Sunday 30 April 2017

Creative re-imaginings: Mark Bowler's Quartet for Strings

Mark Bowler - Quartet for Strings
Mark Bowler Quartet for Srings; Ligeti Quartet; One Glass Eye Records
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 13 2017
Star rating: 4.0

Folk inspirations from the UK and from Bulgaria in this striking quartet by the young British composer

I first came across Mark Bowler's work when his piece Fother-Jiggen was premiered by the choir of Selwyn College, conductor Mark Bawtree, at JAM's recent concert. This disc contains Bowler's Quartet for Strings played by the Ligeti Quartet on One Glass Eye Records.

The quartet is in the traditional four movements, but their titles indicate a somewhat distinctive take on the quartet repertoire, Kopanitsa, The Jigs & The Reels, Ayre, and Plovdiv Dance / Rachenitsa. The work was premiered by the Ligeti Quartet in November 2016, and this disc was recorded in January 2017. A little research indicates that Kopanitsa is the name of a group of lively folk-dances from Western Bulgaria, whilst Rachenitsa is also a distinctive group of Bulgarian folk-dances, and of course Plovdiv is the second largest city in Bulgaria.

Mark Bowler
Mark Bowler
Mark Bowler studied Music Composition & Professional Practice at Coventry University under Martin Riley and Adrian Palka, and following graduation continued to work with Palka using Robert Rutman's sculpture-instruments (the Bow Chimes and Steel Cello). A strong interest in folk-musics also seems to be part of his background (his piece for JAM was based on a traditional shepherd's counting song). So this disc, exploring folk traditions of the British Isles and of Bulgaria seems entirely appropriate, yet also rather striking.

The first thing to say is that there is nothing pastiche-y about Bowler's writing, whilst the four movements clearly have an underlying folk influence, in the rhythmic and melodic motifs, the over all sound world is Bowler's own.

Kopanitsa is very rhythmic, with an intense, dark texture with a dancing high violin line. Structurally it feels like a set of variations, a familiar folk procedure, but Bowler throws in some lovely textures, including splashy pizzicatos, slides and harmonics, to create his own sound word. You wonder how close the music is to the Bulgarian dance, but listening to the second movement, The Jigs & The Reels, enables you to tell that Bowler is highly creative in his use of his folk-material. This movement uses the same sound-world as the first, but still with a sense of jigs and reels in the rhythms. The result is dramatic and striking, and a long way from Percy Grainger. Ayre has long a sustained feel with the middle parts moving, and this movement turns gradually into the melodic and harmonic basis of the piece. Finally we return to Bulgaria for the last movement, with plucked cello contrasting with rhythmic strings, eventually turning into a toe-tapping folk-dance.

I enjoyed this disc, and found it a creative re-imagining of folk-music; Mark Bowler is certainly a young talent to watch out for.  The work receives a superb performance from the Ligeti Quartet, the recording clearly benefiting from the group's live performance of the work.

The rather striking artworks on the disc's slipcover are by Bowler himself.

Mark Bowler (born 1980) - String Quartet [23.50]
Ligeti Quartet (Mandhira de Saram, Patrick Dawkings, Richard Jones, Val Welbanks)
Recorded 13 January 2017, at Soup Studio, London
Available from One Glass Eye Records.

Saturday 29 April 2017

For the love of the voice: Ian Rosenblatt on voices, singing & founding Rosenblatt Recitals

Ivan Magri and Ian Rosenblatt after Ivan Magri's Rosenblatt Recital at the Wigmore Hall (Photo Jonathan Rose)
Ivan Magri and Ian Rosenblatt after Ivan Magri's Rosenblatt Recital at the Wigmore Hall (Photo Jonathan Rose)
For 17 years Rosenblatt Recitals has been enabling audiences to get up close and personal with a wide range of opera singers, bringing both well known and up-and-coming artists to perform in song recitals, with many artists making their UK song recital debut and some their UK debut. Rosenblatt Recitals is the brain-child of Ian Rosenblatt, the founder of the independent City law firm Rosenblatt, and he remains intimately involved with the song recital series. I recently met up with Ian at his offices for a lively chat about voices, song recitals, unadventurous operatic casting and how a City solicitor ended up creating one of London's premiere recital series.

Sondra Radvanovsky and Ian Rosenblatt after Sondra Radvanovsky's Rosenblatt Recital at Cadogan Hall
Sondra Radvanovsky and Ian Rosenblatt
after Sondra Radvanovsky's Rosenblatt Recital
at Cadogan Hall (Photo Jonathan Rose)
One of Ian's concerns is the relatively unadventurous casting at London opera houses; he feels that there are great singers out there and that we can only get to hear them if they are brought to the UK to sing. He cites as an example, Italian tenor Ivan Magri who sang at the recent Rosenblatt Recital at the Wigmore Hall, Magri's first ever song recital (see my review). Despite making a name for himself on the Continent, Magri will only be making his Covent Garden debut in June 2017 with a single performance of Nemorino in Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore.

He thought - this amazing and wanted to do more.

Rosenblatt Recitals started in 1999 when Ian's firm sponsored a single concert. Jose Cura, at the height of his powers, had just done a Puccini album with Placido Domingo conducting and Cura was due to give a Puccini concert at the Southbank Centre, again with Domingo conducting. It was the first time that Ian had sponsored a concert and he used all sorts of excuses to justify it (his firm was 10 years old, he was 40), but essentially he did it because he wanted to. In the end, Domingo dropped out and Cura both sang and conducted, Ian comments that if you closed your eyes it sounded fabulous. He thought - this amazing and wanted to do more.

Though he went along to concerts and opera performances, he had no idea how you made such things happen, how the singers got there, how they were paid. Luckily he met a woman called Helga Schmidt who had a little black book of contacts in the musical world. She proved unbelievably helpful, she asked Ian 'who do you want to sing?'. He was a huge fan of Giuseppe Sabbatini, and so the first recital series which opened in December 2000 started with a recital from Sabbatini, with Juan Diego Florez giving his UK debut recital in January 2001. From there the recital series grew; they created an infrastructure and a team and now Rosenblatt Recitals is 17 years old and there have been over 200 recitals.

