Showing posts with label Proms. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Proms. Show all posts

Monday, July 17, 2017

Barenboim for Prime Minister

Barenboim raises a hand with his Berlin Staatskapelle. (Photo: bbc.co.uk)

Three days into the Proms and it's already clear that the world's leading musicians are more clued in to the folly of the flat-earth idiocy in Brexit Island than our own politicians are. Igor Levit played the Ode to Joy as an encore after his performance of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No.3 on opening night. Yesterday Daniel Barenboim followed the questing, Schumannesque lament for a vanishing world that Elgar's Second Symphony evokes with a speech about the dangers of isolationism, identifying the overarching problem that causes religious and political fundamentalism as a failure in education. The usual howls that politics and music don't mix have been curiously quiet - perhaps because Levit didn't say a word, but let Beethoven do all the speaking; and perhaps because Barenboim is, quite simply, right. [Update, 3.30pm: they've now stopped being quiet, but it was only a matter of time... and Barenboim is still right.]



(You can also read the transcribed text of his speech at Jon Jacobs' blog, Thoroughly Good, here.)

Watching and listening links for the Barenboim Prom here.

In the interests of our unfortunate country, I think it's time we kicked out the government and replaced them with people who know what they're talking about through music. It can't be any worse, after all. Following the Proms Coup (as opposed to the more usual Queue), here is the new cabinet.

PRESIDENT:
Ludwig van Beethoven. The greatest ideals and the biggest vision. Also, given his hearing disability, a fantastic symbol for inclusion and equality.

PRIME MINISTER:
Daniel Barenboim, one of the world's few true statesmen, working together with Beethoven.

FIRST SECRETARY OF STATE:
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, for a balancing human touch at the top of the power tree.

CHANCELLOR OF THE EXCHEQUER:
Giacomo Meyerbeer, who made a great deal of money - and used it magnanimously.

FOREIGN SECRETARY:
Felix Mendelssohn, who could charm and befriend anyone and everyone, including royalty.

HOME SECRETARY:
Sir Edward Elgar, who works closely with Beethoven and Barenboim. A "home-grown" composer whose influences were chiefly European, including Schumann, Brahms and Strauss.

EDUCATION SECRETARY:
Zoltán Kodály, music's arch-educator with an outlook for both inclusiveness and expertise.

WORK AND PENSIONS SECRETARY:
Johann Sebastian Bach, who knew a thing or two about hard work and should have left Anna Magdalena a proper pension. (She ended her life destitute. Bach should fix this before it happens.)

DEFENCE MINISTER:
Franz Schubert, who had pacifist leanings.

ENVIRONMENT SECRETARY:
Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, whose Scottish island landscape and terrifically powerful personality would be a valuable asset.

EQUALITIES MINISTER:
Dame Ethel Smyth. Cross her at your peril.

HEALTH SECRETARY:
Frédéric Chopin, who would evince a profound interest in making sure antibiotics remain effective and available to all.

TRANSPORT SECRETARY:
Antonin Dvorák, who'd enjoy sorting out our trains and would also ensure that everything ran smoothly on the transatlantic front.

SPORTS MINISTER:
Frederick Septimus Kelly, who was not only a fine composer, but also an Olympic gold medallist in 1908, for rowing.

BREXIT SECRETARY:
This department is abolished, because we ain't leaving.



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Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Michael Spyres: A tenor who resonates

The American tenor Michael Spyres has taken an impressive and unusual highway through the operatic world. Hailing from a musical family in Laura Ingalls Wilder's little town on the prairie, he is 38 yet has already tackled 64 different roles, from baroque to bel canto to Berlioz. He is convinced he has sung the latter's Faust more than anyone else alive. And it's not exactly that he doesn't like Puccini, but... 

In this 4 July special, I meet the US's mercurial Renaissance-man backstage at the Royal Opera House, where he is currently appearing in Mozart's Mitridate... 


Michael Spyres as Mitridate at the Royal Opera House. Photo ROH/Bill Cooper


JD: Michael, lovely to meet you. How are you enjoying Mitridate?

MS: The role itself is absolutely incredible. People don’t realise, simply because it’s not done enough in repertory, but it’s so difficult. As a character it’s comparable to Otello, or to any of the truly great characters in the repertoire. The real Mithridate was one of the most mythic people who ever lived. He was 72 when he died and he thwarted the Roman army for 39 years – which is 39 years more than most people ever did! He was a famous polyglot and spoke 22 languages: he owned the Black Sea and everything around it, there were 22 different regions and he made it a point to learn all the languages.

There’s also a word in French and high English – “mithridisation” and “mithridatism” – which means to take small amounts of poison in order to be immune to it. He believed that if you take small amounts of poison every day then as you get older you do become immune. One of the main dangers for kings was patricide or death by poisoning – nearly everyone died of poison! – so he grew up in a strict regimen of taking poison every day so he would be immune. But when the Romans were finally defeating him, he tried to poison himself and couldn’t die from that, so he either stabbed himself or had a friend do it so that the Romans couldn’t. He was this epic, amazing person and even if some of his story is exaggerated nowadays, it doesn’t matter; he was a real king and was able to hold off and defeat the Roman army.


(Here, a different interpretation: Save Pontus, Change Europe)


JD: Mozart’s portrayal of him is extraordinarily sophisticated.

MS: From the beginning you get to see the heart and the beauty of him, but in the recitatives you can also see this cunning, brilliant man who would pit people against each other. In his first aria, he says: “Thank God I’m back home – I thought I’d never see this place again. It’s OK to lose but I still hold my head high…” And you find out just afterwards, in the recitative, that this is totally a ruse, because he’s sent false information to his sons to test if they’re loyal or not. In the recit you hear him say he faked his own death just to see if they were traitors. Wooah!

