Tag Archives: music

Just don’t mention Rieu

30 Jul

Not fucking Rieu

Another week another fawning article about André Rieu and what we can learn from him to spice up our boring conventional concert experience. His form of entertainment is a very old type of  frothy intellectually disengaged affair. It is a sort of idolatry, a cult of forced entertainment. Somehow the only way to enjoy it seems to be by suspending critical faculties and giving in to the kitsch.

I rather like Viennese polkas and waltzes as background music, but with the visual arts background I have, I cannot possibly ignore the awful presentation of his orchestra. His female players enrobed in acres of cheap looking taffeta in colours that would make Walt Disney go blind. Whipped up in a meringue consistency its stiffness would make Yotam Ottolenghi scream with joy. The whole spectacle, a tasteless, sexless environment for him to preside over , curiously dressed in fitted black tails. I find the whole aesthetic repulsive, and I would really love to read an article with a feminist angle on the outfitting of his orchestra and making adult musicians look like followers of the cult of My Little Pony.

So please stop patronising us that Rieu’s way is the only way to populist relevance. As most orchestras have great community and outreach programmes and diversify in more imaginative ways already. The main difference being that the programming by professional orchestras has an intellectual and aesthetic motivation, it doesn’t just operate on the currency of popular fads and easy listening radio station playlists.

Rieu’s anti-intellectual mush programming of popular tunes and advert-worthy bleeding operatic chunks indulges the lowest common denominator of performance as empty spectacle. That he is phenomenally successful at selling his brand doesn’t automatically make him the shining light everyone should emulate. His abysmal, retrograde presentation is decades behind current norms but rides on that saccharine nostalgia vehicle his public personal depends on to sell tickets in droves.

So give me a world class orchestra dressed in black, making the music they perform the main reason to be there. Instead of the sweet shop horror of Rieu’s crew, resembling a megalomaniac’s idea of a golden past that never existed.

Mrs Carter and her dearest friends / Beyoncé at the O2 Arena, London – 3 May 2013

5 May

Any long-term readers will not quite expect a piece on Beyoncé by me…but somehow managed to see her newest, shiniest world tour on Friday night and thought it worth documenting here.

We tend to think of the tribes of people who attend classical and opera evenings, a largely middle class, middle-aged crowd that veers on the reverential and the more reserved side of human nature. If going out to see the London Symphony Orchestra is a visit to the nearest font of greatness for many of us, seeing Beyoncé is the equivalent of breathing the same air as a yogi. Her audience was a uniform mix of 20something girls that seemed to conform to about four types of pre-packaged ideal form. Most of it found in celebrity magazines, with bright fake tans, rampant hair extensions and fashion out of the third aisle left of Primark. As we sat down drinking some wine we looked on as hordes of fans arrived, resembling a self-replicating mass dedicated to having fun and waving their arms in the air to the tune of Single Ladies repeating in their heads for the next three hours. We may want to make assumptions on the looks and submission to the power of marketing and the desperate need to belong to a tribe. But mainly what was in evidence in spades was the undeniable magnetism and brilliant shine of popular culture at its most fundamental.

You will see the opening sequence in my embedded video, a failsafe mix of bright lights, abundant decibels, LED screens giving us an 18th century out of rococo paintings most of this audience never seen in the flesh, dancers and of course the appearance on a stage lift of the poster girl and the centre of attention. It is catchy, it is exciting and it was lapped up with genuine, moving  abandon. Interestingly the fans even found enough benevolence to not boo the turgid Pepsi advert that prefaces the opening of the show in an act of solidarity to the starring lady. Beyoncé like any pop act at the top of their game has the unbeatable mix of inoffensive blandness and a cunning ability to validate their existence in the zeitgeist by infuriating select audiences that would never see her live or download her music anyway.

