Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Looking Ahead: Aldeburgh 2019 - Thomas Larcher, Mark Padmore, Barbara Hannigan

Thomas Larcher (© Richard Haughton)
Thomas Larcher (© Richard Haughton)
The composer Thomas Larcher will be one of three Artists in Residence at the 2019  Aldeburgh Festival, which will run from 7 to 23 June 2019. The other two Artists in Residence will be tenor Mark Padmore, and soprano and conductor Barbara Hannigan.

Larcher's first opera, The Hunting Gun, which premiered to great acclaim at the Bregenz Festival in 2018, will receive its UK premiere at the 2019 Aldeburgh Festival conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth with a cast including Sam Boden as Dichter (Narrator). Also as part of the residency, a number of Larcher's other works will be performed across the festival, inclulding his four string quartets by the Albion Quartet, the Ardeo Quartet, the Heath Quartet and Quatuor Diotima, and pianist Paul Lewis will give the premiere of Larcher's festival commission.

As part of Mark Padmore's residency he wants audiences to think more closely about the words set in songs and in opera, so there are four Poetry and Music events where writer, broadcaster and performer Dr Kate Kennedy is joined by leading poets to discuss the texts set by Britten in his song cycles Winter Words (Thomas Hardy), The Holy Sonnets of John Donne, Songs and Proverbs of William Blake, and Who are These Children? (William Soutar). The discussions are followed by performances from Padmore, Roderick Williams and pianist Andrew West.

These two residencies intersect when Mark Padmore performs Thomas Larcher's A Padmore Cycle accompanied by the composer. Larcher wrote the cycle for Mark Padmore in 2011 [see my review of Padmore and Larcher's CD recording of the cycle]

Padmore will be joined by Roderick Williams for a recital which re-creates the 1828 concert of Schubert's music, the only known all-Schubert programme performed in a public concert during the composer's lifetime.

Barbara Hannigan's residency is part of the Aldeburgh Festival's collaboration with Ojai Festival in California where Hannigan is 2019 Festival Music Director. At Aldeburgh, Hannigan will curate concerts in the final four days, and will be singing the role of Anne Trulove in Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress.

Full details from the Aldeburgh Festival website.

Powerful memorial: composer Andrew Smith on his Requiem dedicated to the victims of the 2011 Utøya massacre in Norway

Andrew Smith
Andrew Smith
Composer Andrew Smith's background combines two distinctive choral traditions, that of Great Britain and that of Norway; UK-born yet trained in Norway, Andrew has found a niche for himself writing choral music, though he is better known in Norway than in the UK. This seems set to change with the release of Nidaros Cathedral Girls Choir's recording of Andrew Smith's Requiem on the 2L label. [available from Amazon] Combining choir, organ and improvising instrument (here the saxophonist Trygve Seim) the work is dedicated to the victims of the 2011 Utøya massacre in Norway.

Andrew was recently in the UK, to catch a performance of his music in Tewkesbury Abbey, and I took the opportunity to meet up for coffee and find out more about the Requiem and his approach to music in general.

The idea for the Requiem started simply as a commission for a piece for the girl's choir of Nidaros Cathedral (the historic 11th century cathedral in Trondheim). Andrew suggested a requiem in memory of innocent child victims. And from the outset, the work was to include improvisation. Some 10 years ago Andrew wrote a piece for the Norwegian group Trio Mediaeval and trumpeter Arve Henriksen which included improvisation, and Andrew was keen to work with Henriksen again and use improvisation on a bigger scale.

Tuesday, 11 December 2018

Looking Ahead: Dartington 2019 - Joanna MacGregor's last festival as artistic director

Dartington Hall (Photo Aubrey Simpson)
Dartington Hall (Photo Aubrey Simpson)
2019 sees Joanna MacGregor's fifth and final year as artistic director of Dartington Summer School and Festival which runs at Dartington Hall from 27 July to 24 August 2019.

Highlights include Britten's The Turn of the Screw with Tom Randle as Peter Quint, and Britten's Saint Nicholas conducted by Steuart Bedford, along with Sarah Gabriel directing her new play A House on Middagh Street, about the house where Britten lived with WH Auden, Carson McCullers and Gypsy Rose Lee.

Other large scale pieces include Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, and John Cage's Musicircus which will involve the entire Dartington and Totnes community! And Joanna MacGregor has commissioned a new piece from Eleanor Alberga for large choir and piano.

MacGregor's distinctive sense of programming can be seen when she pairs Moondog with Bach's The Art of Fugue,  and there is also Piazzolla, Harrison Birtwistle (who celebrates his 85th birthday) and Alice Oswald presents Nobody, her new long poem inspired by Homer’s Odyssey, with William Tillyer’s swirling, abstract paintings and improvisation with Joanna MacGregor.

Laurence Cumming conducts Handel's Saul, and Robert Howarth and Richard Williams direct Handel's Agrippina.

Full details from Dartington's website.

Christmas in Leipzig - Solomon's Knot

Solomon's Knot (Photo Gerard Collett)
Solomon's Knot (Photo Gerard Collett)
Christmas in Leipzig
Schelle, Kuhnau, Bach; 
Solomon's Knot; 
Milton Court Concert Hall  
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 10 December 2018 
Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
The Baroque collective, Solomon's Knot, brings its inimitable style and engaging sense of communication to Christmas music by Bach and his predecessors

Solomon's Knot returned to the Barbican on Monday 10 December 2018 following the group's successful Barbican debut earlier this year performing Bach motets at the Bach Weekend [see Ruth's review]. Monday's concert at Milton Court Concert Hall featured the group's Christmas in Leipzig programme [which we first heard in 2015, see my review] which paired Bach's first version of the Magnificat (in E flat with the Christmas interpolations) with music by his two predecessors, Johann Kuhnau's Magnificat in C major and Johann Schelle's Machet die Tore weit.

Founded 10 years ago and led by joint artistic directors James Halliday and Jonathan Sells, the group is a collective which brings a different approach to Baroque music.  Yes the performances are Historically Informed on period instruments, and yes the forces use approximate to those which Bach probably used with a vocal group of ten (going down to eight for the Schelle) and an instrumental ensemble based on eight strings, and solos are sung by members of the ensemble stepping out.

