Missing music

Like no doubt many other homes up and down the land, music is always playing here, somewhere—the kitchen radio, the kids’ laptops or Alexas, the piano and tuba even (that damned thing is so loud). But it’s been a long time since we went out to hear live music. For music fans like Rob Sheffield, that’s becoming a problem.

Life without liveRolling Stone
This is the longest I’ve gone between live shows since . . . the Replacements broke up? I go see bands every chance I get, and I live in New York City, where there’s plenty of chances. Live music is how I measure out the next week, month, year of my life. But on a bigger scale, the shows are how we measure history. When you picture the past or the future, you imagine what musicians are doing in a room and who shows up to hear it. You can define any point in the arc of human history by who was in Fleetwood Mac at the time. (And whose hotel bed they were sharing.) So what does music fandom mean at a time when we can’t gather together to celebrate, discover, experiment?

Here’s an interesting take on the future of the kind of concerts I’ve been missing recently.

Coronavirus conditions make us rethink classical music for decade aheadVoice of OC
So far, we’ve been assuming that there will continue to be problems that, at least now and then, require social distancing and home quarantines. It’s definitely something all these groups are going to have to consider over the next decade. Something good could come out of it, though, and that would be the end of subscription seasons as we know them. Subscription seasons, designed to attract a particular kind of listener, older, moneyed, more conservative, able to fork out for a year’s worth of tickets in advance, have long been holding classical music back from its better, more exciting and interesting self.

But for now, we have to make do with streamed performances at home, the equivalent of those art gallery postcards.

Symphonies silenced, sonatas streamed: The state of classical music during COVID-19Los Angeles Review of Books
Notwithstanding the quality of the audio — piped through his iPhone — the music felt exuberant, and also demanding and manic. “The concert halls are empty,” Levit had tweeted earlier. “Listening and experiencing music together is not possible.” It was mid-March — what feels like eons ago — and on both sides of the Atlantic, governments were starting to roll out isolation measures, suddenly putting all of us into suspended animation. With so much uncertainty in the world, his joyous performance provided a half hour of reprieve, disassociating us from the fear of contagion. Three hundred and twenty thousand users on Twitter and Instagram tuned in — more than at any venue he’s ever performed.

The way we experience music is bound to change in unexpected ways, but the strength of our appreciation of music can already be a little peculiar.

The pandemic hasn’t dulled Japan’s special love for QueenAtlas Obscura
“Queen Day is an important occasion for Japanese fans to reaffirm the bond between Queen and Japan,” writes fan Yoko Doi of Tokyo in an email. In 2019, Doi—along with 300 others—marked Queen Day with an outdoor screening of the 2018 film Bohemian Rhapsody, featuring band cosplay and plenty of Moet et Chandon, naturally (see the lyrics to “Killer Queen,” if you’re not an initiate).

Tracing Eastern Europe’s obsession with Depeche ModeDazed
Urbanovic, who has been a fan since 1986, runs the DM Bar in Riga, a nightclub completely dedicated to the band. There is another, non-affiliated and older club in Tallinn that has been visited by the band themselves. Both establishments are covered in Depeche Mode merchandise (from cardboard cutouts to tour scarves and lyrics scrawled on the walls in different languages) and both put on regular parties playing the band’s music as well as records by other ‘industrial’ bands. “Depeche Mode gigs in Latvia are very well-attended, especially when you take into account the relatively small population – and we get a lot of fans from other Eastern European countries who make a special trip to the bar,” Urbanovic adds.

Keeping yourself occupied?

What to do when you’ve got too much time on your hands? Play a video game? This one looks a little laggy.

Super Mario Rubik’s Cube stop motionBigWendy

Some people are just eating their way through this time of uncertainty.

Pass the pepper: Social distancing is nothing to sneeze AtJoseph’s Machines

Don’t overdo it, though, or you’ll be expanding your vocabulary as well as your waistline.

keeping-yourself-occupied

Do you speak corona? A guide to covid-19 slang1843

Coronaspeck

1. Coronavirus fat (noun)

German workers ordered to stay at home to help the government flatten one sort of curve have found themselves battling the emergence of another, just above the belt. Home workouts sound great, but the days are long and dull and your latest bout of Hamsterkäufe (panic-buying; lit. “hamster-purchase”) has left the fridge gloriously well-stocked. There’s always another variety of Ritter Sport to try, oder? Anyway, what’s a few kilos between socially distanced friends?

