Tuesday, 22 January 2019

Hugh Levick - Remnants of Symmetry

Hugh Levick - Remnants of Symmetry
Hugh Levick Island & Exile, Constellation, Remnants of Symmetry; Diotima Quartet, Wilhelm Latchoumia, Nicholas Isherwood, Daniel Ciampolini, Florent Jodelet; Radio France Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 22 January 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Intense and serious, a selection of recent chamber music by the American composer Hugh Levick

I have to confess that the American composer Hugh Levick was a name that was new to me, though his work has included music for theatre, performance art and opera. On this disc from Radio France we have a selection of Levick's recent chamber works, Island & Exile (2011-12) for piano quintet, Constellation (2013-14) for voice and string quartet, and Remnants of Symmetry for string quartet and percussion (2013-15), performed by the Diotima Quartet (Yun-Peng Zhao, Constance Ronzattie, Franck Chevalier, Pierre Morlet), Nicholas Isherwood (baritone), Wilhelm Latchoumia (piano), Daniel Ciampolini (percussion) and Florent Jodelet (percussion).

Levick  has a background as a writer as well as a composer and performer, in fact his biography talks about him going to Paris to write a novel, but ending up returning to his roots in music. Levick studied in both Paris and the USA, with composers as diverse as Anthony Braxton, David Diamond and John Cage.

Island & Exile is an intense and serious work, dark toned and angular, which reflects German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin's eight month stay in Ibiza in 1932-33, during which he came to understand that certain events from his childhood echoed throughout his life. Levick reflects this in the music by using a loud chord which echoes musically throughout the piece, and as Benjamin's view of time was non-linear some of the echoes happen before the event. Levick uses fragments and motifs which he transforms and links to create a strong musical narrative, serious, and concentrated, with sharp and striking textures.

John Tavener at Temple Church

Sir John Tavener with conductor Stephen Layton
Sir John Tavener with conductor Stephen Layton
The Temple Church has a strong association with the music of Sir John Tavener, the church commissioned Tavener's The Veil of the Temple, the extraordinary all-night vigil which was performed in the church without pause between dawn and dusk by  150 performers including the Temple Church Choir and the Holst Singers, conducted by Stephen Layton, in 2002 (the same performers would also give the work at the Lincoln Center Festival in New York in 2004, and in a shortened version at the BBC Proms).

On Wednesday 23 January 2019, at 5.30pm, the Temple Church is holding an Evensong dedicated to Sir John Tavener's memory with The Temple Singers performing Tavener's music including ' Mother of God' from The Veil of the Temple, Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis (commissioned by Stephen Cleobury and the Choir of King's College, Cambridge, and first performed in King's College Chapel onin 1987) and Song for Athene.

10th London A Cappella Festival

London A Cappella Festival
The 10th London A Cappella Festival opens on Wednesday 23 January 2019, with four days of performances and workshops at Kings Place and LSO St Lukes celebrating the best a cappella talent from across the globe. Events kick off tomorrow with a performance from composer and singer Laura Mvula with the European vocal quintet Black Voices at Kings Place, and the festival concludes with The Swingle Singers on Saturday 26 January 2019 at LSO St Lukes.

In between there are performances from The Mystery of the Bulgarian Voice, Vocal Sampling from Cuba, pop-jazz group m-pact from America, three a cappella groups from UK universities, The Techtonics, The Rolling Tones, The Bristol Suspensions,  as well as the London Youth Choir. There are workshops with Laura Mvula and Black Voices, and m-pact. There is also LACF Kids on Saturday, with workshops and a performance from American national champion high school a cappella group, Vocal Rush.

Full details from the London A Cappella Festival website.

Sunday, 20 January 2019

Everybody Can! Nadine Benjamin in Tosca

Nadine Benjamin
Nadine Benjamin
Puccini Tosca; Nadine Benjamin, Borja Gomez-Ferrer, David Durham, dir: Rebecca Louse Dale, cond: William Conway; Everybody Can! Opera at St James's Church, Piccadilly  
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 18 January 2019 
Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
An impressive assumption of the title role by Nadine Benjamin, in a small-scale performance which packed a punch

Nadine Benjamin's Everybody Can! Opera took over St James's Church, Piccadilly last night (18 January 2019) for a staging of Puccini's Tosca, directed by Rebecca Louise Dale, conducted by William Conway with Nadine Benjamin as Tosca, Borja Gomez-Ferrer as Cavaradossi, David Durham as Scarpia, Nico Laruina as Angelotti, Simon Butteriss as the Sacristan and Jonathan Cooke as Spoletta, Nicholas George as Sciarrone.
Creating a production of an opera, albeit one billed as semi-staged, is a huge undertaking and all concerned must be complimented for the skill and bravura with which they brought it off, showcasing some very striking performances indeed, with Nadine Benjamin making a compelling debut in the title role and the Spanish tenor Borja Gomes-Ferrer revealing lyric-dramatic voice indeed. The production itself was small-scale, but hardly semi at all and made highly effective drama.

Saturday, 19 January 2019

The main thing is to sing well and be a good performer: I chat to soprano Chiara Skerath, associate artist with The Mozartists and Classical Opera

Chiara Skerath with Ian Page and the Mozartists at the Wigmore Hall in 2018
1768 in Retrospect - Chiara Skerath with Ian Page and the Mozartists at the Wigmore Hall in 2018
The soprano Chiara Skerath has recently become an Associate Artist with The Mozartists and Classical Opera, artistic director Ian Page, and I was able to chat to her recently when she was in London to record a new CD with Ian Page and the Mozartists. This will be her second CD with them, she has already recorded one, Mozart's Il sogno di Scipione [see my review] as well as taking part in last year's concert at the Wigmore Hall, 1768 in Retrospect [see my review], and singing in Mozart's La finta semplice [see the review in OperaToday.com], all as part of Classical Opera's Mozart 250 project. Chiara will be back in London later this year with Ian and The Mozartists for the 1769 in Retrospect concert at the Southbank Centre on Tuesday 29 January 2019, and for performances of Hasse's Piramo e Tisbe later in the year.

