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Manchester music reviews

Ailís Ní Ríain with her Ensemble 10/10 commission

Ensemble 10/10 at Liverpool Philharmonic

Reviewed by Denis Joe March 2012

 

Liverpool can count itself fortunate that it is home to one of the world leading contemporary music ensembles: Ensemble 10/10. was founded by two Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra members, Nicholas Cox and Hilary Browning, in 1997. They are award winners of the Royal Philharmonic Society music Awards and have released five CDs. The added bonus of a live performance is the enthusiasm of their director Clark Rundell, whose spontaneous wit is matched by his command of the Ensemble.

 

Colin MatthewsColin Matthews L, Bent
Ailís Ní Ríain In Sleep...
Yu Oda My Daughter
Richard Whalley A Very Serious Game (World premiere)
Adam Gorb Anya 17 (World premiere)
Clark Rundell: conductor
Caroline Clegg: director

Soloists from the Royal Northern College of Music:
Sarah Parkin soprano
Andrea Tweedale soprano
Amy Webber soprano
Joanne Holton soprano
Lucy Baines mezzo-soprano
Sean Boyes tenor
Tom Hopkinson baritone

 

The music of Colin Matthews has always proved to be exciting and L, Bent is no exception. This is the first time that I have heard this piece, although the first performance was given in New York in 1993 by Speculum Musicae, conducted by Oliver Knussen. It is a short piece, written for the 50th birthday of his brother, Colin. The piece finds Matthews in a less serious role and there is a great deal of humour within the music. I think that the piece shows why Matthews is so successful: his music is very approachable, yet there is an element of freshness about it. A chamber ensemble of 10 players, at four minutes, I felt was far too short, but a real joy to experience nonetheless.

 

Ailís Ní Ríain’s In Sleep... is a 10/10 commission that was first performed at the Cornerstone, Hope University, Liverpool, in 2010. This was the first time that I had heard any of Ríain’s music and I found the piece to be quite astonishing. The piece was written for Ensemble and soprano. The singer was Sarah Parkin. As well as composing the music Ríain also wrote the text, that finds inspiration in the “’in and out of it’ state of mind between sleeping and waking”. Written in five movements, the first is a gentle duet between the singer and the flautist. Overall the piece has a gentle Gamelan feel to it and reminds me of some of the music of John Cage, but Ríain’s approach goes beyond the melodic and soothing, and has an undercurrent that is a little bit unsettling, owing much to the phrasing of Parkin’s singing. The second movement brings in the rest of the Ensemble, but the spoken approach to the text is less satisfactory and I felt that the ‘reader’s’ voice jars with the music.

 

The third movement seems to have found its inspiration in Renaissance music and the opening line, “in between worlds there’s me scrambling like a fool” does conjure up images of dancing. The opening of the fourth movement creates a very dreamy atmosphere with a combination of tubular bells and violin. The flute and voice dominate before we return to the bells and violin. This is the most effective movement that seems to capture the moment of coming into consciousness and we also become conscious of the manner in which the strands of music weave in and out as we return to the voice and flute and other instruments make their presence felt as the violin takes over from the flute to end the movement.

 

There is a slightly violent opening to the final movement that finds the singer trying to rationalise the harshness of the awakened world. The finality of the last line, “That is our only reality after all”, is delivered with great assuredness and we are left with an uncertainty as to which world (sleeping or awakening) we would prefer. Whilst Ailís Ní Ríain’s mastery over musical styles is obvious from this piece, it is not done for showiness. The approach captures the theme of the text very well and In Sleep... is one of the best pieces of contemporary music I have heard in a long while. It reminded me of Schoenberg’s Erwartung, though without that piece’s nightmarish feel. The singing was equally demanding but Sarah Parkin ‘s authoritative vocals brought a sureness and beauty to the piece. The music, although inspired by other styles, is never derivative and it stays in the memory long after the piece has finished.