About half way through you start to see his inner turmoil and the anger he feels because he knows he’s ageing. He died when he was 72 and usually kings died when they were about 30, killed by their brothers or their sons. But the way Mozart and Metastasio wrote the character, based on the Racine play, it shows he’s an old man used to conquering everything, but the worst thing for him is not losing the battle but losing his heart, losing his love. You see this throughout the opera. He’s scared, just like all of us, that nobody’s going to love him again… 

There’s a wonderful scene between him and the queen in which she says, “Yes, I’ll go to the alter as your slave and do whatever you want.” He's so incensed: “So I have to drag you to the altar – you don’t want to marry me, you’re just going to do it out of spite?” And you see this crazy rage and jealousy in him. But then at the end he gives his sons freedom and says that at the end of his life he wants to be again the great lion that he is. “Please marry her, and I’m sorry I’m a terrible person, but I’m showing you how to live. This is how a real person should live - no regrets…” At the end he says “I can die happy now because I’ve done what I need to” – and he just dies. I can’t think of a more complex character. You’re a god among men, a god personified. Hoffmann or Otello would be comparable, but there’s only a handful of characters who run the gamut of what a Shakespearean character is and this is definitely one of them.


JD: Mozart was only 14 when he wrote it – what an astounding thought…

MS: Mozart had three major influences: Mysliveček, JC Bach and another I only found out about because I did an obscure baroque opera in Lisbon called Antigono, by Antonio Mazzoni. I did the modern revival a few years ago and we made a recording. The only time people had ever heard it was three performances in 1755 – it’s an incredible piece, but it was lost because of the terrible fire in 1755 in Lisbon. When Mozart, aged 12, was travelling through Italy with his father, Mazzoni taught the boy counterpoint in Bologna. Antigono was almost the same kind of story as Mitridate – it’s a formulaic thing but a large character. But the fact that Mozart was able to write such touching and beautiful music was just beyond compare. To anyone who thinks it fails in comparison to his later works I’d say: no, it’s something completely different. You can’t compare it and you shouldn’t, because it’s raw, amazing emotion. Some of his duets, Aspasia’s arias and the vocal writing with the recitatives – there’s nothing like it.

At the last full rehearsal before we went on the stage, Graham Vick, who’s one of the greatest directors I’ve had the pleasure of working with, got us all round and said: I want you to realise that 26 years ago I premiered this here, and now I see this in a completely different light and I see the absolute genius of Mozart – this little boy who was shuffled around and hauled out by his father all over Europe. You can see the animosity in the letters, you can see his wish to be just a normal boy – all the angst and the problems between father and son is written into the music. He was a mature being already at that age, because he was forced to be and he had the genius to do it.




JD: Your particular type of tenor is something unusual and special. What was your path towards finding your true voice?

MS: Everyone finds their own path, but I had a different path than anybody! I started as a baritone. And I wanted to be Mel Blanc, who was the voice-over person for all the Loony Tunes cartoons. When I was young I’d imitate everything, all the time and growing up I sang with my family every kind of music there was – church music, bluegrass, folk. Then when I was in college I made money by doing commercials and I was a radio DJ and I would do commercials in different characters – and then I started getting into the idea that “Oh, you can make a living being an opera singer, that’s weird…” Obviously I couldn’t do what they were doing, so I thought “I’ll just take the recordings and start imitating the best”.

The big thing happened when I was 20 years old – and it was with this production of Mitridate. In my two years of vocal study, 18-21, we had a VHS of this production and I heard Bruce Ford for the first time. I didn’t know you could sound like this as a tenor. I’d never heard a sound like it – it’s like a baritone, but it’s obviously a tenor role, and that’s what I want to do. Low notes were the easiest things in the world – high notes, ugh, they were so hard! But this was totally different from anything I heard in Verdi and Puccini.

In the US, everyone said you can’t make a career out of this, you just cannot – and that’s still true if you’re in the sticks. So I decided that if I really wanted to learn to sing I needed to go to Europe and try to figure out this weird baritenor kind of repertoire. It took another six years of auditioning to think OK, I can do this weird trick of different mixed techniques, so I started doing a lot of Rossini roles.

 
Michael Spyres. Photo: Dax Bedell


JD: It sounds like it wasn’t an easy beginning?

MS: I was in Vienna for two years at the conservatory, and it’s a very Mozart-heavy town, so it was an invaluable experience. That was the first time I got to sing these arias in public and I crashed and burned. It was so hard! I was 26 and it just didn’t work. I went back to the drawing board and started doing lots of Rossini again. This is my third time doing Mitridate in the last year and only now is it starting to feel good and right.

This is one of the most difficult fachs of tenor, because you have to do a real mix of baritonal and tenor sounds, but you have to keep it up in the extreme highs, the same kind of colour as a baritone but not using the full voice. It’s a voix mixte and it’s really tricky to navigate and very technical, but you don’t want people to know you’re doing it! So that’s how I got into it: years and years of practice and failure and finally things started to click. And now, depending on repertoire, I change my technique. You have to, because it was written for different people with different techniques.


JD: Next up, you’re singing Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust at the Proms?

MS: There’s a huge misconception about Berlioz! He was a big admirer of the tenor Adolphe Nourrit, he admired Rossini and you can hear it constantly in his music. Everyone thinks of Berlioz as these unimaginable, gigantic pieces that are ultimately verismo – and it’s absolutely false. In order to sing Berlioz, you have to be able to sing full voice, high, and get over the orchestra, but the majority of his writing is for a lyrical voice. He had Nourrit, who was known for doing a lot of voix mixte and had various kinds of colour-changing sounds, not full-voice high Cs. He had him in mind for Benvenuto Cellini. But Nourrit was having vocal problems and tragically then killed himself that year and Berlioz wrote it for Gilbert Duprez instead. But a work like Lélio is so lyrical and beautiful, I can’t imagine some Puccini singer trying to sing it: it’s all lightness and is based completely on the text.

