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.

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

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I go to a WORLD PREMIERE

June 7, 2015 at 5:49 pm | Posted in music | Leave a comment
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The day started fairly unpromisingly. My +1 had cat problems and couldn’t make the wandering-around-the-V&A-in-the-afternoon bit of our assignation, so I found myself in St James’s Park on a sunny Saturday feeling a bit lost, and wishing my kids were there so I could buy them ice creams.

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Cats. Making people late for stuff since 1473, probably

Things improved swiftly when Tiffany arrived – ‘We spent half an hour trying to get him into his box then gave up’ – and we sallied forth for pizza and wine and a good gossip. At the venue, we stripped off (gad, it’s hot in the Barbican, etc.) and immediately ran into Sanae, Sakie and Adrie; it turns out the key to finding your friends at gigs is not to sit in the cheap seats. I’m pleased to report the Barbican’s new FanFinder™ seating app works, as Adrie was in the seat right next to mine. We earned a few disapproving looks from nearby ladies for squawking and giggling before curtain-up.

Anyway. ROW D. Some people always sit at the front (I’m looking at you, Sanae) but this was a new experience for me. I felt a bit self-conscious, as if Iestyn might think, ‘Why does that woman keep STARING at me?’ But given that I couldn’t hear much last time I went to the Barb, it was a good move. The programme hung together nicely – Dowland’s If my complaints could passions move, which muses on love and rejection; Britten’s Lachrymae, a set of variations on the Dowland piece for viola and chamber orchestra; and Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater, portraying Mary’s grief at seeing her son on the cross. These laid the ground for exploration of similar themes in Sentences, Nico Muhly’s new meditation on the life of Alan Turing.

Well. The Dowland and the Vivaldi were lovely, of course. Iestyn sang, as ever, so beautifully, expressively and perfectly that I’m beginning to doubt he’s actually human. I can get a bit grumpy during the instrumental bits in gigs ‘cos, well, SINGING. It’s the THING, isn’t it. (I know this is unreasonable of me.) But I enjoyed the Britten very much, not least because I could see all the detail of Laurence Power’s sparky playing and his interaction with the Britten Sinfonia.

We spent the interval queueing for the loo (as you do in the Barb) and wondering what to expect from Sentences. I’d read the Telegraph piece and listened to the podcast. Adrie had been to the pre-concert talk (‘there was a lot of hand-waving’), and we’d read the programme notes, but we were still none the wiser, really.

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Percussion section

For all that the piece featured knitting needles, a typewriter and crotales (don’t worry, I had to google them, too), it was unthreatening. Most of the contemporary stuff I’ve been to in the past was much harder work for the audience, but I found that freeing; I would give up trying to follow it, and just experience it. Sentences had tunes and harmonies and themes I could understand, but in a way this was discombobulating; I was caught between ‘lie back and let it wash over you’ and feeling I should try to work out what was going on, to spot developments or recapitulations. Eventually I settled, more or less consciously, on the micro approach, and came away with an impression of textures: layers of fizz and crackle, filmic strings and woodwind, moods that shifted between sombre and shimmering, Iestyn’s voice looping and merging with itself.

Nico seemed to tower over the orchestra, beating a time I barely comprehended with Wing Chun blocks and punches, then stooping to add keyboard lines, one hand still conducting above the fettled piano. Again, it was terrific being up close; his energy was palpable, and Iestyn was alive and engaged, counting under his breath, giving away little grins and frowns. It made me think how unusual it is to see this at recitals, and how I miss it; I spent a few years going to wiggy out-there free improvisation gigs, and one of the things I loved was the sense of the music being created before my eyes, the conversations between performers in a glance or a nod or a smile.

The let-down for me was the libretto. Nico’s Old Bones is brilliant, weaving found texts into something incredibly moving, and I’m in love with his settings of folk songs (the encore was one of these, The Bitter Withy, which is breathtakingly beautiful). I wanted something realer or subtler or more out-there than the words Adam Gopnik came up with for Sentences.

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Curtain call picture by Sakie Plunkett. Click to visit her blog.

