Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Nawr yr Arwr / Now the Hero

Detail of one of Frank Brangwyn's British Empire Panels at Brangwyn Hall in Swansea
Detail of one of Frank Brangwyn's British Empire Panels at Brangwyn Hall in Swansea
Nawr yr Arwr / Now the Hero is an immersive theatrical experience at The Brangwyn Hall, Swansea from 25 to 29 September 2018. Created by site-responsive artist Marc Rees, the work is part of the final 14-18 Now season and takes visitors through three intertwining narratives of war: from Celtic history, the First World War and today’s conflicts. Rees uses Frank Brangwyn's little-known British Empire Panels, originally commissioned by the House of Lords to commemorate the First World War, the paintings were rejected by Parliament as ‘too lively’ and they have been displayed in Swansea since 1934.

Counterpointing these is a new requiem originally commissioned by the late, twice Oscar-nominated, composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, realised by composer Owen Morgan Roberts from an original collaboration with Jóhannsson. The requiem features a text by Owen Sheers and the work is sung by Polyphony, conductor Stephen Layton.

Commissioned by 14-18 NOW. Produced by Taliesin Arts Centre/Swansea University in partnership with the City & County of Swansea and Swansea International Festival and with the generous support of Arts Council of Wales, the Welsh Government, the City & County of Swansea, the Colwinston Charitable Trust, Swansea University and Heritage Lottery Fund – Awards for All

Full details from the 14-18 Now website.

Riveting and remarkable: Anna Prohaska & Eric Schneider in An der Front:

Anna Prohaska (Photo © Holger Hage / DG)
Anna Prohaska (Photo © Holger Hage / DG)
An der Front (Behind the lines; Anna Prohaska, Eric Schneider; Herbst Gold at Schloss Esterházy Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 13 September 2018 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
A collage of songs presenting the ordinary man and woman's view of war creates a vividly engaging evening

Herbst Gold is a music festival which takes place in September (this year 6 to 18 September) in Schloss Esterházy in Eisenstadt in Austria. The schloss is, of course, best known as the work place of the composer Joseph Haydn who worked for the Princes Esterházyfor over 40 years.

Empiresaal at Schloss Esterházy, Eisenstadt (Photo Lennard Lindner)
Empiresaal at Schloss Esterházy, Eisenstadt (Photo Lennard Lindner)
The theme of this year's festival was Krieg und Frieden (War and Peace) and as part of this theme soprano Anna Prohaska and pianist Eric Schneider brought their programme An der Front (Behind the Lines) to Schloss Esterházy's elegant 18th century Empiresaal on Thursday 13 September 2018. It was a remarkable programme, a collage of songs from the 16th to 21st century which charted the response of the ordinary men and woman to war, as participant, follower or girl left at home. These were songs about ordinary people's thoughts and feelings, rather than national concepts.

The music covered a wide range. In the first half we moved from folksong, Scots song, Michael Cavendish, Haydn & Beethoven, through Schubert, Wolf and Rachmaninov to Ives, Roger Quiller, Hans Eisler and Wolfgang Rihm. But this wasn't about style, and differences were juxtaposed so Joseph Haydn's arrangement of the Scots song Will ye go to Flanders was almost interrupted by the cacophony of Ives' In Flanders Fields. The angular anger of Wolfgang Rihm's Der Untergang impinged on the purity of Schubert's Sir Walter Scott setting Ellens Gesang I.

In the second half, we had longer ballads starting with Liszt's remarkable scene Jeanne d'Arc au Bucher (setting Alexandre Dumas) and working through Schumann, Poulenc and Mahler, ending with a pair of passionate Kurt Weill settings of Walt Whitmann.

Monday, 17 September 2018

Haydn at Eisenstadt: Armida at Herbst Gold festival Schloss Esterházy

Haydn: Armida - Ana Maria Labin - Herbst Gold 2018 (Photo Jerzy Bin)
Haydn: Armida - Ana Maria Labin - Herbst Gold 2018 (Photo Jerzy Bin)
Haydn Armida; Ana Maria Labin, Francisco Fernandez-Rueda, dir: Alessio Pizzech, Haydn Philharmonie, cond: Enrico Onofrio; Herbst Gold at Schloss Esterházy, Eistenstadt
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 14 September 2018 Star rating: 4.0
A rare opportunity to hear Haydn's Armida in a semi-staging in the hall where he regularly worked in Eisenstadt

Francisco Fernandez-Rueda, Enrico Onofrio, Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani
Herbst Gold 2018 (Photo Jerzy Bin)
Festivals should generally aim to do something different, something that does not come the way of the ordinary concert or opera-goer. So it is a perfect fit that Herbst Gold, the festival in Eisenstadt, has begun a planned series of concert stagings of opera by Joseph Haydn (possibly Eisenstadt's most famous resident). We still do not see enough of these operas, and Haydn regarded them highly. And until performers, directors and audiences get used to his particular style, it will be difficult to understand them.

As this year's Herbst Gold festival had Krieg und Frieden (War and Peace) as its theme, the opera chosen was Armida based on Torquato Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata about the Crusaders at war in Jerusalem. On Friday 14 September 2018, Enrico Onofrio conducted the Haydn Philharmonie in the Haydnsaal of Schloss Esterházy, with Ana Maria Labin as Armida, Francisco Fernandez-Rueda (replacing the previously announced Julien Pregardien) as Rinaldo, Roberta Mameli as Zelmira, Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani as Ubaldo, Christian Senn as Idreno and Fernando Guimaraes as Clotaro.

The concert staging was by Alessio Pizzech; the cast was in costume with loosely Middle-Eastern style for Armida, Idreno, Zelmira and modern cricket-whites for the crusaders Rinaldo, Clotardo and Ubaldo (though Rinaldo had 'gone native' with his shirt unfastened and hanging out of his trousers). The cast performed on a small podium running in front of the orchestra, recitatives were done from memory with scores used for the more elaborate arias. Armida spent much time poring over her book of magic, in fact, her score - a neat solution.

Haydn: Armida - Christian Senn - Herbst Gold 2018 (Photo Jerzy Bin)
Haydn: Armida - Christian Senn - Herbst Gold 2018 (Photo Jerzy Bin)
Armida was premiered in the theatre at Esterháza in 1784 and was performed there over 50 times as well as being given in Vienna, Turin and Budapest. Schloss Esterhazy had no theatre, but it is known that Haydn produced operas for the prince in the Haydnsaal, so the festival's concert staging was most apt. To put the piece into context, Armida was premiered two years before Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro premiered at Vienna's Burgtheater whilst Gluck's equally ground-breaking Orfeo ed Euridice premiered at the same theatre in 1762 with the French version appearing in 1774.

The libretto for Armida is somewhat old-fashioned, the first act involves a traditional sequence of exit arias for the main cast members, and throughout the exit aria convention is still strong and there is little opportunity for ensembles in the way that Mozart introduced into his opera serias, Idomeneo (1781) and La Clemenza di Tito (1791). Where Haydn does push the boundaries is in his extended use of accompanied recitative, so that moments like Act Two Scene One have a very French feel, with long sections that are orchestrally accompanied. There are also significant orchestral interludes, with Haydn giving us some terrific music.

The issue of the libretto should not be landed entirely at Haydn's door, he was writing exclusively for Prince Esterhazy and it was the prince's taste which would have been paramount.

840: New Music for Cello and Piano

840: New music for cello and piano
Cellist and inter-disciplinary artist Anton Lukoszevieze will perform new works for solo cello by Christian Wolff, Darya Zvezdina, James Luff and Michael Winter, as well as Laurence Crane’s gem from 1985, Five Preludes for Cello and Pianom at St James' Church, Prebend Street, Islington, N1 8PF on Friday 21 September at 7:30pm as part of the concert series, 840, curated by the composers Alex Nikiporenko and James Luff, which is dedicated to providing a platform for new experimental and minimal music.

The programme will also feature Anton’s own What we really want to do is serve happiness, Linda Catlin Smith’s beguiling Ricercar and Alex Nikiporenko's 86 Permutations of Melancholia based on a magic square that appears in an engraving by Albrecht Dürer.

Full details from the 840 website.

From Haydn and Elgar to Rap and Grime: Matthew O'Keeffe and Brixton Chamber Orchestra

Matthew O'Keeffe and members of Brixton Chamber Orchestra
Matthew O'Keeffe and members of Brixton Chamber Orchestra
When doing an interview for this blog earlier this year, it turned out that the interviewee was a near neighbour as we both live in Brixton, and during the interview, the subject of the Brixton Chamber Orchestra came up. Now, I have to admit that I had not heard of the ensemble, but the upshot was that last week I found myself on Brixton Hill have coffee with Matthew O'Keeffe, a young musician who lives in Brixton, and in fact grew up there, and who has founded the Brixton Chamber Orchestra.

members of Brixton Chamber Orchestra
members of Brixton Chamber Orchestra
Matthew did a music degree at King's College, London, studying conducting with Peter Ash, and is planning to do a Masters Degree. He runs a number of different ensembles, the choir Scherzo, Lunch Break Opera and the Brixton Chamber Orchestra. Scherzo is a 10-voiced consort of young professional singers, coming together with the idea of singing full-voiced, making a rich sound. Whilst Lunchbreak Opera is a group which presents chamber opera in the City in bit-size lunchtime portions.

Brixton Chamber Orchestra is based around a group of around a dozen young professionals, all in their early to mid-20s and many are people that Matthew has played with, many went to the Centre for Young Musicians at Morley College. The idea behind the Brixton Chamber Orchestra is, however, more than just another band of young people coming together, Matthew wants the orchestra to be rooted in the local community, taking advantage of the wide variety of venues which Brixton has to offer, both the obvious and the not so obvious. And the group mixes things up with a very varied repertoire. They have recently held auditions, and have found some excellent local amateur players who have joined the group. Ultimately Matthew would like an ensemble of around 16 or so performers.

One of their recent gigs was Rockin' on Electric Avenue when they played in Brixton market. With the idea of making people stop and listen, the music was all arresting from hornpipes, and Dvorak's Slavonic Dances to Harry Belafonte and Sinatra, everything with a strong beat. Matthew is realistic about attracting audiences, understanding that every event needs a hook to get the audience into the room, but his approach is often imaginative. He originally started arranging when we worked with an a cappella vocal quartet, and now the Brixton Chamber Orchestra includes a wide variety of repertoire.

Sunday, 16 September 2018

Yerkesh Shakeyev - Waves from Heaven

Yerkesh Shakeyev - Waves from Heaven
Yerkesh Shakeyev Waves from Heaven; London Symphony Orchestra / Gavin Sutherland, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Richard Balcombe, London Metropolitan Orchestra / Andy Brown
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 June 2018
A move into orchestral music by a Kazakhstani song writer is bound to delight

Listen to this disc blind, I am sure you will be delighted. It is a collection of fourteen pieces (most around five minutes in duration) which I can only describe as light music. Carefully and imaginatively, finely crafted and will a melodic fluency which will charm, easy on the ear yet not negligible. The music varies between rather film-soundtrack moments, to intense melancholic lyricism to passages which put a real smile on your face and would not be out of place on the BBC Radio 2 programme Friday Night is Music Night. With the blending of genres and the crossing of boundaries, good light music is rather rare to find.

In fact, this is a disc of music by the Kazakhstani composer Yerkesh Shakeyev. Born in 1962 he has moved from bard songs and pop hits to neoclassicism. With this album Waves from Heaven Shakeyev seems to have made the move into orchestral music. The pieces are performed by the London Symphony Orchestra under conductor Gavin Sutherland, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under conductor Richard Balcombe and the London Metropolitan Orchestra under conductor Andy Brown.

One detail of the production does, however make you wonder quite how much of what we are hearing is Shakeyev. Whilst Shakeyev is a highly experienced song-writer with a long career behind him, all the music on this disc is credited to arrangers, with Dmitry Varelas, Toby Young and John Lenehan sharing the arranging honours, and Lenehan providing the piano solo on the two tracks that he has arranged.

