Thursday, 29 September 2011

Review of Il Trittico

My review of Puccini's Il Trittico at Covent Garden is here, on Music and Vision (subscription site).

London Song Festival Preview

This year's London Song Festival, takes place between 1st  and 30th of November, with 5 concerts and 2 masterclasses at St. George's Church, Hanover Square. The theme of this years festival is English Song with programmes themed around English Romantic Poets, settings of Hardy and AE Housman, Jacobean Poets, settings of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Mary Elizabeth Coleridge and an evening of comedy songs. The performers are Louise Winter, Anna Leese, Benedict Nelson, Roderick Williams, Iestyn Morris, Marcus Farnsworth, Laura Casey and David Stout, with Nigel Foster on piano.

Last night we heard a most tempting preview of the concert. Baritone Marcus Farnsworth performed a group of settings Jacobean poets including the well known Sleep by Ivor Gurney as well as the lesser known Herrick settings by Geoffrey Bush. He finished with a hauntingly beautiful rendition of Finzi's Fear No More. This was followed by Louise Winter sing Parry's settings of Mary Coleridge, Granville Bantock's Now (setting Robert Browning) and Ned Rorem's How do I love thee? I have to confess that though I love Bantock's work, this song didn't grab me, but Rorem's setting of Elizabeth Barrett Browning made me want to hear more. Winter finished her group with a bravura account of Frank Bridge's Love went a-riding.

Soprano Laura Casey then finished the first half wit two of Britten and Auden's Cabaret Songs; a bravura account of Johnny and a deeply moving performance of Funeral Blues.

Baritone Roderick Williams opened the 2nd half with a group of settings of Hardy and Housman by Ireland, Bax and Finzi, singing with his customary commitment and beauty of tone. He included one of his own Housman settings, Eight O Clock which piqued my curiosity to hear more.

Further Jacobean poets, set by Tippett, Parry and Bush, were sung by counter-tenor Iestyn Morris; he was particularly striking in Tippett's Thee Songs for Ariel.

Finally a group of comic songs; David Stout's account of Flanders and Swann's Ill Wind was simply virtuosic and had everyone in stitches. Follow that you thought, but Laura Casey did, bringing the house down with Flanders and Swann's A Word on my Ear.

With a talented group of singers, fine accompaniment from Nigel Foster and a programme which mixed the well known with the lesser known, the preview was a fine evening in its own right as well as being an irresistible taster for the full festival. Further details here.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Review of Street Scene


John Fulljames's production of Kurt Weill's Street Scene was first seen in 2008, a co-production between The Opera Group, the Young Vic and the Watford Palace Theatre. The Opera Group and the Young Vic have now revived the production. It opened on the 15th September and we saw it on Friday 16th, at the Young Vic; the production will tour to Basingstoke, Newport, Edinburgh and Hull.

Weill based Street Scene on the play by Elmer Rice. For the opera Weill collaborated with Rice, with lyrics by Langston Hughes. Described as an American opera, the piece is essentially an opera comique (spoken dialogue) which uses Broadway idoms, but requires trained voices. I first saw the piece in the early 90's in a West End production which was a one-off Sunday night charity performance, notable for a number of star cameos (Alec Mcowen as Harry Easter and Elaine Page as a nurse-maid). The production was notable for the opportunity it gave to hear Street Scene in the theatre for the fist time, and for the theatrical vividness and dramatic impetus which it brough to the work. Janis Kelly was Rose, a role she repeated when ENO/SO collaborated on a production by David Pountney. These performances failed to recapture the vividness and narrative propulsion which I'd remembered from the West End. Despite seeing the ENO/SO production a number of time in London and Glasgow, I found the long first act always sagged. I began to wonder whether I had overestimated the work. So it was with pleasure and relief to find Fulljames's excitingly theatrical production was full of energy and the first act certainly never sagged.

It helped that Fulljames and his cast were performing the piece in a very small theatre. Dickie Bird's set consisted of a bare metal multi-storey structure which provided the basic outline of the tenament location. Bird cleverly utilised the Young Vic's structure to create the plethora of entrances and exits and playing levels needed. The band were housed on two levels within the set so that they were far more visible than if they'd been in a pit. In front, cutting across the audience were pavement walkways, which acted as chalk boards for the kids games, in fact the whole set was scribbled with chalk slogans.

The piece requires a large cast, some 26 named roles plus chorus. The Opera Group used some ingenious doublings so that they were able to do the show with 16 adult singers, plus 2 boys. This was something of a community event in that local schools provided the troup of young children and the older youths, many of whom had small roles, and the Lewisham Choral Society provided an off stage chorus which stood in for the stage chorus in the crucial moments in Act 2. The children and youths were a complete delight, and the off-stage singers provided good support at the right moments.

