Friday, 19 October 2018

Bach, the Universe & Everything

Bach, the Universe & Everything
The second series of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment's Bach, the Universe & Everything launches at Kings Place on Sunday 21 October 2018 with How to Leave the Planet. The series runs monthly and provides a unique combination of music and science with the performance of a Bach cantata and a scientific talk. 

On Sunday, 21 October, Dallas Campbell talks on the past and future of space travel, ending with the ‘Cavatina’ from Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat Major - the final track on the ‘Golden Record’ sent into space with the Voyager satellite. Audiences can mingle afterwards to discuss the science and music over coffee and cake, while enjoying interactive activities on the science of sound.

The Bach cantata performed is Cantata: Was soll ich aus dir machen (‘How shall I give thee up, Ephraim?’), BWV 89, with soloists Rowan Pierce, Clara Hendrick and James Newby, one which looks at the world from God's perspective.

Full details from the Kings Place website.

Thursday, 18 October 2018

Untold riches - music from Estonia & the Baltic at the Oxford Lieder Festival

Miina Härma
Miina Härma
From Tallin to St Petersburg, Solitudes; Kai Rüütel, Roger Vignoles, Mr McFall's Chamber; Oxford Lieder Festival at the Holywell Music Room
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 17 October 2018
Star rating: 4.5

Estonia and the Baltic was the theme for a pair of concerts which revealed little-known riches

This year's Oxford Lieder Festival is celebrating the Grand Tour, and as well as the major stops in European music we have some less well known musical cultures. As part of my day at the festival on Thursday 17 October 2018, I caught their visit to the Baltic. The evening recital was given by the Estonian mezzo-soprano Kai Rüütel and pianist Roger Vignoles; From Tallin to St Petersburg gave us a flavour of the various influences in Estonian music with songs by Estonian composers from the 19th and 20th centuries, Russians Sergei Rachmaninov and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and the German Johannes Brahms (who was from the Hanseatic port of Hamburg). The rush hour concert was given by the Scottish group Mr McFall's Chamber who presented a programme of Baltic instrumental music, with works from Estonia, Latvia and Finland, including some Finnish tango! And to give us a flavour of the Estonian language being sung in the evening, the day started with a useful Estonian language lab, where Kerli Liksor introduced us to the basics of the Estonian language.

For the evening concert at Holywell Music Room, Kai Rüütel and Roger Vignoles' programme From Tallinn to St Petersburg brought out the different foreign links to Estonian music. Though a Russian colony in the 19th century, Estonia had a long tradition of being locally governed by a German merchant class thanks to the Hanseatic links. So whilst 19th century composers went to study in St Petersburg, the peasants also adopted German habits which is where how the Estonian tradition of communal song developed.

Ester Mägi
Ester Mägi
Rüütel had clearly put a lot of thought into the programme, not only did she sing the entire thing from memory but she had contributed English translations to many of the Estonian songs. Luckily the programme was being recorded by the BBC for broadcast on BBC Radio 3 at some future date.

We started with a song by Miina Härma (1864-1941), I cannot stay silent. Härma studied at the St Petersburg Conservatoire, and is still revered in Estonia as a choral composer and conductor and in fact I cannot stay silent (written in 1896) is often sung by choirs. An elegiac, folk-like piece, Rüütel sang it unaccompanied.

The Brahms group followed, four songs from his Fünf Lieder, op.105 written between 1885 and 1886. Wie Melodien though nicely flowing was perhaps a little too sober and serious, but it did give us a fine flavour of Rüütel's rich-toned mezzo-soprano. She relaxed more into Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer which was beautifully shaped with a sense of a still, quiet centre, and a moment of vibrant drama towards the end. Klage was lighter and more characterful, though still with a serious demeanour. Auf dem Kirchhofe started with Roger Vignoles' dramatic piano, and the vocal line had the feeling of dramatic recitative, again very focused, serious and intent.

A group of songs by Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) followed. In the silence of the forest was full of melancholy longing, with its evocatively chromatic piano and richly romantic vocal line, sung by Rüütel with lots of vibrant yet focused tone. The Soldier's Wife was still melancholy, yet a little folk-inspired with a haunting melismatic passage at the end. How fair is this spot flowed beautifully, moving from a sense of longing to a radiant end.

Looking Ahead: James Willshire's Debussy Festival

James Willshire
James Willshire
Pianist James Willshire has been celebrating the 100th anniversary of Debussy's death by presenting the composer's piano music throughout the year in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Leeds and Manchester. This culminates in Willshire's Debussy Festival, a two day event in Edinburgh on 1 & 2 December 2018 at the newly refurbished St Cecilia's Hall, a Georgian concert hall. Dating from 1763 the hall is Scotlands oldest purpose-built one (Oxford's Holywell Music Room dates from 1748) and now part of Edinburgh University.

The weekend features eight concerts and two pre-concert talks. Willshire himself will be presenting a journey through Debussy's works for solo piano, more than five hours of music presented in five recitals during the two days, from the very early music to the demanding late pieces such as the Etudes. There will also be a concert of Debussy's chamber music from Philippa Harrison (piano), Mark Bailey (cello) and Gongbo Jiang (violin), and two vocal recitals with John Cameron (piano) accompanying Jessica Leary (soprano), Judy Brown (mezzo-soprano), Jemma Brown (soprano) and Kimberley Dove (soprano).

In February this year James Willshire accompanied viola player Rosalind Ventris in the premiere of my Three Pieces from the Book of Common Prayer at Cheltenham Music Society [see my article].

Full details from the St. Cecilia's Hall website (opens as PDF), tickets from EventBrite.

The English Concert is celebrating its 45th anniversary

The English Concert - Harry Bicket - Signum Classics
The English Concert is celebrating its 45 anniversary year. Now directed by Harry Bicket, the ensemble was founded in 1973 by harpsichordist Trevor Pinnock and they gave their first concert at the Purcell Rooms. To celebrate the anniversary the ensemble returned to the Southbank, to the re-furbished Queen Elizabeth Hall on 11 October 2018 where forte pianist Kristian Bezuidenhout, the group's new guest director, to perform a programme of CPE Bach, JC Bach and Mozart.

