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Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Scenes from the End

Jonathan Woolgar - Scenes from the End - Heloise Werner
Scenes from the End is a new opera by the young composer Jonathan Woolgar. Written for soprano Heloise Werner, the work is being premiered by her, directed by Emily Burns, at Camden People's Theatre on 10 August 2016 before being taken to the Edinburgh Fringe. I caught up with Jonathan Woolgar by telephone to find out more about the work.

Jonathan Woolgar
Jonathan Woolgar
It is indeed a solo piece, the opera features only Heloise Werner and for most of its 45 minute length she sings unaccompanied with just a bit of percussion and recorded sound. Jonathan admitted that it was quite challenge for both performer and composer.

Jonathan explained that the opera deals with cosmic themes, but done in a witty and theatrical way. The opera is in three parts, the first considers the end of the universe, the second the end of the human species and the third, the end of a human life. The piece thinks about the end and how we might grieve, and Jonathan admits that it is quite grandiose. He has written both the music and the words, something he had done before but not on this scale and he sees it as an exciting opportunity.

Jonathan has been working in close collaboration with Heloise and the piece has been re-worked and re-imagined during the rehearsal process. Jonathan has written music for Heloise before, having written for The Hermes Experiment (in which Heloise performs) as well as writing Six Dream Songs for her, a solo piece which he describes as almost a try out for Scene from the End. He thus had an understanding both of Heloise's voice and of her versatility, and she had an idea about the themes he might want to explore. When she approached him about the idea for Scenes from the End, the length and the intention to have a work which was substantially unaccompanied were set quite early but the rest was up for grabs particularly when they thought about the structure of the piece.

Heloise Werner performing with The Hermes Experiment, SONIC VISIONS, The Forge, Feb 2016 - photo by Nick Rutter
Heloise Werner performing with
The Hermes Experiment,
photo by Nick Rutter
Jonathan describes his musical style as communicative but uncompromising (you can hear a sample on his SoundCloud page). He wants to speak to listeners but is concerned not to pander and not to be consciously accessible. But writing such a solo piece, he feels it forces him to speak in the most direct way possible and his music adapts to the dramatic situation.

Though Heloise plays a single character in the opera, the nature of the character changes as the piece progresses. She starts out as an oracle figure displaying events, yet the piece ends with the death of a human. So though there is no cast of clearly defined characters, there are lots of shades and variations to the central character.

Jonathan won the BBC Proms Young Composers’ Competition in 2010 and went on to read music at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge where studied composition with Giles Swayne, going on to study with David Sawyer at the Royal Academy of Music. He has just finished the first year of a two year residency at Eton College, where he is teaching and writing for the school ensembles, work which he describes as terrific. Coming up he has a piece for violin and cello to be performed by players from the ensemble Khymerical. He will also be writing a piece for CUMS (Cambridge University Music Society) but the details of that have still to be finalised.

Jonathan Woolgar's Scenes from the End will be performed by Heloise Werner at Camden Peoples Theatre on 11 and 12 August 2016 (tickets from the Camden Fringe website), and Heloise will then be performing it at the Edinburgh Fringe from 22 to 27 August 2016. The piece will be returning to London from 6 to 10 December 2016 at the Tristan Bates Theatre.

The youthful miller - Schubert's Die schöne Müllerin from Robert Murray

Schubert - Die schöne Müllerin - Robert Murray, Andrew West - Stone Records
Schubert Die schöne Müllerin; Robert Murray, Andrew West; Stone Records
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 20 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Vigorous and characterful account of Schubert's first great song-cycle

This new disc of Schubert's 1823 song cycle Die schöne Müllerin on Stone Records sees tenor Robert Murray and pianist Andrew West performing the work. The advantage of having a tenor performing is that we can hear it in Schubert's original higher keys and the relative brightness of the voice emphasises the character's youth.

Murray has had the cycle in his repertoire for over ten years, and even taken part in staged performances of the work. The most recent incorporating a hand puppet and accompanied by guitar and string ensemble! The recording, made in 2014, is thus the fruit of long experience performing the piece.

In his article introducing the recording Robert Murray talks about the character and how it is important to bear in mind that he is only around 16. Despite a tendency to talk to streams, flowers and stars (thanks partly to the poetic conventions of Wilhelm Müller's poetry) Murray also thinks that we should not burden the character with sickness but 'find a truth from his point of view, as he sees each moment'. Murray's miller is thus rather less introspective than some. He is young and vigorous, innocent, and rather open and direct yet prone to doubt and loneliness.

This sense of youthful vigour comes over from the opening bars, when Andrew West's mill stream is certainly vibrant and energetic, Robert Murray's performance matches this and he gives the young man a wonderfully youthful swagger.

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Wimbledon Music Festival 2016

This year's Wimbledon Music Festival runs from 12 to 27 November 2017 with a whole variety of musical events in and around Wimbledon including St John's Church, Spencer Hill, Trinity Church, Mansel Road, Sacred Heart Church, Edge Hill and Wimbledon Synagogue. This year's festival takes as its theme Music inspired by Folk Sources.

The festival opens with Sonoro Choir and Wimbledon Youth Choir in David Fanshawe's African Sanctus. The Skampa String Quartet will be teaming up with the Hungarian folk ensemble Muzsikas for a programme which interweaves music by Bartok and Kodaly with Hungarian folk music. The Skampa Quartet will also be giving their own concert with music by Dvorak, Martinu and Smetana. The ensemble She'koyokh combine a klezmer band with a Bulgarian choir, quite a combination.

Christoph Pregardien and Sholto Kynoch will be performing Mahler, Schubert and Schumann. Stile Antico's programme celebrates Shakespeare 400 with music by Morley, Byrd, Dowland, Tomkins, Weelkes and Gibbons. The Academy Choir and Academy Baroque Ensemble, conducted by Andrew Edwards will be performing Bach's St John Passion with soloists Julia Doyle, David Allsopp, Robin Tritschler, and Benjamin Appl.