Of Rosenblatt Recitals he says 'it is what it is'.

Ian loves all types of music, especially opera and the voice, and he comments that in the early days it was only possible to hear some new singers if you got hold of a pirate tape. Even nowadays, it can be difficult to hear singers, a UK based audience does not have much exposure to the younger singers coming up in Italy except for the few which Ian feels 'we are force fed'.

Friday 28 April 2017

Incontri in Terra di Siena

La Foce, near Siena, home of Incontri in Terra di Siena
La Foce, near Siena, home of Incontri in Terra di Siena
A compact programme of Wolf, Kreisler/Rachmaninoff and Ravel from tenor Ian Bostridge and pianist Alessio Bax on 24 April 2017, at 22 Mansfied Street, was the curtain raiser to the 29th annual ‘Incontri’ festival which takes places around the villa and gardens of La Foce near Siena (29 July to 5 August 2017). It was also a mediation on the lengths people go to in order to save and make a beloved family home relevant and sustainable.

First the concert. Ian Bostridge sang six of Wolf’s Mörike-Lieder, making them sound more cruel than laddish (as I imagine them) – or that may have been the body language, which doubled as his telegraphing to Bax how he wanted them to go. ‘Um Mitternacht’ gave us a moment to pause, with ‘Abschied’ ending on a comic and chaotic waltz.

From the concentration required to accompany these intense miniatures, Bax switched to a different kind of concentration for his two waltz solos. Kreisler / Rachmaninoff’s ‘Liebesleid’ – the pains of love – which also gives scope for what Bax described as ‘the other possibilities’… and Ravel’s ‘La Valse’ – a ‘waltz gone wrong’ says Bax – becomes poisoned, a symbol of turbulent times.

And turbulent it certainly was. You could hear the audience gasping at the virtuosity as they heard bits of waltz that were torn apart and momentarily stuck together again.

Bax has taken over as Artistic Director of the Incontri in Terra di Siena Festival, eight days of chamber music concerts with a terrific international line-up of stars including Joshua Bell, Paul Watkins, Sarah Connolly and Julius Drake, the Escher Quartet, Founding Director of the Festival, the cellist Antonio Lysy, and Bax himself. As well as the music, the Festival includes local visits and tours of the spectacular gardens of la Foce.

After the wild abandon of the piano playing, Benedetta Origa talked about La Foce. Her Anglo-American mother and Italian father ignored advice and bought a large farm in Tuscany in the 1920s, hired the English architect Cecil Pinsent to create gardens that blend formal terraces into the Tuscan landscape, and set about breathing new life and prosperity into the area before the war changed everything.

Iris Origo’s autobiography, just re-published by Pushkin Press , tells this story as well as exploring a childhood spent between Europe and America (and her daughter couldn’t resist a little aside about the benefits of internationalism – not that tonight’s audience would need any convincing). Benedetta described the ‘doggedness’ of her parents and their love for the property – which they have passed on to her as she finds a new life for it. La Foce is an old Etruscan word meaning ‘meeting place’ and hence the Festival provides a meeting place for friends and music lovers alike.
Ruth Hansford

HUGO WOLF (from Mörike-Lieder): Begegnung, Nimmersatte Lieber, Der Jäger, Lied eines Verliebten, Um Mitternacht, Auf ein altes Bild, Abschied


RAVEL:  La Valse

Ian Bostridge – tenor
Alessio Bax – piano

Aztec Dances: new works for recorder and piano

Aztec Dances
Aztec Dances Edward Gregson, Gregory Rose, David Bedford, George king, Daryl Runswick; Jill Kemp, Aleksander Szram; Prima Facie
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 21 2017
Star rating: 4.0

Five highly contrasting new works for recorder and piano

This new disc from recorder player Jill Kemp, Aztec Dances on the Prima Facie label, showcases new British music for recorder and piano. Accompanied by Aleksander Szram, Kemp performs Edward Gregson's Aztec Dances, Gregory Rose's Garden of the Gods, David Bedford's Kemptown Races, George King's Dance Suite and Daryl Runswick's Cycles.

The combination of recorder and piano is still a relatively unusual one and the repertoire on this disc, all but one piece written for Jill Kemp, represents Kemp's admirable desire to continue the expansion of the recorder repertoire which happened in the 20th century with figures like Carl Dolmetsch. (See my recent interview with Jill Kemp for more background on the music and the disc).

Edward Gregson's Aztec Dances was written 2010 and commissioned by the recorder player Chris Orton. The work is in four movements, 'Ritual/Pastorale', 'Fertility Dance', 'Ghost Song' and 'Sacrificial Dance' and the original inspiration for the piece came from a visit by Gregson to an exhibition at the British Museum about Aztec civilisation, particularly a section on music and dance in Aztec. The result is a sequence of fascinating dances which weave more esoteric Aztec type sounds into Gregson's own voice, utilising the recorder's ability to sound primitive to great effect. The writing for recorder includes a number of extended effects, and in 'Ghost Dances' the recorder is played into the piano to utilise the resonance of the piano strings.

Thursday 27 April 2017

Strong stuff: Ginastera's Bomarzo returns

Ginastera: Bomarzo - German Olvera, John Daszak, Hilary Summers - Teatro Real, Madrid (Photo Teatro Real)
Ginastera: Bomarzo - German Olvera, John Daszak, Hilary Summers - Teatro Real, Madrid (Photo Teatro Real)
Alberto Ginastera Bomarzo; John Daszak, Hilary Summers, Thomas Oliemans, dir; Pierre Audi, cond: David Afkhan; Teatro Real Madrid
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 14 2017
Star rating: 4.0

A towering performance from John Daszak sets off this psychologically acute production of Ginastera's rarely performed opera

Ginastera: Bomarzo - John Daszak, Milijana Nikolic - Teatro Real, Madrid (Photo Teatro Real)
Ginastera: Bomarzo - John Daszak, Milijana Nikolic
Teatro Real, Madrid (Photo Teatro Real)
Alberto Ginastera's opera Bomarzo has had a somewhat mixed history. Premiered in Washington DC in 1967, it was famously banned in Ginastera's native Argentine and not performed there until 1972. The opera had its UK premiere in 1976 at the London Coliseum in English. Since then it has not been much seen, and this was the first European staging since 1976!

