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Jessica
Jessica Duchen's Classical Music Blog. Music and writing in London, UK.
1910 Entries
Nice to be able to bring you some good news today. A new high-definition streaming service, designed specifically for classical music, is being launched in the UK and USA by Primephonic, and it serves to tackle several of the biggest streaming frustrations for us all.

The company is a Utrecht-based online store that for a couple of years has had, as its USP, the downloading of studio-quality recordings. As any classical aficionado knows, sound quality has been a big problem for music on the Internet and Primephonic's capacity to bring us an improved experience has been a breath of fresh air in a muddy world. Every track is available to download in 16-bit FLAC file format, i.e. CD quality, and some are more sophisticated still, with availability in studio quality and "premium pro-studio quality" (explore the options here and in more detail here). They now have more than 100,000 tracks available to stream in high-res.

For the streaming service, Primephonic is also aiming to improve the experience for listeners and creators in two further ways: better metadata, which has long been a stumbling block online, and should improve the searching capacity that we need; and crucially, payment to providers. Instead of paying out per track listen, Primephonic plans to pay per second. This should hopefully ensure that more money goes to the classical labels and thence to the artists themselves - it stands, at the very least, a better chance of getting into the bank accounts of musical creators than it does at the moment.

According to Veronica Neo, the company's head of business development, "Primephonic provides a way for streaming to give back more than ever to the classical music industry and a sustainable way for fans to support their favourite artists. As a 100% classical music service, 100% of the revenues stay in the classical industry."

I've been writing for Primephonic's website for a couple of years, doing CD reviews and occasional features (most recently, a big piece about Philip Glass for their just-published print magazine). It's a great pleasure to be involved with a company that has homed straight in on those problems, is determined to find a way to solve them and is thinking big about the possibilities for the future.

You can get a free 30-day trial subscription to Primephonic or sign up for £14.99 per month, here.



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5 months ago |
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When I glanced down at the carrier bags and saw the two gigantic volumes of score, I realised the chap next to me on the Glyndebourne bus was none other than the composer of Hamlet, Brett Dean. "Why Hamlet?" I asked. He grinned: "Why not?"



Hamlet should be a gift for any composer - glorious soliloquies, poetry known to the entire land if not the whole world, a story of bottomless depth and endless possibilities for reinterpretation. It's not as if nobody has set it before: if I remember right, there are around 14 earlier versions, with Ambroise Thomas's effort the best known (though as Saint-Saëns said, "There is good music, bad music and the music of Ambroise Thomas...") Brett Dean's humongous new work for Glyndebourne, though, seems set to shred all competition into musical flotsam and jetsam.

Jacques Imbrailo, John Tomlinson, Allan Clayton
Photo: Richard Hubert Smith
One thing you cannot do if you're turning a play like Hamlet into music is treat it with kid gloves. Dean and his librettist, the distinguished Canadian director Matthew Jocelyn, haven't. They have used only about a fifth of the actual play: Jocelyn has taken it to bits, reassembled it, restructured, redepicted, redreamed. After all, it takes, on average, about three times as long to sing a word as to speak it, so if you set every last line of Hamlet you'd end up with about 15 hours of opera. It would be possible to do it in other ways, retaining more of the poetic monologues which here are often boiled down to a mere handful of lines. But then something else would have to give; one might lose the grand sweep of the dramatic total, the ensemble work, the sonic colour with its imaginative flair.

Although you may find your favourite moments are missing ("Alas, poor Yorick" is in, but "To thine own self be true" is not) the work is masterfully structured. The impression, musically, is rather like a giant symphony of Mahlerian proportions plus some; dramatically it is full of different levels, new insights, magnificent company challenges and a vivid variety of pace and richly explored possibilities.


Symphonic Shakespeare

Allan Clayton as Hamlet
Photo: Richard Hubert Smith
The opera's scenes seem to correspond roughly to the movements of a symphonic work in which the intensity rarely lets up. First, an opening dramatic exposition with slow introduction - Hamlet mourns his father at the graveside before we plunge into Gertude and Claudius's wedding party, at which the prince is drunk and disruptive; and the arrival of the Ghost, all the more chilling for the tenderness between Hamlet and his dead father.

The second main section opens almost as a scherzo, with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern played by two skittish countertenors, and culminates in the play-within-a-play - lavishly decorated with a totally brilliant onstage accordionist plus deconstructed lines from Hamlet's soliloquy that pop in as self-referential touchstones. The 1hr 45min first act closes with the desperate confrontation between Hamlet and Gertrude and the murder of Polonius - a great central climax that leaves Gertrude psychologically eviscerated. We all need the long interval to get our breath back.

