Monday 24 August 2020

A Life On-Line: Paul Mealor's Piano Concerto, Zandonai in New York, Turandot in Zagreb

Puccini: Turandot - Renzo Zulian (Calaf) - Croatian National Opera, Zagreb
Puccini: Turandot - Renzo Zulian (Calaf) - Croatian National Opera, Zagreb
Last Saturday (15 August 2020), JAM on the Marsh featured the premiere of Paul Mealor's Piano Concerto which was performed (without an audience) by pianist John Frederick Hudson (for whom the work was written), the London Mozart Players and conductor Michael Bawtree [see my recent interview with Paul for more background on the work]. The final concert in JAM's on-line festival. Mealor's concerto, written for solo piano, strings and percussion, was performed in the context of a programme of music for strings, with The Seafarer by Peter Aviss, The Hythe by Judith Bingham (which JAM commissioned in 2012), Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings and Bartok's Romanian Folk Dances.

Mealor's concerto was deliberately written as a musical description of Romney Marsh and Mealor has described how he wrote the piece partly whilst staying on the Marsh, and the programme pre-fixed the premiere with pieces which all, apart from the Barber, seem to partake of a sense of place from the sea in The Seafarer which was written in 2009 by the British composer and conductor (founder of the Oare String Orchestra), to the harbour in Judith Bingham's The Hythe where the composer uses the idea of the harbour or haven (the hythe is an old word for this) as a place of homecoming for the sailor but also an allegory of the soul's returning to god. Interestingly, when the work was premiered in 2012 it was performed (without vibrato and on gut strings) by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Bartok's Romanian Folk Dances also has a particular sense of place, as each of the short movements is based on a folk dance, each from a different place in Transylvania (at the time the piece was written, this was then in Hungary but had a significant ethnic Romanian population).

Mealor's concerto has something of the tone poem about it, a beautifully evocative description of the marsh starting from virtually nothing and building into music of drama and romance. Mealor is unashamedly heart-on-sleeve at times, though we build to real drama at the end. The writing for piano is often more like a ripieno in a concerto grosso than the full-blown romantic soloist, but towards the end Mealor gave his soloist some moments in the spotlight and John Frederick Hudson, playing from memory, made a sensitive soloist [JamConcert]

Riccardo Zandonai's Francesca da Rimini was the sort of large-scale grand Italian opera that music publisher Tito Riccordi wanted but that his premiere composer, Giacomo Puccini would not give him. Zandonai's 1914 opera must have seemed rather old-fashioned at the time, eight years after the premiere of Richard Strauss' Salome and a year after the premiere of Montemezzi's far more advanced L'amore dei tre re. Zandonai's opera remains on the fringes of the repertory, we saw it at Opera Holland Park in 2010 (with Cheryl Barker and Julian Gavin) and during the week we caught the Metropolitan Opera's 1984 staging with Renata Scotto and Placido Domingo, conducted by James Levine in a production directed by Piero Faggioni. Faggioni seems to have gone all out grand opera with the production and the staging was full of gorgeous settings providing a sympathetic backdrop for the Francesca of Renata Scotto (who was perhaps not quite in the sort of youthful form that the role really required). The singing was superb, but frankly the drama never quite took off and you felt something more focused, less self-indulgent might have worked. But a wonderful chance to hear Renata Scotto, Placido Domingo and Cornell MacNeil in their primes [MetOpera]

Another opera which can suffer from over-lavish production standards is Puccini's Turandot (Franco Zeffirelli's production at the Met is a case in point), but the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb staged the work in 2018 with a remarkable economy and striking psychological insights (seen on OperaVision). The directors were the Italian duo Ricci/Forte and conductor was Marcello Mottadelli. The excellent cast was all new to me, with Rebeka Lokar (Slovenian) as Turandot, Renzo Zulian (Italian) as Calaf, Valentina Fijačko Kobić (Croatian) as Liu and Berislav Puškarić (Croatian) as Timur.

The action all took place inside Turandot's head, she was the 'onlie begetter' of the action and all the cast were placed in glass museum-like cases when not in action. And all were articulated by Turandot's shadows, a team of 12 actors who ended up stripped to their underwear (for reasons that were unclear). Not all the dramaturgy was completely obvious, and I was unclear quite how the ending fitted in (the traditional Alfano/Toscanini ending was used). But this was striking and dramatically engrossing, making a real effort to take us away from the lazy dramaturgy and pseudo-orientalism of many productions. [OperaVision]

In normal circumstances the young singers on the Royal Opera House's Jette Parker Young Artists scheme would have a myriad of showcase performances lined up, from small roles in operas to recitals in the Crush Room to an annual showcase. However, none of this is happening, but this week the Royal Opera House put up on YouTube a series of fascinating masterclasses in which Antonio Pappano took each of five singers through two key roles. There is a playlist on YouTube, which is well worth catching both for the young singers' performances and Pappano's performance insights. We hear, Filipe Manu (who was lucky enough to be in the new production of Fidelo before the close, see my review), Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha, Stephanie Wake-Edwards (who was in one of the Live from Covent Garden events),  Germán Alcántara, and Yaritza Véliz [YouTube]

Dani Howard's new piece, the first in a series called The Vino Encores features clarinettist John Schertle, from the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra and the composer herself on wine glass! [YouTube]. Mezzo-soprano Helen Charlston shared a taster of what is in store with her Isolation Songbook for which there is a fundraiser for the new recording on Delphian of these 15 new songs [Twitter]. English Touring Opera has been taking opera out and about, Bradley Travis shared a clip of Jenny Stafford singign outside in Hammersmith [Twitter]. Eboracum Baroque have joined up with author Terry Deary to create The Glorious Georgians, a three-episode on-line series. I caught the second one, Opera and Class [YouTube]

BREMF (Brighton Early Music Festival) is going on-line this year, and in a terrific gesture of support a group of young artists associated with the festival have put together a Playathon, 90 minutes of superb music making, and do think about donating to the festival. [BREMF].

This week's column is slightly later than usual as on Sunday we were winging our way to West Green House Gardens where they are presenting a series of lunchtime concerts in the garden. We caught bass-baritone Timothy Dickinson and pianist Nicola Rose in Opera's Villains, an engaging trawl through villainous operatic characters by Handel, Mozart, Weber, Gounod, Berlioz, Boito, Offenbach, G&S and Puccini. The series continues in two week's time when on 5 September, soprano Chloe Morgan will be performing favourite arias. See West Green House website for details.

I trust that everyone caught Sunday's live concert from Conway Hall with violinist Fenella Humphreys and pianist Simon Callaghan. There will be another recital on 13 September when Callaghan is joined by cellist Ashok Klouda for an all-Beethoven concert [ConwayHall]

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