Monday, September 25, 2017

Cape Town Opera clicks with London


Mandla Mndebele sings the Prologue from Pagliacci

Last week, a very special event at Bonham's Auction House in New Bond Street brought a spring to the step and a tear to the eye.

My parents left South Africa in the early 1950s, soon after their marriage, and rarely returned. My father refused to go back until after apartheid had been thrown out. They were both great music-lovers, but both died more than 20 years ago, so they did not live long enough to see the marvellous growth of talent now emerging from their old country, black and white together. Today's star South African singers include, just for starters, Pumeza Matshikiza, Golda Schultz, Pretty Yende and Jacques Imbrailo - and as Bonham's geared up for its sale of South African art, it joined forces with Cape Town Opera to bring us some more.

The sheer raw talent and dynamism that came bounding off the platform amid the paintings was little short of extraordinary. Among them were Lukhanyo Moyake, the tenor whom you may have spotted on the Cardiff Singer of the World; Frances du Plessis, a splendid young soprano with a bent for bel canto; Johannes Slabbert, who's changing fach from baritone to tenor - not quite there yet, perhaps, but well on the way and with a personality with "tenor" written all over it; Mandla Mndebele, a magnificently charismatic and full-voiced baritone; and, perhaps most wonderful of them all, the rich-toned soprano Siphamandla Yakupa, whose searing intensity in Gershwin's 'My Man's Gone Now' was absolutely shattering. Samantha Riedel was their excellent accompanist. Moyake and Mndebele's Pearl Fishers duet was a major highlight too, and massed encores included the Click Song (I'd have loved more South African music to be included).


It was the first time Bonham's had staged an event like this, mixing the genres, and it brought a valuable dimension to both: first we could wander round the exhibition and discover the works of inspiring painters including Irma Stern, Vladimir Grigorovich Tretchikoff, Gerard Sekoto and many more; then there was singing in the gallery.

In an age where the progress made towards racial equality and away from discrimination sometimes seems to be stalling, or at worst reversing in certain parts of the world, here art and opera together proved that talent and the drive to be creative and to bring music to people know no such boundaries - proving how plain stupid the very notion of racism is.

One day, far in the future, perhaps people will scratch their heads and say to one another, "Did you know, 200 years ago people actually used to judge each other by the colour of their skins or by which fairy-tale they believed in? Can you imagine how they could be such idiots?" And they'll laugh, and buy each other drinks and chocolate, and sit in the sunshine enjoying a few minutes of hilarity over the morons who were still alive and well in the 21st century thinking that such ideas were even valid - before they get on with creating their new opera about real people, genuine emotion and universal questions.

For the time being, we can only do what we can each do, and I know how much it would have meant to my parents to see a black Don Giovanni singing 'Là ci darem' to a white Zerlina and a mixed company of singers all together for Miriam Makeba's wonderful party-piece Click Song. It wouldn't have been possible in the days when they left and refused to go back. I'm proud of them. Now I'm also pleased to be going back myself: I'll be there again in January and hope to visit Cape Town Opera on location, all being well. We can only do what we can do, but if we can do something, we should. Together, we can click.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Watch Rattle's Stravinsky Ballets Livestream

I'm not certain this is going to work, but I thought you'd want to see Simon Rattle's Three Stravinsky Ballets concert live from the Barbican at 6pm UK time tonight, after all the superlatives the first performances have sparked here and in Paris, so I'm attempting to embed it on site. If it doesn't work, please go to either the LSO's Youtube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CAqA29NB42g or Classic FM: http://www.classicfm.com/artists/sir-simon-rattle/stravinsky-firebird-petrushka-rite-spring/ - and at the Classic FM site you can also download the concert programme and read an exclusive interview with Sir S. The concert will then be available on Youtube to watch later. Enjoy!

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Rattle's return: a young composer's view

Culture shouldn't be just a feather in the country's cap - it's the cap itself, says Jack Pepper, 18-year-old composer and writer, in this guest post on the return of Simon Rattle and what this means for his generation. Go, Jack! 
JD



Upping the Tempo
Jack Pepper

Portrait of Rattle by Sheila Rock (licensed to Warner Classics)

Say what you will about the PR drive surrounding Sir Simon Rattle’s return to London. We need classical musicians who can grab the headlines and capture the imagination of the public. Let’s just hope we ride the crest of this wave

Exhibitions of “photos and memorabilia covering Sir Simon Rattle’s musical life to date”. A “large-scale projected artwork” that reduces his form “to a series of animated dots”. And even a screening of Henry V, with the score performed by the maestro himself. If you were an alien landing in London today, you might wonder whether you were encountering the propaganda of some vast autocratic state, or perhaps be fooled into thinking that classical music had produced its own A-List Hollywood movie. But even with eyes that are so myopic they won’t allow me to see my feet from where I stand, I can see that the London Symphony Orchestra is making the most of its new Music Director. And why not?

