2/16/2005

CHANGE OF ADDRESS

This blog has now moved to http://robwitts.typepad.com/musicircus/
See you there!

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2/15/2005

TWANG TWANG TWANG LIVE

I attended a delightful recital by the quite unneccessarily gifted Helen Radice today, in the atmospheric surrounds of St Martin-in-the-Fields. I will confess that I haven't heard much harp music since I dated the German Harpist in Trossingen a few years back, so I can't claim much critical expertise; nontheless, I enjoyed the performance immensely. The music was largely unfamiliar (though I have heard the Britten Suite before) but performed with consummate musicality. And, from my very narrow perspective, it was a rare pleasure to read programme notes by a musician with a flair for language, though it does render the likes of me largely superfluous to intelligent discourse. Ah well.

What did strike me, hearing a less familiar instrument in a solo setting, was how mysterious it rendered the music. I know my way around a few wind instruments, and have a general understanding of how orchestral strings do what they do, but I found myself at a loss to explain how what I was hearing had been produced; it seemed a doubly strange and wonderful art, that "sheeps' guts should hale souls out of men's bodies".

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2/10/2005

MODERNIST MOVEMENTS

Tom Service interviews Richard Barrett in the Guardian today, and they talk about Barrett's new piece NO, to be given its first performance tomorrow by the BBC SO at the Barbican. Barrett describes his hopes for his music as a form of protest and an agent for social change, as well as his concept of the orchestra:
I'm interested in the orchestra because it presents a double face to the world. One of those faces is as a very conservative institution which is hidebound by rules and regulations that are very hard to shake. But the other side of the orchestra is that it's one of the few examples of human endeavour in which a comparatively large number of people work closely together in pursuit of a common aim. And that's the way I want to think of the orchestra: at its best, it's a kind of microcosm of a society which is in balance, as opposed to the one we actually live in.

This strikes me as a sophisticated analysis that echoes the work of Christopher Small, whose name I drop at every opportunity. His excellent book Musicking takes a sociological view of a symphony concert, scrutinizing in depth the social relationships and practices that are encoded, contrasting this with musical events of other kinds and in other cultures. He comes to a slightly different conclusion, that the structure of the concert effectively embodies a series of capitalist, reified relationships: the audience, who must pay to participate in the experience, are separated from the members of the orchestra, whose individual creativity is controlled by a rigid hierarchy.

I like the duality of Barrett’s view, which acknowledges the contradictions of this strange institution. I also think the way he sees his music as an idealistic gesture against an unjust society is a heartening one; intelligent dissent can only be welcome at this point. Of course one could argue (as Service does) that there is an element of tilting at windmills to this attitude; after all, contemporary classical music barely impinges on the national consciousness, never mind raising it. And it conjures once again a well-worn problem for modernism: how to register opposition for the late-capitalist status quo without driving away the audience you hope to influence? Some former modernists have ended up renouncing their peers as part of the problem; one thinks particularly of Cornelius Cardew, who broke with his former colleagues, published "Stockhausen Serves Imperialism" and went off to write Maoist anthems. Kyle Gann and Alex Ross have both written recently about the trend towards 'noise' music among younger composers; it seems likely, now that Minimalism (or certain kinds at any rate) is all over the corporate airwaves, that the nasty, noisy sound of dissent is on the up once more. I hope that Mr Barrett's music, like that of the best modernists, leaves the audience on Friday asking questions, excited and challenged.

Talking of troublesome modernists, I saw Harold Pinter give a reading at Goldsmiths last night:
The audience wants an easy time, and I think it's our job not to give it to them.

How can you not warm to the man? Pinter read from his most recent (and probably last) play Celebration , and talked frankly about his dual roles as an artist and as a citizen of the world. Talking of which, this is essential.

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2/08/2005

GOOD JAZZ WRITING

Just spotted this by Dan Spicer, Last of the Beatniks, at allaboutjazz.com. Dan was excellent company at The Write Stuff, a workshop run by those nice people at the London Jazz Fest. You can also see his work in this month's Jazzwise. This is Dan on The Future Sound of Jazz:
The first thing to note about this ambitious, 12-piece collective of young British jazz stars is the awfulness of its name. It promises a lot but, sadly, it just draws attention to the lumpen contemporaneity of their urban/dance/Hiphop crossover jazz, which sounds almost specifically designed for a live slot at the MOBO awards. If this is the future sound of jazz, then it's in a parallel universe where Ayler never made it out of the army, and Coltrane became a dentist.