The 2016 centenary of Ginastera's birth seems to have been the impulse for a new production of Ginastera's Bomarzo shared between Amsterdam and Madrid. We caught the productions premiere at the Teatro Real in Madrid on Monday 24 April 2017. Directed by Pierre Audi, designed by Urs Schönbaum and Wojciech Dziedzic with choreography by Amir Hosseinpour and Jonathan Lunn, and video by Jon Rafman. The production feature John Daszak in the title role as Pier Francesco Orsini, Duke of Bomarzo, with German Olvera and Damian del Castillo as his brothers Girolamo and Maerbale, James Creswell as his father, Hilary Summers as his grandmother, plus Milijana Nikolic as Pantasilea (Pier Francesco's first sexual experience), Nicola Beller Carbone as Julia Farnese (Pier Francesco's wife), Thomas Oliemans as the astrologer Silvio de Nardi, Albert Casals as Nicolas Orsini, Francis Tojer as Mensajero and Amaury Reinoso as Abdul. David Afkham conducted the chorus and orchestra of the Teatro Real Madrid.

The work has a text by Manuel Mujica Lainez based on his novel of the same name, which deals with the life of the hunchbacked Duke of Bomarzo in Sicily who created the series of monstrous sculptures in his gardens in the 16th century (still visible today). The piece starts with the astrologer Silvio de Nardi (Thomas Oliemans) preparing a potion to make Pier Francesco immortal. It poisons him, and he relive episodes from his life in flash back, his brothers tormenting him, his father's dislike of him, his culpability in the deaths of his elder brother Girolamo and father, his obsession with marriage to and failure of relationship with Julia Farnese, his obsession that his younger brother Maerbale is having a relationship with Julia Farnese.

Wednesday 26 April 2017

Capturing the Zeitgeist: Benjamin Appl & James Baillieu at Wigmore Hall

Benjamin Appl (Photo Sony / Lars Borges)
Benjamin Appl (Photo Sony / Lars Borges)
Heimat;Benajmin Appl, James Baillieu; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford on Apr 21 2017
Star rating: 4.5

Telling his own story, the young German baritone in recital

This recital on 21 April 2017 was part of the Wigmore Hall’s expanded vocal series and the programme was a slightly reduced version of baritone Benjamin Appl and pianist James Baillieu’s first CD recital for Sony Classical, with songs by Schubert, Reger, Schreker, Brahms, Grieg, Richard Strauss, Adolf Strauss, Poulenc, RVW, Bishop, Warlock and Ireland.

Both musicians have an impeccable pedigree, Appl being one of Fischer-Dieskau’s last pupils and Baillieu a student of Graham Johnson. No wonder the Wigmore was packed. Appl’s Sony signing and accompanying make-over to make him look ‘street’ (as they used to say in South London) means he is aiming for a wider audience than the Wigmore lunchtime crowd.

Appl’s programme is bang on the Zeitgeist. He started with ‘Seligkeit’ – which I can’t imagine anyone in the audience had never heard before – both to establish his heritage and to show us it is possible to hear a familiar song as though for the first time. Schubert / Hölty tell of the bliss of staying put with the beloved; Appl and Bailieu had fun with rubato to make each tiny verse switch from urgent to pensive and back.

Last time I heard Benjamin Appl he stepped in at short notice with an all-Schubert programme and delighted us with long ballads and melodramas including a rollercoaster of ‘Der Erlkönig’ [review here]. This time the story he was telling was his own, which requires a lot more bravery. He introduced the programme saying ‘Heimat’ is a particularly German word that has resonances around identity and belonging as well as ‘home’ and this recital was his leaving one home and making another in London (and feeling very welcome here). Of course he follows the footsteps of so many others who left Central Europe (albeit in more awful circumstances) and made London their home, enriching our musical life.

Tuesday 25 April 2017

What exactly is the National Opera Studio?

Penelope Cousland in rehearsal © NOS 2017
Penelope Cousland in rehearsal © NOS 2017
The National Opera Studio (NOS) is one of those organisations about which you read, noting that a certain singer is or was a Young Artist at the National Opera Studio. But quite what the NOS does or what being a NOS Young Artist entails is perhaps less clear. From 4 to 6 May 2017, the NOS Young Artists are presenting Dubai - Rostov - New York: Scenes from Contemporary Operas at Wilton's Music Hall, directed by David Pountney. So I recently went  down to the NOS premises in Wandsworth to meet three of the current Young Artists, Penelope Cousland (mezzo-soprano), Christopher Cull (baritone) and Frederick Brown (repetiteur), and to find out more.

David Ireland, Christopher Cull & Benjamin Lewis  in rehearsal © NOS 2017
David Ireland, Christopher Cull & Benjamin Lewis
in rehearsal © NOS 2017
The NOS is based in an old Huguenot chapel in Wandsworth, which gives them a large, airy studio space (holding around 70 audience), along with practice rooms, office space and a library. It was in this latter that I met three of the current young artists; and I was intrigued so see on the shelves alongside more familiar fare, vocal scores for Meyerbeer's Gli Hugenotti (the Italian versions of Les Huguenots) and a German version of his Le Prophete.

Penelope Cousland, Christopher Cull and Frederick Brown are amongst the 12 singers and four repetiteurs who are the current young artists at the NOS. All are with the NOS for a single academic season (September to June). The three to whom I chatted were all in the 27 to 30 age range, having studied extensively before coming to the National Opera Studio

For Penelope, the singers' time at NOS is a platform between study and going into the real world, it is a chance to build contacts, work on technique, acting and characterisation, to solidify what they already know. As an aspiring repetiteur and conductor, the period is a chance for Frederick to learn to respond to language, listen to singers and acquire specialised operatic techniques. Christopher emphasised that the year saw the singers being more independent than at college, they can train the way they want to, and they decide what to achieve and get coaching. There is no set syllabus and, as in the profession, coaching takes often place around roles being learned. But the subjects are the same as at college, but the coaching is more specific to what the singers need and there can be more of it because there are fewer of them.

