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Friday, 11 February 2022

The Politics of Polyphony


Front cover of the "Kyrie Eleison" from Byrd's Mass for Four Voices
probably published in London by Thomas East

In 1605, Charles de Ligny, a French aristocrat visiting London, was arrested and imprisoned as a spy.  The evidence against him was a book of music he was carrying with him.  How could music be so dangerous that mere possession of it could get you thrown into prison?
This is the fascinating background to The Fourth Choir's forthcoming concert, The Politics of Polyphony at the church of St Bartholomew the Great on Saturday 19 March 2022. Conducted by Jamie Powe, the choir will be performing music from the earliest beginnings of polyphony through the complexities of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, including a music from one of William Byrd's masses which were written for masses celebrated covertly and illegally by England's proscribed Roman Catholics and were published without title pages and in a way that made concealment easier.

The choir will also be performing music by more recent and contemporary composers in the same tradition including works by Judith Weir, Kerry Andrew, Rosephanye Powell, R. Nathaniel Dett and Francis Poulenc.

The Fourth Choir was founded in September 2013 by a group of LGBT + singers aspiring to sing classical and modern choral works to the highest possible standard. Our goal is to represent the LGBT + community on London’s world-class classical music scene.

Full details from the choir's website.

Celebrating Pauline Viardot

Pauline Viardot
Pauline Viardot's bi-centenary occurred last year (she was born in 1821). She is a performer the magnitude of whose career it is difficult to grasp without any recordings, and it is still complicated for us to understand quite how significant it was that she managed to carve out a significant career for herself as singer, teacher, composer, salon-iste as an independent woman. Saint-Saens' dedicated Samson et Dalila to her, but she declined to perform the work saying she was too old, Meyerbeer made sure the premiere of Le prophete took place at a time which meant that she could create the important role of Fides, and Berlioz created his version of Gluck's Orfeo ed Eurydice specifically for her. Her own songs do not always seem to reach the intense heights that of these operas, but it is only through her song that the voice of Pauline Viardot can speak to us today.

A weekend of events celebrating Viardot's bi-centenary is being held in Oborne, Dorset from 1 to 3 April 2022. VIARDOT200: Prima Donna, Composer, Muse and Inspiration is being presented by Cameratina, and will feature Viardot's final opera, Cinderella in a new translation by Jeremy Sams performed by a cast of young singers including Claire Lees, Katy Thomson, Georgia Mae Bishop, Alison Rose, Liam Bonthrone, Robert Lewis, and Kieran Rayner, with pianist Susanna Stranders (artistic director of Cameratina). Mezzo-soprano Katie Bray will be giving a recital of Viardot's songs along new work by Dani Howard and Lilly Vadaneaux setting words by Ivan Turgenev, who had a long running affair with Viardot.

The Turgenev connection is an interesting one, Viardot would set a number of Russian poets in her own songs and she and Turgenev collaborated on several operas. These were written for her students, as well Cinderella, though this latter had no involvement from Turgenev. 

Full details from the Cameratina website.

Michael Wilmering & Daan Boertien in 'Gute Nacht' from Schubert's Winterreise

Schubert was just 30 when he wrote Winterreise yet such is the music's power and depth that we tend to associate the cycle with the experience of older performers, yet in many ways this is young man's (or woman's) music. And the cycle is wide enough and deep enough to warrant any number of performers and recordings. 

The Dutch record label DAVID LEE ROTH-SHEET MUSIC-CALIFORNIA GIRLS-BRIAN WILSON-BEACH B produces acoustically sophisticated recordings and they have ventured a new recording of Winterreise with two young performers, Michael Wilmering (baritone) and Daan Boertien (pianist). They have produced three one-take videos of songs from the cycle, 'Gute Nacht' (above), 'Die Krähe' and 'Erstarrung' recorded at Westvest90 Church in Schiedam, and they make an excellent taster for the complete recording.

See TRPTK website for more details.

Mélodies: French song and Czech rarities from two young Czech singers

Ravel, Faure, Roussel, Debussy, Josef Páleníček; Lukáš Zeman, Michaela Zajmi, Pavel Voráček; Radioservis

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 9 February 2022 Star rating: 3.0 (★★★)
Songs by the 20th century Czech composer Josef Páleníček alongside those of his teacher Roussel and other French composers

Radioservis is a record label owned by Czech Radio (Český Rozhlas), and a recent disc from them is an engaging recital which features two young singers, Lukáš Zeman (baritone) and Michaela Zajmi  (mezzo-soprano) with pianist Pavel Voráček in a programme that mixes songs by Ravel, Faure, Roussel and Debussy with songs by the Czech composer Josef Páleníček including his Songs of Ancient China.

Josef Páleníček (1914-1991) studied in Prague and then in Paris in the 1930s, where his teachers were Albert Roussel (composition) and Alfred Cortot (piano). He is a name that is not particularly well known in the West though Páleníček composed a significant body of work. On the disc his song cycles are interleaved with the French ones in a way that works perhaps because there was something a little traditional about Páleníček's style, though the fact that after the war he lived in Czechoslovakia under Communist domination would explain an element of conservatism (and according to Wikipedia he became a member of the Communist Party).

Thursday, 10 February 2022

Les Salons en musique 2022

Les Salons en musique at the Institut Français being their 2022 season with a fascinating concert that blends old and new. On 17 February 2022, Ensemble Hope will be performing a programme that mixes Purcell, Bach, Handel, Satie, Falla, with Dorothea Hoffmann, Roger Steptoe, Gualtiero Dazzi, Frédéric Bousquet, Harmonice Mundi, J  Horrocks , Jean-Michel Hasler, Marc Antoine Million, and Bruno Giner. What makes the trio fascinating, however, is their instrumental line up - Armelle Marq, soprano, Frédéric Bousquet, euphone, Marc Antoine Millon, bass euphone. A Euphone is a development of the glass harmonica and the ensemble uses a modern Titanium Euphone, but the promise also a Crystal Organ, and the Baschet sound sculptures.

