Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The gentle world of "Gary Williams at the Movies"

Gary Williams has a fine reputation as a distinctive interpreter of the Great American Songbook in a relaxed jazz idiom. His latest album “Gary Williams at the Movies” has fifteen songs all of which, as the name suggests, are from movie soundtracks. Not all are standards – a number were new to me – but all in his hands appeal. This is in a way a crossover album – we are on the cusp of jazz and popular music throughout. Some of the fine arrangements are heavily jazz inspired others owe more to Nelson Riddle or Billy May (though there are no lush strings!).

It is an eclectic collection with songs from “The Aristocats”, “The Jungle Book” and “Dumbo” sitting comfortably with the great “Isn’t this a Lovey Day” from “Top Hat”. The Bee Gees “How Deep is your Love” (from “Saturday Night Fever” of course”) is a long way from the original – and all the better for it! There are one or two other songs closely linked to one artist – Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” and the Carpenters “Close to You” for example. The arrangements and Williams distinctive vocal style give these classics new life.  This style I would describe as “less is more”. His voice is never strained - always laid back. This is music to play late at night when you’re alone on the sofa with your love and the lights are low. In our raucous “in your face” age it is a delight to hear more gentle music - great songs elegantly sung with great sincerity but no sentimentality. To sing “Home is where the heart is” and make it sound rather more than the soppy ballad it usually is is quite an achievement!

The Band is exceptional with Graeme Blevins slinky Sax perhaps the highlight! The balance is good throughout – the band never obscures the singer but it is not in the background – some clever sound engineering here.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

"All Our Children" at the Jermyn St Theatre - a "Warning from History"

“All Our children”
Jermyn Street Theatre 16th May 2017

"We had a huge number of very low-value, low-skilled people coming through” – Iain Duncan Smith on BBC Newsnight 9th May 2017

The grotesque idea that you can judge people and divide them by their value to society and discriminate accordingly – as expressed recently by Conservative ex Minister Iain Duncan Smith with his we need fewer "low-value, low-skilled people" remarks – was at the core of the malignant philosophy of Adolf Hitler and was to lead to the Holocaust - the greatest crime the world has ever known. This discrimination placed healthy heterosexual Aryan Caucasians in the “High value” category and Jews, Homosexuals and those with physical or mental disabilities into “Low value”. They were referred to as “Untermenschen” and included citizens of the Eastern European nations, such as Poland, that the Nazi war machine conquered.

By the autumn of 1939 the euphemistically termed “euthanasia action” killing mental patients was underway across the Reich and was, as Hitler biographer Ian Kershaw called it, “… to provide a gateway to the vaster extermination programme to come”. Kershaw explains[1] that the notion that at the bottom of the “low value” pile there were grounds for destroying “life not worth living” (Vernichtung lebensunwerten Lebens ) dates back to the immediate post WW1 years and was in part an economic argument – why spend money on the care of those who are otherwise a social burden when that money can better be used for “productive” purposes?

In August 1941 a Catholic Bishop, Clemens August Graf von Galen, preached a sermon criticising the Gestapo, and by connection Hitler, for the “euthanasia action”. Von Galen’s initiative was widely publicised, especially in Catholic circles and, wanting to avoid the negative publicity at a critical time in the war, Joseph Goebbels recommended to Hitler that the large scale and organised “euthanasia action”, which by then had killed 70,000 victims, be stopped. (In fact, as Laurence Rees[2] points out, “individual hospitals continued to starve disabled patients to death and to kill them by fatal injection”).  But Hitler followed Goebbels advice and the systematic murder was stopped.

