Wednesday 31 July 2019

Complex tragedies of honour crime and family violence: Ruthless Jabiru at the Grimeborn Festival

© Hannah Quinlivan, Immobilised (drawing performance with movement) L-R: Louise Keast, Shikara Ringdahl Photographer: Alex Hobba
© Hannah Quinlivan, Immobilised (drawing performance with movement) L-R: Louise Keast, Shikara Ringdahl Photographer: Alex Hobba
Launched in 2011, Ruthless Jabiru is a London-based chamber orchestra, artistic director Kelly Loveday, dedicated to new music and to humanitarian stories, with its personnel entirely made up of professional Australian musicians based in the UK. The ensemble will be making its Grimeborn Festival with its first fully staged production Silk Moth which runs from 9 to 11 August 2019. Silk Moth will examine the complex tragedies of honour crime, family violence and female (dis)empowerment in Britain and beyond, using the music of three UK-based women composers, Bushra El-Turk, Liza Lim and Cassandra Miller, in a production directed by Heather Fairbairn.

The centre piece is Bushra El-Turk and librettist Eleanor Knight’s hard-hitting chamber opera Silk Moth (2015) which explores the psychological landscape of a mother implicated in the forced marriage, genital mutilation, and honour killing of her own daughter, with Liza Lim's The Heart’s Ear (1997) as a dramatised prologue, with both works interweaving Arabic music with Western. And Cassandra Miller’s Bel Canto (2010), a portrait of Maria Callas, completes the programme. Ruthless Jabiru’s core ensemble will be augmented by musicians from the experimental Middle Eastern initiative Ensemble Zar as guests within the orchestra.

Ruthless Jabiru's patron is the Australia composer Brett Dean, and recent projects have included a tribute to the damaged landscape of Maralinga alongside the Australia exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, and an homage to poet Oodgeroo Noonuccal at the inaugural Australia & New Zealand Festival of Literature & Arts.

Full details from the Ruthless Jabiru website, and Arcola Theatre website.

Kynance Cove, On the South Downs: Truro Cathedral Choir & BBC Concert Orchestra in Dobrinka Tabakova

Dobrinka Tabakova - Kynance Cove, On the South Downs - Regent Records
Dobrinka Tabakova Kynance Cove, On the South Downs, choral works; Truro Cathedral Choir, BBC Concert Orchestra, Natalie Clein, Joseph Wicks, Christopher Gray; REGENT
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 July 2019 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
A celebration of composer Dobrinka Tabakova's residency at Truro Cathedral, featuring two larger scale works which also celebrate her being composer-in-residence with the BBC Concerto Orchestra

This disc from Regent Records celebrate two of composer Dobrinka Tabakova's residencies, at Truro Cathedral and with the BBC Concert Orchestra, it contains works Tabakova wrote for the choir of Truro Cathedral alongside larger scale works performed with the BBC Concert Orchestra, conducted by Christopher Gray, with Natalie Clein (cello) and Joseph Wicks (organ). The disc features the choral pieces, Alma remdeptoris Mater, Jubilate Deo, Truro Canticles, Praise and Of a rose sing we, the Diptych for solo organ, and two works for choir and orchestra, Kynance Cove and On the South Downs, and thus gives usa wide-ranging choral portrait of the composer.

Second View: Prokofiev’s War and Peace - a work ranging from the intensity of personal emotion to the grit of national determination - was also grand and intimate at the same time

Prokofiev: War and Peace - Welsh National Opera (Photo Clive Barda)
Prokofiev: War and Peace - Welsh National Opera (Photo Clive Barda)
Prokofiev’s War and Peace: Jonathan McGovern, Lauren Michelle, Mark Le Brocq, Jurgita Adamonytė, dir: David Pountney, cond: Tomáš Hanus; Welsh National Opera at Royal Opera House
Reviewed by Tony Cooper on 23 July 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Sir David Pountney’s colourful account of Prokofiev’s epic work, War and Peace, was delivered by a great cast with a creative team that worked sheer wonders on a relatively tight budget

Based on Tolstoy’s epic novel, the well-known scenario of War and Peace follows the trials and tribulations of Russian society as Napoleon edges closer to the country’s borders spinning his grand ideas of conquering Western Europe whilst, at the same time, stirring fear in Mother Russia. Tony Cooper provides a second view of Prokofiev's opera in Welsh National Opera's production at the Royal Opera House (seen 23 July 2019) [see Robert's review]

Combining public turbulence with private romance and temptation, the fate of the opera’s main characters - the spirited young lovers Natasha Rostova and Prince Andrei Bolkonsky - are intertwined with the idealistic aristocrat Count Pierre Bezukhov who’s seeking to understand his own identity amidst the brutal events of Napoleon’s 1812 invasion.

Originally conceived for only 11 scenes, Prokofiev - who began working on War and Peace in the summer of 1942 - was spurred on in his endeavours by the German advance of the Soviet Union which began in June of the previous year. Because the Soviet authorities breathed heavily down his neck, he had to rework parts of Tolstoy’s text to acknowledge the country’s war effort.

From a performance point of view, War and Peace has certainly had a chequered history. Plans were drawn up for its première at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre in 1943 to be directed by Sergei Eisenstein and conducted by Samuil Samosud - but nothing came of it. A year later, a private performance of eight scenes with piano accompaniment took place at the Moscow Actors’ Centre in October whilst a public concert performance of nine scenes, conducted by Samosud, was held in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatoire in June of the following year. The first fully-staged performance of this version was heard in June 1946 at the Maly Theatre (Mikhailovsky Theatre) in Leningrad, once more conducted by Samosud.

Then in February 1948, Prokofiev started work on a shortened single-evening version whilst at the same time making various revisions to his original scheme but, in the end, the 13-scene framework remained and it was this version that was first performed in May 1953 at the Teatro Comunale, Florence, conducted by Artur Rodziński, sadly two months after the composer’s death but with scenes 2 and 9 omitted. The Russian première of this version was duly given at the Maly Theatre in April 1955 conducted by Eduard Grikurov - in this case with the omission of scenes 7 and 11.

However, all 13 scenes (but with cuts) came together for a performance at the Stanislavski-Nemirovich-Danchenko Theatre, Moscow, in November 1957, under the baton of Samosud’s assistant, Alexander Shaverdov. Finally, on 15th December 1959, the epigraph and 13 scenes were staged uncut, conducted by Alexander Melik-Pashayev, at the Bolshoi.

Eight years later, the work arrived at the shores of England with a concert performance at Leeds Town Hall in April 1967 conducted by Edward Downes while the first fully-staged British production fell to Sadler’s Wells in October 1972.

Tuesday 30 July 2019

Stanford's Much Ado About Nothing at the Leeds Opera Festival

Leeds Opera Festival
Northern Opera Group's annual festival, now re-named the Leeds Opera Festival, returns next month (23 to 27 August 2019) with Shakespeare as its theme, presenting events across the city with Charles Villiers Stanford's opera Much Ado About Nothing as the centrepiece.

Stanford's Much Ado About Nothing was his seventh opera, premiered at Covent Garden in 1901; it received a scant two performances and was given its German premiere in Leipzig in 1902. Since then there have been only rare revivals, at the Wexford Festival in 1964 and in London by Opera Viva in 1985 (a performance that I saw). Northern Opera Group is staging the work in Morley Town Hall with a cast including Charlotte Hoather, Catrin Woodruff and Phil Wilcox. The production is directed by Northern Opera Group’s Artistic Director, David Ward, and conducted by Christopher Pelly.

Other events at the festival include Musical Confusion a new music theatre piece about Shakespeare's plays and the operas based upon them, A Feast of Falstaff, a concert music from three Falstaff operas by Verdi, Salieri and Balfe, and a concert of music by Henry Bishop.

Full details from the Northern Opera Group website.

The Romantic Violin Concerto - Linus Roth in Lassen, Scharwenka, Langgaard

Hyperion - The Romantic VIolin Concerto - Lassen, Scharwenka, Langgaard
The Romantic Violin Concerto - Eduard Lassen, Philipp Scharwenka, Rued Langgaard; Linus Roth, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Anthony Hermus; Hyperion
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 23 July 2019 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
From the fringes of the tradition, three violin concertos by composers from Copenhagen and from Prussia

This edition of Hyperion's The Romantic Violin Concerto series is the 22nd and features three composers who, whilst writing within the Austro-German symphonic tradition, might be said to have their origins on the fringes of it - Eduard Lassen, born in Copenhagen, Ludwig Philipp Scharwenka, born in the Grand Duchy of Posen, now Poznan in Poland but then in Prussia, and Rued Langgaard, born in Copenhagen.

So on this disc from Hyperion, violinist Linus Roth plays Eduard Lassen's Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 87, (Ludwig) Philipp Scharwenka's Violin Concerto in G major, Op. 95 and Rued Langgaard's Violin Concerto, with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conductor Antony Hermus who has been named as Opera North's principal guest conductor from 2019/20.

Shards of sound: Messiaen's Des Canyons aux Étoiles at the Proms

Nicolas Hodges
Nicolas Hodges
Messiaen Des Canyons aux étoiles; Nicolas Hodges, Martin Owen, David Hockings, Alex Neal, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo; BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall
Reviewed by Colin Clarke on 28 July 2019
Mightily rewarding, one of Messiaen's greatest scores makes a rare appearance at the Proms

For Prom 13, Nicolas Hodges (piano), Martin Owen (horn), David Hockings (xylorimba), Alex Neal (glockenspiel) and BBC Symphony Orchestra, conductor Sakari Oramo performed Messiaen's Des Canyons aux étoiles at the Royal Albert Hall on Sunday 28 July 2019. Colin Clarke was there to cover it for Planet Hugill.

Messiaen’s great sonic vista, Des Canyons aux étoiles, was written between 1971 and 1974. It is one of his greatest scores, inspired by the deserts of Utah (and, in the seventh movement, Brice Canyon in particular). The composer’s preoccupation with the spiritual nature of birdsong is a thread that runs through the score, while his pronounced religiosity finds an outlet in taking inspiration from the inscription on the wall at Belshazzar’s Feast in the third movement, “Ce qui est écrit sur les étoiles …”. The scoring is for solo piano, horn, xylorimba and glockenspiel with an orchestra possessed of huge kitchen department, including tubular bells, various types of chimes (glass, wood, finger), and six temple blocks. There is also a “geophone,” a large, flat drum filled with lead beads and rotates: the idea is that it sounds like shifting sand, and it really is remarkable. The string section, though, is small ( our attention is directed to the winds (such an important part of Messiaen’s armoury: think of Et Expecto Resurrectionem Mortuorum of 1964, for example). The work’s exploration of birdsong may also remind us of Reveil des Oiseaux (1953) and, of course, the huge compendium that is Catalogue d’oiseaux (1956-58).

Monday 29 July 2019

Sheer enjoyment: Rossini's La Cenerentola at West Green House

Rossini: La cenerentola - West Green House Opera
Rossini: La cenerentola - West Green House Opera
Rossini La Cenerentola; Heather Lowe, Filipe Manu, Nicholas Mogg, Zoe Drummond, Sioned Gwen Davies, Matthew Stiff, Blaise Malaba, dir: Victoria Newlyn, cond: Matthew Kofi Waldren; West Green Opera
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 July 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A largely young cast in a production which positively fizzed with excitement and enjoymnet

This year's West Green House Opera presented a pair of operas, Strauss' Die Fledermaus and Rossini's La Cenerentola in the temporary theatre placed at the side of the glorious West Green gardens, as well as all sorts of other events during the week of the festival including smaller scale performances of Rossini's early comedy L'Inganno Felice.

