Tag Archives: South Bank Centre

The South Bank Centre clips its Festival Wing

5 Feb

SBC Wing ClippedWaking up to this admission of defeat by the South Bank Centre in a statement by their Chairman which you can read in full here.

For once it seems the pressure on the future election fate of Boris Johnson made him essentially freeze the scheme with his statement to support the skaters and making it clear that he would go against the planning proposals if he had to. You can read his statement from January 15th here.

Having been to the scant exhibition of the Festival Wing that was organised at the foyer of the Royal Festival Hall I was left unimpressed by both the architecture that looked bulky and far too dependant on eternal CAD sunshine to not look like it was engulfing the Hayward Gallery and the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Most of it would have been funded with a pre-crash economics model that assumed that the more chain restaurants and shops you built the more money you make. We all know where that got us in other parts of the economy…absolutely nowhere.

So on the back of this irritating PR bonanza, best exemplified by the brain-dead tweets of the “Soutbank for all” account, scroll at your leisure and have a laugh: https://twitter.com/southbankforall I am delighted that the organised fight of the skaters and the wider arts community in London has had this effect. The SBC plans were not radical in any way, they just planned dull architecture on top of the pre-existing structures. What is really needed is a proper rationalisation of the buildings on the site. The Royal Festival Hall and the Hayward Gallery are the only two buildings of merit, with most later additions made as need and money permitted and are either dysfunctional or in need of radical rethinking/reconstruction.

Let’s hope the management will properly listen next time and not try to white-wash the opposition by using pseudo inclusivity slogans and cute displays full of cheery coloured lego bricks and empty pads to jot down ideas. The reality was, that they presented a finished plan and they accepted no feedback on a project that would have changed this major arts complex to a major degree. 

Let’s wait and see what their rethink results into…

Munich via Paris and Vienna / Fantasio / Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment + Mark Elder / RFH – 15 December 2013

17 Dec

OAE Fantasio

This was an important occasion to rediscover Jacques Offenbach’s much troubled Fantasio. Being the UK premiere of the reconstructed Parisian version of the score which was not that straightforward a task, worth reading the piece by Jean-Christophe Keck to get an idea of the complexities of putting this new critical edition together. The work had an indifferent reception when performed in 1872 and judging after having heard it live I can relate to the reactions of the Parisians. Offenbach is as always a master of creating moods and atmosphere, especially when the darkness of  the palace’s gardens in Act Two or the grieving crowd in a city square is called for but in Fantasio the amalgam of witty spoken dialogue and standalone ariosos and ballades can appear disjointed if in the wrong hands. The OAE and a very perky Mark Elder on the podium managed to bring the work to life  and the sheer dedication, enthusiasm and comic timing of the top rank cast made it an extremely funny evening. We even have to thank the French censorship office for saving the only extant copy of the spoken dialogue!

The soundworld of the piece is mainly a nocturnal romantic one and Offenbach’s skill at orchestrating delicious harmonies to carve vivid characters and situations is well and present. His skill at writing for voices made obvious in the numerous duets and the judicious use of the chorus, which frequently reacted to the main protagonists as the comical backdrop. Most deliciously at the finale of the Third Act when they are convinced by Fantasio that war is pointless and that wine, home and family is more important as pursuits. The quintet of Act Two exposing the motives of the characters and the piquant duet of Prince and Marinoni adds a typical flash of camp humour to the proceedings.

Sarah Connolly as the eponymous hero strutted her stuff across the stage en travesti in a maroon velvet smoking jacket, white dandyish shirt and high leather boots. His property has been impounded due to debts and arriving to court and falling in love with the about to be married princess. The court jester has just died and he gets the idea to impersonate him in order to be admitted to the Palace without being detected. He then approaches the dead jester’s taylor, here sang by Mark Elder looking every inch the harassed tailor when quizzed by Fantasio on the size of the hump he should adopt. It is not frequently when one wishes the conductor held a cameo in a production but this was absolutely spot on and made the whole auditorium laugh with abandon. Connolly donned a more decorated red jacket to infiltrate the court. Her ballad in Act One was as unassuming as it was dreamy. Her interpretation never showy or forced. And we have to be thankful for the near last minute casting of Brenda Rae as the replacement Princess who blended vocally with Connolly in marvellous and gorgeous ways, leaving very little doubt on how love stricken they both were.

