Saturday 31 December 2022

2022 in Concert reviews: Ethel Smyth, Vaughan Williams, Gavin Higgins, Julian Phillips, Robert Max

Ethel Smyth: Mass - Nardus Williams, Robert Murray, Sakari Oramo, Bethan Langford, Božidar Smiljanić, BBC Symphony Orchestra - BBC Proms (Photo BBC)
Ethel Smyth: Mass - Nardus Williams, Robert Murray, Sakari Oramo, Bethan Langford, Božidar Smiljanić, BBC Symphony Orchestra - BBC Proms (Photo BBC)

2022 was a very varied year for concerts, as well as the usual Baroque music, chamber music and song, there were other themes running through the year. For a start, RVW's 150th birthday brought a nice selection of concerts and the BBC Proms proved something of a bumper year.

Baroque music began with Patrick Allies and Siglo de Oro transporting us to 17th century New Spain at Wigmore Hall, whilst Robert Max played Bach's six Cello Suites at Conway Hall. Back at Wigmore Hall, Polish counter-tenor Jakub Jozef Orlinski dazzled in a programme of music by Handel's lesser-known contemporaries, whilst Paul McCreesh and Gabrieli Consort & Players helped us rediscover Bach's Ascension Oratorio. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment intriguingly combined the music of Purcell with Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner on the Southbank. Freiburg Baroque Orchestra celebrated St Cecilia's Day at Wigmore Hall in fine style with Purcell and Handel, and we launched Christmas with Messiah from Laurence Cummings and the Academy of Ancient Music at Barbican Centre.

Friday 30 December 2022

2022 in Opera and Music Theatre reviews: Alessandro nell'Indie, The Wreckers, Armida, Rusalka, South Pacific and the Ring completed

Smyth: The Wreckers - James Rutherford, Philip Horst, Karis Tucker - Glyndebourne (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Ethel Smyth: The Wreckers - James Rutherford, Philip Horst, Karis Tucker - Glyndebourne (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)

2022 was a strong year for opera productions, and many of the ones that stayed in the mind were unusual operas, rarely performed works being newly investigated. Prime amongst these must be Ethel Smyth's The Wreckers, receiving its first professional stage production since the 1950s, at Glyndebourne in a new edition that restored its original form, and it was heard at the BBC Proms which meant that it went out to a huge broadcast audience. Another fine revival was Dvorak's Armida, receiving a fine production at Wexford Festival Opera with terrific performances from the leads, and an imaginative new edition that improved the work's dramaturgy. Opera Holland Park continued its mining of late 19th and early 20th century opera with a striking double bill of Puccini's Le villi and Delius' Margot le Rouge.

A turn-of-the-century opera of a different cast was Rimsky Korsakov's The Golden Cockerel, not quite a rarity but a welcome revival of a relatively underperformed work by English Touring Opera. Another such revival was Grange Park Opera's new production of Ponchielli's large-scale dramatic work, La Gioconda. On the frothier side, New Sussex Opera revived Offenbach's final operetta, Belle Lurette in a production of great style and charm. Not quite as frothy but still technically operetta, Cervantes Theatre gave the UK premiere of Pablo Sorozábal's Black, el Payaso at Grimeborn.

Saturday 24 December 2022

Southwell Minster
Southwell Minster

Wishing you all a 

Happy Christmas 

and a 

Peaceful New Year 

It has been a busy year, bringing you over 650 stories, reviews and previews. We trust that you will all have a pleasant and restful break.

Friday 23 December 2022

Music for a video game must serve the players' actions: Olivier Deriviere talks about writing music for A Plague Tale: Requiem

Olivier Deriviere (Photo Alexandre Jeanson)
Olivier Deriviere (Photo Alexandre Jeanson)

Olivier Deriviere is a French video game composer, best known for his work on Alone in the Dark, Obscure, Remember Me and Streets of Rage 4. His work on Get Even was nominated for a BAFTA in 2018 for Best Score. Most recently Olivier has written the score for A Plague Tale: Requiem, the sequel to A Plague Tale: Innocence (2019 also with music by Olivier), and it follows siblings Amicia and Hugo de Rune who must look for a cure for Hugo's blood disease in Southern France while fleeing from soldiers of the Inquisition and hordes of rats that are spreading the black plague. 

Olivier made his debut in the game industry with the soundtrack of Obscure (2004), since when he has devoted his career to writing music for games

He explains that despite apparent similarities to the outsider (I have to confess to not being a game player), writing music for video games is an entirely different form to writing for films (and he uses the analogy of different forms of classical music such as opera and symphonic music). Unlike in a film, music for a video game must serve the players' actions and this requires a very different mindset, something that Olivier feels is tricky. Over the last five years, Olivier has seen a more dedicated approach to the music for video games, it is now much more about serving the players, though of course composers borrow from movies and from classical composers. 

Olivier has so far only written music for video games, and when asked to write concert music he has declined. He thinks concert music is difficult to write and he treats the genre with respect, pointing out that with a symphony by Shostakovich you do not need anything but the music, and he is not sure he will ever feel ready to write concert music. When it comes to films, Olivier feels somewhat out of sync with the current trend for large-scale blockbuster films (he prefers the more artistic, personal films). For a blockbuster, the music isn't really about the people, and Olivier's music is very much about the personal, about inner feelings, and this is something he brings out in his video game music.

He very kindly explains his two-pronged approach to writing for video games.

Brixton Chamber Orchestra's Christmas Estates Tour

 A lovely little digest video about Brixton Chamber Orchestra's recent Christmas Estates Tour.

Thursday 22 December 2022

O splendor gloriae: The Tallis Scholars at St John's Smith Square Christmas Festival

William Byrd: Mass for five voices - Kyrie - Superius part
William Byrd: Mass for five voices
Kyrie - Superius part
O splendor gloriae: Byrd, Gombert, Fayrfax, Taverner, Gesualdo; The Tallis Scholars, Peter Phillips; St John's Smith Square Christmas Festival
Reviewed 21 December 2022 (★★★½)

Almost into its 50th-anniversary celebrations, the ensemble gave us a gloriously mixed bag of polyphony, from early to late Tudor, plus Italy and beyond, a rich and vibrant diet

A capacity house at St John's Smith Square's Christmas Festival on Wednesday 21 December 2022 heard Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars giving their final concert in what is their 49th anniversary year; next year the ensemble celebrates being 50.

