Friday 30 June 2017

Mitridate, Re di Ponto at Covent Garden

Albina Shagimuratova, Salome Jicia, Michael Spyres, Bejune Mehta, Jennifer Davis, Lucy Crowe. (C) ROH. PHOTO BILL COOPER
Albina Shagimuratova, Salome Jicia, Michael Spyres, Bejune Mehta, Jennifer Davis, Lucy Crowe.
Mozart Mitridate, Re di Ponto; Michael Spyres, Albina Shagimuratova, Salome Jicia, Bejun Mehta, Lucy Crowe, dir: Graham Vick, cond: Christophe Rousset; Royal Opera House
Reviewed by Anthony Evans on Jun 26 2017
Star rating: 3.5

Virtuosity galore, in a vivid, primary coloured spectacle

Mozart completed Mitridate, Re di Ponto, an ambitious Opera Seria, at fourteen years of age. Based on an Italian translation of Jean Racine’s play Mithridate, the virtuosic and sometimes verbose evolution of the drama are bound to set diaphragms aflutter in anticipation of it’s demands. The Royal Opera revived its production, directed by Graham Vick, with Michael Spyres, Albina Shagimuratova, Salome Jicia, Bejun Mehta and Lucy Crowe, conducted by Christophe Rousset.

It takes place in 63BC during the conflict between Rome and Pontus. Mitridate, King Mithridates VI of Pontus, after a heavy defeat is presumed dead. His sons Farnace (Bejun Mehta) and Sifare (Salome Jicia) compete for the hand of Mitridate’s fiancée Aspasia (Albina Shagimuratova). On his return Mitridate’s discovery of Farnace’s treachery and Sifare and Aspasia’s love is the cue for much chest beating ending in the Damascene conversion of Farnace in “Gia dagli occhi” just in time for the obligatory happy ending.

ABO 'Sirens' Fund - Walpurgis, Smyth, Tailleferre, Chaminade, Howell

In 2016 the Association of British Orchestras (ABO) received a gift from Diane Ambache for a new fund, 'Sirens' to raise awareness of the music written by historical women all over the world. The first round of annual grants, have been announced with music by Maria Antonia Walpurgis (1724-1780), Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944), Germaine Tailleferre (1892-1983), Cecile Chaminade (1857-1944), and Dorothy Howell (1898-1982).

The Philharmonia Orchestra performs German aristocrat-musician Maria Antonia Walpurgis’s Sinfonia to Talestri, Queen of the Amazon in their flagship Key Stage 2 concert and engagement project Orchestra Unwrapped. The London Philharmonic Orchestra will include Ethel Smyth's Concerto for Violin, Horn and Orchestra in the 2018/19 season. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra will perform works by Germaine Tailleferre and Cécile Chaminade in three performances in Liverpool and Preston in 2018, conducted by Jessica Cottis. Southbank Sinfonia and conductor Rebecca Miller will celebrate Dorothy Howell, whose music was championed by Henry Wood at the Proms, but was then lost to obscurity until recently her manuscripts were re-discovered.

Looking ahead: The Two Moors Festival

Two Moors Festival
The Two Moors Festival runs from 13 to 21 October 2017 and presents 28 concerts in 13 venues across Dartmoor and Exmoor. Performers include the City of Birmingham Symphony with pianist Pavel Kalesnikov, the Heath Quartet, pianist Barry Douglas and the Endellion Quartet, guitarist Andrew Lebedev with accordionist Iosif Purits, and Tasmin Little. 

The final concert includes the North Devon Sinfonia, winners of BBC Four's All Together Now - The Great Orchestra Challenge, performing Haydn's Creation with choral singers from the Devon Wildlife Trust and soloists Gemma Summerfield, John Porter and Tim Nelson. 

Dame Felicity Lott is giving a master-class, there is a Schubert song-cycle day with Nick Pritchard performing Die Schone Mullerin, Henry Neill performing Winterreise and Nicholas Mogg performing Schwanengesang.

Full details from The Two Moors Festival website.

Unfinished Business - London Sinfonietta at 50

Unfinished Business - London Sinfonietta at 50
It is difficult to believe, but the London Sinfonietta is going to be 50! On 24 January 2018, the anniversary to the day, the orchestra celebrates with a 50th Anniversary Concert which is part of a season which deliberately looks both backwards and forwards, celebrating past achievements and also looking to the composers of the future. On Wednesday (28/6/2017) at the Southbank Centre the orchestra had an event to tell us about its plans, and to do a bit of reminiscing. But first there was music, members of the London Sinfonietta played Sir Harrison Birtwistle's The Message for trumpet, side-drum an clarinet, a Sinfonietta Short written for the 40th anniversary in 2008, a piece inspired by a quote Birtwistle found engraved on a Bob Law sculpture: "the purpose of life is to pass the message on".

Andrew Burke, the ensemble's CEO, talked about the challenge of knowing how to mark 50 years and how they decided to both celebrate tradition and to look forward. The season's title Unfinished Business refers in part to the ensemble's wish to champion repertoire made in the post-war period which still needs more performances, but also to continue commissioning works from early and mid-career composers.

The 2017/18 season kicks of with an evening at Kings Place when co-founders David Atherton and Nicholas Snowman and John Constable look back at the ensemble's early days, and there is chamber music from the early days with music by Schoenberg, Webern, Messiaen, Ravel, Birtwistle, Varese and Stravinsky. The season features some of the earliest pieces by composers who helped establish the ensemble's reputation, including its first important commission Henze's Voices (conducted by David Atherton), and there is an evening devoted to the music of another important voice from the 1970s and 1980s, Luciano Berio. Another concert features works by Xenakis, Rihm, Colin Matthews and Bitwistle which helped establish the ensemble's signature virtuoso one-to-a-part style of performance. For a Stockhausen programme, the ensemble is joined by the Royal Academy of Music Manson Ensemble whose members will be playing side-by-side with members of the Sinfonietta, conducted by Oliver Knussen.

