Sublimated sex : Messiaen Turangalîla-Symphonie, Oramo BBCSO

Sakari Oramo conducted the BBC SO in Messiaen Turangalîla-Symphonie at the Barbican,  yesterday. Sandwiched between Bernard Haitink’s Mahler and Bruckner concerts this week, tickets didn’t sell as well as they should have. Luckily, the  broadcast is on BBC Radio 3 With Cynthia Millar playing the ondes martenot and Steven Osbormne on piano, this was class.  How I wished I hadn’t chickened out of the long commute and returned my tickets.  This is an extraordinarily “visual” piece: you can’t know it if you haven’t, at least once, participated in performance, even if you’re just listening.  It’s a communal event, like a Pagan Mass.  

One of Sakari Oramo’s many strengths is his sense of humour, so this Turangalîla-Symphonie was wonderfully zany, capturing the crazy free spirits in the piece without losing the tension that keeps the whole, sprawling panorama together through ten sections, each clearly distinct.  A vivacious performance, the BBCSO on message and lively.  

The seeds of Turangalîla were planted when Messiaen and Yvonne  Loriod fell desperately in love, but, being strictly religious, they didn’t sleep together til they married decades later.  Turangalîla-Symphonie, the fruit of their passion, is sex, sublimated in music. Not for nothing the two principal solo parts are written for ondes martenot and piano, the piece operating as a dialogue for two poles united in a dazzling landscape.  Boulez adored Messiaen, and vice versa, but this was the one piece that Boulez could not bring himself to conduct. “Brothel music”, he quipped, which is true, for the piece is explicitly erotic.  Since Messiaen was Boulez’s father figure, it must have felt like watching your parents at it. You know it happened, or you wouldn’t have been born, but……

When Turangalîla premiered in 1948, one writer  referred to its “fundamental emptiness… appalling melodic tawdriness…..a tune for Dorothy Lamour in a sarong, a dance for Hindu hillbillies”. He had a point. If ever there was music in Technicolor, this is it, complete with cinematic swirls of the ondes martenot.  These days, when we hear the ondes martenot, we don’t necessarily associate it with cutting-edge Varèse, but with Béla Lugosi. They don’t even make movies like that anymore. Not even B movies.   Perhaps Turangalîla suffers from having been premiered in the wrong time and place. In 1948, Messiaen was largely unknown in the United States, so Koussevitsky’s commission was very high profile indeed. The premiere was given by Leonard Bernstein, who probably relished the Hollywoodesque extravagance of the piece. But there’s a hidden background.  Bernstein was influenced, indirectly, by Nadia Boulanger, who thought music ended with mid-period Stravinsky, and even turned her back on him when he deviated from diktat.  She could not stand Messiaen: they operated rival salons, hers catering mainly to English speakers, his more liberal and “European”.   Yvonne Loriod was originally a Boulanger protégé, but when she took up with Messiaen, Boulanger cut her dead.  So perhaps the world wasn’t ready for Turangalîla  in 1948.

For Turangalîla-Symphonie is a shockingly modern work. If at times it seems to parody the idea of Romantic Music as defined by Hollywood, why not? Messiaen’s values stemmed from medieval traditions of religious ecstasy, which gave 19th-century French Romanticism a particular flavour, different to Austro-German tradition.   Messiaen was not “doing Hollywood”.   Like other Europeans emerging from the hardships of war and rationing,  Messaien was responding to the liberating idea of uninhibited exuberance. Turangalîla-Symphonie would have seemed like an explosion of blinding colour after years of repression. The sensuality also connected to long-standing French fascination  with exotic, non-European cultures.

Wild as the piece is, though, it is also sophisticated. Its complex rhythms need to be played with vigorous precision, so the textures stay vividly bright and clear.  In Messiaen, colour is essential.  The best performances I’ve heard have had a taut savagery that brings out the muscular energy in the piece. Bad performances are chemically coloured soup.  Fortunately, the BBC SO can let their hair down without losing their innate stylishness. Fundamental to this piece, and to Messiaen’s work in general, is the powerful pulse, often expressed in craggy ostinato.   Geology in music, maybe: it represents a life force, nature itself and, for Messiaen, derived from God.  Thus Oramo shaped the crazy flights of wild abandon without losing sight of their place in the structure.  Messiaen didn’t use the ondes martenot by accident: it’s an instrument that plays with unseen forces of physics and sound.  The protagonists in Turangalîla-Symphonie  are ecstatic because they’ve found release. They wouldn’t be transformed if they hadn’t had something to be liberated from in the first place.

