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Sunday, 28 February 2021

A Life On-Line: Spring songs in Oxford, time-travel at Wigmore Hall, luscious duets in Rotherhithe

Schubert : Winterreise - Sholto Kynoch, Dietrich Henschel - Oxford Lieder Festival (Photo taken from live stream)
Schubert : Winterreise - Sholto Kynoch, Dietrich Henschel - Oxford Lieder Festival (Photo taken from live stream)

This weekend it is the Oxford Lieder Festival's Spring weekend of song, streaming live online under the title Winter into Spring. On Saturday, the evening recital was given by soprano Anna Cavaliero, baritone Dietrich Henschel and pianist Sholto Kynoch performing live at the Holywell Music Rooms. Henschel and Kynoch performed Schubert's Winterreise, and before that Cavaliero sang two Schubert songs, An den Mond in einer Herbstnacht (D614) and Der Winterabend (D938). 

The recital was preceded, at 5pm, by a lecture recital from Joanna Neilly, German Fellow at St Peter’s College, Oxford, Ted Black (Tenor) and Ana Manastireanu (Pianist) entitled Wilhelm Müller's Die Winterreise. The lecture proved to be a wide-ranging exploration of Wilhelm Müller as a man and a poet; it was fascinating to learn of Müller's links to Greece and his writings about Lord Byron. (Though I noted that Neilly tactfully slid over the fact that Schubert's cycle sets the poems of Müller's Die Winterreise in the wrong order).

We also heard a selection of settings of Müller's poetry not by Schubert, with music from Friedrich Silcher (1789-1860), Edward James Loder (1809-1865), Karl Friedrich Cruschmann (1805-1841), Max Spicker (1858-1912), Heinrich Marschner (1795-1861), and /Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864). 

Neilly argued for a more positive interpretation of Winterreise's final song. This thought along with the fact that Müller often referred to his poems as lieder, as if they were in search of song, led me to the idea of a reading of Müller's Die Winterreise which would then segue into Schubert's Winterreise with hurdy-gurdy accompaniment, as if the Wanderer and the hurdy-gurdy man do go off together performing the Wanderer's songs!

Saturday, 27 February 2021

What would Bach do? Guitarist Yuri Liberzon on recording the Sonatas for Unaccompanied Violin in transcriptions by his teacher Manuel Barrueco

Yuri Liberzon
Yuri Liberzon

The guitarist Yuri Liberzon is not (yet) well-known in the UK. Born in Russia and brought up in Israel he moved to the USA at the age of 17 to study at the Peabody Conservatory and is now based in California. His latest disc, on Laudable Records, is Johann Sebastian Bach's three Sonatas for Unaccompanied Violin in transcriptions made by his teacher, Cuban guitarist Manuel Barrueco. I recently met up with Yuri via Zoom, braving the challenges of time differences (9.30 am in California being 5.30 pm in London) to find out more about the disc and his approach to transcribing Bach for the guitar.

Bach: Three Violins Sonata - Yuri Liberzon
My first question was why play Bach on the guitar at all? For Yuri, Bach is always valid and appropriate, and the guitar is the most popular instrument in the world. And since Andres Segovia, it has become normal to play Bach on the instrument. Besides which, like many musicians, Yuri finds himself constantly returning to Bach's music and Yuri plays the guitar, so the question is, why not? 

Yuri has transcribed Bach's Partitas for unaccompanied violin for guitar, but he found that his teacher's transcriptions of the sonatas were perfect. Yuri did not have enough to say to do his own transcriptions, though he made small changes to Barrueco's transcriptions. One of the important things is that Barrueco keeps the original keys. When playing individual sonatas, guitarists sometimes alter the keys, but as soon as Yuri decided he was going to record all three he realised he needed to keep the key relationships.

Bach writes polyphonically for his solo violin, implying harmony and multiple voices by using double-stopping and string crossing. But a guitarist can play more notes simultaneously than a violinist can, so the question is, how much of the implied harmony to fill in? Yuri comments that some purists play Bach's original violin part on the guitar, adding nothing but he feels that there is room for the imagination to think what Bach might do, though he wants to add less of himself and to let the music speak for himself. How many extra notes he adds very much depends on the music, varying from work to work and even from movement to movement, but always asking what would Bach do?

Friday, 26 February 2021

We're all going to the circus: Longborough Festival Opera's imaginative solution for Summer opera

Inside the Longborough Festival Opera big top for Summer 2021
Inside the Longborough Festival Opera big top for Summer 2021

 

More imaginative solutions to the problem of performing opera in a socially distanced age. Longborough Festival Opera is presenting three operas this Summer, and instead of their usual theatre they are going to the circus and using a Circus Big Top. This will present the operas in the round, with some interesting theatrical possibilities and plenty of flexibility. The new venue will be purpose built, with stage and amphitheatre clad in timber.

Artistic director Polly Graham is presenting four operas, a concert staging of Wagner's Die Walküre, plus staged productions of Mozart's Cosi fan tutte, Monteverdi's The Return of Ulysses, and Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen. But be warned, most of the performances are sold out unless government restrictions on social distancing are relaxed.

Further information from Longborough Festival Opera website.


The Magic Forest

Max Köhler
Max Köhler
Max Köhler is a young composer and pianist from Nürtingen in Southern Germany, who is currently studying as a sound engineer. He is releasing his piano suite The Magic Forest on 12 March 2021. 

The work is inspired by a walk through the Bois de Païolive (also known as the Magic Forest) in the Cévennes in Southern France, a place full of holm oaks and rocks. Köhler describes his influences as being Romantic and Impressionist classical composers as well as film composers like John Williams or Danny Elfman.

Max is releasing movements from the suite on YouTube by degrees, the first video is now on YouTube.

An engaging surprise: written for the Portuguese court, Pedro Antonio Avondano's 'Il mondo della luna' receives its first recording

Pedro Antonio Avondano Il mondo della luna; Fernando Guimarães, Luís Rodrigues,João Pedro Cabral, João Fernandes, Susana Gaspar, Carla Caramujo, Carla Simões, Os Músicos do Tejo, Marcos Magalhães; NAXOS

Pedro Antonio Avondano Il mondo della luna; Fernando Guimarães, Luís Rodrigues,João Pedro Cabral, João Fernandes, Susana Gaspar, Carla Caramujo, Carla Simões, Os Músicos do Tejo, Marcos Magalhães; NAXOS

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 25 February 2021 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
Premiered in Portugal in 1765 with a Portuguese composer setting an Italian libretto by playright Carlo Goldoni, this comic opera is a lively window into operatic life at the Portuguese court

King Joseph I of Portugal was passionate about Italian opera and when he succeeded to the throne in 1750, he set about creating a royal operatic establishment with some of the finest singers in Europe and three new court theatres. One of these, the Ópera do Tejo, was destroyed in the Lisbon earthquake in 1755 and was never rebuilt. When opera performances resumed in 1763, they were primarily to entertain the royal couple rather than displays of magnificence. As part of his campaign to create a new opera, King Joseph persuaded Carlo Goldoni, best known for his plays and for his opera librettos for Baldassre Galuppi, to provide librettos for the Portuguese court opera. Amongst the ten that Goldoni provided was Il mondo della luna. Originally set by Galuppi in Venice in 1750, the text would be set by a number of other composers including Haydn in 1777. In 1765, the text was set by the Portuguese composer Pedro Antonio Avondano and premiered at the Royal Theatre of Salvaterra during carnival season of 1765.

