Tuesday 30 April 2019

Celebrating 50 years of performing music by living composers - the Vale of Glamorgan Festival

Ewenny Priory
Ewenny Priory, one of the venues for this years
Vale of Glamorgan Festival
The Vale of Glamorgan Festival celebrates its 50th anniversary this year with concerts in and around the Vale of Glamorgan from 18 to 24 May 2019. Unusually amongst UK festivals, it devotes itself to the work of living composers and this year the festival presents music by 30 composers, including 29 world premieres.

The festival opens with a concert from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conductor Ryan Bancroft, in a programme which includes two world premieres, from festival director John Metcalf and from Mark David Boden whose 50th Anniversary Festival commission is premiered at the concert along with music by Dobrinka Tabakova, Peteris Vasks, and Graham Fitkin. Graham Fitkin popus up again at the end of the festival when the composer gives a piano recital of his own music.

Visitors to the festival include Sandbox Percussion from New York, which is not only performing at St David's Hall, Cardiff but will be popping up at a number of out-door spaces, and the Berlin-based Armida Quartet, whose concert at Ewenny Priory features music from Azerbaijan, Tatar-Russia and Bulgaria, plus the premiere of Cardiff-based composer Robert Fokkens' festival commission. In Penarth the quartet will be playing the music of Steve Reich (whose music features across the whole festival), Arvo Pärt and Peteris Vasks. The Armida Quartet will also be performing works written by participants in the week long Peter Reynolds Composers Studio, which is a residency for emerging composers at the start of their careers to enable them to hone their skills and create genuine career progression.

Full details from the festival website.

Spotlight on the Naghash Ensemble from Armenia

The Naghash Ensemble is an Armenian group which is new to me, they combine Armenian folk influences with Western classical with the energy of jazz and rock. The group arose when the Armenian composer, John Hodian heard an Armenian folk ensemble and the resulting fusion created the ensemble. He describes himself as someone who was raised listening only to Armenian Music in the home, studying European classical music in his youth, making a living as a jazz improviser but like all of us was constantly surrounded by contemporary rock music.

Rare delights: Handel's third English oratorio Athalia revealed at the London Handel Festival

The Death of Athaliah by Gustave Doré
The Death of Athaliah by Gustave Doré
Handel Athalia; Grace Davidson, Anna Devin, Rupert Enticknap, London Handel Singers & Orchestra, Laurence Cummings; 
London Handel Festival at St John's Smith Square  
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 29 April 2019 
Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
Handel's third oratorio proves to be full of delights in a stylish performance from the London Handel Festival

It was with Athalia, his third English-language oratorio, that Handel really seems to have hit his stride and created the outlines of the oratorio-form which have become so familiar. Yet the work itself is relatively unknown, despite a notable recording from Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music with the soloists including the remarkable combination of Joan Sutherland, Emma Kirkby and Aled Jones.

So the London Handel Festival's performance of Handel's Athalia at St John's Smith Square on Monday 29 April 2019, was a welcome chance to re-explore the work. Laurence Cummings directed the London Handel Orchestra and London Handel Singers from the harpsichord with Anna Devin as Athalia, Grace Davidson as Josabeth, Rupert Enticknap as Joad, Anthony Gregory as Mathan, Christian Immler as Abner and James Thomson as Joas.

Athalia is unusual in that it is the only one of Handel's mature operas and oratorios where the venue for the work's premiere still survives. Athalia was premiered in 1733 at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, as part of a series of performances that Handel gave at the University. Written at a time of great stress in Handel's working life, the work was designed to cope with the fact that Handel's company was much depleted thanks to the founding of the rival Opera of the Nobility.

Yet in the work Handel, and his librettist Samuel Humphreys, displayed a remarkably confidence in creating a new form. Throughout the piece Handel fluidly combines solo and chorus, rather than keeping the two groups separate, clearly enjoying the flexibility that the lack of staging gave him. And in his characterisation of the two different choral groups, the Jews and the Baal-worshipping courtiers, Handel gives us the first example of his skill at using the chorus to depict contrasting groups of people.

The story is, admittedly, a bit limp. Queen Athalia, the daughter of Queen Jezebel and King Ahab (familiar from Mendelssohn's oratorio), has reached the throne by killing the rest of her family. A sole heir survives, Joas (James Thomson, treble), hidden at the Jewish temple by Josabeth (Grace Davidson) and Joad (Rupert Enticknap). Against the backdrop of the Jewish feast of Shavuot (celebrating both the harvest and the giving of the law), the oratorio depicts Josabeth and Joad's anxieties and their eventual decision to reveal Joas as King.

Sunday 28 April 2019

Freshness & energy: Victoria Stevens on her new Le nozze di Figaro at the New Generation Festival in Florence

The New Generation Festival at the Palazzo Corsini, Florence
The New Generation Festival at the Palazzo Corsini, Florence
The New Generation Festival (co-founders Maximilian Fane & Roger Granville) takes place in the grounds of the Palazzo Corsini in Florence and is intended to showcase the best of young operatic talent. This year's festival runs from 28-31 August 2019, and features a new production of Mozart's La nozze di Figaro directed by Victoria Stevens and conducted by Jonathan Santagrada. Victoria is a young director currently working at National Theatre, Mannheim and I spoke to her via Skype to find out what we can expect this Summer.

Victoria Stevens
Victoria Stevens
The production will feature a young cast (Daniel Miroslaw as Figaro, Anna El-Khashem as Susanna, Faik Mansuroglu as the Count, Nela Saric as the Countess, Sara Rocchi as Cherubino) and Victoria plans to take advantage of this to bring the sort of freshness and energy to the piece which the story needs.

