Sunday 21 June 2020

A Life On-Line: Mendelssohn's Fairies, Miss Havisham's Wedding, Guildhall School's virtual technology and powerful Mahler

Virtual rendering of Takis designs for Guildhall School of Music's opera double bill
Virtual rendering of Takis designs for Guildhall School of Music's opera double bill
We started the week with Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, as filtered through Felix Mendelssohn's imagination. As part of his Mendelssohn cycle with the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO), John Eliot Gardiner performed Mendelssohn's Symphony No .1 and incidental music to A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Barbican in February 2016 and that was the LSO's archive broadcast as part of its Always Playing season.

Gardiner has a long history of working with modern instrument orchestra and, using a reduced size LSO, he conjured some wonderful sounds in Mendelssohn's early symphony (written when he was just 15). When Mendelssohn conducted the symphony in London when he was 20, he wrote to his parents that he thought the scherzo was boring and so had created a new one from the scherzo to the Octet! Gardiner, ever interested in the fine detail of the music, gave us both scherzos. Delicious.

Then came the music from A Midsummer Night's Dream. Mendelssohn writes little for the mechanicals, and not that much for the lovers, so Gardiner had trimmed the music slightly, and created a version in which three actors from Guildhall School of Music and Drama played seven roles, Ceri-Lyn Cissone was Hermia/Fairy/Titania, Frankie Wakefield was Oberon/Theseus, and Alexander Knox Lysander/Puck. The result was highly satisfying, with some lovely singing from the women of the Monteverdi Choir, which provided the fairy soloists as well, Jessica Cale, Sarah Denbee, Charlotte Ashley, Rebecca Hardwick.

Such trimmings down work well because Mendelssohn's overture, written when he was 17, was not designed for a performance of the play and is more of a tone poem, encapsulating the entire work in a single piece of music. All the more remarkably, when Mendelssohn returned to the play 16 years later he was able to re-capture the moment.

Faced with the complete loss of her company's 2020 season, Wasfi Kani of Grange Park Opera had a Judy Garland moment, 'let's do the show right here!', and created an enterprising Found Season in which performances were created in a socially distanced way, many from the empty Grange Park Opera auditorium in Surrey. On Tuesday we caught up with the season with Dominick Argento's one-act monodrama, Miss Havisham's Wedding Night (in fact there are three characters, but two are silent!). Performed in a fully staged version by soprano Sarah Minns and pianist David Eaton. Dominick Argento (1927-2019) composed Miss Havisham's Fire in 1979; a full length opera with 19 characters, it gave some back story to the character from Dickens' David Copperfield (note of trivia: in Dickens it is clear that Miss Havisham is in her 30s, but 20th century interpretations have always made her considerably older). The opera was not a great success and Argento boiled it down to the one-act monodrama in 1981. It remains a curious piece, but Minns gave a terrific performance as the disturbed spinster who constantly returns to the disastrous events of her wedding night.

On Wednesday there was more live music as the City Music Foundation (CMF) presented the first of its series of recitals from the clock tower at St Pancras. The CMF mentors and coaches young artists, creating performance opportunities for them with a series of recitals. With lockdown and the loss of income, CMF has found its role changing as it seeks to support the young artists, both financially and to provide alternative performance opportunities. This first recital featured mezzo-soprano Lotte Betts Dean, guitarist Andrey Lebedev and accordion player Bartosz Glowacki in a delightful programme which moved from Piazzolla, Fernando Sor and Garcia Lorca, through Bach and Monteverdi, to Charles Trenet and Antônio Carlos Jobim. Please do support the CMF and its young artists if you can, clock tower recitals are at 6pm on Wednesdays.

The Summer term is the time when many conservatoires put on their annual opera performances. Determined not to miss the opportunity, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama turned to technology when social distancing came into operation. The result was the double bill of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas and Respighi's La bella dormente nel bosco directed by Olivia Fuchs and conducted by Dominic Wheeler. Amazingly both operas were created without anyone actually meeting, everything was done remotely. Fuchs and Wheeler had trimmed the pieces slightly, and all the performers recorded their performances at home, coached by Fuchs and Wheeler. The young students of the more technical departments of the Guildhall School used technology to create a 3-D visualisation of what the production would have looked like. The resulting videos present the view with a choice, either a collage of the filmed performances and the 3-D visualisation, or pure filmed performance. We saw both for the Purcell and, as I did not know the Respighi, opted for the collaged version to get a better feel for the staging.

