Tuesday 28 February 2023

About as close as you’ll get to an acid trip without breaking the law: George Crumb's Black Angels & a new work by Mother Moor from Manchester Collective

Manchester Collective - George Crumb: Black Angels

George Crumb's Black Angels, subtitled 'Thirteen Images from the Dark Land' is a work for electric string quartet written in 1970. Composed over the course of a year, the date "Friday the Thirteenth, March 1970 (in tempore belli)" as written on the score, the Latin phrase being a reference to the Vietnam War taking place at the time when Black Angels was composed. Notoriously demanding, musicians are instructed to chant in foreign languages, play instruments upside down, incessantly tap strings with thimbles and glass rods, scream, shout, beat, count and pray.

Touring across the UK from 16-24 March 2023, the Manchester Collective is presenting Black Angels, a programme for quartet and live electronics which features Crumb's iconic work alongside a new commission by Los Angeles-based hip-hop artist, activist, poet and composer Moor Mother (Camae Ayewa).

A self-taught musician, Moor Mother is one half of the art collective Black Quantum Futurism (along with Rasheedah Phillips) and is known for her experimental music work, mixing in influences from jazz, blues, hip-hop and other Black classical traditions. Her new work, DREAM CULTURE, is the artist’s first chamber commission.

Also in the programme is the slow movement of Schubert's Death and the Maiden quartet, the work that inspired Crumb's piece, plus Edmund Finnis' String Quartet No. 2 and Gabriella Smith's Carrot Revolution. The performers are Rakhi Singh – Music Director, violin, Emily Nebel – Violin, Alex Mitchell – Viola, Hannah Roberts – Cello and Joe Reiser – Live electronics, with performances in The White Hotel, Salford, Future Yard, Birkenhead, Howard Assembly Room, Leeds, Strange Brew, Bristol, Lakeside Arts, Nottingham, and Kings Place, London.

Full details from the Manchester Collective website.

Intriguing reinventions: Danish accordion player Bjarke Mogensen's Album for Astor

Album for Astor: Bjarke Mogensen, Johan Bridger, Mathias Heise, The Danish Chamber Players; OUR Recordings
Album for Astor: Bjarke Mogensen, Johan Bridger, Mathias Heise, The Danish Chamber Players; OUR Recordings
Reviewed 27 February 2023

Danish accordion player Bjarke Mogensen & friends in striking modern reinventions of some of Piazzolla's classics

This new disc from OUR Recordings, Album for Astor features the Danish accordion player Bjarke Mogensen with Johan Bridger (vibraphone), Mathias Heise (harmonica) and members of The Danish Chamber Players in a sequence of modern interpretations of music by the great master of Argentinian Tango Nuevo, Astor Piazzolla.

The disc features Adiós Nonino, Vibraphonissimo, Café 1930 from Histoire du Tango, Tristango, Aconcagua, Fuga y Misterioso, Coral, Allegro Tangabile, Contramilonga, Novitango, and Despertar in new arrangements by Mogensen with a variety of line-ups from solo accordion to accordion and vibraphone, and accordion and harmonica, to accordion and chamber ensemble, some of the originals are songs but here presented in instrumental transcriptions.

Monday 27 February 2023

French Connections: the Piccadilly Chamber Music Series returns with five concerts

Piccadilly Chamber Music Series
Piccadilly Chamber Music Series

The Piccadilly Chamber Music Series, artistic director Warren Mailley-Smith, is returning to St James' Church, Piccadilly for its sixth season, presenting five concerts exploring piano trio repertoire from France in the 19th and 20th centuries alongside masterpieces by Beethoven.

The repertoire includes piano trios by Debussy, Chaminade, Faure, Lili Boulanger, Ravel, Chausson, Saint-Saens, Louise Farrenc, Taillefaire and Chopin, plus a selection of Beethoven's piano trios including The Archduke. Performances feature artistic director, pianist Warren Mailley-Smith with a variety of fine instrumental musicians.

The series opens on 3 March 2023, with Warren Mailley-Smith (piano), Harriet Mackenzie (violin) and Katherine Jenkinson (cello) in Debussy's Piano Trio, Beethoven's Piano trio in C minor Op.1 No.3 and Chaminade's Piano trio No. 1 in G minor Op. 11. Debussy's only piano trio was written when he was just 18, and staying in Fiesole where he was living with Tchaikovsky's patroness, Nadezhda von Meck, as the music tutor to her daughters. 

Stravinsky and Bharatanatyam: Seeta Patel Dance Company's new version of The Rite of Spring using classical South Indian dance

Seeta Patel Dance - The Rite of Spring
Stravinsky's Rite of Spring was written for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes for choreographer Nijinsky. After the chaotic premiere, Stravinsky was dismissive of the choreography partly as a result of the choreographer and dancers' reliance on counting which bore no resemblance to Stravinsky's conception of his rhythms in the piece. As it was, after the initial run, when Diaghilev came to revive the ballet a few years later, Nijinsky was suffering from a breakdown in his mental health and no-one else could remember the ballet, so Massine rechoreographed it. Since then, there have been countless different versions as each choreographer seeks to get to grips with the primal energy of Stravinsky's score, and of course, each comes up with something different.

Now, the Seeta Patel Dance Company is presenting the London premiere of a Bharatanatyam interpretation of Stravinsky's ballet on 13 and 14 March 2023. Bharatanatyam is the classical South Indian dance, normally seen in solo presentations but here the whole ensemble will be dancing. The company will be accompanied by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.

The company uses a male dancer as The Chosen One – elevating him to a deity to whom all sacrifice themselves. Whilst it is traditional for The Chosen One to be a woman, Kenneth MacMillan allowed for either sex in the role. By associating Stravinsky’s work and Bharatanatyam dance, Patel seeks to bridge the gap between classical Indian and Western culture through the mediums of dance and music.

London-born choreographer and dancer Seeta Patel trained in both Bharatanatyam and contemporary dance, and she has performed with companies such as DV8 Physical Theatre, and Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company. The evening will begin with Seeta Patel in a solo performance accompanied by South Indian musicians.

Full details from the Sadler's Wells website.

