Monthly Archives: May 2018

Productions of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde

Herbert von Karajan’s 1972 production with the Berlin Philharmonic has long divided critics because some believe the performance is too studio-bound and that there is not enough ingenuity in the production. But this recording endures because Karajan’s baton summons such wondrous charms from the orchestra, which in turn galvanize the singers. The brass are treated with due temperance, and Karajan commands the strings in such a way that respects Wagner’s famously extensive note at the beginning of the score. This spine-tingling performance captures both the power and the tenderness of the opera brilliantly. The thrilling conclusion to Act I is hammered out at a terrific tempo, rousing any budding conductor’s hands into the air as the music thrusts towards a close. In contrast, passages like the dream music in Act II are granted apt softness, and Wagner’s genius for gentle orchestration is showcased perfectly. As for the final Liebestod, soprano Helga Dernesch burns with white-hot passion, complementing the rich harmony that breaks through from the cellos.

Daniel Barenboim’s 2007 production at La Scala (available on DVD) marries an impressive set design with superb acting. Both are displayed admirably in the first act: the former throughout and the latter especially when the lovers are experiencing the effects of the love potion for the first time. The lack of a conducting score (bearing in mind that Tristan lasts more than four hours) proves that Barenboim’s understanding of the opera has improved greatly from his early recordings at Bayreuth in the 1980s, and this is bolstered by his claim to have conducted Tristanmore than any other opera. Soprano Waltraud Meier gives an intoxicating performance as Isolde. The supremacy of her portrayal lies in sheer dramatic conviction; she is a captivating actress and has the voice to match. Nothing looks or sounds forced. Moreover, the trickle of blood running down her head in the final scene is a masterstroke. It adds an original dimension to the Liebestod: a visible fusion of Isolde’s emotional and physical yearning. Wagner would probably have approved.

Wilhelm Furtwängler’s 1952 Royal Opera production is generally the one that most other interpretations are measured against, as Furtwängler is often called the greatest Wagnerian of the 20th century. The conductor illuminates slightly different sounds to Karajan in places, which is worthy both of praise and criticism. It merits in suiting the orchestra’s sound to that particular set of singers (soprano Kirsten Flagstad, tenor Ludwig Suthaus etc), but this means that the total body of sound falls short of Karajan’s. The tempo, too, is sometimes accelerated in the wrong places. Nevertheless, this recording certainly stands the test of time. Besides, it contains all that spiritual darkness that Furtwängler is so respected for emphasising in Wagner.

Music Festival On Aspen

The Aspen Music Festival and School in Colorado is a celebration of classical music like no other. Founded in 1949, it hosts over 600 students from around the world for eight weeks of intense study with top tutors, world-class performance opportunities and a whole load of fun. And generous scholarships ensure many of them don’t pay a penny despite returning three, sometimes four seasons in a row. For the audiences that descend on Aspen for the summer, there are more than 300 events to savour, from masterclasses and talks to orchestral concerts and recitals. It’s an environment that blurs boundaries between student and master, as each feeds off the other for new insights and reminders of the magic of ensemble music-making.

And in a festival of Aspen’s scale and ambition, magic isn’t hard to find, sometimes revealing itself in the most unlikely of places… Here are a few highlights from three days up in the Rocky Mountains.



Aspen invites an impressive roster of resident tutors from around the globe to teach and nurture their students. And masterclasses form the backbone of School, proving as popular with audiences as they are with the students themselves. Two hours listening to Juilliard piano legend Yoheved Kaplinsky impart her wisdom to four young students were an inspiration. One student, who presented Mendelssohn’s Variations sérieuses, Op. 54, spent almost the entire 45 minutes discussing and repeating just a few bars from the opening theme with Kaplinsky – as with so much music, context is the key to understanding the structures and textures in Mendelssohn’s music. Difficulties with memorising parts of the work were solved when the student was advised to spend as much time on the slower, ‘easier’ parts of the piece as the more virtuosic variations. Straightforward, no nonsense advice that one rarely hears these days.

A masterclass in the Wheeler Opera House, just off Aspen’s main shopping/easting drag, saw dozens of students have their performances of Mozart opera scenes taken apart by Edward Berkeley, another Juilliard teacher. Mostly, however, the lessons were practical – not looking at the conductor while looking at the conductor, not hugging someone so hard they can’t sing, concentrating on keeping in tempo while a myriad of other things threaten to plunge your performance into the abyss. A very entertaining few hours indeed.


The students

Many budding young musicians go on summer camps to improve technique, meet like-minded peers and take a break from home life. But the dedication of the 630 Aspen students – many of them travel to Aspen immediately after term ends, and return to college almost the day their time in the Rockies ends. Being an Aspen alumnus seems to be a badge of honour which musicians wear throughout their musical careers. They’re a lucky bunch – and I’m sure they realise it.


The campus

Costing around $80m and completed just last year, the Aspen campus is the hub of student activity, the place where those 600 brilliant young musicians come to practise, rehearse and hang out. It’s an extraordinary collection of buildings, housing dozens of state-of-the-art practice rooms (each containing a brand new Steinway/Boston grand piano), orchestral studios and a top-class refectory. The setting is breathtaking, the buildings circled around two artificially-made beaver lakes, all at the foot of spruce-covered foothills, gateways to the magnificent Rockies and some of the finest skiing you can find anywhere. A foaming creek tumbles and splashes its way behind the campus as it journeys down the valley.