The 2022 series at the institute has a particular contemporary focus with music in the season by Arthur Sajas, Marc Antoine Millon, Dorothea Hofmann, Roger Steptoe, Gualtiero Dazzi, Frédéric Bousquet, Jean-Michel Hasler, Karol Beffa, Camille Pépin, Kaija Saariaho, Thomas Keck, Sofia Gubaidulina and Raphaël Imbert.

For the second concert in the series, on 10 March 2022, the French ensemble L'hostel dieu transports us to 17th century London. With mezzo-soprano Axelle Verner they perform music by Purcell, Playford, Lanier, Eccles, and Locke. Then on 14 April, Ensemble Diabolus in Musica conducted by Nicolas Sansarlat and Ensemble Alla Francesca conducted by Brigitte Lesne, join forces to transport us to 12th century Paris with Notre-Dame, the voice of cathedrals, mixing plainchant, music from the 12th century Notre Dame school with other music from the period.

Further ahead, there is a tribute to Marcel Proust on the centenary of his death, a concert that mixes French contemporary and 20th century music with traditional music from the British Isles, and a song recital from soprano Marie-Laure Garnier and pianist Célia Oneto Bensaid.

Full details from the institute's website.

In the shadow of men? Germaine Tailleferre's four little comic operas get a rare outing at Shenandoah Conservatory in the USA

Germaine Tailleferre
She lived to be well over 90 and continued to compose until a few weeks before her death, yet the name Germaine Tailleferre is only ever associated with one thing, that she was the only female member of Les Six. Her surviving output is large, and there might have been even more; she was forced to abandon many scores when she fled France during the War and kept track of neither her manuscripts nor her royalties.

She studied at the Paris Conservatory against her father's wishes, and she had two husbands (one American in the 1920s and one Frenchman in the 1930s), neither of whom wanted her to compose music and the second was also abusive. And it should be noted that her modern style of composition in the 1920s, when she was associated with Les Six, only really came about after her father's death in 1917 when she had more freedom. And she changed her name to Tailleferre from Taillefesse in order to spite her father!

Yet throughout she continued to compose music (with some inevitable gaps), at one point taking to film music to earn much needed income. She would say of this "I know that it is not grande musique. It is light and gay music, which explains why sometimes I am compared to the petits maitres of the 18th century, and I am very proud of this". And a fellow member of Les Six, Georges Auric would say of her, "She had little flair for the politics of success". (And indeed Auric himself turned to film music and would write music for such films as Passport to Pimlico).

Before the War she wrote the operas Zoulaïna and Le marin de Bolivar, and her masterwork, La cantate de Narcisse, in collaboration with Paul Valéry. Then after the War there were at least two ballets, plus the operas Il était un petit navire (with Henri Jeanson), Dolores, La petite sirène (with Philippe Soupault, based on Hans Christian Andersen's story The Little Mermaid), and Le maître (to a libretto by Ionesco), the musical comedy Parfums,

In 1955 she and librettist Denise Centore would create a cycle of five little operas, Du style galant au style méchant. Perhaps there was something in the air as another member of Les Six, Darius Milhaud would be rather fond of creating tiny operas too. Tailleferre's were written for French radio and each one was written in the style of an earlier composer. Only four survive, they are La fille d'opéra (a parody of Rameau), Le bel ambitieux (a parody of Rossini), La pauvre Eugénie (a parody of Charpentier), and Monsieur Petit Pois achète un château (a parody of Offenbach) and they still do not seem to be well known. These are charming pieces, designed to amuse and the writing is vastly different from Tailleferre's 1920s style. 

Germaine Tailleferre in old age with baritone & actor Mario Hacquard

The director Ella Marchment (who will be familiar to British readers through her roles with SWAP'Ra, the International Opera Awards, the Helios Collective and many, many more) is currently director of opera at Shenandoah Conservatory in the USA and will be staging Tailleferre's four operas with her students next month (22-24 April 2022).  Each of the four operas will be augmented by inclusion of overtures from the composers on which the four operas are styled, and Marchment comments "Is it ironic that even now in order to be remembered a woman had to attach herself to men (to Poulenc and Milhaud through Les Six), and to these other composers through these operatic works. Was Tailleferre forced to live in the shadows or others or was this a box that she consciously chose to put herself in time and time again under a false belief that she was her own agent."

And Marchment's approach to the staging will be firmly focused on Tailleferre herself, "The show opens as Tailleferre struggles to complete her four operettas in time to make her deadline set by Radio France. She has moved to the South of France and is under pressure to support her daughter Françoise through her composition. She is no longer composing art for arts sake, but accessible music that is guaranteed to please and earn her enough money to support her family ... It is only when these operas are finally completed does Tailleferre free her imagination to live as she truly wishes too, and the closing scene of the opera sees her entering her imaginative world and reclaiming it for her own true self. "

Ella Marchment will be directing Germaine Tailleferre's four comic operas from Du style galant au style méchant at Shenandoah Conservatory of Music, 22-24 April 2022.

Further ahead, Ella will be back in the UK to direct the UK premiere of Mark Adamo's Little Women at Opera Holland Park.

Wednesday, 9 February 2022

Orchestra of the Swan celebrates the centenary of Walton's Façade on SOMM

Walton Façade, Henry V; Roderick Williams, Tamsin Dalley, Kevin Whately, Orchestra of the Swann, Bruce O'Neil; SOMM

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 8 February 2022 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Celebrating the centenary of Walton's Façade, a lively and characterful new recording alongside the music for Henry V

William Walton's Façade, the entertainment using poems by Edith Sitwell, premiered in 1922 and to celebrate the Centenary, SOMM Recordings has issued a new disc which pairs Walton's Facade with his music from Henry V performed by Roderick Williams, Tamsin Dalley, Kevin Whately and the Orchestra of the Swan, conductor Bruce O'Neil, musical director of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

It is difficult to quite fathom the fuss the surrounded the premiere of Façade in 1922. Partly it was because the Sitwells were great self-publicists and loved to generate a stir, but there were boos and catcalls at the first public performance (in the Aeolian Hall) and press was generally condemnatory. But within a decade the music had been turned into a ballet (by Sir Frederick Ashton) and the piece was turning into something of an icon. Those first performances had Edith Sitwell reciting (through a type of megaphone invented for Fafner in the 1876 Ring Cycle at Bayreuth) and Walton conducting. In 1930, Leslie Heward conducted the work for the BBC with the reciters being Sitwell and Constant Lambert. Walton would later say that Lambert was the best reciter, closely followed by Sir Peter Pears.

