Saturday, 16 February 2019

Love songs in Temple Church: Brahms and Schumann

Johannes Brahms at the piano
Johannes Brahms at the piano
Brahms Liebeslieder Walzer, Schumann Spanisches Liebeslieder; Gemma Summerfield, Fleur Barron, James Way, Julien van Mellaerts, James Drake, Stacey Bartsch; Temple Song at Temple Church Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 14 February 2019 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
Brahms and Schumann love songs for Valentine's Day, in the grand setting of Temple Church

To celebrate Valentine's Day (14 February 2019), Temple Music Foundation presented a programme of love songs at Temple Church, with Gemma Summerfield (soprano), Fleur Barron (mezzo-soprano), James Way (tenor), Julien van Mellaerts (baritone), Julius Drake and Stacey Bartsch (piano) in Brahms' Liebeslieder Op.52 and Neue Liebeslieder Op.65, and Schumann's Spanische Liebeslieder Op.138. Whilst Schumann's cycle, written in 1849, is often seen as one of the inspirations for Brahms' two sets of waltzes (1869 and 1875), the sets are rather different with Brahms creating a sequence of waltzes mainly for an ensemble of four voices, and Schumann effectively writing a song-cycle for multiple voices with all four coming only at the end.

Brahms love song waltzes are remarkably good tempered, there is little anguish here and Richard Stokes in his article in the programme book suggests that one of their inspirations was Brahms 'timid but intense' love for Clara Schumann's daughter Julie (who went on to become engaged to someone else later in 1869). Whilst Brahms would develop great admiration for the waltzes of Johann Strauss II (the two became friends later in the 1870s and Brahms would write a counter-melody for one of Strauss' waltzes), the inspiration for the Liebeslieder Walzer is closer to Schubert's Ländler (a folk dance which was an early predecessor of the waltz), 20 of which Brahms arranged for piano duet.

Whilst the Op.52 Liebeslieder were still in manuscript they were performed as piano duets (without voices) at Clara Schumann's, and with voices at the conductor Hermann Levi's, and Brahms himself was undecided as to how to describe them, ultimately the Op.52 set would be published as Waltzes for piano, four hands (and optional voices). Whilst later performances have expanded the vocal contribution to a choir, an ensemble of four voices seems more in keeping with the work's domestic origins. For all the brilliance of Brahms' writing, these are songs to be sung round the parlour piano.

It was perhaps unfortunate that the concert was presented in the rich acoustic of Temple Church, rather than in the more intimate surroundings of Middle Temple Hall.

An obsession with Norse myths: composer Gavin Higgins introduces his new opera The Monstrous Child

The Monstrous Child - Gavin Higgins & Francesca Simon - Royal Opera House
The Monstrous Child is a new opera by composer Gavin Higgins and librettist Francesca Simon which premieres at the Royal Opera House's Linbury Studio (the first opera in the newly re-furbished theatre) on 21 February 2019, conducted by Jessica Cottis with Marta Fontanals-Simmons in the title role. A first opera for both Higgins and Simon, the text is adapted from Simon's own darkly humorous book, The Monstrous Child, written for teenagers and young adults. I recently met up with Gavin in a break from rehearsals to find out more about the opera and about how it came about.

Francesca Simon is the author of the Horrid Henry books, but she has also written three books for teenagers inspired by Norse mythology, including The Monstrous Child. Gavin had read the book and felt that it was 'very operatic', and co-incidentally he describes himself as 'obsessed with Norse mythology'. He finds the world of the Norse myths so very different to that of the Greek ones, which he describes as feeling very privileged whereas the Norse gods are prone to more human traits such as dying.

Francesca did not know much about opera, so she and Gavin went to see a few and Francesca quickly grasped that the libretto had to create something very like a picture book. For Gavin, a libretto should not be too poetic or too flowery and not too long, and in Francesca Simon he found a brilliant librettist. In fact, the two spoke virtually every day over the two and half years that it took to create the opera. But Gavin was realistic about the music too, taking care to not get in the way of the words at important moments.

Gavin Higgins
Gavin Higgins
But of course, there is a long journey to take from having an idea about an opera to getting it commissioned and performed.

Friday, 15 February 2019

Delightful harmonies: Carl Czerny's arrangement of Beethoven's Septet

Boxwood and Brass - Takako Kunugi, Fiona Mitchell, Anneke Scott, Kate Goldsmith, Robert Percival, Emily Worthington (Photo Tom Bowles)
Boxwood and Brass - Takako Kunugi, Fiona Mitchell, Anneke Scott, Kate Goldsmith, Robert Percival, Emily Worthington
(Photo Tom Bowles)
Beethoven/Czerny Septet, arranged for harmonie sextet; Boxwood and Brass; St john's Smith Square Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 14 February 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Period instruments bring a lovely range of colours to a contemporary arrangement of Beethoven's Septet

In 1805, Beethoven asked his former pupil Carl Czerny to make the piano reduction of his opera Leonore. Czerny was in fact only 14, but he had had lessons from Beethoven in 1802 and 1803. Also dating from 1805 is a version of Beethoven's Septet (for a mixed ensemble of wind and strings) arranged by Czerny for Harmoniemusik, wind sextet. The background to the arrangement is unclear, but the timing makes it suggestive that Czerny was working to a commission from Beethoven.

At St John's Smith Square's lunchtime concert on Thursday 14 February 2019, Boxwood and Brass (Emily Worthington, Fiona Mitchell, Anneke Scott, Kate Goldsmith, Robert Percival, Takako Kunugi) gave us the chance to hear Beethoven's Septet in Carl Czerny's arrangement for two clarinets, two horns, and two bassoons.

Boxwood and Brass is an ensemble that specialises in performing wind chamber music and Harmoniemusik of the classical and early-Romantic periods. Harmoniemusik is the name given to a very particular genre of German and Austrian music written, or arranged, for a wind ensemble based around clarinets, oboes, bassoons and horns. [see my interview with Boxwood and Brass's Emily Worthington and Robert Percival for a full discussion of Harmoniemusik]. It was very popular in the period, and Czerny's arrangement of the Septet would probably have been done with a view to increasing the popularity of an already popular work (Beethoven himself made an arrangement of the Septet for clarinet, cello and piano).

