Wednesday 30 November 2022

From Mozart, Made in Manchester to a new theorbo concerto and the National Youth Jazz Orchestra: 2023 at Stoller Hall

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, Gábor Takács-Nagy, and Manchester Camerata
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, Gábor Takács-Nagy, and Manchester Camerata

The Stoller Hall in Manchester has launched the first three months of its 2023 season with an eclectic mix of concerts and music genres. Highlights include an intriguing concert from the Sacconi String Quartet and lutenist Matthew Wadsworth which moves from Purcell to Stephen Goss' Theorbo Concerto to Eleanor Alberga's String Quartet No. 2 and Beethoven's String Quartet No.16 in F Major, Op.135. Other chamber music includes Ensemble 360 (resident ensemble at the Sheffield Chamber Music Festival) in Vaughan Williams and Schumann, and pianist John Lenahan and violinist Cristian Grajner de Sa in Brahms, Prokofiev and Amy Beach, whilst Ensemble 360 will be joining Polly Ives for their family-friendly Izzy Gizmo. 

The next instalment of the Manchester Camerata's Mozart, Made in Manchester series returns with Gábor Takács-Nagy conducting the Camerata in three of Mozart's earlier piano concertos with Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, plus the Overture to The Abduction from the Seraglio K.384. Guest conductor Karin Hendrickson and the young musicians from Chetham’s Symphony Orchestra will be exploring Brahms' Symphony No. 4, plus Sibelius’ Violin Concerto and Breaking Waves by Swedish composer Helena Munktell (1852-1919) performed by Chetham’s soloist Kassia Ren. 

Jazz includes Tommy Blaize and the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, and other visitors include jazz trumpeter come singer-songwriter Philip Lassiter and Dave Bristow and his quintet.

Full details from the Stoller Hall website.

Not so much a history of opera: Simon Banks uses 400 years of opera to hold up a mirror to the attitudes and views of those who watched and commissioned the works

Simon Banks: Opera: The Autobiography of the Western World; Matador Books
Simon Banks: Opera: The Autobiography of the Western World; Matador Books
Book Review, 29 November 2022

Most histories of opera begin with Renaissance Italy, make their way through the various incarnations of the Baroque, move to Classical Vienna and then explore Romanticism in all its guises before attempting to define what opera is in the 20th and 21st centuries. But Simon Banks takes a different view in his book Opera: The Autobiography of the Western World (Matador Books). He explores the way the operas of a particular age have reflected the age's obsessions, politics and world views.

He points out that over its 400-year history, opera was one of the dominant entertainment forms of its ruling elites, often making opera in the listeners' own images (after all, they were usually paying for it). As Banks puts it in his introduction, 'the operatic repertoire lives on as an astonishingly eloquent record of how the modern West changed its mind on key political, religious and social issues over four centuries', and he sees the operatic repertoire as a living record of the Western world. So, this isn't a book on the history of opera, it is a book about the history of the Western world or more specifically the cultural and political attitudes of the Western world as reflected in one of its favourite art forms.

The topic is possibly one that might be completely indigestible, so Banks' solution is to create 36 chapters grouped into three parts, New answers to timeless questions, The Modern West breaks free from the Middle Ages, and From despotism to pluralism. Each chapter takes a specific historical era or idea, 'How did it all start', or 'Religious Fanaticism' or 'Philip II and Elizabeth I (1550-1600)' and then lists operas from different eras that treat the same, or similar, subject matter and see how they shed light on changing attitudes.

Finalists announced for the Voice of Black Opera Competition

Voice of Black Opera
Monday 5 December 2022 sees the final of the Voice of Black Opera Competition at Birmingham Town Hall. The five finalists are:
  • Rachel Duckett - soprano (British Jamaican)
  • Chantelle Grant - mezzo-soprano (Canadian)
  • Thando Mjandana - tenor (South African)
  • Yolisa Ngwexana - soprano (South African)
  • Isabelle Peters - soprano (British)  
They will be accompanied by the Welsh National Opera (WNO) Orchestra, conducted by Matthew Kofi Waldren. Each singer’s repertoire at the concert will include a performance of at least one contemporary song or aria by a Black or South Asian composer and finalists will also perform a duet with other professional singers.

The finalists were selected from the semi-final rounds featuring artists from throughout the Commonwealth held in Birmingham on 24 and 25 November. At the final, the judging panel will include Tom Randle (tenor), Aiden Lang (general director of Welsh National Opera), Simon Meier (artistic director of BCMG), Jean Ronald La Fond (tenor and vocal coach), Philip Herbert (composer), Rupert Christiansen (writer and critic), and Odaline de la Martinez (conductor and composer).

Each singer will be fitted with a bespoke fashion item to wear at the final, designed by students of Birmingham City University (BCU) School of Fashion & Textiles, Bespoke jewellery will also be made for the singers by students of the BCU Birmingham School of Jewellery.

The Voice of Black Opera Competition is organised by Black British Classical Foundation in collaboration with Welsh National Opera, to showcase the finest Black and South Asian singers as they launch international operatic careers.

Full details from the BMusic website.

Tuesday 29 November 2022

One of the largest contemporary music events in North America: Montreal/New Musics 2023 - Music and Spirituality


Montreal/New Musics 2023 - Music and Spirituality

Montreal/New Musics (MNM) international festival, presented by Société de musique contemporaine du Québec (SMCQ), has developed into one of the largest contemporary music events in North America. The 11th edition takes place from 23 February to 5 March 2023 under the title Music and Spirituality, bringing together artists from different musical backgrounds. At the centre of 10 days of music making are five major concerts reflecting diverse musical influences. 

Ensemble Obiora and the Ensemble de la SMCQ, conducted by Cristian Gort, open the festival with a new work by Canadian composer Katia Makdissi-Warren who brings together two traditions, Inuit and Breton throat singing. Alongside this will be music by Arvo Pärt and French composer Alexis Savelief.

Andrew Balfour, a composer of Cree origin, presents Notinikew, an anti-war mini-opera that tells the story of indigenous soldiers who fought for Canada in the First World War and were denied the right to return home. Another featured composer is Canadian Walter Boudreau with a performance of Golgot(h)a, which uses poems by Boudreau's friend Raôul Duguay to create a Way of the Cross, based on a motet by Victoria. Other concerts include the French ensemble Court-circuit in different generations of French, Canadian and American composers, reflecting a spirit of freedom, and works for piano, ondes martenot and women's choir by Olivier Messiaen

Full details from the festival website.

