Van Gogh and Japan exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum review ****

van_gogh_-_blc3bchende_mandelbaumzweige

Van Gogh and Japan

Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam, 18th May 2018

There is an episode of the recent excellent BBC series Civilisations, on the history of art, where the presenter Simon Schama explores Japanese woodblock prints from the C!8 and C19 and shows their impact on the Western art canon. We often assume that the revolution in figurative art that came with Impression, Neo-Impressionism and Post Impressionism was born from the societies in which it flourished especially France, (VvG came to Paris in 1886), with some link back to greats  from the past, Turner, Delacroix and Courbet. Subjects changed, colour and and the depiction of light intensified, artist got out a bit more. You don’t normally hear about how the flood of art from Japan influenced the way these chaps, (mostly chaps as always), saw their world.

This exhibition seeks to show the link between Van Gogh specifically, (it being the Van Gogh museum), and Japanese art but it does rather ram home the connection. Van Gogh collected Japanese prints like they were going out of fashion, which they so weren’t Japonisme being all the rage, so you get to see plenty of his 600 strong own collection, augmented with other jewels from the likes of Hokusai, Hiroshige and Kuniyoshi, contrasted with van Gogh’s own landscapes and other work. There’s even some fascinating direct copies by VvG of Japanese subjects, a bridge and, you guessed it, some blossom on a plum tree. And the exquisite van Gogh shown above is topped by its near neighbour in the exhibition, a bull finch hanging upside down on cherry tree branches by Hokusai. It is breathtakingly beautiful. You can get it as an I-Phone case. Not quite the same.

Oil paint might substitute for woodcut print ink but the same notion of perspective and dynamic, panoramic landscape leaps out. The thoughtful look in portraiture. The attempts to capture the detail of nature. Bold colours, uncluttered composition, clear lines, cropping. Your response might not be quite the same, reflecting the cultural history imposed upon you, but the ideas and impulses that underpin Impressionism, and the reasons why we can’t get enough of it, are uncannily similar. Van Gogh may not be as pretty-pretty as the generation that proceeded him but we punters can still intuitively grasp what he was about even when he had a bad day, which was most days poor fella.

The famous Self Portrait with a Bandaged Ear which we lucky Londoners can normally see in the Courtauld Gallery has a Torakiyo print of Mount Fuji on the wall. Van Gogh wasn’t alone. There is a Manet portrait of Zola with a sumo picture lurking in the background and Whistler brought the craze to London and copied it in his nocturnes.

Yet the differences are also striking. Oil paint adds texture. The woodcuts are flat. Van Gogh’s world is filled with unease, the Japanese masters exude calm (or am I just lazily stereotyping). Style contrasts with substance. Japanese art is steeped in the collective, in reverence for history and nature. Van Gogh peers at the individual and confronts head on the past and the world around him. Van Gogh is utterly devoid of irony or humour. He was, as we know, a serious fellow. The Japanese work was made to sell, (especially to us gullible gaijin), without his brother VvG would have been f*cked economically and artistically. That is why he is tortured genius personified. That, and the mental illness, a source of prurient audience fascination even as his descendants stewarded his work.

So the exhibition succeeds in showing the historical link between the two artistic cultures and the part Japan played in changing the direction of Western art. The questions art poses are universal even if the answers can vary through time and place. That is why VvG was taken with the idea of bringing his fellow artists together in some sort of Zennish brotherhood collective. The Occident and the Orient has been patronising each other for many hundreds of years. It also shows both the socio-economic and historical differences between the two worlds.

What it doesn’t do is show the actual art of either Van Gogh or the Japanese masters to best effect. Van Gogh, perhaps more than any other canonic Western artist, jumps off the canvas and wrestles the viewer to the ground. Old boot, chair, field, self, man, woman, flowers, vase. It doesn’t matter what the subject is, you cannot not stare. Of course you can whizz through like so many punters were doing in the main collection as it filled up. (I got in the queue on the opening – they have slot times now – and bounded up – well took the lift actually – to the top floor which I had moreorless to myself for twenty minutes or so). Even the cultural tickers and phone clickers though get pulled up by something from van Gogh.