Chiara Skerath recording with Ian Page and the Mozartists earlier this year
Chiara Skerath recording with Ian Page and the Mozartists earlier this year
The Hasse opera is entirely new to Chiara, she had sung the aria before but has all the recitative to learn, but she finds it exciting to be trying out new repertoire. She comments that Hasse, who rather loved himself, said that Piramo e Tisbe was the best opera that he had ever written. (The work was premiered in 1768 when the composer was nearly 70).

Ian Page's Mozart 250 project is working through the composer's life, year by year, so that last year we celebrated 1768 and this year it is 1769. Each year Ian and The Mozartists give a retrospect concert pulling together both music by Mozart and the music by other composers written at the same time, that Mozart would probably have known. Chiara feels that the music in last year's 1768 in Retrospect concert was rather stronger than that in this year's concert looking at 1769, but that there is always something of interest.

She has great admiration for the way Ian Page researches the music for the concerts, going into libraries and digging up scores, she feels that he is very passionate about the music and is very sympathetic and inspiring to work with. A lot of music of the period has been forgotten and Ian's retrospective concerts enable us to see the highlights. Last year Chiara sang an aria from a Jomelli opera, Fetonte the 26th of his 27 operas, at the 1768 in Retrospect concert and this proved very popular, she points out that sometimes the arias are the highlights and the whole operas might not be to the same standard, and of course nothing can beat Mozart.

Chiara has done a lot of Mozart, having sung most of the 'maid' roles (what she calls the 'As', Zerlina, Despina, Barberina, Susanna, Servilia, Ninetta, Papagena etc), and she will be completing the list by singing the First Lady in Die Zauberflote in Opera de Paris in Summer 2019. She is still having so much fun doing the maids that she does not see herself moving 'upstairs' yet, and points out that once you have performed the Countess in Le nozze di Figaro there is no going back to Susanna. When Chiara sang Ninetta in Mozart's early comedy La finta semplice with Ian Page last year she did what she always does in such operas and starts with a plan, who is married to whom, who loves whom, to enable her to get a handle on the complex plots, and she adds that there is so much in these early Mozart operas and all he needed was a Lorenzo da Ponte, a good librettist!

Friday, 18 January 2019

Premiere of Geoffrey Gordon's Prometheus

Gustave Moreau: Prometheus
Gustave Moreau: Prometheus
This weekend the Philharmonia, conductor Martyn Brabbins, will be giving the premiere of composer Geoffrey Gordon's new concerto for bass clarinet, Prometheus, with clarinettist Laurent Ben Slimane (principal bass clarinet with the orchestra). They perform the work on Saturday 19 January 2019 at De Montfort Hall in Leicester [see the De Montfort Hall website for details] and at the Southbank Centre on Sunday 20 January 2019 [see the Southbank Centre website for details]. The concert also includes three classic English works, Elgar's Introduction and Allegro, RVW's Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis and Britten's The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra.

Gordon is an American composer who divides his time between the USA and the UK, and his work Fathoms received its UK premiere at St John's Smith Square in 2017, whilst his concerto for trumpet, piano and strings, Saint Blue was recorded by the English String Orchestra, conductor Kenneth Woods on the Signum Classics disc The Art of Dancing [see my review]. Gordon's Prometheus is based on Kafka's short story Prometheus based in turn in the Greek myth. There is a Q&A with Laurent Ben Slimane about the new work on the Philharmonia website.

Further ahead, horn player Ben Goldschneider will be giving the premiere of Gordon's Thorn at Conway Hall Sunday Concerts on Sunday 3 February 2019 with Calum Smart, violin, and Richard Uttley, piano.. [see the Conway Hall website for details]

The Gardeners - cast announcement

The Gardeners: Flora McIntosh, William Vann, Robert Hugill, Peter Brathwaite, Georgia Mae Bishop, Magid El-Bushra, Joanna Wyld, Julian Debreuil
The Gardeners: (L to R, top to bottom) - Flora McIntosh, William Vann, Robert Hugill (photo Johnny Bourchier), Peter Brathwaite, Georgia Mae Bishop, Magid El-Bushra (photo Belinda Whiting), Joanna Wyld, Julian Debreuil (photo: Philip Allen)
I am pleased to be able to announce the full cast for the premiere of The Gardeners, Joanna Wyld and my new chamber opera which premieres at Conway Hall on Tuesday 18 June 2019.

Julian Debreuil plays The Gardener, Peter Brathwaite plays The Old Gardener, Magid El-Bushra plays The Angry Young Man, Flora McIntosh plays The Grandmother and Georgia Mae Bishop plays The Mother. The opera will be conducted by William Vann.

There will also be small male voice chorus, playing the spirits of the Dead, whilst the instrumental ensemble (harp, violin, viola, cello, clarinet) will include harpist Oliver Wass.

Julian Debreuil's engagements for the 2018-19 season include Missa Solemnis Beethoven with the Southbank Sinfonia at St Martin-in-the-Fields, Cantatas 21 & 29 Bach with the Birmingham Bach Choir, Colline in La Boheme Puccini and Talbot Maria Stuarda with OperaUpClose, Zuniga in Carmen Bizet for Kentish Opera.

In the 2018/19 season, Peter Brathwaite sings the title role in Polly Graham’s new production of Viktor Ullmann’s Der Kaiser von Atlantis with Chroma Ensemble at Bold Tendencies. He covers and sings Papageno in The Magic Flute for Opera North, and creates the role of Doctor in the European Premiere of Philip Hagemann’s The Music Cure. Future seasons see him make role debuts at Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, Brussels, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and Opera Philadelphia.

