EAST MEETS EAST END: A NEW DIVAN AT WILTON’S MUSIC HALL

Wilton’s Music Hall in London’s Whitechapel, where Jack the Ripper lurked and where on Cable St Mosley’s Blackshirts were given many bloody noses by what you might now call the Antifa, but which in 1936 probably looked more like a good old-fashioned East End mob, is one of those astonishing East End survivors of Blitz and redevelopment; an entrancing and wonderfully looked-after love-letter to the days of Dan Leno and Marie Lloyd. It has been a background artiste in so many movies that it has literally added them to its fabric: its downstairs bar is built out of leftover props from Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows. On the 20th June this year it was the setting for Toward A New Divan, A Celebration of East and West through Music and Poetry.

The original, old, ‘Divan’ was the brainchild of Goethe, no less, and is a collection of his poems inspired by the works of the 14th-century Persian poet Hafiz. The 200th anniversary of its completion is approaching in 2019: to mark this, the Gingko Library, who are one of the most innovative putters-out of content in this area of East inspiring West and vice-versa, have created a New Divan: works from 24 of our planet’s leading international poets to continue the dialogue Goethe began. With the support of Amal – A Said Foundation project, Wilton’s is where it was launched.

Now the combination of music and poetry can be blissful, or it can be exhausting. On Thursday it was exhilarating, high-spirited, unexpected and delightful. There were just enough poems, including one by Hafiz himself – exquisite in the original Persian, memorable in its English translation – to whet the appetite and make one long for publication of the book; the real stars of the show were the musicians of ’Tafahum’.

Tafahum may be unique: Western strings, woodwind and keyboards matched with Eastern percussion, an oud (the Eastern precursor to the guitar), a qanun (like a harpsichord without the keys, laid across the lap and played by plucking the more than 70 strings), and a ney (that breathy, almost hoarse-sounding, Middle Eastern flute, that is to music from this part of the world what ras-el-hanout is to its cuisine). Their inspiration comes from everywhere – one especially charming piece, ‘Three Fishes Laughing’ was inspired by the perfect E natural note a tube-train makes coming into Highgate Station. Honours were shared between Tafahum’s two composers, Benjamin Ellin (‘a Northern lad’, as he described himself) and Syrian-born Loual Ahlenawi, virtuoso of the ney. Professor Mena Mark Hanna had already described – and illustrated, with a bit of impromptu and very tuneful plainsong – what Western music lost when on first contact it began westernizing and then making archeology of Easter music. Tafahum is part of the antidote to all of that, and part too, of a dialogue between the arts of East and West that has never been so vitally necessary. Goethe would have been captivated – the Blackshirts, spinning in their graves.

The New Divan, edited by Barbara Schwepcke and Bill Swainson, will be published in 2019, with events at the Hay and Edinburgh festivals, among others.

JCH

 

Iconoclassics with Anthony Hewitt – Classical music in an iconic jazz venue

The Jazz Room in Barnes, SW London, affectionately known as “the suburban Ronnie’s Scotts” (and almost as longstanding as the eponymous Soho jazz club), resonated to a different vibe on Sunday evening when internationally-renowned pianist Anthony Hewitt – an artist more used to playing in hallowed gilded spaces such as the Wigmore or Carnegie Halls – gave a concert of classical music by Bach, Brahms, Debussy, Ravel and Gershwin – all performed on the Yamaha upright piano which resides in the Jazz Room. It’s a very good piano, but it ain’t a Steinway model D!

Yet such is Anthony’s skill and sensitively that he wrought myriad sounds and colours from the modest instrument – and somehow listening to Bach (Partita No. 1) in a venue normally reserved for jazz, one suddenly becomes hyper-aware of all the jazzy syncopations and offbeat rhythms inherent in Bach’s writing.

The piano music of Brahms, more usually heard on a modern concert grand, had a lightness which lent a greater poignancy and tenderness to his Op 119 piano pieces; while in Debussy’s Estampes multi-layered lines and textures were revealed.

The second half of the concert swung to the sounds of Ravel’s decadent and sensuous La Valse and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in blue, his vibrant and exhilarating evocation of the melting pot of America and the sounds of the big city. Anthony did a remarkable job in drawing so much colourful sound out of the Yamaha upright to achieve brilliant results.

