Monday 12 October 2020

A Life On-Line: Walton & Sitwell in Art-Deco splendour, Handel in Italy, Purcell in London, Frederic Rzewski in New York

Reginald Mobley & Quodlibet Ensemble at Baryshnikov Arts Center, New York City
Reginald Mobley & Quodlibet Ensemble at Baryshnikov Arts Center, New York City

The Freemasons Hall might seem a strange location for William Walton and Edith Sitwell's entertainment, Facade, yet the work premiered in 1923 and the Freemasons Hall opened just 10 years later, so an art deco masterpiece is not quite as unlikely as it may seem. London Mozart Players performed Facade at the Freemasons Hall as part of its on-line Classical Club, joining with conductor Benjamin Pope and actor Samuel West. Sitwell's poems were not necessarily written for Walton, they come from a collection in which she was experimenting with rhythm, they are about rhythms rather than sense. Butcommentators suggest a closely argued logic to the allusions the text with a number of references to Sitwell's childhood (the mariner man is her father's valet and black Mrs Behemoth, Sitwell's mother). So, I have to confess that I got rather annoyed at the way LMP introduced the work referring to the 'eccentric' poems.

Thankfully, Samuel West is probably one of the best people around to take the role of narrator and having heard him doing the narrations in live accounts of Britten and Auden's film The Night Mail it was terrific to be able to hear him in action. His performances were wonderfully rhythmic, and clearly part of the ensemble, rather than worrying about 'making sense', though there was plenty of sense too. The result, with LMP's sparkling playing, is a complete delight [London Mozart Players' Classical Club].

On Tuesday we went to the English Concert's evening of Purcell at St John's Smith Square when Kristian Bezuidenhout directed a lovely programme of Birthday Odes for Queen Mary along with the first modern performance of a newly authenticated Purcell duet. And Come ye, sons of art was given in a new edition restoring it to more like Purcell's (lost) original [see my review]. The good news is that you can also enjoy this terrific performance on-line [EnglishConcert]. And on Friday, I caught another of the Britain's Orpheus concerts on-line.

Handel, the Italian featured music from Handel's early Italian period, though of course much of it was re-used in later works as well. Harry Bicket directed and was joined by soprano Lucy Crowe. We heard the overture to Handel's first Italian opera, Rodrigo, two cantatas the short Alpestre monte and the longer Armida abbandonata with Lucy Crowe in plangently expressive form, plus the aria 'Lascia la spina' from the oratorio Il Trionfo and a striking bassoon sonata by John Galliard. The concert was being broadcast live from the Lancaster Rooms at Somerset House (which was designed in 1776, some 20 years after Handel's death), and Galliard was the chapel master at Somerset House and played bassoon in Handel's orchestra. It made a delightful hour, showcasing all the reasons why Handel was so popular with his Italian patrons. [EnglishConcert]

On 3 November, the USA goes to the polls and a number of artists have been involving themselves in initiatives to urge people to vote. One of these is VOTESart, a non-partisan organization founded by two members of the Quodlibet Ensemble that combines musical performances with raising awareness about voters’ rights and voter registration. As part of their initiative, the Quodlibet Ensemble joined with counter-tenor Reginald Mobley to record a programme which featured Frederic Rzewski's Coming Together for narrator and ensemble, with text by Samuel Melville—one of the leaders of the revolt against police brutality at Attica Prison in 1971. Rzewski (born 1938) is a fascinating figure, composer and virtuoso pianist, his best known work is the stupendous set of piano variations, The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, and his works often combine virtuosity with political activism and socio-historical themes. By contrast, Coming Together is almost minimalist, it was a work I had never come across before and found it rather moving, particularly Mobley's narration. The ensemble followed this with a group of songs and spirituals by Florence Price (1887-1953) and Bach's Cantata No. 54, Widerstehe doch der Sünde (Just Resist Sin). At first a strange mix, but it worked. The film was created by violinist and Quodlibet’s founder Katie Hyun in collaboration with filmmaker and human rights activist Pastor Isaac Scott, and recorded in September 2020 at the Baryshnikov Arts Center's John Cage & Merce Cunningham Studio. [BACNYC] 

St Stephen's Walbrook featured its choral scholars, conducted by Gabriella Noble with Andrew Ears in a lovely programme celebrating the psalms, with Britten's Jublilate in C, Palestrina's Sicut Cervus, 'The Lord is my Shepherd' from Howells' Requiem and James MacMillan's A New Song. The recording has a terrific sense of place, effectively utilising St Stephen's reverberant acoustic. [Facebook]

Alex Woolf and David Pountney's new opera A Feast in the Time of Plague debuted in September at Grange Park Opera in direct response to the present situation. Act I has now debuted on-line as part of Grange Park Opera's interim season and I will be writing more after Act II has debuted this week [Grange Park Opera]

This week has been a busy one on-line, but much of our activity has been non-musical as we have been enjoying films from the BFI's London Film Festival, and the Cardiff-based Iris Prize which has an annual queer film festival in Cardiff [Iris Prize

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