Saturday, 4 July 2015

A career illuminated - Christoph von Dohnanyi in conversation at the Royal Academy of Music

Christoph von Dohnanyi - photo credit Bertold Fabricius
Christoph von Dohnanyi - photo credit Bertold Fabricius
The conductor Christoph von Dohnanyi was 85 last year, and the Royal Academy of Music held a slightly belated celebration for him on Wednesday 24 June 2015, when the distinguished conductor discussed his career with Jonathan Freeman Attwood, the principal of the Royal Academy of Music.

Christoph von Dohnanyi was born in Berlin, though because of his father (the jurist Hans von Dohnanyi) they moved around a lot and his schooling included a year at the Thomasschule in Leipzig. There was a lot of music until the start of the war when the music stopped. After the war he was 15 and he had to decide whether to try to make up the years he had missed. At 16 he started studying law in Munich but moved on to music at the Musikhochschule where his studies included composition, chamber music, accompanying and he won the Richard Strauss prize.

'Christoph can you improvise?'

He went to the USA to further his studies, going to Florida where we would study with his grandfather, the composer Ernst von Dohnanyi. When asked about studying with his grandfather he surprised everyone by saying that he had only met his grandfather once previously. He was 20, and his grandfather's first question as 'Christoph can you improvise'. This was something he'd never learned and which he now regards as very, very important. In fact, he commented that his grandfather hated practising and was very good at improvising and he included an anecdote about his grandfather playing an entire sonata in the wrong key.

Friday, 3 July 2015

Art on the Underground - Music on the Underground

Matt Rogers (c) Benedict Johnson 2015
Matt Rogers
(c) Benedict Johnson
Art on the Underground, Transport for London's official art programme launched Underline this week. This is a year long interdisciplinary programme which will be celebrating the Victoria Line. Three visual artists, an architectural collective and a composer will be commissioned, drawing inspiration from from the character of the most intensively travelled line on the network, and the organisations, communities and histories connected by it.

Giles Round
Composer Matt Rogers, whose opera The Virtues of Things premiered at Covent Garden's Linbury Theatre earlier this year, is writing a new commission which will be performed by members of London Sinfonietta live in stations on the Victoria line in spring 2016.

Liam Gillick will screen a series of new films shot within the Tube network. Architectural collective Assemble will develop a new public site at Seven Sisters, taking inspiration from subterranean geology to inform their above ground interventions. Closing the Underline series, Brixton-based artist Zineb Sedira will present a new film work and photographic series currently in production.

The series launches with Giles Round's 12 month project Design Work Leisure, a design office that revisits the values and vision of Arts & Crafts exponent William Morris who believed that great art should be for everybody. Over the 12-month period of the project, the office will build on London Underground’s rich design heritage to devise, research and develop bespoke products for the physical environment of the network for staff and passengers to enjoy. The first prototype will be a bespoke relief tile especially for the Victoria line based on the iconic Stabler tiles commissioned by Frank Pick in 1936. The prototypes will be proposed to London Underground for real use on the network with further examples including a platform clock and staff cutlery. Where possible the designs will be rolled out for use in stations and staff spaces.

East of Tallinn: Orient music festival Part II - Workshops and masterclasses

Orient Music Festival workshop - picture credit Hilary Glover
Orient Music Festival workshop - picture credit Hilary Glover
Orient Music Festival; Tallinn, Estonia
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on May 25 2015
Star rating: 5.0

An immersive exploration of the music and cultures and the East

The Orient music festival (25-31 May 2015) began with an ethnomusicology conference. But the rest of the week-long festival focused on workshops, demonstrations, and concerts. With the mornings free to explore Tallinn (or to gone one of the free tours run by local young people who bring 800 years of history to life) and the evenings full of concerts, the afternoons could be devoted to an more immersive approach to culture.

The afternoon workshops, held in a huge tent next to the President’s Palace in Kadriorg Park, included a tour of Taarab music by Mitchel Strumpf and demonstration of quanun playing by Samir Ally Salim (both from the Dhow Countries Music Academy in Zanzibar). Here, although there are thousands of maqam, we were showed the difference between a few of the nine most commonly used such as rast (major scale), hijaz, bayati, and Kurd. Since Taarab orchestras contain instruments with fixed tuning such as accordion, and maqam involve microtones, either the orchestra has to limit itself to playing a few maqam or players have to learn to miss notes out. This workshop was given in English, and for the Estonian people in the audience there was a translator. Samir took people through a song and taught them to sing the chorus while he played.

Music for soprano and string quartet - Carolyn Sampson and the Heath Quartet

Carolyn Sampson
Carolyn Sampson
JS Bach, John Musto, Anton Webern, Arnold Schoenberg; Carolyn Sampson, The Heath Quartet; the Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 13 2015
Star rating: 5.0

Ravishing performance of a 20th century classic, paired with a new work for the same forces of soprano and string quartet

Soprano Carolyn Sampson joined the Heath Quartet at the Wigmore Hall on Wednesday 1 July 2015 for a striking programme of music for soprano and string quartet. Arnold Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 2 in F sharp minor, Op.10 was teamed up with the world premiere of John Musto’s Another Place setting poems by Mark Strand. Also in the programme were three chorale preludes by JS Bach, and Anton Webern’s Slow Movement for string quartet from 1905.

The Heath Quartet
The Heath Quartet
The concert started with the Heath Quartet (Oliver Heath, Cerys Jones, Gary Pomeroy and Christopher Murray) in three Bach chorale preludes. Liebster Jesu, wir sind hier BWV731, Allein Gott in der Hoh sei Her BWV662, and In dulci jubilo BWV608. The first introduced us to the intriguing sound-world of Bach chorale preludes on string quartet. The players used minimum vibrato, which created a timbre both ancient and modern as it had elements of the viol-like to it but they used very expressive modern phrasing. The first was affecting, and quietly contemplative whilst the second prelude was more developed but with a lovely inwardness. The final one was a light textured and contrapuntal version of the familiar tune, played on the first violin with everyone going a bit mad around.

