First published in The Herald on 16 August, 2017
Winter of 1896, Teatro Regio, Turin. The star conductor Arturo Toscanini, not yet 30, premieres the latest opera by Giacomo Puccini to polarised reaction. Some factions of the audience can’t understand why they’ve just spent an evening watching the grotty minutiae of impoverished nobodies; surely opera is the platform for gods and noblemen. The streets of Paris have been revealed as dirty and cold. We see tough prostitution, the unnecessary death of a beautiful young woman whose only fault is to be poor. And the music – so compact, so direct, so impatient. Where are the luxuriant expanses of Verdi and Wagner? What new operatic urban realism is Puccini getting at?
First published in The Herald on 9 August, 2017
The International Festival series at the newly re-opened St Cecilia’s Hall is totally sold out — unsurprising given the room only seats 200 — but you can experience the museum’s stunning historical instruments and the gem that is the oval concert hall in five concerts hosted by the Friends of St Cecilia’s, starting today with keyboardists John Kitchen and David Gerrard playing music by Francois and Louis Couperin on the ultimate 1769 Taskin harpsichord. (St Cecilia’s Hall, August 9, 12, 16, 19 & 23, 3pm.)
If you’re missing soprano Anna Dennis as part of the superb Monteverdi operas coming to the International Festival next week (or even if you’re not), hear her in recital tomorrow: she’s joined by Owen Willetts (countertenor) and Tom Foster (harpsichord) for a programme of Baroque arias, cantatas and duetti da camera by Durante, Geminiani, Handel and Scarlatti. (St Andrews and St Georges West, August 10, 430pm.)
First published in The Herald on 2 August, 2017
“I haven’t been so angry for a long time,” says composer Mark-Anthony Turnage. His voice is laconic, as though the statement is too obvious to even bother. “I was angry during the Thatcher years. Now I’ve got my anger back.”
There is older anger afoot. Oedipus is raging in a greasy spoon. We already know how the story ends: he’ll commit murder, he’ll accidentally sleep with his mother, he’ll gouge out his own eyes. This is the East End of London in the late 1980s, Thatcher’s Britain, a backdrop of football chants and social depravity. Oedipus – let’s call him Eddy, the protagonist of Steven Berkoff’s play Greek – aspires to better but fate pulls him back. “Fate,” his mum warns him, “makes us play the roles we’re cast.”
First published in The Herald on 28 July, 2017
On the bare wooden stage of the Teatro La Fenice in Venice, Penelope, Queen of Ithaca, strikes a defiant pose. This is the moment of messy revelation in Monteverdi’s 1640 opera Il ritornello d’Ulisse in Patria. After 20 years, our hero Ulysses (though arguably Penelope is the true hero of the drama) has returned to Ithaca disguised as a beggar, has been jeered for his poverty, has not yet been recognised by his wife. When Penelope challenges her grim suitors to prove their strength by using her husband’s bow, not one can even hold it, let alone live up to all their macho talk. Only the gentle beggar can lift the weapon, and he proceeds to slaughter the lot of them to the sound of triumphant thunderclaps from Jupiter. Are we to rejoice?
In John Eliot Gardiner’s production there is no bow, no dark, broad sea of Ithaca, no gory killing spree. Lucile Richardot’s splendid Penelope is dressed in a simple brown tunic with just her body language (dignified) and voice (intensely, magnificently shaded) to communicate the hurt and stoicism of two decades’ faithful waiting. “No props,” Gardiner stresses. “Everything stylised, nothing literal. These operas speak to us most directly if we allow our imaginations free rein to listen and make up our own cinematic images.”
First published in The Herald on 26 July, 2017
Circumstances could hardly have been worse for the dawn of the world’s largest arts festival. Britain was two years out of war, the economy was crippled, rations were still in place, relationships around Europe were dismal. Maybe circumstances could hardly have been better.
It’s an old story but it’s worth telling again. Rudolf Bing, general manager of the young Glyndebourne opera, was strolling through Edinburgh one night in 1942 when he looked up at the castle, spotted a resemblance to Salzburg – one of the great music centres of Europe – and had an inkling that Edinburgh would make the right place for a festival. It had the grand beauty, the historic tourist industry, the centuries-old links with Europe. Bing also knew that music could provide hope and unity even at the most broken of political times.
