Friday, 27 November 2020

Inspired by a city under lockdown: two new films by rising film-makers featuring new music and dance

Stills from PLAY: Rising © Odera Okoye
Still from PLAY: Rising © Odera Okoye

Two films, inspired by the City of London in lockdown, were released on Culture Mile's YouTube channel yesterday (26 November 2020). The films ​feature London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) musicians, dancers and composers Jasmine Kent Rodgman and Darren Bloom

PLAY: Rising, directed by Antonia Luxem, features violinist Maxine Kwok playing a new piece, Rising, written for this film by composer Darren Bloom, with dancer Marie Astrid Mence filmed on the 34th floor of 100 Bishopsgate.

PLAY: The Spell & The Promise, directed by Lexi Kiddo, features flautist Gareth Davies playing a new piece written for the film by Jasmine Kent Rodgman and inspired by the film location, London Wall Place, next to the Barbican. Dancers Salomé Pressac and Faye Stoeser, choreographed by Harry Price, perform in the gardens at London Wall Place, reacting to the music inside.

Culture Mile is the City of London’s cultural district, stretching from Farringdon to Moorgate, and this project co-commissioned by Culture Mile and Brookfield Properties in partnership with the LSO, this project marks the latest development in the organisations’ long-standing collaboration and demonstrates how organisations can work together to support freelance artistic talent during uncertain times. 

The films are available on the Culture Mile YouTube channel.

The Cottage: Benjamin Fitzgerald's musical exploration of our safe space

The young neo-classical composer Benjamin Fitzgerald first popped up on the blog with a striking track, Ode to John, which was partly his way of coping with his grandfather's dementia (his grandfather was the John of the title and the track used John's own voice). Now Fitzgerald has released his latest piece, The Cottage. Fitzgerald describes the music as 'a reflection of the manic euphoria of ultimate freedom and the meditative tranquillity of eventual peace', and 'a musical exploration of our safe space. Our own relative haven, exempt of all negativity, criticism, harassment and any other emotional or physical harm.'

The video, directed by Sel Maclean, features some stunning photography of equally stunning scenery in the North-East (where Fitzgerald is from). Fitzgerald play piano and is joined by Ada Francis (harp), Anna Hughes (violin), Merle Habron (violin) and Sam Fox (saxophone). The melodic material has a distinctly folk-ish feel whilst there is also a more insistent modern beat which creates the sense of the journey that the video evokes, yet the underlying melancholia present in Fitzgerald's earlier pieces is still present.

The video is on YouTube, and can be streamed on a variety of music services.

Ohrwurm: recorder player Tabea Debus delightful debut recital on Delphian

Ohrwurm; Tabea Debus, Jonathan Rees, Alex McCartney

; Tabea Debus, Jonathan Rees, Alex McCartney, Delphian Records

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 25 November 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Toe-tapping, ear-grabbing music from the 17th and 18th centuries, with a couple of extras, in an engaging recital by recorder player Tabea Debus

I have always found articles which begin something like 'If you enjoyed Mozart's Requiem then try ....', rather annoying. However, on the basis that you enjoyed tenor Ed Lyon's delightful disc on Delphian, 17th century playlist, [see my review] then I can highly recommend recorder player Tabea Debus' disc Ohrwurm, also on Delphian, a delightful compilation of toe-tapping tunes (ear-worms) from the 17th and 18th centuries, but also some more recent sports with a pair of works by Freya Waley-Cohen and by Gareth Moorcraft. She is joined on the disc by Jonathan Rees (viola da gamba) and Alex McCartney (theorbo and guitar).

I first encountered Tabea Debus when she was a young artist at the Handel House Museum (now Handel & Hendrix), and she has been a young artist with St John's Smith Square and with the City Music Foundation. Since 2018 she has been represented by YCAT (Young Classical Artists Trust), and this disc is the first fruits of a new collaboration between YCAT and Delphian.

The disc casts its net quite widely.

Thursday, 26 November 2020

A theatrical family & a damaged dancer: Christoph Loy's new production of Rusalka at the Teatro Real, Madrid

Rusalka - Asmik Grigorian - Photo Monika Rittershaus
Dvorak: Rusalka, Act II - Asmik Grigorian - Teatro Real, Madrid
Photo Monika Rittershaus

Dvorak Rusalka; Asmik Grigorian, Eric Cutler, Karita Mattila, Maxim Kuzmin-Karavaev,Katarina Dalayman, Christoph Loy, Ivor Bolton; Live-stream from Teatro Real, Madrid on Mezzo TV/Medici TV

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 25 November 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Set in a dilapidated theatre amidst theatrical memories, this new production from Madrid featured powerful musical performances

For all the popularity of what might be termed its hit number, Dvorak's opera Rusalka has a somewhat odd history in the UK. It had to wait until 1959 before Sadler's Wells Opera gave the UK premiere, with Joan Hammond in the title role [historic Radio Times listing]. Then pickings remain rather slim until David Pountney's iconic production for English National Opera in 1983, using the work to depict a young Edwardian woman's troubling discovery of her sexuality. This production seemed to open people's eyes to the work, that underneath the fairy-tale was quite a disturbing story. But it would be the 21st century before there were stagings at Covent Garden (in a production borrowed from Salzburg), Glyndebourne, and Grange Park Opera (a production also borrowed by Scottish opera). British directors seem to have viewed the work often via allegory - fairy-tale (often quite dark) or history (English Touring Opera's production examining racial prejudice in the American Deep South.) European directors have often taken a more hard-edged approach, so the Salzburg Festival production seen at Covent Garden in 2012 directed by Sergio Morabito was set in a contemporary brothel.

So it was with great interested that I was able to catch a live stream of Christoph Loy's new production of Dvorak's Rusalka from the Teatro Real in Madrid on Wednesday 25 November. The production debuted on 12 November 2020, conducted by Ivor Bolton, with Asmik Grigorian in the title role, Eric Cutler as the Prince, Karita Mattila as the Foreign Princess, Maxim Kuzmin-Karavaev as the Vodnik, and Katarina Dalayman as Jezibaba. The sets were designed by Johannes Leiacker and costumes by Ursula Renzenbrink. The performance on Wednesday 25 November 2020 was streamed live on and

Loy has replaced the idea of the lake, the nymphs and the fairy-tale, with that of the theatre and using this as a metaphor for the difficulties of communicating between two worlds, so that an opera with a mute heroine is seen as problematic. The artistic statements surrounding the production make a lot of sense, but how does this work in practice? Act One is set in the foyer of a faded theatre (though a large outcrop of stone makes it clear that this is magic realism), ballerinas float past, sad clown-like figures appear with stylised movements. Rusalka's sisters, the nymphs, are all ballerinas, their father, Vodnik, is an imperious theatre manager whilst their stepmother, Jezibaba, manages the box office. Rusalka, however, is crippled and on crutches with one bad foot. These people live on their memories and separate from the real world. Rusalka longs to leave, with the Prince representing the ideal of the real world. She is 'healed' by her stepmother and cursed. 