Having recorded works by Francisco António de Almeida (c. 1702–1755) written for King Joseph I's father, King John V, now conductor Marcos Magalhães and his period instrument ensemble, Os Músicos do Tejo have recorded Pedro Antonio Avondano's Il mondo della luna on Naxos with Fernando Guimarães, tenor, Luís Rodrigues, bass, João Pedro Cabral, tenor, João Fernandes, bass, Susana Gaspar, soprano, Carla Caramujo, soprano, and Carla Simões, soprano.

Jacques Philippe Le Bas: Ruins of the Ópera do Tejo after the earthquake of 1755. Painted 1757
Jacques Philippe Le Bas: Ruins of the Ópera do Tejo after the earthquake of 1755. Painted 1757

Born in Lisbon in 1714, Avodano's father was an Italian violinist who was employed at King John V's court and his mother was French. Young Pedro became a violinist like his father, and he worked as a violinist in the royal chapel as well as writing music for the ballets that were added to the performances of Italian operas. He would become Portugal's leading composer of instrumental music. Il mondo della luna seems to have been his only opera, which seems to imply that it didn't go down well in some way.

Thursday, 25 February 2021

Leeds Lieder's Spring recital series

Leeds Lieder's Spring recital series

Leeds Lieder, artistic director Joseph Middleton, has announced a Spring recital series to be performed at Leeds Town Hall and streamed live, with an audience when allowed. Leeds Lieder is collaborating with the Kathleen Ferrier Awards and Momentum so that the line-up is a mixture of experienced artists alongside young artists.

The series opens on 26 March 2021 with soprano Fatma Said and pianist Joseph Middleton, alongside Momentum artists Bernadette Johns (soprano) and Alexandra Standing (piano) in Ravel, Schumann and Brahms, and the series concludes on 25 April 2021 with a mezzo-soprano Dame Sarah Connolly and Joseph Middleton in Chausson’s Poème de l’amour et de la mer, songs by Debussy and Mahler, plus English song.

In between there are recitals from Kitty Whately (mezzo-soprano), Madelaine Newton and Kevin Whately (actors) and Joseph Middleton with Momentum Artists Laurence Kilsby (tenor) and Ian Tindale (piano); Fleur Barron (mezzo soprano), Ashok Klouda (cello) and Joseph Middleton; Gerald Finley (bass-baritone) and Julius Drake (piano); Kathleen Ferrier Award winners Benson Wilson (baritone) and Ella O’Neill (piano).


The Ring dance

Wagner: The Ring - ENO - Rita Hunter, Reginald Goodal, Alberto Remedios
Wagner: The Ring - ENO
Rita Hunter, Reginald Goodall, Alberto Remedios
English National Opera (ENO) has announced plans for a new Ring Cycle, beginning this Autumn (2021) with The Valkyrie and proceeding in annual instalments until 2025's Twilight of the Gods. It is a bold move; ENO was planning a new Ring to begin this Spring and when those plans fell foul of the current restrictions, it seemed that the production might suffer from the complexities of planning and budgetary constraints that all Ring cycles seem to suffer, meaning that more Rings are planned than come to full fruition.

The new production will be directed by Richard Jones and conducted by Martyn Brabbins, and will be a co-production with the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Both Jones and ENO have a fascinating track record with the Ring, both in terms of achievements and in Rings left undone.

Wagner's tetralogy is something that all opera companies aspire to, but the works can overstretch in many ways, yet which achieved the results can be equally life-changing. ENO first performed the Ring in the 1970s directed by Glen Byam Shaw and famously conducted by Reginald Goodall. This was the result of years of careful preparation with singers like Rita Hunter (Brunnhilde), Alberto Remedio (Siegfried and Siegmund) and Norman Bailey (Wotan) being very much nurtured in-house. I saw two of these productions, The Valkyrie and Twighlight of the Gods, with the company on tour in Manchester. The pleasures were mainly musical, the production itself seemed ill-suited for touring and we saw very little of the staging from the Gods in the Opera House in Manchester.

During the 1980s, plans were hatched to start another Ring cycle with David Pountney directing, starting with The Valkyrie. This had a fine cast including Josephine Barstow as Sieglinde and Sarah Walker as Fricka, but the most memorable moment was the opening of Act Three, set in a huge marble war memorial with a series of rotating concentric rings with the Valkyries leaping between them. The complexity of the set, and the limitations of the London Coliseum stage equipment mean that the production could only be coped with by dropping some other performances. Whether logicistical or financial, plans for a complete Ring were dropped. Pountney returned to the Ring in 2017, when he started directing it for the Lyric Opera of Chicago, though plans for the production to be shared with Welsh National Opera seem to have not come to fruition.

ENO's next attempt was somewhat more successful. During the period of the Coliseum's closure for re-building, Paul Daniel led the company in a series of concert performances which led to a staging by Phyllida Lloyd. This successfully worked its way through all four operas on an annual basis, culminating in Twilight of the Gods in 2005, but regime change at the company and budgetary problems meant that Lloyd never got chance to return to the operas and stage a full cycle. Her production was notable for the way it avoided any sense of the mythic, and concentrated on contemporary resonances, and there was also the feeling that some of the dramatic voices were perhaps half a size too small for the wide open spaces of the Coliseum. But then, having heard both Rita Hunter and Gwynneth Jones in their prime as Brunnhilde, I am somewhat spoiled.

When Richard Jones directs ENO's new Ring it will be the director's third go at Wagner's cycle in the UK. He directed Rhinegold (1989) and The Valkyrie (1991) for Scottish Opera, designed by Nigel Lowery and conducted by John Mauceri. These were notable for having role debuts fromJane Eaglen as Brunnhilde and Willard White as Wotan. Funding brought the planned cycled to a halt. Jones would return to the Ring for Covent Garden, whilst Scottish Opera would achieve a complete Ring Cycle directed by Tim Albery in 2003.

The Royal Opera House has had a somewhat patchy relationship with the Ring. The production in the 1970s by Gotz Friedrich was famously expensive and spectacular but the complex hydraulic machine meant that it did not have a long shelf life. An attempt to follow this with a cycle directed by Yuri Lyubimov fell after Das Rheingold, and Gotz Friedrich's Berlin production of the Ring was brought over and re-presented at Covent Garden. Engaging Richard Jones was a bold move and his production, again designed by Nigel Lowery, ran through the 1990s and did reach its conclusion. Jones' approach to the Ring was very musical, you could find everything in the score, but his visual imagery was very non-traditional and did not please everyone. Deborah Polaski was Brunnhilde, Siegfried Jerusalem was Siegfried and John Tomlinson was Wotan and a complete Cycle was achieved in October 1996.