The setting will be a 1930s film studio such as Paramount from the Golden Age of Film. Victoria has chosen this because she wanted to take advantage of the setting, the villa and its terrace, rather than building something to hide it. The Palazzo Corsini is a 17th & 18th century Baroque building still owned by the princely family, and its facade and the setting evoked, for Victoria, a film set. One of the main themes of Mozart's opera is the dynamics between men and women, and Hollywood of the period was riddled with pretence so it seemed an appropriate way to express the themes of the story. The production will make use of a lot of black and white film projections.

Another theme of the opera is the relationships between different levels in society, and the production brings this out via the film theme with the Count as the film producer, the Countess as his leading lady, Figaro as the cinematographer etc. Something that Victoria feels works out nicely.

Saturday 27 April 2019

Last three days for our crowdfunding campaign

Last three days for Help The Gardeners to Grow, our Crowdfunder campaign to to give Joanna Wyld and my new opera The Gardeners and its artists the exposure they deserve.  
The Gardeners at Conway Hall on 18 June 2019, ‏conducted by William Vann, with Peter Brathwaite (the Old Gardener), Magid El-Bushra (the Angry Young Man), Julian Debreuil (the Gardener), Georgia Mae Bishop (the Mother), Flora McIntosh (the Grandmother), Charlotte Amherst (violin), Anthony Friend (clarinet), Oliver Wass (harp), Sophie Haynes (viola), and May Dolan (cello). 
Still time to support us: 

What we're missing: I chat to festival director Joseph Middleton about this year's Leeds Lieder

Joseph Middleton & James Newby performing at the 2019 Leeds Lieder Festival
Joseph Middleton & James Newby performing at the 2019 Leeds Lieder Festival
The 2019 Leeds Lieder Festival is on at the moment, running from 25 to 28 April 2019. For those of us unable to get to Leeds for this celebration of all things song, I recently met up with festival director Joseph Middleton to find out what we are missing.

Whilst song and lieder is often seen as a 'hard sell' by venues and concert promoters, Leeds Lieder seems to have found its niche. The box office receipts leapt 30% between the 2014 and 2015 festivals and they continue to grow, when I met Joseph a few days before the festival opened, box office had already broken last year's records.

Such rewards do not come without hard work and whilst Joseph talks about 'selling song', they do seem to have discovered a thirst for it in Leeds. This year's festival is four packed days with around seven events per day. That is a lot of song for the dedicated follower. And the festival is pulling international stars such as Angelika Kirchschlager, Fatma Said, Benjamin Appl and Miah Persson, who are rarely heard in Britain.

A big feature of the festival is that it has new works written and next year, the festival's 10th anniversary, will undoubtedly feature this strongly. This year's festival commission is from Mark Simpson, whose opera Pleasure was premiered by Leeds-based Opera North. Simpson's Verlaine settings are performed this evening (27 April 2019) by tenor Nicky Spence and pianist Malcolm Martineau, and are also being live streamed. Last year's live streams from the festival received hits from across the globe.

Leeds Lieder 2019's group of Young Artists celebrating with the 2019 Festival Guest of Honour, Angelika Kirchschlager, after her masterclass
Leeds Lieder 2019's group of Young Artists celebrating with the 2019 Festival Guest of Honour, Angelika Kirchschlager, after her masterclass

Friday 26 April 2019

A sort of magic: John Nelson conducts Berlioz' La damnation de Faust in Strasbourg with Michael Spyres & Joyce DiDonato

Berlioz: La damnation de Faust in rehearsal- Michael Spyres, Joyce DiDonato, John Nelson - Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg (Photo Gregory Massat)
Berlioz: La damnation de Faust dress rehearsal- Michael Spyres, Joyce DiDonato, John Nelson
Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg (Photo Gregory Massat)
Berlioz La Damnation de Faust; Michael Spyres, Nicolas Courjal, Joyce DiDonato, Alexandre Duhamel, Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg, John Nelson; Palais de la musique et des congres, Strasbourg
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 25 April 2019
Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)

John Nelson returns to Strasbourg and to Berlioz for another inspiring performance

Berlioz: La damnation de Faust dress rehearsal - Nicolas Courjal - Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg (Photo Gregory Massat)
Berlioz: La damnation de Faust dress rehearsal - Nicolas Courjal
Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg (Photo Gregory Massat)
Which musical treatment of Goethe's Faust is truest to Goethe? Discuss.

Undoubtedly Berlioz' La Damnation de Faust is undoubtedly a highly personal take on the story. As ever with Berlioz, the drama works as much through the orchestral and choral contributions as through the singers. Berlioz' assemblage of scenes, almost tableaux, can verge on the picaresque at times but it works for Berlioz's purpose and at times the piece is astonishing.

So it was very heartening to learn that conductor John Nelson was re-uniting with the fine Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg (with which he performed and recorded Berlioz' Les Troyens, see my review) for performances of Berlioz' La Damnation de Faust at the Palais de la musique et des congres in Strasbourg (seen 25 April 2019) with Michael Spyres as Faust, Nicolas Courjal as Mephistopheles, Joyce DiDonato as Marguerite and Alexandre Duhamel as Brander, plus the Coro Gulbenkian and Les Petits Chanteurs de Strasbourg - Maitrise de l'Opera de Strasbourg.

It was my first visit to the Strasbourg concert hall, a handsome 1970s building, and I was impressed with the alive-ness and vividness of the sound. It is not a huge hall, the orchestra and chorus filled the stage (triple woodwind, six harps...), with the children's chorus performing from the rear of the hall for the final scene. The performance was sometimes very loud, yet the hall responded well and the quieter, tender scenes were not lost either.