Thursday, 14 February 2019

A celebration of cooperation between musicians at different stages of their careers and the value of music education

Mahler 9 - Seraphin Chamber Orchestra
The Seraphin Chamber Orchestra, founded by cellist and composer Joy Lisney, is made up of talented young musicians studying in Cambridge. On Sunday 3 March 2019 the orchestra is embarking on a hugely ambitious project, a performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 9 at West Road Concert Hall 

The orchestra will be joined by the best Cambridge University players, select graduate students from leading conservatoires, talented young musicians from the Cambridge area (National Youth Orchestra principals and BBC Young Musician finalists) and guest players from professional orchestras including Paul Barritt (guest Leader of the Hallé), Michael Wright (ex-principal clarinet of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra), Michael Buchanan (trombone, winner of the ARD Munich Competition and previously principal of the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester and Scottish National Opera), and Colin Alexander (cellist, BBC Symphony Orchestra).

Prior to the evening performance, the guest players will rehearse with the orchestra, offering mentoring and coaching to the young players. This is a wonderful opportunity for aspiring young musicians to learn from and perform alongside leading professionals and represents an important musical and educational collaboration.

This concert is a celebration of cooperation between musicians at different stages of their careers and the value of music education.

All proceeds from the concert will go to the Voices Foundation. Further information and tickets from ADC Ticketing.

Guildhall School's Gold Medal prize 2019

Pianist Joon Yoon receiving the Guildhall School GOld Medal in 2018
Pianist Joon Yoon receiving the Guildhall School Gold Medal in 2018
The finalists for the Guildhall School of Music's 2019 Gold Medal prize will be Ema Nikolovska (Mezzo-Soprano), William Thomas (Baritone), Samantha Clarke (Soprano), and James Newby (Baritone), and on Friday 10 May 2019 each finalist will perform a short programme accompanied by pianists Dylan Perez, Michael Pandya and Panaretos Kyriatzidis, followed by a second half of arias with Guildhall Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Richard Farnes. 

The judges this year will be Sir Bryn Terfel (Guildhall School alumnus and winner of the 1989 Gold Medal), mezzo-soprano Ann Murray DBE, Jonathan Vaughan (Guildhall School’s Vice-Principal & Director of Music), Richard Farnes and Kevin Murphy (Director, Coaching & Music Administration for Indiana University Opera Theatre and Director, Singers’ Programme at Ravinia Steans Music Institute).

Operatic excerpts being performed include Gounod's Romeo et Juliette, Britten's The Rape of Lucretia), Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito and Così fan tutte, Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia, Rachmaninov's Aleko, Puccini's La bohème, Stravinsky's The Rake’s Progress, and Mascagni's Le Maschere, plus Handel's Apollo e Dafne, and music by Richard Strauss, Mussorgsky, Mahler

  • Ema Nikolovska is the winner of the Guildhall Wigmore Prize with pianist Dylan Perez (resulting in a debut evening recital at Wigmore Hall on 18 May, 2019), and her recent performances have included the Oxford Lieder Festival and a Schubert Lieder recital with Malcolm Martineau in Berlin’s Pierre Boulez Saal. 
  • William Thomas' roles have included Malcolm Williamson's English Eccentrics with British Youth Opera [see my review]. 
  • Samanatha Clarke's roles have included Anne Trulove in Stravinsky's The Rake’s Progress with British Youth Opera [see my review] and she will be singing in Georgiana at Buxton International Festival, Musetta in La Bohème with Opera North. 
  • James Newby's performances have included Count Almaviva in Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro for Nevill Holt Opera and a staged Bach St John Passion with Bilbao Orkestra Sinfonikoa, directed by Calixto Bieito. James will be singing my song cycle Winter Journey and Butterworth's A Shropshire Lad at Conway Hall on Sunday 5 May 2019 [see Conway Hall website].

Full details from the Guildhall School website.

Verdi in Oman: La Traviata at the Royal Opera House, Muscat

The Royal Opera House, Muscat
The Royal Opera House, Muscat
Verdi La Traviata; Kristina Mkhitaryan, Arturo Chacón Cruz, Plácido Domingo, dir: Marta Domingo, Orchestra and Chorus Teatro Massimo di Palermo, cond: Domingo Hindoyan; Royal Opera House, Muscat Reviewed by Anthony Evans on 9 February 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A sparkling Kristina Mkhitaryan rescues a performance by numbers

Royal Opera House, Muscat
The Royal Opera House, Muscat
What to do after a day lounging in the sun on the Omani coast? I know it’s a filthy job but somebody’s got to do it. Turns out, if you are of a mind, you can hie thee to the technical marvel that is the Royal Opera House, Muscat. The multiform theatre can transform from an intimate 1,100 seat opera house into an 850-seat shoebox-style concert hall with the push of a button. It’s impressive. This modern Omani palace of limestone and stucco rises from the craggy desert surroundings sparkling in the twilight. The interior replete with teak panelling and marble draws its visitors towards the grand staircase and into the auditorium.

The performance at the Royal Opera House, Muscat on Saturday 9 February 2019 was a production of Verdi's La Traviata with a long history. It premiered at the Opera Royal de Wallonia in 1997, a co-production with Washington and Los Angeles Opera. Now a Royal Opera Muscat production with the orchestra and chorus of the Teatro Massimo di Palermo, it was lent some star power by Placido Domingo as papa Germont. The tragic heroine was sung by the Russian soprano Kristina Mkhitaryan with the Swiss-Mexican tenor Arturo Chacón Cruz as Alfredo and Irish-Canadian mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta as Flora. It was conducted by Domingo Hindoyan and directed by Marta Domingo.

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Ealing Music and Film Festival

London Mozart Players
London Mozart Players
The seventh Ealing Music and Film Festival opened today (13 February 2019) and runs until 17 February, with film screenings and concerts covering all genres. London Mozart Players (which turns 70 this year) and Tamsin Little will be performing Roxanna Panufnik's World Seasons with music by Mozart, Vivaldi, Elgar and Tchaikovsky at the University of West London (14/2/2019), Ealing Youth Orchestra, conductor Leon Gee, is joined by members of the London Mozart Players with the 2018 BBC Young Musician, Lauren Zhang, performing Prokofiev and Berlioz, plus The Spark Catchers by young local composer Hannah Kendall (15/2/2019), West London Sinfonia, conductor Philip Hesketh, will be performing Dvorak and Khachaturian alongside Nathaniel Stookey's The composer is dead with local actor Christopher Kent as narrator (16/2/2019).