There’s a great quote from Berlioz. He used to say: “Above all, resonate”. He meant that both literally and figuratively. I sang the Grande Messe des Morts in this massive cathedral that it was intended for [Les Invalides], and in there Berlioz had realised that he needed more people, it was too big a place, so the choir’s about 180-200 people and the orchestra’s 120. I had friends at the performance and they said when I opened up and started singing they could feel the sound resonating.

Berlioz was this great artist and dreamer but although he had a giant ego, it was all about the art for him and he connected everything to the text. He believed in art permeating society and being an infectious thing, but it always has to be for a reason, it’s not just superfluous. He was unlike anybody else and I love him!


JD: This isn’t entirely your Proms debut?

MS: I did the Beethoven Missa Solemnis with John Eliot Gardiner two years ago. I’ve never done solo stuff there before, though, so I’m excited. I love the Proms because it’s an awakening of classical music for ‘everyperson’. I’m not saying that opera isn’t an elitist thing – because it is, as it takes so much money to be able to put on an opera. But the coolest thing about the Proms is that for many people this is their only possibility that they might see something that’ll change their lives. So that’s why I love the Proms. And I’ll give ‘em a good show, because now I’ve done Faust more than, as far as I know, any other living person. I could conduct it with my eyes closed – but all I have to do is sing, so it’s great! I love the piece so much, mainly because I did the production with Terry Gilliam in the original French in Belgium and that changed my life.


JD: What’s it like to work with Gilliam?

MS: He’s a madman and he’s wonderful! He seriously reminds me of my uncle. We’ve kept in really good touch. We’re very much of the same kind of mind – we’d start talking and still be there four hours later. We have similar ideas and that’s also why he’s taken a liking, like me too, to Berlioz. There are so many accounts of Berlioz being a true artist – ‘I don’t care what you think of me, I’m going to do this because the art demands it’ – and I’ve done that many times in my life. Of course I’ve failed – but I’ve succeeded too!
 
As Faust in Gilliam's production

JD: The production was brilliant, but quite controversial, involving a concentration camp…

MS: To me it’s one of the most poignant productions I’ve ever been a part of. I have many friends and colleagues who say ‘Oh, opera’s going in such a bad direction, all these director things that kill the production’ – but you have a choice to take that or not, and we have to do the projects we believe in. I’ve been fortunate that out of my 64 operas I’ve done, there have only been two or three that I haven’t been really thrilled about.


JD: You don’t mind ‘Regietheater’, then?

MS: It depends on the director and the ideas. I’m a director myself, I have my own opera company in the States that I run with my family. We’re basically the von Trapps – we put on the shows, my brother helps run the company and my sister’s a Broadway singer. I take it very seriously, I can see when a director is just doing something for their own ego and I choose not to be around those kinds of people.

It’s a difficult thing, being a director. Today they’re in a weird position where these are major decisions, it takes huge amounts of money to put on a project and everybody’s under pressure to do a brand-new, original idea. Many people have an idea, but it doesn’t necessarily work with the music. Many directors are not musicians to start out with – they’re dramatists, which is a great concept on paper, but if you have to listen to a piece for four hours and you don’t take into account the audience – you’re gonna die! So I’m fine with any project as long as it’s well thought out and it makes sense with the music. Because the whole reason you’re there is because of the music.

It’s gone crazy in certain places. I won’t name names, but there was one instance where L’Italiana in Algeri was being produced and the director wanted to have his name bigger on the poster than the composer’s name or the opera’s title. Fortunately the festival director said no. That’s how crazy people get!


JD: Do you see yourself moving more into directing in the future?

MS: Yes, absolutely. I’m so inspired, the more I read about the origins of opera. From Jacopo Peri, who wrote the first opera, until the late 19th century, all singers were actors and directors. Nowadays things are so specialised that people say “I’m just a singer” and some don’t even act! It’s completely the opposite of what it should be. All of us need to be acting, dancing, singing, learning as much as we can. That is why opera created this wave of art because it was the first artform where everyone came together, with the idea that we’re all part of it, we all need to be able to do a little bit of everything.

Michael Spyres
That was the great thing, growing up in my family. We built our own amphitheatre. We built the stage first and everyone sat on hay bales. I’m from a famous little town called Mansfield, Missouri – it was the home of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the Little House of the Prairie books. Because of the books, we have many visitors come through there. My mother wrote a musical about Laura Ingalls Wilder when we were growing up and it’s now in its 28th year. At its biggest we had about 120 people involved, which was 10 per cent of the town! So I’ve grown up around this and I’ve been so vindicated reading about the origins of opera, what got me into opera and how it split from its origins.


JD: The idea that you can do just do one thing and the world owes you a living, that’s going nowhere fast…

MS: Of course! And people are tired of that. One of my favourite futurist speakers is Michio Kaku, a fantastic theoretical physicist. A big subject now is what’s going to happen when people become obsolete in jobs. In the next 30-50 years half the people are going to be cut out because of robots, so what’s going to happen? What are the jobs that will be left? You’ve got to be an artist, a musician, someone who comes up with new ideas. For a long time everyone wanted to have a good stable job, but now people are being replaced by robots. But a robot will never be able to be an artist or a musician – that’s what’s so exciting.


JD: I hope you’re right!

MS: They can try! But we are such complex creatures in music. You can hear a piece that’s done by a robot and it doesn’t feel right, it’s just algorithms. That’s why I’m so excited about the future of music and art. I feel I came at the right time because by the time I’m in my later years more and more people will be coming to art, because that’s where the ideas come from. The same thing applies to the computer programmers – they have the technicality and the vision for what needs to be done. Opera is basically the computer of the art world.


