Sunday, 17 March 2013

Le Printemps des Poètes - 2013

Every year the Lieu Commun at St Céré holds an event for the French National Poetry Fortnight which is called “Le Printemps des Poètes”.  The theme this year was Les Voix du Poème, (the voices of the poem). With such a vague theme there is plenty of scope for different interpretations; including using different voices to read one poem; or reading poems in various languages; or perhaps one person reading a poem in several different voices as each character speaks. Le Lieu Commun opted for the first two of these possibilities.

Fourteen people were asked, or volunteered themselves, to take part on 16th March and several rehearsals were held in the month before.  Participants chose their own poems, which were subjected to a limited amount of scrutiny by the group for length and suitability. Most of the poems were in French but some were in English, Spanish and Arabic. There was a Spanish song about poetry sung by Jean-Louis and Patrice.

Reading poems outdoors in the Place Mercadial needs to be lively and requires some direction, otherwise the public would quickly lose interest, so Raymonde, who has worked in the theatre, became involved.  She encouraged the performers to engage with the audience, to project their voices and to be expressive.  Her contribution was very effective and allowed the group to achieve such a high standard.

Several texts were split up amongst the performers with each speaking a verse or asking a question. The whole event took about forty minutes.  

Poems were read by, Marie-Ange, Brigitte, Jean-Louis, Joss, Dominique, Quince, Patrice, Pôline, Linda, Ouria, and Albert.  Christine and Agnes organised and paraded the titles before each poem and Quince played short interludes on the piccolo. 

I didn't notice that Albert was missing from the group photo when I took it, so here he is reciting his poem La Pluie (the rain).

Renaud was a very impressive bicycling gendarme who had the role of dispersing these disruptive poets at the end of their performance. 

He continued in character and was effectively moving on the crowd around the refreshments table in the Maison des Consuls afterwards. 

Thanks to Alain and Gilberte for the copious supply of home made cakes.

The Poems

Au bout du monde - Robert Desnos

Ode Maritime -Fernando Pessoa

La voix - Robert Desnos

L'évadé- Boris Vian

Quartier Libre- Jaques Prévert

La Poesia es un arma cargada de futuro - Gabriel Celaya

Haïku - Vent d'avril

Cahier d'un retour au pays natal - Aimé Cesairé

Las de tout ceux - Thomas Tranströmer

Création - Serge Behar

Piedras Antarcticas - Pablo Neruda

Le chat carême - Maurice Carême

La chute de la lune - Mahmoud Darwich

La Poesie ça sert à quoi?

Conversation de l'arbre et du vent - Marie José Christien

Ila Oumi ( Ma mère) - Mahmoud Darwich

La Voix - Charles Baudelaire

La goutte d'eau - Raymond Queneau

Bergeries - Eugène Guillevic

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Daïnouri Choque – A Unique Singing Teacher

Yesterday, with the rest of the quartet, I went on a singing course, which was absolutely fascinating. The teacher, Daïnouri Choque, concentrated on the production and blending of the sound but not in a classical fashion. He didn't look for power, or placement of the voice, but worked by getting us to listen to the natural vocal harmonics and how they change with vowel sounds. 

In order to demonstrate, in a very dramatic way, what he meant about harmonics he sang one note and by changing something inside his mouth he produced a series of harmonics which formed part of "the Ode to Joy" from Beethoven's 9th. The harmonics were quite high pitched but, once you tuned yourself in to them, they were very clear. Then he got us producing them ourselves but obviously in a much less controlled manner. Each vowel has its characteristic natural harmonics and when you slowly change from one vowel to another you can hear the harmonics re-aligning themselves in the space between the fully formed vowel sounds.  His preferred sequence of French vowels was i, é, eu, o and the inverse.

So what was the objective here? When I was contemplating the course I have to admit that I had no idea what it was going to be like, or what we were expecting to achieve. Our bass had been before, but all that I could understand from his description was that Daïnouri taught singers how to listen and sing together better. It’s a truism that all musicians or singers working in any type of ensemble have to learn how to play in tune and in time with the others. Sometimes for amateurs this isn’t easy, but that’s usually a question of more practice. What Daïnouri teaches is much more.  He wants the sound to blend at a harmonic level so that individual voices truly enter into the combined sound of the group.  When it’s done correctly the sound has a clarity and unity that is heard in some professional groups like cathedral choirs and other ensembles singing sacred music. 

After a morning of individual exercises, in the afternoon we sang some pieces from our own repertoire and I complained that one of them was pitched too high for my voice. He offered to help me and he sang next to me.  He tuned his harmonics to mine resulting in an enormous change in the quality of the sound and a tremendously intimate connection at a musical level.  The sound was so coherent that it took on a character of its own.  It was like someone else singing inside you but using your own voice to produce the sound. That was a most remarkable and exceptional moment.  I have never experienced anything like it before.

When we sang with all four voices, since he has also been a choirmaster, he knew exactly how to balance the quartet, and how to get us to form the same vowel sounds, so that the result was better than we have ever sung before. We were already singing the chord that starts each piece to get the pitch right but he also taught us to form the same vowel sound so that the harmonics were aligned. The effect of this is similar to that which I describe in the paragraph above. The collective sound is reinforced by each voice and a greater degree of clarity and resonance is created even in a dry acoustic.  In some of the more vertical pieces we were able to sustain this throughout. 

