Saturday, 22 February 2020

The two are very different disciplines: best known as a film & TV composer, I chat to Stuart Hancock about 'Raptures' his new disc of concert music

Jack Liebeck, Levon Parikian and Stuart Hancock at the recording sessions for the Raptures disc (Orchid Classics)
Jack Liebeck, Levon Parikian and Stuart Hancock at the recording sessions for the Raptures disc (Orchid Classics)
Although best known as a composer for film and television (he wrote the music for the BBC series Atlantis), Stuart Hancock is also making a name for himself with opera and concert music. A disc of his orchestral works Raptures, including his Violin Concerto with violinist Jack Liebeck as soloist, has just been released on Orchid Classics with Levon Parikian conducting the BBC Concert Orchestra. I recently met up with Stuart to find out more about the disc, the difference between writing for film or television and concert work, writing opera for children and adults, and how he came to be a composer almost by accident.

Stuart Hancock
Stuart Hancock
When planning the new disc, Stuart assembled a programme like a concert with overture, concerto and symphony. All three works were pre-existing ones, with Variations on a Heroic Theme, the Violin Concerto and Raptures (a new orchestral version of a work originally for quartet).

Variations on an Heroic Theme dates from 2007 and was written for the Rehearsal Orchestra (a group which runs courses for future professionals and serious amateurs) which means that it never had a formal public premiere and its first public performance was quite recently. The concerto was written for the violinist Paul Barrett when he was playing with the Southbank Sinfonia. Barrett premiered the work in 2005 with the Southbank Sinfonia and performed it again in 2011 with the St Paul's Sinfonia, but Stuart admits that, like a lot of contemporary composers, he has struggled to get further performances for works following the premieres. One of Stuart's intentions with the Raptures album was to get his orchestral music out there and heard, and in fact there is a performance of Stuart's Violin Concerto at Cadogan Hall on 29 February 2020 (with the Imperial College Symphony Orchestra, conductor Oliver Gooch and soloist Jack Liebeck) which came on the back of the disc.

The concerto is a form that Stuart enjoys, but he decided to have just one on the disc in order to keep the focus on a single soloist. In fact, one of the first major things he wrote was a piano concerto at the age of 18, which he now refers to as 'terrifically bad'.  For Stuart, concertos mean that performers get to show off, and he has fun balancing the rivalries between soloist and orchestra. And he finds having a soloist gives him focus, so a concerto is easier to write than a straight orchestral piece.

In an ideal world Stuart would want a mix of both, not one or the other.
But he does admit that one pays better than the other!

For Stuart, his two areas of composing - film/television and concert music - are quite separate, and the two are very different disciplines. When writing for film and television, Stuart is writing music to fit a picture, and the result will be judged by the client; it must sell a product or tell a story. With his concert music, Stuart is working to commission and the client trusts him, and when writing the music, he is answering to himself. The methodologies of the two are very different, as indeed are the deadlines with music for film/television being produced to tight schedules.

Friday, 21 February 2020

Opera North in 2020/21, new opera from Iain Bell and Will Todd, Handel's Alcina and a first Parsifal

Garry Walker conducting The Greek Passion rehearsals (2019). (Photo Tom Arber)
Garry Walker conducting The Greek Passion rehearsals (2019). (Photo Tom Arber)
Opera North has announced its 2020/21 season, and an exciting one it is too with Iain Bell's Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel, a new double bill of Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti and a dance version of the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, and new productions of Bizet's Carmen and Handel's Alcina, plus revivals of Verdi's La Traviata and Puccini's La Fanciulla del West. And there will be a new semi-staging of Wagner's Parsifal. The new production of Carmen marks Garry Walker's debut with the company as musical director. 

But the company is far more than just seven main stage productions, there is an orchestral season, lively Community and Education initiatives and a significant number of youth ensembles aimed at everything from inclusive programmes for children from diverse and socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds, to a youth orchestra for young people thinking of going into the music profession, as well as a Youth Company and the premiere of a new Will Todd opera. Read on to find out more.

In Autumn 2020, Iain Bell's Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel will be given in Daniel Kramer's production originally seen at English National Opera [see Ruth's review] and will be conducted by Nicholas Kok. The opera will be seen in a newly re-worked version of the score. Dame Josephine Barstow and Lesley Garrett both reprise their roles, with Elin Pritchard joining the cast as Mary Kelly and with many roles taken by members of the Opera North Chorus.

Edward Dick, who directed Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel in 2017 [see my review] directs Bizet's Carmen in Spring 2021 with Garry Walker conducting. The title role is sung by American mezzo-soprano Chrystal E Williams with Don Jose sung by Canadian tenor Antoine Bélanger. No word, yet about what version/edition of the opera is being used.

Handel's Alcina is being given by Opera North for the first time in a new production by Tim Albery in Spring 2021, which will be created from fully recycled, re-used and second-hand sources, as part of our commitment to environmental responsibility. Irish soprano Máire Flavin is Alcina, and French soprano Lucie Chartin is Morgana; Chartin sang the role of Cleopatra in the recent revival of Tim Albery's production of Handel's Julius Caesar [see my review]. Patrick Terry is Ruggiero, Joanna Motulewicz is Bradamante and Anthony Gregory is Oronte. The conductor is Lawrence Cummings.

La traviata rehearsals at Leeds Grand Theatre (2014) (Photo Tom Arber)
La traviata rehearsals at Leeds Grand Theatre (2014) (Photo Tom Arber)
Opera North's first Parsifal is being given in a concert staging, directed by PJ Harris (who directed Opera North's concert staging of Strauss's Salome) and conducted by former music director Richard Farnes. Toby Spence will be singing his first Parsifal with Brindley Sherratt singing his first Gurnemanz [an interview with Brindley is coming up on the blog], plus Katarina Karnéus as Kundry, Robert Hayward as Amfortas and Eric Greene as Klingsor.

The art of the lute: Thomas Dunford and the Academy of Ancient Music put the Baroque lute in the spotlight from concertos to trio sonatas and a solo suite

Thomas Dunford (Photo © Julien Benhamou)
Thomas Dunford (Photo © Julien Benhamou)
Bach, Vivaldi, Buxtehude; Thomas Dunford, Rachel Brown, Academy of Ancient Music; Milton Court Concert Hall, the Barbican
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 20 February 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Thomas Dunford joined the Academy of Ancient Music in a programme which put the spotlight on the Baroque lute, from Vivaldi's concerto to Bach's solo suite, plus trio sonatas and a mystery item

The Academy of Ancient Music continued its concert series at the Barbican's Milton Court Concert Hall last night (20 February 2020) with a concert showcasing the lute. Lutenist Thomas Dunford joined the orchestra to perform Vivaldi's Trio Sonata in C major RV82, Vivaldi's Concerto for Lute in D RV93, and Buxtehude's Trio Sonata, BuxWV 255, and Dunford also played J. S. Bach Suite for solo lute in g minor BWV 995, and joined the continuo for J. S. Bach's Orchestral Suite No. 2 BWV 1067 which featured flautist Rachel Brown.

