Sunday 31 December 2023

2023 in record reviews: 17th century Venice as a gay haven, Dichterliebe Reimagined, Elgar on viola, Ethel Smyth's first operatic success

Infinite Refrain: Music of Love's Refuge: Monteverdi, Cavalli, Boretti, Melani, Castrovillari; Randall Scotting, Jorge Navarro Colorado, Academy of Ancient Music, Laurence Cummings; Signum Classics
Richard Boothby's Music to hear... explored Alfonso Ferrabosco's 1609 book of music for solo lyra viol. Jorge Navarro Colorado and Randall Scotting celebrated 17th-century Venice as a place of tolerance for gay artists.

We know Bach, but what of the other applicants for his Leipzig post in 1723? Leipzig 1723 gave us cantatas by Bach, Telemann, and Graupner. Whilst for the next generation of the Bach family,  Les Ombres took us back to the elegance of the Bach-Abel evenings in London.

With Dichterliebe Reimagined, Koen van Stade and Neal Peres Da Costa brought creative freedom and musical rhetoric to bear on an historically informed account of Schumann's song cycle.

Viola player Timothy Ridout seduced in his transcription of Elgar's Cello Concerto. Ethel Smyth's first major success, Der Wald, finally received its premiere recording in a terrific account from John Andrews and BBC Symphony Orchestra, making us ask, why the wait? A disc of songs by Franco Alfano from Anna Pirozzi and Emma Abbate revealed a distinctive voice and richly rewarding sound-world.

Jocelyn Freeman and friends created a compelling programme of Pushkin-related music Britten, Shostakovich and Prokofiev, whilst Peter Jablonski and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra explored Grażyna Bacewicz's piano concertos.

Contemporary music included the stunning sound world of Russian-trained Estonian composer, Galina Grigorjeva's music for male-voice choir, Arne Nordheim's seductive The Tempest, Suite from the Ballet, and Jonathan Dove's intense In Exile.  The Engegård Quartet continued their exploration of Olli Mustonen's chamber music with the terrific, atmospheric pairing of String Quartet No. 1 and Piano Quintet.

In a slightly unlikely but completely tempting pairing, countertenor Reginald Mobley joined jazz pianist/composer Baptiste Trotignon for a disc of spirituals.

Read our 2023 selection below:

Saturday 30 December 2023

2023 in concert reviews: Gavin Higgins x2, Allan Clayton's Samson, Reginald Mobley in Bayreuth, the Pink Singers & Brixton Chamber Orchestra both party and Bitches Brew is back

Gavin Higgins: Beano Concerto - George Jackson, Colin Currie, BBC Concert Orchestra - Royal Festival Hall (Photo: BBC / Mark Allan)
Gavin Higgins: Beano Concerto - George Jackson, Colin Currie, BBC Concert Orchestra - Royal Festival Hall (Photo: BBC / Mark Allan)

Our list begins and ends with community events. The year began with a fragment of my own musical history, the Pink Singers, an ensemble I directed for five years in the 1980s, celebrated their 40th anniversary. Then in December, our local ensemble, the Brixton Chamber Orchestra certainly put us in party mood.

Both Handel and Bach feature, of course. In April Peter Whelan and the Irish Baroque Orchestra explored the original Dublin version of Messiah, whilst in December, Wild Arts presented a more traditional edition in an imaginative, intimate semi-staging. Allan Clayton joined Lawrence Cummings and the Academy of Ancient Music for Handel's Samson at the Proms. We heard Bach's St Matthew Passion with the choir of Kings College, London and Bach's Easter Oratorio from Florilegium. Vox Luminis brought sheer musicality to Bach's Mass in B minor. Other Early Music included Figure's imaginative staging of Buxtehude's remarkable Membra Jesu Nostri. At the Bayreuth Baroque Opera Festival, countertenor Reginald Mobley gave us Purcell, rare Handel cantatas and Ignatius Sancho.

Jérémie Rhorer and Le Cercle de l'Harmonie combined the music of Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn with the texts that inspired them. Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake enchanted in songs by Robert & Clara Schumann, Schubert, Henze and Mahler all setting texts by Rückert. Nigel Foster's London Song Festival presented the world premiere of Granville Bantock's remarkable Oscar Wilde setting, The Sphinx.

Colin Currie and the BBC Concert Orchestra celebrated The Beano including the premiere of a new concerto by Gavin Higgins, and we caught up with Higgins' The Faerie Bride at the Three Choirs Festival.

Our correspondent, Florence, helped the Kronos Quartet celebrate its 50th anniversary, and enjoyed a modern recreation of Miles Davies' iconic Bitches Brew.

Handel: Samson - Allan Clayton - Philharmonia Chorus, Academy of Ancient Music, Laurence Cummings - BBC Proms (Photo: BBC/ Sisi Burn)
Handel: Samson - Allan Clayton - Philharmonia Chorus, Academy of Ancient Music, Laurence Cummings - BBC Proms (Photo: BBC/ Sisi Burn)

Explore our full selection below:

Friday 29 December 2023

2023 in Opera and Music Theatre: historically informed Berlioz & Wagner, dramatic Handel, a G&S rarity, RVW, Zandonai in Berlin, new Jonathan Dove

Purcell & Pountney: The Masque of Might - Andri Björn Róbertsson, Xavier Hetherington, Matthew Brook - Opera North (Photo: James Glossop)
Purcell & Pountney: The Masque of Might - Andri Björn Róbertsson, Xavier Hetherington, Matthew Brook - Opera North (Photo: James Glossop)

One particular highlight this year was Berlioz' Les Troyens at the BBC Proms with Dinis Sousa conducting the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique. Wagner was something of an ongoing theme for 2023, including Dresden Music Festival's historically informed Das Rheingold and a remarkable performance of Die Walküre from London Opera Company. Handel masterpieces included Jephtha at Covent Garden with Allan Clayton and Saul at the Komische Oper, Berlin with Luca Tittoto, plus more of a rarity, Arminio, from the Jette Parker Young Artists at Covent Garden.

