Wednesday, 2 December 2020

A record dedicated to those who believe in ‘ the holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of imagination.’

Slavonic Reflections; Chopin, Janáček, Medtner, Lyadov; Nelly Akopian-Tamarina; Pentatone

Slavonic Reflections
; Chopin, Janáček, Medtner, Lyadov; Nelly Akopian-Tamarina; Pentatone

Reviewed by Bryce Morrison on 2 December 2020 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Recorded live at the Wigmore Hall, a highly personal selection of piano music from the distinguished Russian pianist

Chopin's Mazurkas and Janáček's Into the Mists with encores by Lyadov and Medtner, performed by Nelly Akopian-Tamarina (piano) recorded live at the Wigmore Hall, on Pentatone.

Nelly Akopian-Tamarina’s recital entitled Slavonic Reflections given at the Wigmore Hall is a truly transcendental experience in the sense that it takes you far beyond the conventional or readily accessible.

Constella's Connecting Stars Christmas Gala

Constella's Connecting Stars Christmas Gala
Earlier this year opera-ballet company Constella, artistic director Leo Geyer, launched its Connecting Stars scheme to provide free one-to-one virtual performances to isolated care home residents. To help raise money to continue their series and meet growing demand, the company is creating an on-line Christmas Gala which launches on 8 December 2020.

Filmed in Studio Wayne McGregor, the first half is based around Leo Geyer's critically acclaimed Sideshows [see my review of the work at 2014 Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival], along with performances ranges from Piazzolla to Bizet's Carmen. The second half will be a Christmas wonderland using music from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker choreographed by Jaered Glavin.

Since the launch of Connecting Stars, over 50 care homes have taken part with nearly 150 performances reaching over 2,000 residents. Loneliness amongst the elderly has long been a shocking crisis in the UK and it’s only exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic this year. By fundraising through this beautiful gala, Constella hope to be able to reach more care homes in future months, as well as provide care homes with this digital gala free of charge for their residents to enjoy this Christmas.

Full details from the Constella website.

Opera North launches its Light Up Lives campaign for Christmas 2020

Opera North launches its Light Up Lives campaign for Christmas 2020

Opera North's From Couch to Chorus virtual choir project this year [see my article] persuaded over 4,000 people to learn the basics of opera singing from the comfort of their own living rooms via weekly Zoom rehearsals. Described by one participant as 'an anchor in a storm', the sessions proved popular both with those who were missing the social interaction provided by their usual choir practices and those keen to acquire a new skill over lockdown. All felt connected to each other through the act of shared performance.

Other, less visible Opera North initiatives this year include arranging performances at 20 care homes in and around Leeds as part of Arts Together for Care Homes, and treating the refugee and asylum seeker families at St Augustine’s Centre in Halifax to a socially-distanced performance of Whistle Stop Opera: Hansel and Gretel.

Activities planned include a film of a new Whistle Stop Opera: Cinderella to give schools and families the chance to watch the show free as an online alternative to a Christmas pantomime trip this year. Using the experience gained from the In Harmony Opera North community residency, which takes place in six Leeds schools and involves 1800 children a Home Music Programme has been created. This follows the National Curriculum, and will offer online music learning to children from 7 to 11-years-old, including the opportunity to learn how to play an orchestral instrument with support from professional artists.

All this costs money, and the company has launched its Christmas appeal, Light Up Lives asking people to help light up lives in schools, communities and homes this Christmas through the power of music:

  • £15 could help In Harmony Opera North team create online singing resources for children to access from home
  • £50 could enable a group of young care leavers to experience the healing power of As You Are, Opera North's Leeds soundwalk
  • £150 could delight care home residents and staff with their very own outdoor performance
  • £500 could help film Whistle Stop Opera: Cinderella for schools and families across the North this Christmas

Richard Mantle, General Director of Opera North, said:

"The challenges of this year have been immense, affecting us all in different ways but forcing us to confront loss in its various forms; of certainty in our futures, of the things that sustain our happiness, and of the time spent with those we love. It is at times such as these that we come together around the things that bring the most light into our lives, and for many of us, this is music. "

"We are determined to return to live performance and to resume touring opera as soon as we are able but, whatever challenges we face, we remain committed to using music to create extraordinary experiences every day for and with the communities we serve. Any donations towards our work will be very gratefully received as they will enable us to continue to impact even more lives across the North of England and further afield."

Full details and donations at the Opera North website.


Tuesday, 1 December 2020

In Motion: United Strings of Europe's debut disc features three contemporary works alongside two classics in a strongly coloured programme

In Motion - Schubert, Hindson, Boccherini, Corrales, Farr; United Strings of Europe, Amalia Hall, Julian Azkoul; BIS

In Motion
- Schubert, Hindson, Boccherini, Corrales, Farr; United Strings of Europe, Amalia Hall, Julian Azkoul; BIS

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 1 December 2020 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
A lively young string ensemble's debut disc features a characterful programme with three contemporary works alongside two classics

United Strings of Europe is a lively young string ensemble directed by Anglo-Lebanese violinist Julian Azkoul. The group's debut disc, on BIS, features an eclectic mix with three contemporary works, Matthew Hindson's Malinga, Arturo Corrales' Señores, les voy a contar…, and Gareth Farr's Mondo Rondo alongside Schubert's Quartetsatz in C minor and Luigi Boccherini's Musica notturna delle strade di Madrid. The ensemble is joined by violinist Amalia Hall (soloist in the Hindson) and conductor Franck Fontcouberte, who conducts the Hindson and the Corrales; the remaining works are directed from the violin by Julian Azkoul.

We begin with Schubert's 1820 Quartetsatz, his first work for string quartet since his teenage years. The ensemble (number some 13 strings) make a stylish sound and whilst Julian Azkoul's arrangement for string orchestra does add weight to the work, the sound is not overly luxuriant and the work makes a striking opener.

It is followed by Australian composer Matthew Hindson's 2009/2011 work Maralinga for violin and string orchestra. It was commissioned in 2011 by the Australian Chamber Orchestra. The title is an Australian Aboriginal word, but in this context it refers to a place. One of the Australian desert locations where in the 1950s the Australian government allowed the British government to do secret nuclear testing,  without considering the welfare of the Aboriginal inhabitants and Australian service personnel at the test sites.

A bright spot in 2021: Garsington Opera's plans for its celebration of 10 years at Wormsley

Richard Strauss: Capriccio - Miah Persson - Garsington Opera (Photo Johan Persson)
Richard Strauss: Capriccio - Miah Persson - Garsington Opera 2018 (Photo Johan Persson)

When feeling low in the midst of stress or in the dark days of mid-Winter, it is often comforting to make holiday plans, to leaf through brochures. The plans may come to naught, but simply knowing that they might happen, that there is something to look forward to, is a big boost. It is perhaps in this vein that we should peruse Garsington Opera's 2021 season brochure, celebrating its 10th anniversary at Wormsley. There is much to anticipate.

