Oxford Lieder: From the Pens of Women

A whole evening of song settings of words by women is an interesting idea – and, as Kitty Whately, explained in the post-concert Q/A –  it evolved from her interest in certain writers and was first performed at Wigmore Hall last year.

Like all this year’s Oxford Lieder concerts, the evening began with a mini-recital by an emerging artist. This time it was bass-baritone Tristan Hambleton with four of Schubert’s 13 songs setting words by women. He found lots of warmth and spark in pieces which deserve to be better known than most of them are.

And so to the wistfulness of Ralph Vaughan-Williams in reflective, late-life mood, setting poems by his wife, Ursula, mostly in minor keys. Whately finds sad passion especially in Menelaus in which the titular king calls for his long lost wife, Helen, and it’s deeply poignant.

Ursula Vaughan Williams, much younger than her husband, was an accomplished poet. All the Future Days is a cycle of ten poems. Whately – who clearly has a very well established rapport with strikingly sensitive pianist, Simon Lepper – gave us Jonathan Dove’s settings of three of them. The emotional immersion in The Siren was particularly notetworthy. Whately is a singer of great versatility.

The second half of the concert used chattier texts – beginning with two poems by Margaret Attwood. Dominick Argento’s setting of Virginia Woolf’s Anxiety is an intense study of stress, based on an extract from her diary with lots of musical acrobatics, powerfully caught by both performers. It’s impossible to listen to without remembering, and reflecting on, Woolf’s eventual suicide. After that the light relief of Juliana Hall’s setting of extracts from Edna St Vincent Millay – especially the one asking for money, sang by Whatley with a big musical smile – was welcome.

The evening ended with Dove’s settings of three poems by Millay which was originally a BBC Radio 3 commission for Whately. She and Lepper took the concert to a real dramatic climax in I too Beneath Your Moon.

An enjoyable concert on the whole although, lovely as the Holywell Music Room is, it’s sad to see it empty of audience. It’s also awkwardly stilted  when at the end of each piece or set the performers simply have to stop. They don’t even smile at each other. There’s none of the sense of excitement and togetherness that an applauding audience brings. And as Hambleton told Petroc Trelawney in the interval talk it’s the audience which actually brings songs to life. Without it there’s s dimension missing.

Susan Elkin

Bach and Britten; Oxford Lieder Festival

This warm, pleasant concert opened with some external scene- setting camera work to allow us to feel that we were walking into the chapel of Merton College. Of course it would have been nicer to have been there in person but efforts had certainly been made to make us feel as though we really were for this live streamed event.

The programme was a Britten sandwich – Bach’s substantial Ich habe genug and his Der Ewogkeit saphrnes Haus framing six shorter Britten pieces all rooted in Bach.

Ian Bostridge’s mellifluous voice conveyed every ounce of drama and emotion – at times he was almost leaning over his music stand in controlled passion. Thomas Hammond-Davies conducted with his body too – almost a choreographed dance between the two men and definitely a performance which benefited from being seen as well as heard.

The accompaniment was provided – on original instruments – by a string quartet augmented by flute (fabulous playing) and organ, all standing distanced in a semi-circle behind Bostridge. When he sang the final Bach piece at the end of the concert the viola was gone but there was scoring for an oboe – a honey-coloured wooden instrument with a creamy tone. It was shot, with real musical insight too – the bow on the cello and the fingers on the flute at appropriate moments.

The Britten numbers were accompanied by Saskia Giorgini on piano. She had her music on an iPad or similar which she scrolled manually to “turn” her pages. I’ve only seen this once before in performance and then the player operated it with a Bluetooth pedal. Giorgini’s method seemed to work smoothly enough and she’s a sensitive player.

This concert certainly showed Bostridge’s stylistic range. The first Britten piece, My beloved is mine and I am his Op 40 is full of unpredictable intervals and unexpected tonality, but Bostridge, of course, sang it with passion and conviction. The Five Spiritual Songs – Giestliche Lieder – which followed, were fresh and attractive in this performance. Written for Peter Peers, accompanied by the composer in 1969, they are arrangements of Bach. Liebster Herr Jesu was especially lovely in Bostridge’s rendering.

