Monday, 7 December 2015

Veritably Verismo: Cavalleria Rusticana & Pagliacci

Simply put, Damiano Michieletto's new production of opera's most beloved double bill is superb. Set in a dusty and slightly impoverished South Italian town in the 1980s, Michieletto's set is 'verismo' in its truest sense; it accentuates the grittiness of Mascagni's score in particular and, amongst the unadorned and ungilded, the toxic cesspool of human emotions that forms the core of both operas is permitted to explode in the melodramatic and sensual way we have come to expect. I found myself recalling the vulgar, beautiful and wounded Italian youth 'Gino'* amongst the San Gimignano hills, untaught and untamed, driven only by brutish instinct. Michieletto's presentation has such an effect; the muted palette of greys and browns only serves to accentuate the wild lushness of the orchestration and the mounting delirium. The linking of the two operas through the production (with characters overlapping in both interludes) is not novel, but it is neatly and seamlessly incorporated, serving an interesting outlook on idiosyncratically human troubles. It is thus with no small degree of resentment that I think of opening night reports of boos from a section of audience who have not yet soothed their affronted feathers at Michieletto's Guillaume Tell. Not only does it show horrid disrespect to the artists currently onstage, it also belies the petty small-mindedness of a certain faction of the Covent Garden crowd who seem to desire the same tyrannical power as La Scala's loggionisti; how one could muster the energy to surface old grudges after such a sublime double bill is quite beyond my reckoning. As for Guillaume Tell itself, it suffices to say that I thought it the finest ensemble production and performance of the rather disappointing 2014/15 season. 

As Santuzza, Eva Maria Westbroek delivered what was unanimously declared as the performance of the evening. Although her range seems to now waiver towards mezzo, her Santuzza was delectable; at once indignant and wretched. Westbroek inhabited the role in a way that we have come to expect (her final act Maddalena was bright spot in an otherwise tepid Andrea Chenier) but vocally she has grown exponentially. Gone is the strain and harshness that used to envelope her phrases; here, she opens her voice to an alluringly bright tone that penetrates the deepest corners of the hall. As with the other characters of this goldfish bowl view of Italian life, Santuzza is virilely majestic in her impetuosity; Westbroek conveys this profoundly, in a particularly startling choreographed passage where the wax figure of the Virgin Mary, carried aloft a baying crowd in the Easter procession seemingly comes alive and berates Santuzza for her sins. 

Her Santuzza had a match in Elena Zilio's Mamma Lucia, a magpie figure of matronly affection. Aleksandres Antonenko's Turiddu gave an admirable effort but I perhaps question the limits of his capacity for verismo opera; his tone, while beguilingly in its own way, is not quite full and is at danger of being too self-restrained. With the effervescent Tony Pappano coaxing the best sounds out of the orchestra that I have for long time from the pit below, the audience long to be swept away by an indescribable plethora of bloody colours, to hear the roar from the stage coincide the rising tempers. As Turiddu, he fell slightly short of such euphoria. But ultimately, it mattered very little; being the jewel that it is, Cavalleria Rusticana is an easy charmer. It benefits from having no 'central' number such as Vesti la giubba - after which everything and anything appears necessarily anti-climatic. There is no wasted exchanges, no 'filler' moments; everything flows, simple yet riveting.

Pagliacci had more shortcomings; though they were widely casting issues. Carmen Giannattasio I unfortunately failed to warm to; her Nedda had a barren and desiccant quality, oscillating uncomfortably from vulnerable to cruel to wanton. The contrast with Westbroek before her was illustrative; neither characters are truly sympathetic, but we lived Santuzza's despair, whereas Nedda's  was disconnected. Antonenko gave a much improved turn as Canio; aside from slightly pre-empting his entries in vesti la giubba, there was a real maniacal edge to his performance and his final breakdown (no, Pagliaccio non son) was petrifyingly electric, laid bare on a converted gym hall stage. Tonio (Dimitri Platanias) was invigorating, if slightly unremarkable, and Dionysios Sourbis' Silvio was a pleasant surprise, adding weight and pathos to the role. 

Yet, there was much to admire in the staging, which was more adventurous than Cavalleria Rusticana. There was something perversely gripping about the school gym / village hall set up that seemed to grasp the bleakness of the drama. The faint ridiculousness that this great, sordid story is unravelling amidst monkey bars and school assembly rooms only accentuates the sense of voyeurism that pervades the opera, further knowingly directed at the end when Tonio, speaking to the real life, not stage, audience, declares with twisted triumph "the comedy is finished!" and we realise that it is in our faces that the lights are directed.  In the pit, Pappano continued his wonderful work, finding joy and voice in one of opera's most ravishing scores, truly embodying every ounce of Italianate blood within him. He, together with Michieletto and Westbroek, are the makings of these alluring new productions.

