Classical Music Buzz
Jessica Duchen's Classical Music & Ballet Blog. Novelist/journalist JD writes for The Independent, London. JDCMB contains sugar, spice and ginger, but is currently gluten-free.
Verdi bicentenary: Anja Harteros and Jonas...
It's Verdi's bicentenary today and as everyone is choosing their favourite bits, here is one of mine. I've been lucky enough to hear these two in this opera twice this year - once at Covent Garden, once in Munich. Life in music just doesn't get any better than that.
2 months ago
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The post-war world and the Darmstadt effect
I've spent the weekend at
The Rest is Noise at the Southbank
, hoping to learn something about the post-war years and
. I'm sure I'm not the only one who's found this the single most tricky patch of 20th-century music history, and I reckoned that if this panoply of talks, films and concerts wasn't going to sort that out for me, then nothing would.
I got a lot more than I bargained for.
It's not every day you have the chance to hear things from the horse's mouth, and the horses in question were Schoenberg's daughter,
, and the composer
. The event started a little late; it was such a beautiful day that they'd decided to walk over to the South Bank together.
Lachenmann expressed an objection to the part of the book-behind-the-series devoted to the so-called Darmstadt School. First, he says, it doesn't mention
. But moreover, he insisted that the aura of myths and fear and domination that in contemporary music seem to surround the name Darmstadt are just that: myths. Probably based on a couple of things that Boulez might have said once, a long time ago. Stockhausen annointed the saviour of the future of music? Boulez the dominant force? Only one type of music can be allowed? Rubbish. Stockhausen was one of many people with many contrasting ideas. The place was filled with composers whose ideas were fundamentally different from one another, he declared, recalling, too, perfectly civilised discussions between Cage and Nono. How myths are built, what they consist of, what they do to our perception - these all need more consideration.
Nuria Schoenberg-Nono recalled her father's concern (NB he died in 1951) about the trend towards analysing serialist technique ahead of concern for expression, since he considered his music expressive. Asked (by muggins, who was tired of only blokes asking the questions) what she thought he'd have made of the musical world today, she said she has never tried to get inside the minds of either her father or her husband, but she does think that the standards of performance now have risen so much that a work such as his piano concerto or violin concerto can by played like music, rather than as a technical struggle.
But what constitutes expressiveness in music anyway? Lachenmann cast powerful perspective on this. (I personally don't agree with him about Rachmaninov - the idea that R is sentimental is a myth in the
direction - but never mind that for now...). Essentially, he suggested that emotional response lies in the listener, not the music itself. He says that a composer doesn't write to express his/her own emotion - you are not crying while you write, as you are in a ferment of creative activity. Any emotion involved comes from the person listening. The import is in the message, not the way it is conveyed. As an example, he said, if you tell someone, "Your father is dead," you don't fill those four words with huge expressive import. You say it
. The person receiving the message will respond with feeling of their own.
(This explains to me exactly why I loathe so much the exaggerated interpretations of certain of today's terribly successful performers. They get in the way of the music's message. I could name a few, but this is probably not the moment.)
One gentleman in the audience shared his own memories of Darmstadt and remarked that in contrast to a summer school in the States, the food at the German organisation was absolutely terrible and gave him very bad poisoning once. If the food had been better, he said, the whole history of music might have been altered thenceforth. Nuria pointed out that in the post-war years there wasn't very much food in Germany, and recalled an incident in which a sack of potatoes was delivered to Darmstadt, yet the person in charge of catering had never seen a sack of potatoes before, so cooked them without washing them.
There's the rub: the effect of the war. We know, in theory, that the association of marching rhythms with Nazi jackboots, the use of Wagner, Bruckner and Beethoven in Goebbels's propaganda, the building of a sense of supremacy through these great romantic masterpieces, all that was seared into the minds of the young people who saw it happening around them, in some cases lost their families, in some cases were forced to take part in the horrors themselves. But do we really feel, and empathise with, how deep that psychological shock went? It's a Clockwork Orange effect, perhaps; and within a terrible void, for the great creative voices like Stravinsky and Bartok had left Europe, while potential newcomers had in some cases been killed (think of Gideon Klein). If a fresh start had to be made, you can see why.
