Saturday, 19 June 2021

Directing the Don and discovering Dido: I chat to director Jack Furness in advance of his production of Mozart's Don Giovanni at Nevill Holt Opera

Jack Furness with Rebecca Meltzer, movement director on Shadwell Opera's production of Oliver Knussen's 'Where the Wild Things are'
Jack Furness with Rebecca Meltzer, movement director on Shadwell Opera's production of Oliver Knussen's Where the Wild Things are (Photo Nick Rutter)
Director Jack Furness has made something of a name for himself with contemporary and 20th-century works, directing such operas as Peter Maxwell Davies' The Lighthouse [see our review], a double bill of Schoenberg’s Erwartung and Mark Anthony Turnage’s Twice through the Heart, and Oliver Knussen's Where the Wild Things Are with his company, Shadwell Opera. But Jack's work during the last three years has had another thread running through it, that of Mozart notably Don Giovanni. In 2019, Jack was the revival director for the performances of Kasper Holten's production of Don Giovanni at Covent Garden, and Jack directed his own production of Don Giovanni at the Teatru Manoel in Malta. Then in 2020, Jack was planning to direct Don Giovanni at Nevill Holt Opera. But fate had other ideas, but now Jack is returning to Nevill Holt and to Don Giovanni as he will direct a production in Nevill Holt's new outdoor theatre this Summer. And Jack is also returning to Covent Garden, for a further revival of Holten's production in July this year..

During May, Jack was in London to direct Purcell's Dido and Aeneas at the Royal Academy of Music, so we took advantage of the weather to meet up and chat about Don Giovanni, directing opera, discovering Dido and Aeneas and much more.

Nevill Holt Opera's 2021 season will take place not in their theatre but in a temporary outdoor theatre which will enable the company to seat an audience of 650 safely. It also features an outdoor stage some 30 metres wide, quite a challenge for a relatively intimate work like Don Giovanni. But Jack points out another challenge, in an opera that famously takes place under cover of darkness, the Nevill Holt performances will be outside in daylight, something which is exciting but challenging. Luckily Jack is working with a designer, Alex Berry with whom he has worked before, including on Britten's The Rape of Lucretia at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, and Peter Maxwell Davies' The Lighthouse with Shadwell Opera, and the two also worked on a planned production of Handel's Giulio Cesare in Scotland for 2020 which was cancelled.

Jack Furness, Director  (Photo Scottish Opera/Tommy Ga-Ken Wan)
Jack Furness (Photo Scottish Opera/Tommy Ga-Ken Wan)

The scale of the production at Nevill Holt this Summer will have to be so much bigger than usual, but the setting outside is also beautiful. Jack and Alex plan to take advantage of the scale and bring the audience into a whole world in a very filmic way. They plan to embrace the scale and enjoy the fact that it takes place outdoors in mid-afternoon, treating these as strengths. There are different ways for the drama to be confusing and psychologically disturbing, and Jack and his team have some interesting ideas which I look forward to seeing reach fruition this Summer.

Friday, 18 June 2021

Letters from Burma

In 2004, composer Roxanna Panufnik wrote Letters from Burna based on the writings of Aung San Suu Kyi. Perhaps now we have a rather different view of Aung San Suu Kyi but there is no doubt about the power of her remarkable collection Letters from Burna describing everyday life in the country, and written during her time under house arrest.

Now, as part of Refugee Week 2021, the London Mozart Players (LMP) and oboist Olivier Stankiewicz have released a new recording of Panufnik's Letters from Burma accompanied by a moving and thought-provoking video, filmed by students from Surrey University, which includes recent footage from Myanmar, plus an interview with noted human rights activist Benedict Rogers, brother of LMP's leader, Ruth Rogers. Benedict Rogers is the Senior Analyst for East Asia at the human rights organisation Christian Solidarity Worldwide, and author of three books on Myanmar.

This spring, the military in Myanmar once again seized power in a coup, launching a brutal crackdown on people peacefully protesting against military rule, and this has cast the composition in a new and poignant light. All money raised by the video will go to the refugee charity Advance Myanmar, which is providing emergency aid to thousands forced to flee their homes.

Roxanna Panufnik said:
"My father fled a totalitarian regime 70 years ago, and the courage and kindness of those who helped him stays with my family to this day. 'Letters from Burma' is inspired by a collection of the same title, of Aung San Suu Kyi's correspondence to a Japanese newspaper during her house arrest in the 1990s. They describe every facet of the beauty and also the severe hardship of the country but my piece finishes in triumph. I hope and pray Burma's surpressed will do so, one day too. Please help support those brave enough to endeavour to make this happen and the innocent victims of totalitarian oppression."

Further information from the London Mozart Players' website, and donations are welcome at the Advance Myanmar website.

Chopin live - Warren Mailley-Smith performs the Twelve Études op.10 at the 1901 Arts Club

Chopin, daguerreotype by Bisson, c. 1849
Chopin, daguerreotype by Bisson, c. 1849
Pianist Warren Mailley-Smith was an early adopter of the live-streaming format with his recitals from the 1901 Arts Club and on 25 June 2021 Mailley-Smith returns to the venue for a pair of recitals featuring the music of Frédéric Chopin. 

The music of the Polish composer is dear to Mailley-Smith's heart and in 2016 he became the first British pianist to perform from memory the complete solo piano works of Chopin (233 pieces). On Friday 25 June, Mailley-Smith will be performing a programme of Chopin's solo piano music including three of the nocturnes and the Twelve Études op.10

As a performer, Chopin is known to have had quite an intimate performance technique and he eschewed the large-scale showy concert formats developed by Liszt, and Chopin said to his pupil Emilie von Gretsch that "concerts are never real music, you have to give up the idea of hearing in them all the most beautiful things of art." So, the 1901 Arts Club is the ideal venue in which to hear the composer's solo piano music, evoking a 19th century salon rather than a larger concert hall.

There are two performances of the programme, at 6.30pm and 9pm with a complimentary glass of champagne beforehand. Further details from the City Music Live website.    

Invisible cities: Sansara and Tom Herring explore the striking contemporary polyphony of Marco Galvani for their second album for Resonus

Marco Galvani Invisible Cities; Sansara, Tom Herring; Resonus Classics

Marco Galvani Invisible Cities; Sansara, Tom Herring; Resonus Classics

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 16 June 2021 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
Settings of Lamentations are the focus for a lovely disc which mixes sacred music by the young composer alongside his electronic music

The music of composer Marco Galvani has popped up at various times in the last few years, but a new disc from Sansara, artistic director Tom Herring, on Resonus Classics is the first disc to focus entirely on Galvani's music. Invisible Cities features Galvani's Lamentations alongside a selection of motets plus a sequence of electronic music.

Marco Galvani (born 1994) studied with David Sawyer at the Royal Academy of Music and with Robert Saxon at Oxford University, and whilst at Oxford, Galvani was a choral scholar with The Queen’s College Choir. His choral music mixes influences of polphony with more recent harmonic developments.

