Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Verdi's Luisa Miller from Midsummer Opera

Verdi - Luisa Miller
Verdi's opera Luisa Miller remains a relative rarity on the operatic stage, and Midsummer Opera's performances of the work at St John's Church Waterloo on  23 & 25 March 2018 provide a welcome chance to experience the piece. David Roblou conducts a semi-staging with Stephen Holloway, John Upperton, Sian Woodling, Cheyney Kent, Andrew Major, and Emma Dogliani.

Luisa Miller was Verdi's 15th opera and is generally regarded as the first of his middle period operas, an important stepping stone which would lead to Rigoletto, Il trovatore and La traviata. Prior to writing Luisa Miller for Naples, Verdi had spent a lot of time in Paris (his opera Jerusalem premiered there in 1847), and delays over agreements for the opera with Naples meant that Verdi had a longer time frame than usual for planning the piece and this results in greater influence from French opera in the work. Julian Budden comments that "the sensitive scoring, the flexibility of the musical forms, the growing importance of the role which Verdi assigned to the orchestra ... permits him to write two lengthy dialogue recitatives".

The libretto is based on the Friedrich Schiller play,Kabale und Liebe though the librettist Salvadore Cammarano transformed both the time period and the setting so that Schiller's aristocratic intrigues are moved to a Tyrolean village and the result is an exploration of bourgeois drama.

Full details from the Midsummer Opera website.

Taking wing: Royal Academy Opera's Flight

Jonathan Dove: Flight - Leila Zanette, Alexandra Oomens, Alexander Simpson, Flora MacDonald, Frances Gregory, Aoife O'Connell - Royal Academy Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Jonathan Dove: Flight - Leila Zanette, Alexandra Oomens, Alexander Simpson, Flora MacDonald, Frances Gregory, Aoife O'Connell - Royal Academy Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Jonathan Dove Flight; dir: Martin Duncan, cond: Gareth Hancock; Royal Academy Opera
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 17 Mar 2018  
Lively and very funny, Jonathan Dove's opera opens the Royal Academy of Music's new theatre

Jonathan Dove: Flight - Alexander Aldren, Flora MacDonald, Frances Gregory, Paul Grant, Robert Garland, Leila Zanette, Alexandra Oomens - Royal Academy Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Alexander Aldren, Flora MacDonald, Frances Gregory, Paul Grant,
Robert Garland, Leila Zanette, Alexandra Oomens
Royal Academy Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
The Royal Academy of Music's fine new theatre reopened with a production of Jonathan Dove's Flight directed by Martin Duncan. We caught the final performance on 17 March 2018 with the second of the two casts, Aoife O'Connell as the Controller, Alexander Simpson as the Refugee, Alexandra Oomens and Alexander Aldren as Tina and Bill, Flora MacDonald and Robert Garland as the Stewardess and the Steward, Frances Gregory and Paul Grant as Minskwoman and Minskman, Leila Zanette as the Older Woman and Darwin Prakash as the Immigration Officer. Designs were by Francis O'Connor with lighting by Jake Wiltshire, projections by Ruben Plaza Garcia and movement by Mandy Demetriou.

Jonathan Dove's 1998 opera Flight with a libretto by April de Angelis, commissioned by Glyndebourne Opera, remains one of Dove's most popular stage works. It is a very traditionally constructed piece, April de Angelis's witty libretto provides a closed room scenario and opportunities for each of the characters to reveal themselves to us. Part of the work's success is the way it combines humour with poignancy, the work is constantly balanced between the two.  At Opera Holland Park in 2015 with a cast varying from young artists to highly experienced, Stephen Barlow's production provided a poignant experience [see my review].

Monday, 19 March 2018

The lure of the East: Soraya Mafi's debut recital at the Wigmore Hall

Soraya Mafi
The Lure of the East, Schubert, Schumann, Wolf, Strauss, Bizet, Fauré, Saint-Saëns, Roussell, Sullivan, Coward; Soraya Mafi, Graham Johnson; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 18 Mar 2018 Star rating: 4.0
An engaging debut recital from this promising young soprano

Soraya Mafi, whom we saw recently as Titania in Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream at English National Opera [see my review], made her Wigmore Hall solo recital debut on Sunday 18 March 2018 with a programme which referenced her Iranian heritage. Accompanied by Graham Johnson, she took Gabriel Fauré's Les roses d'Ispahan as the centrepiece of a programme entitled The Lure of the East, looking at the way different composers had written about the Easte from Schumann, Richard Strauss, Wolf and Schubert, to Bizet, Faure, Saint-Saëns and Roussel, and ending with Gilbert & Sullivan and Noel Coward.

We started with Byron's Hebrew Melodies with a contained account of Schumann's Aus den hebräischen Gesängen Op. 25, intense and bleak but remarkably concentrated. The Three Kings followed with Richard Strauss's rather unusual Die heiligen drei Könige aus Morgenland Op. 56 No. 6 with its radiant piano postlude. Mafi drew out the narrative character of the piece, really telling us a story and this continued with Wolf's highly characterful Epiphanias where Mafi's lively personality shone through.

Rakastava: the music of Sibelius from Chamber Domaine

Sibelius: Rakastava - Chamber Domaine - Resonus
Sibelius Rakastava; Chamber Domaine, Thomas Kemp; Resonus Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 18 Mar 2018 Star rating: 3.5
Smaller scale, but not negligible, music for strings and chamber music by Sibelius

Sibelius' symphonies loom so large in his output that the smalle works get far less exposure. Beyond the occasional song, we hear hardly any of this music. On this disc, Thomas Kemp and Chamber Domaine along with Sami Junnonen (flute), Adrian Bradbury (cello), and Sophia Rahman (piano) explore music for string orchestra, and chamber music. The title track is the suite Rakastava Op.14, for strings, timpani and triangle plus other works for strings, Impromptu, Romance in C major and Andante Festivo, the Impromptus Op.5 for piano, Malincolia Op.20 for cello and piano and three arrangements for flute and piano, from Scaramouche Op.71, Nocturne and The Oak Tree Op.109 No.2. These are mature works, Rakastava dates from around the time of the fourth symphony so these are more than just juvenile or early works.

