Saturday, 29 February 2020

His message still resonates with us today: artistic director Marios Papadopoulos discusses the Oxford Philharmonic's year-long Beethoven Festival

Marios Papadopoulos and the Oxford Philharmonic at the Sheldonian Theatre
Marios Papadopoulos and the Oxford Philharmonic at the Sheldonian Theatre
The Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra, artistic director Marios Papadopoulos, has just started its Beethoven Festival, a year long exploration of Beethoven's music (symphonies, concertos, chamber music, piano sonatas and more) in and around the orchestra's home-base, the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford. I recently met up with Marios to chat about the festival and find out more.

The festival celebrates not just the 250 years since Beethoven's birth but also that Oxford is twinned with Bonn, Beethoven's birthplace. Marios feels that the concerts offer the rather special experience of being able to hear Beethoven's symphonic music and opera in the unique acoustic of the Sheldonian Theatre. Seating around 700, the hall offers intimacy with some members of the audience almost able to touch the players. And Marios points out that many performances of Beethoven's music during his lifetime took place in similar venues.


Marios Papadopoulos
Marios Papadopoulos
As well as conducting the orchestral concerts and Fidelio, Marios is the soloist in the piano concertos. This is music that he has performed and conducted for nearly 16 years and it is dear to his heart. And performing in the Sheldonian Theatre, knowing the music with such long experience, changes what he brings to it.

The concerts are starting to sell out, so there is clearly a demand, and 200 of the seats in the Sheldonian Theatre's upper gallery are offered to students for £5. A far higher percentage of subsidised cheap seats than most orchestra concert series.

Friday, 28 February 2020

Creative Doubles: how combining roles can change how we look at an opera

Luigi Bassi in the title role of Don Giovanni in 1787.
Luigi Bassi in the title role
of Don Giovanni in 1787.
When Mozart's opera Don Giovanni premiered in Prague in 1787 the same singer, Giuseppe Lolli, performed the roles of Masetto and the Commendatore, and the same doubling with a different singer happened at the work's Viennese premiere in 1788. Whilst nowadays, we would be unlikely to cast the same singer in both roles (the Commendatore is normally sung by a darker, heavier voice than Masetto), this type of doubling of roles was quite common. It made perfect economic sense and made a more interesting challenge for the singer. The same sort of doubling had taken place at the premiere of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro in Vienna in 1786, with Michael Kelly singing Basilio and Don Curzio, and Francesco Bussani singing Bartolo and Antonio, doublings of pairs of smaller roles which make ample practical sense but do not always happen nowadays.

Audiences of the time would not have made anything of this type of doubling, operas with large casts frequently had singers playing multiple roles. The fact that the same person appeared as, say, Masetto and the Commendatore did not say anything special about either character.

But modern audiences can experience a different kind of creative doubling, where having the same singer playing multiple roles links the roles psychologically, making them seem as if they are aspects of the same person, or in some cases creating a single composite character from multiple disparate roles.

Britten: Death in Venice - Gerald Finley and the players - Royal Opera ((c) ROH 2019 photographed by Catherine Ashmore)
Britten: Death in Venice - Gerald Finley and the players - Royal Opera
((c) ROH 2019 photographed by Catherine Ashmore)
Benjamin Britten wrote the lead baritone role in Death in Venice (1973) in this way. By linking seven apparently disparate roles Britten provides a mysterious and ominous thread running alongside Aschenbach's journey of self-revelation. Aschenbach seems to be accompanied by this strange character who plays a variety of functions at key moments on Aschenbach's journey. And whilst it is tempting to see this as very much a post-Freudian operatic development, one of Britten and librettist Myfanwy Piper's inspirations must have been the multiple baritone roles in Jacques Offenbach's final opera, Les Contes d'Hoffman.

Spitalfields Music Festival - June 2020

Spitalfields Music
Spitalfields Music Festival is returning to its roots this year with a Summer festival based at Christ Church, Spitalfields where the festival was founded 43 years ago. Over the weekend of 24 to 28 June 2020, the festival is presenting an array of events programmed by artistic curators Edmund Finnis, Kate Molleson, Errollyn Wallen and Spitalfields Music's CEO, Sarah Gee, all under the theme of Metamorphosis and Translation

Christ Church, Spitalfields (Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC BY-SA 3.0)
Christ Church, Spitalfields
(Photo David Iliff. License: CC BY-SA 3.0)
Rameau's opera Pygmalion (based on the same Greek myth which gave rise to the musical My Fair Lady) is being performed by John Butt and the Dunedin Consort with soloists Nicholas Mulroy, Anna Dennis, Jessica Leary and Zoë Brookshaw. And cellist Lucy Railton will be performing her own compositions responding to the work.

The Dunedin Consort will also be joining forces with the National Youth Chamber Choir of Great Britain, with John Butt and Ben Parry sharing the conducting honours, for a performance of Thomas Tallis' glorious 40-part motet, Spem in Alium alongside Errollyn Wallen's 40-part When The West Wind Sings, a maritime-themed piece which takes the audience on a sea-faring voyage across five centuries. Also in the programme will be music by Kerry Andrew, Ben Parry, John Casken, Eriks Esenwalds, Roxanna Panufnik, and more Tallis. The vocal ensemble Exaudi, conducted by James Weeks, will present a mix of music ancient and modern, including the world premiere of Jürg Frey’s Landscape of Echoes, as well as Naomi Pinnock, Klaus Lang (the UK premiere of Veronika's Thread, and Rytis Mažulis alongside music from renaissance master Josquin des Prez.

Composer David Fennessy and cellist Sonia Cromerty are joining forces for Aberdeen, the world premiere of a work which weaves together live cello, electric guitar and electronics with found sounds, to explore memory, objects and family ties. For Fast Food, Fast Music, violinist Anton Miller, viola player Rita Porfiris and pianist Siwan Rhys will be performing a programme of short, fast pieces by eight women composers, some well-established, some emerging - Victoria Benito, Joy Effiong, Bobbie-Jane Gardner, Millicent James, Sarah Rodgers, Jasmin Kent Rodgman, Susannah Self and Heloise Werner - alongside Errollyn Wallen’s Five Postcards.

Catherine Lamb (viola/voice) will be joined by Rebecca Lane (Microtonal Bass Flute, voice) and Bryan Eubanks (Secondary Rainbow Synthesiser, voice) for a performance of Lamb's Prisma Interius IV, which features the Secondary Rainbow Synthesiser, "a software-based subtractive synthesizer which filters live environmental sounds from outside the performance space, functioning as a perceptual bridge by folding these sounds into the expanding tonal field of the music". Sounds intriguing.

Mixed in with these are events arising out of year-round commitment to the co-creation of music with its communities, including Errollyn Wallen and Katie Melua's Song Club, over 100 students in years 7-9 coming together for the Big Sing, Young musicians from across Tower Hamlets come together to perform, including Soundbox, Spitalfields Music's inclusive music collective, which brings together disabled and non-disabled musicians aged 11+ from East London, Open Call which features commissions from three talented music creators from backgrounds under-represented in the industry, and a two-hour walk around East London, lifting the lid on the black history of Spitalfields and featuring the author S I Martin and Chineke! Junior Orchestra.

