Friday, 9 October 2015

The Genesis of Frankenstein at Toi Toi 2015

An Operatic Club Night at The CLF Art Cafe

Wednesday 28 and Thursday 29 October 2015
133 Rye Lane, Peckham, London SE15 4ST

Further details of the premiere of my opera The Genesis of Frankenstein as part of the Helios Collective's Toi Toi 2015

Leave your suit and tie behind for two evenings of eclectic musical entertainment in the heart of Peckham. Helios Collective has brought together music from London to Jamaica, and from Finland to Brazil. Relax and experience modern opera alongside rock, bossa nova, pop-fusion, jazz, and reggae. Toi Toi is a celebration of new music, performed by talented international artists. 

Full programme after the break

A baritone Werther in 1950's USA at English Touring Opera

Carolyn Dobbin, Ed Ballard - Massenet Werther - English Touring Opera - photo Robert Workman
Carolyn Dobbin, Adam Tunnicliffe - Massenet Werther - English Touring Opera - photo Robert Workman
Massenet Werther (baritone version); Ed Ballard, Charlotte Dobbin, Simon Wallfisch, Lauren Zolezzi, Michael Druiett, dir: Oliver Platt, cond: Iain Farrington; English Touring Opera at the Britten Theatre
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 08 2015
Star rating: 3.5

The rarely performed baritone version, in a chamber arrangement, set in 1950's America

As part of their season of French opera, English Touring Opera presented Massenet's Werther, in a chamber reduction by Iain Farrington using the rarely performed baritone version of the opera (made by the composer in 1902 for the baritone Battistini). We caught the performance on 8 October 2015 at the Royal College of Music's Britten Theatre. Ed Ballard sang the title role, Caroline Dobbin sang Charlotte, with Simon Wallfisch as Albert, Lauren Zolezzi as Sophie, Michael Druiett as Le Bailli and Jeff Stuart as Johan Schmidt with children from Vauxhall Primary School. Iain Farrington directed the instrumental ensemble from the piano. The production was directed by Oliver Platt, designed by Oliver Townsend and lighting by Mark Howland.

Michael Druiett, Lauren Zalozzi & children - Massenet Werther - English Touring Opera - photo Robert Workman
Michael Druiett, Lauren Zalozzi & children
photo Robert Workman
Massenet's baritone version of Werther is a rather workman-like piece, Massenet kept the orchestral accompaniment the same and simply applied alterations and transpositions to the solo line. The result is rather unsatisfactory because at crucial moments, when the tenor part soars, the baritone simply shies away from the top leaving the poor soloist with an awkward line, or an octave transposition which sat rather low in the voice.

Oliver Platt and Oliver Townsend's production set the piece in 1950's middle America which works well in terms of the functionality of the plot with its obsession with family and duty, but sat rather oddly with the strong vein of poetry in the piece. In a joint interview in the programme book, talking about how they developed the ideas for the set, Oliver Townsend said that 'From the start Oliver Platt (director) was interested in the domestic rituals and routines embodied by the character of Charlotte'. This is an aspect of the plot which was rather neatly satirised by Thackeray (a poem set beautifully by John Dankworth, hear it on YouTube ):

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Prokofiev symphonies from Karabits and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra

Prokofiev symphonies nos. 4 & 5, Kirill Karabits - Onyx
Prokofiev symphonies nos. 4 & 5; Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Kirll Karabits; Onyx
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sep 23 2015
Star rating: 5.0

The rarely performed original version of Prokofiev's fourth symphony and his wartime fifth continue this fine cycle from Bournemouth

This new disc of Prokofiev symphonies is a further instalment in Kirill Karabits' fine Prokofiev cycle with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, of which Karabits is the musical director, on Onyx Classics. This latest disc includes Symphony No. 4 and the original version of Symphony No. 4, plus the early orchestral piece Dreams.

The disc opens with Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5 which he completed in 1944, around 14 years after finishing his previous symphony. Written in Soviet Russia, the new work had no explicit reference to the war and the composer said that it celebrated the human spirit. The opening Andante starts from nothing, the music is richly lyrical and the strings play with a lovely tone making the music sing. The Allegro marcato starts with a crisp, perky introduction leading to a Prokofievian scherzo with music which could have come straight out of Romeo and Juliet as things relax a little we still get some lovely flashes of wit. In the Adagio the quiet, singing string lines create a lovely transparent texture, which develops into something rather questioning with darker undercurrents, building to climax which quickly recedes. The Allegro giocoso finale starts out hardly finale-like at all with a quiet, intense section with transparent textures, but then with a flash of perky wit we are off and the performance puts a real smile on your face. The playing is of real wit, with a fine combination of accuracy and character. But despite all this, there is an interestingly anxious undercurrent to the music.

Remembering Edith Cavell

Edith Cavell
Edith Cavell
Patrick Hawes is a composer mainly associated with big, bold, tonal works in a highly romantic contemporary vein, inspired by the music of the English Romantics. His Eventide: In memoriam Edith Cavell was commissioned by Sheringham & Cromer Choral Society and first performed in Norwich Cathedral in 2014, and will be receiving its first London performance on Monday 12 October 2015 at St Clement Danes Church as part of the Brandenburg Festival. Commemorating the nurse Edith Cavell who was executed by the Germans during World War I. The performance features Charlotte La Thrope (soprano) in the role of Edith, with the Addison Singers, Tiffin Boys' Choir and Brandenburg Sinfonia conducted by David Wordsworth. Tickets are available on-line from EventBrite, but if you buy through the Cavell Nurses Trust website then 50% of the ticket price goes to them!

Eventide is the name of the hymn tune Abide with Me which was recited by Edith Cavell and an Anglican Chaplain the night before her execution. The hymn is used as a cantus firmus throughout the work, whilst the soprano soloist takes on the role of Edith herself singing words from her letters, The Book of Common Prayer and Thomas a Kempis' The Imitation of Christ. The chorus provides a key role, mirroring Edith's thoughts and bringing the work to moments of intense climax.

