Click here for a great review of a great occasion:
Many thanks to Colin for the link (and for the concert!)
Click here for a great review of a great occasion:
Many thanks to Colin for the link (and for the concert!)
A wonderful musical weekend. On Saturday, to Cadogan Hall for Chelsea Opera Group’s concert performance of Berlioz’s late opera, Béatrice et Bénédict. (Thank you to the Berlioz Society for the discounted tickets!) COG orchestra on sparkling form, conductor Nicholas Collon fantastic – precise, clear and engaged (grinning widely throughout the Overture!). Chorus somewhat under strength but valiant. Female soloists wonderful – Ana Maria Labin sang Héro with a lovely true soprano, Emma Carrington brought her luxuriously velvety mezzo to Ursule; their duet at the end of Act I (delicious in matching dark blue dresses) was the musical highlight of the evening. Liora Grodnikaite has come a long way since her days on the Jette Parker Young Artists’ Programme at the Royal Opera House; she sang Béatrice (without a score) with wit, fire and musicality, her looks and gestures conveying a huge range of emotions including amusement, scorn, uncertainty and confusion. A terrific performance.
Her Bénédict, Ben Johnson, paled somewhat in comparison, not least because he remained resolutely score-bound. He sang very nicely, but there was no chemistry between the pair (one recalls Ann Murray and Philip Langridge at ENO all those years ago…). Simon Lobelson and Adrian Clarke were luxury casting in the minor male roles. Everyone’s sung French was excellent – a rare achievement.
The wise decision had been taken to ‘stage’ the concert with three actors performing a reduced version of the dialogue in English. So we had Shakespeare interspersed with (uncredited but very witty) translations of Berlioz’s own additions to the text. Unlike their singing counterparts, there was plenty of chemistry and flying sparks between Helen Ramsorrun and Sion Davies – both final-year GSMD students (he should guard against dropping his voice, though – I didn’t always catch the words.) Donald Maxwell doubled Léonato and the Notary, as well as doing all that could humanly done with the awful role (spoken and sung) of Somarone, the joke music master who writes joke bad music… oh dear.
Because the three actors covered several roles each, it wasn’t always easy to tell who was who or what on earth was going on. A brave try, though. Perhaps some of the dialogue could have been cut still further…
Nice that the format followed that of COG’s previous performance in 1981, conducted by Stephen Barlow (can that really have been 30 years ago?). My only misgivings concern the piece: dear Berlioz, bless him, can’t get his dramatic pacing right, and in Act I he never knows when to stop. Apart from Bénédict’s Rondo, every number outstays its welcome (even the glorious nocturnal duet) – especially Somarone’s cod Epithalamion which isn’t funny anyway and which Berlioz insists on inflicting on us TWICE. Aarrgghh! And then Act II flashes past with undignified haste – the final duet seems over before it has begun. But all in all, a fine achievement for COG and a fun evening.
Then, on Sunday, a local jaunt to St Mary in the Castle in Hastings – a wonderful venue we hadn’t sampled before (thank you Lesley and Alistair for the heads-up). Billed as a Gala Concert, the first half consisted of performances by members of Barefoot Opera, a new back-to-basics ensemble directed by Jenny Miller (whom I remember as a fine mezzo Cenerentola a while ago). But they didn’t just stand and sing: soloists appeared in different parts of the (circular) auditorium, moved among the audience, sang to each other, and generally brought their roles imaginatively to life. Kudos particularly to the charismatic Krysia Mansfield, who not only sang Tippett and Borodin but even managed to be riveting while playing a non-singing Vitellia to Aino Konkka’s Sesto in Mozart’s ‘Parto, parto’ from La Clemenza di Tito. (Even clarinettist Andrew Sparling – playing from memory – directed some of his obligato towards her, presumably in an attempt to soften her heart.) Talking of which, more kudos to Andrew Sparling for putting down his clarinet and singing a weird and powerful Ravel song, ‘Les grands vents’.
