Britten’s national opera?

(Originally posted 2009)

I was reminded yesterday of an uncomfortable fact by a gushing review in the Guardian of a new ENO production .

I don’t like Peter Grimes.

This is close to heresy for a British musician, and I apologise for transgressing.

To be clear, I love the Four Sea Interludes, so it’s not the music that’s the problem. It’s the story. To understand Grimes it helps to grasp that Britten and Pears were interested in George Crabbe’s poem because its protagonist was an outsider in his community, The Borough, in much the same way as they felt themselves to be sexual outsiders in post-war Britain.

Early drafts of Montagu Slater’s libretto make it clear that Grimes is a violent monster, responsible by negligence at the very least for the deaths of the three apprentices under his charge.  But Britten changed the libretto as he went along to make Grimes a more ambiguous figure, so that we never know to what extent he is responsible for the first two deaths, and the third boy dies when scrambling down a cliff to Grimes’s boat.  The audience sees no violence (although Grimes does threaten the boy).

According to the Graun‘s review, in the new ENO production, the boy dies when Grimes, distracted by a vigilante crowd from The Borough, lets go of the rope holding him.  So here Grimes has tried to safeguard the boy, and The Borough is partly responsible for his death.

This just won’t do.  One reason I find sitting through the opera so tedious is that no-one in it is terribly sympathetic.  Grimes is horrible.  The Borough are all hypocrites.  The boy is a cipher (he doesn’t even sing).  Only Ellen Orford gets to sing two minutes of the most poignant music.  Now I accept that it may be too much to ask that all art depicting human relationships should have someone nice in it somewhere; but life is short, and three hours in the company of unpleasant people is not something you should have to pay for, however good the music.  Moreover, the opera portrays a whole society, and how many societies are entirely made up of the thoroughly disagreeable?

But it’s not just that.  The drama is fundamentally unbalanced.  We are asked to believe that Grimes is both a victim and a creation of The Borough, and that, according to the Graun‘s reviewer, they are “hypocritical . . . . a totally dysfunctional community, fuelled by religious bigotry . . . ”  Well perhaps, but even these are nicer people than Grimes.  Grimes is a twisted self-hating bully, whereas they are just hypocrites.  Who would you rather get stuck in a lift with?  Ah yes, reply Britten enthusiasts, but Grimes is twisted because the Borough hates him.  It’s all Society’s fault.  Well I don’t buy that.  Give me the Borough any day.

This curious moral blindness reminds me of something Frank Kermode once said.  He found that when teaching Camus’ The Outsider he was always amazed by how readily his students identified with the existentially tortured murderer; yet almost none of them were interested in the anonymous Arab victim.

Yes, it’s true: for artists, there’s no crime worse than provincial conservatism.

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Celebrity Composers

(Originally posted 2009)

It was perhaps predictable that, after posting a month or so ago about the forthcoming performance of Rufus Wainwright’s opera Prima Donna at the Manchester International Festival, my wife would buy a pair of tickets and insist we go. “I’ll be miserable”, I protested. “Either it’ll be brilliant, in which case I’ll be jealous, or it’ll be dreadful, in which case I’ll be furious”. But my objections were in vain, and off we went last night to the packed Palace Theatre.

Actually Prima Donna was neither brilliant nor dreadful, and I was neither jealous or angry. Wainwright is clearly a very talented guy, and about a quarter of the opera worked really well. OK, a lot of it sounds like Puccini, but perhaps better so than Birtwhistle, and there is after all a lot of Haydn in Mozart. A lot of other bits reminded me of no-one at all.

As for the remaining three quarters, the word which sprang to mind was amateurish. Wainwright cannot write a climax and does not know how to make the music move forward. He doesn’t always know how to write music which underscores and amplifies the (fairly melodramatic) story, often serving up the bland at what should be the most gripping moments (the suspended dominant chord when the heroine may or may not be about to chuck herself from the window ledge perhaps the most memorably dreary example). Some of his writing for voices is leaden and unsympathetic (just because tenors can sing high doesn’t mean you have to make them sing high all the time). It came as no surprise to read in the score that Wainwright had needed the assistance of an “orchestration assistant”. I read this as meaning, “Rufus doesn’t know how to score for orchestra, so we’ll get a guy in who does”.