Raphael Wallfisch will be performing all six of Bach's suites for unaccompanied cello. Christian Tezlaff performs music for unaccompanied violin by Bach and Bartok, and the Tezlaff Quartet will give a programme of quartets by Mozart, Mendelssohn and Sibelius.

The festival closes with the City of London Sinfonia, conducted by Michael Collins in a programme which includes Copland's Appalachian Spring, Holst's St Paul's Suite and a selection of Grainger items plus Finzi's Clarinet Concerto with Collins as soloist.

Full details from the Wimbledon Music Festival website.

200th birthday Barber at the Proms

Björn Bürger & Danielle de Niese in Rossini's Il barbiere di Sivigla at Glyndebourne - photo Bill Cooper
Björn Bürger & Danielle de Niese in Rossini's Il barbiere di Sivigla at Glyndebourne - photo Bill Cooper
Rossini Il barbiere di Siviglia; Danielle de Niese, Taylor Stayton, Björn Bürger, Alessandro Corbelli, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Enrique Mazzola; Glyndebourne Festival Opera at the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 25 2016
Star rating: 3.5

Musically appealing if rather hyper-active account of Rossini's comedy, celebrating its 200th birthday

For its annual visit to the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, Glyndebourne brought its new production of Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia, an opera which premiered 200 years ago. Annabel Arden's production, designed by Joanna Parker, was adapted by Sinead O'Neill. Enrique Mazzola conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra, placed to the rear of the stage, with Danielle de Niese as Rosina, Alessandro Corbelli as Dr Bartolo, Taylor Stayton as Count Almaviva, Björn Bürger as Figaro, Christophoros Stamboglis as Don Basilio, Janis Kelly as Berta, Huw Montague Rendall as Fiorello and Adam Marsden as an Officer, plus the men of the Glyndebourne Chorus.

I have not seen Annabel Arden's production at Glyndebourne, but Sinead O'Neill had successfully created a vibrant and all-encompassing staging (there was little that was semi- about it) which involved both the orchestra and conductor. The evening was full of laugh out loud moments which seemed to fill the Royal Albert Hall (no mean feat with a comedy designed for a far smaller space).

The problem was that Arden seemed to have taken her cue from the staging of the Act One finale. In most productions I have seen, this is given in a highly stylised and choreographed manner. It was no different here, Arden (and director of movement Toby Sedgwick) created an almost hyper-active physical commentary on the music, creating a very funny ensemble. But Arden transferred this style to the whole opera, each solo and each ensemble was highly choreographed and the whole evening became a long sequence of physical theatre. The addition of three actors to the cast (Tommy Luther, Maxime Nourissat and Jofre Caraben van der Meer) emphasised this as the three were rarely absent from the stage, either as carnival figures in the opening and closing scenes or as three extra servants in Doctor Bartolo's house.

I have great admiration for the performers because all concerned brought off the conception superbly, combining fine musicianship with brilliant theatre. The problem for me was that somewhere along the line, Rossini's sense of character seemed to disappear. One of the reasons why the opera has remained so popular is that Rossini manages to combine a sense of fun with a real feeling of drama so that the comedy and the music arise out of the situation. By the end of the opera I was no clearer who these characters really were. For all Taylor Stayton's charm in performance, without a feeling of dramatic context we had little idea who the Count really was.

Monday, 25 July 2016

Purcell & pork scratchings: OAE live streaming from Old Queens' Head in Islington

OAE - The Night Shift
The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment's The Night Shift concerts take classical music out of the regular concert hall and into more casual venues. The format is more casual too. This year The Night Shift has been running monthly, rotating between venues in East, (The George Tavern, Shadwell), North (Old Queen’s Head, Islington), and South (Bussey Building, Peckham) London. On Tuesday 26 July it is the turn of the Old Queen's Head in Islington when there will be a programme featuring music for the recorder. And worry not if it is booked up, or if you can't get out the house because the event is being live streamed on YouTube.

From 8.30pm on Tuesday 26 July 2016 just go to

Far more than easy listening - Clara Sanabras' A hum about the ears

CLara Sanabras - A hum about mine ears
Clara Sanabras A hum about mine ears; Clara Sanabras, Chorus of Dissent, Britten Sinfonia, Nigel Kennedy, London Voices, Lisa Knapp, Young Dissenters, Harvey & the Wallbangers
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 1 2016
Singer/songwriter Clara Sanabras's song-cycle evoking Shakespeare's The Tempest

At first sight this album, A hum about mine ears on Smudged Discs, has every sign of being a concept album, cooked up in the studio. Songs by the singer/songwriter Clara Sanabras all themed around Shakespeare's The Tempest, with the participation of artists as diverse as Chorus of Dissent and the Young Dissenters, the Britten Sinfonia, Nigel Kennedy, London Voices, Lisa Knapp and Harvey and the Wallbangers. Reading the small print you discover that Harvey Brough (of Harvey and the Wallbangers) both orchestrated and conducted the music as well as acting as chorus master for the youth choir, the Young Dissenters.

But though there is indeed something 'concept album' about it, particularly as different parts were recorded in different places, the work was in fact commissioned by Ruth Whitehead and Chorus of Dissent (a community choir local to where Clara Sanabras lives) and the work was premiered live before it was recorded.

It is effectively a song-cycle and the nine movements take a varied approach to Shakespeare's text.

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Divine Comedies: I chat to the artistic directors of Bampton Classical Opera about their new double bill

Matthew Stiff as Trofonio with his 'cave' - Trofonio's Cave - Bampton Classical Opera
Matthew Stiff as Trofonio with his 'cave'
Trofonio's Cave - Bampton Classical Opera
Bampton Classical Opera has gained a reputation for lively and engaging productions of rare 18th century repertoire performed in the delightful confines of the Deanery Garden in Brampton. Their production last year gave us the chance to become acquainted with Salieri's delightful comedy Trofonio's Cave (see my review). I recently caught up with artistic directors Gilly French and Jeremy Gray to talk about the company's Divine Comedies, a double bill of Gluck's Philemon and Baucis (the UK premiere) and Arne's The Judgement of Paris which opens this weekend.