Allan Clayton and Barbara Hannigan as Hamlet and Ophelia
Photo: Richard Hubert Smith
Next we turn to Ophelia's madness, death and funeral - an eerie slow movement, full of startling writing that includes a good proportion of the work's best and most interesting music. The dramatic pacing is notable here, building up to an absolute cataclysm as Hamlet cries "I loved Ophelia"; similarly cathartic is the multifaceted finale, with the sword fight and multiple murders that nevertheless retains Horatio's determination, as the match is agreed, to up Hamlet's quota of prize horses to 11. The rest is...silence.

The opera has been planned with Glyndebourne's auditorium in mind. A group of singers take their places in the orchestra pit - and sometimes in the balcony - being used, effectively, as instruments.  Indeed, almost everywhere you look there are people singing, thumping instruments or doing strange things with unusual percussive gadgets... The LPO tweeted this image from the score:



Electronics are subtly woven in, whether using sampled (apparently pre-recorded) extracts of the singers' lines or setting up atmospheric rumbles and roars. Even the more conventional aspects of the instrumentation are clever, clear, often ingenious; for instance, the countertenors of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are aurally shadowed by two clarinets almost trying to edge one another out of the way. As for the designs, Ralph Myers places the action in a Nordic Noir type of design featuring shiftable Scandic white walls with huge windows; Alice Babidge's costumes are contemporary in style, which makes Claudius's crown look faintly ridiculous, but I suspect it's meant to be. Neil Armfield's direction is so organic a part of the work that it is hard to imagine it done in any other way.


To thine own self be true...

To say that it's a superhuman effort, and not only for the composer, is not saying enough. Dean and Jocelyn have risen to the challenge of transforming the play with fearless aplomb, and in so doing have created giant roles for their lead singers.

Allan Clayton's Hamlet may prove the ultimate making of this rising-star British tenor. He is on stage almost all the time; we rarely see anything from anyone else's point of view. A doomed, bearlike desperado, he travels from agonised grief through madness real or imagined and out the other side to the fury of his final (expertly performed) sword fight with David Butt Philip's Laertes. It's a huge sing for this often classically-oriented performer - we have loved his Mozart and Handel although, most recently, he was pushing the boat out further as David in Meistersinger - and he proves himself not only in glorious voice but a master of the stage in every way. For Barbara Hannigan's Ophelia, Dean has created ethereally high, dizzyingly complex arabesquing lines, offset by Sarah Connolly as a persuasive Gertrude, hard-edged in character but mellifluous and radiant of voice. Sir John Tomlinson is the Ghost, as well as the Lead Player and the Gravedigger - an intriguing alignment of the three figures - and owns those scenes with his outsize presence and sepulchral tone.

The chorus frames the action with plenty of impact, plunging into "Laertes shall be king" to launch the second half with maximum oomph. There's also a rewarding plethora of smaller roles, luxuriously cast: Rod Gilfrey as Claudius, Jacques Imbrailo as Horatio, Kim Begley as Polonius and Rupert Enticknap and Christopher Lowrey as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. As for Vladimir Jurowski's conducting, I doubt anyone else could have pulled this off even half so magnificently.

I am reliably informed that some of the stage blood found its way onto a first violin part in the orchestra pit. At least, I think it was stage blood. Pictured left...

You can see Hamlet in a cinema relay on 6 July. Other performances can be found and booked here, and we are promised that the opera will be included in the Glyndebourne tour, with David Butt Philip taking over in the title role.


If you've enjoyed this review...please consider supporting JDCMB's development over the next year by making a donation at this link: https://www.gofundme.com/jdcmb





5 months ago |
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You know the old trope about optimism/pessimism. (No, this post is not about the general election or Brexit.) The glass is half full - or half empty? Which are you?



I'm tending, these days, towards the enjoy-what-you've-got-while-it's-there attitude. I shall drain my half-glass to the last drop - and if I can get a refill, great.

But the same thing can sometimes apply to concert halls. What if you are the soloist who walks into a big auditorium and sees a sea of empty chairs alongside the half that are occupied?

I'm wondering this because I recently went to a recital so disappointing that I didn't want to review it (no, I won't say who it was). The hall was half full. Or, if you prefer, half empty. Perhaps it was an awkward day, or too close to a nasty event that was in the news, but attendance wasn't good. Did this put off our performer?