Raven Girl and Connectome

Alastair Marriott - Connectome - Royal Ballet, 2014 - photo Bill Cooper
Alastair Marriott - Connectome - Royal Ballet, 2014 - photo Bill Cooper
Wayne McGregor, Audrey Niffenegger, Gabriel Yared Raven Girl, Alastair Marriott, Arvo Part Connectome; Edward Watson, Sarah Lamb, Lauren Cuthbertson, Steven McRae, cond: Koen Kessels; Royal Ballet at Covent Garden
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 6 2015
Design and choreography to the fore in contemporary double bill

Raven Girl was choreographer Wayne McGregor's first narrative dance piece, produced in collaboration with the writer and illustrator Audrey Niffenegger, with music by Gabriel Yared and designed by Vicki Mortimer. We caught the first performance of Royal Ballet's recent revival of the work at Covent Garden on 6 October 2015 in a double bill with Alastair Marriott's Connectome to music by Arvo Pärt designed by Es Devlin and Jonathan Howells. In Raven Girl, Edward Watson was the Postman, Olivia Cowley was the Raven, Sarah Lamb as Raven Girl, Paul Kay was the Boy and Thiago Soares was the Doctor. Connectome featured Lauren Cuthbertson, Steven McRae and Edward Watson. Koen Kessels conducted the Royal Opera House Orchestra.

Wayne MacGregor Raven Girl Sarah Lamb photo Johann Persson
Wayne MacGregor Raven GirlSarah Lamb
photo Johann Persson

Described as being based on a fairy tale by Audrey Niffenegger, Raven Girl started as a series of illustrations with text which Niffenegger and McGregor developed into a dance piece which McGregor prefer to call visual theatre rather than narrative ballet.

Composer Gabriel Yared, who is best known for his film scores (from Betty Blue to The English Patient), wrote the specially commissioned score which mixed a live orchestra with electronics to striking effect. The result was eclectic, moving from some strikingly edgy sounds where you could not tell what was live and what electronic. But Raven Girl is quite a dark tale, given quite a stark look by the designs and lighting, and it seemed that Gabriel Yared's music did not always match this. Too often he produced something softer edged, veering to the popular which had me reaching for that lazy description 'film music'.

McGregor's choreography was superb for the crowds, the weird faceless people, the ravens in their stunning costumes. And some individual solos were striking. Edward Watson as the Postman was wonderfully all edgy elbows and joints. Sarah Lamb looking stunning as the Raven Girl both with and without her wings, giving a truly mesmerising performance

But a sense of character seemed missing in places, the Doctor (Thiago Soares) and the Boy (Paul Kay) were underdeveloped despite both performers giving strong individual performances. And at the end all problems evaporated in a mysterious fashion and we had a final pas de deux for Sarah Lamb and Eric Underwood as the Raven Prince (a characters who had not previously featured in the plot). Here both Wayne MacGregor and Gabriel Yared seemed to struggle to find the right language to suite the rest of the piece.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Alvorada! Celebrating music of Argentina with Ophelie Gaillard

Ophelie Gaillard - photo Caroline Doutre
Ophelie Gaillard - photo Caroline Doutre
To the newly opened Foyle's Auditorium on Monday 5 October 2015, for an even celebrating the recent release of the disc Alvorada by the cellist Ophelie Gaillard on Aparte / Harmonia Mundi. Ophelie Gaillard and two other musicians, Juanjo Mosalini, bandoneon and Romain Lecuyer, double bass treated us to a selection of music from the disc including Nana from Falla's Siete canciones populares españolas, Agua e Vinho by Gismonti/Carneiro, plus a group of pieces by Astor Piazzolla. As can be seen from this list, the music on the album is very much an exploration of the music of Latin America. In a short interview with Hugo Shirley, Gaillard explained that it was not intended to be a crossover disc. As a cellist who performs with her own period ensemble (she has a new album of music by CPE Bach out), she is used to doing research and performing music in the correct style. So the intention of the disc was get to the soul of Argentina, exploring with the finest musicians and going on a journey, researching and learning a new style of playing.

It started with the idea of performing a suite for unaccompanied cello by Gaspar Cassado who was a pupil of Casals. But also evolved from ideas generated by Gaillard's travels with her cello. Whilst not the most easy thing, travelling with a suitcase and a cello, she has found the contacts made inspiring, particularly meeting musicians after concerts. And found the music of Latin America inspiring, with its mix of influences and the way the cello and the voice can be combined.

Whilst Gaillard's repertoire stretches from Baroque through Romantic to modern, and she named as some of her favourite composers George Benjamin and Dutilleux, the cello does not have a repertoire of 200 concertos like the piano. So she feels the need to explore and will be premiered a double concerto for cello and bandoneon!

Marcello Psalms

Benedetto Marcello - Psalms
Benedetto Marcello Psalms; Voces8, Les Inventions; Signum Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sep 22 2015
Star rating: 4.5

A delightful discovery, Marcello's settings of the psalms in a lovely new disc from Voces8

Who knew that these delightful works existed? Benedetto Marcello's psalms, Estro poetico-armonico are settings of the first fifty Psalms of David in Italian paraphrases. This disc on Signum Classics label from Voces8 and Les Inventions contains four psalms in English made by the 18th century English composer Charles Avison, Psalm 11, Psalm 32, Psalm 50 and Psalm 46 along with Marcello's Ciaccona from Sonata Op.2 No.12 and Canon Triplex.

Benedetto Marcello was a Venetian born composer, from a respected family so that he combined career in law with one in music, studying with both Lotti and Gasparini. His Estro poetico-armonico was published in 1724 to 1726, setting the first 50 psalms in paraphrases by Girolamo Ascanio Giustiniani. The psalms were immediately extremely popular, and were translated into a wide number of languages. Venice had the oldest Sephardic community in Italy, and Marcello's music seems to include sections based on Hebrew psalmody. In fact, Marcello's psalms were used in a wide variety of religious traditions including Lutheran, Anglican and Jewish.

