Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Schnittke Studies – Second Review

I’ve just received another excellent review for our Schnittke Studies volume, this time by Ivan Moody in the Musicological Annual. Thanks Ivan for your perceptive reading and encouraging words, and for the contributions to my (still mercifully brief!) errata list. (The review can be found here in pdf for easier reading.)

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Schnittke Studies – First Review

I’m more used to reviewing than being reviewed, so I’ve been awaiting coverage of our Schnittke Studies volume with some trepidation. But if this first review is anything to go by, I needn’t have worried. It’s by Ian Power and appears in the July 2017 issue of Tempo (Vol. 71, Issue 281, pp. 114-115). Thanks to Ian for his sympathetic and perceptive reading. I’m particularly pleased that his judgement throughout is framed in relation to the book’s stated aims.

I hope CUP don’t mind my reproducing the whole review here - if anyone from the publisher is reading this and does take issue, drop me a line and I’ll take it down.

(just click on the text if it's too small to read) 

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Between the Lands: Alexander Ivashkin Remembered – Conference Report

This conference was convened to celebrate the legacy of Professor Alexander Ivashkin, and its two days seemed woefully brief, given his huge range of interests and activities. We left with the feeling that even a week would have barely scratched the surface. Fortunately, the papers and recitals at least touched on every important aspect of his career, giving a good overview of his research and performing interests. The event was hosted by Goldsmiths, where Ivashkin served for many years as Chair of Performance and Postgraduate Studies as well as Director of the Centre for Russian Music. It was organised, with typical energy and boundless enthusiasm, by his widow, fellow cellist Natalia Pavlutskaya, who was ably assisted by Elena Artamonova, one of Ivashkin’s many former students at the event. An honourable mention, too, to Imogen Burman-Mitchell, Events Manager at Goldsmiths, for organising the logistics of five varied recitals over the two days, all of which ran without incident, and even began and ended on schedule – no mean feat.

Elena Artamonova opened proceedings with a broad survey of Ivashkin’s career, an excellent framework to which later presentations could add detail. She was the only speaker to address Ivashkin’s career in Moscow in the 1970s and 80s, and her discussion of his doctoral work on Charles Ives was particularly interesting. I’ve long fostered an ambition to tackle Ivashkin’s monograph Charles Ives and the Music of the 20th Century (1991), and this put me one step closer to dusting off the Russian dictionary and getting to it. Artamonova pointed out that the book is about far more than just Ives’ music, and the broad, contextual nature of Ivashkin’s research in general was a recurring theme of the papers that followed. Another angle of Ivashkin’s personality was explored by Olga Tabachnikova in her ‘Alexander Ivashkin and the Theme of Russian Irrationalism’. Anybody who knew Ivashkin personally will know that esoteric knowledge systems—Theosophy and Chinese astrology, for example—where sources endless fascination to him, so it was fitting to hear about this aspect of his personality, especially within the context of his writings on Russian culture.

Despite his undeniable authority on Ives, Penderecki, and many other 20th-century composers, Ivashkin is likely to remain most closely associated with the music of Alfred Schnittke. Fittingly, then, several papers discussed Ivashkin’s work on Schnittke, his publications, of course, but also his performances and recordings. Svetlana Savenko (the only visitor from Russia to reach us, visa complications preventing several others), talked about how Ivashkin had studied the funereal aspects of Schnittke’s music of the 1970s, Victoria Adamenko (in absentia, I read her paper) looked at Schnittke’s Pasternak settings, Paolo Eustachi Ivaskhin’s performances of the Second Cello Concerto, and I gave a survey of the Schnittke-related events that Ivashkin had organised in the UK in the years since the composer’s death.

The conference also aimed to reflect the sheer breadth of Ivashkin’s academic interests, and so included several presentations of new research in areas close to his heart, if not directly related to his work. Vladimir Marchenkov presented a theory of music as ‘Ludic Transformation of Time’, and Razia Sultanova presented a paper based on her recent research into the cultural activities of Muslim migrants in Moscow. Two papers were presented on Soviet-era music: Daniel Elphick gave an incisive analysis of the Socialist Realist strictures guiding Soviet chamber music, and Amrei Flechsig discussed the representation of laughter in Soviet operas.

