Saturday 25 May 2024

The Quest: London Youth Opera's commission for 2024

Stuart Hancock: Pandora's Box - London Youth Opera at Susie Sainsbury Theatre, Royal Academy of Music, 2023 (Photo: Nina Swann)
Stuart Hancock: Pandora's Box - London Youth Opera at Susie Sainsbury Theatre, Royal Academy of Music, 2023 (Photo: Nina Swann)

Last December, London Youth Opera (LYO) presented Stuart Hancock and Donald Sturrock's Pandora's Box at the Royal Academy of Music's Susie Sainsbury Theatre [see my review].  Charlie Swann, who sang Prometheus, has accepted a scholarship at Royal Academy of Music to study Opera there full-time from this September. LYO is following this with a new commission for 2024, The Quest by composer Nathan Williamson and libretto by singer-songwriter Megg Nicol

Williamson is a composer and pianist, and as a pianist he has gained kudos for his three-volume recording project for SOMM Recordings, 100 Years of British Song, with tenor James Gilchrist, as well as founding The Art of British Song project. As a composer, Williamson's song-cycle, Grey and Green are all my Light, was premiered last year by baritone Jonathan Eyers. His opera, Machine Dream, a children’s opera commissioned by Mahogany Opera Group for their ground-breaking Snappy Operas project, has been performed by numerous primary schools across the UK.  

In The Quest, a group of brilliant young scientists believe they are on the cusp of solving the world’s environmental problems and saving the planet - but will they stick to their quest and fulfil their promise to humanity, or have their heads turned by the fame and fortune offered to them by the alluring but corrupt politicians? Further details from LYO's website.

The company currently has a funding appeal to raise money for the company's plans, do visit this LYO Match Funding Appeal page to support them.

Friday 24 May 2024

Creating something remarkable: Fatma Said & Joseph Middleton in Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, de Falla, Obradors & Hankash

Joseph Middleton and Fatma Said - Milton Court concert hall, Barbican (Photo: Mark Allan / Barbican)
Joseph Middleton and Fatma Said - Milton Court concert hall, Barbican (Photo: Mark Allan / Barbican)

Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, de Falla: Siete canciones populares, Obradors, Najib Hankash; Fatma Said, Joseph Middleton; Milton Court concert hall, Barbican
Reviewed 22 May 2024

A consummate programme where two exceptional performers took us on a journey and held us spell-bound from beginning to end, weaving seemingly disparate elements into something remarkable

On paper, the programme for soprano Fatma Said and pianist Joseph Middleton's recital at Milton Court concert hall, as part of the Barbican Centre's classical season, looked interesting but not out of the ordinary; songs by Mozart, Schubert and Schumann in the first half, songs by de Falla, including Siete canciones populares, and Obradors in the second, and ending with a song by Lebanese composer Najib Hankash, all linked by the rather loose idea of love in all its forms. But in the hands of a pair of exceptional performers, this sequence was transformed into something that bit special.

For a start, Said sang everything from memory, addressing us in each song and successfully capturing attention from the recital's opening notes. There was nothing overly operatic about her approach, yet each song had a narrative, a character, presented in music, word and gesture. In this she was partnered by Middleton, whose playing was sensitive but not retiring and more than once I notice the vividness with which he contributed to supporting Said.

Joseph Middleton and Fatma Said - Milton Court concert hall, Barbican (Photo: Mark Allan / Barbican)
Joseph Middleton and Fatma Said - Milton Court concert hall, Barbican (Photo: Mark Allan / Barbican)

Thursday 23 May 2024

Happy 60th birthday: the Salomon Orchestra celebrates with Martyn Brabbins, Michal Oren, Mussorgsky and Elgar

The Salomon Orchestra in rehearsal at Henry Wood Hall
The Salomon Orchestra in rehearsal at Henry Wood Hall

When the Salomon Orchestra celebrated its 40th birthday in 2003 it assembled the huge orchestra needed for Richard Strauss' Alpine Symphony, directed by founding conductor Nicholas Braithwaite, filling St John's Smith Square with so many orchestral musicians that you felt there was hardly room for the audience. The results, needless to say, were glorious. Now the orchestra is 60 and will be celebrating.

On Saturday 1 June 2024, Martyn Brabbins and Michal Oren will be conducting the orchestra in a celebratory 60th birthday concert at St John's Smith Square. Michal Oren conducts Ravel's orchestration of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition and then Martyn Brabbins conducts Elgar's Symphony No. 1. And the evening will begin with the world premiere of Martyn Brabbins' A Birthday Greeting, composed specially for the orchestra's birthday.

Conceived by Nicholas Braithwaite and a group of his contemporaries in Vienna in 1963, the Salomon Orchestra is one of London's oldest non-professional symphony orchestras and is widely described as one of its finest.

Martyn Brabbins is the orchestra's president and he has a long association with the orchestra including, notably, a series of 'marathon' concerts where they performed all the symphonic works of a particular composer in a single day. 

The orchestra first worked with Michal Oren when she was on Martyn Brabbins' conducting course at the Royal College of Music, and she is currently studying there for her Master of Performance in conducting. In 2020, she won the first prize in the conducting competition of the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music and, in September 2023, won first prize in the 4th International Academy and Competition of Orchestra Conducting in Estoril, Portugal.

Full details of the concert from the orchestra's website.

Julia Thomsen's 'Beauty' from Harmonies of WoMen



Harmonies of WoMen is an album that was released on International Women's Day 2024, featuring work from ten different female pianists, and released under the banner of the Piano And Nature label, which dedicates itself to environmental consciousness by planting a tree for each release.

The full album is available on Spotify, but we are featuring the newly released video created to to go with Julia Thomsen's Beauty.

Summer Music in City Churches: Love's Labours

St Giles Cripplegate
St Giles Cripplegate

This year's Summer Music in City Churches focuses on Shakespeare and under the title Love's Labours runs at a single City church, St Giles Cripplegate from 6 to 15 June 2024. 

