Wednesday, 27 September 2023

Composer news - Anna Clyne's new association, Nitin Sawhney new honour, Gavin Bryars' birthday

Gavin Bryars (Photo Doug Marke)
Gavin Bryars (Photo Doug Marke)
Anna Clyne is the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra's new composer in association. Beginning in October, she will be composing three new scores for the orchestra over the next three years. Her first piece in the role is Glasslands, which she composed for saxophonist Jess Gillam, and will have its UK premiere with the BBC Philharmonic, conductor Ben Gernon at Nottingham Royal Concert Hall on 5 October and broadcast live on BBC Radio 3. 

The appointment builds on an existing creative relationship with the orchestra, which includes the UK premiere of This Midnight Hour at The Bridgewater Hall in 2020, and Anna Clyne in Focus, which saw students from the Royal Northern College of Music perform side by side with members of the BBC Philharmonic. Three of Clyne’s original soundscapes were performed alongside original student compositions at the concert in the BBC Philharmonic Studios at MediaCityUK earlier this year.

Further details from the BBC website.

Composer, multi-instrumentalist, club DJ, and producer Nitin Sawhney will receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Huddersfield in November. His first album Spirit Dance was released in 1994. Five years later, Beyond Skin was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize and his latest work, Identity, is out in October. He will play at London’s Royal Albert Hall to coincide with the release of Identity.

He has worked on over 70 film, TV and video game scores including music for BBC series Human Planet and Wonders of the Monsoon. He received an Ivor Novello Lifetime Achievement award in 2017, and he is the Chair of the PRS Foundation.

Further details from the University of Huddersfield website.

Composer Gavin Bryars is 80, and Phaedra Ensemble is celebrating with Gavin Bryars at 80 String Works, a retrospective series of concerts and events across the UK. Founded in 2014, Phaedra has evolved from a string quartet to a larger collective of like-minded performers, drawing from London’s diverse contemporary and chamber music scene.  Their tour begins in Cardiff (29/9/2023) then moves to Kings Place, London (1/10/2023) when Gavin Bryars will be joining the orchestra to perform. Further dates include the Little Missenden Festival (11/10/2023), the Arnolfini, Bristol (18/11/2023) and Howard Assembly Rooms, Leeds (2/12/2023).

Full details from the Phaedra Ensemble website.

Drinking the stars: Mary Dullea plays the piano music of John McLachlan

John McLachlan: Drinking the stars; Mary Dullea; Farpoint Recordings

John McLachlan: Drinking the stars; Mary Dullea; Farpoint Recordings

Uncompromising perhaps, occasionally stark but always vivid and arresting, a survey of the Irish composer John McLachlan's piano music from the last 30 years in stunning performances from Mary Dullea

The Irish composer John McLachlan was born in Dublin and studied music at the Royal Irish Academy of Music, and Trinity College Dublin, and studied composition with William York, Robert Hanson and Kevin Volans. It is perhaps relevant to his own compositional style that for his PhD in musicology from Trinity College Dublin, he specialised in researching the compositional techniques of Boulez, Xenakis, Lutoslawski and Carter.

This new disc, Drinking the stars: Mary Dullea plays the piano music of John McLachlan on Farpoint Recordings, features two discs (a total of over two hours music) with Mary Dullea performing a range of McLachlan's piano music from almost the last 30 years. Whilst the majority of pieces are from the last decade or so, there are works dating back to the 1990s.

As McClachlan explains in his booklet note, this spread of time means that his approach in the works is quite varied, but listening to the whole one senses a fascinating with structure as opposed to focusing on harmony, or melodic material, and a certain uncompromising feeling to his approach.

Tuesday, 26 September 2023

BBC Young Composer 2023 winners announced

One of the BBC Young Composer Days
One of the BBC Young Composer Days
BBC Young Composer was founded in 1998 and has since then offered a platform for young composers across the UK with alumni including Shiva Feshareki, Kate Whitley, Alissa Firsova, Mark Simpson, Tom Harrold, and Duncan Ward. The results for the 2023 BBC Young Composer have been announced with winners selected from over 350 applications from across the UK, with genres spanning song writing, film/ soundtrack music, choral, solo instrument, jazz, rock, pop, electronic and contemporary. 

Each composition was assessed on its compositional idea, creativity and originality, and was judged anonymously. The judging panel of composers and musicians included Lloyd Coleman, Shiva Feshareki, Abimaro Gunnell, Gavin Higgins, Cassie Kinoshi, Eímear Noone, as well as industry experts Katie Tearle and David Pickard, Director of the BBC Proms

The six winners are:

  • Lower Junior Category (age 12-14)
    • Atharv Gupta – Demain, Dès L'Aube
    • Avram Harris – Across the Void 
  • Upper Junior Category (age 15-16)
    • Advaith Jagannath – Saturn Devouring his Son
    • Pascal Bachmann – Étude-Grotesque 
  • Senior Category (age 17-18)
    • Jamie Smith – Into Oblivion
    • Reese Carly Manglicmot – Rumble

Now, the six composers have been invited to participate in a yearlong tailored development programme to work with a mentor composer on a project with members of the BBC Concert Orchestra. This will culminate in a live performance or broadcast opportunity at a later date.

Additionally, nine entrants have received a ‘highly commended’ award and will be offered a feedback session with a member of the competition judging panel. These composers are: 

Easher Austin, Natalie Denley, Olivier Horn (Lower Junior Category)

Edward Harris-Brown, Jamaal Kashim, Taro d’Aronville (Upper Junior Category)

Finty Woold, Harry Baines and Nina Martin (Senior Category).

77th Stroud Arts Festival

The Stroud Arts Festival
The Stroud Arts Festival returns to the Gloucestershire market town for the 77th festival from 22 to 29 October 2023 under the directorship of Dave Ayre. An enterprisingly varied programme includes two relaxed performances of a new evening of operatic music created the festival's own ensemble including three, Dave Ayre, Abigail Sudbury and Alistair Sutherland, who met on Opera Holland Park's Inspire outreach programme.

The Bristol Ensemble celebrates the 50th anniversary of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon with a specially commissioned arrangement of the music alongside Debussy and Einaudi. Another anniversary being celebrated is that of Will Todd's Mass in Blue which debuted 20 years ago. Todd's piece will be performed alongside Duke Ellington's Sacred Concert. Duke Ellington's work will be conducted by Paul McLaughlin and will feature soprano Nina Bennet and dancer Luc Bailey. Will Todd will be directing hi Mass in Blue which will feature a specially created community choir.

Singer Lucy Stevens & pianist Elizabeth Marcus will be celebrating Gertrude Lawrence in Gertrude Lawrence: A Lovely Way to Spend an Evening with excerpts from the actor's memoirs alongside songs written for her by Coward, Gershwin, Weill and Rogers & Hammerstein. The London Tango Quintet celebrate Astor Piazzolla, whilst harpist Elizabeth-Jane Baldry will be providing a live accompaniment to a screening of GW Pabst's 1928 film, Diary of a Lost Girl starring Louise Brooks in a tragic story of corruption and middle class hypocrisy in pre-Nazi Germany.

