Sunday, May 22, 2022

Costa Blanca Arts Update - Julia Fischer and Academy Of St Martin In The Fields at ADDA, Alicante

There are times when words fail, and this is one of those occasions. Feel free to read no further, because what follows cannot be described better than simply “perfect”.

The orchestra was Londons Academy of St. Martin In The Fields and the soloist-director was non-less than Julia Fischer. All potentially perfect thus far, it seems.

The program in the ADDA auditorium, Alicante, was an intriguing mix, with two pieces from the classical or early romantic era, mixed with two pieces from the non-atonal style of the twentieth century. Such programs can often come unstuck through a lack of focus. This one worked perfectly.

The Rondo For Violin And Orchestra Deutsch438 by Franz Schubert which began the program was a celebration of the melodic, beautiful lines for beauty’s sake. Julia Fischer’s solo playing appeared to be effortless, displaying the kind of complete perfection and ease that can only be achieved through absolute dedication. But what was also obvious was that this playing, orchestra and soloist combined, was not founded merely on technique, but of an undiluted joy that came from being able to communicate via music. And what was also clear from the start was the strong and mutually enjoyed bond that developed between the orchestra in the guest director. And perhaps this is a close as Schubert approached to the concerto. It was perfectly delightful.

Brittens Variations On A Theme Of Frank Bridge is a work that, personally, I have never warmed to, its highly episodic nature often not sustaining my interest through a recording. But what recorded sound often cannot convey is the sheer beauty of the sonorities that Benjamin Britten exploits in the piece. The Academy Of Saint Martin In The Fields not only played this piece perfectly, but they also brought out all the nuances of expression that Britten wrote. Hearing the work for the first time in concert had the effect of assembling what had previously only been experienced as isolated sketches into a major work. Separately, these pieces sound interesting. Together the create a picture of a personality, far from perfect, but perfectly portrayed. The experience was perfectly magical.

Mozart’s Rondo For Violin And Orchestra K373 is hardly his most memorable work. But in the hands of this orchestra and with Julia Fisher as soloist, this was five minutes of a standup comedian, a monologue full of wit and humor, like a child captivated by the process of keeping a balloon in the air. A perfect image.

By contrast, the Chamber Symphony Op110a by Shostakovich that followed presented a work of vast, contrasting depth and not a little psychological anguish. Dedicated to the fallen in war, but certainly with its gaze focused firmly inwards, it presents an acerbic view of humanity. Perhaps the performers might fall at this very different hurdle? Well, they did not.  Far from it. The playing and interpretation probably got even better, if there is a level higher than perfection. The eighth quartet, of which this chamber symphony is an arrangement by Rudolph barchai, is monumental. It also finds much of its power in the interaction, often argumentative, between the solo instruments. Potentially this tension could be reduced in the version for string orchestra, but the addition of the double bases married to the perfect cohesion of the string players and, not least, the skill of the arranger ensured that none of the drama, none of the impact was lessened. I proved perfectly moving.

A theme from a Tchaikovsky Souvenir was a little lollipop offered as an after. After the drama of the Shostakovich, it was a little out of place, but nothing slipped below the established level of consistent perfection.


Monday, May 16, 2022

Costa Blanca Arts Update - Daniel Harding and the Swedish Symphony play Brahms 1 and 3 in ADDA, Alicante


Basically, in normal circumstances I would not regard a concert offering two Brahms symphonies as resembling a cup of tea. If thats not mixing too many metaphors… But an advantage of subscribing to a series of events is that it prompts one to attend all of them and not to try to edit experience out of reality on the basis of preconceived standpoints. To have missed Daniel Harding with the Swedish Symphony Orchestra in Brahms Three and One in Alicante would have been a big mistake.

My problem with Brahms is long standing. It’s the same with many nineteenth century novels. I can’t empathize with the characters. I feel they are often preoccupied with irrelevance, and I hear the main mode of expression as circumlocution. I have always tended to find musical equivalence of these perceived shortcomings in the work of Brahms until very late in his creative career.