* E.M Foster's Where Angels Fear to Tread

Friday, 30 October 2015

The Economist on the International Chopin Competition: Just what is the point?

Just what is the point? That seems to be the rather artless and frankly nonsensical question behind the Economists' article covering the recently concluded International Chopin Competition, arguably the most prestigious piano competition in the world: "Once the technical skills have been mastered, the artistry is a matter of taste," was the advertised blurb. To that, I must object most strongly.

Of course, this tired criticism is not unique. It has been trotted out repeatedly by disgruntled partisans, the disinterested layman and children towards an entire array of disciplines reliant upon judges scores, among them figure-skating, gymnastics, art, ballet, pulitzers - frankly, anywhere that relative value is attached to performance causes breeding ground for controversy in this age of malcontent.

It is a lazy objection that bypasses much of the important formative capacity and idiosyncrasies of classical competition.

Competition is not always fair. Success is as much fortuitous as it is deserved; a case of being in the right place at the right time with the right mindset. But then again, so is much of life. The arena of competition I faced while going through the gruelling slog of corporate interviews and assessment centres in the bid for a City training contract was the same - much of my success depended on my not having eaten a dodgy Sainsbury's sandwich for breakfast (happened before), not just returned pathetically ill from Paris (making a grad recruiter almost afraid to shake my hand), and not having to interview immediately after an ex-banker with 10+ years commercial experience (rejection duly followed). Advancement in life in general is very much about taking your chances as they come. There are also many alternative routes to overcome disappointments. Why should a piano competition be any different?

Ah, but the article protests. Surely the Argerichs and Zimermans of the world are few - the exception rather than the rule?  More winners seemed to have faded into relative obscurity than otherwise. This is moving onto another point entirely. The overshadowing of some winners by their runner-ups can suggest arbitrariness of such contests. Trifonov's catapult to fame after placing 3rd behind Avdeeva in 2010 and Pogorelich's fame over Dang Thai Son spring to mind. Yet, this does not follow, for a whole host of reasons. Talent and competition aptitude in no way promises critical success. There are many more variables at play, most of them capricious.

Firstly, the competition does not promise to find the 'best' young pianist - it purports to finds the best Chopin interpreter. An important piano composer yes, but he cannot comprise the entirety of an artist's repertoire. Many winners have proved their Chopin capacity but are rather less convincing elsewhere; even the undeniably successful winner Yundi Li I find rather limpid and cloying in Beethoven and Liszt. Chopin remains his key calling card, and he has made a successful run of it. It is for the same reason that the aforementioned two (Trifonov and Pogorelich) justifiably did not win. While Trifonov is much more receptive to Chopin now and is particularly adept at preludes, his 2010 showing belied all the haste and stridency of an accomplished young man, with both marvellous creativity but certain ideas that were simply a touch too outlandish. Note, however, that his creativity was not a detriment to competition success - he soon after found tremendous acclaim in the Tchaikovsky and Rubenstein competitions where the expansive repertoire enabled him to display these attributes to their most devastating potential. It is both fitting and proper that he won there, not in Warsaw. And of course, Pogorelich simply refuses to conform to anyone.

Secondly, sometimes it is simply not time for a contestant to win. Bear in mind that this competition is only held every half decade - only a few contestants are fortunate enough to enter with optimum competition experience and enthusiasm. Yet, given the prestige of it, most winners attempt to launch careers right off its back, without further competing. Cho is very well placed - he has been on the competition circuit since 2011, steadily garnering success and along the way has built up impressive core repertoire. Each subsequent competition has shown his refocused engagement and constant improvement; he is in a ripe position to enter the performance circuit. Critically, he has proven to have the gumption, stamina and technical brilliance to sustain a career. Contrast can be made to third placed contestant, Kate Liu. She was the participant who amazingly (having had the sorry lot of being the last of four contestants to play the exact same E Minor Concerto with an increasingly sour-faced orchestra and restless crowd) drew a standing ovation - the only one of the final round - for her lyrical tonal quality and depth of interpretation. Her various mistakes and slight struggle with some passages justified the final placement. Cho is ready to perform; Liu has tremendous (perhaps superior) raw capability that still requires refinement. I would wager that a win now would do her more harm than good in the long term. 

