BBC feature: ENO premiers new Oedipus opera

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“Families come to the fore in this piece”, says composer Julian Anderson. “The family unit is the basic building block in so many societies – that’s what’s so fascinating about it.”

Read the full article here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-27275235

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BBC feature: RFH organ relaunched

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“It needs to be louder than an entire orchestra”, says William McVicker, the Southbank’s Organ Curator, demonstrating the instrument’s massive, full-throated tones with a passage from Jean Langlais’s Suite Breve.

Read the full article here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-26613078

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Belarus Free Theatre – The Show Must Go On

The eastern European country, Belarus, is often described as the continent’s last dictatorship. Its president, Alexander Lukashenko, has held on to power since 1994, and while the security services exercise tight control over dissent, since 2005, Belarus Free Theatre has been a critical voice in the country, promoting the works of Belarussian playwrights whose plays are banned inside Belarus, and holding an annual playwriting competition. This year, for the first time, the award ceremony for the competition was held in London. Jason Caffrey reports for BBC World Service, with following discussion with journalist Peter Pomerantsev and Politics professor, Julia Buxton. Presented by Paul Henley.

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Hooked on NMC

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It’s becoming an addiction.

First I stumbled across Richard Causton’s Twenty-seven Heavens. We were once schoolfriends, so I was both chuffed and impressed to find recordings of his compositions.

Then it was a trio of London Sinfonietta Shorts – a series of what you might call contemporary music singles. I sampled works by Mark Bowden, Harrison Birtwistle, and Dai Fujikura. They went straight into the shopping basket.

Before the week was out I snapped up two collections of Oliver Knussen’s works in quick succession, and went back in for the remaining two Sinfonietta Shorts. After hearing what Anna Meredith does with the bassoon, I’ll never think of it in the same way again.

Today I was tempted by Jonathan Harvey’s Bird Concerto with Piano song. I’m already eyeing Causton’s new release, along with more Birtwistle. Judith Weir and Mark-Anthony Turnage beckon.

The source of this new-found compulsion? The NMC online shop.

Now celebrating its 25th birthday, NMC will no doubt be familiar to devotees of new music. For newcomers keen to explore contemporary music, it’s a rich seam to be mined.

Championing living composers, NMC offers flac and mp3 downloads as well as hard copies of recordings, plus a music map charting the connections between composers.

It’s true, I drift off to Presto Classical or Qobuz now and again, or occasionally drop by at Linn to drool over their high resolution, high price downloads. I might even swing by Deutsche Grammophon. But right now it’s NMC that I find myself going to first, and going back to time and again.

I can hardly get enough of the music I’ve found there – the unexpected and unthought-of sounds, the tangential, the majestic, and the thrilling.

Factor in quality recordings by top flight artists and my resistance is crumbling. Add a simple, stylish presentation with album downloads for under nine quid and it’s all over. I’m hooked and happy. Hit me again.

A talent for seduction

 Mariusz Kwiecie as  Don Giovanni and Véronique Gens as  Donna Elvira,

Compulsion for seduction: Véronique Gens as Donna Elvira and Mariusz Kwiecie as Don Giovanni.

As the Royal Opera House prepares for a live cinema relay of Kasper Holten’s new production of Don Giovanni, conductor Nicola Luisotti gives Jason Caffrey an insight into Mozart’s tragicomedy.

“I think every man has a compulsion for seduction.”

Nicola Luisotti is at the end of a day’s rehearsal at the Royal Opera House, but shows no signs of fatigue as we sit down in his dressing room to discuss Mozart’s great seducer, Don Giovanni.

“Of course there are men that stop this impulse,” he tells me, with an animation and charisma that sit comfortably with his Italian-inflected English, “because they think it’s better to have a wife, have children, have a family.”

Hear the full interview with Nicola Luisotti on the Thump podcast:

In this quiet corner of the Royal Opera’s vast backstage complex, the conductor for the debut run of Kasper Holten’s new production ponders the lasting appeal of one of opera’s most dissolute characters.

“If we are talking about impulse, I have to be honest I have this kind of impulse. Of course…I have to stop this impulse, because life calls me.”

“Don Giovanni has a talent to seduce women”

Don Giovanni’s calling though, is to a destructive and fatal path. “What he does,” says Luisotti, “is just follow this impulse, and follow all the women that he meets, just to seduce them – because what is important for him is not just to have a woman but to seduce her.”

And this production sets out to be very clear about Don Giovanni’s power over women. “Donna Anna can’t resist him, Zerlina as well, and Elvira. Probably there is something about the way he smells – he has a talent, an attitude to seduce women.” Mischief crosses Luisotti’s face. “I think women like people that are bad boys,” he offers, “and Don Giovanni is a bad boy.”

