Stockhausen chamber music at the Queen Elizabeth Hall review ****

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano), Tamara Stefanovich (piano), Dirk Rothbrust (percussion), Marco Stroppa (sound design)

Queen Elizabeth Hall, 2nd June 2019

Karlheinz Stockhausen

  • Zyklus for percussion
  • Mantra for 2 pianos with 12 antique cymbals, woodblock & 2 ring modulators (and shortwave radio/tape) 

I confess. I was defeated by the performance of Donnerstag aus Licht by Le Balcon and the London Sinfonietta in the Royal Festival Hall a couple of weeks before this. This is the “accessible” Thursday instalment of Stockhausen cycle of operas taken from the days of the week and mixes his own personal history with that of the Germany of his youth before, and this is where I ducked out, going off into a load of cosmic mumbo jumbo as was the maestro’s want. That is not to say that I wasn’t fascinated by the first act and a half, musically and in terms of the performance, just that I couldn’t engage with whatever message is being conveyed. And I was a bit tired.

So maybe I had to conclude that I was just not up to the task of understanding the work of the man who revolutionised contemporary classical music. I would expect that the vast majority of you, (vast in this context being an abstract concept), if you can even be bothered to YouTube a bit of Stockhausen’s music, will think it a mighty load of old shite. I sympathise. But if you find yourself being stealthily drawn into the world of modern and contemporary classical music, for sure there are no tunes but structures, forms, sounds, ideas, emotions, inventions, in fact everything music is, is all still present and correct, and you are of a slightly nerdy bent, fascinated by the “maths” of music, then old Karlheinz needs to be tackled. Even if he was a grade A space cadet, believing he emanated from the star Sirius.

So imagine my surprise when, here in this recital, and in other smaller scale and earlier works I have subsequently explored, I discovered that there is far less to be intimidated about that I had imagines. In fact some of KS’s music positively rocks.

Case in point. Zyklus for percussion. Zyklus means cycle I gather in German. So the instruments are arranged in a circle. The “score” in a ring binder. The soloist can start where he/she likes and go round until he/she gets back to where he/she started. The notation is readable either way up as well. The keyed instruments, (marimba, vibraphone), are represented with traditional notation, but only for glissandos, but for the unpitched instruments, (drums, tom-toms, cymbals and other assorted metal and wooden paraphernalia,) KS dreamt up a new, graphic, depiction of the rhythms. All instruments are within easy reach of the player.

Given the freedom afforded the percussionist, and the vast array of instruments, this is as much theatre as music. Dirk Rothbrust, who works out of Cologne, is plainly a dab hand at this sort of caper and a born showman, channeling his inner Bonzo Bonham. However, clocking in at 15 minutes, Zyklus avoids the worst excesses of the 1970s heavy rock gods. And it is way more interesting in terms of textures and qualities.

The main event, the Mantra for 2 pianos and other stuff, was a far meatier affair. Over an hour in fact. I was expecting much from Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich, who are the unparalleled champions of this sort of music. And they delivered. This is a heck of a piece of music. Can’t say I was transfixed throughout but there is still much to take in, admire and, yes, even enjoy.

The piece, premiered in 1970, marked a return to fully notated music after the years of experimentation with more esoteric “indeterminate” instructions for performers. It wears its Asian musical influences on its sleeves and, surprise, surprise, it actually has a tune you can hum. Namely the counterpointed melody, (“formula” in Stockhausen speak), of the “Mantra” which is subsequently subject to seemingly endless expansion and contraction. Not the kind of easy to follow repetition offered up by minimalism, nor the classic theme and variations, (as no notes are varied), but, mostly, very structured transpositions and transformations of the four segment, thirteen note, mantra, initially just four very condensed chords.

With electronic manipulation via ring modulators, (nope, me neither, but fortunately your man Marco Stroppa in the middle of the hall was handy with electronics), and some antique cymbals (crotales) and wood blocks thrown in for texture and to allow the two pianists to signal the change of sections to each other. Quick, slow, loud, quiet, inversions, oscillations, vibratos, some burbling morse code from a short wave radio, (it was the 1960s kids, no mobiles or Spotify), fights between the two pianos, even some vocal squawking from M Aimard and Ms Stefanovich at one point. It all ends with a kind of 10 minute speeded up reprise of the previous hour before the mantra growls into the end.

Read Wiki if you want to learn more about the ingenuity of the structure. Let’s be honest though it will only make sense to the ear of the expert. But, I repeat, what is amazing is that even a dummy like the Tourist, whose only qualification for enjoying this sort of stuff is open enthusiasm, can discern the patterns and can be intrigued, and at times amazed, by the results. Like Zyklus the “performance” adds to the impact of the music.

OK so it won’t be the opening number at the next demeaning shindig Chez Tourist, nor am I likely to invest in a recording, but this was undeniably worth the investment of a few quid and an hour. And the QEH has the ideal acoustic to present such a piece now all the junk has been cleaned out. Certainly better than the RFH next door.