Rusalka - Erik Cutler, Asmik Grigorian - Photo Monika Rittershaus
Dvorak: Rusalka - Erik Cutler, Asmik Grigorian - Teatro Real, Madrid
Photo Monika Rittershaus

Having set up his mis-en-scene, Loy allows the remainder of the opera to play out pretty straight. Jezibaba's Act I conjuration apart, there is no magic; in Act II the Vodnik simply mixes with the other guests of the ball. There is, of course, no water but Loy does not really use his theatre metaphor strongly enough to make us feel that this is the linking element. In Act II, in the original, it is the water in the palace gardens which allows the Vodnik to appear. What we get are a set of strong personal interactions, Loy's concept forms a strong frame for powerful performances from the principals.

Wednesday, 25 November 2020

From meditating on solitude with Bach to Stravinsky and food, a conductor's travels during lockdown

During lockdown earlier this year singers and instrumentalists galore created content on-line, from Igor Levit's daily recitals to a world-wide audience from his studio to singers filming themselves on iPhone singing to their neighbours. Music continued, in some strange form.

But that does a conductor do in such a situation? With no-one to conduct, it is difficult to make music. Some simply took time to learn new scores and revel in the freedom to spend time with the family, others returned to their instrument (usually piano) and were found on some of the above videos accompanying a partner. Others explored other avenues of creativity.

One such is conductor Jonathan Berman. Whilst his cycle of Franz Schmidt symphonies, recorded just before lockdown with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, is due out on Accentus in 2021, and he has a mini-Beethoven project in Bucharest (travel restrictions willing), Berman has been creative during lockdown in a variety of ways.

His website Stand Together Music was designed to highlight and celebrate the orchestras (UK and overseas) who had cancelled concerts and to try to raise some funds for those musicians in need.  'Imagine if everyone in the world streaming Michael Jackson’s Greatest Hits decided to buy music from artists that have had a tour cancelled due to coronavirus.'

He has also been busying himself with helping to create on-line specific events. The first of these was The Goldberg Variations: Meditations on Solitude, the imaginative presentation of Bach's Goldberg Variations performed by The Ysaye Trio with poetry read by Simon Russell Beale and photographs by Kristina Feldhammer.

A collaboration with Emily Ingram at Greengage has resulted in Berman directing and presenting Postcards from Vienna, four recitals filmed at the Austrian Cultural Forum with mezzo-soprano Lotte Betts-Dean and pianist George Fu each preceded by an introduction and mini-documentary from Berman, Stravinsky Septet, (28/11/2020) a food and music event with a two-hour cooking class, then you watch Stravinsky's Septet whilst eating your meal (!) and the film tries to take us inside the artistic inspirations for Stravinsky's 1952/3 work, with programmes built around unaccompanied violin music, the music of Ravel and the music of Stravinsky to come, each with additional multi-layered content to create a striking on-line event rather than a filmed concert.

Browse the Greengage website for more.

Beautifully conceived and performed: La vanita del mondo, Philippe Jaroussky and Ensemble Artaserse in Italian oratorio arias

La vanita del mondo - Italian oratorio arias; Philippe Jaroussky, Ensemble Artaserse; ERATO
La vanita del mondo
- Italian oratorio arias; Philippe Jaroussky, Ensemble Artaserse; ERATO

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 23 November 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
The French counter-tenor moves from Baroque opera to oratorio in a recital disc full of delights

On this lovely disc, La vanita de mondo on Erato, counter-tenor Philippe Jaroussky turns his attention away from Baroque opera to oratorio with a selection of arias from late 17th and 18th century Italian Oratorios. With Ensemble Artaserse, Jaroussky sings arias from Pietro Torri's Abramo and La vanita del mondo, Alessandro Scarlatti's La Giuditta, Fortunato Chelleri's Dio sul Sinai, Handel's Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno, Antonio Caldara's Assalone, Santa Ferma and Morte e sepultura di Christo, Antonio Maria Bonocini's La decollazione di San Giovanni Battista, Nicola Faco's Il faraone sommerso, Johann Adolph Hasse's La conversione di Sant'Agostino, and Benedetto Marcello's La Giuditta.

The recording was due to be made in April 2020, but lockdown put all this in doubt and Jaroussky explains in his introduction that 'right up until the last moment we didn’t know if we would be able to come together in June to complete it on time. After these several months without performing, the album was like a release for me and all my musicians from Artaserse'. The disc seems to be something of a passion project for Jaroussky, not only his conception, but he collaborated with Yannis Francois (who sings briefly on the disc) on the musicological research. And in the process he introduces us to some lovely, highly imaginative music. Whilst the composers on the disc vary from the well-known to the hardly known, virtually all the works are relatively unknown. 

From the mid-17th century, oratorio in Italy started to move away from its sacred roots and take on elements of opera. Whilst there were still oratorios in Latin, those in Italian developed and instead of narrator and chorus the works relied on the interaction between characters (Biblical, historical or allegorical) in a sequence of arias and recitatives. This arose particularly in Rome where staged performances of opera were intermittently banned, leading to the development of oratorio as something of a replacement. Plots were necessarily limited and oratorios generally fell into two categories, being either of a contemplative character (a reflection on a biblical episode, for example, or the commendable sacrifice of some saintly figure) or of a more dramatic nature, inspired by the Old or New Testament.

The selection on this disc concentrates on oratorio in Italian, and casts its net quite widely.

Tuesday, 24 November 2020

Rediscovering the music of Florence Price: A composer who not only dropped out the repertoire, but whose music nearly fell into oblivion

Florence Price
Florence Price

Not only did the music of African-American composer Florence Price (1887-1953) fall out of the repertoire after her death, but the very music itself nearly disappeared. In 2009, a trove of her manuscripts and papers, including two violin concertos and her Symphony No. 4 was found in an abandoned house in Illinois. Even now her catalogue of over 300 works (four symphonies, four concertante works, numerous orchestral works, songs, piano music and chamber music) is woefully represented in CD catalogues. Thankfully this is now, slowly, beginning to change.

Dr Samantha Ege, Junior Research Fellow at the University of Oxford, and a leading interpreter and scholar of Florence Price, recently discovered Price's Fantasie Nègre No. 3 for piano, whilst on a research trip to Little Rock, Arkansas, where Price was born. Now Ege is planning to record all four of Price's virtuosic Fantasie Nègre showpieces along with a group of smaller piano works for a disc on the LORELT label.

Born in the American South and initially taught by her mother, Price moved with her family to Chicago to avoid race riots and lynchings. She would study at the New England Conservatory and with leading teachers in Chicago, yet whilst she became the first African-American woman to have her music presented by a major American orchestra, she continued to find barriers due to her race and gender.

Whilst Price's music will have seemed somewhat conservative in the 1950s and 1960s, the way she wrote in a vernacular style using sounds and ideas that fit the reality of urban society, came to use the rhythm and syncopation of the spirituals, and wrote music that was blues inspired, would all seem to suggest that Price as a composer ripe for rediscovery. So the way that her music has remained locked away is somewhat shocking.