This point is one I wish to emphasise strongly. It is a difficult market out there - unforgiving and unrepentant. I spoke at some length to a successful pianist last week where he admitted that at times, he felt buffeted by duty, jetting from recital to recital across continents and obligingly listening to his agent. It has broken many a spirit; but underpinning his success is a strong, unfettered love for his art, a steely indomitable will cultivated through the harsh reality of competition. Competition separates the capable from the outstanding, the self-chastising from the aspiring. It takes the already superb and places them under such ubiquitous pressure that it allows ingenuity and grit to form. Only then can the artist cast aside the ardency and indulgence of the school room to emerge as performer on the world stage. Success and value are relative and unpredictable. Pogorelich, for all his controversial belligerence, drew quite a following. You need an element of 'stardom' and charisma to take you to those truly starry echelons. Argreich has it in her devilish hands and spirit of a gambler. Zimerman in his gravitas and paradoxically stoic sensibility. The young Pogorelich had it in his unpredictability and dashing good looks. And now Trifonov has it in his intense labouring on the stool (no-one sweats and exerts quite so forcefully) and strong artistic opinions. They are far and few between. They cannot manifest every year. But it is because of competitions such as this that they were allowed to flourish and find their own distinct personalities at such an early stage. It is by winning them that they were able to - momentarily - forget the uncertainty of finding engagements as it opened unfriendly gateways in their triumph. The formative years of a musician are cumbersome - they can even ruin them. The conflict between desire for creative autonomy and obedience to convention is strong - in a way, you have to be established in order to explore. It is no great secret, only a sad truth and if competition, either by success or failure, can to mitigate that future risk I posit that they are wonderful things to have.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

New Russians: On the Cult of Trifonov and Discovering Kozhukhin

NB: Covers

Daniil Trifonov with the Philharmonia, conducted by Hrusa, 15/10/2015

"Here he comes - like a five year old boy!" was the jovial cry of the patron on my right, banging his hands together in frenzy. He had just spied Daniil Trifonov emerging onstage from our lavish second row seats.

Those around him smiled and chuckled in shared understanding at the good gentleman's exclamation, a mark of the initiated. Trifonov's somewhat gauche stage mannerisms are now well-known and, inexplicably, part of his immense charisma.

A mainstay of the international piano circuit since his resounding triumph at the 2011 International Tchaikovsky  Competition, Trifonov, aged only twenty-four, is a formidable force, as well as a walking paradox. His rise has been astronomical, garnering the kind of critical adulation and popular acclaim that is rarely seen in this age of musicians. Just over a year ago, in the September of last year,  I attended a solo piano recital at the Royal Festival Hall, lured by a 'platform seat' that would place me within five feet of performer. The programme informed me that the pianist was 'supreme young Russian, Daniil Trifonov', accompanied by a shot of an awkward looking boy and a list of competition accolades. Ah - another Russian virtuoso, I mused, unexpectant. I sat back and awaited the drama, the stoic confidence and - forgive me - the Bolshoi. 
Daniil Trifonov, Solo Recital, September 2014

Instead, I was humbled. There is something that immediately piques the attention about Trifonov; from his unchangingly awkward scurrying jog onstage, he defies categorisation. Seemingly so painfully aware of the crowd when bowing, he suddenly seems to forget us all upon connecting with the stool and transforms into music itself. Argerich famously described his playing as 'demonic', and I must insist that there is no term more fitting. On that evening, I sat transfixed as he brushed aside Rachmaninov's Chopin variations with fascinating depth and proceeded to unravel Liszt's devilish Transcendental Etudes with such purity of tone, rapture and deference that I was quite changed. That recital, performed to a half empty hall, remains the the finest concert I have ever attended.

It thus gave me great pleasure, upon entering the same hall on both the 8th and 15th of this month, to see it packed to the rafters, and most punters having travelled there with the sole purpose of seeing Trifonov, so unlike my clueless stumbling in a year prior. Had I not yet been initiated, I would never have gained entry.

The theme of his two week London residence was Rachmaninov. Very rarely have the composer's works been so articulately and imaginatively told of late. For instance, take his Russsian compatriot, Denis Matsuev, who two weeks ago and on the same stage presented Tchaikovsky's first concerto but whom I have also heard attempt Rachmaninov. Both pieces he dispatched with a compellingly haughty righteousness - a Russian playing the Russian - and industrially sound percussive technique, but all the delicacy of a grape. It is this bravado we have come to expect over the last decade or so, from the Matsuevs, Kissins and, more divisively, Pogorelics of the piano world.

Trifonov retains the pride and haughtiness of the modern Russian school, but marries it with humility. In his every touch is a conversation, a searching deference to the composer. He seeks guidance, he ponders the phrasing of every fleeting passage so deeply that he nearly always unearths, from deep within, something so wondrously imaginative it astounds. Such was the case, most clearly, with Rachmaninov's second concerto. Taken at a tempo a breath slower than most, Trifonov was unafraid to strike chords stridently, with a commandingly percussive ring, but also retreated and ebbed to a somewhat internal voice, convincingly poetic. The first movement rendered him unusually sombre, sat back straight, stripping back the layers of rolling melodies for a naturalistic and striking portrayal, commanding in its respect. The same pious offering to the composer was touchingly displayed in the second. Slow and measured, head up and eyes tightly shut, Trifonov seemed embroiled not with the sonorous theme, but a higher discourse. Yet, it is not mindlessly submissive nor onerously devout. His eccentric persona leaks through, sometimes at the expense of linear melody, culminating in some magnificent rubatos and a possessed third movement. The beast reared its fearsomely fascinating head as he hunched, channelling lewdly through the shoulders in the manner of the similarly wilful Gould, and he snatched at the strident chords with perverse glee, lifting his entire body off the stool. It was magnificent. It was Rachmaninov before his association with motion picture. It was grand, it was effacing, it was destined, all in one harrowingly ecstatic sob. Bravo indeed.

