Friday, June 02, 2017

Happy birthday to Sir Mark Elder!

Sir Mark Elder. Photo: (c) Chris Christodoulou

Sir Mark Elder, music director of the Hallé Orchestra, is 70 today.

Last night he conducted the Manchester 'We Stand Together' Concert, a massed-orchestra event that was pulled together at the Bridgewater Hall in less than a week to fundraise for the families of victims and the injured of the Manchester Arena terrorist attack. The Hallé, the Manchester Camerata and the BBC Philharmonic joined forces and among their soloists were mezzo-soprano Alice Coote, vocalist Clare Teal and Elbow front-man Guy Garvey. Tickets were free and the Manchester Evening News reports: "Elder and his orchestra looked visibly moved by the rapturous applause and cheers to the variety of musical works on the programme".

Time and again, Elder has taken a stand, taken a lead and been given the kudos his stirring, sterling music-making deserves. There's always room for more, too. Let's raise a glass to him today.

Thursday, June 01, 2017

Good for Goode

Richard Goode. Photo: Steve Riskind
Richard Goode cast Beethoven and Chopin in a long shaft of light from Bach's most audacious and complex keyboard Partita, No.6 in E minor. I reviewed his recital in the Southbank's International Piano Series last night for The Arts Desk. Read it here. 


With Goode, a recital is all about the music (that might sound like stating the obvious, but one can’t guarantee it with every pianist these days). The veteran American has an unassuming stage presence, taking to the piano as if sitting down to demonstrate a musical point to friends in his own living room. There is nothing flamboyant in his manner, nor in his musical concepts: simply the sense that he has lived with this music for decades and is pleased to play it for us. He uses a well-thumbed score and a page-turner; no Lisztian feats of memory, and no iPad. The magic is in the tone itself...

PS: Goode turns 74 today. Happy birthday to a much-loved maestro of the piano.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

A Brit at the Cliburn

I nearly went to the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition this year, but there were a few scheduling clashes. so I'm missing the fun, to say nothing of the Texas margaritas. There is, however, a splendid alternative: live streaming, plus watch-on-demand afterwards. And the finals are being relayed into cinemas on 10 June.

The sole British contestant, Martin James Bartlett (left) - the 20-year-old formerly a BBC Young Musician of the Year - is through to the quarter-finals and played yesterday. You can catch his performance and all the others thanks to brilliant Medici.tv at this link: http://cliburn2017.medici.tv/en/

For fellow pianophiles on Brexit Island wishing to follow Martin in particular, here's his performance yesterday: Scarlatti, Granados, Schumann/Liszt and Prokofiev 7th Sonata. http://cliburn2017.medici.tv/en/performance/-20

The quarter-finals continue today and tomorrow, with the semis scheduled for 1 June. Stay tuned.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Abstract? Is anything?

Zenaida Yanowsky in Symphonic Dances: angels, demons and revolution?
Photo: (c) Emma Kauldhar courtesy of Royal Opera House

I've been away for a bit, but before I went I hot-footed it to Covent Garden to see Liam Scarlett's new ballet, set to the Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances. How many times have I sat in concerts, listening to this piece and quietly imagining a dream-ballet of my own to it, while the orchestra creates a choreography too, breathing together as if formed into a single coiled dragon? Finally someone got round to making it real.

Zenaida Yanowsky is a towering presence in more than one way. This creation is in some ways a farewell tribute to her, making the most of her unique qualities. The tallest, most commanding of the Royal Ballet's prima ballerinas - and sadly for us, about to retire - she can hold the stage with nothing more than a turn of the head or an implacable gaze. And, in this case, a billowing red skirt, designed by Jon Morrell. Whirling its scarlet wings, alone in what looks like a dimly lit warehouse with iron grill over the window, she conjures the ballet into life. It is all scarlet and black - how could this music be anything else? - and supposedly abstract.