Coronaspeck is the helpful German word for the fat deposited by weeks of stay-at-home grazing. Shoppers in Germany may know Speck as a bacon-like foodstuff, perhaps found on a crisp Flammkuchen or inside hearty Swabian Maultaschen. But its broader meaning corresponds to something like the English “flab”.

Perhaps you need some exercise, but what if you can’t think of a routine or a soundtrack? No problem. This website will pair up a random move with a random piece of music.

Random workout generator

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I’ll pass on that, thanks. But speaking of music…

Plink, Plank, Plunk! virtual performanceChicago Sinfonietta

RPO trombones play Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ over ZoomRoyal Philharmonic Orchestra

Le Boléro de Ravel par l’Orchestre national de France en #confinement #ensembleàlamaisonFrance Musique

That sounds more like it.

Peter and the Typographic Wolf

Let’s have some more orchestral goodness.

Pierre et le loup, a stunning, typography-filled animated storyThe Kid Should See This
In 2014, Camera Lucida and Radio France teamed up to create a series of classical music-filled apps for children. One of these shared Sergei Prokofiev’s Pierre et le loup in a typography-filled adaptation by Gordon (Thierry Guernet), Pierre-Emmanuel Lyet, and Corentin Leconte. It’s a stunning version that mixes animation, musical symbols, and musicians, featuring the National Orchestra of France, conducted by the maestro Daniele Gatti.

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Classical music and typography, two of my favourite things!

All together now, sprach Zarathustra

This is wonderful. There have been a few of these doing the rounds, but I felt duty bound to share the one from my home town.

2020: An Isolation Odyssey – Opera North
When our concert performances of Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra were cancelled as the coronavirus pandemic intensified, two members of the Orchestra of Opera North decided that the show must go on – virtually.

“They sent their recordings back to us, and we added instrument by instrument, part by part, until this amazing ‘performance’ took shape”, Daniel says. “It has really felt like watching a huge building being constructed, and with Tobias’ musical vision as a starting point, the resemblance to the creative process of an actual rehearsal and concert has been remarkable.”

A concert, nonetheless

The Sinfonia of Leeds, the orchestra my wife ordinarily plays in, were supposed to be playing a concert this weekend. That didn’t happen, obviously, but they invited us to enjoy their programme anyway.

Their Facebook page directed us to live recordings of other orchestras performing the pieces they were going to play, and we watched along from the comfort of our sofa, starting at 7:30pm and with ice cream at the interval, as is only proper.

We had a wonderful evening (you can’t really go wrong with a Sibelius symphony), so much so that we’ve promised ourselves to create another YouTube concert evening next weekend. And it’s my turn to pick the programme.

Too soon?

The coronavirus outbreak continues apace, but has China turned the corner?

With its epidemic slowing, China tries to get back to workThe Economist
So along with reporting the number of new infections every day, officials are now reporting on the number of reopened businesses in their territories. The province of Zhejiang, a manufacturing powerhouse and home to Yiwu, leads the country so far, with 90% of its large industrial enterprises having restarted. But many of these are running at low capacities. Jason Wang is a manager with a clothing company that sells winter coats at Yiwu International Trade City. His factory started up again but only half of his employees have returned. “The government, enterprises, workers—everyone is making a gamble in restarting. But we have no choice, we have to make a living,” he says.

Meanwhile.

China pushes all-out production of face masks in virus fightNikkei Asian Review
Companies ranging from state-owned carmakers to oil producers are installing production lines as the government aims to raise output by at least 70%. But it will not be easy to meet demand from 1.4 billion people desperate for a measure of protection against infection.

Iran’s Deputy Health Minister has tested positive for coronavirusBuzzFeed News
Iraj Harirchi, the head of Iran’s anti-coronavirus task force, tested positive a day after a news conference where he appeared visibly sick. He wasn’t wearing a mask.

Coronavirus has now spread to every continent except AntarcticaCNN
Public health officials warned Wednesday that the spread of the novel coronavirus is inching closer toward meeting the definition of a global pandemic, as the number of cases outside mainland China continues to grow, including in South Korea where a US soldier has tested positive for the virus.