Two major role debuts as ETO launches Spring tour with strong revival of Handel's Giulio Cesare

Handel: Giulio Cesare - Susanna Hurrell (Cleopatra); Francis Gush (Cesare) - English Touring Opera (Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)
Handel: Giulio Cesare - Susanna Hurrell (Cleopatra); Francis Gush (Cesare) - English Touring Opera (Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)

Handel: Giulio Cesare; Francis Gush, Susanna Hurrell, Carolyn Dobbin, Margo Arsane, Alexander Chance, director: James Conway, conductor: Cordelia Chisholm; English Touring Opera at Hackney Empire 

This was the third time I have seen this production, and it never pales: ETO's fine young cast brings Handel's masterpiece to life in Conway's imaginative setting

English Touring Opera opened its Spring 2023 season with a revival of James Conway's fine 2017 production of Handel's Giulio Cesare. The production was revived in 2020, but that run was inevitably cut short, so this tour (with nine performances in total) was something in recompense, and the production has influenced the whole shape of the season. All three operas will be presented with the Old Street Band, ETO's period instrument ensemble thus giving us period instrumental performances for Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia and Rossini's Il viaggio a Rheims, whilst both these operas will have productions presented inside Giulio Cesare's gilded box set.

James Conway's production of Handel's Giulio Cesare opened at the Hackney Empire on 25 February 2023, with Sergey Rybin conducting the Old Street Band. Francis Gush was Cesare and Susanna Hurrell was Cleopatra, with Alexander Chance as Tolomeo, Carolyn Dobbin as Cornelia, Margo Arsane as Sesto, Edward Hawkins as Achilla, Kieron-Connor Valentine as Nireno and Edward Jowle as Curio. Designs were by Cordelia Chisholm. Both Gush and Chance were making their role debuts.

Handel: Giulio Cesare - Carolyn Dobbin (Cornelia); Margo Arsane (Sesto) - English Touring Opera (Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)
Handel: Giulio Cesare - Carolyn Dobbin (Cornelia); Margo Arsane (Sesto) - English Touring Opera (Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)

The production sets the opera at the time of its writing with the Romans as the English constantly fascinated yet repelled by the French court (the Egyptians), and this works remarkably well, partly thanks to the clarity and beauty of Chisholm's designs and the imaginative direction from Conway. The focus is on character, which places the onus on the singers, but the benefit is a focus on the opera rather than gimmicks.

Sunday 26 February 2023

Moments of musical magic: Dvorak's Rusalka at Covent Garden with Asmik Grigorian, David Butt Philip & Semyon Bychkov

Dvorak: Rusalka - Ross Ramgobin, Sarah Connolly, Hongi Wu - Royal Opera House (Photo Camilla Greenwall)
Dvorak: Rusalka - Ross Ramgobin, Sarah Connolly, Hongi Wu - Royal Opera House (Photo Camilla Greenwall)
Dvorak: Rusalka; Asmik Grigorian, David Butt Philip, Sarah Connolly, Emma Bell, Rafal Siwek, directed: Ann Yee & Natalie Abrahami, conducted: Semyon Bychkov; Royal Opera House

An imperfectly realised theatrical vision lifted by finely musical performances and stunning orchestral playing

With a hit number that is known by many who have never seen the opera and its tale of tragic love, Dvorak's Rusalka might seem like a sure-fire hit for opera companies, but the work came relatively late in the West. David Pountney's 1983 production for English National Opera was an important milestone (the company had given the work's UK premiere in 1959) as Pountney explored ideas of a young girl's sexual awakening. By contrast, the 1993 production at New York's Metropolitan Opera, which came from the Vienna State Opera, was firmly in the unquestioning fairy tale realm. Since then, productions have tended to veer between these ideas. At Grange Park Opera in 2008, Anthony McDonald (as director and designer) mined a really vivid vein of darkness in the fairy tale, and this is a vein that has continued in the UK with Melly Still's production at Glyndebourne and Jack Furness' imaginative and wonderfully poetic staging at Garsington last year [see my review].

In Europe, directors have sometimes taken a rather harder-edged view, with Christoph Loy's 2020 staging in Madrid exploring ideas of fractured family relationships, with Rusalka as a crippled dancer in a theatre [see my review]. An earlier Salzburg production set the work in a brothel, but when this production came to Covent Garden in 2012 it failed to convince [see my review].

Covent Garden has now had another go, creating its own production, directed by Ann Yee and Natalie Abrahami, with sets by Chloe Lamford, costumes by Annemarie Woods, lighting by Paule Constable and choreography by Ann Yee. Asmik Grigorian was Rusalka with David Butt Philip as the Prince, Sarah Connolly as Jezibaba, Emma Bell as the Foreign Princess and Rafal Siwek as Vodnik. Semyon Bychkov conducted the orchestra of the Royal Opera House.

Dvorak: Rusalka - Asmik Grigorian - Royal Opera House (Photo Camilla Greenwall)
Dvorak: Rusalka - Asmik Grigorian - Royal Opera House (Photo Camilla Greenwall)

Saturday 25 February 2023

A bit of a whirlwind: counter-tenor Francis Gush discusses his forthcoming debut in the title role of Handel's Giulio Cesare with English Touring Opera

Francis Gush in rehearsal for Handel's Giulio Cesare with English Touring Opera (Photo: Craig Fuller)
Francis Gush in rehearsal for Handel's Giulio Cesare with English Touring Opera (Photo: Craig Fuller)

Tonight, 25 February 2023, English Touring Opera (ETO) launches its ambitious Spring tour at the Hackney Empire with a revival of James Conway's production of Handel's Giulio Cesare, conducted by Sergey Rybin with Francis Gush in the title role and Susanna Hurrell as Cleopatra. I first saw Francis in the role of Arsace in Handel's Partenope with HGO in 2019 [see my review], he has also covered Athamas in Handel's Semele with Opéra de Lille and performed in Purcell’s The Indian Queen under Emmanuelle Haïm at the Opéra de Lille. I caught up with Francis, via Zoom, in the middle of rehearsals to talk about Handel's writing for the voice and how it suits him, learning Cesare and his ideas about the character, as well as the wider world of Baroque opera and how his lockdown job of being a builder helped when he returned to opera.  