Even without the doublings, Street Scene is an ensemble piece, though Weill is generous with his solo moments it is the ensemble which counts. The piece opens with the neighbours sitting on the steps lamenting the heat and gossiping. It finishes like this as well and the neighbours penchant for gossip (both good and ill natured) is very much the engine for the drama.

Elena Ferrari was thrilling as Anna Maurrant, the married woman whose affair leads to the tragedy where her husband Frank (Geof Dolton) shoots both Anna and her love Steve Sankey (Paul Featherstone). But it is part of Street Scene's genius that there are no heroes or villains; its creators allow us to see both sides. So that whilst Dolton's impressively threatening Frank was unlikeable, we could understand the reasons behind his actions. Ferrari was heartbreaking as a middle aged woman looking for a little tenderness in a grim world.

The action takes place agains the constant comins and goings in the tenament with Abraham Kaplan (Paul Featherstone), Lippo Fiorentino (Joseph Shovelton), Gret Fiorentino (Simone Sauphanor), Emma Jones (Charlotte Page), Carl Olsen (Paul Reeves), Olga Olsen (Harriet Williams) and Mrs Hildebrand (Joanna Foote) providing an entertaining, but poignantly dramatic backdrop. John Moabi was Henry Davis, the janitor, but also reappeared as Dick McGann, who had an impressively lively dance number with Mae Jones (Kate Nelson). Daniel Buchanan, the young man who spends most of the opera anticipating the birth of his first baby, was played by Nathan Vale, a tenor who I have only ever heard in Handel.

In parallel to the tragic love-triangle, was the relationship between Sam Kaplan (Paul Curievici) and Rose Maurrant (Susanna Hurrell), hesitantly developing via Weill's haunting setting of Walt Whitman's 'When Lilacs last in the door-yard bloomed. Hurrell was charming and perhaps slightly too cool, but she provided an apt foil for Curievici's deeply intense Sam. Occasionnally Curievici's voice hardened under pressure, but his was a finely taut performance which was ultimately heartbreaking.

Arthur Pita's choregraphy (revived by Yann Seabra), was delightfully inventive. Lacking a chorus or extra dancers, Pita used the cast to provide some well chosen movement evoking the work's Broadway origins.

Initially I thought that perhaps the BBC Concert Orchestra under Keith Lockhart were a little too loud and the cast seem to have trouble projecting both words and music, but things soon settled down and the orchestra provided a lively and at time sensitive accompaniment.

This was an evening which restored my faith in Weill's opera. Fulljames and his hard-working cast gave a rivetting performance which mixed tragedy and comedy in just the right proportions.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Another CD review

A stray which I seem to have missed. Here's the review of the CD of Kris Defoort's The Woman who walked into doors,

This is a fascinating and compelling piece which I would dearly love to experience in live performance. One question remains: why issue the piece on CD when it would seem to be an obvious candidate for a DVD?

Recent CD reviews

My review of Bach's Matthew Passion from King's College Cambridge with Rogers Covey Crump at the Evangelist is here.

Intelligently sung and nicely modulated, you can put the disc on and enjoy the moment but these moments just do not build up into anything greater.

 And my review Fevin's Requiem, a reconstruction of the Requiem mass for Anne of Brittanny, is here
Both reviews on MusicWeb International.

Beautifully illuminates sacred Breton music of the period.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

New Queens Hall Orchestra at St. Martin in the Fields

The New Queens Hall Orchestra was founded by John Boyden in 1992; so  this year it is celebrating the start of its 20th anniversary season. At St. Martin in the Fields last night (13th September) , the strings of the orchestra gave a concert which both launched the new season and celebrated Boyden's 75th birthday.

The orchestra was founded to experiment with both instruments and playing styles from the early part of the 20th century. So that the brass instruments are narrow bore and the strings play on gut strings. In terms of playing style, the strings tend to use rather less vibrato than is common today and the performance last night had a gentle sprinkling of portamenti, a technique which can easily be overused but when done with taste, as here, is immensely evocative and expressive. But almost as important as these technical issues is the group's ethos; they deny the tyranny of the metronome and the modern day desire for orchestral players to combine into a single, slick, uniform machine. In common with styles from the early 20th century, players are encouraged to be individually expressive.

The results were obvious from the first notes of conductor Paul Murphy's rather brisk account of Mozart's Divertimento in D, K 136. The tones of the strings were warmer than usual, with an interesting depth of tone and more strength from the inner parts. The combination of the gut strings and the sparing vibrato meant that 1st violin tone was not as all encompassing as usual, leaving the results attractively warm and varied.

