Saturday, 13 February 2016

Beyond Teatro la Fenice - Venice’s Hidden Operatic Past

Teatro La Fenice, Venice, auditorium decoration | © Andreas Praefcke/WikiCommons
18th-century Venice conjures a world of carnivals and masked figures, but aristocratic visitors flooded there for another reason: an opportunity to see the latest novelty, the relatively new art-form of opera. Venice was a major operatic centre, with numerous opera houses presenting the latest music. The city pioneered another novelty too: the idea that going to a theatre might not be a private affair (done by invitation), but anyone who could rent a box could go. Modern day Venice has a number of theatres surviving from the 18th century, but also some intriguing traces of lost ones too. A trip round them provides evocative traces of a lost, elegant way of life. Find out more on my article on website.

St John Passion from Eton College and Winchester College chapel choirs

Eton College Chapel Choir, Winchester College Chapel Choir, Academy of Ancient Music, Stephen Layton, James Gilchrist, James Birchall, Ashley Riches,  Clint van der Linde, Andrew Staples, Gabriel Ali and Angus Benton at St John's Smith Square
Eton College Chapel Choir, Winchester College Chapel Choir, Academy of Ancient Music,
Stephen Layton, James Gilchrist, James Birchall, Ashley Riches, Clint van der Linde,
Andrew Staples, Gabriel Ali and Angus Benton at St John's Smith Square
Bach St John Passion; James Gilchrist, James Birchall, Gabriel Ali, Angus Benton, Clint van der Linde, Andrew Staples, Eton College Chapel Choir, Winchester College Chapel Choir, Academy of Ancient Music, Stephen Layton; St John's Smith Square
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 12 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Visceral and involving performance of Bach's passion

Eton College Chapel Choir and Winchester College Chapel Choir came together with the Academy of Ancient Music, leader Bojan Cicic, and five alumni of the colleges under the baton of Stephen Layton to give a remarkable performance of Bach's St John Passion at St John's Smith Square on Friday 12 February 2016. James Gilchrist was the Evangelist with James Birchall as Jesus, Ashley Riches as Pilate, plus soloists Clint van der Linde, Andrew Staples, and the soprano solos shared between trebles Gabriel Ali and Angus Benton.

With over 80 singers on stage this was in no way a period performance; John Butt's programme note informed us that Bach probably never used more than eight singers. With the majority of singers being under twenty (there were a few older extras discernible in the ranks), the sound of the choir was very specific with a softer grain to the lower voices. They made a vigorous bright sound, with a lovely directness to it and great enthusiasm. This meant that the turbae were in particular extremely vivid, and Stephen Layton clearly relished the sheer violence that the singers could produce spitting out words like kreuziger (crucify); even the opening chorus's cries of Herr were visceral. This was not to imply that their performance was without subtlety, just that the young singers displayed greater enthusiasm and stronger involvement than older singers tend to. In the chorales this came over with a sense of the projection of the text. Inevitably the balance was not always perfect, economics and the size of the platform probably precluded the instrumental ensemble being scaled up to match the choir (as happened with Handel performances in the later 18th century). This meant that in the choruses some of the orchestral detail was lost, you could see the inner string players being busy, but hardly detect them.

James Gilchrist sang the role of the Evangelist in an impassioned and committed manner, making the performance dramatic and highly involving. He sang virtually off the book, and made the text the prime mover in his performance. Gilchrist sang on the edge of his voice, and every detail was geared to conveying the full range of the text. But there was no skimping on things, and the high-lying music was floated beautifully and, where necessary, extremely intensely. His interaction with the two major soloists, James Birchall as Jesus and Ashley Riches as Pilate was very strong.

Telling a story through programming, my encounter with Ian Page of Classical Opera

Ian Page and Classical Opera
Ian Page and Classical Opera
Ian Page and Classical Opera have just started their second year of their 27 year project, Mozart 250, exploring Mozart's life year by year. The project started last year, with 1765 which was the year Mozart visited London. This year 1766 is explored and there has been a retrospective concert (see my review) with further performances to come including the British premiere of Niccolò Jommelli's opera Il Vologeso. I caught up with Ian to chat about the project and about Classical Opera; in this first part of our interview we talk about plans for this year's festival along with exciting plans for future festivals.

The idea of a Mozart festival lasting 25 years, exploring the composer's work year by year, arose out of Ian's love of contextualising things, of telling a story through programming. He is fascinated by the associations between works and feels that in the larger context of the festival with more works being performed, things really resonate. So when they performed JC Bach's Adriano in Siria last year (which premiered in London in 1765 whilst Mozart was there), or perform Jommelli's Il Vologeso (which premiered in 1766) then it enables Ian and his performers to look sideways at Mozart's own music, and he feels that it takes them on a journey. Not everything they perform will have been heard by Mozart (there is no record of him hearing Il Vologeso but he met Jommelli in 1763), but what the festival does is give listeners a taste of the music that was around, the sometimes surprising ideas that were in the air. Later on in our conversation we comment on the music of Franz Ignaz Beck whose symphony Ian and his ensemble performed at the Wigmore Hall in the 1766: A Retrospective concert, a work that was almost Beethovenian 34 years before Beethoven's first symphony.

'beautiful but old-fashioned'

Friday, 12 February 2016

JAM discovers new classics and revisits old favourites by Thea Musgrave & Judith Bingham

Thea Musgrave
Thea Musgrave
JAM (The John Armitage Memorial) starts its 2016 season with a concert at St Bride's Church, Fleet Street, on 17 March 2016 which features new music by composers, Jonathan Woolgar, Mike Stubbs, Huw Morgan and Daniel Saleeb, along with works previous commissioned by JAM, Thea Musgrave's The Voices of our ancestors and Judith Bingham's My heart strangely warm'd. The performers are the the Chapel Choir of Selwyn College, Cambridge, Onyx Brass , Simon Hogan (organ), Stephanie Corley (soprano), Annie Gill (mezzo-soprano), Andrew Radley (countertenor), Ashley Catling (tenor) and Omar Ebrahim (bass) conducted by Michael Bawtree.