Galvani's Lamentations were commissioned by Jeremy Summerly for The Queen's College Chapel Choir in 2013, and Sansara first performed them in 2016. Since then the ensemble has been keen to record the work. The choral music on the disc is split into three groups, with Galvani's series of electronic scores, named for the letters of the Hebrew alphabet used in Lamentations as punctuation.

Lamentations opens with a solo line, chant yet distinctively modern in its outline, and this develops into contemporary polyphony. Galvani manages to create music which is very 21st century yet timeless and in his polphonic textures is not frightened of sharp corners. In both part of Lamentations the music moves between focused intensity and drama, with plenty of contrasts reflecting the words.

Thursday, 17 June 2021

Taliesin's Songbook: 20th and 21st century Welsh art song explored by a fine group of Welsh singers

Taliesin's Songbook - 20th and 21st century Welsh song; Susan Bullock, Rebecca Evans, Catrin Finch, Gareth Brynmor John, Natalya Romaniw, Elgan Llyr Thomas, Elin Manahan Thomas, Andrew Matthews-Owen; Tŷ Cerdd

Taliesin's Songbook
- 20th and 21st century Welsh song; Susan Bullock, Rebecca Evans, Catrin Finch, Gareth Brynmor John, Natalya Romaniw, Elgan Llyr Thomas, Elin Manahan Thomas, Andrew Matthews-Owen; Tŷ Cerdd

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 15 June 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A strong line-up of performers in a programme which explores the development of Welsh art song in the 20th and 21st centuries

Taliesin was a semi-legendary Welsh Bard and this new disc from  Tŷ Cerdd - Music Centre Wales, Taliesin's Songbook, uses his name as the focus for a programme of songs by 20th-century and contemporary Welsh composers, setting mainly Welsh texts. Taliesin's Songbook features music by Dilys Elwyn Edwards, Alun Hoddinott, Arwell Hughes, Dafydd Bullock, Evan Thomas Davies, Mark Bowden, Rhian Samuel, Gareth Glyn, Grace Williams, Huw Watkins, William Mathias, Morfydd Owen and Meirion Williams performed by Susan Bullock (soprano), Rebecca Evans (soprano), Catrin Finch (harp), Gareth Brynmor John (baritone), Natalya Romaniw (soprano), Elgan Llyr Thomas (tenor), Elin Manahan Thomas (soprano) and pianist Andrew Matthews-Owen who also curated the project.

When we think of Welsh song there is a lazy tendency to imagine a Welsh male-voice choir singing Myfanwy or a folk-song such as Dafydd y Garreg Wen (David of the White Rock), but from the early years of the 20th century the genre has moved steadily from folk-song and the parlour towards art song. Whilst the composers Alun Hoddinott and William Mathias are very much the focus of 20th-century Welsh art song, the composers on this disc stretch from Et Davies (born 1878), Morfydd Owen (born 1891) and Meirion Williams (born 1901) to Huw Watkins (born 1976) and Mark Bowden (born 1979). This is very much a disc of Welsh composers setting the Welsh language, only five of the twenty two songs set English texts.

Sage Gateshead and Royal Philharmonic Society establish major new partnership to advance gender equality in conducting

Only one British orchestra has a female principal conductor. At last count, only six women conductors have titled roles amid the several hundred conductors on the staff of professional British orchestras - and only 22 of the 371 conductors represented by British agents were female. That’s 5.5%.

In part, to help remedy this imbalance Alice Farnham founded the Women Conductors programme in 2014 since when it has helped over 500 women try their hand and further their skills at conducting, in a range of courses at varying levels nationwide. Since 2016, the Royal Philharmonic Society (RPS) has run the initiative, now called the RPS Women Conductors programme, and it is about to enter an exciting new phase.

Royal Northern Sinfonia (the orchestra of Sage Gateshead and the UK's only full-time chamber orchestra), and the RPS are collaborating on a multi-year partnership set to bring the next big female conducting talents to the North East and allow the conductors from the project podium time with the Royal Northern Sinfonia. A pilot on 14 June 2021 featured conductors Olivia Clarke, Helen Harrison, Charlotte Corduroy and Hannah Schneider. Applications for further opportunities, from January 2022, will be welcomed by the RPS this Autumn. Follow @RoyalPhilSoc for updates.

Alice Farnham said: “The climate has changed so much since I co-founded Women Conductors in 2014, and many talented and confident female conductors are emerging.  This is a chance for them to gain not only essential podium time with a professional orchestra, but to allow them to take risks and be adventurous in their music making.  We are looking forward to exploring the relationship between conductor and orchestra, yet in a safe and constructive environment for players and conductors alike.” 

Wednesday, 16 June 2021

After a gap of 15 months, the musicians of Live Music Now return to live performance

Live Music Now logo
Live Music Now is returning to live performance after a 15-month hiatus, presenting over 60 concerts across the England, Northern Ireland and Wales, as its 250 musicians get back to performing in schools, care homes and community centres. 

Live Music Now is one of the UK’s biggest musical charities working specifically within the health and wellbeing arena, delivering inspirational musical moments that enable people to live musical lives whilst building community and generating creativity. It also nurtures the careers of hundreds of musicians and through a programme of training and resources, Live Music Now will also be supporting its professionals as they re-start their careers, with funding from Arts Council England and Arts Council Wales' Culture Recovery Fund. 

Live Music Now's #ReturntoLive project will:

  • enable those experiencing disadvantage and challenging circumstance across the UK – from children at school to older people in care homes – to return to their musical lives through the experience of and participation of live, in-person music making for the first time in more than 15 months 
  • provide development, mentoring and rehearsal support for its 250 musicians across the UK  
  • offer moments of wellbeing and support to staff delivering on the frontline of the pandemic for the past 15 months
  • culminate in 60+ concerts from 14 June 2021 across the UK, from schools and care homes to community centres, hospitals and doorstep musical moments
Concerts will include the Chameleon Quartet in locations across Manchester; vocalist Rosie Hood from the Dovetail Trio, in residence at Riverside School in Goole, creating original folk songs with pupils; Gambian musician Jali Bakary Konteh playing the kora at Islington vaccination centres with both Gambian music and his own compositions; contemporary classical chamber quartet Spindle Ensemble in Bristol's Claremont School; Conor Lamb and Dierdre Galway in concerts of Irish traditional music on the uilleann pipes in Northern Ireland; Top Brass Trio in concerts in Wales.

Full details from the Live Music Now website

Purcell's music never ceases to amaze in its imagination: Royal Welcome Songs for King Charles II, volume IV from The Sixteen

Henry Purcell Royal Welcome Songs for King Charles II, volume IV; The Sixteen, Harry Christophers; CORO
Henry Purcell Royal Welcome Songs for King Charles II, volume IV; The Sixteen, Harry Christophers; CORO

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 11 June 2021 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
This might be well into The Sixteen's voyage through Purcell's Royal Welcome Songs but the performance are wonderfully engaging and Purcell's music never ceases to amaze in its imagination


Henry Purcell wrote Odes and Welcome Songs across three reigns, developing this strange genre despite limited resources and poor poetry. Harry Christophers and The Sixteen continue their imaginative trawl through this still under-represented genre and the latest disc on Coro is Volume Four of the Royal Welcome Songs for King Charles II which includes Swifter, Isi, swifter flow and The summer's absence unconcerned we bear along with music from Theodosius and the anthem, The Lord is my light.

