Opera Anywhere: The Magic Flute

St Mary in the Castle, Hastings, Friday 16 March 2018

Mozart’s The Magic Flute is open to a wide range of interpretations and as long as it is well sung and sensitively staged it will always impress. This was certainly true of Opera Anywhere’s visit to Hastings last Friday. The opera may have been pared down and was without a chorus, but the narrative made sense throughout and many of the voices were exceptionally good.

Director Susan Moore had taken a fairy-tale approach to the work, almost a dream in the mind of Tamino, where singers move role with ease and the unexpected is simply accepted. Doubling the three ladies with the three boys was particularly effective, the Sesame Street boy puppets being delightful as well as creating distinctive personalities.

Using modern dress however can cause some problems. Where Mozart’s racism is simply avoided by making Monostatos as European as the rest of the cast, the latent anti-feminism of the text is more difficult to hide, particularly Sarastro’s oppressive not to say overbearing presence.

One way to soften this is through the characterisation of the Queen of the Night. Here Helen Winter’s fading Hollywood Diva is absolutely at one with the baroque ornamentation of her arias. She is a fish out of water and wonderfully so.

Tristan Stocks’ Tamino is a student growing into his maturity, vocally secure but not yet adult enough to be more than a prince. He is fortunate that his Pamina, Olivia Lewis, is so positive, both vocally and histrionically, despite her obvious youth, that she has the strength for both of them. The tests through fire and water were imaginatively staged, with Pamina delighting in the flames and splashing the water – a lovely touch.

Oskar McCarthy is an amiable Papageno, strong on humour without over-egging his opportunities, in contrast to Mark Horner’s stalwart Sarastro.

The surprise of the evening was Jack Roberts’ wonderfully lyrical tenor as Monostatos, doubling for various priests. He gave us some of the finest Mozart singing of the evening and it would be good to hear him as Tamino.

Accompanied throughout by Louisa Lam on piano and keyboard, and Nick Planas on flute, the additional sound effects were always apt.

Opera Anywhere return to Hastings pier in August with Pirates and Pinafore.

ENO: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

London Coliseum, Wednesday 14th May 2018

Robert Carson’s production of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream returned to ENO with a cast of young singers whose exemplary sense of ensemble impressed throughout. This has always been an ensemble piece, though even on this occasion Christopher Ainslie’s sleek Oberon and Saraya Mafi’s seductive Tytania could not help drawing attention to themselves. The young lovers were well characterised without ever resorting to caricature and the rustics brought us highly individualised workmen. One of the few cast members who have been seen before was Miltos Yerolemou whose dangerously adult Puck is quite in keeping with the fairy royals.

Robert Carson’s approach is essentially naturalistic within the confines of Michael Levine’s dreamily abstract setting, with its huge act one bed adding to the disorientation of size.

In the pit, Alexander Soddy draws crisp playing and incisive rhythms. This is particularly helpful in a score written for a very much smaller venue.

Though the boys of Trinity Boys Choir sing admirably well, carrying better than might be expected within the vast space of the Coliseum, their uniform costumes allow little sense of individuality to develop, even though this is possible within the scope of the score.

This was the productions third revival, and the first in over a decade, but is unlikely to be its last.

Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra

Brighton Dome, Sunday 4 March 2018

It was a concert full of drama, mostly Russian, under Stephen Bell’s incisive baton. The drama included the conductor literally leaping up and down, and part of his score flying off his stand and landing near the leader’s feet during Night on a Bare Mountain which also gave us some frenetic high speed string work, perfectly controlled, slightly exaggerated, general pauses (one of his specialities), perky woodwind interjections, syncopated percussion and mesmerisingly lyrical playing after the tubular bell at the end.

This enticing old friend of a piece was preceded, in an usually structured programme, by something much less familiar: the overture to Glinka’s 1836 opera A Life for the Tsar. Heavily textured melodies and chords – more like Brahms than anything Russian – were played with decisive accuracy and Stephen Bell ensured that the cheerful dance-like passages were a real contrast. The ending of the piece is corny to put it mildly but he delivered it with aplomb.

Then we had a dart forward to the twentieth century and to Armenia – which for most of Alexander Arutunian’s (1920-2012) life was part of USSR – so in a sense his one movement trumpet concerto sustains the Russian theme. Soloist Gareth Small produced a very attractive creamy sound with some beautifully sustained phrasing. The elegant piece is free of atonality and full of lush harmonies and Shostakovitch-like jazzy rhythms. It was a pleasing sixteen minutes.

