Saturday 30 July 2016

Sylvan delights: Gounod's La Colombe at West Green House

West Green House  - photo Michelle Chapman
West Green House - photo Michelle Chapman
Gounod La Colombe; Emily Vine, Katie Coventry, Adam Temple-Smith, Simon Butteriss, Orpheus Sinfonia, Alistair Digges; Opera Danube at West Green House Opera
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on July 30 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Gounod's charming opera comique in a simple but effective production in the gardens of West Green House

The 2016 opera season at West Green House encompasses productions of Verdi's La Traviata and Mozart's Cosi fan tutte along with Gounod's La Colombe. We caught an afternoon performance of La Colombe on Saturday 30 July 2016, which enabled us to wander round the lovely gardens before and after the opera. The production was co-production between West Green House Opera and Opera Danube. Directed by Simon Butteriss, the opera featured Katie Coventry as Mazet, Simon Butteriss as Maitre Jean, Adam Temple-Smith as Horace and Emily Vine as Countess Sylvie. Alistair Digges conducted members of the Orpheus Sinfonia.

The opera was performed in the lake-side pavilion which meant that the pastoral setting of the work was echoed in the views of the lake through the windows to the rear of the stage. The simple but effective setting was just a garden seat and a few props, whilst the 10 members of the Orpheus Sinfonia (single strings and woodwind) were placed stage right. The pavilion's acoustics were a little dry, but the delightful situation more than compensated and the relative compactness of the venue ensured that the audience was close enough to have a strong connection to the cast.

This was made the most of by the performers, using Simon Butteriss's lively translation. The original libretto, by Jules Barbier and Michel Carre, is perhaps more amusing than funny. But Butteriss's discreet updating brought in a vein of charming comedy, and it helped that all four performers were highly communicative. We were close enough to see facial expressions clearly, and much was made of this to delightful effect.

Costumes were loosely 16th century, though the programme note described the setting as 'the countryside near Florence during an anachronistic 16th century'. Butteriss had made some slight adjustments to the plot, which helped minimise the vein of misogyny in the work and resolve the loose ends. This was particularly true of the character of Mazet (Katie Coventry) where the characters's doubts about Mazet's gender were revealed at the end when the dove was transformed into a female Mazet who proceeded to go off in a threesome with the Countess (Emily Vine) and Horace (Adam Temple-Smith).

The plot is very much a one-joke thing; Horace's need to provide a meal for the Countess (his former lover) means that he has his dove (La Colombe of the title) cooked, though in fact the Countess has come to visit because she desires the dove above all things. Simon Butteriss's programme note brought out some rather interesting spiritual overtones in the work, which made you see the slight plot in new light.

Elsa, Tosca and co: I chat to soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn as she prepares for her debut as Tosca

Elizabeth Llewellyn - Photograph by Shirley Suarez
Elizabeth Llewellyn - Photograph by Shirley Suarez
The soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn made her English National Opera (ENO) debut in 2010 as Mimi in La Boheme, subsequently singing the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro with ENO and with Opera Holland Park (for whom she also sang Fiordiligi in Cosi van tutte), and Amelia in Simon Boccanegra with English Touring Opera (a role she also sang at short notice with Mark Elder and the Halle). Since then she has rather disappeared from UK stages, but has not been silent. She has performed Bess (Porgy and Bess), Giorgetta and Suor Angelica (Il Trittico) with the Royal Danish Opera, and sung a number of roles with Theater Magdeburg including her debut as Elsa in Lohengrin. Later this year Elizabeth will be making her debut in the title role of Tosca at Theater Magdeburg so I caught up with her to chat about Elsa, Tosca and the interesting direction her voice has taken. (see also part two of our interview).

In person Elizabeth is both charming and articulate, and she clearly thinks deeply both about the roles she undertakes and the type of role which suits her. Our discussion ranged widely but in great detail looking at how Elizabeth thinks about roles such as Elsa and Tosca, but also at the wider issues facing young singers as their voices develop. In this first part of the interview we talk about how her relationship with Theater Magdeburg developed, how it was there she felt comfortable debuting Elsa and Tosca, and the importance of knowing your voice when looking at roles.

Elizabeth Llewellyn as Elsa in Lohengrin at Theater Magdeburg 2014
Elizabeth Llewellyn as Elsa in Lohengrin
at Theater Magdeburg 2014
Though Elsa is a jugend-dramatisch role, Elizabeth has a very clear-eyed view of her assumption of the role. The theatre at Magdeburg is not a large one and the house was not looking for a big dramatic soprano, also Theater Magdeburg is a company with which Elizabeth has started to feel at home. When she made her debut as Elsa, she had never sung any Wagner and in fact never sung any opera in German. I ask how her German is, and she laughs and says that it is good now; working at Theater Magdeburg, which is in the former DDR, meant conversing a lot in German.

The Intendant at the theatre is Karen Stone whom Elizabeth feels has changed the face of the house and the audience, bringing it into the 21st century and doing joint productions with companies such as the Royal Opera, Covent Garden. The company has a really solid ensemble and orchestra, doing a mix of Wagner, Verdi and Puccini on a regular basis along with some really interesting world premieres. The company has a full season, and Elizabeth comments that it shows what reasonable government funding can do for the arts so that even second or third level houses in Germany have full seasons.

There is, of course, a lot of operetta and light opera in the schedule but they get sell-out houses. There were nine performances of Lohengrin (an opera which was a big undertaking for a house that size) and all were sold out. Elizabeth sang Mimi in La Boheme with them last year, and Karen Stone's production was in fact the first time the company had done the opera for 10 years.

The system has flexibility, members of the ensemble guest and guests like Elizabeth come and perform. She has done five or six productions with them and it felt right to make her role debut as Tosca at the house. She feels that it is a very logical role for her to be singing now, and finds the role beautifully crafted and and written for the soprano voice.