Class.

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2/07/2005

HOMEMADE AT THE SOURCE

Here's my review of the Homemade Orchestra's gig at the Spitz on Thursday. The IF Festival, of which this was the opening concert, continues throughout February, and should be well worth a look. Sadly the Poing & Richard Barrett gig has been postponed, which is disappointing for those of us who like their hardcore modernism with extra thrash-accordion goodness.

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2/04/2005

NEW YEAR, NEW BLOGGING

Yes, I know it's February, but January was spent traipsing DIY barns in a bid to get the lovely but tiny new flat habitable, so I'm declaring a personal amnesty. I've tried to clean up the look of the place, and once I get better at this HTML lark I promise there'll be no stopping me. It is also my new year's resolution to follow the great Teachout's advice and blog regularly. During 2004 I got married, finished my Masters degree and moved house; this year I'm taking things easier, which means more quality time with you, dear reader. (Even if you're a confused Cage fan - stick around, it'll be pretty indeterminate around here I assure you.)

So, to start, some lovely conversations I enjoyed in the Guardian Review today, which put 'British giants of film and music' in a room with their 'favourite young stars'. So you have Django Bates chatting to David Okumu, and George Benjamin talking to former pupil Luke Bedford. It's a really good example of simply allowing brilliant people talk about what they do and the results are great. What's striking is the similarity of intent between the musicians, regardless of the differences of approach:

DO: Whenever I was really inspired by something, I'd find that self-expression, honesty, vulnerability, they'd all be the common threads in it. Then you need to meet people doing the same thing. It's rare to experience anything resembling real community, which is how I think we're meant to exist as human beings. But I've found that in the F-ire Collective. And before F-ire was F-ire, all those people were just my friends and the people who taught me how to play. I wouldn't swap that way of learning for anything. Go where the music tells you to go. When you need to be free, be free, and when you need to make stuff up make it up, and when you need to be creative within something more rigid then do that. It's just the best thing.


LB: But there's still this question of why we're writing this music. I want people to hear my pieces, but I can't just write for an audience, because how can I know what somebody else wants?

GB: You can only ever know what you want. That doesn't mean you're writing against an audience, but you might want to challenge, or shock, or surprise them. The last thing you want to do is to make a complacent audience feel more happy in their complacency. You want to reveal something to somebody in a piece of music; you want the temperature in the concert hall to change.


There's a real sense that faith in one's own ideas is key to achieving anything worthwhile, that some old-fashioned notion of artistic integrity still exists and is worth chasing. I met Django when he ran a summer course at Dartington, scaring the old ladies with his wigged-out arrangements, and David when I was on the London Jazz Festival's writer's workshop thing and he was playing with New Sounds of Jazz. I think the reason I'd like to be a writer is to have been the guy with the tape recorder in that room...

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11/21/2004

BRAD MEHLDAU AT WIGMORE HALL
17 & 18 November 2004

Wigmore Hall, home from home to the classical chamber music elite, became a curious uptown outpost of the Jazz Festival this week, as Brad Mehldau packed it out on two successive evenings: a solo recital and a gig with his regular trio, featuring Larry Grenadier on bass and Jorge Rossy on drums. Booking the classically-inclined pianist was a shrewd move, both for Wigmore Hall’s dynamic Artistic Director Paul Kildea, who saw an opportunity to soften the Hall’s rather stuffy image, and for the Festival, which got the best acoustic in London to present Mehldau. His Festival Hall gig in 2002 suffered greatly from a mediocre PA, and the opportunity to hear this remarkable musician in such an intimate space was irresistible to his many fans.