We also caught Allan Clayton in a remarkable reinvention of Britten's Peter Grimes at the Paris Opera. Gilbert & Sullivan also featured with Iolanthe returning to ENO, and a rare revival of Princess Ida from John Wilson and the OAE.

New opera included the premiere of Jonathan Dove's Itch at Opera Holland Park, as well as the return of his Mansfield Park at RNCM. The Opera Story presented Dani Howard and Joseph Spence's The Yellow Wallpaper, and Rania Chrysostomou & Sarah Parkin's On Being Vocal featured at Tête à Tête

Opera North pops up twice on our list with a gripping production of Puccini's Tosca and David Pountney's quirky Purcellian, The Masque of Might.

Rarities included Massenet's Le Roi de Lahore at Dorset Opera, Vaughan Williams' The Pilgrim's Progress from British Youth Opera at the Three Choirs Festival and Zandonai's Francesca da Rimini at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin, plus Rossini's Il viaggio a Reims and Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia from English Touring Opera.

Riccardo Zandonai: Francesca da Rimini - Sara Jakubiak, Jonathan Tetelman - Deutsche Oper Berlin (Photo: Monika Rittershaus)

Read our full selection of 2023 opera and music theatre performances below:

Thursday 28 December 2023

Tapping the blues away

I have always found there to be something evocative about tap dancing, the way that a visual counterpart to the music becomes part of it. One of the sounds that still stays with me is the moment, part of the way through a show by Bloolips (the gay cabaret and drag acting troupe) when Bette Bourne and the others came on in tap shoes, the noise they made distinctive. And you just knew that whatever they were dressed in, whatever unlikely scenario, it was going to end in a glorious tap number

The above wonderful little snippet, post on Instagram this week by the American dancer and choreographer James B Whiteside, comes from a longer video made in 2020. James explains 'I made a holiday special to raise money to provide dance floors to young dancers unable to train in studios during Covid lockdowns. The dancing kids in the back are the real stars though. The whole thing is on YouTube, if you’re curious. It’s called James Whiteside’s Fancy Nut Mix, and it is very homemade, completely unhinged, and totally a product of the pandemic. If you like me, you’ll like it, but if you think I’m annoying, I recommend a hard pass.'

Bloolips, Yum Yum, 1983, performance still. Courtesy: Bloolips Archive, Bishopsgate Institute, London
Bloolips, Yum Yum, 1983, performance still. Courtesy: Bloolips Archive, Bishopsgate Institute, London

Sunday 24 December 2023

Season's Greetings from all at Planet Hugill


Season's Greetings from all at Planet Hugill

Wishing you a  Peaceful Christmas
and here's to a Healthy & Musical New Year

from all at Planet Hugill

Our picture shows our mantelpiece with Alison Cross' portrait of us for our Civil Partnership in 2008, and a Santa Claus knitted by Robert's Mum.

Friday 22 December 2023

I saw Eternity: the young singers of Phoenix Consort crowdfunding a new disc exploring the challenges a composer has faced through living with Multiple sclerosis.

Adam Whitmore
Adam Whitmore

Adam Whitmore started the Phoenix Consort alongside his degree in Modern Languages at Durham University, and currently he also conducts the Durham University Chamber Choir. The singers in Phoenix Consort are young artists, currently or formerly students at Durham University, and emphasises the perpetuation of choral music’s influence among young people today.

They are now preparing to record their first album, they have a concept and a label on board (a number of the production team are Durham graduates) and are now crowdfunding..

The disc will feature the music of composer Alex Campkin and is based on the concept of a journey through the night, darkness, links with Alex’s own life experience and the challenges he has faced through living with Multiple sclerosis. The programme focuses on Alex's composition I saw Eternity, a work in six movements setting poignant texts by Henry Vaughan. Alex explains:

"Composing this has made me question my own background. I've used my own personal journey of having been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis as a teenager. I explore and depict the calming emotions that I have experienced, expressed within the music. I question my understanding of eternity, hope, optimism, and I see the piece as a celebration of life.

The central part of the text is:

‘I saw Eternity the other night,

Like a great ring of pure and endless light,

All calm, as it was bright’

Other pieces include my compositions Veiled by night, Everlasting voices, Sleep, True love, Calm me o Lord, and World of merriment.

The album takes the listener on a calming, peaceful journey through night, light and eternity, using the medium of choral music."

You can read more about Adam Whitmore and the Phoenix Consort in Adam's interview with Expressive Audio, and do support their Crowdfunder.

A welcome relief from regular Christmas fare: the Tallis Scholars introduce us to the subtle riches of Jacobus Clemens non Papa

The Tallis Scholars (Photo: Hugo Glendinning)
The Tallis Scholars (Photo: Hugo Glendinning)

Jacobus Clemens non Papa: Missa Pastores quidnam vidistis, Victoria, Pedro de Cristo, Giovanni Croce, Obrecht, Peter Philips; The Tallis Scholars, Peter Phillips; St John's Smith Square
Reviewed 21 December 2023

Coming to the end of their 50th anniversary year, the group's Christmas programme focuses on the shepherds with a low-key and beautiful subtle account of Clemens non Papa's mass

Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars have been celebrating the group's 50th anniversary this year and they brought the celebratory year to a close at St John's Smith Square, where the group gave its first London concert in 1976.

As part of St John's Smith Square's Christmas Festival on Thursday 21 December 2023, Peter Phillips conducted the Tallis Scholars in a programme entitled While Shepherd's Watched which centred on Jacobus Clemens non Papa's Missa Pastores quidnam vidistis along with the motet on which it was based, along with other motets on similar texts by Victoria, Pedro de Cristo and Giovanni Croce, plus motets by Obrecht and Peter Philips. The concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, which means that it is available for 30 days on BBC Sounds.

Thursday 21 December 2023

Perthyn - a new digital opera

Perthyn is the second Future Directions Digital Opera from Music Theatre Wales created during 2023, in partnership with Hijinx Theatre. Future Directions is a young people's programme that explores how opera can become a powerfully expressive form for people of all backgrounds and identities. Working in collaboration with professional artists, the young, neurodiverse group of people devise and make a new opera, exploring their ideas and learning from and inspiring each other and the supporting artists.

