Josefowicz plays Salonen at the Barbican

Contemporary classical music is a very mixed bag indeed. Some of it, even I would consider noise. With the disclaimer, of course, that there may still be gold hidden inside, and I just can’t see, er, hear it.

Salonen, for me, is full of gold. Full of all kinds of colours and textures, actually. Gold, grass, a light summer breeze, the heavy doughy, deeply aromatic texture of a grilled cheese, a light-footed race of a bollywood dance group, the sombre concentration of a funeral moment, sarcastic laughter – in short, a whole universe.


I am talking about his violin concerto. I first came across Salonen as a composer in Leila Josefowicz’ recital album with his “Lachen verlernt.” In line with its topic (the holocaust), it is more one-dimensional. But of harrowing elegance.

Leila Josefowicz - John Novacek - 2CD recital

But the violin concerto is not easy listening. You are unlikely to walk out of the concert hall whistling many of its tunes. Give it a chance, and parts of it will not even need time to grow on you, but grip you instantly. The other parts will indeed grow on you with time.

I had not paid attention to the Barbcian and its classical music programme for a while, and I almost missed this concert. Luckily, due to its not-so-conservative programme, it was not sold out and I got a very decent ticket the night before. Since you are reading this after the fact, all you can do is buy the CD. But do it, if your vocabulary and interest transcend Beethoven and Mahler, you may well enjoy it.

(c) Henry Fair DG - Deutsche Grammophon - Salonen - Out of Nowhere
(c) Henry Fair DG – Deutsche Grammophon – Salonen – Out of Nowhere

And Josefowicz? Well, I would give anything a try that she feels worthy of performing. She certainly is a unique performer: She seems to immerse herself so much into her music that she apparently could not care less what impact her impassioned grimaces might have on the listener. But there is no such distraction on the CD, of course. She is a technically impeccable artist and happily pairs that with an emotional range second to none. Her history spans another universe in itself from child prodigy to favourite at the BBC PROMS (including one last-night performance), but most importantly Jeanne d’Arc of ground breaking new composition.

If I were anything like her, I would be exceedingly happy by the fact alone that I had been a focal point of the kind of contribution to human culture that enriches our lives. She is a champion of contemporary classical music not unlike the older Anne-Sophie Mutter. Music would be so much poorer without brave personalities like these. You can occasionally get Leila to play you some Mendelssohn. But she does it mainly so you can be tricked into following her on to a much more exciting path. When you place that order for the Salonen, add another violin concerto written for her, one by the Scottish literal and metaphorical giant Oliver Knussen.

Oliver Knussen - violin concerto

Expand your horizons. You know you want to.

Royal Opera House: Yummy mummy gets into trouble while honest bird finds happiness (Niobe, Regina di Tebe)

It takes a lot to get me to enjoy a baroque opera. It helped that my good friend Christine Busch, a violinist from Stuttgart, Germany, got me a ticket for the dress rehearsal of Niobe, Regina di Tebe at the Royal Opera House in London. You can’t enjoy it if you don’t get to go.

However, tickets for the public performances will be easier to get hold of: not many people get terribly excited about the prospect of watching ancient Greek folk over three solid hours getting into trouble while singing lots of coloratura. And that’s not counting the almost half-hour break after the first of the three acts. I had never managed to listen to a baroque opera from start to finish before.

But this is different. Thanks to ingenious, witty, modern set design and direction, and thanks very much to the surtitles that allow you to follow the story every step of the way, this opera by Italian diplomat and composer Agostino Steffani becomes an almost suspenseful session.

French soprano Véronique Gens (who by the way is quite a celebrity in baroque music circles) seems the perfect singer for the role of posh yummy mummy Niobe who gets to reign over Thebe when hubby Anfione feels like retiring. American Amanda Forsythe brings a Reese Witherspoon charme (Vanity Fair) to the role of the young honest bird Manto, daughter to rightfully grumpy blind seer Tiresia. Quite early on, she gets rescued (disappointingly off-stage) from a wild animal by cool regal muscle man Tiberino, portrayed with the requisite oomph and passion by German tenor Lothar Odinius.

The set and lighting designs are by German designer Raimund Bauer. In themselves they create a daunting and increasingly dark atmosphere that in its simple grandeur of big, clear lines becomes an opera house like the Royal Opera House. There is only one moment, where a huge disco ball time-warped (and enlarged) from the Seventies descends from above where I thought maybe that was an error in judgement. But the smart, witty, and sometimes simply gorgeous set design would be nothing without the lively, believable and often pleasantly humorous direction by German Lukas Hemleb.

The production would not exist, were it not for multi-talented German conductor Thomas Hengelbrock, who founded the Balthasar Neumann Ensemble, an orchestra that specialises on historical performances with original instruments. However, when I throw a quick glance at what the man’s been up to in his life already, it’s probably more his thirst for innovation that made him bring such state-of-the-art people to this production.

Buy a ticket. It is all stark and very German, so don’t say you have not been warned. I claim no expertise on baroque opera at all, so maybe they all are done in sexy, funny, cool, smart and fascinating ways nowadays. More likely though this is one of the best you can get.