SOUNZtender – NZ Music going for a song…..

SOUNZtender – the Concert

The Music:

John Psathas – Songs for Simon / Gillian Whitehead – Tumanako: Journey through an unknown landscape / Eve de Castro-Robinson – and the garden was full of voices / Ross Harris – Four Laments for solo clarinet  Chris Gendall – Suite for String Quartet

The Winning Bidders:

Jack C. Richards – John Psathas / Helen Kominik – Gillian Whitehead / Barry Margan – Eve de Castro-Robinson / Wellington Chamber Music Society – Ross Harris / Christopher Marshall – Chris Gendall

The Performers:

Donald Nicolson (piano) – Songs for Simon (Psathas) / Diedre Irons (piano) – Tumanako (Whitehead) / Gao Ping (piano) – and the garden was full of voices (de Castro-Robinson) / Phil Green (clarinet) – Four Laments (Harris) / The New Zealand String Quartet – Suite for String Quartet (Gendall)

Ilott Theatre, Wellington Town Hall

Sunday 30th May 2010

New Zealand composers putting their creative talents up for auctioning online? Local music patrons, sponsors and benefactors competing amongst themselves for compositional favours from our top composers? Amid the recent shivers caused by icy blasts directed by politicians and bureaucrats against music practitioners and disseminators such as the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and Radio New Zealand Concert, this composer-inspired project from the Centre For New Zealand Music represented a skyful of sunbeams brightening up a naughty world. Five composers, all previous winners of the SOUNZ Contemporary Award, proposed to each write a work for solo instrument (or, as it turned out, small ensemble) for the five top bidders in an online auction. It took little more than a fortnight for the bidding to bring in more than $20,000 to further assist with the work of SOUNZ in promoting and collecting and making more readily available the work of New Zealand composers.

The resulting concert was the culmination of more than a year’s preparation of the project, whose inauguration took place on May 14th 2009, the ensuing bidding taking place throughout the remainder of that month. The five successful commissioners won the right to work with a selected composer in relation to a particular composition. In each case  there was a degree of collaboration between commissioner and composer, details of which were in some instances (though not all) outlined in the concert’s programme notes. I found the details of all of this fascinating, recalling as it did my readings of past composers’ dealings with people who commissioned works from them – thought-provoking tracings of interaction between creativity and expectation, a process with an extremely colourful history.

So, a little more than a year after the inauguration of the scheme, composers and performers were ready with the fruits of their labours – the overall result was a concert featuring three diverse piano pieces, and a work each for solo clarinet and string quartet. No wonder that each of the performances of these new pieces promised a particular intensity, a sharp-edged focus that would require concentrated and committed listening, the process made all the more direct and immediate by the “shared-space” ambiences of the Ilott Theatre. Those who had been charged with the task of delivery were about to prove the worth of their discharge.

The first of the pieces, John Psathas’ “Songs for Simon” I found something of a disarming experience at first, the pianist (Donald Nicolson) launching into a simple, repetitiously patterned sequence in tandem with pre-recorded percussion. It established a kind of passacaglia form throughout which attractive melodic lines appeared, built up a certain textural ambience, and then gradually diminished, leaving the percussion to “round off” the sequence. The second part, entitled “Minos” by the composer, was much freer rhythmically and harmonically; and presented the fascinating spectacle of a “live” performer interacting in unpredictable, non-rhythmic ways with the pre-recorded sounds. Whereas the first part of the piece (interestingly titled “His Second Time”) had seemed a shade “formulaic” in its regularity, this whole second episode I found extremely compelling due to its improvisatory air. Such was the concentration with which Donald Nicolson seemed to be “listening” to his “partner” the latter’s utterances seemed also to take on a live, spontaneously-wrought quality. I liked the assertiveness of the percussion cadenza towards the end, and the piano’s dreamy, equivocal response which concluded the work. It would have been interesting to have had some inkling of the interaction between commissioner and composer regarding the work, its titles and sections, and its musical content.

