Archive | December, 2011

Death of a Conductor / Dimitri(s) Mitropoulos

29 Dec

Have just started reading the Dimitri(s) Mitropoulos biography Santa brought me for Christmas and being my usual non linear biography slut, I picked a few chapters to start with. The most startling fact was that when he collapsed on the stage of La Scala, he was carrying a letter giving instructions for his funeral. I think it is worth quoting the whole letter here as seen in the book.

It is my irrevocable desire that in the event of my death a notice should be published to the effect that flowers should not be sent. If anybody wants to remember me, then he can make a contribution, in my name, and any capital that accrues thereby should be used to support American Composers, under the aegis of the New York Philharmonic Society. My mortal remains should not be put on public view; they should be cremated without any ceremony and in a manner which does not give rise to excessive cost. My ashes should be given to Mr. James Dixon, resident of the state of Iowa. They are to be placed in an amphora or some other suitable container, which shall be purchased for a nominal sum. The aforementioned James Dixon may, if he wishes, donate this amphora in order that burial can take place in Greece.

Page 441-442  Priest of Music: Life of Dimitri Mitropoulos by William R Trotter published in 1995 by Amadeus Press.

It is remarkable how a man known for his ascetic lifestyle remained humble and true to himself to the end. One of music’s great heroes and a totally uncharacteristic personality that rose to the ranks of legendary Conductors.  Maybe not exactly be a jolly blog post to end 2011, but a quietly inspirational subject for reflection amongst the noise of the fireworks and the tail end of the party season. Integrity and humility are maybe old fashioned values but they can never be underestimated.

Apologies for the ugly brackets but I’d rather use his proper Greek name Dimitris, as in this day and age we are more adept to cultural differences and don’t have to approximate to the nearest Anglicised form.

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My top 11 discoveries / realisations of 2011

19 Dec

This was a pretty intense year and thought it would be good to make a list of inspirational mainly operatic highs of 2011

1 Twitter

It was the first full year that I’ve used the network as a great resource for news and also as direct communication on matters operatic and not. Met some great people through it and started some very interesting conversations.

2 Beverly Sills

This year I immersed myself in the recorded output of the diva from Brooklyn. A great artist with an intriguing personality to boot. Surely one of the finest coloratura sopranos of the 20th century and worth going back to her for renewal and inspiration.

3 Veronique Gens

The year (almost) started with her magisterial Niobe at Covent Garden and finished with her fantastic  recital at Wigmore Hall. A diva cut off the old cloth of greatness.

4 Allan Clayton

First noticed him this year in a small part in Britten’s Dream, then I saw him triumph in Castor and Pollux and L’Enfance du Christ. A loud voice for the future, hope ENO and RO will give him more substantial roles to sink his teeth into.

5 Iestyn Davis

Never one for countertenors, but his performance in Britten’s Dream was magnetic and his Niobe contribution very substantial. A young British voice to shake up the world of opera and early music.

6 LSO

Have always loved the London Symphony Orchestra but this year they have been stunning. Also one of the most adept to Twitter orchestras on the planet. A band all Londoners should be proud of and should patronise with frequency.

7 Anne Sophie von Otter

Like a well aged Claret, ASvO is a European treasure. Her captivating Wigmore Hall recital was intoxicating to the max. Greatness without the hollow diva attitude. Looking forward to her LSO collaboration early in  February 2012.

8 Alice Coote

Listened to her sing Les nuits d’été years ago at the Proms and was terribly impressed, her triumphantly sulky Prince Charmant in Cendrillon was breathtaking. Her upcoming Winterreise  at Wigmore Hall will be an early highlight of 2012 (there are still a few tickets left, grab them quickly!)

9 Joyce DiDonato

The Yankeediva is a charismatic performer that elevated Cendrillon to stratospheric heights, her Ariodante was to die for, despite the awful orchestra and still a fun Twitter person to have disagreements and banter with.

