Opera: Joan Sutherland dies

The Sydney Morning Herald reports that opera legend Joan Sutherland has died at the age of 83, after a long illness.

I met Joan Sutherland when she led a Bel Canto masterclass course at the Britten-Pears School for Advanced Musical Studies (now known as the Britten-Pears Young Artists Programme) back in 1996.

It was a major affair for the Britten-Pears School. We were anxious to make sure her stay was a pleasurable one. We anticipated a diva and made arrangements accordingly.

When she arrived it was Joan Sutherland clear that our admirable preparations were fundamentally unnecessary. She wasn’t the archetypal diva we assumed someone with an international career such as hers would be. We relaxed almost immediately. We felt at ease. She put us at ease.

She was in fact utterly charming, hugely self-effacing and as a result a joy to be around. Yes, the post-graduate students attended their classes with a mixture of fear and awe. But that was always going to be the case. The overriding memory of those 10 days fourteen years on is simple. Her poise combined with an easy personable nature made her a joy to be with and an inspiration to all. The mark of a true professional.

Sutherland recently featured in an hour long BBC Four documentary entitled “Legends – The reluctant Prima Donna” about her early career in London. As patron of the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition, she presented the prize at last year’s competition.

Music: BBC SO Neruda Songs Barbican

The opening concert of the BBC Symphony Orchestra on Friday 1 October 2010′ had a strong programmatic thread running through it. And like all good concerts, the programme spoke on more levels than merely just quality of the playing or the interpretation of the music.

The concert’s undeniable success was in spotlighting two different takes on death. Wagner doesn’t so much confront the darkness so much as embrace it. His obsession with love and death summed up exquisitely in the Prelude and Liebstod from Tristan and Isolde.

But Wagner’s music – all encompassing as it is – is hugely self-indulgent, or at least feels that way. At other times the composer’s willingness to be public about the intensity of his emotions in his music can feel intimidating. I’m getting close to loving Wagner. I haven’t quite got to that point yet.

In comparison, the second work on the programme by Peter Lieberson was a stark contrast in terms of intimacy. His setting of five sonnets by Pablo Neruda, as beautiful and moving as it was manageable in terms of scale. Scored for voice, strings and harp this was a slightly less enormous kind of love.

The work didn’t suffer because of it. More, on a first listen – this was the UK premiere – Lieberson simple yet effective settings touched deftly.

Soloist mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly was a great choice. Her rich, engulfing tone combined with the orchestrations of Lierbson’s music created a sound world difficult to leave behind, reinforcing both composer, his muse, the work’s initial performer and the intensely personal sentiment. A rare achievement for a piece of contemporary music.

Here’s an audioboo during the concert interval.

Review: Les Miserables / Barbican Theatre / London (2010)

The all-too-brief run of the touring production of Les Miserables at the Barbican Theatre, London comes to an end next week. And when it does, the company should feel justifiably proud of their achievement. The first night definitely set the bar very high.

Not only did casting the show from previous productions ensure the quality of the musical performances remained high throughout the Barbican run, but the combination of stylish set and lighting designs reinvigorated the reputation of the work as a whole. This is how musical theatre should be. All the time.

Musically, Les Mis isn’t the pappy sentimental work most might assume. Aside from the the ubiquitous songs like “Empty Chairs”, “Master of the House” and “Bring Him Home”, composers Boubil and Schonberg’s writing is tricky to execute vocally and instrumentally. Whilst the pop opera might be devoid of the more traditional recitative, the demands placed on performers by the composers when they’re charged with moving the plot along are considerable. This is no ‘easy sing’.

And that’s where the cast’s experience really paid off. For the majority of the show such investment seems effortless. The audience takes it for granted. The pace is established at the beginning of the preamble. We are completely sucked into the action. Good singing is a given up until the showstoppers, when we’re suddenly reminded of just how accomplished those performers are.