It wasn't particularly a Christmas programme, though a Marian theme ran through a number of items. There was William Byrd's Mass for five voices alongside Nicolas Gombert's Magnificat III and Regina Coeli, Robert Fayrfax's O Maria deo gratia, Taverner's O splendor gloriae and Gesualdo's Ave dulcissima Maria. There were ten singers, two to a part in the Byrd, and the other music moved smoothly between different numbers of voices, the ten singers re-configuring to suit so that the Gombert Magnificat moved from three voices to eight, whilst his Regina Coeli was a whopping ten voices.

Byrd's mass dates from the 1590s, written for Catholic recusants during the later period of Queen Elizabeth I's reign when to be a Catholic was a major political statement. The form of Byrd's masses seems to have been somewhat influenced by the music of English composers of the earlier generations, and the Mass for Five Voices has suggestions of the structure of Taverner's music. But the masses also reflect the needs of the recusant community. Relatively short, and flexible forces with a style and structure suitable for masses said by Continental trained priests who did not use the Sarum rite that had been so prevalent in England.

The masses, for all their masterly writing, are not without challenges. Byrd's part writing does not always seem to take account of the fallibility of voices, and it has been argued that the Mass for four voices works best when transposed down and sung not SATB but ATBaB. For this performance of the Mass for five voices, the Tallis Scholars used the standard SATTB edition familiar to most choristers.

Paul Roland's Nosferatu

Paul Roland's ballet Nosferatu: the Strange Case of Jonathan Harker

English singer-songwriter (and journalist) Paul Roland is best known for his psychpop/baroque goth, dark folk music (of which he has over 20 albums) But he also writes music in a more serious vein, writing A Grimm Fantasy for Orchestra, a string quartet and a Gothic ballet, Nosferatu: The Strange Case of Jonathan Harker. The ballet premiered at the Novecento New Music festival in Italy earlier this year with choreography by Paola Pedrazzini.

Further information about Paul Roland's music from his website, where the complete Nosferatu score is availableAnd you can also read Paul's recent interview on the Meet the Artist website, where he includes both Marc Bolan and Michael Nyman as influences.

Wednesday 21 December 2022

A daring and refreshing project: 12 composers, 12 different approaches - Carols after a Plague from The Crossing

Carols after a Plague from The Crossing, Donald Nally on New Focus Recordings
Carols after a Plague: Shara Nova, Tyshawn Shawney, Edith Canat de Chizy, Joseph C Philips, Jr., LJ White, Samantha Fernando, Leila Adu-Gilmore, Nina Shekhar, Vanessa Lann, Mary Jane Leech, Alex Berko, Viet Cuong, Donald Nally; The Crossing, Donald Nally; New Focus Recordings
Reviewed 21 December 2022 (★★★★)

A daring and refreshing project: Twelve new contemporary carols, twelve different views of what a contemporary carol might be and to what plague they were referring

In 2021, the American choir, The Crossing and conductor Donald Nally asked twelve composers to respond to the idea of creating a new work for Carols after a Plague, leaving it to the composers themselves to decide what a carol was and what the plague was referred to. The result, released on New Focus Recordings, is very far away from a Christmas album and in effect provides a modern response to the Medieval idea of a carol. On the disc, we have new works by Shara Nova, Tyshawn Shawney, Edith Canat de Chizy, Joseph C Philips, Jr., LJ White, Samantha Fernando, Leila Adu-Gilmore, Nina Shekhar, Vanessa Lann, Mary Jane Leech, Alex Berko, and Viet Cuong, plus linking music by Donald Nally.

35 world premieres and an Irish giant: Aldeburgh Festival 2023

Alison Wilding's Migrant (2003) at Snape
Alison Wilding's Migrant (2003) at Snape 

The 2023 Aldeburgh Festival will run from 9 to 25 June 2023, and features 35 world premieres (of which 21 are Britten Pears Arts commissions) and 9 European, UK and English premieres. The festival opens with the premiere of Sarah Angliss' new opera Giant, which tells the story of the 18th-century “Irish giant” Charles Byrne, explores the true tale of surgeon John Hunter and his obsession with Charles Byrne – a man he betrayed in one of the most disturbing acts in the era of the grave robbers. Angliss' score uses just five voices, period instruments and live electronics, and the opera will be directed by Sarah Fahie.

There will be the UK premiere of a new dance piece, The Art of Being Human created by Laurence Dreyfus and his ensemble Phantasm, choreographer Sommer Ulrickson, and visual artist Alexander Polzin, and using music of the 16th and 17th centuries.

Beyond Aldeburgh, the Aldeburgh Festival Extra sees Bushra El-Turk's opera, Woman at Point Zero receiving its UK premiere at the Royal Opera House's Linbury Studio.  

2023 featured musicians include the pianist Pavel Kolesnikov, baritone and composer Roderick Williams, and composers Anna Thorvaldsdottir and Cassandra Miller. The festival will be celebrating Ligeti's 100th anniversary, with pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, jazz pianist Michael Wollny and world premieres from the Ligeti Quartet. String quartets are a feature of the 2023 festival with eight leading quartets performing.

The Knussen Orchestra returns for two concerts conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth with music by Mozart, Elliott Carter, Ligeti, Haydn, Brahms and Wigglesworth. Visiting orchestras include John Wilson's Sinfonia of London, the BBC Philharmonic, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, which will be performing with its new chief conductor Kazuki Yamada.

The Red House will be open daily during the festival and will feature an exhibition of paintings by Mary Potter (1900-1981), who lived in Aldeburgh for 30 years and used her immediate surroundings to inspire her work. In 1951 Potter moved, with her husband, to the Red House in Aldeburgh. After her divorce, she became a close friend of Britten's and would swap houses with him.