There is a new production of Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier (shared with Irish National Opera and Santa Fe Opera) directed by Bruno Ravella [who directed Verdi's Falstaff at the festival in 2018] with Miah Persson making her role debut as the Marschallin [Persson made a fine Countess in Capriccio in 2018, see my review], with Hannah Hipp as Octavian [Hipp sang the title role in the festival's 2019 production of Offenbach's Fantasio, see my review], and Soraya Mafi as Sophie, with Derrick Ballard as Baron Ochs. The opera will be conducted by Jordan de Souza.

Another highlight is a new production of Rossini's Le comte Ory, an opera not performed anything like as often as it should be. Directed by Cal McCrystal [who directed ENO's 2018 production of G&S's Iolanthe, see my review] and conducted by Valentina Peleggi [who conducted Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld at ENO in 2019], the cast includes American tenor Jack Swanson (making his role debut) and Robert Murray sharing the title role with Andrea Carroll, Katie Bray and Jacques Imbrailo.

Michael Boyd's 2016 production of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin [see my review] is returning with Jonathan McGovern [whom we last saw as Andrei in WNO's terrific production of Prokofiev's War and Peace, see my review] in the title role with Moldovan soprano Natalia Tanasii as Tatyana and Sam Furness [whom we saw in David Sawer's The Skating Rink at the 2018 festival, see my review] as Lensky. Douglas Boyd conducts.

The above three operas will be using the Philharmonia Orchestra, but the English Concert will be in the pit for a new production of Handel's Amadigi. Written in 1715, it was the fifth opera that Handel wrote for London. It has some superb music and I have seen some very fine stage productions of the opera, but it is notorious because of the work's five characters all are high voices (contralto or soprano) and one character dies in Act One; there are no tenors and basses in the cast. Garsington's production will be directed by Netia Jones and conducted by Christian Curnyn, with Sonja Runje, Anna Devin, Rhian Lois and Tim Mead.

2021's community opera will be The Selfish Giant, based on Oscar Wilde's story with music by John Barber and words by Jessica Duchen.

Full details from the Garsington Opera website.

Southbank Sinfonia goes round, with three immersive films

Southbank Sinfonia has been thinking creatively about what can be achieved musically within the limits of social distancing, and using these limits as a springboard for some imaginative thinking. Across three Fridays in December the ensemble is broadcasting new films intended to give the audience a new immersive experience. Filmed at the Round Chapel in Hackney, each film will immerse the viewer within the sound of the orchestra as if wandering through a live performance.

Conducted by Chloé van Soeterstède, the three performances will explore underperformed music. On 4 December 2020 comes Cecilia McDowall’s Rain, Steam, and Speed (2006) is a symphonic journey inspired by JMW Turner’s painting of the same name. 

On 11 December there is Jessie Montgomery’s Starburst (2012) and Sally Beamish’s Reckless (2012). Starburst depicts the unpredictable nature of a group of stars so powerful it changes the structure of an entire galaxy, whilst Reckless is a bolt of lightening which rips open the orchestra to reveal the inner workings in all its technicolour.

Finally, on 18 December comes Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s elegant Novelleten (1903), charming almost salon music with a touch of humour.

Full details from the Southbank Sinfonia website.

Monday, 30 November 2020

Simple Gifts: United Commonwealth COVID music project

Simple Gifts: United Commonwealth COVID music project

In September this year an invitation went out from the Commonwealth Secretariat to invite musicians from all 54 countries in the Commonwealth to participate in an ambitious project. One musician has been selected from each country, and the musicians have recorded themselves performing alongside a track recorded by the Dionysius Ensemble. The final video, which will be released next month, will thus feature musicians from all 54 Commonwealth countries performing together in Michael Higgins arrangement of the Shaker hymn, Simple Gifts. (The Dionysus Ensemble's recording of Simple Gifts is available on YouTube.) As well as recording their contribution to the final video, each of the 54 Commonwealth musicians will be recording a short video introducing themselves and their country.

The idea behind the project is to demonstrate the power of music and art to lift spirits, improve mental health and encourage international camaraderie, as countries face up to the challenges of the pandemic.

The Dionysus Ensemble (founder and artistic director Léonie Adams) is the first-ever Ensemble in Residence for The Commonwealth Resounds, the accredited music organisation within the Commonwealth, and therefore the first time that the Commonwealth has had a professional musical ensemble officially attached.

Further information from the Dionysus Ensemble's website.

Revolving Rondo: Nils Klöfver's engaging recital explores the work of virtuoso guitarist composers from the 16th century to the present day

Revolving Rondo; Nils Klöfver

Revolving Rondo
; Nils Klöfver

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 30 November 2020 Star rating: 3.0 (★★★)
The Swedish guitarist's latest disc showcases not just his alto guitar, but the work of guitarist composers from the 16th to the 21st centuries

I was first introduced to the 11-string alto guitar in 2015 when Swedish guitar player Nils Klöfver released an album celebrating the instrument's 50th anniversary. Nils Klöfver's latest album, Revolving Rondo, uses both the alto guitar and the six-string classical guitar in a programme which is designed to showcase some of the 'most game changing compositions written by the instrument’s greatest virtuosos.' The recital begins with the 16th century Luis de Milan and then continues chronologically with Alonso Mudarra, John Dowland, Sylvius Leopold Weiss, Fernando Sor, Francisco Tarrega, Agustin Barrios, Andres Segovia, Roland Dyens and ending with Klöfver's own composition, Revolving Rondo.

The alto guitar developed in Sweden over 50 years ago because guitarist Per-Olof Johnson was looking for a way to play lute music using guitar playing technique. He and luthier Georg Bolin developed an 11-string instrument which provided conventional lute tuning by tuning the first six strings a minor third higher (hence the name "alto guitar") and added five extra strings to accommodate low notes. The name for the guitar in Swedish is Altgitar. On this new disc Klöfver uses the alto guitar for the early pieces, bringing a lovely mellow tone and rich timbre to them. He switches to the classical guitar when he reaches Fernando Sor's Introductions and Variations on a Theme by Mozart and returns to the alto guitar for his own piece at the end.

We begin with the 16th century composer and vihuela player, Luis Milan who published the first collection of music for the vihuela (an early form of guitar) and from this collection Klöfver plays three pavans, elegant and graceful pieces with harmony redolent of the Renaissance, and which benefit from the sonorous sound of Klöfver's alto guitar. We stay in the 16th century for Alonso Mudarra's Fantasia No. 10. Mudarra was the author of another important collection of music for vihuela, and his Fantasia No. 10 has become a staple of the guitar repertoire. It is a surprisingly perky piece, with a modern freshness to the harmonies.

First drown your baritone: Radiohead's video for No Surprises undergoes a remix in the OAE's latest video

Still from OAE's film of Handel's 'Cara Pianta' with James Newby


Whilst I have heard of the band Radiohead, their 1998 single No Surprises is not on my internal play list (my relationship with rock and pop music is patchy at best), so when I read that the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE) had made a video parodying Radiohead's video for No Surprises, the information meant nothing to me. Evidently the video is the one where songwriter Thom Yorke is in an astronaut's helmet singing the song and it eventually fills with water and holds his breath [see it on YouTube]. 

