Saturday 31 December 2005

Having returned from our Christmas break, we went to see Billy Wilder's film Fedora at the National Film Theatre. We'd started talking about the film some months ago, speculating about whether the plot owed anything to Giordano's opera of the same name (it doesn't!). Still, the film was most enjoyable and gave me ideas for yet another film-based opera (I've already had ideas about making the film Chronos into an opera and have The Weekend as a work in progress). All I really need is a librettist !

Tomorrow is New Year's day so the trick is to avoid the Strauss waltzes (and the Radetzky march with its terrible audience clapping) on TV and Radio.

Friday 23 December 2005

Never say never

After singing carols with my choir earlier on in the month, I fondly imagined that I was done with carol singing for this year. Never my favourite of activities, I generally try and avoid them where possible. But...

On Tuesday it was the Chelsea Green carol concert; organised by the local businesses the choir of St. Luke's Church, Chelsea and Enterprise Brass braved the cold to sing carols and generally try and us in a Christmas mood, even old humbugs like me. And yes, I did actually hum along to some of the carols (fortified by smoked salmon, sausages and mulled wine!).

Then the choir from the local school came to sing under the Christmas tree at work. I imagined that I could avoid them but their singing permeated the entire building in a rather attractive manner. A relatively small group of children produced a surprisingly confident, well focussed and enjoyable sound. But now, I'm happy to forego carols for another year (or two!).

Recent CD review

My review of the new disc of Bo Holten's choral music is here, on MusicWeb.

Wednesday 21 December 2005

The latest issue of Opera magazine came flying through the letter box on Monday and has, as usual, been essential reading ever since.

I was interested to read that the National Theatre in Prague has only just staged the original version of Janacek's Jenufa for the first time; previously they had only ever staged the adaption made by the theatre's then director at the time the opera was first performed in Prague. Janacek had to agree to the changes as a condition of the opera being performed. Its a good thing that such unnecessary adaptions (correcting perceived faults in orchestration etc.) are being consigned to the dustbin.

Another review that caught my eye was Magdala Opera's production of Cavalleria Rusticana in Nottingham. Roderic Dunnett gave it a very positive review, which is very heart warming as the opera company is based on a chorus, many of whose members started adult life with no musical training, even no sense of pitch or no idea how to sing. Their aim is to bring more people to opera through their performances. More power to their elbow.

According to Opera's 'We hear that...' column, the Royal Opera House are having yet another go at Salome, with David McVicar scheduled to do a new production in 2008. I think this will be their 3rd new production since they ditched their old one which I saw starting in the late 70's/early 80's, with Hildegarde Behrens, Josphine Barstow, Gwynneth Jones and Grace Bumbry (at various times). I often wonder whether companies sometimes regret ditching old standard productions when they have so much trouble getting a new one right. But I suppose in an age of shared productions it is probably almost cost effective to bring a new co-production in as to re-furbish substantial and expensive sets.

Covent Garden seem to be investing quite heavily in David McVicar, I hope that he continues to deliver.

Tuesday 20 December 2005

Hear today ....

After hearing Elgar's Dream of Gerontius at the Barbican last week, I'd been going on about the surviving recordings of Elgar himself conducting the work (well extracts of it). There's a complete prelude (recorded live at the Royal Albert Hall) and sundry excerpts from a couple of attempts to record the work live.

These were all assembled on CD but frustratingly neither the Opal nor the EMI CD's are available at the moment. Isn't it about time the bigger companies had some sort of press to order arrangement for out of print CD's. I know it would be expensive but it would certainly be useful

Friday 16 December 2005

London Concord Singers Concert

Well, last night was the London Concord Singers concert at the Grosvenor Chapel, in Mayfair. Besides singing in the concert I had another interest in the programme as my motet I Vespri di Santa Cecilia was being performed. The concert went well and we got a pretty good audience; its always tricky at Christmas as there are so many other things going on, concerts, parties etc.

My motet went very well and there were quite a few approving comments at the interval and afterwards. We recorded the concert so I look forward to hearing the results. The trickier items in the programme went well and I think we did justice to Gabriel Jackson's 12-part motet, Cecilia Virgo.

About my own performance I was less than completely happy; I made a stupid mistake in a short solo and by the middle of the 2nd half was getting tired. The busy Christmas season was getting to me. So now its onward and upward, next term we start rehearsing Duarte Lobo's Requiem, Gabriel Jackson's Sacrum Convivium, another volume from Vagn Holmboe's Liber Canticorum and the amazing Purcell/Sandstrom Hear my prayer, along with a couple of pieces by the 18th century Roseingraves - a father and son who worked in the Cathedrals in Dublin.