Founded in 1946 by local benefactors, the festival is one of the oldest festivals in the region. This year's festival is Dave Ayre's third, and he and the festival are gearing up towards celebrating the festival's 80th anniversary in 2026.

Full details from the festival's website.

A Lady and her Reputation: with modern recordings of Smyth's major works in the catalogue, we now need to put her work into a proper context

1922 founding of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) in Salzburg.
The 1922 founding of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) in Salzburg, showing Smyth and Arthur Bliss alongside such luminaries as Hindemith, Egon Wellesz and Webern. A work by Smyth would be included in the performance days the accompanied the event
(see the 
ISCM website for more details)

Ethel Smyth wrote six operas, Fantasio (premiered at the Hoftheater, Weimar in 1898), Der Wald (premiered at the Königliches Opernhaus, Berlin in 1902), The Wreckers (premiered at the Neues Theater, Leipzig in 1906), The Boatswain's Mate (premiered in London in 1916), Fête galante (premiered in Birmingham in 1923) and Entente Cordiale (premiered in Bristol in 1925), along with two major choral works, the Mass (premiered at the Royal Albert Hall in 1893) and The Prison (premiered at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh in 1931).

All these received major performances during her lifetime, mainly thanks to the composer's own indefatigable energies. After writing a new work, she would set to and stomp around Europe encouraging people to perform the piece - commentators remain divided as to whether the difficulties she faced were owing to her sex or whether her somewhat abrasive personality might have contributed. She broke several glass ceilings, she was the first woman to have an opera performed at the Met in New York and had major performances at Covent Garden.

We now have modern recordings that do the works justice for all her major operas and both choral works, as well as the major Glyndebourne production of The Wreckers from 2022. So it is time to give her work a coherent modern assessment and see it in its proper context and not simply re-legislate past-history and past opinions.

Monday, 25 September 2023

Joy & Devotion, the Adam Mickiewicz Institute's festival of Polish Sacred Music returns to St Martin in the Fields

Joy & Devotion, the Adam Mickiewicz Institute's festival of Polish Sacred Music under the artistic directorship of composer Paweł Łukaszewski,
Joy & Devotion, the Adam Mickiewicz Institute's festival of Polish Sacred Music under the artistic directorship of composer Paweł Łukaszewski, returns to St Martin in the Fields from 7 to 11 November 2023 with Polish music from 16th century through to the present day.

Things kick off with the Brabant Ensemble, conductor Stephen Rice, in music by Grzegorz Gerwazy Gorczycki (1665-1734) and Mikołaj Zieleński (1560-1620) alongside music by contemporary Polish composers. Then the Carice Singers, conductor George Parris, present music devoted to the Virgin Mary by Andrzej Panufnik, Henryk Mikołaj Górecki and Krzysztof Penderecki alongside works by Roman Padlewski, who died in the Warsaw Uprising whilst fighting the Second World War, Marian Sawa (1937-2005), and contemporary composers Aldona Nawrocka and Tomasz Soczek.

Passion and Resurrection features the Epiphoni Consort, conductor Tim Reader, in a concert celebrating the passion and resurrection of Christ including two works by Paweł Łukaszewski, plus music by Romuald Twardowski (born 1930), Andrzej Koszewski (1922-2015), a composer who drew from folk music in his compositions, and Józef Świder (1930-2014), a prominent, prize-winning composer.

Full details from the church's website.

Michael Stimpson's Dylan at the poet's birthplace in honour of 70th anniversary of his death

Dylan Thomas in New York in 1952
Dylan Thomas in New York in 1952
Dylan Thomas died on the 9 November 1953 and in honour of the 70th anniversary of his death, the Dylan Thomas Birthplace Trust is presenting an immersive performance of Stimpson's captivating song cycle, Dylan on Saturday 4 November 2023 at Dylan Thomas' historic Swansea birthplace. The event will blend spoken excerpts and musical settings, featuring the baritone Gareth Brynmor John and harpist Alis Huws. The event will also be live-streamed on World of Sound.

Stimpson's song-cycle Dylan was premiered in 2003 in the Brangwyn Hall, Swansea by Jeremy Huw Williams and Sioned Williams. The work combines spoken excerpts and musical settings of Thomas's poems, letters, stories and, of course, Under Milk Wood, into a ruminative and evocative monodrama.

There are further performances of Dylan  in New York, where the poet's life came to an end,  at Rutgers Presbyterian Church on 11 November, home of The Welsh Congregation of New York, and at St John's in the Village on 12 November.

Full details from Michael Stimpson's website.

A half hour full of switchback changes, genuine surprise & delight: Rania Chrysostomou & Sarah Parkin's On Being Vocal at Tête à Tête

Rania Chrysostomou & Sarah Parkin: On Being Vocal - Sarah Parkin - Tête à Tête at the Cockpit (Photo: Claire Shovelton)
Rania Chrysostomou & Sarah Parkin: On Being Vocal - Sarah Parkin - Tête à Tête at the Cockpit (Photo: Claire Shovelton)

Rania Chrysostomou & Sarah Parkin: On Being Vocal; Sarah Parkin, director: Sarah Parkin & Rania Chrysostomou, filmmaker: Catherine Valve; Tête à Tête at the Cockpit
Reviewed by Florence Anna Maunders, 10 September 2023

Intriguing and intense operatic exploration of women's hidden stories

A truly collaborative creation between the British/Cypriot composer Rania Chrysostomou and the Canadian/French soprano Sarah Parkin, On Being Vocal, was presented on 10 September 2023 at the Cockpit as part of Tête à Tête: the Opera Festival. This short opera managed to squeeze an enormous amount of content and variety into a running time just over half an hour. In the setting of a women's support group, and aided by Catherine Valve's projected film, Parkin took on the six different roles, each with its own distinct characterisation and musical voice.

Starting with a nice touch of scene setting – a short film showing the women arriving one-at-a-time to a semicircle of chairs, the action moved to the stage itself, the same arc of chairs recreated, in the real. Initially inhabiting the character of the group leader, and then the other women, Parkin moved from chair to chair, using a few props to clearly establish her multiple roles, each of which had its own aria or song, so that in this manner the work's structure was delineated by the changing characterisations.

Saturday, 23 September 2023

The juxtaposition of extreme eras of music makes people think about what is fascinating in the music: Ukrainian pianist Vadym Kholodenko on his London Piano Festival programme

Vadym Kholodenko at the Dubrovnik Summer Festival in 2022
Vadym Kholodenko at the Dubrovnik Summer Festival in 2022

The Ukrainian pianist Vadym Kholodenko gives a recital at the London Piano Festival at Kings Place on Friday 6 October 2023 playing a programme that moves from Handel's Suite in Bb HWV 440 and Haydn's Sonata in C sharp minor, Hob XVI No. 36 to Beethoven's Sonata No. 27, Op. 90 to Silvestrov's Bagatelles Op. 1 and Adès' Traced Overhead, ending with Liszt's Après une lecture de Dante and Tarantella in G minor from Années de pèlerinage II (Italy). And Vadym returns to the UK in December for Bartók's Piano Concerto No.3 with the Ulster Orchestra, conductor Elena Schwarz.

