Sergey Khachatryan (violin), Alisa Weilerstein (cello), Inon Barnatan (piano), Colin Currie (percussion), Owen Gunnell (percussion), Sam Walton (percussion)
Wigmore Hall, 11th February 2019
Ludwig van Beethoven – Piano Trio in D Op. 70 No. 1 ‘Ghost’
Arnold Schoenberg – Verklärte Nacht Op. 4 (arr. Eduard Steuermann for piano trio)
Rolf Wallin – Realismos Mágicos
Dmitry Shostakovich – Symphony No. 15 in A Op. 141 (arr. Victor Derevianko for piano trio and percussion)
OK so this didn’t quite go to plan. I was intrigued by the classical supergroup combination, the composers and the arrangements, but probably should have put a little more effort in to checking in advance whether I liked said arrangements. Always do your homework Tourist.
The Ghost was a success, as you might expect from this glittering trio of soloists and because it is Beethoven, thus being immune to criticism. I find that this pivotal work can either be taken with a Classical tilt, building on the master Haydn, or with a more forceful attitude, presaging the muscular Beethoven still to come. (Remember LvB previous contributions to the piano trio form were the three that formed his Op 1) This trio opted for the former with sometimes glittering results. The Ghost owes its name to the supernatural melodies of its slow movement. Apparently LvB was working on a possible opera based on Macbeth which perhaps explains the mood. It is the light and shade of the Allegro first movement and the full sonata form of the Presto finale which also explain its popularity with performers, including our friends here, alongside its “Archduke” Op 70 cousin.
Verklarte Nacht seems to follow me around like a drunken dinner party guest who will not accept that it is time for beddy-byes. I hoped that this cut-down version of the string quartet, from Schoenberg groupie Edward Steuermann, with the piano talking four of the string lines and violin and cello flying solo concertante style, might dilute the syrupy sweetness of the original. Afraid not, despite the best efforts of our musicians. It still sounds like knock off Wagner to my ears. And that is not a good thing. There are apparently five sections and a coda. Search me.
The Rolf Wallins virtuoso marimba piece, Realismos Mágicos, was a chance for Colin Currie to show off, just because he can. And he did, in some style. It is inspired by 11 short stories from Gabriel Garcia Marquez, hence the title.
So to Shostakovich 15. The symphonic version is sparse,enigmatic, suffused with DSCH’s own mortality, which is percussion and string heavy. So in theory this arrangement, for piano trio and various tuned, (xylophone and glockenspiel), and untuned, percussion should have worked. Unfortunately it doesn’t. Shostakovich needs woodwind and brass like a sandwich needs cheese and pickle (chez Tourist). I can see why the arranger, pianist Victor Derevianko, thought this would make sense after playing it through, for the censors, on the keyboard in 1971, and why DSCH agreed to the idea. And, with these fine musicians, there were clearly going to be passages that convinced; in the first movement, where the percussion is used to set up the quirky, black comedy, symbolised by the William Tell extract, and the finale, where uncertainly builds to repeated climaxes before the clockwork countdown to unremarkable oblivion. Where it disappoints, compared to the orchestral original, is in the slow movement and scherzo. A crowded Wigmore stage also condensed the sound which the Hall’s acoustic couldn’t quite
Definitely then a “it’s not you, it’s me” evening. Or maybe a soon to be forgotten one night stand. Either way I am sorry.
Moscow Pushkin Drama Theatre, Barbican Theatre, 9th February 2019
I am a sucker for these Russian theatre companies. Despite the fact that I can’t say I was bowled over by the last visits of the Maly Drama Theatre of St Petersburg and the Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre of Russia. Much to admire but they don’t half go on a bit. Still it’s the idea of seeing Russian drama in Russian that appeals to this culture vulture. So I signed up for the Chekhov Cherry Orchard and this Brecht classic in an instant, though given that past experience, I went for the cheap seats just in case.
Which turned out to be a wise choice in the case. of The Cherry Orchard. No review for the simple reason that I only made it to the interval. To be absolutely clear this was not because it is a poor play, I have seen TCO on many occasions and when it works it can be as good as theatre gets, (though I prefer Uncle Vanya’s dose of comic deprecation alongside all the revelatory ennui). Translation is, and was, not a problem, though this version felt a bit peremptory, and my eye was a little caught between the sur-title banners. A minor irritation. Nor was I phased by the vogue-ish set and setting. A raked stage, made up of various entrances, a kind of crucifix in the centre, expressionist lighting, modern-ish dress, devoid of samovar and birch, stylised choreography with multiple “crowd tableaux”. Maybe the production advertised its Absurdism a little too loudly but nothing the Tourist can’t deal with having seen, and enjoyed, some challengingly bonkers stuff in the last few years. Creatives can, and should, arse about with Chekhov. The old boy can take it.
