Thursday, 28 July 2011

Serpentine Pavilion and Gallery 2011

Hortus Conclusus, Peter Zumthor's Pavilion for the Serpentine this year is a stern, even exclusive affair. A thick featureless black gauze suggests the entrance to a labyrinth and, once inside, the space resembles a cloister. It's actually rather lovely inside, peaceful and removed if cramped, with plenty of tables at which to sit and have a drink. I'm not sure that the opacity is going to endear it to those used to having a space to complement a gallery visit. I was certainly happier to sit out on the grass, given the good weather.

Inside the gallery is a remarkable, continuous installation by the Italian Michelangelo Pistoletto. At first it looks as if the corrugated cardboard packaging has been left uncleared but this is in fact the basis of the work. Rippling around at just-over-waist-height, one has the sensation of standing beside a chocolate bar, like endless cross-sections of Cadbury's Flakes standing upright. The undulating card gives way to a few select points, all demanding on the theme of sensation: a pair of ear trumpets; a mirror reflecting the ceiling window in a self-perpetuating well of light; a prayer pew in front of a mirror. It makes for an unusual and even entertaining visit, although the volume of the installation means that it makes for a rather corwded viewing experience - the antithesis of the reflection-in-situ that it seeks to promote.

So both inside and outside the Serpentine there is a monkish sensibility but also one of claustrophobia. It's a peculiar sensibility to be bringing to a gallery in the middle of the wide-open space of Hyde Park.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Die Fledermaus, Iris Theatre

In the great tradition of concerts held in St. Paul's Covent Garden, Iris Theatre's production of Johann Strauss' Die Fledermaus had competition from street performers in the market. It's unlikely that the al fresco crowd were getting a show with more energy than that generated in this production of Strauss' farce though. In fact, it might be that there was too much energy in this high-calibre performance. Mel Cook's production is a slapstick-heavy affair, the knockabout comedy taking its lead from the vitality (not to mention champagne froth) of the celebrated central-Act party. With so much movement (complete with entrances that necessitated a sizeable walk up the church's aisles) characters were occasionally masked by shadow or had their voices scattered in the melee. Above all, the rather frenzied comic playing tended to transfer itself to the singers when they were actually singing. There really is plenty of comedy and chutzpah already written into the opera without having to generate extra physical comedy, entertaining though it was: to coin an appropriate metaphor, one has to hold the champagne glass still to get the full measure and effect of Strauss' sparkling wine.

Despite this I was impressed by a spirited, even classy evening's music-making. Comprising little more than two quartets (string & wind), the Orchestra Of St. Paul's under the direction of Ben Palmer filled out the chamber arrangement of the score with meticulous ensemble and an occasional flare of character. The combination of sinuous lead violin and woodwind brought an Austro-Hungarian flavour to the sound, like an accordion at the heart of a Czardas. Lugubrious woodwind at the end of the party conjured the decadence of Kurt Weill and the actual music of Stravinsky and Wagner also made cameo appearances. Accompanying ensembles are typically thrown together by necessity or afterthought in the West End, so it was a pleasure to hear a balanced, well-prepared group creating a sound platform for the singers.

In their turn the singers took full advantage of the opportunity. Not unlike Mozart's Il Nozze di Figaro, the focus of Die Fledermaus is on a young aristocratic couple blundering into confrontation and comeuppance. Andrew Dickinson's Eisenstein is at the centre of this, played, in updated dialogue, as a Sloane of contemporary, gap yah-vernacular. His was the exemplary performance under the circumstances: clear in speech and song despite the perpetual motion, never neglecting the audience. As his wife Rosalinda, Felicity Hayward sang with generous tone and sparkle whilst successfully negotiating the rough and tumble (but I felt slightly cheated that her thrilling high C at the end of the Act 1 ensemble was delivered directly at the conductor's feet!).

The showpiece party of the second Act revolved around Belinda Williams' Count Orlofsky. Playing him as a bored Russian playboy (setting the action firmly in contemporary Chelsea), Williams used a broody mix of pride and ennui, allowing her to move and sing without the mania of the over-excited guests; a highly charismatic performance. Henry Manning carved out plenty of room to showcase his manipulative Falke (complete with Nolan/Batman jokes in a nod to the opera's title). Sarah Gabriel, who had already won the audience in the first Act with a nicely pitched Eliza Doolittle of an Adele, delivered the Laughing Song in the second with an impressive lightness of touch. The third Act consolidated the strength of cast, Edward Lee (as Alfred) alternately showing off his clarion tenor and y-fronts, and Amy Payne and Leif Jone Olberg (Ida and the Prison Governor) modestly subordinating well-produced sound to the demands of functional character.