An interesting side-note here is that until the recent re-build, Covent Garden tended to restrict Ring Cycles to October, just before the main season started, as otherwise they would rather over tax the historic theatre's elderly facilities!

It will be interesting to see what Richard Jones comes up with for his return to the Ring in the UK after 20 years, particularly as this is a co-production with the Metropolitan Opera, presumably to replace the expensive but unloved Robert Lepage production which is 10 years old. But whatever the details, the sheer fact of the company performing the Ring Cycle in the current climate is terrific. I only hope that the chorus gets its own operatic treat as the opera is famously light on chorus work.

Full details from the ENO website.

Wednesday, 24 February 2021

Bamberg Symphony Orchestra celebrates its 75th birthday and looks back to its origins in 19th century Prague

Bamberg Symphony Orchestra

Next month, the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra celebrates its 75th anniversary by re-creating the ensemble's first concert which took place in March 1946. On 18 March 2021, principal conductor Jakub Hrůša will direct the orchestra in a programme of three works by Beethoven, Overture 'Leonore' No. 3, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D major (with Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider) and Symphony No. 3 'Eroica'. In fact the symphony was not heard in 1946, it was planned but the American authorities did not allow it to be performed!

But whilst 75 might seem an impressive achievement, the orchestra's origins go back much further than that to the German Philharmonic Orchestra Prague, which dated back to the 19th century. Its final concert in Prague was in 1945, when the ensemble played Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 'Eroica', and then following the turmoil arising from the end of the war, many of the players from the orchestra found themselves in Bamberg, and the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra was founded.

As no audience will be allowed in the hall on 18 March, the concert will be broadcast. It can be heard live on the radio on BR-KLASSIK, on television on ARD-alpha , and as a live video stream on the BR Klassik website. At the same time, it can also be seen on the BR-KLASSIK Facebook page

Further details from the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra website.


Flexibility and dialogue: plans for the 2021 Dresden Music Festival

Jan Vogler, intendant of the Dresden Music Festival (Photo Marco Grob)
Jan Vogler, intendant of the Dresden Music Festival
(Photo Marco Grob)
Like most arts organisations, the Dresden Music Festival went on-line last year but this year the festival is able to adopt a more flexible format. Responding to events, intendant Jan Vogler has announced a mixed platform for the 2021 festival, which runs from 14 May to 12 June 2021.

Some concerts have been cancelled, some moved to the Summer, whilst others have been moved to larger venues or outdoors. Many will be live-streamed, and with limited audiences some concerts are being repeated to allow the maximum number of live audience members.

The festival's theme this year is Dialogues, a reference perhaps not only to the dialogues which take place in musical performance but to the constant dialogue needed between the festival team and politicians, artists and festival partners, and dialogue with the audience too as the festival programme itself is flexible and will need to respond to change.

Full details from the Dresden Music Festival website.

Challenging and surprising: on 'arb', clarinet and bassoon duo, Zachary Good and Ben Roidl-Ward explore multiphonics

arb; Zachary Good, Ben Roidl-Ward; Carrier Records

arb
; Zachary Good, Ben Roidl-Ward; Carrier Records

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 23 February 2021 Star rating: 3.0 (★★★)
Recorded during lockdown last year, this disc from two Chicago-based instrumentalists explores the fascinating and insistent world of multiphonics

Zachary Good and Ben Roidl-Ward are two young instrumentalists based in Chicago. Both are interested both in expanding the repertoire of their instruments (Good plays clarinets and Baroque recorders, Roidl-Ward plays the bassoon) and extending the possibilities of the instruments. During lockdown last year, they recorded an album in their Chicago apartment.

arb, on Carrier Records, is a disc of original works for clarinet and bassoon, collaboratively composed by Zachary Good and Ben Roidl-Ward.

There are six tracks on the disc, 'Fairchild', '2pm front room', 'Guby', 'Rege', 'Prid', and 'Arb' which seem to tantalisingly hint at subjects behind the music, but the pieces themselves are resolutely abstract. Each piece features extensive use of multiphonics, with the players relishing the interplay between the two instruments.

Tuesday, 23 February 2021

I wonder as I wander: baritone James Newby in a stunning debut recital with Joseph Middleton

I wonder as I wander - Beethoven, Schubert, Mahler, Britten; James Newby, Joseph Middleton; BIS

I wonder as I wander
- Beethoven, Schubert, Mahler, Britten; James Newby, Joseph Middleton; BIS

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 22 February 2021 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
An exploration of the wanderer's constant sense of longing in this stunning debut recital

The figure of the wanderer, constantly in search of something, is at the centre of baritone James Newby and pianist Joseph Middleton's disc, I wonder as a wander, on BIS. The centrepiece of the recital is Beethoven's song-cycle An die ferne Geliebte, surrounded by songs by Schubert and Mahler, along with Britten's folk-song arrangements. The Beethoven cycle was the starting point for the programme, and there is a personal element too, Newby is currently a wanderer himself, away from his native land as an member of the ensemble at Staatsoper Hannover.

We open with two Britten arrangements, beautifully intimate, almost hushed accounts of I wonder as I wonder and There's none to soothe. These are very interior, highly personal performances, and this sense continues with Schubert's Der Wanderer, D 489 which starts quiet and dark, but intimate. Not that Newby and Middleton eschew drama, but at first it seems as if the wanderer cannot sustain these outburts for long, until the thrilling penultimate verse. Der Wanderer, D 469 is thoughtful and considered, not for this wanderer the sense of swagger and striding onwards. In Auf der Donau, voice and piano flow onward, disturbed by what the wanderer sees but constantly in motion. Im Freien again has that flowing sense, with Newby's thoughtful singer supported by the endless piano. Abendstern is hushed and profoundly musical, an intimate performance hinting us eavesdropping on just the wanderer and the star.

Celebrating Jeffrey Skidmore's 70th birthday

Jeffrey Skidmore
Jeffrey Skidmore

The conductor Jeffrey Skidmore, founder of the choir Ex Cathedra, is 70 this month and not surprisingly his choir is making the most of the celebrations despite lockdown. 

On Saturday 27 February 2021, Ex Cathedra is releasing a free filmed concert, Ex Cathedra: Around the World, which celebrates Skidmore's varied interests with music from 1960s America and Latin America (where Skidmore has spent a lot of time researching music created during the Baroque era), alongside music from the French Baroque, the Italian Renaissance and Jacobean era, plus traditional favourites from Sweden and Scotland. The concert is being streamed on the ensemble's website, Facebook page and YouTube channel.