Nope the problem for me was that, amidst all this invention from director Vladimir Mirzoev and team, which certainly looked brilliant, and lent rhythm and context to the drama, Chekhov’s philosophical musings got a bit lost along the way. There was some pretty heavy-handed symbolism; one or two little sailor-suited Grishas, Madame Raneskaya’s dead son kept popping up, Lopakhin was sex symbol as well as vulgar, proto-capitalist, governess Charlotta, in full on Kate Bush Withering Heights mode, becomes a kind of spirit presaging the coming Revolution, there are blood-bags standing in for the Orchard !!!!. If there was a meaning in the text, or in the sub-text, then this production wasn’t going to hold back from offering up a visual signifier to make sure the you didn’t miss it. TCO is so much more than a bunch of air-head, spendthrift aristos blind to what is happening around them. There are individuals wrestling with their own destinies and there are relationships to be unpicked.
I could see the parallels with the world today, an exalted elite about to be overwhelmed by a populist wave, interesting in the context of modern Russia, but it was also pretty clear that this wasn’t for me. So I missed the techno party in swimsuits and Alexander Petrov turning Lopakhin into a full-on oligarch, but I think it was the right call.
What it did do though was get the juices flowing for The Good Person of Szechwan. If this was the way a Russian company was prepared to shake up their own uber-dramatist, what might they do with the German sage, albeit with a different director, Russian wunderkind Yury Butusov in the hot seat. The last time I saw TGPOS was so long ago I had forgotten the details but I did remember it makes a few strong points tellingly well, even if it takes it time to do so, it is long on tunes and that whoever plays Shen Teh earns their fee.
Basics first. Brecht completed the play in 1941 by which time he was in the US though its first performance was in Zurich in 1943. Long-time collaborators Margarete Steffin and Ruth Berlau worked with Brecht, and the score and songs were created by Swiss composer Huldreich Georg Früh. However in 1947, Paul Dessau created and alternative collection of songs which is now the standard and which was used in this production. TGPOS has all the Brechtian “epic theatre” hallmarks though it was obviously inspired by an interest in the conventions of Classical Chinese drama, not just in terms of subject, a parable involving the intervention of gods on humans, but also the situation and performance style. There is also, to my eyes, more than a nod to classical Geek drama, with the intervention of the Gods at beginning and, in the trial, at the end. As well of course, as a classic double identity plot.
The original title translates in German as “love as a commodity” but also, in a different spelling as ‘true :one” which gives a fair idea of Brecht’s target. Shen Teh is a prostitute who struggles to live a “good life” in line with the morality handed down by the gods. Everyone around her takes advantage of her generosity to the point where she invents an alter ego male Shui Ta, to protect her interests. Shen Teh meets a suicidal unemployed pilot, Yang Sun, with whom she falls in love, but he too, egged on by his mum. only ends up exploiting her. Eventually Shen Teh deception is revealed and a trail ensues.
And so we have a dualism, a dialectic if you will, between gender, between altruism and exploitation, between the individual and society. Economic substructure defines the morality in the human superstructure; the gods gift Shen Teh the money to buy her tobacco shop, the relations between Shen Teh and her customers and her landlord, Yang Sun pretending to love Shen Teh to get his hands on her capital. There is also, for me, a religious dimension. Why won’t the all powerful goods intervene to prevent this naughty humans getting up to no good rather than piling all the pressure on Shen Teh? It’s not subtle but it’s still vital.
So plenty to get your teeth into if this is the bag you are into. Which I most definitely am. This being Brecht, there is plenty more beyond the Marxist, (filtered through the writings of theoretician Karl Korsch,) economics lesson. We begin, for example (after bit of sand play) in the prologue with a direct address to us, well the Gods, through the character of Wong, the unfortunate water seller, he played by Alexander Matrosov, in a somewhat disturbing, palsied “village idiot” manner. (I have to assume Russian audiences have a rather less enlightened attitude to disability). The set, designed by Alexander Shishkin is spare, and dark, denoting a “derelict, abandoned world” according to the programme, with props, (chairs, beds, bicycles, a noose, dogs – you know the usual apocalyptic detritus), scattered across the Barbican stage and three birch trees shielding a backdrop for sledgehammer visuals (Diane Arbus’s twins a particular brazen favourite). The lighting design of Alexander Sivaev is suitably harsh, though effective. The jazzy Dessau score and songs, in German, are used in their entirety though the on-stage band, under director Igor Gorsky, doesn’t skimp on additional eclectic arrangement and material, even some incongruous dub and EDM.