Pierre Vallet and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra open the festival with a concert featuring Gerald Finzi's incidental music to Shakespeare's Love's Labours Lost along with Mendelssohn and Chopin. Soprano Rachel Nicholls and baritone Roderick Williams join Iain Farrington and City of London Choir to close the festival with Farrington's jazz-influenced cantata Then Sing We All and Joseph Horovitz's Captain Noah and the Floating Zoo!

Other performers at the festival include violinist David Juritz and the Curve Ensemble in a tango-inspired programme, string quartet Brother Tree Sound and Tier3 Trio. Pianist Viv McLean, violinist Fenella Humphreys and narrator Jessica Duchen present Archangel marking the centenary of Faure's death, baritone David Greco and pianist Gavin Robert's perform Schubert's Die Schöne Müllerin and there is an evening of Shakespearean words and music from pianist Nigel Hess, actors Nancy Carroll and Richard Teverson and singers Michael Dore and Eleanor Grant.

Celebrating their 130th birthday, the City of London School for Girls joins forces with City of London School to present songs on a theme of love and Shakespeare, directed by Richard Quesnel. There’s a particular nod to the Bard’s First Folio, printed 400 years ago just a stone’s throw from St Giles Cripplegate.

Full details from the festival website.

Wednesday 22 May 2024

Music that Moves You: new survey from ABO & partners reveals 74% say that orchestras are a vital part of the country’s cultural heritage

National Children’s Orchestras_U12 Orchestra perform Shimmer and Glow at Portsmouth Guildhall, August 2023_credit Vernon Nash (1).jpg
National Children's Orchestras under 12 orchestra perform Shimmer and Glow at Portsmouth Guildhall, August 2023 (Photo: Vernon Nash)

It shouldn't need saying but it does, and there is a new survey to prove it. Yesterday, the Association of British Orchestras (ABO), representing its 200 member organisations, along with partners, Classic FM, Classical Music Magazine, LIVE, UK Music, the Musicians’ Union and the Independent Society of Musicians, launched a three-year campaign to celebrate the power and value of classical music and the UK’s orchestras, backed by a new survey that confirms what we already knew but what governments seem to forget - 74% say that orchestras are a vital part of the country’s cultural heritage and 65% of people believe that classical music is under-appreciated today.

The survey of 2,000 UK adults was conducted by Opinium, and reveals that four in five of UK adults suggest that music has reminded them of important moments in their life. 71% of people believe that classical music amplifies the big moments in life such as weddings, funerals, sporting events and national ceremonies, with nearly three quarters (73%) of 18-34 year olds agreeing with this. Moreover, 65% of the ABO’s survey felt that classical music is under-appreciated by today’s society.

The survey recognises a multitude of emotional responses that respondents felt whilst listening to the music - younger generations - 73% of 18-34 year olds - want to be completely immersed when listening to their music, contrasting with 59% of 35-54 year olds, and 43% of 55+ year olds.

Seven in ten of UK adults from the ABO's survey believe music is an important part of their wellbeing. With many orchestras and ensembles carrying out performances in health and social care settings, not only do they contribute to the cultural life in local communities across the country, they make a vital contribution to the nation’s wellbeing, by enabling anyone to connect with the arts and to experience live music performances.

The full press release is on the ABO's website, and there is a devoted webpage for the campaign complete with a toolkit.

NCEM Young Composers Award

NCEM Young Composers Award winners Ryan Collins and Charlotte Robertson with Ex Corde
NCEM Young Composers Award winners Ryan Collins and Charlotte Robertson with Ex Corde

Last week (16 May 2024), the winners of the 17th National Centre for Early Music Young Composers Award were announced. Presented in partnership with BBC Radio 3, the event took place on Thursday 16 May at the National Centre for Early Music in York. Aspiring young composers were invited to create a new work for The Tallis Scholars, creating a work for unaccompanied voices setting the 16th century text Mirabile mysterium (A wondrous mystery) either in the original Latin or the English translation. 

Compositions by the eight young finalists were workshopped during the day by composer Professor Christopher Fox, professional singers from York based ensemble Ex Corde and their director Paul Gameson, in the presence of Peter Phillips, director of The Tallis Scholars. In the evening, Ex Corde and Paul Gameson gave a public performance. This was live streamed to ensure that friends and families from across the UK were able to join in with the fun.

The live streamed performance is available on the NCEM Young Composers Award website at

The winner in the 19 to 25 years category was Ryan Collis.

The winner in the 18 years and under category was Charlotte Robertson. 

Making It at Guildhall School of Music & Drama

Making It at Guildhall School of Music and Drama
What does it mean to "make it" as an artist in the 21st century? From 11 to 28 June 2024, the Guildhall School of Music & Drama will be presenting Making It, a new festival celebrating new work created by Guildhall's eclectic and multi-skilled student community. Events include Guildhall School's final year actors in Kaleidescope, a celebration of the diverse perspective and boundless creativity, a showcase of work from final year production artists and video designers as they prepare to join the creative industry’s workforce. Guildhall School's costume artists will showcase specifically designed pieces for the festival in pop-up performances throughout the School.

There will be three new works written by composers and librettists on Guildhall School’s MA in Opera Making & Writing and performed by singers and repetiteurs from Guildhall Opera Course. The Plus-Minus Ensemble will be presenting seven new works by Guildhall composers, whilst the Harp Festival will include an exploration of the early harp and six world premieres. There will also be a showcase for the piccolo.

Issues considered include Diversity in Action: Diversifying production arts staffing in drama schools and conservatoires, and The Creative Practioner: Artists as Makers in Society, plus a Postgraduate research Summer symposium presenting discussion between performers, composers, actors, theatre makers and cross-disciplinary creatives.

Full details from the Guildhall School website.

