Music and Opera

Our curation of music and opera reviews

‘I want every production I do to be the funniest’: an interview with Cal McCrystal

There are certain things that you don’t expect at the opera. Laughter, for example. Proper laughter, that is; not the knowing sort that ripples politely across the auditorium five seconds after the punchline appears in the surtitles. We’re talking unconstrained laughter; laughter that gives you an endorphin rush and sends you straight online to tell your friends that they must see the show. But that’s Cal McCrystal’s whole business. He’s the director who devised James Corden’s delirious plate-spinning capers in the National Theatre’s One Man, Two Guvnors and whose face (in motion-capture) provided the elastic expressions of a small Peruvian bear in Paddington. ‘I want every production I do to

‘Psychedelic folk that twists and leaps’: Beth Gibbons, at the Barbican, reviewed

A decade ago, a group of people who owned small music venues came to the conclusion that the kinds of places they ran were teetering on the brink of a catastrophic extinction event. And so they formed the Music Venue Trust, which has spent ten years kicking cans and shouting the odds about the need to preserve these places, about how they are the production lines from which the festival headliners of tomorrow come. A brilliant guitarist, a fascinating songwriter, St Vincent cycles sleekly through styles with utter assurance Quite right. Good, small venues are the best place to enjoy both live, loud, raucous music and intimate performances where the

Damian Thompson

Thank goodness Busoni’s Piano Concerto is returning to the Proms

On 5 August, Ferruccio Busoni’s Piano Concerto will be performed at the Proms for only the second time. It should have been the third time, but a Musician’s Union strike in 1980 forced the cancellation of the concert at which Martin Jones had been booked to give the première. Jones is a fearless virtuoso, still recording in his eighties, but one can’t help wondering whether his disappointment back then was tinged with relief. In one place, the soloist’s fingers must wrap themselves around 128 notes in a single bar Garrick Ohlsson, a long-time champion of the work, describes its difficulties as ‘absolutely immense, and 25 per cent of this piece

A fitting – and lovable – tribute to Frederick Ashton

I encountered Frederick Ashton at a dinner party shortly before he died in 1988. Frail and anxious, he clutched my arm and demanded to know which of his creations I thought would survive him. I duly reeled off some titles, but felt that any opinion I expressed would have disappointed him. In public, he professed to care not a fig for posterity, but he evidently did, and his will set out thoughtful arrangements parcelling ownership of his works out to various trusted colleagues, with the bulk passing to his nephew, the Royal Ballet’s administrative director Anthony Russell-Roberts. How exhilarating to be reminded of Ashton’s remarkable range, and of choreography so

Damian Thompson

An exhilarating debut: Peltokoski’s Mozart Symphonies reviewed

Grade: A- Here’s an oddly structured album of Mozart’s symphonies 35, 40 and 36 from the world’s most fashionable young Finnish conductor – and, no, it isn’t Klaus Makela, the 28-year-old maestro of the Oslo Philharmonic and Orchestre de Paris who’s taking over in Amsterdam and Chicago. It’s Tarmo Peltokoski, 24, who hasn’t yet had to cope with iffy reviews hinting that he’s been overpromoted. Peltokoski is cute, clever and scarily self-assured. He’s already music director of the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra and is about to hold the same position in Toulouse. He’s principal guest conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic and also the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, the Mercedes-Benz of chamber

James Delingpole

How a TikTok dance craze turned into a brainwashing cult

Because you don’t – I hope – use TikTok you will never have heard of the Wilking sisters. But back in the day (2020) they were huge, their homemade videos of dance routines performed at their suburban Michigan home attracting 127 million views. A year later, it all turned sour. Dancing for the Devil: The 7M TikTok Cult opens with one half of the sibling duo, Melanie, talking tearfully about her terrible loss. You think at first that Miranda has died. But no, it’s almost worse, for Miranda has become a living ghost – still present on social media, but dead to her family and friends, and unrecognisable from the

Shiny, raunchy, heartless spectacular: Platée, at Garsington, reviewed

Fast times on Mount Olympus. Jupiter has been shagging around again and now his wife Juno has bailed on their hit reality show Jupiter & Juno, storming off set in a thundercloud of gold lamé and wheeled luggage. The producers are freaking out. Production runners scamper in all directions until Bacchus sends out to Starbucks and they all sit down to brainstorm a route out of ratings Hades. Meanwhile the luxury villa lies silent, its jacuzzi empty and the fake grass scattered with cardboard coffee trays. Cupid, it turns out, might have a plan – she knows a wannabe called Platée and, hilariously, she’s a total minger. Garsington’s new Platée

An exclusive look at Graham Linehan’s Father Ted musical

The tree-lined streets of Rotherhithe are an odd place to unveil a West End musical. But this is a suitably odd situation. Graham Linehan – lauded comedy writer turned culture warrior – is about to unveil what he calls ‘a musical that may never be seen’. For much of the past 30 years, the idea of turning Father Ted, cult sitcom of the 1990s, into a West End musical would have seemed a hot prospect – certainly to the legions of nerdy, largely male fans who still stream episodes decades later. Once upon a time, it looked destined for Shaftesbury Avenue, backed by one of the biggest names in theatre.

When Fauré played The Spectator

Gabriel Fauré composed his song cycle La bonne chanson in 1894 for piano and voice. But he added string parts later and he premièred that version in April 1898 at the London home of his friend Frank Schuster: 22 Old Queen Street, the building currently occupied by this very magazine. I’m not sure how much Fauré gets played at Spectator HQ these days; his music certainly hasn’t been a feature of recent summer parties. Perhaps Fauré himself caressed the ivories where James Delingpole and Toby Young now prop up the bar. Imagine Verlaine’s poetry drifting out into the garden to mingle with Rod Liddle’s cigarette smoke on the moonlit air.