Rakastava started out as a choral work from 1894 setting a poem from Elias Lonnrot's collection of traditional poetry published in 1840, Kanteletar. Then in 1912 Sibelius re-cast the work for string orchestra, very much developing the material. In three movements, Sibelius writing for the strings is far more complex than the original declamatory choral piece. You would not mistake the composer, even in this very concentrated form. This is very much a miniature tone-poem, it is intriguing to try and tease out links between Rakastava and the fourth symphony, and it receives a finely elegant and evocative performance from Chamber Domaine.

Ten contemporary composers, nine works: JAM at St Bride's Church

Vimy Memorial, on Vimy Ridge, France.
Vimy Memorial, on Vimy Ridge, France.
JAM (the John Armitage Memorial) starts its 2018 season with a programme which features work by ten contemporary composers performed by the Chapel Choir of Selwyn College (Cambridge), Onyx Brass, Simon Hogan (organ), Molly Parsons-Gurr (cello), with soloists Claire Seaton (soprano), Roderick Morris (counter-tenor) Ashley Catling (tenor), Edward Grint (bass), conducted by Michael Bawtree at St Bride's Church, Fleet Street on 22 March.

The concert includes the first London performances of Voices of Vimy, a work for choir and cello which was commissioned by JAM in 2017 to commemorate the centenary of World War I Battle of Vimy Ridge, fought between the forces of the Canadian Expeditionary Force and the German 6th Army (comemorated in the Canadian National Vimy Memorial). Voices of Vimy is a collaboration between two composers, Tom Harrold (British) and Stuart Beatch (Canadian), setting words by the poet Grahame Davies (Welsh); a co-commission with the Canadian choir Pro Coro Canada, the work was premiered by the BBC Singers at JAM in the Marsh last year and received its North American premiere in November 2017 when Pro Coro Canada performed it.

JAM's concert will also include its 2003 commission, The Far Theatricals of Day, a setting of texts by Emily Dickinson by Jonathan Dove; Dove describes it as 'a cycle of songs starting before dawn and ending at midnight, and one which includes an element of theatre in performance'.

The programme also includes seven works from JAM's recent call for works, with pieces by Cecilia McDowall, Kerensa Briggs, Angela Slater, Judith Ward, Michael Short and Richard Peat.

Full details from the JAM website.

Beth Levin in Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor Op. 37

Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor Op. 37 arranged for piano and strings by Vinzenz Lachner (1881), with Beth Levin (piano), Deutsche Kammerakademie Neuss am Rhein conducted by Christoph Schlüren. Recorded live - March 5, 2017, Zeughaus Neuss, Germany.

Vinzenz Lachner (1811-1893) was the younger brother of the composer/conductor Franz Lachner. Vinzenz spent 37 years as the court conductor in Mannheim, his students included Max Bruch and Hermann Levi.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Tradition and innovation: I chat to Hugo Ticciati

Hugo Ticciati (Photo Marco Borggreve)
Hugo Ticciati (Photo Marco Borggreve)
Violinist Hugo Ticciati is very much associated with O/Modernt the festival in Sweden of which he is artistic director.  But there are plenty of opportunities to hear him in the UK as he is artist-in-residence this year at Kings Place as part of its Time Unwrapped series, and Hugo and O/Modernt also have a residency at the Wigmore Hall in April, whilst a new CD is forthcoming too. Hugo and O/Modernt are known for their innovative programmes, combining old and new often with improvisation and imagination. Hugo was recently in the UK for his latest concert at Kings Place and we met up to find out more.

Hugo Ticciati
Hugo Ticciati conducting
In 2011 Hugo was asked to create a festival in the beautiful Rococo theatre of Confidencen at Ulrikdals Castle, 15 kilometres from Stockholm. This combined Hugo's love of contemporary music with a love of the past. The festival's title O/Modernt (Un-Modern) reflects this. He dislikes the modern tendency to pigeon-hole, and likes to relate different musics, all music is an expression and different styles complement each other.

And it is this link with O/Modernt which has infused much of Hugo's performance. Whilst Hugo has developed and refined ideas since, the concept seems to have sprung fully formed, Hugo launched himself into the first festival and the name O/Modernt was something he came up straight away.

His approach was very much reflected his 2016 concert at Kings Place which combined music by Vivaldi with music by Metallica. Hugo feels that we have become acclimatised to the music of the past, and his intention in the programme was to help modern audiences hear Vivaldi in the way Vivaldi's contemporaries did, as vivid, driving and exciting, as the rock music of the period.

We always hear the past through the ears of the present 

O/Modernt Kammarorkester (Photo Susan Poeschl)
O/Modernt Kammarorkester (Photo Susan Poeschl)
The idea is to challenge people, to enable them to hear music that they know in a different context. For Hugo, we always hear the past through the ears of the present and so we need encouraging to listen in different ways. He was lecturing in Sweden when a student, after listening to some Mozart, commented that Mozart got that from Puccini. Hugo's response was to agree, as we cannot help but hear Mozart through modern ears, filtered via Puccini and lots else besides; old music is always filtered through history. So his concerts aim to get people out of their comfort zone, to experience the familiar in a new way.

Whether presenting a concert or a CD, Hugo is keen to take listeners on a journey so that concerts are carefully choreographed with lighting, and flow from piece to piece without interruption, taking people from old to new to improvisation and back, leading them. All this, of course, is an experiment, and whilst it is fun it is risky and not all the experiments succeed, but Hugo feels that they need to challenge themselves as artists as much as challenging the audience.

This sense of a journey is reflected in the residency at the Wigmore Hall, Purcell: From the Ground Up.