Her brand of female empowerment may be full of contradictions and moves writers to want to write an open letter to Michelle Obama. But her nearly 80% female audience and all female stage band are serving a menu of inclusive entertainment. Between segments and costume changes we are served a diet of platitudes that would happily rest in the pages of a self-help book on how to attract men without looking desperate, we are told memorably that seduction is intelligent. Not miles away from the last Madonna show I experienced which featured prominently  a video mash-up of dictators intercut with images of genocide and George W Bush.
The pronouncements may be very different but the claim to gravitas in the context of all the hip thrusting and the hair flicking is the same. The appearance of a piano signifies a surface for our heroine to lie on in a fabulous midnight blue sparkly playsuit. What pop chanteuse doesn’t fall for the allure of adding a classical element into the presentation as a coded message for the fans to take away?  She also had a ballerina sequence at a transitional point in the middle of the show, making the point of how the inverted snobbery against ballet when used in a popular context. Carrying its sense of cultural elevation for her show with a subtle hint of high art that contrasts sharply with the immaculate renditions of radio wave fillers.

It would be very easy to turn all sneery and to not understand the point and the mechanics of a pop concert. This is shiny, showbiz glitter (and yes this show came complete with a glitter cannon) that bypasses reason and reaches cult levels. The sea of people around us were believing in her as a chief representative of their tribe, Beyoncé as head priestess of contemporary womanhood. She danced herself into a sweat and all the ladies nearby cheered her on and offered their love and approval at every turn. I felt like a heretic in the middle of it all, trying to judge for myself the source of this love and trying to not lose my hearing to the outrageous over-amplification.

One undeniable observation is the sense of total abandon to a hedonistic escapism for the three hours of the show. The relationship of total trust between the performer and the audience, being built on years of exposure via celeb magazines, TV appearances and being the soundtrack of people’s lives. The catchy tunes are just one part of the story, she manages to sell self confidence and a lifestyle by virtually bypassing the critical faculties of the audience and aiming straight for their emotions. I was moved to tears by Véronique Gens’ rendition of Les chemins de l’amour a few weeks back in a way that pop music will never reach deep inside me. My innate cynicism doesn’t allow for the guard to go down and permit myself to be manipulated by the artifice. The simplicity of the set up (one woman a pianist and a piano) is for me the ultimate way to communicate what it means to be human and to have a connection with one’s interior world. Allows for reflection and appreciation of great artistry without the need for spectacle and lights.

But damn me classical and opera audiences need to be taught a lesson on how to not be so buttoned up and to have a sense of occasion when attending, how to give themselves over to the musical experience and have a notch less reverence and a whole load more interaction. Why is it turning round and telling a fellow concert goer that the performance is incredible such a taboo? Why can’t the classical tribe try to be slightly less “respectable and bookish” and let its hair down. We need to celebrate all music as a genuine form of escapism that gives us safe hiding places from our everyday lives but also a source of essential, unadulterated FUN. So big thanks to Mrs Carter and her ladies in the audience for a giggle of a night out.  I wish I could transfer some of the unstuffy enjoyment and all round Joie de vivre…also hoping the next time I go to the Wigmore Hall it will smell a little less of mothballs.

Some Tweets from the evening

What KJ and Watson call a high profile engagement

8 Oct

Last week Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Oxfordshire was the host of a much glittering occasion that had three main guests: Katherine Jenkins, Russell Watson and Elaine Page. On my persistent enquiries on Twitter the repertoire was not quite leaked near the time to see exactly what KJ and RW played for this rare acoustic concert. Le Manoir’s twitter staffers were very good at deflecting criticism especially when I expressed my disappointment that such low brow acts were booked for their rich and eminent clientele. After all, on those three nights it cost £450 for the concert but included a Laurent-Perrier Champagne and canapé reception prior to the concerts followed by a five course meal with accompanying wines, coffee and petits fours after the performance , as explained to an emailed response. Interestingly this was also a rare occasion that both of them sang an acoustic set with a piano…aka what all recitalists normally do.