They first performed Thomas Arne's The Judgement of Paris for the Arne centenary in 2010, which they gave in a semi-staged production. Both fell in love with what they describe as a charming, irreverent piece with fantastic music. The company performs the operas in English, usually in Gilly and Jeremy's own translations, so having Congreve's witty English libretto was a delight. (The libretto was originally written for the famous competition in 1700/1701 when composers John Weldon, John Eccles, Daniel Purcell and Gottfried Finger all set the piece.)

Both Jeremy and Gilly felt they wanted follow Salieri's Trofonio's cave last year with another comedy this year. Having decided to return to The Judgement of Paris and give the work a full production, the choice was on the companion piece. Their performance of Gluck's Philemon and Baucis will be the UK premiere. Gluck's opera was written in 1769 for a triple bill of operas Le feste d'Apollo written for the marriage of the Duke of Parma to an Austrian princess; the triple bill also included a shortened version of Gluck's Orfeo. Arne's opera is not recorded, but Gluck's is and when Gilly and Jeremy listened to it they felt it really worth doing. They found it beautiful music to work on, with great variety and colour.

The Deanery Garden, Bampton
The Deanery Garden, Bampton
venue for Bampton Classical Opera performances
As a small company, Bampton has to ensure that double bills have matched pieces to reduce the budget. Both the Arne and the Gluck pieces are mythological, and Jeremy (who is directing both works) felt that the two operas could be made to work together especially as the character of Jupiter links both. Where Arne's work is a clever and witty telling of the story, by contrast nothing very much happens in Gluck's opera yet all concerned agree that it is very funny.

Remarkably, Bampton Classical Opera is one of the few companies exploring this repertoire of 18th century opera. Since the company was founded in 1993, they have performed a remarkable list of works with many UK premieres. I was curious how this concentration on 18th century repertoire came about.

During their second year they performed Mozart's L'oca del Cairo, not from a desire to specialise in 18th century opera but because they had heard a recording of it and found it a fun piece. But then they attended a concert by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment where music by 18th century operatic composers such as Jomelli was performed. Both realised that they had found a niche and decided there and then to concentrate on 18th century opera.

One of the biggest difficulties in this repertoire is getting hold of the music, and they admit that they have learned as they went along.

Friday, 22 July 2016

Women Conductors to the fore

Alice Farnham, artistic director of Women Conductors, © Catherine Ashmore
Alice Farnham, artistic director of Women Conductors
© Catherine Ashmore
The Royal Philharmonic Society has joined forces with Women Conductors (artistic director Alice Farnham), a programme of conducting workshops designed to encourage women to be conductors of classical music. The partnership aims to get more female music students, professional musicians and music teachers to consider conducting as a viable profession. They will be running two day workshops throughout the year with two phases, one aimed at students who are 16 or more, the second is aimed at women over 18 who wish to add conducting to their portfolio.

Women Conductors was founded in 2014 (as Women Conductors at Morley) by Alice Farnham, musical director of Welsh National Youth Opera, and Andrea Brown, former director of music at Morley College.

The next workshops (for students 16 and over) are on 25 September and 2 October 2016. Future workshops (for women 18 and over) in 2017 will include Jane Glover on the Classical symphony, Sian Edwards on the Romantic symphony and Julia Jones on opera (in collaboration with ROH’s Jette Parker Young Artists Programme).

Full details from the Women Conductors website.

Youthful genius: Classical Opera's 2016/17 season explores the young Mozart

Mozart painted in 1763
Mozart painted in 1763
Classical Opera's 2016/17 season continues the Mozart 250 exploration of the year 1766 before moving on to 1767 including the first two major stage works by the young composer himself. 

1766 concludes with La Cantarina, a performance of one of Haydn's first operas along with arias from Josef Myslivecek's opera Semiramide, plus Haydn's Symphony No. 34. Ian Page conducts the Orchestra of Classical Opera at the Wigmore Hall on 19 September 2016 with soloist Ailish Tynan, Rachel Kelly, Kitty Whately and Robert Murray.

1767 opens with a retrospective at the Wigmore Hall on 17 January 2017. Ian Page conducts a programme of arias and symphonies by Mozart, JC Bach, Gluck, Haydn, and Arne all coming from works performed in 1767, with soloist Gemma Summerfield, Stuart Jackson and Ashley Riches.

Mozart's first stage work, written when he was eleven, was The First Commandment and Ian Page will be conducting a staging of the work, directed by Thomas Guthrie, at St John's Smith Square on 21 & 22 March 2017. Sung in Nigel Lewis' translation, it will feature Rebecca Bottone, Rachel Kelly and Alessandro Fisher. In fact we will be only hearing one third of the work, as the final two parts are lost. The company will return to St John's on 12 & 13 June 2017 for another of Mozart's stage works from 1767, his Apollo et Hyacinthus which will be staged by Thomas Guthrie with Ian Page conducting soloists including Tom Verney and Gemma Summerfield.

Pianist Kristian Bezuidenhout will be joining Ian Page and the Orchestra of Classical Opera at the Wigmore Hall on 16 May 2017 for a programme of Mozart's earliest keyboard concertos, the eleven-year-old Mozart's orchestrations of existing keyboard works. Soprano Anna Devin will also be joining the ensemble two perform two arias from the same year.

All is not quite Mozart 250, Ian Page,  and the Choir and Orchestra of Classcial Opera are joined by soloists Sarah Fox, Angela Simkin, Stuart Jackson, and Neal Davies for a performance of Handel's Messiah in Middle Temple Hall on 19 December 2016 as part of Temple Winter Festival.

Full details from Classical Opera's website.

Vivid classicism: Mozart and Mendelssohn piano concertos

Danae Dorken - Mozart, Mendelssohn concertos - ARS Produktion
Mozart and Mendelssohn concertos; Danae Dörken, Royal Northern Sinfonia, Lars Vogt; ARS Produktion
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 19 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Vivid and stylish pairing from this young German pianist

On this disc from ARS Produktion the young German pianist Danae Dörken joins Lars Vogt and the Royal Northern Sinfonia for a programme of piano concertos, Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21 in C KV 467 and Mendelssohn's Piano Concerto No. 2 in D Op. 40. Lars Vogt, himself a distinguished pianist, took over as music director of the Royal Northern Sinfonia in 2015 continuing the orchestra's tradition of working with distinguished player conductors (the violinist Thomas Zehetmair is a previous music director, now conductor laureate, and the violinist Julian Rachlin is principal guest conductor).