JD: You sing, you act, you direct: are you also tempted to write an opera?

A few years ago my brother wrote a libretto, my mum helped – we took the music from The Magic Flute and created a story based on Alice in Wonderland to take to all the kids in the area who’d never seen opera before, in 32 schools that were among the poorest in the community. Yes, someday I want to write an opera – that’s what I’m leaning towards.




JD: What about future roles to sing? Any big dreams?

MS: I’ve basically done every role I wanted to do, except Verdi’s Otello. I’ll do that someday – but like Kaufmann, I’m smart and I’ll wait. I’ll wait until I’m 50 for that, so I’ve got over a decade – but the other dream roles are Monteverdi’s Orfeo and a lot of Rameau and Gluck, great epic works on Greek stories. But modern opera for the most part is not as appealing to me as a singer.

I like Puccini. I love Puccini. But it’s like he put down pure gold on paper and if you want to do him justice you’ve got to do what he wrote – and if you live within the characters that he wrote there’s not a lot of freedom. I’ve taken a lot of flack for saying that – people say, ‘Oh you just don’t like Puccini because you can’t sing it’ – but actually I can sing it, I just don’t like it, because I believe in doing what the composer wanted you to do and for my character there’s very little in Puccini that I find interesting as an actor and singer. I love it when other people do it, but for me personally I get angry because I want to do my own thing, but I shouldn’t – he wrote it so perfectly and beautifully that it’s just right! So that’s why most of the verismo period doesn’t appeal to me – there’s not enough freedom for me,

As far as dream roles go, I’ve done most of them and I know it’s crazy to say that. But I’ve done 64 already and I’m 38: operas from modern to the earliest stuff, and a range from the lowest operas written for a tenor voice to the highest, so I’ve lived out all my major fantasies as far as roles are concerned. Now I’m just looking for true content and characterisation. I find many of the more obscure things much more rewarding. I’d love to do Die tote Stadt – that’s a dream. I love Die tote Stadt – Korngold was one of the greatest. The same with Massenet: he came on the heels of verismo and was able to marry the two, and Korngold did the same thing. Korngold is so overlooked, just because he went into film. But have you listened to his film scores? They’re better than anything! Come on, you can’t write better than that.

JD: You just made this Korngold biographer very happy! Thank you, Michael, and toitoitoi for the final Mitridate.

And – as Loony Tunes would say – that’s all, folks!

The final performance of Mitridate is on Friday 7 July at the Royal Opera House – booking here. Michael Spyres sings Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust at the Proms on 8 August – booking here.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Proms are upon us

I've written a vaguely grumpy piece for the Independent about why this year's Proms programme feels just that bit meh. I've only done this because I love the Proms and I want them to be purrfect.

Let's just explore the business about the Proms' new music on TV a little more, as a lady from the press office has sent me a lot of information.

The Proms contains no fewer than 30 pieces of music that are receiving world, European, UK or London premieres. This is an admirable count and one would expect them to be proud of it and wish to relay those works to the widest possible audience on TV.

Last year several composers of my acquaintance were utterly shell-shocked to discover that while the Proms in which their music was being done were to be televised, their pieces had been cut from the TV broadcast and moved to a designated area for new music online. At this year's Proms press launch, Edward Blakeman was challenged about this and he offered a robust defence of "curating" Proms for the TV audience (the concept of "curating" is maybe a topic for another time).

Apparently this year 16 pieces of music will be filmed for online only, but just three of those are new works. Apparently I am therefore off the mark to say that "certain pieces of music that are filmed will be viewable online only".

The three new works that will be filmed but not televised are by John Woolrich, Tansy Davies and Luca Francesconi. (So: certain pieces of music that are filmed will be viewable online only.)

The full TV schedule for the Proms is online here.

Here is how new music from the Proms on TV will look:

New music really is an important part of the Proms television offer across BBC Two, BBC Four, CBBC and online this year. New commissions by Gary Carpenter (world premiere of BBC commission Dadaville) and Eleanor Alberga (world premiere of Arise, Athena!) feature in the live First and Last Night TV broadcasts on BBC Two. New music is also broadcast within BBC Four’s weekly curated programmes on Thursday, Friday and Sunday evenings throughout the festival including: a concerto and recital series on Thursday evenings which will devote an episode to the world premiere of HK Gruber’sInto the open… and also feature the world premiere of Hugh Wood’s BBC commission Epithalamium; a series on Friday evenings featuring European premieres of works by Jonathan Newman and Eric Whitacre; and an 8-part symphony series presented by Sir Mark Elder and Katie Derham on Sunday evenings which will devote 5 episodes to 20th century music, 2 episodes to new symphonic works (the first Proms performance of Brett Dean’s Pastoral Symphony and the world premiere of James Macmillan’s BBC commission, Symphony No. 4) and the world premiere of Anna Meredith’s BBC commission Smatter Hauler. The London premiere of Anna Meredith’s Connect It will also be included in the broadcast of the Ten Pieces Prom on CBBC.

So, it looks as if around a third of the new/newish pieces will find their way onto our TV screens in one form or another, which is good news. Thanks, chaps.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

David Pickard to head the Proms


Some very welcome news yesterday from the Proms, which has appointed a new director at long last. And it's not a BBC insider with an axe. It's David Pickard of Glyndebourne - a charismatic, well-liked, forward-thinking, online-aware guy who seems, to many of us, an inspired choice. I've expounded a few thoughts on the task ahead of him in today's Independent.

Here is the Director's Cut, a slightly longer version.


