Stravinsky, Debussy and Shostakovich: LPO and Leif Ove Andsnes at the Royal Festival Hall review ****

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London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski, Leif Ove Andsnes (piano)

Royal Festival Hall, 18th April 2018

  • Stravinsky – Symphony in C,
  • Stravinsky – Tango arr. for orchestra
  • Debussy – Fantaisie for piano and orchestra
  • Shostakovich – Symphony No 6 in B minor, Op 54

I am pretty confident that no-one reads the reviews of classical music concerts posted here, not should they, since I know so very little about the music I hear, and what I do learn is ruthlessly plagiarised. But if you do stumble across this “content” by accident it really helps if you like Igor Stravinsky and Dmitry Shostakovich. A combination of my taste and that of those responsible for programming in the finest London venues means there is a lot of these two fellas on show here. More than I had realised.

This was another instalment of the Stravinsky Changing Faces festival at the South Bank, this time from the LPO under Vladimir Jurowski’s baton rather than one of their guest conductors.

Before I get to this a shout out for the free concert in the Hall just before this from members of the LPO Foyle Future First programme. This has been created to nurture talented young musicians who aspire to a career in the orchestra. They kicked off with a bouncy rendition of Stravinsky’s “Dumbarton Oaks” Concerto, then tackled some short pieces by Elliott Carter, Luciano Berio, Edison Denisov as well as Stravinsky’s own Epitaphium, a commemoration piece for flute, clarinet and harp, which acted as the inspiration for the other pieces which, in their turn, commemorate IS. The last piece was the more substantial Furst Igor, Strawinsky by Mauricio Kagel, drawn from Borodin’s opera Prince Igor and showcasing the dramatic singing talents of young bass Timothy Edlin, and some startling percussion effects.

I chanced upon this concert. On the basis of this I will endeavour to seek out any future offerings as should you if you are in the vicinity.

On to the main event. The Symphony in C was first performed in 1940 in Chicago conducted by IS himself. The first two movements, a Haydnesque shuffle with prominent oboe, here taken briskly, and a concertante with strings sandwiched by woodwind, were written in Paris, at the same tine as IS lost his daughter, first wife and mother. No grief on show though in this effervescent neo-classicism. The last two movements were composed after IS had moved to the US and comprise a scherzo with nods to IS’s early works and a slower conclusion focussed on woodwind. The trumpet of, I think, principal Paul Berniston, also got a good workout. Like everything Stravinsky wrote, the more times you listen to it the more you are astounded by how easy it all seemed to come to him, whatever form or style he was writing in, and however “academic” the music. This IMHO is about the best Neo-classical piece ever written.

The proceeding tango for chamber orchestra was originally a piano piece, as revealed by Leif Ove Andsnes later on in his encore. Even the stuff IS churned out for money, like this, is captivating, with strings, guitar, woodwinds and more brass than you might expect. Mr Andsnes is a confident fellow, I’ve heard him play a couple of times before, and have enjoyed his interpretations of Beethoven, the Nordics and Chopin, without being utterly convinced, I regard Debussy as a bit of an occupational hazard, as it often, as here, crops up in the programmes that appeal to me. All that swirling impressionism and general diddling about doesn’t really do it for me I am afraid. The piano being the chief instrumental purveyor of the diddling about tendency for composers so inclined, I wasn’t looking forward to this.

Once again my idiotic prejudices were confounded. The Fantaisie was written in 1890 as part of a prize young Claude secured but only the first movement was performed, leading CD to huffily withdraw it. Every time it was scheduled for performance thereafter, after revisions, he missed his deadlines, so that the original published score only appeared in 1919. The revisions were finally published in 1968. Leif OA has made a signature dish from this later version which is what we heard here. The first movement introduces the theme which turns up in the final allegro, there is a bit of the “exploratory” stuff which worries me but it settles into a tune by the end. The slow movement is grandly Romantic and in F sharp major. I shouldn’t like this but I did. Maybe I have a thing for this key. This moves into the the quicker, colourful¬†finale which is underpinned by a repeated bass figure, and that, dear reader, is why I liked it. Probably because it doesn’t sound much like Debussy.

I don’t know how much rehearsal the orchestra got with the soloists. I am guessing it was limited since the programme implied we were getting the original 1919 version suggesting a bit of miscommunication. It didn’t matter. The more I hear the LPO with VJ at the helm the more I admire their unruffled ability to support, but never, overwhelm the soloist.

There is nothing diddly about Shostakovich’s 6th. After getting back in the Politburo’s good books with the 5th he went and upset the apple cart again with this bizarrely “unbalanced” though not “formalistic” symphony. 18 minutes or so of B minor largo slow movement with one of those never ending intros followed by a funeral march second theme, which is then repeated, but in a very subdued, passive way with solo flute from Juliette Bausor, ending with the briefest of recapitulation of the first themes. Then a scherzo, with trio accent, and strident climax, straight out of the DSCH copybook and a closing rondo, with contrasting waltz, that only needs a few clowns to gallop on stage to be complete and even has the enigmatic William Tell Overture which punctuates his last Symphony No 15. No fourth movement, all done in half an hour, audience always a bit taken aback, then relieved that it’s all over. And that’s the contingent, here thankfully large, who love this stuff. The best parties don’t go on too long. Who knows what it all means.

There is a lot of opportunity for pianissimo in the first movement, with most of the orchestra resting most of the time, and VJ and the LPO were keen to show what they could do. The extended second theme of the Largo was as close to eerie Shostakovichian, chair-pinning, perfection as you could ever want to hear,¬† and the closing presto faultless. Bish, bosh. It might still be on I Player if you’re interested.

Caroline, or Change at the Hampstead Theatre review *****

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Caroline, or Change

Hampstead Theatre, 18th April 2018

How many exceptions does it take before the rule is unproven?

I don’t, as a rule, like musicals, as I have oft repeated on these very pages. I absolutely adored this though. That might be because it isn’t your classic show tunes, jazz hands, fake emotion overload. It might be because Jeanine Tesori’s eclectic score ranges across the history of African-American music, (with help from Jewish American music, and plenty more besides), and reminds us how lost contemporary human culture would be without it. it might be because CoC is operatic in intent and form. It might be because it is through-composed with no awkward recitative exposition. It might be because it is formally inventive, what with its singing appliances, swinging moon (!), split level and revolving stage, courtesy of Fly Davies, and repeated metaphors. It might be because Tony Kushner is a playwright, and here book and lyric writer, of fierce intelligence, politically engaged, unafraid of tackling big issues, or incorporating his own, real, experiences into his work. It might be because Sharon D. Clarke is just about the most powerful actor to be seen anywhere on the British stage. There are moments in this where her entire body quivers under the weight of Black American history. And when she sings. OMG as the young’uns would have it. And she’s not the only one knocking it out the park. Abiona Omanua as Emmie runs her a pretty close second in her own way.

This production was praised to the skies on its original outing at Chichester. I believed the hype, but ummed and ahhed about booking for the Hampstead transfer, trying to rope in some chums. No takers, the SO didn’t bite, her aversion to musicals being ideologically sounder than mine, so I ended up taking the plunge on my tod. In the end it was probably more the urge to collect productions of Mr Kushner’s work that swung it rather than these reviews. At times I was engrossed by both Angels in America at the NT and IHO here at Hampstead even if, ten minutes later, I baulked at his indulgence. His translation of Mother Courage was also used in the so-so recent production of Mother Courage at Southwark Playhouse. I can see why he likes Brecht.

Well I only need to have paid attention to the 5* reviews, and so should you now that this is transferring to the Playhouse Theatre, from late November through to early February next year. I strongly recommend you get tickets. And don’t skimp. It is rubbish upstairs in the Playhouse and you need to take in all the set. I also see that the prices for decent seats, whilst not cheap, are not eye-gougingly expensive.

Music first. Jeanine Tesori’s score is magnificent. I assume it was composed for the orchestral forces on show in this production, 11 strong, with Nigel Lilley conducting. They are certainly put through their paces with Haydnesque chamber passages, a Jewish klezmer dance, hymns and folk tunes wedded to gospel, blues, soul, jazz and spirituals. And still room for a couple of show-tunes. If this all sounds a bit rich, it isn’t. The rhythms are simple and infectious and the melodies and motifs clear and recognisable even to this untrained ear. Ms Tesori doesn’t waste a note. What is most extraordinary is how she renders Tony Kushner’s text so immediately musical, as, presumably, he doesn’t write that way. There is a good interview in the programme, as there always is, from Will Mortimer of the Hampstead Theatre, with TK and JT where they describe their creative process. They seem to like working together. There is also an article written by TK setting out the genesis of CoC and a helpful essay on domestic workers in the US from slavery through the civil rights movement to the present day The HT programmes are always excellent in this regard, with material directly relevant to the production and not too removed or abstract as can sometimes be the case.