Mark Strand (1924-2014) was a Canadian-born poet; Strand said of his style, "I feel very much a part of a new international style that has a lot to do with plainness of diction, a certain reliance on surrealist techniques, and a strong narrative element”. The American composer John Musto (born 1954) set five of Mark Strand’s poems in a new cycle for soprano and string quartet, Another Place which was commissioned by the Wigmore Hall. The songs were composed soon after the poet’s death, and John Musto has chosen poems, The Coming of Light, Another Place, XVIII from Dark Harbour, An Old Man Awake in His Own Death, The End which seem to deal with the searching for another place, perhaps somewhere not of this world. Death and transition seem to hover over the cycle, but John Musto’s style is not maudlin and the whole had a certain cool rapture about it, a feeling of distancing. It was very much a song cycle, the string writing was substantial but the string parts were clearly accompanying rather than the soprano being an equal, though Carolyn Sampson was clearly very collegial in her performance with the Heath Quartet. John Musto’s music was tonal, with a vocal line sympathetically written for a singer; melodic, yet expressionist in the use of wide intervals.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

La gazza ladra - Rossini's last Italian comic opera

Rossini - La gazza ladra
Rossini La gazza ladra; Giulio Mastrototaro, Luisa Islam-Ali-Zade, Kenneth Tarver, Maria Jose Moreno, Bruno Pratico, Lorenzo Regazzo, Mariana Rewerski, Stefan Cifolelli, Classica Chamber Choir Brno, Virtuosi Brunensis, Alberto Zedda; Naxos
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jun 23 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Highly theatrical new recording of Rossini's last Italian comic opera

Rossini's comic operas seem to make an arc of development from the early one act farse through to the opera semi-seria La gazza ladra (The Thievish Magpie), which was his final Italian comic opera. Its blend of comedy and tragedy has meant that it frequently remains best known for its overture! This new recording on Naxos from Alberto Zedda was recorded live at the Rossini in Wildbad Festival with a cast including Giulio Mastrototaro, Luisa Islam-Ali-Zade, Kenneth Tarver, Maria Jose Moreno, Bruno Pratico, Lorenzo Regazzo, Mariana Rewerski, Stefan Cifolelli, Pablo Cameselle, Maurizio Lo Piccolo and Damian Whiteley. Zedda conducts the Classica Chamber Choir, Brno and the Virtuosi Brunensis  with Gianni Fabbrini providing fortepiano continuo.

The recording was in fact made at the 2009 festival and has had to wait until now for its release. Zedda conducts his own critical edition and thus makes the set rather desirable for Rossinians. In fact the opera has not fared particularly well on disc and the most highly recommendable recording in recent years has been the English language one on Chandos. Part of the problem is that the piece requires a large cast with two buffo basses, three substantial female roles and the tenor hero not to mention a host of comprimario roles making a total of 11 in all. The other problem, though, is the work's reputation sitting uneasily between comedy and tragedy, with a plot which seems to land bits of a rescue opera quasi Fidelio in the midst of The Barber of Seville.

The Bear at the Proud Archivist

Operaview - The Bear
For their next opera production, Operaview is moving to a gallery. At the Proud Archivist gallery in Hackney they will be staging four performances of William Walton's one-act opera The Bear in the context of a photography exhibition by Yiannis Katsaris.

Yiannis Katsaris's exhibition is of photographs inspired by Walton's opera, which is in turn based on a Chekov play. So Yiannis Katsaris has taken a series of photos of Russians living on London today resulting in an interesting juxtaposition.

The Bear will be directed by Natalie Katsou with Dale Wills as musical director. The opera runs from 8 to 11 July 2015, with the exhibition on from 6 to 12 July. The Proud Archivist is at 2-10 Hertford Road, London N1 5SH. Tickets available on-line through EventBrite.

Pop up: L'Italiana in Algeri... Or the showgirl in Vegas

Rossini - L'Italiana in Algeri - Picture credit: Richard Lakos
Rossini - L'Italiana in Algeri - Pop-Up Opera - Picture credit: Richard Lakos
Rossini L'Italiana in Algeri; Helen Stanley, Oskar McCarthy, Oliver Brignall, Bruno Loxton, dir: James Hurley; Pop-Up Opera at the Brunel Museum
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on Jun 8 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Sparky updating of Rossini's comic gem

Pop-Up opera out did themselves last night with yet another triumph. 'L'Italiana in Algeri'... or rather 'The showgirl in Vegas', performed at the Brunel Museum, was a delightful example of their ability to bring opera into the laps (sometime literally) of the audience.

Directed by James Hurley, and with the orchestra deftly played by Berrak Dyer on keyboard, the entire opera was based around the backstage area at a Vegas show. A couple of racks of dressing up clothes provided the costuming, a chest of cleverly chosen objects, projected videos, and repurposing of lighting and cables provided the props. But don't let low budget be confused with low rent, this company can hold its own against any of the big players.

Renowned for bringing opera to unusual spaces such as rooms above pubs and cafes, boats, caverns, tonight the show was in the now defunct access shaft for the Thames tunnel at Rotherhithe.

I did wonder how a circular cylinder bored into the earth would work as a concert venue, and, although small and difficult to get into (entrance was via a crawl space and a descent down what felt like rickety scaffolding), it actually worked very well. The curved walls meant that performers could turn away and sing into the wall and the audience hear reflected sound. A makeshift bar on the terrace in front of the museum provided the interval drinks.

West Green House Opera

Auditorium at West Green House Opera
The auditorium at West Green House Opera
Started by Marylyn Abbott, who lives at West Green House, West Green House Opera performs an annual season in the stunning garden's of the house with performances of an interesting range of operas but always with Mozart at the core. This year they will be performing Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro and Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos along with a programme of music which includes a recital from soprano Joan Rodgers, and a visit from the Garsington Opera Alvarez Emerging Artists Programme.