There will also be an exhibition in Snape Maltings of the work of John Piper drawn from Britten and Pears' personal collection.  Twenty years after Alison Wilding's sculpture Migrant was first installed at Snape Maltings, and to celebrate its proud new setting in the reedbeds, the artist returns to the Aldeburgh Festival with a show of both new and existing works.

Full details from the Britten Pears Arts website.

Tuesday 20 December 2022

"Affordable classical music for all" - Conway Hall's Sunday Concerts season continues

Chaos String Quartet who open Conway Hall's Spring season
Chaos String Quartet who open Conway Hall's Spring season

The Sunday Concerts season at Conway Hall was established in 1887 to help provide "affordable classical music for all", and it is still fulfilling that function. The Spring season has just been announced, with eleven concerts from 8 January to 19 March 2023, with free tickets for the under 25s and £5 tickets for NHS staff.

Repertoire on offer stretches from the 17th century to the present day, with a strong emphasis on the classic chamber music repertoire, and artists represented include up-and-coming ensembles and more well-known groups.

New music is well represented in the season, not only is the Brompton Quartet presenting a new piece by Noah Max (who won Conway Hall's Clements Prize last year), but there is also music by popular TV composer Peter Gregson, Osvaldo Golijov and Gyorgy Kurtag.

Anniversaries celebrated include 70 years since the death of Prokofiev, with a concert by Slovenian violinist Lana Trotovšek and Catalan pianist Maria Canyigueral. Whilst the Tippett Quartet will be celebrating its 25th anniversary with an album launch.

The season opens on 8 January with the Chaos Quartet in Mozart, Kurtag and Schubert's Death and the Maiden, and continues with the Carducci Quartet in Schubert, Beethoven and Peter Gregson, then the Brompton Quartet in Bridge, Brahms, Haydn and Noah Max.

The season ends on 19 March with the Elena Toponogova Ensemble in Glazunov, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Silvestrov, and a rare performance of Nikolai Medtner‘s Piano Quintet.

Full details from the Conway Hall website.

In fine fettle: conductor Maxim Emelyanychev brings an interesting element of period style to the latest Magic Flute revival at Covent Garden

Mozart: The Magic Flute - Alexandra Lowe, Kseniia Nikolaieva, Gabrielė Kupšytė , Gyula Orendt, Filipe Manu - Royal Opera (Photo: Camilla Greenwell / ROH 2022)
Mozart: The Magic Flute - Alexandra Lowe, Kseniia Nikolaieva, Gabrielė Kupšytė , Gyula Orendt, Filipe Manu - Royal Opera (Photo: Camilla Greenwell / ROH 2022)

Mozart: The Magic Flute; Anna Prohaska, Filipe Manu, Gyula Orendt, Brindley Sherratt, Aigul Khismatullina, director: David McVicar/Angelo Smimmo, conductor: Maxim Emelyanychev; Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

A strong cast for the latest revival of this long-running production with Maxim Emelyanychev bringing an interesting element of period-style to the pit

David McVicar's production of Mozart's The Magic Flute at the Royal Opera is well on its way to its 20th anniversary (the production debuted in 2003). The current revival (seen 19 December 2022) is in the hands of revival director Angelo Smimmo and features a strong double cast. Maxim Emelyanychev conducts (with Richard Heatherington taking over for two performances). We saw Filipe Manu as Tamino, Anna Prohaska as Pamina, Aigul Khismatullina as the Queen of the Night, Brindley Sherratt as Sarastro, Gyula Orendt as Papageno, plus Alexandra Lowe, Gabriele Kupsyte and Kseniia Nikolaieva as the three ladies. Designs were by John MacFarlane, and lighting by Paule Constable.

We have come a long way from the 1980s when the distinguished Swedish conductor Arnold Östman (then aritstic director at Drottningholm) conducted Don Giovanni at Covent Garden and evidently failed in his attempt at constructive dialogue with the orchestra about period style. Since the present production of The Magic Flute debuted, generations of orchestral players have trained at conservatoires where period performance is an accepted part of the system. For the recent performances of Handel's Alcina at the Royal Opera, under conductor Christian Curnyn the orchestra used Baroque bows for the first time. The conductor of the present revival, Maxim Emelyanychev, is known for his work both with period and modern ensembles and previously conducted Handel's Agrippina here.

Mozart: The Magic Flute -  Brindley Sherratt - Royal Opera (Photo: Camilla Greenwell / ROH 2022)
Mozart: The Magic Flute -  Brindley Sherratt - Royal Opera (Photo: Camilla Greenwell / ROH 2022)

His way with The Magic Flute was a nice mix of ancient and modern, tempi were generally swift without being mad, there was a crispness to the articulation and a certain way with the bows on the strings that gave a sense of period style without being mannered. This was not a performance for those wanting a Mozart in the manner of Otto Klemperer or Sir Colin Davis (who conducted the production's debut), but it was a genuine attempt to bring a sense of the music-making of Mozart's time into the orchestral pit. I enjoyed the orchestral contribution immensely, and throughout the evening found details in the instrumental playing to enjoy.

Monday 19 December 2022

Seven world premieres, 19 concerts at its home base, 14 guest conductors: Southbank Sinfonia's 20th birthday celebrations continue

Southbank Sinfonia at St John's Smith Square
Southbank Sinfonia at St John's Smith Square

Southbank Sinfonia continues its 20th anniversary year with a Spring/Summer 2023 season that includes 19 concerts in its St John's Smith Square home, working with 14 guest conductors and including seven world premieres. Things kick off on 19 January 2023 when Owain Park conducts a programme that includes Philip Glass' Symphony No. 3, plus music by Diana Burrell, John Woolrich and Javier Alvarez. Also in January, Mark Forkgen conducts an all-Beethoven concert with Symphony No.7 and Piano Concerto No. 4 with soloist Robert Taub, and Nicholas Daniel conducts Mozart's Serenade in B flat (for 12 wind instruments plus double bass) alongside Mark Simpson's Geysir.