As Dr Samantha Ege said: "As a young pianist, discovering Florence Price made me feel visible. She belonged to a long legacy of black composers who channelled their African heritage into classical forms. The classical mainstream must now work to realize the future that Price no doubt hoped to see, one where the concert hall welcomes black classical artists, not only posthumously."

Dr Ege has already recorded Price's Sonata in E minor,  and we look forward to the release of her new disc. But there is a lot more of her music waiting to be rediscovered.

A rare film score by Krzysztof Penderecki to celebrate what would have been his 87th birthday

photo: Adam Mickiewicz Institute

Monday (23/11/2020) would have been the 87th birthday of Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki (1933-2020) and to mark the occasion the Adam Mickiewicz Institute has released a recording of a rare Penderecki film score, his music, for the 1964 documentary film by Marian Ussorowski, The Painters of Gdansk. The recording is being made available free via SoundCloud, as well as a limited edition vinyl.

Whilst Penderecki's music is well known for its use in films such as Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, and William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, he wrote few specific film scores which is what makes The Painters of Gdansk so fascinating.

Alongside The Painters of Gdansk the institute has placed recordings of three contemporary works, specially commissioned to be inspired by works by Penderecki. Paweł Romańczuk, a composer and arranger from Wrocław, was inspired by Penderecki’s The Seven Gates of Jerusalem and the music to the Saragossa Manuscript when composing his piece Tubu Fon. Sound artist, composer and improviser Robert Piotrowicz composed Amateur Music for this project, inspired by Penderecki’s Cello Concerto No. 1, a work he often returns to. Electronic duo Skalpel took inspiration from Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima and Adagietto when writing their piece Synthesis.

Full details from the website.

Short and not entirely sweet: Prokofiev by Arrangement

Prokofiev by Arrangement; Yuri Kalnits, Yulia Chaplina; Toccata Classics
Prokofiev by Arrangement
; Yuri Kalnits, Yulia Chaplina; Toccata Classics

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 23 November 2020 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
With Visions Fugitives at its core, this delightful recital strings together over three dozen of Prokofiev's short pieces arranged for violin and piano

This disc from Toccata Classics presents something of a portrait of Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev, not through a group of magisterial works, but via a kaleidoscope or collage of fragments.
Toccata Classics' Prokofiev by Arrangement features 37 short pieces by Prokofiev arranged for violin and piano by a variety of his contemporaries and played by Yuri Kalnits (violin) and Yulia Chaplina (piano). The music varies from something written when he was 10, to music from the ballets Cinderella and The Tale of the Stone Flower, the operas War and Peace, and The Love for Three Oranges, but the central work on the disc is the 20 movement Visions Fugitives.

The arrangers are a wide range of artists, pianist Viktor Derevianko (born 1937),  violinist and teacher Mikhail Fikhtengolts (1920–85), violinists Jascha Heifetz (1901–86), Yair Kless (b. 1940), Nathan Milstein (1904–92), Mikhail Reitikh (1909–84), and pianist and composer Grigori Zinger (1913–2003).

Prokofiev wrote his 20-movement suite Visions Fugitives in 1915-1917, often writing individual movements for friends, and he premiered the whole cycle in 1918. The title comes from a 1903 poem, I know no wisdom, by Konstantin Balmont (1867–1942), a poet whom Prokofiev much admired for the musicality of his verse, and in fact in Russian the title is a word invented by Balmont, ‘Mimolyotnosti’ (literally ‘Transiences’ or ‘Ephemeralities’), When Prokofiev played the complete piano work to the poet, in the hope that he would find the title and the music appropriate, Balmont's girl-friend, a fluent French-speaker, came up with the title Visions Fugitives by which the cycle is known outside Russia. 

Monday, 23 November 2020

Sleeping Beauty: A Dramatic Symphony - Kristjan Järvi and his Baltic Sea Philharmonic in a new arrangement of Tchaikovsky's ballet

Tchaikovsky Sleeping Beauty: A Dramatic Symphony; Baltic Sea Philharmonic, Kristjan Järvi; SONY
Tchaikovsky Sleeping Beauty: A Dramatic Symphony; Baltic Sea Philharmonic, Kristjan Järvi; SONY

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 20 November 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Kristjan Järvi and his orchestra give a dramatically engaging account of the conductor's new arrangement of Tchaikovsky's ballet, which fizzes with energy

Tchaikovsky's ballets remain somewhat problematical on disc, even leaving aside the Swan Lake version controversy (whether to perform the music as written, or as used in the well-known version of the ballet created after the composer's death). Do you perform a tasty selection of nuggets, or the whole beast? This latter can have its longeurs. I well remember performances of Sleeping Beauty by the Royal Ballet where younger members of the audience, looking forward to the delights of fairies and such, got rather bored with all the walking-about-to-music particularly in the first act, and this can be reflected in complete performances of the ballets. Without any visual stimulus the more functional music can seem a little underwhelming. But if you cut, how do you give the music dramatic context? There is also the vexed question of tempo, to perform it as suitable for ballet dancers, or how the conductor feels it should go.
Kristjan Järvi has taken on the challenge and in his new version of Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty he has condensed the three-hour ballet down to 70 minutes, creating in the process what he describes as a dramatic symphony. The music is selected not a series of bon bouches, though there are plenty of those, but played as a dramatic continuum. The new version was premiered by Kristjan Järvi and his Baltic Sea Philharmonic on a tour to Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, and Russia, and the recording was done in St Petersburg (where they performed the work at the Mariinsky Theatre) and is now issued on Sony Classical.

The musicians were all playing from memory.

A new video of Ernest Bloch's Prayer features a collaboration between violinist Nicola Benedetti and luxury furniture manufacturer Maker&Son

A new video features violinist Nicola Benedetti, with Yume Fujise and Charlie Westhoff (violin), Jenny Lewisohn (viola) and Ariane Zandi (cello), in a live recording of a new arrangement of Ernest Bloch's Prayer (originally for cello and piano) made at Kemps House, the home of luxury sofa manufacturer Maker&Son. The arrangement was commissioned by Alex Willcock, founder of Maker&Son.

If the collaboration between violinist and luxury furniture maker seems somewhat unlikely, you can eavesdrop on the interview with Nicola Benedetti and Alex Willcock as they talk about the serendipitous events that connected them and led to working together.

“Our hope is that we can share the experience and the emotional connection that we both have with classical music, with as many people as possible. We hope to share our passion and to offer that experience, or sense of being completely immersed in beautiful music.”

You can download the track, with a donation to benefit the Benedetti Foundation.

New partnership between Music Masters and YCAT gets underway

Randall Goosby (Photo Kaupo Kikkas)
Randall Goosby (Photo Kaupo Kikkas)
This has been a tricky year for organisations like the music education charity Music Masters, when bringing artists and children together has been difficult. A new partnership is intended to bring a new strand of inspiration to the children's experiences, as artists from YCAT (Young Classical Artists Trust) will be giving Meet the Artist sessions by Zoom in which they talk about their life and music, and perform music. 

