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Jessica
Jessica Duchen's Classical Music Blog. Music and writing in London, UK.
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Painting of Fauré by John Singer Sargent (photo from wikipedia.com)

It's Gabriel Fauré's birthday today: 172. This means, happily, that in three years' time he will be 175, which is a good excuse for a few celebrations. Start planning now, chaps.



For today's anniversary, here are three of his songs, or mélodies. The first, 'Notre Amour', a particular favourite of mine as it is about eternal love, yet as many light years away from Tristan und Isolde as it's possible to be. It is followed by 'Le Secret', its sibling in Fauré's Op.23, and 'En Sourdine', a Verlaine setting from the Cinq mélodies de Venise. The singer is Elly Ameling with pianist Dalton Baldwin, recorded back in 1974. (The Seventies had certain things going for them, incidentally.)

Incidentally, the second volume in a brand-new, splendid, intimate, varied and warm-hearted recording of all the Fauré songs has just been released on Signum Records, spearheaded by pianist Malcolm Martineau. More about that here.
http://signumrecords.com/product/the-complete-songs-of-faure-vol-1/SIGCD427/
http://signumrecords.com/product/the-complete-songs-of-faure-vol-2/SIGCD472/




4 months ago |
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The stupendous Finnish soprano Karita Mattila with her prize
Tuesday night: the lights are low and the music's high on the agenda. The Royal Philharmonic Society Music Awards are the annual UK jamboree that celebrates the best and brightest of music-making here on Brexit Island. Last night's was filled with warm welcomes, joyous encounters and plenty of good food and wine at The Brewery, round the corner from the Barbican. Andrew MacGregor and Sarah Walker of BBC Radio 3 served as hosts, there were enthusiastic words from RPS chairman John Gilhooly ("Live music is...priceless; live music is...sparkling...") and winners received their silver lyres from no less distinguished hands than Stephen Hough's.

In the bad old days when there was plenty of (or at least a bit more) money in the industry, we used to sit at this celebration through long speeches that would say how dreadful everything was and what a scandal it was that there wasn't more music on TV, and so forth. Now that the whole business is in mortal peril with the prospect of the economic and practical disruption likely to result from Brexit, paradoxically an atmosphere of celebration prevailed, with Stephen Hough declaring in his speech that we should embrace challenging music, stop apologising, not expect classical music to be for absolutely everybody, stop patronising the young ("we offer them Primrose Hill when they're ready to climb Ben Nevis") and appreciate the upside of the museums model which is, as I've often remarked too, not something to be disparaged on autopilot, but actually encourages great care, good display and creative communication with the audience. I hope he'll publish this speech somewhere.

A video message was also beamed in from the great Thomas Quasthoff, remarking that we have enjoyed 70 years of peace in Europe thanks in large part to the existence of the EU and that he would like there to be a similarly bright future for his 18-year-old stepdaughter's generation. Many of us cheered - not that there's much we can do about it, faced with a government apparently determined to drive our economy and our society alike over the Brexit cliff no matter how much damage it will do, and an opposition that seemingly won't oppose.

And the awards? It was quite a crop. Honorary membership of the RPS was presented to filmmaker Barrie Gavin, who has documented splendid quantities of 20th-century composers from Korngold to Boulez. The ceremony cited "the care and attention to detail which he invests in each and every subject, and his ability to demonstrate insightful authority and profound understanding".

The shortlisted conductors: Richard Farnes, Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla and Donald Runnicles.
Photo montage from classical-music.com
Along the way there were treats aplenty: the news that Classic FM is commissioning new pieces from seven young composers; an award for the Lammermuir Music Festival - which is a relatively new organisation, having only launched in 2010; and the rare treat of seeing the only-two-ever Takács Quartet leaders together, the violinist-turned-conductor Gabor Takács-Nagy collecting the well-deserved prize for the Manchester Camerata, which he's leading to brilliant things, and Edward Dusinberre modestly accepting the Creative Communication prize for his wonderful book about playing the Beethoven Quartets, Beethoven for a Later Age (published by Faber & Faber). The Manchester Camerata's award was essentially for its Hacienda Classical strand, with which apparently it's going to open Glastonbury this year. But I don't think it hurt that they also played Beethoven with Martha Argerich.

The Learning and Participation award was won by the UK's first disabled-led youth orchestra, the South-West Open Youth Orchestra, their achievements attested to by a moving video. The Young Artist award went to pianist and Lieder specialist Joseph Middleton, the two composition awards went respectively to Rebecca Saunders for Skin and Philip Venables for 4.48 Psychosis, and the Audience Engagement prize to the East Neuk Festival - it was indeed a good night for Scottish festivals. Fretwork won Chamber Music and Song, violinist James Ehnes was awarded the Instrumentalist prize and Karita Mattila swept to victory in the Singer award.

It was probably Richard Farnes's night first and foremost, though. The British maestro scooped the Conductor award for his Ring cycle with Opera North, and the company and that production also won the Opera award outright. You can see the whole thing on the BBC iPlayer, and please do take a look/listen, because it is simply a knockout. Priceless. Sparkling. And more.

I managed to squeeze into a dress I haven't worn for two years, hug four former interviewees, catch up with the whole Garsington team (they were shortlisted for Idomeneo), apologise for a non-attendance at something to entirely the wrong PR person, and win the best dessert of the evening as my annoying dietary condition meant that instead of whatever everyone else ate, I was given some utterly glorious chocolate goo. A fine time was had by one and all.

4 months ago |
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Lloyd Webber with a young musician from In Harmony, Liverpool
It’s all go at Birmingham Conservatoire. There's a new £57m building nearly ready for next academic year, state-of-the-art technologies to open up music education to the world – and a launch in the form of a Royal Gala concert on 11 March 2018, which the conservatoire has announced will be conducted by the CBSO’s own music director, Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla. The college's new home includes a 500-seat concert hall and a 150-seat recital room, an experimental projects room, a jazz club, an organ studio and 100 practice rooms, as well as some remarkable digital developments. 
I caught up with the conservatoire’s head, Julian Lloyd Webber, who assumed the post in 2015 after having to bring his cello career to a close, to ask him about the challenges facing an institution on the brink of what should be a historic breakthrough, yet at a time of enormous national uncertainty. But the main challenge is not Brexit, says Lloyd Webber: instead, it is a national education system that fails the creative side of life...


JD: Julian, how’s the progress on the new building?
 JLW: It’s manic at the moment. From the outside it almost looks complete now. There’s still a lot of work to do inside, but we’re promised it’s all on schedule. We’re a little bit nervous because we know we’re going to have a great, great building and we have to go in there and make sure everything is working properly. It’s an incredibly exciting time to be here.

JD: The, er, Walk of the Valkyries preview on Youtube is most impressive. The new facilities look state-of-the-art.
JLW: It really is. The whole place is built around a “digital core”. In practice what it means is that any room in the conservatoire can be linked with any other room. So if you’re giving a class it can be relayed to someone in a practice room five floors up. Everything is interconnected.
A lot of it is about being able to do live classes outside, to relay and receive streaming live. Already we have a Soweto project Arco, run by our head of strings, Louise Lansdowne, who comes from South Africa and has created this programme, which is just growing and growing. We had Sheku Kanneh-Mason come in to do a recital which was shown live to our students in Soweto, so already we’re starting – but in the new building you’ll be able to do that anywhere and at any time.
JD: It’s great that Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla is going to conduct the conservatoire orchestra's royal gala. Does this represent a strengthening link between the institution and the CBSO?
JLW: The conservatoire opens to students on 25 September and we’ll be doing quite regular concerts from soon after that, with quite a lot of broadcasts. We open officially with our royal patron, Prince Edward, at a gala concert in the main hall with our orchestra and Mirga has agreed to conduct it. It’s good for the city and I think it’ll be wonderful for the students. And it shows her interest in music education – she’s pretty keen on working with the conservatoire. 

We already have a very strong link with the CBSO – possibly a closer link than any other conservatoire with any symphony orchestra. A lot of their principal players teach in the conservatoire; we have an arrangement where sometimes our students can play along with the CBSO in rehearsal; and also we have showcases where our students play at Symphony Hall just before their concerts, twice a year with the orchestra and twice a year with our pianists. Many of our students are in the CBSO Youth Orchestra. I think the links are closer than anywhere else. It’s a great opportunity for the students to be playing alongside people of that level.

An envisioning of the new-look Adrian Boult Hall

 JD: What other ‘USPs’ do you want to develop further?
JLW: When I first came in I was expecting to have to make changes, but I’ve been really impressed with the heads of department. The piano standard is extremely high – for instance, one student has just been accepted for the Van Cliburn Competition, which is difficult to get into. Some of them are so good, really good, but what this brings me to, which I think is a USP for the conservatoire, is this: they are friendly, they collaborate and they try to help each other. I think that’s an atmosphere we have which is very special. Colleges can be very competitive. We’re competitive, but some institutions encourage that competitiveness and sometimes almost encourage students to compete against each other. We don’t. We try to encourage them to help each other, which is quite a different ethos.
We have had a pretty hard time at the end of the old building’s life – it felt unloved and uncared for in the middle of a building site. It hasn’t been easy. We lost our main concert hall, so this season we’ve been going out into the city to play, which in many ways has been a good thing and a real learning curve for students. Because we haven’t had a hall to give orchestral concerts in, we’ve been going to lots of different venues around Birmingham, including the Town Hall and Symphony Hall. I think there really is a spirit here of pulling together and getting down to the job of making music as best we all can, and I want to carry that spirit into the new place. It’s a completely different kind of building – bigger, more open, state of the art – but I want to keep that community spirit.
JD: One hears that you’re an extremely hands-on principal, always there and interested in everything…

JLW: For me it’s a natural extension to what I’ve always done. I didn’t particularly want to go into conducting when I had to stop playing the cello. I’ve always been involved in music education with Sistema, In Harmony, etc. My father taught at the Royal College of Music for many years and became director of the London College of Music, so that side of it feels very much in the blood. 

I can’t get to as many concerts as I’d like because there’s so much going on here! We have a great jazz department – we offer degree courses in jazz, which is quite unusual – and the standard is very, very high, with people coming from all over the world for them. We had a whole string of concerts at the end of last term and a concert at BirminghamTown Hall where they launched the conservatoire's Ellington Orchestra. I had so much on that I nearly didn’t go, but I was extremely glad that I did because they were so superb. It was really one of the best things I’ve heard.  

I try to be hands-on and I try to care for the students, because the music profession is tough, it costs a lot of money now for students to go to conservatoire and I feel a hundred per cent on their side. I want to help them as much as I can.

Julian Lloyd Webber in Birmingham

JD: So all these wonderful possibilities are opening up, there’s this fantastic new building…and then along comes Brexit. What do you think the main challenges are going to be, specifically for the conservatoire but also for music education in this country generally?
JLW: You said Brexit?
JD: Yep…
JLW: There was a sudden bleep on the line.
JD: Maybe someone’s censoring us!
JLW: Well, Brexit…It’s kind of impossible to know what exactly is going to happen. I’ve tried not to be pessimistic and decide the whole world has ended. The Erasmus exchange programmes we’ve had have been brilliant and I would hope and pray that they continue. But we have a huge number of students from China and we’re developing the relationships with Japan and Korea – we have a lot of far-eastern students. To be honest, I’m more concerned about the state of the UK’s music education system than about Brexit. 

That’s because we can only reflect, in conservatoires all over the country, the students that are coming through. Of all those countries in the Far East, I can’t name one in which music education isn’t absolutely the norm. Children learning music is a normal thing; in families that’s what children do. That’s increasingly reflected in the standard of what they’re producing. But here, with the EBacc and taking arts subjects out of the curriculum, we will pay the price for that. I think we already are.
That concerns me more than anything else at all, because it’s so hard to bring these things back. There’s a knock-on effect through the whole profession, with peripatetic teachers deciding not to do that for a job because there’s no work. That is the thing that really, really concerns me. We’ve been around a while, this country; we can deal with Brexit and I cannot believe that we will not be working with students and people in Europe, so I haven’t been as pessimistic as everyone else. That doesn’t mean I think it’s a great idea, and the whole situation with visas could be a nightmare. But I think we will survive it and I think ways will continue for us to do a lot of business in Europe.
JD: How much can the Conservatoire do to encourage music education at grassroots level?
JLW: We’re trying to do that. Richard Shrewsbury came in at the same time as me, July 2015, as learning and participation manager, which we didn’t have before. He’s full of ideas and now we’re working with over 3,000 school students. These things cost money, of course, and we don’t have as much as we would like, but he’s doing an absolutely brilliant job. 

Now we’re trying to work with the music hubs, we’re going into schools and we’ve just had a competition for Shakespeare Week among schools all over the region, composing a piece based on Shakespeare works. We need to do this, we need to be filling the gap the government has created – and I think that applies to all conservatoires. I think we have a duty to do it. By definition it’s only a drop in the water, though it still is a drop. But I think the core responsibility for music education has to lie in the national curriculum. Why should the whole state school sector be deprived of music?
JD: Last but by no means least, what’s your long-term plan for the Birmingham Conservatoire?
JLW: We’re going to have the best building and the best facilities and we already have a stream of great visiting artists, so it’s not a question of making huge changes; it’s adding to what’s already there. We’re making judicious appointments – for instance, we’ve brought in James Galway as international chair of flute, we’ve got Catrin Finch as international chair of harp, we’ve got people coming in now who are the top and I want to continue that. I said the first time I came in to all the visiting teachers that the standard is really good already, so nobody needs to be worried – but I want to make sure it goes on and that we bring in the best that we can and therefore attract the best students that we can. We want to make it the best.



4 months ago |
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Quick note: if you're around the Southbank Centre for the Belief & Beyond Belief Festival today,  please pop along to the pre-concert talk. Tonight's performance includes Beethoven's Ninth, with the LPO conducted by Kazushi Ono [replacing an indisposed Christoph Eschenbach], and I've been drafted in to moderate a pre-concert discussion with professors Matthew Bell of Kings College London, an expert on German literature, and Benjamin Walton of Cambridge University's music department. We'll be exploring the history and context of the symphony and Schiller's Ode to Joy. Ballroom floor, Royal Festival Hall, 6.15pm. Please come along and say hello.
4 months ago |
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A terrible journey; a moving tale; a fortunate end. Many have not been so lucky. Last week a young Kurdish musician was drowned while trying to reach his brother in Belgium, dying with his violin in his arms.

Here is Rami's story. His album is released today.

After travelling thousands of miles from Syria with his violin on his back, 21-year-old refugee Rami spreads a message of hope with his life-affirming debut album ‘My Journey’, released on Friday 5th May on Decca Records. The lead single ‘Ode to Joy – Anthem for Europe’ is being released digitally in support of the British Red Cross as part of Red Cross Week (7-13 May) to help raise awareness of people in crisis, wherever they are.
In 2015, Rami was studying at a music school in Homs, Syria, but as war developed, he had no choice but to flee the country in search of safety. He travelled from Syria, through Lebanon, Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Austria and Germany, on foot and by boat, often running and swimming for his life. However, through this exhausting journey, Rami managed to keep his violin safe by wrapping it in cling film and carrying it on his back.
After travelling from Syria to Lebanon and Turkey, it took four attempts to get a boat from Istanbul, and after the engine failed, Rami and other passengers rowed through the night until they were picked by the Greek coast guard and taken to Kos. Rami says, “I arrived and I was so tired. I slept together with the violin because I was scared of someone stealing it.”
From Athens, Rami travelled to Macedonia. At a camp on the border, he started to play a beautiful Arabic-influenced version of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ for his fellow refugees, and was heard by journalists. He then travelled to Serbia, where he spoke to journalists about the bad living conditions. Rami was punished for his actions, separated from his friends and deprived of food and drink – until a security guard noticed the violin and Rami started to play for him. Rami explains, “This made him very happy. He started to film me and then spoke to his wife. He got a lot of enjoyment from this.” The security guard reunited Rami with his friends and they continued on the next stage of their journey from Belgrade to Budapest by train.
After Rami was thrown off the train by police, he walked through the forest from Budapest with a friend. However, police caught up with them, and running in different directions, Rami became separated from his friend – and his violin. Rami was taken to a camp, which he described as “so bad and so sad” with everyone living in tents in hot and dusty conditions. He left the camp and travelled through the night to Austria, and onward to Munich and Sasbachwalden in Germany. He was given refuge there and – after telling his story to a local woman – he was handed a violin.
Rami was then transferred to a sports hall in Lahr, filled with bunk beds and more than 200 families, and he practised in the room with washing machines. He found a local church to pray and practise in – and a photo of him playing violin there appeared in a local newspaper. After seeing this, a German couple offered him a room in their house and gave him the chance to practise his violin in quiet and taught him German. This marked the start of a new chapter for Rami, which led to him making his very first album.
Alex Fraser, Director of Refugee Support at the British Red Cross said, “A huge thank you to Rami and Decca for this collaboration which will help raise funds for the British Red Cross. Rami’s story is incredibly moving and shows the dangerous journey refugees undertake to find a place of safety. 
The Red Cross works in countries spanning migratory trails across the globe. The funds raised from this single will go towards supporting our humanitarian work, supporting refugees arriving in the UK as they start to rebuild their lives and be reunited with their families.”
4 months ago |
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Sam Furness (tenor), who sings our hero, Jack
Exciting times here as summer approaches and the Garsington Opera team gears up for the world premiere on 28 July of Silver Birch, the new opera by Roxanna Panufnik with a libretto by me plus some Siegfried Sassoon poetry.