Gilian Whitehead’s piece which followed relied entirely on “conventional” piano acoustics, the only departure from tradition being two sections in the work where the performer is invited to extend and further elaborate upon what is already written. Such was the extent to which pianist Diedre Irons seemed to have “swallowed” the work’s whole ethos I found it impossible to tell which sections these were in performance. Commissioner Helen Kominik dedicated this work to her great grandchildren, Kate and Tom Fraser, the composer thoughtfully making reference in her written notes to the music’s journeyings reflecting the progress of time and the coming of new generations. This renewal of life is suggested also by the piece’s title, “Tumanako”, which means “hope”, though a subtitle “Journey through an unknown landscape” gives further dimensions to the music. Arising from a recent trip through the Yunnan province of China, the composer’s inspiration was stimulated by the plethora of images and sensations, partly traditional, partly unknown, that were encountered  and experienced in a short time. The music was intended to reflect this profusion of encounters, and their relatively unrelated juxtapositioning, though I thought  detected a certain recurrence of some motifs. In general, the piece seemed to encompass whole worlds, with ideas often running in accord – sometimes as in a sense of great stillness existing at the centre of rhythmic activity, while at other times with contrasting characters kaleidoscopically changing, bell-like descents alternating with delicate birdsong-effects. Diedre Irons seemed to catch all of the piece’s moods, hold them for our pleasure, and just as tellingly let them go, playing throughout with such freedom and understanding – those deep, upwardly-echoing chords and the slivers of birdsong which ended the work made for one of many such breath-catching moments throughout.

On the face of things putting three piano pieces together at the beginning of the programme seemed a more pragmatic than artistic piece of programming designed to avoid constant piano relocation! In fact, such were the contrasts wrought by each composer’s music that the instrument seemed almost to be reinvented with each piece, perhaps most radically with Eve de Castro-Robinson’s work “and the garden was full of voices”. Bearing the description “for vocalising pianist”, the music requires both performer and instrument to go beyond conventional sound-parameters, the player asked to recite, to whistle and to vocalise, as well as play; and the piano “prepared”, as well as having its strings directly manipulated by the player. Commissioner Barry Margan, himself a fine pianist, took an active part in the music’s initial formulation, suggesting titles for two of the work’s three movements, and working with the composer on various sonic, literary and metaphysical inspirations. The outcome was a piece rich in poetic allusion, the associations intensified by the use of Bill Manhire’s poetry in the titles for both the overall work and its second movement, “moon darkened by song”. On this occasion the pianist was fellow-composer Gao Ping, who, closely miked, entered fully into the performance’s more theatrical aspects, whispering the opening words “I stayed a minute” and using both the piano’s conventional tones and the “prepared” registers of the instrument (which the pianist did in full view of the audience before the music started). The first part resounded with tui calls, antiphonally rendered through the different timbres created by the strings’ augmentations, and contrasted with richer ambiences created by cimbalon-like tremolandi – by contrast, the delicacies of the gently-strummed treble strings gave an other-world effect at the movement’s conclusion.

At the beginning of the second movement I began to wonder whether the pianist’s microphone had actually been set at slightly too high a level for the whistlings and vocalisings – although there was plenty of expressive impact the sounds seemed over-wrought, a shade too “enhanced” next to the piano-tones. Even so, the composer’s “ritualistic” description of parts of the music was adroitly brought into play, as the pianist initiated an almost primitive singing-along with the music’s melody line, as well as speaking in low, chant-like tones and clapping slowly with raised hands, as if invoking an elusive spirit of delight. In between, the piano sounds suggested different kinds of ruminations, surface musings rubbing shoulders with deep thoughts and charged silences, the spoken incantation “moon darkened by song” providing an apt description of the mystery. The “ancient chants” of the finale featured a whispered title from the soloist at the outset, and oscillating repetitions from the piano, the right hand occasionally seeking air and light in the treble, then resubmerging, the repetitions resembling a kind of dance-chant, which builds into an impassioned interplay of half-tone patternings, with resounding bass notes suggesting the abyss below our feet that stalks our existence. As it began, the piece ended as might a ritual, with doomsday-like gong-stroke notes that resounded, lingered and faded away.

