And then it’s over

hallI got the Summer School blues on Wednesday, the day when you realise the week is going faster that seems possible. Then I got the Wall on Thursday, when you give in to the temptation to skip the second half and seek enlightenment in a glass of red. Then on Friday, I got my mojo back when I got to play the Bach Double with a bunch of all-comers headed up by the Skampa Quartet. That was it. Fixed grin for the rest of the day.

Now, the other side of a six-hour meditation on the living hell that is the A303 on a Saturday in August, and I’m back in the real world, reflecting on a week well-spent with my father, doing the thing we both love so much.

The concerts at the end of the week passed by in a bit of a blur. The ‘Made for Dartington’ production of The Pirates of Penzance was a triumph – another canny piece of theatre-making by Richard Williams, adapting a work which was, at the time of writing, a cutting rejoinder to the theatre industry, into a fond, gigglesome piss-take of this whole silly business. My father retreated to the bar, fiddling with his hearing aid and muttering, “It’s not that I don’t like Gilbert and Sullivan, it’s that I can’t hear the dialogue…” I laughed and bought him a beer. It’s wonderful to see G & S at Summer School, just as it’s wonderful to see a program that variously offends, irritates, delights and wows people in equal measures.

The final night concerChoirt was, as always, for the Big Choir, and a stirring performance of Haydn’s Nelson Mass, with impressive top notes from the sopranos and the tenors hanging on for grim death in those fugues. Before that, Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2, with Joseph Havlat as soloist. Havlat is a rehearsal pianist and repetiteur for the conducting course, one of those unassuming but essential characters who float around at these events, like the mild-mannered janitor with hidden powers. It was great to see him transform into a superhero in this nutty, spiky, soulful work, and great to hear the Dartington Festival Orchestra’s principal trumpet out the front of the stage too.

A final observation. This week I played chamber music most days. It was a mixed bag — I’m not sure the “Adequate Quartet” is a going to work, marketing wise, as a name — but it was always fun and often thrilling. I particularly enjoyed meeting two instrumental music teachers from Bristol, string players on the frontline of music education. Their day job is giving 20 minute lessons to a room full of 10 eight-year-old beginner fiddle players. They came on a teacher bursary, which is a new scheme from the Summer School Foundation, a fully-funded busman’s holiday where they can refresh their skills and remind themselves why they do this bloody thing. It’s an inspired idea. The two teachers were completely blown away by the experience. Hearing new things, seeing great artists and great teachers in action, playing new repertoire, pushing themselves beyond anything they thought possible. They’ll take that energy with them back to the classroom and the kids they teach will be the better for it.

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From the very first prospectus, for Bryanston 1948 (courtesy Summer School Archive)

Job well done, Dartington.

G and S and DP

The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.

Dorothy Parker, queen of the throwaway line, the acid rejoinder. Toast of the Algonquin. Writer, poet, lover… And, as I found out on Wednesday, also social activist. Who knew?

Dorothy takes a Trip is a one woman show created for Dartington International Summer School 2016 by director Richard Williams, in collaboration with singer, actor and all-round stage animal Sarah Gabriel.

DorothyparkerSorry. Correction. It’s not a one woman show. It’s a three-hander, but one of the characters plays the piano, and one doesn’t speak. Gabriel’s role is as a lawyer who is looking after Parker’s estate, including the disposal of her ashes, which are in an urn in the filing cabinet (presumably filed under P). Through a conversation between the lawyer and the ashes, we learn how Parker was so much more than throwaway lines.

Beauty is only skin deep, but ugly goes clean to the bone.

If that sounds morbid and slightly weird then, good. Because, listening to Parker’s brittle poetry, you realise that morbid and slightly weird is entirely in the spirit of this brilliant mind. Gabriel has a fabulous line in dead-pan Dorothy delivery — you can just imagine the louche langour of the bright young things in 1920s New York. The music puts you there too — a deft choice of songs ranging from Noel Coward to Milton Babbitt, sung with impeccable diction and a lovely sense of period. (Veronica Shute, at the piano, is a sensitive accompanist in a difficult acoustic).

I can’t tell you the final gag, but it’s worth waiting for. I hope Gabriel and Shute get to perform this again, further afield.

Conduct becoming

First concert for the Dartington Festival Orchestra last night, with this year’s crop of student conductors. It was an all-Beethoven program, with Joanna MacGregor clocking up her third concert in as many days in the Triple Concerto, with (equally frantic) Adrian Brendel (cello) and Chloe Hanslip (violin), and a changeover on the podium for every movement.

Conducting Course, 1983

Conducting Course, 1983 (Photo: Charles Davis, Summer School Foundation Archive)

Two hours earlier, I’d been sitting on the grass exchanging memories with a couple of DFO legends. It’s 25 years since I last played in the conductors’ orchestra, back in 1989, when Diego Masson was running the course. It was bloody hard work then, as I’m sure it is now. An opera, a choir concert, a couple of orchestral concerts, and deciphering the more or less vague gestures of rookie stickhandlers. Some of them were good. Very very good. Joyously good. Others were very, very bad. Viola player Nicky Hocking (now Smith) reminded me of the nicknames we used to give those poor lambs to the slaughter. Who could forget ‘Brown Jumper’? Or ‘Branston Pickle’? Or ‘the Surrey Fascist’?

To give them their due, it’s a tough gig for the conductors too. I imagine it’s not unlike a student teacher standing in front of a class of thirteen year olds. Except that the class is made up of 55 professional musicians who may or may not have hangovers but certainly have no time for fools. The viola section, led by the legendarily foul-mouthed Peter Gumbley, backed up by the razor tongue of Nicola, were particularly intimidating. Some of the students rose to the occasion. Some we broke.

The 2016 batch mostly scrubbed up well last night. I was particularly impressed by Australian conductor of the first movement of the concerto, who beamed across the orchestra, inciting not just notes, but perhaps even joy. The band also did well, dealing with some — dare I say it — unreasonably brisk tempi in Symphony No. 7. As for the concerto, the soloists soared out from the crowded stage, with Hanslip finding a thrilling clarity to her top register.

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Martynas Levickis rehearsing for Tango Nuevo with Joanna MacGregor and Adrian Brendel

Then a late night concert from Lithuanian accordion star, Martynas Levickis. The Accordion is not everyone’s go-to instrument for musical bliss but, in the hands of Levickis, it may yet become one. He’s a natural communicator and an astonishing performer who had me grinning broadly through music by Bach, Rossini and Levickis himself, and gripped by Sofia Gubaidulina’s De Profundis. 

The future has buttons and bellows.

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Words about music

I’m reading Nicholas Cook’s excellent Music: a very short introduction. It’s a great counterpoint to the mad whirl of music-making, -talking, -listening to and -not listening to that is Dartington International Summer School. In it he talks about music and words and metaphor and the ongoing debates about how and why we even try to describe music in words. Which in turn leads him to contemplate what we are actually trying to describe…

Alfred Brendel was not stressed about metaphor in his magisterial lecture on Beethoven’s late sonatas. The piano virtuoso and polymath did acknowledge options for talking about the works — in terms of physical, psychological, historical, musicological etc. — before indulging his preference, poetical.

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This is definitely Alfred Brendel at Dartington in 1970. Sadly, it’s not Adrian Brendel-ssohn who wasn’t due to be born for another six years. Photo: Charles Davis (DISS Archive)

It wasn’t all fine words (although there were plenty of those). He speculated on and dismissed the fanciful ruminations of various musicologists (to remain unnamed here…) Most interesting, though, was how he traced melody fragments through the sonatas, both in terms of melody shape and pitch. Something that, no doubt, leaps out at you after years and years of performing them. I can’t say I ‘get’ the sonatas now, but it was a treat to hear him talk with such authority and such love.

 

The 7.45pm concert was a festival of Tango Nuevo from the DISS16 all-stars, including Joanna MacGregor, Antonia Kesel, Adrian Brendel and accordionista fabulosa Martynas Levickis. Exuberant, splashy, sexy. Completing the line-up was Brazilian percussion guy Adriano Adewale, who not only gave us dance rhythms, but also two solo breaks, first on assorted ocarinari, and second on tambourine. Yes. A tambourine solo. It was one of those new music moments where you see what’s coming up, raise your eyebrows and suspend disbelief more because of good manners than any real expectation of enlightenment. And ten minutes later you’re sitting there, mouth open, eyes wide, ears alive with delight. Who knew a tambourine could make such a range of sounds? Brilliant.

tango2The all-stars were a hard act to follow. After some quick first-aid from the piano technician, the long-suffering Steinway was wheeled back centre stage for its third performance of the evening. Florian Mitrea gave a generous and energetic performance of Beethoven’s Waldstein, followed by Sonata No. 111, which I heard from outside, in the  velvety fug of a South Devon summer night.

