Tamesis Issue 185
I’m sorry the date for the Alan Lumsden day for singers and renaissance instrumentalists was wrong in the July Tamesis. It is definitely on Saturday 7th October, because the school is used by a church on Sunday mornings. You should find a form for the event inside this issue and I’m looking forward to seeing a lot of you there. It sounds as if it should be good.
TVEMF is again having a stand at the Greenwich Early Music Festival and Exhibition. More details will be available about this in the October Tamesis, but I can tell you now that we have decided to return to the Painted Hall as people seemed to have trouble finding us in last year’s position. Hazel Fenton (our Treasurer) has booked the stand and will I’m sure be grateful to hear from people who are willing to be on our stand and talk to visitors (and passing friends) for an hour or so during the event. I’ve listed all the concerts that I know of starting on page 8 so that you can plan your day.
Last month I mentioned Andrew and Lesley Black photographs of Michael Procter’s Kilburn weekend. You can see them at this web address: http://www.flickr.com/photos/andrewblack/tags/staugustineskilburn/
Here are some of Wayne Plummer’s 2005 Beauchamp renaissance summer school photos. I expect there will be some from 2006 soon. We all had a very good time at this year’s summer school, in spite of the rather small number of tenors and basses (amply supplemented by large numbers of sackbuts and curtals). The weather was fine, the food was excellent and Alan Lumsden and Philip Thorby were in their usual good form. Next year’s course will probably be on Palestrina.
Only a week later I went to the Oxford Baroque Chamber Music Week at Headington School. Whereas Beauchamp feels like a holiday, Oxford is definitely hard work, though if possible even more enjoyable. The first evening and all the next day, Peter Collier arranges everyone into groups, rather like one of my baroque days. After that you are on your own to pick the music you want to play and the people you would like to play with. Some people arrange all their own groups, and some like to wait to be asked, but that always seems to work very well. Peter organises groups for anyone who hasn’t got one, and this can produce some particularly enjoyable sessions. Every morning there is an optional lecture after breakfast by one of the tutors on a topic of their choice. Some of the tutors rather over-ran their time, but the two new tutors, Rachel Latham (flute) and Theresa Caudle (violin) kept well within the time limit and gave two very interesting, if different, talks. They were both absolutely excellent at tutoring the chamber music groups as well. Some sessions for larger groups also got organised, and in the evenings we could work on a Vivaldi Credo for performance after the staff concert. Every year more and more people play at A=415, though 440 is still an option, and I was certainly glad to be able to play my modern flute in Bach’s Trio Sonata from the Musical Offering which I find impossible to play in tune on the baroque flute. Perhaps when I’ve finished my course I’ll have time to practise it for next year. And the food? Well, it would have been worth going just for that. MEMF downloaded all the Couperin and Lalande parts for their recent baroque orchestra workshop from http://www.lysator.liu.se/~tuben/scores/ . This looks like a very useful resource of baroque music, which may be freely copied for non-commercial purposes.
There are several new events listed on the cover. Don’t forget that there won’t be a September Tamesis, so please put the November dates in your diary and send the forms in as soon as you get them. Copy date for the next issue is Monday 9th October.
When I selected an event from the Chelsea Festival I picked music by Purcell, but I was amused that a friend and well-known TVEMF member chose instead to hear Courtney Pine. At least it makes it worth my while to have included the brochure with Tamesis.
I read that High Wycombe is the home of five of the people suspected in involvement in the recent plot to destroy airliners and, given that my neighbours are all muslims, I might perhaps have been feeling nervous. Happily I am not, and am going to the wedding of the younger daughter of my next-door neighbour in a week's time. I expect to be one of very few white British guests, as indeed was the case for the two previous weddings, but I shall be made very welcome. I can report that Norman Tebbit would be happy with the bride's brother, who has played cricket for Buckinghamshire under 17s and wants to play for England.
It seems a pity that we have so few members who aren't middle-aged British and white. I suppose it is mostly a question of cultural heritage and being exposed to hymns and anthems in childhood. The way things are going in schools, this may not be the case for much longer. Early Arabic music anyone?
Letter to the editor
More evidence of a worrying trend .... Brighton Early Music Festival this coming October contains a variety of concerts, etc that bear little resemblance to early music .... I vote for CREaM!!
Regards Nicola Williams
Purcell's Fairy Queen 22nd June
Before inserting about 340 copies of the brochure for the Chelsea Festival for dispatch with Tamesis I thought I should perhaps read it, and was happy to see a production of Purcell's Fairy Queen was taking place at the Cadogan Hall. I discovered that the hall was built in 1907 as Christian Science church and was designed by Robert Fellowes Chisholm, who had been the British Government’s consultant architect in India. The interior is Art Nouveau with Byzantine overtones and has stained glass on a Celtic knot theme by Baron von Rosenkrantz, who was a designer for Tiffany.