I have to confess to having only the haziest idea where Kazakhstan is, or what the country's music is like. But this is one of those disc which really does manage to cross boundaries, and I enjoyed it immensely. All the more so as much of it seems to have a winning smile, or wistful melancholy behind it.

Yerkesh Shakeyev (born 1962), arr. Dmitry Varelas, TobyYoung, John Lenehan - Waves from Heaven
London Symphony Orchestra / Gavin Sutherland
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Richard Balcombe
London Metropolitan Orchestra / Andy Brown
Recorded at Abbey Road Studios, 2016
Available from Amazon.

Saturday, 15 September 2018

Music, puppets & poetry: Goldfield Productions' Hansel & Gretel - a nightmare in eight scenes

Hansel & Gretel: a nightmare in 8 scenes - Goldfield Productions (Photo Still Moving Media courtesy Cheltenham Music Festival)
Hansel & Gretel: a nightmare in eight scenes - Goldfield Productions
(Photo Still Moving Media courtesy Cheltenham Music Festival)
Goldfield Productions' Hansel & Gretel (a nightmare in eight scenes) debuted in July this year at the Cheltenham Music Festival and is currently touring the UK. It is an intriguing show, mixing poetry, chamber music, puppetry and shadow play in a modern interpretation of the traditional Hansel and Gretel story. The artistic director of Goldfield Productions is Kate Romano, and I recently met up with her to find out more about Hansel & Gretel.

Hansel & Gretel: a nightmare in 8 scenes - Clive Hicks-Jenkins's artwork
Hansel & Gretel: a nightmare in 8 scenes
Clive Hicks-Jenkins's artwork - Goldfield Productions
The show is based on a poem by Simon Armitage which re-imagines the story and music has been provided by Matthew Kaner, an emerging composer who was embedded with BBC Radio 3 last year. The event mixes live table-top puppetry with projected shadowplay, and there is a storyteller in the form of Adey Grummet, the whole directed by Clive Hicks-Jenkins. It is a compact piece, lasting just 60 minutes with five instrumentalists, narrator, five instrumentalists and two puppeteers.

Kate, who as well as being artistic director plays clarinet in the Goldfield Ensemble which accompanies the show, describes the piece as dark and quirky, but suggestive rather than in your face. The setting is a war torn country with hints of things such as the family being refugees. It is not a show for children, it is aimed at 12 and over, but that said Kate comments that they have had kids come to it and they loved it.

The idea for the show arose when Kate came across Clive Hicks-Jenkins' drawings, inspired by Hansel and Gretel, and it helped that Clive already had an association with Simon Armitage. So they started with the idea of Simon writing the poem, Matthew Kaner writing the music and creating a portable, flexible piece.

Friday, 14 September 2018

In search of the Great American Opera, the strange case of Samuel Barber's Vanessa

Rosalind Elias and Eleanor Steber in the original 1958 Met Opera production of Vanessa. Photo: Courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera Archive
Rosalind Elias and Eleanor Steber in the original 1958 Met Opera production of Vanessa.
Photo: Courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera Archive
Samuel Barber's Vanessa is a strange piece, yet remarkably strong. I saw it twice this summer at Glyndebourne [see my review of the premiere] and the second time it did not pall, partly thanks to the strong performances and partly through the way director Keith Warner's production mined the works unspoken depths.

Zach Borichevsky (Anatol) and Virginie Verrez (c) Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2016
Zach Borichevsky (Anatol) and Virginie Verrez
(c) Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2016
The work was premiered at the Met in New York in 1958. It was Barber's first large-scale opera. Though three years younger than Barber, Benjamin Britten had already written Peter Grimes, Billy Budd, Gloriana, Rape of Lucretia, Albert Herring and Turn of the Screw, whilst Francis Poulenc's Carmelites premiered in 1956. And there is an inevitable tendency to compare Barber's work to that of these composers, rather than taking it on its own terms. Much of the critical reaction to Glyndebourne's production of Vanessa has tended to emphasise that the piece simply wasn't what was expected from a composer writing in the 1950s.

Whereas Benjamin Britten and Francis Poulenc's works use libretti which have strong links with the Western European literary elite, Giancarlo Menotti's libretto for Vanessa can come over as rather novelettish and its strongest links seem to be with Hollywood films of the period (Hitchcock's Rebecca, from 1940, seems a particular link). And like these films, the distinctive style has a tendency to dominate, whilst the complexity which lies underneath is easily obscured.

At Santa Fe Opera in 2016 [see my review] the opera was played straight, as Hollywood noir without many of the undercurrents. It has taken Keith Warner's production at Glyndebourne to give the piece depth, a process which seems to have started with Rodula Gaitanou's 2017 production at Wexford which brought out the Tchekovian influences [see the review on Bachtrack]. Warner's production hinted at the issues of incest, miscegenation and abortion, things which helped explain the torrid atmosphere.

Not that the piece is perfect, far from it. When the first Erika, Rosalind Elias, pointed out to Samuel Barber, rather dauntingly, that her character was the only major one without an aria, he came up with 'Must the Winter come so soon'. This is a stunning number which has been a recital staple ever since,  but it is very much in Barber's Knoxville, Summer 1915 style and works well as a stand-alone piece yet in context it seems apropos of nothing and even holds up the action. Yet at the ends of Act One and Act Two Erika has strong scenes which cry out for expansion. But it is in these scenes that Barber moved furthest away from his chosen medium, American lyricism, and clearly he shied away from going too far.

Duval Timothy's Whale

Live performance of Whale by Duval Timothy, London 2017.

Duval Timothy is a multi-disciplinary artist working and living between London, UK and Freetown, Sierra Leone, and he studied at Central St Martins, Beaux Arts Paris ENSBA and Chelsea College.

The Guardian said of his music 'His solo piano pieces are somewhere on the boundaries between contemporary minimalism and jazz: precise, geometrical constructions featuring heart-rending chord changes and simple melodies.'