In a strange land

Jeffrey Skidmore & Ex Cathedra
As part of the Choral at Cadogan series at Cadogan Hall, Jeffrey Skidmore and Ex Cathedra are presenting 'In a strange land' on 26 April 2017, an evening exploring man’s search for heaven and earth in the Old and New World during the turbulent 16th and 17th centuries.

The concert features music of religious conflict and discovery from England, France, Holland, Spain, Mexico and Bolivia. The programme includes Byrd’s Mass for Four Voices (written for Roman Catholics in England at a time when they were proscribed), alongside music written for the Anglican church such as Gibbons O clap your hands together, Tallis’ Why fum’th in fight and If ye love me, and music from the Genevan psalter. In the New Spain (Spain's colony in America) composers had to engage with the local traditions of the indigenous people. So there is music by Lobo, and Missa Ego flos campi by Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla, a Spanish composer who moved to Mexico to write music for New Spain, and there will also be music from the Latin American Baroque infused with evocative, indigenous imagery.

 Full details from the Cadogan Hall website.

Monday 24 April 2017

Lost in Translation

Cavalli - La Calisto
Cavalli La Calisto; Ensemble OrQuesta Opera Academy, Marcio da Silva; John McIntosh Arts Centre
Reviewed by Anthony Evans on Apr 22 2017
Star rating: 3.0

Young artists in Cavalli's tragi-comedy

Ensemble OrQuesta Opera Academy was founded to give singers the opportunity of performing roles in staged productions. Two casts are coached over eight days in style, technique, acting and movement culminating in two performances with a professional ensemble. I caught the first of these in Cavalli's La Calisto at the John McIntosh Arts Centre, presented in association with Music at Woodhouse, conducted and staged by Marcio da Silva.

The challenge of staging an opera in little more than a week must be an intense experience. It is always going to be seat of the pants stuff. Noises off and the stygian stage lighting of the first half made for a shaky start. Still, it’s certainly an exciting way to gain experience. Sadly the audience was thin on the ground swallowed up by the auditorium – there must be an organisation in London that could provide an audience that these young performers deserve?

La Calisto is a tragi-comedy based on the myth of Callisto from Ovid's Metamorphoses fused with the adventures of Diana and Endymion. It meditates on the nature of love and carnal lust and is full of capriciousness, pathos and raunchy comedy.

Looking ahead: Music at Paxton 2017

Picture Gallery - Paxton House
Picture Gallery - Paxton House
Music at Paxton, the Summer music festival in Paxton House on the banks of the River Tweed in the Scottish Borders, this year runs from 14 – 23 July 2017. The daily concerts offer an intimate, friendly and relaxed experience and take place in Paxton House’s splendid Picture Gallery; with its large, domed roof-light and walls hung with paintings from the National Galleries of Scotland’s collection, it makes an idyllic setting for chamber music. 

This year music for string quartet features heavily with appearances from the Elias Quartet in Sally Beamish, Schubert & Schumann's Piano Quintet (with Benjamin Frith), the Carducci Quartet in Shostakovich, Arvo Pärt, Philip Glass & Ravel's Introduction and Allegro (performed with young Scottish musicians), and the Parisian group Quatuor Zaïde in Schubert & Debussy. As well as the picture gallery, this year there is a promenade concert in the house's main reception rooms, as well as two intimate recitals in the dining room. Afternoon events in a marquee provide a varied programme including folk-music.

There are recitals from pianist Steven Osborne, harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani, the Ilyria Consort (Bojan Cicic (violin), Susanne Heinrich (viola da gamba), Steven Devine (harpsichord) and David Miller (theorbo and guitar)), soprano Ruby Hughes and pianist Joseph Middleton, pianist Benjamin Frith, and cellist Peter Wispelwey. Young artists are a strong feature of the festival, and this year's Featured artists are the Sirocco Winds, Emma Wilkins (flute), Calum Robertson (clarinet), Marco Ramelli (guitar) and the traditional group Aonach Mòr.

Full details from the Music at Paxton website, tickets available from Hub Tickets.

Sunday 23 April 2017

Nicola Lefanu - BBC Radio 3 Composer of the Week

Nicola LeFanu - © MichaelLynch
Nicola LeFanu - © MichaelLynch
This year, the composer Nicola Lefanu is 70 and there are a range of celebrations (see my interview with her to find out more). From Monday 24 April 2017 she is Composer of the Week on BBC Radio 3 when over five programmes Lefanu talks to Donald Macleod about her music and her inspirations. Topics covered will include her inspiration in the music of Alexander Goehr, her time in the Australian outback with composer David Lumsdaine, writing operas, women composers and future projects.

Composer of the Week is on BBC Radio 3 at 12pm from 24 to 28 April 2017. The programme is repeated at 6.30pm each day, and available on BBC iPlayer.

Love Music Too

William Howard
Last year, pianist William Howard's CD Sixteen Love Songs, on Orchid Classics, inspired the launch of an international Love Song Composing Competition in collaboration with Judith Weir, in which entrants wrote their own contemporary response to the love song genre. Howard will be giving people a chance to hear some of the winning entries, chosen from amongst the 500 entries, at a concert at Hoxton Hall on 26 April 2017 when Howard will perform entries from the competition alongside newly commissioned love songs from Richard Reed Parry (of Arcade Fire), Joby Talbot, Robert Saxton, David Knotts, Pavel Zemek Novák. The programme will also include Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s Love Song for Dusty, written for the project last year. 

A further seven commissions will receive their first performance in concerts in June (works by Judith Weir, Howard Skempton, and Bernard Hughes) and the Cheltenham International Festival on 9 July (works by Nico Muhly, Elena Kats-Chernin, Michael Zev Gordon and Piers Hellawell).