For this project, Music Theatre Wales brought together theatre maker and dramaturg Jain Boon, music maker Mari Mathias, singer Llio Evans and film maker Gavin Porter to work together with the young participants to create a new and original work in three movements. 

Full details from Music. Theatre. Wales. Watch Perthyn on YouTube.

The Nativity: the American choir, Voce in a sequence of carols from Patrick Hawes

Patrick Hawes: The Navity; Voce, Mark Singleton; Signum Classics

Patrick Hawes: The Nativity; Voce, Mark Singleton; Signum Classics
Reviewed 20 December 2023

Beautifully sung and finely considered, Patrick Hawes carol sequence approaches the Christmas story with reverence and an appealing melodic style

When I first interviewed composer Patrick Hawes back in 2017, he described the process of composition as a full on meeting with his Christianity, and also admitted that he found it extraordinary that composer who are not Christians made major settings of sacred texts. So, it should come as little surprise to find that, as he explains in the booklet to the latest disc of his music, Advent and Christmas have a particular meaning for him.

On this new disc, The Nativity, from the American choir Voce, artistic director Mark Singleton, on the Signum Classics label we get a sequence of carols and motets for the Christmas period. The centrepiece of the sequence is The Nativity, a cycle of six carols with new texts by Patrick Hawes' brother, Andrew, himself an Anglican priest and Andrew Hawes has provided many of the texts on the disc.

Wednesday 20 December 2023

On Wings of Song: Leeds Lieder celebrates 20 years of song in Leeds

Leeds Lieder 2024
After a year which included both a potentially catastrophic funding crisis (thanks to Arts Council England) and a record number of first time concert attendees, Leeds Lieder plans to celebrate its 20th anniversary in style in 2024. 

Running from 13 to 21 April 2024, the main recital venues will be Opera North’s Howard Assembly Room and Leeds Conservatoire’s The Venue, but there will also be events at Hyde Park Book Club, Leeds Sikh Centre, Kirkstall Abbey, Leeds Minster and, for the culmination concerts of the award-winning education projects, Pudsey Civic Hall.

A strong line-up of performers includes Roderick Williams, Benjamin Appl, Carolyn Sampson, Fleur Barron, James Gilchrist, Nikola Hillebrand, Ema Nikolovska, James Newby, Roger Vignoles, Graham Johnson and festival director Joseph Middleton, whilst Dame Felicity Lott and Sir Thomas Allen lead the Young Artist masterclasses. 

Festival highlights include a Schubertiade 20th Anniversary Gala, concerts building on the success of last year's Leeds Songbook by bringing together 10 Leeds poets with 10 postgraduate composers to write relevant responses to everyday life in Leeds, a community-led performance of Vivaldi’s Gloria in Leeds Minster, an evening recital in Leeds iconic Hyde Park Book Club promoted alongside Through the Noise; and a musical walking trail in the ruins of Kirkstall Abbey. 

Leeds Lieder commissions in 2024 include world premières of a new collection of miniatures by Cheryl Frances Hoad setting Punjabi proverbs to be performed in Leeds Sikh Centre by Nina Kanter, faculty member at Chennai Music Conservatory, Oscar Castellino, British-Indian pianist, Keval Shah, and Tansy Davies’s Thunder: Perfect Mind written for Ema Nikolovska and Joseph Middleton. 

Full details from the Leeds Lieder website.

Like no other: Brixton Chamber Orchestra's Christmas party moved from classical and carols to rap, disco and a Shane MacGowan tribute

Matthew O'Keeffe & Brixton Chamber Orchestra at Upstairs at the Department Store
Matthew O'Keeffe & Brixton Chamber Orchestra at Upstairs at the Department Store

Brixton Chamber Orchestra's Christmas Party at Upstairs at The Department Store, Brixton. Reviewed  18 December 2023

Everything from carols and Johann Strauss to a Shane MacGowan tribute, rap and disco in an evening full of energy, enthusiasm and terrific performances

Three quarters of the way through its Christmas Estates tour, which ends at Lambeth Town Hall on Thursday 21 December, Matthew O'Keeffe and the Brixton Chamber Orchestra gave a celebratory Christmas Party at Upstairs at The Department Store, a members club in Brixton on Monday 18 December 2023. O'Keeffe directed the 25-piece orchestra in three generous sets which moved from classical and sedate right through to having the whole audience up on its feet dancing. 

Perhaps the feeling of the evening could be summed up by a number from their second set, announced as the theme music from The Apprentice (aka 'The Montagues and Capulets' from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet), midway through a vivid performance the orchestra was joined by a rapper for rap with orchestral backing based on the Prokofiev, and ultimately there were three rappers bouncing off each other including one of the orchestra's viola players.

Tuesday 19 December 2023

Nevill Holt refocuses as a multi-arts festival for 2024 under guest festival director James Dacre.

Plans have been announced for the 2024 festival at Nevill Holt with Nevill Holt Opera being refocused as the Nevill Holt Festival

Plans have been announced for the 2024 festival at Nevill Holt with Nevill Holt Opera being refocused as the Nevill Holt Festival. Whilst music and the arts have always been a feature of the present incarnation of the Nevill Holt estate (bought and restored by David Ross in 2000 following years as a prep school), the performance presentation has undergone a number of incarnations. 

Initially a temporary theatre was created in the courtyard of the historic 17th century stables and opera seasons presented in collaboration with Wasfi Kani's Grange Park Opera. Then in 2013, a new company was launched, Nevill Holt Opera, with director Oliver Mears and conductor Nicholas Chalmers. In 2018 the temporary theatre was replaced by an award winning new one by architects Witherford Watson Mann and then in 2021 the festival was held in the open air [see my review of Mozart's Don Giovanni]. This year's festival had something of a wobble as plans were radically altered and one opera programme cancelled after booking had opened.