In contrast the Japanese prints need a bit of proper looking. That takes time. When some hulking VvG landscape is lurking nearby they get pummelled. No matter. There are just so many astounding things to see in this exhibition that it doesn’t really matter if you accept or reject the message of cultural globalisation. Just enjoy.

Christoph Sietzen and the Wave Quartet at the Concertgebouw review ****

11611295963_46a7279b5a_o

Christoph Sietzen, Wave Quartet (Bogdan Bacanu, Vladi Petrov, Emiko Uchiyama, Christoph Sietzen)

Het Concert-Gebouw, Recital Hall, 16th May 2018

  • Emmanuel Séjourné – Attraction for marimba, vibraphone and tape
  • Iannis Xenakis – Part B (from ‘Rebonds’) for percussion
  • J.S. Bach/Brahms – Chaconne (from Second Partita in D, BWV 1004) (arr. B. Bacanu) for marimba
  • Stewart Copeland – Sheriff of Luxembourg for marimba, percussion and tape
  • Ivan Boumans – The Cloth, op. 140 (encore) for percussion
  • Josh Groban – The Wandering Kind (arr. E. Uchiyama) for marimbas
  • J.S. Bach – Allegro (from Concerto in C, BWV 1061a) (arr. B. Bacanu) for marimbas
  • Astor Piazzolla – La muerte del ángel (arr. E. Uchiyama) for marimbas
  • Astor Piazzolla – Oblivion (arr. E. Uchiyama) for marimbas
  • Reentko Dirks – Danza non Danza (arr. The Wave Quartet) for marimbas
  • Astor Piazzolla – Milonga del ángel (arr. E. Uchiyama) for marimbas
  • Astor Piazzolla – Libertango (arr. E. Uchiyama) for marimbas
  • Rodrigo Sanchez / Gabriela Quintero – Tamacun (arr. E. Uchiyama) for marimbas
  • Rodrigo Sanchez / Gabriela Quintero – Juan Loco (arr. The Wave Quartet) (encore) for marimbas

OK so I confess I was a captive buyer for this. This was what was on in the Concertgebouw on the night I was there. There were a few other tourists in the same boat, and a healthy contingent of local Amsterdammers. Which, even in the smaller, though still resplendent recital hall, made up a full house. The recital hall, in full blown neo-classical style, is topped by a rotunda with the names of the Romantic greats immortalised, and some not-so-greats as well.

Anyway whilst I didn’t know the percussionist Christoph Sietzen, and the crack marimba team of which he is a member, the Wave Quartet, this programme intrigued. In particular the Xenakis, who is near the top of my further investigation list, the Bach and the Piazzolla. The programme consisted of the first five pieces for solo percussion with Mr Sietzen and then the pieces for the entire quartet, largely arranged by Ms Uchiyama. Bogdan Bacanu, who might just be the most accomplished marimba player ever, and certainly its greatest advocate, was a child prodigy and went on to teach the other three members, amongst others, in Linz and Salzburg I believe. He is also responsible for the Bach arrangements, which are completely faithful to the originals.

Remember there are a lot of works by Bach that weren’t necessarily written for specific instruments but its a fairly safe supposition that he didn’t have a percussion instrument in mind when he set down the pieces here. On the other hand the marimba, which is by some way the most expressive and dynamically sophisticated of the percussion stable, ranging across 4 or 5 octaves, even if its timbre is so particular, isn’t too far away from the harpsichord in terms of effect. It is, as we see here, becoming increasing popular in contemporary classical music and the technical proficiency of playing has come on in leaps and bounds in part thanks to Mr Bacanu.

The first piece was by Emmanuel Sejourne who is the pre-eminent composer for marimba and vibraphone and a world renowned player. It was originally written for violin and marimba but here Mr Sietzen substituted violin with a vibraphone. I have to say it was impressive though I might have preferred to here it later on once I had adjusted to the marimba sounds. Even so it is breathtaking to hear what is possible for these instruments.