As ever, Christophers casts his net widely, giving us a significant range of Purcell's genius from around the years when the disc's two Welcome Songs were written (1681-1682). So we begin with a catch, but given its title God save our sov'reign Charles it is no surprise to find that this is rather sober, but still good rhythmic fun.

Then comes Swifter, Isis, swifter flow written in 1681 to celebrate King Charles II's return from Oxford (hence Isis) where he had summoned parliament (so that the Whig opposition were away from their supporters), and promptly dissolved it. Regarded as a political masterstroke by many commentators, this in fact did not solve the inherent problems facing the relations between monarch and parliament, but simply put things off and led to Charles ruling as absolute monarch (with secret but significant subsidy from his cousin, King Louis XIV of France).

Not for the last time, Purcell's music reflects nothing of these politics.

Sheer enjoyment: Rachel Podger and Royal Northern Sinfonia's Bach to Bach

Bach to Bach - Rachel Podger, Royal Northern Sinfonia
Bach to Bach - Rachel Podger, Royal Northern Sinfonia
Bach to Bach
; Rachel Podger, Royal Northern Sinfonia; Sage Gateshead

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 11 June 2021
Rachel Podger's debut with the orchestra and their first concert this year with a live audience make for a vibrant mix

Baroque violinist Rachel Podger spent a week with the Royal Northern Sinfonia working on the music of Bach and the results were on display at the concert Bach to Bach at Sage Gateshead on Friday 11 June 2021 (and also on-line, which is how I watched the concert), both Podger's debut with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and the ensemble's first concert with a live audience this year. Rachel Podger directed the Royal Northern Sinfonia from the violin in the sonata from Bach's Cantata BWV31 Der Himmel lacht! Die Erde jubiliert!, Violin Concerto in A minor BWV1041, and Orchestral Suite No. 3.

This was a modern-instrument chamber orchestra but fielding just 14 strings, who were playing with gut strings and seemed to be making such adjustments as using minimal vibrato. The sound quality was warm yet lithe, with a noticeable emphasis on articulation and phrasing.

Tuesday, 15 June 2021

Exuberance and poise: Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro from Opera Holland Park's Young Artists

Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro - Lada Valešová, Jacob Philips, Charlotte Bowden, Guy Withers - Opera Holland Park (Photo Ali Wright)
Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro - Lada Valešová, Jacob Philips, Charlotte Bowden, Guy Withers - Opera Holland Park (Photo Ali Wright)


Mozart Le nozze di Figaro; Jacob Phillips, Siân Dicker, Charlotte Bowden, Ross Ramgobin, Charlotte Badham, dir: Rebecca Meltzer/Oliver Platt, cond: Lada Valešová; Opera Holland Park

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 14 June 2021
The annual Young Artists Performance brings a different energy and lovely sense of youthful ensemble to this witty, post-modern take on Mozart's opera

Opera Holland Park's Young Artist Scheme is celebrating its 10th birthday this year and the production chosen for the Young Artists performances was Oliver Platt's witty, post-modern take on Mozart's La nozze di Figaro, designed by takis. We caught the performance on 14 June 2021 when Lada Valešová conducted the City of London Sinfonia, with Jacob Phillips as the Count, Siân Dicker as the Countess, Charlotte Bowden as Susanna, Charlotte Badham as Cherubino, Hannah Bennett as Marcellina, Alex Jones as Bartolo, Isabelle Peters as Barbarina and Guy Withers as Basilio / Don Curzio. Jolyon Loy who was to play Figaro was ill so Ross Ramgobin from the main cast played the role. Rebecca Meltzer was the associate director, responsible for rehearsing this cast. The performance was the first of four that this cast is giving, two of which are schools matinees.

Oliver Platt's production is certainly not staid [see my review] but Rebecca Meltzer and her young cast found an extra level of physicality in this performance, bringing out the more comic elements yet anchoring them firmly in real characters, and there were lots of moments when you noticed details where cast members very much made the characters their own. Ross Ramgobin, as very short notice, fitted brilliantly into the cast and the whole was a real ensemble piece.

Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro - Charlotte Badham, Siân Dicker - Opera Holland Park (Photo Ali Wright)
Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro - Charlotte Badham, Siân Dicker - Opera Holland Park (Photo Ali Wright)

Debussy's Prodigal Son returns to Sheffield this Summer

Debussy: The Prodigal Son - Opera on Location - Sheffield

Sheffield-based Opera on Location is returning to live performances this Summer with an outdoor staging of Debussy's lyric scene, L'enfant prodigue (The Prodigal Son) which will be staged at Kelham Island Museum on 15 August 2021, with four performances throughout the day. The work will be directed by Ashley Pearson who has written a new English libretto and Juliane Gallant conducts a 10-piece instrumental ensemble performing a new orchestration by Sheffield-based composer George Morton, with Andrea Tweedale as Lia, Gareth Lloyd as Azael, and Thomas D Hopkinson as Simeon.

There is a Sheffield connection with the opera. Whilst Debussy wrote L'enfant prodigue in 1894 for the Prix de Rome (which he won), he later re-orchestrated the work and this version was premiered at the Sheffield Music Festival with Sir Henry Wood conducting in 1908. Whilst the story does tell the tale of a prodigal son, the plot has no link to the Biblical parable.

Founded in 2013, Opera on Location is a Sheffield-based company, which aims to perform professional opera in real locations, and provide valuable opportunities for young singers in the early stages of their professional careers. The opera company was founded by Kathryn Gasic and Gareth Lloyd, two young arts professionals, who between them have extensive experience spanning arts administration and management, performance and producing.

Full details from the Opera on Location website.

Monday, 14 June 2021

Fun and tuneful: Holst's early operetta, The Idea, get its UK premiere

Irrational Theatre - Holst: The Idea
Gustav Holst would dismiss all the music that he wrote before 1904 as derivative early horrors, though commentators more recently have been kinder and see interest, originality and a hint of what was to come. He wrote his operetta The Idea in 1896 whilst still a student, and the work finally receives its UK premiere this June when Irrational Theatre present The Idea in performances at St Saviours Hall St Albans (20/6/2021), Windsor’s Old Court (25/6/2021), Chiswick Playhouse (26/6/2021), Harpenden Park Hall (27/6/2021) and Upstairs at The Gatehouse, Highgate (1 & 2/7/2021). 

