Reviewed: LPO and The Fauré Project

A shadow play of colours.

LPO, Jurowski; The Fauré Project
Royal Festival Hall; Wigmore Hall

Classical music can seem monolithic at times and yet it is subject to the same whims and fads of fashion as the other arts. In pre-war years the Proms would devote whole evenings to Beethoven and Wagner, a practice now replaced by witty juxtapositions of contrasting composers. But there’s been something retro in the air recently, with two very different concerts taking us back to those single-minded musical encounters.

At the Southbank Centre, the Rest Is Noise festival reached its gritty core in the dark times of 1930s Germany – a period in which politics gripped culture more tightly than ever before. Introducing a concert of music by Berg, Webern, Martinu and Bartók, the conductor Vladimir Jurowski warned his audience that this was “probably the most challenging programme of the year”. He was right. We’ve become so used to treating difficult and contemporary works – not always, but lazily often, synonymous – as a dose that must be swallowed along with our symphonic spoonful of sugar that we’re not prepared for the mental effort involved.

For those who took up Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s challenge, the evening offered exhilaration as well as exhaustion. We opened with Webern’s Variations for Orchestra – one of the most inscrutable works of the almost-repertoire. By encouraging us to treat it as an evolving sequence of colouristic sound-pictures, Jurowski freed the work’s suppressed lyric qualities. Moments of musical abstraction gained emotional weight as part of a narrative. Sometimes a solo violin phrase is just that, but sometimes – and this was one of those rare times – it is everything.

With the aid of the soprano Barbara Hannigan, Berg’s Symphonic Pieces from Lulu brought us back to the literal. A hazy, sleazy blend of string chords dared us to look away from the tragedy that unfolds in vivid tableaux in this orchestral digestion of Berg’s opera. Piano and muted brass cut through any consolation we might have found in the jazzinflected Ostinato that soundtracks Lulu’s trial and imprisonment, and Jurowski’s driving speeds barely paused as we hurtled on to Lulu’s death at the hands of Jack the Ripper.

A different world greeted us after the interval, pairing Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta with Martinu’s Double Concert for two string orchestras, piano and timpani. Composed for the same unusual forces, Bartók’s work is a classic while Martinu’s has been unaccountably neglected. The less ascetic of the two, it might lack the intellectual heft of the Bartók, but Jurowski made a compelling case for its athletic appeal. And while the Bartók exposed some issues of ensemble within the orchestra, Martinu’s more generous writing saw the LPO united in a frenzied celebration of all that is extrovert and joyous in 20th-century music.

The softer, domestic face of the early 20th century was on show at the Wigmore Hall in the first of a sequence of three concerts – the Fauré Project – devoted to the music of Gabriel Fauré. Although best-known for his Requiem, it is in his chamber works for strings that the composer’s ear for timbre and textural effect is most striking. Anticipating the later innovations of Debussy and Ravel, Faure’s conservative image is very much at odds with the impressionistic soundscapes of his Cello Sonata in D minor and his Piano Trio in D minor – late works that might still inhabit the fading world of the salon, but fling its door wide to chromatic uncertainties and shifting alliances of harmony and counterpoint.

In many ways the Capuçon brothers (violinist Renaud and cellist Gautier) are themselves a bit of a throwback. They perform with unashamedly thick vibrato and have the lush style born of a former era of string virtuosi. It’s an approach that sits better on Gautier, with his closer attention to the detail of phrasing and intonation. The Cello Sonata with the excellent Michel Dalberto at the piano) was a shadow-play of muted colours, almost having the feel of a lieder for the dialogue of the Allegro comodo, and spinning the flimsiest of cantilenas in the slow movement.

The Violin Sonata No 2 in E minor, by contrast, was all primary colours and punch. Renaud Capuçon’s energy is intoxicating but in flinging his talent so vehemently at his audience he denies Fauré’s ebbing lines the retreat and release they need to heighten their climaxes. Coming together for the Piano Trio and earlier Piano Quartet No 1 in C minor, the brothers still maintained their differing approaches, with Gautier pulling back to allow the piano its melodic moment, or duet delicately with the viola. Renaud, meanwhile, remained ever the soloist, seizing ear and attention with every broad gesture of his bow.

