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)

But the festival is not just about the large scale, there is also plenty of chamber music on offer too. Laurence will be giving a recital with two prize winners from last year's Handel Singing Competition (Marcjanna Myrlak and Jungkwon Jang), and this will be in the Fitzrovia Chapel, the beautifully restored former chapel of the Middlesex Hospital. A beautiful building, and a new venue for the festival. They are also continuing their collaboration with the Wigmore Hall and Adrian Butterfield will be directing another Canons work, Esther which is also approaching its 300th anniversary. And as we move into the 2020s there will be an increasing number of Handel anniversaries to celebrate.

As a performance venue, Laurence enjoys working in St George's Hanover Square and finds the acoustics with an audience present are great, though at the moment the changing facilities are limited but the church is working on plans for this [see my article]. And Laurence would never want to lose St George's as the central venue, he sees it as so important given that Handel's faith was important to him. He admits that part of the venues charm and frustration is that there are  quite a number of restricted view seats but that the performing area, the sacred space, has a great quality to it.

But he also thinks it is lovely to experiment with other venues, both small (like the Fitzrovia Chapel) and large (like St John's Smith Square, where the festival performed Alexander Balus in 2016).

Laurence is involved with two different Handel festivals; he is the music director of the Göttingen International Handel Festival. This festival is approaching its 100th anniversary in 2020, and so has been steadily working through Handel's operas in order which means that recent years have seen some relative rarities. Laurence is fortunate to have conducted to many of the operas, but he is still only two-thirds of the way through conducting all of them. Laurence finds each opera has its own character, and each has its own gems but that poeple rather like what the know. One of the fascinating aspects of the operas is the way that they reflect what was going on in Handel's life.

Associated with the Göttingen opera performances the festival has made live recordings of the operas [see my reviews of Faramondo and of Lotario], a process which Laurence enjoys. And they are really live, with only 15 minutes time at the end for emergency patching, but Laurence feels they are lucky with the recording engineers from the radio. Bringing a live performance to disc means going beyond getting the notes right, in the right order, the performance needs more. Laurence finds the live recordings more exciting and feels that they are more historical.

He thinks that live recording is the way that the recording business is going, though adds that recording is almost over as a business, and he wonders whether the industry has failed to move with the times. When he was a student, there were lots of new recordings with the waves of 'authentic' Haydn and Mozart including Christopher Hogwood's recordings of the Mozart symphonies with the Academy of Ancient Music. At the time these were billed as 'as Mozart would have heard it', a claim which now seems bold and arrogant, and we now understand that another set of performers using the same source material would perform the music in a very different manner.

Here Laurence comments that he would dearly love to be able to time travel to hear the premiere of a Handel opera. Whilst we now have quite a developed view of period practice when it comes to instrumental performance, some degree of authenticity in vocal performacne is further behind. Yet, Laurence feels that we do not really have enough information about the way singers produced their voices in the period, the mechanism is hidden and technical details about changes in the larynx position are not always helpful when coaching singers. When working with singers, Laurence finds it is better to give the singer an idea of what is needed rather than technical details, so he prefers to work by analogy.

Laurence Cummings (credit Anton Säckl)
Laurence Cummings (credit Anton Säckl)
When it comes to opera, Laurence loves collaborating and gets involved as much as he can, and goes to the stage rehearsals.  He has been lucky to work with great directors, and has become friends with them. He loves 18th century style productions with baroque dance, but is happy with other styles as long as the production dos not go against the sensibility of the music, and he mentions Tim Albery's production of Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea at Opera North [see my review] which took place in what looked like an empty swimming pool but which proved to be a very evocative space.

He always keeps in touch with the singers during productions, and there have been moments when people comment 'I can;t believe to allowed that', when in fact the suggestion was the singer's idea in the first place, and can sometimes free the singers up. He adds that 'park and bark' just does not help, as it feels static.