Vadym Kholodenko (Photo: Jean-Baptiste Millot)
Vadym Kholodenko (Photo: Jean-Baptiste Millot)

Born in Kyiv, Ukraine, Vadym took his first piano lessons at the age of six and began touring internationally at thirteen years old. Educated at the Kyiv Lysenko State Music Lyceum and the Moscow State Tchaikovsky Conservatoire, he studied with Natalia Gridneva, Borys Fedorov, and the late Vera Gornostaeva (1929-2015). In 2013, he took the Gold Medal at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

He enjoys playing a wide range of composers, and his idea behind the Kings Place recital is partly to show the range and variety he is currently interested in. Music by a composer such as Handel certainly does not sound how the composer might have heard it, but Vadim enjoys playing this music. The score is very minimal, so he takes a fairly free approach to the piece, making his own version by mixing different sections, so for instance the opening material is repeated at the end. He is following the idea of the freedom of improvisation that Handel might have taken, and in many ways, Vadym likens it to jazz, the music consists of a set of chords and he can do his own thing.

Later in our interview, I followed this comment up with a question about playing jazz, but Vadym admits that he is not a jazz performer, he can't do it, though he did once participate in a competition with jazz players in Lithuania!

He very much enjoys playing Haydn's sonatas, but there is a similar problem to Handel, in that the late Beethoven sonatas are the first to work best on a modern piano, earlier sonatas by Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn are not completely appropriate for the big monster. And sadly, Haydn's keyboard sonatas are still not that popular. For Vadym they are beautiful and he finds so many fresh ideas in them that seem to create developments that end in Beethoven. But he adds that the symphonies are similar, they are just not so much done in the concert hall.

Friday, 22 September 2023

Take four couples: EnSEmble26 presents Mendelssohn's Octet

EnSEmble26 is a collective of musicians based in the Sydenham area (SE 26) devoted to bringing live music to local areas. 

The ensemble is presenting a concert a St. John's Waterloo on Monday 25 September 2023 when Eleanor Meynell and Tom Norris from the ensemble will be joined by violinist Roman Simovic and violist Milena Simovic, Andrew and Julia Joyce from the Puertas Quartet (Principal Cello and Viola of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra ) and cellist Stephanie Tress and violinist William Newell from the Solem Quartet. In fact, the eight players comprise four married couples, which should make the dynamics of the group rather intriguing (fly on the wall time at rehearsals).

The concert is ending with Mendelssohn's Octet, which needs no introduction, and the first half will include Frank Bridge's Lament for two violas and Ravel's String Quartet.

Full details from the EnSEmble26 website.

Drawing us into Handel's magical world: Amadigi di Gaula from the English Concert with Tim Mead, Mary Bevan, Hilary Cronin, Hugh Cutting

Handel: Amadigi di Gaula - title page of the libretto - London 1715
Handel: Amadigi di Gaula - title page of the libretto - London 1715

Handel: Amadigi di Gaula; Tim Mead, Mary Bevan, Hilary Cronin, Hugh Cutting, the English Concert, Kristian Bezuidenhout; St Martin in the Fields
Reviewed 21 September 2023

Much more than a concert, an evening of remarkable theatre where every single performer seemed to draw us in with their vivid enjoyment

When Mark Minkowski's world premiere recording of Handel's Amadigi di Gaula came out in the early 1990s it was something of a revelation, so much terrific music. I saw James Conway's production for Opera Theatre Company in 1996 and then, virtually nothing. But in the last few years the opera seems to have come back onto everyone's radar, popping up in concert at the 2018 London Handel Festival, and then more recent productions at Garsington and English Touring Opera, directed by James Conway [see my review] along with catching it on-line from Boston Baroque [see my review].

The opera is from Handel's fascinatingly experimental early London period [see my article] when the influence of French opera in his output was greater. Amadigi represents something of a cross-pollination between the French and the Italian, before Italian opera seria took over as the main form in his work for the Royal Academy of Music. With its Deus ex machina and hints that the work might have been intended to have a greater danced element, a great Frencher atmosphere, Amadigi di Gaula remains something of a puzzle. 

But what cannot be doubted is the quality of Handel's music. He eschews the more dramatic effects from the libretto and concentrates on the emotional journeys of the four protagonists, and whilst there is fine music for all it is the 'evil' couple, Melissa and Dardano, who travel furthest and whose music is so intense, and has such remarkable power.

On Thursday 21 September 2023, we had the chance to experience the operas riches again when Kristian Bezuidenhout directed The English Concert at St Martin in the Fields in a concert performance of Handel's Amadigi di Gaula with Tim Mead as Amadigi, Hilary Cronin as Oriana, Mary Bevan as Melissa and Hugh Cutting as Dardano. The performance was the opening event of Handel & Hendrix's celebratory Handeliade taking place in London and at Boughton House.

A terrific sense of relish: Charles Court Opera's new version of The Mikado delights at the Arcola Theatre

Gilbert & Sullivan: The Mikado - Charles Court Opera (Photo: Bill Knight)
Gilbert & Sullivan: The Mikado - Charles Court Opera (Photo: Bill Knight)

Gilbert & Sullivan: The Mikado; Matthew Palmer, Robin Bailey, Matthew Kellett, Matthew Siveter, Alys Roberts, Meriel Cunningham, Jennifer Clark, Amy J Payne, director: John Savournin, musical director: David Eaton; Charles Court Opera at the Arcola Theatre
Reviewed 20 September 2023

Gilbert & Sullivan's classic delivered with consummate skill and artistry, great pacing and a terrific sense of relish, in a new setting bringing out the innate Englishness of the work

For an operetta, The Mikado is quite a complex, multi-layered piece and part of the work's endurance comes from the fact that all the pieces fit. There is no sense, as there can be with The Gondoliers, of two different works playing simultaneously. At the core of The Mikado is Gilbert's usual topsy-turvey-dom, here a condemned criminal placed as Lord High Executioner to foil the the Mikado's cruel edict, and the Mikado's son disguised as a second trombone. The satire is of English society, but shot through with terrific characters who are comic yet essential to the plot. This is all overlaid with a Japanese setting inspired by the recent fashion for things Japanese. Then there is the fascinating Pirandellian element, the chorus knows that they are only playing characters 'We are gentlemen of Japan'.

Different productions have emphasised different layers, so that New Sadlers Wells Opera's 1986 production was set in the Oriental department of Liberty, the hub of that original fashion for things Japanese, whilst Jonathan Miller's production for ENO honed in on the Englishness with its 1930s Grand Hotel and tap-dancing bell boys.