Magid El-Bushra's recent engagements include Nicholas Lens’ Shell Shock with the Orchestre de Radio France at the Philharmonie in Paris, Hamor in Handel’s Jephtha at the Wiener Festwochen, the Potsdamer Winteroper, and the Hamburger Theater Festival (under the baton of Konrad Junghänel), a solo recital with the Berner Symphonieorchester at Konzerttheater Bern (conducted by Kevin John Edusei), Orontes in Telemann’s Der misslungene Brautwechsel in Giessen (conducted by Michael Hofstetter), the alto solos in Bach’s St John Passion with Concerto Köln, and the Cheshire Cat in Will Todd’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland at the Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

Georgia Mae Bishop's recent credits include Filipyvena, Eugene Onegin (Opera Loki), Mistress Quickly (cover), Falstaff (Garsington Opera), Zita, Gianni Schicchi (Barbican Concert Hall), Madam de Croissy, Dialogues des Carmélites, Vera Boronel, The Consul, Zenobia (cover), Radamisto (Guildhall Opera), title role, Carmen, Ruth, Pirates of Penzance (Dartington Opera). Whilst studying at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama she was the winner of the Chartered Surveyors vocal competition and a recipient of an Opera Awards Foundation bursary. Other competition successes include 2nd prize at the Wagner Society Singing Competition (2016) and finalist in Fulham Opera’s Robert Presley Memorial Verdi Prize (2017).

Flora McIntosh is a Samling Foundation scholar and currently studies with Arwel Treharne Morgan. Engagements in 2018 include Das lied von der Erde with English National Ballet, Filipyevna in Eugene Onegin for OperaUpClose, Pauline in the UK premiere of Gounod’s Polyeucte (UCOpera), Lucy Lockit in The Beggar’s Opera (Oborne Opera and Mastersingers UK), Dryad In Ariadne auf Naxos for Longborough Festival, the title role in Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda (National Trust collaboration) and Mercedes in Carmen for The Prison Choir Project.

The Gardeners premieres at Conway Hall on Tuesday 18 June 2019, full details from The Gardeners website.

Rebecca Saunders wins the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize, and a portrait at the Southbank

Rebecca Saunders (Photo Astrid Ackermann)
Rebecca Saunders (Photo Astrid Ackermann)
The Berlin-based British composer Rebecca Saunders will be awarded the 2019 international Ernst von Siemens Music Prize at a presentation ceremony on 7 June 2019 at the Prinzregententheater in Munich. Awarded every year since 1973 by the Ernst von Siemens Music Foundation (which is based in Switzerland), it is one of classical music's most significant prizes, and is awarded for lifelong service to music, and comes with an award of €250,000. Saunders will be the first female composer to win the prize with Anne-Sophie Mutter being the only other woman to win the prize (in 2008).

There is a chance for UK audiences to hear Saunders music tomorrow night as Ensemble Modern performs a composer portrait at the Southbank Centre on Saturday 19 January 2019. Conducted by Vimbayi Kaziboni’s, Ensemble Modern presents three of her characteristic works (Fury II for double bass & ensemble, a visible trace for ensemble and Skin for soprano & 13 instruments with soprano Juliet Fraser) celebrating the ensemble's long-standing and intensive collaboration with the composer [further information from the Southbank Centre website]. The portrait concert has already been performed at the Frankfurt Opera, the Ruhrtriennale in Essen and the Klangspuren Schwaz in Innsbruck. And then on 21 January 2019, the ensemble performs Saunders' Skin at the Alte Oper in Frankfurt.

The Ernst von Siemens Music Foundation is awarding the Music Prize to Rebecca Saunders 'for an oeuvre which leaves its visible and meaningful mark on contemporary music history through its productive contrariety, its astonishingly nuanced attention to timbre, and her distinctive and intensely striking sonic language'.

Born in London in 1967, Rebecca Saunders studied at Edinburgh University, before going on to study with Wolfgang von Rihm at the Hochschule für Musik Karlsruhe; Nigel Osborne supervised her doctoral thesis. She was was composer-in-residence at the Konzerthaus Dortmund from 2005-2006, Staatskapelle Dresden from 2009-2010,and Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in 2010.

It was during a trip to the USA as a young composer that she heard the music of Morton Feldman for the first time, experiencing viscerally that music could enable an alternative interpretation of time and space. A performance of Wolfgang Rihm’s Chiffre cycle, which impressed Saunders with its deep sensuality and life-affirming power, led to her studying in Karlsruhe, where she began to cultivate her own musical language. Through Rihm, she also discovered the music of Galina Ustvolskaya, whose clarity and boldness, passion and obsessiveness, but also anger and aggression, electrified and fascinated Saunders immediately, and has since influenced her subsequent works. 'Ustvolskaya’s ability to reduce her musical form of expression to such a bare and exposed structure; the essence, the purity, the absolute directness of her art – that is incredibly courageous. Nothing is superfluous, nothing trying to charm or please – just exactly said. Or not said." (Rebecca Saunders)

Further information about Ensemble Modern's concert on 19 January 2019 from the Southbank Centre website

Thursday, 17 January 2019

Perhaps a film manque: Stefan Herheim's Queen of Spades at Covent Garden

Tchaikovsky: Queen of Spades - Vladimir Stoyanov - Royal Opera (Photo ROH/Catherine Ashmore)
Tchaikovsky: Queen of Spades - Vladimir Stoyanov - Royal Opera (Photo ROH/Catherine Ashmore)
Stefan Herheim's productions tend to be highly theatrical, visually stimulating and rooted in an historical period, witness his production of Verdi's Les vepres siciliennes at Covent Garden which was set in the Paris Opera of the period when Verdi was writing the opera [see my review], or his 2008 staging of Wagner's Parsifal which was rooted in the Bayreuth of the 1870s. But there is another factor at play too, Herheim does not simply lift the plot bodily from one period to another, his approach has a dramaturgical complexity which means that the stagings are more meta-theatre than theatrical productions, they are about the opera being performed and require a knowledge of the opera, the action on stage depicting the historical and emotional undercurrents which Herheim and his dramaturg find in the opera.

If you read the reviews of Herheim's 2008 Parsifal at Bayreuth you will find that many reviewers acclaim the production and say that it was something special, but few agree on what it was actually about!

