Thursday, 13 August 2020

Live opera returns to Northern Irelands with The Festival of Voice

Festival of Voice finalists, Belfast 2020
Festival of Voice finalists, Belfast 2020
Live opera is returning to Northern Ireland this August, when Northern Ireland Opera brings The Festival of Voice to Belfast. Normally this annual celebration of the best young voices from the island of Ireland takes place in the Glenarm but the current restrictions mean that this year it will be taking place from 28-30 August 2020 in the First Church Belfast, under the theme of Myths and Legends.

The finalists for the competition are chosen from singers between the ages of 18 and 28, born on the island of Ireland. This year the five finalists are David Corr (baritone), David Howes (bass baritone), Andrew Irwin (tenor), Sarah Luttrell (mezzo-soprano) and Jade Phoenix (soprano), and they will be working with vocal coaches across the weekend and building to finale where they compete by performing arias, duets and Irish songs in front of a judging panel of opera experts. The winner is awarded a monetary prize and the chance to attend Canto al Serchio in Tuscany, run by Belfast-born international baritone, Bruno Caproni.

Also in the weekend there will be three BBC Radio 3 Recitals, from soprano Ailish Tynan, mezzo-soprano Anna Huntley and baritone James Newby, with accompanist Simon Lepper.  BBC Radio 3 will broadcast the recitals in the early autumn while the competition finale will be filmed and released via the Northern Ireland Opera YouTube channel in September. 

Full details from the Northern Ireland Opera website.


Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra announces Autumn season in Dorset and on-line

Shirley Thompson and BSO Resound
Shirley Thompson and BSO Resound
The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra has announced plans for 12 socially distanced performances from the Lighthouse, Poole, for its Autumn season. The performances will be available on-line, and will be open to a socially distanced audience when government restrictions allow. The seasons opens on 30 September 2020 when the orchestra's chief conductor, Kirill Karabits, conducts a programme of Bach, Ives, Beethoven's Symphony No 7, and Britten's arrangement of the third movements of Mahler's Symphony No. 3 (the work originally planned to open the season), and the Autumn season ends in December with Robert Howarth conducting a programme of Handel, Bach, Corelli and Vivaldi with soprano Anna Devin performing arias from Messiah.

The 2020/21 season will also include two major new commissions, a symphonic work from German-based Azervaijani composer Franghiz Ali-Zadeh, whose work fuses Azerbaijani traditions with Western classical music, and a chamber work for BSO Resound, the orchestra's disabled-led ensemble, from Shirley Thompson to mark the 60th anniversary of the Independent Living Movement, and the orchestra will be giving the UK premiere of Magnus Lindberg's Absence which was commissioned for the Beethoven centenary. The orchestra's Voices from the East continues, with Karabits conducting a work by the Ukrainian composer Theodore Akimenko (1876-1945), who was Stravinsky's first teacher, and the Trumpet Concerto by the Soviet Armenian composer Alexander Arutiunan (1920-2012)

Pianist Benjamin Grosvenor is the orchestra's artist in residence for 2020/21, and he will be performing Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 1 in December.

All the concerts will be an hour long without an interval, and the stage at the Lighthouse is being extended to allow the members of the orchestra to be socially distant.

Full details from the orchestra's website.

Wednesday, 12 August 2020

Benjamin Grosvenor, Hyeyoon Park, Raja Halder launch the Bromley and Beckenham International Music Festival

Church of St Peter and St Paul, Bromley
Church of St Peter and St Paul, Bromley
The collapse of live performance and the lack of opportunities for artists has made some performers create their own luck. 

Three artists who all happen to be based in Bromley, have decided to get together and create the Bromley and Beckenham International Music Festival. This has been launched by pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, and violinists Raja Halder and Hyeyoon Park, and the first festival runs at St Peter and St Paul Church in Bromley from 17 to 20 September 2020. 

The programme includes four socially-distanced chamber concerts with guest artists including Tomo Keller, Timothy Ridout, Leon Bosch, David Cohen, and festival co-founders Raja Halder, Benjamin Grosvenor and Hyeyoon Park. Whether by accident or design the programme has a variety of quintets to the fore, including Beethoven's Violin Concerto in a version for violin and string quintet with soloist Hyeyoon Park, Schubert's Trout Quintet and Dvorak's Piano Quintet no. 2, plus piano quartets by Brahms and Mahler.

Care has been taken over socially distancing the concerts, but if regulations prevent a live audience from being present then the concerts will take place without one and will be live-streamed for ticket holders.

50% of profits from the 2020 festival will go to St Christopher’s Hospice, a local hospice offering palliative and end of life care whose fundraising streams were devastated by the pandemic. The remaining 50% of profits will be invested in the 2021 festival.


Full details from the festival website.

Born in Cyprus, trained in London, the name Kemal Belevi is perhaps not well known but this disc from Duo Tandem is full of delightfully evocative pieces

Kemal Belevi Guitar duos; Duo Tandem; NAxos
Kemal Belevi Guitar duos; Duo Tandem; NAxos

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 12 August 2020 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
Imaginatively written for two guitars, music by the Turkish-Cypriot born, London-trained composer

I have to confess that until I was sent this disc, I had never come across composer Kemal Belevi, who was born a Turkish Cypriot and trained in London as a guitarist and composer. This disc from Naxos features music for guitar duo by Kemal Belevi, performed by Duo Tandem. Kemal Belevi was born in Nicosia, he started playing guitar in his brother's band as a teenager but moved to London in 1972 to study music, eventually studying classical guitar and composition (with David McBride, a pupil of Benjamin Britten's) at the London College of Music.

When Belevi arrived in London (aged 18) to stay with his uncle, he had never come across the classical guitar and becomes entranced by the sight and sound of the instrument as played by Julian Bream and John Williams on his uncle's television. In the UK he initially studied for his O and A-levels, but by 1977 he is auditioning for the teachers course at the London College of Music, but when its director, composer William Lloyd Webber (1914-1982) hears Belevi, he immediately suggests Belevi go on the performers course, and another successful audition gets Belevi a scholarship. 

