I’m in the Purcell Room at the (THE – note use of forbidden definite article) Southbank Centre. Yes, you heard me, the Purcell Room, a venue I’d not seen and frankly tried to forget since the early 90s when playing in a concert of Brian Ferneyhough’s lesser known chamber works to an audience of 5 beardy weirdies with plastic bags and bad jumpers.
Some of the beards are back, but this time accompanied by some truly out there ‘taches, bad shirts and dodgy footwear, both on and off stage. But no one cares because the music these boys are making is blowing the roof off and making it very hard to sit still.
They are Beats n Pieces, a 15 piece jazz big band from Manchester whose phenomenal talent, headed by director/composer Ben Cottrell, has raked them in an impressive brace of international awards and rave reviews in the few years they’ve been going.
Beats n Pieces (above). Aren’t they darlings?
Apart from the irresistible raw funk grooves, seductive blue harmonies and biff! pow! classic big band brassy interjections, the thing that makes them stand out is their laser precision ensemble playing.
Denada big band in rehearsal (above). Can you BELIEVE that’s the Purcell Room?
They’re sharing this London Jazz Festival stage with another A-grade big band, Norway’s Denada. Whilst Bits n Pieces oldest member is 29, Denada’s youngest member is 33, yet still these two bands have influenced each other whilst in situ at various European jazz festivals, and several of the pieces played in this gig were written for each other.
What a thrilling sound good big band playing makes! It’s instantly sexy, and this is one of the few times I can remember a packed venue of performers and punters alike all looking unbelievably happy – all evening.
“We Norwegians like coming to London” said Denada’s engaging band leader Anders Eriksson (centre). “Anywhere’s cheaper and warmer than Norway”.
Whilst the Scandies were perhaps more polished technically, went a little further in harmonic language and were generally better looking (as even Ben himself said), the raw energy of the Beats boys was irresistible and this is a gig I won’t forget in a long time.
And for the record, I like their nerd weirdo geek gamer look. So refreshing in this airbrushed age.
They probably would have fitted in well to the general aesthetic at a talk given at the Barbican a couple of weeks ago, the introductory event of a weekend’s “Total Immersion” in the music of Oliver Knussen in his 60th birthday year.
For some reason the Barbican’s online box office had (erroneously) decided the event was sold out, and it took me TWENTY MINUTES to break past hatchet-faced security and persuade them to let me in to the room of 17 people, all of whom I knew, without a ticket. Impressive dedication to the cause on both sides I would say.
Meanwhile, a couple of floors below there were literally hundreds of people, many sitting on the floor, queuing patiently for up to 3 hours to get into the Rain Room at the Barbican’s Curve gallery, where there was an exhibit that allows you to control rain so you don’t get wet.
Rain installation by rAndom International. Actually it does look rather cool.
It says a certain something about the state of things if a discussion given by some of our greatest musical minds on one of our greatest living composers attracts a handful of people, whilst metres away people are prepared to sit for hours on a hard floor in order to have the privilege not getting rained on.
But I spose the attraction is understandable if you live in England.
The Knussen weekend featured performances of most of his major works, including the celebrated Netia Jones double bill production of his operas Where the Wild Things Are and Higglety Pigglety Pop! (described at some length in earlier posts from performances I saw at both Aldeburgh and Tanglewood Festivals in the summer), played by the fabulous Britten Sinfonia, conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth to packed houses.
Netia Jones (right) surrounded by some of Maurice Sendak’s Wild Things drawings. Her Sendak-based animations made me listen to the music even more, and not get distracted by visual embellishment. She’s clearly got musician’s ears.
It’s NUTS that these tremendous operas are not done far more often. When I asked his publisher why, she told me that opera houses are box-office wary of the “children’s opera” label, and that many of those that are willing insist on having pared down instrumentation, which is obviously ridiculous for such finely-wrought music.
They have sadly missed the point of these amazing and utterly original works. Like, no one has trouble with doing L’Enfant et Sortilege, for example, which could equally easily have the children’s opera tag (but doesn’t). Let’s hope that this wonderful production and its recent outings around the world re-open discussions.
