Saturday 2 March 2024

Shamus O'Brien: withdrawn by the composer for political reasons, Stanford's most popular opera languished in the 20th century but all that seems set to change

Retrospect Opera's recording of Stanford's Shamus O'Brien in rehearsal
Retrospect Opera's recording of Stanford's Shamus O'Brien in rehearsal

Charles Villiers Stanford’s opera Shamus O'Brien premiered in 1896 in London. It was easily his most popular opera, running for over 80 performances in the West End before going on an extensive tour in Britain and Ireland, then in 1897 it also enjoyed a two-month run in New York. An explicitly Irish work, set against the backdrop of the Irish Rebellion of 1798, Stanford withdrew the opera shortly before the First World War. As the politics of Home Rule intensified in the 1910s, Stanford, an ardent Unionist, worried that the opera might foment Irish nationalism and anti-English sentiment; the ban effectively remained in place until his death in March 1924.

King Baggot and Vivian Prescott in the 1912 silent film Shamus O'Brien
King Baggot and Vivian Prescott in the 1912 silent film Shamus O'Brien

But after that, the opera returned to the stage and was broadcast by the BBC in the 1930s. Since then the work has rather languished, though it was performed in Dublin in 1968 [see YouTube]. .

In 1952 (Stanford's centenary year), Ralph Vaughan Williams lamented that on Stanford's birthday instead of celebrating him with his masterpiece (RVW's words), Shamus O'Brien, Covent Garden was performing Bellini's Norma. Stanford's post-War reputation has rested heavily on his choral music and only gradually have his works in other genres been rediscovered and returned to their place in the repertoire. Stanford wrote nine operas and these still are not well known; currently only The Travelling Companion is available in a complete on disc [from SOMM Records]. Even a work like Shamus O'Brien has no recording.

This is all going to change as Retrospect Opera is releasing the first studio recording of Stanford's Shamus O'Brien with David Parry conducting the Orchestra of Scottish Opera plus soloists Brendan Collins, Anna Brady, Gemma Ni Bhriain, Ami Hewitt, Joseph Doody, Andrew Gavin and Rory Dunne with Irish piper Jarlath Henderson.

I recently caught up by Zoom with conductor David Parry who was in Scotland amid performances of Jonathan Dove's new opera, Marx in London, a work which David refers to as fantastic. It has been something of a hit, too, with audiences with Scottish Opera selling out the Theatre Royal in Glasgow.

Friday 1 March 2024

Shortlisted in two categories of next week's Royal Philharmonic Society Awards, Jasdeep Singh Degun has released a new single, Lament

Leeds-based sitarist and composer Jasdeep Singh Degun has been shortlisted in two categories of the Royal Philharmonic Society Awards (which are announced on 5 March), for Best Instrumentalist and Best Large-Scale Composition (for Orpheus his cross-genre Monteverdi piece with Opera North). Ahead of this, he has released a new single, Lament, a new arrangement of one of the pieces from Orpheus.

Originally sung by the chorus and orchestra lamenting the death of Eurydice, Lament is based on a the raag Sindhi Bhairavi - usually sung/played in a more semi-classical style such as thumri or ghazal - that deals "with topics of spiritual and romantic love and may be understood as a poetic expression of both the pain of loss, or separation from the beloved, and the beauty of love in spite of that pain."

For the new single, Jasdeep has stripped back Lament for chamber ensemble, featuring a new string arrangement by cellist Ian Burdge. Jasdeep is joined by Sally Herbert (violin), Simeon Walker (piano), Ian Burdge (cello), and Harkiret Bahra (tabla). Lament is available for streaming.

The accompanying video (director of photography: Adam Lyons) is available on YouTube.


Moon Landing: composer Helen Caddick and textile artist Margo Selby collaborate on an immersive cross-genre piece for Collect 2024

Margo Selby's Moon Landing hanging in the Stamp stairwell at Somerset House for Collect 2024
Margo Selby's Moon Landing hanging in the Stamp stairwell at Somerset House for Collect 2024

Last night (29 February 2024) we were at Collect, the Crafts Council's international fair for contemporary craft and design at Somerset House, currently celebrating its 20th anniversary. A visual and tactile feast, one work stood out for its cross-genre use of music. Moon Landing by textile artist and designer Margo Selby is a 16m long woven art-work (presented at Collect by Cynthia Corbett Gallery) that is presented hanging down the centre of the historic Stamp Staircase. The project is a cross-genre collaboration as Selby's weaving (her first site-specific installation) is inspired by a new piece by composer Helen Caddick on 29 February there were performances of Caddick's piece, with the composer conducting, beneath the art work.

Moon Landing: Helen Caddick & musicians in the stairwell beneath Margo Selby's piece
Moon Landing: Helen Caddick & musicians
in the stairwell beneath Margo Selby's piece
Caddick and Selby worked together for over a year on the project, interlinking music and weaving, elements of the final woven textile being inspired both by the look of the notes on the page and the sound of the music, whilst Caddick's writing uses elements from weaving in its inspiration.

But the primal element in the whole work is the little known story of how women from the Navajo nation and women from other traditions used their traditional skills in intricate weaving to create the integrated circuits and memory cores used for the the Moon landing. It was Navajo women who wove the integrated circuits!

Caddick's piece is written for strings, two harps, two violins and two cellos. The use of strings and the number of instruments having a significance relating to the weaving, whilst the music itself with its repeated, quasi-minimalistic motifs and a series of steady rhythmic underpinnings, has an underlying regularity that evokes weaving. 

We were lucky to hear the work live, but throughout the fair (which runs from 1 to 3 March) there are headphones available so the visitors can get the full immersive experience. 

Helen Caddick's Moon Landing is also available via BandCamp.

Moon Landing_Process Film 2024 from Margo Selby on Vimeo.