Go on give this sort of stuff a whirl. I dare you. You never know. 

Harper Regan at the Tabard Theatre review ****

Harper Regan

Tabard Theatre, 1st June 2019

The Tourist’s first visit to the Tabard Theatre in leafy Chiswick, which given its proximity, its longevity, it has been around since 1985, and the quirky breadth of its repertoire, new plays and revivals, own and other productions, must count as a massive oversight. Still better late than never.

Now one way or another I have seen a fair few of playwright Simon Stephens’ original plays and adaptations. Mind you there are a fair few of them, him being a prolific, and very effective, story teller. He probably veers a little towards being a playwright’s (and creatives’s) playwright than a “populist”, he is popular with those arty Continental types, but I would contend he is not as knotty as some of his contemporaries, like that Crimp chap. And he definitely has a way with words.

Harper Regan premiered at the National Theatre in 2008, (directed by the splendid Marianne Elliot and with the equally splendid Lesley Sharp in the title role), and tells the story, across 11 chronological scenes, of an eponymous early forties everywoman as she embarks on a journey from her home in Uxbridge to Stockport, and then Manchester, before returning to he family a couple of days later. Her husband has been convicted, maybe wrongly, of abuse and can no longer teach. Her daughter may not be able to afford university. Her father is dying, hence the trip, and her relationship with her mother is “strained” to say the least. Along the way we encounter her prat of a boss in the office she works in, who is bizarrely reluctant to let her take time off, she meets a student peer of her daughter, has a flirt, which doesn’t end too well, with an alpha nut-job journalist bloke she meets in a pub, then another, arranged, sexual encounter in a hotel room with a somewhat older, kinder fellow, and has it out with Mum. No uplifting ending here folks.

As usual with Mr Stephens the play doesn’t offer up its secrets quickly or indeed clearly. That is not to say that its dialogue, centred on Harper, and flecked with humour and darkness, (though this is not a “black comedy”), is opaque. Just that its musings, on the power relationships between the men and women, on family, on death and everyday moralities, emerge cumulatively from Harper’s journey. Mr Stephens is not afraid of exploring some pretty unpleasant facets of the human condition through his characters, and this play is no exception, and there is always an awkward, unsettling quality to the apparently naturalistic interactions of the characters. The small stage piles up with secrets, guilt, frustration, evasion and aggression. A metaphor for what lurks beneath in buttoned-up Blighty, a lesson on women’s subordination or a provocation by a veteran of the form? All of the above. Simon Stephens plays with a number of themes without quite pining then down.

It takes a bit of actorly doing to capture Harper’s mix of defensiveness and assertion in her “roles” as wife, mother, daughter, employee and sexual being but Emily Happisburgh was up to the task. She is, with TV veteran Jenny Kirsch, one half of Contentment Productions whose laudable aim is to give “a greater platform to complex female voices”. This was a pretty good place to start. I can’t vouch for how director Pollyanna Newcombe has approached the detail of the text but it felt to me like she had captured the tone, pace and mood of the play.

The Tabard is, as studio theatres above pubs generally are, a cosy space so set and props had to be man and woman handled between the scenes which, with choreographed movement and blasts of sound, actually enhanced the episodic, fractured nature of the story. Ms Happisburgh was admirably supported by Philip Gill, Joseph Langdon, Cameron Robertson, Marcus McManus, Alma Reising and, especially, Bea Watson in her stage debut.

I can see why this sort of thing might leave some frustrated but even on a overly-sultry Saturday afternoon I was drawn in by both play and production. Oh and a big thank you to the Tabard. I was poorly for my initial booked performance but the very kind people at TT were more than happy to change to another performance and wish me well.

The Last Temptation of Boris Johnson at the Park Theatre review **

The Last Temptation of Boris Johnson

Park Theatre, 31st May 2019

Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson is probably going to be your next Prime Minister, chosen by a hundred thousand or so duffers average age in the 70s. Sovereignty? Democracy? If that doesn’t make you laugh nothing will. Anyway the rise of the tousled haired, Latin mangling, philandering, fustian journalist/politician, even without the gift of his impending premiership (his aim at Eton was to become “king of the world”) should, you would think, provide fertile ground for a satirical comedy.

After all this is a bloke who had both British and American citizenship, has Turkish, French and Russian ancestry, was born into an educated family, whose Dad worked for the EU, (I know hard to believe), overcame deafness as a nipper, speaks French fluently, had all the advantages, yet still takes a dig at Johnny Foreigner whenever he can like the godfather of gammon that he is. I see he won a scholarship to Eton where he worked on his eccentricity, changed his religious affiliation, (a harbinger of flip-flopping things to come), excelled in classics despite a somewhat indolent attitude and edited the school rage. At Oxford some have alleged that he toyed with the SDP in oder to secured the position of president of the Union, though, like so many other things, poor old BoJo has no memory of this. (I actually believe Boris when he says a line of coke had no effect on him: even this being insufficient to stimulate a full days’ work from him). Apparently he was mightily cheesed off he didn’t’t get a First.