The company launched the season at a soiree at Leighton House on Tuesday 30 June 2015, when we were able to hear an introduction to the season from Artistic Director William Relton, along with a group of four Richard Strauss songs from soprano Rebecca Nash, accompanied by Kelvin Lim. Rebecca will be performing the title role in Ariadne auf Naxos this year and all I can say is that if her performance on Tuesday is anything to go by, we are in for a great treat.

West Green House gardens at night
West Green House gardens at night
There are not one but two theatres in the garden, the larger seats 400 people in a temporary pavilion, erected annual. The season opens with Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro on 25 and 26 July 2015, which is directed by Richard Studer and conducted by Jonathan Lyness with Ben McAteer as Figaro, Caroline MacPhie as Susanna, George von Bergen and Helena Dix as Count and Countess Almaviva, and Anna Harvey as Cherubino.

Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos is the following weekend on 1 and 2 August 2015, directed by Richard Studer, conducted by Jonathan Lyness with Rebecca Nash as Ariadne, Jonathan Stoughton as Bacchus, Nicola Said as Zerbinetta and Rosie Aldridge as the Composer.

In between there is Mozart's Phoenix with the Garsington young artists and William Relton as Lorenzo da Ponte, Joan Rodgers, Simon Rowland-Jones and Gary Matthewman perform Simon Rowland-Jones's A Turn Outside based on the poems of Steve Smith, plus a selection of lunchtime events.

William Relton, who joined as Artistic Director two months ago, is busy planning next season but this one is already a strong combination. He is an actor and director, and we last saw him as the Major-Domo in Ariadne auf Naxos at Glyndebourne (see my review).

Australian Marylyn Abbott rescued West Green House after the devastation of the bombing there and the gardens are entirely her creation. At all events, the garden opens early enough so that you can explore before the performance, and many events have long dinner intervals so you can picnic in the gardens. Tickets are available from the box office,
01252 848676

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Handel's L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato

Handel L'Allegro - Paul McCreesh - Gabrieli Consort
Handel L'Allegro, il Penseroso, ed il Moderato (1740); Gillian Webster, Laurence Kilsby, Jeremy Ovenden, Ashley Riches, Peter Harvey, Gabrieli Consort and Player, Paul McCreesh; Winged Lion
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jun 19 2015
Star rating: 5.0

Combination of musicology and musicianship in this delightful disc.

Handel's  flexible (not to say cavalier) attitude to his works in performance,  mixing and matching, cutting and pasting to suit the circumstances and the needs of the performers has encouraged modern day performers to follow suit. Of course, it does not help that modern concert-going habits make many of the works too long in their original forms.

But much of the most rewarding Handel scholarship on disc has involved recapturing versions of Handel's works from specific moments or time periods.

Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort and Players
Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort and Players
On this disc, on the Winged Lion label, Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort and Players take us back to 1740 and the premiere of Handel's L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato. More than just the original version, we have the whole Handelian concert experience with parts one and two prefixed by concerto grossos from the Opus 6 set, and part three prefixed by one of the Opus 7 organ concertos.

Paul McCreesh conducts the Gabrieli Consort and Players with soprano Gillian Webster, treble Laurence Kilsby, tenor Jeremy Ovenden, baritone
Peter Harvey and bass Ashley Riches, with William Whitehead at the organ.

Whilst the majority of the recording was made at Henry Wood Hall and St Silas the Martyr Kentish Town, in an imaginative gesture typical of Paul McCreesh the organ concerto and the chorus with organ ad lib which concludes part two of the oratorio were both recorded at St Paul's Church, Deptford where the 2004 William Drake organ reuses some of the original pipes to recreate an organ of 1745, thus giving us a chance to hear the concerto with the sort of organ sound Handel might have known. The remainder of the recording uses the 2001 Handel House Organ which lives at St George's Church Hanover Square.

St John's Smith Square 2015/16 season launch

Tabea Debus at the St John's Smith Square season launch 2015/16
Tabea Debus at the St John's Smith Square season launch 2015/16
On Monday, St John's Smith Square had a launch for its action packed 2015/16 season. We heard from chairman Martin Smith and artistic director Richard Heason, who introduced the season. We also heard from Jude Kelly and Gillian Moore from the South Bank Centre because, during the two year closure period for the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room, some of the South Bank's programming will be transferred to St John's Smith Square, in a remarkable example of collaboration between the two venues. The final speaker was the Minister for Culture, Ed Vaizey. 

Of course, being the launch of concert hall there was also music. Soprano Katherine Watson was accompanied at the piano by Christian Curnyn, Director of the Early Opera Company, in Tristes apprets from Rameau's Castor et Pollux a lovely taster of their complete performance of Rameau's opera later in the year. And recorder player Tabes Debus, a St John's Smith Square Young Artist, played Moritz Eggert's Ausser atem for three recorders and one player, a truly remarkable tour de force.

Jude Kelly at the St John's Smith Square season launch 2015/16
Jude Kelly at the
St John's Smith Square season launch 2015/16
Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars' 2000th concert (!) launches the second London International A Cappella Choir Competition. And the St John's Smith Square Christmas Festival brings groups such as Chapelle du Roi, Siglo de Oro, Choir of Christchurch Cathedral, Ex Cathedra, Choir of Merton College, Ensemble Plus Ultra, and Choir of Clare College, Cambridge.

There is a wide range of Handel, including a number of rarities. Stephen Layton and the Holst Singers continue their Handel oratorio cycle with a performance of Handel's Solomon, whilst the Whitehall Choir is performing Handel's early and rarely performed oratorio Athalia, and a performance of another rarity Alexander Balus is also planned. Ian Bostridge joins the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment for a programme of music by Handel and Telemann. John Lubbock, the Orchestra of St Johns and OSJ Voices bring their annual performance of Handel's Messiah, as do Stephen Layton, Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. David Bates and La Nuova Music perform a programme based around Gloria settings by Vivaldi and Handel. Handel's diva Margherita Durastanti is celebrated by the Brook Street Band with soprano Nicki Kennedy

The music of the Bach family is also very much in evidence. Arcangelo performs Magnificat settings by three Bach's JC, JS and CPE, whilst Solomon's Knot is pairing Magnificat settings by JS Bach and Kuhnau, and Rachel Podger joins the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment for violin concertos by Bach, Telemann, Vivaldi and Pisendel. The Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment are performing Bach's Mass in B Minor. Stephen Layton returns to conduct Bach's St John Passion with the choirs of Eton and Winchester Colleges, and the Academy of Ancient Music. The Artistic Director of St John's Smith Square, Richard Heason, takes to the podium for a Come and Sing Messiah with Smith Square Voices and Chartwell Sinfonia.