Rarely has the classical music world seemed so feverishly excited in my 18 years on the planet. As a young teenager tentatively exploring classical music for myself, everything seemed just a tad sterile. Serious, even. Perhaps it would be going too far to say that everyone seemed bored, but to a ten-year-old the classical world appeared, well, indifferent. In reality, classical musicians and music-lovers are never indifferent, but appearances count for a lot when it comes to engaging new audiences. Despite numerous scandals and intriguing personalities, the public rarely hear of classical musicians from the mainstream news. This contributes to an image of sterility, of distance, even if it is far from true.

Whilst my friends would be hyper at the release of a new iPhone, ecstatic at the thought of a new Bond, and positively overwhelmed by the prospect of a wireless speaker, I looked at the classical world and found that its own most publicised stirrings consisted of an elderly female pianist pirating old records and the frequently acerbic response of audiences to the latest opera production that happened to show a nude singer. Whilst a 1920s silent movie would never have shown such exposure, it would be hard to avoid it in the latest Bond release; yet classical audiences seem consistently irritated by similar things. 

Of course, the news hadn’t made me aware of Darmstadt, or of any of the other seismic revolutions that rocked classical music as a force for change. Old habits seemed to die hard, and with its penchant for tradition – constantly wearing dinner jackets and sure to hiss the latest opera production - the classical world on the surface seemed rather glued to routine.  

But it is true that some constants have damaged classical music for too long. If horror at the pettiest of nude ‘outrages’ was regular, genuine excitement seemed equally regularly hard to come by at first glance. I would watch the latest BBC coverage of the Proms to find the presenter insisting that they were all having “a great party”, whilst looking more like they were at a wake. Dig deep and you find huge excitement in classical circles, but this was not regularly communicated on the surface level that any new audience would first see. To a newcomer, didn’t it all seem just a tad rigid? We seemed so busy insisting that we were excited by a new piece that we forgot to appear genuinely excited. To a young person surrounded by glaring digital billboards advertising the latest Tom Cruise blockbuster, the classical music world seemed – to judge by its sparse mainstream coverage alone – decidedly fixed in its ways.

Rattle could not have come at a better time. Not only can he change public perceptions of classical music, nor can he only change the way seasoned music-lovers view their art form, but he can also tackle political indifference. It is disturbing that the arts seem so often to be a mere feather in a national cap, and not the cap itself; for too long, we have been reading articles crying despair at British cuts to arts funding, seen images of the latest American orchestra to close, and (most likely didn’t) read how most UK political parties entirely overlooked the arts in their manifestos in the 2017 General Election. When so many public personalities – faces we see every day on the news, and who influence everything from arts funding to public perceptions – seem so adamantly against the arts, we need a cultural figurehead who can take a stand. If politics are indifferent to music, then music must never appear indifferent to itself. It must never just ‘accept’. Classical music needs a politician, but if it can’t have one in politics, why can’t it have one in music?

The problem is clear. The world of classical music seemed indifferent to itself when I first started exploring its treasures not because it genuinely was ambivalent, but because its public image was stuffy, traditional and old-fashioned. Of course it has its peculiarities, like an audience’s strange aversion to sniffing, sneezing and any other sign of human life at a concert. We should be willing to admit this. But the classical music world is not stuffy. It was only my subsequent experience of meeting musicians, going backstage and getting involved that showed me nothing could be further from the truth. But we need someone out there saying it.

With Simon Rattle, we have a fantastic opportunity to present a rejuvenated image of classical music to new audiences who, like I was as a young child, may be intrigued by the wonders of this genre but hesitant to go further simply because it seems so daunting. If politicians and the mainstream media seem indifferent to the arts, the arts world must redouble its efforts to demonstrate the passion that it undoubtedly has. Rattle should be a kick up not just our own classical derrières, encouraging us to spread our passion to all, but also up the political rear as a reminder that this genre does have its own powerful figureheads. Yes, Rattle’s return has been coupled with a strangely omnipresent and marketing-speak PR campaign, but if it gets people talking about classical music, then consider it a job well done.

