Saturday, 29 January 2011

Gustavo Dudamel and Mahler's 9th

Two Reviews of the LA Philharmonic - Cologne 26th and London 28th January

Cologne Philharmonie
Hi John,
How was the concert last night? I am sure you enjoyed it, unless something went terribly wrong.
Only the best conductors can really demonstrate how much music is in Mahler's works. As I can never remember which piece is which, I go from movement to movement with few expectations, except of course in this case you had reminded me which last movement it was.

For me the peak of the experience on Wednesday evening in Cologne was the second movement. Gustavo Dudamel got the LA Philharmonic to play the first movement magnificently and then the music came alive in the second. This has to be my favourite Mahler movement and no one could have played it better. It was a dream. There was just a short time not far into the third movement where I felt Gustavo lost it a bit. The orchestra were not quite together.

I don't think the beginning of the fourth movement was the best I have heard, because I found myself doubting that it was going to build-up, or should I say down, to the gripping end. But then I had second thoughts and got lost in it.

Unfortunately the end was far from perfect but beyond Gustavo's control. One of the Bass players staggered off stage. To make matters worse she was wearing heeled shoes and made quite a din. She caught my attention when she was half way off, even though she was in my direct line of sight, so I must have been completely enthralled by then, but of course the mood was lost.

Needless to say neither Gustavo Dudamel nor the orchestra flinched.  I hope they had a better night last night in London, they deserved a second chance to make it a performance to remember for all the right reasons - I would have happily gone again!

Some fools in the audience did not allow Gustavo Dudamel to hold the silence at the end but the audience as a whole were very very appreciative - not quite a standing ovation. I for one was not on my feet - but I was on the front row of the balcony!
The evening ended with the orchestra playing Happy Birthday - it was his 30th. 
I look forward to receiving your more considered comments ...... and to hearing Gustavo Dudamel again.

The Barbican Centre
Hi Liz,
Our response to Friday night at the Barbican was mixed. I enjoyed the performance, which went without mishap! Christiane was not so keen.

To start with the LA Philharmonic is all about speed and accuracy. It doesn't have the rich sonorities of the great European orchestras like the Berlin Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic, Leipzig Gewandhaus or the Concertgebouw. So for some passages that was a minus. On the plus side they responded wholeheartedly to everything he asked them to do, so the interpretation was very definitely Gustavo's.

Gustavo is still a young man and I think his interpretations will mature. Last night he was pushing the symphony to exaggerate the emotions. In some cases it was the emotional pain, especially in the first movement, in others he seemed to be looking for irony, like in the second and third movements. The Ländler of the second movement is sometimes played as a polite stately dance; here it was an extremely bucolic almost drunken village event. He took the third movement very quickly and the last few bars, where the tempo almost doubles, were at breakneck speed but the orchestra was capable of rising to the challenge.

Later the image which came to my mind to describe those first three movements was that of being taken for a ride in a fast and noisy American sports car, along a twisty mountain road. It was very exciting and the scenery was beautiful but there was not much time to look around and enjoy it! I think he needs to redress the balance somewhat between excitement; and more peaceful contemplation of the slower, quieter, more beautiful sections.

In my opinion the last movement is really the emotional centre of the piece. Having passed though the turmoil of life in the first three movements it is, for me, all about a peaceful and resigned acceptance of death. The conductor has to prepare for this from the beginning of the movement and, although there are intensely emotional passages, he must always remember the atmosphere that he has to create and sustain right through to the last few bars. Here Gustavo didn't quite get it right. In the first part of the last movement he was still pushing the orchestra to overstate the emotional mood, as he had done in the previous movements. He reined them back near the end, but by then he had not created the necessary frame of mind. He held the audience in silence for thirty seconds (I counted) before he allowed them to applaud, but Christiane said that the audience responded out of politeness and not from a true feeling of emotional connection. I think she was right! There were a few people standing at the end but I have seen much more enthusiastic responses in London.

In summary, I enjoyed the performance, and I will go to see him again one day, but perhaps performing Shostakovitch next time. It suits him better!