Xenakis composed two pieces for solo percussion, this piece Rebonds, and Psappha. It isn’t much of a surprise given the composer’s mastery of rhythm and structure but it is genuinely mind-boggling in its complexity. There are two movements in Rebonds. Mr Sietzen only played Part B, a shame as I would love to have heard Part A as well. It is scored for two bongos, one tumba, one tom-tom, one bass drum and a set of five wood blocks or wooden slats. Xenakis leaves some decisions on the score to the performer, all part of the mathematics of his music, (remember he was architect, engineer and mathematician as well as composer and not averse to shunting the laws of physics into his work). Xenakis is so far beyond what I understand in music but, trust me, the intensity of the rhythms here, despite the abstraction, still provokes a basic, primal reaction which needs no maths degree. You will laugh at me, but if you have listened through a John Bonham drum solo in Moby Dick (Google it kids), you will understand, though this is way more sophisticated than Bonzo thrashing away.

I took the opportunity to listen to Psappha. Amazing.

You will likely know the Bach Chaconne from the Violin Partita No 2 which Brahms amongst others transcribed for the piano left hand. (There is a YouTube performance by Danile Trifonov no less if you are interested and if you want the violin original please listen to Rachel Podger’s recording). I am not going to pretend that this marimba version matches that but it is still absolutely the same beautiful piece of music and shows astonishing virtuosity.

The Stewart Copeland piece, which was commissioned for Mr Sietzen, was a little less convincing by comparison to what else was on offer in this recital but was pleasant enough. Mr Copeland, for you youngsters who regard this as ancient history, was the drummer for popular English beat combo The Police in the 1980s, whose cod-reggae sound should never have worked, and never have been as popular, but it did, and it was. Mr Copeland has gone on to write film and game soundtracks and some classical compositions including this. Prior to the Police he was manager and drummer for Curved Air for those of you with an unhealthy interest in progressive jazz-rock. (Never ever get into conversation with me about Soft Machine).

After Mr Sietzen’s marvellous show of musical, and physical, prowess in the first half we might have expected something more sedate after the interval. No way Jose. (That being a reference to the Latin fuelled energy of the last few pieces). The Wave Quartet were decked out in bright red shirts, think Kraftwerk circa Man Machine without the black skinny ties and Fascist undertones.

There are many areas of music which are a complete mystery to me. I had never heard of Josh Groban before. Apparently he is a big noise though in the popera world. I can happily maintain my aloof indifference on the basis of this piece.

The second Bach piece is arranged from the first movement Allegro two harpsichord version of the Concerto BWV 1061 for the same instruments. So each of the four marimbas players with their two mallets (called knobs) in each hand is effectively one hand of the score. Given that the harpsichord notes can’t really sustain there is sound logic (literally) to transcribe to marimbas. It works, though I am not sure I would turn to this again in a hurry. I can’t deny Mr Bacanu’s dedication in adapting Bach in this way. I see the Wave Quartet have recorded the other harpsichord concerto arrangements with orchestra.

Astor Piazzolla was the genius Argentine who meshed the tango, the Baroque and jazz into a fresh and exciting musical world in the 1950s and 1960s. I can see exactly why the Wave Quartet would want to play these pieces. You will definitely know the Libertango. (I first heard in I’ve Seen That Face Before by Grace Jones). You will think you know the other pieces. The arrangements didn’t seem too complex which meant the Wave Quartet could pull of all sorts of flourishes. They were having a ball and so was the audience. The Reentko Dirks and Sanchez/Quintero pieces, originally for guitar, have similar heritage, with the final Juan Loco seeing young Vladi Petrov showing off on a simple beat box drum. Cheesy but undeniably joyous.

There you have it. A celebration of just what percussion can do and a salutary reminder not to get bogged down in serious classical music.

