Thursday, October 28, 2021

Alicante enthuses over Joshua Bell, Alan Gilbert and NDR Elbphilharmonie in Bruch and Bruckner


It looked like a middle-of-the-road program of Romantic staples. Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy and Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony were both written around 1880, though, as with everything, Bruckner took all criticisms to heart and later reworked various aspects of his work without changing its overall shape. These works of similar origin, of course, also contrasted. The Bruch Fantasy was written for a star performer, Pablo Sarasate, and clearly the composer had its potential for audience popularity in mind, whereas Bruckner probably did not write anything outside the intensely personal, internal drive to express his faith. The Fantasy uses popular song and folk melodies as its basis, whereas Bruckners music always seems driven by a very personal energy. In any case, these are works that this particular listener has heard many times and represent an approach to music which is not a great personal favourite. I had also prepared, choosing earlier to listen to a performance of the symphony I recalled from a previous tour of Spain by a foreign orchestra some years ago, a tour which included a performance of the symphony in Alicante which I attended. Thus prepared, I applauded the North German Radio (NDR) Elbphilharmonie orchestra onto the stage.

What I had not anticipated was a performance the like of which I have rarely heard. Joshua Bell arrived to play the Bruch Scottish Fantasy. Now reputations can be built on marketing, in which case the performance experience of the ego is often less than the promise. With Joshua Bell, one feels, the opposite is true. He is in such control of the music, so at ease with its expression, that the instrument, the human being, the art and interpretation become a single force. The result would be devalued by the label ‘spellbinding’. It felt at times like an effort to remember to breathe, so completely absorbed were this audience in the performance. It was an experience enhanced by Joshua Bells obvious ability and delight in communicating with conductor, fellow musicians and audience to create a sense of inclusion and sharing. An encore seemed inevitable and appeared. It was again a popular choice, but in unfamiliar guise. Thus, O Mi Babbino Caro from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi became a violin solo with understated orchestral accompaniment.

Thus far not mentioned, the conductor Alan Gilbert then led his NDR Elbphilharmonie orchestra in the Bruckner symphony. Given the orchestra’s previous association with Gunther Wand, this was surely familiar territory for the band, but this familiarity not only bred respect, but immediate and radiant brilliance. Their relationship with their recently adopted chief conductor is clearly not only going to build on the orchestra’s tradition but also enhance it.

There was not a moment in this performance when the playing, the interpretation, the sound, the phrasing, even the complete musical sense fell below the breath-taking, even revelatory. Often, Bruckner’s tremolo strings create the oral equivalent of a painter’s wash, stating nothing in itself, but colouring the overall effect with a dominating presence. In the hands of the NDR and Alan Gilbert, the tremolos clarified by adding what felt like the perspective of another dimension within the image. Through this clarified air, the landscape was able to offer its magical, often guilt-ridden detail.

Long before the end of this performance, it was clear that this was one of the very best interpretations of music I have ever heard. My earlier preparation became irrelevant. Nothing could have prepared a listener for this radiance, this sheer beauty of sound, this perfect balance, this always enlightened phrasing. For the first time in this concert goer’s experience, the music of Anton Bruckner made sense as well as an impression.

Joshua Bell, Alan Gilbert, Max Brooke, Anton Bruckner and the orchestra of North German Radio thus combined to deliver what can only be described as the experience of a lifetime.

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

SPQR by Mary Beard


I have just finished Mary Beard’s SPQR. I have just started Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation. The connection? Susan Sontag’s essay deals momentarily with the relation, if any, between form and content. She seems wary of the concept of form, seeing it often subservient to content. Perhaps the confusion is mine, since it may be the argument, rather than form, that stands out. More on this later.

SPQR is, put simply, an overview of the origins and the rise of Rome, from fabled Trojan settlement to Empire. It charts the growth of the state, from a probably mythical wattle and daub hut to an empire built of marble, from its assumed foundation in the middle of the eighth century BCE, as far as Caracalla’s offer of Roman citizenship in 212 CE. This is roughly, as the author labels it, Rome’s first millennium.