Further ahead, Lee Reynolds conducts Dvorak's Symphony No. 8 in a side-by-side performance with students from Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School, and Toby Thatcher conducts world premiere of new commissions by four of Nonclassical's associate composers, Emily Abdy, Atefeh Einali, Elischa Kaminer, and Simon Knighton, and there is an evening celebrating London-based American composer Stephen Montague. Conductor Gábor Takács-Nagy returns to conduct a Rhine themed concert with music by Schumann and Brahms.

As well as evening concerts, there are four Rush Hour concerts too, including Gabriella Teychenné conducting Grazyna Bacewicz, Anna Clyne and Haydn. The orchestra travels to the Vatican in April, when Simon Over conducts a performance of Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius with the Parliament Choir.

Full details from Southbank Sinfonia's website.

Natalya Romaniw, Freddie De Tommaso, & Erwin Schrott in Puccini's Tosca at Covent Garden

Puccini: Tosca - Natalya Romaniw - Royal Opera (Photo Clive Barda)
Puccini: Tosca - Natalya Romaniw
Royal Opera (Photo Clive Barda)
Puccini: Tosca; Natalya Romaniw, Freddie De Tommaso, Erwin Schrott, director: Jonathan Kent/Simon Iorio, conductor: Daniel Oren; Royal Opera
Reviewed 18 December 2022 (★★★★½)

A terrific trio of principals make sparks fly and give us some terrific singing in this latest revival, featuring Natalya Romaniw's house debut as Tosca

The Royal Opera has only had three productions of Puccini's Tosca since the company was founded in 1946. The first, directed by Christopher West, used pre-war sets and costumes. The second was of course Zeffirelli's iconic production which ran from 1964 to 2004, but the company seems to have managed to pull off the difficult trick of replacing one long-running, beloved production with another. Jonathan Kent's production of Puccini's Tosca debuted in 2006 and seems set to go for a while longer.

We caught the most recent revival of Tosca at the Royal Opera House on Sunday 18 December 2022. Daniel Oren conducted, with Natalya Romaniw as Tosca, Freddie De Tommaso as Cavaradossi, and Erwin Schrott as Scarpia, the revival director was Simon Iorio, and the designer Paul Brown.

Kent's production is largely traditional and Paul Brown's sets have an imaginative luxuriousness about them. It remains one of the few productions around that manages to stage the end of Act One in a manner which is both liturgically and dramaturgically satisfying. Too often, liturgical logic goes out of the window because the requirements of opera are paramount. Here, with the two storey set with a view of the altar from behind, Kent manages to do both.

Sunday 18 December 2022

A lovely way to begin the Christmas season: Handel's Messiah from Laurence Cummings & Academy of Ancient Music at Barbican Centre

The chapel of the Foundling Hospital where Handel performed Messiah annually
The chapel of the Foundling Hospital where Handel performed Messiah annually

Handel: Messiah; Amanda Forsythe, Jess Dandy, Thomas Walker, Ashley Riches, Academy of Ancient Music, Laurence Cummings; Barbican Hall
Reviewed 16 December 2022, (★★★★½)

A richly rewarding account of Messiah were words and character were to the fore, yet there were plenty of dazzling rhythms and fabulous passagework

Handel's Messiah is one of those works which has developed its own performance traditions, almost independent of the composer's original intentions. Handel's performances were all relatively small-scale, but before the end of the 18th century the tradition of large-scale festival performances had grown up with led to the huge explosion in big choral Messiah performances which still have echoes in the modern choral society Messiahs. But more recently new traditions have grown up, as chamber choirs and chamber orchestras rediscovered the idea of Messiah with smaller forces, and then in 1979, Christopher Hogwood recorded Messiah complete on period instruments with the Academy of Ancient Music, and another tradition was born. That recording focused on a particular date and time, as Hogwood used the material from Handel's Foundling Hospital performances of Messiah, where we not only have the original parts but the accounts survive, thus telling us exactly how many musicians we used. 

But, frankly, we still know so little about the exact nitty-gritty of most of Handel's oratorio performances that there is plenty of room for ensembles to be creative. The Academy of Ancient Music was back performing Messiah on Friday 16 December 2022 at the Barbican. Their music director Laurence Cummings directed the performance with soloists Amanda Forsythe [last seen in Handel's Amadigi di Gaula from Boston Baroque, see my review], Jess Dandy [whom we caught at Wigmore Hall in August, see my review], Thomas Walker [last seen in Bach's Ascension Oratorio with Gabrieli, my review] and Ashley Riches [who was in Handel's Solomon at this year's BBC Proms, my review]. The latter two soloists replaced Stuart Thomas and William Thomas. 

The version used was very much the traditional one (which is probably a good thing given the last-minute change in soloists). But in terms of performing forces, this was Messiah very much in the style that Handel might have recognised. A chorus of 18 singers (women sopranos and altos), an orchestra based around an ensemble of 14 strings (led by Bojan Cicic) plus two oboes, bassoon, trumpets and timpani. For the continuo we had Cummings on harpsichord plus Stephen Farr doubling harpsichord and organ, and William Carter on theorbo.

Saturday 17 December 2022

Making ancient music sound modern: Franck-Emmanuel Comte on Le Concert de l'Hostel de Dieu's mixing old & new music, collaborating with beatboxers, hip-hop and more

Rehearsing the 50/50 programme: Le Concert de l'Hostel de Dieu with Martyn Harry (Photo Florent de Gaudemar)
Rehearsing the 50/50 programme: Le Concert de l'Hostel de Dieu with Martyn Harry (Photo Florent de Gaudemar)
Franck-Emmanuel Comte and his period instrument ensemble Le Concert de l'Hostel de Dieu released a new disc on the Aparté label in September, 50/50, a project where the ensemble performs a mix of music by Lully and by Purcell alongside works inspired by Purcell by the contemporary French composer David Chalmin and music inspired by Lully by the British composer Martyn Harry. Franck-Emmanuel founded Le Concert de l'Hostel de Dieu in 1992 when he was still a student. The ensemble's early association was with the medical complex, L'Hôtel Dieu in Lyon, hence the name. They recorded their first disc in 1997, of Handel's Alceste and more recent discs have included one devoted to Handel's diva La Francesina, Elisabeth Duparc, recorded with soprano Sophie Junker. Other recent projects have seen the ensemble collaborating with urban artists including beatbox, slam and hip-hop, and with the contemporary choreographer Mourad Merzouki.

