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Archive for April, 2013|Monthly archive page

Aria for … Monday – Vissi d’arte

In Aria For ..., Classical Music, Opera on April 29, 2013 at 1:45 pm

Pilar Lorengar isn’t a name you hear very often these days.

And frankly it’s a shame.

I was introduced to her by a very good friend – who has sadly since passed away – at a time when I was singing the praises of the usual canon of sopranos. He let me finish and simply told me to “hunt out” Pilar Lorengar, simply saying that she was one of the few sopranos who “just got on with the job of singing”.

And I know exactly what he means. There is no sense of artifice with Pilar Lorengar. Whereas some singers – past and present – ‘demonstrate’ technique like something that can be turned on and off, Lorengar’s technique is firmly embedded in natural talent, incredible musicianship and an innate ability to capture the nuance of what she is singing. Not just the character and the emotion, but the nuance. Singers can often do the first two, but few can muster all three.

Pilar Lorengar can. And does it naturally.

And here in Vissi d’arte it’s evident from the opening phrase. That first note is not forced as it often it. It emerges effortlessly, almost like speech. And each subsequent note is carefully yet simply placed.

Indeed, Ms Lorengar makes simplicity the single most important effect in this aria. With telling effect.

By avoiding any tendency to weigh in on every note and phrase but rather singing right through to the final note, rarely has Vissi d’arte sounded more convincing.

Indeed of Pilar Lorengar you can honestly say ha vissuto per l’arte.

Maria – the Mill(er)stone Around Our Necks.

In Classical Music on April 25, 2013 at 6:39 pm

I reckon that being the Secretary of State for Culture must be one of the best jobs in Government.

Reading Maria Miller’s most recent speech, culture is “at the very heart of what it means to be human”.

Culture not only educates and entertains, challenges and amuses but it also “enriches”.

It’s a “high mark” of civilization if culture has a ‘fundamental role’ in society; it underpins national identity.

The arts has intrinsic value and social benefits that are “numerous and beyond doubt”.

So clearly Maria Miller has the “best job in Government”.

So why is she so hell bent on destroying arts and culture in the UK?

Reading her speech I was reminded – rather chillingly – of Murdoch Junior’s speech given in Edinburgh some years back. She might have said that not “every sinew of effort and artistic endeavour needs to be strained to bring in turnover and profit” but she didn’t really mean it.

Profit – and lots of it – was what she was asking the artistic community to turn their hand to.

And not necessarily profit that would be returned to the artistic community to reinvest.

No. Not at all.

I have no problem with the fact that the arts needs to find both new ways to increase its revenue streams as well find new audiences. And some organisations are accepting that reality more readily that others. Take the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment for example with their new audience initiatives such as Night Shift and The Works. Some opera houses – but not English National Opera sadly – and theatres are embracing the potential of cinema. And all artistic organisations are not only hunting out new donors but are making cuts to the bone.

The mixed funding ecology of the UK is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. It is a shame that we can’t have the overt government funding that some of our Northern European neighbours currently enjoy. And I say ‘currently’ as there are signs that this largesse is itself being targetted.

And by the same token I do not think that cultural institutions in the UK will ever be able to survive on the US model.

Philanthropy is a great principle. But it exists in reduced – almost straitened – circumstances on these shores. Not because of the current economic climate – although that hasn’t not helped – but because on the whole we are not a generously philanthropic nation.

Additionally, the chase for funding and new audiences spurs greater creativity and risk taking. It can lead to works of incredible artistic merit and impact.

But public funding means that not every artistic endeavour has to be successful. Failure is not only possible but – if we are honest about it – acceptable. Because every failure leads to lessons learned.

Take away public funding and you reduce the appetite for risk.

Without risk, creativity stagnates and ideas don’t flourish.

Mediocre becomes acceptable. Complacency the norm. It becomes more about “bums on seats” than about artistic and creative value.

A society were battery-farm institutions churn out culture like cheap fodder.

Suddenly it isn’t educating, challenging or amusing. It ceases to underpin national identity and applies a veneer of ‘cultural beige’.

And – in Maria Miller’s own words – the turnover and profit that it should be generating either directly – or indirectly through tourism for example – is diminished further.

And so the spiral continues. Funding is reduced further and further until ultimately culture isn’t so much stifled as snuffed out.

