Archive for the ‘concert halls’ category

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

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…)

London Phoenix Orchestra — A Little Light Music

February 9, 2009

phoenixlite

Yes, we’re here again! Lev Parikian conducts the London Phoenix Orchestra in a scintillating programme of American and Russian light music, with overtures to two great shows – Gershwin’s Girl Crazy and Bernstein’s Candide – and Gershwin’s brilliant tone picture, An American in Paris.   And there are three nice little pieces by Leroy Anderson (whose centenary was last year), and the so-called ‘Jazz Suite No. 2’ by Shostakovich, which isn’t jazz at all but is, er, a lot of fun (especially for the saxophonists).  Oh, and Shostakovich’s ‘Tahiti Trot’, better know to you and me as ‘Tea for Two’.

(And I get to play the contra!  That was a nice surprise.)

It’s on Tuesday 24 February (which happens to be my birthday) at Cadogan Hall

BE THERE!!

Erica Eloff at the Wigmore Hall

November 17, 2008

erica 

The South African soprano Erica Eloff first appeared on my radar as Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte at Garsington Opera last summer:  tall, poised, magnetic;  a fabulous voice, big, smooth and even;  a commanding presence, and acting which covered the range from comedy to tragedy, always with intensity and controlled emotion.  (And one of her teachers – as with so many rising sopranos, especially at Garsington – was my old chum Lillian Watson.)

So when I had the chance to hear Erica in a Kirckman Concert Society recital at the Wigmore Hall on Sunday, I knew I was in for a treat.

With the young and very impressive James Baillieu – also from South Africa – as her accompanist, she gave us a varied programme in a wide variety of languages, all sung with perfect diction and idiomatic pronunciation.

She began with some Schubert rarities in Italian, Vier Canzonen (D688), and continued in French with Fauré’s Poème d’un jour (three songs), Après un rêve and Fleur jetée, beautifully delivered and very touching.

So far she seemed accomplished if somewhat restrained, perhaps a little nervous (and not flattered by the awful overhead lighting;  Wigmore, can’t you manage something better than this?).  But with her next cycle of songs she was transformed:  Alleenstryd (Outcast:  the Lone Struggle) is a set of six enormously powerful songs in Afrikaans with a strong political message, composed  by Hendrik Hofmeyr (born 1957).  The music was muscular, occasionally thorny, and full of character (James Baillieu told us that the composer was one of his teachers, so the work had a personal significance for him too).  Singing in her own language, Erica Eloff finally came totally alive, bewitching us with a range of moods from despair and cynicism to flirtatiousness, nostalgia, anger and pride.  A tremendous achievement.  CD, please!

After the interval, another country, another language – Edvard Grieg’s six songs in German, Op. 48.  Grieg is such a glorious composer (and hardly given sufficient coverage in 2007, the centenary of his death);  these songs are among his loveliest and best known, and show Grieg’s unerring talent for setting a scene with the simplest of means, not to mention his gift for a great tune.  Again Erica Eloff held us captivated with her flawless singing, her wit and charm, and her alertness to every change of mood.

Finally, Rachmaninov’s Six Songs, Op. 38, gave us yet another language (Russian) and an even bigger range of moods and colours.  An ambitious choice, but one to which she rose impressively, her voice seamlessly beautiful and powerful from top to bottom of a big range.  At the end of the final song, ‘A-oo’, she held her expression of despair, puzzlement and sadness (‘But where are you? … I sing, I search, “A-oo”, I cry’) even throughout the long instrumental postlude.

A lovely little Afrikaans encore sent us away in high spirits, aware that we were witnessing the start of a great career.  Certainly a soprano to watch.  I can’t wait for her next stage appearance, nor her first CD, nor (dare we hope) a place as Miss South Africa at Cardiff Singer of the World?  She deserves it.

Thanks to Matthew Brailsford and the Kirckman Society, and my brother Tony, for the train of circumstances that led me to be part of this event!  And to Erica for her friendly post-concert greetings and glass of bubbly.  And to Diana for the photograph.

Sorry, chaps

November 1, 2008

So many wonderful things since I last wrote – pressure of work and other activities has prevented me blogging them, much as I wanted to.  So here is a list of what I should have written about, for your edification and delight…

Covent Garden Chamber Orchestra concert, Saturday 4 October – especially the Schumann Konzertstück for four horns, magisterially played by Richard Lewis, Jo Towler, Duncan Gwyther and Liz Kadir.  Wow.