It is a pity though that Arutunian’s name does not, apparently, fill The Brighton Dome because there were far more empty seats than usual. If you chose not to come you missed a real treat, in the highlight which came after the interval – a breathtaking account of Tchaikovsky’s fourth symphony.

Stephen Bell took the first movement at a measured, intelligent tempo with lovingly punctilious attention to balance which made sure, for example, that you heard and noticed the descending scale for horns, the mysterious bassoon passages and the quasi balletic quality of the rhythms. I liked his fluid take on the andante too with its pre echoes of the 6th symphony which were leant on attentively.

Then – such a contrast – Tchaikovsky’s pizzicato party of a scherzo was beautifully played, bows down. Stephen Bell, without baton, physically rocking from side to side, shaped the dynamic with immaculate precision and wit. The “wind band” sections were imaginatively slotted in too. And so to the allegro con fuoco finale which was certainly played with plenty of fiery passion in this performance. It blazed its way to a very exciting conclusion followed by well deserved, rapturous applause.

I was very glad indeed to have heard this concert, especially the Tchaikovsky.

Susan Elkin

Hastings International Piano Concerto Competition

Despite the snow, ice and blizzards the Hastings International Piano Concerto Competition continued on its inevitable way towards its two final evenings when the six surviving competitors from the original 160 would seek to go just that bit further to impress the seven international judges seated now in the circle of the White Rock Theatre.

After the second stage the competitors were reduced down to eleven who were invited to perform their own personal choices for a solo recital, and after this the six finalists were announced. If the sudden fall of freezing rain had kept some of the audience away on Friday, there was a full house on Saturday and a real air of expectation given the exceptional quality of the performers. To keep the two final events as even as possible both were introduced by Bill Turnbull, a familiar voice to listeners to Classic FM, who provided succinct introductions and, once the judges had made their decision, presented the prizes.

Both evenings opened with Schubert’s overture to Rosamunde and then on Friday evening Su Yeon Kim chose to play Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini Op.43, Gen Li Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No 3 in C major Op.26 and Kyoungsun Park Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 5 in E flat major Op.73. On Saturday Fanya Lin played Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No 3 in C major Op.26, Rixiang Huang Liszt’s Piano Concerto No 1 in E flat major S.124 and Roman Kosyakov Tchaikovsky’s Concerto No 1 in B flat minor Op.23.

Then came the wait, not too long on this occasion, before the results were announced. Frank Wibaut, the Artistic Director and Chairman of the Jury, started by thanking the many people involved in the organisation of the competition, not least the many volunteers and host families who made the smooth running such an exemplary undertaking and Yamaha for the loan or a large number of high quality pianos. He then introduced the international jury and from there went straight to the results. This year, rather than announce the full six prizes, only the first three were publicly announced which made for an extra level of frisson within the White Rock.

The Third Prize went to Gen Li from China who I am glad to say I heard in the second round play a splendidly succinct and exciting rendition of Shostakovich’s 2nd Piano Concerto, one which I would gladly hear with full orchestra. The Second Prize went to Su Yeon Kim from South Korea, who repeated her performance on Friday of the Rachmaninov Paganini variations which she had performed in the Second Stage.

The winner, with a magnificent performance of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto was the young Russian pianist Roman Kosyakov. Though the jury do not at this stage give any immediate feedback, it seemed obvious to me that, where so many of these young performers had given us technical brilliance, his was the only contribution which had a sense of the emotional heart of the work rather than just the fireworks. The second movement was key, its gentle unfolding and romantic core captivating the antithesis of the extrovert panache of the outer movements.

As well as the £15,000 prize he wins a number of key concert dates both in Britain and overseas.

All the finalists were exceptional players, but I look forward keenly to following Roman Kosyakov’s career.

Hastings should be proud that, alongside its regular contribution to music through local choirs, orchestras and festivals, it can mount a competition which has genuine international importance. We look forward to next year.




ENO: Iolanthe

London Coliseum, 21 February 2018

What a wonderful evening this proved to be. ENO has done very well by Gilbert and Sullivan, with an enduring favourite in Jonathan Miller’s Mikado and a fine Pirates of Penzance from Mike Leigh. Now we have Cal McCrystal’s ebullient production of Iolanthe. Better known for his films, he shows an unerring ability to tread the fine line between visual comedy and straying too far into up-dates that are either course or inappropriate. Essentially, the production takes both libretto and score at face value and makes the most of them, only adding in visual gags, or the occasional assumed as-libs where they are funny but do not impede the flow of the work or undermine it.

To take a few examples. In the second act, the duet for Strephon and Phyllis If we’re weak enough to tarry turns into an enthusiastic clog dance – and it works beautifully. Similarly the regular encores for If we go in are gently enhanced by the increasing inability of the Page – a wonderfully versatile Richard Leeming – to insinuate himself into proceedings. It is gloriously funny but totally appropriate.