Full details from the Spitalfields Music website.

In a world gone mad, can great music help us see the light?

Sir Peter Paul Rubens - The Judgement of Solomon
Sir Peter Paul Rubens - The Judgement of Solomon
The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment's season at the Southbank Centre has the title The Edge of Reason, and presents a season inspired by the Enlightenment. The season opens with Handel's oratorio Solomon with Iestyn Davies in the title role with sopranos Lucy Crowe and Zoe Brookshaw, conducted by Christian Curnyn. Mark Padmore takes the role of Evangelist and director in Bach's St Matthew Passion, with Samuel Hasselhorn as Christus and soloists Mary Bevan, Rowan Pierce, Paula Murrihy, Bethany Horak-Hallett, Hugo Hymas, James Newby. Maasaki Suzuki will be conducting a programme of Bach and Buxtehude with OAE Rising Stars as soloists.

Moving to the 19th century, we have a pair of iconic violin concertos. Nicola Benedetti's plays Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in a programme conducted by Sir Roger Norrington along with Brian Newbould's completion of Schubert's Symphony No. 8. Brahms' Violin Concerto with Alina Ibragimova is conducted by Robin Ticciati plus Dvorak's Symphony No. 8, in a rare performance on gut strings. The last concert in the season ventures into the 20th century with Geoffrey Paterson conducting Richard Strauss' Sextet from Capriccio, Shostakovich's Piano Concerto No. 1, and Strauss' Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme with soloists Alexander Melnikov (piano) and David Blackadder (trumpet).

Full details from the OAE website.

Thursday, 27 February 2020

Pianist Iyad Sughayer in Khachaturian, Mozart and Liszt for the City Music Foundation

Iyad Sughayer
Iyad Sughayer
Khachaturian, Mozart, Liszt; Iyad Sughayer; City Music Foundation at St Bartholomew the Great
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 26 February 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
The young Jordanian-Palestinian pianist reveals an impressive ability to empathise with a diverse group of composers, from Mozart to Liszt to Khachaturian

The Jordanian-Palestinian pianist Iyad Sughayer, currently a City Music Foundation (CMF) artist, gave a concert at the Church of St Bartholomew the Great yesterday (26 February 2020) as part of the CMF's regular lunchtime recital series. Sughayer recently released a disc of Aram Khachaturian's piano music [see my review], so it was appropriate the Sughayer started with Khachaturian's Poem, followed by Mozart's Piano Sonata No. 18 in D major K 576, and a selection from Liszt's Harmonies poétiques et religieuses S 173.

Celebrating 500 years of St Peter ad Vincula

Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula, Tower of London
Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula, Tower of London
2020 marks the 500th anniversary of the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula at the Tower of London. To celebrate there is series of concerts, starting with Bach's St John Passion (29/3/2020), with the Choir and Band of the Chapels Royal, HM Tower of London, conducted by Colm Carey with William Searle (Evangelist) and Caspar Barrie (Christus).

The concerts continue with Tom Poulson (trumpet) and Christian Wilson (organ) in Purcell, Handel and Sally Beamish (19/5/2020), and further ahead soprano Zoe Brookshaw and lutenist Eligio Luis Quinteiro in Dowland, Danyel, Kapsperger and Purcell, Clare McCaldin in Martin Bussey's opera Mary's Hand [see my review], and the season ends with a gala concert on 17/11/2020 including Handel’s Eighth Chandos Anthem and Vivaldi's Gloria.

There was a chapel on the site of the present one before the Norman conquest. Repaired by Henry III, in 1286 Henry's son, Edward I, had the old chapel demolished and built a new one which survived until it was largely destroyed by fire in 1512. In 1519 work began under Henry VIII on the Tudor chapel which we see today, where the first service is believed to have taken place on 1 August 1520.

Full details from the Tower of London website.

Opera Circus' premiere of Nigel Osborne's Naciketa on shortlist for 2020 FEDORA Opera prize

Opera Circus: Naciketa
It is always heartening when smaller companies are recognised for their valuable work, so I was pleased to see that Opera Circus has been shortlisted for this year's FEDORA Opera prize, alongside the Royal Opera.

FEDORA, The European Circle of Philanthropists of Opera and Ballet, is an organisation which aims to support the renewal of opera and ballet. It offers three prizes that are awarded to promising teams who collaborate on the creation of new opera or ballet co-productions, and on the involvement and education of new and young audiences. The 2019 Opera prize was won by Philip Venables' opera Denis & Katya which was premiered by Opera Philadelphia in a co-production with Music Theatre Wales and Opéra Orchestre National Montpellier.

The shortlist for the 2020 opera prize includes 10 companies, two from the UK. One is the Royal Opera House, for Kaija Saariaho's Innocence, a co-production between five companies which will premiere in Aix-en-Provence in July 2020. The other is Opera Circus for Nigel Osborne's Naciketa, which will premiere at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in 2021. The co-producing partners include a fascinating range of organisations from the UK, Italy and India, see the FEDORA website for details.

Naciketa has a libretto by playwright Ariel Dorfman, inspired by the Upanishads, the Brahmin spiritual texts in which two protagonists, Music, and the boy, Naciketa, wrangle with Death/Yama, but also inspired by the fate of the lost children of our time; child prostitutes, child soldiers and those orphaned through oppression and conflict. The libretto marries the traditional musical forms with a storyline that takes place in communities which Osborne has come to know as an aid worker and whose human rights Dorfman has defended.

You can read more about Naciketa, and vote for the project, at the FEDORA website.

Wednesday, 26 February 2020

Spareness, clarity, quirkiness: William Howard plays Howard Skempton

Howard Skempton Preludes and Fugues, Nocturnes, Reflections, Images; William Howard; Orchid Classics
Howard Skempton Preludes and Fugues, Nocturnes, Reflections, Images; William Howard; Orchid Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 25 February 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Distilled, pared down and quirky, Skempton's 24 preludes and fugues are gems

The pieces on this new disc of Howard Skempton's music on Orchid Classics are tiny, 58 movements in all lasting 72 minutes; some movements as short as under 40 seconds. Pianist William Howard plays Skempton's 24 Preludes and Fugues (2019) alongside Images (1989), Three Nocturnes (1995) and Reflections (1999/2002).

During a 70th birthday profile of Skempton in 2017, I remember him talking about how the difficulty wasn't in writing the music but in working out what could be left out. Skempton's early work arose out of the tradition of John Cage, Morton Feldman and Terry Riley. But he has developed a distinctive voice where apparent simplicity conceals something more. I would hardly call the music on this disc austere or minimal, but it is pared down and distilled. Pianist William Howard says in his introduction that 'the only time these pieces might ever seem easy is when you are sight-reading them. As soon as you start practising them the challenge begins ... every note, chord and gesture must be perfectly calibrated'.

