Friday, June 30, 2017

Soprano flying high under the planes

Lise Davidsen as the Prima Donna, Nicholas Folwell as the Major Domo

Glyndebourne's Ariadne auf Naxos, directed by Katharina Thoma, has taken a lot of flak for its updating to the British 1940s. But it's actually rather good. It's been tightened up since the first run in 2013, the action flowing more slickly and convincingly; the air raid that finishes the first half does not seem incongruous at all. Part 2, in which the house is transformed into a hospital with shell-shocked patients and a suicidal Ariadne, has the aspect of a concussion-dream for the Composer, who does not vanish despite having nothing to sing. He/she appears to learn, watching Ariadne and Bacchus's final duet, that it is love that saves us, not death. This message is very much all right with me.

Moreover, with Cornelius Meister's lively, affectionate conducting, leader Peter Schoemann on great form in the violin solos and a very special cast, the score seemed to take wing and fly. Given the chance to change something about the production, I personally would cut only the straightjacketing of poor Zerbinetta, simply because it's too visually busy while we're trying to listen to all the dazzle.

Yes, that cast: plaudits are more than due to Angela Brower as a heartfelt Composer, Erin Morley as a vivid Zerbinetta, AJ Glueckert as a full-throated Bacchus (an injured daredevil pilot, in case you wondered) and the three nymphs-turned-nurses, along with Björn Bürger as an adorable Harlequin, Nicholas Folwell as the bossy little Major Domo and, of course, Thomas Allen as the Music Master, a role from which he's become indivisible. But there's no way this could be termed that critical favourite, a 'uniformly strong cast' - because there was nothing uniform whatsoever about our Ariadne.

From Norway, aged 30, please welcome the winner of Plácido Domingo's Operalia 2015, the utterly astounding Lise Davidsen. She also won the Queen Sonja Music Competition 2015 and this extract from Tannhäuser was filmed there. Just have a listen...

Vocally megawatted, toweringly tall, expressively direct, Davidsen is blessed with top notes that could ping us all the way to the moon, an eloquent middle range and a dark velvety lower register that virtually says 'Isolde' the moment you hear it. (In this interview with the Observer's Fiona Maddocks, she explains that she started off as a mezzo and wanted to be Joni Mitchell...).

Thinking of the few singers who have made a similar effect on first hearing, at least on me, I can only compare the thrill of disbelief and wild joy that her voice inspires to initial, never-forgotten encounters with the sonic glories of Anja Harteros and Nina Stemme. If she can do this at 30, imagine where she could go from here. Please, dear world, take good care of her.

And I'd appreciate it if good old Autocorrect would stop changing her name to Davidson whenever I type it, because I expect to be writing about her a good deal more in the future.

Ariadne auf Naxos is on through July - find dates, times and tickets here.

A word of warning: Southern Trains is having another work-to-rule and there are many cancellations for those trying to get to Lewes. Check before you set out, and leave plenty of time.

If you enjoy reading JDCMB, please consider making a donation by way of voluntary subscription to its year of development, A Year for JDCMB, here. 

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

A secret history for Ariadne

Glyndebourne's favourite Strauss opera, Ariadne auf Naxos, is back and open, with a strengthened revival and an intriguing new cast including Lise Davidsen, Angela Brower, Erin Morley and AJ Glueckert. When the production was first staged in 2013 I went to visit the archivist and the director to interview them for The Independent, so it seems an apposite moment to re-run a select part of that feature. Don't miss the story of Rudolf Bing and the potties.

Erin Morley as a Zerbinetta for the 1940s
All photos by Robert Workman

An English country house; a rarified ivory tower in which to explore high art; the performance of tragedy and comedy alike; dinner al fresco; and that’s just on stage... Glyndebourne is back with Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos and its first half concerns precisely such a situation. Nevertheless the concept dreamed up for it by the German director Katharina Thoma feels close to home for another reason. It was inspired by the World War II transformation of Glyndebourne itself into a centre for evacuees from east London.

Angela Brower as the Composer
When the floorboards of Glyndebourne’s Old Green Room – a panelled gallery in the Christie family’s manor house – were taken up for refurbishment in the early 1990s, they revealed an unexpected treasure-trove. Down the cracks between the boards had fallen layer upon layer of playing cards, greeting cards and little lead toy soldiers. This was a legacy of the time when, following the outbreak of war in 1939, Glyndebourne had hosted a hundred evacuated children aged between one and six. Archive photographs show the Old Green Room as a dormitory filled with rows of small beds; the Christie children’s nursery transformed into a sick bay, complete with uniformed nurses; and the tiny newcomers playing in the gardens, patting lambs on the farm and discovering that milk comes from cows, not bottles.

Glyndebourne’s archivist, Julia Aries, explains that the estate manager had seen which way the wind was blowing. “He didn’t want Glyndebourne to be taken over by the Ministry of Defence and trashed,” she says, “so he put it forward as an evacuee centre. Then, on the ‘false start’ of the war, they promptly shipped 300 babies and 72 carers down here.” The estate could not cope with such a massive influx and the story goes that Rudolf Bing, the opera festival’s general manager, had to rush into nearby Lewes to buy up every available potty.

Eventually the numbers settled to a third of the first rush, and country life with play-based learning and plenty of fresh air began for Glyndebourne’s new inhabitants, under the direction of a matron, who, in a somewhat unfortunate choice, termed herself the Commandant. The cook was able to amplify food rations with rabbits from the fields and eggs from the farm; and, supplied with drums of Klim powdered milk by some Canadian soldiers who were billeted in nearby Firle Place, she created makeshift ice-cream to give the little ones a treat.