Ed Vaizey at the St John's Smith Square season launch 2015/16
Ed Vaizey at the
St John's Smith Square season launch 2015/16
Rare opera includes Bampton Classical Opera in Salieri's La grota di Trofonio and music by Benda and Linley, whilst Bury Court Opera performs music by Zelenka. Christian Curnyn and the Early Opera Company are performing Rameau's Castor et Pollux, whilst the London Mozart Players perform Stephen Oliver's realisation of Mozart's L'oca del Cairo as part of the London Mozart Players' Mozart Explored: 1783. Less rare, but no more delightful, Opera Danube is performing Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld.

The pianist Warren Mailley-Smith is giving an amazing eleven concert series performing the Chopin's complete works for solo piano, whilst pianist Martino Tirino is exploring the great piano quintets. The St John's Smith Square Young Artists Series includes groups as diverse as the Gesualdo Six, Ligeti Quartet, and Tabea Debus. The Park Lane Group's Young Artists Series will be presenting its own spring series, celebrating five great contemporary composers James MacMillan, Brett Dean, Helen Grime, Robin Holloway and Sally Beamish.

Other groups which perform as part of the season include Salomon Orchestra, Kensington Symphony Orchestra, Islington Choral Society, Stoneleigh Youth Orchestra, and the Young Musicians Symphony Orchestra.

The South Bank Centre's programming threads its way through the season as they bring their International Piano Series and International Chamber Music Series, plus concerts from the London Sinfonietta, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, as well as part of Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra's Stravinsky series. Oliver Coates is curating a series Deep Minimalism which includes music by Eliane Radigue, Pauline Oliveros, Laurie Spiegel and Galina Ustvolskaya.

Enlightenment: searching for a way out

Ligeti Quartet at New Dots - photo Cathy Pyle
Ligeti Quartet at New Dots - photo Cathy Pyle
George Crumb, Anna Meredith, William Dougherty, Ji Sun Yang, Wadada Leo Smith, Tom Green; Ligeti Quartet; New Dots at Hoxton Basement
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on May 31 2015
Star rating: 4.0

George Crumb's Black Angels and some modern responses

Last night (31 May) New Dots presented the Ligeti Quartet performing George Crumb's 'Black Angels' and a supporting programme by Anna Meredith, William Dougherty, Ji Sun Yang, Wadada Leo Smith and Tom Green. The concert, in Hoxton Basement was beset by broken strings and broken chairs, yet managed to retain (or perhaps because of it) a certain honesty and freshness.

Picture credit - Hilary Glover
Picture credit - Hilary Glover
The Ligeti Quartet, Mandhira de Saram (violin), Patrick Dawkins (violin), Richard Jones (viola) and Valerie Welbanks (cello), have been playing together since 2010 and are as at home playing Beethoven as they are experimenting with up and coming composers. They have collaborated with New Dots before in a workshop which included the composers Tom Green and Ji Sun Yang.

New Dots is a organisation dedicated to the promotion of new music. They bring together composers and musicians in concerts and workshops, with the aim of showing audiences how accessible and relevant contemporary classical music can be. Their concerts include talks by the composers about their works, plus tonight there were scores displayed, and an opportunity to talk to the artists after the concert. They have a blog where they discuss the music they are interested in.

Although written more than 45 years ago 'Black Angels: Thirteen Images from the Dark Land' (1970) still has the power to excite and horrify. Written to express his feeling about the Vietnam war and social unrest in the US, it juxtapositions classical and experimental techniques, such as playing wine glass harmonicas and gongs, bowing between the fingers and the pegs, amplification "to the threshold of pain", and percussive effects.

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

St Albans International Organ Festival

From 4 July 2015, a feast of all things organ (and plenty of other musical activities) takes over St Albans for the 28th St Albans International Organ Festival, under the eye of Artistic Director David Titterington. At the heart of the festival are the competitions when, across thirteen rounds, organists compete for the prizes in Interpretation and Improvisation culminating in the Finals on 17 July and the Presentation of Awards and Prizewinners Concert on 18 July 2015 at the Cathedral. This year the Interpretation Finals will be for a performance of a Handel organ concerto with the Orchester Wiener Akademie, conducted by Martin Haselböck.

The Martin Haselböck and the orchestra will also be giving a concert in their own right in the cathedral on 17 July 2015 when they perform music by Biber, Haydn and Mozart. Other highlights include the premiere of a Festival commission from James MacMillan, Noli Pater for choir, organ and bass Iona triple pipe. The work will feature chant from the Incholm Antiphoner and be performed by Bernhard Haas (organ), Barnaby Brown (Northumbrian pipes) and the choir of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, conductor Geoffrey Webber. The choirs of Christ Church, Oxford, Westminster Cathedral and St Albans Cathedral will be combining for a concert conducted by Martin Baker, Stephen Darlington and Andrew Lucas. Soprano Joan Rogers will be accompanied by Christopher Glynn (on the piano!) for a programme of Mozart, Schubert, Strauss, Wolf, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff and Mussorgsky.

There are organ recitals by a variety of distinguished organist as well as the jury members, James O'Donnell, Michel Bouvard, Carole Terry. Swedish organist Hans Davidsson will be combining the music of George Böhm and Arvo Pärt with dance.

Full information from the festival website.