It was all over by 9:20pm, which was a bit of a surprise. I tried to get Tiffany to go dancing, but she had to be up in the morning to play her piccolo. Sigh. Still, there’s always the FANGIRLING, right? I’ll admit my heart sank when I saw Iestyn would be signing CDs after the gig; I know I’m being selfish, but in my experience fangirling is much more successful when there isn’t a queue and your fanobject isn’t protected by a desk. We managed to say hello, despite the best efforts of some chap who thought he had more right to be there than we did (not for the first time, I regretted forgetting the Iestyn Davies Appreciation Society badges). Never mind. I’m sure there won’t be any desks on the Glyndebourne bus.

Why you should become a FIEND

February 19, 2015 at 2:16 pm | Posted in music | 4 Comments
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Members’ booking opened today for Jonas Kaufmann’s gig at the Royal Festival Hall. The programme’s still unconfirmed, so it may be Yodelling The Classics or perhaps an Eartha Kitt retrospective, but frankly, we don’t care. This is the Greatest Living Tenor, and we want IN. Unfortunately, so does everyone else.

Being a Friend, of course, is the way to go. Pay your yearly fee, and get priority booking. The price depends on the venue. Some charge one flat sum for everyone; others propose a scary hierarchy of increasingly exclusive ranks of Friendship, from entry-level, giving you a badge and a t-shirt, up to £HE,LLO.OO, which lets you jump the toilet queue in the interval, say ‘The usual, please, Fiona darling’ to the bar staff, and lick peanut butter from the belly of your favourite performer up to three times a year.

The arts need supporting, of course, and there’s a long tradition of benefaction (if that’s a word). But what about impecunious fans, unable to cough up membership fees for every venue in which our favourites might perform? After all the Inamorati, Friends-With-Benefits, Exes-We’re-Still-On-Good-Terms-With, Slight-Infatuations, Friends-of-Friends, Facebook-Friends and People-We-Nod-To-Uncertainly-In-The-Street have had their share, there may be precious few tickets left for us to scrap over.

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Tension mounts as Joyce DiDonato fans struggle to remember her favourite pizza topping

That’s why I’m proposing a new category of ticket purchaser: the Fiend. Become a Fiend, and book first for all events your favourite is performing in, regardless of venue or price. That’s FIRST. Before EVERYONE else. There’s no joining fee or annual subscription: being a Fiend is entirely free of charge. All you have to do is answer a set of questions, randomly selected from an enormous database, under exam conditions. Examples for Jonas fans are given below:

  1. Jonas was amazed that his Andrea Chénier costumes lacked…
    1. Whalebone corsetry
    2. iPhone pockets
    3. Automatic poppers
  2. Jonas has described learning to use his natural tenor voice as…
    1. Like driving a truck
    2. Like growing a beard
    3. Like waiting for a bus, oh my GOODNESS, totally incredible, you know, how you wait for HOURS and then three come along at once, haha!

(Databases for other stars are still under construction; sample questions can be provided on request. The Iestyn Davies exam, for example, is expected to include advanced matching of Farrow & Ball paint shades, and the practical identification of dog hair on settees.)

The benefits to fans of the Fiend scheme are obvious, but venues will also profit; no longer will they need to employ ushers with long sticks to prod snoring audience members, or devote scant staff resources to fielding 176 phone calls a day from the same person enquiring about returns. And EVERYONE will need to buy a programme. If only to fan themselves with it.

(Thanks to @SecondNorn for the conversation that provoked this, and for her unrivalled JK knowledge.)

When the crit hits the fan

January 23, 2015 at 5:51 pm | Posted in music | 4 Comments
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Fans have a rough time. We admit to a Bit of a Thing for someone, and immediately give up all hope of being taken seriously. The Arts World looks on us with faint distaste. Can’t we keep our silly emotions to ourselves? Whatever will become of rationality, if we allow ourselves to be swayed by something as base as looks?

