Monday, 17 June 2019

All together now!

A great rehearsal today for Joanna Wyld & my opera, The Gardeners with Anthony Friend (clarinet, Joanna Patrick (viola), Charlotte Amhers (violin), Sophie Haynes (cello), Oliver Wass (harp), William Vann (conductor), Julian Debreuil (bass-baritone), Magid El-Bushra (counter-tenor), Flora McIntosh (mezzo-soprano), Georgia Mae Bishop (mezzo-soprano), Peter Brathwaite (baritone).

Debuts tomorrow, 18 June 2019 at 7.30pm at Conway Hall, tickets £20 still available from Ticket Tailor.

UK debuts, Portugese polyphony, Danish music, Tallis's 'Spem in Alium', Ligeti's 'Nonsense Madrigals' and a Joanna Marsh premiere - 2019/20 Choral at Cadogan

Portuguese vocal ensemble Cupertinos
Portuguese vocal ensemble Cupertinos
The 2019-2020 Choral at Cadogan series is the 12th such, presenting a striking array of choral concerts from the Tallis Scholars, the choir of Westminster Cathedral, the Sixteen, Cupertinos, the Danish National Vocal Ensemble, the Cardinall's Music and the Gesualdo Six, from 2 October 2019 to 18 June 2020.

The series is bookended by the Tallis Scholars whose conductor, Peter Phillips, is the artistic director of the series. And the ensemble will open with an all-Palestrina programme and close with a real treat, an all-Tallis programme featuring his Latin sacred music large and small, culminating in Spem in alium.

Martin Baker and Westminster Cathedral Choir bring a programme of music for Advent centred on the text O magnum mysterium including the premiere of a new motet by Joanna Marsh. Still in seasonal mood, Harry Christophers and the Sixteen will be bringing their Christmas programme.

Danish National Vocal Ensemble
Danish National Vocal Ensemble
There are two groups making their UK debuts, Cupertinos and the Danish National Vocal Ensemble. The Portuguese vocal ensemble Cupertinos, director Luis Toscano, is performing a programme of Portuguese polyphony from the 16th and 17th centuries with a focus on liturgies for Lent and for the Dead. The professional chamber choir of DR the Danish national broadcaster, the Danish National Vocal Ensemble, director Marcus Creed, perform a programme of Danish music from the 16th century to Carl Nielsen to the present day including works by Bo Holten and Bent Sørensen plus three of Bach's motets.

Andrew Carwood and the Cardinall's Musick perform a programme which mixes John Tavener and Arvo Pärt with Byrd, including the Mass for Four Voices and Gibbons. Whilst the Gesualdo Six, director Owain Park, will be tracing the evolution madrigal from Claudio Monteverdi through Palestrina, Marenzio, and Gesualdo to György Ligeti's Nonsense Madrigals.

Full details from the Cadogan Hall website.

Sunday, 16 June 2019

Somewhere for the weekend: A rousing start to Cheltenham Music Festival's 75th birthday

Cheltenham Music Festival
Cheltenham Music Festival
The Cheltenham Music Festival is 75 this year, and so there are celebrations. Things get off to a rousing start with a new Fanfare for Three Trumpets, and then a weekend of free music (5-7 July 2019) in Imperial Gardens with everything from a carnival, soul and jazz bands, to up-and-coming singer songwriters, gospel and world music, not to mention circus performers, face painting, balloon modelling and lots of bubbles. The opening concert, on 5 July 2019 at Cheltenham Town Hall features Elim Chan (the Hong-Kong born chief conductor of the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra and principal guest conductor of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra) conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO), and will be broadcast live on Classic FM.

The festival's opening Fanfare for Three Trumpets will be chosen as a result of a competition. Composers of all ages are asked to submit a fanfare, with a closing date of 1 July 2019. The winner will receive a £250 prize, and the winning entry will be performed by three professional trumpeters on the festival's free stage at the opening celebrations on Friday 5 July 2019. Full details of the competition from the festival website.

The opening concert from Elim Chan and the LSO features the world premiere of Dani Howard's Gates of Spring, plus Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto with Emmanuel Tjeknavorian and Rimsky Korsakov's Scheherazade .

This year's festival runs from 5 to 14 July 2019, and is the first under the artistic directorship of trumpeter Alison Balsom.

Full details from the Cheltenham Music Festival website.

Saturday, 15 June 2019

The Gardeners is coming

Flora McIntosh and Georgia Mae Bishop in rehearsal for The Gardeners
Flora McIntosh and Georgia Mae Bishop in rehearsal for The Gardeners

Rather excitingly, the first performance of Joanna Wyld and my new chamber opera The Gardeners is almost upon us. William Vann will conduct the premiere at Conway Hall on Tuesday 18 June 2019 at 7.30pm, with a terrific cast of young singers and instrumentalists.
Inspired by a newspaper article, the opera explores the themes of remembrance, tolerance, and brotherhood within the context of a family of gardeners in a war-torn country. You can read more about the background in my article on my blog, and read about how Joanna created the libretto in an article on The Cross-Eyed Pianist blog, which also featured me in its Meet the Artist.
Full details of the performance from, and tickets, price £20, from Ticket Tailor.
We look forward to seeing many of you at the opera.

A sense of architecture: Philippe Herreweghe and Collegium Vocale Gent in Bach's Mass in B minor

Collegium Vocale Gent (Photo Michiel Hendrickx)
Collegium Vocale Gent (Photo Michiel Hendrickx)
Bach Mass in B minor; Collegium Vocale Gent, Phillippe Herreweghe; Barbican
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 14 June 2019 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
A powerful sense of architecture and a finely unified feel for the detail of the phrasing in this performance of Bach's late masterwork

Bach's Mass in B minor and The Art of Fugue are both great late works which seem to have been created for their own sake rather than to fulfil a particular musical function. Whereas with Bach's Passions we have a relatively clear idea of works' function, with the two late masterpieces this is far less clear. With the Mass in B minor musicologists still disagree for what occasion, if any, Bach created the work, particularly as at well over 90 minutes running time it is surely too big for a religious occasion. Without a clear function for the work, this means that like The Art of Fugue, we can only guess at the forces needed to perform it.