It is an important part of an artist's development to work within the community and to educate children and young people, so the YCAT artists will be challenged to design and deliver sessions themselves, with support from the Music Masters team. The sessions will engage with 350 students within the year, and they being this week with recorder player Tabea Debus.

The new partnership builds on last years' partnership where the American violinist Randall Goosby, was named the inaugural Robey Artist with YCAT in partnership with Music Masters, undertaking an ambassadorial role with Music Masters, working closely with the young learners to become an inspirational classical role model.

Music Masters was founded in 2008 by Victoria Robey and Prof. Itzhak Rashkovsky, teaching 1,165 children each week to play the violin or the cello. Of these children, 41% are eligible for free school meals, whilst in some of its schools, up to 70% of children come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Further information from the Music Masters website.

Sunday, 22 November 2020

A Life On-Line: Janacek in London, Ravel in virtual reality, the London Handel in Italy and Germany, Weill in Paris

Ravel: L'enfant et les sortileges - Alison Rose, Marcus Farnsworth - VOpera
Ravel: L'enfant et les sortileges - Alison Rose as La bergere, Marcus Farnsworth as Le fauteuil - VOpera

This has been a week when we have experienced on-line events that we were expecting to go to live, from Nicky Spence at Jess Dandy at Wigmore Hall to Handel's Ariodante at Covent Garden, and whilst we would have missed Opera North's performances of Kurt Weill's The Seven Deadly Sins, that too went on-line.

The week began with Nicky Spence, Jess Dandy and Julius Drake in Janacek's The Diary of One who Disappeared, a work which Spence and Drake recorded last year. Sung in Czech from memory, Spence was a vivid and physical performer, bringing the young man's obsession to life and thanks to Spence's engaging dramatic presence we hardly needed translations for the words. Jess Dandy, barefoot with a skirt trimmed with flowers and entering through the auditorium, was a suitably tantalising and seductive love interest. The backing chorus, not off-stage but in the hall's balcony, was Ellie Neate, Leila Alexander, and Catherine Backhouse. This was one of those performances which made you realise that the work does not need staging as such, just highly engaged performers. The programme was completed with a delightful group of Janacek's Moravian Folk Poetry in Songs, works which seem to be woefully unknown. And for the encore, 'Muzikanti' the three chorus members came down from the balcony and joined in, singing a verse each. Complete delight. [Wigmore Hall]

I first met Rachael Hewer in 2019 at an Opera Holland Park evening to introduce that year's Young Artists as Hewer was the associate director responsible for the 2019 Young Artists performance of Verdi's Un ballo in maschera [see my review]. We discovered that we both hail from the same town, Grimsby, not a place that well-known for its musical sons and daughters.

During lockdown, Hewer has been responsible for creating VOpera: The Virtual Opera Project, a company dedicated to making the most of necessity and creating opera performances especially for the virtual world, with the support of the Concordia Foundation.

Saturday, 21 November 2020

Despite lockdown, Handel's Ariodante returns to the main stage of Covent Garden

Handel: Ariodante - Chen Reiss - Royal Opera (Photo Tristram Kenton / ROH)
Handel: Ariodante - Chen Reiss
Royal Opera (Photo Tristram Kenton / ROH)

Handel Ariodante; Paula Murrihy, Chen Reiss, Sophie Bevan, Iestyn Davies, Ed Lyon, Christian Curnyn; Royal Opera House

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 November 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Handel's opera returns to Covent Garden after over 280 years with a terrific international cast

Handel's opera Ariodante premiered on 8 January 1735; it was the first new opera he wrote for the Covent Garden Theatre. Handel's opera season (which began with Il pastor fido in 1734) was the first opera performance at the theatre, which had been built in 1732. Ariodante was not a great success, there were 11 performances in 1735 and two (in a radical version) in 1736 and then that was it.

Handel's Ariodante returned to Covent Garden, to the third theatre on the site, when the Royal Opera performed the work in concert on Friday 20 November 2020. Christian Curnyn conducted the orchestra of the Royal Opera House, with Paula Murrihy as Ariodante, Chen Reiss as Ginevra, Sophie Bevan as Dalinda, Iestyn Davies as Polinesso, Ed Lyon as Lurcanio, Gerald Finley as the King of Scotland, Thando Mjandana as Odoardo. The performance was intended to be the first of two live performances, but lockdown meant that the performance was streamed.

In 1735, the title role was sung by the mezzo-soprano castrato Giovanni Carestini and Polinesso by the contralto Maria Caterina Negri, but in 2020 we had what has become conventional modern casting with a female mezzo-soprano as Ariodante and a counter-tenor as Polinesso (though it is still occasionally allowed for contraltos, I vividly remember Felicity Palmer in the role). The plot is one of the most accessible to modern audiences, it is a simple love story without magic elements, comedy or heroics, perhaps this was why 18th century audiences did not like it. And for all the work's three-hour length, the plot is very focussed without any independent sub-plot.

One element that we missed from the performance was the dances, Act Two ends with a scene where Ginevra's mad scene flows into dances for a sequence of dances for good and bad dreams. A striking example of Handel not just including dance, but integrating it into the drama, except that it seems he never performed it in this form. 

The performance was discreetly staged, the cast were off the book (hurrah), there were entrances and exits and a sense of characters interacting with each other so that we got a feeling for the drama. You felt that the singers were living their characters, not standing and delivering stunning singing (Chen Reiss, whom I interviewed in 2018, sang Ginevra in the Vienna State Opera's production of Ariodante directed by David McVicar).

A restlessness with the present: soprano Katharine Dain chats about her new recital disc 'Regards sur l'infini'

Sam Armstrong and Katharine Dain (Photo Hilde Verweij)
Sam Armstrong and Katharine Dain (Photo Hilde Verweij)

The Dutch-American soprano Katharine Dain has a new album out with British pianist Sam Armstrong, Regards sur l'infini on 7 Mountain Records (released on 27 November 2020). The album, containing a century of French song from Claude Debussy (1862-1918), Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), Claire Delbos (1906-1959), Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013) and Kaija Saariaho (born 1952), is a direct result of lock-down. The  songs, which have physical or emotional links (for instance Delbos was Messiaen's first wife), all have music or text which was written at times of pivotal change, and more than that the album would not have come about in its present form without the space that lockdown gave for Katharine and her pianist friend Sam Armstrong to work extensively on the music, particularly Messiaen's Poèmes pour Mi. I spoke to Katharine via Zoom to find out more.

So how did a Dutch-based, American-born soprano and a British pianist end up recording a disc of French song?  In fact, Katharine and Sam are long-time friends and first met in a French art song class at Mannes College, New York, when they worked on one of Debussy's Baudelaire settings. They have been good friends since then, performing a lot of French music and other music besides.

