Archives for category: Musical theatrie

Fifty Modern Classics
: This was a formative work for me. I went with a friend to see a performance in London at the Queen Elizabeth Hall while I was still at school (it must have been 1974 or 1975). I can’t remember who the soloist was, but I do remember that the clarinetist Alan Hacker was there, as was Mary Thomas, who performed Pierrot Lunaire at the same concert. I also recall that I found the whole thing very hard to take, but at the same time very exciting. My friend was bolder than I, and got us back stage afterwards where we met Maxwell Davies himself, who was very friendly and encouraging.

Eight Songs for a Mad King is a monodrama for baritone and six players with a libretto by Randolph Stow, based on the words of George III, whose illness was chronicled by (among others) Fanny Burney. The flute, clarinet, violin and cello represent the bullfinches that the King taught to sing, and in some performances they are placed in giant birdcages. The percussionist represents the King’s keeper. Just as Pierrot sings to the moon, the King’s dialogue is directed at the instrumentalists, and he is both inspired and frustrated by their responses. It’s humorous as well as haunting and sometimes shocking. The music is peppered with references and quotations from other music, particularly Handel, though there’s also some Birtwistle in there. The third movement – a dialogue with the flautist – is portrayed in the score in the shape of a birdcage (shown above), with the King’s line notated in the vertical bars and the flute part, representing the bullfinch, moving within and between them. The words are particularly poignant here as the King recalls how the young ladies of the court now fear him and keep away. “Madam, let us talk, I mean no harm, Only to remember”.

This is first of all music theatre, and even in performances where the theatre element is minimalized, there are two moments in particular where the drama takes over. In the seventh, “Country Dance”, the King begins with an explicit reference to The Messiah. “Comfort me, comfort me my people, with singing and with dancing”. The ensemble breaks into an off-kilter foxtrot, and the King reacts violently, grabbing the violin and smashing it. And at the very end of the piece, as the King contemplates his death, he runs from the stage with the percussionist following, beating time as the desperate words fade into the distance: “He will die howling, howling, howling…”. However “difficult” the music is perceived to be, it’s impossible not to be moved by the theatricality when it’s seen in live performance.


Musical Authors. Lawrence Durrell had an affinity for music and was a jazz pianist, but as a composer the one musical project that (at least half) saw the light of day was a projected musical comedy, Ulysses Come Back. The first reference to this comes in May 1968 in a letter from Durrell to Henry Miller. “I have three smashing songs for a musical about Ulysses”, he wrote, “which I’m writing from sheer boredom”. By September 1969 he is telling Miller “I have half written my musical and at last found a musician eager to collaborate on it; who knows, we might get it on! It would make me laugh….I regretted that he [Wallace Southam?] couldn’t raise interest in my Ulysses libretto. However tomorrow we’ll see what Antony Hopkins makes of it.”

Southam – an amateur composer and a friend of Durrell in pre-war Athens – traveled to the South of France to meet Durrell in Sommieres during early 1970 and spent a week notating the songs Durrell had completed for the proposed musical. Shortly afterwards Durrell came to London to make the recording, which was produced by Southam. On the first side there is a sketch of the musical, narrated by Durrell, on the other some additional songs, with Larry himself singing the recitative, Belle Gonzalez taking the female parts, Pat Smythe on piano and Jeff Clyne on bass. The recording was issued by Bernard Stone’s Turret Records, but only 99 copies were made, and so extant copies sell only for large amounts of money. I haven’t heard it.

The piece was intended to be humorous, with Durrell apparently wryly sympathetic with Ulysses’ trouble with women. “I think it’s funny and good in parts” he told Henry Miller, and sent him a copy. Miller replied in October 1970. “I began laughing when I heard your opening. Somehow you reminded me of good old Noel Coward., whom I used to put down, but whom I have come to admire, even adore after seeing him on TV several times in long interviews. It’s a jolly good attempt, this sketch, as you call it. Must have been fun to do.” This disk is a curiosity, and the material on it probably isn’t substantial enough to work into a performable piece. But it sheds a different light on Durrell, and provides us with a little more detail on the elusive Wallace Southam, of whom I will return to at least once more in the future.