Thursday, 13 September 2018

Movements around Buxton

Northern Chamber Orchestra at the Stoller Hall, Manchester
Northern Chamber Orchestra at the Stoller Hall, Manchester
Now that he has stepped down as Buxton International Festival's artistic director, conductor Stephen Barlow has become patron of Northern Chamber Orchestra. The orchestra, which is the oldest professional chamber ensemble in the North West, has been in residence at the Buxton Festival since 2011. 

The announcement comes as the orchestra begins its 51st season, with concerts in Manchester, Macclesfield and London. Last year Barlow and the orchestra released an imaginative disc, Mind Music, with music by Richard Strauss, John Adams, and Kevin Malone supporting Parkinsons UK [see my review].

For those with long memories, one of Barlow's predecessors at Buxton, Aidan Lang (who ran the festival from 2000 to 2006) is returning from foreign climes (with stints at New Zealand Opera and Seattle Opera) to become the new General Director of Welsh National Opera in succession to David Poutney.

Music for an Autumn Evening

Music for an Autumn Evening
Daniel Collins will be best known to many people as a counter-tenor who has been singing with The Sixteen for 12 years. From 20 September 2018 he will also be wearing a different hat, as Daniel is the artistic director of Music for an Autumn Evening, a series of concerts at Holy Trinity Church, Stroud Green, N4 4EL. 

The concerts are on Thursdays starting 20 September and the series opens with an eight-voice vocal ensemble conducted by Daniel in Hubert Parry's glorious Songs of Farewell (a big feature of programming this year, the centenary of Parry's death), alongside English and Scottish music from the 20th and 21st centuries.

Further ahead, there is the Comali Consort in a programme which gives us a variety of 17th century portraits of women, including England's Virgin Queen, Dominika Fehér in solo violin music by Biber, Bach, Ysaye and Fehér, and the Bloomsbury Quartet in music by Britten, Beethoven and Schubert. A Winter series is promised too, so do check out the festival's website.

[Those of you with LONG memories will perhaps recognise Daniel Collins name from my 2008 disc, The Testament of Dr Cranmer]

Essential Listening: Rossini's Semiramide revealed in a new complete recording from Opera Rara

Rossini: Semiramide - OPera Rara
Rossini Semiramide; Albina Shagimuratova, Daniela Barcellona, Mirco Palazzi, Barry Banks, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Sir Mark Elder; Opera Rara Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 12 September 2018 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Rossini's monumental drama brought thrillingly, and complete, to disc with period style, bravura and elan

At the recent celebrations for the new distribution agreement between Opera Rara and Warner Classics, Sir Mark Elder (artistic director of Opera Rara) talked about his desire to take a title which was very familiar, yet the piece was not, and make people listen to it anew. This became Rossini's Semiramide, a work that existed for most people only as a title (or an overture), and Sir Mark pointed out that Dame Joan Sutherland's recording of the work was made 50 years ago, and lives in a very different sound world. We have already had something of a preview of Opera Rara's new recording of Rossini's Semiramide because Sir Mark and the cast performed the opera at the BBC Proms in 2016 just after doing the recording [see my review].

On this new set from Opera Rara we get the first ever complete recording of Rossini's Semiramide, performed on period instruments with Sir Mark Elder conducting the Opera Rara Chorus and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, with Albina Shagimuratova as Semiramide, Daniela Barcellona as Arsace, Mirco Palazzi as Assur, Barry Banks as Idreno, Gianluca Buratto as Oroe, Susana Gaspar as Azema, David Butt Philip as Mitrane and James Platt as L'Ombra di Nino.

Rossini's Semiramide was written in 1823 for performance in Venice, it was his last opera for Italy and his last serious opera in Italian (to follow were comedies in Italian and in French, and serious operas in French). Whilst it builds on the sequence of serious operas which Rossini wrote for Naples, it is also rather backward looking and eschews many of the technical and structural innovations which Rossini used in Naples. Perhaps because he was writing for a different company, perhaps because he deliberately wanted to have a summation, or perhaps because he could no longer rely on his prima donna. Semiramide was written for the soprano Isabella Colbran, who had been the diva in the remarkable sequence of nine operas written in Naples. But by 1823 her voice was in decline, and perhaps it was clear that Rossini could no longer rely on her in the way he had in Armida (where she was the only female member of cast) or Ermione (where her closing scene lasted over 40 minutes).

But there is no denying that Semiramide is super large scale, on this disc Act One lasts over two hours, with Act Two over ninety minutes. Even during the first run, the piece was being cut with the tenor soloist Idreno losing arias (something that would become quite common). In fact, this is not because Rossini crams a lot of musical number in, far from it, instead there is an amplitude to the pieces. There might be a backward-looking element to the opera with an old-fashioned sense of elaboration and display, but the way Rossini uses large-scale structures links to Neapolitan operas like Maometto II. And arias are quite sparing too, so that we get a lot of ensembles and duets, in fact the character of Semiramide is introduced via a quartet and she only gets one aria (labelled a cavatina) and we experience her mainly in relation to others via ensembles and duets.

Quite how different the sound world of this new disc can be is illustrated by the opening of the overture where the hand-stopped horns lift us into a different world, one which is re-inforced by the tang of the woodwind and the difference in sound lack of vibrato and gut strings makes to the strings. It helps that Mark Elder really brings out the varieties in texture of Rossini's orchestration and relishes the new sounds. The orchestra used is massive (74 players in the orchestra, plus a banda of 17), but despite this and the scale of Rossini's writing the music does not feel like a monument. There is a a dynamism and variety to the playing which makes it very engaging.

Wednesday, 12 September 2018


St Leonard's Tower, West Malling photo Thomas Beilby (Wikimedia Commons)
St Leonard's Tower, West Malling
photo Thomas Beilby (Wikimedia Commons)
Music@Malling takes place annually in the historic town of West Malling in Kent, and under artistic director Thomas Kemp the eighth festival will be presenting a lively mix of contemporary composers alongside classical, jazz, vocal, world and film music from 16 to 29 September.