But my criticisms of the nineteenth century novel could come about because this particular reader does not fully enter into the world that is being described, or the lives that are being lived. It is not a criticism of Shakespeare that his work does not address quantum mechanics. Likewise, I should not criticize Brahms’s compositions for living within the scope of their time. So, it was this new attitude of toleration that I began this first exposure to the presence of Daniel Harding!

Daniel Harding does not simply conduct the music, he shapes it. He rarely beats time and equally rarely makes bold, eye-catching gestures aimed the audience’s attention. What he does do is coax the music into shape via visual interpretations of its meaning, gestures that clearly convey the right messages to his players. Here in these Brahms symphonies, the musical experience unfolds like in the novel, the themes almost characters in the telling of the story, the harmonies the events, which often surprise.

But to shape a piece of music into such a drama, one also needs an orchestra that can deliver the parts. And here in Alicante, the Swedish Symphony Orchestra clearly has such a superb understanding with its principal conductor that collectively they understood precisely what the demands and they clearly can always deliver it.

As a result of this chemistry that was so strong it could almost be felt by the audience, we heard two beautiful performances of these cornerstones of the repertoire. Both fresh and surprising throughout, these performances of the two Brahms symphonies prompted this skeptic to listen to them again and again.

Friday, May 13, 2022

Sideshow by William Shawcross


When we consider Nixon, Kissinger and the Destruction of Cambodia, Sideshow by William Shawcross is probably the main event, if not the last word. On completing the book, its hard to imagine that the author has left a single document on the subject untouched, a single actor in the saga un-researched. The level of detail here is forensic, to such an extent, perhaps, that the actors in the story never really develop character, because they are always too busy, apparently, acting out their explicit roles.

Perhaps, its easier at the start to say what Sideshow is not, so that its focus can become quite clear. Sideshow is not about the Vietnam War, though of course this almost continually figures, sometimes over the border, sometimes just this side of it. Sideshow is also not a description of the Khmer Rouge government, its attempted genocide or its atrocities, though of course it and its actions do figure large in the final chapters of the book, after it took power following the collapse of the American-backed regime, if this is not an oxymoron.

What Sideshow does describe is US policy towards Cambodia from the late 1960s, its effects on Cambodian society, its attempted manipulation of Cambodian politics and the rationale, if that be a relevant term, that underpinned the involvement. The utter confusion that is described is perhaps best illustrated by the sequence of the start of the book where the first B-52 raids on targets within Cambodia are described. Not only were these missions secret, but it seems that even the aircrew flying them did not know beforehand where they were going, and in the first instance the radio operator aboard acknowledged mission complete still ignorant of his position. In addition, all logs relating to the completion of the tasks were falsified in an attempt to hide from the rest of the world the location of the dropped bombs. Not bad for a start.

A theme in Sideshow is just how thoroughly random the process of making policy was in Washington at the end of the 1960s. You have powerful personalities using platforms to promote themselves and themselves only. You have influential actors more influenced by Hollywoods vision of reality than anything they experienced, either via reality or by informed briefing. Somehow the world was always wrong if it did not conform to how it should be. A quote endures relating to how democracy should prevail as a ubiquitous goal alongside how people should not be allowed to be so stupid as to elect socialists, as in Chile.

An instructive and memorable passage describes the Huston Plan, which sanctioned the wire-tapping, mail-meddling and general surveillance of anyone deemed of interest, which included anyone who wanted to question what turned out to be a fallacious orthodoxy. William Shawcross writes: “Nixon approved the plan… (whose) …discovery in 1973 helped enormously to build such Congressional outrage that the legislature was finally able to force the White House to end the massive bombing of Cambodia, which was just beginning to spread as Huston formulated his proposals in summer 1970. It was to become a crucial part of the impeachment proceedings. When, much later, Nixon was asked by David Frost to justify his actions he bluntly produced a new version of presidential infallibility – ‘Well, when the president does it, that makes it not illegal’.” Which just goes to show that other, more recent incumbents were not actually responsible for inventing the concept of infallibility.