The chorus of fairies are English generic with a fine sense of their own authority while the House of Peers seems increasingly inept, even though they do arrive by steam train! Many of the chorus are subtly individualised which makes the evening come alive whenever they are on stage, and the choreography by Lizzi Gee is a delight.

The late Paul Brown’s designs give us voluptuous Victorian painted drops within a gleaming golden proscenium, and a surprisingly naturalistic House of Lords. The period is securely late Victorian with Strephon and Phyllis both 18th century delft shepherds. Quite how Boris Johnson creeps in among the Lords is another story – but a point well made!

The singing is highly effective throughout – and not a microphone in sight. Marcus Farnsworth is a fine baritone with a keen sense of humour, partnered by Ellie Laugharne whose Phyllis often develops into Blackadder’s Queenie – to genuine comic effect.

Ben Johnson and Ben McAteer lead the lords to foppish effect, though their solo numbers are forthrightly sung. Yvonne Howard is a regal fairy queen, as happy singing while floating above us as she is on the ground, and Andrew Shore brings all the felicity of his Rossini singing to Gilbert’s nightmare song.

The addition of a prologue from Clive Mantle as Captain Shaw makes some sense the first time through but if the production is, as one might hope, revived, it might seem a step too far.

Timothy Henty’s conducting makes much of the Mendelssonian and Wagnerian overtones, and having a full orchestra for Sullivan is a real bonus.

This really is proving to be a vintage season for ENO – long may it continue.

Merry Opera Company: The Marriage of Figaro

Wetherspoons Opera House, Tunbridge Wells and touring

Billed as “opera meets jazz” this 1960s Figaro is rescored by Harry Sewer for kit drum, bass and keyboard led by Gabriel Chernick – a development which took many audience members, including me, by surprise although there was plenty of warm appreciation and laughter.

Interestingly, many of the arias are sung more or less straight against swing and other jazz rhythms which must be pretty challenging to do. The accompaniment plays around with harmonies too. It works quite well in some numbers – such as Cherubino’s  (Bethany Horak-Hallett) agitato Act 1 number, although there are some rocky starts to arias as singers awkwardly find their way into the melody without the usual cues.

Much less successful is, for example, Figaro’s (Alistair Ollorenshaw) angry patter aria in the final act which loses a lot of edge because it is softened and trivialised by the jazzy stuff from the band. And the Countess’s (Rhiannon Llewellyn) second big aria, usually sung as “Dove sono”, is dreadful in this version. It is one of Mozart’s very simple glorious melodies depicting a complex mindset and he knew that it needs only the gentlest of accompaniments. It is completely spoiled by the fuzzy treatment it gets here although Llewellyn, a fine singer, does her best to rise above the schmultz.

In amongst all this is some excellent singing especially in the quartets and other group numbers. The cast has great fun with the reconciliation septet at the end of the first half and the choral work in the finale is beautifully balanced.

Anna Sideris is a suitably sparky Susanna, there is a good Handyman cameo from Christopher Faulkner and Eleanor Sanderson-Nash is a delightfully clear voiced, fresh Barbarina.

Phil Wilcox is strong as the wrong footed Count too, especially at the end when he hams up all those rising fifths. They’re traditionally associated with forgiveness but we know full well that he doesn’t mean a word of it – and, in this version, the Countess knows that too.

Amanda Holden’s translation into English is hilarious and that’s partly why this piece comes off theatrically. There’s a lot of humour in the incongruity of the juxtaposition of the Enlightenment with the 1960s, musically and in every other way – and in many instances that is what makes the cognoscenti in the audience laugh. At another level it’s just cheerful and funny. Michelle Bradbury’s striking, and ingenious, black and white Chanel-style set adds to the ambience. So do black-clad, finger clicking figures – part of the 10-strong cast who form an ensemble between their other appearances – who dance with authentic 1960s loucheness.

I haven’t seen such an experimental Mozart opera since I saw Don Giovanni in a gay nightclub with all roles except Don Giovanni reversed. The material is, of course, so strong, that it bounces back fairly robustly whatever you do to it. This Figaro is a pleasant enough way of spending a Sunday afternoon but on balance I prefer my Mozart jazz-free.