And so to the closing number – funeral music for Christiane Eberhardine, Electress of Saxony and composed by Bach in the Italian style. Bostridge and Hammond-Davies made it into a momentous and moving end to this 50 minute lunch time concert.

Susan Elkin

 

Mendelssohn and the Jewish Enlightenment: Oxford lieder Festival 2020

All credit to Oxford Lieder Festival and its director, Sholto Kynoch. The Song Connections series is informative and intelligent without being heavy or dry.

Mendelssohn’s grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn, was an 18th century philosopher. Under the tolerant polices of Frederick the Great in Prussia he became a leading Enlightenment thinker who wanted Jewish people to be fully assimilated into the community, their talents recognised and valued. Soon there were schools for both boys and girls, mixed marriages and conversions. We learn all this from Philip Ross Bullock in Oxford, Avi Lifshitz at the Jewish Museum in Berlin and  Martin Holmes at the Bodleian Library.

Short talks are interspersed with some very fine renderings of Mendelssohn songs by Magnus Walker, tenor, and Gus Tredwell, piano. Working in a mahogany panelled room at the Bodleian and surrounded by portraits of academics, they work sensitively together. The high spot in their mini-recital is Glosse in which they find anger and despair along with delicate lyricism. Walker has an impressively rich tone and I really liked the musical rapport between the two of them.

Of Moses’s six children, only two remained in the Jewish faith. Two converted to Catholicism and two – one of who was Felix’s father, Abraham – became protestants. Felix and his siblings were all baptised and his wife Cecile Jeanrennud was the daughter of a protestant pastor. Thus the composer – who famously revived Bach’s strongly Lutheran St Matthew Passion (Berlin 1829) – looked both ways, culturally because he also had his grandfather’s writings translated.

Most of Mendelssohn’s musical manuscripts are in Berlin but much of his other writing and drawing is in the Bodleian thanks to Oxford resident Margaret Dineke who inherited the archive from a friend who’d known the composer. It was eventually bequeathed to the Bodleian by her sister in 1973. Loveliest of the collection is an album of music, painting and writing Mendelssohn assembled as a honeymoon gift for his wife. As one viewer dubbed it in the Q&A which followed the event: “the nineteenth century equivalent of a mix tape.”

Susan Elkin

Oxford Lieder Festival: Elias Ashmole and the Ashmolean Museum

The only pre-recorded event in this year’s Oxford Lieder Festival, this film has three “leads”: the ever magnificent Ashmolean Museum, the glorious Kirkman double manual harpsichord (1772) played by Julian Perkins and the claret-rich voice of soprano, Anna Cavaliero.  Then there’s Xa Strugis, director of the Ashmolean who tells us the history of the museum and its collections along with thoughts about how it will develop in the future. It makes for an interesting, well thought out and compelling hour.

The Ashmolean is a collection of collections. The original one was assembled by the Tradescants,  seventeenth century gardeners, with connections in high places, who travelled the world. Elias Ashmole acquired the collection and gave it to the University of Oxford where it opened in a purpose built building in Broad Street in 1683 – a place of art, science, experiment and research. Unprecedentedly and shockingly (to some) it was open to the public from the start.

Since them it has acquired many more collections – through gifts, legacies and purchases –  including the Hill Family’s collection of early stringed instruments. The Ashmolean Museum moved to its current building in the mid nineteenth century.  Today it is working hard at engaging new audiences to tell new stories and at ways of widening its traditionally Eurocentric focus. Sturgis acknowledges that while Asia and North Africa are represented sub-Saharan Africa and Oceana are not and that has to be remedied.

The recital aspect of this enjoyable offering took us from Barbara Strozzi to Haydn who would, Perkins tells us,  have been very familiar with harpsichords of this type. Along the route are songs by Purcell, John Blow, John Eccles and others. The setting is atmospheric with Van Eyck’s Woman and the Bacon Cup behind Perkins and a large canvas depicting a classical scene behind Cavaliero. The room they’re in has a warm, resonant acoustic too.