Luisotti has enjoyed a career that has seen him raise the baton in front of orchestras from the Berlin Philharmonic to the Tokyo Symphony and the Russian National Orchestra. He holds two musical directorships, at the San Francisco Opera, and the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples. “It’s exhausting,” he says, but “this is my life and my life is in the music. I’m dedicating my life – like a priest dedicates his life to god – I think that music is the voice of god so I’m dedicating my life to this voice.”

But for all his undoubted commitment to music – not to mention wealth of experience – Don Giovanni continues to present him with its own special challenge.

“The problem,” says Luisotti, “is the marble.

“Does the statue represent his conscience? He killed a man in the morning…”

“With Don Giovanni,” he continues, “there is a problem at the end when a statue comes on stage. A statue! It is impossible! None of us has seen a (living) statue before. I can’t go to the cemetery and invite a statue to dinner.”

The Don meets his fate: Alxander Tsymbalyuk as Commendatore, with Mariusz Kwiecie as Don Giovanni.

The Don meets his fate: Alxander Tsymbalyuk as Commendatore, with Mariusz Kwiecie as Don Giovanni.

To help the audience understand that they will see something in the finale that is impossible in normal life, Mozart probably wrote the opening symphony last, to prepare at the outset for the Commendatore’s supernatural entrance at the end – something that in Holten’s production, only Don Giovanni can see.

“It’s a projection that Giovanni has in his own personal mind,” says Luisotti. “Does the statue represent his conscience? He killed a man in the morning, during the assault on Donna Anna. And now this man is coming as a statue inside of him. He will be not able to escape. It is impossible to escape something once it is inside you.”

It was this idea, Luisotti tells me, which prompted him and Kasper Holten to commit Don Giovanni to a hell not of flames or fire, but of solitude.

To drive this story, Luisotti has spent hours studying the libretto, going “inside the text deeply, to understand what Mozart wanted to do.” It’s a task he views as a responsibility as well as a pleasure.

“Don Giovanni has his own planet”

“My duty is (to) let the music live again, like it was written not 230 years ago, but just this morning,” he says, “let the music be fresh. I think every conductor that goes in front of this massive work has to do the same.”

And Luisotti believes that this opera continues to speak across centuries from what was a special vantage point in history, standing apart in the Mozart canon.

“Don Giovanni has his own planet,” says the conductor, “he is alone in the history of the music – not just for Mozart, but for all of the other composers.”

By the time Mozart’s tragicomedy premiered, his Italian contemporary, Giuseppe Cazzanigi, had already staged a version of the Don Giovanni tale set to a libretto by Giovanni Bertati. It was a popular story across Europe, “but for some reason, in the hands of Mozart, this music became important.”

Perhaps, Luisotti suggests, Mozart’s talent tapped into the zeitgeist on a continent that was veering towards a historic and violent upheaval.

“Don’t forget we are in 1787,” he says. “In two years, we will have the French revolution,” a shock that reverberated across Europe, and one that would be compounded by the sight of French kings and queens going to the guillotine. Don Giovanni’s demise, says Luisotti, would have raised eyebrows.

“If you were to see a nobleman go to hell in 1787,” he smiles, “you know politically it was not so correct.”

Don Giovanni continues at the Royal Opera House until Monday 24th February, and will be relayed live tonight to more than 1,000 locations in at least 40 countries.

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Southbank halts Festival Wing plans

The Southbank Centre has decided to withhold its planning application for the Festival Wing, putting a huge question mark over its £120m plans to redevelop London’s riverside cultural quarter.

The move comes after London mayor Boris Johnson told a preliminary planning meeting last month that the undercroft skate-park that has been the focus of opposition to the plans should stay in its current location. A petition against moving the skatepark has gathered at least 27,000 signatures.

The Southbank wants to move the skatepark to a new site near Hungerford Bridge and redevelop the undercroft into restaurants – a move it says would generate commercial income to support other parts of its redevelopment programme.

“The skate park is the epicentre of UK skateboarding and is part of the cultural fabric of London…it helps to make London the great city it is.” – Boris Johnson

But with Johnson holding the final say over whether to grant the go-ahead for the Festival Wing, the Southbank Board decided its proposal would probably not get permission, leaving the scheme with a multi-million-pound hole in its balance sheet.

The centre says it has given itself three months to come up with an “alternative funding model”.

Describing it as a “big setback”, Southbank Centre Chairman Rick Haythornthwaite said there was a “compelling case for closing the project down right now”, but that the board felt it owed “a last ditch revival attempt to the many people that have supported us over the past four years of planning, not least the Arts Council England.”

Calling on Boris Johnson and Lambeth Council to come forward with ideas on how the redevelopment could continue he said he was under no illusions.

“We have been handed a massive challenge and we don’t yet see how we will make it work” he said, “it is not as if we haven’t already explored numerous options”.

