Wednesday, 30 March 2016

K'an bεn, Keita

Oumar Keita and Sophie Sarin photographed by the great Malick Sidibé at Hotel Djenné Djenno, 2007

Gone far too soon, but Keita lived longer than anyone ever expected since his second wife and loving partner of 10 years, our Sophie Sarin, went to the ends of the earth to find cures and stavings-off of the myeloma that gradually, with remissions, wore down his resistance. She was trying, with expensive medication from India, to the last. A French drug wrought miracles for about a year.

I trust Keita's Malian family, including his first wife by whom he has two children (update - three, Sophie tells me below, proving how much time has passed), realises all that. For one thing especially they owe Sophie eternal gratitude - that the treatment she sought out in Casablanca got Keita walking again. His mother lived to see that, and to have hope, before she died.

I wish I could find that first photo I took of Keita in his workroom at Djenné's hospital - that would have been Christmas/Tabaski of 2005. Communication wasn't always easy given my far from perfect French, but the last time we spoke, over the phone while Sophie was here for supper on her last visit, was unforgettable for his big, deep laugh at something I said. We also spent quality time together in Meknes, Morocco, when they both joined us at the Riad Lahboul for a couple of nights. Above, the two in the main square; below, in the Riad, Keita in his most splendid boubou.

I know that Keita was the rock Sophie needed, both in her life generally and during her time (ongoing, of course) in Djenné - his presence smoothed over difficulties and allowed her to be her usual outspoken self. He'd always have wise judgment to give in conflicts with staff and locals. I never knew a gentler yet more manly, natural soul.

We have yet to hear from Sophie of that no doubt harrowing but - I hazard a guess - still extraordinary week by his bedside at the hospital in Bamako (he became unconscious on Good Friday and died on Easter Saturday). Hope we can be of support to her when she returns. Meanwhile, our thoughts are with her. Echoing the last line of her latest blog entry: Rest in Peace Oumar Keita, Mandé Massa.

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

14 hours in the Concertgebouw

And I'll treasure every minute, from checking in for Orkestival 2016 to watching Daniel Harding walk down the great red-carpeted steps for the last time following an amazingly good concert of Bach and Brahms. That, by the way, was my first experience of THE orchestra in its own hall - I'd previously heard the Netherlands Philharmonic here under Hartmut Haenchen in the original version of Mahler's Das klagende Lied. But the main reason I was here turned out to be only my second adjudication (the first, for ENO, was only a couple of months earlier). Through the vivacious Machteld (Max to us) Hopperus Buma, wife of J's old Glyndebourne chorus pal Nick Hills and the mother of his (J's) godson Frankie and brother Charlie, I was invited to be one of a three-strong panel judging the 14 Dutch school orchestras and ensembles of Orkestival. Love the poster, by the way, designed by a classmate of Frankie.

It's thanks to the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra's dedicated education programme that Orkestival gets to inhabit the hall for the whole day. My very distinguished colleagues for the day were Kees Olthuis - bassoonist of that great ensemble from 1970 to 2005, composer and good friend of Haitink  - and Jeroen de Groot, 11 years violinist in the Concertgebouw and now a soloist who's just recorded the solo sonatas of Bach on a Dutch Record Company Super Audio CD (waiting to hear it). Here they are, Jeroen on the left and Kees on the right, with Max holding the cup just before presentation.

Kees, as you might expect, has a knack of going straight to the point, while Jeroen was humorous - we got on instantly and, I think, agreed on all points. The presenter was Karel Baracs, 'the story-teller of Amsterdam' by virtue of his narrative of the fates of Jewish relatives during the Nazi occupation.

Let me start with the day itself, in which everything had a sense of wonder about it. Not least stepping out of the Buma-Hills residence overlooking the Sarphatipark in south Amsterdam and seeing everyone going to work or school on bicycles, children often in buggies attached. Only a distant bike in this photo, but I like the mum in the hat and coat.

One stretch of water to be negotiated en route, the Boerenwetering, looking towards the Rijksmuseum; on the way back, the waterfront houses were lit up by red framed windows, prostitutes posing like gaudy mannequins within.

And so alongside the tram route to the Concertgebouw itself

and Max on the front desk.

I think it might be helpful for all participants if I sketch from memory, without looking back on copious notes, what I remember of each. The criticisms are supposed to be positive, of course. This is in order of performance. They were heard in groups of three or four, impressive in itself as you would see the various orchestras sharing the platform - nothing, of course, as compared to the 300-strong performance of Musorgsky's 'Great Gate of Kiev' from Pictures at an Exhibition at the end, but I jump ahead.

Group 1 Barlaeus Gymnasium, Amsterdam  Very tentative at the start of each piece; impressive how the spirit was finally there in the recaps of the Grieg Peer Gynt numbers and Shostakovich's Second (Jazz Suite) Waltz (don't know why this piece is so popular - it's repetitive. There are better waltzes out there).

Murmellius Gymnasium, Alkmaar  We wanted to award the prize for the enthusiastic mastery of complex rhythms in Geert Rubingh's Clap Trap. The orchestral pieces, though, left less of an impression. No doubt the prize for most resourceful teacher/conductor should go to Jos Meijer. He was one of the five to give us the music, too.

Vossius Gymnasium, Amsterdam  One of the Netherlands' best schools - this is only one ensemble of three (all main schools are free and state-run, incidentally - though there's a division between top-layer, sending students to university, from which I believe all the participants were drawn; second-division, like the first but not university-oriented; and technically-minded, training kids for apprenticeships in practical work. This, of course, is equally valuable, and I wish we had something like it here). The most polished orchestra under expert clarinettist-conductor Coen Stuit, pictured below with Max at tea later; the Beethoven First opening movement undoubtedly the most accomplished single performance. Admirable, too, to choose Soifer's Amstel Suite, with a chance for the wind to shine; but it was all a little sober. We were looking for spirit above all.

Group 2 Trinitas Band, Almere  First of the 'schoolbands' - I'm allergic to the Lion King music but that was well enough done. Things looked up with an inventive symphonic take on 'I Want You Back' by the Jackson Five. They had the bad luck, though, to be followed by

Christelijk Gymnasium Beyers Naudé, Leeuwarden  One of two groups who had set off early for Amsterdam from Friesland in the north. Our firm favourite first because the brass ensemble made such a beautiful, mellow sound and second because there was so much personality from the players. We loved the way the leader sat (pictured below with Karel and the cup). A wonderful trumpet solo in Hans Zimmer's Roll Tide arranged by Jay Bocock - the best of the film music played throughout - as well as rhythmic ingenuity (7/8) in a Greek folk dance. Last two numbers too similar but both done with great, ever-accumulating spirit.

Aulos, Praedinius Gymnasium, Groningen When the delightful kids from this group flocked round me on the way out afterwards and asked me what they could have done better, I had to say that I hated the arrangements their teacher chose - claptrap Carmen Habanera and Barber of Seville Overture tune a la RPO Hooked on Classics. Why not play something authentic and original? 'If we'd let off real fireworks, would we have got more points?,' one boy asked. No - the real fireworks should have been in the playing. Look as if you're enjoying it, then the audience will too.

Coornhert Gymnasium, Gouda  Some weird cut and paste stuff going on here too - even the versions of Sibelius's Finlandia and the third movement of Brahms's Fourth Symphony were way too ambitious. And they needed to do their shouting in 'Minnie the Moocher' with much more spirit, so that we'd want to join in (which we did anyway).

First of the longer breaks here. We withdrew to the brass department's ?dressing? room (photo by Max)

having gathered our lunch from an orchestral canteen which must be envied by any musicians over here. Extremely friendly staff here as everywhere I went in Amsterdam.

Group 3  Gymnasium Haganum, The Hague Over-ambitious choices here, too. Brahms's Fifth Hungarian Dance began well, but the first movement of Beethoven's Fourth Symphony went badly. Not least because flu had been spreading in the Hague and apparently they were missing some key musicians. Not least a bassoon who never appeared to cue in the bucolic second subject - to do the exposition repeat, therefore, was a big mistake. I understand the personable Piet Raphael is not a conductor. More modest choices next time, please.

