A view from the pit
John Joubert's 'Jane Eyre',
praised by ALICE McVEIGH
First, I must in all honesty admit to being — long prior to his opera Jane Eyre — a passionate John Joubert fan. I attended his cello concerto premiere (performed so eloquently by Raphael Wallfisch): I have often performed his elegant unaccompanied work for cello (Divisions on a Ground). I own many CDs of his music, both instrumental and choral. His professional cellist daughter Anna has long been one of my closest friends — as far back as 1987, when I first auditioned for the English Symphony Orchestra.
Anna accompanied her father to the beginning of the project — she should have been playing on first desk instead of me, but John's in a wheelchair, these days, and she wanted to be able to be his right hand, if necessary. It was wonderful to see her, though I felt a strange mixture of tiredness and buoyancy. The tiredness was probably the driving — I'd hit the M25 around 5.30am; the buoyed-up-itude — if this is a word, which I personally doubt — was certainly the music. I'd felt excited when asked to play the Joubert. I'd felt excited when first practising the cello part, perhaps a week before heading up to Birmingham. But nothing had prepared me for the rich complexity and vivid emotional thrust of actually playing Joubert's Jane Eyre.
From Kenneth Woods' first downbeat I felt intuitively that Joubert, as opera composer, was at the peak of his considerable powers. Moments of almost unbearable poignancy I had expected, along with daring orchestration, cleverly conceived textural interplay and nobly crafted themes — some of the latter used in a few of Joubert's other works. What I hadn't anticipated was the emotional truth of the characterisations, the tumultuous surging fervour of the key scenes — or the terror of making the slightest noise when turning pages, not merely because we were being recorded, but for fear of breaking into something almost frighteningly, sometimes even harshly, beautiful.
In short, I knew it would be good, but even I was shocked by just how good the music was.
It didn't hurt that Ken had selected a cast of inhumanly strong vocal talent, capable of working — astonishingly — at full stretch for two nine-hour days in a row. (April Fredrick, as Jane Eyre, was never off-stage: her technique must be utterly grounded; David Stout was in almost every scene as well.)
Siva Oke, the artist in command of SOMM Recordings, occasionally suggested that the two principal singers sang down, to conserve their energy ... They weren't remotely interested, either of them. Instead, David Stout (Rochester) prowled restlessly around the stage, rumpling his hair while utilising every vocal sinew — and his voice commands plenty of sinew, not to say heft, though it also possesses a caressingly carrying quality where required.
As for Fredrick, she was so 'in character' that she dressed in long full skirts and lacy collars and wore her hair in a nineteenth-century bun, even in rehearsal. Her voice has stunning range and poignancy combined with rare expressive power but — should it ever fail — she should assuredly go into acting. What I loved most about Fredrick's performance was how she communicated Brontë's Jane: a precarious mixture of tensile strength and fervent passion, each barely containable within a deceptively slight, light, feminine frame.
Although it was Fredrick and Stout's show, Mark Milhofer also excelled as the rigid yet still believable and even pitiable St John, Jane's cousinly suitor, while Gwion Thomas simmered nicely as the pompous Brocklehurst, with a fine line in self-righteous outrage. In complete control, conductor Ken Woods never once lost his concentration or his intuitive feel for a complex score he could never have heard before, while even Jane's understudy (Sofia Larsson, who just pitched in for an hour as concert-time loomed) got a fine, spontaneous hand from an exhausted orchestra. She was that good and it was just that kind of hugely hard yet still immensely rewarding project: nothing but generosity, commitment and goodwill all round, despite the underlying stress and the time pressure, both of which were pretty considerable.
The principal singers were of course the most tested, but we in the orchestra were tested too. There was never a bar when one could afford to let down one's guard or to cease to exercise dynamic and rhythmic precision. Joubert's textural and orchestration combinations — as I'd anticipated — were drenched with panache. From the xylophone that kick-started the flames to the intensity of effort required throughout by the single winds. Solo flute, solo oboe, solo horn — one can only imagine the stamina required of James Topp as sole horn — organ, percussion — and a piano. (The piano is used extremely cleverly, possibly as an in-joke on Jane Eyre herself, whose playing Rochester in the novel famously finds rather less than inspired ('Enough!' he called out in a few minutes. 'You play a little, I see; like any other English school-girl; perhaps rather better than some, but not well.')
The music's subtle (and, at times, not in the least subtle) intensity compelled us into playing with utter passion and conviction — which is anyway what the English Symphony Orchestra has famously always done best. Ken kept having to hold up a hamlike left hand to haul us back. We were tiered, as was the audience; the singers were on inspirational form; there was an almost Wagnerian power — if sometimes undercut, with typical Joubertian flair — to the score: in short, the temptation to let rip was diabolical. And then, Joubert's understanding of every instrument is so complete: even the most feathery section added some little fizz and we had — both individually and as an orchestra — to fight any urge to bring out all those individual touches of genius.
But it was never orchestral technique for technique's sake. Corinne Frost's delicate solo cello morceau — Catherine Handley's gloriously improvisatory flute solo — Sarah Sew's lace tracery of violin solo at the conclusion: each of these seemed to me to be expressions of Jane Eyre herself, as if Joubert had burrowed into Brontë's creation so completely that we were being gifted glimpses into her soul. This, for me, was one of the most amazing things of all: Joubert actually illuminated Brontë's book for me.