Now plans have been announced for moving to a multi-arts festival. The Nevill Holt Festival in 2024 is being curated by guest festival director James Dacre, artistic director of Northampton's Royal & Derngate Theatres from 2013-2023. 

There will be a festival opera, Mozart's The Magic Flute [ironically, or deliberately, the first production from Nevill Holt Opera in 2013] created in association with the Britten Sinfonia. Other musical events include performances from mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly and pianist Imogen Cooper, pianists Jeneba Kanneh-Mason, Benjamin Grosvenor, Pavel Kolesnikov & Samson Tsoy. Tenor Nicky Spence, soprano Mary Bevan and pianist Joseph Middleton bring their celebratory Noel Coward programme, the Britten Sinfonia will perform Max Richter's Vivaldi re-write alongside a world premiere, and Cécile McLorin Salvant and Dan Tepfer will premiere A French Affair as an evening of chansons exploring their shared French heritage. 

In the wider arts, there will be an Anthony Caro exhibition across the Nevill Holt estate alongside an outdoor sculpture collection including work by Antony Gormley, Rachel Whiteread, Allen Jones, Conrad Shawcross, Marc Quinn and Sean Henry. Other events include comedian Mark Watson, Michael Morpurgo, and Alice Roberts.

Over 1,500 primary schoolchildren will perform a 50-minute version of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel in theatres across the region with sopranos Fiona Finsbury and Eleanor Sanderson-Nash, directed by Jonathan Ainscough and conducted by Simon Toyne. Their final performance will fall during Nevill Holt Festival 2024. Meanwhile, the music scholars of Northampton’s Malcolm Arnold Academy will present a chamber music concert in the atmospheric surroundings of the Chapel, accompanied by Jem Lowther and Jamie Milburn and the Big Band of Malcolm Arnold Academy will be led by jazz artist Jamie Glew-Osborn in a programme of jazz standards and big band classics.

Full details from the Nevill Holt Festival website.

75th Aldeburgh Festival: Judith Weir's Blond Eckbert, Britten's Curlew River, Sumidagawa & more

75th Aldeburgh Festival

The plans for next year's Aldeburgh Festival have been announced, and it turns out that 2024 is one of those years full of celebratory numbers. 2024 will be the 75th Aldeburgh Festival, composer Judith Weir's 70th year, 60 years since the premiere of Britten's Curlew River and Roger Wright's last festival after 10 years of being CEO. So, plenty to celebrate then.

The festival opens with a new production of Judith Weir's 1994 opera Blond Eckbert,  a co-production with English Touring Opera that will be directed by Robin Norton-Hale and conducted by Gerry Cornelius. Judith Weir is one of the festival's featured musicians and there will be performances of her music by BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Ryan Wigglesworth, pianists Rolf Hind and Steven Osborne, the Nash Ensemble, Aldeburgh Voices, and Tenebrae, the BBC Singers perform her oratorio blue hills beyond blue hills, soprano Clare Booth performs the mini grand opera King Harald's Saga, the Leonkoro Quartet premieres of her second string quartet, The Spaniard, and Ryan Wigglesworth and the Knussen Chamber Orchestra premiere Planet, written specially for the orchestra.

Claire van Kampen directs a new production of Britten's Curlew River in Blythburgh Church, conducted by Audrey Hyland with tenor Ian Bostridge, baritone Peter Braithwaite, bass-baritone Sir Willard White and singers and alumni from the Britten Pears Young Artists programme. There will also be a chance to see the Japanese Noh play, Sumidagawa (Sumida River) that inspired Britten and the performance will be preceded by a new English re-telling of the story by Xanthe Gresham Knight.

The festival will feature a total of 23 world premieres (of which 10 are Britten Pears Arts commissions) from composers including Lara Agar, Tom Coult, Graham Fitkin, Robin Haigh, Joanna Ward, Judith Weir and Ryan Wigglesworth, plus three UK premieres of music by Unsuk Chin and Thomas Larcher.  Made in Snape is a strand of new music created on residencies at Snape Maltings by a wide range of contemporary musicians including Xhosa Cole, Mark Sanders and Jason Singh; Emily Levy and Mella Faye; Holy Other; Tom Rogerson, Liam Byrne and Clare O’Connell.

Soprano Gweneth Ann Rand will performing the three major Messiaen song cycles over three concerts with pianists Simon Lepper and Alison Devenis. The festival's other featured musicians are composer Unsuk Chin, violinist Daniel Pioro and cellist Alban Gerhardt. Alban Gerhardt recreates, with pianist Steven Osborne, the recital given by Rostropovich and Britten in 1961 which included the first performance of Britten’s Cello Sonata and Gerhardt also performs both Elgar and Unsuk Chin’s Cello Concertos, the latter written for him. 

The first ever Aldeburgh Festival concert from 5 June 1948 is also recreated in a performance by Britten Sinfonia with music by Purcell and Handel alongside Britten's St Nicholas and a new piece by Robin Haigh. Britten Sinfonia also bring their staging of Holst's Savitri first seen last year [see my review] alongside Imogen Holst's Suite and RVW's Oboe Concerto with Nicholas Daniels.

The 75th Aldeburgh Festival runs from 7 to 23 June 2024, full details from the festival website.

Jane Austen’s Music – a life-long obsession

She played and sang: Jane Austen and music, a new book by author and musician Gillian Dooley,
In Spring 2024, Manchester University Press is publishing She played and sang: Jane Austen and music, a new book by Gillian Dooley, Honorary Senior Research Fellow in English at Flinders University in South Australia. 

Music occupied a central role in Jane Austen's life, she played the piano from a young age and was encouraged by her Father. She made brilliant use of music in her books to illuminate characters' personalities and highlight the contrasts between them. 

In the new book, Gillian Dooley uses music books from Austen's immediate family circle, including her own, a treasure trove of evidence, along with letters, to unveil a previously unknown facet of Austen’s world. 

Here, Gillian Dooley talks about her life-long interest in Austen's life and work.

I was lucky to grow up in a home surrounded by music and books. I was learning the piano and singing from the age of six, and I can still remember the thrill of being able to read a book for myself. So when I first read Pride and Prejudice I immediately noticed that several characters were musical. I recall a discussion of the importance of that fact in an English class more than fifty years ago.