He lasted a week in management consultancy, before the family got him into the Times, where he was promptly sacked for making stuff up. Then placed in the Telegraph where his career as liar in chief about the EU began. In some ways it is the ultimate irony that the man who is likely to preside over the final collapse of the Conservative and Unionist Party over something that really shouldn’t matter to it is the man who was largely responsible for fuelling the division between Europhile and Eurosceptic in the first place. After receiving a small dose of liberalism from his marriage to Marina Wheeler, and time spent in Islington, he cracked on with delivering some of his most offensive apophthegms in his Telegraph column. “Piccanniny”, “watermelon” or, more latterly, “letterbox”, I can’t decide which is the most unpleasant. Though one of the less remembered, his reference to gay men as “tank-topped bum-boys”, runs them close. This whole thing, Fartage does it as well, where some privileged, rich, straight, white, middle-aged bloke pretends to be taking on the Establishment, and saying “the things that can’t be said”, in a world where “political correctness has gone mad”, just drives me potty.

Not getting sacked when he was asked to divulge the address of a journalist so that his bessie from school, convicted fraudster Darius Guppy, could have the hack beaten up, was another low point I had forgotten about. On to the Spectator and GQ where he regularly filed his copy late, (which, given its quality, is hard to fathom), and then all his TV turns. Convicted fraudster, though now I see pardoned by the whiter than white Donald Trump, (himself only having been involved in the 3.500 or so court cases), Conrad Black, then promoted him to editor the Spectator turning it into the self-parody of Conservatism that it is today.

Finally parachuted into the safe seat of Henley when the principled Michael Heseltine retired, as a journalist with a sideline as an MP, he pitched up to a few votes in the House, and gave, in his own words, a few “crap” speeches. He did support Ken Clarke, of all people, in the leadership campaign that IDS won, a random act of good judgement, but also got reprimanded subsequently by Michael Howard for letting though the infamous Spectator article which trotted out the filth about the victims of Hillsborough which The Sun had so evilly kicked off. Next up he refused to resign as Arts Minister when he was caught lying about his affair with Spectator columnist Petronella Wyatt, so Michael Howard was forced to sack him.

Still no matter. His mate from Oxford, “call-me Dave” Cameron, installed him as shadow higher education minister ( a job his principled younger brother Jo also held), but then another alleged affair, booted off the Spectator by Andrew Neil, but still raking in half a million a year from his media work, he then got the gig as London mayor in a campaign masterminded by Lynton Crosby (the Aussie evil genius behind his current job application).

Still keeping his “chicken-feed” £250K salary from the Telegraph column (and failing to make promised donations), he pitched up late for a few early meetings, failed to get a planning permission, might have had a further affair, over claimed on expenses, denied London’s pollution levels, recruited cronies and came up with hare-brained vanity schemes. Still he was always a “laugh” which remains his key qualification for high office it seems and he occasionally said and did the right thing to confound us liberal metropolitan elite lefty types, though he could just as easily revert to type moments later. And London felt proud.

Back to the House of Commons, kept at a distance by Cameron and then his fateful decision to throw in his lot with the Vote Leave campaign. And all that bollocks on the bus, about Turkey (subsequently denied), that face he pulled the morning after when Leave won, and then, after Cameron walked, the political assassination by Michael Gove and his missus which put paid to BoJo’s ambition that time round. This is roughly where Jonathan Maitland’s play kicks off, with a dinner party given by Boris and Marina Wheeler attended by Gove, Sarah Vine and, somewhat bizarrely, Evgeny Lebedev, the owner, with his Dad, of the Evening Standard and The Independent.

Before we get on to the play though let’s wrap up on the real Boris. That nice Mrs May thought it would be a good idea to make him Foreign Secretary. To neuter his threat some thought. That didn’t turn out too well did it. But surely, even at a time when a Government is literally paralysed but its inability to deliver the undeliverable in Brexit, the way in which BoJo conducted himself in this position of high office should disqualify from the top job. Support for Erdogan, the House of Saud (in contravention of Government policy), his intervention in the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the gaffe quoting Kipling in Myanmar, his advice to the Libyan city of Sirte, his reprimand by UK Statistics Authority, his nonsense on the Irish border, that missed vote, breach of the Ministerial Code, his lusty support for British business, and finally, his flounce out, alongside the loafer’s loafer, David Davies, when Brexit turned just that little bit tricky, unicorn-delivery wise. All achieved in a couple of years.

Since then plotting, ramping up the racism for the benefit of Conservative members, failing to declare earnings on nine occasions, the “suicide vest” comment, flirting with Bannon and Trump, the “spaffing” remark in the context of child abuse allegations, another Europe lie confirmed by the Independent Press Standards Office. and the idiot flirting with no-deal. For remember even if the Tory party goes all spineless and worried about preferment when it comes to the inevitable no-confidence vote which will follow Boris’s coronation, or he gets tempted by prorogation, (yes people, in the country that “gave democracy to the world”, we actually have candidates for Prime Minister who wish to emulate Medieval kings), we will still be tied in negotiations with Europe for the rest of most of our natural lives. Yep even BoJo the clown can’t make it all go away.

