Colourful Vivier, Debussy and Stravinsky from Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Phil

Sunday 17th March 2013, 19:30
Barbican

Vivier, Zipangu
Debussy, La Mer
Stravinsky, The Firebird

Los Angeles Philharmonic
Gustavo Dudamel (conductor)

Gustavo Dudamel

Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s four day residency at London’s Barbican Centre came to a close last night with thunderous applause and standing ovations. Although preceding concerts had received mixed critical reviews, orchestra and conductor were certainly on form.
The clever programming drew attention to the links between these three works, with each informing the others. Vivier’s attention to colour bled into the LA Philharmonic’s performance of Debussy, whose music brought out the sensual aspect’s to Stravinsky’s The Firebird. Dudamel and the LA Phil managed to balance textural delicacy with a firmness of sound to great effect.
Claude Vivier’s Zipangu was a gripping start to the evening. Even though it was completed as recently as 1980, this piece for 13 strings still pushes instrumentalists to their limits. Vivier’s writing draws attention to the physical exertion of the players, whether through percussive pizzicato or a lone double bass straining towards the instrument’s top notes. After a slightly shaky start, the players soon gained confidence in the kaleidoscopic subtleties of Vivier’s soundworld. ‘Zipangu’ was an alternative name for Japan in the time of Marco Polo, but the LA Phil players brought out the sense of otherworldliness in Vivier’s elemental chords and ethereal harmonies.
Debussy’s La mer requires careful attention to detail, but can quite easily descend into blurry Impressionistic vagary. This was not the case here: Dudamel maintained a sense of poise throughout, restraining the force of the LA Phil for choice moments to great effect. The slow tempo of ‘De l’aube à midi sur la mer’ worked extremely well, lending the movement expansiveness while the contoured melodic lines ensured a sense of direction. Dudamel luxuriated in the sonorities conjured by Debussy’s subtle orchestrations: a particularly memorable moment was the glowing cello chorale. The glittering ‘Jeux de vagues’ began at a leisurely pace, but Dudamel’s flexibility of tempo saw the orchestra carried along on Debussy’s surging lines. Although underpinned by a sense of foreboding, the usually tumultuous third movement here seemed to be a rather more distant storm. This meant that when the full brunt of the LA Phil (complete with enthusiastic timpani) was all the more effective once it did emerge. Dudamel’s vision for the piece was well-paced, and the players of the LA Phil responded with clarity of texture and sustained melodic lines.
Dudamel’s interpretation of The Firebird certainly emphasised the Debussian elements of Stravinsky. Once again, the LA Phil revelled in sensual textures: ‘The Princesses’ Round Dance’ was especially lush. From the veiled Introduction to the perky Pantomimes, the LA Phil brought out the theatrical elements of the score. The high point was undoubtedly their electrifying performance of the ‘Infernal Dance’, the lightning-speed tempo resulting in a heart-in-mouth rendition, prompting a few spontaneous claps to ring out at its finish. Some bold solo playing made this Firebird characterful and gripping, with the vigorous Finale prompting many of the audience to give a standing ovation.
The creative partnership between the LA Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel seems to be thriving, and the resounding applause suggests that the rest of the audience thought similarly. Some thoughtful approaches to some frequently-heard repertoire and a riveting performance of a rarer piece made this a memorable concert.

Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich and a world première from the Oxford Philomusica

Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre was nearly full for the concert on Thursday night. Billed “Russian Greats”, the programme mixed the familiar fare of Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich with a world première by the Oxford-based composer Chris Garrard. There was a tangible sense of anticipation before the concert began, and the audience’s encouragement throughout the evening surely encouraged the Oxford Philomusica to give such a spirited performance.

Read my full review at Bachtrack.

