New Sussex Opera: A Village Romeo & Juliet

Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne, Sunday 2 April 2017

New Sussex Opera have done so much good work over the years, and given us so many splendid evenings of opera, it is a shame not to be more enthusiastic about this most recent production. The fault is not theirs – unless one blames them for choosing it in the first place – but Delius’ folk tale really does not carry enough dramatic weight to keep the audience engaged across the six scenes. That the final two scenes come slightly more alive, and include the finest music of the piece with the Walk to the Paradise Garden, does little to make up for the lack of musical variety or characterisation in the first four.

Thankfully there is some fine playing from the ensemble under Lee Reynolds and the chorus makes an impression in the little it has to do. Luke Sinclair sings Sali with a sense of style and frequent lyrical beauty, but his presence too often seemed detached from the reality around him. Kirsty Taylor-Stokes’ Vrenchen was equally positive vocally but her costume and demeanour too often made her look simplistic rather than naïve. This may have been an idea of the director Susannah Waters to play them like Hansel and Gretel rather than Pelleas and Melisande, but if so it did not really fit with the stark utilitarianism of the setting. The fathers were strongly cast with Robert Gildon and Geoffrey Moses bringing tension to the opening minutes but this is lost in the miasma Delius creates around them, draining the potential tension of the relationship.

Ian Beadle’s Dark Fiddler – here played like the Sandman and as such giving yet another echo of Hansel – was strongly sung and as credible as the score would allow.

There was an excellent programme – not always the case with smaller companies – from which I note that they will bring us Gluck’s Orfeo next year. Now that will be worth going to – no problem with that being a masterpiece.

Hastings Philharmonic

St Mary in the Caste, Hastings, Saturday 1 April 2017

A Mozart concert and my immediate thought was – where are the oboes? But then one realises that, somewhat surprisingly, Mozart does not use them in either the 39th Symphony or in the Requiem. This was not the only factor which united the two works, for both are late and reflective of the whole of Mozart’s output.

The evening opened with the 39th Symphony, the balance seeming at first to highlight the Haydnesque influences rather than the more prophetic hints of Beethoven which follow in the yearning, near soulful lines from the bassoons, which flower so beautifully in St Mary’s acoustic. The strings were not to be outdone by the brass, coming into their own in the finale with tight, bouncing figuration which held the dance rhythms throughout.

After the interval came an impassioned reading of the Requiem. The chorus were in excellent voice here and the rhythms were crisp and clean throughout. There was a real sense of bite in the Rex tremendae, an empathic sensitivity in the Lacrimosa and joy in the Sanctus. Phrasing was finely crafted and balance throughout excellent.

The four young soloists were both well balanced across their voices and finely characterised. There was an urgency and lift from soprano Emily Bradley and tenor Wagner Moreira, with warmth and character from mezzo Ayaka Tanimoto and bass Dan D’Souza.

Between these works we heard Morten Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna whose five movements are drawn from the Latin Requiem Mass. His writing is strongly romantic in feel and the opening section in particular creates long waves of musical sound which overlap and float across each other, flooding the church with wonderful sound. He often asks the chorus to sing unaccompanied which puts more weight on them to hold the pitch, though a splendid central section draws on a solo cello for support to superb effect.

If, in the end, it proves to be rather too long for the quality of its invention, the final sections pull together well and the conclusion is effective and fitting.

There was no text or translation available in the programme, though this did have the side effect of ensuring everyone was listening attentively.

Marcio da Silva, as we have become accustomed, directed the whole with authority and precision. He is a real asset to Hastings.

The next concert in the series – and another first for Hastings Philharmonic – is at the same venue on Saturday 20 March when the orchestra will perform Brahms Second Symphony.

Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra

The Dome, Brighton, Sunday 26 March 2017

Barry Wordsworth returned to conduct the final concert of the season and was enthusiastically welcomed home by the audience in the Dome. It has been an interesting season, with some unusual choices of works – none more so than this last concert.

It opened with Kodaly’s Dances of Galanta which draw heavily on Hungarian folk rhythms and dances. Written in 1933, the five movements flow into each other, becoming increasingly enthusiastic as they evolve, until the final, joyful outpouring – a good scene setter, which moved comfortably into Schumann’s piano concerto, with Martin Roscoe as soloist. Despite the flamboyance of much of the writing, Martin Roscoe is a very cool performer. There are no histrionics to his presence on the platform. All we get is exceptional music-making which allows the score to unfold and speak for itself. It was a masterly display of understatement which enabled Schumann’s many delights to emerge along the way.