Inevitably, World War One and the Armistice are a big feature of this years programme, with Nigel Short and Tenebrae performing Commemorating the Armistice, including Owain Park's Footsteps, and Thomas Kemp and his ensemble Chamber Domaine perform a programme of string music with actor Charles Dance giving readings from Siegfried Sassoon.

Contemporary music is always a big feature of the festival and this year Judith Weir is profiled, with her music in five concerts across the festival, a Meet the Composer event and a study morning on her music. James Pearson, artistic director of Ronnie Scott's, will be performing Inventions Reinvented, his re-working Bach's Two and Three-part inventions, whilst cellist Peter Gregson's Bach Recomposed re-interprets Bach's Cello Suites for cello and electronics. Bach unarranged features in Craig Ogden's Bach Pilgrimmage when he performs Bach's complete Lute Suites in Malling Abbey.

The festival has a successful and popular outreach programme and this year 1,800 children from 20 primary schools compose theme tunes for the theme park rides in The Great Enormo - a 21st Century Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, written by Michael Rosen and set to music by husband and wife team, James Morgan and Juliette Pochin.

Full details from the Music at Malling website.

Practical & working composer: Vaughan Williams choral premieres from Royal Hospital, Chelsea

Earth & Sky - Ralph Vaughan Williams - ALBION
Ralph Vaughan Williams choral premieres; Chapel Choir of the ROyal Hospital, Chelsea, William Vann; Albion Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 September 2018 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
An album of hitherto unrecorded, small-scale choral works which show RVW as a practical and useful composer

This enterprising new disc from the Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, director William Vann on Albion Records (the recording arm of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society) draws together over twenty small-scale choral works by RVW which have not been recorded before, and some are in fact unpublished. The music ranges from the very early (1896) to very late (1954) with a mixture of original compositions and arrangements.

Some of the music is unaccompanied, some with piano and some with organ. The disc is arranged in a roughly chronological order with some re-arrangement to group similar works together. We start with the early Vocal Valses from The Songs of the Wrens, delightful short waltzes with piano accompaniment (provided by William Vann) setting poems by Tennyson, which come from a cycle the poet wrote for Sir Arthur Sullivan to set. They seem to use Brahms' Liebeslieder Walztes as a model and whilst they hardly sound like mature RVW, they have great charm.

Sound Sleep was written in 1903 as a test piece for the East Lincolnshire Musical Festival, commissioned by RVW's cousin Margaret Massingberd of Gunby Hall (now a National Trust property). A setting of Christina Rosetti for female voices and piano, it combines a lovely undulating piano with gently flowing voices in close harmony developing from the quietly thoughtful into something more.

Tuesday, 11 September 2018

The Unknown Traveller at the Treehouse - Fieri Consort launches its second CD

The Fieri Consort
The Fieri Consort
On Sunday 9 September 2018 we went along to the Shoreditch Treehouse for the launch of the Fieri Consort's second disc. The group's first disc, Tears of a Lover [see my review] had been a daring combination of Monteverdi madrigals (the Lamento d'Arianna sequence) with modern madrigals from composer Ben Rowarth. I was pleased that for this new disc, the group had stayed with the same formula without becoming formulaic. On the new disc The Unknown Traveller we hear Ben Rowarth's four-movement sequence Short Walk of a Madman alongside madrigals from Musica Transalpina.

On Sunday we were treated to three of the four movements from Rowarth's piece. Though technically a setting of poems by e.e.cummings, there are other texts too and it is the harmony and texture of the pieces which comes over, rather than the words. Rowarth is interested in the journey through the work, as the eight voices move from multiple tonalities to a sense of communual being. The result is complex and challenging, and rather thrilling. I can't wait to hear the full work.

We also heard madrigals by Ferrabosco, Palestrina and Byrd, all from Musica Transalpina which was a highly influential collection of madrigals published in 1588 in England by publisher Nicholas Yonge. The madrigals were all published in English versions, with the translator using word for word English versions so English musicians could easily appreciate the way Italian composers married text to music. The fascinating thing is that this translator is unknown, and this gave rise to the disc's name The Unknown Traveller.

Hearing this music in English, rather than Italian, made a striking difference to our perceptions of the pieces, and made you realise quite how important the text and language is to the Italian (and English) madrigal form.

The Unknown Traveller is available from 17 September 2018 from the Fieri Consort's website, and will receive wider distribution from October 2018.

The Fieri Consort is Lucy Cox, Hannah Ely, Helen Charlston, Nancy Cole, Tome Kelly, Josh Cooter, Ben McKee, David Maguire.

Alexis Ffrench at the Cafe de Paris

Alexis Ffrench at the Cafe de Paris (photo David Nelson)
Alexis Ffrench at the Cafe de Paris (photo David Nelson)
I have to confess that until last week, I had never been to London's Cafe de Paris (a nightclub which opened in 1924 and has managed to feature artists as varied as Louise Brooks, Marlene Dietrich, and Noel Coward to name but a few). 

But last Tuesday this was the elegant venue for the launch of pianist Alexis Ffrench's new disc Evolution, his first disc since being signed to Sony. Ffrench is a fascinating musician, he trained at The Purcell School, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and the Royal Academy of Music, but he is also loves rap, R&B and roots music, and can write a good tune. His new disc features guests as varied as classical harpist Lavinia Meijer and Boston-based electro folk duo Tall Heights, and The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Adam Klemans.

Alexis Ffrench's recent appearances have included playing at the Classical Brit Awards at the Albert Hall in June 2018, and as well as playing to us at the Cafe de Paris he also talked about this event and his daughter's dancing on stage during it.

Alexis Ffrench is very much a voice in the world of new classical music, often combining classical sensibility with the structure of more popular music, and he is no mean pianist too!

