Tuesday 28 February 2017

Music for choir and viols: premiere of Giles Swayne's Everybloom

Giles Swayne - photo David Julien-Waring
Giles Swayne - photo David Julien-Waring
On 1 April 2017 in Trinity College Chapel Cambridge CB2 1TQ, the New Cambridge Singers (NCS), conductor Graham Walker give the premiere of Giles Swayne's Everybloom in a concert entitled Renaissance Reimagined, with Swayne's new piece for choir and viols alongside a work by the winner of NCS's composition competition, Paul Newton-Jackson, Thomas Tallis's Spem in Alium and music by William Byrd and Orlando Lassus, and they will be joined by the New Vialles viol consort. The concert is repeated at St James's Church, Sussex Gardens, London on Saturday 22 April, 2017. The audience can get involved too, Paul Newton-Jackson's new piece Then the angel showed me the river has an audience chorus, and audience members are invited to join the choir for this and for Tallis's canon Glory to thee, my God, this night. I spoke to Giles Swayne and Graham Walker to find out more.

For those wanting to learn more about Giles Swayne's new piece, there is an open rehearsal on Wednesday 1 March 2017 at Parkside Theatre, Parkside Community College, Parkside, Cambridge, CB1 1EH, when people will get the chance to hear the new work in rehearsal as well as being able meet and chat with Giles Swayne. Those interested should email openrehearsal@newcambridgesingers.org.uk.

Giles Walker - photo Kip Loades
Giles Walker - photo Kip Loades
Conductor Graham Walker is hoping that the open rehearsal will help audience members to get to know Giles Swayne's remarkable piece. A setting of an extraordinary text form James Joyce's Ulysses, Graham feels that open rehearsal will help both the choir and the audience get closer to the work. New Cambridge Singers has a history of commissioning new pieces, and as a cellist with experience of playing baroque cello Graham thought combining choir and viols was an an interesting idea. He had already taken part in a piece which Giles Swayne wrote for choir and cello, so the idea of Giles Swayne's new piece Everybloom was born. Walker sees Everybloom as being a piece about memory, and he feels the haunting sound of viols work well in this context.

New Cambridge Singers is choir of around 38 adults from in and around the Cambridge area, combining those on the University staff with townsfolk and those from further afield. Set up in the 1980s, Graham took over four years ago. Last year they ran a composition competition, and part of the brief was to include a choral part for audience members, which Graham sees as a way of enlivening the project. The winning piece Then the angel showed me the river, a setting of a text from the Book of Revelation by Paul Newton-Jackson includes an audience part which not only includes standard homophonic music but has aleatoric passages too, which Graham thinks will be an interesting challenge to the audience.

Giles Swayne was given a fairly open brief about the commission, and he finds the combination of choir and viols interesting though admits to some degree of nervousness about the balance as he has never written for this distinctive combination before, but where possible the viols are used when there is not too much choral texture.  The text came about because Giles came across a wonderful passage in Joyce's Ulysses where Joyce goes through a series of pastiches of English style from Middle English to 20th century, and this includes a pastiche of the King James Bible, 'Therefore, everyman, look to that last end that is thy death', and so Swayne read further in the book and ended up setting a series of short passages in what he calls a 'strange collage of words'.

The piece opens with what Giles calls a 'mad litany', from the early part of the book, which he sees as being all about guilt (something which resonates with Swayne who had a Roman Catholic upbringing), with the choir taking various roles such as prostitutes, passers-by and magistrates. A tenor solo also relates to youth, sexuality and guilt, whilst extracts from the episode of Leopold Bloom at Paddy Dignam's funeral yields a contrast between polite mourning and rude comments about death, including what Swayne sees as an extraordinary line 'Once you are dead, you are dead'.

The pastiche from the King James Bible is written as a chorale with occasional flourishes on the bass viol. Perhaps the most famous passage comes from Molly Bloom's soliloquy, including what Swayne describes as a really orgasmic 'Yes'. This is very much stream of consciousness, and this sense of memory runs through the text of the whole piece. The wonderful language contemplating the past, the future, death and what comes after. And Molly Bloom's soliloquy brings an acceptance of what is, which is what Giles finds so wonderful about the book.

Philip Sawyers' symphony launches ESO 21st symphony project

The English Symphony Orchestra (ESO) and its chief conductor Kenneth Woods are launching a 21st Symphony Project, a commission for nine composers to write nine symphonies to be premiered by the ESO. The project is being launched with the premiere of the Symphony No. 3 by Philip Sawyers, ESO's John McCabe Composer-in-Association, at St John's Smith Square tonight (28 February 2017). Kenneth Woods conducts the ESO in Sawyers new symphony, Fanfare for Brass and Songs of Loss and Regret (with soprano April Fredrick), plus Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K. 466 with Clare Hammond.

Sawyer's Symphony No.3 was commissioned a couple of years ago to celebrate Kenneth Woods new partnership with the English Symphony Orchestra (Woods became chief conductor of the ESO in 2013), and the commission became the starting point for ESO's ambitious symphony project. This continues in 2018 when the orchestra gives the premiere of David Matthew's Symphony No. 9.

Full details from the St John's Smith Square website.