Few in the audience will have heard Scriabin’s Second Symphony before. It is a real rarity. Though many will know his Poeme de l’extase I can’t recall a performance of the Second Symphony in recent years. It is a bit like Marmite. If you are happy to indulge yourself in his post-Tristan harmonies, with the constant shifting of melodic fragments within a sea of late romantic orchestration it works very well. The long slow movement is more complex. It seems to drift, rather as much of Delius can seem to do, though without the British composer’s overall sense of direction.  Thankfully, the first and last movements are well structured and the whole reaches a fine climax with a march motif for the brass which rings with real panache.

The next season has been announced and there are a large number of highly popular works on offer, opening on 8th October with Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 1 – with Alexandra Dariescu as soloist – and Brahms Third Symphony. Details and tickets from www.brightonphil.org.uk

Maidstone Symphony Orchestra

Mote Hall, Maidstone, Saturday 25 March 2017

This performance was heralded as a Charity Concert in support of the High Sheriff of Kent’s charity Oasis, managing to combine an evening of wonderful music-making with support for an essential cause – working to end domestic violence and abuse.

The High Sheriff, Mrs Kathrin Smallwood, was present along with a clutch of worthies all wearing their respective chains and badges of office. I hope they enjoyed the event as much as the regular members of the audience for there was certainly a great deal to enjoy.

The evening opened with the overture to Smetana’s The Bartered Bride. This demonstrated the real strengths of the string section, starting as it does with the second violins and frequently drawing on them to lead. The fluidity and sense of close ensemble across the strings is now exceptionally high as this proved.

Amy Harman was the soloist for Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto K191 and gave us a gently mellifluous interpretation which sat comfortably across the lighter orchestration. Mozart only uses strings, horns and oboes, so that the deeper tones of the bassoon are allowed to flourish by themselves, producing a warm depth of tone in contrast to the brighter sounds of the accompaniment. In the final Rondo Mozart leaves the main theme for the soloist until the very end, concentrating instead on a heady cloud of ornamentation which Amy Harman brought off with both skill and charm.

It was a pity that – due to personal circumstances – she was not able to bring us the original second item, but in the event it was possibly our gain as we experienced one the finest renditions of Finlandia I have heard in many a year. The growling brass brought a sense of menace and fire to the opening and the tymps were splendidly aggressive throughout – much thanks to Keith Price. One could sense the swell of hatred towards the Russians as Finland sought its independence. The great final hymn came across as a sign of thanksgiving in anticipation – this was after all seventeen years before the independence whose anniversary is celebrated this year – and the finale was genuinely thrilling.

If the glories of Sibelius’ Second Symphony did not quite match the thrill of Finlandia it was certainly no reflection on the performance itself.

The opening of the first movement may still hark back to Tchaikovsky in its string writing but it soon moves towards a starker voice which we know is pure Sibelius. The biting woodwind and bleakness carry over into the second movement where the sun peeps out occasionally but is as soon lost to sight. It is not until the fury of the third movement that we feel there is some hope – a hope gloriously vindicated in the finale with its soaring flights of brass and a sense that dogged determination will win out in the end – as it did.

There is still one concert to go this season – Saturday 20 May 2017 with works by Mussorgsky, Dvorak and Tchaikovsky.

WNO: Love’s Poisoned Chalice

Milton Keynes Theatre, 21-22 March 2017

Frank Martin’s Le Vin Herbe is hardly a regular part of any company’s repertoire so it was all the more exciting to see it for the first time in a magnificent presentation from WNO. The composer did not really intend it to be staged and it is closer to Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex or possibly Britten’s Rape of Lucretia in its use of narrators and chorus to move the narrative forward, acting as both a framing and distancing device. Moreover, Polly Graham’s visually stunning production uses the chorus as the setting, their fluid movement shaping the spaces in which the drama unfolds. Added to this some of the most effective lighting, by Tim Mitchell, that we have seen in a very long time and the whole was frequently mesmerising in its impact.