In Elgar's short but atmospheric Elegy for Strings, Opus 58, the textures really responded to the sound of the gut strings, giving music an inner glow. The discreet use of portamenti was nicely expressive and perfectly in style, it made you realise how much we miss on the clean, bright lines of the modern orchestra.

Hamilton Harty's arrangement of The Londonderry Air for solo violin, strings and harp was something of a period piece in itself. Written in 1924 it had very much the feel of the Edwardian salon. The way the string players are encouraged to be individuality expressive lent an interesting richness of texture.

This individuality led, at times, to hints of lack of unanimity; this is very much in the period style. This was a different world, a group of characterful players rather than a homogenised single entity, with each player  aiming to play exactly the same as the next. At times of crisis the sound threatened to move from expressive to untidy, but never actually made the leap, thus leaving us to delight in the multifariously varied palate of sounds created.

Puccini's Criantemi was enlivened by some wonderfully Italianate portamenti, worthy of an Italian diva, lending personality to the line. Peter Warlock's Capriol Suite was played in a rather more sober style, the mellow sound world evoking something like the mahogany tones of Arbeau's originals.

At the end of the first half we had a clutch of speeches with a short, but uncompromising one from John Boyden, with a fascinating encore: The 4th movement of Beethovens Opus 130 Quartet, a piece that meant a lot to Boyden.

For the second half there was just one work, Tchaikovsky's Serenade. Here the orchestra surprised by the sheer volume they were capable of, combined with richness of sound. The Waltz had a light dancing feel (Murphy does after all conduct quite a lot of ballet), but combined with a nice mellowness. In the Elegy the textures were magically transparent and all ended in a fine, lively Finale.

Whilst it would have been interesting to hear the full orchestra in a group of chamber works, this concert enabled us to experience what fascination the strings on their own were capable of. The orchestra's concert series continues on Wednesday 23rd November at the Fairfield Concert Hall, Croydon with a programme  including Beethoven's Egmont Overture, Bruch's 1st Violin Concerto (with Lydia Mordkovitch) and Brahms's Symphony No. 4. The concert will be recorded and issued, with minimal intervention, on the orchestra's new record label. It will be interesting to see how much Mordkovtich modifies her tone and style to suit the orchestra's ethos. Further ahead there is a concert of music from Hitchcock films (lots of Bernard Hermann) with verteran actress Tippi Hedren in attendance.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

The LSO are performing Weber's Der Freischutz in April 2012 at the Barbican, details here. Witha rather more traditionally heavyweight cast than at the Proms, with Christine Brewer as Agathe and Simon O'Neill as Max, conducted by Sir Colin Davis. Though as with any concert performance of an opera with spoken dialogue you wonder what they are going to do about it. Both Midsummer Opera and Chelsea Opera Group have had resort to spoken narrations, which is never a good idea. And when the LSO under Colin Savis performed Berlioz's Beatrice et Benedict the spoken dialogue was performed by actors. So I await the LSO's performance with bated breath. I'd like to think we might get the German dialogue, spoken by the singers as Weber intended, but I wouldn't bank on it.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Cd Review


Sculpting Air – Navona Records, NV5852 
Modern works for Wind instruments

This disc from Navona Records is an interesting assemblage of contemporary chamber music, with the emphasis on wind instruments. But it is far more than a simple compilation of recordings as the CD also acts as a CD-Rom and when inserted into your computer provides extensive information about the pieces along with scores. In the case of the more adventurous contemporary pieces this is a fascinating aide to listening and in fact some of the scores are quite graphic and visually arresting.

The disc opens with Summer Music by Samuel Barber(1910 – 1981) played by the Solaris Quintet, recorded in 2009 at the Gault recital Hall, Wooster College. Barber’s substantial 12 minute work is written for a traditional ensemble of flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn. It was premiered in 1956 and subsequently shortened by Barber. It is rather rhapsodic and alternates moments of elegiac mood with more lively ones.

Reverie, Interrupted by James Adler (born 1950) is for tenor saxophone and piano, recorded in 2010 at Patrych Sound Studios in New York, with Jordan P. Smith (saxophone) and Adler himself on piano; Adler is a regular performer on the piano with a busy concert schedule. He studied piano performance and composition at the Curtis Institute. Adler’s style here offers lyricism with edge, giving us a lyrical saxophone line with a more rhythmical accompaniment. The work was written for Jordan P. Smith after Adler heard him perform. The score of the piece is included on the disc,

The Answer is No by Russ Lombardi (born 1945) is for flute solo (Michael Feingold) and an ensemble of 3 flutes and 2 alto flutes, recorded in 2008 at Futura Studios, Rosindal, MA. It is an austere, cool work, rather neo-classical in its dissonance. Lombardi has a jazz/rock background, having performed in various rock bands and jazz bands before studying at Berklee College and the New England Conservatory. In this piece he is dramatizing a dialogue between his teenage daughter (the solo flute) and his wife and himself (the flute sextet), I can only say that his daughter sounds a well-behaved sort of teenager. The score of the piece is included on the disc.

