Sunday 25 October 2020

A Life On-Line: A Feast in the Time of Plague, an oboe concerto in time of war, an Arcadian Academy in Surrey

Sevak Avanesyan in the recently bombed Ghazanchetsots Cathedral in Shushi (Artsakh)
Sevak Avanesyan in the recently bombed Ghazanchetsots Cathedral in Shushi (Artsakh)

Quite a busy column this week, as our short holiday in the West Country slowed things down somewhat and there was no column last week. We finally caught up with the London Mozart Players concert from Fairfield Halls as part of their Classical Club, originally broadcast on 15 October. Conducted by Mateusz Moleda, the orchestra performed Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony and Richard Strauss' Oboe Concerto with oboist Olivier Stankiewicz. 

The Mendelssohn was wonderfully lithe and propulsive; working with rather fewer strings that might be usual (owing to space constraints on stage) the balance was less string dominated than in some modern symphony orchestra performances, and Moleda clearly fed off this and encouraged an impulsive and dynamic performance full of lovely instrumental detail. The second movement continued the sense of onward movement with a graceful flow to the third. The finale was vivid and vigorous, with a great sense of tension and expectation in the quieter passages.

French-born Olivier Stankiewicz is currently the principal oboist with the London Symphony Orchestra and one of YCAT's artists. Strauss' concerto is a remarkable, and unlikely work; the result of the personal engagement between a young American serviceman who, in another life, played principal oboe in the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the elderly composer. Despite the wartime circumstances, it is a gorgeously lyrical work which brings out a side to the oboe not often heard. And for all the busy detail of the Strauss concerto's opening movement, there was a lovely relaxed quality to Stankiewicz's playing, as he combined shapely phrasing with mellow tone. In the second movement he made the solo line beautifully tender, with a perkily impulsive finale where, at the end, all the players seemed to be swaying to the music. [London Mozart Players]

Another work we caught up on was Alex Woolf's new opera A Feast in the Time of Plague from Grange Park Opera. Earlier in the year I interviewed Alex to talk about how the opera had come about. The libretto is by David Pountney and was written, on spec, in direct response to the pandemic. Wasfi Kani commissioned the work for Grange Park Opera and it was performed at the company's Surrey theatre with a strong cast, Claire Booth, Peter Hoare, Anne-Marie Owens, Soraya Mafi, Susan Bullock, Simon Keenlyside, Janis Kelly, Jeffrey LLoyd Roberts, William Dazely, Clive Bayley, Sarah Minns, Harry Thatcher, conducted by Toby Purser,  with Alex Woolf at the piano.

Based on one of Pushkin's little tragedies, the premise is quite simple; twelve people gather for a feast during a plague and then one by one most of them die leaving, at the end, a death figure. Pountney used 12 people because of the 12 disciples and the Last Supper, but this raises problems as in an opera lasting less than 90 minutes (Act One, 'Arrivals' was 35 minutes, Act Two 'Departures' was 50 minutes), there was not really enough time to explore character. Instead, Pountney made sure that each character had a showcase scene/aria sometimes on arrival and sometimes on departure. Though the tenor of the work was solemn, in style it reminded me very much of Rossini's Il viaggio a Reims, with the same group of people brought together by circumstance, each getting their moment and then, departing. There is a risk that the opera might have the same occasional nature, though I am sure Woolf will want to re-work the piece at leisure. As it is, it is a remarkable achievement in such a short time.

Stylistically, Woolf has the ability to slip between styles, so that he wrote a delightful Kurt Weill-esque cabaret number for Susan Bullock's Claire which clearly showed that Woolf had been listening to 'The Saga of Jenny' from Lady in the Dark, and there were other moments equally apt. The moments that stuck for me were the more pointed bits, such as the scenes for Karl (Will Dazeley) the radical, and for Pius (Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts) the oily informer. In fact, I rather wanted the piece to be darker than it was, to be more intense and there were moments which felt a little too comfortable. But that said, creating an opera from scratch in such a short time was an amazing achievement, there was no time for extensive back and forth on the libretto and Woolf wrote the work out of sequence, writing each aria as the solo role was cast. [Grange Park Opera]

On Saturday, it was the Brighton Early Music Festival. This year it is BREMF@Home with a programme of on-line concerts filmed earlier in the year. For our first visit to the festival we caught Ensemble Augelletti (Olwen Foulkes recorders, Ellen Bundy & Alice Earll violin, Jam Orrell viola, Carina Drury cello, Harry Buckoke viola da gamba & double bass, Toby Carr theorbo) in a programme of music inspired by the 18th century Roman Arcadian Academy. The music, by Handel, Corelli, Alessandro Scarlatti, Geminiani, Stradella, and Sammartini was all by composers who were associated with the Academy, some were members and others simply wrote music for it. It was an imaginative idea, and brought together a wonderful variety of pieces all linked via Olwen Foulkes' informative narrations about the Academy and the music. The concert was filmed in the lovely Tithe Barn at Sullington Manor Farm and footage of the players was interspersed with film of the countryside. the ensemble formed a real chamber group, with a lovely sense of give and take in the pieces and some fine detailing in the inner parts as well as the solo moments. I particularly loved the trio sonata works, where Olwen Foulkes' recorder and Ellen Bundy's violin played off each other. [BREMF]