Rush Limbaugh: Coronavirus is being ‘weaponized’ by Chinese communists to ‘bring down’ TrumpMediaite
“It looks like the coronavirus is being weaponized as yet another element to bring down Donald Trump,” claimed Limbaugh. “I want to tell you the truth about the coronavirus…. The coronavirus is the common cold, folks.”

Pianist Yuja Wang issues emotional reply after critics shame her for wearing glasses on stageClassic FM
“Humiliated” after being detained at the airport, Yuja Wang says she delivered the recital in sunglasses to hide her tears.

How the coronavirus revealed authoritarianism’s fatal flawThe Atlantic
China’s use of surveillance and censorship makes it harder for Xi Jinping to know what’s going on in his own country.

Mass coronavirus testing to be launched in Britain to uncover how far disease has spreadThe Telegraph
Thousands of Britons will be tested by GPs for coronavirus, amid fears that the explosion of cases in Europe means there could be far more cases in the UK than are known about.

Facebook is banning ads that promise to cure the coronavirusBusiness Insider
In a statement, a spokesperson told Business Insider: “We recently implemented a policy to prohibit ads that refer to the coronavirus and create a sense of urgency, like implying a limited supply, or guaranteeing a cure or prevention.”

I’ll just share this here, too.

An authentic 16th century plague doctor mask preserved and on display at the German Museum of Medical HistoryDesign You Trust
The mask had glass openings in the eyes and a curved beak shaped like a bird’s beak with straps that held the beak in front of the doctor’s nose. The mask had two small nose holes and was a type of respirator which contained aromatic items. The beak could hold dried flowers (including roses and carnations), herbs (including mint), spices, camphor, or a vinegar sponge.

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Bach’s perfect prelude

It’s an iconic piece of classical music, and even if you’re not a fan of the genre you’ve probably come across it before now—Bach’s prelude from his Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major. It’s only a couple of minutes long, depending on who’s playing it (and on what instrument), but it’s perfectly constructed. To understand why, let’s take a closer look with Alisa Weilerstein. (via Kottke)

Bach’s G major prelude, deconstructedVox
If you hear the first few measures you’ll likely recognize it. A simple G major arpeggiated chord played expressively on the cello opens a short, but harmonically and melodically rich, 42 measures of music. Bach makes a single instrument sound like a full ensemble. How does he do it?

It’s simple, really (to some, perhaps!), just the tonic key G and the dominant key D playing off each other.

That famous cello prelude, deconstructedYouTube

I could listen to this over and over. Wonderful music. I just need someone to go through the rest of it.

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(I wish I had stuck with it now.)

Sledging with Beethoven

Understanding music can be a challenge to those of us who have difficulty reading a score. Thankfully, there are ways to visualise what’s going on.

Some are helpfully straightforward, some are quite complex yet followable and others are more abstract and hypnotic, but I especially love this one, via Jeremy. As he says, “Have a look, but be warned once you’ve started you’ll be there to the end!”

Line Riders – Beethoven’s 5thYouTube

Check out the rest of DoodleChaos‘s YouTube channel for more clever animations. Can you imagine how long he spent rehearsing for this synchronised screen juggling, for instance.

Debauched Bach?

Whether alphabetized or not, when it comes to classical music composers, Bach’s at the top of the list. It’s hard to overstate his influence and legacy. But, as this excerpt from Ted Gioia’s Music: A Subversive History shows, he was no saint.

J.S. Bach the rebel
I’ve talked to people who feel they know Bach very well, but they aren’t aware of the time he was imprisoned for a month. They never learned about Bach pulling a knife on a fellow musician during a street fight. They never heard about his drinking exploits—on one two-week trip he billed the church eighteen groschen for beer, enough to purchase eight gallons of it at retail prices—or that his contract with the Duke of Saxony included a provision for tax-free beer from the castle brewery; or that he was accused of consorting with an unknown, unmarried woman in the organ loft; or had a reputation for ignoring assigned duties without explanation or apology. They don’t know about Bach’s sex life: at best a matter of speculation, but what should we conclude from his twenty known children, more than any significant composer in history (a procreative career that has led some to joke with a knowing wink that “Bach’s organ had no stops”), or his second marriage to twenty-year-old singer Anna Magdalena Wilcke, when he was in his late thirties?