Tuesday 21 May 2024

Calling women musicians: Watermill Theatre wants them to join its new play about Fanny Mendelssohn

Calum Finaly's Fanny in rehearsal at Watermill Theatre (Photo: Pamela Raith Photography)
Calum Finaly's Fanny in rehearsal at Watermill Theatre (Photo: Pamela Raith Photography)

When Queen Victoria invited Felix Mendelssohn to perform for her at a personal concert and play her favourite song, Italien, the composer had to admit that he hadn't actually written the song. It was one of his sister Fanny Mendelssohn's pieces that were published under his name. In fact, Fanny would be over 40 before publishing under her own name and she did so with the encouragement of her husband but in the face of Felix's disapproval; when it came to the idea of Fanny having a musical career of her own, Felix remained something of a prig.

This story forms the slightly surprising germ for a new play, Fanny by actor/director/writer Calum Finlay which is at The Watermill Theatre, Newbury from 23 May to 15 June 2024, directed by Katie-Ann McDonough, with Yshani Perinpanayagam as musical director. Described as a fun and irreverent new comedy that celebrates classical music, the play imagines that 'Fanny intercepts a letter addressed to ‘F. Mendelssohn’ inviting Felix to play for Queen Victoria. As the true composer of Italien, she decides to hide the letter, don her brother’s clothes, and take his place at the palace…cueing a race across Europe and a furious Felix.'

In the Irish tradition of the Noble Call, the tradition of calling on guests at a party to share a song, a poem or to respond to the mood of the day, the theatre has invited women musicians to take part; women musicians of all levels, backgrounds and styles are asked to sign-up to play a piece of music at the end of the show each night to continue the work of all the incredible women musicians before them. 

Further information about the Noble Call from Google docs. See the theatre's website for information about Fanny.

Jack Bazalgette of 'through the noise' announced as next artistic director of Cheltenham Music Festival

Jack Bazalgette (Photo: Ehimetalor Unuabona)
Jack Bazalgette (Photo: Ehimetalor Unuabona)

Since 2020, through the noise has programmed more than 130 classical music concerts in non-traditional venues using an innovative crowd-funding model to widen audience appeal [see my review of their recent noise night at Leeds Lieder Festival]. Now through the noise co-founder and director Jack Bazalgette has been announced as the new artistic director of the Cheltenham Music Festival. 

Bazalgette will be artistic director from 2025, and he will be supported by the festival’s producer, Tamsyn Hamilton, who will remain in post following her work on implementing the festival’s 2024 programme. 2025 sees the festival celebrating its 80th anniversary, and whilst this year sees the festival celebrating the 150th anniversary of Cheltenham native, Gustav Holst, overall recent festivals have seemed to somewhat lose their focus and purpose, so it will be interesting to see how Bazalgette manages to combine through the noise innovations with a large scale traditional music festival. In a recent interview with International Arts Manager, Bazalgette explained, "We’re on a mission to show that with the right presentation classical music can be a viable part of the mainstream music scene without compromising the quality of the music".

And about his recent Cheltenham appointment he comments: "Cheltenham has an astonishing history of commissioning new works and showcasing the world's most talented musicians. Its year-round work with young people and schools is also crucial to introducing diverse audiences to the joy of classical music. As Cheltenham's  Artistic Director, I will be continuing this work while also seeking to expand its audiences – and our understandings of what live classical music can and should be in the twenty-first century."

Further information from the festival website.

Thomas Roseingrave: Eight Harpsichord Suites and other keyboard works

Thomas Roseingrave: Eight Harpsichord Suites and other keyboard works; Bridget Cunningham; Signum Classics
Thomas Roseingrave: Eight Harpsichord Suites and other keyboard works; Bridget Cunningham; Signum Classics
Reviewed 20 May 2024

Demonstrating the 18th-century Britain had more than one distinguished harpsichord composer, this disc explores the engaging, complex and quirky world of Thomas Roseingrave's keyboard works

Thomas Roseingrave is one of those names that lives on the fringes of musical history. English-born to Irish parents and raised in Dublin. His move to improve himself by travelling to Italy led to his admiration for Scarlatti and his introduction of that composer's works into the UK. His eight suites for harpsichord were published in 1728, when he was at the height of his powers and it is these that have remained his best-known pieces, albeit rather under the shadow of Handel's keyboard works.

Now harpsichord player Bridget Cunningham, after recording Handel's eight great harpsichord suites [see my review] has followed this with a disc of Thomas Roseingrave's Eight Harpsichord Suites on Signum Classics.

Monday 20 May 2024

Ryedale Festival 2024: 58 concerts, 35 locations, 7 premieres and much more

Ryedale Festival 2024

The 2024 Ryedale Festival runs from 12 to 28 July, featuring 58 performances in 35 locations including Castle Howard, Sledmere, Hovingham Hall, Selby Abbey and Ampleforth. The festival features seven world and UK premieres.

The Van Baerle Trio's residency at the festival features the UK premieres of Gabriel Prokofiev's Piano Trio No. 1 and Rob Zuidam's Tritypch, Julian Anderson's Ice Quartet receives its UK premiere performed by the Piatti Quartet, Kian Ravaei's Gulistan, which explores his Iranian heritage, given its UK premiere by mezzo-soprano Fleur Barron, and Barron is also presenting her new project, Spring Snow, a ground-breaking project that intertwines the narratives of Schubert’s Winterreise and the Japanese Kabuki play Yasuna, with dancer Suleiman Suleiman, and shamisen player Hibiki Ichikawa. The Marian Consort is giving the world premiere of a new work by Sarah Frances Jenkins inspired by the pre-Raphaelite designs of Castle Howard’s chapel where the work is being performed, along with music by Laurence Osborn.

Other performers include artist in residence, horn player Felix Klieser, who is playing chamber music plus Mozart's Horn Concerto No. 4 with the Royal Northern Sinfonia, violinist Rachel Podger who tours a solo programme to intimate and beautiful venues across the region, and Angela Hewitt in Bach and Beethoven, plus many more.

