Friday 28 February 2014

Tom Poster - In Dance and Song

Tom Poster: In Dance and Song: CHRCD075
In Dance and Song: Tom Poster: Champs Hill Records
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 27 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Imaginative dance and song inspired programme from pianist Tom Poster

This new disc from pianist Tom Poster on Champs Hill Records takes song and dance as its theme, with a selection of pieces with various links to the idea of song, dance or both. In his first solo recital disc Poster has made a thoughtful and imaginative selection, Gluck's blessed spirits give way to folk dances from Grieg and Bartok, with music by Schubert and Chopin which give sophisticated form to song and dance. Kurtag's almost aphoristic pieces lead to Ravel's dead infanta and his wonderful water sprite. Songs by Schumann are followed by Stravinsky's lively shrove-tide fair, with Gershwin bringing up the rear.

Aldeburgh Festival - 13 to 29 June 2014

Maggi Hambling The Scallop (2003) Aldeburgh beach.Photograph © Andrew Dunn
Maggi Hambling The Scallop (2003) Aldeburgh beach
Photograph © Andrew Dunn
Follow that! Artistic director Pierre-Laurent Aimard must have had something of a tough time preparing the 2014 Aldeburgh Festival. How do you follow the composer's centenary celebrations which included events like Peter Grimes on the Beach. But follow it Aimard has and the 2014 festival is not without interest with staged performances of Owen Wingrave plus an Aldeburgh version of Cage's Musicircus, a day devoted to the music of Tristan Murail, the Monteverdi Choir at 50 and of course the alumni of the 2013 Britten-Pears Young Artists Programme and Young Composers Programmes.

Mark Wigglesworth conducts and Neil Bartlett directs a new production of Owen Wingrave using David Matthews reduction for chamber orchestra. The cast includes the young baritone Ross Ramgobin in the title role, plus Susan Bullock as Miss Wingrave, Janis Kelly as Mrs Julian, Richard Berkeley-Steele as General Sir Philip Wingrave and Jonathan Summers as Spencer Coyle (performances from 13 June at Snape Maltings).  The is also an Owen Wingrave study day (17 June), plus a showing of the original BBC film of the opera (16 June). An exhibition at The Red House, The pity of war: Britten's pacifism also links to themes from the opera. Another film being shown is Derek Jarman's visual counterpoint to Britten's War Requiem (19 June), along with a 1964 BBC TV film of the work (26 June).

Thursday 27 February 2014

Monteverdi Choir 50th Birthday celebrations

John Eliot Gardiner in rehearsal ©Maciej Goździelewski
John Eliot Gardiner in rehearsal
©Maciej Goździelewski
50 years to the day, John Eliot Gardiner will be celebrating the inaugural concert of the Monteverdi Choir with a re-creation of the event with the same repertoire, Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610, in the same venue , the chapel of King's College, Cambridge and on the same day (5 March). There will even be some of the original performers in the ensemble. One difference of course is that the choir will be accompanied by the period instrument ensemble of the English Baroque Soloists rather than the mixed ancient and modern instruments that Gardiner used originally. The soloists are Silvia Frigato, Emanuela Galli, Nicholas Mulroy and Andrew Tortise.

During March the Monteverdi Choir will undertake a short anniversary tour, taking the Vespers to Spain and France. Further information from the Monteverdi Choir's website.

Widor Organ Symphonies volume 4

Widor Organ Symphonies vol4: Joseph Nolan: Signum Classics: SIGCD337
Widor Organ Symphonies no. 7 and 8: Joseph Nolan: The Cavaille-Coll Organ of La Madeleine, Paris
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 24 2014
Star rating: 3.5

Fine conclusion: Widor's last two organ symphonies as Joseph Nolan completes his set

This is the last in Joseph Nolan's set of the complete Organ Symphonies by Charles-Marie Widor recorded on the Cavaille-Coll Ogan of La Madeleine in Paris, issued on Signum Classics. These final two discs, volume four of the complete edition, cover Widor's final two symphonies Symphony No. 7, Op. 42 and Symphony No. 8, Op. 42. In these final two works, Widor's writing for the organ is very far from his original conception of the organ symphony as more of a suite of character pieces. The seventh and eight symphonies date from the period 1878 - 1889, the same era that would see Brahms's final symphonies, Bruckner's seventh and eighth and Saint-Saens' third. Widor's at times uncompromising works should be seen in parallel to these. (See my review of Nolan's previous volume in the set).

Wednesday 26 February 2014

Ligeti and more in Scotland

Tasmin Little - photo by Melanie Winning
Tasmin Little
photo Melanie Winning
Tasmin Little will be playing Ligeti's Violin Concerto in St Andrews, Edinburgh and Glasgow with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in a group of concerts conducted by Robin Ticciati (19, 20, 21 March). They are pairing the Ligeti with Slavonic Dances by Dvorak and a Haydn symphony. In an intelligently linked spring season, the orchestra is performing three programmes all linking the music of Haydn, Dvorak and Ligeti. 

Ticciati will also be conducting the orchestra in Ligeti's Melodien which is teamed up with another Haydn symphony and Dvorak's Cello Concerto with Steven Isserlis (27, 28, 29 March). The season starts next week with Richard Egarr directing the orchestra and providing the piano solo in Haydn's Piano Concerto in D Major, with music by Schubert and Mozart (5, 6, 7 March), and rather interestingly the brass players will be using natural horns and trumpets. There is also a chamber concert in Edinburgh with a chance to hear Zdenek Fibich's Quintet alongside music by Bartok and Janacek (23 March). Further information from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra's website.