Discordant ambitions

Seeing orchestral music played live is a marvellous thing. Years ago I wrote about how uplifting watching an orchestra can be, as opposed to just listening to a recording.

If only the same could be said for being in an orchestra. Here’s an impassioned account from Kate Wagner of the heartache and struggle you face when you come up against the “myth of meritocracy”.

Strike with the band
Classical music is cruel not because there are winners and losers, first chairs and second chairs, but because it lies about the fact that these winners and losers are chosen long before the first moment a young child picks up an instrument. It doesn’t matter if you study composition, devote years to an instrument, or simply have the desire to teach—either at the university level or in the public school system. If you come from a less-than-wealthy family, or from a place other than the wealthiest cities, the odds are stacked against you no matter how much you sacrifice, how hard you work, or, yes, how talented you are.

Piano guys

A couple of fun musical performances that caught my eye recently.

World piano playing record broken by 88 schoolchildren
The team created an enormous, multi-stringed instrument which allowed 88 children, aged six to 14 years old, to play at the same time. The record previously stood at 21 pianists.

The project began in 2018 when engineers from University of Cambridge decided to try and break that record, to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Leonardo Da Vinci.

So much invention within each individual key. Here’s the fuller video.

88 pianists on one piano

And from the very large to the very small.

One of the world’s greatest pianists came to Classic FM, so we made him play our silly, pink toy piano
He’s one of the world’s finest keyboard virtuosos – and he composes, paints, writes and is brilliant on Twitter – a true Renaissance man. But can Stephen Hough master our pink piano? We wanted to find out.

Happy minimalism

I mentioned earlier how metal has the power to make us happy. Whilst I enjoyed riffing down memory lane, the music that lifts my spirits now is more orchestral.

Here, composer David Bruce introduces us to minimalism and the work of Steve Reich, Philip Glass and, in particular, John Adams. I remember being completely blown away when I first heard this type of music, on a CD just called Minimalist, and it’s great to understand a little more about some of the orchestral decisions that goes into such work.

How John Adams writes for orchestra (The Chairman Dances & influence of minimalism)
The early minimalists choice of instruments and ways of composing influenced a whole generation of composers, myself included. In this video I look at how the style they developed went on to influence later orchestral compositions, in particular looking at the orchestral technique in John Adam’s piece ‘The Chairman Dances’.

And here’s that performance in full.

The Chairman Dances by John Adams – BBC Philharmonic Orchestra

Now for something completely different. I’ve been vaguely aware of the name Victor Borge for a while, but never really knew anything about him or his stage routines. Consider this one of the YouTube recommendation algorithm’s big successes.

Victor Borge – Piano jokes

Les Dawson, anyone?

Fixing music

I can’t think of many things more enjoyable than listening to music. Starting with the radio alarm clock in the morning, mp3s on the bus, Spotify in the office, to relaxing with the radio again on an evening, I try to have music around me all day. Why (apart from distracting me from my tinnitus)? Because it’s pleasurable, of course. But why is it pleasurable? Er, good question.

It’s hard to know why music gives pleasure: is that the point?
We know music is pleasurable, the question is why? Many answers have been proposed: perhaps none are quite right.

The thought of being without music or amongst music makers is horrible — “Between 2007 and 2017, funding for arts programs in Philadelphia public schools was cut from $1.3 million to $50,000 annually.” So begins this short, quirky documentary from Topic.

Broken Orchestra

The format of the film could be seen as gimmicky, but I think its setting and style are really appropriate. And quite moving in parts.

How Philadelphia fixed its ‘Broken Orchestra’
When the Philadelphia public-school system began losing almost all the funding for its music-education programs in 2007, thousands of instruments in need of repair were forced into retirement, and community members moved to action. In this triumphant new documentary by Charlie Tyrell, we are introduced to a few of the innovators, educators, volunteers, advocates, and musicians behind Symphony for a Broken Orchestra, a music and art project begun in 2017 that raised awareness for the issue, helping to get those broken instruments back into Philadelphia students’ hands.