Many of Ivashkin’s teaching and research activities were related directly to performance studies, and this too was reflected in the conference programme, with several friends and former pupils giving performance-related presentations. Nicholas Walker discussed Balakirev’s piano playing, Magdalini Nikolaidou the interpretation of Rachmaninov’s Études-Tableaux, and Valerie Welbanks the extended techniques employed by Roger Redgate in his Black Icons, a cello concerto written for Ivashkin. The spirit of Ivashkin was particularly close in these presentations—Ivashkin very often illustrated his talks with playing, on the piano or the cello, moving fluidly between speaking and playing, and in several instances here we were treated to similarly enlightening combinations. Also, in the cello/performance category was a stimulating discussion from Rebecca Turner about the cello music that Ivashkin commissioned and performed in his decade in New Zealand in the 1990s. This was particularly valuable for its coverage of this period of Ivashkin’s career, but also for how it demonstrated his continual curiosity, coming to a new land and immediately engaging with the musical culture there. Turner described how Ivashkin had worked closely with a range of New Zealand composers as well as engaging with the traditional music of Polynesian islanders.

Naturally, live performances made up a significant part of the conference, and, as with the talks, the music covered a broad range of Ivashkin’s musical interests and was mainly presented by former colleagues and students. The highlight was Dmitri Alexeev performing the Scriabin op. 11 Preludes—world-class piano playing of the Russian school. On the subject of world famous Russian musicians, the Alexeev performance was followed by the unveiling of a permanent memorial to Ivashkin at Goldsmiths, a portrait of him with Mstislav Rostropovich on the occasion of Rostropovich being awarded an honorary doctorate at the college. The other recitals were given by former students and colleagues, focussing primarily on Russian repertoire—Viktoria Zora, Elena Artamonova and Rebecca Turner gave an excellent performance of the Schnittke String Trio, in a recital that also included Prokofiev and Rachmaninov from Mikhail Bozylev, recipient of the recently instigated Alexander Ivashkin Scholarship at Goldsmiths. A piano recital by Andrew Zolinsky brought the post-Soviet connection right up to date, with recent works by Mansurian, Knaifel and Silvestrov. I was particularly drawn to the Knaifel Postludia, although most people I spoke to, including the pianist himself, felt the Silvestrov Third Sonata was the highlight of the programme. The Ligeti Quartet (of which Val Welbanks is cellist) also ventured into adventurous territory with the John Cage Quartet in Four Parts and Gubaidulina’s most recent work for string quartet, Reflections on the Theme B-A-C-H.

A fitting tribute, then, to the musical and scholarly activities of Alexander Ivashkin. The programme often seemed to move in diverse and unrelated directions, but this only served to demonstrate the sheer breadth of Ivashkin’s musical interests. And the event closed with a performance that brought us right back to the man himself—a solo cello recital of music close to his heart. The cellist was Sebastian Hurtaud, a winner of the Adam Cello Competition in New Zealand, which Ivashkin and Pavlutskaya founded. A Bach Cello Suite (No. 5) opened, followed by Britten’s First Suite, which appears on Ivashkin’s very last commercial recording. And to end, Klingende Buchstaben, a piece written for Ivashkin by Alfred Schnittke and based on the letters of his name: A fitting coda to a memorable and moving celebration. Clearly, Ivashkin’s legacy lives on.

Friday, 9 December 2016


A quick round-up of the new operas being presented by major houses in the year ahead. Some fascinating projects here. I’ll do my best to get to the British ones, and look forward to reading reviews of the others. If I’ve missed anything important, please post a link in the comments. Thanks.

Scartazzini: Edward II. Deutsche Oper Berlin
Librettist Thomas Jonigk has adapted Marlowe’s Edward II for Swiss composer Andrea Scartazzini, and the result is an exploration of society’s attitudes towards homosexuality, in the 14th century and today. Expect atmospheric, minimalist stagecraft from director Christof Loy and brisk, dynamic musical direction from conductor Thomas Søndergard. 

 (image: Ruth Tromboukis)

Wigglesworth: The Winter’s Tale. English National Opera
Given the company’s recent woes, it is great to see that ENO is continuing its composer-in-residence scheme, the present incumbent an occasional conductor there too, Ryan Wigglesworth. The Winter’s Tale sounds like an excellent company piece, directed by Shakespeare specialist Rory Kinnear and starring a host of ENO regulars: Iain Paterson,
Sophie Bevan, Leigh Melrose and Susan Bickley. Let’s just hope he’s written something substantial for the chorus too.