Queen of Spades at English National Opera

Queen of Spades - English National Opera - photo credit Donald Cooper
Queen of Spades - English National Opera - photo credit Donald Cooper
Tchaikovsky Queen of Spades; Peter Hoare, Giselle Allen, Felicity Palmer, dir: David Alden, cond: Edward Gardner; English National Opera at the London Coliseum
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on Jun 6 2015
Star rating: 3.5

Gothic horror riot, with fine individual performances

Felicity Palmer - Queen of Spades - English National Opera - photo credit Donald Cooper
Felicity Palmer - photo credit Donald Cooper
ENO's 'Queen of Spades' was a Gothic horror riot. Directed by David Alden, choreographed by Lorena Randi and with music conducted by Edward Gardner, there was just enough humour to offset the dark and dangerous themes.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) wrote 'Queen of spades' in 1890 in only 44 days. Depressed and exhausted with the public life of a composer in Russia, Tchaikovsky disappeared to Florence to write. He had already planned to work on Alexander Pushkin's1834 story 'Queen of Spades', basing the opera on a libretto written by his brother Modest and theatre manager Ivan Vsevolozhsky. The two brothers collaborated throughout, with Pyotr Ilyich ruthlessly cutting and rewriting Modest's work as he sped through the composition. 'Queen of Spades' had its premiere later that year in St Petersburg, and was an immediate success.

Following 'Eugene Onegin' in 1878, and 'Mazeppa' 1883, this was the third of Pushkin's stories to be set by Tchaikovsky. The story was already popular and gamblers believed in the luck of the 3, 7 and Ace prophesied to be winning cards. In more modern times a Russian TV quiz show uses Herman's aria from Act 3 as its theme tune.

Saint-Saens's Samson et Dalila at Grange Park Opera

Carl Tanner & ensemble - Samson et Dalila - Grange Park Opera - photo credit Robert Workman
Carl Tanner & ensemble - Samson et Dalila - Grange Park Opera - photo credit Robert Workman
Saint-Saens Samson et Dalila; Carl Tanner, Sara Fulgoni, Michel de Souza, dir: Patrick Mason, cond: Gianluca Marciano, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; Grange Park Opera
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jun 28 2015
Star rating: 3.5

Imaginative re-casting of Saint-Saens biblical epic

Sara Fulgoni - Samson et Dalila - Grange Park Opera - photo credit Robert Workman
Sara Fulgoni
photo credit Robert Workman
Despite the popularity of some of its music, Saint-Saens' opera Samson et Dalila is not a regular visitor to the UK opera stage. Covent Garden's 1981 production (designed by Sidney Nolan) gets revived intermittently (it's last outing was in 2004), but the opera does not get out much elsewhere. Now that Saint-Saens reputation as an opera composer is slowly being reassessed (Buxton did his opera La princesse jaune, whilst his grand opera Les Barbares has recently had a critical welcome on disc), it is surely a chance to re-visit his opera/oratorio Samson et Dalila, a work which is far more than simply a lovely mezzo-soprano aria.

At Grange Park Opera, Patrick Mason's new production faced the work's difficulties head one by completely avoiding the biblical setting and translating it to the period of intense anti-semitism in the Vichy Republic in France. The translocation required a bit a suspension of disbelief but the main thrust of the plot was brilliantly handled with a superb theatrical coup at the end. And Francis O'Connor set the piece in some highly stylish designs.

Carl Tanner sang Samson, with Sara Fulgoni as Dalila (now something of a celebrity filmstar), Nicholas Folwell as Abimelech, Christophoros Stamboglis as the Old Hebrew (now the Rabbi), Michel de Souza as the High Priest of Dagon (now the head of the local SS), with Edmond Choo, Roberto Abate, Matthew Thistleton and Carter Jeffries. Patrick Mason directed, with designs by Francis O'Connor, choreography by Nikki Woollaston and lighting by Paul Keogan.

Monday, 29 June 2015

Carmina Burana at St Martin in the Fields

On Friday 3 July 2015 there is a chance to hear all five of the choirs based at the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields, singing together for the first time. Under the baton of Andrew Earis they will be performing Carl Orff's iconic cantata Carmina Burana plus Eric Whitacre's Cloudburst and Leonard Bernstein's Chichester Psalms. The Orff will be accompanied by piano (four hands) and percussion, and before you sniff it is worth bearing in mind that the fuller two piano (eight hands) and percussion version was the composer's preferred version. I sang in the work as a student, conducted by one of Orff's students and he was firm in his opinion that Orff preferred the two piano (eight hands) and percussion version to the version with full orchestra.

The five choirs involved are the Choral Scholars of St Martin-in-the-Fields, a choir formed annual of 12 promising young singers, St Martin’s Voices, a professional vocal ensemble, the Choir of St Martin-in-the-Fields which is formed of singers from all walks of life, Children’s Voices of St Martin-in-the-Fields a choir of seven to thirteen-year-olds formed in spring 2014 and the most recently formed choir, St Martin’s Chorus a voluntary choir that offers singers the chance to perform big choral works, as well as more intimate, chamber choir repertoire.

Further information from the St. Martin-in-the-Fields website.

Living programme notes, spectral music and straw bales - 2015 with the Muti-Storey Orchestra

The Multi-Storey Orchestra
Following on from its successful season last year, the Multi-Storey Orchestra is back for a season of concerts in its Peckham car park. Programmes include a new work by Kate Whitley, setting words by Sabrina Mahfouz which will be performed by a choir of 100 Peckham school children alongside The Multi-Storey Orchestra. Then there will be Aaron Copland's Apalachian Spring.

Even more amazingly there will be performances of the first three parts of Grisey's amazing Les Espaces Acoustiques, a milestone of French Spectral music and one of the defining works of the 20th century. This multi-part score, written in the 1970's by French composer Gerard Grisey (1946-1998) uses different scorings for each of the parts and was written after Grisey returned from his stay in Rome as a result of winning the Prix de Rome.

The final event of the season is a performance of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony preceded by a Living Programme Note directed by Fraser Trainer and Matthew Barley in which the audience will be taken on a unique and personal encounter with the symphony across all four levels of the car park.