Professor Bad Trip comes to Wales

Uproar: Professor Bad Trip
Professor Bad Trip sounds like the name of an entertaining cartoon character, it is in fact the title of a major tri-partite work by the contemporary Italian composer Fausto Romitelli (1963-2004), and Professor Bad Trip: Lesson III is the focus for the latest project from UPROAR, Wales' contemporary music ensemble.

For this new project, UPROAR, conductor Michael Rafferty, is presenting world premieres of three new pieces for large ensemble and electronics by contemporary Welsh composers - Sarah Lianne Lewis, Bethan Morgan-Williams, Andrew Lewis, alongside the Welsh premieres three contemporary classics by Tristan Murail, Kaija Saariaho and of course Fausto Romitelli. All performances will have a strong visual presentation, and there will be pre-performance talks by the composer and the conductor. Murail, Saariaho and Romitelli are all linked in that they wrote electroacoustic music inspired by or arising from the Spectral movement which developed at IRCAM in Paris

Fausto Romitelli uses the following paragraph from Henri Michaux’s Light Through Darkness (Connaissance par les gouffres) as an epigraph to the score of Professor Bad Trip:
"A vast redistribution of sensitivity takes place, making everything bizarre, a continual complex redistribution of sensation. You sense less here, and more there. Here and there where? In dozens of ‘heres’ and dozens of ‘wheres’ that you didn’t know, that you didn’t recognise” 
(Henri Michaux, 'Connaissance par les gouffres / Light Through Darkness')."

UPROAR was launched in 2018, under the direction of Michael Rafferty, co-founder of Music Theatre Wales. The ensemble's inaugural performances, 10x10 in October 2018 was a sell-out.



UPROAR's Professor Bad Trip programme debuts on 28 February 2020 at the Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff, and then tours to Aberystwyth (13/3/2020), Caernarfon (21/3/2020) and at the Festival KLANG, Montpellier, France (3/6/2020). Full details from the UPROAR website.

All the ingredients of a good opera: Anthony Bolton's The Life & Death of Alexander Litvinenko

Alexander Litvinenko in 2002
Alexander Litvinenko in 2002
When composer Anthony Bolton read Death of a Dissident: The Poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko and the Return of the KGB, the book by Alex Goldfarb and Alexander Litvinenko's widow Marina about the extraordinary poisoning of Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko, Bolton immediately thought that it had all the ingredients of a good opera: power, politics, betrayal, love, jeopardy. Bolton managed to get Wasfi Kani of Grange Park Opera and director Stephen Medcalf on board, and through them librettist Kit Hesketh-Harvey. The results are to be seen at Grange Park Opera, Surrey in July this year when Stephen Medcalf's production of Anthony Bolton and Kit Hesketh-Harvey's The Life & Death of Alexander Litvinenko debuts (16 & 18 July 2020) with Stephen Barlow conducting a cast including Adrian Dwyer, Rebecca Bottone, Andrew Slater, Olivia Ray, Andrew Watts and Edmund Danon.

It is a full-scale opera, two acts with seven solo roles, chorus and full orchestra. Hesketh-Harvey, perhaps best known for his cabaret career but also his translations and opera libretti, has written a libretto (some of it evidently in rhyme) based on Goldfarb and Livtinenko's book, and Bolton's opera uses the traditional layout of scenes and arias. On Monday, we were given a sneak preview of the opera when Bolton talked about it and Olivia Ray, Lorena Paz and Xaver Hetherington sang scenes from the opera, accompanied by Erika Gundesen.

It was a chance to have a first listen to Bolton's music, tonal but complex, often highly romantic; the piece also uses references to Russian music ranging from a Red Army marching song and a Russian football anthem, to music from Shostakovich, Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin.

Composer Anthony Bolton has had an interesting career, whilst reading Engineering at Cambridge he studied composition with Nicholas Maw and later with Colin Matthews and Julian Anderson. But the majority of Bolton's working life has been devoted to finance, as a major investment fund manager. His music includes the anthem, Children of Earth, written for the Save the Children Anniversary at St Paul's Cathedral, A Garland of Carols (for upper voices and harp) premiered at St Paul's in 2006, and the orchestral suite The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. He describes his new opera as 'by far the biggest thing he's done'.

Also, at the event on Monday was Litvinenko's widow Marina who, when the opera premieres in July, will have the strange experience of seeing herself portrayed on stage. But Marina has already had this experience, as Lucy Prebble's play A Very Expensive Poison which debuted at the Old Vic last year, similarly dramatised the events.

Marina welcomes any such exposure as she feels that the play and the opera help to bring the events into the public eye and give a kind of justice. Marina has been fighting for justice since the events of 2006, only getting a public enquiry after 10 years and still the probable perpetrators of the poisoning have not been extradited from Russia.

Quite what the Russian authorities (evidently complicit in Litvinenko's music) will make of the opera is anyone's guess, but you feel that opera cannot help but have resonance in Russia. Certainly the work brings a strange contemporary twist to the genre of 'CNN Opera', opera created out of contemporary new events, which originated with John Adams' Nixon in China.

Tickets for Anthony Bolton and Kit Hesketh-Harvey's The Life & Death of Alexander Litvinenko go on sale on 3 March 2020 at the Grange Park Opera website.

Tuesday, 25 February 2020

2020/21: Philharmonia Orchestra says goodbye to Esa-Pekka Salonen & celebrates its 75th anniversary

Esa-Pekka Salonen and Philharmonia Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen and Philharmonia Orchestra
2020/21 is Esa-Pekka Salonen's last season as principal conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra (as it is that of Vladimir Jurowski at the London Philharmonic Orchestra). He will be conducting a series of concerts inspired by Greek myth, including Richard Strauss' Elektra and the UK premiere of his Gemini. For 2020, Philharmonia at 75 celebrates the orchestra's 75th anniversary with events including Riccardo Muti returning for the first time since 2010 conducting Verdi's Requiem and Isata Kanneh-Mason in Clara Schumann's Piano Concerto. Santtu-Matias Rouvali, the orchestra's principal conductor designate, conducts three programmes including Shostakovich's Symphony No. 12.


With a focus on music inspired by Greek myth, in Origin Stories: Greek Myth in Music, Salonen conducts Scriabin’s Prometheus: The Poem of Fire with Yuja Wang as soloist and Strauss’ Elektra with soprano soloists Irene Theorin and Lise Davidsen. To close the season, Salonen conducts Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe (complete) alongside the European premiere of his own work Gemini.

Salonen also takes over as curator of the Philharmonia's Music of Today, with music by Tyshawn Sorey, Víkingur Ólafsson, Anna Thorvaldsdottir and Bryce Dessner.

Jonathan Dove's Gaspard's Foxtrot receives its London premiere, conducted by Holly Mathieson; based on children's books by Zeb Soans the piece will be narrated by Soanes and live-illustrated by James Mayhew.

