Saturday 23 June 2018

Aldeburgh Festival 2018, or, Notes from the Opening Weekend

Note: A belated report on performances over the weekend of 8th-10th July 2018.

A visit to the Aldeburgh Festival has become a regular fixture in my summer calendar. On this occasion I was especially looking forward to hearing John Wilson's partnership with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, and finally, hearing his own Orchestra live. I also caught the new opera by Emma Howard.

The best of the weekend was to be found in the two orchestral concerts on Friday and Saturday evenings, marrying up, with one exception, a set of works by Britten and American composers written in 1940-1 or (in the case of the Grimes Sea Interludes soon afterwards). These couplings brought out striking connections in musical language, affording the opportunity to hear afresh the Sea Interludes in particular.

In both concerts the BBC SSO played outstandingly. The way this band has developed since I first heard them at the Edinburgh Festival in the late 90s is really striking. There is a richness to the strings, a ringing quality to the brass, that the band just didn't possess then. They combine into an impressive whole. It's a tribute I think to the tenures of Ilan Volkov and Donald Runnicles as chief conductors.

In terms of the individual works I found the three most satisfying performances were the two works with piano solo – on Friday Bernstein's Symphony No.2 (The Age of Anxiety) and on Saturday Britten's little known Diversions – one of that legion of works written for piano left hand for Paul Wittgenstein, and Copland's little gem Quiet City (the solos taken by members of the orchestra). Neither of the works with piano is I think a masterpiece, but both deserve periodic outings, and thus are the kind of things which should find a place in Festival programmes. On both occasions we were blessed with magnificent soloists – Cedric Tiberghien in the Bernstein, and Pavel Kolesnikov in the Britten. Both had a lovely unshowy virtuousity, a command of dynamic range and mood, and came across as in sympathy with the character of the pieces. After the Britten, Koselnikov also spoiled us with a magical account of what I think was a Chopin Mazurka. I would like to hear more from both. Just occasionally, I thought Wilson allowed the orchestra to swamp the soloists. The Copland was a lovely change in mood, solos beautifully performed - a testament to the strength in depth of the band. 

The other two Britten works were both familiar to me, his Sinfonia da Requiem and the Sea Interludes and Passacaglia. In the former Wilson found the requisite drama and emotional punch. The latter was a most interesting experience – I seemed to hear Broadwayesque echoes in the music that had never struck me before. Here too, drama and forward momentum were central, an approach which worked best in Sunday Morning and the final climactic storm. That said there was haunting, intimate work in the Passacaglia, including a beautifully judged viola solo from Scott Dickinson. In Dawn and Moonlight I did feel that just occasionally Wilson could have benefitted to go just a fraction slower and softer, to tap in just a little more to their more mysterious qualities. I would also say that I've known Storm Interludes that manage the buildup with just that bit more nuance.

Wilson and the BBC SSO closed out their concert on the Saturday with Copland's Billy the Kid. Again there was much to enjoy here in the feeling of drama Wilson brings to these scores, and the fine playing from all sections of the orchestra. But Wilson sometimes seemed to like his triple fortes a bit too much – fewer of them, and a more subtle build up at times could yield punchier results. Towards the end, I did begin to feel, especially in the very resonant Maltings acoustics, a little bit battered.

The least successful element of the weekend came on Sunday afternoon with the performance of the new opera, To See the Invisible. This is based on a Robert Silverberg short story in which a man is rendered invisible for a year because of an act of coldness. Not having read the story I can't say whether it is any more explicit about the context than this – one of the problems with the adaptation is that context is sadly lacking – it is never clear how this order of society has arisen.

The ensemble of fine singers give it everything, as do the players from the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, but I'm afraid I found the work itself weak and overlong.

The major problem is, sadly, Emily Howard's music. Firstly, Howard makes unconvincing decisions about what text to set to music and what to leave as spoken lines. Spoken text in opera is nearly always, in my experience, perilous, and this was no exception. The reasons for particular decisions here almost never convinced. The text itself rarely gained from being set (unless you find, as I suspect was intended but was not for me, the repeated singing of such a line as “raspberry ripple with a chocolate chip” (approximately) in itself funny). The pacing is often so slow that you could see the end of the sentence coming from some distance away and the possibility of impact has gone by the time the ending arrives. A further problem is the paucity of Howard's musical language – after about the first ten minutes you've pretty much heard the full range of the score and the work then continues for another seventy. The thinness of that language is the more exposed by the inclusion of lengthy quotations from what I thought might be Dowland and what was definitely Mozart – it is, incidentally, not clear to what end these quotations are made. Finally, there's a serious lack of dramatic tension. The environment should but doesn't feel menacing, I didn't care enough about the characters, and while I suppose the pacing may have been intended to make us empathize with those characters rendered invisible for a year I'm afraid the effect was not to make me care more about them but simply to render me bored. 

Finally, on Sunday evening, my weekend ended with the John Wilson Orchestra and four soloists in a concert of bleeding chunks from Bernstein. I'd looked forward to this in advance. The highlights were unquestionably Louise Alder's solos – especially an electrifying Glitter and Be Gay (Candide) – I shall be looking out for the chance to hear her in more traditional operatic rep. There was also some fine singing from Kim Criswell and Nadim Naaman. But there was, for me, something of a problem. The singers were miked. No doubt this was necessary to enable them to carry across the band, but the engineers didn't get the balance right – singers still got swamped at times and the overall effect was to flatten out both dynamic contrast and orchestral colour – I felt I could sense both were there but the sound design and the overall acoustics made it impossible to properly hear it. I confess my enjoyment of moments such as the climax of the West Side Story Quintet was hampered because (even in Row T) I found it too loud. I suspect this is a problem very difficult of solution in putting such a performance in the Maltings because the acoustic is so resonant, but if the Festival plans to repeat it (and I'm altogether in favour of broadening the scope of the Festival in this way) I think it'll need to try and find ways to address these issues.

Overall though this was in many ways an enjoyable weekend in what are always magical surroundings. It also poses one final question, why the Edinburgh International Festival (given its desire to broaden the musical offering) has yet to programme the BBCSSO/Wilson combination (or indeed the John Wilson Orchestra) – especially given that one of those is a home team...

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