Lovely L’Ascension beforehand, too, demonstrating how far  Turangalîla-Symphonie propels Messiaen forward. 

Original Source: Sublimated sex : Messiaen Turangalîla-Symphonie, Oramo BBCSO

Transfiguration : Mahler Symphony no 9 Bernard Haitink, London Symphony Orchestra, Barbican

“Where words fail, music speaks”  These words were spoken by Gareth Davis, Chairman of the London Symphony Orchestra before this performance of Mahler’s Symphony no 9 with Bernard Haitink conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, at the Barbican Hall, London.  These words will be repeated over and over, for so they should be.  How can we respond, as decent people to events like the bombing at Manchester ? There are no quick fix solutions.  But in uncivilized times, having faith in the power of higher ideals  may help, or at least offer the comfort of hope.  We can, of course, listen to concerts with complete detachment, but emotional engagement adds to the experience. Our response to this performance could not but be coloured by events.

Because the Ninth was Mahler’s last completed symphony, connections are often made with imminent death. Yet from first to last,  Mahler’s symphonies chart transistions : from death to resurrection, from struggle to transcendence.  Das Lied von der Erde, Mahler’s “true” ninth, quite explicitly connects death with renewal on a different plane of existence.  The “farewell” in Symphony no 9 is not annihilation but the journey from past to future.  Bernard Haitink has probably conducted more Mahler in his long career than most, yet he continues to develop.   Live perfomances are always “new”, only recordings remain fixed, like specimens in a jar.   Eight years ago, he conducted this symphony with the same orchestra : the notes were the same, but the performances quite distinctive.

The gentle, palpitating motif at the beginning flowed into blazing, more expansive outbursts   A constant sense of shifting movement, bright horns and trumpets contrasting with the measured “footsteps” in the strings, echoed in the percussion.  The palpitating motif returned repeatedly, in different forms, ever moving forward.  The connotations were less military march than purposeful traverse, as if the protagonist were trudging across mountains, toward a goal. Chills descended, nonetheless, but the melody leads on.  Hearing the violin and flute (Roman Simovic and Gareth Davis) in dialogue, I thought of Siegfried and the woodbird.

The second movement employs different dance forms. But why Ländler ? Dance is physical movement, often in circles, with repetitions and small individual variation.  And why the marking  “Etwas täppisch und sehr derb”?  (rustic, simple, earthy). Perhaps the allusion is to nature and to fertility.  In Das Lied von der Erde, Nature does the work. In the Ninth Symphony, farmers toil.   Harvests mean plenty. In the violin perhaps we hear village musicians, sometimes local, sometimes journeymen.  But the rhythms are driven, with frenzy. all too soon winter comes and the ground lies fallow. Here the LSO, brilliant players, re-create the edgy, almost angular rhythms, which fade “into the mists”, so to speak, of strings, harp and brass.  The palpitating figures in the first movement returned, in new variation, and the “march” pulled urgently forward, percussion crashing, brass ablaze.

The chill in the Rondo-Burleske was almost palpable, as if the strings were shivering.  Has frost cut down the harvest ?   Dark bassoons murmured, the strings went quiet, yet again  from this desolation a melodic line (violin) arose, rising upward.  But the best was yet to come. The Finale was so refined that it seemed to come from another realm.   The high tessitura shimmered so beautifully that the music seemed bathed in ethereal light.  Upwards and upwards, the sounds levitated, counterbalanced by gentle diminuendos.  How does Haitink get players to hold lines with such poise and refinement ? 
He knows the LSO well, and they love him in return.  It must be some kind of alchemy.  When they performed this Finale in 2009, I could hardly hold my breath for fear of missing a moment.  This time round, even more refined transparency. The music doesn’t “end” so much as becomes rarified, transmuted onto another plane of existence, beyond what the human ear can comprehend.  If Mahler’s Ninth is a symphony of death, something happens along the way, which leads to total transfiguration.  And so, back to the phrase “Where words fail, music speaks”. Absolutely necessary in these times of hate and madness.

