Wednesday 17 April 2024

Southbank Centre's new season: Schoenberg's 150th, the OAE in Bruckner, Joyce Didonato in Berlioz, The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra with Daniel Barenboim

Igor Levit (Photo: Felix Broede )
Igor Levit (Photo: Felix Broede )

The Southbank Centre has announced its Autumn/Winter programme for 2024/25 which includes a five-day Opening Weekend, residencies from violist Lawrence Power, organist James McVinnie and Manchester Collective, and visitors include Yuja Wang and Víkingur Ólafsson, the Borodin Quartet celebrating its 80th anniversary, Concerto Italiano, The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra with Daniel Barenboim, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra performing Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring and the BBC Concert Orchestra with Unclassified Live.

The Opening Weekend, from 25 to 29 September 2024, features Joyce DiDonato in Berlioz with Edward Gardner and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Philharmonia launching its Nordic Soundscapes series with Sibelius, Grieg and María Sigfúsdóttir conducted by Santtu-Matias Rouvali, violist Lawrence Power and composer Thomas Ades, the Multi-Storey Orchestra, cellist Matthew Barley, the Paraorchestra, and the Scottish Ensemble. Pianist Igor Levit performs works by Bach, Brahms and Beethoven in his Royal Festival Hall solo recital debut.

Lawrence Power will continue his residency by joining forces with composer/soprano Heloise Werner and lutenist Sergio Bucheli, and Power is the soloist in the UK premiere of Magnus Lindberg's Viola Concerto with the Philharmonia Orchestra. Manchester Collective continues its residency with collaborations with pianist extraordinaire Zubin Kanga and cellist phenomenon Abel Selacoe. Organist James McVinnie [see my recent interview with him] continues his residency with Stanford, Byrd, and Liszt on the RFH organ, and Bach on organ and piano.

Daniel Barenboim will be conducting the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 4, Chineke! perform music by Florence Price (the UK premiere of her Symphony No. 4!), Eleanor Alberga, Valerie Coleman and Brian Raphael Nabor, the London Symphony Orchestra pairs Shostakovich's Symphony No. 13 with Schoenberg's A survivor in Warsaw, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment will be burning the candle at both ends, presenting all of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos and performing Bruckner's Symphony No. 5 (not in the same programme!).

The London Sinfonietta is celebrating Schoenberg's 150th anniversary, with Jonathan Berman conducting the Ode to Napoleon (no, I've never heard that live either) and Chamber Symphony. They will be joined by the Royal Academy of Music's Manson Ensemble for a performance of Morton Feldman's For Samuel Beckett. The Philharmonia Orchestra's Music of Today will feature conductor Chloe Rooke and soprano Ella Taylor in Saariaho’s Semafor and Hans Abrahmsen’s Two Inger Christensen Songs. The London Philharmonic Orchestra's season will include Evan Williams’ Dead White Man Music (Concerto for Harpsichord and Chamber Ensemble), and Sarod player Amjad Ali Khan performs his own concerto Samaagam alongside a new overture by Reena Esmail and selections from film soundtracks by AR Rahman.

The full season is available via the Southbank Centre website.

For David, on his birthday: Ben Vonberg-Clark & Nigel Foster in a taster for Out of the Shadows at Omnibus Theatre, Clapham

In June, we are presenting Out of the Shadows at Omnibus Theatre, Clapham as part of 96 Festival, its celebration of queerness and theatre. Out of the Shadows is an evening of my music, featuring two recent cantatas and a selection of my songs performed by tenor Ben Vonberg-Clark, baritone Jonathan Eyers and pianist Nigel Foster.

As a little taster, here are two songs from my song cycle, For David, on his Birthday performed by Ben Vonberg-Clark and Nigel Foster and recorded at Hinde Street Methodist Church in 2023 when Out of the Shadows was premiered. The recording engineer Christopher Braine. The video is available on YouTube.

In the 1990s I came across two book of poems by the Black American poet Carl Cook, The Tranquil Lake of Love and postscripts. I used his poems for the chorales in my Passion setting, and set seven of them as annual birthday presents for my boyfriend (and now husband) David. Here we hear 'to see you happy' and 'perhaps', this latter was a finalist in the English Poetry and Song Society's Diamond Songs competition, organised to celebrate Queen Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee. 

Out of the Shadows is at Omnibus Theatre, Clapham at 7pm on Sunday 16 June 2024, with tenor Ben Vonberg-Clark, baritone Jonathan Eyers, pianist Nigel Foster. Further information from the theatre website.

A City Full of Stories: Anna Phillips on her work with Academy of St Martin in the Fields' SoundWalk

Illustrations of SoundWalk by Ruby Wright
Illustrations of SoundWalk by Ruby Wright

Anna Phillips is a harpist who is currently studying for a Master’s degree at the Royal Academy of Music. She had the opportunity to take part in the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields' SoundWalk project as part of an elective with the Open Academy Department at the Royal Academy of Music.

The Connection at St. Martin’s is a day centre that supports homeless people to help rebuild their lives, through helping them on their way out of homelessness and through artistic programmes. The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields (ASMF) chamber orchestra has been running music workshops with homeless people in various venues across London, including The Connection, for 25 years. Jackie Walduck, who leads these workshops, is also a lecturer at the Royal Academy of Music. She has been leading the Academy’s partnership with this initiative, which is set to continue into the foreseeable future.  

The music programmes at The Connection are open to anyone who comes to the day centre. It is an environment where participants can connect with each other and explore their own voice and creativity through music and other creative workshops. 

My involvement came through the Open Academy Department, the Royal Academy of Music’s community and participation department. I was involved with the creation of a Soundwalk, an undertaking which not only marks 25 years of the ASMF working with the homeless community, but also part of the celebrations for the centenary of the orchestra’s founder, Sir Neville Marriner. The Soundwalk includes music composed by the clients from the centre, as well as the opportunity for incorporating lyrics or spoken word with the guidance of writer, Hazel Gould. This special project was recorded and will be available to listen to digitally while walking around St Martin in the Field’s and Covent Garden. 

Going into this experience, I was looking forward to meeting everyone involved. My hope was to make meaningful musical contributions to the group, as well as get to know each individual through musical explorations and improvisations together.  My first session at The Connection was the third session of the term. As part of this workshop, we started exploring words to create a song. It can feel vulnerable to contribute an idea, but the workshop space creates an environment where everyone can contribute in any way. There were lots of participants in this session and some lovely connections were made. For example, two participants began playing together in a call and response way, which happened organically, and it was lovely to see. Another was full of ideas, and he encouraged others too.