Part of the singer's job is to find repertory that almost sings itself,
so that you can cope with the physical demands of the production

Friday 29 July 2016

Into 2017: Monteverdi Choir and Orchestras looking forward to Monteverdi 450

Vivienne Westwood, Andreas Kronthaler & women from the Monteverdi Choir
Vivienne Westwood, Andreas Kronthaler & women
from the Monteverdi Choir
The Monteverdi Choir and Orchestras, artistic director John Eliot Gardiner, are having a busy summer with a tour of Bach's St Matthew Passion, Berlioz's Romeo et Juliette at the BBC Proms and Schumann's Manfred at the Edinburgh Festival. This turns into an equal busy Autumn as the choir performs Mendelssohn's Lobesgesang with a number of different orchestras under John Eliot Gardiner's direction, the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique tours a Brahms, Beethoven and Schubert programme, and the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists will celebrate the Advent with Bach's Magnificat in E flat. But of course, what most people will really be anticipating is the group's Monteverdi 450 celebrations in 2017, these will take Monteverdi's three operas, Vespers of 1610 and a programme of Madrigals on a tour from Bristol to Chicago.

And the women of the Monteverdi Choir will have new outfits for their tours, as Vivienne Westwood and Andreas Kronthaler have designed jackets for the women to wear in concert. The design was developed by the Vivienne Westwood couture team and tailored specifically for each performer.

At the Edinburgh Festival, John Eliot Gardiner conducts the Monteverdi Choir and Scottish Chamber Orchestra in a rare performance of Schumann's complete Manfred, the melodrama inspired by Lord Byron. Mendelssohn's Lobesgesang is perhaps not quite as rare, but it still crops up pretty infrequently. John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir are touring the work performing with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchester in Leipzig and then touring Germany with the London Symphony Orchestra, luckily there are a couple of London dates too, 16 & 20 October at the Barbican. Soloists for the tour are Lucy Crowe, Jurgita Adamonyte, Michael Spyres and Patrick Grahl.

It is then the turn of the Orchestra Revolutionnaire et Romantique, as they and John Eliot Gardiner are joined by pianist Kristian Bezuidenhout for a programme of Brahms Serenade No. 2, Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 and Schubert's Symphony No. 5. No London date I'm afraid, the tour goes to Paris, Bruges, Zurich, Luxembourg, Eindhoven and Amsterdam. Finally John Eliot Gardiner, the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists are touring an all-Bach programme which includes his cantata Süßer Trost BWV 151, Lutheran Mass in F major and the Magnificat in E flat, with soloists Hannah Morrison, Eleanor Minney, Reginald Mobley, Hugo Hymas and Gianluca Buratto. The tour starts in Frankfurt and finishes at the Barbican in London, taking in Gronigen, Berlin, Munich, Vienna and Versailles.

The Monteverdi 450 project starts off in Aix-en-Provence in April 2017 and then works is way through Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, France and the USA. There is a UK date but not in London, Bristol's Colston Hall is the venue in April and May 2017. Sir John Eliot Gardiner will be conducting the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists, and Elsa Rooke will be staging L'Orfeo, Il ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria and L'incoronazione di Poppea with an impressive list of soloists (see the Monteverdi 450 website) including Krystian Adam, Hana Blažíková, Gianluca Buratto, Robert Burt, Michal Czerniawski, Peter Davoren, Anna Dennis, Marianna Pizzolato, Zachary Wilder and Furio Zanasi.

Full information about the Monteverdi 450 tour from the website, other concerts on the Monteverdi Choir and Orchestras concert page.

Journey Through Time At Glashütte's German Watch Museum

German Watch Museum.
Located near Dresden, the town of Glashütte is a popular weekend attraction for those travelling to Sächsische Schweiz (Saxon Switzerland). A relatively sleepy German town, Glashütte becomes a hive of industry during the week as the home base for Germany’s watc-hmaking industry (employing over 2,000 people), housing several luxury brands such as Tourneau, Swatch, and Glashütte Original. If not for the retail prospects, Glashütte is a worthwhile stopover for design aficionados as the site of the German Watch Museum. Here, visitors can learn about everything from watch-making techniques to the personalities involved in bringing this intricate craft to an otherwise quiet location. 

We visited the museum when I was recently in Dresden for the Dresden Music Festival. Find out more in my article on

The fascinating sound-world of 20th century accordion music - Bartosz Glowacki at the Wallace Collection

Bartosz Glowacki - photo Karol Prajsner
Scarlatti, Trojan, Takahashi, Makkonen, Pärt, Zolotaryov, Piazzolla; Bartosz Glowacki; City Music Foundation at the Wallace Collection
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 28 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Contemporary music for accordion and transcriptions in an imaginative programme

The City Music Foundation is presenting all of its current artists in a week long residency at the Wallace Collection, with a recital by a different artist or ensemble each day. I caught the lunchtime recital by Polish accordion player Bartosz Glowacki on Thursday 28 July 2016. His imaginative programme started with a pair of Domenico Scarlatti sonatas, and then moved through Vaclav Trojan's Destroyed Cathedral, Yuji Takahashi's Like a Water Buffalo, Petri Makkonen's Flight Beyond Time, Arvo Pärt's Pari Intervallo, and the third movement of Vladislav Zolotaryov's Sonata no. 3 to end with Astor Piazzolla's Libertango. In between the items Glowacki introduced the music, some of the pieces are relatively unknown to audiences but represent important milestones in accordion music. He also introduced the instrument itself, sketching in a little of its history and explaining how the free bass system enabled the playing of polyphonic music with the left hand. He was playing a Pigini accordion.

The Domenico Scarlatti sonatas provided a nicely contrasting pair with the gentle Sonata in A major having wandering melody in the RH with more sustained chords in the left, whilst the Sonata in E minor required some really nifty finger-work in both hands. It was an interesting new sound-world, and a remarkably successful transposition of the music.

Next followed The Destroyed Cathedral by the Czech composer Vaclav Trojan (1907-1983), perhaps best known for his film scores. The work was written in 1958 and is an early example of contemporary writing for the accordion. Trojan wrote the work in response to seeing the destruction in Dresden. Opening in a gently sustained way, utilising the accordion's ability to sound organ-like, the work built in intensity whilst taking advantage of the instrument's facility both to play large chords and to change character quickly. The result was rather compelling and intense (see the video at the bottom of this review, recorded by Glowacki in Aldeburgh).

