Escaping the Musical Octopuses of 2013: a Year in Wales

Wagner, Stravinsky, and even Debussy are first-rate octopuses. Whoever goes near them is sore put to it to escape from their tentacles.

These words of Jean Cocteau, written in 1918, have echoed ironically in my mind throughout this year as the UK classical music and operatic mainstreams have trumpeted certain anniversaries to the skies, whilst all but ignoring others. It was perhaps inevitable in 2013 that the dual birth bicentenaries of Wagner and, to a lesser degree, Verdi would take centre stage in the national debate, together with the birth centenary of Suffolk’s most famous son Benjamin Britten – and, as we must all surely know by now, it is one hundred years since the riot at the premiere of Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring seemed unequivocably to announce the birth of modernism in music, in Paris, 1913. Or so the story goes.

Such events are watershed moments in our shared musical heritage and it is important to celebrate and reappraise them. But the increasing obsession with composers’ birth dates across UK classical music is artistically arbitrary – and the profession pays far more attention to dead than living composers, with massively more weight given to the (often distant) past than to what’s being written now compared with other art forms. Anniversary themes are often devised with a view to bums on seats, which can lead to a skewing of programmes in favour of the most obvious and most simplistic historical narratives. Regarding those Paris riots, for instance, far fewer people might be aware that Debussy’s Jeux had already caused upset upon its premiere a fortnight previously. Or that six weeks earlier still, in Vienna, an equally violent – and just maybe equally pivotal – riot took place at a thence-named Skandalkonzert on March 31st, when two orchestral songs from Berg’s Altenberg Lieder Op. 4 were premiered alongside works by Webern, Schoenberg, Zemlinsky and Mahler. Indeed, this was an uproar in response to the music itself rather than to choreography, as was largely the case at the Paris incidents which followed; at the Rite premiere, the music was said to have been barely audible over the racket which greeted Nijinsky’s dancers, and a subsequent concert performance of the score met with resounding success.

Again, with Wagner – just a thought prompted by the new Royal Opera House production of Parsifal which is playing as I write – of perhaps far greater interest than his birth date, and the ‘rivalry’ with Verdi which is still tiredly spun from it today, is the fact that the copyright on that final, enigmatic and transcendent work ran out thirty years after Wagner’s death … in 1913 no less, thereby enabling opera houses beyond Bayreuth to stage Parsifal for the first time. A slew of highly significant performances duly followed across Europe on 1st January 1914 and thereafter on the very verge of World War I – including in Paris, where Stravinsky is said to have resented the adoration of Wagner which ensued.

Here in Wales at least – as I will come to when I’ve finished grumbling – the pattern has been refreshingly different in certain key areas in 2013 thanks to some inspired thinking outside the thematic box. But it takes a brave programmer indeed to resist entirely the temptation of such easy marketing gold, and here too – with notable exceptions – where attention has fallen on past composers with ‘round number’ anniversaries, the usual repertoire suspects have largely been employed and some composers have been bypassed almost entirely. Britten, of course, has had (arguably more than) his due, from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales (the Spring Symphony and more) to the Presteigne Festival (a splendid Curlew River and much else) and Welsh National Youth Opera (a hit Paul Bunyan), and from Mid Wales Opera (a well-received Albert Herring) to Gregynog Festival (the redoubtable Llŷr Williams and more within a ‘Great Britten’ theme). ¹

But where was Witold Lutosławski in Wales in his birth centenary year? Or elsewhere beyond the Philharmonia Orchestra and the odd BBC Prom for that matter? One of the most important symphonists of the European postwar, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales’ exuberant performance of his Concerto for Orchestra was surely welcome in Cardiff, but, by itself, was hardly reflective of Lutosławski’s overall output or international stature. Moreover, if we are going to insist on celebrating birth dates, it seems odd not to at least acknowledge the anniversary of a composer’s death from a legacy perspective. Francis Poulenc and Paul Hindemith both died fifty years ago this year. Inevitably, Poulenc was given greater exposure (Hindemith is shamefully neglected on concert platforms throughout the UK – if not on CD), as BBC NOW teamed up with the BBC National Chorus of Wales to celebrate the chorus’s 30th anniversary with Poulenc’s ever-popular Gloria, following a Britten/Poulenc concert earlier in the year.

So it fell to the enterprising Arcomis Brass Event to offer the most inclusive tributes. Indeed, without shouting any agenda from the rooftops, Arcomis gave all these major composers a quiet but palpable presence in a variety of beautifully integrated programmes which also featured Luciano Berio, who died in 2003. Berio, of course, was least likely to be remembered this year, as postwar and contemporary music is still a niche within a niche, and certain types of modernism are now distinctly unfashionable. But the Bangor New Music Festival too came up trumps; thoughtfully programming Berio’s music alongside contemporary pieces written in tribute to him by composers based in Wales, including Andrew Lewis and Patricia Alessandrini.

All this touches on many deeper cultural issues – not least why there continues to be an anxious focus on the past in classical music (and at a time when some in the western world are flirting with arrogant notions of the supposed end of history). But, that’s a more problematic debate still for another day. In the meanwhile, none of the above would matter if it weren’t for the problem that, in our materialist, celebrity culture, the best-known composers – who are by no means necessarily the ‘best’ or most interesting composers – are inevitably given the greatest and least needed performance exposure. This in turn further enhances their individual profile and the whole dubious industry of the so-called ‘great composer’ and ‘masterwork’, but often with little, serious contextual debate about the music or why it might be important to us today.



But enough complaints. For, notwithstanding these deeper issues, here in Wales at least, the energy, enthusiasm and sheer musical quality so widely on offer this year were a joy to behold, as evidenced by the excellent concerts and productions I’ve already mentioned. Inevitably, of the many performances and programmes on offer from the mainstream music institutions, certain events stood out for me. For instance, entirely bypassing the clichés of the ‘big three’ anniversaries (Paul Bunyan staged by its youth arm rather than the main company, and Verdi next spring rather than in 2013), Welsh National Opera delivered some of the most powerful and consistently exciting productions it has been my pleasure to experience anywhere, anytime (although I must also acknowledge English National Opera’s recent, compelling Satyagraha revival, if only in passing).

The first ever performance in Wales of Berg’s Lulu in its three-act entirety marked the opening of the year and the true arrival of David Pountney as CEO and Artistic Director of the company. It was a momentous occasion and the production was musically and visually stunning. ² Lulu’s story was not so much told as exposed, layer by layer, in a way completely befitting her ambiguous status as a mythical spirit and an abused woman-child, whose magnetic eroticism creates torment and chaos for everyone around her. Marie Arnet was a revelation in the lead role at very short notice, whilst conductor Lothar Koenigs rendered Berg’s colours and romantic lyricism in the pit with searing intensity. Most happily for me, the surreal black humour of the Wedekind plays on which Berg based his libretto was rendered in visionary fashion by Pountney’s production, and the role of Schigolch – Lulu’s enigmatic father/lover/pimp – was given rare emphasis as the rotten core of the tragedy. Richard Angas shone here, as in other roles for WNO this year, in Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen and Jonathan Harvey’s Wagner Dream, so it was with particular sadness that I noted his death in August after a lifetime of outstanding contributions to opera worldwide. (Sadly, the director Patrice Chéreau also died this year; he who was responsible for the wonderful world premiere of the completed Lulu in Paris 1979, conducted by Pierre Boulez, amongst many other achievements). ³

WNO’s Lulu was twinned with The Cunning Little Vixen as the first of a series of themed seasons marking a new approach by Pountney. So far, his concept has worked superbly, offering a genuinely fresh and intelligently engaging perspective on opera in the 21st century. Rather than simply trotting out Wagner for his bicentenary, for instance (an anomalous concert misadventure aside), WNO twinned an excellent new production of Lohengrin with a radiant first full production of Wagner Dream in the UK, thereby presenting an opportunity to appraise Wagner’s enduring musical and philosophical legacies from a fascinating standpoint in the here and now. But crucially, as well as offering the complementary chance to look forwards, as it were, from Wagner to contemporary opera, Wagner Dream also stood on its own terms; just like Lohengrin in its day, the product of a living, breathing art form.

