Rosenblatt Recitals 2016: Javier Carmarena / Angel Rodriguez

Tenor Javier Carmarena opened the penultimate 2016 Rosenblatt Recital with a powerful flourish from Rossini’s Le compte Ory which at times felt out of balance for the otherwise accommodating Wigmore Hall.

Je crois entendre encore from Bizet’s Pearl Fishers imposed a gratifying mood change and saw Carmarena recalibrate his vocal power for the auditorium. What was resulted was exquisite: the taut fragility of his top register and the showman-like dynamic range he deployed, made the lyricism take on an almost miraculous quality in places.

In Donizetti’s Tombe degli avi miei…Fra poco a me ricoverò Camarena’s voice had settled and opened out – fortissimos now suited the interior perfectly, and he succeeded in crafting a plaintive quality with a most remarkable whisper-like articulation on the word ‘morte’.

Similarly, Ed ancor la tremenda porta and Ah! mes amis! Quel jour de fête! saw Camarena steer us through another change of mood with remarkable poise and a gratifying lack of pretension.

The second half took on a darker mood, with Tosti’s Quattro canzoni d’Amaranta altogether more reflective and in places mournful. In the third canzona, In van preghi, in vano aneli, the tenor demonstrated his ability to draw the audience in and leave us hanging with an amazing dynamic range: we weren’t left stranded; only dangled over a precipice, safe in the knowledge that we would, eventually, be pulled back. That is quite some achievement.

The remaining Mexican songs by Lara awere, for me, a bigger gear-shift. These felt more like encore material. In places, the Lara seemed rather polite, almost too western, lacking a much-needed authenticity in order to help the musical transition. Moral’s Besos robados and No niegues que me quisiste were, compared to the Lara, less light in musical style which helped round-off the programme.

Rosenblatt Recitals are consistently uplifting affairs; the audience sees to that. Effortless performers make reviews an uphill struggle. Thursday night’s shimmering applause for Javier Carmarena was undoubtedly well-deserved for an amazing treat. Sometimes, that’s all that needs to be said.

 

 

What us classical music audiences take for granted

Earlier this week the London Symphony Orchestra announced details about a free open air concert in Trafalgar Square on Sunday 22 May.

The concert, the fifth concert in the Orchestra’s annual BMW LSO Open Air Classics series and conducted by Valery Gergiev, features an all-Tchaikovsky programme, including the 1812 Overture and Symphony No 4. There’s also an arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake suite for which 42 young musicians from East London from the LSO’s On Track programme, and 23 musicians from the Guildhall School of Music & Drama play side-by-side with members of the LSO.

Expect thousands at the event which has sustained an enviable air of celebration about it. For the fifth year running a UK orchestra with a global reach is rooting itself in a now iconic public space in London. The event is fast becoming an annual tradition, a reminder when London and its population was transformed by a string of communal artistic endeavours and played host to the Olympics in 2012.

BMW’s involvement is key, making it possible for people to experience live music for free. That isn’t new, nor is it unusual. But, like the last phases of the OAE’s crowdfunding project this week, it is a situation which concert-goers either aren’t aware of, or take for granted.

For all the moaning about ticket prices and concerts not being accessible enough (whatever that really means), the reality is that orchestras up and down the country are already subsidised and its that which, to a greater or lesser extent, makes it possible for them to stage the concerts in the first place.

The OAE were looking for around £1600 for their 2016 Night Shift Pub Tour – a Night Shift concert in a London pub every month (see their promotional video above). At the end of yesterday they’d exceeded their search and pulled in £1881 from 58 backers in 28 days. It’s that money which helps maintain their ticket prices at £10, in turn making it an attractive proposition to potential concert-goers. Without the funding, the concerts can’t go ahead.

They’re not the only ones of course. There are a great many other orchestras who know, for example, that the limitations of the venue they’re performing in means that the cost of staging the concert won’t be met by ticket sales even if they’re playing to a capacity audience. Each concert staged is done so knowing its going to make a loss.

This is not an earth shattering revelation. It’s the reality that keeps marketeers and fundraisers awake at night. But it is something I sometimes forget as a concert-goer. And if I forget it – or rather, if I take it for granted – I wonder just how many other concert-goers and classical music newbies do the same.

That got me thinking. Do orchestras need to be a little more transparent about the way they work to the average customer? Do they need to be less austere and less pompous about their need for funding? Do they need to be less apologetic with their audiences about the realities of their business model? Why not be as clearcut as the OAE have been since 2011 about their Night Shift Tour: in order to X, we need Y, so that you, audience member, only have to pay Z to hear great music.

Stop presenting ‘giving’ as something retired people (if they have the funds available themselves). Instead, speak directly to the punters and explain the realities of how your organisation works. Stop putting your donations section at the end of the programme book bought at concerts, and lead with it instead. Tell the story of how it was possible the orchestra came to be on stage tonight, instead of making it part of the appendix.

Perhaps orchestras and venues think they are doing it enough already. Personally, I think they can go further. There is no shame in talking about money and your lack of it (just make sure you don’t come across as pompous, entitled, desperate or overtly political).