Jeremy Denk

Denk’s reputation as a fine pianist hinges as much on his imaginative programming as it does on his artistry. His recital last Saturday evening, bookended by Bach and Schubert, explored syncopation in seven short works. Revelations included William Bolcom’s softly lilting, beautiful ‘Graceful Ghost Rag’, stride pianist Donald Lambert’s thrilling, irreverent take on the Pilgrim’s Chorus from Wagner’s Tannhauser and Williams Byrd’s ‘The Passinge Mesures’ from My Ladye Nevells Booke, a piece of luminous charm and eye-popping complexity, both harmonically and rhythmically. More pianists should include early English music in their programmes; yes, the piano wasn’t effectively written for until the middle of the 18th century, but if Bach can become a piano recital mainstay, then surely so can Gibbons, Byrd, Tallis, Tomkins and their ilk whose music illuminates when performed on a modern Steinway.

Healing powers of music

The researchers allocated 120 study participants as follows: half of the subjects were exposed to music for 25 minutes. Subdivided into three groups they were played recorded music by either W. A. Mozart, J. Strauss Jr., or the pop band ABBA. The remaining 60 subjects were allocated to a control group that spent their time in silence. Before and after exposure to music and quiet time, respectively, all participants had their blood pressure, heart rate, and cortisol concentration measured.

Classical music by Mozart and Strauss notably lowered blood pressure and heart rate, whereas no substantial effect was seen for the songs of ABBA. In the control group, resting in a supine position also resulted in blood pressure lowering, but the effect was far less pronounced than for exposure to the music of Mozart or Strauss. All musical genres resulted in notably lower cortisol concentrations. As far as cortisol concentrations were concerned, the sex of the participants must have played a part, because the drop in cortisol levels was more pronounced in men than in women, especially after exposure to the music of Mozart and Strauss. Comparison with the control group showed that the effect of music was far greater than that of silence.

International Youth Choir Festival

In April 2017, eight choirs from around the world will arrive in London for the inaugural International Youth Choir Festival. The choirs will perform a showcase of music from their own countries at the Royal Albert Hall, before uniting for a mammoth performance of Jonathan Dove’sThere Was a Child at the Royal Festival Hall.

The festival is a collaboration between the team at the Royal Albert Hall and the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain (NYCGB). Artistic director of the festival Greg Beardsall, who is also deputy artistic director of NYCGB, said: ‘This festival will open people’s ears and eyes to the amazing difference that youth choirs make to people and communities across the world, and offer a unique opportunity to hear eight of the world’s best youth choirs perform together in an incredible public concert.’

As part of the festival, delegates will be able to attend workshops with the visiting choirs on everything from the secrets of Gospel Singing (Boston Children’s Chorus) to an African choral master class (Mzansi Youth Choir). In the weeks leading up to the festival, primary schoolchildren across London will be invited to ‘Songs from Around the World’ workshops. Local youth choirs will also have the chance to participate in the workshops and the performance on 15 April.

The choirs taking part in the inaugural festival are:

Boston Children’s Chorus (US)

BCC is a city youth choir that also believes in its role as a model for civic change, ‘paving the way for a more connected Boston’ through commitment to diversity of membership and repertoire, and a wide-ranging performance, education and outreach programme.

Diocesan Boys’ School Choir (Hong Kong)

The Diocesan Boys’ School in Hong Kong’s Kowloon district has an established culture of academic excellence that places equal emphasis on the importance of students’ cultural and artistic development, exemplified by its outstanding choir.

Mzansi Youth Choir (South Africa)

Famous for its appearance at the 2010 FIFA World Cup opening ceremony, the Mzansi Youth Choir consists of 45 choristers from Johannesburg’s Soweto community, and exists to give these talented but underprivileged teenagers and young adults life-changing opportunities for development and self-expression.

Manado State University Chorus (Indonesia)

Indonesia is home to one of the world’s great choral cultures. The MSUC offer an insight into this remarkably different world, with performances in traditional dress that make extensive use of dance and gesture across repertoire from South Asia as well as Arab, African and European cultures.

National Youth Choir of Great Britain (UK)

Founded in 1983 as a single choir of 100, the National Youth Choir is now the flagship ensemble the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain, a family of five choirs which collectively aim to be the most inspiring organisation for young choral singers aged 9-25 in the UK.

Norwegian National Youth Choir (Norway)

Founded in 1987, the NNYC unites 40 young voices from a vast and remote geographical catchment area for performances of a diverse range of music including Renaissance, Baroque and Classical music, national and international folk traditions, and contemporary music.

Riga Cathedral Boys’ Choir (Latvia)

Since Latvian independence in 1990, the RCBC has developed into a national cultural ambassador, mounting up to three international tours a year and performing at numerous state receptions. The boys are pupils at the Riga Cathedral Choir School, which offers specialist training in conducting, choral music and jazz to boys and girls aged 7-18.