Our passion and our determination to open the arts to all must never be restricted to purely musical circles, where we are at risk of preaching solely to the converted. Someone like Sir Simon Rattle can remind us all why we adore this genre, and bring our love of classical music to everyone. That’s worth a PR campaign.
Jack Pepper



Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Ten up to a dynamic engine for change

Young Professionals in the Arts - YPIA - is ten years old today and celebrating with a special launch this evening at The Koppel Project in London. The organisation has grown in a decade to become a significant driver of change in the arts field, encouraging the leaders of tomorrow - who sometimes turn out to be, in fact, the leaders of today. 

Katya Kazakevich, one of YPIA's three directors, has written a guest blog to tell its story from the inside. And if you're a young pro in the arts, eager for opportunities and ready to change our part of the world for the better, YPIA is for you. Joining details are in the article. Over to Katya...
JD



YPIA in a Creative Cities workshop at the Royal Festival Hall

The world of work can be daunting for most fresh-faced music graduates. It’s not just the un(der)paid internships, during which you wonder how you’ll make next month’s rent, but the first proper job hunt can be a real struggle. Even when you're "in", it isn't always a bed of roses  junior roles often consist of uninspiring admin (believe me, I've been there), and when your senior colleagues leave the office for networking dos, you’re asked to stay behind to man the phones...

A YPIA session at the Foundling Museum, London

It was exactly this sort of problem that Nicki Wenham, Andreas Flohr and Lis Lomas wanted to tackle when they founded Young People in the Arts ten years ago: to give young arts professionals the chance to communicate face-to-face with their peers, and to access opportunities for career development in ways they just couldn’t do at work. The three music graduates founded YPIA right at the start of the economic crisis, when the need to raise and discuss relevant issues was of the essence. Events soon began to include panel discussions as well as the all-important social element, and the network grew. 

I attended my first YPIA event when I was a trainee in the Concerts Department at Philharmonia Orchestra. It was a ceilidh-come-networking drinks, and as a newcomer to the profession I was excited by the prospect of talking to people from different organisations in a relaxed environment, with a view to finding out more about the industry and exploring different career paths. I felt that there was a real support network present, and it was the social aspect that propelled me to obtain membership. 

Katya Kazakevich and Stella Toonen, two of YPIA's directors
Photo: Rhian Hughes
Soon I joined YPIA's Executive Committee of volunteers and I remember with fondness the first event that I project-managed – a panel discussion on classical music in the media and the changing ways in which audiences consume classical music beyond the concert platform. After what turned out to be rather a heated debate (at the very end, one of the panel members rather shockingly suggested that the compact disc was “dead”!) it was fascinating to hear people’s opinions on what had been discussed, and needless to say there were a few who heartily disagreed with the statement above…!

As an organisation, we fully appreciate the importance of peer-to-peer dialogue and the sharing of inter-generational know-how for inspiration and professional development. When Stella Toonen, Imogen Morris and I took over as directors three years ago, we were adamant that we would continue in the same inclusive, informal spirit as the founding directors. More than ever now, our discussions venture beyond music to encompass other art forms (including visual arts, museums and film), and cover pertinent topics such as leadership, the art of fundraising, diversity, access, the social impact of the arts and most recently, of course, the projected outcome of Brexit.

For instance, we held a sold-out event focusing on Diversity last season. As one of the most important issues of our age, it is vital to keep talking about concrete steps we can take to ensure a more diverse and therefore representative workforce. Heavily referencing Arts Council England’s Creative Case for Diversity, the speakers (including Chi-chi Nwanoku, founder of Chineke! Foundation, Mwila Mulenshi from Creative Access and Milica Robson, Senior Relationship Manager for Diversity at ACE) engaged in a lively conversation about what we need to do more of to embed better practice in reaching under-represented individuals, and encouraged continuous dialogue with the floor throughout the discussion. 

Audience members included junior colleagues from the Africa Centre, Arts Council, Royal Opera House, Whitechapel Gallery and English Heritage, to name but a few. At the drinks afterwards, I gauged some of our members’ reactions to what had been expressed and, encouragingly, the majority said that they would write up notes from the talk and disseminate these amongst their more senior colleagues. There’s much to be said for younger members of staff taking a leading role in driving the conversation, and in some cases demonstrable developments within organisations.

YPIA has become a leading platform for those who want to reflect on the issues in the current arts climate, and effectuate change  giving young voices more prominence in discussions about the future of the sector remains at the forefront of our yearly events programme. We have proactively approached new venues and speakers, and received support and invitations to partner with various organisations, including the Southbank Centre and National Theatre on some of their (young people’s) programmes. 

