Steph Power investigates the lasting legacy of budgetary cuts on the arts in her article, ‘Cuts and Culture: Some Thoughts on Opera, Classical Music and Beyond in Wales 2014’.
First, the gloom. As 2014 draws to a close, the many people in Wales who love opera, classical music and other ‘minority’ artforms could be forgiven for feeling pessimistic about the future. This year has witnessed a seemingly unending stream of dire news about cuts in public funding to the arts and essential services, including music education, across the country. Alas, while the Arts Council of Wales and some regional bodies have done incredibly well thus far to maintain provision with reduced resources, the prospect of real and lasting damage to the arts looms large. In October, the Welsh Government announced a 3% cut to the ACW budget for 2015/16; a further £700,000 on top of the £250,000 cuts originally planned – and following cuts of £1 million already made in 2014/15.
Earlier in the year, Cardiff Council approved cuts of a scandalous £50 million to their 2014/15 arts budget, having already cut provision for peripatetic instrumental tuition for school pupils, resulting in a stark drop – 10% already by January 2014 – in the take-up of lessons. The councils of Rhondda Cynon Taf and Denbighshire have now followed suit in music education; both proposing swingeing cuts in their provision, and joining a regional hall of shame which includes Powys, where there has been no publicly-funded provision of instrumental tuition whatsoever for some years. In Denbighshire, the timing of the announcement to withdraw £103,000 in funding to the William Mathias Music Service could not be more ironic, coming in what would have been the 80th birthday year of the man whose name the service bears; not only one of Wales’s most internationally distinguished composers, but a passionate educator who was devoted to community music-making.
If implemented, these cuts will have desperate social and cultural consequences across the board, as fewer children from ordinary, never mind lower income, homes will have access to music education. This situation will only be exacerbated by additional cutbacks to, and closures of, public libraries (without which I for one would never have encountered the music that inspired me to want to become a musician). Moreover, as ensembles, projects and concert venues everywhere come increasingly under threat, fewer people of any age will stand to have the opportunity to experience or participate in live music, either locally or nationally.
Sadly, as the ACW attests, funding towards the arts in Wales is in any case less than 0.23% of total government spending. In the short term, the appalling effect of budgetary cuts will be out of all proportion to the paltry ‘savings’ gained. In the longer term, however, the impact threatens to be worse still, jeopardising Wales’s very future by sabotaging a proven area of success, prosperity and burgeoning growth. No-one in their right mind would dispute that bodies like the National Health Service have urgent fiscal needs in this time of ‘austerity’. But it is a myth that the arts are not essential – and if we accept the neo-liberals’ either/or scenario, based on who might be deemed most ‘deserving’ of crumbs from the fiscal table, then the battle is already lost.
For there is a larger irony here – and with it comes the positive, though it is one that our current crop of politicians and civil servants appear to have neither the wit nor will to understand. And that is that the arts are a leading area of excellence, innovation and opportunity in our post-industrial Wales. Of course, the arts already contribute a huge amount to society, but they stand to offer so much more with the right kind of investment; not just on their own terms – and it’s a no-brainer that audiences and other visitors bring financial benefits to the economy – but in terms of wider cultural enrichment and regeneration, by encouraging the kind of creative vision and expansive, critical thinking that any culture needs in order to thrive in the age of information technology.
2014 has seen a great deal more excitement and sheer creative achievement in classical music and opera than one might think from the predictable wheeling out of popular figures like Bryn Terfel and the ghastly ‘crossover artist’ Katherine Jenkins – as UK mainstream media are wont to do whenever Welsh culture is discussed. Of course, coverage of the arts in Wales was swamped this year by the birth centenary of Dylan Thomas. But the focus on the great poet – however veering to monomania – reaped musical rewards in the form of opportunities to hear Welsh composers past and present.
From Presteigne to Gregynog, Swansea to Bangor, festivals, venues and ensembles across the land celebrated Thomas in different musical ways. There were performances of symphonies by his close friend, the underrated Daniel Jones (by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in Cardiff and Bangor, for instance), but there were also commissions and premières from living composers both Welsh and otherwise, and as diverse in character as Andrew Lewis, Mervyn Burtch and John Corigliano, to name only orchestral contributors.
A thought-provoking highlight was John Metcalf’s brilliantly written Under Milk Wood: an Opera, which premièred to great acclaim at Swansea’s Taliesin Arts Centre in April before touring, after which the composer enjoyed a successful 2014 Vale of Glamorgan Festival (in May, as Artistic Director), with a packed ten days of concerts across a customarily impressive range of platforms (see here for Cath Barton’s review of the choral and vocal offerings). Under Milk Wood has recently been issued on CD by the enterprising new label, Tŷ Cerdd Records. Indeed, the resurgence of Tŷ Cerdd, Music Information Centre of Wales, was itself a cause for celebration in 2014. The record label and other projects bode well for the future – including in the areas of music education and community work in Wales, as well as the forging of international partnerships for Welsh and Wales-based musicians.
