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

The Loves of Mars and Venus

The Weaver Dance Company with Barefoot Opera
St Mary in the Castle, Hastings, Sunday 26 February 2017

 

John Weaver is not a familiar name even to ballet enthusiasts but he is credited with creating the first modern narrative ballet for Drury Lane Theatre, three hundred years ago, in 1717. To celebrate this event, Barefoot Opera have combined forces with The Weaver Dance Company to recreate that occasion. In the early eighteenth century ballet was little more than an additional entertainment, or a filler between more exotic theatrical presentations, but Weaver brought together the enthusiasm and style of the French with the more popular approach of English dance to tell the familiar story of Venus and Mars.

However, there is a basic problem. Weaver wrote about the project in great detail but left behind neither the music nor the choreography, which has had to be skilfully recreated. Evelyn Nallen undertook the research on the score, devising a piece based on incidental music to plays of the early Georgian period, and Gilles Poirier recreated the choreography. All of this painstaking work came to fruition at St Mary in the Castle last Sunday evening.

When we eventually got to see the piece it was charmingly done, with Romain Arreghini a magnificently elegant Mars – mirroring the images of Louis XIV in full flow – and Chiara Vinci a gently coquettish Venus.

The trio of recorder, lute and cello made a fine sound within the welcoming acoustic of St Mary’s and it was good to hear the arrangement from Handel’s Water Music at the start of the evening.

All of the above would have been excellent in itself but there was a major problem in the organisation of the evening as a whole. The Loves of Mars and Venus lasts scarcely half-an-hour. How to make it into an evening’s entertainment? Billed simply as a ballet, we were expecting just that but in the event the presentation spent far longer giving us the historical background than it did the ballet itself. Added to this, the failure to provide any adequate PA system meant that the majority of what was said for the first thirty-five minutes went unheard. Jenny Miller came to the rescue and gave us a precis of the text from the two speakers but this was not, unfortunately, the end.

Instead of the ballet starting at this point we had yet another acted introduction from John Weaver himself. In the event we had three introductions lasting almost an hour before a performance of less than half!

This was a pity, as the quality of the music and dance was not in question, and the research involved was fully justified. John Weaver deserves the credit for what he created, but he equally deserves a more professional approach than he got on this occasion.

 

 

 

Eat, Drink, Love!

Opera House, Wetherspoon, Tunbridge Wells, Sunday 19 February 2017

The annual Sunday on which Tunbridge Wells’s glorious Opera House reverts to its musical roots and sets aside its current pub incarnation is always a  festive event. All credit to Wetherspoon for facilitating it. This year Merry Opera Company’s new show is revue rather than opera. And an engaging melange of musical theatre, songs from various genres and – of course –  opera it turns out to be.

An accomplished and versatile quartet – Andrea Tweedale, Gemma Morsley, Lawrence Olsworth-Peter and Matthew Quirk – shift between genres so adeptly that it feels as if we’re moved from classical (Mozart’s Un’aura amorosa nicely sung by tenor Olsworth-Peter, to Horrible Histories at a stroke. A rousing rendering of The Roast Beef of Old England complete with mezzo-soprano Morsley, sporting a colander-crown  on her head as Elizabeth I, ends the first half. In between the extremes are numbers such as a pleasing account of Purcell’s If Music Be the Food of Love from soprano Tweedale, and bass-baritone Matthew Quirk, having fun with Ted Waite’s I’ve Never Seen a Straight Banana.

Several things strike me about this show. First, it’s interesting to hear musical theatre numbers sung without radio mics by trained opera singers. I have long contended that there is no valid distinction between musical theatre and opera. It is all simply musical drama and any differences are often very blurred. Merry Opera’s take on the material in this show cheerfully reinforces that.

Second, it’s splendid to hear such a variety. Some of it is familiar. I have sung the surprisingly difficult The Banquet Fugue from John Rutter’s The Reluctant Dragon myself and it’s a pleasure to hear it done with such slickness and panache. What a stylistic contrast though with Harry Champion’s music hall number Oh! That Gorgonzola Cheese or Quirk and Morsley being  wittily outrageous in the well known Have Some Madeira M’Dear  by Flanders and Swann, or Quirk and Olsworth-Peter in a dead-pan take on I Gave My Love a Cherry. The four of them do as well with American-style 1930s close harmony as with Baroque and Bizet’s Omelette Quartet with which the show ends is entertaining.

Third, the choreography (by Carole Todd) provides quite a lot of clever grouping and movement so that the show works reasonably well visually as well as aurally.

There is a problem, though with the linking narrative with which John Ramster, director has tried far too hard. The show is themed on three inter-related human activities and some of the dialogue and flirting amongst characters between sung numbers is excruciatingly contrived and hammy, The show would be better with much less of that and an additional sung item in each half.

Moreover, the show takes a while to get going and some of the singing is wobbly in the first fifteen minutes – or at least it was at the performance I saw. The second half is both better structured and more assured.