Further information about Howard's Love Songs project from his In love with the piano website.

Saturday 22 April 2017

From Figaro to cabaret: I chat to Elena Langer about her opera and music theatre projects

Elena Langer - Figaro Gets a Divorce - Welsh National Opera with David Stout, Elizabeth Watts, Rhian Lois, Mark Stone, Naomi O'Connell, Andrew Watts, Marie Arnet (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Elena Langer - Figaro Gets a Divorce - Welsh National Opera
with David Stout, Elizabeth Watts, Rhian Lois, Mark Stone, Naomi O'Connell, Andrew Watts, Marie Arnet
(Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
The London-based Russian-born composer Elena Langer's most recent opera, Figaro gets a divorce, was premiered by Welsh National Opera (WNO) in 2016. The opera was not just a main-stage opera commission from a UK national company, but formed a sequel to Mozart and Rossini's Figaro operas (and in fact WNO staged Elena's piece in a season with Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro and Rossini's Il barbiere di Sivigla). Elena has another work in the pipeline for WNO, Rhondda Rips it Up! an entertainment about a Welsh suffragette; Elena assures me that it is most definitely not an opera, but that it is going to be fun. I met up with Elena recently to find out more about her operatic activities.

When David Pountney first asked her to write the opera she thought he was joking

Elena Langer
Elena Langer

Figaro gets a divorce takes the story of Mozart and Rossini's Figaro operas and looks at what happens next. and when David Pountney, artistic director of WNO,  first asked her to write the opera Elena thought he was joking. Whilst writing it she tried to pretend there was no back history, and it was quite a challenge, frightening, writing a sequel to two of the best operas ever. Figaro gets a divorce was written with a libretto by David Pountney, and I was curious as to how much interaction there had been between them on the text. In fact, Elena was initially presented with the libretto to the opera by Pountney, and it gave her a good structure for the opera. Structure is clearly important to Elena, the word crops up more than once in our discussions. When writing an opera, Elena looks at the libretto initially to see whether the structure is OK, but she only does the detailed work when coming to actually set the text and as this point has a tendency to ask the librettist for a lot of changes.

She worked on the text with Pountney, on changing some of the details. She comments, that when Pountney wrote a libretto for Peter Maxwell Davies, he was surprised that Maxwell Davies set the all text unchanged, with no revisions. After the WNO performances Elena wanted to revise Figaro gets a divorce, adding an extra song for Figaro. She talked to Pountney about it, though he was not so keen to return to the work as she, and she says that they had 'a little fight' but it was all in good part. She was able to revise the piece before the production travelled to Poland in February 2017 where its was performed in Poznan.

Elena found the effect of the Polish performances very different to those by WNO, with new singers in the roles (except of Alan Oke as the Major). The Polish performers had huge voices, and singing in English, they just went for it, as did the orchestra and she says that they performed it like Puccini.

It turns out that Elena is something of a reviser, returning to works to get them right. She feels that Figaro gets a divorce is almost there, and she would like to revise it more before performances in Switzerland in September, but she has a lot else on her plate. Not only is she writing Rhondda Rips it Up! for WNO, but she is also writing a piece for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, as well as a new opera for Hong Kong.

'Even an unknown composer like me'

Friday 21 April 2017

Monteverdi in Madrid

If you happen to be in Madrid on Sunday 23 April 2017, then I will be singing in music from Monteverdi's Selva morale e spirituale at the Basilica Jesus de Medinaceli, Plaza Jesus 2, 28014 Madrid. Presented by Zenobia Musica, the concert features Stephen Cleobury, director of music at King's College, Cambridge conducting the Zenobia Music choir, the choir of the British Council School and the Palmyra Ensemble.

Thursday 20 April 2017

Rossini's La Gazza Ladra from La Scala, Milan

Rossini: La Gazza Ladra - Teatro Alla Scala, Milan (Photo Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano)
Rossini: La Gazza Ladra - Teatro Alla Scala, Milan (Photo Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano)
Rossini La Gazza Ladra; Rosa Feola, Edgardo Rocha, Alex Esposito and Paolo Bordogna, dir: Gabriele Salvatores, cond: Riccardo Chailly; Live broadcast from Teatro Alla Scala, seen at Barbican Cinema 2
Reviewed by Anthony Evans on Apr 18 2017
Star rating: 3.0

Rossini's rarely performed opera semi-seria fails to take wing

The first performance of the Thieving Magpie took place at La Scala almost exactly 200 years ago. It was received as “one of the most glittering, most single minded triumphs”. Here “the cast brings together the cream of a new generation of Rossinian bel canto” singers under the baton of Riccardo Chailly for a live broadcast direct from La Scala with Rosa Feola, Edgardo Rocha, Alex Esposito and Paolo Bordogna, directed by Gabriele Salvatores.

Rossini: La Gazza Ladra - Teatro Alla Scala, Milan (Photo Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano)
Rossini: La Gazza Ladra - Teatro Alla Scala, Milan
(Photo Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano)
The ubiquitous overture aside, I have wondered why we don’t hear La Gazza Ladra very often. I suspect that it’s not so easy to sustain a coherent balance between the comic and what is, after all, an ugly injustice. An opera semiseria, this hybrid of love, friendship and the abuse of power tells the story of Ninetta, a servant girl condemned to death for the theft of a silver spoon. The accidental and timely discovery of the titular thieving magpie saves her from an untimely demise.

Conventionally staged, the director’s principal idea is to imagine the magpie as the director of the action, swinging around the stage and managing the unfolding drama – so far so inoffensive but apart from a few visual tropes that’s where the inspiration ran out. The paucity of ideas rendered the drama curiously banal, something the musical direction struggled to compensate for.

It sounds mean-spirited to say it, given the technical demands of Rossini, but the singing was workman-like rather than sparkling. Rosa Feola (Ninetta) has a lustrous voice but displayed precious little colour until ‘Deh, tu reggi in tal momento’ when she shook me from my torpor. Edgardo Rocha (Giannetto) again technically proficient but unable to elicit more than polite applause for 'Vieni fra queste braccia' which made me sad for him. Gottardo (Michele Pertusi) was suitably unctuous as the mayor. They were all uniformly solid, just not terribly interesting – that said, Matteo Mezzaro in the tiny role of the gaoler grabbed my attention with his ringing tenor and one of the few moments that made me smile.