The next session I attended was divided into two parts: music and writing. Jackie warmed up the group with musical games, such as a call and response rhythm game and a warm-up jam. In these warm-ups you could hear how each person was feeling depending on how they would play their instrument. I enjoyed the warm-up jams because there was a space for each person to play a short musical improvisation. This reminded me why I enjoyed playing music as a child, because I was able to express myself without having to articulate it in words. Now that music is my career, it can be easier to lose sight of the playfulness and creativity of it. It has reminded me to play the harp for the child within me, who expressed herself with no self-judgement. Hazel then came to do a writing workshop to encourage lyric writing. We were split into smaller groups and each given an object. We were thinking about the story behind the object and if the object were to have feelings, what they might be. By the end of the session, we had created a verse that we spoke together; some people spoke the lyrics on their own which was a very special moment.

The last session I attended was more focused on rehearsing all our ideas for the song to be recorded for the Soundwalk in two weeks’ time. The harp seemed to act as a linchpin for the group as I was able to outline the harmony which grounded the song in this workshop. I worked with the rhythm section to ground the harmony, and then the other two groups explored drumming rhythms and a melody.

It was a wonderful experience to be a part of this project, and to witness such a welcoming space was really special. Being able to show up, be your authentic self and be able to participate in any way you like with no judgement is truly amazing. You can see the confidence it builds and the joy it brings to each person. I have been reminded that music doesn’t have to be complicated to be powerful, and everyone can write music or lyrics, especially when it comes from the heart. The only way to create in this way is to be in a safe and encouraging space, which is exactly what music at The Connection is.

The Academy of St Martin in the Fields' SoundWalk A City Full of Stories is a free, immersive audio experience part of the Marriner 100 Celebrations. To take part in the SoundWalk, visit St Martin-in-the-Fields Church, and scan the QR code

Tuesday 16 April 2024

Das Jahr: OAE commissions four women composers to respond to Fanny Hensel's piano cycle

April from the manuscript of Fanny Hensel's Das Jahr (illustration by Wilhelm Hensel)
'April' from the manuscript of Fanny Hensel's Das Jahr (illustration by Wilhelm Hensel)

Though we might wish it otherwise, works by historical women composers often cleave to certain genres, often related to the fact that women were not encouraged to publish music and wrote for more domestic performance. There is also the issue of confidence in approach to larger-scale forms. This weekend (21 April 2024), for instance, the Engegård Quartet will be playing Fanny Hensel's Quartet in E flat at Conway Hall [see website for details, including my pre-concert talk]. She only wrote one mature quartet, it had one private performance after which her brother Felix took exception to her rather free approach to form and she never wrote another one. 

This means that ensembles that rely on historical composers must draw on a relatively small pool of works in a particular genre or attempt to widen the pool by adding works by unknown composers. This can be a slow process, and a tricky one. For historical reasons the number of, say, piano concertos by 19th century women composers is relatively small because, let's face it, who is going to write a piano concerto unless there is the possibility of getting it performed.

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE) has taken a leap sideways when it comes to expanding the repertoire. Focusing on Fanny Hensel's 1841 piano cycle, Das Jahr, the OAE has commissioned four contemporary women composers to write works inspired by the cycle. Fanny Hensel described Das Jahr as "small work that is giving me much fun", so the OAE is having the complete cycle played on fortepiano by Olga Pashchenko and has then commissioned Roxanna Panufnik, Electra Perivolaris, Freya Waley-Cohen and Errollyn Wallen to respond to movements from the work, writing for an orchestra of the period.

Das Jahr was something of a family project. Fanny Hensel wrote 13 pieces, one for each month and a prelude, each prefaced by a poetical quote and a specially created illustration by her husband, the artist Wilhelm Hensel.  Electra Perivolaris will take 'March' as her starting point, followed by a contribution inspired by 'April' from Errollyn Wallen. Freya Waley-Cohen's commission will draw on "her beautiful and elegant June serenade with visitations or memories of the darkly playful February scherzo". Finally, Roxanna Panufnik will compose a piece inspired by the closing movement, 'Nachspiel', which she says "appealed to me with its intense focus on harmony which moves and never really settles until the very end."

Clockwise from top left: Roxanna Panufnik, Olga Pashchenko, Electra Perivolaris, Fanny Mendelssohn, Errollyn Wallen, Freya Waley-Cohen.
Clockwise from top left: Roxanna Panufnik, Olga Pashchenko, Electra Perivolaris, Fanny Mendelssohn, Errollyn Wallen, Freya Waley-Cohen.

Further details from the OAE website.

A Spring and Summer of new opera: Tête à Tête's plans for 2024

Tête à Tête

Tête à Tête is not just planning its Summer opera festival in London but is creating a whole Spring and Summer of opera. In May, the company is heading to Newcastle, joining forces with members of the Royal Northern Sinfonia for two days of workshops for opera makers, aimed at encouraging the development of new opera in the North East
[further information]

June sees the company in London working with student composers from the Royal College of Music (RCM) to present Revolutions, an evening of six short operas by RCM composers performed by RCM students. The programme being presented on 24, 26 and 27 June 2024 includes The Anthem by Jasper Eaglesfield, who is also featured in the RCM Philharmonic’s Orchestral Masterworks concert on 18 April, and Fanny and Stella’s Last Day Out by Jasper Dommett, whose music was praised in The Scotsman for its ‘crystalline gestures’ and ‘languid lyricism’, plus works by Ed Driver, Connie Harris, Jasmine Morris and Alisa Zaika [further information].

July sees the company back in the North East, continuing its work with Royal Northern Sinfonia and presenting Gala 2024 in North Shields, a spectacular choral and opera concert featuring 200 local participants, including 70 primary school children, on 7 July 2024 [further information]

The annual Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival returns to London from 24 August to 29 September 2024 with premieres from across the UK. The full line-up will be announced in June. And at home in Cornwall, Tête à Tête returns to the Minack Theatre in Penzance for two concert performances of Ethyl Smyth’s The Boatswain's Mate on 10 and 12 September which will feature a community chorus [further information]

Artistic Director Bill Bankes-Jones expressed the excitement for the season: "After a comparatively quiet year in 2023, it’s really thrilling to contemplate the huge amount and extent of work we’ll be making in 2024, and really inspiring to reflect how much of it will connect artists, participants and audience with the stories of our time."  