But what did the patrons of this illustrious establishment listened to? (list appended as communicated by them)

4 October 2012 –  Katherine Jenkins

Habanera – Georges Bizet

Les Filles de Cadiz – Léo Delibes

Pie Jesu – Gabriel Fauré

Hallelujah – Leonard Norman Cohen

Music of the night – Andrew Lloyd Webber

Angel – Sarah McLachlan

I dreamed a dream – Claude-Michel Schönberg

A nightingale sang in Berkeley Square – Manning Sherwin

Parla piu piano (love theme from the Godfather) – Nino Rota

I could have danced all night – Music by Frederick Loewe, Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner

Plus an encore

5 October 2012 – Russell Watson

‘O sole mio


Panis angelicus

Core ‘ngrato

Piano Solo:
18th variation on a theme of Paganini

Una furtiva

Vesti la giubba

Parla piu piano


Piano Solo: Waltz in C# minor Chopin

Swing low


So it was the predictable mix of off-key opera arias and the mainstay repertoire of popular entertainers. Glad to see that KJ still only has one aria proper in her armoury…and both share the Godfather theme.
It’s a list that puzzles in its thrown together nature but it also betrays that they know their audience well and give them what they want…the famous bits from their CDs.
It seems that in the past Le Manoir had been host to Montserrat Caballé which goes to prove some of their seasons have aimed much higher. Thank heavens for the Wigmore Hall who allows access to the greatest classical recitalists all year round. If you know anyone that went to those two concerts maybe drag them to a recital so they can see what the real thing is like. At least they had the benefit of delicious food!

PS I had no reason to ask for Elaine Page’s set as she is a singer that I respect for her dedication to musical theatre. And surely not one to be a stranger to an intimate recital or two.

Faux outrage goes hand in hand with faux artistry

8 Oct

This morning I read this blog post by James Rhodes, who I was not that impressed by when I saw live last year, it has to be said. And while I agree totally with his trashing of the brand of classical music the Classic BRITs are promoting, I could not stop thinking about the obvious disjunction of that blog post and Mr Rhodes’ own career path. A man who seems to be unhappy to be called a concert pianist most of the time and now coming out on his blog to somehow be the supporter of “proper” classical music…

Unfortunately for Mr Rhodes his audience is of the same demographic as the people who buy tickets for the BRITs. I was saddened to see a lot of people repost Rhodes’ faux outrage drivel. If you want to read a reasoned and well argued piece try this one by Chris Gillett, he surely is not writing out of bitterness.

Here is my response to the blog post in case the Telegraph deletes it from their site:

While I agree with most points, I find it intriguing, coming from Mr Rhodes, a product of the great pop machine that was used up and spat out by Warner Music. His first double album was out on a pop/rock label and being promoted to the same people who the Classic BRITs are addressed to. To come out all outraged that the very line of business he agreed to be part of, is somehow offending his latent sensibilities seems totally hypocritical.
I would like to know how many times has Mr Rhodes been invited by any serious orchestras to play with them in his capacity as the “non threatening piano dude”?
Anyone can rent a hall and pretend to be a concert pianist but not many are in demand by the LSO, LPO, BBCSO, Philharmonia etc.
Jenkins and Watson and their peers are total frauds with very little talent and training. But despite what Mr Rhodes’ fans may have convinced themselves he is…he remains at best a gifted amateur. Hope his recent career choice to move to a serious classical label will bear some fruit in the future, but save us the faux outrage.

Mr Fate and his amazing thunder coat / Miss Fortune / Royal Opera House, Covent Garden – 28 March 2012

31 Mar

You have by now read the numerous reviews and unsurprisingly 99% of critics and bloggers had been to put it politely, underwhelmed by what was on offer by Miss Fortune.

I had no intention of seeing it after being burned last year by Nico Muhly’s Two Boys and especially after reading the wall to wall bad reviews. But getting an Orchestra Stalls ticket for £15 was an opportunity I couldn’t pass by.

The overwhelming feeling is of a work that did not come together, an inherent disparity between, word, music, movement, direction and stage design. As if Judith Weir was trying to tick too many boxes and failed to make them work as a whole.The camp utterances of a counter-tenor portraying Fate (dressed in the equivalent of a house coat covered in a thunderbolt print) varied from the annoying to the surplus to requirement. If she was really attempting humour or satire it clearly did not come through.

The staging was a faceless mush of an aerofoil trapezoid shape that was moving to different positions for scene changes (being projected on to add texture), another (red slatted this time) hinged  trapezoid  containing LED lighting within. The most extravagant prop, the exploding kebab van for Hassan was a pure folly that got used for around 10 minutes of stage time, only to be fire-bombed in the end…it’s typical of the flat nature of the work that I was more fascinated, by how the van was lowered down from the fly tower and the cables disengaged from it after landing, than Hassan’s singing about his love for the van and leaving Miss Fortune behind while he went supply shopping.  This was supposed to be set in the 21st century and when I explained the plot to a colleague, she exclaimed how old-fashioned was the choice of Miss Fortune being surrounded by machinists in a textile factory. How about a more contemporary occupation in the service section, a fast food restaurant or something a bit more recognisable for the audience? Those kind of simplistic misfires are indicative of the unfortunate (what a pun, hey?) dramatically inert staging that added very little contemporary flavour than a regie director could muster with *cough* Rusalka. Maybe Weir and Shi-Zheng should have hooked up with Mary Portas’ Kinky Knickers and add a bit more pizzaz!

An inexplicable choice was why did Miss Fortune herself sing all the way from a forte to a near fortissimo throughout the piece. Emma Bell was just made to scream her way through the part with very little chance for articulation and allowance for feeling to penetrate the strident melodic line. The dance troupe (Soul Mavericks) were entertaining through out…but at the same time nothing like a touch of racial stereotyping by appointing black dancers as the source of menace to the urban environment that Miss Fortune was thrown into. Their performance was dedicated but somehow can’t see where in the grand scheme of things they were supposed to belong. The feeling that this was a very late addition came to mind at their every appearance.

This opera unfortunately was a total, if inoffensive, snooze to watch all the way through. If it wasn’t for the beautifully crisp playing by the orchestra (which actually sounded like a different orchestra since the recent dull performance of Don Giovanni). A huge thank you to all the orchestral players and the beaming Jacques Imbrailo who lit up the auditorium with his beautiful bright voice, much more than the preceding exploding kebab van.

I really can not understand how this lukewarm, pretty flat piece made it to the main stage of the Royal Opera House, it would have benefited by a new staging, some work on the libretto and the more intimate surroundings of the Linbury Studio (or the unthinkable…an industrial space in East London) with its smaller scale it would have been a better receptacle for Weir’s fluent and frequently beautiful score. Good luck to St Louis and their new staging of the work in 2013.

Below is a video of some of the stage action by the video designers, it will give you a taste for the look and movement of the staging and one of Kasper Holten introducing it to the unsuspecting punters.

Read more

Jessica Duchen’s post on Miss Fortune

Mark Berry’s blog post on Miss Fortune

John Allison’s review published by The Telegraph

Fiona Maddocks’ review for The Observer

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

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.

Politics and music on a collision course

2 Sep

This evening I was aware that the Israel Philharmonic was performing at the Royal Albert Hall, but did not pass my mind that a disruptive demonstration would essentially cancel the live radio broadcast.

While I was looking through my Twitter timeline I started seeing tweeps mentioning Radio 3 and tuned in, only to listen to a recording instead of the live concert. When they returned the presenter just made a passing mention to audience disruption. I do wonder if the editors/controller of Radio 3 are believing to be running a service from the 1950s in the mold of The Hour.