Strozzi’s L’Eraclito amoroso is sung without pyrotechnics but with plenty of passion, packed in by Cavaliero who is no mean actor. The televisual closeness means that she’s very exposed but she rises to the challenge with aplomb.

She finds some lovely bottom notes in Haydn’s The Spirit Song too and she makes his Das leben is ein traum feel light and charming. Meanwhile Perkins ensures that every song is an elegant duet – and it’s fun to hear him subtly adjusting the dynamics by using the flaps over the strings which are operated with a pedal.

First Night of the Proms – 28 August 2020

It has been a very strange year for the BBC Proms. Normally the First Night is in mid July, yet here we were, celebrating the first live First Night on Friday 28 August. To say it was a stunning success  would be an understatement.

The musicians made the most of social distancing to give a clarity and precision to their music-making which is rare in the RAH. It may be somewhat unacceptable to say so but the greatest benefit by far was the lack of a live audience. No shuffling, coughing, chewing, whispering, clapping the wrong place, and no background ambience. This may be ok when you are listening from home and like the sense of the audience, but hearing works from Sleep to the Eroica, without any hint of interruption was a revelation.

 

The first night nearly always includes a new commission, and this year it was Tuxedo: Vasco ‘de’ Gama by Hannah Kendall. I always try to approach these new works with an open mind but I have to admit it closes down very quickly. Lots of percussion, bird whistles, even a tiny musical box but little sense of substance.

What a difference as we moved to Sleep by Eric Whitacre. The BBC Singers were more than just socially distanced. They were spread out across the stalls and the ensuing harmonies were intoxicating. Again the lack of an audience was an essential part of this as tiny nuances, absolute clarity and perfect balance was compelling throughout. A wonderful work we must hear again.

Copland’s Quiet City  is more familiar but again the crisp textures shone through.

The final and major work for the evening was Beethoven’s Symphony No3 The Eroica. No hint of any problem keeping the orchestra together given the vast area they were spread across, and Sakari Oramo’s obvious delight in the results he was getting.

A wonderful evening. I just wonder how we might reach a compromise between small well behaved audiences and none at all!

Global Conversations at the Opus Theatre – Part 1

How are professional musicians across the world coping with the lock-down? Brian Hick sat in on the conversation arranged by Opus Theatre with five eminent international music-makers. 

Polo Piatti, Opus Theatre Founder & Director, and concert pianist and Opus Patron Oliver Poole brought together a small group of international musicians online last Saturday to share thoughts on the present situation and look towards the future not just locally but internationally. Joining them were Soprano Carly Paoli, EMMA For Peace founder Paolo Petrocelli, and conductor & impresario Gianluca Marciano.

Oliver gave a relaxed introduction. In a ‘live’ setting we would be seated in the audience with the speakers on the platform, but for those of us used to close ups on zoom this was almost identical. The five speakers were as intimate with us as our own families. What is more the meeting allowed immediate feedback from the viewers via text link.

The first point raised for Polo was the problem of physical distancing in current concert halls and theatres. It is very difficult as the Opus is a listed building and we can’t remove the pews. If we tried to seat an audience socially distanced it would never be cost effective, and we could not run a bar or provide adequate toilets. Even the Composers Festival for 2021 is now in doubt as musicians need to work and make a living if they are to come to the Festival paying essentially for themselves. We have to consider – do we delay the Festival even more or do we restrict it to composers and musicians who live locally and could therefore travel easily and without great expense? We, as musicians, are Key Workers of the Soul yet there is no world-wide organisation to support the arts.

Carly was asked about her experience as a singer working in lock-down. I have had to learn how to express myself with a very different sense of contact with the audience. Though there are many problems –getting the immediate response from the audience is a joy. Hitting the right note at the end of an aria, only to be met with silence, even though you know there are many people listening to you, is very uncomfortable. Thankfully I do get very positive feedback but it is never the same. Oliver wondered if we should support specific. Yes there are some ways we can genuinely involve ourselves. Recently I was asked to work at St Luke’s in Liverpool with a group of musicians and WWII veterans – all in PPE . This was a potential way forward for small encounters. The present situation has given music a voice to a much wider audience even if it is not under the conditions we would most desire. We need to bring joy. I have worked with ‘When you wish upon a star’ since I was sixteen. It is a children’s charity established to provide special times for children who have serious medical and mental needs. I was delighted when Everton Football Club became involved in this. I’d never been a great football fan previously but it was a wonderful experience. As the event came to a close, Oliver invited Carly to sing for us, so she gave us an a cappella rendition of Somewhere over the Rainbow.