Each performer is thus able to pick their own way through the maze and choose the forces used. Bach's music is remarkably robust, I once took part in a performance of Bach's Mass in B minor with a choir of 200 supported by a large Victorian organ, and Joshua Rifkin famously recorded the work with one singer to a part (which was standard practice in the Lutheran tradition). And, of course, commentators have disagreed also about whether the mass can be regarded as a unified work at all, as Bach assembled it very much as a 'greatest hits' synthesis rather than composing it anew. But, whilst on paper the piece might seem unlikely, in performance there is a remarkable unity about the work.

At the Barbican Hall on Friday 14 June 2019, Philippe Herreweghe conducted the Collegium Vocale Gent in Bach's Mass in B minor performing it with a choir of 18 singers and the ensemble's own period instrument orchestra numbering 24. The soloists, Dorothee Mields, Hana Blazikova, Alex Potter, Thomas Hobbs and Kresimir Strazanac were all members of the choir. The performance played without an interval, a long sit (nearly 2 hours in the auditorium) but one which gave us a chance to appreciate the architecural sweep of Bach's conception.

Herreweghe took quite a relaxed view of the work, keeping tempos moving but allowing things to breath and using phrasing and articulation to create urgency. If at times, his approach and phrasing verged on the Romantic, then it was clear also that he and the performers relished the expressive variety of textures which the music can bring on period instruments.

Friday, 14 June 2019

The Gardeners in Rehearsal

The Gardeners in rehearsal: William Vann, Anthony Friend, Charlotte Amherst, Joanna Patrick, Sophie Haynes, and Oliver Wass
The Gardeners in rehearsal: William Vann, Anthony Friend, Charlotte Amherst,
Joanna Patrick, Sophie Haynes, and Oliver Wass

We had a great band call on Wednesday for Joanna Wyld and my new opera The Gardeners, with Anthony Friend (clarinet), Charlotte Amherst (violin), Joanna Patrick (viola), Sophie Haynes (cello), and Oliver Wass (harp), with conductor William Vann. My first chance to hear the instrumental interludes properly, and looking forward to the final result next week.

The Gardeners at Conway Hall on 18 June 2019, tickets price £20 available from Ticket Tailor.

Oliver Knussen died following last year’s Aldeburgh Festival and, therefore, the newly-formed Knussen Chamber Orchestra, making its début at this year’s festival, is a worthy and fitting tribute to him

Oliver Knussen (Photo BBC)
Oliver Knussen (Photo BBC)
Knussen, Takemitsu, Stravinsky, Britten, Schubert; Clair Booth, Mark Padmore, Knussen Chamber Orchestra, Ryan Wigglesworth; Aldeburgh Festival at Snape Maltings
Reviewed by Tony Cooper on 11 June 2019 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Claire Booth, who collaborated with Knussen on so many of his works, sang with intensity and feeling the opening work in what proved a lovely and inviting programme dedicated to Oliver Knussen

Oliver Knussen - who died following last year’s Aldeburgh Festival - was so closely associated with the Festival and, in particular, Britten, whom 50 years ago this year invited him to have his music performed at the Aldeburgh Festival. Therefore, this enlightened and pleasing programme on 11 June 2019 at Snape Maltings by the Knussen Chamber Orchestra (KCO) under their chief conductor, Ryan Wigglesworth, offered a worthy and fitting tribute to this well-loved composer, featuring Kussen's own music alongside that of Stravinsky, Schubert, Takemitsu and Britten with soprano Claire Booth and tenor Mark Padmore.

Although the KCO made its début at Snape Maltings Concert Hall on Friday y June in the pit for Thomas Larcher’s chamber opera, The Hunting Gun [see Tony's review], this performance actually marked the orchestra’s first concert on stage of Snape Maltings Concert Hall.

Assembled from some of the UK’s leading orchestral players and the finest emerging instrumentalists, the KCO performed a well-balanced and entertaining programme which included a trio of miniatures by Mr Knussen including his last composition, O Hototogisu! - a musical journey of the soul from this world to the next - premièred at last year’s Aldeburgh Festival.

An artist obscured by his own mythos: Ron Howard's documentary 'Pavarotti'

Ron Howard: Pavarotti
Pavarotti; directed: Ron Howard, with Bono, Herbert Breslin, Jose Carreras, Placido Domingo, Harvey Goldsmith, Andrea Griminelli, Angela Gheorghiu, Nicolette Mantovani, Zubin Mehta, Anne Midgette, Cristina Pavarotti, Guiliana Pavarotti, Lorenza Pavarotti, Madelyn Renee, Adua Veroni; Release date 15 July 2019
Reviewed by Anthony Evans on 11 June 2019 Star rating: 3.0 (★★★)
Ron Howard's straight forward documentary about Luciano Pavarotti feels like something of a lost opportunity

Whatever your views on the soubriquet “King of the high C’s”, the phenomenon that was Pavarotti bestrode the worlds of classical and pop music like a colossus. The son of a baker with a penchant for scarves, his "voice of platinum” and his infectious charm propelled him ever upward in the musical firmament until he succumbed to pancreatic cancer at the age of 70. Ron Howard’s documentary Pavarotti salutes the man and his talent.

Ron Howard takes a straight forward chronological approach, using talking heads, archive footage and photographs to retell the story of his life and career and it is good, as far as it goes. Some of the received wisdom about Pavarotti’s life stretches credulity so it seems perfectly legitimate, even laudable, to take a fastidiously balanced approach to these things especially when there is so much ordure disseminated on the interweb. That said, I wondered what sort of audience this was being pitched at? I didn’t care which but I’d rather it had been settled upon.

With a running time of 115 minutes I’d imagined the "definitive story" would be a work of some heft, a dissection of, if not the man, his art. The potted synopses of some of the most popular operas in the repertoire told another story. What could have been a sparkling, witty even poignant reflection on his life became a dry retelling of his career, more notable for what was left unsaid.

Most of the participants including his family and other notables offered insights that felt scripted rather than improvised and amidst the occasional moments of toe-curling pretention there seemed no space for the nicely turned anecdotes that would have brought the thing to life. Whilst his sometimes-challenging behaviour and peccadillos were briefly alluded to, everyone was on their relentless best and dullest behaviour.