The final day of the festival features two concerts at the University of West London, from the Love2Sing choir, conductor Elizabeth Lusty, and a showcase performance by students from the London College of Music and its Junior College.

There are also jazz events, plus a showing of the 1979 film Quadrophenia. Full details from the Ealing Music and Film Festival website.

Youth shines: Savitri Grier in Elgar's Violin Concerto

Savitri Grier (Photo Kaupo Kikkas)
Savitri Grier (Photo Kaupo Kikkas)
Holst, Elgar, Bridge; Savitri Grier, Salomon Orchestra, James Henshaw Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 12 February 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A young soloist shines in Elgar's rhapsodic concerto, part of a fine all-British programme

Though Elgar's Violin Concerto never really disappeared out of the repertoire completely, during the period after the 1950s its popularity rather dipped and it seems to have held a tenuous hold thanks mainly to UK-based violinists. I remember hearing it performed by The Halle in Manchester in 1974, a continuation of the orchestra's long Elgar tradition when, instead of a major national or international soloist, it was performed by the orchestra's leader Martin Milner. The work's come-back, in terms of international stature, seems to date from the 1980s when Kyung-Wha Chung took up the work and I remember her performing it at the Royal Festival Hall. Since then the violin concerto has returned to its place alongside other major late-Romantic concertos.

I imagine that the young violinist Savitri Grier (she completed here Artist Diploma at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 2017) is probably unaware of this back history and her performance of the solo part in Elgar's Violin Concerto alongside the Salomon Orchestra and conductor James Henshaw, in their concert on 12 February 2019 at St John's Smith Square, is a heartening reflection of how the concerto has been taken to players' hearts. It is a large piece, and a taxing one, yet constantly delights and intrigues. Salomon and Henshaw placed the work last in an all British programme, starting with a pair of works which do not get the exposure they deserve, Gustav Holst's Fugal Overture and Frank Bridge's Suite: The Sea.

From play to opera: Marlowe's Edward II and Benjamin & Crimp's Lessons in Love & Violence

Marlowe: Edward II - Tom Stuart & Beru Tessema in rehearsal - Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (Photo Marc Brenner)
Marlowe: Edward II - Tom Stuart & Beru Tessema in rehearsal - Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (Photo Marc Brenner)
What is the difference between an opera and a play (apart from the obvious). This thought came to me as we caught Christopher Marlowe's Edward II, the second performance of the run at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at The Globe, on 8 February 2019, having seen George Benjamin and Martin Crimp's opera inspired by the play, Lessons in Love and Violence, at the Royal Opera House in 2018 [see my review].

At the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse on Friday, Nick Bagnall's production featured Tom Stuart as King Edward II, Beru Tessema as Piers Gaveston and Katie West as Queen Isabella, part of a ten-person ensemble, with music by Bill Barclay.

Crimp's libretto for Benjamin's opera takes the essentials of its plot from Marlowe's play, but with any sense of historical detail removed. Both works have a moral lesson at their heart, that Edward II concentrates on his love for Gaveston at the expense of ruling his country is the fundamental issue, it is Edward's character which is important rather than the specifics of his same-sex relationship.

There are major differences between the opera and the play of course, but I found myself (somewhat unsuccessfully, I must admit) trying a thought experiment, imagine Marlowe's play performed in Katie Mitchell's modish modern production as used in the opera, and Benjamin's opera performed in the traditional  Jacobean style of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.
Benjamin: Lessons in Love and Violence - Stéphane Degout and Gyula Orendt - Royal Opera (© 2018 ROH. Photograph by Stephen Cummiskey)
Benjamin: Lessons in Love and Violence - Stéphane Degout & Gyula Orendt
Royal Opera (© 2018 ROH. Photograph by Stephen Cummiskey)

Tuesday, 12 February 2019

Ekele: A Celebration of African Art Music

Rebeca Omordia - Ekele
Pianist Rebeca Omordia is curating a concert series Ekele: A Celebration of African Art Music at the October Gallery, 24 Old Gloucester St, Bloomsbury, London WC1N 3AL. A collaboration between Omordia and AMI5 (Institute of Art & Music), the series explores African Art Music, a richly diverse genre of music, that developed in West Africa (Ghana and Nigeria), and straddles the bridge between some musical systems developed in Western Classical music on the one hand and elements from traditional music from Africa, on the other. The concert series is dedicated to the spirit of composer/ musicologist Fela Sowande (29.5.1905-13.3.1987).

Omordia opens the series on 13 February 2019, with a piano recital of music by Ayo Bankole, Fred Onovwerosuoke, Akin Euba and Christian Onyeji which is linked to Omordia's recent CD of African Art Music [see my interview with Omordia to learn more about the musica and the composers].

Further ahead Victoria Oruwari, soprano & Adam Heron, piano perform music by Ayo Bankole, Laz Ekwueme and Akin Euba alongside music by the London-based Jamaican-born composer Shirley Thompson (30/3/2019), Leon Bosch, double bass & Rebeca Omordia, piano explore The South African Double Bass (2/5/2019) and Adam Heron, piano, explores African Pianism (20/6/2019).

Further information from EventBrite.

Composers announced for Wild Plum Songbook

Pictured clockwise from top left: Ella Jarman-Pinto; Janet Oates; Kate Marlais; Lisa Robertson; Rose Miranda Hall; Sarah Lianne Lewis.
Pictured clockwise from top left: Ella Jarman-Pinto; Janet Oates; Kate Marlais; Lisa Robertson; Rose Miranda Hall; Sarah Lianne Lewis.
Six composers from across the UK have been selected take part in Wild Plum Songbook, a new career development initiative from Wild Plum Arts, artistic director Lucy Shauffer, in partnership with the Performing Rights Society and the Cheltenham Music Festival. Composers Ella Jarman-Pinto, Janet Oates, Kate Marlais, Lisa Robertson, Rose Miranda Hall and Sarah Lianne Lewis will take part in practical workshops where they will receive feedback from composers Joanna Lee and Errollyn Wallen, as well as the opportunity to have their works recorded by mezzo-soprano singer, Rachael Lloyd and pianist Lana Bode.