The psalms were published with a simple figured bass with no indications of instrumentation, so for variety and flexibility, this disc uses harp, theorbo, organ, cello and double bass, and occasionally there is an obligato instrument.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Ulla's Odyssey flourishing at Kings Place

Ulla's Odyssey
Ulla's Odyssey by New Zealand composer Anthony Young, and Canadian librettist Leanna Brodie will be premiered on 11 October at Kings Place. Directed by Valentina Ceschi and designed by Faye Bradley, the opera is being presented by OperaUpClose and is the result of their third Flourish competition looking for new chamber scale operas capable of being performed by by seven performers. 

Young and Brodie's opera is a family one, the first such to come through OperaUpClose's competitions. Inspired by Homer's Odyssey, it concerns a young woman, Ulla who is attempting to become the youngest person to sail the world single-handedly in her trusty sailing boat 'The Homer', with only her cat Binnacle to keep her company. She encounters mythical creatures and obstacles on her journey, including Cy-ops, a one-eyed, over-keen robotic customs official who mistakes her cat for smuggled contraband, and Sylla, a dangerous sea creature whose body and mind have been horribly twisted by radioactive rubbish dumped into the ocean. Meanwhile the voices of the Sirens, Ulla’s friends and family, call out to her from across the waves, tempting her to give up her lonely voyage and come home.

The opera features Sarah Minns as Ulla, Oskar McCarthy as Binnacle/Garibdis, Flora McIntosh as Goddess of the Sea, Pamela Hay as Scylla, Edward Hughes as Cy-Ops, with Ruth Whybrow as Instrumentalist.

Thrilling music drama - Bellini's I Puritani in Cardiff

Rosa Feola - Bellini I Puritani - Welsh National Opera - photo Bill Cooper
Rosa Feola - Bellini I Puritani 
Welsh National Opera - photo Bill Cooper
Bellini I Puritani; Rosa Feola, Barry Banks, Wojtek Gierlach, David Kempster, dir: Annilese Miskimmon, cond: Carlo Rizzi; Welsh National Opera at Wales Millennium Centre
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 4 2015
Star rating: 5.0

Gripping musical theatre in this time-slip account of Bellini's last opera

Vividly gripping drama is perhaps not phrase which you might expect to be used to refer to Bellini's I Puritani, but that was the phrase which came into my mind after seen Annilese Miskimmon's new production of the opera, presented by Welsh National Opera at the Wales Millennium Centre on Sunday 4 October 2015. Carlo Rizzi conducted, with designs by Leslie Travers, lighting by Mark Jonathan and choreography by Kally Lloyd Jones. Rosa Feola was Elvira, Barry Banks was Arturo, with David Kempster as Riccardo, Wojtek Gierlach as Giorgio, Simon Crosby Buttle as Bruno, Aidan Smith as Gualtiero and Sian Meinir as Enrichetta.

Rosa Feola and ensemble - Bellini I Puritani - Welsh National Opera - photo Bill Cooper
Rosa Feola and ensemble - Bellini I Puritani
Welsh National Opera - photo Bill Cooper
Bellini's final opera was written for Paris, and having fallen out with Felice Romani librettist of his previous operas including Norma and La Sonnambula, Bellini was forced to rely on Count Carlo Pepoli who happened to be resident in Paris. Pepoli's libretto has some strong situations, but overall the drama is full of holes and, despite Bellini's superb music, directors often struggle to create drama out of the piece. Andrei Serban's much travelled production, originally created for WNO in 1982, took the drama at face value and set the piece in 17th century England relying on strong performances from the principals to hold the drama together (when I saw the production in Amsterdam, I'm afraid it occasionned a number of laughs from the audience). More recently, Stephen Langridge at Grange Park Opera in 2013 (see my review) seemed to struggle to create a coherent drama at all and relied on strong musical performances.

Monday, 5 October 2015


Ensemble 96
For its next concert, the ever enterprising New London Chamber Choir, conductor Matthew Hamilton is joining forces with the Oslo-based chamber choir Ensemble 96, conductor Nina Therese Karlsen, for a concert of Nordic music on Saturday 10 October 2015 at St James's Church, Sussex Gardens, London W2 3UD.

The concert is mixing contemporary Nordic composers with those of a previous generation with Torbjørn Dyrud's Lovesongs, Knut Nystedt's Prayers of Kierkegaard, Anders Hillborg's Mouyayoum, Kaija Saariaho's Nuits, adieux, Per ​​Nørgård's Wie ein Kind and finishing with Knut Nystedt's Immortal Bach which has become something of a modern classic, with three composers from Norway, and one each from Finland, Denmark and Sweden.

Ensemble 96 was Grammy nominated for its recording of Per ​​Nørgård's Wie ein Kind and you can hear it on SoundCloud, you can also hear the New London Chamber Choir performing Kaija Saariaho's Nuits, adieux on SoundCloud to whet your appetite.

Further information from the event page on Facebook.

1940's madness - Handel's Orlando in Cardiff

Rebecca Evans, Lawrence Zazzo - Handel Orlando - Welsh National Opera - photo Bill Cooper
Rebecca Evans, Lawrence Zazzo - Handel Orlando
Welsh National Opera - photo Bill Cooper
Handel Orlando; Lawrence Zazzo, Rebecca Evans, Robin Blaze, Fflur Wyn, Daniel Grice, dir:Harry Fehr, cond: Rinaldo Alessandrini; Welsh National Opera at the Wales Millennium Centre
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 3 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Strong music values in 1940's setting for Handel's opera examining madness

As part of their Madness season, presenting three very contrasting music theatre treatments of madness (Handel's Orlando, Bellini's I Puritani and Sondheim's Sweeney Todd) Welsh National Opera (WNO) presented Handel's Orlando at the Wales Millennium Centre on Saturday 3 October 2015. Directed by Harry Fehr, designed by Yannis Thavoris, lighting by Anna Watson, video by Andrzej Goulding, movement Kelly Lloyd-Jones (also associate director), the production was originally created for Scottish Opera. The WNO performances featured Lawrence Zazzo as Orlando, Daniel Grice as Zoroastro, Fflur Wyn as Dorinda, Rebecca Evans as Angelica and Robin Blaze as Medoro. Rinaldo Alessandrini conducted the Welsh National Opera Orchestra.

