Sunday 31 January 2021

A Life On-Line: Mental Health at Wigmore Hall, Holocaust Memorial from Opera Holland Park, Britten & Shostakovich from ETO

David Webb
David Webb at Wigmore Hall

This week features tenor David Webb and friends supporting mental health at Wigmore Hall, Nicky Spence and Opera Holland Park commemorating Holocaust Memorial Day, Britten setting Russian and Shostakovich setting British poets from English Touring Opera, James Newby in Hamburg and more besides.

During January, tenor David Webb intended to cycle from Cornwall to London, combining the 300-mile trip with three performances of Schubert's Winterreise (in Truro, Exeter and the Wigmore Hall), all in aid of mental health charities MIND and Music Minds Matter (Help Musicians UK). The current lockdown restrictions put paid to that but Webb, who has been open about his own struggles with mental health, was nothing undaunted and so during January he cycled 500 miles, in laps from his own home, and then on Friday 29 January Webb was joined by a group of friends for a performance of Winterreise at Wigmore Hall. David Webb (tenor) shared the platform with Alessandro Fisher (tenor), Rupert Charlesworth (tenor) and Benedict Nelson (baritone), with Iain Burnside at the piano.

The four began and ended together, sharing out the verses of Gute Nacht and Der Leiermann, whilst in the middle each did a group of songs. In terms of performing the cycle complete, Nelson is the most experienced having performed it a number of times. By sharing the songs out the piece became less of a journey and more of an exploration, four young men opening up about their emotional turmoil. It was fascinating to hear four different voices side by side, from those that prized interior stillness to those who favoured a more operatic approach. But there were certainly plenty of moments when I wanted to hear more, so I hope that we'll be getting full performances of the cycle from the members of this group.

Saturday 30 January 2021

Reviving early English opera, staging Baroque opera: I chat to conductor Julian Perkins about his recording of John Eccles' Semele and staging Handel's Tamerlano

John Eccles: Semele - Julian Perkins, Academy of Ancient Music - Trinity College Chapel, Cambridge, November 2019
John Eccles: Semele - Julian Perkins, Academy of Ancient Music - Trinity College Chapel, Cambridge, November 2019

John Eccles' opera Semele with its libretto by William Congreve is a work that I have long known about and been fascinated by. Written in the early 18th century, just before Handel arrived in London, it is probably the best English opera after Purcell's Dido and Aeneas yet it has virtually disappeared from view. It was, therefore, welcome news that the Academy of Ancient Music (AAM) was collaborating with the Cambridge Handel Opera Company (CHOC) to perform and record the work with a strong cast, directed by Julian Perkins [see my review of Semele]. Julian is the artistic director of CHOC and founder of the group Sounds Baroque, so I was delighted to be able to chat to him about Semele, English opera, staging Baroque opera and much else besides.

John Eccles: Semele - Julian Perkins, Academy of Ancient Music
The English composer John Eccles was highly active in writing music for the London theatre in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the period after Purcell died (1695) and before Handel arrived (1710). Eccles came second in the famous competition to set Congreve's libretto The Judgement of Paris, [see my article on early English opera] and Congreve went on to write his libretto for Semele which Eccles set in 1706. It was probably intended for John Vanbrugh's new Queen's Theatre (which opened in 1705), with the famous actress Anne Bracegirdle as Semele. But the performance never happened. Eccles seems to have retired, never wrote another opera and spent his time fishing at his house in Kingston upon Thames and simply wrote the occasional court ode. He would be the only Master of the King's/Queen's Music to serve four monarchs (King William III, Queen Anne, King George I and King George II). 

History has not been kind to Eccles' Semele. Handel would set an adaptation of Congreve's libretto in the 1740s and this, whilst a very different work, is an accepted masterpiece. Eccles' Semele had to wait until 2004 before its first recording when Anthony Rooley directed it with young singers from Florida State University Opera. [still available from Amazon]. The work has never been staged by a major British opera company.

My first question to Julian was why hasn't Eccles' Semele become better known. The reasons are, he thinks, quite complex. For a start, performing it is quite a logistical challenge as it needs quite a few singers (Julian's recording uses 13 soloists). Also, the fact the opera was never performed in Eccles' lifetime rather counts against it. We tend to be accepting of the hagiography which moves English music from Purcell to Handel, leaving Eccles by the wayside. There is also the curse of the box office, Handel's Semele is sexy and sells, why add another version. 

But Julian points out that Eccles' Semele exists in a different aesthetic world to Handel's and it is unfair to make comparisons, we should promote both of them. Just as in his stage works Purcell fused the English style with French opera, Eccles in Semele is fusing English style with Italian opera. 

Julian's quotes the late Professor Donald McKenzie, William Congreve's modern editor, on Semele. In setting the libretto, 'Handel made it a concert and lightened it into comedy', whereas 'Eccles deepened it, and in writing intimately at every point to its dramatic structure, set it musically within a world where divine malignancy, and the power to enforce it, inevitably darken all human hopes of happiness'.

Julian Perkins playing the harpsichord at the National Gallery's Vermeer and Music: The Art of Love and Leisure - 2013
Julian Perkins playing the harpsichord at the National Gallery's Vermeer and Music: The Art of Love and Leisure - 2013
With the revival of any forgotten work there is always the nagging question, has it been forgotten for a reason?

Friday 29 January 2021

A group of friends, an abandoned synagogue, an air by Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre


With concerts cancelled, a group of friends and alumni of Schola Cantorum Basiliensis decided to take advantage of the gap between lockdowns to meet to play music together and record it, not knowing when will be the next time they will have a chance to be on stage. They chose a rarely performed piece from the Baroque era composed by Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre (1665-1729), a French harpsichordist and composer of the court of Louis XIV and one of the first female composers in music history to have her work published. The venue is an old synagogue in Alsace, Le ventre, which was saved from being demolished.

Performing Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre's air 'Sur une Mer' from her cantata Le Sommeil d'Ulysse are Margarita Slepakova - mezzo soprano, Teodoro Baú - viola da gamba, Pablo FitzGerald - archlute, Weronika Kłosiewicz - harpsichord, with video by Wawrzyniec Skoczylas and Tomasz Ebert, and audio by Leonardo Bortolotto.