Remembering my first paragraph, it’s the form that Mary Beard imposes upon her work that makes the book’s argument. A less inventive mind would have started at the city’s foundation and progressed chronologically. Mary Beard profitably avoids this approach by beginning with the confrontation between Scipio and Catiline in the first century BCE, conveniently just over half-way through the author’s chosen era.

Catiline had led a revolt, not the first, or last, or most bloody, or most successful, against the established authority of the republic. The kings were already long gone, and the emperors has yet to assume their status. But the confrontation between the brilliant but rather condescending Scipio and the brash, brutal aristocratic chancer that was Catiline provides a starting point for an author who wants to stress what she defines as the essential cultural and political characteristics that can frame the reader’s understanding of this vast imperial achievement. For Mary Beard, this trial before the Senate symbolizes a couple of basic ideas that she uses as a cement to bind the various courses of the city’s history. These are the continual struggle for power alongside the surprising, for the uninitiated, but consistent, tendency for the Roman state to accommodate new ideas, new values, new religions and new citizens from those peoples it conquered.

The struggle for power was perpetual and ruthless. There were no rules apart from the winner took all, and then suffered the continual neurosis of how to hold on to it. Starting with the perhaps mythical fratricide that founded the city when Romulus killed Remus, ruling families or elites internally turned on themselves and one another to secure a hold on power. This is nothing special. Any visitor to Istanbul will vividly recall the rows of miniature coffins that were displayed when newly enthroned sultans disposed of their siblings to reduce potential competition. But Rome was, at least in extent, rather different, since it morphed from local warlords, perhaps, through kings, to republican presidents, in all but name, and then finally to emperors. Each manifestation of power brought its own kinds of struggle, but eventually struggles they all were, and usually involved eliminating the competition. The names and roles may have changed, but the methodology did not. You killed your way into power and killed to maintain it. There were, of course, exceptions.

The second characteristic that Mary Beard uses to create the form and thereby the content of this history is the Roman propensity for assimilation. This began with the rape of the Sabine women. Myth, perhaps, cites a shortage of breeding-age females amongst the early settlers, so what better way to obviate the problem than embark on the cattle raid? The logic, if that be the word, is quite simple. I do not have cows. My neighbour has cows, so I will steal them. It’s the same with women, it seems, and the booty seems to share the same status as the booty from a cattle raid.

But what ensues is change. There is inevitably a clash of culture that leads to accommodation and assimilation, resulting in complications of culture via marriage, albeit a marriage in chains. This process, argues the author, became a characteristic of Rome, in that kingdoms and peoples subjugated by force were culturally assimilated by Rome, and not necessarily destroyed by it. Indeed, some aspects of the defeated culture, such as their religions, were transported back to the centre, where they gained pragmatic adherents eager to try anything that might offer a competitive leg up. And it is this constant ability to change via assimilation that forms the second strand that gives form to this wonderful work.

But why finish with Caracalla, when the Roman empire endured for more than another century after his demise? Mary Beard is clear about this. It was Caracalla’s granting of Roman citizenship to all free men in the empire that change things. Until then the differences in status between men and women, between citizens and classes, between free men and slaves, between military and civilian that had set the boundaries on Roman life, boundaries that were admittedly fluid by virtue of people’s ability to be on either side and to change their relative status, gender apart. Mary Beard thus makes the case for the later years of the empire representing a different historical reality and thus warranting a different treatment. This change became even more apparent when the state adopted Christianity, which would brook no alternative and led to the conscious exclusion of further assimilation.

Mary Beard does offer the reader much detail. But her insistence on setting events in their wider political and cultural context really does clarify a bigger picture which then starts to reveal inter-related detail. By the end of SPQR, we fell we have been there.

In conclusion, Mary Beard warns against importing perceived values or solutions across the centuries in the belief that they might have relevance to contemporary society. Not only do we not really understand the values of this ancient age, nor do we really have sufficient material to be certain about anything. Rome did exist and is therefore worthy of study, but its example is relevant only to the furtherance of that specific study.