Though the solo clarinet featured in Ross Harris’s work which followed provided plenty of contrast with piano timbres, there was no let-up in intensity, as suggested by the “Four Laments” title. Described by the composer as consisting of “four short and rather quiet movements” the music reflected upon and interacted with the sound of each of the movement’s titles, the word for “lament” in four different languages. The first, “Klaga”, was Swedish, slow-moving, very out-of-doors music, its wide-ranging notations suggesting the isolation of vast spaces, and associated loneliness, and a sense of a spirit communing with nature. This was followed by the Yiddish “Vaygeshray”, a rhythmically droll and quirky piece, engagingly angular in places, choleric in others, and with lovely sotto-voce stream-of-consciousness episodes that set off the more energetic outbursts. The “Tangi” movement featured long-breathed lines, flecked occasionally by birdsong, and echoed with haunting “harmonics”, two notes sounded simultaneously, along with the player’s audible breath as a third timbral “presence” (superb playing by Phil Green), creating an almost prehistoric ambience. The last movement was the Gaelic “Corranach”, somewhat redolent of a wake, with its lyrical opening giving way to snatches of mercurial, dance-like sequences, with ghostly jigs and reels fleetingly remembered. Phil Green’s playing conveyed a real sense of living the music throughout, with each sequence drawn into a larger, more equivocal and suggestive world of different life-and death enactments, deeply moving.

Although these SOUNZtender works were originally designated as commissions for solo instruments, Christopher Marshall, the winning bidder for composer Chris Gendall, decided to specify a work for a string quartet. Marshall’s idea was to propose four ubiquitous forms of music and commission a response to each, with a different instrumentalist in the quartet taking the lead in each piece. Gendall’s response was to abstract certain stylistic elements of each form, rather than attempt to imitate with a set of pastiche-style pieces. The result was a set of boldly-etched pieces whose characteristics seemed to leave their original inspirations behind, but whose sharp, if oblique focus still compelled attention in each case.

Canto, the first movement, spotlit the solo ‘cello, whose music represented a struggle to coalesce into any kind of song, despite the efforts of the higher instruments to entice their partner into lyrical mode. The swaying, sighing character of the next movement, “Scorrevole”, conveyed its eponymous character with great delicacy and beauty, while the third movement, “Tango”, seemed to be a kind of “noises off” realisation of the dance, the skeletal left-handed pizzicati evoking something gestural more than sounded. Here, the solo viola juicily intoned the beginnings of a melody amidst the “danse macabre” of the other instruments, which then all rounded on a single note, each voice colouring the contributing timbres and “bending” the pitch to somewhat exotic effect. There was plenty of ‘snap” to the playing from all concerned, suggesting a certain volatility, and rich chordings that broke off their sostenuto character to fragment in different and adventuresome directions. The final “Bagatelle” largely inhabited the stratospheres, the first violin’s harmonic-like shimmerings drawing similar sounds from the other instruments, whose subtly-shifting colourings brought different intensities to bear, before clustering around the tightly-focused tones of the leader in a nebula of other-worldliness.

What worlds, what evocations, what alchemic realisations! All composers except for Chris Gendall were present to share audience plaudits, along with the respective performers, a unique distillation of contemporary New Zealand music-making. People I spoke with afterwards admitted to favourites among those heard, though interestingly no one work seemed to resound more frequently than others throughout the discussions. As with all new music, though, premieres are one thing, and further performances are another – so it will be interesting to listen out for these works played in different settings and circumstances (although Ross Harris’s work “Four Laments” has already stolen a march on the others, being repeated by Phil Green at an Amici Ensemble concert in Wellington again, tomorrow). The commissioners proudly received their presentation scores of the works performed at a function in the Town Hall Mayoral Chambers after the concert – and the project was thus completed. Very full credit to the Centre for New Zealand Music, the directors Scilla Askew (recent) and Julie Sperring (current), its Trustees and volunteers and contributing commissioners and composers, for a notably historic and successful undertaking.