There will also be a chance to hear Skidmore talking about his career in an interview which is featured on BBC Radio 3's Early Music Show on Sunday 28 February. And this weekend Skidmore and Ex Cathedra are returning to the recording studio for Baroque Passion, a programme which will include Domenico Scarlatti's Stabat Mater and Bach's Komm, Jesu, komm alongside Lenten music by Kuhnau, Lotti, Monteverdi and Purcell. The concert will be broadcast on Passion Sunday, 21 March, 4pm on the Idagio Global Concert Hall.

Further details from the Ex Cathedral website.

A celebrity concert and an auction for a private concert: Music Masters charity celebrates the work of its Ambassadors

Ambassadors for Change - Music Masters

The music education charity, Music Masters, is holding a fortnight of events to highlight the work of its Ambassadors. The charity's mission is to ensure that children from underserved communities enjoy the life-changing opportunities that flow from outstanding music education, and the charity's Ambassadors visit London primary schools to inspire the next generation of music-makers. 

Events include an on-line concert, Ambassadors for Change, on 3 March 2021 which will feature performances from Sheku Kanneh-Mason, Isata Kanneh-Mason, Randall Goosby, Hyeyoon Park, Benjamin Grosvenor, Nicola Benedetti, Elena Urioste, Tom Poster, and the Harlem Quartet and the event will end with Sheku Kanneh-Mason, Elena Urioste, Tom Poster, Hyeyoon Park and Music Masters pupils performing Bha lá eile ann (‘There was a different day’) by Donald Grant arranged by Tom Poster.  Further details of the concert from Music Masters' website.

From 3 to 10 March people will be able to bid for a private online concert and chat with cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason. The half hour experience can be enjoyed by the winning bidder and up to nine guests. Full details from the Music Masters website

Monday, 22 February 2021

The Lim Fantasy of Companionship for Piano and Orchestra

Lim Fantasy of Companionship for Piano and Orchestra

In 2019, I was able to attend recording sessions at Abbey Road Studios where Belgian-American pianist Tedd Joselson, the London Symphony Orchestra and conductor Arthur Fagen (musical director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra) were recording an intriguing new work for piano and orchestra.  [See my report from the recording sessions].  

The Lim Fantasy of Companionship for Piano and Orchestra is the brainchild of Dr Susan Lim (a pioneer in the field of transplantation, robotics and stem cell research) with project co-creative director Dr Christina Teenz. They commissioned composer Manu Martin to write a work which explores concept of an inanimate-human companionship in music.

The recording has now come to fruition and is being issued on Signum Classics in April 2021.

Daniel Kidane: Beyond Solidarity

Daniel Kidane (Photo Kaupo Kikkas)
Daniel Kidane (Photo Kaupo Kikkas)

Composer and Ivors Academy board member Daniel Kidane talks frankly about 2020 and a watershed moment for diversity in music.

2020 was a challenging year, not only because of a global pandemic but also because it was a year that vividly highlighted the racial inequalities that still exist in the UK. Learning that black and minority ethnic groups are at higher risk of dying from COVID-19 compared to people of white ethnicity filled me, as a person of mixed black and white heritage, with real alarm. It was further worrying to learn that the increased likelihood of death was linked to societal inequalities and discrimination. Delving into Health Foundation analysis, the extent to which black and minority ethnic groups make up a disproportionately large share of high risk ‘key workers’ was eye opening (a point I’ll revisit). Then came the slaying of George Floyd in America, which ignited Black Lives Matter protests across the globe. 

Fast forward to the start of 2021, when I had the chance to look at UK Music’s latest Diversity Report. Examining the figures relating to ethnic minorities in music related workforces, Black, Asian and ethnic minority representation descends the higher up the job ladder one goes: 42.1 percent at apprentice/intern level, 34.6 percent at entry-level, 21.6 percent at mid-level and 19.9 percent at senior level. I could not help but draw comparisons between the glass ceilings faced by Black, Asian and ethnic minority people in employment and demographic, geographical and socioeconomic inequalities. For me, the coronavirus pandemic brought the inequalities in my own industry into sharp focus. 

Sunday, 21 February 2021

A Life On-Line: the 'wrong' Xerxes, RVW in Australia, Ash Wednesday at Wigmore Hall, and Mary, Mary Quite Contrary

Richard Tognetti and Australian Chamber Orchestra at Sydney Town Hall (ACO StudioCasts)
Richard Tognetti and Australian Chamber Orchestra at Sydney Town Hall (ACO StudioCasts)

When Puccini announced his intention of writing an opera based on the story of Manon Lescaut, this caused some controversy because Massenet's opera, based on the same source, was already popular. This sort of overlap in subject matter, somewhat controversial in the late 19th and 20th centuries, was an everyday occurrence during the Baroque era. Some of Metastasio's librettos seem to have been reused 1000s of times, and librettos would be rewritten and reworked over time. A number of Handel's operas are based on 17th-century Venetian librettos (he seems to have had a fondness for this style of opera), though with the comic business and subsidiary action removed. In 1738, Handel presented his opera Serse; it wasn't a success. Based on a libretto originally written in the mid-17th century, Handel kept in a comic character and the tone of his opera is more varied than the heroic, morally uplifting tales that his aristocratic audiences expected.

Handel had based his opera on a libretto created in 1694 for Giovanni Bononcini, which in turn was based on one written for Cavalli. Cavalli's Xerse was premiered in Venice in 1654, but in 1660 he travelled to Paris to write an opera for King Louis XIV's wedding. This opera, Ercole amante was famously delayed and in the meanwhile Cavalli presented a revised version of Xerse in Paris. A year later the king's chief minister, Cardinal Mazarin died and King Louis took over reigns of government personally. There was an anti-Italian push-back (Mazarin had been Italian), Italian singers and composers (including Cavalli) were sent packing and French tragedie lyrique was born.

The fame of Handel's Serse has rather knocked Cavalli's opera from the running so chances to see it are rare. Marcio da Silva and his Ensemble OrQuesta were due to be staging Cavalli's Xerse this year, but that has been delayed. In the mean while, to tempt us, the ensemble gave a concert performance of the Paris version of Xerse live-streamed from the Cockpit.

Saturday, 20 February 2021

To cope with the complexity of modern experience - composer Alastair White discusses the striking philosophical underlay of his opera ROBE, which is receiving its premiere recording

Alastair White (Photo Gemma A. Williams)
Alastair White (Photo Gemma A. Williams)

We caught the premiere of Alastair White's opera ROBE at Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival in August last year [see my review] and his opera WEAR received its first full staging the same month at the Opera in the City Festival at the Bridewell Theatre. Now ROBE is receiving its premiere recording on the metier label with Clara Kanter, Rosie Middleton, Sarah Parkin, Kelly Poukens, flautist Jenni Hogan and pianist Ben Smith

Alastair describes both ROBE and WEAR as fashion-opera and they are part of a sequence of four that are planned. Alastair's use of the term fashion-opera does not simply mean that the pieces are staged with elaborate costumes (though the design for both ROBE and WEAR was striking), but there is a philosophical meaning behind the term and behind the works themselves. Alastair writes both the words and the music, he is very much the works' onlie begetter.