Throughout the weekend, performances were of the highest order, given by musicians Knussen has worked with and written for, including a fabulous chamber concert given by Alexandra Wood (violin), Huw Watkins (piano, whose opera In the Locked Room has just toured with Music Theatre Wales) and Ryan Wigglesworth (piano).
The programme included the luminous Autumnal for violin and piano, and solo piano pieces Prayer Bell Sketch and Ophelia’s Last Dance, this last one of my favourite instrumental pieces of Knussen’s, with it’s unconventional harmonic language and glowing piano resonance.
One of the world’s best horn players, Martin Owen (principle BBCSO horn but currently auditioning the Berlin Phil), gave a stonker of a blow of Knussen’s horn concerto with the BBC Symphony Orchestra who were also on cracking form conducted by the composer. In the same concert Claire Booth gave the best performance I’ve ever heard her or anyone else do of Knussen’s heartrendingly beautiful Whitman Settings and Requiem – Songs for Sue.
Actually I’ve no idea how she did it, having put out big time in the leading role in Wild Things the day before, along with the fabulous Lucy Schaufer as Jennie the Dog in Higglety Pigglety Pop.
Claire Booth versus the Wild Things.
There was also a very impressive concert by the Guildhall School of Music ensemble, conducted by Richard Baker with his customary precision and attention to the score. You don’t have to go far when reading about Knussen’s work to find the words “jewel-like”, and it’s this exquisite detail that makes it so difficult to do well, requiring great technical skill, control and refinement from the players.
It’s reassuring to know that there are students now out there who are not only able to play music of this intricacy, but want to.
Resonance is an integral part of Knussen’s music for me, written as it is from the bass up, with minute attention to chord spacing and instrumental colour that creates a lustrous glow. The more I listen to his music, the more the multiple musical layers reveal themselves from within this halo of resonance and overtones, offering something new on each hearing.
Doesn’t this programme booklet look a bit 007?
It’s one of the few times I can remember going to back-to-back concerts of music by one composer, and during the weekend I started to have the strange sensation that I was listening to small fragments of a much vaster whole, a sonic landscape of astonishing beauty and complexity to which we’d been granted access in small glimpses.
It stopped mattering if those pieces have actually been written down or not. There was a sense they already exist anyway, and his music glows across time.
There’s a brand new book about Niccolo Castiglioni called The Rose Doesn’t Ask Why? by pianist and musicologist Alfonso Alberti, the title based on the words of German poet and mystic Angelus Silesius, that sums it up rather nicely.
It blooms because it blooms
It doesn’t care for itself
It doesn’t ask if anybody sees it
Angelus Silesius, right. 1624-1677. A certain resemblance to Gaugin wouldn’t you say?
You need to check out Knussen’s latest CD, Autumnal, one rose that HAS been seen, and received 5 star raves across the board.
The CD’s cover pic (left) is of Grant Wood’s Spring Turning (1936), painted in his typically flat, stylised form. There was a slight stir when it was discovered that according to art historian R. Tripp Evans in his book on Wood, this innocent spring scene is in fact a detailed depiction of the receptive buttocks of a male nude.
Making this a somewhat gay CD cover. But I think it looks much more like the front of a nude woman. And what do art historians know anyway?
Grant Wood (1891-1942) is best known for his paintings depicting the rural American midwest, particularly the painting American Gothic (below), an iconic image of the 20th century.
Typically for the man who has spent his life supporting and promoting the works of other composers, Knussen dedicated the performance of his Requiem to Hans Werner Henze, who died a few days before the concert.
I met Henze twice. The first time was in a rather chi-chi Mayfair pub where I managed to bring off one of the worst social malfunctions of my whole life, the memory of which still occasionally wakes me up at night in clammy horror.
Within minutes of the food arriving, I made a sudden, sweeping, conversationally-illustrative gesture, knocking a full glass of Chateau Posh onto Henze’s partner Fausto’s immaculate dove-grey Armani suit, and dinner.
Fausto instantly fled, suit and poise ruined. But HWH didn’t move a muscle. Sitting in exactly the same position, smoke spiralling lazily from his ever- present cigarette, he said;
“Ah. Ze Zoological garden. Red wine. Sooo theatrical”. And thus I was named.
It was at that moment that his startling resemblance to Blofeld hit me with full force.