Coming back to study as a mature-age student in the middle of the 1990s, I chose to write my English Honours thesis at Flinders University (South Australia) on ‘The Meaning of Music in the Novels of Jane Austen’. At the time I was only dimly aware of the Austen Family music books, and I wrote in my Introduction that I was not interested in pursuing the ‘elusive biographical quest’ of exploring her personal attitudes to and aptitude for music. My home town of Adelaide is a very long way from Hampshire and even if I’d known more about the music books, at that time I wouldn’t have had a chance to travel and consult them. 

Slowly things began to change. Someone gave me a 2004 CD, The Jane Austen Songbook, and I discovered Jane Austen’s Music, Ian Gammie and Derek McCulloch’s 1996 catalogue of the music books held at the Jane Austen Memorial Trust at Chawton in Hampshire. I still couldn’t access the books themselves but I could get an idea of what music was in them. Most of the music, I found, is either for solo keyboard or for voice and piano accompaniment. I quickly discovered that very little of the music in these books is still in print, so tracking down copies of the songs depended on access to historical collections, some of which, miraculously, had already been digitised. I organised the first Jane Austen’s Music concert in 2007, a program built mainly around what music I could get hold of from these collections and from libraries.

In 2010 I was finally able to travel to the UK on a research trip and spent some time consulting the books, transcribing some songs and piano pieces for future programs. I made contact with the scholars and curators who were working with the books. I began to get a sense of this amazing collection that has survived for more than two centuries.

The Austen family music that was available at that time has since been supplemented by the discovery of more volumes. More than twenty albums are now available to consult, plus some loose sheets, and, while several of these belonged to members of the extended Austen family, there are seven that we are fairly certain belonged to Jane Austen herself. Four of these are, either wholly or in part, in her handwriting – that is, she copied existing music onto music manuscript paper for her own use. The other three are bound collections of printed music with her ownership marks. So that ‘elusive biographical quest’ was not so elusive after all. While we know that this is not the complete collection of music that Jane Austen owned or had access to, we can get quite a good idea of the music that she liked to play.

In 2015 the University of Southampton digitised the eighteen volumes available at that time. Finally they were available to view online. This was a great boon to Austen scholarship in general, of course, but to me it was a goldmine and I wanted to be able to plunder it for all it was worth. To do that I needed a complete catalogue. Since my career has been in librarianship, I was familiar with creating catalogues and so, with the blessing (and assistance) of the librarians at Southampton, I set about cataloguing all the playable pieces of music. The project took me more than three years and was both painstaking and fascinating. I discovered composers I had never heard of, French revolutionary songs, German drinking songs, and some exquisite music which would never be heard today if it hadn’t been in Austen’s collection.

I still remember the moment when it dawned on me that she played and sang. I don’t know why it surprised me - roughly half of her collection is vocal music. She seems to have had a high soprano voice, going by the scores we have. Few of the songs are highly virtuosic – Italian opera was not her thing – but they are not necessarily easy. Most of the music is from the late eighteenth century, dating from a time when accompaniments were not fully notated, so she would not only have sung but would have improvised her own piano parts using the bass line provided. Her niece remembered, fifty years after she died, listening to her play and sing.

All this time I had been writing about Austen and music, and eventually I began to think about what it meant for Austen the writer to have also been a musician. The natural next step was to pull together my nearly thirty years of writing and thinking about, and performing, Jane Austen’s music. She Played and Sang: Jane Austen and Music is the result – a survey of the music we know she knew, and what it can tell us about her life, her family relationships, and her writing.

Find out more at my Jane Austen’s Music website

Monday 18 December 2023

The Edinburgh Benedetti Sessions

The Edinburgh Benedetti Sessions took place from 9 – 11 December at Stewart's Melville College, Edinburgh. Over the weekend the Foundation worked with just shy of 450 young people, the largest ever number to attend the Benedetti Sessions. The Edinburgh Sessions were led by Nicola Benedetti and the Foundation’s team of tutors, hosting young people of all ages and stages and instrumental teachers from across Edinburgh. The Sessions approach music in a way that inspires fun and enjoyment, a greater sense of togetherness, and a true abandonment of caution, as well as connecting to creativity, rhythm and improvisation.

On Saturday, the Intermediate and Advanced Orchestras came together to work on a new piece for mass string orchestra – Enigma-Bolero arr. The Ayoub Sisters.

More information from the Benedetti Foundation website.

Pandora's Box: great tunes, a neat moral, energetic performances, London Youth Opera premieres Stuart Hancock & Donald Sturrock's new opera

Stuart Hancock: Pandora's Box - London Youth Opera at Susie Sainsbury Theatre, Royal Academy of Music (Photo: Nina Swan)
Stuart Hancock: Pandora's Box - London Youth Opera at Susie Sainsbury Theatre, Royal Academy of Music (Photo: Nina Swann)

Stuart Hancock: Pandora's Box; London Youth Opera, conductor: Alastair Chilvers, director: Valentina Ceschi; Susie Sainsbury Theatre
Reviewed 16 December 2023

Full of good tunes, with an underlying moral and in a performance full of energy, London Youth Opera premieres Stuart Hancock and Donald Sturrock's new opera

For over 50 years, W11 Opera presented opera for families, performed by children. The company's remit is no longer restricted to the W11 postcode and to reflect this, relaunching with a new name, London Youth Opera, the company presented the premiere of composer Stuart Hancock and librettist Donald Sturrock's third collaboration with the company. 

Stuart Hancock: Pandora's Box - Charlie Swann (Prometheus), Mahala De Santana SantosTodd (Zeus) - London Youth Opera (Photo: Stuart Hancock)
Stuart Hancock: Pandora's Box
Charlie Swann (Prometheus), Mahala De Santana SantosTodd (Zeus)
London Youth Opera (Photo: Stuart Hancock)
On Saturday 16 2023, at the Royal Academy of Music's Susie Sainsbury Theatre, London Youth Opera presented Pandora's Box with music by Stuart Hancock and words by Donald Sturrock. Alastair Chilvers conducted, Valentina Ceschi directed, with sets by Neil Irish, costumes by Anett Black and choreography by Maggie Rawlinson, lighting by Stephen Ley. Two recent graduates, Laura Molyneux and Megan Smith were assistant director and costume & wardrobe assistant.