A well choreographed Anastasia Lebedev plays all the Gods, and Alexander Arsentiev is Yang Sun, here just Unemployed Man. The rest of the cast (with a few familiar faces from The Cherry Orchard) loads up on supporting roles with no doubling and the whole ensemble moves, sings and performs with gusto. And that is certainly the case with a shouty Alexandra Ursulyak in the lead role, for which she has been garlanded in Russia. Apparently the production is rooted in the concept of “behavioural plasticity” which is a real biological thing where organisms react to changing external stimuli. And there was me thinking they were acting. Anyway Ms Ursulyak’s torn fishnets, shiny plastic mac and gars make-up for Shen Teh, and baggy pinstripe suit, bowler and pencil moustache screamed alienated cabaret Weimar which persuaded me.
There were a few scenes which lagged (200, 330, 500 silver dollars) but, overall, as it should be with competent Brecht the 3 hour 20 minute running time wasn’t a chore, given a translation to follow, political lessons to be absorbed, songs to enjoy, after a fashion, and Shen Teh’s journey to absorb. And some cracking stagecraft. Rice rain anybody? Or better still a deluge of fag packets? The production first appeared in 2013, and I’ll warrant will be playing for many years yet.
The Tourist consumes a play that explores the contradiction between morality and capitalism, especially the commodification of relationships, bought to London by its most famous Russian oligarch emigre. Pick the bones out of that BD.
Philharmonia Orchestra, Peter Eötvös (conductor), Iveta Apkalna (organ), László Fassang (Hammond organ)
Royal Festival Hall, 7th February 2019
Arnold Schoenberg – Accompaniment to an Imaginary Film Scene, Op. 34
Bela Bartok – Dance Suite
Igor Stravinsky – Symphony in Three Movements
Peter Eotvos – Multiversum
A sort of panic purchase this. It is a bit of a faff to use credit for returned tickets at the South Bank. Forgot that a chunk of said credit was about to expire and had already booked most of the concerts I was keen to see. So a bit of fat finger fact finding on the phone ahead of a booked concert and this was the result. Which I promptly forgot about until it popped up in the diary. Still you can’t go wrong with a bit of Bartok and Stravinsky right, and the Eotvos piece (a UK premiere) look like a lark.
Well up to a point. As it turns out Multiversum was a thing to behold but the rest of the programme was less convincing.
What with his Blue Reiter and Expressionist mates, his own daubing and his atmospheric, serialist diddling, Schoenberg was a shoe-in for a film score commission but when it came in 1929, purist that he was, he turned it down and itself wrote this, for an “imaginary” film. It is made up of three moods, Threatening Danger, Fear and Catastrophe and is as dull as everything else I have heard by Schoenberg, whether it be late Romantic gushing, atonal, tonal, or twelve tone. Maybe one day I’ll get it but not so far.
I’ve said before that Bartok’s music is equally fascinating and baffling for me. The Dance Suite manages to be both at the same time. He was commissioned by the Budapest municipality to come up with something which could restore some pride in a Hungary battered by the WWI peace settlement. It’s six movements work as a kind of musical memento mori for the Hungary of history with folk dance music with distinct Hungarian, Romanian and Arabic characters. Like all of Bartok he doesn’t hang around ideas wise so just when you have got your head around one melody he is on to the next one. There are some punchy passages notably in the second Allegro molto (which seems to end with “The Hills Are Alive” !!), the proceeding Allegro vivace and the short, spooky Comodo. The Finale is a suite all by itself. Played the right way, as in the recording I have by the Chicago SO under Solti it is up there with the best of the Stravinsky ballets and Ravel’s most atmospheric works. Here it felt a bit underwhelming.
Things perked up with the Stravinsky, which I have always felt has an air of Shostakovich about it, despite the fact that IS thought DSCH was an appalling hack. The Symphony in Three Movements is really just three, admittedly brilliant and imaginative, movements, written at different times, which IS cobbled together. The Overture: Allegro is as exciting as anything he ever wrote with its motoric string march proceeded by a woodwind and piano scamper. IS was at the height of his fame in New York at the end of WWII and his ballet music was even sampled by Disney. This movement could have fallen straight out of The Rite of Spring albeit with a neo-classical lilt. The Andante: Interlude, L’istesso tempo is led by the harp and was originally intended for a film, The Song of Bernadette. It too has a balletic feel. The finale, Con Moto, was tacked on ahead of the 1945 premiere and comprises a lolloping march, woodwind burble and more keyboard accompaniment. I have heard more urgent and involving performances but Mr Eotvos drove the Philharmonia a little harder than in the prior two pieces to good effect.
Now the composer says the Multiversum was written to channel his interest in “string theory, gravitational waves and the relationships between multiple universes”. Uh oh. I have nothing about contemporary composers describing what prompted and inspired them, and programmatic music has a long history, but sometimes …….. Anyway there are certainly passages in Multiversum where Mr Eotvos goes a little bit B movie, sci-fi on our collective arses, (though thankfully no ondes martenot or electronica), but, cumulatively, across its 35 minutes it does leave a monumental impression. This is largely down to the innovative combination of pipe organ and Hammond organ and the way the orchestra, which is not vast, is placed and combined.
