Wednesday, 19 September 2018

HThe wild and wacky prepare to entertain at the Henley Festival...

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Everything about the Garsington experience just oozes class. There is the Wormsley estate itself, former home of John Paul Getty, with a drive that twists and turns through a lush valley dotted with sheep for one and a half miles. There is the dining experience - a choice of a three-course dinner in a Jamie Oliver’s Fabulous Feast marquee, or a picnic in a communal tent where ladies in silk gowns sip champagne by candlelight. And there is, of course, the pavilion itself. Terry Wogan, Garsington patron and our host for the evening, had described it as a pop-up auditorium which was an understatement if ever I heard one. In fact this bare-boned glass and metal structure rises from the meadow beside the lake like a 21st century temple to the god of culture.

You can’t beat a Grimms fairy tale for a good yarn, and Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel und Gretel is quite simply a delight to behold, with its familiar storyline and beautiful melodies. Director Olivia Fuchs made sure we didn’t ever forget this was a fairy tale, either - a giant book covered the stage floor and at the beginning of each act a page was turned and a house popped up as if by magic. Five dancers in black suits and bowler hats watched over the action, acting sometimes as menacing doom-mongers and at other times as protective angels. As they flitted among the silver birch forest that lined the stage, they lent an eerie foreboding to the atmosphere.

Humperdinck was a contemporary of Richard Strauss and Wagner, so this opera is very much in the German tradition, with a no-nonsense Christian message and an upbeat ending, but it the reason it has survived more than 120 years is quite simply because of the music. Based on German folk tunes, many of the arias are very pretty tunes. But there are also some stunning soprano duets between our eponymous heroes, and Hansel played by Claudia Huckle and Gretel played by Anna Devin were not only sublime singers but also consummate actors.

I said the whole Garsington experience screams class, but of course class doesn’t scream, it intones sotto voce with supreme elegance, and that is probably a better way to sum up this event. If you like opera I urge you to dig deep into your pocket and go. You will not be disappointed.

Hansel Und Gretel

Garsington Opera

Thursday June 27

Lesley Potter

Pianist is rising star of classical world

EVERY generation of classical musicians has among their folds a maverick who’s determined not to conform, and it would seem that 21-year-old pianist Oliver Poole is that man.

He’s prodigiously talented and a thoroughly charming young man, but like all great artists he is driven by a need to burst through the stuffiness of the “establishment”.

When he plays in the Classical Salon at the Henley Festival next Thursday he promises his show will not be a standardised repertoire, but something “interesting and quirky” — piano transciptions of famous orchestral pieces, some of them unpublished ones he downloaded from the internet, his own compositions, and “a few surprises”. His driving passions, he says, are to inspire young people to engage with classical music, and above all to entertain people — something he believes is missing in the world of classical music today.

He says: “I don’t think classical music is really surviving that well. It’s a big problem, especially with the image and the way people perform it. I just think there’s an ignorance within the classical world about how to put on something that’s going to attract people. It’s an elitist thing. I don’t see why it has to be that boring or that stale.

“Classical music is a higher art form, it’s true, but I don’t like calling it classical. I just like calling it music. If it’s good, it’s good and if it’s not, it’s not.

“Being young myself, and of a generation of people like Lady Gaga, I’m totally put off by the image of classical music and everything about my approach is that of a modern day pop artist. There’s so much beautiful stuff out there that I want to break down those barriers.”

That’s quite a tall order, but when you hear him play — as some of us did as guests at the Henley Festival launch party at Fawley Court earlier this year — and when you engage in conversation with him, it’s easy to see that he has not only the ability but also the sheer force of personality to pull it off.

Poole’s early career sounds like something out a Mozart biopic. He started playing the piano when he was so young that he doesn’t remember a time before that. He was reading music by the age of four and at eight years old he played Bach’s Piano Concerto In D Minor with the National Youth Orchestra at the Wyastone Festival in Wales, an event he remembers as being “really good fun”.

He didn’t bother taking the usual route of grade this and grade that piano exams, and even though he is due to receive results this week of his music degree from London’s Royal College of Music he really doesn’t seem that bothered.

He says: “It would be nice to get a first after four years of hard work, but it doesn’t mean anything to me.”

He takes the same individualist (some will call it gung-ho, some will call it self-assured) attitude towards the question of sponsorship. In the classical world, where only a tiny percentage of highly gifted artists make it as concert pianists, many young musicians are lured into a sponsorship deal by a company like Steinway or Yamaha, but Poole has so far resisted the temptation.

“I love all kinds of pianos, and I don’t believe in that,” he says. “People get sponsored to play a particular type of piano and the company will follow you all round the world, but I find that completely stifling.”

One of the pieces he will play next week is a piano adaptation of Wagner’s Ride Of The Valkyries. Although he does not have any particular favourite composer he enjoys particularly playing Rachmaninov and Bach. But one of his greatest pleasures is playing his own compositions and improvisations.

“My favourite style is my own style,” he says. “You get to create something new and different and fresh and exciting, which offers something else.”

Meanwhile, despite being very much his own man, he takes his cue from another great maverick of the contemporary music world, Lang Lang. He says: “He’s the only person out there who sells out the Royal Albert Hall in a few minutes with a classical recital. He’s taking the classical repertoire and bringing it to millions of people round the world. He has done a great job.”

lOliver Poole plays in the Classical Salon at Henley Festival on Thursday, July 11. For tickets go to www.henley-festival.co.uk

WITH only a week to go before the Henley Festival moves into the regatta site for the last time, the Standard Arts Editor LESLEY POTTER talks to some of the alternative artists playing this year

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