As a composer, Belevi's music extends well beyond the solo guitar, and he has written a number of guitar concertos as well as other orchestral works. As a performer, Belevi has produced discs of his own music but on this disc the guitar duo, Duo Tandem performs his music for guitar duo.

Duo Tandem (Necati Emirzade, Mark Anderson)
Duo Tandem (Necati Emirzade, Mark Anderson)
Duo Tandem features London-based, Necati Emirzade and Chicago-based Mark Anderson. They formed the duo in 2012 whilst studying at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and much of their collaboration is technology-enabled, and they often only meet to perform and record. Guitar Duos of Kemal Belevi is their third disc.

Tuesday, 11 August 2020

Calling all young composers: National Youth Choir of Great Britain's Young Composers Scheme 2021

National Youth Choirs of Great Britain - Young Composers Scheme 2021
The National Youth Choirs of Great Britain (NYCGB) is again looking for young composers for its Young Composers Scheme 2021. Four composers aged 18 to 29 will be provided with a fully-funded, year-long programme of professional development including the opportunity to write for NYCGB's choirs. Professional mentoring is led by Ben Parry, artistic director of NYCGB, along with guest mentors, and the year-long programme also includes residential courses, workshops, peer mentoring, performance showcases and the opportunity to work with the National Youth Choir and the NYCGB Fellowship.

Applications are now open and close at 5pm on Friday 4 September 2020. Full details from the NYCGB website.

On disc at last: Ethel Smyth's late masterwork, The Prison, receives its premiere recording in a fine performance from American forces

Ethel Smyth The Prison; Dashon Burton, Sarah Brailey, Experiential Chorus and Orchestra, James Blachly; Chandos
Ethel Smyth The Prison; Dashon Burton, Sarah Brailey, Experiential Chorus and Orchestra, James Blachly; Chandos

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 10 August 2020 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Ethel Smyth's final major work makes it to disc at long last, in a fine recording from American forces which brings out the subtlety of the work
Ethel Smyth's last major work, The Prison, a symphony for soprano, bass-baritone, chorus and orchestra with words by H.B. Brewster has finally made it to disc, giving us a chance at long last to put the composer's post-World War One career into focus. Issued on Chandos Records, this new recording of Ethel Smyth's The Prison features bass-baritone Dashon Burton, soprano Sarah Brailey, Experiential Chorus and Orchestra, conductor James Blachly, and you can read more about the background to the recording in my interview with James.

Until recently, mention Ethel Smyth and three things were likely to pop up. One, she was a suffragette and conducted her March of the Women whilst in prison, two, she wrote an opera The Wreckers and three, wasn't there also a Mass. In fact Smyth wrote six operas and much else besides. The First World War brought a radical break in the career of a composer who had trained and worked largely in Germany and German-speaking areas (she had studied privately in Leipzig with the composer Heinrich von Herzogenberg who was a friend of Brahms' and married to one of Brahms' pupils). Back in England, with fewer possibilities of performance and suffering increasingly from deafness, Smyth's musical output declined in quantity, but not quality. Retrospect Opera recently gave us the chance to hear her 1921-22 opera Fetes Galantes [see my review], though any plans to record her final opera Entente Cordiale (1923) founder on the fact that the score and performing materials seem to have disappeared.

So it is doubly welcome that we now have her final large scale work, The Prison which, heard in tandem with Fetes Galantes, gives a chance to detect the voice of late Ethel Smyth. To that end it is also worth investigating the Concerto for Violin and Horn (from 1926) on Chandos with Odaline de Martinez and the BBC Philharmonic (available for download).

Come on outside, the weather's lovely: with restrictions still in place, performers are taking music outside to re-connect with audiences.

The Orchard Tea Garden in Grantchester
The Orchard Tea Garden in Grantchester
venue for concerts by Eboracum Baroque
With the advent of the Summer weather and lockdown restrictions continuing to cause uncertainty for performers, groups are starting to go outside to create performance opportunities. Of course, it helps if you have an outdoor space already that can be used. Opera Holland Park showed the way, with its season of concerts which finished on Saturday, and next weekend (13-15 August 2020) Waterperry Opera Festival is holding its mini-festival with performances of Jonathan Dove and Mozart's Cosi fan tutte in a socially distanced manner.

At the Grange Festival they are premiering an out-door promenade piece Precipice (21-23 August 2020) which promises to utilise many of the site's interesting spaces and a wide range performers from singers Sir John Tomlinson, Claire Barnett Jones, Kiandra Howarth to the Grange Festival Chorus, conductor John Andrews, to choreographer Shobana Jeyasingh, directed by Sinéad O’Neill (full details from The Grange Festival website). Nevill Holt Opera has already had musical events in the lovely gardens at Nevill Holt, and there are further concerts (29 August to 12 September) with music provided by Nevill Holt Opera Young Artists performing everything from Monteverdi, Palestrina and Gabrieli to Percy Grainger, Elgar and Parry, to John Rutter and George Shearing (full details from the Nevill Holt Opera website). West Green House is doing something similar, with a programme of concerts inviting people to come and picnic in the garden and listen to young artists performing, here the music ranges from Operas Villains to In an English Country Garden to Mozart in Love, with performers including young artist Chloe Morgan, and soprano Kirsty Hopkins (full details from West Green House website).

But other spaces are being re-invented as concert venues. On Sunday we heard the Corran Quartet in a courtyard in Islington [see my review], and London Concertante's Secret Garden concerts are using the garden of the artistic director, Chris Grist's house in Streatham as a venue for Sunday concerts featuring everything from baroque through classical to jazz (see the London Concertante's website for details).