But all sorts of modern performing traditions have started to accumulate around the performance of Baroque music, and Solomon's Knot avoids some of these. It performs without a conductor, and without the visible direction of a keyboard/director. Instead, the responsibility is collective, with the opening of a movement/section the responsibility of those starting it. This has plusses and minuses, sometimes a guiding hand is helpful in risk-taking, but the collective approach is a valid one and brings a greater level of communicability. You can see the singers and instrumentalists looking at each other, paying attention to what is going on and reacting. These are very much ensemble performances.

The other difference is that the singers of Solomon's Knot perform from memory so that their communication with the audience is very direct with no score or conductor getting in the way. Some very fine vocal ensembles give performances which, rather than being for the audience, seem to be simply allowing the audience to eavesdrop on something which is essentially private. Not here, we can see and hear the group from the outset. Apart from the group of large-scale solos at the centre of Bach's Magnificat when the singers vacated the stage, everyone was on-stage all the time and when not singing, people were listening and reacting, each in their different way. You could imagine the staging being more developed, more choreographed, but this had a nicely casual quality with reactions varying from still and solemn attention to lively delight. Though the instrumentalists were placed behind the singers, they were not secondary and we could see and hear their participation.

In terms of sound quality, the results had an engaging liveliness even in the most sober passages. And, with the large ensembles having a feeling of bounce and lightness (though not without drama) which is often lacking, and the continuo accompanied solos created a real chamber music feel.

The concert was being recorded live for future release, and the evening began with a plea from Jonathan Sells for the audience to be restrained in its noise-making. That sense of restraint seemed to carry over to the performances and the first two items, Schelle's Machet die Tore weit and Kuhnau's Magnificat seemed to be a little more careful than usual, without the element of vibrant risk-taking. But somehow, after the interval, the ensemble recovered its collective confidence and the Bach had a wonderful vividness, energy and focus, with the group's enjoyment being palpable.

Monday, 10 December 2018

Inspired by Cage and Rauschenberg

Robert Rauschenberg - Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac
Robert Rauschenberg Palladian Xmas (Spread), 1980. 
Courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac,
London Paris Salzburg © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation/DACS
Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac in London currently has an exhibition devoted to the work of Robert Rauschenberg, Spreads 1975-1983, alongside John Cage's installation Ryoanji. Inspired by Rauschenberg's collaborations with Cage, Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac and MusicArt are presenting a performance Conceptual Concert in Three Acts co-created and performed by pianist Annie Yim with poet Kayo Chingonyi and composer Raymond Yiu on 13 December 2018.

The event will include Cage's The Seasons (1947) and Winter Music (1957), combined with recorded extracts of Cage’s spoken voice, plus an original multi-media Performing Installation, created and performed by Kayo Chingonyi, Annie Yim and Raymond Yiu, with the event finishing with a performance of Cage's iconic 4’33” (1952).

Further details from MusicArt.

Winter Fragments: Chamber music by Michael Berkeley

MIchael Berkeley - Winter Fragments - Berkeley Ensemble - Resonus Classics
Winter Fragments - Michael Berkeley chamber music; Fleur Barron, Berkeley Ensemble, Dominic Grier; Resonus Classics Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 7 December 2018 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
With music spanning nearly 30 years, a serious exploration of Michael Berkeley's chamber music

Winter Fragments on Resonus Classics is the latest disc by the Berkeley Ensemble to feature music by Michael Berkeley. On this disc the ensemble (Sophie Matter and Francesc Barritt violin, Dan Shilladay viola, Gemma Wareham cello, John Slack clarinets, Andrew Watson bassoon, Paul Cott horn) is joined by Fleur Barron (mezzo-soprano), Luke Russell (flutes), Emily Cockbill (oboe & cor anglais), Sarah Hatch (percussion), Helen Sharp (harp) and Dominic Grier (conductor) to perform Berkeley's Catch Me If You Can, Clarinet Quintet, Winter Fragments, Sonnet for Orpheus and Seven, music which spans nearly 30 years of Berkeley's composing life.

The disc opens with Berkeley's 1994 work for wind ensemble, Catch Me If You Can, which was written for the Haffner Wind Ensemble to take into schools, so that Berkeley's inspirations for the piece varied from Janacek's Mladi (youth) to the cruelty of children's games. In three movements, the first presents fragments which collect together in a busy dialogue where things seem to happen simultaneously. The second is slow and spare, with a sense of narrative to it and this feeling of a story being told continues with the perky final movement.

Sunday, 9 December 2018

Intimate delight, 18th century chamber cantatas from Tim Mead, Louise Alder & Arcangelo

18th century chamber cantatas
Scarlatti, Porpora, Handel - chamber cantatas and trio sonatas; Louise Alder, Tim Mead, Arcangelo, Jonathan Cohen; Wigmore Hall Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 8 December 2018 Star rating: 45. (★★★★½)
Intimate, smaller scale 18th-century vocal works in engaging & vital performances

The chamber cantata was an important element of 18th-century musical life, enabling both composers and performers to demonstrate their skills on a smaller scale. The links with 18th-century opera are quite clear, opera composers wrote cantatas for opera singers to perform for patrons who often patronised opera as well. Though it is important to recognise that in the chamber cantata, the composer could be freer and more imaginative, not confined by operatic conventions.

For their programme at Wigmore Hall on Friday 7 December 2018, soprano Louise Alder and counter-tenor Tim Mead joined Jonathan Cohen and Arcangelo (Sophie Gent and Louis Creac'h violins, Max Mandel viola, Jonathan Byers cello, Thomas Dunford lute) for a programme of chamber cantatas by Alessandro Scarlatti, Nicola Porpora and George Frideric Handel, ending with Handel's Amarilli vezzosa (Il duello amoroso), plus trio sonatas by Porpora and Handel.

We started with a pair of cantatas by Alessandro Scarlatti, Piango, sospiro e peno H563 with Tim Mead, and Clori e Mirtillo H419 with Louise Alder and Tim Mead. The first cantata used a pair of violins with the standard continuo line-up of cello, lute and keyboard (with Jonathan Cohen moving between harpsichord and chamber organ throughout the evening). Piango, sospiro e peno introduces us to a suffering lover, though perhaps the most notable feature of the cantata was the way Scarlatti used the violins to create a trio-sonata texture full of expressive suspensions, and the cantata began and ended with striking arioso sections featuring voice and violins, with a pair of finely contrasting arias in the middle. All in all, a little gem which received a most expressive performance from Tim Mead and the ensemble.

