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.]

Thursday, April 23, 2015

More on ENO & British opera

Further to my post this morning, in which I grumbled about the lack of British operas beyond G&S in the new ENO season, I've got some more depressing information. I'm reliably informed that the company was planning to put on a major work by an important living British composer, but that this had to be abandoned at an advanced stage - because of the funding cuts. As you'll remember, the ACE slashed ENO's grant by a shocking 29 per cent and removed it from the national portfolio. And so they can't do a big piece by a big Brit. This seems to me very much like the ACE shooting itself in both feet at the same time.

I'd also like to make it clear that ENO has a terrific track record of supporting British music - just a few of its recent productions have included Vaughan Williams's Pilgrim's Progress, plenty of great Britten but especially that amazing Peter Grimes, the triumph of Julian Anderson's Thebans, and the premiere this month of Tansy Davies's Between Worlds. The list could continue. It's precisely because of that track record that I find it so disappointing that there isn't anything to match it in 2015-16. New opera commissioned from Ryan Wigglesworth is due in 2017.

Find your voices?

The announcement of ENO's new season got off to a slightly flummoxed start yesterday at a press conference in which questions from the floor were short-circuited before they could begin. There was a determined speech from artistic director John Berry about leaving the past behind and looking to the future; a thoughtful and convincing defence of opera in English from the incoming music director Mark Wigglesworth; a few words from the acting CEO Cressida Pollock; and a short introductory film that began with blood being daubed upon someone's forehead, whether on or off I'm not sure. Then we were ushered out for tea and questions in corners. Berry was mobbed; the wonderful Wigglesworth was left hovering. Innovations for the season include price reductions on 50 per cent of tickets - some 60,000 seats priced at £20 or under - and a new partnership with Streetwise Opera, which works closely with vulnerable adults and community groups; and, of course, the new music director.

It's a fine spread of repertoire, beginning with a revival of The Magic Flute and featuring new productions of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk directed by Dmitri Tcherniakov, La forza del destino directed by Calixto Bieito, Glass's Akhnaten from Phelim McDermott, a new Boheme with Benedict Andrews in the driving seat and, best of all, a new Tristan (more of which in a moment). Revivals include Jenufa, The Mikado, Madam Butterfly, The Barber of Seville and an import of Opera North's Norma.

In a new season in which 88 per cent of the singers and conductors are either British, British trained or British resident, the 12 per cent who are not have attracted rather a lot of attention. Putting aside the reasons for which some people might consider this such a bad thing (mainly because I'm not sure what they are) I'm more curious about the match of operatic repertoire with the sort of voices that might be booked to sing in it, and how those voices come into being in the first place.

Stuart Skelton. Bring him on!
For me, the season highlight is the new Tristan and Isolde, in June 2016, to be conducted by Ed Gardner, designed by Anish Kapoor, directed by Daniel Kramer and starring Stuart Skelton (Australian) and Heidi Melton (American). Please forgive me if I'm missing something, but I would pretty much kill to hear Skelton sing Tristan and I don't give a four-x about where he comes from. Karen Cargill is Brangane and Matthew Rose King Marke, besides Gardner back in the pit, so it's not like no Brits are represented.

Besides, why should it be a bad thing to hear Xian Zhang conducting, or the glorious Corinne Winters as Mimi in La Boheme, or to explore the ever-controversial Bieito's concept for Forza (it's set, we're told, in the Spanish Civil War and features brilliant Rinat Shaham, liberated from her serial Carmens, as the mezzo-soprano who takes on that crazy war aria)? Opera is an international art. It always was, it always will be - deity-of-choice willing.

There are unquestionably some fine British singers who could take those roles. It's just that there don't appear to be very many of them. Longborough has been enjoying the voices of two remarkable British spinto-dramatic sopranos, Lee Bisset and Rachel Nicholls, in their Wagner productions; both are singing Isolde there this summer. I was lucky enough to hear a lovely young soprano with Wagnerian leanings, Lauren Fielder, in the Royal Northern College of Music's Gold Medal Competition last year, but she is still in her twenties and may not be ready for a full-blown Isolde for a while.