Wild Plum Arts and Cheltenham Music Festival will commission one of the works from the workshops to be premiered during Cheltenham Music Festival’s Composium – a new one-day industry-wide event for composers, publishers, music industry leaders and influencers. The chosen work will also be included in the Wild Plum Songbook, a growing portfolio of newly-commissioned works.

Further details from the Wild Plum Arts website.

A romantic at heart: I chat to violinist Sarah Chang about her forthcoming Cadogan Hall recital

Sarah Chang (Photo Cliff Watt)
Sarah Chang (Photo Cliff Watt)
The violinist Sarah Chang is no stranger to London audiences but her recital at Cadogan Hall (13 February 2019) will only be her second chamber music recital appearance in the city, as she and pianist Ashley Wass perform Bartok's Romanian Dances, Brahms' Violin Sonata No. 3 and Franck Violin Sonata. When I met her yesterday, just before she started rehearsing, she commented that she has been performing in London since she was nine years old, and her only other chamber music recital here was ten or fifteen years ago. In fact, Sarah does not perform as much chamber music as she would like, over 90 per cent or her engagements are concertos.

Happy to be back in London, Sarah was looking forward to performing a programme of music which means a lot to her. She loves both the Brahms and the Franck sonatas, finding them profoundly beautiful and comments that it was Jacqueline du Pre's recording of the Franck (in a transcription for cello) which first moved her and which she still treasures. For the opening work she wanted something a little bit different, and chose Bartok's Romanian Dances, creating a programme which she feels is both fun and intellectual.

In chamber music you are far more exposed

Whether playing concertos or chamber music, the core of Sarah's repertoire is late 19th and early 20th century music, essential Romantic. When I suggest this to her, she laughs and admits that she is a Romantic at heart. Concertos by Tchaikovsky, Sibelius and Brahms are the bread and butter of what she grew up with, works which tug at the heart strings. The sonatas by Brahms and Franck which she will be playing at Cadogan Hall are in a similar vein, but for Sarah the performance will be very different because in chamber music you are far more exposed, rather than having an orchestra on stage there is just you and your duo partner.

Yet playing chamber music also enables her to play in a different way. There is no longer the need to power over the orchestra, and she can fine her tone right down. Playing with a duo partner she can be as delicate and as intimate as she wishes to be.

Monday, 11 February 2019

Schnittke's Choir Concerto is coming

Two choirs join together to give a performance of one of the great choral masterpieces of the 20th century, Alfred Schnittke's Choir Concerto. London Concord Singers and the East London Chorus, conducted by Jessica Norton, will be performing Schnittke's Choir Concerto on Saturday 13 April 2019 at St Pancras Parish Church, Euston Road, London, NW1 2BA.

Written in 1984-85 the Choir Concerto sets texts drawn from The Book of Lamentations by the Armenian mystic and poet, Saint Gregory of Narek. The music is based on traditional harmony and melodic formualae of Russian Orthodox Chant, but Schnittke uses his large choir to create richly evocative textures full of Schnittke's personal musical language. Lasting 40 minutes, the Choir Concerto is modelled on the choral concertos by 18th century Russian composers which influenced the choral music of Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky.

Further information from EventBrite.

A sense of home: Wigmore Hall learning festival

A Sense of Home: Wigmore Hall learning festival
Wigmore Hall's Learning Festival returns to the hall from 12 to 26 February 2019 and highlights include an interactive family concert with the violinist Nicola Benedetti and presenter Lucy Drever inspired by landscapes, stories and people from across the UK(16/2/2019), a gala concert with soprano Ailish Tynan, baritone Benjamin Appl and pianist Iain Burnside with songs by Peter Cornelius, Frederic Cowen, Elgar, Schubert, Ives, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Arthur Somervell, Victor Hely Hutchinson and more (18/2/2019) and a multi-sensory sound and art installation (18/2/2019).

Other events include a Big Sing! workshop day (12/2/2019), the Diaphonous Duo, Michael Iskas viola & Iñigo Mikeleiz Berrade accordion, appearing at the early evening Bechstein Session (12/2/2019), a relaxed concert with soprano Soraya Mafi and pianist Ian Tindale (21/2/2019) and Nicola Benedetti returns on 26 February 2019 with a pair of schools concerts.

For 25 years, Wigmore Hall's Learning programme has focused on creating innovative creative projects which ensure that every voice is heard and equally valued, transforming the Hall into a place where many people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities feel a sense of home. The Sense of Home Festival unites all the Learning programme’s groups, workshops, partner schools and events in a major two-week celebration based in the Hall.

Applications to become a 2019 City Music Foundation Artist are now open

2018 CMF Artists © Benjamin Ealovega
2018 City Music Foundation Artists © Benjamin Ealovega
Applications open today (11 February 2019) for artists who wish to become City Music Foundation (CMF) Artists for 2019. Applications are welcomed from classical, jazz, folk, and world musicians – both soloists and ensembles – to join CMF's two-year Artist Programme.

Starting in September 2019, those selected for the scheme will enjoy:
  • A series of tailored Professional Development Workshops with topics including tax and financial management, networking, presentation skills, contracts and legal issues, agents, PR, social media, pitching to venues and festivals, programming, and much more
  • Business Mentoring from senior business-people through collaborations with City firms
  • Artistic Mentoring from established, acclaimed international performers, including opportunities for collaboration in performance
  • Performance Opportunities in CMF-produced events, festivals, and residencies
  • Promotional Tools such as high-quality photos, a bespoke website, videos, and professional recording
  • Day-to-day access to the Artist Manager, who works like an agent to secure live concert bookings and media appearances
  • Additional Support with individual projects and commissioning

The deadline for applications is Wednesday 3rd April 2019, 12pm.
Apply here:

Current and previous CMF Artists include A4 Brass Quartet, Lotte Betts-Dean (mezzo-soprano), Tabea Debus (recorders), Foyle-Štšura Duo (violin & piano), Andrey Lebedev (guitar), Ligeti Quartet, Misha Mullov-Abbado (jazz double bass), and Emily Sun (violin).

