Friday 31 July 2015

160 young musicians take to the road again this summer

National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain
The National Youth Orchestra(NYO) of Great Britain is embarking on an ambitious tour this August when, conducted by Sir Mark Elder, they will perform a programme which combines Mahler's Symphony No. 9 with the premiere of Tansy Davies' Re-greening. Performances take place at Snape Maltings (6 August), Symphony Hall, Birmingham (7 August), the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall (8 August, also on BBC Radio 3), and the Konzerthaus, Berlin (10 August). This will be the orchestra's first trip abroad for 20 years, and the culmination of a two week residency in Birmingham with the 163 teenager coming from a very wide range of social backgrounds. Guest conductor during the residency is NYO alumnus Kwamé Ryan, who brings two musicians, Luke Walker (percussion) and Mawasi Warner (double bass) from his Connectt youth orchestra in Trinidad and Tobago to join in rehearsals and performances.There is a chance to hear the orchestra in Birmingham during the residency, on 1 August 'Play the City' sees the entire orchestra divide into small ensembles and take to the streets to bring music to the people of Birmingham.

On the tour the orchestra combines Mahler's challenging final symphony with Tansy Davies' Re-greening. The second brand new work written especially for NYO this year, it is performed without a conductor and partly from memory. Through movement and voice, players connect with each other and tap into their emotions, awakening an ebullient Spring from her long Winter slumber.

During July NYO's Inspire Orchestra has been busy touring secondary schools in the North-West of England giving workshops and performances with local young performers with the aim of strengthening the reach and impact of the NYO's work and inspiring peer musicians.

At the Bristol Proms

Håkon and Mari Samuelsen at the Bristol Proms - photo Jon Rowley
Håkon and Mari Samuelsen at the Bristol Proms
photo Jon Rowley
Bristol Proms; Håkon and Mari Samuelsen, Alison Balsom; Bristol Old Vic
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 29 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Highly theatrical and engaging pair of concerts, breaking boundaries

Bristol Old Vic, built in 1766, is Britain's oldest working theatre and it hosted musical as well as theatrical events. The 19th century promenade concerts hosted artists such as Paganini and were the inspiration for the current series of Bristol Proms. Brainchild of Tom Morris, artistic director of the Bristol Old Vic, and supported by Universal Music, the concerts use the lovely 18th century auditorium (with some of the pit seats removed to create promenade places) but try to create a more casual attitude in performances, encouraging audiences to take pictures for social media, bring drinks in and clap when the wanted. But in fact at the two concerts which I attended, the audience members showed little deviation from the normal concert behaviour. However there was an exciting buzz around the concerts, and you got the impression that audience members were rather more diverse, and younger, than is often the case.

I went along on Wednesday 29 July 2015 and caught two concerts. First the Norwegian brother and sister  Håkon and Mari Samuelsen (he a cellist, she a violinist) with Sinfonia Cymru, and then a late night prom with Alison Balsom. The Samuelsen's concert Pure Minimalist Baroque mixed baroque work by Bach, Barriere and Vivaldi, with contemporary works by Sollima, Glass, Pärt and Einaudi. Whilst Alison Balsom was joined by two further trumpeters for a programme which ranged from Purcell to jazz plus David Mitcham's At the Top of the Tide, winner of the Bristol Fanfare Competition.

Alison Balsom at the Bristol Proms - photo Jon Rowley
Alison Balsom at the Bristol Proms - photo Jon Rowley
The first concert started in dramatic style with a smoke filled stage and just the dim outlines of violinist Mari Samuelsen as she launched into a vibrantly confident performance of JS Bach's Chaconne from Partita No. 2 for unaccompanied violin. It was  remarkably brave star, requiring the audience to concentrate on the music, and it certainly was a performance worth concentrating on. Håkon Samuelsen followed this with a contemporary work, Giovanni Sollima's evocative and rather folk-inspired Solo.

The performers then moved to the front of the stage and from then on performances were given in front of the drop curtain, and given a theatrical glamour with lighting and animations by Rod Maclachlan, Markus Over, Jamie Perrelet and Vladimir Bulatov projected onto the drop curtain behind the performers. The two soloists joined together for a sonata by the 18th century French cellist and composer Jean-Baptiste Barriere written for the rather effective combination of violin and cello. The Samuelsens were then joined by Benjamin Baker (violin) and Ann Beilby (viola) for a performance of music Philip Glass's Mishima which is taken from the soundtrack of the 1985 film Mishima: A life in four chapters.

Thursday 30 July 2015

Priceless Classics

Halle - Priceless Classics
The Halle orchestra is aiming to attract new and wider audiences with Priceless Classics its first ever 'pay what you like' concert. The concert is at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester on Sunday 6 September at 6pm. The orchestra, conducted by Stephen Bell, will perform selections from popular classics starting with Bach and finishing with Bartok, Ligeti and John Adams. The music will be introduced via presentations on a big screen. The concert will be casual, audience members can come and go as they please and take drinks into the auditorium. Then afterwards, they can pay what they think the concert was worth. It will be interesting to see if the experiment works, and especially if there is any follow through from the audience.