Durrell also wrote an opera libretto, Sappho, that was set to music by the Australian composer Peggy Glanville-Hicks in 1963. After years of neglect it was recorded by Toccatta in 2012

havanaI’m currently a third of the way through (and enjoying) the biography Malcolm Williamson: A Mischievous Muse by Anthony Meredith and Paul Harris. Williamson was born in 1931 and died in 2003. So far, it’s covered his early years in Sydney and his early (and very drunkard) time in London up until his marriage in 1960, which seemed to reform him almost instantly. There followed a very productive period of composition – I’ve reached 1966. The biggest impact in those years came from the opera Our Man in Havana, premiered on 2 July 1963 at Sadler’s Wells. A rare foray for opera into contemporary literature, Havana was generally well received. However, there were only five initial performances, followed by three more in 1964 and a live BBC broadcast on June 30 1964. As Sadler’s Wells typically relied on non-specialist audiences, it couldn’t afford a long run.

Its neglect since, including the lack of any recording, is hard to understand. There have been two London revivals, the first at the Cochrane Theatre in 1987 and the second at the Greenwich Theatre in 2004 – though both were college performances. Most of the initial reviews praised the boldness and skill by which Williamson fused various elements together – popular and serious, comedy and tragedy – and handled the contemporary themes. Although approaching the musical in terms of its directness of communication, the two hour work is undeniably an opera. As in many of his other compositions, Williamson incorporated seemingly incompatible musical styles in the same piece – Cuban habanera and European dances with serial influences from Berg and neo-classicism from Stravinsky. Inevitably, it occasionally also brings Bernstein to mind.

The Cuban dance elements come out in the scenes set in Havana’s “Wonder Bar” and are reflected in the freely adapted orchestral suite Williamson extracted – now pretty much the only accessible material from the opera. The musical contrasts are in evidence even within the suite. Particularly suave, and by far the lightest movement, is the Serenade, which famously provoked a conga line in the audience at the Last Night of the Proms in 1976. It evokes the kind of music used in many an espionage thriller during the 1960s, and many judged it would have been more effective than the actual music used in the film of Graham Greene’s novel, which had come out five years earlier. Greene himself approved of the opera. And Malcolm Williamson went on to write another opera based on a contemporary novel – The Violins of Saint-Jacques based on the book by Patrick Leigh Fermor.

VictoriaThis is something of an odd case, in that while Jerry Springer: The Opera had a huge impact on me when I first saw it at the Battersea Arts Centre in February 2002 (still then as a one-actor, if I recall correctly), I’ve never much liked the music on its own. But the concept is great – the recurring themes on the Jerry Springer Show are operatic and equally the tropes of opera can often seem overblown and ridiculous. The first production, which evolved out of a series of workshops at Battersea, was really strong, and the music and words worked brilliantly together – particularly the interaction between chorus (audience) and the contestants. Above all it was hilarious, and the audience loved it. So did Jerry Springer himself, who was quoted as saying “I only wish I’d thought of it first”.

However, the music just doesn’t hold much interest for me without the action. (I do enjoy the choral opening where strings of swear words are given the full Handel oratorio treatment – and also the later choral movement “Jerry Eleison”). After the Battersea performance and the Edinburgh Fringe run later the same year (which I also saw), the show was lengthened for its full scale National Theatre production in 2003, and I felt by then it had lost its edge. It was only much later (in September 2010) that I saw another production that I really liked – the Ray of Light Theatre group, performing at San Francisco’s historic, but somewhat dilapidated, Victoria Theatre on Mission and 16th – yards from where my office used to be. I had thought it might be too offensive, and even perhaps too anti-American, to be a success in the States, but I was proven wrong – the audience went wild. I’d still go out of my way to see any new production that comes along, but won’t be dusting off my CD of the National Theatre production any time soon.