Chaucerian richness: Julian Philips' The Tale of Januarie

Guildhall School - Julian Philips: The Tale of Januarie - John Findon and Chorus- photo Clive Barda
Guildhall School - Julian Philips: The Tale of Januarie - John Findon and Chorus- photo Clive Barda
Julian Philips The Tale of Januarie; John Findon, Anna Sideris, Martin Hässler, Elizabeth Skinner, dir: Martin Lloyd-Evans, cond: Dominic Wheeler; Guildhall School of Music and Drama
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 28 2017
Star rating: 4.0

A new Chaucer-based opera uses Chaucer's own language to fascinating effect

On Monday 27 February 2017, two new operas were premiered in London, a testament to the enduring liveliness of the operatic form. Rather interestingly both operas engaged with famous historical literary texts. Whilst at ENO, Ryan Wigglesworth's Shakespeare-based The Winter's Tale premiered (we will be covering that later in the week), at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Julian PhilipsThe Tale of Januarie received its first performance. Philips' new opera (his ninth), is based on The Merchant's Tale, from Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales and unusually, Stephen Plaice's libretto is written in Chaucer's Late Middle English. The production was directed by Martin Lloyd-Evans, designed by Dick Bird with lighting by Mark Jonathan with George Edwards as Priapus, John Findon as Januarie, Daniel Mullaney as Placebo, Jake Muffett as Justinus, Daniel Shelvey as Damyan, Anna Sideris as May, Martin Hässler as Pluto, Elizabeth Skinner as Proserpina, David Ireland as Father Bruno, plus Chloe Treharne, Bianca Andrew and Jade Moffatt.

Guildhall School - Julian Philips: The Tale of Januarie - Daniel Shelvey - photo Clive Barda
Julian Philips: The Tale of Januarie - Daniel Shelvey - photo Clive Barda
The plot tells the straightforward moral tale of an elderly knight, Januarie, who decides to marry and takes a young woman, May, as his wife. She falls in love with Januarie's young servant Damyan and the two cuckold Januarie. Chaucer's plot is complicated by the presence of Pluto and Proserpina (on Earth for their annual six-month 'holiday') and they get involved. So Januarie is blinded to prevent him seeing May naked, and has the blindness removed to enable him to see her cuckolding him, but Prosperpina gives May a convincing excuse. At the end Januarie dies, still believing that May's child is his.

Within this basic framework, Philips and Plaice have woven a great many strands. The opera is keyed to the seasons, it opens with the townspeople wassailing and throughout there are celebrations and processions which mark the progression of the year. Also, Prosperpina is attended by three nymphs who reflect the coming of Spring, Summer and Autumn, before they all depart for Hades again. The figure of Priapus (complete with a wheelbarrow carrying his huge phallus) forms a sort of narrator, beginning and ending the piece.

The piece seems to be deliberately pageant like and discursive, allowing the students of the Guildhall School of Music large scope, including the use of period instruments. The various processions are accompanied by an on-stage band of flute, viola, harp, medieval fiddle, bagpipes, recorder and percussion, and at one point Damyan accompanies himself with a hurdy gurdy.

During the interval we were discussing the piece, and when he learned that I was reviewing the performance, said make sure you mention that it is great fun.

Monday 27 February 2017

Robert's crowd-funding update: Quickening ahead

Crowd-funding - Quickening, song to texts by English and Welsh poets
Many thanks to everyone who has supported the crowd-funding for Quickening, our disc of my songs to English and Welsh poets performed by Anna Huntley (mezzo-soprano), Rosalind Ventris (viola), Johnny Herford (baritone) and William Vann (piano). We have made a great start, and if you have not yet supported us please do consider it, just visit http://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/quickening.

We had the first version of the final recording from the record company recently (it appears on Navona Records in September) and it is sounding terrific. The disc opens with Johnny Herford and William Vann in Winter Journey, my setting of Rowan Williams Winterreise: for Gillian Rose, 9 December 1995, followed by Four Songs to Texts by AE Housman, and my setting of Housman's When Summer's end is nighing. Then Anna Huntley, Rosalind Ventris and William Vann perform Quickening, my cycle of six songs to poems by Christina Rossetti, and then finally Johnny Herford and William Vann in Four Songs to Texts by Ivor Gurney.

There is further information about the songs at http://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/quickening, and I will be posting more details about the songs and the poems over the next few weeks.

String support: music in Birmingham in aid of young students in South Africa

Music in Aid of ARCO at IKON Gallery
This evening (27 February 2017) at the IKON Gallery in Birmingham students from Birmingham Conservatoire are hosting an evening of chamber music in aid of ARCO, a project which enables young students in South Africa to participate in weekly instrumental lessons via Skype with academics, students and alumni from Birmingham Conservatoire and Birmingham City University. The eclectic programme includes music by Richard Strauss, Aldemaro Romero and Tchaikovsky. The evening has been organised by Alistair Rutherford, a final year viola student who is one of the ARCO project's tutors.

ARCO is a collaboration between Cape Gate MIAGI Centre for Music & Birmingham Conservatoire, and since it was established in 2015, 24 strings students aged between eight and 16 in South Africa have been selected to participate in weekly instrumental Skype lessons, in addition to the regular lessons as the Cape Gate MIAGI Centre for Music. As well as providing transformative music education activities, Conservatoire staff have been acting as role models for vulnerable youngsters living in Soweto, a Joahnnesburg township deeply affected by poverty and crime.

Full information and tickets from Eventbrite.

Homeward Bound: Angus Benton

Homeward Bound - Angus Benton - Convivium Records
Homeward Bound, songs and folk-song arrangements; Angus Benton, Malcolm Archer, Karen Wills, Gareth Hulse, Julia Desbruslais; Convivium Records
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jan 13 2017
Showcase for BBC Radio 2 Young Chorister of the Year

Treble Angus Benton won the BBC Radio 2 Young Choristers of the Year Competition in 2015, and last year he made this recording Homeward Bound with pianist Malcolm Archer on the Convivium Records label. Benton and Archer perform an attractive mix of songs by Handel, Michael Head, Malcolm Archer, RVW, and folk songs arranged by Phyllis Tate, Malcolm Archer, Benjamin Britten and Jay Althouse. For some of the songs Benton and Archer are joined by Julia Desbruslais (cello), Gareth Hulse (oboe) and Karen Wills (flute/piccolo). A percentage of sales of the CD goes to support the NSPCC.