Education in all its forms has always been important; the London Sinfonietta was the first London orchestra to have a full time education officer, Gillian Moore. At the 50th Anniversary Concert the orchestra is joined by alumni from the London Sinfonietta Academy for a programme which moves from Birtwistle, Stravinsky and Ligeti, to the London premiere of a new piece by Hans Abrahamsen and a new work from Samantha Fernando, with a distinguished trio of conductors, David Atherton, George Benjamin, Vladimir Jurowski, and Tamara Stefanovich as solo piano.

There is a second collaboration with experimental music series, Kammer Klang, where electro-acoustic works from the London Sinfonietta's archive are brought to new life in a fresh context alongside experimental new works.

Education in its wider aspect is celebrated with LS Open, with events including players from CoMA London, Primary School groups and a 50th Anniversary Schools Concert which includes an ensemble of teenage players from Harringey and Enfield performing alongside Sinfonietta members. There is also the opportunity for members of the public to submit post-cards with musical compositions on the back, and an app which encourages you to see how accurate you can be in Steve Reich's Clapping.

Looking forward to the future, the orchestra will be giving the premiere of Philip Venable's The Gender Agenda which challenges and explores traditional gender roles and a striking game-show format! Another concert features new work from three female composers, Charlotte Bray, Rebecca Saunders and Unsuk Chin. Another collaboration is with Tom Jenkinson (aka Squarepusher) who joins the ensemble to perform his own work alongside improvisations.

A major new work comes towards the end of the season,  Tansy Davies and Nick Drake's The Cave a striking new work which explores a future destroyed by climate change. Davies is a composer who had strong links with the orchestra in the early part of her career, in fact she told us that she first heard them when she was 14 (they came to her school) and when she was studying she went to a Sinfonietta outreach event in a prison, and she wrote her early piece Iris to a London Sinfonietta commission. The Cave will be premiered at The Printworks, a huge warehouse space in Canada Water.

Full details from the London Sinfonietta's website.

Thursday 29 June 2017

An enchanting beginning: Louise Alder in songs by Richard Strauss

Louise Alder - Richard Strauss - Orchid Classics
Through Life and Love, songs by Richard Strauss; Louise Alder, Joseph Middleton; Orchard Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jun 27 2017
Star rating: 5.0

Having showed her metal as Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier, the young English soprano returns to Strauss for her debut disc

Louise Alder has had a busy Summer, singing Sophie in Olivia Fuchs new production of Der Rosenkavalier at Welsh National Opera (see my review) whilst simultaneously taking part in BBC Cardiff Singer of the World (where where she took the Audience Prize), plus of course the release of this disc of Richard Strauss's songs, accompanied by Joseph Middleton, on the Orchid Classics label. The songs selected come mainly from the 1890s, there are well known songs here such as Zueignung, Allerseelen and Heimliche Auufforderung along with many not so regularly performed. (the disc is released on 30 June 2017)

Louise Alder has very much a Sophie voice, a lyric soprano notable for its firmness of line, brightness and fluidity. In her introduction to the CD she talks about how she discovered Strauss's songs, via Elisabeth Schwarzkopf's recordings, at the age of 16 and that she jumped at the chance to record his songs for her debut disc. She sings with bright, forward tone and a lovely vibrant quality. This is combined with a deep feeling for the words so the songs really leap out at you.

Rebecca Dale is London Oriana Choir's second composer in residence

Rebecca Dale
Rebecca Dale
London Oriana Choir is starting the second year of its ambitious five-year project, five15, which will see the choir commissioning 15 new choral works from five women composers. For the second year of the project, composer Rebecca Dale has been announced as composer in residence, and her term kicks off on Wednesday 5 July 2017, when London Oriana Choir, conductor Dominic Peckham, is performing at the Cutty Sark, Greenwich, also celebrating the choir's continuing residency with the Royal Museums Greenwich.

The programme on 5 July features a new Rebecca Dale piece alongside the premiere of a new anthem by Ailsa Dixon, and music by Dobrinka Tabakova, Roxanna Panufnik, Hannah Lash and Elizabeth Alexander. Further ahead, Dale's second composition will have a Remembrance theme for choir, orchestra and solo cello, while the third will be another unaccompanied piece scheduled for next spring.

The London Oriana Choir launched its five15 project in April 2016, and Cheryl Frances Hoad was the first composer in residence, with the choir performing three new pieces by her alongside more general programming of works by female composer, as well as educational outreach to 16-18 year old budding female composers

Inspiring young musicians: Opera North's youth choruses and instrumental ensembles

Opera North Children's Chorus (Photo Justin Slee)
Opera North Children's Chorus (Photo Justin Slee)
Opera North now has a number of initiatives developing young musical talent in Leeds and across the North of England. Its well-established youth ensembles, Opera North Children's Chorus and Opera North Youth Chorus take their work on tour across the country this Summer, whilst the Opera North Orchestra Camp for young instrumentalists will be returning. And there is a new ensemble too, the Opera North Junior Strings.

The Opera North Children’s Chorus is open to children from 8 to 12 years old, with branches currently in Leeds and Newcastle, while the Opera North Young Voices and Opera North Youth Chorus offers regular workshops for 12 to 19 year olds. The Opera North Children’s Chorus performs in Newcastle, Leeds and at the Aldeburgh Festival this Summer.

The Opera North Youth Chorus performs a new production of Stephen Deazley's one-act opera, Dr Ferret’s Bad Medicine Roadshow which was inspired by Hilaire Belloc’s classic Cautionary Tales. The production debuts at the Buxton Fringe Festival, followed by performances at Middleton Hall in Hull and the Tête à Tête Festival at The Place in London, the world’s largest festival of new opera.