Ryan Summers: Deeply Divided

Ryan Summers is a musician based in Marshfield, Wisconsin. His album, Deeply Divided, is his latest instrumental release, and it blends his musical first love, the piano, with an arsenal of modern synthesizers. Written during the 2020 pandemic chaos, he intends the music to serve as a metaphor reflecting the divided reality we now face. The video we feature is the last track from the album, Unplanned Escape, available on YouTube.

Deeply Divided is available from Bandcamp, and more information about Ryan from his website.

English Symphony Orchestra launchs its 2022 concert season

English Symphony Orchestra & Kenneth Woods

Having been extremely busy online, the English Symphony Orchestra has announced the launch of its 2022 concert season under conductor Kenneth Woods, with concerts during March to June 2022 in Hereford, Great Malvern, Cheltenham, Leominster, and Worcester.

One of the threads running through the season is Mozart, with three of the late symphonies plus the Adagio and Fugue. There are two concertos by Philip Sawyers, his Double Concerto with Daniel Rowland (viola) and Maja Bogdanovic (cello), and the Viola Concerto with Daniel Rowland. Whilst concerto lovers can also catch Zoe Beyers as the soloist in Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto

Other contemporary pieces include Bob Chilcott's St John Passion (written for Wells Cathedral in 2013), with Academia Musica Choir. Twentieth century music includes a couple of relative rarities, Poulenc's Sinfonietta, a lovely work that does not come out as often as it should, and Schulhoff's Suite for Chamber Orchestra. The Schulhoff features in a concert which also includes The Great Caruso, tenor Mark Milhofer's tribute to the great tenor.

Next week (18-22 February 2022), the orchestra's online season includes a concert that pairs Robert Saxton's The Resurrection of the Soldier with Philip Sawyers' Octet and Remembrance for Strings.

Full details from the English Chamber Orchestra's website.

Tuesday, 8 February 2022

Celebrating the BBC orchestras and the BBC Singers

Sir Adrian Boult & the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1932
(image from a Pathe newsreel)

There is sometimes a general tendency to take the BBC's performing groups for granted, only really taking notice of them when their existence is threatened. But across the country, they do amazing work, both live and broadcast, supporting a wide range of contemporary composers from Jonny Greenwood to Sir Harrison Birtwistle, and providing a core backbone of performance that it is sometimes easy to take for granted. This weekend (11-13 February 2022), the BBC is celebrating its centenary with BBC 100 and as part of that is celebrating its performing groups, with each one being broadcast in a celebratory performance. And there is plenty of excitement ahead too, as Ryan Wigglesworth has been announced as the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra's next chief conductor.

They have a long history (though interestingly, the oldest broadcasting orchestra in the world is in Japan). But the majority of the performing groups have their origins in the 1920s and 1930s. There have been losses, the BBC Northern Singers for instance, but the track record is strong. 

In 1922 the 2ZY Orchestra, the precursor to the BBC Philharmonic, gave its first performance on the 2ZY radio signal in Manchester, one of two frequencies used to launch the BBC. The BBC Wireless Singers, who later became the BBC Singers, were formed in 1924 and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales gave its first performance in 1928. The BBC Symphony Orchestra came into being under the direction of Adrian Boult in 1930, whilst the BBC Concert Orchestra traces its roots back to the BBC Theatre Orchestra formed in 1931 and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra was established in 1935.

The BBC Wireless Singers in 1934 (Photo BBC)

So there are concerts from each group over the weekend: 

  • Semyon Bychkov conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a programme that includes the UK premiere of Bryce Dessner's Mari and Richard Strauss' Burleske with soloist Kirill Gerstein
  • Ryan Bancroft conducts the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in a concert that includes music by Sebastian Hilli and Grace Williams' Elegy for String Orchestra
  • Anna-Marie Helsing conducts the BBC Concert Orchestra in a programme that ranges from RVW, Eric Coates and Malcolm Arnold to Anne Dudley and Xia Sloane, with vocalist Claire Teale
  • Omer Meier Welber conducts the BBC Philharmonic in music by Hindemith and Tippett plus the UK premiere of Aziza Sadikova's Marionettes and Schumann's Piano Concerto with  Eliso Virsaladze
  • Andrew Gourlay conducts the Ulster Orchestra in a programme that combines Sir Hamilton Harty's Piano Concerto (which the composer premiered as soloist with Sir Thomas Beecham conducting the Halle Orchestra) and Conor Mitchell's Democracy Dances
  • Aurora 5" Rolly Pet Hoot Owl #16832 Stuffed Animal Toy conducts the BBC Singers in RVW's Mass in G minor plus music by Judith Weir, Melissa Dunphy, Roxanna Panufnik, Philip Cooke, Errollyn Wallen and the European premiere of Goodall's Unconditional Love
  • Ryan Wigglesworth celebrates his forthcoming role with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra by conducting them in a programme of Strauss and Berg, plus his own Five Waltzes with soprano Katherine Broderick and viola player Scott Dickinson

Ryan Wigglesworth takes over as chief conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in September 2022. He returns to Glasgow in May 2022 to conduct the orchestra in a programme of Mozart (directed from the piano) and Jörg Widmann (the orchestra's artist in residence). His debut with the orchestra as chief conductor will be on 22 September 2022.

Full details from the BBC website.