After Purcell and before Handel: a delightful new recording of John Eccles' Semele from the Academy of Ancient Music does full justice to this unjustly neglected work

John Eccles Semele; Anna Dennis, Richard Burkhard, Helen Charlston, Academy of Ancient Music, Julian Perkins; AAM

John Eccles Semele; Anna Dennis, Richard Burkhard, Helen Charlston, Academy of Ancient Music, Julian Perkins; AAM

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 29 January 2021 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Reviving one of the forgotten gems of English opera, this first professional recording of Eccles and Congreve's drama is revelatory, bringing out the work's wit, charm and drama

John Eccles' Semele is one of the great might have beens of English musical history. Written around 1706 by one of the major English composers after Purcell's death, John Eccles, and arguably the greatest playwright, William Congreve, the work never reached performance, Eccles virtually retired though Congreve was proud enough of his work to print the libretto. Semele would have to wait until the 1960s until its (probable) premiere, until the 21st century for its first recording (from Anthony Rooley and students from Florida State University), and only now in 2021 has the work received its first professional recording.

Julian Perkins conducts John Eccles' Semele with the Academy of Ancient Music (AAM), leader Bojan Čičić, on the AAM's own label with Richard Burkhard as Semele, Helen Charlston as Juno, Heloise Bernard as Cupid, Christopher Foster as Somnus, Jolyon Loy as Apollo, Jonathan Brown as Cadmus, Anna Dennis as Semele, Aoife Miskelly as Ino, William Wallace as Athamas, Graeme Broadbent as Chief Priest, Rory Carver and James Rhoads as Priests and Augurs. And the recording was produced in partnership with Cambridge Handel Opera Company and Cambridge Early Music.

John Eccles: Semele - Richard Burkhard, Anna Dennis, Julian Perkins, Academy of Ancient Music - recording session 2019 (Photo Patrick Allen)
John Eccles: Semele - Richard Burkhard, Anna Dennis, Julian Perkins, Academy of Ancient Music - recording session 2019 (Photo Patrick Allen)

Opera first came to English shores in a variety of disguises, inspired by the examples from the Continent; when in exile Charles II spent quite a lot of time at his cousin, King Louis XIV's court and developed a fondness for French music, whilst many of his courtiers would have travelled to Italy. And England, with its burgeoning commercial empire was becoming a magnet for foreign musicians. By the early 1700s there was quite a community of Italian musicians in London, singers and instrumentalists, so it was inevitable that Italian opera would be performed, initially in badly assembled pasticcios. Opera in English, as a sort of sung play, had developed in the mid-17th century, but after 1660 with the re-opening of the playhouses, full sung opera virtually disappeared. The large scale form was dramatick-opera (semi-opera), combining visual spectacular spoken and sung elements, rather closer to the masque than anything else. [read more in my article, The Invention of English Opera]

This Town: new EP from Brixton-based singer-songwriter, Josiah Mortimer - songs written during first lockdown and released in another

Josiah Mortimer: This Town

I rarely cover music genres outside of classical on this blog, but I could not resist this one as acoustic singer-songwriter Josiah Mortimer is a fellow Brixton dweller. 

Mortimer's latest EP, This Town (which debuts on 29 January 2020), was recorded in his Brixton flat in December 2020.

The EP is aimed as a tribute to everyone getting us through the pandemic, and the songs were mostly written during the first lockdown – and launched during the third. Josiah Mortimer said: "When scribbling down these songs in the first lockdown, I never thought I’d be releasing them in another lockdown nearly a year on. But I hope that makes them more relevant. It’s been a really welcome distraction – my way of processing everything that’s going on".

Josiah plays all the instruments on the EP, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, banjo, vocals, and bass, whilst influences include Nick Drake, Alexi Murdoch, Joni Mitchell, The Staves, and Sufjan Stevens. Having arranged and recorded all the parts, they were then mixed by producer Brendan McGreal from Cornish Underground.

Josiah was introduced to the acoustic guitar when he was 12, and has played the instrument ever since. He goes on to say, "My parents are quite musical so I've got a lot to thank them for. On this EP, I'm still playing the first acoustic I got when I was 16! It's nice to have instruments that you carry with you through life.   

Josiah Mortimer
Josiah Mortimer

My overall sound isn't particularly classical (and I still can't read music...), but I draw a lot from people like Bert Jansch, Nick Drake, Joni Mitchell, John Renbourn (and John Martyn!), who all had strong classical influences. I love traditional finger-picking techniques.

I used to be quite obsessive about genres - initially wanting to focus on folk. But I'm very happy just writing and playing, and learning from all the amazing music that's out there, however it turns out!

The EP is free, but people are encouraged to donate to FareShare, which aims to end hunger in the UK. 

The EP is released on 29 January, further details and downloads from Bandcamp, and the tracks will also be on Spotify.

Thursday 28 January 2021

The African Concert Series returns

The African Concert Series 2021
Following the success of her first African Concert Series in 2019, pianist Rebeca Omordia is presenting a second series, beginning with four concerts streamed from the Africa Centre, and further concerts to come. Julian Lloyd Webber, whose initial encouragement to Omordia when they were duo partners sparked the idea for the series, has become the series patron.

The series is kicked off on Friday 29 January 2021 by legendary kora player, Tunde Jegede (the kora is a West African lute-related, stringed instrument), who will be playing his own compositions. 

The second concert, on 21 February is String Duos featuring Chineke! String duo (Sarah Daramy-Williams, violin and Natalia Senior-Brown, viola) plus Julian Gil Rodriguez and Alix Lagasse on violins in African traditional songs arranged by African composers. Nigerian Odyssey on 26 February features Nigerian pianist Glen Inanga streamed from the Cayman Islands, and the final concert in this group on 28 February has the Chineke! Chamber Ensemble performing works by Black composers, Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, Florence Price, Errollyn Wallen, Ignatius Sancho, Matthew Evan Taylor, Joseph Boulogne and Valerie Coleman.

There will be further concerts in March at the October Gallery.

Full details from the African Concert Series website.

Allow yourself to float: Orchestra of the Swan's mix-tape compilation, Timelapse

Timelapse; Orchestra of the Swan; Signum Classics

; Orchestra of the Swan; Signum Classics

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 27 January 2021 Star rating: 3 (★★★)
A mix-tape from OOTS which floats freely between Rameau and Radiohead, Schubert and Satie

This new disc from the Orchestra of the Swan is the orchestra's first under its new artistic director David le Page [I chatted to David in 2019 about his role]. Timelapse, on Signum Classics, is something of a mix-tape type disc. It features music by Schubert, Grieg, Couperin, Steve Reich, Thomas Ades, Vivaldi, Satie, Radiohead, Rameau, David Bowie, Errollyn Wallen, Johnny Marr and Henryk Gorecki, many in arrangements by David le Page, with two Vivaldi arrangents by saxophonist / composer Trish Clowes and by pianist / composer David Gordon. And the idea behind the disc is to capture something of the atmosphere of the orchestra's multi-genre strand, notably its Night Owl concerts.