The 20 strong string section was positioned to the audience left, woodwinds to the right, with brass and percussion scattered through the back of the stage. The Hammond organ allows for various pulse-y, lengthened effects, while the main pipe organ, in step-wise motion, generates the throb that sits behind the soundscapes. Together they do say “cosmos” even if at times it was more film score than the mind being stuff of, say, Ligeti or Xenakis.
There are three movements, Expansion, Multiversum and Time and Space, with a kind of Bach-ian construction – Prelude, Toccata, Chorale- though I couldn’t work out much in the way of themes or ideas. There were though some undeniably impressive passages, with inventive harmonies and waves of repetition, and I would happily listen to the piece again, but the influences of Mr Eotvos’s Hungarian heritage, and years spent with Stockhausen and Boulez, were not immediately apparent. He seemed to be having a lot of fun though as did the two soloists and the PO. Iveta Apkalna, dressed in a long, Gothic frock coat, certainly added drama on the RFH’s mighty organ, (her own baby is the brand spanking new Klais organ in the Elbphilharmonie), and Laszlo Fassang showed why he has the market in “classical” Hammond organ sewn up.
Pinter at Pinter Seven: A Slight Ache/The Dumb Waiter
Harold Pinter Theatre, 7th February 2019
Daniel John Dyer, landlord of the Queen Vic, go to cinematic hardman, fan of West Ham and coke, protege of Harold Pinter and now some-time political sage. There is his youthful mug. Say what you like he’s hard to ignore.
Never haven see the fella on stage or screen before, for me he was simply the geezer who seemed to be the reason why the £15 seat I had rushed to secure for the Pinter season had been bumped up to a whopping £35 for this final instalment in the one-act series. After all, up to know the cream of British acting had been paraded at bargain basement prices to showcase HP’s genius. On this basis I reasoned that the premium wasn’t due to the unreasonable demands of Gemma Whelan, Martin Freeman or John Heffernan, though anyone of these talents might deserve it. Nope it had to be down to our Danny.
Well it turns out he was worth every penny. As, of course, were his three colleagues. But it is easy to see why HP saw something in DD. Of course as Reservoir Dogs style hit-man Ben, holed up with partner, Gus (Martin Freeman), in the basement of an eclectically menu-ed Brummie restaurant, waiting for instructions for the next job, DD is the very definition of typecast. However what bowled me over was the effortlessly easy way he delivered the dialogue. Some, for what of a better word, poncier, actors tend to deliberate over HP’s words, pausing, in actorly fashion, before the pauses, straining a bit too hard to bring meaning to the vernacular.
Not Danny Dyer. He gets stuck in. As if HP’s language were the most natural thing in the world. Which it is. Most people do not talk, even at times of stress, as if they have just swallowed a dictionary. Conversation is direct, vocabulary constrained. That doesn’t mean however that meaning is clear or simple. Far from it. Meaning, especially when visual cues are incorporated, is slippery, complex, confusing. (Remember HP leaves nothing to chance when it comes to stage directions too), Now the last thing you need, or want, is some luvvie baking on about sub-text, but honestly when a playwright puts words that say one thing but mean another into his or her characters, a whole new world of understanding can open up for you, the observer, which you might not normally reflect on in your own existence.. Art illuminating, not imitating, life.
HP takes the everyday, the colloquial, common parlance, shorthand, the idiomatic expression, often archaic, cliche, repetition, surprising syntax, and suffuses it with poetry and buckets of meaning. And not just threat and menace. Longing, yearning, disappointment, fear, anxiety, disgust, dismissal. You get the picture. If you don’t there are countless PhD theses which will explain. As HP said “one way of looking at speech is to say it is a constant stratagem to cover nakedness”.
The point is Danny Dyer speaks like a Pinter character. Even when he isn’t a Pinter character. And I don’t just mean hardpan menace. As Ben becomes more perturbed by the messages coming down from above, literally via the dumb waiter, he is just as convincing. His awkward distress may take the form of attempts to subjugate Gus, but it is still palpable. Of course, it wouldn’t work without an actor of Martin Freeman’s calibre opposite him. Gus may be the junior partner, and MF may well be the go-to when it comes to affable sidekick on screen, but here he pushes back, no keen-to-please submissive, taking the lead in responding to Wilson, the unseen, omnipotent architect of their situation. Gus questions authority, Ben conforms.