Razor sharp satire and full-blooded passion: English Touring Opera's Spring Tour

Ivan Bilibin's 1909 stage set design for Act 2 of Rimsky-Korsakov's The Golden Cockerel

Rimsky Korsakov's operas tended towards the large-scale, with subject matter inspired by Russian folklore. He regarded The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya (which premiered in 1907) as his final opera, a summation of his art and it has been compared to Wagner's Parsifal. But the political situation in Russia with the disastrous Russo-Japanese war, led Rimsky-Korsakov to complete one last opera. This was rather different to his earlier operas, this is a compact piece and a "razor-sharp satire of the autocracy, of Russian imperialism, and of the Russo-Japanese war".

Based on a poem by Alexander Pushkin, the work debuted in 1909, after the composer's death. There were some censorship problems with the work, and it became known in the West when Diaghilev's Ballets Russes staged it (performing it as an opera ballet). 

I first came across it in the late 1970s when David Pountney's delightful production was a staple at Scottish Opera. So much so, that it was something of a surprise to realise that it was actually a relatively rare work. The Royal Opera staged it in 1998 at Sadler's Wells, Theatre in a rather grim production by Tim Hopkins, but I am not sure whether the piece has been done much in London since.

One of the work's challenges is its casting, whilst the Queen of Shemakha's aria is often in coloratura soprano's repertoires, the opera also has a spectacularly high tenor part for the Astrologer (Scottish Opera experimented with both tenors and counter-tenors in this role).

Now we are going to get a chance to see it again, as English Touring Opera's Spring tour features a new production of Rimsky Korsakov's The Golden Cockerel directed by James Conway (who steps down as artistic director this year) and conducted by the company's music director, Jerry Cornelius with a cast including Paula Sides, and Grant Doyle. Alongside this, the company will be touring a revival of James Conway's 2015 production of Puccini's La Boheme conducted by Dionysis Grammenos with Francesca Chiejina / Paula Sides, Luciano Botelho / Thomas Elwin, Jenny Stafford / April Koyejo-Audiger, and Michel de Souza / Jerome Knox.

The company will also be touring its staging of Bach's St John Passion with professional soloists and the Old Street Band, conductor Jonathan Peter Kenny, with contributions from 30 regional choirs.

The tour opens at the Hackney Empire on 26 February 2022, and continues until 3 June 2022, full details from the English Touring Opera website.  A tour which features 21 performances of La Boheme, and performances of The Golden Cockerel in 13 venues across the country.

In the midst of things: chamber music by Karl Fiorini

Karl Fiorini In the Midst of Things - piano and chamber music; Charlene Farrugia, Dimitri Ashkenazy, Rebecca Raimondi Stefan Kropfitsch; Grand Piano

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 7 February 2022 Star rating: 3.0 (★★★)
A retrospective of piano and chamber music by Karl Fiorini, Maltese by birth, European by instinct

In the Midst of Things, on the Grand Piano label, is a retrospective of piano and chamber music from the last 20 years by composer Karl Fiorini, featuring his Trio Lamina for clarinet, violin and piano, Two piano etudes, Piano Trio, Piano Sonata and In the Midst of Things for clarinet, violin, cello and piano, performed by Charlene Farrugia (piano), Dimitri Ashkenazy (clarinet), Rebecca Raimondi (violin) and Stefan Kropfitsch (cello).

Maltese by birth, Karl Fiorini studied in Malta with Charles Camillieri and Joseph Vella, and in London with Diana Burrell and Michael Zev Gordon. He founded the Valletta International Spring Festival in 2007, and now lives in Paris. His output includes two violin concertos, a symphony, opera and song, as well as chamber music. The works on this disc span nearly 20 years, and he describes them as all being composed during transitional moments in his life, both personal and artistic.

Monday, 7 February 2022

A Merry Mikado

There seems to be quite a lot of Gilbert & Sullivan around at the moment, which is rather a good thing. The Merry Opera Company debuted its exuberant new production in Autumn 2021, and they are beginning a tour across Southern England with a residency at the Chelsea Theatre (15 to 27 February 2022). 

The production is directed by John Ramster with musical direction by Bradley Wood, and a strong cast including Anna Sideris, Christopher Faulkner and Susan Moore, and we are promised much good-humoured frivolity, and what could be better!

Full details of the London performances from the Chelsea Theatre website, and full details of the tour to Tunbridge Wells, Loughton, Chipping Norton, Broadstairs, Petersfield, Beccles, from the company's website.

Principal string players of Northern Chamber Orchestra in the ensemble's first visit to Chester

Northern Chamber Orchestra in Macclesfield in January 2022 (Photo Chris Payne)

Over the weekend there is a chance to hear musicians from the string section of the Northern Chamber Orchestra in more intimate mode, as the principal string players, led by artistic director Nicholas Ward (violin), perform a programme of string quartets, Haydn's String quartet in C op. 33 No. 3 Bird, Beethoven's String quartet in F op. 135, and Dvorák's String quartet op. 96 American in Christ Church in West Didsbury, Manchester (12/2/22) and Storyhouse, Chester (13/2/22), the ensemble's first visit to Chester.

Further ahead, in May, they return to both venues with a larger ensemble performing Rossini's String Sonata No. 3 in C, Mozart's Horn Quintet in E flat major, Richard Strauss's Till Eulenspiegel, Einmal Anders op. 28, Franz Hasenöhrl brilliant de-construction of Strauss' tone poem for quintet, and Beethoven Septet in E flat major op. 20.

Full details from the Northern Chamber Orchestra's website.

Hareflight celebrates the dramatic potential of the irreconcilable.

Tiepolo: The Discovery of the True Cross

Composer Alastair White, having completed his trio of fashion operas ROBE, RUNE, and WOAD [see my review of the recent recording of WOAD], has a new opera debuting later this month. Hareflight, a new opera for tenor and flute, debuts at Leicester Guildhall on 25 February 2022, performed by flautist Jenni Hogan and tenor Niki Zohdi.

White explains, "Hareflight explores the relationship between truth and knowledge, dramatising motion, light and even affect to propose an aesthetic of the thought or dance which moves faster than its crystallisation into sentence or gesture. The team and I were very much inspired by The Discovery of the True Cross by Tiepolo, taking the painter’s radical apprehension of both the infinite and the apparent, an idea we’ve tried to unpack through a language of developmental speed, interpretive complexity and paradox.

