Maybe it’s the weather, or a body clock now expecting a holiday. I’ve stayed put this week, but while new quarantine rules and local lockdowns continue to make this a summer like no other, I’ve been drawn repeatedly to online performances promising a change of scene.
Aurora Orchestra’s Four Places double bill appealed immediately as a musical ticket to the US east coast. It pairs the orchestra’s 2012 performance of Gotham (a score by Michael Gordon and film by Bill Morrison) in London’s Roundhouse with Charles Ives’s Three Places in New England, recorded to accompany a newly commissioned film by Jon Frank. Frank’s film matches striking images of 21st-century New England – a crowd rising to its feet at Boston’s Fenway Park stadium; a tourist-laden boat sliding under a bridge; a uniformed soldier holding his toddler in a cemetery – to Ives’s colour-saturated score, its extremes of delicacy and bombast held in careful balance by the orchestra. Gotham, however, was frustrating viewed online. The video switches clunkily between the orchestra’s performance of Gordon’s rough-edged, industrial-minimalist score (with Morrison’s film just visible on screens behind) and the film itself, spliced together from footage of early 20th-century Manhattan. What was evidently intended as a close dialogue between score and image – film frames overlaid as musical lines accumulate, for instance, as if someone had used the piano’s sustain pedal on an entire orchestra – was too often lost in the mix.
Conventional concert footage offered this armchair tourist a smoother ride. Most memorable for me this week was a performance of Schubert’s Trout Quintet led by violinist Alina Ibragimova, recorded at the Menuhin Festival Gstaad in Switzerland last August and now available free as part of this summer’s Gstaad digital festival. Ibragimova is joined by violist Lawrence Power, cellist Sol Gabetta, the irresistibly charismatic double bassist Uxía Martínez Botana and pianist Bertrand Chamayou – a lineup as classy as they come. The playing is fleet-fingered and superbly polished, details of Schubert’s score as clear as that fabled Swiss mountain air.
Closer to home, the UK’s summer music festival season should now have been in full swing. Among the events to have moved online, I loved Junior Prime Brass’s performance of Louis Prima’s Sing Sing Sing for Cambridge Summer Music 2020: five and a half minutes of undiluted joy in music-making and a real delight to watch. There have also been some new creative ventures amid the cancellations, such as City Music Foundation’s live-streamed concerts from St Pancras Clock Tower. The latest features the premiere of the Isolation Songbook, a collection of songs commissioned under lockdown by mezzo-soprano Helen Charlston and performed with commitment and even a frenetic bout of staged hand-sanitising by Charlston, baritone Michael Craddock and pianist Alexander Soares. It’s an often melancholic, occasionally silly record in song of strange times.
Wherever you are this summer, you’re unlikely to be far from Beethoven in his 250th anniversary year. In the third episode of the BBC Philharmonic’s new online series The Music Room, eminent pianist Stephen Hough (sporting a bicorne hat with a French flag hanging behind him) speaks as Napoleon about Beethoven and politics. Musicology it isn’t – but it’s a charming, light-hearted take on classical music’s most mythologised figure.
My picks for the week ahead
Something old and something new: I’ll be listening to Simon Rattle’s 2014 Proms performance of Stravinsky’s technicolour ballet score The Firebird with the Berlin Philharmonic (Radio 3 on 7 August). And I’m looking forward to seeing the first batch of new digital operas streamed on Operavision.eu (from 4 August) as part of the #OperaHarmony project established under lockdown by opera director Ella Marchment.