CMF’s mission is to turn exceptional musical talent into professional success by equipping outstanding musicians with the tools, skills, experience, and networks necessary for building and sustaining rewarding and profitable careers.

Sunday, 10 February 2019

A jolly good show: Verdi's 'Un ballo in maschera' at WNO

Verdi: Un ballo in maschera - Welsh National Opera - (Photo © Bill Cooper)
Verdi: Un ballo in maschera - Welsh National Opera - (Photo © Bill Cooper)
Verdi Un ballo in maschera; Mary Elizabeth WIlliams, Gwyn Hughes Jones, Roland Wood, Sara Fulgoni, dir: David Pountney, cond: Carlo Rizzo; Welsh National Opera at the Wales Millennium Centre Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 9 February 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
David Pountney's vividly theatrical if diffuse production, redeemed by superb singing

In his article in the programme book for Welsh National Opera's Spring 2019 season, David Pountney talks about the disparate elements that influenced Verdi's opera Un ballo in maschera from the Gothick to Meyerbeerian grand opera, and elsewhere in the programme book an article talks about how steeped in the theatre King Gustav III was. All these elements seem to have gone into the company's new production.

Welsh National Opera opened their Spring 2019 season at the Wales Millennium Centre on Saturday 9 February 2019, in the presence of the company's patron HRH the Prince of Wales, with the second of the planned Verdi trilogy directed by David Pountney, Un ballo in maschera, with set designs by Raimund Bauer and costumes by Marie-Jeanne Lecca, the production featured Gwyn Hughes Jones as Riccardo, Mary Elizabeth Williams as Amelia, Roland Wood as Renato, Julie Martin du Theil as Oscar, and Sara Fulgoni as Ulrica, conducted by Carlo Rizzi.

Pountney's interest in the Gothick elements in Un ballo in maschera brought out the theme of death, which inevitably hangs over the opera. The performance opened with a coup, Oscar (Julie Martin du Theil) and Ulrica (Sara Fulgoni) mourning on Riccardo's catafalque, with the courtiers in attendance. Then part of the coffin lid lifted up and a hand waved. This introduced us to the dark humour and skittishness of Riccardo's court. The designs by Raimund Bauer were visually striking, all black and red, with huge screens with openings in them, which moved around the stage. And Marie-Jeanne Lecca's 18th century punk costumes were similarly visually stimulating.

Verdi: Un ballo in maschera -  Gwyn Hughes Jones, Roland Wood, Mary Elizabeth Williams - Welsh National Opera - (Photo © Bill Cooper)
Verdi: Un ballo in maschera -  Gwyn Hughes Jones, Roland Wood, Mary Elizabeth Williams
Welsh National Opera - (Photo © Bill Cooper)
Pountney seemed to play up the disparate elements that make up Verdi's score, so that the conspirators had a comic element to them, yet Mary Elizabeth Williams' Amelia and Roland Wood's Renato were treated entirely seriously. There was something positively light-hearted about Act One, with the concluding hymn being something of a romp (rather naughtily it struck me that sets and costumes might usefully be re-cycled as a rather good production of Gilbert & Sullivan's Ruddigore). Sara Fulgoni's Ulrica was present from the outset, and seemed something of a presiding genius throughout the opera. Her scene in Act One was very much a brilliant theatrical performance, we saw her preparations during the scene's opening chorus sung by a group of women who were all catastrophically 'wounded' with swords, daggers and axes plunging out of them.

Saturday, 9 February 2019

From the Pens of Women: Kitty Whately on her forthcoming Wigmore Hall recital & the challenges of bringing music by women composers to the fore

Kitty Whately (Photo Natalie J Watts)
Kitty Whately (Photo Natalie J Watts)
From the Pens of Women is the name that mezzo-soprano Kitty Whately and pianist Simon Lepper have given to their BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime recital at Wigmore Hall on Monday 18 February 2019. they are performing songs setting poems by Ursula Vaughan Williams, Virginia Woolf, Edna St Vincent Millay and Margaret Atwood, in songs by Jonathan Dove, RVW, Judith Cloud, Lori Laitman, Dominick Argento, Rebecca Clarke and Juliana Hall. I met up with Kitty recently, in a gap between rehearsals, to find out more about the programme, and talk about how she is responding to the challenges of performing more music by women composers. And also to look ahead to hear apperance in Bernard Hermann's Wuthering Heights, a piece with a text from the pen of another woman, Emily Bronte.

Margaret Atwood (Photo Jean Malek)
Margaret Atwood (Photo Jean Malek)
One of the poets included in
From the Pens of Women
Kitty is one of the founders of SWAP'ra (Supporting Women and Parents in Opera), whose mission statement says it was 'established to redress unconscious gender bias and to provide a supportive platform to effect positive change for women and parents in opera.'. In her own recitals Kitty is keen to address the issue, and so is aiming to programme in a way which balances the genders. So From the Pens of Women, includes songs to texts by women and four of the composers are women.

Another emphasis in the programme is on the contemporary, with five living composers including Jonathan Dove, whose songs Kitty has recorded, and the distinguished American opera composer Dominick Argento. Margaret Atwood is one of Kitty's favourite poets, so she was very pleased to discover settings of Atwood's poetry by two female American composers, Judith Cloud, and Lori Laitman, along with another American composer, Juliana Hall, setting Edna St Vincent Millay. These are joined by RVW (setting poems by his wife Ursula) and songs by RVW's pupil, Rebecca Clarke.

Kitty intends that this is the way her own recitals are going to be in future, with a nice balance of genders. But of course, with the lack of prominence for women composers comes the difficulty of learning about and acquiring their music. This is one of the issues that SWAP'ra plans to work on, and they want to initiate a research project to dig out operas by female composers from libraries and make them more known, to bring them into the light. Though of course, this will need funding.

This initiative comes because though SWAP'ra is keen to encourage the opera industry to perform more music by women, they are aware of the huge amount of work that it requires to seek out and edit the works to create performing material that opera companies can use. Kitty feels that this sort of positive action is the only way we can change things, and points out that on International Women's Day last year the Southbank Centre hosted a Wikipedia marathon, with volunteers creating Wikipedia pages for ignored female composers.

It is now far more acceptable for a woman to be a composer, so there are plenty of works by contemporary female composers. Yet Kitty feels that the contemporary style of music is not necessarily easy for listening for those unused to it, or if it is easier to listen to it is dismissed as cheesy and swept under the carpet. So there is a long way to go before singers can easily plan recitals with a good gender balance.

Friday, 8 February 2019

Black Composers Series - 1974-1978

The Black COmposers Series - Sony Classical
Black Composers Series 1974-78; Sony Classical Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 8 February 2019
The pioneering recordings of two centuries of music by Black composers, originally issued on vinyl in 1970s

This is very much a labour of love, a 10 CD set on Sony Classical which re-issues recordings which originally came out on vinyl on Columbia Records in the 1970s documenting two centuries of music by Black composers. Originally made thanks to a collaboration between the Afro-America Music Opportunities Association and Columbia Records, the recordings cast their net quite widely with music by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799), Jose Mauricio Nunes Garcia (1767-1830), Jose White Lafitte (1836-1918), Samuel Coleridge Taylor (1875-1912), William Grant Still (1895-1978), Fela Sowande (1905-1987), Ulysses Kay (1917-1995), Roque Cordero (1917-2008), George Walker (1922-2018), Hale Smith (1925-2009), Thomas Jefferson Anderson (born 1928), David Baker (1931-2016), Olly Wilson (1937-2018), Talib Rasul Hakim (1940-1998), and Adolphus Hailstork (born 1941), performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, all conducted by Paul Freeman, Juilliard String Quartet, Morgan State College Choir, Miriam Fried, Jaime Laredo, Sanford Allen, Aaron Reid violins, Faye Robinson soprano, Doralene Davis soprano, Betty Allen mezzo-soprano, William Brown tenor, Matti Tuloisela bass baritone, Janos Starker cello, Alain Planes, Richard Bunger, Natalie Hinderas piano and Denis Wick trombone.

As can be seen from the above list, the recordings did not stint on the performers and the discs include some significant ensembles and names from the period; there is little to complain about in the standard of recording. Whilst, if the collection was made today we might make a different selection of composers, it has to be admitted that the organisers have cast their nets quite widely with composers from the UK, France, Cuba, Panama, Nigeria as well as the USA. Perhaps the most significant omission is that of Black women composers, not even Florence Price. Wikipedia currently lists 29 composers in its African-American female composers category, but I suspect that this knowledge is rather recent. When I interviewed Shirley Thompson [see my interview] she was candid about the lack of representation on the classical music courses as a woman of colour, something which is now only gradually changing.

So, these discs are very much a snapshot. Sony's presentation reflects this, each CD is a copy of the original disc and comes in a sleeve which reproduces the original vinyl disc sleeve (so you need good eyesight or glasses to read the original sleeve notes). This means that each disc comes in at around 40 plus minutes, but preserves the original presentation. The discs are not recorded chronologically, so there is something delightfully serendipitous about the listening experience.

And the embarassing this is, despite these recordings being in the public domain for over 40 years, many of the composers were names that were new to me.

A trio of premieres and a trio premiere from the Britten Sinfonia.

Edmund Finnis
Edmund Finnis
The Britten Sinfonia's At Lunch concert series features a pair of world premieres in the next couple of months. During February the ensemble gives the first performance of Edmund Finnis' Piano Trio, a co-commission with the Wigmore Hall, at performances at West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge (12/2/2019), Wigmore Hall (13/2/2019) and St Andrew's Hall, Norwich (15/2/2019).

The programme which also includes music by Bach, Martinu, Janacek and Messiaen performed by Emer McDonough (flute), Thomas Gould (violin), Caroline Dearnley (cello) and Huw Watkins (piano). Edmund Finnis will be discussing his new work in a pre-concert event before the Wigmore Hall performance.

Robert Singer © Yony Photography
Robert Singer © Yony Photography

In March, it is the turn of  Robert Singer's new folk-inspired work, written as part of the Britten Sinfonia's Opus18 competition of unpublished composers. The concerts in St Andrew's Hall, Norwich (22/3/2019), West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge (26/3/2019) and Wigmore Hall (27/3/2019) feature a collaboration with folk singer Hannah Rarity, winner of BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year 2018, in a programme which includes folk-inspired music by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and James MacMillan, who is a mentor on the Opus18 competition. Robert Singer will be discussing his new work at a pre-concert event at the Wigmore Hall and a post-concert event in Cambridge.

Also in March, the Britten Sinfonia will be giving the UK premiere of the Piano Concerto by Brad Mehldau, one of the great improvisors of contemporary jazz piano. Mehldau has recently produced a Bach-inspired album After Bach, comprising pieces from The Well-Tempered Clavier followed by Mehldau’s 21st century response, and the concert will extend this link pairing Mehldau's concerto, with the composer as soloist, conducted by Clark Rundell with arrangements of Bach by Stravinsky, Charles Coleman, Webern and Berio’s arrangement of Contrapunctus XIX from the Art of Fugue interspersed with improvisations by Mehldau. The concert takes place at the Barbican on 16 March 2019.

Brad Mehldau
Brad Mehldau
Full details from the Britten Sinfonia website.

A sheen on the dew of flowers

Queen Victorias sapphire and diamond coronet (Photo Victoria and Albert Museum)
Queen Victorias sapphire and diamond coronet (Photo Victoria and Albert Museum)
Jody Talbot's cantata A sheen on the dew of flowers will receive its premiere on Thursday 11 April, 2019 as part of the celebrations for the bi-centenary of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert's births. Independent Opera will present the first public performance of the cantata at the Barbican when Natalie Murray Beale conducts the Britten Sinfonia and Britten Sinfonia Voices with soloists Kelley O'Connor (mezzo-soprano) and Tobias Greenhalgh (baritone).