Panta Musica, Johan de Wit Gymnasium, Dordrecht A newly formed group, small and eclectic - I had a real soft spot for these players. Excellent trumpet and wind playing in an unusual arrangement of Musorgsky's Pictures Promenade, and a Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy like you never heard it before - side-drum included. The young pianist did really well here.

Group 4 Gymnasium Celeanum, Zwolle Very eclectic programme here, including a chance for the cellists to shine in James Hook's Duetto V. The stand-out was a young marimba player who provided his own introduction to 'Hava Nagila'. That's him pictured on the right below with one of the other solo stars, Casper Jeukendorp (see below)

Big Band Stedelijk Gymnasium, Nijmegen  Not enough swing here, despite spirited contributions from electric guitar and piano. They drafted in a cool oldster to sing Joe Cocker's 'Leave Your Hat On'. Faulty mikes did for the two girl singers, though it was clear Ajuna Soerjadi has real talent (the mike went off for Rebecca-Elise de Jeer with the nice lilac hair).

Mercator et Musica, Stedelijk Gymnasium, 's-Hertogenbosch Again a rep problem. Jacob de Haan's Dakota Suite was short and horrid, Marj van Gils' arrangement of highlights from Ruud Bos's Efteling interminable and horrid. Some good players, clearly, but they needed to do the circus whirligig music with much more spirit.

Euterpe, Stedelijk Gymnasium, Arnhem Loved the shirts and the programming contrasts/symmetries were excellent. Abba medley fine by me, Game of Thrones rubbish definitely not, but I wouldn't have marked them down for that. A highlight of the day was the showcasing of treble Casper Jeukendorp. Not only did he sing Mozart's 'Laudate Dominum' superbly - a bit hampered by mike which made too much of his 'oo' vowels - but presented his own composition, about a refugee child, I understand, first aired in a Dutch ensemble's annual New Year's Eve auditions of new music by teenagers. It was excellent musically, though of course I couldn't understand most of the words. Loved the way Henry VIII's 'Pastime with Good Company' evolved into another popsong.

So much for the competitors. We didn't need much time to choose the winner (Beyers Naudé) and the 'most promising' (Murmellius). Though as I said in my speech, this is a festival and not really a competition. I also compared their enviable education system to ours, where the bulk of musicmaking for young people rests with public and private schools  (sobering statistic: did you know that when our National Youth Orchestra started out, five per cent of its members came from paying schools, and now it's 85 per cent?)The three of us divided our speechifying between the different 'sets', with Kees topping, tailing and presenting the cup, here held by our vivacious leader with Karel acclaiming her.

For me the great thrill was to walk down the red stairs to applause, an act which Artur Rubinstein wrote made him tremble with emotion. Like those great artists, you get to peek through the porthole

before making an entrance.

After all, Mahler

and Mengelberg

did the same, while Haitink and Jansons continue to do so. Here they are on the wall of fame in the upstairs main bar. Gatti will be joining them soon - not such a great appointment IMO but let's see. Chailly certainly matured over the years.

Why can't the Festival Hall and the Barbican honour their musicians past and present in this way? Below, a row of greats in bust form - Rubinstein, Ameling, Walter and Horowitz.

But I digress from the grand finale. Once seated, we were first treated to one of the events rehearsed during the day by groups of contenders while others took the stage, a mass rendition in canon style of 'Rhythm of Live' from Sweet Charity led by the vibrant Mirjam van Dam.

After the speeches and awards came the 'Great Gate' of 300 conducted by Coen, in the middle of which we were grabbed by Karel to carry boxes of free bicycle bells for all contenders with the Netherlands Philharmonic insignia on them.

Flowers all round, and then tea in the cafe with Max's elder sister Eline, friends and relatives, another gathering with Max and a bit of time to kill before the evening concert. And now I do fully understand how you haven't heard the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra until you've heard it in the Concertgebouw Hall - much improved in decor and extension since the last time we were in here.