Dancing with Piazzolla: Welcome to the sophisticated world of the London Tango Quintet

Dancing with Piazzolla: Astor Piazzolla, Agustín Bardi, Pintín Castellanos, David Gordon, Horacio Salgán, Juan de Dios Filiberto, Enrique Delfino, Feliciano Brunelli, Gerardo Matos Rodríguez; London Tango Quintet; AWAL

Dancing with Piazzolla: Astor Piazzolla, Agustín Bardi, Pintín Castellanos, David Gordon, Horacio Salgán, Juan de Dios Filiberto, Enrique Delfino, Feliciano Brunelli, Gerardo Matos Rodríguez; London Tango Quintet; AWAL
27 February 2024

High musical values, a love of the genre and a sense of engagement that draws you in, welcome to the sophisticated world of the London Tango Quintet

Founded by violinist David Juritz in 2007, the London Tango Quintet brings together David Juritz - violin, Craig Ogden – guitar, Miloš Milivojević - accordion, David Gordon - piano and Richard Pryce – double bass, a striking line-up of musicians with backgrounds stretching from jazz to classical and beyond, linked by their love of tango. Dancing with Piazzolla is the ensemble's debut disc and features six tracks by Piazzolla alongside other tango classics and new pieces by the ensemble's keyboard player.

Thursday 29 February 2024

One of the oldest-established festivals in the UK, the Norfolk & Norwich comes round in the merry month of May.

The giant puppet from L’Homme Debout’s Mo and The Red Ribbon which will roam the streets of Norwich
The giant puppet from L’Homme Debout’s Mo and The Red Ribbon which will roam the streets of Norwich

One of the oldest-established festivals in the UK, the Norfolk & Norwich (running for an astonishing 17 days in the merry month of May from Friday 10th to Sunday 26th) offers a cultural package like no other taking in music, drama, literature, circus, outdoor and family events as well as the all-important visual arts.  

Artists from round the world and across the region will gather in Norwich and, indeed, across the county to present a huge variety of work and events in a programme featuring a host of ‘stories’ providing guided routes through the festival and bringing together shows and events that share common themes.  

Music that is vividly alive & vibrant, yet requires concentration & dedication to listen to: Anselm McDonnell's Kraina

Anselm McDonnell: Kraina; oshua Ellicott, tenor, Laura Sinnerton, viola, Dermot Dunne, accordion; Rebecca Murphy, soprano, Cahal Masterson, piano; Elizabeth Hilliard, soprano, Alan Smale, violin, Annette Cleary, cello, Rachel Quinn, piano; Nicole Rourke, spoken word, Dermot Dunne, accordion

Anselm McDonnell: Kraina; Joshua Ellicott, Laura Sinnerton, Dermot Dunne, Rebecca Murphy, Cahal Masterson, Elizabeth Hilliard, Alan Smale,  Annette Cleary, Rachel Quinn, Nicole Rourke, Dermot Dunne;
Reviewed 26 February 2024

New music for voice and instruments tackling the complex and the difficult, creating music that is more than just a song, and pushing performers to emotional and expressive limits.

Kraina is a word in Old Polish meaning edge, borderland, or frontier. Belfast-based composer Anselm McDonnell's latest disc, Kraina, is his second album, released on his own label [see my review of Light of Shore, McDonnell's first disc]. The new disc features four works for voice and instruments (I hesitate to call them songs, some are far more substantial than that), all concerned with the edges and crevices around home: depicting people searching for home, caught between homes, or our destructive relationship with our planetary home. The performers are Joshua Ellicott, tenor, Laura Sinnerton, viola, and Dermot Dunne, accordion; Rebecca Murphy, soprano and Cahal Masterson, piano; Elizabeth Hilliard, soprano, Alan Smale, violin, Annette Cleary, cello and Rachel Quinn, piano; Nicole Rourke, spoken word and Dermot Dunne, accordion.

Wednesday 28 February 2024

A playful look at mathematics: Keisha Thompson's DeCipher project wins the fifth Opera North / University of Leeds DARE Art Prize

Keisha Thompson (Photo: Elmi Ali)
Keisha Thompson (Photo: Elmi Ali)

Manchester-based writer, performer, producer and maths educator Keisha Thompson has been announced as the fifth winner of the annual DARE Art Prize. DARE is a partnership between the University of Leeds and Opera North, and in association with the National Science and Media Museum and The Tetley, Leeds, and the prize challenges artists and scientists to collaborate on new approaches to the creative process.

Keisha Thompson’s project DeCipher takes a playful look at mathematics, aiming to place the subject at the heart of everyday life – literally ‘deciphering’ what many people perceive to be a difficult topic to underline its relevance and make it more accessible to everyone. Recognising that knowledge around mathematical topics, such as coding and economics, gives individuals an advantage in society, Keisha is looking to create an interactive performance piece which delves into the power dynamics attached to mathematics as content, history, pedagogy, and culture. Her work also acknowledges that the history of mathematics needs to be ‘decolonised’ with Asian and African voices having effectively been forgotten in the classroom. 

Keisha Thompson explains: "Mathematics has always been a creative subject for me. I was introduced to it via puzzles and games before I started school. When I got in the classroom, it was like meeting an old friend. However, as I moved through the education system, I found that I was in the minority in this experience.  I want to use my skill, experience, and enthusiasm to create engagements and outputs that support a new cultural appreciation for mathematics."

In 2021, Keisha Thompson was awarded one of Opera North's Resonance residencies to develop The Bell Curve, a new play exploring the ethics of DNA hacking technology commissioned by Eclipse Theatre, Yorkshire Theatre Royal and Pilot Theatre.

The four past Prize winners have each interacted with the work of the University and Opera North in unexpected, illuminating and very different ways, from working with infrasound, climatology, the environment and the paranormal, to exploring AI and insect biodiversity. Last year’s recipient, Essex-based sculptor Katie Surridge, worked with teams at the University to address the problem of e-waste and the valuable resources, including gold, silver, copper, platinum, aluminium and cobalt, that are present in discarded electronic devices. Katie used these to produce new sculptures, one of which has been purchased by the Science Museum in London, redefining perceptions around what is considered redundant and worthless.

Further details from the Opera North website.