The perfumed hush of the concert hall can prove anathema to jazz, which thrives on the feedback of its audience; happily, this proved not to be the case in this instance. As Mehldau began to play under the famous art nouveau cupola, a mixed crowd listened in silence that was respectful rather than sterile. What the absence of amplification revealed was Mehldau’s precise voicing and richly varied tone at the keyboard; he is a pianist of near-unstoppable technique, married to a restless and probing improvisational style. He has developed an unmistakeably individual approach to a repertoire of standards and pop songs; this was exemplified by the opening number, Paul McCartney’s ‘Junk’, in which the simple melody line mutated into a contrapuntal tangle, separate lines converging and diverging in a way that seemed entirely organic. His improvisation on two Monk numbers was almost cubist in its exploration of musical space and density, contrasting spare, massive chords with fiercely virtuosic figuration; conversely, ‘On The Street Where You Live’ was low-key and lovely. Only Radiohead’s ‘Paranoid Android’ seemed dull; to my ear the song is too prescriptive to allow much in the way of invention, and I’d rather hear the original in all its overwrought emotion.

The following night, Mehldau pruned back the keyboard pyrotechnics, and merged seamlessly into his trio. The group has been playing together for eight years and almost as many albums, and enjoy the effortless communication that results. Larry Grenadier’s driving bass provided the hook for Mehldau’s spare piano, with Jorge Rossy’s fluid, instinctive drumming a sparky counterpoint. Once again, the approach was at once analytical and intensely expressive; ‘All The Things You Are’ coalesced from an archipelago of seemingly random two-note motifs, a forensic examination of the material that yields surprisingly moving results. ‘More Than You Know’ was in a bluesier vein, and ‘She’s Leaving Home’ beautifully lilting.

In his introduction, Mehldau described the experience of playing without amplification as ‘a rare pleasure’, and this pleasure was conveyed to the audience in every lingering chord and resonant pizzicato, as well as two extended encores; I missed my train, but it was worth it.


 

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10/06/2004

CHICO FREEMAN AT RONNIE'S

Chico Freeman Quartet / Tina May
Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club
Thursday 30 September 2004

An odd, transatlantic bill at Ronnie Scott's paired Chicago-born saxophonist Chico Freeman with British vocalist Tina May, representing somewhat different ends of the mainstream; the contrast between May's assured but polite scatting and Freeman's full-blown post-Coltrane adventures was illuminating, but made for something of a lopsided evening’s music.

May's set took a little while to settle, opening with a subdued account of Oliver Nelson's 'Stolen Moments'. However, 'Speak Low' saw May open up her considerable voice for some sparky scat; it's a lovely instrument, swooping to a breathy upper register before digging into trenchant low notes, and was offset well by the crystalline piano of frequent collaborator Nikki Iles. The best things in the set were the more intimate moments, like the spare, folky introduction to 'Come Rain Or Come Shine', an intense duet with Iles; later, as she sang 'Do Nothin' Till You Hear From Me' accompanied by bassist Phil Donkin, May proved that less is more as the two musicians struck sparks in elegant and poised counterpoint. A cluttered and unfocussed slog through 'A Night In Tunisia' served to reinforce the point; much better was the sweet narrative of Paul Simon's 'I Do It For Your Love', where the slight material was mined for real poignancy.

However enjoyable the sophisticated chamber jazz of May's band, it was hard to avoid the feeling, as Chico Freeman's quartet took the stage, that they belonged to another weight category entirely. Freeman is a formidable improviser on soprano and tenor sax, and came backed by an experienced rhythm section with power to spare. An original tune called 'India Blue' established the parameters, Freeman's breathy tenor at once funky and fragile, spinning a soulful melody over pianist Fred Harris' plangent chords, before snapping into Avery Sharp's bass riff. Sharp, a longtime McCoy Tyner sideman, took a monumental solo, strumming his bass like some Jurassic guitar, but the band didn't reach the full extent of its noisy powers until 'Resolution', which climaxed with a ferocious duet between Freeman and drummer Cecil Brooks. The two brought the music to a pitch of primal intensity in playing of thrilling power and scope.

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9/10/2004

IDEAL HOMES

Not musical, but I'm very excited because Mrs Musicircus and I have had an offer accepted on a little flat in Bill Dunster's fantastic BedZED development. It's a pioneering bit of housing, 82 homes designed to be carbon-neutral, and to encourage ecologically sound living.

Plus, it looks really cool.

I'm keeping all fingers and toes crossed until we sign on the dotted line...