The BBC Proms has named its new director at last: David Pickard, who is currently general director of Glyndebourne. The appointment process has been lengthy – it is 14 months since Roger Wright resigned from the job – but one hopes that the organisation has taken its time in order to find just the right person.

Pickard’s appointment has surprised many in the music world; it was widely expected that a BBC insider would be chosen, possibly one ready to wield an axe. Instead, this decision appears to signal a willingness to be open to the new, the forward-looking and the creative. Pickard has brought all these qualities to Glyndebourne; and that opera house’s continuing success despite the crash years suggests that he is no stranger to helping an institution weather a blast.

Wright’s shoes at the Proms won’t be easy to fill. His determination to think big reaped dividends, bringing to fruition ambitious projects such as a tie-in with the 2012 Olympics and, the following year, a complete Wagner Ring cycle for the composer’s bicentenary year, conducted by Daniel Barenboim and featuring some of the world’s finest Wagnerians singers – each opera accessible to promenaders for a mere £5.

Pickard is bound to face thorny challenges. The BBC licence fee is due for a rethink next year; any changes to the funding model can scarcely help but affect the Proms. At Glyndebourne Pickard has presided over an institution that receives public funding only for education work and touring – the opera festival relies entirely on private money. He will now need to apply the diplomatic skills he has honed during 14 years dealing with sponsors, donors and patrons to fighting the Proms’ corner in the boardrooms of the BBC.

The Proms’ position as “the world’s greatest classical music festival” – as it trumpets itself – will demand maintenance in the programming department and requires a fine balance between the new and risky and the tried and tested. Expectations land on the festival’s shoulders from every direction – some call for more premieres, others for more Mozart; some may demand more BBC tie-ins, while others regard the occasional foray into pop or musicals (each happening about once a season) as the End of the World As We Know It. Pickard must steer a slalom course through all of this.

Then there’s the brave new world online. Almost every year the Proms announces further digital initiatives – this year’s innovation is a Proms App – and Pickard must make sure that they keep pace with the ever-more digitally aware younger audience. Under his direction Glyndebourne was the first UK opera house to stream performances live online for free and to send its productions to cinemas for HD relay. All of this is surely a must for the Proms to consider in the years ahead.

But above all Pickard needs to embrace the scale of vision for the Proms that Wright established. This means not only continuing the mission of bringing world-class classical music to the widest possible audiences. It also means doing so with a flair that can make the finest events an experience to remember for a lifetime.

Meanwhile, there's a very nice job up for grabs in East Sussex. Arts administrators fond of opera, picnics and sheep should form an orderly queue.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Proms Proms Proms



This year's Last Night of the Proms promises to go out on a somewhat surreal note as Danielle de Niese and Jonas Kaufmann lead us all in a SingalongaSoundofMusic. Yes, we get to sing together with Danni and Jonas. And we are instructed to do this wherever we are, whether in the hall or in Birmingham or in the bath.

Moreover, at the press launch t'other day it was confirmed that it is Jonas who gets to sing Rule Britannia and it's all gone wonderfully quiet about him being, like, German. Good to see that he's the World's Greatest Tenor first and only. I hope that this is an indication from the Proms of support for the view that opera is international, music is international, people are international, the Last Night Hall is always full of flags of many, many hues, and fantasy nationalism in the end shall have no dominion.

The programme is up and running now and you can browse it all here. They're having a focus on the piano, big choral works and a heap of Nielsen and Sibelius for the anniversaries, and quite a lot of Mozart. There are 13 BBC commissions among more than 30 new music premieres of one sort or another; Marin Alsop is back to conduct the Last Night; and that evening has another soloist besides the singers, and it is Benjamin Grosvenor, who will play the Shostakovich Second Piano Concerto.

One has a slight sensation that everyone is treading water. The Proms as yet have no permanent new director to replace Roger Wright, who is a very, very hard act to follow. Alan Davey has barely got his feet under the desk as controller of Radio 3, Edward Blakeman is doing his best as the 2015 Proms director under difficult circumstances, the entire BBC has become more than a tad risk-averse of late and meanwhile we're awaiting a new government, to say nothing of the likely effects of the licence fee decision, whatever it may be, which is due next year.

So if there's a certain retrenchment into things like Belshazzar's Feast (opening night), The Dream of Gerontius (with Rattle conducting the Vienna Philharmonic, yes, that's Vienna) and yummy Mozart and Beethoven piano concertos, one can't be wholly surprised. As for the complete Prokofiev piano concertos, with the LSO conducted by Gergiev and starring Daniil Trifonov, his teacher Sergei Babayan and the pianist Alexei Volodin, I for one don't particularly want to hear the five Prokofiev concertos on the same night. It's a circus trick and it's music of which a little goes a long way.

Meanwhile, out there it's Groundhog Day as the one pop-focused event grabs all the headlines. This time the presence of an Ibiza club night is giving people high blood pressure and inducing the opinion that the end of the world is upon us. By this time next year, nobody will remember that. Because last year it was the Pet Shop Boys, and it seems nobody remembers that now. Aren't we used to this yet?

I'm more concerned that there are not very many women conductors other than Marin. There are eight female composers among the premieres. You might consider this a relatively good representation. Then again, you might not.

My top Proms? Sir András Schiff playing the Bach Goldberg Variations late at night; John Eliot Gardiner conducting Monteverdi's L'Orfeo; Yuja Wang playing Bartok's Piano Concerto No.2; Nicky Benedetti playing the Korngold Violin Concerto (only I'm away then); Bryn Terfel in Grange Park Opera's Fiddler on the Roof; and a lunchtime Prom in which pianist Christian Blackshaw will perform the Mozart Quintet for piano and wind instruments with a fine ensemble of colleagues. And probably that Last Night...

Note: I've written another, rather stringsy piece on the programme over at Amati. Thing is, it's not a very stringsy season.