In fact, as originally planned the concert should have been harpsichordist Jean Rondeau playing Bach, but Rondeau had to pull out as his wife was expecting their first baby (a daughter, delivered last week), and whether by accident or design Thomas Dunford is Rondeau's brother-in-law.

The concert was fortuitous because we don't really get to hear enough of the lute's later Baroque existence. Rather an old-fashioned instrument by the early18th century, the lute continued on in a few places. But the instrument requires the right circumstances to be heard to its best. Milton Court Concert Hall was perhaps a little too big at times, there were moments in Bach's suite for solo lute that sounded a little too distant, but by and large Dunford's unshowy virtuosity and deft control of the instrument's colours really drew you in.

Thursday, 20 February 2020

Wild Waves & Woods from Sweden: the Västerås Sinfonietta at Kings Place

Lawrence Power, Paul Watkins, Simon Crawford-Phillips, Västerås Sinfonietta at Kings Place (Photo Maestro Arts)
Lawrence Power, Paul Watkins, Simon Crawford-Phillips, Västerås Sinfonietta at Kings Place
(Photo Maestro Arts)
Mendelssohn, Tarrodi, Ligeti, Dvorak, Brahms; Lawrence Power, Paul Watkins, Västerås Sinfonietta, Simon Crawford-Phillips; Kings Place
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 19 February 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A programme brimming with energy and enthusiasm from this Swedish chamber orchestra, including a gutsy rendition of Brahms' late concerto

The Västerås Sinfonietta and its chief conductor, Simon Crawford-Phillips, blew into town on Sunday (Storm Dennis not withstanding) for a short tour of the UK, with concerts in Bristol and Southampton, ending at Kings Place on 19 February 2020 as part of the Nature Unwrapped season. Under the title Wild Waves & Woods the orchestra gave us Mendelssohn's The Hebrides Overture, Andrea Tarrodi's Zephyros, Gyorgyi Ligeti's Concert Romanesc, Antonin Dvorak's Silent Woods and Johannes Brahms' Concerto for violin and cello in A minor, Op. 102 with Lawrence Power (violin) and Paul Watkins (cello).

Västerås is city in Sweden some 100 kilometres or so West of Stockholm, and the Västerås Sinfonietta is based at the Västerås Konserthus where it gives regular subscription seasons. Founded in 1883, it is one of Sweden's oldest orchestras. Simon Crawford-Phillips has been artistic advisor and chief conductor since 2017.

The orchestra is a chamber ensemble, at Kings Place there were some 21 strings, a full complement of woodwind (including four horns for the Brahms), two trumpets and percussion, which led to a very full platform indeed, even though they played standing up.

Not surprisingly, the sound in Kings Place's Hall One had a vivid presence and throughout the concert the orchestra made a strong, gutsy sound. This was an evening full of energy and strong colours. And whatever the music, the players really put themselves into it. In Mendelssohn's The Hebrides Overture the music was vividly descriptive, we really felt the tang of the salt spray, rather than the misty romanticism which this music usually engenders. And I really liked the balance, with just 21 strings giving us a strong, lithe string line, we could hear a lot more of the woodwind detail which is a great benefit. Crawford-Phillips drew real dynamic thrust and impetus from his players.

Wednesday, 19 February 2020

Premiere of Jasdeep Singh Degun's sitar concerto with the Orchestra of Opera North

Jasdeep Singh Degun (Photo Kabilan Raviraj)
Jasdeep Singh Degun (Photo Kabilan Raviraj)
The composer and sitar player Jasdeep Singh Degun will be premiering his new sitar concerto, Arya, with the Orchestra of Opera North, conductor Harish Shankar, at a concert at Huddersfield Town Hall on 23 February 2020. They will then be touring the concerto to Durham Cathedral (5 March), Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester (11 March) and the CBSO Centre, Birmingham (19 March). In Huddersfield, the concerto will be performed with music by Sibelius and by the Turkish composer Ulvi Cemal Erkin, whilst on tour the chorus of Opera North will perform a selection of operatic music.

British born composer and sitar player Jasdeep Singh Degun spans the worlds of Indian classical and Western music, ranging from his work with the cutting-edge band, 'Project 12’ to appearing at the BBC Proms playing his own compositions. Jasdeep was recently awarded a Sky Academy Scholarship to work on a debut album of contemporary and classical music. As part of the scholarship, Jasdeep is currently mentored by the illustrious multi-instrumentalist and producer, Nitin Sawhney.

His new sitar concerto came about as a result of his participation in a residency at Resonance, Opera North's programme for BAME artists.

Full details from the Opera North website.

Ductus est Jesus: music from the Portuguese Golden Age from Gramophone Award winning Portuguese ensemble Cupertinos

Cupertinos, musical director Luis Toscano
Cupertinos, musical director Luis Toscano
Ductus est Jesus,: Manuel Mendes, Pedro de Cristo, Manuel Cardoso, Fernando de Almeida, Estêvão de Brito, Estêvão Lopes Morago, Bartolomeu Trosylho, Filipe de Magalhães; Cupertinos; Cadogan Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 18 February 2020 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
The Gramophone Award-winning Portuguese ensemble makes its UK debut with a programme of Portuguese polyphony from the Golden Age

The Portuguese vocal ensemble, Cupertinos, won a 2019 Gramophone Award (in the Early Music category) for its disc of Cardoso's Requiem and Lamentations on Hyperion. Directed by Luis Toscano, Cupertinos made its UK debut on Tuesday 18 February 2020 at Cadogan Hall as part of the Choral at Cadogan series. The programme, Ductus est Jesus, concentrated on music for Lent and centred on the Missa de Quadragesima by Manuel Mendes, along with Lamentations by Pedro de Cristo, Manuel Cardoso, and Fernando de Almeida, plus motets by Estêvão de Brito, Estêvão Lopes Morago, Bartolomeu Trosylho and Filipe de Magalhães, all Portuguese composers from the late 16th century and early 17th, the so-called 'Golden Age'.

The composers in the programme were all associated with the various religious centres in Portugal, and much of the music survives in manuscript. Many of the works performed, including the mass and the Lamentations by Pedro de Cristo and Fernando de Almeida, were transcribed and edited by Luis Toscano (music director of Cupertinos and Professor Jose Abreu (from the University of Coimbra). And one of the ensemble's aims is to present this unexplored legacy of Portuguese polyphony.

The fascinating thing about this period of Portuguese polyphony is that it took place against the background of the loss of sovereignty. In 1580, King Henry I of Portugal died, he was known as Henry the chaste and was a cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church who only came to the throne because his nephew King Sebastian I died in battle in 1578. As Sebastian had been the only heir to his grandfather, these deaths left a succession crisis which led to 80 years of Spanish rule, initially under King Philip II of Spain. It was against this backdrop, with many of the composers working for Philip, the Portuguese polyphony flowered. Inspired by music such as that of Palestrina (1525-1594) and perhaps ignoring contemporary Baroque developments in music in Italy, the composers of the Portuguese Golden Age seemed to create a distinctive Portuguese style which can be seen as some sort of reaction against the Spanish domination of the country.