Hedge backwards

The atmosphere was singularly odd from the start. One way or another, he seemed curt, uncommunicative and peculiarly lackadaisical. He walked on looking as if he'd just got out of bed, or been dragged backwards through the proverbial hedge. He then pressed down the pedal and bowled off at the speed of a sound that didn't match the work he was playing. His tone was shallow, hard and lacking in colour or character. A phone went off towards the end of one piece and my pal and I exchanged glances, in case it was the composer calling to say "Oi, mate, slow down a bit, innit". And then we had to listen to him do to a glorious piece of Bartók the musical equivalent of what the Russians did to Budapest in 1956.

Of course, we can't know for sure what is going on behind such a strange performance. It could be that something deeply upsetting had just happened to him. Maybe he wasn't well, or suffers from devastating stage fright. Perhaps he'd been caught in transport chaos, or had jet-lag, overslept and missed the alarm clock and really had just got out of bed. Yet I wonder how many people in that hall - and it was a lot of people, even if only at half capacity - might have found themselves reflecting that they felt as if this performer didn't want to be there and couldn't be bothered playing his best to so small an audience?


Speak up!

There are different ways artists could handle a difficult evening in a concert hall. They might make an amusing little spoken introduction explaining that they've had to take antihistamines that have fried their brain, therefore the performance might be a bit off. That would at least establish a friendly connection. Or they could change the programme and introduce it with an informal and personal explanation (except our guy had changed his already, without explanation or, as far as I could tell, any logical planning detectable in the sequence of pieces).

If someone is perfectly well, though, and not suffering a situation that can be communicated and then healed by the music, there's a responsibility that comes with presence on a platform that has been graced in the past by the likes of Richter and Gilels. The hall may only be half full, but people have bought tickets, invested time, effort and goodwill in attendance and, mate, they are on your side. They want to hear you play some good music wonderfully. It's your job to deliver. Because if you make them feel - however unintentionally - that you don't want to be there, you hold them in contempt and you really don't give a damn, they're not going to come back for more next time. We want to have sympathy for someone who has a great reputation but is off form on this occasion. We want him to be OK. But it's got to be a two-way process.

I can't remember the last time I didn't stay for the second half of a recital. But on this occasion we decided at half time that we'd got the idea and needed a drink. The hall's loss was Pizza Express's gain.


While you're here...please consider supporting JDCMB's development over the next year by making a donation, however large or small you like, at this link: https://www.gofundme.com/jdcmb





5 months ago |
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I've been thinking about this for a while, so here goes.

I have launched a campaign on GOFUNDME to seek some financial support for JDCMB, because I reckon the only way I can do that without selling my soul is to ask you, my readers. Here is my page and below is the text you'll find there. https://www.gofundme.com/jdcmb

There's a link at the top of the sidebar on the right if you fancy donating at any point later, but it would of course be nice if you did it right away...

THANK YOU!


When I first started JDCMB back in 2004 I could never have envisaged that I’d still be writing it in 2017. It was a complete accident. What were these strange new things called “blogs” anyway? I set up my site to find out. Thirteen years on, JDCMB is attracting more readers than ever and, in the perhaps surprisingly polarised, occasionally vicious and hysterical world of classical music commentary, is often termed by its devotees “the voice of reason”. 

I would love to take JDCMB to the next level and I suspect that you, my readers, would appreciate that: there’d be more regular posts, more exclusive content, more interviews and reviews, perhaps a spot more multimedia. At the moment it’s ad hoc – and I know it could be improved tenfold if I just had enough time to put into it. And time, “in this day and age”, is £. 

Who benefits? You do! Thanks to you, I could write much more of the “content” that you enjoy reading.

Over the years JDCMB and I have weathered a few slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and come through still fighting for the values I, and you, believe in.


JDCMB wants to represent:

• A voice of reason

• Encouragement of the finest and most idealistic in music-making

• Writing about music, ballet, books and related topics in an informal, entertaining yet informative way

• Spreading the message of the unique power of music

• Rejecting trollishness

With your support, I could do a lot more than I can at the moment.

There’d be interviews... 



...reviews and travel reports…


…and even occasional moments of glory...



And the only way to seek financial support for JDCMB without actually selling my soul is to ask my readers for their backing. I know there are quite a lot of you out there and [coughs] you’ve been enjoying free content for many years. Please will you consider stepping up and supporting the site?

Here’s my plan. I’m seeking a total of £5,200 in order to fund writing JDCMB to the tune of £100 a week for one year. In that time I intend to build up the readership still further, post at least twice as often as I currently do, and make the site not just a diversion, but an essential read for those who feel they are “my” audience. If this goes according to plan and has the desired result, we can then think about where to go next. 