From a distance, Harding's string group of sprang and danced along with leader Vesko Eschkenazy in Bach's A major Violin Concerto. while three oboes and three trumpets lent silvery colours to the Fourth Orchestral Suite. Harding's interpretation of Brahms Three after the interval was extremely subtle, with easy rubato and superb dynamic adjustments; and oh, the four horns, the inner string lines. I've only heard this work sound so good once before, and that was from Abbado conducting the Berlin Phil at the Proms. One solitary shot from the auditorium in the evening, just to see Harding coming down the red stairs from the famous door with 'Bach' inscribed above it.

So, good fortune all round, a happy walk back to Sarphatipark and a fun late supper with Max. Followed by a lazy morning before setting off to the airport, plans to see the new work on the Rijksmuseum abandoned, and a final glimpse of the Buma-Hills' li'l Johnny looking out on the dogs barking in the park with the poster still proudly displayed above him.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

ENO: Stage Management next in line for cuts?

So it seems - but a climate of fear within the company has prevented this being the post it should have been. If matters change, I'll change the text. But the fact remains: the Chorus has had a voice and now we'll all be called upon to support the Stage Management (not pictured in the above scene from The Magic Flute. That's a rehearsal for Bergman's film - the great man pictured on the left: the only version I've ever seen which caps dramatically, though not musically, what they did at ENO this time round).

In the meantime, so many journalistic speculations about Mark Wigglesworth's departure are either lopsided approaches to the truth or downright false. Why does none of these people ask the music staff, chorus, orchestra, technical staff or at least check facts? Immediate reporting of the news in the broadsheets was balanced and responsible. But opinion pieces from Rupert Christiansen, Charlotte Higgins and Norman Lebrecht have all been to some degree wide of the mark (surprising from the first two, though not from Slipped Disc; way too many people in the music industry use it as a sort of gossip bible). I understand we can expect some counterbalance from Hugh Canning in the forthcoming Sunday Times.

All the following statements are FALSE:  

Wigglesworth was sour about Ed Gardner getting this season's Tristan and Isolde and canvassed for the most expensive productions (Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and The Force of Destiny were planned before he took up the Music Directorship. And he has always categorically stated that it did not matter which operas the MD conducted).

He looks down on Gilbert and Sullivan; the defendant is a snob (a fact deduced from an alleged unwillingness to participate in endless Mikados - see last sentence in above paragraph for contradiction. And during a recent performance of  that indestructible Miller production, MW was sitting in front of me and commented on how difficult this work of genius was to do well).

He left because he wanted the Artistic Directorship for himself (how he longed for someone in the post with whom he could work - he felt, like so many of us, that had there been one in place none of this nightmare would be happening now).

The Board and the CEO tried every other possible route (they arrogantly refused to do so. Details of Wigglesworth's alternative plan have not emerged, so any judgment that it was 'overambitious', as the Board is claimed to have responded, would be premature).

I repeat: just ask any member of the company what he's meant to each and every one of them. The rest is flummery. In the meantime, Wigglesworth is wisely stepping back until the furore dies down. Then we can expect more honesty and directness. Praise be to the Easter break for allowing us all to get away from the constant stream of information good and bad. And yes, I appreciate the irony that I'm adding to it here. But the latest stage in ENO's dismemberment needs flagging up as soon as possible. It shows all too clearly where the management will send the company  - down the tubes. Is political intervention now the only hope, or can that come from an uprising within?

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

ENO: the fight's not over

Before I go on, please be reassured that none of what follows is meant to overshadow the enormity of the Brussels news which has cast a pall over the day, the week, the month. But struggles great and small are going on everywhere, so I hope it's not too insensitive to ask for your indulgence with this one.

'I can not be otherwise,' Hofmannsthal's Arabella declares to Strauss's music. So it is with Mark Wigglesworth, one of the most honourable people I've met. How could he not hand in his resignation, as he officially did via Albion Media and the ENO Press Office this afternoon, now that our national opera company has been declared fit for purpose for only half the year, with its chorus looking for work elsewhere from March to June?

Despite what Cressida Pollock says in the weasel words (to put it mildly) of a vague, badly phrased manifesto for some reason published uncritically in today's Independent - what was she thinking of, comparing her decision to Sophie's Choice? - no real compromise was made on her part or the Board's. Mark has offered no further comment for the time being - more will come over the next few days - and neither shall I on that subject, other than to note that this may simply be the next stage in a refusal to let bureaucrats gut a thriving company and that I only hope statements of fact will fight all the obfuscation on the other side.