Yuji Takahashi (born 1938) is a Japanese composer, he was also an activist and his accordion piece Like a Water Buffalo was written in 1985 arising out of protest against the military dictatorship in Thailand. The work is based on a poem by the Australian poet and activist Wendy Poussard. Glowacki read the poem first, before playing the work. Starting with just fragments and interestingly rhythmic snatches the work was rather spare, melancholy and thoughtful. Using a sound-world full of jagged edges, the music developed more toccata-like in the central section before the opening fragments returned, and developed again into something more complex. A rather wonderful piece with a very specific sound-world.

Thursday 28 July 2016

Sixth London Festival of American Music

Odaline de la Martinez - photo Malcolm Crowther
Odaline de la Martinez - photo Malcolm Crowther
The Sixth London Festival of American Music, curated by composer/conductor Odaline de la Martinez, which takes place from 6 to 11 November 2016 at The Warehouse, will focus on female composers and performers. The festival opens with a film of scenes from Odaline de la Martinez' opera Imoinda, the first in a trilogy of operas about slavery that she is writing. For the first concert, viola player Stephen Upshaw joins Odaline de la Martinez, Lontano and the New London Chamber Choir for a programme which includes music by Earle Brown, as well as Morton Feldman's Rothko Chapel.

The Fidelio Trio will give a number of premieres including music by Annie Gosfield and Jennifer Higdon. Lontano and de la Martinez return for a concert featuring premieres by Elena Ruehr, Hannah Lash, John Harbison, Charles Shadle and Peter Child, and before the concert there will be a discussion panel of visiting women composers. Soprano Nadine Benjamin and pianist Susanna Stranders will be performing a programme of songs by Amy Beach, Odaline de la Martinez, Libby Larsen, Jennifer Higdon, and Juliana Hall.

The festival concludes with Odaline de la Martinez and Lontano performing a programme including UK and world premieres by Jennifer Higdon, Augusta Read Thomas, Julia Howell, Carlos R Carillo, Laura Kaminsky, Fred Lerdahl and Barbara Jazwinski.

Nature and Science - Launching the 2016 Brighton Early Music Festival

Galileo showed the Doge of Venice how to use the telescope (Fresco by Giuseppe Bertini)
Galileo showing the Doge of Venice how to use the telescope
(Fresco by Giuseppe Bertini)
In the Regency splendour of Angel House in Brunswick Terrace in Brighton, the 15th Brighton Early Music Festival was launched with music from Fresh Ayre (mezzo-soprano Nancy Cole and lutenist Wezi Elliott) and an introduction to the festival from co-directors Deborah Roberts and Clare Norburn. The festival runs from 28 October to 13 November 2016 and takes as its theme Nature and Science: observation, discovery, invention, creation. Deborah Roberts pointed out that the exciting period at the end of the 17th century, when there was an explosion in scientific thought, had a similar explosion in musical activity which saw the development of the modern orchestra and the birth of opera. 

The festival has always striven to create events which are a bit more than a concert and this year's programme is no different. Two key events have, in different ways, strong theatrical elements to them. Clare Norburn has written her fifth concert play Galileo and the festival is giving a modern twist to intermedi, inspired by the Florentine Intermedi of 1589 which they staged a few years ago, and this year is presenting Gaia - three intermedi for a living planet.

Clare Norburn's Galileo will feature musical performances from the Marian Consort (director Rory McCleery) and the Monteverdi String Band. The scientist Galileo might seem a strange subject for a musical play until you realise that he came from a musical family, his father, brother and son were all musicians. Galileo's father did important practical studies into pitch and string tension, and these practical experiments may have influenced the young Galileo. Before him, scientists were essentially philosophers, but he was the first practical scientist turning from abstract thought to physical experiment. The music will all be works which Galileo could have heard, including some by his father.

Gaia, devised and directed by Deborah Roberts, is very much a modern take on the 16th century intermedi. Full of music and spectacle, Gaiai will use a combination of film, music, lighting and dance to look at the physical world and how it has been perceived through the ages. The earth's core will feature in films of volcanos and Brumel's Earthquake Mass, but there will also be music for the underworld from Monteverdi's L'Orfeo. Similarly the earth's crust will use film of the natural world, but move on to music for the gods which people believed inhabited the natural world. The skies will move from bird song to the idea of the heavens, ending with Gabrieli's Regina Coeli. Performers will include the BREMF Consort of Voices (director Deborah Roberts), the BREMF Community Choir (director Andrew Robinson), Onde Sonore, the Lacock Scholars (director Greg Skidmore) and the English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble.

Other concerts exploring the festival's theme include L'Avventura London, director Zak Ozmo, with soprano Grace Davidson, looking at the work of Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680) a 17th century German polymath whose subjects ranged from music to Egyptology. This was a period when music was regarded as one of the sciences, and Kircher even tried to notate birdsong. The programme will use contemporary music to illustrate chapters from Kircher's writings.

Ensemble Moliere will be using music by Marais, Rameau and Forqueray to take us into a 17th century French hospital. Fairest Isle and Foulest Weather features the BREMF Players, the BREMF Singers and soloists Penelope Appleyard, Angela Hicks, Edward Edgcumbe, james Way and James Newby conducted by John Hancorn in music from Locke's The Tempest plus music by Purcell.  Sound House - Francis Bacon and the Nature of Sound is an exploration by the Society of Strange and Ancient Instruments into Francis Bacon's experiments with sound.

Guts and Glory will present Spiritato in music for five natural trumpets! Dr Dee's Daughter and the Philosopher's Stone will pair the recorder consort Palisander with Rust & Stardust puppets for a family-friendly show.

But BREMF is more than just a series of concerts and events. As part of their education programme, two secondary schools will be coming to see Galileo and working on their own response to the piece in music and drama to be performed in December.  Early Music Live, the festival's young artist programme, is 10 years old this year. The festival auditions every year and the four or five performers and ensembles selected are given a showcase concert in the festival. Promoters are invited to these, and last year's artists got a total of around 20 engagements out of it. And it is not just for three weeks, the festival nurtures the artists in a year-long programme and many return to perform in subsequent festivals.