That enterprising group Eboracum Baroque, artistic director Chris Parsons, having given us their on-line Heroic Handel concert [see my interview with Chris] is venturing outside for a pair of concerts at the Orchard Tea Garden in Grantchester (28 August and 4 September), which has been frequented by generations of Cambridge students from Alan Turing to Stephen Hawkin. Here there will be a chance to hear Vivaldi's The Four Seasons (in the version for recorder), Purcell's King Arthur and The Fairy Queen, and Handel arias from Charlotte Bowden (soprano), Jamie Woollard (bass) and an instrumental ensemble (full details from the Eboracum Baroque website)

An entirely new event is The Vache Baroque Festival which will be staging Purcell's Dido and Aeneas in the grounds of a 17th century house in Chalfont St Giles with a fine cast including Katie Bray as Dido, directed by Thomas Guthrie and conducted by Jonathan Darbourne (who co-founded the festival, and my interview with Jonathan will be published on Saturday), further details from the festival website.

Waterperry Opera is already sold out, and the first of Eboracum Baroque's dates is sold out, and tickets for Opera Holland Park sold remarkably quickly, so there is clearly a need for such events. Not only do they give performers the chance to perform in front of live audiences again, about it allows audience members to experience the delights of music performed by real (as opposed to virtual) performers despite the vagaries of the English weather and the limitations of outdoor performance.

Monday, 10 August 2020

Outdoor engagement and energy: the Corran Quartet in Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven in an Islington courtyard

The Corran Quartet live in Islington
The Corran Quartet live in Islington
Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven; Corran Quartet

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 9 August 2020
In an enterprising re-start to performing, this young string quartet brings finesse to outdoor performance in Islington

After months of isolation, performers are gradually emerging and exploring the possibilities of outdoor performances. Having said an emotional goodbye to Opera Holland Park on Saturday [see my article], Sunday 9 August 2020 saw us in the courtyard of a modern housing development in Islington where we heard the Corran Quartet performing Mozart's String Quartet No. 12 in B flat major, K 172, Haydn's String Quartet in E flat major, Opus 20, No. 1, and Beethoven's String Quartet in A major, Opus 18 No. 5

The Corran Quartet (Joana Ly, Kirsty MacLeod, Edward Keenan, Molly McWhirter) is a young string quartet (three Scots and a Portuguese), and they had planned to devote 2020 to performing the quartets of Beethoven, however circumstances intervened. On Sunday, the quartet launched a series of garden concerts with an event in Islington, an enterprising way to kick-start the performing season in a way that is socially responsible.

The outdoor acoustics of a courtyard in a modern housing development are not ideal. The sound was clear but, understandably dry without any of the bloom you get from a good building, it seemed to favour the lower strings. Yet the four young players embraced the challenges of the venue, and gave us a trio of fine quartets, all performed with engagement and energy, the performers clearly delighted at being back performing.

The close of an amazing season, and a farewell: the last Opera Holland Park of 2020

Opera Holland Park - the final concert in the 2020 season (Photo Ali Wright)
Opera Holland Park - the final concert in the 2020 season (Photo Ali Wright)
And so Opera Holland Park's enterprising 2020 season came to its end. Saturday 8 August 2020 would have been the final performance of the planned 2020 season, and instead it marked the end of the short lockdown season of three concerts of opera arias and a family performance based around G&S' The Pirates of Penzance, which was, frankly, little short of amazing in the current circumstances. For many people, the music at Holland Park would be the first live music they had heard in months. 

Opera Holland Park - Emma Stannard, Matthew Kofi Waldren, City of London Sinfonia(Photo Ali Wright)
Opera Holland Park - Emma Stannard, Matthew Kofi Waldren,
City of London Sinfonia(Photo Ali Wright)
Saturday saw a talent cast of opera singers performing everything from Handel and Mozart, through Tchaikovsky and Dvorak, to Verdi and Puccini, along with something from Rogers & Hamerstein's Carousel. We began with Jennifer France in 'Mein Herr Marquis' from Strauss' Die Fledermaus, and ended with David Butt Philip in 'Nessun Dorma' from Puccini's Turandot. The list of performers, a terrific line up by any reckoning, was sopranos Lauren Fagan, Jennifer France, Anush Hovhannisyan, Alison Langer, Anna Patalong, Natalya Romaniw, and Nardus Williams, mezzo-sopranos Aigul Akhmetshina and Emma Stannard, tenors Jack Roberts, David Butt Philip and Samuel Sakker, baritones Grant Doyle and Ross Ramgobin, accompanied by nine members of the City of London Sinfonia, conducted by Matthew Kofi Waldren.

Unlike the opening night, the sun shone and the effect was glorious. Never has live performance, and the emotional effect of having a singer in direct contact with the audience made so much effect. The programme was an evening of popular operatic excerpts, but having had a break from hearing live performance made even the most hackneyed piece seem different, and you began to understand the reasons for the arias' continued popularity. There were plenty of moments of strong emotional pull, and for me the twin highlights, unfairly singling out individuals, were Jennifer France in 'Lascia ch'io pianga' from Handel's Rinaldo and Natalya Romaniw in the Song to the Moon from Dvorak's Rusalka. But what came over from every single artist was a sense of the sheer joy of being there, of performing.

We heard from two of Opera Holland Park's Young Artists, who should have been giving us Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin this year. So, Emma Stannard gave a delightful account Olga's aria and Jack Roberts gave a fine rendition of Lensky's aria.

Sunday, 9 August 2020

A Life On-Line: Elektra from Salzburg, Alceste from Munich, Russian song from Thomas Humphreys

Richard Strauss: Elektra - Ausrine Stundyte - Salzburg Festival (Photo Bernd Uhlig)
Richard Strauss: Elektra - Ausrine Stundyte - Salzburg Festival (Photo Bernd Uhlig)
Having seen the Italian version of Gluck's Alceste recently from La Fenice in Venice, it was fascinating to follow it with the French version of the opera performed by Bavarian State Opera and available on Arte TV. This 2019 production was directed by the choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui with his Antwerp-based Eastman Dance Company, along with soloists Dorothea Röschmann (Alceste), Charles Castronovo (Admète), and Michael Nagy (le Grand Prêtre d'Apollon, Hercule), conducted by Antonello Manacorda. Larbi Cherkaoui's choreography was very striking, but he could not quite avoid the suspicion of the dance happening around the singers, rather than the two coalescing into a whole and I had wondered whether they should have gone the whole hog and given a fully danced version. 

