Monday 3 August 2020

BBC Proms 2020, or, A Proms Miscelleny for Week 3

Welcome to the second instalment of this rather mad combination of Previously at the Proms/What the critics said...

Monday 3rd August - Lunchtime Chamber Music - Liszt, Prokofiev (2011)

This was Katia Buniatishvili's debut at the Festival. She returned in 2018 to perform the Grieg Piano Concerto.

Intriguingly, given for most of its history the Proms was primarily an orchestral festival, this was the third performance of Liszt's Piano Sonata. On both occasions, it was paired with major symphonies - Bruckner's Fifth in 1984 and Beethoven's Ninth in 1989 (played by Lazar Berman on the first occasion and Peter Donohoe on the second). It's quite hard to imagine such a pairing featuring on a programme now. Liszt's music featured in the very first Proms season - his second Hungarian Rhapsody (heard in the orchestral version at the First Night) and Third Liebestraum (which Buniatishvili also plays, and which had gone unheard at the Proms between 1905 and 1997). This was the eighth performance of the Liebestraum (and its only other performance since the early days of the Festival, in Evgeny Kissin's 1997 solo recital, can be heard later in this archive season). Liszt's music overall has notched up just over 600 Proms appearances partly aided, as with Berlioz, by multiple performances in the early years of what I think Henry Wood referred to as lollipops - most frequent here was Liszt's Hungarian Fantasy. But his overall output is more widely reflected than I'd expected. The Piano Concertos have unsurprisingly appeared frequently (the First can be heard in tonight's Prom), but Les Preludes beats the Second Concerto and remained a regular feature of seasons through to the Last Night in 1963 after which it disappeared until Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra brought it back in 2009. Almost as surprising as the popularity of Les Preludes to me was the discovery that both his large scale symphonies have appeared more than once - the Dante Symphony receiving its Proms premiere back in 1904 (though it was not heard again until 1986). Henry Wood evidently had a fondness for the Faust Symphony, giving it complete on four occasions in the 30s (often alongside Liszt symphonic poems). The list even includes a performance of the rarely heard Christus in 1978 - I can't recall this being done in the UK since I started attending concerts - I wonder if that is still in the archive. 

Monday 27 July 2020

BBC Proms 2020, or, A Proms Miscelleny for Week 2

One of the pleasures of programmes at BBC Proms concerts (one or two of the opera houses also do this) is the little information box "Previously at the Proms" telling you how many times a work has appeared at the Proms. In the absence of a Proms Guide, or concert programmes, and courtesy (for all the stats and details of performers) of the excellent Proms archive (though any faulty counting is entirely me), here follows a combination of the Proms performance history of this week's works and artists, and a compilation of what the critics said at the time (in so far as I've been able to locate their pieces). I hope the BBC will not object to this use of their publicly available archive data, but of course if they should do so we will be happy to remove this post. It is intended purely for the enjoyment of readers who may be making up for the absence of live performance by listening along to the season.

Monday 27th July - Lunchtime Chamber Music - Martinu, Dutilleux, Prokofiev (2011)

This was the fourth of Emmanuel Pahud's, to date, six Proms appearances as soloist. He first performed at the festival in 1998 in Mozart's Concerto for Flute and Harp with Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic and he'd already appeared at the 2011 Proms season to give the London premiere of Marc-Andre Dalbavie's Flute Concerto with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and Theirry Fischer. This was Eric Le Sage's Proms debut and, to date, only appearance.

Saturday 25 July 2020

The Arts and Covid-19, or, Serious Questions for Oliver Dowden and the DCMS

On the 5th July when the government announced its £1.57 billion arts support package I honestly hoped it would mean I could stop having to ask questions of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and the Secretary of State Oliver Dowden. Sadly here we are three weeks later and there are again reasons to be seriously concerned.

Overnight on the 22nd/23rd July the Commons Select Committee for the DCMS published a report on the DCMS's (& to an extent the wider government's) response to Covid. It's an admirable document, from a Committee with a Tory majority, which lays out in detail the devastating impact which Covid has had on the cultural sector (Section 3). It makes a series of detailed recommendations for assistance to the sector (Conclusions & Recommendations, Sections 10-19), many of which have been proposed during the crisis by the sector itself. Among these are a call for extensions to the furlough scheme for these sectors where recovery will be delayed, extending the cut in VAT on ticket sales, and ensuring financial aid is not confined only to those previously receiving subsidies.

