Pietà Premieres in London: Interview with composer Richard Blackford

 

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In June 2019 Frances Wilson reviewed Pietà, a new choral work by Richard Blackford for The Cross-Eyed Pianist. Drawing on the theme of maternal grief and loss, Blackford took as his starting point the Stabat Mater. It is a hymn to Mary, and portrays her suffering as Jesus Christ’s mother at his crucifixion. In his exploration of maternal grief, Blackford decided to add Anna Akhmatova’s cycle of poems, Requiem, to the libretto. Written in 1938 when her son Lev was arrested by Stalin’s secret police, they are a record of the anguish she felt when she believed that she had lost him for good. 

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Portrait of Anna Akhmatova 1914 by Nathan Altman. State Russian Museum

At Pietà’s world premiere, at the Lighthouse, Poole, the musicians and solo singing artists performed to a packed house and received a standing ovation.

In anticipation of Pietà’s London premiere at Cadogan Hall on the 19th October, Karine Hetherington of artmuselondon.com interviewed the composer, Richard Blackford.

When did you first start working on Pietà? And what were the creative stages of the work?

In 2017. It was following a visit to Rome where I saw the famous Michelangelo statue in St Peter’s. What struck me was how moving and sad the story of Pietà was, of Mary cradling her crucified son. I wondered how something so sad, could be also so beautiful and so inspiring in so many ways.

I decided to set the Stabat Mater text, although I was aware it had been set over 200 times. At the same time I was moved by stories about mothers losing their children in the Syrian war. I couldn’t quite finalise my approach to it until I found some poems by Anna Akhmatova, the Russian poet. She wrote a series of poems called Requiem when her son was taken away by the KGB. In them she used very strong Stabat Mater imagery.

How do you work and how long did it take to complete Pietà?

I immerse myself in one work at a time. I block out everything and work very long hours. Getting into it is the hardest thing but once the first of the movements was written for Pietà, I had a handle on the musical language.

It took five months in all to write. It would have taken longer if I had had a full orchestra. This was written for string orchestra and soprano saxophone.

How did it come to you?  Generally composing do you start with words or music?

In this case it was the words first. I wasn’t sure where Anna Akhmatova’s poems would come in or how many poems I would set. Two of them are in fact set back to back in one huge mezzo aria. The other poem I found extraordinary was when Akhmatova wrote “A chorus of angels sang/In that momentous hour”. I thought, the music I write for this mustn’t be saccharine. These are no Hollywood angels! I wanted a tumultuous cry of avenging angels. I wanted it to be more about the mother’s rage. I decided that my setting of the Stabat Mater which is normally slow and meditative, was going to be dramatic. As well as grief, it was going to be about rage and finally acceptance. It would be about earning a place in paradise, not just being granted redemption for no particular reason. I think it gives the music an edge.

Do you play different instruments? How are you able to write for other instruments?

Well I’m a pianist – not a very good one. I used to play percussion, the viola for a few years. But I’ve been a professional conductor all my life and so as a composer and conductor it’s just part of the job to know how to score for every instrument. I’ve always tried to write for instruments and voices, music that is good to play and good to sing. If it’s well written for them – to me – that’s part of the job.

Do you need absolute quiet to work in?

I really do. I’m lucky enough to have a studio in my house in Oxfordshire. I work eight or nine hour days with perhaps a walk around the village in between. When my wife comes home from work she asks me to play back what I’ve written. Sometimes she’ll just nod. Sometimes she’ll say: “I’ve got a real sense of where that’s going”. Her opinion as a listener is very important to me although she is not classically trained. It’s nice because it can be a very lonely path being a composer.

When you are composing, do you stop listening to other music?

That’s a good question. I don’t deliberately stop listening to other music. Perhaps a better way to answer your question is to say that before I start a piece, I do a lot of research. In other words when I was writing the  Stabat Mater, I did listen to a dozen Stabat Maters, including contemporary settings as well, in order to have an insight into how other composers have treated the same text. Research is something I learned through doing my PhD in music. Research is not only necessary but is also very pleasurable.

Is composing a necessity for you? Do you have breaks when you are not  composing?

It is a necessity. Whether it’s composing or being creative in another way, it’s the only thing I really know how to do. I don’t think I’ll ever retire. I start to get cranky if I’m not composing or researching.

