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An Opera Singer

Rupert Christiansen reviews Rusalka at the Royal Opera House

I only hope that the furious booing with which it was greeted at the curtain call means that it will be returned to sender at the earliest opportunity.

Reactions to Rusalka

Yet another shit let’s shock production of a very dull opera …

Campbell's Soup by Andy Warhol

(The New York Times, 24 January 1962)

Campbell’s Soup is drawing rave reviews from the world’s art critics, who hail the soup maker’s new “Tomato” soup “a brilliant post-modern commentary on the pervasiveness of consumerism in modern life”.

Art dealers from New York to Paris are bidding astronomical sums for the 12-ounce cans, normally priced at 33 cents. This week, a can at a Manhattan grocery store fetched $100,000.

According to New York art collector Bruno Waldstein, who paid $76,000 for a can at Sal’s Corner Grocery in Queens Friday: “This soup savagely lampoons the unwelcome, insidious intrusion of crass commercialism into our lives and modern popular culture. This is Campbell’s greatest work since Cream of Mushroom.”

The art originates from a small collective of artists calling themselves “The Campbell’s Canning Factory” in Gary, Indiana.

Campbell’s Soup CEO Herbert Leonard, 53, said he is mystified by the success of the can. “It’s just fucking soup,” he said.

(The Observer, 22 November 1964)

Irving Wardle defends William Burroughs’s hallucinatory 1959 novel and his divisive style of writing:

Opinion is already split so many ways over The Naked Lunch that it is worth stating William Burroughs’s claim to attention in fairly uncontroversial terms before reopening the argument.

First, after 15 years of drug addiction, he knows what he’s talking about; on the reporting level, his work has the authority of a war correspondent who has both lived in danger and done his homework.

Second, Burroughs is a real writer, a man with an instinct and respect for language, and whose energy finds a natural outlet in language. He can write good orthodox narrative when he wants to: no charlatan could have turned out the autobiographical Junkie. And even the notorious “cut-up” method that he practises today, shuffling the contents of the book like a pack of cards, leaves his narrative imagination intact. A naked man is trapped in an upstairs room with three murderous Arabs: “Pieces of murder falling slowly as opal chips through glycerine… Slower animal reactions allow him a full second to decide: straight through the window and down into the crowded street like a falling star and his wake of glass glittering in the sun… sustained a broken ankle and a chipped shoulder… clad in a diaphanous pink curtain, with a curtain-rod staff, hobbled away to the Commissariat de Police.”

Here Burroughs is applying the mandarin principle of leaving out whatever he finds boring. With writers such as Kerouac this yields floods of invertebrate telegraphese; but whatever The Naked Lunch may be, it is not spineless. Ugly as they are, its hallucinatory set-pieces are executed with obvious care, and its kaleidoscope fragments are as precise as sick cartoon captions (“With veins like that, Kid, I’d have myself a time,” whispers an old addict, fingering a boy’s arm). The cut-up method itself, with its swerving non sequiturs and incoherent sprays of dots, seems intended as a literary equivalent to those serialist compositions that allow the musicians to start and stop anywhere they like.

The key word in Burroughs’s own discussions of it is “intersection”, a term implying a good deal more than the interlocking of verbal material. Intersection points also represent transitions from one state of consciousness to another – like Pirandello’s changes between illusion and reality. In Burroughs, the change is from “junk time” to normal time, and he is aware that the moment of change is far more exciting than anything that happens once this change is established. But the final justification of the method is the material itself – a sequence of nightmare visions of a world in mutation, where genetic and social laws have broken down, and familiar outlines are melting away or merging together, like the cells of the book, in cancerous proliferation.

“I do not presume to impose ‘story’ ‘plot’ ‘continuity’,” Burroughs has said. “I am not an entertainer.” He is.

Couples attached to Baroque harnesses with artificial wings copulate in the air, screaming like magpies.
Aerialists ejaculate each other in space with one sure touch.
Equilibrists suck each other off deftly, balanced on perilous poles and chairs tilted over the void. A warm wind brings the smell of rivers and jungle from misty depths.
Boys by the hundred plummet through the roof, quivering and kicking at the end of ropes. The boys hang at different levels, some near the ceiling and others a few inches off the floor.
Sharp protein odor of semen fills the air. The guests run hands over twitching boys, suck their cocks, hang on their backs like vampires.
A horde of lust-mad American women rush in. Dripping cunts, from farm and dude ranch, factory, brothel, country club, penthouse and suburb, motel and yacht and cocktail bar, strip off riding clothes, ski togs, evening dresses, levis, tea gowns, print dresses, slacks, bathing suits and kimonos. They scream and yipe and howl, leap on the guests like bitch dogs in heat with rabies. They claw at the hanged boys shrieking: “You fairy! You bastard! Fuck me! Fuck me! Fuck me!”