Francis comments that rehearsals were going well but that it was something of a whirlwind, and they had just had their first stage and orchestra rehearsal. For Francis, having the orchestra makes it easier to get into the emotional landscape of the piece. Francis had never sung in Handel's Giulio Cesare before, and in fact, his casting with ETO was rather late notice (at the beginning of January), so he had to prepare the piece in a month. He had done a couple of the arias before, but there was much learning needed, and it was a challenge, learning all the recitative on your own. He spoke the text at first, which took a lot of time, and the notes are so moveable and not always intuitive. It needs you to learn not just your part but the whole drama. Francis had not seen James Conway's production before [it debuted in 2017, see my review], but people he studied with have been involved in the production previously. 

Friday 24 February 2023

A lasting picture of struggle and resilience: a new live version of Derek Jarman's Blue to commemorate the film's 30th anniversary


Derek Jarman's final film, BLUE, was completed in May 1993, just months before his death. A response to the onset of blindness as a result of his battle with HIV, the film presents an unchanging screen of celestial blue accompanied by voices which deliver a collage of fragments from Jarman's diary, describing the gradual onset of blindness, and as his daily life is stripped away, only the essentials remain.

To celebrate the film's 30th anniversary, Neil Bartlett is directing a new live version of the film, the production is being presented by WeTransfer,  with performances at Brighton’s Theatre Royal as part of Brighton Festival, Turner Contemporary in Margate, HOME in Manchester and Tate Modern in London.

For the live performances, four actors will deliver Jarman's words, activist and art collector Russell Tovey, Travis Alabanza, Jay Bernard, and TS Eliot award-winning poet and acclaimed spoken word performer Joelle Taylor, whilst the film's original composer Simon Fisher Turner will accompany them with a new live score.

Created at the height of the AIDS epidemic, BLUE is a testament not just to Jarman's remarkable courage but also to the rage and loss of an entire generation. Revisiting the piece now creates an opportunity to both revisit the pioneering contribution of the LGBTQI+ community to national life over 30 years and how different generations have dealt with the trauma of the AIDS epidemic. It paints a lasting picture of struggle and resilience at a time when the whole world has been figuring out how to survive in the face of a global pandemic.

Blue Now is at the Brighton Festival (7 May 2023), Turner Contemporary, Margate (13 May), HOME Manchester (21 May) and Tate Modern (27 May).

As an addition to the live performances, WeTransfer has commissioned a digital iteration of BLUE NOW to appear on its arts platform WePresent. This version will not copy the original BLUE but instead pay tribute to the original artwork and its creator Derek Jarman through the words and voices of contemporary LGBTQIA+ artists. Since 2009, WeTransfer has donated up to 30% of its media inventory to artists and social causes, giving a platform to underrepresented voices within the creative community. Designed by WeTransfer’s creative studio, WePresent’s BLUE NOW content series will bring the legacy of this artwork to a large global audience where it will be accessible for free. 

Full details from the Fuel Theatre website.

A voyage round Pauline Viardot: Anna Bonitatibus & Angela Hewitt in Berlioz, Liszt, rare late Rossini and something by the Viardot herself

Pauline Viardot
Pauline Viardot
Berlioz: Les nuits d'été Op. 7, Pauline Viardot: Scène d'Hermione, Liszt: Tre sonetti di Petrarca S270/2,  Rossini: Giovanna d'Arco; Anna Bonitatibus, Angela Hewitt; Wigmore Hall

Music by Pauline Viardot & composers associated with her makes for an absorbing and finely performed programme, from the subtleties of Berlioz through to bravura late Rossini

Pianist Angela Hewitt currently has a residency at Wigmore Hall and for her concert on Thursday 23 February 2023, she joined forces with mezzo-soprano Anna Bonitatibus for a concert that might have been described as a voyage around the great 19th-century singer and composer, Pauline Viardot. Hewitt and Bonitatibus performed four significant works, three by composers who had links to Viardot and one by Viardot herself. Alongside Berlioz' Les nuits d'été Op. 7 and Liszt's 3 sonetti di Petrarca S270/2 we had two rarities, Viardot's Scène d'Hermione and Rossini's Giovanna d'Arco.

Viardot sang both Cassandre and Didon in excerpts from Berlioz' Les Troyens and when the idea was raised to create a version of Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice for mezzo-soprano (the gradual raising of pitch at the Paris Opera meant that Gluck's original French version was no longer accessible to contemporary tenors), it was for Viardot that Berlioz created his version.

On 'Dead Man Walking': baritone Michael Lafferty on learning the role of Joseph de Rocher in Jake Heggie's opera for its Guildhall School performances next week

Michael Mayes as Joseph de Rocher in 2019
Michael Mayes as Joseph de Rocher in 2019

On 27 February 2023, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama presents Jake Heggie's opera Dead Man Walking in a new production directed by Martin Lloyd-Evans and conducted by Dominic Wheeler. In advance of the production, we hear from Michael Lafferty who is one of the two baritones sharing the role of Joseph de Rocher. Based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean, the opera premiered in 2000 in San Francisco, but only received its UK premiere in 2018 at the Barbican in a semi-staged performance with Joyce DiDonato and Michael Mayes. The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland gave the work's UK stage premiere in 2019. 

Here, Michael Lafferty talks about exploring the role of Joseph de Rocher.

This production of Dead Man Walking is certainly one of the most ambitious we’ve staged so far, and I think we all feel it too. It’s such a huge work. The opera is so intricate, from the complicated scene changes to the depth of the material. It’s an intensive rehearsal process, and it takes a vast amount of concentration. 

The two leading roles of Sister Helen Prejean and Joseph De Rocher require a big sing. In addition to the vocalism, range, dynamic colour and the musical writing, it is also an incredibly hard-hitting real-life story. To me, knowing that these characters were real hits home more than other works; there is something about performing the role of a death row inmate in the 80s that is more real than a Verdi or Mozart work set in the 18th or 19th century. Knowing that we are portraying characters based on real lives is a daunting task, but one with great privilege. 