Opera North Orchestra Camp. (Photo Opera North)
Opera North Orchestra Camp. (Photo Opera North)
Opera North Orchestra Camp also returns giving young instrumentalists an opportunity to perfect their skills side-by-side with the Orchestra of Opera North at the University of Leeds School of Music during the school holidays. Working alongside professional musicians, they will master repertoire inspired by Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges, one of the operas in the Company’s forthcoming The Little Greats season, culminating in a side-by-side performance with the Orchestra of Opera North on the final day.

A new string ensemble, Opera North Junior Strings, launches in the autumn for young musicians who play a stringed orchestral instrument, the group will be suitable for beginner instrumentalists (Grade 0-3) from Year 6 and above. The sessions are open to all but have been specifically designed to provide an easy-to-access next step for all the pupils who have participated in Opera North’s In Harmony residencies at Windmill Primary School, Low Road Primary School and New Bewerley Community School, enabling them to progress on their instruments as they transition to secondary school.

Full information from the Opera North website.

Wednesday 28 June 2017

Nights not spent alone: Kitty Whately in Jonathan Dove

Nights Not Spent Alone - Kitty Whately - Jonathan Dove - Champs Hill
Jonathan Dove complete works for mezzo-soprano; Kitty Whately, Simon Lepper; Champs Hill Records
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jun 27 2017
Star rating: 5.0

Musicality and storytelling combine in this engaging programme of Jonathan Dove's songs

This new disc from Kitty Whately and Simon Lepper on Champs Hill Records presents Jonathan Dove's complete works for mezzo-soprano, My love is mine, Five Am'rous sighs, All the future days, Cut my shadow, Nights not spent alone, and All you who sleep tonight setting texts by Ursula Vaughan Williams, Mary Wortley Montague, Matthew Prior, Vikram Seth, Edna St Vincent Millay, Federico Garcia Lorca.

The works on the disc cover a wide range of Dove's career from 1996 through to 2015, and the songs present a more varied, and perhaps more intimate view of Dove's composing than we get from his operas. In fact, some of the songs were premiered with the composer at the piano.

Two or Three Angels

Highgate Choral Society - Two or Three Angels
Highgate Choral Society, conductor Ronald Corp, is performing Will Todd's Mass in Blue on Saturday 1 July 2017, at St Michael’s Church, South Grove, Highgate, London N6 6BJ. Rather imaginatively they have commissioned the young composer Russell Hepplewhite to write a new piece as a companion. Hepplewhite's Two or Three Angels is for soprano (Susannah Fairbairn) and double choir accompanied by piano quartet, and sets poetry by William Blake, Rabindranath Tagore, Emily Dickinson, W B Yeats, Stephen Crane, James Henry Leigh Hunt, John Keats and Henry van Dyke. 

Will Todd's Mass in Blue has been a classic almost since it debuted in 2003, and let us hope Russell Hepplewhite's new companion piece proves just as popular.

Russelly Hepplewhite's name will be familiar to readers of this blog as he has written an impressive series of family operas for English Touring Opera (the most recent, Silver Electra about Amelia Earhart, see my review) plus The Price, about the Suffragette Movement, for W11 Opera (see my review).

Full information from the Highgate Choral Society website.

O Quam Gloriosum - music in one of the City's hidden gems - 13 July 2017

London Concord Singers (conductor Jessica Norton) celebrates Summer with Victoria's Missa O Quam Gloriosum in a concert on Thursday 13 July 2017 at 7.30pm in the Church of St Bartholomew the Less, one of the City of London's hidden gems. The church is within St Bartholomew's Hospital grounds (inside the Henry VIII gate entrance in West Smithfield), and has an elegant 18th century octagonal interior created by George Dance the Younger within the medieval shell.

Tickets for the concert are £12 (including a glass of wine) with under 25s at £5; tickets are available on the door or in advance from Islington Music (020 7354 3195), or on-line from EventBrite.

Victoria's Missa O Quam Gloriosum is based on his own joyful motet of 1572. Perhaps one of the most perfect masses ever written, it balances great simplicity with controlled fervour. We will be performing both the mass and the motet, alongside a selection of motets by Villette, Poulenc, Rameau, Durufle, Bruckner, Brahms and Hassler, plus Sir James MacMillan's O Radiant Dawn from his Strathclyde motets.

We will also be taking a revised version of the programme on tour to Groningen in the Netherlands in August.

Off the beaten track near Dresden: an innovative multi-media museum devoted to Wagner's music

Bust of Wagner outside the Richard Wagner Stätten
Bust of Wagner outside the Richard Wagner Stätten, Graupa
Graupa is a sleepy little village on the outskirts of Dresden in Saxony, on the edge of the area known as Saxon Switzerland. Its main claim to fame is that Wagner took three months off from his job as Royal Kapellmeister in Dresden to live in Graupa and concentrated on writing Lohengrin in 1846. Wagner's residence in the village is now a charming museum complete with furnished rooms, and an exhibition on Lohengrin and its Dresden premiere.

Exploring the music of Wagner and his contemporaries - Richard Wagner Stätten
Exploring the music of Wagner and his contemporaries
Richard Wagner Stätten
Across the road from Wagner's former lodgings is a rather grander building, the Jagdschloss (hunting lodge) and this is now the home to the an innovative multi-media museum. The two Wagner sites are collectively known as the Richard Wagner Stätten, (Richard Wagner Sites). The multi-media museum in the Jagdschloss encourages people to explore Wagner's music without blinding them with musicology, whilst providing an innovative approach which manages to engage seasoned Wagnerians (at least this one).

It starts as you enter the building as a quotation from one of Wagner's operas plays as you enter the porch (a different quotation each time). The first room is the most traditional museum-like, providing background (Richard Wagner was a Saxon, born in nearby Leipzig), complete with an impressive model of the Dresden opera house as it was when Wagner was there.

The next room encourages you to explore Wagner's poetry. A card, given to you when entering the museum, is used as the key to the multi-media exhibits and you choose one of four themes 'Love and Punishment', 'Fear and Courage', 'Transgression and Punishment', 'Enchanted Artefacts', with the themes being a way into exploring Wagner's musical world. The first multi-media display allows you to explore quotations from texts of the operas, starting with your chosen themes. Short texts are displayed and spoken, and these can be explored at greater length (with longer spoken versions), or you can follow links to particular works or dates.