From Philadelphia’s Broken Orchestra to Manchester’s Kaleidoscope Orchestra, and their re-imagining of The Prodigy’s music. We’ve seen this kind of thing before — Nick Proch’s orchestral arrangement of Rage Against the Machine, for example, and of course 2Cellos and Thunderstruck — but there is surprising delicacy and emotion here.

A gorgeous orchestral tribute to the late Keith Flint of The Prodigy
In April we recorded this tribute to Keith Flint. We were shocked and saddened to hear of his passing and wanted to pay our respects through an orchestral medley featuring music by The Prodigy. We’re continually trying to help raise awareness for the mental health of musicians as it affects so many of us.

Tribute to Keith Flint – The Prodigy Orchestra Medley

More on music and loss.

Italy violin-makers rush to save damaged wood
An unprecedented wave of storms has knocked trees down in Italy’s forests and artisans are racing to salvage the valuable wood before it rots. More than 2,500,000 red spruce trees were felled in violent storms. Red spruce is a wood prized by violin-makers – and they are concerned that supplies of it are running out, which makes destructive weather like this even more devastating.

An emotional reunion between cello and cellist
The accident led to the discovery of other, more insidious problems: Matteo’s three-hundred-year-old insides were collapsing. The top was losing its arch; the cracks were widening. “A domino effect,” Haimovitz said. He visited every two months. Once, he arrived to find cello parts scattered around the room, attended to by different experts, like an intensive-care unit. “For thirty years, it goes everywhere with me, and then, so suddenly, not to have it around? And then to see it—” He broke off, full of emotion.

Hilary and Johann

It’s pretty scary reading about how talented Hilary Hahn is, how much she achieved at such a young age. But, as this interview with Guernica shows, it’s all about the music, and Bach in particular.

Hilary Hahn: Entering the sublime
When I play the solo repertoire, the way Bach writes is pretty progressive. I believe he would be considered somewhat experimental even by today’s standards. He was a tonal composer as opposed to atonal or twelve-tone and he used acoustic instruments because he had nothing else; but when I listen to the progressive aspect of his music, I feel like he’s a master of disguise. You are going with him in one direction—you get there, but you realize you are not where you thought you were. You look around and notice a door, but when you get to the door, it’s a wall. You look around and notice that the floor you’re standing on is a trap door. You go down the trap door to what you think is the basement, but it’s the attic. Bach feels a lot like that—a really interesting fun house. The dimensions are different from a distance than when you get up close.

Hilary Hahn – J.S. Bach: Sonata for Violin Solo No. 1 in G Minor, BWV 1001 – 4. Presto

Otherworldly talent. But as this video shows, she is human.

Hilary Hahn does the Ling Ling Workout

The Luke Ascending

The Classic FM Hall of Fame 2019 was unveiled over the weekend, and Ralph Yawn Williams’s The Lark Ascending is in the top spot yet again. But don’t worry if, like me, you’re not a fan — here’s a much improved version.

The Star Wars theme combined with the Lark Ascending is unashamedly populist
Nobody saw this coming: Star Wars has never been so pastoral in this arrangement for keyboard.

The Luke Ascending – Star Wars/Vaughan Williams mashup

The image at the top of the post is a screenshot from one of the marvellous Auralnauts Star Wars Saga videos. I’m sure everyone’s seen these by now, but you must check them out if not.

Happy birthday Bach

I love this Google Doodle, though even Bach can’t rescue my appalling lack of musical ability!

Google’s first AI-powered Doodle is a piano duet with Bach
Starting on March 21st, you’ll be able to play with the interactive Doodle, which will prompt you to compose a two-measure melody or pick one of the pre-existing choices. When you press the “Harmonize” button, it will use machine learning to give you a version of your melody that sounds like it was composed by Bach himself.

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Various Google teams were involved in this project, including Google Magenta. There is an incredible amount of detail about the technologies behind the Bach harmonies on their own site.

Coconet: the ML model behind today’s Bach Doodle
Coconet is trained to restore Bach’s music from fragments: we take a piece from Bach, randomly erase some notes, and ask the model to guess the missing notes from context. The result is a versatile model of counterpoint that accepts arbitrarily incomplete scores as input and works out complete scores. This setup covers a wide range of musical tasks, such as harmonizing melodies, creating smooth transitions, rewriting and elaborating existing music, and composing from scratch.