For his new staging of Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades which debuted in 2016 in Amsterdam and came to Covent Garden this month (seen Wednesday 16 January 2019), Herheim and dramaturg Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach have turned not to the opera's history nor to Pushkin's original novella but to Tchaikovsky himself. The idea is that in this music, Tchaikovsky was channelling his angst and guilt about his homosexuality and that the extremity of the characters' emotions only makes sense in this context. So what we get isn't a dramatisation of the plot of The Queen of Spades, it neither follows the libretto nor does it follow the dramaturgy of the music, instead Herheim and Meier-Dörzenbach project the opera onto Tchaikovsky's life and mine the parallels.

Key to this approach is that the relatively minor role of Prince Yeletsky (a character who is rather boring but who, like Prince Gremin in Eugene Onegin gets a stunning aria about love) is transformed into Tchaikovsky himself. The opera opens in a grand 19th century room with Tchaikovsky (Vladimir Stoyanov) giving oral sex to a young man in military uniform (played by the singer playing Gherman), who objects and then demands money before rushing off.

In fact throughout the opera there are in fact multiple Tchaikovsky's, the male chorus appears dressed like the composer and it is clear that other characters are sometimes channelling him. The costumes mix those of the composer's period with those of the setting of the opera, and there was a feeling that all of the male principals were variants of the composer, and even Paulina (Anna Goryachova) was dressed as a young man and her aria felt a proxy for Tchaikovsky's feelings.

Tchaikovsky: Queen of Spades - Vladimir Stoyanov - Royal Opera (Photo ROH/Catherine Ashmore)
Tchaikovsky: Queen of Spades - Vladimir Stoyanov - Royal Opera (Photo ROH/Catherine Ashmore)
The problem with this idea is not so much the concept, mining the emotional undercurrents behind an opera being a standard directorial trick nowadays, but that Herheim's dramatic solutions introduce two major problems.

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Voices for Change

Lepra - Voices for Change poster
On Wednesday 30 January 2019 there is a chance to support the charity Lepra whilst listening to an evening of striking new choral music. At the church of St Stephen Walbrook, 39 Walbrook, London EC4N 8BN, the choir Cantata Dramatica, director of music James Potter, will be presenting Voices for Change with proceeds from the evening going to Lepra. The concert will feature settings of Greek poems of the Byzantine era by Solfa Carlile and Nick Bicât, including the premiere of Bicât 's Akathistos which will also feature the Community Choir of St Stephen Walbrook.

The event will help celebrate Lepra's 95th anniversary as well as recognising World Leprosy Day. Founded in 1924, Lepra works to provide vital treatment and support for those living with leprosy, working directly with communities in India, Bangladesh, and Mozambique to diagnose, treat and rehabilitate people affected by leprosy.

Nick Bicât has written over 150 scores and soundtracks for film, television,theatre, festival events and concert performance. Winner of a BAFTA and twice nominated, his film and television scores include A Christmas Carol (George C Scott), The Scarlet Pimpernel (Antony Andrews/Sir Ian McKellen/Jane Seymour), Wetherby (by Sir David Hare), and The Reflecting Skin (by Philip Ridley). He has composed for the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre, written eleven musicals and an opera The Knife, with Sir David Hare, (best musical score, 1989 New York Drama Desk Awards). Other collaborators include Tony Bicât, Edward Bond, Adrian Mitchell Howard Brenton and Ted Hughes.

Solfa Carlile is an Irish composer who studied at the Royal College of Music and at Oxford University, She was awarded the Jerome Hynes Commission by The National Concert Hall, Ireland, and was also a recipient of the Sean O’Riada composition award in 2013. Recently, her Three Byzantine Hymns were commissioned and performed by Cantata Dramatica, and her cantata on the life of St Cuthbert, co-written with librettist Nick Pitts-Tucker, will be performed at the Durham Vocal Festival in February 2019.

Further information from the Lepra website.


Andrew Smith Requiem, Ståle Kleiberg Hymn to Love, The Light; Nidaros Cathedral Girls' Choir, Trgve Seim, Ståle Storløkken, TrondheimSolistene, Anita Brevik; 2L  
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 9 January 2019 
Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A trio of striking works to celebrate the Norwegian girls' choir's 25th anniversary

This disc from 2L celebrates the 25th anniversary of the founding of Nidaros Cathedral Girls' Choir (Nidarosdomens jentekor) in 1992. Unusually, the the choir, conducted by Anita Brevik, has chosen to celebrate the event with a Requiem, but this is no ordinary Requiem and Andrew Smith's work commemorates the victims of the massacre in Utøya and Oslo on 22 July 2011 [read more about the background in my interview with Andrew]. For the Requiem the choir is joined by saxophonist Trgve Seim and organist Ståle Storløkken. And the disc is completed with two works by the Norwegian composer Ståle Kleiberg with TrondheimSolistene.

Nidaros Cathedral is the historic cathedral in Trondheim, founded in the 11th century. The Girls' Choir, artistic director Anita Brevik, was founded in 1992 and has strong record in commissioning new music.

There is a fascinatingly ungraspable, changeable quality to Andrew Smith's Requiem which forms the centrepiece of the disc. For a start, much of what you hear is improvised, as the work uses an improvising solo instrument alongside the choir. For the original performances in 2012, the improvising instrument was a trumpet as the part was written for Arve Henriksen, but as he was ill for the recording they changed to the brilliant saxophone playing of Trygve Seim heard on the disc.

Using an improvisation with a large-scale work designed for choir and organ requires some organisation, and Smith has solved the problem by writing the piece in blocks, with the choir often providing aleatoric sections over which Seim improvises, so in fact both saxophone and choir provide music which will change from performance to performance.

Yet this ungraspable quality applies to the very intention of the Requiem itself, because Smith's original idea was simply for a requiem to child victims, it was whilst he was writing it that the tragic massacre happened (in 2011), with some of the victims being friends of members of the choir.

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

A celebration of Plácido Domingo

Plácido Domingo, KBE (Image: Chad Batka)
Plácido Domingo, KBE (Image: Chad Batka)
On Monday 28 January 2019, the International Opera Awards is presenting an event which is not to be missed, a Celebration of Placido Domingo at the Royal Society of Arts, London WC2N  6EZ, in support of the International Opera Awards Foundation. 

