Natives and freedom – The Hurricane 1937

“A sense of honour in the South Seas is as about as silly as  a silk hat in a hurricane”  ays Dr Kersaint to M. De Laage, the tyrannical governor of Manikura, a French colony in the South Pacific, who is “under the spell of honour and duty” defines honour as the need to impose control on feckless natives. A ship arrives, bringing Mme De Laage, and Terangi, the First Mate, a born sailor who m”kept hanging from the mast like a bird, with wings stretched for home”.

The natives rush cheerfully aboard the ship to welcome the crew home, to the strains of Aloha E (read more about that song here). The natives, as the Doctor says, “are like birds who need to flock together in the breeze” The village celebrates the wedding of Terangi and Marama. Great shots of native girls in leis and Terangi’s muscular bare chest.  Terangi and Marama set off in a dugout for an island honeymoon.  But Terangi smells a good wind : the ship sets sails again. In Tahiti, Ternagi and his friends are in a bar with loose women who smoke. Terangi plays with a mechanical hula doll with childish delight.  “Get up when a white man tells you!” sneers a drunk. Ternagi fells him with one blow.

But in colonies, fighting back is insurrection. The Hurricane’s subtext was dangerous. Setting the movie in a French colony disguised the fact that the same brutal rules applied elsewhere, including Hawaii.   Or in the mainland US, for that matter.

Terangi is imprisoned. Being a free spirit, he keeps escaping and his sentence gets extended.   “Sixteen years in a cell with rats as companions”.in chains, being whipped, doing hard labour., but Terangi remains unbroken.  He escapes again from maximum security, but inadvertently kills a guard. He steaks a canoe and rows 600 miles back to Manakura, navigating by the winds, braving storms at sea.  The local Priest takes him in secrecy to an island, where he’s reunited with Marama and their child.

Back in Manakura, a hurricane is building up.  “Imagine Paris”, says Mme De Laage, “civilizations don’t do well in a hurricane”   The natives are restless : they know something, they’re smiling.  Terangi’s a legend, a symbol of freedom. De Laage finds out where he’s hidden and sets off to capture him.  “You’ll find a stronger authority than me in that storm!” Cries the Priest. The hurricane hits Manakura.  People take shelter in the church, whose bells won’t stop ringing in the wind. Fabulous cinematography – sheets of rain, flying debris, palm trees crashing, pounding waves. I’ve been in hurricanes. When I first saw this film on TV, it seemed realistic enough (to a kid).  

Terangi appears in a boat and the priest btells him to save those he can, who include Mme De Laage.  Eventually the church bell falls silent. But by then the church has been flattened, the priest and most of his parishioners killed. Terangi and his family was up on a beach and light a fire. M. De Laage comes and rescues his wife. Terangi and his family escape in a war canoe.  De Laage spots it in the distance from his ship. “It’s just debris” says his wife.

Given that The Hurricane was made in 1937, the director John Ford,a nd producer Samuel Goldwyn really couldn’t take risks with the authorities, so they probably needed to play up the pseudo religious moralizing, which is pretty turgid. Overlook that, though, and the movie is daringly radical. It challenges racism outright, an d the idea of rigid, relentless power structures.  Although  Ternagi and Marama are acted by white people in  brownface (Jon Hall and Dorothy Lamour) and the characters they play are cardboard, the stereotypes aren’t negative.  Compare The Hurricane to Typhoon, the 1940 Paramount movie shot in (then) glorious Technicolor and maximum special effects. There, the natives are no more than scenery and Dorothy Lamour’s part serves only to offer glimpses of her body. Typhoon is  B movie crime flick set in the tropics. The Hurricane is much more, and would have been even better had Hollywood, and the West in general, been ready for something stronger.