Tickets are free but have to be booked, OnLine. You can hear more about the concert from a film on YouTube.

Wolf-Ferrari Violin Concerto

Wolf Ferrari Violin Concerto; Benjamin Schmid, Oviedo Filarmonia, Friedrich Haider; Farao Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 23 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Wolf-Ferrari's lyrical, yearning and large scale violin concerto re-discovered

The music of Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari (1876-1948) has remained on the fringes of the repertoire despite the odd flurry of interest. Born of Italian and German parents, and perpetually torn between the two cultures he is best known for his operas, but this disc from Friedrich Haider and the Oviedo Filarmonia with violinist Benjamin Schmid explores Wolf-Ferrari's Violin Concerto Op.26 "Guila Bustabo in ammirazione", which is paired with a selection of music from the operas, the prelude to Il campiello, the overtures to Le donne duriose and L'amore medico, and the intermezzo to I quatro rusteghi.

The violin concerto was premiered in 1943 by the violinist Guila Bustabo (1916-2002) for whom it was written. Like Wolf-Ferrari, Guila Bustabo was of mixed heritage she was born in America with an Italian father and a Czech mother. For whatever reasons, she seems to have been entirely unconcerned about the issues relating to the war (there are suggestions that she may have temperamentally disliked America or may have been influenced in politics by her mother), so she spent the war years not in America but touring Europe. She met Wolf-Ferrari in 1939 having heard his opera La Dama Boba and the two developed a strong, almost romantic but platonic relationship. The result is the violin concerto which Bustabo premiered in 1943.

Here it is played by the talented young Austrian violinist Benjamin Schmid and certainly the violin part of this challenging work holds no terrors for Schmid. The concerto is a big work, lasting some 36 minutes and the solo line has a great many bravura challenges worked into it. Like a concerto such as the Tchaikovsky, the soloist must produce a great deal of singing tone and beautiful line, whilst encompassing no end of technical hurdles. But the rewards when this is achieved are very great. Schmid plays with elegant refined sound and his playing is lyrically expressive at all time, and the virtuoso element are finely folded into the texture of the music. This is playing of real refinement, and never does Schmid overdo the more romantic elements of the concerto, he never throbs.

There are four movements, Fantasia, Romanza, Improvviso, and Rondo Finale and the predominant tone is one of rather intense, lyrical yearning. The Fantasia starts with a fascinating, yearning and somewhat exotic sounding melody on a long cantilena from the solo violin which develops into a a long and highly passionate movement. Wolf-Ferrari's style combines the melodic lyricism of Italy with the German feel for structure and complexity, as if Brahms or Tchaikovsky had been taken to the very south of Italy with a diet of red wine and sunshine. Certainly the music does not partake of any of the isms of the 20th century and has a slightly old-fashioned feel for its time, but we can now appreciate the strength of Wolf-Ferrari's craftsmanship and the sense of inspiration he seems to have found in the young violinist.

The Romanza is again yearning and restless, followed by the Improvviso which starts darkly dramatic and though the tempo increases, there is never a suggestion of a scherzo but we can appreciate Wolf-Ferrari's wonderful use of orchestral textures and the way he creates a dramatic dialogue for soloist and orchestra. The Rondo Finale brings things to a rather perky conclusion, opening like the overture to one of Wolf-Ferrari's operatic comedies. A big, big lyrical cadenza full of reminiscences of earlier movements leads to a brief return to the comedy before the rather conventional ending.

Friedrich Haider and the orchestra pair the concerto with a selection of music from the operas. We start with the hushed prelude from Il campiello, followed by the overture to Le donne curiose. This latter is a more developed piece, a full blown rather traditional operatic overture full of character and pre-figuring the drama to come. The same is true of the overture from L'amore medico and we finish with the lovely intermezzo from I quatro rusteghi. These are performances of real charm, and certainly whet the appetite for further music from the operas.

The set comes with a DVD of a documentary Liebesklarung an eine Geigerin which helps to fill in the back ground to the concerto which has its basis in the strong relationship between the composer and his soloist. The documentary is also on YouTube (see below), and there is also a little taster of the concerto on YouTube.

Wolf-Ferrari's violin concerto is a major discovery and deserves far wider currency. This fine performance should win the piece many friends. Friedrich Haider has a passionate commitment to Wolf-Ferrari's music and here he draws finely expressive playing from the orchestra and in Benjamin Schmid has a soloist who is ideal in his combination of technical skill and intense lyricism.

You can read a Spanish translation of this review on the Oviedo Filarmonia's website.

Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari (1876-1948) - Prelude from Il Campiello (1936) [3.49]
Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari (1876-1948) - Overture from Le donne curiose (1903) [6.45]
Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari (1876-1948) - Overture from L'amore medico (1913) [8.02]
Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari (1876-1948) - Intermezzo from I quatro rusteghi  (1906) [3.31]
Benjamin Schmid (violin)
Oviedo Filarmonia
Friedrich Haider (conductor)
Recorded 2009/10 Auditorium Principe Felipe Oviedo

Liebeserklarung an eine Geigerin - documentary about the CD

FARAO CLASSICS B108069 1 CD, 1DVD [58.52, 13.50]

Elsewhere on this blog:

Wednesday 29 July 2015

Edington Festival celebrates 60 years

Edington Priory Church
Edington Priory Church
The Edington Music Festival celebrates with its 60th this year. Since the first festival in 1956, during the last week of August singers from many cathedral and collegiate choirs come together to sing four services per day at the lovely priory church in the village of Edington on the edge of Salisbury Plain. 

This year the Schola Cantorum (which sings Matins and Compline) is directed by Peter Stevens, Assistant Master of Music at Westminster Cathedral, the choir of men and boys is conducted by Matthew Martin (composer and Organist at the London Oratory), and the mixed voice consort is directed by Jeremy Summerly, whilst the festival is directed by Benjamin Nicholas, Director of Music at Merton College). As ever, music is varied with festival commissions from David Briggs (Magnificat octavi toni) and Marco Galvani (Tantum Ergo), whilst the other music includes John Sheppard's Missa Cantate, Haydn's Missa Sancti Nicolai, Duarte Lobo's missa pro defunctis, Grayston Ives' Edington Service, plus music by Pierre Villette, Richard Ayleward, Heinrich Schutz, Walford Davies, Philip Radcliffe, James MacMillan, Deodat de Severac, Elena Vorotko, Matthew Martin, Alonso Lobo, and Patrick Gowers.

Services run from Compline on Sunday 23 August to Solemn Eucharist on Sunday 30 August 2015, with Matins and Solemn Evensong in the morning, Solemn Evensong in the evening, preceded by music on the new organ, with a Solemn Requiem on Friday evening. Each evening ends with Compline, a magical way to end the day. There are no tickets, just turn up. Further information from the Edington Festival website.

Lakme - Christine Collins Young Artists performance

Fflur Wyn, Robert Murray - Lakme - Opera Holland Park - photo Robert Workman
Fflur Wyn, Robert Murray - Lakme - Opera Holland Park - photo Robert Workman
Leo Delibes Lakme; Fflur Wyn, Robert Murray, Frederick Long, Sophie Dicks, dir:Aylin Bozok, John Wilkie, cond: Holly Mathieson; Opera Holland Park
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 27 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Young artists showcase & coloratura brilliance

Opera Holland Park's Christine Collins Young Artists scheme not only allows young singers, conductors and directors to work with the company, but provides a showcase performance based on one of the main productions. This year the Christine Collins Young Artists performance was Delibes' Lakme, based on the production by Aylin Bozok, designed by Morgan Large with lighting by Howard Hudson. From the main production, Fflur Wyn played Lakme and Robert Murray played Gerald, and they were joined by young artists Frederick Long as Nikantha, Adam Gilbert as Frederic, Sophie Dicks as Mallika, Rachael Brimley as Ellen, Rosie Middleton as Rose, Laura Zigmantaite as Mrs Bentson and Dominick Felix as Hadji. The Associate Director was John Wilkie and the conductor was Holly Mathieson.

The success of the Christine Collins Young Artists scheme can be judged from the way so many of the performers in this year's Opera Holland Park season are alumni of the scheme. I remember talking to Christine in 2013 and she was keen not just to support young artists by giving them tiny roles and cover jobs, but to give them a moment when they could step up and really show what they could do.  She died in 2014, and this scheme is her remarkable legacy.

Leo Delibes (1836-1891) was a Paris based composer who had trained at the Paris Conservatoire with Adolphe Adam. Delibes composed operas, operettas and ballets but is known  today for his ballet scores, Coppelia and Sylvia and his last opera Lakme. Lakme was premiered in 1883 at the Opera Comique and was intended, from the outset, as a showpiece for a coloratura soprano. It partakes of the fashionable atmosphere of Orientalism already explored in Bizet's Les Pecheurs de Perles  (1863) and Massenet's Le Roi de Lahore (1877). But adds to this an interesting commentary on British Imperialism.

Delibes was a contemporary of both Bizet and Massenet, but his music has neither the earthy directness of Bizet nor the really lush romanticism of Massenet. Instead Delibes offers a finely scored elegance, coupled with a slight old fashioned attitude to dramaturgy. What keeps the opera on the fringes of the repertoire is his melodic ability. Not just the Bell Song, the coloratura show piece beloved of sopranos, but many of the other arias and ensembles. The work is stuffed with good tunes, yet has a certain edge to it because of the interesting way the British are depicted; they are simply not very nice, being completely uncomfortable in India.