Daniel Grice, Lawrence Zazzo (prone) - Handel Orlando - Welsh National Opera - photo Bill Cooper
Daniel Grice, Lawrence Zazzo (prone) - Handel Orlando
Welsh National Opera - photo Bill Cooper
From the first notes of the overture, played with the curtain down, it was clear that Rinaldo Aessandrini, who is best known for his work with period instrument groups, had developed a creative partnership with the modern instruments of the WNO orchestra. The overture was crisp and lively with some lovely firm playing, not too much vibrato, and a clear feel of period style.

When the curtain did go up for the first scene, Zoroastro's great scena as he looks at the stars, the setting was a 1940's hospital and instead of the stars, Zoroastro (Daniel Grice) was looking at the output from a device hooked up to Orlando's (Lawrence Zazzo) brain. Harry Fehr and Yannis Zavoris had transported the opera to the 1940's with Orlando and Medoro (Robin Blaze) as injured airmen. Dorinda (Fflur Wyn) was now a nurse with Angelica (Rebecca Evans) a glamorous socialite. There were some neat touches; when, in Act One, Zoroastro talks to Orlando of following the path of glory rather than love, he showed Orlando pictures of the Abdication and the subsequent aftermath with the Duke of Windsor being pictured with Nazis.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

new minds, music & futures - Orchestras Live's annual report

Orchestras Live turned 50 this year, and their annual review is rightly celebratory in what they have achieved. Some numbers show the sort of impact we are talking about. During 2014/15:
  • 26 orchestras were involved
  • 62 promoter partners
  • 154 different venues
  • 121 concerts
  • 465 events
  • 55,858 audience members and participants 
  • 19% attended a local orchestral concert for the first time
  • 42% find new music stimulating
Orchestras Live exists to take orchestras to the parts other organisations do not reach, and to involve people in hard to get communities in orchestral music. There are various strands to their activities. In using music to promote health and well-being they have projects like Essex Folk, Disabled Musicians in Essex, and Able Orchestra. Projects which involve introducing people to a live orchestra for the first time make up important strands, including First Time Live early years including Lullaby Concerts and Flutter and Fly. First Time Live Youth actually puts the young people in charge of the concert, to electrifying effect, with projects like From Dusk 'til Dawn, Harlow First Time Live, Sound Struck and First Time Live 2 in Luton.

Championing new music is another important strand, with 34% of the 121 concerts they co-promoted containing work by living composers. Beyond the Premiere provides a platform for repeat performances of recently commission work, and enabled Gwilym Simcock's new work for clarinet and orchestra, On a Piece of Tapestry to be performed five times.

Of course all this would not be possible without support from a whole raft of supporters including the Arts Council, Cumbria County Councils Neighbourhood Fund, the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, the John Ellerman Foundation, the J Paul Getty Charitable Trust, Kimberly-Clark, Philips Avent, the Royal Opera House, the Sir Joh  Fisher Foundation, the Monument Trust, the Thistle Trust, and media partner Classic FM.

There is a lovely interactive TimeLine on the Orchestras Live website which enables you to explore significant events in their last 50 years. And the full 2014-15 annual review is also available for downloading.

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Music from the Dark Side - an encounter with Pavlo Beznosiuk

Pavlo Beznosiuk
Pavlo Beznosiuk
Pavlo Beznosiuk is currently the leader of the Academy of Ancient Music, though he wears a number of other hats too including being director of the Avison Ensemble. Pavlo has been busy on the period performance scene for over 25 years and in fact played with the the Academy of Ancient Music first in 1985! He often directs the Academy of Ancient Music and I met up with Pavlo to find out more about his latest project, Music from the Dark Side.

I meet Pavlo for coffee at the National Gallery, and Pavlo comments that he and a group of musicians rather lived here a few years ago when they provided music for the Vermeer and Music exhibition at the National Gallery, performing a huge number of short pop up concerts. This time he is on his way to the Duke of York's Theatre for his first preview of Claire van Kampen's Farinelli and the King; Pavlo is one of team of violinists from the Academy of Ancient Music playing in the show and comments that this will be the longest number of performances of a single piece that he has ever done in one stretch, he will be in 47 of the shows and there are a total of around 100. The play by Claire van Kampen features music written for the castrato Farinelli and it opened at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse earlier this year (see my review). Pavlo comments that there are a few places where the players have a bit of leeway to try and keep it fresh.

Pavlo is the leader of the Academy of Ancient Music and will be directing them in their forthcoming concert on 19 October (in London) and 22 October 2015 (in Cambridge) entitled Music from the dark side. The concert is part of a short series From Darkness to Light in which the orchestra will be taking inspiration from Dante's 14th century poem Divine Comedy and looking at the author's journey through hell (Inferno) and paradise (Paradiso). The artist Monika Beisner will be providing illustrations, a German artist known for her illustrations to children's books and whose illustrations to Dante's Divine Comedy have been published in Germany and Italy.