Saturday, 8 December 2018

A new record label, a new disc: I chat to Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka about bel canto and more

Donizetti: Anna Bolena - Michele Losier, Marina Rebeka - Bordeaux (Photo Maitetxu Etcheverria)
Donizetti: Anna Bolena - Michele Losier, Marina Rebeka - Opera National Bordeaux 2018 (Photo Maitetxu Etcheverria)
The Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka has just released a new recital disc, Spirito, of bel canto arias by Bellini, Donizetti, and Spontini, on her new label, Prima Classic. Whilst appearing in the title role in Donizetti's Anna Bolena in Bordeaux, Marina made a brief visit to London and I was lucky enough to be able to meet up with her to chat about the new disc, and about her plans for the new label.

Marina Rebeka (Photo Jānis Deinats)
Marina Rebeka (Photo Jānis Deinats)
Spirito has scenes from Bellini's Norma and Il Pirata, Donizetti's Maria Stuarda and Anna Bolena, and Spontini's La Vestale, and in fact, they could all be classified as mad scenes or prayers and I wondered whether that had been a deliberate choice. In fact, Marina had chosen what she felt was the most difficult aria in each opera, often going for the most extreme moment, something which Marina feels is in keeping with her own dramatic nature. She also wished to do complete scenes rather than single arias, and the challenge was to fit everything onto the disc (in fact, the scene from Anna Bolena has a small cut), and she had to drop the idea of doing the final scene from Donizetti's Roberto Devereux simply because it would have been too long.

Once Marina has sung Imogene in Bellini's Il Pirata in Geneva in February 2019, she will have all the Italian roles on the disc in her repertoire. Julia from Spontini's La Vestale is rather rare and is still best known for being sung, in Italian, by Maria Callas though Ricardo Muti conducted it at La Scala in the original French. And Marina was interested in performing the music in French. She finds the music of La Vestale more engaging in French, with the phrases being longer (in Italian, the translation needs to break the phrases up). In French, the music shows the first intentions of the composer (La Vestale was written in 1807 for the Paris Opera). Marina finds it a beautiful piece with the influence of Gluck, and Berlioz admired the work a lot. Part of the reason for choosing to include a scene from the opera on Spirito was that Marina wanted to show why La Vestale was so famous.

And to do it in the original required going to the library.

This is something that Marina enjoys, for all the music on the disc she has returned to the composer's manuscripts and created her own editions (with Marija Beate Straujupe, the librarian at Latvian National Opera). Marina finds it exciting to see the music in the original manuscript, the way the words and the notes link up, and the indications of the way the composer originally thought about the music. They found small changes between the manuscripts and printed editions, ungrammatical phrases, which Marina found brought her closer to the composer.

Friday, 7 December 2018

Ideal & Flying Height: Celebrating Brian Ferneyhough

Brian Ferneyhough
Brian Ferneyhough (Photo Charlotte Oswald)
Brian Ferneyhough is 75, and Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (BCMG) and the Arditti Quartet are joining forces to celebrate at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. On Sunday 9 December 2018, there is a day of events at the Conservatoire launched with a conversation between Ferneyhough and fellow composer Howard Skempton. 

Also performing during the day are musicians from NEXT, a one-year programme launched earlier this year by BCMG and the Conservatoire which gives post-graduates and early career musicians training, coaching and performance opportunities to become specialist contemporary classical musicians.

Music during the day includes Ferneyhough’s La Chute d’Icare (the clarinet representing Icarus), Funérailles I & II (for seven strings and harp, dating to 1969 and 1980 respectively) which allude to Liszt’s work of the same name, and  Dum Transisset I-V (for string quartet from 2007, a tribute to 16th-century composer and organist Christopher Tye).

The events also feature works by other composers with Midlands links (Ferneyhough was, himself, born on Coventry) including Sutton Coldfield-born Jonathan Harvey’s Scena, Trauerkonzert by Michael Wolters, the Conservatoire’s Deputy Head of Composition, and Conservatoire alumna Charlotte Bray’s Beneath the Dawn Horizon in its first complete public performance.

Full details from the BCMG website.

Simon Thacker’s Svara-Kanti: Trikala

Simon Thacker's Svara-Kanti: Trikala
Simon Thacker’s Svara-Kanti: Trikala Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 4 December 2018
Classical guitarist Simon Thacker returns with his ensemble, with further explorations of music from the Indian sub-continent

The classical guitarist Simon Thacker continues his cross-culturation explorations with his ensemble Simon Thacker's Svara-Kanti with this new double-album Trikala on Slap the Moon records. For this disc he has brought together a total of 13 musicians from a variety of traditions, both Western Classical and Indian, including different traditions from the Indian sub-continent. They come together as a series of different ensembles and explore a wide spectrum of the musics from the sub-continent. 

The music on the disc encompasses Hindustani classical (north), Carnatic classical (south), Punjabi folk (west) and the Bengali mystical folk Baul tradition of both India and Bangladesh (east), and there is also a work with a Tamil inspiration, and one of Bengali polymath Rabindranath Tagore’s best loved melodies. With all the music on the disc re-imagined by Simon Thacker.


The London Sinfonietta explores the links between music and literature at a concert on Friday 7 December 2018 at the Purcell Room. Conducted by Jessica Cottis the orchestra is presenting a pair of world premieres, Mark Boden's new saxophone concerto Sapiens and Colin Matthews' As Time Returns.

Mark Boden first worked with London Sinfonietta saxophone player Simon Haran on a Sinfonietta Short solo work, and this collaboration has developed into a full concerto Sapiens which Boden has based on Yuval Noah Harari’s bestselling history of humankind Sapiens.

 Colin Matthews' As Time Returns is a setting of poems by the Czech poet Ivan Blatný (1919 – 1990), who defected to England in 1948 and spent most of the remainder of his life in mental institutions and care homes, and it was only when one of his carers preserved his work that it became known and published. Matthews' new work is the powerful story of one man's personal journey, performed by baritone George Humphreys.

