I go and see FARINELLI and the KING

October 4, 2015 at 5:48 pm | Posted in music, reviews, theatre | 1 Comment
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Well, I wouldn’t want to share a stage with Mark Rylance. It must be like having Hemingway show up to your creative writing class. However good you are, his performance is so subtle, so natural, so nuanced, it makes everyone else look like they’re trying a bit hard.

I often feel this way about Iestyn Davies, too, so it was a rare treat to have both these luminaries under the same roof. The original run of Farinelli and the King, in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in Shakespeare’s Globe, sold out in approximately three seconds, so I didn’t get to see it. But The Duke of York’s theatre is a good alternative venue; warm, informal-feeling and intimate under candlelight, and small enough that I didn’t need my James Bond-style opera glasses, even peering from the Upper Circle. I’d upgraded us at the last minute to a box – I KNOW – and Mum and I arrived to find the Ambassador Experience awaiting us. Gosh. I’m absolutely SURE the free cava did not influence my appreciation of the production in ANY way – I am a professional, after all – but it certainly got us in the mood for this sensitive, witty and absorbing play.


Mum, not at ALL overexcited about sitting in ACTUAL BOX

You’ve probably read 673 reviews of it by now, so I won’t go over the plot again. But it’s a story that resonated for me: the healing power of music, the experience of being transported by a magical voice. I loved the idea that the King and Farinelli were both lost in lives they hadn’t anticipated and couldn’t control. Mum wasn’t sure about the BOGOF Farinelli – ‘Iestyn definitely could’ve acted the whole thing!’ – but I thought it worked well: the confident, assured performer and his diffident, boyish twin. When Farinelli and Carlo finally parted, it was understated and moving.

The story developed believably with only a couple of clunky moments – ‘But the Pope doesn’t approve of your scientific ideas!’ – and there were lovely portrayals of the European opera scene, and the life of stardom and adoration Farinelli had left behind. Some scenes were partly onstage and partly in the auditorium, and the audience were cheerfully roped into bits of the action: hints of the experience you might’ve had if you’d gone to the theatre in the 18th century.

The music was the real star of the show, though. The whole place sat perfectly still when Iestyn sang. I thought about the very first time I heard him, and how I found tears running down my face; and I hoped everyone else was experiencing that, too. The arias reflected the range of Farinelli’s skills – from the coloratura pyrotechnics of Venti, turbini to the clear poignancy of Lascia ch’io pianga – and the tiny orchestra, costumed and bewigged and acting along, were the perfect match. It was so spellbinding, that sometimes it felt odd when the other characters went, ‘Well, anyway, as we were saying…’ rather than weeping, fainting, or throwing knickers. But still. It was the King that mattered, and it was completely credible that this bewitching voice could have saved him.

  • Farinelli and the King runs until December 5. Day tickets are available for sold-out performances. You’ll need to queue. It’s worth it.
Screenshot (37)

Sadly surplus to requirements this time. But did you ever see anything this cool?

Classical concerts: a no-rules approach

September 16, 2015 at 3:48 pm | Posted in music | 1 Comment
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I got all excited when I saw Gillian Moore’s Sinfini piece, Classical etiquette: the new rules. Finally! I thought. Someone arguing that people shouldn’t be keelhauled for sneezing in a quiet bit! Sadly, Moore’s new rules are basically the old ones, with a bit of ‘Calm down, everybody!’ attached.

stfu1Golly, classical music fans like telling each other how to behave*. When you attend a gig, know this: your fellow audience members are looking down on you for all sorts of human failings. Don’t decide you’re too hot in the middle of a piece, and try to take your jumper off; but don’t fall asleep because you’ve had a long day and it’s hot and you don’t dare to take your jumper off, in case you snore. Don’t have a cold, even in the depths of winter, in case you cough; never mind that you paid £50 for your seat and booked your train ticket and accommodation MONTHS ago and have been looking forward to this all year. Do know all the pieces in advance so that you know EXACTLY when it is safe to clap, but don’t follow the score, because that’s showing off. If you’re not sure when to clap, don’t clap until someone else has; but if you DO know where to clap, don’t clap too early, and never shout WOO! because that’s just attention-seeking, and absolutely DON’T stand up to clap, because others might not agree with you that the performance was so terrific it needs a standing ovation. And don’t take your kids, even if you think they might like it, because they might swing their legs in the wrong rhythm, and anyway it’s just smug parenting. And don’t forget to adjust your hearing aid.