For his production of Gilbert & Sullivan's The Mikado for Charles Court Opera, director John Savournin has chosen to focus on the English satire. The setting is still Japan, but post-World War Two with British diplomats in the province of Totori, with the Mikado becoming the governor-general of Japan. We caught up with the production at the Arcola Theatre on 20 September 2023, Matthew Palmer was the Mikado and Peter Rush (Pish Tush), Robin Bailey was Charles Chauncey (Nanki Poo), Matthew Kellett was Colin Cole (Koko), Matthew Siveter was Hugh Barr (Poo Bah), Alys Roberts was Victoria Plum (Yum Yum), Meriel Cunningham was Milly King (Pitti Sing), Jennifer Clark was Pip Bow (Peep Bow) and Amy J Payne was Katisha, with the accompaniment played on the piano by David Eaton. Designs were by Rachel Szmukler, lighting by Rachel E Cleary and choreography by Damian Czarnecki.

Wednesday, 20 September 2023

The Academy of Ancient Music celebrates its 50th anniversary with a short film. Tony Cooper reports.

The very first meeting of the Academy of Ancient Music (AAM) took place on 17th September 1973 at All Saints’ Church, Petersham, in the London borough of Richmond-upon-Thames with founder/director, Christopher Hogwood, recording overtures by Thomas Arne, well known, of course, for his patriotic song Rule, Britannia! Therefore, to mark such an auspicious occasion as their Golden Jubilee, Dame Emma Kirkby, John McMunn and Laurence Cummings (AAM’s current music director) share their memories of the orchestra in a brand-new short film. 

'We are thrilled to celebrate 50 years of the Academy of Ancient Music' says Laurence Cummings. 'Our anniversary is an opportunity to look back at AAM’s impressive history and celebrate our continued commitment in using period-specific instruments and original sources thus enabling AAM to bring the music we love so dearly vividly to life in committed and vibrant performances.'

The season launches with a performance of Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks at the Barbican (18 October 2023) with AAM - a pioneering orchestra who simply redefined period-instrument performance - offering a fresh perspective and vigour to this iconic work which has been a mainstay of the orchestra’s repertoire since its inception.  

The celebrations continue off stage with the release of a new book by acclaimed journalist and former Hogwood Fellow, Richard Bratby (19 October 2023, Elliott & Thompson). The book charts AAM’s journey since its trailblazing first decades through the digital boom of the 1980s right up to the present day.  

The 50th anniversary season also sees AAM complete a landmark recording project with scholar-pianist, Robert Levin, 30 years after it first began. Levin and AAM will release the final recordings in their Mozart cycle this season. Upon completion (the last disc is due out in June 2024) the cycle becomes the first recording of Mozart’s complete works for keyboard and orchestra on either modern or historical instruments. 

Enjoying a worldwide reputation for excellence in baroque and classical music, AAM has released more than 300 albums to date while collecting countless accolades over the course of their musical journey including Classic BRIT, Gramophone and Edison awards. Now recording on their own label, AAM is immensely proud to be one of the most period-instrument orchestras to be heard online with over one million monthly listeners on streaming platforms.  

Beyond the concert hall, AAM is committed to nurturing the audiences, artists and arts managers of the future through their innovative education initiative AAMplify. Working with music colleges and universities across the UK, AAM engages with the next generation of period instrumentalists with side-by-side sessions, masterclasses and other opportunities designed to bridge the gap between the conservatoire and the profession, safeguarding the future of historical performance. 

Proudly holding positions of associate ensemble at London’s Barbican Centre and at Venice’s Teatro San Cassiano, AAM is also orchestra-in-residence at the University of Cambridge, The Apex, Bury St Edmunds and at Milton Abbey International Summer Music Festival in Dorset. 

Full details from the AAM website.

Why the wait? Ethel Smyth's first major success, Der Wald, finally receives its premiere recording in a terrific account from John Andrews and BBC Symphony Orchestra

Ethel Smyth: Der Wald; Natalya Romaniw, Claire Barnett-Jones, Robert Murray, Andrew Shaw, Morgan Pearse, BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Orchestra, conductor John Andrews; Resonus Classics
Ethel Smyth: Der Wald; Natalya Romaniw, Claire Barnett-Jones, Robert Murray, Andrew Shaw, Morgan Pearse, BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Orchestra, conductor John Andrews; Resonus Classics

Ethel Smyth's first major success receives its premiere recording, revealing a striking piece of late-Romanticism in a terrific and wonderfully empathetic performance

When the guns began to roar and the armies march at the beginning of World War I, it marked a significant divide in Ethel Smyth's career. German-trained, she had remained something of a German composer, performances of her work across Europe being far more common than in England. In 1914, she had major European performances of her operas planned, the two being Der Wald and Strandrecht (the German version of The Wreckers). Whilst she had already started work on her lighter opera, The Boatswain's Mate, you do wonder what Smyth's career would have been like without the interruption of war. Never again would she write large-scale romantic drama and her final three operas are smaller scale and firmly English, and it is perhaps also worth bearing in mind that when the war concluded, Smyth was already 60.

Earlier this year, The Opera Makers give Der Wald it's first London outing since its UK premiere (in 1902) in a small-scale performance [see my review]. Now the work's full romantic atmosphere can be appreciated in a new recording on Resonus Classics from John Andrews, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Singers on Resonus Classics with Natalya Romaniw, Claire Barnett-Jones, Robert Murray, Andrew Shore and Morgan Pearse on a recording supported by the Ambache Charitable Trust. The work's libretto, by Smyth and her friend (and sometime lover) Henry (HB) Brewster, was written in German, but is here given in English in the translation, I presume, that Smyth had done for the work's triumphant UK premiere at Covent Garden in 1902.

Tuesday, 19 September 2023

18th Malcolm Arnold Festival

hoto montage - Wise Music; (photo permissions © Fritz Curzon Photography, ©June Mendoza)
Photo montage - Wise Music; (photo permissions © Fritz Curzon Photography, ©June Mendoza)

The 18th Malcolm Arnold Festival, celebrating Northampton's colourful and charismatic son, returns in October with a weekend of live events and a digital live-stream. 

On 14 and 15 October, Northampton will be filled with Arnold-related musical events. John Gibbons conducts the Northampton Symphony Orchestra in a concert that includes a suite from Arnold's 1954 ballet, Rinaldo and Armida (choreographed by Sir Frederick Ashton), and Hilary Davan Wetton conducts the LGT String Orchestra (an ensemble featuring highly talented young soloists between the ages of 13 and 23 from over 20 nations) in a programme that include Arnold's Oboe Concerto with Melanie Ragge and his Serenade for Guitar and Strings with Hugh Millington.