Sturrock's lively book transported the story of Pandora's box to the modern day. Pandora (Alice Wakeman) is celebrating her 18th birthday with her friends Narcissus (Acadia Steen-Recanati) and Echo (Lily Harris), and her parents (Toby Duchen and Allegra Clement-Davies). Prometheus (Charlie Swann) decides to give her an extra present, a box containing a spark from the sacred flame, but Hermes (Leia Joyce) and Proteus (Cassia Corominaas Mieville) play a trick and include extra, not so nice gifts, from the gods, Pluto (Sherae Callum), Aphrodite (Indigo Corominas Mieville) and Hera (Amelie Reeve). The gods are largely selfish, with Zeus (Mahala De Santana Santos Todd) a bad-tempered slob, and only Athena (Ella Cox) seems to have the remotest bit of integrity. The arrival of the box causes consternation as Pandora and her friends open the gifts, but all is resolved. Pandora and Prometheus even look forward together.

Saturday 16 December 2023

A sense of dramatic narrative: Wild Arts in Handel's Messiah at The Art Workers' Guild

Handel: Messiah - Wild Arts at The Art Workers' Guild (Photo: Lucy Toms Photography)
Handel: Messiah - Wild Arts at The Art Workers' Guild (Photo: Lucy Toms Photography)

Handel: Messiah; Wild Arts, Joanna Songi, Sofia Kirwan-Baez, Martha Jones, Catherine Backhouse, Richard Dowling, Harry Jacques, Timothy Nelson, Edward Hawkins, music director Orlando Jopling; The Art Workers Guild
Reviewed 14 December 2023

With just eight singers and solos performed 'off the book', this was performance that made up in a vivid sense of drama what it might have lacked in numbers to create a compelling and wonderfully engaged performance

My first thought, on receiving the invitation, was how on earth are they going to fit it in? But with a remarkable amount of imagination, Wild Arts presented Handel's Messiah at The Art Workers Guild in London on Thursday 14 December 2023. Orlando Jopling, artistic director of Wild Arts, directed an instrumental ensemble from the organ and they were joined by eight soloists, Joanna Songi, Sofia Kirwan-Baez, Martha Jones, Catherine Backhouse, Richard Dowling, Harry Jacques, Timothy Nelson, and Edward Hawkins.

Handel: Messiah - Jonny Byers, Orlando Jopling, Richard Dowling - Wild Arts at The Art Workers' Guild (Photo: Lucy Toms Photography)
Handel: Messiah - Jonny Byers, Orlando Jopling, Richard Dowling - Wild Arts at The Art Workers' Guild (Photo: Lucy Toms Photography)

Sofia Kirwan-Baez and Harry Jacques were two of Wild Arts' 2023 Young Artists in the Summer production of Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore [see my review] and a third Young Artist from that production, Rebecca Milford, appeared in another guise, in her role as Education Manager for Wild Arts.

Friday 15 December 2023

A remarkable cultural synthesis: Vache Baroque & La Vaghezza bring a lovely sense of dialogue to their celebrations of Salmone Rossi's Hebrew-texted The Songs of Solomon

Members of Vache Baroque and lutenist Kristiina Watt rehearsing at St John's Smith Square (Photo: The Musicians' Photographer)
Members of Vache Baroque and lutenist Kristiina Watt rehearsing at St John's Smith Square (Photo: The Musicians' Photographer)

A Baroque Hanukkah: Salmone Rossi, Thomas Campion, Heinrich Schütz, John Farmer, Francesco Cavalli, Henry Purcell, Thomas Ravenscroft, Thomas Weelkes; Vache Baroque, La Vaghezza; St John's Smith Square
Reviewed 13 December 2023

The culmination of Vache Baroque's celebrations of Salomone Rossi paired his Hebrew-texted psalm settings with music of his contemporaries in wonderfully engaged performances highlighting Rossi's distinctive place in the musical universe

In 1623, the Italian Jewish violinist and composer, Salomone Rossi, achieved an ambition that had been germinating since around 1610, when he published, השירים אשר לשלמה (Hashirim Asher leShlomo, The Songs of Solomon), a collection of Jewish liturgical texts in Hebrew set to polyphonic music in the modern Baroque tradition with little connection to the tradition of Jewish cantorial music. The result is a work of remarkable cultural synthesis. The name is also a mischievous pun as none of the texts that Rossi sets comes from the Song of Solomon!

In celebration of the 400th anniversary of Rossi's publication in Venice, Vache Baroque has been presenting its Rossi 400 Festival, the culmination of which was a concert at St John's Smith Square where Vache Baroque, director Jonathan Darbourne, joined forces with instrumentalists from La Vaghezza for a programme that mixed Rossi's psalm settings from The Songs of Solomon with Rossi's own instrumental music, psalm settings by Thomas Campion, Schütz, John Farmer, Cavalli, Purcell, Ravenscroft, and Weelkes.

The concert was during Hanukkah, the Jewish feast that takes place at the end of November or in December and which celebrates the rededication of the Temple by the Maccabees. The concert did not directly reference Hanuakkah but instead brought out themes celebrated in the festival. One of the features of the programme was a compare and contrast element as Rossi's psalm settings were paired with settings of the same text by his contemporaries.

Thursday 14 December 2023

Arctic saxophone: three imaginative & engaging new concertos from Ola Asdahl Rokkones, Arktisk Filharmoni & Per Kristian Skalstad

Alexander Aarøen: The Heart, It Soars; Alexander Manotskov - Seven Portraits; Terje Bjørklund: Arctic Lines; Ola Asdahl Rokkones, Arktisk Filharmoni, Per Kristian Skalstad; LAWO

Alexander Aarøen: The Heart, It Soars, Alexander Manotskov: Seven Portraits, Terje Bjørklund: Arctic Lines; Ola Asdahl Rokkones, Arktisk Filharmoni, Per Kristian Skalstad; LAWO
Reviewed 13 December 2023

Three new saxophone concertos with Arctic inspirations from soloist and orchestra based in the region, terrific, engaging, imaginative new music in fine performances

Ola Asdahl Rokkones is a saxophonist based in the city of Tromsø in North Norway, about 500 km north of the Arctic Circle and about 2000 km south of the North Pole. For this disc from LAWO Classics, Rokkones has collaborated with the Tromsø-based Arktisk Filharmoni (the Arctic Philharmonic), and conductor Per Kristian Skalstad, for disc of concertos for saxophone and orchestra. The three concertos were all commissioned by Rokkones and have Artic links, two composers are Norwegian, Alexander Aarøen and Terje Bjørklund, both originating from Northern Norway, and the third composer is Russian, Alexander Manotskov, and took his inspiration from the Russian city of Arkhangelsk.

In his booklet note, Rokkones explains that the disc is directly a result of COVID, with the cancelling of events and the clearing of diaries, they were able to spend five intensive days in April 2021, rehearsing and recording the music on the disc in Grønnåsen church in Tromsø.

Wednesday 13 December 2023

Repair Conway Hall's roof: crowd funder to help support the repairs to the historic structure, home to the Sunday Concerts

Conway Hall
Conway Hall

Conway Hall was completed in 1929 and since then has played host to all  manner of events such as influential talks on the establishment of the NHS, the first national conference on AIDS with Gay & Lesbian Switchboard in 1983 and musicians such as Muddy Waters, Humphrey Lyttleton and The Cure, not mention the Sunday Concerts which have their origins in the 19th century and make them the longest running such concert series in Europe, presenting affordable classical music for all.

Not surprisingly, with such an historic structure, things are beginning to show their age and the roof needs repairing. Conway Hall has started a crowd-funder to help raise some of the cost (nearly £250,000 over the next five years). Do please donate: 

As the hall approaches its centenary, they have also started a separate crowd funder to held support the hall's core ethical work. 

Surrender to the gentle magic: Benjamin Tassie combines live-performance & field recording focusing on water-powered instruments to remarkably poetic effect

Benjamin Tassie; A Ladder is Not the Only Kind of Time; Benjamin Tassie, Sam Underwood, Rebecca Lee, Rob Bental; Birmingham Record Company

Benjamin Tassie; A Ladder is Not the Only Kind of Time; Benjamin Tassie, Sam Underwood, Rebecca Lee, Rob Bental; Birmingham Record Company
Reviewed 13 December 2023

Part live-performance, part-field recording, this disc captures the poetic interaction between natural landscape and ancient man-made sounds, featuring three waterpowered instruments

The Rivelin Valley in Sheffield was once a thriving hub of water-powered industry, and even today the ruins of twenty watermills  and twenty-one mill dams can be found along the river’s length, ghosts of Sheffield’s industrial past that have become haven for wildlife.

This new disc from Birmingham Record Company, A Ladder is Not the Only Kind of Time, features music by Benjamin Tassie that doesn't just evoke this landscape, instead Tassie's pieces were produced with the landscape, in dialogue with the river. The album features three new water-powered instruments designed and built by Tassie with instrument maker Sam Underwood. A harpsichord, hurdy gurdy, and a water organ or hydraulis are played by the river. 

For the harpsichord, a waterwheel turns, operating a mechanism that plucks the strings. In the hurdy gurdy, a water-wheel rubs a rosined wheel against two strings, producing a drone. The hydraulis uses the river's water to displace air in its chamber; as it is submerged, organ pipes are sounded in a system based loosely on an Ancient Greek design.

The disc features ten pieces, using these instruments alongside ones played by musicians, Rebecca Lee (bass viol), Rob Bental (nyckelharpa), and Benjamin Tassie (lap steel guitar and rebec). The recordings are part live performance, part field recording. The recordings were made at dawn or dusk during a week in late-July 2023, each track recorded in a single take on the site of a former water mill, ten locations in all the names of the tracks linking to these locations. The recordings capture not just the musical instruments but the surrounding sounds, natural and man-made, bird-calls, the sound of the water itself, passing joggers, traffic, dogs, children and more. 

Tuesday 12 December 2023

Opera Unwrapped for Christmas in Norwich

Opera Unrwapped for Christmas

The Norfolk-based charity Into Opera continues its mission to get people 'into opera' with its Opera Unwrapped for Christmas concert on Friday 15 December 2023 at St Andrew's Hall, Norwich, one of the last events at the venue before it closes its doors for restoration.

John Andrews conducts the Britten Sinfonia and they are joined by an enviable line-up of vocal talent, soprano Alison Langer, tenor Monwabisi Lindi, mezzo-soprano Yvonne Howard and baritone James Cleverton. There will be arias from Puccini’s La bohème, Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel and Verdi’s La Traviata, seasonal music from Howard Blake's The Snowman and the musical Meet me in St. Louis, as well as Christmas songs and carols. 

In addition to Into Opera’s launch of the successful Norfolk Into Opera Festival, the charity has also built a reputation for its transformative education work in local schools. As part of Opera Unwrapped for Christmas children from the choirs of the Bawburgh School, Barford Primary and St Francis of Assisi Catholic Primary will have the chance to share the stage and perform alongside Into Opera and Britten Sinfonia’s professional musicians. 

"The cut to funding of classical music and opera this year has been devastating in its impact. It has put organisations like Into Opera and Britten Sinfonia under huge risk and financial pressure. Norfolk is one of the places to have really experienced those cuts. Regardless, Into Opera and Britten Sinfonia were determined to join forces, to stand by each other at this difficult time and to collaborate. We are excited to bring so much artistic talent to Norfolk this Christmas to lead our celebrations at The Halls, it’s set to be quite an evening!"