 There's a supposition doing the rounds, though, that Silver Birch is a "community opera", but in fact we've called it something else: a "people's opera". And for a good reason.

A "community opera" is generally about the experience of those taking part in it, who in many cases are not auditioned. This "people's opera" is about the audience too: whether or not they are seasoned opera-goers or first-timers at a performance, the show should be equally enjoyable for all.

We do have a wonderfully large community involvement, but everyone has been auditioned and there is a strong professional core.

The Learning and Participation department has led the project, with Karen Gillingham, head of the department, as director; 180 people are taking part in the performance, including children from local primary schools, members of the armed forces, the Garsington adult community choir - and also a truly fabulous solo cast of some of the best young singers in the country.

Victoria Simmonds (mezzo-soprano) is our strong-hearted Anna
It will be performed on Garsington's main stage, with the company's music director, Douglas Boyd, conducting it himself.

So it is, really, for everyone and about everyone. It's all about all of us working together. That's one reason we love it so much, and we hope you will too!








Jack Sam FurnessAnnaVictoria SimmondsSimonDarren JefferySiegfried SassoonBradley TravisMrs MorrellSarah RedgwickDaveyJames WayConductorDouglas BoydDirectorKaren GillinghamDesignerRhiannon Newman BrownComposerRoxanna PanufnikLibrettistJessica DuchenMovement DirectorNatasha Khamjani
4 months ago |
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The Silver Birch youth company in rehearsal

The Oxford Times has run a preview of our Garsington opera, Silver Birch (music by Roxanna Panufnik, libretto by me). Read it here.

THE horrors of the First World War will meet the tragedy of modern day conflicts in an opera starring more than 180 people from across the community.Silver Birch, a people's opera, is Garsington Opera's new commission for the 2017 season and is a story of courage and aspiration.Building on the Great War poetry of Siegfried Sassoon and the testimony of a British soldier who served in the Iraq War it will star local people aged from eight to 80.
Here's what I've said about the process so far..

It is not only the fulfilment of a dream; this creative process, deeply collaborative at every level, has been entirely new to me , and it's one of the most exciting and rewarding experiences I've been lucky enough to encounter. The theme is the impact of war on soldiers and their families, tying together Siegfried Sassoon's World War I poetry and the experiences of those serving in modern warfare. It is designed to appeal to opera regulars and first-time attenders alike. It is fast-paced and action-packed; emotions run high and Roxanna Panufnik has written some incredibly beautiful music, as well as letting her hair down a bit in the battle scene!"Jessica Duchen, Librettist