Throughout weekend there are performances given by The Enderby Band, the Nick Budd Brass Quintet and Northamptonshire County Youth Concert Band featuring Arnold's music for brass and wind, and there is a masterclass with clarinettist Emma Johnson focusing on Arnold's music for clarinet.

The live-streamed event is
on Sunday 29 October, full details to come.

Further information from the festival website.

Bringing life to Glasgow's oldest building: the seventh Glasgow Cathedral Festival

De Profundis - the finale to the 2022 Glasgow Cathedral Festival
De Profundis - the finale to the 2022 Glasgow Cathedral Festival
with light, poetry and music from three brass bands

Glasgow Cathedral Festival returns for its seventh season with a weekend of events from 28 September to 1 October 2023 filling Glasgow's oldest building with a wide variety of music from chamber music and cutting-edge electronics to silent film and Minimalism.

The headline event for this year is a performance of Canto Ostinato, a 1974 work by Dutch composer Simeon ten Holt (1923-2012). An iconic work of Dutch Minimalism, Canto Ostinato will be performed on four pianos by 12 pianists from the Piano Association of St Andrews over three hours, against a video backdrop from Trenchone Industries, projected directly onto the gothic cathedral interior. The audience will be invited to move around and get a drink or sit back and relax—creating their own experience of this unique spectacle.

There are two classic silent films with live musical accompaniment. Oleksandr Dovzhenko’s film Earth (1930), a beautiful hymn to nature, will have a new jazz-based score from Ukrainian duo Misha Kalinin (guitar) and Roksana Smirnova (piano). F W Murnau's romance-drama Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), which won three Oscars at the first ever Academy Awards, will have a score from organist, composer and improvisor Thierry Escaich.

There are lunchtime chamber-music recitals from flautist Matthew James Higham with pianist Hye Soo Kang, the Sacconi Quartet and pianist Emma Abbate, and organist Richard Gowers. Twighlight in the Crypt features Columbian-American soprano Stephanie Lamprea and sound artist Alistair MacDonald for a performance integrating the human voice with avant-garde electronics with music by Katrin Klose, Robert Laidlow, Lisa Robertson and Alistair MacDonald.

There are free tours of the historic building and cathedral’s master stonemason will give a talk explaining the ancient techniques used over the centuries in his fascinating craft, accompanied by a tour of the yard.

Glasgow Cathedral opened in 1197 and is the oldest cathedral on mainland Scotland, though much of the present building dates from the 13th-century rebuilding. The cathedral is dedicated to St Mungo, whose tomb lies at the centre of the building's lower church. Following its foundation in 1451, the University of Glasgow held its first classes within the cathedral's chapter house. Since the Reformation the building has housed Church of Scotland congregations.

Full details from the festival website.

Vivid and strong-minded performances: Bach's Harpsichord Concertos from Steven Devine and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

Bach: Harpsichord Concertos, BWV 1052, 1055, 1054, 1059; Steven Devine, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment; Resonus Classics
Bach: Harpsichord Concertos, BWV 1052, 1055, 1054, 1059; Steven Devine, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment; Resonus Classics

Single instruments and intimate recording make for a vibrant and satisfying sound on this exciting new disc of Bach's keyboard concertos

I have long been fascinated with Bach's harpsichord concertos, what were they supposed to sound like and what were they for. The concertos for single harpsichord and accompaniment survive in a neat manuscript in Bach's own hand, so no questions there. But put a harpsichord together with an ensemble of instruments and you have problems in a hall of any size, the tone of the keyboard rarely carries as well as other instruments; it fills in gaps well enough (usually, but not always, that is however another discussion), but hardly dominates in concerto mode and I have heard plenty of live performances where the soloist was hardly done justice to from the middle of the hall.

Perhaps my ears are at fault. But, clearly Bach's idea of a keyboard concerto is rather different to our modern ideas. Wanda Landowska playing her steel-frame industrial-sized harpsichord this was not. However, wouldn't it be good to have some sort of eye-witness description of exactly what happened at Cafe Zimmerman? What sort of instrument did Bach play, was there an additional continuo instrument besides the soloist, how many instrumentalist played, how big was the room, what was the acoustic effect. And that is all without going into the fact that Cafe Zimmerman ran and outdoor musical season too!

On this new disc from Resonus Classics, Steven Devine directs the Orchestra of the Age Enlightenment (OAE) from the harpsichord in four of Bach's keyboard concertos, those in D minor, BWV 1052, A major, BWV 1055, and D major, BWV 1054, along with Devine's reconstruction of that in D minor, BWV 1059 which survives in fragmentary form but which was going to be based on the opening sinfonia of the cantata Geistund Seele wird verwirret.

Monday, 18 September 2023

Irish National Opera in Éna Brennan's Breathwork and Gounod's Faust plus much more at the Dublin Theatre Festival

Éna Brennan's Breathwork with a libretto by David Pountney
The Dublin Theatre Festival (28 September to 1 October 2023) has as its mission to present a programme of exceptional theatrical experiences that will appeal to the diverse communities and visitors that make up the city. It is Europe’s first theatre festival and still one of the leading ones, presenting the best of international and Irish theatre (also dance and opera). Some of this year's highlights include two pieces from the Irish National Opera, the premiere of Éna Brennan's dystopian chamber-opera Breathwork and a new production of Gounod's warhorse Faust.

Éna Brennan is a Dublin-based composer, arranger, violinist and graphic designer, originally from Brussels. Her most recent commissions include a micro-opera for the Irish National Opera project '20 Shots of Opera' which has led to her participation in INO’s artistic development programme. Her new piece, Breathwork with a libretto by David Pountney is an intimate chamber opera lasting around 20 minutes, a statement of horror and protest in response to the destruction of our environment. It is a companion work to a larger composition Hold Your Breath by Éna Brennan and David Pountney which has been commissioned by Bregenzer Festspiele.

Gounod's Faust will be directed by Jack Furness [who gave a brilliant, poet reimagining to Dvorak's Rusalka at Garsington last year, see my review], so expect something intriguing and striking, and conducted by Elaine Kelly (the company's resident conductor), with American tenor Duke Kim in the title role, and Irish soprano Jennifer Davis as Marguerite.

Elsewhere are the festival Junk Ensemble present Powerful Trouble, Shaune Dunne presents The Solution, a theatrical hybrid mixing dance, theatre and new music, there is a new dance performance for audiences age seven and over from Theatre for Children, whilst Luke Murphy's Volcano blurs the lines of experimental theatre, contemporary dance and psychological sci-fi thriller in live performance made for the Netflix era

Full details from the festival website.

'Music lives and grows here' - a new name for Sage Gateshead, but creating music goes on in Gateshead and beyond

The Glasshouse International Centre for Music (Photo: Thomas Jackson Tynesight Photography)
The Glasshouse International Centre for Music (Photo: Thomas Jackson Tynesight Photography)

The Sage Gateshead has changed its name. The search for the new name, The Glasshouse International Centre for Music, arose not because of some daft idea of re-branding but simply because it was announced that an arena and conference centre would be built next door and would be called The Sage! The new name is inspired by the idea that 'Music lives and grows here'. The new identity was created with Manchester-based design team Music. Their process kicked off with conversations with people from across the North East.