Beauty and meaning: Handel's Theodora from Jonathan Cohen and Arcangelo with Louise Alder in the title role

Handel: Theodora; Louise Alder, Tim Mead, Anna Stephany, Stuart Jackson, Adam Plachetka, Arcangelo, Jonathan Cohen; Alpha Classics

Handel: Theodora; Louise Alder, Tim Mead, Anna Stéphany, Stuart Jackson, Adam Plachetka, Arcangelo, Jonathan Cohen; Alpha Classics
Reviewed 20 February 2024

A performance of Handel's late masterpiece that combines musical beauties with a sense of the inner meaning of the words, with a wonderful central performance from Louise Alder

Considering that Handel evidently regarded it as one of his favourite oratorios and that any performance of it is something of an event, Handel's Theodora has rather a sparse history on disc, though the converse of that is that most of the recordings are that little bit special. Paul McCreesh and Gabrieli recorded it in 2000 with Susan Gritton and Susan Bickley, Maxim Emelyanychev and Il Pomo d'Oro recorded it in 2022 with Lisette Oropesa and Joyce DiDonato, whilst further back there is the recording with the unforgettable Lorraine Hunt Lieberson from 1992 as well as the famous Glyndebourne production.

Now Jonathan Cohen and Arcangelo have turned their attention to the work with a new recording on Alpha Classics that features Louise Alder as Theodora, Tim Mead as Didymus, Anna Stéphany as Irene, Stuart Jackson as Septimus and Adam Plachetka as Valens. 

Jonathan Cohen first conducted the work with Arcangelo at the BBC Proms in 2018, and since then the group has done further performances. Whilst the cast of the Prom was largely different to that on the disc, a common thread running through all the performances has been the Theodora of Louise Alder and the ensemble's most recent London performance in March 2023 was linked to the recording of the disc.

Tuesday 27 February 2024

Der fliegende Holländer: Persona Arts, a new BME-led West Midlands based arts company staging Wagner's opera in Birmingham

Persona Arts: Wagner's Der fliegende Holländer

Persona Arts, a new Birmingham-based opera company, is starting big, staging Wagner's Der fliegende Holländer in German in July. Persona Arts is a BME-led West Midlands based arts company that aims to stage the opera and choral arts to the highest possible standards.

The artistic director is Byron Jackson, a Birmingham-born baritone off Jamaican heritage. He aims to use Persona Arts to promote the cause of opera within local communities and contribute to breaking down barriers. He is a keen advocate of diversity and the underserved which are major issues within the current UK opera arts industry; something he has faced especially due to the colour of his skin.

Over the last two years, Persona Arts has been recruiting community singers from across the West Midlands to take part in the special Flying Dutchman opera chorus supporting our project partner, Birmingham Choral Union. From regional choral societies, amateur singing groups and opera companies, a diverse number of people have selected to take part in the project, and After staging three successful community chorus workshops in Small Heath and Moseley, they have inspired a good contingent of singers, a number of which have never performed in an opera before. Recruitment continues, especially for their diverse children’s chorus, and further community activities are planned.

Next up is a public opera masterclass with Susan Bullock for aspiring singers on Friday 19 April 2024, giving the audience the opportunity to see what it takes in preparing opera singers to reach their full potential.

Persona Arts presents Wagner's Der fliegende Holländer at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire on 7, 10 and 13 July 2024, directed by Iqbal Khan. Jack Ridley conducts the Central England Camerata with soloists including Anando Mukerjee, Mari Wyn Williams, Laura Woods, Christian Joel, Gerrit Paul Groen and Byron Jackson. Full details from the Persona Arts website.


Intense and disturbing, a story without any redemption: Stephen McNeff's new opera A Star Next to the Moon based on Juan Rulfo's novel Pedro Páramo

Stephen McNeff: A Star Next to the Moon - Jacob Harrison (Pedro Paramo) - Guidhall School of Music and Drama (Photo: David Monteith-Hodge)
Stephen McNeff: A Star Next to the Moon - Jacob Harrison (Pedro Páramo) - Guildhall School of Music & Drama (Photo: David Monteith-Hodge)

Stephen McNeff: A Star Next to the Moon; director: Martin Lloyd-Evans, conductor: Dominic Wheeler; Guildhall School of Music & Drama
Reviewed 26 February 2024

Stephen McNeff's powerful new opera tells a disturbing story with a performance that pulls no punches and outstanding contributions from the young cast

Stephen McNeff's opera, A Star Next to the Moon debuted at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama's Silk Street Theatre on Monday 26 February 2024. With a libretto by Aoife Mannix based Juan Rulfo's novel Pedro Páramo, the opera has had a long journey to fruition as Stephen McNeff discussed in my recent interview with him, but creating a large-scale new opera in two acts with a cast of eleven, chorus and orchestra is no small achievement indeed. Martin Lloyd-Evans directed and Dominic Wheeler conducted with designs by Anna Reid. Jacob Harrison was Pedro Páramo, Holly Brown was Susana, Steven van der Linden was Juan Preciado, plus Emyr Lloyd Jones, Rachel Roper, Joe Chalmers, Shana Moron-Caravel, Vladyslava Ionascu-Yokovenko, Jonah Halton, Yolisa Ngwexana and Ana-Carmen Balestra.

Following a death-bed promise to his mother, Juan Preciado (Steven van der Linden) travels to Comala to seek out his father, Pedro Páramo. In Comala, Juan finds people that knew his mother but he comes to realise that the town is populated by ghosts and he becomes more fevered and confused. The story is divided into two halves, for Act One we see Juan's search in Comala intercut with scenes from the early days of Pedro Páramo (Jacob Harrison). As we watch Juan becoming increasingly distraught, we witness Pedro manipulating those around him including Dolores (Shana Moron-Caravel), Juan's mother.

Stephen McNeff: A Star Next to the Moon - Steven van der Linden (Juan Preciado) - Guidhall School of Music and Drama (Photo: David Monteith-Hodge)
Stephen McNeff: A Star Next to the Moon - Steven van der Linden (Juan Preciado) - Guildhall School of Music & Drama (Photo: David Monteith-Hodge)

It becomes apparent that Comala is entirely inhabited by ghosts and that Pedro Páramo corrupted all around him, so that all those Juan encounters have something to atone for. At the end of Act One Juan undergoes a transformation and seems to join the ghosts. In Act Two, he and Dorotea (Rachel Roper) witness further scenes from Pedro's life as Pedro struggles with his childhood sweetheart, Susana (Holly Brown) from whom he has been parted for 30 years but who returns mad. The ending of the opera is bleak, as Pedro lays waste to the town and realises that he is unredeemed and unredeemable.