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Daniel Kramer's new La Traviata at ENO with a remarkable performance from Alan Opie, celebrating 50 years with the company

Verdi: La Traviata - Heather Shipp, Lukhanyo Moyake, Aled Hall, Claudia Boyle, Henry Waddington, Martha Jones, Benjamin Bevan - English National Opera (Photo Catherine Ashmore)
Verdi: La Traviata - Heather Shipp, Lukhanyo Moyake, Aled Hall, Claudia Boyle, Henry Waddington, Martha Jones, Benjamin Bevan - English National Opera (Photo Catherine Ashmore)
Verdi La traviata; Claudia Boyle, Lukhanyo Moyake, Alan Opie, dir: Daniel Kramer, cond: Leo McFall; English National Opera at the London Coliseum
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 16 Mar 2018 Star rating: 3.0
Daniel Kramer's vibrant, perhaps too eager to please production complemented by some striking performances

Verdi: La Traviata - Claudia Boyle - English National Opera (Photo Catherine Ashmore)
 Claudia Boyle - English National Opera (Photo Catherine Ashmore)
Verdi's La traviata is one of those opera which every opera company needs to have in its repertoire, and productions need to balance intelligent exploration of the issues raised by the work with the need to reach as wide an audience as possible with an opera which is likely to attract audience members who are not regular opera-goers. English National Opera's previous production, Peter Konwitschny's stripped down, anti-romantic and dystopic view [see my review] very much failed the second requirement by not attracting wider audiences. So artistic director Daniel Kramer's new production had quite a lot riding on it. Kramer's vision proved to be vividly eager to please, with over-the-top party scenes, but also an interesting take on Violetta's journey.

A co-production with Theater Basel where has already debuted, English National Opera premiered the new production of Verdi's La traviata on Friday 16 March 2018, Daniel Kramer directed and Leo McFall conducted, sets were by Lizzie Clachan and costumes by Esther Bialas, lighting by Charles Balfour and choreography by Teresa Rotemberg. Irish soprano Claudia Boyle sang Violetta with South African tenor Lukhanyo Moyake as Alfredo, making his UK debut. Veteran baritone Alan Opie sang Germont, a role he first sang in 1988 and marking his fiftieth year singing with the company!

Verdi: La Traviata - Lukhanyo Moyake - English National Opera (Photo Catherine Ashmore)
Lukhanyo Moyake - English National Opera (Photo Catherine Ashmore)
Leo McFall conducted a lithe and shapely account of the prelude (with the curtain down), and then we launched into Act One. Kramer and his team set it in a sort of 1930s bordello, all mirrored walls and hyper-active staging, this party was desperate to please. Whilst the style was loosely 1930s, with plenty of Weimar Republic-style references in the staging, Violetta's costumes throughout were of a different era (more 1940s) rather setting her out from her contemporaries. For Act Two we moved to a plain, stripped down stage, just a swing, grass and a flower bed, but with Flora's party, we reverted to the style of Act One. During this latter party, mattresses were in evidence, and these re-occurred in the last Act, laid out regularly and evoking graves. At the front, Violetta was digging her own grave.

Kramer's production was far too inclined to tell us what to think, rather than allowing us to make our own decisions. The party scenes were desperately insistent, but more worrying was the emphasis on death. In Act Two scene one, the flower bed could be read as a grave and Violetta gathers flowers, Ophelia-like, and at one point hides herself beneath the turf. Then at Flora's party, the women's make-up seemed to evoke the Mexican day of the dead, and of course, in the last act, we had Violetta digging her own grave in the cemetery. One idea would be interesting, but all of them together became rather too much.

Re-discovering the music of Ailsa Dixon

Ailsa Dixon (centre) with Dobrinka Tabakova and Cheryl Frances Hoad at the London Oriana Choir's concert in July 2017
Ailsa Dixon (centre) with Dobrinka Tabakova and Cheryl Frances Hoad
at the London Oriana Choir's concert in July 2017
As part of the London Oriana Choir's Five15 project, giving a voice to women composers across the UK, Ailsa Dixon's anthem These things shall be, setting verses by John Addington Symonds was premiered at the Cutty Sark in July 2017 in a concert which also included music by Cheryl Frances-Hoad and Dobrinka Tabakova

Dixon's anthem had in fact been written 30 years earlier, Ailsa Dixon was 85 at the time of the concert and would die five weeks later. Ailsa Dixon is one of a number of composers, often female, whose work has taken place quietly, with performances by friends and contacts, without any great fanfare. Thankfully we are beginning to discover Ailsa Dixon's music.

She was born in 1932 and studied music at Durham University, and would go on to become a piano and singing teacher, but (as she explained in an interview published last year) what with teaching and family life there was little time for composition. She and her husband, Brian, founded a small early music group. A key moment in her development was when she and Brian staged Handel's dramatic oratorio Theodora in 1976 with a cast including many of Ailsa's pupils. This gave rise to Ailsa's own opera Letters to Philemon which was produced in 1984. She had filled what spare time she had by writing poetry, and this helped her to craft her own libretto for the opera, which is about St Paul in captivity, drawing on early conversations with her grandfather during weekends out from her own 'captivity at boarding school'.

In the same interview she talked about her inspirations - 'The most significant influences have been Fauré (for his harmonic suppleness), Britten (for his powers of evocation and empathy), and Bartok (studying his compositional processes at Durham stimulated an interest in his lively variations of time signature and the elasticity of musical motifs). But ‘the Greats’ preside over it all.'

Ailsa Dixon (with lute) and contemporaries at Durham University
Ailsa Dixon (with lute) and contemporaries at Durham University
She went on to produce a number of works at this period, under the tutelage of the composer Paul Patterson, and her works include string quartets, a wide number of songs, a children's opera and choral music. You can find out more about Ailsa's works from the website which is devoted to her and her music. And there is now a YouTube channel devoted to recordings of her works.

Friday, 16 March 2018

The Barbican Tunnel Transformed

Tunnel Visions: Array - 59 Productions
Tunnel Visions: Array - 59 Productions
The Beech Street tunnel that leads from the Barbican tube to the Barbican Centre is hardly the most inspiring way of approaching an arts centre. This weekend (17-18 March 2018) it will be radically transformed as part of OpenFest, a two-day celebration of the Cultural Mile which includes the Barbican, the Guildhall and the Museum of London. Tunnel Visions: Array is a free light and sound installation in the tunnel created by 59 Productions. 