Le Page's Schubert arrangement, Sleep Softly, firmly sets the atmosphere as it brings in textures which evoke Arvo Part to create an evocative starting point for a disc which is very much about emotional atmosphere. The music flows continuously, and the disc is more about the journey, the textures and the emotions than the particularities of the pieces. Le Page's selection seems to delight in unlikely juxtapositions such as Rameau and Radiohead, which prove to share emotional bonds.

Wednesday 27 January 2021

Live from London - Spring

Live from London - Spring
Voces8's Live from London festivals continue apace with Live from London - Spring launching on 13 February 2021. Running until 22 April 2021, the festival is offering ten concerts on-line, as well as three educational performances.

The series launches with a concert from Voces8 which includes Jonathan Dove's The Passing of the Year with the composer playing the piano [see my review of their live performance of the work from Kings Place last year]. To mark Lent, Stile Antico will be presenting a programme of Renaissance lamentations, whilst the Carducci Quartet will be travelling to America with works by Philip Glass and Dvorak plus Barber's Dover Beach with baritone Frederick Long. Other guests include Apollo5, Joanna Macgregor marking International Women's Day, Dame Emma Kirkby and friends in a programme for Mother's Day, and the Jason Max Ferdinand Singers.

There are two larger-scale events, Voces8 joins the English Chamber Orchestra, soprano Andrea Haines, baritone Jonathan Pacey for Faure's Requiem conducted by Barnaby Smith on Good Friday, and Voces8 joins the Academy of Ancient Music (with Rachel Podger as guest leader) conducted by Barnaby Smith for Bach's Mass in B minor for Easter Day with soloists Carolyn Sampson, Helen Charlston, Iestyn Davies, Jeremy Budd and Matthew Brook.

The festival ends with Robert Hollingworth and I Fagiolini in a programme which explores the 100th anniversary of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land in the context of the catastrophic upheavals of the First World War and the ‘Spanish Flu’.

Full details from the Live from London website.

Al Haytham's Light: English Touring Opera's latest children's opera introducing one of the greatest scientists from the Islamic golden age, the father of modern optics

Farrington & Travis: Al Haytham's Light - Neil Balfour - English Touring Opera
Farrington & Travis: Al Haytham's Light - Neil Balfour - English Touring Opera

Each season, in addition to its main stage operas, English Touring Opera presents opera aimed at children and family audiences. These are intended to be entertaining and informative, linked to the curriculum yet with participatory elements. This year is somewhat different, and instead of a touring production ETO is presenting an on-line opera for children, Al Haytham's Light written by Bradley Travis with music by Iain Farrington. Set in the Islamic golden age, it is based around Ibn al-Haytham, mathematicin, astronomer and physicist, known as the father of modern optics. 

Now, whilst I was vaguely aware of the scientific advances made by the Islamic golden age, the name Ibn al-Haytham and his work on optics was entirely new to me, and its seems rather wonderful to be introducing him to children via an opera, melding opera with science, cross-cultural traditions and much more. And bear in mind that Ibn al-Haytham was born in Basra, an area which has often been in the news recently for rather different reasons.

Along with the opera, there is a free teachers' pack which breaks the piece down into seven lessons (the opera into six parts, then watching the whole piece in the final lesson), with lesson plans and teaching materials, activities for the children and music lessons based around the three participatory songs. There are videos for these three songs, with Bradley Travis entertainingly teaching the words and music.

Travis and Farrington's piece is catchy, but is full of startling concepts which bring in the remarkable scientific discoveries made in the Islamic Golden Age. This means that the lessons move from introducing the Ibn al-Haytham and the area (he was born Basra), through discussing Euclid and Pythagoras and whether the Earth was round, Ibn al-Haytham's work in Egypt, to the scientist's experiments with light including a lively participatory song about his camera obsura, to a lesson on positive mental health. 

The compilers have managed to pack a remarkable amount information into a 35 minute opera, which happens to be fun to listen to as well. Khayaal Theatre Company, who are cultural consultants on the project, provide notes in the teacher's pack covering such topics as the meaning of Al-Haytham's name, his spiritual links to Islam, and shadow puppets.

For the final lesson, the class watches the whole opera and is introduced to the evaluating and reviewing the opera, so even reviewers get in on it!

I was able to preview the teachers' pack, but there is also one for those who are home-schooling so no-one should miss out. 

The video was created by Iain Farrington (composer), Bradley Travis (writer/ director), Sunny Moon-Little (designer), Matthew Ferguson (cinematographer), Jan Capinski (audio engineer), Kinga Czynciel (1st Assistant Director/ Stage Manager) and Adam Mottley (Lighting Designer) with Neil Balfour (an Emerging Artist at the National Opera Studio) as Ibn al-Haytham and Ellie Edmonds (whom we have caught a couple of times at Opera Holland Park, most recently in Manon Lescaut) as a woman, plus Amy Green (saxophone), Jonny Raper (percussion), Iain Farrington (piano), and the voices of children from North London Collegiate School.

Farrington & Travis: Al Haytham's Light - Ellie Edmonds - English Touring Opera
Farrington & Travis: Al Haytham's Light - Ellie Edmonds - English Touring Opera

Also running this term are a workshop series with Theatre Peckham fusing rap and G&S, collaborating with the rapper OSOM and the opera singer Themba Mvula. Participants will learn about Rap, and the operatic form of Gilbert & Sullivan with opportunities for sound scaping, writing and performing their own lyrics – whether that will be as a rap or in song.

Full information about Al Haytham's Light from ETO's website, and about Rap X Gilbert and Sullivan also from ETO's website.

Latvian soprano Inga Kalna's debut disc, Der Rosenband, intriguingly combines songs by Richard Strauss with his Latvian contemporaries Jānis Mediņš and Alfrēds Kalniņš

Das Rosenband - Richard Strauss, Jānis Mediņš, Alfrēds Kalniņš; Inga Kalna, Diana Ketler; Skani
Das Rosenband
- Richard Strauss, Jānis Mediņš, Alfrēds Kalniņš; Inga Kalna, Diana Ketler; Skani

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 26 January 2021 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
In her debut recital, the Latvian soprano interleaves songs by Richard Strauss with those by his Lativian contemporaries

The Latvian soprano Inga Kalna was a name that was new to me, and on this disc from Skani she and pianist Diana Ketler introduce songs by two unfamiliar composers. Their recital Das Rosenband (Kalna's debut disc) features songs by Richard Strauss alongside songs by two of his Latvian contemporaries Jānis Mediņš and Alfrēds Kalniņš.

 Kalna and Ketler perform nine Strauss songs, from Allerseelen and Morgen to Heimliche Aufforderung and Cäcilie, interleaved by songs by Mediņš and Kalniņš; a programme which they first started developing in 2016 and which was recorded in July last year.