Chemical Suite by Jan Van der Roost (born 1956) is a suite of 4 short movements for trombone quartet, here recorded by the Daniel Speer Trombone Quartet in 1990 in Holland. Van der Roost is Belgian, he studied at the University of Leuven and the Royal Conservatoires of Ghent and Antwerp; his studies included trombone, conducting and composition and he now teaches at the University of Leuven. The Daniel Speer Trombone Quartet commissioned the work. The four movements bear the names of chemicals as titles, Kalium Cyanide, Glycerine, Chloroform and Ethanol. Kalium Cyanide is lively with short staccato bursts and aims to represent the chemical as sour and biting. Glycerine inevitably features low glissandi; quiet and uneasy at first it gradually builds. Chloroform is almost a popular song, rather music-hall in style, though its intent is to suggest the gradual narcotic effect of the chemical. Finally Ethanol is quick staccato and intense, reflecting perhaps the effects of alcohol.

The curiously named A Forum for Abandoned Euro Leaders by Barry Seroff (born 1978) is for flute duo, recorded at Futura Studios in 2010 by Zachary Jay and Brandy Blakely. Seroff studied at the Aaron Copland School of Music, but cut his teeth on improvised music at the legendary Knitting Factory. His music, though classical, includes elements of heavy rock and improvisation. He plays the flute in the progressive rock band, Edensong.

The name A Forum for Abandoned Euro Leaders is in fact an anagram. The piece features quite a lot of over-blowing, making the piece distinctive but rather difficult to listen to; these are offset by more traditional sometimes fugal elements. It was written for the Anti-Social Music flautist Andrea La Rose, as Seroff admired her extended techniques. I must confess that at nearly 7 minutes long, it rather out-stayed its welcome. The score of the piece is included on the disc; this is the first score to feature real extended techniques and includes much graphical work, giving the listener a chance to follow the processes which led from graphical score to realised piece.

Perihelion by Bryan Gillett (born 1972) is written for brass quintet and recorded here in 2006 in Romania by the Black Sea Quintet conducted by Gillett himself. Gillett is self taught and studied Medicine in Montreal; he currently resides in Brooklyn where he combines composing with being a doctor. The piece opens harshly, featuring trombone slides, but it develops something of a jazz feel, particularly in the accompanying elements. Like the previous track, this one felt too long at 7 minutes. The title refers to the closest point to the sun in a celestial body’s orbit. The work was premiered by the Black Sea Quintet in 2006 during the International Music Days Festival. The work’s very traditional looking score is included on the disc.

Genelalpaedie by Juan Sebastian Lach Lau (born 1970) features a title which requires transliteration (I have used my own attempt). Lach Lau is Mexican teaches composition at the Conservatorio de las Rosas in Morelia, Mexico; his studies have included periods in Mexico as well as Ghent and Holland. Written for a chamber ensemble of flute, harp, viola, violoncello and double bass, it is recorded by the Moravian Philharmonic Chamber Players in Olomouc in the Czech Republic in 2009.

The work is inspired by the first of Satie’s Gymnopedies, but Lach Lau filtered through experimetns with microtones and spectral music. The work opens with cries and whispers and disjointed notes, Lach Lau seems to be interested in textures rather than harmonic or melodic material. Though there was much of interest, I thought that perhaps Lach Lau was in danger of stretching his material too far. The notes that come on the CD-Rom include extensive information by Lach Lau allowing anyone interested to explore the work deeply. The score, included on the disc, includes quotes from Michael Foucault and features extensive annotations and makes fascinating reading.

With the final work on the disc, the Sonata for Trombone and Piano Opus1 by Richard Crosby (born 1957) we return to more traditional style. The opening movement is upbeat, lyric and melodic with a touch of bravura, the middle one is quietly lyric with a long breathed melody and the finale is a toccata with Spanish hints. Crosby studied at the University of Cincinnati and has been Professor of Music at Eastern Kentucky University since 1986. The work was commissioned by Ken Haddix, one of Crosby’s colleagues at EKU and was recorded by Haddix with Crosby at the piano in 2010 at EKU. The score is included on the CD Rom

This is a fascinating disc. There are some fine and creditable performances but what lifts it above the ordinary is the inclusion of extensive notes and the ability to see the scores of 6 of the pieces on the CD-Rom. If you are interested in contemporary music in its infinite variety, then this disc is for you.