Further ahead, on 17 January 2019 as part of SoundState, Southbank Centre's new festival celebrating new music,the orchestra will be presenting the London premiere of James Dillon’s Tanz/haus: triptych 2017, plus music by two of the Sinfonietta's Writing the Future composers, Oliver Leith and Josephine Stephenson.

Full details from the London Sinfonietta website.

Thursday, 6 December 2018

W11 Opera - Shadowtracks

The Price - W11 Opera
Russell Hepplewhite: The Price - W11 Opera, 2016
For the last 47 years, W11 Opera has been producing opera performed by young people age 9 to 18. This year the company is returning to Shadowtracks by Julian Grant and Christina Jones, which the company originally commissioned in 2007.  Shadowtracks is at POSK Theatre, Hammersmith, W6 0RF on Saturday 8 December and Sunday 9 December.

W11 Opera has a strong tradition of performing commissioned works, and has commissioned composers including George Fenton, Julian Philips, Phil Porter, Russell Hepplewhite [whose opera The Price was presented in 2016, see my review], Stuart Hancock, John Barber and Cecilia MacDowell. The company has a strong community base and for many of the young participants, working with the company is their first introduction to musical theatre. This year 70 young people will be performing, and the company has commissioned a total of 37 new works involving over two thousand young people.

Full details from the W11 Opera website.

French collection

French Collection - Katarzyna Kowalik
Jean-Philippe Rameau, Antoine Forqueray, Christophe Moyreaus, Pierre-Claude Fouquet, Francois Couperin, and Joseph-Nicolas-Pancrace Royer; Katarzyna Kowalik Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 3 December 2018 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
18th century harpsichord pieces in a recital full of vivid colour

On this disc, the London-based harpsichordist of Polish origin Katarzyna Kowalik presents a selection of French 18th century music for harpsichord starting with Rameau's Premiere Livre de Pieces de Clavecin and then moving through pieces by Antoine Forqueray, Christophe Moyreaus, Pierre-Claude Fouquet, Francois Couperin, and Joseph-Nicolas-Pancrace Royer.

Amongst other Katarzyna Kowalik studied with Christophe Rousset and Skip Sempe, and I first came across her when she was a member of the 2015 Handel House Talent Scheme. On this disc she plays a 2012 harpsichord by Andrew Garlick after an instrument by Jean-Claude Goyon from 1749. The first thing I noticed was the wonderfully resonant and sonorous sound of the instrument, pitches of notes clearly centred with none of the annoying pecking you can get with some harpsichords. And Katarzyna Kowalik brings out a wide vareity of timbres and texture in the music, displaying the instrument's, and her, versatility. It helps that she has chosen a sequence of highly characterful, not to say vivid, pieces to which she brings virtuosity and a sense of colour. This is certainly not a boring recital!

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

Truly scrumptious: the choir of St George's Chapel, Windsor in music for Advent

Choir of St George's Chapel, Windsor
Choir of St George's Chapel, Windsor
Music for Advent; Choir of St George's Chapel, Windsor, James Vivian, Luke Bond; Cadogan Hall Reviewed by Anthony Evans on 4 December 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
An eclectic programme for Advent as part of Choral at Cadogan

On Monday December 4 in the Neo-Byzantine surroundings of Cadogan Hall the choir of St. George’s Chapel, Windsor under the direction of James Vivian with organist Luke Bond performed a programme of all things Advent. The eclectic choice of repertoire spanned more than 1000 years of music from the triumphant acclamation of Laudes Regiae to Arvo Pärt’s vibrant tribute to the Virgin Mary Bogoróditse Djévo

The choir’s largely a cappella programme kicked off with a somewhat underpowered Laudes Regiae. Placing the choir off-stage rendered this responsorial acclamation a little flat. I can imagine this working wonderfully in a church, but in the dry acoustic of the Cadogan Hall the impact was lost. Thankfully when the choir did emerge, they wasted no time in showing us what they were made of in Byrd’s Rorate caeli with a dulcet light and refined touch. But there were times in the first half when it all felt a little too decorous. Aided by some programming choices, I felt parked in a stylistic cul-de-sac and ached for a little more musical variety. Weelkes, that notoriously drunkard blasphemer, for example, wrote a simple but passionate anthem in Rejoice in the Lord that to my mind would have benefitted from a bit more oomph.

If the first half was stylistically a little samey, not so the second. The smorgasbord of delights after the interval finally heralded a celebration of Advent. From Brahms’ lush Es ist das Heil through Up, awake and away and Goldschmidt’s A tender shoot to Verdi’s delicious Ave Maria and Pärt’s emotionally charged Church Slavonic Bogoróditse Djévo all classily done.

Lookng ahead: The London Schools Symphony Orchestra

The London Schools Symphony Orchestra
The London Schools Symphony Orchestra
The London Schools Symphony Orchestra (LSSO) will be seeing in the New Year in style on 7 January 2019 at the Barbican Centre. Conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth, the orchestra will be performing Richard Strauss' tone poem Death and Transfiguration, and will be joined by soprano Rachel Nicholls for some of Strauss' orchestral songs, and finally there will be potted highlights from Wagner's Götterdämmerung.

The LSSO presents three Barbican concerts plus a summer tour every year. Concerts are based around courses which run during the Christmas, Easter and Summer holidays, with intensive rehearsals and coaching by London's top orchestral musicians. The orchestra's bursary schemes ensure that young people from all backgrounds are able to join. The orchestra is managed by the Centre for Young Musicians, part of the Guildhall School, as part of the Guildhall Young Artists Programme. And there are a couple of significant anniversaries coming up, in 2020 the Centre for Young Musicians will be 50 and then in 2021 the LSSO will be 70.

Full details from the LSSO's website.