The event will include a Q&A between Helena Matheopoulos and Placido Domingo, during which audience members will have the chance to pose their own questions, as well as Matheopoulos' illustrated talk The Domingo Phenomenon.  The event concludes with a reception.

Tickets are £110 per person, and these include a donation to the International Opera Awards Foundation. The foundation, created in 2012, awards annual bursaries to aspiring operatic talent. There are no restrictions on age or nationality, nor is support limited to singers, applications are encouraged from any artist working toward a career in opera, who needs financial support to achieve their career goals.

Further details from the International Opera Awards.

Early and late - Schumann from Robin Tritschler & Graham Johnson at the Wigmore Hall

Robin Tritschler © Garreth Wong
Robin Tritschler © Garreth Wong
Schumann's Spring and Fall; Robin Tritschler, Graham Johnson; Wigmore Hall Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 15 January 2019 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★½)
A mix of early and late Schumann songs in this fine exploration

For the second of his seasonal programmes at the Wigmore Hall, tenor Robin Tritschler was joined by pianist Graham Johnson for an all-Schumann programme, Schumann's Spring and Fall, which mixed songs from Schumann's Liederjahr of 1840, including the Eichendorff Liederkreis with songs from his late-period (1849/50).

The title might lead us expect the subjects of Spring and Autumn as being central to the programme, and Tritschler and Johnson started off with Frühlingsfahrt, Op.45, no.2 which seemed to encapsulate these themes, the story of two brothers which starts of in brisk optimistic mode, but moves into quieter, more thoughtful territory with a significant postlude. And they followed this with Schumann's Liederkreis Op.39, a lyrical sequence of Eichendorff settings which mirror Schumann's states of mind, ecstatic, anxious, fearful, lyrical, luminous during that crucial year of 1840 when he and Clara struggled with her father to allow their marriage.

Tritschler and Johnson made the Liederkreis very much a sequence of lyric scenes, each a story and a mood in itself, with Johnson's richly sophisticated and darkly characterful piano complimenting the Tritschler's masterly story-telling. Each song had its own character, its own story, by turns mesmerising, engaging, seductive or full of suppressed excitement. This is a world where night and darkness always threaten, such as the sinister Lorelie rendered brilliantly seductive in 'Waldesgesprach' or the magical melancholy of 'Zwielicht' (Twilight). And at the centre was 'Mondnacht' (Moonlit night) in a quietly intense yet limpidly sustained performance.

Monday, 14 January 2019

Everybody Can - Tosca at St James's Piccadilly

Nadine Benjamin as Musetta in Tosca at ENO (Photo Robert Workman)
Nadine Benjamin as Musetta in Tosca at ENO (Photo Robert Workman)
Soprano Nadine Benjamin has had a busy 2018, what with two major roles at English National Opera (ENO) where she is currently a Harewood Artist, and the release of her debut recital CD. Now, with her own company, Everybody Can! Opera, Benjamin is producing Puccini's Tosca at St James's Church, Piccadilly on Friday 18 January 2019. The production is directed by Rebecca Louise Dale, conducted by William Conway, with Benjamin in the title role, Borja Gómez-Ferrer as Cavaradossi and David Durham as Scarpia.

Besides being a celebration of Benjamin's own talents as an operatic soprano, the event is an extention of her work mentoring with Everybody Can. The production aims to create a piece that allows everyone involved to walk away with something of value to them, as well as giving work experience opportunity to people who wouldn't normally get the chance to be cast in or work in their chosen area of this profession.

Opportunities are provided for people to shadow some of the team and gain work experience thereby giving them an opportunity to learn skills that they may use further in their careers or enable them to think differently about what they are currently doing. The Everybody Can team is made up of semi-professional and professional individuals from all walks of life with different life experiences.

Further information from Nadine Benjamin's website.

Stories in music: Roses, Lilies & Other Flowers from The Telling

The Telling - Gardens of Delight - FHR
Gardens of Delight - Ciconia, Hildegard of Bingen, Machaut, Zacara; The Telling; FHR  
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 19 December 2018 
Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Medieval flowers explored in a haunting programme from The Telling

Most people familiar with the Brighton Early Music Festival (BREMF) or the Stroud Green Festival will almost certainly have come across The Telling, a edievalM ensemble with a difference, which features soprano Clare Norburn who was co-founder and artistic director of BREMF and is artistic director of the Stroud Green Festival.

On this disc, Gardens of Delight from The Telling on FHR, Clare Norburn is joined by Leah Stuttard (medieval harp, frame drum, voice) and Ariane Prussner (voice) for a programme themed around Roses, Lilies & Other Flowers in Medieval Song which means that the ensemble can cast their net widely for a haunting selection of music by Ciconia, Hildegard of Bingen, Machaut, Zacara and more.

Sunday, 13 January 2019

Bach in Cologne: Christmas Oratorio (Weihnachts-Oratorium), Parts IV-VI, performed in the Kölner Philharmonie

Shrine of the Three Kings in Cologne Cathedral
Shrine of the Three Kings in Cologne Cathedral
Bach Christmas Oratorio (Weihnachts-Oratorium), Parts IV-VI; Sibylla Rubens, Ingeborg Danz, Jörg Dürmüller, Konstantin Krimmel, Vokolensemble Kölner Dom, Kölner Kammerorchester, cond. Eberhard Metternich; Kölner Philharmonie Reviewed by Tony Cooper on 5 October 2018 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Bach’s Christmas Oratorio proved a feast for the mind and soul especially falling on the Feast of the Epiphany

Bach wrote the Christmas Oratorio in 1734 and, therefore, it was most appropriate to hear a performance (Parts IV-VI) on the Feast of the Epiphany (6 January) in the comfort of the Kölner Philharmonie lying in the shadow of Der Kölner Dom (Cologne cathedral). Here you can worship at the shrine of The Three Kings. Their relics are housed in a large gilded and decorated triple sarcophagus placed above (and behind) the High Altar - the largest reliquary in the Western world. The Christmas Oratorio was performed by Kölner Kammerorchester and the Vokalensemble Kölner Dom (the cathedral's chamber choir), conductor Eberhard Metternich (the cathedral's music director) with soloists Sibylla Rubens, Ingeborg Danz, Jörg Dürmüller, and Konstantin Krimmel

The first part (Christmas Day) describes the birth of Jesus; the second (26 December) the annunciation to the shepherds; the third (27 December) the adoration of the shepherds; the fourth (New Year’s Day) the circumcision and naming of Jesus; the fifth (first Sunday after New Year) the journey of the Magi; the sixth (Epiphany) the adoration of the Magi.