The opera hopes to offer evidence of the imperceptible (or that which is beyond the listening individual’s apprehension) as a significant aesthetic force. And, in turn, to prove the hypothesis that certain relations exist as material instances external to musical objects. In opposition to trends that sanitise collisions of meaning between opposing models, Hareflight celebrates the dramatic potential of the irreconcilable."

Hareflight is part of UK New Artists' City Takeover which brings over 75 artists to the Leicester between 25 and 27 February 2022 to present work and share ideas, celebrating some of the very best of contemporary arts being made in the UK today 

Love Island? Tim Albery at Opera North takes an intense, modern look at Handel's Alcina

Handel: Alcina - Mari Askvik, Máire Flavin - Opera North (Photo James Glossop)

Handel Alcina; Máire Flavin, Fflur Wyn, Mari Askvik, Patrick Terry, Nick Pritchard, dir: Tim Albery, cond: Laurence Cummings; Opera North at Grand Theatre, Leeds

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 February 2022 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
Proudly sustainable and highly imaginative, Tim Albery's new production of Alcina brings out the characters' intense emotional journeys

Handel was rather fond of enchantresses; they pop up in his operas both early and late. It wasn’t the power per se that seems to have interested him but the ability it conferred for the character to be whatever she wanted to be. Sorcery, enchantment gave female characters agency so Handel’s enchantresses are always interesting and usually transgressive, ‘bad girls’ if you will. Alcina is one of Handel’s last enchantresses, and since the Handel opera revival of the early 20th century she has been on regular display.

Tim Albery’s new production of Handel’s Alcina for Opera North opened at the Grand Theatre, Leeds on Saturday 5 February 2022 with Mari Askvik as Bradamante, Claire Pascoe as Melissa, Fflur Wyn as Morgana, Máire Flavin as Alcina, Patrick Terry as Ruggiero and Nick Pritchard as Oronte. Laurence Cummings conducted, designs were by Hannah Clark, lighting by Matthew Richardson and video by Ian William Galloway.

Like most modern directors, Tim Albery was uninterested in Alcina’s magic for its own sake, there was none of the vivid theatrical display beloved by Handel’s contemporaries. Instead, this magic enables Alcina to live a life of isolated contentment, indulging herself as she pleases. A production of Alcina set in an oligarch’s luxury villa would, in many ways, work dramaturgically, though sometimes I do long for a production with the theatrical dazzle of the 18th century and an ending completely true to the libretto.

Handel: Alcina - Claire Pascoe, Patrick Terry, Máire Flavin, Mari Askvik - Opera North (Photo James Glossop)

Here we were in the realm of the imagination. The production is proudly sustainable, so the costumes were pre-loved, with 1950s and 1960s glamour a key theme, the women creating their own magic. At the opening there was a bare stage with just lighting rig and chairs (1960s style velour bucket seats), then as Melissa entered, the lighting rig raised up and the video started. This created the journey to Alcina’s island with its lush tropical vegetation, which made a big contrast with the velour chairs. But that is the idea; Alcina’s enclave is not at all natural.

Saturday, 5 February 2022

Femi Elufowoju jr’s imaginative reinvention of Verdi's Rigoletto features some strong, compelling performances

Verdi: Rigoletto - Sir Willard White, Callum Thorpe, Eric Greene, Roman Arndt, Themba Mvula - Opera North (Photo Clive Barda)

Verdi Rigoletto; Eric Greene, Jasmine Habersham, Roman Arndt, dir: Femi Elofowoju jr, cond: Garry Walker; Opera North at the Grand Theatre Leeds

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 4 Feburary 2022 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
Compelling performance bring Femi Elofowoju jr's remarkable contemporary re-invention of Rigoletto to life

Ostensibly, Victor Hugo’s play Le Roi s’amuse satirised the licentious court of King Francis I of France, but at the play’s 1832 premiere in Paris the authorities thought the subject close enough to home to ban it after one performance. Verdi’s opera Rigoletto uses the play as its source material, and he and librettist Francesco Maria Piave had similar problems when Rigoletto was premiered in Milan in 1851. Rigoletto should disturb and should hold a mirror up to society. But how to do so whilst dealing with the work’s misogyny and treatment of disability.

Femi Elufowoju jr’s new production of Verdi’s Rigoletto at Opera North (seen 4 February 2022 at the Grand Theatre, Leeds) takes a dramatic and remarkably compelling approach. Roman Arndt was the Duke with EricGreene as Rigoletto and Jasmine Habersham as Gilda, plus Sir Willard White as Monterone and Callum Thorpe as Sparafucile. Garry Walker conducted, and designs were by Rae Smith.

Verdi: Rigoletto - Callum Thorpe, Alyona Abramova, Roman Arndt, Jasmine Habersham, Eric Greene - Opera North (Photo Clive Barda)

Elufowoju had moved the action to the present day with Arndt’s Duke as more of a high-end gangland boss, though the setting was unspecific. Smith’s stunning designs, with visuals channelling artists such as Kehinde Wiley and Yinka Shonobare, created their own strong atmosphere. Both scenes in Act One and that in Act Three were each like a picture, and each had a vivid use of colour.

But the production used colour in a different way as well. The casting was the opposite of colour blind and Elufowoju’s production placed race at its very centre. Having Rigoletto, Gilda, Monterone, Marullo and Countess Ceprano as people of colour in the largely white court of the Duke created a new setting that minded Elufowoju’s own background; he is British-Nigerian. Remarkably, this was his first opera production.

Not an additional ornament: as he prepares to direct Handel's 'Tamerlano', Dionysios Kyropoulos discusses bringing historical stagecraft to the modern stage

Costume design for Asteria in Handel's Tamerlano by Rachel Szmukler

When Cambridge Handel Opera Company's production of Handel's Tamerlano, originally planned for 2020, finally opens in April 2022, the director will be Dionysios Kyropoulos, with James Laing as Tamerlano, Christopher Turner as Bajazet, Thalie Knights as Andronico, Leila Zanette as Irene and Caroline Taylor as Asteria, and Sounds Baroque, conducted by Julian Perkins, artistic director of Cambridge Handel Opera Company [see my interview with Julian]. Dionysios is Professor of Historical Stagecraft at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama and the idea behind the production is to integrate the stagecraft of Handel’s time with the music of his opera, supported by leading period instrumentalists. 