Lise Davidson as Ariadne
Official photographs, mainly taken in summer, made the children’s existence look idyllic; but there is no doubt that some had been traumatised by their experiences in London or by being removed from their families. A newspaper clipping describes “one child who had refused up till then to open his mouth or make friends turned scarlet with ecstasy when he found himself clasping a lamb, and was happy and normal from that day.”

The opera and the family fared less well. The former ceased to function in 1940 and the company scattered. The music director Fritz Busch and artistic director Carl Ebert, who were both refugees from Nazi Germany, headed respectively to Buenos Aires and Turkey; Audrey Mildmay, Lady Christie, who was herself a well-known opera singer, took her two children to Canada for safety. Sir John Christie stayed behind, listening to his wife’s voice on gramophone records. He was all too aware of the irony that his house was filled with children while his own were 3000 miles away.

Katharina Thoma, who won second prize in the European Opera Competition Camerata Nuova in 2007, visited Glyndebourne for the first time in spring 2009, after the company’s general manager David Pickard and music director Vladimir Jurowski suggested that she could direct Ariadne auf Naxos there as her UK debut. The trip sowed the seeds of an idea for the production. She has updated Ariadne’s setting to – well, an English country house in the 1940s.

AJ Glueckert as Bacchus
In the story, which the writer Hugo von Hofmannsthal crafted as librettist for Strauss, our hero is the Composer, a youth creating his first serious opera on the myth of the god Bacchus rescuing Ariadne from Naxos. He is desperately upset when instructed that his lofty work must be performed simultaneously with a competing comedy due to time pressures over dinner and fireworks. The second half shows us the Composer’s opera and what happens when the comedy troupe, led by the virtuoso soubrette Zerbinetta, interrupts Ariadne’s laments. But the opera transcends all its troubles, concluding with a sublime love duet for Ariadne and Bacchus.  

“The idea of setting it in wartime came about because I felt that in the music there were more existential issues to worry over than the protagonists in the Prologue actually do,” says Thoma. “If you listen to the end of the Prologue, when everything breaks down, it sounds like a major catastrophe.”

Therefore, instead of serving as an opera-within-an-opera, the second part offers a continuity of narrative. The Composer, injured, observes the depressed and suicidal Ariadne from his hospital bed, the house having been transformed not into an evacuee centre but into a hospital treating the wounded from the Battle of Britain. “Observing her, trying to help her, and seeing what happens to her and Bacchus, he experiences a maturing process that leaves him better able to cope with the real world outside his ivory tower,” Thoma suggests.

The Ariadne set designs by Julia Müer are based generically on English country houses of that time, but the closeness to Glyndebourne will probably be self-evident. Thoma arrived there in April and has been staying in the house, as the creative team usually does during rehearsals. “Every morning I wake up and think I am on the set of my opera,” she remarks.

Learning about Glyndebourne’s fortunes during the war, Thoma says she was impressed by the way that in Britain “turning a manor house into a hospital was a typical thing, because people needed each other and held together”. It might seem risky for a German director to choose a wartime theme for her first UK production, but Thoma’s generation can perhaps take a new perspective on those years. “For me it was fascinating to see how British people have dealt with the subject in the past and still do,” she says. “They seem very open and positive.” [NB This article first appeared in 2013. Events since then may now convey a rather different impression. jd.]

She viewed a documentary in which individuals who were in their twenties during the war described it as the happiest time of their lives: “That seemed astonishing to me, but I think it must in certain ways have been a great experience to go through this endurance, because they shared their hope and their strength and they overcame it together.”

...If this Ariadne auf Naxos highlights the atmosphere of changing times, perhaps that is no coincidence...

This is part of an article that first appeared in The Independent in 2013

Monday, June 26, 2017

Man of the Golden West

John Adams. Photo: Vern Evans

John Adams has just turned 70. Everyone is celebrating. Everyone wants him to celebrate with them. So when is he supposed to compose? I caught him backstage during the Dr Atomic rehearsals at the Barbican a few months ago. In the resulting interview for Primephonic we talked about his forthcoming Gold Rush opera Girls of the Golden West, set in his home state of northern California, as well as nature versus nurture, the evolution of his style and the consistency of voice within that evolution - and why he feels like "a Soviet hack composer" compared to the music of his up-and-coming son, Samuel Adams.

.....Adams reflects that this “voice” could be determined as much by nature as nurture – a sort of musical DNA. “I suspect it’s almost genetic,” he comments. “If you look at Stravinsky, there’s such radical difference between the early music and the late music, yet there is some almost inexplicable identity that carries on. And I think certainly the rhythmic energy of my music and the particular harmonic language that I have comes through.  

“Once every couple of years I conduct Nixon in China [his opera of 1987] because I like it and it’s always a lot of fun. And I’m amazed how much of that opera is expressed in minimalist style, with these crazy, whimsical marriages with jazz and big-band music. I don’t compose in that style any more. But that sort of rhythmic impulse, which you also hear in the early piano music, is still there today.”

Evolution, he suggests, occurs thanks to the needs of the pieces. “Nixon is a much more consciously minimalist piece and I think that works for the certain ironic tone of the opera,” he says. “But starting with The Death of Klinghoffer, which I composed between 1990 and 91, I had to find a language that was more serious and not at all ironic. I think that was the big moment of expanding. 