I met up with Alastair, via Zoom, last month to chat about ROBE, the new recording and the ideas behind the opera. We are both composers, but come from very different backgrounds; I trained as a mathematician and spent my working life in engineering and IT, whereas Alastair brings a very different philosophical outlook, as well as having been the founder member of a couple of two Edinburgh bands. So my interview with him was a fascinating discussion that turned on music and philosophy. 

The idea of paradox is essential to the works

The idea behind the Alastair's fashion-operas arises from contingency dialectics, and the idea of paradox is essential to the works. If you consider fashion and opera the two are opposed. Alastair describes fashion as spatial, interventionist, based on contemporary culture and aesthetic form, whereas opera is temporal, autonomous and based on tradition. Fashion exists at the point of exchange value, here he quotes a Prada handbag made of cheap nylon whose value derives from the Prada label, whereas opera is the opposite (the term Alastair uses is 'use value'). 

So the challenge in his operas is how to balance these paradoxes and make both art forms integral to the work.

Friday, 19 February 2021

A celebration of the art of transcription: Visions of Childhood from Kenneth Woods, English Symphony Orchestra and soprano April Fredrick

Visions of Childhood - Mahler, Wagner, Humperdinck, Schubert, Richard Strauss; April Fredrick, English Symphony Orchestra, Kenneth Woods; Nimbus Alliance

Visions of Childhood
- Mahler, Wagner, Humperdinck, Schubert, Richard Strauss; April Fredrick, English Symphony Orchestra, Kenneth Woods; Nimbus Alliance

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 19 February 2021 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
A celebration of the art of transcription, Kenneth Woods and ESO's disc takes us from Wagner celebrating birth to Mahler's version of a child's vision of heaven

In the last twenty years or so, the art of transcription has begun to be celebrated in its own right, rather than simply being seen as a musical tool. In the three years from 1919 to 1921, the Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen, of which Arnold Schoenberg was a leading light, gave performances of chamber transcriptions of over 150 works. And it is these chamber versions which are the inspiration for Kenneth Woods and the English Symphony Orchestra's new disc. Rather than seeing the restrictions of recording under social distancing rules, Woods and the orchestra have instead celebrated the art of the chamber transcription.

Using Vision of Childnood as the theme, Kenneth Woods and the English Symphony Orchestra are joined by soprano April Fredrick on Nimbus Alliance for a programme of Mahler, Wagner, Humperdinck, Schubert and Richard Strauss in orchestrations by Erwin Stein, Kenneth Woods and James Ledger.

Inspired by Coldplay's video for The Scientist, Helen Charlston and the OAE put a very contemporary take on Dido's Lament

I have to confess to being entirely ignorant of Coldplay's hit The Scientist, whose video (directed by Jamie Thraves) told the story of a young man's loss of his lover in reverse, but the trope of telling tragedy in reverse is a familiar one. In the second of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment's Baroque and contemporary remixes [the first featured baritone James Newby drowning in water in a diving helmet], the OAE and mezzo-soprano Helen Charlston take Dido's Lament, 'When I am laid in earth' from Purcell's Dido and Aeneas and apply the Coldplay video's treatment.

So we have a contemporary setting for Dido, she is a very modern girl and we watch her in reverse going from tragedy to pleasure, and during the filming Helen Charlston actually did speak the words of the aria in reverse (with a great deal of practice evidently!).

The result is intriguing, even for those like me who have never seen the original video. See Helen Charlston and the OAE's video above, or on YouTube.


A leap of imagination: Opera Holland Park's 2021 season in a reconfigured auditorium features four new productions, diverse casts, operatic rarities and young artists

Verdi: La traviata - Opera Holland Park 2018 (Photo Robert Workman)
Verdi: La traviata - Opera Holland Park 2018 (Photo Robert Workman)

Socially distanced opera is expensive and very much about space, for the audience members and for the artists, which mean reconfiguring existing performing spaces or taking a leap of imagination. Opera Holland Park's season, which opens on 1 June 2021 looks deceptively normal, but behind it lies considerable work. Taking advantage of the space available, both the auditorium and the stage are being re-configured under the iconic canopy, with the company working with the designer Takis on the project.. The seating is configurable, in groups, and this will mean more space for everyone, but fewer audience members. Capacity will be less than half the theatre's usual (400 as opposed to 1000), as I said socially distance opera is expensive.

Musically, the season has much to offer, with three new productions, a revival and some novelties, diverse casts, plenty of young artists and of the four productions, two are conducted by women and two are directed by women. Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, will be conducted by George Jackson [Jackson conducted some performances in 2018 and it is nice to see him getting his own new production] and directed by Oliver Platt, with Julien van Mellaerts and Nardus Williams as the Count and Countess, Elizabeth Karani as Susanna, Ross Ramgobin as Figaro and Samantha Price as Cherubino. This year's rarity is Mascagni's L'amico Fritz, his best known opera after Cavalleria Rusticana, but one which does not get much of an outing in the UK. Beatrice Venezi conducts, Adele Thomas directs, with cast including Kiandra Howarth, Paul Carey Jones, Kezia Bienek, Themba Mvula and Rose Stachniewska. The final new production is Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen, directed by Stephen Barlow and conducted by Jessica Cottis, with Jennifer France, Harriet Eyley, Julia Sporsen, Grant Doyle, Ann Taylor, Charne Rochford, John Savournin, and Chuma Sieja.

Verdi: La Traviata - Alison Langer, Stephen Aviss - Opera Holland Park 2018 (Photo Robert Workman)
Verdi: La Traviata - Alison Langer, Stephen Aviss
Opera Holland Park 2018 (Photo Robert Workman)
Each year, Opera Holland Park presents a young artists performance, giving young singers the chance to perform in the leading roles in one of the season's productions. This year it is The Marriage of Figaro and because of the theatre's reduced capaticy there will be four Young Artists performances, two for public booking and two schools matinees. The Young Artists performance will be conducted by Lada Valesova and directed by Rebecca Meltzer, with Jacob Philips, Sian Dicker, Charlotte Bowden, Jolyon Loy, Charlotte Badham, Hannah Bennett, Alex Jones, and Guy Withers.

The revival is Rodula Gaitanou's lovely 2018 production of Verdi's La Traviata, which will be conducted by Matthew Kofi Waldren with Lauren Fagan and Alison Langer sharing the title role, plus Matteo Desole and Stephen Aviss sharing the role of Alfredo, and Stephen Gadd as Germont. Fagan, Desole and Gadd are returning to roles they created in 2018 [see my review], whilst Langer and Aviss made quite an impression in the Young Artists performance [see my review].

Despite a 60% reduction in capacity, Opera Holland Park has kept its annual percentage of free and accessible tickets. This year also sees the introduction of a programme of four Discovery Matinees. These performances specifically welcome people who want to try opera out for the first time in a relaxed environment, and those who love opera but find the normal theatre-going experience inaccessible.