Thursday 23 February 2023

Handel for All: The English Concert launches its impressive and heartening plan to film Handel's entire output for free on-line viewing

The English Concert performing Handel’s Serse at St Martin-in-the-Fields (Photo: Paul Marc Mitchell)
The English Concert performing Handel’s Serse at St Martin-in-the-Fields
(Photo: Paul Marc Mitchell)
Handel's output was prodigious, nearly 70 operas and oratorios, 150 cantatas and other vocal works, not to mention all the instrumental pieces and chamber music. In total, it all adds up to over 600 (the exact count, of course, depends on how you count the various versions of pieces), and the English Concert plans to film every piece and make these recordings available via a free on-line resource. 

The project, Handel for All, launches this month with the release of Handel's Samson with Stuart Jackson in the title role [available on the English Concert website], plus Paula Murrihy, Matthew Brook & Sophie Bevan, which was recorded as part of the 2021 London Handel Festival [see my original review]. Next month comes Handel's cantata Armida Abbandonata with Mary Bevan, then in April, Saul with Iestyn Davies as David. There are lots of smaller works to come this year including Acis & Galatea with Lucy Crowe, and Apollo e Dafne with Chiara Skerath and Jonathan McGovern.

To be recorded this year for release next year are Solomon, Amadigi, Ariodante, the first batch of Chandos Anthems and more. And there is the promise to mix the works that are seldom heard along with the famous once, as well as the commitment to support the development of young talent.

The on-line portal is planned to include teaching materials too, including digital and self-led sessions for use in schools and at home, and Music Minus One – interactive digital learning materials.

This is an incredibly impressive project, and plans for this year and next are heartening, but it is very much the long hall. In the past, the English Concert has performed its Handel in concerts and including the significant annual tour which included performances in the USA. COVID rather changed this, and it looks as if, admirably, the ensemble has decided to rethink rather than going all out to go back to the mixture as before.

Handel for All will be celebrated on 28 February 2023 at Barbican Hall preceding a concert exploring Handel as a composer and philanthropist. Handel: The Philanthropist will see The English Concert, directed by Harry Bicket, and joined by Ann Hallenberg, Elena Villalón and James Way for an historically informed recreation of arguably Britain’s first benefit concert.

Bach: Barnaby Smith, artistic director of VOCES8, & the Illyria Consort in a disc of alto arias

Bach: Ich habe genug, BWV 82, Vergnügte Ruh, Beliebte Seelenlust, BWV170, arias from St Matthew Passion, St John Passion, Mass in B Minor, Easter Oratorio; Barnaby Smith, Illyria Consort; VOCES8

Bach: Ich habe genug, BWV 82, Vergnügte Ruh, Beliebte Seelenlust, BWV170, arias from St Matthew Passion, St John Passion, Mass in B MinorEaster Oratorio; Barnaby Smith, Illyria Consort; VOCES8
Reviewed 22 February 2023

The artistic director of VOCES8 returns to solo arias, with a disc of Bach notable for the purity and beauty of tone and expressivity of line, along with superbly expressive playing from the Illyria Consort

Counter-tenor Barnaby Smith (perhaps best known for being the artistic director of VOCES8) has followed up his debut album of arias by Handel with a disc of music by Bach, on the VOCES8 label. Recorded with the Illyria Consort, leader Bojan Cičić, the disc features the cantatas Ich habe genug, BWV 82 and Vergnügte Ruh, Beliebte Seelenlust, BWV170 alongside arias from the St Matthew Passion, the St John Passion, the Mass in B Minor and the Easter Oratorio.

Smith began his career singing as a treble in The Choir of Westminster Abbey and studied at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis with Andreas Scholl and Ulrich Messthaler. This link to Scholl is perhaps telling, Smith has a similar fluidity of tone and a great beauty of line. For anyone who wants to simply listen, much of this album is spine-tinglingly beautiful, but if you want a projection of the text then that is another matter. Smith's technique is aimed at this liquid beauty, often at the expense of diction. It is not that he is emotionless, but the emotion comes from the melodic beauty and the expressive shape that he imbues it with.

Wednesday 22 February 2023

In memory and celebration of Harvey Parker, 2001 – 2021: Love in Mind gala to launch of charity to support young artists experiencing mental health crises.

Harvey Parker, 2001 – 2021
Harvey Parker, 2001 – 2021

Classical, pop, jazz and dance music artists are joining forces for a gala to support a new charity devoted to the mental well-being of creatives. Love in Mind at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Sunday 30 April 2023 launches The Harvey Parker Trust, in memory of 20-year-old Harvey Parker, a gender-fluid, autistic, and prodigiously talented mixed-race musician whose mental health took a tragic turn just days before Christmas 2021 when they ended their life. This new charity aims to make a positive difference and raise funds for young artists experiencing mental health crises and give them access to emotional and mental health support.

The line-up at the gala will include cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason and Chineke! Orchestra, and the evening will include performances from members of the National Children’s Orchestras of Great Britain, Future Talent and Choir of Westminster School. Alongside these will be Mark Rylance, songwriter Charlie Deakin Davies, electronic music group Clean Bandit, and an ensemble from jazz organisation Tomorrow’s Warriors.

London nightclubs Heaven and G-A-Y will support an afterparty in the foyer of the Queen Elizabeth Hall featuring DJs drawn from the worlds of music, fashion and art. 

Further information and tickets from the Southbank Centre website.

Guildhall School's Easter Courses include Acting, Shakespeare for GCSE, Poetry Writing, Production Arts, Music Performance, Music Theory and Music Production.

Guildhall School of Music and Drama - Easter courses
The Guildhall School of Music and Drama has announced a range of in-person and on-line courses for the Easter holidays. The courses are aimed at a variety of age groups from eight years and up, and they run for a duration of two to five days during the Easter holidays.