Other stars included Carleen Ebbs’ sparkling and fearless ‘Je veux vivre’ from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette – we reckoned we had heard it sung less well, to say the least, during the Cardiff Singer of the World week. And Antoine Salmon, who may not possess the world’s most beautiful bass voice but was hilarious in Rossini’s ‘La calunnia’ and as Don Pasquale playing stooge to the Dr Malatesta of Nikos Penesis. Not sure about the ensemble finale – a strange rewrite of Handel – but this seems to be part of a project they are working on. All credit to Barefoot Opera – let’s hope we hear and see more of them.
Oh — and brava Nancy Cooley for her indefatigable accompanying!
For the second half, Elizabeth Connell took to the stage (is it ungallant to call her a ‘veteran soprano’?), accompanied by Stephen Rose. She treated us to a hilarious résumé of her long and colourful life in opera, illustrated by knockout performances of Wagner (‘Dich teure Halle’), Mozart (‘Non più di fiori’ from La Clemenza di Tito), and Verdi (Lady Macbeth’s ‘La luce langue’.) From low G to top B, her voice was big, true and thrilling.
She then gave us an outrageous ‘Diva Song’ written for her by Betty Roe and involving many changes of hats… I say no more, You must try to see her for yourself.
Her encore was the immensely touching ‘When I have sung my songs to you’ by the American composer Ernest Chance. Not a dry eye in the house (even hers!). A great lady and another great evening, rounding off a great weekend.
photo of Liza Connell (c) Clive Barda, borrowed from musicweb-international http://www.musicweb-international.com/SandH/2008/Jul-Dec08/connell.htm
Lovely ECO chamber concert at the Wigmore Hall on Friday. First, out trot a pair of girls with curly hair and lacy black frocks, looking for all the world like long-lost sisters… They are Stephanie Gonley (violin, highly accomplished leader of the ECO) and Katya Apekisheva (young Russian pianist, prize-winner at the Leeds Piano Competition, evidently a rising star). We are treated to Schubert’s A minor Violin Sonatina (D385), a work of extraordinary depth and subtlety by a 19-year-old composer. Exceptionally, they played both repeats in the first movement (which Schubert obviously intends you to do). Plenty of fire, passion and introspection – the slow movement was heavenly. Stirring performance of a terrific piece.
Then came Mozart’s Horn Quintet, K407, in which the solo horn is accompanied unusually by a string quartet consisting of one violin, two violas and a cello. Soloist John Thurgood was his usual poker-faced but impeccable self, playing with great wit and aplomb and enjoying the musical company of his colleagues as much as they were enjoying his. (We wondered if cellist Caroline Dale had forgotten her black dress? The only player not in black – but the bluey one she wore was very pretty.)
After the interval, Schubert’s ‘Trout’ Quintet, in an exceptionally spirited (i.e. fast) and lively performance – all great fun. Caroline Dale and viola player Jonathan Barritt would catch each other’s eye and grin hugely at crucial duetting moments. Stephanie Gonley led gamely from the front. My only quibble concerned the platform layout – pianist Katya Apekisheva seemed to be stuck at the back in a world of her own (though she managed some eye contact with Stephanie, and the ensemble was well-nigh faultless). Is there not some way of positioning the string players around the piano so that everyone can see everyone else, and we can see still see them? (Remember that Gerard Hoffnung cartoon…??)
Underpinning the whole performance was the velvety sonorous double bass of Stephen Williams – another poker-faced player, but one who evidently takes great pleasure in his role. He plays a huge, impossibly gorgeous and subtly decorated instrument by Gaspar de Salo, dating from the 1580s – which I thought was before double basses had been invented. A bit of a puzzle. (Oh, all right – cue for lecture about the double bass being a member of the Renaissance viol family and thus having older parentage than the upstart modern violin/viola/cello…)
Smashing evening – thanks for the tickets, Pauline! And thanks to Caro for joining us and for your luxurious hospitality over the Berlioz Weekend (which is another story…)
Not blowing my own trumpet, but it was nice to get a mention in Barry Millington’s Evening Standard review of Sibelius’s KULLERVO at the Festival Hall:
Sorry about the legibility of the titles — disadvantage of PowerPoint if you are projecting on to a screen just below the lights shining on the orchestra and chorus (though the tech chaps did what they could to shutter the lamps off the screen).