Ensembled delights from Amici in Wellington

AMICI ENSEMBLE – Wellington Chamber Music Sunday Concerts 2010

DEBUSSY – Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp / FRANCAIX – Quintette for Clarinet and Srings / ROSS HARRIS – Four Laments for Solo Clarinet / STRAVINSKY – Three Pieces for String Quartet / RAVEL – Introduction and Allegro for Harp, Flute, Clarinet and String Quartet

Amici Ensemble: Donald Armstrong, Cristina Vaszilcin (violins) / Gilian Ansell (viola) / Rowan Prior (‘cello) / Phil Green (clarinet) / Bridget Douglas (flute) / Carolyn Mills (harp)

Ilott Theatre, Town Hall, Wellington

Sunday 30th May, 2010

Whether it was my watching Harpo Marx in that memorable harp-playing scene from the film “A Night in Casablanca” which I remember seeing as a child, or my being smitten as a young man by the beautiful Rebecca Harris, the NZSO’s harpist during the 1970s, I’m not entirely sure; but I’ve always been drawn towards music written either for a solo harp or to music with prominent parts for the instrument. My first, wide-eared and open-mouthed encounter with Ravel’s “Introduction and Allegro” for harp, flute, clarinet and string quartet on recordings was thus a formative, “surprised-by-joy” experience, music which, to my ongoing regret, I had never had the chance to hear performed “live” before this concert. So, it was with a cocktail mix of pent-up excitement, anticipation, enjoyment and some foreboding that I prepared myself to sit through this afternoon’s beautifully-presented programme, awaiting those limpid wind chordings that announce the beginning of the Ravel work. Of course, I needn’t have worried that the performance was going to be anything less than wonderful, as I was pretty familiar with the work of all the soloists whose combined talents made up the Amici Ensemble – and, most importantly, I’d heard Carolyn Mills as both a soloist and accompanist already, playing the harp like an angel in one of the most beautiful performances of Britten’s “A Ceremony of Carols” that I ever hoped to have heard “live” or otherwise, with the Nota Bene choir in 2008.

It didn’t take me long to become embroiled in each of the items once the music started, firstly the Debussy, a work I didn’t know, a Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp, one of six chamber works planned by the composer, who unfortunately lived to complete only three of them. What struck me was the music’s absolute freedom of impulse within an extremely simple overall framework – a pastoral-like first movement, a gently-animated, occasionally excitable second movement with a touch of sobriety at its conclusion, and an energetic, free-spirited last movement, the work as a whole elusive and discursive in direction and intent, but undeniably attractive in places.  The players enabled us to dream the opening, flute and harp preparing and slowly awakening the ambience for the sinuous viola line, the harp quite “antiphonal” when contrasting its upper and lower registers. At times the detail wrought by the trio was almost Oriental in its delicacy and clarity of focus, the teamwork responsive and beautifully co-ordinated. A somewhat more earthy and animated second movement was largely energised by Carolyn Mills’ harp, the music losing some of its buoyancy and clouding over towards the end, allowing a moment of introspection to take charge, if only fleetingly. The harp also set in motion the finale with toccata-like insistence, flute and viola playing “poet and peasant” in places, contrasting both the colour and texture of their utterances throughout the ebb and flow of exchange. Despite the players’ advocacy, it was a work I confess to finding more admirable than lovable – subsequent hearings may well change my attitude.