Susan Elkin



Czech Philharmonic Orchestra

Anvil Arts, Basingstoke, 16 February 2018

Dvorak is to the Czech Philharmonic what, say, Strauss is to the Vienna Philharmonic. It’s in the blood and in this exuberant concert you could hear all that Bohemian ancestry pounding in every bar. And they want to keep it that way, which is why almost every player in the orchestra is Czech. The result is a phenomenal corporate “instrument” which conductor Tomas Netopil, an energetic but businesslike conductor, plays, and plays with, to remarkable effect. By the time we got to the final encore – Brahms Hungarian Dance 5 – he was ready to have fun jokily exaggerating the tempo changes with electrifying precision and I certainly wasn’t the only person who left the auditorium beaming with delight.

One of the reasons for the distinctive sound is the unusual layout. Tomas Netopil has violas on the right opposite the first violins with cellos and second violins on the inside. Double basses, meanwhile are majestically lined up along the back behind the horns and woodwind on a tier which puts their feet on a level with violinists’ heads. It means that you can often hear both viola and bass parts with unusual clarity and alters the balance of the whole.

The programme was a Dvorak sandwich. We began with the Symphonic Variations in which Dvorak imaginatively explores the fugal form at one point moving from second violins, thence to violas, first violins and cellos in that order. It’s quite a showpiece and doesn’t get as many outings (in the UK at least) as perhaps it should. It’s a very vibrantly orchestrated work which allowed the orchestra to show what all its sections can do.

In the middle we left Dvorak’s homeland and headed to Russia for a splendid performance of Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto – a work which is very much more on the public radar these days than it used to be because brilliant young players (Guy Johnston, Sheku Kanneh-Mason et al) keep winning major competitions with it. On this occasion Alisa Wielerstein, serious and romantic looking in a statement scarlet dress, played it excitingly with lots of tension. Accompanied by a slightly scaled down orchestra, she took the first movement at a terrific tempo and found a mysterious, plangent but appealingly resolute sound in the moderato movement. When she finished someone in the audience gasped “oh!” in amazement. It was involuntary, I think, but a very valid testament to Weilerstein’s verve and technique.

And so to the sunny New World Symphony in which the unconventional orchestra layout heightened awareness of the apposition phrasing between lower strings and other sections. And Tomas Nepotil managed to make the largo sound as fresh as if the audience had never heard it before. It was played with warm, affectionate delicacy, especially at the recapitulation of the challengingly familiar first subject.  I loved the effect of the bass pizzicato when you can see and hear every player clearly and the rousing scherzo accomplished all its time signature and key changes so neatly that one was left sighing in admiration at the tightness of that glorious Czech sound. And as for the finale, the speed was so cracking in places that it made my amateur violinist fingers ache even to think about it. But it came off with aplomb.

It’s a long journey home from Basingstoke to where I live in South London and this leisurely concert – with its 7.45 start, two encores and lots of applause – didn’t finish until after 10.00pm. I have rarely been so glad that I made the effort.

Susan Elkin





Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra

Brighton Dome, Sunday 11 February 2018

There was a lot of lilting 3/4 time and enough tunes to set you humming all week in this enjoyable concert.

First came a slightly exaggerated – but none the worse for that – rendering of Schubert’s 8th Symphony – the Unfinished. Howard Shelley gave us a lingering horn, exciting sforzandi and lots of timp in the first movement, which he ended with a very measured, almost mannered, tempo. The second movement stressed the tip-toeing pizzicato and legato melody nicely. It was a very pleasing start to the concert which left me reflecting – for the thousandth time – that it’s an insult to Schubert’s genius to dub this his Unfinished symphony. I reckon he decided it was perfect just the way it is and he was right.

Howard Shelley is, as ever, fascinating to watch when he multi-tasks by conducting from the key board – iPad on the stand and blue toothed pedal to ‘turn’ the digital pages. On this occasion for Mendelssohn’s first piano concerto he had the lid off the piano – right off too – so that the sound was louder and more dominant than it would be for work by, say, Mozart or Beethoven. It’s a charming concerto and it’s a pity we don’t hear it more often. The sparkling dance quality of the third movement, for instance, was melodiously uplifting in this performance.

And so to Dvorak’s 6th Symphony with its delightful opening movement – 3/4 time again like the Schubert – in which Shelley even-handedly ensured that all the musical conversation is articulated as Dvorak sails on from melody to melody. In particular, I liked the trombone, flute and horn work here. Then came the lyrical beauty of the slow movement (how Dvorak loved lower strings!) which Shelley leaned on to good effect. The incisive string work taken at an impressive tempo in the third movement and the colourful, rousing finale rounded it off with panache.

All in all it was another fine Brighton Philharmonic concert. It was a pity, however, that the cold weather seemed to have led to more empty seats than usual. People who opted not to come missed a worthwhile afternoon of music.