Pelleas et Melisande from English Touring Opera

ETO - Pelleas et Melisande - Susannah Hurrell - photo credit Richard Hubert Smith
Susannah Hurrell - photo credit Richard Hubert Smith
Debussy Pelleas et Melisande; Susannah Hurrell, Jonathan McGovern, Stephan Loges, dir: James Conway, cond: Jonathan Berman; English Touring Opera at the Britten Theatre
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 1 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Enterprising reduced scale Pelleas

Debussy's opera Pelleas et Melisande is one of those seminal works which fascinates even the opera companies who lack the resources to perform it; though the work is relatively economical with singers and not too long, it needs a very large orchestra. Some years ago, Independent Opera performed it in a reduced orchestration at the Sadlers Wells, Lilian Baylis Studio, and more recently it was performed at the Grimeborn Festival with just a piano. English Touring Opera too has heard the siren call, and as part of its enterprising French opera season is performing Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande in Annalies van Parys abridged orchestral reduction (alongside Massenet's Werther and Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann).

We caught the opening night of English Touring Opera's Autumn tour, 1 October 2015, when James Conway's new production of Pelleas et Melisande was performed at the Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, with Michael Druiett as Arkel, Helen Johnson as Genevieve, Stephan Loges as Golaud, Jonathan McGovern as Pelleas, Lauren Zolezzi as Yniold and Susanna Hurrell as Melisande. Jonathan Berman conducted, designs were by Oliver Townsend, lighting by Mark Howland, movement by Bernadette Iglich and video by Zakk Hein.

ETO - Pelleas et Melisande - Susannah Hurrell, Jonathan McGovern - photo credit Richard Hubert Smith
Susannah Hurrell, Jonathan McGovern
photo credit Richard Hubert Smith
Annalies van Parys made her version of Pelleas et Melisande for Muzietheater Transparent in 2012. This reduces Debussy's orchestra down to 13 performers, string quartet, double bass, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, percussion, harp, harmonium, and the result was remarkably effective with the interludes in particular having a lovely flow to them. Though the loss of the larger body of players did make the individual instrumental lines seem more present, and somehow the reduction had brought greater clarity to Debussy's textures, which is not necessarily a good thing. You felt that the piece had become rather more definite, without the chiaroscuro so essential to the piece. Perhaps more worryingly, the piece was abridged, and two scenes were missing. In fact, director James Conway was troubled enough by this to introduce one section as spoken text.

James Conway and Oliver Townsend set the piece in a box, atmospherically green-blue in colour, and both Mark Howland's lighting and Zakk Hein's videos (projected onto the rear wall) helped to create the right sense of atmosphere. In something of a coup, part of the rear wall became transparent to reveal a warm pink room which was the interior space occupied by Arkel. Costumes were moderately neutral and seemed to be placed loosely in the Edwardian period.

It must frustrate performers to rehearse for weeks and then after opening night, have reviewers commenting that the production was promising but will need time to bed down, but that is what I am going to do. The drama in Pelleas et Melisande comes as much from the way the characters do not interact as in the dialogue. The spaces between the characters are as important as what they say. All this arises from Maeterlink's elusive dialogue and the way Debussy sets it surrounded by a web of orchestral allusion.

Friday, 2 October 2015

Making waves and stepping in, conductor James Feddeck

James Feddeck - credit Benjamin Ealovega
James Feddeck - credit Benjamin Ealovega
The young American conductor James Feddeck (just 32 and a former assistant conductor at the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra) won the Solti Conducting Award in 2013. Since then he has made a name for himself, notably stepping in at the last moment to conduct the Halle in April 2015 in Mozart and Beethoven (The Guardian said he stepped in "to salvage the concert with style and steel" and is "a conductor to watch"). He also stepped in with the San Francisco Symphony, making his debut conducting Bruckner's Symphony No. 8 to great acclaim.

For the 2015/16 season Feddeck will be returning to the UK to conduct the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra on 13 April 2016 at Birmingham Symphony Hall in Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, with Michael Collins as soloist, and Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony. There is a chance to hear him in action before then as he will be conducting the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra at the National Concert Hall in Dublin on 9 October 2015, in Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 with Alexei Volodin, Hindemith's Mathis der Mahler Symphony and Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier Suite.

The Angry Planet

The Angry Planet
Bob Chilcott The Angry Planet; BBC Singers, Bach Choir, The Young Singers, London Youth Choir, Finchley Children's Music Group,David Hill; Signum Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sep 22 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Environmental issues to the fore in three moving cantatas by Bob Chilcott in performances which underplay the message

The centrepiece of this new disc of music by Bob Chilcott is the cantata The Angry Planet, subtitled An Environmental Cantata performed by the BBC Singers, the Bach Choir, the Young Singers, London Youth Choir, and the Finchley Children's Music Group conducted by David Hill. It is paired with two more of Chilcott's environmentally themed works performed by the BBC Singers and members of the Finchley Children's Music Group conducted by David Hill. In all, there is nearly two hours of Bob Chilcott's music on the Signum Classics set, produced in association with BBC Radio 3.

Bob Chilcott is very much the go-to composer for popular classical music for amateur choirs, almost seeming to be taking on the mantle of John Rutter but writing in a different vein. Those of you who have enjoyed is popular shorter works in performance might quail at the thought of two hours devoted to music of a similar style. But works on this disc, though approachable and highly singable, are also extremely thoughtful. All three are written with words provided by Chilcott's regular collaborator Charles Bennett and all three display something of an environmental, almost political concern. But the character of the pieces comes partly because Bennett's words are not polemical, they are highly poetic, he writes allusive lyrics which need thought when listening to them.

The Angry Planet was commissioned by the Bach Choir in 2011 and first performed at the BBC Proms in 2012. David Hill (conductor of the Bach Choir and of the BBC Singers), had the idea of commissioning a piece which would involve both groups, plus a youth choir and a children's choir in a work which addressed environmental issues. And the other two works on the disc were written for youth choirs, so that this is another thread linking them, though here the works are sung by the BBC Singers.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

London Mozart Players supporting the Royal British Legion through music

Howard Shelley
Howard Shelley
This season the London Mozart Players will be donating all of the profits in two of their concert series to the Royal British Legion, raising funds for those who are serving or have served in the British Armed Forces. The partnership forms part of the London Mozart Players' Harmony in Conflict initiative, which includes projects across the country bringing communities together through music.