Angus Benton was 12 at the the time the recording was made in 2016, and was then one of the sixteen Quiristers forming the treble line in the Chapel Choir of Winchester College, where Malcolm Archer is Director of Chapel Music. Archer says in his introduction to the disc that the idea behind the recording was to capture Angus's voice whilst it was still at its best.

Benton has a nice clear voice with a lovely focused sound, not large but well formed with a lovely sweet sound, and his diction is admirable. His programme is a typical mix of art songs and folk songs, including a new song The song wandering Aengus written specially for him by Malcolm Archer.

Looking ahead: the Baltic Sea Philharmonic's Waterworks

Kristjan Jarvi, Baltic Sea Philharmonic - Waterworks - (c) Peter Adamik
Kristjan Jarvi, Baltic Sea Philharmonic - Waterworks - (c) Peter Adamik
The brainchild of Kristjan Järvi, the Baltic Sea Philharmonic brings together up to 100 young musicians in an orchestra which involves musicians from all ten Baltic countries and seeks to tour them too. Kristjan Järvi's concerns though are not just musical, he seeks to bring Baltic peoples of all cultures and traditions together, and to campaign for the environment.

In person Kristjan Järvi is powerfully charismatic (see my interview with him), and when I talked to him last year he was full of exciting plans for the Baltic Sea Philharmonic's 2017 tour. This is entitled Waterworks, and combines music by Handel and Philip Glass. The orchestra will be taking the programme on tour in May and in August 2017, visiting Hattingen in Germany, Copenhagen and Aarhus in Denmark (Aarhus is the 2017 European Capital of Culture), Berlin, the Usedom (the island in the Baltic), Lutherstadt Wittenberg (2017 being the 500th anniversary of the Reformation), and the new Elbphilharmonie concert hall in Hamburg.

True to Kristjan Järvi's concern to include environmental concerns in his programmes, Waterworks celebrates the life giving properties of water with arrangements of Handel's Water Music, Philip Glass's Violin Concerto No. 2, The American Four Season (with violinist Mikhail Simonyan) and a new arrangement of Philip Glass's Aguas da Amazonas by Charles Coleman, a celebration of the multiple facets of the Amazon River.

The Baltic Sea Philharmonic's concerts are always more than simply a concert experience, and Waterworks to be an immersive experience with lighting, projections and sound production. and they have teamed up with projection artist Philipp Geist and lighting designer Bertil Mark.

Kristjan Järvi said of the tour: 'The Baltic Sea Philharmonic is the one single Nordic cultural export that unifies all ten countries that surround the Baltic Sea. From Norway to Russia, whether they are in the EU or not, whether they're North or South, we're all connected by this incredible body of water'.

Full details of the Waterworks tour from the Baltic Sea Philharmonic's website.

Sunday 26 February 2017

Superb choral performances: Richard Harvey - Kyrie

Richard Harvey - Kyrie
Richard Harvey Kyrie; Latvian Radio Choir, Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir; Altus Records
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jan 13 2017
Star rating: 3.5

Film composer Richard Harvey's disc of highly evocative choral music in superb performances from two Baltic choirs

You have heard the music of Richard Harvey, even if the name does not mean anything to you. A British composer for film and TV, Harvey's credits include the Kyrie for the Magdalene which was used in the film of the Da Vinci Code and it is this work which forms the title track of Harvey's new disc of choral music, Kyrie on Altus Records. Recorded by the Latvian Radio Choir and Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, with musicians from the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Sinfonietta Riga conducted by Kaspars Putnins, Sigvards Klava, Tomasz Szymus and Richard Harvey.

The disc has eleven tracks and Harvey's texts vary from his own, to Psalm 100, 12th century Latin, Shelly (Mutability), George MacDonald and Henry Neele. As might be expected given the choral forces involved, the performances are superb. Both choirs exhibit their famous combination of control, focus, line and elegant purity. They bring to the music a wonderful clarity and finely honed feel for the elegant lines of Harvey's music.

Harvey's style is unashamedly tonal and lyrical, but that does not mean it is uncomplex and he generates his own particular contemporary feel. There are echoes here of some of the Baltic minimalists in the textures, but the harmonies often evoke Eric Whitacre and Morten Lauridsen. So who is Richard Harvey.

He trained at the Royal College of Music (graduating in 1972) and joined the Early Music group Musica Reservata, and then founded the progressive rock/folk band Gryphon. He went on to become a session musician, and through this became involved in composing, first working on Tales of the Unexpected in 1978. His concert work has included a concerto Concerto Antico, for guitarist John Williams, with whom he has worked a lot, as well as a recorder concerto Concerto Incantofor Michaela Petri.

The music is frequently aetherial, with some finely honed musical textures and evocative harmonies. Lack of texts in the CD does make it difficult to dig deeper into the works, and it does not help that one of the few weaknesses of the performance is the rather occluded diction of the choirs. The performers clearly prize beauty of line over comprehensibility.

Saturday 25 February 2017

Mahogany Opera Group's Various Stage Festival 2017

Various Stages Festival
For its third Various Stages Festival at the ICA on Friday 24 February 2017, Mahogany Opera Group presented six different works in different stages of development. We generally heard a short extract from the work, followed by a discussion between creators and audience to provide feedback. The six works presented were The Finding (music by Richard Melkonian, words by Zoe Palmer), Palace of Junk (music by Oliver Brignall, words by Poppy Burton-Morgan), In a Grove (music by Christopher Cerrone, words by Stephanie Fleischmann), Mu'a (music Dai Fujikura and concept/choreographer/director Dam Van Huynh), Traffick (music by Emma-Ruth Richards, words Nic Chalmers), The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (music Gavin Bryars, words Jean Lacornerie).