10 Mark-Anthony Turnage

He gave us Anna Nicole, which was plethoric in its gay abandon and a great showcase for the considerable gifts of Eva Maria Westbroek, the darkness of Twice Through the Heart with the excellent Sarah Connolly and his remarkable music for Undance.

11 Sylvie Guillem

Managed to see her new mixed bill evening at Sadler’s Wells in its two outings back in early July and late September. She was absolutely wonderful both times. A rare dance treat. She continues to be the measure of all dancers, a standard for excellence.

If you had an epiphany of an artistic nature in 2011, feel free to add your top whatever in the comment section and Merry Xmas 😉

The holy conversion of George / Berlioz: L’Enfance du Christ / Britten Sinfonia / Sir Mark Elder / Brighton Dome – 10 December 2011

17 Dec

Dear reader, this has been a long time coming, but it has been a very busy week! I almost managed not to see this Enfance due to my stupidity at copying the wrong details in my cloud residing diary. So instead of the front row of the Queen Elizabeth Hall I daytripped down to Brighton for the third and last performance by this distinguished ensemble.

The singers were hand picked and Mark Elder has a unique gift and insight with Berlioz, I was expecting to be impressed but what I experienced was nearing to a cheesy holy conversion. No denying the fact this was one of the most glorious evenings of live music making of 2011.

Having Alan Clayton as the narrator was a brilliant move. He has such an extraordinary instrument (that truly shone in the recent Castor & Pollux at English National Opera) a beautiful sweet middle tone with a ringing Italian sounding bright top. A wonderful combination that elevates what he sings into another level. His narration was full of empathy and wonderfully subtle French, with true chemistry with the orchestra and the exemplary direction by Mark Elder.

Neal Davis, offered an impassioned Herod in the first half and a much more dramatically attuned Ishmaelite in the second. He surely had the power and expressive detailing right, but somehow his instrument does not possess the required darkness to add a more sinister tone to Herod’s outpouring of despair and resolve to order the death of the newborn Jesus. In Scene 4: Chaque nuit, Le même songe m’épouvante/Every night,The same dream terrifies me; where he retells his dream was beautifully realised but lacked the edge a darker timbre could bring. He is a wonderful singer but I can’t stop thinking he was miscast as Herod, his Ishmaelite was full of empathy and kindness.

Sarah Connolly was frankly a luxury in the small part of the Virgin Mary. She was excellent, as usual, giving a very simple but heartfelt portrayal and surely making a beautiful partner to Roderick Williams’ warm and softly sang Joseph.

Britten Sinfonia produced a very even, forward sound, with a rich tone, very appropriate to the piece. When it had to sound more saccharine in the end of part one for the Virgin Mary’s first appearance : Ô mon cher fils/O my dear son, they lived up to it, creating a velvety carpet for the sweet delivery by Sarah Connolly and the first duet with Roderick Williams. That was the first chance to hear the choir of angels which was off stage, sounding weightless and all round pure.

The recently founded Britten Sinfonia Voices first made a strong impression on the second intervention as the Soothsayers: La voix dit vrai, seigneur/The voice is right, Sire with their unwavering keeping up with Elder’s vivid tempo and alertness.

The opening of the second half was where the most rich demonstration of how amazing this ensemble was, came through. The opening Overture was a delight, a rich oriental clarinet infused eastern fantasy. Elder shaping the music into a voluptuous romantic essay in orientalism. The confident delivery by the male choristers representing the shepherds was a great intro to the most turbulent section of the piece, Allan Clayton’s narration of the flight from Egypt was full of colour and dramatic tension. Especially when he was quoting the Virgin Mary in the desert, against a rich carpet of violins underlying every word, he reached for his ringing upper register and then plunged to his chest voice for the finale, at that dramatic point a fly flew itself straight into the face of our tenor, which lightened ever so slightly the scene 😉 With the fly attack successfully averted the choir of angels exalted hallelujah!