The two concert series involved are Mozart Explored / Beethoven Explored and Mozart Explored: 1783, both at St John's Smith Square. Mozart and Beethoven Explored is an 11-part lunchtime concert series (October 2015 - April 2016) in which pianist Howard Shelley and the London Mozart Players look at the piano concertos by Mozart and Beethoven, with Shelley providing introductions which look at the stories behind the music. Mozart Explored: 1783 is a series of four evening concerts (November 2015 - May 2016) in which conductors Graham Ross and Gerard Korsten are joined by soloists Janina Fialkowska, Peter Francomb & the orchestra's Young Artist in Residence, Laura van der Heijden to perform works from Mozart's prolific year 1783. The series also includes the UK premiere of Stephen Oliver's completion of Mozart's opera The Goose of Cairo, conducted by David Parry.

Mozart Explored starts on Wednesday 7 October 2015 with Piano Concerto No. 19 in F K459, whilst Mozart Explored:1783 opens on 26 November with works written for his wife and her sister (Constanza and Aloysia Weber) including concert arias and the Mass in C minor.

Further information and tickets from the St John's Smith Square website.

The lute song re-invented - Amores Pasados

Amores Pasados - John Potter - ECM New Series
John Paul Jones, Peter Warlock, Thomas Campion, Tony Banks, EJ Moeran, Picforth, Sting; John Potter, Ana Maria Friman, Jacob Heringman, Ariel Abramovich
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sep 18 2015
Star rating: 5.0

Evocative new lute songs from musicians normally associated with rock music on this fascinating project from John Potter

This new disc on ECM New Series from John Potter very much asks what is a song, and what is the difference between a popular song and an art song. The performers are a fairly standard period line up with John Potter and Anna Maria Friman (voice), and Ariel Abramovich and Jacob Heringman (lute). But the repertoire is anything but. Here three composers best known for writing songs with bands, write lute songs. So we have songs by John Paul Jones, bass player and co-writer with Led Zepplin, by Tony Banks, keyboard player and co-founder of Genesis, and by Sting. Alongside these are songs by Thomas Campion (whose words are also set by Tony Banks), Peter Warlock and Picforth.

Manfred Eicher, Jacob Heringman, Ana Maria Friman, John Potter, Ariel Abramovich
Manfred Eicher, Jacob Heringman, Ana Maria Friman,
John Potter, Ariel Abramovich
The point about these songs is that, though they were written by rock musicians they were written for classically trained musicians to perform acoustically, and set poems (rather than pop lyrics). For Amores Pasados John Paul Jones set three Spanish poets from the golden age, the songs were written for Red Byrd in 1989 and have been recorded by Andrew Lawrence King and the Harp Consort. The music has a hauntingly popular edge to it without ever being pop, and the way John Paul Jones writes for the two lutes together is magical. In fact in Al son de los arroyuelos (Lope de Vega) he often combines hardly moving vocal lines with richly textured accompaniment with a strong rhythmic impulse and the odd contributions from Anna Maria Friman on hardanger fiddle too! No dormia (Gustavo Adolfo Becquer) has a similar minimal feel to the vocal line with some lovely haunting textures. So ell encina (anonymous 15th century) returns to the engagingly rhythmic feel of the first song, but with more of an explicit tune in the voices.

Arrangements of Peter Warlock's Sleep and EJ Moeran's AE Houseman setting Oh fair enough are sky and plain are sung by John Potter with the two lutenists. The arrangements are remarkably effective but does rather transform the Sleep bringing out the rather 17th century inspiration for Warlock's art, and Potter does have a tendency to stretch and squeeze the tone.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Poetic return for Ulysses at the Barbican

Cast of Monteverdi's Il ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria, Academy of Ancient Music, at the Barbican (c) John McMunn
Directors & cast of Monteverdi's Il ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria, Academy of Ancient Music, at the Barbican (c) John McMunn 
Monteverdi, Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria; Ian Bostridge, Barbara Kozelj, Elizabeth Watts, Academy of Ancient Music, Richard Egarr; Barbican Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sep 30 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Musical values to the fore in this poetic account of Monteverdi's late masterpiece

The Academy of Ancient Music and Richard Egarr (who directed from the harpsichord), completed their trilogy of Monteverdi operas, with Monteverdi's Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria performed in a staging by Alexander Oliver and Timothy Nelson at the Barbican Hall on Tuesday 29 September 2015. Ian Bostridge was Ulisse, Barbara Kozelj was Penelope and Elizabeth Watts was Minerva, with Andrew Tortise, Lukas Jakobski, Sophie Junker, Daniela Lehner, Alexander Oliver, Christopher Gillett, Charmian Bedford, John Lattimore, Richard Latham and Gwilym Bowen. The opera was performed full staged, with performance areas both in front or the orchestra and on a raised one behind, and much use was made of the auditorium. Most of the cast wore black with just a hint of colour.

The performance was dedicated to the memory of the great critic Andrew Porter who died in April this year at the age of 86; and not just a critic, he translated 38 opera librettos including Wagner's Ring for ENO, as well as writing perceptively on a number of other subjects. Nicholas Kenyon, director of the Barbican, hosted a pre-concert reception for those who had known and loved Andrew and his work, including a number of his former colleagues. In his speech Nicholas Kenyon said that Andrew had written perceptively about Monteverdi's opera in the early years of his stint as the music critic of the New Yorker, and that Monteverdi's opera is so admired today is partly as a result of the changes in musical taste that Andrew brought about. Kenyon also said that he had been rather taken aback by the warm of the response when Andrew died, and that it was very much an end of an era.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Through a romantic lens - Baroque Inspirations

Baroque Inspirations - Hideko Udagawa
Tartini, Vivaldi, Stamitz, Vitali, Kreisler; Hideko Udagawa, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Nicholas Kraemer; Nimbus Alliance
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sept 18 2015
Star rating: 3.5

Baroque music seen through a more romantic lens, including a pastiche by Kreisler

This new disc on Nimbus Alliance from the UK-based Japanese violinist Hideko Udagawa is something of a contrast to her previous discs of music by Khachaturian, being a programme of baroque music with works by Tartini, Vivaldi, and Tomasso Vitali, but the addition of a concerto in the style of Antonio Vivaldi by Fritz Kreisler rather gives the game away. Entitled Baroque Inspirations, this is a disc of music which has often been appropriated, or misappropriated by later composers and was often known in highly romantic editions. Here Udagawa plays concertos by Kreisler and by Karl Stamitz, and a concertante work by Vitali, accompanied by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Nicholas Kraemer, as well as unaccompanied music by Tartini, and Vivaldi.

