlin and Jonathan Mills. It wasn't as awful as his reinvention of Poppea back at EIF 2007, but in some ways Bluebeard's Castle was rather more of an endurance test.

In an interview I glanced at Kosky claims that he saw the pieces as completely separate entities. But in fact, to my mind, a similarly indecisive vision bedevils both of them – it's just that the music transcended it better in Dido and Aeneas. Now to be fair to the director, there are moments which work. After an opening to Dido which made me fear this was going to be non-interaction in extremis, there is some convincing direction of the romance between the two lovers. In Bluebeard it is a nice idea to have golden dust falling from two clenched fists as a symbol of weath for that particular door. The realisation of the lake of tears ought to have worked similarly well, but paled rather against Idle Motion's use of a similar device on the Fringe earlier in the week. But these moments have to do battle with Kosky's indecisive overall approach.

Friday 23 August 2013

Edinburgh Fringe 2013 - Freeze, or, Odd, Impressive, Intense and Unclassifiable

Note: The show plays at Summerhall until Sunday 25th August from 6.15-6.45pm.

If I suggested to you that you might like to spend 40 minutes watching a Belgian Rock Balancer I suspect that even for Edinburgh in Festival you might think this was going a little far. But I can assure you it's worth it.

The set consists of 6 mirrored boxes on and around which are scattered various stones in a variety of shapes and sizes – it should be emphasised that none of them at first glance look easy to balance on any of the others. Kneeling centre stage, all in black with something that looks vaguely like a head torch but isn't strapped to his head is the Nick Steur, the Rock Balancer in question.

Once the audience is seated, a fair bit of voice over begins. This is somewhat impenetrable and to do partly with a Dutch saying about cats. I'm not sure whether one is intended to take much notice of it, and in practice I don't think it matters much – for me its main effect was to slightly leaven the atmosphere, while Steur does his thing.

EIF 2013 - Leaving Planet Earth, or, Great Idea Let Down By Execution

You've got to feel sorry for Jonathan Mills and the International Festival on this one. On paper it was such a good idea. Commission the top site-specific theatre company in Scotland, Grid Iron, to produce a new show in a venue in Edinburgh that most of your prospective audience have never been to, on the back of a string of 5 star fringe hits. Alas, the best laid plans of mice and Festival Directors...

Let us start with the positives. The Climbing Centre at Ratho is a stunning building, with a number of features cleverly suggestive of some kind of futuristic environment. The external landscape in particular, aided by a great deal of fortuitous fog, also fitted the bill. The ideas behind the show, a doomed earth, the old attempt to build a new utopia on another world, requiring the audience to think about their personal choice, are clever ones, but sadly insufficient attention has been given to the script, and the execution is not committed enough.

The show has two strands. The first is the journey, individual and collective, which the audience is supposed to be going on. The second is the behind the scenes problems of the new utopia which effectively functions as a pretty straight delivered, if insufficiently well interconnected, set of scenes. The two strands are not well enough related to each other.

Thursday 22 August 2013

Edinburgh Fringe 2013 - Wot? No Fish!!, or Simple is Best

Note: The show plays at Summerhall until Sunday 25th August, 3-4.15pm.

There has been a debate going on in certain quarters of the press and on twitter this week about the use of technology in live performance. One comment I saw stated bluntly that you can have all the technology in the world but if you don't have good acting and a good story it won't do you any good. Spot on. On the Fringe, which after years of avoiding I seem to have drifted back to this week, I have quite by chance ended up seeing a number of shows which have proved this point in the most positive ways. bread & circuses Wot? No Fish!! written and performed by Danny Braverman is one of the finest.

The show tells the story of Braverman's great uncle Ab Solomon from the 1920s onwards. Every week Solomon, a shoemaker, would receive a wage packet (a little brown envelope) on the back of which he would draw his wife a picture. To begin with this is just a little doodle in the corner of a saucepan and a brush but as the years go on these images became steadily more complex, and enable Braverman to chart the ups and downs of this segment of his family's past through war, marital difficulty, and the problems posed by raising children.

EIF 2013 - Late Night Aimard & Colleagues, or, Broadening the Ears

Regular readers will likely have marked that I have had some fairly critical things to say about aspects of this year's programme. This pair of late night concerts provides an occasion to praise it on a number of levels.