Written on Skin: a revelatory piece of opera

Written on Skin
In the week leading up to the ROH premiere of Written on Skin, writer and broadcaster Tom Service referred to Written on Skin as a watershed for British opera. Perhaps the last composer to garner a similar label was Britten, which just goes to show the weight of expectation placed upon composer George Benjamin. His first full-length opera, Written on Skin received standing ovations upon its premiere in the Aix-en-Provence festival in July 2012. The opera appears to be cementing its place in the modern repertory quickly: it has already received performances by the Netherlands Opera and the Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse, with future outings including Vienna, Florence and Paris.
Martin Crimp’s libretto is based upon the tale of Guillem de Cabestaing. Legend has it that the Occitan troubadour fell in love with the Lord of Rossillon’s wife. Caibestang was killed, and his heart fed to his lover, who killed herself upon learning of what she had eaten. Crimp interlaces the medieval action with commentary by a Chorus of Angels, their role reminiscent of a Greek Chorus.
Director Katie Mitchell chose to separate the stage between the medieval and the modern. She placed the angels in a room reminiscent of a laboratory, highlighting the references to twenty-first century life in Crimp’s text and giving the impression that they are simultaneously uncovering and projecting the past for our benefit. Indeed, the three characters in the love triangle were pushed and pulled about the scene like puppets. Perhaps most effective was Mitchell’s use of slow-motion movement to highlight this temporal disjunction: the Angel Archivists moved about their workplace at a different pace to the main action below them. This technique was used to great effect at the end of the opera, as Christopher Purves’ Protector chased Barbara Hannigan’s Agnès up the staircase.
The principal theme of the opera is arguably female liberation. ‘The woman’ gradually transformed from the docile possession of her husband, the wealthy and powerful Protector, to a named individual who takes her actions into her own hands. Significantly, Agnès is the only character in the love triangle to gain an identity other than an abstract category (she is originally referred to as ‘the woman’). The catalyst for this change is the Boy (counter-tenor Bejun Mehta). It is through his book of illuminations that the intelligent Agnès becomes conscious of her image, realising that she is able to shape her identity. This realisation triggers a spiral of events which culminate in Agnès’ suicide. But this action is her choice: the ultimate sign of her liberation.
George Benjamin’s score is particularly striking in its economy. Benjamin manages to imbue even the most thinly-scored, static passages with a simmering tension, making his deployment of the full orchestra even more devastating. A notable addition to his orchestral palette is the glass harmonica, used to create a trance-like sense of timelessness. The recurring horn cluster comes to signify an impending doom, this idea being confirmed at the start of the third (and final) part. This sense of accumulating dread is intensified through Benjamin’s use of extreme register. But there is no harsh juxtaposition of gravelly bass notes against vertiginous high ones: the process is a kaleidoscopic transformation of orchestral colour, deftly balanced by Benjamin’s baton.
The other notable feature of Benjamin’s music is its expressivity. At points of extreme emotion, the boundary between singing and speech becomes permeable: prime examples being Agnès’ exclamation as the Protector reveals what she is eating, and the Protector’s sobs as he reads out the Boy’s inscription in the book.
All three lead characters gave exceptional performances. Barbara Hannigan lent Agnès a curiosity and recklessness which fitted her character’s development. The cruel facade of Christopher Purves’ Protector crumbles as he loses his grasp over Agnès, replaced by an enraged desperation. Bejun Mehta portrayed the Boy as a mysterious and contradictory character, able to switch between passionate lover and apparent innocent.
Written on Skin exceeded my high expectations. The beautiful simplicity of Crimp’s libretto and Benjamin’s instinct for theatre have produced an utterly outstanding piece of opera. With an impressive staging by Katie Mitchell and exquisite performances, Written on Skin is simply unmissable, and I cannot wait to see it again.
Written on Skin is on at the Royal Opera House until 22nd March 2013.

French Connection: Review of Oxford University Sinfonietta, 5 March 2013

OU Sinfonietta March 2013
A French connection tied together the works in the Oxford University Sinfonietta’s programme last night. All of the composers had lived in Paris at some point in their lives, but the Sinfonietta’s concert travelled further afield (with Varèse’s contribution to the programme written in New York). Tracing a period from 1748-1947, conductor Ed Whitehead led the ensemble in repertoire encompassing a wide range of styles.
Rameau’s Overture to Zaïs describes the emergence of the four elements from chaos, setting the scene for the pastorale heroique. Aside from some slightly dubious violin passagework, the Overture seemed remarkably restrained. More attention to Rameau’s clear textures would certainly have energised the work, providing it with the momentum it needed.
Ravel’s musical monument saw the Sinfonietta turn to more contemporary repertoire with which they were clearly more comfortable. Each movement of the Tombeau de Couperin is dedicated to a friend of Ravel’s who died during the First World War (one movement commemorating the loss of two brothers), but the tone of the work is far less serious than such subject matter might imply. Playful rhythms, angular themes and chromatic harmonies distinguish Ravel’s suite from its baroque antecedents. The ensemble’s woodwind seemed particularly appreciative of Ravel’s orchestration, although I felt that the ensemble could have brought more subtlety to the composer’s subtle textures: oboist David Price was not afforded the prominence he deserved. Whitehead brought a lingering quality to the Forlana, but I felt that the movement lacked an overall sense of line (this was also the case in the Menut). The pastoral nostalgia captured in the Menuet was abruptly shattered by the skittish energy of the Rigaudon. The Sinfonietta embraced the flippant mood of this finale, sustaining the rhythmic energy and crisp articulation until the end.
Varèse’s Octandre was undoubtedly the highlight of the programme. A timely piece for the ensemble to choose (it was inspired by The Rite of Spring, which celebrates its centenary this year), this triptych pushed the eight players to the limits of their instruments. The concept of blocks is central to an understanding of the piece’s construction: instruments are juxtaposed against one another, and the piece’s structure is built out of a set of rhythmic cells. Varese expressed a desire that an intensity of sound be brought to this piece, and the Sinfonietta clearly took heed. From the merciless screams of the clarinet to the blaring brass, the players gave an unapologetic and gripping performance.
Throughout the evening, Ed Whitehead’s clear baton style had seen him coordinate the ensemble with ease. Poulenc’s Sinfonietta saw him supplement this precision with more expressive gestures to great effect at certain moments. Whitehead had clearly clicked with Poulenc’s style, elucidating the composer’s tragicomedy from the ensemble. The wind sparkled, the strings were boisterous (if not always completely accurate) and the brass solos well placed. From the glacial lines of the inner movements to the piquant finale, the Sinfonietta showed a sensitivity to the full range of Poulenc’s theatrical moods.
The Oxford University Sinfonietta rose to the challenge of a stylistic melting pot in last night’s concert. The ensemble’s wind section was on top form, and it was a pleasure to hear a gutsy performance of a lesser-heard piece of Varèse. Audrey Hepburn once said: “Paris is always a good idea”, and last night it certainly was.