Audience and chorus at Mahogany Opera Group's Various Stages
Audience and chorus at
Mahogany Opera Group's Various Stages
The Finding, music by Richard Melkonian, words by Zoe Palmer, was directed by Lucy Bradley and featured Elizabeth Laurence (mezzo-soprano), Laurens Price-Nowak (cello), Richard Melkonian (piano and electronics) and a choir of women and babies. The piece examines the many thousands of people who disappeared in Argentina in the 1970s from the point of view of a single desperate grandmother looking for her family. Melkonan's music combined mezzo-soprano with amplified cello, piano and electronics in a striking mix. A highly dramatic work, the chorus of women and babies, representing the disappeared, did rather steal the show somewhat.

Palace of Junk, music by Oliver Brignall, words by Poppy Burton-Morgan (who also directed) was presented by Metta Theatre with Peter Brathaite (baritone), Richard Burkhard (baritone) and the Riot Ensemble (trombone, accordion, cello, violin, percussion and electronics). We heard a single scene from a longer opera about a real life pair of brothers in the 1940s who hoarded to such an extent (12 pianos!) that they eventually died in the house. The final product will use video extensively, and we were given a taster with video projections during the scene. It proved a very powerful and imaginative work, particularly the sound world with its use of found-objects for percussion. The company is hoping to ultimately create a production which is immersive, and the electronics used in the performance were all reactive.

In a Grove, music by Christopher Cerrone, words by Stehanie Fleischmann, was directed by Brian Mertes, with Richard Burkhard (baritone), Abigail Kelly (soprano), Christopher Lemmings (tenor), Tom Verney (counter-tenor), the Riot Ensemble (vibraphone and percussion) and Christopher Cerrone (electronics). We saw a single scene from a larger work which is still in development, the opera is based on Ryunosuke Akutagawa's short story In a Grove (1922) in which multiple characters tell the story of the same murder from their own point of view. The music we heard was completely mesmeric, with a beautifully calm hypnotic quality. 

Making the best use of his time: Leon Bosch on new music for double bass, conducting and more

Leon Bosch & I Musicanti at Kings Place, 1 May 2016
Leon Bosch & I Musicanti at Kings Place, 1 May 2016
The double-bass virtuoso Leon Bosch is a busy man. He no longer plays regularly in orchestras (he spent twenty years playing in the Academy of St Martin in the Fields) and instead concentrates on projects as varied as performing with his ensemble I Musicanti, commissioning and performing new music for double bass, as well as taking up a second career conducting. I met up with Leon to find out more.

Leon Bosch
Leon Bosch
Chatting to Leon I am immediately struck by his enthusiasm and energy. His projects would seem to take more than one lifetime to fulfil, and he has great concern to widen the repertoire, both by researching forgotten works as well as commissioning new ones. His 2009 CD The British Double Bass was a programme of 20th century British music for double bass; a remarkable tribute to Rodney Slatford of York Edition, who commissioned many of the pieces. Also on the disc is John McCabe's Pueblo which Leon commissioned.

But he feels there is still more to do in this area and plans to go back into the studio to record a disc of 21st century double bass pieces, many of which are, or are being, written for him by composers such as Roxanna Panufnik, Robin Walker (whose piece Leon describes as 'terrific') and John Woolrich. The disc, he feels, should encourage both the public and other double bass players to listen and explore.

Paul Patterson is writing a new concerto for Leon to be premiered in 2017/18. And Leon has lots of other projects going on, the composer Ian Morgan Williams wrote a piece for him when they were both students in Manchester and Ian Morgan Williams is revisiting the piece and revising it, whilst the Colombian composer Arturo Cuellar has is writing a new piece. And Leon will be premiering a new Wynton Marsalis concerto at the Southbank Centre in 2018.

Friday 24 February 2017

An Equal Music: the enduring power of counterpoint at the Conway Hall

The Albion Quartet (Rosalind Ventris, Tamsin Waley-Cohen, Emma Parker, Nathaniel Boyd)
The Albion Quartet (Rosalind Ventris, Tamsin Waley-Cohen, Emma Parker, Nathaniel Boyd)
On Sunday 26 February 2017, the Albion Quartet is appearing at Conway Hall performing Bach, Haydn, Schumann and Walton, as part of the hall's regular Sunday concerts series. Entitled An Equal Music, the quartet's programme explores the role of counterpoint in three very different works from the quartet repertoire, Haydn's Quartet in C Op.20/2, Schumann's Quartet in A minor Op.41/1 and Walton's Quartet in A minor. Bach's The Art of Fugue frames them, and clarifies the references to Bach, the original master of the form, whose seminal work continues to fascinate and challenge composers to this day.

The Albion Quartet  was formed by four outstanding young string players, Tamsin Waley-Cohen (violin), Emma Parker (violin), Rosalind Ventris (viola), Nathaniel Boyd (cello), all of whom share a belief in the communicative power of the string quartet.

Full details from the Conway Hall website.

We're crowd-funding! Songs to texts by AE Housman, Ivor Gurney, Rowan Williams & Christina Rossetti

Johnny Herford, Rosalind Ventris, Robert Hugill, Anna Huntley and William Vann at Potton Hall (Photo: Andrew Walton)
Johnny Herford, Rosalind Ventris, Robert Hugill, Anna Huntley and William Vann at Potton Hall (Photo: Andrew Walton)
I am excited to announce that we have started crowd-funding for Quickening, a new CD of my songs to be issued on the Navona Records label. A talented group of young British artists, Anna Huntley (mezzo-soprano), Rosalind Ventris (viola), Johnny Herford (baritone) and William Vann (piano) have recorded a disc of my settings of poems by Rowan Williams, AE Housman, Ivor Gurney and Christina Rossetti. We are very pleased indeed that Dr Rowan Williams gave us permission to record my setting of his powerful poem 'Winterreise: for Gillian Rose, 9 December 1995'

Recording is an expensive business and the crowd-funding enables us to give that final push and have the record company issue the recording in September this year. So we are offering some tempting rewards including unique hand-written manuscripts of the songs and the ability to dedicate a selected track on the disc.

Please do visit the Crowd Funder page to find out more.

