Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Alexander Lonquich – Mozart for Piano and Orchestra | The Auditorium, Rome | 30 March, 2010

The German-born pianist Alexander Lonquich played to a packed and enthusiastic audience in the Santa Cecilia hall at the Auditorium Parco della Musica yesterday in the second of two evenings dedicated to the piano concertos of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. On both occasions Lonquich was not only the extraordinary piano soloist, but also the guest conductor of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia Orchestra. 

The evening opened with one of Mozart's most successful and famous works - The Overture to The Marriage of Figaro – and I instantly fell in love with the Austrian genius all over again. After a short interval a Steinway piano was rolled centre stage and Alexander Lonquich returned for the second part of the programme – the Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major (K. 488) - which Mozart had also completed around about the same time as the premiere of The Marriage of Figaro. This was the first time that I'd seen Lonquich perform and found myself smiling in delight so many times at the sheer dexterity, not to mention logistical brilliance, of how he quite literally conducted the orchestra from his piano stool, on occasions leaping to his feet, and on others conducting with his left hand whilst his right played the most complex of sequences with effortless poise. The second movement - Adagio in F-sharp minor – was particularly poignant, and throughout all three movements his playing was so beautifully restrained and seamlessly phrased with that of the orchestra that I was quite simply awestruck.

The third piece of the evening was the Piano Concerto No. 22 in E flat major (K. 482) – again, an exercise in extraordinary elegance which was met which rapturous applause, cheers and cries of “Bravo” the very second the final notes died. Returning to the stage for an encore (a repeat performance of the wonderful second movement of K.488) Lonquich introduced the piece in Italian, pondering how on earth Mozart had managed to anticipate the work of Bellini and Sicilian opera in this work! Generous to a fault, he then returned for yet another encore – a Mozart minuet – this time inviting us to enjoy the complexities and discordant notes.

A wonderful performer!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Stephen Frears at the Rome Book Festival “How Books Are”

Stephen Frears signing autographs in Rome
British film director Stephen Frears was in Rome over the weekend where he appeared at the festival of books and reading at the Auditorium Parco della Musica - Libri come: Festa del Libro e della Lettura. The festival hosted encounters with both Italian and international writers over 3 days and looked at how books are written. The talk with Stephen Frears was billed as Creative writing for cinema – who better, indeed, than Frears, who has brought so many book adaptations brilliantly to the screen.

The discussion was led by Valerio Cappelli, a reporter and critic for an Italian daily newspaper the Corriere della Sera, but sadly his questions were either so excruciatingly bad that he was actually jeered by the audience on some occasions, or took the form of rambling monologues ending with a closed question to which the director could only answer with a yes or no and a slightly baffled expression! Admittedly, Cappelli got off to a bad start by asking Frears if he had bugged Buckingham Palace in order to prepare for the movie The Queen (bad joke) and by asking a long question about what he felt about Tim Burton's recent film version of Alice in Wonderland (Frears hadn't seen the film and we were there, after all, to hear him talk about his own work). The beginning of the talk was also beset by technical problems – the simultaneous translation headpieces worn by Frears and Cappelli were on the blink and the talk was interrupted several times before things got properly underway. The presence of a translator on stage or an interviewer who could at least speak better English would have made for a far more effective discussion.

What saved the evening from being a total fiasco, however, was Stephen Frears' dry sense of humour and his complicity with the increasingly frustrated audience, inevitably at the expense of Cappelli who seemed unable to turn the situation around. I'm convinced that Frears actually took pity on him eventually, and then took charge of things himself. After a lengthy clip taken from Dangerous Liaisons it was Frears who spoke first, expanding upon Cappelli's earlier reference to the film by Miloš Forman (Valmont) based on the same novel and made shortly afterwards. Forman's film was spectacularly overshadowed by Frears' version – a situation he summed up as a “very sad story”. Christopher Hampton scooped the Oscar for the screenplay (based on the play, Les liaisons dangereuses, which was itself a theatrical adaption of the novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos) and Frears was keen to give huge credit to Hampton's impact on his work. Asked whether Hampton was Da Ponte to his Mozart, he joked: I may well be his Salieri!...or he may be my John the Baptist...but that's even worse! That would make me Jesus!...

The next clip was another book adaptation – High Fidelty - based on Nick Hornby's best seller and starring John Cusack who had brought Frears the project and was one of the screen writers. The conversation took a more technical turn as Frears discussed the transformation of what was originally a voice-over monologue in the original screenplay into the frequent use of direct delivery to camera in the final film.

My Beautiful Launderette, which first introduced Frears to international audiences, was co-scripted with Hanif Kureishi, who is now a hugely important figure in contemporary British literature. Sadly, this film was mentioned by way of introduction only, but at least it got a passing mention! I was most disappointed by the absence of any questions about Prick Up Your Ears. The film's exceptionally clever screenplay by Alan Bennett follows the story of the writer John Lahr as he researches the very book about playwright Joe Orton upon which the film is based, a book which also makes extensive use of Orton's infamous diaries. Surely, a Stephen Frears film with so many literary references deserved at least a passing nod at a book festival!