The tunnel will be transformed into an immersive audio-visual performance space, combining projection and sound technology with the Barbican’s distinctive brutalist architecture. The walls and ceiling of the tunnel will become a vast canvas for a newly-commissioned animated digital artwork inspired by composer/conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Karawane, allowing audiences to explore the work aurally, visually and spatially. Karawane is a work for chorus and orchestra by Esa-Pekka Salonen, who is one of the Composer Focuses in the Barbican’s 2017/8 season.

OpenFest has a whole array of events, many of them free, celebrating the cultural diversity of the City of London. Full details from the Barbican website.

Ceremonial Oxford: Music for the Georgian University by William Hayes

Ceremonial Oxford
William Hayes anthems, oratorios and organ concerto; Choir of Keble College, Instruments of Time and Truth, Matthew Martin; CRD
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 12 Mar 2018 Star rating: 3.5
Highlights of the output of one of Handel's contemporaries, the Oxford-based William Hayes

Handel's connection with Oxford can be dated to 1733 when he performed Athalia at The Publick Act (Encoenia, the university's annual commemoration of benefactors). This was one the few occasions when Handel took his company out of London. The Handel connection would continue through the 18th century as the Professor of Music at Oxford from 1741 to 1777 was William Hayes, who was an enthusiastic Handelian.

Listening to this new disc from Matthew Martin, the choir of Keble College, Oxford and the Instruments of Time and Truth, on the CRD label, the influence of Handel's music is clear but in the disc, in fact, show cases Hayes own music. As Professor of Music he played a strong role in the musical life of Oxford and the disc presents a selection of his sacred anthems, organ concerto and excerpts from two of his oratorios, The Passions and The Fall of Jericho, plus an organ voluntary by William Walond (one of Hayes closest friends and organist at New College, Oxford).

In 1748 Hayes oversaw the building of the Holywell Music Room, the earliest purpose-built concert hall in Europe, and in 1749 the opening of the Radcliffe Camera was celebrated with a Handel festival which included the first performance of Messiah in Oxford.

Hayes would receive scores directly from Handel and conduct his oratorios in Oxford. But listening to the music on this disc, you can also hear Hayes interest in the music of his great predecessors, Tallis, Byrd and Purcell.

Winner of the 2018-19 DARE Art Prize announced

Anna Ridler, Drawing with Sound
Anna Ridler, Drawing with Sound
Opera North and the University of Leeds’ DARE Art Prize for 2018-19 has been awarded to Anna Ridler whose practice brings together technology, literature and drawing with her longstanding interests in neurology and machine learning. Over the forthcoming year Anna will work with scientists at the University to explore the functions of memory and the roles of the left and right sides of the brain, and how their operation might be embodied in a work of art.

The DARE Art Prize is aimed at challenging artists and scientists to work together on new approaches to the creative process, the £15,000 prize was launched last year as part of the DARE partnership between Opera North and the University. Following a year of research, the winner of the inaugural DARE Art Prize, composer and sound artist Samuel Hertz, will present his final work in the Howard Assembly Room at Opera North, Leeds on 14 April. Focusing on infrasound as a way of illustrating complex relationships between humans and environments, it will comprise electro-acoustic pieces for small ensembles, video, live electronics, performance and mixed-media installations, featuring inaudible low frequency sound that can be felt rather than heard.
[see my interview with Samuel Hertz, Environmental sensuality, & composing with sounds we can't hear]

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Hymns to the Mother of God

Hymns to the Mother of God - London Oriana Choir
London Oriana Choir, conductor Dominic Ellis-Peckham, continue their five15 initiative in support of women composers with a concert entitled Hymns to the Mother of God which rather aptly takes place on Saturday 17 March 2018, just after Mother's Day, at St Paul's Church, Covent Garden, London WC2E 9ED. The concert features a new work by Rebecca Dale, the last of her three compositions as the choir's composer-in-residence. Also in the programme will be Roxanna Panufnik's Ave Maria and Mother's Lament by the Israeli composer Sharon Farber, best known for her film and TV scores; the work was premiered by the Los Angeles Master Chorale in 2002.

Imogen Holst is best known nowadays for her work with Benjamin Britten at Aldeburgh, but she also had a composer albeit rather intermittently. Her Mass in A dates from 1927, when she was just 20. The programme will also include Marian works by Herbert Howells, John Taverner and Heitor Villa Lobos.

Full details from the London Oriana Choir website.

Multi-faceted diva: Bampton Classical Opera's 'Songs for Nancy'

Bampton Classical Opera: Songs for Nancy - Andrew Griffiths, Jacquelyn Stucker and CHROMA (Photo Roger Way)
Bampton Classical Opera: Songs for Nancy - Andrew Griffiths, Jacquelyn Stucker and CHROMA (Photo Roger Way)
Songs for Nancy - Mozart, Salieri, Stephen Storace, Martin y Soler, Haydn; Jacquelyn Stucker, Rhiannon Llewellyn, Chroma, Andrew Griffiths; Bampton Classical Opera at St John's Smith Squaree
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford on 7 March 2018 Star rating: 3.5
A celebration of the soprano Nancy Storace, with some of the arias written for her by Mozart and his contemporaries

Nancy Storace (1765–1817) had a fascinating and very contemporary story. She had a prodigious talent and pushy parents, a tempestuous love life and early death. She had more success with her social circle: 'one of the most accomplished and agreeable women of her age, fascinating everyone by her habitual good humour, her lively and intelligent conversation, and her open and ingenuous character', said her obituary. 'Her house at Herne Hill was a seat of hospitality to numerous respectable friends'.