The music represents a particularly sophisticated expression of the ‘parody technique’ by which existing music is adapted for a new purpose. Therefore, Bach took the majority of the choruses and arias from works which had been previously written. Most of this music, though, was secular written in praise of royalty or notable local figures outside the tradition of performance within the Church.

As a composer of such extraordinary genius and widespread influence so firmly embedded in Western culture, it is difficult to comprehend that Bach’s music and reputation once languished in obscurity, virtually unknown to all but a few specialists and academics. It was through the determined efforts of Felix Mendelssohn that his works became accessible to a wider public and today are recognised as summits of musical expression.

Whether you like Bach performed by large forces or small is debatable, of course, but from my point of view I much prefer smaller forces and this performance with the Kölner Kammerorchester and the Vokalensemble Kölner Dom totalled 32 and 51 members respectively working like clockwork under the direction of Eberhard Metternich who set a moderate tempo that allowed both vocal and instrumental lines to breathe freely.

Saturday, 12 January 2019

Finding an identity in classical music: composer Shirley Thompson on her career and recent projects

Shirley Thompson in performance
Shirley Thompson in performance
Shirley Thompson is an English composer, conductor and violinist of Jamaican descent. Her output as a composer encompasses symphonies, ballets, operas, concertos, and other works for ensembles, as well as music for TV, film, and theatre, and she recently made an OBE in the Queen's New Year Honours. With her New Nation Rising, A 21st Century Symphony, composed in 2002 and debuted in 2004, Thompson became the first woman in Europe to have composed and conducted a symphony within the past 40 years. And her work has been much in evidence during 2018 through its links to the Windrush commemorations. Shirley is someone who's work I have followed with interest over the years, and we have met casually on occasion but late last year I was lucky enough to be able to sit down with her properly and talk about being a composer, a woman and a person of colour in modern Britain.

Shirley's career has included a remarkable range of performance, composition, along with work with multimedia and activism, but she feels that music has always been central to her work. That said, she was always interested in film and the stage,  and in fact trained as a film maker and worked for the BBC for 10 years making documentaries. Training which gave her a feel for narrative that she transferred to her music practice. And whilst she is interested in poetry, literature and history, she performed in orchestras from the age of 10 and this gave her a familiarity with the classical canon which has informed a lot of what she does.

Friday, 11 January 2019

Unwrapping Venus: the music of Barbara Strozzi at Kings Place

Believed to be Barbara Strozzi, painted by Bernado Strozzi c.1630-1640
Believed to be Barbara Strozzi, painted by Bernado Strozzi c.1630-1640
Barbara Strozzi, Claudio Monteverdi Madrigals; Mary Bevan, Miriam Allen, Zoe Brookshaw, Helen Charlston, Marth McLorinan, John Bowen, Nicholas Mulroy, Jonathan Brown, David Shipley, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Christian Curnyn; Kings Place  
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 10 January 2019 
Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
The music of Barbara Strozzi was the centre piece in this concert which opened Kings Place's year-long celebration of the music of women composers

I have to confess that the title Venus Unwrapped evokes, for me, the title of a saucy/dodgy 1970s film but in fact it is the name of Kings Place's 2019 Festival, across 95 concerts there is music from over 120 composers, 120 female composers from Hildegard of Bingen through to Cate le Bon. The season launched on Thursday 10 January 2019 with a concert by members of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment who were joined by singers Mary Bevan, Miriam Allen, Zoe Brookshaw, Helen Charlston, Martha McLorinan, John Bowen, Nicholas Mulroy, Jonathan Brown, David Shipley and conductor/harpsichordist Christian Curnyn to perform music from Barbara Strozzi's Il primo libro Madrigali alongside Monteverdi's Volgendo il ciel and Il ballo delle ingrate from the eighth book of madrigals.

During the Renaissance women only received the musical training to become composers because of exceptional circumstances (Francesca Caccini was the daughter of a composer who moved in aristocratic circles, Leonora d'Este was a nun from a highly aristocratic background). Barbara Strozzi was the adopted (and possibly illegitimate) daughter of the Venetian poet Giulio Strozzi whose librettos were written for composers such as Monteverdi (though their opera La finta pazza Licori does not seem to have been finished). Giulio Strozzi encouraged his daughter and even created an academy for her, arranging for her to study with the composer Francesco Cavalli. Unusually, Barbara published her music so that we have eight volumes of secular music, much of it for soprano and much of it with texts by her father (and some later pieces are assumed to have texts by Barbara herself). There is no reason why her music should not be better known, except .....

Thursday, 10 January 2019

Oper Köln delivers a colourful account of Ralph Benatsky‎ & Robert Stolz’ The White Horse Inn

Oper Koeln - Ralph Benatsky, Robert Stolz: The White Horse Inn (Im weißen Rössl) (Photo Paul Leclaire)
Oper Koeln - Ralph Benatsky, Robert Stolz: The White Horse Inn (Im weißen Rössl) (Photo Paul Leclaire)
Ralph Benatsky and Robert Stolz The White Horse Inn (Im weißen Rössl); Netta Or, Alexander Kaimbacher, Alexander Franzen, Emily Hindrichs, Paul Schweinester, Till von Orlowsky, dir: Eike Ecker; cond: Arne Willimczik; Oper Köln, Staatenhaus Saal II  
Reviewed by Tony Cooper on 5 January 2019 
Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
This new production of Ralph Benatsky and Robert Stolz’ bubbling operetta, The White Horse Inn (Im weißen Rössl) hit the mark at Oper Köln leaving a packed house on a high

I’ve visited Austria on many occasions and therefore know the country quite well but the trio of villages that hug the Wolfgangsee (St Wolfgang, Strobl and St Gilgen) situated in the picturesque Salzkammergut region of Upper Austria, take some beating, But of special interest to me was to the fact that I stayed at the famous White Horse Inn (Hotel Weißes Rössl) which has been in the trusted hands of the Peter family - Oliver and Gudrun Trutmann-Peter - for five generations. I recall a certain amount of excitement ran through my veins.