Across last weekend, 16-17 September, The Glasshouse threw open its doors for two days of live music, building tours and music-making opportunities as part of the Open House weekend. The Glasshouse is also launching a new Music Pass, planting a seed to support future music lovers. For every baby born in the North East and Cumbria this year the charity will give families a voucher to be spent on their concerts, gigs, or classes. 

The centre is also taking live music to other parts of the region. The Glasshouse and the Royal Northern Sinfonia plan a season of nine concerts in Middlesbrough Town Hall and return to Carlisle for the first time since 2018 with a season of seven concerts.

The season in Middlesbrough opens with Jaume Santonja conducting Jörg Widmann, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky's Rococo Variations with cellist Bruno Philippe, and other highlights include Dinis Sousa conducting Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 2 with soloist Sunwook Kim, and Peter Whelan conducting Messiah with the chorus of Royal Northern Sinfonia celebrating its 50th birthday, along with soloists Nardus Williams, Jess Dandy, Laurence Kilsby and Ashley Riches.

The Carlisle season kicks of with Eduardo Strausser conducting Beethoven and Mozart, then Dinis Sousa conducts a music by Robert and Clara Schumann including pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason in Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto.

Full details from The Glasshouse's website.

Ravishing sounds and superb musicality: Linos Piano Trio in Ravel

In Search of Lost Dance - Ravel: Trio,  Pavane pour une infante défunte, Le Tombeau de Couperin; Linos Piano Trio; AVI

In Search of Lost Dance - Ravel: TrioPavane pour une infante défunte, Le Tombeau de Couperin; Linos Piano Trio; AVI
Reviewed 18 September 2023

Creating a ravishing sound world from the opening notes, the Linos Piano Trio bring historically informed techniques Ravel's music and make sophisticated magic, transforming our view of this music

The Linos Piano Trio's In Search of Lost Dance on Avi Music (a co-production with SWR2) pairs Ravel's Trio for violin, cello and piano in A minor with the trio's own arrangements of Pavane pour une infante défunte and Le Tombeau de Couperin. The trio, Prach Boondiskulchok (piano), Konrad Elias-Trostmann (violin) and Vladimir Waltham (cello), play on period instruments, an Érard Concert Grand from 1882, a violin by Peter Greiner (2010), after Guarneri del Gesù from 1743, and a cello from Naples ca. 1880. Both string instruments use gut strings with the top one wound.

The use of historically informed performance practice in 20th-century music is becoming more important, Ensembles like Les Siècles demonstrate how icons of modernism such as Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring can be transformed by period instruments and techniques. For this disc, the Linos Trio have gone beyond the pianos that might have been used in recordings from the 1910s and 1920s to the sort of piano that Ravel had at home. As Prach Boondiskulchok explains in the booklet, "Ravel owned and composed on an Érard piano with parallel stringing and a mostly-wooden frame. This is in contrast to the Steinway design of the same period, which he also knew and played, which was cross-strung and had a steel frame to support the higher tension—the design that has become predominant in concert pianos today. The parallel stringing and lower tension of the Érard produced more timbral differences across the range of the piano, and a more transparent sound that is closer to that of string instruments."

With the string instruments on the other hand, we are mainly talking about the fact that players used gut strings, not metal, and these blend wonderfully with the Érard piano. Something the trio found out by experimenting with other set ups. As regards how to play, there are recordings of course, but these raise questions as well as answer them. But what the trio seem to have achieved seems to be based on a real combination of research, experiment and experience. The results are pure aural magic.

Raavel and his Erard piano in 1925
Ravel and his Érard piano in 1925

Sunday, 17 September 2023

Polite pastoral: Handel's Tolomeo from Baroque Encounter

Handel: Tolomeo; Carmen Lasok, Glenn Kesby, Lucy Thomas, John  Lofthouse, director: Christopher Tudor, conductor: Asako Ogawa; Baroque Encounter at St John's Smith Square
Handel: Tolomeo; Carmen Lasok, Glenn Kesby, Lucy Thomas, John  Lofthouse, director: Christopher Tudor, conductor: Asako Ogawa; Baroque Encounter at St John's Smith Square
Reviewed 16 September 2023

A production given in period style that never quite managed to break out of the decorative pastoral entertainment and demonstrate the underlying drama of Handel's opera

Premiered in 1728, Handel's Tolomeo was the last opera he would write for the great triumvirate of singers, castrato Senesino and sopranos Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni. Handel would revive it in the 1730s, but its modern performance history is rather sparse. English Touring Opera did it in 2006 (revived 2009, see my review) and its best claim to fame, rather bizarrely, is that composer Arthur Somervell adapted on of the arias from the opera as the song Silent Worship.

The opera made a welcome return to the London stage when Baroque Encounter performed it at St John's Smith Square on Saturday 16 September 2023. Directed and choreographed by Christopher Tudor and conducted from the harpsichord by Asako Ogawa, the production featured an admirably experienced cast, albeit not particularly well-known, with Glenn Kesby as Tolomeo, Carmen Lasok as Seleuce, Lucy Thomas as Elisa, John Lofthouse as Araspe and Alexander Hutton as Alessandro.

Tolomeo is a rather strange work, combining elements of the pastoral and dynastic types of opera seria - the hero and heroine - Tolomeo (Glenn Kesby) and his wife Seleuce (Carmen Lasok) - are both in disguise (separately) as shepherds on Cyprus. What little plot concerns their attempts to find each other with the librettist (Nicola Haym, based on the libretto from Carlo Sigismondo Capece's Tolomeo et Alessandro) inserting various devices to delay the inevitable conclusion. But there is dynastic struggle too, Tolomeo has been banished by his scheming mother, Cleopatra, who has usurped his throne and also on the island is Tolomeo's brother Alessandro (Alexander Hutton), whilst the King of Cyprus, Araspe (John Lofthouse) and his sister Elisa (Lucy Thomas) have designs on Tolomeo and Seleuce themselves. It can work, John Conway's production at ETO (where Tolomeo and Seleuce were street people) showed that, but it requires a sure hand to bring out the drama. The compressed nature of the libretto means that any subtleties in the original are lost.

Saturday, 16 September 2023

Mesmerising chamber drama: Dani Howard & Joseph Spence's The Yellow Wallpaper from The Opera Story

Dani Howard: The Yellow Wallpaper - The Opera Story (Photo: Ida Guldbæk Arentsen)
Dani Howard: The Yellow Wallpaper - The Opera Story (Photo: Ida Guldbæk Arentsen)

Dani Howard and Joseph Spence: The Yellow Wallpaper;  Clare Presland, Valerie Ebuwa, Berrak Dyer, Midori Jaeger, director: Amy Lane; The Opera Story at Lilian Baylis Studio

In a remarkable change of pace, The Opera Story returns with an intense, focused and mesmerising chamber drama with Dani Howard's music teasing out the layers in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's 19th-century horror story

Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story, The Yellow Wallpaper (first published in 1892) is part of a tradition of horror fiction that dates back to Sheridan Lefanu, but it is also an icon of feminist literature as Perkins Gilman's reasons for writing it were to highlight the iniquities of the (male) insistence on rest cures for women to solve all sorts of problems.