Early Music Christmas online and in person in York at the National Centre for Early Music


NCEM: Christmas Online Box Set
As well as presenting the York Early Music Christmas Festival from 8 to 17 December 2022, the National Centre for Early Music (NCEM) in York is offering audiences the chance to experience selected concerts online with the York Early Music Festival Online Box Set. This features seven concerts which are available on demand from 19 December 2022 to 31 January 2023.

The online festival includes a special performance by The Orlando Consort in their final year together, EEEmerging rising stars La Palatine in Fiesta Galante, festival favourite Bojan Čičić in Bach's Partitas and Sonatas for solo violin, Baroque collective Solomon’s Knot giving the UK premieres of three of Christmas Cantatas by Johann Kuhnau (Bach's predecessor in Leipzig), and Spiritato joining forces with The Marian Consort to perform Inspiring Bach, featuring music and composers admired by Johann Sebastian Bach. 

And if you can be in York in person during December, then the York Early Music Christmas Festival features The Orlando Consort, La Palatine, Bojan Čičić, Solomon's Knot, Spiritato and The Marian Consort along with improvising violinist Nina Kumin, Ensemble Augelletti, the Yorkshire Bach Choir in Handel's Brockes Passion, and Ensemble Moliere celebrating Molière's 400th anniversary, 

Full details from the NCEM website.

Barbican Quartet in Haydn, Bartok and Schumann at Conway Hall

Barbican Quartet (Photo Andrej Grilc)
Barbican Quartet (Photo Andrej Grilc)
Haydn, Bartok, Schumann; Barbican Quartet; Conway Hall Sunday Concerts
Reviewed 27 November 2022

Folk-influenced modernism from Bartok in a compelling programme that began with Haydn's experimental classicism and ended with warmly imaginative Schumann

Sunday 27 November 2022 saw the Barbican Quartet (Amarins Wierdsma, Kate Maloney, Christoph Slenczka and Yoanna Prodanova) performing a programme of Haydn's Quartet in F 'The Dream' Op.50 No. 5, Bartok's Quartet No. 4 in C, and Schumann's Quartet in A Op. 41 no. 3 at Conway Hall's Sunday Concerts Series. Beforehand I gave a pre-concert talk on Bartok and the String Quartet, putting the composer's six mature quartets in context. These are works that have an important role in Conway Hall's history too, as the 1949/50 season of the Sunday Concerts saw the first UK performance of a complete cycle of Bartok's quartets, just four years after the composer's death.

The Barbican Quartet was formed in 2015 at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and this year welcomed a new second violinist Kate Maloney. Also this year, the quartet won first prize in the 71st ARD International String Quartet Competition (as well as being awarded price for Best Interpretation of the commissioned work by Dobrinka Tabakova) and third prize at the Bordeaux International String Quartet Competition.

Monday 28 November 2022

A hugely ambitious company achievement: Will Todd's Migrations from Welsh National Opera

Will Todd: Migrations - Jamal Zulfiqar, Natasha Agarwal, Bollywood Ensemble - Welsh National Opera (Photo Craig Fuller)
Will Todd: Migrations - Jamal Zulfiqar, Natasha Agarwal, Bollywood Ensemble in This is the Life - Welsh National Opera (Photo Craig Fuller)

Will Todd: Migrations; director David Pountney, conductor Mattew Kofi Waldren; Welsh National Opera at the Mayflower Theatre, Southampton
Reviewed 26 November 2022

Will Todd's new opera - six different stories ranging from 17th century to the present day, a huge ensemble combining professional and community, superbly engaged performances and a wonderfully ambitious musical score

Will Todd's opera Migrations is a hugely ambitious project commissioned by Welsh National Opera (WNO) to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the sailing of The Mayflower from Plymouth (one of the places that WNO visits) in 1620. The work finally made its debut in Cardiff in June 2022 and was revived for the company's Autumn 2022 tour where I caught the final performance at the Mayflower Theatre in Southampton on Saturday 26 November 2022.

Migrations uses a libretto by six writers - Edson Burton, Miles Chambers, Eric Ngalle Charles, David Pountney, Shreya Sen-Handley, Sarah Woods - based on an original concept by David Pountney, to tell six interlocking story lines, thus setting the sailing of The Mayflower against other tales of migration and colonisation - the contemporary Cree people's struggle against the government of Canada, displaced people in an English class, the story of a house slave in 18th century Bristol, Indian doctors coming to work in the NHS in the 1960s and migratory birds.

The resulting work had around two hours of music, with Will Todd working with Jasdeep Singh Degun on the Indian-inspired music for the Bollywood scenes. The production involved a huge number of performers, the WNO Chorus and Orchestra, the Renewal Community Chorus of Bristol, as well as children's chorus, a guest artist ensemble of Parvathi Subbiah, Julia Daramy-Williams, Chike Akrwarandu, Oscar Castellino and Christin Joel, plus soloists Marion Newman, David Shipley, Kenneth Overton, Tom Randle, Grace Nyandoro, Michael Anthony McGee, Felix Kemp, Meeta Raval, Natash Agarwal and Jamal Zulfiqar. The original director was David Pountney with Sarah Crisp as director for this revival. Set designs were by Loren Elstein with costumes by April Dalton. Matthew Kofi Waldren conducted.

Will Todd: Migrations - WNO Chorus, Renewal Community Chorus - Welsh National Opera (Photo Craig Fuller)
Will Todd: Migrations - WNO Chorus, Renewal Community Chorus in The Mayflower - Welsh National Opera (Photo Craig Fuller)

Saturday 26 November 2022

A day at the EFG London Jazz Festival

BBC Young Jazz Musician - winner Ewan Hastie (Photo Tricia Yourkevich BBC)
BBC Young Jazz Musician - winner Ewan Hastie (Photo Tricia Yourkevich BBC)

EFG London Jazz Festival at Southbank Centre including BBC Young Jazz Musician
Reviewed by Florence Anna Maunders, 19 November 2022

From sets by upcoming British jazz musicians to the outrageously talented finalists of the BBC Young Jazz Musician, a day at the EFG London Jazz Festival

The 2022 EFG London Jazz Festival came to a conclusion last weekend including an all day event at the Southbank Centre on the penultimate day (19 November 2022). Composer Florence Anna Maunders was there to sample the delights including sets from Mischa Mullov-Abbado, Charlotte Keefe, Marcus Joseph, Infinitum Trio, Ralph Porrett, Luke Bacchus, Emma Rawicz, Ewan Hastie, Nick Manz, plus the final of BBC Young Jazz Musician.