Last Night of the Proms

We managed to catch the end of the Last Night of the Proms on TV where Susan Bullock's performance (visual as much as aural) of Rule Britannia brought back memories of Gwynneth Jones in the same role. Edward Gardner's confident and succinct speech herald's, I would suspect, a long career doing Last Nights, if he cares to.

What always amazes me about the audience at the Last Night is how well behaved they are. Yes, they make a lot of noise, by vocal and other means, but they also know when to shut up. There is a discipline about  their performance which matches that on stage. And judging by the TV broadcast, their performance in Land of Hope of Glory and the two sing along Rogers and Hammerstein numbers was most creditable. All I have to do now is try and find time to hear Susan Bullocks performance of the Immolation scene on iPlayer before it disappears.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Wilton's Music Hall

It is good news that Wilton's Music Hall seems set to stay open. The theatre is a wonderfully evocative space, but when they failed to get lottery money the venue seemed set to close. But now support has been sufficient for them to be able to plan much needed structural works. More info here.
Over the bank holiday weekend Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort and Players played Mendelssohn's Elijah at the Proms (we missed it, being in Norfolk for the premiere of my Elegy). They are recording the oratorio (hurrah!) with Simon Keenlyside in the title role. The Recording will be issued on the new label, Winged Lion, which McCreesh is starting. The first CD on the label will be Berlioz's Grande Messe des Morts recorded wth the Gabriel Consort and Players, the Wroclaw Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra and Chetham’s School of Music.McCreesh is artistic director of the Wratislavia Cantans Festival, and they will feature on the label. With two such opening discs as Elijah and the Berlioz Requiem the label looks to be extremely promising.

Review of Der Freischutz at the Proms

For an opera described as Weber's masterwork, Der Freischutz remains a relatively rare visitor to the UK's stages. It's combination of the gothic horror of the Wolf's Glen scene with a heroine of remarkable drippiness perhaps means the work is not as enticing as it might be. In fact Weber's other two major operas remain almost as enticing, even though they present interesting theatrical problems. Oberon with its hobbled plot remains a tantalising what if Weber had lived to revise it, but is rescued by a ravishing score. And Euryanthe with its proto Lohengrin plot and dramatic music almost overcoming the fatal weakness of the libretto.

Rather curiously Der Freischutz's outing at the Proms (Friday 9th September), performed by John Eliot Gardiner and his Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra Revolutionnaire et Romantique, was in a French incarnation revised by Berlioz.  Eliot Gardiner and his forces had performed the opera in Paris at the Opera Comique in a production by Dan Jemmett as part of the Opera Comique's rediscovery of rare 19th century French repertoire. (They are staging Auber's La Muette de Portici next spring). Berlioz's adaptation was done for the Paris Opera where, in order to perform the work, it needed recitatives and a ballet.

So, fearing someone else might do the job a hell of a lot worse, Berlioz set to and added recitatives, a couple of dance movements from other Weber operas and a 3rd Act ballet based on Weber's Invitation to the Dance. Despite Berlioz's participation, the result has curiosity interest only, valuable mainly for the way it illuminates 19th century tastes and for admrining the way Berlioz skill preserved as much of Weber as possible.

But just as Carmen and Les Contes d'Hoffmann change considerably in their dramatic feel when performed wth recitatives, so does Der Freischutz. Inevitably recitative slows things down and we miss Weber's carefully planned contrasts between speech and music. No place more so than the Wolf's Glen scene where the removal of substantial melodrama (in the strict sense of spoken word over music) moves the piece more into the conventional direction.

Performing with a period orchestra Eliot Gardiner took advantage of the rethinking of Weber's orchestral textures to similarly rethink casting. Max is conventionally cast as a jugend dramatisch tenor (even a helden tenor); I saw Alberto Remedios in the role at Covent Garden (with Helena Dose as Agathe). Here it was sung by Andrew Kennedy, a far more lyric voice. In the relatively small confines of the Opera Comique, Kennedy's combination of lyricism and forthright committment would probably have had a strong effect. But in the vast expanses of the Albert Hall there were moments when I longed for the ringing tones of Remedios or John Upperton (who sang the role recently with Midsummer Opera). That said, I have rarely heard Max sung so beautifully and the role must count as a serious triumph for Kennedy and an indication of his seriousness as an operatic performer.