We caught the second of two performances of Rossini's La Cenerentola at West Green House Opera in a production directed by Victoria Newlyn with designs by Richard Studer, with Matthew Kofi Waldren conducting. The cast featured Heather Lowe as Angelina, Filipe Manu as Ramiro, Nicholas Mogg as Dandini, Matthew Stiff as Don Magnifico, Zoe Drummond as Clorinda, Sioned Gwen Davies as Tisbe and Blaise Malaba as Alidoro.

Newlyn and Studer solved the problems of the theatre's limited stage facilities by having a fixed set, thus obviating the scene changes between Don Magnifico's house and the Prince's palace. Studer's witty set referenced the fact that most of the audience members would be picnicing in the West Green Gardens. His set featured an abandoned Citroen 2CV at one side and a Landrover at the other, with Don Magnifico and his family reduced to primitive camping in and around the 2CV, whilst the Prince's 'ball' was in fact a posh country picnic by the Landrover, and the setting was roughly modern.

Saturday 27 July 2019

A welcome chance to hear Cilea's other opera: a warmly musical account of L'Arlesiana at Opera Holland Park

Cilea: L'Arlesiana - Opera Holland Park 2019 (Photo Ali Wright)
Francesco Cilea L'Arlesiana; Fflur Wyn, Yvonne Howard, Samuel Sakker, Samantha Price, Keel Watson, James Cleverton, Simon Wilding, dir: Oliver Platt, City of London Sinfonia, cond: Dane Lam; Opera Holland Park
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 July 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A warmly musical account of Cilea's other opera in a naturalistic production

Cilea: L'Arlesiana - Samantha Price, Yvonne Howard - Opera Holland Park 2019 (Photo Ali Wright)
Cilea: L'Arlesiana
Samantha Price, Yvonne Howard
Opera Holland Park 2019 (Photo Ali Wright)
The composer Francesco Cilea's name is known thanks to the success of his opera Adriana Lecouvreur, though his work seems to remain undervalued in the UK. I first saw Adriana Lecouvreur in Naples in the 1980s at a time when a major production in the UK seemed unlikely (Opera Holland Park did it in 2002, and it reached Covent Garden in 2010). But Cilea's other operas remain rather unexplored.

Like a number of his contemporaries, Cilea never quite managed to transform success in one opera to a career as an opera composer and effectively abandoned opera after Gloria, the successor to Adriana Lecouvreur. Adriana's predecessor, L'Arlesiana was an opera which brought Cilea some success, and he would tinker with it over a period of 40 years, but despite a couple of well-known arias it remains on the fringes of the repertoire. Clearly, Opera Holland Park has a soft-spot for it as this year it presented its third production of the opera since 1998 giving us a rare chance to explore the music of this fine composer

We caught the second performance of Oliver Platt's new production of Cilea's L'Arlesiana at Opera Holland Park on Thursday 25 July 2019. Dane Lam conducted the City of London Sinfonia, with Samuel Sakker as Federico, Fflur Wyn as Vivetta, Yvonne Howard as Rosa Mamai, Samantha Price as L'Innocente, Keel Watson as Baldassare, Simon Wilding as Metifio and James Cleverton as Marco.

Cilea is often linked to the other composers of the Verismo school and though there are similarities, Cilea's style is somewhat different and perhaps in greater debt to composers like Massenet. L'Arlesiana is based on the stories of Alphonse Daudet, who made his name writing about Provencal peasant life. But there is something consciously artful and literary about Daudet's writing, which sets him apart from Giovanni Verga whose writing about Sicilian peasants started the Verismo trend (Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana is based on a Verga short story).

The power of culture has not lessened in its ability to forge a better relationship: Jan Latham Koenig on founding the Britten-Shostakovich Festival Orchestra

Jan-Latham Koenig
Jan Latham Koenig
Jan Latham Koenig is the founding artistic director of the Britten-Shostakovich Festival Orchestra, and the ensemble is very much his inspiration. Koenig is in a unique position to be involved in the orchestra, being a British conductor working in Moscow. Jan Latham Koenig has been chief conductor of the Kolobov Novaya Opera Theatre of Moscow since 2011, the first Briton to hold such a post in Russia. I was able to find out more when I chatted to Jan after the launch of the Britten-Shostakovich Festival Orchestra.

Why create an orchestra?

Friday 26 July 2019

James MacMillan, Nicholas Maw and Anna Clyne in the Kensington Symphony Orchestra's 2019/20 season

KSO rehearsing at Henry Wood Hall Photo © 2008 Sim Canetty-Clarke
KSO rehearsing at Henry Wood Hall Photo © 2008 Sim Canetty-Clarke
One of London's leading non-professional orchestras, the Kensington Symphony Orchestra, has announced an ambitious 2019/2020 season. Alongside more established works the orchestra, music director Russell Keable, will be performing music by James MacMillan, Nicholas Maw and Anna Clyne.

The season open's with Anna Clyne's Masquerade alongside Berg's Lulu Suite and music by Prokofiev. Clyne's work was written for the Last Night of the Proms in 2013 and was premiere by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conductor Marin Alsop. The piece is inspired by 18th-century promenade concerts held in London's pleasure gardens, and Clyne said of the work:
'these concerts were a place where people from all walks of life mingled to enjoy a wide array of music. Other forms of entertainment ranged from the sedate to the salacious with acrobatics, exotic street entertainers, dancers, fireworks and masquerades. I am fascinated by the historic and sociological courtship between music and dance. Combined with costumes, masked guises and elaborate settings, masquerades created an exciting, yet controlled, sense of occasion and celebration. It is this that I wish to evoke in Masquerade.'

Further ahead, in January 2020 the orchestra performs James MacMillan's Symphony No. 4 alongside music by Brahms. MacMillan's symphony was premiered by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conductor Donald Runnicles, at the BBC Proms in 2015, and is described by the composer as 'essentially abstract. I’m interested here in the interplay of different types of material, following upon a fascination with music as ritual that has stretched from Monteverdi in the early 17th century through to Boulez and Birtwistle in the present day.'