The sound of an image: recent chamber music by New York City-based, Puerto Rican-born composer Gabriel Vicéns

Mural: chamber music by Gabriel Vicéns; Stradivarius
Mural: chamber music by Gabriel Vicéns; Stradivarius
Reviewed 15 April 2024

At times fierce and concentrated, Gabriel Vicéns music can evoke Webern and Felmann, but it also brings in his own visual element

New York City-based, Puerto Rican-born composer, guitarist, and visual artist Gabriel Vicéns' fourth studio album Mural, released on the Stradivarius label, features seven of Vicéns chamber pieces for various ensembles including piano trio, Pierrot ensemble, and woodwind quintet. 

Gabriel Vicéns is a gifted guitarist and improvisor, as well as performing with a free jazz/experimental ensemble. He is also a painter [see his website], and you feel that many of these different aspects coalesce in this sharply imagined a crisply austere music.

The first track is Mural (2021) for clarinet, violin, and piano, performed by clarinettist Raissa Fahlman, violinist Joenne Dumitrascu, and pianist Corinne Penner. Vicéns constructs the piece out of motifs and fragments, rhythmic motifs on piano under pinning everything. Rhythm approaches the jazzy, but the work is more about individual points of instrumental colour. Perhaps there is something quasi-Webern about the compression of Vicéns' imagination, and the work unfolds with something of a coolness.

Monday 15 April 2024

Bloom: Bill Laurance and The Untold Orchestra, from Snarky Puppy to music-making with 18-piece string orchestra. My spotlight:

Pianist/composer Bill Laurance is perhaps best known as a member of the band Snarky Puppy, but he recently joined forces with Manchester-based The Untold Orchestra to release a disc of his music combining the 18-piece string orchestra, conducted by Rory Storm and led by Simmy Singh of the Manchester Collective, with Laurance's keyboards. Whilst he played jazz and swing as a teenager, Laurance studied classical music, composition and performance at the University of Leeds.

The new disc, Bloom is released on the ACT label and features nine tracks recorded in Manchester. The disc's official video, Bloom has been released in advance for the full release on 26 April 2024. Full details from the ACT website.

From the Homeland: Islington Festival of Music and Art

Islington Festival (Photo: Marc  Gascoigne)
Islington Festival (Photo: Marc  Gascoigne)

Islington Festival of Music and Art is returning with fourteen events across nine venues in and around Islington from 5 to 20 July 2024. This year's festival takes as its theme, From the Homeland, and events take us through the landscapes of Czech Republic, Hungary and Denmark, as well as journeys from India to Scotland and Australia to America.

The festival opens with a Czech theme as Joana Ly (violin), Miguel Ángel Villeda Cerón (cello) and Martin André (piano) perform music by Smetana, Martinu and Dvorak, and the festival finale returns to the theme with chamber music by Kapralova, Janacek and Dvorak.

There is a Verdi recital from soprano Skye Ingram, tenor Brenton Spiteri and pianist Fran Hills. Soprano Daniela Sicari, bass Peter Rose and pianist Martin André present a selection of global songs and duets, in Towards the New World, from Australia to America.

Baroque violinist Kati Debretzeni returns to complete her solo Bach cycle, whilst Jacqueline Shave (violin), John Parricelli (guitar) and Kuljit Bhamra (tabla) bring their innovative music making and story telling to Little Angel Theatre, and you can have a coffee- morning with Haydn quartets. Cellist Miguel Ángel Villeda Cerón performs two of Bach's solo cello suites. 

There is tea-time jazz, a piano recital from Dmitrii Kalashnikov, a walk with live music, plus yoga classes, and contemporary dance classes with live music.

Full details from the festival website.

Energy, discipline, control and sheer love of music-making: National Youth Orchestra and National Youth Brass Band in Gavin Higgins, Dani Howard, Prokofiev, Julius Eastman and more

National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, Jessica Cottis
National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, Jessica Cottis

Catalyst: Coleridge-Taylor, Julius Eastman, Gavin Higgins, Dani Howard, Prokofiev; National Youth Brass Band and National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, Tess Jackson, Jessica Cottis; Royal Festival Hall
Reviewed 14 April 2024

From Julius Eastman's creative provocation in the Clore Ballroom to the stupendous combined brass band and orchestra in Higgins new piece, an astonishing day of music making full of energy, discipline, control and sheer love of music-making 

Under the catch-all title of Catalyst, the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain arrived at the Southbank Centre's Royal Festival Hall on Sunday 14 April 2024 and filled the building with music. During the afternoon, there was a side-by-side performance with local school children of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's Ballade in the Clore Ballroom, as part of the orchestra's outreach programmes. Then before the main concert members of the main concert, members of the orchestra gathered in the Clore Ballroom for a performance of Julius Eastman's Stay on It. The main concert featured the National Youth Orchestra and National Youth Brass Band in Gavin Higgins' Concerto Grosso for Brass Band and Orchestra, conducted by Tess Jackson, and Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5, conducted by Jessica Cottis. The second half opened with a short fanfare by Dani Howard involving all the brass performers from both ensembles.

National Youth Orchestra & National Youth Brass Band of Great Britain (Photo: Chris Chris Christodoulou)
National Youth Orchestra & National Youth Brass Band of Great Britain (Photo: Chris Chris Christodoulou)

Saturday 13 April 2024

No boundaries or rules: Yorkshire-based Paradox Orchestra is reinventing the orchestral concert whether it be bringing a string orchestral sound to Pink Floyd fans or disco to music festivals

The Paradox Orchestra - Fifty Years of Pink Floyd - Leeds Minster
The Paradox Orchestra - Fifty Years of Pink Floyd - Leeds Minster

The Paradox Orchestra is a relatively new professional ensemble based in Yorkshire. Founded in 2020 by Michael Sluman, a young professional oboist, the orchestra consists mostly of graduates of Leeds Conservatoire.

Created to fill what Michael perceived as a gap, the orchestra provides work for young professional musicians in Yorkshire and in three years has developed into an impressive group with educational and charity work alongside its sold-out concerts in historic venues. Describing itself as reinventing pop, rock, and dance hits with a classical twist to help re-energise classical music, the orchestra supports classically trained musicians whilst bringing classical to new audiences.

When I spoke to Michael recently, the orchestra was in the middle of its current tour, performing its 50 Years of Pink Floyd programme in Grange-over-Sands, Hebden Bridge, Selby Abbey, Sheffield Cathedral and Huddersfield Town Hall.