Max's love interest, Agathe, was sung by Sophie Karthauser, again Eliot Gardiner casting a lyric voice where we might expect something more. Karthauser brought great beauty to the role and conveyed Agathe's anxiety with nervous intensity. Agathe is a real drip and when performed by a jugend dramatisch soprano the mis-match between vocal tones and character can be disturbing. So it is a pleasure to report that Karthauser's characterisation was all of a piece, and she sang Agathe's great solo, 'Leise, leise' with dignity and beauty.

Agathe's companion, here renamed Annette, is a gift of a role, calling for a lyric soubrette with a gift for comedy. Virginie Pochon did not disappoint and she charmed and sparkled, providing much needed dramatic contrast.

The villain of the piece Gaspard (renamed from Caspar) was sung (if that is the right word) by Gidon Saks. Saks seemed to compensate for the lack of melodrama by performing in a comically melodramatic manner. His over the top performance, including frequent stage whispered incantations to Samiel, the black huntsman, threatened to push the performance into comedy. For me, he all but ruined the Wolf's Glen scene, indicating that often less really is more.

It didn't help that Christian Pelissier's appearances in the spoken role of Samiel verged into something like the Cabinet of Dr. Cagliari. I began to seriously wonder what the Opera Comique's production had been like.

Samuel Evans made a personable Kilian, the young man who bests Max in the shooting contest at the start of the opera. Matthew Brook provided strong support as Agathe's father and Robert Davies was suitably impressive in the small but important role of the Prince Ottakar.

The Monteverdi Choir were in fine form and their intensely involved performance had obviously benefitted from the run of stage performance. The glory of the evening though was the playing of the Orchestra Revolutionnaire et Romantique. Weber's orchestration seems to respond beautifully period performance practice and here under Eliot Gardiner the orchestra were not exception. Featuring a big ensemble, with 40 string players, the results were substantial yet transparent, with JEG's speeds keeping a lively flexibility. Hearing and seeing them in this I began to dream of the possibility of a proms Lohengrin using period forces.

This was a long but involving evening, over 3 hours including just one 20 minute interval. The singers committment to their roles and the sympathetic semi-staging obviously made us benefit from the run of staged performances. There was nothing stiff and concert-like about this evening.

I could have wished that we'd got to hear the opera in Weber's original, nonetheless the results were vividly dramatic even if the Weber/Berlioz version of the opera remains something of a curate's egg.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Notation Notation Notation


One of the areas that I often struggle with when writing music is exactly how to write it out. You can be quite clear as to what you want, but still be uncertain as to how best to notate it. Western notation evolved to cope with music written according to the accepted rules of melody and harmony. If you want to veer away from these or stretch things somewhat, then you have to push the notation. There are conventions for some of these, for example if you want to write quarter tones. But if you use too much extra notation you run the danger of having to prefix the piece with a long essay explaining what the signs mean. And if it is an ensemble piece, then you also risk having to prefix each rehearsal with a long discussion as to how to approach the extra notation. This has happened to me a few times and has left me with a desire to keep things simple and straightforward where possible. Also, getting too exotic with notation or too complex might mean that a piece which shouldn't need a conductor will need one, so that there is a single person controlling the complex web of events.

Even when there isn’t anything particularly exotic in your piece, you can find that the way it is notated has a big effect. For instance, if you write using a variety of chromatic harmonies or modes, then it won’t always be obvious whether the notes are sharps or flats and you can end up with a flurry of accidentals which renders and essentially straightforward line as something complex. Poulenc does quite a lot of this in his choral writing, using enharmonic changes so that quite straightforward chords are notated in exotic ways.  Of course there are correct ways of writing things out, but if this involves, say, extensive use of G double flat, it might make more sense to the performer if you use F natural rather than the harmonically correct G double flat.

There is a similar inflexibility in rhythmical notations. Or rather, to get some effects you have to use such complex notation that there is very little possibility of getting the music played accurately. Hence the recourse, to either computers or to using freedom and uncertainty. I must confess that writing most of my music on computer, I sometimes get seduced into rhythmical constructs which are extremely tricky to bring off. Part of the reason why this arises is that we have little concept of stretching rhythm, or at least no satisfactory notation for it.

One piece I am working on at the moment has a triplet crotchet figure over a semiquaver figure. At one point I wanted to speed up the semi-quaver figure whilst keeping the crotchet triplet the same. My first attempt kept the semiquavers, but speeded up the basic tempo and then re-notated the triplet crotchet figure using dotted quavers. I sounded perfect, but looking at the vocal and instrumental lines I realised that there was little chance of it ever being performed with accuracy, the notation was just too fiddly. So I accepted the inevitable and chose a simpler solution which, whilst not perfect, has a far better chance of being performed without stressing the performers out.