Artists impression of the re-configured theatre at Opera Holland Park
Artists impression of the re-configured theatre at Opera Holland Park

There are a couple of extra novelties. Opera Holland Park is joining forces with Charles Court Opera to present Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance, directed by John Savournin (who also sings the role of the Pirate King), conducted by David Eaton, with Richard Burkhard, Yvonne Howard, Daisy Brown, Frederick Long, Peter Kirk, Trevor Eliot Bowes and Alys Roberts. Whilst at the end of the season, British Youth Opera will be bringing their Summer 2021 programme to the theatre, thus giving the youg singers valuable stage experience at a time when performances indoors are still in doubt.

Full details from the Opera Holland Park website.

Until live music can once more return: Zoffanny Ensemble gives a fund-raising concert for Conway Hall

Conway Hall sign
The Zoffany Ensemble (Manon Derome, violin, Lydia Lowndes-Northcott, viola, Anthony Pleeth, cello, Karen Jones, flute, Alison Alty, oboe) will be giving a fund-raising concert for Conway Hall on 7 March 2021. The concert will streamed live from the hall, and will be introduced by Catherine Bott.

Founded in 2009 by violinist Manon Derome, the ensemble is named for the German-born artist Johann Zoffany who was a founding member of the Royal Academy. Rather appropriately the ensemble will be performing programme of late 18th century chamber music by Boccherini, Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart, and JC Bach consisting of trios, quartets and quintets for the line-up of flute, oboe, and strings.

Founded in the 1880s, the Conway Hall’s chamber music concert series is the longest-running of its kind in Europe (the two-thousandth concert was held at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in 1969). Conway Hall was purpose-built in 1929 by the South Place Ethical Society, and was desgined by a Society member, the architect Frederick Herbert Mansford (1871-1946). The hall's name was chosen in honour of Moncure Daniel Conway (1832-1907), an anti-slavery advocate, supporter of free thought and biographer of Thomas Paine. The hall was built to host concerts and lectures, and they have continued until the present day. The ethos of “affordable classical music for all” still remains.

This concert in March, the ensemble's fourth appearance at the hall, has been added specifically to raise funds for the Conway Hall in order to help sustain it through the current crisis, until live music can once more return.

Further details from the Conway Hall website.

Thursday, 18 February 2021

The Polyphonic Concert Club: a new joint venture from St George's Bristol, The Stoller Hall, Manchester and The National Centre for Early Music, York

The Polyphonic Concert Club: a new joint venture from St George's Bristol, The Stoller Hall, Manchester and The National Centre for Early Music, York
A performance of sonatas and party pieces by Mozart, Szymanowski, Paganini and Massenet from violinist Jennifer Pike and pianist Petr Limonov at St George's Bristol launches a new online concert series, The Polyphonic Concert Club

The Polyphonic Concert Club is an initiative launched by the television production company Polyphonic Films Ltd as collective effort between venues and musicians to produce quality filmed concerts for audiences cut off from attending live performance, with artist-led programmes in a novel joint venture. The programmes are produced and promoted in association with three leading concert platforms outside London: St George's Bristol, The Stoller Hall, Manchester and The National Centre for Early Music, York.

The initial series is for six chamber concerts which premiere on Thursdays from 11 March 2021, and the full series will be available on-demand until 29 April 2021.

After Jennifer Pike's recital, subsequent programmes will include The Colin Currie Quartet in the UK premiere of Dave Maric’s Nascent Forms plus Steve Reich’s Drumming Part 1 from the Stoller Hall, Manchester; I Fagiolini in a a time-travelling road trip from London to Paris, Venice and Leipzig, with repertoire from Byrd to Bach via Monteverdi from the National Centre for Early Music, York; Red Priest presents a Baroque carnival and are joined by founder member violinist Julia Bishope; Castalian String Quartet, Royal Philharmonic Society Young Artist of 2019, in a programme of Haydn, Janačék and Thomas Adès’ The Four Quarters; Isata Kanneh-Mason in Clara Schumann, Sofia Gubaidulina and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.

Robert Hollingworth, who is a co-director of Polyphonic Films, as well as director of I Fagiolini, said: "Focusing on the filming as well as the music-making, and with a camera-crew experienced in making arts tv, we can create a strong impression of the real 'being there' feel that everyone craves. We all wanted to do something to help keep the culture of 'going to' music alive, as well as providing some much needed income for venues and artists (and independent film companies!) alike."

Full details from The Polyphonic Concert Club website.

Sing Faure's Requiem with Sonoro and raise money for Cancer Research UK

Sonoro, Requiem for Cancer, Faure Requiem
The singers from Sonoro are coming together online for a project to raise funds for Cancer Research UK in partnership with Requiem to Cancer. From 28 February to 21 March the choir is hosting a series of on-line workshops devoted to Faure's Requiem which culminate in an online performance of the work on Good Friday which will feature participants alongside Sonoro’s professional singers, as well as baritone Matthew Brook, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra Junior Chorus singing ‘Pie Jesu’, together with Wimbledon Choral Society, The Dionysus Ensemble, and Fauré’s organ at L’eglise de la Madeleine, Paris where the piece was first performed.

Over four Sunday afternoons, singers will take part in online workshops under the direction of Sonoro co-artistic director and conductor Neil Ferris, and each week they will be joined by guest speakers including Sofi Jeannin, director of La Maîtrise de Radio France and chief conductor of the BBC Singers. 

Further details from the Sonoro website.

Wednesday, 17 February 2021

Voyage to the moon: Orchestra of the Swan makes its film Luna free online for Random Acts of Kindness Day

Today is not only Ash Wednesday, but Random Acts of Kindness Day when we are urged to explore the good. In a gesture in support of this, Orchestra of the Swan is offering its digital concert Luna free online for 48 hours.

The concert is one of the orchestra's straight-to-streaming Night Owl Digital concerts series. Exploring the moon as an object of longing, mystery, and romanticism, it tells the story of the unprecedented scientific leap that captured the world’s imagination, as man took to the moon half a century ago, intertwining words by Sylvia Plath, Tehereh Mafi, James Joyce, John F. Kennedy, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong with music by Philip Glass, Haydn, Beethoven, Paul Simon, Schönberg and including works from the Swan’s Artistic Director, David Le Page, all beautifully filmed.

Luna can be streamed free from 17 to 19 February 2021 via the orchestra's website.

From Mozart and Mendelssohn to Hummel and Moscheles: Piano Explored - online

Piano Explored, London Mozart Players' annual series of montly lunchtime concerts with pianist Howard Shelley is going on-line this year. The performances are planned to be monthly from February (with two in April), performed in a socially distanced manner without audience (until audiences are permitted). For each an hour-long programme, Shelley gives an entertaining and insightful introduction to one or two famous or not-so-famous works for piano and orchestra, before performing them with the London Mozart Players.