Tuesday 27 June 2017

Oculi Ensemble at LSO St Luke's

The Oculi Ensemble is a new group, a flexible grouping of players around members of the former Badke Quartet. The Oculi Ensemble makes its debut at LSO St Luke's on Sunday 2 July 2017, with a a challenging programme of Brahms' Sextet no. 2, Webern's Langsamer Satz and the string septet arrangement of Richard Strauss's Metamorphosen.

The players are all experience chamber musicians, being ex-members of the Doric, Badke, Navarra, Idomeno and Piatti Quartets, with Charlotte Scott violin, Emma Parker violin, Jon Thorne viola, Simon Tandree viola, Nathaniel Boyd cello, Pau Codina cello and Stacey Watton double bass, playing on a fine set of instruments including Stradivari, Guaneri and Grancino.

Full details from the LSO St Luke's website.

Musical comedy: Rossini's Il turco in Italia returns to Garsington

Rossini: Il turco in Italia - Garsington Opera 2017 - Sarah Tynan (Fiorilla) in chorus (Photo Alice Pennefather)
Rossini: Il turco in Italia - Garsington Opera 2017 - Sarah Tynan (Fiorilla) in chorus (Photo Alice Pennefather)
Rossini Il turco in Italia; Quirijn de Lang, Sarah Tynan, Mark Stone, Katie Bray, Geoffrey Dolton, dir: Martin Duncan, cond: David Parry
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jun 26 2017
Star rating: 4.0

An entertaining outing for one of Rossini's most complex comedies

Martin Duncan's production of Rossini's Il turco in Italia debuted in 2011, only the second production to be performed in Garsington Opera's then new home at Wormsley. Revived for the first time on 25 June 2017, David Parry was again conducting with Quirijn de Lang as Selim, Geoffrey Dolton as Don Geronio and Mark Stone as Prosdocimo returning to their roles, plus Sarah Tynan as Fiorilla, Katie Bray as Zaide, Luciano Botelho as Narciso and Jack Swanson as Albazar. Designs were by Francis O'Connor, with lighting by Mark Jonathan and movement by Nick Winston.

The production is set in a Naples of the 1950s. But this is a witty picture-postcard Naples, with clean-cut healthy gypsies, and sunny temperaments all round; Francis O'Connor's giant postcard forming a backdrop from which Fiorilla (Sarah Tynan) and Geronio's (Geoffrey Dolton) house appears, and the prow of Selim's (Quirijn de Lang) yacht dramatically pierces through. Prosdocimo's (Mark Stone) balcony overlooking the bay is always in view, and we see Prosdocimo at work constantly throughout the opera.

Duncan's production was very much a combination of music and movement, not for nothing was Nick Winston movement director and assistant director. Each solo and ensemble was carefully and wittily choreographed, in a way which charmed and delighted yet emphasised the artificiality of Rossini's drama. Yet Duncan and Winston never pulled focus, and the show was a brilliantly entertaining piece of musical theatre which ensured that we always concentrated on the right people on stage. The large set pieces mirroring Rossini's big ensembles were a particular delight.

As yet the production seems slightly under-cooked, as if there has not been quite enough rehearsal time on the Garsington stage. I was aware of small ensemble problems, and the fact that complex vocal ensembles are accompanied by complex movements does make the production a particular challenge. For the first time since coming to Garsington Opera's new home, I was aware of the sheer width of the stage, perhaps because Francis O'Connor's set, with its large postcard back drop set at an angle, was rather acoustically unhelpful, projecting sound at an angle.

In many ways Il turco in Italia is one of the most human of Rossini's comedies, and the character's less cardboard cut-out than some. But Duncan's production seemed to be encouraging us to enjoy the piece as a mechanism, and it did not always bring out the humanity of the characters. Perhaps, once the production has bedded in this will happen more, but you felt that the cast were concentrating more on performing a show for us rather than interacting as characters. There were, however, strong individual performers and those returning to the production (Quirijn de Lang, Mark Stone and Geoffrey Dolton) were most successful at making us care for their characters.

Mark Stone, on stage for most of the time and often acting as puppet master, really made the show. His is not always a natural Rossini voice, but he brought a frankness, openness and vivid sense of character to Prosdocimo which made you care for him, and made his need to find a plot and write his play really matter.

Monday 26 June 2017

French Baroque in Surrey: Rameau's Hippolyte et Aricie at Woodhouse Opera

Woodhouse Opera's recent production of Cavalli's La Calisto
Woodhouse Opera's recent production of Cavalli's La Calisto
Have taking recent productions to London and Hastings, Woodhouse Opera returns to Woodhouse Copse at Holmbury St Mary in Surrey on 1 & 2 July 2017 when its latest Baroque Academy, under the artistic direction of Marcio da Silva, presents Rameau's 1733 opera Hippolyte et Aricie. It was Rameau's first opera, and he was over 50 when it was premiered in Paris. Contemporary audiences found the piece bizarre and dissonant (it was the first music to be called 'baroque' which was intended as a term of abuse').

Woodhouse Opera is staging the work with a double cast with Hugh Benson and Kieran White sharing Hippolyte, Ashley Adams and Marjolaine Horreaux sharing Aricie, Rosemary Carlton-Wills and Olivia Miller sharing Phedre, with Jolyon Loy, Helen May, Elisabeth Wieland, and Samuel Lom, Artistic director Marcio da Silva sings Tisiphone with assistant music director Stephanie Gurga at the harpsichord.

Full details from the Woodhouse Opera website.