One of the best aspects of Jonathan Mills's tenure as Director has been to broaden the range of music covered by the Festival. While there was much marvellous music during Brian MacMaster's reign it would be fair to say I think that there was a bit of a bias towards the eighteenth and nineteenth century core German repertoire. Two differences under Mills have been especially marked, far more early music and far more contemporary music, including a number of Festival commissions. The latter has been especially bold and admirable, because it is an observable fact in Edinburgh that program a piece of new music in an otherwise safe concert, and audience numbers tend to drop significantly. It was therefore also encouraging that these two late night performances in the Hub were well sold. Both of them also reflected this year's theme of technology and art through their use of electronics.

Wednesday 21 August 2013

EIF 2013 - The Tragedy of Coriolanus, or, A Bit Baffled Really

I honestly don't know what I expected this production to be like. In recent years we've had quite a lot of Asian shows at the International Festival, including two Shakespeares back in 2011. In London the Globe has been taking the lead in bringing international Shakespeare to the UK. I heard great things about the Globe to Globe season and very much enjoyed the Balkan Henry VI which was the only part I managed to catch myself. I mention all this because I feel it at least gives me some qualifications for judging Shakespeare performance in another language. I feel the need to make that point because, unusually, I found it very difficult to know what to make of this performance.

It certainly is on an epic scale in ways which only the International Festival could afford to mount. There is an impressive company of extras playing the Romans/Volsces. My impression from the programme credits is that many of these extras were non-professionals but I may be mistaken on this – there are certainly issues with their performance which I'll come back to. Then you have the two much publicised heavy metal bands on trucks at either side of the stage. They are very loud and to start with their flourishes and drumming do give point to those expressions in the text, but I wasn't convinced their presence overall helped to make strong theatre. The set, on the other hand, is simpler than one might expect. I'm not sure the performance gained from the frequent grinding of the Playhouse pit lift (sounding badly in need of refurbishment), and I'd be curious to know if the ladders at the back of the stage belong to the theatre or the company – if the latter they were among the more pointless pieces of set I've ever seen as they were never used. The odd thing about all this bigness is that it is counterpointed by a lot of periods when very little is happening on stage at all, and even when all the people were present the atmosphere often felt just a little bit dead.

Tuesday 20 August 2013

Edinburgh Fringe 2013 - Idle Motion's That Is All You Need To Know, or A Beguiling Example to Others

I'm very bad at going to things on the Fringe, so it was pure chance that I ended up at this performance, my much beloved former PhD supervisor having been handed a flier and then suggesting I come along. I'm delighted that I did. I badly needed to be reminded that plays can have characters, a narrative, and be emotionally engaging.

This is my first encounter with the company idle motion, but I shall be keeping an eye out for them in future years. What is especially notable about them to my eyes is their visual sense. This embraces their movement (which has a notable fluidity to it), and their imaginative use of sets and film (the latter is brilliantly integrated into the live performance, far more successfully and meaningfully so than anything Jonathan Mills's International Festival programme has so far offered). The filing cabinets are used in especially versatile ways – the water leaking was a brilliant touch.

Effective use is also made of oral history recordings of real life workers at the Park (often very moving), and archive wartime audio. Again this is a mark of the company's talents. I must have heard Chamberlain's speech declaring the country at war on numerous occasions, but the simply staged scene imagining contemporaries listening to it was freshly haunting.

EIF 2013 - Histoire d'amour, or, Finally An (unconvincing) Narrative

Note: A slightly belated review of the matinee performance on Saturday 17th August 2013.

Credit where credit is due, after three Edinburgh International Festival theatre shows where narrative has been either absent or cut to shreds, Teatrocinema at least tell a story. There are serious problems with this story, but it is at least a step back towards what I regard as theatrical sanity.

The story is about a particularly nasty form of love. An English teacher sees a woman on the subway to whom he is instantly attracted. He follows her home where he assaults her. She has him arrested. So far, so reasonably explicable if not very nice. However, it is at this point that things begin to go awry. The criminal charges against him are withdrawn (no explanation for this is offered). He nevertheless serves two months in prison. Released, he continues his pursuit of her leading to further acts of violence against both her and other people, in private and in public. I hung on for the one hour and forty minutes in the hope that there would be some satisfying pay off but there frankly isn't (at one point I began to wonder if it might all be revealed as a fantasy, but no).