For much of his later life Percy Grainger experimented with a series of machines which would enable him to have complete control of pitch, rhythm and duration. In fact his experiments were overtaken by the use of computers to do this. I remain wedded to the notion of using human performers and so must try and find solutions within the notations which are in common use.

Alison Teale - passion for the cor anglais.

If you think about the cor anglais as a solo instrument, then probably a long breathed, melancholic melody comes to mind when the instrument gets a solo moment during an orchestral work, playing something long, slow and lovely. Alison Teale, the principal cor anglais player with the BBC Symphony Orchestra is positive that there is more to the instrument than that and is keen share her enthusiasm with others. To that end she has produced an album of music for solo cor anglais which is coming out at the end of this month. It is probably the first all cor anglais recital record, certainly in the UK.

Called Cor! the album's title is something a pun which hardly translates to other countries (the rest of the English speaking work calls the instrument an English Horn and the expression 'cor' is a particularly English one). But the title reflects Teale's desire to bring the instrument into the lime-light and show it off, to introduce it to a wider, livelier repertoire. We met at the Albert Hall to talk about the new album and her desire to bring the cor anglais to a wider audience.

The cor anglais has a relatively limited solo repertoire; major moments include a concerto by Donizetti and Copland's Quiet City, plus music by Hindemith, Rubbra, and Lennox Berkely. It has been taken up by contemporary composers including Simon Bainbridge, though players usually have to steal from other instruments. Teale has commissioned a piece, Bebop Tango, from David Gordon for the new CD, a deliberately fun piece which reflects the eclectic nature of the works on the new CD with composers ranging from de Falla and Piazzolla to Messiaen and Lucchetti.

Like most orchestra musicians, Teale juggles her orchestra playing committments with other outside work including teaching at the Guildhall and she relishes the variety that this brings. She conveys her enthusiasm for the instrument with passion and is keen to demonstrate that there is far more to the instrument than we currently perceive. Though the cor anglais is very similar to the oboe from a technical point of view and sounds a 5th lower, its tone qualities are very different. Its warm, dark brown tones are immensely seductive, its timbre fruiter than the oboe's. It takes more physical effort to play than the oboe and Teale feels that for her this affects the way she approaches the instrument. If it has a drawback it is that it is not a loud instrument, it does not always easily penetrate the orchestra.

Teale wants to persuade people to experiment more and hopes that the CD and plans to publish an album of pieces for the instrument will contribute to this. To bring a bit of fun to the repertoire, making a change from Dvorak and the Swan in the Carnival of the Animals. Given Teale's infectious enthusiasm, her new CD promises to show the Cor Anglais stepping out in a new light.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Recent CD Review

My review of a disc of Alessandro Grandi's sacred music, themed on the Vespers service is here, on MusicWeb International.

This disc charmed me far more than I could have imagined. 

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Learning Curve

Last weekend was, of course, the premiere of my Elegy for baritone and piano sextet. There were problems from the start because Finale had played a blinder and the first set of parts had random bars missing, not a good way to start the rehearsal process. Another interesting problem, which I had not really thought through, was the difference in doing a piece with singer, orchestra and conductor and with singer, instrumentalists and not conductor. On reflection there were a number of elements in the parts which could be written out differently to make the players life easier, providing clearer signposts in the absence of conductor. So I have to admit that I spent much of the rehearsal process kicking myself and thinking of all the things I ought to have done, different ways of writing the parts out. But ultimately the performance came up trumps and Trunch heard a wonderfully evocative performance of the Elegy.

Rhinegold in Fulham

If you can perform Puccini's La Boheme in the confines of the upstairs room in a pub, then the idea of performing Wagner's Das Rheingold in a church in Fulham starts to sound reasonable. Fulham Opera have done just that, performing the entire Das Rheingold fully staged, with piano accompaniment, in St. John's Church, Fulham. And very creditable it was too, we almost forgot about the extreme discomfort of the church seats, so engrossing was the performance.


St. Johns is a Victorian church which has been modernised, so that the playing space was a plain, modern-ish chancel with undecorated walls on which Fulham Opera were able to project designs, a set of steps led to the raised playing area and the only drawback was the presence of the altar (a modern, marble table) which was, inevitably, unmoveable and rather gave the proceedings the feel of the sacred play. That said, it must be the only production of Das Rheingold that I have ever seen where the back drop includes a substantial stained glass window of the crucifiction - definitely an interesting mix of iconography in this opera.

Fiona Williams directed the piece, Rob Dyer lit it and Gaynor Woodward facilitated the costumes and produced the rather 80's altar cloth which functioned as the river Rhine.

