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Judith Weir Weekend

The Vanishing Bridegroom and Woman.Life.Song

The Barbican, 18-20 January 2007

This last of BBCR3's Composer Weekends at was rich and various, and no publications covered it all; well worth catching up with Radio 3's Listen Again, on line for a week after each concert.

We had on video (in the days before surtitles became routine) Judith Weir's The Vanishing Bridegroom, her strange and wondrous opera about uncanny supernatural events through succeeding generations of the same family. It is quite hard to follow and I looked forward to hearing it again with surtitles at The Barbican. All began well, though I felt too much was lost by doing it in formal concert mode, with the 'atmospherically' darkened auditorium limiting engagement with the drama and making it impossible for late-comers to help themselves by looking at the black-on-grey print in the programme. I fantisied that an ideal solution would have been to have projected the Scottish Opera film behind the orchestra, bringing everything together.

Alas, after the first Act (the work plays continuously for nearly 1 hours) the surtitle screen broke down and there was no possibility to repair it without interrupting the performance...

The text is allusive and elusive, and listeners need every help, especially with the singers competing with the full BBC Symphony Orchestra on stage. It is always impossible for singers to get across sense as well as more than some words in such circumstances; Weir's high tessituras for the soprano Bride (the excellent Ailish Tynan) were merciless, and I do not think the singers can be faulted because comprehension was intermittent.

I suggested to the BBC that they might try to get the libretto (which Weir's publisher kindly sent me) on line for radio web-listeners. Having now watched the video again, with the libretto in my hands, my admiration for this unusual work has been enhanced and I concur with Richard Morrison of The Times that "The air of mystery was deepened on Saturday by the breakdown of the surtitles - - it's high time that The Vanishing Bridegroom reappeared on a British stage".

I had looked forward to the documentary film Judith Weir: Armida and Other Stories about the making of the more recent TV film opera. This was greatly disappointing as against the far less superficial arts documentaries often to be seen on BBC2 in the '80s. There was but a brief snatch of filming in a Morocco dust-storm; the rest consisted of too many brief tributes to the composer from colleagues and children, all well deserved, but tending towards the obvious, banal and repetitive...*

itself is an original and engrossing conception, and maybe it will appear on DVD in due course - hopefully it too with subtitles for fuller understanding...?

Our vocal specialist will be reviewing the song recital at LSO St Luke's; I will end with an appreciation of a remarkable performance by GSMD student singer Rowan Hellier (mezzo) in Woman.Life.Song with the Guildhall Chamber Orchestra/André de Ridder. This 45-mins orchestral song cycle was a one-off, commisioned and composed for Jessye Norman to poems by Maya Angelou, Clarissa Pinkola Estés and Toni Morrison she had chosen, tracing a woman’s life from infancy to old age; not at all the way Weir normally works.

It's worth looking up the account of Jessye Norman's Jessye Norman Carnegie Hall premiere in the New York Times (March 25, 2000).

Woman.Life.Song doesn't seem to have been recorded, and I wonder how many further performances there were before this brave attempt by the Guildhall School of Music & Drama. Rowan Hellier is not quite a Jessye Norman and the piece really needs a more charismatic and mature singer; the GS Drama Department might well have helped her to get over more forcefully the spoken introduction and ending, but her singing and impeccable articulation were admirable and we were greatly helped at St Luke's by provision of the full text. Don't miss the opportunity to hear it at http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio3/judithweir/

Peter Grahame Woolf

*This point receives elegant endorsement in today's Guardian Letters : " - - vanishingly few programmes across the terrestrial channels have the qualities of excellence that are central to cultural experience: complexity, surprise, rigour, ambiguity, intellectual and emotional challenge, the offer of new ways of understanding the world; above all, and in the broadest sense, poetry - - resistance to populist enthusiasm redefining arts programming - - is not myopic or out of touch. Public-service broadcasting, like Tate Modern, is and should be about more than entertainment." (John Wyver 26 1 2007)