Under artistic director Harry Bicket, the group has recorded a celebratory disc of concertos for Signum Classics, showcasing the talents of musicians from within the group, so violinists Nadja Zwiener and Tuomo Suni, violist Alfonso Leal del Ojo, cellist Joseph Crouch, and oboist Katharina Spreckelsen all take step-out roles from the ensemble. The concertos are quite a diverse bunch, by Evaristo Felice Dall'Abaco, Nicola Porpora, Alessandro Marcello, Giuseppe Tartini and Georg Philipp Telemann.

Full details of the 2018/19 season from the English Concert's website, and their new disc is available from Amazon.

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

From Beethoven to Rock

I first came across the pianist AyseDeniz Gockin some years ago playing her own classical piano arrangements of Pink Floyd in the Hospital Club bar [see my article], entirely unphased by the bar's inability to turn off the background music and lighting up the room with her fizzing musical energy. Whilst Turkish-born, London-resident AyseDeniz trained at the Royal Academy of Music, it is the boundaries between classical and popular that interest her and she has produced her own classical piano arrangements of many rock standards. For her latest album, she is pushing the envelope again.

She is launching the album with a concert at St James's Church, Sussex Gardens on Friday 19 October 2018. She will be joined by cellist Benjamin Hughes (Principal Cello of BBC Concert Orchestra) and they will be performing some of Beethoven's most popular sonatas, along with rock covers arranged by AyseDeniz as well as some of her own compositions from her last album "Covers and Originals". More intriguingly, some of the concert will come as a silent disco (for those unaware of the phenomenon you listen entirely through headphones whilst watching the artists) ith remixes of tracks dedicated to Beethoven, as well as information regarding the pieces that you will be able to listen to during the live performance.

The concept will either intrigue or appall, but if you go with open ears and open mind you never know what you might hear!

Full details from EventBrite.

Southbank Sinfonia and Vladimir Ashkenazy in Grieg, Prokofiev and Beethoven

Vladimir Ashkenazy
Vladimir Ashkenazy
Grieg, Prokofiev, Beethoven; Southbank Sinfonia, Vladimir Ashkenazy; Milton Court Concert Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 16 October 2018
Star rating: 4.0

Fizzing with youthful energy, Southbank Sinfonia in concert with its patron, Vladimir Ashkenazy

Southbank Sinfonia's season runs from February to November, at the beginning of each year a new group of young players comes together for a season of training and mentoring at this remarkable orchestral academy. So the orchestra's concert on Tuesday 16 October 2018 at Milton Court Concert Hall was towards the end of the present intake's season. The concert took place away from their base at St John's Church, Waterloo, because it was something of an occasion, the conductor was the orchestra's patron, Vladimir Ashkenazy.

The programme included three works, all of which have a strong element of dance in them. The first half consisted of a pair of works where 19th/20th century composers looked at the past, Edvard Grieg's Holberg Suite and Prokofiev's Classical Symphony. The second half was devoted to a symphony which Wagner called 'The Apotheosis of Dance', Beethoven's Symphony No. 7

Created for the celebrations of the bicentenary of the Norwegian writer Ludvig Holberg, Grieg's suite is a series of Baroque dances filtered through his very 19th century sensibilities. The work is familiar, in danger of being hackneyed, but Vladimir Ashkenazy and Southbank Sinfonia brought an engaging energy to the platform along with a clear delight at being there.

Looking ahead: Prelude - skydiving from a dream

Prelude - skydiving from a dream
In 2015 the Scottish Ensemble collaborated with Andersson Dance and the Swedish choreographer Örjan Andersson to produce Goldberg Variations - ternary patterns for insomnia based on Bach's Goldberg Variations. Now the two are collaborating again on a new work, Prelude - skydiving from a dream which uses Beethoven's Grosse Fuge, plus extracts from Bach's The Art of Fugue and Lutoslawki's Preludes and Fugues for 13 solo strings. An intriguing innovation of the new work will be the way Andersson's choreography treats the dancers and the musicians as equals, blurring their roles and breaking the rules and expectations that can often apply to classical music performance.

The production premieres at the Tramway in Glasgow (9 & 10 November), then tours to Dundee (13 November), Inverness (15 November), and it will receive its Swedish premiere in March 2019, on a 6-date tour across Sweden including two performances at Stockholm’s Dansens Hus.

Further information from the Scottish Ensemble website.

Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Wolfgang Holzmair in Suffolk and Oxford

Wolfgang Holzmair
Wolfgang Holzmair
The great Austrian baritone Wolfgang Holzmair is making welcome appearances in Suffolk and Oxford this month as he and pianist Roger Vignoles give recitals at Aldeburgh and at the Oxford Lieder Festival.

On Tnursday 18 October 2018, Holzmair and Vignoles will be in the intimate surroundings of Aldeburgh's Jubilee Hall for a programme which combines songs by Claude Debussy with songs by Lili Boulanger, both of whom died in 1918. Holzmair will be singing Debussy's Trois chansons de France, Fêtes galantes, Deux romances, and Trois ballades de François Villon. The audience will also be able to sample French wines! Further details from the Snape Maltings website.

On Sunday 21 October, Holzmair and Vignoles are in Oxford for a lunchtime recital which revists the same programme as the start of Holzmair's residency at the festival where he is coaching the Mastercourse, so there will be a chance to see him in action each morning coaching the young singers on the course.

Full details of the Oxford Lieder Festival from the festival website.

A Bernstein Celebration - London Song Festival

Bernstein conducting the New York City Symphony Orchestera (1945)
Bernstein conducting the
New York City Symphony Orchestera (1945)
A Bernstein Celebration; Lucy Knight, Sophie Goldrick, Grainne Gillis, Alberto Sousa, Felix Kemp, Will Thomas, Nigel Foster; London Song Festival at Hinde Street Methodist Church Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 13 October 2018
From musicals to Songfest and rarer items, a wonderful celebration of Bernstein in song

If you are presenting a recital of Schumann song, then finding a replacement for an ailing singer at short notice is at least usually possible. But if your recital is of unusual or lesser-known repertoire, then problems increase. 