The conductor Vladimir Jurowski.

This article first appeared in the 13 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Eton Mess

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Donald Trump wants to terminate the Environmental Protection Agency - can he?

"Epa, Epa, Eeeepaaaaa" – Grampa Simpson.

 

There have been countless jokes about US President Donald Trump’s aversion to academic work, with many comparing him to an infant. The Daily Show created a browser extension aptly named “Make Trump Tweets Eight Again” that converts the font of Potus’ tweets to crayon scrawlings. Indeed, it is absurd that – even without the childish font – one particular bill that was introduced within the first month of Trump taking office looked just as puerile. Proposed by Matt Gaetz, a Republican who had been in Congress for barely a month, “H.R. 861” was only one sentence long:

“The Environmental Protection Agency shall terminate on December 31, 2018”.

If this seems like a stunt, that is because Gaetz is unlikely to actually achieve his stated aim. Drafting such a short bill without any co-sponsors – and leaving it to a novice Congressman to present – is hardly the best strategy to ensure a bill will pass. 

Still, Republicans' distrust for environmental protections is well-known - long-running cartoon show The Simpsons even did a send up of the Epa where the agency had its own private army. So what else makes H.R. 861 implausible?

Well, the 10-word-long statement neglects to address the fact that many federal environmental laws assume the existence of or defer to the Epa. In the event that the Epa was abolished, all of these laws – from the 1946 Atomic Energy Act to the 2016 Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act – would need to be amended. Preferably, a way of doing this would be included in the bill itself.

Additionally, for the bill to be accepted in the Senate there would have to be eight Democratic senators who agreed with its premise. This is an awkward demand when not even all Republicans back Trump. The man Trum appointed to the helm of the Epa, Scott Pruitt, is particularly divisive because of his long opposition to the agency. Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine said that she was hostile to the appointment of a man who was “so manifestly opposed to the mission of the agency” that he had sued the Epa 14 times. Polls from 2016 and 2017 suggests that most Americans would be also be opposed to the agency’s termination.

But if Trump is incapable of entirely eliminating the Epa, he has other ways of rendering it futile. In January, Potus banned the Epa and National Park Services from “providing updates on social media or to reporters”, and this Friday, Trump plans to “switch off” the government’s largest citizen-linked data site – the Epa’s Open Data Web Service. This is vital not just for storing and displaying information on climate change, but also as an accessible way of civilians viewing details of local environmental changes – such as chemical spills. Given the administration’s recent announcement of his intention to repeal existing safeguards, such as those to stabilise the climate and protect the environment, defunding this public data tool is possibly an attempt to decrease awareness of Trump’s forthcoming actions.

There was also a recent update to the webpage of the Epa's Office of Science and Technology, which saw all references to “science-based” work removed, in favour of an emphasis on “national economically and technologically achievable standards”. 

Trump’s reshuffle of the Epa's priorities puts the onus on economic activity at the expense of public health and environmental safety. Pruitt, who is also eager to #MakeAmericaGreatAgain, spoke in an interview of his desire to “exit” the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. He was led to this conclusion because of his belief that the agreement means “contracting our economy to serve and really satisfy Europe, and China, and India”.

 

Rather than outright closure of the Epa, its influence and funding are being leached away. H.R. 861 might be a subtle version of one of Potus’ Twitter taunts – empty and outrageous – but it is by no means the only way to drastically alter the Epa’s landscape. With Pruitt as Epa Administrator, the organisation may become a caricature of itself – as in The Simpsons Movie. Let us hope that the #resistance movements started by “Rogue” Epa and National Parks social media accounts are able to stave off the vultures until there is “Hope” once more.

 

Anjuli R. K. Shere is a 2016/17 Wellcome Scholar and science intern at the New Statesman

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