Monday 31 August 2020

A Life On-Line: First night of Proms, the Simon Bolivar Orchestra, Samson and Delila in Flanders

BBC Proms - Nicholas Chalmers & BBC Singers (image from live feed)
BBC Proms - Nicholas Chalmers & BBC Singers (image from live feed)

On Friday it was the first of the BBC's live Proms, with Sakari Oramo conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Nicholas Chalmers conducting the BBC Singers. There was no audience, of course, and the orchestra was spread out far more widely than is usual, but in a way which made the players on film far more easy to see. This became an ensemble of individuals rather than a mass. There were some stunning moments, but the programme was somewhat strange with a trio of American-inspired pieces; a new commission from Hannah Kendall, Tuxedo: Vasco ‘de’ Gama, inspired by the American artist Michel Basquiat (1960-1988), Eric Whitacre's Sleep and Aaron Copland's Quiet City, and then Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 'Eroica'.

Both on the radio and on the TV (the concert was broadcast on BBC Two with a 30-minute delay), the announcers spent a lot of time telling us how special the occasion was, rather than letting the music speak for itself. It would have been good to hear more about Hannah Kendall's inspirations for her piece and see more of Basquiat's images. Her piece was striking, full of imaginative textures and a lovely use of rhythm, though it didn't feel very 1980s and I wondered if it might have been better if we hadn't known about the Basquiat connection. Moving from the Hannah Kendall piece to Eric Whitacre's Sleep, sung by the BBC Singers conducted by Nicholas Chalmers, there was a danger of it being something of a non-sequitur. But the simply stunning performances that Chalmers and the singers gave us (all from memory), giving a real edge to Whitacre's harmonies, meant that the short work had great intensity. This somewhat disparate group of pieces finished with Aaron Copland's Quiet City, always a moving piece but here counterpointed with images of cities under lockdown, and again the performance particularly from Alison Teale (cor anglais) and Phillip Cobb (trumpet) simply blew away any concerns you might have had as to why this piece after the Kendall and the Whitacre.

There followed a wonderfully architectural performance of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony, the players giving us strong focussed lines and a terrific sense of Beethoven's structure. This wasn't HIP by a long chalk, but it wasn't late Romantic either, and throughout you sensed the players responding to Oramo's feeling for the work's structure. [BBC iPlayer]

Earlier in the week we caught the TV broadcast of a very special Prom indeed from 2007. The BBC Proms debut of the Simon Bolivar National Youth Orchestra of Venezuela conducted by Gustavo Dudamel in a programme which started with Shostakovich's Symphony No. 10, and continued with Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, and music by Monvayo, Marquez, Ginastera, and Gutierrez. What struck me first was simply how many of them there were, the orchestra was simply huge yet there was no sense of it being unwieldy, and the players responded with almost chamber intensity to Dudamel's direction. The Shostakovich, premiered just after Stalin's death in 1953 and written in the wake of the composer's second denunciation in 1948, is a powerful work. It is also large scale, and what was remarkable was how the young players responded to the intensity of the music, but also followed Dudamel in creating a real sense of scale. Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from West Side Story are not easy, yet the orchestra threw them off with bravura elan, and followed them with a group of Latin American pieces where their sense of rhythm, and pride in their native composers could thrive. [BBC iPlayer]

Over at Opera Vlaanderen we caught with their 2009 performance of Camille Saint-Saens' Samson et Dalila, directed by Amir Nizar Zuabi & Omri Nitzan, conducted by Tomáš Netopil, with Torsten Kerl and Marianna Tarasova in the title roles. Nitzan and Nizar Zuabi are an intriguing duo, one an Israeli Jew, the other Palestinian, and they brought this contemporary focus to Saint-Saens' opera.

Samson became a freedom fighter, something that a number of other companies have done, but here the directors had flipped our perceptions. The downtrodden Biblical Israelites were portrayed as the modern Palestinians whilst the Philistines were modern Israelis. As a concept it worked well, though if the imagery had been a little less specific it might have been more powerful. The staging of the first act (which is notoriously static) was particularly well done, with a multi-level set which enabled us to see both the Israelites and the Philistines. But where the production rather weakened was that God had been taken out of the equation, which makes the dramaturgy somewhat clunkier. And quite what was going on in Act Three in lieu of the Philistines celebrations in the temple is anyone's guess. Still, there were some powerful performances, particularly from Torsten Kerl as an heroic Samson, still capable of beauty in his love scene with Marianna Tarasova's robust Dalila. [YouTube].

On Saturday it was the turn of Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen and pianist James Baillieu to perform live as part of the Metropolitan Opera's series Met Stars Live in Concert, and you can read my article about the concert.

I have always been fascinated by the theremin, and as part of BBC Radio 3's Home Sessions, theremin player Carolina Eyck played the Doctor Who theme on one, definitely something to be seen as well as heard [Facebook]. Still on unusual instruments, Anneke Scott has been playing various ones in her collection, the most recent outing was a 1940s Walzerhorn, a type of French horn popular in the former Czechosloviakia, and here she played a beautiful piece Tre giorni son che Nina which is probably not by Pergolesi but may be by Vincenzo Legrenzo Ciampi (1719–1762). [YouTube]

British Youth Opera's Summer Festival has been two weeks of on-line workshops, masterclasses, performances, mentoring and other training for a group of young opera professionals, the BYO's website has a lovely selection of snippets from the festival from casting director Sarah Playfair's wise words on the subjectivity of casting to director Max Webster coaching monologues, in this case part of Samuel Beckett's Endgame. These are not public performances but a lovely chance to eavesdrop on training. [BYO website]

The Presteigne Festival has been going on, and as with many other festival, happening on-line. There was lots to enjoy including a festival commission from Ninfea Cruttwell-Reade for narrator and orchestra, Reginald: The Musings of an Edwardian Gentleman, performed by Christopher Good, Nova Music Opera, conductor George Vass, a lovely modern excursion into that rather under-appreciated genre of the melodrama, and Chrisopher Good fabulously captured the wry tone of the text, based on Saki. [Presteigne Festival] And we also caught the terrific recital from tenor Bradley Smith and harpist Oliver Wass, including Britten's Suite for Harp, and folk-song arrangements, plus the premiere of Amelia Clarkson's Through his gaze, three songs for tenor and harp setting WB Yeats, Freya Waley-Cohen's Skye, Howard Skempton's Three Songs for Jennie, and another commission Robin Haigh's No-One [Presteigne Festival]

Soprano Julia Sitkovetsky and pianist Dylan Perez performed live at the 1901 Arts Club, in a lovely programme of Hugo Wolf, Richard Strauss' Drei Ophelia Lieder, Debussy's Ariettes Oubliees, and Rachmaninov [YouTube]

Sometimes you explore the internet and fall down a worm-hole into another era. This happened when I came across one of composer Edward McGuire's postings on Facebook, it was referring to an archive recording from 30 years ago of a concert by the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland, conducted by James Loughran in McGuire's own Glasgow Symphony, Rutland Boughton's Trumpet Concerto and Nigel Osborne's Violin Concerto, a terrific and fascinating programme originally on BBC Radio 3 and now on the Internet Archive. If you find that all this free performance over the internet at bit worrying, with so many artists either not being able to perform or doing so without a reasonable fee, then do try Stage Hub which is providing a range of lovely performances which earn the artists money.

Beginning today (31 August 2020), the Hampstead Collective is going to be giving a weekly performance of sacred music at the Church of St John at Hampstead, both on-line and for a socially distanced audience.

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