With the fly still buzzing in the air, Clayton continued into part three, The arrival at Saïs. Where with great tenderness he described the hardships of the Holy Family in the desert and their arrival in Saïs. His tone was wonderfully soft and the emphasis on every word brought the story to life. The concluding:  Pleine de gens cruels, au visage hautain. Oyez combien dura la navrante agonie Des pélerins cherchant un asile et du pain! / Full of cruel, haughty-looking people.Hear how the distressing agony was to continue. For these pilgrims seeking shelter and bread! was possibly some of the most accomplished singing I’ve heard all year. The upcoming section by Connolly was equally dreamy, almost a mirage of a Virgin Mary at the edge of death. A desperate plea for Joseph to knock on a door was more dramatic than the text would suggest. Williams gave an impassioned good boy impression of Joseph that made the aggressive chorus sound even more hostile. The interwoven texture of the music with the two suffering characters and a forceful chorus, reminded me of a lot of French baroque opera with a begging scene where the hero and heroine ask for mercy. Here the balance between orchestra chorus and soloists was perfect, it was alive, dynamically propelled but unified. A great moment of the evening where the luxury casting bore unexpected fruit.

The next section was a triumph for Davies, who found a resonant bass sound for the Ishmaelite father showing compassion and understanding for the plight of the Holy Family. The culmination came with a brief trio, where Connolly gave a perfect example of a more introverted, classy dramatic power befitting the character. Plus d’alarmes/And my worries was sang out with conviction and true relief, a finale that is dramatic and a wonderful conclusion to the story.

The trio for two flutes and harp made Elder move to stage left to conduct at arms length the soloists, with a delicacy and luscious sound that brought to mind early music. Another great idea by Berlioz that was brought to life in the most captivating fashion. This part of L’Enfance is possibly where the dramatic arc can seriously sag but not under the baton of Sir Mark, this was truly lovely and got a very loud applause by the audience.

The Epilogue with its long string intro reminding me oddly of boats gliding in the night to port, created the perfect opening for an imposing closing section. Clayton clearly relishing every minute of it, singing in a light and reflective timbre, laced with soft vibrato. Even Neal Davies was enjoying the concluding moments, listening with his eyes shut, who can really blame him! The verve of the conducting and the attention to detail introduced once more the choir with breathtaking results, I can vouch at feeling my heart racing through the last ten minutes, reaching the culmination of such an extraordinary ride was both cathartic and truly glorious. Berlioz’s genius shone through. Britten Sinfonia put its heart into the music and the soloists added the splendid final flourish to an unforgettable evening. For me possibly one of the best live performances this year. As the gentleman in the front row (that disrupted Sir Mark’s long pause after the finale) with his enthusiastic applause and jump from his seat, felt too!

Some tweets from the night

Damsel in Red / Véronique Gens + Susan Manoff / Wigmore Hall – 12 December 2011

13 Dec

Véronique Gens left a huge imprint in my mind and heart after her performance of Niobe Regina di Tebe at Covent Garden last year. She was the beating heart of a truly accomplished, odd ball piece by Steffani. Her voice was silken and alluring, her stage presence involving and I really don’t know what is the management of the Hall thinking booking such a great artist for just a one hour long recital of French songs. But we’ll gratefully accept what we can get!

This recital was a walk through in French chanson by three highlighted composers (Massenet, Gounod, Hahn); setting mainly 19th century literary grandees (Victor Hugo, Theophile Gaultier) guided expediently by the sympathetic and rounded playing of Susan Manoff (a great favourite of French opera divas on the concert platform).

The songs by Massenet sang were delivered with lightness of touch and panache. Almost as softly as Gens’ hand was lying against her side. Despite her blazing red/orange dress her approach to singing was about the understatement. She clearly inhabited the material but was not being predictable. Her silences and fading notes seemed as important as her crescendos. She transported us to fields and the side of the sleeping beauty, with such a simplicity of means that was unforced and relatable. When she asked O grands bois, pouvez vous me dire Que devient l’âme des oiseaux?/O forests, can you tell me what becomes of the birds’ soul? ,one doesn’t discount it as the absurd questioning by a mad lady, it’s more verging on a forest psychodrama.

