Coffee Concert

Kino Teatr, Sunday 21st January 2018

What better way to cheer up a dull, wet January morning that Beethoven’s Spring Sonata. Published in 1801 as Sonata No5 in F major, Op24, it has an openness and sense of light which radiates throughout, even when it allows moments of a darker reality to seep through. Violinist, Jane Gordon and pianist, Jan Rautio – familiar as members of the Rautio trio – brought real brightness and superb balance to the opening Allegro and an unexpected intensity to the following Adagio. This gave way to the bounce and attack of the lively Scherzo, marked and here played Allegro molto, before the gently flowing optimism of the final Rondo. Some of the audience had clapped after the first movement and Jane Gordon had quite rightly pointed out that this would have been perfectly acceptable in the early nineteenth century and so was equally permissible today!

An unexpected interlude was squeezed in here in the form of the Cantabile JS Bach wrote as part of a revision of his sixth violin sonata. It stands alone quite happily, forming a more formal bridge between the happy brightness of the Beethoven and the much darker world of Debussy’s Violin Sonata in G minor. Introducing this, Jan Rautio pointed out that the composer was going through a bit of a rough time – in fact he was dying – and this may account for the very dark moods that emerge and the fractured structure of the work itself. It may have the conventional three movements of a classical sonata but the content and musical ideas are far closer to the modern music which was emerging early in the twentieth century. The opening movement has many rapid changes of mood as well as texture, and the skittishness of the second movement, marked Intermède: Fantasque et léger has many moments of frantic intensity before coming to a sudden calm conclusion. If in the Finale the sun does not quite shine there are definite moments of optimism which were finely caught by both musicians as Debussy passes the point of focus between them. The only minor drawback at present is the lack of a really good piano for performers of this quality.

The Kino Teatr is a fine venue for chamber music, its close acoustic supporting the players while providing the audience with a comfortable sense of intimacy – the croissants are excellent as well!

 

 

Musicians of All Saints

St Luke’s Church, Brighton, Saturday 20th January 2018

This season has been based around less familiar works by Gustav Holst and if the third concert seemed a little tenuous, with the opening work an orchestral suite arranged from Purcell’s incidental music for The Virtuous Wife, it was nonetheless convincingly warm in its approach and frequently sounded more like Holst than Purcell! The lovely Slow Air had a melancholy feel closely related to Dido and a final Hornpipe which could comfortably have come from the same work.

By contrast, Gerald Finzi’s beautiful Eclogue was ravishingly well crafted both from the string orchestra and pianist Rachel Fryer. It is a shame that a work of this quality, presumably because of its short duration, is so rarely heard live. There is a real sense of narrative progress within it and gentle hints of Dies Natalis surface along the way. After this even Mozart’s Divertimento K137 seemed rather pedestrian no matter how succinctly structured and played here with considerable bite.

The main challenge of the evening, for all concerned, was Bela Bartock’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. In his regular introductions to these concerts, Peter Copley had stressed the need to approach the work from the heart rather than the head and not get too carried away by academic analysis, useful as this can be. In this he was certainly right for the work is an emotional tour-de-force and very demanding of its listeners. For those who don’t know the work, and it was obvious many in Brighton were hearing it for the first time, there is an austerity and fierceness to the writing which can be difficult to grasp. It has the tension we find in many of Shostakovich’s symphonies, linked to outbreaks of wildness and ecstasy which seem to come from nowhere. The second movement Allegro is edgy in its attack but dissolves into dancing, while the Adagio’s fluid opening gives way to a visionary expansiveness, like Elgar’s great bronze doors, only to cut back and be reduced to silence. All of this is caught up in the fire of the final Allegro molto.

It is a very demanding work and there were moments it seemed to almost slip away from even the best of the string players but Andrew Sherwood managed his forces with considerable skill, keeping tempi realistic and clarity always to the fore. This was a daring undertaking, well worth the effort and highly commendable in outcome – would that more ensembles took this sort of risk with challenging scores. The string orchestra were joined by Adam Bushell leading the percussion, harpist Alexander Rider and Rachel Fryer returned for the piano part.