In June 2020 the orchestra features Nicholas Maw's Dance Scenes (written in 1995 for the Philharmonia Orchestra's 50th anniversary) in the final concert of the season. 'It is written to please and does not put a foot wrong, as it dances energetically along to some singable themes, with invigorating rhythms, cast in a clear structure, and above all flourishing a masterly grasp of orchestration. The brassy extravagance of the first dance sounds like Walton and the tangy woodwind writing later like Britten, so Maw's debts to his English forebears are clearly signposted.' - Richard Fairman writing of Maw's Dance Scenes in the Financial Times, 27 September 1995.

The forthcoming season will be the orchestra's 64th, and music director Russell Keable has been in post for more than 30 of these. The new season is a busy one, with six concerts at venues include St John's Smith Square, the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the newly restored Fairfield Halls, Croydon.

Other highlights of the season include Korngold's Violin Concerto (with Stephen Bryant) and Shostakovich's Symphony No. 11, and Mahler's Symphony No. 3.

Full details from the Kensington Symphony Orchestra's website.

Thursday 25 July 2019

Mio caro Händel: a very personal project from soprano Simone Kermes on Sony Classical

Simone Kermes - Mio caro Händel - Sony Classical
Mio caro Händel; Simone Kermes, Amici Veneziani; Sony Classical
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 July 2019 Star rating: 3.0 (★★★)
A very personal journey though Handel's music from soprano Simone Kermes

On this very personal project, soprano Simone Kermes sings a selection arias from Handel's operas and oratorio for a disc from Sony Classical, accompanied by Amici Veneziani, an ensemble Kermes founded in 2017 and led by concertmaster Boris Begelman. We get arias from the operas Rinaldo, Giulio Cesare, Amadigi di Gaula, Serse, Teseo, Rodelinda, Deidamia, and Lotario, from the oratorios Le Resurrezione, Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno, Athalia, Saul and The Triumph of Time and Truth, and one of the Nine German Arias.

The CD booklet starts with a long and personal note from Kermes about her admiration and love for Handel's music and how it is intertwined with hers. This can seem a fascinating personal insight or gushingly over the top depending on your point of view, but there is no background to the works themselves, we are assumed to know them and to appreciate Kermes' performances.

Simone Kermes is a very distinctive singer with a very unmistakeable approach to Baroque music, technically superb in fast music she brings amazing fire and vividness to it. Yet in slower pieces she favours a tone which is almost bleached, with performances that are extremely intimate.

Illuminated (and musical) River

 © IIlluminated River
 © IIlluminated River
The idea of illuminating London's bridges with cohesive artist and architect designed lighting together with accompanying compositions is an intriguing prospect. And whilst Illuminated River's plans include both the lighting (from artist Leo Villareal and architects Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands) and music (from composers at Guildhall School of Music), to listen and watch you will have to download the music to a phone, but I still like the idea of being able to look at the bridges from the banks of the Thames and have the music wafting around you!

The Illuminated River project plans cohesively designed lighting for 15 of London bridges designed by artist Leo Villareal and architects Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands, to be installed over three years. The first bridges to be lit are London, Cannon Street, Southwark and Millennium bridges, with the lighting being switched on last week.

Composers from both the Composition and Electronic Music Department of Guildhall School have been commissioned by the Illuminated River Foundation to create original scores inspired by the heritage, architectural context and Villareal’s artwork for the first four bridges of Illuminated River. The compositions have captured the character of each bridge, with some arranged for orchestra, and others using spoken word poetry, found sound and electronica to tell the story of these historic monuments.

To listen to the compositions you can download them from the Illuminated River website, but there will be an open-air concert on 31 July at the Scoop, outside City Hall, and a concert at Milton Court Concert Hall on 24 September 2019. You can hear the compositions in the Illuminated River gallery at the Guildhall Art Gallery alongside visualisations of the project (until 1 September 2019).

Full details from the Illuminated River website.

Wednesday 24 July 2019

Prom 4: The scope, symbolism and the sheer thrill of space travel was truly celebrated in a brilliant concert by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under Kirill Karabits, his 11th year as its chief conductor

BBC Prom 4 - Kirill Karabits, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (Photo Chris Christoulou)
BBC Prom 4 - Kirill Karabits, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (Photo Chris Christoulou)
John Adams Short Ride in a Fast Machine, Samuel Barber Violin Concerto, Holst The Planets; Nemanja Radulović, Trinity Boys’ Choir, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Kirill Karabits; BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall
Reviewed by Tony Cooper on 21 July 2019 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Holst’s The Planets is a powerful and striking work and one that the Promenaders took to their hearts

Kiev-born Ukrainian conductor, Kirill Karabits, took charge of a marvellous BBC Prom at the Royal Albert Hall (21 July 2019) conducting the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Trinity Boys’ Choir in a programme featuring John Adams’ Short Ride in a Fast Machine, Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto with Franco-Serbian violinist Nemanja Radulović as soloist and Holst’s The Planets.

A brilliant opening piece, John Adams’ Short Ride in a Fast Machine, first saw the light of day in 1986 performed by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Describing it as a ‘fanfare for orchestra’, Adams said of the work: ‘You know how it is when someone asks you to ride in a terrific sports car and then you wish you hadn’t?’ I’ve been there! A few years ago I took a trip in a fast car, the track car at the Goodwood Revival meeting. For sure, a short ride in a fast machine. In fact, the next Revival falls over the weekend of Friday 13th September.

BBC Prom 4 - Nemanja Radulović, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (Photo Chris Christoulou)
BBC Prom 4 - Nemanja Radulović,
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (Photo Chris Christoulou)
Short Ride was scheduled to be performed a couple of times at the Last Night of the Proms but, unfortunately, had to be cancelled because of its title: in 1997 following the death of Princess Diana and in 2001 in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. However, it was first heard at a BBC Proms concert on Saturday 24th July 2004 and a decade later returned for another run round the block that is Kensington Gore on Thursday 4th September 2014.