4 months ago |
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Glyndebourne. Photo: glyndebourne.com/David Illman
Glyndebourne's announcement today of a new competition for young singers is a big deal indeed. The top prize in the biennial Glyndebourne Opera Cup will be £15,000 and a "platform for launching an international career"; the jury consists of directors, agents and head casting honchos from some of Europe's top operatic organisations; and Sky Arts is to televise an associated series of programmes. Preliminary rounds will be held in different cities and the finals at Glyndebourne itself. Dame Janet Baker is honorary president. 
Intriguingly, they have decided to focus on a different composer every time the competition is held - and for the first session in 2018 it is Mozart, with idiomatic accompaniment provided by the OAE. 
The contest is the brainchild of Glyndebourne's general director, Sebastian Schwarz, who says: 
“I’ve been on the judging panels of a number of singing competitions and have seen what works and what doesn’t. When I arrived at Glyndebourne, with its giant reputation for discovering exceptional talent, it seemed an incredible opportunity to design the perfect singing competition from scratch. To me this means offering maximum benefit to those who enter. This is reflected in the jury which comprises esteemed colleagues representing houses that, like Glyndebourne, have a lot to offer competitors as they seek to develop careers. Our ambition is to establish The Glyndebourne Opera Cup as among the premiere competitions of its kind and we are delighted to be partnering with Sky Arts to bring this to a wider audience.”
Singers up to the age of 28 are eligible. Applications open later this year and preliminary rounds will be held in January in Philadelphia, London and Berlin, with the final next summer at Glyndebourne. The jury is:


  • Sebastian F. Schwarz, General Director, Glyndebourne (Chair)
  • Barrie Kosky, Artistic Director, Komische Oper Berlin
  • David Devan, General Director and President, Opera Philadelphia
  • Joan Matabosch, Artistic Director, Teatro Real de Madrid
  • Sophie de Lint, Artistic Director, Zurich Opera and Director designate of Dutch National Opera
  • Fortunato Ortombina, Artistic Director, Teatro La Fenice, Venice
  • Pål Christian Moe, Casting Consultant for Bayerische Staatsoper Munich and Glyndebourne
  • Maria Mot, Associate Director, Vocal & Opera, Intermusica


4 months ago |
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Absolutely stunning news today from the PRS Foundation that the Keychange initiative has been awarded a grant of €200,000 by the Creative Europe Programme of the European Union. The money will enable a new network of female artists and innovators to collaborate and showcase their work at partner festivals from Estonia to Canada. (You can see the participating organisations in the poster above.)

An effort stemming from and building upon the PRS Foundation's experience of running the highly successful Women Make Music fund in the UK, Keychange's far-reaching aim is "to transform Europe's music industry for current and future generations by accelerating recognition of women's artistic and economic value and empowering them to work together across European and international borders".

This talent development initiative will directly benefit 35 music creators and 30 innovative industry professionals, while a digital platform will facilitate the involvement of hundreds more. Participants will be selected through a nomination process and joint selection at the Reeperbahn Festival in Germany in September. The partners plan to present a joint manifesto for change to the European Parliament in 2019.

Vanessa Reed, Chief Executive of PRS Foundation said: “I’m delighted that we’ve succeeded as lead partner in our application to Creative Europe in spite of uncertainties posed by the UK’s decision to leave the European Union. European and international collaboration is essential to the creative and business development of individual artists and the industry as a whole. Keychange’s focus on giving talented women access to international networks and new markets at critical stages in their career will help them realise their potential as future leaders of an industry that is ready for change. I’m proud to be working with such an impressive line-up of festivals and music organisations to realise this ambitious European project which is based on shared values and a joint commitment to shifting the status quo.

Read more about it here.
4 months ago |
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How do you set an atomic bomb to music? To attempt it, you have to think big. Over the centuries, the greatest composers have arguably stood or fallen by their willingness to tackle the giant topics of their time, sometimes those of all time. Bach set the Crucifixion. Beethoven tackled liberty and fraternity. Wagner portrayed the end of the world and its rebirth. In Dr Atomic, John Adams has depicted a night that changed history forever, building up to the test of a nuclear bomb at Los Alamos and, at the last moment, fusing this event with the use of the "gadget" (as some of the characters call it) a few weeks later on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Adams, currently circumnavigating the world for his 70th birthday celebrations, has been in London this week recording the opera with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, finishing with a sort-of-semi-staged concert last night at the Barbican. Although the work was done at ENO when brand new, it isn't performed live often and the chance to be fully immersed in its terrifying world and boundary-crunching approach is not to be missed.

