Brutality and the quest for gold. Love in times of war. Race and religion in a conquered land. The American director Peter Sellars rushes headlong towards the precipices of life without fear of heights. No question is too large. No boundary holds him back. The global scrapbook he brings to his work, a seething gallimaufry of cultural experience, has no catalogue or index. Connections are all. If you cannot see how khaki and kabuki, ancient ritual or the electronic cheepings of the jungle link to one another, let alone to the music of Henry Purcell and the English Restoration, you must sort it out for yourself.
Many cannot or will not. Mention of Sellars prompts mockery in some quarters, always the lot of those who stamp an indelible mark on what they do, especially when there’s a whiff of new-age flakery. His staging of The Indian Queen marks the end of Sellars’s five-month residency at ENO, during which he also directed The Gospel According to the Other Mary by John Adams, his long-time collaborator.
It moves and delights. It annoys, baffles and sometimes bores. I was glad when it ended. I was pleased to have gone
Their partnership is musically explosive, as well as immaculately precise
In a studio at Morley College in south London, a group of teenagers are learning how to stand. Some postures naturally convey authority; something as basic as a different way of walking can establish the impression of control. The first time a conductor meets an orchestra, first impressions are all-important; she has, after all, to persuade a large group of musicians to follow her instructions.
That’s right: her instructions. Last year Morley College initiated an introductory course at which young female music students could have a try at conducting for the first time. The event was among a number of constructive responses to increasing anger about the under-representation of women in parts of the classical music world.
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Symphony Hall, BirminghamThe conductor’s sense of line through the slow movement was immaculate, and his control of the huge finale unfaltering
Coliseum, LondonStylised violence, stylish conducting and extended ballets combine in this adaptation of an unfinished work by Purcell, resulting in a fragmentary but sometimes glorious night at the ENO
Photographs from the Eyewitness series
The activist and composer is inspired by the natural processes he sees all around him – but refuses to let politics take charge of the music
It’s not often that a composer sets out their aesthetic and ethical credo as clearly as John Luther Adams has just done for Slate.com. He describes his life and work as an environmental activist, his decision to turn fully to his music, and how the two are symbiotically connected and yet completely different. He talks eloquently about his music as a kind of active non-activism (that may make sense in a minute, hold on) in which he wants to change the consciousness of his audiences not through an explicit “message”, but rather through the specific musical experiences of the works he writes. Take, for example, the epic sweep of Become Ocean, written for the Seattle Symphony Orchestra – inhabitants of the Pacific north-west coast, albeit further south than Alaska, where Adams lives.
More often than not, political art fails as politics, and all too often it fails as art. To reach its fullest power, to be most moving and most fully useful to us, art must be itself. If my work doesn’t function powerfully as music, then all the poetic programme notes and extra-musical justifications in the world mean nothing. When I’m true to the music, when I let the music be whatever it wants to be, then everything else – including any social or political meaning – will follow.
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