Beyond classical music, Claire Martin celebrates the 100th anniversary of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, while folk group The Unthanks visit Malton’s Milton Rooms.

Full details from the festival's website.

Celebrating diversity in classical music: Black Lives In Music presents Classically Black at Kings Place

Ayanna Witter Johnson (Photo: Misan Harriman)
Ayanna Witter-Johnson (Photo: Misan Harriman)

Black Lives In Music (BLiM) is an organisation set up to address racial inequality in the music industry and create opportunities for Black, Asian and ethnically diverse musicians and professionals today. BLiM recently announced a landmark 10 Point Orchestral Plan, introduced with the Musicians’ Union and Association Of British Orchestras. 33 organisations have signed up so far, with leading orchestras including the five BBC Orchestras and BBC Singers, London Philharmonic Orchestra, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Philharmonia Orchestra. After becoming aware of shocking abuse, BLiM has also launched their new survey, Your Safety Your Say, to address bullying and harassment in the music industry. BLiM will use the anonymous survey to collect real world data.

On 19 October 2024, BLiM is presenting Classically Black at Kings Place,  one-day symposium exploring the cutting edge of classical music. There will be two newly commissioned works by British Black composers,  jazz pianist Pete Letanka and saxophonist/composer Jason Yarde, along with Julian Joseph's Violin Concerto, to be performed and recorded by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, plus a late afternoon showcase for emerging talent, networking opportunities, interactive discussions, panels, and music workshops. In the evening, singer/songwriter, cellist, pianist, composer, Ayanna Witter-Johnson is joined by friends for a concert highlighting how her classical tone weaves its way through her musical roots of reggae, soul and jazz.

Full details for Classically Black from Kings Place website.

Madeleine Mitchell and friends at Leighton House

Narcissus Hall, Leighton House. Image courtesy of Will Pryce.
Narcissus Hall, Leighton House. Image courtesy of Will Pryce.    

Violinist Madeleine Mitchell is joined by friends Kirsten Jensen (cello) and Julian Milford (piano) for a concert of piano trios at Leighton House on 11 June. The concert features music by Germaine Tailleferre, Delius and Dvorak. The evening offers the opportunity to explore the house and gallery, which reopened in 2022 following a major refurbishment of the 20th century additions to Lord Leighton's original house. 

Germaine Tailleferre wrote her Piano Trio in 1916/17, but it did not receive much attention and remained unpublished. She returned to it in 1978, replacing one movement and adding the finale. The new music perhaps edgier than the old but Tailleferre's friend from Les Six commented about her that in her music she "was always 20 years old". Delius' Légende (for violin and piano) and Romance (for cello and piano) both date from the 1890s when Delius was living in Paris, musically productive years after his studies in Leipzig.

Dvorak's Piano Trio no.3 in F minor is one of six works in the genre that Dvorak wrote (though the two earliest are lost). The work dates from 1883, a period when the composer had developed an international reputation and was working on his Symphony No. 7 which he premiered in London.

Full details from EventBrite.

Friday 17 May 2024

Combining disparate sounds with a bit of magic: Michel Godard and serpent in Göttingen

Atsushi Sakai (viola da gamba) and Bruno Helstroffer (theorbo) at PS.Halle, Einbeck
Atsushi Sakai (viola da gamba) and Bruno Helstroffer (theorbo) at PS.Halle, Einbeck

Light the earth: Incantation: Handel, Jean de la Fontaine, Michel Lambert, Sieur de Saint Colombe, Marin Marais, Michel Godard; Michel Godard, Antje Rux, Airelle Besson, Atsushi Sakai, Bruno Helstroffer; Internationale Händel Festspiele Göttingen at PS. Halle, Einbeck
Reviewed 14 May 2024

The somewhat unlikely combination of voice, serpent, theorbo, viola da gamba and jazz trumpet in a programme moving between French Baroque, Handel and contemporary

The serpent is a bass instrument of somewhat uncertain origins that acted as wind bass line in ensembles from 17th to early 19th century Related to the cornett, it is a wooden instrument covered in leather with a brass mouthpiece, pitch altered using finger-holes. The sound is described as being somewhere between a bassoon and a euphonium, but hearing one played for the first time earlier this week, my first naughty thought was how much the sound evoked my Dad playing tunes on random bits of tubing and hosepipes.

Michel Godard and serpent
Michel Godard and serpent

On 14 May 2024, French multi-instrumentalist Michel Godard brought his serpent to the Internationale Händel Festspiele Göttingen. At PS. Halle, Einbeck, Godard was joined by Antje Rux (soprano), Airelle Besson (jazz trumpet), Atsushi Sakai (viola da gamba) and Bruno Helstroffer (theorbo) for a programme entitled Light the earth: Incantation with music by Handel, Jean de la Fontaine, Michel Lambert, Sieur de Saint Colombe, Marin Marais and Michel Godard. 

The venue was the event hall at PS. Speicher, a museum containing Europe's largest collection of old cars, motorbikes and commercial vehicles. So the concert took place against a backdrop of classic, veteran and vintage vehicles, many, like the serpent itself, rather wonderful but tricky to 'drive'. PS. Speicher is based in Einbeck, a town also notable for its timber framed houses (Fachwerkhäuser) dating from 16th to 20th centuries.

At first sight, Michel Godard's ensemble seemed somewhat oddly matched, a modern type of broken consort, perhaps. But what all the instrumentalists had in common was a feel for improvisation, so viola da gamba player Atsushi Sakai could move between poised 17th-century divisions and playing his instrument like a jazz bass.

Anchoring this was Antje Rux's pure, clear soprano, bringing a line of clarity to the music around which the others moved. Godard ran the ensemble much like a jazz group, in each piece the original formed the basis and repeats would allow different members of the ensemble their own solo riff.

With two halves of some 40 minutes each, and a similar approach with each piece, the result was perhaps a programme slightly too long and occasionally the improvisatory sections felt a little unfocused, as if the players had not had time to bed in. But what really came over was the musicians' delight in making music together and combining such disparate sounds with a little bit of magic.

