Thursday 31 May 2012

CD Review

My review of the disc of Peter Phillips motets from the Sarum Consort on Naxos is here on MusicWeb International.

Despite my moans, there is much to admire and perhaps even love in this disc.  

Universe of Sound: The Planets - at the Science Museum

Child using one of the conductor pods, Universe of Sound, Philharmonia Orchestra, Science Museum
One of the conductor pods
The installation, Universe of Sound: The Planets is a collaboration between the Philharmonia Orchestra and the Science Museum. It opened last week and runs until 8 July (when it will then tour to other locations). We were given a tour of the installation last night, during the Science Museum's highly popular late night opening.

The Philharmonia Orchestra under their chief conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen made a high definition recording of a performance of Holst's The Planets with multiple microphones and multiple cameras. This meant that each section of the orchestra was able to be captured separately and the installation was divided into separate spaces for each group of instruments.

Idomeneo in rehearsal at The Grange May 2012

This popped into my inbox, a tempting little teaser for the new production of Idomeneo at Grange Park Opera

Wednesday 30 May 2012

Derek Hammond Stroud

Derek Hammond Stroud, who has just died at the age of 86, was one of the formative sounds of my student days when learning to love opera. He was a stalwart of the ENO at the time and I heard him in a number of roles. He is one of those performers who has impressed themselves permanently on my memory whether as Faninal, Alberich or Reginald Bunthorne. Superbly funny in Gilbert and Sullivan, he was chilling as Alberich. And what was amazing was the way he could switch between the two in a single week.

Old Friends, New Friends

I see from the 2012-13 season announcements that James Fulljames's production of Street Scene is making its way to Barcelona, where it will be presented at the Liceu. The Liceu has also announced a new production of Tales of Hoffmann directed by Laurent Pelly, with Natalie Dessay and Vittorio Grigolo, interesting to see Grigolo moving into heavier territory already.

Over in Paris, Laurent Pelly's much travelled production of La Fille du Regiment makes its appearance at the Opera de Paris (with Dessay and Florez of course). Emma Bell is doing the Countess in a revival of Le Nozze di Figaro (with Camilla Tilling, Anna Grevelius and Marie McLaughlin), good to see that with all the Wagner work she's been doing that Mozart is still firmly in the frame as well. Violetta Urmana is appearing in Pier Luigi Pizzi's new production of La Gioconda in May 2013, now that certainly sounds like something worth travelling to Paris for. Also in May, Laurent Pelly's production of Giulio Cesare returns with Christophe Dumaux and Lawrence Zazzo.  And there's a complete Ring Cycle in June!

Further ahead, Opera Magazine reports that we can look forward to a new Don Giovanni in 2014. Sarah Connolly is doing Agrippina at the Liceu in November 2013. And in October, Jacques Imbrailo sings his first Pelleas in Essen, definitely worth travelling to Essen for.

YCAT Artists

The public final auditions for the Young Classical Artists Trust (YCAT) were held last Friday at the Wigmore Hall, seven finalists were heard. Out of these the mezzo-soprano Anna Huntley and clarinettist/composer Mark Simpson were chosen for representation by YCAT. There will be a Presentation Concert at the Purcell Room on Monday 24 September when the two artists will be performing.

In 2006 Simpson won both the BBC Young Musician and BBC Young Composer and has been commissioned to write a work for the Last Night of the Proms this year (in 2008 he played at the Last Night of the Proms in Hyde Park).  Huntley is a Samling Foundation Scholar and last year won third prize in the Das Lied Competition in Berlin and the Independent Opera/Wigmore Hall Fellowship at the Wigmore Hall International Song Competition.

Monday 28 May 2012

JAM tomorrow

JAM returns in July with a clutch of concerts featuring contemporary choral and vocal music.

On 4 July, at St Bride's Church, Fleet Street and on 6 July at St. Leonards Church, Hythe, Daniel Cook (organ), Claire Seaton (soprano), Andrew Radley (counter-tenor) with the Orchestra of the Age of Englightenment conducted by Nicholas Cleobury perform Pergolesi's Stabat Mater, Handel's Organ Concerto in D, No. 15 plus Judith Bingham's Jacob's Ladder and The Hythe, this latter piece is a JAM commission for 2012 to celebrate Bingham's 60th birthday.

On 5 July, also at Hythe, Onyx Brass with Daniel Cook (organ) and Hythe Bay Primary School will be performing Chilcot's Mr Majeika and the magic organ and A Sporting Chance. Chilcott himself will be conductor and narrator. The two Hythe concerts are part of the Hythe Festival.

Then on 7 July, at St. Nicholas Church, new Romney, the Choir of Selwyn College, Cambrdige, Onyx Brass, Simon Hogan (organ) and Nicholas Cleobury (conductor) will be performing Binghams' My Heart Strangely Warm'd (Commissioned by JAM in 2006), Paul Mealor's Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal (Commissioned by JAM in 2010) and Julian Philips' Body of Water (Commissioned by JAM and premiered this year). Also in the programme will be music by Handel, Parry, Stanford and Ives all with Royal themes.

Royal Academy Song Circle

Thursday evening we went to a private recital given by members of the Royal Academy Song Circle. Singers Rachel Kelly (mezzo-soprano), Rupert Charlesworth (tenor) and Ross Ramgobin (baritone) were accompanied (and coached) by Edwige Herchenroder.

An impressive and involving programme of French song saw all three singers, performing from memory with find French diction, give memorable performances. Charlesworth sang Faure's Poeme d'un jour, Duparc's Soupir, Ravel's Epigrammes de Clement Marot and Lili Boulanger's Vous ma've regarde. Kelly sang Cecile Chaminade's Mots d'amour  and Malgre nous, Debussy's La flute de Pan and La chevelure and Poulenc's Les chemins de l'amour. Ramgobin sang the Ravel Histoire naturelles.

Friday 25 May 2012

International Wimbledon Music Festival

This year, the fourth International Wimbledon Music Festival will take place from 10 to 25 November in venues around Wimbledon. Last year's festival, with its performance of Britten's Noyes Fludde will be a hard act to beat but there are some strong contenders in this year's festival. 23 events around the theme of 'A Music World Fair'.

Both Christine Brewer and Mark Padmore are giving recitals, with Brewer performing Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder and Padmore giving us Schubert's Schwannengesang and Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte.

Cristina Ortiz is giving a lunch-time piano recital, performing Debussy and Villa-Lobos.  Pianist Mikhail Rudy returns to the festival to play his own arrangement (for solo piano) of Stravinsky's four stave version of Petrushka. To accompany this there will be a production of the ballet by puppets from the Little Angel Theatre, accompanied by projections to make a fascinating total project.

Another theatrical experience is Jessica Duchen's play A Walk Through the End of Time, which explore the making of Messiaen's Quator pour la Fin du Temps. Then the next day, the Nash Ensemble will be performing Messiaen's quartet. And finally, the cellist Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, herself a survivor of Auschwitz, will tell the story of the Women's Orchestra of Auschwitz.

And in another nice link, Anita Lasker-Wallfisch's grandson, the composer Benjamin Wallfisch has been commissioned by the festival to produce a work inspired by the French artist Arman. The commission is a joint one between Wimbledon and three other festivals which it has developed creative partnerships with, the Martinu Festival in Basel, the Pro Musica Festival in El Paso, Texas and the Sitka Summer Music Festival in Alaska.

The festival opens on Saturday 10th Novembers with a concert by the Academy Choir and Baroque Orchestra conducted by Andrew Edwards. The programme of Purcell includes Celebrate this Festival, O let me weep and Come ye sons of art plus Dido and Aeneas with Susan Bickley as Dido, Malin Christensson as Belinda and Njabolo Madlala as Aeneas, plus counter-tenor Robin Blaze.

The Buxton Festival, a personal history

The recent death of Malcolm Fraser one of the founders of the Buxton Festival, has set me thinking about my experience of the early days of the festival.