Nigel Foster launched his 2018 London Song Festival on Saturday 13 October 2018 at Hinde Street Methodist Church with a celebration of all things Bernstein, excerpts from the musicals, and the song cycles La Bonne Cuisine, I Hate Music! and the vastly underrated Songfest. Of the planned singers, alto Grainne Gillis, tenor Alberto Sousa, baritone Felix Kemp and bass Will Thomas were present, whilst soprano Lucy Knight came on board at two weeks notice, whilst mezzo-soprano Sophie Goldrick joined the cast at a mere two days notice.

Thanks to an heroic amount of speed-learning, the programme went ahead pretty much as planned. We lost two or three items and gained one, thanks to Goldrick's recent experience in Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti. The biggest loss was two movements of Songfest, but we should be thankful that thanks to a great deal of hard work, such an unusual and enlightening programme went ahead.

We started with three songs from La Bonne Cuisine, Bernstein's 1947 song cycle setting texts from a French cookbook! Originally written for a single singer, here the songs were split between Lucy Knight, Grainne Gillis and Will Thomas. Varying from the rapid patter of Plum Pudding, through the exoticism of Tavouk Guenksis to the dramatic Rabbit at Top Speed, words count in these songs and only Will Thomas managed the challenge perfectly, getting his Rabbit out in brilliant style.

We moved to musicals for the next group, starting with a sparkling performance from Lucy Knight in Glitter and be Gay from Candide, with Knight combining engaging charm with fine coloratura, and clarity in the words.

Hansel and Gretel (a nightmare in eight scenes)

Hansel & Gretel: a nightmare in eight 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)
Hansel & Gretel; Goldfield Productions; Milton Court Concert Hall
Reviewed by Anthony Evans on 12 October 2018 Star rating: 3.0 (★★★)
Dark and quirky: multimedia interpretation of Hansel & Gretel

On Friday 12 October 2018, Milton Court Concert Hall, in Silk Street, was the venue for Goldfield Productions’ multimedia Hansel and Gretel [see Robert's interview with Kate Romano, Goldfield Productions' artistic director]. It was a mixture of poetry, chamber music, puppetry and shadow play. Inspired by the striking visual creations of artist Clive Hicks-Jenkins, Simon Armitage’s poetic libretto, given voice by the captivating Adey Grummet, was woven in to Matthew Kaner’s evocative chamber music. Hansel and Gretel were brought to life by the table-top puppeteers Diana Ford and Lizzie Wort whilst the characters of the mother, father and the cathartid witch were created using shadow puppetry.

Described as dark and quirky, that’s just how it should be.

100 years of Nine Lessons & Carols

100 Years of Nine Lessons & Carols
On Christmas Eve 1918, King's College Chapel introduced a new service which aimed to bring a more imaginative approach to worship, combining popular and lesser known carols with Bible readings which told the Christmas story. A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols was first broadcast in 1928 and the service has now become a staple part of Christmas in the UK and elsewhere, watched and listened to by many for whom this will be the only religious aspect of Christmas. A feature of the service has been the remarkable sequence of Christmas carols commissioned by contemporary composers.

The format of the Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols was developed at Truro Cathedral, starting in 1878 and reaching fully developed form in 1880.  It was introduced at King's by the Dean of the College, Eric Milner-White whose experiences as an Army chaplain led him to want to introduce a more imaginative approach to worship, and the Truro liturgy was adapted for King's

The Choir of King's College, Cambridge, conductor Stephen Cleobury, is issuing a two disc set celebrating the centenary of the iconic service. The disc will include new recordings of sixteen iconic carols, forming a fitting tribute to Cleobury who has been at the helm of the choir since 1983 and who steps down next year. But the first disc of the set is devoted to a fascinating sequence of historic recordings, extracts from services conducted by Sir David Willcocks (1958 & 1963) and Philip Ledger (1978 & 1980), and recordings by Cleobury and the choir from 1985 to 2017, including the premieres of carols by Judith Weir, Thomas Ades, Michael Berkeley and Huw Watkins.

100 Years of Nine Lessons & Carols will be released on 9 November 2018.

Imagine It!

As part of the Summer 2018 residential courses, the National Youth Training Choir (part of the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain) made this video, performing Janet Wheeler's Imagine It with the percussion duo O Duo (Oliver Cox & Owen Gunnell), for whom the work was created. Wheeler's piece sets a text by John Taylor.

On the video the choir is conducted by Greg Beardsell, and the video filmed at the Richard Whiteley Theatre at Giggleswick School in August 2018.

Composer Janet Wheeler read music at Cambridge , studying with Robin Holloway and Hugh Wood. She went on to run a secondary school music department, and became a music producer for BBC Schools Radio before specialising in conducting and composing.

Monday, 15 October 2018

Something for everyone: Gershwin's 'Porgy and Bess' from English National Opera

Gershwin: Porgy and Bess - Nmon Ford, Nicole Cabell - English National Opera (Photo Tristram Kenton)
Gershwin: Porgy and Bess - Nmon Ford, Nicole Cabell -
English National Opera (Photo Tristram Kenton)
Gershwin Porgy and Bess; Eric Greene, Nicole Cabell, Nmon Ford, Latonia Moore, Nadine Benjamin, Frederick Ballentine, dir: James Robinson, cond: John Wilson; English National Opera at the London Coliseum Reviewed by Ruth Hansford on 11 October 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Full of good things; ENO's first ever production of Gershwin's classic

Gershwin: Porgy and Bess - Nicole Cabell, Eric Greene - English National Opera (Photo Tristram Kenton)
Gershwin: Porgy and Bess - Nicole Cabell, Eric Greene
English National Opera (Photo Tristram Kenton)
This was the first-ever English National Opera (ENO) production of Porgy and Bess (11 October 2018) and, as a co-production by ENO, Dutch National Opera and the Metropolitan Opera New York, no expense was spared. The company was assembled from home-grown and imported talent on stage with the ENO orchestra in the pit. Whoever might still subscribe to the notion that the piece is hard to cast from black singers of the right calibre must be changing their tune now. Directed by James Robinson and conducted by John Wilson, the production featured Eric Greene as Porgy, Nicole Cabell as Bess, Nmon Ford as Crown, Latonia Moore as Serena, Nadine Benjamin as Clara and Frederick Ballentine as Sportin' Life.