Jonathan Woolgar's Kiss the Sun is a duet for two  trumpets. Woolgar, who recently wrote music for a new solo show for soprano Heloise Werner, studies as the Royal Academy of Music and also studied with Giles Swayne in Cambridge. Today, Tonight and Forever for choir and organ by Mike Stubbs, Dance for organ by Huw Morgan and As de Canter for choir by Danny Saleeb were all submitted to JAM's annual call for pieces.

Thea Musgrave's Voices of our ancestors was premiered by JAM in 2015 and was Musgrave's first major work for chorus and ensemble since 1996. Now in her 80's, she was inspired by the chance finding of the Vedic Creation Hymn (circa 1500 BCE) and has written a work which juxtaposes fascinating poems from across the centuries, cultures and the globe. Judith Bingham's Heart Strangely Warm’d was premiered by JAM in 2006. The work depicts scenes of 18th century London, with Bingham imagining that William Blake might have passed John Wesley in the street or heard him preach, and their dialogue is interspersed with descriptions off the squalor, overcrowding and poverty of London.

Further information from the JAM website.

Le choeur chant du coeur - Tenebrae in French choral music

Tenebrae & Nigel Short
Tenebrae & Nigel Short
Perotin, Brumel, de Severac, Poulenc, Durufle; Tenebrae, Nigel Short; Cadogan Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 11 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Shattering performance of Poulenc's Figure Humaine crowns fine programme of French choral music

French choral music was the theme of Tenebrae and Nigel Short's concert at the Cadogan Hall on 11 February 2016 as part of the Choral at Cadogan series. Le choeur chant du coeur focussed on unaccompanied French sacred music from the 12th to the 20th century, highlighting the disjoint that occurred because of the Revolution with the closing of choir schools. So the programme started with in the 13th century with Perotin's gradual Viderunt Omnes, moved to the 15th century with Antoine Brumel's Lamentations of Jeremiah, then stopped briefly in the 19th century for Deodat de Severac's Tantum Ergo before exploring the 20th century with Poulenc's Quatre motets pour un temps de penitence and Salve Regina, Durufle's Quatre motets sur des themes gregoriens and Messiaen's O sacrum convivium, before finishing with Poulenc's choral masterpiece, Figure humaine.

Perotin's gradual Viderunt omnes remains striking even after 800 years, testament to the liveliness of the musical tradition at Notre Dame in Paris around 1200. Sung by three tenors, Matthew Long, Ruairi Bowen and Ben Alden, with the drone bass part provided some of the other men from the choir, and the sopranos singing the chant sections from the gallery above the stage, the results were as astonishing as ever. The three solo tenors achieve a lovely balance between the voices in the complex vocal melismas thus giving us a fine even texture whilst keeping the vitality. Having the performance conducted, rather than being sung in conductorless ensemble, and with the piece not in the singers regular repertoire meant that there was a certain carefulness about the performance. Whilst it may have lacked an ideal sense of freedom, there was still a lovely fluidity about it and a highly engaging sense of the three solos acting as a group.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Season preview - Wigmore Hall 2016/17

Sarah Connolly as Maria Stuarda (Opera North, 2010) © Robert Workman
Sarah Connolly who opens the
Wigmore Hall 2016/17 season
The Wigmore Hall announced its 2016/17 season (full information from their website) with its first ever live-streaming and the new season offers the promise of more to come. The season opens with Sarah Connolly and Malcolm Martineau in Schumann, Berlioz and Mahler. Other delights include the continuation of the series Schubert:The Complete Songs, and series featuring Igor Levitt, the Takacs Quartet, Angela Hewitt & Mahan Esfahani. Helen Grime is announced as the hall's new composer in residence (its first woman composer in the role). And the number of £5 tickets on-sale to the under 35s doubles

Mark Padmore and James Baillieu open the 2016/17 part of Schubert:The Complete Songs with a wide range of singers performing Schubert song throughout the season. Other series include ones focussing on Bach and Beethoven. There is the the eight concert Beethoven Cycle: Igor Levit, and the six-concert Takacs Quartet: Beethoven Cycle. Running over several seasons, Angela Hewitt: The Bach Odyssey will include a complete survey of the French Suites during 2016/17, whilst harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani will begin a long term survey of Bach's keyboard works, starting with the Goldberg Variations.

Helen Grime
Helen Grime, the Wigmore Hall's 2016/17
Composer in Residence
Artist residencies include Janine Jansen Perspectives, a three-concert chamber music showcase for the Dutch violinist which will include rarely performed Korngold and Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time. The artist in residence will be the Moldovan-born Austrian violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, and other major names in the season include Sir Andras Schiff, Alison Balsom, Francesco Piemontesi. Another artist focus is Jonathan Cohen and Arcangelo who are presenting four concerts

In addition to a focus on composer-in-residence Helen Grimes, there will be a day-long celebration of the chamber music of Thomas Ades, to coincide with the premiere of his new opera at Covent Garden, and there also will be contemporary music from the Arditti Quartet, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, Ensemble Modern, Ensemble Intercontemporain, Exaudi, Eliot Fisk and the JACK Quartet.

The hall's figures for 2015/16 are quite impressive, 200,000 attendances, 2000+ artists performing, 488 concerts. The hall's 2016/17 launch included their annual appeal, which goes to the fund which helps support the hall's programming (of those 488 concerts, 384 were the hall's own promotions), not to mention the important education strand. 2015/16 included 489 learning events, with 23,000 visits to the learning programme.

You can support them via the Wigmore Hall website's appeal page.