And in another passage relating to a different set of events, William Shawcross quotes Senator William J Fulbright saying, “I dont think it is legal or constitutional. But whether it is right or not, he has done it. He has the power to do it because under our system there is not an easy way to stop him”. Some things, it seems, do not change, no matter how pressing proves the need, nor how many decades have passed in the meantime.

A long way before the end of the book, an ending we now know to have unfolded, the descent into chaos for Cambodia seemed inevitable. It is a small nation and like a thorn in the foot of an elephant, it was toyed with, scraped, pulled out and discarded. The elephant moved on and the thorn was apparently left to its own devices, eventually to prick itself.

Thursday, May 12, 2022

Costa Blanca Arts Update - Josep Vicent, Julia Gallego perform Dvorak, Joan Albert Amargos and Holst's The Planets


Dvorak’s Carnival Overture provides a stunning opening to any concert. Its exuberant, tuneful, spectacular and exciting. Its all these things if it is played by its performers with the requisite virtuosity and enthusiasm, and neither quality is usually absent from Alicante’s ADDA Simfonica. And this was no exception. The overture shone. And shining was the theme for the whole concert, in that it was to finish with a performance of Holst’s The Planets, musical biographies of celestial bodies that regularly shine.

The concert’s first half, however, was completed by Julia Gallego playing a flute concerto called ConCERT Expres by its Catalan composer, Joan Albert Amargos. Musically this was a spectacular success in its ability to feature a soloist in front of a full orchestra all playing in a jazz idiom that seemed to preserve a feeling of improvisation, not, as so often is the case, obscuring the very quality that should underpin jazz, clearly the composer’s inspiration. The work, of course was fully scored, but it maintained a spontaneity that really did sound like free expression. And, after the concerto’s brilliant flurry of sound, an arrangement for flute solo of a Piazzolla milonga provided contrast as an encore.

And so we graduated to The Planets. This music has become so popular in parts that it takes a complete performance for audience members to be reminded of what a ground-breaking work it was and indeed remains. Its true there are sections that sound like Debussy, and others that are pure Ravel. There are, here and there, remnants of the folk song that had so preoccupied Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams. There are even moments when an aural blink might suggest Elgar, but equally the work prefigures Walton here and there.

But in the end, its pure Holst and, it must be remembered, The Planets was written between 1914 and 1917 during the first world war. When Mars brings war in the opening movement, it can be heard like musical journalism. The various sections of this suite are often played - especially on bit-part radio stations – as isolated pieces. But it takes a complete performance to understand their context and, frankly, symphonic conception. Viewed as a whole, this suite can become a contemporary symphony, but without obvious structure – and that’s the point. It hangs together because each section’s difference and individuality is a respected part of the whole. When viewed as such, the status of the last section, Neptune, becomes much more than just another piece. Given the work’s wartime setting, the finale might suggest that the world has just been changed for good by the conflict that still raged. The music seems to search for something lost that will never again be found. In this performance the womens voices of the Coro Amici Musicae from Zaragoza were placed on the wings of the balcony, above and on either side of the orchestra. The strangeness of the sound world depicted in Neptune, even the century later, reminds us also of how little we can grasp about the nature of the solar system itself, let alone of the universe. It also gives an indication, perhaps, of how much the composer was influenced at the time by alternative visions of our universe, especially those originating in Indian religion.  This inspired performance was received rapturously. An encore of a gallop from Shostakovich’s Moscow Cheryomushki provided a rousing way to tell us all to go home, to start the drive home under a clear sky with unusually bright planets.

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Costa Blaca Arts Update - Dmytro Choni in Denia


Dmytro Choni is a pianist from Ukraine who has won the Santander competition and finished fourth in Leeds. Such results are irrelevant once a musician presents him or herself as a performer: the only thing that counts is a communication with an audience via the interpretation of music. On the evidence of this concert in Denia, Dmytro Choni has achieved near perfection in the art of performance.

