Wednesday, September 17, 2014

My CD of the year! or, Löwe hits the high spots

I don’t write about recordings. Well, not since the days when I penned my book Musical Theatre on Record, when listening to end-to-end LPs for nine months, and My Fair Lady discs, one after the other, for ten days, put me off records for so long, that even now – 15 years later -- I haven’t recovered.

And then, well, with one thing and another, music went out of my life.

Live music has now come cavalcading thoroughly back, but recordings? Paul has done his best. Tempted me with discs of Mendelssohn duets and viola music ... all my favourites … but it’s still a struggle. Maybe because my dear departed Ian (died 2006) was a famous record collector.

Fast forward to 2014. I still don’t really buy recordings. Except when Paul takes me to Dussmann, post-concert and a few beers, and then I often make the awful mistakes (eg the complete Handel oratorios). As always, most of my CD intake is in the way of gifts, usually from friends or young artists … I’m an honest man, and those ‘reviews’ are private.

Well, this year I’ve hit gold! First, I had the promising demo record of New Zealand singer Shaan Antunovic, and then….

Beginning of article proper.

In my very young days, there were three volumes of music, on the brought-from-Vienna piano, in our New-Zealandish house. Underneath the Austrian ceramic ‘death mask’ my mother always hated. Two of them were volumes of Schubert songs (which I gave away to a young singer, and have regretted it ever since, because he’ll never sing them), the third was Löwe. I tried. He was the more difficult to play and sing … ‘Prinz Eugen’ was good … but I hadn’t heard of him …

Dammit. Dad, why didn’t you tell me? Why didn’t I persist. Why did I only play Schubert’s ‘Erlkönig’ and not Löwe’s as well?

So, half a century on Löwe has come back into my life. On a friendly, gifted CD, modestly entitled ‘Carl Loewe Lieder & Balladen’.

I didn’t know the singer (I don't know any singers!), but I’d just heard the pianist. Five stars. So I actually played it. After a few beers. And then I had to play it again, next morning, to be sure that it wasn’t just the beers … and I was right, this CD is outstanding.

It’s not my business to extol Löwe. He is one of the greatest of all Lieder composers. In my opinion, just about the greatest. What power, what drama, what melody … He set those same well-known words that so many C19th songwriters set, and oh! what he made of them! Well, comparisons are invidious, I guess … but just listen to what he did with the Erl King!

Actually, listen to it on this recording. There can’t be a better one. I don’t know the work of Roman Trekel, although I realise he is a well-known Kammersänger, but all I can say is, I think that he is the most stunning Lieder singer – especially for this type of song -- that I’ve ever heard. A mature, wide-ranging Verdi baritone crossed with the talents of a chansonnier. No! I’m not exaggerating. I’ve just listened to the whole disc yet again, to make sure I wasn’t deceiving myself. It’s a doozie! A triumph.

I’m not going to enumerate, track by track. It would sound like a great gush. Every single number is a joy (OK, Erlkönig is, of course, my favourite); and vocalist, pianist (Daniel Heide) and composer – with a little help from Goethe et al – have here made a recording which is my most liked of this year.

Maybe I have really do have to go back to listening to recorded music again.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

A Tale of Three Concerts, or the great, the not-so-bad and the ugly

Now that the exercise season is winding down, and my departure from Berlin is imminent, I felt it was time to top up my concert quotient for the year: somehow, we don’t seem to have taken in very many musical evenings since those fine evenings with the Quatuor Ebène and Mdlle Trommenschlager. Radialsystem seems to be devoting itself to weird programmes, the Spiegelsaal is closed … but our much-loved Piano Salon Christophori is open, and even giving vocal concerts, so we booked in for three evenings, this week. Three evenings very different, as it turned out, from one another, in interest, quality and performance.

The first was a concert by a Uzbekistani pianist whose name I forget. And, a week later, I'm afraid I’ve sort of forgotten the whole competent but rather unmagical concert. We chose it because the programme included Scriabin, some Schumann, but mainly the Schubert impromptus, which had been part of our lives for a week or three. One evening, I had tried to describe to Paul the last stages of my own pianistic career, and the piece of Chopin with which I had won my last-ever prize. He didn’t know it! Eventually, I managed to one-finger it out on the piano and a magic website identified it: Schubert’s A flat impromptu. So we had to go and hear it live! So, thank you for that, sir. And for an introduction to the wee Scriabin piece.