I understand all this. I really do. I know that classical music isn’t amplified and you need to shut up in order to hear it properly. I get that performances will differ in subtle ways and you need to pay attention in order to pick these up and enjoy them. But some research suggests that coughing may indicate a lack of engagement, rather than a wilful attempt to spoil everyone else’s fun. Could people be allowed to engage with what’s going on a bit more?

I sometimes think I was born at the wrong time. Mozart-era concerts sound like a lot of fun. Apparently everyone was rowdily engaged, shushing each other in the quiet bits, applauding, yelling ‘da capo!’, chatting and laughing, and quite possibly chucking things if they didn’t approve. People got into fights over their favourite performers. It all sounds right up my street.

When I listen to music at home, I sing along, talk over the bits I don’t find that interesting, crank up the best bits and lie on the carpet. I nudge anyone who’s in the room and go ‘No, listen! I love this bit!’ I’ve been to classical concerts where I wanted to clap and whistle when I recognised the opening bars of my favourite song, like I would at a rock gig.

2 Princelet Street

Iestyn Davies, not singing in my living room, but, you know. Near enough. (Picture by Andrea Liu)

And it’s not all about me. I sometimes feel like we’re missing something else, something bigger, that we could be experiencing if we stopped looking on our fellow concertgoers as an irritation, and started taking notice of them. What would it be like if we tried to enjoy being in a room with a lot of other people, experiencing the music as a group, rather than all sitting in our individual seats feeling aggrieved that the chap next to us is manspreading and the woman in front is so ridiculously tall and trying in vain to pretend that Iestyn Davies is singing to us ALONE in our living room for our personal delight (however brilliant that sounds)? What if we weren’t scared to react to what was going on – if we turned to our neighbours and grinned, got to our feet and moved around, sang along and danced and interacted with each other? Maybe went for a beer in the bits we didn’t like, and worked our way to the front for our favourites?

Ah, you say, knowingly. It’ll never work. Tom Morris came a cropper last year with his no-rules approach to audience engagement at the Bristol Alternative Proms. With no etiquette to stifle them, the audience simply took the policing of other people’s behaviour into their own hands, forcibly ejecting a chap who tried to crowdsurf in the Messiah’s moshpit.

But this stems from the unhappy mixing of people who want to loosen up a bit, and people who don’t. Glyndebourne has separate performances for the under-30s. I think we need Performances for the Under-Disciplined. Then all the people who want to shoulder-poke can go to regular performances and tut loudly at each other’s programme-page-turning, and the rest of us can have some fun. I’ll bring the plonk, if you bring the sarnies.

* It’s not just classical audiences, of course. The ‘STFU’ above is in the Jazz Cafe, and even popular music has its shushers.

I go to a gig and it pretty much CHANGES my LIFE

May 2, 2014 at 4:39 pm | Posted in music, reviews | 2 Comments
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Well, regular reader. You know I’m a bit excitable. You tolerate all manner of burbling about cyclocross racing, noncommittal training, crush-justification, motorist-baiting, and why Sherlock’s violin-playing makes me want to kill people. Classical music, though? Stay with me. You can do it.

Lately, I’ve been in a bit of a froth over Iestyn Davies. After years spent carefully avoiding classical music, his madly ravishing singing crept up on me when I was looking the other way and smacked me forcibly around the chops, and I’ve not been the same since.