Directed by Paula Chitty with a cast of five, Valeria Perboni,  Ross Hobson,  Simon Mulligan , John Stivey and  Elena Hogg, plus a small instrumental ensemble led by music director Jack Blue, it is a fun piece, tuneful and somewhat G&S in style, yet sheds an insight into his early development with flourishes and hints of  the Holst we have come to know.

Holst's operas seem to be undergoing something of a revival this year with performances of Savitri, At the Boar's Head and The Wandering Scholar at the Leeds Opera Festival, so it is heartening that another small company is imaginatively digging into Holst's rarer repertoire.

Further information from the Irrational Theatre website.

17th century revival: HGO makes modern drama of Cavalli's early masterpiece, L'Egisto

Cavalli: L'Egisto - Helen May, Kieran White - HGO (Hampstead Garden Opera) (Photo Laurent Compagnon)
Cavalli: L'Egisto - Helen May, Kieran White - HGO (Hampstead Garden Opera) (Photo Laurent Compagnon)

Cavalli L'Egisto; Kieran White, Helen May, Eric Schlossberg, Shafali Jalota, Tom Kelly, Marcio da Silva, HGO at the Cockpit

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 12 June 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Young artists really bring to life this 17th-century tale of mismatched love

Cavalli's opera L'Egisto premiered in Venice in 1643. It was his seventh opera (of over forty though not all survive) and the second (of around a dozen) with librettist Giovanni Faustini. The opera quickly spread, bringing Cavalli fame not only in Italy but in Vienna and in France (where L'Egisto would be performed in as part of Cardinal Mazarin's unsuccessful campaign to make Italian opera popular in Paris).


Cavalli: L'Egisto - Shafali Jalota, Eric Schlossberg  - HGO (Hampstead Garden Opera) (Photo Laurent Compagnon)
Cavalli: L'Egisto - Shafali Jalota, Eric Schlossberg
HGO (Photo Laurent Compagnon)
As a young composer Cavalli was in the circle around Claudio Monteverdi when he created his late operatic masterpieces for the Venetian theatre and Cavalli was probably one the composers who helped the elderly master write I'Incoronazione di Poppea. But whilst Monteverdi (some 35 years older than Cavalli) was responsible for the first operatic masterpieces, it was Cavalli's career spanning 30 years writing for Venice's opera houses which effectively developed opera as a commercial art-form.

L'Egisto also had an important role in the development of Cavalli's reputation in the 20th century. After his ground breaking performances of Cavalli operas at Glyndebourne (L'Ormindo in 1967, La Calisto in 1970), Raymond Leppard conducted his own luxurious edition of L'Egisto at Santa Fe in 1972, and this edition would be used at Scottish Opera in 1982. There have been more recent productions, I saw it a Buxton in the 1990s, but the opera remains relatively unperformed.

This in itself is rather strange as the plot's concentration on the five lovers has a modern feel to it (with elements of Mozart's Cosi fan tutte). There is little of the madcap plotting or comic servants that characterise much 17th century Venetian opera, instead, Cavalli and Faustini give us scenes of the gods meddling in human affairs.

HGO (Hampstead Garden Opera) presented a new production of Cavalli's L'Egisto at The Cockpit, Gateforth Street, directed by Marcio da Silva, who was also music director. The production was double cast and on Saturday 12 June 2021 we saw Kieran White as Egisto, Helen May as Climene, Eric Schlossberg as Lidio, Shafali Jalota as Clori, Tom Kelly as Hipparco and Stephanie Hershaw as Amore, with Rachel Allen, Ana Beard Fernandez, Anna-Luise Wagner, Emily Noon and James Berry. Designs were by Christian Hey. The work was performed in an edition by Marcio da Silva and Cedric Meyer. The accompanying instrumental ensemble consisted of harpsichord (Sebastian Gillot), lute (Cedric Meyer), violins (Edmund Taylor, Kirsty Main), viola da gamba (Kate Conway), cello (Jacob Garside), recorder (Joel Raymond) and percussion/recorder/guitar (Marcio da Silva).

The plot starts in media res, clearly Cavalli and Faustini were not interested in the action as such but simply the reactions of the lovers. Before opera starts, Egisto and Clori were in love, as were Lidio and Climene. Capture by pirates and other events conspire to bring Egisto and Climene together, and Clori and Lidio. When the opera opens, Egisto and Climene are together as friends, living with Climene's brother Hipparco, and both missing their lovers. However, on another part of the island Lidio and Clori are in love. The plot device that Faustini uses is that Lidio and Clori carve their names on trees, these love messages are seen by their original lovers, cue plot which is complicated by the fact that Hipparco (who rules the island) also loves Clori.

The action encompasses the original lovers trying to get back with their first partners (and failing), vows of vengeance from Hipparco and Climene, Climene's failure to be able to kill Lidio and Egisto's descent into madness. But punctuating this were scenes of the gods, who delight in manipulating the plot. Thanks to the intervention of Amore all is restored at the end, though Da Silva's production gave the ending a more uncertain ending. There is one servant figure, Dema an older woman whose role is to present an entirely different view of love and fidelity.

Sunday, 13 June 2021

Remarkable revival: Rodula Gaitanou's production of Verdi's La Traviata is back at Opera Holland Park with the original cast on terrific form

Verdi: La traviata - Lauren Fagan, Matteo Desole - Opera Holland Park (Photo Ali Wright)
Verdi: La traviata - Lauren Fagan, Matteo Desole - Opera Holland Park (Photo Ali Wright)

Verdi La Traviata; Lauren Fagan, Matteo Desole, Stephen Gadd, Laura Woods,Ellie Edmonds, Rodula Gaitanou, Matthew Kofi Waldren; Opera Holland Park

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 11 June 2021 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Cast,conductor and director return to La Traviata after three years, and its as powerful, intense and stylish as ever, if not more so

In 2018, Rodula Gaitanou directed a new production of Verdi's La traviata at Opera Holland Park in which lightening really did manage to strike twice, not only was the first night cast outstanding, with Lauren Fagan and Matteo Desole as Violetta and Alfredo [see my review], but the young artists performance, with Alison Langer and Stephen Aviss, managed to hit the spot too [see my review]. Now the company has brought the production back, with most singers returning to their roles and Gaitanou returning to direct. And yes, the magic was recaptured and more.

We caught Verdi's La traviata at Opera Holland Park on 11 June 2021, directed by Rodula Gaitanou with Lauren Fagan as Violetta, Matteo Desole as Alfredo, Stephen Gadd as Giorgio Germont, Laura Woods as Flora and Ellie Edmonds as Annina, with Matthew Kofi Waldren conducting City of London Sinfonia in Jonathan Lyness' reduced orchestration. Design was by Cordelia Chisholm, lighting by Simon Corder and movement by Steve Elias.