Comedy of character: Britten's Albert Herring at the Grange Festival

Britten: Albert Herring - The Grange Festival - Kitty Whately, Richard Pinkstone, Adrian Thompson (photo Robert Workman)
Britten: Albert Herring - The Grange Festival - Kitty Whately, Richard Pinkstone, Adrian Thompson (photo Robert Workman)
Britten Albert Herring; Richard Pinkstone, Orla Boylan, Clarissa Meek, Anna Gillingham, Alexander Robin-Baker, Adrian Thompson, Andri Bjorn Robertsson, Timothy Nelson, Kitty Whately, Kathleen Wilkinson, dir: John Copley, cond: Steuart Bedford; The Grange Festival
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on June 25 2017
Star rating: 4.0

A real comedy of character, strong characterisations depicted with affectionate warmth

Britten: Albert Herring - The Grange Festival - Orla Boylan (photo Robert Workman)
Orla Boylan (photo Robert Workman)
The Grange Festival's final new production of the Summer, which debuted on Sunday 25 June 2017,  brought together a remarkable range of ages and talents for Britten's comedy Albert Herring. Directed by John Copley (whose directing career spans over 50 years) and conducted by Steuart Bedford (who conducted the premiere of Britten's Death in Venice at Aldeburgh), the opera featured Richard Pinkstone (who is currently studying at the Royal College of Music) in the title role, plus Orla Boylan as Lady Billows, Clarissa Meek as Florence Pike, Anna Gillingham as Miss Wordsworth, Alexander Robin-Baker as Mr Gedge, Adrian Thompson as Mr Upfold, Andri Bjorn Robertsson as Superintendent Budd, Timothy Nelson as Sid, Kitty Whately as Nancy, Kathleen Wilkinson as Mrs Herring, plus Emily Vine, Catriona Hewitson and Jack Stone, with the Aurora Orchestra. Set designs were by Tim Reed, costumes by Prue Handley and lighting by Kevin Treacy.

John Copley took a traditional view of the opera, an early 20th century setting with acutely observed detail and a sense of vivid theatre, Copley introduced no directorial pensées and concentrated on created a real comedy of character with a poignant sense of seriousness of purpose at its heart.

We opened in Lady Billows' (Orla Boylan) neo-Gothic mansion down-stage, and for the scene change to the greengrocers shop, members of  the Grange Festival's ensemble (dressed as servants) changed the scene before our eyes. For each of the scene changes, Copley and Reed grasped the theatre's limited technical facilities as a virtue and gave us virtuoso moments of stagecraft. The act two change from the marquee to the greengrocers was particularly notable.

Britten: Albert Herring - The Grange Festival - Kitty Whately, Timothy Nelson (photo Robert Workman)
Kitty Whately, Timothy Nelson (photo Robert Workman)
Richard Pinkstone's Albert started out quiet and controlled, but certainly not too dim and there was a nice sense of undercurrents of something like rebellion already running through his performance in Act One. Pinkstone has an engaging stage presence, so his tipsy Act Three solo was particularly notable and enjoyable. As Albert started relaxing under the influence of the rum in Act Two, Pinkstone allowed his performance to become more animated, and the final scene was a brilliant mixture of comedy and seriousness. Pinkstone really brought out the feeling that Albert really was finding himself.

Also central to the opera, of course, is the character of Lady Billows. Orla Boylan, fresh from her performances in the title role of Turandot with Opera North, brought a powerful yet subtle vocal instrument to bear on a role which was written for just such voice (the first Lady Billows, Joan Cross, was a notable Sieglinde and Marschallin). But what was really remarkable was the physical transformation, Boylan really incarnated the old battle-axe, elderly and not walking well (and using this as a weapon). Boylan looked and sounded perfectly in character, and only escaped when, halfway across the stage to take her bow, she suddenly changed from Lady Billows back to Orla Boylan. This Lady Billows was not quite as vicious as some, but was constantly dissatisfied and disappointed with life, with a wonderful array of facial expressions commenting on the activity around her. Recent performances of the opera have seen the character (and its vocal qualities) re-invented somewhat, and it was lovely to see (and hear) Lady Billows returning to Britten's original conception in such a brilliantly theatrical manner.

Monteverdi's Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria at the Grange Festival

Monteverdi: Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria - The Grange Festival - Anna Bonitatibus, Paul Nilon (photo Robert Workman)
Monteverdi: Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria - The Grange Festival - Anna Bonitatibus, Paul Nilon (photo Robert Workman)
Monteverdi Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria; Anna Bonitatibus, Paul Nilon, Thomas Elwin, Robin Blaze, Paul Whelan, Nigel Robson, Fiona Kimm, Harry Nicholl, dir: Tim Supple; the Grange Festival
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jun 24 2017
Star rating: 4.5

Strong performances from the two leads at the centre of this vibrantly theatrical account of Monteverdi's late opera

Monteverdi: Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria - The Grange Festival - Thomas Elwin, Paul Nilon (photo Robert Workman)
Thomas Elwin, Paul Nilon (photo Robert Workman)
Tim Supple's new production of Monteverdi's Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria at The Grange Festival made full use of the intimacy of the theatre's auditorium. A small group of instrumentalists from the Academy of Ancient Music used only half the pit, and the stage was brought forward enabling strong communication between singers and the continuo group. The cast was a mixture of youth and experience, with Anna Bonitatibus as Penelope, Paul Nilon as Ulisse, Thomas Elwin as Telemaco plus an ensemble of singers taking multiple roles, Robin Blaze, Paul Whelan, Donna Bateman, Lorena Paz Nieto, Gwilym Bowen, Emma Stannard, Fiona Kimm, Nigel Robson, Ronald Samm, Harry Nicoll, and Michael Rakotoarivony, and three actors Ludo Helin, Rachel Ni Bhraonain and Durassie Kiangangu. Designs were by Sumant Jayakrishnan, movement by Debbie Fionn Barr, lighting by Jackie Shemesh and video by Ziggy Jacobs-Wyburn.

Jayakrishnan's set was a simple array of moveable screens on which Jacobs-Wyburn video appeared, this was restricted mainly to colour and to words with a summary of the English translation of the Italian projected in a way which was informative and decorative. This is opera at its most recitative, and words were the centre of the visual stimulus. This had the advantage that there was no annoying head nodding to take in surtitles and singer.