In belated celebration of the bicentenary of her death, Bampton Classical Opera presented Songs for Nancy at St John's Smith Square on 7 March 2018. Andrew Griffiths conducted Chroma, and played the obbligato piano in Mozart's Ch’io mi scordi di te? K505 and sopranos Jacquelyn Stucker and Rhiannon Llewellyn sang a range of music associated with Nancy Storace including arias by Mozart, Salieri, Stephen Storace (her brother), Martin y Soler and Haydn.

New partnerships for the Orchestra of the Swan

The Orchestra of the Swan
The Orchestra of the Swan
The Stratford-upon-Avon based Orchestra of the Swan is expanding its partnerships and from September 2018 will be Orchestra-in-Residence at two local arts venues, the concert hall at the newly opened Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, and the Courtyard Hereford.

The Royal Birmingham Conservatoire moved to its new premises in 2017 and OOTS’ residency will not only include seven concerts in the state-of-the-art concert hall but also enable students to enjoy performance and composition masterclasses with its soloists and core players, to join in rehearsals sitting alongside its players and will offer students the chance to compete in an in-house competition winning a valuable concerto performance with the orchestra every year.

The Courtyard Hereford is a theatre and arts venue in Hereford, and it is keen to build its classical music audience. OOTS will provide its entire classical music output for two years with three core concerts, a family concert, a school’s concert, 4 foyer concerts, 4 rural concerts and a series of workshops in care homes for those with dementia annually.

Boys Own story: excitement & spectacle in Handel's Rinaldo at the Barbican

Handel: Rinaldo - Luca Pisaroni, Jane Archibald - The English Concert, Harry Bicket (Photo Robert Workman)
Handel: Rinaldo - Luca Pisaroni, Jane Archibald
The English Concert, Harry Bicket (Photo Robert Workman)
Handel Rinaldo; Iestyn Davies, Jane Archibald, Joelle Harvey, Sasha Cooke, Luca Pisaroni,Jakub Jozef Orlinski, Owen Willetts, The English Concert, Harry Bickett; Barbican Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 13 Mar 2018 Star rating: 5.0
Handel's dazzling first opera for London

Handel's Rinaldo was his first opera for London, a chance to show London audiences what real Italian opera was and for the young George Frideric Handel to demonstrate his  talents. Quite what he thought of the libretto is not recorded, but having set Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani's libretto for Agrippina in 1709-10 (one of the finest librettos that Handel would set), Aaron Hill's 'Boys Own Story' re-working of the story of Rinaldo and Armida must have seemed rather primitive. But it gave Handel a chance to show off, and this he did, re-working some of the finest music from his Italian sojourn with a preponderance of orchestral showpieces in addition to dazzling arias.

So it is no wonder that Rinaldo was chosen by The English Concert and Harry Bicket for their ongoing  Handel series at the Barbican (13 March 2018). Iestyn Davies sang Rinaldo, with Jane Archibald as Armida, Joelle Harvey as Almirena, Sasha Cooke as Goffredo, Luca Pisaroni as Argante, Jakub Jozef Orlinski as Eustazio and Owen Willetts as Araldo and Mago.

Handel: Rinaldo - Iestyn Davies, Joelle Harvey - The English Concert (Photo Robert Workman)
Handel: Rinaldo - Iestyn Davies, Joelle Harvey
The English Concert, (Photo Robert Workman)
Whilst most of the cast used scores (albeit minimally), this was very much not a stand and sing performance, there was plenty of interaction between the characters as well as entrances and exits, which helped bring the drama out. The stage experience of some of the cast in their roles was very noticeable and gave us some vivid theatrical moments.

Iestyn Davies sang the title role at Glyndebourne in 2014 [see my review]. Whilst his showpiece aria 'Venti, turbini, prestate' which closes Act One, was dazzling Davies approach was refreshingly anti-heroic, this Rinaldo was easily distracted and had to be constantly reminded of his duty by Sasha Cooke's sober Goffredo. So we had a delightful duet with Joelle Harvey's Almirena in Act One, and the remarkable duet with Jane Archibald's Armida in Act Two with the two knocking sparks off each other, and of course the spectacular final aria with its quartet of trumpets. But for much of the time, Rinaldo was pensive and lovelorn, beautifully captured in 'Cara sposa' and 'Cor ingrato'. Davies has a strong stage personality and this imbued only his arias but his whole performance, lifting the drama above a simple.

Armida is the first of Handel's fascinating bad-girl sorceresses, though Armida does repent in the end (Medea in Teseo, written two years later in 1713. does no such thing).

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Consume thoughtfully: Niccolò Porpora's cantatas for the Prince of Wales

L'amato nome: Canatas for the Prince of Wales, Opus 1
Niccolò Porpora cantatas; Francesca Cassinari, Emanuela Galli, Giuseppina Bridelli, Marina De Liso, Stile Galante, Stefano Aresi; Glossat
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 12 Mar 2018 Star rating: 3.5
Small scale and subtle, chamber cantatas by one of Handel's rivals

When the Opera of the Nobility opened in London in 1733 in opposition to Handel's opera company, they brought to the UK their secret weapon, Niccolò  Porpora. Both teacher and composer, Porpora counted amongst his pupils one of the greatest castratos of the age, Farinelli, and Porpora's compositional output included a number of vehicles for his pupil. But Porpora also had an eye on his patrons too, and in his back pocket when he arrived in London was a set of chamber cantatas which he dedicated Frederick Prince of Wales, the patron of the Opera of the Nobility. This new disc from Stefano Aresi and Stile Galante on the Glossa label presents all 12 cantatas, divided between four soloists (Francesca Cassinari, Emanuela Galli, Giuseppina Bridelli and Marina De Liso).

The cantatas had a surprisingly long life, well into the 19th century, mainly because of the sympathetic and sensitive way that Porpora wrote for the voice, not that they are unchallenging, but that is part of the work's charm too.

They are not particularly daring when it comes to form, each a sequence of arias and recitatives setting pastoral texts by Metastasio. These are well modulated, beautifully constructed pieces. They lack the dramatic elan of Handel's cantatas but we have to remember that Handel wasn't writing cantatas in the 1730s, his major output in this genre dates from his Italian sojourn (1707-1710).