He also thinks 'marmite' productions are important as the opposite is what he terms vanilla custard, and it is important to stretch things and not to be complacent. He is also aware that, being involved in two longstanding festivals, it is important not so simply do something because you have not performed it for sometime. He feels that having a theme inspires you to be creative, to look at both historical matches and themed matches.

Whilst much of Laurence's time is devoted to Handel, he does perform other things too though he admits to missing performing Bach cantatas, but is doing Bach's soprano passion cantata in Portugal later this year. And in recent years conducted Mozart's Lucio Silla in Buxton [see my review] and Idomeneo in Gothenburg. He found Lucio Silla fascinating being back in opera seria, the similarities in Mozart's treatment of the text to that of earlier composer. Yet it is an opera where he felt the need not to be seduced by Mozart's youth, there should be more to a piece lasting around 3 hours, and keeping the audience is tricky. By contrast, Idomeno was in an inventive production by Graham Vick at Gothenburg Opera, so that Laurence was working with a modern opera house orchestra.

Laurence recently directed Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress from the harpsichord for Opera Glass Works at Wilton's Music Hall. He loved it, though it was very challenging and he had wanted to play the harpsichord for a long time. He got to dress up as Mr Handel, and above all it was fun. It was very rewarding, and very much felt like a chamber opera, and the work can be a problem in theatres with a pit because of the harpsichord. At Wilton's the staging was something of a leap of faith as the orchestra (the Southbank Sinfonia) were on stage.

The director was Selina Cadell, a director Laurence first worked with on Handel's Arianna in Creta at the London Handel Festival [see my review], and he loved working with her. Laurence describes Stravinsky's opera as 18th century sensibility with a modern twist, and that we need to take it seriously especially regarding the word setting. People can poo-poo it, but the cross rhythms created are very interesting, and Laurence points out that Stravinsky's understanding of English was phenomenal.

Kieran Rayner, Harriet Eyley - Handel: Faramondo - London Handel Festival (Photo Chris Christodoulou)
Kieran Rayner, Harriet Eyley - Handel: Faramondo - London Handel Festival 2017 (Photo Chris Christodoulou)
When I ask if he would do more 20th century repertoire, he says 'never say never'. He also goes on to point out that he trained as an organist, studied music and loved Messiaen. He has since immersed himself in the 17th and 18th centuries but has not cut himself of from the rest of music, and at the moment he certainly does not feel the need to change repertoire, it is not limiting and forever challenging.

The London Handel Festival runs from 17 March to 16 April 2018
The Göttingen International Handel Festival runs from 21 April to 21 May 2018

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Musicological melange, creative entertainment: Carmen at the Royal Opera House (★★★) - opera review
  • Hard-hitting yet transcendent: Janacek's From the House of the Dead (★★★★) - CD review
  • My last Duchess: the songs of Grace Williams from Jeremy Huw Williams (★★★½) - CD review
  • Remarkable dialogues - Poulenc's opera at the Guildhall - Opera review
  • Goldilocks translated: The Opera Story's latest production (★★★★) - opera review
  • Contrasting double: Puccini's Il tabarro & Gianni Schicchi from ETO (★★★★½) - opera review
  • Beyond an auspicious debut: I chat to French Horn player Ben Goldscheider - interview
  • A return to the world of sleep and dreams: Robert Carsen's production of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream  (★★★½) - opera review
  • The complete piano works of John McCabe - volume 1 (★★★½) - CD review
  • Handelian celebration with the Foundling Hospital Anthem  (★★★½) - concert review
  • Bach on the piano, Sandro Ivo Bartoli in Bach's smaller pieces (★★★★½) - CD review
  • Well worth crossing the Red Sea for: Rossini's Mosè in Egitto from Chelsea Opera Group (★★★★½) - opera review
  • Music, myth and time: Karen Cargill and the Scottish Ensemble at Kings Place (★★★★½) - concert review
  • A varied career: our interview with violinist Thomas Gould finds him in a thoughtful mood - interview
  • Home

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