But I must confess to a weakness for Jean Francaix’s music – its droll humour, ready sentimentality and unrepentant volatility, qualities I think of as being very French. In some quarters Francaix’s music is thought of as shallow and vapid, with too ready a reliance upon surface effect; but I like his juxtapositioning of states of emotion, as if keeping foremost in mind the principle of life being “a tragedy to the heart and a comedy to the intellect”. The composer’s Quintette for Clarinet and Strings demonstrates this lightness of touch and playfulness of wit – a sweetly nostalgic opening, but with strongly-etched violin lines nicely projected here by Donald Armstrong, and with Phil Green’s liquid clarinet tones making the music glowing like a ferris wheel turning in the sunset. Very much the music’s protagonist, the clarinet initiates a new, impish mood, gurgling with anticipatory glee before dancing off with a “come on!” gesture. The ensemble energises the music beautifully throughout, pausing for a few melancholic reflections, before taking up the adventure with renewed vigour, the instruments tumbling down the hill with child-like delight at the end. Such winning, infectious playing in the cake-walk-like scherzo, the players then leaning elegantly into the trio, again beautifully characterised, with sentimental clarinet set against more ascerbic, knowing strings, the music seemingly reluctant to return to its scherzo-ish manner at the end. Gillian Ansell’s viola established a mood of sombre beauty at the slow movement’s beginning, the music constructing great archways of gathering and falling tones, the playing full of tenderness. The insistent, nagging finale again had the clarinet playing clown to the strings’ more dogged purpose. I loved the clarinet’s waltz tune, played by Phil Green with wonderful insouciance atop the strings continued rhythmic insistence, as was the solo instrument’s outlandish cadenza, Francaix stressing his “comedy to the intellect” stance by gathering up the work’s strands for a classic throwaway ending. All very stylishly done.

Some of us had heard Ross Harris’s Four Laments for solo clarinet earlier that day at the SOUNZ Tender concert, and were thrilled to hear a new work being given not one but two chances to impress in public. The performer and venue were the same as before, but, as with the behaviour of colours when juxtaposed differently, the music sounded different in this context, perhaps with clarinettist Phil Green taking the opportunity to characterise more fully his view of the work. Each piece was inspired by the concept of “lament” as expressed in four different languages; the first, “Klaga”, from Sweden, the sounds ghostly and hollow-sounding, with brief impulses of movement overtaken by a prevailing sense of isolation. The Yiddish “Vaygeshray” had extroverted energies, behind which seemed to lurk an undertow of anxiety and unease, while the “Tangi” movement featured full-throated wailing, occasional birdsong, and evocative overtones mingled with gestural breathing, the ‘mauri-ora’ (breath of life). Finally the Gaelic “Corranach” evoked a wild landscape and snatches of a dance-ritual, scraps of jigs and reels, the age-old disintegration of a richly-wrought life. Again, Phil Green’s playing “owned” the music, realising sounds that somehow seemed “unlocked” rather than newly-made.

Donald Armstrong entertained the audience most engagingly by way of introducing the programme’s next item, Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for String Quartet. These were written in 1914, a year after the first performance of the composer’s epoch-shaking ballet “Le Sacre du Printemps”, and are unconnected character studies. They were originally published without titles, but Stravinsky later orchestrated them and added a fourth, to create his “Four Etudes for Orchestra”, transferring the names to the quartet pieces. Donald Armstrong asked the strings of the quartet to demonstrate aspects of the work beforehand, and talked about things like the nagging “housewife theme” in the first piece, and the famous London circus clown Little Tich, whose “eccentric movements and postures” Stravinsky modelled the second movement upon. The players confidently characterised each of the pieces, the obsessive four-note folkish repetitions of the opening Danse, the “jerky, spastic movements” of the second piece Excentrique, and the almost liturgical homophony of Cantique, the final one of the set.

After these were done, we settled back to enjoy the afternoon’s final work, Ravel’s “Introduction and Allegro” This performance seemed to me to realise everything one could have wished for from the music, apart from a profoundly uncharacteristic wrong note from the clarinet at one point, a slip which seemed to take Phil Green aback as well! But Carolyn Mills’ harp playing was a joy, the strings and wind achieved miracles of delicacy and balance throughout, and the whole ensemble seemed at one in realising the piece’s contours of intensity, colour and emotion. Nothing was shirked, with tones both diaphanous and forthright, as required, from the ensemble, through the “running” momentum instigated by the harp, and the intensification of the argument by the strings, generating waves of joyous energy leading towards the final upward flourish. My reaction to it all was coloured and flavoured by pleasurable expectation, I admit, but it seemed, nevertheless, to me to be a brilliantly successful performance. For this reason I didn’t need “Greensleeves” as an encore afterwards, but it would have pleased the punters no end, and was, I must report, nicely realised.

