Encountering Bartók’s Sole Opera for the First Time

Charles Dutoit conducting Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé last February at the Royal Festival Hall.

Charles Dutoit conducting Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé last February at the Royal Festival Hall.

John Evans is the former editor of Classic FM magazine and launch editor of classical music website, sinfinimusic.com. He is a conservatoire-trained pianist who became hooked on Bartók the second he heard the composer’s piano concertos. Here, John writes about a work by the Hungarian composer that he has never encountered before…

It may only be an hour long, but Duke Bluebeard’s Castle contains some of the darkest and most passionate music ever composed. It skirts the edges of tonality, seducing you one moment, straining your nerves the next – just as the Duke torments Judith, his infatuated but fatally curious young bride who insists on seeing behind his seven, barred doors.

The work’s composer, Béla Bartók (1881–1945), knew it was this tension, this tug of war between light and darkness that would draw his audience like moths to the flame, as it still does to this day.

Duke Bluebeard’s Castle is a thriller worthy of Hitchcock; its score the equal of anything composed by that director’s composer-of-choice, Bernard Herrmann. No – superior, since Bartók composed Duke Bluebeard’s Castle half a century before Herrmann penned his music for Psycho. In 1911, in fact: the year the great Hollywood composer was born.

To ponder any musical connection between the two composers one single word more would be to take fantasy to the level of Duke Bluebeard’s macabre castle itself. However, surrender your imagination to Bartók’s sinister opera and you’ll feel you’ve witnessed enough shower scenes to last a lifetime.

For the best of the many best bits (come on – we’re at the movies after all) in the opera, cut straight to the fifth of the Duke’s locked doors. Only one word describes Bartók’s score at this point: epic. Hollywood is born right here in the composer’s vivid recreation of the Duke’s vast, sun-soaked estates. Judith can only gaze in astonishment. Like Norman Bates, Bluebeard has her in the palm of his hand…

It follows the horrors revealed at the outset of the drama by doors one (a torture chamber) and two (the Duke’s armoury). It’s only with door three and Bluebeard’s treasure, depicted by the gentle twinkling of a celesta as the light dances upon it, that we dare imagine this story might, after all, have a happy ending. Stabbing, discordant flutes tell us otherwise: the gems are dripping with blood.

Surely, the sweet and fragrant garden, revealed by door four, will herald an end to Judith’s torment? The music is lush and rhapsodic, but with each passing second, it grows darker and more angular as blood stains the flowers and with it, the young wife’s hopes for a happy outcome.

We’ve already peered behind the fifth door, but now shiver to the chilling slides in the basses that accompany the opening of the sixth. They give way to some of the most eerily beautiful music you’ll ever hear as once again, poor, tragic Judith attempts to make sense of the room’s secrets – in this case, the ‘mysterious water’ (a lake of tears) here depicted by the harp’s gentle glissandi.

For unbridled Hitchcockian terror, however, you must wait until the end of the work and the seventh, barred door. The tension builds unbearably as Judith accepts her fate and follows, head bowed, the beam of moonlight to her own ‘fatal attraction’. It’s not a happy ending. Bartók’s music may have anticipated the great film scores, but Duke Bluebeard’s Castle would never make it in Tinseltown.

Charles Dutoit conducts the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Ildikó Komlósi and Sir Willard White in Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall on Tuesday 27 January 2015 at 7.30pm.

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Michael Dore’s Christmas

Dore, Michael Holly Background Lighter

I love Christmas as it’s such a special time of the year and what always makes it especially magical for me is the music. My family Christmases as a child were always musical, with me playing the piano and singing with my mum and sister, whilst my dad played the guitar, mouth organ and even the musical saw. This often all went on at the same time! The piece of music that really reminds me of this time is the beautiful Johnny Mathis classic When a Child is Born, which I will be singing this year at the RPO’s Christmas Cracker concert at Watford Colosseum on Tuesday 9 December.

The run up to Christmas these days tends to be a very busy time, often starting with a concert in my home town of Grimsby and then followed by my annual appearances with the RPO for their Christmas Cracker concerts, which this year we are excited to bring to Watford.

The Christmas Shopping

In and among work, I really enjoy Christmas shopping, although I often do it all on one mad day. This rush of shopping mania is always fuelled by the music that the shops and stores play, with tracks like It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year and Winter Wonderland bringing out the excitement of matching personal presents for friends and family.

After the Christmas Shopping

While shopping, it’s good to have a few Christmas treats along the way to keep you going, like mulled wine and mince pies. This is always best at one of the Christmas Markets where they often have bands playing traditional carols like Once in Royal David’s City and O Come All Ye Faithful. It certainly helps me to relax after the manic shop and it’s the traditional music that always makes me think of home and childhood.

The Christmas Party

Before Christmas, one of my oldest friends often has a party which is always a Christmas highlight. Every year, there are a lot of musicians there and the party invariably ends with a good old sing around the piano. The Twelve Days of Christmas is essential at these parties and this is a good rehearsal for me as this is the song we have the most fun with at the Christmas Cracker concerts. Fuelled by champagne, this is always a good way to have fun with friends at Christmas.

Christmas Morning

When I, like many others, finally reach Christmas Day with an overwhelming desire to fall in a heap, I love to listen to orchestral music on Christmas morning. Pieces like the Prelude to Hansel and Gretel by Humperdink and Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride are firm favourites and make the peeling of Brussels sprouts bearable and kick-start the festivities.

Christmas Evening

By Christmas evening I’m full of good food and wine, hoping for snow and relaxing by an open fire listening to the great American classic Christmas songs like Santa Baby and, of course, Baby It’s Cold Outside – the perfect songs to sit back, take a breather and perhaps steal a kiss under the mistletoe.

So that’s my Christmas by music, music that luckily for me is all part of the RPO’s Christmas Cracker concert at Watford Colosseum. I hope that you can come along and start Christmas in musical style!

Michael Dore performs in the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s Christmas Cracker on Tuesday 9 December at Watford Colosseum (7.30pm) and at Cadogan Hall, London, on Saturday 20 December (3.00pm & 7.30pm).

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Charles Dutoit discusses Duke Bluebeard’s Castle

Charles Dutoit Mar 13 (c) Larry Ho USE

Artistic Director and Principal Conductor Charles Dutoit speaks to Hannah Nepil about the challenges and implications of Bartók’s dark opera.

Sinister, enigmatic, and yet so simple: such is the story of Béla Bartók’s one-act 1911 opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle. A young woman enters her new husband’s home – a huge dark castle with seven locked doors. Despite her husband’s protestations, she insists that all the doors be opened, at first to allow light into the gloomy interior, and then out of insatiable curiosity. What awaits her is a series of gruesome, disturbing, perplexing sights – among them a blood-stained torture chamber and a lake of tears.

What does it all mean? There’s an essay question, if ever there was one. Scholars and students alike have attempted to unpick this tangle of symbolism and inference. And that, according to Swiss conductor Charles Dutoit, is part of the fun. ‘You can open a book and look for an explanation. You can discuss the relationship between the couple at length. You can have your own interpretations.’ As for his interpretation? He chuckles, ‘this opera describes the curiosity of women in general – you know, the way they want to know things, and in the end, they are punished for that curiosity.’

Dutoit will have plenty of time to ponder the issue this January, when he conducts the 55-minute-long opera in a concert performance with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. As he admits, the work is filled with technical challenges, both in terms of its rhythms and balance – ‘the orchestra is huge, so one has to be careful not to cover the voice.’ But for him, the effort involved is more than worthwhile: ‘This is a heavily psychological work, which is normal for the time in which it was written – at the beginning of the Expressionist period. It’s so dramatic and powerful.’ And much of that, he points out, is down to the music, which ‘fully illustrates the text. When the fifth door opens on Bluebeard’s vast kingdom, for example, the use of extra brass instruments is very telling, and when the text mentions tears, you hear that in the music too.’ He continues: ‘The public has this idea that Bartók is difficult (to understand). This work is not. The story is very simple and well-known and the music speaks by itself. It’s one of the best pieces written by the composer.’