Monday 20 July 2020

BBC Proms 2020, or, Archival Mysteries

This past weekend would normally have seen the start of the Proms. As with other summer Festivals that usually have a significant broadcast presence (Aldeburgh and Edinburgh for example), Radio 3 has marked it with a season from the archive. Given the restricted conditions under which we're all operating at present it is clearly a significant feat to have pulled this six week season together. The opera selection is especially rich: Donald Runnicles, Nina Stemme and Deutsche Oper in Salome, Bernard Haitink and the Royal Opera in Don Carlo, Jiri Belohlavek, Karita Mattila and the BBC SO in The Makropulos Affair, and Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin in Die Walkure (again with a very starry line-up of soloists, though my preference from that cycle would have been Gotterdammerung for another chance to hear Andreas Schager's Siegfried - the only live occasion I've been really moved by his death). It's also worth noting that, contrary to my first impression, the balance between core repertoire and new works looks pretty close to what it would be in a standard season, and there is appropriate representation of the eclectic genres and performers often seen in the late night slots. The opening weekend hadn't especially stood out for me but turned out to be gripping listening - with Birtwistle's Panic and the energy of Gardiner's Leonora particularly surprising me. All that said, there are (as with the Aldeburgh and Edinburgh broadcasts) significant limits to this delving into the archive which, bizarrely, the BBC seem disinclined to discuss in any detail.

The BBC has talked up the season as a celebration of archival treasures across four decades - but given this would have been the 125th season to go back only 40 years presents a rather truncated picture. Moreover the actual representation of those 40 years in the 2020 season is uneven. It breaks down as follows:

2010s - 28 and a bit concerts, plus 8 chamber recitals
2000s - 16 concerts, plus 2 chamber recitals
1990s - 10 and a bit concerts
1980s - 3 concerts

The earliest of those 1980s concerts comes from 1987, the other two from 1989 - so the season hardly gives much reflection of that decade. As an aside I find it striking that I haven't seen any professional journalist undertake this straightforward bit of maths.

Thursday 18 June 2020

The Arts and Covid-19, or, Notes from an Inadequate Press Conference

The crisis in the arts sector continued to gather pace yesterday. We've already this week seen further reporting on the desperate situation facing freelancers and the establishment of a campaign to draw attention to this. On Wednesday Cameron Mackintosh became the latest figure to announce that performances will not resume until 2021 - in this case of four West End musicals (Mary Poppins, Les Miserables, Hamilton and The Phantom of the Opera). In consequence a redundancy consultation process has commenced for staff employed on those productions. Earlier in the day the Creative Industries Federation released a report commissioned from Oxford Economics predicting a £74bn drop in revenue in consequence of covid-19 and 400,000 job losses. The RSC announced it would have to go into "drastic hibernation" without "urgent support" and the latest in what has become a string of open letters from the industry was published. The signatories to this letter provide a further worrying sign. For the first time senior arts executives were prominent among those who signed. This is a critical group who have been cautious so far in their public statements. Much like the statements being issued and decisions taken at the end of last week this suggests to me that nothing concrete is coming out of whatever private discussions are going on.

So it was an interesting day for the government to decide to send Oliver Dowden, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport out to lead the daily briefing. One might have expected that he would have something of substance to say about the issues outlined in the previous paragraph. But it was not to be. Most of what Dowden had to say in relation to the areas for which his ministry is responsible was concerned with the restarting of sports fixtures (most notably football). This was in keeping with the content of his twitter feed in recent days where he responded to Michael Vaughan, former England cricket captain, asking about the resumption of that game, and celebrated the return of football but had absolutely nothing to say to the many tweets and reports of desperation and anxiety from the arts sector (as noted below this changed after the press conference).

Monday 15 June 2020

The Arts and Covid-19, or, We Must Act Now

Two weeks ago I blogged on the crisis facing the arts sector. In the last few days it feels very much as if a tipping point has been reached as closures and cancellations gather pace and elements of the sector have begun to address the government's failures more directly. Ticket holders for the National Theatre's Christmas revival of Small Island were contacted with the news that the show has been cancelled. The Wales Millennium Centre, announcing closure until January at the earliest, declared "the situation is extremely serious and needs Government intervention and advice urgently." The Chester Storyhouse issued a statement noting "over two thirds of the country's theatres currently expect to be out of business by Christmas" and urged "the government to give guidance now about opening theatres" pointing out that "No business...can plan an opening in this vacuum." Both Scottish Opera and Welsh National Opera have now cancelled their autumn seasons. The Birmingham Hippodrome has announced a period of redundancy consultation. If major venues like the National Theatre and the Wales Millennium Centre are in this position imagine what is happening lower down the food chain.