Still, it was in many ways a powerful performance, though the choreographer/director seemed not to know what to do with the chorus and instead of forming a distinct character in the action they were usually left on the sidelines. Röschmann made a moving Alceste, though you suspect the role lies a little low for her, whilst Castronovo floated admirably through Admète's high-lying line. The orchestra under Manacorda did not produce quite the sort of historically informed performance that we expect from major opera houses, fine though the playing was.

Still on Arte TV, we caught the opening event of this year's Salzburg Festival, Richard Strauss' Elektra in a production directed by Krzysztof Warlikowski and conducted by Franz Welser-Möst with the Vienna Philharmonic in the pit. Ausrine Stundyte was Elektra, Asmik Grigorian was Chrysothemis and Tanja Ariane Baumgartner was Klytemnestra. Warlikowski took full advantage of the huge space of the Salzburg Felsenreitschule, with sets by Małgorzata Szczęśniak. There were projections above the stage of some of the action, and the production was very much about opening the work up. 

We prefixed things with a powerful speech from Baumgartner's Klytemnestra, a justification immediately after her killing of Agamemnon. Things never quite lived up to this strong opening. Warlikowski gave us a lot of the action happening off-stage, and we even had the ghost of Agamemnon wandering about. The result was to dilute the closed box claustrophobia of the piece. In the opera, Baumgartner's Klytemnestra seemed to straight out of a 1980s soap opera, and Ausrine Stundyt's lighter voiced Elektra was wonderfully neurotic and nervy without ever quite catching the character's dark intensity.  Asmik Grigorian made a strong Chrysothemis, and Derek Welton was a wonderfully traumatised Oreste.

With the lack of live performances and venues, many performers are becoming pro-active and organising performances themselves, though the financial investment can be significant.

Saturday, 8 August 2020

2000 years of history: guitarist Xuefei Yang on exploring the music of her homeland on her new disc Sketches of China, on DECCA

Xufei Yang
Xuefei Yang
The guitarist Xuefei Yang has a new disc out, Sketches of China which has a digital release on Decca this month. This not standard repertoire but an exploration of the music of her homeland, China, ranging from traditional tunes to contemporary pieces. Now based in the UK, Xuefei trained first at the Beijing Conservatoire before studying at the Royal Academy of Music, and she was something of a ground-breaker in China, the first guitarist to graduate from Beijing Conservatoire.

A disc of music from China has long been a dream, and she describes the disc as the result of a 20-year journey. She spent 10 years studying in Beijing, and where colleagues would play all sort of music including that from China, but she found that there was no repertoire for the guitar. This is how she came to make her first arrangement of a Chinese traditional tune, which was originally performed on the Pipa a traditional instrument which is sometimes known as the Chinese lute. And the arrangement proved to be popular.

In concert, she plays a lot of different music, but she also wants to include the music from her homeland. She tends to feel more Chinese when she is abroad, and she wants to present Chinese music, so she has been performing traditional Chinese melodies, and new commissions from composers. At first, she commissioned Western composers who used Chinese elements in the music, and then she was able to have works written by contemporary Chinese composers.

Friday, 7 August 2020

Sing Gently: Eric Whitacre's latest Virtual Choir premiere

Eric Whitacre
Eric Whitacre
Eric Whitacre Sing Gently; Virtual Choir, Sam GLicklich, Eric Whitacre; YouTube

Guest review by Jill Barlow on 7 August 2020 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
Eric Whitacre’s largest virtual choir project to date—prevailing, gently, amidst Covid-19 Pandemic

Eric Whitacre’s Sing Gently premiered on 19 July 2020 on YouTube, with a virtual choir - with 17,572 singers from 129 different countries – each voice singing remotely, individually – miraculously blended into one harmonious whole electronically under the composer’s skilfully controlled baton.

The Covid-19 pandemic with the ensuing Lockdown has had a devastating effect on the Arts, with a pretty well complete ban on live performances across the spectrum in our hallowed concert halls and theatres nationwide. Hence, the Virtual Performance has entered its heyday, but American composer Eric Whitacre had already been engaged in Virtual Choir projects for the last 10 years from choice not necessity. BBC World Service radio drew my attention to their In the Studio arts programme broadcast recently (28 July 2020) presented by Emma Kingsley featuring an interview with Eric Whitacre who described how once having dipped his toe so to speak in this novel concept, which had been inspired by a video sent to him by a singer, he went from strength to strength including some of his virtual choir videos being featured as installations as part of the 2012 Olympics.

Originally having dreamed of becoming a pop star, Whitacre revealed to Emma Kingsley in his BBC Interview with her, that his direction changed to a more classical vein when he found himself perchance co-opted into singing in a local performance of Mozart’s Requiem and was completely overwhelmed by the famous Kyrie, having not met the work before, nor could he read music at that stage.
His whole approach to composition is defiantly individualistic, and particularly during the current Covid-19 climate  he likes to start with the words and then the music will follow: ’the better the poetry I  choose, the better the music I write ‘ seems to be his motto. Sing Gently he feels is his way of saying to the world ‘Sing as One'. He describes his ‘method’ as ‘to create the emotional architecture’ before a note of music is written.

Well what of his actual virtual-choir premiere Sing Gently on YouTube. Its entire duration is not much over 10 minutes, opening with a piano intro which introduces the emotive theme tune, slow almost lethargic in character oft repeated throughout by the choir, dominant piano, and string ensemble with little progression or development apart from a welcome strings interlude which makes for a rather repetitive whole. Overall, sure, one can but marvel at the amazing feat of synchronizing no less than 17,572 voices from 129 countries so apparently seamlessly, but now wouldn’t it be great if he could build on this achievement to develop a more varied and meaningful in-depth whole which would speak out with more impact to his captive audience worldwide, in his next foray into this virtual world with its limitless possibilities and endless boundaries -even into space itself ?