Please do share with your friends.

Everyone enjoyed recording the songs, and I feel sure that you will enjoy listening to them.

Thursday 23 February 2017

Korngold, Stravinsky, Stephenson and Rilke

Janus Ensemble
25 February 2017 sees a striking orchestral programme at St James's Church, Sussex Gardens, Paddington when Harry Ogg conducts the Janus Ensemble in Stravinsky's Firebird Suite, Korngold's Violin Concerto and Josephine Stephenson's Abend. The soloist in the Korngold is the young Latvian violinist Kristina Balanas, whose repertoire seems to include an interesting array of 20th century concertos.

Erich Korngold retired from writing film music at the end of World War Two, and devoted himself to concert music. The Violin Concerto was written at the urging of the great violinist Bronislaw Huberman. Dedicated to Alma Mahler, the widow of the composer, the concerto was premiered in 1947 by Jascha Heifetz. It is a richly romantic piece which requires the soloist to really wear their heart on their sleeve.

Composer Josephine Stephenson wrote Abend in 2013 when it was performed by Harry Ogg and his Sinfonia d'Amici. The work is inspired by the poem of the same name by Rainer Maria Rilke from Das Buch der Bilder(1902): 'Der Abend wechselt langsam die Gewänder, die ihm ein Rand von alten Bäumen hält' (The sky puts on the darkening blue coat held for it by a row of ancient trees; )

The Janus Ensemble was founded in January 2015 by Charlotte Amherst and its two resident conductors Michael Coleby and Davide Levi, with the aim of bringing together aspiring young professional musicians at the outset of their careers.

Further information from the Janus Ensemble website.

Looking ahead: JAM 2017, nine living composers

Paul Patterson
Paul Patterson
JAM kicks off its 2017 season with its annual contemporary showcase, as well as celebrating composer Paul Patterson's 70th birthday. As part of the Brandenburg Choral Festival on 23 March 2017 at St Bride's Church, Fleet Street, Dingle Yandell (baritone), the Chapel Choir of Selwyn College, Onyx Brass, Simon Hogan (organ) and Michael Bawtree (conductor) will perform music by nine living composers, Adam Gorb, Thomas LaVoy, Paul Patterson, Alison Willis, Jack Oades, Mark Cotham, Max Charles Davies, David Ho-Yi Chan and Mark Bowler.

Ten years ago JAM commissioned Adam Gorb's Thoughts Scribbled on a Blank Wall, and the work will be the centre piece of the concert on 23 March. It is a powerful work evoking the experience of journalist John McCarthy who in the 1980s was held hostage in the Lebanon for five years. Another JAM commission, Thomas LaVoy's O Great Beyond, a setting of Rabindranath Tagore's The Gardner, will receive its London premiere, whilst Paul Patterson's 70th birthday will be celebrated with a performance of his When Music Sounds. Patterson's association with JAM dates back to 2005 when they commissioned The Fifth Continent.

Each year JAM has a call for scores and this year they are performing six pieces which came from the submissions last year (when they received their biggest number of submissions ever at 130), with pieces by Alison Willis, Jack Oakes, Mark Cotham, Max Charles Davies, David Ho-Yi Chan and Mark Bowler.

Further information from the JAM website.

Another string to his bow, Damian Thantrey announced as Lichfield Festival guest artistic director

Damian Thantrey
Damian Thantrey
The Lichfield Festival is a diverse, multi-arts festival which runs in July, in and around Lichfield. The festival has announced that for 2018, baritone Damian Thantrey will be guest artistic director whilst artistic director Sonia Stevenson is on maternity leave. 

Thantrey (who features on the recent recording of Erik Chisholm's opera Simoon, see my review) is a local boy, having been born in Burton-on-Trent, and has produced several shows for Lichfield including Mozart's Cosi fan tutte in 2016 in which he sang the role of Guglielmo. He also runs his own festival in the Northamptonshire village of Hargrave. Those with long memories will remember Damian sang the title role in the premiere of my opera Garrett in 2001.

This year's Lichfield Festival runs from 7-15 July, and includes the Halle Orchestra, percussionist Evelyn Glennie, the Sixteen and a celebration of the music of Richard Rogers, plus events celebrating the anniversaries of Jane Austen and of David Garrick (who was born in Lichfield).

Full details from the Lichfield Festival website.

Mieczyslav Weinberg - Chamber Symphonies

Weinberg - Chamber Symphonies - Kremerata Baltica - ECM
Mieczyslav Weinberg Chamber Symphonies, Piano Quintet; Kremerata Baltica, Gidon Kremer; ECM
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 17 2017
Star rating: 5.0

Terrific performances of Weinberg's powerful and personal chamber symphonies

The music of Mieczyslav Weinberg is beginning to gather pace in its rate of discovery on disc. His opera The Idiot has received its first recording (see my review), whilst The Passenger is available on DVD in David Pountney's much-travelled production,  and violinist Linus Roth has issued recordings of the violin concertante and chamber works (see my review). Violinist Gidon Kremer played Weinberg's Violin Concerto with Kristjan Järvi and the Baltic Sea Philharmonic in their tour last year (see my interview with Kristjan).

Now Gidon Kremer and his Kremerata Baltica have recorded Weinberg's chamber symphonies for ECM. On this double Cd set, Kremer and the Kremerata Baltica are joined by percussionist Andrei Pushkarev, pianist Yulianna Avdeeva, clarinettist Mate Bekavac and conductor Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla to perform Chamber Symphony No. 1, Op.145, Chamber Symphony No. 2, Op.147, Chamber Symphony No. 3, Op. 151, Chamber Symphony No. 4, Op. 153 and Piano Quintet Op.18 (in a new orchestration by Andrei Pushkarev and Gidon Kremer).

The chamber symphonies are predominantly written for string orchestra, but the second has a solo violin and timpani, whilst the fourth has clarinet and triangle and is the only one on the disc performed with a conductor (Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla).