 

 

Oedipus at Amsterdam Stadsschouwburg review ****

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Oedipus

Tonneelgroep Amsterdam, Stadsschouwburg, 17th May 2018

The Tourist sets off to Amsterdam to see the new version of Oedipus from the mighty Toneelgroep Amsterdam. As well as his first visit to the Concertgebouw and a chance to reacquaint himself with one Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. The Tourist finally blogs as a Tourist.

What was the attraction. Oedipus first. Your man Sophocles could write a drama, no doubt about that, and for me, this, Oedipus the King (Rex or Tyrannus), tops his other oft-performed work, Antigone, (though that is still a cracker of a story). These two plays, in a trilogy, sandwiched Oedipus at Colonus where our unfortunate hero leaves Thebes with his daughters and proceeds to pop his clogs after a lot of philosophical chat.

I hope one day to see an adaption of Sophocles’s version of Electra, (all three Greek tragedians had a pop at this story), and Ajax, the miffed warrior who, surprise, surprise, tops himself. I hope, as has occasionally happened, some clever creative will also see the potential in Philoctetes, (wounded soldier on high horse – metaphorically of course – who doesn’t want to fight again). I gather the least interesting of Sophocles’s seven remaining plays is Women of Trachis.

Anyway, as you almost certainly know, the plot of Oedipus the King is an absolute belter. It’s been hard for any writer to top this, for sheer OTT intensity, ever since 429 BCE. That weirdo Freud even named a theory after it. Unwittingly kill your Dad and marry your Mum. It doesn’t end well.

How to adapt this though is the perennial creative conundrum. Which brings me to the second reason to hop on a train to see this. (Yes it is now possible to take the direct train from London to Amsterdam if not yet the return. Cheap as chips, door to door no longer than a flight. And so much more civilised. The bit from Brussels to Amsterdam was pretty much empty).

Namely director Robert Icke. For those that don’t know, Mr Icke, at just 32 years old, is the wunderkind of British theatre direction, though there are many others who match him in my opinion. He was responsible for the revelatory Almeida Hamlet with Andrew Scott, the recent Mary Stuart, 1984, Uncle Vanya and Mr Burns, all at the same venue, (where he is Associate Director), and The Red Barn at the National Theatre. Not all perfect but in many cases mightily close. Yet, of his work to date, probably the most breathtaking was his Oresteia, which even managed a West End transfer after its Almeida run.

Here he took Aeschylus’s mighty trilogy, dispensed with the chorus, pumped up the back story, gave the Gods a court-room at the end to weigh up Orestes’s guilt, (with a bit of audience participation), and carved out a family revenge drama of startling power, where black and white is mutated into every shade of grey, and where death is viscerally real. His adaptation translates the poetry into something more immediate which any audience can grasp. Greeks doesn’t get any better than this.

So no wonder he was invited into the Toneelgroep party to have a go at Oedipus. And there is a lot that Mr Icke has in common with the masters of TA, Ivo van Hove and Jan Versweyveld. The set of Oedipus is one of the modern, faceless, corporate offices which IvH and JV used so effectively in Kings of War and Roman Tragedies. Though given Mr Icke’s set up for Oedipus, a campaign headquarters on the night of an election result, Hildegard Bechtler’s design could hardly be more appropriate. As it happens Ms Bechtler designed the Hamlet set so she knows the Icke drill. The TA stage in the Stadsschouwburg is wide and deep like the Lyttleton. I reckon you could sit anywhere, (and seats are a bargain €30 or so), and see everything. As well as the set, the use of video (Tal Yarden) and screens, a bit of on-stage eating in a family dinner, the modern, relaxed dress, the sound of Tom Gibbons and the lighting from Natasha Chivers, all echo the TA aesthetic. Mr Icke also borrows freely from his own back catalogue, most noticeably with the giant digital clock counting down on stage, representing the time to the election result, but more importantly the revelation underpinning the prophecy. The domestic interplay, the interior setting, the on-stage suicide of Jocasta though thankfully not Oedipus’s gouging, (here with heels not dress pins, ouch), the bickering over the family dinner, the strategising, all will be familiar to those who have seen Oresteia.