In-person music courses include:

  • The Easter Music Course is for young instrumentalists (aged 8 -14) playing any bowed string, wind, brass or percussion instrument who are looking to gain some ensemble experience in a welcoming and supportive environment
  • Essential Music Theory: Grade 5 for those aged eleven and over, who are preparing for the ABRSM Grade 5 Music Theory exam and/or wanting to improve their knowledge of music theory
  • Music Production in Logic Pro is for beginners and those who have a basic understanding of music production (aged 14-17), who wish to gain the skills to independently write and produce music
  • Conducting & Ensemble Direction for music educators, professional musicians, and music students of any conducting ability who are aged 18 and over

On-line music courses include Mastering Aural Tests and Film Music Composition, whilst beyond music, there are courses on Writing Poetry, Audition Technique (Acting) and Shakespeare for GCSE: Mastering Macbeth.

The deadline for courses is 5pm, Wednesday 29 March 2023, full details from the Guildhall School website.

Listening with different ears: Francesco Cordi directs Bach concertos and Brandenburg Concertos at Wigmore Hall

Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg
Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg
Dedicatee of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos
Bach: Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 1, 3, and 6, Harpsichord Concerto in D minor, Concerto for two oboes and bassoon; English Concerto, Francesco Corti; Wigmore Hall

Superbly vivid playing complemented by a real sense of enjoyment of the music and great presence.

Harpsichordist Jean Rondeau and I seem to be fated. Having missed his recital in Lucerne early this month, owing to my travel problems, Rondeau had to withdraw from the English Concert's concert at Wigmore Hall last night (21 February 2023), however, the good news is that he had an excellent replacement.

Francesco Corti directed the English Concert from the harpsichord at Wigmore Hall on 21 February 2023 in an all-Bach programme centred on Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 1, 3 and 6, plus the Harpsichord Concerto in D minor, BWV 1052 and the Concerto for two Oboes and Bassoon.

We began with the Harpsichord Concerto, the earliest surviving of Bach's such works dating from the 1730s though versions of the movements existed earlier. As ever, when listening to these concertos I often wonder what Bach intended. We heard the sort of instrumentation he planned, harpsichord and chamber group of single strings, but we were in a far larger hall than in Bach's time as the concerto was probably written either for family performance or by the Collegium Musicum in Zimmerman's Coffee House. The string players of the English Concert performed with strong, vibrant tone and the harpsichord that Corti was playing had an admirably rich sound. So, during the solo harpsichord moments, Corti's performance really counted, but when there was a stray string line accompanying the harpsichord, it was the strings that dominated.

The problem is that we listen with modern ears, where we expect a solo instrument to dominate and we have to accept that perhaps Bach's idea of a concerto may have been very different. Whilst the results are certainly not historical, you can begin to understand why Wanda Landowska played Bach in modern concert halls on a huge, steel-framed harpsichord!

Tuesday 21 February 2023

A Byzantine Emperor at King Henry's Court: Christmas 1400, London

A Byzantine Emperor at King Henry's Court: Christmas 1400, London; Cappella Romana, Alexander Lingas; Cappella Records

A Byzantine Emperor at King Henry's Court: Christmas 1400, London
; Cappella Romana, Alexander Lingas; Cappella Records
Reviewed 21 February 2022

Using the relatively little known occasion when the Byzantine Emperor celebrated Christmas at the English court in Eltham, the American ensemble specialising in Byzantine and Orthodox chant explores the twin worlds of contemporary music for the Byzantine and the Sarum rites. 

The Byzantine Emperor, Manuel II Palaiologos (1350–1425), ruled a shrunken state heavily pressed by the Ottoman Turks, led from 1389 to 1402 by Bayezid I (better known as Bajazet, whose defeat by the Turco-Mongol conqueror Timur (Tamerlane) was covered in Handel's opera Tamerlano. Manuel was forced to turn to the West for support, appealing to Charles VI of France, Richard II of England and the Pope for aid. In 1399 Manuel and his substantial retinue travelled West, travelling through Italy to France where he lived for two years. For Christmas 1400, Manuel was hosted by King Henry IV of England at Eltham Palace, where the two monarchs celebrated Christmas together. Returning to Paris in February 1401, Manuel would eventually leave for Byzantium in November 1402, by which time Tamerlane had already defeated Bayezid.

We know that the Christmas 1400 celebrations at Eltham Palace were extensive and magnificent. (The present Great Hall at Eltham, however post-dates the events, having been built in the 1470s.) We also know that Manuel was devout and attended mass daily, having brought his own entourage of priests. The Eastern Orthodox Church and the Western Roman Catholic Church were in schism at the time, so it is highly unlikely that the two monarchs attended a joint mass. Instead, each would have had his own grand festal celebration and whilst no musical records of the meeting survive, it is possible to reconstruct what was likely performed. 

The disc from Cappella Romana under Alexander Lingas, A Byzantine Emperor at King Henry's Court: Christmas 1400, London on the choir's own, Cappella Records, features music from the Services to Christmas Eve and the services on Christmas Day.

An inclusive approach and inventive instrumentation: RNS Moves and BSO Resound join forces for Kate Whitley premiere

Clarence Adoo, founder of RNS Moves
Clarence Adoo, founder of RNS Moves

RNS Moves, the inclusive ensemble bringing together disabled and non-disabled musicians from Royal Northern Sinfonia (RNS) are joining forces with players from BSO Resound, the disabled-led ensemble at the core of Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, for a performance at Sage Gateshead on 3 March 2023.

They will perform a new piece, Falling, by Kate Whitley (co-founder of the Multi-Storey Orchestra). Falling was composed after a series of workshops and has been specially orchestrated to feature the accessible electronic instruments used by the musicians – including a Linnstrument and the Headspace. The performance will be conducted by RNS Principal Conductor Dinis Sousa. The evening, which also features the Royal Northern Sinfonia, will include works by Ligeti, Sibelius, and Kodály. 

The Linnstrument is an expressive MIDI controller for musical performance that senses the fingers’ subtle movements in five ways, enabling musical performance expression that can rival that of fine acoustic instruments. 

The Headspace is an innovative MIDI wind instrument controlled by breath and head movements. It was created by German composer-inventor Rolf Gehlhaar for Clarence Adoo MBE, who co-founded RNS Moves after a life-altering car accident left him paralysed from the neck down, meaning he could no longer hold his position as a trumpeter in RNS. 