Verdi: La traviata - Laura Woods and chorus - Opera Holland Park (Photo Ali Wright)
Verdi: La traviata, Act Two - Laura Woods and chorus - Opera Holland Park (Photo Ali Wright)

From the opening, the production placed us in the realm of Violetta's illness, the overwhelming sound of her difficulty breathing and during the orchestral prelude the sight of Fagan's Violetta being dressed by Annina (Allie Edmonds) and coughing up blood. Gaitanou did not labour the point, but she ensured that reality of Violetta's illness was a thread through the production. 19th century opera is not a naturalistic art form, and Gaitanou did not make the mistake of trying to make this realistic but the entire production was anchored in her wonderful eye for detail whether it was the establishment of the poor relations between Fagan's Violetta and Nicholas Garrett's Barone within the busy chaos of of the Act One party, or Edmonds' Annina facing down Stephen Gadd's Giorgio Germont at the Act Two party, a moment which told even more because Gadd is so much taller than Edmonds.

Saturday, 12 June 2021

An album that made people forget and enjoy: Norwegian trumpeter Tine Thing Helseth talks about her new album inspired by memories of her mother's trumpet playing

Tine Thing Helseth (Photo Anna-Julia Granberg)
Tine Thing Helseth (Photo Anna-Julia Granberg)

In May 2021, Norwegian trumpeter Tine Thing Helseth released a new disc, Magical Memories on the Norwegian label Lawo Classics, her first new UK release in eight years. Recorded with organist Kåre Nordstoga in Oslo Cathedral during Norway’s lockdown in late August/early September 2020, the disc features an eclectic mix of pieces all of which have strong personal connections for Tine, starting with the pieces that she heard her mother, also a trumpeter, playing. I recently chatted to Tine, at home in Norway, via Zoom about the inspiration for the new album, borrowing music for the trumpet, her all-women brass group TenThing, always wanting to play the trumpet and the Spice Girls.

For the disc, Tine selected music that brought back memories for her, tunes that she had a relationship with whether pieces she heard as a child or music that she had played herself. And for Tine, all of them are beautiful tunes, music that she loves and hopes that listeners will fall in love with. There is another thread running through the selection as well, because many of the works on the album are the sort that are used to mark major events in life, from weddings to funerals to other special occasions. What she hopes is that many of the pieces on the disc will be ones that her audience also has memories of, or that they will develop those memories.


It is some time since Tine was in the studio, but at the beginning of 2020 she was thinking of a new album when 'everything stopped'. Then there was the possibility last Autumn when everything was still quiet, and despite restrictions, a recording with just the two performers was possible (in a way that an orchestral disc would not have been). The disc was intended to be positive, she felt that there was so much tragedy and despair, such a negative vibe, that she wanted to do something more positive, to produce an album that made people forget and enjoy. And now things are feeling more positive with the vaccine, it seems a good time to release it.

Tine Ting Helseth and Kåre Nordstoga recording 'Magical Memories' in Oslo Cathedral
Tine Ting Helseth and Kåre Nordstoga recording Magical Memories in Oslo Cathedral

As with some of her previous albums, the music is a mix of works written for the trumpet and those which she has borrowed.

Friday, 11 June 2021

Meditation and Prayer: new commissions from Sir James MacMillan and Will Todd in an evening themed on the writings of Cardinal Newman

John Henry Newman by George Richmond (1844)
John Henry Newman
by George Richmond (1844)

Cardinal Newman: Meditation and Prayer
- Sir James MacMillan, Will Todd; The Sixteen, Harry Christophers, Alexander Armstrong; Church of the Immaculate Conception, Farm Street (via live-stream)

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 10 June 2021
Two wonderful new commissions at the centre of this programme of words and music themed on the writings of John Henry Newman

Cardinal Newman is a somewhat complex figure who is known to musicians mainly through Elgar's use of his words for The Dream of Gerontius (and the hymns derived therefrom), but the hinterland of Newman's thought and theology remains largely unexplored in music.

Last night (Thursday 10 June 2021, the Genesis Foundation and Classic FM presented Cardinal Newman: Meditation and Prayer at the live at the Church of the Immaculate Conception, Farm Street, with a small invited audience, and live-streamed (I watched the latter). The centrepiece of the evening was the world premiere of two settings of one of Newman's meditations by Sir James MacMillan and by Will Todd, performed by Harry Christophers and The Sixteen. Also in the programme was sacred music by Parsons, Laloux, Tye and Harris, plus readings from Newman and John Donne by Alexander Armstrong.

The Sixteen were at full strength, 18 singers in four ranks taking full advantage of the depth of the church's chancel.

Both new commissions set text from the same Newman passage, A meditation on trust in God (written in 1848, four years after the portrait above and three years after his reception into the Roman Catholic Church), which Alexander Armstrong also read. The impetus behind the writing had remarkable prescience to the modern day but for the average secular person Newman's writing does require you to get behind the language somehow. Luckily, the responses of the two composers were wonderfully direct and approachable.

Re-opening with an expanded season and its own entrance: Opera North's Howard Assembly Room

The Howard Assembly Room (Photo Justin Slee)
The Howard Assembly Room (Photo Justin Slee)
Opera North's Howard Assembly Room has been doubly closed (if that makes any sense). Not only were the venue's doors shut because of the present restrictions, but Opera North's £18M redevelopment campaign Music Works closed the whole building. But Music Works nears completion and the Howard Assembly Room reopens in October 2021 complete with its own front door!

The opening weekend of the season 9-10 October 2021 has an American feel to complement Opera North and Phoenix Dance Theatre’s Bernstein double bill (Trouble in Tahiti and dances from West Side Story) at the Grand Theatre, so there are Tiger Lilies in their exploration of Cole Porter's songs, Love for Sale, and baritone Quirijn de Lang and mezzo-soprano Sandra Piques Eddy (who sing the leading roles in Opera North's production of Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti) will be joined by principal guest conductor Anthony Hermus and members of the Opera North orchestra for songs from The Great American Songbook.

Other highlights include Yorkshire-born composer Gavin Bryars and his Ensemble performing two of his most seminal works, Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet and The Sinking of the Titanic, the Brodsky Quartet in Bach, Shostakovich and Schubert's Quintet with cellist Laura van der Heijden, the Tallis Scholars in Christmas mode, Norwegian percussionist Terje Isungset performing with Inuit, Sami and Siberian singers, Scandinavian jazz greats… and instruments made from ice, and soprano Gweneth Ann Rand and pianist Simon Lepper in a programme which is a personal reflection of Black voices with music by Debussy, Ravel and spirituals, songs sung by Billie Holliday and Nina Simone, works by Adolphus Hailstork and Errollyn Wallen.

There is also an extensive folk and jazz programme featuring visits from artists such as Courtney Pine.

The auditorium, with its spectacular gilt, barrel-vaulted roof and leaded windows, first opened in 1879 as a respectable alternative to Leeds’ music halls, hosting concerts, conjuring shows, variety performances and public meetings. After spells as a fleapit cinema and a store during the following century, it reopened as the Howard Assembly Room in 2009. Few changes have been made to the space itself since it was shuttered as part of Music Works in 2019, but the redevelopment project has finally given the Assembly Room its own dedicated entrance on New Briggate; an elegant new glazed atrium for refreshments and socialising; improved and fully accessible front-of-house facilities, and a new restaurant in the former shop units beneath it, due to be unveiled just after the venue itself.