But perhaps the most remarkable thing to note of Trifonov's two concerts is that, once the last note has been triumphantly dispatched, he reverts immediately to that endearingly gauche young boy with the pale and pinched face. Yet, it is not the same. His audience have been touched; their eyes, both spring and wizened, hold a drop of the supreme rapture that is only now beginning to diffuse from him countenance. They are perplexed, but much gladder for it, even if their newfound icon seems to start from the piano bench, surprised by sudden reappearance of such frenzied crowds. He had not exhibited his world; we had trespassed in. 

The cult of Trifonov, I wager, is very real. What is truly extraordinary is that the artist at its heart constantly forgets that we are here.

Onwards. There is more good fortune to relay. As always, the good concerts seem to all arrive at once, making schedules fearsome to behold. On the Tuesday between the two Trifonov dates, sandwiched alongside a slightly grating appointment with Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos, a bitter October day found an unlikely hero. 

That evening, the close of a very long day, saw the quiet and unassuming Denis Kozhukhin descend upon a dreary looking Westminster as the second item on this year's International Piano series. A name known to me only very distantly, I arrived chiefly to hear Liszt's crystalline Bénédiction and instead, uncovered glory.

I knew not what I expected from the cherubic blond pianist, but it was not a superior reading of Haydn. I have rarely heard Haydn more attractively presented, with the exact balance of gravity and light precociousness that found a comfortable home in the B minor sonata. There is the ardency of a student that surrounds Kozhukhin still, a sense of study and constant strive for betterment. But it is flattering on him; it casts a sincere filter over his fleet and crisp music, the nimbleness of his touch allowing an array of sympathetic nuance.

A whole other piece could be written on Kozhukhin's Liszt. Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude is perhaps the composor's most enlightened creation; dulcet, lingering and possessing a subdued introspection that escapes so many Liszt compositions. Kozhukhin's delivery was a myriad of compulsions, attracted not to overarching rapture, but the luxuriant contrast of sweeping ravishment, to the pensive and self-chastising. Underlying it was a supreme sense of calm surety; while not taken as stately slow as Arrau's famous reading, there was no haste marring the lyrical cry of the piu sostenuto quasi preludio, just as the subdued decline into the nothing was a resolute hum  that lingered in the chest, long after the evening had passed. In Kozhukhin, we found a pianist of most marvellous judgement and impeccable capability who, if things transpire as they ought, has great capacity to become a London favourite, for he is already one of mine. 

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Lamb and Muntagirov Convince with Youthful Lustre in Macmillan's 'Romeo & Juliet'

To see Vadim Muntagirov is reward enough; to have Natalia Osipova as his Juliet is cause for jubilation. In was in this fervour that I too entreated well-placed friends to find me a ticket - and find they did - only to have her injured (a broken foot of sorts, if the grapevine informs correctly) and to have Sarah Lamb to step into the breach.

Audiences may quibble back and forth as to the qualities of the Royal Ballet's principal roster; but having seen the two paired with sublime results in last year's Manon, I embraced the replacement cast with keen anticipation. 

To start with the obvious. Vadim Muntagirov is, unequivocally, a spectacularly convincing Romeo - that long enchanting, long abused character whose foppish and wavering tendencies so oft pose a terrible challenge. Muntagirov's interpretation is deceptively simple; one may think the sheer classicism of his lines, long extolled, can convey all worldly ardour without much concerted effort. From my perch in the stalls circle, close enough to see every facial shift, I witnessed the supreme commitment and inimitable devotion that Muntagirov emitted from every detail. On his refined limbs, Romeo assumed an earthy realism. Muntagirov has the immense and rare ability to emote as a boy; we watched no ballet, no masque, but the progress to love and despair of a very real youth. Act I, for Romeo, is a fiend - yet no exertion was betrayed. Starting from boyish rapport with Mercutio and Benvolio, this Romeo's movements contained a yearning and hope. Both his solo variations were dispatched with the utmost ease - and upon spying Juliet, any awareness of the audience seemed to vanish as love unfurled, his ever attitude declaring: youth eternal - youth triumphant! Upon wandering the Paul Hamlyn hall in search of acquaintances during the first interval, I heard the wonderfully perceptive comment; "The whole audience are dancing with him, aren't they?" Reader, such was the convincing quality of his spell that I felt the statement deeply.