Hans Werner Henze. 1 July 1926 – 27 October 2012
(It’s very hard to describe the way he spoke English, so to give you an idea, you need to watch this tiny YouTube snippet, and wait for the phrase, “James, what is it honey?”. It tells you everything you need to know.)
The deadly repartee of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, 007′s nemesis and composer of the opera “Elegy for Young Lovers”.
A few weeks later I saw him again at a weekend immersion event (yes, another one) of his music (incidentally, programmed and conducted by Knussen) and asked him what it was like to hear so much of his music over three days.
“Ah,” he purred. “I just can’t get enuff off it”.
The composer at his home in Italy (below) with the famous James, star of above YouTube snippet. I’m told there are Roman remains at the bottom of the garden amongst the olive groves.
There’s a story Olly tells about ringing up Henze (a close friend) to see if he was OK shortly after an earthquake not far from the HWH villa outside Rome. He got Fausto on the line:
“The whola house she was a shakin!” cried Fausto (in my attempt at Italian accent). “The terra she was a tremblin’. Eet was-a terribile!” (etc.)
“Uno momenti, I get ‘ansi for you”.
(sound of distant footsteps receding. Extended pause. Followed by hesitant footsteps approaching the phone.)
“Hello?” said Maestro uncertainly. “Ah, hello Oliffer.”
On being asked if he’d survived the earthquake in one piece there was a pause, then the unsteady reply:
“Earthquake? Here? Momenti.” (muttered conversation the other side of the receiver – “Earthquake?” Fausto: “Si si si! The whola casa she tremolando! Da roof she shake moltissimo!” etc. etc.)
(Return to the phone) “Oh….” said Maestro. “I thought it was just me”.
A few days ago I watched/listened to the film of the 1958 London premiere of Henze’s Ondine at Covent Garden, and marvelled at how truly expressive his music is. For ballet audiences at the time it must have seemed shockingly modern, yet for his Darmstadt contemporaries, Henze was utterly beyond the pale. A shameless romantic who wore serialism like a fur coat.
Boulez famously referred to him as “that hairdresser”. Which is not nice, let’s face it.
Fonteyn as the water sprite Ondine, playing with her shadow.
Having grown up ballet mad, seeing Fonteyn in her favourite role choreographed for her by Frederic Ashton was thrilling. However technically sparkly classical ballet may have become, I believe there are few artists even now who can match her uncanny ability to encapsulate a character through gesture. As Ondine, Fonteyn’s fragile mercurial movements embued with childlike whimsy take on a translucent quality. It’s easy to imagine she’s a spirit. She floats aloft on the music, sensitive to every nuance.
I got to see one of her last performances ever at Covent Garden as Juliet to Nureyev’s Romeo. Rudi stalked around with devastating predatory sexiness in cloak and spray-on tights, but still didn’t quite manage to upstage her.
What beautiful, tragic lovers! My childhood pin-ups…
Whilst listening to some of Henze’s music this week in his honour, I came across a remarkably down to earth interview he gave about how to bring new music back to audiences. Speaking in 1988, he called the absence of audiences for contemporary classical music “the greatest ever catastrophe in European art”, and talked of the need to woo listeners back with “loving cunningness” and for doing away with the “bad behaviour” of composers who turn their backs firmly away from the people. Compassionate communism, to coin a phrase, informed every word.
Sitting behind Henze one time at a concert of his music, I overheard him crooning tenderly to himself, “Ah! Such orchestration!”
He was right.
RIP Hans Werner Henze.
And RIP Elliott Carter.
Carter at his work desk (above). Daily composing of his kind of music must be the mental equivalent of doing acrostics, keeping his mind razor sharp until he finally decided he needed to rest.
What a shock it was to learn of his death! Although he was 103, like many I’d come to believe he was immortal. The last piece I heard (live) of his was the premiere of his double concerto for percussion and piano Conversations last year at Aldeburgh, performed by Colin Currie and Pierre Laurent Aimard, conducted by Oliver Knussen (who is now officially a recurring motif in this post). Written when Carter was 102, the music is tough, butch, insistent and immaculately constructed, sounding with all the vigour of a young man.
Far, far away from the sensual world of Henze.