Jakub Hruša conducts Bartok's Miraculous Mandarin paired with excerpts from Richard Strauss' Salome with Malin Byström as Salome, Susan Bickley as Herodias and Peter Hoare as Herod.

Full details from the Philharmonia website.

Brass septet Septura makes its Wigmore Hall recital debut

Septura
Septura
Brass instruments do not pop up in classical chamber music all that often, and the repertoire of brass chamber groups such as brass quintets can often seem to exist somewhat separately from the rest of the classical world. But the brass septet, Septura, is aiming to change all that by performing transcriptions and arrangements of mainstream classical music, creating what artistic directors, Simon Cox and Matthew call an imagined history of brass chamber music [for more about the group's approach, see my interview with Simon and Matthew].

Now, Septura is making its recital debut at the Wigmore Hall, on Thursday 27 February 2020; a major recognition of the group's importance in re-defining brass chamber music. Their programme will focus on women composers with music by Maddalena Casulana (c1544-1590) and Clara Schumann (1819-1896), alongside that of Giovanni Gabrieli, Orlande de Lassus, Robert Schuman and Felix Mendelssohn.

Maddalena Casulana was an Italian lutenist, singer and composer; she was the first woman to have a whole book of her music printed and published! Frustratingly, we know only a little about her, she seems to have been born in Siena and trained in Florence and where she was close to Isabella de'Medici (the daughter of Cosimo I de'Medici). Septura will be performing some of Casulana's madrigals, alongside Lassus sacred madrigals, Lagrime di San Pietro.

Clara Schumann is represented by a transcription of her Piano Sonata (composed 1841-42, just after she was finally able to marry Robert), and will be heard alongside her husband's March in E flat and a transcription of Felix Mendelssohn's Organ Sonata in C minor, Op.65 No.2.

Full details from the Wigmore Hall website.

The cello sonata from early Beethoven to Shostakovich: Anglo-French duo Lydia Shelley & Nicolas Stavy at Conway Hall

Lydia Shelley (Photo Kevin Seddiki)
Lydia Shelley (Photo Kevin Seddiki)
Beethoven, Brahms, Shostakovich Cello Sonatas; Lydia Shelley, Nicolas Stavy; Conway Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 23 February 2020
A mini history of the cello sonata from the 1790s through to the 1930s, in powerful and stylish performances from this Anglo-French duo

On Sunday 23 February 2020, Conway Hall Sunday Concerts played host to the France-based British-born cellist Lydia Shelley and the French pianist Nicolas Stavy who presented three cello sonatas which demonstrated the remarkable range and development of the genre in 150 years. We started with Beethoven's Cello Sonata No. 2 in G minor, Opus 5, from 1796, and ended with Shostakovich's Cello Sonata Op. 40 from 1934. Whether by accident or design of programming, in the middle came Brahms' Cello Sonata No. 1 in E minor op.38 from 1862-1865 which is almost equidistant in time between the Beethoven and Shostakovich. Before the concert, I gave a pre-concert talk which traced the fascinating history of the cello sonata from Vivaldi through to Shostakovich and beyond.


The genre of cello sonata is fascinating, the classical sonata seems to spring, fully formed from Beethoven's imagination in 1796 when he wrote a pair of sonatas at the court of the cello-loving Prussian King, Friedrich Wilhelm II. Beethoven's later essays in the genre would develop the relationship between the two instruments, but this first pair of sonatas are the first time that a classical composer explored the cello as a real solo instrument, giving it a voice independent of the piano. Whilst there are plenty of backward looking glances in the music, what Shelley and Stavy's programme showed was the remarkable modern vision that Beethoven brought to the genre.

Monday, 24 February 2020

Out with a bang in 2020/21: Vladimir Jurowski's last season as music director of the London Philharmonic Orchestra

London Philharmonic Orchestra and Vladimir Jurowski (Photo Ben Ealovega)
London Philharmonic Orchestra and Vladimir Jurowski (Photo Ben Ealovega)
2020/2021 is Vladimir Jurowski's final season as principal conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra (and that of Esa-Pekka Salonen at the Philarmonia Orchestra) and he is going out with a bang, with two complete Ring Cycles. Edward Gardner, his successor as principal conductor, will also be conducting Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique, John Adams' Harmonium and three premieres. Brett Dean has been announced as the new Composer in Residence.

Vladimir Jurowski and the LPO have been building up to the complete Ring Cycle with individual operas, and he will conduct two complete cycles of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen in January 2021 with Allan Clayton, Ruxandra Donose, Christian Elsner, Burkhard Fritz, Robert Hayward, Torsten Kerl, Lise Lindstrom, Kai Rüütel, James Rutherford, Brindley Sherratt and Derek Welton. Role debuts include Matthew Rose as Wotan in Die Walküre and Brindley Sherratt as Hagen in Götterdämmerung.

As new Composer in Residence, three of Brett Dean's works feature in the new season, The Players with accordionist James Crabb, who gave the world premiere last year, the UK premiere of the Cello Concerto conducted by Edward Gardner (with Sofia Gubaidulina's On Love and Hatred) and Komarov’s Fall, and Brett Dean will also conduct his own Pastoral Symphony in a chamber performance with the musicians from the LPO’s Foyle Future Firsts, a scheme for aspiring orchestral musicians. Dean will also mentor the LPO's Young Composer Programme.

Other new music in the season includes Thomas Larcher’s A Padmore Cycle, written for tenor Mark Padmore, which has only been performed in the UK a handful of times since its first performance in 2011, Krzysztof Penderecki’s Concertino for Trumpet and Orchestra receives only its second performance in the UK despite great international success. Other composers this season include David Bruce, Danny Elfman, Eric Tanguy, and the UK premiere of Alexey Retinsky's De Profundis, a symphonic work that Jurowski selected at an anonymous contest as part of Moscow’s Another Space festival, later conducting the world premiere in 2018

As part of the culmination of the orchestra's 2020 Vision series, Vladimir Jurowski and the orchestra will premiere James MacMillan's Christmas Oratorio, a large-scale choral work commissioned by the LPO, to be performed with soloists soprano Mary Bevan, bass-baritone Christopher Maltman and the London Philharmonic Choir. The series also includes the UK premiere of Magnus Lindberg’s Cello Concerto No. 2, with soloist Anssi Karttunen who gave the world premiere five years ago, the London premiere of Lotta Wennäkoski’s Verdigris, a work written for chamber orchestra in 2015, conducted by Hannu Lintu, Tamara-Anna Cislowska performs the European premiere of Elena Kats-Chernin’s Piano Concerto No. 3, a work she premiered in Brisbane in 2018.

2020 Vision also includes previous LPO commissions, Julian Anderson’s The Discovery of Heaven, which was premiered in 2013 and later recorded by the LPO, and Magnus Lindberg’s Two Episodes which the LPO premiered in 2016.