Of course, there were other anniversaries besides Thomas’s noted throughout the year – although Birtwistle’s and Maxwell Davies’s 80th birthdays seem to have passed Wales by for the most part. The composer Andrzej Panufnik was born in Poland in 1914, but spent the greater part of his life in exile in London until his death in 1991. His centenary was celebrated at the Presteigne Festival, where artistic director and conductor George Vass also seized the opportunity to programme several pieces by living Polish composers, including a world and UK première by Paweł Łukaszewski and Maciej Zieliński respectively. Łukaszewski’s Requiem is a substantial and deeply felt work which will doubtless be much performed world-wide. It was a real coup for a festival which annually punches well above its weight in contemporary music terms. Zieliński’s Concello, aptly named for cello and strings, also proved to be passionately intense but with a more explosive dissonance, powerfully conveyed by soloist Gemma Rosefield and Festival Orchestra.
Vass also paid important tribute at short notice to Peter Sculthorpe, who sadly died in August, with the UK première of his final work. This was a short, exquisitely shimmering Salve Regina for soprano (Rachel Nicholls) and strings. Sculthorpe attended the Festival on several occasions and will be sorely missed here as elsewhere, far beyond his native Australia.
But it was death and destruction on an unthinkably vast and violent scale that proved the sobering common thread between Presteigne and so many concerts and festivals this year, with the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. Presteigne presented an opera double-bill which included Cecilia McDowalls’s Airborne; a tale of wartime love and loss which drew attention to burgeoning warfare in the skies as a phenomenon no less horrifying than the trenches. Albeit with an oddly stylised production by director Richard Williams, the work had a poignant integrity, with doomed lovers well-matched in Donna Lennard and Henry Manning, and superbly supported by the Festival ensemble under Vass.
Before that, in June, the Gregynog Festival also paid its respects to the millions of dead and injured from both sides of the conflict. As part of several days devoted to commemoration, we heard an excellent concert from the Flemish Radio Choir with a programme based on research by curator Dr Rhian Davies into the Belgian musicians who sought wartime refuge in Wales.
Franz Kafka may not have been a ‘war writer’ in any usual sense, but his unfinished novella The Trial (1914-15) encapsulated key, chilling aspects of the age, as well as proving uncannily prescient of horrifying darkness in the century to come. And it inspired one of the key highlights for me of 2014. For, in his operatic setting for Music Theatre Wales (in a remarkably faithful adaptation by librettist Christopher Hampton), Philip Glass triumphantly brought his own post-modernist perspective to bear on this most iconic of modernist works.
Perhaps one of the points which may emerge over the next four years of WWI commemoration is that modernism never actually ended, but rather morphed into different modernisms. At any rate, Glass’s music proved a natural complement to Kafka’s text, in a production which was enormously successful for the entire creative team (a national tour followed the world première and residency at the Royal Opera House, Linbury Studio Theatre – reviewed for WA Review by Linda Christmas). Glass may be known for his trademark oscillating arpeggios and scalic patterns, but here there is less chugging repetition than through-composed narrative development; indeed, the composer quite literally presents a ‘Prozess’ (The Trial’s original, German title), suffused with a brilliantly realised detached irony and black humour.
With Glass’s instrumentation subtly redolent of Weimar cabaret, director Michael McCarthy further hinted, in his production, at a kind of intriguing 21st-century Neue Sachlichkeit: objective, functional, witty and yet devastating in its portrayal of the powerlessness of the individual against the dehumanising ‘logic’ of the bureaucratic State. The MTW 8-strong cast and 12-piece ensemble under conductor Michael Rafferty were terrific in performance at Aberystwyth Arts Centre in October, with baritone Johnny Herford outstanding as Joseph K.
Further anniversaries in 2014 included ten-year celebrations apiece for the Welsh Camerata, Newport’s Riverside Arts Centre and Cardiff’s Wales Millennium Centre (which won a UK Theatre Award amongst others, as friendliest venue nation-wide), with thirty years each of the BBC National Chorus of Wales and Brecon Jazz Festival. Staying with that market town, CPE Bach’s tercentenary was an inspired focus of the Brecon Baroque Festival (which, incidentally, with Rachel Podger at the helm, does a huge amount in music education terms year-round for the children of Powys).
Based in, but decidedly not restricted to, Powys, the excellent Mid Wales Opera celebrated 25 years of touring productions to audiences that would otherwise never get to see opera. Often travelling to far-flung rural venues, MWO’s work is rightly acclaimed for its professionalism and imagination, making the very most of the tightest of budgets. I had some quibbles with director Jonathan Miller’s approach in last season’s Carmen, but composer Stephen McNeff’s specially-commissioned chamber scoring was fantastically imaginative (McNeff also happened to be a further, strong composer-in-residence at the Presteigne Festival, with an array of performances and premières, including an opera based on the life of Shelley, Prometheus Drown’d).
