Archive for the ‘music’ category

English Chamber Orchestra at the Wigmore Hall, 3 November 2011

November 6, 2011

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…)

Philharmonia/Salonen, Festival Hall – review | Music

September 27, 2011

“Kullervo Departs for War” by Akseli Gallen-Kallela

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:

Philharmonia/Salonen, Festival Hall – review | Music.

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)

Cardiff Singer of the World, 2011 – Valentina Nafornita

June 22, 2011

 
After an extraordinarily high-powered week of fantastic singing, a winner finally emerged at St David’s Hall on Sunday:  Valentina Naforniţă from Moldova is the 2011 Cardiff Singer of the World.

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…)

John Myatt, 1931-2011

May 27, 2011

Very sad to hear of the passing of John Myatt, my beloved bassoon teacher of 40+ years ago and so much more – clarinettist, fixer, conductor, source of inspiration and outrageous jokes, printing master, guru, family friend, clown, surrogate crazy uncle…

Aged 80, John had not been well for some time.  He had been living in retirement in Suffolk, with his devoted wife Janet and their equally devoted dogs.  I feel very fortunate that we were able to drop in and see him in March this year and catch up after so many years.  He was still on great form!

Happy memories of those days in Hitchin, and later in Cambridge, when he taught me almost all I knew about how to play the bassoon (and then generously passed me on to be finished off by Roger Birnstingl, who was another huge inspiration – I managed to catch up with him too at the recent William Waterhouse celebration at the Wigmore).

On Saturday mornings I would get on my bike (more…)

Does sung English need subtitles??

May 4, 2011

Definitive answer to the Great Debate…

‘Cinderella’ at the Royal Opera House

April 24, 2011

Lovely dayout yesterday to matinee of Cinderella (Prokofiev ballet) at ROH. Rosie’s 6th birthday treat but we grownups adored it too! Glamour, magic, story clearly told, stunning sets and costumes, great music – reminding us what we go to the theatre for…

Classic Frederick Ashton choreography, with trademark Ashton figures in the hyperactive Jester (James Hay) and of course the pantomime-dame Ugly Sisters (James Wilkie and Thomas Whitehead, extremely funny). Yuhui Choe pretty and touching as Cinderella, Sergei Polunin likewise as her fairy-tale Prince. (But Rosie liked the Fairy Godmother – Francesca Filpi – best of all.)

Nice to see my old chum Mark Jonathan credited with the lighting, which was sumptuous and just right. And what a brilliant score – all the Prokofiev hallmarks of clarity, energy, ingenious and unexpected orchestration (particularly percussion, oboe, bassoon, contrabassoon and trumpet, all working incredibly hard! No ‘easy night off’ playing for the ballet in this one.) And he does that odd trick of putting a tuba on the bass line even in moving or touching passages – shouldn’t work but it does.

Not having seen a synopsis, I was fascinated by the reference to The Love for Three Oranges in the score, paralleled by the appearance of three oranges on stage… is this Prokofiev’s in-joke, or Ashton’s? Any insights welcome.

What a contrast to our dismal evening at The Tsar’s Bride earlier in the week. (No offence to Rimsky-Korsakov’s fine and sometimes amazing music, or to Sir Mark Elder’s equally fine but disappointingly ponderous conducting. But the ballet reminded us, by contrast, what a chore it is to sit through yet another grim updated staging that doesn’t fit the music and has us peering at a room full of dark-suited gents in a gloomy setting, trying to figure who is who and which one is singing. And that was just the first scene. Yes, we were sitting very high up in the Amphi! 😦

See review and photos of Cinderella at http://www.seenandheard-international.com/2011/04/09/prokofiev%e2%80%99s-cinderella-at-the-royal-ballet/

photo (c) Tristram Kenton

We have arrived in Sussex!

March 8, 2011

Better late than never (having finally got my internet connection back), this is to let you all know that after considerable tribulations, alarms and excursions, Diana and I moved into our lovely ‘new’ house in St Leonard’s-on-Sea on 17 February.

After a couple of weeks we are at last beginning to feel at home, having unpacked at least some of the 300 boxes that arrived from our two previous houses and begun to sort out what goes where.  It’s a lovely big solid 1930s house – with a huge reception hall with room for both our grand pianos (major selling point) and some endearingly quirky features of design and layout, but in great condition and beautifully maintained.

We’ve had a fascinating session with a couple of local architects, and it looks as if we’ll be able to do a certain amount of building to give us more room, better facilities and possibly even more sea views!

And on 24 February, a week after moving in, I took ‘early retirement’ from my job at the Royal Opera House.  So I’m looking forward to continuing with freelance work but also having time to look at the sea, smell the flowers, listen to (and play, or even write) some different music, and generally catch up on all the good things in life that we’ve been too busy to appreciate for the past few years.

Watch this space for more news and pictures as things happen…

Bouncing Tosca — urban myth?

January 17, 2011

Anyone who works in opera dreads the moment when a non-operatic person says ‘I know a good story…’ and it always turns out to be the one about the time when Tosca did her suicide leap from the battlements at the end of Puccini’s opera, only to reappear to the audience’s sight as she bounced up again on a trampoline.

This is re-told in so many books of musical and operatic anecdotes, without attribution, that one naturally assumes it is an urban legend (along with the elephants falling through the stage in Aïda, or that awful pidgin-English synopsis of Carmen).

However… the other day, I met a distinguished gentleman (while waiting for the long-delayed start of the dress rehearsal of The Barber of Seville at the Royal Opera House – but that’s another story).  He started telling me his Tosca story, and my heart sank… until he said he had actually been there.  Heaven knows when it was – 1950s, I’d guess – but it was at the Vienna State Opera, the Tosca in question was soprano Ljuba Welitsch (‘not a small lady’) and the conductor was Herbert von Karajan (‘who was not at all amused’).  Whether it was a natural bounce or some disaffected person had substituted a trampoline for the regular pile of mattresses, history does not relate.

So now you know.  Next time someone starts telling you the old Tosca story, you can say, ‘Yes, I know.  It was…’

For remembrance: Forever Young, a song for Wootton Bassett

November 10, 2010

Wootton Bassett is a small town in Wiltshire, England, which happens to be near the military airfield where British solders killed in Afghanistan are flown home.

A tradition has arisen among the townspeople of turning out to line the streets in respectful silence as the coffins are driven past.

Here is a video of a song written in celebration of this spontaneous expression of appreciation.

On this Remembrance Day, may we remember all victims of war, past and present.

The song and video have been created to raise money for the charity Afghan Heroes.  For more information and to make a contribution, follow this link:

 
Thank you.
 
 

 

Berlioz — Grande Messe des Morts

October 11, 2010

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.