Come the autumn, some questioned the wisdom of WNO in mounting three lesser-known Donizetti operas. I myself was initially sceptical, as costume drama and royalty can be two of the most tedious areas of our history-sodden culture – and worse when played for popular appeal. But thankfully, WNO’s Tudor theme turned out to be both subtly intriguing (if you pardon the pun) and, ultimately, vindicated by the utter triumph of the third opera of the ‘trilogy’, Roberto Devereux, which made sense of the whole, immersive season – and this despite disastrous aspects of the middle opera, Maria Stuarda. Devereux’s conductor Daniele Rustioni galvanised his largely excellent cast, as well as the reliably superb orchestra and chorus, to give a very fine performance indeed, whilst director Alessandro Talevi’s staging came into its own in this last, extraordinary installment of the series. From the giant mechanical spider to the – yes – bleak monochrome setting and mainly dark, fetishistic costumes, this was riveting stuff and played entirely convincingly to Donizetti’s crude blend of historic, romantic fantasy and bel canto.

WNO are not the only opera company based in Wales that is excelling in international terms, however, and this year saw the 25th anniversary of the contemporary touring company Music Theatre Wales. Both companies have won major plaudits and awards this year ⁴ – and quite rightly. MTW’s recent, outstanding UK premiere of Salvatore Sciarrino’s sublime The Killing Flower – my highlight of the year – was the culmination of an exceptional 2013 overall, in which the company’s sheer diversity and enterprising willingness to support composers both relatively new to opera and highly experienced paid dividends. Presenting the wonderful Ping by Vasco Mendonça and Peter Maxwell Davies’ classic Eight Songs for a Mad King – another example of inspired programme ‘twinning’ – plus a revival of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s hard-hitting first opera Greek, MTW showed enormous musical and dramatic accomplishment across a vast sylistic range. Post-Sciarrino, their future looks very bright indeed and I look forward to next year’s new Philip Glass opera and, especially, to projected further forays into European music theatre.

On the concert platform, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales have had a terrific year overall, inspired – at least partly – by their increasingly exciting artistic partnership with Principal Conductor Thomas Søndergård, who has now completed his first full year with the orchestra. I have to say I was not entirely won over by Søndergård’s debut Sibelius 5 with the orchestra back in 2012. Since then, however, he has not just quickly settled in, but produced some fine, distinguished performances, both here in Wales and at the BBC Proms. In Cardiff, there were two stand-out highlights for me; both part of the ongoing series of symphonic ‘fives’ of which the Sibelius signaled the start. Firstly, Nielsen 5 in April with a relentless, almost brutally electrifying performance, and secondly – and most wonderfully – Mahler 5 in June. This latter occasion rendered a too-often sprawling work of ‘too many’ movements into a tightly-woven symphony of rare organic cohesion and powerful intensity throughout, helped by some outstanding playing from an entirely committed and brilliantly capable orchestra. It showed what these excellent musicians can collectively achieve with an intuitive communicator like Søndergård at the helm, whose conducting on these and other occasions has revealed a mature and subtle command of long-range musical thinking. If Søndergård’s Mahler 5 (and, indeed, his Shostakovich 8) is anything to go by, the orchestra’s forthcoming performance of Mahler 9 in February 2014 promises to be thrilling indeed.

Happily, BBC NOW is not reliant on Søndergård to shine as, of course, many other conductors also work with the orchestra. Just last week, on December 2nd, I thoroughly enjoyed the last in a terrific four-part series of afternoon ‘Americana’ concerts featuring US composers both familiar and little-known. Here it was the exuberant Carlos Kalmar who took the podium to deliver music which ranged from the rythmically-driven to the poignantly elegiac. The whole programme was played with wit, style and purpose – and with some wonderful flute playing from the exceptional Adam Walker and BBC NOW’s own Principal Flute Matthew Featherstone. But Randall Thompson’s  Symphony No. 2 stood out; a work of rhythmic candour and delight which, like so many of the pieces from this series, deserves to be far better known. Howard Hanson’s Elegy was written for conductor and impresario Serge Koussevitzky and, in many ways, it was this dedicatee who shone brightest from behind the scenes throughout the series as, without Koussevitsky’s pioneering spirit, so much of this and other repertoire would simply not exist (including Britten’s Spring Symphony). These four concerts effectively embodied that spirit through joined-up programming at its imaginative best; painting an intricate picture of the breadth and exuberant scale of music-making in the USA, pre-WWII in particular. Oh, to follow with a series featuring the more left-field Americans such as Henry Cowell et al!