Whilst all of the orchestra sounded terrific to me I would highlight the brass and woodwind contributions of Alice Lee and John Graham. Their instruments were always likely to get the lion’s share of the expressive lines, given Mr Kushner is unafraid of emotion, but they sure know how to deliver them. In total I counted 53 songs. Like I say there is no filler, but you can work out for yourselves that, across the couple of hours of performances this means nothing outstays its welcome, so we have dynamism to match the musical invention.

So what’s it about? It is the 1960s in Lake Charles, Louisiana. It is hot and humid.. Caroline Thibodeaux is an African American mother of four kids, Emmie, whose consciousness is being raised by the Civil Rights protests, Jackie and Joe (I am really sorry I don’t know which young actors where in the hotseat on the day of the performance I attended), and an elder son in the army. Caroline’s drunk, abusive husband is long gone. She works as maid to the Gellman family, Stuart Gellman, his second wife Rose Stopnick Gellman, and young Noah (based on Tony Kushner himself). We also get to meet Caroline’s friend Dotty Moffett, trying to “better herself” through night school, and the Gellman grandparents and Grandpa Stopnick, in various imagined scenes, and when they visit Louisiana from New York.

Oh and we are introduced to a singing washing machine, a dryer, a Supremes style trio representing the radio, a moon on a swing and a bus. As you do. These fantasy elements make perfect sense in the context of the story Kushner and Tesori are telling, and provide further contrasts to the already rich mix created by Ms Tesori’s music and by Mr Kushner’s sharp, poetic, lyrical, emotional, analytical, metaphysical and often very funny lyrics. One detail in particular, the illuminated red ring around Ako Mitchell’s neck, to simulate the dryer, but suggesting something way more horrific from America’s past, shows just how many ideas are at work here.

In 1963 self-absorbed Noah is 8, (sorry, as with the boys, I can’t be sure who played Noah), and prone to bothering Caroline, and lighting her cigarettes, as she launders in the Gellman house basement. Noah’s mum recently died of cancer and the relationship with step-mum is delicate. Stuart, still grieving, and Rose’s relationship isn’t perfect either. Caroline gets paid $30 a week. Rose offers her food rather than a raise, and later, condescendingly suggests she take the small change the family leave in their pockets, especially Noah. This idea of change, (both personal for Caroline, and politically for her family and community), and of the unequal economic relationship between the Gellmans and Caroline, of which they are all acutely conscious, is central to the drama, and presents an extraordinarily powerful metaphor.

The assassination of JFK, and his legacy, and the destruction of a statue of a Confederate soldier at the local Lake Charles courthouse, provide wider social and political context and, in the case of the latter, acute contemporary resonance, given, for example, the ugly events last year in Charlottesville. The politics ramps up before, during and after the Chanukah party in the first half of Act 2, which, for me, served up half an hour of the most vital theatre I have seen ever seen anywhere. The aftermath of the party, and an elusive $20 bill, prompts a bust up between Caroline and Noah and then some sort of spiritual epiphany for Caroline, culminating in the passionate song Lot’s Wife, which made me, and half the audience, quietly blu. Emmie though has the last, defiant, word.

Caroline is angry, sullen and resentful at the hand that life has dealt her, but her faith, her dignity, her conditioning and the stark fact that she needs to feed her family, means she cannot fight back. Emmie, from the next generation, can though. Mr Kushner points out in the programme how damaging the failure to resolve issues of race and poverty has been to the American politic, but he also offers a message than change is still possible.

The Hampstead stage is just about big enough to contain the set, though I gather it was more expansive at Chichester, but small enough to let us savour every line and note. I don’t think I missed a word and Michael Longhurst’s direction was exemplary (if you’ve see Amadeus at the National you’ll know what he’s about), ably assisted by Ann Yee’s intricate choreography.

In my own little fantasy world of reviews on this blog site I dole out stars like candy, largely because I get so excited with how much marvellous culture London offers that I really do feel like I am in the proverbial sweet shop. This though is a brook no argument 5* masterpiece.

The best thing I have seen this year. And I was perched up in the gods wishing I was much closer and had booked sooner.

You must see it.