Without that critical subsidy, such joyously communal experiences like the LSO Trafalgar gig, and a whole host of other events we’ve come to take for granted, would be impossible to stage.

The LSO Open Air Classics Concert is on Sunday 22 May 2016 at 6.30pm in Trafalgar Square, London. The programme consists of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, an arrangement of his Suite from Swan Lake, and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 4. Valery Gergiev is conducting. More details on the LSO Open Air website.

Peter Maxwell Davies (1934 – 2016)

Earlier today the death was announced of composer Peter Maxwell Davies. Here’s a round-up of what some people have said about the composer today.

Overgrown Path is one of a handful of writers who succeeds in paying suitable tribute whilst avoiding sentimentality.

Yes, let’s pay our respects, but we must avoid the untimely death of a great musician becoming nothing more than today’s big thing, to be replaced by whatever new big thing breaks tomorrow. We need to remember Peter Maxwell Davies and the others that we have lost recently. But we need to remember them in perpetuity

Jessica Duchen was touching in her description of ‘Max’.

He was a powerful, trenchant, inspiring, gritty, determined, high-spirited, outspoken, eloquent, humorous, startling, original, fabulous, push-the-boat-out composer of our times.

Classic FM have a good overview of the composer’s life and output. The Daily Mail has some great archive pictures charting the life of the composer.

Writing for the Telegraph, Ivan Hewitt said:

It’s easy to say that he simply turned from radical youngster to conservative, but the steely blue eyes and determined jaw of the old man showed that something remained unappeased inside Maxwell Davies. There was an anger in him, which spilled over briefly in the satirical fury of those works of the 1960s and early 1970s.

Imogen Tilden’s write-up for the Guardian includes a quote from Radio 3’s Controller Alan Davey who said:

We have lost a musical giant, a major composer with a strong and unique voice through all parts of his extraordinary career, from his early avant garde musical theatre works to his symphonies and his work for children and young people. It is a sad loss to the world of music and we will remember him through his recordings and the glorious spirit that shines through his music.

Gramophone Magazine included an archive anecdote of a performance of Max’s first performed work:

His first appearance in our pages, incidentally, was back in January 1963. In a report from Manchester, about the young group of musicians with links to the city, Arthur Jacobs wrote: ‘Together, Ogdon and Howarth performed a sonata by Peter Maxwell Davies, against whose name I scribbled in my programme the enthusiastic words: “A real composer!”‘

And on Slipped Disc, Norman Lebrecht wrote of Peter Maxwell Davies

Max settled into an establishment role, accepting multiple commissions for symphonies and concertos – ten of each – and speaking up for music education and endangered orchestras. He was a prodigiously articulate man and a very congenial colleague.

David Warbuton (Conservative) MP appeared on Channel 4 News with composer Judith Weir, both sharing their experiences of the composer; BBC Radio 4’s Front Row also paid tribute.

My memory of him – or rather, his work – was coloured by A-Level music studies during which I was introduced to his work 8 Songs for a Mad King. My teacher extolled the work’s virtues; I was terrified by it. As I became more familiar with his music, the avant garde and the industry, so I came to understand and appreciate his contribution to the genre.

Peter Maxwell Davies was a remarkable composer who’s spirit, drive and passion could be heard in the range of his compositions. It was also there whenever he appeared on the platform with a baton, or when he was invited to speak. The fact that so many luminaries refer to him simply as ‘Max’ shows the affection and respect all had for him. If the classical music world needs advocates, then we find ourselves depleted tonight. Just as Overgrown Path advocates, let’s see the great man remembered in the years to come.

First live stream from Wigmore Hall

A much-anticipated digital strategy has come good this evening: a special preview concert streamed live from Wigmore Hall.

The shots are sensitive, the balance isn’t over-produced and the lack of voice-over is glorious. Wigmore’s live stream is as exciting as the BBC’s pre-iPlayer Listen Again was when it first launched.

wigmorehalllive2

Thank you to whoever had the foresight to make this a priority. It’s not like Wigmore Hall is inaccessible to me on a daily basis, but knowing I could drop in online at (almost) any time makes me jump up and down with ridiculous excitement. At least, that’s what I thought whilst I was watching a string quartet on my mobile whilst I soaked in the bath …

wigmorehalllive3

At the end of the concert as the applause rang out and the end graphic flashed up on screen, one small twist revealed itself. The next live broadcast isn’t until 21 April. Which presumably means I’m going to have to go and attend a concert in person instead. And maybe that’s the point.

In case you’re wondering, that isn’t a complaint. There are any number of reasons why there wouldn’t be live streams of every concert. Performers may not agree to it without a bigger fee and the Wigmore may not want to give out their prize jewells without something being exchanged. Seems fair enough.

But, just for a moment, there was a delicious atmosphere in the air, as though we’d been given a glorious treat. I would willingly pay to get access to such content. More venues need to make the leap. The return may not be high, but the audience would undoubtedly appreciate it.

OAE Night Shift, Kings Place, January 2016

Monteverdi at the Night Shift

Last night I performed some presenting duties at the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s Night Shift concert at King’s Place.

