Verdi Otello Bergen Philharmonic – Gardner Skelton Moore Lynch

Verdi Otello livestream from Norway with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Edward Garner with a superb cast, led by Stuart Skelton, Latonia Moore, and Lester Lynch (full list here) and four choirs, the Bergen Philharmonic Chorus, the Edvard Grieg Kor,  Collegiûm Mûsicûm Kor, the Bergen pikekor and Bergen guttekor (Childrens Choruses) with  chorus master Håkon Matti
Skred.   The Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra was founded in 1765, just a few years after the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra : Scandinavian musical culture has very strong roots, and is thriving still.   Tucked away in the far north, Bergen may a hidden treasure, but, as this performance proved, it;s world class.

Otello is one of Stuart Skelton’s signature roles.  He’s matured into the part, singing with even morer depth and richness than before, negotiating the range fearlessly, for Otello is a hero who has  achieved great deeds.  Significantly though, a storm is brewing in the orchestra as he arrives in Cyprus in triumph.  Skelton sang that “Esulate” like a roar, like a lion pre-emting danger.  But what was most striking about Skelton’s portrayal was its subtlety.  His Otello is a man who has confronted overwhelming obstacles all his life and has no delusions about apparent success.   When he does find the love he needed so much, his inner insecurities prove his undoing.  His tragedy is that he’s a good man, destroyed by those more venal than himself.  “Fuggirmi io sol non so!”  After Otello has killed Desdemona, Skelton’s singing is coloured by such sincerity that, despite the crime, Otello is, for his last moments alive, revealed in his true nobility.

Skelton’s Otello proves that make-up has nothing to do with artistry.  We see the “real” face of Otello and feel his emotions direct.  Blacking-up has been anathema in Britain and most of Europe for decades, and it should be.  Blackface reinforces the idea that people are defined by outward    appearance  It may not have been racist in Shakepeare’s time, but it is now. .Otello is an outsider, as is clear in the plot and in the music. No-one should need a caricature Darkie to understand the opera.  So Bergen deserves absolute respect for giving us a white Otello and a black Desdemona – people are people, and equal, whatever the colour if their skin.

Latonia Moore is beautiful, in every sense. Her voice is lustrously pure.  She creates Desdemona is a  halo that glows with spiritual light, which is much more to the point of the opera  Desdemona  is an almost visionary personality who sees the innate goodness in Otello and who is prepared to sacrifice herself for love. A soul sister of Gilda and Violetta Valéry.  Moore is also sexy, suggesting Desdemona’s love of life. The natural sensuality in her voice intesifies characterization, for Desdemona, like other Verdi heroines, isn’t virginal though her moral strength elevates her saint-like self-denial.  In the first Act, Moore was surrounded by the childrens choruses,  all of them looking, and sounding angelic.  One young girl looked like she had stars in her eyes – no wonder she was looking at Moore with genuine fondness.  Though the staging was minimal, it serves to enhance Moore’s artistry, He dialogue with Hanna Hipp’s Emilia was lucidly intimate. Curtains and bed linen don’t create personality : good singing does. Incidentally Hanna Hipp sang Emilia at the Royal Opera House. I first heard her in student productions at the Guildhall School of Music and Design. She’s good.

I was looking forward to Lester Lynch’s Iago, too, after his Lescaut in Baden-Baden, where he achieved a hugely impressive dynamic with Eva-Maria Westbroek. The pair interacted so well that  they really felt like brother and sister, sparring and flirting.  Manon wasn’t the only rebel in that family.  As  Iago, Lynch generated similar energy, his voice curling with menace, key words darting forth with venom.  Yet again, there’s no reason why Iago “has” to be any particular race. Scumballs lurk anywhere.

This Bergen Otello hard-hitting and emotionally secure,the orchestra playing with vigorous élan. A clean “northern” Otello (staging by Peter Mumford) and no worse for that. Otello is universal. It’s not Mediterranean, nor Italian, nor Shakespearean but human drama, for all times and places.