Pietà premiered at the Lighthouse, Poole in June this year. What was it like hearing it being performed for the first time?

I knew musically how it would sound as it’s my job to know that. What is impossible to anticipate is particularly how the soloists will interpret your work. I wasn’t prepared for the power of Jennifer Johnston’s interpretation of Anna Akhmatova’s poems [Her mezzo-soprano part will be sung by Catherine Wyn-Rogers at the Cadogan Hall] . I hate the expression but they “blew me away”! I wasn’t prepared for how sweet and moving the children’s chorus was because the Stabat Mater is a bleak, dark piece and yet I try to bring elements of light into it. The children’s chorus is like finding water in the desert.

Are you sensitive to different music venues? Pietà will be performed at the Cadogan Hall this month.

In some ways the sound may be more powerful at Cadogan Hall because it’s smaller. In the Cadogan Hall you will be able to hear the words more clearly. My feeling about performance is that once we’ve recorded it, and we have recorded it with Nimbus records, then I let it go. Then if another conductor wants to take it faster or slower, I don’t mind at all because the work has a life of its own then. At least the recording is how I intended it.

Any mad projects in the pipeline?

Very odd that you should ask that! I’m working on a very large orchestral commission about madness. I’m writing a piece for the BBC National Orchestra of Wales about British artist, Richard Dadd, the Victorian painter who was schizophrenic. He murdered his father and was confined to Bethlehem hospital in the mid 19th century. The governor of the asylum saw that he was a hugely talented artist and gave him paints and canvases. For forty years he produced extraordinary paintings. He has works in Tate Britain. The piece is about the thin line between creativity and madness and also how art can redeem someone.

Well we may be coming back to you to ask you about this when it’s finished!

In the meantime I look forward to Pietà’s London premiere at the Cadogan Hall, Saturday 19th October. 

For tickets : https://cadoganhall.com/whats-on/bournemouth-symphony-chorus-2019/

The Art of Recycling: THE ROYAL ACADEMY SUMMER EXHIBITION 2019

When you think about it, it’s a strange sort of job, being a reviewer. There we are, exerting all our writerly skills to create on the page the experience of attending an exhibition, doing all we can to help you decide if it’s one for you, and if it is, zhuzhing you up to buy that ticket now, now, now; when the exhibition you will experience is inevitably going to be entirely different to the one we work so hard to bring to life for you.

These philosophical musings were prompted by the Press View for this year’s RA Summer Exhibition  – which, with its whiff of the London season, the cocktail party and the 19th-century Paris salon, is always a bit of an oddity in any case, and all the better for it, IMHO. Attend the show as a punter and you will be shuffling round shoulder to shoulder, shouting to make yourself heard; and whether you intend it or no, being shoved constantly one way or the other in your judgement of the works on display by the all-important splatter of red dots they do (or don’t) carry, as just to add to its novelty, the Summer Exhibition is also a buying show. So there’s a whole vital level of engagement available to you, the visitor, which is not accessible to us reviewers at all, unless of course we wish to drop the persona of objective professional, and start squealing with excitement over the one work that has just summoned us across the room with its siren cry of ‘Take me home or you’ll never forgive yourself.’ (If you want to experience the most ruinous thing you can do to your personal finances, catch the germ for buying art. Trust me, I know whereof I speak, and so does my bank manager.)

In place of all that, us reviewers get sepulchral hush, unless and until the curator starts speaking, and no over-excited crowds of punters at all. Doesn’t sound anything like as much fun, does it? Not a solitary red dot, either, unless you count Cornelia Parker’s distinctly cheeky print of three diminishing empty frames, freckled with pseudo red dots as part of the work itself.

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Jock McFadyenPoor Mother, Oil on canvas 151 x 211 cm, Photo: Lucid Plane

The Summer Exhibition this year, the RA’s 251st, which opens on the 10thJune, has been curated (or ‘co-ordinated’, as the RA puts it), by the painter Jock McFadyen. Grayson Perry was in charge last year, and Grayson now has the sort of Living National Treasure status otherwise only accorded to Stephen Fry and Sir David Attenborough, so yes, he’s a hard act to follow. Whether by accident or design, however, the show this year takes the public temperature in a rather intriguing way. Walk in, and the mass of sculptures that greet you in the Wohl Central Hall, and the paintings surrounding them, are all inspired in some way by our relationship with all the other species with whom we share this planet. I’ve just published a book – The Animal’s Companion – that explores this very subject via the lens of the pet-owner and their history, and it’s unmistakable, how much the imperiled nature of our relationship with the natural world is uppermost in the human hive-mind at present, and certainly in the minds of those making the selection for the show – 16,000 works, whittled down to 1,500.  The curation this year is old-school, earnest, and present – themes repeat from one wall to the next, and from one gallery to the next as well, sending you from one piece to another and then (the shoulder-to-shoulder business of being there not for the Press View permitting) back to check on something that snagged your eye somewhere else altogether; but then that’s exactly what curation should do.