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

Late-Edwardian fairytale: Stanford's The Travelling Companion

Stanford: The Travelling Companion - Julien Van Mellaerts, David Horton - New Sussex Opera (Photo Robert Knights/New Sussex Opera)
Stanford: The Travelling Companion - Julien Van Mellaerts, David Horton - New Sussex Opera
(Photo Robert Knights/New Sussex Opera)
Stanford The Travelling Companion; David Horton, Julien Van Mellaerts, Kate Valentine, Pauls Putnins, Ian Beadle, Felix Kemp, dir: Paul Higgins, cond: Toby Purser; New Sussex Opera at Saffron Hall Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 2 December 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A rare revival of Stanford's final opera proves sophisticated and engaging entertainment

Who knew that Charles Villiers Stanford wrote operas? Whilst much of his music has been investigated over the last 20 years, his operas have been largely ignored. So all credit to New Sussex Opera for reviving Stanford's The Travelling Companion, which is not some failed jeu d'esprit but a mature work written in 1916.

In fact, Stanford wrote operas consistently throughout his composing career, despite varying success. The first was The Veiled Prophet (written in 1879 and premiered in 1881), and the last was The Travelling Companion which was written in 1916 but not performed until 1924, after Stanford's death. The work was not ignored, receiving a number of performances into the 1930s including one directed by a young Michael Tippett, as well as being performed at by Sadlers Wells Opera.

Stanford: The Travelling Companion - Julien Van Mellaerts, Kate Valentine- New Sussex Opera (Photo Robert Knights/New Sussex Opera)
Stanford: The Travelling Companion - Julien Van Mellaerts, Kate Valentine
New Sussex Opera (Photo Robert Knights/New Sussex Opera)
The enterprising New Sussex Opera has been touring its revival of Stanford's The Travelling Companion and we caught the final performance, on Sunday 2 December 2018 at Saffron Hall (a performance which was being recorded live for issue by SOMM records). Toby Purser conducted, and the production was directed by Paul Higgins, with David Horton as John, Julien Van Mellaerts as The Travelling  Companion, Kate Valentine as The Princess, Pauls Putnins as The King, Felix Kemp as The Herald and Ian Beadle as The Wizard.

Libretto by Henry Newbolt is based on a story by Hans Christian Andersen. Evidently the tenor Harry Plunket Greene read the story and was convinced that it would make a good opera for Stanford, who turned to Newbolt for the libretto (Stanford had set Newbolt's verse in Songs of the Fleet). The result is a fairy-tale opera in much the manner of Engelbert Humperdinck's Hansel & Gretel (which had received its first UK performance in 1894). Newbolt was a poet and novelist and The Travelling Companion seems to have been his only opera libretto. It is serviceable, and full of neat touches, yet hardly scratches the surface of the tale, taking everything at face value without considering complex psychology. One can only imagine what a librettist like Hugo von Hofmanstal might have made of it.

The plot is much simplified from the Hans Christian Andersen original. John, a religious young man who has inherited some money from his father, takes shelter in a church during a storm and prevents a pair of ruffians robbing a cadaver by paying them off. Now penniless, he follows tales of a princess looking for a husband. A mysterious stranger appears and becomes John's Travelling Companion. The princess is in thrall to a wizard but The Travelling Companion helps John win her hand. Only then, debt paid, The Travelling Companion must return to his grave, the dead man whose debts John had paid.

In some ways, it is Turandot 10 year's before Puccini's opera but the princess and her riddle are only part of the plot. There is much emphasis on John's loneliness and need for a friend, and the parting between John and The Travelling Companion is very touching (made even more so by the fact that Newbolt and Stanford fail to supply a consummatory final duet for John and the Princess). But neither Newbolt nor Stanford delve deep, there is no touch the erotic in John and the Princess's relationship, nor of homoeroticism in that of John and the Travelling Companion, nor is the Wizard particularly macabre. The opera is designed to tell the tale, and let us make our own connections via Stanford's richly rewarding music.

Monday, 3 December 2018

Winter Lights

BBC Concert Orchestra
The BBC Concert Orchestra has a wintry themed concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Wednesday 5 December 2018. Conducted by Bramwell Tovey, the orchestra will be playing works written specially for them including the premiere of a new pieces by the orchestra's composer-in-residence Dobrinka Tabakova, and by the BBC Proms Inspire composer Sarah Jenkins. Also in the programme is music by Jonny Greenwood, and Anne Dudley, with Guy Barker's trumpet concerto played by Alison Balsom.

Alison Balsom and the orchestra premiered Guy Barker's Trumpet Concerto (The Lanterne of Light) at the BBC Proms in 2015. The work is based on a 1409–10 English tract, The Lanterne of Light, which provided a classification system based on the Seven Deadly Sins, establishing that each sin had an associated demon, and Guy Barker's trumpet concerto of the same name is as much about the
character of the demons as the human manifestation of those sins.

Guy Barker is a former Composer-in-Residence with the BBC Concert Orchestra, and the current Composer-in-Residence is Dobrinka Tabakova and the concert will not only include the premiere of her Tectonic, but also her Orpheus Comet which written for the orchestra. Another former Composer-in-Residence is Jonny Greenwood (perhaps best known as the guitarist from Radiohead), and the concert includes his Suite from Norwegian Wood

Full details from the Southbank Centre's website.

Profoundly beautiful: Simon Boccanegra at the Royal Opera

Verdi: Simon Boccanegra - Royal Opera (© 2018 ROH. Photograph by Clive Barda)
Verdi: Simon Boccanegra - Royal Opera (© 2018 ROH. Photograph by Clive Barda)
Verdi: Simon Boccanegra; Carlos Alvarez, Ferruccio Furlanetto, Hrachuhi Bassenz, Francesco Meli, cond: Henrik Nánási; Royal Opera House, Covent Garden Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 30 November 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Revival of Elijah Moshinsky's classic, highly poetic production

Elijah Moshinsky's production of Verdi's Simon Boccanegra at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden dates back to 1991, and when I interviewed him in 2017 he was rightly proud of it [see my interview]. Rather embarrasingly we had never seen the production and so remedied that lack during the most recent revival.

Verdi: Simon Boccanegra - Carlos Alvarez - Royal Opera
(© 2018 ROH. Photograph by Clive Barda)
We caught Verdi's Simon Boccanegra at Covent Garden on Saturday 1 December 2018 with Ferruccio Furlanetto as Jacopo Fiesco, Carlos Alvarez as Simon Boccanegra, Hrachuhi Bassenz as Amelia, Francesco Meli as Gabriele, Mark Rucker as Paolo and Simon Shibambu as Pietro; Henrik Nánási conducted.