Michael founded the orchestra partly because there is so little professional orchestral coverage in Yorkshire, just the orchestra of Opera North, Skipton Camerata and the relatively new Yorkshire Symphony Orchestra, and there is uniformity between them. Michael had been freelancing around Yorkshire as an oboist and saw a gap. Also, he wanted to create something different, what he felt that a 21st-century orchestra could be. Beginning after the pandemic felt like a new starting point with no boundaries or rules.

Friday 12 April 2024

Turkey's leading orchestra, the German national youth orchestra plus ensembles from Tokyo, Prague, Vienna, Buenos Aires: 2024/25 Zurich International Orchestra Series at Cadogan Hall

Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra
Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra

The 2024/25 Zurich International Orchestra Series at Cadogan Hall has recently been announced and as ever it is a chance to hear orchestras that do not always make it to London's bigger halls. The season opens on 7 October with Theodore Kuchar conducting the Lviv National Philharmonic Orchestra of Ukraine in a programme of Sibelius, Brahms and Beethoven but which begins with Ukrainian composer Yevhen Stankovych's Chamber Symphony No. 3.

2024 also sees visits from the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra of Tokyo with Christian Tetzlaff in Beethoven's Violin Concerto, plus the 'Dance of the Seven Veils' from the ballet, Salome by Japanese composer Akira Ifukube (1914-2006), known also for his film scores including the 1954 Godzilla; Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra with its British chief conductor Jonathan Darlington; Hungarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in Rachmaninov, Beethoven and Liszt.

Moving to 2025, however, and we get some real highlights. First off, the German National Orchestra which, rather confusingly, is actually a youth orchestra, founded in 1969 and with players aged 14 to 19. Wayne Marshall conducts and plays the piano in Gershwin, Britten and Holst. The Prague Symphony Orchestra is next. The orchestra was founded in 1934 and originally played for Czech films but Václav Smetáček was chief conductor for 30 years, and later Jiří Bělohlávek was. Now that role is taken by Tomáš Brauner and he conducts a programme of Dvorak and Prokofiev.  

The visit from Turkey's leading the orchestra, the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra must be regarded as a real highlight [I heard them live in Istanbul in 2015, see my review, and look forward to hearing them again]. Their newly appointed artistic director, Carlo Tenan conducts them in Schubert, Saint-Saens, Beethoven and 20th-century Turkish composer Ferit Tüzün (1929-1977).

Other visitors include the Vienna Tonkünstler Orchestra in Sibelius, Mozart and Brahms and Buenos Aires Symphony Orchestra of Colon Opera in an eclectic programme of Piazzolla, Wagner, Bizet and Tchaikovsky.

Full details from the Cadogan Hall website.

Full of good things: Sean Shibe and the Dunedin Consort in John Dowland, a new Cassandra Miller concerto and much else besides

John Dowland: Lachrimae, or Seaven Tears - Sean Shibe, The Dunedin Consort
John Dowland: Lachrimae, or Seaven Tears - Sean Shibe, The Dunedin Consort
Milton Court Concert Hall

Rowallan Manuscript, Straloch Manuscript, Dowland, Purcell, Geminiani, James MacMillan arr. George Duthie, David Fennessy, Linda Catlin Smith, Cassandra Miller; Sean Shibe, The Dunedin Consort, John Butt; Milton Court concert hall, Barbican
Reviewed 11 April 2024

Moving from the sheer magic of Dowland writing for lute and viols through to contemporary music for guitar and strings, ending with Cassandra Miller's mesmerising new concerto. A programme full of good things that never quite cohered

The somewhat awkwardly titled Reformations: Concerto at the Barbican Centre's Milton Court concert hall featured Sean Shibe on lute and guitar alongside the strings of the Dunedin Consort, conductor John Butt, in a programme that culminated in the premiere of Cassandra Miller's new guitar concerto, Chanter. This was presented as the end point in a sequence that started with lute pieces from the Rowallan Manuscript and the Straloch Manuscript, then 'Lachrimae antiquae' from John Dowland's Lachrimae, or Seaven Tears, Purcell's Fantasia a 4 in C minor and In Nomine a 7 in G minor and Francesco Geminiani's Sonata No. 3 'The last Time I came o'er the Moor'.

Sean Shibe, The Dunedin Consort, John Butt - Barbican Centre's Milton Court concert hall
Sean Shibe, The Dunedin Consort, John Butt - Barbican Centre's Milton Court concert hall

Moving to the modern era we then had George Duthie's arrangement of James MacMillan's From Galloway, two movements from
David Fennessy's Rosewoods, Linda Catlin Smith's Sinfonia and finally Cassandra Miller's Chanter.

Thursday 11 April 2024

Metamorfosi: York Early Music Festival 2024

This year's York Early Music Festival, which runs from 6 to 13 July 2024, has the title Metamorfosi
The York Early Music Festival was established in 1977 to celebrate music from the medieval to the baroque within an array of historic venues across the city of York. The festival is administered by the National Centre for Early Music (NCEM). This year's York Early Music Festival, which runs from 6 to 13 July 2024, has the title Metamorfosi and it takes the idea of musical metamorphosis and composers' borrowing, from each other and themselves, as its main theme.

The festival's theme is explored in a selection of concerts including The Sixteen in a programme of Lassus and Josquin highlighting the masters' borrowings, and Josquin and his influence is also the theme of The Gesualdo Six's concert. Steven Devine directs the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in music by Bach and Telemann inspired by those evenings at Zimmerman's Kaffeehaus, where of course Bach famously reused material from earlier in his career. We move to Italy as mezzo-soprano Martha McLorinan and the Rose Consort of Viols explore early Italian music that reworked existing songs whilst cornettist Gawain Glenton's Ensemble in Echo explore Renaissance musical parodies and transformations

Helen Charlston, one of the festival's artistic advisors, joins another mezzo-soprano Rebecca Leggatt and friends for Couperin's Lecons de Tenebre, and Charlston joins with the Consone Quartet for a programme of lieder by the Schumanns husband and wife, and the Mendelssohn siblings, in versions for voice and string quartet. Charlston returns to more traditional territory with a programme of John Dowland with lutenist Toby Carr

Other visitors include Concerto Soave in Frescobaldi's lesser-known Arie Musicali; Yorkshire Baroque Soloists, director Peter Seymour, in Entertainment in 18th century London with music by Handel, Arne, Boyce and more; Florilegium exploring music for King Louis XIV and King Louis XV; Nicholas Mulroy and Cubaroque exploring music by Purcell, Monteverdi and modern songs from the South Americas; Vox Luminis return to York to perform music from Monteverdi's Selva Morale e Spirituali from 1641.