The top picture should say it all from the artistic side. I wanted to go back and see The Magic Flute, the production by Simon McBurney which hadn't ignited first time round but did so at a sublime level with Wigglesworth conducting, Lucy Crowe as Pamina and Allan Clayton as Tamino. I wrote about the first night experience in an earlier post, so let's just say the final afternoon performance had me shedding rather more tears in key spots (the Act One Quintet, several places in the Act One finale, what we'll always know as 'Ach, ich fühl's' and 'Tamino mein'). The whole of the second act finale transported me to that happy deeper place I sometimes touch on in the most successful meditations.

I'm certainly not prone to snapping curtain calls. But as, in thanks for my participation on the Mackerras Fellowship jury, they'd given me tickets dead centre in the Dress Circle and I was ideally placed to catch perhaps the last moment of unalloyed musical idealism at ENO, I did the honours both at the final bow and just after.

For the last words - at least for now - I refer you back to Mark's article for The Guardian on 11 February. He stated his position in no uncertain terms here: 'ENO’s identity as a team defines its past and will be its greatest asset in protecting its future Cutting the core of the company - musicians and technicians alike - would damage it irreparably.' And he ended thus:

English National Opera’s current production is as interesting to the aficionado as it is welcoming to the opera novice. No one would feel they needed to belong to an opera club to enjoy it. It is a showcase for the ground­breaking possibilities of a people’s opera, for the extraordinary qualities of those in our company, and for the magnificent Coliseum itself. It is a celebration of what teamwork can bring, and of the magical power of music to bring us together, remind us that we are human, and enrich our lives for the better.

Now it really is a battle between the Enlightened and the - not. I hope it isn't all over.

UPDATE: The Guardian quotes from a longer resignation letter sent to company members. It clarifies with MW's usual eloquence what he has been maintaining for months. 

Monday, 21 March 2016

Kew: alpines and magnolias

It's officially the first day of spring, though nature rarely obeys human deadlines; it's dull and cold. There were plenty of signs of life at Kew Gardens the Sunday before last, though, with everything looking sharp and shadows lengthening in the late afternoon sun.  A solitary clump of pulsatillas - appropriately, in Easter week, also known as the pasque flower - was flourishing in the Alpine garden (top image) while some magnolias were doing better than others after some sharp frosts - and there was a little bit less of that moon-in-daylight which had been such a backdrop on a frozen January day.

Now, of course, the crocuses are nearly all over which had provided some of the much-needed colour back on a dark February afternoon

along with the fruit of the monkey-puzzle tree

as well as an early magnolia by the Japanese temple

and the usual gaudy but welcome orchid riot in the Princess of Wales Conservatory.

Now, as then, the impressively-designed Alpine House has to be a main port of call.

A few things flourish outside it, like a meadow of anemones

but the real wonders are within, with generous potted clumps of an exquisitely-marked miniature iris (annoyingly I didn't snap the tag)

an abundance of Scilla peruviana (not from Peru at all, in fact), this one silhouetted in the sun,

and small, perfectly-formed rarities like Saxifraga X megaseiflora 'Jan Neruda'.

Our time was limited, so I thought we should head for two magnolia zones. The first, near the Elizabeth Gate, still included a fine spectacle of Magnolia stellata from a distance

but either frost had blighted the rest, or they were still only in bud.

The spectacular magnolia arboretum, however, did not disappoint, with swathes of daffodils forming a background to the branches

and a few big blowsy flowers not frost-bitten

with giant buds promising more to come.

That moon as pictured up above added delight to the detail of this Magnolia kobus var. borealis, the biggest of the group

and then we hit the tree-lined avenue from the river at Syon back towards the main hothouse. The sun was lighting the way for the last strollers of the day.

On a final floral note, I should note with gladness that my mother passed her 85th birthday test with flying colours and here, for once, I've caught her looking natural and happy at home with the 50 tulips I brought back from Amsterdam the other week.

The Concertgebouw Orkestival narrative, meanwhile, hangs fire, but it's up next for extensive treatment.