The orchestra remains resident at Glyndebourne where it has played at the Summer Festival for over 50 years, and has a new residency at the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg with four concerts over the 2020/21 season. In addition to residencies in Brighton and Eastbourne, the orchestra is continuing its residency at Saffron Hall which began in the 2019/20 season. Guest conductors and soloists at Saffron Hall include Colin Currie, Alondra de la Parra, Hannu Lintu, Daniele Rustioni, Toby Spence, Bryn Terfel, Simon Trpceski and more. In addition to the concert programme, musicians from the Orchestra will give masterclasses to local students and work on local community projects such as the music and dementia programme ‘Together in Sound’.

LPO Junior Artists, the LPO’s free mentoring programme for talented teenage musicians from backgrounds under-represented in professional UK orchestras, will celebrate its fifth year. Many of its alumni, now in conservatoires, return to support the LPO Junior Artists: Overture scheme for younger students. The Open Sound Ensemble returns for its second year, offering free music-making opportunities for young people with special educational needs and disabilities and their parents/carers. The Orchestra’s two inclusive programmes for adults - OrchLab, for disabled participants, co-delivered with Drake Music, and its partnership with Crisis, the national charity for homeless people – expand next season with new opportunities to perform and showcase their creative work at Royal Festival Hall, and for participants from both projects to work together on combined activity.

Full details from the LPO website.

The shipwrecked world, and nature extinct: Musica Antica Rotherhithe gives the UK premiere of Michelangelo Falvetti's Il Diluvio Universale in aid of Operation Noah

Michelangelo Falvetti - Il Diluvio Universale
Michelangelo Falvetti Il Diluvio Universale; Musica Antica Rotherhithe; Holy Trinity Church, Rotherhithe
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 22 February 2020
The UK premiere of Falvetti's quirky Sicilian oratorio, engages and still has a strong message

When discussing 17th century Italian music, particularly secular music, we have a tendency to concentrate on a few great names and major centres. It is all very well listening to operas by Cavalli from Venice, by Rossi from Rome, and perhaps by Alessandro Scarlatti from Naples but what about other centres, other cities. Take Michelangelo Falvetti (1643-1693) for instance, he is hardly even a name to conjure with yet a significant body of his work survives and has started to be recorded. A priest, he worked consistently in Sicily (in Palermo and in Messina), writing music for use in the church, both instrumental music and oratorios.

Musica Antica Rotherhite gave the UK premiere of Michelangelo Falvetti's Il Diluvio Universale (The Great Flood) at Holy Trinity Church, Rotherhithe on Saturday 22 February 2020, with singers Caitlin Goreing (contralto), Camilla Seale (soprano), Jessica Eucker (soprano), Oliver Doyle (tenor) Joachim Sabbat (bass) and Tristram Cooke (counter-tenor), and instrumentalists Maxim Del Mar and Ilana Cravitz (violins), Jam Orrell (viola), Camilla Morse-Glover and Harry Buckoke (violas da gamba), Peter Martin (Theorbo/Baroque Guitar) and Christopher Jeanes (harpsichord). Thanks to a generous sponsor, the proceeds from the concert went to Operation Noah.

Musica Antica Rotherhithe was founded in 2016 by Jessica Eucker and Oliver Doyle, setting out to explore lesser known music from the 16th and 17th centuries, and the group's home base is Holy Trinity Church, Rotherhithe (a post-war building replacing the original 19th century church which was bombed in 1940). The performers were from a mixture of backgrounds, some were still at college, some are professional singers or musicians, others having trained in music have moved into other careers, (Saturday's performers included someone who works in finance, and a director of the classical music agency Intermusica).

Falvetti's Il Diluvio Universale was premiered around 1682 in Messina where Falvetti had just taken up the post of Maestro di Capella at the Cathedral. The libretto was specially written by the Sicilian academician Vincenzo Giattini. It is quite curious as it jumps over large chunks of the story, and the main thrust of the piece is moral rather than to tell a dramatic story. But Falvetti's musical approach is often dramatic, but not always and some things (such as the reaction of mankind to the flood) are rather skated over.

The work starts with a prologue where Divine Justice (Caitlin Goreing), supported by the four elements, Water, Air, Fire, Earth (Camilla Seale, Jessica Eucker, Oliver Doyle Joachim Sabbat), announces that she is going to punish mankind. A duet for Noah (Oliver Doyle) and his wife Rad (Camilla Seale) reveals them to be on the Ark, God (Joachim Sabbat) appears to them and informs them that they are to be inundated by a flood (I said the plot had holes in it!). The final section is devoted mainly to Death (Tristram Cooke) a rather gleeful figures who clearly relishes his job. There is a final moralising chorus.

The cast all came together for the choruses, and whilst the music was unfamiliar everyone performed this rather quirky drama with relish. From the opening, where Divine Justice interrupts the overture , it is clear that Falvetti allowed himself a freedom with structure. The whole piece was very fluid, with Monteverdian recitative moving easily into arioso and bravura arias. Clearly whoever the first cast were, they were talented. The roles were doubled (except for Divine Justice and Death), and I wondered whether the original would have had boys singing the alto and soprano roles (what was performance practice in churches in 17th century Sicily, I wonder?).

There were some entirely serious moments, such as a couple of the choruses including the surprisingly large scale on 'And who will help me? In a sea without short to the waves'. This one also had one of Falvetti's imaginative touches as though the music is quite serious, the text breaks off as the people are drowned!  But, throughout the performance the adjective I used most in my notes was 'perky'. There is a lot of rhythmically upbeat, almost toe-tapping music in this piece, and the culmination was perhaps Death's gleeful final dance.  More surprising was that Human Nature (a wonderfully fragile Jessica Eucker) sang her final aria 'Open to me the passage to Death' to another toe-tapping dance. In his comprehensive essay in the programme Oliver Doyle points out that in Southern Italy the tarantella was originally a courtship dance, so Doyle speculates that Falvetti is showing how life is linked to death.

Caitlin Goering impressed greatly as a highly dramatic Divine Justice, with a fine bravura rage aria. Joachim Sabbat used his resonant bass voice to good effect as God, whilst Tristram Cooke attacked Death's music with relish and glee. Oliver Doyle and Camilla Seale had a touching love duet as Noah and his wife, with undulating accompaniment suggesting the waves. Jessica Eucker was a fragile Human Nature, but still capable of virtuoso moments as well!

The performing area in the church was rather limited, with the singers in front of the instrumentalists. Some of the more complex ensembles would, I think, have been improved if a way could have been found for harpsichordist Christopher Jeanes to be able to have eye contact with singers and instrumentalists.

That said, this performance was given with great relish and not a little virtuoso bravura. Each singer had their moments and grasped them firmly. The instrumentalists were similarly accomplished, with some impressive solo playing from individual members.