Distracting opera for distracted times: The Second Violinist

Donnacha Dennehy: The Second Violinist - Aaron Monaghan - Landmark Productions and Wide Open Opera - (Photo Patrick Redmond)
Donnacha Dennehy: The Second Violinist - Aaron Monaghan - Landmark Productions and Wide Open Opera
(Photo Patrick Redmond)
Donnacha Dennehy, Enda Walsh The Second Violinist; Landmark Productions & Irish National Opera; Barbican Theatre Reviewed by Ruth Hansford on 6 September 2018 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
Enda Walsh and Donnacha Dennehy's collaboration set out to ‘explode opera’s conventions’

Donnacha Dennehy: The Second Violinist - Benedict Nelson - Landmark Productions and Wide Open Opera - (Photo Patrick Redmond)
Donnacha Dennehy: The Second Violinist - Benedict Nelson -
Landmark Productions and Wide Open Opera - (Photo Patrick Redmond)
The Second Violinist is the second of playwright Enda Walsh and composer Donnacha Dennehy’s collaborations, the first being The Last Hotel in 2015. They called it an opera. It was jointly produced by between theatre producers Landmark Productions and Irish National Opera and I think I wasn’t the only one in the audience to wonder if it was an opera really. Walsh and Dennehy set out to ‘explode opera’s conventions’, according to an article on the Barbican website.

It was a multimedia mashup with three opera singers and a chorus and a main character who doesn’t sing a note. Above all, for me it was a reflection on how our attention and focus are compromised in our overloaded age.

There is a plot of sorts but, as in real life, the chronology and the relationships were not straightforward. The Second Violinist of the title is failing professionally and, rather than tackle the problem, he spends pretty much the whole show tied up in displacement activity his phone – playing a violent video game, flirting on Tinder, obsessing about Carlo Gesualdo, listening to voicemails but deleting them before he gets to the end, batting away annoying marketing texts from a restaurant. Aaron Monaghan is the silent violinist Martin. He emerges from the pit at the beginning of the show, puts his violin in its case and doesn’t open it again. He has a face and body that are so expressive of his torment that he is both compelling and painful to watch.

The other main characters are singers: his ex, Amy (Sharon Carty), now unhappily married to Matthew (Benedict Nelson) who tries his luck with Amy’s friend Hannah (Máire Flavin) over booze, cigarettes and a game of Twister. They cope well with their angular, unidiomatic vocal lines but we, the audience, are dependent on the surtitles for comprehension.

The surtitles were only one of our reading tasks for the evening. The content of Martin’s interactions with his phone (including his accidental filming of his feet) was projected on to a wide screen at the back of the stage. As was the footage of murmurations of starlings – beautiful in its own right, but incongruous when we were observing the protagonist’s destructive trajectory. Or maybe that is the point.

Monday, 10 September 2018

BREMF 2018 - Europe: 700 years of music from 17 European countries

BREMF 2018 - Europe: 700 years of music from 17 European countries
The Brighton Early Music Festival (BREMF) is going topical this year. Never really un-topical, previous festivals have explored our roots, our relationship to the earth including climate change, this year the festival is exploring the theme of Europe. 

Running from 26 October to 11 November 2018 in venues in and around Brighton, the festival is bringing 700 years of music from 17 European countries to Brighton, exploring Britain’s long and often tempestuous relationship with the rest of the European continent from medieval times onwards.

One highlight is the festival's staging of a double bill of Baroque operas at The Old Market in Hove, where director Thomas Guthrie will be comparing and contrasting Monteverdi's Ballo delle ingrate with one of the first operas in English, Blow's Venus and Adonis. The productions will involve some of the best young vocal talent, as well as street dance choreographed by J P Omari.

Nurturing young talent is something for which the festival is well-known, each year a group of artists are mentored on its Early Music Live! scheme, and this year features not only a showcase for this year's artists and ensembles, but brings back ensembles which featured on the scheme in past years including the Fieri Consort, Lux Musicae London and Flauti d’echo.

And BREMF wouldn't be BREMF without a performance from the wonderful BREMF Community Choir, this year it is joining with the Spanish ensemble Resonet for music from the 13th-century Lewes Priory Breviary, whilst another festival ensemble the BREMF Consort of Voices will be performing music from 'Reformation Remainers' Thomas Tallis and William Byrd.

Royal weddings pop up too, with music for an 18th-century Swedish royal wedding, and a programme looking at Queen Elizabeth I's tricky marriage negotiations and prevarications with various European princes, from soprano Elin Manahan Thomas (best known for singing at the recent wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex) and lutenist Elizabeth Kenny. Whilst the English Cornett and Sackbutt's programme Legal Aliens looks at the music of Italian families like the Bassanos who lived in Tudor London (including Aemelia Bassano who may have been Shakespeare's Dark Lady of the Sonnets).

The final event of the festival is on 11 November 2018, so rather appropriately it is Peace in Europe:A Concert for Armistice Day with music by Handel, De la Lande, Zelenka, Blow, Charpentier and Purcell from The BREMF Players (leader Alison Bury), The BREMF Singers (director John Hancorn) and soloists from BREMF's Early Music Live! including Elizabeth Adams, Nancy Cole, Helen Charlston (winner of this year's Handel Singing Competition), Josh Cooter and Tim Dickinson.

Full details from the BREMF website.

A journey through time and music: 12 Ensemble at the Barbican, on tour and a debut disc

12 Ensemble (Photo Mattias Bjorklund)
12 Ensemble (Photo Mattias Bjorklund)
This week is a big week for the 12 Ensemble. It is appearing at Milton Court on Sunday 16 September, a big move for this conductorless string ensemble (artistic directors Eloise-Fleur Thom, violin, and Max Ruisi, cello) whose first evening concert as part of the the Barbican's Music Programme it is.  The programme, under the title Reborn, includes music by Tansy Davies, Benjamin Britten, John Woolrich and Schubert. And to cap that, the group's first album, Resurrection, is released on Sancho Panza records.

Max Ruisi describes the evening as a journey through time and music, looking at how composers re-interpret works dear to them. So they are performing John Dowland's Lachrymae alongside Tansy Davies Residuum and Britten's Lachrymae for solo viola and strings, both of which rework the Dowland, plus John Woolrich's Ulysses Awakes. In the second half is Schubert's epic Death and the Maiden quartet in an arrangement for string orchestra by Gustav Mahler. This is a work that Max feels Mahler connected with, as the arrangement doesn't mess with the music, Mahler simply adds a double bass part and adjusts the balance in places to allow for using a larger body of strings, so it is very true to the music.