 

Yu OdaYu Oda’s My Daughter is an exciting piece that plays with the tonal system, creating a sense of disorder whilst the rhythm is maintained by the pianist’s (Ian Buckle) foot tapping and the cellist’s and bassist’s tapping of their instruments. Oda refers to the piece as a ‘semi-concerto’ for piano, and though the piano is present, its role is not fully argumentative as one would expect from a concerto. This is perhaps Oda expressing his relationship with his daughter as being one that hovers between conflict and consensus. It is certainly an ingenious portrayal of human relationships and I cannot say that I have heard anything like it before. It is a short piece, but one that suggests an important voice for future composition. The piece was debuted at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in November of last year, which strongly suggests that the musical establishment takes this young man very seriously.

 

Richard WhalleyRichard Whalley’s A Very Serious Game is a piece in three parts. Inspired by the works of M.C. Escher, the first part is based on the artist’s House of Stairs. It opens with the piano playing a sort of disordered musical scales (as if Alfred Schittke was playing it) which suggests climbing. Other instruments impose on the repetition of the eight notes creating a cacophony of disorder. Yet the music never quite gets out of hand and this section speaks much of the mathematical approach to art that was a central aspect of Escher’s work. The pause before the final bar lends a sense of humour to the section.

 

Three Worlds opens with cor anglais and xylophone suggesting the elements of the fish in the water and leaves. Whalley teases the images out well, with gradual building to the crescendo that brings the movement to a close but also captures the totality of the three images of Escher’s vision. Metamorphosis II, opens with the strings moving towards glissando that introduces the wind instruments with piano repeating scales as if to anchor the other instruments. It is a wonderful section that plays with how we hear the music. The notation doesn’t seem to alter; only the music as a whole, through rhythm and pitch takes us into a whole new world.

 

What Whalley demonstrates with A Very Serious Game is how we can see music as well as hear it. It strikes me that his inspiration, the artist Escher, was the perfect example of how it is possible to create the same moods and emotions in a different art form. This was the world premiere of A Very Serious Game and had been commissioned by Clark Rundell and Ensemble 10/10. I think that this reflects on both the composer and the players that Ensemble 10/10 can commission work from such a talented composer and that the composer is inspired enough to present an excellent piece of music.

 

After an interval, we witnessed what was pitched as the highlight of the evening - Adam GorbAdam Gorb’s Anya 17, which presents us with something of a problem. Written to highlight the issue of human trafficking one has to wonder if it is the topic or the work itself that needs to be considered. Most of Gorb’s works seem to have been composed to highlight one issue or another. Whether it is Thoughts Scribbled on a Blank Wall, a ‘protest’ cantata based on the experiences of the ‘political prisoner’ John McCarthy, or Eternal Voices a commission from the Royal marines, about the subject of war. Anya 17, an opera in one act, is the only work of Gorb that I am familiar with and this production in Liverpool was its premiere.

 

It may help to look at the issue of human trafficking, or ‘sex slavery’ (this is a curious aspect, as human trafficking could also include migrants, but few campaign groups – if any – make the distinction, so the already ambiguous guesstimates are even more unclear). There are a number of organisations that operate in this field, and the programme for this concert lists them all. What is notable about the subject is how it is introduced as something clouded in secrecy. Commentators and campaigners admit that they know little about the extent of human trafficking. One organisation, Frontline, have this to say:

What do we really know about sex trafficking? Although trafficking of women and girls for sexual exploitation is a global problem, hard statistics on the numbers of women involved, and in which countries, are close to impossible to come by....It is an illegal, underground business, and it is difficult to extrapolate the scale of the problem from statistics on arrests and convictions, because many victims don't come forward for fear of retribution.

 

But this lack of ‘hard statistics’, or any real evidence beyond the ‘testaments of survivors’ does not stop them from making outlandish claims such as “human trafficking is a $32 billion industry” or that it is second only to international drug trafficking as a world-wide problem (quoted in the concert programme). It seems that campaigners are so sure of themselves that, like the existence of a deity, no proof is required. So, in the absence of proof we get an opera. We are informed that the librettist, Ben Kaye (who also collaborated on the other two mentioned works by Adam Gorb), had done an enormous amount of research on ‘any existing literature, and chose to focus on a contemporary issue that needs bringing to people’s attention [my emphasis]’. This suggests that the composer and writer had simply jumped on the bandwagon of this issue rather than having any strong views on the subject prior to this work. There is also a certain amount of arrogance in the idea that the work would have a wide and popular appeal (unless the ‘people’ are simply a select group who would go to see a contemporary opera).