The sooner we get started, the better, so please make your pledge now!

To say that I would be grateful to you forever and a day is not saying enough. I shall post a list of JDCMB Patrons at the end of 2017 and again at the end of this first year of funding to thank you officially and publicly. And if all this goes well, I’m hoping to build up a supporters network for which we can develop special offers, get-togethers, concerts and more. 

Meanwhile, if JDCMB speaks to you, that makes me very happy. 

Thank you a thousand times.

Jessica
5 months ago |
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It's Schumann's birthday. Here is Steven Isserlis, one of today's greatest Schumannians, in his Cello Concerto. The composer finished its proofreading six days before he threw himself into the Rhine.

There's a bitter irony that this Brexit-focused general election is on Schumann's birthday. It's hard to know what to do when it is so clear that our country, like Schumann, is on the point of cracking up, in many, many ways. Unless some kind of miracle takes place, it may not recover in our lifetimes.

Please go and vote today. Think of Mrs Pankhurst etc. Voting with brains intact is all we can actually do to try to better our own future.

Incidentally, I stumbled over a fascinating documentary that Steven made about Schumann back in the 1990s. Here's part 1. There's more.

The clinching image of Ghost Variations is the tipping from glory days to terminal struggle (Jelly d'Arányi), sanity to madness (Schumann), freedom to fascism and war (the world) - converging into the same cliff-edge moment. Yet the tipping point is not so easy to find: things happen so slowly, and we are so eager to think the best - the "don't worry, it'll be fine" mindset - that we don't realise what's really going on until it's too late... Schumann's Violin Concerto was the last orchestral work he completed before his suicide attempt and confinement in a mental hospital. It's a story for today and has become so tenfold since I began working on it six years ago.




5 months ago |
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"One chance to do something brave..."

It's all happening. On Saturday I went along to High Wycombe to see a rehearsal of Silver Birch for the first time. The Garsington Youth Company and some of the Adult Community Chorus were in extremely fine fettle and working their socks off, together with the Garsington music staff, the repetiteur, our director Karen Gillingham, the designer Rhiannon Newman Brown, the Foley team from Shepperton Studios, our producer Kate Laughton and many more. I came back reeling a bit.

I'm a novice librettist. OK, I've put together other words to be sung or acted, but this is the first time I've been involved in a complete, fully staged, top-notch, bells-and-whistles creation of a whole brand-new opera. And of course if you've been going to operas for more than 40 years and writing about them and reviewing them for half of that, you think you know what it takes. Or...er...maybe you don't.

Here's a little of what it's really taking to make this opera, after it's been written. This is leaving aside the devising process, the research, the writing, the composing - more of that another time.

Suzy and Patrick working with the youth company
The singers have to learn their roles. That may sound obvious, but it includes, for Silver Birch, a lot of young people and amateurs, and they have been rehearsing every week since the new year. They've all been auditioned. They had to prepare for those auditions and some who prepared for the auditions would have been rejected and would have been disappointed, and people had to audition them and make those decisions and tell them who was in and who wasn't.

The soloists - whom I haven't yet seen in action - have to get to grips with brand-new roles while also being busy with whatever else they're singing at the moment - for instance, our leading lady, Victoria Simmonds, is currently singing Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni at Opera Holland Park. Our conductor, Garsington's music director Dougie Boyd, has his hands full conducting The Marriage of Figaro. And don't get me started on what language orchestral musicians use while practising, at home, a new work they've never seen or heard before.

The director, Karen, has to map out the drama and then rehearse it all. The choreographer, Natasha, is in charge of a small group of brilliant youngsters who suddenly launch into breakdancing in the middle of the drill scene. Rhiannon has to find a way to make the silver birch tree grow, among much else. During the course of the rehearsal, the adult community chorus members are summoned one by one for costume fittings - someone has to make those costumes.

The adult community chorus members are devoting lashings of time and effort to taking part. One of them happens to be Siegfried Sassoon's great-nephew (he was a great help to me in the background research for the opera) and for much of the time he is standing pretty much next to where Bradley Travis will be portraying Sassoon, or at least his ghostly presence.

The music staff are working flat out. Suzy Zumpe leads the music side of the rehearsal, teaching the youth company how to memorise the tricky details of Roxanna's score. "Nothing can grow in this soil" is a line that returns several times, the last note held a different number of beats on each occasion - she finds a trick to help them remember how many and when. And she sings all the female soloist roles herself when they need filling in, with her sidekick Patrick singing all the male ones and the repetiteur, James, bowling along through the piano score.