Tuesday 28 July 2015

Inspired by Bach

Inspired by Bach - Julius Berger - Nimbus Alliance
Johannes Brahms, Max Reger, Johann Sebastian Bach, Zoltan Kodaly, Ludwig van Beethoven, Johannes X. Schachter, Albrecht Gursching; Julius Berger, Oliver Kern; Nimbus Alliance
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jun 13 2015
Star rating: 4.0

A voyage round Brahms' and Reger's cello sonatas

This fascinating two-disc set from the distinguished cellist Julius Berger and pianist Oliver Kern on Nimbus Alliance might be termed a pair of voyages. The first around Brahms’ Cello Sonata in E minor Op. 38 and the second around Max Reger’s Cello Sonata in A minor Op. 116. On both discs Julius Berger teases out the various Bachian influences in the works and elucidates them by including Kodaly’s arrangements of music by Johann Sebastian Bach, transcriptions of Bach, a new pieces by Johannes X Schachtner and as well as the first movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Cello Sonata in A minor Op. 69.

Julius Berger
Julius Berger
Having sung a lot of Brahms’ unaccompanied sacred music, I was aware how influenced Brahms was by Bach and on the first disc of this set Julius Berger demonstrates all of the Bachian references in Brahms’s cello sonata. Does this matter, is it just a dry musicological exercise? Not a bit, in his illuminating article Julius Berger talks about the intellectual engagement with the sonata leading to decisions about character and tempo.

The main theme of the Brahms sonata’s first movement is taken from Contrapunctus IV from Bach’s The Art of Fugue with the fugal finale of the sonata using a theme from Contrapunctus XIII. The theme from Contrapunctus IV re-occurs in the fugue from Bach’s Prelude and Fugue No. 8 in E Flat minor BWV 853, from the Well-Tempered Clavier which was in fact arranged by Zoltan Kodaly for cello and piano in 1951 (and dedicated to Casals).

Julius Berger and Oliver Kern open their recital with the Kodaly arrangement, a rather affecting piece which has hints of its 20th century origins in the sound world. The theme also re-appears in Bach’s organ version of the hymn Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu Dir BWV 686 and Berger also plays a new piece based on this, specially written for him. Johannes X. Schachtner’s Relief No. 3 – ‘Ich schrei aus tiefer Notfreely based on BWV 686, is a thoughtful, at times austere piece which gives a number of treatments to the Bach theme. The theme from Bach’s Choral prelude ‘Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden’ BWV 727 also occurs in the sonata, and here Julius Berger gives us a considered performance of his transcription for cello and piano.

Somewhere for the weekend: Music in the medieval hill towns of Provence

Musique Cordiale 2015
This very much comes into the 'I wish' category! From 1 to 15 August 2015 Musique Cordiale runs in the hills between Nice and Aix-en-Provence. 100 musicians will pour into the village of Seillans to embark on two weeks of intense music making. There will be 27 concerts taking place in 11 villages, including 9 free lunchtime concerts, 3 orchestral concerts, 3 outdoor opera performances and a number of late night recitals.

Mark Austin conducts Puccini's Tosca with Laura Parfitt, Leonel Pinheiro and Adam Green, directed by John Savournin of Charles Court Opera (see my interview with John). Graham Ross, director of music at Clare College, Cambridge, conducts Haydn's Creation with Lydia Brotherton and Andrew Staples. The choir will also be performing a programme of double-choir music by Rheinberger and Frank Martin.

James Lowe,Chief Conductor of the Prussian Chamber Orchestra, will conduct the orchestral concerts with music by Bach, Tchaikovsky and Brahms as well as a baroque programme. Brahms double concerto will be played by Chiara Enderle, winner of the 2013 Lutosławski and Pierre Fournier awards, with her father Matthias Enderle, leader of the Swiss Carmina Quartet.

Full information from the Musique Cordiale website and it is even possible to participate so that's an idea for next year too.

Alice is in good health and living on the Yucca Lawn

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland - Opera Holland Park - 2014,  photo credit Alex Brenner
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland - Opera Holland Park - 2014,  photo credit Alex Brenner
Will Todd Alice's Adventures in Wonderland; Flur Wynn, Robert Burt, James Cleverton, Victoria Simmonds, Magid El-Bushra, Keel Watson, John Lofthouse, dir: Martin Duncan, cond: Matthew Waldren; Opera Holland Park
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 25 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Will Todd's family friendly opera in good health on the Yucca Lawn at Holland Park

Fflur Wynn - Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, 2015 - Opera Holland Park
Fflur Wynn - Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, 2015
Opera Holland Park
The first thing to be understood about Will Todd's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland at Opera Holland Park is that it is completely mad. Some 16 singers and 12 instrumentalists perform a 75 minute opera out of doors on the Yucca Lawn at Holland Park in a production which uses four different locations thus requiring cast, musicians and audience to move four times whilst the music keeps going. There is no amplification, everything is acoustic and almost no spoken text, this is an opera. Oh, and a significant number of the audience are tiny children and we all have to sit on cushions on the ground. And it works.

I returned to catch Alice's Adventures in Wonderland on Saturday 25 July 2015, during the opera's third run (it was premiered in 2013 and returned in 2014). Martin Duncan's production, in designs by Leslie Travers, is in rude health with a cast, many of whom have been in the production since it opened in 2013, which included Fflur Wyn as Alice, James Cleverton as Rabbit, Robert Burt as Dad and Red Queen, Victoria Simmonds as Mum and Mad Hatter, Magid El-Bushra as Cheshire Cat, Keel Watson as Caterpillar and John Lofthouse as March Hare and White Knight. Matthew Waldren conducted the instrumental ensemble.

Will Todd, and librettist Maggie Gottlieb, have taken the familiar characters from Lewis Carroll and many of the well known situations and woven them into a narrative with a far stronger sense of purpose than the novels. The young audience seemed enchanted by seeing the familiar characters and were not in the slightest bit phased by the new narrative setting.

Monday 27 July 2015

Merging opera, theatre and dance

Clown of Clowns
Created in 2011 by the young composer and conductor Leo Geyer, Constella Ballet and Orchestra has in recent years produced a series of shows which merge opera, theatre and dance. Leo Geyer's jazz-inspired theatre piece Side Shows premiered last year (see my review) and the company is returning to it this paired with a new dramatic production of Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire. The double bill, Clown of Clowns, is at the Grimeborn Festival, at the Arcola Theatre in Dalston from 4-8 August 2015.
 In both shows the company's familiar style is present, with the instrumentalists costumed and part of the action and at the Arcola Theatre there will be a real sense of immersive theatre. Pierrot Lunaire will be performed by mezzo-soprano Emma Stannard and dancer Matt Petty with choreography by Alfred Taylor-Gaunt and directed by Joel Fisher. The ensemble is conducted by Leo Geyer, who also features as the Ring Master in his own Side Shows which presents a series of Circus acts in a work which merges opera, theatre and dance to create a dazzling and entertaining whole. I enjoyed Side Shows when I saw it last year, saying in my review - 'All in all this is what modern opera should be, complex yet approachable, highly characterised and brilliantly realised.' - and have no doubt that the new double bill will be just as thought provoking and entertaining.

Flourish -- Opera Competition Up Close

The Blank Canvas - OperaUpClose 2013
Flourish, OperaUpClose's opera competition returns this year encouraging composers to write small scale works suitable for the company to perform. The company has a good track record of performing works from previous competitions. 

The winner of the first competition in 2012 was Two Caravans, an adaptation of Marina Lewycka’s tragic-comic novel of the same name, composed by Guy Harries with a libretto by Ace McCarron and it was produced at the King’s Head Theatre in September 2013. OperaUpClose also presented another opera from the this competition, Young Wife by Katarzyna Brochocka, to open their 2014. The winner of the 2013 competition, The Blank Canvas by Spyros Syrmos with a libretto by Fay Wrixon, was staged at the King's Head Theatre in September 2014. Last year's winner, Ulla's Odyssey, by Anthony Young with a libretto by Leanna Brodie, and will be staged at Kings Place in November 2015, followed by a UK tour in 2016. 

To enter this year's competition you have to create something for just seven performers (instrumentalists or singers). Entries must be received by 7 September 2015, and you need to present 15 minutes of music and libretto, with a synopsis of the full opera.  Full details from the OperaUpClose website.

Montemezzi's 'L'amore dei tre Re' returns to Opera Holland Park

Joel Montero and Natalya Romaniw - Montemezzi's L'amore dei tre Re - Opera Holland Park - photo Robert Workman
Joel Montero and Natalya Romaniw - Montemezzi's L'amore dei tre Re - Opera Holland Park - photo Robert Workman
Italo Montemezzi L'amore dei tre Re; Natalya Romaniw, Joel Montero, Simon Thorpe, Mikhail Svetlov, dir:Martin Lloyd-Evans, cond: Peter Robinson; Opera Holland Park
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 25 2015
Star rating: 5.0

Thrilling revival of Montemezzi's late Romantic shocker

Martin Lloyd-Evans' production of Italo Montemezzi's opera L'amore dei tre Re was first given at Opera Holland Park in 2007, when it seems to have been the first professional production of the opera in the British Isles since Wexford Festival produced it in the 1970's. The opera made a welcome return to Opera Holland Park this year and we caught the second performance (25 July 2015). Natalya Romaniw sang Fiora, with Joel Montero as Avito, Simon Thorpe as Manfredo, Mikhail Svetlov as Achibaldo, Aled Hall as Flamino and Lindsay Bramley as an old woman. Peter Robinson conducted the City of London Sinfonia, and the designs were by Jamie Vartan.

Montemezzi's L'amore dei tre Re - Opera Holland Park - photo Robert Workman
Montemezzi's L'amore dei tre Re - Opera Holland Park
photo Robert Workman
The plot is simple. Many years ago Achibaldo conquered the country Altura and married Fiora, princess of Altura, to his son Manfredo despite the fact that Fiora was betrothed to Avito. In a series of tense encounters we learn that Fiora still love and is loved by Avito and the two take advantage of Achibaldo's blindness to meet when Manfredo is away. Act Two concludes with Fiora and Avito's rapturous love duet, interrupted by Archibaldo who kills Fiora in his attempt to learn her lover's name. So far so Wagnerian, with nods to Debussy too. But in Act Three, the body of Fiora lies in state, Avito comes in disguise and kisses it. He falls ill and Manfredo informs him that Archibaldo has put poison on Fiora's lips to discovered the identity of Fiora's lover. But then Manfredo too kisses Fiora, he loves her too, leaving Archibaldo to discover the body of his dead daughter.

The libretto is based on the play by Sem Benelli (an admirer of Gabriele d'Annunzio) and is an example (along with Richard Strauss's Salome) of the 20th century exploration of texts taken directly from plays. There are nods towards the symbolist dramas such as the Maeterlinck which inspired Debussy, as well as the darker areas explored by 20th century German and Austrian composers.

Italo Montemezzi (1875 – 1952) was born near Milan and studied at the Milan Conservatory. L'amore dei tre Re was his third opera and first major success. It premiered at La Scala in 1913 and is often seen as a last flowering of Verismo but Montemezzi's sound world is a long way from the post-Verismo school and, influenced heavily by Wagner, he seems to combined late Puccini with Richard Strauss and a heavy admixture of Debussy. A rich, heady mix which uses a big orchestra and requires powerful yet lyric voices. Lasting a little over 90 minutes (Opera Holland Park played it without an interval) the pacing of the piece is excellent. Montemezzi uses the orchestra to point the protagonists state of mind and explore the emotional undercurrents of the drama.

Gloriously rich and intense, the music moves and is powerful, yet is full of lyric impulses too. This asks lot of the singers, both soprano and tenor are required to produce endless supplies of lyric line yet rise above an orchestral score which is itself highly passionate and rich. You could imagine, in the wrong hands, that the opera would fall quite flat but Opera Holland Park drew on a very strong cast indeed.

Sunday 26 July 2015

Improvising, sculpting, freezing - my encounter with Augusta Read Thomas

Augusta Read Thomas - photo Jason Smith
Augusta Read Thomas - photo Jason Smith
Now based in Chicago, the American composer Augusta Read Thomas has built up a strong and consistent body of work in her 30 years of composing, but so far has not the exposure in the UK and Europe which her finely crafted music would seem to deserve, though there have been a number of UK performances in recent years, including her violin concerto for Frank Peter Zimmerman at the Proms as well as a commission from the London Symphony Orchestra. I met up with her when she was recently in London, to talk about her music and her series of CD’s on the Nimbus Alliance label. She was in London for the premiere of her new Wigmore Hall commission, which was performed on Tuesday 7 July by soprano Claire Booth with the Aurora Orchestra, conducted by Nicholas Collon. Booth is a soprano with whom Augusta has worked before, and when I asked her how the premiere went she said that she felt fortunate to work with Claire Booth again, and was full of praise for the Aurora Orchestra, and Nicholas Collon. 

She describes her music as optimistic,
radiant, colourful, elegant, very personal, naked (no pretence), rhythmically animated

As a composer she is American but has been influenced by European composers. Her music does not sound immediately recognisable as belonging to a particular grouping. In fact she tells me she regards herself as a ‘nothing-ist’, going on to add that she feels you have to hear her music as her voice is her own style. This style has been developing over the 30 years of her composing career, and she talks about herself as a blender, merging all the different strands which come from her internal listening into a distinctive style. If you listen to her music, she feels that you can tell she has heard the work of a composer such as Boulez, but that it does not sound like Boulez. She is a composer who does not believe in pretence, and refers to her music as naked; music is her life and her life is music.

When I ask her to describe her music, she comes up with optimistic, radiant, colourful, elegant, very personal, naked (no pretence), rhythmically animated. The music is concise, she assumes you are listening and does not repeat herself in a work.

Reading the title of her compositions (see list on her website - ), I was struck by the fact that apart from the concertos, all the other pieces had rather distinctive titles. She splits these into two, but later admits the two areas do over lap. One is Spirituality and the other is Nature. Her sense of spirituality is non-specific, and her music is not dark but optimistic. At one point she talks about cosmic spirituality, which neatly overlaps with the nature theme in some of the works. All this might sound rather new-age-y but in person, Augusta gives an aura of highly personable practicality. Though her works might have intriguing titles, she says that she doesn’t write music about specific things, and that to programme it you have to listen to it.

Saturday 25 July 2015

Richard Ayres' Peter Pan comes to London

Peter Pan in Cardiff - Iestyn Morris (Peter Pan), Marie Arnet (Wendy) & WNO Chorus - Credit: Clive Barda
Peter Pan in Cardiff - Iestyn Morris (Peter Pan), Marie Arnet (Wendy) & WNO Chorus - Credit: Clive Barda
Richard Ayres Peter Pan; Iestyn Morris, Marie Arnet, Nicholas Sharratt, Rebecca Bottone, Ashley Holland, Hilary Summers, dir: Keith Warner, cond: Erik Nielsen; Welsh National Opera at the Royal Opera House
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 24 2015
Star rating: 3.5

Strong performances in a slightly disappointing operatic version of the JM Barrie classic

After the work's UK premiere in May, Welsh National Opera brought its production of Richard Ayres and Lavinia Greenlaw's Peter Pan to the Royal Opera House on 24 July 2015. Directed by Keith Warner, and designed by Jason Southgate and Nicky Shaw, the cast featured Iestyn Morris as Peter Pan, Marie Arnet as Wendy, Nicholas Sharratt as John and Ashley Holland as Mr Darling and Captain Hook, Hilary Summers as Mrs Darling and Tiger Lily, Aidan Smith as Nana and Starkey. Erik Nielsen conducted the Welsh National Opera Orchestra.

Ashley Holland in Keith Warner’s production of Peter Pan © WNO. Photograph by Clive Barda, 2015
Ashley Holland in Keith Warner’s production of Peter Pan © WNO.
Photograph by Clive Barda, 2015
Having spoken to counter-tenor Iestyn Morris prior to the work's UK premiere (see my interview), I was intrigued to see the production. Iestyn Morris sang in the work's premiere (in German in Stuttgart), a production which led to the Welsh National Opera bringing in Keith Warner to direct a production rather than taking the Stuttgart one. Richard Ayres and Lavinia Greenlaw also made changes to the piece.

Keith Warner's magical toy-box production with ingenious sets by Jason Southgate had clearly been designed for a smaller theatre and to a certain extent looked a bit swamped on the Covent Garden stage and you did wonder whether it was wise to bring the production here, perhaps Sadler's Wells would have been a more suitable theatre. It did not help that there was clearly a real problem with the lighting, and so we could not really see a lot of the detail.

JM Barrie's Peter Pan is not really part of my mental furniture. We never read it as a child (I was brought up with Gullivers Travels) and I suspect that my main knowledge of the plot comes from the Disney version. So, I have to confess that I found the whole production confusing and puzzling. Luckily (thanks to Disney!) I knew who (or what) Tinkerbell was, so the slightly fuzzy animated twinkle (an animation created by Atticus) made sense, but it might not for everyone. However I could not quite work out who everyone was, the Tiger Lily episode was particularly puzzling, and though Richard Ayres had clearly worked hard to differentiate individuals, all the pirates rather merged into one, and all the children too. That said, the children in the audience clearly loved it; obviously familiar with the book, they were quite at ease with the stage events. But it is perhaps significant that Aidan Smith's Nana got such a big cheer at the end, with her communications only in Woofs, it was always clear who Nana was.

The gap between a difficult life and a serene iconography - Tarik O'Regan on The Wanton Sublime

Tarik O'Regan - photo credit Luca Sage
Tarik O'Regan - photo credit Luca Sage
Tarik O'Regan's opera The Wanton Sublime receives its UK premiere at the Grimeborn Festival, at the Arcola Theatre from 25-29 August 2015 in a double bill with Peter Maxwell Davies' The Medium presented by Robert Shaw's company Inside Intelligence sung by Hai-Ting Chinn, conducted by Andrew Griffiths, with the Orpheus Sinfonia, and directed by Robert Shaw. The Wanton Sublime is Tarik O'Regan's first opera since Heart of Darkness (which premiered at Covent Garden's Linbury Theatre in 2011). But The Wanton Sublime, with a libretto by the poet Anna Rabinowitz, is very different to the earlier opera, it is a smaller scale electro-acoustic chamber piece which explores the human and mythic aspects of the Virgin Mary. I spoke to Tarik on the telephone to learn more about the opera.

Hai-Ting Chinn - photo credit Rodrigo Lopresti
Hai-Ting Chinn
photo credit Rodrigo Lopresti
The Wanton Sublime was brought to fruition in the USA by American Opera Projects, a New York based group which develops operas. They help turn ideas via piano and vocal workshops into works ready to go on stage. The group was heavily involved in developing Heart of Darkness, but Tarik explained that his first got to know them in 2004 when he moved to the USA. He heard an opera, Darkling with a libretto by Anna Rabinowitz and music by Stefan Weismann which Tarik remembers as being organic with a good balance between words and music, and well designed for a small space. Anna Rabinowitz subsequently published further poetry and The Wanton Sublime, commissioned by American Opera Projects,  is based on a book length series of fragment by Anna Rabinowitz.

The Wanton Sublime was premiered in 2014 at Roulette which Tarik describes as a fantastic venue in Brooklyn. It was produced by Robert Shaw with mezzo-soprano Hai-Ting Chinn who will also be performing the UK premiere, an apt confluence as she is also working on something in London at the Tete a Tete Opera Festival this summer. Having the same singer in the NY and London productions is useful because the piece uses a small amount of pre-recorded music as Tarik wanted the audience to be unsure whether they were listening to live or recorded as the singer interacts with her recorded self.