Original Source: Verdi Otello Bergen Philharmonic – Gardner Skelton Moore Lynch


Powerful statement – Rattle Metamorphosen, Das Lied von der Erde

By pairing  Mahler Das Lied von der Erde (Simon O’Neill, Christian Gerhaher) with Strauss Metamorphosen, Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra were making a truly powerful statement. This was no ordinary concert. This performance was extraordinary because it carried a message. Metamorphosen deals with annihilation, the symbolic death of civilisation. Das Lied von der Erde confronts annihilation but offers transcendance, through metamorphosis.  Whether Rattle realized or not, the Massacre of Nanking started on this day, 80 years ago, one incident in a century of horrors. Music doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It can enhance our sensitivity to what happens around us.

In Metamorphosen, Strauss overturns the cliché that strings are necessarily “romantic”. he strings operate together like a chorale, in which the voices are too numb to articulate except through abstract sound.  Hence the haunted sussurations, generating a haze of sound which both suggests and obscures meaning.  The bombing of German opera houses was, to Strauss, symptomatic of a much wider trauma : the scenes of past triumphs literally going up in smoke. Rattle and the LSO strings defined  the textures so well that the effect was almost claustrophobic : moments when the first violin rose above the density shone, illuminating the background.  Rattle also, suggests how “modern” the piece is, with its subtlies and its Night and Fog ambiguity.

Simon O’Neill and Christian Gerhaher were the soloists in Das Lied von der Erde, an interesting combination since their voices are so different, and a choice which also intensified meaning.  In performance, singers interact with each other, and with the orchestra, so a good choice of singers contributes to interpretation. 

O’Neill is a Wagner tenor, capable of great force. He’s also a singer who inhabits roles, bringing out the psychology of the characters he portrays. Wagner heroes aren’t nice, nor romantic, so the metallic quality in O’Neill’s timbre works particularly well in suggesting inner conflict.  Some of his keynote roles are Seigmund and Tannhäuser, men who have experienced life to the full.  In Das Trinklied von Jammer der Erde,  the tenor does not want to die, and struggles against Fate. Defiantly, he raises his Gold’nen Pokale to drink himself insensate. Even when O’Neill sang the word “Das Firmament” he laced it with poisoned irony. The harsh truth is that apes will howl on abandoned graves. In Chinese culture where heritage is sacred, this image is horrific : the Id consuming the Ego, barbarity annihilating civilization. When O’Neill sang the words “wild-gespenstische Gestalt”, he spat them out with a savagery that showed how well he understood the context.

In complete contrast, Christian Gerhaher sang with serene smoothness,  which worked well with O’Neill’s intensity. DasTrinklied vom Jammer der Erde and Der Abschied form two pillars, between which the protagonist reflects upon his life. The voices don’t operate in dialogue, but suggest  different parts of the same persona, like as the mirror image of  the half  moon bridge reflected in the pond.  Gerhaher had been singing for years before he shot to international stardom in Tannhäuser with an astonishingly beautiful O du holdes Abendstern, still his signature role.  Wolfram represents purity, the Wartburg tradition where battles are fought by song.. Wofram’s a paragon, Tannhäuser raddled and cursed, but Elisabeth chose the bad boy, who had lived.  Wolfram;s one of the finest Wolframs ever, but O’Neill, is an excellent Tannhäuser.  In so many ways, this Das Lied von der Erde could have been Tannhäuser the Rematch, a level of meaning that’s essential to understanding.

Das Lied von der Erde represents a traverse from life to sublimated afterlife. The images in this song symphony are pretty, but doomed.  O’Neill established the right emotional tone, while Gerhaher’s serenity acted a foil.  The images in the text are pretty, but pointed.   The young men will no longer prance on their horses as they did when young, the friends in the pavilion will part. Gerthaher’s calm smoothness reminded me  of Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, who salves troubled souls. Lotus blossoms dignify Kuan Yin in Chinese mythology. The roots grow in darkness and dirt, but the flowers grow towards the sun. The maidens pluck them because they are edible : a source of nutrition in every sense. Eventually the poet/protagonist is silenced, with only a bird (woodwind) as guide (like Seigfried).  Then in Der Abschied  the journey metamorphosed onto another level altogether.  Gerhaher’s singing here was exquisite, well modulated and even paced, the last words “ewig…ewig…ewig” expressed with depth and richness.