It sounds strange, it sounds oversimplified, but a sense of empathy was what emerged, above all, from this extraordinary couple of days. A film about Ligeti (made in 1993) told of the composer's family's fate in World War II - his father and brother were killed, his mother returned unexpectedly having survived a concentration camp - though said nothing about what happened in that time to Ligeti (pictured, right) himself. We heard from Tom Service - whose pre-concert talk before
yesterday contained the single clearest and most succinct explanation of electronic music that I've ever heard - about Stockhausen's background: his father, drafted into the German army, died somewhere in Hungary; his mother, mentally ill, was confined to an asylum, but there left to die by the Nazi regime.
We heard nothing from anybody, though, of Bernd Alois Zimmermann, surely one of the most violent and compelling voices of that era, who committed suicide in the 1960s - or if we did, I missed it. It's impossible to take in everything since so many different events are going on at once, but the website is a fabulous resource as many of the talks are posted on it after the event.
Talks around the era included matters of DNA and also the CIA (which some say funded Darmstadt - I missed this one too, but want to
read the book
Note, update this morning, Ian Pace tells me that he has explored the issue thoroughly and found it to be yet another myth
). The historian
spoke on literary heroes and villains, notably those of Ian Fleming's James Bond books. My former sister-in-law, the art historian
, gave a Bites talk about the art created by inmates of concentration camps and subsequently by others in response to the Holocaust. And the desperation, horror and nihilism of Rosselini's film
Germany, Year Zero
- shot in the ruins of Berlin after the war, following a 12-year-old boy's efforts to survive and feed his family - perhaps gave us the clearest insights of all into the forces that shaped these minds.
And now and then, a revelation of sorts emerges from the correlations of different artforms. How strange that those Bond villains, over the years, whether influenced or not by the Cold War, are not politically motivated but instead represent self-interest, greed and big, soulless business versus the individual; how bizarre that both a Soviet book and an American one could trace almost the same outline of the same journey; and how intriguing that fundamentally opposed musical systems - the ultra-control of Boulez versus the chance operations of John Cage - can produce, for the listener, music that seems to inhabit the self-same aesthetic. How extraordinary that the iconoclast par excellence, Stockhausen himself, is still part of a tradition of larger-than-life German visionary composers and was inspired to create
by the sight of the Alps. (And how many times has my OH protested against my discomfort with Bruckner by saying "But it's the music of the Alps!" - yet had he been there last night, instead of on tour in Vienna, he'd probably have fled the volume of noise inside the hall).
Our cultural world is not flat. If you travel round it far enough in one direction, you arrive at the same point you'd have reached if you'd gone the other way.
Add to this some extraordinary concerts. Members of the Aurora Orchestra were at the helm on Saturday night for Stockhausen and Boulez, with pianist Nicolas Hodges and percussionist Colin Currie interacting with electronics for all they were worth in
, following the strange, aural-3D spatial effect of
Gesang der Jünglinge -
the odd matter of attending a live concert to listen to something non-live is another issue, of course. Boulez's
Le marteau sans maitre
- like Stockhausen the visionary - seemed strangely in tradition too, that of French music's attention to timbre, instrumentation, detail and delicacy.
On Sunday afternoon we heard astonishing percussion playing from students of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, performing Xenakis and Cage; and the weekend culminated in Stockhausen's
- three orchestras, one on stage, two to the sides of the RFH auditorium - with the "traditional" (I quote) two performances of the piece framing the evening on either side of more delicacy and detail, this time from Nono. Is the journey from Monteverdi and Gabrieli's antiphonies in San Marco to Stockhausen's in the RFH as great as we might think?
The thoughts provoked by these days, the intensity of the information intake and the social whirl - old friends and new, with everyone wanting to share their impressions - will not, as you'll have gathered, fit into a single blogpost. This is a beginning, not an end; a chance for further exploration and a great deal more chewing in the months and years ahead. As for today, I don't think I'll be listening to anything at all.
2 months ago
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Alexei Sultanov plays Tchaikovsky's 'October'
An exquisite performance of 'October' from The Seasons by Tchaikovsky, performed by the late
This loss of this young Russian pianist was one of the great tragedies of the music world in recent years. He was the winner of the Van Cliburn Competition in 1989, aged only 19, and died in 2005 at only 35.
His full story is here
2 months ago
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When is a bat not a bat?
When it's a turkey. Here's my review of the new
Odd that Bieito's thought-provoking
was booed and this one wasn't, though the applause was little more than "well done for trying".