Berlioz: La damnation de Faust dress rehearsal- Alexandre Duhamel, John Nelson - Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg (Photo Gregory Massat)
Berlioz: La damnation de Faust dress rehearsal- Alexandre Duhamel, John Nelson
Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg (Photo Gregory Massat)
John Nelson brought a symphonic sweep to the music with an eye to all the vivid detail in the score. This was large scale Berlioz on modern instruments, but the orchestra's lovely focused sound, particularly the way the strings did not over-dominate, brought the work alive. It was a strong bright sound, and moments like the 'Marche Hongroise' were almost driven. Berlioz' orchestration is often surprising, and both orchestra and conductor showed that they had developed a strong relationship, making these moments magical.

You wonder what style of tenor voice Berlioz had in mind for Faust.

Thursday 25 April 2019

Schumann's Myrthen at Wigmore Hall with Sarah Connolly, Robin Tritschler, Anna Huntley and Malcolm Martineau

Clara & Robert Schumann,  Daguerreotype of 1850.
Clara & Robert Schumann,  Daguerreotype of 1850.
Robert Schumann Myrthen, duets; Sarah Connolly, Robin Tritschler, Anna Huntley, Malcolm Martineau; Wigmore Hall Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 24 April 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Not quite a rarity perhaps, but a very welcome performance of Robert Schumann's wedding present to his wife, sung by three singers thus emphasising the diversity of the songs.

Whilst not a complete rarity, performances of Robert Schumann's song cycle Myrthen are perhaps not as common as some of his other cycles, the work's length and the sheer diversity of the song perhaps mitigates against it. The cycle was a wedding present to Robert's wife Clara, but it isn't so much a declaration of love as a reflection of the multiple emotions which must have affected them during the final, turbulent year of their long engagement.

Commonly shared by a male and a female singer, at the Wigmore Hall on 24 April 2019 as part of the hall's Robert Schumann Song Series devised by Malcolm Martineau, Myrthen was performed by mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly, mezzo-soprano Anna Huntley, tenor Robin Tritschler and pianist Malcolm Martineau, along with a selection of Schumann's duets. Myrthen was split in two, beginning and ending the recital, with the duets sung by Anna Huntley and Robin Tritschler in the middle.

Very roughly, Anna Huntley sang the songs of young female love and other young women, Robin Tritschler sang the more masculine songs with Sarah Connolly taking the ones with more general feeling, often looking back on remembered emotion. (Though this is very subjective). It worked well, but left Connolly rather underused during the second half.

Wednesday 24 April 2019

In the Brixton Bugle

There is a nice article in this week's Brixton Bugle about the forthcoming Robert Hugill in Focus concert at Conway Hall on 5 May, and the premiere Joanna Wyld and my new opera The Gardeners at Conway Hall on 18 June 2019.

We have had terrific support for our crowd-funding Help the Gardeners to Grow, aimed to support our marketing budget to enable us to give our talented artists the exposure they deserve. If you haven't already done so, please do visit our Crowdfunder page.

Mark Simpson & friends at Saffron Hall

Mark Simpson (Photo Kaupo Kikkas)
Mark Simpson (Photo Kaupo Kikkas)
BBC Radio 3's Big Chamber Weekend returns to Saffron Hall on 26 & 27 April 2019 with a series of concerts featuring composer & clarinettist Mark Simpson. Simpson is joined by cellist Leonard Elschenbroich, pianist Richard Uttley, the Navarra Quartet, violist Adam Newman and trumpeter Simon Höfele, for a trio of concerts. 

The first concert features an intriguing sequence, Schumann's Märchenerzählungen, then Kurtág's Hommage à Robert Schumann and Mark Simpson's own Hommage à Kurtág, with the programme completed by music from Beethoven and Janáček. The free early-evening concert on the Saturday features an all-English programme including music by Ireland, Maxwell Davies and Howells, and the Saturday evening concert is American themed, with a new piece by Mark Simpson, Georges Antheil's Sonata for Trumpet and Bernstein's Sonata for Clarinet alongside music by Gershwin, Barber and Copland.

Full details from the Saffron Hall website.

Vivid action & redemptive parable: Britten's Billy Budd returns to Covent Garden

Britten: Billy Budd - Jacques Imbrailo, Alasdair Elliot - Royal Opera (Photo ROH/Catherine Ashmore)
Britten: Billy Budd - Jacques Imbrailo, Alasdair Elliot - Royal Opera (Photo ROH/Catherine Ashmore)
Benjamin Britten Billy Budd; Jacques Imbrailo, Toby Spence, Brindley Sherratt, dir: Deborah Warner, cond: Ivor Bolton; Royal Opera House Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 24 April 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★½)
Britten's opera returns to Covent Garden in a vivid production which brings out the redemptive theme of the parable

Billy Budd is perhaps Benjamin Britten's grandest opera and it seems strange that it has been absent from the Royal Opera House for so long. But here it is again, thankfully (23 April 2019), in Deborah Warner's production which debuted at the Teatro Real in Madrid in 2017 and has already travelled to Rome (the work making its debut in both places). Conductor Ivor Bolton, general music director of the Teatro Real, travelled with the production as did a number of the cast.

In many ways Billy Budd is the mirror image of Francis Poulenc's Carmelites, both works examining closed communities under stress (and Warner's production of Billy Budd heightened the religious imagery, thus bringing the two closer. And where Carmelites calls for a wide range of female voices, in Billy Budd there is a wide range of male ones (there are no female roles, just boy trebles). Here the Royal Opera had assembled a fine array of singing actors, with Toby Spence as Vere, Jacques Imbrailo as Billy Budd, Brindley Sherratt as Claggart, Clive Bayley as Dansker, Duncan Rock as Donald, Sam Furness as the Novice, David Soar as Mr Flint and Thomas Oliemans as Mr Redburn, plus of course the 60-strong Royal Opera Chorus.

