Progress, at last

The classical music community has taken welcome risks with The Death of Klinghoffer and the return o

The Death of Klinghoffer, English National Opera/Britten Sinfonia & Thomas Ades, Queen Elizabeth Hall

One week and two long overdue cultural exchanges. Despite numbering Glyndebourne among its original co-commissioners, John Adams's controversial opera The Death of Klinghoffer has had to wait until now for a fully-staged English debut. Twenty-one years after it premiered in Brussels the work has come of age in sophisticated, if sober, fashion at English National Opera.

Although Adams himself increasingly rejects the term "docu-opera", it's a designation that speaks clearly to the genre the composer has pioneered in works such as Nixon in China and most recently Dr Atomic. The Death of Klinghoffer takes the 1985 hijacking of Italian cruise ship the Achille Lauro by members of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation and subsequent murder of disabled American passenger Leon Klinghoffer as its starting point.

From this provocative seed, Adams and librettist Alice Goodman have created a meditative, at times wilfully non-dramatic, piece of music-drama that wanders among the events (and more broadly among the origins of Arab-Israeli conflict) with philosophical detachment - a form closer to a Bach Passion than a conventional opera. Whether or not the work belongs on a stage is a vexed question, and one ENO's new production by Tom Morris leaves little closer to resolution.

Set apart from the brightly-coloured, fussy action of the hijacking itself are choruses of commentary - the musical and dramatic heart of the work. We open with the Chorus of Exiled Palestinians - generations of dusty alienation and violence played out against an unchanging landscape projection.

But gradually mourners become militants, and as singers begin to strip off their travelling clothes we see them transformed into the Chorus of Jews. It all makes for a beautiful tableau, but this easy visual felicity can't help but feel glib when we consider its symbolic implications. Goodman has rejected notions of her libretto as "even-handed", resisting the essentialising of peoples and nations, but Morris's gesture feels dangerously at odds with this.

Adams's score is a thing of beauty (and is rendered here with absolute clarity by Baldur Bronnimann), its language a lyrical minimalism that relaxes the nullifying repetitions of Philip Glass into a more flexible, developmental form. So expressive are its melodies and delicate harmonic contortions that one wonders if Morris's frequent recourse to contemporary dance is really necessary - supplementing a dramatic lack that doesn't exist.

While Alan Opie''s Klinghoffer and Michaela Martens as his wife (on the shoulders of whose closing aria so much rests) both excel, and cameos from Clare Presland as the Palestinian Woman and Lucy Schaufer's Swiss Grandmother are the jewels of the supporting cast, this opera belongs to its chorus. ENO's ensemble (and particular the upper voices) make a persuasive case for the work and its issues, but while I was by turns provoked by the naturalistic action and delighted by the music, Morris's production never once managed to move me. His Klinghoffer is a fascinating history lesson, a visual response to Adams's score that never quite succeeds in turning music into opera, or ideology into drama.

 

Across the Atlantic another musical milestone was reached recently as the Britten Sinfonia - surely the UK's most consistently dynamic chamber ensemble - finally made their American debut, a mere 20 years after their founding. Returning in triumph to the Southbank centre this week with their touring programme, curated and directed by Thomas Ades, they reminded us of the many reasons we have to be proud of this extraordinary group.

Often unconventional but never gimmicky, the Britten Sinfonia's programming is driven by their musical collaborations. Working here with Ades, the ensemble presented a programme - "Concentric Paths" - that rippled outwards from the composer's own music in chains of dialogue and influence, extending back to the baroque works of Couperin that Ades explores in his series of chamber homages, and also incorporating works by Ravel and Stravinsky.