Bolcom: Dinner at Eight. Minnesota Opera 
Good to hear that William Bolcom, now in his late 70s, is still going strong. Dinner at Eight is a 30s-era social comedy, the libretto by Mark Cambell based on a play by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber. Bolcom promises a score that mixes musical theatre with opera – an ideal project for his eclectic talents. Laura Claycomb leads the cast.

Paterson: The 8th Door. Scottish Opera
This collaboration between composer Lliam Paterson and director Matthew Lenton is a prequel to Bluebeard’s Castle, a clever idea given the problems of programming Bartók’s one-acter. It will have to cope with the inevitable comparisons, but the two creators assure us it will be ‘equally groundbreaking’, so presumably no falling back on pastiche.

Dorman: Wahnfried. Badisches Staatstheater Karlsruhe
An interesting twist in the ongoing saga of Wagner’s music in Israel. Wahnfried, by Israeli (though U.S.-based) composer Anver Dorman, tells of Houston Stewart Chamberlain and his relationship with the Wagner family, consolidating the composer’s anti-Semitic image in the early years of the 20th century. It’s the sort of material more often covered in Regie Ring cycles, so it will be interesting to find out what a dedicated opera can do with it. Seasoned Wagnerian Keith Warner directs.  

Brett Dean: Hamlet. Glyndebourne
Commissioned for Glyndebourne’s Shakespeare anniversary celebrations, and delayed by only a year (not bad for contemporary opera), Brett Dean’s Hamlet promises much. The composer has already put out a few teasers, his Second String Quartet is subtitled “And Once I played Ophelia” and draws on the Ophelia character in the opera. From this, it is clear that Matthew Jocelyn’s libretto strays a good way from the original, with plenty of self-referential postmodern additions. The first production (of many, no doubt) is directed by Neil Armfield, who also directed the premiere of Dean’s Bliss, and conducted by Vladimir Jurowski, a welcome return for the company’s inspiring former Music Director.

R. Panufnik: Silver Birch. Garsington
Garsington are describing their new commission as a ‘people’s opera’, and performances will involve six professional singers and a cast of 150 local people. The libretto is by Jessica Duchen and is based on the war poetry of Siegfried Sassoon, a regular visitor to Garsington Manor.

Bates: The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs. Santa Fe Opera
This new opera from Mason Bates and librettist Mark Campbell will apparently ‘illuminate a side of Steve Jobs that we’ve never seen before’, namely his quest for spiritual enlightenment though Buddhism. To that end, the score involves Tibetan prayer bowls and Chinese gongs, heard in concert with electronic samples from early Macs. Intriguing.

Sallinen: The Castle in the Water. Savonlinna Opera Festival
Composer Aulis Sallinen’s relationship with the Savonlinna Opera Festival goes back to The Horsemen in 1975. This new opera celebrates the centenary of Finland’s independence and sets poetry by Lassi Nummi about the Olavinlinna Castle, where the festival takes place.

Bjarnason: Brødre (Brothers). Den Jyske Opera, Aarhus
One of three film-to-stage projects to mark the Aarhus European Capital of Culture 2017, this is Kaspar Holten’s first directing job since leaving the Royal Opera. The libretto, by Kerstin Perski, is based on the 2004 film directed by Susanne Bier, about a Danish soldier struggling to cope with his experiences in Afghanistan. Holten promises an ‘intense, unique experience for the audience’, in Daníel Bjarnason’s ‘innovative and funky musical universe’.

John Adams: Girls of the Golden West. San Francisco Opera
John Adams teams up again with Peter Sellars, who is both librettist and director for this new opera about the California gold rush. It’s based on actual events, drawing on the letters of ‘Dame Shirley’, a doctor’s wife who spent 18 months in a mining camp in the Sierra Nevada in the 1850s. Mark Twain and original gold rush songs feature in the libretto too. Just don’t mention Puccini. The opera is a co-commission with Dallas Opera, Dutch National Opera and La Fenice:

The Royal Opera has two highly anticipated commissions in the works for 2018, an as yet unnamed new opera from George Benjamin and Martin Crimp, and a sequel to Unsuk Chin’s popular Alice in Wonderland. Meanwhile, Kurtág’s much-delayed Endgame looks set for Salzburg in 2018. It’s ‘confidently expected’, apparently, and should be worth the wait. And on the subject of long waits, Osvaldo Golijov’s Euripides opera for the Met has now been cancelled, giving the more reliable Nico Muhly a chance to stand in with his Hitchcock-themed Marnie.