Michael Levine's set was abstract, but very much brought the sea and ships into the theatre with its elaborate rigging, two full sails and swaying platforms. These latter could rise to create the sense of being below deck, most memorably at the end of Act One where we could see rank upon rank of hammocks (which were used by the chorus). In the above-decks scenes there was lots of pulling on ropes, running about and action (there were 30 actors in addition to the chorus), and at times I did wonder whether there was a little too much action as it was difficult to track the principals against such a complex background, but perhaps that was the idea.

In complete contrast, Vere's quarters were deliberately large and relatively luxurious (we first see him in his tin bath), and the more intimate scenes were austerely staged. Whilst the set suggested the late 18th century the costumes suggested the mid-20th and there were deliberate anachronisms (Claggart has glasses and smokes a cigarette). Nothing was pushed too far, so you could draw your own conclusions.

Whilst this was probably one of the least directly homosexual readings of the main plot that I have seen, Warner (along with costume designer  Chloe Oblensky) created a highly homoerotic setting with many of the chorus (and soloists) often stripping to the waist (and clearly a lot a gyms had been visited to good effect). More than that, it was a very physical production, with moments like the intimacy between Billy (Jacques Imbrailo) and Dansker (Clive Bayley) when Billy is locked up in Act Two, but equally intimate in a different way was the scene where Sam Furness' Novice tries to tempt Billy here the set and lighting gave a close focus on just the two men.

Britten: Billy Budd - Royal Opera (Photo ROH/Catherine Ashmore)
Britten: Billy Budd - Royal Opera (Photo ROH/Catherine Ashmore)
What seems to have interested Warner most, though, is the opera's exploration of the idea of redemption, and it with the highlighting of religious imagery which created the most striking moments. So that when Toby Spence's Vere takes the news of his execution to Billy (Jacques Imbrailo) this is done on-stage, to the accompaniment of just Britten's astonishing sequence of chords, then at the end as Vere usher Billy below-deck via a trapdoor, Billy puts his hand on Vere's head in benediction. (Mark Pullinger in his review for Bachtrack.com detected far more religious imagery than I, and it is well worth reading his article).

Tuesday 23 April 2019

UK premiere & UK debut: German baritone Peter Schöne debuts in Thomas Larcher's The Hunting Gun

Peter Schöne
Peter Schöne who makes his UK debut in Thomas Larcher's
The Hunting Gun at 2019 Aldeburgh Festival
One of the highlights of this year's Aldeburgh Festival is the UK premiere of Thomas Larcher's first opera, The Hunting Gun. First seen at the Bregenz Festival in 2018, the opera is based on a best-selling post-war Japanese novella by Yashushi Inoue. The production is directed by Karl Markovics and conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth, with a cast including tenor Samuel Boden and baritone Peter Schöne.

Making his UK debut in the production is the young German baritone Peter Schöne who plays the hunter, Josuke Misugi. Schöne, who counts winning the Schubert-Competition in Graz in 2003 and Berlin’s National Singing Competition in 2004 amongst his achievements, recently joined the ensemble of the State Opera House of Saarbrücken. On 7 May 2019, he will appear in [pi:ps] by Swiss composer Luca Martin, which sets extractsfrom the diaries of Samuel Pepys, is performed at the Grand Concert Hall in Solingen in Germany, in a concert with the Bergische Symphoniker conducted by Peter Kuhn which also includes Elgar's Enigma Variations.

Further information about The Hunting Gun from the Aldeburgh Festival website.
Further information about  from the Solingen theatre & concert hall website.

Bach & Dance - 'Mitten wir im Leben sind/Bach6Cellosuiten' at Sadler's Wells

Rosas - Bach6Cellosuiten - (Photo Anne Van Aerschot)
Rosas - Bach6Cellosuiten - (Photo Anne Van Aerschot)
Bach's Cello Suites are full of dance-inspired music from the general style of each movement (Allemande, Courante, Sarabande) to the rhythmic detail of the music, though Bach would certainly not have expected anyone to dance to them. This was instrumental music which took dance as its starting point.

On 24 & 25 April 2019 at Sadler's Wells Theatre there is an intriguing opportunity to hear the suites as dance when Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s internationally-renowned dance company Rosas presents the UK Premiere of Mitten wir im Leben sind/Bach6Cellosuiten. In the piece, French cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras takes centre stage to perform the suites, whilst dancers are pitted to Bach’s music to interrogate ideas of mortality and redemption, and he plays all the suites in numerical order, a rare chance to hear all six of them. Mitten wir im Leben sind/Bach6Cellosuiten (“in the midst of life”) is an attempt to visualise the essence of Bach’s timeless music.

Further information from the Sadler's Wells website.

Monday 22 April 2019

Tony Cooper reports on this year’s BBC Proms, the world’s biggest classical-music festival

Sir Henry Wood with Promenade Concert Performers  by William Whiteley Ltd albumen cabinet card, circa 1897 5 in. x 8 in. (128 mm x 204 mm) Purchased, 2013 Primary Collection NPG P1837
Sir Henry Wood with Promenade Concert Performers  (circa 1897) by William Whiteley Ltd
albumen cabinet card, circa 1897 © National Portrait Gallery, London
As the world’s biggest classical-music festival, the BBC Proms (running from Friday 19 July to Saturday 14 September) offers eight weeks of world-class music-making from a vast array of leading orchestras, conductors and soloists from the UK and around the world. Across more than 90 concerts - and a similar number of free events designed to extend and further enrich the Proms experience - the festival aims to offer a summer of music that allows for the most diverse and exciting musical journeys.