She starts with Tartini's Sonata in G minor, 'Devils Trill' in a version for solo violin. The composer published it with a basso continuo accompaniment but said in correspondence about his Piccole Sonata that the sonatas were 'notated with a bass part for the sake of convention', but he played them 'without the bass', and this had been his true intention. Without a surviving manuscript, the work has a number of different versions, some like that of Kreisler more extreme than others. It would perhaps be interesting to hear Kreisler's version, but Udagawa plays Cartier's more scholarly one, and it works remarkably well unaccompanied, allowing the violin free rein.

Festal Festival Finale - Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival

Stephen Cleobury, Choir of King's College Cambridge, Haydn Chamber Orchestra at Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival 2015
Stephen Cleobury, Choir of King's College Cambridge, Haydn Chamber Orchestra
at Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival 2015
Haydn, Charlotte Bray, Mozart; Choir of King's College Cambridge, Haydn Chamber Orchestra, Stephen Cleobury; Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sep 27 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Classical and modern as the Hatfield festival finishes in fine style

This year's Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival concluded in fine style on Sunday 27 September 2015 with a concert in the Old Palace given by the choir of King's College, Cambridge, and the Haydn Chamber Orchestra conducted by Stephen Cleobury. They were joined by soloists Magnus Johnston (violin), Guy Johnston (cello), Nicholas Daniel (oboe) and Robin O'Neill (bassoon) for Haydn's Sinfonia Concertante in B flat major for oboe, bassoon, violin and cello, the choir sang two movement's from Charlotte Bray's Come Away and both choir and orchestra were joined by soloists Ruby Hughes (soprano), Lucy Taylor (mezzo-soprano), Richard Dowling (tenor) and Bozdiar Smiljanic (bass) for Mozart's Requiem.

Haydn's Sinfonia Concertante was commissioned by Johann Peter Salomon for his London concert series and premiered in 1792 (the same year the Mozart's Requiem was completed by Sussmayr) during Haydn's first visit to London. The opening Allegro had quite a military air, the music elegant and lively. The writing for the soloists was very concerto grosso like, with Haydn using the four as a group or in pairs, yielding some elegant playing from the four. The Andante opened not with an orchestral ritornello but with the four soloists accompanied just by plucked strings and the lyrically elegant music put the spotlight firmly on Magnus Johnston's violin. This continued into the final movement which opened with a series of  recitative passages for the solo violin before the perky, solo violin led Allegro. Cleobury took it a quite a speed, leading to some nifty passage-work from all the soloists.

Monday, 28 September 2015

Intense drama, but where was the caustic scherzo - Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at ENO

ENO Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Rosie Aldridge, Patricia Racette, Peter Hoare (c) Clive Barda
Rosie Aldrige, Patricia Racette, Peter Hoare & ensemble
Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at English National Opera, photo credit Clive Barda
Shostakovich Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk; Patricia Racette, Robert Hayward, John Daszak, Peter Hoare, dir: Dmitri Tcherniakov, cond: Mark Wigglesworth; English National Opera at the London Coliseum
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sep 26 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Intense modern take on Shostakovich's caustic, satiric and tragic opera

English National Opera opened its new season with the an eagerly anticipated new production of Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in a production by the Russian director Dmitri Tcherniakov (who also designed the sets), with Patricia Racette as Katerina, Robert Hayward as Boris, Peter Hoare as Zinovy, John Daszak as Sergei, Rosie Aldridge as Aksinya, Adrian Thompson as the shabby peasant, Per Bach Nissen as the chief of police and Clare Presland as Sonyetka. Mark Wigglesworth conducted, his first engagement with the company since becoming musical director. Thorsten Colle was assistant director, Ekaterina Mochenova was associate set designer, Elena Zaytseva was associate costume designer, Gleb Filshtinsky was lighting designer and Tatiana Baganova was the choreographer.

ENO Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Patricia Racette, (c) Clive Barda
Patricia Racette
photo credit Clive Barda
Two questions need asking, to qualify the information given in the previous paragraph; which Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and how new was the production?

Dmitri Tcherniakov's production of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk originally debuted in 2008 at Deutche Oper am Rhein, this new version of the production is a co-production between Opera de Lyon and Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona but I am unclear how much Tcherniakov has changed though I understand it to have been re-worked from the original 2008 production.

Regarding Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, the text of the opera seems to have undergone a continuous metamorphosis, there are changes between the various sources from the 1930's and of course the composer revised the work in the 1950's to make it acceptable to the Soviet authorities. The problem for anyone is working out what the composer's real intentions were. If the work is seen as a satire against the Soviet system (which some commentators argue for, and others against) then we have to prefer the earliest version, but we should also consider the composer's final thoughts too. ENO used the version based on the earliest sources.

But there is another question too, because Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is rather Janus-like and the music drama can be viewed in opposing ways. In the Guardian Ed Vulliamy warns against stereotyping the opera based on Simon Volkov's influential book Testimony, claiming to project Shostakovich's real thoughts about the opera; Vulliamy sees the work as coming from the Leningrad avant-garde, a scene inspired by surrealism, anarchism and Italian futurism. The movement comprised iconoclasm and constructivist rejection of the commercial contamination of culture; and featured poetry by Mandelshtam and Mayakovsky, Bakhtin, artwork by Malevich, Popova and Rodchenko, sculpture by Tatlin, plays by Meyerholt, films by Eisenstein.