Going from strength to strength, there was easily enough jazz in the 2022 EFG London Jazz Festival to fill a year – but crammed into just ten days of music-packed performances across the capital. The penultimate day featured an all-day programme at the Southbank Centre, with performances occurring simultaneously across the main venues as well as in the open foyer areas in the Royal Festival Hall – making it impossible to catch more than a fraction of everything going on!

I want to live forever: Angeles Blancas Gulin is mesmerising as Emilia Marty in Olivia Fuchs terrific new production of The Makropulos Affair at WNO

Janacek: The Makropouolos Affair - Angeles Blancas Gulin in Act Three - Welsh National Opera (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Janacek: The Makropulos Affair - Angeles Blancas Gulin in Act Three - Welsh National Opera (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)

Janacek: The Makropulos Affair; Angeles Blancas Gulin, Nicky Spence, Gustav Belacek, Mark Le Brocq, Harriet Eyley, David Stout, Alexander Sprague, Alan Oke, director: Olivia Fuchs, conductor: Tomáš Hanus; Welsh National Opera at the Mayflower Theatre, Southampton
Reviewed 25 November 2022 (★★★★½)

A mesmerising performance in the title role is at the centre of this richly detailed and wonderfully musical account of one of Janacek's most fascinating works

In some ways Janacek's The Makropulos Affair is the operatic equivalent to bleak house, both works examine the fall out from a long running court case, but in the case of the opera it has a meditation on eternal life mixed in. Janacek based his opera The Makropulos Affair on Karel Čapek's 1922 play of the same name, a thought experiment about a woman who was 300 years old and was constantly reinventing herself. But when Janacek saw the play it was Emilia Marty the woman who fascinated him, what would it mean to be 300 years old. In her introductory article for the programme for Welsh National Opera's new production of Janacek's opera, director Olivia Fuchs comments about Čapek's play resonating with Janacek's view of the cyclical nature of life and death, 

I finally caught up with Fuchs' new production of The Makropulos Affair at the Mayflower Theatre in Southampton (built as The Empire Theatre just five years after the opera premiered) at the final performance of the run on 25 November 2022. Angeles Blancas Gulin was Emilia Marty with Nicky Spence as Albert Gregor, Gustav Belacek as Dr Kolenaty, Mark Le Brocq as Vitek, Harriet Eyley as Krista, David Stout as Baron Prus, Alexander Sprague as Janek and Alan Oke as Count Hauk-Sendorf. The conductor was Tomáš Hanus, designs were by Nicola Turner.

Janacek: The Makropouolos Affair - Nicky Spence, Gustav Belacek, Angeles Blancas Gulin in Act One - Welsh National Opera (Photo Richard Hubert Smith
Janacek: The Makropulos Affair - Nicky Spence, Gustav Belacek, Angeles Blancas Gulin in Act One - Welsh National Opera (Photo Richard Hubert Smith

Though the setting was firmly period, there was an element of freedom to Nicola Turner's designs, an element of the surreal, particularly in the second act. And for each scene, there was a sense of over the top accumulation, mirroring the way Emilia Marty's life had gone on too long and got too much stuff in it. So, the solicitor's office in Act One was all papers and filing cabinets, the theatre in Act Two featured a huge mound of red roses from bouquets given to the singer, and in the final act Emilia Marty's luggage strewn all over the hotel bedroom. And a clock was also a big feature of the designs, the different layers of time are important in this opera.

Friday 25 November 2022

La terra impareggiabile: NMC Recordings' Annual Friends' and Supporters' Celebration

Richard Causton: La terra imparregiabile
To Pushkin House last night (24 November 2022) for NMC Recordings' Annual Friends' and Supporters' Celebration, its first such in-person event for three years. Besides celebrating three years of exciting recordings, the event was a chance to hear some live music and, of course, catch up with people.

Baritone Marcus Farnsworth and pianist Huw Watkins performed three songs from Richard Causton's song cycle La terra impareggiabile. Setting poems by Sicilian-born poet Salvatore Quasimodo (1901-1968), the ten songs of the cycle were composed between 1996 and 2007, and refined over a further decade, forming the mainstay of Causton's output during that period. The complete cycle forms the centrepiece of the recent disc of Causton's music, La terra impareggiabile.

The composer Imogen Holst is an important figure in NMC's history. Imogen Holst was determined that the income from her father's estate be used to support new music and she created the Holst Foundation with this purpose, and the foundation was an early supporter of NMC Records. As a reflection of this, NMC has set up the Imogen Holst fund to allow the company to continue its mission of supporting new music by young and not so young British composers.

We heard some of Imogen Holst's music, her A Hymn to Christ sung by four National Youth Choir of Great Britain Fellows (NYCGB). Since 2018, NMC has had a partnership with NYCGB for the Young Composers scheme whereby three composers work for a year with the various choirs of NYCGB, artistic director & principal conductor Ben Parry and a range of composer mentors. The scheme comprises residential courses, workshops, peer and professional mentoring and performance showcases, and a digital release on NMC.

On Thursday the four NYCGB Fellows sang The Waiting Sky by Oliver Tarney, who is one of the mentors on the scheme, and a work by Kristina Arakelyan, My Love is Come to Me which features on the January 2022 release, NYCGB Young Composers 3 which also features music by Anna Disley-Simpson, Alex Ho and Derri Joseph Lewis. And NYCGB Young Composers 4 will be released in January 2023.

We wear the mask: Paul Laurence Dunbar, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and a friendship in song

Paul Laurence Dunbar
Paul Laurence Dunbar
Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) was an American poet and writer born to parents who had been enslaved. He began writing stories and verse when he was a child and was one of the first African-American writers to establish an international reputation. He wrote the lyrics to the musical In Dahomey (1903), the first African-American musical produced on Broadway. He died from TB at the age of 33.