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I cannot begin to understand what’s going on there, but it sounds good.

Yo-Yo Ma’s Bach Project

Yo-Yo Ma’s touring again, but his Bach Project isn’t just a series of concerts.

Yo-Yo Ma — The Bach Project
It is a journey motivated not only by his six decade relationship with the music, but also by Bach’s ability to speak to our common humanity at a time when our civic conversation is so often focused on division. […] Alongside each concert is a day of action, a series of conversations and collaborations that explore how culture can help us imagine and build a better future.

As well as the concerts, he’s been meeting with students, community groups and artists to share the idea that culture connects us and is needed now more than ever.

Yo-Yo Ma’s days of action
Ma said that he had come to Anacostia because of the community’s efforts to strengthen itself through culture. “You give of yourselves from substance,” he said. “It’s not money, it’s not just work, it’s that you give of yourselves, and, when you do that, that’s when beauty emerges.” He then played the Prelude of Bach’s G-major Suite. Kymone Freeman, the station’s co-founder, approved. “This is the type of culture that should be exposed to our children,” Freeman told his listeners. “The first thing that gets cut is art. The last thing that gets funded is art.” […]

At the Bowl, Ma said little, disappearing into the music. For the cathedral concert, which was presented by Washington Performing Arts, he was in a more boisterous mood. He wore a colorful scarf around his neck, and explained that he had found it at an Anacostia boutique called Nubian Hueman. “I’m doing all of my holiday shopping there,” he said. At the halfway point—there was no intermission—he motioned for the audience to stand, which was taken as a signal for an ovation. But Ma wasn’t seeking adulation: he wanted everyone to stretch. He proceeded to do a few jumping jacks while holding his multimillion-dollar cello in one hand.

Here he is explaining the reasons behind the new album and tour.

Yo-Yo Ma – The Making of Six Evolutions – Bach: Cello Suites

But I couldn’t resist also adding this video here, too. It’s quite remarkable, not just to Yo-Yo’s playing at such an early age, but for Bernstein’s wonderful introduction.

Leonard Bernstein presents 7-year-old Yo-Yo Ma’s high-profile debut for President John F. Kennedy
The New York Times reported that on November 29, 1962, a benefit concert called “The American Pageant of the Arts” was to be held with “a cast of 100, including President and Mrs. Kennedy, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Leonard Bernstein (as master of ceremonies), Pablo Casals, Marian Anderson, Van Cliburn, Robert Frost, Fredric March, Benny Goodman, Bob Newhart and a 7-year-old Chinese cellist called Yo-yo Ma, who was brought to the program’s attention by Casals.”

As biographer Jim Whiting noted, “the article was noteworthy in two respects. First, it included Yo-Yo’s name in the same sentence as those of two U.S. presidents and eight world-famous performers and writers. Second, Yo-Yo had been identified in a major newspaper for the first time. It would hardly be the last. In the years since then, the New York Times alone has written about him more than 1,000 times.”

From the comments:

It makes me weep to see how Bernstein articulates a vision of open internationalism and welcome in this nation, which has now become so closed.

Yo-Yo Ma played before President Kennedy at 7, and also played for President Obama’s inauguration. What a life for him!

Waiting for Tosca

We’re off to see Opera North’s Tosca in a few weeks. Can’t wait, it’s been getting some great reviews.

Tosca, Grand Theatre, Leeds, review: Drama to hit you in the gut – chiming with the demands of Puccini’s music
Post-Weinstein, and following revelations of world-wide corruption in the Catholic church, recent history has played into the hands of any director who wants to give Puccini’s Tosca topicality. Edward Dick and his team have eagerly grabbed this opportunity: their production for Opera North is both viscerally shocking in its violence, and queasily recognisable in its portrayal of the deal which power likes to make for sex.

Tosca review, Opera North, Grand Theatre Leeds: a brutal, thumping success
The closest opera has yet come to the world-view of the action movie, Tosca hits hard, below the belt.There is no subtlety to mine here (though I toy with a fancy that Tosca might secretly be quite excited by Scarpia’s sexual offer) and no time to waste: from the violent opening explosion to the heroine’s final defiant death leap, Puccini has no higher aim than that of gripping an audience by its vitals.