Her La mort de la cigale was the first moment of reflective singing, up to that point everything was breezy and more sweet. The reflections on mortality by referring to the lifecycle  of the cricket and how its end coincides with the end of the harvest. She allows the silences and the pacing that Manoff dictates to create a notional space where the meaning ferments. Sounds maybe pretentious to suggest that, but looking her straight in the eye while delivering the lines, there was a look of certainty and wisdom that was convincing. This section closed with a Spanish flavoured fantasy with a certain amount of sexiness. Her hands almost describing the touching of the loved one,  helping to create the atmosphere of lust, the song closing in a triumphal loudly exhaled amour!

Her Gounod and de Polignac section was focusing on female characters again, from a rebellious belle, to the gorgeously sang Prenda garde/Beware! almost in a similar vein to some 15th century chant by Stile Antico she described a femme fatale that lies to have her own way and asked all listeners not to believe her and to beware. Just the turn of phrase every time she emphasises every warning is both amusing and faintly serious. The Lamento/Lament by de Polignac is a quiet, almost morbid tableaux giving respite and stillness to the recital and altering the faster rhythm up to that point.  The fantasy of the young maid that wants to be taken to the land of love in Où voulez-vous aller?/Where is it you would go? was animated by the vocalise representing the billowing sails in the wind, a wonderful sound suggesting images with the smallest amount of detail, a shorthand weather forecast if ever there was one. The upcoming Sérénade/Serenade was a pulsating, almost danceable tune with her vocal hovering over it, so very simple but still a most beautiful lullaby imaginable. Voluptuous harmonies and expressive colouring added intimacy and flow.

The final section by Hahn was a more reflective set of songs as a whole. The outstanding highlight is Trois jours de vendange/Three days of vintaging describes the meeting with a beautiful girl at harvest and within 5 mins we are transported to her death three days later. The way she delivers the two crucial lines Le cercueil était couvert en velours, Le drap noir portait une double frange/The coffin draped in velvet, the black shroud had a double fringe under a heavy sounding piano is just exquisite. A certain Gallic melancholy feels the air, she was retelling this story with empathy and true sadness. This is the unique winning quality her singing conveys, it does feel genuine and just leads us up the path hand in hand.

As you can tell from the above I am totally in love with Véronique Gens and it’s a good thing to admit it too. She is truly an original, engaging artist that does not resort to easy histrionics but is a thoughtful, mature and complete singer. The velvety beauty of her voice, her lithe appearance and her gift for communication is an intoxicating mix. While I was being Wigmored (a great term to describe how the older members of the audience block all exists from the auditorium, thanks Twitter!) on the way out all you could hear were joyful expressions of appreciation and love. She surely acquired many more fans today (including my other half) with such a wonderfully radiant performance (despite a minor cold that she was nursing).

You can hear it all live within the UK on the iPlayer. It will also be repeated this coming Saturday at 14.00 on BBC Radio 3, so tune in or record it and keep it to listen again and again. There’s hoping that Wigmore Hall Live will release it in the near future, I’ll be first in line to get a copy! I’ll close this with a different rendition of the encore she sang by Poulenc.

Some tweets from the concert

Another night of wonder / London Symphony Orchestra + Sir Colin Davis + Dame Mitsuko Uchida / Barbican Hall – 11 December 2011

12 Dec

Another night, another concert. But of course when that orchestra is the LSO and under the direction of Sir Colin Davis things are far from just routinely chugging along. The programme itself stretching from Haydn’s Symphony No 93 written in 1791 to Nielsen’s Symphony No3 written in 1911 via Beethoven’s 5th Piano Concerto has to be one thrilling ride through over one hundred years of European music. The orchestra managed to create three distinct soundworlds as befitting the range of moods and sensitivities of each composer. Proving that the orchestra hasn’t got an auto pilot like default sound but is flexible in reflection to the wide repertoire.

