Wednesday, December 18, 2002


Opera; ‘Sophie’s Choice’, music and libretto by Nicholas Maw [see
NewFrontEars stories on December 15 and 16]

Doyen of modern opera reviewers Andrew Porter, (“Grabbed by the grotesque” – Times Literary Supplement, 11/12/02) seems to have been mightily annoyed by the way the Royal Opera House Covent Garden handled press previews for its newest production. In an entertaining review-cum-hatchet-job he accuses Nicholas Maw’s ‘Sophie’s Choice’ score of being derivative, unimaginative and predictable. (The same process tends to work in a different subjective direction when a reviewer enjoys the overall impact: I seem to recall that Porter lauded John Adams’s 'The Death of Klinghoffer' precisely for its ‘ingenious musical references’ back in ’91. Of course these things can be done artlessly… and they can certainly be made to sound artless by a critic who doesn’t appreciate what he deems to be the more ‘conservative’ contemporary composers.) Anyway, in the case of ‘Sophie’ all this is simply too much -- or perhaps too little -- for Porter to bare:

‘The text is delivered largely in arioso-recitative, at dictation speed’, he writes. ‘The music is puzzling.’ Then again, he seems to be pretty clear about it: ‘The start is Vaughan Williams’s Tallis Fantasy, plus glissandos from Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream between the widespread common chords, and the narrator a new Captain Vere or Aschenbach. There are passages of dense, shifting harmonies over long pedals. There’s a good deal of unaccompanied, unison-strings line in Mahlerian, perhaps Shostakovich-like, gesture. “Time for a bit of counterpoint” seems to have prompted a Hindemithian interlude, “Must get in an ensemble somehow” a largo concertato for quartet and chorus. “Ought to have a duet somewhere” results in an odd waltz for soprano and mezzo (a Resistance leader and Sophie) – one of Maw’s less predictable responses to situation and text. It was hard to hear much musical structure, or much engagement with the drama on more than picturesque, illustrative, narrative levels.’

Funny, other listeners have noted an interesting range of allusions, vernacular quotations (Polish and Hungarian folk tunes, for example), thoughtful melodic effects and a discernible architecture to the piece in those shifting harmonies. And some even appreciate references to other twentieth century greats who themselves tackled the moral torment of their times. Dif’rent strokes, I guess.

Porter further attacks Maw’s overall take on William Styron’s novel for failing to engage with the element of play and parody in its inherently sexual tragicomedy. But the composer made it quite clear from the outset that it is the moral drama he is concerned with. It doesn’t seem entirely congruous to accuse something of being long and laboured while simultaneously chiding it for not being even more ambitious. But maybe congruity is not the essence of this biting critique. Might Porter have rather enjoyed awarding ‘Sophie’ a bad sex award, too?

Anyway, where many have found the denouement fittingly moving, he is merely stirred to observe: ‘Not easy to write a music-drama that ends: “‘At Auschwitz, tell me, where was God?’ The response: ‘Where was man?’” ‘

What of Porter’s own flourishing literary finale? It is, as I indicated, suitably revealing of its critical sources: ‘This account’, the reviewer tells us breathlessly, ‘is based on asingle hearing of ‘Sophie’s Choice’, for’ (indignity of indignities) ‘Covent Garden had withheld its usual, enlightened invitation to critics to attend rehearsals of a new opera, [to] discover in detail what is being essayed and created, [to] get “reservations” out of the way, and [to] follow the first performance with mind and ear attuned.’

Well the sheer inconsideration of those wicked ROH johnnies, thinking that overwhelming press interest plus initial technical problems means that they might be justified in spreading the freebies a little more evenly this time. They and their kind clearly deserve all the stick you can give them, don’t they? Anyway, perhaps someone will buy poor Porter a stiff drink and tell him to chill out a bit on this one… Meanwhile those who think they can restrain their wrath for a few more days can make their own judgement via satellite: BBC 4 televises the opera on December 22, 2002.