There’s a thought ----A future which doubtless other composers will explore to follow in his footsteps with ever widening success ---. This is but a BEGINNING --.
c Jill Barlow, 7 August 2020

Composer & conductor - Eric Whitacre
Pianist – Sam Glicklich (with background instrumental ensemble )
Collaborators – Colburn School, Namm Foundation
Produced by Music Productions
Album Sing Gently'

Engaging dexterity: Bach's English Suites from the young Italian harpsichordist Paolo Zanzu

Bach English Suites; Paolo Zanzu; Musica Ficta
Bach English Suites; Paolo Zanzu; Musica Ficta

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 7 August 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Using a modern copy of a harpsichord by a maker known to Bach, this new recording of Bach's English Suites from a young Italian harpsichordist is a fine way to explore Bach's earliest major keyboard work

Like much of Bach's music, one can use the word probably a lot when writing about his English Suites. We know little about when or why they were written, and even the origins of the name are something of a surmise. If they were indeed Bach's first major keyboard suites then they represent a remarkable marking of his territory, which would be explored in further keyboard suites leading to the magisterial late large-scale keyboard works. Players have recorded them on both piano and harpsichord on this new disc from Musica Ficta the young Italian harpsichord player Paolo Zanzu performs them on a 1995 copy of a 1735 two-manual instrument by Gottfried Silbermann (1683-1753), an organ-builder, harpsichord and piano maker based in Dresden who had a number of documented interactions with Bach.

The suites were not printed in Bach's lifetime, but a number of copies survive including one in the hand of his son Johann Christian Bach, and another in the hand of his friend and disciple Heinrich Niklaus Gerber, and thankfully there are no major editorial discrepancies between them. One manuscript of an early version of the Suite in A major refers to it as Prelude avec les Suites. It is from JC Bach's copy that we get Fait pour les Anglois, which may refer to the suites being written for a potential English patron. Though it is conceivable that the title may refer to the fact that Bach drew inspiration for the suites from the harpsichord suites of Charles Dieupart (1667-1740).

Certainly Bach owned a copy of Dieupart's harpsichord suites, and Bach's English Suites follow Dieupart's structure of a regular sequence of French dances (though Bach replaces the ouverture with an Italian prelude), and Dieupart's suites were best known in England. But it all seems a bit contrived, and we will never know for certain. Similarly, other factors have to be used when deciding the date. The CD booklet suggests that they were written in around 1720 (earlier has also been suggested) whilst Bach was working in Köthen, at the court of Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Köthen. A lot of Bach's instrumental music dates from this period (the violin Sonatas and Partitas, the Cello Suites, the French Suites, the original versions of his orchestral suites). However, Christoph Wolff in his biography, Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician dates them to earlier, to the end of Bach's time in Weimar where he was director of music, but fell out of favour in 1717. 
This earlier date would assign them to the period when Bach's fame was sufficient that he had a keyboard contest with the French harpsichordist Louis Marchand in Dresden. Though the contest was aborted, Bach did play in Dresden and was exposed to the rich musical life at the court. If the English Suites date from this earlier period, then we can imagine him playing some of them.
Paolo Zanzu
Paolo Zanzu
However, if we take the later date then the origins of the suites is equally plausible. For a small court, the capelle at
Köthen was moderately distinguished as a little before Bach joined the court (in 1717), a group of musicians from Berlin (made unemployed by King Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia dissolving his father’s court capelle) joined the Köthen capelle. And as the music loving Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Köthen was a Calvinist, the music at court was secular and largely non-vocal, Bach wrote a significant amount of instrumental music during this period. And of course, there is nothing to say that the music did not assemble over a period. 
Clearly the early version of the first suite might date from the Weimar period, with the others gradually appearing. Like much else in Bach, origins and original structure are unclear, all we can do is listen to the music.

Thursday, 6 August 2020

these bones, this flesh, this skin: the first of the Scottish Ensemble's Solo Collaborations mixes music, video and dance

João Castro in Joan Clevillé & Martin Suckling's these bones, this flesh, this skin
João Castro in Joan Clevillé & Martin Suckling's these bones, this flesh, this skin
The Scottish Ensemble is launching a series of Solo Collaborations, each of which will be a new short work created in partnership between a composer, a collaborator from another art form and a member of Scottish Ensemble. And the works will give people an experience that would not be possible live, embracing the possibilities of digital technology.

The first Solo Collaboration is these bones, this flesh, this skin, a new work for solo violin and solo dancer from composer Martin Suckling and choreographer Joan Clevillé, artistic director of Scottish Dance Theatre, danced by João Castro (who collaborated on the choreography), performed by violinist Jonathan Morton, artistic director of the Scottish Ensemble, and filmed by Genevieve Reeves.

Three four-minute musical works have been created, and three four-minute choreographed films, and using a bespoke website, the audience is invited to combine different music and visual layers, with up to 21 different variations.

Composer Martin Suckling said: "I wanted to be certain we produced something which wasn’t simply a filmed version of a live performance but rather something which was made to be experienced online and took advantage of the possibilities this opens up. Something which allows the audience to participate in the experience; something which would not be possible 'in real life'."

Trailer: these bones, this flesh, this skin from Scottish Ensemble on Vimeo.

Wednesday, 5 August 2020

A short yet magical experience: Interstices from Brother Tree Sound

Interstices Peter Fribbins, Andrew McIntosh, Sam Cave, Jim Perkins; Brother Tree Sound; Bigo & Twigetti
Peter Fribbins, Andrew McIntosh, Sam Cave, Jim Perkins; Brother Tree Sound; Bigo & Twigetti

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 August 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Music by four contemporary composers, woven imaginatively into a perfectly crafted whole

Brother Tree Sound is a contemporary classical group formed by Anna de Bruin, Thea Spiers, Peter Mallinson and Julia Graham, and whilst the four might form the classical string quartet line-up the group's aims are anything but traditional. Equally at home with a variety of genres from folk jams at the local pub to the soundworlds of extended contemporary techniques, Brother Tree Sound wants us to listen in new ways. To that end, Brother Tree Sound has released a new EP Interstices on Bigo & Twigetti which brings together four different pieces which have an element of commonality which seems to make a new whole. The disc features the second movement of Peter Fribbin's String Quartet No. 1 'I have the serpent brought', Andrew McIntosh's Tread Softly and Sam Cave's ...touchless as they sleepwalk, linked by a specially composed pair of new pieces, Interstices by Jim Perkins.