Monday 26 February 2024

A Vast Obscurity: SongEasel bringings song celebrations to South East London including Gabriel Fauré's centenary

SongEasel - A Vast Obscurity

From April to June 2024, Jocelyn Freeman's SongEasel is celebrating a whole clutch of anniversaries in a series of concerts across South East London featuring performers including Roderick Williams, Mark Padmore and Elin Manahan Thomas. Spreading her net widely, a delighting in discovering that the word 'obscurity' can mean a collective noun for a group of poets, pianist Jocelyn Freeman's series A Vast Obscurity brings together the 460th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, the bicentenary of Lord Byron’s death and 65th birthday of Dr. Joseph Spence, plus Gabriel Fauré's centenary.

Things commence on 11 April at St. George the Martyr, Borough with baritone Roderick Williams, pianist Iain Burnside and double bass player Leon Bosch in The Land of Lost Content with music by Butterworth, Burleigh, Clarke, Beach, and McLachlan. 

Gabriel Fauré's centenary is celebrated with a pair of concerts, the 1893 version of the Requiem with Elin Manahan Thomas (soprano), Malachy Frame (baritone) and The Corbett Consort at St Mark's Church, Kennington on 11 May, then Gwilym Bowen (tenor), Jared Andrew Michaud (bass-baritone), Lucy Gibbs (mezzo-soprano) and SongEasel Young Artists will be performing the composer's complete songs across an entire afternoon on 12 May at St Laurence's Church, Catford. 

Then on 31 May at St. Catherine‘s Church, Telegraph Hill, soprano Ella Taylor and pianist Jocelyn Freeman chart the course of Lord Byron's poem Don Juan in music including the first performance of a new commission from Emily Hazrati setting texts by Dr Joseph Spence (Master of Dulwich College and librettist of Dani Howard's opera, The Yellow Wallpaper).

Soprano Francesca Chiejina joins Jocelyn Freeman at St Laurence's Church, Catford on 16 June for a concert celebrating Shakespeare with music by from the Baroque to the present day including Arne, McDowall, Samuel, Ruiz, and Finzi's Let us garlands bring

Finally, Mark Padmore and Jocelyn Freeman close the festival with The Wanderer and the Scholar on 21 June at St Stephen's Church, Dulwich by returning to two figures associated with Lord Byron, his Dulwich classmates, the celebrated pedestrian Captain Robert Barclay and Major-General John Gaspard Le Marchant, with music by Beethoven, Schubert, C. Schumann, Vaughan Williams, and Macmillan. Audiences can revel in the summer solstice with a day trip to Dulwich, enjoying a guided, historical walk around Dulwich Wood before settling in for this evening of exquisite song.

There are less formal events too. A  special Fauré Listening Club event on 21 April, curated and introduced by Dr. Emily Kilpatrick, will celebrate some of the composer’s best-loved works in an informal setting, free and welcome to all. There are also schools performances, and two fringe pop-up performances bringing cabaret, art song, chanson, and music hall favourites into the local community, free for all to enjoy.

Full details from the SongEasel website.

Beyond coloratura: Strong performances and a serious approach in Chelsea Opera Group's account of Léo Delibes' Lakmé

Poster for the première of Léo Delibes' Lakmé
Poster for the première of Léo Delibes' Lakmé 

Léo Delibes: Lakmé;  Haegee Lee, Elgan Llŷr Thomas, James Platt, Julien Van Mellaerts, Lorena Paz Nieto, Caroline Carragher, Sarah Pring, Polly Leech, Magnus Walker, Chelsea Opera Group, Matthew Scott Rogers; Cadogan Hall
Reviewed 25 February 2024

Strong performances and a serious approach to the music ensure that the pleasures of this performance of Delibes' rarity extended well beyond coloratura delights

Léo Delibes' Lakmé received a rare London outing when Matthew Scott Rogers conducted Chelsea Opera Group in the work on Sunday 25 February 2024 at Cadogan Hall with Haegee Lee as Lakmé, Elgan Llŷr Thomas as Gérald, James Platt as Nilakantha, Julien Van Mellaerts as Frédéric, Lorena Paz Nieto as Miss Ellen, Sarah Pring as Mistress Bentson, Caroline Carragher as Miss Rose and Polly Leech as Mallika.

The very full Cadogan Hall suggested that audiences are keener on this type of rarity than companies sometimes give them credit for and that the major opera companies' continuing neglect is strange. After all the issues surround the Orientalism and colonial-era plot are no more problematic than Madama Butterfly or Les pêcheurs de perles. Though written with sung dialogue, the work's style exists in the borderlands between grand opera and operetta (Delibes' had already written popular operettas) whilst the work's dramatic pacing in the later two acts can be a little slow. But there are plenty of musical pearls, well beyond the two best known numbers, and this concert performance showed that there was indeed much to enjoy when you take the piece seriously.

Marking the centenary of Puccini's death, Opera Holland Park in his early Messa di Gloria

Opera Holland Park, the City of London Sinfonia, conductor John Andrews with soloists David Butt Philip and Ross Ramgobin (Photo: Opera Holland Park)
Chorus of Opera Holland Park, the City of London Sinfonia, conductor John Andrews with soloists David Butt Philip and Ross Ramgobin
(Photo: Opera Holland Park)

Puccini: songs & arias, Messa di Gloria; Eleanor Broomfield, Fflur Wyn, Philip Costovski, Joseph Buckmaster, José de Eça, David Butt Philip, Ross Ramgobin, Chorus of Opera Holland Park, City of London Sinfonia, John Andrews; Holy Trinity Church, Sloane Street
Reviewed 22 February 2024

Opera Holland Park launches its Puccini celebration early with a fine account his early and intriguing mass setting, plus a chance to preview the tenor hero in the Summer production of Tosca

2024 sees 100 years since Puccini's death and Opera Holland Park are marking that by performing Tosca (in Stephen Barlow's iconic 2008 production) and Edgar (a great rarity on the operatic stage) this Summer. But on Thursday 22 February 2024 the company launched its Puccini commemoration early with a concert at Holy Trinity Church, Sloane Street. The centrepiece was Puccini's Messa di Gloria performed by chorus of Opera Holland Park (chorus master Dominic Ellis-Peckham), the City of London Sinfonia (marking the 20th anniversary of its collaboration with the opera company) conducted by John Andrews with soloists David Butt Philip and Ross Ramgobin. In the first half there was a selection of Puccini's songs and operatic excerpts performed by sopranos Eleanor Broomfield and Fflur Wyn, and tenors Phillip Costovski, Joseph Buckmaster and José de Eça, accompanied by a quartet from the City of London Sinfonia.