In a move away from the company's focus on story-telling based on mashups of myths and fables, The Opera Story presented composer Dani Howard and librettist Joseph Spence's new opera The Yellow Wallpaper at the Lilian Baylis Studio at Sadler's Wells (seen 15 September 2023). It is a chamber piece with mezzo-soprano Clare Presland, dancer/choreographer Valerie Ebuwa, pianist Berrak Dyer and cellist Midori Jaeger, directed by Amy Lane, designed by Emma Ryott and lighting by Charlie Morgan Jones. The production was first presented earlier this year at Amy Lane's Copenhagen Opera Festival.

Friday, 15 September 2023

Barcelona Youth Symphony Orchestra gives a Pablo Casals memorial concert in London

A young Pau Casals, by Ramon Casas
A young Pau Casals, by Ramon Casas
The great Catalan cellist Pablo Casals (Pau Casals i Defilló in Catalan) died 50 years ago in 1973 at the age of 96. To help commemorate this, the Barcelona Youth Symphony Orchestra (La Jove Orquestra Simfònica de Barcelona), conductor Carlos Checa, is giving a concert at London's Cadogan Hall on 5 October 2023. They will be joined by the young cellist Laura Peribañez Artero for Bruch's Kol Nidrei and Laura Peribañez Artero in fact organised the concert.

The programme begins with Casals' Sardana 'Sant Martí del Canigó' inspired by the music of his native Catalonia and written the early years of self-imposed exile from Spain, and named for a place in his native Catalonia—a region to which he had a deep emotional attachment. This is followed by the Intermezzo from Enrique Granados’ opera Goyescas.  Granados was a close friend of Casals, who often played the cello and piano version of this work. Casals was also the first to record Bruch's Kol Nidrei, the work that closes the first half of the programme. The evening is completed with Brahm's Symphony No. 1.

The Barcelona Youth Symphony Orchestra will also be giving this programme on 1 October at l’Atlàntida de Vic, Barcelona in benefit for Associació TEA/Asperger Osona, and on 8 October at Palau de la Música Catalana in Barcelona in benefit of AFAB (Barcelona Association for relatives of people that suffer Alzheimer and Dementia). An additional outreach concert in the UK is also planned.

The orchestra was founded in 2015 by conductor Carlos Checa and it is currently made up of 60 young musicians.

Full details from the Cadogan Hall website.

Music for youth: young bassoonists, an early-career organist and free concerts for Secondary Schools

Matthew Walter, associate artist at Fairfield Halls
Rising start organist Matthew Walters is the first Associate Artist at Fairfield Halls, the Royal College of Music is launching a free Young Bassoon Programme whilst the Liverpool Philharmonic is offering free concert tickets to local Secondary Schools.

23-year-old rising star organist Matthew Walters has been appointed the first Associate Artist at Fairfield Halls in Croydon to launch the venue’s new Associate Artists programme which will support early-career performers and artists whilst further expanding the cultural offering for Croydon. Walters' residency at Fairfield will include playing two lunchtime organ recitals, as well as his own headline concert in the 2023-24 season. For his debut concert on 26 November, he will play music from Bach to Buxtehude, along with new works and improvisations including the sounds of iconic film soundtracks and mashups featuring contemporary popular music. He will perform also alongside the halls’ resident orchestra, the London Mozart Players (LMP) in A Very Croydon Christmas on 8 December 2023.  Further details from Fairfield Halls' website.

The Royal College of Music (RCM) is launching the RCM Young Bassoon Programme, a free initiative giving young players the opportunity to join like-minded musicians to explore the instrument. This will provide 11–18-year-olds with the opportunity to join a community of young bassoonists and learn from world-leading teachers. Participants will spend time with bassoon teachers exploring new repertoire in ensembles, masterclasses and creative collaborations, as well as learning more about breathing techniques and reed making. They will also gain valuable advice about how to prepare for auditions, develop performance skills and receive peer-to-peer support from other young bassoonists in a welcoming environment. The inaugural 2023/24 programme will take place on 19 November 2023, 21 January, 4 February, 3 March and 28 April 2024. Further information from the RCM website.

Liverpool Philharmonic is is offering over 400 free concert tickets to local Secondary Schools. Students will have the opportunity to experience the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra perform in the iconic Philharmonic Hall including Beethoven's Mass in C, Brahms' Double Concerto, Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique, Poulenc' Gloria and an all-Mozart programme. Concerts have been chosen for their alignment with the main GCSE and A Level curriculum boards, supporting teachers and students with their musical education. The initiative builds upon the success of last year's programme, which provided 434 free tickets to school groups in the region. Feedback from participating schools highlighted the positive impact seeing the live Orchestra had in supporting their musical education and inspiring them to further musical study and enjoyment. All secondary schools within the Liverpool City Region are eligible to apply for tickets to these performances. Further information from the Liverpool Philharmonic website.

A glimpse into the lively musical life of 18th-century Dublin: Smock Alley from Carina Drury's ensemble Irlandiani

Smock Alley - Irlandiani - First Hand Records
Smock Alley: Tommaso Giordani, Thomas Roseingrave, Domenico  Scarlatti and Geminiani; Irlandiani - Carina Drury, Poppy Walshaw, John-Henry Baker, Nathaniel Mander, Eimear McGeown; First Hand Records

Centring on a group of cello duos by an 18th century Italian composer based in Dublin, this disc engagingly explores the life of Irish and Italian musicians of the period in the city

Tommaso Giordani (1730-1806) was a composer born in Naples to a musical family. Though trained in Naples, his father and family travelled in Europe, ending in London in the 1750s. In 1764, he accepted an invitation to act as musical director of the Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin, where he stayed for the next three years, performing comic operas and co-producing the first ever opera seria to be performed in Ireland, L'eroe cinese (1766). In 1767 he returned to London but was back in Dublin in 1783, taking part in the lively musical life there until his death.

Amongst Giordani's works are his Six Duos for Two Cellos, Op. 18, which were written in London in 1780. And these form the centrepiece of Smock Alley, a disc on the First Hand Records label from Irlandiani - Carina Drury and Poppy Walshaw, baroque cellos, John-Henry Baker, violone, Nathaniel Mander, harpsichord, and Eimear McGeown, Irish flute.