Since helping to form Radiohead in 1985, Jonny Greenwood (lead guitar, keyboards) has gone on to a highly varied career which includes being composer-in-residence with the BBC Concert Orchestra.

Cut to the OAE's YouTube channel, and we have baritone James Newby bravely singing in an astronaut's helmet which gradually fills with water, and he holds his breath etc. I have to confess that my first instinct was to time the videos to see whether Yorke or Newby held their breath for longer. Newby isn't singing a Baroque re-mix of No Surprises (shame, perhaps), but instead is singing the final aria from Handel's cantata Apollo e Dafne, 'Cara pianta'. And, I might add singing it very beautifully indeed.

At 6'15, the new video is almost twice the length of the Radiohead video, but it is equally striking. I am still not sure what the new video is for, but it certainly makes for entrancing watching and the end of Apollo e Dafne will never be quite the same again.

Sunday, 29 November 2020

A Life On-Line: Orpheus in suburbia, Paris in the 1920s, Britten and Clyne in Perth,

Gluck: Orphée et Eurydice - Benjamin Williamson - INvision Opera
Gluck: Orphée et Eurydice - Benjamin Williamson - INvision Opera

A new film of Gluck's Orfeo ed Eurydice made under lockdown becomes an intriguing premise when the couple in the opera, Orfeo and Eurydice are played by real-life couple Benjamin Williamson (counter-tenor) and Paula Sides (soprano), with the film being made in Williamson and Sides' own home (filmed by Jan Capinski) along with the couple's two children. The film was directed and conceived by Timothy Nelson and is available on the INvision website. Accompaniment is on piano, played by Simone Luti and the off-stage chorus is the Shenandoah Chorus, director Matthew Owen. The project's title is Orphée et Eurydice and though sung in Andrew Albin's new poetic translation, the French version of the names is being used so presumably we are talking the Berlioz edition here.

The perspicacious amongst you will have spotted a lack in the credits, Amour. Amour's role is taken by Paula Sides, with the end of Act One being a message to Orpheus in the present from Eurydice in the past, via a file on a laptop. Act Two sees Orpheus attempting suicide, with much of the remainder of Act Two and Act Three being either memory or imagination. Finally, the two children stop him and the opera ends with Orpheus in the present day coming to terms with his grief. I missed Gluck's orchestral accompaniment, but Luti's highly effective piano accompaniment provided an intimate backdrop for the sound-track and visuals which take place in a modern suburban house. I also missed some of the trimmed dance movements; I understand why they were removed, but they form important parts of the structure.

However, the result was very powerful and a remarkable re-invention of the opera as an intimate and personal journey. Unlike a lot of opera on the web at the moment, this was not inspired by stage performance and delivered something that would hardly be achievable on stage. [INvision]

We have a tendency to imagine the Roaring Twenties as one mad-cap gallop which ended in the Wall Street Crash and the Depression. The reality was, of course, more complex.

Saturday, 28 November 2020

From Handel's contemporaries to a forgotten Malcolm Arnold opera: I chat to conductor John Andrews about reviving neglected music

Malcolm Arnold: The Dancing Master - John Andrews, BBC Concert Orchesta and cast at Resonus Classics recording session
Malcolm Arnold: The Dancing Master - John Andrews and BBC Concert Orchestra with Graeme Broadbent, Mark Wilde, Ed Lyon,
Eleanor Dennis, Catherine Carby and Fiona Kimm at Resonus Classics recording session

The conductor John Andrews is one of those figures who have popped up on my radar quite regularly over the last few years, whether it be conducting Wolf-Ferrari at Opera Holland Park, Mozart at The Grange Festival, Rossini and Donizetti for English Touring Opera, or Thomas Arne at the London Handel Festival, not to mention his series of recordings of rarely and never-before recorded music by Sullivan and his contemporaries.  Last month, Resonus Classics issued the world premiere recording of Malcolm Arnold's only full-length opera, The Dancing Master, conducted by John Andrews, and this seemed like a good excuse to catch up over Zoom.

There have been relatively few performances of Arnold's opera since it was written in 1952. Rejected by the BBC (it was intended for radio), it did not get a full staging till it was performed by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 2015 [see my review]. John had conducted the work at the 2018 Malcolm Arnold Festival in Northampton. It was his first encounter with the work. Though he had talked about it a lot with the festival in previous years, it was only in 2018 that he properly got to know it. The opera was given a semi-staged production in a studio theatre with John's reduction for four players of Arnold's somewhat lavish scoring. The festival had considered staging the work as a radio play, which John thinks would be very effective, and they kept an element of that complete with the stage directions on audience boards. There are complications to staging the piece, and so having the radio play element solves a lot of these. And given the work's rather lavish scoring, reducing the accompaniment down to percussion, keyboard and strings worked well.

John was astonished that the piece had not had a recording. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales performed it in 2006, but this did not make it to CD so the work was crying out for a professional recording.

John refers to Arnold's orchestral writing in the piece as flamboyant, but the best parts of the work are wonderfully engaging. And having performed it at the Malcolm Arnold Festival with reduced forces helped John in planning the recording. 

Malcolm Arnold: The Dancing Master - John Andrews and BBC Concert Orchestra at Resonus Classics recording session
Malcolm Arnold: The Dancing Master - John Andrews and BBC Concert Orchestra
at Resonus Classics recording session

Arnold wrote the piece straight off. He received a draft libretto from film-maker Joe Mendoza and set it immediately with no revision.

Friday, 27 November 2020

Inspired by a city under lockdown: two new films by rising film-makers featuring new music and dance

Stills from PLAY: Rising © Odera Okoye
Still from PLAY: Rising © Odera Okoye

Two films, inspired by the City of London in lockdown, were released on Culture Mile's YouTube channel yesterday (26 November 2020). The films ​feature London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) musicians, dancers and composers Jasmine Kent Rodgman and Darren Bloom

PLAY: Rising, directed by Antonia Luxem, features violinist Maxine Kwok playing a new piece, Rising, written for this film by composer Darren Bloom, with dancer Marie Astrid Mence filmed on the 34th floor of 100 Bishopsgate.

PLAY: The Spell & The Promise, directed by Lexi Kiddo, features flautist Gareth Davies playing a new piece written for the film by Jasmine Kent Rodgman and inspired by the film location, London Wall Place, next to the Barbican. Dancers Salomé Pressac and Faye Stoeser, choreographed by Harry Price, perform in the gardens at London Wall Place, reacting to the music inside.

Culture Mile is the City of London’s cultural district, stretching from Farringdon to Moorgate, and this project co-commissioned by Culture Mile and Brookfield Properties in partnership with the LSO, this project marks the latest development in the organisations’ long-standing collaboration and demonstrates how organisations can work together to support freelance artistic talent during uncertain times. 

The films are available on the Culture Mile YouTube channel.

The Cottage: Benjamin Fitzgerald's musical exploration of our safe space

The young neo-classical composer Benjamin Fitzgerald first popped up on the blog with a striking track, Ode to John, which was partly his way of coping with his grandfather's dementia (his grandfather was the John of the title and the track used John's own voice). Now Fitzgerald has released his latest piece, The Cottage. Fitzgerald describes the music as 'a reflection of the manic euphoria of ultimate freedom and the meditative tranquillity of eventual peace', and 'a musical exploration of our safe space. Our own relative haven, exempt of all negativity, criticism, harassment and any other emotional or physical harm.'

The video, directed by Sel Maclean, features some stunning photography of equally stunning scenery in the North-East (where Fitzgerald is from). Fitzgerald play piano and is joined by Ada Francis (harp), Anna Hughes (violin), Merle Habron (violin) and Sam Fox (saxophone). The melodic material has a distinctly folk-ish feel whilst there is also a more insistent modern beat which creates the sense of the journey that the video evokes, yet the underlying melancholia present in Fitzgerald's earlier pieces is still present.

The video is on YouTube, and can be streamed on a variety of music services.

Ohrwurm: recorder player Tabea Debus delightful debut recital on Delphian

Ohrwurm; Tabea Debus, Jonathan Rees, Alex McCartney

Ohrwurm
; Tabea Debus, Jonathan Rees, Alex McCartney, Delphian Records

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 25 November 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Toe-tapping, ear-grabbing music from the 17th and 18th centuries, with a couple of extras, in an engaging recital by recorder player Tabea Debus

I have always found articles which begin something like 'If you enjoyed Mozart's Requiem then try ....', rather annoying. However, on the basis that you enjoyed tenor Ed Lyon's delightful disc on Delphian, 17th century playlist, [see my review] then I can highly recommend recorder player Tabea Debus' disc Ohrwurm, also on Delphian, a delightful compilation of toe-tapping tunes (ear-worms) from the 17th and 18th centuries, but also some more recent sports with a pair of works by Freya Waley-Cohen and by Gareth Moorcraft. She is joined on the disc by Jonathan Rees (viola da gamba) and Alex McCartney (theorbo and guitar).

I first encountered Tabea Debus when she was a young artist at the Handel House Museum (now Handel & Hendrix), and she has been a young artist with St John's Smith Square and with the City Music Foundation. Since 2018 she has been represented by YCAT (Young Classical Artists Trust), and this disc is the first fruits of a new collaboration between YCAT and Delphian.

The disc casts its net quite widely.

Thursday, 26 November 2020

A theatrical family & a damaged dancer: Christoph Loy's new production of Rusalka at the Teatro Real, Madrid

Rusalka - Asmik Grigorian - Photo Monika Rittershaus
Dvorak: Rusalka, Act II - Asmik Grigorian - Teatro Real, Madrid
Photo Monika Rittershaus

Dvorak Rusalka; Asmik Grigorian, Eric Cutler, Karita Mattila, Maxim Kuzmin-Karavaev,Katarina Dalayman, Christoph Loy, Ivor Bolton; Live-stream from Teatro Real, Madrid on Mezzo TV/Medici TV

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 25 November 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Set in a dilapidated theatre amidst theatrical memories, this new production from Madrid featured powerful musical performances

For all the popularity of what might be termed its hit number, Dvorak's opera Rusalka has a somewhat odd history in the UK. It had to wait until 1959 before Sadler's Wells Opera gave the UK premiere, with Joan Hammond in the title role [historic Radio Times listing]. Then pickings remain rather slim until David Pountney's iconic production for English National Opera in 1983, using the work to depict a young Edwardian woman's troubling discovery of her sexuality. This production seemed to open people's eyes to the work, that underneath the fairy-tale was quite a disturbing story. But it would be the 21st century before there were stagings at Covent Garden (in a production borrowed from Salzburg), Glyndebourne, and Grange Park Opera (a production also borrowed by Scottish opera). British directors seem to have viewed the work often via allegory - fairy-tale (often quite dark) or history (English Touring Opera's production examining racial prejudice in the American Deep South.) European directors have often taken a more hard-edged approach, so the Salzburg Festival production seen at Covent Garden in 2012 directed by Sergio Morabito was set in a contemporary brothel.

So it was with great interested that I was able to catch a live stream of Christoph Loy's new production of Dvorak's Rusalka from the Teatro Real in Madrid on Wednesday 25 November. The production debuted on 12 November 2020, conducted by Ivor Bolton, with Asmik Grigorian in the title role, Eric Cutler as the Prince, Karita Mattila as the Foreign Princess, Maxim Kuzmin-Karavaev as the Vodnik, and Katarina Dalayman as Jezibaba. The sets were designed by Johannes Leiacker and costumes by Ursula Renzenbrink. The performance on Wednesday 25 November 2020 was streamed live on mezzo.tv and medici.tv

Loy has replaced the idea of the lake, the nymphs and the fairy-tale, with that of the theatre and using this as a metaphor for the difficulties of communicating between two worlds, so that an opera with a mute heroine is seen as problematic. The artistic statements surrounding the production make a lot of sense, but how does this work in practice? Act One is set in the foyer of a faded theatre (though a large outcrop of stone makes it clear that this is magic realism), ballerinas float past, sad clown-like figures appear with stylised movements. Rusalka's sisters, the nymphs, are all ballerinas, their father, Vodnik, is an imperious theatre manager whilst their stepmother, Jezibaba, manages the box office. Rusalka, however, is crippled and on crutches with one bad foot. These people live on their memories and separate from the real world. Rusalka longs to leave, with the Prince representing the ideal of the real world. She is 'healed' by her stepmother and cursed. 

Rusalka - Erik Cutler, Asmik Grigorian - Photo Monika Rittershaus
Dvorak: Rusalka - Erik Cutler, Asmik Grigorian - Teatro Real, Madrid
Photo Monika Rittershaus

Having set up his mis-en-scene, Loy allows the remainder of the opera to play out pretty straight. Jezibaba's Act I conjuration apart, there is no magic; in Act II the Vodnik simply mixes with the other guests of the ball. There is, of course, no water but Loy does not really use his theatre metaphor strongly enough to make us feel that this is the linking element. In Act II, in the original, it is the water in the palace gardens which allows the Vodnik to appear. What we get are a set of strong personal interactions, Loy's concept forms a strong frame for powerful performances from the principals.

Wednesday, 25 November 2020

From meditating on solitude with Bach to Stravinsky and food, a conductor's travels during lockdown

During lockdown earlier this year singers and instrumentalists galore created content on-line, from Igor Levit's daily recitals to a world-wide audience from his studio to singers filming themselves on iPhone singing to their neighbours. Music continued, in some strange form.

But that does a conductor do in such a situation? With no-one to conduct, it is difficult to make music. Some simply took time to learn new scores and revel in the freedom to spend time with the family, others returned to their instrument (usually piano) and were found on some of the above videos accompanying a partner. Others explored other avenues of creativity.