In his new play “All Our Children” Stephen Unwin has constructed a drama around the real life figure of Bishop von Galen. It takes place in a clinic in Winkelheim in January 1941 where Dr. Victor Franz (powerfully and sympathetically played by Colin Tierney) the clinic’s Director, is responsible for the monthly transportation of twenty or thirty disabled children to the killing factories. This involves selection from their patients and deception as to what happened to the children when they were taken away. Frau Pabst has a son, Stefan, in the clinic and visits Franz to discuss him. From their discussion it is clear that she loves the boy who is severely handicapped but the unspoken reality is that he will be selected for one of the transports (it later transpires that this has already happened and Frau Pabst is informed that he has “died of natural causes”). When Frau Pabst has left Dr. Franz’s deputy, a young staunch Nazi called Eric, explains the ideology. “These youngsters here, they’re nothing really they aren’t… the Fuhrer’s right: they’re leading “lives unworthy of life. It’s as simple as that”. When Frau Pabst hears the news about her son she returns and confronts Dr. Franz who is forced to admit what has happened. “He was killed because of his condition. Because he’ll never be able to make a contribution to society. Because looking after him costs too much money and because there’s no need for such people in the Third Reich”

Bishop von Galen (a very authentic-feeling portrayal by David Yelland) has made an appointment to see Dr. Franz and the last part of the play comprises his challenge to Franz about the moral basis of the “euthanasia action” of which he is part. Although the Bishop bases his challenge on his Catholic faith it is actually a broader argument arguing that Franz’s “Ends justify the means” defence – that there are no absolutes and that as a doctor he is always involved in making tough choices - is “moral relativism”. Von Galen segues from the purely religious to the argument that Germans are “not barbarians. This is Germany: the land of Goethe and Schiller… how can we be doing this to our fellow human beings?”

The cultured Germany - the sophisticated modern 20th Century European State descending into unimaginable barbarism - is at the heart of this play. “The Holocaust” was around the corner in 1941 and the audience of course knows that. The characters – the “Only obeying orders” Dr. Franz, the Nazi apparatchik Eric and the others just caught up in, and often victims of, the terror – Frau Pabst the mother and Martha the maid - are symbols and victims of the utterly dysfunctional society that the Nazis created and of the further, greater terror to come. Bishop von Galen is a special case. Opposition to the Nazi regime was not tolerated and was ruthlessly put down. But the Bishop was a distinguished figure in the church and Hitler knew that recent attacks on the churches were causing morale problems in the population which he, in the end, judged it was unwise to exacerbate. Others in the Nazi leadership wanted to hang von Galen. Martin Bormann, Goebbels and eventually Hitler himself decided to wait. In the end von Galen survived dying of natural causes a year after the War’s end. He was beatified by Pope John Paull II in October 2005.

Ian Kershaw and Laurence Rees collaborated on the TV Series about the Nazis “A Warning from History” and the title was well chosen. I think that Stephen Unwin, with his fine first play, is also warning us. Was his character Dr Victor Franz a “Bad man” – certainly no more so than others caught up in, rather than being instigators of, the terror.  Was Bishop von Galen a “Good man” as his later beatification suggests he was – perhaps yes, certainly one who challenged the system rather than acquiescing to it. And the lessons? It shouldn’t need stating, but judging from the hierarchical categorising being indulged in by some like Iain Duncan Smith it does. John Donne said “Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind”. And Robbie Burns probably summed it up best of all: “A Man's a Man for a' that”.

And who are we to judge the value of a life anyway?


[1] “Hitler 1936-1945. Nemesis” Penguin Books 2001
[2] “The Holocaust” Penguin Books 2017

Friday, May 12, 2017

"Being Wagner: The Triumph of the Will" by Simon Callow

Biographies of creative artists vary a lot in the attention and balance they give to the “Life” and the “Works”. Sometimes the life almost overwhelms the works – Callas, Hemingway, Bernstein – sometimes the character remains hidden, overwhelmed by the grandeur of the creations. Or perhaps, as with Shakespeare, because while the works are ubiquitous the details of the life remain a mystery. When they are well done composer biographies illuminate our understanding of the work by selectively focusing on the relevant aspects of the life. That surely is the biographer’s goal? Most composers only have a presence in our lives because we listen to, or see (in the case of Opera or Ballet or musical theatre) their work. How they got to the work’s creation may be of interest incidentally but even if we knew nothing of the life at all the work can still engage us completely. Richard Wagner is different – very different! To begin to “get” his work you do, I think, have to get to know the man.