My joy at modern instrument orchestras playing Mozart and Haydn is not exactly secret. I totally hate period ensembles that have robbed the balls off these wonderful compositions and give them a half life on stage complete with crude horns. The LSO  under brisk but seated Davis gave us a focused sound that took in its stride the playfulness of Haydn’s writing and created an elegant edifice that never became self indulgent or academic. The teasing pizzicato playing connected it directly to the Nielsen, despite the huge differences in sonority. When he demanded Allegro, he got a dancing response from the players and when the Minuet arrived, the teasing exchanges between winds and strings made this a feast for the eyes and ears. The feeling in the auditorium was of celebration and the genuinely thunderous applause sealed the deal.

For the Nielsen Symphony the LSO gave us a much more dry sound, not as lyrical to start off with, almost giving a modernist very Nordic sound to the first movement. The soundscape was as expansive and beautiful as one would imagine an evening would be at a cold abandoned beach in Denmark. The pizzicato of the strings against the reedy and evocative sound of the piccolo created more environmental images in our heads. Sir Colin, surely drove the brass to play with emphatic pride but avoided at all costs Mahlerian hyperbole. The Andante Pastorale of the second movement did drive us more into the Danish countryside that was the formative influence in so much of Nielsen’s writing. The soprano (Lucy Hall) and the baritone (Marcus Farnsworth) were placed amongst the members of the orchestra, the tremolo of the strings providing a filigree backdrop for their vocalism. The closing movements were a triumphal mix of stillness and urgency. The finale was so rousing as to have a resounding and very loud bravo! echo even before Davis put his baton down. He was called back to the stage three times in a wave after wave of applause.

After the interval we were treated to a performance of utter sophistication and unapologetic beauty. Mitsuko Uchida does not need introductions when it comes to playing Beethoven or Mozart; she is a specialist per excellence and has been in demand for over 30 years. But despite her considerable pedigree I was totally thrown by the brilliance of her playing and the obvious rapport with Davis and the orchestra. When the three of them meet live, something very special happens, the chemistry is unmistakable.

Her playing over all was a perfectly judged balance of assertiveness and sweetness. She did not bash her instrument like a mad woman just to show she can play loudly, but she used the full range of colour it provided her with and indeed was not afraid to give Argerich like arpeggios at full tilt. Dressed in yellow gold trousers and top, with a transparent cornflower blue organza jacket, she obviously enjoyed listening to the warm elegiac sound of the LSO as the accompanied her, crossing her arms in approval while bobbing her head to the music.

She gave a unique sense of mystery to the first movement, almost as she knew a secret Beethoven whispered in her ear, but did not want to reveal it to us, but wanted us to keep on guessing. The Adagio had the fluency of one would expect, but with an almost vocal line…it would not have been out of place if she started singing alongside the very lyrical, attentive playing she gave us. Such was the sweet caress by her that when she introduced the opening theme for the third movement without a break, a few people around us jumped at the sudden change. Again the dialogue between orchestra and soloist was captivating. The warm and totally idiomatic sound of the orchestra created the perfect backdrop and contrasting material for all the variations on that one triumphant theme she played again and again. Every time with a new voice, every time with a new dialect. This was the summation of the careers of two great musicians and an orchestra at the top of their game, truly exceptional. When a lot of capital cities would have nothing more to boast on a Sunday evening,  than an episode of a reality TV show (and amusingly it was the final of the UK X Factor tonight) London can offer an almost sold our concert hall with an amazing cast of musicians playing from the heart.

The same programme is repeated on Tuesday 13th and will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, if nothing else do tune in!

Some tweets from the evening

Ciciban meets Suor Angelica / Rosenblatt Recital, Sabina Cvilak + Iain Burnside / St John’s Smith Square – 7 December 2011

9 Dec

Another recital at St John Smith Square, another time I adored the architecture but still found the venue to lack in atmosphere. Something about the stark crisp whiteness and the very dry acoustic somehow is not giving me a warm fuzzy feeling. Cvilak thankfully had no issues filling the space with her beautiful and clearly projected voice.