I have enjoyed the Royal Northern Sinfonia's performances in the classical symphonic repertoire before, such as their disc of Haydn symphonies on Signum Classics with Rebecca Miller. This performance of one of the most symphonic of Mozart's piano concertos sees them giving a crisp and exciting account of the opening Allegro maestoso, they and Lars Vogt leverage the orchestra's smaller forces, making the balance between wind and strings really count. Throughout the disc the orchestra plays with a vigorously confident sense of style.

Lars Vogt and Danae Dörken - © Giorgia Bertazzi
Lars Vogt and Danae Dörken - © Giorgia Bertazzi
Danae Dörken is not yet 25, born of Greek and German parents in Wuppertal, she currently studies with Lars Vogt. This is her third disc for ARS Produktion and her concerto debut.

She plays the Mozart concerto with a nice sense of style, combining grace with strength and strong articulation. As the first movement progresses were are able to appreciate the pungent wind, and the crisp attack of the strings with their minimal vibrato. Yet there is grace too and a sense of the concerto's scale without feeling grandiose. The second movement opens evocatively with the bleached white tone from the strings in a beautiful opening phrase, which contrasts in timbre and texture with the delicate lyricism of the piano solo. Danae Dörken plays the movement quite intimately, allowing Mozart's music to speak with subtlety. In complete contrast, the final Allegro vivace assai is very perky, full of wit and drama whilst Danae Dörken's playing is strongly articulated with hints of brilliance in the showier bits.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Stanford's Much Ado About Nothing revived in Leeds

Caricature of Stanford by Spy, Vanity Fair, 1905
Caricature of Stanford by Spy,
Vanity Fair, 1905
Charles Villiers Stanford's opera Much Ado About Nothing (based on the Shakespeare play) was staged by Opera Viva in 1985 and I caught one of the London performances. It was the sort of event which can often trigger greater interest in a rare work, but Stanford's delightful comedy does not seem to have sparked much attention and it seems no-one has tried performing it since then. Now the Northern Opera Group is planning a performance. On 4 August 2016 at Left Bank Leeds the company will be presenting extended staged excerpts from the opera, with piano accompaniment, as a preview of plans to stage the opera in 2018.

The 4 August performance will be the culmination of a five-day workshop with director, Eleanor Taylor, and conductor, Christopher Pelly and singers David Cane, Sarah Gilford, Brian McNamee, Samuel Pantcheff and Catrin Woodruff.

Stanford's opera was premiered at the Royal Opera House in 1901 with a libretto by Julian Sturgis, who also wrote the libretto for Sullivan's Ivanhoe. The opera does not seem to have been recorded, and apart from the 1985 performance, the last major performance was at Wexford in 1964. Though best known for his choral and symphonic works, Stanford in fact wrote around nine operas, it was a form he kept returning to despite mixed success. RVW (who was a pupil of Stanford's) lamented that in 1952 Covent Garden seem to have 'celebrated' the Stanford centenary by performing Bellini's Norma rather than Stanford's Seamus O'Brien which RVW regarded as the composer's masterpiece.

In December 2016 the Northern Opera Group will dusting off another rarity, Pauline Viardot's opera Cendrillion which they will be performing with a community cast at Duke Studios in Leeds on 1, 2, and 3 December 2016.

Full details from the Northern Opera Group website, and Much Ado About Nothing tickets from TicketSource.

Seriously comic: Rossini's La Cenerentola at Opera Holland Park

Heather Lowe as Tisbe, Fleur de Bray as Clorinda, Victoria Simmons as Angelina, Nicholas Lester as Dandini and the Opera Holland Park Chorus in La Cenerentola at Opera Holland Park. Photographer Robert Workman.
Heather Lowe as Tisbe, Fleur de Bray as Clorinda, Victoria Simmons as Angelina, Nicholas Lester as Dandini and the Opera Holland Park Chorus in La Cenerentola at Opera Holland Park. Photographer Robert Workman.
Rossini La Cenerentola; Victoria Simmonds, Nico Darmanin, Nicholas Lester, Jonathan Veira, Barnaby Rea, Fleur de Bray, Heather Lowe, dir: Oliver Platt, City of London Sinfonia, cond: Dane Lam; Opera Holland Park
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 20 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Victoria Simmonds shines with a beautifully sung account of the title role in Oliver Platt's lively production

Victoria Simmons as Angelina and Nico Darmanin as Prince Ramiro in La Cenerentola at Opera Holland Park. Photographer Robert Workman
Victoria Simmons and Nico Darmanin in La Cenerentola
Photographer Robert Workman
We caught up with Oliver Platt's new production of Rossini's La Cenerentola at Opera Holland Park on 20 July 2016, the production's third outing. Dane Lam conducted the City of London Sinfonia with Victoria Simmonds as Angelina, Nico Darmanin as Prince Ramiro, Nicholas Lester as Dandini, Jonathan Veira as Don Magnifico, Barnaby Rea as Alidoro, Fleur de Bray as Clorinda and Heather Lowe as Tisbe. Designs were by Neil Irish with lighting by Mark Jonathan and movement by Emma Brunton. The production is a co-production with Den Jyske Opera in Denmark.

Whilst Rossini is still best known for his comic operas, in fact these all come at the beginning of his career. In 1817 he wrote two comic works La Cenerentola and La gazza ladra, the latter opera being the last comic opera he wrote in Italian, with only Le Comte Ory (written in 1828 for Paris) to come. But with the two Italian works from 1817 Rossini is clearly interested in something more than sheer comedy, La gazza ladra is an opera semi-seria with a mixture of serious and comic elements, and La Cenerentola is moving in that direction.