There is also a new chamber music series, with performances of Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time and John Cage's Living Room Music in an auditorium made of straw bales - the strawditorium!

Concert season runs from 1 July 2015 to 13 September, see the orchestra's website.

La Bohème at Grange Park Opera

Gianluca Terranova, Susana Gaspar, Kelebogile Besong, Quirijn de Lang, Nicholas Crawley, Brett Polegato - La Boheme - Grange Park Opera - photo credit Robert Workman
Gianluca Terranova, Susana Gaspar, Kelebogile Besong, Quirijn de Lang, Nicholas Crawley, Brett Polegato - La Boheme - Grange Park Opera - photo credit Robert Workman
Puccini La Bohème; Susana Gaspar, Gianluca Terranova, Brett Polegato, Kelebogile Besong, Quirijn de Lang, Nicholas Crawley, dir: Stephen Medcalf, cond: Stephen Barlow, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; Grange Park Opera
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jun 27 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Finely balanced and satisfying production of this perennial

Puccini's La Bohème is a beautifully crafted mechanism which does not need any tinkering with, and the great virtue of Stephen Medcalf's new production at Grange Park Opera paid the work the compliment of taking it seriously, playing it with a detailed sense of naturalism in the actin. The finely balance cast featured Susana Gaspar as Mimi, Gianluca Terranova as Rodolfo, Brett Polegato as Marcello, Kelebogile Besong as Musetta, Quirijn de Lang as Schaunard, Nicholas Crawley as Colline, Nicholas Folwell as Benoit and Alcindoro, Robert Abate as Parpignol. Designs were by Jamie Vartan, with movement by Lynne Hockney and lighting by Paul Keogan. Stephen Barlow conducted the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.

Gianluca Terranova, Susana Gaspar, - La Boheme - Grange Park Opera - photo credit Robert Workman
Gianluca Terranova, Susana Gaspar
photo credit Robert Workman
Stephen Medcalf did have one pensée. The production explored the idea, present in Henri Murge's Scènes de la vie de bohème but not really reflected in Puccini's opera,  that la vie de bohème was a state of mind, the young men were not struggling students but had come to Paris to live the bohemian life.

So the production started with the four young men, Gianluca Terranova's Rodolfo, Brett Polegato's Marcello, Quirijn de Lang's Schaunard, and Nicholas Crawley's Colline, entering through two large doors at the back, removing their grand clothes and dressing in the bohemian style. At the end, after the death of Mimi (Susana Gaspar), the reverse happened. The drawback from this interesting approach was that some people found the ending rather harsh (I didn't; I found it rather moving), but the real big advantage was that the four male leads played their age. We had the undeniable advantage of mature singers like Gianluca Terranova and Brett Polegato as Rodolfo and Marcello, without the embarrassment of them trying to pretend to be young students.

The beauty of the productions by Stephen Medcalf that I have seen (such as Eugene Onegin and Capriccio at Grange Park Opera, and Gluck's Orfeo at Buxton) is the finely detailed interaction between the cast members. This was true of La Bohème where the romantic melodrama of the plot was underpinned by a lovely sense of the relationships between the principals. The production was full of moments which illuminated small details of the opera.

The setting, by Jamie Vartan, was essentially a fixed room, full of detritus from which the cast assembled the settings of each scene, with a selection of evocative objects (stove, musical instruments etc) hanging down from the flies. The only real miscalculation was at the end of Act One, when one of the walls moved to give Rodolfo and Mimi a dramatic exit, but this meant that Susana Gaspar and Gianluca Terranova's climactic duet was accompanied by the clunking of scenery moving.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Creating domains where people can have a fabulous night out with amazing music - An encounter with Matthew Sharp (part 2)

Part 2 of my interview with cellist, baritone and re:naissance man Matthew Sharp

Matthew Sharp
Continued from Part 1: Talking to Matthew Sharp, I become aware of how interconnected his thinking always it. He constantly refers to other art-forms and seems to be least interested in classical music for its own sake, it is communication which counts. He is also clearly highly literate, and quotes from Shakespeare pop up in conversation in the most natural way possible. He is a profoundly engaging speaker, and I can see how this transfers to his performances with audiences.
And it is not just the performance that concerns him, but the whole concert hall package. He refers to a video on YouTube, genre hopping with Chris Thile, where Thile talks about attending a performance of Mahler's Ninth Symphony and feeling such a visceral thrill he wanted to should 'YES' but was told to pipe down. Matthew has great sympathy, and wants the performance to be about that visceral thrill, not the need to sit quietly. He talks of creating domains where people can have a fabulous night out with amazing music, so that they are free flowing without traditional etiquette.

In 1888, Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Greig all met at a lunch

As a performer who is clearly 'of the moment', I was curious about Matthew's attitude to recording, especially as he has so many planned. But he is happy to work with the genre and finds satisfaction in doing something again and again until it is right, but it also has to feel vital and real. He has so far been rather put off recording significant works from the canon as he expresses a dissatisfaction with the genre. He is in discussions about doing recordings of major works, and for these they will bring more of a context to the disc including spoken word and something of what Matthew calls 'a reflection back from the era'. His intention is that works will not be abstracted, but will come from 'an expressed embodied world'. He talks about doing something around the Brahms cello sonatas and is fascinated by the fact that in 1888, Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Grieg all met at a lunch, and all composed significant works for cello within five years of that date. Diary entries from Tchaikovsky and from Anna Brodsky (hostess of the lunch party) also record the event, so he can combine the performances with reportage and songs by the composers too.

Tommy Foggo, superhero

Tommy Foggo
Tommy Foggo
Another major project coming up is his new 'interactive musical adventure for 7 to 14-year-olds'. This is entitled Tommy Foggo, superhero and will involve just Matthew and his cello, singing, playing and storytelling. There will be audience participation, with audience members involved in the action, and group music making. Again, we return to Matthew's concept of a porous relationship between performer and audience. It concerns a young boy, Tommy Foggo, who is left behind by his mother and who gains a sentient cello. This work returns to Matthew's concern with the way we address children in the classical music world, and he sees it as important that they listen as children and not as adults.