Right that’s off my chest. So what about this play. Well I am afraid that, with all this material to play with, and the gift of relevance, Mr Maitland’s play didn’t really come across as much more than a few, admittedly quite good, impressions by the assembled cast, Will Barton as Boris, Dugald Bruce-Lockhart as Gove (and parliamentary agent Jack), Davina Moon as Marina Wheeler and spad Caitlin, Tim Walters as Lebedev, Huw Edwards and Tony Blair, Arabella Weir as Sarah Vine, Leila, a Tory Chair and, intriguingly, Winston Churchill and finally, Steve Nallon, doing his Thatcher routine.

Now as you might gather there are plenty of blasts from the past who appear to help guide BoJo as he lurches from wannabe Winston, inheritor of Mrs T’s monetarist/household economics and social authoritarianism, and then back to one-nation liberalism courtesy of Blair. Good idea. Not brilliantly executed. The second half throws us forward to 2029 with BoJo plotting a comeback on a platform of “Brentry”. Again shrewd set up but not enough is done with it. The first half takes place at a dinner party, with the Goves and our name dropping Russian publisher, (as I speak the Standard has just come out for Johnson – not sure what George Osborne’s game is there), when MG bounces BoJo into supporting Vote Leave. There is a ton of tired exposition which makes the repeated gags pall even more.

So some intriguing ideas, and a target that could hardly been more topical or richer in opportunity, but I am afraid Jonathan Maitland’s lines don’t really match his ideas. There are a few good jokes but it is just not barbed enough as satire. In fact it edges close to playful hagiography at times. At our performance the edgiest moment actually came when one audience member, to the chagrin of her partner, enthusiastically applauded at a Make Britain Great Again peroration that the real Boris tosses off in perfunctory fashion, (see how easy it is to talk like the peroxide prat). Not a good look in liberal, Metropolitan elite North London. Director Lotte Wakeham and designer Louie Whitemore have both delivered better than this.

In the real world I see the coppers have turned up to an altercation at the latest incarnation of Chez Johnson. No doubt the Tory membership, whose response to “no deal” economic chaos is apparently “bring it on”, will see this as further confirmation of his “man of the people” status. You literally couldn’t make this stuff up. In retrospect maybe I have been a little unfair on Mr Maitland. Reality here is beyond satire.

Los Angeles Master Chorale at the Barbican review *****

Los Angeles Master Chorale, Grant Gershon (conductor), Peter Sellars (director) 

Barbican Hall, 23rd May 2019

Much taken with our last exposure to Peter Sellars distinctive way with dramatising the choral after the OAE St John Passion at the Festival Hall last month, BUD and I set off, fuelled as usual by an excellent carb repast from Bad Egg, to hear and see this version of Lasso’s masterpiece on the Barbican stage.

Now this was an altogether different experience from the Bach. (unfortunately I missed Mr Sellars take on Stravinsky with the Philharmonia and Salonen). Orlande de Lassus (or Roland de Lassus, Orlando di Lasso, Orlandus Lassus, Orlande de Lattre or Roland de Lattre, take your pick), was a big noise in late Renaissance polyphony, alongside Palestrina and Victoria, who left his native Flanders at the tender age of twelve to ply his singing and composition trade in Mantua, Sicily, Milan, Naples, Rome, then to France and England, back to Antwerp, on to Munich and the Bavarian Court, where he remained until his death in 1594, albeit with plenty more business trips to Italy. Freedom of movement see, at a time when one bit of Europe was economically and culturally much like another. It works to everyone’s advantage despite what the swivel-eyed Brexit nutters tell you.

In total Lasso wrote over 2,000 vocal works including 60 (mostly parody) masses, passions, psalm settings, 530 motets, 175 Italian madrigals, 150 French chansons and 90 German lieder. No instrumental music remains; though it seems unlikely that a composer this busy and this much in demand would not have turned his hand to non-vocal works. He was just as much at home in bawdy, secular comedy as he was in strictly orthodox liturgy and certainly pushed the limits of polyphony with exotic chromaticism and highly wrought word painting. There he is above. Makes me wonder if it is time for a revival of the gentleman’s ruff to better show off our beards.