Cumberbitch leggings, by Poprageous

I can’t not have these

There’s so much wrong with this. First, it’s more than just a question of looks. Fans react to the package (sorry): the acting, the singing, the musicianship, and yes, the looks (though looks can, believe it or not, be secondary: think of the Cumberbatch fans who only really fancy him as Sherlock). The ability to inhabit a part, to make us believe; to transport us, to sing us into submission. And, as I’ve pointed out before, esteem takes many forms, and it can be hard to figure out which one someone evokes in us. Admiration, inspiration, identification, #voicecrush, #mancrush…

Second, just because we’re fans, it doesn’t mean we don’t know or care about music. Well, OK, I don’t know much [cough] but others do. And admiring the cut of a tenor’s jib doesn’t negate this knowledge. We know a poor casting decision, a below-par performance, a phoned-in contribution when we see one. And we’re interested in the rest of the production too, not just ‘our’ star.

Third, there’s an element of sexism lurking here. While there’s the odd joke about fanboys, most of the disparaging comments I see are about women. Dirty, dangerous, lustful thoughts, we women have. How dare we? Can’t we have a cup of tea and a nice, safe, clean, intellectual think about things?

Lastly, and most importantly, emotion is part of life. Emotion is, very obviously, part of music. Why is it OK to admit to some emotional reactions to music (joy, pain) and not others (fascination, desire)?

Because YOU HAVE THESE FEELINGS TOO. Yes, you, Mr. Serious Critic. You may think you’re overcoming them, evading them; that your emotional reactions can’t possibly be influencing your intellectual assessment of a performance. But they are, because you’re human.

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This picture of Iestyn Davies is entirely necessary to the narrative. (c) Benjamin Ealovega

I’ve been listening to lots of countertenors recently. I bring this up, not just because it’s an excuse to burble on about Iestyn Davies again, but because it’s a good example of a response that isn’t intellectual in nature. I’m busy learning about different genres and techniques and approaches to the art, and starting to understand the immense skill and artistry that goes into classical singing. But I know that part of my obsession is just because some countertenor voices do inexplicable things to me. (Not everyone shares my view: my twitter friends’ reactions have been fairly evenly split between ‘God, that’s amazing! His voice is like a musical instrument!’ and ‘Ooh no, he sounds like a GIRL!’)

So, to some extent, we like what we like. And this is interesting in itself. I’d love to explain to you how the B-52s are the most criminally underrated band in the history of pop. I could go on for ever about the lyrical faux-naïveté, the clean-as-a-whistle vocals, the undercurrent of danger in the drumming. But I know it won’t make you like them (unless you do already, in which case, highfive!).

This fascinates me. But rationality has such a hold on our approach to criticism that we minimise the importance of these responses. People feel the emotion so strongly, and yet are so convinced of lovely clean tidy rationality’s priority over base messy mucky emotionality, that they seek intellectual explanations. It’s in the chord structure, the cadences, the phrasing. It can’t just be me, happening to like it. Do you like it too? You see! It must be universal!

I mentioned this to the boyf, and he brought up Adorno (he has a habit of doing this, but that’s what you get for living with intellectuals). Apparently, Adorno said that our reaction to an artwork is both rational and emotional, and it’s folly to think we can have one without the other. Instead, the tension between rational and emotional reactions creates the ‘problem’ of art appreciation; this ‘problem’ is, of course, what makes art interesting.

So I say it’s time to bring emotional reactions back into the critical fold. Accept them; learn to recognise them in yourselves; see them as part of your appreciation of performances, rather than some kind of dirty little secret you have to suppress. Start to understand their interplay with rational, intellectual interpretation. And stop looking down on fans, with our love and our pain and our joy and our desire so close to the surface. We might be closer to the truth than you think.

Hey, good lutin’

December 7, 2014 at 5:36 pm | Posted in music, reviews | 2 Comments
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animagicaWell, we know opera’s brilliant. You get to watch your favourites striding around the stage brandishing swords, singing gorgeously while lying on their backs, and being hoisted into the air in the middle of impossible arias. But it’s quite another thing to be up close and personal. A candle-lit church? Lute songs? With formidable lute star Liz Kenny and the incomparable Iestyn Davies?* Ah, go on.