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9/09/2004

BRAD MEHLDAU AT WIGMORE HALL

I've bought my tickets, so I feel safe in recommending two of the more unique events in this year's London Jazz Festival. The astonishing pianist Brad Mehldau is playing two nights in the swanky surrounds of Wigmore Hall, an ideal setting for his complex and delicate music. I saw his trio at the Festival Hall a few years back, and the gig was hamstrung by lousy amplification; I can't wait to hear him play solo in the lovely Wigmore acoustic. Mehldau may be mainstream these days, but that doesn't detract from his formidable talents as an improviser of breathtaking skill and invention.

(On the subject of the Festival Hall, has anyone else had the begging letter/phone call for money to finish their refurbishment? Surely they could have cross-referenced their database and discovered that I always buy the very cheapest tickets...)

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GARY BENCHLEY, ROCK STAR

Gary has sent another long-awaited instalment of his letters to The Morning News. If you haven't been reading them, you should:

Before I moved to New York from Albany, I wrote out a careful, step-by-step plan:

1) Rock out.
2) No more data entry.

But one month into my stay in the East Village I had found no rocking. I was a guitarist without a guitar. A drummer who forsook his drums because the landlords of New York, in their greed, had created apartments too small for those drums to fit. A vocalist who could only sing in the shower, because Carl’s roommate Keith hates my voice, and his dachshund Harris Glenn Milstead, Jr. barks at me whenever I use my pipes. From triple threat, to zero threat. Damn.

Things seem to be getting better for Mr Benchley - I hope he doesn't stop writing when he finds lucrative success as a Rock God.

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MORE GRAMOPHOBIA

Apparently the Gramophone Awards have secured a prestigious slot on Breakfast TV. Only half of the slebs get airtime; tune in tomorrow for an unmissable opportunity to see Michael Portillo talking about Bax on a sofa.

Is the stupidity virus contagious?

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9/07/2004

PROM PROM PROM

My Prom-less summer has unexpectedly finished with a minor flurry of concerts over the last few days. On Friday I went to hear the Dresden Statskapelle performing statuesque Bruckner under Bernard Haitink. I lay in the gallery and enjoyed the music floating upwards. Wagner tubas: badly designed, a bugger to play, but just feel the velvety depth of those brass chords...

But what I was really there to see was the second concert, Boulez with the Ensemble Intercontemporain. I stood in the second row, mere feet away from the great autocrat himself; the musicians were dressed very dapper. The concert opened with Boulez's own Sur Incises, a wonderful work; complex, yes, but never less than lucid. Extrapolated from an earlier piano piece, the 40-minute work is scored for a hall-of-mirrors ensemble of 3 harps, 3 pianos and 3 percussionists (each playing vibraphone and one other instrument: timpani, tubular bells and steel pans, respectively). Liquid streams of notes refract through the ensemble, timbres shifting and transforming. I'd love to see Bluespoon make a film to go with this piece; the most striking success of the Warp/Sinfonietta concerts was the marriage between abstract/surreal visuals and old skool modernist music.

Stravinsky's Les Noces, which followed, was technically faultless, but lacked a certain oomph. The pioneering union of voices and percussion (4 pianos! just as well the prommers didn't see them being moved, they would have exploded with excitement) needs to be more earthy, more guttural, more... well... Russian.

Anyway, yesterday I went to see the Berlin Phil because an old friend was playing with them (did that sound casual? I was trying to make it sound casual while being very excited). In contrast to last year's over-hyped performance, they were very good. Debussy's La Mer was beautifully played, if lacking in narrative energy; but Messiaen's Éclairs sur l'Au-delà... was just fantastic. You either love Messiaen's music or hate it; I still find his slow, ecstatic songs without words extremely moving, and Rattle spun the tension beautifully. The silence after the last movement finished was glorious.

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9/03/2004

GRAMOPHOBIC

Can anyone explain to me the thinking behind yesterday's revamped Gramophone Awards? In a doomed bid to raise the profile of the annual classical backslapping, editor James Jolly drafted in a bizarre coterie of 'celebrity spokesmen' to promote the six candidates for Record of the Year. Michael Portillo says 'vote for Bax'; Joanna Lumley tries to glam up Mozart; and James Cracknell clearly has no idea what his agent has let him in for.

Says Jolly: "We hope that this year's celebrity initiative will re-kindle an interest in classical music and the great musicians who have dedicated their lives to it".