We were excited about the second one. The Copland songs, which Paul knows intimately and adores unconditionally, and the whole of the Charlotte Bray ‘Yellow Leaves’, of which Lea Trommenschlager had given us an interesting taste. It looked like a long programme, so I was a bit cross when it didn’t start till nearly 9pm. I was soon very, very much crosser. And Paul was ropable. Stiff with fury.
Copland was crucified. The pianist seemed to be sight-reading, the soprano was consequently terrified into unsure pitch, short breathing and just plain errors. Professionals (who charge 25 euros a ticket) just don’t present a work in such a state. Culpably under-learned and under-rehearsed. Even amateurs do better. Herewith a couple of students in the same work:

I don’t know if ‘Yellow Leaves’ was better. The composer hugged everyone, so I assume that most of her notes were played and sung. But it, too, was wracked with nerves and unsteadiness. And then, finally, we got to hear the young singer in her comfort zone: three beautiful songs of Faure, beautifully sung. If you are going to give what was, clearly, an ad hoc concert, stick to works you know. Even if the concert is sponsored by a composer’s agent. And don’t charge 25e a ticket. Your reputation will suffer, and so will that of everyone else concerned.

And if you don't know your music, don't insult us by bringing on the score ... even of 'Der Nussbaum'!

I cancelled the next night’s tickets. The Strauss etc songs promised had been sicked-off, and replaced by Alban Berg etc by a different singer. But just a minute! That singer was Stella Doufexis, whom we’d tried to see last year. Accompanied by Daniel Heide. We un-cancelled. And thank goodness we did. It was, by a street, the best concert of the three.

The lady is a stylish, intelligent, consummate Lieder singer, with an attractive mezzo voice. You knew you were going to be all right when she walked on. Svelte, unfussy dark dress, everything from great hair, to well-planned make-up, to a pair of can't-resist-em dangly earrings that brought your gaze to her face. The face where the stories of the songs were to be enacted. As they were.
The Berg was early Berg, so turned out to be neat and pleasant. The Debussy was deliciously sung, in such crystalline French that I assumed the lady was native French, the Schumann cycle was a total pleasure. And all sung with effortless accuracy (and just an occasional opening up of full, rich, mezzo forces) and accompanied by a real five-star accompanist …

Piano Salon, you are redeemed. I consider I have paid (happily) 50e for the Doufexis-Heide concert, and the other one was free. That makes me content. And we even bought the CD, and instead of going straight home (my invariable rule), stopped for a midnightish pernod on the Ufer.

You win some and you lose some!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Back in the Business: My 'film debut' ...

The talent spotter … spotted!

I’m the sort of person who smiles and nods, and says ‘good morning’ to people in the street, and, over the past two years, when visiting Paul’s flat, I’ve often exchanged a word or two, of the kind, with his downstairs neighbour, Youssef. Youssef is from Morocco, so any communication can always fall back on French!

I’d heard that he and his children, Aissa and Kahina, were film-makers, but imagine my surprise, a short while ago, when Paul asked me, would I do a voice-over for them. The young people needed an English-language sound track for a promotional film, and they had spotted the elderly gentleman ‘with the wise voice’. Of course, I said ‘yes’. Even though my speech is, these days, a little hampered by the sequels of the stroke and the pieces of plastic which do me duty as teeth.

So, we gathered in Paul’s studio, I put on my David Dimbleby-Pathé News voice … and away we went!
And, here’s the result.

Last night, we re-gathered at Hochstrasse for a lovely family evening. Youssef cooked us a delicious Moroccan meal, we chatted in a mixture of tongues, and I caught up on the news. The family are heading for America in a few weeks, to show their film at Festivals and colleges on the west coast …

And a little bit of me goes along too. You never know what life will turn up next!

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Detox Diary (Part 3): I'm still going ...!

I know. It’s six weeks since I last checked in with a report on my athletic, health and girth progress.
Does this mean I’ve fallen off the cart. Faded out. Given up?  No. It doesn’t, although a few events in Real Life have meant that I haven’t quite done my daily dozen, during that time, with the regularity of the first days and weeks.

There was the arrival of ‘Yoshi’ the piano.

There was a rotten little flu bug. And, of course, there was a whole week out for my Whoopie-Ohio trip. And much of another week, afterwards, for recovery from the worst jetlag I‘ve ever suffered. But I had to wrench myself to life, and go down to Holmes Place to see Sascha the wonderman, because my neck and back were twisted into the vilest and most painful contortions, after 9 hours times two in an Air Berlin cattle-class seat. They are, I swear, the skinniest airplane seats and the most uncomfortable ever.