Here’s the opening lines of the Guardian’s obit for Carter:
“The American composer Elliott Carter, who has died aged 103, was, apart from Pierre Boulez, the last survivor of the heroic age of postwar musical modernism, and perhaps its greatest exponent. In the 1950s, when Carter wrote his first masterpieces in his new self-made, fabulously intricate language, that age was in full flood. By the time he wrote his playful late masterpieces, it had long since passed into history.”
Except perhaps to quote Private Eye’s in house poet, E.J. Thribb:So. Farewell Then Elliott Carter, Avant-garde American composer. You have died Aged 103. You always hoped That if you lived Long enough People would understand your music. Sadly, this was Not the case. E.J. Thribb (17 ½ and not understood)
Mention should also be made of the inspired blog, Fuck yeah Elliott Carter
Since EC’s death, the author has changed the tone to a more reverent tribute to the composer’s life and works, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he inadvertently widened the Carter fan-base with marvellous moments like these:
“Percussionists sure love to bang on shit. One thing they can’t fucking do, though, is read “pitches” so I kept it real fucking easy. Only 4 goddamn notes, but I wrote in as many metric modulations as I fucking could. Hear that shit? Yeah, of course you don’t. Fuck you right in your tin ear! “
“I studied fucking counterpoint with fucking Holst. Did you hear what I just said, fucking HOLST. The motherfucker that wrote “The Planets”. He didn’t include Pluto, because it wasn’t a fucking planet then. Then it became a planet, and now it fucking isn’t again. In that way I’m older and more reliable than a god damn celestial body!” — Elliott Carter discusses astronomy.”
Genius. Total genius.
On the same subject, singer Amanda Dean was pleased to find that the building where Stockhausen’s Mittwoch was on in Birmingham this summer had some examples of the extensive range of Stockhausen soap dispensers.
Not content with Sirian outpourings and personal hygiene products, it would appear that the composer of Licht and Gruppen had also moved into wholesale catering in the Hamburg area, as spotted by composer Richard Barrett.
But perhaps this should come as no surprise, given the astonishing merchandise this particular centenarian has recently inspired.
There was a deluge of comments following my iPic Facey release of the Britten Pears cufflinks, perhaps the pinnacle of this particular style range, prompting speculation about further possible additions to the collection, including a fragrance:
and soap: Pears. For Queers.
not to mention Albert Herringbone jackets and the timeless Ben and Peter Y-fronts, to name but a few of the more printable suggestions.
But for now you’ll have to make do with this tasteful BB iPhone cover. Badge and umbrella also available from the music shop in Snape Maltings concert hall.
Online furore was also caused by this moving image of George Benjamin trapped IN the Barbican after the final Knussen concert. It took us nearly 20 mins to pin down security to rescue the composer of the hugely successful new operaWritten on Skin, thus bringing a whole new meaning to the concept Total Immersion.
He had a lucky escape.
Unlike New York and East coast America.
HMS Bounty, a replica of the original mutinous three-master, which sank in Hurricane Sandy, losing 2 crew members.
Exactly, and I mean exactly the same image appeared at the opening scene of the Met’s recent production of Thomas Adés opera The Tempest a couple of days before, prompting speculation in some mad quarters that he had in fact caused the whole disaster.
Perhaps not so crazy when you remember that a few years ago his oratorio America, A Prophecy, based on Mayan prophecies, included the words, ”They will come from the east/ Their god stands on the pole/ They will burn all the land/ They will burn all the sky . . . / Your cities will fall.” And was followed by, erm, 9/11.
The fabulous Audrey Luna as Ariel, causing havoc with a chandelier. (Actually it was her acrobatic body double for this scene. But who cares.) She has the most astonishingly pure top, and I’m talking stratospheric, range of any soprano I’ve ever heard.
His new opera, which he’s started working on, is called “The Exterminating Angel”…
I saw the Tempest at my local cinema c/o “live from the Met”, a new experience for me. Cinema sound systems – well, certainly the one at Notting Hill Gate – are not usually set up for singers, chorus and orchestra, and visually one is completely at the mercy of the camera man, who in this instance was fixated on close-ups of the soloists.
Not that I was complaining in sexy Prospero/Simon Keenlyside’s case (left), whose titsy tattooed torso provided eye candy counterpoint to the dramatic power and richness of his voice.