The story of Tristan and Iseult is familiar to most of us from Wagner, but Martin takes a different approach, one that uses different elements of the myth and brings a much strong ethical tone to the outcome. Mark could have killed them but chooses not to do so; the lovers never actually consummate their desire, dying as chaste as they lived, though overcome by passion to the point of madness.

All of this in couched in the most refined of musical scores, using a small string ensemble placed in the centre of the stage under the deft control of James Southall.

The cast had a number of very familiar voices. Tom Randle was a fine if angst ridden Tristan, the sensitivity of his acting matching that of his voice. Caitlin Hulcup was a statuesque Iseult, able to hold a pose in telling but naturalistic fashion, and a beautiful voice to match her presence.

It was good to see and hear Catherine Wyn-Rogers in the small part of Iseult’s Mother, the warmth of her tone shining through as ever. Martin writes for a myriad of small parts, some of whom emerge briefly from the chorus, others being named individuals who disappear as quickly as they came. Needless to say with the quality of the WNO chorus there was not a weak link here and Gareth Dafydd Morris made a very strong impact with the beauty of line he produced as Kaherdin and I am sure, as a recent member of WNO, we shall see much more of him.

I am not sure if the work was being recorded. It certainly deserves to be far better known than it is at present.

The following night’s revival of La Boheme may not have come up to the heights of Martin, but it was well sung throughout with Matteo Lippi and Jessica Muirhead, as Rudolfo and Mimi, in well matched romantic voices which filled the theatre with ease and beauty of line. Lauren Fagan is a brash Musetta, with Gary Griffiths a highly convincing Marcello.

While the production has some telling moments – Rudolfo return’s Mimi’s key to encourage her to tell her story – it too often moves away from its initial naturalism. Characters in what is supposed to be a bitterly cold winter, frequently take their coats off, and there is little difference between inner and outer scenes.

Manlio Benzi in the pit had a sharp sense of Puccini’s line and tempi were always convincing. A most pleasant evening on the ear if not always on the eye.

 

Arensky Chamber Orchestra: SEA FEVER

Jerwood Gallery, Hastings, Friday 11 March 2017

A new orchestra in a new music venue, with an adventurous approach to programming. As we entered the Jerwood Gallery, we were gently engulfed in the sound of the sea breaking against the shore, and this image was to stay with us throughout the evening. Rather than simply play through works by Debussy and Britten, sandwiching the new pieces in between – as would have been the conventional approach – we were given a sequence of musical events which flowed effortlessly into each other.

The first half opened with the first of five interludes based on lines from Sea Fever, specially composed for the event by Steffan Rees. The setting for two cellos reflected on grey mist on the sea’s face before a seamless transition into Dawn and Sunday Morning from Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes. What was immediately obvious was that, while we were seeing a chamber orchestra, the sound within the close acoustic of the Jerwood was wonderfully immediate, with the rolling brass and bell for Sunday morning ringing out with spectacular effect.

The second new interlude, the wind’s song, seemed to take up the emotional intensity of the Britten and extend it, drawing on the same tonal palette. On paper a transition at this point to Debussy might look difficult but the hushed opening of La Mer was given great clarity, with nuanced playing from the harp. It was easy to see the connection then to the flung spray and the blown spume with its energetic forces and brittle edges, calming eventually back to the warmth of the cellos.

Moonlight brought the first half to a conclusion but even the interval had something different to offer in the form of a new cocktail. In keeping with the sea theme, our glasses had samphire rather than lemon and the subtle saltiness was remarkably effective.

There was a romantic intensity to a grey dawn breaking, as we returned, before the second part of La Mer and the Storm sequence from Peter Grimes. The intensity of attack here was shattering given the confined space and precision of the playing. Steffan Rees’ final interlude the lonely sea and the sky served as a bridge to the concluding item, with a gentler opening giving way to a full romantic – almost Mahlerian – enthusiasm. The third part of La Mer brought the evening to a close and a heartfelt desire that this should not be the only occasion that we are able to hear the Arensky Chamber Orchestra.

The Jerwood proved itself to be a valuable performing space for smaller ensembles, though the limited audience capacity will always be a problem without significant subsidy if prices are not to be outside of the reach of normal concert goers. Let us hope that the quality of this event enables the support for the orchestra to continue – Will Kunhardt and his young musicians certainly deserve it.