Haydn’s Creation at the Korean Full Gospel Church in Raynes Park, Sunday 12 October – lots of fun, the Koreans charming and lovely, my contra bottom B flat much appreciated!

The English Chamber Orchestra at Cadogan Hall, Wednesday 15 October – Tippett, Britten (Les Illuminations with stunning young soprano Mary Bevan), plus some works by Arab composers including the brilliant and hilarious Saxophone Concerto by Waleed Howrani – a perfect Last Night of the Proms piece?

Celebrity Recital at Cadogan Hall, Sunday 19 October – Emma Johnson, Julian Lloyd Webber, John Lill, surprisingly not a full house:  a treat of Beethoven and Brahms clarinet trios, the Weber Grand Duo Concertant, Julian playing two of his father’s pieces (with Andrew in the audience), and John Lill scorching our eyebrows off with the Chopin C minor Nocturne and the amazing Prokofiev Toccata

Rossini’s Matilde di Shabran at the Opera House, with Juan Diego Florez

Our very own Phoenix Orchestra concert (see previous post) on Thursday 23 October, especially the wonderful and inexhaustible Tom Poster in the Rachmaninov 3rd Piano Concerto

The Esbjerg Ensemble at Cadogan Hall, Sunday 26 October:  Nonet by Louise Farrenc, Poulenc’s Sextet for piano and wind (fantastic), the Schumann Piano Quintet (wonderful as ever).  Slightly dour Danish group, lifted to a higher plane by the tiny, sparky, beaming and incredibly accomplished pianist Marianna Shirinyan (who she??)

And the Brodsky Quartet at Cadogan Hall on Wednesday 29 October – Beethoven Razumovsky No. 1 (what a wonderful piece), Tchaikovsky Quartet No. 1, and two little Stravinsky numbers (Concertino and Three Pieces) which were spellbinding.

Now I’m off to rehearse contra in Boléro (don’t ask)…

Normal service one of these days!

thanks for the picture, Diana…

Prom: Gürzenich Orchestra, Mahler 5 etc.

August 23, 2008
Angelika Kirchschlager

Angelika Kirchschlager

After the previous night’s Prom – when Jiři Bělohlávek drew a lovely light, fluffy sound from the BBC Symphony Orchestra in Dvořák’s bouncy and witty Slavonic Dances, and Janáček’s beautiful but maddeningly unfocused little-known early opera Osud – what a contrast yesterday to hear the rich glowing sound of the Gürzenich Orchestra of Cologne under Markus Stenz.

Their weird back-to-front programme – Mahler 5, some Schubert songs, Beethoven’s Overture Leonore No. 3 – turned out to be a re-creation of the first performance of the Mahler in 1904 (I hadn’t realised it had been written for this orchestra).  Plus – to bring us up to date – a chunk of Stockhausen, which succeeded in driving a lot of the audience away after the Mahler (rumour has it that it was scheduled to be a separate late-night Prom, but perhaps the Powers That Be had thought no one at all would have turned up).  As it was, the Albert Hall was respectably full but not bursting.

From the first tutti, the Mahler had an authentically ‘European’ sound:  big, colourful and full of character, supported on the cushion of those gorgeous strings – especially a phalanx of eight double basses across the back of the platform, where they became the beating heart of the orchestra, always supporting, always making their presence felt even in the softest pianissimo (and all bowing ‘underhand’ in Continental fashion).

Varieties of orchestral layout are a continuing fasciation;  the oddity of this one was that the brass were ‘back to front’, with the trumpets on the outside and the trombones and tuba nearest the middle.  This had the bonus of placing the tuba next to contrabassoon and double basses – good idea.  If I am not mistaken, the second violins sat opposite the firsts in the Mahler, but the violas went there for the Beethoven.  (The Stockhausen had a weirdly random layout, not explained in the programme).

‘A symphony must be like the world – it should embrace everything’, said Gustav Mahler:  it could be claimed that Mahler’s Fifth is the greatest of his symphonies, and one of the greatest of all symphonies (and I’m not just saying that because of its terrific contrabassoon part!).  The Gürzenich Orchestra gave it all they’d got, which was indeed plenty, although both the first trumpet (in his opening fanfare) and the first horn (in his solos in the huge Scherzo) were not entirely accident-free – though they improved once they had got over their opening wobbles.  Yet somehow, despite tremendously characterised and colourful wind playing, the sound remained slightly one-dimensional and the performance didn’t ever quite take off.  When Markus Stenz reached the final bombastic peroration, it didn’t seem to have earned its place in the scheme of things.  And heaven knows what he thought he was beating at the beginning of the (admirably unsentimental) Adagietto.