The large venue with its resonant acoustic brought out the operatic element in Puccini's songs, and indeed several of the songs ended up in the operas. Though the reuse did not stop there because bits of the Messa di Gloria pop up too (Anna Picard's article in the programme gave us the delightful details).

Saturday 24 February 2024

The Lady of Satis House: composer Jacques Cohen talks about finally bringing his 2012 Charles Dickens-inspired monodrama to disc

Jacques Cohen: The Lady of Satis House - Marie Vassiliou at Tete-a-Tete: The Opera Festival in 2012 (Photo: Claire Shovelton)
Jacques Cohen: The Lady of Satis House - Marie Vassiliou at Tete-a-Tete: The Opera Festival in 2012 (Photo: Claire Shovelton)

Jacques Cohen's operatic monodrama The Lady of Satis House premiered in 2012. A commission from Bill Bankes-Jones' Tete-a-Tete: The Opera Festival, it was directed by Joe Austin, designed by Emily Harwood and performed by soprano Marie Vassiliou and the Piatti Quartet. 2012 was also the bicentenary of Charles Dickens' birth and faced with writing the opera in six weeks, Jacques chose Miss Havisham from Great Expectations as the subject, drawing his text from Dickens' book.

Jacques Cohen (Photo: Lester Barnes)
Jacques Cohen (Photo: Lester Barnes)

Now, some 12 years after those first performances, the work has appeared on disc, on the Meridian label, again performed by Marie Vassiliou with the Tippett Quartet. The disc also features two of Jacques' works for string quartet, When the Bough Breaks: Three Lullabies for String Quartet and From Behind Glass: Tone Poem for String Quartet.

The recording came about because Jacques had several recording projects in mind, of which The Lady of Satis House was one. Jacques is the music director and founder of the Cohen Ensemble and is known for his arrangements for string orchestra. He explains that throughout his whole career, there has been something of a pull between being a conductor and being a composer but his confidence as a composer has increased as his technique and style have developed. He has always composed but has realised that he is writing more.

His first disc with Meridian, Music for Strings, featured a variety of composers including one of his own works, whilst his second disc, Transcriptions for Strings, was his own arrangements for string orchestra. His disc of carols, Cohen's Carols on Willowhayne Records, was the first disc to contain only his music, so he was moving in the direction of a disc of his compositions. The Lady of Satis House felt it needed to be recorded, but it was also economic, just needing soprano and string quartet. 

Jacques admits that he usually considers that operas need to be seen to be properly appreciated, but as a chamber piece, he feels that The Lady of Satis House can be appreciated on disc, more than some other operas. Also, opera is harder and more expensive to stage, so the opportunity to preserve it on disc was ideal.

Friday 23 February 2024

Being performed for the first time for almost 20 years: Murray Hipkin & the North London Chorus give us a chance to finally experience Ethel Smyth's The Prison in concert

Ethel Smyth: The Prison - North London Chorus flyer
Whilst the last few decades have seen a remarkable increase in the amount of exploration of neglected 19th and 20th century British music, there has still been a tendency to view individual composers through quite a narrow lens. So, Stanford's most popular opera during his lifetime, Shamus O'Brien is only now getting its first studio recording, whilst Parry's oratorios, highly popular and influential in their day, have similarly only recently arrived properly on disc.

Ethel Smyth is another one of those composers. Whilst The Wreckers has long been available on disc, it took Glyndebourne in 2021 to finally explore the composer's original version of the opera and her other operas have all had a patchy life and though finally we have all but one (the score of which has disappeared) available on disc. But what about the rest of Smyth's oeuvre? The early Mass certainly, but the rest of her work is only patchily covered.

I discovered her late oratorio/symphony The Prison back in the 1990s when I came across the re-issue of H.B. Brewster's philosophical treatise The Prison: A Dialogue in an edition with Smyth's valuable memoir of HB. This book was issued in 1931 at the same time as the first performances Smyth's The Prison but for some reason Smyth's symphony for soprano, bass-baritone, chorus and orchestra never seemed to have anything of a life after her own death.

The work was finally recorded and issued in 2020 on Chandos in a terrific performance, by an American choir and orchestra [see my review]. Now the work is getting a proper outing in concert in London when Murray Hipkin conducts the North London Chorus and Meridian Sinfonia with soloists Rebecca Bottone and Alex Otterburn in a performance of Ethel Smyth's The Prison at St James' Church, Muswell Hill on Saturday 16 March 2023.

It is fatally easy to be lazy and assume the work has rightly been confined to the dustbin of musical history, but exposure to the piece makes you realise that it is past generations who were being lazy. As Smyth's German-influenced, late-Romantic, tonal music went out of fashion, as Smyth herself, elderly, very deaf and still a combative character, was easily dismissed as a crank, people simply stopped bothering.

The Prison came at a time when the composer might have been expected to stop work (she was over 70), but a planned visit to Greece made her re-read one of her friend (and probable lover) H.B Brewster's philosophical books, The Prison which was originally published in 1891. This is a dialogue between a group of characters, as Elizabeth Wood's excellent booklet note from the Chandos recording explains "HB devised the book of 'The Prison' as a Platonic dialogue among four friends who meet to read a newly discovered text, presumed to have been written by a prisoner on the eve of execution. Each reader voices a different philosophical method – supernaturalist, neo-Platonist, Christian, and positivist, respectively – to comment on moral and philosophical problems found in the text." Not an obvious source for a large scale choral work, but Smyth thought so.

HB - Henry Bennet Brewster (1850-1908), a member of the American diaspora, born in Paris and resident in Florence. He wrote philosophical works, in English, and poetry in French (hence his original version of the text for The Wreckers being in French. He was married to a friend of Ethel Smyth's whom she got to know in Leipzig. She and HB would become close, close in fact and commentators speculate that some of the torridness of in the illicit affair of hero and heroine in The Wreckers comes from this reality.

Henry Brewster (HB) in 1897
Henry Brewster (HB) in 1897
She and HB remained close, albeit purely as friends, until his untimely death in 1908. He had not only written the librettos of her operas Der Wald and The Wreckers but continued to form a strong influence on her.