War & Peace: Welsh National Opera brings its superb production of Prokofiev's opera to London

Prokofiev: War and Peace - Simon Bailey as Kutuzov - Welsh National Opera (Photo Clive Barda)
Prokofiev: War and Peace - Simon Bailey as Kutuzov - Welsh National Opera (Photo Clive Barda)
Prokofiev War & Peace; Lauren Michelle, Jonathan McGovern, MArk le Brocq, dir: David Pountney, cond: Tomas Hanus; Welsh National Opera at the Royal Opera House
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 July 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
For all the faults of Prokofiev's huge opera, this performance was a superb company achievement

Prokofiev: War and Peace - Jonathan McGovern as Andrei - Welsh National Opera (Photo Clive Barda)
Prokofiev: War and Peace
Jonathan McGovern as Andrei
Welsh National Opera (Photo Clive Barda)
Prokofiev's opera War and Peace went through so many vicissitudes that creating a definitive version is probably impossible. His final version was created partly in response to the Soviet authorities insistence that the war scenes be stronger and more patriotic, so the creation of an authoritative edition of Prokofiev's original version (which was rejected by the Soviets) is a welcome antidote to the added heroics of the final version.

Katya Ermolaeva and Rita McAllister's new critical edition of Prokofiev's original version of War and Peace forms the basis for Welsh National Opera's new production of the opera. First seen in Cardiff in September 2018, David Pountney's production has travelled to London for two performances (seen 23 July 2019). Tomas Hanus conducted with Jonathan McGovern as Andrei, Lauren Michelle as Natasha, Mark Le Brocq as Pierre and a huge cast with most singers in multiple roles.

Pountney and Hanus have added selected scenes from later versions, notably the New Year's Ball scene, the War Council at Fili and some choral Epigraphs, but the result is to give Prokofiev's score a lightness and variety, there are far more comic moments (usually involving the Russian people) and moments in the production were surprisingly funny. Designer Robert Innes Hopkins has provided a sort of theatre for the set (it looked not unlike Innes Hopkins designs for Ian Bell's In Parenthesis and I did wonder whether the same basic set had been re-used), providing an upper level for performers to look down on the main acting area, and with video and projections to the rear (with filmed sequences from Sergei Bondarchuk's 1966 film of War and Peace), a neat and effective way of changing the scene.

Tuesday 23 July 2019

Rare opera in Cardiff, London, Milan, Pesaro & more: Carlo Rizzi, the new artistic director of Opera Rara

Carlo Rizzi
Carlo Rizzi
The conductor Carlo Rizzi was announced as the new artistic director of Opera Rara last month, taking over from Sir Mark Elder who has been in the post since 2011. Rizzi will be recording Donizetti's Il furioso all'isola di San Domingo for Opera Rara with the Britten Sinfonia next year, including a performance at the Barbican

Rizzi is no stranger to 'opera rara' and in fact his conducting career began with Donizetti’s L'ajo nell'imbarazzo, and he made his international debut at the Buxton Festival in 1988 with Donizetti's Torquato Tasso. He will be conducting Rossini's L’equivoco stravagante in a new production at the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro in August. The work was controversial enough at its premiere in 1811 to be closed down by the police after only three performances!

Further ahead, Rizzi will be conducting Verdi's Les Vêpres siciliennes in David Pountney's new production for Welsh National Opera (where he is conductor laureate). The production opens in Cardiff on February, and then tours. And he will also be conducting a revival of Tobias Richter's production of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro for the same tour. In Jun 2020, Rizzi conducts another rarity at La Scala, Milan, a new production of Montemezzi's L'amore dei tre re.

Opera Rara first collaborated with Carlo Rizzi in 2017 when he conducted two discs of bel canto arias with Joyce El-Khoury and Michael Spyres titled Écho and Espoir. Recorded with the Hallé and featuring a selection of mainly French arias first made famous by Gilbert Duprez and Julie Dorus-Gras, two of the operatic stars of the day [see my review of the disc and of the concert]. Opera Rara was founded in the 1970s to explore bel canto, then something of a rarity. More recently the company has started to expand its repertoire, whilst continuing to record Donizetti and Italian bel canto, Carlo Rizzi comments ' “Now we want to expand the horizons to include more French repertoire and verismo opera. Of course, we will continue to explore Donizetti and other bel canto composers. But I believe it’s very important for us to show the public just how rich this medium is. Opera is for everyone.' Future plans for the company include new recordings of Offenbach’s La Princesse de Trébizonde, Halévy’s Guido et Ginévra and Leoncavallo’s Zingari.

Powerful contrasts: Wolf-Ferrari and Tchaikovsky in Opera Holland Park's double bill

Tchaikovsky: Iolanta - Opera Holland Park (Photo Ali Wright)
Tchaikovsky: Iolanta - Opera Holland Park (Photo Ali Wright)
Wolf-Ferrari Susanna's Secret, Tchaikovsky Iolanta; Clare Presland, Richard Burkhard, Natalya Romaniw, David Butt Philip, Grant Doyle, Mikhail Svetlov, dir: John Wilkie, Olivia Fuchs, City of London Sinfonia, cond: John Andrews, Sian Edwards; Opera Holland Park
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 22 July 2019 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
An evening of contrasts with Wolf-Ferrari's charming comedy followed by a performance of Tchaikovsky's last opera notable for its riveting intensity

Wolf-Ferrari: Susanna's Secret - Richard Burkhard, Clare Presland - Opera Holland Park (Photo Ali Wright)
Wolf-Ferrari: Susanna's Secret - Richard Burkhard, Clare Presland -
Opera Holland Park (Photo Ali Wright)
For its final production of the season, last night (22 July 2019) Opera Holland Park unveiled a double bill of rarely performed operas, Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari's Susanna's Secret and Tchaikovsky's Iolanta. Susanna's Secret was conducted by John Andrews and directed by John Wilkie, with Clare Presland as Susanna, Richard Burkhard as Gil and John Savournin as Sante. Iolanta was conducted by Sian Edwards and directed by Olivia Fuchs with Natalya Romaniw as Iolanta, David Butt Philip as Vaudémont, Mikhail Svetlov as René, Grant Doyle as Robert, Ashley Riches as Ibn-Hakia, Charne Rochford as Alméric, Barnaby Rea as Bertrand and Laura Woods as Marta. Designs for both operas were by Takis. The City of London Sinfonia was in the pit.