Recent CD Review

My review of Yehudi Menuhin playing the Mendelssohn and Bruch concertos is here on MusicWeb

Tuesday 13 December 2005

Well we are gearing up for our concert on Thursday (London Concord Singers are performing at The Grosvenor Chapel in Mayfair). Monday evening was our last rehearsal in our usual venue and tomorrow we have the final rehearsal at the Chapel. This time of year is not ideal for rehearsing in Churches; even if they are heated they are rarely warm enough. If you had dropped in at the end of our rehearsal yesterday you'd have encountered 24 people bundled up in a remarkably wide variety of clothes to counter the cold.

The concert includes one of my pieces, I Vespri di Santa Cecilia, which should be rather fun. This time I'm not doing the tenor solo; the first time Concord did the piece I had the dubious pleasure of singing solo in my own piece. The work calls for 6 soloists and double choir so that we have a 14-part work. All great fun.

One of the pieces we're doing is Britten's Hymn to St. Cecilia and for some reason I've been wandering around all week humming the lovely tune that he gives the soprano soloist to the words dear white children casual as birds

Recent CD Review

And my review of the East-West Continuo's imaginative disc of contemporary chamber music for Flute and strings is here on MusicWeb. If you are interested in the byways of contemporary chamber music, do search the disc out.

Concert Review: Dream of Gerontius

My review of Sunday's Dream of Gerontius is now on-line here at Music and Vision

Monday 12 December 2005

Sunday morning was my last appearance at church until after Christmas. As it was Sunday we were able to use the organ (traditionally we don't use the organ in Advent, or Lent, but are allowed to on Gaudete Sunday). The name comes from the Latin text of the Introit which starts with the word Gaudete (Rejoice). We did Schubert in G; a mass to which I am supremely indifferent except for the sublime soprano solos in the Benedictus and the Agnus Dei. We also performed Emmanuel Fisher's Ave Maria; Fisher was a distinguished Jewish composer who wrote us this motet not long before he died. He had never written for the Christian church before and the result is very striking and quite a favourite with the choir.

In the evening we returned to the Barbican for the LSO's concert of Elgar's Dream of Gerontius. Unfortunately the illness bug was still around and Ben Heppner was ill and was replaced by David Rendall. Rendall's performance was a little careful but very enjoyable, but I had been looking forward to seeing what Heppner made of the role. A full review will appear in due course.

Sunday 11 December 2005

Emmannuelle Haim at the Barbican

I am unsure what the exact programme was supposed to be for Saturday’s concert by Le Concert d’Astree, conducted by Emmanuelle Haim, but the printed programme came with a note saying the programme had been changed. So we expected Bach’s Double Violin Concerto, the Oboe d’Amore concerto (reconstructed from the later Harpsichord concerto which was based on it), 2 arias from the Mass in B Minor sung by Alice Coote and a cantata sung by Barbara Bonney. In the event conductor Emmanuelle Haim had injured her arm and the 1st half was reduced. Each singer sang only 1 aria, but the concertos were left untouched. I suspect that the many admirers of Alice Coote and Barbara Bonney in the audience would rather have lost the concertos and kept the vocal contributions.

The double violin concerto was played by the leaders of the 1st and 2nd violins. Haim’s tempi in the outer movements were swift and the violins favoured articulation over line so that there were times when the solo parts sounded preciously like pecking. I longed for a little more space and sense of pure line. Though the performance was creditable it seemed to trivialise the work somehow. The oboist played his concerto confidently and fluently, producing a lovely deep modulated sound. But it was only in the slower middle movement that he had time to pause, dwell and consider; in the outer movements things seemed to just dash past. The singers’ two arias were moving, leaving me longing for more.

After the interval the 2 singers blended beautifully in the duets in Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater. But somehow I wanted more. The text is so over-wrought that Pergolesi’s lovely melodies can easily seem to skate over the subject matter. Singers and Ensemble, particularly the ensemble, needed to find more depth, more suffering in the work.

One curiosity is that Bach produced a version of the work adapted to fit Psalm 51 with a more elaborate accompaniment (a fully independent viola part, for instance). Given the Bachian nature of the programme it would have been interesting to hear it. But perhaps the work would not have had such cachet with the paying public.

The hall was full and the theatre was busy with its Xmas show, Tintin, so that the facilities were stretched to breaking point.
Yesterday morning I finally finished producing all of the orchestral parts from my pieces, The Barbarians are Coming and Elegy for Baritone and Orchestra, which are being performed by the Salomon Orchestra in March 2006. I use Finale to write music and produce scores, so supposedly I should be able to generate parts at the touch of a button. Of course the reality is more complicated; how you enter the notes and markings in the first place affects the final part so I have to spend time giving each part a final tidy up and laying it out so that the turns are in satisfactory places. I've now printed everything out and will compare them to the score,as a final check; tedious but necessary

I've also started producing marketing copy and graphics for the concert as these are needed by the firm who are doing the ticketing. Its the first time I've used a ticketing firm and it will be interesting to see how this affects sales. I'm hoping to have the web page for the concert up later today; I'll keep you posted

Last night we went to the Barbican to see Emmanuelle Haim conducting her group Les Concerts d'Astree with Barbara Bonney and Alice Coote. I'll discuss the concert in detail in a follow up posting.

