Saturday 28 April 2012

Impossible Brilliance: The Music of Conlon Nancarrow

Last weekend’s festival of music by Conlon Nancarrow at London's Southbank Centre marked the centenary of his birth and included a chance to hear his complete Studies for Player Piano.  Yours truly went to almost the whole lot, plus the closing recital by the Arditti Quartet, and my report on the weekend can be read at Classical Source.  If Nancarrow’s music is new to you, try the video above for starters.

Tuesday 24 April 2012

Sonata Movements: an experiment in "concert theatre"

Words and music haven’t always got on too well.  In spoken theatre and film, music always plays the supporting role.  Song makes words into music.  In opera (particularly the baroque ones), you could remove most of the words and still be in the same place.  But what if the abstraction of one coexisted with the concrete of the other?  If we could take great works of the classical instrumental repertoire and partner them to great drama, what would the effect be? 

Photo: Dougie Firth

This is a question that pianist An-Ting Chang tackles, together director Jude Christian, in Sonata Movements, an AT Concert Theatre production at Camberwell's Blue Elephant Theatre.  Chang has carefully matched works by Schubert, Chopin, Prokofiev and Beethoven with four dramatic scenes.  The music - sometimes fragmented but often flowing – sits beside the drama, wrapping itself around its characters and text.   Rather than distract from the action, it fits immaculately with the unfolding drama and Sonata Movements' actors respond to Chang's live performance with effortless sensitivity.

Each scene regards the music it partners slightly differently.  Abortive, Caryl Churchill's 1971 radio play, connects small musical gestures with words: "When the phone rings" is spoken seconds before the reappearance of the disquieting trilling figure that haunts the first movement of Schubert final Piano Sonata, D.960; we hear "dropped away" as Schubert's bass modulates downwards.  It could be a cheap effect, but actors Tiffany Wood and Mark Denham never break their flow to signpost it; it is simply a point of contact between words and notes, there to be found if we wish.

Darren Douglas-Letts's kindhearted teenager argues with his own incidental music (Chopin), disputing its version of his story in Kenneth Emson's Other People's Gardens.  His William watches aged Sylvia (Mary Sheen) sitting alone in her home; Chang's use of snatches of Chopin's piano works reveals a humor few would guess the Polish composer's music possessed.  T.S. Eliot's Portrait of a Lady resounds to the spiky tumult of Prokofiev's 3rd Piano Sonata while James Northcote's topped hatted bachelor remonstrates with its disruptions as though music and pianist were another character in the room, undermining his argument.

Finally, Jonathan Newth's veteran actor Svetlovidov, sozzled and sorrowful, recalls his past theatrical glories in Chekhov's 'dramatic etude' Swan Song.  The awed and enamored theatre-prompt Nikitushka spurs on his reenactment of his greatest roles - Lear, Hamlet, Boris Godunov - to the actor's mounting delight.  Chang brings to the surface fragments of Beethoven sonata movements - a literature to match Svetlovidov's fine repertoire - and the actor turns to the music, as though drawing on his own inner monologue to find inspiration.

Newth's actor is the final delight in a series of outstanding performances, brought even more alive by The Blue Elephant's petite but resonant space.  Each piece uncovers a little more of the stage: the man and woman of Abortive confined to - and divided by - the covered piano; Other People's Gardens placing its characters on either side of the room; finally, Swan Song giving Svetlovidov full reign of his actorly domain.  Always present is the piano: companion, commentator and conversationalist.  Chang and Christian, together with their actors, have created a genuine blend of both arts, sensitive to the demands of music and drama and genuinely illuminating of both.

Sonata Movements continues at Blue Elephant Theatre, London, until  5th May.

Friday 20 April 2012

Sieidi: Kalevi Aho's new percussion concerto

Photo: Marco Borggreve

A new percussion concerto from one of Finland’s most prolific composers arrived at London’s Royal Festival Hall on Wednesday.  Kalevi Aho’s Sieidi was written for Colin Currie (pictured), who joined the London Philharmonic for its world premiere.   I went along for Classicalsource:
Sieidi, from the northern Finnish language Samí, is the word for an ancient cult or ritual place and Aho thinks Luosto was probably used for this purpose.  Ritual is the overriding force in the concerto, whether in the pounding opening or in the frenzied solos given to the percussionist as he moves around the stage.  Aho has the soloist move from hand-beaten drums to instruments of pitch (marimba; vibraphone) to tam-tam, then back again in sequence.  It's not all vigorous and primitive: on reaching the marimba, the soloist seems to tame the previously restless orchestra; later, crystalline bowed vibraphone marks the point of furthest retreat from the clatter.”

Monday 16 April 2012

Don't blame the bloggers

“One of the things that we as critics are involved in, which bloggers and internet writers are not, particularly bloggers, is our relationship to our industry.  A piece I read in The Observer... said ‘Culture needs gamekeepers to protect it from the hoi polloi.’”

This statement is from Hilary Finch’s Radio 3 Sunday Feature To Listen Well (UK users can listen again for one week).  Finch is a music critic for The Times and her often fascinating programme examined the role and worth of music criticism, with interjections from other newspaper critics.  A lot of what Finch and her guests had to say about the business rang true with my experiences, but the programme ended up giving an airing to a lot of the usual journo snobberies about bloggers and online reviewers, without any balancing voices from the so called “new media”.  Of course, it’s in the interests of the print media types to talk themselves up at the expense of the “competition”, but the truth is that there are no easy distinctions between pros and ams anymore.  Just about all of the newspapers (The Times being the exception) make their reviews available freely online and open to (blog-style) comments.  Bloggers (such as On an Overgrown Path and Classical Iconoclast) often cover the sort of subjects that the newspapers can barely find space for these days.  And you can read Finch's comment about involvement in the industry as you like.

So what do they mean by “bloggers”, anyway? The distinction falls apart further when one looks at the breadth of people out there, happily blogging away.  We have in our numbers: newspaper critics; former record industry people; music academics; musicians; young writers, trying to get a foot hold in an industry that doesn’t want to pay anymore.  The simple truth is that there are good critics; there are bad critics.  There are good bloggers; there are bad bloggers.  They all stand and fall by the quality of what they do, so let’s judge them on those grounds, and not by where their writing appears.      

Saturday 7 April 2012

Things to do in Vienna when you're dead

I couldn't visit Vienna without making the pilgrimage to see Beethoven, Brahms and Schubert in their final resting places. Luckily, the Zentralfriedhof is on the line out to the airport, making a visit to Vienna's central cemetery very easy. You've got to have the legs for it, though: the cemetery covers a slightly larger area than the city centre and, if you walk from one side to the other, like I did with my suitcase, you'll get a good workout to boot. Luckily for you, I took some snaps of the composers I found.

Mozart's memorial. Mozart is actually buried up the road, near a big motorway junction. Yes, we do know where he is buried, though the precise plot isn't known.

Beethoven, sitting just behind the Mozart memorial and next to Schubert. The two were exhumed from their original graves and reburied here in the late nineteenth century. Apparently, Bruckner had to be dragged away from their corpses. Nice.


Schubert, to the right of Beethoven's grave.

Brahms, looking a bit worried, as you'd expect.

Hugo Wolf, looking a little like he'd expected there to be the body of a muscle man painted below the hole for his head.

An appropriately modernist grave for Arnold Schoenberg.

Zemlinsky, with the shiniest grave in the cemetery.