Tuesday, 18 February 2020

Pytheas: an intriguing concept album

David Griffin is a young composer currently working in Film/TV and Games, his music has been featured a number of times on BBC Radio 4. He has released an intriguing concept album, Pytheas, 17 tracks each with an evocative title ('Welcome aboard the B.S.V Pytheas', 'Drifting Off Course', 'We've Picked up Something!', etc), each full of dramatic, rather filmic music which mixes electronic music with traditional orchestral arrangements. The twist is that the storyline has only ever been in Griffin's head, and that it is left to the listener to fill in the gaps based on the music.

In case you are wondering, Pytheas was a 4th century BC Greek geographer and explorer, who made a voyage of exploration to North-West Europe including visiting Great Britain and Ireland, as well as being the first person on record to describe the Midnight Sun. Pytheas' writings do not survive and we only know of his work via later writers.

You can hear samples from the album on David Griffin's website, and the album is available from Spotify, and from Amazon, you can also find him on SoundCloud.

Ailsa Dixon premiere

Ailsa Dixon (centre) with Dobrinka Tabakova and Cheryl Frances Hoad at the London Oriana Choir's concert in July 2017
Ailsa Dixon (centre) with Dobrinka Tabakova and Cheryl Frances Hoad
at the London Oriana Choir's concert in July 2017
The British composer Ailsa Dixon (1932-2017) originally came to my notice in 2017 when the London Oriana Choir premiered her motet, These things shall be. At the time, Dixon was 85 and the motet had, in fact, been written 30 years earlier. Dixon studied music at Durham and would study composition with Paul Patterson but her life was devoted to family and to being a music teacher, and only in the 1980s did she enter into a really productive period including writing an opera.

Thankfully Ailsa's music is now being (re)discovered and explored, and there are a number of performances of her pieces coming up. On 20 February 2020, the Villiers String Quartet and soprano Lucinda Cox will be giving the premiere of Ailsa Dixon's The Spirit of Love (three songs for soprano and string quartet), and the first performance for 25 years of Nocturnal Scherzo, at the lunchtime concert at St George's Bristol. Also in the programme is Ethel Smyth's String Quartet in E minor. [Further details]

The Villiers String Quartet will be playing Ailsa's music again on 5 April 2020 (Palm Sunday) when they perform Ailsa's Variations on Love Divine together with Haydn’s Seven Last Words from the Cross at Wilton Church, near Salisbury. Whilst the Variations on Love Divine were recorded in the 1990s, this will be the first time the piece has been played in full at a public concert [further details]. And the Villiers String Quartet is planning to record Ailsa's complete works for string quartet

Ailsa's song cycle Songs of Mourning, Songs of Faith and Joy, setting five Biblical texts, is being given again by tenor James Gilchrist with guitarist Mark Eden at Wilton Church on 7 June 2020. The programme also includes lute songs by Dowland and Coprario.

Ailsa's 1986 piece, Shining Cold for soprano, viola, cello and Ondes Martenot has aroused interest in France and Professor Nadia Ratsimandresey of the Conservatoire de Boulogne-Billancourt is now working on the manuscript score, together with Marie Humbert of the women composers’ project ComposHer, to produce an edition that will make the work newly available to players in France and elsewhere.

Further details from the Ailsa Dixon website.

Monday, 17 February 2020

Beethoven piano sonata marathon at the Birmingham Conservatoire

Beethoven in 1803
Beethoven in 1803
Whilst cycles of Beethoven piano sonatas are not surprisingly popping up in various places during his anniversary year, pianists from Birmingham Conservatoire are going one better and giving audiences a chance to hear all 32 of Beethoven's piano sonatas performed in a single day, by 32 pianists. The marathon takes place on 18 February 2020, from 10.00am in The Bradshaw Hall at Birmingham Conservatoire, and is repeated at the Ulverston Festival on 27 March 2020, and at the Chipping Camden Festival on 4 May 2020.

The sonatas are being played in chronological order and the whole thing will last around 12 hours. Audiences for the Birmingham Conservatoire performance can stay for as little or as long as they want and pay what you like on the door.

The pianists are all students at the Birmingham Conservatoire with performers from Taiwan, China and Japan to Russia, Georgia and Israel and right across Europe, alongside those from the UK. Following the final UK performance, twelve of the pianists, together with Professors John Thwaites and Pascal Nemirovski, will fly to Bolzano, Italy to give the cycle collaboratively, sharing the sonatas between themselves and students in Italy at the Bolzano Concert Hall (home of the Busoni Competition).

Full details from the Birmingham Conservatoire website.

Welcome rarity: Verdi's Luisa Miller receives a strong musical performance in Barbora Horáková's new production at ENO

Verdi: Luisa Miller - David Junghoon Kim, Elizabeth Llewellyn - English National Opera ( © Tristram Kenton)
Verdi: Luisa Miller - David Junghoon Kim, Elizabeth Llewellyn - English National Opera ( © Tristram Kenton)
Verdi Luisa Miller; Elizabeth Llewellyn, David Junghoon Kim, Olafur Sigurdarson, Soloman Howard, James Creswell, Christine Rice, dir: Barbora Horáková , cond: Alexander Joel; English National Opera at the London Coliseum
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 15 February 2020 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
Superb musical performances in a strongly psychological interpretation of Verdi's important yet rarely performed opera.

Verdi's Luisa Miller occupies an important position in the composer's operatic output. Written for Naples in 1849, the work's genesis was complex owing to problems with the theatre and the Neapolitan censors. This led not to the political and patriotic work that Verdi wished for but to an essentially domestic drama based on a play by Schiller; the first time Verdi had worked on a purely bourgeois drama. And the longer gestation time allowed Verdi to experiment with ideas learned whilst he was in Paris supervising his opera Jerusalem, so Luisa Miller makes a far greater, and more sophisticated use of the orchestra including two substantial orchestrally accompanied recitatives, and has a new flexibility when it comes to form. We can feel Verdi, almost for the first time, shaping the music to the drama rather than fitting it into pre-existing conventional forms.

The opera, however, is perhaps harder to love than the three operas which came after it, Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, La traviata; the characters are all in some way unsympathetic except for Luisa herself. So, it tends to be an opera which is admired and revered rather than loved. Certainly it has not been seen much on the London stage; there was a rather old-fashioned Filippo Sanjust production at Covent Garden in 1978 which received its final revival in 1981, and then a modish Olivier Tambosi production there in 2003 which was never revived. Apart from that there hasn't been much else beyond valuable concert performances from other opera groups. I was lucky enough to see the work at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in the 1980s with Luciano Pavarotti as Rodolfo, again in a very traditional production. None of these, however, seemed to be able to make a strong case for the piece as drama.

Verdi: Luisa Miller - James Creswell, Soloman Howard - English National Opera ( © Tristram Kenton)
Verdi: Luisa Miller - James Creswell, Soloman Howard - English National Opera ( © Tristram Kenton)
For the new production of Verdi's Luisa Miller at the London Coliseum (seen 15 February 2020), English National Opera invited the young Czech director Barbora Horáková, and drew together a strong cast with Elizabeth Llewellyn making a welcome appearance in the UK as Luisa, David Junghoon Kim as Rodolfo, Olafur Sigurdarson as Miller (his ENO debut), James Creswell as Count Walter, Soloman Howard as Wurm, Christine Rice as Federica and Nadine Benjamin as Laura. Sets were by Andrew Lieberman with costumes by Eva-Maria Van Acker, choreography by James Rosental, lighting by Michael Bauer. Alexander Joel conducted. The translation was by Martin Fitzpatrick.