The hotel’s famed throughout the German-speaking world due to its association with the operetta of the same name composed by Ralph Benatzky and Robert Stolz during the shaky and fragile régime of the Weimar Republic, the first German government to be elected after the fall of the monarchy in the 1930s as the Nazis were edging towards power. It was Benatsky who actually penned the well-loved title number: ‘Im weißen Rößl am Wolfgangsee.’ And what a number!

Ralph Benatzky and Robert Stolz's White Horse Inn (Hotel Weißes Rössl) was given a new production at Oper Köln, directed by Eike Ecker and conducted by Arne Willimczik with Netta Or, Alexander Kaimbacher, Alexander Franzen, Emily Hindrichs, Paul Schweinester, and Till von Orlowsky, which we caught on 5 January 2019.

The scenario of the operetta is cheesy to the core but engagingly romantic nonetheless surrounding the goings-on of Leopold Brandmeyer, head waiter of the White Horse Inn, who’s desperately in love with the owner, a resolute young widow by the name of Josepha Vogelhuber. But she’s more interested in one of her guests, a lawyer by the name of Dr Erich Siedler who represents a client named Sülzheimer in a business dispute. Siedler, though, makes the faux pas of falling for his opponent’s daughter, Ottilie Giesecke. Her father Wilhelm, however, sees the advantage in swapping a lawsuit for an engagement by marrying Ottilie off to Sülzheimer’s son, Sigismund. The plot thickens! A comedy of errors to the nth degree each character is found chasing the wrong person with hilarious results.

However, the forerunner to the operetta came about in the last decade of the 19th century when Berlin theatre director, Oscar Blumenthal, was holidaying in Lauffen, now part of Bad Ischl, a small town close to St Wolfgang where the world-renowned operetta composer, Franz Lehár, resided up to his death in 1948 and also where Oscar Straus died.

At the inn where Blumenthal was staying, he happened to witness the head waiter’s painful wooing of his boss. Highly amused he used the story as the basis of a comedy which he co-wrote with the actor, Gustav Kadelburg. However, the deuce imaginatively relocated the action from Lauffen to the more prominent village of St Wolfgang.

The comedy came to the Berlin stage in 1897 enjoying immediate success and, by all accounts, audiences loved the comic portrayal of the ‘well-to-do’ city dwellers such as Wilhelm Giesecke, a Berlin manufacturer of ladies’ underwear, and his daughter Ottilie, who show all the characteristics of the nouveau riche.

Oper Koeln - Ralph Benatsky, Robert Stolz: The White Horse Inn (Im weißen Rössl) (Photo Paul Leclaire)
Oper Koeln - Ralph Benatsky, Robert Stolz: The White Horse Inn (Im weißen Rössl) (Photo Paul Leclaire)

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Tenth anniversary: Opéra Royal de Versailles celebrates 10 years since the theatre was restored and returned to use

The Opéra Royal de Versailles (© Thomas Garnier)
The Opéra Royal de Versailles (© Thomas Garnier)
The Opéra Royal de Versailles is currently celebrating the tenth anniversary of the theatre's restoration with a season which includes one of the first Italian operas ever to be performed in France, Requiems for both King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette, and Molière's Le Bourgeois gentilhomme with Lully's original musical interludes, as well as the launch of a record label.

Despite having a keen interest in opera, King Louis XIV never quite got round to creating a permanent opera house at Versailles, plans to do so were overtaken by the building of the chapel and by the time there was scope to do so, the king's interest in opera and large scale dramatic events had waned as the court became more religious. It would not be until later in the reign of King Louis XV that the theatre was built, and it was always designed as a multi-valent space, acting as a theatre, concert hall, banqueting hall and ball-room. It was inaugurated in 1770 and in fact only used some 40 times before the revolution. So it is not a space particularly associated with the great period of French operatic history, which allows the present company to range rather more widely in the selection of works performed.

The vicissitudes that the space suffered post-revolution, including being the home to the Chamber of Deputies of the Third Republic in the 1870s, meant that during the post-War period the space could not function as a theatre at all with most of the surviving original stage machinery being destroyed in the post-War re-construction. All this was reversed during the 2007/2009 period of restoration of the theatre, as a theatre, bringing the space brilliantly back to life.

The theatre's 2019 season, includes a new version of Gay's The Beggars Opera created by Ian Burton and Robert Carsen, with William Christie and Les Arts Florissants, a very ironic piece with which to start the season. Francesco Sacrati's 1641 opera, La Finta Pazza was one of the first Italian operas to be seen in France and the first to be seen by King Louis XIV. (The fashion for Italian opera would not survive the anti-Italian feeling created by the civil war, the Fronde, which developed antagonism to the policies of the Italian-born Cardinal Mazarin into dislike of things Italian, including opera and castrati). La Finta Pazza will be performed by Leonardo García Alarcón and the Cappella Mediterranea, in a staging by Jean-Yves Ruf. Another rare opera is Giovanni Legrenzi's La Divisione del Mondo, the only one of the composer's 20 operas to survive, and here being presented by Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques, in a production directed by Jetske Mijnssen. Director William Kentridge has transposed Monteverdi's Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria to 20th century Johannesburg for a new staging to be presented in April.