Pianists often choose programmes that intend to show off technical brilliance rather than interpretive quality. At first sight, Dmytro Choni’s programme might appear to fall into this category. After all, it’s not anyone who starts an evening with the two Brahms Rhapsodies and then plays for an hour and a half to finish with a work as grand as the Dante Sonata of Liszt. There was even enough energy for an encore.

Those two Brahms Rhapsodies came across as more substantial pieces than I had remembered. Placed together, the contrasts and similarities became clear as they combined to mimic a single work. These were followed by perhaps the most taxing music on the programme. The Sarcasms of Prokofiev sound like Malevich meeting Picasso. Almost aggressively modernistic, these short pieces make a deep impression in the concert hall, since they seem to question what it is that we expect from music. They are atonal in parts, melodic in others, rhythmic here and there, broken elsewhere. Under the fingers of a pianist who does not actively associate with their intention, these pieces can dissolve into an amorphous mass of disconnected fragments. When played with sensitivity and design, as Dmytro Choni did, they become an abstract, surreal world where nothing can be assumed, but a world which we can inhabit. They surprise and enchant at the same time.

Dmytro Choni followed the Prokofiev pieced with the Sonata No1 of Ginastera. Written forty or so years after the Sarcasms, there are sections of this sonata that inhabit a similar sound world, underlining just how experimental was the vision of Prokofiev. Underpinning Ginastera’s music there is always at least an idea of an Argentinian dance, though usually of a much more energetic type than the languid tango. But here also, especially in the slow movement, there is a tendency towards the atonal, and much less stress of rhythm as musical content. In the other three movements, it was rhythm that left enduring impressions.

Book One of Debussy’s Images followed. Though harmonically Debussy’s sound world is now familiar to audiences, in its time it was nothing less than revolutionary. After the rhythmic drive of much of the Ginastera, Debussy’s sense of space impressed and this came across in the playing.

And the, having already earned his living several times over, Dmytro Choni ended the concert with Liszt’s After a lecture on Dante, Fantasia quasi sonata. It’s a vast piano sonata in everything but name and shares musical ideas with the Sonata Liszt did write. This is music on a grand scale and needs a pianist with vision and interpretive skill as well as the technical skills to render the experience musically credible rather than a mere test of dexterity. And this audience was treated to a superbly shaped picture of how Liszt responded to Dante, though it must be said that the pianist was tiring towards the end. Understandably so… It’s not every pianist who take on a programme like this!

The evening finished with an encore. It was inevitable, perhaps essential that this Ukrainian pianist would finish with some music from his homeland. The short, lyrical but reflective piece by Valentin Silvestrov was perfect, as was the rest of this superb recital.


Sunday, May 1, 2022

Costa Blanca Arts Update - Brahms concerto and symphony in ADDA, Alicante with Rumon Gamba and Nelson Goerner

Personally I quite like being proved wrong, especially when the result is beneficial. When that is accompanied by a realisation that assumed values always need to be questioned, the result can be refreshing, even cathartic. A dispassionate assessment of a concert programme that offered two of Johannes Brahms’s best known and most often played orchestral works would under normal circumstances probably have not got me in the car to make the drive, not prompted me to be early so as not to find the parking full, or certainly not to arrive home so late. Having a subscription, however, prompted this Yorkshireman to guard his wallet and so I did not miss the concert.

The resident orchestra, ADDA Simfonica, for this particular concert was under the direction of a guest conductor, Rumon Gamba, who was making his first visit to this particular podium. After this performance, it will surely not be his last. Equally, Nelson Goerner’s return to the ADDA auditorium will surely also be soon. He is a pianist who eschews visual pyrotechnics, so it was behind closed eyes that the real musical fireworks coming from his hands were revealed. The touch, precision and interpretive skill were simply perfect. The ADDA orchestra, as ever, played beautifully and noticeably they seemed actively to enjoy this particular experience.

