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The Essay BBC Radio 3

  • Society & Culture
  • 4.5 • 80 Ratings
  • 11 APR 2024

During his less than stellar acting career Michael Goldfarb spent a lot of time watching from the wings waiting to go on for his single scene. In this series, he talks about the plays he appeared in, their histories, and the lives of the actors who performed them. In this essay, he's understudying in K2: a play about two climbers trapped on an ice ledge, having fallen on their way down from the summit of the mountain. It wasn't a very good play but had an amazing set with the capacity for near cinematic feats of climbing and falling. The play made it to Broadway for a brief Tony-winning run and Michael talks about performing in a show where a huge Styrofoam mountain was the star and the jostling for supremacy among actors, directors and set designers.

Preparation for a performance on stage goes beyond just memorising lines, learning blocking and hoping it will be alright on the night. A diligent actor studies the history of the period of the play, learns about the intentions of the playwright, and absorbs from older colleagues knowledge of how the play has been done in the past. In his less than stellar career as an actor, Michael Goldfarb went through this process many times. In this essay, Michael recalls his admiration for John Gielgud. He remembers The Motive and the Cue, the play about John Gielgud directing Richard Burton in Hamlet. He also had a chance meeting with the legendary actor at the stage door of the Apollo theatre in London when Gielgud was starring in David Storey's 'Home'.

Preparation for a performance on stage goes beyond just memorising lines, learning blocking and hoping it will be alright on the night. A diligent actor studies the history of the period of the play, learns about the intentions of the playwright, and absorbs from older colleagues knowledge of how the play has been done in the past. In his less than stellar career as an actor, Michael Goldfarb went through this process many times. In this episode, it's the story of The Count of Monte Cristo, as performed by James O'Neill, father of playwright Eugene O'Neill. It was the play that made him rich and his family miserable, as depicted in Long Day's Journey Into Night. Nearly fifty years ago, it was revived by the Jean Cocteau Repertory Theatre, located on the Bowery in New York. The Cocteau was the only rotating rep theatre in New York and Michael Goldfarb was part of the company.

Preparation for a performance on stage goes beyond just memorising lines, learning blocking and hoping it will be alright on the night. A diligent actor studies the history of the period of the play, learns about the intentions of the playwright, and absorbs from older colleagues knowledge of how the play has been done in the past. In his less than stellar career as an actor, Michael Goldfarb went through this process many times. In this essay, he appears in Maxim Gorki's Summerfolk, a play about the Russian upper-middle classes at their summer homes, as their country teeters on the brink of revolutionary catastrophe. He remembers Russian theatre, theatrical friendships and after-show drinking.

Preparation for a performance on stage goes beyond just memorising lines, learning blocking and hoping it will be alright on the night. A diligent actor studies the history of the period of the play, learns about the intentions of the playwright, and absorbs from older colleagues knowledge of how the play has been done in the past. In his less than stellar career as an actor, Michael Goldfarb went through this process many times. He recalls meeting John Gielgud at the theatre door and understudying in a play where a huge Styrofoam mountain was the star of the show. In this essay: theatrical superstition says you shouldn’t mention the play Macbeth, by name. But how else to speak of the play on which Michael finally got his equity card?

  • 29 MAR 2024

Unravelling plainness

Gold sequins, silk and vibrant colour threads might not be what you expect to find in a sampler stitched by a Quaker girl in the seventeenth century. New Generation Thinker Isabella Rosner has studied examples of embroidered nutmegs and decorated shell shadow boxes found in London and Philadelphia which present a more complicated picture of Quaker attitudes and the decorated objects they created as part of a girl's education. Dr Isabella Rosner is a textile historian and curator at the Royal School of Needlework on the New Generation Thinker scheme run by the BBC and the Arts and Humanities Research Council to highlight new research. You can hear more from her in Free Thinking episodes called Stitching stories and A lively Tudor world Producer: Ruth Watts

  • © (C) BBC 2024

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BBC Radio 3 The Essay

Five Irish writers each take a passage from James Joyce’s Ulysses and, through a close reading, explore its meaning and significance within the wider work, as well as what it means to them. February 2022 marks the centenary of the novel's publication. Reading Ulysses is a famously challenging experience for most readers, so can our Essayists help?