Franck-Emmanuel Comte (Photo: Julie Cherki)
Franck-Emmanuel Comte (Photo: Julie Cherki)
So, the 50/50 project does not come out of nowhere. Franck-Emmanuel is keen to demonstrate that ancient music can be new, and not just for a specialist audience, it can be for everyone. He feels that by collaborating with other contemporary artists and composers, they have more chances of convincing young people to listen to Baroque music. Their new creations involving hip-hop, dance and video give rise to a new type of Baroque concert. 

Alongside their regular period performances, each year Franck-Emmanuel and the ensemble do a project with guest artists. Talking to Franck-Emmanuel it is clear that he feels passionate about the need to make ancient music sound modern, to bring different colours to the repertoire and to mix languages and inspirations.

Franck-Emmanuel originally met composer David Chalmin because Chalmin wrote a piece, Sept Particules (2018), for the French-American harpsichordist Justin Taylor. Chalmin is quite an eclectic composer and has written in styles as diverse as classical, minimalism and pop, even writing for Madonna. After hearing Justin Taylor performing Chalmin's piece, Franck-Emmanuel spoke to the composer and asked him to write a work for Le Concert de l'Hostel de Dieu. One of Franck-Emmanuel previous programmes with the ensemble had been called The French Connection [see on YouTube], putting English music of the late 17th century by Purcell, Locke and Humphrey alongside music by their French contemporaries Lully, Cambert and Grabu, to show the influence of Versailles on the late 17th century English court.

Friday 16 December 2022

20 Christmas pieces by 19 women composers from the 20th and 21st centuries: Somerville College Choir's The Dawn of Grace

The Dawn of Grace: music for Christmas: Somerville College Choir, Oxford, Will Dawes, Luca Morgante; RESONUS
The Dawn of Grace: music for Christmas: Somerville College Choir, Oxford, Will Dawes, Luca Morgante; RESONUS
Reviewed 15 December 2022 (★★★★)

An imaginative Christmas programme that features 20 pieces by 19 women contemporary composers woven into a satisfying recital by the young voices from Somerville College

Somerville College, Oxford was founded in 1879 in order to give women and non-conformists the ability to come to Oxford to study, and the college choir sings in the only non-denominational college chapel in Oxford. So, what to record for the choir's first Christmas album. The answer is a disc of contemporary carols and Christmas music by 19 female composers, including eleven world premiere recordings.

The result, on Resonus Classics, is The Dawn of Grace: music for Christmas from Somerville College Choir, Oxford and conductor Will Dawes, with organist/pianist Luca Morgante, with music by Cecilia McDowall, Abbie Betinis, Anna Semple, Pamela Decker, Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Kerensa Briggs, Sarah Cattley, Judith Bingham, Joanna Marsh, Errollyn Wallen, Yshani Perinpanayagam, Shruthi Rajasekar, Sarah Quartel, Jeanne Demessieux, Tamsin Jones, Judith Weir, Janet Wheeler, June Nixon, and Ghislaine Reece-Trapp. Apart from Jeanne Demessieux (1921-1968), all living composers with birth years ranging from 1942 to 1997.

Well-known tunes feature in some arrangements, but mainly the disc is about new classics. The approaches are largely tonal and traditional, but within these, there is a lot of imagination being brought to bear, and many of the pieces show great ingenuity in the ability to vary the textures.

Based on a true story sparked by a quest for answers about his absent father & Mexican ancestry: Nathan Felix's Santa-Alamada

Santa-Almada is a new choral symphony by Mexican-American composer Nathan Felix, and Felix has released a new live recording of Santa-Almada featuring the Inversion Ensemble, conductor Trevor F Shaw, recorded live at the work's premiere in Austin, Texas in May 2022.

Santa-Almada is based on a true story sparked by a quest for answers about Felix’s absent father and Mexican ancestry, revealing the existence of two half brothers and a sister, also having been abandoned by their mutual father. Felix contacted his father after a gap of 27 years and an ensuing one-hour phone sparked the beginnings of 'Fathers & Sons', the first movement of the symphony.

Santa-Almada is written in six movements with themes of personal exploration, discovery, loss, and deep reflection. It was important to Felix to have the world premiere of the work in Austin where it could be shared with his family and closest friends.

In 2004, Felix founded the indie rock band, The Noise Revival Orchestra, then in 2013 he moved into writing for orchestra with his first symphony, The Curse, the Cross & the Lion

Santa-Alamada on Spotify, and on Bandcamp.

Thursday 15 December 2022

To enter White's world is to enter a parallel universe: Alastair White's opera Rune recorded live on Metier

Alastair White: Rune; Patricia Auchterlonie, Simone Ibbett-Browne, Ben Smith, Joseph Havlat, Siwan Rhys; Metier
Alastair White: Rune; Patricia Auchterlonie, Simone Ibbett-Browne, Ben Smith, Joseph Havlat, Siwan Rhys; Metier
Reviewed 14 December 2022 (★★★★)

On dazzling form, Alastair White's new opera, recorded live, creates seductive, virtuoso textures from just two singers and three pianos

Alastair White's Fashion|Opera Rune debuted at the Round Chapel in Hackney as part of Tête-à-Tête: The Opera Festival and a live recording has appeared on Métier, with soprano Patricia Auchterlonie and mezzo-soprano Simone Ibbett-Browne and an ensemble of three pianos played by Ben Smith (music director), Joseph Havlat and Siwan Rhys.