Lully had a long collaboration with Molière, writing music for his plays and creating a new genre which mixed drama and dance. In June there is a chance to see Molière's Le Bourgeois gentilhomme with Lully's original music performed by Academy and soloists of the Musiciens du Louvre directed by Marc Minkowski. Concerts include Herve Niquet and Le Concert Spirituel's programme of Requiems by Cherubini and Plantade for King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette, which is also being given at the Barbican. Pygmalion and director Raphaël Pichon will be performing Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610 in the Chapelle Royal, and their pasticcio Stravaganza d'amore in the Galerie des Glaces.

The venue celebrates its tenth season with the launch of a new record label, Château de Versailles Spectacles, comprising both CD and DVD recordings made during concerts which have taken place in the Opéra Royal and the Chapelle Royale, with a repertoire which ranges widely and does not present works simply associated with Versailles. Four recordings have already been released: Charpentier's Les Arts Florissants (Ensemble Marguerite Louise, Gaétan Jarry), Campra's L'Europe galante (Les Nouveaux Caractères, Sébastien d'Hérin), Praetorius' Messe de Noël (Gabrieli Consort & Players, Paul McCreesh), and Rousseau's Le Devin du village (Les Nouveaux Caractères, Sébastien d'Hérin). Upcoming discs include The Coronation of George II (The King's Consort, Robert King) and Cavalli's Missa Concertata (Galilei Consort, Benjamin Chénier).

Full details from the Versailles website.

A year at Lincoln

A year at Lincoln - Regent Records
Byrd, Mendelssohn, SS Wesly, Hawes, Parsons, Tallis, Chilcott, Finxi, Bingham, Elgar, Wood Blatchly, Brahms, Taverner, RVW; The choir of Lincoln Cathedral, Aric Prentice; Regent Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 8 January 2019 Star rating: 3.0 (★★★)
An imaginative attempt to capture the church's year in music as reflected by musical life at Lincoln Cathedral

The work of a cathedral choir goes on day by day, reflecting the changes in the Church's year, and this new disc on Regent from Aric Prentice and the choir of Lincoln Cathedral attempts to reflect something of this. 

A Year at Lincoln takes us from Advent, through Christmas, Lent, Easter, the Ascension through to the Feast of Christ the King, with various more local celebrations incorporated such as Bishop Edward King and St Hugh, with music ranging from the Renaissance to the present day, including Judith Bingham, Mark Blatchly, Bob Chilcott, and Patrick Hawes. For some of the items the choir is joined by assistant director of music Jeffrey Makinson playing the cathedral's Father Willis organ, and by Sgt Tom Ringrose (trumpet) for Mark Blatchly's For the fallen.

The programme is quite eclectic, and certainly not simply a selection of greatest hits.

Tuesday, 8 January 2019

In a hectic world, the project encouraged the participants to look up and around - to stop, to observe, to listen

Part of the score of Incredible Distance
Part of the score of Incredible Distance
What does 24 hours in a place sound like? The Scottish Chamber Orchestra (SCO), the residents of Wester Hailes (an area in the South-West of Edinburgh), composer Suzanne Parry, musician Emma Smith, and artist Ewan John are trying to capture this essence in their installation Incredible Distance which has opened in Edinburgh at the Society of Scottish Artists 121st Annual Exhibition (until 17 January 2019), and is then at WHALE Arts (22 January – 9 February 2019) and the Fruitmarket Gallery (12 February – 16 February 2019). The installation is part of SCO's three-year residency in Wester Hailes.

Over six weeks residents worked with Suzanne Parry and work-shop leader Emma Smith at WHALE Arts to create an audio-visual installation which explores the sonic and visual identity of the Edinburgh suburb, capturing snapshots of daily life through the collection of found sound, imagery, film and original musical composition. A 12-minute soundscape with accompanying imagery and footage has been created alongside four 30-second miniature musical representations of key "Wester Hailes sounds" performed by classically trained musicians. Together with accompanying scores of handwritten sketches printed on sheets of aluminium, a "cultural soundmap" of Wester Hailes has been created.

In a hectic world, the project encouraged the participants to look up and around - to stop, to observe, to listen, to have a heightened appreciation of their surroundings and to explore how our everyday soundworlds can influence how we connect with our local environment and with other people.

From October 2017 to summer 2020, through creative workshops, projects and public performances with young people, adults and families from across the Wester Hailes community, the SCO hopes to open new worlds of musical learning and enjoyment for local residents and to inspire people of all ages to explore and develop their musical potential and creativity.

Handel at Cannons - Chandos Te Deum and Chandos Anthem No. 8

Handel - Chandos Te Deum & Chandos Anthem No. 8 - Onyx Classics
George Frideric Handel Chandos Te Deum, Chandos Anthem No. 8; London Handel Orchestra and Soloists, Adrian Butterfield; Onyx  
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 7 January 2019 
Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Two of Handel's sacred pieces for the Duke of Chandos in vivid re-creations of the original performance style

This disc on Onyx Classics from Adrian Butterfield and the London Handel Orchestra, leader Oliver Webber, features two of the works that Handel wrote for the Duke of Chandos at Cannons, the Chandos Te Deum and Chandos Anthem No. 8 'O come let us sing unto the Lord' recorded in the location where they were first performed, the church of St Lawrence, Little Stanmore, Middlesex, using the sort of forces that Handel would have directed for the Duke of Chandos, one voice per part and single instrumental lines. The singers are Grace Davidson, Charles Daniels, Nicholas Mulroy, Benedict Hymas and Edward Grint.

Handel's Chandos Anthems were written for the Duke of Chandos during the period 1717 to 1718 when Handel was periodically in residence at Cannons.  The Duke's rebuilding of his house, Cannons, was not finished until 1720 and so services took place in the church of St Lawrence which (unlike the house) still survives and is one of the few locations where were can hear Handel's music in the venue for which it was first written, added to which the organ at the church includes all the the surviving pipework from the 1716 Gerard Smith organ which was built for the church [see the Goetze & Gwynn website for the details of their reconstruction of the organ].

The forces for which Handel wrote were slightly odd, dependent as he was on the musicians engaged by the Duke.

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