Out of the Shadows: An evening of music by Brixton-based contemporary classical composer Robert Hugill

Out of the Shadows, an evening of music by Brixton-based contemporary classical composer Robert Hugill on Sunday 16 June, is part of Omnibus Theatre, Clapham's 96 Festival, its celebration of queerness and theatre

As part of 96 Festival, Omnibus Theatre, Clapham's celebration of queerness and theatre, on 16 June 2024, tenor Ben Vonberg-Clark, baritone Jonathan Eyers and pianist Nigel Foster will be performing Out of the Shadows, featuring two of my recent cantatas and love songs. 

On Friday 5 July 2024, the programme will be presented at St John's Church, Tartu, Estonia as part of the Glasperlenspiel Festival. The festival is a leading musical event in Estonian Summer and was founded in 1995 by Estonian composer and music producer, Peeter Vähi.

Ben Vonberg-Clark was until recently precentor at St John the Divine, Kennington, and conducts the London Youth Boys’ Choir and is conductor of the University of Essex Choir and the UBS choral society.

Baritone Jonathan Eyers was Young Artist at the National Opera Studio for the 2023/24 season, and was Figaro in Charles Court Opera’s production of Rossini's The Barber of Seville at Wilton’s Music Hall

Pianist Nigel Foster is the artistic director of the London Song Festival, whose Summer Festival runs from 6 to 29 June 2024.

The evening features two of my cantatas. Out of the Shadows, inspired by a re-reading of Graham Robb's Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century, uses historic texts to explore homosexual men's gradual emergence in the 19th century. Et expecto explores ideas of life after death via Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Burke & Hare, the Wikipedia entry on Cryonics and Whitman’s poetry. Alongside these two will be a selection of my songs, from love songs and settings of Michaelangelo’s sonnets to a depiction of an Aids candlelit memorial.

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 , whilst browsing the Brixton second-hand bookshop, Bookmongers, I came across two book of poems by the Black American poet Carl Cook, The Tranquil Lake of Love and postscripts, using Cook's poems for the chorales in my Passion setting, and setting 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 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.

Out of the Shadows at Glasperlenspiel Festival in Tartu, Estonia at 10pm on Friday 5 July 2024. Further information from the festival website.

Thursday 16 May 2024

Göttingen 1853: Johannes Brahms & Joseph Joachim, a meeting of musical minds evoked

Aula of Georg-August Universität, Göttingen  (Photo: Stefan Flöper / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0,
Aula of Georg-August Universität, Göttingen  (Photo: Stefan Flöper / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Bach, Joachim, Mozart, Handel, Beethoven;  Shunske Sato, Shuann Chai, Wolfgang Sandberger; Internationale Händel Festspiele Göttingen at Aula of Georg-August Universität
Reviewed 13 May 2024

Brahms and Joseph Joachim spent a musical Summer together in 1853 in Göttingen and this event imaginatively evoked the music those two young men played together

In 1853, 20-year-old Johannes Brahms was hired as a pianist by Hungarian violinist Eduard Remeny for a concert tour. In mid-May they are in Hanover and visit violinist Joseph Joachim, the 22-year-old concert-master of the Hanover Court Orchestra. Joachim used his concert-free Summer months to improve his education by attending lectures at the university in Göttingen (then part of the Kingdom of Hanover). When Brahms and Remeny parted company, Brahms wrote to Joachim suggesting a visit and for one month during the Summer, Brahms stayed with Joachim in Göttingen and the two young men made music togethere.

At the Internationale Händel Festspiele Göttingen, the event Göttingen 1853: On the trail of Joseph Joachim on 13 May 2024 evoked that musical meeting. In the Aula of Georg-August Universität, Shunske Sato (violin) and Shuann Chai (piano) played the Chaconne from Bach's Partita No. 2, Joachim's Romanze Op.2 No. 1, Mozart's Sonata in B K454, Handel's Sonata in A K 361 and Beethoven's Sonata No. 47 in A "Kreuzer/Bridgetower", whist Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Sandberger gave a talk on the subject.

Wednesday 15 May 2024

Quite a Summer: Tom Fetherstonhaugh and Fantasia Orchestra have three festival debuts including the BBC Proms

Jess Gillam, Tom Fetherstonhaugh & Fantasia Orchestra in rehearsal  (Photo: Fantasia Orchestra)
Jess Gillam, Tom Fetherstonhaugh & Fantasia Orchestra in rehearsal  (Photo: Fantasia Orchestra)

Tom Fetherstonhaugh and Fantasia Orchestra are having quite a Summer with debuts at the BBC Proms, Northern Aldborough Festival and Ryedale Festival, along with other appearances which will be keeping the orchestra busy. The orchestra describes itself as a community of friends and colleagues, many of whom trained together in their teens, who are now at the start of their professional careers. Tom founded the orchestra way back in 2016 when he was still at school and the first concert featured his friends from Junior Royal Academy of Music. Since then it has evolved into a professional ensemble yet still with the same core of players, people who have gone through school and university together and are now in the profession; friends and colleagues making the journey together.

In April, they performed at St Gabriel's Church, Pimlico with saxophonist Jess Gillam in a programme that included James MacMillan's Saxophone Concerto, the first concert in what promises to be their busiest season so far, making festival debuts as well as returning to  Proms at St Jude's and Guiting Music Festival. They hope to continue the momentum and will be launching their next season in the Summer.

Tom describes their repertoire, rather engagingly, as 'a whole host of things'. At the BBC Proms (on 4 August) they are performing multi-genre gems, from Bartok to Bob Marley, Burt Bacharach and Laura Mvula. Their Prom is on Sunday morning; it is being filmed and will be broadcast on TV. Then the next day they repeat the programme for a relaxed Prom.