Someone had also spent more time than is usual for these events preparing costume and choreography. Clearly a great deal of preparation and attention had been spent on this production and it was well-invested.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Music in The Tree Of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011)

The Tree Of Life is released today in the UK. I've had a chance to see the film and though I'm planning to write about it in my usual way, I thought I might think separately about the music used in the film. The music is a vital part of The Tree Of Life, not only aesthetically but also structurally; Malick often chooses to have sequences of fragments of shots strung together and the music lends them the consistency of thought - or at least intent - that might otherwise feel rather more elusive. The use of the music in the film is also rather similar to that of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick's 1968 sci-fi epic, whose content and vision is justifiably comparable with Malick's new film. In 2001, Kubrick famously used commercially available recordings to suggest what he wanted, only to use much of that very music itself in the film. Malick has also used a number of commercially available recordings with the supervision of composer Alexandre Desplat, who also wrote some original music.

Throughout this post, I'm grateful for information from other bloggers - OperaChic and All Things Shining - pointed at by the LA Times. The links are, where possible, to the actual recordings used in the film.

As Malick's film may be said to consider love, loss and memory in the epic context of the life-span of the Earth, there is clearly scope for music that does more than underpin action. Indeed, much of the music reflects on the one hand the viscera & wonder of the natural world and on the other the aspiration towards something spiritual or at least, something beyond life, something noumenal. An early example of the latter is John Taverner's Funeral Canticle, choral music rocking back and forth like a pendulum, apparently unable to come to rest. This underpins an early dramatic event that sets in motion the meditative, nostalgic content of the bulk of the film. Despite the title of the piece it's not expressly mournful or soulful music. Rather it is music that enables rumination, supporting the imagination and the extension of thought.

It's a surprising volte face then that a subsequent birth-of-galaxy sequence should be underscored by a sung version of the liturgy, Zbigniew Preisner's setting of the Lachrymosa from the Requiem Mass. We can deduce then that this is part of Malick's intent for the film, a continual juxtaposition of the natural and the supernatural, just as the opening voiceover suggests
There are two ways through life: the way of nature, and the way of Grace.
This is probably confirmed with the use of Gustav Holst's Hymn to Dionysus, again a work with Bacchanalian title and text at odds with the visual temperament of the graceful mother watching over the children's infancy. I found it as well to remember that Holst brings his own Planets Suite to a close with the similarly upper-voice choral music of Neptune, using the same sound world (no text) for his interplanetary vision. Holy or savage text, life beginning or ending, the sonority of choice appears to be choral.

Nonetheless, one can see the inherent contradiction. To make my point, see the music of a subsequent scene, a moment of unequivocal theological content. The frustrated musician father, played by Brad Pitt, plays the organ during a service at his church watched (with equivocal interest) by his son. The music is the hackneyed Toccata and Fugue attributed to J.S. Bach, BWV 565. It immediately put me in mind of this children's animation from the 1970s, where it underscores a title sequence taking in the same gargantuan span as Malick (but in a considerably shorter 90 seconds!):



But then I like the interesting decision to follow this with more Bach - the E Flat Minor fugue from Book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier, BWV 853 as the boy plays on in the church which his father has left. The didact has gone and the boy is free to make of the building what he will. Similarly the gothic portentousness of the D Minor Toccata and Fugue is replaced by a more intimate, fluid and interrogative piece. It is also - in E Flat Minor - a semitone above the D minor of the organ piece and so, at a crude-but-effective level, is an enlightened step up from the music that has gone before.

The Bach is not the only music brandished by the father. During a meal he breaks off from the table to involve himself more fully in the climax to the 4th Symphony by Johannes Brahms. This is a particularly rich episode in the film. For a start the music itself is an extremely turbulent cascade of variations, a notable orchestral outcry from a composer one associates with classical restraint. Secondly, Brad Pitt's father makes a point of naming the conductor, Arturo Toscanini (the first of two occasions on which he is invoked). Toscanini is arguably the most notorious autodidact in the history of conducting, a man who demanded unquestioning fealty from his musicians, bullying them into performing as he wanted. Is the father listening to the music? Or is he listening to the expression of a condutor, through the music, whose approach to claiming what he wants in life is attractive? (It's also interesting that Brahms' music is used at a similar point in the development of the overbearing father-son relationship in PT Anderson's There Will Be Blood).

I suspect the use of Brahms in these period sequences has something to do with the central European sound that migrated across the Atlantic towards the end of the 19th century. It's the sound of the roots of America. One of the most powerful interludes in the film is that piece used also in the trailer, Vlatava from Bedrich Smetana's Ma Vlast.



