Tag Archives: Maurice Ravel

Lutosławski magic / Philharmonia Orchestra + Matthias Goerne + Jennifer Koh + Esa-Pekka Salonen / Royal Festival Hall – 21 March 2013

22 Mar

Philharmonia LutoslawskiTo call a concert an exhilarating, gripping experience with lots of unexpected contrasts twists and turns may seem an over the top description. But last night the Philharmonia’s smashing mix of Ravel and Lutosławski was a magical journey across 20th century repertoire without compromise and with a true visionary at the helm.

Esa-Pekka Salonen is a conductor/composer that is both inspirational and a great front for contemporary music. His tireless promotion of less popular and neglected repertoire a particular streak that runs through his work with the Philharmonia. A short film that preceded the performance was a touching introduction to the composer with a particular emphasis on EPS’s sense of duty to spread Lutosławski’s music to a new generation of audiences. And based on the outcome of this concert I am very interested to hear more of his music. He seems to bridge the gap between Debussy, Ravel , Stravinsky and the 60’s electronic avant-garde. But all with a purely acoustic sound. Some of the spectral effects and unusual combination of instruments brings surprise and is a reflection on his compositional methods based on chance. The overall effect of his 4th Symphony has a similar impact and quality to Stockhausen’s Mittwoch. Using the orchestra as a box of tricks, unleashing unexpected pairings and lush (alternating with harsh) contrasting textures. Despite the echoes of other works all three pieces by Lutosławski were individual and distinctive. The melodic line being kept lean and piercing, articulating the material with unfolding gradations.

The opening Ravel was conducted with utmost delicacy by a batonless EPS controlling the orchestra with balletic precision and astounding refinement. The suite permeated by playful accents and ethereal textures. A fantastic opener to an action packed evening.

Symphony No4 opens with a fantastic, otherworldly, shimmering conversation between strings and two harps. As imposing and as grand an opening as Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra and with an  equally unexpected development. He takes the formal arrangement of the instruments and cascades melodic sections from the timpani and horns down to the strings. Prominent roles for trumpet and the thundering piano add to some overwhelming tutti. There is a sense of fascination with the orchestra and its many possibilities. He keeps exploring and inventing throughout the body of the work. And concludes with a grandiose coda that brings clarity and resolution. The reception was thunderous and led to Salonen picking up the score and lifting it in the air in appreciation. Surely a work that means a lot to him personally as he was then starting his tenure with the LA Philharmonic who commissioned the work from the composer. And he conducted it with great skill and vibrancy.

Les espaces du sommeil was a wonderfully dreamy piece based on the surrealist poem by Robert Desnos. The composition of the constituent parts were inspired by the syllabic distribution of the piece. Written for  Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau it makes use of the hushed baritonal voice to create an atmosphere of dreamy lightness in the opening passages. Goerne adding his Germanic vocal heft was a good choice for this work that seems deceptively simple, but has quite a few high lying sustained passages toward the finale.

Chain 2: Dialogue for Violin and Orchestra has to be one of the most strikingly original and complex pieces ever written for violin. Jennifer Koh more than rose to the occasion, in the process sacrificing quite a few bow hairs. The intensity of the piece and the demands on the performer are phenomenal in terms of speed and agility. There is a great listening guide presented by the soloist on the Philharmonia’s website.

Ravel’s La valse was a great finale to this exquisite programme demonstrating the transparency of the orchestra’s string section and with EPS cutting through the distorted Viennese Waltz appearances with wit and fire. He managed to extract so much detail and force from the orchestra that the final burst was utterly glorious. In the concert’s context it almost felt as a farewell to the Austrian dream in the ashes of the Second World War instead of a ballet composition from 1920.  A wrap up of a truly memorable evening laced with lots of challenging repertoire performed to the highest standard.

All the contents of the season’s programme can be found here, do have a read if you want to know more about the composer and the performers.

Philharmonia Lutoslawski list

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Sexy enchantment / L’heure espagnole + L’enfant et les sortilèges / Glyndebourne – 6 August 2012

10 Aug

When I looked through the programme of the 2012  Glyndebourne opera festival, this Ravel double bill stood out. I couldn’t think of a better combination of director and works than that and it became instantly the reason for my first visit. I have systematically avoided the rarefied black tie affair that is Glyndebourne, mainly put off by the image of toffee nosed bozos roaming around the Sussex countryside. But for any UK based opera lover it’s a venue difficult to ignore as it is the birth place of country house opera for the modern age,  since its inception in 1934 under the auspices of John Christie and Audrey Mildmay and not forgetting the first general manager…a certain Rudolf Bing (no, not of the failing Microsoft search engine). The festival up to this day is pitched as entertainment for the upper classes but has always had high artistic goals. It has been the springboard for international careers for a number of very important singers and conductors, including my beloved Janet Baker. Also one success we can’t under-estimate is their ability to keep the festival self-sufficient without any public subsidy (except for Arts Council support for their Tour and Education programmes). A reason that will stop me making rude comments about very pricey Stalls seats for all shows. But how was my first visit, I hear you ask…