The next concert is on Saturday 3rd March when the orchestra return to All Saints Centre in Lewes for works by Holst, Vivaldi, Mendelssohn and John Hawkins. Details at www.mas-lewes.co.uk

Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra

The Dome, Brighton, Sunday 31 December 2017

New Year’s Eve Viennese Gala Concert

A very happy new year to all and what better way to celebrate than with Brighton Philharmonic at their annual Viennese Gala. Out of a finely balanced programme of familiar favourites and welcome additions, the highlight was without any doubt the mellifluous coloratura of Rebecca Bottone. Opening with the audition song from Die Fledermaus she moved effortlessly into Schenkt man sich Rosen in Tyrol from Zeller’s Der Vogelhandler, later adding the waltz song from Edward German’s Tom Jones.

If this latter piece seemed somewhat out of place it was very much part of Barry Wordsworth’s approach to these New Year’s Eve concerts, aiming to include a range of British pieces which sit comfortably alongside the Viennese. As such Gershwin’s By Strauss could hardly fail even if Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Greensleeves was a more unusual addition.

The second half opened with Malcolm Arnold’s English Dance No8 – a raucous item guaranteed to blow the cobwebs away and Richard Rodney Bennett’s waltz for the film score of Murder on the Orient Express.

Rebecca Bottone returned to bring us a vocal setting of Strauss’ waltz Wo die Citronen blüh’n and, the vocal highlight of the afternoon, Vilja from The Merry Widow. The Brighton audience is so knowledgeable and well trained that we had no difficulty providing the hushed choral support needed for this lovely piece!

If this implies there was a dearth of actual Viennese music – far from it. We heard twelve works from the Strauss family running from the overture to Die Fledermaus to The Blue Danube, taking in along the way Voices of Spring, Auf der Jagd and my particular favourite Die Libelle – the Dragonfly Polka.

From Lehar, in addition to Vilja¸ we heard the Gold and Silver Waltz.

The Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra were on fine form with some excellent solo work from John Bardbury, providing exquisite violin solos, harpist Helen Sharp and piccolo Deborah Davis.

There was just time for the inevitable encore – Strauss’ Radetsky March­ – with audience and orchestra in perfect accord.

Barry Wordsworth announced that the orchestra, which relies on its audience for the bulk of its income, is secure for the next twelve months and dates have already been issued for the new 2018-19 season. Be there!

 

 

Hastings Philharmonic: Christmas Concert

St Mary in the Castle, Hastings, Saturday 16 December 2017

Marcio da Silva is singing O Holy Night. It must be Christmas once again. Since that time he first turned to face us and sing, the carol has become not only a fixed point in the Christmas calendar but a quintessential emblem of all that is best in Hastings at this time of year.

Hastings Philharmonic Choir goes from strength to strength, the top sopranos excelling themselves in a number of unfamiliar but very rewarding carols. Alongside the carols for audience participation we heard William Mathias’ A Babe is Born,with its tight rhythms and accuracy of diction, and the ladies only singing with great tenderness There is no Rose from Britten’s Ceremony of Carols.

There was strong dynamic range in Bob Chilcott’s The Shepherd’s Carol which segued easily into the taught harmonies of Tavener’s The Lamb.

Inspiritus Brass, who gave sterling support to the audience carols, including florid fanfares, provided the choir with a break with lively arrangements of Little Drummer Boy and Mr Sandman, returning during the second half with Jungle Bells  and Deck the Halls.

It was good to see Tom McLelland-Young in the audience to hear the choir sing his moving setting of Jesu, Son most sweet and dear, before we all indulged ourselves in the Sussex Carol.

Following our rendition of Unto us is born a Son, we arrived at O Holy Night  and the climax of the evening. Not only has Marcio not sung this better, the choir was superbly in tune with him, not just musically but emotionally. Can it get any better? Perhaps we will find out next year!

If the rhythms in Hurford’s On a sunny bank seemed a little bumpy after this the choir quickly came back into shape for Rutter’s Donkey Carol.

It was then time for the regular slot for local children, this year drawn from the choir of Christ Church Primary school, who sang two settings by John Rutter and Johnson’s Midnight.  If Marcio da Silva achieves his dream of a children’s and young people’s choir, maybe in future years we will hear Hastings Philharmonics own young singers? The children led us in Away in a Manger before we came to the final choral item, Mathias’ Sir Christemus – a lovely setting but somewhat upstaged by the return of the children to the gallery.

We went on our way with the triumphant sounds of O Come All Ye Faithful ringing in our ears.

There was a time when we would have had to wait another three months for the next event. Now we have only a month until Hastings Philharmonic present another Tango evening at St Mary’s on Saturday 13th January. Last year was a revelation. Be there!

