Pick a major city anywhere in the world and you’re going to discover an active, all-season array of cultural attractions every season of the year. Museums and art galleries, concert halls and opera houses, large theaters and shoebox playhouses, they’ll all be there. But put together a series of four-day stands in four different European capitals, as I recently did, and you’ll find that the range and depth of their resources and offerings vary considerably on a weekly and daily basis.
If you’re looking, as I was, for classical music and live theatre (in English), you’ll find both in abundance any night you want it in London and classical music every day in Prague. Surprisingly, in Edinburgh, world famous for its sprawling end-of-summer performance arts festival, it’s possible to come up empty for several days’ running. So it was that during equivalent-sized timespans I got to seven events in London, two each in Oslo and Prague, but only one in Auld Reekie.
In London, the storied Royal Court Theatre on Sloane Square was showing a Caryl Churchill medley of shorts titled “Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp.” It was an odd set of three single snapshot takes followed by a twelve-scene one-act episode (“Imp”), in a single 80-minute go. I felt I was being teased to infer a progress in the series of scenes, but found no thematic thread or symbolic breadcrumb trail to follow. Moreover, as the pre-”Imp” sequence was far too brief to invest in and way too conceptually remote to relate to I was stymied as to how I was supposed to fit it together.
At the quaint black box cellar space calling itself the Jermyn Street Theatre, they were re-staging Somerset Maugham’s knotty domestic drama from 1932, “For Services Rendered.” Like many a neglected work by a writer of note, this one deserves periodic dusting off and reevaluation, but although the issues it addresses remain current, its presentational style has staled over time and its dialogue feels too dated to claim a place in today’s permanent repertory.
On the South Bank, a short Thames-side walk from the Tate Modern art gallery (and Millennium Bridge!) stands the Elizabethan replica theatre, Shakespeare’s Globe. Because in keeping with their “authentic” MO, they tend to stick with strictly “period” special effects, they depend mainly on the energy (and antics) of their actors to keep presentations perking. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” affords much scope for horseplay (and donkey drollery), but our cast took so much time off for buffoonery, the effect was to dumb down the impact of Shakespeare’s neatly wrought comedy to the level of a Britcom panto for kids. Laughs for the groundlings, but with the script left a trifle tattered.
The Bridge Theatre, also on the South Bank, a new, purpose-built structure near the Tower Bridge, is so embedded in its pedestrianized plot of shops even a taxi can’t drop you next to it. But once inside, you can’t help being impressed with how spacious and well designed a spectator space it is. Nary a bad seat in the house. A new play by Nancy Harris, “Two Ladies,” effectively challenges its audience to appreciate the growth and crucial importance of relations between two political wives from confrontational to collaborative in a mere hundred non-stop minutes. A fine character study and situational thriller all in one.
At its London Coliseum home the English National Opera is engaged in staging a series of Orpheus-myth-related works, of which Offenbach’s “Orpheus in the Underworld” was the one I managed to fit in. You have to hand it to director Emma Rice for dreaming up so glitzy glam a show, but I couldn’t help recalling the treatment given Shakespeare’s “Dream” at the Globe as I watched Offenbach’s tuneful score get nearly buried in the noisy highjinks of lavish, distractive spectacle. Even the celebrated “Can-Can” wasn’t given a clear and clean musical splash.
Sunday mornings at Wigmore Hall mean 11:30 a.m. “coffee concerts,” one-hour chamber music recitals. The Dudok Quartet Amsterdam performed a pair of F minor works, the Op. 20 No. 5 of Joseph Haydn and the Op. 80 of Felix Mendelssohn. Though the Dudok’s intensity and urgency might have been tempered by a greater restraint at times, their fervent determination to explore the depths and subtleties of these serious musical statements was admirable.
The Proms concerts have seen their last night for this year, but large-scale musical events continue to play out beneath the stately dome of the Royal Albert Hall.
An all-Beethoven program featured the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra performing, with pianist Alexander Romanovsky, the composer’s Piano Concerto No. 5 (“Emperor”) and, with the Bach Choir and soloists, his Symphony No. 9, (“Choral”). Given the splendor of both regal setting and glorious scores, this was truly an occasion to treasure.
In Oslo, with nothing doing at their fabulous Opera House, it was still possible to find an Oslo Philharmonic program good enough to justify the long climb to the concert hall: Vasily Petrenko conducted Strauss’s “Don Juan,” (extra quick, at what might be called a “because we can” tempo), Grieg’s “Concerto for Piano and Orchestra” (doubtless at soloist Lief Ove Andsnes’ preferred tempos) and Shostakovich’s “Symphony No. 10” (judiciously, but still without being able to keep a mostly wonderful work fully alive for a whole hour).
In striking contrast to its lofty grandeur, a free performance at the Norwegian Academy of Music by the Minsk Chamber Orchestra and soloists presented a set of four concertos by four living Norwegians, all of whom were in attendance to share the applause of a small but appreciative audience. Anticipating a lot of serial harshness, I was pleased to find these contemporary composers working with a largely tonal palette. None of the pieces struck me as impressively brilliant, but it was good hearing samples of serious music driven by something other than structural theorizing.
Prague’s Rudolfinum with its Dvorak statue standing guard out front is another of the world’s great concert halls. The sole event on their calendar during my visit was a recital by the Prazak String Quartet with clarinetist Raphael Severe.
The entire first half of the program was given over to a pair of capable but less than captivating quintets, one by Franz Krommer for clarinet, violin, 2 violas and cello, the other by Jindrich Feld for clarinet and string quartet. As usual, the soloist dictated pace and tone, and Severe was too often out-of-touch with his fellow musicians. Only after intermission did we get to hear the Prazak on its own playing Smetana’s worthy “From My Life” quartet. It was a joy to see a fresh-faced contingent of young musicians from Wisconsin in attendance.
As part of the EuroArt Festival Praha, the Martinu Quartet played a program of Beethoven, Tomas Svoboda, and Dvorak in the well-appointed Martinu Hall of the sumptuous Liechtenstein Palace. Their reading of the Op. 18, No. 4 Beethoven, showed them to be a quality ensemble capable of responding to a score with much sensitivity and flair. Unfortunately, the Svoboda score didn’t give them a lot to respond to, and their reading of Dvorak’s Op. 105, his last, which should have capped the evening, came up short in both focus and vitality.
The one evening out that Edinburgh provided was, I must admit, a real corker: the King’s Theatre’s hosting of a short roadshow run of Stephen Daldry’s celebrated 1992 reboot of J. B. Priestley’s 1945 spooky “An Inspector Calls.” Unlike Maugham’s “For Services Rendered,” this ghost from the past doesn’t seem to want to be laid. Aided by Ian McNeill’s wonderful “gotcha” set and dialogue that feels fully as fresh and relevant today as when it was penned, this is a drama whose edge I expect to remain sharp for as long as economic stratification stays with us.
All told then, a bit of a mixed bag of goodies this round, but not a rotten egg among the dozen, each of them an offer extended, live, in real time, for our consideration by professional artists dedicated to putting their best efforts into making the finest presentations of which they are capable. We may not always be fully pleased with the results, but for their continuing commitment to live performance we owe them nothing less than our grateful and enthusiastic support.