It's a dark, desperate piece that, in exploring an incident that changed humankind into a species capable of destroying its own world, plunges deep into the impulses of the soul - and manipulates our sense of time while doing so. We become intensely aware of the beauty and wonder of the world, the sensuality of it heightened by the poetry selected by Peter Sellars for the libretto, while intensifying the consciousness of horrifying imminent destruction.

John Adams. Photo: Vern Evans
The drama is in many ways inward, as Oppenheimer - at first seemingly transfixed by scientific data and the prospect of a "brilliant luminescence" - then becomes increasingly tortured and implicitly terrified by what he has created. In concert, the effect is in some ways more that of an oratorio than an opera: the settings of poems by John Donne, Charles Baudelaire, Muriel Rukeyser and others offer moments of reflection on love, death, sensuality and beauty, set to music that ebbs and flows in waves of shimmering, multifaceted, orchestral gorgeousness, the voices often soaring across the top in widespread extended phrases that reach both stratospheres and profundities of range, often in quick succession.

The personal interactions could be seen as the equivalent of recitatives and are mostly discussions between the men: General Groves bullies Frank Hubbard to predict good weather for the test even though dangerous storms are taking place, and engages in a lighter-hearted exchange with Oppenheimer about diet [dang! I thought Roxanna and I were the first team to put chocolate brownies into an opera, but no...]. Ensembles are few, though mesmerising when they occur - Wilson's dream of falling from the bomb tower is a case in point. Choruses are illustrative, sometimes devastating - the vision of Vishnu in particular - and the chorus's role is to contextualise, comment and evoke, but not especially to be a human presence.

The overarching time-drama of the whole edifice, though, is not so much Bachian as Wagnerian. The entire three-or-so hours of music is a build-up of tension to the final event. In short, we are waiting for a nuclear bomb to explode. At the end, it does.

Along the way, we sense the shifting of history's tectonic plates - keening violins, shuddering double-basses, the inimitable threat from the bass clarinet, visionary swirls of harp, flashes of lightening from piccolo or trumpet, an extraordinary episode early in act II, brass-led, that builds upwards and outwards, transforming its harmonies continually like a passage Wagner forgot to write. And like the fall of Valhalla, like the death of Stravinsky's Chosen Maiden, the release of tension in the final cataclysm is a form of catharsis. In music, after all, these violent ends sometimes presage a renewal of hope. (Having so said, this opera is probably the scariest musical experience I've encountered since first hearing The Rite of Spring.)

Conducted by the composer himself, the BBC Symphony Orchestra played like people possessed, fully matched by the BBC Singers, sounding like an ensemble twice the actual size (they also put believable American twists into their diction). The soloists were pure gold: Gerald Finley, Adams's original, the powerful and vocally luminous Oppenheimer; Julia Bullock radiant and expressive as Kitty, relishing the sensual poetry of "fierce peace"; Jennifer Johnston a dark, aching Pasqualita. The subsidiary male roles were all characterful and persuasive: Brindley Sherratt a fine Teller, Andrew Staples touching as Wilson, Aubrey Allicock a General Groves one wouldn't want to come up against if one was a weather-forecaster, Marcus Farnsworth and Samuel Sakker excellent as Hubbard and Captain James Nolan.

Staging, handled sensitively by Kenneth Richardson, was necessarily limited as the orchestra is absolutely vast, with a heavy-duty, space-eating plethora of percussion; there's not much room to move, so most of the effect was achieved by costumes and lighting. But there's much that can be done with that: a blaze of red light as the explosion begins, the ensemble cover their eyes - then darkness. As the final recorded voice intones Japanese pleas for help, for water for the children, the orchestra switch off their lights one by one until nothing is left but a ground zero in the pitch-black soul of humanity itself.

One might have expected the standing ovation to continue for longer, but the impression was that much of the audience was seriously shaken up by the experience and probably wanted air, which was in short supply. But one overriding image? The bomb explodes; and the composer stands, measuring out the bars with his baton. Humanity can create the horrors of the atomic bomb. Humanity can also create the wonder of great music about giant topics. Adams has done so.

4 months ago |
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