The Poet Speaks: From Debussy to Pärt

Franz Marc - Die Versöhnung
Franz Marc - Die Versöhnung
MusicArt London, founder Annie Yim, is presenting the seventh of its Conceptual Concert combining the recorded voices of composers and writers with live piano music performed by Annie Yim. The event juxtaposes poems from two centuries with musical responses to them by Debussy, Ravel, Cheryl Frances-Hoad, and Philip Glass. Arvo Pärt's Für Alina will be performed alongside a newly commissioned poem by Zaffar Kunial whose collection Us will be published by Faber in July 2018. John Cage's 4′33″ will be performed in a new version incorporating Ed Baker’s poem A Kind of Silence.

The other voices in the programme range from French poetry by Aloysius Bertrand and Charles Baudelaire to a personal love poem by John Cage; from Else Lasker-Schüler’s expressionist poem Versöhnung (Reconciliation), which inspired Franz Marc’s woodcut print, to Allen Ginsberg's anti-war poem Wichita Vortex Sutra.

The event takes place on Friday 16 March, 1pm (for 1.10pm) at City, University of London, further information from the City University website.

The Royal Academy of Music's new theatre takes flight

The new theatre at the Royal Academy of Music (photo Adam Scott)
The new theatre at the Royal Academy of Music (photo Adam Scott)
With space in London at a premium, academic institutions have to be imaginative when it comes to the use of space and fitting theatres into existing 19th century conservatoires is a particular challenge. The Royal Academy of Music has just opened its new theatrical facilities at its Marylebone Road home following two years of re-building when the opera department became peripatetic.

The new recital room at the Royal Academy of Music (photo Adam Scott)
The new recital room at the Royal
Academy of Music (photo Adam Scott)
The re-designed and re-built facilities include the 309-seat Susie Sainsbury Theatre and the new 100-seat rooftop Recital Hall, as well as 14 refurbished practice and dressing rooms, five new percussion studios, a large refurbished jazz room and a new control suite for the Academy’s audio-visual recordings department. The new theatre is built on the site of the Sir Jack Lyons Theatre which stood from 1976 to 2015. Designed by RIBA Award-winning Ian Ritchie Architects, the project has transformed the original theatre, including re-shaping the auditorium, adding a new balcony, increasing capacity by 40%, and improving sightlines dramatically. Plus a new fly tower and side wings in an adaptable theatre suitable for everything from opera to music theatre and beyond.

I have to confess that I found Royal Academy Opera's touring years rather fun, we caught Rimsky Korsakov's May Night at Ambika P3 [see my review] and Handel's Alcina at the Round Chapel in Hackney [see my review], but I can well understand the delight of staff and students to be back in a well-equipped permanent home.

Jonathan Dove's Flight opened the new theatre this week on 12 March 2018.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Challenging perceptions: Hip-hop to Opera

Atiya, Bakary, David, George, Junior, Lakaydia, Mayowa, and Pablo from Archbishop Tenison's School, Oval
Atiya, Bakary, David, George, Junior, Lakaydia, Mayowa, and Pablo from Archbishop Tenison's School, Oval
(Photo Opera Holland Park)
Michael Volpe, general director of Opera Holland Park (OHP), continues his imaginative campaign to de-mystify opera. In 2016 he introduced a group of seasoned football supporters to opera, and this year he has done the same with a group of teenagers from an inner London school. The resulting film Hip-hop to Opera tracks Atiya, Bakary, David, George, Junior, Lakaydia, Mayowa, and Pablo (from Archbishop Tenison's School, Oval) as they experience opera for the first time, and examines their reactions. The results are charming and heartwarming, the eight teenagers are articulate and thoughtful, and what is fascinating is the way that they realise that presenting them with opera is challenging them and taking them out of their comfort zone.

Of course, not every group of teenagers gets introduced to opera via a private recital from Jette Parker Young Artist Simon Shibambu or gets to meet the Director of Opera, Oliver Mears as part of a tour of Covent Garden. But seeing them experience Shibambu's singing close to, the first time any had heard an opera singer, was proof of the power of the medium, if you only give it a chance. And the group's reaction to their experience of Puccini's Tosca (in the recent outing of the Jonathan Kent production) was remarkable in the way that their varied reactions reflected how young people see the piece's drama (Tosca herself did not come out of it well).

But the film also challenges our perceptions of young people, and our assumptions about what they think and how they will react.

The eight young people will be going back to the opera this Summer during Opera Holland Park's 2018 season, which includes a schools matinee of La traviata .Ahead of the matinee, OHP is also offering workshops for students, CPD workshops for teachers and resource packs, full information from OHP's website.

Lamentations and Requiem

Lamentations and Requiem
In their forthcoming concert on Thursday 22 March, London Concord Singers, conductor Jessica Norton, combine two powerful, but lesser known, 20th century works with major works from an earlier period. Ildebrando Pizzetti's Requiem and Alberto Ginastera's Lamentations of Jeremiah will be performed alongside Gregorio Allegri's Miserere and a selection of Carlo Gesualdo's Tenebrae Responsories on Thursday 22 March 2018 at the church of St Bartholomew the Less in West Smithfield.

Dating from 1922, the Requiem mass by the Italian composer Ildebrando Pizzetti, best known for his operatic treatment of T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral, is steeped in the tradition of Gregorian chant, weaving traditional chants together with more 20th century harmonies. Written in 1946 by Alberto Ginastera, Lamentations of Jeremiah is full of strong rhythms and striking harmonies and can be seen as Ginastera's response, in exile in the USA, to the political problems in his native Argentina.

London Concord Singers will be performing Gregorio Allegri's Miserere in the performing edition by Ben Byram-Wigfield which was originally created for The Sixteen. This starts with Allegri's original unadorned music, moves through the version preserved in the Vatican in the 19th century and ends with the popular version, complete with the top C.