We may need a moratorium on jackboots at the opera. Terry Gilliam got away with it in
The Damnation of Faust
because of the general brilliance of the whole; and
, by Mieczyslaw Weinberg, was the real thing and couldn't do without them - though notably failed to sell. But in
? This is getting silly. Next time someone brings gratuitous Nazis into an opera production, I might just stand up in the auditorium and start singing 'Springtime for Hitler'...
There's a serious point to this. If productions fill up with Nazis the minute anything is German or Austrian, it is lazy thinking and becomes a cliche. And if Nazis are reduced to a cliche on the operatic stage, it devalues the horrors that they (and other fascist/totalitarian regimes) have perpetrated. It devalues their victims. Enough, already.
2 months ago
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Why THE REST IS NOISE festival will change...
The second part of the Southbank Centre's year-long celebration of the music of the 20th century kicked off on Saturday. And as it did so, the venue released figures that prove beyond reasonable doubt that this extraordinary festival,
The Rest is Noise,
has not only been succeeding in attracting new audiences, but doing so as if there is a tomorrow after all.
of people booking for these concerts had not bought tickets for a contemporary classical event at the Southbank before. The place has sold more than three times as many tickets for contemporary classical music during the festival than they did in 2012. About
39 per cent
of those booking for concerts had not been to any classical concert at the centre before, and
one in three
people booking the whole-weekend tickets had never been to the Southbank Centre before at all.
The wake-up call is so loud that The Rest is Noise amounts to a virtual thump on the head for the musical world - or, indeed, a kick on the backside. We can't afford to ignore such numbers. And that's why programming may never be the same again.
There's been a buzz around The Rest is Noise unlike anything I've encountered within these hallowed (?) portals in 40 years. The RFH was bursting at the seams for Britten's
on Saturday night, but the ferment of activity in the surrounding weekends of events - like this one devoted to
the Britten centenary
, including films, talks, more concerts (
notably), 'bite' events (15-min talks on different yet related topics) - also feels more like the Edinburgh Fringe or Hay-on-Wye than a stuffy old arts centre. Hopefully those last four words are ones we'll never have to see together henceforth.
I had a chat with Jude Kelly (artistic director of Southbank Centre) and Gillian Moore (head of music)
about what they've been trying to do with The Rest is Noise, and why. You may remember that a few years ago Daniel Barenboim did the complete Beethoven sonatas cycle at the RFH in two weeks. At the time, I wrote
, declaring that the runaway success of the series proved that what really draws audiences in is anything but dumbing down: instead, we long for the big, immersive, profound experience, where you give a lot and reap more than you sow. It turns out that this wasn't a coincidence.
"When I first came in as artistic director, the first thing that happened in classical music was that an agent said Barenboim was going to do the Beethoven sonatas over a year," Kelly says. "I said: no, let’s do it over a fortnight. They thought that was too much to offer; I said no, that’s what we want to do. And it was a huge success. That gave me the courage to think that these big ideas are what we should be championing."
Gillian Moore adds: "The idea of programming 20th-century music boldly and constantly is for me so strong – I’ve always tried to do that. But this is a very big idea that really can help us achieve it. Linking with
Alex Ross’s book
, we’re not slavishly following it, but using its atmosphere as a stimulus. It’s all about putting music in its cultural context of history, science, what was happening, what people were thinking, at the time."
She continues: "Music is not isolated from the world of ideas. Sometimes in classical music we can behave as if it’s its own thing, going along on tram tracks without relating to intellectual ideas. But talk to any composer about politics or life sciences and it absolutely does. So to appeal to people who are culturally curious, but who might think classical music is not for them, especially 20th-century classical music, we are talking about more of our music being linked to broader cultural questions."
(This relates to another of my own old bug-bears - about the isolation of musical biographies in bookshops, tucked far away from the general biography section which might feature writers, artists, philosophers and actors, among others. That's where musical creators and performers belong, too. Nowadays, of course, you're lucky if you can even find a bookshop.)
Kelly, who has been artistic director of the centre since 2006, says she is often struck by how many extremely well-educated people, interested in theatre, politics, economics, history, science and more, tell her that they never attend concerts of classical music. "But all of that makes up music - so let’s contextualise the whole thing," she says. If you only want to listen to the music, that's fine, of course; but now there has to be a further option as well.
