In terms of events attended over the past few months which I need to catch up with I find that music massively predominates. My own liking for particular composers, and above all Mahler, increases all the time: I am fortunate then that this year is the 150th Anniversary, and from September of this year to July 2011 there is going to be a complete Mahler ‘cycle’ in Birmingham for which we have booked tickets. I want however to start at a very different part of the musical spectrum.
Both Nanci Griffith and Mary Chapin Carpenter have produced new albums (in addition there is the fantastically welcome news that MCC is touring the UK this autumn and we have tickets for her Birmingham show in November). Nanci’s latest is entitled The Loving Kind and is terrific. In it she returns to her folk/political roots and produces one of her very best albums. The title track – which is also the first – moved me to tears on first hearing. It tells the story of Richard and Mildred Loving who were an interracial couple arrested in Virginia in 1958 for violating anti-mixed marriage laws; they took their case to the Supreme Court and eventually, in 1967, all such laws were declared unconstitutional (although the last such state law – Alabama – remained on the statute book until 2000!). Nanci was moved to write the song by the death of Mildred Loving in 2008. It is beautiful, powerful and moving and sets the tone for the entire album. There is not a lame track here, but other standouts include Cotton about ecological disaster and hard times in the South, Not Innocent Enough an anti-death-penalty about a young man on death row (which also moved me to tears), and Across America, which may be a bit of an Obama anthem but is still gloriously uplifting and singalongable. After this the album changes direction somewhat and we have some wonderful countrytracks – some rather unlikely for Nanci but carried through with great conviction. Standouts here are the final two tracks Tequila After Midnight and Pour Me A Drink, both of them classic lachrymose country drinking songs. All in all this is a brilliant album of many moods – moving, uplifting, downbeat. In returning to her roots Nanci has demonstrated that she is still at the height of her creative powers.
If the same cannot be said of MCC’s latest The Age of Miracles (in fairness will it ever be possible to recapture the heights of Come On Come On and above all Stones in The Road – the latter is about as near perfection as one can get after all?) it is still very pleasurable and has one stand-out track. Again political tracks are among the best particularly 4th June 1989 (about Tiananmen Square obviously) and the title track itself stand out. But the stand-out is wholly personal. The Way I Feel is a track which only someone with experience of depression could have written. It tells of that desire to just get in one’s car and drive and lose oneself in a journey which is going both somewhere and nowhere. It captures a feeling which I have myself have experienced in different times and ways to perfection. Mary has this ability – as of course in Jubilee ‘my song’ – to connect and capture feelings which I have nowhere seen put into words or music or art. It is what makes her so supremely special to me.
Turning now to concerts and a very different type of singer we went to see Leona Lewis at the NEC. The NEC is a vast indoor arena and I am not fond of concerts there, even though there have been substantial improvements to the foyer and catering since we last visited. But nothing can be done to improve the dreadful sound quality or the fact that the we were miles from the stage. Large video screens relaying the action do not make up for the loss of human contact with the artist. The sound quality is more critical when one is there to see someone like Leona than say Meatloaf (the last act we saw there). The concert was a massive production with all kinds of sets, dancers and costumes. No doubt these were impressive and satisfied the thousands of fans, but I was there to hear Leona’s astonishing voice and at times this appeared almost an afterthought. Moments when it did come to the fore as in the rendition of The First Time, when thankfully all production was dispensed with, were stunning even in an echoing cavern – what they would be like in a place with brilliant acoustics like Symphony Hall it is hard to imagine. I also enjoyed the audience mobile phone light-up trick – it was the first time I had seen this though no doubt it is standard nowadays. I don’t think it does work as well as lighters but was a good ‘mass’ moment nonetheless. The one real – and very pleasing – surprise was Leona’s sampling of Bolan’s Ride a White Swan, even if the version which emerged was strange to say the least. I wonder how many of the audience recognised it? There was a good age range in attendance however and something of a multi-racial mix (certainly not representative of Birmingham but more so than at most events we attend).
Moving onto the classical in April we went to a CBSO (with the wonderful as ever Andris Nelsons) performance of Shostakovich’s 4th Symphony. This was in a series called ‘Tuned In’ (I think there is only 1 per season) where the first half of the concert is given up to a talk, with musical illustrations, about the work to be presented in the second half. The talk was given by Stephen Johnson and I remember that was informative and helpful but anything more than that is a blank – it was an effort to get out to the concert at all at this point. The Symphony was thrilling and involving and confirmed my liking for Shostakovich: this was the Symphony which he withdrew in 1936 in fear of imprisonment and was only premiered in 1961. In June we saw the CBSO (this time with Jonathan Nott conducting) perform Bruckner’s 4th Symphony (‘The Romantic’). My chosen word for the would be pleasant especially the delightful Scherzo. The symphony is soothing, easy, enjoyable and it was very much what I needed at the time. It did not stir or reach the deeper senses in the way that Shostakovich or Mahler do however.
Finally in the musical section a wonderful Rigoletto. The previous production of this opera I had seen was a very traditional one, but here the setting was moved to a vaguely 1920’s Italy. This worked well and the production emphasised the opera’s cruelty and cynical realism. Rigoletto is one of the most fascinating of operas because of the ambivalent nature of its central character. Here is a man who acts as a lackey for a master who abuses his power in the most blatant way, notably in his seduction and mistreatment of women. Rigoletto acts as this man’s pimp, delighting in the humiliation of those courtiers who in turn wish to humiliate and punish a man they consider their inferior. It is a twisted and sick world in which the only bright spot is Gilda (Rigoletto’s daughter): this is an opera without a truly positive male character, let alone a hero. Nonetheless the ending is of course heartrending. Is there are any more misused and misunderstood song in opera than ‘La Donna Mobile’? Once one has seen a good production like this one can hardly hear the song without reflecting on the tragedy of the human condition.
As a postscript I include the only play seen during my hiatus which was Michael Frayn’s Noises Off; we saw this in the 1980’s during its original London run and I can vaguely recall finding it extremely funny. This time around while still funny I did not find it that funny. This might of course have been a result of my mood at the time. The problem however is that once one subtracts the comedy there really is nothing else there; this is comedy pure and simple. It is none the worse for that, but it does mean that if one is not roaring with laughter it leaves a vague feeling of dissatisfaction.