 

Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra

The Dome, Brighton, Sunday 5 March 2017

Earlier in the day, 500 children had sat in on the rehearsal for this concert and been enthralled by Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsody No1 – and understandably so. Having a Romanian conductor, Christian Mandeal, conducting Romanian music is still a rarity even today. It was easy to see why the work had been chosen as a showcase for classical music to a young audience, for it is alive with colour and wonderfully intricate detail. The warmly rich solo viola part suddenly lifts out of the orchestra as a whole, and later the solo piccolo thrills as it cuts through the weight of the whole orchestra.

This wildly romantic work is full of heady rhythmic subtleties which are electrifying.  Would that he heard music of this intensity and sheer visceral enjoyment more often.

If the rest of the afternoon did not quite live up to the excitement of the opening this was not the fault of the works themselves or the performances. Chloe Hanslip was the soloist in Korngold’s Violin Concerto. Though heralded as a genius in his youth, he is best known today as the writer of a large number of film scores. The concerto is based on a number of these and while its romantic melodies are engaging it never really rises to the emotional impact it promises at the start. The second movement in particular tends to drift rather than move forward purposefully, though the work is redeemed by the more dynamic pirate music of the finale. Chloe Hanslip played with intensity and convincing attention to detail.

It is always interesting hearing Elgar performed by conductors who come to the scores from an entirely different tradition. Sakari Oramo’s performances with the BBC Symphony Orchestra have often been revelatory. If Christian Mandeal’s approach to the First Symphony was not quite in this class he brought a beautifully developed sense of line and much lovely phrasing in the construction of long paragraphs. He was aware of the smallest of details, allowing tiny moments to blossom – a sudden fleet bassoon line; a falling brashness from the trombones – and capture the imagination in ways we may not have heard before. The second movement scampered alarmingly with a real hint of menace in the march sections. There was a glorious introspection in the slow movement with hints of Wagner and Mahler, the composer looking in both directions while taking his own course.

The finale blazed as expected and brought the afternoon to a triumphant conclusion. More Enescu next season?

The final concert this season is on Sunday 26 March with works by Kodaly, Schumann and Scriabin.

 

Musicians of All Saints

St Michael’s Church, Lewes, Saturday 4 March 2017

St Michael’s is a fine venue for chamber music, almost too close for a full string orchestra but one which allows the warmth and detail of scoring to have maximum impact.

The evening opened with Bach’s Third Brandenburg concerto using reduced forces which encouraged bright rhythms and a dancelike quality throughout.

Robin Milford is not a familiar name today but the two pieces we heard both witnessed to a sad neglect of a fine composer.

The Concertino in E dates from 1955 and each of the three movements opens with a piano solo. Margaret Fingerhut has worked closely with the Musicians of All Saints as was evident from the easy rapport between orchestra and soloist. The work is openly romantic and the writing for strings confident in its expression. The central Romanza has a haunting melody which is richly orchestrated, and as such deserves to be far better known. The concluding Rondo is rather more on the wild side if not quite as moving as the earlier two movements.

Fishing by Moonlight is marginally better known, again deeply romantic, though there is little obvious link between what we hear and the title. The calm opening builds to a surprisingly loud impact and the danced central section makes a subtle contrast to the outer sections. The work is available on Hyperion and it would be good to think that others, as well as the Robin Milford Trust, might take up these works.

Bartok’s Divertimento for string orchestra is a much tougher item. There is a fierce intensity to the opening Allegro non troppo which gives way to the intense, quietly oppressive, Molto adagio. If the mood lightens a little for the final Allegro assai there is still a hint of menace behind the melody.

Leader Sophia Bartlette provided the solo violin parts in the Divertimento with a pleasing sense of attack and phrasing.

Peter Copley had spoken at the beginning about the relationship of light music to serious music, and the continuing confusion about the terminology. Robin Milford’s works could easily be dismissed as light music when what the critic really means is they are actually accessible on a first hearing!  Peter Copley’s own scores have the virtue of accessibility but should not be dismissed as light as a result. His new Tango is a most enjoyable piece but I suspect rather more challenging for the performers than it sounds for the audience. The tight rhythms and constant subtle changes of pace are exhilarating and were obviously enjoyed by both orchestra and pianist. Margaret Fingerhut did not need to change into her sparkling silver sequins to add a Latin tang to the event – it was more than obvious from the sparkle of the music.