 

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A date with eternity

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William Blake gets it, two centuries before the mindfulness takes the publishing industry by storm.

I’m just posting this picture today because words about yesterday’s concert have failed me. It’s a slate plaque in Dorothy’s garden, at the end of a stone walkway which runs along the end of the Tiltyard. It’s easy to miss. If it’s cloudy the words sink back into the moss, and if it’s clear the outline gets broken up by light and shade from the sun through leaves. I can’t remember when I first discovered them — it’s not as if they’re secret, or hidden from view. You just have to look.

I normally head into the gardens at Dartington as soon as possible after I arrive but this time I got swept up into stuff, so yesterday was the first time I’d taken a stroll. The soundtrack this time was an accordion flecked with bird song. Very Il Postino.

The concert I’m not going to review: the Skampa Quartet, playing late Haydn, late Beethoven and Shostakovich. Beethoven’s Op 132.  Shostakovich Quartet No. 3. I cannot imagine a better performance. Deeply moved. No words. Just music and silence and infinity in the palm of your hand.

 

 

Meanwhile, in Australia…

It’s that time of year. Opera Australia and Sydney Symphony are usually in first, but this year the first 2017 program announcement to turn up in my inbox was from Musica Viva. And now the embargo is lifted I can confirm it’s a doozie.

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Eighth Blackbird

Book-ending the year in their International Series are debuts tours for two big name ensembles, Eighth Blackbird and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. You definitely got my attention there. Then tours for Angela Hewitt and the Takacs Quartet. Never say no to those. And tucked in between these goodies, return visits for the Pacifica Quartet and Sitkovetsky Trio, plus a new pairing of cellist Nicolas Altstaedt and pianist Alexsandar Madzar, who have appeared, separately, in previous Musica Viva Festivals. Definitely intrigued.

Musica Viva has occupied a central pace in the classical music ecology of Australia ever since Richard Goldner had the inspired idea of creating a chamber music touring circuit. As one of Australia’s oldest presenting organisations, however, it does have to deal with an aging audience and fusty image. How do you, must you, can you reinvent a wheel which still turns in grand style?

The 2017 program seems, to me, to have found a canny path through the conflicting poles of tradition and novelty, comfort and discovery, youthful flair and the wisdom of ages. I welcome the head-on collision, for instance, between young and old, in the Musica Viva Festival, where Pinchas Zukerman and Lambert Orkis — yes, that Zukerman, that Orkis — perform on the same bill as chamber players of the Australian Youth Orchestra. And I also welcome the dropping of a ‘featured composer’ which, although undoubtably valuable, was just so deafeningly male, in favour of spreading the new voices love around. Elizabeth Younan, Holly Harrison, Elena Kats-Chernin, Nadia Boulanger… the count is on the up.

My top picks for 2017:

Eighth Blackbird – for the wild and the fun
Sitkovetsky Trio – to have my heart ripped out by Shostakovich, then repaired by Mendelssohn (plus Skipworth)
Pinchas Zukerman playing Brahms
Arcadia Winds playing Elizabeth Younan
Everything Else As Well

 

 

Many voices

Yesterday started with one of my favourite sounds in the whole wide world. At approximately 9.17am around fifty voices sang five note rising and descending scales, in unison. The sound of the Big Choir warming up, their rusty morningness filtered through the stone walls of the Great Hall.

2And there it is. Bam! Nostalgia smacking me around the chops, again. I must have been about 8 or 9 when I was deemed old enough to sit through a rehearsal without undue fidgeting or nose-picking, at which point I was sent, under the maternal wing of a willing soprano, to squint at a score and make enthusiastic noises. I remember singing Schubert masses, Mozart, Poulenc, usually with a two piano accompaniment, with people like George Malcolm, fierce with the tenors, or Richard Hickox, charming the dowager altos.

That was then. This is now. This week it’s Haydn’s Nelson Mass, and Ave Maris Stella by Cecilia MacDowell. Can’t wait to hear it performed, this Friday.

Much to get through before then, however.

I heard the first of yesterday’s three evening concerts through the stone wall filter: pianist Yehuda Inbar playing Liszt’s transcription of Isolde’s Liebestod. Sitting on the lawn on a sunlit English summer evening was like being in a Merchant/Ivory movie (with a luscious soundtrack).

adrianThe main concert for the evening was a recital from cellist Adrian Brendel and pianist (and Summer School artistic director) Joanna MacGregor, demonstrating that you don’t need many individuals on stage to hear many voices.