Claire Delbos and Olivier Messiaen in 1933
Claire Delbos and Olivier Messiaen in 1933
Katharine had long wanted to do Messiaen's Poèmes pour Mi, his 1936/37 song cycle dedicated to his wife Claire Delbos, however Katharine describes it as a vast work which takes dedication from the performers. To perform it would need a lot of rehearsal, and the pandemic in fact gave them time. Sam and Katharine had performances planned when lockdown happened, these were cancelled but it was decided that Sam would still travel to the Netherlands and spend lockdown staying with Katharine and her husband, though the duration was longer than expected. Katharine describes the time as rather meditative, day after day exploring repertoire and practising.

Whilst she had had an idea for the programme, in fact she and Sam developed it during their time in lockdown and it became a recital of French song, all related thematically, something that had not originally been envisioned.  It made sense to perform the programme before committing to disc, and Katharine and Sam have now performed it four times, albeit sometimes to small audiences, with the first one being to Katharine's husband and her fourth housemate during lockdown. She and Sam were able to give a public recital in the Summer, two weeks before recording the programme.

Alongside Messiaen's Poèmes pour Mi, the programme includes two of Delbos' songs from her song-cycle L'âme en bourgeon. Not only was Delbos Messiaen's wife but her song cycle sets poems written by Messiaen's mother, the poet Cécile Sauvage (1883-1927) when she was pregnant with Olivier. Messiaen's cycle was written in the first flush of his marriage to Delbos (and dedicated to her, Mi was his nickname for her). Katharine sees Messiaen as being flushed with the idea of marriage as heaven, as something sacramental. They are not love songs, and few are tender, most look forward to their future life in heaven, which Katharine sees as a bizarre perspective for a newly-wed husband, as if at the beginning of marriage his eyes were fixed on death. The cycle incorporates much both musically and in terms of philosophical ideas which represents his work later - birdsong, the existential connection between birth, death, marriage, and heaven.

Friday, 20 November 2020

Celebrating the centenary of RVW's The Lark Ascending with a re-construction of the work's premiere

George Meredith in 1893 by George Frederic Watts
George Meredith in 1893
by George Frederic Watts
Inspired by the poetry of George Meredith (1828-1909), The Lark Ascending has become one of RVW's best known and most beloved works, yet its origins are somewhat hazy, not helped by the fact that the original autograph manuscript has been lost. RVW wrote the work in 1914 so it is very much an eve of war-time work and Lewis Foreman has talked about the 'underlying layer of sadness to the music. Rather like the Edwardian era, as viewed retrospectively from the other side of World War One, it seems to reflect nostalgia for a partly mythological lost age of innocence'. It is also, looking back, easy to forget how revolutionary the work must have seemed in the context of British music of the time. Another point is that though we think of Meredith as a Victorian poet, when RVW began The Lark Ascending, the poet had only been dead for five years.

Though RVW wrote it for the violinist Marie Hall (a former pupil of Edward Elgar), who was involved (in some way) in the work's creation, the premiere did not take place until 1920, partly because of RVW's war time activities so that it was only after 1918 that he returned to revise the work. When Marie Hall and pianist Geoffrey Mendham performed it at Shirehampton Public Hall on 15 December 1920 at a concert of the Avonmouth and Shirehampton Choral Society. It was given in a specially created arrangement for violin and piano, whilst the original orchestral version was premiered, again with Hall as soloist, in 1921.

The original concert of the premiere is being recreated on 15 December 2020 at Shirehampton Public Hall (the venue for that 1920 premiere) in association with Bristol Beacon (the former Colston Hall). Violinist Jennifer Pike (who has recorded the violin and piano version) will be the violinist in a performance of the violin and piano arrangement, and extracts from the original concert will be performed including RVW's Fantasia on Christmas Carols, J S Bach's Concerto for Two Violins in D minor BWV 1043 and C Hubert H Parry's Choral Song “Jerusalem” with the Bristol Ensemble and Exsultate Singer.

The concert is a free on-line event at 7.30pm on 15 December 2020, further information from the Bristol Beacon website.

Update: For those interested in trivia, Shirehampton Public Hall was designed by the Bristol-based architect Bligh Bond (1864-1945) who designed a number of buildings in Bristol. He was also interested in spiritualism and psychic archaeology. He claimed to use a medium 'in contact with the original monks' to decide where to excavate at Glastonbury Abbey.

City Music Foundation announces its 2020 young artists

City Music Foundation - 2020 CMF Young Artists (Photo Ben Ealovega)
City Music Foundation - 2020 CMF Young Artists (Photo Ben Ealovega)

The City Music Foundation has announced its 2020 CMF Artists. Ten young performers, chosen from 140 applications, with whom CMF will work to develop professional promotional tools, providing help with commissioning and other projects, as well as participation in the CMF Presents recital series. The artists are:

  • Antoine Préat: Franco-Belgian pianist who completed his studies at the Royal Academy of Music and whose debut album, Polyphony, is released by Ulysses Arts in 2020
  • Elina Buksha: Latvian violinist, winner of the 2012 Latvian Great Music Award, Elina is currently studying with the violinist Midori
  • George Xiaoyuan Fu: American pianist and composer, studied at Harvard University, the Curtis Institute of Music and the Royal Academy of Music, where he is currently the Hodgson Piano Fellow
  • Margarita Balanas: Latvian cellist, made her solo debut at Wigmore Hall at 17
  • Nishla Smith: Jazz singer, her 2020 show What happened to Agnes? was co-produced by Opera North. Her quintet will release its debut album in 2021
  • Reylon Yount: Biracial Chinese American yangqin performer and songwriter creating an intersection between Chinese and American cultures (yangqin is a type of dulcimer or struck zither)
  • Richard Robbins: British tenor, choral scholar of the Choir of Royal Holloway, graduated from the Royal Academy of Music, Young artist for Brighton Early Music, Leeds Lieder, Oxford Lieder and Handel House
  • Richard Scholfield: Scottish, classical saxophonist, active chamber musician, winner of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland concerto competition
  • Rozanna Madylus: British-Ukrainian mezzo-soprano, graduated from the Royal Academy Opera Course and young artist of the Berlin Opera Academy, Georg Solti Accademia and Oxford Lieder Festival. She recorded Kokoschka’s Doll with Sir John Tomlinson and Counterpoise on Champs Hill Records [see my review]
  • Siân Dicker: British soprano, graduated from Guildhall School of Music and Drama, winner of the Singers Prize at the 68th Royal Overseas League Annual competition. 2020 Alvarez Young Artist, Siân was invited to cover the role of the Foreign Princess in Dvorak's Rusalka at Garsington Opera this summer

How do we transcend the divisions by which we define ourselves? Alastair White's new cantata in Scots, Hebrew and Yiddish explores the physical realities of language in our increasingly virtual world.

Alastair White: The Drowning Shore - Clara Kanter
Alastair White: The Drowning Shore - Clara Kanter
Exploring the physical realities of language in our increasingly virtual world, The Drowning Shore is a 14-minute mono-drama by composer Alastair White. Commissioned by the cross-genre company Compass Presents as part of its Oracles in Sepia series of on-line films, The Drowning Shore debut on Compass Presents' Facebook and YouTube pages on 19 November 2020.

