Clive Brown, Part 1

Before leaving for Europe, I corresponded with a number of people I hoped to meet with. Or at least attempted to correspond. Perhaps my pitch wasn't convincing (Hi! I'm trying to learn about historical performance styles! Can I come hang out with you?) or perhaps it was simply a busy time for many people, but my initial plan to split my time between London and Amsterdam was looking sketchier and sketchier as my departure date approached. Enter... Clive Brown!

Sex sells

Sex sells

Clive Brown is a well-known figure in the academic world of musicology and historical performance. He wrote what is probably the definitive work on Classical and Romantic performing practice from 1750-1900. There's a picture of that tome to the left. He's Professor of Applied Musicology at Leeds and recently worked with my friends in the Diderot Quartet, who put me in touch with him. After determining that the dates wouldn't line up to meet in the UK, he mentioned that he would be spending the week in Antwerp giving lectures and coachings on historical performance style. With that I started looking into train tickets to Antwerp!

I ended up attending four of his lectures, sitting in on a couple of his coachings, playing violin for him, and even going out to dinner twice. He was incredibly generous with his time. He was also incredibly passionate about his research and the elements of historical style in classical and romantic music that seem well-supported by the evidence but that one rarely hears in concert. For a "professor of applied musicology" it's understandably frustrating to him that even well-known performers with biographies filled with claims as to their interest and knowledge of historical styles are ignoring some of the most basic of his findings.

The crux of his argument that I observed throughout the week was that, in contrast to baroque music, classical and romantic performance practice represented a continuum, strains of which exist in the earliest recordings. Some of these recordings were made by musicians who were famous as "exemplifying the true Mozart style" and who were in many cases taught by associates of Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, etc. When 19th century treatises are read with the sound of these recordings in our ears, we begin to realize that the foreign-seeming musical language of these recordings is very likely much closer to that of Mozart than we might expect, or even hope!

Why don't contemporary professional ensembles use a style within earshot of an Adelina Patti or a Marie Soldat-Roeger? Probably because in many respects it would qualify as "bad" by the standards of the modernist revolution: tempos would be very unsteady, changing with dynamics and phrase structure as well as with formal sections, portamento would be all over the place in a way frequently criticized as indulgent and in questionable taste, and (most damning of all) ensemble would very frequently not be "together" in the sense of being perfectly vertically-aligned in the score, as we are so used to hearing.

But what have we lost, with our modern cleanliness and crisp articulation and almost quasi-baroque approach that most of today's HIP ensembles have adopted? I'll just leave this here: Adelina Patti, the most celebrated soprano of her day, singing Voi Che Sapete from Marriage of Figaro.

Passacaglia at Purcell Room, London

I went to see a lunchtime concert at the Purcell Room. The group was called Passacaglia, and although I hadn't heard of them, they have an impressive history dating back to the early 1990s. The event was part of a "Bach Weekend" festival, and while the other performances throughout the weekend were to focus on various concertos from Bach's output, Passacaglia elected to present a series of French concertos, roughly contemporary with Bach, to provide a bit of context.

My impression is that these players do a fair amount of French baroque repertoire, and from the beginning the aggregate style was light, articulated particularly in the strings, and singing. One feature that stood out immediately was the playing style of Oliver Webber, the violinist. He plays with his chin WAY off the violin, seeming to anchor the violin beneath his collarbone, almost on his chest. He also used a highly-arched bow with an interesting bow hold - thumb on the outside of the frog, on the hair. Happily, I found a video of Oliver discussing this:

When I mentioned the generally light style, I should mention that it was not bland - the players would emphasise important moments with a weighty color shift and some nice lingering. The instigator of many of these moments was Reiko Ichise, who provided an alert and active bass line on her viola da gamba. It is rare to find a continuo player in Boston with a similar presence and helpful influence on the entire ensemble. It was a real treat to see such an intimate performance between wonderful musicians with a long history together.

The Indian Queen at English National Opera, London

I think Peter Sellars is one of the most imaginative and forceful directors working today, so I was thrilled to see that his production of Purcell's The Indian Queen was running at the ENO. Sellars isn't afraid to announce his presence, which he did after the initial masque of Mayan-esque dances with a company of soldiers rushing the stage, dressed in fatigues and wielding AK-47s. 

Sellars sold me

Sellars sold me

I wasn't aware of this until after the show, but the Sellars version is a wholesale rewrite. It incorporates writings of the living author Rosario Aguilar, borrows music from dozens of other Purcell works, and changes the story from a Peruvian-Mexican conflict to a colonialism situation: Conquistadors versus Mayans. More knowledgeable people have commented and reviewed the production (predictable, reviewers love it or, more likely, hate it) in the context of its history. Free of the baggage (or is it "ignorant of the context?) I found myself profoundly moved.

Sellars couldn't be more on-the-nose with the points he makes. A Christian hymn of worship is sung by a chorus of Mayans encircled by armed soldiers. A conflicted character is grotesquely fondled. The heroine dies, ascending bathed in white light. But they're always legitimate points, and thought-provoking, and immediate. 

...Not to mention surrounded by music of incredible beauty. The modern-instrument orchestra was led by seasoned HIP guru Laurence Cummings, and acquitted themselves with a stylishly HIP-tinged performance. They were augmented by a healthy number of dedicated early instruments - two harpsichords, organ, gamba, two recorders, and three theorbos - which added a good twang to the sound in the hall. All the singers were at a high level, but I couldn't believe what I heard from Lucy Crowe, who gave an absolute masterclass on messa di voce in her extended solos. My opera buddy and I turned to each other after O Solitude with wide eyes and incredulous smiles. Stunning. More random thoughts below!

  • I'll admit it - I got teary-eyed. Yay opera!
  • This is the second London concert where I've felt my "passion moved" - the aim of rhetorical musicking. It's an incredible experience to willingly surrender your emotions and allow them to be pulled and manipulated.
  • Nobody does laments like Purcell.
  • Beautiful, contemporary set design, painted by Gronk
  • Lucy Crowe is dressed like a Star Trek alien (the peaceful kind)
  • Striking, creative pauses in some pieces - were those Cummings, or Sellars?
  • Intelligently-handled sex scene
  • Vince Yi has a crazy countertenor voice - very soprano-ish
  • Everyone eats ice cream at intermission! This is so cute.