The Dumb Waiter is a bloody marvellous play but these two are equally bloody marvellous in their performance, capturing the ebb and flow before the admittedly unsurprising betrayal. The play was written in 1957, so contemporary with The Room, The Birthday Party and just before A Slight Ache and The Caretaker, though it was first performed in Frankfurt in 1959 before coming to Hampstead Theatre Club in 1960 alongside The Room. Later plays may have more depth but if you want a distillation of the Pinter form then this is it. You will have seen this set-up a million times before – echoes of gangster movie, Beckett, music hall double act – but you will never have seen any other writer or director do so much with it. Well maybe Martin McDonagh with In Bruges. I hope Mr McDonagh remembers HP in his prayers every evening (though I suspect he is an atheist), such is his debt.
From the first confounding response of Gus to Ben’s reading out of the newspaper story “who advised him to do that”, through to the last fateful instruction, we learn everything we need to know about Gus, Ben, the relationship between them, and their relationship with the “boss”, in just under an hour with the action confined to a windowless “cell”. Yet we have no biography, no definitive purpose and no apparent context. And most of the time they are babbling about tea, biscuits, crockery, football, broken toilets and the restaurant orders. That’s Pinter for you.
The Slight Ache started life as a radio play in 1958 and this is how Jamie Lloyd sets out in his direction, per Katie Mitchell’s Beckett productions, with Gemma Whelan and John Heffernan acting it out in a studio, complete with sound effects, before gradually shifting to a more “realistic” delivery. The outsider threat here initially takes the form of a wasp which Edward entreats his wife Flora to trap. It is a fine summer’s morning in the garden of the posh couple. Order is restored until Edward sees a match-seller stationed outside the lane by the house. The match-seller is old, deaf and has a glass eye but his presence annoys, angers and eventually terrifies Edward. In contrast Flora offers sympathy, affection and protection to the stranger. And thus the marriage is dissected.
Once again we descend from classic comedy set-up, here mid-period Ayckbourn-ish comedy of manners into absurd Beckettian existential angst, but all overlaid with HP’s barbed argot, albeit here the accents go beyond cut-glass to finest crystal. Once again Jamie Lloyd has found just the actors for the job. John Heffernan, who will still look fresh-faced in his seventies, lends Edward a cry-baby-ish, patronising insecurity from the start. Here is an actor who so inhabits a role that you can’t imagine anywhere else up on stage. However I thought he was actually outshone by Gemma Whelan who, IMHO, should get herself bumped off in that Game of Thrones and demand a meaty stage role tout suite. It is almost as if the ability to create sound is a metaphor for Flora’s own emergence from Edward’s control.
Yet the master-stroke is actually the third character, the match-seller. Or rather his absence. Most stage adaptations serve up an actual actor, with varying degrees of scary appearance. Not JL though. In keeping with the “radio play” conceit, the old boy is only imagined. Stops it becoming literal home invasion, “posh people’s fear of the great unwashed’. tropes and firmly centres it on the unacknowledged pain and desire at the heart of the couple’s life. Less than an hour to nail everything Martin Crimp has not quite delivered across a playwriting career.
Now I know that some will continue to find HP’s deliberate obtuseness frustrating if not annoying. I sympathise. There are times during this season when I have wondered what the point was and where this was all going. The humour sometimes isn’t funny, the politics unsubtle, the inversion of misogyny uncertain, the repetition of form turns to cliche. But across the seven instalments and twenty one-act plays, (plus all the incidental miscellany), the what, how and why of Harold Pinter’s work has gloriously emerged. It turns out that Pinteresque doesn’t just mean pauses, threatening strangers, cockneys with an odd turns of phrase, greedy toffs, confused women in beds, emasculated blokes and incipient fascism. It is about what lies within us and how that comes out.
Highlights of the season?
Soutra Gilmour’s sets and costumes. Variations on a set of themes. just like the plays.
Jamie Lloyd channeling the spirit of HP himself in his direction.
Kate O’Flynn standing firm against totalitarianism in Mountain Language and then nearly making sense of Ashes to Ashes alongside Paapa Essiedu.
Hayley Squires showing why she will be a Dame one day. Though I say this second-hand as I failed to get to Pinter Two but I know it to be true.
Lee Evans coming out of retirement to do what only he can do in Monologue.
Tamsin Greig. Beth. Landscape. Microphone. That’s all you need to know.
Brid Brennan, Janie Dee and Rupert Graves showing what is possible even when HP slips a little.
The line-up at the end of Celebration and regret at not having seen Tracy-Ann Oberman on stage often enough.
Danny Dyer looking like he has just sh*t his load when the scampi order comes through. And that from Row U.
The set-up for A Slight Ache.
I shall miss being stuck in HP’s spider web. And I shall miss revelling in acting and directing of this quality. Betrayal still to come though.
Guildhall School, Milton Court Theatre, 5th February 2019
The Tourist has remarked before on the benefits of checking out the productions staged at Britain’s major theatre schools. Excellent actors and creatives destined to to go on to greater things, usually professional directors, interesting repertoire, often first revivals of recent lauded plays, and usually a bargain, no more than a tenner in most cases. Right now a quick perusal shows a production of Orca by Matt Grinter at the Bristol Old Vic, one of my top ten plays of 2016, Alice Birch’s Anatomy of a Suicide at the Royal Central School opposite the Hampstead Theatre, similarly a top tenner in 2017, Woman and Scarecrow by Irish dramatist Marina Carr at RADA, Pomona by Alistair McDowall, (who should turn up with a new play at the Royal Court soonish), which I contrived to miss at both the Orange Tree and the National, a Doctor Faustus at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Boy at the Mountview Academy, a success a few years ago at the Almeida, a production of Peter Flannery’s Our Friends in the North, which you might know from the TV adaptation, at the Manchester Metropolitan School of Theatre, the adaptation of Nikolai Erdman’s classic The Suicide by Suhayla El-Bushra, which I loved at the National in 2016, and man of the moment Martin Crimp’s shocker Attempts On Her Life at the Guildford School.
Not bad eh. I strongly suggest you follow what they are up to if you love theatre. Makes a change from spunking £60 or £70 on a West End or NT turkey.
So this is how I came to see Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit. Ms D’Amour was, and still, is something of a bright young thing in US theatre, and now interdisciplinary performance, (for which read site specific extravaganza), circles, with a long association with the Steppenwolf Company. Detroit was a Pulitzer finalist and it is pretty easy to see why. It focuses on the unravelling of the American Dream (as do, I loosely estimate, 50% of all US plays, with the other 50% centred on dysfunctional families), but with a twist as it is set, metaphorically at least, in the suburban sprawl of Detroit, colonised, like so many American cities by whites fleeing the centre in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. Around half of all Americans live in suburbs apparently.
Anyway all is not well in this particular street. The marriage of Mary (Poppy Gilbert) and Ben (Oli Higginson) is under pressure. Ben has been made redundant from his job at the bank but claims to be seizing the opportunity to strike out on his own as a financial adviser by setting up a website, armed with self-help homilies. Neurotic paralegal Mary is all about appearances and is a bit too fond of the drink. Things seem to take a turn for the better when younger couple Kenny (Nick Apostolina) and Sharon (Laurel Waghorn) move in. They come with an admitted past of drug abuse but our now clean, working in a warehouse and a call centre and, whilst they haven’t much in the way of bucks, they appear excitingly YOLO’ish and curious to make friends. Cue a round of BBQs in their respective backyards. Eventually they all get sh*tfaced and things, shall we say, get a little out of hand. The truth, and a blast of nostalgia, emerges when Kenny’s uncle Frank (Wyatt Martin) pays a visit.
Ms D’Amour’s dialogue is vibrant and dynamic, the characters are interesting and well matched, the plot is sufficiently engaging and the themes it examines are never oversold. It resembles a kind of modernised, reversed, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf which is no bad thing. It doesn’t have the range, acerbity, humour or pain of Albee’s classic but in its odd, twitchy, serendipitous way it manages to make the mundane come to life on the stage. It asks for performances from the four leads beyond the naturalistic, but not lurching into the exaggerated, which director Charlotte Westenra grasped, and the set design of Charlie Cridlan, albeit with a little man-handling from cast and SMs, did the job.
At the end of the day I guess the point is that all four of them are living a lie, unhappy with their lot, and looking for a way to escape. A satire on precarious middle-class America, the shattering of dreams, and the urge to connect in misfortune, in an increasingly uncertain world. Worked for me. Especially with some fine performances. Poppy Gilbert was a particular delight, though Mary’s unravelling gave her plenty of opportunity to shine. Oli Higginson brought an air of vulnerability to Ben, Nick Apostolina made sure we saw the chip on Kenny’s shoulder and Laurel Waghorn revealed Sharon’s emotional, if not intellectual, intelligence.
Next up from the School an Orestes. Reworked. Like we would ever get a literal translation from Ancient Greek.
Hungaria, Milton Court Concert Hall, and 3rd February 2019
Six moments musicaux Op 44
14 Bagatelles Op 6
String Quartet No 3
Three Burlesques Op 8c
Musica ricercata VI-XI
String Quartet No 1 Metamorphoses nocturnes
One day. Three concerts. Showcasing the chamber music of the three most renowned Hungarian composers of the C20 (OK, well maybe that is a little harsh on Zoltan Kodaly). In fact, outside of some chap by the name of Franz Lizst, probably the three most famous Hungarian composers of all time. Except that European history being what it is all three of them were actually born in Romania, in its various incarnations. But their shared musical heritage, rooted to various degrees in folk music, is defiantly and definitely Hungarian. To perform the music, a Spanish quartet, albeit one with great affinity with the repertoire, and a Serbian pianist, though again one with proven expertise in all three composers.