Ditto Ed Lyon and David Butt Philip, two notable and fantastic emerging voices, but ones who maybe could use more years under the belt before tackling a vocal marathon of that ilk, if indeed they ever grow to suit it. Longborough's Tristans are Peter Wedd (who had a fine impact as Lohengrin at WNO a couple of years ago) and Neal Cooper, whose uncle was apparently a heavyweight boxing champion. But to take on a whole run of Tristan in the biggest theatre in London, a singer has to be (a) ready, (b) willing and (c) free at the right time. Longborough is another story: a theatre that seats a modest 500-or-so, with a covered pit not quite a-la-Bayreuth and a reduced orchestra, puts less potential strain on the voice.

Dramatic-voiced singers don't grow on trees and not many appear to be growing in our indigenous woodland just now. A huge proportion of the advanced students - indeed, postgrads in general - in our conservatoires are from overseas. Meanwhile, young singers going through school and university are likely to be honed in the good old British choral tradition. This entails a pure, streamlined and rather small sound, with passion quelled in favour of spirituality and individuality in favour of blendability. It takes a very long time for a singer to get this tradition out of his/her system (usually 'his', because that's how the choirs are set up). Many British tenors seem to have started out this way, whether as boy choristers or choral scholars at Oxbridge.

Note that the really great British Wagnerites don't have that background. Bryn Terfel spent his childhood in farm gear rather than a cassock; Sir John Tomlinson was never exactly a choirboy type, training as a construction engineer before turning to singing at 21. Most of the other UK nationals who made a serious name in this repertoire are female - Anne Evans, Gwyneth Jones, Jane Eaglen...Today Catherine Foster, who sings leading Wagner roles at Bayreuth yet remains virtually unknown in her native UK, was a nurse and midwife for some 15 years before switching to music.

We do need more opportunities for young British singers, but we can't expect them to appear as if by magic, or to suit every opera that comes their way - and besides, having done our level best at conservatoire level to attract fine students from overseas to our expensive UK training, we can't then shut them out when it comes to professional engagements. And why should opera-lovers be denied the chance to hear singers such as Melton and Skelton just because they're not British? Perhaps we need to look at the entire picture of how our singers are raised and trained.

Back at ENO, more worth worrying about is the shortage of actual British repertoire in the new season. Beyond the ever-popular Gilbert and Sullivan, there's no other opera by a UK composer in the schedule. Not a Britten, a Delius, a Tippett. a Birtwistle, a Turnage, an Ades, an anything. If there really is an omission in the season, that is the one to grumble about. It's not like there's nothing out there to choose. If ENO is to continue to hold its own as British International Opera they could do worse than consistently support actual British music.

[update, 1.42pm: please see my post here for more on the British music programming - the situation is unfortunately worse than we thought...]

Here's Skelton in an extract from Britten's Peter Grimes.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Long live King Roger!

Karol Szymanowski's operatic masterpiece is coming up at the Royal Opera House next week, and not a moment too soon. My God, what an impossibly gorgeous score it is. I nearly died of joy the first time I heard it. So I had a chat with its director, Kasper Holten - and wasn't sorry to hear about his passion for early 20th-century opera, or the fact that one of his happiest experiences to date was with Korngold's Die tote Stadt (his production, for the Finnish National Opera, is on DVD).

Tony Pappano conducts, the wonderful Mariusz Kwiecień is the King, Georgia Jarman is Queen Roxana and the production opens 1 May. NB the live streaming on the Internet on 16 May.

Here's my piece from today's Independent.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Dinosaurs, brainwashing and bunkum...

The other day I came across the expression "Music shouldn't be a Museum Culture" just once too often. I've got out my Amati Soapbox to explain why I think this clichéd phrase is a daft bit of pernicious brainwashing idiocy...