Musical Authors: Ezra Pound (1)
One of the central concerns of the work of Ezra Pound is his attempt to bring poetry and music closer together. Of all the poets who have taken an active interest in music, Pound can be judged one of the most serious. Yet until a recent revival of interest, his musical compositions have been all but ignored since the 1930s. One reason for the neglect is possibly the fact that Pound had no formal musical training and couldn’t carry a tune.

A lack of knowledge never stopped Pound doing anything. “Pound never quite admitted that there was anything he couldn’t do,” says Guy Davenport. The poet William Carlos Williams put it this way: “He knows nothing about music, being tone deaf. That’s what makes him a musician. He’s a misplaced romantic. That’s what makes him a historical realist. And he’s batty in the head. That’s what makes him a philosopher. But, in spite of it all, he’s a good poet”. Pound just followed his art wherever it led him. Even setting aside the compositions themselves, there are other reasons to take notice of Pound’s musical activities. “Pound’s venture into music for literary reasons – poetic analysis, preservation, and, ultimately, popularization (the goal of all scholarship according to Pound) – is unparalleled”, says Margaret Fisher, who has published a detailed study of the two completed operas and reconstructed the fragments of a third.

Musical preoccupations first began to surface as part of Pound’s researches into the work of the Provencal troubadour poets, discussed in his series of essays The Spirit of Romance, published in 1910. With the troubadours, words and music were closely fused together, though in Pound’s day the musical element wasn’t widely understood. His three act opera Cavalcanti sets the word of the Florentine troubadour influenced poet Guido Cavalcanti to original music. Related to this is his exploration of the art of translation. “Poetry is what gets lost in translation” said Robert Frost, but Pound believed that the essence of a poem could be discovered through translation – and enhanced through music. “I have been reduced to setting [Catullus and Villon] to music as I cannot translate them,” he said.

Is it worth listening to as music? Like the poetry, it can be forbidding on the surface. But American composer Charles Amirkhanian – who runs the Other Minds festival in San Francisco – thinks so. Repeated listenings reveal the arias from Cavalcanti to be “among the most compelling operatic arias written in the 1930,” he says. “It is regrettable that they have been kept secret for so long.”

Musical Authors: Anthony Burgess (2)
The use of language in the writings of Anthony Burgess often highlights sound over meaning, an interest that he picked up from his enthusiasm for the work of James Joyce. In A Clockwork Orange Burgess distances the reader from the extreme violence though the made-up, Russian-influenced language “Nadsat” the narrator users. That language also creates its own distinctive sound world. Burgess explored this direction to the extreme in the wordless film script Quest for Fire, where he invents a tribal language that prehistoric man might have spoken, and in his non-fiction work on the sound of language, A Mouthful of Air. In A Clockwork Orange, Burgess also satirizes the traditional highbrow image of classical music and turns it into a soundtrack for violence – far from “soothing the savage beast”, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony incites Alex into ever more extreme acts of “ultraviolence.” In the film version, director Stanley Kubrick used realizations of Beethoven’s music for the synthesizer, produced by Wendy Carlos, to emphasis this, and in the later stage version with music, Burgess composed his own parodies of Beethoven rather than use the real thing.

However, Blooms of Dublin, a musical setting of James Joyce’s Ulysses written for broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in 1982, takes a somewhat different approach. It’s a very free interpretation of Joyce’s text, with changes and interpolations by Burgess himself, all set to original music that blends opera with Gilbert and Sullivan and music hall styles. The aim seems to have been to make Ulysses more accessible (just as he’d also tried to do with his abridgement, A Shorter Finnegans Wake in 1969). And once again, Burgess blurs fiction and reality. In Earthly Powers (1980) the novel he was writing at the same time, the fictional composer Domenico Campanati has also written a musical based on Joyce called Blooms of Dublin, and seven lyrics derived from the real peace are included in the novel. Even more puzzlingly, the primary character, an author called Kenneth Toomey, comments on the fictional Blooms. His verdict? That Ulysses is “a totally un-adaptable masterpiece of literature”.