But, in between times, I’ve battled away. More of the same. New exercises, new machines. New frustrations. The right arm (the stricken one) is still noticeably the weaker. And progress doesn’t go in a straight line. Just when you think you’ve conquered that repetition of the 6kg weight, the next day its all custard.

Well, today I did conquer it. 15 good presses with each arm … and then a friendly German with a perfect body (no 6-pack) came by and picked up the 10kg one … sob! … and did a perfect arabesque while holding it. And he wasn’t even 20 years younger than I. But neither did he have a belly.

Yes, my belly is still a feature. I’m afraid it’s never going to go wholly away. But it IS better? Yes?

But what’s more: I’m better. Really. And I feel better. Especially when I don’t drink more than x cocktails or one bottle of wine an evening. Yes, I know. The boys at the gym are shocked. They’re young, healthy and teetotal. But, I’m sorry. I’ve given up every other vice ‘a gentleman never mentions’. I’ll drink less, but not nil. Doctor’s orders!

But today was a good day. Even if a solo day, for Paul was off in Hof at a wedding. Somehow, my workout stretched to 50 minutes (Nik has been teaching me all sorts), even without the painful roller, and without the machines that were busy. Then I met my new German friend at the pool, and had a nice chat. He’s got a job interview tomorrow: please! that he gets it. His wife is living and working in Berlin, while he’s boarding 400km away where his job is. Well, I guess if I meet him in the spa again, it means he got it!

I had the sauna all to myself, so I dripped for 12 minutes. An English spa nurse once said I shouldn’t do sauna, because of my heart ‘problem’. So I don’t usually go in alone. Well, that’s my excuse. I enjoy the sweating. But I do get the giggles sometimes.
Is there a sauna etiquette? I mean, there are heaps of rules round Holmes Place. Where you must and must not wear footwear, badehose necessary (sadly) in the pool. And, I think, no badehose in the sauna. It’s all right, if you’re modest you can have a towel. But …

We all go in with a towel, most of us lie on it (the shelves are hot!). Others drape it tactically, or wind it aggressively round their waist. You have about 10pc peacocks, 20pc free spirits, 40pc artistic arrangers, 25pc towlies (the girls have theirs on their hair) and 5pc illegal badehose. It is rare to speak or smile (a few of us do, though). And, I think, probably considered ‘bad manners’ to look. Yet, when they go outside, many of the ‘shy’ ones shower and rub down naked … The funniest are the Egyptians. I don’t know if they are from Egypt, but that’s what I call them: they remind me of the Egyptians in the Asterix comics. All 30-40 (?) with a North African complexion, all with gayshaven locks, all with Pierce Brosnan semi-beards, all with more or less successfully cultivated bodies, and probably a less successfully cultivated IQ, and ALL with their genitalia locked away behind tight towels or trunks, as if it were against their religion to be seen otherwise. I don’t think they go to the gym: just the pool and sauna.
Me, I just amble in, take the nearest spot, stretch out on my towel, shut my eyes (no, not for THAT reason, the sweat gets in them otherwise!), have a good drip for 10 minutes or so and then out. Grand cold shower, repeat in steamroom, shower II, and then off to the weighing room.

Today I was a world record 75.2kg.  If, in the six weeks remaining, I can lose one kilogram more, that will be 10kg shed during my time here. A stone and a half? Add to that Sascha’s revitalising of my arms and hip … I think I can say ‘mission highly successful’. 2000 euros well spent.

So, on I go. Wish me luck for those 6 weeks! This has been a grand summer project. Three cheers for Holmes Place and all who sail in her!

Sunday, August 3, 2014

A TRIP TO OHIO, a musical experience in five days

For the last five days, I’ve been in Ohio.  Yes, Ohio, USA.  Yes, I know I said, years ago, that I’d visited America for the last time in my life, but….

Why Ohio? Well, I’ve been at a symposium and a festival. A symposium on, and a festival of, musical theatre. Yes, I know I said, years ago, that I was finished with building my life around and writing books about musical theatre, but…

Anyhow. Way back in the southern summer, I received an invitation ('Look ma’am an invitation, Here, ma’am, delivered by hand..’) to take part in the Ohio Light Opera’s season and symposium on Operetta, at the College of Wooster. Of course, I couldn’t possibly. I’m a writer, not a speaker. And, anyway, my speech is kind of indistinct since the stroke. No good for public speaking. I couldn’t possibly. And travel all that way from Berlin on my wobbly own? Ah. Kevin Clarke would be one of the speakers, and he’d be coming from Berlin …? But, I couldn’t possibly. So I said ‘yes’.

And thank goodness I did. I’ve had a most wonderful time.