David Pickard, Director, BBC Proms, says: 'The Proms in 2019 gives a snapshot of all that is most exciting in our musical world today. It is the chance to hear some of the most celebrated ensembles and artists from across the globe, a showcase for the vibrant orchestral life that exists in the UK and a celebration of the diversity of contemporary music in the 21st century. All of this is underpinned by the proud tradition of 'Promming' which allows audiences to enjoy this vast range of music for just £6 per concert. As we celebrate 150 years since Sir Henry Wood’s birth, the Proms continues to explore new ground whilst celebrating the founding principles of the festival - to bring the best classical music to the widest possible audience. With every Prom broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 available across a multi-platform and many televised on the BBC, the Proms reaches far and beyond the Royal Albert Hall. This season marks, too, the 150th anniversary of the birth of the Proms founder-conductor, Sir Henry Wood, whose criteria was to bring the best classical music to the widest possible audience.'

Sir Henry Wood conducting at the Proms (Photo from Royal Academy of Music's Sir Henry Wood Collection)
Sir Henry Wood conducting at the Proms
(Photo from Royal Academy of Music's Sir Henry Wood Collection)
Therefore, this year’s Proms will present one of its most diverse programmes yet whilst remaining faithful and true to Wood’s mission statement offering a wealth of genres and styles in a range of contexts whether it be Murray Perahia performing Beethoven or a Prom dedicated to the genius of Nina Simone with Ledisi and Jules Buckley. The quality and range of what’s on offer showcases the very best of music.

Sir Henry Wood (affectionately known as ‘Old Timber’) was arguably one of the world’s first audience developers committed to increasing access to the arts. The Proms’ proudest tradition is that of daily Promming tickets - a Henry Wood innovation to reach the broadest audience possible. This season marks the fourth year that up to 1400 Promming tickets will be available for £6 for every Prom. And to further mark the Promming tradition, a special ‘Proms at . . . ‘ will see all tickets for such an event priced at £6 whilst at the Royal Albert Hall, 100,000 tickets will be available for £15 and under for all concerts.

As an educationalist, conductor and champion of young people, Henry Wood (who, incidentally, was artistic director and conductor of the old Norfolk and Norwich Triennial Festival from 1908 to 1930) provided countless opportunities for aspiring young artists to get involved in classical music - a proud tradition that the Proms continues to reflect today. For instance, this season celebrates the 20th anniversary of BBC Radio 3’s New Generation Artists’ scheme featuring 12 of its alumni.

Sunday 21 April 2019

Remarkable revival: the Academy of Ancient Music presents Handel's Brockes Passion in a new critical edition

Handel: Brockes Passion - Cody Quattlebaum, Academy of Ancient Music, Richard Egarr - Barbican (Photo Robert Workman)
Handel: Brockes Passion - Cody Quattlebaum,
Academy of Ancient Music, Richard Egarr
Barbican (Photo Robert Workman)
Handel Brockes Passion; Robert Murray, Cody Quattlebaum, Elizabeth Watts, Ruby Hughes, Tim Mead, Gwilym Bowen, Nicky Spence, Morgan Pearse, Rachael Lloyd, Academy of Ancient Music, Richard Egar; Barbican Hall   
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 19 April 2019 
Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
A Handel rarity rediscovered in a richly evocative performance

Handel's Brockes Passion remains relatively unknown in his output despite being a large scale work dating from his prime. The Academy of Ancient Music dusted the piece off at the Barbican Hall on Good Friday (19 April 2019) in a strong performance directed by Richard Egarr, with soloists Robert Murray (Evangelist), Cody Quattlebaum (Jesus), Elizabeth Watts (Daughter of Zion), Ruby Hughes (Faithful Soul), Rachael Lloyd, Tim Mead (Judas), Gwilym Bowen (Peter), Nicky Spence (Faithful Soul) and Morgan Pearse. And there wasn't just a performance, the ensemble has sponsored a new critical edition of the work by Leo Duarte, who was playing first oboe in the performance [see my interview with Leo talking about his love of libraries and old manuscripts].

Handel: Brockes Passion - Elizabeth Watts, Academy of Ancient Music - Barbican (Photo Robert Workman)
Handel: Brockes Passion - Elizabeth Watts, Academy of Ancient Music
Barbican (Photo Robert Workman)
Handel wrote his setting of the passion by Barthold Heinrich Brockes in 1716 and it was performed in Hamburg in 1719, under the direction of Handel's friend and erstwhile colleague at Hamburg Opera, Johannes Matheson. It proved popular and would have a number of performances in Hamburg, but Handel never kept a copy of the autograph manuscript (this has disappeared) and never performed the work in London. In fact, he included music from a number of London and Italian period works in the piece and in turn would mine the Brockes Passion for music for his early oratorios. The surviving manuscripts of the work include one which was partially copied by J.S.Bach and this version was performed in Leipzig under Bach's direction, Handel's setting seems to have influenced Bach's St John Passion.

Duarte's new edition makes significant changes to the version of the work known (via the last critical edition in the mid-1960s) including adding 63 extra bars! The Academy of Ancient Music used quite a large ensemble for the piece, and the programme included a fascinating article about the logistical differences between the Hamburg performances and the sort of ensembles Handel was writing for in London at the period, and the one-to-a-part type ethos of Bach in Leipzig. So we have four oboes (lovely) and two bassoons in addition to a significant body of strings (17) and a choir of 20.