Within this the costumes were vivid and varied. Jayakrishnan used modern references for the Gods, so that Jove was a fireman (on a hoist, this was a production which used theatrical elements theatrically, and quite rightly the stage crew took a bow at the end), and Pluto a deep sea diver. But the costumes for the humans were more simply modern. The exception was Penelope, who wore a series of remarkable outfits which, I began to realise, had the intention of veiling her face in public thought it was unfortunate that one outfit made her look like a giant fringed lamp shade.

Sunday 25 June 2017

A remarkable ensemble: Janacek's Jenufa at Grange Park Opera's new home

Janacek: Jenufa - Grange Park Opera - Natalya Romaniw, Susan Bullock (Photo Richard Lewisohn)
Janacek: Jenufa - Grange Park Opera - Natalya Romaniw, Susan Bullock (Photo Richard Lewisohn)
Janacek Jenufa; Natalya Romaniw, Susan Bullock, Nicky Spence, Peter Hoare, dir: Katie Mitchell / Robin Tebbutt, cond: William Lacey; Grange Park Opera at West Horsley
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jun 23 2017
Star rating: 5.0

A quartet of strong performance illuminates a superb ensemble performance

Janacek: Jenufa - Peter Hoare, Natalya Romaniw - Grange Park Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Peter Hoare, Natalya Romaniw (Photo Robert Workman)
Everyone has been talking about the new opera house which Grange Park Opera has built in the grounds of West Horsley Place in Surrey. It is indeed a remarkable achievement, a functioning (if not quite complete) theatre built from scratch in a year, and even in its present state the acoustics are very fine indeed. But when we went along for our first visit on Friday 23 June 2017, the performance of Janacek's Jenufa was also very fine indeed, and had us really talking about the music too.

Robin Tebbutt revived Katie Mitchell's 1998 Welsh National Opera production of Jenufa, with designs based on Vicki Mortimer's originals. William Lacey conducted, with the BBC Concert Orchestra in the pit and a very strong and balanced cast; Natalya Romaniw as Jenufa, Susan Bullock as the Kostelnicka, Nicky Spence as Steva, Peter Hoare as Laca, plus Harry Thatcher as Starek, Jihoon Kim as the Mayor, Hanna-Liisa Kirchin as the Mayor's wife, Heather Ireson as Karolka, Alexandra Lowe and Eleanor Garside as mill workers and Jessica Robinson as Tetka. Original lighting by Nigel Edwards revived by Paul Keogan, original choreography by Struan Leslie revived by Lucy Cullingford.

Janacek: Jenufa - Grange Park Opera - Heather Ireson, Jihoon Kim, Nicky Spence, Natatalya Romaniw, Amy Lyddon, Peter Hoare, Harry Thatcher, Anne Marie Owens Susan Bullock, Hanna-Liisa Kirchin (Photo Richard Lewisohn)
Heather Ireson, Jihoon Kim, Nicky Spence, Natatalya Romaniw,
Amy Lyddon, Peter Hoare, Harry Thatcher, Anne Marie Owens
Susan Bullock, Hanna-Liisa Kirchin (photo Richard Lewisohn)
Mortimer and Mitchell set the piece in the 1930s, a world of stripped back rather grey interiors with little colour and no folk-influence. The production is nearly 20 years old, and I have never seen it before but it was striking how many of Mitchell's ideas seem to have permeated more recent productions. Here naturalism and realism took a back seat to a concentration on the characters, with Mitchell and Tebbutt very much creating the family from hell, as each member seems flawed in some way. Grandmother, Anne Marie Owens, is over-indulgent to her favourite grandson, Steva, Nicky Spence, (there was a lovely moment in Act Three when the baby was discovered and Anne Marie Owens look across worriedly to Nicky Spence who furiously shook his head, denying responsibility for the death); Steva is a loutish drunk, getting by on a thread of charm; failed love for Jenufa has made Laca, Peter Hoare, turn vicious; Jenufa herself, Natalya Romaniw is so blinded by her love for Steva that she cannot see sense; the Kostelnicka, Susan Bullock, is so concerned to do right that she forgets to be human and comes across as angry and accusatory.

There has been a tendency in recent years to cast Jenufa with a sort of lyric soprano voice which has difficulty imposing itself on Janacek's rich orchestration. Here, Natalya Romaniw combined a vibrancy of tone with the right lyricism to ensure that Jenufa was a real character in her own right, yet with a voice which soared over the orchestra. She was able to combine the right amount of power and intensity with a poignant lyricism so that the big moments were vibrant, but for the quieter sections in Acts Two and Three she really pulled the heart strings. We have heard Romaniw in a sequence of complex heroines in the last few years and this was another one, she had the gift of making Jenufa interesting and intense even later sections of the opera where she is overlaid with lassitude and depression. Romaniw made Jenufa the centre of attention, without being attention seeking and the final scene with Peter Hoare's Laca was radiantly transformative and transcendent in just the right way.

Romaniw's strength meant that Susan Bullock's vivid and strongly etched Kostelnicka did not simply dominate the proceedings (as has happened in a number of performances recently), and instead this was a very strongly balanced performance. All the cast strongly etched but pulling together as an ensemble.

Saturday 24 June 2017

Someone once suggested she take a choral contraceptive: I chat to conductor Suzi Digby about her projects

Suzi Digby OBE
Suzi Digby OBE
The conductor Suzi Digby is known for a remarkable range of projects, she  has created a number of organisations many involved in working with young people including Voices Foundation, Voce, and London Youth Choirs, not to mention her work in California (where she is a visiting professor at the University of Southern California) with the Golden Bridge choir and most recently in the UK, the professional choir ORA with its remarkable programme of commissioning new music. I met up with Suzi to find out more.