The symposium turned out to be a real classy affair. Apart from Kevin (who is principal of the Operetta Research Centre) and I, Stefan Frey, the biographer of three of the most important operettic composers, came from Munich, and dearly beloved old friend Richard Norton, the chronicler of Broadway, came from New York. The world’s number one musicals record collector, Brad Bennett, came from Los Angeles, and Andrea Traubner, widow of Richard of Operetta renown, from New York. There was Victor Herbert guru Steven Ledbetter from Tanglewood, entertainer Courtenay Kenny from London, mega-operetta fan Chris Weber from Nicaragua … and, most operettically grandiose of all, Yvonne Kálmán, daughter of the famous composer, all the way from Mexico…

We all wended our way to beautiful Wooster, foregathered at the college on the Tuesday morning, and for the next four days, fifteen hours a day, with regular stops for lightning sustenance, it was all operetta and musical theatre from breakfast to bedtime. Even when the sessions of discussion and lecture were over, what did we talk about? Guess. We had Gilbert and Sullivan, we had Kálmán, we had Herbert, Kern and Berlin … my contribution was a G&S talk from the angle of the original caster, and a controversial ‘what is operetta?’. But it wasn’t all talk.

The Ohio Light Opera is a summer company, which plays a wide repertory of musical-theatre shows, staged in a respectful and historical manner, in the 400-seater Freedlander Theatre of the College of Wooster during the vacation. It’s been going and growing since 1979, and this year it presented over fifty performances of seven shows, ranging from Strauss and Sullivan to Kern and Berlin. The Pirates of Penzance and Fledermaus to Call Me Madam.

However, the bit of programming which sparked the interest of all of us present was the promised first English-language production of Imre Kálmán’s A kis király, an Operette hardly seen out since its unfortunate first performances in 1912, and the equally unlikely The Dream City/The Magic Knight, a 1906 piece of burlesque comedy with a score (some of the time) by Victor Herbert.

So after a morning spent talking about music-theatre, to an audience of over a hundred participants, at 2pm and 7.30pm we had … showtime!  I managed six shows (jetlag and over-familiarity caused me to skip what, I’m told, was a good My Fair Lady) by the end of which I was starting to be pretty familiar with the members of the company. For, yes, largely the same team played every show. Mabel from Pirates turned up in the chorus of Fledermaus, the splendid Orlofsky from Fledermaus was a dancing girl in Oh! Lady! Lady!, the rebel leader of one show was the low comic of the next, the young trio of baritenor leading men filled all sorts of rôles, large, very large and not large. But lively, and truly sung, danced and acted …

Thursday was the day of days. After a concert of ‘cutting room floor’ songs by a group of the young folk, and my last bit of ‘work’, it was time for The Little King, translated and directed by the OLO’s artistic director, Steven Daigle. What would it be like? I’m always wary of unsuccessful works by famous writers. Well, now I know. By my judgement, it certainly didn’t and doesn’t deserve to be consigned to oblivion. It is a classically proportioned and flavoured musical of the European 1910s, with a solid storyline which is allegedly based on the dethroning of King Manoel of Portugal. It actually seems more to me like a romantic Zarevitch-like take on the tale of His Official Wife and its American musical comedy metamorphosis as The Red Widow, a hit of the previous season on Broadway. But who cares?

It is the standard Operette combination of a romantic and a dramatic tale, with soubrette accompaniment, which Kálmán and his librettists used regularly in his most successful works. I reckon that, here – and especially in the music -- the romantic and dramatic side comes off the more strongly and successfully. Once, that is, you have accepted the premise of a prima donna who is a suicide bomber (see The Red Widow). 

The musical highlights of the piece were the rebels’ ‘Freedom Song’ and the succession of numbers for the King and his prima donna, which bring the second act to its very splendid abdication climax.

Barely had we time to take in all this new and hugely interesting material (plus a delightful picnic on the immaculate green lawns by the theatre) than it was time for Chapter Two. And it was rather a contrast. Victor Herbert is known for ‘Ah Sweet Mystery of Life’ and ‘Kiss Me, Again’ rather than for burlesque music, but that is what we had here. Dream City is a burlesque sketch, written for the low ‘Dutch’ comic, Joe Weber, and the inserted The Magic Knight is a broad parody of Wagner’s Lohengrin. It’s a sort of musical theatre which doesn’t exist today. Well, more’s the pity.

