Sunday 8 November 2020

A Life On-Line: Phaedra, Blue Electric, Ecstatic Dances, Another Dawn, If you go down to the woods

Tom Smail: Blue Electric - Maya (Mimi Doulton), Vigo (Jonathan Brown), Bella (Camilla Seale) - Playground Theatre (Photo Claire Shovelton)
Tom Smail: Blue Electric - Maya (Mimi Doulton), Vigo (Jonathan Brown), Bella (Camilla Seale)
Playground Theatre (Photo Claire Shovelton)

This week on-line has included Britten's Phaedra, a new take on old songs from the Manchester Collective, the premiere of Tom Smail's opera about his wife's challenging youth in Paris, the Fieri Consort illuminating the development of the Italian madrigal, and not to forget Nicky Spence and Kitty Whately having fun in the woods!

Our week started with Britten's Phaedra from mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnston and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic's Ensemble 10/10, conductor Martyn Brabbins, as part of a programme of largely British music for strings (plus a few extras) which had been recorded on 22 October. A last-minute change in conductor had meant the postponement of a new piece, but Brabbins had put together a fascinating programme. We started with Michael Tippett's Little Music for String Orchestra, written in 1946 and so redolent of his opera A Midsummer Marriage. Though relatively conventional the music was full of Tippett quirks, and the ensemble gave us a strong sound and a good feel for the neo-Baroque idioms behind the music, including three fugues!

Next came the Fantasy Homage to Schubert by Bulgarian-English composer Dobrinka Tabakova, an atmospheric dreamscape of a piece which moves from the haunting to the intense and then suddenly, briefly the clouds break to reveal Schubert. This was followed by Arvo Part's devastatingly simple yet profoundly moving Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten. Martyn Brabbins spoke between the pieces, lucid yet engaging and entertaining introductions to the music. The programme was recorded without an audience, and he commented that without this two-way thing, music is strange and lonely. 

The programme ended with Britten's Phaedra, written for Janet Baker and one of his last works (he, in fact, had contemplated an opera based on the subject but was too ill to do so). Jennifer Johnston, who is artist in residence with the RLPO, and the ensemble gave a finely dramatic performance of the cantata which boils Phaedra's tragedy down to 15 minutes. Johnston was wonderfully even in tone and sang with a lovely clarity. The contrast between her strong performance, full of colour, and the sparse orchestration was fascinating. A terrific start to the week. [RLPO]

We covered Tom Smail's opera Blue Electric when scenes from it debuted in a workshop performance at Tête à Tête in 2018 [see Anthony's review]. The opera is now complete and was performed at the Playground Theatre with substantially the same cast as the 2018 workshop but with a new director. Mimi Doulton and Jonathan Brown were the young girl Alba and her father, with an ensemble of Helen Charlston, Camilla Seale, Christopher Bowen, and Emily Wenman playing a number of roles. The conductor was Gabriella Teychenné and the director was Orpha Phelan.

The opera is based on Alba Arikha's memoir of her childhood in Paris, Major/Minor, and Arikha (who is Smail's wife) wrote the libretto. It is an intense story, Alba is bullied as a child and made fun of because of a back brace, and has a complex relationship with her forbidding father. Only gradually does she, and we, learn of his terrible history during World War II. The opera unfolds in a series of short scenes which intercut the complexities of Alba's teenage life with her difficult relationship with her father. There are also short, non-naturalistic scenes evoking Alba's mental states. The result is a rather intense 100 minutes.

Seeing a new opera via a live recording rather than being there is not necessarily ideal, and this was a piece which I would want to experience live. The recording rather emphasised the strength and intensity of Smail's orchestral writing (possibly not helped by the fact that his was pre-recorded), so that even the lighter scenes were impelled by powerful forces. At times, it felt a little too much and you wanted the experience to ease off. However, Mimi Doulton and Jonathan Brown drew together a strong depiction of their characters' complex relationship and the young woman's growing sense of what her father has suffered. [YouTube]