An imaginative Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress from British Youth Opera

Stravinsky: The Rake's Progress - Frederick Jones - British Youth Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Stravinsky: The Rake's Progress - Frederick Jones
British Youth Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Stravinsky The Rake's Progress; Frederick Jones, Samantha Clarke, Sam Carl, dir Stephen Unwin, Southbank Sinfonia, cond: Lionel Friend; British Youth Opera at the Peacock Theatre Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 8 September 2018 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
Strong principals and an imaginative production make this an enjoyable and thought-provoking evening

Stravinsky: The Rake's Progress - Jessica Ouston - British Youth Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Stravinsky: The Rake's Progress - Jessica Ouston
British Youth Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
We caught the final performance of British Youth Opera's (BYO) 2018 season at the Peacock Theatre on Saturday 8 September 2018 when it performed Igor Stravinsky, WH Auden and Chester Kalman's The Rake's Progress [see Anthony's review of BYO's other 2018 opera, The Enchanted Island] Lionel Friend conducted the Southbank Sinfonia and the production was directed by Stephen Unwin, with designs by James Cotterill, movement by Natasha Harrison and lighting by Mark Jonathan.

Pedro Ometto was Trulove, Samantha Clarke was Anne, Frederick Jones was Tom Rakewell and Sam Carl was Nick Shadow, with Emma Lewis, Jessica Ouston, Iain Henderson and Thomas Mole.

James Cotterill's striking designs greeted us as we entered the auditorium, a Howard Hodgkin-like drop curtain with a gilded proscenium, painted Hodgkin-like as well. This was used, correctly, between scenes with Mark Jonathan's lighting changing the drop-curtain's colour from scene to scene, and Cotterill's backdrops had painting references too. The scenes were sparesely set, gradually accumulataing objects until the climactic aution, after which the stage was bare again. The setting was the 1950s, with costumes of the period and some quirky furniture designs. It made a striking effect, I do hope someoone else picks up this handsome and intelligent production.

The Rake's Progress is surprisingly tricky to cast, singers need flexibility but they need power too, to float over Stravinsky's lively orchestration (and the acoustic of the Peacock Theatre never helps in this regard). And the principals need stamina too, The Rake's Progress is not a short opera. BYO succeeded admirably, casting a trio of principals who filled the opera's requirements so well that you thought more about their interpretation of the roles than technical requirements. That said, diction was a bit patchy when singers were up-stage.

Sunday, 9 September 2018

Just what it says on the tin, an enchanting enchanted island from British Youth Opera

The Enchanted Island - Iúnó Connolly, Alex Bevan - British Youth Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
The Enchanted Island - Iúnó Connolly, Alex Bevan - British Youth Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
The Enchanted Island, devised & written by Jeremy Sams; British Youth Opera, dir: Stuart Barker, Southbank Sinfonia, cond: Nicholas Kramer; Peacock |Theatre Reviewed by Anthony Evans on 7 September 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A young cast add sparkle to the UK premiere of Jeremy Sams' pasticcio

The Enchanted Island - Natalie Davies, Caroline Taylor, Richard Bignall, James Atkinson - British Youth Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Natalie Davies, Caroline Taylor, Richard Bignall, James Atkinson
British Youth Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Premiering at the Metropolitan Opera in 2011 with a starry cast including Joyce DiDonato, Danielle de Niese, David Daniels and Domingo, this week The Enchanted Island was given its European premiere by British Youth Opera at The Peacock Theatre.

Described as a ‘pasticcio’, this ‘juke-box’ opera is lovingly plundered from a treasure trove of your favourite baroque composers including Handel, Vivaldi and Rameau amongst others. Inspired by The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Jeremy Sams casts us ashore and weaves a tale of shipwrecks, spells and lovers. The performance of Stuart Barker’s elegant production this Friday September 7 was consistently finely sung by a cast of budding professionals who sank their teeth into this baroque island mash-up with gusto.

From Dover Beach to the Prince Unexpected: Sunday Concerts at Conway Hall

Conway Hall Sunday Concerts
Conway Hall's long-running Sunday Concerts series [it traces its history back to 1878] starts its 2018/19 season tonight (9 September 2018) with Simon Wallfisch (baritone/cello) and the Fitzwilliam Quartet performing Samuel Barber's Dover Beach alongside Wallfisch's arrangements of Barber and Schubert songs for baritone and quartet, then Simon wears a different had and plays the cello, joining the quartet for a performance of Schubert's Quintet in C D956. An evening not to be missed, but if you are busy fear not, the season has plenty of other delights on offer.

I Musicanti are bringing the premiere of Robin Walker's The Song of Bone on Stone alongside Vinzenz Lachner's chamber arrangement of Beethoven's Emperor Concerto (something which has to be heard to be believed), with Leslie Howard playing the demanding piano solo, whilst the Trio Chausson are bringing the music of Cecile Chaminade and Erich Korngold. On 30 September, I will be joining mezzo-soprano Louise Winter and the Primrose Piano Quartet to give a pre-concert talk about their programme of music by Johannes Brahms, Robert and Clara Schumann.

Further ahead, the Barbican Piano Trio will be giving the London premiere of Joseph Phibbs' Suite from the Prince Unexpected, whilst ensembles from the Royal College of Music will be performing music by Louise Farrenc and Missa Mazzoli.  The Oculi Ensemble will be showcasing Richard Strauss the chamber music composer (a lesser known example of his talents), and again I will be giving a pre-concert talk.

The Monte Piano Trio perform a trio arrangement of Schoenberg's Verklarte Nacht created by one of Schoenberg's students, and there is a pre-concert recital from pianist Hiro Takenouchi (one of a number he is giving, playing Mozart's piano sonatas).  Series director Simon Callaghan will be giving a recital on 2 December, performing piano music by Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann, and the series ends with the Chamber Ensemble of London in a varied evening of music from Handel to Copland, including Britten, Kreisler, Mozart and Clive Jenkins.

And there is much more besides; full details from the Conway Hall website and you can find the Autumn 2018 programme brochure on Issu.