Oliver Platt's production rather emphasised this by having Victoria Simmonds' Angelina somewhat separated from the main body of the action (rightly so, she is a servant after all). This meant that Simmonds' beautifully sung, rather thoughtful Angelina hardly took part in the highly physical performances of the many comic ensembles which dominate the first act. It is possible to play the whole of the opera as a serious comedy (Peter Hall's production at Glyndebourne did this), but Platt seems to have been interested in the way Rossini mixed serious and comic, and brought this out.

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Sparkle and discipline: Die Fledermaus at Opera Holland Park

Didi Derriere & chorus - Die Fledermaus - Opera Holland Park. Photo Robert Workman.
Didi Derriere & ensemble - Die Fledermaus - Opera Holland Park. Photo Robert Workman.
Johann Strauss Die Fledermaus; Ben Johnson, Susannah Hurrell, Jennifer France, Samantha Price, Gavan Ring, dir: Martin Lloyd-Evans, City of London Sinfonia, cond: John Rigby; Opera Holland Park
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on July 19 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Engaging account of the operetta classic, with a husband & wife team as the Eisensteins

Susannh Hurrell, Samantha Price - Die Fledermaus - Opera Holland Park. Photo Robert Workman.
Susannh Hurrell, Samantha Price - Die Fledermaus - Photo Robert Workman.
Holland Park moved to Vienna on 19 July 2016 for Opera Holland Park's new production of Johann Strauss's operetta Die Fledermaus. Martin Lloyd-Evans directed, and John Rigby conducted the City of London Sinfonia with Ben Johnson as Eisenstein, Susanna Hurrell as Rosalind, Jennifer France as Adele, Gavan Ring as Dr Falke, Samantha Price as Prince Orlofsky, Peter Davoren as Alfred, Robert Burt as Dr Blind, John Lofthouse as Frank, Joanna Marie Skillett as Ida and Ian Jervis as Frosch. Designs were by takis, with lighting by Howard Hudson, and choreography by Adam Scown.

The British do not always have a good track record with operetta, and the style of productions can too often veer towards sit-com with music or Gilbert & Sullivan. And the stage at Opera Holland Park, with its wide open spaces, is not ideal for the intimacy which the form implies. But the new production managed to combine imagination and discipline with the requisite style to both charm and engage us, giving us Johann Strauss's froth with a little bit of edge underneath.

Things got off to a superb start with John Rigby's account of the overture. Rigby is a conductor whose credits include substantial experience in West End musical theatre, he encouraged the orchestra to perform with a sense of crisp rhythmic discipline which formed a vivid underpinning of Strauss's lovely melodies. Whilst these were given with the requisite flexibility, I enjoyed the way Rigby brought out the underlying structure. This crisply stylish and engaging performance set just the right tone for the whole operetta.

Ben Johnson, Robert Burt, Susanna Hurrell - Die Fledermaus - Opera Holland Park. Photo Robert Workman.
Ben Johnson, Robert Burt, Susanna Hurrell
Die Fledermaus - Photo Robert Workman.
Lloyd-Evans and takis solved the problem of the Opera Holland Park stage by not using it all in Act One. takis's elegant Art Deco set of the Eisenstein's apartment (bedroom and bathroom), with its series of elegant glass and metal screens, filled the centre and stage left, with stage right being unused. Not ideal, as for those of us in the left side of the theatre the action never came really close, but it meant that the acting space was nicely tight. And takis sets were a joy, the combination of Art Deco against the Jacobean house evoking distant memories of Eltham Palace with its combination of Art Deco and historical.

The operetta was performed in Alistair Beaton's English translation which gave the work a nicely appealing immediacy without seeming too far removed from the original. Though the dialogue came over well the diction in the sung passages was a bit more variable so we did rather need the surtitles at times. Lloyd-Evans' emphasised the work's class hierarchy and character differences by using accents. Both Ben Johnson's Eisenstein and Susannah Hurrell's Rosalinde were cut-glass English, whilst Gavan Ring as Falke used his native Irish accent, and Jennifer France's Adele was distinctly Northern work class. I was surprised at how well the dialogue worked in this theatre, and many of the cast proved to have great comic timing.

The production was also very physical (and very funny) with Adam Scown's choreography flowing through the whole work without it ever seeming to be a dance extravaganza.

30 Harps on Tour

National Youth Harp Orchestra at the Cadogan Hall in 2015
National Youth Harp Orchestra at the Cadogan Hall in 2015
The National Youth Harp Orchestra presents an ensemble of around 30 harps, a fascinating and magical sound. The ensemble was formed originally in 2002 as the International Harp Ensemble by Luisa-Maria Cordell and has since grown into its present form with players aged between 10 and 19. The ensemble is currently preparing for a tour of Romania, but there is a chance to hear them in the UK as on 22 July 2016 they are performing at South Hill Park Theatre, Ringmead, Bracknell.

The group are planning to travel to Budapest in August for a series of concerts in the city.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Soraya Mafi wins the 2016 Chilcott Award

Soraya Mafi
Soraya Mafi
The Chilcott Award for Singers is a £10,000 award to support a 'major young artist with the potential to make an international impact'. The 2016 award has been won by soprano Soraya Mafi who is currently a Harewood Young Artists at English National Opera (ENO).

With ENO, Soraya sang Papagena in Simon McBurney’s production of Mozart's The Magic Flute, and most recently Karolka in David Alden’s production of Janacek's Jenufa (see my review). She will sing the role of Despina in Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte with West Green House Opera from 30 July. Soraya will use her award to fund ongoing singing lessons with her teacher, Janis Kelly, language tuition, performance coaching as well as to support travel/audition and promotional costs. 

The award is offered biennially by the Susan Chilcott Scholarship, an independent charity set up in 2005 in memory of Susan Chilcott, one of the outstanding singers of her generation, who died from cancer in 2003 aged 40. Previous winners of the Chilcott Award are Duncan Rock (2012) and Clare Presland (2014).