Form and content thus come together to create, in Mary Beard’s hands, a stunning, brilliant book that provides context, observation and profound insight into Roman history. It’s a book that only could have been written by someone who has both brilliant communication skills and perhaps unsurpassed in knowledge of her subject. This book is not recommended reading: it is nothing less than essential.

Monday, October 25, 2021

The Umbrella Men by Keith Carter


In The Umbrella Men, Keith Carter directs various characters in a plot to act out the financial crisis of 2008. The author specifically wants to highlight the role played by RBS, Royal Bank of Scotland, in a process that might be described as financial vandalism, wrecking things by financing them, but there are plenty of other actors who also get it in the neck in the fusillade of the author’s invention.

The Umbrella Men brings fictional characters into real-life scenarios. This is, of course, the basis of most historical fiction, which often goes as far as putting invented words into once real, living mouths. Keith Carter avoids this trap. Key actors in the financial crash, such as Sir Fred Goodwin of RBS, or the members of the Middle Eastern consortium who refinanced Barclays, appear occasionally in name only, but not as protagonists. This allows the author carte blanche to invent people who can act out his scenario. And this he does, and that is precisely what they do.

The Umbrella Men is the kind of book that ought to be described as plot led, in that if the “what happened” were to be removed, there would not be a lot left. Strangely, in this case, we also know the plot before we start, if we have been even mildly conscious at any time in the last decade. So what might there be left to say? Quite a lot it seems, certainly enough to run to more than 400 pages in the electronic version.

Nothing of the book’s plot will be revealed here, except that it deals with the 2008 financial crisis. This is merely an introductory description of the scenario. Characters names will also be omitted, because long before the end, it’s merely the roles enacted by these people - there are more relevant and accurate words - that flesh out the author’s plot.

There is a London resident director and part owner of a company called Rareterre. He is married. They are living beyond their means and they have a family. The company mines, or did mine, rare earths and has been operating in Oregon. Their facility there has been dormant for a while after a drop in the prices of their products. They succumb to a financing deal from RBS to bring the mine back to life. There’s a disaffected financier from New York who ditches her boyfriend and heads for a simple new life in Oregon, of all places. She joins an environmental group and meets in indigenous American, who has been pursuing his own personal campaign against certain corporate interests in the area. Their relationship develops improbably around a mutual interest in stopping, you may have guessed, rare earth mining.

And there’s the bankers, not only RBS but predominately them, a financial speculator outfit called B&B, that is also interested in consuming main meals. There are Italian girls in gymnasia, numerous boyfriends, estranged and current, mental break ups, bogus contracts, takeovers, market crashes and, of course, the Chinese, who effectively create a takeaway, pun intended.

The Umbrella Men is structured, if that be the word, like a box set of episodes from a TV drama. Each chapter contains an author-driven polemic, followed by numerous scene and location changes, so that these characters can issue dialogue, best described as strings of clichés to illustrate and justify what we were told that the start. The book thus sounds and feels more like TV drama as it progresses. The Umbrella Men will enthral readers who adore such TV dramas.

But these people do not live, except to live out the plot, a task they accomplish quite effectively. There are a few dilemmas, almost no contradictions, and, basically, very little conflict. The pieces move around and the game is completed. By then, this reader was left wondering whether this should have been a novel at all.

And, by the way, we know that Sir Fred Goodwin will survive at the end, though he seems to have achieved a suitable anonymity by then.

Monday, October 18, 2021

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold


The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold is a novel about loss. It deals with the idea that bereavement changes the living, opens a hole in survivors’ lives that they continuously have to avoid, continually have to accommodate, lest they themselves be consumed by its void. But this gap in life, this emptiness that must always be acknowledged without ever approaching too close to its gathering currents also imposes new directions on continuing lives, demands diversion from paths that previously led directly towards the future. And, if they could see it, what would the deceased make of their continuing, if unintended influence? Would they revel in the power, or feel embarrassed about causing all the fuss? Effectively, this is the scenario that plays out during the entirety of The Lovely Bones.

At the start, Susie Salmon is fourteen years old. And like any pubescent girl, she has crushes, imagines what sexual encounters might be like, has friends, goes to school. She has a younger sister and a much younger brother, plus parents who plod along in their devotion to the family.

