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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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser