Hastings Philharmonic

St Mary in the Castle, Saturday 14 April 2018

Was this the largest audience for a Hastings Philharmonic event, even allowing for the Christmas concerts? It certainly felt like it and the ovation which greeted the end of the Tchaikovsky was whole-hearted and certainly deserved.

The first half was given over to Elgar’s Cello Concerto with Richard Lester an intense and moving soloist. Without excessive rubato or dwelling on the potential melancholy of some of the writing he created a narrative which was holistically pleasing. Yes there is a melancholy which comes close to depression in the opening movement, and the work often returns to the potential bleakness of life, but at the same time there is much that reflects the opposite mood. The final movement had a jaunty air to it, reflecting on Falstaff rather than Gerontius, so that the whole was uplifting and life-affirming rather than the sentimental wallow which can too easily slip into place.

As is often the case at St Mary’s, the soloist was almost uncomfortably close to the front row and there was a sense of intimacy throughout which larger venues simply cannot reproduce.

If the Elgar had eschewed the overtly emotional, Tchaikovskly’s Fifth Symphony had it in bucketfuls. After a slow sombre opening – and tempi throughout tended to be on the slow side – the brass let rip and it was obvious we were in for a thrilling ride. The long horn solo at the start of the reflective second movement was beautifully crafted by Anna Drysdale, and Marcio da Silva’s control of the opening dynamics made the brass intervention all the more dangerous. The third movement seemed almost out of place within this world of romantic sentiment and brash aggression, but gave way to a finely paced finale, which opened with near-Sibelius like mystery before we tumbled helter-skelter into the closing onslaught.

The young players who make up Hastings Philharmonic Orchestra are proving to be among the most exciting ensembles to be heard anywhere. For how long Marcio da Silva can keep them together before they are snapped up by other national and inter-national orchestras is anybody’s guess. For the moment let us be grateful we have them here and look forward to the Verdi Requiem at the White Rock on 5th May – which deserves to sell out, so get your tickets quickly!


WNO: Rabble Rousers

Milton Keynes Theatre, 6-7 April 2018

Tosca always has been something of a rabble rouser and if Michael Blakemore’s production is almost two decades old it still works with remarkable clarity. Bringing the soloists close to the front of the stage for much of the time helps with the musical excitement as well as ensuring that nuances of acting make their point – where there are any. On this occasion Claire Rutter was an exciting and vibrant Tosca, her voice flooding the theatre easily but showing real sensitivity for Vissi d’arte. Mark S Doss was a creepily malevolent Scarpia, aware of his power to the point where he seemed continually relaxed until the final moment which came to him totally unexpectedly. Claire Rutter’s vicious attack – I can’t recall a Tosca stabbing so often – was dramatically justified and highly effective.

Unfortunately, though Hector Sandoval sings Cavaradossi with some sense of heroism, his acting is stilted and he clearly prefers to sing directly to the audience (to say nothing of the conductor) rather than to his partner.

It was a pleasure to find Donald Maxwell as the Sacristan and he turned up again the following evening in clerical garb as Fra Melitone in David Poutney’s new production of La Forza del Destino. Some slight tinkering with the score made it flow with ease though there is no getting away from the fact that the work – for all its magnificent music – is a flawed masterpiece. Happily the two principal singers, Mary Elizabeth Williams as Leonora and Gwyn Hughes Jones as Don Alvaro, were magnificent, with thrilling tone throughout the evening; a wonderful combination of musicality and dramatic impact. Both made much of the wide emotional range of the score, Mary Elizabeth Williams as convincing in her tortured moments as in the deeply reflective sections when she finds peace.

Justina Gringyte is given more to do than usual as Preziosilla as she turns up regularly throughout the evening in the guise of Fate, banging her staff in time to the music. He voice and acting are fine even if it is not always clear what she is trying to do. Miklos Sebestyen doubles up as Calatrava and Padre Guardiano, though surprisingly David Poutney does not draw on the obvious psychological impact of this casting. His singing brings a gravity to the monastic scenes which the staging often lacks.

Luis Cansino sings well as Don Carlo but his presence is as unconvincing as his acting.

While much of David Poutney’s production works smoothly, allowing the story line to unfold with ease and credibility, his approach to the chorus is a different matter. Where soloists appear naturalistic even if the narrative strains the imagination, the chorus are difficult to take seriously if only because of the poor costuming. Uniforms with masks are the order of the day and not until the final scene in the monastery are they allowed any sense of humanity. Verdi’s sublime writing for the central communion scene is overridden with the monks in heavily blood-stained robes and Leonora is forced into a walk of shame which is entirely out of keeping with the score.

That Verdi’s score can overcome the unevenness of the production is a tribute to its quality no matter how difficult it continues to be to stage effectively.

On both nights Carlo Rizzi was in the pit, producing seemingly effortless quality from the WNO orchestra. The Milton Keynes theatre is blessed with a large pit and a fine acoustic, able to work with the bombast of both scores as well as their reflective, intimate moments. This was the first of three new Verdi productions planned over three years. Let us hope Carlo Rizzi will be returning for all of them.

Host turns into guitarist

Tim Chick transmogrified from hosting interviewer to musical performer during the latest of Worthing’s International Interview Concerts. He pulled on a jersey, picked up an electric guitar and walked on stage to plug in and play with the two guest classical maestros in front of a full-house audience at St Paul’s on Easter Sunday.

Together they played a short piece he devised himself with violinist Kamila Bydlowska and pianist Varvara Tarasova, improvising along with him.

Chick is taking guitar lessons and was playing in public for the first time. After his and the audience’s final questions, Bydlowska, from Poland, and Tarasova, from Russia, played a Brahms scherzo encore but then came this stunt – the last of several unnamed surprises promised to the audience in the billing.

His purpose, said Chick, was to impress that whatever the instruments used or the material made up on the spot, it is all music, free of outside-imposed categorisation.

The exuberant Bydlowska’s irrepressibly energetic personality and almost carefree versatility fuelled an extraordinary concert that filled almost every seat. Tarasova, celebrated in Sussex after she won its own International Piano Competition in 2015, played an unexpectedly full role in what was a new partnership intuitively brokered by Chick.

Entitled ‘The violin will take you’, the International Interview Concert astonished and entertained with its holiday-escape flavour of music from three continents and its disregard for conventional classical music concert formatting and seating layout.

After a Spanish serenade from de Falla, a full-blooded German romantic sonata from Schumann, a Polish nocturne and tarantella dance from Szymanovski, and a Russian love song from Rachmaninov – another surprise added to the programme on the day – Bydlowska’s penchant for tango leapt into its own.

As well as being a fully-fledged orchestral concerto soloist, and a key member the contemporary London Electronic Orchestra, and a separate classical string trio, the effervescent Bydlowska is in a working tango quartet, La Tango Terra.

Instead of the intended Fantasy on Porgy & Bess Themes by Igor Frolov, she played solo an authentic Argentine Tango piece by the legendary Piazzolla while walking around the enthralled audience. She then pulled up a bar stool to play three semi-improvised tangos with Tarasova, plus an off-the-cuff version of the evergreen Gershwin blues-jazz song, Summertime.

The audience, which included young children listening with their parents, some colouring and drawing, stumbled on a high-spot that dramatically brightened an almost perpetually dull Easter weekend.

Report by Richard Amey, co-devisor of The Interview Concerts

My First Swan Lake

Peacock Theatre, 30 March 2018

Swan Lake, the latest abridged ballet for young children danced by English National Ballet School students, filled the Peacock Theatre to bursting on a wet, cold Good Friday afternoon and that’s splendid to see. I wish more family groups included dads, uncles and grandpas but it’s still terrific to attract such a large, enthusiastic audience and I’m sure that will continue to be the case as the production tours.

Choreographed by Antonio Castilla, this show features some fine dancing by some of the thirty five students in the group. Each is profiled in the programme but they are not identified as dancing specific characters because they switch roles and they don’t all appear at every performance.

The Act 2 set pieces – the Spanish, Hungarian and Italian dances – are memorable. The two girls who did the Italian dance at the performance I saw had a real lightness of touch which highlighted the humour. We also had a very promising Siegfried whose leaps were youthfully spectacular and a truly graceful Odette who several times swanned her way right across the stage en pointe with watery arms waving and at one point managed to pirouette for around twenty bars of music.

As always the real star of the show is Tchaikovsky’s gloriously expressive music. Because My First Swan Lake runs for only 90 minutes including interval, the music, which is pre-recorded, has to be cut and arranged. Gavin Sutherland has generally done quite well with it but there are one or two moments of clumsy abruptness as we switch from one thing to another.

The inclusion of a narrator is a mistake.  Credit where it’s due though: Louise Calf, an actor, does a remarkably good job with the saccharine, rather moralistic script she’s been given. She is naturalistic and warm – but completely unnecessary. She has been directed to walk frequently from the downstage left corner across to the opposite spot, often in front of the action, and it’s very distracting. Moreover no one should be shouting over Tchaikovsky when he’s in dramatic fortissimo mode, as she often has to do. And as for delivering the crucial revelation when Odette, Odile and Sigfried all learn the truth in music-free tableau with just Calf’s voice – it’s a travesty.

Ballet is story telling in music and movement. It doesn’t need words added even for three year-olds. Neither should they be handed the subliminal message that it’s perfectly acceptable to talk over great music.

ENO: The Marriage of Figaro

London Coliseum, Thursday 29 March 2018

Fiona Shaw’s enthusiastically energetic production of The Marriage of Figaro returns for its second revival with a cast as strong as any which have gone before. Performers here need to be singing actors, not simply good voices, if nothing else as a result of the constantly moving set and their need to ensure they are in the right place at the right time. Peter McKintosh’s designs bring us a world of inter-connecting rooms and corridors, peopled with servants aplenty. If I still retain doubts about the pervious and often insubstantial nature of the walls (looking remarkably like the cheapest plastic green-house double-glazing) the cast treat it all as solid and convince us in so doing.

Ashley Riches’ Count Almaviva is certainly in control of this edifice – or would be if he had a little less sex drive and a little more intelligence. His presence is impressive as is his singing, and there is no doubt he will try to get his own way on all occasions. Lucy Crowe’s Countess is a complex creation, gloriously sung and clearly torn in her feelings towards the Count, a tension which is turning her to drink. It is little touches like this which make the production so appealing and sensitive.

Thomas Oliemans’ Figaro has the extrovert good humour for the part and the instant changes of mood which need tempering by his partner Susanna – beautifully sung by Rhian Lois with a clear insight into the intelligence of her character.

Janis Kelly is a wily Marcellina and Keel Watson a bluff old cove as Bartolo, though his voice occasionally lacked projection. Katie Coventry made a very strong impression as Cherubino, convincingly boyish and gauche but radiant in voice in her two arias.

Martyn Brabbins drives the whole piece strongly from the pit, maintaining good balance and moving through the recitatives to keep the dramatic pace alive.

I doubt if this will be the last revival of this production!

Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra

The Dome Brighton, 25 March 2018

The Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra finished the season in fine festive fettle. I don’t often laugh aloud in the concert hall but there was plenty of that in the Dome for this unconventional programme.

Malcolm Arnold’s piano concerto op 104 – new to me, and I suspect, to most of the audience – doesn’t get out much because it was written for husband and wife Cyril Smith and Phyllis Sellick. Cyril Smith had lost the use of his left arm through strokes so the piece was written for three hands and two pianos – which makes it expensive and impractical for most concert promoters.  Stephen Worbey and Kevin Farrell, who work as a witty and very accomplished duo, have arranged the concerto for four hands on a single piano.

Written in 1969, it’s a very listenable piece. Both orchestra and soloists shone, especially in the middle movement which engagingly alternates schmaltz with dissonance. The last movement, for which Worbey and Farrell changed places, is very jolly with cheerful tuba vamp rather similar to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s (imitative?) Jesus Christ Superstar song for King Herod – written a year later.  Worbey and Farrell are showman musicians who warm the audience up with jokes before they start – it sits somewhere between Victor Borge and pantomime – but it’s good quality fun and their flamboyant playing is riveting. Their Sabre Dance encore – played at prestissimo and more – was a tour de force.

The concert had begun rather more conventionally with the Karelia Suite in which Barry Wordsworth allowed every section to have its moment. The busy repetitive string work in the first movement can, for instance, be hard to make lively but in this performance it did real justice to the soaring brass above it.  The warmth and suitable lushness in the two following movements, when the violins get most of the melody, was strong too.

I presume the programming of the second half was partly to create an end-of-season party atmosphere and partly to encourage people to bring children. It succeeded on both counts. It would have been good to see even more under-11s for Barry Wordsworth’s arrangement of three numbers from Act 1 of Coppelia and the Carnival of Animal, but splendid to see even twenty or so. Coppelia – like all good ballet music – is full of glorious melodies and played well, the music itself dances. Conductor and orchestra gave it their all and it was quite hard to sit still and refrain from humming along.

The concert ended with Saint-Saens’ best known piece, which – if you think about it – is another work which doesn’t get many performances in its entirety. We are very used to hearing its 14 separate sections but it’s a treat to hear all of it in one place. At the heart of it were the inimitable Worbey and Farrell who’d written hilarious Hilaire Belloc-style verses to introduce each bit – except for Pianists when Barry Wordsworth stepped forward and read a verse. Of course it was all beautifully played with accomplished solos from principal cello, principal double bass and, best of all, the xylophone. I enjoyed the off stage clarinet as the moving cuckoo too – with many of the audience looking round wondering where the sound was coming from.

The concert took place on the first day of British Summertime so I left the Dome in daylight with a real spring in my step, a head full of earworms and excitement about the next season which looks excellent – yet again.

Maidstone Symphony Orchestra

Mote Hall, Maidstone, Saturday 24 March 2018

Conventional programme planning need not be a problem when the works are well balanced and well played – as they were at the Mote Hall last night. A classical symphony, a romantic concerto and a symphony which lies somewhere between the two – not that the opening symphony was quite what the title might imply. Mozart’s Symphony No32 isn’t – a symphony that is. It is probably an overture, and quite a clever composition as the final section mirrors the opening. There was considerable delicacy in the playing, given that the orchestra was probably far larger than the composer had available to him at the time, but the central section needs that intimacy and certainly got it here.

Violinist Benjamin Baker is well known to the Maidstone audience after his fine Bruch last year but was an unexpected visitor on this occasion as a late, but very welcome, replacement for Bartosz Woroch who was rightly detained by more immediate family matters.

The Brahms violin concerto was a richly romantic contrast to the opening Mozart with its rapid changes of tempi and emotional impact. Benjamin Baker negotiates these with finesse and a subtle portamento which is always pleasing. The first movement cadenza brought with it the hinted swagger of a Hungarian dance before the warmth of the Adagio – with exceptional oboe playing from David Montague – and the clipped, tightly rhythmic finale. Happily he is due to return next season for the Tchaikovsky concerto.

After the interval we heard Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony which sits on the top of the hill looking back to the classical while peering into the romantic future. Some years ago Leonard Bernstein argued that it was quite possible to hear the sixth symphony as a classical work if one can ignore the titles added to the movements. This was certainly true of Brian Wright’s approach with its clean lines and clear sense of development. The strings had a wonderful sense of cantabile in the second movement without over-egging the romanticism.

The Scherzo starts off in classic form but the storm breaks the mould – almost literally given the intensity of Keith Price’s timpani playing, and the whine of the piccolo – giving way to the only developed musical line of the whole work in the final Allegretto. This was a very fine performance, musically well-paced as well as highly enjoyable.

The evening was a charity concert in aid of the Kent Community Foundation and the final concert of the season follows on Saturday 19th May with works by Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich.  www.mso.org.uk

Emma Johnson at Lamberhurst Music Festival

St Mary Lamberhurst, Friday 23 March 2018

It is easy to overlook the fact that the clarinet is a recent addition to the range of musical instruments in terms of the history of music. For Mozart it was a novelty which he happily endorsed and for which he wrote many magnificent works – one of them represented here. Emma Johnson, accompanied by Gregory Drott, opened her recital with an arrangement of the final movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet – and a very fine start it made. From there we were quickly transported to the romantic period, though Saint-Saens’ Clarinet Sonata in E flat Op167 is something of an oddity. The composer had such a long life that this late work was written in 1920, though its sound world is redolent of the mid nineteenth century. The opening movement is whimsical if not actually melancholic leading to a warmer Allegro animato. The third movement is the most striking, being almost an arrangement for clarinet and piano of a composition for Cavaille-Coll organ!

By comparison Schumann’s Fantasiestuck Op73 are lighter in texture and carry the listener with ease.

The second half brought us firmly into the twentieth century with Bernstein’s early Clarinet Sonata and three brief pieces by Stravinsky. Perhaps the most pleasing piece, however, was the suite arranged from music by Paul Reade written for Emma Johnson as incidental music for the TV series The Victorian Kitchen Garden. Throughout, Emma Johnson had introduced each work and maintained a gentle intimacy with her audience, despite the need to move from one side of the central pillar to another.

The church was full, despite a miserably damp evening, on this the first event in this year’s Lamberhurst Music Festival. The next concert brings the Ferio Saxophone Quartet on Friday 25th May.

The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff

St Mary in the Castle, Thursday 22 May 2018

It was Ewan MacColl who created the Radio Ballads over half a century ago and The Young’uns evocative Ballad of Johnny Longstaff continues that fine tradition. Their close harmony – three male singers with sixteen songs, most of them specially composed for the event – and the visual impact of the historic photographs, would be enough to enthral in itself. However, this event goes one step further. Thanks to the strength of the oral history movement we have six hours of Johnny Longstaff himself, telling his own story. The Young’uns draw on this, winding their songs throughout the events and giving us a precise emotional encounter with historical events – and what events they are! Losing his job as a boy because of an industrial accident, he joined the hunger marches to London, slept rough by the Thames, joined the English Battalion in the Spanish Civil War and eventually fought in WWII.

Of course most of us have never heard of him. He was just one brave man among thousands, but his story is emblematic of the fight for workers’ rights and for the victory of democracy over fascism.

It was deeply moving and politically apt at the present time. The events spoke for themselves without any need for party political pressure.

The three singers are well balanced but also bring individual skills. Sean Cooney wrote most of the songs as well as leading the trio, Michael Hughes plays piano and guitar, David Eagle adds piano and accordion. A one-night-stand was not really enough to take in the wealth of a life lived so fully, and it would be good to think we might see The Young’uns again soon. More information available on www.theyounguns.co.uk

Hastings Philharmonic: Mozart

St Mary in the Castle, Hastings, Saturday 17 March 2018

Hastings Philharmonic have not been lucky with the weather this year but it does not seem to deter their audience who turned out in the bitter cold of Saturday evening for a Mozart concert which included one of his most pessimistic works.

The evening opened on a brighter note with the Sinfonia Concertante K364. The small forces brought a lightness to the score and a fine interplay, not only between the soloists, but also the whole ensemble. The Andante is written in a minor key which, given the weight of the symphony to come, seemed to dominate the evening. The soloists, violinist Aysen Ulucan and viola player Ladislau-Cristian Andris, brought a needed warmth in their playing and provided an admirable rapport between themselves.

Marcio da Silva is adept at introducing new music to Hastings, and the second half opened with a new composition by Philip O’Meara – Flacubal 95 – which is based on material drawn from Mozart’s late G minor symphony which we were to hear immediately afterwards. Those who know the symphony well would have been able to tick off the references, but even without that the piece works very well as a whole in its own right. It starts with a rustic rewriting of the opening theme from the first movement, instantly appealing and approachable. The hunting horns continue this rural idea as does a beautifully reflective section in the first movement. If there is a more introverted feel to the second movement one could hardly call it Brutal and the writing often seems tongue-in-cheek. The finale rushes in where lesser mortals might fear to tread with an instruction to play as fast as possible including a section which seems to reflect Bernard Herrmann rather than Mozart – and none the worse for that. After all the rush, the chaconne-like ending returns us to the gentle placidity of the opening. A fine piece and well worth repeating even without its Mozartian context.

The symphony which followed was crisp and alert to detail, the acidity of the G minor setting never far from our ears. Even the smooth legato of the slow movement had its sinister moments, as did the following Menuetto and the furious impact of the final movement.

Hastings Philharmonic returns on Saturday 14 April for Elgar and Tchaikovsky. Hopefully the weather might have improved by then!