Maestro Charles Dutoit conducts the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in a performance of Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall on Tuesday 27 January at 7.30pm.

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2015 regional concerts: preview

Venues - Generic Regional-small

Concerts in the New Year feature such acclaimed artists as Grzegorz Nowak, Morgan Szymanski, Eduardo Portal, Sarah Beth Briggs, Natalie Clein and Freddy Kempf, amongst others, and you can now book for more 2015 events at The Baths Hall (Scunthorpe), Wycombe Swan (High Wycombe), Orchard Theatre (Dartford), Ipswich Regent Theatre and Marina Theatre (Lowestoft).

The Baths Hall, Scunthorpe

Following its hugely successful performances in 2014, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is delighted to be returning to The Baths Hall with numerous colourful programmes in 2015. The new season will open with a St George’s Day Concert on Saturday 25 April 2015, filled with music by some of England’s finest composers, including Vaughan Williams’ tributes to pastoral England in Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and The Lark Ascending.

Following the success of last September’s patriotic extravaganza, Last Night of the Proms will be back in Scunthorpe on Saturday 12 September, in which the Orchestra will play some of the most influential music of the last few centuries, including Sibelius’ Finlandia, Puccini’s Nessun Dorma from La Turandot and Parry’s Jerusalem; music that is bound to fill you with musical joy and inspiration.

Marking the end of its 2015 concerts in Scunthorpe on Saturday 28 November, the Orchestra is set to play alongside British pianist Freddy Kempf in Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto and end its Scunthorpe series with a ‘great classic’, Tchaikovsky’s Fifth.

Ipswich Regent Theatre, Ipswich

On Wednesday 1 April 2015, the Orchestra is honoured to be led once again by respected British conductor Barry Wordsworth at Ipswich Regent Theatre in Dvořák’s beguiling ‘New World’ Symphony (the composer’s Ninth), Glinka’s magical Ruslan and Lyudmila Overture and Tchaikovsky’s famous – and, arguably, perfect – First Piano Concerto, in which British pianist Freddy Kempf is the evening’s soloist.

Marina Theatre, Lowestoft

The Orchestra’s 2015 concert series at Lowestoft’s Marina Theatre offers a wide variety of repertoire and themed concerts, featuring regular guest conductors of the RPO and soloists that include mezzo-soprano Jeanette Ager, soprano Annette Wardell and pianist Alexandra Dariescu, the latter of whom will team-up with Principal Associate Conductor Grzegorz Nowak for Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto on Friday 17 April 2015 (the Theatre’s Opening Gala Concert).

Our themed concerts include a Celebration of the Sea (Friday 3 July; 350 years after the English Naval victory in the Battle of Lowestoft), the RPO’s popular, patriotic Last Night of the Proms (Friday 25 September) and an evening of Magnificent Movie Music (Friday 27 November), following 2014’s James Bond sell-out success. This concert series surely leaves no stone unturned!

Orchard Theatre, Dartford

Dartford’s Orchard Theatre will welcome two awe-inspiring pianists to its stage in the RPO’s 2015 concert series: Sarah Beth Briggs, ‘an artist of extraordinary magnetism’ (The Daily Telegraph), will join the Orchestra for a performance of Mozart’s virtuosic Piano Concerto No.21 – one of the composer’s sunniest compositions – on Sunday 24 May.

A Viennese-flavoured concert on Friday 7 November will see Duncan Riddell, one of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s esteemed leaders, lead the Orchestra and soprano Sarah Redgwick in works by Johann Strauss II (The Blue Danube Waltz, Thunder and Lightning Polka), Franz Lehár (Gold and Silver Waltz, The Merry Widow) and Émile Waldteufel (The Skater’s Waltz); an elegant evening of enchanting Viennese classics.