Dunbar had wanted to study law, but his family situation meant that there was no money for him to go to college, and racial prejudice prevented him from getting anything but a lowly job. However, this did mean that he had time to write verse, stories and articles

Despite a relatively short career, he published a dozen books of poetry, four books of short stories and four novels. He wrote poetry both in conventional English and the dialect associated with African-Americans in the antebellum South. His importance is highlighted by Dunbar's friend James Weldon Johnson in the preface to his Book of American Poetry: 

"Paul Laurence Dunbar stands out as the first poet from the Negro race in the United States to show a combined mastery over poetic material and poetic technique, to reveal innate literary distinction in what he wrote, and to maintain a high level of performance. He was the first to rise to a height from which he could take a perspective view of his own race. He was the first to see objectively its humor, its superstitions, its short-comings; the first to feel sympathetically its heart-wounds, its yearnings, its aspirations, and to voice them all in a purely literary form."

In 1897 he travelled to Europe for a literary tour, giving performances (reciting his works) in London and met Samuel Coleridge-Taylor there. Coleridge-Taylor not only set some of Dunbar's lyrics (including the African Romances, Op. 17) but was influenced by Dunbar to use African and American Negro songs in his music, encouraging the composer to draw on his own Sierra Leonean ancestry. The two gave a joint recital in London, and it was in London that Dunbar worked on his first novel, The Uncalled (1898) and found publishers for a British edition of his collection of verse, Lyrics of Lowly Life. The two also worked on the operetta Dream Lovers

On 2 December 2022, Nigel Foster's London Song Festival will be exploring Dunbar and Coleridge-Taylor's friendship [further details & tickets]. Soprano Gweneth Ann Rand and tenor Ronald Samm will be performing Coleridge-Taylor's Dunbar settings alongside settings of the poet's lyrics by Florence Price, John Rosamond Johnson, William Grant Still, and Betty Jackson-King. The concert will feature the premiere of my setting of Dunbar's poem We wear the mask:

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
     And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
    We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
   We wear the mask!

Further ahead, there is more of my music when on 3 February 2023, Nigel Foster (piano) will be joined by Ben Vonberg-Clark (tenor) and James Atkinson (baritone) for Out of the Shadows, and an evening of my songs including the premieres of two cantatas. Further details from my website.

Finding its true form: Ian Venables' new orchestral version of his Requiem in fine a performance from the choir of Merton College on Delphian

Ian Venables: Requiem, anthems by Herbert Howells; Choir of Merton College, Oxford, Oxford Contemporary Sinfonia, conductor Benjamin Nicholas; DELPHIAN
Ian Venables: Requiem, anthems by Herbert Howells; Choir of Merton College, Oxford, Oxford Contemporary Sinfonia, conductor Benjamin Nicholas; DELPHIAN
Reviewed 22 November 2022 (★★★★)

A warmth and mellow fruitfulness surround this lovely new orchestral version of Venables' recent Requiem

Ian Venables' Requiem debuted in 2019 and I heard the first London performance [see my review] with the first recording, from Adrian Partington and the choir of Gloucester Cathedral on SOMM coming in 2020 [see my review]. That work was for choir and organ, but Venables has now orchestrated the work and the resulting orchestral Requiem has been recorded by the choir of Merton College, Oxford and Oxford Contemporary Sinfonia, conductor Benjamin Nicholas on DELPHIAN.

Venables' teachers included Richard Arnell (1917-2009), himself a pupil of John Ireland, and John Joubert (1927-2019), whose teachers included Howard Ferguson and Alan Bush, and Venables' own music owes clear allegiance to this stream of 20th century English music, tonal, complex, mixing contemplative, pastoral and mystical elements with other more dramatic ones. 

There isn't a long tradition of requiems by British composers and whilst Howells did write one, it is an atypical work in that Howells' unaccompanied choral textures are rather different from his use of choir and organ in much of his Anglican liturgical music. When I first heard Venables Requiem, I was struck by the legacy of the French tradition, notably Faure and Durufle, and this is definitely the case in his new orchestral version of the work. 

Yes, many of the details here are quintessentially English, and there is no doubting Venables' admiration for a composer like Finzi, but there is something rather French in Venables' manipulation of textures, the interweaving of choir and orchestra into a seamless piece of magic. Listening to the work, and the way Venables weaves chant-like melodies into the music and seems to make his choir and extension of the orchestra, and vice versa, brings us back to Durufle.

Venables is not noted for his choral music, his back catalogue is very devoted to song, and it is interesting to listen to this music and consider how a song composer comes at the text. This is a setting that is very alert to atmosphere. It is a very contemplative piece; yes, there is drama and undoubted sense of anxiety, but this is a Requiem, like that of Faure, designed to console.

There is a real mellowness to the work which seems to have been brought out by the new orchestration, and it feels as if Venables' Requiem has found its true form. Certainly, the version for choir and organ is wonderfully practical and useful, but the colours and the imagination in this new reading of the work are immense.

The disc begins with a trio of anthems by Herbert Howells, with his 1954 anthem The House of the Mind in its original version for choir organ and string orchestra plus two anthems for choir and organ in newer orchestrations, O pray for the peace of Jerusalem orchestrated by Jonathan Clinch and Like as the hart orchestrated by Howard Eckdahl. And it is interesting to hear how these anthems in their orchestral versions provide a sense of continuity with the Venables.