All of this was done without the ego tripping displayed by some teachers and without being fixed on any one technique or method. His explanations were always clear and sensible and when it’s necessary he has the experience to adapt his teaching to the requirements of the individual.  His method is to work with the ear, the body and the voice.  He spent quite a long time with our Alto, getting her to reduce the muscular tension that she naturally has. This gets worse when she's nervous and prevents her from controlling her voice, especially when singing sustained long notes. She found his calmness in explaining diaphragm breathing and how to stand in a relaxed manner very effective. It allowed her for the first time to really understand what was happening with her body, not just whilst singing, and she was very impressed with the insights that she gained. 

His courses usually last a week but we were able to make a special arrangement with him to tack a day onto another course that he was leading near Villeneuve sur Lot and what an extraordinary day it was!

Daïnouri leads workshops all over France, Belgium and Switzerland.  He works with groups of individuals, choirs and choir masters.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Parsifal - New York Metropolitan Opera

Live Relay - 2 March 2013

Wonderful singing from the Principals but the production is flawed.
It has been said that Parsifal is un-stageable.  It’s true that there are quite long moments while the singers are waiting for the music to allow them to move on to the next action.  In the case of Parsifal there isn’t much action anyway and the real movement is often in the music.

It’s also true that familiar concepts for the presentation of operas need to be challenged and in this way operas are renewed down the generations.  Sometimes this is successful, sometimes not.  François Girard has responded to Parsifal by setting it, supposedly, in the not too distant future.   

Act One had the Knights of the Grail in white shirts and black trousers.  The stage was a sloping desert of cracked dried mud, with a small rivulet running through it that turned red when Amfortas took his bath.  The Knights were on the right of the rivulet as a seated circular group, moving together from side to side or using their arms to reinforce the action.  Women in dark clothes were on the left.  They were mostly static. The Grail was a simple golden chalice and no lighting was used to suggest its power.  At the end of the Act the rivulet opens up into a chasm into which Parsifal stares mystified and wondrous.

Act Two, is set in Klingsor’s magic garden, which is generally portrayed as a beautiful colourful place; the text says it is in a wooded valley.  The flower maidens are usually seductive and alluring. Girard put the flower maidens, wearing white nightgowns and having long black hair, in a dark red cave dripping with blood.  If you think of early horror movie female vampires you’ll get the general impression.  
Throughout the act all the performers were standing in a lake of stage blood and, as they knelt or moved, it stained their clothes.  Klingsor had to pick it up in cupped hands and throw it about or pretend to!   A river of blood flowed down the back of the stage between the rocks at the entrance to the cave.  It’s difficult to imagine anything less likely to create a mood of seduction or more likely to distract one from the music. At the end Parsifal just takes the spear from an unresisting Klingsor and that’s it!  In fact so dramatic was this moment that my companion slept through it, although to be fair this interpretation is supported directly by the text!

Act Three returned to the desert of cracked mud, which had now been transformed into a post-apocalyptic scene reminiscent of science fiction from the sixties and seventies.  Klingsors’ realm has been destroyed and, amid graves lightly dusted with snow, men and women stood about looking shocked and filthy, like refugees from the holocaust.  There were a few overturned plastic chairs.  Nonetheless it remained difficult to escape the medieval origins of the work, which is Wagner's interpretation of Parzival, the 13th Century poem written by Wolfram von Eschenbach.  Instead of a 21st century coffin Titurel was swaddled in white wrappings like a mummy as he was laid in his grave and Amfortas’ spear, now carried by Parsifal, was prominent.

Clearly there is blood in Wagner’s text.  Amfortas’ wound bleeds continually and blood from the body of Christ is at the source of the power of the Grail.   Blood is also suggested by Klingsors’ self-emasculation in his mistaken attempt to gain purity, but it is not the primary focus of the story of the opera, which is to achieve redemption.  In this production there was too much blood, which had a visual impact far too powerful for its role in the text.  The director also employed too much coordinated group arm waving, which distracted from the performance as a whole.

But what a performance!  All of the principals gave powerful and impressive readings of their parts.  They acted strongly, especially Peter Mattei as Amfortas, the physical nature of his suffering being matched by his range of vocal colours.  René Pape was a powerful and indefatigable Gurnemanz, who was also very human and engaging.  Evgeny Nikitin as Klingsor couldn’t have been more angry and evil.  Katarina Dalayman, sings her role very well but she was not successful when playing the seductress Kundry in the second Act.  One was left thinking that she could have been Parsifal’s long lost mother, and her heart didn’t really seem to be in it, but later her memorable duet with Jonas Kaufmann’s Parsifal was overflowing with intensity.  

Both of them gave absolutely everything here and I’m sure that their voices more than filled the Met.  Daniele Gatti conducted the whole evening impeccably from memory with assurance and artistry. This was an exceptional cast for an exceptional piece but I’m sorry that I can’t say the same for the production.

A minor gripe about the sound before I finish.  It was noticeable that the balance for the quiet passages and offstage voices was not correct.  There was a lot of low frequency background noise, as if the microphones were too far away from the performers.  I didn’t notice this problem when they did Götterdämmerung a year ago on MET HD Live so they need to do something to address it.