Original Source: Transfiguration : Mahler Symphony no 9 Bernard Haitink, London Symphony Orchestra, Barbican

Glowing recommendation – Curtis Symphony Orchestra Cadogan Hall, Friday

Osmo Vänskä conducts the Symphony Orchestra of the Curtis Institute of Music

On Friday May 26th, Osmo Vänskä conducts the Symphony Orchestra of the Curtis Institute at Cadogan Hall, London. (Read more HERE, tickets still available ). T|he Curtis Institute of Music is one of the top music academies in the United States, with an extremely impressive track record : scholarship-based, it is open to all with talent.   Please read HERE how José Serebrier, aged 17, went to Curtis and met Leopold Stokowski.  

Matthew Rose, photo: Lena Kern

Matthew Rose, now one of the top basses in the industry, studied there at the beginning of his career.  He says “It’s an event I highly recommend you to attend. As in, this is one of the greatest concerts you could hear all year.  ‘But what is this Curtis Institute?’ I hear you cry! Well, it’s probably the greatest music college on the planet. The place that probably trains more of the solo pianists, violinists, orchestral concert masters, principal clarinettists, Met Opera singers, composers, and conductors than any other institution in the world. From my time studying there alone, Lang Lang, Yuya Wang, and Jonathan Biss are at the forefront of pianists; the concert masters of Vienna Philharmonic, Atlanta Symphony, Met Opera Orchestra, Minneapolis Symphony, Indianapolis Symphony and soloists with every reputed orchestra. Juan Diego Florez is the most famous of the swaths of singers who have trained there; Leonard Bernstein, Samuel Barber, Lukas Foss, Jennifer Higdon and some of the most adorned composers etc etc etc .  It is an amazing place.”

Founded by Mary Louise Curtis Bok in 1924, on the advice of Leopold Stokowski, Curtis was formed to train the exceptional, exceptionally. A music school of 170 students, only enough instrumentalists for a full seating of a Symphony Orchestra, 25 singers, undergraduate and graduate, whom train and perform 5 fully staged operas a year and a handful of pianists, composers, organists and conductors. A place where tuition is aimed at people reaching their own (world leading) potential in technical ability through the best teaching and then having the chance to utilize that in limitless performance opportunities, be it individually, orchestrally with the world’s best conductors or in chamber music and opera. 

So one might ask “why have I never heard of this Curtis then?”  Rose adds “Curtis has existed only to train the exceptional exceptionally and hasn’t had, until recently, an agenda to do anything else but that. A recent gift of $55 million from out-going chairman of the board Nina Von Maltzahn to specifically spread the word of Curtis and allow tours like this present one to happen has changed that”. Curtis was initially housed in adjoining mansions on Rittenhouse Square, the sparkling jewel of Philadelphia’s urban spaces. In 2011 a new Lenfest Hall more than doubled the footprint of the school, housing a world class orchestral rehearsal space, teaching rooms and all the amenities needed for youngsters embarking on the most demanding of professions.

“It is a remarkable place”, says Rose, with enthusiasm. “I had the extreme fortune of attending Curtis from 1998 until 2003. I arrived as a complete novice with barely the ability to sing an octave and left experienced enough to join the Young Artists Programme at The Royal Opera, feeling completely ready, through my amazing education, to at least stand in the shadows of the world’s great singers on that most amazing stage. My education was as thorough and comprehensive as I could ever imagine; singing lessons every week in New York with the best teacher I could choose (no faculty for voice, just limitless options), language and musical coaching with top professionals on a daily basis, singing roles in 21 operas, weekly visits to the Met, Carnegie Hall, and best of all, a free ticket to hear the fabulous Philadelphia Orchestra every Saturday evening. I went from someone who had barely been to a symphony orchestra concert, to someone ready to sing with those orchestras in five years. I feel so privileged to have had all this, and do you know what, it was all for free. Mrs Curtis Bok’s initial endowment has grown and been supplemented by time, enthusiasm and massively generous and deserving support and philanthropy”

What a recommendation. For a very special experience,  try and get to the Cadogan Hall, London on Friday this week.  On stage will be 100 of the finest musicians you will ever hear, and the average age will probably be 20. 20 year olds playing with ability and commitment rarely heard. “Curtis really is amazing”, says Rose, who knows what he’s talking about ! 