Chi-Chi Nwanoku speaks at a YPIA session at Diversity Works, Soho

I think our success is also evident in the number of initiatives we as an organisation have been asked to put our name to – for instance, we contributed to Ed Vaizey’s Culture White Paper back in 2015; we were asked to be a signatory on the Cultural Learning Alliance’s recent publication “ImagineNation”, which delineates the value and impact of cultural learning on the lives of children and young people; we've also provided representatives to speak about the importance of our existence at the Women of the World Festival and the AntiUniversity Festival, and informed an enquiry into the civic role of arts organisations last year, put together by What Next? and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. 

We now have nearly 120 events to our name, including over 200 participating speakers, often featuring leading industry figures such as Sir Nicholas Serota, Jude Kelly, Darren Henley, Tony Hall and Alex Beard. We’ve expanded beyond the confines of the M25: last year, initial networking drinks took place in Cardiff, Glasgow, Birmingham, Nottingham and Cambridge. Our ambition is to make regional hubs in the UK a permanent fixture (to provide outlets for the huge and growing number of arts institutions outside of London), and to eventually export YPIA’s model and expand its reach into Europe and further afield (of course, the latter is a long-term goal!) 

Today, 20 September 2017, we'll be opening our 10th anniversary season with a season launch at the Koppel Project in London. There’s never been a better time to join the movement – to carry on learning about the context of your industry, to be re-enthused about your work and think about how you can make a difference to the ecology.


For more information about the upcoming season, check out our website or follow hashtag #YPIA10 on FacebookTwitter and Instagram
Katya Kazakevich

Katya Kazakevich read English at the University of Cambridge, graduating in 2011. Following a traineeship in the Concerts Department at Philharmonia Orchestra and an internship at Askonas Holt, she spent three years as Music Co-ordinator and PA to the Music Director at English National Opera before becoming the Artistic Planning Manager at the National Opera Studio. Other positions have included ushering at Wigmore Hall, copy-writing the latest 'e-edition' of The Opera Guide (compiled by Amanda Holden) and administrating for London-based groups the Cantus Ensemble and the Paradisal Players. As Director of YPIA, Katya leads the Advisory Board, project-manages YPIA's regional networking events and works to maintain and develop YPIA's external relations. 


Monday, September 18, 2017

Local heroes come home... to Hull

Xander Parish in Ballet 101 (photo from the Yorkshire Post)

Maybe it's something in the Humber's water, but an inordinate number of superb British ballet dancers have come out of the pleasing historic town of Hull, which is often termed - most unfairly - 'the armpit of England'. Those dancers include Kevin O'Hare, director of the Royal Ballet, and Xander Parish, the first British dancer in the Mariinsky, so it's worth celebrating - and that's exactly what Hull, currently the UK City of Culture, did on Saturday.

Having refurbished and built new sections for its New Theatre, it was an inspired idea to call in the Royal Ballet for a reopening gala - the company's first visit to the town in 30 years. Hull's home-grown stars were out in force. Parish put in an appearance out of Russia; alongside him were his sister Demelza Parish, a Royal Ballet first artist; Joseph Caley, now a principal with English National Ballet; Elizabeth Harrod, an RB soloist, aka Mrs Steven McRae; and the local ballet school that can really take the credit for laying the foundations of their success, the Skelton Hooper School of Dance and Theatre, brought their current youngsters to strut their stuff alongside.

(photo: Yorkshire Post)
The theatre is an art deco gem, full of 1920s Egyptian-reference detail, done up in style even down to the fonts on the signage. For the evening it was packed with all ages, newcomers, seasoned balletomanes and everything in between: elderly or disabled ballet fans in wheelchairs, schoolchildren guzzling crisps and sweets throughout and cheering to the rafters as soon as the music stopped, little girls turning cartwheels in the shiny new foyers. Outside, another 5,000 people braved the chilly night air to watch a relay to the big screen in the park. In the afternoon, a hundred local children had participated in Take Flight, an outdoor performance led by the brilliant young Australian dancer and choreographer Calvin Richardson, inspired by Swan Lake. Richardson himself proved one of the gala's highlights, performing a stunningly-shaped contemporary Dying Swan solo to Saint-Saëns, with amazing freeze-frame arms.