Setting White's own text, the opera appears at first sight to be a complex, cosmological, Science-Fiction fantasy. The libretto's argument goes thus, 'On a planet where history is forbidden, a young girl dares to tell her story. A voyage across galaxies and millennia, hers is a tale of the archipelagos of Khye-rell and their matterwork, through transdimensional canals and sea lanes to the RUNE of the universe’s origin. This song, her story – through the very act of being told – will have consequences beyond imagining'

Wednesday 14 December 2022

Live Music Now Scotland announces a new creative learning initiative

Emma Martin with children from Invergarven School in Girvan
Emma Martin with children from Invergarven School in Girvan

Live Music Now Scotland (LMNS) has announced a striking new creative learning initiative whereby LMNS musicians Emma Martin (singer/songwriter), Sophie Rocks (harp), Sally Simpson (fiddle) and Neil Sutcliffe (accordion) have been placed in five additional support needs schools and units in South Ayrshire and East Ayrshire, to work collaboratively with teachers and senior leadership teams to identify ways to teach the curriculum creatively through the medium of music.

The project is a combination of training created in response to the teachers' and musicians’ needs and music delivered through collaborative learning. The musicians will make 40 visits over the two years, collectively delivering 720 workshops.

The project is in partnership with South Ayrshire Council’s Creative Learning Network, thanks to funding from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s Teacher Development Fund. The hope is that, in the long-term, similar initiatives can be rolled out more widely and help encourage further investigation into the benefit of this model of artists and teachers working and learning together and the impact that teaching the curriculum through the arts subsequently has on improving communication and language skills, and aiding overall learning in an additional support needs setting. 

Manic energy and musical vision: Alex Paxton's ilolli-pop on nonclassical

Alex Paxton - ilolli-pop, Sometimes Voices, Corncrack Dreams, Mouth Music; Alex Paxton, Dreammusics Ensemble; nonclassical

Alex Paxton - ilolli-pop, Sometimes Voices, Corncrack Dreams, Mouth Music; Alex Paxton, Dreammusics Ensemble; nonclassical
Reviewed 12 December 2022

Welcome to the wonderfully imaginative, manically energetic world of Alex Paxton, music that never seems to sit still, taking us on journeys across myriad brilliant textures and timbres 

Composer and improvising trombonist Alex Paxton's new disc on nonclassical, ilolli-pop features a selection of Paxton's recent works all performed by Dreammusics Ensemble and Alex Paxton (improvised trombone solo, keyboards), James Larter (drum kit). The central work on the disc is ilolli-pop which Paxton wrote for Ensemble Moderne and which they premiered in 2020 and it was subsequently nominated for the 2022 Gaudeamus Composer Award. Alongside this are three shorter works, Sometimes Voices, originally commissioned by Hyper Duo and winner of the Chamber Music category in the 2021 Ivor Novello Awards, Corn-Crack Dreams, originally commissioned by the Nevis Ensemble and nominated for a 2021 Ivor Novello Award in the jazz category, and Mouth Music Take I.

Tuesday 13 December 2022

How Cold the Wind doth Blow: songs by RVW, friends and pupils at Wigmore Hall

Jack Liebeck, William Vann, Mary Bevan, Nicky Spence at Wigmore Hall (Photo courtesy of William Vann)
Jack Liebeck, William Vann, Mary Bevan, Nicky Spence at Wigmore Hall (Photo courtesy of William Vann)

How Cold the Wind doth Blow:
Vaughan Williams, Holst, Thomas Dunhill, Ireland,  Rebecca Clarke, Grace Williams, Elizabeth Maconchy, Ina Boyle; Mary Bevan, Nicky Spence, Jack Liebeck, William Vann; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed 11 December 2022; (★★★★★)

A lovely way to round off the RVW celebrations with a selection of his finest folk-song arrangements alongside songs by his friends and pupils

On Sunday afternoon (11 December 2022), Wigmore Hall continued its RVW celebrations with How Cold the Wind doth Blow, a programme of songs and duets by RVW and his friends and pupils including Gustav Holst, Thomas Dunhill, John Ireland, Rebecca Clarke, Grace Williams, Elizabeth Maconchy and Ina Boyle, performed by Mary Bevan (soprano), Nicky Spence (tenor), William Vann (piano) and Jack Liebeck (violin).

Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst met as students at the Royal College of Music and remained friends until Holst's death in 1934. They bonded over a love of literature, both developed an enthusiasm for folksong, the relationship was punctuated by long walking tours and each showed the other virtually everything they were writing.

Monday 12 December 2022

A tricky relationship: the friendship of Benjamin Britten and W H Auden examined in London Song Festival's final event of the season

W H Auden and Benjamin Britten
W H Auden and Benjamin Britten
Benjamin Britten and W H Auden; Charlotte Bowden, Harry Grigg, Nigel Foster; London Song Festival at Hinde Street Methodist Church
Reviewed 9 December 2022

Britten's W H Auden settings placed in a biographical context make for a revelatory evening exploring the important yet tricksy relationship between poet and composer

Benjamin Britten would have a close relationship with the poet WH Auden for around seven years, from 1935 to 1942 and their collaborations include song cycles, film music, an operetta and choral works. Only six years older than Britten, Auden was more self-confident both as an artist and in his sexuality. The last of Nigel Foster's Friends and Lovers season at the London Song Festival focussed on the relationship between Britten and Auden. At Hinde Street Methodist Church on Friday 9 December 2022, Charlotte Bowden (soprano), Harry Grigg (tenor) and Nigel Foster (piano) performed Britten's settings of Auden, including On this Island, the Cabaret Songs, music from Our Hunting Fathers, Ballad of Heroes and Paul Bunyan, and a new version of the soundtrack to the film Night Mail. Interspersed with these, David Mildon read extracts from Britten's letters and diary.

The concert was arranged chronologically from 1936 to the last song, though the songs from On this Island were spread out throughout the whole evening. What was fascinating was hearing the way song and life intertwined, with Britten's comments about the genesis of songs, their reception or other life events that impacted on his art. Perhaps one thing to point out, for the majority of songs we heard during the evening, the words came from poems that Auden had written rather than Auden specifically writing lyrics for Britten. The songs split roughly into two types, the cabaret type ones and the more consciously arty ones. 