I heard you singing: English Songs - Ben Johnson and James Baillieu

I heard you singing: English Songs - Ben Johnson and James Baillieu
I heard you singing: English Songs; Ben Johnson, James Baillieu; Opus Arte
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 5 2016
Star rating: 4.0

From the sentimental to the comic, Ben Johnson explores English ballads

This new disc from Rosenblatt Recitals on the Opus Arte label presents tenor Ben Johnson and pianist James Baillieu in a recital, I heard you singing: English Songs, in repertory which reproduces their live Rosenblatt recital (see my review). Johnson and Baillieu's repertoire on the disc ranges over composers writing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with an emphasis on the rather neglected form of the English ballad. The composers range from those active in light music through to those writing art songs, from Edward German and Eric Coates to Stanford, Elgar and RVW. Many like Michael Head, Amy Woodforde Finden, Liza Lehman, Muriel Herbert and Ivy Mason Whipp made a speciality of writing songs.

Thus the composers come at the ballad either by way of the salon and the parlour ballad, or by way of the art song. But all the songs on the disc need a strong technique to bring them off. Because the subject matter is lighter or in sentimental vein doesn't mean that performers get an easy ride. Ben Johnson not only bring an enviable technique to the disc, with a lovely ease to his voice and a burnished sense of line, but he sings with exemplary diction and clearly means the words. Ben Johnson and James Baillieu pay the songs the compliment of taking them seriously at face value and this pays real dividends.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Seven world premieres - the impressive debut of Suzi Digby and Ora Singers

Suzi Digby and Ora Singers
Suzi Digby and Ora Singers
Byrd, Esenvalds, Panufnik, Pott, L'Estrange, Park, Bray; Ora Singers, Suzi Digby; Church of St Peter ad Vincula, Tower of London
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 9 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Impressive launch of a new choir with programme spanning 16th and 21st century including seven world premieres.

Last night (Tuesday 9 February 2016) saw the launch of a new professional vocal ensemble, created by the conductor Suzi Digby (founder of the London Youth Choir). The 18 voiced Ora Singers made their debut concert at the Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula in the Tower of London. Part of the ensemble's ethos is the commissioning and performance of new music, combined in performance with 16th and 17th century classics. At this performance the group gave the premieres of works by Eriks Esenvalds, Roxanna Panufnik, Francis Pott, Alexander L'Estrange, Owain Park, Charlotte Bray; all these new pieces were inspired by and reflections on the music of Byrd (Infelix ego, Ave Verum and the Mass for Five Voices). Alongside the new music we heard the music of Byrd plus another intriguing pairing, Allegri's Miserere (in Ben Byram-Wigfield's scholarly edition) and James MacMillan's Miserere (written for Harry Christophers and the Sixteen as a pendant to the Allegri).

St Peter ad Vincula is a highly atmospheric space in which to have a concert, and this was rendered more so by having the singers initially singing seated in a circle lit principally by candlelight. The drawback being that in a church full of pillars and with a tomb-chest in the middle of the space, sight-lines were limited and there was a sense of us eavesdropping on a performance, rather than being sung to. But what we heard was well worth hearing.

Ora Singers use experienced professional choral singers, and many of the personnel were familiar from other ensembles. Suzi Digby drew from them a remarkably strong, focussed sound notable for its flexibility, vibrant yet well blended with a lovely sense of line. In a lively acoustic like St Peter's the words rather went for naught the more complex pieces, so it was a shame that the low levels of lighting meant we couldn't read the words in our programmes.

The programme opened with Allegri's Miserere which used a scholarly edition by Ben Byram-Wigfield where the abellimenti are closer to what was intended. This means avoiding the solo soprano top C, which is a 20th century invention, though were were treated to this in the final solo verse. Suzi Digby's tempo was quite steady, but she drew a strong performance from the main choir. The solo singers (Emilia Morton, Katy Hill, David Clegg, William Gaunt) blended well and used some attractive ornaments.

Launch of Gabrieli Roar

Gabrieli Roar
Gabrieli Roar is Gabrieli's training, mentoring and performance scheme for British youth choirs and their teenage singers, founded on the idea that every young person should have the opportunity to experience great works of art, whether that be to view an original Monet or to sing a major oratorio. 

On Tuesday 16 February 2016 there will be a chance to hear the scheme in action in a concert at Southwark Cathedral. The concert features five youth choirs, Bradford Catholic Youth Choir, Cantate, Hertfordshire County Youth Choir, Inner Voices, London Youth Choir, and Taplow Youth Choir. They will be joined by the professional singers of the Gabrieli Consort, to form a massed choir of over 120 voices which will be conducted by Paul McCreesh in music by Elgar, Byrd, Wesley and Howells.

Tickets are available from TicketSource.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Something Rich and Strange: Choral Settings of Shakespeare

Londinium chamber choir
To mark the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, the chamber choir Londinium (conductor Andrew Griffiths) presents a programme of choral music inspired by his work at the church of St. Sepulchre without Newgate on 13 February 2016. Alongside two modern classics from the 1950's Frank Martin's Songs of Ariel and Ralph Vaughan Williams' Three Shakespeare Songs, there will be some of the earliest surviving Shakespeare settings by Thomas Morley and Robert Johnson, and a selection of contemporary works by Judith Weir, Michael Berkeley, Huw Watkins and the Finnish composer Jaakko Mäntyjärvi

Tickets available in advance from the Londinium website.

Bach's French suites and Mozart's suite in C from Peter Hill

Peter Hill - Bach: French Suites
Bach French Suites, Mozart Suite in C; Peter Hill; Delphian
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 3 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Bach played on a piano with finesse by Peter Hill

Bach is one of those composers who dazzle with the fecundity of their invention, and this new set from pianist Peter Hill gives us a chance to hear Bach's six French Suites (BWV812-817) played by one of the leading pianists of his generation. Best known for his playing of 20th century music and his relationship to Messiaen, Peter Hill has already released discs of Bach's Well Tempered Clavier on the Delphian label, and this new disc can be seen almost as a follow-up. Intriguingly Hill also includes his own completion of Mozart's Baroque-inspired Suite in C K399.

