Posts Tagged ‘lufthansa festival of baroque music’

Review – La Venexiana – 2010 Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music

May 18, 2010

Note: this concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 at 7pm 1 June. Don’t miss it!

For the last two years I’ve been excited to attend the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music in London’s St. John’s Smith Square. In Seattle, I used to see a Baroque (or Renaissance, or Medieval) concert about 10 times a year, and after nearly two years of no early music, I was excited to find a banquet at which I could fill my plate over and over again, if only for two weeks’ time. I chose five concerts from this year’s offering (twelve concerts in total) – buying them in February – then settled down to wait.

The festival started in spectacular style with La Venexiana, whom I’m pretty sure I’ve seen before. They performed Monteverdi’s “Vespers of 1610,” a lovely collection of liturgical music written apparently over several years. The texts of the Vespers felt like a very Renaissance mix of sacred and secular: several psalms, “Ave maris stella,” but also some florid selections from the Song of Solomon that sounded very much like love songs (“While the king lay upon his bed, my perfume gave off an odor of sweetness”) and not particularly religious.

The evening opened with an incredible wall of sound: eleven singers and seventeen musicians with crystal-clear projection and tonal perfection nearly blew me out of my chair. Whew! This was some church music! I felt very much in the hands of a master! This feeling was further emphasized by the intense conducting style of Claudio Cavina, who seemed like nothing so much as a puppet master pulling every single singer’s string in a way I found kind of creepy (visions of abusive rehearsals and people debasing themselves to get in his favor kept bubbling up in my head). But there was no denying the results; each singer was perfection. In fact, one of the men singing tenor had this incredible breathy kind of breaks in his solos that reminded me of some movies I’ve seen set in this era – in some ways just over the top, but really done to perfection and incredibly well matched to the music. It may have been a “style” but it sounded great. I’ve got notes in my program for “Laudate pueri” and “Due Seraphim” noting how good the tenors were (quote: “goosebumps”); and they did just hit it again and again. “Nigra sum sed formosa” (I am black but beautiful) was heartbreakingly beautiful. If this is what having a control freak does to a choral group, I’m afraid to say I probably approve, though it seems a bit like saying yes to veal or foie gras.

I could probably add to this many notes on what an amazing composer Monteverdi is, how his “Audi coelum” was filled with longing, his “Pulchra es” passionate, his “Dixit dominus” captured the babbling brook in “de torrente.” But this is no surprise. Monteverdi is great, and his choral music exquisite; I feel lucky to have attended this show.

Next: Friday the 14th’s show of La Risonanza and Paolo Pandolfo – but as I’ve seen another concert tonight clearly I must get this published or I will get too, too far behind!

(This review is for a show that took place on Thursday, May 13th, 2010. The 2010 Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music continues through May 22nd.)

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Review – “A Choice Collection” – Emma Kirkby, Jakob Lindberg, Steven Devine – Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music 2009 at St. John’s Smith Square

May 23, 2009

Last night my partner and I went to St. John’s Smith Square to see the second concert I’d bought tickets for in the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music – Emma Kirkby’s presentation of English song masters of the Baroque era, featuring songs of master composers Purcell and Dowland as well as pieces by less well remembered folks such as Robert Johnson, Thomas Campion, Maurice Green, and William Croft. Truly, it’s one of the pleasures of a series like this that instead of having Baroque music represented by the same music over and over again (my God, may I live without ever once again hearing a tepid concert consisting of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and the freaking Brandenberg Concerto) that at last the richness of the era really comes to the fore. It’s incredible to think of how much has been lost or fallen by the wayside – in a guided walk I took in the City of London Wednesday, our guide told us that only about 12% of the total number of plays produced during Shakespeare’s era were saved – and almost all of that number were his own works! It could make me throw it all in to become a music or theater historian, I tell you, if only I thought there were some chance of me actually being able to find some missing work of genius.

Fortunately the rise of the Early Music movement means there have been rather a lot of people devoted to finding these less-known musical works and giving them the benefit of the light of day – and, more importantly, a fresh performance. Emma Kirkby was, as ever, a lively interpreter of these old scores. She was deliciously over the top for Purcell’s “Bess of Bedlam” and John Blow’s “A Mad Song” (poor Belinda! Poor bess!), but for all the songs she showed a wonderful dedication to the making the text come alive. Of course, for most of these songs, the focus was on sadness and death – very appropriate for the age (did Purcell really only live to 46?) – but also love and seduction. I especially appreciated “She loves and she confesses, too,” with text from Cowley’s “The Mistress” – without hearing Kirkby say it, I would have never appreciated the delicious alliteration of “Noisy nothing, stalking shade” – but the poetry came right to the fore. Ms. Kirkby is probably in my top three of favorite early music performers, at the level where I make special efforts to go see her, and once again she made it an evening well worth my while.