Susan Elkin

Maidstone Symphony Orchestra

Moot Hall, Maidstone, Saturday 3 February 2018

“Now sits expectation in the air” as Shakespeare put it. Never in twenty years as a regular have I seen Mote Hall, Maidstone Leisure Centre as busily buzzy as it was when I arrived for this concert. I’d already queued for 20 minutes to drive into the car park. The hall was, unusually, full to capacity and there were far more under-20s present than Maidstone Symphony orchestra generally attracts. The reason for all this excitement? Sheku Kanneh-Mason.

Attractively ordinary with his white shirt, silk waistcoat and fluffy Afro hair the 2016 winner of BBC Young Musician played the Elgar Concerto for the first time. Now 18, and in his first year at the Royal , this charismatic young man, educated at a Nottingham comprehensive school, had me literally crouched on the edge of my seat for the entire concerto.  Seated in the third row, I could hear him breathing the music from the opening, dramatic, sombre E minor chords through to the pained, wistful melodies of the lento and adagio movements and the drama of the final allegro. Has anyone played this concerto with more passion and anguish since Du Pré? It was both riveting and humbling to watch and listen to – and a great privilege to be present at what, I’m sure, will come to be regarded as a historic moment for classical music: the first time Sheku played the greatest, arguably, post-Bach work in the cello repertoire.

Interesting to reflect too that Elgar was 62 when this concerto premiered in 1919. I find it fascinating that every generation can throw up at least one brilliant young musician who can, with stunning technical expertise, climb inside the tortured mind of an elderly gentleman whose beloved wife (she died five and a half months after the premiere) must already have been ill with lung cancer.

Well, the concert was definitely the glittering jewel in the crown of this concert but Maidstone Symphony Orchestra shone in the rest of the programme too. Berlioz’s King Lear overture doesn’t enjoy many outings but, engaging piece as it is, it sang out dramatically on this occasion. Brian Wright ensured that we appreciated the quasi melody Berlioz affords the timpanist (Keith Price) and David Montague’s accomplished oboe work which represents Cordelia – sweet and lyrical amidst all the discordance and busy playing – was a high spot.

After a very long interval – during which Sheku was, with great charm,  unhurriedly signing CDs, posing for photographs with admirers and generally making classical music “cool” – it was time for Dvorak’s New World Symphony. Brian Wright took the whole work at a nippy speed and I don’t think it was just because we were running late. It needs to move to come alive.

He is awfully good at allowing woodwind and brass detail to come through and of course, for irrepressibly exuberant Dvorak that’s even more important than for some other composers. So we got lovely dynamic contrasts in the opening movement, a beautifully played cor anglais (Jane Walker) theme in the largo against well balanced muted strings and a very lilting scherzo which danced along through all its mood swings and key changes. And as for the allegro con fuoco finale, there was certainly lots of pleasing, fiery “fuoco”. The brass section did exceptionally well here and the very fast “folksy” string passages were admirably incisive.

An evening which will remain in the memory for a very long time.

ENO: Satyagraha

London Coliseum, Thursday 1 February 2018

This is the third revival of Phelim McDermott’s visually impressive staging of Philip Glass’ Satyagraha and it looks as if it will be as popular as it has been on both previous occasions. Toby Spence has taken over in the lead role as Ghandi and his calm, almost beatific presence, combined with great purity of musical line, raises the whole evening to new heights.

What struck me on this occasion was the way we as onlookers are forced ever more to concentrate on the music rather than the text. There was a time when, prior to any serious visit to the opera, one had to learn the libretto with care, to ensure understanding of the work which was inevitably sung in a foreign language. Then came surtitles and we relaxed, assuming that, no matter how little we knew beforehand, it would all make sense as it went along. With Philip Glass the reverse is true. The language used is not just foreign but in many cases unknown today to all but academics. Though we are given projections of key thoughts, the on-going narrative remains aloof, and all we have is the music to retain our attention.

All the stranger then that so much of the production centres on the written word and the impact of Indian Opinion. News, fake or otherwise, is essential to the non-violent cause, though we see it rather than hear it.

The large cast are as strong as previous presentations with Sarah Pring a formidable Mrs Alexander. Karen Kamensek returns to the pit and her orchestra is as light and clean textured as one could wish. There are moments when it seems to explode with light and enthusiasm. The chorus, who regularly carry the weight of the action, were in their usual excellent form – it is difficult not to take their professionalism for granted, so secure has it become.

There are times when the vast puppets and visuals now seem to have less impact than when originally experienced but the working relationship with Improbable  has proved to be a uniquely effective selling point for ENO in bringing in new audiences – and as such is very welcome.