Gyorgy Ligeti (1923 - 2006) originally wrote his Violin Concerto in 1990, but he made major revisions in 1992 and 1993. The final version was premiered by the dedicatee, Saschko Gawriloff, with the Ensemble intercontemporain conducted by Pierre Boulez. At the time, Ligeti was interested in alternative tunings, so one of the violins and a viola are tuned to the natural harmonics of the double bass. You can hear Tasmin Little playing the concerto at the Proms in 2003 with Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic on YouTube.

ISM's evening with Dame Felicity Lott

Dame Felicity Lott
The Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM) presented an evening with Dame Felicity Lott at the Forge in Camden (25 February 2014) in celebration of Felicity Lott's 40 years of membership of the ISM. The evening started with Felicity Lott and Joseph Middleton performing a group of song, and then Felicity Lott talked about her career in conversation with Edward Seckerson.

Felicity Lott and Joseph Middleton started their group of songs with Schumann's Widmung, in a highly communicative performance which was emphasised by the intimate nature of the venue; you felt as if Lott was singing to you personally. Frank Bridge's Go not, happy day combined a lovely rippling piano from Middleton, with some rather jazzy rhythmic undertow, and a lovely flowing melody from Lott.  Britten's Fancie was vividly intent. Reynaldo Hahn's A Chloris was magical, with Lott giving a lovely sense of shape to the vocal line and making it seem deceptively easy. Richard Strauss's Morgen followed, with a flexibly expressive performance and a beautiful thread of voice. Finally, Francis Poulenc's delightful Chemins de l'Amour where Lott and Middleton's light touch still conveyed the sadness underneath. Finally, a delightful performance of Noel Coward's If Love Were All.

In memory of Alice Herz-Sommer

Alice Herz-Sommer died earlier this week (23 February 2014) at the age of 110. An amazing woman whose life stretched from life in Prague as a concert pianist, knowing Gustav Mahler and Franz Kafka, through Nazi persecution and life in Terezin concentration camp including playing the piano for the camp commandant, to a remarkable survivor whose life is a testament to the inspiring power of music. 

Her story was commemorated in Malcolm Clarke's film The Lady in No 6: Music Saved My Life.

Every colour in the paint box - an encounter with John Metcalf

John Metcalf
John Metcalf
The 2014 Vale of Glamorgan Festival opens on 8 May and I caught up with the festival's founder and artistic director John Metcalf to talk about the festival and his rather distinctive approach to programming. A composer himself as well as being a former artistic director of the Banff Centre in Canada, Metcalf has devoted the Vale of Glamorgan Festival exclusively to contemporary music. He programmes only works by living composers (the 2014 festival's emphasis on the music of John Tavener being something of a special exception), with many works receiving performances after being consigned to the limbo into which works disappear following their first performance.

Quatuor Tana - photo Vincent Beaume
Quatuor Tana, who appear at this year's festival
photo Vincent Beaume
When John Metcalf founded the Vale of Glamorgan Festival in 1969 it was an innovative festival which pioneered such things as concerts in private houses and music sponsorship. They also did pioneering work in new music, programming pieces by Henze and Ferneyhough, but not exclusively so. Between 1986 and 1991 John was in Canada, as artistic director of the Banff Centre. When he returned to Wales he was asked to take up the active reins of the festival again. His response was that he would if he could devote the festival to just contemporary music. And that is what has happened.

John talks about longevity being important in new music, saying you cannot build an audience in three years. His devoting the Vale of Glamorgan Festival entirely to new music was partly a response to what he calls the ruses audiences use to avoid the new music elements in mixed programmes. If you attend the festival you cannot avoid new music, and John describes the decision as very liberating. Whilst he admits it has not been easy, audiences know what the festival stands for and they come for that.

Tuesday 25 February 2014

The synthesizer is a strange animal - thoughts from synth player Simon Smith

Red Note Ensemble
Red Note Ensemble, with whom
Simon Smith will be playing
synth on 3 March

For a composer the synthesizer is a strange animal. One perfectly valid option is to treat it is an electronic keyboard or stage piano and write a more or less standard keyboard part for it. But at the other end of the spectrum one can treat the instrument instead quite abstractly as a programmable system which can produce sounds and modify them in arbitrary ways in real time.

There are two main parts to this. The first is sound synthesis, where timbres are created or modified. Any synthesizer will come with a large number of installed sounds; these can be modified at will, or new ones can be created either by layering different combinations of predefined sounds, or literally building them up from scratch using sine or saw waves and filters, or using sampled sounds. This is an art form in itself and I don't pretend to be anything more than a naive dabbler.

The Hilliards in Southwark

Hilliard Ensemble - photo Marco BorgreveAs part of their 40th anniversary year celebrations (and final tour before retiring), the Hilliard Ensemble will be in Southwark Cathedral on 27 March 2014. Joined by the City of London Sinfonia and the Holst Singers they will be performing music by Arvo Part and Gavin Bryars. Arvo Part's Litany was recorded by the Hilliard Ensemble in 1994, in Southwark they will perform it with the Holst Singers. Gavin Bryar's Voice of St Columba was written for four voices and string orchestra, setting two texts by the Saint. The Hilliard Ensemble premiered it in Oslo last year and will perform it in Southwark with the City of London Sinfonia. Further information from the City of London Sinfonia website.