His most famous work is this, the work on show at this performance, a penitential cycle of 20 “spiritual madrigals” and a concluding Latin motet, the Lagrime di San Pietro, (The Tears of St Peter), his final work before he died in 1594. It is scored for 7 voices and is divided equally into three sections, (reflecting St Peter’s claim to fame, the thrice-fold denial of Christ, the holy trinity, the seven sorrows of the Virgin Mary, and no doubt much other Christian numerological hokum). In this performance the LA Master Chorale was comprised of 21 voices, 6 “canto” for which read soprano, 6 alto, 6 tenor and 3 bass. The settings use 7 of the 8 “church modes”, the system of pitch organisation on which chant was built, as well as for the final motet the tonus perigrinus, outside of the system to symbolise imperfection, and come from the poems of Luigi Tansillo (1510-1568). It is through composed with no repetition and Lasso uses all of the skills he had developed in his previous works to create the maximum of emotional, (as well as all this symbolic), impact.

You don’t need to know anything about the arcane history of the secular madrigal, nor Renaissance polyphony more generally, nor all this structural mumbo-jumbo, to be moved by the piece. And it is pretty easy to see why Lasso alighted on these texts. And why the LA Master Chorale, (widely recognised, not least in their own blurb, though I have no reason to doubt it after this performance, as the US’s premier vocal ensemble), under conductor Grant Gershon, should have worked so hard to perfect the performance. Nor why Peter Sellars should have alighted on this for his first stage at directing a non-instrumental piece.

It is, thanks to Tansillo’s faintly (actually not so faintly) melodramatic Italian poetry and Lasso’s extraordinary invention, an inherently dramatic piece, even if it isn’t strictly chronological. Bows, arrows, swords, spears, stabs, wounds, tears, pain, sorrow, shame. You get the picture and that’s just the first couple of madrigals. There’s a couple of lighter moments but it’s mostly the usual Christian S&M guilt trip. So much suffering. Mind you I suppose Lasso was staring death in the face so I can see why he didn’t go with “The Sun Has Got His Hat On”.

Mr Sellars wheels out his usual ritual tropes, arm waving and hand gestures which tend towards the literal, lying on the floor, the whole ensemble assembling tableau style into an alarmed or alarming crowd, various combinations of writhing twos and threes. Remove the music and you could be watching a physical theatre acting class or maybe attending an anger management retreat. Costumes from Daniella Domingue Sumi are gym casual monochrome. The lighting design of Jim F Ingalls is similarly unsubtle. There is a faint whiff of 1970s California.

But you know what, it all works. I can see why some of the pukka reviewers were a bit sniffy about the whole affair but for BUD and I, who like a bit of visual stimulus, it hit the spot. Maybe not “visualising the polyphony” as Mr Sellars claims, but certainly telling a non-linear story. What was most extraordinary however was the sound of the LA Master Chorale. Remember they had to commit both score and choreography to memory. Despite all the on stage shuffling their tone throughout was so precise and so smooth, even in the most complex counterpoint, the shifting dissonances and the meanders through to resolutions. Far less austere than when performed by a European ensemble in penguin suits and evening dresses that’s for sure and better for it.

I was idly through some lists of the greatest choral works ever written which, variously, cover the whole gamut from the very earliest organum from Notre Dame to bang up to date contemporary. But surprisingly few of these lists mention this, Lasso’s finest hour, (well 80 minutes ). Which can’t be right.

Here’s my tuppence worth. Usual rules. No particular order. Well sort of chronological. Only one work per composer. Which is tough on old Bach in particular. All blokes. Sorry.

  • Perotin – Viderunt omnes 
  • Josquin des Prez – Missa Pange Lingua
  • John Taverner – Mass “The Western Wynde”
  • Giovanni Pierluigi de Palestrina – Missa Papae Marcelli
  • Thomas Tallis – Lamentations of Jeremiah
  • Tomas de Luis Victoria – O magnum mysterium
  • Orland de Lassus – Lagrime di San Pietro
  • William Byrd – Mass for 5 Voices
  • Claudio Monteverdi – Vespers of 1610
  • Carlo Gesualdo – Tenebrae Responsories
  • Giacomo Carissimi – Jepthe
  • Antonio Vivaldi – Gloria
  • Giovanni Battista Pergolesi – Stabat Mater
  • JS Bach – Mass in B minor
  • Joseph Haydn – The Creation
  • Igor Stravinsky – Symphony of Psalms
  • Benjamin Britten – War Requiem
  • Krzysztof Penderecki – St. Luke Passion
  • Gyorgy Ligeti – Requiem
  • Luciano Berio – Sinfonia
  • Karlheinz Stockhausen – Stimmung
  • Steve Reich – The Desert Music
  • Iannis Xenakis – Nekuia
  • Arvo Part – Passio

Our Town at the Open Air Theatre review ****

Our Town

Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, 23rd May 2019

Now I’ll be honest, until I started taking this theatre malarkey seriously, I had only the faintest idea of what Thornton Wilder’s most famous play, Our Town, was about. And even going in to this production at the Open Air I confess to some scepticism as to the reasons why it is so highly regarded. I am a sucker for “meta-theatre”, fiddling around with the realms of what is possible on stage and breaking all the naturalistic rules of theatre, but this still sounded a little too, well, American and homespun, and I couldn’t quite see how it would elevate itself it to something more profound. Still this is what the experts told me it would do and I, for one, choose not to ignore the experts, (especially when it comes to, for example, cardiac surgery – for, without one such expert, you wouldn’t be reading this).