She is a really interesting case, a singer with a very lyrical voice but with an almost chilly timbre. On the surface she seems to lack inbuilt warmth but she clearly knows how to coax emotion when the repertoire calls for it. Saw her take part in a wonderful performance with the London Symphony Orchestra under Gianandrea Noseda of Britten’s War Requiem and she was very expressive then but maybe mismatched to the demands of the piece …but still, a mile away from her tours around the world accompanying Andrea Bocelli.

The recital started with an inversion of the advertised running order of the three Slovenian songs. They were a very well chosen ice breaker and a characterful, whimsical choice too. Maybe I’m impressionable but, I’m always charmed when singers choose songs in their native tongue. Her approach was lyrical and very tender. Her unforced delivery was endearing and convincing. The two first songs were mournful and ever so slightly unhinged (the line :’ My father cursed and beat me, mother is crying over me, my family is ashamed of me, all fingers are pointing at me.‘ comes to mind). For me Ciciban was a great end to this section, a tender telling of the story of a little boy that gets approached by a bird that reminds him to wash his hands…never before I had a pedagogic lesson on hygiene for the under 5s, delivered with such sense of fun and panache from a concert platform, Julie Andrews would be very proud!

The next group of songs by Hauer based on poetry by Hölderlin, they were beautifully delivered and with impressionistic pianistic touches by Iain Burnside. But the best was still to come. The three Richard Strauss songs were a torrent or changing emotions, from hushed loving words to proclamatory fervour to the dreamy evocation of a ghostly lover. Again Burnside seemed to be in his element accompanying with great taste and allowing Cvilak to float phrases, creating the right atmosphere for these youthful efforts of the lovestruck young Richard. Those songs led to the interval leaving us all looking forward to the arias in the second half.

Somehow to sing at least one aria from La Bohème is something any lyric soprano tends to have a go in recital. Cvilak’s effort may have been short on actual vocal softness but the aria was infused with true understanding of the style, clear enunciation and a charming stage persona. The audience surely reacted to her interpretation and gave her one of the loudest applauses of the evening. Next up was Suor Angelica’s big aria, which I saw in the recent Covent Garden Il Trittico sang by Ermonella Jaho, who brought the house down with a searing interpretation that was immensely moving. Cvilak’s instrument is much cooler in temperament but still somehow managed to negotiate the aria without allowing it to turn twee and a routine effort. My only criticism would be her inadequate use of portamento to colour further the aria and give it a more touching effect.

The final Viennese operetta section was a delight, and actually a great fit for a mid week recital. It made us tap our toes and have fun with the happenings on stage. In particular the second aria (Du sollst der Keiser meiner Seele Sein) on top of all the fun, it also gave us the chance to hear a much deeper colour of her voice, as she used much her darker end of her tone to great effect. Which made me wish she had done the same with Suor Angelica, but maybe the temptation of a nun in white was too much to resist. Of course closing the programme with the Merry Widow was a total crowd pleaser and she really gave her all, fleshing out the character with nonchalance and sexiness with wonderfully clear, ringing high notes.

We were treated to two encores, both a logical step from the Puccini arias on the programme, her Io son l’umile ancella was passionate and at the same time desperate and resigned. A wonderful showy aria that any lyric soprano with a taste for verismo can create a huge impression, Cvilak did make a big splash again, staying on track with the required style and not resorting to the quite standard maudlin treatment. Her ‘Room with a view’ moment was surely full of freshness the aria requires but somehow did not have enough of a pleading quality. On Wednesday night she was lucky enough to have an accompanist of immense sensitivity and dexterity and also a well chosen, varied, entertaining repertoire. Can’t imagine a single person in the audience didn’t enjoy the recital. Looking forward to hopefully seeing her in fully staged opera in the coming years and what other roles she will tackle.