The government's response, inadequate through this crisis, meanwhile reached new depths. You'll recall that the last time we saw the minister, Oliver Dowden, he was announcing task forces. Since then there has been no word on what the task forces are doing, or when they can be expected to report (somebody in the press should be doing an FoI request for the minutes of their meetings). About the only sighting of Dowden was an interview with the Evening Standard a few days ago in which he claimed "I am not going to stand by and see our world-leading position in the arts and culture destroyed" and the reporter claimed, presumably on the basis of what Dowden said to him, that "the deal is almost done" with the Treasury. Perhaps needless to say no further announcement has yet followed, and, in what felt to me like the ultimate insult, as the announcements of prolonged closures and cancellations came out on Friday the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport was retweeting the Cabinet Office's announcement that the government would not seek an extension to the Brexit transition period.

Thursday 28 May 2020

The Covid-19 Crisis, or, What Should the Arts Sector Do?

Over the last ten days or so the scale of the crisis facing the Arts has at last started to be brought before the public. The Globe, the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh, a group of major organisations, and now the Southbank Centre have spelled out in stark terms the financial doom staring the sector in the face as it is forced to spend through its reserves just to survive. The Financial Times provided a good overview yesterday. Already venues have failed in LeicesterSouthampton and in Southport. If major organisations like these are facing collapse, consider how much worse the situation will be further down the food chain where organisations have little or nothing in reserve. Yes the Arts Council is doing its best with emergency grants to organisations outside the national portfolio (my twitter timeline in recent days has had plenty of groups issuing thanks) and now with emergency grants to freelancers (a group ill-served by government support mechanisms in general during this crisis and whose support at the moment is scheduled to be cut off completely at the end of May). But it is horribly clear that the crisis in its scale and likely duration dwarfs what support the government has so far offered.

Yet the Secretary of State Oliver Dowden and his Department have been slow to respond and reluctant to acknowledge just how deep the crisis is. As a regular audience member very worried about the fate of venues and art forms that are a huge part of my life I have had little sense that the government is particularly engaged by the crisis. Only on 20th May did Dowden, rather oddly sent out to lead that day's press conference, address the situation in a prominent public forum. Unfortunately all that he announced as far as the arts was concerned was a "renewal task force". Some criticised the membership. While not being wholly convinced on that point, the much more serious problem was the proposed focus of the task force which was "to develop creative drive the return of sectors." The only mention of finance offered no sense of the scale of the crisis facing the sector: "the Taskforce will look to see how creative new approaches could help sectors thrive in future, building on existing channels of government support...".

Sunday 15 March 2020

Susanna at the Royal, or, Opera in a Time of Pandemic

This was one of the strangest live performance experiences I can recall. Not for the performance itself, which was well sung and played in a production which had strong elements but didn't quite cohere. No, it was strange rather because of the external health crisis and the way that kept impinging, do what I would, on my mind as I watched and listened.

I had havered for the last few days as to whether to attend. I have found it difficult, both in my professional life and in relation to this performance to be sure institutions in this country are doing the right thing in carrying on when universities and arts venues on the continent are closing down for weeks. Let me be clear - I am quite specifically not making a judgement on whether the policy is right, I am not qualified so to do, but talking about how I have felt. Nevertheless, in the end I decided I would attend this performance. The run has been sold out since booking opened but there were enough empty seats to suggest others had reached a different conclusion, and I saw at least one audience member in their seat wearing a face mask.

Wednesday 4 March 2020

Fidelio at the Royal, or, And Then the Curtain Rose on Act 2

Note: This is a review of the matinee on Sunday 1st March 2020.

At the interval of this performance it seemed as if we were heading for a solid, if not a stellar afternoon. Then the curtain rose on Act 2 and I realised we were in for a very long fifty minutes.

But let us start with the music. This is generally a strong if not, from where I was sitting, outstanding set of singing performances. Lise Davidsen (Fidelio) clearly has a voice of enormous power which punched through physically to the Amphitheatre in a way few singers do. She does her best to carry off dramatically the increasingly unconvincing direction. She also delivers some of the more intimate moments with great character - for example the Act 1 Quartet (which was probably the single most satisfying moment of the whole performance). But in some of the exchanges I'd have liked more flexibility and variation in volume. We were asked for our understanding of Jonas Kaufmann (Florestan) before the curtain rose so this was not an occasion on which to judge his capacities in the role - he sang creditably under the circumstances. There was finely sung supporting work from Amanda Forsythe (Marzelline), Robin Tritschler (Jaquino) and Georg Zeppenfeld (Rocco). Simon Neal brought a rich bass to Pizarro but didn't always cut through the orchestra at full tilt.