You feel that Falvetti's music warrants further exploration (there is another piece La Giuditta which is unusually sexual for its time!), and we must be grateful to Musica Antica Rotherhithe for having the courage to put on such an unknown piece. It was a courage that was well rewarded, as there was a suitably appreciative and capacity audience. We were treated to an encore, a repeat of one of the choruses. As the evening was a benefit for Opera Noah is seemed entirely appropriate to end with the words 'Ah, that at the end of so cruel a tragedy form a scene indistinct, the shipwrecked world, and nature extinct'

Elsewhere on this blog
  • The two are very different disciplines: best known as a film & TV composer, I chat to Stuart Hancock about 'Raptures' his new disc of concert music  - interview
  • The art of the lute: Thomas Dunford and the Academy of Ancient Music put the Baroque lute in the spotlight from concertos to trio sonatas and a solo suite (★★★★) - concert review
  • Wild Waves & Woods from Sweden: the Västerås Sinfonietta at Kings Place  (★★★★) - concert review
  • Ductus est Jesus: music from the Portuguese Golden Age from Gramophone Award-winning Portuguese ensemble Cupertinos (★★★★½) - concert review
  • Welcome rarity: Verdi's Luisa Miller receives a strong musical performance in Barbora Horáková's new production at ENO (★★★★½) - opera review
  • Extinction, Nature overwhelmed and toxic masculinity: music by Aaron Holloway-Nahum, Laurence Osborn, Liza Lim from the Riot Ensemble at Kings Place (★★★½) - concert review
  • Teamwork, resilience, self-discipline: teaching life-skills through music, I chat to Truda White of MiSST (Music in Secondary Schools Trust)  - interview
  • Vividly engaged: Schubert's Death and the Maiden from the conductorless string orchestra, 12 Ensemble (★★★★) - CD review
  • Kokoschka's Doll: a new melodrama inspired by the tempestuous affair between Alma Mahler and Oscar Kokoschka is the starting point for this new disc  (★★★½) - CD review
  • Whither Must I Wander? A young American duo bring poetry & imagination to a voyage around RVW's Songs of Travel (★★★½) - CD review
  • Riveting & magnificent: Yan Pascal Tortelier & Iceland Symphony Orchestra's 70th birthday tour reaches London with Yeol Eun Son in Ravel and Anna Thorvaldsdottir's Aeriality (★★★½) - concert review
  • Bringing the music to vibrant life: Owen Rees & Contrapunctus explore the enthusiasm for Josquin's music in 16th century Spain  - (★★★★) CD review
  • Home

Saturday, 22 February 2020

The two are very different disciplines: best known as a film & TV composer, I chat to Stuart Hancock about 'Raptures' his new disc of concert music

Jack Liebeck, Levon Parikian and Stuart Hancock at the recording sessions for the Raptures disc (Orchid Classics)
Jack Liebeck, Levon Parikian and Stuart Hancock at the recording sessions for the Raptures disc (Orchid Classics)
Although best known as a composer for film and television (he wrote the music for the BBC series Atlantis), Stuart Hancock is also making a name for himself with opera and concert music. A disc of his orchestral works Raptures, including his Violin Concerto with violinist Jack Liebeck as soloist, has just been released on Orchid Classics with Levon Parikian conducting the BBC Concert Orchestra. I recently met up with Stuart to find out more about the disc, the difference between writing for film or television and concert work, writing opera for children and adults, and how he came to be a composer almost by accident.


Stuart Hancock
Stuart Hancock
When planning the new disc, Stuart assembled a programme like a concert with overture, concerto and symphony. All three works were pre-existing ones, with Variations on a Heroic Theme, the Violin Concerto and Raptures (a new orchestral version of a work originally for quartet).

Variations on an Heroic Theme dates from 2007 and was written for the Rehearsal Orchestra (a group which runs courses for future professionals and serious amateurs) which means that it never had a formal public premiere and its first public performance was quite recently. The concerto was written for the violinist Paul Barrett when he was playing with the Southbank Sinfonia. Barrett premiered the work in 2005 with the Southbank Sinfonia and performed it again in 2011 with the St Paul's Sinfonia, but Stuart admits that, like a lot of contemporary composers, he has struggled to get further performances for works following the premieres. One of Stuart's intentions with the Raptures album was to get his orchestral music out there and heard, and in fact there is a performance of Stuart's Violin Concerto at Cadogan Hall on 29 February 2020 (with the Imperial College Symphony Orchestra, conductor Oliver Gooch and soloist Jack Liebeck) which came on the back of the disc.

The concerto is a form that Stuart enjoys, but he decided to have just one on the disc in order to keep the focus on a single soloist. In fact, one of the first major things he wrote was a piano concerto at the age of 18, which he now refers to as 'terrifically bad'.  For Stuart, concertos mean that performers get to show off, and he has fun balancing the rivalries between soloist and orchestra. And he finds having a soloist gives him focus, so a concerto is easier to write than a straight orchestral piece.

In an ideal world Stuart would want a mix of both, not one or the other.
But he does admit that one pays better than the other!


For Stuart, his two areas of composing - film/television and concert music - are quite separate, and the two are very different disciplines. When writing for film and television, Stuart is writing music to fit a picture, and the result will be judged by the client; it must sell a product or tell a story. With his concert music, Stuart is working to commission and the client trusts him, and when writing the music, he is answering to himself. The methodologies of the two are very different, as indeed are the deadlines with music for film/television being produced to tight schedules.

Friday, 21 February 2020

Opera North in 2020/21, new opera from Iain Bell and Will Todd, Handel's Alcina and a first Parsifal

Garry Walker conducting The Greek Passion rehearsals (2019). (Photo Tom Arber)
Garry Walker conducting The Greek Passion rehearsals (2019). (Photo Tom Arber)
Opera North has announced its 2020/21 season, and an exciting one it is too with Iain Bell's Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel, a new double bill of Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti and a dance version of the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, and new productions of Bizet's Carmen and Handel's Alcina, plus revivals of Verdi's La Traviata and Puccini's La Fanciulla del West. And there will be a new semi-staging of Wagner's Parsifal. The new production of Carmen marks Garry Walker's debut with the company as musical director. 

But the company is far more than just seven main stage productions, there is an orchestral season, lively Community and Education initiatives and a significant number of youth ensembles aimed at everything from inclusive programmes for children from diverse and socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds, to a youth orchestra for young people thinking of going into the music profession, as well as a Youth Company and the premiere of a new Will Todd opera. Read on to find out more.

In Autumn 2020, Iain Bell's Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel will be given in Daniel Kramer's production originally seen at English National Opera [see Ruth's review] and will be conducted by Nicholas Kok. The opera will be seen in a newly re-worked version of the score. Dame Josephine Barstow and Lesley Garrett both reprise their roles, with Elin Pritchard joining the cast as Mary Kelly and with many roles taken by members of the Opera North Chorus.

Edward Dick, who directed Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel in 2017 [see my review] directs Bizet's Carmen in Spring 2021 with Garry Walker conducting. The title role is sung by American mezzo-soprano Chrystal E Williams with Don Jose sung by Canadian tenor Antoine Bélanger. No word, yet about what version/edition of the opera is being used.

Handel's Alcina is being given by Opera North for the first time in a new production by Tim Albery in Spring 2021, which will be created from fully recycled, re-used and second-hand sources, as part of our commitment to environmental responsibility. Irish soprano Máire Flavin is Alcina, and French soprano Lucie Chartin is Morgana; Chartin sang the role of Cleopatra in the recent revival of Tim Albery's production of Handel's Julius Caesar [see my review]. Patrick Terry is Ruggiero, Joanna Motulewicz is Bradamante and Anthony Gregory is Oronte. The conductor is Lawrence Cummings.

La traviata rehearsals at Leeds Grand Theatre (2014) (Photo Tom Arber)
La traviata rehearsals at Leeds Grand Theatre (2014) (Photo Tom Arber)
Opera North's first Parsifal is being given in a concert staging, directed by PJ Harris (who directed Opera North's concert staging of Strauss's Salome) and conducted by former music director Richard Farnes. Toby Spence will be singing his first Parsifal with Brindley Sherratt singing his first Gurnemanz [an interview with Brindley is coming up on the blog], plus Katarina Karnéus as Kundry, Robert Hayward as Amfortas and Eric Greene as Klingsor.

The art of the lute: Thomas Dunford and the Academy of Ancient Music put the Baroque lute in the spotlight from concertos to trio sonatas and a solo suite

Thomas Dunford (Photo © Julien Benhamou)
Thomas Dunford (Photo © Julien Benhamou)
Bach, Vivaldi, Buxtehude; Thomas Dunford, Rachel Brown, Academy of Ancient Music; Milton Court Concert Hall, the Barbican
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 20 February 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Thomas Dunford joined the Academy of Ancient Music in a programme which put the spotlight on the Baroque lute, from Vivaldi's concerto to Bach's solo suite, plus trio sonatas and a mystery item

The Academy of Ancient Music continued its concert series at the Barbican's Milton Court Concert Hall last night (20 February 2020) with a concert showcasing the lute. Lutenist Thomas Dunford joined the orchestra to perform Vivaldi's Trio Sonata in C major RV82, Vivaldi's Concerto for Lute in D RV93, and Buxtehude's Trio Sonata, BuxWV 255, and Dunford also played J. S. Bach Suite for solo lute in g minor BWV 995, and joined the continuo for J. S. Bach's Orchestral Suite No. 2 BWV 1067 which featured flautist Rachel Brown.

In fact, as originally planned the concert should have been harpsichordist Jean Rondeau playing Bach, but Rondeau had to pull out as his wife was expecting their first baby (a daughter, delivered last week), and whether by accident or design Thomas Dunford is Rondeau's brother-in-law.

The concert was fortuitous because we don't really get to hear enough of the lute's later Baroque existence. Rather an old-fashioned instrument by the early18th century, the lute continued on in a few places. But the instrument requires the right circumstances to be heard to its best. Milton Court Concert Hall was perhaps a little too big at times, there were moments in Bach's suite for solo lute that sounded a little too distant, but by and large Dunford's unshowy virtuosity and deft control of the instrument's colours really drew you in.

Thursday, 20 February 2020

Wild Waves & Woods from Sweden: the Västerås Sinfonietta at Kings Place

Lawrence Power, Paul Watkins, Simon Crawford-Phillips, Västerås Sinfonietta at Kings Place (Photo Maestro Arts)
Lawrence Power, Paul Watkins, Simon Crawford-Phillips, Västerås Sinfonietta at Kings Place
(Photo Maestro Arts)
Mendelssohn, Tarrodi, Ligeti, Dvorak, Brahms; Lawrence Power, Paul Watkins, Västerås Sinfonietta, Simon Crawford-Phillips; Kings Place
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 19 February 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A programme brimming with energy and enthusiasm from this Swedish chamber orchestra, including a gutsy rendition of Brahms' late concerto

The Västerås Sinfonietta and its chief conductor, Simon Crawford-Phillips, blew into town on Sunday (Storm Dennis not withstanding) for a short tour of the UK, with concerts in Bristol and Southampton, ending at Kings Place on 19 February 2020 as part of the Nature Unwrapped season. Under the title Wild Waves & Woods the orchestra gave us Mendelssohn's The Hebrides Overture, Andrea Tarrodi's Zephyros, Gyorgyi Ligeti's Concert Romanesc, Antonin Dvorak's Silent Woods and Johannes Brahms' Concerto for violin and cello in A minor, Op. 102 with Lawrence Power (violin) and Paul Watkins (cello).

Västerås is city in Sweden some 100 kilometres or so West of Stockholm, and the Västerås Sinfonietta is based at the Västerås Konserthus where it gives regular subscription seasons. Founded in 1883, it is one of Sweden's oldest orchestras. Simon Crawford-Phillips has been artistic advisor and chief conductor since 2017.

The orchestra is a chamber ensemble, at Kings Place there were some 21 strings, a full complement of woodwind (including four horns for the Brahms), two trumpets and percussion, which led to a very full platform indeed, even though they played standing up.

Not surprisingly, the sound in Kings Place's Hall One had a vivid presence and throughout the concert the orchestra made a strong, gutsy sound. This was an evening full of energy and strong colours. And whatever the music, the players really put themselves into it. In Mendelssohn's The Hebrides Overture the music was vividly descriptive, we really felt the tang of the salt spray, rather than the misty romanticism which this music usually engenders. And I really liked the balance, with just 21 strings giving us a strong, lithe string line, we could hear a lot more of the woodwind detail which is a great benefit. Crawford-Phillips drew real dynamic thrust and impetus from his players.

Wednesday, 19 February 2020

Premiere of Jasdeep Singh Degun's sitar concerto with the Orchestra of Opera North

Jasdeep Singh Degun (Photo Kabilan Raviraj)
Jasdeep Singh Degun (Photo Kabilan Raviraj)
The composer and sitar player Jasdeep Singh Degun will be premiering his new sitar concerto, Arya, with the Orchestra of Opera North, conductor Harish Shankar, at a concert at Huddersfield Town Hall on 23 February 2020. They will then be touring the concerto to Durham Cathedral (5 March), Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester (11 March) and the CBSO Centre, Birmingham (19 March). In Huddersfield, the concerto will be performed with music by Sibelius and by the Turkish composer Ulvi Cemal Erkin, whilst on tour the chorus of Opera North will perform a selection of operatic music.

British born composer and sitar player Jasdeep Singh Degun spans the worlds of Indian classical and Western music, ranging from his work with the cutting-edge band, 'Project 12’ to appearing at the BBC Proms playing his own compositions. Jasdeep was recently awarded a Sky Academy Scholarship to work on a debut album of contemporary and classical music. As part of the scholarship, Jasdeep is currently mentored by the illustrious multi-instrumentalist and producer, Nitin Sawhney.

His new sitar concerto came about as a result of his participation in a residency at Resonance, Opera North's programme for BAME artists.

Full details from the Opera North website.