But then, almost everything in this generous programme was a highlight. William Forsythe's The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude - that Schubert finale for three girls and two boys that leaves you  breathless just from watching  - was a tremendous opener, with Marianela Nuñez, Beatriz Stix-Brunnell, Akane Takada, James Hay and Valentino Zucchetti (though the lime green and magenta sets the teeth on edge a bit). A warm introduction from O'Hare paid tribute to his own Hull background, then introduced Parish for a star turn in Ballet 101 by Eric Gauthier - a dazzling array of ballet poses interacting with narration and showing off Parish's steely technique. Parish (whom I interviewed for The Independent a few years back) had set off for St Petersburg after feeling he'd had to carry one spear too many; now the Russian company has moulded him into a magnificently princely principal, his mile-long limbs and super-wide wingspan enhanced by the open-hearted Mariinsky style. Fortunately Ballet 101 showed off that he's far more than a mere gentlemanly presence - though he can do that too, as evinced by the Sylvia pas de deux, serenely performed with the enchanting Yasmin Naghdi.

The star turns thrilled from start to finish: Natalia Osipova and Matthew Ball in the balcony scene (minus balcony) from Romeo and Juliet was my personal number one: Osipova, one-of-a-kind volatile, vivacious and scarcely touching the stage, offset finely by Ball - a beautifully classic dancer in the English tradition, poetic and very gentlemanly indeed, with the special quality of never looking rushed, no matter how fast he spins. Edward Watson and Melissa Hamilton (who's home from Dresden and on sizzling form with fine-tuned, sinewy strength and presence) brought a very grown-up Wayne McGregor pas de deux, Qualia, in which they do plenty of things that one didn't think a human body could possibly do. At the other end of the spectrum, Steven McRae and violinist Robert Gibbs took the stage together for a rip-roaring tap version of Monti's Czardas, choreographed by McRae. This list could carry on - it's only a taste of the wonders on offer.

Here's Steven performing Czardas on World Ballet Day, with violinist Vasko Vassiliev:



Parish's fellow Hull dancers pulled a special weight, and that of others. Demelza Parish shone in the world premiere of Heart's Furies, a trio by Andrew McNicol set (rather startlingly) to the first movement of Janáček's Piano Sonata and capturing its turbulence and anguish. Joseph Caley turned a different kind of anguish - Hamlet's, no less - into the dazzling jazzy solo from David Bintley's The Shakespeare Suite, and later joined Takada for the Le Corsaire pas de deux to close the performance. Harrod and McRae finished the first half with a beautiful, heartbreaking account of the last pas de deux from The Two Pigeons, complete with supremely well-behaved birds. A colleague who's seen the work innumerable times assured me that they sometimes aren't, and that once one of them fluttered off into the gods and eluded capture for several hours thereafter.

The ballet school gave an apposite piece of their own called A Dancer's Story, simple yet very effective: children in a Hull backstreet gaze through a dance studio's windows, then are transformed into its pupils, watching and learning from the older students.

And if there's one a "takeaway" thought from the evening, it was this. Part of ballet's mystique, its mythology, its self-narrative, is the image of the child drawn to dance by seeing her/his peer group dancing and longing to join in. Partly it's the Nutcracker story: the child transformed into the woman she longs to become. Partly, it's something within all of us, the atmosphere of those long-lost formative years recaptured in the unique language of dance and recreated for new generation after new generation. But in classical music, are we missing this type of narrative?

It can happen if you join a youth orchestra: the youngsters at the back of the second fiddles can be inspired by the older leaders, an example that spurs them on to work hard and follow their dream (that's how my OH started out: in the Cheshire Youth Orchestra, whose leader at the time happened to be the teenage Peter Manning, now the Royal Opera House's own concertmaster). But to reach that point, the smallest children have already had to start playing, to have been inspired to start and work their way to a halfway decent level of ability. You don't often get to press your nose to the glass of a music school's window and long to join in, and the only way to do this via the TV is usually the BBC Young Musician of the Year, which happens only every two years and now mostly on a non-mainstream channel with limited actual performances. In ballet, though, we wouldn't even question the notion that that's how it begins, that you have to start training very young, and that that's how most kids get interested: through the example of their peer groups. Is there some way we can make this story a bigger part of music as well?

Photo: Danny Lawson/PA
Meanwhile, I doff my hat off to pianists Kate Shipway and Robert Clark, who stormed Gottschalk's Tarantella while Francesca Hayward and Alexander Campbell charmed and fizzed through Balanchine's high-jinks choreography. The pianists, violinist Gibbs and cellist David Cohen deserve medals of their own, especially as the whole thing had to be considerably amplified because of the big-screen outdoor simulcast.

Huge congratulations, then, to this year's City of Culture and wishing Hull the best of the best for the rest of it.


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