Thursday 27 December 2007

Chapelle du Roi

On Friday we went to one St. John's Smith Square to hear Alistair Dixon and La Chapelle du Roi performing their programme, Christmas at the Chapel Royal. They were performing two movements from Tallis's Missa Puer Natus est Nobis which was probably written for Christmas 1554 for Queen Mary, when it was thought she was pregnant by Philip of Spain. Similarly the superb, and v. grand, motet Suscipe Quaeso was probably written for an earlier state occasion and may well have been performed by choir which included the members of Philip's chapel as the range of the piece is less than the standard range. Besides Tallis, the group also included a couple of Sheppard's Latin Responds, lovely pieces which were also written at this time. Plus a pair of carols.

The group numbered just 9 singers (3 sopranos, 2 male altos, 2 tenors, 2 basses) so for much of the time many of them were singing just 1 to a part. Dixon does not seem to go for a superbly blended sound as in some other English groups, instead we get fine musicianship, a lovely sense of line and a feeling that each voice/line is distinctive. That is not to say that the group don't blend, they do, but sensibly Dixon seems to value the distinctiveness of each of his talented voices.

The other large Tallis piece in the programme was his Te Deum for Meanes, a work which was probably written under Edward VI as it uses an earlier translation of the text. A superb work, given a stirring performance, it made a strong end to the programme.

This was a fine programme, beautifully performed, a good example of intelligent Christmas programming.

On a personal note, I should add that one of the Altos also appears in the eight:fifteen vocal ensemble and is featured on my new disc.

Recent CD Review

My review of a disc of Paderewski songs is here, on Music Web International.

A lovely recital and should be of interest to everyone with a fondness for songs ...

Review of "The Testament of Dr. Cranmer"

John Quinn's review of my new CD, has just appeared on Music Web International, here.

This well produced disc features committed performances from musicians who serve Robert Hugill well ... John Quinn

Saturday 22 December 2007


The poster for our Celebration mini-festival at St. Peter's Church, Eaton Square, when we'll be celebrating the release of the new CD.

Thursday 20 December 2007

The new folk song

On Sunday we caught part of the European Broadcasting Union's advent music jamboree, broadcast live on Radio 3. At one point we heard a couple of Christmas carols sung by an English cathedral choir. Afterwards the announcer gave full details of on carol, but the other was not explained. The carol in question was the arrangement of We wish you a merry Christmas from the Carols for Choirs book. This book has become so ubiquitous that perhaps the announcer did not think it necessary to explain. Certainly I recognised the arrangement immediately and could easily sing along, having performed it myself countless number of times.

With amateur choirs the use of the Carols for Choirs books is such that the arrangements of the popular carols from Books 1 and 2 are pretty well ingrained into folk memory. Proof of this came last night when we attended the annual Chelsea Green carols service. Whilst drinking mulled wine and eating food provided by the local shops, people sang carols accompanied by a choir from St. Luke's Church, Chelsea and a brass group. When it came to Hark the Herald Angels Sing and a couple of other carols, a group of young women launched quite unprompted into the Carols for Choirs descants for these carols. So natural do these feel that I am sure for many people, the carols without the Carols for Choirs descants feel rather odd.

So for a whole class of people, these versions of the carols are the dominant ones.

Wednesday 19 December 2007

Through a glass darkly

When the composer Handel is mentioned, what image comes into your head - a large, overweight, elderly man wearing a full-bottomed wig, prone to gluttony and attacks on recalcitrant singers and rather a-sexual? Of course, this owes something to reality, but even in his later years Handel was also a good raconteur, had a coterie of extremely loyal and devoted friends and was a keen connoisseur of art (the inventory taken at the time of his death is quite mouth-watering.)

But, of course, it is the lively anecdote and highly coloured images of the elderly man which stay in our mind. As there is an absence of personal material, it makes the real man difficult to re-create.

There is all the more problem when it comes to the young Handel. During his period in Italy he was in his early 20’s. Handel as Orpheus, Ellen Harris’s book about Handel’s Italian Cantatas includes a portrait of him done at the time. We see, not the overweight philosopher of the late portraits, but a young, vibrant, slender and attractive man. No wonder Handel was popular with his patrons, his improvising was dazzling, and his music was brilliant. Combine this with his entertaining personality and attractive person and you can imagine that some of his patrons were rather smitten. Harris detects something of a whiff of the homo-erotic about the texts of Handel’s cantatas and the general atmosphere in the salons where he was employed.

This all adds up to a very different picture to our standard one of Handel. But the composer suffers from the problem common to elderly and productive composers; we tend to view their output and their personalities through the distorting glass of their later persona.