The BBC recording of the broadcast isn’t generally available, but I’ve heard it a few times and find it an interesting but uneven work (inevitably, perhaps, as it’s around two and a half hours long). As Toomey points out, the complexities and subtleties of Ulysses aren’t easy to translate into a fairly straightforward musicals format, The number “Copulation without population” in Act Two is an example – it’s a funny, bawdy music hall romp which gratuitously adds a chorus of drunks and whores into the mix, like a precursor to Jerry Springer The Opera. But it has little to do with the corresponding passage from Ulysses. In his defense, Burgess said: “The score is, I think, the kind of thing Joyce might have envisaged…he was the great master of the ordinary, and my music is ordinary enough. I had felt for some time that he might have had demotic musicals in mind ….”.

However, critics at the time were horrified at Burgess’ presumption. One called it “an act of vandalism.” Burgess took particular exception to a stinging review by Hans Keller, and for ever after bore the grudge. A few years later he wrote a new piece he called Hommage to Hans Keller, scoring it for the somewhat unlikely combination of four tubas. The Burgess biographer Roger Lewis (himself something of an iconoclast) described it as “a sort of lavatorial blast.”

My_fair_lady_manneAndre Previn is best known as a conductor and composer of classical music, but he’s also been active as a jazz pianist since 1945 – though from the late 1960s until the end of the 1980s his classical work took up most of his time. Previn’s main influences as a jazz pianist were Horace Silver and Oscar Peterson. My Fair Lady, credited to Shelly Manne and his Friends (Manne on drums and Leroy Vinnegar on bass), was one of the biggest selling jazz records of its day, and the first ever to focus entirely on arrangements of songs from a single Broadway show. The Lerner and Loewe musical was a massive hit in 1956 and hugely influential. It clearly impressed Previn and Manne, who, acting on a suggestion from their producer Lester Koenig, were originally intending to produce arrangements of just one or two songs. Instead, they ended up recording a whole album’s worth in a single session.

Manne is known as the quintessential West Coast Jazz drummer, and Vinnegar’s nickname was “The Walker”, a reference to his frequent use of walking bass lines. Both players help set up the infectious rhythm of the second track – “On The Street Where You Live”. But it’s Previn’s piano that leads – there’s a slow solo introduction before the trio comes in with the main theme, Previn using characteristic tight and rich block chords. The arrangers clearly had fun throughout the album varying the harmony, rhythm and styles of the original material. Manne and Previn also produced a West Side Story album (with Red Mitchell on bass), but this one is better.

rsz_acis-and-galatea-1758I first heard Handel’s pastoral opera Acis and Galatea at Battersea Arts Center in the early 1990s with musician actors both singing and playing their instruments on stage as part of the action. It’s a beautifully lyrical piece celebrating the rural life. The story involves the love of the nymph Galatea for the simple shepherd Acis, threatened in the second half by the giant Polyphemus. After a short overture the opera opens with an expansive chorus, based around just four lines:

Oh, the pleasure of the plains
Happy nymphs and happy swains
Harmless, merry, free and gay,
Dance and sport the hours away

Although the tempo is fast this music is relaxed, has a sense of space and takes its time to unfold. A fair bit of it is homophonic (ie the different voices move in step with each other), though counterpoint is used to elaborate at length on key words such as “happy”. Particularly striking is when the opening line is repeated – “Oh, the pleasure of the plains” immediately followed by a lingering “Oh….” spanning three full bars, which has the effect of pausing the music as if a deep breath of fresh, country air is being taken in with great satisfaction. This pastoral idealism was nostalgic even in Handel’s time, which may have been one of the reasons that Acis and Galatea was such as big hit in its day – though there are also suggestions of erotic undercurrents that may have been more evident to Handel’s audiences. Certainly the chorus in this opening number seems to revel in detailing the amorous pleasures of the plains. Today, in a more cynical world, the expression of such uncomplicated happiness in music seems a much harder trick to pull off.