One such is conductor Jonathan Berman. Whilst his cycle of Franz Schmidt symphonies, recorded just before lockdown with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, is due out on Accentus in 2021, and he has a mini-Beethoven project in Bucharest (travel restrictions willing), Berman has been creative during lockdown in a variety of ways.

His website Stand Together Music was designed to highlight and celebrate the orchestras (UK and overseas) who had cancelled concerts and to try to raise some funds for those musicians in need.  'Imagine if everyone in the world streaming Michael Jackson’s Greatest Hits decided to buy music from artists that have had a tour cancelled due to coronavirus.'

He has also been busying himself with helping to create on-line specific events. The first of these was The Goldberg Variations: Meditations on Solitude, the imaginative presentation of Bach's Goldberg Variations performed by The Ysaye Trio with poetry read by Simon Russell Beale and photographs by Kristina Feldhammer.

A collaboration with Emily Ingram at Greengage has resulted in Berman directing and presenting Postcards from Vienna, four recitals filmed at the Austrian Cultural Forum with mezzo-soprano Lotte Betts-Dean and pianist George Fu each preceded by an introduction and mini-documentary from Berman, Stravinsky Septet, (28/11/2020) a food and music event with a two-hour cooking class, then you watch Stravinsky's Septet whilst eating your meal (!) and the film tries to take us inside the artistic inspirations for Stravinsky's 1952/3 work, with programmes built around unaccompanied violin music, the music of Ravel and the music of Stravinsky to come, each with additional multi-layered content to create a striking on-line event rather than a filmed concert.

Browse the Greengage website for more.



Beautifully conceived and performed: La vanita del mondo, Philippe Jaroussky and Ensemble Artaserse in Italian oratorio arias

La vanita del mondo - Italian oratorio arias; Philippe Jaroussky, Ensemble Artaserse; ERATO
La vanita del mondo
- Italian oratorio arias; Philippe Jaroussky, Ensemble Artaserse; ERATO

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 23 November 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
The French counter-tenor moves from Baroque opera to oratorio in a recital disc full of delights

On this lovely disc, La vanita de mondo on Erato, counter-tenor Philippe Jaroussky turns his attention away from Baroque opera to oratorio with a selection of arias from late 17th and 18th century Italian Oratorios. With Ensemble Artaserse, Jaroussky sings arias from Pietro Torri's Abramo and La vanita del mondo, Alessandro Scarlatti's La Giuditta, Fortunato Chelleri's Dio sul Sinai, Handel's Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno, Antonio Caldara's Assalone, Santa Ferma and Morte e sepultura di Christo, Antonio Maria Bonocini's La decollazione di San Giovanni Battista, Nicola Faco's Il faraone sommerso, Johann Adolph Hasse's La conversione di Sant'Agostino, and Benedetto Marcello's La Giuditta.

The recording was due to be made in April 2020, but lockdown put all this in doubt and Jaroussky explains in his introduction that 'right up until the last moment we didn’t know if we would be able to come together in June to complete it on time. After these several months without performing, the album was like a release for me and all my musicians from Artaserse'. The disc seems to be something of a passion project for Jaroussky, not only his conception, but he collaborated with Yannis Francois (who sings briefly on the disc) on the musicological research. And in the process he introduces us to some lovely, highly imaginative music. Whilst the composers on the disc vary from the well-known to the hardly known, virtually all the works are relatively unknown. 

From the mid-17th century, oratorio in Italy started to move away from its sacred roots and take on elements of opera. Whilst there were still oratorios in Latin, those in Italian developed and instead of narrator and chorus the works relied on the interaction between characters (Biblical, historical or allegorical) in a sequence of arias and recitatives. This arose particularly in Rome where staged performances of opera were intermittently banned, leading to the development of oratorio as something of a replacement. Plots were necessarily limited and oratorios generally fell into two categories, being either of a contemplative character (a reflection on a biblical episode, for example, or the commendable sacrifice of some saintly figure) or of a more dramatic nature, inspired by the Old or New Testament.

The selection on this disc concentrates on oratorio in Italian, and casts its net quite widely.

Tuesday, 24 November 2020

Rediscovering the music of Florence Price: A composer who not only dropped out the repertoire, but whose music nearly fell into oblivion

Florence Price
Florence Price

Not only did the music of African-American composer Florence Price (1887-1953) fall out of the repertoire after her death, but the very music itself nearly disappeared. In 2009, a trove of her manuscripts and papers, including two violin concertos and her Symphony No. 4 was found in an abandoned house in Illinois. Even now her catalogue of over 300 works (four symphonies, four concertante works, numerous orchestral works, songs, piano music and chamber music) is woefully represented in CD catalogues. Thankfully this is now, slowly, beginning to change.

Dr Samantha Ege, Junior Research Fellow at the University of Oxford, and a leading interpreter and scholar of Florence Price, recently discovered Price's Fantasie Nègre No. 3 for piano, whilst on a research trip to Little Rock, Arkansas, where Price was born. Now Ege is planning to record all four of Price's virtuosic Fantasie Nègre showpieces along with a group of smaller piano works for a disc on the LORELT label.

Born in the American South and initially taught by her mother, Price moved with her family to Chicago to avoid race riots and lynchings. She would study at the New England Conservatory and with leading teachers in Chicago, yet whilst she became the first African-American woman to have her music presented by a major American orchestra, she continued to find barriers due to her race and gender.

Whilst Price's music will have seemed somewhat conservative in the 1950s and 1960s, the way she wrote in a vernacular style using sounds and ideas that fit the reality of urban society, came to use the rhythm and syncopation of the spirituals, and wrote music that was blues inspired, would all seem to suggest that Price as a composer ripe for rediscovery. So the way that her music has remained locked away is somewhat shocking.

As Dr Samantha Ege said: "As a young pianist, discovering Florence Price made me feel visible. She belonged to a long legacy of black composers who channelled their African heritage into classical forms. The classical mainstream must now work to realize the future that Price no doubt hoped to see, one where the concert hall welcomes black classical artists, not only posthumously."

Dr Ege has already recorded Price's Sonata in E minor,  and we look forward to the release of her new disc. But there is a lot more of her music waiting to be rediscovered.

A rare film score by Krzysztof Penderecki to celebrate what would have been his 87th birthday

photo: Adam Mickiewicz Institute

Monday (23/11/2020) would have been the 87th birthday of Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki (1933-2020) and to mark the occasion the Adam Mickiewicz Institute has released a recording of a rare Penderecki film score, his music, for the 1964 documentary film by Marian Ussorowski, The Painters of Gdansk. The recording is being made available free via SoundCloud, as well as a limited edition vinyl.

Whilst Penderecki's music is well known for its use in films such as Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, and William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, he wrote few specific film scores which is what makes The Painters of Gdansk so fascinating.