The first thing that fascinates about this disc is the sheer sound world which Hill conjures. His playing is wide ranging and full of interest but with a very specific timbre and style. Bach's music in these suites almost approaches the galant style which was becoming fashionable amongst his contemporaries and Hill responds by creating melody which has a lovely sense of line and almost legato, a profoundly expressive touch. This is supported by a rhythmic left hand, which stays within the timbral locus of the right hand, yet is incisive and vibrant.

Hill manages to avoid both an over romanticism and over emphasis. There are no rich legatos or soupy textures, nor is there any neo-HIP pecking. This is Bach played on a piano with finesse. Not everyone will like the rather magical, quite gentle atmosphere Hill conjures but I was very taken with it.

Italian sunshine and Mozartean perfection - the Nash Ensemble at the Wigmore Hall

Felix Mendelssohn - A View of Amalfi (detail)
Felix Mendelssohn - View of Amalfi (detail)
Donizetti String Quartet No. 13, Verdi String Quartet, Mozart Clarinet Quintet; Nash Ensemble; the Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford on Feb 6 2016
Star rating: 4.5

Musical cross pollinations North and South of the Alps in the Nash Ensemble's series Mozart, Mendelssohn and the Italians

This was the sixth concert in the Nash Ensemble's series Mozart, Mendelssohn and the Italians, celebrating musical cross-pollinations North and South of the Alps, at the Wigmore Hall on 6 February 2016. In this programme there was no Mendelssohn, apart from the image of his 1831 painting 'View of Amalfi' on the front of the printed programme booklet (and a few distant echoes in the Verdi quartet), but it certainly put us into a sunny frame of mind on yet another wet and windy Saturday. Instead we had Donizetti's String Quartet No. 13 in A major, Verdi's String Quartet in E minor and Mozart's Clarinet Quintet in A major, K581.

The Nash Ensemble
The Nash Ensemble
The three composers on the programme were famed for their operatic output. Tonight all singing was done on the instruments by the glorious Nash Ensemble. We started with Donizetti's String Quartet no 13 in A. The young Donizetti was taken under the wing of Bavarian-born Simon Mayr who put on weekly string quartet evenings, and he was soon asked to write for the group. By the age of 24 he was on to his 13th quartet, though his first operatic success was yet to come. He went on to write a total of 18 quartets, but none were published until a century after his death.

'Haydnesque' is the adjective that first springs to mind. The first movement is gentle and easy-going, the cello providing the pulse while the first violin soars. By the second movement, the adagio, we had a strong sense that Donizetti's future would lie in writing for the voice: downward chromatic phrases anticipating one of his sad (but not unhinged) heroines. The larky minuet was followed by tuneful allegro finale; we were by now squarely in Italy rather than wind-swept London.

Monday, 8 February 2016

Guilty pleasures - Zandonai's Francesca da Rimini from Freiburg

Riccardo Zandonai - Francesca da Rimini
Zandonai Francesca da Rimini; Christina Vasileva, Martin Muhle, Juan Orazco, Adriano Graziani, Theater Freiburg, Fabrice Bollon; CPO
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jan 30 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Zandonai's highly perfumed hokum gets an impressive and highly seductive outing in Freiburg

Riccardo Zandonai is one of the nearly-men of 20th century Italian opera, his opera Francesca da Rimini has clung on to the edge of the repertoire, most notably in Italy though there was a production at the New York Met in the 1980's. This new disc comes not from Italy but from Germany and is based on performances at Theater Freiburg under the theatre's musical director Fabrice Bollon. The cast includes Christina Vasileva as Francesca, Martin Muhle as Paolo, Juan Orozco as Gianciotto and Adriano Graziani as Malatestino. With Fabrice Bollon conducting the Freiburger Kammerchor, Opern- und Extrachor des Theater Freiburg, Vokalensemble der Hochschule fur Musik Freiburg and Philharmonisches Orchester Freiburg on the CPO label.

Zandonai is one of a group of post-Verismo composers in Italy searching for a 20th century style and the combination of orchestral writing and taxing vocal writing links the piece to Montemezzi's L'amore dei tre re and La nave, and Wolf-Ferrari's I gioielli della Madonna. The eagle eyed will realise that this is pure Opera Holland Park territory, and in fact the company performed Zandonai's opera Francesca da Rimini in 2010.

The problem with these operas is that the works tend to combine rich orchestral writing which pays full allegiance to the 20th century developments in opera with lyrical dramatic Italianate writing for voices which results in taxing vocal parts. The leads in Zandonai's opera require sturdy spinto voices which are capable of great tenderness too, the sort of Italianate voice which does not grow on trees. (And any casting director's heart must sink at the requirement to find a tenor who can not only sing Paolo but be spectacularly beautiful on stage too!). It is to Theater Freiburg's credit that they have not only provided us with a good modern recording of Zandonai's opera uncut but that they have managed to cast such a fine quartet of voices in the leads, with not a weak link and a great deal of idiomatic singing.

Found in Translation - Club Inégales

Peter Wiegold and Notes Inégales by Frederique Bellec
Peter Wiegold and Notes Inégales by Frederique Bellec
Composer Peter Wiegold's Club Inégales is an intriguing place, existing in the fascinating limnal zone between jazz, new music, classical music and many other things. Wiegold himself directs the club's resident band, Notes Inégales and each evening combines music from these with music from guests. Their latest season is one of their most intriguing. 

Peter Wiegold by Frederique Bellec
Peter Wiegold by Frederique Bellec

The season opens on 11 February when early music specialists Paula Chateauneuf (theorbo) and Pavlo Beznosiuk (violin) will be performing. There will be a set from them but also they will be joining with the band to perform and as the Notes Inégales band consists of Max Baillie (violin), Robin Michael (cello), Hyelim Kim (Korean taegŭm flute), Joel Bell, (electric guitar) and Martin Butler (piano) we can expect some interesting mixes, with music ranging from early to contemporary, including pieces by Wiegold himself.