Dionysios Kyropoulos

Dionysios trained as a singer and I first came across him singing in Danyal Dhondy's Secretary turned CEO, a radical re-working of Pergolesi's La Serva Padrona [see my review] whilst he was also doing an MPhil in historical stagecraft at Cambridge, and we subsequently met up for a chat about his intriguing ideas on the subject [see my interview from 2013]. That was eight years ago, so I was delighted to have another chat with Dionysios to talk about the challenges of staging Handel's Tamerlano and the combination of historical stagecraft with modern singers and stages

 Before Tamerlano opens on 5 April 2022, there is a chance to hear Dionysios in conversation with Julian Perkins, artistic director of Cambridge Handel Opera Company on 16 February 2022 as part of their Handel's Green Room online series.

Whilst we have had period performance practice for over 30 years or more, historical stagecraft seems to have somewhat lagged behind so that whilst many people will have encountered one of Handel's operas in a historically informed performance, far fewer will have encountered one staged with a view to historic stagecraft. Dionysios points out that musical performance styles have had a considerable journey since the first period performances, with several generations of teachers each learning from the previous ones. Performers have needed to come to understand the old repertory and embrace the musicality of the period performance style, so that modern performances have an improvisatory feel that is a world away from the sewing machine-like tempi of the first performances. Such developments are necessary because we need to fill in the gaps in the oral tradition.

The performance needs to feel natural, an expression of what is in the heart

Similarly, historical acting is missing that element of improvisation. We know how historical performances looked, thanks to treatises and paintings, but the question is how to put the performance together to make it alive. A common ground in the contemporary writings about performance is the reference to nature, the performance needs to feel natural, an expression of what is in the heart. Whilst things should appear natural, this is nature beautified, there are rules and rhetoric is important. 

Friday, 4 February 2022


Composer Ryan Latimer has written the music for a dance piece, SOAPWORT, performed by Jade Brider and filmed by Kristian Šantić with music performed by members of the Workers Union Ensemble (Anna Durance – Cor Anglais, Ellie Steemson– Saxophone, Caz Wolfson – Percussion, Joley Cragg – Percussion, Edward Pick – Piano, Mercedes Cartwright – Double Bass). 

The work is described thus: 

"Uprooted from the cracks of tarmac and fern flitches, the SOAPWORT slinks and glitches through liquid life, full-suds and fanciful. Dappled with dew and sewer stains, this windpuff-bonnet of folly-froth reigns and self-seeds in a world of wet concrete and weeds."

Ryan Latimer's Antiarke came out on NMC Recordings last Autumn, "Playful, complex, brightly characterful with a vivid sense of rhythm", see my review.

See the video on YouTube.

Jonathan Miller's production of Puccini's La bohème is in fine fettle as it returns to the London Coliseum

Puccini: La bohème - Sinéad Campbell-Wallace, David Junghoon Kim - English National Opera, 2022 (Photo Genevieve Girling)

Puccini La bohème; Sinead Campbell-Wallace, David Junghoon Kim, Louise Alder, Charles Rice, cond: Ben Glassberg; English National Opera at London Coliseum

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 2 February 2022 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A strong revival of Jonathan Miller's classic production with a terrific ensemble cast

Jonathan Miller's handsome 1930s era production of Puccini's La bohème has returned to English National Opera for a long run at the London Coliseum. We caught the performance on Wednesday 2 February 2022 with fine young cast including Sinead Campbell-Wallace as Mimi, David Junghoon Kim as Rodolfo, Charles Rice as Marcello, William Thomas as Colline, Benson Wilson as Schaunard and Louise Alder as Musetta. (At some performances Mimi will be sung by Nadine Benjamin, Schaunard by Alex Otterburn and Musetta by Elin Pritchard). Ben Glassberg conducts the English National Opera orchestra, and the revival director is Crispin Lord.

Thursday, 3 February 2022

The Flat Consort: Fretwork evoke afternoons in Hereford with composer Matthew Locke performing with friends

Matthew Locke The Flat Consort; Fretwork, David Miller, Silas Wollston; Signum Classics

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 1 February 2022 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Written for friends to play, this richly imaginative music is unaccountably rarely performed which makes this satisfying disc from Fretwork so welcome

Matthew Locke was born 400 years ago this year, in 1622 and we remain in hope that centenary celebrations and recordings will help bring to prominence the music of this fascinating and still under-explored composer. His surviving music is not, perhaps, as immediately appealing as that of Henry Purcell, but without Locke's example you feel that there might not have been the Purcell that we know and love.

This new disc from the viol consort Fretwork is an example of what we have been missing, recordings of seven of Locke's suites that have hitherto barely made a dent in the recorded catalogue. So, on Signum Classics latest release, Fretwork are joined by David Miller (archlute and theorbo) and Silas Wollston (harpsichord) for Matthew Locke's five suites, The Flat Consort and two duos for two bass viols.

A jazz night like no other

Duke Ellington's first Sacred Concert première, Grace Cathedral, 17 September 1965

In March 2022, the Norwich Philharmonic Chorus joins forces with the Echoes of Ellington for a rare performance of Duke Ellington’s Sacred Music. Jazz (and Ellingtonian) aficionado, Tony Cooper, reports.

Edward Kennedy ‘Duke’ Ellington, born in Washington, DC, on 29th April 1899, moved to New York City during the mid-1920s and here gained a national profile through his orchestra's appearances at Harlem’s famous Cotton Club.  

Overall, Ellington wrote three Sacred Music concerts whom he’s quoted as saying ‘are the most important works I’ve ever done’. The first appeared in the mid-Sixties receiving its première at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, 1965, the second followed three years later premièred at the Cathedral of St John the Divine, New York, 1968, while the third first saw the light of day at Westminster Abbey in 1973 featuring the John Alldis Choir.  