"I can't speak for other places, but for Southbank it provokes the question that doing a single concert with no other information around it other than programme notes isn’t a proper offer," she says, when I ask what the implications are for future programming. "If any of the orchestras want to do that, it means their assumption is that the audience is already familiar with the repertoire or are certainly very comfortable with classical music.
"My passion is about how you reach lots of other people who aren’t familiar and aren't comfortable. Obviously just playing the concert in itself hasn’t been doing that. I’m very committed to extending this idea of the wide open school, the offer to do music studies and history studies and science studies all in one go - and making the live performance of music and contemporary dance and contemporary art a central way of understanding how our societies work."
Having had no thorough academic musical education at college level, she adds that when she wanted to fill in the gaps, the solution she was looking for simply didn't seem to exist: "a course on how you learn and understand the history of classical music". This education is what's been lacking; this is why so many people, when you tell them you're involved with classical music, look afraid and say at once, "I don't know much about classical music". That absence of knowledge intimidates them and, instead of proving an attraction to learn something, it keeps them away.
"I’m interested in the fact that people are excited by the complexity of science and the complexity of ecosystems, but classical music, which is a version of all of that, stays away from them," Kelly says. "We’ve partly got ourselves to blame - the art industry has often spoken in language that suggests this is for people with fine feelings or that you have to go on some sort of escalator before you can get there and people don’t know what the starting point is."
"I think we’ve got to be much more welcoming and much less judgemental," Kelly adds. "I think we can seem judgemental about people who don’t know much about classical music. We should say, 'Great, if you don’t know anything about it then you won’t have any prejudices...'" The Rest is Noise website is a huge bonus where this is concerned, preserving many of the talks, "bites", etc, on demand.
Visit the Explore section here.
The bonanza of this festival, which includes study evenings, "breakfast with..." sessions exploring the technical workings of music, screenings of films, events for children, and countless other elements, may not be easy to replicate elsewhere - though I'm sure that this is just the beginning for the Southbank. Still, the thinking, and the resulting sales, carry a few big, strong simple messages for all. It's about having courage to think big and to lead from the front. "The big lesson for me is about the scale of an idea," says Moore. "Sometimes you have to do something really big and bold for it to cut through."
The full programme for the rest of the Rest is here.
And now we've reached the point where many of the composers are alive and some of them are kicking. We can certainly expect to see Philip Glass, Steve Reich and Sofia Gubaidulina in London in person for good chunks of the next part.
What of the future? Don't dismiss this event as a one-off. What's become clear is that the rest is just not noisy enough.
2 months ago
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Reflections on the Bieito 'Fidelio'
A fascinating business, this: coming back from that very Beethoveny trip to Bonn and landing bang in the middle of
Calixto Bieito's production of
This staging seems to have left audiences not so much divided as ranged round a spectrum of 360-odd viewpoints. Predictably, many hated it - and yes, there was some booing of the production team on opening night, though it was counterbalanced by cheering elsewhere in the house. Here are two contrasting reviews to demonstrate that range:
Andrew Clements in The Guardian
Tully Potter in the Mail
. (Production pics by Tristram Kenton.)
Bieito's concept, you'll have gathered, is that the prison is our mind, and each character, with the possible exception of Leonore, is trapped within a type of living rabbit-hutch of his/her own making. It is art that sets us free, not least because temporal authority - Don Fernando, whose shock appearance at the end said much about our lack of trust in leaders today - can't be relied on. Don Fernando in the original Munich version of this production resembled not the 18th-century fop who graces the ENO stage, but the Joker from
is more than an unreliable leader: he is the cruelty, capriciousness and vile irony of fate itself (at least, if you share Bieito's dark view of life).
The other day I stood in front of Beethoven's Heiligenstadt Testament: the document in which he wrote to his brothers of the agonising recognition that he, a musician, was losing his hearing; and declares that he had come close to suicide, but did not want to leave the world before he had accomplished all he felt he had come here to do. (
Full text here
.) That prison was not of Beethoven's own making, but remained an anguish-inducing fetter nonetheless; yet without that, would he have composed the same music that has reached us today, in the form of the greatest of his symphonies, the late quartets, the Diabelli Variations, and this opera too? Art may not have set him free from that ailment, but his music has lived on to prove what glories a human being can create, given the necessary courage and strength, and that there is beauty and truth in art even when we can find little of it anywhere else. He brings us (as Andras said the other day) courage. That's a liberation in itself.