PergolesiOpera is something of an absence on this blog, I’m not really into opera. But while we were living in San Francisco I was asked to provide an English translation (or at least paraphrase) for a performance of La serva padrona by the Russian Chamber Orchestra, arranged and conducted by Alexander Vereshagin. I’d been writing programme notes for the orchestra’s regular performances in Mill Valley. La serva padrona, the 45 minute long opera buffa was first performed in Naples in 1733. Its place in the history of opera relies on it being one of the first to use of characters from ordinary, day-to-day life.

There are three roles (though one, the servant Vespone, has a non-singing role). Master of the house Uberto (bass) is a bachelor, and in his opening aria “Sempre in contrasti” (“always contrary”), he complains to his maid Serpina (soprano) who has failed to bring him his chocolate and now it’s too late as he’s about to go out. The aria illustrates his agitation through its spluttering rhythms – ie  “e si e no” and similar variants. As the opera progresses it becomes apparent that Serpina now regards herself not as a servant, but as the mistress of the household. Fed up with being ordered around, Uberto vows to find himself a wife in order to be rid of her. Serpina gets Vespone the servant to disguise himself as a suitor for her, who demands a dowry from Uberto to marry her – all part of a trick to get Uberto to marry Serpina himself. In a recitative passage Uberto admits his feelings are confused, but in the end he realizes he loves Serpina, and the opera ends in their marriage.

The performance we put on in English made the chamber opera very accessible and it felt surprisingly modern. We added a few anachronisms as well, such as Vespone having a camera and taking a picture of the happy couple at the end – I have a copy of the picture he took during the actual performance somewhere, but couldn’t find it to post here – if I find it I will update the blog. This isn’t music I listen to very much nowadays, but it was very exciting being involved in the production.

WiltonsThe skillful combination of music and drama can intensify both elements. Here’s an example, from Peter Shaffer’s 1979 play Amadeus. In this scene, court musician Salieri, who has previously encountered Mozart and found him ridiculous, first hears Mozart’s music and realizes his genius – and his own lack of it. Outwardly successful, Salieri knows his own music won’t prove immortal, and is bitterly jealous of Mozart – why would God give such a voice to such a vulgar person, he wonders, and vows to destroy Mozart as revenge against God. The dialog below is perfectly timed to fit with the unfolding of the third movement of Mozart’s most famous wind serenade. At the last performance I saw – 2006 at Wiltons Music Hall, with Matthew Kelly as Salieri and John Doyle directing – the other actor musicians created the piece around Salieri on stage as he spoke. The one problem, perhaps, is that Shaffer has now appropriated this music for me – I can no longer hear it without thinking of the play. But it’s a very powerful scene.

[The Adagio from the Serenade for Thirteen Wind Instruments (K.361) begins to sound. Quietly and quite slowly, seated in the wing-chair, SALIERI speaks over the music.]
It started simply enough: just a pulse in the lower registers – bassoons and basset horns – like a rusty squeezebox. It would have been comic except for the slowness, which gave it instead a sort of serenity. And then suddenly, high above it, sounded a single note on the oboe.
[We hear it]
It hung there unwavering – piercing me through – till breath could hold it no longer, and a clarinet withdrew it out of me, and sweetened it into a phrase of such delight it had me trembling. The light flickered in the room. My eyes clouded! [With ever-increasing emotion and vigour] The squeezebox groaned louder, and over it the high instruments wailed and warbled, throwing lines of sound around and through me – Ah, the pain! Pain as I had never known it. I called up to my sharp old God ‘What is this?…What?!’ But the squeezebox went on and on, and the pain cut deeper into my shaking head until suddenly I was running…