Tuesday 3 March 2020

Death of England at the National, or, Too Much on One Level

Note: This is a review of the matinee on Saturday 22nd February 2020.

It takes great talent to sustain a 100 minute single-hander play. Rafe Spall throws a huge amount of energy into this new work at the National, but from where I was sitting he didn't equal the recent, subtler work of Laura Linney and Maggie Smith at the Bridge, though he is hampered by aspects of both script and staging.

Clint Dyer and Roy Williams's play concerns Michael, a white man running a flower stall struggling with problematic relations with his family and generally furious with the wider state of the world. The authors' aim, I think, was an investigation of white racism, of the kind of people who are thought to have voted for Brexit. It is certainly significant to have such an investigation written for the stage by two black writers - but they don't achieve a penetration of those issues to compare with recent work on the American dimension of these themes by the black American writer Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (most notably in his fine Appropriate seen recently at the Donmar). We may hear a great deal about what Michael thinks but the play does relatively little to explain how he has come to think this way. Its treatment of politics is superficial - there's a moment when Michael admits that he didn't even vote in the Brexit referendum which is just crying out for further exploration, but rapidly passes as the rant continues. As a result the play doesn't emotionally earn the closure it conjures. Indeed it did worse than that for me, with its (spoiler) use of a voice from beyond the grave, which effects a too easy reconciliation, and again does not allow for sufficient examination of how the situation allowing for that voice had arisen.

Monday 2 March 2020

Luisa Miller at ENO, or Musically Blazing, Shame About the Production

Note: This is a review of the performance on Saturday 15th February 2020.

I don't go to ENO very regularly these days for a simple reason - I don't trust the management's commissioning policy when it comes to directors, and the prices are now so high below the uncomfortable Balcony (I can usually sit in a decent seat more cheaply at Covent Garden) that one resents having paid them if a key aspect of the show is weak as it has too often been ever since the John Berry era. However, I do still go if they stage a work I haven't previously seen, and that was the primary reason I attended this performance.

It's easy to see why this Verdi work is not often done. The plot creaks - particularly when the hero decides that he'll poison the beloved he thinks has betrayed him, rather than, oh I don't know, sit down and try and discuss the matter first - especially when the production at any rate has made it abundantly (arguably too abundantly) clear that the person whom she is supposed to have betrayed him with is one of the villains. A follower on Twitter afterwards also made the shrewd comment that the creakiness of the plot is more exposed when presented in English as opposed to Italian. The overall effect would I suspect make it difficult even in an excellent production to achieve really strong emotional engagement, but this production despite being very strong musically causes it to fall short of that a fair bit.

Saturday 29 February 2020

The Visit at the National, or, Another Failed Epic

Note: This is a review of the matinee on Saturday 15th February 2020.

I rather like a good epic, I regularly go to Wagner operas after all. But the big test of such an epic is whether the time flies by so that, in fact, you forget how long you're there for. On this occasion, proceedings dragged, badly.

I'm not familiar with Friedrich Durrenmatt's original, but presumably it had a Swiss or European setting. Tony Kushner's new adaptation transplants it to a decaying town in rust-belt America. Commentary on the social effects of the collapse of industry in the rust-belt has been everywhere since Trump's victory in 2016. Kushner's take on the setting sadly has nothing fresh to say. I'd recently read Amy Goldstein's Janesville: An American Story (2017) - which both goes deeper into the impact of economic change in the region and is more dramatically compelling than anything in this show.

Saturday 15 February 2020

Alice's Adventures Under Ground at the Royal, or, A Tired Mockery of Genre

Note: This is a review of the matinee on Saturday 8th February 2020.

The previous Gerald Barry opera I encountered, his version of The Importance of Being Ernest, was widely praised. I was much less convinced, and I really only booked for this because of my completionist tendency. It proved to be a tedious fifty five minutes.

But to start with the positives. The performances were of a very high standard. Jennifer France in the title role had a clear, piercing sound admirably suited to the high lying style of most of what vocal writing the work affords her. The supporting cast of Allison Cook, Carole Wilson, Nicky Spence, Robert Murray, Stephen Richardson and Alan Ewing all perform multiple roles in fine voices (again when allowed by the score to exercise them) and high energy commitment through many costume changes and running about the playing area. In the pit Thomas Ades draws crisp focused playing from the Royal Opera House Orchestra (in contrast to the last time I heard their partnership - a disappointing Rake's Progress) but can't disguise the shortcomings of the score in that department either.