The reaction of radio bosses was essentially to silence their staff on social media, the usual Proms cheerleaders fell oddly silent tonight. Very much like Radio 3’s deafening silence and unwillingness to rise up to the occasion and offer coverage live as the situation developed. The lack of bravery and nerve were truly shameful. Radio 3 just hid behind a recording and pretended that it would all go away. That is a damage limitation tactic that would only work in the 1950s. Today, and with the presence of an audience of over 5000 it’s a given that news will spread. So trying to have a hush hush reaction to it, as if responding to a damned inconvenience was a reflection of the vacuum that Radio 3 is operating in (it’s all about the music, silly, don’t rock the boat). As part of an organization that one of its main outputs is news, they really embarrassed themselves and lacked the reactive nerve that live broadcasting is supposed to call for.

The Royal Albert Hall is a very difficult venue to secure, when you have 12 entrances. I had worked there for almost two years and know first hand the amounts of manpower required to make the building secure. For some high profile events we were used to even having marksmen/women on the roof! The news that four groups of protesters made it in the auditorium was not a huge surprise. But the reaction of the BBC, to just pull the live broadcast was not the reaction we would expect from our national, tax funded, broadcaster.

I have always felt an affinity with the Palestinian cause but on the other hand find irrational bringing political protest into the artistic arena. Disrupting a concert is just a very childish way to make a very weak point that no one will take notice of. The arts are supposed to be one of the few unifying forces in this world, making it into a theatre of division and hatred is very sad. Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic deserved a warm reception despite of any grievances audience members had with the state of Israel. How would we feel if the London Symphony Orchestra were similarly attacked while on tour in response to the shoddy UK foreign policy? We would certainly think it was inappropriate and would seek to punish those individuals for disturbing the peace. Hope that some of those thoughtless protesters were indeed arrested on those grounds.

In my view Radio 3 gave in easily to the pressure of a handful of protesters and essentially stopped this wonderful orchestra from having a huge live audience across the country. Hope the BBC will think again in similar situations in the future.

PS It has to be noted that Radio 4 and BBC News have covered the incident soon after, but the stream from the Hall will not appear on the iPlayer.

You never know who’s watching ;-)

6 Jun

You just never know who’s watching!

I thought it would be fun to ask the amazing reigning super Mezzo Joyce Didonato if she was watching Katherine Jenkins’ “rendition” of Una Voce Poco Fa in last night’s results show for Popstar to Operastar…and you can imagine my surprise and perverse delight that she confirmed that she was actually watching! Calling it unforgettable is I think an appropriate turn of phrase indeed 😉

I can confirm that I played Joyce’s version later after PSTOS just to reaffirm in me the power of true musicianship and vocal beauty. Kudos to the Yankeediva for the 100th or so time 😉

Is it a yey or a ney?

27 Apr

A number of critics have written their reviews of The Tsar’s Bride that currently runs at the Royal Opera House.

Based on the common knowledge that I am no huge fan of  Poplavskaya here is how the reviews I’ve seen shape up:

  • The Daily Mail’s critic judges her performance as outstanding
  • Rupert in the Torigraph seems to think she was in shinningly beautiful voice
  • The Islington Gazette seems to ignore her.
  • The Stage gives and overall glowing review highlighting Marina’s sensitivity coming to the fore.
  • Over at The Guardian, Andrew Clements found her performance glacial and reading between the lines he allows as to assume trite. While his Observer colleague Fiona Maddocks gave points to her coolness matching to the heroine but points out to poor intonation and dryness.
  • Bachtrack’s David Karlin seemed rather impressed with her performance and called it memorable and lyrical.
  • What’s on Stage didn’t quite mentions anything particularly about her performance on the night.
  • The Independent’s Anna Picard was not that impressed by the opera itself but seemed to enjoy the singing +1 for Popsy, then.

To do it in scorecard stylee

So this time it seems Marina has won over the professionals…hope I will be able to confirm that with my piece that will come after tonight’s performance!

Links for reviews:

What’s on Stage

Daily Mail

Daily Telegraph

Islington Gazette

What’s on Stage

The Guardian

The Observer


The Independent

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