It’s topical – all about property developers and their victims – full of the stock comic characters of the turn-of-the-century German-American stage, one joey-joey after another, one ‘pop’ song after another – with titles such as ‘Nancy, I Fancy You’ and ‘I don’t think I’ll ever be a Lady’ – it has vaudeville acts and parodies pasted into its programme, and the central burlesque of grand opera is simply a hoot.
Staged, directed and played with enormous vigour and no end of fun, it went down a treat with the packed house (and with me!) … how did this kind of musical theatre ever fade away? This should be standard repertoire, above all in its native America.

Six shows in four days. If they weren’t all from different parts of the musical theatre canon, you’ld get them muddled up in your memories. Sitting on the plane, on the long trip back to Berlin, I pulled out my personal favourite performances and moments of the week. In sort of chronological order.

Pirates. The most sprightly, lively Mabel Stanley (Chelsea Friedlander) I’ve ever seen. No pale and wandering prima donna, but a jolly, naughty opéra-bouffe leading lady with a searing soprano that soared over the ensemble. I’d just lectured on G&S casting, and pointed out Sullivan’s preference for Jewish leading ladies (Alice May, Helene Crosmond, Marion Hood, Leonora Braham): Miss Friedlander joins the club. Sullivan would have loved her. In fact, he’d probably have loved the whole female chorus with their flowing ringlets and ditsy frocks.

Fledermaus. In another splendidly comical and lively performance, my favourite moments came in perhaps unexpected places: the delightfully limber Frank of Jayson Lebaron and, above all, the exceptional Orlofsky of Olivia Maughan. A delicious mezzo voice, a sense of fun and – the reason the Prince is played by a girl, is because he’s a teenager – Ms Maughan made him a real character: not a middle-aged contralto in drag.

Little King. Not a show to find your favourites amongst the supporting roles. Here, all the spotlight is on, and all the starlight comes from, the two leading characters. Clark Sturdevant, in the title role, was believeably royal and believeably dramatic, and sang with grand tenorious energy, and Natalie Ballenger as the lady with the bomb was … explosive!  But I did have a special weakness for Anthony Maida in the Ernst Tautenhayn comedy and dance role.

Call Me Madam is a pure and simple star vehicle, and Alexa Devlin took every advantage of its opportunities, but my golden moments came from the juveniles. Stephen Faulk and Tara Sperry were quite enchanting in acting, singing and dancing … perfect casting, alongside the powerhouse Mrs Sally Adams.

Oh! Lady!! Lady!!! is a piece of period froth which needs a special light and bubbling touch in its playing. Nathan Brian in the central role of Bill Finch had that touch down to a ‘T’ and his Mollie (Wendy Marck) was an ideal partner who gave the wisely-restored ‘Bill’ in such a way as to make it seem a new song, and not a chestnut.

And Dream City? Everyone. Just everyone. The company had the (Joe) Weberian style right at their fingertips. Daniel Neer, hilarious in the low ‘Dutch’ Joe Weber role, Nathan Brian as his sleazy song-and-dance protaganist, Alexa Devlin as the raucous comedy maid, Julie Wright Costa in one of several triumphant character roles as the battleaxe wife  … and I’m still laughing at Sturdevant’s pure, parfait and poncy Knight.

But, if I were giving out my ‘Kurt’ awards in Ohio, I would have to award the golden statue to Natalie Ballenger. 

Anyone who can play and sing as she did, as the prima donna bomber in The Little King, so as to give me a genuine quivery lip, and then come out a few hours later, as the Belle of Malaria Centre, and do Cissie Loftus impersonations of Hattie Williams and Lillian Russell in such a way as to have the house (especially me!) in fits of laughter, is a rather special artist. Not to say the ideal leading lady for a repertory company. A leading lady who played in the chorus in Oh! Lady!! Lady!!!. That’s what this company is all about. And I love them for it.

PS Kevin and I both picked our favourite chorus member. Tricky when you have a chorus that includes last night’s leading lady! But, guess what? we both picked the same person. Hannah Kurth, take a bow!

The company is, of course, not only players. The team includes a vast back and front-stage staff and a fine orchestra which almost bulges from its pit. I liked very much their accompaniment to Sullivan and to Strauss, I loved their burleycue Victor Herbert, and only felt that the Kálmán could have had a bit more oomph, especially in its dance numbers, and the Kern a little more bubble.

And now, I’ve just rolled in to Berlin on the milk-train flight.  Wooster, Ohio, with its lovely green lawns and its treat of musical theatre seems a world away. Well, I suppose it is. But I sha’n’t forget it. The music-theatre conversation and camaraderie, the shows and the singers, the new friends … all in five days!

And to think I might have missed it!