Elijah Moshinsky's production, with sets by Michael Yeargan, costumes by Peter J. Hall and lighting by John Harrison, is profoundly beautiful. It retains much of the magical atmosphere that Moshinsky wanted to create and many of the stage pictures resembled the Renaissance pictures which inspired them. Whilst the production is representational in a way that many modern productions are not, it is certainly not naturalistic and its artifice is designed to be part of the style. The result is highly poetic, and leaves lots of space for the singers. No staff director was credited for this revival.

For me, the strongest moments were in the Prologue and in Act Three, when the two opponents were on stage together, Fiesco and Boccanegra. Ferruccio Furlanetto made a powerful, black-voiced Fiesco, vividly capturing the stage whenever he was present. Perhaps the voice was showing signs of wear (Furlanetto is 70 next year) but this chimed in with the character, implacable yet weary and worn down. And he seemed to raise Carlos Alvarez's Boccanegra to great heights. The scene between the two in Act Three was terrific, two old men jostling, remembering old wounds. Alvarez's account of the great Council Chamber scene was very finely done, but his performance was a slow burn one and only in the death scene did we appreciate its cumulative power.

Sunday, 2 December 2018

Last Man Standing: Cheryl Frances-Hoad premiere at the Barbican

Frances-Hoad: Last Man Standing - Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Tamsin Collison, Marcus Farnsworth, Martyn Brabbins, BBC Symphony Orchestra - Barbican Hall ( BBC/Mark Allan)
Frances-Hoad: Last Man Standing - Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Tamsin Collison, Marcus Farnsworth, Martyn Brabbins,
BBC Symphony Orchestra - Barbican Hall ( BBC/Mark Allan)
Arnold Bax, Cheryl Frances-Hoad, RVW; BBC Singers, Ben Palmer, Marcus Farnsworth, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Cheryl Frances-Hoad; 
St Giles Cripplegate & Barbican Hall  
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 30 November 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A major Cheryl Frances-Hoad premiere in a pair of concerts which focussed on her music alongside that of Bax and RVW

On Friday 30 November 2018, the focus of the BBC Symphony Orchestra's concert at the Barbican Hall under conductor Martyn Brabbins was 1918 and its aftermath with Arnold Bax's November Woods, which was written during the war, RVW's Fourth Symphony (first performed in 1935) which was seen by many to reflect to turbulence of it's era and the premiere of Cheryl Frances-Hoad's Last Man Standing, an orchestral song cycle with baritone Marcus Farnsworth, which also reflected on the First War. Picking up on the Bax and Frances-Hoad connections, the BBC Singers' concert at 6pm in St Giles Cripplegate, Singers at Six, when they were conducted by Ben Palmer,  presented choral music by Cheryl Frances-Hoad and Arnold Bax.

The Singers at Six concert pairing of Bax with Frances-Hoad might at first seem an unlikely, but the richness of some of Cheryl Frances-Hoad's choral writing rather chimed in with Bax's striking choral textures. We started with Frances-Hoad's 2015 work, Gaude et Laetare, with lovely brilliant yet complex contrapuntal writing which reminded me of Tippett. Bax's I sing of a maiden  (from 1926) started as a simple part-song, with Bax's familiar harmonic inflections gradually creeping in and becoming more significant. Frances-Hoad's This Time is Born a Child (2014) was quite traditional carol-like yet with nice harmonic touches. Bax's This Worldes Joie (1922) had some strikingly vigorous and vivid moment in what is a terrific piece.

Cheryl Frances-Hoad's From the Beginning of the World was written for The Cardinall's Musick in 2015. Frances-Hoad sets excerpts from Tycho Brahe's German Treatise on the Great Comet of 1577, with Frances-Hoad's selections contrasting Brahe's technical descriptions with the emotional effect on society, along with a dead-pan final section saying that there are in fact no reliable grounds for predicting the end of the world from the comet! Frances-Hoad reflected the complexities of the text in her music, both in terms of structure and in terms of content, writing fluidly for the choir using both tutti and smaller groups, with some wonderfully vivid moments. Whilst she was evidently inspired by RVW in this piece, the richness of the harmonies seemed rather aptly closer to those of Bax. This was followed by Floodlight, starlight written in 2011 for Leeds University Chamber Choir,  which told a story, very engagingly, using lovely clear textures.

Bax's Five Greek Folk Songs is a relatively late piece (1942) and is certainly not folk-ish (Bax avoided folk song influences in his music), yet there is a delightful lighter-touch in his writing and an engaging story telling element in these five characterful tales, often surprisingly lively and vivid. We finished with Cheryl Frances-Hoad's There is no rose written in 1995, when she was 15, and it won the Bach Choir carol competition. Again, quite a traditional carol shape but with some interesting harmonies.

Frances-Hoad: Last Man Standing - Marcus Farnsworth, Martyn Brabbins, BBC Symphony Orchestra - Barbican Hall ( BBC/Mark Allan)
Frances-Hoad: Last Man Standing - Marcus Farnsworth, Martyn Brabbins, BBC Symphony Orchestra
Barbican Hall ( BBC/Mark Allan)
At the evening concert, Cheryl Frances-Hoad's Last Man Standing, a BBC commission with words by Tamsin Collison, took us into a very different world.

Saturday, 1 December 2018

Images of Silent Night: Kevin Puts' opera at Opera North

Kevin Puts: Silent Night - Members of the Chorus of Opera North as Scottish and German soldiers - Opera North (Photo © Tristram Kenton)
Kevin Puts: Silent Night - Members of the Chorus of Opera North as Scottish and German soldiers - Opera North
(Photo © Tristram Kenton)

I recently interviewed American composer Kevin Puts about his Pullitzer Prize-winning opera Silent Night [see my interview] which has just received its UK premiere at Leeds Town Hall given by Opera North, directed by Tim Albery, conductor Nicholas Kok, with Maire Flavin, Rupert Charlesworth, Quirijn de Lang, Timothy Nelson, Richard Burkard, Geoffrey Dolton, with the chorus of Opera North, students from the Royal Northen College of Music, Opera North Youth Chorus and the Solider's Chorus - Community Singers.