Monday 13 May 2024

The results were indeed glorious: Klaus Mäkelä and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Bruckner in Dresden

Bruckner: Symphony No. 5 - Klaus Mäkelä, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra - Dresdner Musikfestspiele at the Kulturpalast (Photo: Stephan Floss)
Bruckner: Symphony No. 5 - Klaus Mäkelä, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra - Dresdner Musikfestspiele at the Kulturpalast (Photo: Stephan Floss)

Bruckner: Symphony No. 5; Klaus Mäkelä, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra; Dresdner Musikfestspiele at the Kulturpalast, Dresden
Reviewed 10 May 2024

The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and its chief conductor designate bring remarkably unanimity of intent and youthful vigour to Bruckner

Anton Bruckner wrote his Symphony No. 5 in 1875-76, around the time of the first Bayreuth Festival. Whilst Bruckner revered Wagner, there is little conventionally Wagnerian about the symphony, it comes in at 75 minutes and uses relatively compact orchestral forces. But far from conventionally backward-looking, Bruckner reworks the past in his own image. So much so, that the work had to wait until 1894 for its first orchestral performance and then it was in a now discredited revision by conductor Franz Schalk.

Having begun with a new, historically informed look at Wagner's Die Walküre [see my review], the 2024 Dresdner Musikfestspiele (Dresden Music Festival) continued on Friday 10 May 2024 with Bruckner's Symphony No. 5 with Klaus Mäkelä conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra at the Kulturpalast in Dresden. A young conductor (Mäkelä is 28, born 1996) bringing a fresh look to Bruckner with a venerable orchestra of which he is chief conductor designate. The orchestra, founded in 1888, has a long tradition of the performance of music by Bruckner's friend and colleague, Gustav Mahler, dating back to Mahler's friendship with Willem Mengelberg who was the orchestra's chief conductor from 1895 to 1945.

Bruckner: Symphony No. 5 - Klaus Mäkelä, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra - Dresdner Musikfestspiele at the Kulturpalast (Photo: Stephan Floss)
Bruckner: Symphony No. 5 - Klaus Mäkelä, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra - Dresdner Musikfestspiele at the Kulturpalast (Photo: Stephan Floss)

Finding her voice: Elisabetta Brusa on her compositional style and creating her foundation

Elisabetta Brusa
Elisabetta Brusa
Elisabetta Brusa taught composition at the Milan Conservatoire for 39 years. Her latest choral album – Requiem and Stabat Mater - is now available on Naxos. She has established the Brusa Foundation Award to give opportunities to composers who recreate new, free and personal symphonic thought with a tonal basis. The deadline for entries from composers ages 18 to 30 is 31st May 2024. Here she explains the influences on her own composition style and how she found her voice.

My 5th Naxos CD, which has just come out, contains my two latest works: Requiem (based on the classical text used by Mozart, Verdi, Fauré, Dvorak and others) and Stabat Mater (based on the classical text used by Pergolesi and Rossini). Because of these ancient and religious texts which express spiritual and physical suffering, their composition gave me very different emotions than, for example, my two symphonies which were composed with abstract, purely musical ideas and form.

I always wanted to compose a Requiem, because it had always been a part of a classical composer's output. Because I believe that all the arts are interconnected, paintings, sculptures, architecture, archaeology and nature all seep into the creative process. For these two pieces, I took inspiration from Mozart, Verdi and Fauré’s Requiems and Rossini and Pergolesi’s Stabat Maters. You may now ask why I have only listed famous classical composers instead of new or original names. In answer to that, I feel I don't need novelties that don't give me any emotions. These composers all belonged to epochs during which all classical composers had the urge to express their inner feelings and each one had something beautiful, personal and spiritual to say.

While the traditional canon provided the starting point for these choral works, there have been broader inspirations from composers of the second half of the 20th Century including Shostakovich, Poulenc, Khachaturian, Britten and Walton who all composed with single voices anchored to harmony, counterpoint and orchestration of the past without belonging to a particular style like the previous periods of Impressionism, Expressionism or Neoclassicism. Instead, the general tendency of classical, western composers of the 1950's onwards was to develop and extend the avant-garde and electronic techniques, fashions and trends which I have no affinity to, nor the simplistic and repeated music of the minimalists. There are also those mainly found in the northern European countries who have created very diverse atmospheres and wide spacial auras with orchestral sound effects.

In the most recent decades, there have been so many styles and techniques created contemporarily of which I don't identify myself with anyone in particular, but there are some excellent composers such as Einojuhani Rautavara, Peteris Vasks and Esa Pekka Salonen, just to name a few. Others may not have reached world recognition for some reason or other, but very probably somewhere there are composers who are discursive, that is, their music follows not just a sequence of sonorous situations but ideas with a beginning, development, recapitulation and ending within symphonic thought and forms, more similar to the composers of the first half of the 20th century. I am one of them.

I have always composed my works totally naturally, instinctively and consequently without premeditation or sketches. I improvise at the piano and write bar after bar consecutively. My first composition was a short Baroque like piece when I was more or less five and later pieces in Classical, Romantic, early Atonal (Hindemith, Bartok, early Schoenberg-like, even serial) styles, naturally and independently, all by ear, without actually being conscious of what I was doing. All of this happened before I went to the Conservatoire of Milan where I consciously learnt what had always been intuition and how to expand harmony even more, counterpoint, orchestration etc.

Later, in my final year, I was told that music should not express emotions and that it was only to be intellectual, structural and experimental. After the Composition diploma I wrote my Belsize String Quartet which won 1st prize at the Washington International Competition, however it was with the commission of the Fables for children’s concerts to be performed with Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, that I realized I also had a gift for orchestral colour.

If I had not met Hans Keller who liked my music, made me understand what was behind music, encouraged and taught me how to have faith in myself, I probably would not have continued to compose.