A digital pop-up festival lets us visit Gstaad Menuhin Festival virtually

Gstaad (Photo Destination Gstaad / Melanie Uhkoetter)
Gstaad (Photo Destination Gstaad / Melanie Uhkoetter)
As a result of the current crisis, most arts organisations have developed their digital footprint, making much more of all those recorded performances sitting in the vaults. This has means not only that we can catch up on performances we would like to have seen, but can also digitally visit festivals that we otherwise might not have been able to.

The Gstaad Menuhin Festival has created the Gstaad Digital Festival website, which presents concerts and interviews from previous festivals, and this week it launched the Pop-Up Festival 2020 which takes place entirely on-line. I know it's not the same, sitting in your living room hunched over a lap-top hardly compares to visiting Switzerland (see image of Gstaad above), but on-line performances have their own rewards.

Things kicked off last night with Sir Andras Schiff in Beethoven, and Beethoven continues to be the focus in further live-streamed concerts including Sol Gabetta (cello) and Alexander Melnikov (fortepiano) in the cello sonatas, Daniel Behle (tenor) and Jan Schultsz (fortepiano) in the songs and Patricia Kopatchinskaja (violin) and Joonas Ahonen (piano) in the violin sonatas. There are also young artist programmes as part of the festival's Jeunes Etoiles; five young artists are giving on-line concerts and people are asked to vote and the artist getting the most votes will be invited to the 2021 festival.

You can read more about the festival in my 2019 interview with festival director Christoph Müller. Full details of the 2020 on-line festival from the website, and there is a separate Gstaad Digital Festival website. [Note that whilst the general festival website has an English version, the digital site seems to be only in German]

Help support the future of new opera: Tête à Tête's funding appeal for the 2020 festival

2020 Tête à Tête: the Opera Festival
In March, when I interviewed a conductor at the beginning of lockdown he commented, when talking about future plans, that it wasn't just a question of whether they would be able to stage opera in the Autumn, but also whether there was going to be any money to fund it. This question has become fundamental to the survival of musical performance.

Tête à Tête has plans for its 2020 festival in September, either live or on-line depending on the situation, but unfortunately they have a significant funding gap and are £15,000 short, with many trusts and foundations having suspended further grant giving until September. This puts the festival in doubt and Tête à Tête has launched an appeal to raise funds to allow the festival to go ahead.

The company has already participated in a pilot indoor performance with a socially distanced audience, so as ever Tête à Tête is at the cutting edge.

Plans for the September 2020 festival include over 30 new operas, from Beethoven was a Lesbian (an homage to Pauline Oliveros in extravagant temporal drag) to The Minutes of the Hildegard of Bingen Society for Gardening Companions.

Full details of the planned 2020 Tête à Tête: the Opera Festival from the festival website.

If you care about new opera, then do help and visit the festival's support page.

Tuesday, 4 August 2020

In the Tavern of Sweet Songs

David Lewiston Sharpe In the Tavern of Sweet Songs; Lucy Knight, Jeff Stewart, Nigel Foster; Southway Recordings
David Lewiston Sharpe In the Tavern of Sweet Songs; Lucy Knight, Jeff Stewart, Nigel Foster; Southway Recordings

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 4 August 2020 Star rating: 3.0 (★★★)
A new song cycle setting Edward Fitzgerald's Miltonic rendering of mystical Sufi verse

Nūr ad-Dīn 'Abd ar-Rahmān Jāmī (1414-1492), usually known simply as Jami, was a Persian poet known as a writer of mystical Sufi literature, and his cycle of seven poems, Haft Awrang is considered one of the foundational texts of Persian literature. One of the poems, Salámán and Absál, tells the story of the carnal love of the Greek prince Salaman for his nurse Absal. The work became known in the West thanks to the translation by Edward Fitzgerald (best known as the translator of Omar Khayyam). Fitzgerald's translation of Salámán and Absál was published in 1856 and renders the Persian original into Miltonic verse.

It is from Fitzgerald's translation of Jāmī's Salámán and Absál, that the British composer David Lewiston Sharpe has selected seventeen poems to set for his song cycle In the Tavern of Sweet Songs. On this new disc from Southway Recordings, the cycle is given its premiere recording by soprano Lucy Knight, tenor Jeff Stewart and pianist Nigel Foster.

Music and mental health: release of Benjamin Fitzgerald's Ambedo

Benjamin Fitzgerald
Benjamin Fitzgerald
, a debut EP from composer Benjamin Fitzgerald was released at the weekend, following the release of a single from the EP, Ode to John, earlier this year. The three tracks on the EP, Ode to John, Kuebiko, and Ambedo are all part of a project looking at music and mental health, and in them Fitzgerald uses music to represent the symptoms of dementia, post-traumatic stress disorder and schizophrenia. When Ode to John was released, Fitzgerald explained the work was inspired by his grandfather's suffering from dementia.

Ftizgerald is from the North East, and he studied at Newcastle University. The music on Ambedo was created through the New Creatives commission scheme supported by Tyneside Cinema, BBC arts and Arts Council England. You can hear Fitzgerald talking about music and mental health on BBC Sounds.

Fitzgerald describes his style as incorporating an eclectic mix of transcendent strings, surrealism and a plethora of inspirations spanning modern jazz through electronica. He is currently undertaking a Summer residency at Sage Gateshead, where he is working with animator Jackson Nash on a film based on music he wrote for a commission funded by BBC/Tyneside Cinema.

Benjamin Fitzgerald - Ambedo
Benjamin Fitzgerald's Ambedo is available on Spotify.

Ambedo - A kind of melancholic trance in which you become completely absorbed in vivid sensory details-raindrops skittering down a window, tall trees leaning in the wind, clouds of cream swirling in your coffee.

Kuebiko – A state of exhaustion inspired by acts of senseless violence, which force you to revise your image of what can happen in this world – mending the fences of your expectation, weeding out all unwelcome and invasive truths, cultivating the perennial good that’s buried under the surface, and propping yourself up like an old scarecrow, who’s bursting at the seams but powerless to do anything but stand there and watch.