Original Source: Natives and freedom – The Hurricane 1937


Dvořák Festival Prague Stabat Mater – Opolais Kurukova Samek René Pape

Dvořák Stabat Mater, Prague  photo: Petra Hajska

Dvořák Stabat Mater keynote of the 2017 Dvořák Festival at the Rudolfinium, Prague. Emmanuele Villaume conducted the PKF Philharmonia, Prague, with the Czech Philharmonic Choir, Brno (concertmaster Petr Fila) and soloists Christine Opolais, Jana Kurucová, Richard Samek and René Pape. Outstanding singing – even better than on the recent recording where Jiří Bělohlávek conducted the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and Prague Philharmonic Choir. (read more hereBělohlávek  founded the PKF Philharmonia Prague in 1992 after he left the Czech Philharmonic The two orchestras thus had parallel lives.  Bělohlávek never really left the Czech Philharmonic, and became Chief Conductor again in 2010, heralding a new golden age for Czech repertoire, both in Czechia and in the UK.  The PKF Philharmonia Prague continues to thrive.Bělohlávek remained Conductor Laureate. The PKF has a slightly different profile and leaner, lighter sound.  But both orchestras honour Antonín Dvořák, whose statue stands facing the Rudolfinium as if he were a guiding spirit.  

The surging, swelling motifs in the first movement set the affirmative tone. Though the term Stabat Mater refers to the Virgin’s Mary’s grief as a mother on the death of her son, in theological terms it’s a contemplation on faith.  Dvořák’s Stabat Mater is sorrowful, but ultimately uplifting: the devout believe in the resurrection of the soul.  Thus the surging thrust that runs through the piece, the choir entering with “Stabat Mater!” in hushed tones.  While Bělohlávek shaped the pulse so profoundly that it resonated like the rhythms of a human body, Vuillame has the edge with far better singers. Richard Samek, the tenor, was superb.  He impressed in   Bělohlávek”s Dvořák Requiem earlier this year (read more here)r   His voice has a Helden ring, yet conveys depth and tragedy : when he sang Dalibor in 2015, he created the complexity in the character.  (read more here). Samek’s voice was well complemented by that of Kristine Opolais.  She’s a brilliant Rusalka, the silvery clarity of her timbre enriched by tenderness and sensitivity.  The women she portrays in her roles end up suffering.  An inspired choice for a cantata about the Virgin Mary, whose son must die for the good of mankind.  .  
Further depth was supplied by the richness of the voices of Jana Kurucová and René Pape.  Kurucová is relatively young, but interesting, while Pape is of course a mega star: luxury casting for a cantata. He’s magnificent, the authority in his singing adding depth to all around him.  This Stabat Mater is worth hearing for him alone, he’s so good.   Excellent balance between the four soloists, and between the soloists and male and female voices.  The Czech Philharmonic Choir of Brno are very good indeed.  Bělohlávek’s Dvořák Stabat Mater is better orchestrally and the singing was fine, but the singing in this performance is in a different league, making this a Stabat Mater to remember.   “Amen ! Amen !” the choirs and soloists sang in multi-layered filigree, while the textures in the orchestra softened to rapturous wonder. 

Original Source: Dvořák Festival Prague Stabat Mater – Opolais Kurukova Samek René Pape

Vision-free Last Night of the Proms 2017

Nina Stemme at the Last Night of the BBC Proms 2017. She was not the only one left open-mouthed by this year’s Non-Event LNOP, which was as vision-free as most of the this year’s season.  Formula works, to some extent. Stemme is is such a megastar that even those who know zilch about music knoiw who she is and that she does Wagner. So nil imagination  needed to make her do Brünnhilde while singing Rule Britannia. So no-one really goes to the Last Night for music. But Nina Stemme deserves better !  She’s an artist not a cartoon.  A few years back, Roderick Williams did it in street clothes. That was infinitely more sincere and moving and more in the spirit of the anthem.  Dressing up is all very well, but it needs to be done with genuine flair and humour,  the way Juan Diego Florez did last year as Inca Prince and the skit on Paddington Bear as homeless immigrant. (Please read more here).  It’s not Stemme’s fault. It’s the marketing philosophy behind the Proms these days that puts commercialism above music.