Now we are able to present a couple of pictures from the production (photographs by Tristram Kenton). The production runs until 7 December 2018, further details from the Opera North Website.
Kevin Puts: Silent Night - Alex Banfield as Jonathan Dale, Christopher Nairne as William Dale and Rupert Charlesworth as Nikolaus Sprink with the Chorus of Opera North, Students of the Royal Northern College of Music, Opera North Youth Chorus and the Soldiers’ Chorus – Community Singers ( Photo © Tristram Kenton)
Kevin Puts: Silent Night - Alex Banfield as Jonathan Dale, Christopher Nairne as William Dale and Rupert Charlesworth as Nikolaus Sprink with the Chorus of Opera North, Students of the Royal Northern College of Music, Opera North Youth Chorus and the Soldiers’ Chorus – Community Singers ( Photo © Tristram Kenton)

One crazy day: Jonathan Dove on his new opera Marx in London which premieres at Theater Bonn

Jonathan Dove
Jonathan Dove
Jonathan Dove has a new opera premiering on 9 December 2018 at Theater Bonn. Marx in London is a comedy, with a libretto by Charles Hart, which will feature the author of Das Kapital during his period living in London. Jonathan and I recently met up to chat about how Marx in London came about, musical styles in opera and the difficulties of writing contemporary comic opera.

The Karl Marx Memorial in Chemnitz
The Karl Marx Memorial in Chemnitz
I was curious as to how Jonathan came to be working on an opera about Karl Marx. The idea arose originally with the director Jürgen R. Weber. Weber had directed Jonathan's Swanhunter (originally premiered by Opera North) at Chemnitz, an opera house which had also co-produced Jonathan's opera The Adventures of Pinocchio. The then intendant at Chemnitz, Bernhard Helmich, in fact an old friend of Jürgen R. Weber's, is now at Bonn. In fact, Chemnitz used to be called Karl Marx Stadt, and there is still a huge head of Marx near the opera house. That Karl Marx's bicentenary is approaching also added fuel to Weber's thinking.

Plenty of farcical elements to Marx's life in London

Surprising as it might seem, there are plenty of farcical elements to Marx's life in London. It would not have been much fun for Marx's wife and maid, but from the outside it is possible to see the funny side. The opera tells the tale of one crazy day, a folle journée. Jonathan found it an intriguing idea, that a figure who was such an ogre to capitalists in the 20th century might have feet of clay and be surrounded by domestic chaos.

Jonathan points out that, whatever side you are on there is no doubt that Marx was a very influential figure who inspired many, though we can certainly argue about to what extent his prophecies have come true, and whether Marxism in fact reflected his own views. All this suggests a grand figure, but domestically he was a bungler and Jonathan finds the fact endearing. Evidently Marx was always broke and the bailiffs were often being called in, he had an affair with the maid and fathered an illegitimate son. Marx's own lifestyle aspired to bourgeois values, and when he was writing the Communist Manifesto he was bankrolled by Friedrich Engels whose money came from family factories.

Friday, 30 November 2018

NYO 2019

The National Youth Orchestra at the Proms with George Benjamin
The National Youth Orchestra at the Proms with George Benjamin
The 2019 intake of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain will be gathering in December 2018 to rehearse with Kirill Karabits, chief conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, preparing a programme which includes John Adams's Doctor Atomic Symphony, Sibelius's Symphony No. 2 and a new arrangement of Rick Dior’s Science Fiction

Dior's piece was originally written for percussion and electronics and designed to be performed alongside a film montage of science-fiction film clips. For NYO the work has been specially re-orchestrated and will be performed alongside a film projection featuring sci-fi movie scenes. 

Karabitts and the orchestra will be touring the programme to Warwick Arts Centre (4 January), London’s Barbican (5 January) and Nottingham’s Royal Concert Hall (7 January). 

The orchestra's 2019 programme also includes taking part in the world premiere of a new “National Anthem” written by British Indian musician Nitin Sawhney, and a programme of Gerswhin, Copland and Mexican composers with the Mexican conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto. The orchestra is also planning its first American tour which will include a performance at Carnegie Hall, with conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada in a programme of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto performed by Nicola Benedetti and Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet.

The 2019 orchestra will consist of 164 young players, and 53 of these have taken part in the NYO Inspire programme, including NYO 2019 Leader Kynan Walker, aged 16 from Birmingham. NYO Inspire, which provides targeted pathways for musicians from state school and BAME backgrounds, in 2019 will see NYO musicians will volunteer over 1,000 hours of their time, engaging with 1,000 teenage musicians.
"Before taking part in NYO Inspire I had no intention of pursuing a music career, nor did I ever think I’d achieve a place in NYO. The incredible tutoring I received through the programme and the musicians I met opened my eyes and inspired me to work harder and aim higher. I am thrilled to achieve the role of NYO Leader in 2019 and it would not have been possible without the countless opportunities NYO Inspire has given me." - Kynan Walker, Leader of NYO 2019 

NYO 2019 comprises 52% from the state sector, an increase on 2018, and 17% from specialist music schools – of which 99% are on government bursaries. 19% of musicians identify as non-white which is ahead of the 14.1% national average. 

Full details from the NYO website.

Original Handel

St George's Church, Hanover Square in 1787
St George's Church, Hanover Square in 1787
George Frideric Handel was very much a London composer, yet rather frustratingly there are few venues in modern London which can be associated with the premieres of Handel's music. 

Theatres burn down and are re-built, and rather frustratingly the chapel of the Foundling Hospital, which was used for annual performances of Messiah, was demolished in the 1930s. In fact, the only location of a premiere of one of Handel's operas or oratorios to survive seems to be the Sheldonian in Oxford where Handel premiered Athalia. Instead we have his house, which is now a lively museum, and sacred spaces associated with him, such as St Paul's Cathedral and the Chapel Royal at St James's Palace. But the closest relationship is with St George's Church, Hanover Square, which was Handel's parish church.