Saturday 10 December 2022

Persephone: young film composer Veronika Hanl's lockdown project began as the stripped-back telling of a classic tale from Greek mythology

Veronika Hanl
Veronika Hanl
Veronika Hanl is a London-based Austrian-born composer and producer who has been working in film and television along with producing and amongst her recent projects is working with Isobel Waller-Bridge for the Apple TV series Roar, starring Nicole Kidman and Alison Brie. 

Veronika has been based in the UK for the past five years. She describes it as getting crazy expensive, but she fell in love with the city. It is the city to be. In Spring 2022, Veronika released one of her own projects, an EP Persephone created with Julia Romana, and Lowpines. It was something of a lockdown project, arising in 2020 with the singer/songwriter Lowpines (Oli Deakin), a British friend of Veronika's who is based in New York. It began simply with her, Oli and a ukulele telling a story about Persephone and Hades. They decided to make an acoustic version, and it turned out that the recording engineer, Tom Addison, was a pianist too so they made duo and trio acoustic versions of the piece.

Veronika describes the music as melancholic (she is a film composer and her work often has lots of drama), but it tells a sort of love story with Persephone and Hades as ships that pass in the night, two lovers who really want to be together. The collaboration began with Veronika creating instrumentals and vocal ideas, she then sent the result to Lowpines. He was stuck in the UK during the first lockdown and listened to Veronika's ideas on the beach in Brighton. He thought the instrumentals reminded him of waves, which led them to Persephone, and they built the piece together from there. Veronika is hoping that the two might collaborate again, she sees their styles as compatible and a low of Lowpines music is used on soundtracks. But collaboration will be trickier now that he is back in New York and she is in London.

Friday 9 December 2022

'I am he who kisses his comrade lightly on the lips at parting, and I am one who is kissed in return' - creating my cantata Out of the Shadows

Out of the Shadows

During Lockdown in 2020, I had a tendency to reread old books and revisit old musical projects. One project resulted in the creation of my cantata Et expecto resurrectionem as I returned to an early, incomplete musical project [see my article 'In search of eternal life']. 

One of the books I was re-reading, a history of gay life during the 19th century set me thinking. When reading books, if texts draw me in and elicit musical ideas, then I tend to scribble in the book. In this case, I accumulated a selection of texts which seemed to tell a story of the gradual emergence of gay men into society. The idea of a song cycle was born.

Usually, when writing song cycles, I put the texts into some sort of order and then simply start work on the music. My music writing tends to be instinctive; I simply see what happens and whether I like it. But this time, I reflected on the way the distinguished song composer Ian Venables commented to me that he tended to plan song cycles to ensure structural coherence and variety. I decided to see what happened if I did this.

I assembled five texts and assigned them a particular musical mood and rough tempo. The result would have, I hoped, a satisfying sort of symphonic layout in terms of Introduction, Allegro, slow movement, scherzo and finale. At the same time, I planned the allocation of parts.  My cantata Et expecto resurrectionem had developed into a single continuous work for tenor, baritone and piano with little in the way of independent solo moments. For the new piece, which would become Out of the Shadows, I decided to alternate ensemble moments with solos.

I am never very good at sticking to plans for pieces of music, but by and large, Out of the Shadows remains true to this initial plan. 

  • I myself am such a man sets text from Carlus Pontus Wikner's Psychological Confessions (1879) for both soloists as a slow introduction, reflecting Wikner's rather anguished admission of same-sex attraction. 
  • They lived together and seldom parted sets text from Friedrich van Ramdohr's Venus Urania (1798) as a tenor solo which has a slightly skittish element to the description of two rather naive young men who are horrified to realise their mutual attraction. 
  • The Ideal Friend sets a text by Joe Ackerley from My Father and Myself (1968) for both soloists. This is actually a 20th century description of cruising, but it takes place at a time when homosexuality was still proscribed and probably is equally true for 19th century gay men. This was intended to be the slow movement, but ended up rather more walking pace rather aptly as Ackerley's text describes his protagonist (Ackerley himself) walking along observing a young man to whom he is attracted.
  • The Bath House takes text from Mikhail Kuzmin from around 1905. This was intended as a baritone solo, a sort of scherzo but as I set the text, I decided to give the bath house attendant his own life and brought in the tenor soloist to, I hope, comic effect.
  • For the final movement, I wanted a text that had an element of positive affirmation about it. I ended up with Walt Whitman's To what you said, perhaps best known from Bernstein's setting in Songfest. They are words which Whitman penned to a female admirer but which contain a real affirmation of what it was to be a man loving men, 'I am he who kisses his comrade lightly on the lips at parting, and I am one who is kissed in return'

Out of the Shadows will be premiered by Ben Vonberg Clark (tenor), James Atkinson (baritone) and Nigel Foster (piano) at Hinde Street Methodist Church on Friday 3 February 2023 as part of a concert of my vocal music which also includes the premiere of Et expecto resurrectionem and a retrospective of my songs. Further details from EventBrite.

Dartington Music Summer School celebrated 75th anniversary in 2023 with Dame Thea Musgrave as composer-in-residence and much more

Dartington Music Summer School

Dartington Music Summer School returns in 2023 with four weeks of courses and shared music-making from 22 July to 19 August 2023 curated by artistic director Sara Mohr-Pietsch. And 2023 also celebrates a double anniversary, 75 years since the Summer School was founded and 70 years since it found a home at Dartington Hall in Devon.

For 2023, Thea Musgrave will be composer-in-residence, and conductor Anna Lapwood (in her Dartington debut) will be directing Musgrave's Missa Brevis. There will be new courses in a wide range of composition for amateur musicians, with film composer Isobel Waller-Bridge, composer/performer Héloïse Werner and singer-songwriter Ana Silvera, whilst composer Cevanne Horrocks-Hopayian leads a composition course in writing for historical and newly-devised instruments and electronics, and cellist Matthew Barley explores improvisation.

During lockdown, Robert Hollingworth and I Fagiolini produced a series on YouTube, Singing the Score and they will be returning to Dartington with live, interactive version.  John Butt and the Dunedin Consort will be leading a performance of Bach's Mass in B Minor.