Thursday 23 January 2020

The Welkin at the National, or, Twelve Women in a Room Arguing

Note: This is a review of the preview performance on Monday 20th January 2020. The Press Night took place last night.

The premise of this play is an admirable one. Essentially it takes the idea of the classic Twelve Angry Men and turns it into twelve women. We do not see such an ensemble often enough on stage and I hope this flawed (from where I was sitting) attempt will be a spur to others to carry the idea forward. This show is blessed by an excellent, in some cases underused, ensemble, but the play itself doesn't quite work.

The plot concerns Sally Poppy (Ria Zmitrowicz) who has been condemned to death for her part in a murder but has claimed to be pregnant. In consequence twelve women have been empanelled to decide whether she is so, with a single male officer of the court in the room with them who is not allowed to speak. The problems arise from how this idea is executed. It takes too long before we are locked in the room with this jury. Musing about it as I walked home I became increasingly convinced that the play would benefit from cutting all the scenes before the empanelment and letting any information we may need from them filter out through the jury room debate - this would also leave room for more mystery, more tension. Because the next issue is that we are told far too much about the prisoner before that debate even starts - there's not enough left to discover about her to generate needed dramatic tension once we're in the jury room. In consequence, in Act Two, writer Lucy Kirkwood resorts to a surfeit of revelations about our jurors which feels overblown - less, as so often would have been more.

Wednesday 22 January 2020

Cyrano de Bergerac at the Playhouse, or, Another Failed Concept Production

Note: This is a review of the matinee on Saturday 18th January 2020.

My misgivings about this show started as I was queuing up to get in and noticed that all the publicity stills featured performers holding microphones. They grew as I took my seat and observed a bare box-like playing area with three microphones and stands. Sadly, the show itself proved those misgivings all too justified.

There seems to be a vogue at the moment in directorial circles for bare stagings that have little concrete sense of place - the current production of The Duchess of Malfi at the Almeida which I sat through earlier in the week is another one. Here Soutra Gilmour's set is wearisome to look at for nearly three hours - mostly just that bare box-like space, occasionally added to with a small set of stairs at the back, a mirror into which Cyrano stares for reasons never fully established, and four orange plastic chairs. Near the opening the production projects, and the text claims, that we are in France in 1640 - I never believed this.

Tuesday 21 January 2020

The Duchess of Malfi, or, Why is it largely set in a changing room?

Note: This is a review of the performance on Thursday 16h January 2020.

This was my third encounter with director Rebecca Frecknall. I was less convinced than others by her Summer and Smoke, and my rating of her approach was not improved by either this show or her recent Three Sisters. However, I should preface what follows by also saying that I've never really got on with the revenge tragedy, so perhaps that was part of the problem.

Frecknall and set designer Chloe Lamford's Malfi is blandly modern and sparsely furnished such that, not unlike that Summer and Smoke, there is little concrete sense of place. The main piece of set is a narrow enclosed box-like object which looks like a leisure centre changing room. It sits mostly at the back of the stage and then in the second half is moved squeakily forward and then back to little purpose. Around the edges of the stage are various desks and chairs in which, in a directorial tick that is in vogue and should cease to be, the performers sit when not in scenes. Finally there are two glass like cabinets to the side which turn out to contain the show's props. The supplying of props in this way adds a layer of artificiality which increasingly undermines belief in the world on stage. Frecknall also tends to allow scenes to run into each other in such a way that people who oughtn't to be able to see things are going on appear to be able to do so.

Saturday 11 January 2020

Dear Evan Hansen, or, For Goodness Sake, Stop Lying!

Note: This is a review of the matinee performance on Saturday 4th January 2020.

In advance I was curious as to whether my judgement would agree with that of the Tony Awards voters who back in 2016 gave it the Best Musical accolade over Come From Away which I saw last year and really loved. I thought I might disagree (it has been known), I didn't expect to feel so antagonised by much of this show.

The story follows the Evan Hansen of the title, a young man with anxiety and it ultimately becomes clear wider psychological problems, through the challenges of high school. Following the suicide of a classmate, Connor, Hansen becomes swept into a web of gradually more complicated lies. Those lies are increasingly promulgated via technological means - fabricated e-mails, social media campaigns. To begin with the lies are structured around Hansen's fictitious relationship with the deceased, but it eventually becomes clear that the habit spreads much further.