I have to say that her accompanists, Jakob Lindberg on lute and Steven Devine on harpsichord, were also excellent. My preference was of course for the lute (since I find the harpsichord a rather unemotional instrument), and with Lindberg’s ability to sit next to her, a very strong interaction was happening. He was no hired gun – he was playing with her, not for her, in the kind of jazzy interaction style I only ever see with this era of “classical” music. His solos were great, too – Dowland’s “Rosamunde’s Pavane” and “Daniel’s Gigue” made me want to go out and get some more lute music. Devine was fine, but, well, “harpsichord,” what more can I say – great behind something else but not so great on its own (afraid my tastes can’t account for skill). Overall, though, a great night, and I was only sad that there was time for just one encore, William Croft’s Mr Dufy (a song to Venus, though I’m sure I haven’t attributed it correctly).

(This review is for a concert that took place on Thursday, May 21st, 2009. I also saw the Phantasm performance the next night but I don’t have much to say about it and am marking it here just as a reminder to myself.)

Review – The Harp Consort’s “The English Dancing Master” – Lufthansa Festival of the Baroque, St. John’s Smith Square

May 17, 2009

On Saturday afternoon I went to my first concert of the Lufthansa Festival of the Baroque – the Harp Consort, performing a program called “The English Dancing Master,” described as “dance tunes and ballads from the theatres, homes and taverns of Baroque London.” I was feeling a little under the weather and not sure if I shouldn’t just go home and get some sleep, as I had doubts that the show would be energetic enough to get through my exhaustion. My doubt, however, were unfounded, as the show far surpassed my expectations.

I was a little disturbed to see that there was going to be a dancer accompanying the music (though given the title of the set I shouldn’t have been). Back in Seattle we had Anna Mansbridge dancing rather frequently to various of the local Baroque and Early Music groups, and while her costumes were lovely, it was distracting (verging on bizarre) to watch her tottering back and forth in front of the musicians, her feet generally completely invisible, looking like a gaily-painted ship fighting the waves in a brave attempt to make it into port. It had turned me off of the Baroque dance altogether.

Steven Player, however, was a far cry from modest Mansbridge, with his swagger and braggadocio. His showmanship was paired with a far more interactive and theatrical performance than I’d ever seen from a group of Seattle players, not to mention the fact that our Player also showed a fine hand at the guitar. In short, that his dancing was fully integrated into the overall performance, and none of the performers had to overdress in period costume in order to get the right effect – white shirts and handsome vests pretty much did it for the men, and violinist Clare Salaman was dressed entirely modernly and yet with the enthusiasm and good humor that did more to create an atmosphere than a room full of panniers would have done.

The performance was divided in five sets – “A Poem of Dancing,” “The Boatemen,” “The New Scots Jig,” “Assemblee” and “A la Mode de France.” Each set featured rather a lot of spoken text, from sources such as Shakespeare, Soame Jenyns “The Art of Dancing,” and the anonymous tract “A Parley betweene Prince Rupert’s Dogge and Tobies Dog” (1643), but also some great singing from the various players (my favorite being Ian Harrison’s “King Orfeo,” I believe, though it seemd like he might have transitioned right into “Johny Faa”). And while we might have just had our silent dancer, not only did he sing and play, but he also entered into duets – and duels, in “The French Dancing-Mastr & the English Soldier” – and a great performance of “The Fidler’s Wife” that had him, Harrison, and Salaman all hamming it up on stage like you never expect of people that have spent most of their life in the conservatory.

Of course, King Ham was Player himself, who came out on stage (with a bit of a strip-tease introduction) in a big-nosed Carnival mask and proceeded to walk out on and over the chairs and into the audience (“There goes the fourth wall,” I thought), there to flirt with, harangue, and amuse the groundlings. This, of course, was on top of his actual dancing, in which he leapt and capered (perhaps like a galliard was meant to be performed?) and kicked his heels up ever higher, egged on all the while by Andrew Lawrence-King, with whom Player had been reciting lines from Twelfth Night.