The truly depressing thing about Prima Donna is not that it is no good at all, but that all these superbly professional people – the singers, designers, producers and orchestra all aquit themselves honourably – had been put at vast expense at the service of someone who is essentially an inexperienced amateur. Why? Because Wainwright is famous; the fact that he is famous for doing something else does not seem to have bothered the people who commissioned his piece. This is exactly the same mistake as that made routinely by the chairmen of football clubs, who appoint managers thinking that because they were good at football they must also be good at management. Bobby Charlton, John Barnes, Paul Gascoigne and many others tried it and failed. The best managers in the English league on the other hand in the last few years – Fergie, Mourinho and Wenger – were all average or worse as players. The gifted player like Mark Hughes who makes a good manager is an exception.

So now as well as celebrity managers we have celebrity composers. Is Leona Lewis writing an opera? Not so far as I know. But her agent should get onto it as soon as possible, because I’m sure that the organisers of some arts festival somewhere would like to hear from her. I am available if she needs an orchestration assistant.

Alan Green at the Proms

(Originally posted 2009)

As the umpteenth Proms season grinds its way to a close, I find guiltily that yet again I have failed to listen to more than a fraction of the concerts. There are several reasons for this. The pressures of family life. Being away on holiday. Not liking some of the programmes. And, it must be admitted, reluctance to face the sobering reality, experienced annually by the vast majority of British composers, that one’s own music does not feature. Again. This chilling douche makes the Proms as much a horse-syringe sized injection of humility as a great music festival. Attendance can be as painful as it is enjoyable.

The Proms and I go way back. As a student I queued for hours outside the Albert Hall to hear Rattle conduct Mahler, or Elder with the NYO doing bits of Valkyrie with Gwyneth Jones as Brunnhilde (quite the loudest singer I have ever heard). It was there that a performance of Nielsen’s fifth left me speechless for a full ten minutes. And after the concerts we’d literally run down the street to the Queen’s Arms to get two pints in and somewhere to sit before the crush of listeners and orchestral players arrived, arguing the toss about the music we’d just heard. Later, when I was working near Chancery Lane, I’d get the Tube to Marble Arch and walk across Hyde Park in the evening sunshine to meet my wife outside. It was a thoroughly civilised and invigorating thing to do, and now, ten years after having left London, it is still the only thing I miss about living there.

Notwithstanding all the concerts missed this year, there were still some great performances. Maris Yanssons doing Sibelius 1 with the flair and conviction of a great conductor at the top of his game. The Lebecq sisters playing the Poulenc Double. And has there been a more arch performer since Liberace than the uber-charismatic Lang Lang? For all his eye-rolling and gurning at the piano, he made the Chopin F minor concerto look really easy, and played with all the grace and finesse you could ask for.

To the downside, I didn’t like any of the newer stuff. I caught bits of a Xenakis piece which sounded truly dreary, and there was something by Louis Andriessen which did nothing very much before lumbering and stumbling to the finishing line. Did Roger Wright really have to commission Goldie, the former electronica luminary, a man who does not even read music, to write an orchestral piece?

And the BBC TV coverage was infuriating. Yes, no-one else would do this – and thank God for the BBC generally – but did the pundits have to be so bland? Not all performances were great, and neither was all the music. Strauss’s Alpinesinfonie is a monstrosity. The English singers in the otherwise wonderful John Wilson prom were wooden and lacklustre. The programme of the Gustav Mahler youth orchestra concert was a turgid fin-de-siecle Viennese-fest in which the lightest item was the Kindertotenlieder and rows of empty seats were clearly visible behind the presenter. You wouldn’t know any of this from the coverage, because in this the best of all possible worlds everything was great, the audiences loved it all and classical music was in rude health.

Does it have to be like this? I was reminded by contrast of the BBC’s football commentries, and in particular of Alan Green, a fearless Ulsterman who tells it like it is. The BBC no doubt pays him handsomely for his efforts, and pays handsomely for the right to broadcast those efforts to us. But Green couldn’t care less. “This game”, he’ll tell listeners, “is rubbish. The standard of football has been woeful. I’m doing my best to stay awake, and thank goodness it’s nearly half time”.