Now, for whatever reason, he also made cuts, reducing the opera to two hours and two acts, something some reviewers cavilled at, and perhaps rightly (though we'd have needed more than two days to rehearse, record and perform more music, of course — we were up against it as it was). There is also a school of thought that the opera's structure, perhaps for this reason, was faintly flawed, in that almost every scene begins quietly and ends with a whacking great ruckus, either of exhilaration or utter despair. Examples:
1) Scene: Starts with Jane chatting to her fellow boarders at Lowood, ends with her stormily resigning from her post as teacher, and passionately contesting her 'benefactor's' contention that she owes the school loyalty
2) Scene: Jane's wedding begins with serene organ flourishes, interrupted by Mason's unmasking Rochester's disgrace (fabulous scene altogether: a perfect storm!)
3) Scene: Begins with Jane enjoying a cosily familial evening with her cousins — finishes with Jane's tormented rejection of the evangelical St John's cold-blooded marriage proposal — 'hearing' Rochester calling her back ...
You get the picture. The trouble is, Joubert is so inherently dramatic, so fired to build to the great moments ... he couldn't help himself. He could no more write a scene without turmoil and power than he could orchestrate a dull bar. The opera in fact took years to compose, but gives the impression of having been completed in a spurt of inspiration, on a blast of pure instinct. You want delicacy and thoughtfulness, well, Joubert can do those too — he does it here — as he has in over two hundred other opus numbers. But he was born to write opera and these moments — these scenes — this power — is frankly what opera is for, and what Joubert arguably does best.
The intervening sections — the ones John cut — if reinstated — might ameliorate any feeling of tumult being piled on tumult — and two hours/two acts didn't feel a second too long — but I must confess that I have, personally, a possibly mischievous longing for a ball scene, complete with Rochester flirting with Blanche Ingram, and Jane suffering in the corner — full of Joubert's subtle dissonances and pitch-perfect Brittenesque characterisations — a scene perhaps to more fitly utilise, by doubling parts, some of the other fine voices gracing minor roles last week.
But what do I know? I couldn't even compose a teeny unaccompanied cello piece, as I learned back at Indiana University School of Music. All I do know is that this can't be the beginning and end of Joubert's marvellous opera. It has to be mounted; it has to be recognised; it has to live on a stage, where the orchestra — in a pit — can truly let fly. And I know this too: it's been a fortnight, and I've played a lot of music since, but still, the Jane Eyre music won't let me be: it keeps pulling on my sleeve, like an importune child:
- The moment when Rochester (David Stout, bestriding the stage like a colossus) swears he'll marry her, regardless of the mad wife in the attic.
- The surging undertow of the triplets in scene two.
- The moment when Rochester, in compelling sorrow and dignity, admits, 'What this man' — Mason, brother of m w in the attic, of course — 'says, is true'.
- That limpid horn moment.
- The moment when St John savagely tells Jane that she is 'mistaken, for I heard nothing!'
- The moment when Jane sings, thrice, each time to still greater effect, in hushed and lifted wonder, in elation and despair: 'He is my ... light!'
So many moments!
And, as it happens, I both know and love the book, and I'm extraordinarily fussy about the great classics as well, yet nothing jarred on me. Charlotte Brontë — who was fussy too, and who even moaned about Jane Austen's own writing — would have loved it, even the slight tinge of bittersweet quality of the last scene, for Brontë could do bittersweet as well as anybody.
Throughout the entire performance it was obvious that the audience 'got' it. It was recorded — so there's proof — but there wasn't so much as a wriggle from that lot. They were hooked, captured. They had surrendered utterly: to Frederick, to Stout, to Woods — most of all, to Joubert, to his vision. The applause was massive: so was the standing ovation.
I longed to jump up too but (of course) it was Helen who led it: our principal viola, Helen Roberts: Helen has always had nerve. We in the orchestra rippled upwards from Helen in both directions — violins and woodwinds, celli and brass — and there was my friend Anna with tears in her eyes, with her mother and her husband and her children and her brother. And there was her father in his wheelchair: John Joubert. Almost ninety, bald, attenuated. Probably wearing the most beautiful smile you ever saw on a human face.
His night. His opera. His triumph. Of music he'd at one time despaired of ever hearing, of one of the works existing closest to his heart. And Anna wasn't the only one in tears: no, we were all in tears, at least in the violas and celli, and you can shove this on my tombstone (because it practically killed me but it was a true highlight of my cello-playing life, better than playing with the Hanover Band in Carnegie Hall, better than playing under Sir John Eliot Gardiner in the Lincoln Center, better than almost any concert with the BBC Symphony or Royal Philharmonic I ever did ...)
John Joubert and April Fredrick at the first performance of 'Jane Eyre'. Photo © 2016 Catherine Gosney. Click on the image for higher resolution
I played in the premiere of Joubert's Jane Eyre.
In Leonard Bernstein's words from his Mass, about the Creation of the world:
'And it was good, brother and it was good brother, and it was good brother, and it was goddamn good'!
Copyright © 8 November 2016