Funding for the arts might be less than one per cent but artistic institutions aren’t asking for the equivalent of Trident or a new rail system across the country. At best they are asking for a slight increase. At worst, for minimal cuts across the board.

Why is that so bad? The arts – as Miller points out – contributes beyond its own boundaries in a way that isn’t necessarily true of other sectors.

So the Secretary of State is right to say that it is time to hammer home the value of culture to the economy. Yet what she needs to realize is that the value of culture isn’t simply in pounds, shillings and pence.

And that’s why it is worth investing in properly.

Aria for … Monday – Fra l’ombre e gl’orrori (Aci, Galatea e Polifemo)

In Aria For ..., Baroque, Classical Music, Handel, Opera on April 8, 2013 at 5:50 pm

One of the most frustrating things is not always having the time to write up and give due justice when a notable new recital disc is released.

On this occasion it was Christopher Purves’ disc of Handel arias for bass with the marvellous ensemble Arcangelo.

Sadly work and travel got in the way.

Again it’s nice when shuffle throws up something unexpected. And especially after a long day in the office and Fra l’ombre e gl’orrori from Handel’s Aci, Galatea e Polifemo was a perfect antidote to commuter-dom.

I have to admit that I prefer this, Handel’s earlier Italian version – by a decade – to the English version of 1718. As well as this aria there is the heart-stopping Verso gia l’alma col sangue and generally the music is beautifully original.

Fra l’ombre e gl’orrori shares the same sentiment and warm instrumental colouring of the aforementioned but there the similarity ends. This is possibly one of the bleakest simile arias ever written – the dying moth burnt from the lure of the flame drawing a parallel with a soul that will never know either hope nor pleasure of love.

And Handel writes an aria of great yet simple poignancy completely at odds – you would think – with the inhumanity of Polifemo. But personally, I prefer to think that Handel wished to make the giant less a monster and more a man as witnessed by the music written for the role over and above this aria.

With the distinct colouring of a flute – so often associated with death and tomb scenes in Handel’s operas and melancholy in general in Baroque music – the range required of the singer is vast. And married to this is the requirement for the singer to have absolute technical virtuosity and control to deliver and sustain the vocal line.

And Christopher Purves has it in spades. Of course I still have burned into my memory his incredible performance as The Protector in George Benjamin’s Written On Skin. Here his resonant and richly coloured bass effortlessly manages both the wide tessitura required but sung with complete mastery, never once letting the vocal line sag.

Purves’ performance in this aria – and the entire disc – only reaffirms him as a remarkable talent and one of the leading basses performing today.

And as ever, sympathetically supported by Arcangelo directed by Jonathan Cohen.

This aria would be reason enough to purchase this disc if it wasn’t for the fact that the entire disc is magnificent.

Aria For … Wednesday – Se il mar promette calma (Lotario)

In Aria For ..., Baroque, Handel, Opera on April 3, 2013 at 9:54 am

What I love about hitting shuffle on the iPod is that way it can throw out not only something that I haven’t heard in a long time but something that I don’t know that well.

Se il mar promette calma from Handel’s Lotario is an example. It’s not an opera I know at all well and this aria – for bass – doesn’t even ring the most distant memory.

A shame as it’s a jaunty number for the remarkably named character Clodomiro and here sung by Vito Priante accompanied by Il Complesso Barocco and Alan Curtis.

From what I can understand it’s one of those typical simile arias about crossing a stormy sea, which in baroque terms is all about overcoming adversity. You can’t beat a good simile aria and I love Metastasio’s perfect model.

The aria itself is incredibly simple yet both elegant and effective. The string accompaniment and running bass in the continuo are clearly meant to refer to the sea and wind and the playing of Il Complesso is both exemplary and exhilarating.

The vocal line itself is surprisingly florid for a bass aria and from what I can gather for a secondary character but Priante delivers the aria with both gusto and incredible musicianship. Not only are the more florid passages managed with great skill and a beautiful legato line but also his voice is both mellifluous and resonant through his entire range. And the returning da capo is tastefully decorated.

This is an aria that shouldn’t be anything less than a recital item for bass singers.

As I said, I love it when something like this happens and now I am off to listen to the entire opera.

Marvellous.

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