What made this simple man, this self-confessed "peasant "who did not know how to write a cheque" tick?

Craftsmanship, colour & imagination: the symphonies of Thomas Wilson

Thomas Wilson - Symphonies - LINN
Thomas Wilson Symphonies nos 3 & 4, Carillon; Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Rory Macdonald; Linn Records Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 February 2019 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Reassessing the symphonies of one of the major figures in post-War Scottish music

My first encounter with Thomas Wilson's music was his opera Confessions of a Justified Sinner which I saw at Scottish Opera in the 1970s and which made a very strong impression on me. I have always been slightly puzzled as to why it has not been revived.

This disc from Linn Records features three of Wilson's symphonic works, Symphony No. 3, Symphony No. 4 'Passeleth Tapestry' and Carillon performed by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Rory Macdonald.

Born in the USA to Scottish parents, Thomas Wilson returned to the UK when very young and lived and worked in Scotland for most of his life, reading music at the University of Glasgow under Ernest Bullock and Frederick Rimmer. He would eventually become professor at the University. Wilson established himself as a strong and important part of contemporary Scottish musical life with his work being championed by conductors such as Alexander Gibson, James Loughran and Bryden Thomson. Since his death in 2001 his music has languished somewhat, and the fact that his style generally eschewed elements of modernism has perhaps something to do with this. But this disc reveals a distinctive talent with some powerfully well-made music which fits easily into the stylistic diversity of our modern musical world.

Thursday, 13 June 2019

Songs of Home: Njabulo Madlala and William Vann at Pizza Express

Njabulo Madlala
Njabulo Madlala
Songs of Home - Vaughan Williams, Schubert, Quilter, Schumann, traditional South African songs; Njabulo Madlala, William Vann; The Pheasantry, Pizza Express
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 11 June 2019
A mixture of English song, German lieder and South African traditional songs in this engaging programme from South African baritone Njabulo Madlala

The Art Song Series at Pizza Express Live's The Pheasantry in Chelsea continued on Tuesday 11 June 2019, when baritone Njabulo Madlala and pianist William Vann presented Songs of Home, a programme of English and German song alongside songs from South Africa. The programme reflected the various influences that home might mean, as Madlala was born in Durban, South Africa but came to the UK on a scholarship to study at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and he subsequently won the Kathleen Ferrier Award in 2010.

For the first half we had songs reflecting the classical side of Madlala's life with English song and German lieder by RVW, Schubert, Roger Quilter and Robert Schumann. But before that Madlala opened with an evocative version of the spiritual Swing Low Sweet Chariot with its second line, 'Coming for to carry me home'.

A pair of songs from RVW's Songs of Travel rather whetted your appetite for the complete cycle, and they followed this with Linden Lea. In all three, Madlala's expressive English made you rather forget that the language is not his mother tongue. Next came Schubert, continuing the theme of wanderers and wandering, with Liebesbotschaft, Wandrers Nachtlied and Rastlose Liebe. The advantage of this song series being the ability to hear such communicative performances at such close quarters. Singing from memory, with fine diction, Madlala almost made the translations redundant.

Three Roger Quilter songs came next, the Shakespeare setting O Mistress Mine plus two on a flower theme, Go, lovely Rose and Now sleeps the Crimson Petal. This set finished with more flowers from Robert Schumann, Die Lotosblume and Du bist wie eine Blume, and finally a finely intense account of Stille tranen.

The atmosphere changed completely for the second half, when Madlala and Vann were joined by Olufemi Sofela on bass guitar and Tosin Williams on drums. For some of the songs, Madlala was joined by a young South African tenor who was on one of Madlala's programmes in South Africa for young singers, and who is hoping to come to the UK to study. Most of these songs were ones that Madlala learned from his grandmother, love songs, lullabyes, men longing for home, themes which have resonance all over but which take on a special meaning in the context of Apartheid-era South African. They finished with a traditional Xhosa song, 'Qongqothwane' which is traditionally sung at weddings but is known in Europe as The Click Song (because of the distinctive Xhosa click consonants). This was a far more relaxed half, ending the concert on an engaging and uplifting note.

The Art Song Series continues on Saturday 6 July 2019 for the final concert of the Spring/Summer 2019 series, when William Vann will be joined by soprano Sarah-Jane Brandon and baritone Johnny Herford for Hugo Wolf's Italian Song Book.

The opening work of Aldeburgh’s Festival’s 72nd edition, Thomas Larcher’s chamber opera, The Hunting Gun, proved a formidable piece telling the story of a secret love affair through the letters of three people

Thomas Larcher: The Hunting Gun - Samuel Boden, Peter Schöne - Aldeburgh Festival 2019 (photo Stephen Cummiskey)
Thomas Larcher: The Hunting Gun - Samuel Boden, Peter Schöne - Aldeburgh Festival 2019 (photo Stephen Cummiskey)
Thomas Larcher The Hunting Gun; Sarah Aristidou, Samuel Boden, Giulia Peri, Peter Schöne, Iris van Wijnen, cond: Ryan Wigglesworth, dir: Karl Markovics, Knussen Chamber Orchestra, Exaudi Vocal Ensemble; Aldeburgh Festival at Snape Maltings Reviewed by Tony Cooper on 7 June 2019 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Thomas Larcher’s first opera, directed with flair and imagination by the acclaimed Austrian actor/film director, Karl Markovics

Thomas Larcher: The Hunting Gun - Peter Schöne - Aldeburgh Festival 2019 (photo Stephen Cummiskey)
Thomas Larcher: The Hunting Gun - Peter Schöne
Aldeburgh Festival 2019 (photo Stephen Cummiskey)
A chamber opera comprising a prologue and three acts of roughly of 1hr45min in length The Hunting Gun (Das Jagdgewehr) by Thomas Larcher (one of Aldeburgh’s artists-in-residence) was sung in German with English surtitles to a libretto by Friederike Gösweiner. It received its UK première at this year’s Aldeburgh Festival on 7 June 2019 following its world première at the Bregenz Festival (the commissioning body) last year in a production directed by Karl Markovics, with Sarah Aristidou, Samuel Boden, Giulia Peri, Peter Schöne and Iris van Wijnen. Ryan Wigglesworth conducted by Knussen Chamber Orchestra.