The work is written for string quartet (violin, viola, cello and double bass), two percussion, flute and two guitars (mixing electric and acoustic, with the electric guitar using lots of pedals and effects). In order to achieve a suitable balance particularly between acoustic and electric guitars, everything was amplified in New York but in venue the size of Arcola Theatre, Tarik said that he would be happy not to use amplification.

Mayor of London's Music Reception

'Take Free' choir from the West London Free School
'Take Free' choir from the West London Free School
On Wednesday 22 July 2015, I was invited to the Mayor of London's Music Reception at City Hall. Hosted by the Mayor's Music Fund for Young Londoners, people from London's music business came together to socialise and to celebrate the vibrancy of London's music scene. There were people from all varieties of music, I travelled in the lift up to the 9th floor of City Hall with people from KoKo (the former Camden Palace), and then bumped into the head of music services in Croydon and the managing director of the London Mozart Players. It was that sort of evening.

One curiosity was that our name badges did not say what organisation we were from, so it was a glorious pick-and-mix with a number of people recognising me because I have a photo as part of my social media presence (that will learn me). I had lovely chats with people from Albion Media, the City of London Sinfonia, Live Music Now, London Youth Choir, Musiko Musika and many more.

The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, spoke about the vibrancy of the music scene in London, the importance of music venues (now under pressure from developers), busking and the work of the Mayor's Music Fund. And we were treated to some entertainment from 'Take Free' choir from the West London Free School.

The Mayor's Music Fund helps musically gifted children from disadvantaged backgrounds to develop their musical potential. The organisation works with London's Music Hubs and awards four-year Scholarships to provide tuition to primary school children whose parent don't have the means to fund tuition, and to fund large-scale collaborations between Music Services and professional arts organisations to provide challenging opportunities for young people.

Friday 24 July 2015

Somewhere for the weekend: Hear the organ Handel played at Adlington Hall

The Organ at Adlington Hall
The organ at Adlington Hall
Adlington Hall in Cheshire has been in the Legh family since the 13th century. (The current owner is the 25th generation). The organ at Adlington Hall from the late 17th century where it seems to have been built in the 1690's to celebrate the wedding of John Legh (1668-1739) to Lady Isabella Robartes. Little changed since then, it was restored in 1958/9 by Noel Mander.

Tradition has it that Handel himself once played the Adlington organ, and even composed his famous harpsichord suite, The Harmonious Blacksmith, whilst staying at Adlington Hall. We know that Charles Legh was a firm friend of Handel’s, and it is almost certain that the composer stayed at the Hall in 1741-2, if not at other times. So it seems safe to assume he did play on the organ – the family would have asked him to, and he would certainly have been keen to do so. A few years later in 1747, the Gentleman’s Magazine published Charles Legh’s Hunting Song, and four years later, Handel set the song to music and presented it to Charles as a gift. The original manuscript can still be found in the Hall, complete with Handel’s signature too.

There is a chance to hear the organ on Saturday 1 August 2015 when it will be played by Gordon Stewart for an afternoon recital. Tickets are £20 and include cream tea! Just phone 01625 827595. Further information from Adlington Hall website.

Remembering a much loved conductor

Malcolm Cottle (1940-2014)  – A Celebration – 1 August 2015

London Concord Singers will be celebrating the life of the choir’s founder and musical director, Malcolm Cottle, in a concert at St Michael’s Church, Chester Square, London on 1 August 2015, at 6.30pm. Malcolm, who founded the choir in 1966, died 10 days before London Concord Singers’ Christmas concert in 2014. The concert went ahead as planned, with the programme selected by Malcolm, but the choir felt that it wanted to have an occasion when all could celebrate this much loved conductor. 

On 1 August 2015, the choir will be conducted by Matthew Collins the young conductor who has conducted the choir’s recent concerts, and will be joined by organist Jonathan Kingston. The programme includes music by Cecilia McDowall, Kodaly, Walton, Bruckner, Rachmaninov, Victoria, Howells, Elgar, John Rutter and Poulenc, along with a new piece by Robert Hugill.  Tickets are available on-line, and refreshments will be available at the reception which follows the concert.

Following a long standing choir tradition, former members will be joining the concert to sing in Elgar’s The Spirit of the Lord, the Te Deum from Herbert Howells’ Collegium Regale and Bruckner’s motet Locus Iste. The choir also hopes to be joined by members of Malcolm’s other choirs including the Latin Mass Choir from St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, Chelsea, Alyth Choral Society and Southgate Progressive Synagogue. The programme has been chosen to reflect Malcolm’s wide range of interests and many pieces have particular significance for the choir. London Concord Singers has always sung a significant amount of contemporary music. John Rutter’s Childhood Lyrics were premiered by the choir and Cecilia MacDowell’s Regina Coeli is a piece which the choir has performed with great enjoyment. The choir has given a number of premieres of my music and Malcolm also conducted the premiere of my first opera, Garrett, so I am writing a work to be premiered in the concert.

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