Aesthetically, Lamb is slight and girlish, enabling her to skitter along the stage in her first appearance in a manner most convincing of a young maiden. My past experiences with this dancer has conveyed the importance of her partner; with a natural poise that is sometimes perceived as slightly cold or unemotive, with the right partner, she blooms quite decadently. Muntagirov is such a catalyst, as is to be expected; Lamb is feminine and dreamy, not ardent and impulsive. It is natural that she would respond most becomingly in the arms of a Romeo embodying sincerity above all else. As evident in the stupendous balcony pas de deux, there can be no pairing in this run sweeter and as flush with first love as these two. 'Enraptured' is a term that ought not be used lightly - yet only upon the curtain's descending over the first Act did the audience seem to simultaneously, incandescently, exhale. 

Lamb individually has also grown exponentially. Her rejection of Nicol Edmond's Paris saw her come into her own; assertive, emotive and lined with a piercing quality I had not known her capable of. As she sat on the edge of her childhood bed, open and vulnerable to the world, sailing on the wings of the gritty Tchaikovsky score with an achingly potent combination of newfound steel and timidity that even Osipova cannot exude, we thought wildly of Juliet in that moment - here is a girl on the edge of something tremendous! 

Alas, it was only at the final tableau that the dreaded question that had thereto been impressively suppressed - what would Osipova have done? - bubbled to the fore. Such musings are inevitable in an audience so closely tied to the Russian's interests. The tragedy in the crypt wept for a sudden rush of impetuosity and blind grief that beckons the sacrifice of life. It was not to be. Lamb's outstanding feature is her sweetness and Muntagirov is a creature of day - the peculiar flush of adult sorrow lies further ahead this superlative artist's career, in the same way that he overflows with languid idealism as Lensky but should not yet attempt the complex Onegin. He is a prince amongst fairytales who has still more to learn of the human psychology. Romeo may have died in the tomb, but he died kindly, unobtrusively. It was the first and only sense in the entire performance that they were playing parts; thus, it stood out disconcertingly. Lamb too shunned wild outpourings of grief - but neither was her internalised resolution entirely convincing. That famous scream, when Juliet holds the still warm Romeo in her young arms, became a short broken cry and when she plunged the dagger into her abdomen, it was done with all the politeness of a schoolgirl - you wondered, in that moment, how such a docile creature could have been swept up in a tale of unshakeable passion. With the right nuance, perhaps within their next two performances, it may make for an evocative interpretation built on the same lines of youth - the purity of their enacted end embodying adolescents consumed and defeated by all too adult emotions - and indeed, their potential is bountiful. In spite of imperfections, the lasting impression of Lamb and Muntagirov is crystalline and unadulterated; a beauty so simple it almost appears unadorned but is in fact, in the lasting memory, the most heartfelt and tremendously moving kind. 

Across the company, there were equally engrossing performances. The Royal Ballet were deprived of Valentino Zucchetti's services for a large part of the previous season, and his return as Mercutio made that absence felt. Charming and dapper, thankfully without wandering too far into 'cheeky chappie' territory as most Mercutios are wont to do, he together with Hay were the fleetest and ablest of companions. Nimble and quick-footed, their sly disruptions to the Capulets were delightful to behold. Where Muntagirov excels in languor and finesse, Zucchetti ensures the trio remain tied to the heart of the company within the crowded marketplace scenes and his death at the hands of Tybalt was painful to watch in its excellent execution of human bravado and desperation.

Encompassing it all is the synergy between the company and Macmillan's most lauded creation. Though ostensibly remembered for its star-crossed lovers, Romeo & Juliet, in any medium, conveys profound messages of power and dignity. Upon this, we feasted royally; the haughtiness of the Capulet's masque, Christopher Saunders' prowling walk, Thiago Soares' mercurial Tybalt adding the effrontery so needed as the foil to the lovers' aching tenderness and the harlots' glee all served one purpose. It exemplified where the Royal Ballet most excel - not as mythical dryads, shades or even mindlessly jolly village folk. It is the study of human interaction, principally pride, that lends the production its appropriate gravitas, underscored by a Prokofiev orchestration that abandons lyricism for structure. In this, the company remains unrivalled.

Friday, 21 August 2015


It is inevitable (perhaps even desirable) that as time and circumstances change, so does one's priorities. Things we once held so dear, sheltered so jealously, dissipate - almost as if they never were. Yet they somehow remain, drifting on the edge of the subconscious, ready to snake back into the fold. And when they do succeed - it is an expletive shout of resurrection that inspires remorse of the most crippling kind.

At certain points of adolescence, I was an irritable child; surrounded by many, but preferring to be alone. I allowed certain people into that innermost circle and forcibly barred the rest. One of my most unfailing friends became a beautiful, sleek Yamaha upright; one that required a soft touch and had great aptitude for romantic repertoire. We bonded easily and became fast confidants; my first port in times of outrage and euphoria alike. I was never fond of following proscribed lessons; instead, I played what I pleased - sometimes Rachmaninov, perhaps Chopin, a sprinkling of Bendel, but always Debussy - and my friend always yielded without a note of reproach.