A confession. I missed the first concert. Late-ish flight back the previous evening (Bologna since you ask – not humble-bragging but the Tourist highly recommends La Dotta/Grassa/Rossa, as well as nearby Ferrara and Ravenna. Be thankful he hasn’t the energy to start blogging on these trips or the vanity to Instagram). Anyway a bit tired to get to the Barbican by 11am so the first 5 parts of Ligeti’s Musica ricercata were missed, as were various excerpts from Kurtag’s Jatekok piano works, his 12 Microludes and Bartok’s String Quartet no 1. Most annoying (to miss) in retrospect were the Microludes, 12 tiny string quartet pieces in homage to Kurtag’s mate Mihaly Andras. Still, no worries, as, on the strength of Six moments musicaux, which was Kurtag’s fourth string quartet, I have a CD of his entire output for the form winging its way to me.
For I was very taken with Six moments musicaux, a title lifted from Schubert (and Rachmaninov). Written in 2005 the, er, six short pieces differ in character both between, and within, themselves. All are, as is characteristic with GK, very short. The first, Invocatio has loud, hard rhythms, an announcement, encasing a pianissimo melody and a chorale. Footfalls is a slow, broken waltz, the title taken from a late Beckett play. Then a Capriccio, a duel with obstinate lines and then a memoriam, a sort of passacaglia dedicated to Hungarian pianist George Sebak. This, like the finale, was based on two of the Jatekok piano pieces. The finale, titled Les Adieux, tilts at Beethoven but is subtitled in the manner of Janacek and is a lament of sorts. The penultimate is a “study in harmonics” based on birdsong a la Messaien.
George Kurtag was notoriously slow to get in to his compositional stride, writing just 9 small-scale works in the 1960s and early 1970s. In 1973 though he was commissioned to write some children’s piano pieces, which became the first 4 volumes of Jatokek (“Games”), and since then he hasn’t stopped, and there are now several hundred of these piano pieces alongside all his other work. All tiny, for solo or duo piano, their titles range across ideas, emotions, images, dedications, gestures, and together these fragments encompass the range of his musical imagination. If I am honest, even with the love and care lavished on them by Tamara Stefanovich, the combined effect was a bit stupefying, not in a bad way, just that, in the absence of titles or breaks, it was tricky to keep up. I will need to revisit.
Indeed I will need to explore all of GK’s oeuvre. The idea of reducing music to fragments appeals (Flowers We Are, Mere Flowers, from the eighth volume of Jatokek, is just 7 notes long), but, based on these pieces, this is music with emotional heft despite its brevity, and not just an academic exercise. GK (pictured above) is an expert teacher, especially in chamber music, and the echoes of his own favourites, Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Webern and, of course, Bartok are easy to pick out. Of course it helps that GK adores the music of his friend and mentor Gyorgy Ligeti, who similarly, though I would contend, at a somewhat more elevated level, was to take the language and structure of music and turn it into something truly astounding. GK is still with us, now 93, though he was a little frail to attend the premiere of his opera, Fin de partie at La Scala last November, which is based on Beckett’s Endgame (which Ligeti first introduced him to).
In these two concerts we were treated to Tamara Stefanovich’s rendition of a handful of the Etudes (2, 8, 11, 3, 5, 15 and 10) and the second half of the Musica ricercata. The Etudes proved a fertile laboratory for Ligeti’s genius, mixing his early affinity for Hungarian folk sounds, (following in the footsteps of Bartok), his love of Debussy’s re-invention of piano music and purpose, his experiments with fractal patterns, his investigation of non-Western tonality and his fascination with Conlon Nancarrow’s complex cross-rhythms. Most of the etudes involve some, albeit very different variation on each hand playing at different speeds. If you have never heard, or claim never to want to hear, any “modern” classic music listen to the Etudes. You will change your mind. Guaranteed.
TS is a powerful advocate for the work, maybe not quite as powerful as her friend and collaborator, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who performed the Etudes in their entirety last year at the QEH Ligeti weekender, but brings more Debussyian grace. Musica ricercata is more rule-based composition, not serialist, but a suite intended to progress from just two notes to a full-blown High Baroque fugue. It was written in the early 1950’s in Budapest, where it could not be played given the Soviet musical mindset, and, when GL moved to the West he saw it as too simple, until 1969 when the adventure of Boulez and Stockhausen was no longer de rigeur. I am still listening and learning, (some helpful programme notes here courtesy of Paul Griffiths), so can’t explain the music musically as it were, but, like the Etudes I know I like it. A few more years and I might even understand these works.