What is abstract ballet, anyway? Balanchine is the epitome of it, as is Ashton's Symphonic Variations: music made visible, perhaps. The body is stripped not of its soul, but of its independence: physicality and sound merge into one expressive whole. There is no human tale to tell. The dancers become the choreographer's tool, nothing more. I remember interviewing one leading dancer who seemed almost horrified at the idea that he might have any input of his own into the work the choreographer created upon him; I also recall taking to Manon an American friend who had grown up on Balanchine and the NYCB and was aghast at the notion that a ballet could be about drama and not purely dancing.

Zenaida Yanowsky and James Hay.
Photo: (c) Bill Cooper
Perhaps it's in the conditioning - the conditioning of mind, that is, not muscle. Those of us who first met ballet through The Sleeping Beauty, Romeo and Juliet or Swan Lake early on became used to regarding a dancer on stage as someone human yet superhuman, a being with personality, but also with magical, transformative powers. There would be a background, too: Verona, a central European forest, or a lake of tears, suggested implicitly via a prince lost in the trees, or by a few hints in the scenery.

Therefore, when you see Yanowsky amid her red cloud, ferocity blazing out in the music, the image matches the sound to perfection. But what does it mean? Does it mean anything? Can it not mean something? Another kind of Zen would suggest "Don't think of a monkey"... So don't think of a story for this Zen. But how can we not?

Rachmaninoff, 1940. America. The emigré, the refugee, the exile. Remembering. Transforming. New attitudes, new worlds, chaotic memories. Old worlds, gone forever. In the first movement, energy explodes: figures run, groups form and shatter. There's athleticism, with an undertow of alarm. It's 2017, the anniversary of the 1917 Russian Revolution: hard not to remember that when faced with this music by one who fled. So is this revolution? Yanowsky settles from her demonic scarlet flight into a serene, almost immobile presence, to whom a young man (the excellently expressive James Hay) shrugs up and expounds idea upon idea as the saxophone melody unfurls. Is That Skirt a symbol of her status, her past, her separateness? Is she remembering, living or anticipating? Is she the spirit of revolution itself, inspiring them? Slowly she begins to engage with Hay; the dialogue becomes a duet. The meaning is in the eye of the beholder, but the images trigger free association. Grand skirt - aristocracy? Old Russia faced with violent transformation? One world meets another?

Waltz. What's happened to the skirt? Yanowsky is in something that looks like a tuxedo redux. She is surrounded by an all-male corps de ballets, and guess who's wearing derivatives of the skirt? If it's startling for a moment, we soon get used to it - the imagery is striking, groups massing and splitting and breathing together like that orchestra, the whirls of material enhanced by the visceral power of their wearers. The iron grill has been replaced by a giant screen on which images from those red swirls are sampled and projected. Is the skirt a symbol of power, transferred from princess to the people? Is Yanowsky, the sole woman, under threat here? Or is she, skirt-free, liberated, in command of them?


Yanowsky and Reece Clarke.
Photo: (c) Emma Kauldhar, courtesy of ROH

Rachmaninoff wrote the Symphonic Dances in the US in 1940: it was his last work. He corresponded with the choreographer Mikhail Fokine about turning it into a ballet (a thrilling prospect later scuppered by the choreographer's death in 1942). The Second World War was underway, though the US had not yet joined it and Russia would only be invaded the following year. Rachmaninoff, having lived for a while in Switzerland, had left Europe on the outbreak of war and was now in exile in Long Island. He drew on his deeply Russian nature, which had always infused every dimension of his music, but the energy of the US and the pent-up creativity that he had had to subordinate to his performing duties seem to have thrown a bolt of electricity into his orchestral writing. The last movement can be a cataclysm that leaves you hanging over the abyss.

