Follies at the National Theatre

Photo: Johan Persson via TheUpcoming.co.uk

I’m a fan of Sondheim. He writes in Finishing The Hat that his favourite of his own lyrics are those that are simplest and most direct; but, like many of his fans, I just can’t resist his virtuosic linguistic twists and turns, when he’s at his most showy. Even A Little Priest, the mountain of a duet at the end of Act I of Sweeney Todd, turns out to be less of a learning challenge than I feared because Sondheim is having so much fun testing the song’s idea to destruction that his enjoyment is infectious.

Follies is a show I didn’t know until last week and it presses all my Sondheim buttons as well as satisfying my love of sequins. The composer is writing on one of his favourite themes, unfulfillment, and how we may deal with our disappointment. If we have made a poor choice we can try to change it but we may have to live with it and it needn’t be all bad – we will survive. I enjoyed the typically complex Sondheim structure involving characters doubled with their younger selves, but the revelation for me in Follies was in discovering the intended context of songs that I have known for years as stand-alone numbers (In Buddy’s Eyes, Losing My Mind, I’m Still Here). If a song is great it will bear separation from its environment but it’s always exciting to discover a whole other world of meaning when it’s heard within the show.

Of course the same goes for opera – Nessun Dorma is less about football and more about hoping to avoid execution when heard in the context of Turandot – and it’s a great reminder of why we should always take the time to go back to the source and not just be seduced by the best tunes in isolation.

A new Bohème

Photo: Tristram Kenton

Dispensing with one of the best-loved and longest-lived productions in the history of the Royal Opera is a high-risk decision. Leaving it to your successor to deal with the fall-out could seem like extreme management cunning, but of course it’s basically a question of unfortunate timing. Given how far ahead plans have to be laid, the decision to replace John Copley’s La Bohème with a new one by Richard Jones was probably made way before Kasper Holten decided to move on from running Covent Garden. 

Happily for us, the new Bohème seems to be getting a good reception, with reviewers and opera-lovers finding many things to like. From within the show it’s difficult to get a sense of it as a whole: I have been able to watch bits of it on the show’s TV relay, but there’s no standing in the wings, as the show is totally open to the back wall and sides. Within the bleak and snowy void of the empty stage appear boxes of contained space in which the action takes place – the garret, shopping galleries and Café Momus (top). The busyness and colour of the consumerist world in Act 2 highlights the protagonists’ exclusion from it in the rest of the story and the garret space looks even bleaker the second time around.

Having been on stew-eating duties for the last five revivals of the previous production, I have been promoted to rubber-necking at the window in this one, which means that I have been captured for posterity by the Guardian photographer (left). It’s not often that an opera is deemed worthy of the centre spread in a national broadsheet, and that’s definitely worth drinking a toast to.

 

Andre Tchaikovsky’s The Merchant of Venice

Karl Forster/Bregenzer Festspiele

I first blogged about Polish composer André Tchaikovsky in 2013, when I was involved in a symposium in Leeds, dedicated to his life and work. At the time, André’s operatic treatment of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice – nearly complete at the time of his death aged 46 – was getting its first performances at the Bregenz Festival. You can read the FT’s review here.

In my previous post I didn’t mention that André was a friend of my family and that he stayed with us whenever he was performing in the area. His Merchant of Venice had occupied him for most of his adult life and I had heard all about it, not least his disappointment that it had not in the end received its planned premiere at ENO. He wanted to be remembered as a composer as well as a piano virtuoso.

The Merchant of Venice has been made as a co-production between Bregenz, the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, Teatr Wielki and WNO, so was reasonable to hope that such an important twentieth-century opera would eventually get performances in London. 

Last week I finally got to see the opera and it was worth the wait. I was pretty young when I knew André and can’t pretend to remember him in every detail but I have spent time with him since in his songs, via the Rebel of the Keys documentary and in conversation with others who also knew him. He felt so present in every bar of The Merchant of Venice, with the courtroom confrontation between Shylock and Antonio packing the biggest punch for me because it focussed the themes of the opera which were of greatest significance to André personally. Wonderful performances and a lovely clean production (designed originally for the pontoon stage of Bregenz Festival) made for a great evening.

André’s wish for his skull to appear as Yorick has been fulfilled, so the staging of The Merchant of Venice was the last piece of unfinished business for him. I think he would be pleased.

Over My Shoulder

over my shoulder: elisabeth schumann and jessie matthewsSeptember 16th will be the first performance of Over My Shoulder, my latest McCaldin Arts project, about soprano Elisabeth Schumann and musical comedy star Jessie Matthews. In this recital I narrate the remarkable life-stories of these two women and sing some of the wonderful music most closely associated with them. Accompanying me in songs ranging from Mendelssohn, Strauss and Schubert to Noel Coward and Rogers & Hart will be pianist Paul Turner, my regular collaborator on Haydn’s London Ladies.

It was a photograph of the grave of Elisabeth Schumann at St Martin’s church in Ruislip that first prompted the idea for a recital, followed by the discovery of Jessie Matthews’ grave in the same churchyard. It seems appropriate that Over My Shoulder should get its premiere at St Martin’s where these two women finally came to rest. I hope that, having heard me weave their stories together, the audience will not only visit the two graves, but seek out the substantial legacy of recordings and film left by Elisabeth and Jessie, many of which can be found on You Tube. I am delighted to be presenting their song repertoire, but the inimitable originals are really worth hearing too, and Jessie’s dance routines (she was the “English Ginger Rogers”) are absolutely extraordinary.