Alongside The Painters of Gdansk the institute has placed recordings of three contemporary works, specially commissioned to be inspired by works by Penderecki. Paweł Romańczuk, a composer and arranger from Wrocław, was inspired by Penderecki’s The Seven Gates of Jerusalem and the music to the Saragossa Manuscript when composing his piece Tubu Fon. Sound artist, composer and improviser Robert Piotrowicz composed Amateur Music for this project, inspired by Penderecki’s Cello Concerto No. 1, a work he often returns to. Electronic duo Skalpel took inspiration from Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima and Adagietto when writing their piece Synthesis.

Full details from the Culture.pl website.

Short and not entirely sweet: Prokofiev by Arrangement

Prokofiev by Arrangement; Yuri Kalnits, Yulia Chaplina; Toccata Classics
Prokofiev by Arrangement
; Yuri Kalnits, Yulia Chaplina; Toccata Classics

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 23 November 2020 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
With Visions Fugitives at its core, this delightful recital strings together over three dozen of Prokofiev's short pieces arranged for violin and piano

This disc from Toccata Classics presents something of a portrait of Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev, not through a group of magisterial works, but via a kaleidoscope or collage of fragments.
Toccata Classics' Prokofiev by Arrangement features 37 short pieces by Prokofiev arranged for violin and piano by a variety of his contemporaries and played by Yuri Kalnits (violin) and Yulia Chaplina (piano). The music varies from something written when he was 10, to music from the ballets Cinderella and The Tale of the Stone Flower, the operas War and Peace, and The Love for Three Oranges, but the central work on the disc is the 20 movement Visions Fugitives.

The arrangers are a wide range of artists, pianist Viktor Derevianko (born 1937),  violinist and teacher Mikhail Fikhtengolts (1920–85), violinists Jascha Heifetz (1901–86), Yair Kless (b. 1940), Nathan Milstein (1904–92), Mikhail Reitikh (1909–84), and pianist and composer Grigori Zinger (1913–2003).

Prokofiev wrote his 20-movement suite Visions Fugitives in 1915-1917, often writing individual movements for friends, and he premiered the whole cycle in 1918. The title comes from a 1903 poem, I know no wisdom, by Konstantin Balmont (1867–1942), a poet whom Prokofiev much admired for the musicality of his verse, and in fact in Russian the title is a word invented by Balmont, ‘Mimolyotnosti’ (literally ‘Transiences’ or ‘Ephemeralities’), When Prokofiev played the complete piano work to the poet, in the hope that he would find the title and the music appropriate, Balmont's girl-friend, a fluent French-speaker, came up with the title Visions Fugitives by which the cycle is known outside Russia. 

Monday, 23 November 2020

Sleeping Beauty: A Dramatic Symphony - Kristjan Järvi and his Baltic Sea Philharmonic in a new arrangement of Tchaikovsky's ballet

Tchaikovsky Sleeping Beauty: A Dramatic Symphony; Baltic Sea Philharmonic, Kristjan Järvi; SONY
Tchaikovsky Sleeping Beauty: A Dramatic Symphony; Baltic Sea Philharmonic, Kristjan Järvi; SONY

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 20 November 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Kristjan Järvi and his orchestra give a dramatically engaging account of the conductor's new arrangement of Tchaikovsky's ballet, which fizzes with energy

Tchaikovsky's ballets remain somewhat problematical on disc, even leaving aside the Swan Lake version controversy (whether to perform the music as written, or as used in the well-known version of the ballet created after the composer's death). Do you perform a tasty selection of nuggets, or the whole beast? This latter can have its longeurs. I well remember performances of Sleeping Beauty by the Royal Ballet where younger members of the audience, looking forward to the delights of fairies and such, got rather bored with all the walking-about-to-music particularly in the first act, and this can be reflected in complete performances of the ballets. Without any visual stimulus the more functional music can seem a little underwhelming. But if you cut, how do you give the music dramatic context? There is also the vexed question of tempo, to perform it as suitable for ballet dancers, or how the conductor feels it should go.
 
Kristjan Järvi has taken on the challenge and in his new version of Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty he has condensed the three-hour ballet down to 70 minutes, creating in the process what he describes as a dramatic symphony. The music is selected not a series of bon bouches, though there are plenty of those, but played as a dramatic continuum. The new version was premiered by Kristjan Järvi and his Baltic Sea Philharmonic on a tour to Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, and Russia, and the recording was done in St Petersburg (where they performed the work at the Mariinsky Theatre) and is now issued on Sony Classical.

The musicians were all playing from memory.

A new video of Ernest Bloch's Prayer features a collaboration between violinist Nicola Benedetti and luxury furniture manufacturer Maker&Son

A new video features violinist Nicola Benedetti, with Yume Fujise and Charlie Westhoff (violin), Jenny Lewisohn (viola) and Ariane Zandi (cello), in a live recording of a new arrangement of Ernest Bloch's Prayer (originally for cello and piano) made at Kemps House, the home of luxury sofa manufacturer Maker&Son. The arrangement was commissioned by Alex Willcock, founder of Maker&Son.

If the collaboration between violinist and luxury furniture maker seems somewhat unlikely, you can eavesdrop on the interview with Nicola Benedetti and Alex Willcock as they talk about the serendipitous events that connected them and led to working together.

“Our hope is that we can share the experience and the emotional connection that we both have with classical music, with as many people as possible. We hope to share our passion and to offer that experience, or sense of being completely immersed in beautiful music.”

You can download the track, with a donation to benefit the Benedetti Foundation.

New partnership between Music Masters and YCAT gets underway

Randall Goosby (Photo Kaupo Kikkas)
Randall Goosby (Photo Kaupo Kikkas)
This has been a tricky year for organisations like the music education charity Music Masters, when bringing artists and children together has been difficult. A new partnership is intended to bring a new strand of inspiration to the children's experiences, as artists from YCAT (Young Classical Artists Trust) will be giving Meet the Artist sessions by Zoom in which they talk about their life and music, and perform music. 

It is an important part of an artist's development to work within the community and to educate children and young people, so the YCAT artists will be challenged to design and deliver sessions themselves, with support from the Music Masters team. The sessions will engage with 350 students within the year, and they being this week with recorder player Tabea Debus.

The new partnership builds on last years' partnership where the American violinist Randall Goosby, was named the inaugural Robey Artist with YCAT in partnership with Music Masters, undertaking an ambassadorial role with Music Masters, working closely with the young learners to become an inspirational classical role model.

Music Masters was founded in 2008 by Victoria Robey and Prof. Itzhak Rashkovsky, teaching 1,165 children each week to play the violin or the cello. Of these children, 41% are eligible for free school meals, whilst in some of its schools, up to 70% of children come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Further information from the Music Masters website.

Sunday, 22 November 2020

A Life On-Line: Janacek in London, Ravel in virtual reality, the London Handel in Italy and Germany, Weill in Paris

Ravel: L'enfant et les sortileges - Alison Rose, Marcus Farnsworth - VOpera
Ravel: L'enfant et les sortileges - Alison Rose as La bergere, Marcus Farnsworth as Le fauteuil - VOpera

This has been a week when we have experienced on-line events that we were expecting to go to live, from Nicky Spence at Jess Dandy at Wigmore Hall to Handel's Ariodante at Covent Garden, and whilst we would have missed Opera North's performances of Kurt Weill's The Seven Deadly Sins, that too went on-line.