And to the present day. London has many distractions; but the greatest motivator (and source of stress) in recent years has been the quest for professional fulfilment. A legal degree was always a forerunner to a precursory  shadow who turns the corner always a pace or two ahead, of a quest whispering droll promises of metropolitan grandeur. I wrestle with the financial news, I undertake internships in glassy offices, I enjoy champagne parties in lounges suspended high above the City. Of those indulgences I have left by the wayside, I think (fleetingly): ah, the luxury of youthful fantasy! the exotic extravagance of musical ache! I believed, perhaps indolently, that such personal weaknesses are the mould of formative years and thus serve little purpose now. On one particular evening, goaded to play a few notes on a wondrously full-bodied grand during an ignoble reception, the droll beckoned and a jazzy, insincere but well received rendition of 'somewhere over the rainbow' was duly dispatched. There, was my smug thought, see - those years of tutelage are a means to the same end as well!

But the summer season has a disruptive quality. The City empties, universities wind down - the weather is even balmy. Forced to stay put by regretted commitments, I spend my days wandering listlessly and wishing for rain, disrupted every now and then by menial tasks, one of which is the arduous process of changing digs. Our new abode - an aesthetically pleasing and dignified townhouse conversion - has the added attribute of being near to St Pancras Station, a destination I often think of with  the greatest fondness; the building's colonnaded arches where the first thing I spied when, wide-eyed, the train arriving from Scotland terminated and we tumbled out coltishly into a new life. It was with the same sudden twist of nostalgia that, one warm evening, spurred by itching impulse, I walked  the small distance to the station, an hour before midnight.

A train had arrived just as I entered; people streamed past, some irate, some jovial, most wearied by travelling on a Friday eve. The shops lining the long corridors had closed for some time yet a few things remained; friendly round tables around which groups laughed, a perpetually open Starbucks and - most surprisingly - three pianos, lined just out of earshot of each other, facing north.

The first was empty when I approached, the black and yellowing keys friendly. Buoyed by a stab of loyalty, I chose to play. Yet, I found the first few notes embarrassing, like arthritic feet trying to remember a youthful jig. I heard phrases and melodies in my mind, but those dratted fingers that had fallen out of properly proficient practice - they refused to cooperate to the same accomplished level I had once been so securely capable. Aggrieved, I stopped after two stilted Mendelssohn pieces - only to notice three prone figures to my right. I turned to see three young men holding backpacks and listening with interest.

At once, I felt regretful, feeling the odd compulsion to explain myself. I was once much more proficient! I wanted to call. Apologetic, I raised my fingers to the keys once more - and they found, of their own accord, the low B flat octave that marked the beginning of the most treasured piece in my repertoire; a little known Debussy nocturne, a fearsomely complex piece I had not attempted in a year. That first silken octave note, no more than a low murmur, was transportive. At once, I was sixteen. Emboldened, I continued - it is an odd thing, muscle memory! My mind no longer held a perfect score, but the fingers continued unbidden. They knew, not only the notes, but the touch - the caress that is applied to the muted opening arpeggios, the interchange of phrase between passages. They needed no direction, no thought to mar a bittersweet reunion with a fickly abandoned friend. The body can sometimes identify needs more pertinently than the mind; something innate released at that moment, a breath after holding still underwater for so long. It was then I remembered dreams that are chased away by dawn - the feeling of painted wood beneath the very tips of the fingers, the medium of control snapping at anticipating wrists, the curl of the fourth and fifth digits. I mourned in penitence; how could I have left you so?

I continued to play for an hour or so as the last trains pulled in, occasionally stopping an eclectic crowd, some of who spoke to me: a businessman who, having missed his train, bought a sandwich and sat around the corner to listen; Chinese tourists who, awkwardly, pulled out their smartphones to film; a PhD student at the same university, on his way home for the weekend; a slightly inebriated but talented young businessman who insisted on playing the left hand to my right hand for the Pathetique sonata. Demonstrating the strange pull of music, some spoke of their own musical experiences, their affinity for certain composers; they wished to share, it seemed, to relate, to articulate certain feelings. But most memorable of all was a middle-aged, mullet bearing European migrant who, plopping on the bench next to me with an almighty groan, proceeded to pull out several very crumpled and smudged sheets papers, while listening to heavy rock blasting from his earphones. I paid him no heed at first, thinking he was rooting through his bag for some lost item. But after several pieces, and a return to the Debussy nocturne, he turned and said (in a thick, almost impenetrable, accent);

"That's Debussy, isn't it?"

I told him I was surprised he recognised the obscure piece.