On the basis of personal recommendation from the man HIMSELF, I booked tickets to How Pure The Sky, part of Aurora Orchestra’s New Moves initiative.

iestyn tweet re. how pure

I was pretty excited about the programme: I didn’t know any of it (remember, I’ve had my fingers in my ears for the last fifteen years), but some of it was contemporary, and going to see Psappha used to get me all animated. My Mum agreed to come, even though she doesn’t really approve of anything composed after 1750. (Me [reading programme out to her on phone]: ‘Herbert Howells…’ Her: ‘Well, I won’t like THAT.’)

I managed not to spill anything down myself on the train, and arrived at the venue reasonably presentable and hopelessly overexcited. We busied ourselves with the world’s best feedback form (five-point scales: I will endure the concert ° ° ° ° ° I will enjoy the concert). The small orchestra tuned up; second-row tickets turned out to be the best thing EVER, as we were effectively looking up their noses. A few moments of film, heavy on cloudscapes and atmosphere, introduced the evening, and we were off.

My mum was contrite about dissing the Howells, as it was beautiful, but she did a bit of other grumbling: ‘I couldn’t hear him over the orchestra.’ I liked the close interplay; it felt organic, Iestyn’s voice stitched into the music, appearing and disappearing. Being so close to the action gave a completely new perspective; every lift of the conductor’s eyebrows, every sudden grin from a viola player. This was very cool in the Adès, as what sounded like a seamless flow was actually made up of separate notes from different players in an insane feat of timing and accuracy. The Bach wedded an uplifting tune with hellfire-and-damnation lyrics (no doubt where the Smiths got their inspiration from), and the exposed voice in the recitative was thrilling.

chamber organ

It’ll cost ya. Can’t get the parts

In the interval, I learned how you pack up a marimba (astonishingly, the bits you hit get lifted off all in one piece, like a rope bridge), and how you tune a chamber organ (thrust your hand into its innards, suck your teeth and say ‘Just ease off the gas a bit, can you?’)

My main objectives for the concert were:

  1. Don’t clap in the wrong place;
  2. Try to say hallo to Iestyn;

Regarding no. 3, I nearly came unstuck in the Muhly, with its gorgeous, mounting close harmonies and Iestyn’s voice suddenly soaring from the rafters (he’d snuck up onto the balcony). Mum helpfully informed me that Muhly got the idea for drones from singing along to the vacuum cleaner, which brought me safely back down.

On to the Gluck, and another mascara-threatening performance, with orchestra and voice so perfectly balanced that the whole auditorium basically took off in flight. The Schubert – well, although I couldn’t take my eyes off Nicholas Collon and his lovely, fizzy conducting, I wasn’t sure about the Schubert. Mum studied her programme for a while. (Her, afterwards: ‘I WASN’T asleep. I know I looked like I was, but I wasn’t. Don’t you DARE write that.’) To be honest, I’d have preferred to finish on the massive high of the Gluck.

So, all over. Except, of course, it wasn’t. The words Blue skies appeared on the screen, then, a moment later, smiling at me. Everyone laughed. Iestyn strolled in, toting a brolly, and, well, classical singers don’t always quite make the transition into other genres (I’m looking at you, Kiri) but this was lovely: light, witty and bubbly. To my delight, the polite classical-music audience abandoned its decorum and shouted WOO!

It’s hard to do live stuff justice. All through the gig I was thinking, This. I have to remember this. The details are already fading: which piece had the delicious oboe solo? How exactly was the singing different, in the Berlin? It doesn’t matter. I woke up the next morning, my head teeming with glorious music, and still about to POP with the joy of it all. I felt my heart expand. That’s what will stay with me.