It has to be confessed that the opening was the weakest part. The ambient light was still quite high (no blackout curtains of course) so that lighting effects were not dominant, Wagner's evocative orchestration does not lend itself to piano reduction and the budget restrictions meant that we lacked the coup de theatre possible in bigger theatres.

But things took on an entirely different complexion when the Rhinemaidens appeared; one of the big strengths of this production was the depth of its casting. The Rhinemaidens were a lusty bunch, Elizabeth Capener (Wellgunde) also sang Freia, Sara Gonzalez (Flosshilde) also sang Erda and Zoe South (Woglinde) has Brunnhilde in her repertoire. But they were nicely matched in voice and supremely playful; big voices having fun.

The object of their fun was Robert Presley's Alberich. Dressed as a contemporary wide-boy in garishly flowered shirt, Presley's impressive performance brought out the humour in this scene. He lacked the ultimate feeling of danger that the finest Alberich's bring to the role, but he was thrilling nonetheless and his abjuring of love was fully committed. I feel that in a darker production he would bring out the scarier side of this character.

When the scene changed to Valhalla, we moved from the Rhine to Dallas! Fiona Williams's neat idea was to stage the opera as high-octane family drama and what better family to model the opera on than the Ewings of Dallas. This was in keeping with the vein of humour which ran through the performance, but Williams and her cast never sent the opera up, the laughter helped us see another aspect of the Wagner's opera.

Frankly, the costume and props budget just wasn't bit enough to turn St. John's Church into the Ewing's ranch (Southfork?) and the costumes looked a  trifle make-do. But the cast entered into the idea with a will and with fine committment; you could moan about the details, but sheer committment will get you a long way.

Ian Wilson-Pope made a physically impressive Wotan and captured the right cowboy type swagger the production needed. His was a dominating performance, which something that both opera and concept called for. His voice was the one that suffered most from the restricted acoustic; we were simply not far enough away from him for his vibrato to settle down and at times it became intrusive in a way that probably does not happen in bigger theatres.

Elizabeth Russo as Fricka was in the unfortunate position of having to try and emulate the glamour role in the piece. She did this creditably and is a fine Fricka, albeit in a rather understated way. This was a neatly sung performance, which impressed with its attention to detail. But I couldn't help wishing that she had taken Joan Collins character from Dynasty as her role model; Fricka as power dressed super-bitch.

Of course, the problem with Das Rheingold is that we tend to view the characters from the prism of the later operas, so that it makes sense if Fricka is a bitch in Die Walkure playing Das Rheingold on its own means that the character can be less hard edged.

The third major character was, of course, Loge sung by Brian Smith-Walters. I was less clear how he fitted into the Dallas concept and we seemed to have lost the element of fire. Surely Loge must be tricky and clever, here he seemed in danger of being something of an oaf. Smith-Walters performance carried things through, though his dark tenor added a heroic element to the part which is usually omitted. Simply, though what Smith-Walters did was impressive, I wanted something lither and tricksier. And Fiona Williams really ought to have come up with a concept which allowed this Loge to bring intelligence and fire into play.

Capener was a fine Freia, dressed in lurid pink and rhinstones, she was the baby of the family. But there was, thankfully, no baby in her voice. Her brothers, Froh and Donner, were played as hick cowboys, which rather limited the scope of Stuart Laing and Stephen John Svanholm, but when it came to their set piece at the end when the gods entered Valhalla, then both delivered. But for the remainder of the opera I was a little to aware of how the directors concept of Dallas cowboys was something of a mismatch to the singers natural inclinations.

Fasolt and Fafner were played as besuited business men but Oliver Hunt and John Woods, both providing some fine singing and some neat coordinated movement.  Sara Gonzalez appeared from the audience to sing Erda, though more could have been made of this; but Gonzalez contributed and admirably firm vocal line.

The cast were all admirably hard working, providing the anvils in the descent into Nibelheim as well as playing the Nibelung. Like the Rhine scene, Niblelheim was played pretty straight with some nice physical theatre solutions to the scenes technical problems.

At the end, for the entrance into Valhalla, we were again aware of the budgetary limits but the cast entered into things with a will and the rainbow umbrellas didn't quite look risible.

For the closing moments of the opera we were left with the piano and it was here that the heroic nature of the enterprise made itself felt. The entire opera was played admirably and vigorously by musical director Benjamin Woodward. The sheer physical enterprise of playing the opera in piano reduction (albeit with an interval) added an extra heroic element to the opera.

The group are planning a fully staged Die Walkure next year. On this showing it should be something to watch out for, though I would suggest that they invest in a piano duet version of the accompaniement to try and help do more justice to the bigger moments in Wagner's orchestration