Bexhill Choral Society

St Augustine’s Church, Bexhill, Saturday 9 December 2017

Bexhill Choral Society was in splendid voice for its traditional concert of carols and Christmas music. Despite the poor weather – and a number of potential singers having coughs and colds – a very large audience joined the choir and Cinque Ports Brass for an evening which brimmed over with good things.

Ken Roberts is a past master at arranging finely balanced programmes which are able to encompass a wide range of music without ever seeming to bump uncomfortably from one style to another. On this occasion the thing which really impressed was the quality of the unaccompanied singing. On four occasions the second verse of an item was rendered simply by the choir and in each case it was beautifully crafted, the balance excellent and the text crisp and precise. Just occasionally at other times the brass group seemed to overpower the singers but their enthusiasm did not spoil the overall effect.

The evening opened jauntily with the Gloucestershire Wassail and a rousing Joy to the World. David Willcocks’ arrangement of Lo! He comes is too slow for my taste – listen to Maddy Pryor’s rendition! – but this was quickly forgotten with the delights of the traditional Bohemian carol The Angels and Shepherds.

Nigel Howard was allowed a couple of organ solos – the D’Aquin Noel demonstrating the fine upper voices of the instrument – though he spent much of the evening commuting from organ loft to piano via the back row of the chorus! Such is the life of a professional musician.

Ken Roberts’ own Lullaby is a pleasant melody though if the brass were that loud the baby would not get to sleep. The first half concluded with John Rutter’s Jesus Child and a jazzy version of Let is snow.

Among a host of familiar carols in the second half we were also introduced to Alan Bullard’s Scots Nativity and Masters in this Hall, a French traditional carol with real bite.

The final section always draws on more commercial Christmas numbers, and Ken gave us Rockin’ around the Christmas Tree riffing on his saxophone, followed rapidly by an equally adroit Santa Claus is coming to town with clarinet obbligato!

We had joined lustily in the familiar carols and concluded with a full rendition of White Christmas. It may have been cold outside, but our hearts had been warmed by a wonderful evening.

In May Bexhill Choral Society return to the Da La Warr for Brahms’ Requiem.

Tenors Un Limited

Opus Theatre, Friday 8th December 2017

Tenors Un Limited drew a full house to Opus Theatre, no doubt aided by the inclusion of Guestling-Bradshaw CE Primary School Choir. The combination of familiar Christmas music and popular light-classical numbers proved to be a winning combination. When Volare is crooned so effortlessly to the front row it surely can’t fail.

Many of the songs were drawn from their recent album The Journey including fine versions of La Mer and Senza di Te written by Scott Ciscon – one of the Tenors Un Limited on stage.

The children’s choir sang Angels’ watching over me angelically, and were then joined by the tenors for You raise me up.

Tenors UnLimited have a strong relationship with charities and they sang their most recent single – Who is he? –  which is now top of the classical charts.

After the interval we heard Fragile, Lucia Dalla’s Caruso and Moon River, before launching into a carols for all and a rousing version of Nessun dorma. The official part of the evening was rounded off with The Twelve Days of Christmas complete with wonderfully appropriate actions from the children.

An encore was of course essential and they raised the roof with their own version of Largo al factotum.

Two minor caveats. The lighting proved confusing at times, with the often lurid coloured uplights creating strange effects on the singers faces. More importantly, in a venue with such fine acoustics why did they need amplification? It was all the more telling when one small boy in the choir sang unaided and could be heard perfectly. Opus Theatre is not the Royal Albert Hall and the voices would have carried with more beauty and impact unaided.

Who is he? Can be downloaded at www.tenorsunlimited.com

 

 

Treble Clefs

St John the Evangelist, Hollington, Thursday 7 December 2017

Treble Clefs started life as a WI Choir with just seven members – today, under their founder and conductor Keith Richardson, they number almost forty and make a remarkable impact not only musically but also in the funds raised for local charities.

On Thursday they sang at St John’s Hollington, to a comfortably full church, in aid of the roof restoration and on-going plans to develop the building, opening with Joy to the World and Starry Night. Alongside the many familiar items there was an impressive number of lesser known ones. Howard Davies The angels sang the story and Ray Steadman-Allen’s Long, long ago were delightful additions to the regular canon as was Laura Farnell’s Come to the Celebration written for a choral convention in the USA in 2015 and possibly being given its first performance here.

To add a little variety, Stephen Page gave two splendid jazz arrangements for piano and later Chestnuts roasting and Sleigh ride on the churches pipe organ, now released from its wrappings while the roof was repaired.