The critic of Ebony magazine called the 1965 San Francisco performance ‘nothing but historic while forming part of a larger movement in the mid-Sixties bringing jazz and religion together’ while the Allmusic review of the recorded album by Richard S. Ginell gained five stars. He stated: ‘The Sacred Music concert taps into Ellington's roots in showbiz and Afro-American culture as well as his evidently deep religious faith, throwing it all together in the spirit of universality and sealing everything with the stamps of his musical signatures.  Ellington often commented that he was not attempting to compose a Latin-type Mass but a series of thoughtful and spiritual statements relating to his faith. 

Whether you’re a jazz, choral or classical-music fan the Norwich Phil’s forthcoming concert of the Sacred Music promises a night of nights. But it’s not the first time that the Sacred Music has been heard in Norwich. In celebration of Ellington’s centenary in 1999, the Norfolk & Norwich Festival, under the direction of Marcus Davey, mounted a marvellous performance in St Andrew’s Hall, Norwich, featuring the Festival Chorus and the Echoes of Ellington under the direction of their founder and clarinettist extraordinaire, Pete Long, with David Dunnett, Norwich Cathedral organist, in charge of the choral forces. It was a performance and a night to chalk up. So memorable, so different, so rewarding in every sense of the word. 

Wednesday, 2 February 2022

BBC Concert Orchestra to have three-year residency in Great Yarmouth as part of Orchestras Live's Create Yarmouth

Great Yarmouth is not the first place that you'd identify with live orchestral music, but Orchestras Live and the BBC Concert Orchestra aim to change that. The BBC Concert Orchestra has announced a new three year residency in Great Yarmouth as part of Orchestras Live's wider Create Yarmouth programme.

The orchestra's residency in Great Yarmouth will focus such areas as workshops in every primary school to encourage students to get creative with music, followed by an invitation to a free schools concert; full orchestral concerts for the general public with reduced ticket prices and offers; pop-up performances in public spaces; working with young composers to offer learning and development as well as opportunities to showcase their work; and a programme of work with local young producers, developing their cultural industry skills and enabling them to take an active role in delivering the BBC Concert Orchestra's public events. 

All this builds on the orchestra's existing educational and community activities across the UK including taking a leading role in the BBC's Ten Pieces programme and being a key partner in the BBC Young Composer competition and the newly launched BBC Open Music programme.

Create Yarmouth is a co-production between the BBC Concert Orchestra and Orchestras Live, in partnership with a variety of arts organisations in Norfolk including Norfolk Music Hub, Norfolk Museum Service, Norfolk Arts Service, Enjoy Great Yarmouth, Creative Collisions, Out There Arts and St George’s Theatre. The new residency builds on an existing rolling programme of work with professional orchestras which aims to raise aspiration, provide learning pathways and improve peoples’ wellbeing through collaborations with world-class musicians, digital artists, producers and arts managers. 

Further information from the BBC Concert Orchestra's website and Orchestras Live website

New funding for Awards for Young Musicians' Identifying Musical Talent and Potential programme

Identifying Musical Talent and Potential training session in Brighton (Photo Edward Webb)

For over 20 years, the charity Awards for Young Musicians (AYM) has supported talented young people from low-income families, helping them to overcome financial and social obstacles and support their musical progress whatever the genre, whatever the style. However AYM has identified a significant obstacle to encouraging young people's progress, identifying the talent in the first place.

As AYM's website explains, "Many teachers have limited experience of how to identify musical potential in the first place. Primary school class teachers generally have very little musical training, so their limited confidence can be a stumbling block; this inevitably affects their ability to identify young people’s musical potential in their classes. Alongside this, instrumental teachers working as part of the wider Music Education Hub partnerships can focus too much on instrumental proficiency, which can get in the way of them spotting early potential in a child who has never had the opportunity to play an instrument."

To help with this problem AYM has created its Identifying Musical Talent and Potential programme. This aims to support teachers in identifying talent in the first place. There are two strands to the programme, direct training (either face-to-face or online) and a series of online film resources. The idea is to show how some commonly used group musical activities can challenge what teachers believe they are learning about their group from doing them. 

Identifying Musical Talent and Potential programme in Worcester (Photo snaprockandpop)

AYM has received funding from Arts Council England to expand the programme. So far, the programme has worked with over 1,500 music educators and 17 Music Education Hubs across England, developing the skills they need to spot the next generation of musical talent. The new funding will support over 1,000 teachers in Music Education Hubs across England, and allow for the recruitment of ten new staff to help with the expansion of the programme.

Full details from the AYM website.

Enchantresses: Sandrine Piau is on vivid form in this recital of arias from Handel's operas from Rinaldo to Alcina

- arias from Handel's Lotario, Rinaldo, Giulio Cesare, Alcina, Amadigi di Gaula Lucrezia; Sandrine Piau; Les Paladins, Jérôme Correas; Alpha Classics

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 31 January 2022 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A selection of powerful often wounded women in Sandrine Piau's vivid and compelling Handel recital

Under the title Enchantresses, soprano Sandrine Piau's latest recital on Alpha Classics with Les Paladins, director Jérôme Correas, takes in arias from Handel's operas Lotario, Rinaldo, Giulio Cesare, Alcina, and Amadigi di Gaula plus the cantata Lucrezia, whilst the ensemble performs movements from concerto grossos.

Sandrine Piau became known originally for her portrayals of Handel's lighter voiced heroines, but her voice has developed in intensity and this new disc covers some far stronger characters, as she says in her introduction "Where once I portrayed light-hearted, pirouetting heroines, this new album offers a portrait of powerful, often wounded women". Some of the characters are literally enchantresses, Handel's sorceresses such as Alcina and Melissa, but with other heroines the enchantment is more metaphorical such as Cleopatra.

The recital is planned as that, rather than as an attempt at quasi-operatic excerpts. Cleopatra's arias from Giulio Cesare are split into two groups and the arias are punctuated by movements from Concerto Grossos Opus 6, and the overture to Amadigi.