A tale of life, death, illusion and hope: live opera returns to London with HGO's performances of Holst's 'Savitri'

Holst: Savitri - HGO - Lauderdale House
For those of us missing live opera performance in London, HGO (Hampstead Garden Opera) have the solution. The company is staging Holst's Savitri in socially distanced performances in the gardens of Lauderdale House, on 13, 15, 20, 22 August 2020 with two performances per day.

The production will be staged by Julia Mintzer and conducted by Thomas Payne, with Lizzie Holmes, Joanna Harries, and Esme Bronwen Smith sharing the role of Savitri, Jack Roberts and Alex Aldren as Satyvan, and, Dan D'Souza and Theo Perry as Death.

Holst's Savitri is based on an episode from the Mahābhārata, and it was premiered in an amateur performance in 1916 with the first professional performance in 1923 conducted by Arthur Bliss. Holst intended the opera to be performed 'in the open air or else in a small building'. Savitri was the first of Holst's four operas (the others are The Perfect Fool, 1923, At the Boar's Head, 1925, The Wandering Scholar, 1934) and it remains the most successful of the four though Holst's operas remain even more neglected than those by his friend and colleague, Vaughan Williams.

To understand the problems with Holst's operas, it is perhaps worthwhile going back to Michael Kennedy's book The Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams (originally published by Oxford University Press in 1964) where he says:

'Vaughan Williams loved and understood Pelleas [Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande]; Holst hated it. This is perhaps why [Vaughan Willaims'] Riders to the Sea is so much more effective than Savitri, which it resembles'

Full details from the HGO website.

Monday, 3 August 2020

The Salzburg Festival & ARTE Concert celebrate the festival's centenary with daily live-streams

Richard Strauss: Elektra - Ausrine Stundyte (Elektra) - Salzburg Festival 2020 (Photo SF/ Bernd Uhlig)
Richard Strauss: Elektra - Ausrine Stundyte (Elektra)
Salzburg Festival 2020 (Photo SF/ Bernd Uhlig)
The Salzburg Festival is celebrating its centenary this year, but inevitably celebrations are somewhat curtailed and muted. There is a scaled-down, socially-distant version of the festival in Salzburg, but for those unable or unwilling to travel, ARTE Concert is bringing the festival to us with daily live streams of performances.

Things kicked off on Saturday 1 August 2020, with a live-stream of Richard Strauss' Elektra (in Krzysztof Warlikowski's production, conducted by Franz Welser-Möst) followed by Mozart's Cosi fan tutte (in Christoph Loy's staging, conducted by Joana Mallwitz) on 2 August 2020.

For the next three nights (3-5 August 2020) sees pianist Igor Levitt giving the first part of his Beethoven piano sonata cycle, which continues next week. Also to come are performances from Ivor Bolton and the Mozarteum Orchestra in Mozart, the Belcea Quartet in Beethoven, Andris Nelsons and the Vienna Philharmonic in Mahler, Daniel Barenboim and the East-Western Divan Orchestra, Riccardo Muti and the Vienna Philharmonic in Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, recitals from soprano Sonya Yoncheva, violinist Renaud Capucon, pianist Marta Argerich, and much more.

Full details from the website.

The Prison: conductor James Blachly on how an American conductor & orchestra finally brought Ethel Smyth's late masterwork to disc

Ethel Smyth in 1884 (Photo courtesy of National Portrait Gallery)
Ethel Smyth by Hayman Seleg Mendelssohn
albumen cabinet card
(Photo courtesy of National Portrait Gallery)
Whilst Dame Ethel Smyth is a definite, and recognisable presence in the cultural history first half of the 20th century, this can be as much from the force of her personality, the way she gusts in and out of many memoirs of the period, than from the presence of her own music.

It is positively embarrassing that we have had to wait so long to hear recordings of some of her works. Retrospect Opera has been rectifying this and recently issued the first recording of Smyth's Fete Galante from 1921-22 [see my review]. But Smyth's final major work has languished, until now. Chandos Records is issuing the recording of Smyth's 1930 choral symphony, The Prison, performed by Dashon Burton (baritone), Sarah Brailey (soprano), the Experiential  Orchestra and Chorus, conductor James Blachly. I caught up with the recording's conductor, James Blachly, via Zoom to find out how an American conductor and orchestra came to make the first recording of Smyth's late masterwork.

James stumbled on Smyth and The Prison by accident. He was creating a programme of music by all female composers, something that still requires some doing because historically it is harder finding works by women. He came across Smyth and started doing some research on her music. He discovered The Prison which was premiered in 1931 (Smyth conducted it in Edinburgh and Sir Adrian Boult conducted it in London), it was performed again during Smyth's lifetime, but after her death it languished, there was a performance in Germany in 2008 and the work's American premiere took place with piano accompaniment took place in 2016.

James Blachly and Experiential Orchestra recording Ethel Smyth's The Prison in 2019
James Blachly and Experiential Orchestra recording Ethel Smyth's The Prison in 2019 at SUNY Purchase
James was intrigued and got a copy of the score from the publishers, this was still the manuscript which had been produced during Smyth's lifetime, and James quickly realised that to stand a chance of performing the work, a new edition would be needed so that the rehearsal process was more efficient (musicians' sight-reading from hand-written scores, often error prone, is a time-consuming activity). James commissioned a new engraving of the work and performed excerpts in New York in 2016.

James had heard the American premiere of Smyth's opera The Wreckers, conducted by Leon Botstein at Bard Summerscape in 2015; currently available on-line from the SummerScape Upstreaming website. (The American premiere of her Mass was also quite recent when Mark Shapiro conducted the Cecilia Chorus of New York in 2013).