We are in Canada, but the place is not important. Suffice it to say that it’s rural and pretty quiet, with vast expanses of cold, snow-fluttered fields. Nothing is revealed about The Lovely Bones by stating that the fourteen-year-old Susie Salmon was murdered on December 6, 1973. The book begins with the crime and we follow the victim as far as heaven. Thus, the complications begin.

There is no body, just the remains of an elbow. There is a suspect, but evidence has been erased. We know everything about the crime, so there is no suspense involved, only consequences. From her rather superior vantage, Susie Salmon observes. She watches how grief rips into the fabric of her family. She watches how her classmates try to cope with the forced realignments of their friendships. She watches as her murderer continues to evade justice. And she learns that this is not the first time he has succeeded. She watches as the police investigate, perhaps not as competently as they might. She watches as all those she has left behind become changed by her absence, as they learn to live with the void she has left.

Now having the victim in an all-seeing heaven allows Alice Sebold to use a standard, god’s-eye-view, third person narrative, as if it is Susie who is describing events. Too often, however, it is the author who is speaking and clearly not her character, who presumably could offer much more in the way of opinion or reflection on events. So, what unfolds is essentially a tale of family disintegration seen from afar. The disintegration happens slowly and, it has to be said, sometimes rather repetitively.

Unfortunately, as well, the end of the book was just too sentimental for this particular reader. In fiction, I am willing to suspend belief or perhaps succumb to it, and for, the purpose of the plot, I am willing to accept that there might be a heaven from which one might observe. But to accomplish what Susie does late in the book was taking myth just a little too far. The Lovely Bones remains worth reading. Its slow development might convince some readers that such forensic analysis of the details of these relationships too often strays into indulgence. But, one supposes, when one has an eternity in which to keep occupied, little things do make a difference.

Costa Blanca Arts Update - ADDA presents Garcia Abril and Kallinikov

ADDA Simfonica’s second concert of the season something of a rarity, in that it featured just two works, neither of which would have been familiar even to the music devotees in attendance. The fact that this now superb orchestra visited this unfamiliar territory so easily and with such quality of communication is testament to the fact that the band is now an established, mature musical force. And all of this was accomplished under a guest conductor, Manuel Hernandez-Silva, who was directing the orchestra for the first time.

 The first half featured the viola of Isabel Villanueva in the Cantos do Ordesa by Anton García Abril. The composer’s music may well not be widely known inside Spain, let alone outside and this particular work, essentially an episodic viola concerto, illustrated the composer’s highly individual style.

Composed in 2012, Cantos de Ordesa is a perfect example of García Abril’s style. The expected elements of twentieth century Spanish music are all present, but Garcia Abril often seems to cut phrases short, leaving them unfinished to merge into different impressions, the whole apparently a compressed, almost impressionistic succession of experiences, stitched together like a jump cut film. Thus, while the material may often suggest a familiarity, the way episodes are juxtaposed evokes a dream-like experience of a familiar reality. The overall effect seems to be similar to a collage made from familiar images that have been cut together in a wholly unexpected way. At least this is how the orchestral writing this piece comes across.

The solo part, admirably played by Isabell Villanueva, is another matter, however, in that it is a truly demanding virtuoso amplification and exploration of the orchestral material. The solo part inhabits the same landscapes as the orchestra, but in a far more complex and exploratory way, rendering the overall effect both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, but sometimes also suggesting that the soloist is competing with the orchestral forces. Throughout, the sense of music for film is never far from the composer’s conception, which is no surprise since García Abril did compose much music in the genre. Antonio Garcia Abril died in March 2021. Isabella Villanueva offered one short encore, Nana from Manuel de Falla’s Popular Songs.

The other work on the program was Kallinikov’s first symphony. First performed in 1897, this is a large work in very much the style of Borodin. The composer uses folk melodies alongside sophisticated orchestration and occasional rhythmic invention, though there is always the sensation that the composer preferred the music of his past rather than that of his contemporaries. There is no overt modernism here, at least none of the type that Richard Strauss or Gustav Mahler might have used at around the same time.