Cappelli seemed more than happy, if not relieved, to hand over final questions to the floor. Asked whether he'd like to bring Shakespeare to the screen, Frears replied that he already thought that some of his films, for example, The Queen (which had been the third and final clip of the evening) was already Shakespearean in essence, but that he'd rather watch a Shakespeare play at the theatre, not at the cinema - You know who's going to die at the end! What about a musical? somebody shouted from the audience, to which he replied rather whimsically: Well... I suppose if Gene Kelly were still alive...

At the end of the discussion his admirers crowded the stage and in spite of requests by the organisers to wrap things up he stubbornly sat down and stayed put until he'd signed every last autograph!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Requiem for a Dying Planet | The Auditorium, Rome | 16 March, 2010

The music of Ernst Reijseger for the films of Werner Herzog

One of contemporary cinema's greatest visionaries and a true movie-making maverick Werner Herzog sought the talents of Dutch cello virtuoso and composer Ernst Reijseger for the hauntingly beautiful soundtracks to his recent films The White Diamond and The Wild Blue Yonder. In a concert in Sala Petrassi at the Auditorium Parco della Musica last night, Ernst Reijseger was joined on stage by Senegalese singer and musician Mola Sylla (with whom he co-wrote The Wild Blue Yonder score), as well as a five piece Sardinian vocal choir, the Voches de Sardinna: Tenore e Cuncordu de Orosei - Patrizio Mura, Gianluca Frau, Mario Siotto, Piero Pala and Massimo Roych. The concert was partly a live sonification of Herzog's films with clips from both documentaries projected on a screen behind the performers, but with many tracks played with no images to support them, it was quickly apparent that these film scores have an exhilarating life of their own.

If you look for Ernst Reijseger's music anywhere online you're likely to find him pigeonholed under "jazz", and certainly there were moments last night that captured the spirit of improvised music, particularly when he swung his cello onto his knees and slapped the strings as if playing a bass guitar, but the lasting impression was one of a marriage between traditional European music and world music - Sylla's distinctive African vocals, accompanied by the plucking of the metal-tongued mbira and the chant-like Latin prayers of the Sardinian singers.

The evening began in near darkness - whole seconds passed before people further back in the theatre seemed to have realised that Reijseger had taken to the stage and was gently stroking ethereal sounds from his cello - and Sylla's entrance was in darkness too, with his voice heard at a distance and off stage. At first the audience seemed confused as to quite how to respond to the music and followed strict classical music "rules" and sat firmly on their hands in religious silence between the first pieces and resisted the temptation to applaud. The rulebook was soon jettisoned, however, and by the end of the show the applause and cries of "Bravi" brought them back out on stage for an encore in which they performed a traditional Sardinian folk song "Dillu".

Presented as part of Contemporanea, a festival of contemporary art, music and performance with an eclectic series of events spread somewhat sporadically throughout the year, this was yet another immensely enjoyable concert hosted at the Auditorium and further evidence of the venue's continued support of some of the most interesting and exciting performers working today.

Watch a clip of Herzog, Reijeseger and Sylla working together below or click here to watch it on YouTube.

Photo © deSingel

Monday, March 1, 2010

Tan Dun - Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon | The Auditorium, Rome | 27 February, 2010

It seemed particularly fitting in the very same week in which an Italian court took the outrageous decision to convict three Google executives of privacy violations, holding them personally accountable for a video that some teenage thugs had uploaded to YouTube, that Chinese composer Tan Dun should present the Italian première of a piece of music that celebrates all that is wonderful about the Internet and in particular, YouTube – The Internet Symphony "Eroica". Commissioned by Google and YouTube for the YouTube Symphony Orchestra, in which musicians were selected via online auditions and even played the piece virtually via the Internet, it was performed on Saturday afternoon by the Orchestra of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia. It's an exhilarating piece, with a clear nod to Beethoven's own Eroica, but with the entirely original and thrilling use of car parts in the percussion section such as clanking drum brakes.

In 2001 Tan Dun won an Oscar for Best Original Score for his soundtrack for Ang Lee's breathtaking Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the audience were treated to scenes from that film during the performance of another Italian première - a suite based on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon with solo cellist Amedeo Cicchese stepping admirably into the very large shoes of Yo Yo Ma who played the haunting cello part on the original soundtrack.

At the start of the second half of the afternoon Tan Dun took time to praise both the Orchestra and the Chorus of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia effusively – in fact, the Orchestra were joined on stage by the Chorus for the world première of a suite based on the soundtrack for The Banquet, a Chinese film from 2006 which transposed Shakespeare's Hamlet to ancient China, and where Hamlet is a woman (played by the ubiquitous Zhang Ziyi). The music, he explained, explored the themes of a woman's love, revenge and desire. Originally played by the amazing Lang Lang for the film, for this live performance the talented young Italian pianist Giulio Biddau was the soloist.

Closing to rapturous applause after a stunning programme, the audience were treated to a final and completed unexpected surprise and another world first – an encore of The Internet Symphony with full chorus!

Tan Dun returns to Santa Cecilia this evening and tomorrow – highly recommended!

Watch the original global Internet mash up of The Internet Symphony below or click here to watch it on YouTube.

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