The music this year includes familiar works by Mozart, Saint-Saens, and Shostakovich along with less familiar concertos by Mendelssohn (his Capriccio Brillant in B minor which was premiered in London in 1832), Johann Nepomuk Hummel (who had lessons from Mozart and was a friend of Beethoven's), and Ignaz Moscheles (another friend of Beethoven's, who created the piano score of Fidelio, and was also a close friend of Mendelssohn's). 

The season launches with the first concert (Saint-Saens and Mendelssohn) at 1.05pm, Thursday 18 February 2021, full details from the London Mozart Player's website.

A reflection of a lifetime's performing: Benjamin Britten's complete folk-songs for voice and piano in a new recording from Mark Milhofer and Marco Scolastra

Britten Complete folk-songs for voice and piano; Mark Milhofer, Marco Scolastra; Brilliant

Britten Complete folk-songs for voice and piano; Mark Milhofer, Marco Scolastra; Brilliant

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 17 February 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A new set from English tenor Mark Milhofer explores all the folk-songs that Britten produced for himself and Peter Pears to perform

What is a folk-song arrangement for? 
 
There is an argument that the best thing to do with an English folk-song is to sing it, unaccompanied, just as would have been done by those from whom the song was collected. But composers have written accompaniments to the songs so that they might be performed by those for whom a song needed an accompaniment, in salons and parlours. The doyen of English folk-song collectors, Cecil Sharp, wanted an accompaniment which simply supported the song. Percy Grainger (who horrified English folk-song collectors by using a phonograph when collecting rather than simply writing the music down) wanted the arrangement to be a portrait of singer, including all of the variational details that the original singer brought to the song. RVW [whose arrangements are only just being discovered, see my review], sat between the two but he was clear that he was creating art song. RVW's folk-song arrangements were intended for classically trained singers, to fit into art-song programmes.

Benjamin Britten came from a slightly different English tradition. Whilst he did study at the Royal College of Music, the biggest influence on his music was Frank Bridge who, though he had studied with Sir Charles Villers Stanford, was one of the few English composers of the time interested in the music that was happening on the Continent. Whilst at the Royal College of Music, Britten found his fellow students 'folksy and amateurish'. You feel he sympathised with Constant Lambert whose witty and polemical study Music Ho came out in 1934, and which derided the English pastoral school. Yet Britten came to love the music of Percy Grainger and Britten produced an influential Grainger disc at a time when Grainger's music was not particularly highly regarded (one or two pot-boilers apart).

Britten's folk-song arrangements started with a highly practical purpose, something for Peter Pears to sing, something for Pears to sing in English (the language of most of his audience) and a link to home. The arrangements start being created whilst Britten and Pears are in America, and continue when they return home as the two use them for their wartime recitals. And the songs continue through to the end of Britten's career, with two final groups with guitar and with harp, written after the composer stopped playing in public. This is a clear indication of the songs practical purpose, they were for Peter to perform.

On this new two-disc set from Brilliant Classics, tenor Mark Milhofer and pianist Marco Scolastra perform all of Britten's folk-song arrangements for voice and piano, the published volumes and the unpublished songs [Released 19 February 2021]. The songs are performed in date order, starting with I wonder as I wander which was written in America but never published because of copyright problems, and ending with songs from the late 1950s.

Apart from the volume of French folk-songs (written for the Swiss soprano Sophie Wyss), all these songs were written for Peter Pears, but since publication have been taken into the repertoire of countless singers, often filling a function in recital parallel to that in Britten and Pears' recitals, a moment for the singer to sing to the audience in their native language. Few singers nowadays include folk-song arrangements by Grainger or by RVW in their recitals, but Britten's are common.

Tuesday, 16 February 2021

From a celebration of Leonardo da Vinci and the first moon flight to a sequence of O Antiphons, the organ music of Cecilia McDowall performed by William Fox

Cecilia McDowall Organ works; William Fox, Lucy Humphris; NAXOS

Cecilia McDowall Organ works; William Fox, Lucy Humphris; NAXOS

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 16 February 2021 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
Bringing together a selection of Cecilia McDowall's music for organ, in a programme full of variety and imagination

Composer Cecilia McDowall is perhaps best known for her choral works, though her output extends far beyond this. An imaginative new disc from organist William Fox on Naxos brings together Cecilia McDowall's output for organ, including music for organ and trumpet with trumpeter Lucy Humphris. The core of the disc is a group of sacred and religiously inspired works, the 2018 O Antiphon Sequence, alongside Three Antiphons (2006) and the George Herbert Trilogy (2013/2020), plus two most definitely secular pieces, Celebration (2014) and First Flight (2019). The disc was recorded on the 1963, J.W. Walker organ at the Church of St John the Evangelist, Islington, London.

OperaUNITY: Opera Holland Park announces a monthly series of free online family workshops

Opera Holland Park - OperaUNITY online family workshops

Beginning this week, Opera Holland Park is releasing a new series of OperaUNITY online family workshops. Running monthly during Spring and Summer, the workshops are free and aimed at allowing children under 5, those with special educational needs, and their families to enjoy opera and live music together from home. Each themed workshop is run on Zoom by singer and theatre-maker Fiona Williams,  blending music, movement, drama and storytelling and bringing opera to life with puppets, toys, live performances and singalong action.

The first, on 19 February 2021, is Pancake Party, followed by Bouncing Bunnies on 12 March 2021. Whilst the episodes are live streamed, they were be recorded and released on demand via YouTube.

The OperaUNITY workshops follow on from Opera Holland Park's recent daily series of virtual Music Lessons for Key Stage 2 and 3 pupils.

Full details from the Opera Holland Park website, and families can book places on the workshops via the online form.


Monday, 15 February 2021

Reconnecting with the most treasured elements of their lives as choristers: the Gesualdo Six's Lent Sessions

The Gesualdo Six
The Gesualdo Six

Easter is early this year; Wednesday (17 February 2021) is Ash Wednesday and then Lent will be upon us, and to commemorate the season the Gesualdo Six are beginning their Lent Sessions. This online series builds on the group's Advent Sessions. Both Advent and Lent are seasons which look forward to something with building excitement, and composers have been inspired to write so much music. The Gesualdo Six will be drawing on English composers such as Byrd and Tallis and Continental composers for their performances. 

All the members of the Gesualdo Six (Owain Park, Guy James, Andrew Leslie Cooper,  Joseph Wicks, Josh Cooter, Michael Craddock, Sam Mitchell) have experience singing in church choirs, and the Lent Sessions will bring together the things that the singers have missed doing, psalms, hymns, plainchant and more. They see the Lent Sessions as being a way to reconnect with the most treasured things from their life as a chorister. The sessions will be including hymns, and Owain Park points out to me that as professional singers they don't get to do many hymns. Each online event will be something of a hybrid between a service and a recital, generally following liturgical associations so that the Ash Wednesday performance will include Byrd's setting of Psalm 51, Miserere Mei, Obrecht's Pace Domine and other such works which use the set texts for the day, plus appropriate chant.