After that, stronger emotions gradually began to seep into my music and my base line started being independent from the harmony above it, making my works more dramatic. Though they are still tonally based, not everyone can understand my harmonies because of this, but hopefully they are full of sweeping and humane emotions which one can intuitively perceive. With my Requiem and Stabat Mater, being religious and spiritual works which needed more simple and direct impact, I made a little step backwards making my harmonies simpler and more easily communicative. Whilst I have had a few memorable concert experiences, I get the most satisfaction when recording my CDs. I don’t get particularly excited when I have a concert with my music. Actually, I feel very uncomfortable. However, a recording of a work gives me the time and concentration to follow and fully absorb the total components of the composition. Composing at the piano, I have an immediate concentrated result of the ideas and form and I can mentally imagine the sounds and colours of the instruments, but it’s only when I hear an orchestra playing my music that I feel the innermost fulfillment.

I am thrilled to have established the Brusa Foundation and Award and I hope it will incentivise young composers to continue composing with a tonal language and create their own new personal styles expressing human emotions. 

Saturday 11 May 2024

The journey continues: Dresden's historically informed Ring returns with a revelatory Die Walküre

Wagner: Die Walküre - Åsa Jäger, Simon Bailey - Dresdner Musikfestspiele (Photo: Oliver Killig)
Wagner: Die Walküre - Åsa Jäger, Simon Bailey - Dresdner Musikfestspiele (Photo: Oliver Killig)

Wagner: Die Walküre; Maximilian Schmitt, Sarah Wegener, Tobias Kehr, Simon Bailey, Åsa Jäger, Claude Eichenberger, Dresdner Festspielorchester and Concerto Köln, Kent Nagano; Dresdner Musikfestspiele at the Kulturpalast, Dresden
Reviewed 9 May 2024

One of those evenings about which you can say 'I was there'. Revelations and riveting drama as the Dresden Music Festival unfolded the next installment of its historically informed Ring Cycle

Creating a Ring Cycle is a journey, few can come to the cycle with their thoughts and ideas perfectly formed. For the Dresdner Musikfestspiele (Dresden Music Festival) this is even more so. Not only is their Ring Cycle, which opened last year with Das Rheingold [see my review] and is planned to unfold annually, their biggest project to date, but it is taking an historically informed approach. So, for many of those involved, period instrument specialists whose performing lives centre on 18th and early 19th century music, this is a first approach to Wagner on this scale.

Wagner: Die Walküre - Dresdner Festspielorchester and Concerto Köln  - Dresdner Musikfestspiele (Photo: Oliver Killig)
Wagner: Die Walküre - Dresdner Festspielorchester and Concerto Köln  - Dresdner Musikfestspiele (Photo: Oliver Killig)

When I chatted to the festival's Intendant, Jan Vogler, just before this year's installment of the Ring Cycle in Dresden, Die Walküre; he explained that the Wagner project came about through a combination of circumstances. Now the Dresdner Festspielorchester is over ten years old, Jan was looking for a project for them. He had been a friend and colleague of Kent Nagano for many years. Nagano and Concerto Köln were looking for ways to continue their Wagner project. Their initial research phase complete, the project became too big for Concerto Köln to continue alone.

But also there was Jan's feeling that festivals grow by creating their own productions. There was the added frisson of completing Wagner's Ring in Dresden, where Wagner went to school, and was later music director. But in the soap opera of the composer's life, he was also involved in revolutionary activities and forced to leave. Having seized the idea, to make it happen the festival had to up its game and raise around 10 million Euros to cover the complete Ring as well as expanding the festival team and finding musicologists to be involved in the project. At first the sheer scope was a shock, but the team came to fall in love with their own Wagner project.

The historically informed approach to the Ring is new territory and not standard, with the instrumentalists concentrating on music of earlier periods. So that the players, rather than coming to Wagner via later music, are more like Wagner's contemporaries having little prior experience of playing his music. Jan describes Kent Nagano as a perfectionist, with a sharp ear. Jan talked about the way many conductors simply take whatever an orchestra delivers and work with that, but Nagano searches for the performance he can hear, and lots of due diligence is done.

Wagner: Die Walküre -  The Valkyries - Dresdner Musikfestspiele (Photo: Oliver Killig)
Wagner: Die Walküre -  The Valkyries - Dresdner Musikfestspiele (Photo: Oliver Killig)

The Ring Cycle is also a great chance for the festival as they slowly come to understand how large projects are created. The cycle is being recorded and will be issued on disc. There is talk of what next, after the final installment in 2026. The idea of a complete Ring Cycle has garnered some interest, and Jan admits that it is quite appealing, but as ever the issue remains one of money.

The performance of Die Walküre in Dresden was the final one of a short tour that included Amsterdam, Prague, Cologne and Hamburg's Elbphilharmonie. On Thursday 9 May 2024 at the Kulturpalast, Dresden, Kent Nagano conducted the combined forces of the Dresdner Festspielorchester and Concerto Köln in Wagner's Die Walküre with Maximilian Schmitt as Siegmund, Sarah Wegener as Sieglinde, Tobias Kehrer as Hunding, Simon Bailey as Wotan, Åsa Jäger as Brünnhilde and Claude Eichenberger as Fricka. The project is a collaboration with the Wagner Cycles and the academic aspect is important with a whole day of presentations at the Kulturpalast before the performance.

Wednesday 8 May 2024

Evolving with the Orchestra: composer Robin Haigh on his recent orchestral works

The Irish/British composer Robin Haigh is having a busy year with performances of all four of his major orchestral works. Jessica Cottis conducts Luck, his trumpet concerto for Matilda Lloyd and Britten Sinfonia on the opening night of this year's Aldeburgh Festival on 15 June 2024 [full details], and Matthew Halls conducts the UK premiere of Robin Haigh's Concerto for Orchestra with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra on 3 November [full details] In a guest article for Planet Hugill, Robin describes his continuing evolution in writing for orchestra.