The director James Robinson opted to set the production in the American South in something like the 1920s, but also harking back to those huge ENO productions of the 1980s with revolving set and the stage filled with larger-than-life chorus (40 of them, though it seemed like there were more). The buildings of Catfish Row and the storm at sea were projected on to a scrim downstage. Generally there was a retro feel to the show. And my neighbours in the audience loved that. There have been productions transplanted to a different place and a different time, but this was not one of those.

Handel's Radamisto from English Touring Opera

Handel: Radamisto - William Towers, Katie Bray - English Touring Opera (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Handel: Radamisto - William Towers, Katie Bray - English Touring Opera (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Handel Radamisto; William Towers, Katie Bray, Ellie Laugharne, Grant Doyle, Andrew Slater, John-Colyn Gyeantey, dir: James Conway, cond: Peter Whelan; English Touring Opera at the Hackney Empire
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 13 October 2018 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
A strikingly designed and characterful performance develops in this effective new staging

Handel: Radamisto - Ellie Laugharne, Grant Doyle, William Towers, Katie Bray, Andrew Slater  - English Touring Opera (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Ellie Laugharne, Grant Doyle, William Towers, Katie Bray, Andrew Slater
English Touring Opera (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Despite often apparently complex plots, the problem with many Handel operas is that nothing much actually happens. This apparent contradiction arises because the Opera seria genre is about the interaction between the characters and the placing of individuals in moral dilemmas, rather than about a narrative with action and plot. So when action does occur is is often subsidiary to the characters' reactions. This means that pieces can sometimes seem a little static, hence the desire of directors to 'cheer them up' with extraneous action.

The opening of English Touring Opera's new production of Handel's Radamisto, directed by James Conway and conducted by Peter Whelan, seemed exactly a case in point. For the first act, we were introduced to each of the characters, William Towers' Radamisto and Katie Bray as his wife Zenobia, Grant Doyle as Tiridate and Ellie Laugharne as his wife Polinessa, with Andrew Slater as Radamisto and Polinessa's father Farasmene and John-Colyn Gyeantey as Tiridate's supporter Tigrane. The engine of the plot was Tiridate's actions as a tyrant and his obsessive devotion to his brother-in-law's wife Zenobia. But this unlikely premise is difficult to establish, and relies on the individual singers to establish a strong connection.

With the act cut somewhat, no-one had that much time to establish themselves. Katie Bray was admirably firm and forthright as Zenobia and her strength of character dominated the act, whilst Grant Doyle did not seem to have quite enough time to create a genuine sense of the obsessive and the tyrannical, he seemed a little too well balanced. I don't often wish singers would chew the scenery but a bit of that might not have come amiss here. Radamisto is basically too nice and too much of a good egg and William Towers, though impressive technically, did not get much beyond this, whilst Ellie Laugharne's Polinessa was admirable but seemed somewhat disjointed from the action, with John-Colyn Gyeantey characterful as the inevitable tenor side-kick.

Handel: Radamisto - William Towers, Katie Bray, Ellie Laugharne, Andrew Slater, Grant Doyle - English Touring Opera (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Handel: Radamisto - William Towers, Katie Bray, Ellie Laugharne, Andrew Slater, Grant Doyle
English Touring Opera (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Thankfully, all this changed in the second act, and we seemed almost in a different opera.

Sunday, 14 October 2018

Independent Opera showcase.

Svetlina Stoyanova, Michael Mofidian, Ida Ränzlöv, Claire Lees
Svetlina Stoyanova, Michael Mofidian, Ida Ränzlöv, Claire Lees
Independent Opera is showcasing its current group of recipients of Independent Opera Voice Scholarships. On 19 October 2018 at the Wigmore Hall, Claire Lees (soprano), Michael Mofidian (bass-baritone), Ida Ränzlöv (mezzo soprano), Svetlina Stoyanova (mezzo soprano) with Nino Chokhonelidze (piano) will be giving a recital of songs and arias by Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Ravel, Britten, the 20th century Swedish composers Gösta Nystroem and Ture Rangström, Rimsky-Korsakov, Anton Arensky (a pupil of Rimsky Korsakov), Tchaikovsky and the Bulgarian 20th century composer Lyubomir Pipkov, including arias from Don Giovanni, L'heure Espagnole, and The Turn of the Screw, plus the premiere of a new piece by Ēriks Ešenvalds performed by Michael Mofidian.

The four singers were awarded Independent Opera Voice Scholarships in September 2017, and these provide each of the singer with £5,000 towards their tuition fees as well as professional mentoring from Independent Opera's Creative Director, Natalie Murray Beale. Following their graduation, the selected singer progresses onto a Voice Fellowship providing £5,000 of funding to be used towards career development opportunities including singing lessons, coaching, professional development, photographs, website development, travel to and accompaniment at auditions.

We caught Michael Mofidian performing at Kings Place last year with soprano Joan Rogers and pianist Sholto Kynoch [see my review], and we caught Ida Ränzlöv in Judith Weir's The Vanishing Bridegroom with British Youth Opera [see my review] and in Handel's Faramondo at the London Handel Festival [see my review]. Claire Lees was Soeur Constance in Poulenc's Carmelites at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama this year [see my review].

Full details from the Wigmore Hall website.