Full details from the Sage Gateshead website.

25th anniversary Lotte Lenya Competition

Lotte Lenya and Kurt Weill (Photo: Kurt Weill Foundation for Music)
Lotte Lenya and Kurt Weill (Photo: Kurt Weill Foundation for Music)
Founded in 1998, the Lotte Lenya Competition is intended to recognise talented young singers/actors who are dramatically and musically convincing in repertoire ranging from opera/operetta to contemporary Broadway scores, with a focus on the works of Kurt Weill. 

This year, the 25th anniversary competition, organised by the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music, takes place on 29 & 30 April 2023 at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY, USA. 24 contestants have been selected as semi-finalists, from a pool of 271 applications from 20 countries across the globe. The semi-finalists will audition in person and receive feedback and coaching, with the finalists competing for a pool of prizes totalling $120,000.

This year's judges include Dame Josephine Barstow, conductor James Holmes, one of two living recipients of the Kurt Weill Lifetime Achievement Award, and actor Kyle Scatcliffe who won a special award in the 2010 competition for Extraordinary Promise.

The finale will be streamed live on the Kurt Weill Foundation website.

Monday 20 February 2023

Beverley & East Riding Early Music Festival

Beverley & East Riding Early Music Festival

The National Centre for Early Music's (NCEM) Beverley & East Riding Early Music Festival returns to the historic Yorkshire town for a weekend of music under the theme of Sacred and Profane, from 26 to 28 May 2023. Performers at the festival include the Tallis Scholars, the Irish Baroque Ensemble, Ensemble Molière, and EEEmerging+ rising stars The Ministers of Pastime.

Ensemble Molière opens the festival with Sacred Reflections, a reflective, sacred concert in the Quire of Beverley Minster, and the ensemble returns in lighter mood to close the festival with Theatrical Tastes presented in Beverley’s East Riding Theatre. Ensemble Molière is the first ensemble to be chosen as the New Generation Baroque Ensemble, supported by BBC Radio 3, the Royal College of Music, and the National Centre for Early Music.

This year the Tallis Scholars are celebrating both their own 50th anniversary and William Byrd's 400th, with Reflecting Byrd, a programme that will mix Byrd with works by Byrd’s friend and mentor Thomas Tallis and John Sheppard.

The Irish Baroque Ensemble appears in Beverley for the first time, with Quintessential, a programme of music from central Europe, featuring music by Muffat, Biber, Telemann and Weichlein. Rising stars, the Spanish ensemble The Ministers of Pastime make their UK debut with Phantastic Kapellmeisters, The Music of 17th century Vienna

There is also a lively programme of talks and walks reflecting Beverley's history, as well as workshops both for adults and children, not to mention an informal concert in the ancient and atmospheric Monk’s Walk Inn performed by the Eboracum Pub Band, who promise to recreate the bawdy atmosphere of a 17th century tavern.

Full details from the NCEM website.

Imaginative & very human: Rodula Gaitanou's new production of Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos at Opera North

Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos - Ric Furmann, Elizabeth Llewellyn - Opera North (Photo: Richard H Smith)
Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos - Ric Furmann, Elizabeth Llewellyn - Opera North (Photo: Richard H Smith)

Richard Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos; Elizabeth Llewellyn, Ric Furman, Hanna Hipp, Jennifer France, director: Rodula Gaitanou, conductor: Anthony Hermus; Opera North at the Grand Theatre, Leeds
Reviewed 18 February 2023

Channelling Fellini and Cinecittà, Rodula Gaitanou's new production proves warmly engaging & full of imaginative story-telling enlivened by superb musical performances

Rodula Gaitanou's production of Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos debuted at Gothenburg Opera in 2018 [see review on Seen & Heard]. A co-production with Opera North, the production finally made its way to Leeds, opening at the Grand Theatre on Saturday 18 February 2023 with an entirely new cast.

Directed by Rodula Gaitanou, designed by George Souglides with lighting by Simon Corder and choreography by Victoria Newlyn, Ariadne auf Naxos was conducted by Anthony Hermus (the company's Principal Guest Conductor), with Elizabeth Llewellyn as Ariadne, Ric Furman as Bacchus, Hanna Hipp as the Composer and Jennifer France as Zerbinetta.

Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos - Laura Kelly-McInroy as Dresser, Elizabeth Llewellyn as Prima Donna, Dean Robinson as Music Master, Jennifer France as Zerbinetta, Adrian Dwyer as Brighella, Alex Banfield as Scarmuccio, Simon Grange as Truffaldino (double) and Daniel Norman as Dancing Master - Opera North (Photo: Richard H Smith)
Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos - Laura Kelly-McInroy as Dresser, Elizabeth Llewellyn as Prima Donna, Dean Robinson as Music Master, Jennifer France as Zerbinetta, Adrian Dwyer as Brighella, Alex Banfield as Scarmuccio, Simon Grange as Truffaldino (double) and Daniel Norman as Dancing Master - Opera North (Photo: Richard H Smith)

A huge amount to admire: Richard Jones' production of Wagner's The Rhinegold debuts at ENO

Wagner: The Rhinegold - English National Opera (Photo: Mark Brenner)
Wagner: The Rhinegold - English National Opera (Photo: Mark Brenner)

Wagner: The Rhinegold; John Relyea, Frederick Ballentine, Leigh Melrose, dir: Richard Jones, cond: Martyn Brabbins; English National Opera at the London Coliseum
Reviewed by Florence Anna Maunders, 18 February 2023

Second instalment of Jones's second London Ring was visually inconsistent but dramatically striking & musically excellent

Not many directors are invited to create a Ring cycle, but, following his controversial 1990's staging at Covent Garden, Richard Jones is now halfway through his second London cycle. Presented out of sequence, due to COVID-related postponements, English National Opera are now presenting the first of Wagner's colossal music-dramas, The Rhinegold.