Weinberg's chamber symphonies have an intriguing history. The first two were issued in 1986 and 1987, and in 1990 Weinberg was awarded the State Prize for the works. In fact two chamber symphonies were based on Weinberg's second and third string quartets which he wrote in the 1940s. The third chamber symphony followed in 1990, based on his fifth string quartet (from 1945). Only the fourth chamber symphony (1992) is not based directly on a previous work (though the music is very self referential). Weinberg kept the links between the works quiet, and the fact only came to light after his death. So it is not surprising that Gidon Kremer decided to add to these a new orchestration of Weinberg's Piano Quintet from 1945.

Wednesday 22 February 2017

Something old, something new, something classic: Bury Court Opera's Spring season

Bury Court Opera - Cosi van Tutte
Bury Court Opera's Spring season starts on Saturday 25 February 2017 (and runs until 12 March), with Daisy Evans production of Mozart's Cosi fan tutte and the season continues with a double bill of the anonymous 18th century opera L'Ospedale (in the production by Solomon's Knot) and a brand new opera, Mad King Suibhne by Noah Mosley.

Daisy Evans' new production of Cosi fan tutte features Gemma Summerfield, Bethan Langford, Alexander Otterburn and David Shaw as the lovers, with Nina Lejderman and Eddie Wade. Paul Wingfield conducts Camerata Alma Viva.

L'Ospedale is an anonymous 18th century setting which Solomon's Knot revived in 2015 (see Ruth's review on this blog), and James Hurley's production will feature Rebecca Moon, Michal Czerniawski, Thomas Herford, Victor Sicard, Lucy Page and Jonathan Sells, with James Halliday conducting. Noah Mosley's new opera Mad King Suibhne is directed by Ella Marchment, with a cast including Dominic Bowe, Edward Hughes, Henry Grant Kerswell, Laura Woods, Isolde Roxby and Raphaela Papadakis.

Full details from the Bury Court Opera website.

English Fantasy: Emma Johnson in concertos by John Dankworth, Patrick Hawes and Will Todd

English Fantasy - John Dankworth, Patrick Hawes, Paul Reade, Will Todd
English Fantasy: Will Todd, Paul Reade, John Dankworth, Patrick Hawes; Emma Johnson, the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, Philip Ellis; Nimbus Alliance
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 16 2017
Star rating: 4.0

Four contrasting modern, lyrically melodic concertante works, from British composers

Clarinettist Emma Johnson's disc English Fantasy on Nimbus Alliance features four concertante works written for her between 1991 and 2015. The composers are all linked by writing melodically in what might be called an approachable style. Yet the resulting works are surprisingly diverse with a remarkable range. Emma Johnson and the BBC Concert Orchestra, conductor Philip Ellis, perform Will Todd's Concerto for Emma, Paul Reade's Suite from The Victorian Kitchen Garden, John Dankworth's Clarinet Concerto - The Woolwich, and Patrick Hawes Clarinet Concerto.

Will Todd's concerto was commissioned for Emma and she premiered it with the Brighton Philharmonic, conductor Barry Wordsworth, in 2009, though Todd has re-written the work subsequently. The opening Blues and Dance has the clarinet emerging gradually out of orchestral mists. As the music become more rhapsodic there are jazz hints which crystallise in the faster section with its jazzy rhythms making something both intriguing and toe-tapping. Ballad starts with a slow jazz muted trumpet, and the moody bluesy clarinet solo does not preclude an element of English rhapsody too. The finale, Funky Tunes, has a perky snap to the rhythm, though there are some down and dirty moments too.

Looking ahead: It's All About Piano celebrates five years

It's All About Piano
In 2013, to celebrate the restoration of its piano the Insitut francais in South Kensington, London organised the It's All About Piano festival. This year they are celebrating the fifth festival with artists including Melvyn Tan, Yaron Herrman, Tristran Pfaff, Ulrich Gerhartz, Cedric Pescia, Ivan Ilic, Barry Douglas, Ismael Margain & Guillaume Bellom, the Fidelio Trio, Marcela Roggeri & François Chaplin, in concerts ranging from classical to jazz, from films to family.

Highlights include Melvyn Tan in Beethoven, Jonathan Dove and Liszt, and he is also giving a masterclass, jazz improvisation from Yaron Hermann whose influences include traditional Israeli music, Ivan Ilic in music by Antoine Reicha, Barry Douglas in Schubert, Brahms and Tchaikovsky, and there is a talk from Steinway's master piano tuner, Ulrich Gerhartz, on the prepared piano whilst pianist Cedric Pescia will be performing some of John Cage's works for prepared piano.

The festival runs from 31 March to 2 April 2017 at Institut francais du Royaume-Uni,17 Queensberry Place, London SW7 2DT, full details from the festival website.

Piano all-nighter at Birmingham Town Hall

All-Night Pianothon at Birmingham Town Hall
In the 1960s, Birmingham Town Hall played host to All-Night Jazz Festival gigs, and this has inspired John Thwaites, head of keyboard studies at Birmingham Conservatoire, to create an All-Night Pianothon at Birmingham Town Hall. 

So from 7.30pm, Friday March 3, to 7.30am, Saturday March 4, 2017, the town hall will play host to a star galaxy of pianists including Gergely Bogányi, Alistair McGowan, Peter Donohoe, Mark Bebbington, Margaret Fingerhut, Daniel Browell, Pei-Chun Liao, Di Xiao, David Quigley, Julian Jacobson... Simon Callow will be giving a rare performance of Richard Strauss's Enoch Arden with John Thwaites, Dr Anna Scott takes a look at ‘Brahms as he might have heard it’, student Nafis Umerkulova plays Schumann’s First Piano Sonata on an historic instrument made by Clara Schumann’s cousin W Wieck, and prize-winning pianists and tutors from the Conservatoire’s own ranks are showcased throughout. Alistair MacGowan will be playing Satie, and Anthony Hewitt will be cycling through the night to arrive a dawn to play Ravel's Gaspard de la Nuit.