  The Prison was thus something of a final envoi to a dear friend. Smyth extracted the Prisoner's thoughts from HB's longer text, and used these to create the symphony. Here we have the Prisoner, and his Soul, and their discussion about how best he prepare for his forthcoming execution. "He aspires through contemplation and ethical conduct to detach the self from the ego and free the imprisoned mind, body, and soul from the shackles of desire, so as to attain spiritual deliverance."

The result is a thoughtful, almost contemplative piece, in a style that we don't associate with Smyth because the mental image of her remains Sir Thomas Beecham's figure conducting The March of the Women with a toothbrush through a prison window, or the passionate harridan from Virginia Woolf's diaries. What we hear in The Prison is a composer formed by training and personal contact with the Leipzig circle around Schumann and Mendelssohn's families, for whom the First World War was a great cultural and musical wrench. The post-war Smyth adjusted her style, but she never wrote music in the manner of her English contemporaries, and this performance of The Prison gives us a chance to find out more.

Full details of the performance on 16 March 2024 from the North London Chorus' website.

Vivid intensity and profound expressivity: Vox Luminis explores the world of the 17th century Italian Stabat Mater at Wigmore Hall

Domenico Scarlatti painted in 1738 by Domingo Antonio Velasco
Domenico Scarlatti painted in 1738 by Domingo Antonio Velasco

Stabat Mater: Lotti, Monteverdi, Domenico Mazzocchi, Alessandro Della Ciaia, Domenico Scarlatti; Vox Luminis; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed 21 February 2024

An imaginative programme that moved from an anonymous 13th century solo lai to the ten voices of Scarlatti's Stabat Mater, each work rendered with vivid intensity and profound expressivity

The vocal ensemble Vox Luminis returned to Wigmore Hall on Wednesday 21 February 2024 with Stabat Mater, a programme centred on Domenico Scarlatti's glorious ten-part Stabat Mater but which also took in an anonymous 13th century lai, Lamentation de la Vierge au Croix, Antonio Lotti's Crucifixus a8, Monteverdi's Adoramus te Christe and music by two lesser-known 17th century figures, Domenico Mazzocchi and Alessandro Della Ciaia, all focusing on the crucifixion and the lamentation of the Virgin at the foot of the cross.

Vox Luminis fielded an ensemble of eleven singers, directed from within by artistic director and bass Lionel Meunier, plus theorbo (Simon Linné), harp (Sarah Ridy), violone (James Munro) and organ (Anthony Romaniuk), though until the encore (further Monteverdi) we never heard all the singers on stage at once and the programme moved between a single voice right through to the ten voices, always one per part.

Thursday 22 February 2024

Cinderella in the gas works: Royal Birmingham Conservatoire's site-specific production of Massenet's opera

Jonathan Dove: The Enchanted Pig - Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, 2023 (Photo Greg Milner)
Jonathan Dove: The Enchanted Pig - Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, 2023 (Photo Greg Milner)

On Monday 29 February 2024, the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire debuts its Spring opera production, Massenet's Cendrillon at Gas Street Central in Birmingham. The production involves a collaboration between the London College of Fashion and the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire with a cast of students from the conservatoire's Vocal & Operatic Studies Department plus a team of student set-designers, language coaches, assistant directors, surtitle operators and so on. All directed by Matthew Eberhardt who has created a production set in the 1950s

The venue is a former gas works that originally supplied the gas to the lamps around the city and is now a church. The production will see the audience move through this interesting space.

The conservatoire does not have a specific postgraduate opera course and the performers will be undergraduate and masters vocal students, from the Vocal & Operatic Studies Department which has some 60 to 80 students. The head of department since 2017 is conductor Paul Wingfield. The lack of specific opera course means that undergraduates are able to gain stage experience, including principal roles where suitable, and in Cendrillon there are some 17 undergraduates in principal roles (the opera is double-cast).

There are usually three productions per year, staged scenes in November, a site-specific production in March and a concert performance in June. Previous productions have included Jonathan Dove's The Enchanted Pig (2023), Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen (2023), Charpentier's Les Arts Florissants and Offenbach's Mesdames de la Halles (2022), Stephen McNeff's Banished (2022), Mark-Anthony Turnage's Coraline (2021) and Jeremy Sams' Baroque pasticcio, The Enchanted Island (2020).

The conservatoire does not have it's own theatre, hence offering the students the added experience of working on a site specific production (Birmingham has a rich inheritance of this thanks to Graham Vick's work with Birmingham Opera Company) previous venues have included an old button factory, and a rave bingo venue in Digbeth – the Secret Space, whilst the Moseley Swimming Baths – an architectural wonder, is a possibility for the future.

Each project involves, of course, not just singers but orchestral musicians from the conservatoire, and student set designers (from Birmingham City University, of which the conservatoire is part), student assistant directors, student repetiteurs, student assistant conductors, student language coaches.

Since 2022, they have received funding from the Linbury Trust which has not only enabled the collaboration with the London College of Fashion but has enabled the department to extend its Learning & Participation work. 600 school children came to the Opera Scenes in November, and school children have also been involved in set design workshops for Cendrillon (their work will be displayed in the foyer) and there will be a children’s chorus for the Summer opera, Hansel and Gretel.

Cendrillon is at Gas Street Central from 29 February to 2 March, under 18s go free with a paying adult, full details from the conservatoire's website.

Wednesday 21 February 2024

Pink Floyd by candle-light played by a classical string orchestra: welcome to the world of the Yorkshire-based Paradox Orchestra

The Paradox Orchestra at Leeds Minster
The Paradox Orchestra at Leeds Minster

The Paradox Orchestra is a dynamic young Yorkshire-based ensemble of classically-trained musicians, many of whom trained at the Leeds Conservatoire, whose performances vibrantly reimagine rock, pop, and dance classics, with the aim of re-energising classical music, supporting classically trained musicians, and bring music to new audiences.

The orchestra has just launched a tour of Pink Floyd hits, with a candle-lit 25-strong string orchestra in hits from the seminal album, The Dark Side of the Moon with performances to come in Selby Abbey (11/5/2024), Sheffield Cathedral (16/5/2024) and Huddersfield Town Hall (17/5/2024). These follow sell-out performances last year at Conyngham Hall in Knaresborough, Leeds Minster and Manchester Cathedral.