Without wishing to get all Norman Lebrecht, this is a bit sad isn't it? "Come on Daily Mail readers, buy our magazine! Look, here's that nice man off the telly!" The celebrities in question weren't even consulted on their choice of disc - they were simply sent them and told to get on with it.

The whole thing seems at best misguided and at worst an appalling insult to the intelligence of Gramophone's readership, chasing the middlebrow profile of Classic FM in a rather clueless sort of way. Expect to see Nadia from Big Brother offering us her considered opinion of the new Harnoncourt disc in the near future.

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9/01/2004

DISTRESSING THINGS YOU LEARN WHEN YOU SHOULD BE WORKING

I was inspired by Le Poulet Noir to find out what was number one when I was born, although a quick look at the charts in 1978 (Wings, Abba, lots of Grease) would have been enough to steer me away... the best-selling single for that week (and most of the month) was Three Times A Lady by The Commodores, seduction music of choice for gentlemen with no musical taste in the grip of a mid-life crisis (c.f. Election).

That'll teach me to waste company time...

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8/27/2004

NOT WITH A BANG

I submitted my dissertation yesterday: cue mixture of relief (that I get my evenings and weekends back) and disappointment (that what I've written isn't better). It's an extended essay on Uri Caine's recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations, which caused a bit of a fuss when it was released in 2000, on account of what some saw as its sacrilegous maltreatment of its sacred source. In one sense Caine, a jazz musician based in NYC, went back to basics, treating the source material as a set of chord changes and composing variations on them of maximum variety and interest; so the variations segue from dixie jazz to drum and bass, Mozart to minimalism. In another, the 72 variations form a commentary on the history of Bach performance, and deconstruct the relationship contemporary performers have with this most venerated of composers.

I get quite excited about Uri Caine, who seems to be able to carry off this sort of tricksy postmodernism with real sincerity, heart, and above all musicality. His skill as composer and performer on Goldberg is staggering; as well as enlisting more than fifty collaborators for various duties, Caine plays piano, fortepiano and harpsichord fluently in a dozen different styles, from delicate, post-Glenn-Gouldian Bach solos to the sort of virtuosic free jazz that makes my jaw drop. If you haven't heard it, do have a listen.

I wish I could have done the music more justice; I was trying to analyse the music, to get inside it, but it feels as though in 12,000 words I've only scratched the surface. I hope the powers that be will pass the dissertation, or I'll have nothing to show for my course fees... not that an MMus in Contemporary Music Studies is going to do much for my employment prospects I suspect.

I daresay there will be more witless words soon now that I've got time on my hands again...

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4/28/2004

BERIOFEST

I finally managed to get along to a concert in the Berio retrospective at the South Bank, the brochure for which has been taunting me from my kitchen table. Last night was the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Jukka-Pekka Saraste playing Sinfonia , the pivotal 1968 score that pushed modernist fragmentation over the edge into post-modernist chaos. Because it's scored for a huge orchestra and 8 amplified vocalists (it was written for the Swingle Singers) it doesn't get played very often, so a fair number of London's contemporary music audience turned out to hear it, though not enough to fill the Festival Hall.

First, though, there were three other works to sit through. Ekphrasis was, again, scored for a huge orchestra, but it was hard to hear why; Berio creates rippling, stuttering textures that float around the crowded stage to little effect, merely drawing attention to the lavish forces he was able to requisition. The Piano Sonata that followed was much better, an urbane and gnomic little piece that grew from a pealing repeated middle D to skittish, quicksilver gestures across the keyboard, admirably dispached by Andrea Lucchesini. Berio will be remembered above all as a master of the transcriber's art, exercising an unparalleled delicacy in handling, and commenting upon, the music of others; his transcription of Contrapunctus XIX from the Art of Fugue was a delicate soufflé, in which Bach's sinewy counterpoint was rendered in translucent colours, like light playing on water, some slightly rough playing notwithstanding.