The scenario - based upon the best-selling post-war Japanese novella The Hunting Gun by Yasushi Inoue published in 1949 - surrounds a poet enjoying a winter’s walk on Mount Amagi who, by chance, comes upon a solitary, lonely and sad-looking hunter searching for his prey. He publishes a poem about him. His name: Josuke Misugi.

Believing himself to be the central character depicted in the poem, Misugi writes to the Poet to explain the cause of his sadness through three letters coming from three women closely associated with him: his wife Midori, his mistress Saiko (who happens to be Midori’s cousin and best friend) and his niece Shoko, the daughter of Saiko.

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Nominees in the Sky Arts Award

Gershwin: Porgy and Bess - Nadine Benjamin, Donovan Singletary English National Opera (Photo Tristram Kenton)
Gershwin: Porgy and Bess - Nadine Benjamin, Donovan Singletary English National Opera (Photo Tristram Kenton)
This year's South Bank Sky Arts Awards (now in its 23rd year) takes place on Sunday 7 July 2019 at the Savoy Hotel. The awards celebrate every genre of the Arts. This year, in the Opera category nominees are Welsh National Opera's premiere production of Elena Langer's Rhondda Rips It Up! [see my review], English National Opera's production of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess [see Ruth's review] and Garsington Opera's production of Verdi's Falstaff (you can see the production free on OperaVision).

Amongst the nominations for The Times Breakthrough Award is soprano Nadine Benjamin (who starred in the ENO Porgy & Bess and whose own company presented Puccini's Tosca earlier this year, see my review), alongside conductor Alpesh Chauhan, dancer Joseph Sissens and a number of others. The Classical category includes the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra's Debussy Festival, James MacMillan's Cumnock Tryst festival, and John Wilson's Bernstein Centenary celebrations.

Full details from the Sky website.

Tuesday, 11 June 2019

Poise, elegance and drama: Carolyn Sampson & Joseph Middleton - Reason in Madness

Reason in Madness - Carolyn Sampson, Joseph Middleton - BIS
Reason in Madness - Brahms, Schumann, Richard Strauss, Koechlin, Debussy, Duparc, Wolf, Schubert, Saint Saens, Chausson, Poulenc; Carolyn Sampson, Joseph Middleton; BIS Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 February 2019 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
An intelligent, intensely focused yet stylish exploration of male composers' depictions of female madness

The concept of female madness is something of a male construct, and has long fascinated men in different ways. Composers have equally returned constantly to the idea, yet bringing a variety of different reactions.

On this new disc Reason in Madness on BIS, soprano Carolyn Sampson and pianist Joseph Middleton explore composers' depictions of female madness with music by Brahms, Schumann, Richard Strauss, Koechlin, Debussy, Duparc, Wolf, Schubert, Saint Saens, Chausson and Poulenc, through characters such as Ophelia, Mignon and Faust's Marguerite.

The disc opens with an unaccompanied version of 'Sie trugen ihn auf de Bahre bloss' from Brahms' 5 Ophelia Lieder, written for an actress and with accompaniments which suggest Brahms intended them to be unaccompanied. The lack of piano heightens the folk-like nature of the song in Sampson's focused and concentrated performance.

Another year over: Genesis Sixteen showcases its current cohort and welcomes the new cohort

Members of Genesis Sixteen
Members of Genesis Sixteen
The Sixteen recently announced the 2019/20 cohort of young singers for Genesis Sixteen. Over the course of a year members of Genesis Sixteen take part in a series of week-long and weekend courses led by key figures from The Sixteen, including founder and conductor Harry Christophers and Associate Conductor Eamonn Dougan. Participants receive group tuition, individual mentoring and masterclasses run by some of the world’s top vocal experts. Support from the Genesis Foundation means participants receive free tuition and a bursary to cover all additional costs. The scheme is now in its eighth year and has worked with over 150 participants.

There will be chance to hear the 2018/19 Genesis Sixteen in action on Saturday 20 July 2019 as part of the Sixteen's Sounds Sublime Festival at St Clement Dane's Church. Genesis Sixteen will be giving a lunchtime concert, the culmination of the year-long training programme, beforehand in the morning Genesis Sixteen alumni will be supporting Streetwise Opera in a performance responding to Eric Whitacre’s Leonardo Dreams of his Flying Machine, the culmination of a series of workshops with The Sixteen’s education department and Streetwise Opera.

Full details of the Sounds Sublime festival from The Sixteen website.

Young British conductor Harry Ogg joins WNO as Associate Conductor

Harry Ogg
The young British conductor Harry Ogg reached the finals of the Donatella Flick Competition in 2018, and as a result has been appointed Associate Conductor at Welsh National Opera (WNO) as part of a collaboration between WNO and the competition. Harry has been becoming noticed recently, he also won second prize in the MDR Symphony Orchestra Conducting Competition in Leipzig 2018 and was selected for the Deutsche Dirigentenforum the same year, and he will be working with François-Xavier Roth in Cologne with their resident Gürzenich Orchestra next season.

Harry assisted Tomáš Hanus, Music Director of WNO, on WNO's new production of Prokofiev's War and Peace last Autumn, and he will again be working on the production when WNO perform it at Covent Garden in July 2019. Harry made his debut with WNO conducting the orchestra for a concert at Saffron Hall in March 2019, and his first official engagement as Associate Conductor will be conducting a trio of Summer Opera Classics concerts in Wales featuring songs and arias from Norma to South Pacific, with soloists Joyce El Khouri (who recently sang Elisabetta in Rossini's Roberto Devereux with WNO, see my review) and Jason Howard.

This Autumn, Harry will again work alongside Tomáš as Assistant Conductor on WNO’s new production of Bizet’s Carmen. He will then return to conduct Carmen in Cardiff and on tour during the Spring 2020 season.

Harry was conductor for the Opera Holland Park young artists performance of Mozart's Don Giovanni in 2017 [see my review], and I interviewed him way back in 2013.