Anyway, a riveting perfomance of a stunning (and far too rarely heard) work!
An interesting article on Kullervo here – with thanks to Phil Paine (from whom I have stolen the picture)
Immensely talented and radiantly charismatic, with a lovely crystalline voice, Valentina managed to win over the judges despite some nerves in performance (confidentially, the best performance of the week was her rehearsal in the afternoon — smiling, confident, nothing held back, no trace of nerves then). She sang Donizetti (from Lucia di Lammermoor), Dvořák (Rusalka’s Song to the Moon), and Gounod (‘Je veux vivre’ from Roméo et Juliette).
The audience (at home and in the hall) loved her too – she got the Dame Joan Sutherland Audience Prize as well.
I really wasn’t sure she was going to make it (more…)
Berlioz Grande Messe des Morts, Barbican Hall, Saturday 9 October 2010; Crouch End Festival Chorus conducted by David Temple
I played the Grande Messe des Morts with Cambridge University Music Society (in Ely Cathedral, circa 1970), so have always loved this amazing work (and the 3rd bassoon part is engraved on my brain forever). And Diana is a Berlioz scholar (PhD) and member of the Berlioz Society, so how could we miss it.
Conductor David Temple — despite his alarming resemblance to Alan Titchmarsh — did a great job. He didn’t really conduct anyone except the choir, but the performance held together and the effect was overwhelming. The Crouch End Festival Chorus delivered brilliantly — intonation, attack, energy, keeping pitch, dynamic contrasts, getting the words across, even synchronised sits and stands – all absolutely fine. (Special bravas to the two lady tenors…) The orchestra was the London Orchestra da Camera, which was a bit of a mystery — supposedly ‘ the country’s most talented freelance professional musicians’, but apart from the leader, John Bradbury (very fine), I didn’t recognize any of the names or faces. They played really well — sonorous and in tune — though they could have done with more cellos and basses (6 and 4 not enough for this piece) and occasionally felt as if they could have done with more rehearsal too. But they gave a magnificent performance.
Tenor Robert Murray (a former Jette Parker Young Artist at the Royal Opera House) was, well, quite divine in the Sanctus, his voice floating effortlessly over the assembled company (from his position behind the orchestra but in front of the choir — a good solution).
Slightly taken aback by the dress code — gents of the orchestra in full white tie and tails, ladies in workaday all-black (mostly trousers), choir all in black. Conductor in a black bin liner worn outside his trousers* (an unflattering fashion also affected by Tony Pappano at the ROH).
And I haven’t even begun to enumerate all the things that are so extraordinary about the piece. It has been described as ‘really an opera’, like the Verdi Requiem – but it’s also an experimental laboratory of orchestration (chords on three flutes accompanied by trombone pedal notes? Two cors anglais? Six pairs of timpani? Not to mention those four brass bands up in the balcony — I defy anyone to hear it live and not have shivers up your spine, if not a lump in your throat and tears in your eyes. What an extraordinary composer.) Well, just get hold of the Colin Davis recording and hear for yourself!
(Once upon a time I was involved in a TV recording of the Berlioz Requiem with Leonard Bernstein at Les Invalides in Paris (Napoleon’s resting place), the venue for which the work was composed. Just thought I’d drop that in. Now THAT was absolutely amazing.)
Many thanks to the Berlioz Society for our excellently placed seats. Would be interesting to hear from anyone else who was there? Didn’t spot many familiar faces among the (not full) audience.
