Monday 27 January 2014

Happy 40th Birthday SCO

Forty years ago today, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra took to the stage of the City Hall, Glasgow, for the first time. You can read, and indeed hear, more about it on their blog. It's probably fitting that they played some Beethoven, one of the composers they have played best and been most closely associated with, never more so than in that rather special cycle of his symphonies at the Edinburgh festival in 2006 under the baton of the late, great Charles Mackerras.

I've written about that cycle elsewhere, and about their association with Charles Mackerras at length, for that I point you to my obituary, rather than repeat it. But what he achieved with them was superb. I've heard different Mozart, but never better: see the recordings of late Mozart symphonies for Linn (or indeed operas for Telarc and concertos with Brendel on Philips). There is a rich legacy on disc and I wanted to accompany this post with a spotify playlist of some favourite recordings. Alas, too many from the likes of Hyperion (the Edinburgh festival Beethoven) and Telarc (Don Giovanni, Fidelio and a superb disc of Schubert's great C major and unfinished symphonies) cannot be found there. Indeed, fine recordings under other conductors are missing too: I can't find Tippett's concerto for double string orchestra, conducted by the composer himself.

For me, one of the orchestra's great strengths is the high calibre of their principals. A few years back, when the Berlin Philharmonic visited London for a residence, one writer was especially wowed by the solo playing within the orchestra, but I wouldn't take them up on a swap. The SCO can put the likes of David Watkin or Alec Frank-Gemmill, to name but two, on for a concerto without you feeling in the least shortchanged. Indeed, such concerts are often season highlights for me. This is exemplified in their disc of Mozart wind concerti for Linn which includes superb solo performances from flautist Alison Mitchell, clarinetist Maximiliano Martin and bassoonist Ursula Leveaux. Indeed my only criticism of the disc, is that it does not include a reading from Leveaux's replacement Peter Whelan whose very different style and unmistakable tone would make a fascinating contrast.

Friday 3 January 2014

Stephen Ward the Musical, or, How is Andrew Lloyd Webber like Philip Glass?

Andrew Lloyd Webber's latest musical is, from the point of view of the musical theatre regular, an interesting beast. There's been a trend lately for musicals dealing ever more explicitly with sex, with plenty of bad language and nudity thrown in. Their creators, and some theatregoers appear to find this shocking (either pleasantly or horrifyingly depending on your point of view). I have usually found it ineffective and/or dull. Lloyd Webber's version of Stephen Ward feels a little like his attempt to join this bandwagon. That is there's plenty of swearing, nudity and sexual references. I'll grant you that this show produces a whole new interpretation of never having it so good, but apart from that none of this is new or terribly exciting – however it might possibly have passed the time better had Lloyd Webber not also wished to jump on a second bandwagon. This is the other principle of the modern musical that it ought to be trying to say something big – about sexual relations (e.g. Spring Awakening), religion (The Book of Mormon) or race (The Scottsboro Boys) to name a few recently used themes. I don't say this is necessarily a bad thing, but I think there is more room for the light frothy show other than the juke box musical (for example Kander & Ebb's Curtains) than this trend is allowing and a number of these shows are not nearly as thought provoking as they clearly want to think they are (The Scottsboro Boys is a notable, really hard-hitting exception). But to get back to the Stephen Ward story which is clearly rich ground for such an enterprise – miscarriage of justice, corruption of British political and criminal justice systems, British social hypocrisy. Here we run up against the other fundamental flaw in Lloyd Webber, and one I thought was also evident when I saw Sunset Boulevard. He just doesn't have the musical language to enable him to tackle such themes with success.