(William S. Burroughs, The Naked Lunch)

(The Grauniad, 3 October 1958)

Within a few months, so we are promised by the big record companies, stereophonic discs will be available in this country. The question all record-collectors will want to ask is whether we are going to be faced with yet another gramophone upheaval on the scale of the L.P. revolution.

There are those who confidently believe that, ultimately, “stereo” will take first place as a gramophone medium, but because of the cost of equipment to reproduce stereophonic sound, and the greater expense of the records, that will take time. The head of one of the big companies whom I spoke to gave it as his opinion that stereophonic discs, though an important development, would not bring the fundamental changes that long-playing records have brought.

But I am looking forward eagerly to hearing the new records. Stereophony, in my experience, is important in quite a different way from that which one might expect. The first demonstrations of stereophonic tape (which E.M.I. put on the market several years ago) tended to concentrate on the effect of having the voices of singers apparently coming from different parts of the room and, in opera, apparently moving around. That is certainly an interesting parlour trick, but in practice, for serious listening, I have found such effects rather distracting. If you can hear the singers moving around, but cannot see them, it is rather like being at an opera-house with one’s head inside a paper bag.

The really beneficial effect of stereophony for the serious listener is that even with moderately priced equipment the sound is relatively fuller, and, most important of all, the ear tends far more easily to ignore any distortions in the reproduction.

Viktoria Mullova

Julia Fischer’s performances send critics scrambling for superlatives. In 2007, Britain’s Gramophone magazine dubbed the violin sensation its youngest-ever artist of the year, choosing the then 24-year-old over entrenched superstars Claudio Abbado, 74; Daniel Barenboim, 65; and tenor Rolando Villazón, 35.

The youthful Bavarian joins a new wave of fresh-faced violinists poised for major careers. For generations, male virtuosos dominated the instrument, but now the spotlight falls mostly on women. The crowded field includes Lisa Batiashvili, Jennifer Frautschi, Hilary Hahn, Janine Jansen and Leila Josefowicz. For the moment, Fischer wears the crown of first among equals. Anne-Sophie Mutter, an elder statesman at 45, clearly played a pivotal, pioneering role for female soloists. Yet the focus on the gender swing irks some artists. Josefowicz told us in a recent interview that she sees it as probably little more than male critics’ chauvinist fixation.

(Read the full article by Tom Mullaney in Time Out Chicago)

It’s an interesting question whether you would actually buy a recording based on the physical attractiveness of the artist. I can’t imagine doing so. If I want to look at attractive women, I have a number of other more appropriate outlets for doing so than CD covers.

I think if somebody bought a classical recording based on the fact that there was a good looking woman on the cover then they need to give up trying to listen to classical music, because that defeats the whole purpose of listening and also has nothing to do with the actual music. Classical music “marketing” (dreadful word) has always been something that I have had little patience for. Honestly, I don’t even know why they put pictures of the conductors on the front covers either. I’ve always liked Hyperion’s and Chandos’ or Naxos’ covers probably the best. They at least have some class about them and aren’t trying to shamelessly promote their latest wet dream.

I find it fascinating that people always talk about beautiful violinist A and beautiful pianist B, whereas they probably wouldn’t notice these women if they passed them in the street. These pictures are usually the result of hours in the studio and the hard work of a couple of stylists.

Hilary Hahn

Playing the violin at the level of the international concert circuit is very hard work, physically and mentally and most of these women look totally worn out in their downtime. Viktoria Mullova, one of the very best female violinists, could look just as good as Janine Jansen (if not better) if she wanted to, but she doesn’t, and that’s why her pictures look the way they do.

Anne-Sophie Mutter, indeed, made the switch from girl-next-door who happened to be a top violinist, to glamorous siren (look at the decidedly unglamorous pics of her with Karajan on her early Deutsche Grammophon LPs). In my view it doesn’t quite work, because she’s not an easy smiler: you can tell there’s a ferocious (musical) intellect behind that face. I think you can see that same intellect in Julia Fischer (whom I find very attractive) and even in Hilary Hahn. These are women with an enormous will power making substantial sacrifices for their art, and it shows. But that makes them actually more interesting to look at.

Tom Service talks to Alexander Goehr about his last opera, based on King Lear, currently in rehearsal:

At 78, Alexander “Sandy” Goehr is one of the linchpins of the British musical establishment. He was professor of music at Cambridge University for nearly a quarter of a century; as a student, he was one of the Manchester School of composers, along with Harrison Birtwistle (“Harry”) and Peter Maxwell Davies (“Max”). Not that he thanks me for reminding him of his establishment credentials. “It’s all bullshit,” he says with a wry smile, somehow managing to make a cuss word sound cultured with his deep, resonant tones. “Nobody understood that I was a complete outsider at Cambridge. I haven’t even got a degree, let alone a doctorate – and I only got the job back in 1976 because the place was so clapped out they had to appoint a sort of academic doctor to sort it out.”