Outside of London, the Hilliards are also busy. They are in Villeurbanne, France from 6-8 March, in I went to the house but did not enter, a staged concert by Heiner Goebbels created for them in 2008 at the Edinburgh Festival in which Goebbels sets texts by T.S. Eliot, Maurice Blanchot, Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett. They are then reprising Officium their collaboration with Jan Garbarek in Glasgow and Aberdeen (14, 15 March). Finally they are at Opera North's Howard Assembly Room in Leeds singing French and English song from the 13th to 15th centuries. Further information from the Hilliard Ensemble website.

Fallen women: Manon Lescaut

Gwynne Hughes Jones, Chiara Taigi in Welsh National Opera's Manon Lescaut - photo Johan Perssonj
Gwynne Hughes Jones &
Chiara Taigi
Photo: Johan Persson
Puccini Manon Lescaut: Chiara Taigi, Gwyn Hughes Jones, Welsh National Opera, Lothar Koenigs: Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on Feb 22 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Thought provoking and disturbing new production of Puccini's early opera

This version of Manon Lescaut by Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) at the WNO in Cardiff was part of a series looking at fallen women. With the tag line ‘Who will you fall for?’ Manon, directed by Mariusz Trelinski , investigates the motives of fallen women. Manon was a powerful exploration into the question of whether these women are victims of society or have chosen an alternative path for a successful and pleasant life?

Originally banned when it was first published in 1731, Manon Lescaut (L'Histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut) by Abbé Prévost was the last of the seven stories: Memories and Adventures of a Man of Quality Who Has Retired from the World. This final book is about a young man of fortune who runs away with a courtesan, only for them both to be destroyed as a result of her prostitution. Throughout the book Manon is viewed through the eyes of the men who desire her, so we can never know her thoughts and feelings about her life choices or their outcomes.

Monday 24 February 2014

Twisted Skyscape appeal

Twisted Skyscape
Twisted Skyscape is the name of a project being developed by conductor Shea Lolin, who plans to record a disc of contemporary music for woodwind ensemble. Lolin and the composer/producer Colin Hussey plan to record the disc with musicians from the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in March 2014. 

It will be a rare outing of an entire disc of music devoted to the relatively rare woodwind ensemble (4 flutes, 2 oboes, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabass bassoon, 2 alto saxophones, tenor saxophone and baritone saxophone), and they will be playing music by Philip Sparke (born 1951), Gary Carpenter (born 1951), Christopher Hussey (born 1974) and Adam Gorb (born 1958), all but one of the five works will be being recorded for the first time. The disc is being released on the Legni Classics label.

In order to make the project go ahead, they are appealing for funds via Indiegogo. Do visit their project page, where you can get a sample of the delights that the disc will offer.

Alastair Miles - Lieder by Wolf and Brahms

Lieder by Wolf and Brahms - Alastiar Miles, Marie-Noelle Kendall - SIGCD0369
Lieder by Wolf & Brahms: Alistair Miles and Marie Noelle Kendall: Signum Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 9 2014
Star rating: 5.0

Drama & intensity on this disc of serious songs from bass Alistair Miles

This new disc on Signum Classics from bass Alistair Miles and pianist Marie-Noelle Kendall pairs songs by Johannes Brahms with songs by Hugo Wolf. The recital ends with Wolf's Drei Gedichte von Michelangelo and Brahms's Vier ernste Gesange, Op.121 and starts with three of Wolf's Goethe settings. In the middle are a further five Brahms songs; the programme is held together by the way both composers used the baritone or bass voice to explore the more serious complex thoughts and meditations on life and God.

For a disc with such an unassuming title, Lieder by Wolf and Brahms, things starts with a bang. Hugo Wolf's Prometheus is a huge piece which almost breaks the bounds of the lied form. It is a setting of a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 - 1832) which deals with the demi-god Prometheus's exultation at his own achievements. The CD booklet rightly refers to the song as 'These testosterone-driven 174 bars'. After a big dramatic piano introduction from Marie-Noelle Kendall, Alistair Miles comes on with vividly dramatic declamation to match, the result is almost operatic. When things quieten down Miles gives us a superb combination of full voice and text, throughout the disc his diction is admirably vivid and it is clear that for all the power of his voice, for Miles performing these songs is as much about the text. The result, in Prometheus is a big-boned, vibrant tour de force.

Wigmore Hall summer 14 - a garden of delights

The Wigmore Hall summer programme, running from April to July 2014, is a veritable garden of delights with performers such as Sarah Connolly, Christiane Karg, Dorothea Roschman, Lucy Crow and Anne Sofie von Otter giving recitals, and that's just the female singers. The programme has a remarkable depth to it with major period instrument groups such as Les Talens Lyriques, Florilegium and Classical Opera, alongside the Ensemble intercontemperain and BCMG, as well as the Kings Consort performing Britten and Finzi on gut strings. Premieres include music by Harrison Birtwistle, Einojuhani Rautavaara, Brett Dean and Julian Anderson.

Soprano Christiane Karg performs Schoeck, Wolf, Debussy, Schoenberg and Strauss with Malcolm Martineau (6/4). Karg returnes in July with Wolfram Rieger for a programme of Wolf, Falla, Duparc, Ravel Hahn, Koechlin and Poulenc (12/6). Rising star mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught makes her Wigmore Hall debut in a programme of Brahms, Dvorak, Haydn, Wolf and Britten accompanied by Henning Ruhe (13/4). Sarah Connolly and Henk Neven are accompanied by Malcolm Martineau in a programme of Duparc as part of the Songlives series (23/4), and Connolly returns with Julius Drake in English song from Purcell and Dowland to Britten and R.R.Bennett, with some Tippett, Elgar and Stanford on the way. Who else would programme Tippett's Songs for Ariel alongside Elgar's Sea Pictures and Stanford's Belle Dame Sans Merci! (14/5).

Sunday 23 February 2014

A film, an award and Tasmin Little - Sistema England news

In Harmony Opera North has won the Best Classical Music Education Initiative award - photo Sistema England
In Harmony Opera North
A lovely new film has been released by Sistema England, talking about why they support the In Harmony Lambeth project. (You can see the video at the end of this article after the break). The film talks to people involved with the project including founder Julian Lloyd Webber, along with students and pupils as well as eavesdropping on rehearsals. Another initiative, In Harmony Opera North based in Leeds, has won 'Best Classical Music Education Initiative' at the Music Teacher Awards for Excellence

And in Norwich on 28 February, violinist Tasmin Little will be giving workshops to one of Sistema in Norwich's participant schools as well as giving a recital in the evening in support of Sistema in Norwich. The concert is being held at the John Innes Centre in Norwich from 7pm on Friday 28 February 2014. Tickets are available from Prelude Records, 25b St Giles St, Norwich NR2 1JN Tel:01603 628319. Tickets are priced at £15 with complimentary glass of wine. All proceeds will go to Sistema in Norwich.

Saturday 22 February 2014

Reduced size piano keyboards in Dallas

I have to confess that, until the press release from the DCS International Piano Competition dropped into my inbox, I had never heard of reduced size keyboards. The competition takes place in Dallas from 13 to 15 March 2014, and this year will be offering competitors the ability to play on Steinbuhler and Company's reduced size keyboards, the first time an international piano competition has done so. Competition and Masterclass participants will have the option of performing on concert grand pianos fitted with any one of the three standard keyboard sizes, make it possible for pianists with smaller hand spans to perform repertoire that on the modern piano is quite difficult – for many impossible.

Steinbuhler started making reduced size keyboards in the 1990's. These fit on standard pianos but give the pianist with small hands greater performance possibilities. The company makes keyboards which can be interchanged with standard ones on concert grands, thus offering a range of potential possibilities. Like many such technological innovations and rational instruments, whether it proves of sufficient benefit is dependent on sufficient people taking it up. The history of western classical music is littered with improved instruments which never gained common currency. There is a lot more information and videos at the Steinbuhler website.

The DCS International Piano Competition runs annually in Dallas; winners of the competition enjoy widespread recognition, publicity, a professional performance opportunity with the Dallas Chamber Symphony, and a recital at the Meadows School of the Arts.

Pop-up Opera's little miracle

Pop-up Opera - Doctor Miracle
Pop-up Opera, the company which specialises in performing opera in all sorts of unusual spaces, is popping up again with performances of Bizet's Doctor Miracle. Written when the composer was 18, Bizet won a competition organised by Offenbach. For their performances Pop-up Opera has extended the piece slightly, with music from Bizet's La jolie fille de Perth and Carmen. Directed by Darren Royston, with musical director Maria Garzon, the result should be a fizzing evening of commedia dell'arte fun, at least judging from previous performances. The run starts at the Bull in Highgate on 4 March and finishes on 3 May at the Notting Hill Mayfest. Along the way they manage to take in a tunnel under the Thames, a couple of barns, a winery and the Minack Theatre in Cornwall. See their website for full details.

Rachmaninov - All Night Vigil (Vespers)

Rachmaninov Vespers - Joyful Company of Singers
Rachmaninov Vespers: The Joyful Company of Singers, Peter Broadbent: Nimbus Alliance
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 18 2014
Star rating: 3.5

A fine achievement, from one of our leading non-professional choirs

This new disc from the Peter Broadbent and the Joyful Company of Singers presents Rachmaninov's All Night Vigil (Vespers) Op. 37 in a bright and flexible new recording, with soloists Lorna Perry and Andrew Shepstone, on the Nimbus Alliance lable. The choir pairs the work with Rachmaninov's early O mother of God vigilantly praying.

It was, I think, the choir of King's College Cambridge which first broke the mould with recordings of Rachmaninov's All Night Vigil (Vespers), showing that there was another way of performing the work. Such performances tend to be lighter, brighter with a transparency of texture and clarity of line, building on a rather different choral tradition. Typically Western European choirs sing the work with a clearer purer tone than the richly vibrant Slavic tradition. But it is not just a question of vibrato and timbre, though that is important. British performers tend to sing Russian vowels far more forward than their Slav counterparts. Partly this is an issue of physiology, the dropping of the jaw and the rear placement of vowel has a tendency to make choirs go flat, so the prevailing sound is a more bright, forward one.

Friday 21 February 2014

Happening at the Barbican: Circa and the Debussy String Quartet

Circa and Debussy String Quartet in Opus - Photo credit: Justin Nicholas
Circa and Debussy String Quartet in Opus
Photo credit: Justin Nicholas
Opus: Circa and Debussy String Quartet Quartet: Barbican Theatre
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on Feb 18 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Circus and Shostakovich string quartets combine a remarkable theatrical circus.

Bound together by a love of Shostakovich, the resulting collaboration between the Australian circus/contemporary dance group Circa and the Debussy String Quartet from France, brought Opus at the Barbican Theatre to life. All the performers, whether dancing or playing, were on stage and took part in the event. More than just background the music and musicians were integral to the look and feel of the dance. And what a dance! More vaudeville than ballet, and more acrobatic than contemporary dance, these 14 dancers brought circus skills to a new level of artistry.