“But I’m not a hidebound, by-the-rules kind of guy. I feel that every piece I compose needs its own special language – and that’s both the joy and the anguish, because you have to find out what and who it’s going to be.” ...

Read the whole thing here.

Friday, June 23, 2017


Kaufmann as Otello, Vratogna as Iago.
All photos by Catherine Ashmore/Royal Opera House

One of the first rules of reviewing is: do not start by talking about the weather. So to start on the Royal Opera's new Otello by pointing out that it was the hottest first night of the year - Jonas Kaufmann's role debut - as well as the hottest June day since 1976 just isn't on. Nevertheless, it was both. In the auditorium one experienced Keith Warner's postmodern new production and Verdi's sizzling score through the gentle rattling of ladies' fans, the flapping of tickets and programmes mimicking their effect, and the upping and downing of light on rogue mobiles as certain people in my row checked Facebook every ten minutes. (Why couldn't they just have donated their ticket to a fan who would have fully appreciated the performance?)

If the audience was finding it difficult to settle, the same couldn't be said of the music. Tony Pappano, first of all, is in his element in this opera. His shaping and pacing of the drama is breathtaking: mercurial, clear, enormously energetic and deeply intelligent. The building up of the scene where Iago gets Cassio increasingly drunk is just one example, beginning almost as a pub song, joshing about, before spiralling through a queasy mephistophelian intensification into violence. The chorus's staging is often static and stylised, very far from naturalistic, but they sound simply glorious.

Again, canny pacing is everything in Kaufmann's characterisation of Otello: confident and tender until Iago plants the seed of doubt, but thereafter tumbling in stages from loss of faith through cool, calculating and controlled resolve, into increasing torment and ultimate dissolution. At ease taking command, but tentative with his new wife as she leads him to the bedroom, this Otello is a man of war first and foremost, perhaps unable to cope with the shock of his own emotions. His progress towards murder for once makes considerable sense.

Deeply convincing and vocally gorgeous, full of careful shading with brilliance reserved for the moments it most counted, this was singing in 3D. If some people expected more volume, one can only reiterate that Kaufmann doesn't do volume for the sake of it and has never been the biggest voice on the stage, just the most beautiful and intelligent one (hmm, this is my second time this year writing that). It is no reason to reject the most complex and satisfying interpretation of this role that I've yet experienced.

Marco Vratogna, replacing the originally announced Ludovic Tézier as Iago, was the wild card of the evening, bursting into our consciousnesses in impressive style. Warner's production makes him explicitly the puppet master, controlling not only those around him but the symbols of Venice, the carnival mask, the winged lion, setting the hideous process in motion with ice-cold, psychopathic glee and resembling nothing so much as a Shakespearean version of Dracula with shaven head and bat-like cloak. He could scarcely lean on a wall without making it move. Yet his raven-dark, demonically powerful voice made Iago more than merely a copybook villain. Meanwhile, as Desdemona Maria Agresta sounded vocally effortless and presented the hapless heroine as a straightforward, uncomplicated, loving young woman, trapped in a tragic situation beyond control.

Agresta as Desdemona, Kaufmann as Otello in the final scene

Visually the production has some seriously striking moments. The set design, by Boris Kudlička, involves sliding panels that shift to show us blazes of light through glass, the bedroom through latticework, Otello's face highlighted in a window frame before the final scene, and Cassio's vertiginous descent into drunkenness, amid much else. The contrast between the public and the private moments is convincingly achieved, with Iago and Otello experiencing their oppressive solitary reflections in the darkest isolation. The aptly named Bruno Poet's lighting is, throughout, not only masterful, but often magical.

However, reflecting Otello as a tragic-faced lion-caricature in a mirror, smothering him with a carnival mask and bringing on a giant dismembered lion statue are gestures that seem to over-egg the Venetian pudding in a production that otherwise mixes and mismatches its eras to occasional ill effect. The tall ship rigged with beautiful sails arriving at the back in scene 1 is far indeed from the apparently contemporary hotel-style bedroom in which the murder takes place. And the costume designs by Kaspar Glarner, while offering flowing robes for Desdemona and that splendid cloak for Iago, experience occasional misjudgments. Emilia - the excellent Kai Rüütel - is encumbered by an impossibly stiff and outsize fake-Renaissance wig, and as for Otello's gigantic harem-style leather trousers (eh?) and the blue sparkly robe - think variety-act pseudo-magician - in which he arrives to kill his wife, these did few favours to either singer or character. If the point is that the story is timeless, we know that already and this doesn't help.

There's always some plonker who has to boo the production team, of course, and despite those few weaknesses they really didn't deserve it. It's a powerful, moving account of a towering masterpiece, with musical performances of a calibre that you won't find improved upon anywhere.

Otello is in cinemas next Wednesday, 28 June, so if you can't get to the ROH, do try and catch it on screen.

Details and booking here.

If you enjoy reading JDCMB, please consider making a donation to its development, A Year for JDCMB. Click here.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Hotting up at cool Fjord Classics

As if taking over the artistic directorship of Australian Festival of Chamber Music weren't enough, the inimitable Kathryn Stott has joined forces with Norwegian violist Lars Anders Tomter (both, left) to start a new chamber music festival a little bit further north: Fjord Classics. They have assembled a seriously impressive line-up of artists, including Leif Ove Andsnes, Ruby Hughes, the Skampa Quartet, Vikingur Ólaffson, Christian Poltera and many more, ready to awaken the town of Sandefjord to the sounds of music from Mozart to Messiaen, Rebecca Clarke to Janáček, Alma Mahler to Fauré. The festival runs from 27 June to 2 July. I asked the energetic British pianist what they're doing, and why, and how, because it has all happened rather quickly...