There will also be coaching from sopranos Mary Bevan and Mhairi Lawson, tenor James Gilchrist, pianist Anna Lapwood, conductor Alice Farnham, Black Voices and ensembles Mediva, Fretwork, Magnard Ensemble and Leonore Piano Trio

Conductor Grace Rossiter will direct the Big Choir in a performance of Rossini’s Stabat Mater. Composer Robin Haigh and recorder virtuoso Tabea Debus will be leading OUR DEAR FOREST, a large-scale outdoor installation performance in Dartington’s Deer Park, co-created with recorder players of all ages and abilities.

Full details from the Dartington Music Summer School's website.

A dislike of plastic elves and glowing Santas spewing out rainbow snowmen in every direction

Martin Green
Martin Green

Composer (and one-third of the innovative folk band, Lau) Martin Green has created two new works for Opera North exploring the meanings behind our festival rituals. Green is a self-confessed Christmas curmudgeon, "I'm not what I’d call a Christmas person", he admits. "I love people, music, doing stuff — but do I love Christmas? I’m not sure", and his two new works explore different sides to the festival.

At Harewood House, his new sound installation Tannenbaum takes an old tune and explores the way it is used for the carol, O Tannenbaum (O Christmas Tree) and The Red Flag, using recordings from a folk session at the Waverley Bar in Edinburgh. The installation can be experienced as part of Harewood House's Long Live the Christmas Tree display.

Then on 17 December 2022 at the Howard Assembly Room (and 22 December at Sage Gateshead), Green's Lighting the Dark knits together folk tunes, songs and carols with the story of a spiritual journey from despair in the queue at Argos to a blazing, brass-led epiphany about the meaning of the season and its traditions. To perform it, Green will be joined by friends including Irish fiddle player Ultan O’Brien of the band Slow Moving Clouds and a brass trio comprising composer and improviser Laura Jurd (trumpet);, Danielle Price (tuba), and the brilliant young Glaswegian trombonist Anoushka Nanguy.

Full details from Opera North's website.

London Philharmonic Orchestra to perform Gavin Bryars’ Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet in a contemplative event at St John’s Waterloo

Gavin Bryars
Gavin Bryars
In January 2023, the London Philharmonic Orchestra will be giving a pair of performances of Gavin Bryars' Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet in a contemplative event at St John's Waterloo including a relaxed performance and other activities for homeless community groups supported by the church.

At the core of Bryars's composition is a 26-second recording of an unknown homeless man singing the refrain, Jesus' blood never failed me yet, this one thing I know, for He loves me so.Bryars came about the man in 1971 whilst working with a friend on a film about people living rough in the Elephant and Castle and Waterloo areas of London, where the concerts will be taking place. The audio clip of this particular man did not make it in to the final film but Bryars was given all the unused tapes. He soon discovered that the man’s singing was in tune with his piano and decided to add a simple accompaniment which grows in strength throughout the eventual 30-minute piece. Unfortunately, the man’s name was not captured and Bryars' efforts to locate him again were not successful. Attempts to place the song he sings have also proved inconclusive, meaning there is a possibility this was the man’s own composition.

On Wednesday 11 January 2023, the London Philharmonic Orchestra will be giving a pair of performances of Bryars' work at St John's Waterloo. During the day there will be a community performance and the invited audience will consist of guests from the homeless communities served by St John’s Waterloo. It will be a relaxed, reflective and gentle event with lunch provided. 

Then at 6.30pm there will be a public performance in the church, designed to be a contemplative event, creatively lit by Intersection, and the orchestra in the middle of the space, surrounded by the audience. The concert will be followed by a panel discussion with Bryars, who celebrates his 80th birthday a few days later, and others. There will be a retiring collection at the end of the public performance in aid of the homeless charities the church works with.

Full details from the LPO's website.

Thursday 8 December 2022

The 10th edition of the Khachaturian International Festival is currently underway in Yerevan in Armenia

Armenian State Symphony Orchestra, artistic director Sergey Smbatyan
Armenian State Symphony Orchestra, artistic director Sergey Smbatyan

The 10th edition of the Khachaturian International Festival is currently underway in Yerevan in Armenia. The festival was established by the Armenian State Symphony Orchestra, artistic director Sergey Smbatyan. This year the orchestra opened the festival on 6 December 2022, performing Prokofiev's Symphony Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, with soloist Sevak Avanesyan, and music by Glinka and Borodin, conducted by George Pehlivanian

There are four more concerts in the festival, which runs until 20 December 2022 and music includes Khachaturian's Piano Concerto with soloist Massimo Spada and the Concerto for Cello and Wind Orchestra by Austrian pianist and composer Friedrich Gulda (1930-2000). Gulda wrote the work in 1980 and it combines Gulda's two main interests, classical music and jazz. Festival performances also include Dvorak's Violin Concerto with soloist Carmine Lauri (co-leader of the London Symphony Orchestra), plus music by Bernstein, and Rimsky Korsakov.

Full details from the orchestra's website.

Rachel Duckett and Thando Mjandana announced as winners of the Voice of Black Opera

Rachel Ducket with WNO Orchestra and Matthew Kofi Waldren
Rachel Ducket with WNO Orchestra and Matthew Kofi Waldren (Photo Dan Knott Event Photography)

British singer Rachel Duckett was announced as the winner of the Voice of Black Opera (VOBO) competition which took place on Monday 5 December 2022 at Birmingham Town Hall.

Rachel Duckett [who was in Northern Opera Group's film of Viardot's Cendrillon, see my review] takes home the Sir Willard White Trophy as well as a £10,000 grand prize, repertoire coaching with music staff of Welsh National Opera, and a forthcoming concert appearance with the WNO Orchestra.

South African Thando Mjandana [who we saw as Nemorino in Waterperry Opera's production of Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore, see my review] received the Samuel Coleridge Taylor Award, which included the prize of £5,000 and three forthcoming performances of a specifically commissioned new work by Daniel Kidane for voice and ensemble with Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (BCMG).  

Thando Mjandana, WNO Orchestra, Matthew Kofi Waldren (Photo Dan Knott Event Photography)
Thando Mjandana, WNO Orchestra, Matthew Kofi Waldren (Photo Dan Knott Event Photography)

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