I went with the expectation of knowing some of the music and the plot, but it turned out that Thomas Guthrie had elected to set Armonico Consort's production in a lunatic asylum or should I say mental hospital? So full marks for originality but rather fewer for taste and authenticity. Never having seen Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, I found the plot particularly obscure in its new guise, though a rather tall countertenor in drag was recognisable as being the Fairy Queen. I gather that for technical reasons the trapeze could not be installed, but the acrobatics were still entertaining, especially when the young lady lifted her male partner into a handstand above her head. Some trembling was detected both on her part and that of the audience, but all was well. There was some excellent puppetry, very beautifully choreographed, and the music was played more than adequately, though with little ornamentation.
Did it work? Well I certainly enjoyed the evening, so yes it did. Would it have been as good or better with the traditional plot? Yes probably, but I'm well-known for being an old fogey since birth, so don't take my word for it - I expect you can see the production on its tour if you care to.
Ariodante at ENO.
I wonder if any Tamesis readers took up the offer in last month's bulletin and if so share my opinion of this production? I have seen some very good productions of Handel operas at ENO in the past-Xerxes and Alcina come particularly to mind-but in my opinion, this, despite the hype, was not one of them.
The set was at times extremely impressive and I liked the mirror effect and the use of a stage within a stage, but the designer seemed unable to decide between realism and abstraction - at one time we were in a fairly naturalistic baronial hall and at another on an abstract sea-shore with a wooden screw representing waves. I also found the direction extremely irritating. Having found an effect he liked, the director seems to have repeated it ad nauseam without there being any seeming motivation for the piece of action - such as characters moving a chair and sitting down on it the wrong way round, or Ginevra being lifted down from the windowsill and carried around by sinister menservants. And I certainly failed to grasp why the Taglioni-like dancer - who was entirely in keeping with the music - should then be forcibly hauled off the inner stage and be humiliated and bundled around by the same sinister menservants, by now accompanied by some raddled ladies who appeared to have come from the inter-war years.
I could probably have swallowed all this without complaint had I been moved by the music. I have no criticism of the orchestra - augmented by some early instruments - or of Handel's score, having been ravished by it in a production by English Touring Opera a couple of years ago. It was, unusually, the singing which really spoilt this production for me. Technically it was brilliant, but in my view much of the time lacked heart. When I came to analyse why and how I had remained so unmoved, I came to the conclusion that most of the singers, when returning to the repeated first section of their arias, were over ornamenting. The singing became very showy. Apart from the fact that the soprano and tenor voice, at the topmost end of their register can sound like nothing more than an ugly shriek, the singers seemed to be relishing technical ability for its own sake and had completely forgotten the emotional core of what they were singing about. Nor did they have the necessary "art to conceal art". Consequently, for me, the whole opera became an artifice, rather than a moving story.
The singer I liked best - because he got the balance right and did move me - was Peter Rose as the King of Scotland. I am aware that it was traditional in Handel's day for singers in the Italian Opera to "show off" and frequently the action of the story would thereby be held up. Judging from the reaction of the rest of the audience the night I was there, they shared the delight of the early audiences in technically brilliant ornamentation. However, it was my impression that Handel himself was not in favour, and given the limpidity of some of his melodies, why indeed would he wish them to be totally obscured by ornamentation? I appreciate that you have to do something different in the repeat of section one of the aria, but for me ornamentation is a question of degree. You do enough to heighten or emphasise the emotion you intend to convey (or rather, Handel intends you to convey), but no more.
In fact, Handel does give opportunities for showy ornamentation in Ariodante, as in Ginevra's first aria, which is similar to that of Semele (Myself I will adore) in conveying a rather smug and narcissistic self love. Since the story tells of Ginevra's fall from this position and the trial other love and capacity for submission with a consequent deepening of her character, it follows that there should be a contrast between this first aria and the more tender and pathetic music which follows. I am afraid that even when Rebecca Evans was meant to be at her most pathetic, her high pianissimo retained a touch of artifice. Handel gives Ginevra another opportunity to go over the top in her mad scene. I have to acknowledge that here, everything was as it should be and worked well together, but unfortunately this scene alone could not rescue the production for me. It is probably unfair of me to single out Rebecca Evans as she was not the only offender. It is also probably unfair not to acknowledge some good acting - not least from the substitute Polinesso (Harriet Williams) on the night I was there. However, if I measure this production against the Handel Festival "Tolomeo", it falls a long way short.
I assume that decisions on ornamentation are made by the musical director in each case and there may be differing views on what constitutes authenticity. Or is it merely a matter of personal taste and I am out of step? My own view (no doubt as an ex amateur theatrical director) is that nothing, whether authentic or not, should get in the way of telling the story with as much sincerity of emotion and beauty as you can, but where possible you should stick with the intentions of the creator as best you can interpret them. I now have a dilemma - should I risk ENO's upcoming Agrippina or stick with my memories of past enjoyable productions?
Handel’s Agrippina is at the Coliseum in February and March next year. The production first appeared at the Théatre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, in a modern-day staging.