Both operas remain somewhat underperformed, partly because neither has an obvious companion work (Iolanta  was premiered with the ballet, The Nutcracker). And whilst the double bill was perhaps not an obvious pairing, the two works were written less than 20 years apart and both deal in different ways with how men control women.

Monday 22 July 2019

ORA Singers' presents 13 world premieres at its first Composer Competition

Ora Singers Composer Competition
ORA Singers, founder & artistic director Suzi Digby, has been a prolific commissioner of new music since the vocal ensemble's founding in 2016 and on Saturday 27 July 2019 at King's College, London they will extend this further with the final of the vocal ensemble's first composition competition.

The competition is in two parts, an Open Competion (open to all) and the Youth Competition (which is open only to secondary state-school pupils). At the final on Saturday, Suzi Digby will conduct ORA Singers in 13 new pieces, three finalists for the Open Competition, Joel Jarventausta, Áine Mallon and Ben See, and ten finalists for the Youth Competition. The results will be judged by a distinguished panel consisting of Stephen Fry, Susanna Eastburn (chief executive of Sound and Music), composer John Rutter and Katia Tearle (director of new music at Edition Peter).

The ten youth finalists were chosen to receive 10 hours of one-to-one mentoring each from ORA-commissioned composers, have their works workshopped with ORA singers and write a new work to be performed in the Competition Final Concert. ORA particularly wanted to target young people who it felt might not have the opportunity, either at school or at home, to receive support in writing music, and wanted to give them a platform to compose and have their music heard. The three Open Finalists and ten Youth Finalists have all been asked to write a reflection of a Renaissance choral masterpiece, something that ORA regularly asks of its commissioned composers.

Joel Jarventausta
Áine Mallon
Ben See

Patrick Lappin (17, Lurgan College, Northern Ireland)
Hannah Beech (17, Loreto Sixth Form College, Denton)
Edward Atkin ( 15, Millthorpe School, York)
Emily Pedersen (17, St John Fisher Catholic High School, Harrogate)
Katie Styles (11, Wycombe Girl's High School, Maidenhead)
Louis Wild (17, Prudhoe Community High School, Wylam)
Laura Fitzgerald (17, Kesgrave High School Sixth Form, Kesgrave)
Joshua Wheldon (17, North Hykeham Joint, Sixth Form College, Thurlby)
Ben Gilchrist (15, Pate's Grammar School, Cheltenham)
Yuvraj Sethia (17, The Priory Academy LSST)

Full details from the ORA Singers website.

Prom 2: Dvořák’s lively folk-infused Violin Concerto was appropriately paired with another 19th-century Czech classic, Smetana’s symphonic suite, Má vlast

Dvorak: Violin Concerto - Joshua Bell, Bamberg Symphony, Jakub Hrůša - BBC Proms (Photo Chris Christodoulou)
Dvorak: Violin Concerto - Joshua Bell, Bamberg Symphony, Jakub Hrůša - BBC Proms (Photo Chris Christodoulou)
Dvořák Violin Concerto, Smetana, Má vlast; Joshua Bell, Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, Jakub Hrůša; BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall
Reviewed by Tony Cooper on 20 July 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A colourful celebration of a nation’s landscape, history and identity, Má vlast, truly sums up the spirit and defiance of the Czech people for independence

Dvořák’s Violin Concerto in A minor, composed in 1879, lies to a certain extent in the shadow of the composer’s Cello Concerto in B minor, composed in 1894-95. Although a much-loved part of the repertoire, the judgement of history certainly favours the Cello Concerto, the last solo concerto by Dvořák and written for his good friend, Hanuš Wihan.

Premièred by the English cellist, Leo Stern, in London in March 1896, it’s one of the most-frequently performed of all cello concerti and it’s admired for the richness of its orchestral music and for the lyrical writing for the solo instrument. The Violin Concerto, on the other hand, was premièred in Prague in 1883 by František Ondříček who also gave the London and Vienna premières.

Be that as it may, I really have no preference and like both works equally well and after the virtuosic, dazzling and flawless performance of delivered by Joshua Bell, hopefully, this has helped towards levelling history. Joshua Bell, who made his Carnegie Hall début in 1985 at the age 17 and a big favourite at the Proms, performed at the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday 20 July 2019 with the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra under Brno-born Czech conductor, Jakub Hrůša in a concert which paired Dvořák’s Violin Concerto with Smetana's Má vlast.

Effortlessly playing a ‘Huberman’ Stradivari violin dating from 1713, Mr Bell took four thunderous curtain-calls and returned the audience’s favour by playing an encore with the leader of the orchestra Ilian Garnetz and the leader of the viola section, Lois Landswerk, a lovely and melodious romance by the man of the moment, Antonín Leopold Dvořák.

Sunday 21 July 2019

Britten-Shostakovich Festival Orchestra

Rostropovich, Oistrakh, Britten and Shostakovich during the festival of British music in Moscow. March 1963
Rostropovich, Oistrakh, Britten and Shostakovich during the
festival of British music in Moscow. March 1963
On Wednesday 17 July 2019 a new orchestra was launched, the Britten-Shostakovich Festival Orchestra. Inspired by the friendship of two composers, the Russian Dmitri Shostakovich and the British Benjamin Britten, the orchestra will bring together talented young musicians from Russia and from Britain, performing in both countries during September 2019. The orchestra has been created by the conductor Jan-Lathan Koenig, who is the artistic director of Novaya Opera in Moscow, the only Briton to lead a Russian cultural organisation.