When we met Suzi had just returned from a meeting with Harmonia Mundi where the release date was confirmed for ORA's next disc, Many are the Wonders (released 23 June 2017). The disc combines music by Thomas Tallis with contemporary reflections on Tallis's music commissioned for the choir (see my review of ORA's recent concert at the Cutty Sark, which included a lot of this music). Whilst enthusiastic about all the music on the disc, Suzi singles out the gospel-style reflection of Tallis's Loquebantur by Ken Burton. She feels that the different sectors of music are becoming increasingly siloed with little interaction between classical music and areas such as gospel, whereas in the 1990s there seemed to be more classical interest in gospel. She is excited that Burton's piece is cross-genre in a considered way. Doing gospel style music with classical singers needs to be carefully managed, and part of Burton's skill is that he understands the Anglican tradition and his new piece is intended to emerge from that tradition.

The disc is part of a wider project where Suzi and ORA are commissioning contemporary composers to re-imaging Renaissance music. For this to work Suzi considers that, like Ken Burton, the composers need the make the music their own and cites the example of Alexander L'Estrange whose Show me deare Christ not only re-worked the 'Credo' from Byrd's Mass for four voices but secularised it too. Suzi's enthusiasm for and commitment to this project is palpable, during our conversation she not only talks knowledgeable and enthusiastically, but positively vibrates with energy.

But where did the idea of combining contemporary composers with the past come from?

Suzi Digby and ORA at the Cutty Sark in Feb. 2017
Suzi Digby and ORA at the Cutty Sark in Feb. 2017

Friday 23 June 2017

A very complete Giovanni: Mozart's Don from Ashley Riches and Opera Holland Park Young Artists

OHP Young Artists with the Opera Holland Park Chorus in Opera Holland Park’s production of Don Giovanni (Young Artists Performance 2017) © Alex Brenner
OHP Young Artists with the Opera Holland Park Chorus in Opera Holland Park’s production of Don Giovanni (Young Artists Performance 2017) © Alex Brenner
Mozart Don Giovanni (Young Artists performance); Ashley Riches, Darwin Leonard Prakash, Julia Hamon, Joel Williams, Nardus Williams, Vedat Dalgiran, Eleanor Sanderson-Nash, Ricardo Panel, dir: Oliver Platt / Roxana Haines, cond: Harry Ogg; Opera Holland Park
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jun 22 2017
Star rating: 4.5

Engaging and fully rounded performances from all concerned in the annual Young Artists performance at Opera Holland Park

Opera Holland Park - Mozart: Don Giovanni - Ashley Riches (Photo © Robert Workman)
Since it debuted in 2012, Opera Holland Park's Young Artists Scheme has gone on to create a remarkable stream of singers, directors and conductors many of whom have continued to be involved in the subsequent seasons (the 2017 Opera Holland Park season includes 14 alumni of the scheme). This year's Young Artists performance on Thursday 22 June 2017 was Oliver Platt's new production of Mozart's Don Giovanni, designed by Neil Irish. Ashley Riches, from the main cast, was Don Giovanni with young artists Darwin Leonard Prakash (Leporello), Julia Hamon (Donna Anna), Joel Williams (Don Ottavio), Vedat Dalgiran (Commendatore), Eleanor Sanderson-Nash (Zerlina) and Ricardo Panela (Masetto). The cast were rehearsed by Roxana Haines (associate director), and Harry Ogg (associate conductor) was in the pit.

Platt and Irish moved the setting to a 1930s liner, and whilst this does require a little suspension of disbelief it certainly helps to explain why everyone keeps popping up repeatedly. The costumes nicely delineated the different classes, though budget restrictions presumably meant that there seemed to be a remarkable amount of fraternisation between the upper classes and steerage. My main concern was that Irish's main set was a row of doors and port-holes, whilst this did create the necessary myriad comings and goings the main playing space was reduced to a rather intractable long corridor which emphasised the most problematic aspect of the Opera Holland Park stage (its sheer width), and caused a few problems with ensembles. Things improved vastly in the bigger set pieces when the centre section retreated up-stage to create a larger saloon-like playing area.

Opera Holland Park - Mozart: Don Giovanni - Julia Hamon, Joel Williams (Photo © Alex Brenner)
Julia Hamon, Joel Williams (Photo © Alex Brenner)
Irish and Platt had clearly thought about the class issues in the opera, and this was a production which did make the attempt to recreate Mozart and Da Ponte's complex class structures in modern terms. Something that many modern updatings rather neglect. Another enjoyable aspect to the production was that Platt had clearly thought about the mixture of comedy and tragedy which Mozart and Da Ponte intended. This was a very funny production, but one which made space for some real nastiness from Ashley Riches' Don Giovanni, and poised tragedy from Donna Anna (Julia Hamon). In line with most recent productions of the opera, Nardus Williams' Donna Elvira was also a tragic figure with none of the semi-seria elements which Mozart intended.

The young artists get a full rehearsal period with the associate director, Roxana Haines and the associate conductor, Harry Ogg, with the benefit of rehearsing in the same building as the main cast. They rehearsed with a stand-in Giovanni, but Ashley Riches and the young team built a superb relationship which belied the small amount of stage time they must have had together. There is just one young artists performance, and the impressive thing was how complete and well rounded the performances were. All the young singers are on a journey to their final mature destination, but these young artists showed a strong grasp of the essentials of performing Mozart.

PRS New Music Biennial in Hull, city of culture

King Billy - statue of King William III in Hull
King Billy - statue of King William III in Hull
When I was a boy, we used to take the ferry from New Holland in North Lincolnshire and travel to Hull, walking up from the docks and spending the day visiting shops, the Wilberforce Museum and perhaps the Ferens Art Gallery, none of which made as big an impression on me as the statue of King Billy (a large gilt statue of King William III which indicated that you had left the docks and were approaching the town). Hull was very badly bombed during the war, and the post-war re-invention was not the most successful and throughout my teens and young adult period, the association of Hull with culture was rather minimal. But the city has successfully re-invented itself in many ways, and this year is celebrating this as UK City of Culture.