"I like it," he said simply. "You play it particularly well."

It was only then that I realised that the extremely tattered pieces of paper he had been perusing was sheet music. I asked him if he wished to play.

"I come here often - I have no piano. I can wait."

And so he did. I finished fairly quickly after that, partly out of courtesy, and partly because it was now past midnight. We exchanged a few words - it transpired (or so I think, beneath that accent) he was a manual labourer of sorts, not having been in the country for very long.

He had deep lines on his countenance, but they softened when he played.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

The Lost Art of Letter Writing

As is so often these days in the calm after the storm, students of all ages stretch languidly in their beds, stirring lazily as the cat in a puddle of sunshine by the back door, and blink tiredly in contemplation of the golden luxury facing them – time; that capricious benefit that never seems utilised correctly. We hear the earth crack and rumble under our feet, and it is with an odd compulsion that we are thrust out into the glorious May sunshine, for – at last! – it is ours.

On one of many such days, where the tantalising smell of freedom lures me down the steps and out the doors, I find myself, as ever, in the depths of Marylebone, a favourite haunt since the beginning. Regardless of season life there never changes; the same gregarious building facades reveals butchers, bakers, and even the candle-stick maker selling their wares from the midst of well-lit quaint little shops for gloriously inflated prices. Well-coiffed blonde women in sandy trench coats lead the march down the streets, wafting perfume, chatter and cigarette smoke. I duck my head against the babble – for I am of the pensive mood today – and step into a refuge within a refuge; Daunt Books, a travel bookshop of the most aged and legendary kind. I wish to bury myself unreservedly mong that old, faintly musty, perfume from which old friends, forgotten companions and new foes whisper secretively from unadorned spines. I lose myself in a while amongst the Baltic isles, reading an old tome of fairytales before my attention wanders and I station myself, as I often do, amongst the thorny Russians, and their Soviet ancestors. Tolstoy I cannot stomach today, Pushkin I have exhausted recently, nor will the moderns do. My eye catches an intimately dear name; yes, Tchaikovsky will do very well. I remove the biography (Tchaikovsky: The Man and his Music) from the shelf and retreat to an airy corner.

How immersing I found his letters! (translated of course.) They are like a blueprint, faint but discernable, of the soul. What an honest companion I had in my hand! How closely they mimicked the flow of consciousness! Every letter, full-bodied and uninterrupted seemed a precious soliloquy from an idol who was not known for his words. But simultaneously, I experienced an aggrieved sensation of bereavement; what a precious art we have forgotten!

If we were to speak plainly in mere terms of historical posterity, it is arguable that we are now better off. The convenience and capacity of the Internet is immense; what is written can no longer be lost – vanquished. Yet what can we discern from today’s correspondence? Very little, I wager. Language has always susceptible to colloquial reduction, but the reduction is now, more than ever, gravely unfortunate. What does it mean when, after a text conversation conveyed in almost purely monosyllabic letters, or a monkey ‘emoji’ is used?  What can we derive from a hundred-and-fifty character ‘tweet’ over a lunchtime anecdote? Trends and fashions have always affected the way we speak and communicate; but never before have they neared the sole affector. I wager our language is in grave danger indeed.

With instantaneous messaging (which, I admit, I have had a tendency to overuse, even messaging the flatmate the adjacent room) we do not delve in our correspondence; neither do we invigorate nor stimulate. When pen is put to paper, the start is tentative – what should be outright omitted? how best to not offend? – but, with the chasm of space and time separating writer and recipient, thoughts start to flow in a great torrent. There is no interruption, no premature response chiming from the other end – steadily, it becomes less of an address and more an outpour of sensibility (oft grammatically incorrect for speed) and what the recipient opens is a soliloquy, a compact little insight into the psyche. There is nothing, I think, more revealing; if they have a poor mastery of words, or their minds are filled more of the comings-and-goings of others than themselves, or if they are deeply repentant, it will all be apparent – if not through content, then through form, descriptors; or even the rise and fall of the lines forming the literature.  

It is of course probable – perhaps, given my disposition, likely – that this is an overly nostalgic look compounded by over-romanticised notions. I am well aware of a personal tendency to look over the shoulders, preferring the faded depths of what once was. Yet, I do believe that the loss of sincerity is real – and with it, the loss of internal formation. In this age, we do not dwell; we like to think we are buffeted by time and appointments – words, literature and introspect has become something superfluous. Buoyed by instantaneous amenities, we like and have gotten used to quick, visible results without strain. We are not, strictly speaking, averse to grafting, but it carries higher levels of tedium than it once did. We are most uncomfortable, I think, with dwelling upon ourselves in a non-material manner; to that self betterment that comes from thirst for knowledge and desire to decode identity. It is not only the aesthetic education that is on the wane, but the personal one too.  