This gig was part of Spitalfields Music Winter Festival. Mum and I loitered around Shoreditch for a bit, with her peering into galleries and me taking pictures of particularly risible bits of bike lane. We didn’t need to sharpen our elbows for the unreserved-seating scramble after all, as everyone was jolly friendly and shoved up and passed the Lockets, and we ended up with a very good view (though not quite as good as some audience members, who were bravely sitting on the ACTUAL STAGE next to the performers). Sanae, Founding President of the Iestyn Davies Appreciation Society, located me in my pew; we’ve chatted on FB for a while now and she turned out to be just as crackers and delightful in person.

Elizabeth KennyThe programme was Purcell, Dowland and Handel. I’ll admit I was mostly there for the Dowland, having had Iestyn’s CD on heavy rotation for months, and even crucifying bits of it myself in singing lessons. It was odd for me to go to a gig where I knew all the words; every time I recognised an opening bar or two, it was hard to resist going HOORAAAAY and singing along, like you might at Beyoncé (especially as the lyrics were helpfully printed in the programme).

One thing about knowing the CD backwards is spotting differences when you hear the songs live. (Mum asked me if the ornamentation in one song was the same as on the CD: it made me feel pleasantly nerdy to say ‘No’**.) Come Again, Sweet Love Doth Now Invite was taken at a right old clip, the music’s bubbly optimism contrasting more than ever with its lovelorn message, and the passive-aggressive digs in Can She Excuse My Wrongs shone through clearly with Iestyn’s spirited delivery. Relatively unembellished singing in Now, Oh Now, I Needs Must Part gave space for some stunt ornamentation from Liz. Dowland’s at his best when he’s REALLY down in the dumps, though. In Darkness Let Me Dwell, with its sustained notes that grow and fade, was spine-tingling, and Iestyn brought a proper pathos to Sorrow, Stay with its descending refrain of ‘Down, down, down I fall.’ (I know this is the trailer for a different gig, but that’s In Darkness Let Me Dwell, on the soundtrack.)

There were some revelations in the repertoire I didn’t know so well, too. Purcell’s Music For A While was gorgeous, with some delicious high notes. I love Handel’s O Lord, Whose Mercies Numberless, with its gradually-building insistence and beautiful melody, but it was quite different transcribed for lute; with orchestra stripped away, it was inward-looking and contemplative, almost a lullaby. One encore saw Iestyn doing an aria from Rinaldo (remember Rinaldo? Of course you do) transcribed for lute; the other was Thomas Morley’s innuendo-soaked Will You Buy A Fine Dog?***

It all felt astonishingly intimate, despite the high ceilings and ringing church acoustic. Iestyn perched on a high stool, on a level with Liz, and the smoking candle behind him gave the whole thing a bit of a Jazz Club feel. I like concerts where the performers chat to us, and there were droll explanations of different types of lute, and personal anecdotes. Lutes are quiet, so the singing was often quiet, too; sounds from outside the building penetrated, but didn’t break the spell (even when Liz had to wait for a particularly Hawaii Five-O siren to fade before she started one song). Instead, the occasional reminder that 21st century London life was still going on outside made it all the more special to be immersed in this world of long-past beauty.

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Iestyn, signing CDs so fast his hands are UTTERLY a blur. Yes, those are stocks behind him. Don’t give us ideas. (Picture (c) Sanae Takeyama, used with kind permission.)

Yes, yes, I know. What about the FANGIRLING? Iestyn set up shop in the foyer and signed CDs with gusto, his PR people charging out to the car at one point for more supplies. I had a chat with Liz, who seemed a bit surprised to be accosted but took it pretty well. Then I joined the end of Iestyn’s ENORMOUS queue, and we exchanged a few words in which I told him off for not doing I Saw My Lady Weep, completely forgot to say how utterly marvellous the gig was, and also failed to invite him for a drink. MUST CALM DOWN. Mum took me off to Pizza Express and bought me wine and listened patiently to me doing Venti, Turbini with all the actions, instead. Bless her.