But over in the Independent, conductor Mark Wigglesworth argues that the work is not only a savage critique of the Soviet system but of Russia today. And here he seems to agree with director Dmitri Tcherniakov whose production as been described as an indictment of the role of women in Russia today.

The Devil Inside - new opera from Stuart MacRae and Louise Welsh

Stuart MacRae
Stuart MacRae
Music Theatre Wales will be touring a new opera by Stuart MacRae and Louise Welsh in 2016 in a new production which is a co-production with Scottish Opera. The Devil Inside (based on Robert Louis Stevenson's short story The Bottle Imp) will be directed by Matthew Richardson, conducted by Michael Rafferty, designed by Samal Blak with a cast including Nicholas Sharratt, Rachel Kelly, Steven Page and Ben McAteer. The production debuts at the Theatre Royal Glasgow (23, 26 January 2016) and then travels to Edinburgh (29, 30 January), London's Peacock Theatre (3, 4 February), Cardiff (9 February), the Anvil at Basingstoke (10 February), and Aberystwyth (23 February) with further Welsh dates to be confirmed.

Louise Walsh (c) Steve Lindridge
Louise Walsh (c) Steve Lindridge
Composer Stuart MacRae and novelist Louise Welsh have form together and their partnership has been admirably grown and nurtured by Scottish Opera and Music Theatre Wales. The first collaboration was the 15 minute Remembrance Day which was part of Scottish Opera's admirable evening of new short operas Five: 15 - Operas Made in Scotland. Later the pair's one-act opera Ghost Patrol (2012) was a joint venture between the two companies and won the South Bank Sky Arts Award for Opera in 2013, and received an Olivier Award nomination.

MacRae and Welsh have created a contemporary take on Robert Louis Stevenson's unsettling tale whilst preserving the chilling, queasy qualities of the original. The story turns on a bottle with the power to grant the heart’s desire - but there’s a catch: you can only sell it for less than you paid for it, and, if you die while owning it, your soul goes straight to hell. James uses the bottle to get all he ever dreamed of, and then sells it. Happily married to Catherine, he feels his life is complete until an awful discovery begins to unravel their life together, with devastating consequences.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

London International A Cappella Choir Competition - Heat 2

Sansara preparing for the London International A Cappella Choir Competition at St John's Smith Square
Sansara preparing for the
London International A Cappella Choir Competition at
St John's Smith Square
London International A Cappella Choir Competition - Heat 2; Sansara, Ardu, The Gesualdo Six, Blossom Street; St John's Smith Square
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sep 25 2015
Four contrasting ensembles in the second heat of the competition.

For this year's London International A Cappella Choir Competition, seven choirs are coming together to compete at St John's Smith Square, with heats on 24 and 25 September and the finale on 26 September 2015. The Schola Cantorum of The Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School, The Templar Scholars and The Epiphony Consort competed on 24 September in Heat 1, and we went along on 25 September to hear Sansara, Ardu, The Gesualdo Six and Blossom Street competing in Heat 2 in front of a jury consisting of Peter Phillips (chair, director of The Tallis Scholars), Mark Williams (director of music at Jesus College, Cambridge), Lionel Meunier (director of Vox Luminis), Ghislaine Morgan (vocal coach) and Gabriel Jackson, the festival's featured composer. Each choir had to perform a 20 minute programme comprising a work of Renaissance polyphony, a work by Gabriel Jackson and music of their choice.

The Gesualdo Six
The Gesualdo Six
The four featured groups in the second heat were remarkably varied, with two vocal ensembles and two choirs and each had a very distinct personality, I certainly did not envy the judges having to select just two of the groups to go forward to the finale.

The evening was opened by Sansara, a 19 voice mixed chamber choir (both men and women on the alto line). The group was formed in 2013 and the singer are all young professionals. A feature of the group is that they have no specific conductor but use different ones from the group. Their programme consisted of Wie liegt die Stadt so wust by Rudolf Mauersberger (1889-1971) conducted by Tom Herring, Gabriel Jackson's Peace My Heart (from his Requiem), conducted by Meghan Quinlan and Gombert's Lugebat David Absalom (conducted by Benjamin Cunningham).

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Autumn Sonata puts Bergman's film into music with Anne Sofie von Otter at Finnish National Opera

Anne Sophie von Otter - photo by Ewa-Marie Rundquist
Anne Sophie von Otter - photo by Ewa-Marie Rundquist
Finnish National Opera has commissioned a new opera from Finnish composer Sebastian Fagerlund. The new piece, Autumn Sonata, will have a libretto by Gunilla Hemming based on the film of the same name by Ingmar Bergman. The film, from 1978, the story of an encounter between a celebrated pianist and her adult daughter whom she neglected in childhood. Fagerlund’s Autumn Sonata will be the first full-length opera to be based on an Ingmar Bergman film (Though of course Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music was based on a Bergman film). The production is directed and designed by Stéphane Braunschweig, conducted by John Storgårds (chief conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra and principal guest conductor of the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra) and Anne Sofie von Otter will create the principal role of Charlotte.

This will be Sebastian Fagerlund’s second opera, following the chamber opera Döbeln. His orchestral works and concertos have been performed by a number of major orchestras including the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sakari Oramo, and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra under Edward Gardner. Finnish National Opera and National Ballet feature Finnish world premieres each year. In October 2015, the ballet will be premiering The Little Mermaid, a ballet by Artistic Director Kenneth Greve to music by Tuomas Kantelinen, who is well known for his film scores. January 2016 will see the premiere of a sci-fi opera, Indigo, by Perttu Kivilaakso and Eicca Toppinen, members of the heavy metal band Apocalyptica.