Handel: Brockes Passion - Robert Murray, Academy of Ancient Music, Richard Egarr - Barbican (Photo Robert Workman)
Handel: Brockes Passion - Robert Murray,
Academy of Ancient Music, Richard Egarr - Barbican (Photo Robert Workman)
The work is the genre known as a Passion Oratorio, and was designed explicitly for concert use whereas Bach's Passions were designed for church use. The difference is that Bach's Passions use the Biblical narrative for the recitative with added arias whereas Brockes' text resets the entire story in his own, very clotted and emotional, verse. There is still an Evangelist (Robert Murray) and Jesus (Cody Quattlebaum), plus sundry disciples, Peter (Gwilym Bowen), Judas (Tim Mead), James (Cathy Bell) and John (Kate Symonds-Joy), but the largest single role (with a whopping 14 arias plus duets) was the Daughter of Zion (Elizabeth Watts), with another large role being the Faithful Soul (Ruby Hughes, with certain arias given to Nicky Spence and Morgan Pearse).

The role of the Daughter of Zion and the Faithful Soul was to comment, to apply the story to our situation and the express feelings about the Crucifixion narrative. It is from these arias that Bach selected his Brockes settings which he used for the arias in his own Passions, but Bach's balance between aria comment and Biblical narrative is completely different to Brockes's own (rather surprisingly Handel set Brockes text in full, without making any changes). In part two, the solo roles drop away and even Jesus falls silent (his last words being delivered as reported speech by the Evangelist!), and instead we have a long meditation from the Daughter of Zion and the Faithful Souls.  It turns the work from one of pure narrative into being about our reaction to it.

Listening to Handel's Brockes Passion is a strange experience, because a lot of the music is familiar or half familiar from other contexts. There is a lot of strong and imaginative music in the piece, but it is also very long and frankly, despite Elizabeth Watts considerable talents there were moments when I looked at the libretto and thought, Oh no! another aria for the Daughter of Zion. It is important that performances like this one be given uncut, so that we can experience the work in full but I imagine that if the work is to become a more regular visitor to the concert hall then it will need trimming and re-shaping.

Saturday 20 April 2019

Education is key: I chat to conductor Nicholas Chalmers about Nevill Holt Opera & its new theatre

Nevill Holt Hall (left) and the stables (right) which house Nevill Holt Opera (photo Robert Workman)
Nevill Holt Hall (left) and the stables (right) which house Nevill Holt Opera (photo Robert Workman)
Opera at the historic Nevill Holt estate started in 2005 (the hall itself dates back to 1300), initially via a relationship with Grange Park Opera, but in 2013 Nevill Holt Opera was started as an independent company under the artistic directorship of conductor Nicholas Chalmers. The young company's confidence has grown and in 2018 the temporary theatre within the 18th century stables at Nevill Holt was replaced by an outstanding permanent theatre. This season the company is performing Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream and Mozart's Cosi fan tutte, and I met up with Nicholas Chalmers to talk about the season, the new theatre and the company's distinctive vision for opera and education in the East Midlands.

Nicholas Chalmers (Photo Mark Pinder)
Nicholas Chalmers (Photo Mark Pinder)
Founding a new company is always a challenge, and from the outset the intention was to focus on the East Midlands for the audience. Whilst the location of Nevill Holt (near Market Harborough in Leicestershire) is relatively convenient for those in North London, the entrepreneur David Ross (who owns the Nevill Holt Estate) was interested in developing the local audiences in an area where operatic and music provision is poor. Ross also has an interest in a series of Academies in the area (through the David Ross Education Trust), which focus on music and sport, and so education was a big requirement also.

Nicholas Chalmers, who was on the music staff of English National Opera from 2008 to 2011, has a background in establishing companies of a similar scale to Nevill Holt, as he worked at Northern Ireland Opera with director Oliver Mears (now director of opera at the Royal Opera House) and is a founding artistic director of Second Movement. With Second Movement, Nicholas created Rough for Opera, the scratch night for opera which provides a place for composers and librettists to try new work out; Nicholas describes it as 'a safe environment to get things wrong'.

Friday 19 April 2019

Local boy returns home

Puccini: La Boheme - OperaUpClose with Julian Debreuil (centre) Photo
Puccini: La Boheme - OperaUpClose with Julian Debreuil (centre)
Photo  Alistair Kerr
Bass-baritone Julian Debreuil, who sings the role of The Gardener in The Gardeners, is performing Colline in Puccini’s La Boheme on tour with OperaUpClose and the company’s performance in Portsmouth on 25 April 2019 represents a home-coming for Debreuil who originally hails from the city. There is a rather nice article in the Porsmouth local, The News, which includes a lovely mention of The Gardeners:

‘Once this tour is done Julian has got a busy diary with plenty of concerts, and a new opera, The Gardeners, by Robert Hugill making its debut at Conway Hall in London in June.’ - The News

Don’t forget that we are still Crowd-funding, please do visit our Help the Gardeners to Grow crowdfunder page, to support our talented young artists and give them the exposure they deserve.