Monday, 10 June 2019

Rehearsals for The Gardeners

Julian Debreuill, Peter Brathwaite, Magid El-Bushra, Flora McIntosh, Georgia Mae Bishop in rehearsals
Julian Debreuill, Peter Brathwaite, Magid El-Bushra, Flora McIntosh, Georgia Mae Bishop in rehearsals
It was great to have all five soloists (Julian Debreuil, Peter Brathwaite, Magid El-Bushra, Flora McIntosh, Georgia Mae Bishop) together at rehearsals for the climactic final ensemble of The Gardeners directed by William Vann. Exciting to hear the music properly, and it will be even more so when we add the instruments.

The Gardeners (libretto by Joanna Wyld) premiers at Conway Hall on 18 June 2019, tickets available from Ticket Tailor.

William Vann in rehearsal
William Vann in rehearsal

Sheer enjoyment: Verdi's Falstaff at the Grange Festival

Verdi: Falstaff - Nicholas Lester, Rhian Lois, Elin Pritchard, Angela Simkin, Graham Clark, Alessandro Fisher - The Grange Festival 2019 (Photo Clive Barda)
Verdi: Falstaff - Nicholas Lester, Rhian Lois, Elin Pritchard, Angela Simkin, Graham Clark, Alessandro Fisher
The Grange Festival 2019 (Photo Clive Barda)
Verdi Falstaff; Robert Hayward, Elin PRitchard, Rhian Lois, Susan Bickley, Nicholas Lester, Alessandro Fisher, Graham Clark, Christopher Gillett, Petro di Bianco, dir: Christopher Luscombe, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, cond: Francesco Cilluffo Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 9 June 2019 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
A contemporary updating, detailed direction, nimble ensemble and sheer enjoyment

Verdi Falstaff: - Robert Hayward, Nicholas Lester - The Grange Festival 2019 (Photo Clive Barda)
Verdi Falstaff: - Robert Hayward, Nicholas Lester
The Grange Festival 2019 (Photo Clive Barda)
We caught Christopher Luscombe's new production of Verdi's Falstaff at the Grange Festival on Sunday 9 June 2019. Robert Hayward was Falstaff, with Elin Pritchard as Alice Ford, Rhian Lois as Nannetta, Susan Bickley as Mistress Quickly, Angela Simkin as Meg Page, Nicholas Lester as Ford, Alessandro Fisher as Fenton, Graham Clark as Dir Caius, Christopher Gillett as Bardolfo, Pietro di Bianco as Pistola. Francesco Cilluffo conducted the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.

Luscombe's amazingly detailed production set the opera in the present day, and Simon Higlett's imaginative set made the maximum use of the Grange's stage. The opera opened in a rather naff modern hostelry full of faux-wood, and this slid sideways to reveal the Ford's house with a dock in front (used for comings and goings by steam launch), and the house swung round to reveal the well-equipped kitchen for interior scenes.

The result created a series of striking settings, with swift scene changes, and very much evoked and updated version of the suburbia of Brian Rix farces, and the Fords were prime candidates for inclusion in such a farce. Though in fact, this was no farce but a highly detailed comedy. Falstaff (Robert Hayward) was an ageing hippy, all hair, beard, loud loose clothes and bare feet, you felt that the present Marquess of Bath was perhaps one of the role's inspirations!

What was delightful about evening was the way that Luscombe's updating and carefully detailed direction made the piece work so well in its present day setting. There were lots of incidental delights; there was a real credit card machine, the 'boys' who shift the laundry basket are in fact workmen there to fit a new washer, Falstaff's damp entry at the beginning of Act Three is made to the inn's riveside patio complete with a classic pub table.

But what made the evening work was the lightness that everyone brought to the performance, the sense of ensemble and the sheer enjoyment that the cast exhibited. The comedy had no particular axe to grind, simply the enjoyment of the vagaries and mores of the world.

A finely balanced cast in Opera Holland Park's 1930s setting for Verdi's Un ballo in maschera

Verdi: Un ballo in maschera - Matteo Lippi, Alison Langer - Opera Holland Park 2019 (Photo Ali Wright)
Verdi: Un ballo in maschera - Matteo Lippi, Alison Langer - Opera Holland Park 2019 (Photo Ali Wright)
Verdi Un ballo in maschera; Anne Sophie Duprels, Matteo Lippi, George von Bergen, Rosalind Plowright, Alison Langer, dir: Rodula Gaitanou, City of London Sinfonia, cond: Matthew Kofi Waldren; Opera Holland Park Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 8 June 2019 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
Strong individual performances in a staging which does not quite have the right impact

Verdi: Un ballo in maschera - Anne Sophie Duprels, Matteo Lippi - Opera Holland Park 2019 (Photo Ali Wright)
Verdi: Un ballo in maschera
Anne Sophie Duprels, Matteo Lippi
Opera Holland Park 2019 (Photo Ali Wright)
Opera Holland Park's second opera of the season was Verdi's Un ballo un maschera in a production by Rodula Gaitanou with designs by Takis which opened on Saturday 8 June 2019. Matteo Lippi was Gustavo, with Anne Sophie Duprels as Amelia, George von Bergen as Anckarström, Rosalind Plowright as Madame Arvidson, Alison Langer as Oscar, Benjamin Bevan as Ribbing and John Savournin as Horn. Matthew Kofi Waldren conducted the City of London Sinfonia.

Despite the use of the Swedish names for the characters Gaitanou's production was relatively unspecific in its location. Re-set to the 1930s,  Takis' sets were based around wooden panelling which could be moved flexibly, though the stage was rarely fully opened out and most of the scenes were played out on a deliberately restricted stage with the wooden backdrop presumably helping the auditorium's tricky acoustics. The period setting gave the opportunity for turning Madame Arvidson (Rosalind Plowright) into a stylish society medium, and meant that Anne Sophie Duprels' Amelia was less passive and had rather more gumption than in many portrayals. But the setting did not seem to specifically add to the the opera's dramaturgy, and significantly weakened it in one way as there was little feel of the gothic.