But here, has our princess moved to America? Costumes are reduced to swimsuit size; the men and the women share and share alike; there's a thrill of athleticism and slightly Olympian poses here and there - shades of the Olympic games, Leni Riefensthal, Soviet parades? And Yanowsky has found a third partner who now suits her seemingly to perfection (he is the splendid Reece Clarke). Yet not all is resolved in this new world, for at the end, a peculiar coup de théatre involves a final escape, at least one hopes it does.

We all make our own stories, quietly, observing a creation like this. More than fifteen hundred of them a night in a theatre the size of the ROH. It's part of the joy of it that we don't know exactly what is going on, that perhaps nothing is, that perhaps all these processes are within ourselves, sparked by the images, the synergy of music, movement and aesthetics. So try the "don't think of a monkey" trick and see if you can treat this ballet as what it supposedly is: abstract.

The new Scarlett was part of a singularly satisfying quadruple bill at the Royal Ballet. The evening opened with William Forsythe's The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude. Five dancers and one very brave orchestra tackle the finale of Schubert's Symphony No.9 in movement that lives up to its impressive title. Basically, they don't stop. The movement is hyperactive, but each switch as clear as spring water; the glorious Marianela Nuñez in particular deserves every gold medal in town for making it look spacious and unhurried despite all. (It's only a pity that they are clad in eye-aching lime green and purple, which reminded me of a faulty colour TV my parents had in the 1970s). The tempo is fast. Very fast. The orchestra, plunging straight in, should probably get a medal too, along with their splendid conductor, Koen Kessels.

Francesca Hayward in Tarantella.
Photo: (c) Emma Kauldhar, courtesy of ROH
We were then treated to the enchanting spectacle of the company's youngest, newest and perhaps most exciting partnership: Francesca Hayward and Marcelino Sambé, dancing Tarantella, a joyous, irrepressible slice of south Italian pastiche by Balanchine, set to some virtuoso Gottschalk. I suspect the entire house lost its heart to these two wonderful young people, who spent most of their spotlight moment simply airborne in body and soul.

The one explicitly narrative ballet in the programme was Christopher Wheeldon's Strapless, an intriguing idea indeed. It tells the story of how one of John Singer Sargent's society models, Amélie, was shamed and ruined by a portrait which depicted her clad in an exquisite black evening dress with one glittery strap slipping loose down one shoulder. The hypocrisy of a society that could destroy a woman for such a gesture, while simultaneously enjoying the spectacle of the can-can or indulging in extra-marital affairs both straight and gay, is much to the fore and has resonances aplenty for our own Age of Twits. Natalia Osipova brought the full force of her dramatic powers to bear on the unfortunate society beauty, but what a pity there was not more for Edward Watson to do as Sargent: presented with a dancer of such phenomenal abilities, you'd like him to be asked to use more of them. The storytelling is fine and convincingly worked, but the whole falls a little short of one's hopes. Mark-Anthony Turnage's score is full of excellent things: rich orchestration resonant with percussion and fine perspective. Yet the clash of modern music and the period piece on stage can raise some questions: supposing Wheeldon had used music of the time and place instead, say a spot of Chausson, Fauré and/or Debussy? This is a tale for today, he seems to say - but the score bops us on the head with that idea one time too many.

And that's where the abstract wins. If there's a story, it will speak to each of us in its own way. We'll find it for ourselves.

Last performance tomorrow: http://www.roh.org.uk/mixed-programmes/the-vertiginous-thrill-of-exactitude-tarantella-strapless-symphonic-dances


Tuesday, May 23, 2017

A call from King Marke of Curtis

The Curtis Institute Orchestra comes to London on Friday

Fans of youth orchestras have a chance on Friday to hear one with quite a difference. It's the orchestra of the Curtis Institute from Philadelphia and, most unusually, they're on tour. Curtis is the Philadelphia music school celebrated for having trained what's often called the "crème de la crème" of young musicians. They're coming to London, playing at Cadogan Hall. The programme includes Strauss's Ein Heldenleben and Peter Serkin is the soloist in Brahms's Piano Concerto No.1 - this phenomenal American musician is another all-too-rare visitor to these shores. Osmo Vänskä conducts. Book here.