The overall effect of the symphony, however, is thoroughly satisfying musical experience. This is not at work which will shock, nor will it lift an audience to a frenzy of excitement. But it will lead its listeners along a path that is the musical equivalent of a novel with a linear plot, where the focus lies in what happens to the characters rather than a psychological analysis of their motives, more Turgenev than Dostoyevsky.

The concert presented what was probably the first experience of the music of either composer for the majority of the audience. Its success was testament to the vastness and quality of the repertoire and it ought to suggest to other artistic directors that risks are there to be taken, and taken successfully.


Thursday, October 7, 2021

Costa Blanca Art Update - Alicante's ADDA Symphony Orchestra begins a new season

A new season of orchestral concerts in Alicante’s ADDA opened with a blast, rather than a bang. The blast in question came at the end of the opening work, which was appropriately enough Shostakovich’s Festival Overture. The concert cycle is called Festiva and artistic director, Josep Vicent, has assembled an impressive mix across the twenty scheduled concerts. This opener, as with all recent concerts, had to be played twice on consecutive evenings because Covid restrictions limit the hall to half capacity. Even second time through, the program shone and glittered via the superb sound the resident orchestra now generates.

Shostakovich’s Festive Overture is something of a musical joke. It raises naivety to the level of satire in that its vast triumphal fanfares celebrate a musical progression through the indisputably trite. But as ever, Shostakovich convinces us on every one of the multiple levels that the work confronts. The blast, by the way, came at the end when the audience was surprised by the standing participation of ten extra brass players who had been previously and anonymously seated in the boxes on either side of the stage. Three extra trumpets, three trombones and for horns added the extra weight to the coda and the sound was breathtakingly resplendent. It was an experience that reminded this member of the audience of the ENO’s production of Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk in the 1980s when an onstage brass band similarly emphasized the explosive and expletive elements in the operas incandescent score. Then the players were all dressed in bright red military uniform with greatcoats and officers’ hats and all impersonated Joseph Stalin.

Second on the opening concert’s program was the Double Piano Concerto by Philip Glass. The soloists were the Lebeque sisters who have admirably championed this and other contemporary works.

It was an interesting piece with which to follow the Shostakovich, since it transports the audience from a symphonic overture that glorifies the trite and crass in complicated ways, to Philip Glass’s minimalism, whose reputation for simple repetition of arpeggios belies the complex reality of this subtle music. Yes, the chord progression that underpins the work may effectively be a chaconne - is Neo-Baroque a relevant term? - but the constant rhythmic variation renders the material much more than repetitive. There are admittedly no show-off cadenzas for the soloists, no obvious technical gymnastics seeking applause for mere completion, but there is an almost constant jousting between all participants in fights for rhythmic space within the world the composer restricts to a melodic corner. The result is a fascinating interplay between the soloists, between the combined soloists and the orchestra, and even between different sections of the orchestra. The Lebeque sisters offered an encore from the Four Movements by Philip glass and by the end the hypnosis was triumphant in its own quiet, understated way.

The concert’s second half was devoted to one of the greatest masterpieces of the concert repertoire, Prokofiev’s second Romeo and Juliet Suite. This is music about which everything possible has been said, so this review will make out with your personal comments.

No matter how many times I hear the piece, I cannot but marvel at the idea, in Friar Laurence, at the genius that gave a gentle melody to the bassoon and tuba. And why, when we first hear the love theme on the clarinet, is one note lengthened, never to be repeated thereafter? The score has a stress on the note, but it’s still a crotchet. The orchestral playing was magnificent and the reading of the score superb except… Having killed off the lovers at the end of suite number two, the pianissimo ending conveying true tragedy, in this concert performance we concluded with the Death of Tybalt from the first suite. Musically it brought the evening to a brilliant close, but intellectually it made little sense. It’s a minor point.

We then had three encores. The blast from Shostakovich was repeated, complete with extra brass from the boxes and then Piazzolla’s Oblivion was just about audible! But beautiful. And finally, we had a rousing Latina American dance, the Danzon of Marquez, just a round off the opening evening. There’s 19 more like this in the season.