Being as I went to University in Manchester and had relatives living in Stockport, visits to Buxton were quite common. So the Buxton Festival was of great interest. The Festival was founded by in 1979 by Anthony Hose (then head of music at Welsh National Opera) and Malcolm Fraser (who lectured at the Royal Northern College of Music). Hose and Fraser were both highly involved in the productions with the Manchester Camerata in the pit.

Though, in fact, it came too late for me to take full advantage of, as by 1979 I was working in Scotland. But the combination of unusual opera and the restored Frank Matcham opera house were too much to resist. We went to the first festival and saw Lucia di Lammermoor. And yes, in 1979 Lucia was relatively unusual repertoire especially as they used a modern edition so it was the first time I had been able to hear the piece in something like the original keys. This was the first time the work had been presented complete in this form in the UK. And, yes, the opera house was fabulous too.

In those days the festival was themed and, I think, that first festival had Sir Walter Scott as its theme. There were just two operas, the second being one by Maxwell Davies. I was rather sad that they did not have the courage to attempt Sullivan's Ivanhoe, but then no-one seems to have the courage for that.

We returned in 1980 for Ambroise Thomas' Hamlet (an opera which we quickly rechristened Omlette) with a stunning performance from Thomas Allen in the title role. Alas, no-one seems to have asked him to record it, which is a profound shame. They had the courage of their convictions, thank goodness, and did the original happy ending. Berlioz's Beatrice et Benedict was the other opera, it also garnered good reviews with Philip Langridge and Ann Murray in the lead roles, but we didn't run to going to see two operas.

We missed the next few years, Cimarosa (Il matrimonio segreto), Kodaly (Hary Janos), Vivaldi (Griselda) and Gounod (La Colombe) just didn't quite seem worth the travel but I do now regret not having taking the opportunity to see a fully staged version of Hary Janos,  the first (and perhaps only) UK staging of the complete piece.

1984 saw me living in London (a lot closer than Scotland where I had been working) and we returned to the festival to see both Cherubini's Medee and Cavalli's Jason. Medee was played by Rosalind Plowright in a wonderfully dramatic manner, but the production seemed more interested in blood and thunder than the classical verities which inspired Cherubini. It was the first time that the work had been staged in the UK using the original French dialogue rather than the Italian recitative, so the festival continued to break new ground. The performance cemented my preference for doing 19th century French opera with spoken dialogue where appropriate, rather than using recitative.

1985's operas by Piccini and Galuppi failed to attract me. But 1986 had Handel's Ariodante and Purcell's King Arthur. Ariodante remains one of the touchstones in my catalogue of Handel productions, a living example of how not to stage opera seria. It opened with Ginevra in her bath, playing with a toy duck (a silver one of course) and from then on, every scene had some sort of 'entertainment' to ensure that the punters did not get bored during the long arias. Ariodante (Eirian James in excellent form) at one point had to sing whilst reclining on a piece of audibly moving scenery. But the real low point was Scherza infida where behind Ariodante appeared a double bed and Polinesso (James Bowman) stripped down to boxer shorts and wrist watch (the costumes were nominally 18th century period) and made vigorous love to Dalinda during the aria. King Arthur seemed to have also suffered from a lack of faith by the director as Dryden's play was so cut to the bone it made even less sense than usual and left King Arthur (Alan Bates, if memory serves me correct) with very little to do at all.

We had another gap after that as the operas chosen did not quite appeal and our recent experiences with stagings had made us a little wary. But in 1990 there was Rossini's Tancredi (still my only sight of the work on stage), again in a rather disappointing production and with a tenor who came full of promise but seemed to fail to deliver. They used the revised, tragic, ending which just did not seem to make sense with the jolly music that had gone before.

In 1992 there was change. The original founders had now both left, but an interim season produced the highly imaginative combination of Handel's Agrippina (directed from the harpsichord by Roger Vignoles) and Rossini's Italian Girl in Algiers (conducted by Jane Glover), the latter with Jean Rigby in sparkling form despite being heavily pregnant (which added an interesting frisson to the plot). The production of the Handel opera was a big improvement on 1986, but still failed to catch fire.

Somewhere after this festival there was a loss of nerve (or perhaps even before). A possible programme proposed by Jane Glover was not gone ahead with because it was felt to be not safe enough, or at least that's what was reported. Anyway 1993 saw Donizetti's Maria Stuarda and Cimarosa's The Secret Marriage.

It is one of the miracles of the festival's present form, that in the late 1990's something of this nerve came back thanks to changes in the festival board. This confidence is noticeable in the way the number of operas performed rocketed, from two in 1998 to six in 2002. Aiden Lang took over as festival director in 2000 (I think) and spent seven years in the job; since then the festival hasn't looked back.

Thursday 24 May 2012

Orchestra of the Swan at the Cadogan Hall

As a metropolitan London-based concert goer, it is good to be reminded of the superb musical activity outside London. May 23 saw that final of three concerts which the Orchestra of the Swan have been giving at London's Cadogan Hall. The Orchestra of the Swan are based at Stratford upon Avon with residencies there and at Birmingham Town Hall. It is also good to be reminded that good things come in smaller packages, the Orchestra of the Swan is a chamber orchestra which certainly punches above its weight.

Last night, 23 May, at the Cadogan Hall they were conducted by their artistic director David Curtis in a programme of John Ireland and Vaughan Williams. The smaller size of the orchestra (44 players including 24 strings) meant that we got a refreshing different view of familiar (and unfamiliar music). I am used to hearing RVW's Fifth Symphony and John Ireland's Piano Concerto played by larger ensembles, but Curtis and his ensemble made a strong case for the chamber orchestra.

The strings play with a fantastic presence and focus, string tone is crisp, clean and vital. There is no attempt to butch up the tone, there's just no need, they make a virtue of lean and mean and in bigger passages allow the tone to flower. Yes, you do miss the sort of hushed pianissimo which massed ranks of strings can bring, but the strings of Orchestra of the Swan provide a vibrant alternative. And of course, balance is affected with woodwind slightly more prominent. This is a sound-world that I like, without the swamping of the wind sound by a vibrato laden symphonic string section.

The concert opened with a lively performance of RVW's The Wasps Overture with the orchestra buzzing away brilliantly. The big tunes were played with taut poise, opening out nicely at the big moments.

They were then joined by pianist Mark Bebbington for a performance of John Ireland's Piano Concerto. Ireland was 50 when he wrote it and amazingly it was his first major piece for symphony orchestra. The catalyst seems to have been a young piano student of Ireland's, Helen Perkin, who had played Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto with the RCM orchestra. Ireland's relationship with Perkin was personal and professional and this is reflected in the music, particularly the slow movement.

The concerto isn't combative; Perkin had quite small hands and though Ireland revised the piece in the 1950's to accentuate the more bravura passages, there is much more a sense of dialogue than combat. Quite often the piano is accompanied by a small section of the orchestra or even solo. In fact, one of the things that I realised about the work was quite how sparsely some of it is written, though listening to it you don't always realise it, such is Ireland's skill.

Bebbington's performance was far more lyrically muscular than I am used to, casting an interesting light on the piece. Bebbington made you aware of the denser piano textures, which he clearly relishes. Bebbington clearly links the work with that of Bax (whose work Ireland disliked), and there was less of the English pastoral about the performance than some that I have heard.

The other influence, which came over in both piano and orchestra, was that of Gershwin. Ireland did include deliberately jazzy elements in the orchestra (even down to discussing trumpet mutes with a band leader). But some of the more muscular moments reminded me very much of Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F (written five years before Ireland's).

The orchestra accompanied with finesse, and with them also there was a strong feeling for the textures of the piece. In the second movement there were some superb moments, such as the richly textured passage for horn and strings. Bebbington, Curtis and the orchestra gave us a darker, richer account of the piano concerto, one which brought out the variety of influences on the piece rather than concentrating on the English pastoral.

After the interval, Bebbington returned for Ireland's Legend for piano and orchestra. This was intended to be a second piano concerto but it turned into a 15 minute work in which the piano part is rather more concertante than solo. It is a dark, brooding piece which was inspired by a strange, dream-like vision which Ireland had whilst walking on the South Downs. For much of the opening, the piano is restricted to atmospheric arpeggio figures over the orchestra with Ireland creating a dark and unsettling feel to the piece which was relished by the performers. A strange, rather distant dance develops and for the first time the piano texture thickens to something like the solo part in the concerto but a big splashy climax for piano and orchestra gradually evaporates into a modified version of the opening music as Ireland's vision drifts away.

The final work in the programme was Vaughan Williams's Fifth Symphony, a work which was premiered in 1943 when the composer was 71. The piece is noticeably more lyrical than his violent Fourth Symphony and contemporary listeners could have been forgiven for thinking that the old man had settled down and his symphonic career was drawing to a close. They could not have been more wrong, as he would go on to write four more symphonies, none of which could be described as quite settled down or comfortable.

In the Fifth Symphony, RVW used quite a lot of material from his opera The Pilgrims Progress which, during the years 1938 to 1943 when he was writing the symphony, seemed destined never to reach the stage. The symphony is not programmatic and RVW uses the musical material in various ways, but for anyone who knows the opera, key phrases in the symphony (such as the glorious cor anglais solo in the third movement) evoke the opera.

Curtis and his orchestra brought out other links as well. Perhaps I could call it the dance element, but there was something about Curtis's performance which evoked the glorious dances in RVW's symphonic ballet Job, A Masque for Dancing. This isn't a link I'd noticed before but it makes sense and created an interesting slant on the work.

The first movement saw the strings giving a poised performance with some clear string tone and fine lines, and not a few spine-tingling moments. The second movement, with its nice rhythmic pointing, saw some beautiful solos from the wind players. This continued into the third movement, particularly with lovely cor anglais playing accompanied by some surprisingly rich string textures. The finale was pointed and infectious, but not quite as rumbustious as some performances. The movement rose to a very full climax then Curtis brought of a beautiful transition to the coda.

As a conductor, Curtis is not self-indulgent and quite restricted in his gestures (thankfully), but though performances were taut, he let the music flower and breathe where necessary. In style, his performances kept reminding me of Sir Adrian Boult (whose performances I only know from record), though I am not really analytical enough to explain why.

Curtis and his outstanding orchestra, along with Mark Bebbington, gave us some very fine and thought provoking performances of familiar English music. It was a pleasure to hear them in London, though I could have wished that the enthusiastic Cadogan Hall audience had been rather bigger.

Wednesday 23 May 2012

Jonathan Dove premiere

The Salisbury Festival is playing host to, amongst other  things, the premiere of a new church opera by Jonathan Dove. Entitled The Walk from the Garden it has a libretto by regular Dove collaborator, Alasdair Middleton. The plot, inspired by Paradise Lost, explores Adam and Eve's leaving paradise; with Adam played by Nicholas Sharratt and Eve by Anna Dennis. The Salisbury Festival Chorus and the Salisbury Community Choir provide the choral support, with accompaniment from the Dante String Quartet, David Halls (organ) and Rob Farrar (percussion). The conductor is Howard Moody.

The piece was first mooted as a companion to a proposed performance of Britten's Noyes Fludde but this was dropped leaving Dove's piece on its own, but Dove has acknowledged his debt to Britten.

The premiere takes place on Wednesday May 30 with a second performance on Thursday May 31 in Salisbury Cathedral. It promises to be a striking event and lets hope that we get chance to see the opera in London some time.

The festival has quite an eclectic mix of events with Joan Armatrading, Ex Cathedra performing music in 40 parts (though not in the same concert alas).

Recent CD reviews

My review of an archive recording of Ambroise Thomas' Mignon from the Met is here.

The performance does little justice to Thomas’s Mignon. Only of real interest to lovers of the art of Rise Stevens.

And a review of the new disc from Voces8, Choral Tapestry, is here. Both are on MusicWeb International.

Puzzling, frustrating and mesmerising. 

Tuesday 22 May 2012

Missed opportunities

I first saw Dietrich Fischer Dieskau in 1977 at the Edinburgh Festival. If memory serves me correct he appeared in Mozart operas at the Festival in 1976 and 1977 but I didn't see him in those. However, as 1977 was Peter Diamond's final year as festival director, all sorts of favours seem to have been called in. So besides the amazing Carmen with Berganza and Domingo, I saw Berganza, Ryland Davies and Dieskau in a complete performance of Stravinsky's Pulcinella (rather luxurious casting that!) and Dieskau again in the Brahms Requiem, which a truly memorable performance.

Some years later I caught up with him in lieder in an evening of Richard Strauss lieder, which proved that even Dieskau could not disguise the fact that the songs really worked best on a woman's voice. No amount of intelligence in the world could hide that fact that no baritone should be singing Morgen.

So its mainly missed opportunities. I could have seen him in lieder or in Mozart, but didn't because, at the time, my interest lay elsewhere.

Catalyst awards

The Arts Council has announced 173 applicants to their Catalyst funding, though of these only 4 are in classical music. The grants, of between £120,000 and £240,000, allow organisations to boost their fundraising capabilities. Its nice to see that some money is available in times of austerity.

The English Concert will receive £180,000 which they will start to use by refreshing their digital and printed marketing materials and employ extra staff.

Buxton Arts Festival will receive £120,000 helping it to research, reorganise and invest in a new fundraising campaign to generate additional income.

Canterbury Festival will receive £187,000 to raise money which will help it to provide an exciting new festival venue as well as developing its programme and events.

In London a collaborative application from Rich Mix and the Albany in Deptford which is being funded £240,000

Monday 21 May 2012

Die Walkure in Fulham

Fulham Opera are continuing their exploration of The Ring, fully staged but with piano accompaniment. Following on from Die Rheingold they are performing Die Walkure on 22, 23, 25 and 27 May at St John's Church in Fulham. Brunnhilde is played by Zoe South, with Ian Wilson Pope as Wotan. Fiona Williams will be staging it and Benjamin Woodward is the musical director. Their production of Die Rheingold was surprising in many ways; the musical values were very high and the staging, despite the unlikely location, was highly imaginative. So Die Walkure should be well worth a visit.

Sunday 20 May 2012

Tristan in Cardiff

In Cardiff for the revival of Tristan on Saturday, with Phillip Joll as Kurwenal; strange because I heard him in the role with WNO in the early 1980's in the production with Linda Esther Gray and John Mitchinson, conducted by Reginald Goodall. Not in Cardiff, but in Coventry in a converted cinema (the Birmingham Hippodrome was being re-built).

During the dinner interval we were sitting on the edge of Cardiff Bay, having our picnic when two elderly ladies started chatting to us. There were not at the production, but had seen the opera the last time that WNO had performed it. They talked about the fact that people would not come back after the interval. As if anyone could leave before the Liebestod. Well, they did; amazingly the theatre was emptier for the last act.

Friday 18 May 2012

Chipping Camden Music Festival

We discovered the Chipping Camden Music Festival by accident, whilst holidaying in the area. Two weeks of music based at the Church of St. James in Chipping Camden from 6 May to 19 May 2012. This year's festival is the 11th and there have been visits from the Sixteen, the Academy of Ancient Music, plus recitals from Paul Lewis, Richard Goode and Mark Padmore.

The Chipping Camcden Music Festival Orchestra is a training academy under the direction of Thomas Hull. Numbering around 40 players, the orchestra combines established professionals with an equal number of auditioned graduate trainees, sharing desks. This year the orchestra perform three concerts, we caught the second on Thursday 17 May.

Churches are not ideal places for orchestral concerts, but placed on a platform in the nave and chancel, the orchestra's position gave pretty good sight lines for the audience thanks to the church being gothically rectilinear. The acoustic was warm and not too reverberant. The pews were full and 85% of tickets sold via advanced booking.

They opened with Rossini's Overture to The Italian Girl in Algiers. Hull's tempi were steady, a measured opening leading to a lively main section; at a brisk but steady tempo. The orchestra sparkled with crisp articulation and lovely wind solos. A performance which caught the real fun of Rossini's piece, with Hull leading the musicians to an exciting climax.

Soprano Kate Royal joined the orchestra for three concert arias by Mozart. The first, O temeraro Arbace.. Per qual paterno amplesso K79, opened with an accompanied recitative which seemed rather conventional until you realised that Mozart was only 10 when he wrote it. At which point the listener can only gasp with astonishment at the achievement. Royal sang persuasively, with a lovely line and technical ease in the virtuoso passages; her cadenza was relatively discreet. Hull and Royal made a strong case for the work as musical drama rather than a curiosity from a 10 year old genius.

The next aria, Vado ma dove K583 was mature Mozart, dating from 1789. The aria was written for Martin y Soler's Il Burbero di Buon Cuore, the standard 18th century practice of composers writing substitute arias for revivals of operas, to suit the demands of the singers. This aria was the real thing, mature Mozart with a sophisticated handling of the orchestra and a ravishing solo soprano line. Frankly, it must have stood out a mile in Martin y Soler's comedy. Royal gave a touchinly poised performance with a beautiful feel for the Mozartian line.

I would like to have been in the audience at the concert in 1787 when soprano Nancy Storace gave her farewell. She had been Mozart's Susanna and for the concert he wrote her a concert aria, setting a text from Idomeneo. But a concert aria with a difference, after the soprano recitative a solo piano appears to form a dialogue with the soprano. Chi'o mi scordi di te remains sui generis, a concert aria with concertante soprano part, here played by Imogen Cooper making her third festival appearance this year.

Royal's performance was appealingly affecting, with a nice sense of dialogue with Cooper's poised piano playing. Royal, Cooper and Hull made this combination of voice, piano and orchestra seem the most natural thing in the world; a most moving performance.

After the interval, when audience members wandered round the church yard and picnicked amongst the tombs, we were treated to Beethoven's seventh Symphony. After a long and surprisingly massive introduction, the first movement's main section was beautifully perky with infectious joie de vivre. Some passages in the development were not misterioso enough for me, but Hull developed the drama strongly.

Speeds for the second movement continued to be on the swifter side, Hull creating a feeling of propulsion whilst never being rushed. The orchestra allowed the movement's rich textures to develop nicely.

The scherzo was acquitted with sprightly rhythms, full of bounce and crisp articulations.

The finale was astonishing. Hull's speed must have been approaching Beethoven's metronome mark and the orchestra responded with brio and enthusisam. They played with incisive brilliance, crisply articulating and visibly enjoying the challenge. This wasn't the subtlest of performances, but one full of vividly infectious bravura and some brilliant playing.

Tonight the Nash Ensemble play Britten, Mozart and Schubert then tomorrow night the Festival Orcehstra return withWeber, Beethoven and Brahms; Anthony Marwood being the soloist in the Beethoven Violin Concerto

Interview with Klaus Heymann

To celebrate Naxos's 25th anniversary I interviewed Klaus Heymann for MusicWeb International.
From this month's Opera Magazine I see that Buxton are doing Saint-Saens La Princesse Jaune next year, conducted by Stephen Barlow; hurrah for a Saint-Saens revival and Henry VIII anyone?

And at Glyndebourne in 2015, Sally Matthews is due to sing Constanze, in  Die Entfuhrung with Robin Ticciati conducting.  Jonas Kaufmann will be doing his first Walther in a staged performance of Die Meistersinger at the Berlin Staatsoper, but not until 2014. Robert Lepage is due to be back at the Met in 2017 (!) for Messiaen's Saint Francois d'Assise.

Yannick Nezet-Seguin is recording all seven mature Mozart operas for DG (hurrah), with Rolando Villazon as Don Ottavio, Ferrando and Tito. Well Villazon as Tito certainly, but as Don Ottavio and Ferrando?

Wednesday 16 May 2012

Southern Cathedrals Festival

The Southern Cathedrals Festival takes place from 19 July to 21 July at Salisbury Cathedral with the choirs of Salisbury, Winchester and Chichester providing a rich diet of Choral Evensongs and Sung Eucharists. In addition there are organ recitals  (including one by Dame Gillian Weir) and other music.

 Music for Evensong includes Ireland's Service in F, Howell's Gloucester Service, Parry's Blest Pair of Sirens, Swayne's Magnificat and the premiere of Cox's The River of Life.

The girl choristers of Salisbury and Winchester join with the men from all three cathedrals to perform Michael Haydn's Requiem a work which had an important influence on Mozart's, and is a lovely piece in its own right. Also in the programme is Bach's Lutheran Mass in F.

Messiah will be performed by the boy choristers and men of all three cathedrals, as the festival's final concert.

Tuesday 15 May 2012

Coma annual report

Last week CoMA's annual report popped through my letter box. CoMA (Contemporary Music for All) is organisation dedicated to giving everyone opportunities to come together to make music; musicians of all abilities, backgrounds and interests work together to produce amazing contemporary music. They run around 11 regional ensembles and each year have a summer school. I attended a weekend of the summer school 7 or 8 years ago and had the most amazing time making contemporary music.

The annual report is a summary of their activities from 2011.

  • 248 performing musicians - 225 amateurs and 23 professionals - taking part in 27 public music events involving 29 premieres.

  • 71 composers - 1 Norwegian, 3 Estonian, 3 UK commissions, 6 vocal works by Trinity Laban students, 22 works from Calls for Pieces, 2 composer residencies, 3 regional composer workshops, 33 CoMa composer members.

  • 2283 audience members attending 27 public events
In many ways this is wonderfully admirable and I can testify that taking part in a CoMa event has a profoundly transformative effect. Friends recently took part in one of the workshops, singing music by students and the event was amazing both from the point of view of the performer and the composers listening to their works.

CoMA's idea of contemporary music is admirably broad church, so that audiences get the opportunity to experience quite varied styles.

And yet, its a shame that their reach does not stretch wider, that more people did not take part and that audiences were far bigger.

Of course, a lot of is this to do with funding. Though many events are self-funding, the PRS for Music Foundation contributed £20,000 in 2011, almost a third of CoMA's turnover in 2011. But in our age of austerity, where the arts inevitably suffer, that CoMA goes on to continue developing is an admirable miracle.

Monday 14 May 2012

The composer as artist - from pasticcio to production books

In 1839 the publisher Giovanni Ricordi bought the rights to Verdi’s music; Ricordi already owned the archives of La Scala, he’d bought those in 1825. Ricordi would go on to develop a long and profitable relationship with Verdi, one which helped to redefine the way composers kept control of their works.

Verdi's Signature
We have a tendency to think of the 19th century as the period when the composer finally changed from being a jobbing man of work (and they were usually men) to a solitary artist with all the ideas of suffering in a garret. Of course, writing operas is not quite a solitary occupation, but Wagner managed to do a considerable amount on his own and by the end of his career Verdi, whilst certainly not suffering in a garret, was definitely writing exactly what he wanted. Both these composers were artists who came to define their own concept of themselves.

But in parallel to this, almost as a corollary, the artist kept far more control over his work. Operas ceased to become simply source material. And it was the relationship between the composer and his publisher which helped develop this. It was in the publisher’s interest to keep the source material close to them. It was Ricordi who introduced the idea of the production book, so that not only would any opera house in Italy perform Verdi’s operas from Ricordi scores, but they would have to stage it in accordance with the composer’s wishes.

Wagner, of course, went one further and built his own theatre to stage is operas, even going so far as to forbid performances of Parsifal in any other opera house.

This was a big change. When the opera house in Hamburg staged Handel’s operas during his lifetime, they did so in the local idiom. Handel was quite popular in Hamburg, he’d actually worked at the opera house before his trip to Italy in 1707. And the management there seem to have kept up contacts with Handel’s publishers. They generally used the published version as the basis for their own, but a local composer such as Kaiser or Telemann (himself a friend of Handel’s) would re-write the recitative. The recitative would be sung in German but the arias in Italian. Hamburg had a tendency to revert back to libretti rather closer to the originals on which Handel had based his opera. This is understandable, Handel’s libretti were very much adapted for local, English, taste and the recitative could often be cut to the bone.