We finished with some music, Fresh Ayre (Nancy Cole and Wezi Elliott) performed songs by John Dowland and Robert Johnson, along with lute solos by Robert Johnson's father, and Galileo's father and brother. Fresh Ayre is taking part in this year's BREMF Early Music Live so there is a chance to hear them at the festival.

Full information from the BREMF website.

Wednesday 27 July 2016

Scenes from the End

Jonathan Woolgar - Scenes from the End - Heloise Werner
Scenes from the End is a new opera by the young composer Jonathan Woolgar. Written for soprano Heloise Werner, the work is being premiered by her, directed by Emily Burns, at Camden People's Theatre on 10 August 2016 before being taken to the Edinburgh Fringe. I caught up with Jonathan Woolgar by telephone to find out more about the work.

Jonathan Woolgar
Jonathan Woolgar
It is indeed a solo piece, the opera features only Heloise Werner and for most of its 45 minute length she sings unaccompanied with just a bit of percussion and recorded sound. Jonathan admitted that it was quite challenge for both performer and composer.

Jonathan explained that the opera deals with cosmic themes, but done in a witty and theatrical way. The opera is in three parts, the first considers the end of the universe, the second the end of the human species and the third, the end of a human life. The piece thinks about the end and how we might grieve, and Jonathan admits that it is quite grandiose. He has written both the music and the words, something he had done before but not on this scale and he sees it as an exciting opportunity.

Jonathan has been working in close collaboration with Heloise and the piece has been re-worked and re-imagined during the rehearsal process. Jonathan has written music for Heloise before, having written for The Hermes Experiment (in which Heloise performs) as well as writing Six Dream Songs for her, a solo piece which he describes as almost a try out for Scene from the End. He thus had an understanding both of Heloise's voice and of her versatility, and she had an idea about the themes he might want to explore. When she approached him about the idea for Scenes from the End, the length and the intention to have a work which was substantially unaccompanied were set quite early but the rest was up for grabs particularly when they thought about the structure of the piece.

Heloise Werner performing with The Hermes Experiment, SONIC VISIONS, The Forge, Feb 2016 - photo by Nick Rutter
Heloise Werner performing with
The Hermes Experiment,
photo by Nick Rutter
Jonathan describes his musical style as communicative but uncompromising (you can hear a sample on his SoundCloud page). He wants to speak to listeners but is concerned not to pander and not to be consciously accessible. But writing such a solo piece, he feels it forces him to speak in the most direct way possible and his music adapts to the dramatic situation.

Though Heloise plays a single character in the opera, the nature of the character changes as the piece progresses. She starts out as an oracle figure displaying events, yet the piece ends with the death of a human. So though there is no cast of clearly defined characters, there are lots of shades and variations to the central character.

Jonathan won the BBC Proms Young Composers’ Competition in 2010 and went on to read music at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge where studied composition with Giles Swayne, going on to study with David Sawyer at the Royal Academy of Music. He has just finished the first year of a two year residency at Eton College, where he is teaching and writing for the school ensembles, work which he describes as terrific. Coming up he has a piece for violin and cello to be performed by players from the ensemble Khymerical. He will also be writing a piece for CUMS (Cambridge University Music Society) but the details of that have still to be finalised.

Jonathan Woolgar's Scenes from the End will be performed by Heloise Werner at Camden Peoples Theatre on 11 and 12 August 2016 (tickets from the Camden Fringe website), and Heloise will then be performing it at the Edinburgh Fringe from 22 to 27 August 2016. The piece will be returning to London from 6 to 10 December 2016 at the Tristan Bates Theatre.

The youthful miller - Schubert's Die schöne Müllerin from Robert Murray

Schubert - Die schöne Müllerin - Robert Murray, Andrew West - Stone Records
Schubert Die schöne Müllerin; Robert Murray, Andrew West; Stone Records
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 20 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Vigorous and characterful account of Schubert's first great song-cycle

This new disc of Schubert's 1823 song cycle Die schöne Müllerin on Stone Records sees tenor Robert Murray and pianist Andrew West performing the work. The advantage of having a tenor performing is that we can hear it in Schubert's original higher keys and the relative brightness of the voice emphasises the character's youth.

Murray has had the cycle in his repertoire for over ten years, and even taken part in staged performances of the work. The most recent incorporating a hand puppet and accompanied by guitar and string ensemble! The recording, made in 2014, is thus the fruit of long experience performing the piece.

In his article introducing the recording Robert Murray talks about the character and how it is important to bear in mind that he is only around 16. Despite a tendency to talk to streams, flowers and stars (thanks partly to the poetic conventions of Wilhelm Müller's poetry) Murray also thinks that we should not burden the character with sickness but 'find a truth from his point of view, as he sees each moment'. Murray's miller is thus rather less introspective than some. He is young and vigorous, innocent, and rather open and direct yet prone to doubt and loneliness.

This sense of youthful vigour comes over from the opening bars, when Andrew West's mill stream is certainly vibrant and energetic, Robert Murray's performance matches this and he gives the young man a wonderfully youthful swagger.

Tuesday 26 July 2016

Wimbledon Music Festival 2016

This year's Wimbledon Music Festival runs from 12 to 27 November 2017 with a whole variety of musical events in and around Wimbledon including St John's Church, Spencer Hill, Trinity Church, Mansel Road, Sacred Heart Church, Edge Hill and Wimbledon Synagogue. This year's festival takes as its theme Music inspired by Folk Sources.

The festival opens with Sonoro Choir and Wimbledon Youth Choir in David Fanshawe's African Sanctus. The Skampa String Quartet will be teaming up with the Hungarian folk ensemble Muzsikas for a programme which interweaves music by Bartok and Kodaly with Hungarian folk music. The Skampa Quartet will also be giving their own concert with music by Dvorak, Martinu and Smetana. The ensemble She'koyokh combine a klezmer band with a Bulgarian choir, quite a combination.

Christoph Pregardien and Sholto Kynoch will be performing Mahler, Schubert and Schumann. Stile Antico's programme celebrates Shakespeare 400 with music by Morley, Byrd, Dowland, Tomkins, Weelkes and Gibbons. The Academy Choir and Academy Baroque Ensemble, conducted by Andrew Edwards will be performing Bach's St John Passion with soloists Julia Doyle, David Allsopp, Robin Tritschler, and Benjamin Appl.