Photo: © David Parry/ Royal Academy of Arts

Photo: © David Parry/ Royal Academy of ArtsOne of the great good things about the RA show is that it exposes you to everything, that’s its point – the excellent, the proficient; the bad, the alarming; the naff, the kitsch, the clichéd. There are, for example, at least three different ‘murmurations’ of seagulls, one of them repurposing the background to Fragonard’s Girl on a Swing. There are two works that use the

woodgrain of woodblock to create ripples of water, of sand, or clouds of pollution. There’s an homage to Clara the rhinoceros (just visible at top) who so entranced Venice in the 18thcentury. There’s recycling, if you like, of ideas from the past – Brueghel’s Hunters in the Snow becomes people walking their dogs on snowbound Richmond Park. This being Brexit Britain, there’s a Banksy. There are slightly less than the predictable number of female nudes, and (predictably again) just about no male nudes at all, unless you count the gentlemen disporting themselves top-right in Claire Douglass’s recycling of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. Of portraits there are very few – until you walk behind a spur wall, and there they all are. Portraiture was once what the Paris salons were all about. Now art is – and it truly is – Kate McGwire’s Viscera, a giant intertwined knot covered in pheasant feathers that make it look as if it’s perpetually slithering over itself; and a nightmarish installation of oversize crows, made out of torn, melted, half-decayed bin-liners, with a soundtrack of inane human burble that resolves itself into Donald Rumsfeld’s ‘known unknowns’ speech, only to disintegrate anew. And there are three miniature sky-boats, held in mid-air, like airborne Noah’s Arks of ecological rescue, sailing off into some happier future where their intervention might be no longer necessary.

Tony Bevan RA, TREE (PP1845), Acrylic and charcoal on paper, 85 x 121 cm, Courtesy of the artist

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It’s part of the British summer to decry the RA Summer Exhibition as pointless and hackneyed, just as it is the NPG Portrait Award, but that shoulder-to-shoulder shuffle carries on regardless. People come here to see art, to engage with art, to comment at deafening volume on art, and some of them even buy art. All of them have a damn good time. And one of the other great good things about the RA Summer Exhibition is the little book they produce listing all the works in the show. This is un-illustrated, and the listings are as basic as can be – but no bloody app, for people to pour over, heads down, whilst the art goes past them unseen. There will be a website, once the show opens, but if you want to see the art as art, let alone as retail therapy, you gotta go see the art. And you gotta applaud that.

JCH

Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2019 sponsored by Insight Investment

10thJune – 12 August 2019

Top image: The Wohl Central Hall. Photo: © David Parry/ Royal Academy of Arts

Diane Arbus: In the Beginning

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Diane Arbus in Washington Square Park, New York City, 1967. Photograph: John Gossage

 

Diane Arbus remains a giant in the photography world. Her suicide at the age of 48 has contributed to her legendary status. Hailed as a tormented genius, much has been written about her psychological fragility and her obsession with documenting New York’s outcasts.

She wasn’t the first to focus on the rough bars, strippers and burlesque performers. Documentary photography was well established as a genre by the time Arbus took to the streets in 1956, leaving the world of fashion photography behind her. Many male photographers had already revealed the underbelly of New York society. Magnificent photographers like Walker Evans, Weegee, Friedlander, Garry Winogrand, all of whom Arbus much admired. Her way of working however was different.

Whereas her male colleagues sought to make themselves invisible to the subjects they snapped, going to great lengths to bury their cameras inside their coats or install false lenses, Diane made no effort to hide what she was doing.

It was hard for her at first. She was of a shy disposition, a lone woman. She had to conquer her fears, her prejudices in pursuit of her art. She struck up conversations with the people she photographed. Some of the relationships she formed with them lasted for years.