* insert your favourite Fast Show line, here

** pleasantly nerdy. And maybe just a tiny bit obsessive

*** it’s heartening that serious classical music audiences still giggle helplessly when someone says ‘dildo’****

**** apparently music scholars argued for YONKS that ‘dildo’ was just a refrain along the lines of ‘fa la la, hey nonny no’ and ABSOLUTELY DIDN’T MEAN WHAT IT DOES TODAY. This is, of course, rubbish

I go to the BARBICAN

October 6, 2014 at 10:45 am | Posted in music, reviews | Leave a comment
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Day 250 - Stairs at the Barbican

Stairs at the Barbican. I love these stairs.

A Saturday night, and @spandelles and I found ourselves ALONE in LONDON. The excitement! As anyone who’s attended a fortieth birthday party knows, you let a bunch of parents of under-10s off the leash at your own risk. What to do with all that freedom? Go to the OPERA, of course.

We bounced off to meet the lovely @adrianartn for snacks. He kindly walked us to the Barbican in time for the pre-concert talk. Standing room only; the powerpoint was postcard-sized; the title was The Full Monte(verdi). Boyf: This is just like being at work. Me: Shall we go and get a cocktail? We sloped out, with the slight thrill of bunking off, and perched at the Martini Bar. The appropriately dry @Adrie_vdLuijt arrived to tell us stories of Joyce DiDonato ordering her audience to drink Standing Ovations*.

Gad, it’s hot in the Barbican. We removed all the clothing we felt we could get away with, and went off to find our seats.

Dueling Theorbos ~ Lynda Sayce and David Miller

Theorbos. I found out what they are called by googling ‘big lute’.

Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea is one of the earliest operas-as-we-would-recognise-them-today. Based on a true story (a groundbreaking approach for the time), it’s a tale of sleeping your way to the top, and the destruction left in your wake. This production was ‘semi-staged’, which means there are no lavish sets or complex choreography, but it’s more than just singers standing in a line. It featured a bit of fighting, some rolling around in front of the theorbos, some pacing up and down the steps in anguish, as well as that (admittedly ever-impressive) operatic staple, people singing while lying on the floor. Some characters appeared suddenly on the balcony, or wandered through the stalls. All this made it a lot easier to follow what was going on, as did the librettist’s habit of helpfully giving people lines like ‘Ah! Ottone! I am secretly in love with you!’ every now and again.

Like all good operas, it had men dressed as women (the show-stealingly fabulous Andrew Tortise as Poppea’s nurse, who was the perfect comic turn: funny and endearing, but still real enough to pull off a beautifully clear and nuanced lullaby), women dressed as men (the utterly wonderful Sarah Connolly as Nerone, who, with her stage presence and showstopping singing, quickly confirmed herself as my new girlcrush), and men pretending to be women by putting a Special Cloak on (the reliably marvellous Iestyn Davies giving a very believable performance as poor Ottone, jilted by Poppea as she heads thronewards). There’s a fair amount of falling in love instantly and seeking bloodthirsty revenge for infidelity, but also some thoughtful musings on being an ageing woman and the place of philosophy in everyday life, and an interesting duet featuring Nerone and his manservant (Nerone: Let us sing together of my lust for this woman! Her eyes! Her breasts! Let us writhe around together! Manservant: Er, OK, my Lord!)

The Academy of Ancient Music orchestra was small but impressive (two theorbos, two harpsichords – the C17th equivalent of two drummers and banks of synths) and it was brilliant to have them in full view on stage, rather than in the pit. But it was sometimes hard to hear what was going on in enough detail. (Boyf: Ah, that’s the Barbican. It’s basically shit. Everyone hates playing here.) Some lovely singing was rewarded with silence from the audience, which I found a bit disappointing; perhaps the enthusiastic applause for arias at Glyndebourne wasn’t How Things Are Normally Done**.

WP_003641Afterwards, we loitered. @didoregina and @operacreep were sensibly hiding from people wearing jokey necklaces, but I got accosted by @automatamaker (Her: Excuse me! Are you from Hebden Bridge?) who’s a massive Sarah Connolly fan. Emboldened, we headed for the stage door:

Me [enormous smile]: Hallo!