The Academy of St Martin in the Field's re:connect series continued with Isolation and Friendship, a concert from St Martin in the Fields exploring  themes of isolation and friendship, featuring works by Britten and Prokofiev written specifically for friends of the composers, as well as two new works by Welsh composer Huw Watkins. His song 'How' is taken from new music project Eight Songs From Isolation, written during lockdown by eight contemporary composers, whilst his setting of three Welsh folk songs was written to celebrate the 60th birthday of HRH The Prince of Wales. The main work in the programme was Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, performed by tenor Toby Spence, conductor Oliver Zeffman. Spence, who recently took on the challenge of the title role in Beethoven's Fidelio with Garsington Opera, remains superb in this repertoire, keeping a remarkably lyric flexibility alongside a clear steely power and excellent attention to the words. For the Huw Watkins songs, the ensemble was joined by the composer on piano. The concert opened with Britten's Elegy for Solo Viola, written when he was 16 (!) and discovered in his papers on his death. [St Martin's Digital]

I have to confess that I have not had chance to watch the film of Beethoven's Fidelio from Garsington Opera, but it is well worth catching on OperaVision. There is a terrific cast, Toby Spence and Katherine Broderick making their role debuts (!) alongside Galina Averina, Stephen Richardson, Andrew Foster-Williams and Trystan Llŷr Griffiths, conducted by Douglas Boyd, with a reduced orchestration by Francis Griffin. [OperaVision]

Northern Ireland Opera's new series Northern Songs joins some of Northern Ireland’s best known opera singers as they take us to their home county or city and perform a selection of art songs composed by Northern Irish or Irish composers. For the first film, mezzo-soprano Carolyn Dobbin and pianist Ruth McGinley perform Sir Hamilton Harty's The Blue Hills of Antrim, filmed at Dunluce Castle in her home county, Co, Antrim. As with many songs by Harty, whilst the work is conservative it is not quite what you expect and very intriguing, whilst the landscape is stunning. And no, I've never been to Northern Ireland! [YouTube]

Eboracum Baroque released a delightful film of Handel's 'Let the Bright Seraphim' from Samson performed with soprano Charlotte Bowden, trumpeter Chris Parsons, harpsichord Sebastian Gillot and cello Miri Nohl at Handel's own house in Brook Street (part of Handel & Hendrix in London). [YouTube]

The English Symphony Orchestra's series of films from Wyastone Studios continued with Visions of Childhood. Kenneth Woods conducted the orchestra with soprano April Fredrick in a series of arrangements by Woods of music by Mahler, Wagner, Schubert and Humperdinck all themed on childhood and culminating in  'Das Himmlische Leben (The Heavenly Life)' from Mahler's Symphony No.4 [ESO]

Wexford Festival Opera has had to reinvent itself this year, and one of its delightful on-line events was The Falstaff Chronicles, Verdi's opera amusingly boiled down to six episodes of 15 minutes each, originally spread across six days all performed by members of the Wexford Factory, a professional development academy for young Irish singers, with Rory Dunne and David Howes as Falstaff. [Wexford Festival Opera]

In what must be the strangest farewell ever, violinist Tamsin Little is saying goodbye to the concert platform. Her final concert at Stoller Hall in Manchester was streamed live by Manchester Chamber Concerts Society. Little and pianist Martin Roscoe performed music by Clara Schumann and Amy Beach, plus Beethoven's Spring Sonata and Cesar Franck's Violin Sonata [Stoller Hall] Another violinist, fiddle player Duncan Chilsholm is on the Isle of Mull, posting a series of wonderful traditional tunes in spectacular locations [Twitter]

The Northern Star Festival was on-line this year with a concert of Northern delights from the Swedish Church in London, with soprano Emily Atkinson, tenor Rory Carver, theorbo player Johan Löfving and friends in a lovely programme of Michel Lambert, Handel, Gaspar Sanz, Matthew Locke, Purcell, Bach, and Monteverdi. Atkinson and Carver are superb, and end the programme with a tingling rendition of the final love duet from Monteverdi's I'Incoronazione di Poppea (and I even forgive Carver for singing the role of Nero an octave lower). In Handel's delightful sonata fr flute and basso continuo, Yu-Wei Hu, flute and Rosie Moon, double bass perform the first movement as a duet, almost riffing it to jazz. [YouTube]

The city of Shushi is in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh in the South Caucasus. The city is the site of the 1920 massacre of the Armenian population of the city, and the long dispute (dating back to before 1920) between Azerbaijan and Armenia continues with much loss of life. In a recent video, cellist Sevak Avanesyan performs Krunk (The Crane) at the recently bombed Ghazanchetsots Cathedral. The music is by the Armenian composer Komitas (1869-1935) [YouTube]

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