Kathryn Stott
JD: Kathy, what inspired you and Lars to start Fjord Classics?

KS: Originally Lars had invited me to work on a different project with him, but when that took an abrupt turn, we started to consider other options and were very determined to find a way to get our collaboration up and running. Where to begin when starting a new festival is both daunting and exciting in equal measure, but we were more than thrilled when Vestfoldfestspillene offered us the opportunity set up Fjord Classics under their larger umbrella. 

JD: You’ve pulled it together incredibly fast - what’s that been like?

KS: If you’d asked me this question just before Christmas, I’d say we were out of breath for a few months. Thats probably an understatement! Firstly we put a lot of thought into choosing the right venues, in particular the main festival town. When we looked around Sandefjord we knew that was the one. Lars had a number of musicians all on hold from his previous venture and I have to say their loyalty in following us through to Fjord Classics speaks volumes. From there we added more musicians as our programming took shape but obviously the pace was very fast and I look forward to next time when we can focus solely on artistic thoughts and not the logistics of setting up a new festival. Our theme, 'The Dance of Life’ by Edvard Munch, gave us amazing inspiration so let's say that was a major springboard for musical ideas both on the track and some off piste!

Lars Anders Tomter
JD: How is it different from the other festivals you’ve been (and are) involved with?

KS: As you know, since 1995 I’ve been an Artistic Director on many projects but they have all been one-offs or with no real thought to follow through. That changed when I was appointed AD of the Australian Festival of Chamber Music so I was already extremely excited to have that opportunity to be creative with a vision towards the future. With Fjord Classics, Lars and I share the role. Between us we have an abundance of ideas but I think more than anything else, we compliment each other in having different skills and approaches. I see that as so positive and an aspect of our working relationship which is to be treasured.

JD: What do you think is most attractive about it for the audience?

KS: Huge variety! This year we really went for the max in all respects and from this we will see how to continue in the future. However, our primary thoughts have always been about quality and so this is never compromised. We have gathered the best musicians and put them with the greatest of music, so what is there not to like? I hope our audience is excited by what we are offering and will hold onto memorable experiences long into the future. This is just the beginning.

JD: What are you most looking forward to in it?

KS: In a way its not so much the performing aspect myself, but seeing how the programmes come together in reality and most of all, the joy of bringing musicians together from around the world and seeing what they create. Apart from anything else, I love going to concerts, so it's a musical feast whichever way you look at it.

JD: How’s your Norwegian?

KS: What was the question? Pass…...

More details and booking at

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

MEETING ODETTE: The Swan Lake Book

I used to have a recurring dream. I was in the library, looking for a book. I knew I'd seen it once before. I couldn't find it. It was a book of Swan Lake. I would always wake up knowing there was something inside it that I wanted, or needed, but I could never remember what it was.

This isn't the cover and it probably isn't the title either,
but a kind and creative author friend came up with the image on Canva and sent it to me

I had this dream right through my childhood into my teens and beyond, in one form or another. At first it showed me Swiss Cottage Library, which was our local. On other nights I'd see myself in Foyles, looking through the ballet section for a book that wasn't there. Wherever it might be, I always knew that it was my Swan Lake book.

Then, when I was 26, I decided that as it hadn't pitched up yet, I would write it myself.

That was in 1992. Since then I have rewritten it about 200 times: differences as small as changing the names or as large as reducing the length to half its original. The first draft was, in any case, hopeless: it was full of words.

Periodically I've shown it to people. Literary agents, publishers, friends, family. The typical reaction from the professionals? "Oh darling, we love it, it's beautiful, but it's very, er, whimsical..." They didn't fancy whimsical. Magical realism, which had flourished while I was a teenager gobbling up Angela Carter's books, had gone out of fashion. Meeting Odette, as it became called, at least for the moment, didn't fit anywhere.

Yet occasionally one of those friends or family members would pop up after reading another of my novels or attending one of our concerts and say: "What happened to the one about the swan? That was actually my favourite..."

Therefore I thought, after the splendid job that Unbound did with Ghost Variations, that I'd run it past them, just in case. Unbound likes quirky. Unbound likes whimsical. They love things that don't "fit" easily. And it didn't bother them one jot that Meeting Odette has little in common with Ghost Variations other than an association with an actual piece of music or, in this case, ballet.

It isn't a "ballet book", though, and it has nothing to do with Black Swan or any of the ballet's various stage updatings. It's a fairy-tale for the 21st century. The story of what happens when Odette is blown off course and crashes through Mary's window in a university town in the east of England has begun to feel oddly "relevant".

This isn't the title or the cover either. This is just me messing around on Canva...

All the ducks - or swans - were in a row at last. And today, 21 June, Summer Solstice 2017, we launch the campaign for Meeting Odette.

If you've enjoyed Ghost Variations, you'll probably know how Unbound works now. It's like an 18th-century subscription model. Essentially you are buying the book before it's published, rather than after, and you get thanked for it in print. It's now called crowdfunding, of course, but the inspiration is really quite archaic. (I should add, because people often denigrate self-publishing, that this is not self-publishing in any way, shape or form. Unbound has a different model, for sure, but they are top-flight professionals. I wouldn't have the first clue how to publish my own book and wouldn't like to attempt it.)

You can go for various different reward packages at different levels. Prices start at £10 for the e-book and your name in the book. The paperback basic is £20, but there's an Early Swan deal for £15 on the first 50. A book club package includes five paperbacks and an author visit; a larger contribution gets you and your plus-one an invitation to a buffet lunch with me and some wonderful friends from inside the ballet world to enjoy food, drink and good conversation about books, music, ballet, Swan Lake and, no doubt, more. Ballet enthusiasts could also consider clubbing together for the biggest one, for which I'll come to your house or institution and give a lecture about Swan Lake itself (and you get 10 paperbacks too).

Later in the process I am hoping to add further rewards in collaboration with the Royal Opera House, where a new production of Swan Lake directed by Liam Scarlett is due for premiere in May. If you've already pledged by then, you can upgrade to one of these if you want to. The site makes it nice and easy.

On Meeting Odette's page at Unbound, you'll find a video welcome from me, a synopsis, an extract and the full list of pledge rewards. Please swan over and have a look. I do hope that you will consider backing this book, which after 25 years is very, very close to my heart.


Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Brexit: Creative Industries Federation offers 7 red lines

Main Title Here

The Creative Industries Federation published an important Brexit Report last autumn, looking at critical issues for the creative industries, arts and cultural education as the UK sets its course for the cliffs. Now that "negotiations" are underway, the CIF has distilled its recommendation into seven red-lines principles.

These include:

• Guarantee the rights of EU nationals currently working in the UK;
• Retain freedom of movement for EU workers, those in education and touring exhibitions, shows, musicians and support teams
• Remain part of the EU single market and the customs union - or at least find a free trade deal that replicates its frictionless travel arrangements as far as possible
• Continue to influence the shape of the EU's Digital Single Market (DSM)
• Maintain a robust and properly enforced International Property regime. [Do you have any idea how important this is? Please read about it, fast, right now.]
• Maintain reciprocal single market access for the distribution of UK and EU member state film and TV productions and audio-visual services
• Continue to participate in EU programmes such as Creative Europe, Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+.

A HUB FOR GLOBAL TALENT: The success of the UK’s creative industries is down to the people who work within it. Britain has a longstanding reputation as an open nation that attracts diverse global talent, and it is because of this that our creative sector is world-beating. If the UK loses easy access to people, it loses its competitive edge. If it loses its creative talent, it also loses its reputation as an attractive destination for work and play. 

Read them here.

Meanwhile there would be one very simple solution, which you can guess as well as I can, but we don't seem to have the right person at the top to do that job.

Please support A Year for JDCMB with the equivalent of a small subscription 

Monday, June 19, 2017

In which Dido outshines Wolfram, Rodolfo, Yeletsky and even Blanche

As London lurches from one horror to another, the only place to be last night was Cardiff, or at least in front of a TV beaming it in loud and clear. The 2017 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World final proved one of those historic-to-be occasions that do occur there sometimes: five burgeoning singers take the stage and you soon realise you don't want to miss one note of any of them. 

The victor seems to have taken some viewers by surprise, but I can't imagine why, other than the fact that she was the only performer who had not actually "won" her "round". Having grouped the contestants into a series of concerts, each of which has a winner who goes through to the final, the competition also offers a "wild card" final-round place for an extra choice. This was given to her. Her name is Catriona Morison and she comes from Scotland. (Is that why people are surprised? No one is a prophet in, etc.) Before the grand final, she had already won the Song Prize together with the Mongolian baritone Ariunbaatar Ganbaatar. We are very much in favour of joint awards when occasion demands - after all, the "there CAN only be ONE winner" trope beloved of TV talent contests serves TV way more than it serves the contestants.

Catriona Morison
In a grand final of astounding singing from most of the competitors, everyone displayed splendid, rock-solid technique. Most had planned their programmes well. The voices glowed and blazed and dazzled. Louise Alder, the English soprano, scooped the audience prize, as well she might: she's got it all, from top notes to absolute charisma. The men, even if ultimately outdone, were stunners too. The Australian tenor Kang Wang had a big following, was out to please and is clearly going places, though I thought he had a slight tendency (nerves perhaps?) to rush in the Lensky aria. But Ariunbaatar Ganbaatar, who has already won the International Tchaikovsky Competition's singers' section, offered an account of Yeletsky's aria from The Queen of Spades, with sapphire-dark shining tone, that came so much from the heart that any Lisa in her right mind would have to drop the plot and fall straight into his arms. Anthony Clark Evans's Evening Star aria from Tannhäuser was scarcely less satisfying,  and both baritones gave us the Prologue from Pagliacci, each so superb that I for one would never have been able to choose between them. Stardom awaits the lot.

What did Catriona do that was different from the others? Well, she sang Dido's Lament by Purcell.

She also sang Octavian from the first scene of Rosenkavalier, and a few other things, but frankly those pale, given what she did with the Purcell. The Lament is close to the hearts of very many music-lovers in the UK, of course, but partly because of that, it's the sort of piece we can sometimes take too much for granted. Catriona not only wrung us out with her emotional veracity, but made us feel we were recognising this music's extraordinary power and beauty for the first time. Thanks to her, it seemed that Purcell could outshine Wagner, Tchaikovsky and Puccini, never mind the bel canto stuff, plus Louise's beautiful extract from André Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire. As Danielle de Niese commented, when the technical level is so high all round, the judges have to look beyond that... 