Apotropaik, winners of the Friends Prize, the EEEmerging+ Prize and the Cambridge Early Music Prize at the York International Young Artists Competition in 2022, explore music written for King Charles VII and music for the idealised woman,

Flemish vocal ensemble Utopia explores the music published in 16th-century Antwerp by Tielman Susato, and we remain in Antwerp for Capella Fratensis and I Fedeli's concert of music by Obrecht and Barbireau written for what is now Antwerp Cathedral, and as Obrecht was famous for using the cantus firmus technique, weaving music around pre-existing plainsong, the concert is also directly in the festival's theme.

The NCEM's youth-music ensemble for school-age musicians, Minster Minstrels, explores the compositional technique of antiphony. The University of York Baroque Ensemble joins the postgraduate Domino Consort for Welcome all Pleasures! a programme of music from Purcell's London from tavern to theatre. The festival ends with the 2024 York Early Music International Young Artists Competition.

Full details from the NCEM website.

A little bit of magic: Victoria's Tenebrae Responsories sung one to a part at the original pitch by I Fagiolini and Robert Hollingworth

Victoria: Tenebrae Responsories; I Fagiolini, Robert Hollingworth; CORO

Victoria: Tenebrae Responsories; I Fagiolini, Robert Hollingworth; CORO
Reviewed 9 April 2024

Just one voice to a part, just intonation and a wonderfully expressive approach to line, all combined with lovely poise to make this disc a little bit of magic.

Victoria's Tenebrae Responsories are completely wonderful and few choristers can be entirely ignorant of them, most ensembles attempt some of them at some time. Usually performed in modern editions for standard SATB at a pitch that makes them work, they were intended for a rather different line up using either low-soprano, high-tenor, baritone and bass or two sopranos, high-tenor and baritone. And almost certainly with only one voice to a part, sung a four lower than written according to the conventions used at the time.

This original arrangement has rarely made it onto disc. Famously the music was recorded at high pitch, without the expected transposition, by the choir of Westminster Cathedral in the 1950s, a recording that Robert Hollingworth describes as highly dramatic! We are have been having similar discussions about Victoria's Requiem and Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610 where the original, when correctly performed, eschews the dramatic use of extremes of register and ensures that all singers have a part firmly in the centre of the voice to subtle yet highly expressive effect.

Victoria wrote the Tenebrae Responsories in Rome where they were published in 1585. Whilst in Rome he had various official positions at the German College and Pontifical Roman Seminary and in 1575, Victoria was appointed Maestro di Capella at S. Apollinare. Quite what line-up of singers these institutions used for their services I am not sure, but we can imagine them following the Sistine Chapel and using single voices with a castrato on the top line. On this disc on the Coro label, Robert Hollingworth directs I Fagiolini in Victoria's Tenebrae Responsories recorded just one voice to a part by Rebecca Lea – soprano, Martha McLorinan – mezzo-soprano, Matthew Long – tenor, Greg Skidmore – baritone, Frederick Long – bass.

The choirs of two of London's historic chapels come together for the first time to celebrate the Queen instrumental in founding both

The Old Royal Naval College Trinity Laban Chapel Choir and the Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital Chelsea
The choirs of two of London's historic chapels are coming together for what is thought to be their first joint concert. The Old Royal Naval College Trinity Laban Chapel Choir and the Chapel Choir of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea will be directed by Ralph Allwood and William Vann in a concert on Tuesday 30 April 2024 in the Chapel of the Old Royal Naval College. They will be joined by the Brandenburg Baroque Soloists for a concert celebrating Queen Mary II's Birthday.

There will be music by John Blow and Henry Purcell written for the Queen's coronation, birthday and funeral, plus Handel's Utrecht Te Deum written for her successor, Queen Anne. 

Queen Mary II was instrumental in founding the Royal Hospital for Seamen at Greenwich (what is now the Old Royal Naval College) in 1692 which is now home to Trinity Laban, and she was on the throne when the Royal Hospital, Chelsea finally opened its doors to Chelsea Pensioners for the first time. The Royal Hospital was founded in 1682 by King Charles II but was not ready to receive pensioners until 1692, when some of those first admitted were soldiers injured at the Battle of Sedgemoor, the final battle in the Duke of Monmouth's rebellion.  

Another link between the two institutions is, of course, Sir Christopher Wren who designed both, the one intended to house Army veterans and the other to house Navy veterans. Whilst the Royal Hospital, Chelsea has survived as an institution, adapting and changing over time, the Royal Hospital for Seamen closed in 1869 and it became a training establishment for the Royal Navy, the Royal Naval College. 

The chapel at the Old Royal Naval College is not quite that designed by Wren. There was a devastating fire, and the chapel was rebuilt in 1779 by James ‘Athenian’ Stuart.

Full details from the Trinity Laban website.

Wednesday 10 April 2024

Dramatic Britten, athletic Watkins and high-energy Mozart: Britten Sinfonia, Ben Goldscheider and Nicky Spence at Milton Court

Britten: Serenade for tenor, horn & strings - Ben Goldscheider, Nicky Spence, Britten Sinfonia - Milton Court (Photo: Shoel Stadlen)
Britten: Serenade for tenor, horn & strings - Ben Goldscheider, Nicky Spence, Britten Sinfonia - Milton Court (Photo: Shoel Stadlen)

Judith Weir: Heroic Strokes of the Bow, Britten: Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, Huw Watkins: Horn Concerto, Mozart: Symphony No. 35 'Haffner'; Nicky Spence, Ben Goldscheider, Britten Sinfonia, Max Baillie, Michael Papadopoulos

An imaginative and appealing programme centred on Ben Goldscheider's peerless horn-playing with Nicky Spence in fine, story-telling form

Undeterred by funding issues thanks to Arts Council England's shortsightedness, Britten Sinfonia returned to the Barbican's Milton Court concert hall on Tuesday 9 April 2024 for two concerts. At 6pm, the ensemble launched its 2024 Magnum Opus development scheme with a concert featuring music by three composers joining the scheme for 2024, Alex Groves, Anibal Vidal and Eden Lonsdale, plus music by Salvatore Sciarrino and Caroline Shaw.

Then at 7.30pm there was an imaginative programme that featured horn player Ben Goldscheider in the world premiere of Huw Watkins' Horn Concerto and Britten's Serenade for tenor, horn and strings with tenor Nicky Spence, plus Judith Weir's Heroic Strokes of the Bow and Mozart's Symphony No. 35 'Haffner'. The Judith Weir and Huw Watkins were conducted by Michael Papadopoulos, whilst the Britten and the Mozart were directed from the violin by Max Baillie who was leading the orchestra.

Huw Watkins: Horn Concerto - Ben Goldscheider, Michael Papadopoulos, Britten Sinfonia - Milton Court (Photo: Shoel Stadlen)
Huw Watkins: Horn Concerto - Ben Goldscheider, Michael Papadopoulos, Britten Sinfonia - Milton Court (Photo: Shoel Stadlen)

Judith Weir's 1992 piece, Heroic Strokes of the Bow is inspired by Paul Klee's 1938 painting Heroische Bogenstriche and in her programme note, Weir explained that her piece was 'a literal response to the title, with its suggestions of excessive physical energy applied to a small piece of wood.' 

Small but mighty: Music at Paxton 2024

Paxton House
Paxton House

Based at the delightful 18th-century Paxton House in the Borders, Music at Paxton is a chance to hear international, national and local artists in the famous early 19th-century Picture Gallery hung with paintings from the National Gallery of Scotland. This year, Music at Paxton runs from 19 to 28 July 2024, and features a sequence of concerts curated by violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen and pianist Cordelia Williams, including a concert at Duns Parish Church preceded by a guided Festival Walk.

This year's festival Associate Ensemble, the Consone Quartet will be appearing with an array of guests including composer Gavin Bryars, violist Francesca Gilbert, cellist Alexander Rolton, and mezzo-soprano Helen Charlston, with music including the Scottish première of Gavin Bryars’s String Sextet ‘The Bridges of Königsberg’.

Violinist Viktoria Mullova makes her festival debut with Scottish pianist Alasdair Beatson, whilst tenor Mark Padmore and pianist Jocelyn Freeman present an evening of song and host a masterclass. Other artists include Ensemble Hesperi, Kosmos Ensemble, and Mithras Trio who are joined by narrator Gerda Stevenson for Rothschild’s Violin by Anton Chekov and Shostakovich's Piano Trio No. 2.

Northumberland-based Coquet Concert Band plays swing, Scots Singer of the Year 2022 Beth Malcolm and guitarist Heather Cartwright form a modern folk-inspired duo, Roo Geddes, fiddle and Neil Sutcliffe, accordion combine music and storytelling to introduce traditional Scottish tunes and songs to young children and their families. 

And during May and June there are free taster concerts in association with Live Music Now Scotland featuring pianist Matthew Shiel and Silver Keys clarinet quartet.

Full details from the festival website.

New Directions: two new Digital Opera Shorts from Music Theatre Wales

Music Theatre Wales' New Directions programme is devoted to re-imagining opera and in an age when the funds for commissioning and presenting new opera live are getting harder to come by, the company has released a pair of Digital Opera Shorts. The idea is that these short, digital pieces bring together all the elements that make opera so powerful – a continuous musical arc that conveys the inner story; an impactful human message; image; performance; and the operatic voice.

This year, four artists were invited to collaborate in opera for the first time. None of them had previously met, but all were excited by the potential of this multidisciplinary artform, and by the prospect of creating something in which music, story and image work as a single entity. 

In March 2024, two Digital Opera Shorts were released.

GRIEF explores the physical and emotional impact of loss and features music by British Ghanaian-Nigerian composer, musician and actor Francesca Amewudah-Rivers and text by writer/performer Connor Allen, known for his tenure as the Children’s Laureate of Wales and his role as an associate artist at The Riverfront in Newport. The performance features baritone Byron Jackson, dance and choreography from Arnold Matsena with additional vocals from Francesca Amewudah-Rivers, plus musicians from Sinfonia Cymru including Simmy Singh (who wrote the music for interbeing).

interbeing explores humanity's bond with nature and features music by Simmy Singh, a co-founder of the Manchester Collective and Sinfonia Cymru's creative associate, and libretto and visuals by multi-disciplinary artist ASHA, with soprano Anna Dennis.

Coming up Music Theatre Wales will be presenting Bwystfilod Aflan, a new monodrama by Conor Mitchell and Jac Ifan Moore looking at the reaction to Prosser Rhys’s crown-winning poem ATGOF (Memory) at the 1924 Eisteddfod. The poem is extensively about sexual experience and includes a short section on gay experience which caused controversy at the time. The opera is a co-commission with the Eisteddfod and Aberystwyth Music Centre and produced in association with Sinfonia Cymru to be performed alongside a new work for movement and voice by Eddie Ladd, giving her own take on the original poem. 

Full details from Music Theatre Wales' website.

Tuesday 9 April 2024

A lovely evocation of stillness and calm: Alastair Penman's Quietude on his Meadowbank Music label

Quietude: Penman, Satie, Debussy, Humperdinck, Bruckner; Alastair Penman

Quietude: Penman, Satie, Debussy, Humperdinck, Bruckner; Alastair Penman
Reviewed 9 April 2024

A rather lovely disc that mixes Penman's own pieces with arrangements, all evoking stillness and calm allied to lovely tone and fine musicianship

Saxophonist Alastair Penman's latest release, Quietude is his second release on his Meadowbank Music label. The album features seven original compositions by Penman alongside eight new arrangements of well-known works ranging from Trois Gymnopédies by Erik Satie arranged for soprano saxophone and piano to Locus Iste by Anton Bruckner arranged for a choir of saxophones and clarinets, with Penman playing all the instruments, saxophones, clarinets, and keyboards.

We open with Penman's 2021 piece Rialto, featuring six alto saxophones creating some ravishing close harmony. Lyrical and completely gorgeous, the piece was originally written as a tuning challenge for a saxophone workshop Penman was giving. Be Still for soprano saxophone and tape has hints of an electronic re-mix of Satie, and you sense Satie's influence hovering over the whole album with its different evocations of quiet and stillness and calm.

Gŵyl Machynlleth Festival

Gŵyl Machynlleth Festival

The mid-Wales market town of Machynlleth plays host to artists from classical, Welsh and world music each August for the Machynlleth Festival / Gŵyl Machynlleth which, this year, runs from 18 to 25 August 2024 under artistic directors Julius Drake and Dennis Jones, with concerts taking place in The Tabernacle, a former chapel that is now an intimate and acoustically wonderful concert venue.