Generally speaking though, Eat, Drink, Love! was a very pleasant way of spending a Sunday afternoon.

Susan Elkin

 

 

Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra

Brighton Dome, 5 February 2017

THOMAS-CARROLL

Thomas Carroll, looking as if he’s about to win a snooker tournament in a snazzy red waistcoat, has a knack of bending almost double to coax intricately nuanced pianissimo playing from his players. It’s effective too. Almost all the playing in this very pleasant concert was sensitive and well balanced.

After a momentarily ragged start Mozart’s K201, with all its sophisticated simplicity, soon settled into a suitably crisp, sparkling opening allegro with the following movements in careful contrast, For both this, and the Haydn which came next, the Brighton Philharmonic was reduced to just 36 players – strings with two horns and two oboes ensuring that the mood remained light, tight and classical.

The Haydn C major concerto (rediscovered as recently as 1961) is a resolutely cheerful work and multi-talented Carroll conducting from his cello appeared to smile from the sheer joy of the music almost continually. He achieved a fine rapport with the orchestra and his cello sound was lushly mellow especially in the beautiful Adagio and the well controlled Allegro Molto finale.

And so to the concluding Mendelssohn Italian Symphony for a happy ending to a sunny concert – and a few more players and instruments added to the mix. The opening was lively and incisive with some clearly articulated string work in the busy passages which typify much of Mendelssohn’s orchestral writing. One or two wobbly moments in the third movement were soon forgotten once we reached the Saltanella and the glorious conclusion which was played with panache.

Susan Elkin

Hastings Philharmonic

St Clement’s Church, Hastings Old Town, 4 February 2017

Hastings Phil Choir

There was an unexpectedly relaxed atmosphere at the baroque concert presented by Hastings Philharmonic last Saturday in St Clement’s church in Hastings Old Town. During the radiant performance of Monteverdi’s Beatus Vir, Marcio da Silva moved around between the horseshoe of singers and the small string ensemble, seemingly drawing the music out of them. It was visually captivating, and set a tone of intimacy and expectation which continued through the evening.

The works we heard covered the whole of the baroque period from Monteverdi in the early 17th century to CPE Bach’s Symphony No5 which dates from 1773.

The Monteverdi was full of colour, its rich textures being exploited by the well balanced choral forces. The progress the choir has made over recent years was exemplified in the change of tonal impact when they came to Bach’s Jesu Meine Freude BWV227.  The rhythms here were kept light and fast moving, allowing the piece to flow naturally, even though the text is more weighty and dense. The male trio were particularly impressive before the well-argued final chorus and more formal chorale.

After a pause – which could just as well have been an interval! – the instrumental ensemble returned to play CPE Bach’s Symphony No5. Though there are many obvious connections with earlier works it is the hints of late Haydn and Beethoven in the reserved and often acerbic scoring which impress,and the edgy original instrument tonalities were particularly effective.

Handel’s Dixit Dominus brought us back to more familiar ground, with bright lines and rapid tempi. The chorus obviously enjoyed this despite the challenges, and the solo parts were finely integrated – with even Marcio providing a baritone line at one point.

In the final sections the conquassabit was hammered with splendid precision and the top sopranos were able to soar easily above the other singers.

A lovely evening – proving that Hastings Philharmonic are more than up to the challenge they have set themselves.

The next event this season is a Chamber Music Concert in Christ Church, St Leonards at 7.00pm on 18th March. Be there!

 

Tales & Traditions

Noteworthy Voices at St Simon & St Jude, East Dean, Saturday 21 January 2017

St Simon East Dean

A bitterly cold night but the warmth of the welcome at St Simon and St Jude more than made up for any concerns, and Noteworthy Voices provided us with another superbly balanced programme of a cappella music.

The first half was given over to sacred texts, many from the 16th and 17th centuries, starting with three reflective works. Thomas Mudd’s Let Thy Merciful Ears, O Lord has a quiet dignity before the richer textures of Tallis’ If Ye Love Me, and the wonderfully floated lines of Byrd’s Ave verum. The next section brought us to praise of God with Victoria’s O Quam Gloriosum which seems to pile the musical lines onto each other in a dizzying attempt to raise us to heaven. The same composer’s Jesu Dolcis was more reflective before the high tessitura of Palestrina’s Jesu Rex Admirabilis and the bouncy rhythms of Exultate Deo.  Lotti’s Crucifixus is a miracle of condensed emotion, its harmonic palette so challenging it could have been written within the last century. By contrast the recent works by Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo seemed almost easy on the ear, particularly the slow unfolding of Northern Lights.

The second half brought us to secular settings, opening with three choral songs by Brahms. The six part settings gave the choir a chance to demonstrate different tonal colours, particularly in the final melancholic Darthulas Grabegesang. Saint-Saens’ charming settings of Calme des Nuits and Les Fleurs et les Arbres led us gently towards the lighter end of the evening with folk and popular numbers.