Beat of music automatically

imWhat most people call the sense of rhythm — the mechanism that enables us to clap along or dance to music — is an intangible ability that is exclusive to human beings. For example, imagine a barrel before it is placed inside a barrel organ. On the barrel, you can see exactly which tones will be played and for how long they will be audible. However, the regularity of the rhythm cannot be read on the barrel. This rhythm exists only in our heads, where our brain recognises patterns in the sounds. This helps us to predict the music, enabling us to synchronise our actions with it, i.e. dancing, clapping, singing or playing the violin.

Swaying back and forth

Human beings are the only species that recognise these patterns and scientists suspect that an evolutionary development is at the root of it. Music can work as a social lubricant within a community and a sense of rhythm enables us to make music with others or sway back and forth on the bleachers of a football stadium.

For five years, Fleur Bouwer plumbed the depths of the human sense of rhythm in order to map out the fundamental brain processes that lie at its roots. She discovered that both training — i.e. music lessons — and concentration — i.e. paying attention to the music — are unnecessary in recognising rhythm. Even the brains of untrained listeners can recognise the rhythm of a piece of music, even when performing a completely different task.

However, the PhD candidate would like to dispel one misunderstanding: the fact that nearly everyone is capable of recognising musical rhythm does not mean that everybody can dance to that rhythm. ‘This requires more complex motor skills on top of the ability to recognise the rhythm, and unfortunately these skills are not as universal to humans as the sense of rhythm.’

Parkinson’s disease

Although training and attention are not necessary for picking up rhythm, they do help. Professional musicians have been shown to be better than normal people at predicting notes in a rhythm based on the rhythm they recognised in an excerpt of music. This ability was its strongest when the musicians were concentrating hard. Bouwer: ‘My results show that, to a certain extent, the sense of rhythm is a fundamental brain process that develops unconsciously. However, training may well help you to make predictions based on the rhythm. This is useful when playing music or dancing.’

Bouwer hopes that knowledge of musical perception can ultimately be used to help people. ‘The brain scanner displays activity in the motor networks when people listen to music with a clearly discernible rhythm. I find that particularly interesting. Maybe we can eventually use this relationship between musical experience and the motor system to help people with motor-system disorders such as Parkinson’s disease. However, before we explore this possibility, we must gain a better understanding of the fundamental processes. My research contributes to this.’

On 7 June, a symposium will be held to mark the conferral of Bouwer’s doctorate, at which international scientists will share new insights into sense of rhythm and the brain.

Music is Last but not Least

As another Prom season is planned by the gods that deliver these concerts and their minds ponder what the programmes will contain, worry passes over their decision-making brows as they consider the Last Night. The lower case – last night – will not do to describe it, nor will what it was first described as, ‘the last concert of the series’. Upper case it has to be. And, as everyone one knows, the Last Night does not mean the whole concert but just the second half.

So traditional, so British as eggs and bacon, has the Last Night come to seem that one might imagine it has been the same since Queen Victoria hummed ‘Rule Britannia’ to herself in the bath. But like many traditions it is a much more recent invention. Every one knows, as Henry Wood knew, that you have to end with a party, but what kind of party should it be? Initially the Proms under Henry Wood and Robert Newman had been much more populist than nowadays. Somewhere in their background there had been experience of organising concert series involving promenading audiences (standing, or rather walking around – forbidden now), as well as popular ballad concerts. The latter lay behind the idea of having the audience join in singing, perhaps in preference to coughing or fainting. But the adventurousness and high-mindedness of Wood led to an expanding repertoire of classical music including new works by Richard Strauss, and cycles of Tchaikovsky and Beethoven symphonies. All the more reason to let one’s hair down at the last concert to emphasise that work was now done and it was time for a party.

The first element in the current Last Night sequence was Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs of 1905. Initially this had been written as another piece in a series introducing the orchestra to new listeners: Wood often included an operatic fantasia at the beginning of concerts for this purpose. Each player who played a solo was named in the programme and newcomers to symphony concerts could learn how to appreciate the joys of concert-going. By the 1930s the Fantasia had become entrenched as the first piece in the Last Night. Too entrenched for some, as there was a move in 1953 to remove the Fantasia from the Last Night, a move which was bitterly opposed by some Promenaders. Who won is history.

The second element to appear (of course apart from the National Anthem that ended the concert and the series) was ‘Land of Hope and Glory’. This had been first performed in its instrumental form in 1901, when it was encored twice, and then conducted by Elgar in 1902 with the words as part of the Coronation Ode, for which they were written. It appeared again in 1945 in the Last Night as part of the victory celebrations marking the end of World War II. But it still was not enshrined as a permanent fixture at the final concert.

The last piece to be part of the ‘traditional’ Last Night was Parry’s Jerusalem. A strange inclusion in some ways as it is not ‘patriotic’ in the way ‘Rule Britannia’ or ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ are, and there is an irony in the way half-crazed audiences filled with flag-waving euphoria shout the words ‘nor shall I cease from mental strife’. But, then, not knowing what Blake’s words mean when you sing them has become another British tradition not confined to the Proms.