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Tosca review – contemporary take on Puccini is compelling and creepy
Edward Dick’s provocative, if quirky new production of Tosca for Opera North relocates Puccini’s political thriller from Rome during the Napoleonic wars to an unnamed present-day country in which church and state collude as forces of reaction. Dick is acutely aware that the opera maps on to the concerns of our own times – the printed programme contains photographs of a Five Star Movement rally in Rome and Donald Trump standing, head bowed, in front of a wooden cross. The staging alludes, too, both to the emergence of the new far right and the abusive sexuality that has resulted in #MeToo.

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Tosca, Opera North review – exciting update, strong on sonic thrills
Puccini’s Tosca isn’t a subtle work, and this, Opera North’s fourth production since the company’s founding in 1978, is occasionally too loud and crude. But it’s undeniably powerful. Edward Dick’s 2017 Hansel and Gretel left me a little nonplussed, but this Tosca is miles better, a colourful update which manages to juggle plenty of schlock with sound artistic nous. He’s helped by conductor Antony Hermus, making his Opera North debut and securing some terrific, full-throated orchestral playing, much of it at the upper end of the dynamic scale.

In preparation, I’ve been listening to this Callas recording — it’s all pretty thunderous stuff!

Puccini – Tosca (Callas, Di Stefano, Gobbi – recording of the Century : Victor De Sabata)

The Opera North version is directed by Edward Dick, the guy behind the amazing Hansel and Gretel we saw last year.

Hansel and Gretel review – screen-savvy kids summon a Blair Witch fairytale
Bold video projections evoke an online forest where two youngsters find danger, in Opera North’s imaginative Engelbert Humperdinck revival.

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Bossy Bernstein

What happens when two musical heavyweights clash.

Who’s the boss?
For a conductor to address an audience prior to a concert is nothing out of the ordinary. But for that conductor to essentially disavow the performance, before a single note is played? That would be almost unthinkable. And yet, this is precisely what happened at Carnegie Hall on April 6, 1962, at a matinee concert of the New York Philharmonic. Glenn Gould and Leonard Bernstein were scheduled to perform the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Brahms, but after intermission, only Bernstein emerged onstage. Gould, who played infrequently in public, was notorious for canceling concerts at the last moment, and at first, Bernstein had to reassure the audience that the afternoon’s soloist was indeed in the house. Then, the conductor went on to deliver a highly controversial speech that has since become part of musical lore.

The article from The American Scholar goes on to transcribe part of that speech, and here’s an audio recording of it and the subsequent performance.

Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1 – Gould/Bernstein – Bernstein’s Speech included

Here’s Bernstein’s own take on it, and the press attention that followed:

The truth about a legend
So I said to Glenn backstage, “You know, I have to talk to the people. How would it be if I warned them that it was going to be very slow, and prepare them for it? Because if they don’t know, they really might leave. I’ll just tell them that there is a disagreement about the tempi between us, but that because of the sportsmanship element in music I would like to go along with your tempo and try it.” It wasn’t to be a disclaimer; I was very much interested in the results—particularly the audience reaction to it. I wrote down a couple of notes on the back of an envelope and showed them to Glenn: “Is this okay?” And he said, “Oh, it’s wonderful, what a great idea.”

So I went out, read these few notes, and said, “This is gonna be different, folks. And it’s going to be very special. This is the Glenn Gould Brahms concerto.” Out he came, and indeed he played it exactly the way he had rehearsed it, and wonderfully too. The great miracle was that nobody left, because of course it had become such a thing to listen to. The house came down, although, if I remember correctly, it took well over an hour to play. It was very exciting. I never loved him more.

The result in the papers, especially the New York Times, was that I had betrayed my colleague. Little did they know—though I believe I did say so to the audience—that I had done this with Glenn’s encouragement. They just assumed that I had sold him down the river by coming out first to disclaim his interpretation. It was, on the contrary, a way of educating the audience as part of Thursday night’s procedure. All this was not only misunderstood, but repeated and repeated and multiplied exponentially by every other newspaper that wrote about it.

And, for good measure, here’s another clip of Bernstein and Gould together, more harmoniously this time, perhaps.

Glenn Gould’s U.S. Television Debut: Bernstein Conducting Bach’s Keyboard Concerto No. 1 in D minor