The eighty six musicians from conservatoires in London, Cardiff, Glasgow, Moscow, St Petersburg and Rostov will come together for the first time in September 2019 for a week's residency in Sochi, and will then perform in Russia and in Moscow. The orchestra's repertoire will mix Russian and British music including Shostakovich's Jazz Suite and his score to Hamlet, alongside Britten's Four Sea Interludes and music by Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Elgar and RVW. Whilst the suite from Hamlet will be performed in some places, in London and Nottingham, Jan-Latham Koenig has created a new version which interweaves speeches from Shakespeare's play, performed by Edward Fox and Freddie Fox, with Shostakovich's music. For two concerts in Russia the orchestra will be joined by the choir of Novaya Opera to perform Shostakovich's Symphonic Poem 'Execution of Stepan Razin'.

Participation will be free to the young musicians involved, with support being provided by BP and Rosneft. The orchestra has been founded to mark the 2019 Year of Music, a bilateral collaboration between the UK and Russia, but it is hoped that the orchestra will form a legacy beyond 2019, to create a dynamic cultural collaboration centred on an orchestra of great excellence.

Over 300 people were auditioned for places in the orchestra, and the resulting orchestra has 50 women and 37 men, with 35 from the UK and 52 from Russia, with an age range of 18 to 28.

The Britten Shostakovich Festival Orchestra is on tour to Russia and to Britain from 9 to 25 September 2019, full details from the orchestra's website.

Saturday 20 July 2019

Beyond the Garden

Alma Mahler in Venice in 1929
Alma Mahler in the garden of her house
in Venice in 1929
Oltre il giardino (Beyond the Garden) is a hotel in Venice based in a house once belonged to Alma Mahler (she lived there in the 1920s, partly because it did have a garden). The hotel's English title Beyond the Garden has now given its name to a new opera by composer Stephen McNeff and librettist Aoife Mannix which is partly inspired by Alma Mahler and her relationship with her daughter Manon Gropius (who died from polio, contracted whilst staying with her mother in Venice, at the age of 18).

Beyond the Garden is a work in progress, whose premiere takes place in June 2020 in Ljubljana, Slovenia, by Slovenian Chamber Music Theatre (SKGG) with Susan Bickley and Katja Konvalinka singing the leading roles of Ottilia and Klara. Yesterday (19 July 2019), McNeff presented a fascinating workshop on the new opera, with Susan Bickley and Katja Konvalinka performing extracts from it, accompanied by Simon Dvorsak (piano), John Slack (clarinet) and Sophie Mather (violin).

McNeff described the piece as a ghost story, and Mannix's libretto took a reverse chronology, starting with 1964 (the year of the Ottilia/Alma Mahler character's death) and ending with 1935 (the year of the Klara/Manon Gropius character's death), throughout the relationship between the two is explored. It is about the past, how we remember it and how we create our own image of it.

Developing new opera is always challenging, and McNeff and Mannix wanted to present their work-in-progress to a small audience in order to provoke discussion about the opera and its development. Key issues that came out of the discussion were quite how explicit the link to Alma Mahler should be, should we realise this at all, quite how clear the relationship between the two characters should be, and quite who or what the Klara character was.

There was a lively discussion, and clearly McNeff and Mannix have plenty of food for thought in their development of what promises to be a striking piece of music theatre.

Stephen McNeff's previous operas have included Vivienne, about T.S. Eliot's first wife [see my review, and also on CD] and Banished, based on Steven Gooch's play about the first women transported to Australia, Female Transport [see my review].

First NIght of the Proms: Janacek, Dvorak and Zosha Di Castri launch the 2019 BBC Proms

Zosha Di Castri: Long Is the Journey - Short Is the Memory - Karina Canellakis, BBC Symphony Orchestra - BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall (Photo Chris Christodoulou)
Zosha Di Castri: Long Is the Journey - Short Is the Memory
Karina Canellakis, BBC Symphony Orchestra - BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall
(Photo Chris Christodoulou)
Zosha Di Castri Long is the Hourney, Short is the Memory, Antonin Dvorak The Golden Spinning Wheel, Leos Janacek Glagolitic Mass; Asmik Grigorian, Jennifer Johnston, LAdislav Elgr, Jan Martinik, Peter Holder, BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Karina Canellakis; BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 July 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A rousing and historic start to the 2019 BBC Proms season

Janacek: Glagolitic Mass - Ladislav Elgr, Karina Canellakis, BBC Symphony Orchestra - BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall (Photo Chris Christodoulou)
Janacek: Glagolitic Mass - Ladislav Elgr, Karina Canellakis,
BBC Symphony OrchestraBBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall
(Photo Chris Christodoulou)
The young American conductor Karina Canellakis made history as the first woman to conduct the First Night of the Proms last night (19 July 2019) as she conducted the BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Chorus and BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall with soloists Asmik Grigorian (soprano), Jennifer Johnston (mezzo-soprano), Ladislav Elgr (tenor), Jan Martinik (bass) and Peter Holder (organ) in Zosha Di Castri's Long is the Journey, Short Is the Memory (the world premiere of a BBC commission), Antonin Dvorak's The Golden Spinning Wheel and Leos Janacek's Glagolitic Mass.

Canadian composer Zosha Di Castri's new piece had been commissioned to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first Moon landing almost to the day (on 20 July 1969). The work used a large symphony orchestra (including triple woodwind, five horns, four trumpets, tuba and three percussion), plus the BBC Singers, and Di Castri interwove three diverse texts, extracts from Giacomo Leopardi's 1820 Italian poem Alla luna, fragments of the Ancient Greek poet Sappho (in English) and a recent text by Chinese-British writer Xiaolu Guo which references the 1969 Moon landing, the legend of the Chinese goddess of the Moon and the recent Chinese exploration of the far side of the Moon, resulting in a complex multi-layered work which perhaps tried a little too hard to fit too much into its 15 minute duration. Di Castri certainly created a series of striking textures, from the shimmering, glittering over deep bass notes of the opening to busier more vivid moments, she has strong ear for imaginative timbres. Perhaps if the BBC Singers' words had been somewhat clearer, [Update, one correspondent suggests the vocal writing was at fault, rather than the singers' diction] maybe the work needs a rather larger choir than this, but there were too many moments when the choir contribution was a somewhat distant eerie evocation. On first hearing, the piece did not always read structurally, though Canellakis drew superb performances from her performers.

