Archive for March 2009

Martinů’s Juliette, BBC SO/Belohlávek

March 31, 2009

julietta_webTo the Barbican on Friday 27 March for a concert performance of Martinů’s opera Julietta, or rather ‘Juliette’, as it was given in Martinů’s own French (re-) translation – a slightly odd decision given that the conductor and some of the cast were Czech. Still, the effect of the French vocal declamation was to make the music more than usually reminiscent of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. Comprehension was ensured thanks to my friend Paula Kennedy’s scrupulous surtitles – which she would have been just as happy to do from Czech!

Kenneth Richardson provided a slick and effective ‘semi-staging’; singers basically wore evening dress and sang from scores, but the action was spiced up with minimal costumes and props, carefully thought out entrances and exits, and subtle lighting. American tenor William Burden was the tireless protagonist, the hapless Michel, who finds himself adrift in a land where no one can remember anything.  Magdalena Kožená was the appropriately distant and mysterious Julietta, looking lovely and vaguely 1930s in a floral frock.

Great character roles from a large cast including Jean Rigby and Rosalind Plowright, Roderick Williams and (outstanding) Andreas Jäggi.

Jiří Bělohlávek conducted the BBC SO in coruscating form – amazing colours and atmosphere. What an extraordinary score! I remember it from ENO in the 1970s (and from my Supraphon LPs), and its hypnotic power remains undimmed. It struck me as an amazing achievement to have written a full-length opera which is uniquely in his own idiom and no one else’s: apart from the echoes of Pelléas and the fact that the spooky opening bars are reminiscent of Stravinsky’s Les noces, one almost never felt ‘Oh yes, that bit’s Puccini, or Verdi, or Richard Strauss…’ as one does with all too many 20th century operas (including Britten!).

Martinů wrote the opera in 1936-7, to a play by his friend the French surrealist Georges Neveux. Martinů is probably an acquired taste, but I love his music. It’s the 50th anniversary of his death, so we are fortunate in getting more of it this year than we usually do.

Great to see a packed hall and so many luminaries in the audience – including, I was happy to see, Chris Hogwood, hotfoot from conducting the dress rehearsal of Dido and Aeneas + Acis and Galatea at the Royal Opera House only a few hours earlier (yes it was a long day).  I reminded Chris that it was he who introduced me to Martinů all those years ago (39 actually) at Cambridge Tech

There’s a nice review here: http://thoroughlygood.wordpress.com/2009/03/28/juliette-bbcso-belohlavek-martinu/

picture: front cloth from a Czech production of the opera

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Salomon Orchestra, 3 March 2009

March 4, 2009

salomon

London has dozens of amateur orchestras, each proclaiming itself ‘the finest amateur orchestra in the capital’.  Well, the Salomon Orchestra really is the finest non-professional orchestra in London.  Founded in 1963, it contains some of the best players on the circuit.  I grew up with these guys (and girls) and a surprisingly large number of them seem to have been in the orchestra for as long as I can remember!  (– which makes one worry where the next generation of really good amateur players is coming from…)

Their concerts are always a treat, and Tuesday’s was something special.  It was interesting to see how many distinguished amateur orchestral players were in the St John’s audience:  many were current or ex-members of Salomon who weren’t actually playing in this concert, but others had come to admire – a sign of the esteem in which this orchestra is held.

Unlike most other amateur bands, Salomon doesn’t rehearse on a weekly basis, but has a series of concentrated rehearsals just before each concert.  This really pays off.  Nor does it have a regular conductor;  this pays off too.  Guest conductor Dominic Wheeler electrified the band into disciplined playing of tremendous precision, energy and musicianship.

The concert opened with Benjamin Britten’s Fanfare for St Edmundsbury – three solo trumpets at corners of the gallery, playing three different fanfares in different keys, separately and then together.  As so often with Britten, a simple trick, but very effective (you think ‘I wish I’d thought of that!’).

Then Britten’s unjustly neglected Violin Concerto from 1939, an ambitious and accomplished work from a 26-year-old composer with a firm grasp of contemporary musical developments across Europe (and the world:  the score was completed in Canada and the USA).  In its breadth and easy authority it reminds me of Bartok’s 3rd Piano Concerto, although there are astonishing echoes (or pre-echoes) of Shostakovich and Prokofiev.

Soloist was the assured and hugely talented Sara Trickey, who conveyed the work’s searing intensity with power and brilliance.  If the last movement seemed to outstay its welcome, that might have been my fault rather than Britten’s.

After the interval, Dvořák’s unfamiliar Othello Overture – alas, unfamiliar to the orchestra too, it seemed:  I guess the rehearsal time had been mostly taken up with the other works on the programme.  But despite uncharacteristically ragged ensemble and some wrong entries, the performance was powerful and compelling, and Dvořák’s sonorities were beautifully conveyed (who else would score a chord for brass with just a cor anglais added?).

Finally, the piece I had come for:  Martinů’s Symphony No. 6 (more…)