Amongst the events for the City of Culture celebrations is the PRS for Music's New Music Biennial which takes place from 30 June to 1 July in Hull (to be repeated at London's Southbank Centre 7-9 July 2017) and, most importantly, broadcast on BBC Radio 3.

If you can be in Hull, then you can catch Anna Meredith and the Southbank Sinfonia, Simon Holt and the BBC Philharmonic, Errolyn Wallen, Mark Simpson, Jocelyn Pook, Sam Lee and many, many more (see the Hull 2017 web page for details).

If you can't be in Hull then BBC Radio 3 is devoting Saturday 1 July 2017 to the New Music Biennial with Breakfast presented live from Hull, Anna Meredith, one of the composers taking part, making her Radio 3 live presenting debut from Hull in Saturday Classics with a 2pm live broadcast of Errollyn Wallen’s Mighty River from Hull City Hall, and Here and Now is the first of two focussed on the Biennial, and is presented live from Fruit, a venue in Hull’s cultural quarter, introducing new music by GoGo Penguin, Gavin Bryars, Anna Meredith and Schlomo among others. Further details from the BBC Radio 3 website.

Bach - The Four Orchestra Suites

Bach's autograph of the Traversière part of the second orchestral suite (BWV 1067)
Bach's autograph of the Traversière part of
the second orchestral suite (BWV 1067)
Bach orchestral suites; The King's Consort, Robert King; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jun 22 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Bach's orchestral suites in engaging performances from the large-scale to the intimate

On one of the hottest ever days in London, Robert King and the King's Consort still drew a good audience for their programme of Bach's orchestral suites at the Wigmore Hall on Wednesday 21 June 2017. There was a very full platform too, with the ensemble fielding a total of 24 performers on the crowded Wigmore Hall stage. They did not perform the suites in numerical order, instead King started and finished with suites with trumpets Ouverture 4 in D BWV 1069 first and Ouverture 3 in D BWV 1068 last. Ouverture 1 in C, BWV 1066 came second with Ouverture 2 in B minor after the interval, played just one to a part with Rachel Brown giving the solo flute.

Bach's four orchestral suites are his only surviving examples of large-scale orchestral pieces, though almost certainly he wrote more orchestral suites which have been lost. Traces these lost ones still survive because of Bach's habit of re-using material, and this applies to the four existing suites where a few movements crop up in other places. Chronology is still somewhat vague, though some almost certainly have their origins in music which Bach wrote at the court in Cöthen, but their present form owes a lot to Bach's taking over the Collegium Musicum in Leipzig in 1729, and thus having a good orchestral ensemble with which to perform his music. In form, the suites are all quite similar; each starts with a large-scale French-overture type movement (slow, fast, slow) followed by a suite of dance movements, often in pairs.

Thursday 22 June 2017

Multi-Story on the move

The Multi-Story Orchestra (Photo Sam Murray Sutton)
The Multi-Story Orchestra (Photo Sam Murray Sutton)
The Multi-Story Orchestra is having a (temporary) change of home, on 24 June 2017 moves from its regular Peckham car park to Blackfriars NCP multi-storey car park, Foundation Street, Ipswich for a concert as part of the Aldeburgh Festival. Christopher Stark conducts a programme which includes arias by Handel and Kate Whitley's I am, I say with soloists Raphaela Papadakis and Andrew Rupp. The orchestra will also be joined by children from Hillside Primary School and Sidegate Primary School in the Kate Whitley. The afternoon concert will be followed by one of the orchestra's Living Programme Notes featuring Mozart's Symphony No 41 (‘Jupiter’), with Christopher Stark conducting.

The orchestra returns to its regular home in Peckham in July, when performances include the living programme note on Mozart's Jupiter symphony, In Colour – a new work written by pupils from Kender, John Donne, Hollydale & Lyndhurst Primary Schools, Haydn's Symphony No 82 ‘The Bear’ and Bartok dances; at one of the performances these latter will be performed with players from St Thomas the Apostle College & Harris Academy Peckham alongside The Multi-Story Orchestra.

There is also a chamber music series in Peckham, with a programme curated by flautist Hannah Grayson which includes George Crumb's Vox Balaenae and the Trio for flute, piano and cello by the 19th century French composer Louise Farrenc, cellist Nathaniel Boyd in solo Bach and Kodaly, a programme of Rameau, Piazzola and Bach curated by cellist Abel Sealocoe, Kate Whitley & Richard Uttley in Stravinsky's piano duet version of The Rite of Spring and a programme curated by percussionist Jude Carlton which includes a new commission from Ruta Vitkauskaite.

Full details from the Multi-Story website.

From Border ballads to Carlyle's Centenary: Ronald Stevenson's piano music

Ronald Stevenson Piano Music: Volume Two
Ronald Stevenson Piano Music: Volume Two; Christopher Guild; Toccata Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on June 06 2017
Star rating: 4.0

A valuable addition to the growing repertoire of Stevenson's music available on disc

The composer / pianist Ronald Stevenson left a huge legacy of piano music, and the challenge for performers on CD is to make a coherent and satisfying programme. The pianist Christopher Guild is recording Stevenson's piano music for Toccata Classics, this is the second of his discs and on it Guild includes Stevenson's Hebridean Seascape (a transcription of a Frank Merrick piece), Three Scots Fairy Tales, A Carlyle Suite, Rory Dall Morrison's Harp Book, Three Scottish Ballads, and Lament for a Blind Harper.

It is the folk-song of Scotland (Stevenson's adopted country) which weaves its way through much of the material on the disc. Hebridean Seascape is an imaginative transcription of the slow movement of a piano concerto by the composer / pianist Frank Merrick, and the central section includes a Skye fisherwoman's chant. It is quite a virtuosic piece, designed for a pianist such as Stevenson was (he was no mean interpreter of his own music). The next piece is completely the opposite, Three Scots Fairy Tales was written for children but Stevenson certainly does not write down.

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