The programme was very much an evening of 'novelties', with Zosha Di Castri's world premiere being followed by the first Proms performance of Dvorak's tone poem The Golden Spinning Wheel, and Janacek's mass which is one of the 30 works being celebrated in this year's Proms as being 'novelties' introduced to the UK by Sir Henry Wood, founder of the Proms.

Friday 19 July 2019

Nevill Holt Theatre shortlisted for the 2019 RIBA Stirling Prize

Nevill Holt Theatre (Photo Robert Workman)
Nevill Holt Theatre, photo Robert Workman
Completed last year, the new theatre at Nevill Holt within the historic stables (replacing a temporary structure) is the home of Nevill Holt Opera, and the new building has transformed the potential of the young opera company [see my interview with Nicholas Chalmers, artistic director of Nevill Holt Opera, and my review of the production of Mozart's Cosi fan tutte there this year]. Now the theatre has been shortlisted for the 2019 RIBA Stirling Prize.

The new theatre was designed by Stirling Prize winning architects Witherford Watson Mann and theatre designers Sound Space Vision, built by Messenger BCR and supported by the David Ross Foundation. It joins a shortlist which includes London Bridge Station, the Macallan Distillery and Visitor Experience, The Weston at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Cork House and Goldsmith Street (full details from the RIBA website). The announcement of the winner of the 2019 RIBA Stirling Prize will be made on 8 October 2019.

Leonardo Vinci's 1726 opera Siroe in its world premiere recording from the Teatro San Carlo, Naples

Vinci: Siroe, Re di Persia - Dynamic
Leonardo Vinci Siroe, Re di Persia; Carlo Alemano, Leslie Visco, Roberta invernizzi, Cristina Alunno, Daniela Salvo, orchestra of the Teatro San Carlo, Antonio Florio; DYNAMIC Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 16 July 2019 Star rating: 3.0 (★★★)
A milestone, the first recording of the first setting of Metastasio's important second opera libretto, in a creditable performance which may not engage the casual listener

Leonardo Vinci is one of the Italian composers from the generation younger than Handel who continued the art of Italian opera in Italy. It is only relatively recently that Vinci's operas have started to appear on disc, and for performers to get to grips with them.

This new set from Dynamic is the first recording of Leonardo Vinci's Siroe setting a libretto by Metastasio. It is very much a collaboration between period and modern performance, it is presented by the Teatro San Carlo in Naples with the orchestra of the theatre conducted by Antonio Florio (who created the edition of Siroe that is used) and the continuo provided by members of Florio's  Cappella Neapolitana ensemble. The cast features Carlo Alemanno as Cosroe, Leslie Visco as Medarse, Roberta Invernizzi as Elmira, Cristina Alunno as Siroe, Daniela Salvo as Laodice and Luca Cervoni as Arasse.

Vinci's Siroe was premiered in 1726 in Venice, an extra at the end of the season as a result of the popularity of Vinci's previous opera. Siroe was Metastasio's second opera seria, and Metastasio thought enough of it to revise it more than once and to include one of the revised versions in his collected works. Vinci's was the first setting, with Giovanni Porta, Porpora, Sarra, Vivaldi and Handel following. It was Handel's first setting of Metastasio, and it is through this filter that we tend to view Metastasio. The encounters between Handel and Metastasio do not rank amongst the greatest of Handel's operas, and the sheer length of Metastasian libretti can be understood when you learn that for Handel's setting the 1284 lines of Metstasio's libretto were reduced to half and still left an opera long by Handelian standards.

Come into the garden

The current crop of Samling Academy Singers will be presenting their programme, Come into the Garden in a series of concerts at The Witham in Barnard Castle (20 July), Saltburn Community Theatre (24 July) and the Sage Gateshead (26 July). 

Accompanied by Samling Artist pianist Ian Tindale, the performances will be semi-staged directed by Samling Artist Miranda Wright and follows an imaginary garden through the natural cycle of the days and seasons, with songs by Fauré, Mahler, Schumann, Wolf, Grainger, Walton, Richard Rodney Bennett, Frank Bridge, Orlando Gibbons, Walton, Howells and Bernstein. The music will be interspersed with readings and poetry, including extracts from Katherine Swift’s best-selling garden book The Morville Hours which contributed to the vision behind this programme.

With no conservatoire between Manchester and Glasgow, talented young singers in the North East of England had previously been unable to access to high-level vocal training. The Academy was established to fill that gap and encourage young people in the region to nurture their musical abilities. The Academy provides training and performance opportunities for 30 young singers each year who are growing up or studying in the North East. Samling Academy is led by international professional artists and coaches including Samling Artists who return to teach the next generation.

Full details from the Samling website.

Thursday 18 July 2019

So who was Jean Louis Nicodé: piano music of beguiling charm from Simon Callaghan on Hyperion

Ein Liebesleben - Jean Louis Nicodé
Jean Louis Nicodé Ein Liebesleben & other piano works; Simon Callaghan; Hyperion Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 4 July 2019 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★)
With a beguiling charm these piano pieces evoke earlier styles

Until I came across this enterprising disc from pianist Simon Callaghan on Hyperion, I had never heard of Jean Louis Nicodé. His limited claim to fame seems to be his arranging of the first movement of Chopin's abandoned third piano concerto. This disc, Ein Liebesleben, seems to be the first ever devoted to Nicodé's solo piano music and Callaghan gives us three substantial works, Andenken an Robert Schumann - Sechs Phantasiestücke Op.6, Variationene un Fuge über ein Originalthema Op. 18 and Ein Liebesleben - Zehn Poësien Op.22.

If you put the disc on cold, you might think that you have got the wrong composer as Andenken an Robert Schumann (dedicated 'most respectfully to Frau Dr. Clara Schumann') is 30 minutes of music evoking that of Robert Schumann.

So who was Jean Louis Nicodé.

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