Owain Park sings at the Tower of London and the choir participates in a couple of services each year in the lovely Norman chapel in the White Tower. One of these is a service for Ash Wednesday when they perform the hymn, Lord Jesus think on me, an old hymn which RVW adapted. Owain describes it as atmospheric, and the hymn will be in their Ash Wednesday performance.

The repertoire for each event is not fully fixed yet, they are researching the music as they go along. Partly this is so that they can react to the response to the performances, but partly because the project came together quite late thanks to the current restrictions. The Ash Wednesday performance was recorded at the Church of St Bartholemew the Great in the City of London, and all the performances will be that church. Everything is being done in-house, the ensemble has its own equipment which enables them to be able to offer promoters a live-stream of the concerts. And as for the ensemble's Advent Sessions, they do their own editing of the resulting films.

The ensemble understands that not everyone is able to afford to pay for access to the season of performances, so whilst the full series online will be £20, some elements will be released free. The performances will mark the important dates in the season, Ash Wednesday, the Sundays in Lent and Holy Week, each performance will include motets, hymns and plainchant.

Full details of the Gesualdo Six's Lent Sessions from the ensemble's website.

Without discrimination, harm or transphobia: a look at transgender singers in classical music

We Sing/I Sang - CN Lester with Hannah Gardiner  - Tête à Tête 2020 (Photo Claire Shovelton)
We Sing/I Sang - CN Lester with Hannah Gardiner (viola) - Tête à Tête 2020 (Photo Claire Shovelton)

Countertenor Alexander Pullinger describes himself on his website as singer, teacher and advocate and he has used lockdown to expand his advocacy work, writing a paper for Sound Connections. Published in December last year Alexander's paper, Facilitating the Empowerment of Transgender Voices Through Singing [PDF],  takes an extended look at transgender singers in classical music and the creation of trans-positive singing spaces. I recently chatted to Alexander to find out more about the background to the paper and to discover what the reaction had been.

Alexander's first concern in our conversation was to ensure that we were clear on the basics. A transgender person is someone whose sex is not the same as their gender.  Sex (body type) is assigned at birth, and the issue with singing arises because the voice develops according to sex (the direct result of hormones acting on the larynx at puberty) so that the lazy assumption that women sing high and men sing low is a false equivalence. Alexander's advocacy is focused on the idea of creating spaces in classical singing so that transgender people can participate without discrimination, harm and transphobia.

Classical singing places a lot of focus on the body and technique, and this creates a perfect environment for gendered voice types, ie. men sing low, women sing high, which creates a difficulty for transgender people. People tend to not question the assumption even though it is based on a misunderstanding about sex (which produces voice types) and gender (how they identify as male/female/non-binary).

'Ladies in long black, men in black shirt and jackets'

The concentration in classical singing on men's voice and women's voices, often with highly gendered dress codes (referring to what the women will wear, rather than what the sopranos and altos will wear), causes a host of problems for transgendered singers and invalidates them.

The Fire of Love & Songs of Innocence: two new works by Patrick Hawes, written for the American choir The Same Stream

Patrick Hawes The Fire of Love, Songs of Innocence; The Same Stream, James Jordan; GIA
Patrick Hawes The Fire of Love, Songs of Innocence; The Same Stream, James Jordan; GIA

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 12 February 2021 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
Writing for an American choir, composer Patrick Hawes has produced two choral suites setting words by two contrasting English mystics, Richard Rolle and William Blake

This new disc from GIA Choral Works/Naxos record label. GIA is an American publisher with a focus on choral and sacred music, and the disc features two new choral works by Patrick Hawes (GIA are also publishing the music). Hawes has written The Fire of Love and Songs of Innocence specially for the Philadelphia based choir, The Same Stream and the ensemble has recorded both works with their conductor James Jordan, plus pianist Corey Everly.

The Fire of Love sets texts by Andrew Hawes based on the writings of the fourteenth century English mystic, Richard Rolle. Andrew Hawes (Patrick Hawes' brother) has distilled Rolle's long prose writings into six short, abstract lyrics, 'This Fire', 'This is Love', 'Eternal Praises', 'In Paradise', 'The Angel's Praise' and 'Endless Love'. Patrick Hawes' music uses choir accompanied by piano (Corey Everly), violins (Valissa Willwerth and Blake Espy), viola (Jason DePue) and cello (Branson Yeast). The movements take you through Rolle's idea that there are three phases of the soul's movement towards God, heat, sweetness and song.

Sunday, 14 February 2021

A Life On-Line: New beginnings at the Academy of Ancient Music, the dying embers of Romanticism, fairytales in Scotland and a children's jukebox

Humperdinck: Hansel and Gretel - Nadine Benjamin - Scottish Opera (Photo James Glossop)
Humperdinck: Hansel and Gretel - Nadine Benjamin - Scottish Opera (Photo James Glossop)

This week there were a number of threads running through our watching and listening, there were beginnings and endings, with the Academy of Ancient Music looking forward to the start of Laurence Cummings' term as artistic director whilst the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightement were looking at the end of Romanticism and the composers who emerged from under Wagner's shadow. This carried over into Scottish Opera's film of another late Romantic masterpiece by Wagner's pupil Humperdinck. Dance was another theme, whether Baroque with the AAM or more modern with the lively young people of W11 Opera whose lockdown creation of Jukebox was full of verve.

W11 Opera's Jukebox was an imaginative solution to the problem of creating opera with young people during lockdown. By mining the company's back catalogue (it celebrates its 50th anniversary this year), artistic director Susan Moore [see my interview with Susan 'Children can do so much more than you think'] threaded together scenes from past shows, all written specially for the company, and linked them with a lively script. Rehearsals were via Zoom, and the 30 young performers all filmed themselves in their living rooms, their gardens and elsewhere, each in an imaginative costume. There was dialogue too, and here was the film's neatest trick, for each patch of dialogue we would briefly see the individual performers then their voices would continue and Chris Glyn's lovely hand-drawn animations would replace them.

The result was impressive and an entertaining delight. There were some strong individual performances and impressively coordinated ensembles. Some performers were clearly very aware of the camera, but others seemed to be naturals. It was refreshing and imaginative, definitely not a film of a stage performance but something that could only have been created on video. Whilst the young performers may have not got to perform together this year, they certainly created something distinctive. [W11 Opera]

On 19 December 2020, Scottish Opera was able to film a new production of Engelbert Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel, in the Theatre Royal, Glasgow. David Parry conducted the orchestra of Scottish Opera in a reduced orchestration by Derek Clark with the orchestra spread out on the stage, and Daisy Evans' production taking place on the fore-stage over the pit. Rhian Lois and Kitty Whately were the children, with Nadine Benjamin and Philip Rhodes as their parents, with Benjamin doubling as the Witch. Charlie Drummond was the Sandman and Dew Fairy. The production used a chorus of four women who took an active part in the whole production, with Evans using them imaginatively to create dynamic settings, particularly for the forest.

There is something innately silly about watching two grown women, both with children of their own, pretending to be children but Lois and Whately brought it off.