Stockhausen’s Punkte was a kind of smudged pointillist canvas (more…)

more Proms — Messiaen, Varese

August 20, 2008

Still piling on the Proms — 14 so far I think. 

Disappointments:  Boulez conducting Janacek‘s Sinfonietta (careful, not exciting) and Glagolitic Mass (I am not at all convinced by the reconstructed ‘original’ version, which seemed muddy and diffuse.  Composers’ second thoughts are usually the right ones!). 

Highlights:  Barenboim‘s East-West Divan Orchestra (why did nobody explain their name in the programme?  It’s from a book of Goethe poems, I think) — I feared the worst from his VERY slow upbeat at the beginning of Brahms 4, but it was fine.  Great the way the players all lunge and sway about in a most un-English fashion!  Special praise for bassoonist Mor Biron, who was, I thought, the best of the solosts in Haydn’s Sinfonia Concertante, then excellent in the Brahms, and finally wide awake and full of character in Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale at the late Prom — another highlight, thanks to Patrice Chéreau‘s craggy, louche, hilarious, touching and very French rendering of ALL the characters (and the Narrator). 

More highlights:  Jennifer Bate playing Messiaen on the mighty Albert Hall organ:  L’Apparition de l’église eternelle is a piece I have always loved (an early work), its ‘granitic’ columns of sound rising mysteriously from nothingness and then sinking back again, like an immense and slightly sinister science-fiction version of Debussy’s Cathédrale engloutie.  Then La Nativité du seigneur in all its hour-long splendour, quite wonderful and with a shattering ‘Dieu Parmi Nous’ at the end.  Whoooo!

Last night — Tuesday 19 August — was a (very thinly attended) feast of live orchestra (BBC Scottish) plus electronics — more Messiaen (the late and pretty Concert à quatre), Varèse, and Jonathan Harvey (including an ambitious if over-long new work, Speakings, using the orchestra as a giant speech synthesiser:  interesting sounds, but I was put off by the inelegant ‘bending’ noises the players had to make — especially the oboe — which I know was the point of the piece but struck me as undignified…). 

Harvey’s electronic warhorse, Mortuos plango, vivos voco, featuring a bell and his choirboy son, was a knockout — the composer himself presiding, like a gently beaming silver-haired angel, at the sound desk.  But the highlight for me was Varèse’s Poème electronique — an amazing feat of technology for 1958, clever, imaginative, funny, and — at eight minutes long — not outstaying its welcome.

I’m certainly not complaining about any of ‘my’ Proms — a continuing feast of all kinds of music and such a privilege to be able to experience ‘live’.  Time for several more before I have to return to real life!

.

 

photo of Messiaen by Malcolm Crowthers (c)

Proms: Chen Yi ‘Olympic Fire’, Duke Ellington ‘Harlem’

August 9, 2008

Returning from my wonderful Italian jaunt (see earlier post) I was expecting to find my Prom season ticket waiting on the doormat – but it wasn’t there.  Huge thanks to Sheila at the Albert Hall Box Office for sorting out a replacement and personally delivering it into my hands!  (Let’s hope the kleptomaniac postman is enjoying the Proms, along with my missing Glyndebourne programme, not to mention the undelivered rude letter from the Bank…).

Only two days into my Prom-going, and last night (Friday) I was knocked off my feet by two stunning performances which must surely be highlights of the whole season.  First of all came Chen Yi‘s Olympic Fire, commissioned – not surprisingly – to celebrate the opening of the Beijing Olympics.  I must admit I was expecting some spineless ‘Yellow River‘ piece I would dutifully have to endure before the evening’s main menu of Rachmaninov and Vaughan Williams… but no, this was a knockout.  Chen Yi (previously unknown to me, I confess) was born in 1953, studied in China and the USA, and now divides her time between posts in Kansas City and Beijing.  Her music is a fruitful creative fusion of Chinese and Western influences: Peking Opera and regional folk music and instruments, side by side with Stravinskyan orchestral glitz and glitter.