I was just wondering what to do about all this (I can't go as I'll be away seeing a person about a recording) when in popped a message from Matthew Rose, King Marke and Baron Ochs extraordinaire, himself a Curtis alumnus. Here's his call to attention:

Matthew Rose
On Friday May 26th, the Symphony Orchestra of the Curtis Institute takes to the stage at Cadogan Hall, London. It's an event I highly recommend you to attend. As in, this is one of the greatest concerts you could hear all year. 

"But what is this Curtis Institute?" I hear you cry. Well, it's probably the greatest music college on the planet. The place that probably trains more of the solo pianists, violinists, orchestral concert masters, principal clarinettists, Met Opera singers, composers, and conductors than any other institution in the world. From my time studying there alone, Lang Lang, Yuja Wang, and Jonathan Biss are at the forefront of pianists; the concert masters of Vienna Philharmonic, Atlanta Symphony, Met Opera Orchestra, Minneapolis Symphony, Indianapolis Symphony and soloists with every reputed orchestra. Juan Diego Florez is the most famous of the swaths of singers who have trained there; Leonard Bernstein, Samuel Barber, Lukas Foss, Jennifer Higdon some of the most adorned composers etc.
It is an amazing place.

Founded by Mary Louise Curtis Bok in 1924, on the advise of Leopold Stokowski, Curtis was formed to train the exceptional, exceptionally. A music school of 170 students, only enough instrumentalists for a full seating of a Symphony Orchestra, 25 singers, undergraduate and graduate, whom train and perform 5 fully staged operas a year and a handful of pianists, composers, organists and conductors. A place where tuition is aimed at people reaching their own (world leading) potential in technical ability through the best teaching and then having the chance to utilise that in limitless performance opportunities, be it individually, orchestrally with the world's best conductors or in chamber music and opera. 
"So why have I never heard of this Curtis then?" Well, Curtis has existed only to train the exceptional exceptionally and hasn't had, until recently, an agenda to do anything else but that. A recent gift of $55m from out-going chairman of the board Nina Von Maltzahn to specifically spread the word of Curtis and allow tours like this present one to happen has changed that. 
Curtis's Lenfest Hall. Photo: Tom Crane
Curtis was initially housed in adjoining mansions on Rittenhouse Square, the sparkling jewel of Philadelphia's urban spaces. In 2011 a new Lenfest Hall more than doubled the footprint of the school, housing a world class orchestral rehearsal space, teaching rooms and all the amenities needed for youngsters embarking on the most demanding of professions. 
Again, it is a remarkable place.
I had the extreme good fortune of attending Curtis from 1998 until 2003. I arrived as a complete novice with barely the ability to sing an octave and left ready enough to join the Young Artists Programme at The Royal Opera, feeling completely ready, through my amazing education, to at least stand in the shadows of the world's great singers on that most amazing stage. My education was as thorough and comprehensive as I could ever imagine; singing lessons every week in New York with the best teacher I could choose (no faculty for voice, just limitless options), language and musical coaching with top professionals on a daily basis, singing roles in 21 operas, weekly visits to the Met, Carnegie Hall, and best of all, a free ticket to hear the fabulous Philadelphia Orchestra every Saturday evening. 

I went from someone who had barley been to a symphony orchestra concert, to someone ready to sing with those orchestras in five years. I feel so privileged to have had all this, and do you know what, it was all for free. Mrs Curtis Bok's initial endowment has grown and been supplemented by time, enthusiasm and massively generous and deserving support and philanthropy. 
If you are free on Friday, try and get to Cadogan Hall. On stage will be 100 of the finest musicians you will ever hear, and the average age will probably be 20. 20 year olds playing with ability and commitment rarely heard. 
Curtis really is amazing. Go find out for yourself.

Matthew Rose