Kalna has a lyric soprano voice, clear and bright, her recent roles have included a number of Handel ones alongside Vitellia from Mozart's La clemenza di Tito, but there is a strength to Kalna's voice as well as a flexibility and certainly her approach to Strauss has a strong sense of line and firmness of purpose allied to a fine feeling for the shape of the line. This is not the sort of Strauss in which you fall like a luxuriant bath, though there is plenty of beauty of tone, but there is clarity too and a great sense of the words. I have rarely heard Strauss songs sung with such a clarity of diction, and she makes the songs mean something more than simply a lovely line.

Tuesday 26 January 2021

Opera Live at Home

Cliff Zammit Stevens - Opera Live at Home

Opera Live at Home is continuing its monthly series of on-line recitals. On 26 January 2021, tenor Cliff Zammit Stevens [whom we saw in 2019 in Dani Howard's Robin Hood with The Opera Story, see my review] and pianist Maria Elena Farrugia will be giving a recital of arias from Mozart's Die Zauberflöte, Donizetti's L’Elisir d’Amore, Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, Verdi's Macbeth, and Pablo Sorozábal's zarzuela La tabernera del puerto (1936)

Further ahead, soprano Milly Forrest (winner of the Kathleen Ferrier Winner Loveday Song Prize 2020) and pianist Ian Tindale perform arias by Handel, Humperdinck, Smetana, Mozart and Massenet (23 February 2021), and mezzo-soprano Joanna Harries and pianist Ashley Beauchamp perform arias by Mozart, Bellini, Johann Strauss, Massenet, Walton and Handel.

The programmes are followed by a short Q&A with the artists, and texts and translations are provided. Concerts remain on-line for on-demand viewing for 30 days.

Full details from Opera Live at Home.

K: Brazilian conductor Simone Menezes and her new ensemble in Borodin, Debussy, Copland, Villa-Lobos and Lacaze

Accents - Borodin, Debussy, Copland, Villa-Lobos, Lacaze; Ensemble K, Simone Menezes; Aparte
- Borodin, Debussy, Copland, Villa-Lobos, Lacaze; Ensemble K, Simone Menezes; Aparté,

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 25 January 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A new chamber ensemble brings a fresh approach and a seductive sound to music from Caucasus, Paris, Pennsylvania, Brazil and indigenous Australia

I have been in contact with the Brazilian conductor Simone Menezes several times over the last few years, usually in connection with the music of Villa Lobos, including reviving his film score A Floresta do Amazonas in a project at the Philarmonie de Paris (10 April 2021) alongside photographs by Sebastiao Salgado.

In 2020, Menezes founded Ensemble K, a flexible ensemble specialising in the larger chamber repertoire of the 20th century. On this new disc from Aparté, Accents, Simone Menezes conducts Ensemble K in Copland's Appalachian Spring, and Sophie Lacaze's Histoire sans paroles, alongside chamber arrangements of Borodin's Polovtsian Dances, Debussy's Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un faune, and Villa-Lobos' Choros No. 5. The ensemble fields 12 players - string quartet, double bass, single woodwind, french horn, piano, and accordion.

K is a multi-cultural ensemble, and proud of it, and this disc explores something of that multiculturalism by taking a group of works which have particular local influences. As Simone Menezes explains in her booklet note, 'Everybody knows that in order to play Mahler it is very important to know the Viennese waltz tradition but, on the other hand, how much do we know about the street choros when performing the works of Villa-Lobos, or the influence that cinema and folk music had on Copland? These pieces are also performed in Europe with a particular accent, without their performers necessarily being aware of those influences.'

Monday 25 January 2021

Rinaldo and Armida: from Monteverdi to Rossini to Dvorak to Judith Weir, composers have been inspired by Torquato Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata

Lully's Armide at the Palais-Royal Opera House in 1761, watercolor by Gabriel de Saint-Aubin
Lully's Armide at the Palais-Royal Opera House in Paris in 1761, watercolour by Gabriel de Saint-Aubin

In 1627, Claudio Monteverdi was busy at work on a new small-scale dramatic work for the wedding celebrations of Duke Odoardo Farnese of Parma and Margherita de' Medici. Armida Abbandonata was to be a work akin to Monteverdi's Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, with the story coming from the same source, Torquato Tasso's epic poem Gerusalemme liberata. In the event, the performance did not take place, and scholars are divided as to whether Monteverdi's Armida Abandonata was ever performed, whilst no trace of the music survives.

The story of Armida and Rinaldo, however, would continue into operatic history and composers through to Rossini (in 1817), Dvorak (in 1904) and Judith Weir (in 2005) would be inspired by the same subject. What is fascinating about the list of operas based on the story of Armida and Rinaldo is not the long list of composers (there were plenty of other subjects common in the 18th century), but that so many of the operas have some sort of currency today. Lully's Armide (1686) and Handel's Rinaldo (1711) are almost commonplace in the operatic repertoire, whilst Gluck's Armide (1777), Salieri's Armida (1771), Haydn's Armida (1784) occupy that place where works are regarded as interesting even if infrequently performed, whilst Rossini's Armida retains a special place in his output.

Aftershock: Association of British Orchestra's 2021 conference

Aftershock: Association of British Orchestra's 2021 conference

The Association of British Orchestera's 2021 conference, which takes place on-line from 10 to 12 March 2021, has the title Aftershock. The conference will be analysing the 'seismic issues that have sent shockwaves through the sector' – from the devastating impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic and the threatening repercussions of Brexit, to the urgency of the climate change crisis and the reignited call to confront classical music’s inequities and create meaningful change in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. 

It will also offer an opportunity to champion the invention and flexibility shown by orchestras and musicians in continuing to connect with audiences, and to discuss the new approaches they can take forward to adapt to the new post-COVID landscape and build recovery. 

For the first time, the opening day of the conference will be free to attend for musicians, hosted in partnership with Help Musicians.

The keynote speech will be given by Caroline Dinenage MP, Minister of State for Digital & Culture (so a chance for everyone to question the government's attitude to the arts and to freelance workers in particular), and other speakers will include Sir Nicholas Serota, chair of Arts Council England,  Alan Davey, controller of BBC Radio 3, Simon Woods, president and chief executive of the League of American Orchestras, Sarah Derbyshire MBE, chief executive of Orchestras Live and  Vanessa Reed, president & CEO of New Music USA.

The conference is open to members and non-members, full details from the ABO website.

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla extends tenure at CBSO until 2022, then becomes Principal Guest Conductor

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (Photo Andrew Fox)
Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (Photo Andrew Fox)

It has been announced that Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla has extended her tenure at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra until Summer 2022, when she will take up the role of Principal Guest Conductor. 

Rather than happening because Gražinytė-Tyla is fed up of Birmingham, she comments, "This is a deeply personal decision, reflecting my desire to step away from the organisational and administrative responsibilities of being a Music Director at this particular moment in my life and focusing more on my purely musical activities. I have such admiration and great fondness for the musicians of the CBSO and I am absolutely delighted that we shall continue to make music together in the coming years." Let us hope that she means it, though I fear that in the present climate there will be further orchestral re-shuffles (following on, of course from Sir Simon Rattle's announcement that he was leaving the London Symphony Orchestr).

We managed to catch Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra at the 2019 Dresden Music Festival in Ligeti, Schumann and Brahms [see my review], one of the nine international tours that she has undertaken with the orchestra with other venues including the Vienna Musikverein and Lucerne Festival. 

Other highlights include an ambitious Debussy Festival, winner of a South Bank Sky Arts Award,  championing the music of Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-96) with a Deutsche Grammophon recording of Weinberg’s Symphony No.21 (she has also recorded Weinberg's Chamber Symphony No. 4 with Gidon Kremer and Kremerata Baltica, see my review), two sold-out performances of Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand to start the CBSO’s Centenary year. With the CBSO she has performed 13 premieres and 17 works by living composers, and she also conducted Ivor Cutler's Elsewhereness with the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire Symphony Orchestra at the opening of the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire (also recorded see my review).

Full details from the CBSO website.

Armenian State Symphony Orchestra celebrates its 15th anniversary

The Armenian State Symphony Orchestra and Sergey Smbatyan at the Barbican in January 2020
The Armenian State Symphony Orchestra and Sergey Smbatyan at the Barbican in January 2020

The Armenian State Symphony Orchestra, which we heard on its recent visit to the Barbican [see my review], is celebrating its 15th anniversary. Founded as the State Youth Orchestra of Armenia by conductor Sergey Smbatyan, the orchestra is now the state symphony orchestra with Smbatyan as artistic director and chief conductor. They plan to mark the anniversary on 25 January 2021 with a gala concert at Aram Khachaturian Concert Hall in Yerevan, Armenia.

The orchestra performs around 50 concerts per year, along with other events, as well as a number of festivals. In 2010, Sergey Smbatyan started the Armenian Composing Art Festival, with each year dedicated to a particular Armenian composer, including Tigran Chukhajyan (1837-1898), who created the first opera institution in the Ottoman Empire and wrote the first Armenian opera Arshak II (1868) and what may be the first Turkish language opera Arif'in Hilesi (1874), Romanos Melikyan (1883-1935), Haro Stepanyan (1897-1966), Grigor Yeghazarian (1908-1998), Ghazaros Saryan (1920-1998), Arno Babajanyan (1921-1983), Edvard Mirzoyan (1921-2012), Avet Terteryan (1929-1994), and Edgar Hovhannisyan (1930-1998), There is also the Khachaturian International Festival, which was established in 2013, and the Khachaturian International Competition which in 2020 was devoted to the violin.

They also run an education project which 'strives to incite curiosity, understanding and liking for classical music among high school students', and recent charitable endeavours have been centred on the Armenian Christians fleeing the war in Artsakh (which is currently part of Azerbaijan) with open-air fundraising concerts in Yerevan and four-day New Year charity screening-and-concert of the Disney animated film Frozen for children from Artsakh and Armenia  affected by war, with the scores of the animated film played live by the Armenian State Symphony Orchestra.

Full details from the orchestra's website.

Sunday 24 January 2021

A Life On-Line: Mad King in the Netherlands, Mozart & Boulogne in Perth, Allegri in Sistine Chapel

The Mad King - Charles Johnston - Opera2Day
The Mad King - Charles Johnston - Opera2Day

The Dutch company Opera2Day (whose staging of Ambroise Thomas' Hamlet I saw in The Hague in 2018) solved the problem of what to perform during the restrictions of lockdown by turning to a one-man opera. But with a difference. Opera2Day's latest production, The Mad King, recently live-streamed, was based around Peter Maxwell Davies' music theatre piece Eight Songs for a Mad King, but re-conceived by composer Brendan Faegre. Faegre had composed new music and re-orchestrated music by Handel and interwove these new elements around the eight Maxwell Davies movements to create a new music theatre work lasting around an hour. 

We were still in the mad universe of the poor King (baritone Charles Johnston) with his birds (the instrumentalists of the New European Ensemble, musical director Hernán Schvartzman, plus the mime artist Bodine Sutorius) and his music boxes (including a self-playing organ from the Museum Speelklok in Utrecht), but in an extended and continuous music theatre piece where we seemed to experience an entire imaginative universe. 

Directed by Stefano Simone Pintor, the whole was gorgeously designed by Herbert Janse, and whatever was happening on stage the visuals were superb. By extending Peter Maxwell Davies work, interleaving new work around the eight songs, the production somewhat blunted Mawell Davies' sting. The new version lacked the shocking punch of the original, even making the ending somewhat low key, and instead seemed to replace it with an extended exploration of madness. Charles Johnston gave a superb account of the title role, Maxwell Davies' original is challenging enough but Faegre's additions meant that Johnston was also singing various extracts of Handel, in various voices and registers. The result was a bravura performance, and rather disturbing. [Opera2Day]

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra were joined by conductor Peter Whelan and mezzo-soprano Katie Bray for its latest on-line concert coming from Perth Concert Hall. The programme was centred around Mozart but extended its reach rather imaginatively further.

Saturday 23 January 2021

Obsessed with the symphonic form: composer David Matthews on the symphony and the recent recording of his eighth on Signum Classics with Jac van Steen and the BBC Philharmonic

David Matthews
David Matthews (Photo Clive Barda)

In the programme notes for composer David Matthews' latest disc, he says that he has been 'obsessed with the symphonic form since he was 16' and David wrote a number of discarded symphonies before his acknowledged first (1975-78). For the new disc on Signum Classics, Jac van Steen (who has conducted a number of David's other symphonies on disc) conducts the BBC Philharmonic in his Symphony No. 8, Sinfonia and the symphonic poem A Vision of the Sea.  

When I spoke to David recently he admitted that he was currently working on his tenth symphony! (The first nine symphonies are all available on disc, see the list at the foot of this article). But our conversation also ranged widely, covering David's ideas about tonality and traditional symphonic form, the importance of what he learned when working as Benjamin Britten's assistant, David's paintings (one of which is on the CD cover), and writing his first opera.

Whilst David's basic idea of the symphony has not changed too much over the years, he has experimented a little with the form so that some are one-movement works inspired by works such as Sibelius' Symphony No. 7, whilst multi-movement symphonies might be in two, three, four or five movements (Symphony No. 8 is in four movements).  David's view of the symphony chimes with the writings of composer Robert Simpson (1921-1997) and writer Hans Keller (1919-1985), whose definition David quotes in the booklet notes 'the large-scale integration of contrasts'. David feels that such a work is the ideal opportunity for a large scale piece. He has never minded that the form is traditional, and in fact feels that this can be beneficial for the audience.

Writing in a traditional symphonic form very much implies the use of tonal centres in the work, and David can think of very few atonal symphonies (except perhaps that of Webern which David describes as 'short and strange'), and most symphonies including those of Shostakovich and Stravinsky use some sort of tonal scheme, as do those of more recent composers such as John McCabe (1939-2015) or Matthew Taylor (born 1964). David adds that whilst the eleven symphonies of Robert Simpson were tonal, the later ones existed on the edge of tonality. David never really moved away from writing musical tonally, and in his symphonies works through tonal centres to achieve something satisfying.

Friday 22 January 2021

Chemin des Dames: premiere recording of New Zealand composer Gareth Farr's cello concerto, written in memory of his great-uncles killed in the First World War

Elgar Cello Concerto, Gareth Farr Cello Concerto: Chemin des Dames; Sébastien Hurtaud, New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Benjamin Northey; Rubicon

Elgar Cello Concerto, Gareth Farr Cello Concerto: Chemin des Dames; Sébastien Hurtaud, New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Benjamin Northey; Rubicon

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 22 January 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
New Zealand composer Gareth Farr's new cello concerto, written in memory of three great-uncles killed in the First World War, is paired with Elgar's concerto written in the war's aftermath

This new disc from French cellist Sébastien Hurtaud and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, conductor Benjamin Northey on Rubicon features two cello concertos linked by the First World War yet separated by a century. Elgar's Cello Concerto was written in 1919 in the aftermath of the First World War, whilst Gareth Farr's concerto, written in 2017, was inspired by family stories of the deaths of his three great uncles (all brothers) in the First World War and the concerto's title Chemin des Dames is a reference to one of the war's more notorious moments [You can learn more about this from the video on the New Zealand History website].

The pairing of the two makes for a neat package and is a highly effective programme, but on disc the Elgar concerto casts a long, long shadow from the composer's two recordings (acoustic and electric) with Beatrice Harrison, through the iconic 1960s recording with Jacqueline Dupre and John Barbirolli (which effectively defines the concerto for many people) to the present day.

Now timings are not necessarily a complete indicator of the approach to the work, but it is perhaps interesting to know that Beatrice Harrison and Elgar take 25 minutes for the concerto whilst Dupre takes 30 minutes, most other cellists lie between the two though few modern cellists take the Harrison/Elgar approach. Elgar had a notoriously no-nonsense attitude to his own music, and since his death speeds in his symphonic works have become broader (this isn't just an Elgar thing, there is a similar phenomenon with Rachmaninov and his music). Elgar would no doubt have regarded the Dupre/Barbirolli account as been over indulgent and over-wrought, but for many this approach has come to define the deep emotions in the work.

Hurtaud nails his colours to the mast from the very outset when, during the introductory recitative the cellist stretches the musical line almost to breaking point, allied to a warmly expressive tone. Throughout the work, I was impressed by his tone qualities and by the expressiveness of his phrasing, but there seemed to be a little too much self-indulgence in the speeds. Once the introduction is over, the first movement proper sings well but is slightly under speed with a sense of lacking in impetus. That said, this not one of those recordings which constantly stop to smell the flowers, having set a tempo, Northey and Hurtaud stick to it with just a little rubato.

Sébastien Hurtaud & New Zealand Symphony Orchestra at the premiere of Gareth Farr's cello concerto in 2017
Sébastien Hurtaud & New Zealand Symphony Orchestra at the premiere of Gareth Farr's cello concerto in 2017

Sebastian: episode 11

Sebastian is Peter Fielding's on-going animation series about the life of Johann Sebastian Bach, and it has just reached episode 11 in which Fielding deals with the anecdote about the French harpsichordist Louis Marchand having a competition with Bach in Dresden in 1717. Fielding aims to make Bach's life accessible and more fun, but there is also plenty of music in the 16 minute animation.

Further information from the series Facebook page, or YouTube channel.

Grange Park Opera and the Romanoff Foundation collaborate on making Ivan the Terrible more accessible

Feodor Chaliapin as Ivan the Terrible in Rimsky Korsakov's opera
Feodor Chaliapin as Ivan the Terrible in Rimsky Korsakov's opera

Despite the limitations caused by lockdown,  Grange Park Opera (GPO) was remarkably active last year, creating content on-line - 50 new events involving over 150 artists. A new partnership with the Romanoff Foundation means that GPO will be able to make its forthcoming production of Rimsky-Korsakov's Ivan the Terrible available to as wide a possible audience via recording and live-streaming.

GPO is planning Ivan the Terrible as part of the Summer season (19 June - 14 July 2021), with David Pountney directing the opera. Ivan the Terrible was Rimsky Korsakov's first opera; he wrote the libretto himself and the work premiered in 1873, though he revised it twice and the definitive version dates from 1892. The role of Ivan was made famous by Feodor Chaliapin who sang it in Paris in 1909 (the work's premiere outside Russia) as part of one of Serge Diaghilev's seasons. 

Chaliapin first sang the role in St Petersburg in 1896 (a year after the premiere of Rimsky Korskov's final version), and Diaghilev had previously presented the singer in the title role of Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov in Paris in 1908. 1909 was the first year that Diaghilev presented ballet as part of his Paris seasons, the debut of the Ballets Russes.

The opera's Russian name, Псковитя́нка (Pskovityanka) translates as The Maid of Pskov, but Diaghilev introduced it to Western audiences as Ivan the Terrible because of the dominance of this role and the fact that Ivan's name was known in the West. If you want to do your homework then the Mariinsky Theatre's 1994 production of the opera is on YouTube.

The Romanoff Foundation is making an initial grant to support the live filming/streaming of Ivan the Terrible, making it accessible to those unable to attend in person. In the lead up to the performances, the Foundation will also host a series of live and recorded events with the aim of increasing historical and cultural awareness of the reign of Ivan the Terrible and Russia’s relationship with the Tsar’s English contemporaries, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.

The Romanoff Foundation is a UK-based charity founded by Prince and Princess Dmitri Romanoff supports Russian émigré institutions which promote, celebrate and carry Russian culture and heritage as well as the people who are cared for by these institutions. Prince Dmitri Romanoff (1926-2016) was the great-great grandson of Emperor Nicholas I of Russia.

Further information from the Grange Park Opera website.