Noble and proud, the music is nonetheless wistful, just like the character of memory in which the bulk of the film is couched. The fluid running flute is also a well-considered as a sonic counterpart to the dynamic steadicam filming and restless cutting. Additionally, the music of the most famous of European ex-pats, Gustav Mahler, finds its way into the the film (in an extract of his 1st Symphony), though this unsurprising context in which to find a composer who declared that 'the symphony should be like the world - it must contain everything'.

So there's a bracket of composers that are consonant with the conflicted nostalgia of the film. There is also music that deals with the mysterious, evocative nature of the film too - we have already come across the Preisner and can also consider the use of Henryk Gorecki's 3rd Symphony (Movement 2, Lento e Largo) in this bracket. What I found most interesting is the music that seems to issue as if from Malick himself.

Hector Berlioz was a rather extreme composer, writing uncompromising music for impractical resources in the middle of the 19th century. He is part of the line of artists like William Blake before him and indeed Malick after him, who pursue their ideas stubbornly in the face of derision. Berlioz's setting of the Requiem is a case in point, an outrageous work where performers would have outnumbered the audience in a complete performance. It is the conciliatory close of Berlioz's Requiem that Malick uses to underscore the visionary denoument of the movie. Straight away the music is unearthly, using woodwind at the outer reaches of their ranges, the alpha and omega of sonorities, creating a surreal doorway to the peace beyond after the sturm and drang before it (as the images do in this point in the film). This is not the only use of Berlioz in the film either, though I can't remember exactly where earlier extract of the Requiem (the cowed, paranoid Offertorium) and the youthful, heroic tone poem for solo viola Harold In Italy occur. It certainly seems that Malick found a musico-rhetorical counterpart to his filmmaking in the work of this composer.

Friday, 8 July 2011

The Turn Of The Screw, King's Head Theatre

OperaUpClose have achieved with a fairly successful staging of Britten's serial spectrecle. The Turn Of The Screw is a tricky opera littered with themes and vernacular that are very slippery to grasp. Britten's treatment is no less elusive. Though his extraordinary (even by his standards) rigour in composition is clear in analysis, in the theatre, especially one as compressed as The King's Head, themes can seem a bit buried. In this performing version, OperaUpClose have engaged an excellent pianist, David Eaton, who plays with great dynamic range, shape and dramatic awareness. Yet even he cannot prevent the piano from becoming congested, unable to make sense of the delicate, diaphanous ensemble for which Britten originally conceived the music. The percussive Gamelan origins of the score are well rendered but, played on a single instrument, the weight of the orchestral voices simply accumulate - at times the sheer volume of the sound becomes rather overwhelming.

As a corollary to this, up close there is a wide range of approach to singing the music. I appreciated the insidious, powder-intimate piano singing of David Menezes' Quint as well as the clear, bashful-but-not-fragile treble voice of Samuel Woof [I think*]. At the other end of the scale is Eleanor Burke's Flora, singing right out into the space with great confidence, and Laura Casey's Mrs Grose playing down but not underselling her considerable instrument in a comic reading of the role's class-difference.

Managing all possible approaches in a single performance is Katie Bird, singing the Governess. This is the exemplar of how to sing a role irrespective of the space or production, giving body to the sound even at the quietest moments but filling in moments of tutta forza with stagecraft and vocal colour, never forcing the needle into the red, as it were. It's classy singing, coupled with poised, absorbing acting, clearly working out clear direction. In Edward Dick's psychologically-centred production (of the two basic readings he sides with the action coming from within the Governess' imagination, the so-called 'second reading') the Governess becomes the centre of the drama, with the space and its inhabitants an extension of her own mind. In addition to this, Katie Bird gave us a beautifully ambivalent complex of both compassion for the children and at the same time a creepy, physical possessiveness that aligned her dangerously close to the suffocating adult demands of Quint. As her predecessor Miss Jessel, Catrine Kirkman is a fine expressionist counterpart to Bird, an anti-Governess with sultry, almost New-Romantic costuming & makeup, a fevered stage presence and some comparably fine singing.

The director has clearly assembled quite a strong production team. The deceptively simple, white-screen space is a super playground for his lighting designer (also using subtle but effective projection) and I suspect that they've also used a choreographer, not only for the pockets of dancing required by the score but also for the movement of characters within and behind the set. It all works within its modest confines. It might not be the best way to hear the opera by it does have a fine principal showcasing her ability, the best reason to see the show.

*Neither OperaUpClose nor The King's Head Theatre publish a cast online, so I can't check (although, on this occasion, a cast was written on a board at the auditorium door)