The work will be going on a UK tour in the Autumn, visiting schools and children's theatres. The piece is being developed by Matthew with music by composer Steven Deazley and words by Martin Riley. They are the same team with whom Matthew worked on his previous show, Death's Cabaret - a love story, a cabaret concerto. The idea for this was born of long years of dragging friends along to formal concerts with them saying that they don't know enough about classical music to have an opinion. For Matthew this is something rather bizarre about the relationship in classical music between the audiences and the work. If they went to an art show, most people would have an opinion so he wanted to 'prod the audience into reacting'. He called it a cabaret because you can do al sorts and that a soloist in a concerto is a little like the MC in a cabaret. He performed it with a string quartet, or with an orchestra. The work is about love and loss, and Matthew felt that if the performance was of top quality, then the audience hardly noticed the music as they were moved by the material. He has just given the work's US premiere. For Matthew, the children's shows are part of a continuum which he feels is important for an artist; 'As performers, if you engage with different audiences you see the possibilities of the art form, and refresh your child-like spirit especially for knackered musicians charging round the world.'

In Greek, melos means both limb and melody

Matthew Sharp
Matthew Sharp
Other plans include a new concerto with the London Contemporary Orchestra and Stopgap Dance Company. Entitled Incantatio, it features music by the Swiss-French composer Richard Dubugnon. Having done some R&D, they are currently in the planning stages for 2016. This work brings in another of Matthew's interests, the combination of music and gesture. Matthew asks me if I know what melos means; in Greek the word means both limb and melody. Matthew is interesting in the way the two combine; he points out that people listen by watching each other's bodies, and that 55% of communication is through body language. He explains that when telling a story, you need both intention and inflection controlling the ebb and flow of speed and meaning, and for Matthew it is the same in music. If you are clear about your intention, then inflection comes as long as you ensure your gestures are free enough. As with much else that Matthew does, the issue returns back to one of communication, ensuring that the performer communicates as strongly as possible with the audience, and Matthew talks about this combination of securely rooted sound and gesture as visceral.

Our conversation managed to encompass many, but not all, facets of Matthew Sharp's interests, ranging from singing and cello playing, to directing and informing music through gesture, not to mention working with children. What became clear was that each of these is not a discreet area, all blend into each other and clearly inform each other in Matthew's creative imagination. The result is a performer who sees far fewer boundaries than some, and for whom the issue of mutual communication with the audience is paramount.

Elsewhere on this blog:

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Virtuosity with a human touch - An encounter with Matthew Sharp (part 1)

Matthew Sharp
Matthew Sharp
Matthew Sharp does not so much have a career, as a portfolio of careers as performing as a cellist and singing as a baritone, often combining the two, as well as including directing and running the arts centre Revelation St Mary's in Ashford, Kent. Matthew has recently become Artist in Association with the English Symphony Orchestra, artistic director Ken Woods, and I met up with Matthew over coffee at the Barbican to chat about his plans.

Matthew Sharp
Matthew Sharp
The role with the English Symphony Orchestra is relatively flexible and open ended, intended to last around two or three years. Essentially Matthew feels that Ken and the orchestra are kindred spirits in a quest to extend the boundaries of what classical music is, and how it is presented, combining virtuosity with a human touch which connects with audiences. Planned events in the residency included a lunchtime concert in Worcester Cathedral as part of the four days Magna Carta celebrations, which included Plain Truths by the American composer Kile Smith, with Matthew singing baritone. Looking ahead they are planning some concerto recordings, which extend from standard repertory to the rather more unusual, including the Hans Gal Concertino, the Prokofiev Concertino, Elgar's Cello Concerto and John Tavener's Protecting Veil.

'I want listeners to realise that life is truly beautiful.' - Shostakovich

Matthew Sharp - poster at Kings Place
Matthew Sharp - poster at Kings Place
Perhaps the biggest project that Matthew Sharp is planning with the English Symphony Orchestra is a staging of Shostakovich's Fourteenth Symphony.

Friday, 26 June 2015

The National Youth Choirs of Great Britain - NYCGB Summerfest

NYCGB Summerfest
The National Youth Choirs of Great Britain (NYCGB) is inaugurating a new Summer festival, what is described at the biggest youth choral festival in the UK. Running from 1 July to 29 August 2015, five hundred young singers will perform in seven counties, bringing a Summerfest event within easy reach of 13 million people around the UK. There will be premieres of new works by Jonathan Dove, Nico Muhly and Pete Churchill, and collaborations with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, Crioch Quartet folk ensemble and youth bands and choirs from County Durham. For many performances, under 25's can get tickets for £5 and the Summerfest will be targeting areas of low choral engagement, in partnership with local Music Hubs.

Things kick off on 1 July 2015, at Southwark Cathedral as part of the City of London Festival, when National Youth Chamber Choir and National Youth Jazz Orchestra present a Shakespearian themed programme with the world premiere of Journey’s End by Pete Churchill co-commissioned by City of London Festival and BRASS 2015, plus Shakespeare settings by Ben Parry, Janet Wheeler, RVW, Ward Swingle, the Swedish composer Nils Lindberg and the young British composer Owain Park. The programme will be presented in re-worked form on 16 July 2015 in Durham as part of BRASS: Durham International Festival where the choir will be collaborating with Durham County Youth Choir, Darlington Youth Choir and Durham County Youth Big Band.

Full details of all the events are on the NYCGB website.

