Glasgow and London Diary, June 6-21, 2014

By Ben Nyberg

If asked to name Scotland’s two biggest multi-cultural arts festivals, chances are you’d remember the world-famous one in Edinburgh, but a second? Until about this time last year, I know I’d have been totally clueless. But that’s when I web-stumbled my way onto the site of Glasgow’s annual six-week-long West End Festival (only just now over). Its calendar was crammed with hundreds of events, but what really caught my eye was a piece of it called the Cottier Chamber Project, two-plus weeks of short (90 minutes or so), no-interval, classical music presentations by small ensembles.

Most of its programs are held in Cottier’s Theatre, a reconfigured church that now includes a fine-dining restaurant and a spacious pub in addition to the recital hall. The Chamber Project employs cabaret-style open seating, patrons being free to arrange chair-and-table clusters ad lib in order to suit themselves and their needs (read, drinks), so I was pretty sure the setup would result in performances being badly marred by noise from multiple sources.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Turns out audiences at Cottier’s go there to give themselves to, become one with, the music. So rapt is the attention paid, it’s as if the mass of attendees simply coalesced into a single symbiotic listening entity to counterbalance and complement the unity of the players on stage. No aggressive coughing, no clinking of glassware, no grating of chairs, just total concentration, hence utter bliss.

Of course if the Project continues to encourage and attract larger crowds, which we hope it will, and if programs are to continue being held in Cottier’s limited existing space, which we also hope it will, such informality will have to yield to more organized seating arrangements—a sad but necessary sacrifice in the interest of growing the live performance of chamber music. I count myself lucky to have been in Cottier’s cabaret.

The Project’s range of musical genres was considerable. Although some programs were devoted to single composers or periods, an overall balance was achieved, often by placing sharply contrasting offerings side by side (e.g., pairing 17th century “ayres” by Scotsman Tobias Hume at 6:30 with Shostakovich songs and a semi-staged mini-opera at 8:30). Atmospheric diversity was also generated by the use of other venues (e.g., St. Silas Church and University of Glasgow’s Hunterian Gallery).

Remarking only on the music I heard would exceed the uses of this commentary, but from first to last, from opening night’s Martinu and Dohnanyi to my finale’s Schubert string quintet, soloists and ensembles were consistently of the highest quality, but I have to single out for special mention pianist Alasdair Beaton and violinist Catherine Manson’s utterly definitive readings of the five Beethoven sonatas they presented, and I must thank Project director Andy Saunders for both his cordial attentiveness and his technical and interpretive horn artistry.

IN LONDON,  it was pretty much “business as usual” there, except for slightly fewer plays and a bit more music. Among the plays, the National Theatre (Olivier) production of Shakespeare’s King Lear with Simon Russell Beale claims a Matterhorn splendor, rising with a towering assurance of its eminence. Director Sam Mendes succeeds, where so many have failed, in making sense of the seemingly absurd frivolity of Lear’s means of disposing of his kingdom among his daughters, and Beale delivers the ultimatum with persuasive conceit. Once this beachhead is secure, the downward spiral of casualties spawned by an ill-planned adventure play out with terrible and inevitable probability.

Also at the Olivier, Alan Ayckbourn’s 1987 darkly comic look at corruption’s lure, A Small Family Business, seemed somehow too small an idea to occupy the vast stage. Clever in its own lesser way and convincing enough in its progressive tracking of consequences, it ends in an ambiguity that lacks inferential thematic force and carries no cathartic moment of revelation.

David Hare’s 1995 Skylight, now playing at Wyndham’s, seems as fresh and relevant as it must have twenty years ago. That’s both because Hare’s script confronts issues that aren’t going to quit dogging humanity anytime soon, and because Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan make so well-matched a pair of dedicated adversaries. Like Ayckbourn’s play, this one ends with no real resolution of its core conflict (which by nature can’t be resolved), but Skylight leaves you feeling, in part through its bouncier framing scenes, that hope’s not dead, goodness is still in the fight.