It is often – though by no means entirely – through external partnerships that the BBC NOW gets to perform more progressive repertoire. For the orchestra has an active touring programme that ranges from sturdy traditional fare in towns throughout Wales to contemporary music in more adventurous festivals. On the latter front this year, as well as contributions to the Arcomis Brass Event, the orchestra played two key concerts in the extended Vale of Glamorgan Festival in May. Both were excellent and the first sealed for me the outstanding discovery of the festival in the form of (another!) American composer, Sebastian Currier. We also heard some superb Latvian and Lithuanian music throughout the eleven days, as well as works by the ever-youthful Graham Fitkin (who turned fifty this year). Just before the festival started, however, shocking news emerged of the tragic loss of Steve Martland at just 53 years old; a composer of Fitkin’s generation who also studied with Louis Andriessen and who was a vital part of the UK minimalist and post-minimalist scenes. I hope fervently that we will get to hear some tributes to Martland in Wales. In the meanwhile, on a further sad note, John Tavener will not now, of course, be able to hear the 2014 Vale of Glamorgan Festival celebrate his music. ⁵ No doubt, next year’s festival will be an occasion of much joy as well as poignancy, however, and a welcome opportunity to reflect on the legacy of a composer who has touched millions of people.

In terms of global reach, there is one classical music competition and festival in Wales which benefits hugely from the kind of exposure that only being part of the BBC family can bring; BBC Cardiff Singer of the World. This year, hopes were high for Wales’ own, the baritone Gary Griffiths, but, in the event, the competition fielded an array of exceptional singers – not least tenor Ben Johnson who deservedly won the Audience Prize (and who is currently doing his best to inject substance into Simon McBurney’s disappointingly pantomime staging of Mozart’s The Magic Flute at ENO). The standout winner, though, in both the Main and Song Prizes, was mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, whose voice and sheer musical presence truly graced the platform – and served as a reminder of the kind of down-to-earth, unaffected artistry that marks out the truly stellar from the merely excellent on the world stage.

This year, ensembles, orchestras and composers everywhere have continued to struggle as the jaws of austerity bite deeper and harder. New York has lost its City Opera whilst the Minnesota Orchestra has locked out its musicians, and here in the UK, music budgets are being squeezed and squeezed – often to death in the case of smaller, less mainstream projects and within the education sector. But music-making of international stature is very much alive and kicking in Wales, away from such blockbuster events as the BBC Proms and the South Bank Centre’s year-long The Rest is Noise festival. And not just through the major institutions I have touched on above, but through many fine ensembles, music theatre and opera companies, festivals and concert series throughout the land. Sinfonia Cymru’s Unbuttoned series is just one initiative taking a fresh look at the way music is performed, whilst OPRA Cymru takes the classics to Welsh-speaking audiences – and figures such as composer Charlie Barber of Sound Affairs happily continue to thrive, showing that true independence of spirit need not be a bar to success in the ‘real’ world. So let’s celebrate the diversity, breadth and creativity of ‘classical’ music in Wales in 2013 and going forwards – and enjoy the very distance from London, Aldeburgh, Huddersfield and other centres of tradition elsewhere in the UK, which affords us the opportunity for greater freedom, too, from those clutching anniversary tentacles if we choose to embrace it.



¹ The royalties pouring into the Britten estate must be substantial indeed from around the world this year and I hope this will lead to an increase in the sponsorship of living composers that the Britten-Pears Foundation already generously provides.

² For my full review see Planet Magazine No. 210, Summer 2013

³ A huge and irreplaceable loss in both the opera and concert worlds was, of course, Sir Colin Davis, who died in April.

⁴ WNO won the TMA award for Achievement in Opera for its productions of Lulu and Lohengrin, whilst Paul Bunyan was nominated for a South Bank Show Award. MTW won a South Bank Sky Arts award for 2012’s Ghost Patrol (with co-producers Scottish Opera). Ghost Patrol and In the Locked Room also won MTW an Olivier nomination. Greek, of course, won a UK Theatre award for Outstanding Achievement in Opera in 2011.

⁵ The great Henri Dutilleux also passed away in May, aged 97. We can but hope for some tributes to him from here in Wales.

Banner illustration by Dean Lewis