Saturday, 8 September 2018

Moments of beauty: Handel's intimate oratorio Theodora from Arcangelo at the BBC Proms

Handel: Theodora - Louise Alder, Iestyn Davies, Jonathan Cohen, Arcangelo - BBC Proms - (photo Chris Christodoulou/BBC)
Handel: Theodora - Louise Alder, Iestyn Davies, Jonathan Cohen, Arcangelo - BBC Proms
(photo Chris Christodoulou/BBC)
Handel Theodora; Louise Alder, Iestyn Davies, Benjamin Hulett, Ann Halenberg, Tareq Nazmi, Arcangelo, Jonathan Cohen; BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 7 September 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Handel's intimate penultimate oratorio in an, at times, profoundly beautiful performance

For the penultimate BBC Prom of 2018, Jonathan Cohen and Arcangelo brought a performance of Handel's penultimate oratorio, Theodora on Friday 7 September 2018 at the Royal Albert Hall. Cohen conducted the chorus and orchestra of Arcangelo, leader Michael Guruvich, with Tareq Nazmi as Valens, Iestyn Davies as Didymus, Benjamin Hulett as Septimus, Louise Alder as Theodora and Ann Hallenberg as Irene.

Handel's oratorio premiered in 1750 and was remarkably unsuccessful, though it was one of Handel's favourites amongst his oratorios. The libretto by the Revd Thomas Morell, based on an 18th century novel, treats Christian martyrdom rather than the dramatic Old Testament subjects for which Handel had become known in his oratorios. The work rather languished in the Handel canon until the 1990s when Peter Sellars directed a stage production at Glyndebourne which really brought out the dramatic intensity which underlies the work with its depiction of Christian martyrdom.

For all its large-scale choruses, Theodora is a remarkably intimate work and relies for its impact on the soloists being able to convey the sense of the characters' inner life. The work has few dramatic events and is rather leisurely, particularly in Act One, and we need to feel the inner convictions of Theodora, Irene and Didymus as Christians.

Arcangelo used relatively large forces, an orchestra based on 23 strings with four oboes and a choir of 36, and the choral/orchestral contributions were strongly characterised and vividly engaged. The orchestra gave us some vivid detail from the overture onwards, whilst the choir made a strong difference between the lively Heathens and the more intense Christians, including a strikingly sober yet intense account of Handel's favourite chorus, 'He saw the lovely youth'.

From the soloists we got a profoundly beautifully sung account of the work, this was Handel singing at its finest, with all the soloists giving us confidently stylish and engaging performances often with great beauty of line and a real sense of how Handel creates his music. Unfortunately, in the open spaces of the Royal Albert Hall, not everyone managed to convey the sense of the characters' inner lives, particularly the burning Christian intensity which has to fuel the main action, with Didymus and Theodora going to their deaths willingly. But to a certain extent, this was compensated for by the sheer beauty of the performance.

A substantial monument: Patrick Hawes talks about The Great War Symphony

Patrick Hawes & the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at Abbey Road Studios (Photo Tony Simpson)
Patrick Hawes & the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at Abbey Road Studios (Photo Tony Simpson)
Patrick Hawes' Great War Symphony premieres at the Royal Albert Hall on 9 October 2018 with the composer conducting. It is a big work, a symphonic piece with chorus and soloists lasting an hour and representing a musical memorial to the people and events of the First World War. Having interviewed Patrick before [see my interview] I was interested to know more and we met up for a coffee whilst he was in London recently

Patrick Hawes (Photo Tony Simpson)
Patrick Hawes (Photo Tony Simpson)
Patrick got the idea originally in 2013, and it would take two and half years to create, though 18 months of that was researching the text. Patrick assembled the text himself, from a large variety of sources. Though he had lots of advice, he felt it was up to him to choose the texts he wanted to set based on the way they had to slot together (each movement is made up of a mosaic of different texts). And it was the texts which dictated the structure of the symphony. From the outset it was going to be choral, with soloists central to the drama as the tenor represents the fighting man whilst the soprano is the loved one back home (mother, wife, fiancee).

A monument, to those who gave their lives in the First World War.

Patrick wanted to create a substantial musical work which would serve as a memorial, a monument, to those who gave their lives in the First World War.

Friday, 7 September 2018

New music, new collaborations and a Stockhausen return - London Sinfonietta's 2018/19 season

Karlheinz Stockhausen's Donnerstag aus Licht at Covent Garden in 1985 (© www.karlheinzstockhausen.org)
Karlheinz Stockhausen's Donnerstag aus Licht at Covent Garden in 1985
The London Sinfonietta's 2018/19 season will feature collaborations with Music Theatre Wales, the National Dance Company Wales and EXAUDI, with Southbank Centre and the Royal Academy of Music’s Manson Ensemble, there will also be 13 new commissions from leading and emerging composers, 11 world premiere performances and three UK premieres, including works from composers on the ensemble's Writing the Future programme.

With Music Theatre Wales, the National Dance Company Wales and EXAUDI, the London Sinfonietta will be collaborating on a tour of a new dance opera by French composer Pascal Dusapin. With Southbank Centre and the Royal Academy of Music’s Manson Ensemble they will be collaborating on performances of Stockhausen's Donnerstag aus Licht, giving the work its first UK performances since 1985 when it was staged by Covent Garden.

Premieres include a new saxophone concerto from Mark Bowden [see my review of his disc Sudden Light], Sapiens, which is inspired by Yuval Noah Harari’s history of humankind and Colin MatthewsAs time returns, a new setting of poems by Ivan Blatný, a Czech poet whose works were nearly lost to obscurity after he was exiled to England in 1948.

The London premiere of James Dillon’s absurdist Tanz/haus: triptych 2017 will be given alongside world premieres by two of the ensemble’s Writing the Future composers, Oliver Leith and Josephine Stephenson [an excerpt from one of her new works featured at the recent SWAP'ra gala]. Works by the other composers on the scheme, Patrick Brennan and Edward Nesbit, feature in private performances this season but they get their time on the main stage in 2018/19.

Full details from the London Sinfonietta's website.

Popular Posts this month