This gothic element plays an important part in Verdi's opera, but it is something that modern day stagings have difficulty getting right, contemporary audiences' relationship to the gothic is very different to those in Verdi's time. Gaitanou's staging of Madame Arvidson's scene was enormously effective, but it lacked the transgressive feel, the sense of going out of the bounds of normal society. And Act Two was set in a hospital which, despite some dead bodies and alarming shadows, just does not have the same sense of desperation as the original instructions for Amelia to pick the herb in the shadow of the gallows. Functionally Act Two worked pretty well, but it lacked the atmosphere necessary to bring this scene off.

That said, I have to confess that I have yet to see an entirely satisfactory production of Un ballo in maschera and wonder whether David Alden's 1980s gothic fantasy at English National Opera might have come closest. Certainly recently directors have struggled to make the piece work.

At Opera Holland Park the strength of the casting meant that we overlooked any weakness in the staging, and the combination of Matteo Lippi, Anne Sophe Duprels, Rosalind Plowright and George van Bergen really held our attention.

Saturday, 8 June 2019

Something for everyone: I chat to Michael Williams', Buxton Festival's CEO, about ideas and plans for the festival

Michael Williams (Photo Anton De Beer)
Michael Williams (Photo Anton De Beer)
The Buxton Festival has cause for celebration this year, it is 40 years since Anthony Hose and Malcolm Fraser put on the first complete performance of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor (in the original keys) at the newly restored Buxton Opera House. Since then the festival has developed enormously, expanding in scope to include a significant musical programme as well as a whole literary side. This year a new team is in charge, Michael Williams, the festival's CEO, took over in 2018, and conductor Adrian Kelly is the new artistic director. I recently met up with Michael to talk about the 2019 festival and learn more of the new team's plans, but also to find out how a South African director and artistic administrator (Michael ran Cape Town Opera for 20 years) has ended up in Buxton.

One of the things that Michael enjoys about the festival is its Friends, there are over 2000 of them and they are highly engaged as well as being critical of the festival. Michael loves the way that the Friends connect with the festival with a sense of passion, something that he finds quite rare.  But whilst he values the Friends and is keen for the festival to serve them, he also wants the festival to respond to the wider area around Buxton and to work with communities and draw them in. He points out that everyone loves stories and loves song, and opera is just telling a story in song.

So Michael wants to make the festival a bit more open. One of the reasons for doing Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin this year is that it is an opera about young love, something with which everyone can connect. But the festival has developed a reputation for exploring rarities, and this year is no exception. They are collaborating with La Serenissima to stage Caldara's Lucia Papiro Dittatore, an opera which has not been performed for 300 years (Caldara worked for the Imperial court in Vienna, which is where the opera was premiered).

Buxton Opera House (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Buxton Opera House (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)

Friday, 7 June 2019

North London's 'quirky and friendly' Stroud Green Festival starts today

The Bloomsbury Quartet
The Bloomsbury Quartet
Today (7 June 2019) sees the start of North London's 'quirky and friendly' Stroud Green Festival. Between now and 23 June the festival will be celebrating women and women composers, with a lively programme of folk, jazz, classical, early music, art, poetry and theatre at eight venues across Harringey. Artistic director Clare Norburn has become known for her concert-plays and four are featured at the festival, varying from the imagined testimony of Hildegard of Bingen, to Beethoven and the late quintets with actor David Timson and the Dante Quintet, to the secret life and love of medieval Amy Winehouse, Beatriz de Dia, and Prosper Merimee's Carmen with music by Bizet and from Spain.

Hildegard of Bingen stays in focus at the festival as ensemble Vox Animae perform her allegorical drama Ordo Virtutum. There will be music and readings from Shakespeare's plays with a focus on Shakespeare's women, whilst guitar and flute duo Flaugissimo's concert will include music by Clara Schumann, Anna Amalia of Prussia and Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel.

Lux Musicae
Lux Musicae
Last year, Stroud Green Festival saw its first ensembles competition in which four of London’s most exciting ensembles won two years of mentoring and engagements in the festival as resident ensembles. This year’s resident ensembles are Lux Musicae London and Bloomsbury Quartet. Lux Musicae's concerts include the story of the roots of Flamenco music, and an exploration of the music and vocal art of Francesca Caccini (1587-1641) and Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677). The Bloomsbury Quartet will perform quartets by Elizabeth Maconchy, her teacher Vaughan Williams and daughter Nicola LeFanu as photographs and Maconchy’s writings are read and projected. Plus, a pre-concert installation will introduce Maconchy through film and photography while the audience is free to interact with musicians and listen to examples of her music.

Full details from the festival website.

A lively new concert season for the orchestra of Opera North

Conductor Ruth Reinhardt makes her UK debut with the orchestra of Opera North (Photo Harrison Linsey)
Conductor Ruth Reinhardt makes her UK debut with the
orchestra of Opera North (Photo Harrison Linsey)
As well as accompanying Opera North's performances the Orchestra of Opera North has a lively existence out of the pit, and the company has just announced details of the 2019/20 concert season which the orchestra is giving in partnership with Kirklees Council. At a time when local authorities are cutting back on provision for the arts it is heartening to see that Opera North and Kirklees Council's partnership is now in its 17th year.

The concert season in Huddersfield Town Hall (with some concerts in Leeds Town Hall and one in Dewsbury Town Hall) will feature the UK debut of German-born USA-based conductor Ruth Reinhardt who is joined by pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin for Beethoven's Emperor Concerto, along with music by Webern and Schubert, Latvian violinist Kristïne Balanas in Korngold's Violin Concerto alongside Max Steiner's music from the film Casablanca and Prokofiev, and the premiere of Arya a new concerto for sitar and orchestra by Jasdeep Singh Degun, alongside music by Turkish composer Ulvi Cemal Erkin and Sibelius, conducted by Harish Shankar. The concerto follows a residency project undertaken by Jasdeep Singh Degun as part of Opera North annual Resonance programme for musicians and composers from BAME backgrounds.

There is opera too, with a concert performance of Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle with Christopher Purves and Karen Cargill, conducted by Anthony Krauss. And lighter items too, a G&S evening, a Viennese waltz evening and Raymond Briggs' animated film The Snowman with Howard Blake's music performed live.