Night Shift concerts, and their younger siblings Mini Night Shifts, are special affairs where people of all ages sit, stand or lounge, some with a drink in their hand, listening to an hour of music interspersed with a bit of chat. It is the most gloriously simple transaction. The concerts have been staged for at least six years and they’re still going strong. The crowds still keep coming for these beautifully intimate events (last night’s late night gig was attended by 120). This isn’t a fad.

On being a presenter

Presenting is a strange affair. I first had a stab at it in 2011. My confidence has improved, but I still recognise many of the observations I made after my first attempt in 2011.

As presenter, you’re not necessarily called upon to be the expert, but your primary role is to link between music, getting the performers to share their expert knowledge. They are the ones with the years of professional experience, the ones who have immersed themselves in their chosen field and the ones for whom waxing lyrical about the music they’re playing shouldn’t be that much of a tall order.

So, on that basis, the presenter shouldn’t really need to know anything. And if they do, they need to back off a bit. It’s not their moment. Presenter are not there for their knowledge. Presenters are on stage to keep things moving along.

Respect the players

To a certain extent, that’s all true. But if you’re standing on stage in the presence of professionals who have honed their skills over many many years and know far more than I do, preparing yourself (at the very least so you can avoid spluttering howlers) would be, at least, the respectful thing to do.

So I did just that. Did a bit of reading around about Monteverdi, listened to some archived radio programmes about Cavalli and drew up a playlist of repertoire, all to get me in the zone. The process was a bit like cramming for an exam, but it helped establish rapport with those performers and director Robert Howarth.

Once proceedings had got underway, the 45 minute concert followed a natural course. General introductions – a reasonably well-executed plan to make the audience feel welcome – followed by chit chat with director and the other musicians. All of this did, on the whole, see me asking the questions I was interested in and, I hope, questions I thought the audience might interested in too. A little bit of  a laugh in places – notably poking gentle fun at a musician who seemed unable to keep his music on his stand – and before I knew it, the gig was over. All too short.

I love the experience. I love the fact that it can at first seem incredibly daunting, respect the fact that I will feel slightly nauseous just before things get underway, and will delight in those magic unrehearsed moments will yield an insight or generate some laughter. All of that happened. Yay.

But, looking back on it twenty-four hours later, some other thoughts spring to mind. A mix of marketing considerations, and thoughts about audience consumption. All of what follows is considered in the context of the wider classical music world, not inside the bubble of or in reaction to the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

Obscure names put people off

Sometimes, seemingly obscure composers or terminology can, in a very low-level way, scare people off. We shouldn’t be embarrassed about that. At the same time, we shouldn’t start from the assumption that the audience doesn’t have the capacity or the desire to learn new stuff. As a classical music fan I know when I’ve had my fill or when I’m losing the plot a bit. I want the thing I love to be an immersive all encompassing experience for everyone.

At the same time, the classical music industry is obsessed by context. As listeners or consumers the first question we ask ourselves is ‘what period is this music from?’ and then make an assessment as to what the likelihood is we’ll like it. If I’m listening to pop music, I’ll never ponder what decade its from before I start listening. Why should classical music be any different?

Adopt a different listening strategy

When you take adopt a deliberately opposite listening strategy for new or unfamiliar music, then the result can be incredibly rewarding. Monteverdi’s music (in particular, that which I was introduced to as a result of this concert) has an indescribable effect on me at an emotional level.

When we chatted before the concert, Robert went some way to reflect that when he explained how he felt when he was first introduced to Monteverdi’s music. There is a physical sensation linked to the emotional response which is as unusual as it is difficult to describe. I experienced it during the OAE’s rehearsals earlier in the evening, especially when the voices started to sing. There is a quality to the tone which is refreshing and nourishing. And I defy anyone to not feel nourished by the sound of a glorious amen, Monteverdi-style. It makes no difference to me when that music was written. Should it really matter to anyone else?

Live performance is where its at

But perhaps most powerfully for me was the reminder that even the best recordings of music don’t convey the magic of the composer’s art. Like no other I’ve listened to, Monteverdi commitment to making his music inhabit the text he’s using (rather than the other way around) gives a remarkable authenticity to the finished product. Regardless of whether you understand what’s being sung or not, you are hearing the human soul when you hear voices sing Monteverdi’s music. That is the only way I can describe what was for me, a revelation. The only way to experience that is with an open mind at a live performance.

But you’d probably benefit from something equally potent if you’re being introduced to classical music for the first time. You need someone who has passion and who can communicate that passion (as opposed to a string of dull facts about a composer – that’s different and that’s valueless). I reckoned I saw an illustration of joy Monteverdi’s music offers in the face of Robert Howarth both before and during the concert. If you’re going to be introduced to something, have a passionate advocate do it for you. If the music resonates then it will stay with you forever.

Not only that, I reckoned I saw it reflected in the faces of the audience last night (only a presenter really gets to stare at the audience during a concert – the musicians and the conductor certainly can’t, or shouldn’t). Everyone was fixed on the platform during the performances. And as a fan of classical music there is no greater sight in an auditorium than seeing an audience transfixed.