For the audience, the small size of the Jazz Room means one gets up and close and personal with music and performer in a way which is never possible in a larger or more formal venue. Such closeness creates a very special sense of communication and shared experience between audience and performer, and throughout the concert there was a very palpable sense of people listening really intently – a great compliment to the music and the pianist. In addition, Anthony introduced the music engagingly and audience members were able to meet and chat to him after the performance. As one audience member remarked “the Jazz room is a real gem and now to start a classical series there is an added bonus”.

The concert was billed as “Iconoclassics”, paying homage to the Jazz Room’s iconic status as one of London’s leading jazz venues. More like this please!

The Iconoclast returns…… Anthony Hewitt performs at the Jazz Room on Sunday 26th August. Further information and tickets www.7stararts.com

 

7 Star Arts says: audiences can enjoy more classical music, fused with jazz, world and original compositions on 10 April when pianist and composer Helen Anahita Wilson makes her Jazz Room debut. Book tickets

East meets West: Prom 41

‘Passages’ by Ravi Shankar and Philip Glass

Britten Sinfonia with Anoushka Shankar, sitar, Karen Kamensek, conductor, Alexa Mason, soprano

Tuesday 15th August 2017

The Late Proms, introduced in 2012, offer a slightly different musical experience to the main concerts and often feature non-mainstream classical music, jazz or specially-themed concerts (such as the Ibiza Prom and Jarvis Cocker’s Wireless Nights Prom), in addition to memorable performances of some of the greatest works by Bach, including the Goldberg Variations (Andras Schiff) and the solo cello suites (Yo Yo Ma). There’s a different atmosphere in the Royal Albert Hall later in the evening and despite the size of the hall and audience, concerts which start after 10pm often feel more relaxed and intimate. Prom 41 was no exception, with an additional special resonance – 15th August 2017 was the anniversary of Indian independence. Appropriately, East met West in the first complete live performance of Philip Glass and Ravi Shankar’s concept album ‘Passages’, performed by the Britten Sinfonia and an ensemble of Indian musicians, with Shankar’s daughter Anoushka on sitar.

Philip Glass met Ravi Shankar in Paris in the 1960s, a time when Shankar was already famous in the west for his collaborations with Yehudi Menuhin and George Harrison of The Beatles. Shankar taught Glass, then only 29, how to accurately notate Indian classical music and Glass learnt how Indian music achieves its sophisticated rhythms and ornamentation, which had a profound affect on his approach to rhythmic structures as a foundation for his own music.

I did a remarkable, intuitive thing, which is I took the music I had written down and I erased all the bar lines. And suddenly, I saw something which I hadn’t seen before.”

– Philip Glass

In ‘Passages’ American Minimalism fuses with traditional Hindustani classical music to create a mesmerizing flow of exquisite sounds and intoxicating pulsating rhythms. The first movement is based on a theme Shankar gave to Glass (a raga played on saxophone), the second vice versa, and so on through the six movements of the work. The influence of Shankar and Indian music is clear in Glass’s use of complex rhythms and multiple time signatures, repeated elements, drones and open fifths, but ‘Passages’ is very different from the hard-core Minimalism one normally associates with Philip Glass – the spooling, repetitive motifs which ebb and flow, and his distinctive, sensuous harmonic shifts are all there, but there is a wealth of lyricism and poetry too in the intertwining lines and voices (including solo soprano and four other singers). The whole work is a rich tapestry of sounds as East and West flow effortlessly in and out of one another, with passages of jewel-like clarity and exotic dialogues between Western and Indian instruments.

Conductor Karen Kamensek, who began working with Glass in the 1990s, said ‘Passages’ blew her mind when she first encountered it and she secretly hoped she might one day have an opportunity to perform it. She cracked the code of Glass’s and Shankar’s notation to create a performance score which is accessible to Western orchestral musicians, and the result was this extraordinarily absorbing and exquisitely presented Late Prom.

Kamensek is clearly very comfortable with this music (she conducted ENO’s acclaimed new production of Glass’s ‘Akhnaten in 2016), combining rigour with an instinctive feel for its shifting rhythms and palpitating melodic streams. The strings of the Britten Sinfonia were wonderfully sleek and silky, the percussion sparkled with precision, the harp delicate and filigree. There was fine playing from woodwind and an elegantly supple solo trumpet. Soprano Alexa Mason’s translucent voice melded with the ensemble as another layer of instrumentation. From the first shimmering sounds of Anoushka Shankar’s sitar, we were instantly transported to another time and place.