This performance of Over My Shoulder is sponsored by Edmission UK and all ticket receipts will go to the Myosotis Trust, a charitable organisation with which St Martin’s church has a long association.

Concert starts at 7.30pm. Tickets will be available on the door. Interval drinks.

Daughters of the Elements at the Crick

Last night I sang at the Francis Crick Institute as part of an event to mark the second birthday of the Knowledge Quarter. This is an organisation that exists to focus and enable collaboration between the many knowledge-based organisations clustered in the geographical area around Kings Cross-St Pancras, including the British Library, the Wellcome Trust and the Crick Institute. As The Crick is the home of world-class biomedical research and it was appropriate to be singing two scenes from Stephen McNeff‘s work Daughters of the Elements, about Marie Curie and her daughters Ève and Irène.

 Daughters of the Elements was originally premiered at Tête à Tête: the Opera Festival, an important event on the London opera calendar where I first presented two other works by Stephen McNeff, A Voice of One Delight and Vivienne.

Our team last night consisted of Tim Burke conducting members of the CHROMA ensemble (above), with Mary Plazas as Irène and Caroline Kennedy as Ève (pictured right, with me as Marie Curie).

McCaldin Arts announces projects for 2017

Two new projects for 2017 are in development with McCaldin Arts:

Mary is a monodrama for mezzo, trumpet, oboe and cello, by Martin Bussey with libretto by Andy Rashleigh (Vivienne). Queen Mary I is chiefly remembered as Bloody Mary but her personal story is more subtle and interesting than many of us realise, and her contribution to British history more significant.

Elizabeth and Jessie is a narrated recital along the lines of the very successful Haydn’s London Ladies, and tells of the curious link between international opera diva Elizabeth Schumann and darling of 1930s musicals Jessie Matthews.

For more information, click on the links above.

Working titles are provisional and performance dates to be announced.

Haydn’s doctor’s diagnosis confirmed

Fascinating news today about John Hunter, husband of Haydn’s collaborator Anne Hunter, who worked with him on his two books of Canzonettas.

John Hunter, physician to King George III, was a pioneering surgeon and his 200-year old diagnosis of osteosarcoma in a patient has recently been confirmed by modern technology.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-38409086

Happy birthday to the Haffner

img_4431

L to R: Julian Cann, CMcC, Justin Doyle

My family lived in Lancaster when I was growing up: my father was Head of Music at Lancaster University, running a department which has alas since been closed. There was a lot of good music-making in the area, including by the Haffner Orchestra, which my father even conducted for a time.

It therefore felt rather special to be invited to return to Lancaster to sing Elgar’s Sea Pictures with the orchestra as part of its fortieth anniversary celebrations. Conductor Justin Doyle – a fellow Lancastrian with whom I have done a lot of music-making in London – was giving his final concert with the Haffner, having recently been appointed Chief Conductor of the RIAS Kammerchor in Berlin, and Julian Cann, with whom I was briefly at school in Lancaster is the orchestra’s Leader.

img_4430Edward Cowie, who was appointed by my father as Composer in Residence at Lancaster many years ago, was commissioned to write a new work, Tide in Knots, to mark the Haffner’s birthday. Edward is a visual artist as well as a musical one and an exhibition of his works on paper was on show in the University gallery.

It was an exceptionally happy concert, and my parents (who have long since moved East) were warmly welcomed back by local friends and colleagues. A packed house duly cheered the orchestra’s fine achievement not just on the night, but over the last forty years.

Paul Ayres’ Artemisia now available to watch

In July I gave the first performance of the complete Artemisia, a song-cycle for voice and string trio by Paul Ayres. It sets poems by Sue Powell and tells the story of the life and art of Artemisia Gentileschi, one of the earliest women painters to establish a lasting reputation.

The videos of the performance are now available to watch on You Tube and you can read more about the project in my earlier blogpost.

Above is the video of La Giuditta, the song about the making of Artemisia’s famous painting Judith slaying Holofernes.

 

To Hull and back

Piano accompaniment is one of those skills which, the more brilliantly it is executed, the less one is aware of quite what is being done. The sense of exposure I generally feel when about to start a recital from memory is lessened by the knowledge that behind me there is an amazing person, apparently with several brains and more than just two hands, who is seemingly able to read my mind.

image1At the end of an incredibly busy week, during which we had both workshopped and performed The Ubiquitous Woman, I joined pianist Libby Burgess in Hull. The University Music Department was hosting a weekend symposium with Malcolm Martineau, titled Piano Accompaniment in Practice. A range of sessions covered academic and practical aspects of accompanying both singers and instrumentalists.

In her paper, Libby addressed the question of how the accompanist “plays” the text. Malcolm had referred during the previous day’s masterclass to the range of functions the piano can serve, including “carpet” and “wallpaper” and the composer may also direct a pianist towards a much more specific characterisation in the story of the song. This is such rich territory that I would happily have spent the whole afternoon talking around the issues raised by the five songs we performed – Gebet (Wolf); Die Forelle (Schubert); Silent Noon (Vaughan Williams); Sleep (Gurney) and Love’s Philosophy (Quilter).

Our live experiment was to perform Silent Noon without ever  having rehearsed it. Of course it’s a song we both know well, so this was a way to show in action the mechanisms which Libby had been describing, by which the accompanist pays attention to the singer and the text. Despite only scratching the surface of the subject, I have come away with some new ideas about how to return the compliment of the accompanist’s care.

I also have a copy of a magnificent chart (above, right) compiled by one of the other speakers. Proof, if it were needed, that accompanists have nine brains.