So my reference performance for Mahler's ninth remains Claudio Abbado at the Proms in 1994. I have missed his appearances with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra that David Nice talks about here and here! Keep an eye out for any of Claudio's upcoming Mahler performances! He is still, with Leonard Bernstein, the best Mahlerian I have ever seen!


Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Singing Lessons

After a few hours with two different teachers I am beginning to understand what I don’t know about singing!  It’s like learning anything physical for the first time, like riding a bike or swimming, it doesn’t come naturally. From time to time I hit some resonances somewhere in my body or in my head and the sound comes out effortlessly. At other times it just doesn’t happen and the difficulty that I am having producing the sound has increased my respect for singers with great voices.

Corinne is more formal, with an active performing career. She is very “sympa” and I like her lessons because they are intense. She tries to get you there by using lots of visual images, but I didn’t find that particularly helpful because I needed to hear and feel for myself what she is trying to explain.

The other teacher, is literally very hands on. She likes to poke, prod, push and jiggle you about until you start to relax, or get into the right position. The sessions with her were in the form of a workshop over a weekend in which there were eight students of varying abilities. It was very instructive to watch others struggling to create the sound she wanted, or to interpret a song with feeling. Sometimes that helped me learn a lot, almost as much as I did during my individual sessions with her. At other times listening to the others doing their exercises was tedious or even occasionally intrusive.

She has a wide repertoire of techniques and varies them to suit the individual. At one point she had me marching up and down, stamping my feet and shouting, with a lady either side of me doing the same but better. Quite frankly that didn’t work, and the minute that I stopped moving I immediately produced the sound she wanted. It made me think of the old joke about Gerald Ford, (when he kept falling over it was said that he couldn’t walk and f*rt at the same time). That, of course, caused me to burst out laughing and then I had to try and explain the joke in French!
I was better when I was truly singing, rather than doing voice production, and I surprised myself and the others by singing three of the exercise pieces by Vaccai on the second run through in each case. But I couldn’t do it when she started moving my head about so that I couldn’t see the music anymore.

On the second day she used various members of the group to sing pieces together. Sometimes as a backing for an individual who needed support, at other times in duos or trios. Two of the men in the group sang a Russian song with a superb bass sonority, ideally suited to the pitch and the language of the piece. It really was exceptional and good enough to perform anywhere. Later four of us were spontaneously swaying gently and humming the tune of “Memory” behind one of the ladies who was singing the words.

It was a good group, with a very supportive friendly atmosphere and, although I wasn’t certain at first, I have decided to go to at least one other workshop in March. I will need to prepare something for that. I didn’t know that I should have prepared a couple of solo pieces for this workshop, and she didn’t seem to like me singing the tenor part of the choral pieces that I had brought with me. I have never attempted any solos before but I like the sound of Italian, the vowels are so open and ideal for singing. Although I would like to try some of the Opera classics like “La Donna e Mobile” from Rigoletto or “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée,” from Carmen, when I listened to Roberto Alagna singing those I was very discouraged. I think perhaps my voice is more suited to Mozart and that will have to be transposed down!

I am seeing Corinne again this week; perhaps I should ask her to suggest something less ambitious.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Sunday, 9 January 2011

The Tympan at Conques - the Last Judgement

Above the door of the Abbey of St Foy at Conques, about 80km south of here, is a magnificent representation in stone carvings of the Last Judgement as seen through 12th Century medieval eyes.  The original was painted and the vestiges of the colours can still be seen.  Christ in his majesty is at the centre, with his saints on his right hand side and the righteous living under their protection below.  On the left of Christ, behind some guardian angels, are sinners being submitted to violent acts by monstrous creatures.  The Devil is well established in hell below and to the left of Christ.  Entering the gate of hell the sinner has to pass through a monster's mouth and inside hell more horror awaits.  Some of the sinners are being eaten, tortured or mutilated in quite horrific scenes. Around the edge of the arch Les Curieux are peeking through onto the scenes below, pulling back the stone as if it was a curtain.  