If your own orchestra or choir ever gets an invitation to perform this piece, don’t hesitate! As I recall from a hundred years ago, it’s great fun to play as well as to listen to. And Berlioz writes for four bassoons, so he has got to be a good thing.
* For elucidation: David Temple actually wore an open-necked black shirt outside his trousers. Tony Pappano sports an oversize collarless black shirt for which my boss coined the pejorative (but graphic) description ‘black bin liner’. Comfortable, perhaps — but a disconcerting sight at recent concert performances of Les pecheurs de perles when the entire ROH chorus as well as the orchestra and soloists were in full evening dress.
Extraordinary concert at the Barbican on Sunday night (6 June) – Thomas Adès conducting the LSO. First, his orchestral work …and all shall be well, inspired by the familiar mantric words of Julian of Norwich. Superficially simple and tonal, with instruments doodling up and down scales – but strange smeary things were happening en route in a particularly Adès-ian way. And a glittering final chord with a high major third floating on top – Aha! Stravinsky Symphony of Psalms, I thought to myself. And I knew that if you had said this to Adès he would have replied ‘Any fool can hear that’.
I have not always been convinced by his music, but he certainly has immense gifts and a distinctive voice.
Then a major (over-long) pause for platform rearrangement – and the fun of watching a second Steinway come up in the magic Barbican lift. Zoltán Kocsis played Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 1 from 1926 – very bristly and percussive. The featured timps and percussion were brought to the front of the stage (Kocsis’s idea or Adès’s?), thus enabling us to see every detail of Bartók’s demands for different sticks, different ways of hitting a suspended cymbal, and so on. Just a pity that the lady playing tam-tam was hidden behind the piano and largely inaudible.
The performance was not quite successful: because of the layout, woodwind and strings seemed somewhat muffled, and ensemble was very rocky at times (better in the morning rehearsal, I have to say).
After the interval, a little Adès showpiece – These premises are alarmed; more lovely sounds, though as by now I was sitting in my ‘box’ it was hard to hear.
Then the UK premiere of Irish composer Gerald Barry’s one-act ‘opera’, La plus forte (The Stronger), a setting of a Strindberg play translated from Swedish into French (because it was originally commissioned by Radio France) and performed with English surtitles – which is where I came in. Because of various complications I won’t go into here, I was sight-reading the score on no rehearsal, so things were a bit hairy for me. But in fact Gerald Barry’s score is so clear and clean, and soprano Barbara Hannigan’s amazing singing is so direct and precise, that I had no difficulty following. Phew! She was extraordinary – every note, however stratospheric, exactly in place (even after unaccompanied silent bars!), immaculate French (she is Canadian), and apparently (I couldn’t see much from where I was) brilliantly subtle ‘acting’ in the role of the increasingly neurotic wife who gradually realises that her silent café companion has had an affair with her husband. (And we loved her appropriately over-exuberant frock and hat.)
Gerald Barry’s music has flummoxed me in the past – I’ve tended to think ‘It will be all right when he’s put the expression marks in’; very aggressive, few slurs, sometimes very loud, lots of unisons and sforzandos, much machine-like repetition. But once I had got my ear in, the music was just right for this piece, conveying all levels of expression from calm to watchfulness to nervous tension, playfulness, hysteria, rage, and even belly-laugh humour at times.
And finally, three dances from Adès’s early opera Powder Her Face, full of the student exuberance of youth – plenty of pastiche and fun and games – but showing a composer already completely in control of his fertile imagination. And, not incidentally, showing himself these days a conductor completely in control of his players (who were having a whale of a time).
What a great Prom programme the whole concert would make! BBC please take note (if you haven’t already).
Diana’s comment was that the liberating, ear-opening thrill of the whole concert, and particularly the Barry, must have been equivalent to the effect on its first audience of , say, Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique; marvelling at sounds, colours, effects and all sorts of things that music could do that one would never have imagined to be possible.