[UPDATE: Earlier I said there isn't a free Prom this time. A kind reader points out that in fact there is, so I've corrected the post. It's Carmina Burana. I think I must have blanked that out. It's my least favourite music ever.]



Sunday, July 20, 2014

Wedges - of several kinds

The thin end of one wedge is webcasting. I was supposed to be in Verbier now. Long boring story about storms, leaks and missed planes. I was planning to hear a tetralogy of my piano gods, and more, but am running after builders instead. Gutted to be missing Ferenc Rados and Grigory Sokolov - the latter still the man I regard as the greatest living pianist, and tragically one we will not hear in the UK any time soon (I understand he refuses to go through the visa rigmaroles that we require). But the good news - if wedgy - is that the concerts these past two nights featuring respectively Martha Argerich and Stephen Kovacevich are available to watch online at Medici TV and tonight's recital by Daniil Trifonov will be webcast live as well. Starts at 6pm. So that's a bit of a comfort. Sokolov, as far as I know, is not due for the webcast line-up.

To cheer myself up for lack of mountains, I took myself off to the Wigmore Hall instead last night to hear the adorable Simon Trpceski in recital. One shouldn't complain about missing a festival elsewhere when there is so much great music to hear right here on the doorstep, and Simon didn't disappoint. His recital of Brahms, Ravel and Poulenc was a marvellous treat and I ended up reviewing it for The Arts Desk, so here is the link.

Last but by no means least, it has come to my attention that some very fine new music at the Proms is being sequestered away on its own website - "an exclusive iPlayer New Music Collection" - rather than enjoying a TV broadcast with proud trumpeting to the nation as a whole, even if the rest of those programmes will indeed be televised. I made an enquiry and received this back:
As you know we're constantly evolving the way we cover the Proms - from the introduction of the newly themed strands on TV through to increased online and Iplayer collections in an ever multi-platform world.  This year we are exploring new ways of curating and presenting the filmed performances across the season with  more Proms than ever before available online, both audio and visual.
 As part of this, and new for 2014,  we are creating an exclusive iPlayer New Music Collection, celebrating all the new music filmed across Proms 2014, bringing it together in one place for our audience with context provided by special filmed introductions by Tom Service. We will be showing the performance of Roxanna Panufnik's Three Paths To Peace in this collection and Jonathan Dove's Gaia piece in this collection. Both pieces will be available on iPlayer as soon as possible after the performance (we hope within a few days) - and will be available to view for longer for the first time, for a special 30 days, giving them access to a wider audience. We will be pointing our audience towards the New Music Collection from all our other platforms, including Proms Extra as soon as they are live...the Proms Extra iPlayer Collection,  and our TV broadcasts.

So apparently it is A GOOD THING that we CAN see good, accessible, listenable, beautiful new music AT ALL, isn't it. Wedge, end, thin.

Shouldn't the BBC be championing British composers to the rooftops? Did someone, somewhere, perhaps consider that the poor old wider public is too stupid to appreciate contemporary music on TV, however enjoyable and downright pertinent it is? Hiding it from wider view sends out an oddly mixed message from an institution that prides itself on supporting today's composers with plentiful commissions. I would put up a link to that "exclusive iPlayer New Music Collection" - only I can't find it.

Roxanna Panufnik's piece about peace opens tonight's Prom. It is the first time her music has been played at the Proms and it's long overdue. Listen live on Radio 3.


Thursday, July 17, 2014

Little at Large: why our busking day changed Tasmin's life

Over at Independent Towers there's a certain pride in this piece. A few years back, when Josh Bell did his famous busking-in-the-Washington-CD-subway experiment, the arts ed called me and said how about we ask Tasmin Little to have a try.

We did; she was, by some miracle, in town and free; and I went along with a notebook and a photographer to document the fun. But what came out was a revelation. It resulted in a light-bulb moment for Tasmin that literally changed her life.

As Tasmin approaches her 20th appearance at the Proms - she is playing the Moeran Violin Concerto on 25 July - I asked her to tell all. here's the full story in today's Independent.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

A landmark year for the Proms?

Here is my preview, from the Radar section of today's Independent, about this year's Proms.  Enjoy...




On 18 July the Royal Albert Hall opens its doors for the annual BBC Promenade Concerts, know simply as The Proms: two months of world-class classical music at which standing places cost just £5 a pop. There is nothing else quite like it – either here or abroad. Once you’ve experienced the queues of ‘promenaders’ snaking down Prince Consort Road with sandwich boxes and comfy shoes, sampled the relaxed but excited atmosphere inside the hall and witnessed evenings as thrilling as last year’s Ring cycle – when thousands listened rapt to Wagner’s gigantic tetralogy at the feet of the conductor Daniel Barenboim – chances are you’ll be hooked too.

The 2014 Proms nevertheless marks the end of an era: Roger Wright, director of the Proms for seven years and controller of BBC Radio 3 since 1998, now ends his tenure as both. His successors – the role is to be split – have yet to be appointed.

The news of Wright’s departure broke in a startling way, with an announcement from Aldeburgh Music (the umbrella organisation behind the Aldeburgh Festival and more) that he is to become their new Chief Executive. The very day after this was revealed, there came a BBC announcement that Bob Shennan, controller of Radio 2, is being appointed as overall director of music right across the BBC. The timing struck many as intriguing. Restructuring is inevitable at the BBC in the current climate, but no one with as fine a track record as Wright’s is likely to be too happy if someone else is brought in over his or her head. Meanwhile, whoever takes over Wright’s roles will undoubtedly have to implement funding cuts and deal with whatever may emerge from the new licence fee settlement in 2016.