The stage manager and assistant stage managers are zipping around moving the post that represents the silver birch, adjusting markings, constructing and deconstructing things, and someone has already erected the substantial skeleton two-level set in this school hall. Cups of tea materialise, kindly brewed by one of the assistants. Someone has brought food for the staff's lunch, plus sustaining snacks. One person remarks that during the course of this week they've eaten their body weight in dried fruit.

Everyone has to get there and back. Rhiannon has been stuck on the M25 for hours. The team of three Foley artists (aka our sound-effects gurus) have come up from Shepperton, been to Wormsley to have a look around the theatre and now have come to High Wycombe to see how they will be integrated into the battle scene. And at this point Patrick absolutely excels himself as stand-in sound effects, doing fighter jets, machine guns, mortars and more with vocals alone.

The full score is spread out on a table, a giant publication that has had to be created, proof-read and printed. So has the piano score - the chorus members clutch copies printed with the magic name PANUFNIK in big letters on the front. Someone at Edition Peters had to organise all of that. Every rest, every semiquaver, every word has to be in the right place.

Natasha, who runs a small dance company that specialises in traditional folk dance as well as youth work, can see everyone is knackered and leads a cool-down session at the end of the afternoon. Now the kids' parents are presumably going to have to come and pick them up - indeed, a couple of proud mums have been watching the proceedings for a while. Meanwhile Kate has to organise absolutely every practical detail of absolutely everything, yet seems utterly unflappable and even finds time to drop me back to High Wycombe station.

Final scene. That post in the middle is the silver birch, growing tall and strong.

I do have to take notice and learn some lessons. It's too late to change anything in my text, but I've now twigged that it's really, seriously not a good idea for singers to have a word ending in "t" directly followed by one beginning with "d" and that a few unintended consequences can include the command: "Let's go from 'Driblet'". The kids are unfazed by this, but I quietly sink through the floor.

Over at Garsington, it will be all go, too. People have to work the booking mechanisms, send out the tickets, tell people about the trains, set out the picnic tents, stock the bar, direct the parking. The audience has to find its way to Wormsley. Will they come out at the end singing the Silver Birch Song? I think so - I can't get it out of my head.

We are all connected. All these people, hundreds and hundreds of them, are connected by the one purpose of making this new opera reality. Everyone is connected. Everyone could potentially have their life changed in some way by this thing. To say "we're all in it together" is not enough. This is not a "community opera": it's a community. To stage any opera would mean creating a community, even if the opera has existed for 400 years. This one happens to be new. And it happens to be ours.

I'm not sure I'll ever be quite the same again.

Silver Birch by Roxanna Panufnik is on at Garsington Opera on 28, 29 and 30 July. Get your tickets here.

5 months ago |
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Sir Mark Elder. Photo: (c) Chris Christodoulou

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

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

Time and again, Elder has taken a stand, taken a lead and been given the kudos his stirring, sterling music-making deserves. There's always room for more, too. Let's raise a glass to him today.
5 months ago |
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Richard Goode. Photo: Steve Riskind
Richard Goode cast Beethoven and Chopin in a long shaft of light from Bach's most audacious and complex keyboard Partita, No.6 in E minor. I reviewed his recital in the Southbank's International Piano Series last night for The Arts Desk. Read it here. 


With Goode, a recital is all about the music (that might sound like stating the obvious, but one can’t guarantee it with every pianist these days). The veteran American has an unassuming stage presence, taking to the piano as if sitting down to demonstrate a musical point to friends in his own living room. There is nothing flamboyant in his manner, nor in his musical concepts: simply the sense that he has lived with this music for decades and is pleased to play it for us. He uses a well-thumbed score and a page-turner; no Lisztian feats of memory, and no iPad. The magic is in the tone itself...
PS: Goode turns 74 today. Happy birthday to a much-loved maestro of the piano.
5 months ago |
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I nearly went to the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition this year, but there were a few scheduling clashes. so I'm missing the fun, to say nothing of the Texas margaritas. There is, however, a splendid alternative: live streaming, plus watch-on-demand afterwards. And the finals are being relayed into cinemas on 10 June.

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

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

The quarter-finals continue today and tomorrow, with the semis scheduled for 1 June. Stay tuned.
5 months ago |
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Zenaida Yanowsky in Symphonic Dances: angels, demons and revolution?
Photo: (c) Emma Kauldhar courtesy of Royal Opera House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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