Posted tagged ‘Borodin’

Béatrice et Bénédict – Chelsea Opera Group; Elizabeth Connell and Barefoot Opera

November 28, 2011

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

Phoenix concert (and also John Lill and The Soldier’s Tale)

December 6, 2007

Very quick one.  I wouldn’t normally write up a concert I was playing in (see previous post) – bad form, and difficult to tell what it’s like from inside – but various people have asked me to, so I will!

Phoenix Orchestra‘s leader Catherine Lindley was indisposed, and we were grateful to James Widden for stepping in at the last minute.

St Andrew’s, Holborn, perched on the end of Holborn Viaduct, is a very nice building to play in – yet another squareish 18th-century church like St Johns, Smith Square and St James, Piccadilly.  Very resonant, but flattering rather than muddying, as far as we could tell.  A small church, cosy enough to feel nicely full with an audience of mostly friends and relations.

No carpet to soak up the bassoon sound!  Hard black-and-white tiles instead (actually lino, though looking like marble).  The helpfully stepped floor made for good sight lines for us, and presumably ‘hearing lines’ for the audience as well.  The horns and brass sounded loud but not overpoweringly blarey.

The ‘rush-hour concert’ idea is a very good one.  Not too much sheer volume of stuff to slog through at rehearsals;  start at  6.30, in the pub by 8 (Ye Olde Mitre in Ely Place:  that’s another story…).

The Berlioz overture (Beatrice and Benedict, or ‘Bill and Ben’ as it’s known in the trade) went like a little rocket, Lev’s ‘safe’ opening tempo imperceptibly zizzing up until it was really exciting.  We were pretty precise, I’m glad to say, and it sounded to me as if there was some very nice woodwind playing going on, as well as crisp brass.

Then the Borodin ‘Steppes of Central Asia’, which was short and lovely – very atmospheric.  Smashing playing from Sue (flute) and Emma (cor anglais).

And finally (no interval), Dvořák’s 7th Symphony.   Speaking for myself, the ravages of the afternoon rehearsal eventually began to take their toll on lips and brain, but not until the last movement.  It’s a tremendous and underrated work (see my earlier comments) and we felt proud to be having a really good crack at it.

‘Crack’ being absolutely the wrong word for Duncan’s glorious horn solo in the slow moment – which he particularly asked me to mention here in contrast to his previous showing (again, see my earlier comments).

So – a great (short) evening, to which these comments don’t begin to do justice.

The same goes for two other recent musical experiences, which I didn’t write up on here (more…)

London Phoenix Orchestra — concert on Tuesday!

December 2, 2007

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www.phoenixorchestra.org

Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra of Moscow Radio

September 29, 2007

(I must write this while it’s still hot!)

The Cadogan Hall is not the ideal place for a big orchestra.  The very features that make it ideal for chamber music and small orchestras – clear acoustic, short resonance time, intimate space – mean that a big orchestra is squashed into too small a platform area, and its sound becomes blarey and unblending, overloading the acoustics of the hall and the ears of the audience.  (I know, I’ve played there!)  So it wasn’t perhaps possible to form a totally fair assessment of the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra of Moscow Radio – formerly known as the (very famous) Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra, under such chief conductors as Alexander Gauk and Gennady Rozhdestvensky – playing there tonight as part of the Zurich International Concert Series.

They started with Borodin’s Symphony No. 2 – a terrific, in-your-face Russian symphony with great tunes and no pretensions to be anything other than what it is.  I was hoping to hear a recognisably ‘Moscow’ sound – confirming my thoughts about orchestras from different local traditions – but the wobbly horn just sounded tentative, and the woodwind were pale and under-characterised (and pretty painfully out of tune at times).  And there were some decidedly hesitant entries in places.  What was terrific, though, was the string sound – big, creamy, well-drilled, very precise, and underlaid by a solid line of double basses (eight of them) stretched out across the back of the platform in the good old-fashioned way.

Then things looked up, with Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.  (‘What, that old thing?’)  As the conductor (the dapper, diminutive but evidently effective Vladimir Fedoseyev) raised his baton, the orchestra almost audibly relaxed, as if to say ‘This is OUR music…’ (which didn’t prevent a few inexcusable wrong entries – perhaps the orchestra has been travelling too much, or they all had hangovers?).  But the real surprise, and the star of the evening, was pianist Denis Matsuev (born in Siberia in 1975).  As he began, I thought at first ‘note-perfect precision, loud bright tone, tendency to rush the difficult bits – another boring Russian robot infant prodigy…’ – but no, soon came beautiful quiet pianissimos, some witty cross-hand gestures and a sly smile.  All with fantastic technique and total control:  this boy knows what he is about!  I don’t think I have ever really heard this piece properly before, or been made to listen to it so intently – I don’t think I had realised quite what a tricksy, subversive piece it is (right from the ‘let’s leave out the tune’ opening – even if he did pinch that idea from Beethoven).  And rarely before had I thought of Rachmaninov and Gershwin as American brothers under the skin. 

Matsuev’s ending was brilliant. (more…)