Friday 31 October 2008

Recent CD Reviews

My review of the first volume of Weinberg's songs from Toccata is here.
Should win many converts for an alternative view of Soviet modernism ...

And my review of Vivaldi's Gloria and Bach's Magnificat from the Academy of St. Martin in the Field is here. Both reviews are on MusicWeb International.
Stylish and done with clarity and great warmth ...

Monday 27 October 2008

Not quite famous

The first bit of the new CD to be broadcast; it seems that my string orchestra version of Faith, Hope and Charity made it onto Radio 3, on the Sunday requests programme a couple of weeks ago. And I missed it! Here's hoping its not the last.

Saturday 25 October 2008

Thursday 23 October 2008

Bigger and better?

It is all change on the promotion of new music scene in London as the BMIC (British Music Information Centre), Contemporary Music Network, SPNM (Society for the Promotion of New Music) and Sonic Arts Network are merging into a single entity - SAM (Sound and Music).

The impetus for the change seems to have come, partly, from the creation of the new Kings Place concert hall complex in the Kings Cross area. The possibility of a close collaboration there was raised (this has since been diluted to a weekly evening curated by SPNM). This let to the organisations deciding to come together as a single entity.

Obviously the idea is that bigger is better. The BMIC promotes information about British Music and has a stable of young composers whose work it makes available. SPNM does something a little similar, by creating events which promote new music and providing opportunities for composers. One of the SPNM's notable annual events it the call for scores where anyone can send scores in with the possibility of them being accepted for performance in the next year's programme. The SPNM has a rotating artistic director rather than a single person for a long period. Contemporary Music Network and Sonic Arts Network are more performance let, concert promotion organisations.

In the current climate, where the arts are not always appreciated as they should be in official government circles, creating an organisation with a larger footprint is probably a good idea. The drawback, from my point of view, is a worry that bigger is not necessarily better, that the personal nature of some of these organisations will disappear. We can only wish them well, and hope.

Wednesday 22 October 2008

Recent CD Review

My review of Kathleen Ferrier in Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice is here, on MusicWeb International.
Ferrier brings real passion, classical purity and strength of line ...

Tuesday 21 October 2008

On Saturday we went to see the ENO production of Handel's Partenope and a review of that will appear in due course.

Owing to work surrounding the publicising my new volume of motets from Tempus per Annum and the start of the London Film Festival (5 films so far), one or two things have fallen through the cracks; for which apologies.

The most important item to escape posting was the Salomon Orchestra's concert last Tuesday, 14th October 2008, at St. Johns Smith Square. Nicholas Collon (Principal Conductor of the Aurora Orchestra) conducted the orchestra in a challenging programme of Shostakovich's Festival Overture, Richard Strauss's Oboe Concerto with oboist Tamas Balla, and Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring.

It was a bold programme, moving from the bright large scale Shostakovich, with off stage brass band at the end, through Strauss's chamber scale concerto to the mammoth forces of the Stravinsky.

Tamas Balla played superbly in the Strauss. His breath control was phenomenal, giving him a wonderful evenness and mellifluousness of tone. It was a performance which led you to wonder why on earth the oboe did not feature more often in Romantic concertos. He was ably supported by the reduced size orchestra with the various wind instruments, notably the cor anglais, providing some lovely solo moments in dialogue with the soloist.

But inevitably, what everyone was waiting for was the Stravinsky. On a packed stage the orchestra gave a truly committed and forthright performance; rarely have I heard such loud playing in St. Johns. But The Rite of Spring is not really about large, noisy gestures. It is full of small, awkward moments; in fact part of the work's amazing power is the way that Stravinsky builds up his music from a myriad of smaller gestures. The devil is in the detail and much of the detail was spot on here. No, the performance was not quite perfect, but it was pretty stunning and full of lovely moments. Conductor Nicholas Collon not only kept a close eye on detail but ensured that the larger paragraphs were well constructed so that the work seemed natural and inevitable. The performance seemed to fly by and one really longed to hear it all again.

Their next concert is on March 3rd when the programme will include Britten's Violin Concerto, Dvorak's Othello and Martinu's 6th Symphony. Put the date in your diaries now.

Monday 20 October 2008

Triple bill

There's a fascinating operatic triple bill on at Hoxton Hall this week, presented by a group called Second Movement. They are doing Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti, a new opera by Stefan Weisman and Samuel Barber's A Hand of Bridge. They are a young group who give young singers a chance, and here have come up with an interesting and challenging trio of works

Alas, we're going to miss it because this week is devoted to the London Film Festival!