Arresting and memorable: Compagnie Maguy Marin’s May B reviewed

Samuel Beckett was notoriously reluctant to let people muck about with his work, so it’s somewhat surprising to learn that he licensed and approved Maguy Marin’s May B. This 90-minute ‘dance theatre’ fantasia may play on vaguely Beckettian themes but in no way is it faithful to his texts or instructions – in some respects it even subverts them. Yet it has enjoyed huge success all over Europe since its première in 1982, and finally reached Britain last week. A long wait, for something that turns out to be very odd indeed. Ten dancers of all shapes and sizes in grotesque make-up and dressed in chalky, tatty underclothes stand immobile

Nickelback may not be cool but they are very good at what they do

In May 2013, Rolling Stone polled its readers in an attempt to discover which band might be crowned the worst of the 1990s. The winners – or losers, depending on how you look at it – were Creed, trailed in second place by Nickelback. Eleven years on and Creed appear to have turned that status around, in America at least – Vanity Fair, Vice and Slate have noticed that they have, whisper it, become cool. And Nickelback? Well, no one’s claiming coolness for them: last year they released a documentary called Hate to Love: Nickelback, a recognition of the fact that, outside their fanbase, they are usually mentioned only as

Damian Thompson

Calm fire: the consolation of listening to Bruckner

31 min listen

Here’s an episode of Holy Smoke to mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of Anton Bruckner later this year. This embarrassingly eccentric genius was, perhaps, the most devoutly Catholic of all the major composers – but you don’t have to be religious to appreciate the unique consolation offered by his gigantic symphonies. On the other hand, it’s hard to appreciate the unique flavour of Bruckner without taking into account the influence of the liturgy on his sublime slow movements and what the (atheist) composer and Bruckner scholar Robert Simpson called the ‘calm fire’ of his blazing finales. If you make it through to the end of this episode, you’ll hear exactly

The unstoppable rise of country music

When a major artist releases a new album, the first thing to follow is the onslaught of think pieces. And when Beyoncé released Cowboy Carter earlier this year, the tone of these think pieces – especially on this side of the Atlantic – was one of slightly baffled congratulation. Here, at last, was a pioneer who might drag this hidebound genre – of sequins and satin, of lachrymose, middle-aged songs about drink and divorce – into the modern age. ‘Modern country is like punk for the Hannah Montana generation’ The only problem is that Beyoncé was not leading; she was following. Beyoncé pivoted to country not to make it cool,

Bristol’s new concert hall is extremely fine

Bristol has a new concert hall, and it’s rather good. The transformation of the old Colston Hall into the Bristol Beacon has been reported as if it was simply a matter of upgrading and renaming. There were probably sound reasons for doing so, but in fact (and despite protests from the Twentieth Century Society) the postwar auditorium has been demolished outright and replaced with a wholly new orchestral hall designed on the best current principles: shoebox-shaped, with much use of wood and textured brick. Butterworth sears his melodies on to the eardrums. Isn’t it weird we still think of the Edwardians as inhibited? Acoustically, it’s extremely fine – not a

The weird, hypnotic world of Willie Nelson

Many years ago, I wrote a book about Willie Nelson. At its conclusion, I reached for an elegiac, valedictory tone. In 2006, when The Outlaw was published, Nelson was already 73, and it seemed plausible to suggest that one of the great American lives might be winding down. I pictured Nelson rolling off the road and into the sunset, his work on Earth more or less complete. Nelson embodies both sides of an increasingly divided nation; hippie and redneck, patriot and agitator Well, scratch that ending. Having recently turned 91, Nelson is still going strong. The touring has slowed down a tad – we haven’t seen him in Britain for

Nowhere near as miserable as I remember it: The Beatles – Let It Be reviewed

Beatles lore has long held that the film Let It Be was a depressing portrait of the band falling apart. According to the same lore, that’s why Peter Jackson’s Get Back was such a revelation. Revisiting Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s footage of the group at work in January 1969, Jackson discovered there was far more joy around than anyone suspected – including the surviving Beatles. Yoko remains a darkly brooding presence (the revisionism that sees her as benign needs its own revision) All of which, it now turns out, only goes to prove the ever-reliable power of suggestion. I vaguely remember seeing Let It Be on TV in the 1970s, before it

Meet the man who says improvisation is the key to Mozart

In August 1993, the pianist Robert Levin sat down in Walthamstow Assembly Rooms with the conductor Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music (AAM) to record the complete piano concertos of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Mozart was big – the bicentenary celebrations of 1991 had made a global impact. And Hogwood and the AAM were big too. After their groundbreaking period-instrument Mozart symphony cycle a decade earlier, the 27 piano concertos seemed like a wholly achievable ambition. What could go wrong? ‘For Mozart’s contemporaries, what surpassed even his virtuosity was his ability to improvise’ Only, as it turned out, the entire classical record industry. The project was meant to take

Lovely slice of Cosmic Scouse: Michael Head & the Red Elastic, at EartH, reviewed

One of the more bizarre but recurring tales about how the music of Liverpool has been shaped over these past 45 years concerns Courtney Love, the American musician famed, music aside, for being married to Kurt Cobain, and for being wildly unpredictable. This story claims the 17-year-old Love, who had travelled across the Atlantic to be near the bands she loved, introduced Liverpudlian musicians to LSD, setting in train a decades-long phenomenon known as ‘Cosmic Scouse’. The slight problem with this is that Love only came to Liverpool in 1982, by which point the musicians she had come to celebrate – Echo & the Bunnymen and the Teardrop Explodes among