John Owen-Jones delivers a refreshingly ham-free rendition of “Bring Him Home”. The deft casting of the young Cosette succeeded in avoiding the schmaltz which usually exudes from “Castle on a Cloud”. Earl Carpenter made the crowd roar with appreciation with his faultless delivery and terrific control and projection of “Stars”. Gareth Gates too, continues to prove his mettle.

These key performances, combined with the superior scoring and the inventive effects used to visualise underground Paris and Javert’s demise made the standing ovation at the end of the two and three quarter hour performance a foregone conclusion.

But there’s another – slightly darker – success this production has achieved. It’s thrown light on the London production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera. I saw it for the first time a few weeks ago.

Whilst Les Mis predates Phantom of the Opera by 6 years (the former premiered in Paris in 1980), both shows have run in the West End for around about the same time – Les Mis for 25 years at The Queens Theatre and Phantom for 24 at Her Majestys Theatre.

Les Mis – and especially the Barbican run – steams ahead in terms of musical integrity and production. Phantom in comparison feels creaky, in terms of plot, music and production. The scene changes are noisy. Some of the ensemble numbers feel a little raggedy. The set is in need of a redesign too. And whilst Lloyd Webber’s score offers a collection of set-piece crowdpleasers throughout the first half (which no doubt pulls in the crowds night after night), its lack of pace makes the interval seem like a lifetime away.

The relative speed of the second half is – pretty much – because there’s a bit more going on. But in spite of this, there’s no investment in the characters in that there’s no feeling of jeapordy during or redemption at the end of the show.

Despite it’s ongoing popularity and box-office success the Phantom production now appears like it needs a massive injection to either kick-start it or bring it painlessly to its end. It is crying out for reinvention, especially in terms of set design. Unfortunately, the Barbican production of Les Mis just made that more obvious now.

Les Miserables Cast List

Ryanair’s policy on musical instruments …

Ryanair’s Head of Communications Stephen McNamara bullishly defended the airline’s policy on musicians having to buy a second seat for their musical instruments on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row tonight by saying:

… musicians are good at reading music, but not so good at reading the terms and conditions …

The discussion chaired by presenter Mark Lawson also featured the Chief Executive Incorporated Society of Musicians Deborah Annetts who called for an industry wide standard policy on the thorny issue.

This isn’t a new problem. Professional musicians have long mumbled about how some airlines fail to take care of large musical instruments such as double basses. They were doing it when I was an orchestral manager in the mid-90s. Tours were the cause of much stress as a result. And rightly so. Those very instruments are vital to a musician’s work.

But with the advent of social media and the rise of an airline whose marketing strategists remain unabashed at such ideas as charging for using the toilet, implementing a charge for overweight passengers or introducing a stand up seat, those riled by Ryanair’s policy on musical instruments in the hold and in the cabin are galvanised. The Facebook group Musicians against Ryanair has been gaining momentum for most of the year. Its membership now stands at 13,729. That’s quite a lot of professional musicians asking for change.

It’s claimed the airline now levies an additional charge for those musicians whose instruments go over the weight allocation for each passenger’s hold luggage allowance. Not only that, it seems that in some cases musicians who previously had been able to take their smaller sized instruments on board as hand-luggage are now being asked to purchase an additional ticket. Ryanair isn’t the professional musician’s airline of choice at the present time.

Even young aspiring musicians aren’t exempt either. Interestingly however, young violinist Francesca Rijks who was told by Ryanair to buy a £190 ticket for her violin who missed her flight when her parents attempted to book the seat, ended up having a better experience with rival budget airline EasyJet who let the 12 year old take her instrument on board their service as hand luggage.

Only today on my return EasyJet flight from Barcelona I spied a professional violinist storing her instrument in the overhead lockers in the cabin. Francesca Rijks wasn’t a one off. If EasyJet can allow suitably sized musical instruments on board as a piece of hand luggage, couldn’t Ryanair?

The picture used in this blog post is called “Stolen Violin”. It was published by Flickr User Luz A Villa and is used here in accordance with the terms of the Creative Commons License.