First up, some highly expressive sign language. Pointed looks between the performers. Raised eyebrows. A smile, a look of surprise. A general shuffling as they make sure that they are, indeed, about to embark on the same piece of music, rather than two different ones. Silence as Joanna MacGregor sits, her head in her lap, for a full ten seconds, shaking with helpless laughter. Then, out of the silence, a miraculous transformation as Beethoven’s Sonata in C major begins.

The cello has become something of a trope –  romantic, soulful, your go-t0 instrument in plays and movies to characterise a grief-stricken lover or misunderstood loner. Adrian Brendel isn’t having any truck with that. Yes, he can sing out the introverted ecstacy of Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei, or the ache-y long lines of Shostakovich’s melodies, (before they  — the melodies, not the performers — go off the rails). But he’s not afraid to tell it how it is. So Beethoven’s late cello sonata is bewildering and beautiful, gruff and grey. “More Beethoven than cello,” says my father, sotto voce, as the applause dies down. And then  Schnittke’s Sonata No. 2, another piece written late in the composer’s life. Last, in fact, according to Brendel. A piece which breaks all the rules by being nothing like anything except itself. Notes hung out to dry, waiting for another note to join them, or finishing a conversation that started two movements back… What made this, for me, was not just the fascinating range of timbres from both players, but the sense of space: plenty of silence, but not empty silence. Silence with great arcs reaching across the gap. Sculpture in sound.

In the 10pm slot, the Skampa Quartet playing Schubert’s Quartettsatz and, with pianist Hamish Milne, Cesar Franck’s nutty Piano Quintet in F minor. I’ve heard the Skampas before, on a tour for Musica Viva. They’re good. Really good: four intense, gripping sounds, not particularly blended, and all the better for that. Four more individual voices. And as they grappled with the Franck — old Cesar does lay it on a bit thick sometimes — Hamish Milne sat like the calm centre of the storm, barely raising a sweat, creating the most gorgeous sounds from the Steinway.

A good day.

 

 

 

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It begins

 

My dad on the cricket field in ?1963.

Peter Carter (2nd violin of the Dartington String Quartet) on the cricket field in ?1963.

It begins at the turn-off to Buckfastleigh. I’m driving my father’s car. He’s next to me. We’ve done this journey so many times — together, alone. We know all the twists and bends and signs. I refrain from saying “Oh look. Charlie’s still in a mood,” as we pass the sign to Charlies Cross but I’m sure we both think it. As we pass Foxhole there’s a game of cricket in full swing, with a team in traditional whites. “Lovely,” says my father. And then we’re passing High Cross, the top gate, Martins, the gallery and the gatehouse. We’re back. I’m back.

Please forgive me for a moment of nostalgia. I grew up at Dartington Summer School. My parents met there, and continued to go to the Summer School together through engagement, marriage, two kids and one divorce. My brother and I waltzed off into life and my father got custody of the Summer School. He still comes every year, and a few years ago took on the role of archivist, assembling a magnificent collection of photos, programmes and ephemera dating from 1948 to the present day. Which is why I am here, 25 years after my last visit, accompanying my father and researching a book on the Summer School, featuring treasures from the archive.

IMG_3426 (1)I’ve got my violin with me, and I’ll be doing some chamber music, but my main practice these days is writing, and as part of that I’ll be writing a daily blogpost, which may or may not include reviews of the previous day’s concerts and events.

So here goes…

Saturday 13 August
Great HallThe Romantic Violin I

It’s a luscious start to the week with a dose of high romanticism in the shape of Dvorak and Brahms, plus a twist of Prokofiev. Chloe Hanslip is a young British violinist who studied with Zakhar Bron and is now in demand as a soloist, not least because of her amazing repertoire, which includes Korngold, Glass, Corigliano, Maxwell Davies and (Brett) Dean, not to mention all the older stuff. Her partner on stage is Roumanian pianist Florian Mitrea, who is currently ripping through the competition and concert circuit, winning prizes as a soloist and as a chamber musician.

I imagine the first concert of the week is a tough gig. The audience has just arrived and is still warming up, getting their listening ears on, pacing themselves. Hanslip and Mitrea launched into Dvorak’s Sonatina in G with serious intent — perhaps for me a little too serious, a little too muscular for Dvorak’s innocent melodies. The Brahms — Sonata No. 3 in D Minor — was forceful and brave, with gloriously sunny thirds in the second movement, but the balance between pianist and violinist in colour, dynamics and tempi was sometimes elusive.