Richard Jones' production of The Rhinegold opened at the London Coliseum on 18 February 2023, conducted by Martyn Brabbins with John Relyea as Wotan, Frederick Ballentine as Loge, and Leigh Melrose as Alberich, plus Madeleine Shaw (Fricka), Katie Lowe (Freia), Christine Rice (Erda), John Findon (Mime), James Creswell (Fafner), Simon Bailey (Fasolt), Blake Denson (Donner), Julian Hubbard (Froh), Eleanor Dennis (Woglinde), Idunnu Münch (Wellgunde) and Katie Stevenson (Flosshilde).

Not many directors are invited to create a Ring cycle, but, following his controversial 1990's staging at Covent Garden, Richard Jones is now halfway through his second London cycle. Presented out of sequence, due to COVID-related postponements, English National Opera are now presenting the first of Wagner's colossal music-dramas, The Rhinegold.

Wagner: The Rhinegold - Leigh Melrose - English National Opera (Photo: Mark Brenner)
Wagner: The Rhinegold - Leigh Melrose - English National Opera (Photo: Mark Brenner)

Friday 17 February 2023

Music from the African Continent & Diaspora: I chat to Samantha Ege about her latest disc, Homage

Samantha Ege (Photo Jason Dodd)
Samantha Ege (Photo Jason Dodd)

Pianist and musicologist Samantha Ege is known for her championing of the music of Florence Price and the other composers associated with her such as Margaret Bonds. Samantha's recordings have included Fantasie Nègre, devoted to the piano music of Florence Price (1887-1953), and Black Renaissance Woman, focusing on the music of the Chicago Black Renaissance between the wars with works by Florence Price, Margaret Bonds, Nora Holt, Betty Jackson King and Helen Hagan. 

Samantha's most recent disc, Homage, with the string quartet Castle of our Skins features chamber music from the African Continent and the Diaspora with music by the South African composer Bongani Ndodana-Breen, and the American composers Zenobia Powell Perry (1908-2004), Undine Smith Moore (1904-1989), and Frederick C. Tillis (1930-2020) and the British composer Samuel Coleridge Taylor.

NYCGB Young Composers 4

NMC - NYCGB Young Composers 4

NYCGB Young Composers 4 - Ben Nobuto, Sun Keting, Thomas Metcalf, Claire Victoria Roberts; National Youth Choir of Great Britain, NYCGB Fellowship Ensemble, Ben Parry; NMC

The fourth of NMC's annual collaborations with NYCGB results in an anthology disc of eight striking and challenging new works in superb performances by the young singers

NMC's disc NYCGB Young Composers 4 is the fourth in the label's partnership with the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain. The disc features new choral works by four talented, rising-star composers, Sun Keting, Thomas Metcalf, Ben Nobuto, and Claire Victoria Roberts. These new works are the product of NYCGB's yearly Young Composers scheme, which comprises of an intensive schedule of full choir workshops, composing sessions with the NYCGB Fellowship Ensemble, and tutorials with disinguished composers and mentors.

On the disc, Ben Parry conducts the National Youth Choir of Great Britain and the NYCGB Fellowship Ensemble in Ben Nobuto's Sol, Sun Keting's Máng Gǔ, Claire Victoria Roberts' Hope is the thing with feathers, Thomas Metcalf's LIVING SENSE DATUM, Claire Victoria Roberts' The Moon is distant from the Sea, Sun Keting's thronged only with flowers, Thomas Metcalf's H(AI)KU and Ben Nobuto's The nearness of things.

Giulio Cesare, Lucrezia Borgia, Il viaggio a Rheims & two new operas for young people: looking forward to English Touring Opera's Spring tour

Donizetti: Lucrezia Borgia - Thomas Elwin & Paula Sides in rehearsal (Photo Craig Fuller)
Donizetti: Lucrezia Borgia - Thomas Elwin & Paula Sides in rehearsal - English Touring Opera(Photo Craig Fuller)

On Saturday 25 February 2023, English Touring Opera launches its Spring 2023 season with a revival of James Conway's production of Handel's Giulio Cesare at Hackney Empire. The tour lasts from 25 February to 29 May 2023 and involves around 80 performances across the country of five operas, Giulio Cesare alone is going to nine different venues.

The repertoire takes no prisoners and gives people the opportunity to hear some terrific music that is not often done. Besides the Handel opera, there is Rossini's Il viaggio a Rheims and Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia, plus two operas aimed at children and young people, Noah Mosley and JL Williams' The Wish Gatherer and Lucy Treacher and Kate Wakeling's Zoo!.

I recently chatted to Francis Gush who sings the title role in Handel's Giulio Cesare and my interview with Francis will be published on Planet Hugill next week. James Conway's production of Giulio Cesare debuted in 2017, when the company daringly performed this famously long opera uncut over two evenings [see my review]. It was revived in a more standard edition in 2020 [see my review], but that tour was cut short so it is lovely to see this imaginative production returning. In the pit will be ETO's period instrument ensemble, the Old Street Band and they will be performing for both the Rossini and Donizetti operas, which will make for an interesting sound world and makes the tour that extra bit special

Rossini's late comedy, Il viaggio a Rheims was an occasional piece, written to celebrate the coronation of King Charles X in Rheims in 1825 (the story involves a group of travellers going to the coronation who get marooned at an inn). It has a large cast, each with a dazzling aria and after the initial run, Rossini recycled the music, much of it going into Comte Ory, and Il viaggio a Rheims was not heard again until the music was reconstructed in the 1970s and its first modern performance was in 1984. It is rarely done, Covent Garden staged it with Montserrat Caballe as the hotel owner (which tells you how long ago that was), and more recently the Jette Parker Young Artists gave a concert performance.

Considering the quality of the music, Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia is almost as ridiculously rare. It features a plot that it is easy to make fun of including a love duet between Lucrezia Borgia and a young man who, it later turns out, is her son. But there is terrific music. ENO had a go with Claire Rutter in the title role, terrific singing and unfortunate production by film directord Mike Figgis, whilst Covent Garden last did it with Joan Sutherland in the title role (which tells you how long ago that was!), and it has rather moved into Chelsea Opera Group territory. But it was the work that Caballe made her American debut in, a concert performance that effectively launched her career as a bel canto singer.