While Stravinsky's Suites Nos 1 and 2 for Small Orchestra saw the orchestra's tonal intensity and attack at its most unbounded, the evening reached a natural climax in Ades's Violin Concerto. Finnish Soloist Pekka Kuusisto is a natural fit for the work's daring gestures that risk the small, the fragile, as much as the ferocious. His supreme technique (so unobtrusive as to shame the showier likes of Kavakos, Bell or Vengerov) came into its own in the second movement, where thwarted yearnings for melody start with such brutality, but ultimately unclench into a desperately hopeful cantilena, spun over woodwind and lower strings.

Change and progress in the world of classical music are still treated as less than synonymous - cause for suspicion and resistance among organisations as much as audiences. This week has seen two significant advances, two risk-taking musical events that should and deserve to be celebrated, both here and in America.

 

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We knew we’d become proper pop stars when we got a car like George Michael’s

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

One of the clichés about celebrity life is that all celebrities know each other. Back in the Eighties, when we were moderately famous, Ben and I did often bump into other famous people, and because of mutual recognition, there was a sort of acquaintance, if not friendship.

There was a random element to it, as well. Some celebrities you might never catch a glimpse of, while others seemed to pop up with an unexpected regularity.

In 1987, the car we drove was a 1970s Austin Princess, all leather seats and walnut dashboard. In many ways, it symbolised what people thought of as the basic qualities of our band: unassuming, a little bit quirky, a little bit vintage. We’d had it for a year or so, but Ben was running out of patience. It had a habit of letting us down at inconvenient moments – for instance, at the top of the long, steep climbs that you encounter when driving through Italy, which we had just recklessly done for a holiday. The car was such a novelty out there that it attracted crowds whenever we parked. They would gather round, nodding appreciatively, stroking the bonnet and murmuring, “Bella macchina . . .”

Having recently banked a couple of royalty cheques, Ben was thinking of a complete change of style – a rock’n’roll, grand-gesture kind of car.

“I wanna get an old Mercedes 300 SL,” he said to me.

“What’s one of those?”

“I’ll let you know next time we pass one,” he said.

We were driving through London in the Princess, and as we swung round into Sloane Square, Ben called out, “There’s one, look, coming up on the inside now!” I looked round at this vision of gleaming steel and chrome, gliding along effortlessly beside us, and at the same moment the driver glanced over towards our funny little car. We made eye contact, then the Merc roared away. It was George Michael.

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

We’d always had a soft spot for George, even though we seemed to inhabit opposite ends of the pop spectrum. He’d once been on a TV review show and said nice things about our first album, and I knew he had liked my solo single “Plain Sailing”. We’d done a miners’ benefit gig where Wham! had appeared, slightly out of place in their vests, tans and blond bouffants. There had been a bit of sneering because they’d mimed. But I remember thinking, “Good on you for even being here.” Their presence showed that being politically active, or even just caring, wasn’t the sole preserve of righteous indie groups.

A couple of weeks later, we were driving along again in the Princess, when who should pull up beside us in traffic? George again. He wound down his window, and so did we. He was charming and called across to say that, yes, he had recognised us the other day in Sloane Square. He went on to complain that BBC Radio 1 wouldn’t play his new single “because it was too crude”. “What’s it called?” asked Ben. “ ‘I Want Your Sex’!” he shouted, and roared away again, leaving us laughing.

We’d made up our minds by now, and so we went down to the showroom, flashed the cash, bought the pop-star car and spent the next few weeks driving our parents up and down the motorway with the roof off. It was amazing: even I had to admit that it was a thrill to be speeding along in such a machine.

A little time passed. We were happy with our glamorous new purchase, when one day we were driving down the M1 and, yes, you’ve guessed it, in the rear-view mirror Ben saw the familiar shape coming up behind. “Bloody hell, it’s George Michael again. I think he must be stalking us.”

George pulled out into the lane alongside and slowed down as he drew level with us. We wound down the windows. He gave the car a long look, up and down, smiled that smile and said, “That’s a bit more like it.” Then he sped away from us for the last time.

Cheers, George. You were friendly, and generous, and kind, and you were good at being a pop star.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge