Friday, 3 July 2020

Lyrical English pastoralism and more: the choral music of Owain Park showcased by The Epiphoni Consort on Delphian

When love speaks - choral music by Owain Park; The Epiphoni Consort, Tim Reader; DELPHIAN
When love speaks
- choral music by Owain Park; The Epiphoni Consort, Tim Reader; DELPHIAN

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 3 July 2020 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
A finely-crafted portrait disc, showcasing the lyrical music of the young composer Owain Park

You are as likely to come across Owain Park as conductor (he directs his own ensemble the Gesualdo Six), singer or conductor, and this disc, When Love Speaks, from Tim Reader and The Epiphoni Consort on Delphian focuses on Owain Park the composer, presenting six of Park's choral compositions, both sacred and secular.

The words of Shakespeare are a big focus, with Park's Shakespeare Love Songs and Shakespeare Songs of Night-Time, and clearly texts known for existing settings hold no terrors for Park as his Sing to me, windchimes includes two well-known A.E. Housman poems.

Prior to this disc I had only come across Park's sacred compositions, and it was a pleasure to be able to explore Park's secular music. A singer himself, Park's experience includes being a chorister at St Mary Redcliffe in Bristol, and an organ scholar at Trinity College, Cambridge, and whilst at Cambridge he studied with John Rutter. This pedigree is reflected in his music, which is beautifully crafted for singers, so that Wind to me, windchimes features vocal writing designed to tax yet fall within the capabilities of amateurs, with a solo piano part to introduce edgier elements into the rhythm and harmonies.

Park's music here is firmly tonal, if he goes exploring then he always returns securely home and you can hear influences of his forbears, including Rutter and RVW, yet always with that sense of the younger composer questioning and asking what if....

Armonico Consort launches weekly series of performances recorded at the Court House, Warwick

Christopher Monks & Armonico Consort at the Court House, Warwick
Christopher Monks & Armonico Consort at the Court House, Warwick
The Armonico Consort has launched a weekly series of performances recorded live and broadcast on the group's Facebook page. These socially distanced performances are recorded in the Court House, Warwick. The first, on 1 July 2020, featured Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas with singers Elizabeth Adams, Eloise Irving, Robert Davies, William Towers and Graham Neal, directed by Christopher Monks [YouTube]. Further concerts take place at 6pm on Wednesdays during July, with performances of Byrd's Mass for four voices directed by Geoffrey Webber, and Oz & Armonico, the group's programme with wine expert Oz Clarke.

Bringing the term to a close, the group is holding an on-line 3-day festival (15-17 July 2020) with live recorded performances including A Crafty Beer with the Kings Singers. A new on-line feature, Unlocking Baroque Memories, broadcast at 1pm on Mondays, features Armonico Consort’s musicians delivering music therapy sessions for those living with dementia, working with the Alzheimer’s Society. Ahead of the launch, musicians have been creating short recordings and sharing recollections of a chosen piece, ‘Spring’ from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, Marcello’s Oboe Concerto and extracts from Bach’s St John Passion will feature in coming weeks.

The group has also been continuing its community work on-line, with Sing ‘n’ Shine sessions for children with choir leader Patrick Stockbridge and Sing With Simon workshops for isolated older people, led by Simon Lole. A cancelled Royal Albert Hall gala concert was transformed into a week-long Virtual Royal Albert Hall festival which saw over 120,000 audience members engage with the organisation’s work via social media.

Read my 2019 interview with Armonico Consort's artistic director, Christopher Monks - From Supersize Polyphony to choir creation.

Wednesday performances are broadcast live on Armonico Consort's Facebook page, and existing sessions are free to view on their YouTube page. Full details from the Armonico Consort's website.

Thursday, 2 July 2020

Il gondoliere Veneziano: A musical voyage through Venice - baritone Holger Falk evokes the musical world of the 18th century gondolier in this imaginative disc

Il gondoliere Veneziano: A musical voyage through Venice; Holger Falk, Nuovo Aspetto, Merzouga; Prospero
Il gondoliere Veneziano: A musical voyage through Venice
; Holger Falk, Nuovo Aspetto, Merzouga; Prospero

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 2 July 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A delightful exploration of 18th century Venetian gondoliers' song, mixing the songs with sound-scape to take the listener on a journey through the city

Not another disc about Venice you might think, picking up Il Gondoliere Veneziano from the Swiss label Prospero and Westdeutscher Rundfunk, Cologne. Baritone Holger Falk's project is far more interesting and imaginative than a lazy trawl through existing repertoire. Under the title Il gondoliere Veneziano: A musical voyage through Venice, Falk has recorded with the ensemble Nuovo Aspetto and the sound artists Merzouga, and the subject of the whole disc is Venetian gondoliers' song from the 18th century.

The Venetian canzoni da battello (literally, 'songs sung on a Boat') were everywhere in Venice, and were spread across Europe in music and in literature - the image of the singing gondolier crops up regularly. And whilst most were in Venetian dialect, some were in literary Italian, and Goethe talks about being able to request songs of Tasso or Ariosto! The singing gondolier is still around in Venice, of course, but the 20th and 21st centuries have wrought significant change to his repertoire, and nowadays he is most likely to singing a Neapolitan song or Just one cornetto.

Holger Falk & Nuovo Aspetto in Il gondoliere Veneziano at the Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg
Holger Falk & Nuovo Aspetto in Il gondoliere Veneziano at the Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg
But in the 18th century, canzoni da battello were a distinct repertoire, and not only quoted by composers but pulished in collections and in London the ubiquitous John Walsh (most famous for his pirate editions of Handel), brought out a collection. On this disc, Holger Falk and Nuovo Aspetto have combed these archives, and put together a selection of 12 anonymous canzoni da battello and they perform them alongside songs and arias by Domenico Cerutti, Pierto Auletta, Johann Simon Mayr, and Andre Campra inspired by canzoni da battello.

Wednesday, 1 July 2020

A blast from the archives: I Vespri di Santa Cecilia - for 30-part chorus, written for London Concord Singers' 30th anniversary



Robert Hugill - I Vespri di Santa Cecilia
After managing to lose sight of the score, I have recently rediscovered this, I Vespri di Santa Cecilia. It was written to celebrate London Concord Singers' 30th Anniversary in 1995, and naturally is for 30-part unaccompanied chorus. We never performed it alas, though the choir did premiere my 'cut down' version in a mere 14 parts.

Pegasus Opera launches Opera Mentoring Programme for next generation of opera singers from BAME backgrounds.

Pegasus Opera launches Opera Mentoring Programme for next generation of opera singers from BAME backgrounds.
Despite a degree of progress, BAME classical singers remain under-represented on the opera stage. In response to this Pegasus Opera, a BAME-led organisation, is launching a digital mentoring programme giving 15 aspiring classical singers from BAME backgrounds the opportunity to receive one to one coaching on repertoire, vocal technique and career advice from seasoned professionals and an experienced vocal agent.

The programme will be led by the professionals at the forefront of diversity in opera featuring Sir Willard White, Alison Buchanan, Maureen Brathwaite, Ronald Samm, Keel Watson and opera manager, Sam Krum from Robert Gilder & Co. Pegasus will support artists who have incredible talent but lack opportunity and this programme offers a high quality mentoring experience from the safety, accessibility and convenience of their own home during this difficult period for performers.

The programme will run during September and October 2020, and applications are invited by 3 August 2020.

Full details from the Pegasus Opera website.

Seductively original, neither completely new nor completely old: The Red Book of Ossory from Anakronos on Heresy Records

The Red Book of Ossory; Anakronos; Heresy Records
The Red Book of Ossory
; Anakronos; Heresy Records

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 30 June 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Neither new nor old, contemporary re-interpretations of the medieva, setting lyrics from a 14th century Irish manuscript

The Red Book of Ossory is a Fourteenth Century manuscript from St Canice's Cathedral in Kilkenny (now housed in the RCB Library; a digitised version is available). It contains, mainly, copies of documents important in the administration of the diocese and is associated with Richard de Ledrede who was Bishop of Ossory (1317-1361). The diocese corresponds to the medieval Irish kingdom of Osraige, now County Kilkenny and western County Laois, with a cathedral based at Kilkenny. The book's name comes from the original colour of the binding.

Most notably, the manuscript also contains the texts of sixty Latin verses composed by Ledrede to be sung by the priests, clerks and choristers of St Canice's 'so that their mouths be not defiled with theatrical, foul and secular songs'. Ledrede did not put music to the hymns, instead he instructed the singers to provide suitable hymns.

Now, a new project has re-interpreted Ledrede's verses for a modern day audience. Heresy Records has released The Red Book of Ossory by a new ensemble, Anakronos, which blends medieval music, jazz and contemporary classical. Anakronos features Catriona O'Leary, voice, Deirdre O'Leary, clarinets, Nick Roth, saxophones and Francesco Turrisi, keyboards and percussion [The disc is released on 10 July].

Singer Catriona O'Leary has worked in both Early Music and traditional Irish song and these genres intersect with jazz and contemporary in these performances, as O'Leary has taken music from a variety of medieval sources to create the settings for Ledrede's texts, and around them Anakronos has woven a striking blend of Medieval, jazz and contemporary. (O'Leary did something similar on her 2014 disc, The Wexford Carols, see my review)

Tuesday, 30 June 2020

Festivals from Massachusetts to Yorkshire are going on-line, enabling us to visit virtually

The Koussevitzky Music Shed, Tanglewood (Photo John Phelan, Wikipedia)
The Koussevitzky Music Shed, Tanglewood (Photo John Phelan, Wikipedia)
Festival season is upon us, and with the cancellation of live performances many festivals are going on-line. Whilst this means that we miss out on the experience of live music making, it does mean that we can eavesdrop on festivals that we would not otherwise be able to visit, so that we can virtually eavesdrop on performances at the Boston Symphony Orchestra's Summer home of Tanglewood in New England, or at iconic historic venues such as Castle Howard for the Ryedale Festival's live-streamed concerts, whilst the Live from London festival has been crafted specially for lockdown with the aim of giving the artists valuable support.

Over in New England, the Tanglewood Online Festival opens this week so that we can virtually visit western Massachusetts for a variety of content. The online festival is featuring both specially recorded content from artists such as violinist Gil Shaham and members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, including Jacques Lacombe conducting the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in Aaron Copland's Lincoln Portrait and pianist Kirill Gerstein in Gershwin's Piano Concerto. Full details from the Boston Symphony Orchestra's website.

Castle Howard (Photo Pwojdacz, Wikipedia)
Castle Howard (Photo Pwojdacz, Wikipedia)
And in Yorkshire, the Ryedale Festival will be live-streaming eight concerts, free-to-view, from 19 July to 26 July 2020, opening on 19 July with Isata Kanneh-Mason. Many of the concerts will be filmed in iconic Yorkshire venues, so there will be violinist Rachel Podger in Biber at Castle Howard, organist Anna Lapwood at St Michael's Church, Coxwold, cellist Abel Selaocoe at All Saints' Church, Helmsley, clarinettist Matthew Hunt and pianist Tim Horton in Schubert, Jorg Widmann and Ireland from the Long Gallery at Castle Howard, and the Albion Quartet in Schubert in the great hall of Castle Howard. Soprano Rowan Pierce will join festival director Christopher Glynn for songs by Purcell, Schumann, Schubert & Grieg, violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen will join Glynn for music by Elgar. Members of Streetwise Opera will join Roderick Williams, Christopher Glynn, the Brodsky Quartet and Genesis Sixteen for a virtual performance directed by Freya Wynn-Jones inspired by The Linden Tree from Schubert's Winterreise. Full details from the Ryestream website.

By contrast, the Live from London on-line has been designed specifically for lockdown. Filmed at the VOCES8 Centre in London, the festival will feature performances every Saturday for ten weeks from 1 August 2020, with ensembles such as VOCES8, I Fagiolini, Stile Antico, the Swingles, The Sixteen and Chanticleer. The concerts will be pay-per-view (with season tickets available) and are intended to raise money for artists, venues and promoters. The concerts start on 1 August with VOCES8 in a programme inspired by the group's recent CD After Silence with music from Orlando Gibbons and Monteverdi to the premiere of Marten Janssens' Elemental Elegy, followed by I Fagiolini in an all-Monteverdi programme on 8 August, followed by a guest appearance of the Academy of Ancient Music on 15 August.. Full details from the Live from London website.

Live from London festival

Making Waves: London Oriana Choir's on-line premiere of new work by Anna Disley-Simpson

London Oriana Choir - Making Waves -  4 July 2020
The London Oriana Choir, conductor Dominic Ellis-Peckham, is planning a virtual concert on Saturday 4 July 2020, as part of its five15 project supporting and exploring the work of women composers.

Saturday's concert will feature performances of works by Cecilia McDowall, Kerry Andrew, Eleanor Daley, Mia Makaroff, Vittoria Aleotti (1575-1620) and Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), arr Felicia Sandler, recorded at concerts at the Cutty Sark and the Stationers Hall. And there will be the premiere of a new lockdown commission, Waves from the choir's composer in residence, Anna Disley-Simpson.

The event will also feature introductions from Cecilia McDowall and Felicia Sandler, and Dominic Peckham will be talking to Anna Disley-Simpson.

Full details from the London Oriana Choir's website.

The English Pre-Restoration Verse Anthem: Fretwork & the Magdalena Consort continue their exploration of these intimate works for voices and viols on Signum Classics

In Chains of Gold, volume 2 - Byrd, Bull, Cosyn, Hooper, Mundy; Magdalena Consort, Fretwork, His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts, William Hunt
In Chains of Gold, volume 2
- Byrd, Bull, Cosyn, Hooper, Mundy; Magdalena Consort, Fretwork, His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts, William Hunt; Signum

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 29 June 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A further exploration of English verse anthems, with intimate, finely crafted performances which aim to recapture the spirit of the originals

This disc, In Chains of Gold, represents volume two of Signum Classics valuable survey of the English Pre-Restoration Verse Anthem, featuring the Magdalena Consort (director Peter Harvey), Fretwork, His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts, artistic director William Hunt. Having devoted volume one to the complete consort anthems of Orlando Gibbons, this new volume looks at his great contemporary William Byrd, along with music by John Bull, Benjamin Cosyn, Edmund Hooper and John Mundy.

The sound-world that the performances aim to create is as close as possible to what we know about Elizabethan performance of these intimate works for voices and viols. The works are performed in the original keys at a pitch of A466 (a semi-tone higher than modern pitch), with a set of small English viols re-strung to the high pitch especially for the project, a strikingly characterful reconstructed Tudor organ (which can be heard in solo pieces) and a vocal consort which uses high tenors rather than falsettists. Perhaps, as important, as any of these, is the way that the performances keep the required intimacy; viols are not excessively loud instruments and these works were often intended for domestic use, though we know them now from their re-purposing by church choirs. The survival of this music is patchy, and for some pieces the original instrumental accompaniments have had to be re-constructed.

Monday, 29 June 2020

From Couch to Chorus: Opera North's education team launches a new project aimed at getting us all singing in our living rooms

Opera North SingON at Alwoodley (Photo Justin Slee)
Opera North SingON at Alwoodley (Photo Justin Slee)
For anyone who simply catches a performance by Opera North, in Leeds or on tour, it can be easy to miss the fact that the company's extends well beyond opera to busy education and outreach departments with projects with school children, adults and refugees. This Summer the company is launching a new virtual choir, From Couch to Chorus, aimed at getting people singing. One of the choral directors involved is Jennifer Sterling who explained to me more about the project.

Jennifer works in the education department on projects such as In Harmony Opera North (part of a national programme that aims to inspire and transform the lives of children in deprived communities) where school children are taught instruments and sing in choirs, or Sing ON, the company's weekly music and singing activity for over 55s.

But moving from these active participation events to the necessity of using Zoom in lockdown can surely be tricky when working with amateurs? Jennifer explained that they have already been working on-line with these existing groups. This was very much trial and error, but they have received some good feedback, such as one singer who commented that they didn't expect to enjoy singing in front of a computer so much!

Jennifer points out that there is a lot you can do on-line, you can talk about details, though you have to guess the areas that might go wrong, so they can be looked at in greater depth. One thing they have learned is that not having too many parts in a rehearsal helps. So for From Couch to Chorus there will be four weeks of sectional rehearsals (separating soprano, alto, tenor and bass), before everyone comes together.

Cole Porter: Kiss me Kate - the chorus of Opera North (Photo: Tristram Kenton)
Cole Porter: Kiss me Kate - the chorus of Opera North (Photo: Tristram Kenton)
For From Couch to Chorus, the singers will be learning the opening chorus from Smetana's The Bartered Bride, the chorus of the Hebrew slaves from Verdi's Nabucco and the Habanera from Bizet's Carmen. At the end there will be an ensemble sing through with a recording made by the chorus of Opera North.

The members of the SingON choirs have found their on-line sessions to be quite freeing in some ways. But one area that will be a challenge for some in From Couch to Chorus is being on your own in front of a computer, you have to learn how to hold your part without the support of the rest of your voice part. Jennifer hopes that the project will enable singers to gain confidence and perhaps decide to join a choir once things return to normal.

A huge variety of people could participate, and it will be important to give singers a variety of things to think about, so some will be concentrate on simply learning the notes whilst other more experienced singers will be encouraged to think about how they sing.

When things return to normal there will be the challenge of incorporating elements of what the team has learned from the on-line sessions into regular rehearsals. For Opera North's existing projects, there could well be an interim period when a mixture of live rehearsals and on-line sessions is used. For any new projects, the team will have to think about how many more people can be reached by technology. Within a day or so of the launch of From Couch to Chorus over 300 singers had signed up. Running a live project with such numbers could be tricky, so Jennifer could imagine a project which moved from on-line sessions to a final physical get together.

The team's school projects have also been using on-line sessions. However, with the school children, rehearsing together in an important factor in building confidence and team work, but teaching tends to be in groups. Working on-line has meant an emphasis on learning musicianship, a process which has been positive, but had its frustrations too. Jennifer points out that when you sing in a choir, you developed a personal connection with everyone even though you might not know them individually. And this can be important in projects like In Harmony Opera North, and singing on-line just does not give you this.

From Couch to Chorus runs from 20 July to 12 August 2020, full details from the Opera North website.

Fidelio Unbound: bringing live recitals back to London

The Fidelio Orchestra, an ensemble based at a cafe in Clerkenwell which presents events in a variety of locations often combined with food, as come up with a concert series to re-start concert going in London, Fidelio Unbound.

This will be a series of concerts at the Fidelio Orchestra Cafe in Clerkenwell, starting on 7 July, with some major classical artists in recital. In order to keep the events safe, a maximum of 25 tickets will be sold per event, but the artists will be repeating the events to ensure that programmes are accessible to more people. Each concert will be followed by a meal, created by the chef Alan Rosenthal.

The series opens with cellist Stephen Isserlis in Bach (7-11 July), and he is followed by Alina Ibragimova (violin) and Samson Tsoy (cello) in Janacek and Beethoven (14-18 July), pianist Pavel Kolesnikov in Chopin (21-25 July), Louis Schwizgebel (piano) in Debussy and Mussorgsky (29-31 July), Simon Callow reading Shakespeare (4-8 August) and Charles Owen (piano) in Chopin, Liszt and Schumann (11-13 August 2020).

Full details from the Fidelio Orchestra website.

Politics, Poetry & Personal Interest: Lully, King Louis XIV and the invention of French opera

Apollo performed by Louis XIV, Ballet de la nuit 1653
Apollo performed by Louis XIV,
Ballet de la nuit 1653
In 1653, fourteen-year-old King Louis XIV of France took part in the Ballet Royal de la nuit, a ballet de cour which was highly elaborate and took 13 hours to perform. A twenty-one-year old Italian musician and dancer, Jean-Baptiste Lully (Giovanni Battista Lulli) danced with Louis in the ballet. The two got on and this relationship would have an important influence on opera in France. A strange mixture of politics and personal interest would ensure that, almost uniquely in Europe, the French rejected Italian opera and developed a style of opera very particular to France and the French language. And central to this process would by Lully.

But in 1653, opera hardly existed in France and the important genre was the ballet de cour, the name given to the 16th and 17th century ballets performed at the royal court, a distinctive French dance genre which mixed formalised and social dancing. Its influence was huge and French opera would combine elements of the ballet de cour, including the spectacular settings and large-scale portions for dancers.

And it would be Lully who codified the form of French opera, in his 13 tragédies lyriques or tragédies en musique. Of course, Italian courts in the 17th century had a love of spectacle too, but usually with less dance element to it. And opera in the two countries would be intriguingly linked, via a series of French royal marriages to members of the Medici family which ruled Florence.

Ballets de cour


Ballet de cour was a secular, not religious happening; it was a carefully crafted mixture of art, socialising, and politics, with its primary objective being to exalt the State (in the person of the ruler). Early French court ballet’s choreography was constructed as a series of patterns and geometric shapes that were intended to be viewed from overhead. Once the performance was through, the audience was encouraged to join the dancers on the floor to participate in a, "ball" which was designed to bring everyone in the hall into unanimity with the ideas expressed by the piece. As they developed through time, court ballets began to introduce comedy, went through a phase where they poked fun at manners and affectations of the time, and they moved into a phase where they became enamoured with pantomime.

A 1592 engraving by Orazio Scarabelli depicting the mock sea battle, or naumachia, at the Palazzo Pitti
A 1592 engraving by Orazio Scarabelli depicting the mock sea battle, or naumachia, at the Palazzo Pitti
At the time of the court ballet’s birth, a similar art form appeared in Italy called opera, arising out of the Italian court’s love of spectacle; the difference between the two crafts, is that the developing phenomenon in Italy focused on the singing aspect of performance, whereas in France, movement was front and centre.


Ballets de cour in France


When Catherine de’ Medici, the daughter of the ruler of Florence, Lorenzo di Piero de' Medici, married the French King Henri II in 1533, French and Italian culture enmeshed as Catherine brought from her native Italy her penchant for theatrical and ceremonial events, including elegant social dances.

Sunday, 28 June 2020

A Life on-Line: Otello in Birmingham, Wagner's villa at Grange Park Opera, and an immersive, genderswapping Midsummer Night's Dream

Verdi: Otello - Keel Watson (Iago) and Ronald Samm (Othello) in Birmingham Opera Company's 2009 production
Verdi: Otello - Keel Watson (Iago) and Ronald Samm (Othello)
Birmingham Opera Company, 2009

On Monday, thanks to BBC iPlayer we were able to catch up on an opera production that I always regretted not seeing, Graham Vick's 2009 production of Verdi's Otello for Birmingham Opera Company with Ronald Samm as Otello (the first time a Black tenor had sung the role in the UK), Keel Watson as Iago and Stephanie Corley as Desdemona, conducted by Stephen Barlow. Set in a huge, bare industrial space Vick's production was deliberately immersive with the locally recruited chorus, team of actors and dancers all mingling with the audience. Inevitably you missed something of the visceral, immersive nature of the production.

With no decorative period setting, this was a bleak and direct production with intense performances from the principals, raising disturbing questions as to why we do not see more of Samm and Watson in major roles with the larger opera companies (both were in Fulham Opera's 2019 production of Wagner's Die Meistersinger).

On Thursday, it was Iain Burnside's latest musical play, The view from the villa. This had been intended to debut this year, and was presented in a work-shop production as part of Grange Park Opera's Found Season. Burnside accompanied at the piano and Susan Bickley was Mathilde Wesendonck, Matthew Brook as Otto Wesendonck and Victoria Newlyn as Minna Wagner. The piece dramatised the events of the Summer when the Wagner's stayed in a villa provided by Otto Wesendonck, and Wagner had some sort of affair with Mathilde Wesendonck and they wrote the Wesendonck Lieder. The music included, of course, the Wesendonck Lieder sung by Bickley, but we also got part of Hunding and Sieglinde's dialogue from Die Walkure, King Mark's monologue from Tristan und Isolde and a setting of Goethe's poem about the rat.

The form of the piece was as three interlinking monologues, and what made it for me was the way Burnside and Newlyn gave personality to Minna Wagner, who too often suffers from first-wife-syndrome, and is brushed off as mad. Here she was clear eyed and provided a wry commentary, 'Richard never could resist posh totty', 'A five-hour opera about not getting your jollies ', 'I never saw Bayreuth, I was long dead, but then I never saw the pink knickers. Swings and roundabouts'. I look forward to seeing it staged.

I have probably seen more performances of Britten's opera A Midsummer Night's Dream than Shakespeare's play (in the 1970s and 1980s I saw Toby Robertson's delightful production for Scottish Opera around half a dozen times). When I see the play it is almost filtered through the opera, and I cannot help but marvel at the way Britten and Pears re-shaped the text, not just cutting it but taking elements from one place and moving them to another.

We caught up with the Bridge Theatre's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, the play, on the National Theatre at Home streaming season. Nicholas Hytner's production was also an immersive promenade one, again this means that the cameras do not quite capture the full effect. It was in many ways modern and modish, with upbeat, uptempo music and something of a carnival atmosphere. There were elements to annoy, but also to intrigue;  Hytner had adjusted the text so that no only did Gwendolyn Christie and Oliver Chris double Oberon, Tytania, Theseus and Hippolyta, but in terms of Shakespeare's text, Christie played Hippolyta and Oberon, whilst Chris played Theseus and Tytania. It was Christie who was the strong, active partner whilst Chris was the one who fell in love with Bottom (a wonderfully wide-eyed Hammed Animashaun). It was worth it for Chris' expression when he woke up to realise that his beloved wasn't just a 'monster' but was a man!

Hytner attempted something similar with the lovers, but Shakespeare's text does not give much leeway here and this felt a little artificial. Still, an intriguing take on what is an enchanting yet problematic story. And the gender swapping continued with the mechanicals to rather thoughtful and striking effect.

Saturday was the final of the Live from Covent Garden events, this time a striking mixture of opera and oratorio, chamber music and dance, with a focus on Covent Garden's young artists.

Saturday, 27 June 2020

Renowned as a pedagogue & the Royal Academy of Music's first cello professor, there is a lot more to Alfredo Piatti: I chat to cellist Adrian Bradbury about rediscovering Piatti's forgotten operatic fantasies

Adrian Bradbury and Oliver Davies recording (Photo Richard Hughes)
Adrian Bradbury and Oliver Davies recording (Photo Richard Hughes)
I first came across the name of the cellist Alfredo Piatti (1822-1901) in connection with the Cello Concerto which Sir Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) wrote for Piatti. But Piatti was also a composer, and as such seems to be having something of a moment. Cellist Josephine Knight's recent disc for Dutton coupled Schumann's Cello Concerto with Alfredo Piatti's Cello Concerto No. 2 and Concertino for cello and orchestra, and in July, Meridian is issuing the second of cellist Adrian Bradbury and pianist Oliver Davies' two disc set of Piatti's operatic fantasies, 12 pieces in all, works which Bradbury and Davies have edited from Piatti's original manuscripts. I recently chatted with Adrian to learn more about Alfredo Piatti and his cello music.

Alfredo Piatti, Lithograph by Eduard Kaiser, 1858
Alfredo Piatti,
Lithograph by Eduard Kaiser, 1858
Adrian and Oliver first started working on Piatti's operatic fantasies in 2011, and by 2016 had all 12 edited and were performing them, then the present disc was recorded in 2018. My first question to Adrian was why devote so much time and energy to such a lesser known composer and a musical form, the operatic fantasy, which is not always highly regarded? Adrian laughs and suggests a mid-life crisis.

More seriously, he comments that his familiarity with the operatic fantasy as a genre goes back to his youth when his father, principal clarinet with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, would play such repertoire with Oliver Davies accompanying (Oliver is something of a family friend). So 30 years later things have come full circle, with Adrian playing the similar repertoire with the same pianist.

The immediate catalyst was a request from the London Cello Society to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Royal Academy of Music's (RAM) present building in Marylebone Road with an illustrated concert on Alfredo Piatti who was cello professor at the RAM (initially he was the only cello professor), and was there for 25 years. Piatti is a name familiar to cellists as all players love Piatti's Caprices (12 Caprices for solo cello, Op.25, written in 1865 and first published in 1875). Thanks to a colleague, Adrian already had the standard book on Piatti by Dr Annalisa Barzanò. Re-reading it, Adrian realised that for the RAM event they had to perform an operatic fantasy, a form for which Piatti was popular and famous. So they looked out what Piatti had played on his first visit to London, and it as an operatic fantasy based on the opera Beatrice di Tenda by Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835) [Piatti's Souvenir de Beatrice di Tenda is on Adrian and Oliver's first volume of Alfredo Piatti: The Operatic Fantasies on Meridian]. First of all they had to acquire the music.

Friday, 26 June 2020

Smoked beer, ETA Hoffmann and the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra: Tony explores the picturesque Upper Franconian town of Bamberg

Schlenkerla tavern, Bamberg (Photo Schlenkerla tavern)
Schlenkerla tavern, Bamberg (Photo Schlenkerla tavern)
In between performances at the Bayreuth Festival, Tony Cooper recalls time out exploring the picturesque Upper Franconian town of Bamberg, from historic breweries and smoked beer to ETA Hoffmann, and looks forward to the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra's new season.

I’ve heard a lot of good things said about Bamberg - located in Upper Franconia and situated on the Regnitz which flows gently into the river Main - not least by the fame of its breweries. So while I was staying in the vicinity attending the Bayreuth Festival, I thought a day in Bamberg would embrace a nice rail excursion on one of my days off from Wagner. My presumption proved correct. I had a wonderful time. The journey from Bayreuth to Bamberg only takes about an hour and the Old Town (Altstadt) - the area to head for - is within easy walking distance of the railway-station.

I think it goes without saying that Germany’s renowned for good beer whichever city you find yourself be it Munich, Berlin, Nuremberg et al. But in Bamberg they have a ‘brew’ that’s very special to the town - smoked beer (rauchbier). It’s their pride and joy! On booking my ticket, the counter clerk at Bayreuth station immediately told me: ‘Try the smoked beer. It’s delicious! It’s famous!’ How right he was. ‘Wagner,’ he shouted, ‘liked it, too.’ True or false? Tick the box.

Within an hour of arriving at Bamberg meandering through the Old Town with its abundance of eye-catching half-timbered houses I found myself in Dominikanerstraße. It took me no time at all to log on to the fact that I was in the right vicinity and, really, at the epicentre to the smoked-beer industry.

Thursday, 25 June 2020

Opera Rara at 50: insight talk on-line tonight

Opera Rara at 50
Opera Rara is 50 this year, and earlier this week there should have been a celebratory performance of Donizetti's Il furioso all’isola di San Domingo at the Barbican with Carlo Rizzi conducting the Britten Sinfonia. This hss been postponed until next year, and the event will now take place on 8 July 2021, when Carlo Rizzi conducts a cast including Misha Kiria, Albina Shagimuratova, Fabio Capitanucci, André Henriques, Heather Lowe and René Barbera [see Barbican website]. The opera is loosely based one of the stories from Cervantes Don Quixote and Donizetti wrote it in 1833 (the year after L'elisir d'amore and only a few years after Anna Bolena, Donizetti's breakthrough piece). Il furioso is not an entire stranger to the UK stage as English Touring Opera staged the work in 2015 [see Hilary's review], though the Opera Rara performance will undoubtedly benefit from a critical edition of the work.

If you feel deprived of the ability to celebrate Opera Rara's anniversary (and there is much to celebrate), then fear not. Tune in to Opera Rara's Facebook page at 7pm tonight (25 June 2020) to hear Artistic Dramaturge, Roger Parker and Musicologist, Ditlev Rindom in conversation, and they will be joined by Artistic Director, Carlo Rizzi and Chief Executive, Henry Little for a live Q and A.

Icelandic experimentalism: Guðmundur Steinn Gunnarsson's Sinfonia explores non-traditional tunings and alternative notations

Guðmundur Steinn Gunnarsson Sinfonia; Ensemble Fengjastrútur; Carrier Records
Guðmundur Steinn Gunnarsson Sinfonia; Ensemble Fengjastrútur; Carrier Records

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 24 June 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Icelandic experimental music which is the distillation of the the composer's long experience with non-traditional tunings and alternative notations, imbuing the music with freedom, anarchism, energy and humour

The Icelandic composer and performer Guðmundur Steinn Gunnarsson is best known as being a founding member of the Slátur collective, an experimental arts organisation in Reykjavík. His interest in non-linear musical pulse (without grid or straight line) has led him to create his own notation. On his website, Gunnarsson describes it as a need to 'incorporate digital dynamic screen scores or animated notation (or related digital methods) to express his inability to adapt to the convenient society.'.

This new disc of Guðmundur Steinn Gunnarsson's Sinfonia on Carrier Records, performed by Ensemble Fengjastrútur, might be a major performance of a recent (2019) work by a composer not extensively represented on disc (though there are other discs of his music on Carrier Records), and also represents Ensemble Fengjastrútur's first full-length release, but it is the result of long processes. Gunnarsson has collaborated with Slátur for fifteen years,  Ensemble Fengjastrútur was founded in 2007 and has developed a long relationship with Gunnarsson's music and Sinfonia was written for them in 2019.

The whole style of Gunnarsson's music, the Slátur collective and Ensemble Fengjastrútur arises out of the catastrophic bank crash of 2008. At the time Gunnarsson had just returned from Mills College (where he studied) and found himself stranded in Iceland. This is how Slátur collective arose, a group of like-minded individuals who experimented, congregated in cheap housing, worked with found objects and broke the rules. Gunnarsson's challenging style of music requires sympathetic collaborators who are willing to find out what happens when you abandon conventional Western notation and the strait-jacket of bar lines, counting and regular grids.

Wednesday, 24 June 2020

Best known as a conductor and orchestral composer, Sir Hamilton Harty's expressively melodic songs are explored by Kathryn Rudge and Christopher Glynn

Songs by Sir Hamilton Harty; Kathryn Rudge, Christopher Glynn; SOMM
Songs by Sir Hamilton Harty; Kathryn Rudge, Christopher Glynn; SOMM

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 22 June 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Better known for his orchestra music, this disc explores the songs of the Irish composer, pianist and conductor of the Hallé Orchestra

Whilst Sir Hamilton Harty remains best known as the conductor of the Hallé Orchestra (from 1920 to 1933), his work as a composer has become known particularly thanks to the sequence of recordings of Harty's orchestral music made Bryden Thomson and the Ulster Orchestra on Chandos. A disc of his chamber music appeared on Hyperion in 2012, but so far Harty's songs seem to have been relatively unexplored, though Caroline Dobbin and Ian Burnside included a number on their Delphian disc Calen-O: Songs from the North of Ireland [see my review]. That makes doubly welcome this new disc, the first I think entirely devoted to Hamilton Harty's songs, on SOMM performed by Kathryn Rudge (mezzo-soprano) and Christopher Glynn (piano).

What is surprising is that Harty wrote songs all his life. Whilst the majority of them seem to date from the period from 1901 (when he first came to London) to the outbreak of the First World War, and his commitments to the Hallé from 1920 meant that his output diminished, yet when ill-health forced him to stop working with the orchestra he returned to song.

Tuesday, 23 June 2020

Taking education on-line: from Zooming choristers and Virtual Mini Sessions, to singing lessons with ETO and #OPatHome

#OPatHome from Oxford Philharmonic
#OPatHome from Oxford Philharmonic
With the advent of lockdown, music education has had to go on-line in ways which perhaps were never considered before, and many organisations must be considering how procedures and methodology might change when normality returns, to continue to capture some of the energy and directness that can come from on-line interaction.

When I interviewed Edmund Aldhouse, director of music at Ely Cathedral, he talked about how doing regular one-to-one Zoom sessions with each of the choristers had made them re-think how they might take elements of this forward when group rehearsals are possible again. And the Benedetti Foundation's Virtual Sessions in May, on-line replacements for the foundations regular series of workshops for young players and for teachers, was such a success that the foundation is running more, with the Virtual Mini Sessions during July and August.

Over at English Touring Opera, the singers who were expecting to be taking part in the company's tour of Mozart's Cosi fan tutte, Bach's St John Passion and Handel's Giulio Cesare, have been busy creating on-line singing-lesson videos both for Adults and for Children, to encourage everyone to get singing. I sampled one of the lessons last week, read my article about the results.

And the musicians of the Oxford Philharmonic have been creating #OPatHome, a six-week video series of entertaining and resourceful virtual music-making for primary school children. In the series, members of the Orchestra introduce their instruments, tell stories, perform legendary musical excerpts, and suggest interactive activities to do at home, even if you don't play an instrument.

The series has been created by musicians from the Orchestra during lockdown in hopes of sending music, fun and creativity from their own homes to children watching at home and in school, and activities include making your own panpipes from paper straws, body percussion, and sound effects with kitchen utensils. Each video is accompanied by short worksheets with further tasks to encourage children to participate. Six videos are currently available including with Tony (flute), Basia (violin), Bryony (viola), Jules (percussion), and Sally (harp). The series is presented by Jamie, who is Sub-Principal 2nd Violin with the Orchestra. There is an #OPatHome playlist on YouTube.


Benedetti Foundation's Virtual Mini Sessions - short, focused, in-depth workshops on-line

Nicola Benedetti leads a Benedetti Foundation workshop
Nicola Benedetti leads a
Benedetti Foundation workshop
Founded by violinist Nicola Benedetti, the Benedetti Foundation provides orchestra-based workshops for young people and teachers, that showcase what Music Education at its best can look and feel like. With lockdown, the foundation went on-line during May with the first ever Virtual Sessions. And the Benedetti Foundation is continuing to work on-line and during July and August will be providing the Virtual Mini Sessions - short, focused workshops designed to provide in depth and detailed exploration on a wide variety of topics.

The workshops will be in the form of short, concentrated sessions on particular topics, practical sessions, concentrating on technique, physicality and well-being, as well as discussion sessions. And there will be separate sessions aimed at young people, music students, recent graduates, instrumental teachers and adult learners.

A whole series of workshops is planned for July and August, ranging from intensive courses on vibrato for school age string players (separate courses for violinist and violists, and cellists and bassists) to a teachers' session on building a Kodaly-inspired music programme in Primary School.

All the sessions are delivered by world-class musicians and educators. There is a small admin fee to participate in the Mini Sessions. Bursary support is available – no one will be prevented from attending due to financial circumstances.

Intimate beauty: Iestyn Davies and Elizabeth Kenny in Elizabethan lute song, Purcell, Mozart and Schubert at Wigmore Hall

Elizabeth Kenny and Iestyn Davies in Purcell at Wigmore Hall (Photo taken from Live Stream)
Elizabeth Kenny and Iestyn Davies in Purcell at Wigmore Hall
(Photo taken from Live Stream)
Purcell, Dowland, Johnson, Campion, Mozart, Schubert; Iestyn Davies, Elizabeth Kenny; Wigmore Hall

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 22 June 2020
A programme of intimate gems which took us from Purcell, through Elizabethan lute song to Mozart and Schubert

The BBC Radio 3 and Wigmore Hall lunchtime recitals continued on Monday 22 June 2020 with programme given by counter-tenor Iestyn Davies and Elizabeth Kenny on theorbo, lute and guitar. They began with Henry Purcell, and then moved on to Elizabethan lute song from John Dowland, Thomas Campion and Robert Johnson, before finishing with a group which moved towards the 19th century, with a song by Mozart and a pair of songs by Schubert.

We opened with Purcell, three airs sung by Iestyn Davies with Elizabeth Kenny on the theorbo. 'Strike the viol, touch the lute', from Purcell's final birthday ode for Queen Mary, Come ye songs or art, away showed Davies in fine form, producing apparently effortless beautiful tone combined with expressive words to vivid effect, and partnered by Kenny's lively accompaniment. 'By beauteous softness mixed with majesty' from Purcell's first birthday ode Now Does the Glorious Day Appear, was slower with Davies shaping the sinuous melody in a very seductive way. Finally, Lord, what is man? A Divine Hymn, which began with dramatic arioso, given a strongly rhetorical feel by the performers and I loved the textures of the theorbo accompaniment here. The following aria had a distinct feeling of the formal dance about it, and we finished with a perky Alleluia, full of lovely elaborations.

Monday, 22 June 2020

Deliberately going against the grain: Nicholas Collon, artistic director of Aurora Orchestra, on eclectic programming, performing from memory and music of the spheres

Nicholas Collon and the Aurora Orchestra (Photo Chris Christodoulou)
Nicholas Collon and the Aurora Orchestra (Photo Chris Christodoulou)
The Aurora Orchestra has a new disc out, the ensemble's first one on Deutsche Grammophon. Conducted by artistic director Nicholas Collon, the disc is entitled Music of the Spheres, and features Mozart's Jupiter Symphony, Max Richter's Journey, and Thomas Adès' Violin Concerto 'Concentric Paths' with violinist Pekka Kuusisto, alongside music by David Bowie and Nico Muhly's arrangement of John Dowland.

Max Richter's Journey was commissioned specially for the project and is inspired by the discovery of the first pulsar stars [you can see an excerpt on Richter's website], whilst Mozart's symphony was performed from memory, something for which the orchestra has become well known. I recently chatted to Nicholas Collon, via Zoom, to find out more.

The programme arose after the orchestra had played Mozart's Jupiter Symphony at the BBC Proms in 2017 and had loved it. The result is a varied mix of works inspired by the theme of the music of the spheres ['an ancient philosophical concept that regards proportions in the movements of celestial bodies—the Sun, Moon, and planets—as a form of music. This "music" is not thought to be audible, but rather a harmonic, mathematical or religious concept' - Wikipedia]. Nicholas admits that the link to Mozart's symphony touches the programme only tangentially ('Jupiter' is a nickname applied to the symphony after Mozart's death), but the result is the sort of varied repertoire which the ensemble enjoys. [See Nick Boston's review on Bachtrack of the orchestra's Music of the Spheres programme at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, 5 June 2019]

Aurora Orchestra performing Max Richter's Journey
Aurora Orchestra performing Max Richter's Journey
Thomas Adès violin concerto is a work that Nicholas has long wanted to record, and he has performed it before with Pekka Kuusisto. When talking about the work Adès used the idea of celestial planes as an analogy for the movement of time and space within the music, which makes it fit neatly into the programme's theme. The disc is completed by Nico Muhly's arrangement of John Dowland's song Time Stands Still, sung by counter-tenor Iestyn Davies, and John Barber's arrangement of David Bowie's classic song Life on Mars, with vocals from Sam Swallow. Nicholas admits the result is very eclectic; at the start of the interview I ask him to describe how the programme hangs together, and he responds with 'or does it?'. But the disc very much reflect the diversity of the orchestra's programming.

Sunday, 21 June 2020

A Life On-Line: Mendelssohn's Fairies, Miss Havisham's Wedding, Guildhall School's virtual technology and powerful Mahler

Virtual rendering of Takis designs for Guildhall School of Music's opera double bill
Virtual rendering of Takis designs for Guildhall School of Music's opera double bill
We started the week with Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, as filtered through Felix Mendelssohn's imagination. As part of his Mendelssohn cycle with the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO), John Eliot Gardiner performed Mendelssohn's Symphony No .1 and incidental music to A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Barbican in February 2016 and that was the LSO's archive broadcast as part of its Always Playing season.

Gardiner has a long history of working with modern instrument orchestra and, using a reduced size LSO, he conjured some wonderful sounds in Mendelssohn's early symphony (written when he was just 15). When Mendelssohn conducted the symphony in London when he was 20, he wrote to his parents that he thought the scherzo was boring and so had created a new one from the scherzo to the Octet! Gardiner, ever interested in the fine detail of the music, gave us both scherzos. Delicious.

Then came the music from A Midsummer Night's Dream. Mendelssohn writes little for the mechanicals, and not that much for the lovers, so Gardiner had trimmed the music slightly, and created a version in which three actors from Guildhall School of Music and Drama played seven roles, Ceri-Lyn Cissone was Hermia/Fairy/Titania, Frankie Wakefield was Oberon/Theseus, and Alexander Knox Lysander/Puck. The result was highly satisfying, with some lovely singing from the women of the Monteverdi Choir, which provided the fairy soloists as well, Jessica Cale, Sarah Denbee, Charlotte Ashley, Rebecca Hardwick.

Such trimmings down work well because Mendelssohn's overture, written when he was 17, was not designed for a performance of the play and is more of a tone poem, encapsulating the entire work in a single piece of music. All the more remarkably, when Mendelssohn returned to the play 16 years later he was able to re-capture the moment.

Faced with the complete loss of her company's 2020 season, Wasfi Kani of Grange Park Opera had a Judy Garland moment, 'let's do the show right here!', and created an enterprising Found Season in which performances were created in a socially distanced way, many from the empty Grange Park Opera auditorium in Surrey. On Tuesday we caught up with the season with Dominick Argento's one-act monodrama, Miss Havisham's Wedding Night (in fact there are three characters, but two are silent!). Performed in a fully staged version by soprano Sarah Minns and pianist David Eaton. Dominick Argento (1927-2019) composed Miss Havisham's Fire in 1979; a full length opera with 19 characters, it gave some back story to the character from Dickens' David Copperfield (note of trivia: in Dickens it is clear that Miss Havisham is in her 30s, but 20th century interpretations have always made her considerably older). The opera was not a great success and Argento boiled it down to the one-act monodrama in 1981. It remains a curious piece, but Minns gave a terrific performance as the disturbed spinster who constantly returns to the disastrous events of her wedding night.

On Wednesday there was more live music as the City Music Foundation (CMF) presented the first of its series of recitals from the clock tower at St Pancras. The CMF mentors and coaches young artists, creating performance opportunities for them with a series of recitals. With lockdown and the loss of income, CMF has found its role changing as it seeks to support the young artists, both financially and to provide alternative performance opportunities. This first recital featured mezzo-soprano Lotte Betts Dean, guitarist Andrey Lebedev and accordion player Bartosz Glowacki in a delightful programme which moved from Piazzolla, Fernando Sor and Garcia Lorca, through Bach and Monteverdi, to Charles Trenet and Antônio Carlos Jobim. Please do support the CMF and its young artists if you can, clock tower recitals are at 6pm on Wednesdays.

The Summer term is the time when many conservatoires put on their annual opera performances. Determined not to miss the opportunity, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama turned to technology when social distancing came into operation. The result was the double bill of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas and Respighi's La bella dormente nel bosco directed by Olivia Fuchs and conducted by Dominic Wheeler. Amazingly both operas were created without anyone actually meeting, everything was done remotely. Fuchs and Wheeler had trimmed the pieces slightly, and all the performers recorded their performances at home, coached by Fuchs and Wheeler. The young students of the more technical departments of the Guildhall School used technology to create a 3-D visualisation of what the production would have looked like. The resulting videos present the view with a choice, either a collage of the filmed performances and the 3-D visualisation, or pure filmed performance. We saw both for the Purcell and, as I did not know the Respighi, opted for the collaged version to get a better feel for the staging.

The result was remarkable and it is a testament to the skills of the performers and the production team that they created performances which held one's attention. Initially, given the range of new skills to be learned, the intention had been to release excerpts but it was decided to release the whole, rough edges and all. In fact, any rough edges simply created a new sense of performance.  In Dido and Aeneas we had two Didos, Elsa Roux Chamoux and Ema Nikolovska, with Tom Mole as Aeneas, Lara Marie Muller as Belinda and Collin Shay and Nils Wandrer as the Sorceress. Credit to them all for such a riveting and powerful result. The Respighi was intriguing and charming, with some lovely, lovely music and I certainly want to encounter it in the theatre. The double bill is available on-line until 1 July, see the Guildhall School's website.

On Saturday it was back to Covent Garden for the second of the Royal Opera House's live performances, and this occasion was doubly moving as it featured Dame Sarah Connolly's first performance since her illness (she has been receiving treatment for breast cancer). We started with rare Frederick Ashton, the Dance of the Blessed Spirits performed to Gluck's music from Orpheo and Eurydice by Vadim Muntagirov.  The there was a chamber arrangement of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde conducted by Antonio Pappano with members of the Royal Opera House orchestra, and soloists Sarah Connolly and David Butt Philip. It was illuminating, hearing the work performed in the chamber version as it revealed details which are often overlooked in performance, added to which the balance in the tenor solos is somewhat easier. This was a moving and powerful performance, but throughout I kept getting visual images too, as in that building I associate the work very much with Kenneth Macmillan's Song of the Earth which I have have seen with artists as diverse as Marcia Haydee (for whom Macmillan choreographed it in Stuttgart), Anthony Dowell and, most recently, Carlos Acosta. I have always felt that the closing pages of the ballet are one of the most perfect syntheses of visuals, music and movement ever.

Elsewhere on-line, there has been a lot going on with plenty of exciting new content.

Saturday, 20 June 2020

A work usually starts with a conversation: I chat to percussionist Joby Burgess about new repertoire, collaborating with composers and playing during lockdown

Joby Burgess with a wind wand (Photo Nick White)
Joby Burgess with a wind wand (Photo Nick White)
Percussionist Joby Burgess has quite a diverse portfolio, his CV includes work with a wide variety of artists from Will Gregory of Goldfrapp and Akram Khan, to Peter Maxwell Davies, Max Richter, and Eric Whitacre, as well as playing on a number of major film and TV scores.  He has done a lot to develop the percussion repertoire, including signficant collaborations with Graham Fitkin and with Gabriel Prokofiev. Joby has worked with Prokofiev on a Bass Drum Concerto, and a suite for found objects including Fanta bottles! I recently met up with Joby over Zoom to talk about the modern percussion repertoire, collaborating with composers, his nine-foot aluminium harp, and what he has been doing during lock down.

So what does a percussionist actually do?

The big difference between a percussionist and many other musicians is that percussionists play a large number of instruments. Whilst in lockdown, Joby is relatively lucky as he has a studio where he can record, along with a set of instruments there, and lots more in storage.  And he points out that all musicians are similar, it is just that a percussionist plays families of instruments rather than one or two. Joby has his own collection of 100s of instruments, and regularly plays dozens.

Joby Burgess (Photo Nick White)
Joby Burgess (Photo Nick White)
But when he is playing a solo concert he tries to come up with a group of instruments (drums, woodblocks, and so on) and combine them together to form an instrument which forms a focus to be used regularly in a mix of repertoire. So that there is particular combination of drums which he uses for piece by Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001), and which he can also use for a piece by Tansy Davis, and by others. The combination forms a single instrument so that for each work there is the same layout, the same reach for each of the drums.

The learning process is very much a journey, as different instruments require different techniques, with variations in the way they make the sound. So there are plenty of skills to hone.

When I ask Joby if he always wanted to be a percussionist, he laughs and says that he started out as a frustrated songwriter. His father had a large collection of records and the young Joby would listen to a wide range of music - opera, jazz, rock and more. From the age of seven, Joby learned the piano, and he wrote a lot of songs. When he moved to senior school he had to decide on an instrument, and he wanted to play the bass guitar, but that was not allowed. Instead, he chose the drums, which strangely was allowed, and played a lot of rock and jazz. At sixteen, he was taking marimba lessons, and got on to the classical percussion course at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, though at the time he did not necessarily plan to be a classical percussionist.

What Joby enjoys is the variety of his job, and he feels that he has been lucky to work with a wide range of composers and songwriters. He says that it keeps him fresh and opens him up to new ideas. He often finds himself challenged, and that is something he enjoys, which keeps the job interesting.

"though the repertoire is young the idea of percussion is old,
starting with simply banging rocks together"

What he enjoys are the conversations which take place between him and the composer, songwriter or producer. He enjoys the collaboration, the conversations about finding solutions to a challenge; this is what he enjoys most about making music.

By and large, the music he plays in solo and chamber concerts is 75-80% new repertoire, and even the older pieces are relatively recent, from the past 50 years. He feels that as a performer it is important to look back, and whereas a cellist will have Bach's Cello Suites as their daily bread, for Joby it is the music of Xenakis. Yet the strange thing is that, though the repertoire is young the idea of percussion is old, starting with simply banging rocks together. But whilst percussion in Western classical music dates from the 20th century, in other world musics it is very different.

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