 

So what of the opera? It is divided into eleven scenes with a prelude labelled ‘Hope’, set in a refuge with Carole (sung by the mezzo-soprano, Lucy Baines), presumably a counsellor trying to get Anya (sung by the soprano Andrea Tweedale), who is dressed in a hospital gown and curled up on chair, to talk. The music tries for a dramatic urgency that brings to mind the music of Alban Berg, but never quite gets there, and comes nowhere near capturing the pathos of Wozzecks opening scene (which this brought to my mind).

 

In Scene 1, ‘Farewells’, Anya is sitting in a bar waiting for her fiancée Uri (the tenor Sean Boyes) who has promised her a job. A woman appears (Natalia, also sung by Lucy Baines) and says that she has been sent by Uri. They are joined by Mila (the soprano, Joanne Holten) and Natalia convinces them that life will be great in the ‘West’. This introduces one of the themes that dominate the opera. Anya’s opening aria, Please come soon, tells us that she is a wide-eyed innocent, reliant on a man to take her away from her life to a better world. This device has been used in countless operas, most notably in Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. Our familiarity with it makes us aware that Anya’s dreams will only lead to despair. Puccini may have seen Cio-Cio San’s dream of a better life with the U.S. navy officer Pinkerton as something that she deserved and was justified in her expectation, whereas in this opera we can only view Anya as the cartoon caricature of the pathetic victim for whom life is just one continuous trial. When Uri does appear and he and Anya sing their duet (I have never seen/ a beauty such as yours) we know that he is just another Pinkerton, except worse because he sneaks off rather than face Anya with the truth. Once Uri does come onto the stage, the music becomes less brutal and moves into Benjamin Britten territory.

 

The first scene ends with Viktor (bass, Tom Hopkinson) ushering the women away. Viktor is the caricature East European. Speaking (or singing) in a clipped pidgin English, he could have walked out of a cheap Cold War movie. His presence tells us that he is the baddie in this opera, as sure as any racial stereotype could make clear. In scene 2 the women have a bonding session in the back of a lorry on their way to wherever Viktor is taking them. This provides for an excuse to portray the first of many hardships, as Anya complains about being cold and hungry. At the end of scene 2 there is a short musical interlude. The lorry stops and Viktor tells them that they have arrived.

 

Musically scene 3 is the most interesting with a motif being repeated at the beginning, which lends a feeling of urgency to Viktor’s actions of getting the women inside where he gets them drunk. The motif gives way to a clarinet wail which touches on the sleazy jazz that accompanies the Natalia character from here on. A trio of the women learning to speak English phrases, such as introducing themselves, may well have been thought to introduce a touch of humour, but reminded me of the awful sitcom, from the late 1970s, ‘Mind Your Language’. Viktor then gets them to dance. Natalia dances provocatively to a musical interlude of sleazy jazz. This scene was embarrassing, not simply because the predictability of the musical accompaniment to the action, but it created a mood with all the seriousness of a soft porn movie.

 

As the act moves on we get to see the unsettling character of Viktor as he becomes more impatient with the girls and responds to Anya’s pathetic cries for Uri, by ripping the ring from her finger and then making threats to kill Anya’s family members. It seems that the composer and librettist were not happy to leave this display of brutality at that and we are given an aria of Viktor, in which he describes the women as ‘meat’. This does nothing to improve the opera and only goes to add to its cartoon character whilst appealing to the prejudice of any audience members who might go along with this stereotype.

 

Natalia ends the scene on an aria which draws on the sleazy music and the outlook of Viktor’s aria. Whilst it acts as a device to show the real side of Natalia it also suggests that there is a certain desperation in that the opera needs to be padded out and seems to suggest that there is a lack of anything dramatic that might help give some life to this. The rest of the opera sees more brutality being poured on the heroine. In scene 4 we are introduced to a resident of the brother. Elena (sung by the soprano, Amy Webber) was blinded by her captors. Her aria about her little boy only adds to the predictability of the character.