Murderous passions and Muybridge / Twice Through the Heart + Undance / Sadler’s Wells – 3 December 2011

5 Dec

A night of passion, conflict and energetic dance. That would possibly be the simplest way to sum up the advertised ‘evening in two parts’. Once more I am grateful that Sadler’s Wells continues to support new productions that are experimental and bring together collaborators of that high quality.  Turnage’s Twice Through the Heart is (in complete reversal to its premiere by English National Opera) used to extend the evening due to Undance being too short to be the only work of the evening. And we have to be grateful, as having the chance to listen to Sarah Connolly is always a treat.

TTH is a wonderful scena, cum operatic monologue. The libretto is made of Jackie Kay’s poetry, based on her script for a 1993 TV programme having as its subject Amelia Rossiter, a pensioner who murdered her abusive husband and was finally released on appeal. Kay’s poetry creates the confines for Turnage to paint the scene with an expressionist flair. In at times chilling contributions from the percussion, jazz quotations and Alban Bergesque angular strings creating tension. The vocal writing is very much in the same mode as the darker moments of this year’s Anna Nicole, that I enjoyed very much.  Turnage is managing to create a complete soundworld with only sixteen musicians (in this case including his wife  and brilliant cellist, Gabriella Swallow, who also fixed the band of players for these performances). Sarah Connolly did delve into the core of the character in her bluish/purple patterned blouse and camel skirt, unfolding the story of a suffocating paternalistic society and how the suffering of domestic abuse can drive one to the extremes. Unfortunately she had to sing behind a semi transparent screen in order to allow for the 3D projections to be shown on by (the very new media titled) OpenEndedGroup who created drawings with a chalky texture. Sometimes they occupied the opposite end of the stage as Connolly and others they would take over the whole stage. I’m feeling torn about them as I’m finding Connolly highly watchable in this piece without the need for the projection, her table and chair would have been fine for me. But this is a dance venue and most people I’d imagine came for the second half, so adding an extra visual element was a good commercial decision. When the drawings were very scratchy and shifting in perspective mirroring the thickening texture of the music, it worked well. But this was from my standpoint, coloured by the excellent performance by the orchestra and Connolly, who sang with deep conviction, marvellous diction and crystal clear projection. No wonder she has been much in demand (as the programme puts it too). The incisive cooler voice she found for the character was a perfect match to the material. The drama culminated with her undressing down to her negligee and singing China Cup, the last part while she tumbles and writhes on the floor and makes her way to the table and chair to sing her last phrases ‘Locked in, locked in’.  A truly riveting half an hour. Kay’s poetry and its shifting metaphors and focus on female experience, Turnage’s colourful music, beautifully played sang by one of the undeniable star mezzos of our era. Shame how she only got a pretty short burst of applause…had this been the ENO we would be clapping for another ten minutes.

After a much needed ice cream and spotting both Connolly and Turnage at the foyer the time came for the main event of the night, Undance, the collaboration of Turnage/Wallinger/McGregor. Against most usual ways of putting a new dance piece together and against most traditional involvement of a visual artist with a choreographer, here Wallinger essentially put the parameters on the table that both the composer and the choreographer had to take as the basis for development. Mark Wallinger is a fascinating, varied and truly profound contemporary artist. His obsessions have been: the class system, war, religion and pop culture. His reflections on those themes have always been ambivalent and mostly quiet. He was possibly the only one artist of the YBA generation that did not compromise his integrity and did not grow predictable.