Global Conversations at the Opus Theatre – Part 2

Two eminent international musicians were part of the webinar at the Opus Theatre which Brian Hick sat in on. 

Composer, Polo Piatti, and concert pianist, Oliver Poole, were able to draw on their international connections to invite international innovators to the Opus webinar..

Paolo Petrocelli – cultural advisor to Cold Play and founder of EMMA for Peace – was asked about his experience in Italy. Here, at the start of the pandemic, everything changed within a week. Rome Opera had never closed – not even during the war. In Italy, the arts are subsidised but ticket sales are still very important, so we have to reinvent how we stage events. Because of the long weeks of fine weather we could make more use of our larger outside venues. This way we could accommodate an audience more easily. This would provide musicians with a live rapport. The one caveat is of course that we don’t know what is going to happen in the future and we mustn’t push so hard that we make mistakes now which a little time would help clarify. We have to look at quality before quantity.

Oliver asked Paolo about the connections of Music to Diplomacy. I work with EMMA for Peace which aims to promote music as a tool for diplomacy through collaborations with international institutional partners such as the UN organizations and the World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates. EMMA is also active in individual partner countries with the support of national institutions, as well as organizing concerts at major venues and festivals throughout the region. We aim to bring together musicians from all social and cultural backgrounds, recognising that music is itself an international language. Musicians have a role within communities worldwide, not just as entertainers but as spiritual inspirers and leaders.

Conductor & impresario Gianluca Marciano was three weeks into a five week festival in Lebanon when the lock-down hit. Everything simply stopped. Within a day all my future contracts were cancelled and there was no live music at all. The problem is that recorded music is never the same experience as a live event. We must not assume that technology is the answer. It isn’t! At the Lerici Music Festival in Italy, which I run, there is the possibility of open air performances but more importantly we need to draw on local musicians in smaller numbers to contain any on-going risks. This could be true for England, though of course here the weather is always a problem. However, a difficulty will arise when we come to the start of the autumn season where our larger houses, because of the close proximity of seats and crush in the bars and public areas, are not suited to physical distancing. It is very difficult to motivate a singer to work in a large building which is 3/4s empty. And what if the sound quality is poor? Given that, and the lack of atmosphere / ambience, the experience can never be the same. We must never forget that music is a profession not a hobby for vast numbers of professionals across the world. Art is not a luxury. We need to be resilient and deal with the situation. Creative artists need to be optimistic and active in the world, not expecting the world to provide the answers for us.

Garsington Opera – Skating Rink

I was due to review the premiere of David Sawer’s opera at Garsington in 2018 but a major accident on the motorway meant I was stuck for four hours and so did not make it; all the more enjoyable then to be able to catch up with it via YouTube during the lockdown.

Rory Mullarkey’s libretto is based on the novel by Roberto Bolano but uses a different narrator in each of the three acts to move the narrative forward. This helps to speed up the story line but also gives us a different emotional insight into the characters. At a basic level the tale is quite slim. A potential Olympic figure-skater has lost her grant and has nowhere to practise. A local government official manages some slight-of-hand with local finances to pay for an underground skating rink so that she can practise. Alongside these events, a night-watchman, Gaspar, is trying to protect two travellers whom the mayor wishes to eject from a campsite. The various characters interweave with each other, and it is only in the final bars that it is revealed that another traveller, the alcoholic Rookie, is responsible for the murder of Carmen in the ice-rink.

The three male protagonists lead each act, though the principal characters emerge only slowly. The first act focusses on the young Gaspar, sensitively sung by Sam Furness, and his relationship with two female travellers, Carmen and Caridad. His love for Caridad quickly becomes clear though he is more concerned with her welfare and the town’s desire to get rid of her. The older traveller, Carmen, is strongly played by Susan Bickley who quickly establishes the complexity of the character and her ever-changing relationship with the world around her. Claire Wild’s Caridad is a damaged personality, especially moving when she finds Carmen’s body on the ice.