I was immediately impressed by how disarmingly laid back it was. Despite being surrounded by the kind of plummy accents one would only dream of at Covent Garden, the black tie uniform in a way adds a veneer of parity across the distinct class divides. Who wouldn’t find dressing up to go to the opera in a beautiful garden and historic house enticing? Yours truly strolled around the manicured lawns and climbing roses for an hour and a half and then the bell was tolled asking us nicely to make our way to the theatre. The theatre, designed by Michael Hopkins in 1994 is as simple in appearance as the remains of the Tudor manor house that make up the country house. All red brick, wood and concrete. The stark appearance will surely come as a surprise to some. The unadorned exterior and interior gives a non distracting backdrop for the magic of opera to unfold. And the acoustic is possibly the best I’ve heard in the UK, being slightly reflective and true. An auditorium that seats 1200 spectators is always going to feel more intimate than the big two London stages but it is surprisingly so. Every single note of Ravel’s beatific music enveloped us in an extraordinary way.

L’heure was as sexy as one would expect. The stage set is an idiosyncratic mix of clock faces in every possible piece of furniture that springs to life following Ravel’s atmospheric and very quirky cues. A nice touch was the makeshift curtain made up of fabric patches which opened slowly to reveal the lower half of the set, including a washing machine with a clock in its drum and a sculpted life size bull…that surely raised a few laughs. Pelly’s direction is full of physical comedy and always with a keen eye for the music, as Ravel’s light composition always makes suggestions for the action. The singers were clearly exceptionally well drilled and the organised chaos on stage always added to the story and making beautiful stage pictures from the suggestive score.

The stand out performances came from Elliot Madore (making his UK debut) who gave us a naughty and endearing Ramiro with gorgeously sensual singing and vivid stage presence. Stéphanie d’Oustrac gave as a piquant and extremely sexy Concepción that lit up the stage, her singing being as hot as she looked in her revealing outfit. The kind hearted clock mending husband as portrayed by François Piolino was a figure of fun and maybe hinting at silent suffering inside. They played it for laughs with beautifully timed vignettes…a particular favourite being Concepción removing her panties when left alone with Ramiro which raised a quiet giggle around the auditorium. Kazushi Ono’s conducting of the London Philharmonic Orchestra was exemplary, allowing the transparency and warmth of Ravel’s music sufficient space to shine while keeping it moving sprightly alongside the hilarious  fast paced stage action. It was as sexy as can be.

Then came the long interval, all 1h30mins of it…where we managed to squeeze a delicious three course meal and another walk around the grounds. I can imagine that can be the interval of oblivion for a lot of punters ending up even forgetting what they’ve seen in the first half. But thankfully in a double bill that problem is slightly alleviated (provided the alcohol intake is fairly low).

L’enfant was clearly directed with a darker much more gothic intention befitting the subject matter. A lot of reviewers seem to find Colette’s libretto unwieldy and not musical enough, on the contrary I thought it grounded the story and gave it great charm and narrative flow.
The opening set of the child doing his homework on a giant table and chair had the feel of an outsize Richard Artschwager sculpture and unfortunately caused a large part of the audience to applaud…continuing a recent bugbear of mine, where we start to see Met Opera style applause for inanimate objects. Can someone make it stop, please?
The oversized look of the furniture was simple, stylish and very effective, the kind of presentation Pelly has got us used to. L’enfant is so easy to turn into a cheap musical full of silly props and dancing teapots in the Disney tradition. But he managed to keep the darkness of the score and the underlying sense of wartime tragedy that runs as an undercurrent through it. Despite the frenetic at times change of tableaux the backstage team did a great job giving us seamless transitions within seconds, keeping up with the around twenty scene changes admirably well. If I had to pick one scene as the one that wowed us, it would be the torn wallpaper one, with the members of the chorus in vague 18th century dress looking like they’ve just escaped the Toile de Jouy wallpaper and step out on the torn piece (ingeniously hiding inside it the sheep mentioned in their aria). That scene encapsulates his directing style, by being quick-witted, not afraid to be literal but always sprinkled with a magical touch.

The piece calls for a totally co-ordinated ensemble cast doubling up on many of the parts and Glyndebourne’s troupe delivered in spades, every singer relished their vignettes with particular highlights the two armchairs who managed to be both menacing and darkly fascinating. The fire as sang by Kathleen Kim was both vivid and aggressive and in sparkling  vocal form. And of course the duet of the china cup and the teapot (which the libretto reverts to English for the pot and cod Chinese for the cup) which was done with such ease and devilish cheek it turned the house to a bunch of laughing children. A work that can too easily turn into a piece of cheap musical theatre was turned into a much more sophisticated affair without losing its touch with the playful side of Ravel’s music and Colette’s thoughtful libretto.