First published in The Herald on 12 July, 2017
Giusto Ferdinando Tenducci was an 18th century superstar, a rags-to-riches singing sensation, a seducer, a fugitive, an honorary Scot. Born poor in Siena, he was castrated as a child and went on to become vocal teacher to Mozart in Vienna and admired internationally for his clear and fabulous soprano. Bach wrote for him. Woman flocked to his concerts. “He was noted for his vanity and an extravagance which left him continually dodging his creditors,” notes one tight-lipped biographer.
Tenducci’s voice made him famous but a sex scandal made him infamous: in 1766 he married the 15-year-old Dorothea Maunsell, one of his students, and because he was a castrato the marriage was technically illegal. She wrote a breathless teenage account of their love affair and later, when she bored of the novelty and fell in love with someone else, she went to the courts to have the marriage annulled on the grounds of non-consummation. That she happened to be pregnant at the time was another complicating and seemingly miraculous factor (the father turned out to her next husband: a story for another day.)
First published in Gramophone magazine, June 2017
A case study. Last summer on the shores of Lake Tuusula in Finland, at a music festival directed by violinist Pekka Kuusisto, I heard a performance of Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet with singer/songwriter Laura Moisio interspersing warped pop songs about love and hurt between the movements. The previous day, when it was announced composer Einojuhani Rautavaara had died, Kuusisto walked on stage alone and played a solemn traditional Finnish polska. That night he blazed his way through the gypsy dances of Bartok’s Contrasts with a rugged, unapologetic virtuosity. “Our Festival is gentle,” Kuusisto wrote in his manifesto. “Our Festival wants to invent new flexible forms for concerts, where the message is more important than dress codes or good behaviour.”
Kuusisto and his brother Jaakko (also a violinist) grew up improvising. Their father would sit at the piano playing jazz standards while the two boys sat on either side adding bass lines and solos. Pekka’s formal violin training was elite and in 1995 he became the first Finn to win the International Sibelius Violin Competition, but he says his artistic epiphany happened when a friend took him to a folk festival in northern Finland. “Those fiddlers looked so happy,” he told me. “It seemed like they had an honest reason for playing.”
First published by Sounds Like Now, May 2017
EXAUDI turns 15 this year, and — so often the way with birthdays — its cofounder and director James Weeks is taking stock. “We’re in a position to influence a considerable swathe of contemporary vocal writing and possibly make a tiny but noticeable dent in our corner of music history,” he ventures. “What are our values, and our vision of the human voice?” A recent anniversary celebration concert at the Wigmore Hall in London offered a fairly good answer to those questions. The programme contained 16th century Italian and Franco-Flemish madrigals by Arcadelt, Marenzio and Giaches de Wert as well as works by Sciarrino and Weeks himself.
First published in The Herald on 21 June, 2017
“I’m not sure why,” said Sigmund Freud, not usually one for ambivalence, “but trombones make me very uncomfortable.” Poor old trombones; there are so many quips. The advice purportedly given by Richard Strauss to young conductors: “Never look at the trombones – it only encourages them.” The devilish glint in the pen of critic-playwright George Bernard Shaw, who wrote that “a taste for brass instruments is hereditary. My father destroyed his domestic peace by immoderate indulgence in the trombone. My uncle played the ophicleide – very nicely, I must admit – for years, and then perished by his own hand. Some day I shall buy a trombone myself…”
First published in The Herald on 14 June, 2017
“I’ve always loved extremes,” says Steven Osborne, barefoot in his Edinburgh living room, sun streaming through the New Town windows, none of it very extreme. “I have big reactions!” he protests. “Strong passions! I have an antipathy to nice music. I just don’t see the point.”
The Scottish pianist makes me a coffee and folds himself into an armchair across the room from a compact modern grand piano. The interview was nominally arranged to talk about the summer schedule he has coming up: a visit to the St Magnus Festival in Orkney next week for a solo recital (Brahms, Rachmaninoff, Debussy) and Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G with the Norwegian Radio Orchestra; the same recital at Music at Paxton in July; the world premiere of new concerto by Julian Anderson at the BBC Proms with Ilan Volkov and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra; the Lammermuir Festival in September for another solo programme (Feldman, Crumb) and a duo recital (Bach, Beethoven, Debussy, Brahms) with the cellist Alban Gerhardt.