Original Source: Glowing recommendation – Curtis Symphony Orchestra Cadogan Hall, Friday

Glyndebourne Cavalli Hipermestra – bizarre but pointed

Glyndebourne and baroque opera are almost synonymous. Indeed, the modern revival of interest in the baroque owes much to Glyndebourne and its values of eclecticism and excellence. Francesco Cavalli’s Hipermestra was an ideal start to the 2017 season. Cavalli operas, like La Calisto and L’Oromindo, are so well known that they’re almost standard repertoire, but Hipemestra is so obscure that this production is only the second since the original premiere in 1668.  With William Christie conducting (and acting) and Cavalli specialist Emőke Baráth singing the title role, this Glyndebourne first is unmissable. Get to it while you can.  Graham Vick’s staging, with sets by Stewart Nunn, is audacious, but then, that was the spirit of the baroque age, when Europe was discovering new worlds, in every sense. Cavalli’s penchant for sex, cross dressing and double entendre make Hipermestra an anarchic riot.  Stay home if you’re timid, but there’s nothing timid about Cavalli.

The plot alone is so bizarre that only fools could mistake it for reality. A prophecy warns Danao, King of Argos, that he’ll be killed by his son-in-law. His solution ? To marry his 50 daughters to the 50 sons of his brother Egitto, and get the brides to kill their husbands on their wedding nights.  What Freud might have made of that, who knows ?  Nonetheless the girls are so gullible that they widow themselves willingly, without question. Except for Hipermestra who has the hots for Linceo, and he for her. Dad isn’t pleased and puts her in prison.

Although the plot is implausible, music makes it art. The ensemble, nine members of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, were seated in front of the stage, which was decorated with an arch of pink balloons.  The mass wedding at Argos is kitsch, but the music is not.   Quietly, a figure in white joins the team: William Christie dressed anonymous, conducting from the keyboard, in full view.  Throughout this production, musicians appear on stage, blending with the proceedings. Violinist alone, then with violist, then two theorbos of different kinds, and later, Christie himself arising from the stage machinery, interacting with the singers before scrambling down to the pit.  Integrating music with drama in this way is sophisticated, conceptually, but Glyndebourne audiences are sharp enough to understand that opera is theatre, not reality TV !  Musicians should be seen more often, for without them, opera would not be what it is.

Whatever Argos is, it’s a place where extreme ideas are made possible by extreme power. Hence the oil rigs and ostentatious consumerist extravagance of the palace made possible by wealth, and the barbed wire that keeps people under control.  The allusions to Arab and/or Central Asian oligarchs may be offensive to some, but are aimed at the rulers, not the people they rule.   Thus is set the context for the wars that explode after Linceo escapes and takes his revenge on Danao, blaming Hipermestra.  Eventually, the whole region is destroyed. So much for wealth and power, when it is exercized by stupid people.  Linceo blames Hipermestra for infidelity,  Arbante and his minions stir confusing sub plots,  Hipermestra wants to die and Linceo thinks she’s dead.  Everyone making assumptions without checking facts.  That’s the point of bthe plot and sub-plots :L life is confusing if you don’t stop and think, before jumping off (literaslly, in Hipermestra’s case).

Hipermestra is a whole lot more relevant than one might assume.  The mayhem in the plot is a simile for what goes on in real life, even when people don’t have 50 daughters and sons to marry off all at once. In the end, as in all good fairy tales,  everything works out, but a whole lot of people have been hurt in the process.  This is an observation that would not have been lost on Cavalli’s original audience in times when monarchs had absolute power, without checks and balances.  Hipermestra is comedy, but also satire.