This was an entrancing fusion of modernity and tradition, an exquisite meeting of minds, music styles and instrumentation, and a brilliant exchange of musical languages and compositional methods.

 

FW

(picture: Anoushka Shankar, sitar. BBC)

 

Trapped in a Smash at Wilton’s

There are some words that make a concert-goer’s heart sink. For me these include “experimental”, “fusion”, “cross-over”, “wunderkind” and – after last night’s concert at Wilton’s Music Hall – “virtuoso harmonica player”.

It’s rare for me to feel trapped at a concert, fervently wishing for it to be over, but last night was such an occasion – the second half at least (the first half was pretty good apart from a horrifically hammered out Bach Passacaglia, of which more later). This was a concert by musicians from Hong Kong’s Music Lab as part of the Hong Kong Music Series. The first item of the second half – ‘Beethoven Rhapsody’ – filled me with dread, and rightly so. It was the kind of music I hate: a “mash up” (or “Smash”) of riffs, motifs and idioms from the rock group Queen (geddit?!), the Beatles and the old radical himself (quotes from the fifth symphony and Pathetique sonata). There followed schmaltzy ballads, film music (by Morricone) and the world premiere of ‘Ideology’ by Hong Kongese harmonica player CY Leo, who has won numerous competitions with his playing. The work was a vehicle for this young man’s staggering virtuosity, displayed in fiendish Baroque-ish figurations and any number of squawks, breathy whispers, bends and myriad other sounds which I couldn’t begin to describe. It was as if Larry Adler himself had been reincarnated at Wilton’s Music Hall…… and I didn’t like it one bit. The concert closed with something called ‘Invierno Fantasia’, which started unnervingly calmly, but, given what had gone before, it was only a matter of time before it exploded into another manic fusion of rock, jazz, classical and “Cantopop“. It was the sort of music which makes me want to set my hair on fire and put it out with a hammer.

It wasn’t that it was badly played. In fact the whole programme was, largely, extremely well played by young musicians from Hong Kong who displayed great enthusiasm and commitment in their music making. Saxophonist, Timothy Sun, modest of stage presence yet immensely resonant and nuanced of sound, and soprano Alison Lau, whose voice had a sweetly searing clarity, were a pleasure to hear, as was pianist Lai Bo Ling, who accompanied violinist Mark Hui, both musicians with sensitivity and mature musicality, despite their tender years (all the musicians were in their twenties, some as young as 21).

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I am usually suspicious of concert programmes which advertise themselves as “experimental”. Often it is just a handy term to suggest something edgy and out there, which actually turns out to be a less than well-conceived programme in which the performer or performers have basically been given license to do what they like. This Music Lab concert at Wilton’s Music Hall (the first of two as part of the Hong Kong Music Series) certainly felt like that. It was as if the programme planner had thrown the components of a concert up in the air and simply watched where they landed without any thought for a theme or linking thread throughout the programme. Maybe the intention was not to have a common theme, and the programme certainly felt  like three separate concerts in one evening. What it did do was give a platform to a group of talented young musicians. The pianist and director of Music Lab Kajeng Wong provided a degree of continuity to the evening: he introduced the concert and performed in most of it, and, whether by accident or design, rather stole the show with his versatility and personable stage presence.

The concert opened with Kajeng Wong as ‘Fingerman’ in a solo performance intended to “explore the concept of God in an experimental classical piano recital”. I was not clear exactly what was “experimental” about this. A delicately nuanced  performance of Arvo Part’s ‘Für Alina’ revealed Wong as a sensitive pianist in this work of supreme simplicity and profound meaning. As he played, enigmatic words and phrases were projected onto the back of the stage – “God or no God”, “Could we return to the silence before the first note”. Unfortunately, for those of us in the forward rows of the theatre, these were often obscured by the open lid of the piano (and this continued to be an issue during the second segment of the concert).

From Pärt, he moved into the frenetic realms of Ligeti’s Étude ‘The Devil’s Staircase’, a work of fiendish technical challenges, which Wong managed with ease and panache, brilliantly paced and quite thrilling to watch and hear. The final work in this segment was Bach’s monumental Passacaglia BWV 582, arranged by Emile Naoumoff (one of Wong’s teachers). Originally for organ, this arrangement sought to imitate on piano the expansive resonance and plangent bass of the organ. It started well, with intent, conviction and a clear sense of the music’s architecture and contrapuntal lines, but as the music grew in statue, so Wong’s sound became strident and ugly. It was impressive, if only for the pianist’s attempt to play at full volume, hammering the keys as if his life depended on it, but more subtlety of touch would have been welcome here: it is possible to play loudly without thumping the piano…… During the performance, philosophical quotes from Marcus Aurelius’ ‘Meditations’ were projected onto the back of the stage. I’m not convinced these projections added anything of significance to the performance and since there were no programme notes, I was left none the wiser. In fact, it seemed a rather pointless gimmick to me.