The next concert at St Michael’s will be on 23 April at 4.30pm and will present the winners of the Brighton 2017 Springboard Festival.

www.mas-lewes.co.uk   www.robinmilfordtrust.org.uk

ENO: The Winter’s Tale

London Coliseum, Monday 27 February 2017

When the RSC stages The Winter’s Tale it normally runs over three hours. Ryan Wigglesworth’s new opera based on the play runs for under two hours, so we are immediately aware that this is going to be a highly focused, not to say intense, adaptation of the play – and so it proves to be. Gone are the comic characters, all of the songs and incidental music, dancing is reduced to a brief aside. The focus is entirely on the impact of jealousy in both Leontes and Polixenes.

Vicki Mortimer’s high walled setting constantly encloses and cuts off the characters from each other, and placing both Sicilia and Bohemia under military rule gives little sense of contrast in the second act. If anything, the music underlines the unifying factors rather than the differences between the two countries.

The conclusion moves away from Shakespeare. Though Hermione returns to life there is little sense of resurrection or restoration here, and the final image is uncomfortably spectral, as the dead Mamillius wanders slowly off stage.

Ryan Wigglesworth’s score mirrors this intensity of approach with music that is frequently edgy and uncomfortable. There are few lyrical moments, even in Bohemia, and characters rarely reflect on their positions, though Iain Paterson’s finely drawn Leontes is allowed two more-extended introspective moments.

Sophie Bevan makes what she can of Hermione though the trial scene gives her nowhere near enough emotional scope for us to empathise more than at the most superficial level. Samantha Price makes more impact as Perdita though sixteen years living rurally is glossed over.

The concentration of the text makes Polixenes a more important protagonist, strongly sung by Leigh Melrose. His – spoken – assault on Florizel becomes one of the strongest moments of the evening, drawing parallels with the first act in an almost identical setting.

Smaller parts are well rounded but the most interesting musical innovation comes with the chorus. There is, of course, no chorus in Shakespeare. Verdi had to interpolate choruses into his settings and Wigglesworth does the same. They are very effective, particularly the protest for Hermione, which has no place in the original but here reflects current political unease very succinctly.

Rory Kinnear’s production is masterly in its understatement and naturalism. Even in moments of high tension he manages to maintain a convincing sense of normality taken to the edge. He brings all his experience of working in the theatre to ensure that even the most unlikely events convince and that emotions are always credible. It is a remarkable debut and he will surely be asked again – and soon!

ENO: The Pirates of Penzance

London Coliseum, 23 February 2017

Andrew Shore as the Major General in the Pirates of Penzance, performed by the English National Opera. 7th Feb 2017, London Coliseum, Britain.

Fifty years ago every local operatic society relied on Gilbert & Sullivan for their daily bread. Today it is difficult to find individual performances which may account for the high levels of surprise and delight in the audience enjoying this first revival of Mike Leigh’s production.

By taking the work at face value – no knowing asides or updating – the comedy actually works far better, and, sung by operatic voices, the music holds its own with ease.

The casting was different enough to make for an interesting evening even for those of us who had greatly enjoyed the original outing in 2015. David Webb has a light lyric tenor which he uses intelligently as Frederic, and his slightly reserved presence is perfectly in character. Soraya Mafi by contrast is a highly excitable Mabel but one for whom the Bellinian coloratura holds no terrors. Their duet Ah leave me not to pine was genuinely moving. Ashley Riches is a wonderful cardboard cut-out as the Pirate King, all swagger and attitude, and is surrounded by a likeable group of cut-throats.

John Tomlinson as the Sergeant of the Police in the Pirates of Penzance, performed by the English National Opera. 7th Feb 2017, London Coliseum, Britain.

To have the finest Wotan of his generation as the Sergeant of Police was a gem, and John Tomlinson did not disappoint. Totally in character, as one would expect, his nuances with the text were constantly alive and apt, and his voice, needless to say, better than one would dare to expect.

Lucy Schaufer returned as a sympathetic Ruth and Andrew Shore again relished the part of the Major General.

Gareth Jones moved things along swiftly in the pit and it was good yet again to enjoy Sullivan’s score from a full orchestra not a pit band.