They finally cracked it in the second half, in Sergei Prokofiev’s Cinq Melodies. Five little episodes, five moods, captured with delicacy and focus and, finally, pianissimos to make us all hold our breath. With the audience, as much as the duo, finally tuned in, the Sonata No. 2 in D major made for a stylish and satisfying play out. I look forward to hearing more from both musicians later in the week.

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Experiments in writing about music

I’ve been trying — and failing — to put together some thoughts about music criticism and classical music coverage and the ever-dwindling space for both in the mainstream media. It’s no secret, by now, that the Herald has cut its coverage to one review — 350 words — a week. It’s frustrating, it’s infuriating. It’s tragic, even. But it’s not really a surprise to me. Things change.

For a couple of months I’ve been biding my time, waiting, thinking, wondering what, if anything, I should do, and speaking to dismayed colleagues on the reading, writing and the performing side of things, but with no great insights, except for one.

Yes. One thing remains the same. Musicians still play, and audiences still come. All the concerts I’ve been to recently have had enthusiastic near-full houses, foyers buzzing with excitement. That excitement has been almost as nourishing, for me, as the music itself.

So I’ve decided that, rather than humming and ha-ing about the role of the critic or the need for informed opinions or blah-di-blah-di-blah I should make like a musician, and just do it, because I love it and because I have to. I’ll sling it up here on the blog and if anyone reads it, great.

In fact, there’ll be quite a bit up here in the next few weeks because I’m visiting my alma mater, Dartington Hall, for a week of the International Summer School of Music, and I’ve set myself a challenge. A review, or at the very least, a Pepys Diary of what’s been going on, every day, starting this Saturday.

Wish me luck.

 

 

Rites and rituals

Big night for the Sydney Symphony on Friday. I’d forgotten how massive the orchestra is for The Rite of Spring. Quintuple wind. Two tubas. Eight horns, with Wagner tubas in their back pockets… And that’s before we get to the percussion. It was an all-hands-on-deck night. And since everyone’s here, why not pair The Rite with another blockbuster, Steve Reich’s Desert Music? Sure. Just need some extra pianos, bring any marimbas you got and, oh yes, a choir. With mikes.

A night, then, of orchestral largesse, two grand edifices, side-by-side. Did it work? Or did all they drown each other out, like noise-cancelling headphones?

For me, the Reich was less successful than the Stravinsky. Perhaps it was the space, the amplification, or the distance I was from the stage, up in the cheap seats. It was certainly an impressive performance, mesmerising and fascinating by turn, but it didn’t have that visceral tug that I seek from this kind of wall of sound. The tempi felt slow, but lacking in space or pace. The ensemble was fuzzy and I couldn’t tell whether it was deliberate fuzzy or just fuzzy fuzzy. I felt like I was missing something. Missing the point. Missing the edge. Strange.

With the Stravinsky it all came back into sharp focus. Right from the start, with that extraordinary bassoon solo, played like a song, by principal Todd Gibson-Cornish, through the symphony of wind, and on into the rhythmic vortex, I enjoyed the constant changing of textures, like a mobile sculpture spinning in the breeze, transforming in a second into something quite other. Of course, I know the Rite well, so I was probably also enjoying the anticipation and recognition of those crazy riffs, waiting for that piccolo scream, for the psycho cello chords, the shiver of excitement as the ritual cranks into overdrive. The brass were magnificent, the wind soloists nailed it. And we got a one-man ballet from conductor David Robertson, out the front, pulling all the moves.

Observations from the back of the house: I still find watching percussionists endlessly fascinating, and up in the circle is the best place to see them. You see the bass drum player stand, pick up the stick with its big hairy pompom end, look up to the conductor, look back at their music. You can almost see them starting to breathe in synch with the music. Then the arm goes back and – bam. Perfect. Direct hit. All those bars to count and then one chance to get it right. They did.

Also, looking around at the audience up here at the back made me feel very old, and very good. Plenty of students, plenty of hipsters and yupsters and people having a great time. Lots of faces alive with excitement. This is not elite entertainment for the chardonnay set. This is art and it’s an important part of many people’s lives.

Well done, SSO. The fourteen-year-old who I was sitting next to is determined to come back for Firebird and Petrushka.

 

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