It’s a great pity there wasn’t more to engage me as I love Rossini.
Reviewed by Anthony Evans

Maxim Vengerov in Oxford

Maxim Vengerov
Maxim Vengerov
There is a chance to hear the violinist Maxim Vengerov in action in Oxford on 23 April 2017, performing and directing a pair of works by Mozart with the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra, artistic director Marios Papadopoulos, at the Sheldonian Theatre. Vengerov is the soloist in Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 'Turkish' and is joined by Natalia Lomeiko for Mozart's Concertone for Two Violins, with Vengerov directing from the violin. The programme is completed by Beethoven's Symphony No. 4 conducted by Marios Papadopoulos.

As part of Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra's residency at the University of Oxford, Vengerov will be giving a violin masterclass with students at Trinity College, Oxford on 24 April. In November 2016, Vengerov premiered student composer Eugene Birman's Violin Concerto following the orchestra's annual composers' workshop which offers student composers from the University the opportunity to have their work premiered in one of the Orchestra's main season concerts.

Full details from the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra's website.

Music is one: Korean, Japanese and Western musicians collaborate at Club Inégales

Yi Ji-Young (gayageum), Hyelim Kim (taegum), Jihye Kim (chango), Kiku Day (shakuhachi), Notes Inégales, Peter Wiegold at Club Inégales
Yi Ji-Young (gayageum), Hyelim Kim (taegum), Jihye Kim (chango), Kiku Day (shakuhachi), Notes Inégales, Peter Wiegold at Club Inégales 
Presence through Sound; Yi Ji-Young (gayageum), Hyelim Kim (taegum), Jihye Kim (chango), Kiku Day (shakuhachi), Notes Inégales; Club Inégales
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 18 2017
Star rating: 4.5

An absorbing club-night combining both Western, Korean and Japanese traditions

What do you get when you combine three Korean instruments (changgo, gayagum & taegum), a Japanese instrument (shakuhachi), a piano, an electric guitar and a synthesizer? That was the question being asked by Tuesday's (18 April 2017) event, Presence through sound, at Club Inégales, the music venue in North Gower street devoted to music in all its guises, directed by composer Peter Wiegold.

Kiku Day (shakuhachi) at Club Inégales
Kiku Day (shakuhachi) at Club Inégales 
At Tuesday's event, three members of the club's resident band, Notes Inégales, Peter Wiegold (keyboards), Martin Butler (piano), Joel Bell (electric guitar) were joined by four guest musicians, three from Korea, Yi Ji-Young (gayagum), Hyelim Kim (taegum), Jihye Kim (changgo), and one from Japan, Kiku Day (shakuhachi), to perform separately and together, showing how musics from diverse cultures could come together in an invigorating whole.

Club Inégales is a basement club in North Gower Street, situated below a firm of solicitors (whose support for the club is invaluable), and the club runs regular events where guest musicians from a wide variety of cultures and styles join with the resident band. Tuesday night was busy, with 60 or so audience members filling the club. It has a nicely casual atmosphere, and audience members are able to buy drinks and Indian food before the music starts.

There were a number of links between Tuesday's performers with SOAS being an essential supporting factor. The event was produced in association with SOAS and Peter Wiegold had in fact been an examiner on both Kiku Day and Hyelim Kim's Ph.D.'s. And, though Hyelim Kim was guest on Tuesday, she does in fact play regularly as a member of Notes Inégales,

On Tuesday we started with a short improvisation from Peter Wiegold, Martin Butler and Joel Bell, which seemed to use late-night jazz-inspired riffs but combined them in intriguing ways, creating something rather evanescent which coalesced gradually into a more structured yet affectingly fluid piece. This was followed by a short solo from each of the guest musicians.

Wednesday 19 April 2017

Kenneth Leighton: The Complete Organ Works

Kenneth Leighton - Complete Organ Works - Resonus Classics
Kenneth Leighton organ works; Stephen Farr, John Butt, Nicky Spence, Chloe Hanslip; Resonus Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 10 2017
Star rating: 4.0

An important and highly involving survey of all of Leighton's music for solo organ

The composer Kenneth Leighton wrote a substantial corpus of organ music and this new three disc set from Stephen Farr (director of music at St Paul's Church, Knightsbridge) on Resonus Classics gives us Leighton's music for solo organ, organ duet (with John Butt), organ and tenor (with Nicky Spence), organ and violin (with Chloe Hanslip), and even throws in Leighton's sole work for harpsichord played by Stephen Farr.

The three discs are arranged in programmes, rather than chronologically, with each disc having at its centre a work where Farr is joined by a second performer. The works were also recorded in different locations with the first and most of the third disc recorded at St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh on the 1992 Rieger organ, and most of the second disc recorded on the 2001 Klais organ at Symphony Hall, Birmingham. Es ist genug for violin and organ from the third disc was recorded on the Henry Willis organ at St Paul's Church, Knightsbridge. The recordings span quite a long period, from September 2013 to April 2016.

The first disc has at its centre, Martyrs: Dialogues on a Scottish psalm tune for organ duet which is played by Farr and Butt, surrounded by Six Fantasies on Hymn Tunes, Improvisation in memoriam Maurice de Sausmarez and Missa de Gloria (Dublin Festival Mass). On the second disc Farr is joined by Spence for These are thy wonders (A song of renewal) surrounded by Festival Fanfare, et Resurrexit (Theme, fantasy and fugue), Veni creator spiritus and Prelude, Scherzo and Passacaglia. Then on the third disc comes Farr and Hanslip's account of Fantasy on a chorale 'Es is genug', surrounded by Paen, Elegy, Ode, Rockingham, Fanfare and Veni Remptor (A celebration) and finishing with Butt's account of the harpsichord piece Improvisations 'De profundis'.