The season is called Found in Translation, and continues with further striking guests, countertenor Iestyn Morris (25th Feb), the Arabic kanun of Maya Youssef (10th March) and Scotland’s leading contemporary folk fiddle player Aidan O’Rourke (24th March). You can hear Peter Wiegold and his ensemble from the recent appearance on BBC Radio 3's In Tune on SoundCloud.

As Peter Wiegold says on the club's website, 'Inégales mean unequal. And we like to think we produce unequalled performances every week – but the concept goes deeper – into finding new angles, putting things in odd relationships, trying to provoke an unexpected chemistry so that the special can happen.'.

Full information from their website.

Chabrier's L'Etoile at Covent Garden

Chabrier L’Étoile at Royal Opera House © ROH 2016. Photograph by Bill Cooper
Chabrier's L’Étoile at Royal Opera House © ROH 2016. Photograph by Bill Cooper
Chabrier L'Etoile; Kate Lindsey, Christophe Mortagne, Simon Bailey, Francois Piolino, Aimery Lefèvre, Hélène Guilmette, Julie Boulianne, Chris Addison, Jean-Luc Vincent, dir: Mariame Clement, cond: Mark Elder; Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 06 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Rare appearance of Chabrier's delightful opera in a production which tries a bit too hard

The problem with Chabrier's operas is that the two best ones (L'Etoile and Le Roi malgre lui) have superb music attached to frothy, almost inconsequential librettos, which leaves modern commentators and directors dissatisfied that the librettos do not match the quality of the plot. That this sees to have been deliberate on Chabrier's part is no help; he seems to have been interested in providing sophisticated music for the essentially boulevard theatre, Offenbach's Théâtre des Bouffes Parisiens, where L'Etoile was premiered.

Covent Garden's new production of Chabrier's L'Etoile (the house's first production of any Chabrier opera) premiered on Monday 1 February and we caught the performance on 5 February 2016. The production was directed by the French director, Mariame Clement, with designs by Julia Hansen, lighting by Jon Clark, and choreography by Mathieu Guilhaumon. Mark Elder conducted, with a cast including Christophe Mortagne, Simon Bailey, Francois Piolino, Aimery Lefèvre, Kate Lindsey, Hélène Guilmette, Julie Boulianne, Chris Addison and Jean-Luc Vincent.

Kate Lindsey Chabrier L’Étoile at Royal Opera House © ROH 2016. Photograph by Bill Cooper
Kate Lindsey
© ROH 2016. Photograph by Bill Cooper
In presenting  L'Etoile at Covent Garden, an element of transcription and translation was inevitable. An opera bouffe with significant amounts of comic French dialogue, designed for a tiny theatre can hardly be put on in a theatre the size of Covent Garden to a largely non-French-speaking audience without something being changed. That director Mariame Clement saw this as a problem is indicated by the fact that much of the original dialogue was removed, and replaced by extra dialogue (created by Mariame Clement, Chris Addison and Jean-Luc Vincent) for two extra characters, an Englishman and a Frenchman (Chris Addison and Jean-Luc Vincent) who formed an extra layer commentating on and getting involved with the opera (and at a couple of points stopping the action and stepping firmly out from behind the proscenium). I am not entirely sure that this was necessary, and I understand that when New Sussex Opera performed L'Etoile a few years ago they successfully did so without major interference with the text, but they perform in rather smaller venues.

Perhaps the solution might have been to perform the opera in English, but recent attempts to do this such as ENO's importation of Laurent Pelly's production of Offenbach La belle Helene, have not escaped the dead hand of G&S. Not that there is anything wrong with G&S, but it is simply the wrong model when trying to adapt French operetta to the English stage. As it was, Covent Garden had engaged an admirably Francophone cast and the results were incredibly stylish. Would that we could have such a sense of correct style in performances of Bizet's Carmen!

The plot is ludicrously inconsequential to the point of surrealism, and Clement and her designer Julia Hansen picked up on this to a large degree. The production was surrealistic in the extreme, with characters arriving by hot air balloon, a vast cutout of a 1950's style female face appearing from behind the mountains (also cut out) at key moments, and the famous duet about green Chartreuse taking place inside a bottle of the said liqueur. Over the top, yes, a bit too much, perhaps, but very funny and it never felt added on. The laughter always went with the flow of the performance, so that though I went prepared to get annoyed and dislike the liberties taken, I came away with a real smile on my face.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Vilde Frang, Jonathan Cohen and Arcangelo in Mozart Violin Concertos

Vilde Frang - © Marco Borggreve
Vilde Frang © Marco Borggreve
Mozart Symphony No. 27, Violin Concertos Nos. 1 & 5, Haydn Symphony No. 47; Vilde Frang, Jonathan Cohen, Arcangelo; St Johns Smith Square
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 5 2016
Star rating: 5.0

Elegant and vividly engaging evening of Mozart concertos

Last year Jonathan Cohen and Arcangelo recorded a disc of Mozart Violin Concertos with the Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang. On Friday 5 February 2016 at St John's Smith Square they gave us the chance to hear Frang in action live when she joined Cohen and his ensemble for a programme which included Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 1 in B flat, K207 and Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major, KV219, Mozart's Symphony No. 29 in A major K207 and Haydn's Symphony No. 47 in G major, Hob.1:47.

Jonathan Cohen © Pascal Gély
Jonathan Cohen © Pascal Gély
The works in the programme all dated from the early 1770s, years when Mozart was in Salzburg and rather chafing at the restrictions there. In fact his Symphony No. 29 in A major K207 was written in 1774 when he had just returned from Vienna where he had failed to get any sort of alternative permanent appointment. The symphony's scoring, with just strings, two oboes and two horns, fits the forces available from the Salzburg court orchestra and Mozart's violin concertos were probably all written for Antonio Brunetti the leader of the Salzburg orchestra.