Full details from the London Concord Singers website, the concert is being repeated on Saturday 24 March 2018 in the chapel of Queen's College, Cambridge, further details from the website

...Into the deepest sea

...Into the Deepest Sea - Sarah Wegener - Avi Music
Brahms, Schubert, Sibelius, Grieg, Rebecca Clarke, Roger Quilter, Frank Bridge, Richard Strauss; Sarah Wegener, Gotz Payer; Avi Music
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 6 2018 Star rating: 3.5
A recital which moves from Germany and Austria through Scandinavia to Britain

Under the title ...Into the deepest sea, this CD from soprano Sarah Wegener and pianist Gotz Payer on Avi Music explores the theme of the sea running through the songs of Brahms, Schubert, Sibelius, Grieg, Rebecca Clarke, Roger Quilter, Frank Bridge and Richard Strauss.

The selection starts with Brahms, and firmly on dry land with Meine Liebe ist grün and Wenn du nur zuweilen lächelst. Whilst water flows in Da unten im Tale , it is only with the final song in the group Verzagen that we reach rushing waters of the sea. Wegener sings with a lovely vibrant tone and superbly rich sense of line and she is able to float a lovely phrase; certainly concluding the disc with Richard Strauss was clearly a good idea. But I would have liked a rather her to make more of the words; you can follow clearly with the text (provided on-line). But there is not much sense of these songs as sung poetry, Wegener really concentrates on tone and a fluid line.

Wegener and Payer follow the Brahms with Schubert, a group of four songs which start in the midst of the storm of Des Mädchens Klage, moving through first loss (Erster Verlust and Du liebst mich nicht) to the strange sea-born story of Der Zerg. Both Des Mädchens Klage and Der Zerg have terrific narrative drama to them with Der Zerg having a remarkably sustained narrative. By contrast, Erster Verlust has a lovely fragility but again I wanted more sense of sung poetry.

With the songs of Sibelius, sung in their original language, we reach more challenging territory.

Monday, 12 March 2018

Scarlatti's Sonata K105

Sonata K105 in G major by Domenico Scarlatti (1685–1757), performed by Julian Perkins at Hatchlands Park in Surrey on an English harpsichord from the Cobbe Collection. The sonata was published in 1749 and probably dates from the mid- to late 1740s and includes a number of Spanish influences (Scarlatti had been based in Spain since 1729), including passages which imitate the strumming of a guitar.

This harpsichord was made in 1787 in the workshop of Burkat Shudi and John Broadwood in London. It has two 8-foot registers, one 4-foot register, a lute stop and a harp stop, with a five-octave compass from FF to f3. There is also a ‘Venetian swell’ (not used here) that allows for 'crescendi' and 'diminuendi'.

Pizzetti songs

Sera d'Inverno - songs by Ildebrando Pizzetti - Resonus
Ildebrando Pizzetti songs; Hanna Hipp, Emma Abbate; RESONUS CLASSICS
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 02 2018 Star rating: 4.0
An illuminating programme, exploring Pizzetti's distinctive take on the song repertoire

The music of Ildebrando Pizzetti is gradually finding its way into our consciousnesses, and this enterprising new disc from pianist Emma Abbate (whose previous recital was a disc of Mario Castelnuovo,-Tedesco's Shakespeare settings, see my review) and mezzo-soprano Hanna Hipp presents around half of Pizzetti's songs in a wide-ranging recital on Resonus Classics which gives us a clear sense of the composer's rather distinctive take on the song genre.

Ildebrando Pizzetti belonged to a group of composers referred to as the generazion dell'ottanta (the generation of eighty) referring to their birth in the 1880s; the group included Franco Alfano, Ottorino Respighi, Gian Francesco Malipiero and Alfredo Casella. The group was notable for being the first generation of Italian composers not to automatically write opera and all would write in a wide variety of genres, and break away from traditional Italian styles. Of the group all but Pizzetti spent a period studying outside of Italy.

Pizzetti's attitude to songwriting was very definitely non-traditional in Italian terms, and the 17 songs on this disc exist in a very distinctive sound-world which owes little to the songs written by previous generations of Italian opera composers. This is complex art-song where music and text are fused. Pizzetti placed a strong emphasis on the text and was interested in getting the right setting for the text, thoughtful settings which ensure that the poetry is well served. He eschews traditional melodies in favour of vocal lines which follow the inflections of the Italian language, the resulting songs are remarkably complex pieces which could hardly be mistaken for the work of anyone else.


Soumik Datta (Photo courtesy of Soumik Datta Arts)
Soumik Datta (Photo courtesy of Soumik Datta Arts)
A striking cross-cultural evening at St John's Smith Square on Thursday 15 March 2018 combines the talents of musicians from both Indian classical and Western traditions. Carnatic vocalist Aruna Sairam and sarod (19 stringed fretless lute) virtuoso and composer Soumik Datta, will be collaborating with Al MacSween, a pianist from a jazz background, who has collaborated with artists from a wide array of musical traditions, and Cormac Byrne accompanies on percussion and bodhrán (Irish frame drum), plus Pirashanna Thevarajah on Carnatic percussion (morsing, kanjira and mridangam).

Their concert, Back to the Blues, will explore connections between South Indian music, North Indian music and contemporary jazz, and is presented by the Bagri Foundation in association with Soumik Datta Arts.

Full information from the St John's Smith Square website.