Tuesday, 1 February 2022

New Music Biennial 2022

The PRS Foundation and Southbank Centre have announced the new works to be performed at the New Music Biennial Festival 2022. The festival was launched by the PRS Foundation in 2012 as New Music 20x12 to celebrate the London 2021 Cultural Olympiad, and since then it has launched critically acclaimed pieces by a wide range of creators. This year's festival is being presented in partnership with Coventry UK City of Culture, BBC Radio 3 and NMC Recordings, and there will be 20 works performed - 10 new commissions and 10 existing works from across the festival's ten year history.

The music is being performed in Coventry as part of the UK City of Culture celebrations, 22 to 24 April 2022, and in London at the Southbank Centre, 1 to 3 July 2022. Additionally, performances will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and will be available through NMC Recordings.

Many of the new commissions cross boundaries and genres, pushing the envelope in a variety of different ways. A number of the commissions feel remarkably specific in intention and it will be interesting to see how the resulting music develops and what lives these new pieces take on after 2022. In that context, it is helpful to be reminded of some of the stronger works from previous festivals as well.

The ten new commissions are:

  • The Moon has Become, a sonic art-work commissioned by WOMAD from British-Bahraini trumpet player Yazz Ahmed who seeks to blur the lines between jazz and electronic sound design
  • A new piece commissioned by Capsule - Supersonic Festival from Paul Purgas, an artist and musician working with sound, performance and installation
  • A new piece commissioned by Manchester Camerata and NEWFORM from AFRODEUTSCHE, otherwise known as Henrietta Smith-Rolla, is a British-born Ghanaian/Russian/German artist, composer, producer and DJ based in Manchester
  • Split the Air, commissioned by The National Youth Brass Band of Great Britain and Lepus Productions, from composer Martin Green
  • A new work by violinist and composer Rakhi Singh (co-founder of the Manchester Collective), electronic music artist Vessel & NYX Electronic Drone Choir, collaborative drone choir, re-embodying live electronics and extended vocal techniques
  • Bog Body (working title), commissioned by Sound UK from Keeley Forsyth, a composer, singer and actor from Oldham
  • From the Vestry, commissioned by Serious from Coby Sey, a vocalist, musician and DJ from South East London. Coby will create a new 15 minute work in collaboration with a group of entirely acoustic instrumentalists and singers – a radical departure for a musician and producer most known for his electronic work
  • The Crossing, commissioned by Opera North from sitarist Roopa Panesar and jazz pianist Al MacSween
  • Breathlines, commissioned by Armonico Consort from composer Toby Young, to be performed by Armonico Consort and saxophonist Amy Dickson, a piece somewhere between concerto and meditation
  • A new piece commissioned by the BBC Concert Orchestra from composer Philip Herbert

The existing works to be performed are by Anna Meredith, Brian Irvine and Jennifer Walshe, Daniel Elms, Errollyn Wallen, Philip Venables and David Hoyle, Aidan O'Rourke and Kit Downes, Jason Yarde, Jessica Curry, Arlene Sierra, Gazelle Twin.

Full details from the New Music Biennial website.

In Our Service: Thomas Hewitt Jones' new piece for the RSCM celebrating the Queen's Jubilee

HM the Queen
In case you haven't noticed, this year the Queen celebrates her Platinum Jubilee commemorating her 70 years on the throne (the longest reigning English and Scots monarch but a still a few years off King Louis XIV of France's European record). 

HM the Queen is the Royal Patron of the Royal School of Church Music (RSCM) so to celebrate the jubilee the RSCM has commissioned a new choral work from Thomas Hewitt Jones.

The new piece, In Our Service is designed to be performed by a wide variety of groups, from cathedral and church choirs, choral societies and chamber choirs to community choirs and in schools. Hewitt Jones' text is intended to give the piece a life beyond 2022, and he based it on the Queen's own speeches. 

In Our Service is adaptable for different ensembles/situations - 4-part choir and organ, unison/2-part with piano, and a full symphonic orchestration available for hire. Music packs are available to download from the RSCM’s online shop (at £19.95), together with optional backing tracks, videos and other resources to inspire others to take part. 

And the RSCM not only wants groups to sing the piece but to share the performance, via the RSCM website or on social media with the hashtag #RSCMplatinum, and to encourage you there is a performance of the work by St Martins Voices, directed by Andrew Earis with organist Polina Sosnin, on the RSCM website.  

The RSCM's role is to nurture and sustain church music, and the RSCM hopes that this commission will draw attention to its wider role as well as encouraging groups to come together to sing. The weekend after the Jubilee, on 12 June 2022, is the RSCM's Music Sunday, an annual event that celebrates the role of church music in worship and the dedication of all church musicians, and aims to reach out into the community and join with others. 

Full details from the RSCM's website.

Robert Max in Bach's six Cello Suites at Conway Hall

Robert Max (Photo Claude Darmon)

Bach Six Cello Suites; Robert Max; Conway Hall

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 30 January 2022 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
A marvellous opportunity to hear all six cello suites in performances at once very personal and very communicative

In 1728, some eight to ten years after their composition, Bach wife Anna Magdalena took the trouble to make a fine copy of her husband's six Suites à Violoncello solo senza basso (now commonly known as the unaccompanied cello suites). We don't know much about the background to this wonderful music, for whom and for what occasion it was written. The consistency of the works' structures suggests they were conceived as a group. And whilst Bach might have been surprised at the idea of performing all six suites at one sitting (and there again, maybe he wouldn't be) they make a highly satisfying whole.

Cellist Robert Max planned to perform Bach's six Cello Suites in 2020, touring the programme with a performance at Conway Hall. This was fated not to happen. Luckily for us the performances were re-scheduled, so, on Sunday 30 January 2022, Robert Max performed Bach's Cello Suites at Conway Hall's Sunday Concert Series. And before hand, I gave the pre-concert talk.

To play the six suites in one sitting (and from memory) is already an impressive feat of musicianship but Max did not give the impression of virtuoso bravura, more he gave us the sense of creating the music on the spot, a sense of constant improvisation.

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