Barbora Horáková was a finalist and prizewinner at the Ring Award Graz in 2017 and received the Best Newcomer Award at the 2018 International Opera Awards. We caught her production of Verdi's early comedy Un giorno di regno at the Heidenheim Festival in 2017 [see my review]. Luisa Miller was a co-production with Oper Wuppertal where it has already been performed, but in an article in the programme book Horáková made it clear that the production had been extensively re-worked (and re-designed) for London (a glance at the Wuppertal production photos in the programme book confirmed this).

Saturday, 15 February 2020

Extinction, Nature overwhelmed and toxic masculinity: music by Aaron Holloway-Nahum, Laurence Osborn, Liza Lim from the Riot Ensemble at Kings Place

Extinction Events - Aaron Holloway-Nahum, Laurence Osborn, Liza Lim; Riot Ensemble, Aaron Holloway-Nahum; Kings Place
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 14 February 2020 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
Extinction, Nature overwhelmed and toxic masculinity in this evening of striking contemporary music in stunning performances from the Riot Ensemble

The Riot Ensemble's concert on Friday 14 February 2020 was the first of the ensemble's three appearances at Kings Place this year, under the series title ReNew. For this first concert Extinction Events, part of Kings Place's Nature Unwrapped Season,  the centrepiece was Liza Lim's Extinction Events and Dawn Chorus which aspires 'to make music out of the relics of the past' including the song of an extinct bird. Like a Memory of Birds (ii) by the ensemble's artistic director Aaron Holloway-Nahum also used bird-song which was gradually extinguished. In contrast to these two loosely nature-inspired pieces, Laurence Osborn's CTRL was inspired by Grayson Perry's writings on toxic masculinity and featured soprano Sarah Dacey in an explicitly cross-gendered role.

The Riot Ensemble was founded in 2012 and has since made a speciality of bringing often challenging contemporary music to the fore (the group's second appearance at Kings Place this year involves Georg Haas's full-length piece SOLSTICES which is played completely in the dark). The group has given over 200 world and UK premieres by composers from more than 30 countries.

On Saturday we had a line-up of 16 instrumentalists, in classic contemporary ensemble formation with one of each kind of instrument (five strings, five woodwind, three brass, piano, electric guitar and percussion) with players coming and going as needed between works.

We began with Holloway-Nahum's Like a Memory of Birds (ii). Holloway-Nahum studied with Julian Anderson at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and with Philip Cashian at the Royal Academy of Music and founded the Riot Ensemble in 2012, being the group's artistic director and principal conductor. The two in the title, Like a Memory of Birds (ii), refers to an earlier piece of which this is the sequel.

Nothing says 'this is serious music and you must concentrate' like switching off the concert hall lights, we listened to Like a Memory of Birds (ii) with only the lights from the players' desk-lights and the emergency exit signs.

Teamwork, resilience, self-discipline: teaching life-skills through music, I chat to Truda White of MiSST (Music in Secondary Schools Trust)

MiSST at the London Palladium
MiSST at the London Palladium
MiSST (Music in Secondary Schools Trust) is not, perhaps, a well-known charity but it has the support of some influential philanthropists and with their support provides classical instrumental teaching in groups to children. But it is more than that, the charity's aims are social as much as musical and it was founded by Truda White in 2013 because she had already seen the effects of the methods used, in her own school, where Truda as headmistress turned the school round.

MisST works in partnership with schools in challenging and disadvantaged areas, with children from diverse communities and high levels of free school meals; children for whom their educational outcome is lower than it should be.

I meet up with Truda to find out more about the charity, and in person she is charming, inspiring and formidable, with quite trenchant views. But what she says makes a lot of sense and comes from long experience.

The teaching of group instrumental classes gives the children access to a range of skills beyond musicianship. Learning an instrument requires commitment, practice and stickability, which are good life skills whether you plan to be a musician or not. And by teaching in groups, using the orchestral model, children come to appreciate how something can become more than its parts. And Truda points out that many young people do not understand quite how the world does not revolve around them, another thing which such group activity teaches them. The idea is not so much to make the young people independent as interdependent.

The young people learn that together it is possible to create something better, even when you start off and your violin playing does not sound great. And another thing learned is that practice helps you improve. Surprisingly, few other subjects can teach this range of skills, perhaps only sport and unlike sport, music does not have to be competitive. Also, learning a musical instrument on your own can be soul-less, humans are innately social beings so learning in a group is more fun.

MiSST students performing with Nicola Benedetti at the Barbican
MiSST students performing with Nicola Benedetti at the Barbican
So, teamwork, resilience and self-discipline, skills which help to give focus to the young people, and skills which are hard to achieve. And, contrary to what can be popularly believed, Truda has found that young people like it hard.

Friday, 14 February 2020

A vividly engaged account of Schubert's Death and the Maiden from the conductorless string orchestra, 12 Ensemble

John Tavener, Franz Schubert, Oliver Leith, Sigur Rós; 12 Ensemble; Sancho Panza
John Tavener, Franz Schubert, Oliver Leith, Sigur Rós; 12 Ensemble; Sancho Panza
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 14 February 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A vibrantly engaging account of Schubert's late quartet in a version for string orchestra by the vividly engaged 12 Ensemble

A string orchestra version of Schubert's Death and the Maiden quartet? Well why not, after all Gustav Mahler did it. This new disc from 12 Ensemble on the Sancho Panza label (distributed by PIAS) places Schubert's String Quartet No. 14 'Death and the Maiden', in the ensemble's own version, at its very centre and surrounds the work by an eclectic mix of material, John Tavener's choral anthem The Lamb, Oliver Leith's Honey Siren and an arrangement of the song Fljótavík by Icelandic band Sigur Rós.

We start with Tavener's The Lamb in a remarkably atmospheric version, admittedly rather slow as compared with when I have sung the piece, which places variations of tone and tone colour at its centre.

The ensemble's new version of Schubert's Death and the Maiden quartet sticks far closer to Schubert's markings than Mahler's re-invention of the piece. The ensemble adds a double bass part and distributes the four instrumental lines between tutti and solo moments (there are 12 players in the group -

Until we meet again

Martin Tillman - Until We Meet Again on Vimeo.

Acclaimed Swiss cellist, EMMY-nominated composer and long-time Hans Zimmer collaborator, Martin Tillman, marks Valentine’s Day 2020 with the international release of his brand-new single Until We Meet Again, dedicated to the memory of his beloved wife, Ava, who passed away in April 2019 of multiple sclerosis. The video is directed by Adam Kes Hipkin of TEA Films.