A similar thing happens to Ralph Vaughan Williams. He lived to his late 80’s and remained productive until the end. RVW was 63 when his ground-breaking 4th symphony was premiered. His 3 major symphonies (nos. 4, 5 and 6) span the years 1935 to 1946, so that he was 74 when the last of these was premiered. With its remarkably pianissimo final movement, it was regarded as his swan-song. But the composer went on to write 3 more!

In the face of all this public acclaim, the composer created a gruff persona for himself, prone to startling announcements “I don’t know if I like it, but it’s what I meant”, and hiding his sophisticated talent in a miasma of apparent amateurism.

So we tend to view the early RVW through this smoke screen. It means that we miss out on the passionate young man, one whose musical voice was late in coming. But just look at the pictures where you see a slimmer figured RVW with dashing dark wavy hair. This is a young student who was briefly considered as a trainee Apostle whilst at Cambridge and who had links with a number of Apostles at a time when the group had a very homosexual cast to it. RVW also had strong links to the Bloomsbury group (his first wife Adeline was a cousin of Virginia Woolf’s), he and Adeline did a great deal of entertaining and participating in the social whirl and demi-monde whilst they lived in Cheyne Walk.

This is the man who wrote the passionate piano concerto (for Bax’s mistress, Harriet Cohen) and the remarkable ballet Job, works which lead to the 4th symphony. It is this personality which can be glimpsed in the letters which RVW exchanged with his contemporary Gustav Holst (collected in the book Heirs and Rebels). Holst died when the composer was in his early 60’s so had little influence on the late, Grand Old Man of Music image.

For both these composers, RVW and Handel, we have to take a step back and make an effort to discard their later persona and view their younger passionate selves. It is interesting to consider how this sort of view might easily apply to others. One obvious candidate is Elgar, whose passionate music is so at odds with the persona of the crusty old colonel which he constructed.

Conversely it is fascinating to play what if and consider what might have happened to composers who died young? What would our view of early and middle Mozart be if the composer had lived to a productive and ripe old age, similarly with Beethoven?

Tuesday 18 December 2007

Review of Last night's Barbican Concert

Emmanuelle Haim and Les Concerts d’Astree have a new CD to promote so they are doing a tour, performing the repertoire on the CD. They arrived at the Barbican Centre yesterday to perform Handel’s Dixit Dominus and Bach’s Magnificat (the 2nd, D major version).

This is all well and good. After all, any concert directed by Haim is never less than interesting and with her own group there is the good possibility that sparks will fly. Add to this the temptation of hearing Natalie Dessay singing the Soprano 1 solos and you had a delectable package; even though the total amount of music being performed totalled around 65 minutes.

I know that one should count quality not quantity, but even so the concert seemed a little under nourished as regards content. Surely the group could have added another overture or two, just to make the proceeding seem less like an exact re-run of the CD.

Though as regards cast, this was not a re-run of the CD. Only Dessay was common to CD and concert and she dropped out due to ill health. In fact Haim managed to lose both her 1st soprano and her tenor, but replaced them admirably with Amy Freston and Paul Agnew.

In fact, when you look at the solo roles in the two works, having such a stellar cast seemed rather over the top. In Handel’s Dixit Dominus the soloists have a tendency to interject into the choral textures. Handel uses a 5-part choir and the 5 solo roles match this. So much so that you can’t help feeling that he intended to have the solos sung by the choir leaders.

If this had happened it would have removed the rather annoying amount of walking about that the soloists had to do, getting up to sing a small interjection and then sitting down again.

That said the performance was certainly up to standard. Haim used a large-ish choir (25 strong); both they and the instrumental ensemble gave a good crisp performance. Haim seems to aim for dramatic textures when it comes to her choruses, no pale English reticence here. This means that some sophistication of texture and line is lost but the result is undeniably vivid and exciting. The soloists (Amy Freston, Salome Haller, Tim Mead, Paul Agner and Robert Gleadow) followed suit and contributed some fine, involving solo singing.

After the interval the band grew bigger as Bach adds wind and brass to Handel’s string band. Also he allots each soloist an aria apiece so that all the singers get the chance to show off properly. As they did, in fine style; Amy Freston was beautifully accompanied in her first aria by the oboe do’amore of Patrick Beaugiraud. Another highlight for me was the duetting of Tim Mead and Paul Agnew in Et misericorida.

Monday 17 December 2007

Is it me, is it the Barbican or is it something else. But our concert tonight at the Barbican has a new pair of soloists, Natalie Dessay and Lothar Odinius are both ill and are replaced by Amy Freston and Paul Agnew. The last time this happened (in Handel's Ariodante) the replacement singer proved quite a find. But I remember another concert with Le Concert D'Astree when one of the singers was ill and the concert went ahead in reduced form.

The problem is that our concert going outside the Barbican is rather random, the Barbican is the only place where we actually have a subscription (to their excellent Great Performers series). So I cannot work out whether this run of cancellation and ill health is simply bad luck or something. Still, I look forward to hearing Miss Freston again. We have caught her a couple of times in smaller roles (Miss Wordsworth in Albert Herring for Glyndebourne on Tour), so it will be interesting to hear her in full Baroque Mode (Handel:Dixit Dominus and Bach:Magnificat)


We were away for the weekend, but waiting for me in the post was the latest distribution from the PRS (the Performing Rights Society). This inestimable body attempts to provide composers with some sort of recompense when their works are performed. If you are commissioned for a new work then, of course, you'll get the commissioning fee but if a group decides simply to perform on of your works whose music is available, then no fee is forthcoming. Instead, performing groups and venues pay a fee to the Performing Rights Society and the society attempts to divide the indivisible and spread these monies around all of the performed composers.

Inevitably live performances of contemporary classical music provides quite a small branch of the market and you would hardly get rich on royalties from these performances unless you were really prolific. Nonetheless it is heartening that such payments are made, recognising as they do the investment of time and effort that a composer puts into a piece and preserving the on-going link between performer and work.

After all, if an artist paints a picture and it is sold, the artist loses any commercial interest in the work if it is sold one (though I believe reproduction rights for the image are different). So someone could have pictures changing hands and being displayed without ever being aware of the fact or benefiting from it in any way.

Naturally, for a composer it is in the area of broadcast royalties and mechanical copyright protection that the larger fees are available. But live performance is the basic fabric of our art and the PRS ensures that we get some little recognition.

Friday 14 December 2007

Review of Dr. Cranmer

There is a new review (in French) of my CD The Testament of Dr. Cranmer on here.

Tuesday 11 December 2007

A Premiere per month

Not only do I have premières of works at the concerts I am organising at St. Peter's Church, Eaton Square in January and February, but on March 15th London Concord Singers will be premièring Do not go gentle into that good night for choir and French Horn. Then in April, a new Verse Anthem will be premièred at a friend's Wedding.

The choir and horn piece was inspired by a piece by Richard Rodney Bennett for male voice chorus and French Horn. This was written for the New York City Gay Men's Chorus. London Concord Singers gave the first UK performance of the work and it made a strong effect on me. My own setting though, is for mixed voice chorus and French Horn.

Celebration Leaflet - Page 2

Celebration Leaflet - Page 1

Here's the first page of the new publicity leaflet for the January and February concerts at St. Peter's Church, Eaton Square, London, when we are celebrating the release of my CD.

Monday 10 December 2007

Concord Concert

Well, its that time of year and Thursday will see me performing in this year's Christmas Concert with the London Concord Singers. We'll be at the Grosvenor Chapel in Mayfair for a concert which mixes Christmas music from Sir Arthur Sullivan with seasonal sacred music from Martin Dalby, Kenneth Leighton, Gabriel Jackson, Pierre Villette and Stanford.

I have become particularly fond of Leighton's What Love is This? and rather alarmingly bits of the tenor part have been creeping into the piano accompaniment of my latest song.

Saturday 8 December 2007

Chelsea Festival

Thursday saw the end of season event for the Friends of the Chelsea Festival, this celebrated a very successful 2007 Festival and gave a brief preview of the 2008 Festival.

Things to look forward to in 2008 include concerts from Barbara Bonney, Nigel Kennedy and Nicola Benedetti, along with Dido and Aeneas with Phillip Picket and the New London Consort.

Thursday 6 December 2007

Recent CD Review

My review of John Nelson's recording of the Berlioz Te Deum is here, on MusicWeb International.
A highly recommendable recording, which captures something of the large scale of Berlioz's creation....

Wednesday 5 December 2007

Recent CD Review

My review of the Rheinberger choral works disc on Chandos is here, on MusicWeb International.
Lovely works, well recorded … this should suit if you want to explore Rheinberger's choral music. ...

Tuesday 4 December 2007

There are all sorts of things I ought to be doing - sorting out the music for next year's concerts, finishing the current scene of my new opera, adding to the motets in my sequence Tempus per Annum. I do have excuses, my toner is running low and so printing music will have to wait until I've ordered a new one. The new opera requires me to sit at the piano and bash away at it, digging into the accompaniment of the scene, which currently exists in skeleton form. This is something I tend to put off then do in a rush, usually making me late for work or whatever engagement I have.

But I am not doing any of the things I ought to be, instead I am writing songs. Now it could be argued that this is a GOOD THING as 1) I don't write songs very often, always meaning to do more and 2) my recent settings of Ivor Gurney came 2nd and 4th in the English Poetry and Song Society's Ivor Gurney competition.

So I am writing a few more, even though I have constant trouble finding poems which appeal. Of course, when I do find them they are usually in copyright which creates additional problems. Having done a setting of a poem which perfectly appealed to me I am now working on something else setting a poem which is less appealing. The theory being that it is good for me to occasionally write settings of tricky poems.

Which brings me to another conundrum which I have never really solved. When setting modern verse, where the sense goes counter to the metre, which do you follow. With stanzas or lines ending mid-sense and the sense continuing into the following line, do you let the structure of the poem guide you or the sense of the prosody. Usually I follow the sense of the words but I then feel guilty that I am not making more of the structural feel of the poet's work.

Though I have always had a tendency to pull text apart. When setting prose I can usually be relied upon to edit the text, missing out, adding and repeating words to create a satisfying whole, satisfying to me that is! I have a similar habit in poetry, though I try not to miss bits out. Usually the results ignore the structural form of the piece. My setting of Lord Alfred Douglas's sonnet on the death of Oscar Wilde rather ignored the piece's sonnet form and set it like a piece of poetic prose.

This of course reflects my uneasy relationship with words. I work best setting poetic prose, like the Bible or Thomas Cranmer. When setting a poem which has metre and rhyme I feel constrained and, I think, rather worried that the result will simply turn into a te-tum te-tum te-tum te-tum type of song, familiar from my cabaret years.

Monday 3 December 2007

Review of Turn of the Screw

Turn of the Screw is an opera which I admire rather than love. Partly it is my lack of sympathy with the ghost story form, but more importantly I have always found the governess to be faintly annoying. Her actions make me impatient and I long to give her a good shake and knock some common sense into her.

That said, there was much to admire in ENO's new production, which we saw on Saturday 3rd December. Borrowed from the Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, it is the first of two David McVicar borrowings this season. (The second is the Scottish Opera Der Rosenkavalier.)

Turn of the Screw is problematic in large opera houses, it uses only 13 instruments in the ensemble and is very much a chamber piece. The opera works best in small spaces, Grange Park Opera's production made quite an impression. McVicar and his designer, Tanya McCallin, do not attempt to make the acting space smaller. Instead it is opened up to its fullest to create the dark lowering spaces of Bly. Only occasionally does the dark backdrop open to let light flood in. These dark spaces are hauntingly lit by Adam Silverman's lighting scheme.

The stage is populated by odd items of Victorian furniture (beds, a piano, etc.) which are moved about by the servants. McVicar's Bly is a place full of people, servants coming and going. In a sense this only serves to highlight the Governess's isolation as the only person of her class in the house. This is further concentrated by the way the characters function in the wide open spaces, the space serving to concentrate the attention on the singer.

As the Governess, Rebecca Evans was truly impressive. Her rich toned voice filled the auditorium and she made every word tell, her diction rendering the surtitles redundant. She was ably supported by Ann Murray as Mrs. Grose. Usually this characters is played by a well-upholstered matron. But Murray created an angular, anxious maiden Aunt. The role suited her voice rather better than her previous excursion her, when she sang the Duchess of Plaza Toro.

The children, played by Jacob Moriarty and Nazan Fikret, were scarily impressive. Moriarty is very slight but sang with a true voice and was eerily controlled. The moment, at the end of Act 1, when he kisses the Governess was quite disturbing. Though McVicar did not play down the sexual charge between Miles and Quint, this sexualisation of the relationship between Miles and the Governess was quite fascinating.

The ghosts themselves were impressively played by Timothy Robinson and Cheryl Barker. Another of McVicar's innovations was to have Quint lifting Miss Jessel out of her grave, a very striking image coming so quickly after the children bury the doll. Robinson did not completely dispel the ghost of Peter Pears but his assumption of the role was perfectly complete. Barker surprised me at how her rich and dramatic voice was made to suit Miss Jessel perfectly.

The ensemble, under Garry Walker, played superbly and also managed to fill the auditorium. Never once did the ensemble sound undernourished.

This was an impressive and moving production; McVicar was in subtle and understated mode and there were none of the showy tricks which have found their way into his recent Handel productions and his Covent Garden Rigoletto. I hope that he is asked to do more Britten in London.

Saturday 1 December 2007

Review of Maria Stuarda

My review of the Chelsea Opera Group performance of Maria Stuarda is here, on Music and Vision.

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