Though Kenneth Leighton was educated as a treble at Wakefield Cathedral, his knowledge of organ writing seems to have been relatively limited, and whilst writing his first work for solo organ, Prelude, Scherzo and Passacaglia (1963) he solicited help from his friend Herrick Bunney (organist of St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh from 1946 to 1996) and showed, to quote Bunney, 'instant mastery of the idiom'.

La Seine Musicale launches

La Seine Musicale
La Seine Musicale
New concert halls seem to continue coming thick and fast. Paris's latest hall opens on 22 April 2017, the 1100-seater auditorium which is part of La Seine Musicale, the new concert venue on L'Ile de Seguin. La Seine Musicale will be the new home for Laurence Equilbey's Insula Orchestra (you can read my interview with Laurence on this blog).

Insula Orchestra opens the hall on 22 & 23 April 2017 with a programme of Mozart, Berlioz, Weber and Beethoven with soloists Sandrine Piau, Anaïk Morel, Stanislas de Barbeyrac, Florian Sempey and Bertrand Chamayou. Then comes a production of Haydn's The Creation by La Fura dels Baus on 11 and 12 May, as part of a larger tour starting in Aix-en-Provence on 14 March and touring to Vienna on 15 and 16 May, Ludwigsburg and Hamburg in June 2017. Visitors to the hall include the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conductor Thomas Sondergard, in a programme of Britten, Shostakovich and Sibelius on 19 May 2017.

Commissioned by the Departement des Hauts-de-Seine and designed by architects Shigeru Ban and Jean de Gastines, La Seine Musicale appears to float on the River Seine to the south west of the capital at Boulogne-Billancourt. The multi-purpose music venue includes two concert halls, restaurants and retail spaces, and it is intended to be at the heart of the cultural revitalisation of the area.

A first Strauss and a new Mascagni: Opera Holland Park in 2018

 Anne Sophie Duprels as Iris and Noah Stewart as Osaka in Iris at Opera Holland Park 2016 (Photo Robert Workman)
 Anne Sophie Duprels as Iris and Noah Stewart as Osaka in
Mascagni's Iris at Opera Holland Park 2016  (Photo Robert Workman)
Opera Holland Park, taking advantage of its new found independence, is able to reveal more of the company's advanced planning. This means that details have been announced of the 2018 season which will feature four with new productions, with an intriguing mix of classics and rarities.

2018's real rarity is Mascagni's Isabeau, with Opera Holland Park following up its success with the 2016 production of Mascagni's Iris with another of this composer's undeservedly unknown operas. Again with a libretto by Luigi Illaca, who wrote Iris, the opera is a take on the Lady Godiva story, rich in Wagnerian symbolism. David Butt Philip will sing the role of Folco.

The company is also staging its first production of a Richard Strauss opera. Adriadne auf Naxos will be presented in 2018 in a new production directed and designed by Anthony Macdonald which is a co-production with Scottish Opera.  This will be OHP's second co-production, a welcome development, with last year's production of Rossini's La Cenerentola being their first (see my review). The new production of Ariadne auf Naxos premieres in Scotland in February and March 2018 and comes to OHP in July 2018. Brad Cohen conducts with Jennifer France (who played Adele in OHP's Die Fledermaus last year, see my review) as Zerbinetta, the American soprano Mardi Byers as the Prima Donna / Ariadne, Dutch tenor Kor-Jan Dusseljee as the Tenor / Bacchus and Stephen Gadd as Music Master.

Director Rodula Gaitanou (who directed last year's outstanding production of Vanessa at the Wexford Festival, see the review on and designer Cordelia Chisholm are responsible for a new production of Verdi's La Traviata, with Lauren Fagan making her role debut as Violetta. The final new production is Mozart's Cosi fan tutte which features a strong cast including Sarah Tynan as Despina, Kitty Whately as Dorabella and Nicholas Lester as Guglielmo.

Tuesday 18 April 2017

A wonderful 90th birthday present: John Joubert's 'Jane Eyre' finally reaches CD

John Joubert - Jane Eyre - SOMM
John Joubert Jane Eyre; April Fredrick, David Stout, Clare McCaldin, Mark Milhofer, Gwion Thomas, English Symphony Orchestra, Kenneth Woods; SOMM
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 30 2017
Star rating: 4.5

A labour of love, a terrific performance of Joubert's romantic opera

John Joubert is quite a prolific composer. 90 this year, his opus numbers approach 200, and amongst these are eight operas. This recording on SOMM is something of a labour of love, a 90th birthday present for Joubert. Recorded live at a one-of concert, it brings Joubert's Jane Eyre to the world for the first time. Kenneth Woods conducts the English Symphony Orchestra with April Fredrick as Jane, David Stout as Edward Rochester, Clare McCaldin as Mrs Fairfax and Mark Milhofer as St John Rivers. Written to a libretto by Kenneth Birkin (a Richard Strauss scholar), the opera was written without commission over the period 1987 to 1997.

When prospect of a performance seemed possible, Joubert returned to the work and revised it, removing instrumental interludes (these are now part of his Symphony No. 3), shortening the opera from three to two acts. Altogether some 40 minutes of music was removed.

The resulting opera now lasts 110 minutes. Act One opens with Jane about to leave Lowood School. Scenes at Thornfield follow ending with a love duet for Jane and Rochester. Act Two opens with the interrupted wedding, followed by a scene at the Rivers and the final scene with Jane returning to Thornfield. In an interview appended to the second CD, Joubert talks about improving the work by removing secondary scenes, but I wonder? The opera has admirable compactness. Yet, lasting under fifteen minutes the scene in the Rivers household gives Mark Milhofer precious little time to establish the character of St John Rivers.

Discussing the opera with a friend, he commented on items missing as compared to the book. But this is opera and inevitably different. What the piece really lacks is having been tried in the crucible of theatrical performance, in a full staging with Joubert working with director and conductor on what really works in the theatre.