Doorman: Are you on the list?

Me: I shouldn’t think so.

Him: Shall I put you on it?***

We had jolly chats with Iestyn and Sarah Connolly and Andrew Tortise (who greeted me with a hearty ‘Hallo, Fangirl!’). We discussed train routes and York nightlife and Hong Kong tailors and inter-countertenor intrigue and where EXACTLY in Barnet I am from. Iestyn’s delightful girlfriend took my picture with him. The boyf quietly took advantage of my habit of shamelessly striding up to people I don’t know, and talked to them knowledgeably about music, much to their surprise. Evenings rarely go this well: can you blame me for being an opera convert?

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Barefaced backstage floozery has its benefits

 

* Yes, I’m working my way thru’ my twitter friends in alphabetical order

** Or perhaps just London too-cool-for-schoolness

*** Boyf: How did you do that? Me: I’m not sure.

I go to GLYNDEBOURNE

August 20, 2014 at 9:58 pm | Posted in music, reviews | 9 Comments
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After all that anticipating, the day finally arrived. The train journey was hyperventilated away in SECONDS, and I arrived in Lewes to brilliant sunshine and a room booking cock-up. Luckily the White Hart had a space. ‘We’ve got a gym, sauna and swimming pool.’ Always pack your cossie.

I changed into my Opera Outfit, packed my handbag according to the list of instructions I’d left myself*, and tripped down to the station to catch the Glyndebourne shuttle bus, feeling a bit like Eliza Doolittle. Would I maintain my cover? Or would I, overcome by emotion, leap out of my seat and yell COME ON IESTYN! MOVE YER BLOOMIN’ ARSE!

A nice chap called Justin befriended me in the queue. Me: I’ve been DESPERATE to see this so I’m DEAD excited. Him: I’m not much of an opera buff. Tell me about it. Me [enormous breath]: WELL… He left me graciously at the bar, probably to go for a quick lie down.

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Dress code infringements are frowned upon

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Selfie, taken shortly before being frogmarched from the premises by smiling chaps in perfectly-pressed shirts

Glyndebourne is what Dr No would build if he were an opera fanatic: a modern, 1200-seat opera house in the middle of someone’s Sussex garden. I wandered around with a bitter lemon, looking at people unpacking coolboxes and taking pictures of each other by the lake. (I loitered by one group for a while as I thought they were speaking German; they just had really strong Essex accents.)

The sun shone. The bees buzzed. Men in kilts ambled past. Suddenly, it was five o’clock, and impeccably-coiffed chaps with startling grins were ushering us in. Finding myself sitting next to an elderly Austrian couple, I excitedly engaged them in German conversation. Me: You are come to England special-like for the opera only? Them: Yes, we came for Rinaldo because we love Handel and we’ve never seen it. Me: Ah, that is cool. Them: You like Handel, then? Me: Very! And I love the, how you say, countertenors.

And so, to business. Rinaldo’s a tale of Crusades, heroes, maidens, boats, magic, Furies, and people falling in and out of love quicker than you can sing ‘He is more handsome than I’d imagined!’ This production set the story in a schoolboy’s imagination: Rinaldo dreams of fighting glorious battles and winning fair maidens in his school uniform.

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Spot of light bicycle maintenance, just to make me feel at home

The staging was brilliantly inventive: clever use of (often quite simple) ideas and props. The Furies were a bunch of rebellious teen freak-chicks; journeys were mapped out in chalk on the blackboard; the army went into battle on bicycles; the final skirmish was a football match. (The elderly Austrians didn’t think much of this. Them: This modern malarkey doesn’t suit Handel. Me: Ah! But think you not the fantasticality of the story means one cannot it seriously staging?)