Well I can report that the experts, once again, do know what they are talking about. Written in 1938 OT tells the story of the fictional American small town of Grover’s Corner in the years 1901 to 1913, (I gather the photo above is taken from the original Broadway production). The play is set in the theatre in which it is being performed, designed here by Rosie Elnile as simply a bank of temporary seats at the back of the Open Air stage, and we have a narrator in the form of the theatre’s stage manager (Laura Rodgers) who guides us through the characters and the scenes, addresses us directly, introduces specialist “speakers” and fields “questions” from the audience. With the exception of one scene the cast is in modern dress and there is minimal use of props, largely just a couple of table and chairs to symbolise the two main households, the Webb’s and the Gibbs’s, and plenty of miming.

Thornton Wilder apparently insisted that the play “should be performed without sentimentality or ponderousness–simply, dryly, and sincerely,” a request that director Ellen McDougall, AD at the Gate, sticks to with the exception of shifting the “action” from 1938 to an even more timeless today.

Act 1 centres on the daily life of the town, waking up to a normal day in 1901. We get lectures on the history and geography of the town, (one of many reasons why the swot Tourist took to the play), and we meet the main protagonists Frank Gibbs (Karl Collins), the town doctor, his wife Julia (Pandora Colin) and their two children, sporty, tearaway son George (Arthur Hughes) and younger sister Rebecca (Miriam Nyarko), Charles Webb (Tom Edden), editor of the local paper, wife Myrtle (Thusitha Jayasundera) and their bookish daughter Emily (Francesca Henry) and younger brother Wally (I think Tumo Reestang in this performance). Act II concentrates on the courtship and wedding day of Emily and George in 1904. The mood changes in Act III, in 1913, when we are taken to the cemetery outside Grover’s Corner and see who has passed in the intervening years including Emily, who returns to life to look back, regretfully, on her 12th birthday.

This is when the deep stuff about how to live life to the full when it is so short, and how we are all connected in time and place, and out into the cosmos, is let loose. You would be forgiven for thinking this might come over all schmaltzy and, trust me, the cyclical Tourist is ever alert to such manipulation. It does not though and that is where the play most confounds. It was a pretty hot day at the Open Air, and the Tourist foolishly swapped shade for view, and the matinee crowd was the usual bunch of us old and economically inactive and the reluctant school-teens. So I can’t pretend this was some massive communal epiphany. Nonetheless the messages that Thornton Wilder wraps up in his deliberately “simple” meta-play do resonate and I now understand why the play is so highly regarded and so oft performed especially in the US.

I can see how some might not want to go beyond the moral homage to a simpler, more “authentic” past, with a central love story and a sad ending, but it is also hard to avoid the way Wilder stretches, examines and undercuts this surface reading and not just through formal experimentation. I have banged on before about how American art, in its broadest sense, explored in the inter-war years the dichotomy of modern, urban America and its mythic, rural past. This seems to me to spring from the same well. There may not be an explicit nod to the darkness which was to befall Europe, from which the US largely escaped, but there are, as there were so effectively in Annie Baker’s John, ghosts from the Civil War past as well as references to the coming depopulation and the stultifying effects of conformity to home, hearth, gender roles and church.

Some of the proper reviews have a bit of a dig at the production precisely because of its fidelity to Mr Wilder’s original intention. I disagree though, as I say, not having seen it before meant there was no novelty to wear off. Ellen McDougall is not a director who fights shy of radical theatre, (she was assistant to Katie Mitchell and Marianne Elliott and her first production at the Gate, The Unknown Island was a metaphorical riot), but here, outside of the diverse 19 strong cast, the female stage manager, casual clothes and a few, well placed, choruses, as I say, she seems to play it pretty straight.

I suppose you could go all gung ho and start meta-ing the meta and conjuring up all sorts of allusions to darker times. (What is it with everyone in the theatre aching for contemporary relevance and proof that we live in dangerous times anyway. I am not saying our world today doesn’t have some Grade A wankers in positions of power but I would rather live here, now, than as a slave in C5 BCE Athens, a factory worker in C19 Manchester or a homosexual in Nazi Germany). I also accept that this might not, unusually, be a work that benefits from the Open Air setting, though Act III might be enhanced by the twilight of an evening show.

But I see it worked for Billers in the Guardian and that’s good enough for me. I was already a big fan of Laura Rodgers who stood out in Pressure, Rules for Living, Winter Solstice and Tipping the Velvet and I was also struck by Francesca Henry who appeared in another production directed by Ellen McDougall, The Wolves. Karl Collins and Arthur Hughes also managed to create character beyond imitation. This is though, an ensemble piece, and the whole cast stepped up.

(P.S. I was never going to be unaffected by the wedding of a young Gibbs, some three weeks after the real thing).