As Bieto floats the brave Heath Quartet above the reunited Florestan and Leonore, the first violin and cello each in an individual cage, the second violin and viola together in a third, drifting overhead but somehow able to play the (truncated) Heilige Dankgesang of Beethoven's Op.132 quartet despite their boxes wandering in draughts from side to side, the point is proven. (
This is not in the original
. But it works. Bieito may not be bringing us a
that we recognise, or a literal one that could have been seen in the 1950s, but instead a personal vision of the work that speaks volumes about our world today and the enduring power of Beethoven within it.
The musical performance, by the way, was red-hot under Ed Gardner's direction, with the glory that is Stuart Skelton as Florestan and the central force of Emma Bell's idealistic and beautifully sung Leonore. And the chorus was magnificent.
So why the vitriol? A case of
chacun a son gout
, of course. But my own little problem with all of this is not about Bieito's concept. It's about the language. I have no objection to Bieito's choice of using quotes from
Jose Luis Borges
, the Argentinian-born magical realist (pictured below), whose image of the labyrinth seems to underpin the elaborate contraption that forms the set, and whose words take the place of the usual dialogue. But is something being lost in translation?
Here are a few Borges poems, translated
here are some more, in Spanish
. Now, my Spanish is, er, a bit rusty. But read them aloud, to the best of one's limited abilities, and you can still feel the music in the syllables.
A translation can bring us the literal message; but without the music inherent in the words the poet created, half the real meaning may be gone. I remember, many years ago, my Russian then-boyfriend discovered that I wasn't familiar with the poetry of Osip Mandelstam and disapproved of this major gap in my cultural education. I bought a volume in translation - only to suffer bitter disappointment at the pedestrian nature of what I was reading. My friend took one look, chucked the book over a shoulder, and recited one of the poems by heart, in the original. I understood not one literal word - yet it remained one of the most beautiful things I had ever heard.
Translating is difficult enough. Translating well is harder still. And translating singably is an art all its own. I've had a shot at it myself recently: earlier this year I prepared an English version of Roxanna Panufnik's
Tallinn Mass: Dance of Life
for a recording that has just been made. Faced with literal translations of 19 poems by two of Estonia's leading poets, and Rox's painstaking and extraordinarily beautiful settings of the original Estonian, I had to make the new English words fit her existing music: you need open syllables on the longer, higher notes, you need the right emotional inflection on the appropriate harmony, and so forth. Some of them had to rhyme; all of them had to make rhythmic sense. And in literal translation, the poems might well have lost the essence of their poetry; a few liberties had to be taken, paradoxically, in order to restore some of that to the concepts. The poets, fortunately, are alive and kicking and able to approve the texts, which they have done. But talk about a learning curve...
Many people in the regular ENO audience love opera in English. That is the company's raison d'etre and normally, these days, it goes unquestioned. Opera-goers frequently troop into the Coli only too pleased to hear a performance in our own language, while despairing over the avant-garde concepts and experimental outlooks that are being fostered there. I realise now that I do the opposite. I am happy that in ENO today we have a thoroughly modern European opera house that's engaging directors to preside over a great deal more than crowd-control and park-and-bark productions and that enters partnerships with houses like Munich and the Met to make greater ambitions reality. But I'm trying to remember the last time I rejoiced
at hearing an opera in English that is not originally
English and I can't think of one single occasion. I have enjoyed individual translations at ENO by Jeremy Sams, whose sparkling versions of
The Magic Flute
, for example, do work wonders. He, though, seems to be the exception.
We don't have that issue with
come and hear it tonight at the RFH, incidentally
). It's not about the language itself; English is perfectly singable - Britten, Delius, Tippett, Vaughan Williams, Thomas Ades, George Benjamin and many others prove it every day. But composers set words according not only to their meaning, but according to the music they feel inside the language the poet has used.
A translation is, essentially, bound to be a compromise. Some succeed better than others, but I'm unconvinced that opera in translation can ever be entirely successful. I'd love to try doing one myself, of course, even if I know the cause may ultimately be lost. But for me that was the single biggest problem with the Bieito
: the translation, whether of the libretto or the Borges poems. Now that there are surtitles at ENO, is it not time to reopen the whole debate?
