Tuesday 24 February 2015

Netherlands Chamber Choir in The Hague: Review

It´s always a pleasure to go to the Nieuwe Kerk in The Hague for a concert. The original 17th century architecture has been beautifully restored and acoustic panels designed by Siemens provide a resonant acoustic ideal for concerts.

 Last Sunday´s concert was preceded by a short performance by the Residentie Kamerkoor directed by Jos Vermunt. He chose two excellent pieces, the Vespers on the first  three Psalms by Rachmaninov and three pieces by Schnittke. This was a perfect choice of repertoire for this amateur   choir : the first pieces were accessible and melodic and easily within reach. The Schnittke pieces were in a challenging musical language, with irregular rhythms and dissonant harmonies and the choir sang them very well. This unexpected bonus was a real pleasure.

Then followed the main concert  given by the Nederlands Kamerkoor  chamber choir   directed by Daniel Reuss. The programme´s first half  was made up of the Reincarnations by Barber, O Magnum Mysterium by Morten Lauridsen, the Canción del Alma by Edie Hill and the Agnus Dei, also by Barber. Sometimes when you listen to a concert you feel the repertoire is beyond the performers: in this case my impression was that the performers were beyond the repertoire. 

In the Reincarnations the most striking feature was the repetition of the name Anthony, passed from one voice to another, giving effective support to the following lines: After you there is nothing to do! There is nothing but grief!
Morten Lauridsen (b 1943) is a recognized composer, a National Medal of Arts recipient and “the most frequently performed  American choral composer in modern history”, according to his website. His O magnum mysterium  did not hold much mystery for me and neither was there anything very magnum about it, though it was pleasant enough I suppose. After Edie Hill´s Canción del Alma, the first half ended with Barber´s Agnus Dei. This piece has been done to death as a free standing movement for strings; in this performance for voices it is too fast to maintain the power of the instrumental original, and the high notes become irritating rather than moving. I was hoping for more after the interval.

After the interval 8 singers were taken away and a set up of percussion  instruments were added. I think we lost out on the deal. I read that David Lang won a Pulitzer Prize for the piece we   sat through: The Little Match Girl Passion. Sorry but there was no passion here and his little match girl left me unmoved. There is a really nice musical show called The Matchgirls, composed by British actor Bill Owen and songwriter Tony Russell about the strike of London match factory workers in 1888 which really does have passion and which is worth performing many times: I know because I was involved in a production with school students in 1980 something. Sorry, but Mr Lang´s piece does not match up, if you forgive the expression.
We lost 8 expert singers and were dumped with a set of percussion instruments which the remaining singers had to juggle with as well as singing their parts. Why do some composers think they can tell non percussionists to bash around on percussion instruments and hope we will all have a good time? How would the singers feel if next time they found a bunch of percussion specialists doing their best to sing along while they played their percussion parts or if brass players were given extra notes to play on a random selection of woodwind instruments? I am not saying the singers did not perform at their best with the percussion instruments, just that I think the audience came off worst in the trade off between the 8 lost singers and the added percussion.
This concert was billed as In Amerikaanse Kringen: it´s hard to imagine that what we heard was the most inspiring or imaginative output of contemporary or recent American composers.

So, a pleasant enough afternoon, as always, at the Nieuwe Kerk. Next time I hope the repertoire will be more interesting.  

Monday 23 February 2015

Rootless Roots: Linda Kapetanea at Korzo Theatre in The Hague

Linda Kapetanea´s incredible solo dance performance at the  Korzo Theatre   in The Hague earlier this month was part of the Cadance modern dance festival. Linda Kapetanea and her partner Jozef Frucek make up Rootless Root and they have created a wonderful piece called W Memorabilia (Phaedra´s Laboratory).

The blurb talks about Greek heroines, mythology, suffering, desires and so on. As always, what counts is not what they say about the piece but what actually happens on stage. In this case, what happened on stage was powerful and moving and kept you alert because there was at once a sense of unpredictability and a clear purpose.

Each section starts with a change in the music. “Raw sounds produced in real time” the programme says. There is a home made string instrument consisting of one string, more than 2 metres long, across a simple bridge which Ms Kapetanea played with a cello bow. The instrument was amplified and she set off a loop track which meant that the sound kept going to accompany her movement. This was powerful in more ways than one: on the one hand the amplification was very loud and there was a physical impact on the audience; on the other hand this sound was timeless, it could have been a Greek chorus – who really knows what that sounded like anyway? Or I could have been the echoes of a cry of pain that comes to us from any distant past.

For me the least effective part of the music was the short section of pre-recorded  electronic sound. Not that it was not well done, just that it came close to sounding like rock music which threatened to break the powerful spell of timelessness of the rest of the production, as if that type of music was time bound, whereas the rest of the sound scape was free of time, a way into infinite aural space. The most effective part of the music was at the start of the penultimate movement, where Ms Kapetanea took a hammer and started beating  on the double bridge of the string instrument. The volume increased to an almost unbearable point and I thought that she was going to smash the instrument, such was the strength with which she attacked the string. To me this was much more powerful than the playback music, and watching her produce this sound was scary because of her intensity.

This kind of performance art owes a debt to the John Cage and I could not help thinking about a fun performance he made for US tv of Water Walk. He plays all kinds of objects and makes splashy sounds and in the course of his walk he uses several transistor radios – this is the 60’s. He comments before starting that his intention had been to switch on the radios one by one to hear an aleatory mix of radio broadcasts simultaneously but the union rep pointed out that only a padi sound man could operate radio equipment on screen, so instead he threw each transistor radio onto the floor to make a crashing sound .. and to make a point.

Well, in W Memorabilia, Ms Kapetanea does not only create the music, she moves scenery and  even unplugs electric cables. The light board has some 400 light bulbs and is used to create shadow, to separate different parts of the stage, and even to dazzle the performer and he audience: light as contrast and light as power. Together with a couple of screens, that is the whole set.

Ms Kapetanea is actually on stage as the audience walk in. The sense of uncertainty is unsettling. The performer´s head is covered with a white gauze cloth: is it a death shroud, a wedding gown, or even a ballet tutu? Okay stupid, it´s the modern dance festival it really is not likely to be that last one.  Look at those strong, muscled legs: is it a man or a woman? I thought the programme said a one woman show, but  those legs are quite something.  Doubt is there and doubt keeps you on the edge of your seat.
Then you get to the very end and you realize that this piece is structured so that each succeeding event is forecast by what comes before. The screen is much more than a screen, and strong enough to become a climbing wall at the closing scene, but we really know that because when we walked in s/he was not just next to the screen but leaning on it with all her weight. The removal of the half the overall after doing some messy painting was followed by removing half her clothes in a later scene. The early smashing of certain parts of the screen made hand holds for her ascent to the top of the screen for the apotheosis finale, ascending to infinity, fulfillment, or a desperate attempt to escape this world and its troubles and cares?

On top of all this, she dances. Powerful is a word which appears several times in this review, and Ms Kapetanea is a powerful force on stage: her choreography is intense, with changes of tempo and changes  of weight and she covers the breadth and depth of the stage in seconds. The staging, lighting and music are powerful, but the real powerhouse is the dancer herself. She leaves the audience disturbed and drained, but most of all, full of admiration for a superb artist.

This work was brought to The Hague as a coproduction with the Athens Festival, and the production team includes: Vassilis Mantzoukis, music, Sofia Alexiadou, lighting, Manolis Vitsaxakis, Isabelle Lhoas and Martin Kubran.