In the first essay of the series, award-winning Irish writer Anne Enright explores the first couple of pages of Joyce's epic. She examines the characters of Buck Mulligan and Stephen Dedalus - the two men we first meet at the top of a tower overlooking Dublin Bay. She tells us from where Joyce drew his inspiration in creating his protagonists and she reveals a little about how she first discovered the famous tome.

In the second essay of the series, young Irish writer John Patrick McHugh selects the fourth episode of the novel: Calypso. In it we encounter the novel's main character: Leopold Bloom. John gives us a close reading of its opening which sees Mr Bloom make breakfast for his wife and feed his cat. John says it's a chapter that "smells both of melted butter and defecation" and explores Joyce's unique description of a cat's miaow. He tells us about feeling lightheaded when he first encountered Ulysses and how his experience of the book has changed on re-reading it.

In the third essay of this series, acclaimed Irish writer Colm Tóibín talks about the role of songs and singing in the novel. He says that in early 20th-century Dublin, professional and amateur concerts and operatic singing flourished - and he argues that many of the characters in Ulysses are connected by music and song.

Colm selects a passage from the Sirens episode of the book which sees the character, Simon Dedalus, sing in his rich tenor voice. Colm examines the parallels between the character of Simon Dedalus and Joyce's own father, John Stanislaus Joyce - both good singers. Colm argues that all the "badness" in Simon "is washed away by his performance as singer" and he explores how the reverberations of Simon's song echo later in book.

In the fourth essay of the series, novelist and short story writer Mary Costello selects an excerpt from an episode full of questions and answers, known as Ithaca. The episode sees Leopold Bloom, the novel's main character, and his friend Stephen Dedalus walk back to Bloom's house in the middle of the night.

In the passage which Mary selects, Bloom has got home and turns on the tap to fill the kettle. Mary says that what follows is a "magnificent, bird's-eye view of the water's journey from County Wicklow" all the way through the city to the Mr Bloom's sink. Mary argues that Ithaca is compelling not just because of the maths, science and language contained within it but also because of the fuller picture it paints of Mr Leopold Bloom.

In the final essay of the series, novelist Nuala O'Connor chooses the last episode of the book - Penelope - which is the one Nuala discovered first. In Penelope, we hear Molly Bloom, the wife of the novel's main protagonist, speak to us.

In the extract Nuala selects, Molly lies in bed, top to tail with her husband. We hear Molly consider him and his antics - and muse on what husbands, and men in general, mean to her. Nuala examines some of her favourite phrases from the passage; she reveals some of the parallels she can see in Joyce's own biography; and she tells us why the novel's final words might prove the ultimate key to unlocking the book.

Producer: Camellia Sinclair

Find out more: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m00141tf

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Gospel Messiah with Marin Alsop and the BBC Concert Orchestra, being performance at the Royal Albert Hall 7 December

Hallelujah! The Gospel Messiah comes to the UK – a photo and audio essay

Handel with Hammond organ and hand claps. Scatting and swing. Five saxophones – this is Messiah, but not perhaps as you know it. Marin Alsop’s Gospel Messiah had its European premiere at the Royal Albert Hall on 7 December, ahead of a broadcast on BBC Radio 3 tonight

T hirty years ago conductor Marin Alsop was chatting with friends in New York. “They asked what I was up to,” she says. “I told them, ‘Handel’s Messiah’. They said ‘The one where the audience stand up for the Hallelujah Chorus at the end? I like that bit but it takes too long until that happens!” Why not try an update, thought Alsop. “I had always wanted to reimagine it – it lends itself to lots of different feels, and I wanted new audiences to hear the piece.” The 1741 work has been endlessly embellished, tweaked and reimagined, even by Handel himself. Mozart was commissioned to rewrite it with more woodwind. While Handel’s original choir had numbered 20 or so and the orchestra not many more, by the 1850s, there were performances with thousands of singers and nearly 500 musicians. In 1992, Quincy Jones rethought it as the Grammy-winning A Soulful Celebration – and its Hallelujah Chorus is one of the world’s most instantly recognisable (and most memed) pieces of classical music. This month – like every December – there are performances all over the world from Philadelphia to Paris and Perth - both Scotland’s and Australia’s.