Raphael Wallfisch will be performing all six of Bach's suites for unaccompanied cello. Christian Tezlaff performs music for unaccompanied violin by Bach and Bartok, and the Tezlaff Quartet will give a programme of quartets by Mozart, Mendelssohn and Sibelius.

The festival closes with the City of London Sinfonia, conducted by Michael Collins in a programme which includes Copland's Appalachian Spring, Holst's St Paul's Suite and a selection of Grainger items plus Finzi's Clarinet Concerto with Collins as soloist.

Full details from the Wimbledon Music Festival website.

200th birthday Barber at the Proms

Björn Bürger & Danielle de Niese in Rossini's Il barbiere di Sivigla at Glyndebourne - photo Bill Cooper
Björn Bürger & Danielle de Niese in Rossini's Il barbiere di Sivigla at Glyndebourne - photo Bill Cooper
Rossini Il barbiere di Siviglia; Danielle de Niese, Taylor Stayton, Björn Bürger, Alessandro Corbelli, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Enrique Mazzola; Glyndebourne Festival Opera at the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 25 2016
Star rating: 3.5

Musically appealing if rather hyper-active account of Rossini's comedy, celebrating its 200th birthday

For its annual visit to the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, Glyndebourne brought its new production of Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia, an opera which premiered 200 years ago. Annabel Arden's production, designed by Joanna Parker, was adapted by Sinead O'Neill. Enrique Mazzola conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra, placed to the rear of the stage, with Danielle de Niese as Rosina, Alessandro Corbelli as Dr Bartolo, Taylor Stayton as Count Almaviva, Björn Bürger as Figaro, Christophoros Stamboglis as Don Basilio, Janis Kelly as Berta, Huw Montague Rendall as Fiorello and Adam Marsden as an Officer, plus the men of the Glyndebourne Chorus.

I have not seen Annabel Arden's production at Glyndebourne, but Sinead O'Neill had successfully created a vibrant and all-encompassing staging (there was little that was semi- about it) which involved both the orchestra and conductor. The evening was full of laugh out loud moments which seemed to fill the Royal Albert Hall (no mean feat with a comedy designed for a far smaller space).

The problem was that Arden seemed to have taken her cue from the staging of the Act One finale. In most productions I have seen, this is given in a highly stylised and choreographed manner. It was no different here, Arden (and director of movement Toby Sedgwick) created an almost hyper-active physical commentary on the music, creating a very funny ensemble. But Arden transferred this style to the whole opera, each solo and each ensemble was highly choreographed and the whole evening became a long sequence of physical theatre. The addition of three actors to the cast (Tommy Luther, Maxime Nourissat and Jofre Caraben van der Meer) emphasised this as the three were rarely absent from the stage, either as carnival figures in the opening and closing scenes or as three extra servants in Doctor Bartolo's house.

I have great admiration for the performers because all concerned brought off the conception superbly, combining fine musicianship with brilliant theatre. The problem for me was that somewhere along the line, Rossini's sense of character seemed to disappear. One of the reasons why the opera has remained so popular is that Rossini manages to combine a sense of fun with a real feeling of drama so that the comedy and the music arise out of the situation. By the end of the opera I was no clearer who these characters really were. For all Taylor Stayton's charm in performance, without a feeling of dramatic context we had little idea who the Count really was.

Monday 25 July 2016

Purcell & pork scratchings: OAE live streaming from Old Queens' Head in Islington

OAE - The Night Shift
The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment's The Night Shift concerts take classical music out of the regular concert hall and into more casual venues. The format is more casual too. This year The Night Shift has been running monthly, rotating between venues in East, (The George Tavern, Shadwell), North (Old Queen’s Head, Islington), and South (Bussey Building, Peckham) London. On Tuesday 26 July it is the turn of the Old Queen's Head in Islington when there will be a programme featuring music for the recorder. And worry not if it is booked up, or if you can't get out the house because the event is being live streamed on YouTube.

From 8.30pm on Tuesday 26 July 2016 just go to

Far more than easy listening - Clara Sanabras' A hum about the ears

CLara Sanabras - A hum about mine ears
Clara Sanabras A hum about mine ears; Clara Sanabras, Chorus of Dissent, Britten Sinfonia, Nigel Kennedy, London Voices, Lisa Knapp, Young Dissenters, Harvey & the Wallbangers
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 1 2016
Singer/songwriter Clara Sanabras's song-cycle evoking Shakespeare's The Tempest

At first sight this album, A hum about mine ears on Smudged Discs, has every sign of being a concept album, cooked up in the studio. Songs by the singer/songwriter Clara Sanabras all themed around Shakespeare's The Tempest, with the participation of artists as diverse as Chorus of Dissent and the Young Dissenters, the Britten Sinfonia, Nigel Kennedy, London Voices, Lisa Knapp and Harvey and the Wallbangers. Reading the small print you discover that Harvey Brough (of Harvey and the Wallbangers) both orchestrated and conducted the music as well as acting as chorus master for the youth choir, the Young Dissenters.

But though there is indeed something 'concept album' about it, particularly as different parts were recorded in different places, the work was in fact commissioned by Ruth Whitehead and Chorus of Dissent (a community choir local to where Clara Sanabras lives) and the work was premiered live before it was recorded.

It is effectively a song-cycle and the nine movements take a varied approach to Shakespeare's text.

Saturday 23 July 2016

Divine Comedies: I chat to the artistic directors of Bampton Classical Opera about their new double bill

Matthew Stiff as Trofonio with his 'cave' - Trofonio's Cave - Bampton Classical Opera
Matthew Stiff as Trofonio with his 'cave'
Trofonio's Cave - Bampton Classical Opera
Bampton Classical Opera has gained a reputation for lively and engaging productions of rare 18th century repertoire performed in the delightful confines of the Deanery Garden in Brampton. Their production last year gave us the chance to become acquainted with Salieri's delightful comedy Trofonio's Cave (see my review). I recently caught up with artistic directors Gilly French and Jeremy Gray to talk about the company's Divine Comedies, a double bill of Gluck's Philemon and Baucis (the UK premiere) and Arne's The Judgement of Paris which opens this weekend.