Britten Sinfonia Beethoven cycle at the Barbican Hall review *****

Britten Sinfonia, Thomas Ades (conductor),

Barbican Hall, 21st and 26th May 2019

  • Lawrence Power (viola)
  • Eamonn Dougan (director)
  • Jennifer France (soprano)
  • Christianne Stotjin (alto)
  • Ed Lyon (tenor)
  • Matthew Rose (bass)
  • Britten Sinfonia Voices
  • Choir of Royal Holloway
  • Beethoven – Symphony No 7 in A majpor, Op 92
  • Gerald Barry – Viola Concerto
  • Beethoven – Symphony No 8 in F major, Op 93
  • Gerald Barry – The Eternal Recurrence 
  • Beethoven – Symphony No 9 in D minor, Op 125

I have banged on before about just how revelatory Thomas Ades’ Beethoven cycle with the Britten Sinfonia has been. Well it seems that, for the final couple of concerts, the rest of the world, (well OK a few Beethoven nuts in London, Norwich and Saffron Walden) has caught up. A near full house for the Choral and a much better turnout for 7 and 8 than in previous installments.

The combination of, largely, modern instruments by an orchestra of solo and chamber specialists, (and now my favourite British ensemble), who have completely bought into the lessons of HIP under the baton of, again for my money, Britain’s greatest living composer, have produced Beethoven symphonies that surely reproduce the thrill of their first performance. Appropriate forces, minimal vibrato, tempos that believe Beethoven, textures exposed and perfectly combined. I have bloody loved the first four concerts and was really looking forward to the final pairing.

I wasn’t disappointed. The best Ninth I have ever heard. Ever. Soloists perfectly balanced and all as clear as a bell over the sympathetic accompaniment. And the choirs were immense. You don’t need a cast of thousands. How on earth Mr Ades and Eamonn Dougan managed to make the voices sound this perfect in this acoustic was a miracle. And everything Mr Ades drew out of the previous three movements before the finale was perfect.

Best Eighth I have ever heard live too though here the competition is, I admit, somewhat slighter. I will be honest and just say I never knew it was so good. It is short, it is jolly, with no slow movement, but it is full of intriguing, if brief, ideas. I finally got it. The Seventh wasn’t quite up to the same standard with the opening Vivace with all those abrupt early key changes not quite dropping into place and with the stop/start of the Allegretto funeral march maybe too pronounced. Minor quibbles. Still amazing.

The Barry Viola Concerto takes the flexing and stretching of a musical exercise with a simple melody and subjects it to all manner of variations. It ended with Lawrence Power whistling. It is, like all of Barry’s music in the series, immediately arresting, just a little bit unsettling, rhythmically muscular and very funny. Terrific.

The Eternal Recurrence which proceeded the Choral is equally unexpected. Extracts from Nietzche’s Also sprach Zarathustra are delivered in a string of high notes by the soprano, here the fearless Jennifer France, in an a parlando, actorly style which is designed to mimic speech and not to sound “sing-y”. It’s a bit nuts and undercuts the text in a slightly sarcastic way, a bit like, some would say,Beethoven does with Schiller in the Ode to Joy. It reminded me of Barry’s The Conquest of Ireland which was paired with the Pastoral earlier on in this cycle.

I gather Gerard Barry uses a similar technique in his opera The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, (based on the Fassbinder film). That is now firmly near the top of my opera “to see” list but for the moment I am very pleased to see that both The Intelligence Park and Alice’s Adventures Underground are coming up at the Royal Opera House. Thanks to Thomas Ades I think I can safely say I am now a fan of Gerard Barry. And the old fella has style and is generous to the performers of his music as we see when he takes his bow at each of these performances.

I won’t go rabbiting on about the musical structure or context of the Beethoven symphonies. You will know them. And if you don’t then frankly you are only living half a life. Beethoven wrote the greatest music ever written. If you don’t believe me then why not start next year when a recording of this cycle will be released and when there will be wall to wall live Beethoven performances to celebrate 250 years since his birth. Here’s a list of the best of them in London. They’ll be more.

  • 6th January, 6th February, 27th February, 19th March, 2nd April – Kings Place – Brodsky Quartet – Late Beethoven String Quartets
  • 19th January – Barbican Hall – LSO, Sir Simon Rattle – Berg Violin Concerto, Beethoven Christ on the Mount of Olives.
  • 1st and 2nd February – Barbican – Beethoven weekender – All of the Beethoven symphonies from various UK orchestras and much much more – all for £45
  • 6th February – Barbican Hall – Evgeny Kissin – Piano Sonatas 8, 17 and 21
  • 12th February – Barbican Hall – LSO. Sir Simon Rattle – Symphony No 9
  • 20th February, 4th November – Kings Place – Rachel Podger, Christopher Glynn – Beethoven Violin Sonatas
  • 1st to 17th March – Royal Opera House – Beethoven Fidelio
  • 15th March – Royal Festival Hall, PO, Esa-Pekka Salonen – 1808 Reconstructed – Beethoven Symphonies 5 and 6, Piano Concerto No 4, Extracts from Mass in C, Choral Fantasy and more
  • 4th April – LPO, Vladimir Jurowski – The Undiscovered Beethoven – inc. The Cantata for the Death of Emperor Joseph II
  • 8th April – Barbican Hall – Anne-Sophie Mutter, Lambert Orkis – Beethoven Violin Sonatas 5, 7 and 9
  • 11th to 16th May – Barbican Hall – Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, Sir John Eliot Gardiner – the entire Symphony cycle.
  • 22nd November – Kings Place – Peter Wispelwey, Alasdair Beaton – Beethoven complete Cello Sonatas

Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and other love songs) at the Lyric Hammersmith review ***

Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and other love songs)

Lyric Hammersmith, 22nd May 2019

Never seen John Gay’s ballad opera The Beggar’s Opera, though have seen Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera, on which it is based, a couple of times. Have been waiting patiently for a production of Britten’s 1948 adaptation to pop up again having missed a couple of past opportunities. So it seemed a good idea in the meantime to take in this version, co-produced by Kneehigh and the Liverpool Everyman/Playhouse in which writer Carl Grose, composer Charles Hazlewood and director Mike Shepherd have reimagined the story for a contemporary audience using an eclectic mix of musical genres.

And, by and large, it was a good idea, even if it was a little overstuffed with Kneehiggh’s usual bag of tricks. The John Gay original was written as an antidote to the ever more preposterous gods, monsters and love story Baroque Italian style operas filling London theatres. Often cobbled together from other works with divas insisting on their own favourite arias regardless of context, rambling on for hours and with daft plots, they were ripe for satire. Remember too that the early C18 was a golden age for political satire led by Hogarth, Swift and Pope in print. (In fact it was the latter two who first suggested the idea of TBO to Gay). C18 toff Britain was busy racking up debt, sticking it too Johnny Foreigner and getting rich on the proceeds of slavery, whilst all around absolute poverty was rife. Sound familiar?

Gay and the other writers of so called Augustan drama were also pushing back against the Restoration comedies and nasty she-tragedies of the previous decades, creating middle and lower class characters mired in a world of corruption. The aim was not necessarily to highlight the social and economic injustice meted out to the poor, there was still a strong Christian and moral tone of instruction to the works, but to vent the frustration of the mercantile “libertarian” class at the “conservative” aristocracy and its political sycophants. Gay’s particular target in The Beggar’s Opera was actually the divisive Whig prime minister Robert Walpole and specifically his involvement in bailing out the original investors in the South Sea Bubble.

The 69 songs, across 45 short scenes, originally were to be sung without musical accompaniment but Johann Christoph Pepusch was brought in at the last minute to create a score for the mix of largely Scottish and French folk melodies, chucking in popular broadsheet ballads, opera arias lifted straight from the like of Handel, church hymns and even an overture. The punters lapped it up and it spawned multiple imitations, (though this is the only ballad opera which is still performed), and influenced much of the comic opera and musical theatre which followed in the C19 and C20. I see that it enjoyed a lengthy revival at this very theatre in the 1920s.

Carl Grose has kept most of the main characters, the Peachums (Martin Hyder and Rina Fatania), daughter Polly (Angela Hardie), Lockit (Giles King) and daughter Lucy (Beverly Rudd), Filch (Georgia Frost) and, of course Macheath (Dominic Marsh), and the bones of the plot including a repurposed, and instructive, parody ending, though here Macheath is a contract killer tasked with bumping off the virtuous Mayor, (and his innocent mutt), to make way for Peachum. Charles Hazlewood has thrown in electro, grime, dubstep, noire, trip hop rhythms as well as some punk and ska, alongside snatches of Purcell, Handel and even Greensleeves (from the original), to foot-tapping effect. By and large it all hangs together and I can’t fault the cast for effort. The dance routines (courtesy of Etta Murfitt) are entertaining and there are some effective visual treats, not least of which is the titular dead dog in the suitcase. The on stage musicians, who also take on key parts, notably violinist Patrycja Kujawska as Widow Goodman, cannot be faulted.

But Michael Vale’s set, complete with scaffolding and slide, whilst initially impressive, at times becomes an obstacle course for the cast to negotiate and multiple costume changes only add to the complications. Adding in a Punch and Judy routine, assorted puppetry (marshalled by Sarah Wright)and other creative trickery ends up slowing down proceedings and interrupting the momentum in what is intended to be a high energy entertainment. Sometimes less is more, especially if the intention is to make some points about the iniquity of the contemporary political class. I know this kitchen sink, amateur circus look is a keynote of some of Kneehigh’s work but it does rather blunt the satirical intent.

Still I can’t pretend I didn’t laugh, or jig about a bit, and the whole thing is done in just over a couple of hours. There’s a few days left at the Lyric and then the production moves on to complete the tour in Exeter, Cheltenham, Bristol and Galway.