Vaughan Williams’ arrangements of Linden Lea and Just as the tide was turning are none the less welcome for being familiar, and it was a delight to hear James Tomlinson as the bass soloist in The Turtle Dove. He will be missed when he leaves to take us a choral scholarship and we wish him well.

A lovely gentle arrangement of O Waly, Waly led us into Over the rainbow and Tea For Two – and all too soon we were at the end.

Ansy Boothroyd introduced the programme and conducted with subtlety and skill throughout. The different approaches she takes to the end of a piece is particularly noteworthy, with some dying away to silence while other are softly rounded. It is all beautifully crafted and the choir react with exceptional musicality to her shaping of the sound.

We look forward to hearing them again soon.

 

Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra

The Dome, Brighton, 15 January 2017

A crowd pleasing programme meant that the Dome was as full as I’ve ever seen it for a BPO concert. And despite the chilly wet January weather outside there was a very upbeat sense of “Now sits expectation in the air”. The concert which followed met that expectation with aplomb.

First came the operatic colour of the Overture to the Barber of Seville played with lush full tone and plenty of breathless excitement, especially in the syncopated passages, and in all those wonderful woodwind solos with a particularly noteworthy bassoon contribution.

Joseph Moog

I suppose Grieg’s piano concerto is second only to Tchaikovsky 1 and Rachmaninov 2 in popularity – and deservedly so. Joseph Moog is an engaging player to watch despite his sitting so far forward on his stool that he appeared to be in serious danger of sliding off the front and disappearing under the piano. The performance really came into its own during the adagio in which the orchestra achieved a gloriously sweet, immaculately fluid sound, before the magical moment when the piano creeps in. It was played with the sort of imaginative restraint that even some of the world’s top orchestras fail to bring off. Moog and Ben Gernon interpreted the movement as much more of a musical dialogue than as a showpiece for accompanied piano. There was thoughtful, wistful work in the allegro too before the dive into the showy, virtuosic conclusion.

Dvorak 8 is possibly my favourite symphony. I’ve played the second violin part several times in amateur performances and I’ve heard it done professionally dozens (and dozens) of times. The secret of making this delightful music shine lies in managing the contrasts – the soft lyrical passages, the irrepressible dance motifs, the brass fanfares and all the rest of it. Ben Gernon, baton-less and quietly charismatic, was on top of the symphony’s every mood. He found the work’s warmth, passion,fun and made it satisfyingly coherent – even down to resisting the temptation to exaggerate the rall just before the end as so many self-indulgent conductors do. Particular high spots included the tripping, trickling joyfulness in the second movement at the introduction of the second subject, the waltzing vibrancy of the adagio and the beautifully nuanced – so Bohemian! – rhythms of the minor key section in the last movement – and congratulations to principal flute, Margaret Campbell. There’s a great deal of exposed flute solo in this symphony and Ms Campbell ensured that we heard and enjoyed every note of it.

Susan Elkin

 

 

A Nossa Bossa

Hastings Philharmonic, The Tabernacle, Saturday 13 January 2017

Bossa

Who would have thought that four musicians could so easily transform the lower hall at Hastings Tabernacle into a South American nightclub? The large, closely packed audience, the low lighting, and the magnificent music at such close quarters, was all it took to provide one of the finest musical experiences we have had for many years.

This was the most recent in the new series of events launched last year to embrace within Hastings Philharmonic an impressively wide range of music. Following the Christmas Concert – and before the baroque concert in St Clements on 4th February – we had an evening given over to Bossa Nova.

Marcio da Silva, who both sang and played guitar, was joined by Ariel Gragnani on guitar, Elena Marigomez on Bass and Emmanuel McDonald on percussion.

Ariel Gragnani

The first half was rather more traditional in terms of recital music but focused entirely on Latin America for its source. Aril Gragnani gave us three solo guitar pieces by Villa-Lobos which included the Scottish Choro. All three were in rondo form, returning us each time to the evocative melody which tends to linger long after the piece has finished. Marcio then sang Manuel de Falla’s Siete canciones populares. Though the songs come from many different parts of Spain they have a linking sense of angst or lament, even when the accompaniment is lighter in texture. Throughout Ariel Gragnani’s playing had been absolutely perfect for the acoustic of the venue.

After the interval they were joined by Elena Marigomez on Bass and Emmanuel McDonald on percussion for a selection of Bossa Nova and Samba numbers. These included well done songs by Tom Jobin – Desafinado, Meditação & Wave – and Zequinha de Abreu’s Tico tico no fubá.

The evening ended with Garota de Ipanema by Tom Jobim, more familiar to us as The Girl from Ipanema. We were encouraged to pick up the rhythm and sing along gently with Marcio. A splendid end to a wonderful evening. If all the other concerts in the series are as musically secure and well attended as this, the venture cannot, surely, fail.