Genevieve Raghu, Artistic Director and Chief Executive: Into Opera

Full details from the Into Opera website

Youthful engagement & Romantic devotion in Claire Ward & JongSun Woo's CMF Lunchtime Recital

Claire Ward at the Tallow Chandlers' Hall for the City Music Foundation
Claire Ward at the Tallow Chandlers' Hall for the City Music Foundation
Devotion - Schumann: Frauen-Liebe und Leben, R. Strauss, Brahms, Alma Mahler, Schoenberg, Faure, Debussy, Britten, Bridge; Claire Ward, JongSun Woo; City Music Foundation at Tallow Chandlers' Hall
Reviewed 11 December 2023

Schumann's song cycle in a performance full of youthful engagement at the centre of a lovely recital exploring aspects of Romantic devotion

Soprano Claire Ward and pianist JongSun Woo gave their lunchtime recital on Monday 11 December 2023 at the Tallow Chandlers' Hall, as part of the City Music Foundation's 10th anniversary season visiting the various City Livery Halls (as the season's regular home, the Great Hall of St Bartholomew's Hospital is closed for restoration).  Tallow Chandlers' Hall is another of the City's historic halls, dating back to the 1670s.

The recital was title Devotion and centred on Schumann's Frauen-Liebe und Leben, Op. 42 plus songs by Richard Strauss, Brahms, Alma Mahler, Schoenberg, Faure, Debussy, Britten and Bridge, all exploring different aspects of the idea of devotion.

Monday 11 December 2023

The glories of Roman polychoral music after Palestrina explored by I Fagiolini with Benevoli's Missa Tu es Petrus for four choirs

Orazio Benevoli: Missa Tu es Petrus; Palestrina; Bonifazio Graziani; I Fagiolini, the City Musick, Robert Hollingworth; Coro

Orazio Benevoli: Missa Tu es Petrus; Palestrina; Bonifazio Graziani; I Fagiolini, the City Musick, Robert Hollingworth; Coro
Reviewed 11 December 2023

An exploration of the rare splendours of 17th-century 16-part mass based on Palestrina's motet, richly inventive and full of gorgeous textures, a work that is certainly not deserving of its relative obscurity

Palestrina died in 1594 and for the following century his music remained a prime example of concerted church music with other composers writing in a similar style. The result is a high degree of stylistic diversity as the 17th century developed and only now are we really exploring the highways and byways. 

This recent disc from Robert Hollingworth, I Fagiolini and the City Musick on the Coro label features the music of Orazio Benevoli (1605-1672) and Bonifazio Graziani (1604/5-1664), focusing on Benevoli's four choir Missa Tu es Petrus based on Palestrina's motet. 

Opera & Democracy: Transatlantic Conversations & Concerts celebrating the centenary of the reopening of the Krolloper in Berlin

Krolloper in Berlin in 1930
Krolloper in Berlin in 1930

2024 is the centenary of the reopening of the Krolloper in Berlin. It reopened in 1924 with a performance of Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, as an offshoot of the Berlin State Opera, but under Otto Klemperer from 1927-1931 the Krolloper took on independent artistic significance, becoming a gathering space for the avant-garde as well as promoting the idea of inclusive and accessible opera. It was forced to close in 1931 and after the Reichstag fire in 1933 served as the seat of the last parliament – it was there that the Weimar Republic came to an end. Many Krolloper artists, including Otto Klemperer, were persecuted and forced into exile.

The Thomas Mann House in Los Angeles, the former residence of the Mann family in American exile and today an important German American cultural forum, is cooperating with renowned opera houses in Germany and partners in the USA to bring together international academics and artists for an exciting dialogue about opera and democracy, past and present. 

Opera & Democracy: Transatlantic Conversations & Concerts begins on 20 January 2024 at the Thomas Mann House in Los Angeles with an event that mixes conversations with artists and academics, considering the commitment of opera professionals to democratic societies, and a concert featuring Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's 1930 opera Der Jasager and music by Richard Wagner, Lily Reiff, Edmond Dédé.

The series is directed by Dr. Kai Hinrich Müller, a 2023 Thomas Mann Fellow. Future events take place at the Bavarian State Opera, Dresden Music Festival, Bauhaus Archive - Berlin, Hamburg State Opera and in New York and Providence Rhode Island.

Full details from the Thomas Mann House website.

Saturday 9 December 2023

We need to shift the focus from the artist's 'I' to the collective 'We', composer Samuel Andreyev on his recent disc, In Glow of Like Seclusion

Samuel Andreyev: In Glow of Like Seclusion - Ensemble Proton Bern, Luigi Gaggero (conductor), Peyee Chen (soprano) - Métier  MEX 77119

Canadian composer Samuel Andreyev released his latest album, In Glow of Like Seclusion, on the Métier label in November. His second collaboration with the Swiss Ensemble Proton Bern, the disc also features conductor Luigi Gaggero and soprano Peyee Chen in Samuel's the cantata In Glow of Like Seclusion setting the poetry of J H Prynne, along with Sonata da Camera, Sextet in Two Parts and Vérifications.

Samuel Andreyev self portrait
Samuel Andreyev self portrait
Born in Canada, Samuel settled in France in 2003. After completing his studies at the Conservatoire de Paris and IRCAM, he was awarded a one-year residency at the Casa de Velázquez in Madrid, Spain. Upon returning from Spain, he settled in Strasbourg, on the border between France and Germany.

Samuel's collaboration with Ensemble Proton Bern dates back several years, and with In Glow of Like Seclusion, Samuel wanted to create a disc under the best possible conditions and reach as many people as possible. The disc features four of his ensemble pieces, chosen partly because of the constraints in recording and practical constraints regarding instrumentation. Vérifications was written some ten years ago whilst two of the other works on the disc, In Glow of Like Seclusion and Sonata da Camera, were written for the ensemble and premiered by them. The fourth work, Samuel's Sextet just happened to fit.

Many composers work with a large number of people, but Samuel prefers to consolidate his working relationships and concentrate on projects with fewer people, so he develops the relationship, spending more time with them and reducing his need to travel. He likes getting to know performers, concentrating on relationships that resonate so they can work together more.

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