A terrific achievement: Handel's Giulio Cesare from Bury Court Opera

Handel: Giulio Cesare - Marie Lys, Helen Sherman - Bury Court Opera (Photo Simon John)
Handel: Giulio Cesare - Marie Lys, Helen Sherman
Bury Court Opera (Photo Simon John)
Handel Giulio Cesare; Helen Sherman, Marie Lys, John Lattimore, Catherine Hopper, Russell Harcourt, dir: Greg Eldridge, cond: Dane Lam; Bury Court Opera
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Man 10 2018 Star rating: 4.0
An impressive small-scale production with a lively sense of drama and a sparkling performance from Marie Lys as Cleopatra

Handel: Giulio Cesare - Marie Lys, John Lattimore - Bury Court Opera (Photo Simon John)
Handel: Giulio Cesare - Marie Lys, John Lattimore
Bury Court Opera (Photo Simon John)
Founded a decade ago Bury Court Opera has established itself with a series of imaginative productions, from Purcell to Puccini to Pelleas, which take place in a converted barn near Bentley in Hampshire. Last year the company premiered Noah Mosley's Mad King Suibhne [see my review] and for 2018 the company turned to Handel for the first time, and presented Handel's Giulio Cesare, (seen 10 March 2018) in a production directed by Greg Eldridge [who recently directed Puccini's Tosca for Icelandic Opera, see my review] with designs by Elliott Squire and lighting by Prema Mehta. Dane Lam conducted Camerata Alma Viva, with Helen Sherman as Giulio Cesare, Marie Lys as Cleopatra, John Lattimore as Tolomeo, Catherine Hopper as Cornelia, Russell Harcourt as Sesto, David Ireland as Achilla, Sam Queen as Curio and Elizabeth Lynch as Nireno.

Handel's Giulio Cesare is a huge undertaking for any company; it is a large piece (uncut there is over four hours of music), with a series of rewarding but challenging solo roles which require stylistic awareness and technical proficiency from the singers, not to mention the dramatic challenge of bringing the dramaturgy of opera seria to life for a modern audience.

Working in a small theatrical space, with limited technical facilities, Bury Court Opera seized the opportunities that Handel gave them and presented us with a vividly theatrical evening, bringing out the real drama of the piece and along the way treating us to some first class Handel singing.

Giulio Cesare is not only long but textually complex in that each time Handel revived it he changed it, so decisions need to be made. Bury Court Opera gave us quite a long version, over three hours of music with Act One lasting 75 minutes. The edition used prized getting as much material in as possible, rather than musicological completeness of individual arias, so we had plenty of material for the lesser character including three arias for Nireno (Cleopatra's confidante and a character that Handel made variously male, female, mute and entirely cut from the action). The result was to move focus away from the central two characters and create a more ensemble feel. The drawback was that a significant number of arias were shortened, many had the Da Capo repeat truncated to just the opening ritornello, a form of cutting which falsifies Handel's intentions and creates a rather imbalanced structure, and other arias were reduced to just the A section. To a certain extent, this is personal taste, but I have always preferred cutting entire arias rather than trimming individual ones.

Saturday, 10 March 2018

It is difficult to find festival highlights when you think that everything is great

Laurence Cummings on the London Handel Festival, Stravinsky, opera, time-travel and more

Laurence Cummings (Photo Robert Workman)
Laurence Cummings (Photo Robert Workman)
The London Handel Festival is London's annual celebration of Handel and his music, based at St George's Church, Hanover Square which was Handel's place of worship whilst he lived in London. This year's festival includes a few changes and innovations alongside a programme which mixes opera, chamber music, oratorio and much more. I recently met up with Laurence Cummings, Music Director of the festival, to talk about the highlights of this year's festival in a wide-ranging conversation which took in Laurence's other festival at Göttingen, recording Handel opera live, time-machines and a recent venture into Stravinsky.

Laurence Cummings (credit Anton Säckl)
Laurence Cummings (credit Anton Säckl)
Samir Savant who took over as Artistic Director of the London Handel Festival in 2016, has introduced the idea of having the festivals themed, and for this first year the theme is Handel's London. Laurence admits that it is a little obvious, but feels that it is a good way to start and celebrates the fact that Handel was a naturalised Englishman and London was his home. But the theme also celebrates the history of the festival itself, which was founded by Denys Darlow in 1978.

Laurence explains that when Darlow became organist of St George's Hanover Square in 1972 he set about organising the performance of Bach cantatas, and it was only when someone commented about performing Bach in Handel's church that Darlow learned that St George's was Handel's parish church (and we even know which seat he sat in). So the idea for the festival arose, and though only 40 years ago Darlow's work was pioneering as, Messiah  and Israel in Egypt apart, Handel's oratorios were just not performed at all.

In fact Laurence was made joint music director with Dennis Darlow in 1999, and had played the harpsichord in the festival's first opera production, done in collaboration with the Royal College of Music.

The London themes in this year's festival include the 300th anniversary of the first performance of Acis and Galatea at Canons, the home of the Duke of Chandos (not then in London, but now part of the metropolis). There will be semi-staging of the Canons version of Acis and Galatea at St John's Smith Square with Pegasus choir. Laurence promises that it will look and sound fantastic, and though semi-staged will take production values serious.

Last year the festival and the Royal College of Music brought to a close their 25 year collaboration on an annual Handel opera staging.  Both institutions will be continuing to stage Handel operas, but are moving in different directions. And, as Laurence points out, the many alumni of the opera performances will be popping at future festivals. This year, in fact there are going to be four operas in all, at the festival (Acis and Galatea, Amadigi di Gaula, Teseo, Giulio Cesare).

We are supposed to be talking about festival highlights, but Laurence comments that it is difficult to find highlights when you think that everything is great. But one event is notable, particularly for its rarity, as the festival is concluding with a performance of Handel's Occasional Oratorio. Laurence is looking forward to this, he heard the work when he was a student in a performance conducted by Robert King (who was recording the work with the Kings Consort) and Laurence was blown away. On one level the piece is all about the trumpets and drums, all affirmation and patriotism, but Laurence thinks there are lots of other colours and layers in the work and it certainly benefits from proper rehearsal.

Such oratorios are big pieces to put on and for other promoters a work like the Occasional Oratorio would be difficult to mount, but  the festival is lucky to have such a loyal audience which, far from being put off by the rarity of the work, are excited by the idea.

Laurence Cummings and finalists of the 2017 Handel Singing Competition (Photo Chris Christodoulou)
Laurence Cummings and finalists of the 2017 Handel Singing Competition (Photo Chris Christodoulou)

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