Poinsett Piano Trio at Waikanae

Waikanae Music Society

The Poinsett Piano Trio: Deirdre Hutton (violin), Christopher Hutton (cello), David Gross (piano)

Beethoven: Piano Trio in E flat major, Op. 1, no. 1

Chopin: Polonaise-Fantasie in A flat major, Op. 61

Halvorsen: Passacaglia after Suite no. 7 in G minor by Handel

Brahms: Piano Trio in C major, Op. 87

Waikanae Memorial Hall

Sunday, 30 May 2010

Chamber music is alive and well in Waikanae; the audience here was larger than it usually is at the Sunday afternoon series at the Ilott Theatre in Wellington.

Wellingtonian Christopher Hutton was making a welcome return, with his Trio, as part of a 14-centre tour of New Zealand, of which this was the last concert. The Trio is based at Furman University, Greenville, South Carolina. It is named for Joel Roberts Poinsett, a botanist, statesman and physician from South Carolina, whose name is immortalised through his discovery of the Mexican plant with the large, red flowers, which is named after him.

Christopher Hutton is to be commended on his programme notes, which were excellent.

The opening Beethoven trio was played with a nice delicacy, suitable for the composer’s early work, which was very much a classical composition though (as the programme note said) he did not copy Mozart or Haydn, but had his own voice. Despite this, the piano was still the most important part of this trio.

The slow movement was enchanting and lyrical, while the scherzo was cheerful and straightforward. Precision, but also richness of tone marked the performance.

The solo piano work of Chopin was preceded by the pianist’s comments describing the work. Using the printed score, he gave a sympathetic, commanding and engrossing performance of this varied work.

Halvorsen’s reworking of Handel’s Passacaglia (since rearranged for violin and cello from Halvorsen’s violin and viola setting) proved to be thoroughly charming and attractive. The music was beautifully articulated by both players. They were in absolute accord. The writing became increasingly complex and difficult, but the performers were absolutely on top of it, and brought the piece off delightfully.

The Brahms trio was the major work on the programme, and provided an interesting contrast to the Beethoven work – here there was much work for the strings; the piano never dominated. Yet the ensemble playing was impeccable, with complete rapport between the players.

Brahms’s melodies are often full of pathos; this characteristic was conveyed with feeling and deep sonority.

The scherzo was particularly notable for the effects it featured, and for its lovely trio. The finale was full of contrasts, and was admirably played.

This was Brahms without barriers: there was nothing between the audience and the composer’s intentions.

The Trio played as an encore the scherzo from Shostakovich’s second piano trio. This was brilliant, but very different from the concert’s main fare; the trio was a component of the other programme the Poinsetts played around the country.

This is a very able Trio, and I hope they will tour again before too long.

Wallowing in International Art while staying at home

The Habit of Art, by Alan Bennett

The National Theatre production, directed by Nicholas Hytner

Richard Griffiths (Fitz/W.H.Auden), Adrian Scarborough (Donald/Humphrey Carter), Alex Jennings (Henry/Benjamin Britten)

Film screened at the Penthouse Theatre, Brooklyn

Tuesday 25th May

Musings and a review by Peter Coates.

This week has been a very exciting one for me. Last Sunday I saw a performance of Wushu martial arts by twenty-four Chinese visiting experts. This was spectacular, colourful and beautifully choreographed and performed in front of an appeciative audience at the Wellington Town Hall. Modern dance choreographers in Wellington should have been along to witness it.

This was followed by another Chinese delight on Thursday. In this case it was an illustrated lecture by visiting sculptor Prof. Zhao from Shanghai. Prof. Zhao was visiting Wellington for a week, working with Richard Taylor, of Weta fame, on ideas of mutual interest.In a sensitively interpreted lecture, illustrated by a long parade of excellent visuals, we saw the dynamic sculptures of the professor, huge in size, using a wide variety of sculptural media mainly on what one would describe as ‘politically viable’ subject matter. Despite this he manages to gain strong individual expression in the subjects he chooses, and his technical brilliance is undeniable. His combination of technical skill and perceptive observation won his an award at a Venice Biennale. Prof. Zhao brought with him formulae for a form of clay unused in New Zealand which he demonstrated to Richard and his team, producing four portraits of Weta colleagues at a rate of 25 minutes each. We were lucky to have Richard along to add his experiences in China to Prof. Zhao’s story.