Welsh artists performing at this year's festival include Clwyd-born pianist Llyr Williams in an all-Chopin recital, Welsh male voice choir Cantorion Gogledd Cymru and the closing concert will feature soprano Natalya Romaniw and harpist Alis Huws. The Three Soloists concert features tenor Elgan Llŷr Thomas, soprano Meinir Wyn Roberts and baritone Steffan Lloyd Owen with pianist Eirian Owen.

Other highlights include Schubert’s Trout Quintet with Tom Poster and the Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective, Poulenc’s opera La Voix Humaine with soprano Mercedes Gancedo and Festival Co-Artistic Director, Julius Drake, Marmen Quartet and John Myerscough in Haydn, Ravel and Schubert’s quintet, genre-defying soprano Alice Zawadski and her trio in a candle-lit late-night event, a concert and workshop with Tango ensemble Tango Calor, and a host of free events including a market-day open-air concert.

The festival is administered by MOMA Machynlleth, a charity that runs The Tabernacle as well as promoting Welsh language and culture and building a permanent collection of works of art and there are now seven exhibition spaces including a gallery devoted to showing the Tabernacle Collection, and a dedicated sculpture space.

Full details from the festival website.

Celebrating the RNLI: a community event from Manchester Camerata & Orchestras Live's Classically Yours at Withernsea High School

Withernsea sea front - Withernsea Lifeboat speeds past Pier Towers (Photo courtesy of Withernsea RNLI via BBC)
Withernsea sea front - Withernsea Lifeboat speeds past Pier Towers (Photo courtesy of Withernsea RNLI via BBC)

2024 is the 200th anniversary of the RNLI (so hopefully we can expect plenty of performances of Malcolm Arnold's The Padstow Lifeboat), but on a more local level 2024 is the 30 year anniversary of Hornsea Inshore Rescue and the 50 year anniversary of the return of a lifeboat to Withernsea RNLI lifeboat station. To celebrate these, Manchester Camerata is visiting Withernsea High School for a concert of music inspired by the East Yorkshire coastline.

There will be music from Mendelssohn and Debussy (no prizes for guessing what), plus scores from films like Pirates of the Caribbean and more. There will also be two world premieres of music created by the community performed with the orchestra. Students from Withernsea and Hornsea High Schools have created new music, including a sea shanty, with composer Kate Pearson, whilst other community members have joined with Janet Fulton to create their own new music inspired by the coast. Young and old will be performing at the concert with Manchester Camerata, Hornsea Choir and Withernsea Ladies Choir.

The Withernsea Young Producers, a group of students from Withernsea High School that have been instrumental in the organising, marketing, and programming of this event, said, "We think it is great that we have more involvement in the creation of the concert. It makes it more personal to us and our communities."

The event is part of Classically Yours, is a programme of high quality live orchestral music in the East Riding initiated by Orchestras Live which aims to bring the best of British orchestras to the region. Learn more about Classically Yours from Orchestras Live on YouTube.

Full details of the event in Withernsea from the Manchester Camerata website.

Monday 8 April 2024

Three different harps, a Moog Voyager, Ableton and various FX modules: composer Graham Fitkin and harpist Ruth Wall join forces for Harpland

FitkinWall: Harpland
FitkinWall: Harpland

Migration is not new. It’s been going on for millennia. The reasons for migration may be geological, climate based, oppressive, work related or voluntary. A new programme from harp and electronica duo FitkinWall follows threads of migration, loss and longing in their new show Harpland. This performance focuses on one small aspect of migration, the eviction and subsequent migration of farmers and crofters from the Scottish highlands during the Clearances. FitkinWall, consisting of  Scottish harpist Ruth Wall and composer Graham Fitkin, have produced a new work using Scottish melodies from this time, remoulded and recomposed, and interspersing interviews from recent migrants in to Scotland.

Ruth Wall performs on three different harps - Gaelic wire-strung, Bray and Electro harps. Graham Fitkin uses a Moog Voyager, Ableton and various FX modules. And they perform captivating new versions of old Gaelic songs and Highland tunes conjuring up mesmerising sound worlds and the concert tour also features a specially commissioned light installation from acclaimed artist Peter Freeman.

There is a Summer tour from 5 May to 11 June, in Ashburton, Leeds, Stirling, Edinburgh, Inverness, Shetland, York, Wavendon, Nottingham and Basingstoke, with more dates to come in the Autumn. Full details from the FitkinWall website.

Uist from Graham Fitkin on Vimeo.

Deadly Sins in New York and Silver Lion in Venice: Ensemble Modern

Wallis Giunta (Photo: Dario Accosta)
Wallis Giunta (Photo: Dario Accosta)
Ensemble Modern is currently on a small tour of the USA with concerts in Houston and New York including Carnegie Hall. Under conductor HK Gruber the ensemble with mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta and  a-cappella ensemble amarcord, will be presenting Kurt Weill's Die Sieben Todsünden, in a new version for chamber ensemble, plus music by Paul Hindemith, Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Arnold Schoenberg. A second programme in New York will focus on Cuban-American composer Tania León alongside transcriptions of Conlon Nancarrow's player-piano studies.

In September, Ensemble Modern will be at the Biennale Musica di Venezia 2024 and will be receiving the festival's Silver Lion whilst Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement has been awarded to the composer Rebecca Saunders. On September 26, Ensemble Modern opens the festival at the Teatro la Fenice together with the Orchestra del Teatro under the baton of Tito Ceccherini, performing Rebecca Saunders' Wound. On September 28, Ensemble Modern appears at the Teatro Piccolo Arsenale under the baton of Bas Wiegers, performing Skull by Rebecca Saunders; both will be Italian premieres.

Full details from the Ensemble Modern's website.

Catalyst: National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, National Youth Brass Band & Jessica Cottis in Gavin Higgin's Concerto Grosso for Brass Band & Orchestra & much more

National Youth Brass Band
National Youth Brass Band

Gavin Higgin's Concerto Grosso for Brass Band and Orchestra was premiered at the BBC Proms in 2022 by The Tredegar Band, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, and Ryan Bancroft. The work was co-commissioned by the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, and the orchestra is joining forces with the National Youth Brass Band under conductor Jessica Cottis to give two performances of Higgins' work in Liverpool (12 April 2024) and London (14 April 2024). The programme will be completed by Prokofiev's wartime Symphony No. 5 but there is a lot more to events than that.

On Thursday 11 April, musicians from NYOGB under Agata Zając will perform music by Simon Steen-Anderson and Carlos Simon, plus a movement of Dani Howard's Trombone Concerto and Julius Eastmn's Stay On It.  Then Jessica Cottis conducts the NYOGB and National Youth Brass Band in Higgins and Prokofiev at the Philharmonic Hall on the evening of Friday 12 April and on Saturday 13 April, the National Youth Brass Band gets its own spot in a programme that includes Karl Jenkins' first work for brass band.