The Southbank Centre says that, even with no new buildings, the refurbishment of the 1960s site would rely on new commercial income. It says redeveloping the undercroft would have achieved this, and points to the restaurants and retail units at the Royal Festival Hall as an example of how that model would work.

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Transmission Triple

Salon London awards its Transmission Prize, for the communication of ideas, on February 6th at Foyles on Charing Cross Road, London. Three special editions of its podcast, Pocket Salon, preview the award and introduce the candidates:

Olivia Laing on why writers drink, Prof. David Nutt telling it straight about drugs, and Lloyd Bradley on black music in London:

John McHugo condenses Arab history, Sarah McCartney on the evocative aromas and Prof. Barbara Sahakian on popping pills to make you smarter:

Prof. Tim Spector on how to improve on your gene inheritance and Aarathi Prassad on the changing shape of sex:

On the night theoretical physicist David Tong explains life, the universe and pretty much everything else along the way, QI writer Stevyn Colgan draws together the ideas that hit home in 2013, and Salon’s Helen Bagnall previews the coming year of big ideas. 

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A double dose of Benjamin Britten

It’s been a satisfying week for feeding the Benjamin Britten obsession. Sunday evening at the Barbican saw an extraordinary concert at the Barbican. Top of the bill was the world premier of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’s Symphony No.10, but I was there to hear Maxim Vengerov’s rendition of Britten’s Violin Concerto. It’s a piece that has long been a favourite of mine. I first heard it on the 1970 Decca recording of the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Britten himself, with violinist Mark Lubotsky, and I have since collected a handful of recordings by other artists. But until Vengerov’s concert, with the LSO under Antonio Pappano, I had never heard it performed live.

Both violinist and conductor drew an astonishing level of detail from this concerto. Vengerov, showboating his expressive range, would attack hard through Britten’s rhythmic abrasions, pull back on lyrical arcs, release for cascading motifs, then charge back onto the front foot before closing a phrase on a single pizzicato strike that would sing to the back of the room. Vengerov recorded this concerto for EMI in 2003, and it seems he has combed the score, mining every mark on it for meaning and content. This was supreme command of the instrument in the service of an artistry licensed by a deep and detailed knowledge of Britten’s only concerto for violin. This is a piece that has always spoken to me of the sea, and alongside Pappano’s LSO, Vengerov painted it at its most beguiling, its most dangerous, tender and beautiful, but marching always to its own temper.

Another celebrated Britten seascape was on show at the ENO this week, with Stuart Skelton in the lead for Peter Grimes in a return of David Alden’s 2009 production. Edward Gardner’s conducting offered firm guidance to Skelton’s doomed protagonist, with Elza van den Heever as Ellen Orford, and Rebecca de Pont Davis as the David Bowie look-alike Auntie, among a clutch of excellent supporting performances. It’s an intense and focussed presentation of the suffocating hypocrisy of small-town England, which hastens the self-destructing Grimes to his end. I was impressed five years ago, and again on Wednesday night, although I did ask myself if this production has been overtaken by the more recent Midsummer Night’s Dream, and in particular Death in Venice. Nonetheless, this was a provocative and engaging Grimes, and one I was glad to have the chance to see for a second time.

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Les Sapeurs de Brazzaville: Made Of More

Jason Caffrey:

This is a nice mini-doco tied to the advert. I spoke to Italian photographer Daniele Tamagni, who photographed Les Sapeurs in Brazaville in 2007 and 2008.

“I learned that for them it is really a lifestyle, it’s something that’s a passion and part of their identity”, he told me. “It fascinated me the way they do a daily job and then transform themselves when they dress as Sapeurs. They are not all wealthy people – I recognise some of the people in the advert – one of them was a cook, he worked in a restaurant – some of them are employed.”

They make me want to go out and buy a new waistcoat and a bright pink shirt. Now where did I leave my gilt cufflinks?..

Originally posted on :

Les Sapeurs de Brazzaville: Made Of More is the latest venture into global style by Guinness.

guinness-congo-hed-2014It was something of a surprise to come across this latest Guinness advert which shines a light on Les Sapeurs – the Society of Elegant Persons of the Congo. These Gentlemen of Bacongo are mostly blue-collar workers who dedicate their leisure time to displaying an effortless savoir faire.

The Republic of Congo has experience civil wars and militia conflicts. After three coup-ridden but relatively peaceful decades of independence, the former French colony experienced the first of two destructive bouts of fighting when disputed parliamentary elections in 1993 led to ethnically-based fighting between pro-government forces and the opposition. A ceasefire and the inclusion of some opposition members in the government helped to restore peace. According the this short film, a relative peace has settled on Brazzaville and given these brethren renewed optimism and confidence. However…

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How the Whale Became

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Jason Caffrey reports for BBC World Service on How the Whale Became, the children’s opera based on Ted Hughes’s stories, commissioned by the Royal Opera.

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