Saturday, 13 October 2018

Portrait of a life (or many): Art songs from the African diaspora

Margaret Bonds
Margaret Bonds
Portrait of a life (or many): Art songs from the African diaspora; Nadine Benjamin, Nigel Foster, Michael Harper; St John's Smith Square Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 12 October 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Art songs from Black composers from the last 100 years, tracing experiences in America, the Caribbean and the UK

Whilst there are Black singers in the operatic community we usually hear from them within a Western classical narrative, we really get to hear from what might be called the Black experience or experiences. Yet there are composers writing within this tradition, voices which are not often heard, so it was with great pleasure that I was at St John's Smith Square on Friday 12 October 2018 when soprano Nadine Benjamin, speaker Michael Harvey and pianist Nigel Foster presented Portrait of a life (or many): Art songs from the African diaspora.

This was a sequence of readings and songs from Black artists, some American, some influences by the Harlem Renaissance and Civil Rights movement and some contemporary British. So we heard songs by Margaret Bonds (1913-1972), Undine Smith Moore (1904-1989), William Grant Still (1895-1978), Florence Price(1887-1953), Nailah Nombeko, H. Leslie Adams (born 1932), Dominque Le Gendre, Shirley Thompson (born 1958), Brittney Elizabeth Boykin (born 1989), Barbara Sherrill and Byron Motley, and Errollyn Wallen (botn 1958), readings from writers including Derek Walcott and Nikki Giovvanni, and song texts by writers including Derek Walcott, Maya Angelou, William Blake and Langston Hughes.

Undine Smith Moore
Undine Smith Moore
Following a reading of Mari Evans' Who can be Born Black we heard Three Dream Portraits, settings of poems by Langston Hughes by Margaret Bonds who studied at the Juilliard and with Roy Harris and who collaborated regularly with Langston Hughes. Three Dream Portraits (1959) were three lyrically melancholy songs with hints of blues, spirituals and more in music which aptly complemented Hughes poems which examined what it was to be Black in America. A strikingly different voice and the final song, a setting of Langston Hughes' I, Too, Sing America brought out a voice which is rarely heard in the concert hall.

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

Crowd-funding & collaboration: new choral music from Lumen

Benjamin Thiele-Long and Lumen
Benjamin Thiele-Long and Lumen
There are a surprising number of composers who operate under the radar, without a significant media presence. Lumen choir and its conductor Benjamin Thiele-Long aimed to help correct this with their crowd-funded disc Lumen de Lumine which was recently released on the Convivium Records label. Lumenis a relatively new amateur ensemble which aims high, and I recently met up with founder and conductor Benjamin Thiele-Long to find out more.

Benjamin Thiele-Long
Benjamin Thiele-Long
The new disc contains 14 pieces by 12 composers of varying ages and backgrounds, many will be new names. Benjamin Thiele-Long and the choir created a very open process from the start, and Benjamin describes the selection of the final pieces for the disc as iterative and collaborative, rather than him specifying everything from the start.

The choir was very much part of the process, getting feedback from the composers so that it was a joint journey. And as part of this, they produced a video with the composers explaining the pieces and their background.

The pieces on the disc are very varied, Clive Whitburn's Who is my neighbour is a commentary on global political issues, whilst Joanna Gill's Safe in the arms of He is a very personal, moving piece, and for Et lacrimatus est Jesus composer Margaret Tesch-Muller set herself the challenge of setting the shortest verse in the Bible.

Benjamin describes that idea of the disc as having something for everyone, and he feels that people will hear at least one piece that they like. Also, the group is hoping to convey something of the excitement the choir feels on discovering new music.

Lumen performs a wide mixture of repertoire, and the Saturday after Benjamin and I speak he is conducting the choir in a concert of Tudor anthems by candlelight. Usually, they sing a mixture of modern pieces and polyphony highlighting what Benjamin feels are the synergies and similarities between the two.

Lumen is very much an amateur choir in that the singers want to be there, and Benjamin characterises them as very curious and enquiring, whether the music is old or new. The group performs music that excites the members, and they want to introduce people to new music. The group is based at St John on Bethnal Green where it rehearses and performs.

Originally Benjamin wanted to create a choir something akin to The Sixteen but comprising amateurs, people not drawn to singing in a church or a cathedral choir. He was looking for a rehearsal venue, yet had little or no money and was lucky enough that they were able to rehearse and perform at St John's, with the concerts being free and St John's taking the money from the bar and the collection. The concerts are thus open to everyone and so the choir is part of the local community.

Lumen is not a big group, it started with eight singers, then grew to 12 and is now 16. Size does not matter to Benjamin so much as the quality of the singers, and that they enjoy it. Benjamin feels that in some ways the smaller group is more approachable to its audiences than a larger one, and with 16 singers they bring out the layers and textures of the music. And if the group occasionally overstretches itself, the singers rise to the challenge.

So they have done things like performing Howells' Collegium Regale at Evensong at St George's Chapel, Windsor (in December 2017), yet there are people in the group who do not read music. The new recording, is thus something the choir is rightly proud of.

Benjamin would love to see other groups developing the idea, of a choir providing the platform for composers via crowd-funding. And Convivium Records were encouraging and enthusiastic about the project. Benjamin has hopes there will be another disc, but it was a big job and after all, he has a day job too.

Benjamin trained as a lawyer and was a barrister for over seven years, and now works in PR and communications. He was a boy chorister and had a choral scholarship at Royal Holloway College. He read psychology and in fact, the chapel choir, directed by Lionel Pike (now Emeritus Professor of Music), was the only choral group open to the non-music students. Benjamin joined and fell in love. He feels that he was lucky to have Lionel Pike as mentor and conductor, and Benjamin aims to emulate Pike's approach including explaining the pieces to the choir

After college, Benjamin was a super-numerary at Guildford Cathedral and then whilst he was at the Bar he set up a choir, Carmen Judicibus. He finds a sense of fulfilment in his work different to that he gains from music, and the two are complementary in other ways has his firm sponsored Lumen's disc.

Lumen de Lumine - Convivium Records
Before creating Lumen, Benjamin did a lot of work in musical theatre and his arrangements and re-scoring work there gave him confidence as a composer, and in fact, there was a piece of his in Lumen's first concert. This was a setting of Paul Laurence Dunbar and Benjamin's piece on the disc Dreams is a setting of the same poet, thus bringing things full circle.

Lumen de Lumine: new sacred and spiritual choral music
Sam Olivier - There is no dusk to be
Carmen Bradford - My people hath been lost sheep
Simon Whiteley - The way of life
Benjamin Thiele-Long - Dreams
Michael Woliakowski - Beati quorum via
Matt Wetmore - O Sapientia
Brian Moles - Most glorious Lord of life
Clive Whitburn - Who is my neighbour?
Kit Graham - Lullaby
Margaret Tesch-Muller - Et lacrimatus est Jesus
Barry Hopwood - Agnus Dei; The Lord's Prayer
Joanna Gill - Safe in the arms of He
Benjamin Thiele-Long - O Nata Lux
Benjamin Thiele-Long (conductor)
Available from Amazon.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Double concerto for bandoneon and violin (★★★½) - CD review
  • The choral music of Richard Allain (★★★½) - CD review
  • Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots returns to the Paris Opera - Opera review
  • Modified Rapture: Verdi's Aida from the Met (★★★½) - Opera review
  • The Emperor's Fiddler - violinist David Irving on historical approaches on his new disc - interview
  • Schubert's Winter Journey - Robin Tritschler and Malcolm Martineau at Wigmore Hall  - (★★★★★Concert review
  • Swan songs - Gerald Finley and Julius Drake at Temple Song  (★★★★★)  - Concert review
  • Love & Obsession: Robert & Clara Schumann and Brahms at Conway Hall - concert review
  • New dance double bill from New English Ballet Theatre & The English Concert (★★★★)  - Ballet Review
  • Pared down & claustrophobic: La Tragédie de Carmen from Pop-Up Opera  (★★★) - Opera review
  • Vividly theatrical, lyrically sung, but.... - Salome at ENO  (★★★★) - Opera review
  • A forgotten tradition: premiere recordings of two English symphonic works from John Andrews & BBC Concert Orchestra (★★★½) - CD review
  • Huw Watkins - Two concertos and a symphony (★★★½) - CD review
  • Jiri Belohlavek & the Czech Philharmonic in Janacek (★★★★½) - CD review
  •  Home

Friday, 12 October 2018

Calypsos and Dancing Masters: The 13th Malcolm Arnold Festival

Sir Malcom Arnold
Sir Malcom Arnold
The 13th Malcolm Arnold Festival takes place this weekend (13 & 14 October 2018) in and around Northampton, particularly at the Royal & Derngate. Highlights of this year's festival include a concert by the BBC Concert Orchestra, conducted by Keith Lockhart, which includes Arnold's Symphony No. 4, alongside Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from West Side Story and Copland's Clarinet Concerto (with Julian Bliss), and John Andrews will be conducting a concert-performance of Arnold's one-act opera The Dancing Master with a cast which includes Charmian Bedford, Thalie Knights and Jan Capinski. 

Arnold's Symphony No.4 was commissioned by William Glock for the BBC and the composer conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra for the premiere in 1960. Arnold later wrote that the piece was a reaction to the 1958 Notting Hill race riots, the composer being appalled that such things could occur in Britain. The work includes Caribbean instruments and rhythms.

Arnold's 1952 comic opera The Dancing Master, based on a play by Wycherly, was rejected by the BBC as being 'too bawdy for a family audience'!  It was performed by Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 2015 [see my review].

Visitors to the festival this year include Northampton County Youth Orchestra, Rushden Town Band, recorder player Tabea Debus who plays Arnold's Recorder Concerto at the family concert with the Malcolm Arnold Festival Strings conducted by Hilary Davan Wetton.

Full information from the Royal & Derngate website.

Double concerto for Bandoneon and Violin

JP Jofre = Double Concerto for violin and bandoneon
JP Jofre Double concerto for violin and bandoneon; JP Jofre, Michael Guttman, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 12 October 2018 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
Striking textures and timbres in this intriguing new concerto

The bandoneon (development of the concertina) is an instrument very much associated with Astor Piazzolla, it was the composer's chosen instrument and features a lot in his music and Piazzolla even wrote a bandoneon concerto. But his espousal of the instrument has led others to it as well.

This new disc features a Double Concerto for Violin and Bandoneon by the Argentinian bandoneon player and composer JP Jofre (Juan Pablo Jofre Romarion). Commissioned by the violinist Michael Guttman, it is played on the disc by Guttman and Jofre with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. As well as the concerto, we also get three short duets for violin and bandoneon by Jofre.

The concerto is in three movements, an 'Introduction' leading to 'Allegro', 'Adagio' and then a cadenza leading to 'Milonga'. Inevitably, the ghost of Piazzolla hovers over the work, how could it not. After all, as well as playing Piazzolla's instrument, Jofre also studied with Julio Pane who had played bandoneon in the Astor Piazzolla Sextet. Perhaps Jofre's style is somewhat more lyrical and ruminative than Piazzolla's, there are dance rhythm hints here but Jofre takes quite a fluid view of rhythm and structure.

Ten years: Kings Place celebrates in style

Kings Place
Amazingly, Kings Place is ten years old and so well has the venue entered London's artistic consciousness that it feels as if it has been around for much longer. To celebrate the anniversary, Kings Place threw a party last night (11 October 2018) with artists, performers, people from the music business and members of the audience. 

There was a great deal on offer, as well as being superbly fed and watered there was a feast of entertainment too. And as with all the best parties, there was always something exciting happening elsewhere. We managed to catch Harry Christophers and the Sixteen performing Britten's Choral Dances from 'Gloriana', a responsory by John Sheppard and Tippett's Five Negro Spirituals from 'A Child of Our Time', cellist Matthew Barley and his string ensemble performing Brazilian dance music, and a set from Sonic Brew, an ensemble which included violinist Thomas Gould (on electric violin) and pianist Alex Curtis (who had also written a couple of the tunes). The music kicked off with the Royal Academy of Music Brass Ensemble playing fanfares, and the soul brass group, Brassroots played all around the atrium. There was much else besides, we managed to miss Juice Vocals, Sean Shibe and Ayanna Witter-Johnson, not to forget Ex-Easter Island Head, Denys Baptiste Trio, Ant Law |trio, Art of Moog and Kansas Smitty's House Band!