Full details from the Howard Assembly Room website.

WNO returns to large-scale touring with a new look at Madam Butterfly and plans for the premiere of Will Todd's Migrations

Welsh National Opera - Puccini: Madama Butterfly
Welsh National Opera will be returning to large-scale touring this Autumn as part of its recently announced plans for the 2021/22 season. Autumn will see the return of Rossini's The Barber of Seville alongside a new production of Puccini's Madama Butterfly which will aim to create socially relevant telling of the classic tale. 2022 will features Mozart's Don Giovanni and Katie Mitchell's new production of Janáček's Jenůfa which will be conducted by the company's music director Tomáš Hanus. Will Todd's Migrations which was due to be premiered in 2021 will be premiered in Cardiff in June/July 2022 and will tour in Autumn 2022.

Giles Havergal's long-running production of Rossini's The Barber of Seville will be conducted by Tomáš Hanus and Frederick Brown and feature a cast including Nico Darmanin, Nicholas Lester, Heather Lowe, Andrew Shore and Keel Watson.

Puccini's Madama Butterfly will be directed by the Australian director Lindy Hume with Carlo Rizzi and James Southall conducting, Leonardo Caimi and Peter Auty as Pinkerton, Joyce El-Khoury and Alexia Voulgaridou as Butterfly, Mark Stone as Sharpless plus Tom Randle, Keel Watson, Anna Harvey, Kezia Bienek, and Neil Balfour. 

With the great beauty of the music, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that the essential drama of Puccini's well-loved opera is rather complex in our modern day. I remember WNO's production in the late 1970s (with Eiddwen Harrhy as Butterfly) included rather more of Puccini's first version which emphasised more Pinkerton's racism, and then of course there is the issue of Butterfly's age! The issue of opera's approach to the treatment of women is one that Hume has addressed before. In an interview ahead of Seattle Opera's 2019 performances of her production of Verdi's Rigoletto she said, 'In the most famous and beloved operas—Rigoletto, Don Giovanni, Carmen, Tosca, Madama Butterfly—the tragic heroine is part of the vernacular. Sopranos must rehearse how to fall, be stabbed, brutalized, and thrown across the room, behaviors they would never accept in real life. In 2019, if opera aspires to be a progressive, future-focused art form with relevance in contemporary society, then it must evolve and be responsive to a changing society. The topic of sexual assault and violence against women in opera is right there in front of us, either to explore, or to ignore.' So we look forward with interest to Madama Butterfly.

Will Todd's Migrations explores different elements of migration including the human impact via a text created by five diverse writers, Shreya Sen Handley, Edson Burton and Miles Chambers, Eric Ngalle Charles and Sarah Woods, working with Sir David Poutney. Pountney will direct and Matthew Kofi Waldren conducts, with a cast of 100 including a gospel choir, a children's chorus, Bollywood dancers and soloists from across the world.

WNO Youth Opera will be busy too. In May 2022 they will be performing Judith Weir's The Black Spider at Wales Millennium Centre with South Wales Youth Opera. The Black Spider was premiered in 1985 in Canterbury Cathedral and Weir (who also wrote the text, loosely based on the 1842 novella Die schwarze Spinne by Jeremias Gotthelf) describes the opera's tone as “somewhere between a video nasty and an Ealing comedy”.

And in July 2022, 18–25-year-old members of WNO Youth Opera will present a new production of Shostakovich’s Cheryomushki, directed by Daisy Evans, conducted by Alice Farnham, with members of WNO’s Youth Opera and Youth Opera alumni, the production will also include assisting roles, technical placements and student instrumentalists.

Tomáš Hanus will be taking the WNO Orchestra back onto the concert platform with concerts at St David's Hall, Cardiff in November 2021 and May 2022. There will also be a programme of family concerts and schools concerts.

WNO is aiming to move its community engagement programmes to ‘in person’ sessions from online activity when safe to do so over the coming months, including its activity in schools, its performances in hospitals and care homes and projects in partnership with Oasis Cardiff and Welsh Refugee Council.  WNO’s Cradle Choir for people living with dementia will also continue as part of the broader intergenerational Cradle project, bringing together children from schools in Milford Haven with local people living with the disease in creative activity culminating in Summer 2022.

WNO’s Talent Development Programme, which has been online during the past year, is returning to live engagement, and this will involved WNO Associate Artists Aaron O’Hare, Adam Gilbert and Isabelle Peters, Weston Jerwood Directing Fellow Gareth Chambers, as well as an Associate Conductor role in collaboration with the Donatella Flick-LSO Conducting Competition. 

Full details from the WNO website.

Julian Chou-Lambert: Reverie

Julian Chou-Lambert combines careers both as an operatic baritone and a composer, training at Cambridge, Trinity College and the Royal Academy of Music. His video, Reverie, features his own music and words performed by soprano Isabelle Peters [seen recently in the premiere of Errollyn Wallen's Dido's Ghost, see my review] and pianist Dylan Perez. The video, shot by artist and film-maker Sophie Siem, is deliberately pop-video in style, forming an intriguing complement to the contemporary classical music.

The video has been selected for the International Music Video Awards and was also a finalist in the Rome Music Video Awards. [See it on YouTube]

Thursday, 10 June 2021

More than just a festival: MusicFest Aberystwyth returns with live and streamed events, and an on-line Summer school

Aberystwyth

Following a digital event in 2020 MusicFest Aberystwyth is returning with live events and a tempting array of artists performing in the lovely West Wales town from 24 July to 30 July, with concerts being a mixture of live and on-line (with screenings at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre). And alongside the festival there is a lively on-line Summer school with courses running from 10 July to 4 August 2021.

The festival is opened by harpist Catrin Finch in a diverse programme which an accent on Welsh composers including John Parry (1776-1851) and William Mathias, plus a recent work by Paul Patterson. Pianist and composer Yshani Perinpanayagam premieres a new piece by Welsh composer Sarah Lianne Lewis alongside music by Beethoven, Morfydd Owen (1891-1918) and Debussy, cellist Guy Johnston plays Bach's Cello Suites spread across two concerts,

On-line, the Solem Quartet give the Welsh premiere of Aaron Parker's Tuóretu alongside quartets by Beethoven and Bartok, the Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective is joined by tenor Karim Sulayman for a in intriguing programme of music for voice and instruments from Handel, Schubert, RVW, Beethoven, Poulenc and Hahn, and Amy Beach's Piano Trio.

Alongside the performances is the festival's annual Summer school. As last year, this is running on-line but they hope to return to a live experience in 2022. The Summer school presents 'A selection of specially designed online courses for you to collaborate and learn with one of our internationally renowned tutors and likeminded musicians', and tutors include the festival's artistic director, David Campbell, clarinettist Robert Plane, speech-therapist and counter-tenor Dr Ron Morris, flautist Karen Jones, fiddle and pipes player Patrick Rimes, conductor James Henshaw, saxophonists Kyle Horch and Lars Lien, and composer Nico Muhly. The festival also has a range of bursaries to help students, graduates and young musicians attend the courses.