In the early medieval period, an era when access to books was limited to a few trained monks or scholars, and common people received the word of god through their priests in latin, the scenes on the Tympan were a vivid and highly graphic way of reinforcing the consequences of a life of sin.  I am sure they were highly effective.

A more detailed explanation of the Tympan is available in English here, courtesy of Augusta Education. A series of panoramic views which show the Abbatiale in 360 degree views is available here.

The embedded flash movie below allows you to zoom in and navigate around the image.  Be patient, it is a big file and slow to load on a rural 512k connection like mine.

Not working? Get the Flash Player to see this flash movie.

Technical note
I stood below the Tympan with a hand held Canon 450D camera and took two rows of overlapping pictures across the Tympan using the 18-55mm kit lens at 55mm.  I later stitched these together using PTGui.  I opened the resulting large image in Photoshop Elements and corrected the perspective by extending the top of the image upwards and widening it.  I then loaded this corrected image into Pano2VR and chose the parameters to create the flash movie.  This was then uploaded to SWFCabin and the code to embed it in Blogger was copied into the HTML of this posting.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Mahler – A Transcendental Experience

Driving round the N104, the Parisian equivalent of the South Circular, on the way home from the exhausting Christmas and New Year celebrations, I turned on France Musique and a Mahler symphony was playing. After a while I recognized Symphony No 2 “The Resurrection” and I was enjoying hearing something that I hadn’t listened to for a long time.

Whilst the last two movements were playing I remembered an occasion years ago when I was at a concert in the Barbican in London. Michael Tilson Thomas was conducting the LSO playing Mahler's 3rd Symphony. It had been a long day and after the vocal part at the beginning of the 5th movement, just when you are expecting the finale, there is a further twenty minutes of orchestral music to finish the 90 minute piece. Slowly I realized that I had somehow entered a timeless space. I was not asleep, I could hear and see everything going on around me, but I was not in a normal state of consciousness. This lasted until the end of the symphony when there was no jerk back to normality, or even a sensation of waking up and consciousness returning, just a transition back to a normal state of mind. I have never felt like that before or since, and I can only assume that it was some sort of transcendental experience brought about by a long tiring day and the intense concentration that an hour or so of active listening requires.

When the France Musique announcer said that the concert was a recording of the Maryinsky orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev I was not surprised. The interpretation and playing were excellent and the solo singers outstanding. Gergiev has been one of my favourite conductors for a while now. He has an understanding of music which lets it speak for itself without imposing annoying personal quirks of interpretation. He also gets the best playing from his orchestra. The downside is his vocalizations!

You could never say that Leonard Bernstein’s interpretations were not personal, but he understood Mahler like no one else of his generation. It was hearing him conducting No 5 with the Vienna Philharmonic on Thursday 10th September 1987 at a BBC Prom that made me aware of the Mahlerian musical landscape and started me off in that direction. That exceptional concert is still mentioned occasionally in Proms programme notes. 

Fortunately, fur bru has somehow found a recording with very good sound quality, probably made by the BBC, which captures this event.

Later in January we are going to London to hear Gustavo Dudamel conduct Mahler’s 9th with the LA Philharmonic. His appearances with the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra have wowed everybody and although he is still very young he has impressed the music world, including professionals like Simon Rattle and Claudio Abbado. So much so that at the age of 26 he was appointed Principal Conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, and in 2009 he became Music Director of the LA Phil.

The last time I saw Mahler's 9th in the concert hall was on 25th August 1994 when Claudio Abbado conducted it with the Berlin Philharmonic at the Proms. After he had drawn out the last bars of the fourth movement to an almost inaudible pianissimo, and then held the audience in suspense for at least twenty seconds, whilst we could hear the silence, a packed Royal Albert Hall gave him a standing ovation. That was an experience never to be forgotten and Gustavo has a lot to live up to!
I think he is up to the challenge.

Here Gustavo is conducting the opening of Mahler's 9th.