The Debussy String Quartet, Christophe Collette and Marc Vieillefon on violin, Vincent Deprecq on viola, and Fabrice Bihan on cello, met while studying at the Conservatoire de Lyon, France, and have been playing together since 1990. In 1993 they won the Evian International String Quartet Competition and in 1999 they founded ‘Les Cordes en Ballade’ a summer chamber music festival and school in the South of France at which they teach and perform. They became interested in dance and have worked with Circa since 2013 and are also currently collaborating with the contemporary dance group Compagnie Käfig.

Hands across the Atlantic - 2014-15 in Houston

Houston Grand Opera
The 2014-15 season announcement from Houston Grand Opera (HGO) has some notable events for those of us watchers the other side of the Atlantic. They will be giving the North American premiere of La Fura dels Baus's production of Die Walkure as part of HGO's new Ring cycle based on the cycle originally produced by the Catalan company in Spain. Iain Paterson will be returning as Wotan, with Christine Goerke giving her first stage performances as Brunnhilde, plus Simon O'Neill and Karita Mattila as the twins, whilst this year's Cardiff Singer of the World winner Jamie Barton is Fricka. 

In an intriguing piece of casting linking Wagner and Sondheim (!), Lee Blakely's production of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, originally seen in Paris, makes its Houston debut with Susan Bullock (the Brunnhilde from the recent Covent Garden Ring cycle) as Mrs Lovett, whilst Nathan Gunn performs the title role.  Nicholas Hyntner's production of The Magic Flute, which English National Opera recently said goodbye to, also makes its Houston debut, whilst Michael Grandage returns to revive his production of Madama Butterfly with Ana Maria Martinez in the title role.

Full information from the Houston Grand Opera website.

RIgoletto - second view

ENO Rigoletto 2014 Quinn Kelsey (c) Alastair Muir
Quinn Kelsey
ENO Rigoletto (c) Alastair Muir
For the second time this season English National Opera have replaced a long-running, favourite production. Earlier this season it was The Magic Flute and now Christopher Alden's production of Verdi's Rigoletto (a co-production with Canadian Opera) has come to rest at the London Coliseum to replace the influential, long-running Jonathan Miller production. We caught the second night of the production's run on February 15th to give a second view to the production (see Hilary's review of the first night).

Where Miller set the opera in New York's Little Italy in a very precise historical period, Alden's new production has a more generic setting within which Alden explores the themes of the opera; this is rather a dark production. Following on from a very well cast La Traviata, ENO have again scored with the very fine cast fielded for Rigoletto with Quinn Kelsey in the title role, Barry Banks as the Duke of Manuta and Anna Christy as Gilda, with Graeme Jenkins conducting.

Alden and his designer Michael Levine set the opera in a huge wood-paneled room much akin to a London club. Costumes are mid 19th century, tail-coats for the men and crinolines for the women, and the opening scene takes place in the context of the club. The remaining scenes are in the same set, Alden and Levine are not interested in historical realism here, simply the interaction of the characters. The large space (and it is large, extending the full width and depth of the Coliseum stage) meant that Alden could have characters sitting on the sides watching. My only complaint was the need to use a drop curtain for scene changes, as much furniture is moved between scenes, you can't help feeling that something more slick could be organised.

Thursday 20 February 2014

Charming revival - Britten's Paul Bunyan

ETO's Paul Bunyan - © Richard Hubert Smith,
© Richard Hubert Smith,
Britten - Paul Bunyan: English Touring Opera, Philip Sunderland: Linbury Studio Theatre
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 19 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Liam Steel's production of Britten's first opera delights and charms

Britten's Paul Bunyan has had a surprising amount of currency during the centenary year, though the previous two productions were centred on young singers (WNO Youth Opera and British Youth Opera). English Touring Opera's new production was a welcome chance to hear maturer voices, in Liam Steel's engaging production, designed by Anna Fleischle. Britten and Auden's operetta was originally written for student performance and so has a large cast, which forms quite a challenge for a touring company like ETO. But one to which they rose magnificently. Many of the singers are appearing in more than one opera, so you can hear Wyn Pencarreg both as Britten's Hel Helson and Mozart's Papageno, whilst Ashley Catling doubles as Hot Biscuit Slim and Tamino, Adrian Dwyer is singing the role of Johnny Inkslinger for the second half of the run along with Hermes in King Priam and Piotr Lempa who plays Ben Benny, is also Patroclus in King Priam and i sharing the roles of Sarastro and the Speaker in The Magic Flute.

Last night (19 February) at the Linbury Studio Theatre, I heard Mark Wilde as Johnny Inkslinger and the Lead Balladeer, with Wyn Pencarreg as Hel Helson, Caryl Hughes as Tiny, Ashley Catling as Hot Biscuit Slim, Stuart Haycock as Sam Sharkey and Andy Anderson, Piotr Lempa as Ben Benny, Abigail Kelly as Fido, Amy J Payne as Moppet, Emma Watkinson as Poppet, Matt R J Ward as Western Union Boy, Adam Tunnicliffe as John Shears, Matthew Sprange as Cross Crosshaulson, and Maciek O'Shea as Jen Jenson, with Johnn Herford, Simon Gfeller, Henry Manning, Hannah Sawle, Lorna Bridge, Anabel Mountford, Helen Johnson, Susan Moore and Emily-Jane Thomas. Philip Sunderland conducted.

Thea Musgrave: Total Immersion

Thea Musgrave - Photo credit: Bryan Sheffield
Thea Musgrave
Photo credit: Bryan Sheffield
Thea Musgrave - Total Immersion: Barbican Centre
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on Feb 15 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Latest BBC/Barbican Total Immersion event with a day of music by one of our great female composers

Thea Musgrave (1928-), one of our great female composers, is often overlooked. In fact when it came down to my research for this blog post my selection of text books let me down completely. My 2004 edition of Oxford Dictionary of Music lists eight operas (missing out Pontalba (2003) and Bolivar and his Generals (2013)), three ballets and numerous works for voice, chamber and full orchestra. There is a fuller list here from her publisher.

Her compositional technique is listed as developing from diatonicism through chromatic and serialism to a ‘mature style capable of rich expressiveness’ and ‘a robust and luxuriant lyricism’. Artists describe her music as ‘charming and winsome’. With performances by students from the Guildhall School of Music, BBC Singers, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Total Immersion at the Barbican Centre gave audiences a chance to hear this progress with a day of concerts of her music encompassing 1966 - 2009.

Thea was born in 1928 in Edinburgh and studied first Medicine and then Music at the University of Edinburgh before moving to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger. In 1958 she studied with Aaron Copland before becoming a lecturer at the University of London. In 1971 she moved to the United States, where she met and married Peter Mark violist and Artistic Director and conductor of the Virginia Opera, and has remained ever since.

Wednesday 19 February 2014

Supporting composers, JAM perform Mealor and more

JAM - March 20 - St Bride's Church
JAM (the John Armitage Memorial) continues its commitment to contemporary composers when it returns to London with a performance of Paul Mealor's oratorio The Farthest Shore which is being performed alongside music by Phillip Cooke and a group of new pieces from JAM's most recent Call for Music. The five composers involved, Michael Bonaventure, William Cole, Will Handysides, Daniel Saleeb and Benjamin Woodgates all submit music to JAM in response to their call. The works will be performed on 20 March 2014 at St Bride's Church, Fleet Street by the Chapel Choir of Selwyn College, (Cambridge), Ely Cathedral Girls' Choir, Cumnor House Boys' Choir, Claire Seaton (soprano), Aidan Smith, (baritone), Onyx Brass and Simon Hogan (organ), conducted by Nicholas Cleobury. 

Paul Mealor - The Farthest ShoreEach year JAM invites composers to submit works to the Call for Music and performs a selection of the works during the year. JAM is remarkably faithful to its composers. Paul Mealor submitted to JAM's Call for Music in 2002 and 2004, JAM commissioned him when they performed As Sleeps the Crimson Petal on its Scottish tour in 2010. It one of these performances, heard by the Duchess of Cambridge, which led to Mealor's commission Ubi Caritas for the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Mealor's The Farthest Shore, a remarkable dramatic oratorio compressed into 40 minutes was premiered by JAM last year. The work uses the full range of spaces available in St Bride's Church (see my review of last year's performance)

Phillip Cooke submitted work to JAM's Call for Music in 2010. His Invocation was performed in 2010 and on tour to Scotland in 2011. Cooke, now working alongside Mealor at Aberdeen University, had The Hazel Wood commissioned by JAM for its 2013 Scottish tour. The work features on the new CD of Cooke's music recorded by the Choir of Selwyn College and Onyx Brass, conducted by Sarah Macdonald. The Hazel Wood will be receiving its English premiere at the concert on 20 March 2014 in St. Bride's Church.

Further information from the JAM website.

Cantus Cölln at the Wigmore Hall

Cantus Cölln and Konrad Junghänel - photo Wolf Nolting
Cantus Cölln and Konrad Junghänel
photo Wolf Nolting
Cantus Cölln and Konrad Junghänel: The Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 18 2014
Star rating: 3.5

All Bach programme for the German vocal ensemble's Wigmore Hall debut

Cantus Cölln and Konrad Junghänel were amazingly making their Wigmore Hall debut at their concert on 18 February 2014. Their programme, Jesu meine Freude - Motets and early cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach, presented Bach's motets Jesu meine Freude and Lobet den Herrn alle Heiden alongside three early cantatas Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen BWV 12, Gleichwie der Regen und Schnee BWV 18 and Christ lag in Todesbanden BWV 4. All performed with one singer per part accompanied by a small instrumental ensemble, with the motets also having string and continuo accompaniment.

The ensemble performed with two violins, two violas, cello, double bass, oboe and bassoon along with organ. The upper strings and oboe were lined up stage right, with the four singers in a symmetrical position stage left, in the middle were the continuo instruments of organ, cello, bass and bassoon, plus a trumpeter in the balcony for one cantata. The singers were Magdalene Harer and Mechthild Bach (soprano), Elisabeth Popien (alto), Hans Jorg Mammel (tenor) and Wolf Matthias Friedrich (bass). The players were Ute Hartwich, Katharina Spreckelsen, Adrian Rovatkay, Ulla Bundies, Anetta Sichelschmidt, Friederike Kremers, Volke Hagendorn, Albert Bruggen, Matthia Muller and Carsten Lohff, all conducted by Konrad Junghänel

The same

A powerful performance: Rigoletto at the ENO

Verdi - Rigolette: ENO at the London Coliseum
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on Feb 13 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Powerful performances in Christopher Alden's new production of Rigoletto at the Coliseum

Quinn Kelsey and Anna Christy in Christopher Alden's production of Verdi's Rigoletto - ENO - Photo credit Alistair Muir
Quinn Kelsey and Anna Christy
Photo Credit: Alistair Muir
Powerful performances by Quinn Kelsey as Rigoletto and Anna Christy as Gilda made this version of Verdi’s Rigoletto a pleasure to watch. Directed by Christopher Alden and conducted by Graeme Jenkins, formerly with Dallas Opera, Rigoletto was set for the most part in a sumptuous 19th century gentleman’s club.

A play with a notorious history at the time Rigoletto has a lot to live up to with modern audiences. Verdi based Rigoletto on the story ‘Le Roi s’amuse’ written in 1832 by Victor Hugo (1802-1885). The play is ostensibly about the 16th century King Fancis I of France who was a great patron of the arts and is probably most famous for his role in standardising the French language and in the Italian Wars (1494-1559). He is known to have kept mistresses as well as two wives, and has been portrayed as a womaniser albeit a chivalrous one. However the play was closed after its premier because it was thought to contain insulting references about King Louis-Philippe (1773-1850). After a lengthy court battle, which Hugo lost, the play was banned for fifty years.

In 1850 when Verdi was writing Rigoletto for La Fenice opera house in Venice the fuss had not died down. Hugo’s play was still censored and it took some sleight of hand including changing the setting of the play from France to Mantua in Italy, deleting or altering the most sexually risqué scenes, and changing the names of the characters, to get the Austrian censors to allow it to be performed. Premiered in 1851, Rigoletto was a sell out success especially the catchy and popular aria ‘La donna è mobile’ sung by the Duke of Mantua.

Tuesday 18 February 2014

The Lottery - ballad opera revived

Henry Fielding
Henry Fielding
Henry Fielding (1707 - 1754) is best known today as a the author of the novel Tom Jones but Fielding also wrote 11 ballad operas. Ballad opera was the most popular form of musical entertainment in 18th century England, mixing witty, satirical and subversive plots with popular music lifted from operas, pantomimes and ballads. Fielding's ballad opera The Lottery is being given its modern premiere on 28 February 2014 by Bury Court Opera, with L'Avventura London under music director Zak Ozmo and stage director Harry Fehr.

The Lottery was a smash hit in its day and when the period instrument group L'Avventura London put on a concert performance of music from ballad operas in 2013, it was received enthusiastically. The Lottery tells the tale of a beautiful but foolish country girl who is seduced by the bright lights of London, defrauded by a crooked stockbroker and taken in by a confidence trickster. The subject was probably close to Fielding's heart as his family were almost bankrupted by a dishonest stock-broker.

Brighton Early Music Festival

Brighton Early Music Festival 2014The Brighton Early Music Festival has announced preliminary details of their 2014 festival. Running from 24 October to 9 November 2014 the festival will take as its them Cities: Musical centres and the journeys between them. The cities to be featured include Warsaw, Venice, Leipzig, Paris and Rome, and the programme will also include some extraordinary journeys and pilgrimages (plus a very long dance). The Sixteen will be performing a Polish programme and La Serenisssima open things with some Venetian festivities. As ever things are dependent on funding, so we must hope that all goes to plan.

For those who don't want to wait that long, the BREMF Consort of Voices, directed by Deborah Roberts, has a concert on 1 March 2014 at St Paul's Church, West Street, Brighton BN1 2RE. Entitled Salve! Gaude! it is a programme of large-scale music by Thomas Tallis and William Byrd, plus works from the Eton Choirbook by John Browne, William Cornysh and Robert Fayrfax, interspersed with secular songs from the period, ending with the glorious and monumental Vox Patris Caelestis by William Mundy. Further information and tickets from the BREMF website.

Monday 17 February 2014

Clarion Call - music for octet and septet

Clarion Call - Resonus 10127
Clarion Call - music for septet and octet: Berkeley Ensemble: Resonus Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 17 2014
Star rating: 3.5

Three world premieres on an enterprising disc of British music from the last 150 years

This new disc showcases 20th and 21st century works for octet and septet by Michael Berkeley, Howard Ferguson, John Casken and Charles Wood, performed by the a young group the Berkeley Ensemble - Kathryn Riley and Sophie Mather, violins, Dan Shilladay, viola, Gemma Wareham, cello, Lachlan Radford, double bass, John Slack, clarinet, Andrew Watson, bassoon, Paul Cott, horn. Three of the works on the disc are world premiere recordings. The disc is available for download only from Resonus Classics.

The works on this disc show the long reach of Beethoven's Septet and Schubert's Octet partly through the influence of the works themselves and the sheer idea of a mixed instrument ensemble of seven or eight players, and partly though the instrumentation with works being written to match Beethoven or Schubert's scoring, thus automatically giving the new work something of a ready made audience. Beethoven used an orchestration of violin, viola, cello, bass, clarinet, bassoon and horn to which Schubert added a second violin part. But more than the instrumentation, Beethoven and Schubert's works established the idea of such a large chamber group, making them a standard for composers to measure themselves against.

Cello music in Dulwich

Philip Higham - photo Kaupo Kikkas
There is a chance to hear music in the lovely confines of Dulwich Picture Gallery, when the cellist Philip Higham gives a concert there on Wednesday 26 February 2014. The concert takes place in the gallery so you get chance to hear Higham performing Bach's Cello Suites nos. 1 & 2, and Britten's Suite no. 2 surrounded by the Gainsborough portraits of the Linley family and other superb pictures. 

In 2013, young British cellist Philip Higham made his debuts with the Philharmonia Orchestra, the Halle, the Northern Sinfonia and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra as well as giving a recital at the Wigmore Hall. He currently plays on a 1730 Tecchler cello. Further information from the Dulwich Picture Gallery website.

A community centre with concert hall attached

Foxtrotting in the Royal Festival Hall
Could someone please explain to me what the Royal Festival Hall foyers are for? If you wander about the foyers at anytime they are usually full of people; but few, if any, are there for a concert or performance. Most seem to be simply hang out, sitting with their coffees, chatting and surfing. The RFH foyers seem to have been turned into a giant version of Starbucks.

I can just about understand the need for the vast array of restaurants sitting underneath the hall. They do bring in some sort of income to the South Bank Centre (at least I hope they do), but the crowds attending them do rather make it unpleasant when actually attending concerts. What, however, does the opening up of the foyers, bars and meeting rooms bring? I'm sure coffee sales doesn't bring in a mint - mind you, woe betide you if you actually do want a quiet cup of coffee. The service in the coffee shop is admirably efficient, but there is rarely anywhere to sit.

Sunday 16 February 2014

Rossini lecture for Divas and Scholars

Tenor Giovanni David
The tenor Giovanni David who performed
in 6 of Rossini's operas

On 27 February 2014 I will be lecturing on Rossini's sequence of opera serias written for Naples. The lecture is part of the Divas and Scholars study day on Rossini at the Cadogan Hall.

Besides my lecture, Richard Peirson from the English National Opera will talk about The Barber of Seville as well as his long career working behind the scenes as a repetiteur/opera coach. He will work with opera singers Adrian Powter and Jessica Eccleston on Rossini repertoire. The two singers will perform arias such as the favourite Una voce poco fa. Pianist, Christian Dawson will examine Rossini's life with piano illustrations. My own lecture will look at the nine operas Rossini wrote for Naples, including Otello and Ermione, illustrating them with recorded examples. You also get lunch!

If you don't fancy a full day, then Divas and Scholars are also running a series of evening lectures, on the History of Opera. And if you do fancy a full day, then in addition to the Rossini day there is a Donizetti day on 13 March which will include a masterclass from Nelly Miricioiu.

Further information from the Divas and Scholars website

2014 Opera Awards finalists

The Opera Awards
This year's Opera Awards takes place on 7 April 2014 at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London, following on from last year's debut from the awards. The finalists in the 19 categories have now been announced and one of the delights of such lists is being able to go through the selections and see if your ideas match those of the judges.

There is a special section, Anniversary Production, covering new productions for the 2013 centenarians, Britten, Wagner and Verdi. The Britten productions include Aldeburgh's Peter Grimes on the Beach as well as the Hamburg/ROH Gloriana (filed under Hamburg where the title role was sung by Amanda Roocroft) and A Midsummer Night's Dream from Rio di Janeiro (which sounded as if it was fabulous).  Verdi includes the ROH Les Vepres Siciliennes (notable, but was that really the best Verdi we had to offer?), the Hamburg Verdi trilogy whilst the Melbourne Ring is the only complete Ring in the Wagner section, plus Parsifal from the Met and Flanders. Frankly, whilst there is a lot of interesting and notable work, its a bit depressing; are these really the best centenary opera productions. Perhaps the category ought to have included revivals as well.

Saturday 15 February 2014

Arvo Part - Pilgrim's Song from Voces Musicales

Arvo Part: Pilgrim's Song : ERP2309
Arvo Part - Pilgrim's Song: Voces Musicales, Tallinn Sinfonietta, Risto Joost: ERP
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 7 2014
Star rating: 5.0
Control & flexibility: This disc of Estonian forces performing music by one of Estonia's greatest composers is certainly work seeking out.

This 2009 disc from ERP features the chamber choir Voces Musicales and the Tallin Sinfonietta (now known as the Glasperlenspiel Sinfonietta), conducted by Risto Joost in a selection of Arvo Part's settings of sacred texts for choir and orchestra starting with Ein Wallfahrtslied setting Psalm 12, Magnificat, Summa, Nunc Dimittis and Te Deum. The disc was the choir's first disc and in it they showcase their superb technique.

Ein Wallfahrtslied (Pilgrim's Song) was originally written in 1984 for tenor, baritone and string orchestra with the version for male choir and string orchestra written in 1984. The piece was composed in memory of the composer's frend, film director Grigori Kromanov. The work has the male chorus singing the text effectively on a monotone, around which the strings place atmospheric accompaniments. I have to admit that it sounds the least like Arvo Part of any of the works of his, it has a certain central European feel to the string writing without the tintinabuli technique for which the composer is famous. The result is atmospheric and highly effective. The performance, particularly from the choir, is beautifully controlled and restrained allowing the strings to move around them.

Wigmore Hall 2014-15 season

Wigmore Hall 2014/15 season
The Wigmore Hall's 2014/15 season has been announced and there are some very tempting offerings. With the announcement of the hall reaching the first stage of its endowment appeal, it is clear that some impressive investment has gone into the programme Joyce DiDonato and Antonio Pappano launch the season and other highlights include a series devoted to the music of Purcell and to Robert Fayrfax as well as Mozart's chamber music. There is an increase in artist residences and multi-concert focus series, but still some impressive solo recitals. Major names include Maria Joao Pires, Paul Lewis, the Pavel Haas Quartet, Florian Boesch, Wolfgang Rihm, Ensemble Modern and the Cardinall's Musick. (A video of John Gilhooly's speech launching the season follows after the break.)

Joyce DiDonato and Antonio Pappano open the season with a pair of concerts combining Haydn, Bellini and Donizetti with songs from the Great American Songbook. Another highlight must surely be Sir Thomas Allen's 70th birthday celebration.

Henry Purcell: A Retrospective encompasses a series of concerts celebrating the composer with performers such as The Sixteen, the English Concert, the Gabrieli Consort, the Early Opera Company, Carolyn Sampson, and Trevor Pinnock.

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