Martin Tillman will showcase the world premiere of his latest live soundscape project, Super Human, which involves massed cellos, on 8 & 9 May 2020 in Switzerland, before embarking on the Super Human international tour. Proceeds will benefit the Terre des Hommes charity against child exploitation. Further details from the FBM Entertainment website.

City Music Foundation 2020 Artist Applications now open

City Music Foundations Artists 2019/20
City Music Foundations Artists 2019/20
Applications are now open for the 8th consecutive intake of the City Music Foundation's two-year programme beginning in Autumn 2020. Applications are welcome from classical, jazz, folk and world musicians, both soloist and ensembles.

Beginning in autumn 2020, those selected for the programme will have access to:
  • A series of tailored Professional Development Workshops from industries including tax & financial management, networking, presentation skills, contacts & legal issues, agents, PR, social media, pitching to venues & festivals and much more
  • Business Mentoring from senior business-people through collaborations with city firms
  • Artistic Mentoring from established, acclaimed international performers, including opportunities for collaboration in performance
  • Performance opportunities in CMF-produced events, festivals and residencies
  • Promotional tools, such as high-quality photoshoots, a bespoke website, videos and professional recordings
  • Day-to-day access to the CMF Artist Manager who works as an agent to secure live concert bookings and media appearances
  • Additional support with individual projects and commissioning

Current and previous CMF artists include pianist Iyad Sughayer, the Ligeti Quartet, violinist Emily Sun, violist Rosalind Ventris, guitarist Andrey Lebedev, mezzo-soprano Lotte Betts-Dean, jazz double-bassist Misha Mullov Abbado and accordionist Bartosz Glowacki.

The deadline for applications is 9am, 6 April 2020. Full details from the City Music Foundation website.

Thursday, 13 February 2020

Kokoschka's Doll: a new melodrama inspired by the tempestuous affair between Alma Mahler and Oscar Kokoschka is the starting point for this new disc

Kokoschka's Doll - Alma Mahler, Alexander Zemlinsky, Gustav Mahler, Anton Webern, David Matthews, Richard Wagner, Richard Wagner/Franz Liszt, John Casken; John Tomlinson, Rozanna Madylus, Counterpoise; Champs Hill Records
Kokoschka's Doll - Alma Mahler, Alexander Zemlinsky, Gustav Mahler, Anton Webern, David Matthews, Richard Wagner, Richard Wagner/Franz Liszt, John Casken; John Tomlinson, Rozanna Madylus, Counterpoise; Champs Hill Records
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 11 February 2020 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
The tempestuous relationship between Alma Mahler and Oscar Kokoschka forms the basis for this fascinating disc which mvoes from the music of Alma and Gustav Mahler to the contemporary melodrama by John Casken

Alma Mahler had a life which spanned a fascinating slice of 20th century artistic life, friends with Gustav Klimt, she had affairs with Alexander von Zemlinsky and Oscar Kokoschka, married Gustav Mahler, Walter Gropius and Franz Werfel, and her daughter Manon Gropius had Alban Berg's Violin Concerto written in memory of her. A talented composer she was forced to stop when she married Mahler and though she briefly re-started, her compositions peter out.

It is Alma Mahler's relationship with the artist Oscar Kokoschka which is the subject of this new disc, Kokoschka's Doll on Champs Hill Records. The centrepiece of the disc is John Casken's new melodrama Kokoschka's Doll and this is prefixed by a selection of music by Alma Mahler, Alexander Zemlinsky, Gustav Mahler, Anton Webern, David Matthews, and Richard Wagner which introduces Alma Mahler and her life, all performed by Sir John Tomlinson (bass), Rozanna Madylus (mezzo-soprano), and Counterpoise (Fenella Humphreys - violin, Deborah Calland - trumpet, Kyle Horch - saxophone/clarinet, Iain Farrington - piano).

Alma Mahler painted by Oscar Kokoschka in 1912
Alma Mahler painted by Oscar Kokoschka in 1912
The idea for Kokoschka's Doll arose when Barry Millington and Deborah Calland (directors of Counterpoise) saw the exhibition Silent Partners in 2014, an exploration of the role of mannequins in art at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. Included in the exhibition were photographs of a life-size doll which Oscar Kokoschka commissioned to help him come to terms with the loss of Alma Mahler after their tempestuous affair ended! The resulting work is a 40-minute melodrama for bass and ensemble, written specifically for Sir John Tomlinson and Counterpoise. The text, drawn mainly from Oscar Kokoschka's letters and autobiography by Barry Millington and John Casken, depicts Kokoschka and Alma's affair, their separation due to the war, her resumption of her relationship with Walter Gropius and the creation (and destruction) of the doll. It is a bizarre and fascinating story, made all the more so by Kokoschka's clearly obsessive desire for Alma.

Southbank Sinfonia launches its 2020 season

Soutbank Sinfonia
Soutbank Sinfonia
The Southbank Sinfonia has re-stocked with 33 new musicians and is about to launch its 2020 season. Tonight (13 February 2020) Simon Over conducts the orchestra in Louise Farrenc's Overture No. 2 and Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony at the first of their Rush Hour concerts at St John's Church, Waterloo. Future Rush Hour concerts include Chloé van Soeterstede conducting Haydn and Mendelssohn (27/2/2020), Christian Curnyn conducting a suite from Rameau's Les Paladins and Mozart (5/3/2020), Lee Reynolds conducts Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5 in a performance which combines the orchestra with students from Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School (19/3/2020), and Adrian Butterfield takes the orchestra back in time with a programme of music by Biber, Rebel, Matthew Locke, Vivaldi, CPE Bach and Handel (2/4/2020).

The orchestra travels up the road to the Southbank Centre for Kurt Weill's Seven Deadly Sins, conducted by Jessica Cottis (6/6/2020), Mendelssohn conducted by Gábor Takács-Nagy (2/11/2020), and Barber's Knoxville, Summer of 1915 with Sian Edwards and soprano Chloe Morgan.

Works by women composers remains a feature, not only Louise Farrenc at the season opener, but Ruth Gipps (1921-1999), the English composer, pupil of RVW and founder of the London Repertoire Orchestra (12/3/2020), and two contemporary American composers Caroline Shaw (3/5/2020) and Jennifer Higdon (14/5/2020). And there are commissions from Nonclassical Associate Composers Yfat Soul Zisso (4/10/2020) and Lola de la Mata (6/6/2020).

The orchestra was founded in 2002 by Simon Over to graduate musicians with a much-needed springboard into the profession. Each year, Southbank Sinfonia welcomes 33 of the world’s most promising graduate musicians to embark on its renowned fellowship. The orchestra is now in its 18th year, and has helped over 500 young musicians launch their careers.

Full details from the Southbank Sinfonia website.

Wednesday, 12 February 2020

Whither Must I Wander? - A young American duo bring poetry & imagination to a voyage around RVW's 'Songs of Travel'

Whither Must I Wander - Vaughan Williams, Keel, Howells, Copland, Medtner, Schumann; Will Liverman, Jonathan King; Odradek Records
Whither Must I Wander - Vaughan Williams, Keel, Howells, Copland, Medtner, Schumann; Will Liverman, Jonathan King; Odradek Records
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 February 2020 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
A young American duo bring out the poetry in an imaginative voyage around RVW's early song cycle Songs of Travel

For Whither must I wander on Odradek Records the young American baritone Will Liverman is joined by pianist Jonathan King for a programme inspired by RVW's Songs of Travel, so alongside this song cycle we have songs by James Frederick Keel, Herbert Howells, Aaron Copland, Nikolai Medtner and Robert Schumann all linked by the figure of the wanderer.

