Letter from London

Written by Lawrence Schenbeck

New York, May 22. I’ve had some of my favorite musical experiences here, beginning the first time I came forty years ago and popped down to the Village Vanguard on a Monday night, hoping to catch the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Big Band. Didn’t happen. Gil Evans showed up instead, trying out new charts with an assortment of his peers. I remember Howard Johnson playing tuba. There was a woman who had a bewitching way with timpani, and a couple of French horn players, I think. What a night. Lovely music, fun to watch the crowd too. For a kid from Nebraska, the beginning of many eye-and-ear-opening experiences.

This is what we live for, isn’t it? We head out for a show, a concert, a solo recital, hoping—of course—to get what we think is in store, but also ready to be surprised. It’s fun to hear something new, even if we discover it within something quite old. C’mon, we say (silently) to the assembled musicians. Surprise me. Wake me up.

In New York, for me, that’s meant many things: Anne-Sophie Mutter playing Lutosławski with the Philharmonic. The World Saxophone Quartet at the old Village Gate. Ron Carter and Bill Frisell at the Blue Note. Theatre of Voices at Zankel Hall, offering Berio and David Lang. Kent Tritle conducting a heavenly Chichester Psalms at St. John the Divine, just a New Year’s Eve or two ago. And of course a few special nights at the Met, like when Karita Mattila transformed Janáček’s Jenůfa. This spring, though, NYC was just a way station on our journey to the UK. We saw some old friends, took in a show.

London, May 26. And so to the Royal Opera House. Arrived here just in time to catch the very last performance of Lessons in Love and Violence, composer George Benjamin’s follow-up to his enormously well-received Written on Skin (2012). I’ll say more about the new work in a moment, but let’s talk about the House itself. It’s a small room, at any rate smaller than the Met, roughly comparable in seating capacity to La Scala or the Wiener Staatsoper.* As elsewhere, rows of boxes line the three walls of the auditorium framing the proscenium. We sat in Orchestra J13 & 14, perhaps a third of the way back—perfect as far as both sound and sight lines go. The clarity and transparency of Benjamin’s scoring was readily apparent, also its power, delicacy, and exquisitely fluid timbres (we were about fifteen feet from the harp and cimbalom players, who filled one of the left balconies). At no time were the singers overbalanced; one also never sensed they were straining to fill the space. I wish I had even a few opera recordings that sounded this good. It was like having a world-class stereo rig at one’s command. Amazingly lifelike!

That’s meant to sound perverse and silly, of course. The point is, my experience vividly brought an old message home: we all need to get out of our person-caves more often in favor of live venues. We need constant reminders of what live, preferably un-amplified music sounds like, and how a hall contributes to the care and feeding of that sound. (I am reminded, sadly now, of David Wilson’s frequent visits to the Musikverein and other great venues.)

For make no mistake, another great performer we heard Saturday was the Royal Opera House itself. Small size, hardwood floors—no carpeting once you leave the lobby and lounges—plenty of wood-and-plaster barriers of irregular shape (masquerading as statuary and decoration) lining the boxes, stalls and walls. No better diffusor panels have ever been devised. Gently raked rows of floor-level seats, each one occupied by a human of different shape and size. In short: many surfaces, both hard and soft, commingled to produce lively, clear sound throughout the spectrum. (Click here to read further details about the acoustic remodeling at the ROH.)

As for the opera: working again with playwright Martin Crimp, Benjamin has produced another 90-minute marvel, a semi-abstract study of love’s deadly power in the hands of a King who values his (male) lover above all others and all else in his kingdom. Lessons in Love and Violence is both a gloss on and a critique of a late-16th-century play by Christopher Marlowe, Edward II, which is itself based on historical events related in Holinshead’s Chronicles. Like Written on Skin, it nevertheless suggests parallels with modern events and attitudes—indeed Katie Mitchell’s inventively cinematic production sets it in 21st-century times, complete with squads of reporters and bureaucrats at the ready. The opera raises basic issues about morality, psychology, a ruler’s responsibilities, and much more. If it were a puzzle, a handful of clues might help you “solve” it: (1) the stage settings feature reproductions of well-known paintings by Francis Bacon  plus (2) a giant tropical fish tank such as one might find in certain upscale restaurants. Oh, and (3) the king’s two children are nearly always present, watching every act of betrayal, adultery, and casual violence that takes place. As the opera ends, they seem destined to inherit their parents’ roles as murderous power brokers. Lessons, indeed. Benjamin’s boldly sculpted music offsets the story’s bitter misanthropy and the concentrated, nearly unrelieved tension of the whole presentation, but it’s a draining 90 minutes. It leaves you with a lot to think about, or else puzzle over.

It probably helps to know your Marlowe. And several more viewings of Lessons wouldn’t hurt. The ROH were filming the night we attended, as they had done previous nights, so it’s likely you’ll find the Blu-ray on Amazon eventually. The production quality of previous ROH video releases has been quite high; it’s reasonable to expect they’ll do this one right as well.

London, May 28. Trio Tre Voci at Wigmore Recital Hall. The absolute highlight of our stay. Trio Tre Voce is made up of three masters of their instruments: flutist Marina Piccinini, harpist Sivan Magen, and violist Kim Kashkashian (Wikipedia: “not to be confused with Kim Kardashian.” As if!). The centerpiece of the repertoire for this combination is Debussy’s Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp, which this trio recorded a couple of years ago on an ECM album that includes Toru Takemitsu’s Dickinson-inspired And then I knew ’twas wind. Debussy’s music inspired Takemitsu and many other composers to write similarly scored trios, and the trend continues. At Wigmore, Tre Voci gave both Debussy and Takemitsu but also the UK premiere of a work commissioned from Toshio Hosokawa (b. 1955), Arabesque. In a program note, Hosokawa says

My Arabesque is drawn with sounds, with two plant-like curves where the flute and viola have a yin-yang relationship. . . . The harp provides and supports the place in which they exist. I wanted to entrust the arabesque, naturally formed of eastern-like sounds, to these three instruments.

What I heard was a massive chaconne, similar to what Purcell or Britten might have fashioned, building to a climax whose gestures become so angular and abrupt, so extreme in their impact, that we might well be present at a Kabuki drama. The heroic energies needed to pull off such a piece in performance were catnip to these three. In charming transcriptions of Ravel’s Sonatine and a suite from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, they put their skills to even more seductive use.

My wife and I fell into an interesting conversation with a fellow concertgoer, a film critic who had apparently been at the ROH Saturday night, perhaps even closer to the cimbalom than we were. He told us he had come late to his appreciation of chamber music, having been much more attracted to the power and color of orchestral concerts. But evenings like the one we experienced would certainly convert any such listener. With chamber music, you can hear each player’s heartbeat, sense the spontaneous communication between them, feel the rivers of energy they put forth. In a jewel-box of a hall like Wigmore, with its perfect acoustics, the visceral intensity of Trio Tre Voci’s music-making becomes overwhelming. And you get to share it with 500 other music lovers. That too—the act of sharing—is something audiophiles enjoy, and we need to do more of it.

* ROH: 2,256; La Scala: 2,030; Staatsoper: 2,276, including 567 standing-room places.

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