This double bill was full of panache, varying from the wide-eyed excitement of a cheating wife to the unexpected horror of a misbehaving child. Make sure you tune in on the 19 August to see the live broadcast on Glyndebourne’s and The Guardian’s websites. Or even better get some tickets and see it live in all your finery, it’s worth the trip just for the ravishing playing of the London Philharmonic. I will definitely return to the Festival next year.

Read More

The productions’ page on Glyndebourne’s website: http://glyndebourne.com/production/ravel-double-bill
Interesting article on Colette’s libretto:  http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2012/jul/27/colette-lenfant-sortileges-libretto
Interview with Laurent Pelly on the Guardian website: http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2012/aug/09/glyndebourne-odd-ravel-double-bill

Promotional videos for the two productions

Tweets from the evening

Come for the Mezzo stay for the Stravinsky – New York Philharmonic + Joyce DiDonato + Alan Gilbert / Barbican Hall 17 February 2012

21 Feb

The programme for this evening had a wonderfully cohesive make up. It brought together contemporary music, late romanticism, fledging modernism and the muscular angularity of early US Stravinsky in one night. It was a great choice that made obvious the strengths of the orchestra and its ability to change their well blended sound to suit the work.

The opening commission and a UK première by Thomas Adès was an appropriately luminous and intriguing piece to get the evening rolling, a great statement on the continuing success of this wonderful British composer. Two sections of brass were on Balcony and Circle adding textural and spatial variety. The contrapuntal motifs of the piece were woven into an irresistible whole. At once mysterious and bright. He was there to receive the warm applause from the audience. Which was well deserved and made a statement of the NY Phil as a supporter and promoter of contemporary music, something they have done for a very long time. Also interestingly Esa-Pekka Salonen was in the audience…no pressure then!

Les nuits d’été is a great vehicle for a warm voice (sang by contraltos, mezzos, sopranos and tenors) and one work that always causes fans to compare between the hundreds of recorded versions. It makes requirements on both range and interpretative facility. Joyce DiDonato lived up to her reputation and to my previous experiences of seeing her live. It was unfortunate that she sounded a bit shrill up to the end of Le spectre de la rose. We can attribute it to jet lag as her performance was exemplary from then on, soaring to the highest of her range in L’ile inconnue  to the absolute masterful use of her chest voice in Sur les lagunes: Lamento which was the highlight of the evening.  Her interpretation was highly involved and sparkling as much as her dress (fresh from the Grammys). Gilbert’s conducting was very sensitive and involved, taking great care at articulating phrases and working with DiDonato to blend the different textures together. Now if anyone could let me know why a few fellow members of the audience started clapping after the pre-last song, I’d be grateful. I’m not a huge advocate for strict concert etiquette but a glimpse at the free programme would have made everyone that Les nuits has 6 parts!

I was expecting the Stravinsky to be ravishing, if any orchestra can grasp Stravinsky’s American idiom it is the NY Phil. They worked with the composer extensively for a period of over 20 years and that is a huge part of the New Yorkers’ modernist sensitivity. The playing was focused, intense and with an extraordinary attention to the overall architecture of the work. His use of the piano in the first movement to propel the piece and the harp in the second can  be too tame when played with caution. No problem for these players, they kept the momentum and the pulsating if jagged texture of the work. It did not sound polite or sane, more of an uncompromising veteran Stravinsky. Who arrived to the US with a huge appetite to provoke and to make his name in his own terms. As a friend put it…’the Stravinsky was topping’

The arrival of the Ravel brought with it a much open and expansive acoustic from the orchestra, a colourful, luxurious sound that was refreshing and suitable. That unfortunately did not prevent a woman in purple occupying the front row sleeping through most of it. Even the incredible crescendo of the Danse générale failed to wake her up! The spectral effects required for Ravel’s mature music can easily disintegrate under an insensitive conductor or an orchestra used to empty gestures, the New Yorkers had a celebratory joy to their playing. Substance backed their fun delivery.

After this fantastic concert we even got two encores, concluding with Lew Pollack’s That’s a plenty…check out the video the Orchestra posted from their Amsterdam concert a few days before their Barbican residency 😉

I am looking forward to their return to the Barbican in the coming seasons, as despite the fact that London is home to so many world class orchestras it is wonderful to have guests of this calibre and programmes of this quality.

Read More

The PDF of the Barbican residency programme

The Tour Blog of the NYPhil

Some Tweets from the Evening

The Brassy Encore

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