Here's to the next ten years.

Thursday, 11 October 2018

Celebrating Black History Month

Pegasus Opera Company
As part of Black History Month (which runs during October), the UK's leading multi-racial opera company Pegasus Opera (also my local opera company) is presenting a pair of performances of opera, musical theatre and African Song. On 13 October 2018, at Streatham Space Project, there is A Night with Pegasus Opera. Then on 23 October 2018, at the Assembly Room, Lambeth Town Hall, there is Celebrate Windrush: A Musical Voyage, with opera musical theatre and a Caribbean-inspired programme  which pays tribute to the Windrush generation, and there is authentic Caribbean food afterwards!

Performers include Alison Buchanan (artistic director of Pegasus Opera), Angela Caesar, Josephine Amanjwah, Adam Music, Chike Akwarandu, Keel Watson.

Alex Paxton's Noggin the Nog and the Whale

Remember Noggin the Nog? The TV series, and illustrated books, created by Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin telling the story of Noggin, who becomes King of the Nogs.

"In the lands of the North, where the Black Rocks stand guard against the cold sea, in the dark night that is very long, the Men of the Northlands sit by their great log fires and they tell a tale ... and those tales they tell are the stories of a kind and wise king and his people; they are the Sagas of Noggin the Nog. Welcome to Northlands, a tribute to Noggin, King of the Nogs and the People of the Northlands".

Young composer, Alex Paxton, has produced a community opera based on it, Noggin and the Whale with a narration by Oliver Postgate based on the T.V show. It was performed recently be massed forces including 500 children, produced by Pelican Music, and the above is a video of extracts from the performance.

Further details from Alex Paxton's website.

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Pascal Dusapin's dance opera Passion receives its UK premiere

Music Theatre Wales is joining forces with the National Dance Company of Wales to present the UK premiere of Pascal Dusapin's dance opera Passion. Performed in a new English translation by Amanda Holden, Passion will be co-directed by Michael McCarthy Artistic Director of Music Theatre Wales and Caroline Finn, Resident Choreographer of National Dance Company Wales, with Geoffrey Paterson conducting the London Sinfonietta, and Jennifer France (soprano) as Her and Johnny Herford (baritone) as Him, along with dancers from the National Dance Company of Wales and an off-stage vocal ensemble, Exaudi.

In the work Dusapin explores the pain and passion of two lovers who are forced to separate, using the myth of Orpheus as a starting point. A pupil of Iannis Xenakis and Franco Donatoni and an admirer of Varèse, Dusapin studied at the University of Paris I and Paris VIII during the 1970s and his score combines electronics with live instruments including harpsichord and oud.

Passion is being performed on a tour starting at the Anvil, Basingstoke (11 October) and continuing to the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London (13 October), Wales Millennium Centre Cardiff (23 October) Snape Maltings, Suffolk (30 October) and Lowry, Salford (6 November), ending at Theatr Clwyd, Mold on November 10.

Full details from the Music Theatre Wales website.

Choral music of Richard Allain

Richard Allain: Choral Music - Choir of Merton College - Delphian
Richard Allain choral works; choir of Merton College, Oxford, Benjamin Nicholas (conductor); Delphian
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 10 October 2018
Star rating: 3.5

Intelligent & imaginative, the choral music of contemporary composer Richard Allain

I first came across Richard Allain's music at one of Alistair Dixon's New Lamps for Old concerts with his ensemble Chapelle du Roi. For these, contemporary composers were paired with a pre-existing Renaissance or Tudor polyphonic piece and asked to write a setting of the same text. Richard and I were on the same programme, along with a variety of other composers.

Now there is a disc on the Delphian label devoted to Richard Allain's elegant and well made contemporary choral music performed by the choir of Merton College, Oxford, conducted by Benjamin Nicholas. It is, by and large, a disc of smaller-scale pieces. The longest work on the disc, Videte Miraculum, revisits the 'New Lamps for Old' concept. Commissioned by Suzi Digby and ORA, it is a response to Thomas Tallis' respond Videte Miraculum and Allain uses Tallis as a cantus firmus, surrounding it with a series of gorgeous textures.

This work very much gives a sense of Allain as a composer whose roots are in the past yet who creates his own sound-world. In Videte Miraculum we are aware of Thomas Tallis, but Allain makes his music undulate around Tallis and it is not just richly gorgeous, there are thoughtful moments too.

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Blowing the gloom away: Parry's Songs of Farewell from New College, Oxford

Parry - Songs of Farewell - Choir of New College Oxford
Parry Songs of Farewell, Mendelssohn Sechs Sprüche; Choir of New College, Oxford; novum Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 October 2018 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
Quinney and his young singers bring a beautiful clarity to Parry's elegiac work

This new disc of Hubert Parry's Songs of Farewell from Robert Quinney and the Choir of New College, Oxford, on its novum label, is based on Robert Quinney's new edition of the Songs of Farewell for Oxford University Press. The disc also includes Parry's Toccata and Fugue 'The Wanderer' , an early version of 'There is an old belief' from Songs of Farewell, and Parry's large scale anthem Hear my words, my people. But there is a surprise too, Mendelssohn's Sechs Sprüche, representing the European music which so influenced Parry.

Parry's Songs of Farewell is an elegiac work, full of thoughts of death and the transience of life, pregnant with the end of society as Parry knew it (the full set was premiered in 1919 after Parry's death, though he heard them all performed individually). To a certain extent, performing the work with a young choir takes daring. And the choir of New College is young, with trebles on the top line and the lower lines taken by students at the University. Except, that Parry used the word 'treble' for the top line in some of the autograph manuscripts, suggesting that he was thinking of a cathedral or collegiate choir rather than one with mixed voices. It is not a particularly religious work, the texts are diverse and God does not feature heavily, but the works were early on adopted by cathedral and collegiate choirs.