‘Beloved Clara’ was a retelling of the story of the relationship between Clara and Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms in short works by all three composers, performed by Bo Ling Lai (piano), Mark Hui (violin), Alison Lau (soprano) and Kajeng Wong. As in the first segment, text was projected onto the back of the stage comprising quotes from the Schumanns and Brahms and snippets of their biographies. It was rather simplistic and clumsily-translated and was often obscured by the lid of the piano and the violinist, but despite this, ‘Beloved Clara’ was the highlight of the evening for me, the music performed with great elegance, empathy and tenderness.

Certainly, it was an “interesting” concert, but I admit I wanted to leave almost as soon as the second half began. A word too about the printed programme, which was attractively designed and produced. If translating into English from another language, do try and have the text proof-read by a native English speaker. As in the Beloved Clara text, there was some clumsy and unnatural translating which a decent copy-editor could have put right in a moment. Details like these really do matter.

 

Date reviewed: 10 July 2017

Music Lab at Wilton’s Music Hall

 

 

Variations on a traditional programme – Inon Barnatan at Wigmore Hall

 

George Frideric Handel – Chaconne in G major HWV435

Johann Sebastian Bach – Partita No.4 in D major BWV828, II. Allemande

Jean-Philippe Rameau – Premier livre de pieces de clavecin, IV. Courante in A minor

François Couperin – Second livre de pieces de clavecin, Ordre 12 No. 8 L’Atalante

Maurice Ravel – Le tombeau de Couperin, IV. Rigaudon

Thomas Adès – Blanca Variations (UK première)

György Ligeti – Musica Ricercata Nos. 11 & 10

Samuel Barber – Piano Sonata in E flat minor Op. 26, IV. Fuga: Allegro con spirit

Inon Barnatan, piano

Wigmore Hall, London

 

 

Israeli’s pianist Inon Barnatan’s 27 June Wigmore Hall concert demonstrated the “power of the programme”. Called Variations on a Theme, the first half of the concert consisted largely of single movements from suites, old and new, while the second half was occupied with Brahms’ Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel.

Initially, the first half of the programme could have been a curious mish-mash, a faux Baroque suite cobbled together from movements cherry-picked from works by Handel, Bach and their French contemporaries Rameau and Couperin, Ravel and Ligeti, and contemporary composer Thomas Ades. In fact, when I posted a picture of the programme on Facebook, a couple of friends commented that it “looks a bit Classic FM” and “how bizarre”. These comments in themselves are interesting, suggesting that a “proper” concert must consist of complete works, not fragments or single movements. Meanwhile, the Telegraph reviewer cites “shorter attention spans” as a reason for creating programmes like this.

This programme worked for me, and I admit that I selected the concert purely on the basis of the works by Ravel (the Rigaudon from the Tombeau de Couperin), Ligeti (two movements from Musica Ricercata) and the Ades Blanca Variations. I felt the concept was imaginative and witty – exploring the notion of variations in music through multiple approaches – and the selection of works created the similar ebb and flow of energy, rhythmic vitality, lyricism and repose as one would find in a Baroque suite, and the mixture of Baroque and modern/contemporary music allowed one to draw intriguing parallels between the individual works. Common motifs, such as filigree figurations and contrapuntal writing within the individual movements, created a sense of continuous throughout the first half, and each work gave Inon Barnatan the opportunity to demonstrate his versatility, switching with ease from the grandiloquent opening Chaconne in G by Handel to the poignant lyricism of the Allemande in D from Bach’s fourth keyboard partita. In addition, there was plenty of very elegant jeu perlé playing and crystalline passagework to savour, and a clear sense of the individual characters of each work.

Adès’ Blanca Variations, a set of five variations upon a traditional Sephardic song ‘Lavaba la blanca niña’, were delicately coloured and rhythmically complex, with much Baroque ornamentation in the later movements, thus connecting the work back to Bach’s Partitas or Couperin’s Pieces de Clavecin. This melancholy work had a sweeping virtuosity which Barnatan approached with understated panache.