Friday 9 December 2005

Recent CD Review

My review of Travellin' Light, Guild's 2nd disc of American light music is here, on MusicWeb.

Thursday 8 December 2005

Carol Singing

For the first time in many years I was carol singing last night. One of the choirs that I sing in had been asked to provide carols outside a hotel as guests arrived for a function, so a group of about 15 of us gathered in the cold and sang our hearts out for an hour. The reward? A handsome fee for choir funds. Most guests simply wandered past us smiling as they entered or left the hotel, but some stayed to listen for a while and a small group of Japanese tourists spent quite a time listening to us – they even had their photos taken next to the choir.

It is some years since I have sung carols; I try to avoid them in general unless we can include a number of seriously interesting or unusual ones. But for once it was fun re-visiting all the old favourites in Carols for Choirs.

Tuesday 6 December 2005

Review of Billy Budd

My review of Billy Budd is now on-line here, at Music and Vision along with some arresting images of the production.

Monday 5 December 2005

To ENO on Saturday for the first night of their new production of Billy Budd; the production itself is not that new having been seen previously in Wales and Australia. The production seemed to have been created with 2 thoughts in mind; first it was not to be a traditional depiction of ship-board life, but something more abstract; secondly, the production had to tour. The result uses a flexible hydraulic platform which features as a constant and moves constantly. I understand that in the productions previous incarnations, the platform dominated the stage but at the London Coliseum it looked simply marooned and extremely unlovely. My full review will appear in the next day or two on Music and Vision, but reading the existing reviews what is fascinating is how tolerant the critics have been of the look of the production.

On Sunday I was singing at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, as usual. It was one of those days where the cycle of the Christian year clashed with the vagaries of singers’ timetabling; we were a little low on numbers but the time of the year rendered Bruckner’s Virga Jesse suitable. So sing it we did, with the lower 3 parts just 1 or 2 singers per part – not the ideal forces for such a big work, but it went very well.

Sunday 4 December 2005

Recent CD Review

My review of Chanticleer's foray into the world of Gospel and Spirituals is here, on Music and Vision.

Friday 2 December 2005

Recent CD review - La Traviata

My review of the 1953 Callas recording of La Traviata, is here, on MusicWeb. This was her only studio recording of the opera, but its not all that we could have hoped for.

Thursday 1 December 2005

More Meyerbeer

Having just finished reviewing a book about French grand opera I thought that it was about time that I reacquainted myself with some of the prime examples of the genre. Like many people, I suspect, I am more familiar with operas written for the Paris Opera by Italian composers (Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, Verdi’s Les Vepres Sicilenne and Don Carlos), than I am with the works of Meyerbeer, Halevy and Auber.

This quest is trickier than it sounds and has the potential for great expense. After all, 5 Act operas in this genre are not short so the CD’s do not always come cheap. Trawling through the internet, I discovered that the strongest available recording of Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots is still the one with Joan Sutherland. The later Erato recording with a French cast including Francoise Pollet has dropped out of the catalogue, though Malibran has a couple of fascinating early recordings. Even stranger, there is no studio recording for Le Prophete available, the main recording I could find was a live one from Toronto in 1970. The only CD of L’Africaine is an historic German one from 1952.

The situation is similar with Auber; apart from Fra Diavolo his operas are heavily under represented in the catalogue. It seems strange that such an influential operatic form could have dropped so out of favour. What you can get, of course, are the estimable Opera Rara recordings of Meyerbeer’s Italian operas; oh, that they would start exploring early 19th century French opera. Still, I have their set of the BBC Les Vepres Siciliennes on my Christmas List and I am waiting with baited breath for the issue of the BBC Don Carlos. This latter is the only recording of Verdi’s first thoughts; the true grand opera Don Carlos, rather than the later Modena version with the odd patch. I used to have a cassette of the original BBC broadcast but somehow Act 1 went walkies, so getting the CD’s is essential.

Anyway, I managed to get the Erato recording of Les Huguenots out of the record library and we started listening to it last night. (1st Act and part of 2nd Act). What struck me was how light (for want of a better word) the music sounded. Given that this was a 5 act opera on a seriously serious subject, I had thought the sound world would be darker. But of course, I am falling into the same trap as everyone else and wearing my post-Wagnerian ears. So next time I listen, I promise to do better.

David commented that parts of it sounded, to him, like Offenbach and of course it is that composer’s parodies of grand opera that are often our only regular access to the genre. After all, in Spring this year we were in Paris for Offenbach’s La Grande Duchesse de Gerolstein and that includes a scene parodying the blessing of the swords from Les Huguenots.

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