Where has she been all our lives? Actually, at Wuppertal Opera. A lot of surprise emerged on Twitter when the hosts for the evening mentioned in conversation that Germany has 83 publicly funded opera houses and 1/3 of the world's opera takes place there, but yes, they do, and they get things right: their audiences are accustomed to attending, they do rare repertoire, they present challenging productions and their ensemble companies help to train up fabulous youngsters from all over the world. Most of the best opera singers of today have done stints as company members in Germany. Some of them don't come home, which is why a British soprano, Catherine Foster, has been singing Brünnhilde at Bayreuth to great acclaim, yet nobody here has heard her... 

End of rant. Please go and listen to all five singers on the iPlayer now, and let their artistry speak for itself. 

Sunday, June 18, 2017

JDCMB Summer Cooler

I haven't found the words I need to express the horror of the emotions we're all feeling here in London about the Grenfell Tower tragedy. It does symbolise, to the ultimate degree, a lot of what is wrong in the UK's social set-up today, but I don't think I can add anything sensible to the argument or assessment or comfort. Even consoling music feels inappropriate at the moment.

Life has to go on, so I'm simply going to offer you my own recipe for a refreshing drink on a very hot afternoon.

JDCMB Summer Cooler

Ingredients (to serve 4):
Fresh mint leaves
Petals of 1 smallish pink rose
2 pink grapefruit
Vanilla paste

Put the mint leaves and rose petals in a teapot and pour on boiling water. Leave to steep. Squeeze the grapefruit and strain the juice into a jug (unless you like "bits", in which case don't strain it). When the mint and rose tea has cooled, mix it with the juice - test the flavour until the balance of quantities is as you like. Pour into glasses and sweeten with a soupçon of vanilla paste (I use about a 1/4 teaspoon per glass). You could use honey instead if you prefer more sweetness and less vanilla. Pile in some ice. Garnish with a spring of fresh mint and a few rose petals.

If you fancy an alcoholic version, add a splash of Pimms. Alternatively - well, I haven't yet tried adding prosecco, but one suspects that would be unlikely to do any damage to it.

Enjoy in the sunshine. Accompany with fresh summery music such as Ravel's G major piano concerto, Fauré's Ballade - or the final, tonight, of the Cardiff Singer of the World Competition, which promises to be very exciting indeed.

Please consider supporting JDCMB's development over the year ahead.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Welcome, Primephonic streaming!

Nice to be able to bring you some good news today. A new high-definition streaming service, designed specifically for classical music, is being launched in the UK and USA by Primephonic, and it serves to tackle several of the biggest streaming frustrations for us all.

The company is a Utrecht-based online store that for a couple of years has had, as its USP, the downloading of studio-quality recordings. As any classical aficionado knows, sound quality has been a big problem for music on the Internet and Primephonic's capacity to bring us an improved experience has been a breath of fresh air in a muddy world. Every track is available to download in 16-bit FLAC file format, i.e. CD quality, and some are more sophisticated still, with availability in studio quality and "premium pro-studio quality" (explore the options here and in more detail here). They now have more than 100,000 tracks available to stream in high-res.

For the streaming service, Primephonic is also aiming to improve the experience for listeners and creators in two further ways: better metadata, which has long been a stumbling block online, and should improve the searching capacity that we need; and crucially, payment to providers. Instead of paying out per track listen, Primephonic plans to pay per second. This should hopefully ensure that more money goes to the classical labels and thence to the artists themselves - it stands, at the very least, a better chance of getting into the bank accounts of musical creators than it does at the moment.

According to Veronica Neo, the company's head of business development, "Primephonic provides a way for streaming to give back more than ever to the classical music industry and a sustainable way for fans to support their favourite artists. As a 100% classical music service, 100% of the revenues stay in the classical industry."

I've been writing for Primephonic's website for a couple of years, doing CD reviews and occasional features (most recently, a big piece about Philip Glass for their just-published print magazine). It's a great pleasure to be involved with a company that has homed straight in on those problems, is determined to find a way to solve them and is thinking big about the possibilities for the future.

You can get a free 30-day trial subscription to Primephonic or sign up for £14.99 per month, here.

Please consider supporting JDCMB's year of development by donating here at Go Fund Me

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Meaty Hamlet

When I glanced down at the carrier bags and saw the two gigantic volumes of score, I realised the chap next to me on the Glyndebourne bus was none other than the composer of Hamlet, Brett Dean. "Why Hamlet?" I asked. He grinned: "Why not?"

Hamlet should be a gift for any composer - glorious soliloquies, poetry known to the entire land if not the whole world, a story of bottomless depth and endless possibilities for reinterpretation. It's not as if nobody has set it before: if I remember right, there are around 14 earlier versions, with Ambroise Thomas's effort the best known (though as Saint-Saëns said, "There is good music, bad music and the music of Ambroise Thomas...") Brett Dean's humongous new work for Glyndebourne, though, seems set to shred all competition into musical flotsam and jetsam.

Jacques Imbrailo, John Tomlinson, Allan Clayton
Photo: Richard Hubert Smith
One thing you cannot do if you're turning a play like Hamlet into music is treat it with kid gloves. Dean and his librettist, the distinguished Canadian director Matthew Jocelyn, haven't. They have used only about a fifth of the actual play: Jocelyn has taken it to bits, reassembled it, restructured, redepicted, redreamed. After all, it takes, on average, about three times as long to sing a word as to speak it, so if you set every last line of Hamlet you'd end up with about 15 hours of opera. It would be possible to do it in other ways, retaining more of the poetic monologues which here are often boiled down to a mere handful of lines. But then something else would have to give; one might lose the grand sweep of the dramatic total, the ensemble work, the sonic colour with its imaginative flair.