Clearly the collaboration was intense and based on a text given to them by Wallinger to start the conversation. It was about performative actions DO/UNDO/UNDANCE as the programme puts it. His starting thesis is the work of Eadweard Muybridge and his set up for his series of photographs published as: The Human and Animal Locomotion Photographs. He used a three meter high grid backdrop that was based on Alberti’s veil, the archetypal measurement system used in western art as a way to bring the 3D world on the 2D surface of a painting. Muybridge captured movement and for the first time studied in detail animal and human movement in frozen in time moments. He was also a showman and with his zoopraxiscope he toured and lectured about his new discoveries under the name Helios (meaning Sun in ancient Greek).  The exhibition last year at Tate Britain (and the Corcoran in Washington, earlier) must have been a huge source of inspiration for all three. Even the staging seemed to use the back projection in the same way as Tate’s exhibition had in the last room, where a glazed wall made all visitors specimens in front of a Muybridge/Alberti grid. In the staging the dancers (wearing flesh coloured two piece outfits) were dancing in front of a full length screen that shows out of sync video of them against the grid. Either side there is a backlit photo canvas with a UN compound gate somewhere in the world (possibly Afghanistan?). The idea of the United Nations as the failed force that is trying to undo the bad politically motivated actions of different governments around the world is clearly part of the concept. It may be seen as one of Wallinger’s cruel jokes or as an extension of his interest with modern warfare and politics. Most strikingly expressed by his 2007 State Britain installation in the Duveen Galleries at Tate Britain, where he recreated Brian Haw’s banners and protest camp as originally was set up opposite the Houses of Parliament. A striking confrontation with a fiction of one’s imagination (as the Met Police confiscated and destroyed most of the original banners) some instant archaeology of our recent past. It was a butch pronouncement of anti war sympathy but with an economy of means that made it both intriguing and visually striking. In many ways Undance is similar in that front, the following sections became the basis of the choreography: Action/Iteration/Mirroring/Reversal and vice versa. This creates open ended movements that fold into each other and reopen the same section. A continuous unfolding story over four movements doubled up/mirrored to become eight.

The first four movements have obvious fades from theme to theme, where Turnage’s music is distinctive between them creating a spare, frequently strings dominated soundstage. Strikingly a brass marching band like sound is giving vitality to a brisk third movement where all ten dancers are intertwining in pairs and slowly engaging as one group. Violins and cellos gave an intimate, jazzy, sexy sound to the fourth movement, a heated Pas de deux almost reminiscent of Kenneth MacMillan held the stage. The movement quoted Muybridge photographs throughout and found its culmination in a live zoopraxiscope like display at the end of the seventh movement when a strobe light gave the circular running of the dancers look like one of Mr Helios’s touring projections, concluding with the music dying down and the heavy breathing of the dancers becoming the sound till the lights fade once more. The last movement summed up all the broken movements in pairs and the en masse group actions into an almost training camp exercise class, with arms rotating in the air, that led to the culmination of a grandiose unfolding of the dancers using the perspectival depth of the stage. Creating a visual reference to the Darwinian development of man from the ape to homo sapiens and of course a reference to the progressive nature of Muybridge’s series of photographs allowing the progressive unfolding of a single movement. This last thrust of the dancers froze on its final unfold into this beautiful human fan shape. A logical and handsome end of this exuberant but idea heavy new dance creation.

For hardcore fans of Wayne MacGregor this evening may have possibly been a disappointment, as his much more aggressive  confrontational style was virtually absent but Turnage’s accomplished, varied and highly danceable music gave the piece a sharp focus on physicality and a melting flow. Wallinger’s shaping role created an interesting frame for the other collaborators to react against and to be constrained by. In many ways it lacked the astounding wow of a truly incredible creation and had more the searching intellectual brand of Wallinger’s other work, it left me questioning and wanting more. He is scheduled to work on a new ballet for the Royal Ballet next year, to which I’m looking forward to already. Undance will surely return to Sadler’s Wells next year in order to recoup some of its costs, as usual with their own productions. If the above seems interesting look out for it in 2012.

Find out more:

Mark Wallinger’s text is reproduced in full on Random Dance’s website

http://www.randomdance.org/productions/past_productions/undance/scenario

Muybridge was the recent subject of a play / Studies in Motion: The Hauntings of Eadweard Muybridge: 

http://exposureroom.com/members/dmbvideo/46ab09abae764eeb921ab9d52d5b643e/ )

A 2002 Guardian interview with Jackie Kay:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2002/jan/12/fiction.features

Mark-Anthony Turnage’s official bio: 

http://www.boosey.com/pages/cr/composer/composer_main.asp?composerid=16405&ttype=BIOGRAPHY&ttitle=Biography/

State Britain by Mark Wallinger:

http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/mark-wallinger-state-britain

 

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