Across Wales, and throughout the year, the highlights were many on both large and small scales, staged and unstaged. In February, the BBC NOW gave a richly expressive performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 under Principal Conductor Thomas Søndergård at St David’s Hall in Cardiff (the news that the orchestra is set to remain orchestra-in-residence at this major venue is welcome indeed). Continuing the orchestral theme, Sinfonia Cymru’s ‘Small Nations Big Sounds’ Festival, too (October), was a resounding success for the enterprising chamber orchestra, who are exploring some truly innovative ideas and programmes.
March saw the Bangor New Music Festival and INTER/actions present an excellent – and rare – performance of Stockhausen’s Mantra (1970) for two pianos doubling percussion, and live electronics. The BNMF also featured an extraordinary ‘Portrait of Natasha Barrett’, with several acousmatic works by this leading – indeed, genuinely cutting edge – composer, who hails from Britain but who has been based in Norway since 1998. Her works are a masterclass in subtle and sophisticated sonic art, which, in concert here, gave new meaning to the term ‘moving image’; Barrett’s expert sound diffusion, with her ultra-fine nuances of perceptual distance and spatial transformation, demonstrated how acousmatic music at its best is a truly performative medium.
There were further, sad events in 2014, however, including the sudden, premature death of one of the nation’s most loved and respected contributors to the arts, Aidan Plender. Among his many roles, Plender was a former general manager of St David’s Hall and founder/leader of the first postgraduate course in arts management at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama – as well as Chairman of the Board at Sound Affairs and far, far more. He is a great loss and missed by many, personally and professionally.
Welsh National Opera too, is coming to terms with a shocking recent loss; here with the sudden death of the wonderful designer, Johan Engels, whose work we saw in 2013’s award-winning Lulu, as well as forthcoming in productions in 2015 (here is my review of director David Pountney’s breathtaking Magic Flute in Bregenz, for which Engels’ designs were out of this world in more ways than one). His loss is a huge one for the opera world.
On a happier note, WNO have had a fantastic 2014 all told, with many striking productions both new and in revival (and including their fantastic youth and community arms. You can read about Errollyn Wallen’s opera ANON here and here, courtesy of Cath Barton). Indeed, it is WNO to whom I turn for my overall 2014 highlight of the year. Yet again, we have seen highly imaginative and entertaining themed programming from CEO and Artistic Director Pountney, with his own, twin Rossini productions (of Moses in Egypt and William Tell) offering outstanding music-dramatic experiences to audiences across Wales and beyond. Pountney is a vigorous champion of exciting directors and productions from far and wide, and the combination of director Mariusz Trélinski’s elegant, noir production and Lothar Koenig’s ravishing orchestra made for a powerful rendition of Henze’s Boulevard Solitude as part of the spring ‘fallen women’ season.
But my overall highlight of 2014 was WNO’s production, by directors Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, of Schoenberg’s epic masterpiece Moses und Aron. The sheer scale of the undertaking for WNO is not to be underestimated, and this most complex, challenging of operas would simply not have been possible for the company to stage either financially or logistically, were it not for the inspired solution that these directors offered – nor Pountney’s quick grasping of the opportunity to import the production from Stuttgart Opera. That solution involved neither grand dramatic gestures nor spectacular effects – and, for some critics, this strayed too far from the visual ambition that Schoenberg himself held for the piece (complete with quasi-literal Golden Calfs, miracles, orgies and running through fires). In the real world of tightening fiscal belts, however, it was a masterstroke which not only enabled the first UK production of the opera since 1965, but which held an aesthetic integrity on its own terms.
With subtle metaphysics, the directors set the opera in a modern-day assembly room stripped of inessentials and ripe for political ferment. Theirs was an ingenious, highly suggestive effecting of Schoenberg’s Exodus multilayers, as the Golden Calf became a film, unseen by us but imagined through the reactions of the chorus; Schoenberg, of course, yearned to compose for film and knew its propaganda power. Here it was the music rather than visual image – appropriately enough from Moses’s point of view – which packed the visceral punch, from mob rule to fracturing self-doubt. Vocally, John Tomlinson was a superlative Moses, whose anguished Sprechstimme contrasted with Aron’s eloquent bel canto – a fantastic last minute Mark Le Brocq at the press night performance (covering for illness). Koenigs’ WNO Orchestra was brilliantly sinewy and translucent, but the crowning glory was the WNO Chorus, in an astonishingly virtuosic portrayal of both the desperate Israelites and their perplexing deity.
If ever a company demonstrated the enormous value of investment in the arts, WNO is surely it. On a budget far less generous than many big-name competitors elsewhere in the UK, the company – as it happens, like the smaller-scale Music Theatre Wales – is consistently producing work of the highest artistic standards that is both fresh, vital and alive. Let’s hope that they and the many other fantastic companies and ensembles working across Wales can continue with gathering strength and zest in the years to come, despite the undoubted financial and other challenges which are bound to come their way.
Find out more: Protect Music Education
original illustration by Dean Lewis