Although you may find your favourite moments are missing ("Alas, poor Yorick" is in, but "To thine own self be true" is not) the work is masterfully structured. The impression, musically, is rather like a giant symphony of Mahlerian proportions plus some; dramatically it is full of different levels, new insights, magnificent company challenges and a vivid variety of pace and richly explored possibilities.

Symphonic Shakespeare

Allan Clayton as Hamlet
Photo: Richard Hubert Smith
The opera's scenes seem to correspond roughly to the movements of a symphonic work in which the intensity rarely lets up. First, an opening dramatic exposition with slow introduction - Hamlet mourns his father at the graveside before we plunge into Gertude and Claudius's wedding party, at which the prince is drunk and disruptive; and the arrival of the Ghost, all the more chilling for the tenderness between Hamlet and his dead father.

The second main section opens almost as a scherzo, with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern played by two skittish countertenors, and culminates in the play-within-a-play - lavishly decorated with a totally brilliant onstage accordionist plus deconstructed lines from Hamlet's soliloquy that pop in as self-referential touchstones. The 1hr 45min first act closes with the desperate confrontation between Hamlet and Gertrude and the murder of Polonius - a great central climax that leaves Gertrude psychologically eviscerated. We all need the long interval to get our breath back.

Allan Clayton and Barbara Hannigan as Hamlet and Ophelia
Photo: Richard Hubert Smith
Next we turn to Ophelia's madness, death and funeral - an eerie slow movement, full of startling writing that includes a good proportion of the work's best and most interesting music. The dramatic pacing is notable here, building up to an absolute cataclysm as Hamlet cries "I loved Ophelia"; similarly cathartic is the multifaceted finale, with the sword fight and multiple murders that nevertheless retains Horatio's determination, as the match is agreed, to up Hamlet's quota of prize horses to 11. The rest is...silence.

The opera has been planned with Glyndebourne's auditorium in mind. A group of singers take their places in the orchestra pit - and sometimes in the balcony - being used, effectively, as instruments.  Indeed, almost everywhere you look there are people singing, thumping instruments or doing strange things with unusual percussive gadgets... The LPO tweeted this image from the score:

Electronics are subtly woven in, whether using sampled (apparently pre-recorded) extracts of the singers' lines or setting up atmospheric rumbles and roars. Even the more conventional aspects of the instrumentation are clever, clear, often ingenious; for instance, the countertenors of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are aurally shadowed by two clarinets almost trying to edge one another out of the way. As for the designs, Ralph Myers places the action in a Nordic Noir type of design featuring shiftable Scandic white walls with huge windows; Alice Babidge's costumes are contemporary in style, which makes Claudius's crown look faintly ridiculous, but I suspect it's meant to be. Neil Armfield's direction is so organic a part of the work that it is hard to imagine it done in any other way.

To thine own self be true...

To say that it's a superhuman effort, and not only for the composer, is not saying enough. Dean and Jocelyn have risen to the challenge of transforming the play with fearless aplomb, and in so doing have created giant roles for their lead singers.

Allan Clayton's Hamlet may prove the ultimate making of this rising-star British tenor. He is on stage almost all the time; we rarely see anything from anyone else's point of view. A doomed, bearlike desperado, he travels from agonised grief through madness real or imagined and out the other side to the fury of his final (expertly performed) sword fight with David Butt Philip's Laertes. It's a huge sing for this often classically-oriented performer - we have loved his Mozart and Handel although, most recently, he was pushing the boat out further as David in Meistersinger - and he proves himself not only in glorious voice but a master of the stage in every way. For Barbara Hannigan's Ophelia, Dean has created ethereally high, dizzyingly complex arabesquing lines, offset by Sarah Connolly as a persuasive Gertrude, hard-edged in character but mellifluous and radiant of voice. Sir John Tomlinson is the Ghost, as well as the Lead Player and the Gravedigger - an intriguing alignment of the three figures - and owns those scenes with his outsize presence and sepulchral tone.

The chorus frames the action with plenty of impact, plunging into "Laertes shall be king" to launch the second half with maximum oomph. There's also a rewarding plethora of smaller roles, luxuriously cast: Rod Gilfrey as Claudius, Jacques Imbrailo as Horatio, Kim Begley as Polonius and Rupert Enticknap and Christopher Lowrey as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. As for Vladimir Jurowski's conducting, I doubt anyone else could have pulled this off even half so magnificently.

I am reliably informed that some of the stage blood found its way onto a first violin part in the orchestra pit. At least, I think it was stage blood. Pictured left...

You can see Hamlet in a cinema relay on 6 July. Other performances can be found and booked here, and we are promised that the opera will be included in the Glyndebourne tour, with David Butt Philip taking over in the title role.

If you've enjoyed this review...please consider supporting JDCMB's development over the next year by making a donation at this link:

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Hall half full, glass half empty?

You know the old trope about optimism/pessimism. (No, this post is not about the general election or Brexit.) The glass is half full - or half empty? Which are you?

I'm tending, these days, towards the enjoy-what-you've-got-while-it's-there attitude. I shall drain my half-glass to the last drop - and if I can get a refill, great.