Leeds Lieder - a weekend of song

Leeds Lieder
Leeds Lieder opens its doors for another festival on 21 April 2017, with baritone Simon Keenlyside and pianist Joseph Middleton (director of the festival) in Schubert's Schwanengesang, some of RVW's Songs of Travel and songs by Sibelius. 

And the festival concludes on 23 April 2017 with A Garland for Jane which celebrates the founder of the festival, Jane Anthony, with a programme performed by cast including Felicity Lott, Joan Rogers, Clara Mouriz, Susan Bickley, Paul Nilon, Benedict Nelson, Philip Smith, Julius Drake, Graham Johnson, Iain Burnside, Gary Matthewman, Joseph Middleton and Roger Vignoles.

In between there is soprano Rowan Pierce and Roger Vignoles in the premiere of Iain Bell's Away setting Rabindranath Tagore, mezzo-soprano Sophue Rennert and Graham Johnson in Schubert, Faure and Britten, recitals from Clara Mouriz, Benedict Nelson and Joseph Middleton and from from members of the Royal Academy Song Circle, a masterclass from Roger Vignoles, a workshop with Timothy West, Roger Nichols talking about Ravel's songs, and an Historic Leeds Walk.

Full details from the Leeds Lieder website.

Manchester's newest concert hall opens

The Stoller Hall, Chetham's School of Music
The Stoller Hall, Chetham's School of Music
Manchester's new concert hall, the Stoller Hall, opens on Friday, 21 April 2017 with a whole weekend of events. The 482 seat auditorium, part of recent developments at Chethams School of Music, was designed by Stephenson Studio architects with Arup Acoustics. £7.5m of its overall cost (£8.7m) was generously donated by Sir Norman Stoller through the Stoller Charitable Trust, with additional support from the Garfield Weston Foundation.

For the opening weekend, 21-23 April 2017, there is a programme of concerts featuring Chethams alumni and friends, including pianist Gwilym Simcock, violinist Thomas Gould, guitarist Mike Walker, the Navarra String Quartet and Chetham’s Big Band, plus comedian Ted Robins. The final event of the weekend is the official opening concert, in the presence of the Earl of Wessex, who is patron of Chetham's School of Music. The concert includes a specially-formed orchestra of alumni, staff and friends which will be conducted by Sir Mark Elder and by Stephen Threlfall, director of music at Chetham's, in performances of Walton’s Henry V, Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody with mezzo-soprano Kitty Whately, Ginastera’s Variaciones Concertantes, and Beethoven's Piano Concerto No.2 with pianist (and alumnus) Paul Lewis

Full information from the hall website.

Monday 17 April 2017

A beautifully fluid accout of Duruflé's Requiem to bring St John's Holy Week Festival to a close

New London Singers
New London Singers
Tavener, Poulenc, Duruflé; New London Singers, Martha McLorinan, Susie Winkworth, Ian Tindale, Ivor Setterfield; St John's Smith Square
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 15 2017
Star rating: 4.0

Duruflé's wonderful Requiem brings St John's Holy Week Festival to a fine conclusion

St. John's Smith Square's Holy Week Festival concluded on Saturday 15 Apri 2017 with a concert from the New London Singers, conductor Ivor Setterfield, with Martha McLorinan (mezzo-soprano), Susie Winkworth (cello) and Ian Tindale (organ), in a striking programme which combined John Taverner's Svyati (for choir and cello), Poulenc's Quatre motets pour un Temps de Penitence, and James MacMillan's O Radiant Dawn with Duruflé's Requiem Op.9 in the version for mezzo-soprano, choir and organ (with cello solo in the 'Pie Jesu').

The New London Singes, founded in 1963, is an amateur choir which has been conducted by Ivor Setterfield since 1989. At St John's they fielded 30 singers with an admirable mix of younger and older singers. A certain amount of nervousness seemed evident in the opening items, fixed smiles on some of the singers, eyes glued intently on the conductor (hardly a fault indeed), some strange vowels and a slight tendency for the line to lose focus in quieter passages. But once the choir settled down, particularly in the Duruflé in the second half, we heard some really quality singing though I would have wished that the singers had relaxed enough to show their enjoyment of the music.

James MacMillan's O Radiant Dawn was correct, and had an impressively firm line without quite taking wing. It was followed by an atmospheric account Taverner's Song for Athene which showed off the choir's fine second basses.

Sunday 16 April 2017

Lucrezia Borgia's Daughter: Princess, nun and musician

Lucrezia Borgia's Daughter
Leonora d'Este Musica quincum voce; Musica Secreta, Celestial Sirens, Deborah Roberts, Laurie Stras; Obsidian
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 9 2017
Star rating: 4.0

A window into the mesmerising world of music in 16th century Italian convents

The motets on this disc, Lucrezia Borgia's Daughter: Princess, nun and musician, were published anonymously in Venice in 1543, and though still anonymous when republished in 1549, there is good reason to believe they are the work of Suor Leonora d'Este, the daughter of Lucrezia Borgia (yes, that Lucrezia Borgia) and Duke Alfonso I d'Este of Ferrara.

The disc, on the Obsidian label, supported by the Ambache Trust, presents motets by Suor Leonora d'Este performed by Musica Secreta and Celestial Sirens, directed by Deborah Rogers and Laurie Stras. A selection of motets were performed at Brighton Early Music Festival in 2016, and on this disc we get the opportunity to hear 16 of the 23 motets, written in a style which is some of the most advanced of the period. We know little about Leonora, she was four when her mother died and she was placed in the convent of Corpus Domini in Ferrara (lacking a near female relative), she told her father (firmly) at eight that she wished to be a nun, was Abbess of Corpus Domini at 18. She was also very musical and from a musical family.

We also know little about music in convents at the time, except that the men of the church hierarchy distrusted convent polyphony saying it was morally dangerous for the nuns as it led to vanity.

Here we have motets written for voci pari - equal voices, in five parts. Some are sung one to a part, some two, using singers from Musica Secreta, and in others Musica Secreta is joined by Celestial Sirens, a non-professional women's ensemble directed by Deborah Roberts which specialises in music of this period.

The results are entrancing and mesmeric.

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