The Princess of Brenda Rae was a character with all the arrogance of her privileged upbringing but also a woman living in a golden cage of responsibility that she cannot shake off. This tortured side of hers made it for a much more interesting dynamic with Fantasio, who in essence manages to free her from her empty marriage and shows her the joy of love. Very much in the mould used many times by Richard Strauss in his later career operas. Rae brought a glistening top and a very firm core to her voice, accompanied by a remarkably natural trill. Her ballad in Act One explaining her sadness for the loss of the much loved jester and her impending marriage was so rendition so sweet and soulful that we were as enamoured with her as much as Fantasio that overhears her and the abundant applause made it all too clear.

The persistent chorus of the three students that permeates all three acts is the mechanism that Offenbach uses to bring the audience in the story and to throw about cheap gags to lighten the atmosphere further. The three singers behaved as the drunken, ironic louts one would expect and infused the performance with a  lot of fun.

The gorgeously deep bass of Brindley Sherratt was a delicious match for the gravitas of the King and his acceptance of the chant by his subjects on his appearance in Act One one of the sly comic moments of the evening.

The Prince of Russell Braun was the sly and calculating type but with an all too clear sense of how he will never be loved for who he really is. His performance was vivid and comically attuned especially in his interactions with his aide Marinoni.

The courtiers were also acted with passion and dedication by Victoria Simmonds and Robert Murray. The fiendishly camp and fioritura heavy part of Marinoni was a great achievement and a suitable contrast to the stolid nature of the part of the Prince of Mantua with whom he gets in a complicated impersonation game that makes both of them the laughing stock of this farce. Flamel on the other hand is the stoic support to the confused and tormented Princess.

The wonderful performance by all on stage made for a very funny evening that truly did honour the intentions of the composer and the recording will hopefully allow a new generation discover this beautiful and at times inspired work. A really funny staging would probably give it a chance at joining the operatic repertoire a century and a half after its troubled inception. This great cast and orchestra offered an insight into the innovative and ambitious nature of Offenbach’s score. The recording is released by Opera Rara in September 2014, watch out for it and take the chance to discover this neglected work.

OAE Fantasio list

Some tweets from the evening

The pre performance talk by Mark Elder

Art for Whom / James Rhodes / Queen Elizabeth Hall – 26 November 2011

28 Nov

We have been bombarded with numerous attempts to bring classical music to the same level as more popular music and throw it off it’s (apparently omnipresent) self regarding pedestal. We’ve had those attempts since the start of the last century. Evangelists for the cause have been far too many from Leopold Stokowski and André Previn to the more recent lights of André Rieu…and James Rhodes. This popularising tendency has been the driving force and a money spinner behind the classical crossover industry and seems to find lots of friends in record labels. When James Rhodes’s much commented signing to Warner produced Bullets and Lullabies some critics were charmed, but there was an obvious unease in most reviews.

After having a few terse exchanges with him on his blog and Twitter, I thought maybe it would be only fair to see him perform live and make my own mind up.

Reading through the programme it was a mix of very brief pieces, the longest being under 20 mins (Beethoven Waldstein sonata), most of them transcriptions from other instruments. A fact that got me worried before arriving there, as the piano has one of the most extensive repertoires, it seems odd to not find enough pieces written for the instrument and to resort to clumsy transcriptions.

On arrival at the QEH it was obvious we were in for a treat, drinks were allowed to be taken in the auditorium, the piano was skewed at an angle (not sure that’s a wise choice as the QEH has a very immediate acoustic) and as the lights dimmed to a pitch darkness we are treated to an american football kind of announcement, to welcome James Rhodes…well, we had no idea it would be him on stage did we? We had a bit of a wait while he looked intensely at the piano and at last he started playing. The sound was thin and reedy, with a clear lack of coordination between left and right hands and also with obvious rhythmic inconsistencies. I attributed that to nerves and looked forward to the next piece. Then he gave us a long winded lecture about the anachronistic nature of the term classical music, name dropping his friend Stephen Fry blah blah blah blah. He did a petulant little routine about the music being “serious” and the audience laughed at the slightest little quip and barely amusing snippet he threw out like the courtiers of a mad king (for a fact, 40 people had free tickets that he gave away on Twitter) somehow I did not find any of his jokes funny, Bach’s portraits showing a man gagging for a blow job was possibly the lowest level of jokey populism I’ve heard in years. But you have to give him his dues, he tried very hard to joke about everything he played. Maybe it’s terribly old fashioned of me to attend a concert and expect to listen to music, but have never felt short-changed not to have Martha Argerich crack jokes about Ravel and Chopin to make an evening interesting.