It remains only to wonder how on earth
is managing, this week, to alternate Florestan and Grimes, often on consecutive evenings, and also preside over a charity gala. Perhaps that's what Heldentenors are truly about: heroism.
2 months ago
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Beethovenfest Bonn 2: Ludwig Lives!
Bonn is roughly the size of Cardiff in terms of population (about 350,000). Yet the musical riches within this pleasant and manageable Rhineland city have to be seen to be believed.
The day before
my pilgrimage to the house where Schumann died
, I visited the one where Beethoven was born, only a short pootle away in the town centre. Here you can see two of Beethoven's pianos, his viola (yes, Beethoven was a viola player - get used to it...), his ear trumpets, his conversation books, his spectacles, his magnificent walnut-veneered writing desk - which
later owned for a while - and the Heiligenstadt Testament, among many other exhibits; and I can thoroughly recommend the detailed audioguide.
is much more than a shrine to the great Ludwig. It's a vital centre for musicological research, on the one hand, and a fine location for concerts, on the other; and it owns a raft of terrifically important manuscripts, notably that of the Diabelli Variations, acquired from a private collection after numerous fundraising concerts by the likes of Andras Schiff and others; there's a magnificent digital archive of huge value to scholars, yet also online resources to help introduce children to Ludwig's world.
Do go onto the site and have a good old explore.
All of this was possible because I had to go and interview Andras, who has a big birthday coming up and needs writing about, but isn't in London again until well after my deadlines have passed. He is currently in the middle of a series of Beethoven sonata recitals in the
; I was fortunate enough to arrive in time for the programme that involves the Op.31s and the 'Waldstein'.
Listening to Andras play Bach or Schubert has often seemed the aural equivalent of swimming in Walchensee: you're immersed in cool, soothing, pure waters that run very deep indeed. Yet over the past decade his Beethoven journey has opened up new pianistic vistas: a different variety of deep heat, if you like, with a phosphorescent edge that makes the soundworlds of Op.31 No.2 in D minor or the mighty 'Waldstein' shimmer in a visionary way, while Op.31 Nos 1 and 3 bounced and swung with humour and clarity. Bonn's
- a sizeable Rhineside creation from the 1950s - was packed to the nines and provided a standing ovation. The next morning we talked for two hours (pic above) about matters musical, technical and Beethovenian. Beethoven, Andras says, has given him new courage. More of this in the official outlets in the months ahead.
Huge thanks to the
for making this remarkable 36-hour trip possible. Really have bought the t-shirt - a purple one with a Beethoven portrait and the words LUDWIG LIVES, in which you might someday spot me jogging around Richmond Park.
2 months ago
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TOMORROW: 'Hungarian Dances' goes to Bourn...
Our very old friend
was for many years co-leader of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, is now musician-in-residence for the Bournemouth Arts Festival and has a passion for Gypsy music and the folksongs of eastern Europe. He's had
in the style from the Hungarian Gypsy violinist Josef Szegely. And he took a liking to the idea of doing a
concert-of-the-novel with me. I'm heading south west tomorrow to meet him and pianist Barbara Henvest for a special performance in the Mary Shelley Theatre, Boscombe Manor.
Full details and booking here.
We are adapting the programme in several ways: Kodaly and Faure both put in an appearance, there's to be some bonus Brahms at the beginning, and we are promised a certain authenticity of approach in Monti's Csardas.... There's also a special appearance in the interval by the Hungarian cellist Josef Koos, also ex-BSO, whom I will interview about his experiences escaping Hungary during the revolution in 1956. While I was researching the novel I spent a very happy day visiting Jo for a lengthy discussion. Anyone who has read
will find certain aspects of him ever so slightly familiar.
This theatre was built for Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein and wife of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, in the 1840s. It fell into semi-dereliction (as pictured), but a community project began work on a loving restoration earlier this year, which has included the arrival of 220 seats from the demolished Bournemouth IMAX. Developers have now bought it.
A news story from the BBC here.
Best of all: the weather forecast for tomorrow is really not bad, and apparently this place is 200m from the beach.
Do come along if you're in the area!
2 months ago
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Beethovenfest Bonn 1: The Death of Schumann
Yesterday I stood in the room where Schumann died.