Viola da gamba and electronics - Liam Byrne's SOLO recital

Liam Byrne - photo Marc Gascoigne
Liam Byrne - photo Marc Gascoigne
SOLO is a new concert series in London, curated by composer Alex Groves, offering intimate recitals musicians showcasing unusual works for solo instruments. The first recital on 26 July 2016 presents the viola da gamba player Liam Byrne in the crypt of St Andrew's Church, Holborn, EC4A 3AB. Byrne will be mixing period music with cutting edge electronics, bringing together viol consort works by Picforth and Ortiz realised for the first time with live electronics, contemporary works by Judah Adashi and Edmund Finnis, and a world première by Alex Groves.

In a Q&A on the SOLO website, Byrne talks about his processes in presenting the consort music in the concert, 'What I'm doing with the laptop is taking a few of my favourite pieces for multiple viols or voices, and by using techniques including delays and looping, will sort of disassemble and reassemble these pieces in front of the audience. I guess it's using a technological process to highlight the bizarre and beautiful structural aspects of the piece, while still also allowing you to listen to the pretty piece of music more or less as it's meant to sound.'

Full details from the SOLO website.

Chorus vel Organa: Music from the Lost Palace of Westminster

Chorus vel Organa
Nicholas Ludford, William Cornysh, John Sheppard; Choir of Gonville and Caius College, Geoffrey Webber, Magnus Williamson; Delphain
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 15 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Late-Tudor polyphony for the Palace of Westminster, exploring the little known use of the organ in pre-Reformation worship

This latest disc from Geoffrey Webber, the Choir of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge and organist Magnus Williamson on the Delphian label, explores the music used in the chapels of the pre-Reformation Palace of Westminster. The music movements from Nicholas Ludford's Missa Lapidaverunt Stephanum and Lady Mass Cycle, William Cornysh's Magnificat, and John Sheppard's Sancte De pretiose. What makes the disc all the more fascinating is the inclusion of an organ, exploring the use of organ in the repertoire; something that rarely gets a mention in recitals of pre-Reformation music.

The collegiate chapel, St Stephen's College, in the Palace of Westminster was founded by Edward I and maintained a strong musical tradition until the college was dissolved in 1548 when the chapel became the first permanent meeting place of the House of Commons. It is known that the chapel had an organ, but no English organs survive from the period, and precious little music. What organ music does survive is in post-Reformation copies.

The St Teilo organ in situ in St Teilo's Church at St Fagans
The St Teilo organ in situ in St Teilo's Church at St Fagans
The organ used on the disc owes its existence to a remarkable survival, in 1977 a pre-Reformation organ soundboard was discovered in a church in Suffolk, and this has enabled organ builders to create a pre-Reformation English style organ. Goetze & Gwynn built such an organ for Bangor University's 'The Experience of Worship' project, and the organ is housed at St Teilo's Church which is now at St Fagan's in Cardiff.

Royal part-books bearing the coats of arms of Henry VIII and Katharine of Aragon contain a cycle of Masses for Our Lady (for each day of the week) including Mass Propers as well as the Ordinary, set for three parts. And on this disc we hear the Kyrie (from Tuesday), Sequence (from Wednesday), Agnus Dei (from Thursday) and Gloria (from Monday). The music has organ versets, which are improvised by Magnus Williamson based on a few surviving originals from the 1530's. John Sheppard's Sancte Dei Pretiose is performed in a similar manner.

Monday, 18 July 2016

National Children's Orchestras

National Children's Orchestras - Main Orchestra
National Children's Orchestras - Main Orchestra
The National Children's Orchestras are having a busy summer. The Main Orchestra is performing in Preston Guild Hall on Saturday 30 July 2016 conducted by Natalia Luis-Bassa, then the Under 13 Orchestra has its concert at Leeds Town Hall on Saturday 13 August 2016 conducted by Roger Clarkson, and the Under 12 Orchestra performs on Saturday 20 August 2016 at Birmingham Town Hall conducted by Roger Clarkson.

The Main Orchestra, which is made of up children aged 14 and under,  will perform quite a  challenging programme in Preston with guest conductor Natalia Luis-Bassa, including Berstein's overture to Candide, Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5, Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (in Ravel's orchestration) and Marquez' Conga del Fuego Nuevo. In Leeds the Under 13 Orchestra will be performing Saint-Saens' Danse Macabre, Mussorgsky's On the steppes of Central Asia, and Robert Russell Bennett's Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture.

Full information from the National Children's Orchestras website.

A remarkable swansong - Tristan und Isolde

The Grange
The Grange
Wagner Tristan und Isolde; Rachel Nicholls, Bryan Register, Sara Fulgoni, Stephen Gadd, Mats Almgren, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Martyn Brabbins; Grange Park Opera
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 16 2016
Star rating: 4.0

A remarkably concentrated and intense of Wagner's music drama

Grange Park Opera closed its 2016 season with a pair of concert performances of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. The performances were memorable for non-musical reasons. Cast changes meant the last minute announcement of Rachel Nicholls as Isolde (replacing Anje Kampe) and Mats Almgren as King Mark (replacing Clive Bayley). And the performance on 16 July 2016 represented the last time that Wasfi Kani's company performed at Northington Grange; after 18 years the company is moving to a new theatre at West Horsley Place in Surrey whilst opera at the Grange at Northington continues with a new company, the Grange Festival headed by Michael Chance.

Martyn Brabbins conducted the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra with Bryan Register as Tristan, Rachel Nicholls as Isolde, Sara Fulgoni as Brangäne, Mats Almgren as King Mark and Stephen Gadd as Kurwenal. Tristan und Isolde is a suitably valedictory work for such an occasion, and the performance was as remarkable as the circumstance. Billed as a concert performance, the opera was performed in an adaptation of the set from Grange Park Opera's recent production of Verdi's Don Carlo, with the orchestra in the pit (and not on-stage as often happens in concert performances). Both Rachel Nicholls and Bryan Register were off the book, giving a fully dramatic account of their roles and this was echoed by the other principals. Though Mats Almgren, Sara Fulgoni and Stephen Gadd used scores, none was score-bound and their performances were as dramatic and reactive as those of the two principals.

The results were more akin to a stripped back stage production, and given the thrilling immediacy of experiencing the opera in the relatively small confines of the theatre at Northington Grange, the result were gripping. This was due in the main thanks to strongly dramatic and involving performances from the two principals, but also from Martyn Brabbins and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.