Robin Haigh (Photo: Michael Carlo 2023)
Robin Haigh (Photo: Michael Carlo 2023)
This year, all four of my major pieces for orchestra are being performed - the Irish Premiere of SLEEPTALKER (2021) with Dublin's National Symphony Orchestra, the USA Premiere of Grin (2019) with the Lowell Chamber Orchestra, the UK Premiere of Concerto for Orchestra (2023) with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, and the world premiere of my trumpet concerto, LUCK (2024) with the Britten Sinfonia. Composing for orchestra is where I feel most at home, and in the past I've felt LUCKy to have just one orchestral performance in a year - to have four seems so momentous as to warrant a personal look at how my attitude to writing for orchestra has developed over time, with special attention being paid to the two largest works, LUCK and Concerto for Orchestra.

Grin was written for the Britten Sinfonia, in an unconducted figuration consisting of two horns, two oboes and a string group of about 20 players. As such, it's towards the smaller end of what we might consider an "orchestra" to be, though it turned out for me to be a piece of great import, introducing some musical gestures that have become a staple of my composing since. Principle among these is the sound of woodwind and brass instruments gradually bending pitches down by approximately a quarter-tone. I invented my own notation (a quarter-tone accidental on the end of a sloping line above the note) to try and make this idea as immediately comprehensible and sensible to read as possible, and it has found its way into practically every piece written with winds or brass since. But this is hardly an unusual musical gesture in the world of contemporary classical music, and it's the context I tend to use it in that has allowed this sound to prove so continually useful - it is when it is applied to recognisable tonal chords that this effect excites me most, a kind of distortion of the "safe" and "ordinary" that particularly works with what I want to achieve emotionally in my music.

Saturday 4 May 2024

A willingness to explore: Stéphane Fuguet on recording Monteverdi and Lully at Versailles with his ensemble, Les Épopées

Stéphane Fuguet & Les Épopées (Photo: Pascal Le Mée)
Stéphane Fuguet & Les Épopées (Photo: Pascal Le Mée)

In June 2024, harpsichordist, conductor and director, Stéphane Fuguet and his ensemble, Les Épopées are releasing their recording of Monteverdi's L'Orfeo on the Château de Versailles Spectacles label with tenor Julian Prégardien in the title role. This is the second of the ensemble's survey of Monteverdi's operas on disc, they released Il ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria in June 2022, and L'Incoronazione di Poppea will follow in April 2025. In March 2024 the ensemble released, also on the Château de Versailles Spectacles label, the final volume of their survey of the complete Grands Motets by Jean-Baptiste Lully.

Stéphane comments that every conductor has their own ideas for L'Orfeo. He is intensely interested in the approach to declamation in this period of opera, the particular combination of melody and text in Monteverdi's recitar cantando (speaking through singing). He has heard this music done almost as if the singer were speaking, and this willingness to explore is something that characterised their recording of Il ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria and continues in the new release. But there are other areas too, where the surviving printed materials do not give us the whole picture, performers need to make decisions and choose their approach.

Stéphane points out that whilst the score indicates what instruments are to be used, the musical material is not fully written out; at the beginning of the score there is a list of instruments which does not tally with those present in the score. For example, at the beginning of the score, three violas da gamba are mentioned, but there is never any music for the three. What to do with them? It is this gap which gives performers the space to be creative. Stéphane adds that as the instrumental writing is usually in five parts so one could use a type of broken consort, having different line-ups.

The realisation of the continuo part also gives scope and Les Épopées realise it in different ways, making use of the structure of the piece, bringing out different textures according to context, so that there are moments when Monteverdi seems to have textures that get bigger, suddenly different to a simple realisation for lirone. Additionally, everything is improvised, Stéphane never writes the music down, keeping it moving and always changing.

Stéphane Fuguet (Photo: Ludek Brany)
Stéphane Fuguet (Photo: Ludek Brany)

Part of the attraction of the opera is the way that the character of Orfeo is touchingly human, he doubts himself and at the end turns back toward Euridice, showing a real human fragility. For the title role, Stéphane was looking for a singer who could do something fragile, at different moments murmuring and screaming. Stéphane has known Julian Prégardien for around a dozen years and admires him because whilst his voice can be very sunny, round and emotional, he is also willing to try things out, there are no limits.

Friday 3 May 2024

Mozart in 1774: Samantha Clarke, Jane Gower, The Mozartists, and Ian Page on stylish form at Wigmore Hall

Samantha Clarke (Photo: Benjamin Ealovega)
Samantha Clarke (Photo: Benjamin Ealovega)

Mozart in 1774 - Mozart: Symphonies Nos. 28 & 30, Bassoon Concerto, music from La finta giardiniera, music from Paisiello's Andromeda; Samantha Clarke, Jane Gower, The Mozartists, Ian Page; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed 2 May 2024

Ian Page and his ensemble explore the symphonic music Mozart wrote in 1774, along with a superb contribution from bassoonist Jane Gower and soprano Samantha Clarke in outstanding form

In 1773, Mozart returned from his long journey to Italy and for the next four years was based in Salzburg. The new Archbishop took the view that at 17, Mozart was old enough to pull his weight in the court music and not go gadding about. There were trips, however, to Vienna and to Munich, this latter for the premiere of his opera La finta giardiniera. Mozart would, in time, become discontent with the limitations of artistic life at the Salzburg court, but whilst he explored what avenues it could give him. This means that he wrote in a wide variety of genres, including writing concertos for friends. But much of 1774 seems to have been devoted to symphonies, then in 1775 it was violin concertos with piano concertos in 1776 (all rather Schumann-esque in a way).

Ian Page and The Mozartists' Mozart 250 project has, this year, reached 1774. They have already given us a survey of the music Mozart might have heard that year, and they returned to Wigmore Hall on Thursday 2 May 2024 for a concert centring on music that Mozart wrote that year including Symphonies Nos. 28 and 30, the Bassoon Concerto with soloist Jane Gower, and a scene from La finta giardiniera with soprano Samantha Clarke, who also sang a scene from Paisiello's Andromeda.

Popular Posts this month