Cheltenham Music Festival 2018: The Strings of the BBC NOW; Hansel & Gretel

by 5:4

Sitting in Cheltenham Town Hall last Saturday for a concert of music by the strings of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, was a boilingly hot, practically overheating, experience. This was nothing whatsoever to do with the endless waves of sunshine with which we’re currently being treated, and everything to do with the première to which we were being subjected, Richard Blackford’s Kalon for string quartet and string orchestra. Exasperation had begun to set in even before Martyn Brabbins had started to conduct the piece, due to the fact that the performance was preceded by a 20-minute – let me say that again: 20-minute – introduction to the piece by Blackford in ‘conversation’ with Christopher Cook. In reality, it wasn’t a conversation at all, since Blackford responded to each of Cook’s supposedly spontaneous questions with a lengthy pre-written script that he cleaved to as if his life depended on it. It was one of the most excruciatingly cringeworthy bits of narcissistic verbiage i have ever heard, in which anyone who didn’t know better would be forgiven for thinking Blackford was the first person in history to have composed music in two tempi simultaneously (gasp!). His mixture of self-aggrandising pomposity and stilted humour was agonising to sit through, and since i’m not elderly, infirm or retarded, i could hardly have objected more passionately to this kind of overweening spoon-feeding. i honestly felt like asking him if he’d like to wipe my mouth when he’d finished.

i suppose all of this would have been almost forgivable if the music turned out to be as impressive as Blackford clearly believed it to be. To say that it wasn’t is perhaps the most massive understatement i have ever written. Neo-romantic noodlings in the orchestra, with material idiomatic of folk in the quartet, during the first movement: bland, repetitive, boring. For the second movement, Blackford strived to tap into something more brooding and anguished; there was some potential in a ‘sobbing’ idea at the start but thereafter it descended into the most cliché, filmic representation of darkness, in which basic harmonic obliqueness and ambiguity served as a metaphor for darkness and pain. This might work if your notion of vision is restricted to primary colours, but for everyone else it’s just cheap and childish.

Of itself, this could be written off as merely the usual kind of humdrum numbskullery masquerading as new music that one encounters pretty regularly in and around the Cotswolds (trust me, being born and raised here, there’s a lot of it about), and which has worryingly cropped up with increasing frequency at Cheltenham in recent years. However, Blackford was so keen to emphasise the point that this music was intended to be anguished that he actually felt justified in referring – not in the music, only in the programme note and his preambular blather – to the Nazi concentration camps where Jews were forced to play music to mask and distract from the sounds of people being murdered. There have been times when contemporary music has said meaningful things about the holocaust (and, considering the string-/quartet-based context of this concert, Steve Reich’s Different Trains obviously comes to mind), but simply to co-opt Nazi atrocities into your metaphorical language to try and add some emotional baggage absent from the music itself is repulsive and obscene. And in any case, it was so unnecessary: being charitable about it, and in the most simplistic sense, this was plausibly anguished music already: the big, nasty orchestra overwhelmed the poor, little quartet. Yes, okay, we got it – and if we hadn’t Blackford chucked in a couple of Beethoven quotations (where he had used the German word for anguished: ‘beklemmt’ (and since we all have an encyclopaedic knowledge of Beethoven’s music we obviously all recognised this instantly)), to shore up the music. All of that was enough and made the simple point he wanted to make; there was absolutely no need and no justification to start alluding to the Nazis.

It was tough to concentrate feeling such an incandescent combination of disgust and rage, but by contrast the final movement was utterly harmless: boisterous, colour-by-numbers blah so empty and tedious it brought to mind Berlioz’s outrage when listening to Cherubini’s opera Ali Baba, where he shouted out during the first act, “Ten francs for an idea!”, gradually raising the bid through each subsequent act until finally exclaiming, ” I give up – I’m not rich enough!”.

One of the most dull, over-inflated, infuriating and repellent acts of composition to which i have ever been subjected. It’s hard to know who to blame more: the Cheltenham Music Festival for commissioning such excrement, or Blackford for expelling it all over us.

Saturday evening, in Parabola Arts Centre, brought an altogether less offensive world première: Hansel & Gretel, a theatre piece combining poetry by Simon Armitage and music by Matthew Kaner, articulated via puppetry and film, drawing for inspiration on the mesmerisingly wonderful work of Clive Hicks-Jenkins.

It was a problematic piece in two key respects. First, the visuals and the text each had a character and, more importantly, a confidence that was almost entirely lacking in the music, Kaner falling back on a generic palette of suspended chords and basic little gestures like staccato and pizzicato notes and fleeting ornaments. As such, Kaner’s music really didn’t have a genuine personality of its own but merely reflected that of the words and images, and as a consequence was incapable of establishing the work’s wonderfully lugubrious mise-en-scene, instead merely accompanying it. i suppose nothing Kaner had composed could be described as inappropriate for the piece, though neither could it be described as uniquely suited to it.

Second, it was unclear for whom the work was aimed. The simplicity of the music indicated the kind of straightforward, unsophisticated but direct approach to story-telling that children would best appreciate, and for the most part the visuals too would be suitable for all but the most young and impressionable (subtitled “a nightmare in eight scenes”, the work is both literally and narratively very dark). Yet Armitage’s use of language, including various coarse terms and even a couple of f-bombs, suggests adults are a more suitable target audience. i know from speaking with others after the performance that i wasn’t alone in being troubled and to an extent pulled out of the story by this stylistic friction within the work.

There was, though, much to enjoy about Hansel & Gretel: the puppetry and the associated projection (sometimes of the puppets, other times of short film clips accompanying the narrative) were beautifully effective and often quite moving, and the decision to only show the puppets in black and white on the screen was perfect, adding greatly to the unsettling atmosphere. It’s a shame that it was the music, above all, that proved to be the undoing of the piece; there was no significant silence in the score – at certain points, the music falling silent would arguably have been a lot more telling – so that, by the end, Kaner’s limited palette of ideas felt utterly exhausted. But at its best, the work manages to rise above this fundamental failing and offers some fresh insights into a story that, in the last 200 years, has only become more ominous and disquieting.

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