Wright bids farewell to the Proms after the opening night. “Elgar’s The Kingdom will be the last music I hear as Proms director,” he says. “I’m sad to be leaving the team, of course, but to have had the fun of working with them, and knowing the Proms are in such safe hands, is terrific.”

He does not mince his words, though, over uncertainties in the future: “The Proms has been singled out for reinvestment, so I think there’s a real understanding of their importance, right at the top of the organisation,” he says, “but the biggest question is the future of the BBC funding overall. We don’t know what the licence fee settlement is going to be in 2016-17 onwards. You can’t separate out the future of anything to do with the BBC from those decisions. That’s a question that’s going to arrive very quickly indeed.”

Music lovers not only in Britain but around the world are hoping against hope that that recognition of the Proms’ significance will survive such changes. For generations of music-lovers summer without the Proms has been as unthinkable as Halloween without pumpkins or Christmas without carols. This year marks the series’ 120th anniversary; it has been run by the BBC since 1927 and resident at the Royal Albert Hall since 1941. And it is not as if the BBC has not made a huge effort to extend its reach. Indeed, never before has the Proms been quite as accessible as it is now.

If you can’t get there in person, not only is every concert broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, but also there are plentiful TV broadcasts and a plethora of online facilities to let you enjoy the performances by a dizzying range of musicians: from the Berlin Philharmonic under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle to the Pet Shop Boys. The latter are creating a new work for orchestra and electronics that pays tribute to Alan Turing, the Bletchley Park computer pioneer who took his own life 60 years ago after a 1952 conviction for homosexual activity destroyed both his personal life and his career. A posthumous royal pardon was granted to him last December. 

There is much to live up at the Proms – especially after the last two years. In 2012 it was absorbed into the Cultural Olympiad and featured some extraordinary moments – whether the arrival of the British athletes at the festivities of the Last Night, or Barenboim walking into the Olympic opening ceremony as one of eight great humanitarian figures carrying the Olympic flag, straight from conducting a Prom.

Last year’s Wagner bicentenary season included concert performances of no fewer than seven of his operas, featuring starry casts that could turn the priciest festivals green with envy. And the Last Night proved a landmark, headed for the first time by a woman conductor, Marin Alsop, her podium festooned with pink balloons. That occasion was double-edged since, as Alsop pointed out in her speech, it was hard to believe such “firsts” were still waiting to happen.

Staging these festivals involved both vision and chutzpah, and paid off handsomely in terms of audience figures: last year’s average attendance was 93% and 57 of 75 main concerts sold out completely. But without quite such special events to raise the roof, can this year’s programme match that success?

The agenda contains just about enough celebration to keep the mood upbeat. The 150th anniversary of Richard Strauss’s birth is marked with three of the composer’s finest operas: Salome, featuring the Swedish star soprano Nina Stemme (last year’s Ring cycle Brünnhilde), followed 24 hours later by Elektra, in which Strauss creates the ultimate in hair-raising musical Expressionism. Earlier in the season, Glyndebourne brings in the cast and crew of its controversial production of Der Rosenkavalier for a semi-staged concert performance.

The World Cup has not necessarily sparked this year’s focus on international orchestras from sometimes surprising places (and will probably have been quietly forgotten by opening night). Still, a record number of them are converging on London, many demonstrating the rapidly burgeoning interest in western classical music in developing countries. Therefore alongside heavyweight visitors such as the Berlin Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra and the Budapest Festival Orchestra, a number of ensembles are making their first-ever visits to the Proms, among them orchestras from Turkey, Iceland, China, South Korea, Lapland, Australia and Qatar.

The latter is a case in point. The Qatar Philharmonic has existed for only seven years and its music director is Han-Na Chang, the former cello prodigy and protegée of Mstislav Rostropovich, who has reinvented herself as a force to be reckoned with on the podium. The orchestra, Chang says, includes musicians of some 30 different nationalities; and its mission statement includes assisting Qatar “on its journey from carbon economy to knowledge economy by unlocking human potential”. Their Prom will include a work by the Iranian-born composer Behzad Ranjbaran. “The musicians are incredibly excited – it’s such a privilege for us to be making our Proms debut,” Chang says.

Ironically, she remarks that “the women conductors issue” was scarcely mentioned when she took up her post; in a country where the orchestral field is so new, western traditional notions of the dominant male maestro have not had a chance to become ingrained. She is one of four women conductors at this year’s Proms, along with Sian Edwards, Rebecca Miller and a return visit from Alsop – not a lot, but a gentle shift in the right direction.

Women are relatively well represented among this year’s composers, notably with a Proms debut for Roxanna Panufnik, a new BBC commission by Judith Weir, London premieres for Sally Beamish and Helen Grime and works by Unsuk Chin and Dobrinka Tabakova. Not least, a late-night Prom is devoted to an appearance by the singer-songwriter Laura Mvula, who has crossed all boundaries with apparent ease. Parity for women composers and conductors remains a long way off, but these are noteworthy steps nonetheless.

Commemoration rather than celebration is the order of the day where the music of World War I is concerned. The tragedy of war has inspired numerous musical masterpieces and the Proms, besides scheduling some of the most famous, such as Britten’s War Requiem, is also airing rare gems such as the Elegy for Strings In Memoriam Rupert Brooke by the Australian composer FS Kelly, who died at the Battle of the Somme, and songs by the much-loved poet and composer Ivor Gurney. One Prom is themed around War Horse, with a visit from the National Theatre’s Handspring Puppets.

British music has long been an enthusiasm of Wright’s and beyond the works associated with World War I there is plenty of it to enjoy, including the Violin Concerto by E J Moeran, a surprise recent hit in the classical charts. The range of UK composers extends from Elgar and Walton to the gritty modernism of Sir Harrison Birtwistle and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, both turning 80 this year.