Le Concert Spirituel in Vivaldi and Campra

Le Concert Spirituel - Copyright Eric Manas
Le Concert Spirituel - Copyright Eric Manas
Vivaldi and Campra; Le Concert Spirituel, Hervé Niquet; The Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jun 25 2015
Star rating: 5.0

Seductive sound and seriously brilliant music making in a concert exploring the sound of upper voices

Hervé Niquet and Le Concert Spirituel brought a programme of Andre Campra and Antonio Vivaldi to the Wigmore Hall on Thursday 25 June 2015. Billed as Venetian Splendours the programme paired music by the two composer priests, both contemporaries though they probably never met, with Campra's Messe Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam and a group of work's which Vivaldi wrote for La Pieta, Laetatus Sum RV607, In exitu Israel RV604, Magnificat RV610, Lauda Jerusalem RV 609 and Gloria RV589. Splendid though the music was, what Herve Niquet's programme really explored was the sound-world of music for women's voices. Using a four-part female choir (with, presumably, the tenor and bass parts sung up an octave) and singing all of the solo parts tutti, the result was a very distinctive and very seductive sound-world, with some seriously brilliant music making.

Herve Niquet - Copyright Eric Manas
Hervé Niquet
Copyright Eric Manas
In fact, my main complaint about the evening was that the article in the programme note seemed to be completely unaware of the specifics of the evening's performance, and so not only referred to tenor and bass parts, and soprano solos, but gave us no inkling as to Hervé Niquet's rationale. No matter, the music making was certainly strong enough to stand for itself.

Hervé Niquet used a choir of 12 (three women per part) and an ensemble of 13, resulting in some 26 people on stage which was quite a tight fit on the Wigmore Hall stage. They made a strong, vibrant sound with Herve Niquet encouraging his string players to play in a highly accented, vividly projected manner which contrasted beautifully with the smooth but strong sound from the women singers. The singers did not use too much vibrato and made a nice, straight sound, but the result was not white and bland, it was very direct and strong with the vibrancy of individual voices coming over particularly in the lower ones (billed as mezzo-sopranos the lower voices certainly included one or two lovely strong contraltos). It was a fine, confident and beautifully crafted sound. And the singers skill was exemplified by the way Hervé Niquet had the solos sung by three or six singers, not only making a good strong sound but the women providing a remarkable unanimity in the more elaborate ornamented passages.

Vivid drama & strong musical performances - Opera Holland Park's first Aida

Peter Auty, Graeme Broadbent - Aida - Opera Holland Park - photo Robert Workman
Peter Auty, Graeme Broadbent - Aida - Opera Holland Park - photo Robert Workman
Verdi Aida
Gweneth-Ann Jeffers, Peter Auty, Heather Shipp, Graeme Broadbent, Jonathan Veira, Keel Watson

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jun 26 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Strong musical performances and vivid drama in a production which re-works Aida for modern times

Gwenneth-Ann Jeffers, Peter Auty  - Aida - Opera Holland Park - photo Robert Workman
Gweneth-Ann Jeffers, Peter Auty
photo Robert Workman
With its outrageous staging demands, you sometimes wonder why opera companies want to produce Verdi’s Aida. But the piece is about far more than pharaohs, pyramids and camels. But the wonderfully taut plot, tensions between public duty and private desire, strongly drawn characters and challenging music can provide a highly satisfying experience, especially as the leading roles are some of the most challenging and rewarding in the repertoire. Opera Holland Park has a track record for daring, producing operas which stretch the limited technical resources of their stage, so it was with great interest that I went along to the company’s very first production of Aida, which debuted on 24 June 2015. Daniel Slater directed, with designs by Robert Innes Hopkins and lighting by Tim Mascall, with Gweneth-Ann Jeffers as Aida, Peter Auty as Radames, Heather Shipp as Amneris, plus Graeme Broadbent as Ramfis, Jonathan Veira as Amonasro, Keel Watson as the King and Emily Blanch as a priestess. Manlio Benzi conducted the City of London Sinfonia.

Inevitably we could not expect pyramids, camels and large scale theatrical effects. But Daniel Slater’s production was certainly not without surprises. The basic set consisted of a museum-like using the Holland Park House façade as backdrop and with statues from Ancient Egypt in a museum display. During the prelude, the chorus in modern dress (dinner suits and long dresses) exploded onto the stage and the opening scene was a party. Clearly we were in a modern Kingdom, albeit one obsessed by the past as Radames was inducted as general by dressing him in Ancient Egyptian garb, and for much of the second half the populace were dressed in neo-Ancient Egyptian fancy dress. Aida was a cleaning lady, busy cleaning up after the party-goers. The production was secularised, with Ramfis becoming a rather nasty political fixer. But the production had more surprises for us, when the captured Ethiopians are brought on in a small huddle they were dressed as service workers – cleaning ladies, janitors etc. Were they real Ethiopian captives who had been dressed like that to demonstrate that they were unimportant, or was the war on invading ‘Ethiopians’ really a border war with illegal immigrants? It was never made clear, but I inclined to the latter (and other critics have come to different conclusions). Whichever, the Egyptians were displayed as rather vicious, selfish and unsympathetic.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Ibert's 'La ballade de la geôle de Reading'

Iacques Ibert La ballade de la geole de Reading
Jacques Ibert's symphonic poem La ballade de la geôle de Reading will receive its UK premiered on 29 June 2015, 93 years after the work was written. Based on the Oscar Wilde poem, Ibert's work will be performed by the Kensington Symphony Orchestra, conductor Russell Keable at St John's Smith Square on Monday 29 June 2015. Sections of Wilde's poem, translated into French, head the different sections of the score and Ibert's intention was to convey the humanitarian message of the poem with its moving account of the harsh prison atmosphere. The work was used as a ballet in 1937!

Also in the programme is a another pair rarely performed French ballets, the Fanfare to Paul Dukas' La Peri (from 1912) and Albert Roussel's complete ballet Bacchus and Ariadne (from 1930). Paul Dukas' ballet was originally commissioned by Diaghilev but did not go ahead be Diaghilev did not think the dancer creating the role of La Peri was strong enough. She was, I think, Dukas' mistress and the ballet eventually went ahead without Diaghilev's company but still with her dancing. Albert Roussel's ballet was premiered in 1931 at the Paris Opera with choreography by Serge Lifar, Diaghilev's last lover.