At the Proms: Stockhausen and Wagner

Jeffrey Skidmore and Daniel Barenboim rise to the formidable challenge of staging Stockhausen and Wagner at The Proms.

Prom 11 – Stockhausen (Jeffrey Skidmore)
Prom 15 –Wagner (Daniel Barenboim)
Royal Albert Hall, London SW7
 
As musical ghouls-under-the-bed go, it doesn’t get scarier than Wagner (too long) and Stockhausen (too complicated). Yet if ever there’s been a time to face those fears, it was last month at the BBC Proms. Music-making of exceptional, ecstatic virtuosity made urgent what is too often academic, dissolving terrors and challenging us to find difficulty amid so much joy.
 
There’s an elegant symmetry in how Wagner’s Ring and Stockhausen’s Licht have ended up in dialogue at this year’s Proms. Both monumental opera cycles, composed over almost 30 years, span the gamut of human experience and emotion, not to mention many hours. The Proms are a festival made for larger-than-life works. Even as the Royal Albert Hall’s acoustics can so bafflingly defeat a musical classic, they can also amplify a problem piece, generating a spatial drama that can’t be matched anywhere else.
 
This was certainly true of Stockhausen’s “Gesang der Jünglinge” on 19 July. An early foray into electronic music, the work was projected (rather than performed) from a mixing desk at the centre of the hall by the composer’s protégée Kathinka Pasveer, while the stage remained empty. To make the stolid, Victorian hulk of this venue disquieting is almost impossible, but as the ghostly sound of choristers from Cologne Cathedral, recorded in the 1950s, echoed from empty galleries all around us, the sense of the uncanny was palpable in the physical vibrations of the speakers set up around the hall to transmit Stockhausen’s soundscape. Immersed in the voices of trebles who are no longer boys, we felt a dated technological exercise become something altogether richer.
 
This was just the warm-up for “Welt-Parlament” – the opening scene of Mittwoch, one of the seven operas that make up Licht. Last year, it was performed complete with actual helicopters and camels (each opera has a web of associated symbols, including elements – air, in this case – and animals) in Birmingham. The extract staged at the Royal Albert Hall maintained its energy in concert.
 
In a high tower, a UN-type assembly debated the nature of love in surreal, often deliberately incomprehensible fashion. The excellent Ex Cathedra choir’s voices, divorced from humanity by the use of microphones, did battle with the hollow babble of metro - nomes. The sound was less about melody or harmony than it was a woven texture, through which moments of lyricism occasionally burst (the tenors’ odd paean to love, a solo soprano’s pirouetting coloratura). It was music at the edge of its definition but, under Jeffrey Skidmore’s understated direction, the choir and soloists found both beauty and wit among the abstraction.
 
There is nothing abstract about Wagner’s Ring cycle, an epic folk narrative spread across four nights of opera. The composer’s concept of Gesamtkunstwerk (“total art”) is in direct conflict with a semi-staging such as Justin Way’s but, with this cast, the drama’s all in the music.
 
Whatever his weaknesses, Daniel Barenboim is among the finest living Wagnerians. With a hand-picked cast and the Staats - kapelle Berlin orchestra, he is perhaps the finest. At the performance of Die Walküre on 23 July, the orchestra’s strings swelled thickly and its brass had a sheen, even at fortissimo, to rival the glint of the Nibelungen gold. Barenboim paced their arcs of emotion with absolute mastery, allowing momentum to build as Sieglinde (Anja Kampe) and Siegmund (Simon O’Neill) tumbled forwards into their incestuous love and pulling back during the tender conflict between Bryn Terfel’s Wotan and his daughter Brünnhilde (Nina Stemme),whom he must condemn to the flames.
 
Terfel, Kampe and Eric Halfvarson (as the warrior Hunding) all found humanity in a tale that can too easily remain distant among the gods – but the night was Stemme’s. Bounding onstage with her terrifying “Hojo- to-ho”, this was a Valkyrie who needed no winged helmet to announce her identity. The echo of her battle cry will linger long after the Proms season has ended – a whoop of triumph at having vanquished so many musical demons.
It doesn't get much scarier than Wagner and Stockhausen. Photograph: BBC Pictures.

This article first appeared in the 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

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Out with the old: how new species are evolving faster than ever

A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of diversification, as well as extinction.

Human population growth, increased consumption, hunting, habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species and now climate change are turning the biological world on its head. The consequence is that species are becoming extinct, perhaps faster than at any time since the dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago. This is an inconvenient truth.

But there are also convenient truths. Britain has gained about 2,000 new species over the past two millennia, because our predecessors converted forests into managed woodlands, orchards, meadows, wheat fields, roadsides, hedgerows, ponds and ditches, as well as gardens and urban sprawl, each providing new opportunities.

Then we started to transport species deliberately. We have the Romans to thank for brown hares and the Normans for rabbits. In the 20th century, ring-necked parakeets escaped from captivity and now adorn London’s parks and gardens.

Climate warming is bringing yet more new species to our shores, including little egrets and tree bumblebees, both of which have colonised Britain in recent years and then spread so far north that I can see them at home in Yorkshire. Convenient truth No 1 is that more species have arrived than have died out: most American states, most islands in the Pacific and most countries in Europe, including Britain, support more species today than they did centuries ago.

Evolution has also gone into overdrive. Just as some species are thriving on a human-dominated planet, the same is true of genes. Some genes are surviving better than others. Brown argus butterflies in my meadow have evolved a change in diet (their caterpillars now eat dove’s-foot cranesbill plants, which are common in human-disturbed landscapes), enabling them to take advantage of a warming climate and spread northwards.

Evolution is a second convenient truth. Many species are surviving better than we might have expected because they are becoming adapted to the human-altered world – although this is not such good news when diseases evolve immunity to medicines or crop pests become resistant to insecticides.

A third convenient truth is that new species are coming into existence. The hybrid Italian sparrow was born one spring day when a male Spanish sparrow (the “original” Mediterranean species) hitched up with a female house sparrow (which had spread from Asia into newly created farmland). The descendants of this happy union live on, purloining dropped grains and scraps from the farms and towns of the Italian peninsula. Some of those grains are wheat, which is also a hybrid species that originated as crosses between wild grasses in the Middle East.

This is not the only process by which new species are arising. On a much longer time scale, all of the species that we have released on thousands of islands across the world’s oceans and transported to new continents will start to become more distinct in their new homes, eventually separating into entirely new creatures. The current rate at which new species are forming may well be the highest ever. A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of great diversification on Earth, as well as a time of extinction.

The processes of ecological and evolutionary change that brought all of Earth’s existing biological diversity into being – including ourselves – is continuing to generate new diversity in today’s human-altered world. Unless we sterilise our planet in some unimagined way, this will continue. In my book Inheritors of the Earth, I criss-cross the world to survey the growth in biological diversity (as well as to chart some of the losses) that has taken place in the human epoch and argue that this growth fundamentally alters our relationship with nature.

We need to walk a tightrope between saving “old nature” (some of which might be useful) and facilitating what will enable the biological world to adjust to its changed state. Humans are integral to Earth’s “new nature”, and we should not presume that the old was better than the new.

“Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction” by Chris D Thomas is published by Allen Lane

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder