Saturday 31 October 2015

Creating something extraordinary: my encounter with Streetwise Opera's Matt Peacock

Penny Woolcock (director) and Dick Bird (designer) in Campfield Market Hall, the venue for The Passion
Penny Woolcock (director) and Dick Bird (designer) in Campfield Market Hall, the venue for The Passion
At Easter 2016, Streetwise Opera joins forces with Harry Christophers & The Sixteen to perform a staged version of Bach's St Matthew Passion in Campfield Market Hall in Manchester, in a production directed by Penny Woolcock, designed by Dick Bird. With such an intriguing combination of forces, I met up with Streetwise Opera's founder and chief executive Matt Peacock at their London offices to find out more.

Streetwise Opera is a charity which uses music to help support people who have experienced homelessness. The idea is to use ambitious opera productions, which do not compromise their artistic integrity, to show that everyone has the capacity to be extraordinary and can do things they have never dreamed of. The company aims to help people remove the boundaries that they impose on themselves. Homelessness does not just involve practical things like accommodation, but also involves issues like lack of self worth and low well being, and the people involved have been through traumas often from childhood. Matt is an eager and engaging spokesman for the company's work, and explains how the Arts can help people see that they have achievements and skills.

A glorious blank canvas will be turned into an operatic world

Streetwise Opera - Canticles (2002) - photo credit Streetwise Opera
Streetwise Opera - Canticles (2002)
photo credit Streetwise Opera
Doing an adaptation of Bach's St Matthew Passion has long been the company's ambition, and it is coming to fruiting in a co-production with The Sixteen in association with Home in Manchester, a new arts venue which combines the Library Theatre and Corner House. A strand of site-specific events, originally developed when the venue was closed for redevelopment, is continuing and St Matthew Passion will be part of this.

Penny Woolcock and Harry Christophers have created shorter, hour long version of the work which will have a new finale written by James MacMillan. It will be fully staged and there has been deep integration between The Sixteen and Streetwise. Four singers from The Sixteen are embedded with Streetwise and attend workshops in Manchester. They will perform with Streetwise and sing the arias, whilst Harry Christophers and full Sixteen chorus and orchestra come later. It will be a promenade production, very site specific using what Matt terms the 'glorious blank canvas' of a Victorian market hall. It is a huge space which will be turned into an operatic world. Though Manchester International Festival has used for a few performances, including a Bjork gig, it is still a market hall with occasional markets in it.

Social well-being is an important part of Streetwise Opera's work, but Matt realised early on that if you do not have an equal focus on the artistic element then it undermines the social. So they do work of significant artistic interest, from their first production in 2002 of Britten's Canticles in Westminster Abbey.

What happens after the darkest hour?

Taverner's Missa Corona Spinea - a concerto for trebles

Missa Corona spinea - Tallis Scholars
John Taverner Missa Corona Spinea; The Tallis Scholars, Peter Phillips; Gimell Records
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 27 2015
Star rating: 5.0

Perhaps written to show off Cardinal Wolsey's own choir to Henry VIII, this mass provides an apt vehicle for the modern day Tallis Scholars

Having recorded John Taverner's virtuosic Missa Gloria Tibi Trinitas for their 40th anniversary (see my review), Peter Phillips and The Tallis Scholars have turned their attention to Taverner's Missa Corona Spinea for their latest disc on Gimell Records. One of the most astonishing works from the early Tudor period, Taverner's mass is paired with two versions of the Respond, Dum transisset Sabbatum.

We do not know a great deal about Missa Corona Spinea. The chant on which it is based has not been identified so it is difficult to assign it to a particular occasion or a reason for the dedication to the crown of thorns (a feast in May which not of especial significance in the early Tudor period). But the music does tell us a lot. It is written for six-part choir but not the usual English layout of treble, mean, alto, alto, tenor bass. Instead it uses treble, mean, tenor, bass, bass, keeping the high treble part beloved of early Tudor composers. But in the case of Missa Corona Spinea, Taverner created a sort of virtuosic treble part which would only have been suitable for a few choirs. Very high and almost constantly present, the treble part contrasts with the more conventional five lower parts. In his notes on the work in the CD booklet Peter Phillips refers to it as a concerto for trebles.

Friday 30 October 2015

London Song Festival takes us on a musical tour

Travel labels
Nigel Foster's London Song Festival starts tonight, Friday 30 October, with a series of five concerts at the church of St Mary Magdalene, Munster Square, London NW1 exploring musical cities. Joanna Songi (soprano), Jerome Knox (baritone), Nigel Foster (piano) explore London Flower of All Cities with an eclectic mix of music by Purcell, Butterworth, Britten, Finzi, Walton, Eric Satie, Villa Lobos, Charles Ives, Flanders and Swann, and Noel Coward (30 October 2015). 

Further ahead there is Paris City of Love with songs by Poulenc, Debussy, Schubert, Kurt Weill, Cole Porter, Ned Rorem, Jerome Kern (6 November), Venice La Serenissima with songs by composers from Germany, France, Spain and England as well as from Italy, who have all been inspired by the magic of Venice (13 November), New York the City that Never Sleeps gives us songs by Lee Hoiby, Ned Rorem, John Duke, Geoffrey Wright, Benjamin Britten, Vernon Duke, Rodgers and Hart and more (20 November) and finally Seville, City of Towers brings Turina’s colourful cycle Canto a Sevilla interleaved with songs by Falla, Granados, Obradors, Rodrigo, Lorca, Nin, Wolf, Schumann, Walton and others (27 November).

In addition, Susan Bickley and Nicky Spence give masterclasses on 14 November and 21 November.  Full information and tickets from the London Song Festival website.

Janet Suzman directs Marriage of Figaro in Hackney

The Marriage of Figaro
The Royal Academy of Music's opera production is moving to the Hackney Empire on 30 October as Royal Academy Opera present Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro (30 October to 2 November 2016). The production also represents the opera directing debut of Janet Suzman, and will be conducted by Jane Glover with choreography by Victoria Newlyn and designed by Fotini Dimou. Full information from the Hackney Empire website.

The shows are double cast as follows:
Fri 30 Oct and Sun 1 Nov: Charlotte Schoeters - Susanna, Bozidar Smiljanic - Figaro, Timothy Murphy - Bartolo, Claire Barnett-Jones - Marcellina, Katherine Aitken - Cherubino, Henry Neill - Count Almaviva, John Porter - Basilio, Emily Garland - Countess Almaviva, Alex Otterburn - Antonio, Lorena Paz Nieto - Barbarina, Mikhail Shepelenko - Don Curzio

Sat 31 Oct and Mon 2 Nov: Nika Goric - Susanna, Richard Walshe - Figaro, Robert Garland - Bartolo, Helen Brackenbury - Marcellina, Laura Zigmantaite - Cherubino, Haobin Wang Count - Almaviva, William Blake - Basilio, Eve Daniell - Countess Almaviva, Dominic Bowe - Antonio, Alys Roberts - Barbarina, Josh Baxter - Don Curzio

Music for Wimpole Hall - Eboracum Baroque performs Thomas Tudway

Thomas Tudway - Music for Wimpole Hall - Eboracum Baroque
Music for Wimpole Hall - Thomas Tudway, James Hawkins; Eboracum Baroque
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 23 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Music for the chapel at Wimpole Hall, recorded in situ by this young baroque ensemble

Wimpole Hall is one of the largest houses in Cambridgeshire. It has something of a chequered history, passing through various hands due to lack of money or lack of an heir and was given to the National Trust by Elsie Bambridge (Rudyard Kipling's daughter). In the early 18th century it was in the hands of the bibliophile, collector and patron of the arts, Lord Harley who employed the composer Thomas Tudway to create volumes of English church music spanning the early 1600's to the 1720's. Tudway included his own music in the volumes as well as that of his contemporaries, and when the newly built Wimpole chapel was opened in 1721 Tudway composed a Te Deum and Jubilate for the service (presumably Matins).

On this disc Eboracum Baroque, directed by Chris Parsons, have recorded Tudway's Te Deum and Jubilate along with other music by Tudway, James Hawkins and James Paisible, in the venue for which much of it was written, Wimpole Hall chapel.

Chapel at Wimpole Hall
The Chapel at Wimpole Hall
Eboracum Baroque is a small vocal and period instrument ensemble (9 singers, 10 instrumentalists) originally formed at York University in 2012. Here they provide a vocal ensemble approach to Thomas Tudway's essentially verse-anthem style piece. Tudway, who as born around 1650, was a chorister in the Chapel Royal and became organist at King's College, Cambridge. He may have been involved in the building of the chapel as Sir James Thornhill drew a gathering of Lord Harley's artistic friends with Tudway playing the harpsichord.

The disc opens with Thomas Tudway's Jubilate, a relatively small scale piece with a rather galant feel. In the tutti passages the individual voices each have their own vibrant presence, a vocal ensemble rather than a choir. The music is structured like a verse anthem and there are some lovely solo moments. The whole makes a good strong firm sound.

Thursday 29 October 2015

The Art of the Bassoon

In 2014 Heritage Records released the 1987 recording of Andrzej Panufnik's Concerto for Bassoon made by bassoonist Robert Thompson. Now Heritage have returned to the bassoon with The Art of the Bassoon, a four-disc set of Robert Thompson's other recordings, ranging from Vivaldi, Danzi, Mozart, Gordon Jacob, John Downey, Juriaan Andriessen, and Arnold Bax.

The first disc consists of recordings of Vivaldi's concertos for bassoon (B flat major, RV504, A minor, RV498, C major, RV472, C minor RV480) recorded in 1980 with Philip Ledger and the London Mozart Players. Whilst not period practice, they are certainly stylish with fine playing from Thompson. The following disc is a set of quartets for bassoon and strings by Franz Danzi (1763-1826) a German composer who wrote a number of works for the instrument. They were published in 1821 and seem to have been commissioned by an amateur bassoonist (and factory owner) for his own use. Charming pieces, with some imaginative writing for bassoon.

Toi Toi 2015 - Hugill, Mosley, Ergo Phizmiz, Judith Weir and more

Robert Hugill 'The Genesis of Frankenstein' - The Helios Collective at CLF Arts Cafe as part of TOi Toi 2015
Robert Hugill The Genesis of Frankenstein
The Helios Collective with Mimi Jaeger, Anuschka Socher, Isolde Roxby, Noah Mosley
at CLF Arts Cafe as part of Toi Toi 2015

Robert Hugill The Genesis of Frankenstein The Helios Collective Isolde Roxby, Noah Mosely, Tom Asher at CLF Arts Cafe as part of Toi Toi 2015
Robert Hugill The Genesis of Frankenstein
The Helios Collective
Isolde Roxby, Noah Mosley, Tom Asher at
CLF Arts Cafe as part of Toi Toi 2015
My opera was The Genesis of Frankenstein was premiered last night 28 October 2015 at the CLF Arts Cafe as part of the Helios Collective's Toi Toi 2015, an operatic club night which included my new opera and a scene from a new opera by Noah Mosely both performed by the Helios Collective, director Ella Marchment, conductor Noah Mosley, Mimi Doulton in Judith Weir's King Harald's Saga, the all-female pop opera band Ida, Ergo Phizmiz performing Vogel Europa, the Hermes Experiment performing Jethro Cooke's work from their new piece Metropolis and the reggae band General Skank. You can see a short video from The Genesis of Frankenstein after the break, and the show is on again tonight if you missed it!

The CLF Arts Cafe is a casual space on the first floor of a warehouse in Peckham which seems to be bursting with arts (The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists was being performed upstairs). The space has a small stage, a bar and lots of sofas allowing a more casual attitude to concert and opera going but it was noticeable that the audience last night was particularly attentive and listening to the new music rather than concentrating on their drinks!

Wednesday 28 October 2015

Creating Frankenstein

Image from today's dress rehearsal for my new opera, The Genesis of Frankenstein, directed by Ella Marchment, conducted by Noah Mosley, choreography by Sarah Louise Kristensen. On stage soprano Isolde Roxby, conductor Noah Mosley and the dancers. If you want to find out more then come and see it, as part of the Helios Collective's opera club night Toi Toi tonight and tomorrow at the CLF Arts Cafe, the Bussey Building, 133 Rye Lane, Peckham, tickets from

Hampstead Arts Festival

The third Hampstead Arts Festival starts on Monday 2 November and runs for over three weeks when Hampstead will be overrun with arts events ranging from classical to jazz, spoken word and film in some fine historic venues such as 18th century Burgh House, Hampstead Parish Church and St John's Church, Downshire Hill.

Musical events include Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake in Schumann's Heine settings, the UK recital debut of Sayaka Shoji, a Paris-based violinist who was the youngest winner of the Paganini Competition, and who will be playing the “Recamier” Stradivarius, and there will be two world premieres by British Composer Award winner Joseph Phibbs.

Chamber music is something of a feature with a wide ranging programme of chamber music by Malcolm Arnold, the London debut of the Armida String Quartet (a Berlin-based group who recently joined the BBC New Generation Artist scheme) who will be performing Schumann, Schubert and Jorg Widmann, plus performances from the Wihan Quartet and the Sacconi Quartet.

Film events include Buster Keaton's film The General with live music by pianist composer Matan Porat. Spoken work events include a discussion series curated by Piers Plowright. The festival concludes on Sunday 29 November, the day of the Hampstead Christmas street fair, with a performance of Handel’s Messiah conducted by James Sherlock in Hampstead Parish Church

Vision: The Imagined Testimony of Hidegard von Bingen

Vision: The Imagined Testimony of Hildegard of Bingen @ St Paul's Church, Brighton - The Telling, 25 October 2015 - photo Robert Piwko
Vision: The Imagined Testimony of
Hildegard von Bingen

Clare Norburn & Leah Stuttard - photo Robert Piwko
Vision - The Imagined Testimony of Hildegard von Bingen; Niamh Cusack, The Telling, Celestial Sirens; Brighton Early Music Festival at St Paul's Church, Brighton
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 25 2015
Star rating: 4.5

Music and text combine in a highly evocative programme of Hildegard's music

As Brighton Early Music Festival (BREMF) continued its exploration of women in music inevitably nuns loomed large, the role of nun being one of the few open to medieval women. Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) was a highly significant figure in the medieval church, a powerful abbess, visionary, writer and musician. She was known as the sibyl of the Rhine. BREMF's Vision: The Imagined Testimony of Hildegard von Bingen at St Paul's Church, Brighton on 25 October 201 combined a narration written by Clare Norburn (co-artistic director of the festival) and spoken by Niamh Cusack, with Hildegard's music performed by The Telling (Clare Norburn and Yvonne Eddy sopranos, Leah Stuttard harp), and members of the Celestial Sirens.

Set in St Paul's Church, the rood screen and dressed altar formed a backdrop which combined with Natalie Rowland's atmospheric lighting to form a powerful setting with candles a big feature.

Niamh Cusack was off-stage providing the narrator as Hildegard's disembodied voice remembering events from the past. This took the form of a series of episodes rather than complete story, giving us an imagined glimpse of how Hildegard's life might have felt. Her sense of the sacred light (which came to her in her visions) was very powerful and formed a striking counterpoint to the music.

Tuesday 27 October 2015

Soundings 2015

Sean Clancy
Sean Clancy
Soundings, the Austrian Cultural Forum London’s contemporary music platform, is now in its 12th year and this year from 2 to 5 November brings together composers from Austria and the UK. This year Seán ClancyChristian Mason, and Kate Whitley from the UK, and Mirela IvičevićHannes Kerschbaumer, and Daniel Moser from Austria will get together for workshops, open rehearsals, and performances with some of the UK’s most renowned performers. There will be a chance to hear their pieces performed in two concerts on 4 November at the Austrian Cultural Forum and 5 November at the Royal College of Music. Performers include will include Sarah Dacey (soprano),Mary Dullea (piano), Ralf Ehlers (viola), Rebecca Hardwick (soprano), Darragh Morgan (violin and conductor), Christopher Redgate (oboe), Rowland Sutherland (flute), and Max Welford (clarinet), as well as students from the Royal College of Music.

There will also be composer portrait sessions with Piers Hellawell, Professor of Composition at Queen's University Belfast, Piers will discuss and unravel trends in their recent work as well as the works to be performed in the two concerts.

Full information from the Austrian Cultural Forum website.

Music of a 16th century nun - Lucrezia Borgia's daughter at BREMF

BRIGHTON EARLY MUSIC FESTIVAL - BREMF 2015 Event 10: Lucrezia Borgia's Daughter @ St Bartholomew's Church, Brighton Musica Secreta, Celestial Sirens & Brighton Festival Youth Choir - photo Robert Piwko
Lucrezia Borgia's Daughter @ St Bartholomew's Church, Brighton Musica Secreta, Celestial Sirens
photo Robert Piwko
Lucrezia Borgia's daughter - music by Leonora d'Este & her contemporaries; Musica Secreta, Celestial Sirens; Brighton Early Music Festival at St Bartholomew's Church
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 24 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Remarkable music written by a remarkable 16th century Italian nun

Leonora d'Este was the daughter of Duke Alfonso I of Ferrara and his wife Lucrezia (Borgia). Despite being the only legitimate daughter in the ducal family, Leonora became a nun against her father's wishes. A music lover, her convent of Clarissan nuns (Poor Clares) was highly musical. As part of this year's Brighton Early Music Festival (BREMF), whose theme is women in music, they presented Musica Secreta and the Celestial Sirens  (directors Deborah Roberts and Laurie Stras) and Brighton Festival Youth Choir (director Esther Jones) at St. Bartholomew's Church on 24 October 2015 in a programme of music written for 16th century Italian nuns by Heinrich Isaac, Josquin des Prez, Adrian Willaert, Cipriano de Rore, Francesco della Viola and probably by Leonora d'Este herself.

The 'probably' arises because Leonora d'Este's music for her convent has left little physical trace, except for a book published anonymously. This is likely hers, but as an aristocrat and a nun it would have been unseemly to be seen to distribute her music. Much of the research into Leonora d'Este was done by Laurie Stras who co-directs, with Deborah Roberts (joint artistic director of BREMF), the vocal ensemble Musica Secreta and the Brighton-based amateur and student ensemble Celestial Sirens.

Lucrezia Borgia's Daughter @ St Bartholomew's Church, Brighton -  Brighton Festival Youth Choir - photo Robert Piwko
Brighton Festival Youth Choir - photo Robert Piwko
We started with a group of Italian laude, vernacular sacred songs, from the century before Leonora d'Este's birth, sung by Brighton Festival Youth Choir conducted by Esther Jones. Gaude flore virginali, Madre che festi and O dilecto Ihesu, attractive, melodic pieces which were appealingly sung by the young choristers.

The youth choir also sang the Alleluia from a sequence from Missa plena de Beata Virgine possibly written by Heinrich Isaac (one of the slight frustrations of the concert was the Laurie Stras's excellent programme notes concentrated on Leonora d'Este and did not say much about the other music being performed). The youth choir was joined by Musica Secreta and the Celestial Sirens singing the attractively melodic Verse and Prose from the other end of the church. The remainder of the programme was then sung by Musica Secreta and the Celestial Sirens.

The soloists of Musica Secreta (Deborah Roberts, Yvonne Eddy, Katharine Hawnt, Nancy Cole and Caroline Trevor) performed some of the programme alone and some with Celestial Sirens accompanied by Alison Kinder on viol and Clare Williams on organ.

Monday 26 October 2015

Ailís Ní Ríain lingers at the Bronte's piano in Haworth.

Ailís Ní Ríain at the Bronte Parsonage Museum
Ailís Ní Ríain at the Bronte Parsonage Museum
Irish composer Ailís Ní Ríain has an intriguing new piece which went live last weekend (23 October). Linger is a set of pieces composed for the Bronte Parsonage Museum in Haworth (home to the Bronte sisters). Each piece has been installed in one of six rooms, the piece each inspired by the rooms, and they are played on and composed for Bronte's own piano. The pieces were particularly inspired by Anne Bronte's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and its depiction of alcoholism.  The pieces are the first to be composed specially for the museum, and the first compositions written for the Bronte's piano. The instrument is an early 19th century upstrung piano which was delivered by canal, and which has recently been restored.

For those not able to visit the museum (where Linger will be in place until January 2016) Ailís Ní Ríain has produced an album (available for download) which contains the six pieces from Linger, additional soundscapes based on The Tenant of Wildfell Hall as well as music by Seth Bennett, Sylvia Hinz and Kelly Jayne Jones. There are also a series of videos on Vimeo which give you a lovely taste: Ailis playing the Bronte's piano, a documentary about the commissioning and writing of the music, a documentary about the restoration off the piano and a film introducing the project.

Mynstrelles with Straunge Sounds

Mynstrelles with Straunge Sounds
Mynstrelles with Straunge Sounds: The Earliest Consort Music for Viols; Clare Wilkinson, Rose Consort of Viols; Delphian
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 19 2015
Star rating: 4.0

The very earliest surviving music for viol consort performed on a set of reconstructed 16th century viols

The consort of viols seems to have developed around the turn of the 15th century, in the years before and after 1500. This new disc on Delphian presents music from some of the earliest manuscripts surviving with the Rose Consort of Viols (John Bryan, Alison Crum, Andrew Kerr, Roy Marks) playing a set of modern instruments reconstructing those earliest of viols and joined by mezzo-soprano Clare Wilkinson. The music ranges from the earliest Italian manuscript, to the Spanish court and eventually to England. Many pieces are anonymous, but composers include Josquin des Prez, Francisco de Penalosa, Alexander Agricola, Juan del Encina, Johannes Martini, Joan Ponce, William Cornysh, Juan de Ancieta, Henricus Isaac and Henry VIII.

Rose Consort of Viols (John Bryan, Alison Crum, Andrew Kerr, Roy Marks)
Rose Consort of Viols (John Bryan,
Alison Crum, Andrew Kerr, Roy Marks)
Early viol consorts seem to have developed at the court of Ferrara, involving members of the ruling d'Este family. The court at Ferrara was always rather advanced musically, later in the 1500's the Concerto delle donne, the consort of virtuosic singing ladies would come to the fore there. These early viols have not survived, but we have a painting of some by Lorenzo Costa for an altarpiece in Bologna. Costa was in fact Ferrara trained and worked for Isabella d'Este. For this disc, Roger Rose and students on the early music instrument-building course at West Dean have reconstructed a viol consort.

One of the earliest surviving manuscripts was written in Bologna just before 1506, probably for the ruling family which had links to Ferrara. But music was also transmitted in print, and from the 1500's the editions of Ottaviano Petrucci in Venice enabled other courts to experiment with this music. Most of the works in the Bologna manuscript have song titles, but have no words attached and so some of them on this disc have had the correct text added with Clare Wilkinson singing.

Music in use at the Spanish court is preserved in a manuscript known as the Cancionero de Palacio and this inevitably leads to speculation about how and when this type of music come to England. Did Catherine of Aragon, who was known to be very musical, bring a consort with her? We don't know, but by the time the so-called Henry VIII book came to be compiled this music, was current with textless songs similar to those in the Bologna manuscript as well as music by Agricola and Isaac.

Sunday 25 October 2015

Poetry in Music - The Sixteen

Coro - Poetry in Music - The Sixteen
William Harris, Michael Tippett, Thomas Weelkes, James MacMillan, Ivor Gurney, Robert Ramsay, Benjamin Britten, Edmund Rubbra, Michael East, Herbert Howells, Robert Pearsall and Thomas Tomkins; The Sixteen, Harry Christophers; Coro
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 20 2015
Star rating: 5.0

Music and poetry combine in performances of English classics

Poetry in Music the latest disc from Harry Christophers and The Sixteen on the Coro label, combines an attractive selection of British choral music spanning four centuries, with an emphasis on the combination of music and fine poetry. Many of the texts are sacred, but cover a fine variety with music by William Harris, Michael Tippett, Thomas Weelkes, James MacMillan, Ivor Gurney, Robert Ramsay, Benjamin Britten, Edmund Rubbra, Michael East, Herbert Howells, Robert Pearsall and Thomas Tomkins, setting texts by Spenser, Christopher Fry, Robert Burns, Robert Bridges, WH Auden, Helen Waddell, Beaumont and Fletcher, Robert Herrick, John Donne and the bible.

The disc opens with something of a classic, Faire is the Heaven, a setting of Spenser by William Harris, the organist at St George's Chapel, Windsor. Rather conservative in style, but finely conceived for double choir and full of Harris's trademark enharmonic changes, the work is performed here in a posed and very shapely account. The acoustic of St Alban the Martyr in London adds a significant resonance which makes for a lovely atmospheric performance. Christophers gives the music some impulsion, and this is certainly not self indulgent.

Saturday 24 October 2015

Passio - Arvo Pärt's St John Passion at Kings Place

"Arvo Pärt" by Woesinger - Arvo Part. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons -
"Arvo Pärt" by Woesinger - Arvo Part.
Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons.
Arvo Pärt's Passio or St John Passion ; Edward Grint, Thomas Hobbs, Maud Millar, David Allsopp, Joel Williams, William Gaunt, Endymion, choir of King's College Cambridge, Stephen Cleobury; Kings Place
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 23 2015
Star rating: 5.0

Mesmerising with a strong emotional undercurrent, Pärt's seminal passion setting

Arvo Pärt's Passio or St John Passion of 1989 is one of his seminal works, a large scale piece in his tintinnabuli style. Written for vocal ensemble, soloists, instrumental ensemble, choir and organ, it was brought to Kings Place as part of the Minimalism Unwrapped season with Stephen Cleobury conducting soloists Edward Grint (Jesus) and Thomas Hobbs (Pilate), a vocal quartet of Maud Millar, David Allsopp, Joel Williams and William Gaunt as Evangelist, members of Endymion, and the choir of King's College, Cambridge.

These were a lot of performers to fit into the performing space in Kings Place's Hall One. In fact, the choir of King's College, Cambridge were crammed into the balcony above the platform and lacking an organ, an electronic one was used to creditable effect played by one of the choir's organ scholars, Tom Etheridge and Richard Gowers.

Pärt uses his performers in separate groups and creates a distinctive tonal centre and sound quality for each. The choir's music, supported by organ, is vivid and strong in a style which will be familiar from choral work's such as Pärt's Magnificat Antiphons. By contrast the part of the Evangelist is sung by the vocal quartet supported, tintinnabuli style, by the instrumental ensemble. Pärt divides the Evangelist's part into sections (though this is not completely apparent in performance) and each section starts with a solo voice and then builds before reducing back down to a solo voice, the effect is mesmerising. In between these, we have the two solo voices, tenor soloist as Pilate and bass soloist as Jesus.

The basic melodic material is chant-like, with Pärt giving different groups rather different not values. Jesus has the lowest and longest notes, always accompanied by a drone whilst Pilate and Evangelist vary between unaccompanied chant and tintinnabulation.

Of course, there is a sense that in performance none of this matters. We should not have to worry about the composer's superstructure for a work and could almost feel that if it shows then something might be wrong. In the performance at Kings Place it was clear that the prime importance was telling the story. This was a vivid narration of the passion, presided over with confidence and clear direction by Stephen Cleobury. He ensured that the various disparate elements came together into a single, mesmerising and rather moving whole. Not everything was quite perfect, these were real performers working in real conditions with all the limitations that implies regarding rehearsal and such, and Pärt's music requires an absolute clarity of performance and technique. Overall this was something the performers gave us, but they also captured something of the real spirit of the piece too.


The Hermes Experiment - Thurstan Redding
The Hermes Experiment - Thurstan Redding
The Hermes Experiment's latest event, Metropolis, mixes new music by  Stevie Wishart  Ewan Campbell and Jethro Cooke, with arrangements and free improvisation, all inspired by our image of the ciity. Performed at The Cockpit Theatre on 27 October 2015 the Hermes Experiment features performers Anne Denholm, harp, Oliver Pashley, clarinet, Marianne Schofield, double bass , Heloise Werner, soprano and is directed by Heloise Werner and Hanna Grzeskiewicz.

Stevie Wishart’s new piece is based on the Eurostar, and will create sonic icons reflecting on the Eurostar, whilst Ewan Campbell’s new piece uses an intricate graphic score based on the London tube map to take us on various journeys inspired by London and its poets. For Jethro Cooke’s new piece, field recordings made in and around London have been collected and collaged to create a new, semi-improvised piece that puts instruments in dialogue with the sounds of the city. Also in the programme will be arrangements of Joni Mitchell, and Kurt Weill, plus free improvisation.

An encounter with Stefan Forsberg, from the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra

Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra and Sakari Oramo - photo credit Dan Hansson
Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra and Sakari Oramo - photo credit Dan Hansson
Stockholm's Konserthuset, the main concert hall in the centre of Stockholm, is a large blue classical revival building in the centre of Norrmalm, the area of the city redeveloped in the 20th century and now a buzzing heart of shops and commerce. The concert hall, purpose built in the 1920's is the home of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra (their name in Swedish, Kungliga Filharmonikerna, simply means Royal Philharmonic Orchestra). In fact, the building is owned by the orchestra and fulfils two important functions, a home for the orchestra for concerts, rehearsals and recording, and a venue for the annual Nobel Prize ceremony.

Stefan Forsberg
Stefan Forsberg
So Stefan Forsberg, the CEO, manages the orchestra and the hall, with responsibility for the artistic direction of both. He has been in post since 2003, and before his move into management was a trumpeter. I was lucky enough to interview Stefan the morning after my first visit to the hall, for the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra's concert of music by Lili and Nadia Boulanger conducted by Marc Soustrot.

'We love festivals, for a reason and for no reason'

The concert was part of the orchestra's 2015 Composers Festival, an annual event devoted to a living composer but this year given to the music of the Boulanger sisters. Stefan explained that they like festivals (the Composers Festival is in its 30th year), both for a reason and for no reason. The 2015 anniversary for Sibelius and Nielsen generated their Sibelius Nielsen Festival earlier this year, when they were joined by a number of guest orchestras.

Stefan and his team feel that concentrating music in festivals improves the attention it gets and after 30 years of contemporary music in the Composers Festivals, their audience trusts them. At the Lili and Nadia Boulanger concert there was an audience of around 1100 for music which most had never heard of, and the same would be true of contemporary music.

Systrarna Boulanger

Friday 23 October 2015

Planet Hugill in Stockholm: Stockholm's concert hall

Stockholm's Concert Hall | © Jan-Olav Wedin
Stockholm's Concert Hall: Classical to World Music, my article on the Culture Trip website look as at the Concert Hall in Stockholm, a fine historic building from the 1920's and full of Swedish arts and architecture. Home to both the Nobel Prize Ceremonies and to the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra it is well worth a visit. Read more on the Culture Trip.

Strongly characterised - Jenufa in Leeds

Janacek Jenufa - Opera North - photo Richard H Smith
Janacek Jenufa - Opera North - photo Richard H Smith
Janacek Jenufa; Ylva Kihlberg, Susan BIckley, Elizabeth Sikora, David Butt Philip, Ed Lyon, dir: Tom Cairns, cond: Aleksandar Markovic; Opera North at the Grand Theatre Leeds
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 22 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Strong ensemble, and coruscating performances from Susan Bickley and from the orchestra

Opera North's production of Janacek's Jenufa was new in 1995, and returned to the Grand Theatre Leeds on 22 October 2015 looking fresh and intense with a strong cast. Ylva Kihlberg was Jenufa, with Ed Lyon as Steva, David Butt Philip as Laca, Susan Bickley as the Kostelnicka, and Elizabeth Sikora as Grandmother Buryjovka. Aleksandar Markovic conducted, with direction and design by Tom Cairns, lighting by Wolfgang Göbbel, choreography by Aletta Collins.

David Butt Philip and Ylva Kihlberg - Janacek Jenufa - Opera North - photo Richard H Smith
David Butt Philip and Ylva Kihlberg
Janacek Jenufa - Opera North - photo Richard H Smith
Cairns production placed the opera in the early to mid 20th century, with costumes which reflected the distinctive Bohemian location of the original story mixed with more traditional 20th century clothing. The sets presented a strongly characterised world, all slightly akilter with sloping floors, uneven backdrops and a very striking colour palate.

Cairns direction was strong on the interaction between the characters. Act One having a powerful sense of the undercurrents present in the family relationships, though the drama felt a little out of focus here. In Act Two, with Susan Bickley's powerful performance as the Kostelnicka, the drama really came into focus. Her visually and vocally strong account of Act Three almost threatened to destabilise the work, but she was supported by equally powerful performances from Ylva Kihlberg as Jenufa, Ed Lyon as Steva and David Butt Philip as Laca, with well characterised performances from Jeremy Peaker and Claire Pascoe as the Mayor and his wife, and Daisy Brown as Karolka.

Susan Bickley - Janacek Jenufa - Opera North - photo Richard H Smith
Susan Bickley
Janacek Jenufa - Opera North - photo Richard H Smith
I first came to know Jenufa in David Poutney's production for Scottish Opera with Pauline Tinsley as the Kostelnicka and her performance has remained a touchstone for me. Susan Bickley brought the same qualities of intensity, strength of line and the sense of a powerful character conveyed through the voice, but combined with an intense feeling of sympathy too. Bickley's account of the Act One aria, in which the Kostelnicka explains her life with Jenufa's father and why she is against the marriage with Steva, threatened to de-stabilise Act One which is perhaps why Janacek cut it. Bickley's Kostelnicka was a remarkably intense but dowdy woman, slightly forbidding too. And Bickley brought out a real sense of the Kostelnicka's character in her interactions with Jenufa, Laca and Steva in Act Two. It was in this act that the drama really took fire, thanks to the superb ensemble work between Bickley, Kihlberg, Butt Philip and Lyon. This was opera at its most dramatically intense. This continued into Act Three, with a mesmerising performance as Bickley clearly showed Kostelnicka going to pieces, until the moment when she confesses and then Bickley's whiplash voice cut through the ensemble and she was in charge again.

Pupils of Nadia Boulanger - a soup concert with Burt Bacharach and Michel Legrand

Fredrik Lycke and Andre Ferrari at Stockholm's Concert Hall - photo Jan-Olav Wedin
Fredrik Lycke and Andre Ferrari at Stockholm's Concert Hall - photo Jan-Olav Wedin
Michel Legrand, Burt Bacharach; Fredrik Lycke, Anders Neglin, Andre Ferrari; Stockholm Concert Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 16 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Planet Hugill in Stockholm: Music by Legrand and Bacharach, both pupils of Nadia Boulanger, in intelligent musical performances

The second which I attended in the Royal Swedish Philharmonic Orchestra's 2015 Composer's Festival at the Stockholm Concert Hall, dedicated to the music of Lili and Nadia Boulanger, was a lunchtime concert on Friday 16 October 2015. The hall runs regular lunchtime soup concerts in the smaller hall, the Grunewald Hall (so called because it is decorated all over with paintings by the Swedish artist Isaac Grunewald). This concert in the series took a slightly different slant. Having presented music by the two sisters in the three previous concerts, the lunchtime one looked at music by two of Nadia Boulanger's pupils. There were many to choose from, but intriguingly Michel Legrand and Burt Bacharach were chosen. That is part of Nadia Boulanger's fascination, her pupils included some of the main classical composers from the 20th century along with conductors like John Eliot Gardiner as well as composers who would go on to work in more popular vein. The songs were performed by Fredrik Lycke, a Swedish actor who performs regularly in musicals, with Anders Neglin (keyboards) and Andre Ferrari (percussion).

Thursday 22 October 2015

Wagner's second opera gets rare outing

Wagner - Das Liebesverbot
Chelsea Opera Group give us a chance to hear one of Wagner's earliest works on Sunday. Conducted by Anthony Negus (music director of Longborough Opera), the group performs Wagner's Das Liebesverbot at Cadogan Hall on Sunday 25 October 2015. Written in 1834 and premiered in 1836, with a libretto based on Shakespeare's Measure for Measure the work features Helena Dix (Isabella), Kirstin Sharpin (Marianne), David Soar (Friedrich), Nicholas Folwell (Brighella),Paul Curievici (Luzio), Elizabeth Cragg (Dorella), Peter Hoare (Claudio), Piran Legg (Danieli) and Toby Girling (Angelo). It represents a rare opportunity to hear Wagner's second opera, in which contemporary French and Italian models vie with influences which hint at his later work.

Chelsea Opera Group's season continues with Verdi's Il Trovatore (28 February 2016) and Rossini Le Comte Ory (25 June 2016).

Stravinsky concertante works for piano

Alexej Gorlatch - Stravinsky - Sony
Stravinsky Concerto, Capriccio, Piano Sonata; Alexej Gorlatch, Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, Alondra de la Parra
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 13 2015
Star rating: 4.5

Superb performances of Stravinsky's two concertante works from the young Russian pianist

The piano seem so central to the sound-world of much of Stravinsky's music that is seems surprising that he didn't write more music for the solo instrument. This disc, on Sony Classical, from the young German-based Ukrainian pianist Alexej Gorlatch and the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin conducted by the Mexican conductor Alondra de la Parra, brings together the Concerto for piano and wind instruments, the Capriccio for piano and orchestra and the early piano sonata.

Alexej Gorlatch & Alondra de la Parra
Alexej Gorlatch & Alondra de la Parra
We open with the Concerto for piano and wind instruments (in fact the ensemble includes double basses and timpani too), written in 1924 at the height of Stravinsky's neo-classical period. This is Stravinsky at his most hieratic, in Symphony of Psalms vein, and using the piano to maximum percussive effect.

After a slow, strikingly monolithic wind introduction, we are struck by the attack, brilliance and intensity of the piano entry. This is a full focus, high energy performance with Gorlatch and the orchestra giving maximum brilliance to Stravinsky's music. Attack and articulation are coordinated between soloist and orchestra to a superb degree, and the music is vividly involving too. The second movement, Largo, is full of contrasts, quiet intensity against very hard edged moments, and whilst percussive attack is prominent in the piano there is lyricism too. The last movement, Allegro, starts out rather fugal with a love sense of tone colours. Never a grim piece, this performance explodes in youthful energy and a great feeling of percussive joy.

Dating from a few years later (1928), Stravinsky also wrote the Capriccio for himself to play. Still neo-classical, there is a greater florid feel to the writing for piano. The opening movement, Presto, i perky and full of contrasts but with the percussive edge less to the fore in the piano. Here there is lyricism combined with rhythmic attack, but still a sense of that discipline which comes with Stravinsky's music of the period. In the second movement, Andante rapsodico, you notice the contrast between the disciplined rhapsodies of the piano and the lyrical lines of the instruments, with the piano writing quite florid. Finally, the Allegro capriccioso ma tempo giusto, is nicely perky and up-tempo with some brilliant jazzy moments.

Wednesday 21 October 2015

Time Machine - Roger Doyle

Time Machine - Roger Doyle
Roger Doyle Time Machine; Heresy Records
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 13 2015
Electro-acoustic music and answer-phone messages in intriguing combination

Roger Doyle is an Irish composer best known for his electro-acoustic music and this new disc Time Machine on Heresy Records combines an electro-acoustic score written and performed by Doyle with answer-phone messages. The title of the album, Time Machine refers to the fact that though the music is recent (2010 to 2011) the answer-phone messages date from 1987 to 1989.