So what was surprising about familiar music played by a resident orchestra with a soloist and conductor whose work I have heard many times? The answer, surprisingly, is Johannes Brahms, whose music I thought I knew.

Personally I have always associated the second piano concerto of Brahms with a rather stodgy texture applied to long winded musical arguments that approach prolixity, albeit usually in a moderately enjoyable mix. These Brahms orchestral works have my respect, but over the years they have rarely made me stand up and take notice. But in the ADDA auditorium under the baton of Rumon Gamba and the hands of Nelson Goerner, there was throughout a delicacy, a refreshing humility, clear unambiguous expression and above all communication. And the overall effect was so surprising it was breath-taking. The gestures were light, the playing faultless and lyrical, with every phrase crafted to communicate. The concerto’s fifty plus minutes seemed to pass in a moment and we were already listening to a Brahms Intermezzo as a substantial encore.

If the Second Piano Concerto was a surprising experience, it was nothing compared to the Second Symphony. Of course this is a lyrical work, but it is not always interpreted as thoughtfully and convincingly as this. The music made perfect sense and again the stress was on delicacy and the ADDA orchestra was visibly enjoying the experience as much as the audience.

The beauty of being a subscriber and attending all the concerts guarantees that occasionally one is taken out of ones comfort zone. With a Brahms double bill, I might just have stayed at home. To have foregone that complete surprise would have been a cardinal error.

Thursday, April 28, 2022

Shelley by Jon Addington Symonds

Consider these elements. A young, rich and gifted man is obsessed with revolutionary idealism. He attends prestigious schools and the most prestigious university but is expelled from the latter because of his outrageous outspoken views, opinions he chose to publish in pamphlets. He is disowned by his family, runs away with his girlfriend, gets into drugs and devote his time to writing poetry that no one else professes to understand. He gets bored with his wife, has a fling with a teenager and sets off with her to travel, apparently none too troubled by leaving his wife and children to their own devices. Soon afterwards, his estranged wife kills herself. He takes more drugs, regularly, wanders around on his travels with his new wife, gets in with a heavy crowd of fellow travellers, falls foul of authority and does stupid things.

He continues to write, but generally has to publish his work at his own expense, because others still find it baffling. He seems to be obsessed with a particular pastime, a practice that, for him, is positively dangerous and is eventually killed on an escapade where he pursues this risky activity, has an accident and dies, aged very young. His friends recover his body and they ritually burn it, but the heart seems to survive its roasting and is retrieved.

This is no 1960s hippie, no millennial millionaire millionaire’s misguided, spoilt son. This is Percy Bysshe Shelly, the English poet, in the first two decades of the 19th century. And reading J.A. Symond’s 1878 biography, with its copious quotes from the Romantic poet’s work, we view a portrait of the artist as a young man. He stayed forever the young man because he died well before he ever became old. But he was also young because he never seemed to shake off the infant’s need for attention, for the kind of special treatment that demanded other’s accommodate his whims whilst he, himself, did not seem to notice that others might need some of the same.  He was the artist because his entire life seems to have been a pursuit to express a platonic essence of life and experience, a life he seemed to reject, or at least take for granted, an experience he clouded with narcotics.

A 21st-century visit to Percy Bysshe Shelleys biography might persuade the reader to reject the whole as merely the pranks of a headstrong, spoiled sick boy, who was also rich boy. But this 19th century biography offers a more contemporary view of this great life than one clouded by more recent assumptions or interpretations about the individual and his era. It enables us to view Shelley’s undoubted genius more in the context of how it was received in its own time and, though it cannot be the last word on the great poet, it can offer interesting and arresting perspectives.

What is doubly interesting about this work is that it’s author, John Addington Symonds, was himself a rebel in his own time, apart from society because of his homosexuality. And strangely, the author was buried in Rome, not far from the grave where Shelley’s ashes were interred. Poetry, it seems, is alive and well.