To encourage young people and students, prices start at £1!

Full details from the Birmingham Conservatoire website.

Tuesday 21 February 2017

The slave trade refracted through music: Thierry Pécou's Outre-mémoire

Thierry Pécou & Ensemble Variances
Thierry Pécou & Ensemble Variances
Outre-mémoire (beyond memory) by Thierry Pécou, a work which looks at aspects of the slave trade refracted through the medium of music, is being performed by Pécou and his Ensemble Variances at St John's Smith Square on Wednesday 22 February 2017. 

The work was originally written for pianist Alexandre Tharaud who premiered it in 2004. Pécou's own roots are in the Caribbean, so for the piece he took a more distant perspective on the slave trade and its effects, a painter who travelled around the world, visited the countries of origin and the final destinations of the slaves and made paintings along the way. And when exhibited together, the impressions form the story of 300 years of the slave trade. The result is harmonious and hypnotising like a ritual, alternating dark harmonies with violent rhythms, all written for piano, flute, clarinet and cello.

Major coup: premiere of Kemal Yusuf's first string quartet in Norwich

Kemal Yusuf
Kemal Yusuf
Kemal Yusuf, Haydn, Webern, Beethoven; Carducci Quartet; Norwich & Norfolk Chamber Music at the John Innes Centre
Reviewed by Tony Cooper on Feb 18 2017
Star rating: 4.0

Premiere of a first quartet by the young composer of Turkish descent

Norfolk & Norwich Chamber Music pulled off a major coup by commissioning London-born composer, Kemal Yusuf, to write a piece for the Carducci Quartet. His first foray in the string-quartet genre. Yusuf's new quartet was performed alongside Haydn's Quartet in D major Op.20, no.4, Webern's Langsamer Satz and Beethoven Quartet in F minor Op. 95, at the John Innes Centre, Colney, Norwich on Saturday 18 February 2017.

A composer who possesses a unique ear, Yusuf (who is of Turkish descent) has a loose approach to music which has seen him highly active in the field of musical theatre while he also works as a jazz pianist and has written one or two film scores. His new piece, entitled ‘Oyun’ (meaning ‘Game’ in Turkish), is dedicated to his late mentor, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, whom, I’m sure, would have been immensely proud of his achievement. In fact, Max was the first to see Yusuf’s sketches and was instrumental in helping out the younger composer to formulate and nurture his initial ideas.

An exploration of the interplay of different musical materials, ‘Oyun’ - a single-movement work lasting about 18 minutes and influenced by Debussy’s ‘Jeux’ - is a piece the composer describes as being ‘misbehaving’. The only point of stability comes from a lush and quickly modulating chorale pitched in the higher register towards the end of the piece. It’s a great moment of strength and sturdiness in the work before it returns to its mischievous and carefree ways.

Striking trilogy: Snow, a new opera in three acts with three composers

Rick Zwart, Alice Privett - Lewis Murphy: Snow (act 1) - The Opera Story - photo Nick Rutter
Rick Zwart, Alice Privett - Lewis Murphy: Snow (act 1) - The Opera Story - photo Nick Rutter
Snow, JL Williams, Lewis Murphy, Lucie Treacher, Tom Floyd; Alice Privett, Rick Zwart, Polly Leech, Alison Langer, Cliff Zammit Stevens, dir: James Hurley, cond: Christopher Stark; The Opera Story at CLF Art Cafe
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 20 2017
Star rating: 4.0

Three contrasting young composers, one story; The Opera Story's impressive debut with a new opera

Lewis Murphy: Snow (act 1) - The Opera Story - photo Nick Rutter
Lewis Murphy: Snow (act 1) - The Opera Story
photo Nick Rutter
Snow is the first production from a new opera company, The Opera Story. With a libretto by JL Williams based on the Snow White story, the opera featured music by Lewis Murphy, Lucie Treacher and Tom Floyd (an act each). It was premiered on Monday 20 February 2017 at the CLF Art Cafe / Bussey Building in Peckham in a production directed by James Hurley with designs by Rachel Szmukler and lighting by Ben Pickersgill. Alice Privett was Snow White, with Rick Zwart as the King and Prince Raven, plus Polly Leech, Alison Langer and Cliff Zammit Stevens. Christopher Stark conducted an ensemble of 12 instrumentalists.

The Opera Story was founded by Manuel Fajardo and Hamish Mackay, and for their first production they decided upon a new opera based around the story of Snow White, not the tradition Disney version but one refracted through different European folk tales. JL Williams' poetic libretto took three episodes, and each of these acts was given music by a different composer.

Alice Privett - Tom Floyd: Snow (act 3) - The Opera Story - photo Nick Rutter
Alice Privett - Tom Floyd: Snow (act 3) - The Opera Story
photo Nick Rutter
To add to the feeling of differentiation, each act was performed in a different space in the Bussey Building so that we started on the third floor for act one, and worked our way down. The performance was given in the round, with the audience sitting and standing, very much an immersive experience. The organisation was impressive, getting the audience moved each time as well as moving the harp and the tuned percussion, no mean feat, but it meant that designer Rachel Szmukler could create three contrasting environments.

Because three different folk-traditions had been used, the narrative in the three acts was to a certain extent discontinuous and director James Hurley used this creatively by keeping Alice Privett's Snow White on stage all the time, an older woman remembering. It was Privett who was key to the performance, being the only character who appeared in all three acts and whose coherent characterisation through three very different operas gave us a thread to lead us through the piece.

Folk-tales are elliptical things, the very quality which makes them tricky to use yet tempting in opera. The tangential nature of the story telling, using archetypes rather than real people, leaves plenty of space for the music. James Hurley's production seemed rather too content to tell the story simply but effectively, leaving any psychological insights to the music. Fairy tales are full of Freudian suggestion. Sometimes directors rather go too overboard in this direction, but in Snow I rather wanted more psychological suggestion.