The company is starting a new residency for women conductors, in recognition of the fact that talented female conductors are less likely to find their way into opera than men. The residency, aimed at female conductors who have shown extraordinary potential and who are at the start of promising careers in opera, is spread across a full opera season, and will include observing opera rehearsals, being mentored by Opera North’s Music staff and guest conductors, and engaging with the Company’s Education and outreach programmes.

The first participant is Sonia Ben-Santamaria (whose name will be familiar to regular readers of this blog, and she will be conducting two performances of Opera Holland Park's Un ballo in Maschera later this month.

Full details of the concert season from the Opera North website.

Music Plus Podcast: classical music and issues

Classical Music Podcast
Discussion of classical music tends to skirt away from political issues. The issues are there, certainly, and sometimes rear their heads only to disappear again, but we seem to have no consistent discussion about music, culture and wider issues, whether they be politics, race, gender, sexuality or more.

Now the Music Plus has been launched, in which different musicians talk about themselves and the issues they are involved in, with Christopher Gunness. Current podcasts include Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero talking about the ongoing political crisis in her own country, something that Montero continues to address in her own music making, conductor Mark Wigglesworth talking not only about conducting but Brexit and the challenges of a career in the musc industry, and double bass player Chi-Chi Nwanoku on the government's current disastrous policies on musical education in schools and the lack of diversity in the classical music industry.

Whilst the podcasts are issue-led, they are about people as well. Musicians are often involved in issues because of who they are or because of things that have happened to them, and Gunness is an engaging interviewer so that we enjoy and are engage in the narrative of the interviewees journey.

Other interviewees include Julian Lloyd-Webber on universal music education, Nicholas McCarthy (the concert pianist born without a right hand) on disability and stigma, and James Rose (the world's first professional conductor with cerebral palsy) whilst planned is Cayenna Ponchione Bailey, who recently brought the Afghan Women's Orchestra to the UK.

Gunness, himself, has an interesting background. Originally a music journalist at the BBC, he has worked in the Middle-East for UN doing rights-based public advocacy. He created the Music Plus podcast because for years he saw the world of pop music campaigning for all sorts of issues (right back to Live Aid), yet there was nothing comparable in classical music.

Music  Plus is available on Spotify and on iTunes.

You can also see the complete list of podcasts on the Classical Music magazine website.

Verdi's Don Carlo returns to Grange Park Opera in Jo Davies & Leslie Travers stylish & imaginative production

Verdi: Don Carlo - Leonardo Capalbo, Brett Polegato - Grange Park Opera 2019 (Photo Robert Workman)
Verdi: Don Carlo Act 1 - Leonardo Capalbo, Brett Polegato - Grange Park Opera 2019 (Photo Robert Workman)
Verdi Don Carlo; Leonardo Capalbo, Brett Polegato, Marina Costa-Jackson, Ruxandra Donose, Clive Bayley, dir: Jo Davies, ENO Orchestra, cond: Gianluca Marciano; Grange Park Opera
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 6 June 2019 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
A miracle of compression, one of the most satisfying productions of Verdi's grand opera around

Grange Park Opera opened its 2019 season with a revival of Jo Davies fine production of Verdi's Don Carlo, one of the last (and finest) productions in the company's old home in Hampshire. [see my review]. The production featured two original cast members returning to their roles, Clive Bayley's Filippo and Ruxandra Donose's Eboli, with Leonardo Capalbo as Don Carlo, Marina Costa-Jackson as Elisabetta, Brett Polegato as Rodrigo, Branislav Jatic as the Grand Inquisitor, David Shipley as the Monk / Charles V and Jessica Leary as Tebaldo. Gianluca Marciano conducted the orchestra of English National Opera.

Central to the production are Leslie Travers stylish and imaginative sets which provide a series of striking backdrops for the intimate scenes yet facilitate creating a remarkable amount of grandeur on a relatively small stage. The production remains one of the most satisfying recent incarnations of Verdi's grand opera that we have seen and the only regrets are that length prevents the five-act version from being performed, and that it is not done in the original French (Leonardo Capalbo will be singing the title role in French with Opera Vlaanderen in the Autumn).

Verdi: Don Carlo - Clive Bayley, Leonardo Capalbo - Grange Park Opera 2019 (Photo Robert Workman)
Verdi: Don Carlo Act 2 'Auto de fe scene' - Clive Bayley, Leonardo Capalbo
Grange Park Opera 2019 (Photo Robert Workman)
Without the Fontainebleau Act, we never see Don Carlo and Elisabetta in their moment of untroubled bliss and the four act version of the opera has inevitably to start in media res.

Thursday, 6 June 2019

Opera Holland Park opens its 2019 season with a striking new Manon Lescaut directed by award-winning Karolina Sofulak

Puccini: Manon Lescaut - Elizabeth Llewellyn, Peter Auty - Opera Holland Park 2019 (Photo Robert Workman)
Puccini: Manon Lescaut Act 2 - Elizabeth Llewellyn, Peter Auty - Opera Holland Park 2019 (Photo Robert Workman)
Puccini Manon Lescaut; Elizabeth Llewellyn, Peter Auty, Paul Carey Jones, Stephen Richardson, dir: Karolina Sofulak, City of London Sinfonia, cond: Peter Robinson; Opera Holland Park Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 4 June 2019 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
A sophisticated and intelligent updating, presented with impulsive passion

Puccini: Manon Lescaut - Paul Carey Jones - Opera Holland Park 2019 (Photo Robert Workman)
Puccini: Manon Lescaut Act 2 - Paul Carey Jones
Opera Holland Park 2019 (Photo Robert Workman)
I have to confess that I have never really found the character of Manon very fascinating in any of her incarnations (novel, opera by Massenet, opera by Puccini or ballet by Kenneth MacMillan). For any performance, I rely very much on the particular artists to create a reason for me to continue watching. Puccini's opera, with its compressed dramaturgy, remains a somewhat strange beast. Despite being his first major work, the piece has never achieved the sort of performance level that his other pieces have.