Venables God be merciful was written as a commission in 2020. A setting of words from psalm 67, the work begins quiet and intense, with a sense of Venables' English roots clearly heard. The disc ends, somewhat in full circle, with Venables' organ piece Rhapsody 'In memoriam Herbert Howells'

Herbert Howells (1892-1983), orchestrated by Jonathan Clinch - O pray for the peace of Jerusalem
Herbert Howells, orchestrated by Howard Eckdahl - Like as the hard
Herbert Howells - The House of the Mind
Ian Venables (born 1955) - Requiem, OP. 48
Ian Venables - God be merciful, Op. 51
Ian Venables - Rhapsody ‘In memoriam Herbert Howells’, Op. 25 for solo organ
Choir of Merton College, Oxford
Oxford Contemporary Sinfonia
Benjamin Nicholas (conductor and organ)
Recorded on 27-29 June 2021 in the Chapel of Merton College, Oxford
DELPHIAN 1CD [77:30]

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Elsewhere on this blog

  • Celebrating St Cecilia's Day in style: Freiburg Baroque Orchestra in Purcell and Handel at Wigmore Hall - concert review
  • Changing Standards: London Sinfonietta at the EFG London Jazz Festival - concert review
  • Music for French Kings: Amanda Babington introduces us to the fascinating sound-world of the musette in French Baroque music - cd review
  • 2117/Hedd WynStephen McNeff & Gruff Rhys' Welsh language opera celebrating the Welsh poet - record review
  • The sad clown and the ingenue: Jo Davies' 1950s-set production of The Yeomen of the Guard from English National Opera - opera review
  • Young artists from Britten Pears Arts and Royal Opera impress in Britten's The Rape of Lucretia -opera review
  • What it means to perform Turangalila: pianist William Bracken shares his thoughts on Messiaen's Turangalila Symphonie in advance of performing it- feature
  • Massive climaxes & mystical moments: Vaughan Williams' A Sea Symphony is the centrepiece of The Bach Choir's celebration at the Royal Festival Hall - concert review
  • Unnervingly different: Icelandic experimental composer Guðmundur Steinn Gunnarsson's Landvættirnar fjórar - record review
  • English music with a French accent: Ensemble Correspondances and Sébastien Daucé in Matthew Locke's Psyche - record review
  • The friendship of Hector Berlioz and Théophile Gautier in song at the London Song Festival - concert review
  • Any successful society has music at its core: pianist Iyad Sughayer on his new music academy in Jordan - interview
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Thursday 24 November 2022

Music series at Marylebone Theatre

Marylebone Theatre

The Marylebone Theatre opened this Autumn, based in the former Rudolf Steiner Hall which is part of Rudolf Steiner House (the home of the Anthroposophical Society in Great Britain which was built by architect Montague Wheeler in the 1920s). The Marylebone Theatre now has an independent existence and alongside its drama programme, there is a fine (and busy) music series.

December's concerts include Stile Antico's A Renaissance Christmas, a sequence of festive music from the Renaissance interspersed with intimate, metaphysical verse by poets such as John Donne and George Herbert, Mark Armstrong and the National Youth Jazz Orchestra in Dizzie Gillespie, saxophonist Jess Gillam and Turkish pianist Zeynep Özsuc in music from Poulenc and Piazzolla to Meredith Monk and Barbara Thompson, the Carducci Quartet in Haydn, Rebecca Clarke and Beethoven's second Razumovsky Quartet, and Ensemble Pro Victoria in a programme built around Britten's A Ceremony of Carols.

January's concerts include composer Ola Gjeilo playing his own music at the piano, Baroque violinist Rachel Podger and singers Jess Dandy and Benjamin Appl.

The theatre seats just over 200, is outside the congestion zone with free street parking after 6.30pm. What's not to like?

Full details from the theatre's website.

Celebrating St Cecilia's Day in style: Freiburg Baroque Orchestra at Wigmore Hall

Kristian Bezuidenhout
Kristian Bezuidenhout
Purcell: Welcome to all the Pleasures, Who can from joy refrain, Handel: As pants the hart; Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, Kristian Bezuidenhout; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed 22 November 2022 (★★★★★)

The Freiburg Baroque Ensemble celebrates St Cecilia's Day with a vividly performed, joyful programme including two Purcell odes and one of Handel's Chandos Anthems

For St Cecilia's Day (22 November 2022), the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, directed by Kristian Bezuidenhout, at Wigmore Hall presented a programme of music by Purcell and Handel, centred on Purcell's Ode to St Cecilia, Welcome to all the Pleasures, plus Purcell's Who can from joy refrain (Birthday Ode for the Duke of Gloucester) and Handel's Chandos anthem No. 6 'As pants the hart'. An instrumental ensemble, leader by Peter Barczi, was joined by a vocal ensemble of sopranos Grace Davidson and Rachel Redmond, alto Alexander Chance, tenors Samuel Boden and Hugo Hymas (with Hymas doing tenor duty in the first half and Boden doing tenor duty in the second half) and bass David Shipley.

Wednesday 23 November 2022

Love duets and arias from 17th-century Venice with an LGBTQ slant

Randall Scotting & Jorge Navarro Colorado
Randall Scotting & Jorge Navarro Colorado

Quite a few years ago I did an article on the blog about the representation of gay men and gay relationships in opera [see my article] and I put a post on Facebook asking musical friends for ideas. One of the eras that came up was 17th century Venice where operas by such composers were far more licentious and fuller of innuendo than would be allowed in later eras.

Now a new recording project is exploring that rather further. Countertenor Randall Scotting and tenor Jorge Navarro Colorado with Laurence Cummings and the Academy of Ancient Music have recorded a disc of duets and arias from 17th century Venice that explores queer passion through the music of Monteverdi and his contemporaries. 

Jorge Navarro Colorado explains further, "This project explores love and the hardships that it sometimes causes, but also it celebrates Venice as a seventeenth-century liberal safe-haven of sorts.  A place where at that time all kinds of cultures and people were converging and more accepted.  It tells a love story through music, with all of its ups and downs; some of it is well-known and really recognizable and other things are heard on this album for the first time.  It’s been a fascinating project to work on and I can’t wait for the world to hear it!"

The recording sessions are complete, but project funding is not quite there, and Jorge Navarro Colorado has started a GoFundMe page to help them get past that final financial hurdle. Do support them.

Full details at GoFundMe.

Shirley Thompson becomes president of The F-List

Shirley Thompson in rehearsal with students from the Royal College of Music for Breathe
Shirley Thompson in rehearsal with students from the Royal College of Music for Breathe

The F-List is the first directory of its kind to feature up-to-date information on UK-based female musicians, songwriters and composers. But it is not just a list, it is a growing community committed to creating a future where gender equality is celebrated and properly represented throughout the music industry. In its first year, 2020-21, Anoushka Shankar was the inaugural president of The F-List for Music, the not-for-profit community interest company that supports The F-List, with rock guitarist Brix Smith following her for 2021-22.