In a show entitled diane arbus: In the beginning, the Hayward Gallery, with the aid of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, has focused on Diane Arbus’s early years, when she was prolific and trying to develop her own particular brand of portraiture.

The first room of the show surprises with the compact sized black and white prints Arbus produced herself. Arbus’s images are smaller than an A4 size sheet of paper but are displayed artfully on separate rectangular panels. Very soon my eye adjusts to their dimensions.  Arbus’s subjects appear in half-shadow in bars, shabby hotel rooms and burlesque shows. I soon grow restless. Have I seen too many of these sorts of photographs over the years? I remind myself that at the time, Arbus’s photographs of female impersonators making up in front of a mirror would have been groundbreaking and shocking.

However the daylight shots catch my eye. Kid in black face, NYC 1957 stops me in my tracks. A blacked up boy in the street. Is he going to a black and white minstrel birthday party? Has he fallen down a coal hole? The only white we can see is the slits of his eyes, his lips and a slither of shirt. An arm is tugging at his shoulder. Not only is the image shocking but it is mysterious.

In Five members of The Monster Fan Club NYC1961 a group of boys sit on the front steps of a house. The humorous title shows Arbus in a more playful mood but then we focus on the sinister masks.

images-2Arbus was a devoted mother but her pictures of children are for the main part unsettling. Child teasing another. NYC 1960 is at first charming but the more you look, the more the little boy hunching his shoulders as an older girl whispers in his ear, looks uncomfortable.

 

Child teasing another, N.Y.C. 1960

 

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With ‘Girl and governess with baby carriage, 1962, a blonde toddler pushes her own baby carriage in a park. Alongside her governess, neatly dressed in a winter coat, hat and sensible handbag helps her push the carriage along. Far on the horizon the New York skyscrapers rise up in the early morning mist. Here the mood is nostalgic rather than uneasy.

It makes me think of the biography I have just read on Diane Arbus. Arbus felt neglected by her parents growing up in New York. Her father David Nemerov, owned an opulent department store in Fifth Avenue. Intent on keeping up appearances, her father was always working and entertaining. Her mother meanwhile, the beautiful Gertrude Nemerov, spent her time shouting at the servants in their grand apartment or chatting on the phone. The only person who seemed to show any interest in Diane was Mamselle, a cool, undemonstrative, beautiful French governess. Seven-year-old Diane loved her walks in Central Park with her and was inconsolable when her nanny left the Nemerov household.

There is no doubt that this picture meant something to Diane. It speaks of security and growing independence under the watchful eye of a loving, responsible adult. It speaks of snatched moments of happiness in an otherwise lonely childhood.

The iconic Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park 1962 follows. A bony-legged boy with claw-like fingers grips a grenade in his right hand. I know where I’ve seen those wild-staring eyes before – in war photography. This famous picture still packs a punch. The larger square format Diane uses marks a change in direction. Using a Rolleiflex camera she has now produces direct eye contact with her subject.

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Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C 1962. 

The exhibition builds up to a crescendo in a separate gallery entitled A box of ten photographs. These last images taken by Arbus in the late 60s and early 70s form the pinnacle of her work. Identical twins, a giant stooping over his tiny parents in their sitting room. A couple in a nudist camp, the man sitting in an armchair with his legs apart. Young parents with children – their little boy is blind. A Mexican dwarf, sitting up in bed and proudly displaying his smooth chest. The subjects seem more at ease in front of Arbus’s camera, as if now, they have come of age.

Sadly these beautiful photographs were developed after Diane’s death for a retrospective of her work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

This is a thought-provoking show but for me it was lacking in something. That something was more about Diane Arbus herself. The catalogue on sale contains her notebooks where she scrawls her inner thoughts. It would have been useful to have these on display.

An American friend of mine recently spoke of an Arbus retrospective in San Francisco way back in 2003. At the show they had reconstructed Arbus’s studio, showed her working notes, cameras and also the books she read for inspiration. I would have loved to have had glimpses of her inner world.

That said, the Hayward has produced a neat exhibition with a clear purpose. Some of the photographs on display have never been shown in Europe before and they clearly chart Arbus’s evolution from street photographer to a portrait artist of immense vision.

 

KH

 

diane arbus: in the beginning runs until 6thMay 2019 at the Hayward Gallery.