Rehearsals for Gospel Messiah with Marin Alsop and the BBC Concert Orchestra with the London Adventist Chorale and the BBC Symphony Chorus at Henry Wood Hall, London SE1, ahead of the main performance at the Royal Albert Hall on 7/12/23

Marin Alsop rehearses the BBC Concert Orchestra, the big band, and the choir (the London Adventist Chorale with the BBC Symphony Chorus) at Henry Wood Hall, London SE1. Middle right: South African tenor soloist Zwakele Tshabalala with Karin Hendrickson, who is assisting Marin Alsop.

Rehearsals for Gospel Messiah

“I got together with Bob Christianson and Gary Anderson who wrote for my swing band,” continues Alsop. “I gave them a score. I think they probably knew the Hallelujah Chorus . I told them “I want to reimagine Messiah. I want to preserve its integrity but update it. They were both, ‘you want to WHAT? And you want us to do WHAT?’”

Rehearsals for Gospel Messiah with Marin Alsop and the BBC Concert Orchestra, at Henry Wood Hall

Top: Saxophonist Sam Mayne. Bottom: The choir is made up of singers from the London Adventist Chorale and the BBC Symphony Chorus

Alsop and her collaborators cut part three of Handel’s lengthy oratorio, so that their version ends with the Hallelujah Chorus and thus tells the Christmas story. “We wrote for just two soloists – there wasn’t the budget for all four! Handel’s original instrumentation is small – strings, some woodwind, harpsichord. We took out the winds and added saxes, five, plus a Hammond organ, electric guitar, drums and piano.”

The DNA of the piece remains the same, but the melodies, the harmonies, the instrumentation are all treated differently.

Listen to an extract from Gospel Messiah's And He Shall Purify in rehearsal

Swing, shuffle, jazz and blues as well as gospel are part of the mix, as well as scatting and improvisation. “Of course the Hallelujah Chorus had to be a gospel number.” The work begins, though, with the overture exactly as Handel wrote it – before the rhythm section kicks in. “I don’t want people to know right away that it’s different, let’s start the same and gradually work our way into it.”

The work – cheekily titled Too Hot to Handel – was premiered in 1993 in the Lincoln Center, New York. “People went crazy. They loved it,” says Alsop. “We did it for 10 or 15 years in New York and it’s been performed around the US every year since. The audiences are really mixed – it’s a celebration of diversity and I love that.”

Rehearsals and preparations BTS for Gospel Messiah

The cameras were at the Albert Hall recording the concert for transmission Christmas 2024 on the BBC and also PBS. It will be broadcast on Radio 3 on 12 December and then on BBC Sounds. Bottom right: Tenor Zwakele Tshabalala.

This time last year I was also here at the Albert Hall also doing Messiah, a straight version with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. When Marin asked me to do this I said of course. Then she said, ah, yes, but this is something different. A gospel jazz version. She sent me some clips and I was like, whaaaaaat? Two weeks ago I was with English National Opera singing La Traviata. I’m classically trained and I sing what’s on the page. This is way way out of my comfort zone. Improvising? Scatting? It’s all new to me, but it’s as exciting as it is challenging and I’m loving how different it all is. You can still hear the original Handel, there’s just more swing and more soul to it. Zwakele Tshabalala

Rehearsals and preparations BTS

Ken Burton (below, at the piano) has been conducting the London Adventist Chorale since 1990. “Our members come from all over – as far afield as the Sussex coast, York and Lincolnshire. There’s 28 of the almost 96-strong choir singing here tonight ranging from 17 to 64. The youngest, Abigail, is doing her A-levels and had to get permission from her school to be at this afternoon’s rehearsal! The rest of the singers are from the BBC Symphony Chorus.