A third revival, Noel Coward’s 1951 comedy of manners Relative Values, starring Patricia Hodge (known to PBS watchers from Rumpole of the Bailey) and directed by Trevor Nunn, is concluding its run at the Harold Pinter Theatre (formerly the Comedy). The situational contrivances of the “well-made” play are much in evidence here, but as our TV sitcoms play by the same rulebook, that’s hardly a problem, and if inspections of the class system are dated, why the current fascination with Downton Abbey? In fact the machinery all works with well-oiled smoothness to shape a most pleasing romp that doesn’t require us to face any of life’s more vexing questions. A happy respite from duty!

By contrast, playing at London’s newest purpose-built theatre, the slightly-off-West-End St. James, is Stella Feehily’s overtly polemical, emphatically political, shamelessly didactic This May Hurt A Bit, an expose clothed as drama of the decline and fall of Britain’s once proud National Health Service. It’s an effective piece of propaganda made all the more so by its trotting out historical documentation and clinical statistics, in short by its refusal to abide by playwriting’s “fair play” principle. The cast, headed by Stephanie Cole (she who played Doc Martin’s Aunt Joan), are clearly invested heart and soul in this public plea to prevent the dismantlement of the NHS.

Now about that music: of three Wigmore Hall visits, two were lunchtime shorties, both of which featured cellists, which takes me right back to Glasgow where five “bite-size” midday recitals featured five Bach suites for solo cello, all competently done by three different cellists. Add the two cellos of the Schubert quintet and by the time of the Wigmore nooners, I’d already enjoyed a hefty taste of cello artistry.

Still, Jean-Guihen Queyras, supported by pianist Alexandre Tharaud, managed some clean, ornate Marais, a polished and articulate Bach sonata and a Brahms Op. 38 of refined if somewhat detached elegance.

But it was the young German cellist Alban Gerhardt who provided a stunning reminder of what defines the highest artistry, that capacity to claim the listener’s total submission to its power. His Bach Cello Suite No. 4 arose reborn, 300 years young, wholly alive. His assured management of the unplayable Kodaly Op. 8 solo sonata was breathtaking. He is a force to be reckoned with, a star whose rise deserves watching.


THE WIGMORE was also the venue for an exceptional evening of Schubert lieder, a dynamic collaboration between tenor Robin Tritschier and pianist Malcolm Martineau. Tritschier, stand-in for an ailing Christoph Pregardien (whom Manhattanites may recall from an All Faiths Chapel recital a few years ago), made the most of his time in the limelight. With subtle assistance from veteran Martineau, he offered a youthful ardor and vigor that animated familiar and unfamiliar songs alike with infectious charm.

The chance to attend a full-dress production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s seldom-performed Iolanthe, even though it meant an out-of-town train trip, proved irresistible. Dartford’s Orchard Theatre, conveniently set just opposite the rail station, has its own restaurant, so is able to provide attractive dinner/performance combo packages. In this case, both components were of superior quality. The pit support afforded by the National Festival Orchestra was particularly precise and sensitive

St. John’s Smith Square was the setting for an “authentic” presentation of Handel’s Israel in Egypt. The Holst Singers, the period-instrument Brook Street Band, and soloists all under the baton of Stephen Layton, joined in a beautifully focused, animated, often amusing (love those frogs!), always thrilling experience.

Having never attended a production in the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio Theatre, I was happy to accept an offer I couldn’t refuse to see “the UK premiere of Quartett, by one of the world’s leading opera composers, Luca Francesconi.” The Linbury turns out being a pretty standard black box with a suspended stage area rigged directly over an orchestra pit which maintains contact with the singers via strategically positioned internal TV screens.

I’m prepared to take on faith that the score was faithfully executed. The two artists portraying the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil (yes it’s another Dangerous Liaisons spinoff) certainly were capable both as singers and as actors, and gave the performance their all. And conductor Andrew Gourlay appeared to get what he asked from the London Sinfonietta. But all for what? The libretto was absolute rubbish and the score was elaborate noise of variable volume but unremitting inanity.

But the auditory and visual assault wasn’t a complete waste of eighty minutes. It was in fact instructive to discover that this species of atonal drivel, which was already passe half a century ago, is still being cranked out—and even admired!—by many who are apparently afraid to believe what their senses are telling them.

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