So, it was all the more intriguing to find Opera Holland Park opening its 2019 season on 4 June 2019 with Puccini's Manon Lescaut with a pair of extremely fine artists, Elizabeth Llewellyn and Peter Auty, as Manon and Des Grieux, in a production by a director, Karolina Sofulak, who won the European Opera Directing Prize in 2018 (with designer George Johnson-Leigh) with the concept on which this production was based! The cast was completed by Paul Carey Jones as Lescaut, Stephen Richardson as Geronte, and Stephen Aviss as Edmondo. Peter Robinson conducted the City of London Sinfonia.

Sofulak and Johnson-Leigh set the opera in the early 1960s, and Act One opened in a club frequented by trendy young things. It became apparent that Geronte (Stephen Richardson) was not a visitor but the shady owner of the club. At first, it seemed that Sofulak's approach, give or take the setting, was quite traditional but then at the end of Act Two there were no guards, just Geronte and his heavy (Alistair Sutherland), and in Act Three we were back in the club, with Manon (Elizabeth Llewellyn) and other women, Shadow Manons, being looked over by Geronte and the club members (the solo roles in this act being combined up with those of Geronte, Innkeeper and Edmondo). Then in Act Four the action became even more metaphysical, about the fractures in the relationship between Manon and Des Grieux (Peter Auty) rather than a real desert.

The result was a sophisticated and intelligent updating, which cast new light on the piece without doing violence to Puccini's original dramaturgy. It made economic sense too, with the just one flexible set and the removal of the need to have separate soloists in Act Three.

Puccini: Manon Lescaut - Paul Carey Jones, Elizabeth Llewellyn, Stephen Richardson  - Opera Holland Park 2019 (Photo Robert Workman)
Puccini: Manon Lescaut Act 1 - Paul Carey Jones, Elizabeth Llewellyn, Stephen Richardson
Opera Holland Park 2019 (Photo Robert Workman)

Wednesday, 5 June 2019

BCMG: Across the Channel - Outre Manche

BCMG: Across the Channel
Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (BCMG) is joining forces with the French ensemble Court-circuit and the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire for a cross-Channel collaborative project bringing the two new music ensembles together with early career musicians to perform music by five contemporary composers, Hilda Paredes, Mael Bailly, Francois Paris, Rebecca Saunders and Jonathan Harvey.

The project involves a residency and exchange visit, culminating in a concert at the Conservatoire on 14 June 2019, when Jean Deroyer will conduct the two ensembles alongside early career musicians from the Conservatoire.

The concert will feature UK premieres of Siphonophorae by Mexican-born London-based Hilda Paredes, and Six miniatures pour sextuor by the young French composer Maël Bailly. À propos de Nice by French-born Spain-based François Paris dates from 2005 and is inspired by 1929 silent film of the same name by Jean Vigo which will be shown as part of the performance. British composer Rebecca Saunders, who won the 2019 Ernst von Siemens prize, has strong links to BCMG (with two other works being performed by BCMG in 2019) and they will perform her Stirrings Still I in the concert. The programme is completed with Jonathan Harvey's 2009 composition for ten-piece chamber ensemble Vajra .

The exchange is completed in November when members of BCMG travel to Paris to perform with Court-circuit and work with students from the Paris Conservatoire.

Full details from the BCMG website.

Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen launches her debut CD

James Baillieu and Lise Davidsen at Home House (Photo Dominic Nicholls)
James Baillieu and Lise Davidsen at Home House (Photo Dominic Nicholls)
The young Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen has been causing some excitement in the opera world as she explores the lyric dramatic repertoire, demonstrating the type and calibre of voice which only comes rarely in each generation. She made her UK debut at a Rosenblatt Recital at Wigmore Hall in 2017 [see Ruth's review], and she was Ariadne in Glyndebourne's 2017 revival of Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos [see Claire Seymour's review on Opera Today]. Davidsen will be back in the UK later this year when she joins Jonas Kaufmann in Covent Garden's new production of Beethoven's Fidelio.

But before then, she is releasing her first CD on DECCA, with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, performing arias from Wagner's Tannhauser and Richard Strauss songs including the Four Last Songs.

Last night (3 June 2019), there was a launch event for the disc at Home House in Portman Square, when Lise Davidsen was joined by pianist James Baillieu (her regular partner, he was the pianist at that 2017 Rosenblatt Recital) to sing Elisabeth's prayer 'Allmacht'ge Jungfrau!' from Tannhauser, 'Cacilie' and 'Ruhe, meine Seele' from Richard Strauss' Vier Lieder Op. 27, and 'Beim Schlafengehen' from Vier letzte Lieder. It was a privilege and a thrill to be able to hear Davidsen performing at such close quarters, she has a remarkable voice and in the Q&A with Edward Seckerson afterwards, it was clear that Davidsen has a clear understanding of both her voice and the care needed in its development (she is only 32).

Lise Davidsen and Edward Seckerson at Home House (Photo Dominic Nicholls)
Lise Davidsen and Edward Seckerson at Home House
(Photo Dominic Nicholls)
Davidsen comes from a small town in Norway and grew up playing the guitar and wanting to be Joni Mitchell or Eva Cassidy. A high school her voice was noticed and she was advised to study solo singing rather than being in a choir, and a teacher suggested she look at 'Dido's Lament' from Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. This would be her first exposure to opera; she looked for a recording in the library and ended up listening to Kirsten Flagstad singing it and was blown away. She did not hear her first live opera until she was 19, Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier.

At first she identified as a mezzo-soprano, and studied as one for three years. She loved the baroque repertoire, but a teacher said that she was a soprano. Her initial reaction was 'no that isn't going to happen' but in fact it felt right, and she simply went with what the voice told her. Her singing teacher advised her to listen to bigger voices, such as Birgit Nilsson, as that was where her voice would go.

She is clearly planning her future repertoire with care, taking good advice about roles, as a former mezzo-soprano her voice takes a slightly different path to sopranos who approach the dramatic repertoire from a lighter soprano perspective (Kirsten Flagstad sang operetta and lyric roles for over a decade before moving to heavier ones).

Davidsen will be singing Elisabeth in Wagner's Tannhauser at Bayreuth this Summer.

Lise Davidsen's recital on DECCA is out now. Available from Amazon.

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