We start with RVW; his 1904 song cycle sets nine poems from Robert Louis Stevenson's Songs of Travel and Other Verses. The verses were only published in 1896 (two years after Stevenson's death), so RVW was being contemporary in his choice of poet. It was his first foray into writing a song cycle, and has a surprisingly complex textual history. The first eight songs were premiered in 1904, and the publishers refused to print it as a cycle and instead issued it in two volumes. The ninth song, 'I have trod the upward and downward slope' was found amongst RVW's papers after his death.

Will Liverman brings a lovely sense of poetry and swagger to the opening song, this is trope which occurs throughout the cycle but there are plenty of moments of introspection too, and Liverman fines his resonant, bright baritone down for some nicely intimate pieces.

Opera Rara and Casa Ricordi

Opera Rara
When Opera Rara performs or records one of the rarely performed opera, which give the company its raison d'être, a new edition is often required. A new agreement between Opera Rara and Casa Ricordi means that all 35 of Opera Rara's editions will be available through the Italian music publishers, and through them from Universal Music Publishing Classical, a group of which Ricordi is a part, and through all Ricordi agencies internationally. This means that works like Donizetti's L'Ange di Nisida, which Opera Rara premiered at the Royal Opera House in 2018 [see my review], and which required a substantial amount of clever editorial work to re-construct the piece, will have performing editions more readily available.

The linkage is very apt, because Casa Ricordi is the oldest Italian classical music publisher, founded in 1708. Not only does the company's catalogue feature operas by Bellini, Donizetti, Puccini, Rossini and Verdi, but the company's founder, Giovanni Ricordi, was responsible for radical change to the way music publishing, copyright and performance were governed. In the early 19th century, composer's copyright was limited and if the composer was not personally involved in performances then little or no money would be forthcoming.

So Ricordi  started producing proper printed scores and renting material to theatres, and he went beyond publishing and acquired the right to represent composers to opera companies and theatres, and ultimately this meant that subsequent performances of a composer's operas would bring in income too. This transformation happened during Verdi's lifetime, completely transforming the composer's relationship to the theatres performing his music and radically altering a composer's income stream.

A fantastically bizarre 17th Century Sicilian oratorio - Falvetti's Il diluvio universale receives its UK premiere in Rotherhithe

Messina Cathedral, Sicily, where Michelangelo Falvetti was director of music
Messina Cathedral, Sicily, where Michelangelo Falvetti was director of music
Michelangelo Falvetti (1642-1693) is not a well-known name. A Baroque composer who happened also to be a Roman Catholic priest, Falvetti was born in Naples but seems to have spent his working life in Sicily; in 1670 he became Maestro di cappella in Palermo, and in 1682 he moved to a similar role in Messina, where he died in 1693. His oratorio Il diluvio universale (The Flood) was performed in Messina the year he moved there. It is one of a number of oratorios he wrote, first in Palermo and then in Messina. These are not well known, and deserve to be. When Leonardo García Alarcón and Cappella Mediterranea recorded Il diluvio universale in 2011 it was the first work by Falvetti on disc.

Il diluvio universale receives its UK premiere on 22 February 2020 when Music Antica Rotherhithe will be performing it at Holy Trinity Rotherhithe, London, SE16 5HF. Thanks to the generosity of Mr WeeKuang Tai MNA, all ticket sales go (rather appropriately) to Operation Noah (a Christian charity working with the Church to inspire action on Climate Change).

The work is quite compact, just five soloists and Oliver Doyle, co-founder of Musica Antica Rotherhithe, describes it as 'a fantastically bizarre 17th Century Sicilian oratorio'. It tells the story of Noah and the flood, but with a prologue where the four elements compete for the right to end mankind, yet there is a moral too. Falvetti has a gift for odd, yet apt, musical gestures so that Divine Justice, bringing charges against Mankind for its many failings, peremptorily breaks into the overture, bringing it to a grinding, premature halt, and when the shrieking multitudes are being swept away by the deluge, they are engulfed mid-word, leaving silence except for the rushing of the wind.

When first performed in Messina the oratorio would have had great local significance, On 6 June 1682, a 36-hour deluge in Tortorici near Messina, caused a flood so strong it tore down its church and all but a few houses, killing over 600 people. Whilst Falvetti's work is a comedy of the darkest kind, its pivotal message is of hope and redemption, presented in gorgeous music, and through a tale - that of Noah's Ark - that can be understood by all today, just as much as it would have been by the original listeners in 17th century Sicily.

Divine Justice is played by Caitlin Goreing, with Camilla Seale as Water and Rad, Jessica Eucker as Air and Human Nature, Oliver Doyle as Fire and Noah, Joachim Sabbat as Earth and God.

Full details from the Musica Antica Rotherhithe website.

Tuesday, 11 February 2020

Yan Pascal Tortelier & Iceland Symphony Orchestra's 70th birthday tour reaches London with Yeol Eun Son in Ravel and Anna Thorvaldsdottir's riveting Aeriality

Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Yan Pascal Tortelier and Iceland Symphony Orchestra (Photo Iceland Symphony Orchestra)
Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Yan Pascal Tortelier and Iceland Symphony Orchestra (Photo Iceland Symphony Orchestra)
Bizet, Ravel, Thorvaldsdottir, Prokofiev; Yeol Eum Son, Iceland Symphony Orchestra, Yan Pascal Tortelier; Cadogan Hall
Reviewed by Colin Clarke on 10 February 2020 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
Iceland Symphony Orchestra's first UK tour brings a dazzling performance from pianist Yeol Eum Son and a riveting, magnificent piece by Anna Thorvaldsdottir

The Iceland Symphony Orchestra's 70th birthday tour of the UK (its first UK tour) reached London's Cadogan Hall on Monday 10 February 2020 when, under conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier, they played Bizet's L’Arlésienne, Ravel's Concerto for the Left Hand, with soloist Yeol Eum Son, and a selection from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, plus Anna Thorvaldsdottir's Aeriality.

It must be Bizet season in London, what with ENO’s Carmen over at the Coliseum and now a sizeable selection of music from the Suites to Bizet’s L’Arlésienne. Quite a way from the red-blooded passion of Carmen, L’Arlésienne is full of charming but undemanding music. The Iceland Symphony Orchestra, known through their recordings for BIS, is a fine if not exceptional orchestra. The sax player, Sigurdur Flosason made a strong impression (as he did in the final Prokofiev). While the Iceland SO might not have the most burnished sound (the strings in the ‘Minuetto’ were a tad harsh on the ear), they make up for it in characterisation; and the string control at the end of the Adagietto was perfect. The bright and brash finale (the ’Farandole’) brought this extended, five-movement starter to a close.