The cantata explores the themes of love and loss, setting texts by women from all over the world across three millennia, all translated into English by American poet Jane Hirshfield. Talbot took inspiration for the cantata from Queen Victoria’s sapphire and diamond coronet designed for her by Prince Albert in 1840, the year of their wedding. Queen Victoria wore the coronet that year in the famous portrait of her by Winterhalter, and she would wear it instead of the crown in 1866 when she opened Parliament for the first time since Prince Albert's death in 1861..

The coronet was purchased for the Victoria & Albert Museum in 2017 through the generosity of Independent Opera's co-founders, Bill and Judy Bollinger, and it will be on display from 11 April 2019 in the newly refurbished William and Judith Bollinger Gallery, a highlight of the V&A’s bicentenary celebrations, alongside events, displays and new publications.

Since it was created, Independent Opera's Artist Support scheme has awarded scholarships, fellowships and one-off grants to 116 artists in the fields of singing, directing, design, choreography and production, as well as providing professional mentoring support.

Full information from Independent Opera website.

Thursday, 7 February 2019

The Third Orchestra

Matthew Bourne (left), Jaak Sooaar (front, left), Byron Wallen (front right) and Martin Butler (right) at Club Inégales
Peter Wiegold and Club Inégales are renowned for mixing up genres and musical backgrounds, particularly with the club's resident ensemble Notes Inégales. Now Wiegold is taking this further with a new initiative, The Third Orchestra. Next week, 11-17 February 2019, Wiegold is developing a new ensemble, The Third Orchestra.  Wiegold wants to create an ensemble without boundaries, pulling together global music traditions and languages.

A new multi-genre orchestra for London, hosted by the Barbican Centre, it will include Notes Inégales band members, guests who have worked with them in the last 7 years at Club Inégales and many new friends, giving a chance to take their work on to a whole new level. There will be a chance for the public to hear the results at a pair of concerts at the Barbican on 16 February 2019, and on Sunday 17 February there is an open invitation for young people (over 18) to play alongside members of the Orchestra to explore the potential for a ‘Third Youth Orchestra’.

The new ensemble will have a striking mix of players including, Alice Zawadzki (voice/violin); Ursula Rucker (performance poet); Max Baillie and Preetha Narayan (violins); Colin Alexander (cello); Hyelim Kim (Korean taegŭm flute); Rihab Asar (oud); Cheng Yu (pipa and guqin); Wang Xiao (erhu); Shima Kobayashi (harmonica); Alina Bzhezhinska (harp); Clarence Adoo (‘Headspace’); Jaak Sooaar (guitar); Byron Wallen and Ifeoluwa Ogunjobi (trumpets); Diane McLoughlin (saxophones); Hanna Mbuya (bass trombone/tuba); Matthew Bourne and Martin Butler (piano/Moog); Shri Sriram (bass/flute) and Simon Limbrick (percussion). Plus a 50/50 male/female balance, 50% BAME, aged from 18-65. It should be quite an ensemble.

Full details from the Barbican website

Grace Williams' 'Violin Sonata'

Grace Williams
Grace Williams
Until recently Grace Williams' Violin Sonata, a major piece of chamber music by Wales' foremost female composer, languished in manuscript in the library of Ty Cerdd, the Welsh Music Information Centre, in Cardiff. Whilst researching violin music by Welsh composers, violinist Madeleine Mitchell came across Williams' Violin Sonata. A subsequent performance of the work, led to her discovering further of Williams' chamber music works remaining in manuscript. Madeleine Mitchell has now recorded these works with her London Chamber Ensemble and the disc is being released on Naxos on 8 March 2019, International Womens' Day. [available from Amazon].

Grace Williams (1906-1977) studied at the Royal College Music from 1926 to 1930 with Ralph Vaughan Williams. RVW helped her obtain a travelling scholarship to study with Egon Wellesz in Vienna in 1930, where she wrote her Violin Sonata. Returning to London the following year she wrote the two large chamber works on the disc, Sextet for Oboe, Trumpet, Violin, Viola, Violoncello and Pianoforte (1931) and Suite for Nine Instruments (for flute, clarinet, trumpet, piano and string quintet) (1934) whilst teaching part time.The works are published by the Oriana Press

Madeleine Mitchell and the London Chamber Ensemble are launching the CD at City University Performance Space, College Building, St John Street, London EC1V 4PB (free but tickets required). Madeleine Mitchell will also be playing Williams' Violin Sonata along with works by Amy Beach, Lili Boulanger, Rebecca Clarke, Sadie Harrison and Judith Weir. Madeleine Mitchell with Cerys Jones, violin and Konstantin Lapshin, piano at the University Women's Club.

For International Women's Day, Madeleine Mitchell with Cerys Jones, violin and Konstantin Lapshin, piano will be performing Williams' Violin Sonata in a programme entitled A Century of Music by Women with music by Judith Weir, Lili Boulanger and Rebecca Clarke at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, full details from the college's website.

Madeleine Mitchell's disc is available from Amazon.

In the hell of a small town: Kat'a Kabanova at the Royal Opera

Janacek: Kat'a Kabanova - Susan Bickley, Amanda Majeski, Andrew Staples - Royal Opera House (Photo ROH/Clive Barda)
Janacek: Kat'a Kabanova - Susan Bickley, Amanda Majeski, Andrew Staples - Royal Opera House
(Photo ROH/Clive Barda)
Janacek Kat'a Kabanova; Amanda Majeski, Pavel Cernoch, Andrew Staples, Susan Bickley, Clive Bayley, Emily Edmonds, Andrew Tortise, dir: Richard Jones, cond: Edward Gardner; Royal Opera, Covent Garden  
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 6 February 2019 
Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A bleak and concentrated new production showcases some powerful, musical performances

The Royal Opera, Covent Garden's first production of Janacek's Kat'a Kabanova was not until 1994, over 70 years after the work's premiere. Trevor Nunn's production was last seen in 2007, and has now been superceded by a new production by Richard Jones which is part of Covent Garden's on-going cycle of Janacek operas, following on from Krzysztof Warlikowski's staging of From the House of the Dead in 2018 [see my review].

We caught the second performance in the run of Janacek's Kat'a Kabanova, 6 February 2019, directed by Richard Jones, desgined by Antony McDonald and conducted by Edward Gardner (his main stage debut at Covent Garden), with Amanda Majeski as Kat'a, Pavel Cernoch as Boris, Andrew Staples as Tichon, Emily Edmonds as Varvara, Susan Bickley as Kabanicha, Clive Bayley as Dikoj and Andrew Tortise as Kudrjas.