For this audience it was more like the taping of Have I Got New for You than a concert. Had at least his playing been up to scratch, one could possibly forgive his dull comedic routines, tailor made to amuse a certain demographic that this “inaccessible” type of music was just being presented as the new coolness. Another long prologue followed for the longest item in the bill, the Beethoven sonata. After he sat and started playing the sound was again as thin and the left hand was bashing quite heavily on the keys, a sound made horrible by the fact the production crew left on his radio mic so alongside the piano we got the sound of his fingers bashing the keys (in Rhodes lingo…not cool!). Beethoven, alongside Bach has such a distinctive writing that within 30 seconds you can tell it’s him. On Saturday night had I not have the lecture in advance, I would have struggled to tell you it was a Beethoven. The obvious technical flaws, made this one bumpy ride, the sense of overall shape and melodic progression seem to have never been of concern to him. An elegant piece let down by sloppy, downright amateurish playing. The double G&T I had at interval was much needed! Had I not have to blog about it, I would have left at that point, but the good company and the booming theatrical laugh from the very well known TV actor behind me were an alluring package.

Unfortunately he attempted a Rachmaninoff (Prelude in C sharp minor) that truly was awful, no obvious emotional content, just beefy bashing with the left hand while the right was attempting fidgety little ornaments more akin to embroidery than the Russian school. But the absolute worse was left for the finale, where we were treated to three encores, one of them being the Frankenstein version of Mozart’s  Rondo alla Turca he played at Cheltenham in the summer. My notes clearly mention playschool Mozart, no need to elaborate further. It got him a standing ovation, started by his pal Derren Brown (a few seats away from me)…I remained seated waiting for the end and hoping that this was the last encore. But then after cracking another not very funny joke about office workers being called back to work a bit more at the end of the day, he played Grigory Ginzburg’s transcription of Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King, as featured in his album (I figured that one afterwards when I checked on Spotify) he was barely keeping up with the rhythmic variation and pace, but clearly the audience was dazzled by the virtuosity.

A couple of Twitter followers reprimanded me for partially putting the blame on the audience and maybe they are right. This low level quality performance should not be programmed at a prestigious venue, part of the South Bank Centre. It would have been more at home in a more alternative venue making both the audience and Rhodes, not being weighted by the classical set up of a concert hall, feel more comfortable…also would manage to sell out, unlike this occasion.

All in all a dreadful evening, marred by amateurish piano playing and an audience that permitted it to happen and lapped up this drop of musical standards to the gutter. James Rhodes just gave us spineless renditions of compromised scores for the Apple generation. The type of people who think being a geek accounts to queueing around the block from one of their stores on launch day of the next iGadget. If only life was as simple and music making equally did not require the amount of skill and practise it does. He did a disservice to music, to the audience and himself.

A little extra for you, lucky people

Since the dreadful video of Rhodes “playing” on a TV breakfast show has been removed, have some glorious pianism by Martha Argerich, a woman who has proven over the last forty years that gimmicks are not needed for an intense experience

Viktoria Mullova – Beethoven+Schubert and a close up experience

2 Oct

I had only seen Viktoria Mullova live once before during the 2003 Proms.She was surrounded by a full Symphony Orchestra and playing the wonderful Prokofiev concerto. With her very powerful, vigorous, energetic playing against a populous orchestra is almost like a primeval battle of the individual against a mass of people. And she surely stands up in that context. 

Last Sunday it was a different situation altogether. She was accompanied by her own Ensemble made up of friends.I really did not know what to expect, especially as I had the chance to be on the fourth row. Would it be too close to appreciate her sound, would it be intimate?

Till the lights went down I was quietly wondering in my head, especially when both pieces they performed were totally new to me.

The Beethoven was very classical in feel, restraint and very poised. Seeing Mullova interact with the other six members of the ensemble was lovely. They only exchanged cursory looks and they were clearly at ease with each other. From my viewpoint the oboist was looking at Victoria with a tender devotion that one would expect from a dear friend. 

After the heights of the Classical tradition, the Schubert Octet was a plunge in deep Romantic waters. Their performance became more fluid and much more in tune with the beautiful harmonic lines that Schubert used in the piece. Being so close to the ensemble it was incredibly intimate, it felt as if they were playing just for me. It had a wonderful communicative feel to it. A totally refreshing experience.

The Programme:

Ludwig Van Beethoven Septet in E flat,
Franz Schubert Octet

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