It's a little room on the top floor, at the end of a long, old building in Endenich - a rather out-of-the-way and very leafy suburb of Bonn. This house was, in its time, a mental hospital; here Schumann spent the last two-and-a-half years of his life. He had one of the better chambers, with windows on two sides. Today only two rooms of the building form the Schumannhaus museum; downstairs is home to the town's music library and much of the upper floor, before you reach the Schumann space, is taken up by a largish area, bookshelf-lined, that hosts concerts.
In Schumann's room now stands a small piano that was once played by Liszt. Schumann was not allowed a piano there; one feels this instrument's presence is perhaps a rectification of rather an injustice. Atop it is a coverlet that belonged to Schumann's friend Joseph Joachim, the great violinist, embroidered by a number of Berlin ladies with his initials JJ and some musical motifs from his compositions. Photos of Schumann, Clara, Joachim and Brahms adorn the walls, while some of their letters and a copy of the manuscript of the
are on display in glass cases. Among them is Schumann's last (?) letter to Clara, dated about a year before he died. He saw Clara again - and for the last time - only when he was on his deathbed.
Schumann's last illness was pneumonia, brought on by starvation. The info in the museum says that he refused to eat, believing that (as a number of inmates apparently thought) the food was poisoned. I have read opinions elsewhere that suggested he may have been deliberately starving himself - a slow suicide over the fact that there was no way out. The writer Bettina von Arnim, who visited him earlier, had apparently found him in good health and longing to go home. Mental illness at that time was a terrible stigma. Perhaps, effectively, he was being "buried alive".
Here is an extract from the museum's information sheet:
Q: What type of therapy was administered at that time?
A: In those days, medications such as mood brighteners or drugs able to alter or enhance one's mental state did not exist. Dr Richarz advocated a treatment of non-restraint in opposition to coercive torture-like methods practiced in the public "crazy houses" of that time. Some of the therapies which patients were subjected to in good fait, and today seem nonsensical, were the dousing of patients with cold water and the boring of holes in the skull to allow the escape of "bad fluids" - similar to blood-letting. Richarz could not completely do without some of the extreme methods when dealing with severely ill patients (eg strapping patients to their beds). Alcohol was administered as a medication.
Brahms, with Clara and Joachim, hurried to Schumann's bedside when news came to Düsseldorf from the doctors that they must hurry if they wished to see him again. He wrote:
"At first he lay for a long time with eyes closed, and she knelt before him, more calmly than one would believe possible. But after a while he recognised her. Once he plainly desired to embrace her, flung one arm wide around her. Of course he had been unable to speak for some time already. One could understand (or perhaps imagine one did) only some disconnected words. Even that must have made her happy. He often refused the wine that was offered him, but from her finger he sometimes sucked it up eagerly, at such length and so passionately that one knew with certainty that he recognised the finger...
Tuesday noon, we came half an hour after his passing. He had passed away very gently, so that it was scarcely noticed. His body looked peaceful then; how comforting it all was. A wife could not have stood it any longer..."
The room is light and peaceful; the chestnut tree beyond the window may or may not have been there then. The scene is almost unimaginable, but we imagine it anyway, as best we can.
I've just been to Bonn for the
. Packed an extraordinary number of amazing experiences into barely two days. Stand by for Beethovenfest post 2 - which might even be about Beethoven...
2 months ago
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JD meets... CALIXTO BIEITO
In which the Bad Boy of Opera turns out to be a pussycat. I went to see him to preview his
which opens at ENO this week
. Some of the interview is in today's
, but I am putting the director's cut (ie, long version) below. First, the beginning of his
You might expect Calixto Bieito to resemble a cross between Count Dracula and Quentin Tarantino. The Spanish director, often called “the bad boy of opera”, has become notorious for extreme productions that often feature explicit sex and violence, their concepts including a cannibalistic post-nuclear
and a present-day
that involved vicious scenes of rape, drug overdose and murder. Audiences at his shows are no strangers to sights that have variously included toilet activities, nudity and a great deal of blood. Now, in a co-production with the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, Bieito is bringing his staging of Beethoven’s
to ENO and traditionalists are quaking in their boots.
Yet when he emerges from rehearsals in east London, clad in his trademark black, it turns out that Bieito is a pussycat. He’s a soft-spoken family man with a social conscience and anxieties about threats to democracy and free speech; and he acknowledges that he often takes a bleak view of life. “I have to be careful,” he says, “because I sometimes suffer from melancholia, and this is why my work can become quite dark.”