Performed by mezzo-soprano Clara Kanter, directed by Hannah Lovell, and featuring garments curated by  Gemma A. Williams, the work packs a strong punch in its 14 minutes. One starting point for the text (Alastair White wrote both music and words) is the play God of Vengeance by the Polish-Jewish novelist and dramatist Sholem Asch (1880-1957) which examines the dichotomy between written and spoken language, something that White sees as being turned on its head by our modern internet, "Are we horrified, or bored - that we now exist purely as avatars, in pools of watery light, like ghosts, or flowers pressed between glass panes?"

The Drowning Shore features text in Hebrew and in Yiddish as well as in vernacular Scots, and the work was devised in conjunction with Asch's great-grandson, David Mazower (editorial director at the Yiddish Book Centre), and Clara Kanter is Asch's great-great-granddaughter.

This is a work with much to unpack, from White's music to the multi-layered, multi-lingual text, or you could simply sit back and enjoy the new and archival pieces from two of fashion’s masters, Issey Miyake and Alexander McQueen, and one piece used, a Scottish Black Watch pleated tartan dress from the late 1950s, was owned and worn by the composer’s own grandmother.

The Drowning Shore is available on YouTube.

Thursday, 19 November 2020

Handel's Rinaldo recorded live in a vividly engaged performance from Italy

Handel Rinaldo; Delphine Galou, Francesca Aspromonte, Anna Maria Sarra, Raffale Pe, Luigi De Donato, Federico Benetti, Anna Bessi, Accademia Bizantina, Ottavio Dantone; HDB Sonus
Handel Rinaldo; Delphine Galou, Francesca Aspromonte, Anna Maria Sarra, Raffale Pe, Luigi De Donato, Federico Benetti, Anna Bessi, Accademia Bizantina, Ottavio Dantone; HDB Sonus

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 18 November 2020 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
Taken from live performances, this is a vivid account of Handel's first opera for London, recorded in Italy with a largely Italian cast

Handel's Rinaldo was his calling card opera for London. Premiered at the Queen's Theatre in 1711, it was the first major Italian opera written specifically for London. And Handel pulled out all the stops. He reused a great deal of music from his Italian period (1706-1710), and as a result the piece of full of terrific moments. So, even though the libretto leaves a lot to be desired, Rinaldo crops up moderately regularly.

This new recording of Handel's Rinaldo features Ottavio Dantone and Accademia Bizantina, on their own new HDB Sonus label, with Delphine Galou as Rinaldo, Francesca Aspromonte as Almirena, Anna Maria Sarra as Armida, Raffaele Pe as Goffredo, Luigi De Donato as Argante, plus Federico Benetti, and Anna Bessi. The recording was made live at performances of Jacopo Spirei's production for Opera Lombardia at Teatro Sociale di Como in 2019.

The edition used for the performance is based on Bernardo Ticci's new critical edition, but the version performed by Dantone evidently combines the 1711 premiere with Handel's radical revisions for the 1731 season. The opera had a number of revivals during Handel's Italian opera period, but the final one in 1731 was perhaps the most radical. The title role was transposed down, whilst Argante and Armida became altos (losing much of their music in the process). Winton Dean, in his book on Handel's Italian operas is scathing, 'All the principal persons except Rinaldo are given music that is not merely irrelevant but at variance with the character as drawn in the libretto'. Not all Dean's judgements in the book are right of course, but the booklet notes are rather vague as to which elements of 1731 are included with 1711, but the opera as performed here uses all the voice types from 1711, and the major arias are in place. I suspect that where 1731 is reflected is in the cuts.

Handel: Rinaldo - Raffaele Pe, Delphine Galou, Luigi De Deonato - Opera Lombardia (Photo Alessia Santambrogio)
Handel: Rinaldo - Raffaele Pe, Delphine Galou, Luigi De Donato
Opera Lombardia (Photo Alessia Santambrogio)

Handel's previous opera before Rinaldo had been Agrippina which premiered in Venice in 1710. Agrippina is one of the best librettos that Handel set, whilst that for Rinaldo if not the poorest must be well down the list. It was written by Aaron Hill, the director of the Queen's Theatre, and then translated into Italian. It was intended to be spectacular, with lots of wonderful stage effects and in fact the libretto makes somewhat more sense if you think of it in the light of the earlier English masque and semi-opera tradition. Dramatic cohesion is not helped by the way Handel has included some of his more spectacular arias from his Italian period, even though they do not really suit the character or situation. It was all about the show. And the English loved it.

Laurence Cummings to become next music director of the Academy of Ancient Music

Laurence Cummings
Laurence Cummings
The Academy of Ancient Music (AAM) has announced that Laurence Cummings [see my 2018 interview with him] will become its music director from the start of the 2021/22 season. Cummings is currently music director of the London Handel Festival, artistic director of the Internationale Händel-Festpiele Göttingen and music director of Orquestra Barroca Casa da Música in Porto. 

The Academy of Ancient Music was founded in 1973 by Christopher Hogwood (1941-2014), who remained music director until 2006 when Richard Egarr (previously associate director) was named music director and Hogwood named Emeritus Director. Richard Egarr's recent projects with the ensemble included the sponsoring of a new edition of Handel's Brockes Passion, along with a live performance and a recording [see my review].

The news of Cummings' appointment comes as AAM returns to live music, with a performance of Handel’s Messiah at the Barbican on 19 December 2020, as part of the Live from the Barbican concert series; Richard Egarr directs, with soloists Rowan Pierce, Iestyn Davies, Ben Johnson and Ashley Riches  The performance will take place in front of a socially distanced audience, and will be streamed online for digital ticket holders.

Further details from AAM's website.

Wednesday, 18 November 2020

From Bacewicz & Glazunov to Huw Watkins & Hannah Kendall: The Hallé on-line Winter 2020

The Hallé Winter Season 2020

The Hallé, music director Sir Mark Elder, has announced a Winter season of on-line concerts from The Hallé’s Manchester homes, The Bridgewater Hall and Hallé St Peter’s in Ancoats. Commencing 3 December 2020, the nine concert season runs until 25 March 2021. The season opens with the premiere of Huw Watkins' Fanfare for the Hallé, and ends with the premiere of Watkins' Symphony No. 2. In between there will be a chance to catch the premiere of Hannah Kendall's Where is the chariot of fire?, as well as work by the poet laureate, Simon Armitage. 

Alongside repertoire by Brahms, Beethoven, Shostakovich, Ravel, Copland and more, there are less usual items, Richard Strauss' Serenade, Glazunov's Saxophone Concerto (with Jess Gillam), Bacewicz's Overture (conducted by the winner of the 2020 Siemens Hallé International Conductors Competition Delyana Lazarova), and the premiere of Roderick Williams' orchestration of Butterworth's Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad.