Commemoration and celebration: Sir James MacMillan conducts the BBC Singers in an intense sequence of his own music and that of Gesualdo at the St John's Smith Square Holy Week Festival

Sir James MacMillan (Photo Hans van der Woerd)
Sir James MacMillan (Photo Hans van der Woerd)
James MacMillan Strathclyde Motets, A Choral Sequence from the St John Passion, Tenebrae Responsories, Carlo Gesualdo Responsories for Maundy Thursday; BBC Singers, Sir James MacMillan, Tenebrae, Nigel Short; St John's Smith Square  
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 18 April 2019 
Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
A Holy-week sequence which combined MacMillan conducting his own music and with that of Gesualdo, ending with a Tenebrae service giving MacMillan's music a liturgical context

Maundy Thursday (18 April 2019) at the St John's Smith Square Holy Week Festival was both a commemoration and a celebration. The main concert was given by the BBC Singers and the repertoire reflected the liturgical season, but the ensemble had invited Sir James MacMillan to conduct his own music in celebration of his 60th birthday. MacMillan chose a selection of his Strathclyde Motets interweaved with the first Nocturn of Carlo Gesualdo's Responsories for Maundy Thursday, concluding with MacMillan's A Choral Sequence from the St John Passion. The evening ended with Nigel Short and Tenebrae performing MacMillan's own Responsories as part of a Tenebrae service for Good Friday.

James MacMillan's Strathclyde Motets are a remarkable sequence of 28 communion motets, setting Latin texts, written between 2005 and 2010 for Strathclyde University Chamber Choir. A project which developed from the initial commission for one motet into a deliberate intention to create a body of music which was accessible to amateur choir. Being accessible, of course, does not mean easy and the pieces are remarkably varied and complex in their approaches to expressing the meaning of the texts.
In Cum vidisset Jesus we could hear MacMillan's debt to the polyphonic writing of earlier composers, whilst it remained always his own voice, and in Qui metitabitur we hear that familiar MacMillan motif, the Gaelic psalm-singing inspired chant with its distinctive twiddles in the melody which MacMillan makes so expressive. In Videns Dominus the use of chant was combined with some thrilling juxtapositions of texture, and throughout the motets it was noticeable that MacMillan really explored the way differences in texture could highlight the text. For all the dramatic moments in Mitte manum tuam, it was the quietly intense conclusion which really counted. Pascah nostrum immulatus est was built out of three contrasting elements, strong vibrant harmonies, a radiant alto solo and a rhapsodic soprano solo, which MacMillan welded into a single, remarkable whole. The final Strathclyde motet was Domine no secundum peccata nostra in which MacMillan repeated sections of the text to create a strikingly different musical structure that that suggested by the first reading of the text. For this motet we had the addition of violin, played by Zara Benyounes, with the violin moving from accompanying to adding an extra line, providing another layer of texture and contrast.

Threading their way through these motets were Carlo Gesualdo's Responsories for Maundy Thursday. Gesualdo's writing in these motets (published in 1611) is notable for his use of chromaticicism, dissonance and remarkable harmonic shifts to express the intensity of Christ's suffering. We heard the three motets from Nocturn I, 'In monte Oliveti', 'Tristis est anima mea' and 'Ecce vidimus eum', plus the 'Benedictus' which concludes the whole collection.

What was notable about the performances was that the harmonic language was taken as read, the music's difficulty taken in the BBC Singers' stride. These performances were not about Gesualdo's complexity for its own sake, the dissonance and chromatic shifts were there as expressive devices alongside a beauty of tone and expressive feel for the music. So 'In monte Oliveti' started with a smooth, even balance sound and a sense of the harmonies being suspended in mid air. The naturalness of the way the harmony was sung meant that 'Tristis est anima mea' had a lovely radiance, and the chromatic shifts lent 'Ecce vidimus eum' a restless quality. In all the motet, you sensed that MacMillan as conductor did not dwell on the harmonic details, instead he let the music flow. The last Gesualdo was the large scale hymn 'Benedictus Dominus Deus' which alternates polyphonic setting with chant, and here Gesualdo's writing is less rhythmically complex and more direct, but with some wonderful word painting and remarkable moments.

MacMillan's St John Passion was premiered in 2008 and repeated by the same forces (Christopher Maltman, London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Colin Davis) in 2010. In the passion MacMillan uses settings of Latin texts as punctuation and commentary, and A Choral Sequence from the St John Passion takes these and welds them into a single entity. Richard Pearce played the St John's Smith Square organ, providing short, intense organ perorations between each of the movements, and occasionally adding organ commentary to the choral textures. The sequence started with Bach's Passion Chorale which is used within MacMillan's music.

Whilst originally written for a non-professional choir (the London Symphony Chorus), this music is certainly not deliberately accessible. 'Astiterunt reges terrae' was vivid and impulsive with astonishingly violent harmonies, whilst 'Judas, mercator pessimus' contrasted strong harmonies with consoling moments to intense effect. 'Peccantem me quotidie' rose from the depth, into a powerful, highly contrapuntal climax which magically eased in the final phrase. For 'Crucifixus etiam pro nobis' the choir's sense of suspended harmony made it feel that time stopped, with just the organ providing commentary. For the final 'Stabat mater' MacMillan used a series of striking and powerful juxtapositions, with the Latin 'Stabat mater' text paired with a lullaby, and the music mixed an evocative and gentle cantus firmus with some thrilling quasi Gaelic psalm singing from the tenors. Juxtapositions which created something truly thrilling yet evocatively magical.

The concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and is on BBC iPlayer for 30 days, do listen.