In London at the Southbank Centre on 14 April, Cottis and the young musicians will be repeating their Higgins and Prokofiev programme, and before hand the the Clore Ballroom will pulsate with the vibrant energy of Julius Eastman’s creative provocation, Stay on it!

In Liverpool, London and Saffron Walden, the young musicians will be running open events to share extraordinary music across the city, lead workshops and inspire others to play their part and get excited about music. 

Full details from the NYOGB's website.

Saturday 6 April 2024

Bizet's Carmen at Covent Garden: gritty realism & a reluctance to add any local colour & movement, redeemed by musical performances

Bizet: Carmen - Blaise Malaba, Aighul Akhmetshina - Royal Opera House (Photo: ROH/Camilla Greenwell)
Bizet: Carmen, Act One - Blaise Malaba, Aighul Akhmetshina - Royal Opera House (Photo: ROH/Camilla Greenwell)

Bizet: Carmen; Aigul Akhmetshina, Piortr Beczala, Olga Kulchynska, Kostas Smoriginas, director: Damiano Michieletto, conductor: Antonello Manacorda; Royal Opera
Reviewed 5 April 2024

The new production pairs finely musical performances with a sense of gritty realism and a reluctance to add any local colour and movement.

For all its iconic status and abundance of good tunes, Bizet's Carmen remains something of a challenge for large opera companies. Until relatively recently matters of edition and style were unquestioning, the grand opera version with Ernest Guiraud's recitatives and a setting that was 'traditional 19th-century Spain'. Since then, things have got more complex with a return to using the opera comique version and a wish to avoid the lazy stage-Spanish stereo-types. It is worth emphasising that the Bizet's opera has little Spanish input, composer, librettists and original author were all French men. And whilst the grand opera version is not in Bizet's hand, when the composer died he had already signed the contract with the opera in Vienna, so a grand opera version with recitatives was already on the cards.

For its new production of Bizet's Carmen, a co-production with Teatro Real, Madrid and La Scala, Milan, the Royal Opera House turned to director Damiano Michieletto (who has already had success with his 2015 production of Cav & Pag) with designs by Paolo Fantin (sets) and Carla Teti (costumes), lighting by Alessandro Carletti, and Elisa Zaninotto as dramaturg. Extensively double cast, including two conductors, we caught the opening night on 5 April 2024 with Antonello Manacorda conducting Aigul Akhmetshina as Carmen, Piotr Beczala as Don Jose, Olga Kulchynska as Micaela, Blaise Malaba as Zuniga, Sarah Dufresne as Frasquita, Gabriele Kupsyte as Mercedes, Kostas Smoriginas as Escamillo, Pierre Doyen as Dancairo and Vincent Ordonneau as Remendado. 

The matter of casting should be noted, the entire run of the new production (some 16 performances) has perilously few British singers at a time when the Royal Opera is the only major company giving performances in the capital. The production also tries to face both ways, the casting is resolutely international and we saw a Russian Carmen, a Polish Don Jose, a Ukrainian Micaela and Lithuanian Escamillo, yet the version used was the French opera comique one with (highly edited) French dialogue. A laudable intention, but couldn't we have heard a few more Francophone singers? Or how about, shock horror, doing it in English with Anglophone singers, or mix and match?

Bizet: Carmen, Act Two - Piotr Beczala - Royal Opera House (Photo: ROH/Camilla Greenwell)
Bizet: Carmen, Act Two - Piotr Beczala - Royal Opera House (Photo: ROH/Camilla Greenwell)

The programme book was resolutely vague as to the edition of the opera used, no-one was credited. The spoken text was described as after Meilhac, Halévy and Mérimée. What we heard in terms of the score was a largely traditional opera comique version, but there was passages in Act One in particular which suggested that someone had been raiding Fritz Oeser's attic. 

Spell Book, Witch & Stone Fruit: composer Freya Waley-Cohen on the power of ritual and spells

Freya Waley-Cohen: Spell Book - Héloïse Werner, Manchester Collective - Barbican (Photo: César Vásquez Altamirano)
Freya Waley-Cohen: Spell Book - Héloïse Werner, Manchester Collective - Barbican (Photo: César Vásquez Altamirano)

On 1 February 2024, Manchester Collective, Héloïse Werner (soprano), Fleur Barron (mezzo-soprano), Katie Bray (mezzo-soprano) and Céline Saout (harp) presented the world premiere of Freya Waley-Cohen's complete Spell Book at the Barbican in advance of the song cycle's release on NMC Recordings in October 2024. Setting feminist spell-poems from Rebecca Tamás' 2019 collection WITCH, the cycle mines a vein that Freya Waley-Cohen also explored in her 2020 opera WITCH. In a totally different vein, February 2024 also saw the premiere of Freya's Stone Fruit at Wigmore Hall performed by the Colin Currie Quartet.

Freya Waley-Cohen (Photo: Patrick Allen)
Freya Waley-Cohen (Photo: Patrick Allen)

When Freya first read Rebecca Tamás' poetry, it caught her imagination and expanded her way of looking at the world. Freya loved the idea of witches and spells, the poetry was fantastical, playful and powerful. She also felt that the ritual of the concert hall and concert going was akin the the ritual of a spell, the two different yet linked. And Freya loves the way Tamás language flips between shocking and beautiful, catching your attention and making you see something shocking in a new light. And she points out that only in certain societal frameworks are these things shocking at all.

Whilst she read and enjoyed the poetry collection, Freya did not immediately think of setting it, but the ideas from the poetry started to invade her dreams, making her somewhat horrified, yet she could not stop thinking about it, and in the dreams, it was unclear whether she was surrounded by witches or was one. She met up with Rebecca Tamás to chat and share ideas, and then Freya embarked on writing the song-cycle Spell Book, something that kept her occupied, on and off from 2019 until now. During the same period, she worked on her opera WITCH, the two are different but linked.

In 2022, Longborough Festival Opera staged the first six songs of Spell Book as part of a double bill with Francesca Caccini's La liberazione di Ruggiero, directed by Jennie Ogilvie with the festival's emerging artists and the instrumental ensemble Chroma. This was only half the music, and the order was very different to the completed work that premiered in February 2024; seeing Spell Book at Longborough spurred Freya on to complete the work.

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