Classical Music: Why the Festival fails

Turandot Playhouse, Edinburgh Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester Usher Hall, Edinburgh Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Usher Hall, Edinburgh David Daniels Queen's Hall, Edinburgh
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A few years ago, the Aldeburgh Festival had the bright idea - as it must have seemed - to have a Japanese company stage one of the church operas which Benjamin Britten wrote after the manner of Japanese Noh drama. It didn't work, proving that the Britten church operas are not, after all, so oriental, and perhaps that there is something in those old cliches about East being East and West being happy to keep it that way.

Last week the Edinburgh Festival tried something similar, with the same result. It had a Japanese company called Bunkamara stage Puccini's Turandot. The cast, the chorus, the conductor - everybody but the orchestra (the Scottish National) was Japanese. And it was pitifully appalling: brutal, crude, execrably sung. If the Festival thought an oriental cast would bring some kind of added value to the piece, it was naively wrong. To start with, Turandot takes place in China, not Japan. And in any case, the orientalism in Puccini is no more than European fantasy: the kind of Chinese Chippendale you find in stately homes. It won't bear confrontation with the real thing, and to impose on it the values of the real thing is a waste of time. Especially when the imposition is as heavy-handed as Bunkamara's.

To give the company its due, it doesn't take a Chinese restaurant line on orientalism. There's no flock wallpaper or hanging lanterns. The second act toys with Italian art nouveau motifs, and the third act is positively ENO Powerhouse, stark and chic. But it's stylistically inconsequential, incoherent and pointless. The drama is diluted down into balletic mimes, which are irrelevant and badly done. The prime example comes with Liu's death, when the curtain falls and we are entertained to five mind-numbing minutes of a dancer pirouetting in ill-executed and banal slow motion across the stage. Needless to say there is no music for this, so it happens in what would be silence but for the thumps, squeaks and audible conversation of a gratuitous scene-change going on behind the curtain.

Make no mistake, the problems with this Turandot are not just cultural. They are the universal problems of profound third-rateness, ranging from technical inadequacy to seeming lack of commitment. Ping, Pang and Pong might as well be busking on Waterloo Station for all their finesse. The Calaf is stiffly uncharismatic. And with the exception of a conventionally touching Liu from Chen Sue Panariello, the singing is dire. Chieko Shimohara in the title role looks like a Sumo wrestler in a frock. As for the orchestra, there are some grotesquely un-Puccinian noises coming from the pit under a conductor, Michiyoshi Inoue, I hope never to hear again. I should add that the first-night Edinburgh audience seemed to enjoy it. But artistically this Turandot is trash; and that the Festival even thought of bringing it to Britain beggars belief.

But then one learns, year by year, to expect less of Edinburgh as a venue for inspired music programming. The novelties tend, like Turandot, to be worthless. The rest is formulaic: the same sort of artists doing the same sort of things. That they are artists of stature I don't deny, but it would be nice to have some fresh faces. And I suspect we won't get them until Edinburgh finds itself a fresh management.

This year the Festival opened with Charles Mackerras conducting an impressively- cast but big, old-fashioned Saul for all the world as though the period- performance movement hadn't happened. Then, on Tuesday, Claudio Abbado brought in his Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester for an impressive Mahler 7 which made more sense of the piece than I've heard for a long while. But then Mahler 7 doesn't often get done: it's one of the composer's Cinderella symphonies. And it's a bizarre coincidence that this very same week saw another performance of the Mahler 7, at the Proms, given by another international youth orchestra, the EUYO under Bernard Haitink. Maybe that says something about the performing circumstances in which Mahler 7 thrives. And in Edinburgh at least it thrived magnificently, with a stunningly rich string sound, rhythmic bite, and all the vigour of young players geared up to the demands of a high-profile platform.

The Pittsburgh Symphony on Wednesday was pretty good too in a Strauss/Berlioz programme that demonstrated why this orchestra ranks among the best in America but not actually in the Ivy League top 5. Strauss's autobiographical symphonic poem Ein Heldenleben came with all the hallmarks of good, modern American playing: dynamism, drive and swank. But there were some rough edges too, including a conspicuously sour closing chord that the conductor, Mariss Jansons, can't have been happy about. Jansons has had this orchestra for two years now and, as a loyal builder-of-relationships in the mould of Simon Rattle, seems to be in for a long, productive stay. Pittsburgh is lucky to have him. And for all the moments of untidiness in this Edinburgh concert, there was enough excitement and flair to suggest that things are going well. So long as Jansons's health holds out (he's had two successive heart attacks) it may be that Pittsburgh edges into that Ivy League after all. As things stand I don't quite see it taking on Chicago or Cleveland, the two contenders for America's absolute best. But Cleveland's standards are likely to fall when its current MD, Christoph von Dohnanyi, hands over to Franz Welser-Most (a bizarre appointment, given his career record in London). And the New York Philharmonic under Kurt Masur is not the orchestra it once was under Leonard Bernstein. Change is on the way. Jansons, whose gifts are great and manifest, could easily turn out to be the man who sets the pace.

The best of Edinburgh last week, though, didn't come in one of the big orchestral concerts but in one of the small Queen's Hall recitals which, I always think, are the most pleasurable things the Festival offers. It was given by the American counter-tenor David Daniels who, along with Andreas Scholl, ranks supreme among the counter-tenors of the world. For my money he is, in fact, number one: not quite so pure or so incisive as Scholl, but with a warmer colouring, more personality, and a legato of such melting beauty that he makes my knees shake. I admit it, I'm a fan. I was captivated by what he did in this recital, which strayed well off the beaten territory of counter-tenor repertoire. There was some Handel. But there was also Schubert, Ravel, and Britten folk-song settings done with great style and a female, mezzo roundness to the tone that cushioned what can often be the shock of hearing counter-tenors off their normal patch. When Scholl sings Britten's Waly, Waly I wish he wouldn't. Stick to Bach, I say. But Daniels sounds entirely right. And with wonderfully sympathetic accompaniments from Martin Katz, I can't imagine any serious listener taking exception to what he does. It's so sensitive, so musical.

It's also, in the best sense of the word, exploratory. And one thing above all for which I'll remember this recital was a clutch of songs by an American composer whose name meant nothing to me. Richard Hundley. Apparently he was a chorus singer at the New York Met in the 1960s and wrote his songs for people he met there, like Anna Moffo. What he wrote is Barberesque, romantic, not exactly state-of-the-art, but beautifully crafted and a joy to hear. I want to hear some more. And if the rest of Hundley's work is half as good, I'd be prepared to nominate him as a minor master. Certainly a cult pursuit.