The magic continued after the main concert when, in near darkness with candles gradually extinguished, Nigel Short and Tenebrae participated in a liturgical event (St John's Smith Square is, remarkably, still a consecrated church) based on the Tenebrae service, mixing plainchant with three of James Macmillan's own powerful and intense Tenebrae Responsories.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • The topsyturvydom effervesced: HMS Pinafore from Charles Court Opera (★★★½) - opera review
  • A very human St John Passion: Solomon's Knot in Bach without conductor and from memory (★★★★) - concert review
  • Piano day: two venues, three pianists, two pianos - Sunday morning at Wigmore Hall and Sunday evening at Conway Hall - concert review
  • Barrie Kosky’s imaginative production of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story returns to the Komische Oper, Berlin - music theatre review
  • Small-scale delights at the edge of Handel’s London: Chandos Anthems & Trio Sonatas at St Lawrence Whitchurch (★★★½)  - concert review
  • The stars shine in Verdi's La forza del destino at Covent Garden despite a rather disappointing production (★★★½) - opera review
  • 'Costly Canaries': Mr Handel's Search for Super-Stars at the London Handel Festival (★★★½)  - concert review
  • In search of Youkali: the life & songs of Kurt Weill at Pizza Express Live  - concert review
  • Opera speaks to everyone: I chat to soprano Alison Buchanan about Pegasus Opera & their new double bill Shaw goes Wilde  - interview
  • A musical encounter between two traditions: classical guitarist Christoph Denoth's exploration of tango - Tanguero: Music from South America  (★★★★) - CD review
  • Barrie Kosky’s production of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide at Komische Opera, Berlin
    (★★★★ - musical theatre review
  • Neapolitan extravagance and a strange wedding present: Handel's Aci, Galatea e Polifemo  - (★★★★concert review
  • Italian charm with a French accent in Vivaldi's La Senna Festeggiante from Jonathan Cohen and Arcangelo  (★★★★) - concert review
  • Home

Thursday 18 April 2019

The topsyturvydom effervesced: HMS Pinafore from Charles Court Opera

Gilbert & Sullivan: HMS Pinafore - Joseph Shovelton, Hannah Crerar, Jennie Jacobs, Alys Roberts, Catrine Kirkman, Matthew Kellett - Charles Court Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Gilbert & Sullivan: HMS Pinafore - Joseph Shovelton, Hannah Crerar, Jennie Jacobs, Alys Roberts, Catrine Kirkman, Matthew Kellett - Charles Court Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Gilbert & Sullivan HMS Pinafore; Joseph Shovelton, Matthew Palmer, Philip Lee, Matthew Kellett, Alys Roberts, Jennie Jacobs, John Savournin, David Eaton; Charles Court Opera at the King's Head Reviewed by Anthony Evnas on 16 April 2019 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
Charles Court Opera returns to the King's Head with more topsyturvydom

Gilbert & Sullivan: HMS Pinafore - Matthew Kellett - Charles Court Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Gilbert & Sullivan: HMS Pinafore - Matthew Kellett -
Charles Court Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Tuesday 16 April saw Charles Court Opera return to the King’s Head Theatre with their latest take on Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore. Sullivan’s joyous tunesmithery with its musical japes is a perennial favourite with audiences and, not surprisingly, a sold-out crowd squeezed into the King’s Head to see a cast of eight strut their stuff. Joseph Shovelton was Sir Joseph Porter and Matthew Palmer, Captain Corcoran. Philip Lee and Alys Roberts were the young lovers Ralph Rackstraw and Josephine, whilst Matthew Kellett and Hannah Crerar were Able Seamen Dick Deadeye and Bobstay. Catrine Kirkman was cousin Hebe and Jennie Jacobs doubled as Sir Joseph’s sister and Little Buttercup. It was directed by John Savournin.

Back in the day taking aim at the navy with this quintessentially English parody of a nautical melodrama would have tickled the fancy with “quaint suggestions” and “unexpected whimsicality”, gently poking fun at social mores. It’s a country mile from today’s satirical asperity.

Launching the BBC Proms with beatboxing and Jacob Handl

Launch of the 2019 BBC Proms in the Grand Hall of Battersea Arts Centre
Launch of the 2019 BBC Proms in the Grand Hall of Battersea Arts Centre
The programme for the 2019 BBC Proms has been announced, and last night the BBC had a launch event in the Grand Hall of Battersea Arts Centre (devastated by fire in 2015 and magnificently restored by architects Haworth Tompkins). There were introductions from Alan Davey, Controller of Radio 3 (I liked his comment that the range of music being presented went from Perrotin to Thorvaldsdottir), David Pickard, director of the Proms, and Yolanda Brown from CBeebies.

Pickard explained that the big anniversary this year was the 150th anniversary of the birth of the founder of the Proms, Sir Henry Wood, and the 2019 programme is include 33 of the 717 novelties that he was responsible for introducing into the UK (including works by Janacek and Schoenberg). Wood was aware that Proms with popular works drew the largest audience and used this to grow the audiences for the less well known pieces, something which still applies today. The BBC took over the Proms as long ago as 1927 (!) and the combination of the two organisations made sense in terms of the Reithian value placed on education, and the fact that by broadcasting the Proms the BBC widened the access to them, making them less London-centred and less elitist, all you needed was a wireless.

Jayson Singh and members of Solomon's Knot performing at BAC for the BBC Proms launch
Jayson Singh and members of Solomon's Knot performing at BAC for the BBC Proms launch
There were performances from artists who are appearing at the Proms this year. First of all four members of Solomon's Knot (Zoe Brookshaw, Kate Symonds Joy, Ruari Bowen and Jonathan Sells) sang Jacob Handl's Ecce Quamodo, the motet with which they had finished their performance of Bach's St John Passion at the Wigmore Hall the previous night [see my review]. The group is performing a programme of Bach at a late-night contrast. In complete contrast, beatboxer Jason Singh also did a short set (Singh is performing in the Prom which is being given at Battersea Arts Centre), then at the end Solomon's Knot and Singh combined forces to striking effect, mixing Handl with beatboxing.

Full details of the 2019 BBC Proms are at the Proms website.

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