Monday, 8 October 2018

Les Huguenots returns to the Paris Opera

Meyerbeer: Les Huguenots - Lisette Oropesa, Paul Guy, Ermonela Jaho, Florian Sempey, Karine Deshayes - L’Opéra national de Paris (Photo Agathe Poupeney/OnP)
Meyerbeer: Les Huguenots (end of Act 3) - Lisette Oropesa, Paul Guy, Ermonela Jaho, Florian Sempey, Karine Deshayes
L’Opéra national de Paris (Photo Agathe Poupeney/OnP)
Meyerbeer Les Huguenots; Lisette Oropesa, Ermonela Jaho, Yosep Kang, Florian Sempey, Paul Guy, Karine Deshayes, dir: Andreas Kriegenburg, cond: Michele Mariotti; Paris Opera
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 7 October 2018
Meyerbeer's grand opera returns to Paris in the first new production since the 1930s

Meyerbeer: Les Huguenots - Ermonela Jaho, Yosep Kang - L’Opéra national de Paris (Photo Agathe Poupeney/OnP)
Meyerbeer: Les Huguenots (end of Act 4) - Ermonela Jaho, Yosep Kang
L’Opéra national de Paris (Photo Agathe Poupeney/OnP)
The Paris Opera is 350, so a little historical celebration is inevitable. Last year, a new production of Verdi's Don Carlos in the original 1867 version written for the Paris Opera, and next year, the greatest opera it never premiered (and ought to have), Berlioz Les Troyens.

This month (October 2018), there was a new production of the opera which effectively defined the Paris Opera in the 19th century, Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots. Between 1836 and 1936 the company gave over 1100 performances of the opera, then nothing. Until now.

Some of the silence is understandable (if not forgivable). Meyerbeer was Jewish and so clearly his music would not fit with the politics of the late 1930s, and then his style fell out of favour in the 1950s. But his operas have been steadily growing in interest again, partly thanks to some remarkable performances by smaller opera companies.

We saw the performance of Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots at the Opera Bastille on Sunday 7 October 2018. Conducted by Michele Mariotti, the production by Andreas Kriegenburg, with sets by Harald B. Thor, costumes by Tanja Hofmann and lighting by Andreas Gruter, featured Lisette Oropesa (replacing Diana Damrau) as Marguerite de Valois, Yosep Kang  (replacing Bryan Hymel) as Raoul de Nangis, Ermonela Jaho as Valentine, Nicolas Teste as Marcel, Karine Deshayes as Urbain, Florian Sempey as le Comte de Nevers and Paul Gay as le Comte de Saint-Bris.

Meyerbeer: Les Huguenots - Nicolas Teste - L’Opéra national de Paris (Photo Agathe Poupeney/OnP)
Meyerbeer: Les Huguenots Act 1 - Nicolas Teste
L’Opéra national de Paris (Photo Agathe Poupeney/OnP)
The version used was expansive, no ballet but still three hours 50 minutes of music, five hours in the theatre, and the characters take time to reveal themselves (we do not hear properly from the heroine, Valentine, until the third act). But librettist Eugene Scribe was a master and each of the first four acts ends with a cliff-hanger, and you could see where Verdi and his librettists got the structure for Don Carlos from.

Meyerbeer was Jewish (he never converted, and to the end of his life he still counted in Hebrew), in a society that was innately anti-Semitic. In his two finest operas, Les Huguenots and Le Prophete, he used historical religious intolerance to hold a mirror up to society, and one of the reasons why the operas have retained their toe-hold in the repertoire is that they still hold the same mirror up to modern society.

Les Huguenots uses the French religious wars of the 16th century as its background, with the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre as its climax. When Les Huguenots was produced at Le Monnaie in Brussels in 2011 by Olivier Py, the production was quite dark, and it is this historical background which is important in the opera. Against it, Meyerbeer places the emotional and moral dilemmas of the protagonists.

Andreas Kriegenburg's production in Paris used the confection of setting it in the future, but Tanja Hofmann's costumes were effectively 19th-century style outfits, plus ruffs, for the aristocrats and vaguely Medieval for with contemporary details for the peasants. Against Harald B. Thor's brilliant white sets, these costumes gave the piece a modish cross-period look with a strong 1970s retro look. Thor's multi-level set worked well, but the bright white soon palled. Satisfactory as a back-drop for the lighter first two acts, with Andreas Gruter's candy-coloured lighting, you really wanted (but didn't get) something darker for the final three acts.

Modified Rapture: Verdi's 'Aida' from the Met

Verdi: Aida - Metropolitan Opera (Photo Metropolitan Opera)
Verdi: Aida - Metropolitan Opera (Photo Metropolitan Opera)
Verdi Aida; Anna Netrebko, Anita Rachvelishvili, Aleksandrs Antonenko, dir Sonja Frisell; Metropolitan Opera Live in HD at the Barbican Cinema
Reviewed by Anthony Evans on 6 October 2018
Star rating: 4.5

Putting the grand into Grand Opera, the Met's 30 year-old Aida returns striking as ever with a strong cast

Over the years a certain type of monumental stand and sing Opera has attracted some sniffy opprobrium from some quarters. I’m not sure I’d want to survive entirely on a diet of the sort of stuff Verona has been pumping out for the last 100 years either, but there’s clearly still an appetite for the shows that put the grand in Grand Opera. Screen 1 at the Barbican was packed to see the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Verdi's Aida, surely the epitome of Grand Opera, broadcast live on Saturday 7 October 2018.

At Saturday’s performance Anna Netrebko sang Aida with Anita Rachvelishvili as Amneris. Aleksandrs Antonenko’s Radames completed the love triangle. The kings of Ethiopia and Egypt were Quinn Kelsey and Ryan Speedo Green with Dmitry Belosselskiy as the High Priest Ramfis. Nicola Luisotti was conducting.

Sonja Frisell’s production is now celebrating its thirtieth anniversary. The colossal sets are certainly spectacular and the technology that allows a seamless move from the grand to the intimate remains impressive even now.

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