They first performed Thomas Arne's The Judgement of Paris for the Arne centenary in 2010, which they gave in a semi-staged production. Both fell in love with what they describe as a charming, irreverent piece with fantastic music. The company performs the operas in English, usually in Gilly and Jeremy's own translations, so having Congreve's witty English libretto was a delight. (The libretto was originally written for the famous competition in 1700/1701 when composers John Weldon, John Eccles, Daniel Purcell and Gottfried Finger all set the piece.)

Both Jeremy and Gilly felt they wanted follow Salieri's Trofonio's cave last year with another comedy this year. Having decided to return to The Judgement of Paris and give the work a full production, the choice was on the companion piece. Their performance of Gluck's Philemon and Baucis will be the UK premiere. Gluck's opera was written in 1769 for a triple bill of operas Le feste d'Apollo written for the marriage of the Duke of Parma to an Austrian princess; the triple bill also included a shortened version of Gluck's Orfeo. Arne's opera is not recorded, but Gluck's is and when Gilly and Jeremy listened to it they felt it really worth doing. They found it beautiful music to work on, with great variety and colour.

The Deanery Garden, Bampton
The Deanery Garden, Bampton
venue for Bampton Classical Opera performances
As a small company, Bampton has to ensure that double bills have matched pieces to reduce the budget. Both the Arne and the Gluck pieces are mythological, and Jeremy (who is directing both works) felt that the two operas could be made to work together especially as the character of Jupiter links both. Where Arne's work is a clever and witty telling of the story, by contrast nothing very much happens in Gluck's opera yet all concerned agree that it is very funny.

Remarkably, Bampton Classical Opera is one of the few companies exploring this repertoire of 18th century opera. Since the company was founded in 1993, they have performed a remarkable list of works with many UK premieres. I was curious how this concentration on 18th century repertoire came about.

During their second year they performed Mozart's L'oca del Cairo, not from a desire to specialise in 18th century opera but because they had heard a recording of it and found it a fun piece. But then they attended a concert by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment where music by 18th century operatic composers such as Jomelli was performed. Both realised that they had found a niche and decided there and then to concentrate on 18th century opera.

One of the biggest difficulties in this repertoire is getting hold of the music, and they admit that they have learned as they went along.

Friday 22 July 2016

Women Conductors to the fore

Alice Farnham, artistic director of Women Conductors, © Catherine Ashmore
Alice Farnham, artistic director of Women Conductors
© Catherine Ashmore
The Royal Philharmonic Society has joined forces with Women Conductors (artistic director Alice Farnham), a programme of conducting workshops designed to encourage women to be conductors of classical music. The partnership aims to get more female music students, professional musicians and music teachers to consider conducting as a viable profession. They will be running two day workshops throughout the year with two phases, one aimed at students who are 16 or more, the second is aimed at women over 18 who wish to add conducting to their portfolio.

Women Conductors was founded in 2014 (as Women Conductors at Morley) by Alice Farnham, musical director of Welsh National Youth Opera, and Andrea Brown, former director of music at Morley College.

The next workshops (for students 16 and over) are on 25 September and 2 October 2016. Future workshops (for women 18 and over) in 2017 will include Jane Glover on the Classical symphony, Sian Edwards on the Romantic symphony and Julia Jones on opera (in collaboration with ROH’s Jette Parker Young Artists Programme).

Full details from the Women Conductors website.

Youthful genius: Classical Opera's 2016/17 season explores the young Mozart

Mozart painted in 1763
Mozart painted in 1763
Classical Opera's 2016/17 season continues the Mozart 250 exploration of the year 1766 before moving on to 1767 including the first two major stage works by the young composer himself. 

1766 concludes with La Cantarina, a performance of one of Haydn's first operas along with arias from Josef Myslivecek's opera Semiramide, plus Haydn's Symphony No. 34. Ian Page conducts the Orchestra of Classical Opera at the Wigmore Hall on 19 September 2016 with soloist Ailish Tynan, Rachel Kelly, Kitty Whately and Robert Murray.

1767 opens with a retrospective at the Wigmore Hall on 17 January 2017. Ian Page conducts a programme of arias and symphonies by Mozart, JC Bach, Gluck, Haydn, and Arne all coming from works performed in 1767, with soloist Gemma Summerfield, Stuart Jackson and Ashley Riches.

Mozart's first stage work, written when he was eleven, was The First Commandment and Ian Page will be conducting a staging of the work, directed by Thomas Guthrie, at St John's Smith Square on 21 & 22 March 2017. Sung in Nigel Lewis' translation, it will feature Rebecca Bottone, Rachel Kelly and Alessandro Fisher. In fact we will be only hearing one third of the work, as the final two parts are lost. The company will return to St John's on 12 & 13 June 2017 for another of Mozart's stage works from 1767, his Apollo et Hyacinthus which will be staged by Thomas Guthrie with Ian Page conducting soloists including Tom Verney and Gemma Summerfield.

Pianist Kristian Bezuidenhout will be joining Ian Page and the Orchestra of Classical Opera at the Wigmore Hall on 16 May 2017 for a programme of Mozart's earliest keyboard concertos, the eleven-year-old Mozart's orchestrations of existing keyboard works. Soprano Anna Devin will also be joining the ensemble two perform two arias from the same year.

All is not quite Mozart 250, Ian Page,  and the Choir and Orchestra of Classcial Opera are joined by soloists Sarah Fox, Angela Simkin, Stuart Jackson, and Neal Davies for a performance of Handel's Messiah in Middle Temple Hall on 19 December 2016 as part of Temple Winter Festival.

Full details from Classical Opera's website.