Street piano inspires a new community piano academy

Herne Hill community piano
Herne Hill community piano
Anyone who has visited Herne Hill Station has probably noticed the piano which sits under the arch which forms a passage-way under the station. This street-piano, much loved and well maintained, has inspired a new community venture, the Herne Hill Piano Academy.

The aim of the academy is to offer piano lessons for those who may not otherwise be able to afford them, and to provide mentoring and experience for potential piano teachers. Having undertaken a successful crowd-funding, the project is preparing to launch and is interested in hearing from children wishing to learn the piano, and from intermediate/advanced pianists (16 and over) who are interested in teaching (and will receive payment for the teaching). They are also interested in hearing from professionals willing to volunteer as mentors.

The plan is to offer a mix of low price lessons and free scholarship lessons and the whole project is being overseen by the Herne Hill Forum.

Further information from the Herne Hill Forum website. Those interested should email info@hernehillforum.org.uk

Monday 20 February 2017

Romanticism and contrast: Parnassius Piano Duo in Parry, Copland and Rachmaninov

Simon Callaghan and Hiroaki Takenouchi, the Parnassius Piano Duo - photo Benjamin Ealovega
Simon Callaghan and Hiroaki Takenouchi, the Parnassius Piano Duo
photo Benjamin Ealovega
Parry, Copland/Bernstein, Rachmaninov; Parnassius Piano Duo (Simon Callaghan, Hiroaki Takenouchi); St John's Smith Square
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 20 2017
Star rating: 4.0

A new two-piano arrangement of Rachmaninov's richly romantic second symphony at the centre of a contrasting programme

Simon Callaghan and Hiroaki Takenouchi, the Parnassius Piano Duo, brought a striking programme  of works for two pianos to St John's Smith Square for the Sunday afternoon concert, 19 February 2017. They opened with Hubert Parry's rarely performed Grosses Duo in E minor, following it with Leonard Bernstein's two-piano arrangement of Aaron Copland's El Salon Mexico. The programme was completed with the premiere of the duo's own two-piano arrangement of Sergei Rachmaninov's mammoth Symphony No. 2.

Written in the mid-1870s when the composer was still in his 20s and had not yet full developed his recognised style, Parry's Grosses Duo is a large-scale and eminently serious work. Each of the three movements makes a rather Brahmsian exploration of Baroque counterpoint, but shot through with the sort of bravura which makes the whole invigorating listening. This was Bach's counterpoint viewed through a 19th century lens, and from the opening notes of the Allegro energico first movement we could appreciate the rich textures which Parry created with just four hands at two pianos. Of course it helped that we were listening to a well matched pair of huge Steinways played by such a long-established piano duo. The second movement was a gentle Siciliano which, for all the movement's gentle lilt, included some remarkably elaborate figuration and rich textures. The final movement started with a very impressive long crescendo which led to the concluding fugue, based on a very strikingly angular fugue subject. The sheer business of the fugue subject kept the movement bubbling along to a terrific climax.

This seems to have been something of a weekend for rare English piano duo works, having heard RVW's Introduction and Fugue on Friday (see my article), and I did wonder whether RVW knew the Parry work (RVW studied with Parry in the 1890s).

Hidden Lives: Secret Loves - Song in the City

LGBT History Month
Song in the City's Spring series starts today, 20 February 2017, at lunchtime in the hall of St Botolph without Bishopsgate. For today's event artistic director Gavin Robert's has curated a concert which explores the tragic life of the pianist Noel Mewton-Wood who was esteemed in the British Music establishment, yet sadly committed suicide in 1953, blaming himself for the death of his lover William Fedrick, with whom he lived. (Benjamin Britten wrote Canticle III: Still falls the rain for a concert in Mewton-Wood's memory).

The concert is one of a pair Song in the City is presenting for LGBT History Month, under the title Hidden Lives: Secret Loves. On Monday 27 February, 2017 the concert will tell the story of the poet AE Housman with settings of his poems including RVW's On Wenlock Edge. Further ahead the Young Artists in the City series presents programmes devised by piano accompaniment students and recent graduates, starting with a programme about strong female figures in the arts.

Full details from the Song in the City website.

Diverse and engaging: Alina Ibragimova and the Scottish Ensemble

Scottish Ensemble
Scottish Ensemble
Mendelssohn, Pärt, Hartmann, Vasks, Bach; Alina Ibragimova, Scottish Ensemble, Jonathan Morton; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 18 2017
Star rating: 4.5

Two contrasting violin concertos form the centrepiece of a fascinating programme

The Scottish Ensemble, artistic director Jonathan Morton, brought a diverse programme to the Wigmore Hall on Saturday 18 February 2017, centred on a pair of violin concertos played by Alina Ibragimova, Bach's Violin Concerto in E major, BWV1042 and Karl Amadeus Harmann's wartime masterpiece Concerto Funebre. The Scottish Ensemble played two of Mendelssohn's early string symphonies plus Arvo Pärt's Silouan's Song and Peteris Vasks' Viatore.

The Scottish Ensemble began each half with Mendelssohn, the three movement String Symphony No. 6 in E flat (from 1821 when Mendelssohn was 12), and No. 10 in B minor (from 1823). Though these are remarkable works for a teenager, once you have got over the composer's young age and spotted the influences, and traces of the mature Mendelssohn, the pieces very much rely on the performers to sell them. And this the Scottish Ensemble did, playing with vivid presence, great engagement and liveliness.

The contrast with Pärt's Silouan's Song, which followed in the first half, could not have been greater. Made from a few simple building blocks and a great deal of silence, the piece received a performance which was very intent even in the passages which were barely there. And the quality of the group's silences was amazing.

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