What do I really like? What really grips? Well, I have to confess, my greatest favourites are indeed the biggest names: Wagner, Britten, Mozart, Bach. But I don't think I really need to discuss them here: they're all far too well-known to need my help. Their music is immortal in the strongest sense: every time I hear the Ring there's something new I never noticed before. The epic tragedies of Siegfrieds Death and Wotan's ultimate sacrifice or Jesus' crucifixion. The intensely personal tragedies of life's outcasts, Peter Grimes or Porgy and Bess. The beautiful and moving fairytale-farce of Die Zauberflöte. In our century, the bleak but moving social comment of the War Requiem or Child of our Time. Or The Wall (oops, I didn't say that, but it dates from my teenage years).
Well, hands up who's ever heard, or even heard of, that one? I certainly hadn't. But one day I turned on the radio; they were playing this opera. In german, with a very weak fairy-tale libretto. The music was later than Mozart but earlier than Wagner. Well, who could it be? Weber seemed obvious, but I couldn't quite bring myself to believe it. Sure, he was the right period, and was indeed the only significant German opera composer between Mozart and Wagner? And used the most appallingly bad texts, just like what I was hearing. Yet it didn't seem quite right: this music was barely perceptibly lighter, more beautiful than Weber, and frankly I found I liked it better even than Euryanthe - never mind the historic significance of the latter foreshadowing Lohengrin. Well, in case you hadn't guessed, it's by that well-known opera composer Franz Schubert!
In my Sheffield days, I sang with the Sheffield Bach Choir: musically one of the strongest groups I've been privileged to participate in. We performed a wide range of music, including modern works (I understand Malcolm Williamson, the Master of the Queens Musick, told our conductor afterwards that ours was the first performance of his Te Deum he had ever seen). I believe I speak for many - if not most - choir members when I say that amongst our most enjoyable performances were the works of James Walker. Modern yet accessible; original, and avoiding the Stockhausen disciples, the trendy avant-garde of the late 20th century; the strongest among many influences on his music is Britten. My first and favourite of his works was Night Songs, a rhapsodic work for soloists, large choir and orchestra, around the theme of Night. The unforgettable finale sets the ancient Lyke Wake Dirge for unaccompanied choir.
I was living in Bath at the time. Bath has its own annual festival, with some very fine musical events - such as the time I was privileged to sit in the same audience as both Tippett and Messian (Simon Rattle and the CBSO were performing in Wells Cathedral). But I digress. Forty miles away, Cheltenham too had a festival, and in a mad moment I got myself a ticket to see a new opera by an unknown composer, with a pre-performance talk by the composer. Well, she was very nervous as she spoke, but Judith Wier's "Night at the Chinese Opera" was a big success, and seems to be well on its way to the standard repertoire. Well worth the mad cycle-ride to get there!
Talking of unknown opera composers, it's only last year I saw a work completely new to me and, perhaps due to history, neglected in my country. Strangely, Gottfried von Einem's "Danton's Death" had been slammed by an unappreciative critic, and we all thought we were just going to 'try anything once' more than for a really good evening. But it was a truly great work, and much enjoyed. I kept hearing echos of Britten, except that they can't have been echos, because this work is exactly contemporary with Peter Grimes. I've no idea if the two composers - their countries so recently at war - were familiar with each other's work, but it's a remarkable parallel.
The Covent Garden Proms. Well, how else do you get to see the Ring on a student budget (£3 per performance)? Actually I had seen it before, but that was just the ENO in their musical depths of the late '70s, so it scarcely counts. Neither does what little I saw of Bayreuth '80 whilst participating in the Jugendfestspieltreffen, where I was astonished to find myself impressed by Chereau's controversial production yet unmoved by Boulez's rendition of the score. Hmm.. I digress: Davis at the Garden was a definite highlight of my musical life, and queueing was one of those fine experiences of youth. Especially Götterdämmerung when, arriving at 8:20 a.m. for an all-day wait, I found myself something-well-over-200th in an enthusiastic and very jolly queue. I never did the last night [of the proms] at the Albert Hall: although I can well believe there's even more cameraderie in the queue, the rather mediocre selection of pops they play just never inspired me to spend the time on it.
psst... I'd do it again now. I'd much rather see music in the company of enthusiasts than in a dreary corporate-hospitality or fashion-parade audience.
The Rome opera's summer open-air performances, sited at one of Rome's finest antiquities. We went to see Aida, which seemed to suit the occasion. It was a fourth-rate performance of a second-rate opera, and seemed at times more a comic's caricature of "the fat lady sings" than the real thing (sadly, many of the international crowd were probably seeing their first opera, and will no doubt have thought that's really what it is). But before the performance, in the heat of the roman summer, a totally informal but professional orchestra were playing I-forget-what Mendelssohn nearby - also within the Caracalla venue. They were good, unexpected, and not what we'd paid for: I guess perhaps we should have heard the orchestra then gone for a meal instead of the anticlimax.
Well, I will not be put off. One of these years I will find time to try the arena at Verona, and see if it can compensate for Rome.
It was with the Bath Opera I was privileged to sing in the chorus of this wonderful work. Alas, we were only able to do it in concert performance: as a white company we were not permitted by the Gershwin estate to stage it (talking of which, can you imagine anyone even trying, let alone getting away with, barring a black company from performing a particular work on grounds of race)? For most if not all of us - versed in a more traditional repertoire - it was one of the hardest and most rewarding pieces we ever studied. The (fully staged) production of Verdi's Luisa Miller that followed it was an anticlimax.
Hmmm .. that's two Verdi operas I've been less-than complimentary about. OK, let's redress the balance. One of my best operatic experiences was the Sicilian Vespers, with West Riding Opera. Originally written for the Paris Opera - at the time probably the world's best - Verdi took full advantage with one of his finest scores. OK the dramatis personae are bog-standard Verdi STBarB and others, but the splendid and rewarding double-chorus, with music that is definitely more adventurous than his usual - amply compensate.
I used to dislike Purcell. Dido and Aeneas was on the O-level syllabus (that's the exams english pupils of my generation sat at age 16), so it was played to us ad nauseam on the school's travesty of a record player, with the volume turned up as high as the quality was awful. I rather think the performance on their record wasn't very inspired, either. Anyway, a couple of years later, I found myself doing King Arthur, in one of Cambridge's most sociable choral societies. This strange and beautiful piece transformed my views on England's favourite composer. Though perhaps it was in some part due to the freedom of the student life, and meeting the soprano who helped with an indispensible part of a young man's education (oh yes, the following term we did Carmina Burana).