The festival has a history stretching back to 1986 and earlier. The Department of Music at the then University College Wales was one of Britain's first music departments with guest lecturers and visitors including Bartók, Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Holst. When the department closed in the early 1980s a group of teachers had the idea to start a family music project in association with Aberystwyth Arts Centre, and this soon more formally developed into MusicFest Aberystwyth in 1986. David Campbell has been artistic director since 2001 and the festival has developed its extensive annual Summer school which attracts artists and students from across the globe. And most recently composer Nathan James Dearden has joined the festival as associate artistic director.

Applications are currently open (closing 14 June 2021) for two creatives from or based in Wales to collaborate on the creation of a digital installation inspired by the rich landscape and culture of Aberystwyth, and to be premiered this Summer.

Full details from the MusicFest Aberystwyth website.

Up Close and Musical: Shiry Rashkovsky's new festival aims to foster a deeper connection and understanding with what musicians do.

Fidelio Cafe, Clerkenwell
Fidelio Cafe, Clerkenwell

Viola player Shiry Rashkovsky conceived the idea of her Up Close and Musical Festival after being asked 'what her day job was' one too many times by audience members post-concert, but there were always other members of the audiences who were keen to chat and learn more. So with her new festival Shiry wants to not just make music, but foster in the audience a greater understanding of what musicians to. Originally scheduled for 2020 but twice postponed due to the pandemic Up Close and Musical takes place at the Fidelio Café from 17 July to 15 August 2021.

As artistic director of the festival Shiry has brought together a diverse group including DJ and composer Gabriel Prokofiev, cellist and composer Abel Selaocoe, violinist Chloë Hanslip violin, Trio Klein & pianist Yulia Chaplina, jazz-bass player and composer Misha Mullov-Abbado , soprano and composer Héloïse Werner, author Jessica Duchen and composer Nimrod Borenstein. And the festival will not only provide a performance platform, but with interviews and talks Shiry wants to take the foster a deeper connection between performers and audience.

The festival's postponements have been a challenge (she jokes about the 2021 being the second edition), but the 2021 version is not vastly different to what was originally planned, except that events are rather more spread out and are shorter. And she has benefited from the learning process, each postponement giving her the possibility of tinkering with things. She has taken arts leadership roles before, but this is the first event she has created from scratch, so is in some ways grateful for the experiences.

When she first conceived the idea of the festival she wanted a venue which was cosy and convivial, which would foster conversations, and the Fidelio Cafe has this atmosphere, evoking the idea of hauskonzerte. But whilst it is a relaxed place, there is also respect for the music, you don't eat and listen at the same time! In fact, Shiry used to live down the road from venue when it was a pizzeria that she used to visit. Then the pizza place closed and the construction workers arrived. She was intrigued by the name, Fidelio Orchestra Café and popped in to talk to them and loved the energy.

The festival will have six concerts and two talks over four days (17 and 29 July, 14-15 August 2021). Almost all the artists in the festival are boundary crossing, as Shiry wanted to show what classical music can be, as she feels that there is a lack of public awareness of the potential of the genre.

The first day begins with composer Nimrod Borenstein giving a live demonstration of how he made the final compositional choices for one of his works. Then Trio Klein perform favourite works, including Bach's Goldberg Variations, and the String Trio 1944  by Gideon Klein (which was composed in Theresienstadt in 1944) and they will be joined by pianist Yulia Chaplina for Caroline Shaw's piano quartet Thousandth Orange (Shiry calls it 'fabulous') and after dinner there is a set from Gabriel Prokfiev combining live electronics with Shiry playing viola, and this forms the launch of his forthcoming album and is a collaboration with Prokofiev's Nonclassical.

Then on the Thursday evening, cellist Abel Selaocoe will be performing his own pieces, African music, Bach and much more. Shiry describes herself as a 'massive fan'.

The August weekend begins with violinist Chloe Hanslip performing Bach, Biber and Ysaye, then after dinner there is Misha Mullov-Abbado and his jazz sextet performing some of his recent works. On Sunday, Jessica Duchen will be reading from her novel Immortal about the identity of the ‘Immortal Beloved’ of Ludwig van Beethoven’s love letter following the composer’s anniversary year. After dnner, soprano Heloise Werner will be performing solos from her new album, including Récitations by George Aperghis and a piece by Cheryl Frances-Hoad. There will also be the world premiere of Werner's new work, commissioned by Shiry, The Erl-King for soprano and viola which is inspired by Angela Carter’s reworking of the Erl-king fairy tale in The Bloody Chamber. Shiry and Heloise Werner will be recording this in August alongside an arrangement of Schubert's setting of Goethe's version of the tale, Erlkönig.

Many of the artists are friends or people Shiry has known a long time, and all are good speakers with unique personalities so she is confident that the mix of music, conversation and talk will come out right.

The event takes place at the Fidelio Cafe which is a project of the Fidelio Orchestra

Further details from the Up Close and Musical website.

Wednesday, 9 June 2021

Hooray for summer! Hooray for BBC Proms! Hooray for Royal Albert Hall! Tony Cooper reports on this year’s musical extravaganza

Sir Henry Wood conducting at the Royal Albert Hall
Sir Henry Wood conducting at the Royal Albert Hall

The world’s largest classical-music festival, the BBC Proms (running from Friday 30 July to Saturday 11 September) is a feast of music like no other and, thankfully, heralds in a summer of live music on a scale not seen since before the pandemic. 

A total of 52 concerts are on offer over a six-week season featuring 30 orchestras and ensembles, over 100 soloists and conductors and more than 2000 musicians. And if you cannot get to the Royal Albert Hall one will be able to tune in at home to BBC Radio 3 who’ll be broadcasting every concert live while twenty Proms will be televised. Furthermore, all broadcasts can be reached on BBC Sounds and BBC iPlayer.

As in past years, BBC orchestras and choirs remain the beating heart of the Proms and they’ll be joined by a wealth of world-class British orchestras and ensembles. Therefore, some of the best-loved British artists appearing include Nicola Benedetti, Karen Cargill, Lucy Crowe, Sir Mark Elder, Benjamin Grosvenor, Steven Isserlis, Sally Matthews, Sir Simon Rattle, Christine Rice and Roderick Williams while Sir John Eliot Gardiner will surely get the Prommers roar of approval when he steps on stage for his 60th Proms appearance.

So closely associated with Sir Henry Wood (Old Timber) - who, by the way, was no stranger to my home city of Norwich as he was artistic director/conductor of the Norfolk & Norwich Triennial Festival from 1908 to 1930 - the Proms are a celebration of the best that classical music can offer. Celebrations all round, really, as the Royal Albert Hall chalks up its 150th anniversary this year while its 80 years since the venue became home to the BBC Proms. Cake all round! 