The concert began with Mozart's Symphony No. 29 in A major a remarkably poised and intimate work, considering it was written for the orchestra of an employer for whom Mozart no longer wanted to work. Arcangelo fielded 20 strings, a group big enough to make a vividly present sound yet small enough it to be clear that each player was important in their own right. They are an engaging and involving group to listen to, and this concert was no different.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

All conductors are megalomaniacs! My encounter with conductor James Lowe

James Lowe by Trond Husebo
James Lowe by Trond Husebo

The young British conductor James Lowe is best known in the UK for his work with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and for his tenure as the Artistic Director of the Halle Harmony Youth Orchestra. Out of the UK his career as burgeoned and he now has not one, but two chief conductorships to his credit. James is chief conductor of the Prussian Chamber Orchestra (Preußiches Kammerorchester) in Germany and this week takes the post as the Chief Conductor of the Vaasa Symphony Orchestra (Vaasan kaupunginorkesteri). I caught up with him by telephone to find out more, and we had a lively conversation about James's career. He is clearly interested in more than the music, keen to explore what orchestra are for and what they mean to their communities. And has a nicely depreciating touch in conversation, at one point commenting that he hates the word maestro and later saying that all conductors are mmegalomaniacs at heart!
Vaasan kaupunginorkesteri
Vaasan kaupunginorkesteriin Finland. I recently interview James by telephone (he is based in Berlin) to chat about the developments in his career.

I was curious as to how his connection developed with Vaasa (a city on the West coast of Finland). He explained that like many young conductors of his generation, he studied conducting with the great Finnish conductor Jorma Panula, whom James describes as one of the great teachers of conducting. Panula runs a conducting competition in which James competed four or five years ago. The orchestra for the competition is the Vaasa Symphony Orchestra, and James won the orchestra prize (nominated by members of the orchestra), so he has been going back to work with them ever since.

James Lowe & the Vaasa Symphony Orchestra (Vaasan kaupunginorkesteri)
James Lowe & the Vaasa Symphony Orchestra (Vaasan kaupunginorkesteri)

an outside temperature of -25 degrees C. takes some getting used to

Jonathan Plowright at Rhinegold Live

Jonathan Plowright at Rhinegold Live
Jonathan Plowright at Rhinegold Live
Brahms, Mozart, Paderewski, Chopin; Jonathan Plowright; Rhinegold Live at the Conway Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 4 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Powerful and thoughtful playing this early evening recital

Rhinegold Live started 2016 with a concert by pianist Jonathan Plowright at the Conway Hall on Thursday 4 February 2016. The programme included Brahms Rhapsody in B minor, Op.79, No.1, and Ballade Op.10, No.4, Mozart's Variations on' Ah, vous dirai-je Maman', three of Paderewski''s Humoresques de Concert, Op.14 and Chopin's Scherzo No. 2 in B flat minor, Op.31.

It is no surprise that the programme included two substantial pieces by Brahms. Plowright is in the middle of recording the complete Brahms piano music on the BIS label (three discs have been released, he has recorded a fourth and there is a fifth to come), and the event was the launch of the third disc. The Rhapsody in B minor is one of a pair of pieces Brahms wrote in 1879 (when the composer was 46) during a summer holiday. Dedicated to his friend, the composer Elisabeth von Herzogenberg she persuaded him to call them rhapsodies rather than simply klavierstücke.

Friday, 5 February 2016

Classical Music Hyper Production and Practice-As-Research Conference

The Konvalia Quartet playing on electric string instruments
The Konvalia Quartet playing on electric string instruments
On Sunday 31 January 2016 I took part in the Classical Music Hyper Production and Practice-As-Research Conference organised by the London College of Music at the University of West London. The first event was a pair of performances by the Konvalia Quartet (Dorottya Szabados-Drótos (violin I), Agata Kubiak (violin II), Marietta Szalóki (viola) and Andrea Derdak (cello)) of Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 8. Following lunch I took part in a panel discussion with Andrew Blake (Winchester University), Todd Landor (Musical Concepts and Alto Distribution) chaired by Simon Zagorski-Thomas on how the sound of the production affects the commercial prospects of a classical recording (a video of which is on Vimeo).

The first Shostakovich performance explored the interesting sonic world created when 20 guitar pedals are plugged into electric string instruments, with processing by Simon Zagorski-Thomas and Andrew Bourbon from the London College of Music. The second was an acoustic performance devised and directed by John Landor (music director of the London Musical Arts Orchestra) and Susan Kempster in collaboration with the Konvalia Quartet using an approach called Music In Motion. "This open performance space allows the musicians to move to interact more closely with each other. They can embody the music more fully with their presence which enables more effective communication of the content and meaning of the music".

New musical director for City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla - photo Philipp Zinniker
Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla - photo Philipp Zinniker
The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) has announced that its new music director, in successor to Andris Nelsons (who was in post from 2008 to 2015), will be the Lithuanian conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla. The orchestra's 12 music director, she will take up her position from September 2016. Gražinytė-Tyla made her debut with the orchestra in July 2015 and returned last month to conduct Debussy, Sibelius and Schumann. A native of of Vilnius, Lithuania, and only 29 her father is a choral conductor in Liithuania. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla was a Dudamel Fellow with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, eventually becoming Associate Conductor for the 2016-17 season. She won the the 2012 Salzburg Festival Young Conductors Award, and she her debut with the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra in a symphonic concert at the Salzburger Festspiele. Gražinytė-Tyla is serving as the Music Director of the Salzburg Landestheater from 2015 until 2017.

The CBSO has something of track record in spotting talented young conductors. Simon Rattle was only 25 when appointed, Sakari Oramo was 30 and Andris Nelsons 28. And by appointing a woman to the post of music director of a major UK orchestra goes a little way to showing that the glass ceiling can be breached. Her artistic plans with the CBSO will range widely from Mozart and Haydn to 20th century classics and works by living composers. Coming from the strong choral traditions of the Baltic states and following her role in Salzburg, she will also lead opera projects in Birmingham and will work closely with Simon Halsey, CBSO Chorus Director, on projects with the CBSO’s choruses. The full 2016/17 season will be announced in April.