Now, composer Professor Dr Shirley J Thompson, OBE has just taken up her post as the third president. In celebration, three performances took place this week of, or inspired by, Shirley Thompson’s work Breathe by student groups. Breathe was performed by a vocal ensemble of students at the Royal College of Music, the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama Students’ Union Ensemble performed a new electro-acoustic version of Breathe, and Leeds Conservatoire Students’ Union Concert Band performed Joshua Knight's arrangement of Breathe.

Further details from the F-List website.

Changing Standards: London Sinfonietta at the EFG London Jazz Festival

Changing Standards - Lauren Kinsella, Trish Clowes,  London Sinfonietta, Gerry Cornelius at Purcell Room
Changing Standards - Lauren Kinsella, Trish Clowes,  London Sinfonietta, Gerry Cornelius at Purcell Room

Changing Standards:
 Trish Clowes, Elliot Galvin, Lara Jurd, Robert Mitchell, Alex Paxton - London Sinfonietta, dir: Gerry Cornelius; EFG London Jazz Festival at Purcell Room
Reviewed by Florence Anna Maunders, 18 November 2022

Dramatic reinterpretations of jazz standards by five young composer/performers as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival

There is an ever-closer alignment between the sonic worlds of contemporary jazz and other genres of contemporary music, and this project by the London Sinfonietta, Changing Standards at the Purcell Room (18 November 2022) as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival, involved commissioning five jazz composer/performers - Trish Clowes (saxophone), Elliot Galvin (piano, pictured above at the 2021 EFG London Jazz Festival), Lara Jurd (trumpet), Robert Mitchell (piano) and Alex Paxton (trombone) - to re-imagine and to be inspired by their favourite jazz standards, and to create and compose a new piece for themselves to perform with the ensemble, augmented for the occasion with the additions of vocalist Lauren Kinsella, bassist Will Sach and drummer Saleem Raman, conducted by Gerry Cornelius.

Changing Standards - Gerry Cornelius, Alex Paxton, London Sinfonietta, Gerry Cornelius at Purcell Room
Changing Standards - Gerry Cornelius, Alex Paxton, London Sinfonietta, Gerry Cornelius at Purcell Room

This very well-attended concert featured some of the most interesting and varied figures in the contemporary UK jazz scene, and the musical results reflected this diversity of approach.

Tuesday 22 November 2022

Music for French Kings; Amanda Babington introduces us to the fascinating sound-world of the musette in French Baroque music

Music for French Kings; Amanda Babington, Claire Babington, David Smith; Deux Elles
Music for French Kings; Amanda Babington, Claire Babington, David Smith; Deux Elles
Reviewed 22 November 2022 (★★★★)

A delightful disc that opens a window onto the fascinating sound-world of the musette; originally a folk instrument but here domesticated and introduced to French aristocratic salons

The musette's closest relatives are both in the small pipes family, Northumbrian pipes and Uilleann pipes, but whereas these instruments have stayed firmly in the folk and popular traditions, the musette came into the salon and there is a significant French Baroque repertoire for the instrument.

On this new disc, Music for French Kings on the Deux Elles label, Amanda Babington (musette), Claire Babington (cello) and David Smith (harpsichord) play a selection of French Baroque works for musette and continuo, with music by Nicolas Chédeville, Borjon de Scellery, Esprit-Philippe Chédeville, Jean Hotteterre, Colin Charpentier and Domenico Scarlatti.

The musette started out as a pastoral instrument, probably mouth-blown, but by the 17th century a bellows-blown one had developed and had been adopted by the aristocracy, which meant of course that French composers wrote for the instrument! The first known treatise on the instrument dates from 1672, written by Borjon de Scellery whose music features on the disc as does that by Jean Hottettere from a family of court-based wind players who seem to have turned their attention to the instrument.

It helped that there was the aristocratic fashion for playing at being peasants, playing the pastoral.

A remarkable musical diary: Bartók and the string quartet at Conway Hall

Béla Bartók using a phonograph to record Slovak folk songs sung by peasants in Zobordarázs
Béla Bartók using a phonograph to record Slovak folk songs in Zobordarázs

During the 1949/50 Sunday afternoon concert season at Conway Hall an important milestone took place, the first performance in the UK of a complete cycle of Bartók's six string quartets. This was just eight years after the premiere of the sixth quartet and four years after Bartók's death. On Sunday 27 November 2022 at 6.30pm, the Barbican String Quartet will be performing Bartók's String quartet no. 4 in C as part of a programme that includes Haydn's Quartet in F 'The Dream' and Schumann's Quartet No. 3.

Before hand, I will be giving a talk on Bartók and the String Quartet, looking at the musical, personal and political background to these works. Bartók's string quartets form a remarkable musical diary, stretching across his career but they also point up the difficult changes in his native Hungary and what is meant to be Hungarian in the 20th century.

Full details from the Conway Hall website.

Philip Glass' Opening from Glassworks in new version for electric guitar

Guitarist Sergio Sorrentino has a new collaboration with composer Philip Glass. Sorrentino has recorded his own arrangement, for electric guitar, of 'Opening' from Glassworks on Glass' Orange Mountain Music label. [Download]

Monday 21 November 2022

2117/Hedd Wyn: Stephen McNeff & Gruff Rhys' Welsh language opera celebrating the Welsh poet

Stephen McNeff: 2117/Hedd Wyn -Ty Cerdd
Stephen McNeff: 2117/Hedd Wyn; Steffan Lloyd Owen, Meinir Wyn Roberts, Paul Carey Jones, Llio Evans, Alys Mererid Roberts, Craig Yates, Laurence Kilsby, and William Rennie with Welsh National Youth Opera, Only Boys Aloud Academi 2017, Only Boys Aloud, and Welsh National Opera Orchestra conducted by Stephen McNeff; Tŷ Cerdd Records
Reviewed 16 November 2022 (★★★★)

An intriguing Welsh language opera celebrating the poet Hedd Wyn in a rhapsodic fantasy that merges fact and fiction, drama and community performance, all with McNeff's imaginative score

Stephen McNeff's opera 2117/Hedd Wyn has had an intriguing history. Written for the 2017 centenary of the death of Welsh poet Hedd Wyn (Ellis Humphrey Evans), the opera has a libretto by poet and writer Gruff Rhys (best known for his association with the Welsh rock band Super Furry Animals) and was intended to be used for a film being produced by Welsh National Opera (WNO). The film never happened, but the soundtrack was recorded. And this has finally seen the light of day.