Nevertheless, he seems mystified by the degree of hostility that’s been expressed against his work. One critic referred to his
as “the most reviled opera production in the recent history of British theatre”; others believe he is out to shock. He insists not. “I promise I have never tried to shock people in that way,” he protests quietly. “I don’t think that doing a show to shock people is the right way to approach it. The direction must come naturally from inside you. It’s as if you find the hidden meaning of dreams emerging.”
Such dreams can be fairly horrifying. That
, he says, illustrated “what happens every Friday night” among young people across Europe, “though with a very sad ending”. The arrival of the Commendatore to threaten the Don with hell became a drug-induced hallucination, reducing Giovanni to a helpless wreck; the other characters then murder him. “I have strong emotional responses, and for me this
was sad because there was a sense of no hope,” Bieito comments. “There is no hope in young people killing another young man – and it was based on a real incident. I was completely surprised at the reaction.” But it’s worth remembering that other critics responded to the production with words like “stunned admiration”, and I, for one, found its raw and desperate humanity extraordinarily powerful.
British reactions to Bieito have generally been more prurient than those in Germany, where modern, provocative productions are
. But if Britain’s tastes are conservative, those of the US are even more so. Bieito is soon to work with New York’s Metropolitan Opera, in another co-production with ENO, but the details of what, when and how are closely guarded – possibly due to the likely degree of resulting fuss.
Bieito was first drawn towards directing while a pupil in a Jesuit school, where he says music and theatre were crucial parts of education. He left drama college after one year, “because it was too posh for me”. Music has been central to his life since childhood; his mother insisted on piano practice, his father had a passion for Italian opera and his brother became a professional musician. Despite his father’s influence, Italian bel canto is apparently Bieito’s blind spot: “I enjoy watching it, but here I feel I have nothing to say. I can’t direct an opera if I don’t love the music.”
Despite managerial belt-tightening in opera houses around the world, Bieito is essentially optimistic about the future of the artform. “Opera is an art of the future – it brings together so many elements – and I hope that we will survive together, with some brave intendants,” he says. He recognises that in difficult financial times decision-makers might become risk averse, but feels this is not necessarily a sensible path: “I did my
13 years ago and now it is being taken up everywhere,” he points out. “That means something is changing. Even if the intendants start to be more conservative, it’s not possible to stop the new feelings of the people.
“It’s a completely wrong thing when people say ‘this opera has to be done like
’ – usually it only means that the costumes look a little bit old,” he adds. “You cannot reproduce the atmosphere of the first opening of a Mozart or Verdi opera. They were very modern in their time, very involved with people. Verdi was known in all of society.” That is the kind of immediacy he is after.
could prove chewy. In Beethoven’s opera, the heroine Leonora’s husband, Florestan, is a political prisoner; she disguises herself as a man named Fidelio to infiltrate the prison and rescue him. Bieito’s staging, unlike his hyper-realistic
, is complex and symbolic, set in a labyrinth that some reviewers of its Munich performances compared to
. “All the characters are lost in the labyrinth, imprisoned,” he says. “Sometimes our minds are our prison. I find
’s story quite weak if it is approached realistically, but if you take the philosophical side more seriously, then you can say much more about human beings today: what freedom means for us, or love, or loyalty, or justice. That is very important to our democracy.”
Above all, Beethoven’s idealistic humanism in
strikes a special chord with him. “I think we need a new humanism in Europe in the very open, cultural sense, and
gives me the opportunity to talk about this,” he says. But his characters do not live happily ever after: “It is very hard to believe in the possibility of justice,” he says – melancholic again, thanks to his cynical view of politics in Spain.
“There are people who’ll say ‘I don’t like Calixto Bieito, I don’t like anything he does’,” he comments. “I don’t know how to convince them. You cannot go to an exhibition thinking it’s going to be crap and you can’t go into a restaurant thinking ‘Oh, the food will be terrible’. This I cannot change. But I’m talking about these topics: justice, love, liberty, loyalty, freedom. We have to value these issues and we have to protect our democracies very strongly from corruption. I think, when it’s not just commercial, art is a way to freedom.”
Fidelio, English National Opera, from 25 September. Box office: 020 7845 9300
2 months ago
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