Monday, 25 May 2015

'Woolf Works': The Ultimate Modern Masterpiece

Upon leaving the Royal Opera House, mid-Saturday afternoon, I was immensely and irrevocably
Ferri & Bonelli
moved. Woolf Works is, I mused, quite possibly the bravest and most profound work I've seen the Royal Ballet perform.

Unlike many others, I had no prior qualms about either choreographer or subject. Several amongst my acquaintance had previously waxed lyrical of McGregor's deficiencies - how inept they made him seem. From word alone, Raven Girl seemed dismal failure, and Tetractys a nightmare better forgotten. Yet, I was undeterred - more than once in my short tenure have I discovered that certain tastes lie very traditional indeed. Studies and the terrible May onslaught prevented me from catching what, by all accounts, seemed to be a most triumphant opening night - indeed, it was only for the final performance of the first cast that I found myself, once more, on that well-trodden path down to Soho.

As prudently advised, I had conducted my diligent research before-hand. Woolf I was scarcely familiar with; with a self-proclaimed history of preferring flowery prose, decadent in descriptors, the deconstructed nature of her writing seemed a fresh challenge. Yet, the more I read, the more intrigued I became; I could see it already - the abruptness, almost rudeness of unmitigated, unfettered thought - the flow and cadence of the subconscious - yes, it would suit McGregor very well indeed. There is an everlasting forlornness that dictates her words; a brevity and soliloquy to one's self. What a challenge lay before him! I waited for lights to dim with thinly veiled impatience.

It was a challenge most intimately and supremely met. I do not wish to delve into great depth and intricacies of the abstract tapestries McGregor slowly unfolded. If Woolf is to be taken in her true form, our view should be expansive, not detailed. Scrutiny of microcosms distort and deviate; McGregor presents theory, introspect and instinct as the supplanters of form and narrative. Movement pulses in one sinuous flow, each act bearing its own purpose and weight, but inextricably, undoubtedly bounded together in one heady vision.

Pulsating at the core is the luminous Alessandra Ferri, whom I finally had the pleasure of watching for the first time. I have seen many stars grace the stage; in the presence of many a illustrious artists have I sat, enthralled. Yet, there was no experience quite like this one, no immersion quite so recondite. Words fail to convey her power - the carriage of her shoulders, upon the first rise of the curtain in I Now, I Then; what a curious weight they bore! Every line of that sinuous body seemed erudite, achingly languid. Her gaze alone, watching her effervescent young self (Stix-Brunell) coquet with Sally Seton (Hayward) is terrible in its power, wistful as youth skitters and coltishly play in amongst the wood formations. Equally matched in power and emotional strain was Mrs Dalloway's 'twin' - the war-ridden Septimus Warren, who found a natural home in Edward Watson. How empty and pinched was his countenance; how jerked and paroxysmal his movements! Those long, marble limbs wept with unsaid misery - the plight of so many veterans. The interchange between Watson and Dyer as his departed friend, augmented so wondrously by Richter's score, is surely the single most magnetic modern pas de deux I have witnessed

Orlando moves away once more into more familiar McGregor terrain; sharp, acrobatic with a need for scissor-like accuracy. Yet, it was a necessary respite; the harsh and inhospitable new environment, the barely discernible figures shrouded in lasers and smoke were all deeply evocative of audacious and faintly hysterical world of Woolf's text. And then there was Osipova; so fearsomely, formidably extreme, a body truly made for McGregor choreography. Extreme pliancy, coated in icy metal, she dives and distorts into the most unforgiving positions, moulded by Watson and Mcrae. The passage between Watson and Osipova, right in the centre of the stage was serpentine and vagrant - most powerfully so. Yet, Orlando is without doubt a group creation - each dancer came forth with the same wild conviction and increasingly breathless audacity. The finale, mere shadows of gold and grey flitting through puddles of clear light at breakneck speed was intoxicating in its revelry. If anything, one must applaud McGregor for inspiring utter conviction out of such a wide array of contrasting dancers.

Thursday, however, marked a return to the dual world of Ferri and Woolf - indeed, it is more of a tribute of Woolf herself than Waves. There can be no other muse than Ferri herself; buffeted first by Bonelli, she is never reticent - even in the slowest, stillest movement, she undulates to the hypnotic rhythm of the tides - a trailing finger here, a worldly sigh there. McGregor focuses not on the inevitability of death, but the urgency of life; Lamb leads a bubbling gaggle of children daintily in languid patterns as Ferri looks on in wonder. And then there are the waves, made of the corps, rolling, rhythmic and almost extolling Ferri as she glides and slips from one watery embrace to another, dispersing into the restless depths until finally, she is laid to rest by Bonelli as the onrushing waves retreat.

Let it be known; this is, without peer a modern masterpiece of the most impeccable creation, the likes of which I have never witnessed before, complemented by a cast united with a shared vision. Rest assured. The future of ballet is in safe hands.