Hallé Artist in residence, violinist Henning Kraggerud is directing a programme of music by Ole Bull, Svendson, and Halvorsen, alongside an orchestration of Grieg's Violin Sonata No. 3, Brahms Sextet No. 1 and something by Kraggerud himself.  Annabel Arden will be staging Stravinsky's The Soldier's Tale, conducted by Sir Mark Elder.

Announcements will soon be made about a series of chamber concerts in Hallé St Peter’s with the hope to play to a small live audience. Schools will also be able to enjoy Goddess Gaia – a 20-minute educational resource featuring animation and music by Steve Pickett performed by Hallé players, based on a story by Tony Mitton.  Detailed announcements about this and the Hallé Chamber Concert Series will be made soon.

Full details from the orchestra's website.

Spitalfields Music at Home

Spitalfields Music: At Home
Like many festivals, Spitalfields Music's 2020 we be on-line this year with a day of events on 5 December 2020. 

John Butt and the Dunedin Consort will be presenting Lagrime mie: Songs of Prayer and Solitude, a programme of music by Monteverdi, Schutz, Alessandro Grandi, Barbara Strozzi and Francesca Caccini recorded in Christ Church, Spitalfields where the festival was founded 44 years ago. 

In Fast Food, Fast Music, violinist Anton Miller, viola player Rita Porfiris and pianist Siwan Rhys will be performing a programme of short, fast pieces by eight women composers, some well-established, some emerging - Victoria Benito, Joy Effiong, Bobbie-Jane Gardner, Millicent James, Sarah Rodgers, Jasmin Kent Rodgman, Susannah Self and Heloise Werner - alongside Errollyn Wallen’s Five Postcards.

Historian S. I. Martin, a specialist in black British History, has joined forces with the Chineke! Junior Orchestra to reimagine a walking tour of East London which will feature Three Arabian Dances by the British composer and singer Amanda Aldridge (1866-1956), she was the daughter of the African-American actor Ira Aldridge (1807-1867). Each stop on this virtual tour will be accompanied by a different performance of music with historic ties to the area, lifting the lid on the Black history of Spitalfields going back 500 years. 

The festival is completed with Errollyn Wallen's Song Club, featuring Katie Melua in an informal, late night session.

Full details from the Spitalfields Music website.

Born in Latvia, trained in Paris, lived in Canada: introducing Tālivaldis Ķeniņš, a very global 20th century composer

Tālivaldis Ķeniņš Violin Concerto, Percussion Concerto; Eva Bindere, Latvian National Symphony Orchestra, Andris Poga; SKANI

Tālivaldis Ķeniņš Violin Concerto, Percussion Concerto; Eva Bindere, Latvian National Symphony Orchestra, Andris Poga; SKANI

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 17 November 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Tālivaldis Ķeniņš' music is relatively unknown and this fine disc is a terrific introduction to his complex, technically demanding, neo-Romantic style

I have to confess that until I was sent this disc, the name of the Latvian composer Tālivaldis Ķeniņš was unknown to me. Thanks to the vicissitudes of 20th century politics Ķeniņš had diverse history, trained in both Latvia and Paris, he ended up emigrating to Canada where he spent the final 50 years of his adult life.

This new disc from the Latvian Music Information Centre's label, Skani, presents a portrait of Tālivaldis Ķeniņš with his Violin Concerto from 1974, Concerto for Five Percussionists and Orchestra from 1983,and Beate Voces Tenebrae from 1977, performed by Eva Bindere (violin), Mikus Bāliņš, Elvijs Endelis, Elīna Endzele, Guntars Freibergs, Ernests Mediņš (percussion), Latvian National Symphony Orchestra, conductor Andris Poga.

Tālivaldis Ķeniņš' father, Atis Ķeniņš, was one of the founders of the Latvian Republic in 1918 and his mother was a diplomat, so part of Tālivaldis Ķeniņš' childhood was spent in France. Intentions of studying at the Sorbonne were failed by the war and Tālivaldis Ķeniņš studied in Lativa. His father was deported, for the first time, in 1944, and Tālivaldis Ķeniņš fled Lativa. He studied in Paris with Tony Aubin and Olivier Messiaen, and by 1951 had emigrated to Canada.

Almost a generation older than his famous Estonian colleague, Arvo Pärt, Ķeniņš solved the conundrum of how to live as an artist under Soviet domination by joining the Latvian diaspora (his first job in Canada was as the organist for the Toronto Latvian congregation). But this has meant that his work has rather passed under the radar, though since his centenary in 2018, Ķeniņš and his music have been gaining more recognition in his native country and this new recording should do a lot to intrigue those outside Latvia.

Ķeniņš does not write simple music, there is no stripped down element and whilst the term neo-Romantic might be applied, you could also say that his music is complex, technically demanding, and sonically imaginative. This is the music of someone who developed in the Baltic, acquired the sophisticated techniques of Paris in the 1940s and 1950s, and then ploughed his own furrow, very much away from the mainstream of Western music in the later 1950s and after.

Tuesday, 17 November 2020

A riot of colours and textures: Avi Avital's imaginative programme of over 300 years of music for the mandolin - Art of the Mandolin

Art of the Mandolin - Vivaldi, Scarlatti, Beethoven, Ben Haim, Henze, Sollima Bruce - Avi Avital, Alon Sariel, Anneleen Lennaerts, Sean Shibe, Ophira Zakal, Yizhar Karshon, Patrick Sepec, Venice Baroque Orchestra; Deutsche Grammophon

Art of the Mandolin
- Vivaldi, Scarlatti, Beethoven, Ben Haim, Henze, Sollima Bruce - Avi Avital, Alon Sariel, Anneleen Lennaerts, Sean Shibe, Ophira Zakal, Yizhar Karshon, Patrick Sepec, Venice Baroque Orchestra; Deutsche Grammophon

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 16 November 2020 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Avi Avital in an imaginative personal history of the mandolin, from music by Vivaldi and Scarlatti, through Beethoven and Ben Haim, to contemporary pieces by Henze, Sollima and Bruce

Mandolin player Avi Avital's back catalogue is full of his, often superb, performances of music written for other instruments. Partly this is explained by the sheer lack of repertoire, but partly from the fact that Avital's first teacher was a violinist, and they played violin repertoire. 
In a charming introductory essay on his latest disc Art of the Mandolin on Deutsche Grammophon, Avital explains how he was taught by the violinist Simcha Nathanson who had emigrated to the Israeli city of Beer Sheva from the USSR in the 1970s. But the local conservatory did not need a violin teacher. Nathanson found some mandolins in the basement; as the instrument is tuned the same as the violin, he started to teach violin pieces on the mandolin. That is how Avital learned, as part of a youth mandolin orchestra which became a local legend. 'I believe that he had very little, if any, knowledge of the original repertoire for mandolin – or if he did, he chose to ignore it. Yet through this ignorance he brought up a generation of young mandolin players trained in the classical repertoire, all of us holding the pick “the wrong way” – as I later learned from Italian teachers.'