I was lucky enough to catch the live performance Helen Charlston and Toby Carr's recital [see my review] for the Gesualdo Six's London Sound Gallery. The recitals from the festival are now coming on-line and I caught up with the Fieri Consort's programme Another Dawn. The Fieri Consort (Hannah Ely, Lucy Cox, Helen Charlston, Nancy Cole, Chris Fitzgerald-Lombard, Josh Cooter, Tom Kelly, Ben Rowarth) performed a programme of madrigals by Luca Marenzio (1553/4 - 1599) and Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) and it was fascinating to hear how Monteverdi built on the developments of the older man as the madrigal style developed. The Fieri Consort's performances were strong and vibrant, each individual voice given full reign yet in the context of a chamber music like collaboration. The building's reverberant acoustics were perhaps a little too much of for the music, but the singers coped admirably and gave us a series of strongly engaged performances, full of colour and words. There were two modern pieces, Heyr Hymna Smithur by the Icelandic composer Thorkell Sigurbjörnsson (1938-2013), perhaps closer to a part-song than a madrigal but lovely nonetheless, and Ben Rowarth's A Closed Garden. Rowarth (who was singing with the group) has written a great deal for the Fieri Consort and his music reflects and refracts the 17th century madrigal without ever becoming pastiche. In fact, Rowarth takes the harmonic complexities and twists of the older music and makes them into something striking. The programme ended with the Fieri Consort joining with the Gesualdo Six for a performance of Marenzio's 12-voice Super flumina Babylonis, making me wonder why we don't hear this lovely piece more. [London Sound Gallery]

The Manchester Collective has put its programme Ecstatic Dances on-line, highlights from the group's collaboration with Danish multi-instrumentalist Paul Hoxbro, who specialises in all sorts of small pipes. Hoxbro was supported by a string quartet plus electric bass (Rakhi Singh, Simmy Singh, Ruth Gibson, Abel Selaocoe, Alan Keary). Their programme, recorded with an audience earlier this year at the CLF Arts Cafe in Peckham, featured music from Peter Warlock's Capriol Suite alongside a series of arrangements of traditional music from the UK and from Scandinavia. And if that sounds somewhat twee and pastoral, then think again because the arrangements were vivid and vigorous, exploring these traditional pieces in contemporary ways. It helped that each of the performers was a strong personality in their own right, so that the result was full of characterful moments and fine ensemble. [Manchester Collective]

The Vasari Singers, conductor Jeremy Backhouse, have a new disc out on Naxos, Heaven Full of Stars, a programme of star-based anthems by mainly living composers, to celebrate the choir's 40th anniversary. As a live launch was not possible, they created an on-line version instead [YouTube]

Misha Penton's (micro)Requiem is a six-movement work inspired by Mozart's Requiem. Penton, who conceived, directed and performed the music, released a movement each day culminating in the four and a half minute work being released on 1 November, All Souls' Day. It is a striking visual and musical meditation on hope and remembrance which re-imagines healing, renewal, and rebirth. Visually and musically striking. [Vimeo]

Pianist Maria Canyigueral and I shared a bill earlier this year when we both contributed to an on-line fund-raising event for Conway Hall. In August, she gave a recital at the Palau de la Música Catalana in Barcelona, and has shared on-line a lovely performance from the concert of Bach's Prelude and Fugue in C sharp minor from Book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier, by turns thoughtful, meditative and powerfully structured [YouTube]

Kitty Whately and Nicky Spence's delightful film If you go down to the woods was originally intended as a Christmas piece, but its release (as part of Grange Park Opera's Interim Season) has been brought forward to cheer us up. Whately and Spence, accompanied by Ella O'Neill, perform an eclectic programme of songs which instead of being a recital are linked together with a delightful narrative. Narrated by Kevin Whately (Kitty's father) the film is a mock reality show Couples' Retreat, about a Geordie couple (Kitty Whately and Nicky Spence) who go camping in the woods to recapture their relationship. As might be expected, the performances are strong and vivid, projecting character and words, and moving between comedy and serious in a fluid way. It makes 40 minutes of pure delight, only Spence could sing Jeremy Nicholas' camping song with such innuendo whilst Kitty Whately was very touching as the Baker's wife in Sondheim's Into the Woods. The music featured a new arrangement of Teddy Bear's Picnic by Roderick Williams alongside songs by Dominic Argento, Jeremy Nicholas (camping song, full of innuendo), Jonathan Dove, Mervyn Horder, Teddy Bear's Picnic arr. Roderick Williams, Reynaldo Hahn, Benjamin Britten, Schumann, Sondheim, Handel/Somervell, Brahms, Faure, Humperdinck, ending with Gerswhin's Lorelei as a duet (with moves). Pure delight! [Grange Park Opera]

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