Brabbins' account of the famous prelude was notable for having a sense of dynamism, a feeling that the music was actually going somewhere rather than being a series of luscious chords placed in space.

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Nocturnal Variations - Ruby Hughes and Joseph Middleton

Nocturnal Variations - Ruby Hughes - Champs Hill Records
Schubert, Berg, Mahler, Britten; Ruby Hughes, Joseph Middleton; Champs Hill Records
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 06 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Songs exploring the night in highly evocative performances

We seem to be having a rash of themed recitals at the moment. This new disc Nocturnal Variations from soprano Ruby Hughes and pianist Joseph Middleton on Champs Hill Records, gives us night-themed songs by Schubert, Mahler, Berg and Britten, with Schubert's Nachtstück, Romanze, Abendstern, Die Sterne and Im Abendtrot, Mahler's Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen and Urlicht (both from Des Knaben Wunderhorn) and Um Mitternacht (from Rückert Lieder, Berg's Vier Gesänge, Britten's Evening and Night (from This way to the Tomb), Um Mitternacht, and At the mid hour of night.

In many ways this is a traditionally constructed recital, with a clear sequence from Schubert through Mahler to Berg, and ending with a group (mainly) in the singer's own language. It just happens that the theme of the songs dwells mainly on the night, a theme which brings great variety whether it be drama, sunsets, contemplation, dreams or even the supernatural.

Ruby Hughes
Ruby Hughes
Schubert's Nachtstück starts with a sombre, serious piano prelude, then Ruby Hughes sings in a highly intimate manner with fine attention to the words. The song develops a lovely sense of flow, and Hughes finishes with her voice on a thread. Romanze (not strictly a lied but a song from Schubert's incidental music to Rosamunde) is sung with a delicate yet elegant sense of line. Abendstern is quietly thoughtful with a feeling of fragility when she fines the tone down. Die Sterne has Hughes' lyric line enhanced by Middleton's rhythmic accompaniment, creating a slight sense of suppressed excitement. Finally Im Abendrot starts with another lovely piano prelude, then Hughes sings in an intimate and relaxed manner.

Beautifully performed as these songs are, I was aware of a great particularity in the style of performance. Hughes often thins her voice down to a slender thread, giving intimate and thoughtful performances. Whilst speeds are not overly slow, there is a great sense of having all the time in the world.

Saturday, 16 July 2016

Dartington International Summer School and Festival

Dartington Hall
Dartington Hall
The Dartington International Summer School and Festival opens on 30 July for a month of workshops, classes and concerts. There is lots going on, and if you don't want to take part then artistic director Joanna MacGregor has put together an amazing programme of 80 concerts all in the beautiful setting of Dartington Hall. There is the chance to experience not only classical music but also the best in folk, jazz, Middle Eastern and South American music, installation and spoken word. Performers include Alison Balsom, Alfred Brendel, Jane Glover, Chloë Hanslip, Adriano Adewale, Škampa Quartet, Simon Armitage, Emma Kirkby, Martynas Levickis, Marina Warner, Kathryn Tickell, Hilary Summers, Heath Quartet, Andy Sheppard, Black Voices, Judith Weir, Margaret Faultless, and Sian Edwards.

Large scale performances include Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610 with soloists from Stile Antico, Purcell's Dido and Aeneas paired with Lampe's Pyramus and Thisbe, Handel's Alexander's Feast, Gilbert & Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance, Haydn's Nelson Mass, Stravinsky's The Soldier's Tale, and Bizet's Carmen with Georgia Bishop as Carmen.  As well as the chance to hear Joanna MacGregor in Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, Emma Kirkby in John Dowland, Terry Riley's In C, and Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition performed by brass ensemble.

The complete Schumann & more - I chat to Sholto Kynoch about the 2016 Oxford Lieder Festival

Finnegan Downie Dear (piano) with Gareth Brynmore John (baritone) at Exeter College Chapel  Oxford Lieder Festival 2015 credit Robert Piwko
Finnegan Downie Dear (piano) with Gareth Brynmore John (baritone) at Exeter College Chapel
Oxford Lieder Festival 2015 credit Robert Piwko
Sholto Kynoch is the founder and artistic director of the Oxford Lieder Festival and I recently caught up with him to chat about this year's festival which concentrates on the songs of Schumann, as well as talking about plans for next year. The festival is perhaps best known for its 2014 festival when, over the course of three weeks, all of Schubert's songs were performed.

Sholto Kynoch -  Credit Raphaelle Photography
Sholto Kynoch -  Credit Raphaelle Photography
I interviewed Sholto last year before the 2015 festival (see my article) and was interested to find out how he thought it had gone. For 2015, the festival took the decision not to try to compete with the Schubert festival, returning to two weeks and having the theme of composers and poetry, rather than a single composer. Sholto feels that this was very much the right decision, the 2015 festival had great attendance with audiences enjoying the mix of recitals and words. One of the highlights was an innovation for 2015, free pop-up daytime recitals at venues such as Exeter College Chapel, the Bodleian Library and the Ashmolean Museum. Each recital concentrated on a masterpiece lasting 15 to 40 minutes, and afterwards people came up to Sholto in the street (one even spoke to him outside his house) saying that they had never been to a song recital before and that attending the pop-up event had changed their perspective. Some had gone on to attend more festival events. One man, having never been to a recital, ended up going to six pop-up recitals including one of Shostakovich's Michelangelo Sonnets, hardly an easy listening piece. For Sholto, this shows that this approach works and that people have the appetite for challenging events if presented in the right way. The festival will be having some similar free events this year.

The main focus of the 2016 festival is the complete songs of Schumann, a project which Sholto admits that this is far more manageable than Schubert's output. Not only are there half the number of songs, but Schumann did not write the large scale ballads that Schubert did. In 2014 they had to find a way to programme the dozen or so songs by Schubert which last 15 minutes or more; this year there is no such challenge, the longest Schumann song is five or six minutes in length.