And marking the Royal Albert Hall’s 150th, the Hall’s magnificent organ will be heard across five concerts while four new works have been commissioned by the BBC to honour the occasion from Augusta Read Thomas, Britta Byström, Grace-Evangeline Mason and Gity Razaz. All of the composers have taken the Hall’s original name The Royal Albert Hall of Arts and Sciences as inspiration for their respective works.

Festmusik: The gorgeous textures of Richard Strauss writing for brass stand out on this disc from Onyx Brass and friends inspired by a family cache of letters

Richard Strauss Festmusik der Stadt Wien, Schumann, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Rubinstein, Frank; Onyx Brass, John Wilson; Chandos

Richard Strauss Festmusik der Stadt Wien, Schumann, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Rubinstein, Frank; Onyx Brass, John Wilson; Chandos

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 8 June 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A rare, late outing into brass music by Richard Strauss partnered with an intriguing programme of arrangements on this imaginative new disc.

Whilst 19th and early 20th-century composers of the Austro-German tradition wrote terrifically for brass in their orchestral music, works for brass ensemble are scarce to non-existent, at least by well known composers. Which makes Richard Strauss' 1943 work Festmusik der Stadt Wien all the more surprising. It is a terrific piece, written for an ensemble consisting of ten trumpets, five trombones, two bass trombones, two tubas and timpani, but at ten minutes long it leaves the performers wondering, what else to put on the disc. 
 
For this new disc from Onyx Brass, Festmusik: A Legacy on Chandos the brass ensemble has mined one of their founders' own family history to combine the Strauss with arrangements of more Strauss performed by an ensemble made up of Onyx Brass and guest players including Septura conducted by John Wilson, plus arrangements of works by Robert Schumann, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Anton Rubinstein, and Robert Franz performed by just the five members of Onyx Brass.

Onyx Brass and guests including members of Septura, conductor John Wilson, during the recording of the Richard Strauss' Festmusik (Photo Andrew Sutton)
Onyx Brass and guests including members of Septura, conductor John Wilson, during the recording of the Richard Strauss' Festmusik (Photo Andrew Sutton)

David Gordon-Shute, one of the founders of Onyx Brass, explains in his booklet note that the album arose partly because of a family cache of old letters. His grandmother Anne-Marie, her sister Hilde and Hilde's husband Heinz had fled Germany in the 1930s like many other Jewish families. When Heinz died in the 1990s he left Gordon-Shute a cache of letters, not personal ones but semi-business from composers including those on the disc. A postcard from Richard Strauss in the collection was discovered to refer to a pair of Strauss' choral pieces, Zwei Gesänge, which had been arranged for Onyx Brass in the early days of its existence. So the recording pairs these two with Strauss' Festmusik, and then mines works by composers also in the letter collection, arranged for brass quintet. So we have Schumann's Impromptus über ein Thema von Clara Wieck, Op. 5 (1833), Brahms' song Ich schwing’ mein Horn ins Jammertal, Op. 41 No. 1 (1861 – 62), Mendelssohn's chorus Die Frauen und die Sänger (1845), Rubinstein's piano Nocturne, Op. 71 No. 1 (1867), and Robert Franz's song Frühlingsblick, Op. 52 No. 6 (1884).

Past the Stars: BCMG returns to live performance as a full ensemble

BCMG: Past the Stars
Birmingham Contemporary Music Group

On 20 June 2021, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (BCMG) will be making its first appearance as a full ensemble since June 2020, when the group returns to Birmingham Town Hall for Past the Stars. The concert features soprano  Patricia Auchterlonie and cellist Ulrich Heinen in excerpts from Param Vir's Wheeling Past the Stars, his 2007 work which sets William Radice's translations of poetry by Rabindranath Tagore. Also in the programme will be the UK premiere of Vir's 2005 ensemble work Hayagriva, named for a horse-headed being known in Indian and Tibetan sacred literature and art as an incarnation of Vishnu associated with knowledge and wisdom, and Sir Harrison Birtwistle's Cantus lambeus, which was premiered by the Nash Ensemble in 2005.

Earlier that week, BCMG performs Soliloquies and Dialogues at Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol (11 June) and CBSO Centre, Birmingham (15 June). The programme features the first performances to a live audience of pieces commissioned by BCMG and created by composers during lockdown. Using the unpredictable events of Covid-19 as a stimulus for activity, BCMG asked several composers to create pieces for solo artists and connect with fellow musicians over digital platforms to rehearse, refine, and record their music. Having been created on kitchen tables and home offices, these pieces will now receive their first performances to a live audience.

Full details from the BCMG website.

Tuesday, 8 June 2021

All opera is community opera: Lewisham Urban Opera launches its crowdfunding

Music and Theatre for All: Urban Opera

When I chatted to director Thomas Guthrie last year [see my interview], one of the things that he talked about was Music and Theatre for All (MFTA) and its Urban Opera project and now the crowdfunding has launched from Lewisham Urban Opera. 

MFTA's Urban Opera project builds on the Royal Opera House’s iconic Write an Opera programme (1979-2015). The idea is that participants collaborate in every aspect of creating a community opera: composing music and scripts, designing sets, performing, managing and advertising every element. This process gives vulnerable communities a voice, builds confidence, strengthens communities, develops transferable skills and reduces isolation – needed now more than ever – in a big shout of ‘WE ARE HERE!’.

Lewisham Urban Opera will be led by a team of professional creatives, including Gwyneth Herbert as lyricist and composer, so that communities across Lewisham will come together to develop a spectacular show to celebrate the hope of a worldwide post-Covid resurgence during their 2022 Borough of Culture year.

Further information from MFTA's website, and do support them at CrowdFunder.

Getting WOAD on the road: Alastair White's fashion-opera debuts in film form at Goldsmiths' PureGold 2021

Alastair White: WOAD

WOAD is the latest of composer Alastair White's fashion-operas [for more on fashion-opera and Alastair's distinctive take on music-theatre, see my recent interview with him], his previous operas in this trilogy were ROBE [which we saw at Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival in 2019, see my review] and WEAR, which was staged at the Opera in the City Festival. When I chatted to Alastair in February he had plans for the debut of WOAD but inevitably these have been disturbed by the recent restrictions.

Instead of a live performance, WOAD has been filmed and there is a debut screening at Goldsmiths, University of London SE14 6NW on 16 June 2021. The screening is free but ticketed via Eventbrite and is part of PureGold 2021 Festival, the annual eclectic, innovative and exciting work coming out of Goldsmith's Department of Music. The festival is running now until 17 June, live and on-line, so do check out their website.

WOAD is written for saxophone and soprano, and the film features soprano Kelly Poukens and saxophonist Suzy Vanderheiden, alongside fashion designed by Renli Su. The work is about metamorphosis and parallel worlds, taken the tradition Border ballad of Tam Lin as its basis, a young boy is bewitched - into the form of an ape, an adder, a speck of dust. But is it his shape that twists and churns, or that of the world around him?


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