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A crisis for a double bass beginner,
and 'Death in Venice' at English National Opera,
with Classical Music Agony Aunt ALICE McVEIGH

Dear Alice,
I am an adult beginner on the double bass and I'm having a crisis.

To my unutterable surprise the poor chap who teaches me tells me that I doing really well -- but then I suppose he would say that wouldn't he? (I'm doing Grade Four work after just over two years.) But I have one huge problem. I am perpetually ahead of the beat with a tendency to accelerate alarmingly, 'as though pursued by a bull' I am told. For a double bass it is the ultimate sin I believe, and I do know why. Other problems I know I can solve but this is a real humdinger.

I have tried every which way to find a solution and so has he. I spend hours singing dumty dumty dum dum, while he beats time and I still get it wrong and perish with mortification. Perhaps it is something I'm simply incapable of getting right, a thought which leaves a sort of lead weight in the belly.

Dear B,
You really have no need for angst ... Grade four in two years is WELL above average and into the talented to very talented bracket.

As for the tendency to rush, THAT is best conquered through playing with other people and learning to clue into what's going on around you (or even just to a piano).

It's so easy to get self-obsessed and just stuck into your own part. And it's also VERY EASY to rush if you're slightly nervous (try beta-blockers??)

I used to rush fast movements myself, out of sheer, youthful enthusiasm, but I improved out of it. You can too!!!!!!!!!!!

Actually I think that the worst fault a double bass can have is to DRAG!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! -- I hate the feeling of hauling a large weight behind me -- and the distance from the action makes some bassists wait until they've HEARD the other strings, which can be a millisecond too late even with pros. As conductor after conductor implores: go with what you SEE!!!!! Have courage!!!! (but no, don't rush, either. Stay with the stick.)

But don't despair and don't give up. You really are doing great.

Ask Alice

Dear readers,

I was lucky enough to be at the opening night of ENO's fascinating production of Death in Venice, which I urge you to see if possible.

Death in Venice at English National Opera

It is a remarkably static subject for an opera, with the unsurpassable Ian Bostridge spending a fair amount of time in self-analysis as a famed but directionless novelist obsessed by the fresh beauty of a young Polish boy, Tadzio, staying at the same Venetian hotel. Which is more or less it. The twin tensions (will he dare to address the boy?) and will he hang around in a cholera-stricken Venice just to be around the youth long enough to die (yes) are all that passes for plot, and T Mann's philosophic depths are poorly served by the necessity of paring them down to a rather duff opera libretto.

In fact, having previously read T Mann, I really didn't see why it shouldn't be done unstaged -- but that was BEFORE I saw Deborah Warner's wonderful conception brought to life: balletic youths, Venetian sunsets and all. The lighting designer (Jean Kalman) was outstanding, moving from sky-soft moments in the first act to a putrid purplish-grey hovering over the threat of cholera in the last. Peter Coleman-Wright brought all the brio one could expect in the seven baritone roles (acting exceptionally in every incarnation). In his first production as supremo, Edward Gardner made the ENO orchestra sound both more elegant and more impassioned than it has in years.

However, the night belonged to Ian Bostridge, attenuated and nervous, exalted and despairing, sometimes boldly sacrificing vocal perfection for dramatic emphasis, yet at times with a breath-taking command of phrase structure and sound: he was sublime. For me, the beauty Mann (and his novelist character Aschenbach) was in search of was incorporated not so much in the charismatic Benjamin Paul Griffiths (Tadzio) as in the unstretched glory of Bostridge's voice, the texture even (except when he elected to roughen it) from top to bottom: at once scorchingly sensitive and almost painfully eloquent.

What a performance.


Copyright © 1 June 2007 Alice McVeigh, Kent UK

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