The businessman Remo, sung by Ben Edquist, is a smooth operator but in the long-run he is the one character who really loses out. His fling with skater Nuria does not last and he is left sad and somewhat isolated at the end. Even as narrator of the second act he seems to be a loner.

Enric, the civil servant who fiddles the books to run the ice rink, is a fine creation from Neal Davies. His emotional turmoil is beautifully crafted and it seems fitting that, by the end, Lauren Zolezzi’s skater Nuria has abandoned Remo for the older but far more reliable Enric.

The dark horse throughout is Alan Oke’s wonderful Rookie. Besotted by Carmen, but most of the time too drunk to be in control of himself, he eventually owns up to her murder simply because he could not have her.

There is a small chorus, who are clearly individualised, and a splendid pairing for Nuria with the real figure skater, Alice Poggio. Stewart Laing’s direction is crystal clear and his setting – including the ice-rink which is fully functional yet safe for ordinary walking – made up of packing cases and plastic furniture, is absolutely right for the sense of constant transition which underlies the life of all the characters.

David Sawer’s score is not afraid to write extended arioso passages for the main characters, all of which work extremely well and there is a natural flow to the whole work. Garsington Opera have a real success here. I would very much like to encounter this again – hopefully live next time.

Hastings International Piano – An Evening With . . .

Fanya Lin, from Taiwan, was a prize-winner in the 2018 Hastings International Piano Concerto Competition, and was giving her recital from Arizona where she teaches when not performing on the concert platform.


After a brief introduction she launched straight into her programme without any comment on the works themselves. She opened with the first movement of Schumann’s Fantasie Op17. Written in 1836 it is regarded as one of the composer’s most demanding and complex works, the opening movement showing numerous changes of mood and an evolving structure which requires close attention from both listener and performer.  Given the complexity of the score, some introduction to it might have helped our ability to follow it.

The only other work was an unexpected rarity – Lowell Liebermann’s Gargoyles Op. 29. Though the immediate impression is of a romantic suite in four movements, it was actually written in 1989, commissioned by the Tcherepnin Society of New York. Highly technically demanding throughout, the extrovert quirkiness of the writing creates a mood of unease, even when the melodic lines are clear. The opening movement is fluid and demanding, leading to a haunting, if uncomfortable, slow movement. The undulating nocturnal third movement leads to the exhilarating gallop of the finale which requires both stamina and strength from the performer.

Though recorded in a studio, there was a problem for much of the recording with a time delay which meant that Fanya Lin appeared to be playing the notes after we actually heard them. Looking away from the screen helped, but it was a pity to have to do this as her playing was visually impressive.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Michelle Candotti in recital

The eighth recital from HIP was given by Michelle Candotti who was a prize-winner in the 2013 Hastings International Piano Concerto Competition, writes Brian Hick. Dressed in black, she sat at her piano distanced from the camera, almost silhouetted within a pure white studio. It was a very striking image and worked perfectly for her chosen programme.

She opened with Liszt’s Paraphrase on Ernani which draws on music Verdi used in Act 3 of his opera. Liszt sticks closly to the original melodic lines here, so that the source is more obvious than in some other paraphrases, and the lyrical underpinning shines through easily below the florid runs.

She followed this with J S Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in G minor, BWV 885, from volume 2 of the Well-Tempered Clavier. We have heard surprisingly little from the pre-classical repertoire in this series so it was very good to hear this fine piece of Bach sandwiched between two more romantic works. Her playing was starkly abstract, almost unemotional in its impact,  with a fine sense of clarity and balance throughout.

She concluded with Chopin’s Etude Op10 No8 in F major. Nicknamed the Sunshine it is full of life and wonderfully fanciful running arpeggios. The melody is somewhat buried in the left hand but she managed to balance the whole so well that we never lost the sense of where the music was going. It is a remarkably short work and certainly left us wanting more.