Thursday 21 January 2021

Pulse of Minimalism: in one of the last live concerts before lockdown, Lithuanian composer Gediminas Gelgotas conducts concert of his own music and other contemporary composers

On 17 October 2020, the Lithuanian composer and conductor Gediminas Gelgotas conducted musicians from his New Ideas Chamber Orchestra and from the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra in a concert entitled The Pulse of Minimalism, in the Lithuanian National Philharmonic Great Hall in Vilnius. It was one of the last concerts in the hall before it closed for the second lockdown in Lithuania, which continues to this day. Luckily for us, the concert was filmed by Lithuanian National Philharmonic Television, a project which aims to bring the audience as close to the music as possible.

The programme consisted of British cellist and composer Peter Gregson's Bach Cello Suites Recomposed (2018); originally scored for cello sextet, it was here performed by solo double bass, Roman Patkolo, and string orchestra. Patkolo was named instrumentalist of the year by Opus Klassik Award in 2018; his collaboration with Gelgotas began few years ago, when Patkolo recorded Gelgotas' To The Skies, Transitory and Sanctifaction. [Patkolo and Gelgotas in Sanctifaction on YouTube].

Violinist David Nebel played Philip Glass' Epilogue (written for the 1997 film Bent), and Russian-German violinist and composer Aleksey Igudesman's Applemania (2020). [Nebel recently released a disc of the Stravinsky and Glass concertos on Sony, see my review]. Nebel and Gelgotas collaboration began in 2017 when Nebel commissioned Gelgotas' Violin Concerto, which was premiered in 2018 at Kissinger Sommer Festival. At the concert, Nebel played the Cadenza from the concerto.

Other Gelgotas works in the concert included Transitory, Higher Energy and Sanctifaction from Symphony No. 1 'Extracultural' (2015), and Lock Me In Your Light (2020). This latter was composed during the pandemic and takes the form of an appeal to St Luke, patron saint of doctors and artists.

Gelgotas says of his music "It's probably hard to assign my music to any category, current, style or direction. That is why it reflects the world around us". [Read my 2018 interview with Gelgotas]

During 2020 his music was performed at the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Hall in Russia, and at the Odessa Classics Festival in the Ukraine. After this latter concert  Olesya Baglyukova wrote on that "Gelgotas' ideas in music are a clear embodiment of our current reality, where boundaries between Classical and Popular music are blurred. In fact, this is one of the directions that Classical music is taking on in our time and this direction is what helps us to keep the interest of today’s audiences, creates progress and evolution in our field."

The full concert is available on Lithuanian National Philharmonic Television website.

Influence at Court: the sacred music of Pelham Humfrey explored in a new disc from the choir of Her Majesty's Chapel Royal on Delphian

Pelham Humfrey Sacred Choral Music; Alexander Chance, Nicholas Mulroy, Nick Pritchard, Ashley Riches, the choir of Her Majesty's Chapel Royal, Joseph McHardy; DELPHIAN
Pelham Humfrey Sacred Choral Music; Alexander Chance, Nicholas Mulroy, Nick Pritchard, Ashley Riches, the choir of Her Majesty's Chapel Royal, Joseph McHardy; DELPHIAN

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 20 January 2021 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
A terrific new disc which brings out the French and Italian influences at the court of King Charles II with an exploration of the music of the talented, but relatively neglected Pelham Humfrey

Pelham Humfrey is one of those tantalising figures in English musical history. Aged 13 when King Charles II was restored in 1660, he was one of the generation of young men who came to prominence at the new king's court. Clearly talented early, Humphrey's anthems were in use by the time he was 17 and the king sent him to France (and possibly Italy) to study. This prompted what has become the best known item in Humphrey's short history, Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary on Humphrey's return from France:

"Little Pelham Humphreys is an absolute monsieur as full of form and confidence and vanity, and disparages everybody's skill but his own. The truth is, every body says he is very able, but to hear how he laughs at all the King's musick here, as Blagrave and others, that they cannot keep time nor tune, nor understand anything; and that Grebus [Louis Grabu, Master of the King's Music], the Frenchman, the King's master of the musick, how he understands nothing, nor can play on any instrument, and so cannot compose: and that he will give him a lift out of his place; and that he and the King are mighty great! and that he hath already spoke to the King of Grebus would make a man piss".

By the age of 27, Humfrey was dead. His music had a huge influence on his contemporaries and he remains one of the great what ifs. But few discs explore the composer's surviving repertoire. On this new disc from Delphian, Joseph McHardy and the choir of Her Majesty's Chapel Royal, St James's Palace perform a selection of Humfrey's Sacred Choral Music including the Service in E minor and are joined by soloists Alexander Chance (counter-tenor), Nick Pritchard (tenor), Nicholas Mulroy (tenor), and Ashley Riches (bass) with a small instrumental ensemble led by Bojan Cicic. [Released 22 January 2021]

The Palace of Whitehall by Leonard Knijff,  c.1695
The Palace of Whitehall by Leonard Knijff,  c.1695 (20 years after Humfrey's death)
The Chapel Royal is in the centre block fronting the river, close to the great hall (click on the image to expand)

The disc combines Humfrey's Service in E minor (Morning Service, Communion Service, Evening Service) with three verse anthems, Ogive thanks unto the Lord, By the waters of Babylon and O Lord my God. When King Charles II returned to the English court he was very influenced by the court of his cousin, King Louis XIV and wanted a similar use of instruments in the verse anthems, so here we have the relatively new genre of verse anthem with instruments, combining elements from French and Italian music with the English tradition.

Wednesday 20 January 2021

InsideOut Musician: Helping to mitigate the debilitating effects of isolation, and loss of motivation, that many musicians continue to face

InsideOut Musician team photo
The InsideOut Musician team

A new online community, InsideOut Musician, created by musicians, for musicians arose out of violist Sophie Renshaw's experience of lockdown and her desire to continue to play and to collaborate with other musicians. The result is InsideOut Musician created by Renshaw, composer Liz Dilnot Johnson, baroque and modern cellist Ruth Phillips, singer and violist Mairi Campbell, and baroque and modern violinist Lucy Russell, which is being launched on 28 January via a new website, offering courses, resources and an online performance space. While personal musical development is a key focus of InsideOut Musician, the ethos underlying the venture is that of helping to mitigate the debilitating effects of isolation, and loss of motivation, that many musicians continue to face, as well as to foster connections to share the love of music. 

Sessions and courses start from £10 for a ‘slow string’ drop in session, rising to £300 for a course of one-to-one instrumental tuition sessions, and courses include Preparing Orchestral Excerpts, Ways into Improvising and a Voice and Interplay course. But heart of InsideOut Musician is the IOM Ceilidh, a monthly online event for students, friends and fans hosted by Mairi Campbell. A ceilidh is a blend of ‘turns’ and chat from one home to another and is a powerful reminder of where music, song and story really belong. InsideOut Musician have taken this time-honoured tradition online. 