But the same thing can sometimes apply to concert halls. What if you are the soloist who walks into a big auditorium and sees a sea of empty chairs alongside the half that are occupied?

I'm wondering this because I recently went to a recital so disappointing that I didn't want to review it (no, I won't say who it was). The hall was half full. Or, if you prefer, half empty. Perhaps it was an awkward day, or too close to a nasty event that was in the news, but attendance wasn't good. Did this put off our performer?

Hedge backwards

The atmosphere was singularly odd from the start. One way or another, he seemed curt, uncommunicative and peculiarly lackadaisical. He walked on looking as if he'd just got out of bed, or been dragged backwards through the proverbial hedge. He then pressed down the pedal and bowled off at the speed of a sound that didn't match the work he was playing. His tone was shallow, hard and lacking in colour or character. A phone went off towards the end of one piece and my pal and I exchanged glances, in case it was the composer calling to say "Oi, mate, slow down a bit, innit". And then we had to listen to him do to a glorious piece of Bartók the musical equivalent of what the Russians did to Budapest in 1956.

Of course, we can't know for sure what is going on behind such a strange performance. It could be that something deeply upsetting had just happened to him. Maybe he wasn't well, or suffers from devastating stage fright. Perhaps he'd been caught in transport chaos, or had jet-lag, overslept and missed the alarm clock and really had just got out of bed. Yet I wonder how many people in that hall - and it was a lot of people, even if only at half capacity - might have found themselves reflecting that they felt as if this performer didn't want to be there and couldn't be bothered playing his best to so small an audience?

Speak up!

There are different ways artists could handle a difficult evening in a concert hall. They might make an amusing little spoken introduction explaining that they've had to take antihistamines that have fried their brain, therefore the performance might be a bit off. That would at least establish a friendly connection. Or they could change the programme and introduce it with an informal and personal explanation (except our guy had changed his already, without explanation or, as far as I could tell, any logical planning detectable in the sequence of pieces).

If someone is perfectly well, though, and not suffering a situation that can be communicated and then healed by the music, there's a responsibility that comes with presence on a platform that has been graced in the past by the likes of Richter and Gilels. The hall may only be half full, but people have bought tickets, invested time, effort and goodwill in attendance and, mate, they are on your side. They want to hear you play some good music wonderfully. It's your job to deliver. Because if you make them feel - however unintentionally - that you don't want to be there, you hold them in contempt and you really don't give a damn, they're not going to come back for more next time. We want to have sympathy for someone who has a great reputation but is off form on this occasion. We want him to be OK. But it's got to be a two-way process.

I can't remember the last time I didn't stay for the second half of a recital. But on this occasion we decided at half time that we'd got the idea and needed a drink. The hall's loss was Pizza Express's gain.

While you're here...please consider supporting JDCMB's development over the next year by making a donation, however large or small you like, at this link:

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Please support A Year for JDCMB

I've been thinking about this for a while, so here goes.

I have launched a campaign on GOFUNDME to seek some financial support for JDCMB, because I reckon the only way I can do that without selling my soul is to ask you, my readers. Here is my page and below is the text you'll find there.

There's a link at the top of the sidebar on the right if you fancy donating at any point later, but it would of course be nice if you did it right away...


When I first started JDCMB back in 2004 I could never have envisaged that I’d still be writing it in 2017. It was a complete accident. What were these strange new things called “blogs” anyway? I set up my site to find out. Thirteen years on, JDCMB is attracting more readers than ever and, in the perhaps surprisingly polarised, occasionally vicious and hysterical world of classical music commentary, is often termed by its devotees “the voice of reason”. 

I would love to take JDCMB to the next level and I suspect that you, my readers, would appreciate that: there’d be more regular posts, more exclusive content, more interviews and reviews, perhaps a spot more multimedia. At the moment it’s ad hoc – and I know it could be improved tenfold if I just had enough time to put into it. And time, “in this day and age”, is £. 

Who benefits? You do! Thanks to you, I could write much more of the “content” that you enjoy reading.

Over the years JDCMB and I have weathered a few slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and come through still fighting for the values I, and you, believe in.

JDCMB wants to represent:

• A voice of reason

• Encouragement of the finest and most idealistic in music-making

• Writing about music, ballet, books and related topics in an informal, entertaining yet informative way

• Spreading the message of the unique power of music

• Rejecting trollishness

With your support, I could do a lot more than I can at the moment.

There’d be interviews... and travel reports

…and even occasional moments of glory...

And the only way to seek financial support for JDCMB without actually selling my soul is to ask my readers for their backing. I know there are quite a lot of you out there and [coughs] you’ve been enjoying free content for many years. Please will you consider stepping up and supporting the site?

Here’s my plan. I’m seeking a total of £5,200 in order to fund writing JDCMB to the tune of £100 a week for one year. In that time I intend to build up the readership still further, post at least twice as often as I currently do, and make the site not just a diversion, but an essential read for those who feel they are “my” audience. If this goes according to plan and has the desired result, we can then think about where to go next. 

The sooner we get started, the better, so please make your pledge now!

To say that I would be grateful to you forever and a day is not saying enough. I shall post a list of JDCMB Patrons at the end of 2017 and again at the end of this first year of funding to thank you officially and publicly. And if all this goes well, I’m hoping to build up a supporters network for which we can develop special offers, get-togethers, concerts and more. 

Meanwhile, if JDCMB speaks to you, that makes me very happy. 

Thank you a thousand times.