This is the second disc from cellist Carina Drury focusing on 18th century Ireland and the exploration of the influence of Irish tunes on Italian composers. The first disc featured works for solo cello [see my record review], whilst the idea behind this new disc is to further capture something of the lively musical life in Dublin in the late 18th century, centring on musicians associated with Smock Alley and in particular the set of cello duos from Giordani, alongside music by Thomas Roseingrave, Domenico  Scarlatti and Geminiani and traditional Irish tunes collected and published by musicians in 18th-century Dublin.

Thursday, 14 September 2023

We cannot afford to live on what you are paying us: Freelancers Make Theatre Work's Big Freelancer Survey 2023

We cannot afford to live on what you are paying us: Freelancers Make Theatre Work's Big Freelancer Survey 2023
Freelancers Make Theatre Work is an inclusive, independent community for the 200,000+ self-employed and freelance workers from all areas of theatre, opera and live performance, and freelancers make up 70% of the UK theatre workforce.

In June this year they released The Big Freelancer Survey 2023 based on data from 1156 freelancers who responded to the survey, generating 224 pages (83,000+ words) or data! The results are a bit scary, here are the highlights:

  • The average income for freelancers working in opera is 11% under the UK average income. We are underpaid.
  • There is a gender pay gap of 28% for opera freelancers. We are paid unfairly.
  • The average income does not change, whether you have 10, 20 or 30 years’ experience in this industry. In fact, it goes down a little. We have little hope of salary progression.
  • 68% of opera freelancers report feeling that their work is quite or very insecure. 68% of opera freelancers earn less than half of their income from actually working in opera. We have chronic job insecurity.
  • 78% of London-based opera freelancers are earning less than the average London rent. That is just rent – no other costs. 61% are earning less than the London Living Wage. They could literally make more money working in a posh coffee shop. We cannot afford to live on what you are paying us.
Full report from Freelancers Make Theatre website.

In celebratory mood, the Cambridge Music Festival notches up its 30th anniversary this year. East Anglian music writer, Tony Cooper, reports.

Takács String Quartet (Photo: Amanda Tipton)
Takács String Quartet (Photo: Amanda Tipton)
Cambridge Music Festival's autumn concert series (Sunday 17 October to Wednesday 15 November 2023) offers a carefully curated programme of exceptional and unusual performances showcasing everything from traditional Syrian music to classical and early music with performances taking place in some of Cambridge's most historic venues such as King's College Chapel and Trinity College Chapel.

"In a city with so much music-making, Cambridge Music Festival stands apart for the exceptional quality and variety it brings" enthused festival director, Justin Lee. "Variety that takes one from JS Bach to Judith Weir and, indeed, to Syrian traditional music performed by a wide range of world-acclaimed artists including the Takács String Quartet, Angela Hewitt, the BBC Singers, the Philharmonia Orchestra and Maya Youssef."

This year's 'opener' falls to the Takács String Quartet (Sunday 17 October at West Road Concert Hall) playing Haydn's String Quartet, Op.71 No.2 and Beethoven's Razumovsky Quartet. They'll also present a commissioned piece by Stephen Hough demonstrating the festival's commitment to innovation and new creations. And on Friday 3 November at King's College Chapel, the choirs of King's College and New College Oxford join forces with the Philharmonia Orchestra to perform Haydn's choral masterpiece The Creation under the baton of Daniel Hyde.

A significant tribute to Sir John Tavener can be enjoyed on Friday 10 November at King's College Chapel (being recorded for broadcasting on BBC Radio 3) featuring the BBC Singers, cellist Natalie Clein and organist Paul Greally. They'll explore Tavener's profound works commemorating the composer's legacy on the tenth anniversary of his death while virtuoso pianist, Angela Hewitt, will perform JS Bach's iconic Goldberg Variations at Trinity College Chapel on Monday 13 November.

Sharing her sense of belonging through her spellbinding music, Quanun player/composer, Maya Youssef, [whom Robert interviewed in May this year] will be joined by a small ensemble in what promises a marvellous and interesting concert at the Old Divinity School of St John's College on Wednesday 15 November. By using the delicate and mystical sound of the quanun (Arabic zither) she'll create a sound world that stems from Middle Eastern traditions but encompasses styles including that of jazz and flamenco.

Maya Youssef (Photo Igor Studio)
Maya Youssef (Photo Igor Studio)
Jumping ahead to next year, the February spring series offers more extraordinary performances by the likes of pianist Stephen Hough, early music ensemble Arcangelo, 12 Ensemble, master sitarist Jasdeep Singh Degun, the acclaimed American Bugallo-Williams piano duo and vocal ensemble Tenebrae. Furthermore, a unique installation arrives in Cambridge during February half-term inviting members of the public to experience the Philharmonia Orchestra's virtual reality orchestra.

And in celebration of the festival's 30th anniversary, nine stunning new films have been commissioned in collaboration with percussionist Joby Burgess featuring new music from such luminous creatives as Gabriel Prokofiev, Dario Marianelli, Graham Fitkin, Dobrinka Tabakova, John Metcalfe, Yazz Ahmed and Tunde Jegede.

Other highlights of the festival's special (and festive) anniversary season include performances from Sheku and Isata Kanneh-Mason, London Mozart Players, pianist Stephen Hough, harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani, the Takács String Quartet and Chineke! Chamber Ensemble as well as two Cambridge institutions - the Choir of King's College Cambridge and the Academy of Ancient Music.

Founded in 1991, the current director of the Cambridge Music Festival, Justin Lee, has been in post since 2012 and under his leadership, the festival has featured an array of leading artists ranging from Murray Perahia to Nigel Kennedy and from the Philip Glass Ensemble to the Borodin String Quartet in orchestral, choral and chamber-music concerts running alongside a well-planned programme of education and community events.

As the Cambridge Music Festival receives no public subsidy or Arts Council support whatsoever, a generous and dedicated core of sponsors and individual donors regularly come to the rescue by providing at least 70 per cent of the festival's income. This feat alone needs to be loudly applauded. Bravo!

As an aside, a couple of artists appearing at the festival this year, Mahan Esfahani and Angela Hewitt, have just released their latest recordings on the Hyperion label, a lively, independent and forward-thinking British classical label devoted to presenting high-quality recordings of music of all styles and from all periods ranging from the 12th to the 21st century.

The first and only harpsichordist to be a BBC New Generation Artist (2008-10), Esfahani's recording of JS Bach's French Suites are simply sublime and prospective listeners to this wonderful new set should be rest assured that any hint of the routine remains as distant a threat as ever. [Buy Mahan Esfahani's Bach: The French Suites from Amazon]. 

On the other hand, Hewitt sensitively captures so well the distinctive writing and detail of Mozart's Piano Sonatas K310-311 and K330-333 [Buy Angela Hewitt's Mozart Sonatas from Amazon]. Her voyage of discovery through these wonderful pieces are so engaging and such a joy to hear offering the listener vital and alert accounts of the works in question while respecting their scale and sensibility and, indeed, revealing the influences of Mozart's orchestral and concerto writing of the period.

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