But this was only one aspect of his lecture. It was followed by an amazing collection of slides of the professors own collection of Chinese tradition craft – thousands of shadow puppets, pottery items, household utensils, weaving, printing blocks, painting ,calligraphy and sculpture. All had been assembled since the cultural revolution. Now highly regarded as important cultural heritage, the Chinese government is building a special museum to house this amazing collection. One day I would love to see this collection “in situ”. So much for the Chinese section of my week.

Next, the British section. On Tuesday I visited the Penthouse theatre in Brooklyn to see the British National theatre production of Alan Bennet’s “Habit of Art” . This is an example of the  relatively new technique of recording top performances overseas and playing then a matter of weeks later in  specially selected theatres throughut the world. This was originally recorded on  April 22nd ,and shown here last week. It is a system already used successfully in opera,but which is now moving into theatre. Having both produced and designed work for the stage and television – Stravinsky’s “Soldier’s Tale” in 1982 and recorded an opera “live” from the stage for television – Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutte” in 1979 – the prospect for me of seeing the effect of such work today outside my DVD library was very appealing.

Alan Bennet had constructed  a play that was particularly appealing to me. It was set as a  rehearsal for a play about the relationship between Benjamin Britten and W.H. Auden,who had originally worked together on documentary films for the British Post office –

“This is the night mail crossing the border,

bringing the cheque and the postal order,

letters for the rich, letters for the poor…

For the shop at the corner and the girl next door……” etc. etc….

They must have had impact on my memory because I saw those films sixty years ago ! The other work I remember was Britain’s first opera “Paul Bunyan”- with the libretto by Auden –  which I saw at London’s Sadlers Wells in the 1960’s. I must admit to not remembering much about that opera, which was originally written when Britten was sheltering in the USA during the second World War.

“The Habit of Art” is a play within a play. The actors played themselves playing Auden and Britten, moving in and out of character as the rehearsal concept demanded. Richard Jennings as Auden (Fitz as the actor) was particularly brilliant, his size and facial characteristics being very appropriate, while Alec Jennings as the less charismatic Britten (Henry as the actor) caught the character of Britten brilliantly and played the piano accompaniment needed in scenes with a boy soprano,with great aplomb.

The action of the play was set while Britten was having trouble with the composition of what turned out to be his last opera “Death in Venice”. His apparent fascination with the theme of “lost  innocence”, a theme that permeates most of his operas, was getting his friends down. Even Peter Pears tried to dissuade him from completing the opera.  Britten in this play went to his friend Auden for reassurance. Despite having a similar homosexual background which allowed him some appreciation of Thomas Mann’s original text, on which the opera was based, the friends did not manage to resolve Britten’s concern. The play was full of brilliantly witty dialogue,which we are beginning to expect from Bennett, and it is well worth seeing if you are fortunate enough to go to London.

But not here in this production. The problem is that the Screen actors Guild will only allow three performances of these video productions over a very short period of time, so it is unlikely to be seen here again. What about a local production, Circa or Downstage ?

I personally thoroughly enjoyed the whole production. I could easily believe  that I was in the National Theatre, and joined in the reactions of the recorded audience. I heard every word  and the close-ups gave me a great appreciation of the  important detail of the acting performances of Richard Griffiths and Alex Jennings. As for the future don’t miss Dion Boucicault’s  “London Assurance” a National Theatre production coming  to the Penthouse soon. It is “an absolute corker of a production, one that will be talked about and chuckled over with reminiscent affection for years to come”says London’s Daily Telegraph critic. Later in the year we will be able to see the new NT production of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” that is coming in the next season.

Now to the last, but certainly not the least, of my splendid cultural week. This time from the Metropolitan Opera, New York. It was the Sunday 29th May screening of Rossini’s  “Armida” production, starring the great Renee Fleming and five top coloratura tenors!!! I didn’t know the world had so many!