The result was remarkable and it is a testament to the skills of the performers and the production team that they created performances which held one's attention. Initially, given the range of new skills to be learned, the intention had been to release excerpts but it was decided to release the whole, rough edges and all. In fact, any rough edges simply created a new sense of performance.  In Dido and Aeneas we had two Didos, Elsa Roux Chamoux and Ema Nikolovska, with Tom Mole as Aeneas, Lara Marie Muller as Belinda and Collin Shay and Nils Wandrer as the Sorceress. Credit to them all for such a riveting and powerful result. The Respighi was intriguing and charming, with some lovely, lovely music and I certainly want to encounter it in the theatre. The double bill is available on-line until 1 July, see the Guildhall School's website.

On Saturday it was back to Covent Garden for the second of the Royal Opera House's live performances, and this occasion was doubly moving as it featured Dame Sarah Connolly's first performance since her illness (she has been receiving treatment for breast cancer). We started with rare Frederick Ashton, the Dance of the Blessed Spirits performed to Gluck's music from Orpheo and Eurydice by Vadim Muntagirov.  The there was a chamber arrangement of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde conducted by Antonio Pappano with members of the Royal Opera House orchestra, and soloists Sarah Connolly and David Butt Philip. It was illuminating, hearing the work performed in the chamber version as it revealed details which are often overlooked in performance, added to which the balance in the tenor solos is somewhat easier. This was a moving and powerful performance, but throughout I kept getting visual images too, as in that building I associate the work very much with Kenneth Macmillan's Song of the Earth which I have have seen with artists as diverse as Marcia Haydee (for whom Macmillan choreographed it in Stuttgart), Anthony Dowell and, most recently, Carlos Acosta. I have always felt that the closing pages of the ballet are one of the most perfect syntheses of visuals, music and movement ever.

Elsewhere on-line, there has been a lot going on with plenty of exciting new content.

Samling Arts is facing similar difficulties to CMF, and instead of face-to-face coaching Samling has been going on-line. It shared a video of baritone Benjamin Appl and pianist James Baillieu working remotely with 17-year-old Samling Academy Singer Ben Ryan from Darlington on Britten's arrangement of The Foggy, Foggy Dew [YouTube]. And the Concordia Foundation's Vital Fund has also been created to help young artists in lockdown, in support of the fund the foundation shared its 14th video, the Arcana Ensemble (Ariel Lang - violin, Raphael Lang - cello, Mina Beldimanescu - piano) in Shostakovich [YouTube]. The English Symphony Orchestra has been keeping members of its three ESO Youth performing groups busy with a great on-line rendition of 'Mars' from Holst's The Planets [YouTube].

And Scottish Opera has been putting its Emerging Artists to work so Charlie Drummond, Mark Nathan and Arthur Bruce perform Samuel Bordoli's new 13-minute on-line opera The Narcissistic Fish with a libretto by Jennie Fagan, directed by Antonia Bain. Intriguingly the libretto is in Scots, so the performance comes with surtitles! [Scottish Opera website].

The pianist Yulia Chaplina has been giving regular performances on-line since lockdown. Now she has created The Piano Bootcamp, a series of interviews with pianists talking about performance and piano playing. The series started with Paul Lewis on 9 June, and continues through to 7 July with many major names including Imogen Cooper, Peter Donohoe, Marc-Andre Hamelin, Joanna MacGregor, Steven Osborne, Martin Roscoe, Noriko Ogawa, Joanna MacGregor, Barry Douglas. See the full schedule on The Pianist Platform. St George's Bristol might be closed, but they are presenting a weekly series of recitals, entitled Listen In, hosted by the artists themselves, last Thursday it was Reiko Fujisawa, Rachel Podger, Adam Heron & Oliver Wass [YouTube]

Violinist Elena Urioste and pianist Tom Poster have been giving a series of on-line performances during lockdown, and their #UriPosteJukebox has come to an end with 88 performances, one for each piano key [YouTube]

And New English Ballet Theatre shared a lovely film made the dancers from its Spring 2020 season, doing what dancers do except they are all at home [YouTube]

If you feel like you are missing some intelligent discussion, then try Sofie Marin's Arts Dynamics Talks where she speaks with 12 artists and creative entrepreneurs around the world to find out how their artistic businesses are affected by the crisis. [Facebook]. And pianist Kirill Gerstein has created a weekly series of seminars, Kirill Gerstein Invites in which he talks to leading musicians, last week it was composer Thomas Ades with whom Gerstein has a significant collaboration and the two have released two discs this year. Further information from Gerstein's website.

Ending on a delightful lighter note, Charles Court Opera has taken Stephen Sondheim's You can drive a person crazy from Company and re-worked it for lockdown with Jennie Jacobs, Llio Evans and Catrine Kirkman (the dog and the children also deserve credit!). [Instagram] [YouTube] And I have happy memories working on the song with the cabaret group The Insinuendos way back in the 1980s!

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