More lively debate on all this at



Mahavishnu Project: 'Live Bootleg'
Label: Aggregate Music, PO Box 3158 Teaneck NJ 07666
Release date: February 2002

Canned in the sense of 'captured live on CD', not 'dropped'. And a good thing too. For if your idea of a covers band is a group of lowly clones unhealthily addicted to passing fashions, Gregg Bendian's worthy venture dedicated to John McLaughlin's ground-breaking '70s compatriots should quickly disabuse you of that notion.

Encouraged by, among others, Kermit Driscoll (Bill Frisell et al) and The Great Man JM Himself, Greg (dr), Pete McCann (gtr), Steve Hunt (keys), Todd Reynolds (v) and Stephan Crump (bs) give eight fine tunes from the legendary Mahavishnu Orchestra an entertaining workout. The selections are from 'The Inner Mounting Flame', 'Birds of Fire' and 'Between Nothingness and Eternity' albums.

Bendian writes: 'Ultimately we think of Mahavishnu as a unique form of chamber music and our band as a kind of repertory chamber ensemble... Bill Milkowski refers to the original Mahavishnu's approach as "chamber punk" - I really like that!'

Others will be aware of John McLaughlin, Jan Hammer, Jerry Goodman, Billy Cobham, Rick Laird and the other members of the Mahavishnu Orchestra as musicians who -- along with Weather Report and Chick Corea's Return To Forever -- broadcast the very best of jazz-rock fusion into the ether. (It has to be admitted that they have had many, less worthy imitators in that much-maligned genre.)

The music on this disc was recorded live onto DAT from a house soundboard. The liner notes advise the listener to expect some diminution of quality as against a through-recorded live album, but I have to say that I am pretty satisfied with the end product. A burning 'Celestial Terrestial Commuters' comes off particularly well, and played loud (as Bendian avers) the whole CD is both detailed and punchy. Soundboard recordings tend to be a bit flat, but this has enough roundedness in the acoustic to work nicely. It achieves a scale fitting to the electric chamber moniker.

Mahavishnu-heads should note that these are not (thank heavens) note-for-note reproductions of the original pieces but creative interpretations which project the spirit of Mahavishnu into a new era. It would be wonderful if the band made it to Europe eventually, though that might be asking a bit much. The Project are very fine musicians in their own right and not only can they carry off these performances with finesse, they also appreciate the dynamics that made Mahavishnu so electrifying in the other-than-a-pure-voltage sense.

Gratitude to my good friend and aural sparring partner Jonathan Crawford (respec') for pointing this one out to me. The other tracks on the album are: 'The Dance of Maya', 'Trilogy ('The Sunlit Path / Mere de la Mer / Tomorrow's Story Not the Same'), 'Dawn' / 'Open Country Jam', 'Birds of Fire', 'Resolution' / 'The Noonward Race', the seventeen minute 'Dream', and 'One Word'. Check it out.



The singer Kirsty Macoll, queen of ironic mockney post-folk balladry, tragically died off the coast of Mexico when she was hit by a speedboat while out scuba-diving with her son. Worthy of memorial attention are the tongue-in-cheek Latin grooves on her last album ('Tropical Brainstorm'), the wonderful 'A New England' -- transformed from the mundanity of Billy Bragg's original by the magic touch of Steve Lilywhite's production and instrumentation -- and occasional duets with her legendary father Ewan Macoll. Along with loveable Pogue-ish rogue Shane McGowan, Kirsty also produced just about the only decent Christmas single of the last thirty years, 'The Fairytale of New York'. The collection ‘The One and Only’ contains some additional gems, such as the extended 7' 34" mix of 'A New England', which veers unexpectedly into prog-psychedelic territory. Always more than a mere popular singer, Kirsty Macoll was someone of whom it is rightly said that there is more to her than immediately meets the ear.

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