Hotfoot from watching TV coverage of the Olympic opening ceremony and the lighting of the flame, I felt ‘Olympic Fire’ was perfectly in tune with the occasion – plunging headlong into tremendous energy and excitement, taking no prisoners, stretching all players (especially the brass) to the limits of their technique but not beyond;  a gentler middle section brought lyrical string writing and one of those Chinese cymbals that change pitch after you hit it (how do they DO that?).  The end of the piece erupted in an astonishing timpani ‘break’, a moment of glory for Matt Perry among all the glories of the RPO.

Leonard Slatkin has frequently been criticised for his limp or ineffectual conducting, but here he seemed to be absolutely in command of the challenging score (unlike the succeeding Rachmaninov Paganini Variations, where he seemed to be constantly on a razor edge trying to guess what, if anything, the glamorous but wayward Russian pianist Olga Kern was about to do next).

Amid storms of cheers and applause, a reluctant figure was brought forth:  Chen Yi turned out to be a tiny, shy, bespectacled roly-poly figure in a woolly cardigan, beaming broadly. 

There was one shout (‘FREE TIBET’, I think), which was received in puzzled silence.  I think 5,000 people realised that politics had nothing to do with the case (despite memories of the famous ‘Freedom for Czechoslovakia’ shout at the Prom in 1968 – but that’s another histoire…)

By the nature of the commission, I fear that opportunities to hear Chen Yi’s piece will be limited, which is a shame;  I can’t wait to hear it again (in a live performance, to get the full effect).  The Prom is repeated on Radio 3 on Wednesday 13th, in the afternoon.

* * * *

Then the Late Prom (more…)

Mark Padmore sings Schubert

May 22, 2008

Mark Padmore (c) Marco BorggreveTwo magical evenings at the Wigmore Hall, thanks to a friend’s generosity (thank you, Paula)… Mark Padmore (tenor) sang Schubert’s two great song cycles, Die Schöne Müllerin (‘The Fair Maid of the Mill’) and Winterreise (Winter Journey).

After fifty years of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, we are used to hearing our Schubert songs sung by a baritone, in low keys, with perhaps exaggerated ‘expression’ and rather muddy piano accompaniments (played on a clanky modern Steinway, of course, rather than Schubert’s very light Viennese pianos).  To hear them sung by a tenor is a revelation:  there is a lightness and airiness in the vocal lines, with top notes becoming true clarion high points in the drama, offset by Mark Padmore’s warm baritonal lower register (the vocal range of these songs, particularly in Winterreise, is enormous).  And the lighter texture of the accompaniments in higher keys is a breath of fresh air, even on the modern piano.

Mark Padmore is better known for his ‘early music’ – Rameau, Lully, Handel, and above all the Evangelist in Bach’s Passions.  So Schubert is a big step into the unknown for us, if not for him (in his illuminating programme notes he tells us that he has known and studied these cycles all his life).  His performances were masterly.  His stillness and concentration were most affecting, and frequently appropriate to the near-catatonia of Schubert’s first-person protagonists;  his range of expression was powerful and moving, the more so by being firmly controlled and never degenerating into ‘emoting’ or drawing attention to the singer instead of the song.

The cycles of poems themselves are extraordinary.  By the otherwise little-known Wilhelm Müller, they both depict the progress of a rejected lover towards his doom.  Schubert’s settings are perfectly matched (more…)

London Phoenix Orchestra — 17 May

May 13, 2008

Phoenix Orchestra flyer

It’s on Saturday… This is going to be a great concert!  St Cyprian’s, Glentworth Street, is a nice Victorian* church a few minutes’ walk from Baker Street underground station.

Jonathan Dove‘s ‘Airport Scenes’ is a suite of instrumental movements from his amazing opera ‘Flight’ (1998).  Very bright and sparky, ear-catching and very easy to listen to, tricky to play but exhilarating.

Rachmaninov‘s ‘Isle of the Dead’, by contrast, is an atmospherically gloomy evocation of the passage by boat to your final resting-place… inspired by this picture by the Swiss painter Arnold Böcklin:

Bocklin -- Isle of the Dead

Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Scheherazade’ I don’t need to tell you about – it’s just the most glorious piece of exotic and colourful orchestral music ever written!  And there are some great violin solos from Catherine.

I’m off to practice my diddly-iddlys…

See you there!

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*I see from their website that St Cyprian’s is not quite Victorian:  designed by Ninian Comper, 1903.

note:  Böcklin painted at least two versions of ‘The Isle of the Dead’.  The one shown is the later (1886) version, now in Leipzig.  The earlier (1880) version, in Basel, is darker and even more atmospheric, but would be harder to reproduce on here.