Jones and McDonald have transported the action of the opera forward to the 1960s, and from the very beginning the sense of the people of the town watching and prying on Majeski's Kat'a is important, even staring through the windows at her. Every so often, throughout the action, people stream onto the stage and torment Kat'a. But despite McDonald's costumes (including some wicked 1960s gear and wig for Andrew Tortise's Kudrjas) the production has little sense of place or locale. Much of the action takes place in a bare box with hidden doors, are we in a real town or are we in Kat'a's mind?

Janacek: Kat'a Kabanova - Amanda Majeski, Susan Bickley - Royal Opera House (Photo ROH/Clive Barda)
Janacek: Kat'a Kabanova - Amanda Majeski, Susan Bickley - Royal Opera House (Photo ROH/Clive Barda)
Where we do see scenic details, the interior of the Kavanov's house, the bus shelter (not church) which forms the setting for the opening of Act Three and notably the front of the Kabanov's house which forms the setting for the trysts at the end of Act Two, they reminded me not so much of Russia (the setting of Ostrovsky's original play) as of Clacton, except that the car used at the end of Act One is a genuine Russian car. Is Jones saying that hell is a small town anywhere?

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Extra-musical challenge - Musician in the Mountains

Musician in the Mountains
Conductor and composer Jessica Norton (musical director of London Concord Singers, with whom I sing, East London Chorus and London Orpheus Choir) is planning to raise money for the charity Music for All by hiking up mountains. Jessica plans to hike up Ben Nevis (June), the Yorkshire 3 Peaks (July) and Pointe de Ressachaux in Morzine, Portes du Soleil (August), and in addition to seeking sponsorship she is accepting challenges along the way.

The money goes in support of Music for All which donates instruments & tuition to individuals who need help, and makes grants available to address the musical needs of community music groups & educational organisations.

Do visit Jessica's Just Giving page.

Matthew Wadsworth performs Stephen Goss' Theorbo Concerto

Matthew Wadsworth
Matthew Wadsworth
The theorbo is a large lute which is generally heard in 17th and 18th century, often providing the continuo. But in 2018, lutenist Matthew Wadsworth commissioned a new theorbo concerto from composer Stephen Goss which was premiered at the third Altamira Hong Kong Guitar Symposium. The work's UK premiere was given by Wadsworth and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra at the North York Moors Chamber Music Festival in August 2018. 

This is not the first time that Goss has written for the theorbo, in 2017 he wrote a piece for solo theorbo The Miller's Tale, which Matthew Wadsworth premiered at the Wigmore Hall [see my review].

The first concerto ever written for theorbo, there is now another chance to hear the work as Matthew Wadsworth will be playing it with the Northern Chamber Orchestra at their concert on Saturday 9 February 2019, at Macclesfield Heritage Centre. The work will be performed alongside Bartok's Divertimento for Strings and Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3.

Full details from the Northern Chamber Orchestra website.

Through an Eastern filter: Nathan Davis' striking dance-opera 'Hagoromo'

Nathan Davis - Hagoromo - New Focus Recordings
Nathan Davis Hagoromo; Katalin Karolyi, Peter Tanstits, ICE, Brooklyn Youth Chorus, Nicholas DeMaison Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 February 2019 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
A striking sound-world encompasses Davis' dance-based opera with its percussion inspired score

Nathan Davis is an American composer and percussionist whose output includes a number of works for the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE). This disc on New Focus Recordings' Tundra lable features the live recording of Davis' opera Hagoromo performed by members of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) [Claire Chase, flutes, Rebekah Heller, bassoon, Daniel Lippel, electric guitar/lap steel, Jennifer Curtis, violin, Ross Karre, percussion, hammered dulcimer], with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus (artistic director Dianne Berkun Menaker), Katalin Karolyi (mezzo-soprano), and Peter Tantsits (tenor), conducted by Nicholas DeMaison. The work was recorded live at Brooklyn Academy of Music, Next Wave Festival in performances produced by American Opera Projects.

Despite the presence of singers in the cast, words are not of prime importance in the piece and it is described as a dance-opera, with the two leading characters, the Angel and the Fisherman, performed by two former New York City Ballet dancers, Wendy Whelan and Jack Soto. Hagoromo was inspired by a Japanese Noh play some 500 years old which was re-imagined by David Michalek who directed and choreographed the work.

Tuesday, 5 February 2019

London Oriana Choir launches competition for young women composers

The Sirens' Voice: Magnificent Women - London Oriana Choir, Dominic Ellis-Peckham at at the Cutty Sark, 21st June 2018 (Photo Kathleen Holman)
The Sirens' Voice: Magnificent Women
London Oriana Choir, Dominic Ellis-Peckham
at the Cutty Sark, 21st June 2018
(Photo Kathleen Holman)
London Oriana Choir launched its five15 project in 2016, focussing on women composers and having a female composer-in-residence each year. The current composer in residence is Jessica Curry, with previous ones being Cheryl Frances-Hoad and Rebecca Dale. Now the choir, artistic director Dominic Ellis-Peckham, is launching a competition to look for the fourth composer in residence, with the winner being commissioned to write three new pieces for the choir to be performed during the 2019/20 season.

The competition is open to all women aged between 18 and 25, and the winner will receive three paid commissions: two five-minute pieces for unaccompanied choir and one ten-minute piece with orchestral accompaniment to be delivered over the year and to have those pieces performed in public by the choir during the residency. The pieces will also be published in the choir’s anthology of all 15 pieces to be released at the end of the project.

Entrants are asked to submit a piece of mixed-voice choral music up to five minutes long by the closing date of 8th March 2019. Entries will be judged by a panel which includes composer Cecilia McDowall, conductor and educationalist Suzi Digby, Tim Brooke, head of Repertoire Development at Faber Music Ltd and the choir’s Music Director Dominic Ellis-Peckham. The four finalists will have their works performed in public in the choir’s summer concert in July and the winner announced. Full details of the competition entry requirements and terms can be found at the competition website.

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