This Rattle/LSO Das Lied von der Erde was also outstanding because Rattle understood its structural architecture.  The work is remarkably symmetric, dualities creating internal links within and between each section. The singers voices are paralleled by flute and oboe. The repeating refrain “Dunkel ist das Leben ist der Tod” connects bto the much more esoteric “ewigs” with which the work ends.  Each song ends with an emphatic break, which Rattle clearly marks, for each song closes a door and moves on. In Der Abschied, there are multiple inner sections, interspersed with orchestral interludes which serve to mark transitions. Whatever is happening now is beyond the realm of words alone: like a kind of transition in which something is gradually distilled into a new plane of existence.  Think about the purgatorio in what would have been Mahler’s tenth. A pulse like a heartbeat throbs in the early songs,  which gradually resolves into the calm almost-breathing stillness in the end.  It may be fashionable in some quarters  to knock Rattle on principle because he’s successful and famous, but that overlooks the fact that he has very strong musical instincts.  And the LSO plays for him as if divinely inspired.

Original Source: Powerful statement – Rattle Metamorphosen, Das Lied von der Erde

Nanjing Massacre – 80 years on

On 13th December 1937 began the six weeks massacre of Nanjing (Nanking) in which as many as 300,000 Chinese were murdered. That doesn’t take into account the many others injured, those who died later of wounds and other suffering, those traumatized, left orphaned, forced into exile.  And Nanjing was just one of many incidents in the 14 years of Japanese occupation. Consider and ponder.  .

Original Source: Nanjing Massacre – 80 years on

Your bio, with a personal story

I’ve been working with a consulting client on his branding, on how he talks about himself. He’s slowly crafting a new artist bio for himself, one that doesn’t just list his achievements, but weaves who he is as a person — and who he is as an artist — together with all the things he’s done.

I find this marvelous. An artist bio as a human document! An artistic statement. Not just a list. With a bio like this we can attract attention to the full picture of who we are. Which I think is good both for our souls and four our careers. We’re approaching the world as the people we really are. Which will, for many people reading the bios (including people we think we need for our careers) mean more than  just the usual list of our achievements.

I’m available as a consultant for anyone who wants to approach the world this way. Contact me.

And when I’ve worked with people on this, so often we’re on a voyage of self-discovery.

Some examples of bios that weave professional achievements together with a personal story:

A photographer and photo restorer

A music business lawyer

A conductor and composer, who’s also a meditation teacher and a homesteader, growing some of his own food (and a consulting client of mine; his bio got him a music director’s job, with an orchestra that wanted everything he is).

The voyage of self- and career-discovery can be difficult at first, because we may not know (I’m including myself in “we”) what’s appropriate to say. But at the end, we might feel that a curtain has been raised, that a burden has been eased.

Original Source: Your bio, with a personal story

A deep immersion in Schumann’s Wiegenliedchen, Cradle Song No. 6, Op. 124

Who would have thought that a Romantic era character piece of short length could have so much to savor on multi-tiered levels? Relentless triplets with double stemmed quarters, seemed at first glance to direct the player toward a horizontal rendering of a conspicuous melodic thread that’s reinforced by the highest notes in the Right Hand. It’s clearly a vocal line that requires a singing tone wedded to a seamless legato.

But the more one delves into the score, an awareness of note groupings, within phrases, requires the player to breathe as a vocalist would, with an attendant understanding of how fingering, harmonic analysis, rotational motions, and exploration of the bass line all factor into a deeper rendering of the composition.

While the piece only landed in Berkeley just two short days ago, having been emailed in attachment form from a Scottish Isle, it was “cradled” with great care upon its arrival in the Berkeley flats–having passed through an embryonic stage of discovery to a more heightened level of understanding.

Since a tutorial is like a diary of epiphanies, the one I’ve included below, is a springboard to further learning discoveries that grow from repeated exposures and more intense scrutiny of what the composer, Robert Schumann, intended.

Original Source: A deep immersion in Schumann’s Wiegenliedchen, Cradle Song No. 6, Op. 124

Sabine Devieilhe Mirages – exotic French orientalism

Mirages : visions of the exotic East, a selection of French opera arias and songs from Sabine Devieilhe, with Alexandre Tharaud and Les Siècles conducted by François-Xavier Roth, new from Erato.  A stunning Ou va la jeune hindou (Bell song) from Delibes Lakmé.  Devielhe’s agile coloratura negotiates the challenges so gracefully that they seem almost effortless, flowing as fluidly as molten silver. The decorations sparkle – like bells – evoking emotions an innocent virgin cannot otherwise articulate. Lines float with a legato which seems inexhaustible, and dance with sensual rhythm.  The natural freshness in Devieilhe’s voice  evokes Lakmé’s purity without artifice. If Devieilhe is still quite young, that adds tender fragility to her portrayal. Listen also to the way the orchestra replicates exotic “oriental” sounds with western instruments. Les Siècles’ background in period-inspired performance pays off handsomely.  Also included here are a good Viens, Malika (with Marianne Crebassa)  and Tu m’as donné le plus doux rêve

