Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Brighton Festival 2012 - More concerts

Three evening concerts last week, interestingly all problematic in one way or another, although not without moments to enjoy too.
Credit: Keith Saunders
Firstly, the Jerusalem Quartet, with pianist Alexander Melnikov (Tuesday 8 May).  I have hesitated over writing about this concert, as I am still unsure of how the protests that disrupted it leave me feeling.  I have some sympathies with the cause of the pro-Palenstinian protesters, who not only staged a demonstration outside the concert, but also disrupted the concert itself on I think about six or seven occasions, with protesters shouting out and having to be removed from the concert hall.  However, I do wonder what they hoped to achieve by their protest.  I was at the concert by myself, which allowed me to easily eavesdrop on conversations of audience goers in the interval, and whilst clearly some were opposed to both the protesters' cause and their actions, a good number I heard were aware of and shared concerns about Israel's actions in Palestine, but were nonetheless angry about the protesters' targeting of the Jerusalem Quartet - so actually, support was lost rather than gained.  Also, their protest seems to be based on rather inaccurate information and assumptions - the argument seems to go that the Quartet are funded by the Israeli state (not true) and the players are members of the Israeli army, so therefore they represent the state, and as such, are a fair target for protest.  They did perform their legally required national service at 18 - but as musicians, not in combat divisions.  Since that time, two members have regularly performed with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, the orchestra founded by Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said to promote understanding and cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians.  Whatever your views on the issues, it does feel like there are surely more deserving targets for protest - it is rather an easy option, and I suspect counterproductive, to target these musicians in this way.

Credit: Marco Borggreve
In terms of the performances themselves, I have to confess to being too overly distracted by the tension and ill-feeling created by the protests to focus as much as I would have liked on the music (the protesters may see this as a success, but I don't).  However, the Jerusalem Quartet kept playing throughout, and their performances were full of conviction and energy - it's hard not to ascribe additional urgency to their playing given the circumstances, but there was a definite determination in both works performed.  The first half was given over to Schumann's Piano Quartet in E flat major, Op. 47, and his Piano Quintet, also in E flat major, Op. 44 followed after the interval.  As an encore, they performed the second movement of the Piano Quartet, which had been particularly badly disrupted, once more.  I have always felt strongly about the power of music to bring people together, and to change hearts and minds.  On this occasion, however, I left feeling that despite the best efforts of the performers, the music had been suppressed by misguided and poorly targeted anger.  Probably the protesters left happy, but I doubt the Israeli regime is quaking in its boots as a result of their easy protest at what was essentially a provincial festival chamber music concert with an audience of two to three hundred.  Interestingly, they didn't target the Jerusalem Quartet's repeat concert the next night at the Wigmore Hall - presumably because, having protested there once already on a previous occasion, the Wigmore Hall security would be wise to them, and it would prove too difficult.  

Next this week, the English Chamber Choir (Friday 11 May), conducted by Guy Protheroe, performing the Te Deum by António Teixeira (1707 - after 1759).  They preceded this with a world premiere performance of Sub tuum praesidium by Ivan Moody (b.1964).  This relatively short, unaccompanied work began a little shakily in the large acoustic of St Bartholomew's Church in Brighton, but once the singers settled slightly, it came across effectively enough, the falling clusters of sound taking advantage of the warm acoustic.  I felt the piece needed more strength at the top from the sopranos, and it seemed slightly under-rehearsed, given the obvious challenges.  An interesting piece, nevertheless, and well suited to the acoustic.  Then came the Teixeira.  This is a long piece, using five separate choirs, and calling on eight soloists.  In fact, here the English Chamber Choir used four soloists (Julia Doyle, Siân Menna, Simon Wall and Philip Tebb, and then shared out the solo parts throughout the choir, so by the end of the piece, I think nearly every singer had had at least one solo bit.  Sadly, their performance was scuppered from the outset by a fundamental problem in staging.  I am surprised nobody from the festival or the church pointed out the flaw in raising the orchestra (which was relatively large for the size of choir) on staging.  This meant that throughout, the choir struggled to be heard, particularly when singing in smaller groups.  Even the soloists (other than the tenor, who was quite tall) struggled, as they were placed behind the orchestra too.  Also, the five 'choirs' were all placed close together, behind the orchestra, so the antiphonal effects between the choirs were also rather lost.  As it is quite a long work, this variety of effects is vital in maintaining interest.  A real shame, as there were clearly some good voices here, and the choir knew the work well.  Another one to hear again under different circumstances, I think.

Finally, bass Matthew Rose, accompanied by pianist Malcolm Martineau, in the beautiful setting of the Music Room of the Royal Pavilion in Brighton (Sunday 13 May).  Matthew Rose has a fabulously powerful and rich voice, and he gave a commanding performance of Schubert (Schwanengesang and the Drei Gesänge D902) and Brahms (Vier ernste Gesänge, Op. 121).  However, I wonder if he is more comfortable performing in larger, less intimate settings.  From the moment he came onto stage, he seemed rather ill at ease, almost nervous, and backed himself up against the piano, gripping its edge throughout the performance - one almost had the curious sense he was backing away from the audience as if we were a threat.  His performance was largely directed at a point some distance behind the back wall of the Music Room - a technique more suited to the opera house.  So whilst there was definite power and import in places (for example, O Tod, wie bitter ist du in the Brahms, and Der Doppelgänger in Schwanengesang), I missed any sense of intimacy or mystery in the performance.  Interestingly, I have heard recitals in the nearby Corn Exchange, for example, where the opposite has been the case - perhaps his performance would have been better suited to a larger venue such as this.  Having said this, his command of the repertoire was evident. I would definitely like to hear him sing these works again in a different setting.

So overall, a week of performances that could have been so much more, for one reason or another.  

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