Formula is all very well, and thanks to formula, there were many good Proms this year, scattered around the crass detritus  Thanks to good performers who actually like music, not the suits behind formula.   How did the Royal Albert Hall get its name ?   The vision of a Prince who believed in excellence and learning.   Who created the Proms ? A man with vision who loved music and believed that ordinary people could appreciate serious music which wasn’t dumbed down.   Instead, we’re now locked into the “Ten Pieces” mentality, probably the worst case of moronic, musically illiterate goonishness ever. The first year, it was a gimmick but repeated and extended it’s become a joke that gone stale. Yet again, formula without vision.  Alan Davey  claimed “Don’t apologise for classical music’s complexity. That’s its strength”. So if he really believes that, why not act on it? For a start, the BBC should scrap the Ten Pieces groupthink and get rid of those behind it.

What makes the Last Night of the Proms so much fun is that it’s when Prommers party.  Party, as in having fun, not party as in Party. As someone interviewed for the brioadcast said “We Germans can’t do that”. They’ve seen where mass rallies and jingoism can lead.   Flag waving wasn’t a LNOP tradition til fairly recently, and in principle, there’s nothing wrong with it. But there’s flag waving because you love your country, and flag waving as a form of passive aggression qnd intimidation. Again, hidden messages. Parry’s Jerusalem arranged by Elgar, setting a poem by William Blake whose real meaning has been misappropriated.  Read more about that here. What’s more, Parry’s original version is more questioning than truculent. It might not go down well these days.

What also makes the Last Night great is the sense of spontaneity and irreverence. This is why it responds so well to current affairs and social conscience.  The Conductor’s Speech varies, but the best have been the ones which came from the conductor’s heart.  That’s why conductors need freedom. The job usually falls to the Chief of the BBC SO, the BBC’s flagship orchestra, which works so hard all year around.  Sakari Oramo’s a genial, engaging character, with integrity. No firebrand he.   But this year, he was reading a script so banal it sounded like it had been cobbled together by BBC management. All bullet points and mealy mouthed platitudes. Like the bit about women conductors. If the Proms really cared about women, why stick to one token conductor, moulded by Bernstein, whose speeches were self promotion  as opposed to the common cause ? Oramo is a good speaker because he’s real.   Rumour had it that the political powers that be, in whose hands the BBC’s fate lies, wanted to control the LNOP speech. And perhaps they did.

But if such politicians and those who influence them, (to put it gently) were so secure in their beliefs, why would they feel threatened by Barenboim and Igor Levit  ?  We don’t live in truly democratic times but in a world where those who control the media control minds and use their power to bypass parliamentary process and the very right to dissent.   Fact is, most people in the music business, and in the business world in general,  have experience dealing with the complexities  of the situation.  Regular Prommers, the ones who come all season for the music, not just for LNOP, often think on the same lines.  So why the fear ?  In a democracy, you live with alternatives, you don’t suppress them.

Many improvements this year in the physical management of the Proms, like not letting latecomers enter willy nilly, and exceptionally helpful ushers and staff. The people at Door 9 in particular deserve praise, though praise from the public doesn’t often get relayed down to the folks on the ground.  So many thanks to someone getting things as right as possible.,   Hopefully those standards of excellence will apply, in future to artistic policy and (dare I say) the Vision Thing.

Original Source: Vision-free Last Night of the Proms 2017

Demon Dalmations !

Demon Dalmations ! Simon Rattle on the LSO season opener, The Damnation of Faust.

““Every musician of my generation learnt about Berlioz from the LSO’s recordings with Colin Davis,” he says. “I remember being completely bowled over by their performance of orchestral extracts from Faust when I was about eight, and my sister quietly saying to me, ‘Actually, Simon, it’s the damnation of Faust, not the dalmatian.’ I’d assumed it was a story about a dog.”

(from an interview with the Times)

Original Source: Demon Dalmations !

Seek and Ye shall find the right FREE piano!

Once I sold my beloved Steinway ‘A’ grand that had eaten into the space of my neighbor’s apartment where it had been well cared for over a year’s time, I felt obliged to replace it. The ‘A’ had been the first piano for a beginning student who lived at the end of our walkway. For me, it was a spillover piano that I’d purchased in the heat of passion at a nearby estate sale. Located about block away, it so grabbed my attention that I sped off, played it, and snagged the beauty for a bargain price. But I knew a 6’2″ size instrument could not realistically fit into my shrinking apartment–a clutter-box of two side-by-side grands, a P-115 Yamaha portable, and a Yamaha Arius console digital. The only way I could keep it, short of considering expensive storage, was to convince a neighbor to take it bundled in with FREE piano lessons. (Pure baby-sitting barter)

As fate would have it, the family appreciated the “loan” but was heading to a smaller space that could not accommodate the piano. And my not wanting to sell my family heirloom Steinway ‘M’ to make room for the ‘A,’ was my signal to sell off the large grand along with the excess of electronics tightly squeezed into my pod.

But I could not forget the student who needed a piano to fill in the gap Steinway ‘A’ would leave by its departure (set for Sept. 9)


It all played out with a story-book ending. I sold my Steinway ‘A’ within a week; posted the P-115 and Arius digitals on local Classifieds, (moved them out in quick sales) while making frequent visits to Craigslist in search of a decent, small-size instrument for the neighbor.

After a short piano-searching spree, a tantalizing used Baldwin 44″ upright turned up in San Leandro, (some would call it a “console”) and it played like an angel had blessedly delivered it! So as the Steinway ‘A’ heads to a small church in Morgan Hill, the little Baldwin will look forward to a happy life in El Cerrito!

Original Source: Seek and Ye shall find the right FREE piano!

Shattering power – Mahler 6 Prom Daniel Harding, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra

Prom 72, Mahler Symphony no 6 with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Daniel Harding conducting – an incandescent experience, igniting with such force that it seemed to sear itself into the soul.  Mahler himself said that the symphony “would pose riddles only to be solved by a generation which has assimilated and digested my first five symphonies”. What might these riddles be?  This symphony causes controversy, much of it supposition and hearsay. Why the tag “Tragic”? Was Mahler really so superstitious that he thought a hammer blow might end his life. And the movement order – even if you know nothing else about the symphony you can sound smart screaming SA/AS.   So all the more reason we need to approach Mahler’s Sixth on musical terms and value genuine insight.

The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra are outstanding, and their playing on this occasion seemed truly inspired.  Daniel Harding’s Mahler credentials go back to his teens, when he was appointed by Claudio Abbado as his assistant and gave him Mahler’s symphony no 10 to work on. A very wise move. Harding digested more than the first five symphonies. He assimiliated Mahler’s output from beginning to end.  Moreover, with the Tenth there was then no received performance tradition: Harding had to find his own, original way. The Tenth is also a good way to start because it’s unfinished: thinking in terms of open-ended possibility often stimulates insight.   Abbado was more than a great musician : he understood life. 

Harding has worked with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra for many years.  He conducted the Tenth with the orchestra, a recording that still stands as a benchmark (though I rate even higher his later version with the Berliner Philharmoniker).   He’s conducted Mahler’s 6th several times, including with Berlin, but this performance with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra was even better still: free spirited and seemingly spontaneous, often a sign that conductor and orchestra spark the best in each other.   They repeat their Mahler Symphony no 6 at KKL Lucerne later  this week in a hall whose acoustic picks up more detail than the Royal Albert Hall ever could.

The first movement, marked Allegro energetico, blazed from the start. Harding’s attack was bracing, for the energyn here represents a battle, a battle for life against the inevitable march of time. Decisiveness matters on a battlefield: trust your instincts and don’t flaff about.   The March rhythms were clearly defined, drum rolls and timpani done not so much with military precision as with a passionate sense of elation. The orchestra, like the protagonist,  relishes challenge.  Thus the flow between ferociousness and warmth.  Bright, lively textures in the strings livening the golden richness this orchestra does so well, contrasting well with the chill that creeps into the strings as the symphony progresses.  As so often in Mahler. the quiet moments are the most telling. The woodwind melody rose seductively, suggesting confident self-awareness. The cowbells connect to this theme because they’re meant to be heard from a distance. They’re elusive, the way that ideals are elusive. They may evoke memories of summers past, but quite possibly they are more than that. Cowbells reassure a farmer that his cows are not lost, even when they’re beyond sight.  Interpretively, very significant.  When the march returned, the beat was quieter but with more frenzy in the strings and brass, the sense of impending horror felt almost overwhelming. But Mahler’s little hints already indicate that something positive may survive after annihilation.

The Andante was exquisite: the benefits of an orchestra as good as the Viennese where every section is strong. The melody in the strings was so beautifully done it felt almost painful, but it should, for loss means more when what is lost was worth having. Yet the faint suggestion of dance implies circular movement – cycles of change. Consider the Auferstehn in Symphony no 2 and the Abschied in Das Lied von der Erde.  Whatever the “Alma” motif represents, it embodies the idea of an entity finding its own path.  Trombones and bassoons created a grotesque parody of dance, marking the return of the march.   Striking decelerating diminuendo and the woodwind line, escaping as if on tip toe.  A Scherzo that was magnificently wild – demonic by turns, yet spookiest when hushed, the brass muffled and sinister. When the Scherzo precedes the Andante, the effect is exhausting and works well with interpretations that place the symphony as a precursor of the agony of the 20th century, and so on. Andante first places more on the personal and on the connections with Mahler’s metaphysics of life and rebirth.  If the answer was easy, there wouldn’t be a debate. The current edition, sponsoreed by Reinhold Kubik of the Internationale Gustav Mahler Gesellschaft states Andante first, the way Mahler performed it. 

Perhaps the clue to Mahler’s “riddle” lies in the Finale?  The tuba broods ominously, bassoons call, but trumpets, as ever, lead forward, and harps create an image of heaven , either angels or the last movement of Symphony no 4.  The March resumes, Harding leading his forces full forward.  But the strings of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra glowed  and the celesta added magic. The sound swelled, as expansive as the peaks of the Salzkammergut.  The size and variety in the orchestra is relevant, since large forces can melt into chaos unless purposefully managed.  To paraphrase Mahler, “an orchestra encompasses the world”. Good minds, and good conductors, lead us ahead. 
Perhaps what Mahler is depicting here is a universal horizon, a panorama so great that it transcends the world.  So often I’ve written about what mountains symbolize in Mahler – journeys made in struggle, rewarded by peaks from which one might imagine heaven, or the glory of life itself.  In Mahler’s Symphony no 3 the  craggy terrain becomes spiritual, the Finale ending with a glorious vision of endless possibilities.  In Harding’s Mahler 6 with the Vienna Philharmonic, the Finale was exhilarating – wildness and ecstasy alternating, masterfully defined. The mood grew ominous, even cold, But does the hammer blow mean death or is it a way of saying “No! ” to something ? From what we know of Mahler the man, he was rational not superstitious, though some of those around him were pretty gullible.  That final, catastrophic crash – with no hammer blow – was so powerful that  it knocked the audience breathless.  In many ways, it’s more terrifying “not” to have simple solutions. Whatever happens next, we cannot know, but Mahler (via Harding and the VPO) made us pay attention.  Six thousand people clapped and stamped their feet in applause..
Photos: Roger Thomas

Original Source: Shattering power – Mahler 6 Prom Daniel Harding, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra

Jurowski’s Pillars : Stravinsky, Shiostakovich, Britten Prom

Stravinsky and Shostakovich with Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. This Prom was typical of Jurowski’s genius for intelligent, musically astute programming : Stravinsky’s Funeral Song at one end, and Shostakovich Symphony no 11, two pillars,  with Britten’s Russian Funeral as supporting buttress, with Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto no 1 in D between them. When even Vladimir Putin worries about planetary catastrophe we should need to think how and why we got into a world where some people admire nutcases with nukes.

Stravinsky’s Funeral Song was revealed in December last year in St Petersburg, where it had lain undiscovered for over 100 years.  For more background and its significance, please read my article Lost No More : Stravinsky Funeral Song.  Gergiev conducted that performance in a superlative priogramme connecting Stravisky with Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, whose funeral it marked. These connections are important, because the piece on nits own is so short that its impact won’t be appreciated out of context.  Gergiev linked it to Rimsky-Korsakov The Legend of the Invisble City of Kitezh and to Stravinsky’s The Firebird, a wonderfully unified concept, which Jurowski is doing too at the Royal Festival Hall in February 2018, in a slightly different programme. Mark your calendars.   Combining Stravinsky and Rimsky-Korsakov is musically litterate and satisfying, but for this performance, Jueowski had toi fulfill the rigid Proms diktats about dates and nationalism.. .

Before the Shostakovich symphony, though, Jurowski programmed Benjamin Britten’s Russian Funeral (1936), which sets the hymn “You fell as Heroes” commemorating the massacres of 1905, of the protesters of 1905, which Shostakovich was to incorporate into his Eleventh Symphony in 1957. Earlier this Proms season, we heard Britten’s Ballad of Heroes, which has long been misunderstood because listeners can’t get past the idea that nbeing anti-war doesn’t preclude protest in other forms. The ballad was written after the Spanish Civil War – it’s not a call to battle, but a mark of respect for those killed and a protest against oppression. Please read my piece on it HERE.   Hearing Britten before Shostakovich in this context emphasizes the idea of universal struggle against oppression, wherever it might happen, or when.
Stravinsky’s Funeral Song is about one man and highly personal, while Shostakovich’s Symphony no 11, marks the death of multitudes. In 1905, people we4re massacred on the streets of Moscow. Twelve years later, the Tsar was overthrown for good.  Thus the scale of the piece, which not only marks the deaths of 1905, but also the end of Old Russia and the beginning of the New.  Thus the mute stillness of the First Movement “In the Square of the Winter Palace” with its ominous rumblings, and trumpet calls, which gave way to the the more abstract “soaring” theme, rising above the frozen ground, so to speak, as tension gradually rose with percussion defining a  staccato growl.  . Perhaps we can imagine the walls of the palace looming in the solid rising figures but these could also symbolize impenetrable forces of repression.  Againstbthese, the winds of change  blow when the strings fly into action, screaming in swirling, wayward lines.   Jurowski’s sense of form keeps the scene in sharp definition.

Jurowski conducted with military precision,  contrasting the violence of the attack and the chaos it sliced through.  Thus the eerie silence from which the Funeral Elegy emerged : people are lying dead, but their voices will be hear above.  If anything, Jurowski’s control was even more impressive here, allowing the strings and winds to wail, without compromising into insincere sentiment.  Utterly justifying the connection between this symphony and Stravinsky’s Funeral Song.  A magnificent finale, where the angular repetitions march for forwards with ferocity.  Though Jurowski, by  nature, is a gentle person, he can be intensely passionate when he needs to be, as truly spiritual people often are.  Where once the soldiers marched on the people, the people now march forth in triumph.  Fanfares and can be banal, but Jurowski’s clear minded intelligence doesn’t degenerate.  The heart of this finale isn’t the noise, but the quiet cor anglais and bass clarinet themes. Eventually the Elegy returned, the tocsin bells tolling  clearly above then tumult.  the music breaks off suddenly – the struggle isn’t over.  La lutte conjtinua ! everywhere and at all times. Including the present.  

Between the the two pillars and supporting buttress of Jurowski’s programme, Stravinsky’s arrangement of arr. Stravinsky Song of the Volga Boatmen and Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No 1 in D with  Alina Ibragimova, ratherb diluting the overall impact, but that’s the Proms for you.

Original Source: Jurowski’s Pillars : Stravinsky, Shiostakovich, Britten Prom