The singing was breathtaking. I’m still enough of an opera newbie to be totally blown away by the fact that people are up there making this surreally beautiful noise, live, for my listening pleasure (never mind all the riding bicycles, cracking whips, and writhing around tethered to beds that they’re engaged in while doing it). Act I ended with Iestyn Davies pedalling hard as his bike soared towards the rafters; that he did this while singing Venti, turbini, prestate perfectly is beyond my understanding. Listen to this version for an idea why:

Highlights… well, the highlight for me was obviously Iestyn. In a kind of C18th ultramarathon, Rinaldo is barely off the stage, and Iestyn was mesmerising throughout, his gorgeous voice infinitely flexible and expressive**. Four (4) countertenors was a TREAT, and I was fascinated by differences in vocal qualities. Argante was indisposed, and his role played by Aubrey Allicock; I loved his richness of tone. I’m not always a big fan of women’s voices (me, to the boyf: Are there any operas that only have men in them?) but Christina Landshamer and Karina Gauvin sounded lovely to me; Lascia ch’io pianga rang round my head the next morning.

Some voices got a little lost towards the back of the stage, and the (brilliant) Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment sometimes overwhelmed the singers (perhaps historically-accurately, according to @stuckinoregon). The cast got up to lots of ‘business’ while the main action was going on: although this was beautifully done (e.g. the tender, credible silent conversation between Rinaldo and his lover Almirena after their reunion), it could be distracting. But these are minor niggles. We were vastly entertained. For all I’ve read recently about How To Behave In Classical Concerts, the audience was rowdily engaged. Arias were loudly applauded; visual gags raised snorts; there was a groan of ‘Here we go again’ laughter as baddie Armida announced herself suddenly in love with her captive, Rinaldo. (Their subsequent duet, which translated roughly to ‘Come here! / Get OFF me!’, was received with giggles.)

As an opera, Rinaldo’s pretty upbeat; while there are some beautiful arias (and moments of loveliness in other bits), it’s not the kind of thing that makes you sob into your Pimm’s. So I was surprised to find myself full of tears at the end. I hid in the loo for an America’s Next Top Model-style weep***, and wondered what was wrong with me. The expectations and build-up had been so intense that people on twitter were worrying about me:

stuckinoregon's tweet

but it had all gone astonishingly well. All the bits of the day I’d been worried about turned out, instead, to be little gifts. The trips on the bus; the sitting next to cantankerous-but-chatty Austrians; the way you’d keep going off and having a wander round the gardens or a glass of something, then there would be MORE OPERA! Even the dinner interval was a delight, despite my lonesome status. I was assigned to a table of People Who Don’t Mind Sharing****. They turned out to be two retired women (‘We’ve known each other for forty years, so we thought it might be fun to chat to someone else’) and we had an unexpectedly jolly time discovering overlaps in interests. And then of course the opera itself; I’d been so crazily overexcited about it, yet it was better than I’d dared hope.

So it felt a bit like I’d been to a secret island hideaway, where Dr No, grown mellow in his old age, presided genially over beauty, serendipity and harmony. And I just cried because it was over.

Postscript

WP_003672Eager readers are no doubt wondering about the FANGIRLING opportunities afforded by Glyndebourne. My top tip is to get the last shuttle bus back into Lewes as this, the BUS of CELEBRITY, contained not only Iestyn but also Tim Mead (who kindly but firmly deflected my attempts to make him laugh with beard banter) and Anthony Roth Costanzo (who I rugby-tackled as he got off at the end). I managed to corner Iestyn and burble incoherently at him (‘Oh it was MARVELLOUS and you RULED and I LOVED it and I don’t have any more words’) while probably hugging him a bit too often. Thank the Lord he’s such a stoic.

(I later immortalised the experience in cake.)

* good job I did this as otherwise I’d’ve packed three tubes of toothpaste and a Gideon Bible, I was in such a state

** yes yes I KNOW but LOOK the critics agree with me

*** the one where you weep facing the floor so your eye makeup doesn’t smudge

**** (@sallyhinch commented that this was better than People Who Definitely Don’t Want To Share, and we agreed it was probably safer than People Who Are Very Keen On Sharing).

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;
  3. DO NOT CRY. YOU HAVE MASCARA ON.

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.

aurora

Postscript

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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