Ealing Music & Film Festival

Ealing Music and Film Festival
Ealing Music and Film Valentine Festival takes place over the Valentine's Day weekend from 10 to 14 February 2016, and presents a mix of concerts and films at venues in and around Ealin. The English Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Julian Gallant, perform a Mozart piano concert with the Egyptian soloist Ramzi Yassa, plus music Barber, Dvorak and David Osbon, and members of the orchestra also give a free lunchtime concert with Emilie Capulet performing Schubert's Trout Quintet. Members of the English Chamber Orchestra will also be joining with Ealing Youth Orchestra, the London Oriana Choir and LCM chorus to perform Walton's Belshazzar's Feast plus music by Sibelius and Mussorgsky, conducted by Leon Gee with baritone Toby Stafford-Allen.

Young musicians from the London College of Music will be performing chamber music by Elgar and Prokofiev. The Ealing Symphony Orchestra conducted by John Gibbons will be giving an evening of semi-stage operatic excerpts with Natasha Jouhl, Telman Guzhevsy and Keel Watson performing music by Mascagni and Puccini. There is also late night rock and blues at Ealing Club and a community choral concert. Films include Bride and Predjudice, The Lavender Hill Mob, and The Proud Valley.

Full information from the Ealing Music and Film Festival website.

Stuart MacRae & Louise Walsh's The Devil Inside from Music Theatre Wales

The Devil Inside - Ben McAteer, Nicholas Sharratt - photo Bill Cooper
The Devil Inside - Ben McAteer, Nicholas Sharratt - photo Bill Cooper
Stuart MacRae & Louise Welsh The Devil Inside; Nicholas Sharratt, Ben McAteer, Steven Page, Rachel Kelly, dir: Matthew Richardson, cond: Michael Rafferty; Music Theatre Wales at the Peacock Theatre
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 3 2016
Star rating: 4.0

An evening of vividly gripping theatre in this new opera based on Robert Louis Stevenson's story

The route that Stuart MacRae and Louse Welsh have taken for their first full-length opera is reassuringly traditional in terms of getting experience of the genre, whilst the resulting work shows itself to be admirably anything but. The two started with two shorter works, the 15 minute Remembrance Day which was part of Scottish Opera's Five:15 - Operas Made in Scotland in 2009 and then the fifty minute Ghost Patrol in 2012 which was a Scottish Opera and Music Theatre Wales co-production. Their latest opera, The Devil Inside is again a co-production between Scottish Opera and Music Theatre Wales, with The Devil Inside being premiered by Scottish Opera in Edinburgh and Glasgow, and then touring England and Wales, with the same cast, with Music Theatre Wales.

The Devil Inside - Rachel Kelly - photo Bill Cooper
The Devil Inside - Rachel Kelly - photo Bill Cooper
We caught the London premiere of the opera on 3 February 2016 at the Peacock Theatre when Michael Rafferty conducted the Music Theatre Wales Ensemble with Nicholas Sharratt as Richard, Ben McAteer as James, Rachel Kelly as Catherine and Steven Page as the Old Man and a Vagrant. The director was Matthew Richardson with design by Samal Blak, and lighting by Ace McCarron.

It is clear from the programme notes that the opera is very much a collaboration and that Louise Welsh (best known for her novels) did not simply write a text and hand it over to Stuart MacRae. The piece they have crafted is wonderfully thrilling and gripping, with a plot updating Robert Louis Stevenson's story The Bottle Imp to the 21st century. Richard (Nicholas Sharratt) and James (Ben McAteer) are lost in the mountains, the come across a mansion owned by an old man (Steven Page). The man reveals the secret of his wealth, a magic bottle which contains an imp which will fulfil all your wishes. The only drawback, the owner's soul is damned to Hell if they own it when they die, and they can only get rid of the bottle by selling it for less than they paid for it. At Richard's urging, James buys the bottle.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Napoleon, Oedipus and Virtual Reality - the Philharmonia Orchestra's 2016/17 season

Philharmonia Orchestra new season
Virtual Reality comes to the Royal Festival Hall as the opening weekend of the Philharmonia Orchestra's 2016/17 season will see the orchestra presented in virtual reality to viewers outside the concert hall whilst the orchestra plays live inside. Elsewhere in the season there Stravinsky staged by Peter Sellars, Tansy Davies's new Concerto for Four Horns and Orchestra and the return of Abel Gance's Napoleon played live with Carl Davis's score.

For the opening weekend of the 2016/17 season, principal conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen and the orchestra will be performing the third movement of Sibelius's Third Symphony on stage whilst viewers will be able to experience a 360° 3D video & audio performance via Virtual Reality headsets, available to view for free in the foyer spaces. Another hi-tech innovation, the orchestra's award-winning walk-through installation of Holst's The Planets, Universe of Sound, will come to the Clore Ballroom Floor in the Royal Festival Hall for two weeks (see my review of it at the Science Museum).

Dvorak, Brahms, Shostakovich from Robin O'Neill and the Salomon Orchestra

Robin O'Neill and the Salomon Orchestra at St John's Smith Square
Robin O'Neill and the Salomon Orchestra at St John's Smith Square
Dvorak, Brahms, Shostakovich; Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay, Timothy Walden, Salomon Orchestra, Robin O'Neill; St John's Smith Square
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 02 2016
Invigorating performances in three large scale works from the Salomon Orchestra

As one of London’s premiere non-professional orchestras, the Salomon Orchestra’s concerts are always an event and their recent concert at St Johns Smith Square on 3 February 2016 was no exception. Conducted by Robin O’Neill the orchestra played a challenging programme which included Dvorak’s rarely performed tone-poem The Noonday Witch, Brahms’ Double Concerto with Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay, violin, and Timothy Walden, cello, and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5. The result was typical Salomon performance in which the large orchestra filled St Johns with vibrant sounds, and the players enthusiasm really communicating itself to the capacity audience.