The first half closed with a rollicking performance of the final movement of Samuel Barber’s Piano Sonata, Op 26, a fugue whose strict construction reflects the composer’s love of Bach.

The programme was played without as an uninterrupted sequence, with no applause until the end, which further reinforced the concept of a suite of pieces and made for a most absorbing hour of music. Not everyone could pull off a programme such as this, but Barnatan clearly relished the challenge of these interesting juxtapositions and gave a most convincing and absorbing performance.

I regret that tiredness forced me to leave before the Brahms, but I look forward to listening to the entire concert on the BBC iPlayer.

FW

Master meets Master – head on: Murray Perahia plays Beethoven

I wasn’t expecting to be at a concert on Monday evening, but a chance offer of a ticket to hear Murray Perahia playing my favourite Beethoven Piano Concerto led to a most enjoyable and uplifting evening at the Barbican in the company of piano friends and fine musicians.

It’s hard to believe that Murray Perahia is 70 this year. I’ve admired his playing since I was a teenager and he was fresh off the international competition circuit. His playing is consistently excellent, and while he may not display the flamboyance of others in the profession, his performances are always absorbing, refined and thoughtfully presented. I also admire his insistence on sticking with the core repertoire that suits him – the music of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin and Brahms, with Bach his central focus (and if you want a good case for Bach played on the modern piano, seek out Perahia’s recordings).

“Serious” is a description  I would immediately apply to Perahia’s approach. His stage manner is rather peremptory – a brief nod to acknowledge the audience and straight to the piano to get on with the main business of the evening. But Monday’s concert was suffused with joy and wit, Perahia directing the wonderful Academy of St Martin in the Fields (ASMF) from the keyboard in a performance which was vibrant and uplifting. And sitting just three rows from the stage gave us a fascinating view of the keyboard (it’s what piano geeks always crave at concerts – a clear view of the pianist’s hands at work!).

The concert opened with Beethoven’s Coriolan overture, ferociously articulated, energetic and boldly dramatic. When I went to concerts as a child, most began with a dramatic overture, a hook to engage the audience’s attention and prime them for the main event, but lately such performances seem to be regarded as rather passé. A pity, as in this instance, Coriolan proved an ideal opener, and the vibrant energy and precision of ASMF became a hallmark of the event. When Perahia joined them for the Piano Concerto No. 2, a special synergy between orchestra and soloist was evident from the outset, with much witty dialogue and gracious cooperation, mercurial shifts of mood, and colourful voicings. The piano gleamed and rippled, neatly dovetailing with the orchestra – no sense of “us and him” which is sometimes evident in concerto performances. The slow movement was a study in long-breathed phrases, the perfect foil for the boisterous, gamboling finale to which orchestra and soloist brought impish humour and vigour.

In the fourth Concerto, composed some ten years after the second, we find a more mature Beethoven, but ever the radical. The opening of this concerto is astonishing: for almost a century before, concertos had always begun with an orchestral introduction. Beethoven breaks with tradition and gives the piano a five-bar introduction, an opening phrase, eloquently articulated by Perahia, which is left hanging and is immediately answered by the orchestra alone. This set up a very special relationship between orchestra and piano, already well-established in the previous concerto, which seemed to reach its apogee in this work. There’s an impatience in this concerto (as there is in many of Beethoven’s “middle period” works), as if Beethoven has much to say and not enough time to say it, portrayed in sections of pure weirdness and unpredictability. Perahia and the ASMF responded to this with brisk tempi and a ruggedness of approach (no long-spun Mozartian arias here) which reflected the forward-pull of Beethoven’s revolutionary vision. Soloist and orchestra were compelling and commanding: there was no time for introspective soul-searching here – except perhaps in the middle movement, where the ominous tread of the orchestra’s opening motif was offset by a controlled recitative from the piano. The orchestra were wild and angry, the piano offered a hymn in response. Cool and thoughtful rather than soothing, Perahia managed the transition into the finale with elegant restraint. The rousing Rondo, with its wonderful, memorable theme, prickled with energy. The solidity and simplicity of the classical ideal, evident in the architecture that underpins this glorious movement, is offset against Beethoven’s dramatic innovation: here is a composer poised on the cusp of change. Vital and emphatic, Perahia and AMSF responded to this with excitement, wit and joy.

FW

(concert date: Monday 20th February 2017)

(photo: The Telegraph)