Monday 19 August 2013

EIF 2013 - On Behalf of Nature, or, A Display of Unmitigated Ego

The credits in the programme gave fair warning. They informed me that Meredith Monk was going to sing, had written and directed the show and assisted in the editing of the video. Were she a multi-talented genius all might have been well. Sadly, this is not the case.

The first crime this latest contribution to the 2013 Festival's so far dismal theatre programme commits is to once again assume that good theatre doesn't need any kind of text as a basis. Such shows have become increasingly dominant in the current Artistic Director's programmes, and nearly all of them have been failures. This was not an exception. Monk claims in her programme note that “On Behalf of Nature is a meditation on our intimate connection to nature, its inner structures, the fragility of its ecology and our interdependence.” Beyond some attempts at animal imitation (a genre in which Donald Swann and the Latvian Radio Choir are both infinitely superior) and some swinging rings which I suspect were intended to symbolise the planet in peril, I detected none of the above.

Tuesday 13 August 2013

EIF 2013 - Uchida, Jansons and the Bavarians PLAY Beethoven and Tchaikovsky (though their Mahler is not as convincing)

For my money, Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra are one of the finest conductor/orchestra partnerships available, and since both Beethoven's 4th piano concerto and Tchaikovsky's 6th symphony are favourites of mine, their first concert always had the potential to be one of the festival's highlights. Given these high expectations, it is doubly impressive that not only did they not disappoint but if anything they exceeded them.

For the Beethoven they were joined by Mitsuko Uchida. Together they delivered a spellbinding 3rd concerto in London a few years ago. The 4th, from its soft solo opening onwards, is perhaps even better suited to her delicate style (indeed, the movement of her fingertips reminded me slightly of Gergiev's conducting during the opening concert). Though nearly not, as just as her fingers were about to descend for the first time, there was a loud clang somewhere in the auditorium. Fortunately after recomposing herself she got started and proceeded to spend the next thirty minutes dazzling us, not only from the keyboard, but also with the wonderful look she gave to silence the audience before the second movement, and when discarding her flowing yellow silken top.

Beneath her Jansons provided supremely judged accompaniment so that no matter how softly she played the orchestra was never in danger of swamping her. Kazushi Ono (the conductor of Opera de Lyon's lamentable Fidelio) could have learnt a lot. Indeed, in the wake of that production, the Bavarians provided a much needed tonic by way of a masterclass in just how well Beethoven can be played. They found more drama in the intensely wrought opening chords of the slow movement than Ono managed in an entire opera.

Uchida was rapturously received and followed Beethoven with some sparkling Scarlatti. She returns to the Usher Hall this evening for a solo recital of Bach, Schoenberg and Schumann which I for one will not be missing.

EIF 2013 – The Wooster Group Hamlet, or, Theatre Is Not Dead, But It Very Soon Will Be If It Serves Up Diabolical Shows Like This

Regular readers will know that the Pollard Clan has a benchmark for awfulness, the legendary Edinburgh International Festival American Repertory Theatre production of Three Sisters back in 2006. As I reeled out of this ghastly evening, I was unsure whether this was worse, but it was certainly a very near thing.

The Wooster Group here present an idea that proves to be really quite remarkably Bad. Well, I say present, but it should really be re-present as it transpires from reading the programme that in fact they originally presented this back in 2007, something the Festival has gone out of its way not to publicise – had they done so I might have discovered the New York reviews I found upon my return home this evening and not made the mistake of buying a ticket. The show appears to have been resurrected because it fits Jonathan Mills's technology theme – a theme which has so far blessed us with two of the worst Festival shows in recent memory.

Monday 12 August 2013

EIF 2013 – Contemporary Legend Theatre's Metamorphosis, or A Disappointing Return

Back in March when the International Festival programme was announced I made this one of my top theatre picks. I did so on the strength of the same company's excellent one-man version of King Lear. Sadly this return visit is nowhere near as good.