Dvorak’s The Noonday Witch was one of a group of tone poems written by the composer in 1896 after the Cello Concerto. Based on a poem by Karel Jaromír Erben, the work is a rare excursion by the composer into narrative orchestral music. The work is full of imaginative colours and tonal combinations as the composer tells the story of the impatient mother who threatens her fractious child (a nice oboe solo here) with the noonday witch only for the witch to appear and kill the child. Whilst Dvorak does use folk-type melodies these are woven fluidly into the drama giving the orchestra the chance to give the music an engagingly lively rhythmic lift. Perhaps the most striking moment is witch’s appearance, with the combination of bass clarinet and eerie strings. For all the orchestra’s big vibrant sound at key moments, there were some lovely subtle (and eerie) ones too with a great sense of the colourful narrative.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Nature, Society & Humanity - the Beethoven Orchestra for Humanity

The Beethoven Orchestra for Humanity is a new orchestra with a twist. Funded after a Kickstarter campaign, the orchestra fuses music with topical talk for what they describe as 'entertainment with impact'. On 8 February 2016 the orchestra makes its debut at the Menier Chocolate Factory. Conducted by Michael Young they perform Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, and will be joined by soprano April Frederick for Górecki's Symphony of Sorrowful Songs and the second movement of Villa Lobos' Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5.

Also part of the programme is comedian, activist and writer Francesca Martinez, who will be speaking about climate change and social responsibility which is intended to create links to the music with themes of nature (Beethoven), society (Górecki ) and humanity (Villa-Lobos ).

Rather impressively, most of the tickets have been sold via the Kickstarter campaign but you can find out more from the event's Facebook Page.

Garsington Opera season - role debuts and notable casts

Garsington Opera's 2016 season this year encompasses Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, Mozart's Idomeneo and Rossini's L'italiana in Algeri with some notable casts including role debuts from Toby Spence, Roderick Williams, and Natalya Romaniw.

There are two notable role debuts in Eugene Onegin making the production rather intriguing, Roderick Williams in the title role and Natalya Romaniw as Tatyana. Cardiff Singer of the World 2015 finalist Ukrainian tenor Oleksiy Palchykov is Lensky, and Brindley Sherratt is Gremin. To add to this, Michael Boyd (who only made his operatic debut last year with the Royal Opera House's striking Orfeo at the Roundhouse last year) directs and he has the advantage of being a fluent Russian speaker. Douglas Boyd, Garsington Opera's artistic director, conducts.

Toby Spence will be making his role debut in the title role of Idomeneo, with Caitlin Hulcup as Idamante (hurrah, the Munich version rather than the Vienna one), with Louise Alder as Ilia, and Rebecca von Lipinski as Elettra. Tim Albery directs and Tobias Ringborg conducts.

The choreographer Will Tuckett, who recently directed the Royal Opera's Elizabeth, will be directing L'italiana in Algeri, with the young Turkish mezzo-soprano Ezgi Kutlu as Isabella, Mary Bevan as Elvira, Luciano Botelho as Lindoro, Geoffrey Dolton as Taddeo and Quirijn de Lang as Mustafa. David Parry conducts, his thirteenth Rossini opera for Garsington. As this is an opera where Isabella is often played by a mature singer and Mustafa is similarly mature, it will be interesting to see it with a cast of predominantly young singers under Will Tuckett's lively direction.

The final stage offering involves a collaboration with Mark Baldwin, Choreographer and Artistic Director of Rambert, to bring a realisation of Haydn's The Creation through music and dance, with 40 dancers from Rambert and the Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance joined on stage by Garsington Opera’s orchestra and chorus with soloists Sarah Tynan (soprano), James Gilchrist (tenor) and Neal Davies (bass). Designs are by renowned visual artist Pablo Bronstein, whose site specific work for the Duveen Galleries at Tate Britain opens in April, will add a spectacular visual dimension to Haydn’s music.

Full details from the Garsington Opera website.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Complete Tippett quartets recorded live by the Heath Quartet

Heath Quartet - Tippett Quartet - Wigmore Hall Live
Tippett String Quartets; The Heath Quartet; Wigmore Hall Live
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jan 25 2016
Star rating: 5.0

Dazzling rhythms, complex textures and surprising lyricism in these live performances of Tippett's complete quartets

Sir Michael Tippett's string quartets don't so much form a thread running through his career as a series of snapshots across a 50 year period, with a 30 year gap between the third and fourth quartets. The quartets remain a remarkable and challenging piece of 20th century repertoire and in this new disc from the Heath Quartet (Oliver Heath, Cerys Jones, Gary Pomeroy and Christopher Murray), all five quartets are recorded live at the Wigmore Hall as part of the hall's Wigmore Hall Live label.

Tippett's first three quartets were written in the 1940's. Intended to be a group of four, the impetus was partly the Four Quartets of TS Eliot, whom Tippett had asked to write the libretto for A Child of Our Time. But another overarching influence was of course Beethoven, a composer whose music loomed large in the composer's iconography at the time.

The Heath Quartet
The Heath Quartet
The first quartet was premiered in 1935, but the composer substantially revised it, replacing the first two movements with a long single movement and the work was re-premiered in 1943. The opening movement is Tippett in his complex lyrical-pastoral vein from that period, the lyrical melodic material being subject to some serious polyphonic processes. The Heath Quartet capture the sense of four equal voices, and the lines are beautifully sprung with a sense of constant energy and poly-rhythms enlivening the complex textures. The second movement Lento cantabile is magically sung, but again the way the quartet brings out the complexity of the harmonic texture balances the sweetness in just the right way. The finale is a fugue, but one which mixes in influences of jazz and uses Tippett's familiar rhythmic complexity and love of combining different rhythmic figures. The Heath Quartet brings a fabulous tight intensity to the rhythms, making the music vibrantly intense yet full of clarity of texture; dazzling.