This also means that there is space to include other composers such as Schumann's contemporaries Mendelssohn and Brahms, Schubert whom Schumann revered and other more unusual composers. Sholto admits that though it was fantastic having a three-week festival for the Schubert songs in 2014, the festival is unlikely to do this again, finding the two week duration far more manageable.

When I ask about highlights for this years festival, Sholto immediately mentions Christian Gerhaher who is singing on the opening night, but the first few days of the festival also include Sarah Connolly and Sophie Karthäuser, Christopher Maltman, Joan Rodgers and Dietrich Henschel. But Sholto is clearly pleased with the whole line-up this year and suggests that all sixteen nights of the festival are highlights.

It is not just the evening recitals, this year he explains that they have tried to 'up the stakes' in the lunchtime recitals, so there are recitals from the 2015 Kathleen Ferrier Award winners (sopranos Soraya Mafi and Gemma Lois Summerfield, and pianist Ian Tindale), Benjamin Appl, Roderick Williams, Felicity Lott and Mhairi Lawson.

Friday, 15 July 2016

Young blood: Maxwell Davies Kommilitonen! in Barry

WNO Youth Opera is performing Sir Peter Maxwell Davies' opera Kommilitonen at the Memo Arts Centre, Barry from 27 to 30 July 2016. Conducted by Alice Farnham, the production will be directed by WNO Genesis Assistant Director, Polly Graham and will be the first time that WNO has performed a full scale opera in Barry.

Kommilitonen was commissioned by the Royal Academy of Music, London and the Juilliard School, New York and was premiered in 2011. With a libretto by David Pountney (artistic director of Welsh National Opera) the opera intertwines three separate stories of student revolution in the 20th century in Germany, China and the USA.

The cast and chorus for this new production feature young singers from WNO Youth Opera 16-25 group which includes singers from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (RWCMD), other UK conservatoires and five members of Only Kids Aloud; WNO Youth Opera 10-14 group will also be involved in the Chorus. As well as the singers, much of the technical and backstage team are young people who are being mentored in areas such as stage management, lighting and props.

For the orchestra, students from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (RWCMD) and Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music will play alongside WNO Orchestra members, and the opera features an on-stage erhu – a two-stringed bowed instrument – for some of the Chinese scenes which will be played by a RWCMD student.

The role of James Meredith will be played by Oscar  Castellino, from Mumbai, who is being mentored by Marcus Farnsworth who performed the role at the premiere in 2011.

Further information from the WNO website.

On disc at last - Wolf-Ferrari's I gioielli della Madonna

I gioielli della Madonna
Wolf-Ferrari I gioielli della Madonna; Kyungho Kim, Susanne Bernhard, Natalia Ushakova, Daniel Capkovic, Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, Friedrich Haider; Naxos
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 12 2016
Star rating: 3.5

The first commercial recording of Wolf-Ferrari's shocker teems with vibrant life if variable performances

If Carlisle Floyd's Wuthering Heights has had to wait 58 years before appearing on disc (see my review), Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari's opera I gioielli della Madonna has had to wait over 100 years for its first commercial recording. Finally bringing the opera to disc on Naxos is conductor Friedrich Haider with Slovak forces including Natalia Ushakova as Maliella, Kyungho Kim as Gennaro, Daniel Capkovic as Rafaele, Susanne Bernhard as Carmel, the Bratislava Boys Choir, the Pressburg Singers, the Slovak National Theatre Opera Chorus and the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra. Though the recording was made at concert performances at Slovak Radio, the performers are all from the Slovak National Theatre's production of the opera which premiered in May 2015 (see my review).

I gioielli della Madonna  was Wolf-Ferrari's fifth opera. The previous three had all been comedies written in a rather neo-classical style so this new opera was something of a departure. The plot owes something to Verismo, and Wolf-Ferrari is clearly interested in depicting the teeming street life of Naples. But he is also interested in what happens to his characters, the consequences of actions and the psychological issues, all handled in ways rather different from Verismo.

With 27 named roles and a large orchestra, the opera is a big undertaking but it repays attention with vibrant life. I have seen the piece twice on stage, once at Opera Holland Park in 2013 (see my review) and once at the Slovak National Theatre at the premiere of the the production on which this recording is based (see my review).

Thursday, 14 July 2016

On disc at last - Carlisle Floyd's Wuthering Heights

Carlisle Floyd - Wuthering Heights - Refererence Recordings
Carlisle Floyd Wuthering Heights; Georgia Jarman, Kelly Markgraf, Susanne Mentzer, Florentine Opera, Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Joseph Mechavich; Reference Recordings
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 12 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Carlisle Floyd's 1958 opera based in Emily Bronte's novel finally on disc

This new recording from Reference Recordings finally brings Carlisle Floyd's 1958 opera Wuthering Heights to disc. Joseph Mechavich conducts Florentine Opera Company and Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, with Kelly Markgraf as Heathcliff, Georgia Jarman as Cathy, Susanne Mentzer as Nelly, Vale Rideout as Edgar Linton, Heather Buck as Isabella Linton, Matthew Burns as Mr Earnshaw, Frank Kelley as Joseph and Aaron Short as Lockwood.

Wuthering Heights is unusual in Carlisle Floyd's output (he has written around a dozen operas). The subject was entirely specified the by commissioners, with Floyd having little input, and it is one of his few operas not to deal with an American subject. His most famous opera Susannah sets the Biblical story of Susannah and the Elders in the Deep South, and he has also done operatic versions of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men and of Olive Ann Burns' Cold Sassy Tree.

After the success of Susannah (in 1955) at New York City Opera, the soprano Phyllis Curtin (who had sung the role of Susannah) asked Floyd for an aria for a concert, and he wrote a setting of Cathy's monologue from Wuthering Heights which Curtin premiered at Carnegie Hall. It was assumed that his aria came from an opera; it didn't, Floyd thought of it as a concert aria. Eventually his publisher inspired the expansion of the aria into an opera commissioned for Santa Fe in 1958 with Phyllis Curtin in the title role.

Wuthering Heights has received rather less exposure than some of Floyd's comparable pieces, perhaps because of Floyd's identification with American themes thanks to the success of Susannah.

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