Yeol Eum Son and Iceland Symphony Orchestra (Photo Benjamin Ealovega)
Yeol Eum Son and Iceland Symphony Orchestra (Photo Benjamin Ealovega)
South Korean pianist Yeol Eum Son distinguished herself at the Thirteenth Van Cliburn Competition in 2009, wherein she came second to a tied first place of Nobiyuki Tsukii and Haichen Zhang (no third prize was awarded). Her Harmonia Mundi disc as a result of that featured a Haydn Sonata, Barber’s Piano Sonata, Debussy’s first book of Préludes and a Godowsky Metamorphosis (on Fledermaus). That this took place a few years ago and her name is still not on everyone’s lips (at least not in the UK) seems a shame, as this was a performance of Ravel’s Left-Hand Concerto of great strength, phenomenal (left-hand) technique and complete grasp of the Ravel sound-world.

Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective makes its Wigmore Hall debut

Kaleidescope Chamber Collective - Mark Simpson (clarinet), Amy Harman (bassoon), Alec Frank-Gemmill (horn), Elena Urioste (violin), Juan-Miguel Hernandez (viola), Laura van der Heijden (cello), Joseph Conyers (bass), Tom Poster (piano).
Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective - Mark Simpson (clarinet), Amy Harman (bassoon), Alec Frank-Gemmill (horn), Elena Urioste (violin), Juan-Miguel Hernandez (viola), Laura van der Heijden (cello), Joseph Conyers (bass), Tom Poster (piano).
Musicians are a diverse lot but the classical music concert as a genre has a tendency to shoe-horn everyone into the same mould and despite the best intentions audiences can still come out feeling that the concert was a celebration of dead white men. The Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective was founded in 2017 by pianist Tom Poster and violinist Elena Urioste 'to bring wonderful musicians together to perform in new and varied combinations, but with a specific and ardent commitment to celebrating diversity of as many forms as possible - of nationality, skin colour, gender, orientation, age and social background.'

The group is making its Wigmore Hall debut this week, bringing its own particular brand of energy to a pair of concerts on 14 and 15 February 2020. Part of the ensemble's raison d'être is to bring together musicians who are known in their own right, to harness a whole variety of individual energies, so the line up for this week's concerts features two former winners of BBC Young Musician of the Year, and four former BBC New Generation Artists, whilst clarinettist Mark Simpson has almost become better known for his compositional activities.

The two programmes give us music for a diverse range of combinations, from two to eight. The programming is admittedly on the conservative side, but who wouldn't want to explore the range of classical chamber music when making your Wigmore Hall debut.

On Friday we get Richard Strauss, Fanny Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, Mikhail Glinka and Schubert. Yes, there is the Trout Quintet but also a trio by Glinka, a composer whose chamber music is still not reaching the parts it should, a lesser known piece of Schumann, his Adagio and Allegro for horn and piano, a cello and piano piece by Fanny Mendelssohn and of course the delightful chamber version of Til Eulenspiegel.

Then on Saturday, its Mozart's Bassoon Quartet (no, he did actually write one but he ought to have done, this is an arrangement of the Bassoon Sonata), Beethoven's Septet and Dohnanyi's Sextet (a work which seems to be beloved of chamber musicians but less well known by audiences).

The line-up for the two concerts is Mark Simpson (clarinet), Amy Harman (bassoon), Alec Frank-Gemmill (horn), Elena Urioste (violin), Juan-Miguel Hernandez (viola), Laura van der Heijden (cello), Joseph Conyers (bass), and Tom Poster (piano). All young, each well worth hearing in their own right. We look forward to a pair of evenings of vibrant music making.

Further information from the Kaleidescope website.

Bringing the music to vibrant life: Owen Rees & Contrapunctus explore the enthusiasm for Josquin's music in 16th century Spain

Salve, Salve, Salve: Josquin's Spanish legacy - Morales, Guerrero, Victoria, Josquin Desprez; Contrapunctus, Owen Rees; Signum Classics
Salve, Salve, Salve: Josquin's Spanish legacy - Morales, Guerrero, Victoria, Josquin Desprez; Contrapunctus, Owen Rees; Signum Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 February 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
The surprising influence of Josquin on 16th century Spanish composers is explored by Contrapunctus who bring what might have been simply an academic exercise to vibrant life

Under the title Salve, Salve, Salve: Josquin's Spanish legacy on Signum Classics, Owen Rees and Contrapunctus give us music by Morales, Guerrero, Victoria and Josquin, with Victoria's Missa Gaudeamus at the disc's centre.

At first sight this might seem like a strange mix of pieces, motets by two 16th century Spanish composers, Morales and Guerrero, a mass by a late 16th century composer based for much of his life in Rome, Victoria, and a motet by 15th century French composer Josquin, also based for much of his life in Italy. But Owen Rees' lucid and informative booklet article explains all and demonstrates the network of linkages between the various works.

At the heart of the disc is the enthusiasm which developed in 16th century Spain for the music of Josquin Desprez, large quantities of his music being copied into cathedral music books and published in anthologies. Morales, Guerrero and Victoria, the three greatest Spanish composers of the day, all produced work directly inspired by Josquin's music. It helped that one of the standard compositional techniques for masses at the time was to base them on pre-existing material as some sort of homage. You took elements from a motet or even a popular song (L'Homme Arme anyone?) and used them in new piece. Part of it was homage, part of it was showing your cleverness in creating something new out of something pre-existing, and making it your own.

But there is another important linkage between the works on the disc, ostinato. This was a technique popular with Iberian composers at the time, you took your pre-existing motif and repeated it obsessively throughout the new piece. It sounds rather academic and dry, trying to create new music around a pre-existing, repeated musical line, but in fact these composers created something vibrant and wonderful.

Monday, 10 February 2020

International Opera Awards 2020

The chorus of Welsh National Opera in Verdi: Les vêpres siciliennes - (Photo Johan Person)
The chorus of Welsh National Opera in Verdi: Les vêpres siciliennes - (Photo Johan Person)
The 2020 International Opera Awards will be announced at a gala at Sadler's Wells on Monday 4 May 2020. This year's shortlist, as ever, rather frustratingly lists nominees without saying what why they have been nominated, but nonetheless there are some interesting and heartening listings.

The finalists in the Chorus award include Opera Vlaanderen (whom we saw in Verdi's Don Carlos in September 2019) and Welsh National Opera (whom we have just seen in Verdi's Les vepres Siciliennes). In the Education and Outreach Category finalists include Birmingham Opera Company, Blackheath Halls Community Opera and Opera North, a terrific achievement for each of them. The Newcomer Category includes conductor Finnegan Downie Dear, the music director of Shadwell Opera whose international career is really taking off.

The New Production category includes Barrie Kosky's production of Handel's Agrippina which was at Covent Garden this season and Tobias Kratzer's production of Wagner's Tannhäuser at the Bayreuth Festival (see Tony's review). The Opera Company category includes La Monnaie (where we saw Ponchielli's La Gioconda in 2019) and the Royal Opera, Covent Garden.

The complete recording category includes Christophe Rousset's rediscovery of the earlier versions of Gounod's Faust for Palazzetto Bru Zane (see my review), and the solo disc recital includes Benjamin Bernheim's recent solo disc.