In the Foreword to his brilliant biography “Being Wagner” Simon Callow points out that Wagner “has been written about at greater length than any other composer”. This rather supports the contention that the man and the work are uniquely interlaced. I came to Wagner late – partly because I came to Opera as a whole late and partly because I took one look at the work and instinctively retreated from it. “The Ring”? Fifteen hours of stuff about gods and rhinemaidens and heroes and dwarves? Come on! But then I became conscious of the fact that if you have Radio 3 playing all day (as I usually do) you are going to hear some stunning, tuneful, accessible music from the man. The Siegfried Idyll. The prelude to Act One of “Die Meistersinger”. The astonishing “Tristan chord”.  So a few years ago I thought I better dive into the operas. Glyndebourne put on “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg“and I went. It was a fine production (directed by David McVicar) as I now know - though at the time it was the only Wagner I had seen and I was a bit puzzled. That I didn’t really “get it” is illustrated by the trite remark I made to a friend in the interval “It only seems to have one tune”. Hmm.

A few months after Die Meistersinger at Glyndebourne I received an offer from the Royal Opera House of half-price tickets for their latest revival of Graham Vick’s 1993 production of the work. Well that was a bargain not to be missed – and I didn’t. I think that it was at the end of Act 2 during the hilariously staged riot scene that I finally “got” the work. I got the story and the characters but above all I got the music – the way that the various musical themes underpin the action returning over and over again to accompany their characters or the story. I was hooked. I’ve since seen the opera in Paris, Helsinki, Munich, Berlin, La Scala, Amsterdam as well as again at Glyndebourne (a revival), and the Royal Opera (the very strange 2017 new production) and by the ENO at the Coliseum. I have also seen Tristan, Tannhauser, the Flying Dutchman and Lohengrin (but not yet The Ring!).       

All the above to show that when I started Simon Callow’s “Being Wagner, The Triumph of the Will” I came to it not as a complete Wagner innocent – but equally without much knowledge of the man and his life. Having now read the book I realise why Wagner is different! Callow’s beautifully written and thoroughly researched biography is not a heavy tome – and all the better for it. In around 200 pages of text he describes the life chronologically and unsensationally. The facts are extraordinary enough not to need embellishment. However the works are the thread holding the life together and to know them – even as sketchily as I do (Die Meistersinger excepted!) makes the story all the more astonishing. How did this strange, driven, dysfunctional egomaniac create works of such compelling beauty? And how was it that despite years, decades even, of rejection he persevered to leave as his legacy works absolutely unsurpassed in the canon of nineteenth century opera.  Or the opera of any century come to think of it.

Wagner was a revolutionary in every way. His operas of course but also his politics and his lifestyle. Callow describes the magnetic hold he had on people – not just on women, though certainly on them. Ludwig the “Mad King” of Bavaria was entranced and he used his wealth and power to get Wagner’s work performed and to help the building of the composer’s extraordinary Bayreuth Opera House (Festspielhaus ) project. In a lovely phrase Callow says that Wagner “…upset people because that is precisely what he set out to do.” Unlike, say Schoenberg, Webern, Berg or Stockhausen he did not do this with serial composition or by surrendering melody or structure. Wagner’s music is both conventional and unconventional at the same time - but it is far from inaccessible. David McVicar has said I don’t like the idea that any opera composer is approached as a kind of intellectual Everest to be climbed. If you have the capacity, if you have the openness of mind, Wagner will talk directly to you. He’ll reach you. He’ll find things inside you.” And Leonard Bernstein perhaps got to the heart of Wagner’s psyche “I have the feeling that Wagner never grew up in this sense, that he retained all his life that infantile feeling of being the center of the universe”

Wagner is an obvious example of Hamlet’s “What a piece of work is man” - where what seems noble on the surface is underneath dust. There is certainly nobility to most of Wagner’s work – but the dust was everywhere else and included, of course, his grotesque anti-Semitism. This was not a casual prejudice – Callow calls it a “sort of madness”. He studied anti-Semitic writings and befriended ant-Semites. And yet at the same time he created Parsifal which Callow calls “… the nineteenth century’s greatest expression of redemption, transcendence and forgiveness”. Pick your way around that! In the end Simon Callow concludes that we should forever be grateful that Wagner persevered despite the extraordinary obstacles along the way (many of his own making) and that he is “…a whirlpool at the centre of musical culture, dangerous and dynamic. He is the discomfort we must live with… we should be grateful, even if we may be glad that we don’t have to spend too much time in his company”   