Listen to an extract from Gospel Messiah's For Unto Us a Son is Born in rehearsal

A lot of music of Black origin has a very complicated rhythm and to get the feel requires a particular approach to make it sound natural. Singers from traditional classical backgrounds sing the notes in the places where they expect them to be. They have to learn how to loosen up! And yes, normally I’m waving my arms around at the front of the choir but tonight I’m singing with them. It’s rare I get to do that – I love it and didn’t want to miss the opportunity.”

Rehearsals and preparations on the day of the performance at the Royal Albert Hall.

Ken Burton principal conductor of the London Adventist Chorale and soloist Vanessa Haynes practice before the performance. Below: in a break from his usual conducting Burton (middle front) is singing as part of his own choir today

Rehearsals for Gospel Messiah with Marin Alsop and the BBC Concert Orchestra, at Henry Wood Hall

Vanessa Haynes ( above, and below ) is the second of the two soloists. “I was born in Trinidad and grew up in the church singing choral and gospel before branching out into secular music and jazz. All I ever wanted to do was come to London and sing; I made my way here via India, China and Singapore, working as a jazz singer in hotels. Handel’s works were played in my house when I was young – my parents are religious, and when I was 16 or 17 a group of us discovered Quincy Jones’s version of the Messiah, but I’d not come across this before. I love it. The arrangers have done a fantastic job in making the material accessible to new audiences. I’m sure that Handel would have wanted that. But no, I’ve not sung his music before. Does this whet my appetite? What a question! Let’s see how it goes tomorrow night ... !”

Rehearsals and preparations BTS for Gospel Messiah with Marin Alsop and the BBC Concert Orchestra

Violinist Nathaniel Anderson-Frank (below) is the leader of the BBC Concert Orchestra. “I grew up in Canada with singalong versions of Messiah – the work is part of the seasonal offering there just as it is here, and I’ve played many times. Handel really knew string instruments and his music is lovely to perform. This is huge fun because of what the arrangers have retained of the original. The bones of Handel are very recognisable, the text is preserved and the melodic content is there, it feels organic, rather than like some kind of sauce that’s been slapped over the original baroque music.

Violinist Nathaniel Anderson-Frank in rehearsals

Trumpeter Dave McCallum (above) has been with the BBCCO for 27 years. “Our life is hugely varied. Last week we did a show with Clare Teal and the BBC Singers, next week we’re recording Call the Midwife and just after Christmas we’re off to China with soprano Danielle de Niese. Do I have a favourite moment in the Messiah? The end! No, seriously – there are so many amazing bits. I love the quieter moments but the Hallelujah Chorus is undeniably a good romp. Handel’s template is so robust that you can do almost anything with it. And yes, the purists will probably object, but they can get lost!”

Gospel Messiah with Marin Alsop and the BBC Concert Orchestra, being performance at the Royal Albert Hall on 7/12/23

Audiences always stand for the Hallelujah Chorus, a tradition almost as old as the work itself. Legend has it that during a performance in London in the mid 1750s, King George II was so moved he stood up during this number. Everyone rose to join him and so we still all do. Others more prosaically inclined have suggested it was merely a case of pins and needles or gout that got the King to his feet, or maybe he simply wanted to stretch his legs.

Crowd on their feet

“It’s one of the most popular pieces of music ever created. It achieves great effects by simple means” writes Jonathan Keates in his biography of Handel. “Like Shakespeare’s plays, Messiah’s resilience is such that it has taken a place among those works which every epoch moulds to its own fancies and desires.”

Listen to an extract from the Gospel Messiah's Hallelujah Chorus in rehearsal at the Albert Hall

I’m of the opinion that there are two kinds of music, good and bad, like Duke Ellington always said. Sometimes classical music takes itself way too seriously. It’s wonderful to be at a concert where people can clap their hands and stand up and dance if they want. And yes, I probably will be dancing on the podium. I can’t help it in this piece! Marin Alsop
The European premiere of the Gospel Messiah is broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and BBC Sounds on 12 December at 7.30pm and will be available on demand for 30 days.
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    The Essay. Leading writers on arts, history, philosophy, science, religion and beyond, themed across a week - insight, opinion and intellectual surprise.

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