In his introductory note, Doyle admits to saving hundreds of telephone answering machine messages, hours and hours of them dating from a period from 1987 to 1989 when he lived in a top floor flat in Merrion Square, Dublin. Taken as a whole they give a picture of bohemian life in Dublin in the 1980's and are probably an important social document. Doyle has chosen a few which would stand on their own without detailed reference to Doyle's life, and around these has written music. The two intertwine so that Doyle feels that the messages will not stand on their own, and neither will the music.

The messages are many and various, with his parents phoning to congratulate him on a commission, his son (aged 10 and 11) leaving various messages, the late Jonathan Philbin Bowman in an improvised stream of consciousness message, a message Doyle made for his grandson, well-wishers after a stay in hospital, initially rather frightening prank calls, congratulations about his score for Steven Berkoff's production of Salome and an automated message about the birth of his grandson.

Cambridge Festival of Ideas

The Cambridge Festival of Ideas opened on Monday and runs for two weeks, with a wealth of events covering everything from politics and philosophy to visual art and performance. The genre-busting mix of music ranges from dub and hip hop to opera and classical. Tansy Davies opera Between Worlds, which was premiered by ENO, receives a concert performance, George Chambers and Rebecca Hardwick perform Stockhausen's In the Sky I am Walking, the Clerks of Jesus College Chapel mark the anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt.

At Kettles Yard, you can hear the Quartetto di Cremona, and Krysia Osostowicz and Daniel Tong in Beethoven's violin sonatas and new music by Kurt Schwertsik. The Ligeti Quartet will be performing music by young people including the winner of the Cambridge Young Composer of the Year competition.

Verdi's Otello with Nadine Benjamin and Ronald Samm

Nadine Benjamin
Nadine Benjamin
Soprano Nadine Benjamin, who sang Nadia in Tippett's The Ice Break with Birmingham Opera Company, is presenting a semi-staged version of Verdi's Otello at St James's Church, Piccadilly on 23 October 2015. Benjamin sings Desdemona, with Trinidad-born tenor Ronald Samm as Otello (in fact Samm was the first black tenor to sing the role) and South African baritone Denver Martin Smith as Iago. William Conway, director of the Hebrides Ensemble, conducts and Rebecca Louise Dale directs.

The opera is being presented under the aegis of Benjamin's 'arts meets business' creative mentoring programme and Benjamin is in fact a certified High Performance Coach.

Tickets are available from the St Martin in the Fields website.

Tuesday 20 October 2015

Gavin Higgins' Tanze

London Music Masters (LMM) is a charity which advocates new music for young professionals and children. LMM Learning is an educational initiative which identifies and nurtures young children who might not otherwise have the opportunity to engage in classical music. On 23 October a group of LMM Learning students will be joining with members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra to perform a new LMM commission, Tanze by Gavin Higgins, plus the RVW Concerto Grosso and a baroque dance suite.

The concert takes place at 6pm and is free. It is followed at 7.30pm by a concert from Thierry Fischer and the London Philharmonic Orchestra in which LMM Ambassador, Benjamin Grosvenor will be playing the Ravel Piano Concerto in G Major. 

Further information from the LMM website.

Leonard Ingrams Foundation awards

Celestin Boutin, Paul Nilon - Death in Venice - Garsington Opera - photo Clive Barda
Celestin Boutin, Paul Nilon - Death in Venice
Garsington Opera - photo Clive Barda
The Leonard Ingrams Awards were launched in 2006 to honour the memory of the founder of Garsington Opera. Winners of this year's awards are Bradley Travis and Llio Evans. Travis sang a number of roles in this year's production of Britten's Death in Venice at Garsington (see my review) whilst Llio Evans understudied the role of Despina in this year's production of Cosi fan Tutte.

Bradley Travis commented: 'This award has come at absolutely the right time in my career and amongst other things, will enable me to do an intensive course at the Goethe Institute, invest in a number of scores, have specialist coaching in modern music and continue my regular singing lessons.'

Two other young singers received smaller awards, with Oliver Johnson receiving the Helen Clarke Award and Daniel Rudge the Simon Sandbach Award.

Silver Bow - Violin showpieces transformed

Katherine Bryan - Silver Bow
Silver Bow - music by RVW, Saint-Saens, Shostakovich, Drdla, Paganini, Massenet, Kreisler, Sarasate; Katherine Bryan, Royal Scottish National Ochestra, Jac van Steen; Linn
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 10 2015
Star rating: 4.0

High quality musicianship and imagination in this disc of transcriptions for flute and orchestra

On this new disc from Linn Records, flautist Katherine Bryan plays music for solo flute and orchestra by RVW, Saint-Saens, Shostakovich, Frantisek Drdla, Massenet, Kreisler and Sarasate with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Jac van Steen, along with music for solo flute by Paganini. The catch, of course, is that with the exception of one piece on the disc all the music was actually written for violin and Bryan has arranged the solo part for flute with, in some cases, Chris Hazell adjusting the orchestration.

I have to confess that when I saw the CD my heart rather sank. Another disc of transcriptions for flute, with an attractive female flautist on the cover whose pictures ticked all the boxes - sexy, stylish, witty and with significant decolletage. But when I started listening, I was won over. This is no disc of pot-pourri selections but a group of striking violin show pieces which Bryan shows can work for flute.

Of course, you cannot just play violin parts on the flute, though the two have a great deal in common in terms of tessitura, the flute's sound changes significantly over its range so that in some places Bryan has had to transpose music down to get the right softness and in others transpose it up to get the right degree of brilliance. Also, Chris Hazell has adjusted the orchestration of the Shostakovich and the Sarasate, to enable the flute to be heard in places, and has orchestrated the Drdla.

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