The orchestra combines a high level of musicianship with showmanship in its performances, and they donate 5% of ticket sales to local charities. The orchestra also provides Inspire Days for local charities, including the Archers project in Sheffield, which supports the homeless and in May The homeless receiving support at the Archer project will be invited to watch a rehearsal of the orchestra for free.

Michael Sluman, founder, and artistic director of Paradox Orchestra, said: "Music, particularly classical music, has been proven to help reduce the stresses of life, and in our challenging times, we are passionate about bringing people together for an uplifting, transformative night out. We are committed to working with local music hubs, churches, town halls and charities to reach new audiences and break down the perceptions that classical music is only for a posh night out, for posh people and at posh locations."

Full details from the orchestra's website.



On an Endless Road: Itō Noe and the Women Composers of Her Time

Itō Noe
 Itō Noe 
Itō Noe (1895-1923) was a Japanese writer and feminist anarchist who was killed by Japanese state forces when she was just 28. A new song cycle by British composer Francesca Le Lohé celebrates the brief life of this brave and radical woman. 

The song cycle has been written for Japanese singer and biwa player Akiko Kubota who makes her UK debut on a tour from 5 to 9 March 2024 for International Women's Day with concerts in London (5/3/2024), Huddersfield (7/3/2024), Manchester (8/3/2024) and Leeds (9/3/2024).

Kubota's programme, On an Endless Road: Itō Noe and the Women Composers of Her Time premiered in Tokyo in December 2023 and the UK tour is being presented by Hera, an intersectional feminist opera company, in association with Illuminate Women’s Music.

Kubota plays the satsuma biwa, a Japanese stringed instrument originally played by samurai and traditionally used to accompany songs chronicling the achievements of warriors in battle. At the concert Kubota will be joined by Midori Komachi (violin) and Yura Zaiki (piano). 

As well as Le Lohé's song cycle, the programme includes music for violin and piano by three of Noe’s contemporaries who broke new ground writing in the Western Classical tradition - Kōda Nobu (1870-1946), one of the very first Japanese composers to write in the European classical tradition, Toyama Michiko (1913-2006), who forged an international career and reputation, Yoshida Takako (1910- 1956), a feminist and pacifist, who refused to write militaristic music and was jailed for her pacifist principles in 1940.

In 2015, composer Francesca Le Lohé received a Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation Scholarship and relocated to Japan to study Japanese instruments, including the biwa. Her opera The Key won the Keizo Saji Prize in 2019.

Full details from the Hera website.

Revealing a remarkable talent: Solomon's Knot explore the Sacred Songs and Anthems of 17th century composer George Jeffreys

George Jeffreys: Sacred Songs and Anthems; Solomon's Knot, Josep Maria Marti Duran, William Whitehead; Prospero

George Jeffreys: Sacred Songs and Anthems; Solomon's Knot, Josep Maria Marti Duran, William Whitehead; Prospero
Reviewed 19 February 2024

The almost forgotten 17th-century English composer George Jeffreys is revealed as a remarkable talent, writing Italian influenced-music in the depths of darkest Northamptonshire during the Civil War, vividly brought to life by Solomon's Knot

The name of the composer George Jeffreys is not well known and it is perhaps fatally easy to assume that his surviving output of instrumental fantasias, thirteen Italian madrigals, sixteen English songs, sixty-one Latin motets, five Latin canticles, two Latin mass movements, twenty-six English anthems or devotional pieces, and three settings of texts from the English Communion Service would be that of an eminently forgettable minor 17th century English composer working in a somewhat old-fashioned style. Yet the reality is remarkably different.

Born around 1610 and living until 1683, his lifetime coincided with a complex piece of English history and for most of his life he worked for Lord Hatton, much of the time at Hatton's seat of Kirby Hall in Northamptonshire. Now, the spotlight is turning onto Jeffreys and rightly finding a composer who has been unjustly neglected. His music is being made available via Musica Britannica and this new disc on Prospero Classical, Lost Majesty: Sacred Songs and Anthems by George Jeffreys, from Solomon's Knot (artistic director Jonathan Sells) including Josep Maria Martí Duran (theorbo) and William Whitehead (organ), not only features Jeffreys' sacred songs and anthems for four- and five-part voices and continuo, but was recorded in the great hall of Kirby Hall.

Solomon's Knot at Kirby Hall
Solomon's Knot at Kirby Hall

Not much is known about Jeffreys' early life and he first shows up in Cambridge in the 1630s where he may well have come into contact with the Hatton family but from this period until his death he was in the family's service. This was mainly as Steward at Kirby Hall, where he remained during the Civil War with Lady Hatton whilst Lord Hatton fled to France. Despite the fact that Jeffreys was employed by Christopher Hatton primarily as a secretary/steward and not as a musician, he maintained a passionate interest in music throughout his life and music manuscripts in his hand survive from the 1630s through to the 1680s. What is perhaps most significant is that Jeffreys, who was born around 50 years before Purcell, was one of the few English composers of the period to be influenced by contemporary Italian styles and to write in a forward-looking style.

Tuesday 20 February 2024

From Harald en Italie to Le prophète in New York: 2024 Bard Summerscape focuses on Berlioz and his world

Fisher Center at Bard College (Photo: Peter Aaron '68/Esto)
Fisher Center at Bard College (Photo: Peter Aaron '68/Esto) 

The Frank Gehry-designed Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College in the Hudson Valley, New York City, presents an annual Summerscape festival and this year there are eight weeks of opera, theatre, dance and a music festival from 20 June to 18 August 2024. The theme of the music festival is Berlioz and His World. Alongside wide-ranging concerts of music by Berlioz and his contemporaries, there is a rare staging of Meyerbeer's Le prophète (26 July to 4 August) directed by Christian Räth, with the American Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leon Botstein and featuring Robert Watson (Siegmund in Dmitri Tcherniakov’s new production of Die Walküre at the Staatsoper, Berlin) in the title role plus Jennifer Feinstein as Fidès. 

Meyerbeer's Le prophète featured at the Metropolitan Opera in 1918 as a vehicle for Enrico Caruso, and returned in 1977 with James McCracken and Marilyn Horne, since then I am not sure whether the opera has had a performance in the USA.