Celle qui vient est plus belle from Massenet Thaïs, and A vos jeux, mes amis from Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet, indicating whee Devieilhe’s career will develop.  Berlioz La Mort d’Ophélie , Debussy La Romance d’Ariel and Charles Koechlin’s Le Voyage show she’s also promising in song, where Devieilhe is accompanied by Alexandre Tharaud.  But  there are  other treasures, too.  One of the many reasons why Roth and Les Siècles are so extraordinary is because they know their music history and make intelligent, perceptive connections.  Thus they present, together,  La jour sous le soleil béni from Messager’s Madame Chrysanthėme, a French Madama Butterfly with Mes longs cheveaux descendent from Debussy Pelléas et Mélisande, a thoughtful juxtaposition which brings out the contrast between two almost contemporary pieces.   

Still further reason to get this recording is that it includes Maurice Delage’s Quatre Poėmes hindous.  Delage (1879-1961)  travelled  to India, Indo-China and Japan, absorbing non-western musical form.  Although there are several recordings of these songs, most aren’t easy to come by except for Felicity Lott/Armin Jordan from 1995, so it’s refreshing to hear Devieilhe with Roth and Les Siècles who are even more idiomatic than Jordan and the Kammerensemble de Paris.  What gives this performance the edge is the orchestral playing.  Les Siècles, with their extensive experience in Ravel and in unusual instruments, create the exotic sounds  of the East of Delage’s imagination so well that the songs have an almost authentic “Indian” flavour, even the one titled Lahore which is in fact a setting of Heinrich Heine’s Ein Fichtenbaum steht einsam, also set by Grieg, Liszt,  Delius and Stenhammer.  In Delage’s setting, cello, viola and harp are plucked like Indian string instruments, while the voice curls sensuously around. In the song Bénarès, we might think we hear tablas and Indian reeds, but we’re actually hearing western instruments played by musicians who have endeavoured to understand what their Asian counterparts might do.  When western composwers discovered Asia, they opened new possibilities in western form.  From The East to Debiussy, to Stravinsky (whose Le Rossignol is also on this disc.  Modern and ancient, in symbiosis.  With Roth and Les Siècles: “The unexpected is always with us”, to borrow a phrase from Luciano Berio, another Roth speciality. .

Original Source: Sabine Devieilhe Mirages – exotic French orientalism

“I am not pleased!” says Sibelius re the Guardian

“I am NOT pleased!” growls  Janne Sibelius

The Guardian questioned whether Sibelius was Finnish.  Rejoinder: does the Guardian do journalism, or clickbait?  For the past three months, London has enjoyed two superlative series – Sakari Oramo’s Sibelius plus series with the BBC SO at the Barbican, and Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Nordic Days with the Philharmonia (and others) at the South Bank.   At a stroke the Guardian has destroyed the goodwill generated by these concert series.  So much goodwill  (and knowledge) built up. Then, at a stroke, the Guardian messes up. The article’s become an international incident, picked up in the Scandinavian press.  Thank goodness they don’t think all Brits are as stupid as our newspapers.  The Guardian later changed the headline and the writer apparently apologized. But if the Guardian was serious about journalism they’d look into what gets written in the first place.

As many have said, three languages are spoken in Finland – Finnish, Swedish and Russian, and huge parts of Karelia are now under Russian rule.  National identity is never simple or rigidly fixed, except maybe to Brexiteers.  A basic knowledge of European history would not go astray. Dare we ask that anyone writing about Sibelius might know who he was and what he did?   Sibelius’s music found a ready audience in Britain very early on. His popularity helped shape western opinion, creating international sympathy for a Finland even when Britain and Russia were allied.  In the past, Finland was too small to have had strategic value to the west, so popular international support made a lot of difference.   Effectively, Sibelius was the father of his nation, a symbol of Finnishness to the whole world.  Music and politics, dovetailed. Doesn’t that matter?

Original Source: "I am not pleased!" says Sibelius re the Guardian