Ductus est Jesus: music from the Portuguese Golden Age from Gramophone Award winning Portuguese ensemble Cupertinos

Cupertinos, musical director Luis Toscano
Cupertinos, musical director Luis Toscano
Ductus est Jesus,: Manuel Mendes, Pedro de Cristo, Manuel Cardoso, Fernando de Almeida, Estêvão de Brito, Estêvão Lopes Morago, Bartolomeu Trosylho, Filipe de Magalhães; Cupertinos; Cadogan Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 18 February 2020 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
The Gramophone Award-winning Portuguese ensemble makes its UK debut with a programme of Portuguese polyphony from the Golden Age

The Portuguese vocal ensemble, Cupertinos, won a 2019 Gramophone Award (in the Early Music category) for its disc of Cardoso's Requiem and Lamentations on Hyperion. Directed by Luis Toscano, Cupertinos made its UK debut on Tuesday 18 February 2020 at Cadogan Hall as part of the Choral at Cadogan series. The programme, Ductus est Jesus, concentrated on music for Lent and centred on the Missa de Quadragesima by Manuel Mendes, along with Lamentations by Pedro de Cristo, Manuel Cardoso, and Fernando de Almeida, plus motets by Estêvão de Brito, Estêvão Lopes Morago, Bartolomeu Trosylho and Filipe de Magalhães, all Portuguese composers from the late 16th century and early 17th, the so-called 'Golden Age'.

The composers in the programme were all associated with the various religious centres in Portugal, and much of the music survives in manuscript. Many of the works performed, including the mass and the Lamentations by Pedro de Cristo and Fernando de Almeida, were transcribed and edited by Luis Toscano (music director of Cupertinos and Professor Jose Abreu (from the University of Coimbra). And one of the ensemble's aims is to present this unexplored legacy of Portuguese polyphony.

The fascinating thing about this period of Portuguese polyphony is that it took place against the background of the loss of sovereignty. In 1580, King Henry I of Portugal died, he was known as Henry the chaste and was a cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church who only came to the throne because his nephew King Sebastian I died in battle in 1578. As Sebastian had been the only heir to his grandfather, these deaths left a succession crisis which led to 80 years of Spanish rule, initially under King Philip II of Spain. It was against this backdrop, with many of the composers working for Philip, the Portuguese polyphony flowered. Inspired by music such as that of Palestrina (1525-1594) and perhaps ignoring contemporary Baroque developments in music in Italy, the composers of the Portuguese Golden Age seemed to create a distinctive Portuguese style which can be seen as some sort of reaction against the Spanish domination of the country.

Tuesday, 18 February 2020

Pytheas: an intriguing concept album

David Griffin is a young composer currently working in Film/TV and Games, his music has been featured a number of times on BBC Radio 4. He has released an intriguing concept album, Pytheas, 17 tracks each with an evocative title ('Welcome aboard the B.S.V Pytheas', 'Drifting Off Course', 'We've Picked up Something!', etc), each full of dramatic, rather filmic music which mixes electronic music with traditional orchestral arrangements. The twist is that the storyline has only ever been in Griffin's head, and that it is left to the listener to fill in the gaps based on the music.

In case you are wondering, Pytheas was a 4th century BC Greek geographer and explorer, who made a voyage of exploration to North-West Europe including visiting Great Britain and Ireland, as well as being the first person on record to describe the Midnight Sun. Pytheas' writings do not survive and we only know of his work via later writers.

You can hear samples from the album on David Griffin's website, and the album is available from Spotify, and from Amazon, you can also find him on SoundCloud.

Ailsa Dixon premiere

Ailsa Dixon (centre) with Dobrinka Tabakova and Cheryl Frances Hoad at the London Oriana Choir's concert in July 2017
Ailsa Dixon (centre) with Dobrinka Tabakova and Cheryl Frances Hoad
at the London Oriana Choir's concert in July 2017
The British composer Ailsa Dixon (1932-2017) originally came to my notice in 2017 when the London Oriana Choir premiered her motet, These things shall be. At the time, Dixon was 85 and the motet had, in fact, been written 30 years earlier. Dixon studied music at Durham and would study composition with Paul Patterson but her life was devoted to family and to being a music teacher, and only in the 1980s did she enter into a really productive period including writing an opera.

Thankfully Ailsa's music is now being (re)discovered and explored, and there are a number of performances of her pieces coming up. On 20 February 2020, the Villiers String Quartet and soprano Lucinda Cox will be giving the premiere of Ailsa Dixon's The Spirit of Love (three songs for soprano and string quartet), and the first performance for 25 years of Nocturnal Scherzo, at the lunchtime concert at St George's Bristol. Also in the programme is Ethel Smyth's String Quartet in E minor. [Further details]

The Villiers String Quartet will be playing Ailsa's music again on 5 April 2020 (Palm Sunday) when they perform Ailsa's Variations on Love Divine together with Haydn’s Seven Last Words from the Cross at Wilton Church, near Salisbury. Whilst the Variations on Love Divine were recorded in the 1990s, this will be the first time the piece has been played in full at a public concert [further details]. And the Villiers String Quartet is planning to record Ailsa's complete works for string quartet

Ailsa's song cycle Songs of Mourning, Songs of Faith and Joy, setting five Biblical texts, is being given again by tenor James Gilchrist with guitarist Mark Eden at Wilton Church on 7 June 2020. The programme also includes lute songs by Dowland and Coprario.

Ailsa's 1986 piece, Shining Cold for soprano, viola, cello and Ondes Martenot has aroused interest in France and Professor Nadia Ratsimandresey of the Conservatoire de Boulogne-Billancourt is now working on the manuscript score, together with Marie Humbert of the women composers’ project ComposHer, to produce an edition that will make the work newly available to players in France and elsewhere.

Further details from the Ailsa Dixon website.

Monday, 17 February 2020

Beethoven piano sonata marathon at the Birmingham Conservatoire

Beethoven in 1803
Beethoven in 1803
Whilst cycles of Beethoven piano sonatas are not surprisingly popping up in various places during his anniversary year, pianists from Birmingham Conservatoire are going one better and giving audiences a chance to hear all 32 of Beethoven's piano sonatas performed in a single day, by 32 pianists. The marathon takes place on 18 February 2020, from 10.00am in The Bradshaw Hall at Birmingham Conservatoire, and is repeated at the Ulverston Festival on 27 March 2020, and at the Chipping Camden Festival on 4 May 2020.

The sonatas are being played in chronological order and the whole thing will last around 12 hours. Audiences for the Birmingham Conservatoire performance can stay for as little or as long as they want and pay what you like on the door.

The pianists are all students at the Birmingham Conservatoire with performers from Taiwan, China and Japan to Russia, Georgia and Israel and right across Europe, alongside those from the UK. Following the final UK performance, twelve of the pianists, together with Professors John Thwaites and Pascal Nemirovski, will fly to Bolzano, Italy to give the cycle collaboratively, sharing the sonatas between themselves and students in Italy at the Bolzano Concert Hall (home of the Busoni Competition).


Full details from the Birmingham Conservatoire website.

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