As I said – an extraordinary concert.
photo of Barbara Hanningan (c) Marco Borggreve
The concert began with the overture to Mozart’s Don Giovanni, beginning with a riskily fast tempo for the ‘slow’ introduction – the spooky music for the arrival of the statue of the dead Commendatore at Don Giovanni’s supper table; but Ben Palmer knew what he was doing, and it worked. The ensuing Allegro was a bit of a scrabble, the strings not quite in tune yet, the trumpets and timpani drowning everything out at their entries in the echoey acoustic of St Paul’s. (Solution? Harder timp sticks? Just mark all their dynamics down a bit? Make each entry a very quick diminuendo from a fortepiano? Shame, as the ‘straight’ natural trumpets made a great sound, as well as looking terrific.)
And the Overture ended with an awkward and stylistically out-of-kilter concert ending (necessary because in the opera itself the Overture doesn’t ‘finish’ but segues into the first scene in a different key). Nul points to whichever publisher perpetrated that one – there are much simpler solutions that work fine.
Next came the reason we were there – my niece Rosie Burton playing the Hummel Bassoon Concerto. There is something of a shortage of decent bassoon concertos (well, if you don’t count the 36 or so by Vivaldi, and one that probably isn’t by Rossini); the teenage Mozart wrote one, which is famous because it is by Mozart but is really not up to much (though you wonder what the other half-dozen or so he is alleged to have written might have been like). Weber wrote the greatest of all, in 1811; and that’s about it, apart from a few modern ones. No Beethoven, Brahms Dvořák or Elgar… And then there’s Johann Nepomuk Hummel. He was an interesting chap – student (and lodger) of Mozart, pupil of Haydn and Beethoven, wrote some fine (and very jolly) chamber music, including the wittiest Wind Octet ever written; and he wrote his Grand Concerto for Bassoon in 1805. It isn’t heard very often, because it is VERY difficult: not only is there lots of whizzing about in semiquavers, but the writing is awkward and un-bassoony – double octaves, huge skips and ever-widening arpeggio patterns – so the piece is even harder than it sounds.
Rosie did a fantastic job, performing with note-perfect accuracy, style, polish and fun, and above all with a gorgeous sound: warm, rich tone, smooth and nutty, and totally under control at all times. I am very envious! – and very proud.
After the interval, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 in D – an ‘early’ work that isn’t heard as often as it should be or used to be. Ben Palmer once again went for broke in his daringly fast tempi, but they paid off. And this time the stabs of trumpets and timpani were perfectly judged, providing Beethovenian ‘punctuation’ with point and clarity but never drowning the rest of the band.
The gently lilting ‘slow’ movement was refreshing – special praise for Tom Hardy on bassoon, along with the other woodwind principals – though I would have preferred just a little more room to breathe for the bouncy cello theme: the tempo is Larghetto, after all.
Conversely, the Scherzo felt as if it could have done with being even quicker. But it made its Beethovenian mark, especially the moment in the Trio when the unison strings say ‘We’re going to play in F sharp major now’ and the rest of the orchestra says ‘Oh no you’re not!’
The Finale was an absolute rocket, and brilliantly effective. Occasionally it seemed to totter on the verge of rushing out of control, but never quite did. Ben Palmer captured perfectly Beethoven’s shock tactics and rough wit in the handling of the opening ‘yah boo’ motive, and conversely the hushed moment in the Coda when pizzicato cellos and basses step down and down into new harmonic realms, ‘as if’, in the words of Sir George Grove quoted by my brother Tony in his programme note, ‘we had passed through a door and were in a new enchanted world’.
Talking of which, one small disappointment was the presence of just one double bass – who was, however, always rock solid and perfectly audible; but even with a small orchestra one surely needs two or three basses, especially as Beethoven himself apparently preferred to have more basses than cellos.