But Sinfonia really did knock everything else into a cocked hat. What struck me on this hearing, quite apart from the intellectual audacity and authority of the music, was the composer's awesome technical skill; particularly in the central third movement, a dream-like sequence in which he interweaves the Scherzo from Mahler's 2nd symphony with hallucinatory fragments from Debussy, Strauss, Beethoven and Ravel, adapting Beckett to provide commentary. This could so easily be a mess, but Berio's control of texture and structure seems total. The BBC SO were on spectacular form; it would have been nice if the vocalists had been a little louder, but the performance was overall hugely exhilarating, and reminded me of why I keep going to these concerts.

PS Apologies to Tim for not writing up the Sinfonietta/Warp thing - it was pretty poor and I was too disappointed to get round to savaging it.

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2/13/2004

WHAT'S IN A NAME

I'm looking forward to the London Sinfonietta/Warp Records thing, which Alex Ross refers to in his excellent article, and which impinges on the debate on definitions. I was recently reading a fantastic paper by the musicologist Dai Griffiths (online only at the Music Analysis website where you can pay to read it), in which one of his points was that in the 1960s, the cultural role of musical modernism - to provide a critical perspective on society - was usurped by the highly sophisticated popular music of the day. I love the idea that musicians are connecting music in the high modernist style, by people like Stockhausen and Ligeti, with experimental pop music, bringing it back into the cultural debate in a meaningful way. That was a real strength of Paul Morley's book, which acknowledged that different musical styles coexist in the same culture, but allowed them to retain their real differences of intent and effect instead of flattening them out in a dull fusion sort of way. Making connections is interesting only if there is a point to it, if it makes something happen - like switching techno fans over to the joys of Reich - otherwise it all turns into a Late Junction mush. (That programme is an object lesson in how to make diverse and sometimes interesting music sound deathly boring. I was at a British Library talk by Richard Witts a while back, in which he astutely analysed the confusion of purpose at Radio 3, and a BBC producer attempted to hold up LJ as an example of the station's commitment to diversity in music. Witts observed that it's a bit odd to celebrate diversity by making everything sound exactly the same.)
Back in the 60s when the Third Stream composers were trying to mix classical music and jazz - with generally unsuccessful results - someone pointed out that Duke Ellington had already done that, but the classical establishment hadn't noticed. I suppose my point is my dissatisfaction with fusion-for-the-sake-of-fusion that doesn't have any other reason to exist. So I hope the Sinfonietta gig is good. I'll let you know.


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2/11/2004

THE TEMPEST, ROYAL OPERA HOUSE

In spite of doubts as to whether it would be ready in time, the curtain rose last night on Thomas Adès’s isle of noises. The challenge of conjuring Shakespeare’s ‘Sounds, and sweet airs’ has attracted composers including Purcell, Arne, Sibelius, Tippett and Dillon; none, however, have attempted to render this elliptical fable in operatic terms. Adès has responded to the challenge with a straightforwardly dramatic and sumptuously lyrical piece; this is music of strange abundance, a skewed take on a tonal tradition. The libretto by Meredith Oakes boils the original verse down to pungent rhyming couplets, a generally effective ploy that aids comprehensibility and only occasional lapses into the corny (rhyming “Ferdinand” with “our demand” was a personal favourite).

The characters sing with contrasting musical voices; Prospero’s music is the darkest and most complex, while Miranda’s innocence is expressed through transparent textures and diatonic melodies. Most spectacular is Ariel’s otherworldly coloratura, which takes the Queen of the Night and Ligeti’s Venus to even more extreme altitudes. Cyndia Sieden manages a virtuoso role with aplomb, and the singing is exemplary throughout – Ian Bostridge particularly praiseworthy for playing against type as a shambolic Caliban. Adès’s orchestration is entirely individual, a patchwork of fragmented tone colours. I particularly love the pulsating rumble of his lower brass, opening up chasms of musical space in almost visual terms.

The staging is colourful, simple, and draws wittily on technology. The centrepiece of the set is a giant book that opens and closes to represent the island landscape; as Ferdinand is washed ashore, video of ocean surf is projected onto its blank pages. Lines of retro-looking LEDs represent lightning and other magical effects.

What excited me most was that Adès has created a new work in what might be called a ‘mainstream’ tradition – Britten is his most obvious antecedent. His music pulls off the rare trick of being intellectually as well as emotionally engaging. There is an audience for this kind of thing – predominantly middle-class, to be sure – so might there be life in new opera yet?

More on this anon…

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