It has not escaped the notice of the Twitterverse, though, that what the BBC Proms seems to celebrate above all this year is – well, the BBC. Quite a few events draw upon the broadcaster’s wider brand, including a Sports Prom and a CBeebies Prom offering the under-fives early experience in concert-going. Traditionalists have, predictably, been snorting about such things – to say nothing of the bile that still greets the occasional presence of pop musicians in the country’s premier classical festival.

Contrary to those critical of apparent self-aggrandisement in the BBC brand, Wright says that he sees the trend as “hugely positive” in terms of reaching new audiences. “After all,” he points out, “it’s the BBC licence fee payer who pays for the Proms. The range of the audience becomes greater and greater the more we can play in to the Proms reaching different audiences. The Sports Prom is a great example: for a Prom to be live on R5 Live for the first time is a really big deal, as is the late night Battle of the Bands – looking back to the Swing era of the 1930s-40s – which is on Radio 2. It’s always been the agenda to reach new audiences for classical music. That’s absolutely what the Proms do.”

For the moment, it’s time to put any anxiety about the future aside and get ready to enjoy the music. All you need to enjoy the Proms is open ears, an open mind and comfortable shoes.

BBC Promenade Concerts, Royal Albert Hall, opening 18 July. Box office: 0845 401 5040



TOP 15 PROMS CHOICES

Prom 1, 18 July, 7.30pm: Elgar, The Kingdom
BBC Symphony Orchestra & Chorus, BBC National Chorus of Wales, Sir Andrew Davis (conductor), Erin Wall (soprano), Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo-soprano), Andrew Staples (tenor), Christopher Purves (bass-baritone).
Elgar’s biblical oratorio gets the Proms season off to a celestial start in the grand manner.

Prom 4, 20 July, 7.30pm: World Orchestra for Peace, Valery Gergiev (conductor). This designated UNESCO Concert for Peace involves a Proms debut for British composer Roxanna Panufnik, music from Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten and Mahler’s Symphony No.6.

Prom 8, 23 July, 10.15pm: Pet Shop Boys, BBC Singers, BBC Concert Orchestra, Dominic Wheeler (conductor). Featuring world premiere of A Man for the Future, a tribute to Alan Turing by Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe.

Prom 10, 25 July, 7.30pm: BBC Philharmonic, Juanjo Mena (conductor), Tasmin Little (violin). A British programme featuring Walton’s Variations on a Theme by Hindemith, Moeran’s Violin Concerto, the London premiere of David Horne’s Daedalus in Flight and Elgar’s Enigma Variations.

Prom 16, 29 July, 6.30pm: Borustan Istanbul Philharmonic, Sascha Goetzel (conductor), Daniel Hope (violin). Turkey’s leading orchestra in its Proms debut, including the world premiere of the new Violin Concerto by Gabriel Prokofiev (grandson of Sergei).

Prom 21, 2 August, 7.30pm: Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate, featuring the John Wilson Orchestra conducted by John Wilson. The fizz of this classic musical should build on the success of musicals at the Proms in past years.

Prom 33, 10 August, 7.45pm: National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, Edward Gardner (conductor), Louis Schwizgebel (piano). The UK’s finest youth orchestra in a dazzling programme of Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Birtwistle and Lutoslawski, with the dynamic Ed Gardner on the podium and rising star pianist Louis Schwizgebel as soloist.

Prom 42, 17 August, 7.30pm: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Andrew Manze (conductor), Allan Clayton (tenor), Roderick Williams (baritone). A World War I tribute programme featuring music by Rudi Stephan, Butterworth, Vaughan Williams and the searingly beautiful Elegy for strings, in memoriam Rupert Brooke by FS Kelly.

Prom 46, 20 August, 7.30pm: West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim (conductor). Barenboim returns to the Proms with his famous orchestra that brings together Arabic and Israeli musicians. Along with music by Mozart and Ravel they perform the UK premieres of works by Kareem Roustom and Ayal Adler.

Proms 52 and 53, 25 (7.30pm) and 26 August (7pm): Budapest Festival Orchestra, Iván Fischer (conductor). The sleek, sophisticated and fresh-thinking Budapest ensemble return for two Proms: a mixed programme including Schubert, Dvorák and Kodály, and the next night an all-Brahms concert.

Proms 58 and 59, 30 and 31 August (7.30pm): Strauss opera weekend - Salome and Elektra. Nina Stemme stars as Salome, with the Deutsche Oper Berlin and conductor Donald Runnicles. For Elektra the BBC Symphony Orchestra and conductor Semyon Bychkov are joined by a cast including Christine Goerke in the title role, Johan Reuter and Dame Felicity Palmer.

Proms Chamber Music 7, 1 September, 1pm, Cadogan Hall: Benjamin Grosvenor (piano). The gifted young British pianist performs music by Chopin, Mompou, Ravel and Gounod/Liszt, and the world premiere of Judith Weir’s new BBC commission Day Break Shadows Flee.

Prom 66, 6 September, 7pm: Berliner Philharmoniker, Berlin Radio Choir, Sir Simon Rattle (conductor), Mark Padmore (tenor), Christian Gerhaher (baritone), Camilla Tilling (soprano), Magdalena Kozena (mezzo-soprano), Topi Lehtipuu (tenor), Eric Owens (bass). An all-star performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion.

Prom 67, 7 September, 3.30pm. Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra, Han-Na Chang (conductor), Denis Matsuev (piano). The phenomenally gifted Han-Na Chang, cellist turned conductor, is at the helm for this young orchestra’s Proms debut, featuring music by Behzad Ranjbaran, Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky.

Prom 74, 11 September, 10.15pm. Singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright joins forces with the Britten Sinfonia and conductor Johannes Debus for a late-night Prom of his own brand of ‘baroque pop’