The big contrast with the 2011 show is that although once again Wu Hsing-Kuo is the single actor he just never rivets one's attention the way he did as the various protagonists in King Lear. His versatility, his balletic grace, his manipulation of costume (particularly the bug's remarkable antennae in Scene Two) are still impressive – but the script and the surrounding effects make for a far more distancing experience, and indeed one that seems to diminish rather than enhance his efforts.

Sunday 11 August 2013

EIF 2013 - Gergiev and the RSNO set the stage with Alexander Nevsky

In the hands of Valery Gergiev, the festival's honorary president, Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky made for one of the best opening concerts we've had for a while. It was an all Prokofiev programme and this is sure ground for Gergiev, who has made a good survey of the symphonies with the London Symphony Orchestra (and, indeed, played them at the festival a few years back). Last night they began with his third piano concerto. The solo part was taken by the very young Daniil Trifonov who played superbly, bringing both great virtuosity but also no shortage of subtlety when needed. This was even truer of his encore, from Nikolai Medtner's Fairy Tales op.51, no.2, which was beautifully poetic.

In the last two years, we have been treated to works that would charitably be described as damp squibs (Schumann's Das Paradies und die Peri in 2011 and Delius's A Mass of Life last year). Neither has anything close to the sort of energy raising potential needed to set the mood for three weeks of festivities. Fortunately the cantata made up of around forty minutes of music from Eisenstein's film most certainly does.

EIF 2013 - Opera de Lyon's Fidelio, or Falling Far Short of International Festival Calibre

The warning signs around this show have been there from the very beginning. The director, Gary Hill, has virtually no experience of directing any sort of live performance, nevermind opera. The concept (of setting it on a doomed spaceship) sounded worryingly at odds with the trajectory of the plot. When I read news reports that he had delivered all direction via an assistant and that he did not wish the characters to fraternise too closely with each other, my heart sank. That this production was an incoherent mess therefore came as no surprise. What I did not expect (given Opera de Lyon's blazing performances at the Festival in 2006) was that the performance would be so musically poor.

This production might be considered a typical instance of distrust of the form. I had wondered if it was mockery, but my companions suggested that that usually at least produces something coherent, and coherent this production emphatically was not. Gary Hill's distrust showed up in multiple ways. Many opera productions fall victim to the vice of pointless busyness – in this case it was pointless busyness in Hill's dreary repetitive video projections. Not unpleasant to look at for five minutes, extremely tedious when stretched across two and a half hours, so much so that it was difficult to see how he had achieved eminence in that field. I have said before that video/film intelligently used can be a powerful element in operatic productions (see the Knussen Double Bill at Aldeburgh last year, or Die Frau ohne Schatten at EIF 2011), but it cannot be the be all and end all (as this production decisively proves) and it would be nice if critics would stop pushing the line that it can (or indeed the claim that using it is bold and revolutionary).

Saturday 10 August 2013

EIF 2013 - Christian Gerhaher/Gerold Huber, or, A Revelatory Recital

On paper, to anybody who pays any attention to the world of song recitals, this was the pick of the Queen's Hall series – a major opportunity for Edinburgh audiences to hear one of the greatest voices of the present day. Although it was announced that Gerhaher was suffering a slight cold, this in no way detracted from a stunning performance. Sadly though, there was a scattering of empty seats and I do wonder sometimes if Edinburgh pays enough attention to the musical world beyond Scotland.

Christian Gerhaher + Gerold Huber - Sat 10 August 2013 - The Queen's Hall, Edinburgh -0041

I previously had the privilege of hearing Gerhaher as Wolfram in the Royal Opera's superb Tannhauser in December 2010. That role has very much a lieder feel to it, so I was keenly anticipating hearing him in the real thing. My one small reservation about the programme in advance was that it was an all Schumann one. The Edinburgh Festival, in the years since I've been attending, has seen an awful lot of Schumann and not much of it has especially registered with me as work I wanted to hear again in a hurry. I have certainly heard Dichterliebe Op.48 live in that time, but hadn't remembered it as anything special. For me this was one of those revelatory recitals where the combination of performers and works is like drawing away a veil – you suddenly find yourself thinking, oh, so that's why Schumann is so highly rated.