On the Tŷ Cerdd label, Stephen McNeff and Gruff Rhys' 2117/Hedd Wyn features Steffan Lloyd Owen, Meinir Wyn Roberts, Paul Carey Jones, Llio Evans, Alys Mererid Roberts, Craig Yates, Laurence Kilsby, William Rennie with Welsh National Youth Opera, Only Boys Aloud Academi 2017, Only Boys Aloud, and Welsh National Opera Orchestra conducted by Stephen McNeff.

The first woman of colour to have a work performed by the New York Philharmonic: exploring the music of Julia Perry

Julia Perry
Julia Perry
Julia Perry (1924-1979) was the first woman of colour to have a composition performed by the New York Philharmonic (in 1965, her Short Piece for Orchestra) and in fact, Perry was only the third woman to have a work performed by the orchestra. She wrote 12 symphonies, concertos for piano and for violin, a Requiem (Homage to Vivaldi), and several operas including one on the Salem Witch Trials. She studied both with Luigi Dallapiccola and Nadia Boulanger. Yet her music seems to have almost entirely disappeared. Despite a welcome exploration of music by 20th-century composers of colour, works by Julia Perry remain rare in the concert hall and on disc.

If you are lucky enough to be in New York on Friday 2 December 2022, then there is a chance to hear Julia Perry's Violin Concerto from 1963 when James Blachly conducts the Experiential Orchestra with Curtis Stewart as the soloist. Perry worked on the concerto between 1963 and 1968, but this performance will be using a new edition which incorporates revisions Perry made in 1977.

Soloist Curtis Stewart comments, "Julia Perry has occupied a mysterious space in my musical world for a while - for years, Jannina Norpoth from our ensemble PUBLIQuartet has been bringing works of hers for arrangement, but we have been grappling with the quirks of her publishing (or lack thereof) and unable to perform much of what she originally wrote. I am so excited to be able to finally play one of her original works!"

So, who was Julia Perry? Born in Kentucky in 1924, she lived with her family in Ohio and studied first at Westminster Choir College from 1943-1948 and then at the Berkshire Music Center in Tanglewood with Luigi Dallapiccola. Thanks to a pair of Guggenheim Fellowships, Perry was able to study with Nadia Boulanger in Paris and then with Dallapiccola in Italy, where she also studied conducting. She only returned to the USA in 1959, having spent over five years in Europe. In 1971 she suffered the first of two strokes and taught herself to write with her left hand, so she could continue composition, and her final symphony (her 12th, Simple Symphony) was written in hospital.

Her early works were nearly all vocal, but she moved to write instrumental and orchestral works. Whilst she did include elements of African-inspired music and spirituals in her work, she was influenced by her time in Europe and much of her music is neo-classical in style, and evidently, the Violin Concerto is also highly virtuosic.

The Experiential Orchestra have a reputation for exploring interesting areas of repertoire; their performances and recording of Ethel Smyth's late masterwork The Prison [see my review] have been an important contribution to our understanding of neglected 20th-century music.

James Blachly conducts the Experiential Orchestra in music by Curtis Stewart, Julia Perry, Coleridge Taylor Perkinson with Curtis Stewart (violin) at The DiMenna Center for Classical Music 450 West 37th Street New York, NY 10018, USA on 2 December 2022 Further details

Sunday 20 November 2022

The sad clown and the ingenue: Jo Davies' 1950s-set production of The Yeomen of the Guard from English National Opera

Gilbert & Sullivan: The Yeomen of the Guard - English National Opera (Photo Tristram Kenton)
Gilbert & Sullivan: The Yeomen of the Guard - English National Opera (Photo Tristram Kenton)

Gilbert & Sullivan: The Yeomen of the Guard; Richard McCabe, Alexandra Oomens, Heather Lowe, Anthony Gregory, Neal Davies, John Molloy, Susan Bickley, director: Jo Davies, conductor: Chris Hopkins; English National Opera at the London Coliseum

Amazingly, this is ENO's first production of The Yeomen of the Guard; very much a musical treat with strong performances all round

Gilbert & Sullivan's The Yeomen of the Guard is a tantalising work, an experiment in going in a new direction that was unfortunately a one-off. The couple's tenth opera, Ruddigore had not been a complete success when it premiered in 1887 and despite changes, it only went on to have a moderate run. The changes that were made to the piece included removing music that seemed too serious. The Yeomen of the Guard would remain the couple's only opera to really explore a more serious theme, in that it rather reminds you of Offenbach's later operas where he moved away from the mad-cap and satire to explore other themes including lyric comedy. Gilbert & Sullivan never quite managed it, alas. They followed The Yeomen of the Guard with The Gondoliers, a strangely unsatisfactory work despite Sullivan's wonderful tunes.

The Yeomen of the Guard seems to be having its moment and following on from the Grange Festival's fine production this Summer [see my review], English National Opera has been giving its first performances of the work. We finally caught up with Jo Davies' production at the London Coliseum on Saturday 19 November 2022. Chris Hopkins conducted, with Anthony Gregory as Colonel Fairfax, Neal Davies as Sergeant Meryll, Alexandra Oomens as Elsie Maynard, Heather Lowe as Phoebe Meryll, Richard McCabe as Jack Point, John Molloy as Wilfred Shadbolt, Susan Bickley as Dame Carruthers, Steven Page as Sir Richard Cholmondely, Innocent Masuku as Leonard Meryll, and Isabelle Peters as Kate. Designs were by Anthony Ward.