The highlight of the day though was Ligeti’s First String Quartet however, “Metamorphoses nocturnes”. The Ligeti quartets are putting ever more frequent appearances in the quartet repertoire and the Casals turned in an excellent rendition, near matching the Arditti recording I have. GL took this early piece with him when he left Hungary in 1956 after the Soviet crackdown, and it was premiered in Vienna in 1958. However, like the Musica ricercata, it was deemed a little too “prehistoric” in Ligeti’s words, to warrant dispersion, until its first recording in the 1970s. By then the world was ripe for the interplay of the folk rhythms and trademark Ligetian polyphony, colours and enquiry. The eight sections generate a variety of moods, atmospheric, macabre, dance, humour, with a motif, G-A-G sharp-A sharp, threaded throughout. It is brilliant.
What to do with Bela Bartok? It seems that every time I hear a performance of Bartok’s work, whether orchestral, chamber or solo, (or choral as with Cantata profana performed recently by the LSO, alongside Ligeti’s Lontano), that gets the juices flowing, it is immediately followed by a performance that perplexes. Here the String Quartet No 3, which to be fair I have heard a few times before courtesy of the Emerson recording, challenged and fascinated, whereas the piano pieces, the 14 Bagatelles and Three Burlesques just confused me. Oh well, I guess I just keep trying.
Now sometimes these “immersive” days can feel a bit cobbled together. Not here though as creative director Gerard McBurney introduced each piece with appropriate extracts from the writings of the composers themselves, reinforcing the links between them and their homeland, and the words of contemporary poets, such as Endre Ady and Attila Joszef, in Hungarian as well as translated. Moreover the video backdrop created by Amelia Kosminsky, a mature final year student at the Guildhall, was stunning. She had discovered a treasure trove of amateur monochrome photographs from Hungary throughout the C20, the Fortepan archive, which she combined superbly to match music and text. If I am honest sometimes these designs can just be bloody distracting. Not here though.
Not quite sure why this didn’t entirely work for me. Alexander Bodin Sophir takes an intriguing story, the escape of 7500 Jews by boat from Copenhagen to Sweden in 1943 just before the Nazis were about to round them up, and puts it into the mouths of a Swedish historian, his German daughter, his Danish-Jewish friend and the latter’s wife as they are holed up at the couple’s house following a power cut. Mr ABS, in this his first play, has the passion to tell the story, his own grandparents escaped this way, and he has put the hours in research-wise, unsurprising given his day-job as documentary maker. He also contrives a punchy, if slightly overwrought, twist to proceedings at the end.
Actually I think I do know why. In the effort to cover all the contended reasons as to how and why these events happened, and to elide this with dramatic personal disclosures, ABS perhaps asks his text and dialogue to do just a bit too much heavy lifting and makes his characters just a bit too predictable.
It is Hanukkah, 2001 in the Scandi chic interior (courtesy of designer William Fricker) of the house of Abraham (David Bamber) and Sara (Julia Swift). They are preparing for a visit from Lars (Neil McCaul) and Eva (Dorothea Myer-Bennett). Lars is researching the events surrounding the evacuation. Abraham, as an observant Jew, is convinced that it was the result of the heroic resistance of the Danish people, and divine intercession, whilst Lars, an atheist, is convinced there was collusion between the Danish government, which had avoided the excesses of occupation elsewhere in Europe through flexible accommodation, and certain sympathetic Nazi higher-ups. Personal recollection, both men where 8 in 1943 plays a part as their friendship arose from a family connection formed at the time. Memories prove somewhat flawed and events open to interpretation especially when a few McGuffinish momentos are chucked in.
Cue snowstorm to ensure the debate rages and then lay on top some past history between the calm Sara and Lars and the fact that Eva, a novelist, sees her identity stemming largely from her German mother, now divorced from Lars. It isn’t tricky to guess the outcomes but all this intrigue does detract from the historical interrogation, and vice versa. ABS’s dialogue smartly, and comically, undercuts some of the more hyperbolic exchanges, notably from Sara and Eva (I am very keen on Dorothea Myer-Bennett’s no nonsense acting talent – here she did a lot with very little). The versatile David Bamber is always a joy to watch whatever he is doing (last seen by me as Noel in Julia Davies’s gloriously smutty Camping – and indelible memory) and the is no exception. Neil McCaul, as the “truth is everything” academic is maybe asked to turn up the apoplectic dial once too often but this does serve an obvious purpose.
The competing narratives of what actually happened are well articulated in Kate Fahy’s production, but she could maybe have cranked the pace up. The parallels with present day Denmark, and by implication the rest of Europe, get a little lost and the science vs religion arguments are a bit heavy handed. I came out actually wishing ABS hand found a way to simply focus on the arguments about what actually happened, and therefore the “truth of history”, in a much shorter double-hander, and reversed the passive-aggressive relationship of Abraham and Lars. Alternatively the personal drama could have proved the catalyst from which the historical argument obliquely emerged.