St George's is not strictly a space where Handel would have expected to hear his oratorios, during his lifetime these were largely secular pieces, and frankly the performing space at St George's Church is not really ideal. But to hear Handel's music in a venue so closely associated with him remains highly evocative. On Thursday 6 December 2018, the London Handel Festival is presenting its annual performance of Handel's Messiah at St George's Church. Simon Williams conducts the choir of St George's Church, Hanover Square and the London Handel Orchestra, with soloists Lauren Lodge-Campbell, Alexandra Gibson,  Alexander Sprague and Trevor Bowes, three of whom are past finalists in the festival's Handel Singing Competition.

Full detatils from the London Handel Festival website.

Landscapes of the mind: Anna Þorvaldsdóttir's Aequa

Aequa - Anna Thorvaldsdottir - ICE - Sono Luminus
Anna Þorvaldsdóttir (Thorvaldsdottir) Aequa; Cory Smythe, International Contemporary Ensemble; Sono Luminus Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 21 November 2018 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
Recent instrumental and chamber music from a composer linking Iceland and the USA

Icelandic composer Anna Þorvaldsdóttir (Thorvaldsdottir) has music performed regularly in both Europe and the USA, she is composer in residence with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra but studied at the University of California, San Diego, and her debut recording Rhizoma was released on the American label Innova recordings.

These cross links are aptly demonstrated on this new disc, Aequa, from the American group, International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) on Sono Luminus Records, where the ensemble is joined by pianist Cory Smythe to perform seven of  Thorvaldsdottir's recent pieces, Scape (2011), Spectra (2017), Aequilibria (2014), Sequences (2016), Illumine (2016), Reflections (2016) and Fields (2016). The album is the second by ICE to feature music by Thorvaldsdottir, the group's 2015 release In the Light of Air was a portrait album of the composer.

We start with Scape for solo piano, in which Cory Smyth performs in and on the piano. Thorvaldsdottir uses pitches suspended in mid-air alongside flurries of notes to create a pensive examination of timbre and texture, there is less of a sense of development and more the idea of exploring a landscape of the mind.

Thursday, 29 November 2018

Looking ahead: Vale of Glamorgan Festival 2019

Vale of Glamorgan Festival
The Vale of Glamorgan Festival is celebrating its 50th anniversary season in 2019 which runs from 18 May 2019 to 24 May 2019. Highlights include more than 30 world premieres, including 14 festival commissions and works by 20 Welsh composers. 10 of the commissions are for Astrid the Dutch Street Organ, for which a variety of composers have been asked to write a short work. 

The artistic director of the festival, John Metcalf, is presenting a new version of 'Polly Garter's Aria' from Under Milkwood for soprano and orchestra. Other composers featured during the festival include Dobrinka Tabakova, Peteris Vasks, Robert Fokkens, Mark David Boden and Graham Fitkin, who will be presenting a programme of his own piano music including music for prepared piano.

Artists performing at the festival include the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, the New York percussion quartet Sandbox Percussion, and the Berlin-based Armida String Quartet.

Full details from the festival website.

The Bridge

The Scottish Ensemble
The Scottish Ensemble
With the question mark hanging of United Kingdom's wider cultural relations with the rest of Europe as a result of BREXIT, four organisations are joining together to create a new Europe-wide collaboration. The Bridge is a new collaboration between Scottish Ensemble (UK), Ensemble Resonanz (Germany), Trondheim Soloists (Norway) and PLMF Music Trust (Estonia) supported by the Creative Europe programme of the European Union. Over the course of two years, these four organisations will come together to explore, share and develop ideas around artistic innovation and audience diversity in the classical music sector, as well as initiating a string ensembles network.

The Bridge emerged from a shared belief in the importance of embracing new ways of presenting classical music and keeping this art form vibrant, relevant and growing, as well as an awareness of how ambitious and innovative smaller ensembles and organisations can be within the sector.

The Bridge will consist of both industry-focused and public events, so that the two year project will culminate in a three day festival of string music in Glasgow in 2020. The festival will include a major new commission as well as innovative and powerful live experiences designed to showcase the string repertoire.

"With the UK's imminent departure from the EU, strengthening cultural connections has become more important than ever. By fostering and protecting existing cross-cultural respect and understanding, and enriching our shared European musical heritage and finding ways to make it more accessible, responsive, diverse and innovative, we believe The Bridge can inspire long-term change within the classical music sector and encourage more people to enjoy the power of this shared musical tradition." - Jenny Jamison, Chief Executive of Scottish Ensemble

Further information from the Scottish Ensemble website.

Antonio Caldara - cantatas for bass

Caldara - Cantatas for Bass - Stile Galante - Pan Classics
Antonio Caldara Cantatas for Bass; Sergio Foresti, Stile Galante, Stefano Aresi; Pan Classics Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 28 November 2018 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
A valuable opportunity to explore six dramatic yet intimate cantatas by this underrated figure

Despite a significant body of work, perhaps over 3,400 compositions, the work composer Antonio Caldara remains very much undiscovered territory with only occasional discs rather than a consistent exploration as with the oeuvre of some of his contemporaries. This new disc from Pan Classics presents six of Caldara's cantatas for bass voice and continuo, performed by Sergio Foresti and Stile Galante (Agnieszka Oszanca cello, Gabriele Palomba theorbo, Andrea Friggi harpsichord) directed by Stefano Aresi.

The CD booklet article suggests that one reason for the lack of diffusion of Caldara's music in the present day is that his career was almost entirely devoted to working for a series of noble and Imperial families, culminating in his service to the Holy Roman Emperor in Vienna from 1716 to 1736. So that much of Caldara's repertoire was performed once, albeit in grand circumstances, and then the manuscripts disappeared into the archives without the dissemination of copies which helped to make music known during the period.

On this disc we hear six cantatas for bass voice and continuo which come from a manuscript created in the 18th century which survives in Bologna and seems to have been created for a particular bass singer, the manuscript also includes music by Antonio and Giovanni Bononcini. One of Caldara's employers, Emperor Charles VI, had a preference for low voices so that Caldara wrote a lot of solo cantatas for this voice and dedicated a volume of 24 cantatas to the Emperor in 1730. In fact, only one of the cantatas on this disc, Il Dario, can be linked to a work written for the Emperor. As Caldara wrote around 350 secular cantatas you cannot help feeling that there is still a lot of work to be done in the archives.

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