Vivid classicism: Mozart and Mendelssohn piano concertos

Danae Dorken - Mozart, Mendelssohn concertos - ARS Produktion
Mozart and Mendelssohn concertos; Danae Dörken, Royal Northern Sinfonia, Lars Vogt; ARS Produktion
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 19 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Vivid and stylish pairing from this young German pianist

On this disc from ARS Produktion the young German pianist Danae Dörken joins Lars Vogt and the Royal Northern Sinfonia for a programme of piano concertos, Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21 in C KV 467 and Mendelssohn's Piano Concerto No. 2 in D Op. 40. Lars Vogt, himself a distinguished pianist, took over as music director of the Royal Northern Sinfonia in 2015 continuing the orchestra's tradition of working with distinguished player conductors (the violinist Thomas Zehetmair is a previous music director, now conductor laureate, and the violinist Julian Rachlin is principal guest conductor).

I have enjoyed the Royal Northern Sinfonia's performances in the classical symphonic repertoire before, such as their disc of Haydn symphonies on Signum Classics with Rebecca Miller. This performance of one of the most symphonic of Mozart's piano concertos sees them giving a crisp and exciting account of the opening Allegro maestoso, they and Lars Vogt leverage the orchestra's smaller forces, making the balance between wind and strings really count. Throughout the disc the orchestra plays with a vigorously confident sense of style.

Lars Vogt and Danae Dörken - © Giorgia Bertazzi
Lars Vogt and Danae Dörken - © Giorgia Bertazzi
Danae Dörken is not yet 25, born of Greek and German parents in Wuppertal, she currently studies with Lars Vogt. This is her third disc for ARS Produktion and her concerto debut.

She plays the Mozart concerto with a nice sense of style, combining grace with strength and strong articulation. As the first movement progresses were are able to appreciate the pungent wind, and the crisp attack of the strings with their minimal vibrato. Yet there is grace too and a sense of the concerto's scale without feeling grandiose. The second movement opens evocatively with the bleached white tone from the strings in a beautiful opening phrase, which contrasts in timbre and texture with the delicate lyricism of the piano solo. Danae Dörken plays the movement quite intimately, allowing Mozart's music to speak with subtlety. In complete contrast, the final Allegro vivace assai is very perky, full of wit and drama whilst Danae Dörken's playing is strongly articulated with hints of brilliance in the showier bits.

Thursday 21 July 2016

Stanford's Much Ado About Nothing revived in Leeds

Caricature of Stanford by Spy, Vanity Fair, 1905
Caricature of Stanford by Spy,
Vanity Fair, 1905
Charles Villiers Stanford's opera Much Ado About Nothing (based on the Shakespeare play) was staged by Opera Viva in 1985 and I caught one of the London performances. It was the sort of event which can often trigger greater interest in a rare work, but Stanford's delightful comedy does not seem to have sparked much attention and it seems no-one has tried performing it since then. Now the Northern Opera Group is planning a performance. On 4 August 2016 at Left Bank Leeds the company will be presenting extended staged excerpts from the opera, with piano accompaniment, as a preview of plans to stage the opera in 2018.

The 4 August performance will be the culmination of a five-day workshop with director, Eleanor Taylor, and conductor, Christopher Pelly and singers David Cane, Sarah Gilford, Brian McNamee, Samuel Pantcheff and Catrin Woodruff.

Stanford's opera was premiered at the Royal Opera House in 1901 with a libretto by Julian Sturgis, who also wrote the libretto for Sullivan's Ivanhoe. The opera does not seem to have been recorded, and apart from the 1985 performance, the last major performance was at Wexford in 1964. Though best known for his choral and symphonic works, Stanford in fact wrote around nine operas, it was a form he kept returning to despite mixed success. RVW (who was a pupil of Stanford's) lamented that in 1952 Covent Garden seem to have 'celebrated' the Stanford centenary by performing Bellini's Norma rather than Stanford's Seamus O'Brien which RVW regarded as the composer's masterpiece.

In December 2016 the Northern Opera Group will dusting off another rarity, Pauline Viardot's opera Cendrillion which they will be performing with a community cast at Duke Studios in Leeds on 1, 2, and 3 December 2016.

Full details from the Northern Opera Group website, and Much Ado About Nothing tickets from TicketSource.

Seriously comic: Rossini's La Cenerentola at Opera Holland Park

Heather Lowe as Tisbe, Fleur de Bray as Clorinda, Victoria Simmons as Angelina, Nicholas Lester as Dandini and the Opera Holland Park Chorus in La Cenerentola at Opera Holland Park. Photographer Robert Workman.
Heather Lowe as Tisbe, Fleur de Bray as Clorinda, Victoria Simmons as Angelina, Nicholas Lester as Dandini and the Opera Holland Park Chorus in La Cenerentola at Opera Holland Park. Photographer Robert Workman.
Rossini La Cenerentola; Victoria Simmonds, Nico Darmanin, Nicholas Lester, Jonathan Veira, Barnaby Rea, Fleur de Bray, Heather Lowe, dir: Oliver Platt, City of London Sinfonia, cond: Dane Lam; Opera Holland Park
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 20 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Victoria Simmonds shines with a beautifully sung account of the title role in Oliver Platt's lively production

Victoria Simmons as Angelina and Nico Darmanin as Prince Ramiro in La Cenerentola at Opera Holland Park. Photographer Robert Workman
Victoria Simmons and Nico Darmanin in La Cenerentola
Photographer Robert Workman
We caught up with Oliver Platt's new production of Rossini's La Cenerentola at Opera Holland Park on 20 July 2016, the production's third outing. Dane Lam conducted the City of London Sinfonia with Victoria Simmonds as Angelina, Nico Darmanin as Prince Ramiro, Nicholas Lester as Dandini, Jonathan Veira as Don Magnifico, Barnaby Rea as Alidoro, Fleur de Bray as Clorinda and Heather Lowe as Tisbe. Designs were by Neil Irish with lighting by Mark Jonathan and movement by Emma Brunton. The production is a co-production with Den Jyske Opera in Denmark.

Whilst Rossini is still best known for his comic operas, in fact these all come at the beginning of his career. In 1817 he wrote two comic works La Cenerentola and La gazza ladra, the latter opera being the last comic opera he wrote in Italian, with only Le Comte Ory (written in 1828 for Paris) to come. But with the two Italian works from 1817 Rossini is clearly interested in something more than sheer comedy, La gazza ladra is an opera semi-seria with a mixture of serious and comic elements, and La Cenerentola is moving in that direction.