The set-up is brilliant. We see a video of Oedipus talking to the press after the election has closed. He promises to clean up the plague which is debilitating Thebes. Here though the plague is shorthand for the political corruption and economic incompetence of the previous administration. “The country is sick”. He is offering a bright new future. “Yes we can” or “drain the swamp”. Take your pick. He also, on the hoof, commits to investigating, and getting to the truth of, Laius’s murder. Cut to the loyal speechwriter/adviser Creon, played here by Aus Greidanus Jr, having a go at Oedipus for making this risky promise. Tiresias (Hugo Koolschlin) is wheeled in to deliver the prophecy. Our first opportunity to see the nasty side of Hans Kesting’s Oedipus as he angrily dismisses the blind old boy’s “nonsense” and turns on Creon who he reckons wants the job of leader. Marieke Heebink’s Jocasta talks him out of sacking Creon, (no need for a chorus and executions in this scenario!), and we are on to the killing at the cross-roads.

But here Laius (Jocasta’s first hubby) is the victim of a road accident (limos not chariots obvs), and Oedipus starts to piece together his own accident story with the established version, questioning the Chauffeur, played by Bart Slegers. You know the rest …… and if you don’t you should. The way Robert Icke fits his version of the plot to the “original” is artful and ensures that the last third or so of the production is as powerful as it should be.

What Mr Icke also intelligently lays on top is the family dynamic as we see “Mum” Merope (Freida Pittoors), consumed by the agony of watching Oedipus’s unseen “Dad” Polybus dying whilst all Oedipus cares about is the prophecy and, here, his route to power, daughter Antigone (Helene Devos) and sons Polynices (Harm Duco Schut) and Eteocles (Joshua Stradowski). Their is some conflict between the two lads: remember they go on to bring Thebes to its knees by knocking seven bells out of each other. The entourage is rounded out by faithful retainer Corin (Fred Goessens) and assistant Lichas (Violet Braeckman).

The supporting actors are uniformly marvellous but it is Hans Kesting and Marieke Heebink who dominate the stage. Which brings me to the third reason to nip over to Amsterdam to see this. The Tourist considers Hans Kesting to be the best male actor in the world and Marieke Heebink to be the best female actor. They proved it once again here. No fear you see, massive emotional range and immense physicality. No point holding back as the revelations tumble out in Oedipus and, trust me, they don’t. The scene were Jocasta explains how she was abused by Laius, and conspires to smuggle her baby away, is unbearably moving. Love is about the trickiest emotion to capture on stage. These two show exactly how to do it.

So why just 4* and not the 5* that you might expect from this obviously gushing fan of the play, the ensemble and the director. Firstly there is maybe, as I allude to above, a bit of a sense that we have seen this all before. The setting works, how “fate” brings a “good, man” down, and, specifically whether it pays for a politician to be “honest”, but the look and feel is maybe just a bit too close to Mr Icke’s previous work. More importantly the text is maybe a little too direct. Remember I was following a sur-titled English translation of a Dutch adaption by Rob Klinkenberg of the original Greek filtered through numerous prior translations. This presumably makes its literalness even more literal. Helps plot and message but leaves poetry on the table. In TA’s other work I have seen, the Shakespeare for example, this has not been a constraint, the language still shines. In IvH/JW’s Antigone conversely, which came to the Barbican, the translation by Anne Carson was too challenging, though this disappointed more through Juliette Binoche’s miscasting it pains me to say.

Still overall this is a great piece of theatre. If it ever wends its way to London you must see it. Otherwise we have Marieke Heebink as the lead in Simon Stone’s Medea to look forward to next year at the Barbican and Simon McBurney makes his directorial debut at TA at the Staadsschouwburg with a Cherry Orchard. Yum. This creative collaboration, amongst so many other reasons, is why Europe is a good idea. Though I doubt any of the dumb-arses in England who think differently would care.