Nevertheless, this was the most exciting and compelling performance of Beethoven 2 I have heard in a long time, or possibly ever; by this time the orchestra was perfectly in focus and in full steam, and Ben Palmer brought it to life and made sense of the piece in ways I had certainly never heard before. Great concert.
more about the orchestra on their website: http://www.orchestraofstpauls.co.uk/
Definition: Reed Rage. An affliction commonly found in double reed players, especially bassoonists. Less serious than Reed Neurosis suffered by oboe players. It involves leaping up and down on reeds that don’t work or stabbing them into music stands…
So… way back in October, we turned out to the wilds of Hampstead for a concert by REED RAGE, a brand new bassoon quartet which just happens to have my niece Rosie in it…
More about them, and biographies of the four players (and their instruments), from their website – a very swish production which I suspect Tom had a hand in:
They are Rosie Burton, Alex Davidson, Llinos Owen and Tom Hardy. The occasion was organised by Hugh Rosenbaum, who hovered over the proceedings like a benevolent but slightly anxious mother hen (and wrote a glowing review for Double Reed News afterwards! – Issue 89, Winter 2009, page 33). The tiny room at Burgh House was packed to the rafters, and extra chairs had to be sent for to accommodate all the bassoonists, pupils, relations, friends and other interested parties who were eager to squeeze in.
The three girls are all alumnae of the Southbank Sinfonia, and Tom is a veteran of – well, lots of things. Each of the four had a terrific, characterful sound, and as a quartet their blend, unanimity of attack, discipline and intonation were a joy. Most of the contra duties fell to Tom, although Alex’s Big Bertha got a look in too.
The programme managed to avoid the usual bassoon quartet chestnuts (though it would have been nice to hear Alan Ridout’s Pigs played really well) and instead gave us wide-ranging repertoire, from Senaillé and Fucik to Prokofiev, Stravinsky and beyond, mostly in arrangements – the arrangers including Boris Turner (a.k.a. Rosie Burton), Graham Sheen, and Andrew Skirrow (who turned out to be an old chum of Tom’s).
The concert also included the European premiere of Dance of the Polar Bears by Gernot Wolfgang, enterprisingly commissioned by a consortium (including Hugh Rosenbaum) from this highly regarded Austrian-born composer, who currently lives in Los Angeles.
It was concentrated, jazzy and lots of fun – and very difficult (as I know from having taken part in the first UK read-through… but that’s another story). Some of the audience thought it perhaps outstayed its welcome; I was too busy listening to notice.
The programme concluded with The Lone Arranger by Philip R Buttall; we were invited to count the number of quotations from familiar works that crept in along the way. I’ve forgotten the answer…
But the highlight for me was probably Andrew Skirrow’s arrangement of The Poacher (which tickled Hugh Rosenbaum, as he had laid on Lincolnshire Poacher cheese for the interval – and very nice it was too).
Here is an audio clip, courtesy of Tom:
[click on the arrow -- and wind the volume up to max...]
The point of writing this review now – four months after the event – is that Reed Rage has unfortunately been in abeyance since Llinos was involved in a rather nasty car accident. We’re glad to hear she has completely recovered, and wish her well; meanwhile, Reed Rage are gearing up for another evening of delights – so watch (and listen to) this space…
Thanks to Tom for the invitation to write this piece, and for the audio clip. And to the Reed Rage website for the picture.
Greetings from Wales, where I am ensconced with the BBC putting several thousand subtitles on the broadcast items for the CARDIFF SINGER OF THE WORLD Competition, 2009, coming from St David’s Hall in Cardiff. Very exciting contest, some terrific singing and wonderful music. A great privilege to be part of it.
For me, the fruits of several weeks’ hard work (slotted in between all the other things I have been doing lately!) commissioning and preparing the subtitle translations and editing the titles.
Halfway through the week at the moment, Round 4 (out of 5) this evening… The Rosenblatt Song Prize Final (a separate competition) is on Friday, the main Final on Sunday. Day-to-day coverage on BBC4, BBC Wales and Radio 3; Sunday’s Final is broadcast on BBC2 at 5.30 – don’t miss it!