It was also a new experience to see the same people getting interviewed with CNN slickness by dramatic soprano Deborah Voigt as soon as they came off stage between acts, whilst the stage crew shifted scenery around them.
Seeing the heavily made-up singers’ faces at close range, as opposed to the usual distant blur, reminded me of Moira Shearer’s crazy technicolour makeup in the 1948 film The Red Shoes.
Tom told me that right up to the dress he was rather worried about one terrifying scene change in the middle of Act 3 which never, and he stressed never once worked in rehearsal. All the scenery moves during an aria, he said, and the set is transformed. Simon Keenlyside standing on it.
Tempest director Robert Le Page‘s last outing in New York was a Ring with a very complicated moving set. On the first night the Rainbow Bridge got stuck and the Gods couldn’t enter Valhalla.
In this same fated production, Deborah Voigt (left) made her entrance as Brunhilde on opening night only to trip violently on the precarious set and fall flat on her face. Sprawled over the stage. Can you imagine?
Alex Ross said the show was the biggest fiasco in operatic history.
“Pound for pound, ton for ton, it is the most witless and wasteful production in modern operatic history”
But not this one, which worked beautifully and had stellar performances across the board.
There are moments of radiant beauty in this music, the drama pouring through the space allowed by Meredith Oake’s concise couplets. As Ariel, finally released by a humbled Prospero, ascends to a higher realm in the opera’s closing scene, her song seems to rise up into infinity with her as the orchestra’s music unfolds outwards in steadily expanding sequences of 5ths and 2nds. It’s unforgettable.
Thomas Adés in rehearsals at the Met.
Too bad I couldn’t go in person.
But I did get to meet incredibly nice rock journo Paul Morley, a fellow-panellist on a Radio 3 Music Matters show hosted by Tom Service, live at the Sage in Gateshead, battling through the loaded question “Is Classical Music For Everyone?” Trying to get anywhere near the heart of this huge issue was a bit like speed dating, folk singer Kathryn Tickell and Birmingham Opera’s Graham Fitch pitching in full tilt with the rest of us in the terrifyingly compressed 45 mins available.
Paul Morley was the man behind Frankie Goes to Hollywood. He invented those T-Shirts “Frankie Say” etc. He told me about making THAT video with all those naughty leather boys in caps and cages and said even he was a bit scared of one or two of them.
It must have been a mark of initiation into adulthood for a whole generation when it clocked that the chorus everyone had been blithely singing along to at school:
“Relax don’t do it, when you wanna go to it.
Relax don’t do it, when you wanna come”.
Was in fact a basic tantric sex instruction.
Paul told me that he once worked in the environs of Jimmy Saville at the Beeb (that sentence wasn’t sposed to be connected to the previous one.) Apparently, Sir Jimmy always answered the phone with the line, “Honestly guv, I thought she was over 16”. An effective smoke screen of the truth.
But what Paul found truly offensive was the appalling music Jim’ll would insist on playing. Did you know that Jimmy Saville invented the double turntable setup? In other words, the modern DJ? An innovation motivated, alas, by the need for more hands-free time at discos…
Moving swiftly on to a shocking discovery made whilst watching a recent in-flight documentary called “Marley”.
Am I the only person who didn’t know that Bob Marley’s Dad was WHITE?
Here’s the Wiki facts – so it must be true:
He traveled to England where he joined the British Army in August 1916 at LIverpool, enlisting in the Labour Corps (Home Service). He had previously been employed as a Ferro-Concreter (no idea what that is…) in Cuba.
Marley’s future wife Cedella Malcolm began her romance with Captain Marley, a colonial supervisor, when he was sixty years old and she was merely seventeen. He died in 1957 when Bob was 10.
Bob had this to say on the subject:
““My father was a white and my mother was black. Them call me half-caste or whatever. Me don’t dip on nobody’s side. Me don’t dip on the black man’s side nor the white man’s side. Me dip on God’s side, the one who create me and cause me to come from black and white.”
On which wise note I say goodbye, but invite you to stay tuned for the next Z blog, which concerns itself with modified musical Barbie’s, literary masterworks, fashion tips from the Huddersfield Festival and a fair spattering of cabaret…