The week began with Nicky Spence, Jess Dandy and Julius Drake in Janacek's The Diary of One who Disappeared, a work which Spence and Drake recorded last year. Sung in Czech from memory, Spence was a vivid and physical performer, bringing the young man's obsession to life and thanks to Spence's engaging dramatic presence we hardly needed translations for the words. Jess Dandy, barefoot with a skirt trimmed with flowers and entering through the auditorium, was a suitably tantalising and seductive love interest. The backing chorus, not off-stage but in the hall's balcony, was Ellie Neate, Leila Alexander, and Catherine Backhouse. This was one of those performances which made you realise that the work does not need staging as such, just highly engaged performers. The programme was completed with a delightful group of Janacek's Moravian Folk Poetry in Songs, works which seem to be woefully unknown. And for the encore, 'Muzikanti' the three chorus members came down from the balcony and joined in, singing a verse each. Complete delight. [Wigmore Hall]

I first met Rachael Hewer in 2019 at an Opera Holland Park evening to introduce that year's Young Artists as Hewer was the associate director responsible for the 2019 Young Artists performance of Verdi's Un ballo in maschera [see my review]. We discovered that we both hail from the same town, Grimsby, not a place that well-known for its musical sons and daughters.

During lockdown, Hewer has been responsible for creating VOpera: The Virtual Opera Project, a company dedicated to making the most of necessity and creating opera performances especially for the virtual world, with the support of the Concordia Foundation.

Saturday, 21 November 2020

Despite lockdown, Handel's Ariodante returns to the main stage of Covent Garden

Handel: Ariodante - Chen Reiss - Royal Opera (Photo Tristram Kenton / ROH)
Handel: Ariodante - Chen Reiss
Royal Opera (Photo Tristram Kenton / ROH)

Handel Ariodante; Paula Murrihy, Chen Reiss, Sophie Bevan, Iestyn Davies, Ed Lyon, Christian Curnyn; Royal Opera House

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 November 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Handel's opera returns to Covent Garden after over 280 years with a terrific international cast

Handel's opera Ariodante premiered on 8 January 1735; it was the first new opera he wrote for the Covent Garden Theatre. Handel's opera season (which began with Il pastor fido in 1734) was the first opera performance at the theatre, which had been built in 1732. Ariodante was not a great success, there were 11 performances in 1735 and two (in a radical version) in 1736 and then that was it.

Handel's Ariodante returned to Covent Garden, to the third theatre on the site, when the Royal Opera performed the work in concert on Friday 20 November 2020. Christian Curnyn conducted the orchestra of the Royal Opera House, with Paula Murrihy as Ariodante, Chen Reiss as Ginevra, Sophie Bevan as Dalinda, Iestyn Davies as Polinesso, Ed Lyon as Lurcanio, Gerald Finley as the King of Scotland, Thando Mjandana as Odoardo. The performance was intended to be the first of two live performances, but lockdown meant that the performance was streamed.

In 1735, the title role was sung by the mezzo-soprano castrato Giovanni Carestini and Polinesso by the contralto Maria Caterina Negri, but in 2020 we had what has become conventional modern casting with a female mezzo-soprano as Ariodante and a counter-tenor as Polinesso (though it is still occasionally allowed for contraltos, I vividly remember Felicity Palmer in the role). The plot is one of the most accessible to modern audiences, it is a simple love story without magic elements, comedy or heroics, perhaps this was why 18th century audiences did not like it. And for all the work's three-hour length, the plot is very focussed without any independent sub-plot.

One element that we missed from the performance was the dances, Act Two ends with a scene where Ginevra's mad scene flows into dances for a sequence of dances for good and bad dreams. A striking example of Handel not just including dance, but integrating it into the drama, except that it seems he never performed it in this form. 

The performance was discreetly staged, the cast were off the book (hurrah), there were entrances and exits and a sense of characters interacting with each other so that we got a feeling for the drama. You felt that the singers were living their characters, not standing and delivering stunning singing (Chen Reiss, whom I interviewed in 2018, sang Ginevra in the Vienna State Opera's production of Ariodante directed by David McVicar).

A restlessness with the present: soprano Katharine Dain chats about her new recital disc 'Regards sur l'infini'

Sam Armstrong and Katharine Dain (Photo Hilde Verweij)
Sam Armstrong and Katharine Dain (Photo Hilde Verweij)

The Dutch-American soprano Katharine Dain has a new album out with British pianist Sam Armstrong, Regards sur l'infini on 7 Mountain Records (released on 27 November 2020). The album, containing a century of French song from Claude Debussy (1862-1918), Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), Claire Delbos (1906-1959), Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013) and Kaija Saariaho (born 1952), is a direct result of lock-down. The  songs, which have physical or emotional links (for instance Delbos was Messiaen's first wife), all have music or text which was written at times of pivotal change, and more than that the album would not have come about in its present form without the space that lockdown gave for Katharine and her pianist friend Sam Armstrong to work extensively on the music, particularly Messiaen's Poèmes pour Mi. I spoke to Katharine via Zoom to find out more.

So how did a Dutch-based, American-born soprano and a British pianist end up recording a disc of French song?  In fact, Katharine and Sam are long-time friends and first met in a French art song class at Mannes College, New York, when they worked on one of Debussy's Baudelaire settings. They have been good friends since then, performing a lot of French music and other music besides.

Claire Delbos and Olivier Messiaen in 1933
Claire Delbos and Olivier Messiaen in 1933
Katharine had long wanted to do Messiaen's Poèmes pour Mi, his 1936/37 song cycle dedicated to his wife Claire Delbos, however Katharine describes it as a vast work which takes dedication from the performers. To perform it would need a lot of rehearsal, and the pandemic in fact gave them time. Sam and Katharine had performances planned when lockdown happened, these were cancelled but it was decided that Sam would still travel to the Netherlands and spend lockdown staying with Katharine and her husband, though the duration was longer than expected. Katharine describes the time as rather meditative, day after day exploring repertoire and practising.

Whilst she had had an idea for the programme, in fact she and Sam developed it during their time in lockdown and it became a recital of French song, all related thematically, something that had not originally been envisioned.  It made sense to perform the programme before committing to disc, and Katharine and Sam have now performed it four times, albeit sometimes to small audiences, with the first one being to Katharine's husband and her fourth housemate during lockdown. She and Sam were able to give a public recital in the Summer, two weeks before recording the programme.