This was, none the less, very much a group performance, with everyone completely paying attention to each other and in the moment, as you would expect from, say, a jazz ensemble. This was highlighted during a moment of solo violin playing that took place during the “New Scots Jig” set, when everyone on stage had their eyes closed and was listening with pleasure to Salaman’s strings. It wasn’t a bunch of people waiting impatiently for “their turn;” what was happening was beautiful and they were all taking the time to enjoy it. While the music itself was gorgeous, I have to say I was also impressed by the Harp Consort as a whole for displaying the kind of appreciation they did. I think that spirit is part of why the overall effect was so very good; it wasn’t about ego or domination (though there was ego certainly on display, of the good-natured sort); it was a bunch of very talented people having a good time together. I felt lucky to be able to listen with them.

Overall, it’s hard to point at a moment that was the very best, as I was so caught up from one moment to the next I found no real valleys against which to measure the peaks. Who would ever think a harp consort would produce an event so lively? I felt like going and thanking Mr. Lawrence-King afterwards for such a good show. This was a great start (for me) to the series and I look forward both to seeing the next evening’s performance and to finding an opportunity to see this group again.

(This review is for a performance that took place on May 16th, 2009. The Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music continues through May 23rd.)

Great review on Clement Crisp’s talk about the state of ballet

May 12, 2009

I had a Twitter person refer me to this wonderful report on Clement Crisp’s pre-show lecture at the National Ballet of Canada. Now, I didn’t agree with his take on Northern Ballet’s Hamlet, but it was certainly clear he’s got the decades of experience behind him. And this review makes clear that he’s also dedicated to one of my pet causes, supporting the future of ballet. It must not die, and to not die, it needs fresh blood in the forms of new choreography and new audience members. To die, it just needs to be allowed to become a museum piece.

That said, I’m helping (eep!) support the death of ballet by going to see Giselle tomorrow. It’s one of my favorite classical ballets, and I figure that it will be a nice addition to the version by the Mikhailovsky I saw last year and the version I saw performed by the Ballet Nacional de Cuba way back in ’99. (Good lord! A performance before I was blogging!) Sure, it’s a museum piece, but on the lines of the Mona Lisa when you’ve got an excellent company performing it. (Actually I’d say it’s more like Millais’ “Ophelia,” but that’s just me.)

In addition to a night with an old standard, I’m also going to see the New Works at the Linbury on Thursday, because I do, seriously, support the vitalization of this art form which I love so much. And to add to this, I’ll be popping over to Sadler’s Wells on Tuesday to see the Northern Ballet Theater’s mixed bill (Gillian Lynne’s “A Simple Man,” “Angels in the Architecture” and “As time goes by”). Supporting these performances will help ballet move forward as an art – but I’m going because I love ballet, and I love the chance to see new works, and the thought of seeing some amazing dancers performing makes me grin from ear to ear.

The rest of my month is going to mostly be classical music at the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music – three or four concerts (including Phantasm and Emma Kirkby) over its two weeks – and I’m really looking forward to it. I’m only going to see two plays – Exquisite Corpse at the Southwark Playhouse, and Aunt Dan and Lemon at the Royal Court. Overall, May won’t be much of a theater month, but I think it will be great!

Reviews – Tiger Lillies, New Players Theatre, and Jordi Savall, Wigmore Hall (London)

May 10, 2009

This week I went to two concerts that couldn’t have been more different from each other: the Tiger Lillies, in London for a nearly month-long run at the New Players Theatre, and Jordi Savall, whom I had the good fortune to note (thanks to his online schedule) would be (and was) at Wigmore Hall on Friday, May 8th. Savall is probably the artist in the world whom I hold in highest esteem; the Tiger Lillies were a group I’d heard of from many people and decided to sample (in a state of general ignorance) given their good reputation and the attraction of ten quid tickets.

Jordi Savall’s program at Wigmore Hall was split in two sections: the first to me seemed to be virtuoso viol music (included music adapted for the viol); the second was music of the British Isles, including several pieces that required retuning the instrument. The opening piece, Karl Friedrich Abel’s “Prelude,” had the bow dancing over the strings from one chord shift to another in a way that left my mouth hanging open. It was just so rich and complex, and the one instrument just filled the hall with its sound. It was inexpressably gorgeous, and followed by Bach’s “Allemande in D minor” I was transported by the beauty of the music. I often think that when a performer constructs a program, one of the considerations he takes into play is which works will give him a chance to stretch himself or show off his technique. These two pieces were the utter fireworks of the evening, effectively forcing the audience to submit to the power of Savall’s playing and just exist, wordlessly, in awe and amazement while the music washed over us.