IOM arranged a pre-launch Ceilidh in December 2020 and violinist Rachel Podger was really impressed. She said:
"Every artist who is part of InsideOut Musician is a gem – their attitude is refreshing, freeing in its creativity, wholesome and enlightened. And there’s fun too. After a session with IOM my heart was full and free once more."

InsideOut Musician launches officially with a Ceilidh on Thursday 28 January to mark two important musical milestones – the birthdays of Robert Burns (25 January) and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (27 January). 

Full details from the website,

A snapshot of the time: Sound and Music (Vol. 1)

Sound and Music (vol 1); Supriya Nagarajan, Seán Clancy, Marc Yeats, Claudia Molitor, Jobina Tinnemans, Ailís Ní Ríain, Michael Betteridge, Jez riley French, Sam Salem; SOUND and MUSIC
Sound and Music (vol 1)
; Supriya Nagarajan, Seán Clancy, Marc Yeats, Claudia Molitor, Jobina Tinnemans, Ailís Ní Ríain, Michael Betteridge, Jez riley French, Sam Salem; SOUND and MUSIC

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 19 January 2021
Issued in support of Sound and Music, a disc which gives us a snap-shot of new music in 2020 from Summer School students to established composers

Sound and Music is the national organisation for new music in the UK, composers are its business. In support of its work developing musical talent in the country, the organisation has issued a disc, Sound and Music (Vol. 1) which features a wide range of tracks donated by alumni from its programmes, everyone from Summer School students to established composers, from choral music to sonic art and soundscapes. The composers featured are Supriya Nagarajan, Seán Clancy, Eleanor, Fernando, Marc Yeats, Claudia Molitor, Jobina Tinnemans, Ailís Ní Ríain, Kathleen, Michael Betteridge, Joshua, Maddie, Jez riley French, and Sam Salem.

We begin with Supriya Nagarajan;  Swaying in the wind created during lockdown by Nagarajan, Duncan Chapman, sound artist and arranger, and Satu Marita Sopanen, kantele, a multi-layered work which is a seductive mix of birdsong, an Indian instrument and Indian classical singer.  Seán Clancy's Schematic #3 is an electronic work, an intriguing mix of opposites; Clancy says that the piece is simply notated as a constellation of pitches and numbers. How these materials are used/structured/unfold in time, is entirely at the discretion of the performer(s) and here Clancy performs on synthesizer.

Tuesday 19 January 2021

The Cumnock Tryst and Trinity College announce new ten-year partnership

Sir James MacMillan
Sir James MacMillan
Sir James MacMillan's Ayrshire-based festival The Cumnock Tryst is expanding its community engagement and music education work with a new partnership with Trinity College. 

James MacMillan founded the festival in 2014, bringing an array of international artists to Cumnock and since then the festival has developed with significant community engagement and music education initiatives such as A Musical Celebration of the Coalfields, as well as evolving from a four-day festival into a year-round arts organisation.

The festival and Trinity College first collaborated in 2019 with a project called Flow Gently when James MacMillan and Jennifer Martin mentored young composers from Auchinleck Academy over a three-month period in their writing of new works for clarinet quartet which were then incorporated into a specially written script celebrating the life of Robert Burns and performed by Mr McFall’s Chamber.

The new partnership is envisioned to be a 10-year one and aims to create a new centre of excellence in the learning and teaching of composition. This is beginning with a new project and a new book.

Build it Loud is a composition project for Advanced Higher Music Students at Cumnock’s Robert Burns Academy, whose new campus opened in late 2020, bringing together two secondary schools, two primary schools and a school for those with special needs, all under one roof for the first time. To celebrate the opening of the campus, the theme of Build it Loud is the connection between the creative processes in both music and architecture. James MacMillan and Jennifer Martin are mentoring young composers along with a composition student from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland as they write a new piece for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s Brass Quintet. 

To build on this, Trinity College has commissioned a new book from James MacMillan and Jennifer Martin Martin to illustrate the compositional process and to support those teaching and learning composition in the upper years of secondary school. The book will be launched at the 2021 festival in October.

Full details from the Trinity College website.

Bach & the art of transcription: Benjamin Alard's survey of Bach's keyboard works reaches the late Weimar period and the composer's discovery of Vivaldi's concertos

Johann Sebastian Bach: The Complete Works for Keyboard, Volume 4: "Alla Veneziana" - Concerti Italiani; Benjamin Allard; Harmonia Mundi

Johann Sebastian Bach: The Complete Works for Keyboard, Volume 4: "Alla Veneziana" - Concerti Italiani; Benjamin Alard; Harmonia Mundi

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 18 January 2021 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Benjamin Alard's historical survey reaches the second half of Bach's Weimar period and his discovery of the music of Vivaldi with transcriptions of concertos for harpsichord and for organ

The French organist and harpsichordist Benjamin Alard has reached volume four of his astonishing 17 volume project to record all of Johann Sebastian Bach's keyboard works. Alard is proceeding on an historical basis, so that in each volume the works for harpsichord that Bach wrote at the period sit alongside the works for organ. Volume One, The Young Heir, covers Bach's early keyboard works alongside those of composers who influenced him, and Volume Two, Towards the North, takes us from 1706 to 1708 (when Bach arrived in Weimar) covering the influence of the North German school on the young composer with Bach's works alongside those of Buxtehude, Reinken and Pachelbel, composers from the Weimar Tablature (the earliest surviving Bach manuscript) and from anthologies compiled by Bach's elder brother. With Volume Three, In the French Style, Bach has reached Weimar and the volume looks at the influence of the French composers such as Couperin who were popular in German courts at the time. Each volume has three or four discs in it, and a notable feature is the way that Alard is playing the music on historical instruments.

With Volume Four of Benjamin Alard's complete survey of Johann Sebastian Bach's keyboard works, "Alla Veneziana" - Concerti Italiani on Harmonia Mundi, we reach the second part of Bach's time in Weimar with the rise of the influence of Vivaldi and Italian composers. Alard plays eight concertos for solo harpsichord after concertos by Vivaldi, the four concertos for solo organ after concertos by Vivaldi and others, and chorale preludes. Alard uses three instruments on the disc, a Roman harpsichord from 1702 now in the Museo Santa Caterina in Treviso (Italy) which has gut strings and an extraordinary variety of stops, the historic Silbermann organ from 1710 (restored in 2010) in Abbaye Saint-Étienne, Marmoutier (France) and, perhaps most intriguingly, a modern pedal harpsichord by Philippe Humeau, a type of domestic instrument which was fairly widespread in German-speaking countries. This means that some of the organ concertos are played on the pedal harpsichord, bringing out the personal, domestic nature of the works.

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