Oliver Platt's production rather emphasised this by having Victoria Simmonds' Angelina somewhat separated from the main body of the action (rightly so, she is a servant after all). This meant that Simmonds' beautifully sung, rather thoughtful Angelina hardly took part in the highly physical performances of the many comic ensembles which dominate the first act. It is possible to play the whole of the opera as a serious comedy (Peter Hall's production at Glyndebourne did this), but Platt seems to have been interested in the way Rossini mixed serious and comic, and brought this out.

Wednesday 20 July 2016

Sparkle and discipline: Die Fledermaus at Opera Holland Park

Didi Derriere & chorus - Die Fledermaus - Opera Holland Park. Photo Robert Workman.
Didi Derriere & ensemble - Die Fledermaus - Opera Holland Park. Photo Robert Workman.
Johann Strauss Die Fledermaus; Ben Johnson, Susannah Hurrell, Jennifer France, Samantha Price, Gavan Ring, dir: Martin Lloyd-Evans, City of London Sinfonia, cond: John Rigby; Opera Holland Park
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on July 19 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Engaging account of the operetta classic, with a husband & wife team as the Eisensteins

Susannh Hurrell, Samantha Price - Die Fledermaus - Opera Holland Park. Photo Robert Workman.
Susannh Hurrell, Samantha Price - Die Fledermaus - Photo Robert Workman.
Holland Park moved to Vienna on 19 July 2016 for Opera Holland Park's new production of Johann Strauss's operetta Die Fledermaus. Martin Lloyd-Evans directed, and John Rigby conducted the City of London Sinfonia with Ben Johnson as Eisenstein, Susanna Hurrell as Rosalind, Jennifer France as Adele, Gavan Ring as Dr Falke, Samantha Price as Prince Orlofsky, Peter Davoren as Alfred, Robert Burt as Dr Blind, John Lofthouse as Frank, Joanna Marie Skillett as Ida and Ian Jervis as Frosch. Designs were by takis, with lighting by Howard Hudson, and choreography by Adam Scown.

The British do not always have a good track record with operetta, and the style of productions can too often veer towards sit-com with music or Gilbert & Sullivan. And the stage at Opera Holland Park, with its wide open spaces, is not ideal for the intimacy which the form implies. But the new production managed to combine imagination and discipline with the requisite style to both charm and engage us, giving us Johann Strauss's froth with a little bit of edge underneath.

Things got off to a superb start with John Rigby's account of the overture. Rigby is a conductor whose credits include substantial experience in West End musical theatre, he encouraged the orchestra to perform with a sense of crisp rhythmic discipline which formed a vivid underpinning of Strauss's lovely melodies. Whilst these were given with the requisite flexibility, I enjoyed the way Rigby brought out the underlying structure. This crisply stylish and engaging performance set just the right tone for the whole operetta.

Ben Johnson, Robert Burt, Susanna Hurrell - Die Fledermaus - Opera Holland Park. Photo Robert Workman.
Ben Johnson, Robert Burt, Susanna Hurrell
Die Fledermaus - Photo Robert Workman.
Lloyd-Evans and takis solved the problem of the Opera Holland Park stage by not using it all in Act One. takis's elegant Art Deco set of the Eisenstein's apartment (bedroom and bathroom), with its series of elegant glass and metal screens, filled the centre and stage left, with stage right being unused. Not ideal, as for those of us in the left side of the theatre the action never came really close, but it meant that the acting space was nicely tight. And takis sets were a joy, the combination of Art Deco against the Jacobean house evoking distant memories of Eltham Palace with its combination of Art Deco and historical.

The operetta was performed in Alistair Beaton's English translation which gave the work a nicely appealing immediacy without seeming too far removed from the original. Though the dialogue came over well the diction in the sung passages was a bit more variable so we did rather need the surtitles at times. Lloyd-Evans' emphasised the work's class hierarchy and character differences by using accents. Both Ben Johnson's Eisenstein and Susannah Hurrell's Rosalinde were cut-glass English, whilst Gavan Ring as Falke used his native Irish accent, and Jennifer France's Adele was distinctly Northern work class. I was surprised at how well the dialogue worked in this theatre, and many of the cast proved to have great comic timing.

The production was also very physical (and very funny) with Adam Scown's choreography flowing through the whole work without it ever seeming to be a dance extravaganza.

30 Harps on Tour

National Youth Harp Orchestra at the Cadogan Hall in 2015
National Youth Harp Orchestra at the Cadogan Hall in 2015
The National Youth Harp Orchestra presents an ensemble of around 30 harps, a fascinating and magical sound. The ensemble was formed originally in 2002 as the International Harp Ensemble by Luisa-Maria Cordell and has since grown into its present form with players aged between 10 and 19. The ensemble is currently preparing for a tour of Romania, but there is a chance to hear them in the UK as on 22 July 2016 they are performing at South Hill Park Theatre, Ringmead, Bracknell.

The group are planning to travel to Budapest in August for a series of concerts in the city.

Tuesday 19 July 2016

Soraya Mafi wins the 2016 Chilcott Award

Soraya Mafi
Soraya Mafi
The Chilcott Award for Singers is a £10,000 award to support a 'major young artist with the potential to make an international impact'. The 2016 award has been won by soprano Soraya Mafi who is currently a Harewood Young Artists at English National Opera (ENO).

With ENO, Soraya sang Papagena in Simon McBurney’s production of Mozart's The Magic Flute, and most recently Karolka in David Alden’s production of Janacek's Jenufa (see my review). She will sing the role of Despina in Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte with West Green House Opera from 30 July. Soraya will use her award to fund ongoing singing lessons with her teacher, Janis Kelly, language tuition, performance coaching as well as to support travel/audition and promotional costs. 

The award is offered biennially by the Susan Chilcott Scholarship, an independent charity set up in 2005 in memory of Susan Chilcott, one of the outstanding singers of her generation, who died from cancer in 2003 aged 40. Previous winners of the Chilcott Award are Duncan Rock (2012) and Clare Presland (2014).

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