 

Watch how the BBC's North West Tonight promote the Opera..

 

 

Later we are introduced to another character who, for inexplicable reasons, is in love with Anya. The character is just dropped into the opera without any introduction or any suggestion that he has a relationship with the people in the Brothel. What we do know about him is that he is the good guy, par excellence, because he is blessed with the name Gabriel (Sean Boyes). In scene 6 he sings his aria full of hack romantic phrases such as ‘What essence of this moon?’, ‘Child of endless night’ and ‘For dark is just for dreaming’.

 

Scene 7 has Anya plotting her escape with Elena. Scene 8 opens with another aria for Anya which is much the same as Gabriel’s aria: full of stock Romantic clichés before we have a violent scene where Viktor kills Mila by stamping on her head and Anya is given a beating. Scene 9 has Anya realising that ‘death is the only way out’ whilst Gabriel reappears to find Natalia cleaning the blood off the floor with Anya’s torn dress. Confusion reigns as Gabriel thinks that they have killed ‘his Anya’. Viktor enters and there is a fight with Gabriel in which the Viktor is killed.

 

In scene 11 we are back at the refuge with Carole reassuring Anya that she is safe. Anya is muttering about the number 17 and hearing voices, then Gabriel enters the scene with flowers for Anya. The opera ends with Anya asserting her identity with ‘Anya... I am Anya‘. There was some build up on the internet about Anya 17, but it was never made clear whether it was the opera that was important or the campaign around ‘sex slavery’. The campaign wasn't successful and didn't seem to inspire either the composer or the librettist to present the public with anything special. The music relied on poor imitation of far greater composers. That is not to suggest that there is anything wrong with a derivative approach - all art has to learn from its history. But the music for this production comes across like a hotchpotch of other composer’s works (not even styles) that seems to just hope that by simply giving a nod to other composers that this will make for opera. In short, the approach to composition is lazy and, as such, insulting to the audience.

 

No less so is the libretto, which creates a group of characters as if it was for some Saturday morning children’s cartoon. I assume that some of the text was based on quotes from victims but others, such as Gabriel’s aria, are just embarrassing attempts at creating an atmosphere that neither belongs in the story or does anything to put flesh on the characters. The stereotypes are simply an insult. First off, we have Anya dreaming of a better life in the West, but Viktor is not only presented as the hateful east European (typical of the type of racial profile that passes without comment these days), and we also see the contemporary dislike of materialism. The east European’s provide the West with a new form of Romanticism, whereby the old Stalinist regimes may have not been perfect but they now seem to be superior to ‘our Western materialism’, that is simply a secular version of ‘For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils’ [Timothy 6:10 KJB 200E].

 

It is not just the audience that might feel insulted by this opera, I felt for the performers. The dedication and professionalism of Ensemble 10/10 could not do anything to make the experience of Anya 17 anything worth remembering, and the cast could not have been better. Lucy Baines, Sean Boyes and Tom Hopkinson are definitely singers to watch out for and, hopefully, this performance will be something they will want to put behind them. I have my doubts about the use of art to highlight a campaign or issue. It is not just that using art as a vehicle for social engineering debases it, but that it invariably suggests that the artist lacks vision: once an issue has been solved how, then, should we view the work of art.

 

There have been many great works that act as propaganda. Weill and Brecht’s operatic collaborations spring to mind. But what makes them great is that it was not simply the issue that was being discussed, but what that issue meant for a universal view of humanity. Artists can and should use their works to go beyond the banality of the everyday and give a voice to the future. This was not something that came across in Anya 17. Instead it was nothing more than a sermon from the pulpit of modern immorality. If Anya 17 succeeds in anything, then it is the portrayal of today’s elitist values, pigeon-holing humanity into ‘goodies’ (victims and saviours) and baddies (materialist macho types and their sidekicks), with little understanding or explanation of human motive, or even proof of asserting a viewpoint. For the elite, humankind is a uni-dimensional mass that requires no elucidation and Anya 17 reflects that view.

 
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