Thursday 16 October 2008

Review of La Calisto

My review of the Royal Opera's production of Cavalli's La Calisto is here, on Music and Vision.

Wednesday 15 October 2008

Review of Carmen

My review of English Touring Opera's La Tragedie de Carmen is here, on Music and Vision.

Tuesday 14 October 2008

If at first you don't succeed

What we seem to have lost, somewhere in the last 70 or so years is the ability of an opera composer to fail, learn and come back for more. Operatic commissions are usually high profile things and and false step in such a spot light is liable to be rather over magnified. I must admit that, when it comes to contemporary opera, I have frequently found myself out of step with many critics. I can think of quite a few dreadful evenings which, when it came to the printed reviews, garnered praise. But as an opera composer myself, it is difficult to be overly critical without implying that you think you could do better.

So when I read the criticism of Dominique Le Gendre's new piece Burial at Thebes premiered at the Globe, I have no idea what really happened on stage there. It would be easy to simply dismiss the new opera as a disaster because of the critical reaction. But critics are not always right. An equally important reaction is that of the audience, but that is rather difficult to gauge. So what do you do? Well generally, I suspect, rely on the judgement of your peers and fellow musicians, which is a comforting way of going on. But not necessarily the best way forward. Opera, after all, is about the art of communication and if the work fails to communicate to the audience then you are stumped.

It is a worrying tendency of modern operas to concentrate on what the composer and librettist mean and want, rather than what the audience want. To give the audience everything they might want is, of course, to risk talking down to them and producing music which challenges no-one. But say simply 'this is what I want, take it or leave it' is foolish as the audience may simply leave it.

What it needs, as I have said before, is some sort of commercial space for composers to try things out without too much pressure. Note the word commercial, I am not sure that workshops and such can ever quite prove the right testing ground. There is too much judgement by your peers and not enough testing in the crucible of audience reaction.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries composers had too cope with pleasing audience and critics. But they were allowed to fail and come back again. Few contemporary composers have the opportunity, or the stomach, to face highly public criticism and simply come back again. I really hope that Dominque Le Gendre does. After all, to get a 2nd opera on at all is a brilliant achievement, and she deserves the opportunity to try again. Don't forget that Richard Strauss's first 2 operas were hardly a success and he was, by then, an experienced composer of concert music.

But there does seem to be slightly odd attitude in the operatic establishment regarding the type of composer needed for a contemporary commission. Sometimes I have heard works by composers who write 'dramatic music', but who do not seem to have the slightest idea about writing for the voice. And composers like Jonathan Dove, who have an extremely interesting body of work behind them, are relatively ignored by mainstream establishment. Having written Flight for Glyndebourne, you would have expected him to get the opportunity write another, bigger work for a main house. Instead he has operated on the fringes, honing his talent and producing fascinating, audience friendly work. Perhaps Dove has risked pleasing the audience a little too much, but his works always challenge on some level or other.

I don't really have a conclusion to this. Its just a musing on an on-going problem

Sunday 12 October 2008

Recent CD review

My review of the Maria Callas sings bel canto disc from alto is here, on MusicWeb International.
Interesting but not essential ...

Saturday 11 October 2008

Recent activity

Last night we went to see the last night of La Calisto at Covent Garden and a review will appear in due course.

On Thursday night we saw the Tallis Scholars, conductor Peter Phillips, at Cadogan Hall in a programme of music for Double Choir. The choir numbered just 10 singers (4 sopranos, 1 contralto, 1 counter-tenor, 2 tenors and 2 basses) and they covered a wide range of music in a number of different multi-choir combinations. Inevitably they included Allegri's Miserere, but unfortunately used the traditional version (with high C and incorrect modulation in the solo parts). This version is an effective piece, though not real Allegri. It helps if it has a generous acoustic; whereas here the group performed in a rather dry hall and seemed to thing they were doing real 17th century music. Still the audience loved it.

I was far more taken with the remainder of the programme. Two stunning pieces from Peter Philips (no relation), Ecce vicit leo and Ave Maria opened the evening. For all the pieces, except the Allegri, the choristers sang in a single arc across the stage. This was effective enough, but did not make anything of the spatial separations which these pieces seem to need.

On disc, the choir are notable for the perfection of tone and beauty of blend, sometimes to the detriment of other musical characteristics. Heard live, in a slightly dry acoustic, they presented a far more characterful ensemble. Blended yes, but with individual voices each having their own distinct character. And of course displaying their usual superb musicianship.

The 1st half continued with Andrea Gabrieli's Benedictus dominus and Lassus's double choir mass, Missa Bel'amfitrit'altera. Here the lack of words and movement information in the programme was something of a handicap, I am not sure I liked the audience applauding after the Gloria and the Credo, brilliant though they were.

The revelation of the 2nd half was the Lamentations by Daniel Phinot (1510 - 1556). Phinot was a name new to me and his lamentations were a superb find. One of the stand-out moments was the section sung just by the 4 lower male voices (2 tenors, 2 basses). In completion we had Palestrina's Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis for Double Choir.

This was a brilliant programme and a fine start to Cadogan Hall's first Choral series. To come are programmes from I Fagiolini, The Armonico Consort and another programme from The Tallis Scholars, this latter includes Mundy's Vox Patris Coelestis, so is a must.

The evening had me cycling home vowing to try and acquire some of this music so that we can perform it ourselves, which surely shows what a success the concert was.

Friday 10 October 2008

The Young Ones

BBC Radio 3 has announced its new clutch of Young Artists. The list has grown from 6 to 8 and, for the first time, includes a period performance practice artist, harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani. The others are violinists Jennifer Pike (a former BBC Young Musician of the Year) and Tai Murray; cellist Andreas Brantelid, winner of the 2006 Eurovision Young Musician Competition; jazz trumpeter Tom Arthurs; principal trumpeter of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Giuliano Sommerhalder; mezzo-soprano Daniela Lehner (winner of the Marilyn Horne Competition in 2004) and Finnish string quartet Meta4.

Of course, this list raises another clutch of interesting issues. Should the UK tax-payer be funding a scheme (admirable though it is) which includes so many non-UK nationals? Just who is the scheme aimed at and is the principal trumpeter of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra really in need of help and encouragement with his career?

Of course everyone has such young artists schemes nowadays. In the case of the Royal Opera House and the ENO, in the old days they didn't need young artists schemes because the kept roster of young singer on the books. Singers whose careers were nurtured and cared for; I believe Yvonne Kenny was such an artist in her early days.

Now at the Royal Opera House they have the Jette Parker Young Artist Programme, which supports a group of singers, conductors, directors and repetiteurs. This young people (of a variety of nationalities) crop up in small to medium roles in a variety of ROH productions over the year. But next week is Meet the Young Artists Week at the Royal Opera House.

The week contains a number of free events, but the centre piece (for which you'll have to pay) is a double bill of Walton's Facade and The Bear. Young artist Thomas Guthrie is staging The Bear and acting as the male reciter in Facade. In The Bear, all three singers are Young Artists as is Guthrie, the director, and Stephen Moore, the conductor. In the cast is South African bass Vuyani Mlinde who made an extremely big impression when he sang in Grange Park Opera's Thais last year.

Other events include a series of recitals. There are 4 recitals during the week at various times, listed here. There's also an interesting multi-part event on Saturday which seems to be trying to involve the audience in planning the evening's recital - just the sort of thing which will either be exciting or embarrassing, but probably worth the effort of getting a free ticket.

Thursday 9 October 2008

Recent CD Review

My review of the King's Consort's recording of Handel's Parnasso in Festa is here, on Music and Vision.
'... some truly superb Handel singing (and playing) ...'

Wednesday 8 October 2008

Recent CD Review

My review of Nimbus's 2 CD set of opera arias sung by Nicolai Gedda is here, on MusicWeb International.
A vivid glimpse of one of the 20th century’s most versatile tenors ...

Monday 6 October 2008

In this month's Opera

Gleanings from this month's Opera magazine.

It shouldn't matter, of course, but I couldn't noticing the mention of John Mark Ainsley's civil partnership in his interview. Many gay singers still seem to live in a glass closet, with all mention of partners omitted from interviews. It would be nice to see more of Ainsley in London, he is a sing whom I have always admired. And, for the record, I find his way with Handel as seductive, if not more so, than anything Mark Padmore or Ian Bostridge can conjure up.

There was also an interesting article by Brian Kellow on the decline of writing about voices in musical criticism. The problem, of course, is that it requires time and space to adequately write about differences in voices. You need to keep a register in your head of the different singers and their performances. It is far easier, and quicker, to simply comment on what is happening on stage. I have been to a number of performances where, when reading the reviews, I couldn't believe how some critics seemed to ignore the apparent vocal difficulties or deficiencies of particular singers.

And Robin Holloway describes his sojourn on the green hill of Bayreuth, having never been there before. Neither have I, and its starting to look as if this is one thing that we'll never do. Perhaps I should have made more effort to get tickets when the Chereau ticket was young!

A couple of venerable names in the obits: Nicola Rescigno and Grace Hoffmann. Both blasts from the past whom I was surprised to encounter again.

In Chile, they've just had their first staging of Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle amazingly enough, given in a double bill with Suor Angelica. Now there's a new combination, passing strange as well.

And in Bologna, they've done Samson et Dalila for the first time since 1951, and prior to that they'd only done it in 1899. The opera is so ubiquitous here that you forget this isn't true everywhere. And Seattle Opera have just done done I Puritani for the first time in their 45 years of existence. And they had Lawrence Brownlee as an Arturo complete with the high F!

And in Sussex, New Sussex Opera are doing RVW's opera/operetta The Poisoned Kiss in early November. Alas, I'm going to miss it.

In Madrid, they've done a series on Orpheus including a concert performance of the Paris version of Gluck's opera. The event gets just a throw away line at the end of the review, rather frustrating as the haut-contre part was sung by Juan Diego Florez. Now that's something I would like to hear.

In Lyon, Jose Montalvo and Dominique Hervieu who were responsible for the version of Rameau's La Paladins which I disliked, have been let loose on Porgy and Bess.

And in Erfurt, Leoncavallo's La reginetta delle rose received an outing. One of his Italian language, Viennese style, operettas (written as money spinners I believe), it would be interesting to encounter one.

In Stuttgart they've just done Halevy's La Juive in a relatively complete edition which meant that it lasted nearly 6 hours. They obviously had more time to go to the opera in the old days.

An interesting comment on the new Don Giovanni in Chicago. John von Rhein comments on how the director ignored the class distinction which drives the action. How true, this is something that often annoys me in new productions.

Roger Parker's review of Monkey at Covent Garden is interesting for the intelligent way he attacks the problem of what is an opera, and what do we expect to hear in an opera house. Parker, again, gives a thoughtful review of Eotvos's Love and Other Demons at Glyndebourne and gives the lie to the suggestions that Eotvos had mellowed his style.

Age seems to crop up in various places. Rodney Milnes, in his review of the Rudolph Kempe Ring from Covent Garden, admits that he was there for the original Ring Cycles in 1957. And then, I learn that Soile Ioskoski is 51, and I still think of her as a young singer!

Sunday 5 October 2008

Tempus Per Annum volume 2

Further info on the new volume, this time an image of the contents page. You can get a full listing along with the texts here.

Tempus per Annum volume 2

Volume 2 of Tempus per Annum will be out on 15th October and the first copies have come from the press. The volume contains 22 motets covering the period from Lent to Trinity Sunday. I'm very pleased with it.

Saturday 4 October 2008

Recent CD and DVD Reviews

My review of Jennifer Larmore's Royal Mezzo recital (Queens from Britten, Barber, Berlioz) is here.
Will not disappoint even if they don’t quite inspire ...

And my review of a re-issue of a disc of Bach and Handel transcriptions for two trumpets is here.
Superb trumpet playing but unsatisfactory accompaniment ...

And my review of the DVD of Tony Britten's adaptation of Verdi's Falstaff, set in a modern-day Windsor golf club, is here. All three are on MusicWeb International.
Much is lost and not a lot is gained ...

Thursday 2 October 2008

Wednesday 1 October 2008

Review of "The Rest is Noise"

My review of Alex Ross's book The Rest is Noise has appeared in the current issue of the Salisbury Review magazine. So I'm afraid that if you want to read the review, you'll have to buy the magazine.

English Touring Opera

English Touring Opera start their Autumn tour next week with performances of Carmen and Rusalka at the Hackney Empire, before visiting 9 other venues.

Rusalka will be given using Iain Farrington's chamber orchestra version which he created for the 2005 Iford Festival. Rusalka seems to be having something of a Fringe revival because it was done at Grange Park this summer. For the ETO production, director James Conway is setting it in Haiti with Jezibaba as a Voodoo Priestess. As locale's go, it is certainly an interesting solution to the problem of realism v. fairy tale in the opera. Jezibaba will be Fiona Kimm with Donna Bateman as Rusalka.

For Carmen ETO have turned to Peter Brook's derangement of the opera, which concentrates on just the 4 principals. I've never seen this live, so I am looking forward to it with interest (and a health degree of scepticism, I must admit).

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