So, on Art of the Mandolin on Deutsche Grammophon, Avi Avital goes back to repertoire written specifically for mandolin. He performs Vivaldi's Concerto for two mandolins in G major RV 532 with Alon Sariel (mandolin) and Venice Baroque Orchestra,  and then a group of works with Sean Shibe (guitar), Anneleen Lenaerts (harp), Ophira Zakai (theorbo), Patric Sepec (cello) and Yizhar Karshon (harpsichord) with an emphasis on chamber music for plucked instruments, with Beethoven's Adagio ma non troppo in E flat major for mandolin and harp (harpsichord), WoO 43/2, David Bruce's Death is a Friend of Ours for mandolin, guitar, harp, theorbo, and harpsichord, Giovanni Sollima's Prelude for solo mandolin, Domenico Scarlatti's Sonata in D minor for mandolin and basso continuo, Paul Ben Haim's Sonata a tre for mandolin, guitar and harpsichord and Hans Werner Henze's Carillon, Recitatif, Masque for mandolin, guitar and harp.

From Rossini's William Tell to 20 newly commissioned operas: Irish National Opera reinforces its commitment to contemporary work as a result of pandemic restrictions

Irish National Opera: 20 shots of opera

For its 2020/21 season, Irish National Opera (INO) was planning a staging of Rossini's grand opera William Tell, the work's first production in Dublin since 1870! Fate had other plans and as a result of the pandemic, the production had to be shelved yet the company wanted to do something equally ambitious and involving a significant number of people. 

What they have come up with is 20 Shots of Opera, twenty newly commissioned one-act operas from a whole range of Irish composers, each opera for just one or two singers and an orchestra of up to eleven. The results are being presented in partnership with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, and the films will be streamed free on the INO website from 17 December 2020.

The composers involved present an eclectic mix, with works by Gerald Barry, Éna Brennan, Irene Buckley, Linda Buckley, Robert Coleman, David Coonan, Alex Dowling, Peter Fahey, Michael Gallen, Andrew Hamilton, Jenn Kirby, Conor Linehan, Conor Mitchell, Gráinne Mulvey, Emma O’Halloran, Hannah Peel, Karen Power, Evangelia Rigaki, Benedict Schlepper-Connolly and Jennifer Walshe. It is one of the biggest single-event commissioning projects in Irish classical music. And the subjects of the operas are equally eclectic, from Beethoven’s letters about troublesome servants and laundry dilemmas (Gerald Barry's Mrs Streicher) to a marine biologist’s meditations ‘on the enigmatic figure of Libris Solar, an alchemical blend of human, non-human and neoprene’ (Jennifer Walshe's Libris Solar).

The project has reinforced the company's commitment to contemporary opera, as artistic director Fergus Sheil explains, "We’ve already performed Donnacha Dennehy’s The Second Violinist [see Ruth's review], gave the world premiere of Brian Irvine’s Least Like the Other and Evangelia Rigaki’s This Hostel Life, and we are committed to staging Gerald Barry’s Alice’s Adventures Under Ground in co-production with London’s Royal Opera House next May. What we’ve done since lockdown began, though, has helped us reforge our identity with some unique projects, 20 Shots of Opera among them. I hope our existing and new audiences will embrace this and be as excited as we are about bringing these pieces to life."

In casting the operas, the company has also been able to take advantage of the sad fact that the pandemic has imposed restrictions in international travel, so that they have engaged world-class Irish artists and international singers based in Ireland to perform, including Orla Boylan, Claudia Boyle, Naomi Louisa O’Connell, Sinéad Campbell Wallace and Gavan Ring and such rising stars as Andrew Gavin, Rachel Goode, and Emma Nash.

Full details from the INO website.

Musical Chain: Baltic Sea Philharmonic's innovative video response to lockdown

Anyone who has read my recent interview with conductor Kristjan Järvi will not be surprised to find that the conductor's response to lockdown with his orchestra the Baltic Sea Philharmonic was never going to be straightforward.

The orchestra has released the first in a series of videos in which classics from the repertoire are recorded by the orchestra's musicians in their home studio and then remixed by Kristjan Järvi, interwoven with elements of electronic music to create dense sound textures and finally produced, along with videos created by professionally editing the orchestral musicians films of themselves.

The project arose because during lockdown earlier this year the orchestra was due to tour Poland, Germany and Russia. Instead, they created a virtual orchestra involving musicians from all over Europe in a Musical Chain. The name Musical Chain being inspired by the human chains formed by people in the three Baltic States in August 1989. 

The project reflects the cross-border spirit of the orchestra and its commitment to using digital media to convey the energy, style and freedom of its live performances.  Kristjan Järvi comments: "The pandemic has put us in a situation where we have to get out of our everyday groove and comfort zone, out of our familiar structures, methods and routines. We have to create a completely new raison d'être for ourselves and ask ourselves why we do what we do. Physically we can't create the same energy in the same room, but we create a new way of bringing our energy and ideas to people around the world who are inspired by what we do and the way we make music."

Two videos have already been released, Beethoven’s Twilight [YouTube], based on Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 and Midnight Mood [YouTube], based on Grieg's Morning Mood. The next video in the series Ascending Swans, based on Sibelius'  Song of praise will be released on November 20, keep an eye on the orchestra's YouTube channel.

Monday, 16 November 2020

The Auditions: Augusta Read Thomas' new ballet score on disc as part of Nimbus ongoing series devoted to her music

Augusta Read Thomas The Auditions, Selene; ICE Ensemble, Vimbayi Kaziboni, Third Coast Percussion, CLiff Colnot; NIMBUS

Augusta Read Thomas The Auditions, Selene; ICE Ensemble, Vimbayi Kaziboni, Third Coast Percussion, CLiff Colnot; NIMBUS ALLIANCE

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 13 November 2020 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
The eighth volume of Nimbus' series devoted to American composer Augusta Read Thomas includes the first outing on disc of hea major ballet score and a new version of an old favourite

I interviewed the American composer Augusta Read Thomas way back in 2015 [Musicweb International], when she was in London for the premiere of a new work at the Wigmore Hall,  and whilst there have been opportunities to hear her work live in the UK since then, she is not perhaps as well known as she deserves. But the ongoing series devoted to her work on Nimbus is making much of her catalogue available for exploration.

The latest volume, no. 8, in Nimbus Alliance's series devoted Augusta Read Thomas is The Auditions and other works, which features her 2019 ballet The Auditions performed by ICE Ensemble, conductor Vimbayi Kaziboni, alongside a version of Selene arranged for Third Coast Percussion, conductor Cliff Colnot, Avian Capriccio performed by Axiom Brass Quintet, Plea for Peace performed by Jessica Aszodi (soprano), Yuan-Qing Yu and Ni Mei (violins), WeiJing Wang (viola), Ken Olsen (cello), Ripple Effects for carillon performed by Joey Brink and Michael Solotke, Two Thoughts About the Piano performed by Daniel Pesca (piano), and Your Kiss performed by Claire Booth (soprano) and Andrew Matthews-Owen (piano).

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