If you want to learn more about Arbus’s life : Diane Arbus, a biography by Patricia Bosworth is an excellent read.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SCANDI-NOIR IN SE21: Harald Sohlberg the Dulwich Art Gallery

Ah, Norway. Fjords, trolls, Ibsen; and birthplace in 1869 of Harald Sohlberg, whose atmospheric and alluring landscapes are on exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery until June. If you like Scandi-noir, you will love this.

Norway, like Switzerland, has one of the most beautiful and (you would think) artistically inspiring landscapes on earth; so it’s a puzzle why both countries have produced so few landscape painters. Most of us, I think, would be hard put to come up with the name of any Norwegian painter, beyond that of Munch. Munch was Sohlberg’s contemporary, and there are similarities between the two – the influence of the Symbolists such as Paul Gauguin (much as both men might have denied it); but above all, in this show, the influence of the Norwegian landscape itself. Snow-covered mountains glowing under the Nordic moon, legions of pine-trees, and that Scandinavian relish, product of the long monochrome winters, for deep, vivid colour – red-painted houses, leaning under the weight of snow, the glow of a sunset, distant hills of hallucinogenic violet, and the gold of a candle-lit window. Sohlberg also does a particularly wonderful job of getting onto canvas the luminescence and the colours of the midnight sun, a phenomenon which is completely unbelievable if you haven’t seen it for real, but Sohlberg catches it perfectly. His Fisherman’s Cottage of 1906 is a sort of summation of these traits, and of the cleverness with which his paintings are constructed. The foreshore dips down, the trees, painted with such thick impasto that their trunks have cracked, have just enough space between them to let you through, and there is the little bright cottage, inviting you come in from the cold.

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Harald Sohlberg, Fisherman’s Cottage, 1906, Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Edward Byron Smith.

Sohlberg initially trained as a painter of scenery and there is a scenic sense of layering in his works. The foregrounds have that hyper-detailed, Rackham-esque quality; the mid-ground lures you to walk down that path or up that road; in the distance there is some vast new vista to aim for. You can see exactly why his paintings lend themselves so well to being cover-images for novels; thrillers in particular, perhaps. And nothing in them is there by accident. Winter on the Balcony, perhaps the same balcony from which the artist watched the midnight sun, is so lightly painted that the squaring-up of the canvas is still visible, as is the care with which Sohlberg constructed the wooden exterior of the building and the balcony itself – the tightness of their carpentry hinting at the meticulousness with which you had to create habitations for yourself in this landscape and this weather. There is a sense in these works of the landscape giving form to thought, a quality that puts you in mind immediately of the similarly curious, almost uninhabited cityscapes of Atkinson Grimshaw.

NOR Gate i Røros, ENG Street in Røros in Winter

Harald Sohlberg, Street in Røros in Winter, 1903, The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Norway.

Sohlberg’s drawings are as cunningly constructed as his paintings. There are two drawings in particular in this show – one, the side of a clapboard cottage in charcoal and pencil, and the other, of a girl, a rare inhabitant, looking over a fence in a backyard – that are quite breathtaking. The backyard is one little world, yet behind it there rears the impervious façade of a 19th-century apartment block, so that you have the entire life and history of a city in just three elements. Sohlberg was painting at a time when the rural industries of Norway – fishing, mining, and the landscapes they existed in – were being transformed by the technological changes of the early 20thcentury, and while there is no consciousness in any of these works of the revolutions and conflict that were going on in the rest of Europe at the time, they have an undertone; there are details that unsettle and perturb. Night, Roros Church, for example, painted looking down into the sleeping town, seems so peaceful, and there is that one comforting beam of light coming from a window at the top of the church itself, but then you look at the tombstones scattered over the uneven ground before you, the rough black crosses, and you realize where the artist had placed himself – back here, amongst the dead.

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Harald Sohlberg, Night, Røros Church, 1903, The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Norway

Dulwich is on something of a roll with exhibitions such as this – first showings, unexpected works, and unexpected artists, too. There was Escher in 2015, Tove Jansson in 2017, Jusepe de Ribera and Edward Bawden in 2018, and now Sohlberg is another – and another not to miss.

Harald Sohlberg, Dulwich Picture Gallery to 2 June

JCH

At top: Harald Sohlberg, Winter Night in the Mountains, 1914, The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Norway.