In concert there is a chance to hear not only Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique but the far rarer Lélio, ou Le retour à la vie: monodrame lyrique, plus songs, the Te Deum, selections from Les TroyensLe mort d’OphélieHarold en Italie and La damnation de Faust, alongside music by Reicha, Weber, Le Sueur, Spontini, Thomas, Gluck, Auber, Meyerbeer, Rossini, Liszt, Wagner, Saint-Saens, Bizet, Faure, Viardot, Farrenc, Bertin, Grandval, Cherubini, Paganini, Halevy, Adam, Strauss, Ernst, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Hiller, Gottschalk, Raff, Rimsky-Korsakov, Debussy, Varese and Messiaen.

Full details from the Fisher Center website.

La voix humaine: two different productions bring Poulenc's intimate drama to London

Poulenc: La voix humaine - Green Opera
For those seeking to bring opera to more intimate spaces, Poulenc's La voix humaine would seem ideal both in terms of length and performing forces. A single, female protagonist, a single setting and a length of around 45 minutes. In fact, it seems to cry out for that intimate space as Poulenc and Cocteau's protagonist gets remarkably confiding. 

But though it has developed quite a currency over the last decade or so, Poulenc was not fond on the version of the opera with piano accompaniment and for him, the piece needed a full orchestra. But opera companies have found that the sacrifice of Poulenc's orchestral colours is sometimes worth the gain in sheer immediacy and intimacy.

Remarkably, there are two different productions of Poulenc's La voix humaine coming up. In March, Green Opera is performing the work at the King's Head Theatre in Islington, the first time opera has been performed in the venue for ten years. In April, Pegasus Opera Company is presenting Poulenc's La voix humaine in a double bill with Philip Hagemann's Roman Fever at the Susie Sainsbury Theatre at the Royal Academy of Music.

Green Opera's critically-acclaimed production of Francis Poulenc's La Voix humaine returns for a strictly limited run, 14-16 March 2024 at the newly reconstructed purpose-built King's Head Theatre. New Zealand soprano Katherine McIndoe with Eleanor Burke as director and André Callegaro as music director, these latter two both Jette Parker Young Artists at the Royal Opera House.

Green Opera is the first and only environmentally-sustainable opera company; for every £10 donated or ticket purchased, Green Opera plants a tree with Eden Reforestation Projects. So far they have planted over 2,000 trees! The March performances are in support of the Maternal Mental Health Alliance to whom 25% of the box office proceeds will be donated.

Full details from the Kings Head Theatre website.

Pegasus Opera's double bill features an all-female led cast and creative team. Both operas are directed by Josette Bushell-Mingo and conducted by Rebecca Tong. For Poulenc's La voix humaine, the protagonist is Nadine Benjamin, whilst in Philip Hagemann's opera, the cast features Alison Buchanan, artistic director of Pegasus Opera, and Bernadine Pritchett. 

Philip Hagemann's Roman Fever is based on an Edith Wharton short story about two middle-aged women and their daughters on holiday in Rome. The work was premiered in Santa Fe in 1989 and this will be the work's UK premiere. The double bill runs from 12 to 14 April 2024.

Full details from TicketSource.

Pegasus Opera's Alison Buchanan, Bernadine Pritchett and Nadine Benjamin (Photo: Dominique Nok)
Pegasus Opera's Alison Buchanan, Bernadine Pritchett and Nadine Benjamin (Photo: Dominique Nok)


Knowing no boundaries: on Circus Dinograd contemporary & period performers move between styles & genres without embarrassment

Circus Dinograd - Zefir Records

Circus Dinograd; traditional, Jean-Luc Ponty, Purcell, Ravel, Jarmo Ramponen, David Faber, Hilary Summers, Maarten Ornstein, Mike Fentross, Marie-Louise de Jong, Marleen Wester, Judith van Driel, Byrd, John Dowland;  Hilary Summers, Maarten Ornstein, Mike Fentross, Dudok Quartet Amsterdam; Zefir Records
Reviewed 14 February 2024

Sui generis, a disc that moves between genre and style without embarrassment as the ensemble of contemporary and period performers cross from the historical to the contemporary to the improvised

Circus Dinograd on Zefir Records is an intriguing new cross-genre collaboration between contralto Hilary Summers, the bass clarinet and theorbo/vihuela duet of Maarten Ornstein and Mike Fentross, and the Dudok Quartet Amsterdam (Judith van Driel, Marleen Wester, Marie-Louise de Jong, David Faber). The idea behind the disc seems to be that there are no boundaries, so we have reimaginations of Byrd, Purcell, and Dowland alongside folksong, Ravel and pieces by the different members of the ensemble, notably a set of Seven Deadly Sins, one by each member of the ensemble. 

Monday 19 February 2024

Threads of Gold: The National Centre for Early Music's Beverley & East Riding Early Music Festival returns to the historic Yorkshire town

Threads of Gold:  The National Centre for Early Music's Beverley & East Riding Early Music Festival returns to the historic Yorkshire town

The National Centre for Early Music's Beverley & East Riding Early Music Festival returns to the historic Yorkshire town from 24 to 26 May 20204 with a festival entitled Threads of Gold

There is something of a Spanish theme this year, as El Gran Teatro del Mundo, a young instrumental group based in Spain that captivated audiences on their UK tour last year and opens this year’s festival with Life is a Dream (la vida es sueño), a magical journey through the mysteries of the night, whilst The Telling close things with their music theatre show Into the Melting Pot which tells the stories of the women of medieval Spain thrust apart by religious intolerance. At Beverley Minster, the choir Tenebrae, appearing at the festival for the first time, perform their Tomás Luis de Victoria’s Requiem – a masterpiece of the Spanish Golden Age.  Other performers this year include the BBC New Generation Baroque Ensemble Augelletti, London Handel Players, violinist Bojan Čičić and harpsichordist Steven Devine, plus Song Path. 

The town plays its own important role in the festival, with the programme reflecting Beverley’s unique and intriguing history. This year’s talks and tours include Medieval Pilgrimage to St John of Beverley, an illustrated talk presented by Dr John Jenkins, co-Director of the Centre for Pilgrimage Studies at the University of York and Ancient Threads and Enchanted Garments, stories of preserved textiles from Iron Age and Roman Yorkshire told by Melanie Giles, Professor in European Prehistory at the University of Manchester.

Full details from the NCEM website.


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