Emőke Baráth as Hipermestra, is divine.  Most of the opera circulates around her, and she has the biggest role, and the longest monologue. As one of the other characters  remarks Hipermestra “goes on and on”, but Baráth is so good that you enjoy every moment, though Cavalli takes his time to make a point.  Baráth is a good comic actress, singing a superb Helen of Troy in Elena (Il rapimento d’Helena) at Aix-en-Provence a few years ago.  Raffele Pe sang Linceo, switching from lover to killer, and back.  Ana Quintans, a Glyndebourne favorite, sings Hipermestra;s loyal maid Elis.  Benjamin Hulett sings Arbante – yes, sex and violence are very Cavalli ! Renato Dolcini sings Danao, Anthony Gregory sings Valfrino. David Webb sings Arsace and Alessandro Fisher sings Delmiro/Alindo.  Special honours to Mark Wilde who sings Berenice, the camp but sinister drag queen.  It’s not a comic role, though it has to be played for laughs. Berenice has gone through many husbands, however she/he disposed of them. Part witch, part victim, the part serves to remind us that in extremist power structures, women and the powerless (ie gay men) get kicked around and misused.  Cavalli had censors to fear. We don’t, thankfully, as long as we have intelligent audiences like those at Glyndebourne, who appreciate that opera involves ideas, feelings, and creativity. .

Original Source: Glyndebourne Cavalli Hipermestra – bizarre but pointed

Hadyn, Veress : English Chamber Orchestra, Altstaedt

Josef Hadyn (1732-1809 ) and Sándor Veress (1907-92) with the English Chamber Orchestra and Nicolas Altstaedt at King’s Place, London.  (Listen for repeat broadcast)  Proof yet again, that music is music, defying pigeonholes.  Every good composer has his or own identity, but all create things worth listening to, whatever the genre.  Listening outside the box enhances appreciation.  Perfectly natural.

Hall One at Kings Place is without doubt the most elegant concert hall in London, small but classically proportioned and blessed with an extremely clear acoustic. The walls are lined with polished wood, apparently from a single source, which helps to even out resonance.  Here, everything sounds balanced, to the extent that minor problems in performance seem magnified.  But that burnished, mellow acoustic is so beautiful.  No surprise it’s a good place to record in.  The English Chamber Orchestra, always polished, sounded wonderful, even on broadcast here.  

 How lovely Haydn’s Cello Concerto no 1 sounded with this orchestra, in this performance space, specially designed for chamber music !  Nicolas Alstaedt was soloist and conductor, in the true spirit of chamber communality.  Elegant but lively playing : baroque music wasn’t precious.  The vitality in this performance set the tone for Sándor Veress’s Sonata for Cello Solo (1967).  Alsteadt was, of course, playing on his own, but the ambient atmosphere of chamber ensemble lingered: he didn’t sound alone, though no-one else was playing.  Veress is a fascinating figure, who knew Bartók and Kodály, absorbing their interest in Hungarian folk music as an alternative to the Austro-German mainstream. These were turbulent times in Hungary, where many sympathized with fascism, and “modern” music frowned upon.  In 1941  Bartók was able to emigrate, though  move to America, but Kodály was able to remain and develop his renowned music education system.  In 1949, Veress was able to defect, and escaped to Switzerland, though he had a hard time getting recognition.   Nonetheless, in exile, he influenced his students.  Heinz,Holliger’s (S)irató , written in his honour, is part requiem, part protest, hence “irato” (irate) in the title and in the vehemence of the music. (Read more here)

The idea of being alone, yet not alone, pervades Veress’s Sonata for solo cello. The first movement is a dialogue, but with whom ?  The “other” may be invisible and inaudible, but is palpably present.  Long lines, like exhalations, sudden bursts of dynamic vigour.  The middle movement in contrast,is more subdued, the lines exploring space, so to speak. it’s titled “monologue”.  Inn the epilogue, Veress writes more complex lines, testing technique. Frenzied, zig zag passages, culminating in a sudden burst of lyricism : perhaps the musical equivalent of a smile ? Who knows ? Altstaedt plays with warm and feeling.

Veress’s Sonata for Cello Solo was the highlight of the evening, very modern music, and realized very well.  Before it, we heard Veress’s Four Transylvanian Dances for String Orchestra,  was written between 1944 and 1949, the year Veress went into exile. Traditional dance may be the starting point, but the music highly individual: more Veress than folklore. You couldn’t dance to this except in an abstract, modern style. The last movement, the Dobbantós, comes closet to traditional form.  With its intensely rhythmic patterns, it suggests  gypsy dance, the music of oppressed vagrants, making their way through mainstream society.  A man like Veress, who knew the folk roots of his region, would have no illusions that peasant music was “pretty”. The members of the English Chamber Orchestra brought out the spiky angularity. The music moved as if driven by demonic forces : the Devil as fiddler, stamping his feet for emphasis.

The concert began with Hadyn and concluded with Hadyn, Symphony no 49  “La passione”.  In King’s Place, the acoustic makes a small ensemble sound larger and richer than it might otherwise, which added to the impact.  Elegantly poised lines, balanced restraint, yet infused by an undertow of feeling, high strings singing, lower strings giving ballast.  After having heard Veress,  one could not help but connect to a sense of understated sadness, bravely borne.  

Original Source: Hadyn, Veress : English Chamber Orchestra, Altstaedt

CédricTiberghein Saint-Saëns, CBSO Franck Rachmaninov

At the Symphony Hall, Birmingham, Karina Canellakis made her debut conducting the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Given that orchestra’s knack for finding exceptionally good young conductors to liven up the stable, this concert deserved attention.  Canellakis was a violinist with the Berlin Philharmonic’s junior ensemble, the Orchester-Akademie, where she became a protegé of Simon Rattle, like Dudamel and others before.    His agents, Askonas Holt, have taken her into their books, which should launch her career very nicely. In 2014 she stepped in for Jap van Zweden in Dallas.  This concert with the CBSO is so far her highest profile European gig,  broadcast on BBC Radio 3.

César Franck’s Le chasseur maudit is a show stopper, almost guaranteed to blast audiences out of their seats.  It’s inherently dramatic. A fanfare of horns announces a hunt: but no ordinary, pastoral hunt.  Percussion rings out, suggesting the tolling of church bells in the distance.  This Sunday, though, the Huntsman’s off to the woods instead, killing animals.  The tale goes way back in European folklore. Think, for starters, Goethe’s Die wandelnde Glock, set by Loewe, and Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder and much else Gothic and demonic.  Thus the piece ends with a loud sudden bang. It’s not a rarity : I last heard it live barely 18 months ago.  It’s effects come from its being pictorial :not a great deal of musical imagination needed. Thus it needs more punch in performance to compensate, and here needed more vivid character.

Another surefire crowd pleaser : Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances op 45, also vividly pictorial.  It’s as we see dancers swirl before us, as if in an elusive dream.  Certainly, in this performance the dream like quality prevailed,  but there are darker, more nightmarish depths to the piece.  That repeated pounding motif and its quieter echo, can be disturbing.  Towards the end of his life, Rachmaninov was looking back on a lost world, and a life spent in exile, sometimes in creative impasse.  The waltzes can seem haunted. The violin plays alone, for a reason.  The horns can be strident, and the winds can  be sinister.  But for all we know, Rachmaninov might have been writing to soothe himself The CBSO is a such a good orchestra that it can convince whatever it does.  So, perhaps the fluid smoothness had purpose.  An undemanding though enjoyable performance. Picturesque music sometimes plays itself, though it works best when better thought through.

The highlight was Camille Saint-Saëns Piano concerto no.5 in F major Op.103 (Egyptian) (1896) with Cédric Tiberghien.  Much is made of the “Egyptian” aspects of the piece, since it was written in Luxor, but it is fundamentally an example of Belle Époque syncretism.  For men of Saint-Saëns’s generation, European civilization was the height of progress, and that civilization encompassed the world.  Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt differed from the British conquest of India, just as French and British colonialism followed different models.  The French fascination with “The East” was long standing : think Les Indes galantes, where the “natives” are Frenchmen in disguise.  Or Lakmé, or The Pearl Fishers.  

Ultimately, Saint-Saëns Piano concerto no.5 is far more than picturesque travelogue. It’s not “light music”. It’s a work of  bold musical inventiveness and originality.  Perhaps that’s why the piano part is so strong : the soloist as pioneer, very much the leader. Tiberghein faces the fearsome technical challenges : appreggios fly with faultless confidence and elegance, and the frequent changes of imagery flow naturally.   Like the Nile, with its confluent tributaries !   Vaguely Arabic motifs blend into harmonies that are “modern” and European. Thundering passages suggest constant flux,with swirling diminuendos and passage of flamboyant brilliance. Nothing backward here, though the references may come from things remembered.  Tiberghein played with highly individual flourish.  Perhaps his enthusiasm invigorated the orchestra, who were playing at their best at this point in the concert.

Original Source: CédricTiberghein Saint-Saëns, CBSO Franck Rachmaninov