Aimed at 7 to 11-year-olds, Noah Mosley and JL Williams' The Wish Gatherer is the first of a trilogy of climate change operas being presented by ETO. Made in collaboration with Julie’s Bicycle, The Wish Gatherer will explore the impact of climate change on the natural world, in a national curriculum-linked adventure story. 

Lucy Treacher & Kate Wakeling: Zoo! - the cast in rehearsal - English Touring Opera
Lucy Treacher & Kate Wakeling: Zoo! - the cast in rehearsal - English Touring Opera

Lucy Treacher and Kate Wakeling's Zoo! is a new participatory opera for ages 2-5 and audiences with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities. Full of adventure, singing and multi-sensory elements, Zoo! teaches us all about communication, confidence and how the most important thing in life is to be oneself. 

Full details from English Touring Opera's website.

Thursday 16 February 2023

Befreit: A Soul Surrendered - a new film from Kitty Whately, Joseph Middleton, Kevin Whately and Madelaine Newton

Mezzo-soprano Kitty Whately and pianist Joseph Middleton have a new album out on Friday (17 February 2023), Befreit: A Soul Surrendered on Chandos. The album reflects on grief, mortality, and bereavement, combining songs by Richard Strauss and Mahler with two of their lesser-known contemporaries Johanna Muller-Hermann (1878-1941), who studied in Vienna with Zemlinsky, Franz Schmidt and others, and Margarete Schweikert (1887-1957), who lived in Karlsruhe and studied with Joseph Haas in Stuttgart.

To mark the launch of the album, Kitty Whately has joined with her parents, actors Kevin Whately and Madelaine Newton, to make a short film (filming by Jan Capinski) inspired by Richard Strauss' song Befreit from the album. A husband nurses his wife gently to the end of her days, thanking her for the beautiful life they have lived together, and promising to devote himself to their children, as she always has.

The video is available on YouTube, and Kitty Whately and Joseph Middleton's new album is on Chandos

Wednesday 15 February 2023

Seductive and magical moments: Sam Cave's exploration of music for the contemporary guitar enchants and intrigues

Sam Cave
Sam Cave

Outcast and the Pursuit of Happiness: Laurence Crane, Michael Finnissy, Christopher Fox, John Croft, Lisa Illean, Alastair Putt; Sam Cave; Performance Space, City University

Four guitars, five different tunings, six pieces; classical guitarist Sam Cave's intriguing programme including the premiere of Michael Finnissy's largest work for solo guitar alongside an array of seductive and magical moments

Last year, I enjoyed guitarist Sam Cave's rather magical disc of contemporary music for classical guitar, Refracted Resonance [see my review] so I was pleased to discover his recital on Tuesday 14 February 2023 in the performance space at the College Building of the City University in London. Entitled Outcast and the Pursuit of Happiness, the concert featured music by Laurence Crane, Michael Finnissy, Christopher Fox, John CroftLisa Illean and Alastair Putt including two world premieres and one first live performance. For the concert, Cave played four different guitars (two electric and two classical) in five different tunings.

Tuesday 14 February 2023

Pianist Clélia Iruzun is the focus of this new disc of music by Nimrod Borenstein featuring his Concerto written for her

Nimrod Borenstein: Concerto for piano and orchestra, Light and Darkness, Shirim; Clélia Iruzun, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Nimrod Borenstein, I Musicanti; SOMM
Nimrod Borenstein: Concerto for piano and orchestra, Light and Darkness, Shirim; Clélia Iruzun, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Nimrod Borenstein, I Musicanti; SOMM
Reviewed 13 February 2023 (★★★)

Brazilian pianist Clélia Iruzun in devastating form in a new piano concerto written for her by Nimrod Borenstein along with two of the composer's other recent works featuring the piano

This new disc from SOMM features three works in different genres by the composer Nimrod Borenstein, all there linked by the pianist Clélia Iruzun. Iruzun joins the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by the composer, for his Concerto for piano and orchestra, Op. 91, then Iruzun and I Musicanti play Borenstein's piano quintet, Light and Darkness, Op.80, and finally, Iruzun plays the solo piano work, Shirim, Op. 94.

The son of the French-Israeli painter Alex Borenstein, Nimrod Borenstein won the Cziffra Foundation competition in 1984, and moved to London in 1986 to pursue his studies as a violinist with Itzhak Rashkovsky at the Royal College of Music. He was then awareded a Leverhulme Trust scholarship to study composition at the Royal Academy of Music. Vladimir Ashkenazy took an early interest in Borenstein's music and conducted the Philharmonia Orchestra for a performance of The Big Bang and Creation of the Universe, Op 52 followed by a Philharmonia premiere, again with Ashkenazy, If you will it, it is no dream, Op 58.

Music for the Fuggers: release of Linarol Consort's Inn Stetter Hut on Inventa complemented with concert tour with James Gilchrist

INV1010 Inn Stetter Hut Linarol Consort James Gilchrist
Inn Stetter Hut is the second volume of the Linarol Consort's exploration of music from a 16th century manuscript of viol consort music that was in the collection of the Fugger family. A rich banking dynasty based in Augsburg, they were headed by Jakob Fugger 'The Rich' who gives the disc its subtitle, '16th century viol music for the richest man in the world'. Though it has to be pointed out that Jakob died in 1525, so whether or not the manuscript was commissioned by him, by the time it was finished it would have come into the possession of his successor, his nephew Anton Fugger.

Inn Stetter Hut, which has just been released on the Inventa label, features tenor James Gilchrist and the Linarol Consort of viols, and this second recording is the culmination of a project started by David Hatcher (artistic director of the Linarol Consort) over a decade ago when he began transcribing the ‘Fugger’ manuscript (Ms. 18-810): a collection of delightful German, Flemish and French pieces from the early 16th century.

To complement the disc, James Gilchrist and the Linarol Consort are performing music from the manuscript featuring 16th-century song accompanied on copies of the earliest surviving viol, and innovative instrumental pieces. There are concerts at Holywell Music Room, Oxford (7/3/2023), Downing Place URC, Cambridge CB2 3EL (10/3/2023) and King Charles the Martyr, Tunbridge Wells TN1 1YX (17/3/2023).

Full details from the Linarol Consort's website.

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