The Rediscovered work includes Bampton Classical Opera's performances of Stephen Storace's Gli sposi malcontenti - Bride and Gloom (see my review). World premiere category listings include Stuart MacRae's Anthropocene (Scottish Opera) and Philip Venables's Denis & Katya (Opera Philadelphia).

Full listings from the International Opera Awards website.

Ealing Music and Film Festival

Ealing Music and Film Festival logo
The Ealing Music and Film Festival returns on 12 February 2020 for the eighth festival, giving five days and music and film in and around Ealing. The festival is being presented in partnership with the University of West London (UWL) where many of the events take place. One intriguing event at the university will be Headspace Project, an immersive experience where listeners experience a range of music via headphones rather than listening conventionally.

Pietro Mascagni's only film score will feature for a screening of Nino Oxilia's silent classic film Rapsodica Satanica (1915), in an evening which will also feature alternative soundtracks composed by students of UWL's London College of Music.

Other artists appearing at the festival include wind group, The Thorne Trio, Affinity String Quartet and soprano Lotte Betts Dean in music for string quartet and soprano including Caroline Shaw, Matt Laing, Nico Muhly, the Love2Sing Choir, and Tenebrae choir under conductor Nigel Short in an evening of settings of English texts including Parry's Songs of Farewell.

Ealing Youth Orchestra will be playing side by side with members of the London Mozart Players in a programme of Sibelius, Rachmaninov and Paul Creston's Saxophone Concerto (Creston was an 20th Italian American composer - 1906-1985) with BBC Young Musician 2018 finalist, Rob Burton. Ealing Symphony Orchestra will be performing Rachmaninov's opera Francesca da Rimini with soloists Anna Gorbachyova, Telman Guzhevsky and Vladislav Chursin, and there is more Rachmaninov on the sound-track of the film Brief Encounter.

And there is more opera when the film of Opera Holland Park's 2019 production of Verdi's Un ballo in maschera is shown.

Full details from the festival website.

Les vêpres Siciliennes: Verdi's French Grand Opera makes a rare appearance in Welsh National Opera's striking new production

Verdi: Les vêpres siciliennes - Wojtek Gierlach, Anush Hovhannisyan, Jung Soo Yun - Welsh National Oper (Photo Johan-Person)
Verdi: Les vêpres siciliennes - Wojtek Gierlach, Anush Hovhannisyan, Jung Soo Yun
Welsh National Opera (Photo Johan-Person)
Verdi Les vêpres Siciliennes; Anush Hovhannisyan, Jung Soo Yun, Giorgio Caoduro, Wojtek Gierlach, dir: David Pountney, cond: Carlo Rizzi; Welsh National Opera at Wales Millennium Centre
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 8 February 2020 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Verdi's French Grand Opera makes a rare appearance in the UK, in a powerful evening from WNO

Verdi: Les vêpres siciliennes - Wojtek Gierlach - Welsh National Opera (Photo Johan-Person)
Verdi: Les vêpres siciliennes - Wojtek Gierlach
Welsh National Opera (Photo Johan-Person)
Apart from Otello, during Verdi's lifetime when his operas were performed at the Paris Opera they were given in French often in revised version with ballet which brought the works closer to the Paris Opera's concept of Grand Opera. Three times, Verdi created a work specially for the Paris Opera, crafting operas which, with their historical setting, large crowd scenes, scope for scenic effect and focus on the struggle between personal and public duty, were his attempt to make French Grand Opera his own. The first was Jerusalem, a wholesale revision of I Lombardi, which failed to establish itself. The second was Les vêpres Siciliennes, when Verdi worked with the doyen of French Grand Opera, librettist Eugene Scribe, and another work which failed to establish itself in French, becoming better known in the Italian version. Finally, Don Carlos, a masterpiece where Verdi finally created his own version of French Grand Opera.

In terms of Verdi's operas, Les vêpres Siciliennes, which comes straight after his middle-period trio of Rigoletto, Il trovatore and La traviata, is an important and influential milestone but it is rarely seen in the UK. Till relatively recently it was known mainly from the Italian version, but the BBC's broadcast of the French version in the 1970s was an important milestone (issued on CD by Opera Rara). In the early 1980s the opera was given by English National Opera in John Dexter's production from the Metropolitan Opera, New York with Rosalind Plowright as Helene. And in 2013 the Royal Opera House presented Stefan Herheim's new production of Les vêpres Siciliennes [see my review], but in between seems silence. Welsh National Opera last performed the work in 1954, so the company's new production held great interest.

Welsh National Opera's new production of Verdi's Les vêpres Siciliennes, the final of David Pountney's three middle-period Verdi operas for WNO (previously La forza del destino and Un ballo in maschera), opened at the Wales Millennium Centre on Saturday 8 February 2020. Carlo Rizzi conducted with Jung Soo Yun as Henri, Anush Hovhannisyan as Helene, Giorgio Caoduro as Guy de Montfort, Wojtek Gierlach as Procida, plus Wyn Pencarreg as Le Sire De Béthune, Christine Byrne as Ninette, ​Robyn Lyn Evans as Daniéli / Mainfroid, Gareth Brynmor John as Robert, Alexander Sprague as Thibault, and Alastair Moore as Le Comte de Vaudemont. Choreography was by Caroline Finn with dancers from the National Dance Company of Wales. Sets were designed by Raimund Bauer, and costumes by Marie-Jeanne Lecca.

Staging a French Grand Opera is a tricky business, the rather formalised structure can be somewhat unyielding, and Les vêpres Siciliennes is not helped by Verdi and Scribe's fraught relationship (the librettist was some 20 years older than the composer), with the librettist refusing Verdi's requests for revisions so that the final act sags somewhat.

Verdi: Les vêpres siciliennes - Christine Byrne, Anush Hovhannisyan, Robyn Lyn Evans - Welsh National Opera (Photo Johan Person)
Verdi: Les vêpres siciliennes - Christine Byrne, Anush Hovhannisyan, Robyn Lyn Evans
Welsh National Opera (Photo Johan Person)
David Pountney and Raimund Bauer's solution was elegant in its clarity, three huge black frames which could frame the action and be moved around so the stage landscape was in constant fluid motion. There were no awkward pauses for scene changes (something that bedevilled  Christophe Honore's otherwise fine production of Verdi's original 1867 version of Don Carlos in Lyon, see my review) everything flowed. David Pountney's direction was largely unfussy, it was clear who everyone was and Marie-Jeanne Lecca's costumes helped. The French were in late 18th century Ancien Régime, the Sicilians in basic mid-20th century black, and Anush Hovhannisyan in an early 20th black gown, severe and suitable for mourning for her brother. The ballet was done as a play within a play depicting the young Guy de Montfort's seduction and rape of Henri's mother.

Casting French Grand Opera can be equally tricky, Verdi's Les vêpres Siciliennes requires lyric voices, yet ones capable of significant stamina. Henri is not an heroic role but it is a big sing, he is in all five acts, and for all Helene's passion she needs to be able to sing the roulades in her Act Five bolero.

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