I suppose most of us have got used to the use of microphones on singers to allow most of the modern music theatre classics to be performed. But this is opera, and it is untainted accoustic sound we are dealing with. Singers must be able to project their voices through an eighty piece orchestra, and communicate to several thousand in a large, often accoustically unsympathetic, theatre.

The main problem is balancing the sound, and the placement and use of microphones so that they are not seen, but can balance the sound to fit the perspective of the picture. This an artform for the sound engineer, but I did spot one shotgun microphone in the orchestral pit. When recording the one opera that I recorded “live” from the stage with an audience I was lucky to have John Neill working with me to solve such problems. John is currently “Head of Sound” for Peter Jackson’s Park Road Post.

Although I did detect six “dropouts” during the four hour performance I was not at all put off the performance by these. I have only had the experience of two Rossini operas ‘the Barber of Seville” which I produced for television,and a brilliant “Count Ory”production by Antony Besch which I saw in London in the 1960’s. “Armida” was totally unknown to me, and because it was a first ever production by the Metropolitan Opera, it would be unknown to most opera lovers.

Unknown it might have been, but like all Rossini operas it was full of very tuneful music, the usual wonderfully accelerating finales that are a Rossini trademark, some absolutely wonderful tenor-soprano duets, coloratura tenor arias and duets, a tenor trio worth paying the thirty dollars entrance fee for, alone, and a dramatic coloratura aria of immense difficulty sung by the great Renee Fleming, that ended the opera with amazing elan.

Described by Renee Fleming as “the most difficult soprano aria in opera” this is amazing in its demands – especially with its wide vocal range and the coloratura gymnastics involved.  But this was not a one woman show. I must also commend the work of yet another great lyric tenor on the international scene – Lawrence  Browlee, a young negro singer who has featured in “The Barber of Seville” and “Cinderella” productions at the Met. He had plenty of top “C’s” and at least two top “D’s” to contend with in the opera, which he did comfortably; and his articulation of the coloratura was accurate and neat. Juan Diego Florez – who is my favourite tenor and who will be in next year’s Met Season playing the principal tenor role in “The Count Ory”- beware!

The opera, we are assured, is about love and revenge..but what opera isn’t ? To emphasize this point the producer creates two miming characters who play the roles of these two emotions – characters who press the point throughout the production. I was initially uncofortable with their use, but by the last act ,when they interacted successfully with Renee Fleming in her demanding final aria, I was persuaded. The concept was entirely justified.

Amongst the other gems in this production is a ballet involving female dancers dressed as soldiers, who become ballerinas and devils that become ballerinas and finally go back to being devils. Sounds odd ,but it is very amusing. The costuming throughout the opera is sumptuous and colorful, especially for the demons.The set is simple but accoustically excellent. The production had its weird elements – with huge insects inhabiting the stage during the third act – but most of the time it was highly entertaining.

One of the features that I particularly enjoyed was to hear the singers and producer talk about their roles during the intervals. Very interesting – but how do they do it, when it is obviously recorded during a performance of a a three hour opera that is so physically demanding for them?

Getting back to the theme of my article, isn’t it wonderful how we are no longer as isolated as we have been from the glories of world culture ? How we no longer have to pay vast fortunes to travel to Europe, Britain ,the United States or China to enjoy the cultural heritage of others and the latest plays and operas and the wonderful new stars that are seemingly being discovered all the time. In one week I saw some outstanding entertainment from Britain, the United States and China. It’s a sign of the times.

But this is only the beginning. In November the 2010 Met season will begin with eleven  new productions including both “Rheingold” and “Walkure” with Bryn Terfel, “Don Pasquale“ with Anna Netrebko, “Lucia du Lammermoor with Natalie Dessay, “Boris Godunov”,”Don Carlos”. “Il Trovatore”, and the “Count Ory” with Juan Diego Florez, and ”Capriccio” with Renee Fleming. Further film delights include “The full Monteverdi” in June…which looks and sounds – according to the brilliant trailer – absolutely  scrumptious. It looks like I’m going to be going to the Penthouse a lot over the next year…if my pocket can bear the strain !