Saturday, May 14, 2016

"Travels with my Aunt" Disappointingly ordinary fare from the usuallyextraordinary Chichester Festival Theatre

The day before I saw "Travels with My Aunt" I saw Hugh Bonneville and company in a scintillating production of the Ibsen/Hampton "An Enemy of the People". It was one of the best theatrical experiences of my life and I will write about it soon. We have come to expect the highest quality at Chichester and the Ibsen production was as good as it gets. But the new musical based on Graham Greene's novella fell far short of the Theatre's usual standard.

If you are going to dramatise "Travels with My Aunt" and add music there has surely to be a reason why. I enjoyed the 1970s film with Maggie Smith and Alec McCowan and the 1990s stage play. So the first question you can legitimately ask is "Why?" now a musical. If Stephen Sondheim had done it you'd have your reason. But this was by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe who are not, it should be said, in that league - and it showed. There was no consistent style (pun intended) to Stiles musical score - sometimes ersatz Sondheim, sometimes Frederick Loewe on an off day. Steven Pacey, who played the middle-aged Henery Pulling who is travelling with his Aunt, sounded like Henry Higgins at times. 

"Travels with my Aunt" is Graham Greene Lite - an "Entertainment" rather than a novel. That said, as with all Greene, there is more to it than a superficial reading would suggest. It is satire and the story is deliberatly absurd. The book of the Musical is reasonably faithful to the original and as such becomes a fairy tale but, I felt, one without much meaning. I don't know whether it was designed as a vehicle for Patricia Hodge who plays Aunt Augusta  - they have given her a starring role, but her character does not have much depth. She performs it well and sings well too. But we are not convinced that her character is even slightly real.

You will not come away whistling the tunes - they were uniformly ordinary. The staging is minimalist and there was little real oomph in any of the numbers. The cast was good, the dancing lively and the ensemble singing adequate. But it all seemed to go on too long and be inordinately pleased with itself. In truth it's not very good and I doubt that it will have much life after its Festival run.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

"Every time a friend succeeds something inside me dies" - My review of Jay Parini's biography of Gore Vidal

There has never been anyone like Gore Vidal. Genius. Monster. Reprobate. Kind friend. Liberal. Conservative. Libertarian. Socialist. Man of the world. Man of America. Gay. Straight. Reliable. Untrustworthy. Extravagantly extrovert, but shy. And so on. A man full of paradoxes with a personality to match. This brilliant book captures the man better than anyone could expect but there is still a sense of mystery after finishing its 400 pages. Do we know the real Vidal? Was there a real Vidal?

Jay Parini has written a "Life and works" biography which blends the events of Vidal's long life with criticism of his enormous oeuvre. Some of that criticism is negative but it is mostly either benign or admiring. Parini was Vidal’s friend and he is a true one because of, not in spite of, the “warts and all” approach of this book. It is not sensationalist and there is no moralising. And he captures the genius as much as he describes the malignancy.

Vidal was a serendipitous figure so much larger than life that you wonder if he is actually a variant to the species – a one in a million aberration. He is like nobody else and Parini describes this excellently, although he doesn’t really explain it. What made Vidal tick? The urge to write, obsessively on an amazing range of subjects. The urge to perform – on television, the stage, the movies. The urge to shock the establishment, his admirers, his enemies. The urge to get even when slighted but also to heal wounds when he chose to. His life was coloured by the cast of characters with whom he interacted – a veritable cornucopia of name-dropping is unavoidable for Gore and for anyone who tackles his life!  

I recommend the book unhestitaingly to anyone who wants to hear the Vidal story and particularly to anyone who wants to see the people and the events, personal and public, of his years though Vidal’s eyes.  You actually do get a strong feel for Vidal’s perspective, eccentric and bizarre though it usually was. This intellectual giant of a man comes across very well indeed in Parini’s scholarly, well-written and entertaining book.