Having ticked objectives 1. and 3. off my list, I also managed 2. Not content with singing utterly transcendently marvellously, Iestyn turned out to be lovely, humble and delightful in person, talking to us for ages, signing CDs, etc.. Apparently Jonas Kaufmann needs bouncers to control his ARMIES of fans; I’m ecstatic to have got in before this was necessary, as if there’s any justice, this will be Iestyn’s equivalent of the Oasis-gig-that-if-everyone-who-says-they-went-actually-did-it-must-have-been-at-Milton-Keynes-Bowl. And I was THERE. WAY cooler than you.

iestyn aurora rehearsal

Iestyn Davies in rehearsal with Aurora Orchestra for How Pure The Sky. Picture by Simon Weir

Music, emotion, denial, and anyway, I blame Iestyn Davies

April 21, 2014 at 8:37 pm | Posted in music | 6 Comments
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Yesterday, I biked through Old Town in tears. Yeah, yeah, I know. This time it was different, though: I wasn’t weeping over the hills, the headwind, my lack of grit, my terrible urge to pack up and go home after 15 miles. I was thinking about Dad.

It’s been a troubled couple of weeks. Mostly, I blame Iestyn Davies. I don’t listen to classical music. I kid myself it bores me, but really, it terrifies me. The other week, the boyfriend went to bed early, and I sat half-watching Rule Britannia, one eye on twitter. I looked up to see Iestyn singing ‘Dove sei, amato bene?’ and suddenly I was a mess.

It’s all still raw, then. The cracks, papered over. So much I’d forgotten. I was probably fourteen. It was getting late; I left Dad in front of the telly and went up to watch the end of Madama Butterfly in bed. God, it’s heartbreaking. Dad came up the stairs to say goodnight. He wiped his eyes; I blew my nose. And we laughed. Silly sods.

His emotions ran so close to the surface. Sunsets could bring him to tears, but music did it most reliably. He’d hide in the lounge and turn the volume up: Verdi, Puccini. No interrupting.

This was me, too. Singing in The Crucifixion, dreading the approach of ‘God so loved the world’ because I was going to cry, no matter what, in front of everyone. Paired ‘cello lessons with Denise, who was measured precision and correctness where I was all mad emotion and fluffed intervals.

But for Dad, joy in a beautiful performance had a flipside. That sharp intake of breath at a bum note. Hilariously accurate pisstakes of operatic overindulgences. Watching New Faces: ‘All he’s got is cheek.’ ‘She’s just a belter.’ Tuning, timing, interpretation, criticism. I used to wait until he was out to practise, because I couldn’t bear to murder the music he loved. Bach, Elgar, Saint-Saëns.gary larson roger screws up

And I couldn’t be good enough, never mind for him, but for myself. I stopped playing, because the fear of failure, of screwing up, far outweighed the joy. And I stopped listening, too; it was all just too much.

Dad had a folderful of skits. Good stuff. I put on one of his tiny plays at school, and we won a prize. I don’t know what happened to it all; I didn’t realise that after a funeral, stuff just gets thrown away. He was going to send his writing to Punch, some day, soon, when he’d just tidied it up a bit. It never left the house. He thought the world would be a harsh critic, as harsh as he was; he couldn’t expose himself to it. And I know I don’t want to be like this.

My boys are learning the piano. I bash out boogaloo riffs, worked out by ear. ‘That’s really GOOD, Mummy!’ I blow the dust off my ‘cello and scrape through TV themes. Someone dares me to post them on audioboo; I do it (after a couple of glasses of red), and I’m taken aback that people don’t go, ‘Eeeurgh! Stop it!’ but instead say, ‘How great to be able to do that.’
gareth malone tweet

So I’m trying to love the fear. It’s a bit of a work in progress. Like the joke about the stubborn understains being all that’s holding your pants together, I’ve grown accustomed to the tension: the conviction that if I relax, it will all come out – love, terror, pain, god knows what else – and where will it stop? So, small steps. This week, playing bad boogaloo. Next week, digging out the Elgar. Listening to The Messiah, and letting myself bawl uncontrollably, then stumbling back from the edge.

Because it’s not just music, of course. All those dreams, procrastinated over, because I’m paralysed with fear that I won’t be good enough. If I can do it with music, will it transfer? Embrace the emotion, feel it, let it rip me up, then piece myself back together. I’m going to try. No, really, I am.

Me, Dad, Grandad. Yes, that is what you think, in that glass

Me, Dad, Grandad. Yes, that IS what you think, in that glass

(The best bad boogaloo:)

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