Promised End is at the Linbury Studio Theatre at the Royal Opera House, London, on 9, 11, 14 and 16 October (box office: 020-7304 4000), then tours until 26 November.


How deliciously comic (I lick my lips at the thought) that this appalling shit, who fucked, or tried to fuck, every woman he met, meanwhile pissing on everyone else (including his wives and children) and getting legless shit-faced drunk every single night of his life, should find himself, at the age of 50, unable to get it up; when he managed a wank, he wrote a letter to Philip Larkin.

A real fucking twat.

The splendidly named writer Robert Thicknesse has long been an evangelist for opera, the most maligned of art forms. But, he’s beginning to wonder, what’s the point of it all? Has he been defending the indefensible?

I’ve been writing about opera for about a decade now, and over the years, as I’ve watched one companion after another’s eyes glaze over, or close gently, during a show, I have begun to wonder: what if I’m wrong about this? What if it actually is all rubbish, self-indulgent, glittery, adolescent, incontinent, with a vastly inflated view of its own importance? Can opera ever be more than a diversion for people with too much money and too little taste? And was it ever intended to be, anyway? Opera’s latest defence mechanism is a retreat into high camp best summed up by Rufus Wainwright’s recent quasi-opera Prima Donna, a piece that enshrines the extraneous things that have become the point of opera for many of its audience. It took a critical pasting because many of the critics are in the business of convincing themselves that opera is actually something else – a notable forum for discussing issues of great contemporary moment, for example. “Attacking me for using cliché in an opera about opera is absurd,” says Wainwright. “Cliché, camp and sentimentality are cornerstones of the form and we shouldn’t be ashamed of that.”

Is Robert Thicknesse playing the role of agent provocateur hoping to get droves of opera haters to defend an art form that they have absolutely no interest in – for the sake of defending art? Such a ploy must surely be doomed as very few are interested and many perceive it as a bourgeois art form to be enjoyed by bankers.

If it is not a ploy, should we then take what he says at face value? If one does that, then one really wonders at his critical acumen. Is he tired of the buildings, the opera-goers, and the marketing, rather than the art form itself? Seems he is. Even the Viennese writer Karl Kraus (one of the most cynical writers who ever penned a feuilleton) was capable of appreciating operetta – which is for some a watered down or dumbed down version that sits between opera and the musical. However, like Thicknesse, Kraus was merciless when it came to satirising the “Opera World”. I think one can be adult enough to separate the two. I can enjoy art without bothering to think of all those odious people in Japan, New York or Moscow buying the art works, or those imbibing wine and chattering about taxes spoiling their weekends. I think that opera transcends their values and lifestyles. It has its roots in what after all was seen to be an entertainment for the people, its themes a distillation of the sentiments and melodrama of ordinary people.

It was a subversive art form. It has tremendous potential in the postmodern period for providing a locus for all art forms. Why not defend that? Why not promote that? Instead of going for an ideologically safe approach, and say opera is exclusive.

Martin Lawrence: “Splendid!”

Here’s a pic from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment Blog.

Martin Lawrence was a founder member of the University of York Pork Pie Society and was once described by critic and polymath Victor Lewis-Smith as “the tallest horn player of his generation”.

On a recent visit to York I was literally gutted to discover that Scott’s, purveyors of excellent pork pies, had closed down.

Sic transit gloria mundi.

His opera was mauled, and his Berlioz song-cycle reportedly had people running for the exits. Yet Rufus Wainwright is to be applauded for having a go, writes Tom Service in the Guardian. Tom himself “has a go” at Rupert Christiansen, who did not attend Wainwright’s disastrous performance of Berlioz’s Les Nuits d’Été, but still wrote about it. He then says, throwing in a bit of French (Pretentious? Moi?):

The point is, though, Wainwright was trying. OK, so Berlioz’s fantastically demanding song-cycle might not have been the way to do it, but I think the singer deserves plaudits for not being intimidated by the pointlessly rarefied reputation of la musique classique, and allowing himself the chance to sing a repertoire he loves.

Yes, and thanks to Rufus for allowing people to pay to hear him sing the repertoire he loves.

This confirms all my suspicions about Tom Service.

Tom and Rufus, sitting in a tree …

Black Dogs Defined

This is the best of me; for the rest, I ate, and drank, and slept, loved and hated, like another: my life was as the vapour and is not; but this I saw and knew; this, if anything of mine, is worth your memory.

(John Ruskin, Sesame and Lilies)

Whatever people say I am, that’s what I’m not.

(Alan Sillitoe, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning)

This is my letter to the world, that never wrote to me.

(Emily Dickinson, This is my letter to the world)

Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand:
Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand!

(Edna St. Vincent Millay, Second Fig)

R.A.D. Stainforth

I was born before The Beatles’ first LP and brought up in the reeking slums of Jericho. I am in love with a woman called Hazel and in love with her daughter, also called Hazel, both of whom I met at Alcoholics Anonymous.

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