There is no indication that Handel objected to this. He did similar things to other composer’s work when staging pasticcios in London and on one or two occasions when reviving his own operas, allowed singers to bring in arias from other operas (his own and by other composers). Here we have to note that once a work was written, Handel the composer handed it over to Handel the impresario and wasn’t the least precious about changes.

This attitude continued into the 19th century with a gradual increase in the role of the composer. Gluck was a great re-user of material, he would cheerfully re-use arias from one opera in another providing the music had not been heard already in the town in question. Mozart wrote a considerable body of arias for insertion in other people’s operas; this was standard practice. In fact he would do it with his own operas and in 1789 he wrote two new arias for Le nozze di Figaro. Mozart also took it for granted that individual performances had to be tailored to individual singers. The differences between the Prague and the Vienna versions of Don Giovanni shows Mozart responding to the requirements of different cast members. There wasn’t an ideal version of the show, simply the current one. If Mozart had lived he would perhaps have settled on an ideal version, but perhaps not. After all, he was happy to transpose voice types and produce a new version of Idomeneo for Vienna many years after Munich.

But what we are seeing here is that though works would be altered and adjusted with new arias added to suit local singers, the sort of wholesale re-composition which would have happened in the earlier parts of the 18th century was far less the norm.

Maria Malibran
In the early 19th century, the high mezzo-soprano Maria Malibran persuaded Bellini to produce a custom version of I Puritani for her, with the soprano part adjusted to her range. Here we can see an adjustment in attitudes. Composers still expected to travel round and mount their own work in major centre and perhaps produce custom versions (Donizetti’s Maria di Rohan was given a significant makeover by the composer between the Vienna and Paris premieres). But here was Malibran asking a composer to re-write for her, rather than simply getting a tame hack to do it. It was Malibran who used to routinely perform Bellini’s I Capuletti e i Montecchi with the final act taken from Vaccai’s Giulietta e Romeo. (Again this was a decision taken to suit vocal resources). This sort of composer sponsored tinkering would continue, Massenet adjusted the title role of Werther for a baritone so that Battistini could sing it. And Richard Strauss was seriously considering lightening the orchestration of Salome so that a lighter voiced soprano could take the role.

But this isn’t just about artistic control, it is about finance. For a company to put on an opera they need parts. In the 18th century that meant creating a set from an existing score. Works were not always published in full score, so to perform music by a living composer you would often have to be in contact with the composer or his publisher.  Large theatres would have music libraries which would be assembled by a dedicated librarian. With smaller theatres, someone else had to provide the material, frequently the impresario responsible for the performance. But by the time Ricordi was buying the rights to Verdi’s catalogue, he was already in a position to hire out parts for 19 of Rossini’s operas and 8 of Bellini’s. Donizetti was still alive and Ricordi published all of his operas.

This is a different way of doing things. Now, if an opera house wanted to perform an opera all they had to do is contact Ricordi and he would supply the parts. This means that the operas were, more or less, standardised. What we see becoming the norm in the 19th century is a move away from the customised version of an opera, with everyone starting with the same basic score. But we are not talking about faithfulness to the written word of course, you were at liberty to cut and individual singers could still introduce different arias. The lesson aria in Rossini’s Il Barbieri di Siviglia was a very popular aria to be replaced (at Covent Garden, Melba used to accompany herself on the piano and sing Home sweet home!). But with a living composer like Verdi, there was a greater degree of control; an opera house was unlikely to put on a performance of Rigoletto and start inserting arias from earlier Verdi operas.

This all worked because audiences wanted to hear the work of a particular composer; the pressure to re-work material in local form had gone. In the 18th century the singers and the libretto were the thing, the composer was often incidental. But in the 19th century it the composer himself starts to take centre stage; audiences came to the opera house to hear works by a particular composer. Here with return back to the 19th century cult of the artist, the century which sees the composer take the dominant role supported, of course, by his eminence grise, his publisher.

Saturday 12 May 2012

Live opera?

Earlier this week there was much media coverage of the fracas at a performance of Einstein on the Beach at the Barbican, when Mark Shenton objected to someone taking flash photographs. That the someone was Bianca Jagger ensured coverage in the press. Then Thursday came the reports that John Berry had announced in an interview with The Stage that ENO would never get involved in live cinema performances, feeling that opera should remain a fully live experience.

Often, when you go to the opera you are insulated from the general theatre going experience, sitting amongst a theatre of like-minded enthusiasts who, by and large, know how to behave (though I'm sure everyone has a story to tell about the ones that don't). But, as anyone who has attended a musical in the west end can testify, ordinary audiences seem to be losing the understanding of how to behave in the theatre.

For many of the general theatre goers, the theatre is an extension of film and TV and, as such, behaviour can be adjusted accordingly so that eating, drinking and talking is perceived as OK. The theatrical experience isn't one where you sit mute. It reminds me of my mother's stories of her youth where in silent films, the whole audience would chant the dialogue that appeared on-screen.

This attitude can often find its way to operatic performances. So that the spat at Einstein on the Beach becomes understandable. Especially as the Barbican allowed audience members to come and go as they pleased, to eat and drink in the theatre, because of the works length and lack of intervals. Frankly, it struck me that it would have been less disturbing to have inserted intervals in the piece so that the disturbance was contained, leaving the audience able to concentrate without having people constantly getting up around them.

This ceases to be operatic entertainment and moves into the general theatrical realm, so it is understandable that audience members thought flash photography OK. After all, commentators nowadays tweet during performances. And I was recently at a performance of Tosca at ENO when the young woman next to me seemed far more interested in her phone than in the opera.

So while I sympathise with John Berry's point, I can't help feeling that the war has been lost, audiences all too often think of theatre as an extension of film/TV/video. If to film something on your phone is to validate it, somehow make the experience real, then what hope have we of convincing such an audience that opera going is already a vivid, fully interactive experience and that they should leave their phones behind.

One final point, the issue of accessibility; is making opera available in HD in cinemas in danger of replacing live opera as an experience? By having opera in cinemas, are we expanding the horizons of audiences for whom access to live opera is difficult? Or are we simply providing an economic way of enabling large opera companies to tour, albeit virtually. Neither ENO nor ROH now do regular tours to the regions, though Glyndebourne still admirably does. Pimlico Opera's recent tours of Grange Park Opera productions have been threatened by Arts Council cuts. Even James Conway of English Touring Opera has said that they are finding it harder to persuade some theatres to take ETO because audiences prefer large scale operas in HD films to smaller scale live opera.

So is live opera on film a useful way of widening the operatic market or an insidious way for the arts funders to ensure that plebs can get access to 'high quality' experience which is good enough. Are we going to see the development of a culture where touring to the regions or making a special trip to go to the opera is reserved for the few?

Tuesday 8 May 2012

Opera North new season

Opera North have announced their 2012/13 season; its slightly shorter than usual because they are changing what is mean by their season. (From 2013/14 the season will be aligned with their financial year). So this announcement starts with the premiere of the new production of The Makropulos Case at the Edinburgh Festival to the final Otello in Nottingham in March 2013.

The Autumn tour (Leeds, Salford Quays, Newcastle and Nottingham) consists of The Makropulos Case, Don Giovanni and Faust.

For The Makropoulos Case Richard Farnes conducts a new production by Tom Cairns with a very strong cast including the Swedish soprano Ylva Kihlberg making her UK debut, with Paul Nilon as Albert Gregor, Robert Hayward as Jaroslav Prus and James Crewell Dr Kolenaty.

Don Giovanni is another new production, directed by Alessandro Talevi conducted by Tobias Ringborg.William Dazely is the Don with Meeta Raval as Donna Anna, (Raval impressed when I saw her performing with British Youth Opera and she has gone on to do interesting things including her appearance at the Cardiff Singer of the World), Elizabeth Atherton as Donna Elvira and Alistair Miles as Leporello. Quite a striking cast indeed and with Talevi in charge it should be rather exciting.

A third new production, Faust is being directed by Rob Kearly and Ran Arthur Braun and is promised to be a high tech production. Interesting? Still Peter Auty is Faust with James Creswell and Juanita Lascarro.

The early 2013 tour (Leeds, Newcastle, Salford Quays and Nottingham) consists of Otello, La clemenza di Tito and a double bill of La voix humaine and Dido and Aeneas.

The new production of Otello will be the first time the opera has been performed at Opera North. Tim Albery directs, Richard Farnes conducts and Ronald Samm sings the title role. Samm sang the role in Birmingham Opera Company's 2009 production; he is from Trinidad and is that rare thing, an afro-caribbean opera singing singing Otello. Jago is David Kempster, Desdemona is Elena  Kelessidi, a name I have to confess that is new to me.

For La Clemenza di Tito we have another new production, another first for the company. Directed b John Fulljames, conducted by Douglas Boyd, Vitellia will be sung by Annemarie Kremer who recently made quite a stir as Norma with the company. Tito is Paul Nilon and Servilia is Fflur Wyn with Estonia mezzo-soprano Helen Lepalaan as Sesto. I have always had a soft spot for Mozart's take on opera seria and certainly hope to be able to catch this new production.

For the double bill, La voix humaine is new, with Lesley Garrett as Elle. Aletta Collins's Dido and Aeneas is being revived, with Pamela Helen Stephen as Dido. A slightly odd combination of works, but then Dido has always been a tricky partner.

It is quite an amazing season, especially as its not quite a complete season. In this era of cutting down, the seem to have managed to put together some rather neat plums.

Their press release also includes some information about the following season. This will include their concert staging of Siegfried. There is a new children's opera from David Bruce, The FIrework Maker's Daughter based on Philip Pullman's book, directed by John Fulljames. Britten takes centre stage for his centenary year, with productions of Peter Grimes, Death in Venice, Albert Herring and A Midsummer Night's Dream. Albert Herring and A Midsummer Night's Dream are new, the other two are revivals. And the other good news is that Josephine Barstow will be Lady Billows. I can't wait!

Monday 7 May 2012


The RLPO have announced their plans for the 2012/13 season, which will be Vassily Petrenko's seventh with them. A varied programme includes Act three of Tristan with Richard Berkeley-Steele, Jeanne-Michele Charbonnet and Phillip Joll, the premiere of Kurt Schwertsik's Flute Concerto and the UK premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage's Cello Concerto and a celebration of the Centenary of The Rite of Spring. They have also received money from the Arts Council to start their huge project to refurbish the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall.

Recent CD review

My review of the Brilliant Classics boxed set of the complete Mendelssohn sacred music (all 8 CD's of it) is here, on MusicWeb International.

A welcome overview of Mendelssohn’s sacred music in lively and engaging performances.

Sunday 6 May 2012

The Flying Dutchman at the London Coliseum

Jonathan Kent's new production of The Flying Dutchman at the London Coliseum (seen 5 May 2012) was clearly meant to come with the subtitle 'Senta's Dream'. During the overture, which received a powerful, thrilling performance from Edward Gardner and the ENO Orchestra, the curtain rose on an atmospheric video (Nina Dunn for Knifedge) of the sea which coalesced into the young Senta (either Aoife Checkland or Evie Grattan) in her attic bedroom with a huge window overlooking the sea. Daland (Clive Bayley) came to say good by to her as he went to sea and left her with a book about the Dutchman.

Senta in her bed remained centre state for the first scene, she covered the steersman (Robert Murray) with her duvet when he fell asleep and the Dutchman (James Creswell) made his entrance from her bed. All well and good; after all the opera is very dependant on Senta's obsession with the Dutchman. The mature Senta (Orla Bylan) got up from the same bed to make her entrance.

These first scenes worked pretty well dramaturgically; the concept intriguing enough to make you wonder how Kent was going to proceed. Though I have to confess that I found the presences of the young Senta and her bed in the middle of Daland's ship ultimately rather distracting.

Kent had opted to set the opera in modern times. This represented a neat solution to the problem set by the decision to perform the single act version, with no convenient intervals for set changes. The best solution to this problem was Ian Judge's production at Covent Garden, but its complex moving platforms proved its undoing. Here Kent and his designer Paul Brown, opted for a single set which could double as the modern rather industrial ship and the factory where the women worked (there was no quayside setting, everything took place in the factory). Though this meant that the scene on Daland's ship had little feeling of the sea, that was all in the orchestra. The Dutchman's ship, when it appeared was a 19th century rigged ship and the Dutchman (James Creswell) was a very Romantic figure in 19th century frock coat.

The spinning workshop had become a factory where the women made tourist tat, souvenir ships in bottles. Erik (Stuart Skelton) was the security guard. When Daland and the Dutchman made their entry, things started to get a little confused.

Kent and Brown used a huge window at the back of the set to provide lurid glimpses of the Dutchman's ship and other shadows. And it was here that the Dutchman first appeared, before entering via another door, stage left. It appeared for all the world as if Creswell was supposed to enter through the door in the big window but that it had stuck. Now this may or may not have been the case, but such was the dramaturgy you couldn't really tell. And once he had entered, Kent seemed content to keep Creswell in the badly lit shadows. And the long scene with Senta took place amidst the confused detritus of the factory. Despite diving the Dutchman a Romantic visual outline, Kent seemed disinclined to give him the full impact of a Romantic archetype.

Both musically and dramatically this scene sagged. Dramatically static and visually confused, even Gardner and the orchestra did not seem able to help. But Gardner recovered the dramatic momentum for the remainder of the opera, though I am not sure that Kent did.

Musically this was a terrifically strong performance, but so far in the performance music and drama had been more or less hand in hand.

Boylan's Senta was bright voiced and dramatic; the top notes in the ballad were paced with admirable clarity. Elsewhere when the role went lower I was perhaps aware that Senta might be towards the dramatic limits of Boylan's voice. But taken all in all this was a brilliant, musical performance.

Creswell's Dutchman had a Romantic look and a fine dark hued voice, easily riding the orchestra and providing an aural thrill. But dramatically he was rather solid, and his stiff stage presence seemed to have not been helped by Kent. Clive Bayley was a fine Daland, suitably grasping but sympathetic and nicely sung.

I can't help thinking that Kent and his designer had it in for Erik, Stuart Skelton is a big guy and his security guard's uniform did him no favours. But vocally he was nearly ideal. For once, ENO seems to have cast a heavy dramatic opera with voices which were of sufficient strength and weight, but all brought brilliance, focus and beauty. This was Wagner with a sense of line and without the screaming. Whatever the limits of the production's dramaturgy, it sounded terrific. Susanna Tudor-Thomas was Mary, considerably less frumpy than usual; and Robert Murray made an excellent and hard-working steersman.

Gardner had gone for the original 1840's version of the opera so we had the advantage of Wagner's brassy first thoughts in the overture and the ending. And Gardner's confident handling of the overture carried into the opening scene, with the chorus on form.

If the opera had stopped after the scene between Senta and the Dutchman, I would have been well content.

Instead, for the harbour-side scene Kent seemed to throw everything at it. The party took place in the factory, with lots of unfunny novelty costumes and blow-up things. The Dutchman's ship was reduced to a shadow through the window and the ghostly chorus from his ship was performed over the loud-speakers providing something which was rather nasty and not ghostly at all. Senta was abused and apparently raped, and it all developed in such a way that it appeared to be in Senta's head. Kent made no attempt to find modern archetypes for the ghostly horror of Wagner's music and this scene was no match for David Pountney's brilliant production from the 90's. In fact, Kent's whole premise for the staging seems to have been to take the supernatural out of the piece.

For the final scene, the location was as before with the detritus from the party. No Dutchman's ship, just its vague shadow through the window. The Dutchman disappeared down a trap like a pantomime villain (no puff of smoke luckily) and Senta committed suicide with a broken bottle. There was, of course, no transfiguration.

By opting for the earlier ending, the music was nowhere near as transfigurative as Wagner's later, Tristan influenced re-write; but still. Gardner and the orchestra and the singers all blazed away with fire and drama. It was a pity that what we saw was a confused mess.

The piece was sung in David Pountney's excellent translation and the diction was generally admirable. Chorus and orchestra were all on fine form and you can't help wishing that the ENO had their own label recording scheme, this was a production that would sound great on CD.

Producers and conductors are rather fond of stating that the single act version of the opera works better dramatically. But generally, they don't have to sit through 130 minutes of music in poor theatre seats with arthritic knees. After about an hour I usually have a fight for attention between my knees and the stage. Generally, the stage wins if only by a whisker. But this time, I'm afraid my knees won. Kent seems to have decided to ditch supernatural and romantic archetypes but failed to convince as kitchen sink drama.

This was a production which sounded fab and almost worked. It would be nice to think that Kent would be offered a chance to tinker and re-work. But given the expense of staging an opera like this, I doubt that he will.

Rosenblatt moves

Rosenblatt Recitals, the series which presents young opera singers in recital in London is moving from its present home at St. John's Smith Square, to the Wigmore Hall. The 2011/12 series will conclude at St. John's with a recital by Sylvia Schwartz. Then the 2012/13 series opens on 24 September with a recital at Wigmore Hall by Lawrence Brownlee, accompanied by Iain Burnside. Brownlee has made something of a name for himself in the high Rossini roles (including of course La Fille du Regiment) so it will be exciting to hear him in recital. The season continues with Dimitra Theodossiu (12 November), Fabio Armiliato (14 January).

I have to confess that much as I like St. Johns, the move to the Wigmore Hall is welcome. Not only is the Wigmore Hall an iconic venue for singers, but simply St. Johns is just a little too lacking in the ideal intimacy for song recitals.

Rosenblatt Recitals 2012-13 season

Monday 24 September, 7.30pm
Iain Burnside Pianist

Monday 22 October, 7.30pm
Iain Burnside Pianist

Monday 12 November, 7.30pm
Simone Savina Pianist

Monday 14 January 2013, 7.30pm
Marco Rimicci Pianist

Tuesday 5 February, 7.30pm
Simon Lepper Pianist

Monday 18 March, 7.30pm
Iain Burnside Pianist

Thursday 23 May, 7.30pm
Simon Lepper Pianist

Thursday 6 June, 7.30pm
Simon Lepper Pianist

Saturday 5 May 2012

Great Expectations

More new opera. Tête à Tête are at it again, this time in collaboration with composers and musicians from the Royal College of Music. On 11 and 12 May they will be producing six short operas, all on the subject of 'Great Expectations' at the Royal College of Music (RCM), written by young composers and librettists from the college. Subjects include the Titanic and Scott's expedition to the South Pole. All the operas will be directed by the indefatigable Bill Bankes Jones, conducted by Gerry Cornelius and designed by Ellan Parry. Tickets from the RCM website.

I remember the ship
Music Jude Obermüller, words Genevieve Dawson 
White Star
Music Chris Roe, words Alex Knox 
Gary of the Antarctic 
Music & words Edward Bell
Una tragedia di proporzione titaniche
Music Laurence Osborn, words Theo Merz 
Lie Down and Stay 
Music Michael Shearer, words Claire Frewin 
Music Louis d’Heudieres, words Huw Crowley

Hi you to Cambridge

If you are in or around Cambridge tonight then there is a terrific concert on at Peterhouse Theatre. Lawrence Zazzo (counter-tenor) and Arcangelo, directed by Jonathan Cohen perform Vivaldi, Porpora and Handel, including Vivaldi's Nisi Dominus and the mad scene from Handel's Orlando, plus a cantata by Porpora whose works Arcangelo recently recorded on a terrific CD. More information on the concert from Camerata Musica's website. And no, we won't be there; we'll be at ENO for their new Flying Dutchman. Also tonight, there's an evening of music, performance and spoken word at Cul-De-Sac Gallery, From traditional Tibetan throat singing to body art, keyboarded radio, haunted voice overs and deadpan Electronica. , and yes, we might drop in there after the Wagner!

Friday 4 May 2012

From 'When a Man Knows'

'What's Your Problem' - Second in the extracts from 'When a Man Knows' on YouTube. 

The Man (Dario Dugandzic, baritone) first seen handcuffed and chained in the deserted warehouse. Instrumental ensemble conducted by David Roblou, production directed by Ian Caddy, lighting by Matt Haskins. Recorded live at Bridewell Theatre, London, 1st April 2011

Le Roi Malgre Lui

Despite never having seen a fully satisfying production, I've always been rather fond of Chabrier's Le Roi Malgre Lui. I first saw it in a modern re-working at Opera North; a lovely performance but the revised plot seemed to be no more sensible than the existing one. Then we saw it in Lyons where Laurent Pelly seemed to have no confidence in the piece at all and set it as a rehearsal including, in the glorious Barcarolle, some amazing dancing scenery which did nothing for Chabrier's music. Then Grange Park performed it in a production by Simon Callow which had its heart in the right place but didn't quite hit the target exactly.

So, those lucky people who are travelling to Annandale-on-Hudson in New York state this summer or to Wexford this autumn will have the delight of seeing the opera staged by Thaddeus Strassberger. The production is a co-production between the Wexford Festival and Bard SummerScape. In the USA the opera will be conducted by Leon Botstein and will use the composer's original 1887 version and the Bard revival is billed as the first staged revival of this version. Now I have to confess some ignorance here, so I have no idea of the significance of the 1887 version though the piece (rather like Bernstein's Candide) was both much admired and much tinkered with.

The Wexford site describes the production thus 'the production takes a rapturous ride through all things French, from Louis XVI’s glittering royal court at Versailles to the long sultry summers of St Tropez and the sophisticated night life of Monte Carlo in the 1960s.' Hmm...

Bard will also be performing a concert performance of Saint-Saens's rarely performed Henry VIII; last seen in Europe at Compiegne, I believe, in a production which found its way to the Liceu with Monserrat Caballe.

Wexford are doing Cilea's Arlesiana (memorably revived by Opera Holland Park a few years ago) and Delius's A Village Romeo and Juliet , plus Lennox Berkeley's A Dinner Engagement.  A nice programme indeed and certainly worth travelling to Ireland for.

Thursday 3 May 2012

Joyce, Kerouac and DeLillo into music

Endings is a new piece by Jeremy Peyton Jones which sets the final paragraphs of James Joyce's Ulysses, Jack Kerouac's On the Road and Don DeLillo's White Noise. Peyton Jones first set Molly Bloom's soliloquy from the end of Ulysses in 1998 and since then he has gone on to set the ends of various other novels.  Peyton Jones says that 'There is no connecting theme in the endings that I chose to set to music for this work except perhaps the idea of 'ending' itself. Don DeLillo at the end of his satirical tour de force White Noise brilliantly uses waiting in the supermarket queue as a metaphor for a powerful sense of our own mortality and fear of death.  Several of the settings are about our legacy and what we leave behind when we die.'

For this project, Endings, Peyton Jones is working with Electronic Sound Artist Kaffe Matthews to create a piece in one single over-arching structure based on the existing endings. The work will be played by Regular Music II, bringing together their vibrantly theatrical amplified acoustic sound (vocals, keyboards, strings, brass, electric guitar and percussion) with the noisy rhythms and abstract cyber landscapes of Matthews' electronic improvisations.
Kaffe Matthews performing live (credit Miyako Narita)

Also on the programme are Peyton Jones's large-scale work And The Days Are Long for electric guitar, live electronics and amplified ensemble, plus vocal settings of an extract from Pablo Neruda's epic poem Alturas de Macchu Picchu and vocal settings from recent music theatre productions, including Against Oblivion, using the words of writer David Gale, concerning loss, destruction and decay. Incidentally it was for Gale's wedding that Peyton Jones's Molly Bloom soliloquy was created.

Peyton Jones's current work includes a series of music theatre works entitled Against Oblivion, Part 1 of which was premiered at Toynbee Studios, London in March 2007, and Part 2 at the Tête á Tête Opera Festival Riverside Studios in July 2009.

Ashley Slater, Melanie Pappenheim and Rebecca Askew from Regular Music II performing Jeremy Peyton Jones's Against Oblivion Part 1 (credit Letizia Pettrucci)
You have three opportunities to catch the  Regular Music II playing Endings, Thursday 24 May at the De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill, , Saturday 26 May at the Purcell Room in the South Bank Centre in London then on Thursday 31 May at the  Arnolfini in Bristol.

Wednesday 2 May 2012

An unattainable ideal: the dilemma of romanticism

As part of their Music in Context series, the Aspect Foundation presented a combination of lecture and concert at Kings Place last night (1 May). Russian violist Iakov Zats, accompanied by Vsevolod Dvorkin, gave a recital consisting of Brahms's Sonata in F minor, Op 120, Schumann's Three Romances, Op 94 and Franck's Sonata in A major. And before you ask, no Franck didn't write a sonata for the viola, this was a transcription of the violin sonata, and the Schumann pieces were similar adaptations of the Romances for oboe.

Before each half of the concert, Ben Street delivered an illustrated lecture on the subject An unattainable ideal: the dilemma of romanticism. Though Street delivered the lecture the material was in fact by Dr Markus Ophälders, the Professor of Aesthetics at the University of Verona. It was a shame that Ophälders himself could not deliver the lecture as Street, though fluent, was a little too self-depreciating and perhaps a bit distant from the subject matter.

The illustrations were taken from Romantic painters such as Caspar David Friedrich and Turner, with illustrations of Schinkel's architecture to demonstrate the classicism against which Romantics were responding, and also Gaudi's architecture intended as the physical embodiment of a certain type of organic Romanticism.

In the first half, Street tried to define the essence of German Romanticism, with its elements of being solitary, living poetically and a yearning for something you don't quite yet understand. Going on the propose that Romantic music was the expression of something infinite in finite form. There is an essential sense of contradiction and struggle in the music and literature. Romanticism is a reaction against balance and harmony; but it is neither irrational nor spontaneous but contained with a structure. The basic dilemma is the tension between freedom and form, embodied in the motto frei aber einsam.

Brahms's F minor sonata was written for clarinet and piano but at the behest of his publishers Brahms cast it as a viola sonata as well; in doing so Brahms took advantage of the double stopping available on the instrument. Though not first choice, Brahms seems to have had a love of the viola and this version of the sonata suits the instruments dark melancholy tones.

That said, Iakov Zats plays on a relatively small instrument with a light, sweetly melancholy tone rather than something bigger and darker. His singing tone worked well in the sonatas opening movement, with its fragmented melodies but there were moments when I wanted something a little darker, less sweet; Zats' performance was a little to well balanced to be quite appasionato. Dvorkin provided good muscular piano support and the two made a balanced duo. Ironically, in the second movement I wanted the viola to sing out rather more as Zats played with a sweet veiled tone. The Intermezzo saw the two instruments tossing phrases between each other in a splendidly civilised way.  They brought out the rather neo-classical feel of the opening material in the final rondo.  The whole sonata was given a serious and thoughtful performance which brought out its aura of melancholy.

They followed this with Schumann's oboe Romances in Zats's own edition for viola; in fact Schumann's original oboe part includes a note too low for the oboe. The transcription was highly convincing and worked well as a viola piece, though it is a shame that Zats and Dvorkin didn't give us Schumann's genuine works for viola and piano. The three movements are all wispy evanescence, with Zats giving us some lovely veiled tones and hints of fragmentary melodies. There was almost a ghost story to the final movement.

The second half opened with the continuation of the lecture with the movement of Romanticism from Germany to France. Where the movement in Germany had been highly literary, in France it was less connected to literature or philosophy. Like German Romanticism, in France there was a move away from Classicism, giving form to something formless. How do you structure a mass of fragments, leading to the influence of Goethe's Metamorphosis of a Leaf - organic growth.

Violist Iakov Zats has been expanding the viola repertoire, in addition to the Schumann Romances he has adapted Ysaye's cello sonata. Though the programme did not say so, I presume that he played his own adaptation of the Franck Violin Sonata. It worked remarkably well. Being as Zats' viola was light toned, the sound quality did not disturb the ear with the change from violin to viola.

The opening movement gave us a lovely singing tone with a good flexibly line over a highly mobile piano. The second movement saw some bravura piano playing from Dvorkin, complimented by Zats' impassioned viola. The third movement gave us a nicely impassioned recitative with a quite lovely lyrical section. The final movement surprised me, I expected to miss the violin more but Zats and Dvorkin gave us a nicely balanced performance which was complete in itself, full of Franck's distinctive Romanticism.

The audience reaction was enthusiastic and we were given two encores, including Turina's Sevilla, an beautiful combination of mournful fragments of melody and atmospheric harmonics.

I am pleased to say the Aspect Foundation will be continuing their Music in Context series. This recital and lecture provided an absorbing combination of music and information, helped of course by some very fine performances indeed from Zats and Dvorkin. In some ways I would have welcomed slightly more lecture, but the combination certainly a very neat idea.

The Death of Koschei the Deathless

Having written last week about Rimsky Korsakov's opera at Buxton, I was curious about Koschei/Kaschei. The character's first significant occurrence in English was in Andrew Lang's Red Fairy Book (which was the 2nd of his fairy books, a follow up to the Blue Fairy Books). Here he includes the tale of The Death of Koschei the Deathless; itself based on the Russian tale collected by Alexander Afanaseyev (1826 - 1871), who collected some 600 Russian folk-tales. The tale also occurs in Frazer's The Golden Bough.

Afanazeyev's collection was the first systematic attempt to record Russian folk culture; prior to his work dating from the 1850's, few efforts had been made to study folk culture. But Afanazeyev was not just interested in the folk tales themselves, he wanted to promote Russian culture and promote the Russian language above the French. Secular Russian literature only really started in the 18th and 19th centuries, so Afanazeyev's 8 volumes of folk-tales made a sizable contribution to the literature.  Like the Kallevala in Finland, these folk assemblages were part of the Nationalist movement whereby countries re-discovered their own literature and traditions in the face of external domination (in Finland it was Russian domination, in Russia it was the use of French by the aristocratic elite).

This movement would continue and develop, with folk museums and collections of traditional buildings being created. Into the 20th century this movement would continue to have political significance. In Helsinki the creation of the folk museum with its collection of traditional Finnish buildings, was part of a statement against the Russians and in the Baltic states in the Soviet era the folk movement was a serious force, with the folk museum in Tallinn suffering serious fires.

Afanazeyev's end was tragic, he died aged 45, destitute and forced to sell his library to eat. But his folk tales influenced many people. Rimsky Korsakov based at least 3 operas on them (Sadko, The Snow Maiden and Kaschei the Immortal) and Stravinsky used them for The Firebird and l'Histoire du Soldat.

Andrew Lang was a Scots poet and novelist who was intensely interested in folk-lore and folk-literature. His body of work includes translations of Homer as well as work's of Scottish Historical scholarship. He first published the Blue Fairy Book in 1889; in all there would be 12 fairy books published between 1889 and 1910 containing some 437 stories. Lang did not collect the stories, instead he selected them from collections created by people who had collected them (like Afanazeyev and Grimm). Though his name is on the books, it was in fact his wife and others who did the majority of the work translating and re-telling the stories.

Kaschei/Koschei's name in Slavic languages suggest that it might be derived from the word for bone, suggesting a skeletal appearance, though none of the surviving tales describes him. Typically he abducts the heroes wife and cannot be killed by ordinary means; his soul is kept separate from his body.

Rimsky-Korsakov's opera uses a libretto by the composer based on Afanazeyev's tale.

For Stravinsky's The Firebird, Alexandre Benois and Michael Fokine combined the tale of Kaschei with the separate tale of the Firebird. There is a suggestion that a popular verse for children by Yakov Polonsky (1819 - 1898) might have brought this about as Polonsky conflates the Firebird with a sorcerer-tsar (and Kaschei is often referred to as Tsar Kaschei). Polonsky's poems were set by many of the Russian 19th century composers and he provided the libretto for Vaukla the Smith which was eventually set by Tchaikovsky

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