Wycombe Swan, High Wycombe

The RPO’s 2015 concert series at Wycombe Swan will open with a Spanish Fiesta; an evening of impassioned orchestral favourites, infused with the sounds and rhythms of Spain on Saturday 7 February. Rising star Morgan Szymanski will join the Orchestra for the centrepiece of the Fiesta: Rodrigo’s ever-popular guitar concerto, Concierto de Aranjuez.

On Wednesday 27 May, young Spanish maestro Eduardo Portal will lead the Orchestra in Rimsky-Korsakov’s colourful epic Scheherazade, preceded by Dvořák’s melancholic Cello Concerto, featuring world-class cellist Natalie Clein. To conclude the season, Freddy Kempf, one of today’s most talented and popular pianists, will join the Orchestra for Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto on Sunday 29 November, under the baton of Christoph Koenig.

The Orchestra enjoys established residencies in Croydon, Northampton, Hull, Lowestoft, Reading, Crawley, Ipswich, High Wycombe, Aylesbury and Dartford, as part of its extensive regional touring programme. Other venues on the agenda this season include Cliffs Pavilion in Southend, Cheltenham Town Hall, G Live in Guildford, The Baths Hall in Scunthorpe and Cambridge Corn Exchange. For a full listing of RPO events, including our regional series, please visit our website: www.rpo.co.uk.

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An Interview with Eduardo Portal

Portal, Eduardo Jul 13

Following his performance with the RPO and Natasha Paremski last month at the Royal Albert Hall (The Great Classics), conductor Eduardo Portal talks to Hannah Nepil about what it takes to be a professional conductor.

Who can resist the whiff of danger? For Eduardo Portal, it’s exactly what makes his job so thrilling. ‘Conducting is high risk,’ he says. ‘Only yesterday, when I was conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, I felt that the concert was entirely in my hands because the players were reacting so accurately to my slightest gesture. So I felt that if I performed well, then the concert would be a success. But if I made a mess of it – well…’ He trails off.

By now, the young Spanish conductor has worked with ensembles ranging from the London Philharmonic Orchestra to the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra. And on paper, his career path seems straightforward. Born in the Spanish city of Burgos into a family of music teachers, Portal grew up in ‘the perfect environment in which to learn music.’ His father ran a local choir ‘and he used to arrange loads of choral music, which we would sing at home.’ The young Portal played the violin, before becoming fascinated by the figure of the conductor. ‘I imagine it seemed glamorous at the time.’ But having embarked on a career in conducting, he found the road ahead was less straightforward than he had envisaged. ‘Many people ask me “what is the path to becoming a conductor?” But there isn’t one. When I finished my degree in Berlin, I thought that would make me a conductor. How wrong I was.’

Luckily, he was awarded a fellowship at the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM), which gave him two years of conducting practice, working with numerous RNCM ensembles. ‘It was an ideal position to gain experience without risk or pressure. After that, I was much more prepared to work with professional orchestras.’ He explains: ‘If you make one mistake conducting professionals as a young conductor, then basically you’re dead; professional orchestras want a professional conductor, not some young, inexperienced person.’

What they want most of all, he believes, is to trust the person standing on the podium. And that trust is both instinctive and unspoken. ‘It’s the same in everyday life, you meet someone and for some reason you either give that person your confidence or you don’t, and you don’t talk about it. It’s this chemistry that happens between people.’ The conductor’s challenge, says Portal, is to harness that trust; to encourage the players to give their best, voluntarily. As he points out, most orchestral players are dying to be given that chance: ‘A professional orchestra has enormous potential. These players can give the best performance of their lives, any day of their lives. And they are hoping that the person in front of them will manage to get that out of them.’

Eduardo Portal conducts the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in an all-Beethoven programme in Guildford on Friday 7 November at 7.30pm and in Southend on Sunday 9 November, 7.30pm; he conducts the Orchestra in a performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Scheherazade’ at Fairfield Halls, Croydon, on Wednesday 20 May 2015.

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