Gilbert & Sullivan: The Yeomen of the Guard - Anthony Gregory, Alexandra Oomens- English National Opera (Photo Tristram Kenton)
Gilbert & Sullivan: The Yeomen of the Guard - Anthony Gregory, Alexandra Oomens - English National Opera (Photo Tristram Kenton)

Saturday 19 November 2022

Young artists from Britten Pears Arts and Royal Opera impress in Britten's The Rape of Lucretia

Britten: The Rape of Lucretia - Jolyon Loy, Anne Marie Stanley (Photo Camilla Greenwell)
Britten: The Rape of Lucretia - Jolyon Loy, Anne Marie Stanley (Photo Camilla Greenwell)

Britten: The Rape of Lucretia; Anne Marie Stanley, Jolyon Loy, Anthony Reed, Kieran Rayner, Carolyn Holt, Sarah Dufresne, director: Oliver Mears, Aurora Orchestra, conductor Corinna Niemeyer; Linbury Theatre at the Royal Opera House

Performances of remarkable emotional depth from this young cast in Oliver Mears' sometimes disturbing modern dress production

Britten's The Rape of Lucretia, despite its undoubted element of genius, remains something of a dramatic challenge for directors. The basic question over the work is quite what we think of the role of the Male and Female Chorus, with librettist Ronald Duncan's added meta-layer of Christianity over the story. In many ways, it seems surprising that Britten, often profoundly fastidious when it came to opera libretti, set the text so unquestioningly, particularly as Britten's revisions to the opera (undertaken after the first performances) left this meta-layer intact. So, whilst the work gives a glorious opportunity for the contralto/mezzo-soprano singing the title role, the big question in people's minds before a new production is likely to be, how will the director handle the piece?

The new production of Britten's The Rape of Lucretia debuted in Aldeburgh at Snape Maltings before coming to the Royal Opera House's Linbury Theatre (where we caught it on 18 November 2022). The production is a collaboration between Britten Pears Arts and the Royal Opera with the singers being either Britten Pears Young Artists or Jette Parker Artists. The production is directed by Oliver Mears and conducted by Corinna Niemeyer with the Aurora Orchestra. Designs were by Annemarie Woods. 

Britten: The Rape of Lucretia - Anne Marie Stanley, Anthony Reed (Photo Camilla Greenwell)
Britten: The Rape of Lucretia - Anne Marie Stanley, Anthony Reed (Photo Camilla Greenwell)

The Male and Female Chorus were Michael Gibson and Sydney Baedke, with Anne Marie Stanley as Lucretia, Jolyon Loy as Tarquinius, Anthony Reed as Collatinus, Kieran Rayner as Junius, Carolyn Holt as Bianca and Sarah Dufresne as Lucia.

What it means to perform Turangalila: pianist William Bracken on Messaien's large-scale masterpiece

Yvonne Loriod and Olivier Messiaen
Yvonne Loriod and Olivier Messiaen
(Loriod, Messiaen's second wife, was the piano soloist in the premiere of Turangalila)

Ahead of the performance of Messiaen's Turangalila Symphonie by the Guildhall Symphony Orchestra, conductor Nicholas Collon, with Cynthia Millar (ondes martenot) at the Barbican Hall on 23 November 2022, the piano soloist in the performance, William Bracken, shares his thoughts on the work.

When offered the proposal of being the soloist for the Guildhall Symphony Orchestra’s upcoming performance of Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphonie, I must confess that at that point, having heard it only a couple of times, I had little knowledge of the piece. Upon reacquainting myself with it I was excited by its strangeness, beauty, communicative power, and epic scale. I formally agreed and began the year long process of learning the piece which initially felt like starting to climb a colossal mountain, the summit of which was too far in the distance to discern. I can say with confidence that it is a piece unlike any I have ever played, and it provided a learning process unlike anything I have experienced. 

There are multiple reasons for this – firstly its enormous scale; it is the longest single work I have tackled by a considerable amount, at one and a half hours long, with almost continuous playing and a large quantity of the material making extreme demands of power, stamina and virtuosity from the pianist. There is also the alien nature of Messiaen’s musical language which of course became increasingly familiar as I studied the piece and listened to others of his works. I explored different ways of processing the music, particularly Messiaen’s complex rhythmic ‘games’ – I used an Indian classical ‘Konnakol’ style process of embodying rhythm in vocal and percussive exercises, after which I was amazed to learn that Messiaen actually studied ancient Indian rhythmic practices in enormous detail and used them in his music.

The actual content of the piece was, and still is to a certain extent, baffling. Learning the piece posed many questions – what was this music trying to express, if anything? How was it going about this? Do all these complex and seemingly random rhythmic patterns mean anything; is there any structure to them? I naively anticipated that the answer to these questions would become clear after a certain amount of time with the work. This is usually the case with a lot of the earlier western classical music that I deal with in my musical life very regularly, where notions of thematic and harmonic narrative and rhetoric govern expression and make themselves known quite naturally, but in Turangalila this didn’t become any more obvious with time. 

I decided to explore Messiaen’s own writings and interviews, and it very quickly became clear as to why I was so puzzled. Messiaen’s musical conception meant he was striving to express things which he claims are inexpressible in art, though music out of all the arts comes closest. In the case of Turangalila, he expresses the feelings of divine and eternal love. This is the ultimate paradox – the composer uses very clear techniques and devices in a highly systematic and functional way, which are means to allude to the most profound and universal of human experiences. For example, there is frequent use of non-retrogradeable rhythms (symmetrical rhythms), and the macro equivalent of non-retrogradeable structure, which is symbolic of the eternal, in the sense that eternal concepts escape our notion of time; they pervade beginnings and ends. Yet it is almost impossible, even for a highly-trained set of ears, to discern these patterns from a single hearing of the piece. There are many other techniques of thematic manipulation and harmonic invention that similarly escape the radar of the listener who is not well-acquainted with Messiaen’s language. However, the fascinating quality of this music is that it is simultaneously representative and expressive. There is always an undeniably intense and direct emotional tone, which transcends the formality of its compositional workings, and is laid bare for all to hear in an incredibly moving and humbling innocence. 

I have just started the rehearsal process and can feel that there is a palpable sense of excitement and anticipation for this extraordinary event among everyone involved. I would urge everyone to come to the Barbican on 23 November and experience one of the greatest wonders of the 20th century for yourself.

William Bracken is currently studying performance at Guildhall School of Music & Drama. As a pianist, he has extensive recital and concerto experience and was a finalist for the Guildhall Gold Medal in 2022. William is supported in his postgraduate studies by Guildhall School and the Munster Trust. 

On 23 November, William will perform as the piano soloist with the Guildhall Symphony Orchestra in their performance of Messiaen’s Turangalia Symphonie under the baton of Nicholas Collon, with Cythnia Millar (Ondes Martenot) at the Barbican Hall.  Further details of from the Guildhall School website.

A pre-concert performance of Messiaen's Harawi will be performed in the Milton Court Concert Hall at 6pm. Admission for this performance is free. 

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