Sunday, 2 August 2020

A Life On-Line: going off-line, The Mikado in Gloucestershire, Voces8

St James' Church and some of the surviving buildings associated with Campden House
The view from the West Banqueting House
St James' Church and some of the surviving buildings associated with Campden House
This week was very much A Life Off-Line, as we spent a few days staying in the Landmark Trust's West Banqueting House in Chipping Campden, one of the few remains of the Jacobean Campden House which was destroyed during the Civil War. The two banqueting houses (West and East) are important survivals of the Jacobean penchant for such garden buildings where guests could repair to, to eat sweetmeats, whilst the main hall was being cleared after a meal. With no WiFi, we had a lovely few days very much off-line!

One delightful discovery during the trip was Batsford Arboretum. Now owned by a charitable foundation, the arboretum is in the grounds of Batsford House (still privately owned). The house was built in the 1890s by the Lord Redesdale, who created the original arboretum. Not only was Lord Redesdale the grandfather of the Mitford sisters (who were partly brought up at Batsford, which features in Nancy Mitford's novels), but Redesdale was something of an oriental expert. He worked in the diplomatic service and visited Japan, publishing Tales of Old Japan in 1871. He acted as a consultant in things Japanese when Gilbert and Sullivan were producing The Mikado in 1885. Redesdale included significant Japanese elements in the gardens at Batsford, and whilst much of his work was lost after the Second World War, you can still see some Japanese-inspired elements, a fragile link with The Mikado.

Voces8's Live from London festival started on Saturday 1 August, with a live concert by the ensemble streamed from its Gresham Centre in London. The first of a planned series of live-streamed concerts from major ensembles such as I Fagiolini, the Sixteen and Stile Antico. For this first concert, Voces8 gave us a programme which moved from Orlando Gibbons' Drop, drop slow tears and Arvo Part's The Deer's Cry, through some of Hubert Parry's Songs of Farewell and Jonathan Dove's Vertue, to madrigals by Monteverdi, the world premiere of Swedish composer Marten Jansson's An Elemental Elegy and music by Paul Smith and Stephen Paulus. It was a fascinating and enterprising programme, encompassing music for vocal consort as well as works for larger scale choir, all sung with Voces8's superb musicality and incredibly fine ear. I am always fascinated by the way that the group can take works like Parry's Songs of Farewell, written for a larger choir, and make them work with a vocal consort bringing an intimacy and intensity to the music. Jansson's new work was a striking and intense piece, and all the contemporary music in the programme formed a fascinating sample of different attitudes to tonality in contemporary music.

Longborough Opera should have been busy with its season, and to give us a taste of what we were missing, baritone Kieran Rayner and pianist Gamal Khamis recorded the Forester's 'My, what a beauty' from Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen [YouTube]

Opera podcasts continue to pop up from our opera companies, with the latest instalment of Opera North's Thinking About Opera, 'Carnivalesque' in which Professor Alan O'Leary talks to tenor Daniel Norman about humour in opera and its licence to release us from moral codes and social conventions. And the podcast comes with a warning that it features 'frank discussion of bodily functions'! [SoundCloud].

Over at Welsh National Opera, Gareth Jones' The O Word turned its spotlight on critics, asking why we needed a critical voice, with a discussion featuring Rupert Christiansen (The Telegraph), Steph Power (The Stage, and Opera Now), Diana Parkes and Nicola Heywood-Thomas (BBC Radio Wales). Inevitably, the depredations of the current crisis come up, but not all is doom and gloom. And I was rather tickled by the quote from the discussion, used as a header in WNO's email about the episode 'Barber of Seville is a dreadful opera and I’m fed up of Tosca!' [BuzzSprout]

Steven Devine and Kate Semmens are back with another of their delightful songs considering our current situation, this one is Covid Conundrum [YouTube]

Saturday, 1 August 2020

Precipice: out door performance event at The Grange Festival

The Grance Festival: Precipice
Our Summer festivals are finding ways to replace 2020's lost seasons with some element of performance ranging from Grange Park Opera's on-line Found Season to Nevill Holt Opera's concerts in their gardens, and Garsington Opera has just announced plans for semi-staged performances of Beethoven's Fidelio. Now the Grange Festival has announced out-door promenade performances of a new theatrical event Precipice.

Taking place on 21-23 August 2020 at The Grange, Hampshire, Precipice has been created by director Sinéad O’Neill and designed by Joanna Parker, and will take advantage of the various locations offered by the venue. Lasting around an hour, a small audience will be guided through a sequence of events involving spoken text by the actor, writer and director Tonderai Monyevu, along with musical performances from Sir John Tomlinson (performing Hans Sach's Act Two monologue from Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, two prize-winners from the 2019 Grange Festival International Singing Competition soprano Kiandra Howarth and mezzo-soprano Claire Barnett-Jones (in the flower duet from Delibes' Lakme), and John Andrews conducting the Grange Festival Chorus in music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Francis Poulenc, Lili Boulanger, John Tavener and Caroline Shaw. There will be dance from Shobana Jeyasingh Dance, and South African dancer and choreographer Mthuthuzeli November of Ballet Black.

There will be four performances each day, on 21, 22, 23 August 2020. Full details from the Grange Festival website.

Live opera returns to Garsington: Beethoven's 'Fidelio' in semi-staged performances

Beethoven: Fidelio - Garsington Opera in 2014
Beethoven: Fidelio - Garsington Opera in 2014
Amongst the losses from Garsington Opera's 2020 season was the revival of John Cox's production of Beethoven's Fidelio with Toby Spence in the role of Florestan. With the relaxation of lockdown, Garsington Opera has been able to schedule four semi-staged performances of Beethoven's Fidelio on 12, 14, 18 and 20 September 2020. Toby Spence will be Florestan with Katherine Broderick as Leonore, and Douglas Boyd conducts with members of the Philharmonia Orchestra.

When Garsington Opera last performed Fidelio, after the season at Wormsley Douglas Boyd conducted the Garsington cast in a performance of Beethoven's opera at the Philharmonie in Paris with L'Orchestre de chamber de Paris. For that occasion Peter Mumford, who had directed Opera North's semi-staged Ring cycle including designing video projections, and created a semi-staging involving video projections and it is this version that Fidelio will be performed at Garsington in September.

Further details are due to be announced, but it is wonderful to be able to report on live performance with an audience again.

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