The next several pieces were primarily, to my ear, the work of Marais and St. Colombe (pere et fils), as the program was not followed (Savall announced that there would be some Fantasies by Marais played when I was expecting some Prelude in D minor by le Sieru de Machy), though “Les Pleurs” was played. In comparison to the music of Bach and Abel, I found the French viol music so much more thoughtful and nuanced. It’s just a very personal style of music, exactly the kind of thing I would expect someone to play for their own pleasure with no one else listening. The German composers seemed rather mechanical and mathematical by comparison; perfect in their own way, but more cerebral rather than emotional. I was absorbed in the experience of the incredible French music, and my friend was also struck dumb by the gorgeous, heart-wrenching music. It’s crazy to think that this music was almost forgotten in modern times; I find it some of the best ever written.

The second half was four pieces from Tobias Hume’s “Musicall Humours,” followed by what was described as “Lessons for the lyra-viol,” three pieces by Alfonso Ferrabosco (“Coranto”), Thomas Ford (“Why Not Here”), and John Playford (“La Cloche”), and then “4 Pieces in the Bag-Pipes Tuning” (c. 1660). My favorite of these was “La Cloche,” which had Savall playing as if he were two people split, one sawing away (albeit gracefully) on his bass viol, the other answering, beautifully, on another instrument, in this case the plucked viol. The title of the piece is “The Bell,” and it very much had that ringing sound to it, since the strings had been altered so that more of them were able to play open and thus bell out their sound to the hall (my apologies for not being able to write down the tuning). It was really a master composition for the viol, since it took such advantage of the fact that it, with its six (or seven) strings, is already such a resonant instrument, ready to echo itself to the hall.

The bag pipe pieces were set up so that one string became a drone song, wth the fourth and fifth strings switched. I found it amazing that Savall was able to keep up with the change in the notations for his instrument during this set, as the location of any given note seemed to have moved around quite a bit, and though I think he may have dropped one or two notes, overall I was amazed that he was able, during the course of about an hour, change the tuning of his viol about three times and not lose his place. He was right that the bag pipe songs were quite simple, clearly following old folk tunes (from the bagpipes of Lancashire – way back in the past!), but still, they were lush and lovely.

With our enthusiastic applause, Savall returned for not one but two encores, the first a Musette from Marais’s third book of music for viol – sophisticated and short and gorgeous. And he came back yet again, the final time for variations and improvs on “an ancient Breton tune,” which was so beautiful it brought tears to my eyes. My God, I’m a sap. It’s a pity I’m not a rich sap or I’d be off to Fontfroide – Savall will be performing there four times at the end of the month. Alas! Perhaps I will be so lucky as to see him one more time this year, perhaps in Edinburgh – he won’t be back in London. But it was lovely.

Thursday was such a switch in gears from this show it’s hard to describe! The Tiger Lillies are usually described as “dark cabaret,” and that seems fair enough. They reminded me a lot of Seattle’s Circus Contraption – probably something that would happen any time you got on stage wearing clown makeup and carrying an accordion – but they also had rather a lot of The Asylum Street Spankers, with their pared-down musical sense that owes so much to following the lyrics of the songs. The set they performed in the comfortable confines of the New Players’ Theatre was from “Shockheaded Peter,” apparently an adaptation of a German’s cautionary children’s tale done with puppets and this band at some point in the past. I found it all rather like a performance of the Ghastlycrumb Tinies: every song was a tale of some child who met a horrible fate. In the meantime, our three piece ensemble (falsetto clown vocals with accordion/piano, bass with theremin, and percussion, sometimes involving pans and/or stuffed bunnies and/or spitting on the audience) walked us through one wild tale after another, with great musicality that focused tightly on the lyrics. I was quite absorbed in the songs and found it all very fun – highly recommended for those with a dark sense of humor.

(The Tiger Lillies continue their run in London through May 23rd; Jordi Savall has come and gone, but you might be able to console yourself at the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music, possibly by watching Phantasm. I know I’ll be there.)