Alongside Messiaen's Poèmes pour Mi, the programme includes two of Delbos' songs from her song-cycle L'âme en bourgeon. Not only was Delbos Messiaen's wife but her song cycle sets poems written by Messiaen's mother, the poet Cécile Sauvage (1883-1927) when she was pregnant with Olivier. Messiaen's cycle was written in the first flush of his marriage to Delbos (and dedicated to her, Mi was his nickname for her). Katharine sees Messiaen as being flushed with the idea of marriage as heaven, as something sacramental. They are not love songs, and few are tender, most look forward to their future life in heaven, which Katharine sees as a bizarre perspective for a newly-wed husband, as if at the beginning of marriage his eyes were fixed on death. The cycle incorporates much both musically and in terms of philosophical ideas which represents his work later - birdsong, the existential connection between birth, death, marriage, and heaven.

Friday, 20 November 2020

Celebrating the centenary of RVW's The Lark Ascending with a re-construction of the work's premiere

George Meredith in 1893 by George Frederic Watts
George Meredith in 1893
by George Frederic Watts
Inspired by the poetry of George Meredith (1828-1909), The Lark Ascending has become one of RVW's best known and most beloved works, yet its origins are somewhat hazy, not helped by the fact that the original autograph manuscript has been lost. RVW wrote the work in 1914 so it is very much an eve of war-time work and Lewis Foreman has talked about the 'underlying layer of sadness to the music. Rather like the Edwardian era, as viewed retrospectively from the other side of World War One, it seems to reflect nostalgia for a partly mythological lost age of innocence'. It is also, looking back, easy to forget how revolutionary the work must have seemed in the context of British music of the time. Another point is that though we think of Meredith as a Victorian poet, when RVW began The Lark Ascending, the poet had only been dead for five years.

Though RVW wrote it for the violinist Marie Hall (a former pupil of Edward Elgar), who was involved (in some way) in the work's creation, the premiere did not take place until 1920, partly because of RVW's war time activities so that it was only after 1918 that he returned to revise the work. When Marie Hall and pianist Geoffrey Mendham performed it at Shirehampton Public Hall on 15 December 1920 at a concert of the Avonmouth and Shirehampton Choral Society. It was given in a specially created arrangement for violin and piano, whilst the original orchestral version was premiered, again with Hall as soloist, in 1921.

The original concert of the premiere is being recreated on 15 December 2020 at Shirehampton Public Hall (the venue for that 1920 premiere) in association with Bristol Beacon (the former Colston Hall). Violinist Jennifer Pike (who has recorded the violin and piano version) will be the violinist in a performance of the violin and piano arrangement, and extracts from the original concert will be performed including RVW's Fantasia on Christmas Carols, J S Bach's Concerto for Two Violins in D minor BWV 1043 and C Hubert H Parry's Choral Song “Jerusalem” with the Bristol Ensemble and Exsultate Singer.

The concert is a free on-line event at 7.30pm on 15 December 2020, further information from the Bristol Beacon website.

Update: For those interested in trivia, Shirehampton Public Hall was designed by the Bristol-based architect Bligh Bond (1864-1945) who designed a number of buildings in Bristol. He was also interested in spiritualism and psychic archaeology. He claimed to use a medium 'in contact with the original monks' to decide where to excavate at Glastonbury Abbey.

City Music Foundation announces its 2020 young artists

City Music Foundation - 2020 CMF Young Artists (Photo Ben Ealovega)
City Music Foundation - 2020 CMF Young Artists (Photo Ben Ealovega)

The City Music Foundation has announced its 2020 CMF Artists. Ten young performers, chosen from 140 applications, with whom CMF will work to develop professional promotional tools, providing help with commissioning and other projects, as well as participation in the CMF Presents recital series. The artists are:

  • Antoine Préat: Franco-Belgian pianist who completed his studies at the Royal Academy of Music and whose debut album, Polyphony, is released by Ulysses Arts in 2020
  • Elina Buksha: Latvian violinist, winner of the 2012 Latvian Great Music Award, Elina is currently studying with the violinist Midori
  • George Xiaoyuan Fu: American pianist and composer, studied at Harvard University, the Curtis Institute of Music and the Royal Academy of Music, where he is currently the Hodgson Piano Fellow
  • Margarita Balanas: Latvian cellist, made her solo debut at Wigmore Hall at 17
  • Nishla Smith: Jazz singer, her 2020 show What happened to Agnes? was co-produced by Opera North. Her quintet will release its debut album in 2021
  • Reylon Yount: Biracial Chinese American yangqin performer and songwriter creating an intersection between Chinese and American cultures (yangqin is a type of dulcimer or struck zither)
  • Richard Robbins: British tenor, choral scholar of the Choir of Royal Holloway, graduated from the Royal Academy of Music, Young artist for Brighton Early Music, Leeds Lieder, Oxford Lieder and Handel House
  • Richard Scholfield: Scottish, classical saxophonist, active chamber musician, winner of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland concerto competition
  • Rozanna Madylus: British-Ukrainian mezzo-soprano, graduated from the Royal Academy Opera Course and young artist of the Berlin Opera Academy, Georg Solti Accademia and Oxford Lieder Festival. She recorded Kokoschka’s Doll with Sir John Tomlinson and Counterpoise on Champs Hill Records [see my review]
  • Siân Dicker: British soprano, graduated from Guildhall School of Music and Drama, winner of the Singers Prize at the 68th Royal Overseas League Annual competition. 2020 Alvarez Young Artist, Siân was invited to cover the role of the Foreign Princess in Dvorak's Rusalka at Garsington Opera this summer

How do we transcend the divisions by which we define ourselves? Alastair White's new cantata in Scots, Hebrew and Yiddish explores the physical realities of language in our increasingly virtual world.

Alastair White: The Drowning Shore - Clara Kanter
Alastair White: The Drowning Shore - Clara Kanter
Exploring the physical realities of language in our increasingly virtual world, The Drowning Shore is a 14-minute mono-drama by composer Alastair White. Commissioned by the cross-genre company Compass Presents as part of its Oracles in Sepia series of on-line films, The Drowning Shore debut on Compass Presents' Facebook and YouTube pages on 19 November 2020.

Performed by mezzo-soprano Clara Kanter, directed by Hannah Lovell, and featuring garments curated by  Gemma A. Williams, the work packs a strong punch in its 14 minutes. One starting point for the text (Alastair White wrote both music and words) is the play God of Vengeance by the Polish-Jewish novelist and dramatist Sholem Asch (1880-1957) which examines the dichotomy between written and spoken language, something that White sees as being turned on its head by our modern internet, "Are we horrified, or bored - that we now exist purely as avatars, in pools of watery light, like ghosts, or flowers pressed between glass panes?"

The Drowning Shore features text in Hebrew and in Yiddish as well as in vernacular Scots, and the work was devised in conjunction with Asch's great-grandson, David Mazower (editorial director at the Yiddish Book Centre), and Clara Kanter is Asch's great-great-granddaughter.

This is a work with much to unpack, from White's music to the multi-layered, multi-lingual text, or you could simply sit back and enjoy the new and archival pieces from two of fashion’s masters, Issey Miyake and Alexander McQueen, and one piece used, a Scottish Black Watch pleated tartan dress from the late 1950s, was owned and worn by the composer’s own grandmother.

The Drowning Shore is available on YouTube.

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