We were encouraged to join in with three carols plus the final enthusiastic renditions of Winter wonderland and White Christmas. It was a wonderful evening and could easily become a regular feature at St John’s.

Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra

Brighton Dome, Sunday 2 December, 2017

 

Elgar’s In the South, written in 1904 and the oldest work of the afternoon, was a resounding opener in this all twentieth century programme. Barry Wordsworth dug out plenty of nostalgic silkiness, especially in the impressively clear string sound. He exploited the big rit just before the end too, so that it rang out with real Elgarian grandiloquence.

Ravel’s piano concerto written nearly thirty years later is, of course, a complete contrast. The opening and closing movements in particular often sound like Gershwin crossed with Shostakovitch. Melvyn Tan is a most engaging performer, eyes and body turned to the conductor and orchestra all the time and his left foot beating time in the jazzier Bolero-like sections – every inch a team player. He has a way of striking the keys rhythmically thereby reminding us that the piano is actually a percussion instrument. The middle movement in 3/4 with its long song-intro from the piano and then the duets with horn and cor anglais was beautifully lyrical – as was Tan’s encore: Liszt’s Bells of Geneva. Ravel, Tan told the audience, studied Liszt intensively and would almost certainly have played this piece.

Barry Wordsworth pointed up all the mournful but tuneful melancholy in the opening section of Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony highlighting the similarities to Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony and the Russian-ness of it all. Then came the scherzo, at a nippy enough tempo to provide all the requisite fireworks and contrasts. To make this symphony work, you really need to milk Rachmaninov’s beautiful melodies for all they’re worth and that’s just what the conductor did in the last two movements. The finale, for instance, has a lot of lush string work but in this performance it was enjoyably joyful rather than heavy – serious music with a spring in its step.

Congratulations to BPO’s cor anglais player who worked very hard in this concert both in the Ravel and the Rachmaninov. She provided some especially attractive solos.

Susan Elkin

 

 

 

Maidstone Symphony Orchestra

Mote Hall, Maidstone, 2 December 2017

The Flying Dutchman overture – always a good warm up piece for both audience and orchestra – got us off to a strong start with its energetic opening. Brian Wright ensured that we enjoyed all that Wagnerian brass and busy string work and the slight roughness in the more exposed section didn’t matter much.

Then it was on to Strauss’s sparky, melodious 1946 Oboe Concerto. There’s an elfin quality about Olivier Stankiewicz, a Frenchman, both in his playing and his appearance. The mature Strauss understood exactly how to exploit the instrument whose small reed allows for few breaths and long phrases and Stankiewicz gave us a lot of lyricism and seamless creamy sound especially in the beautiful Andante. Brian Wright is, as ever, very good at supporting soloists and here he achieved an elegant balance between orchestra and oboe.

Ralph Vaughan Williams’s vibrant Second Symphony is an aural portrait of London hailing from just before the First World War. It’s a work of many moods and modes, requiring large forces and it’s good to see a battery of young percussionists playing, among many other things, several sorts of cymbal. By now the orchestra was totally in its stride and the precision of the muted strings beneath the horn and trumpet in the ethereal minor key melody in the Lento was a delight. So was the resolute string sound in the Nocturne. And the control in the very evocative epilogue, as everything dies away to silence at the end, was a great credit to the conductor.

Two other players deserve a special mention. Ben Knowles, principal viola, had a lot to do. Vaughan Williams loved the viola and gives it solo spots in his second symphony as well as leading more than once with the viola section. There’s a nice viola passage in the Strauss too. And it all came off with aplomb in this concert. Knowles well deserved the special front-of-stage acknowledgement Brian Wright gave him at the end. Second, full marks to the harpist, Jane Lister, who substituted at the eleventh hour for a player who had mistaken the date. She raced in with her harp five minutes before the concert was due to start and went on to do a grand job.

This was a charity concert attended by High Sheriff of Kent, George Jessel DL, in his ceremonial velvet and frills. It supported the High Sheriff’s charity the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution, which, he told the audience before the concert, looks after farmers and farming families who have fallen on hard times.

Susan Elkin

Hastings Philharmonic: Stabat Mater

Christ Church, St Leonards, Saturday 2 December 2017

Marcio da Silva is not one to avoid taking a risk. At a time of year when most are settled into comfortable Christmas music with mulled wine and mince pies he chose to present an evening made up of two settings of the Stabat Mater. No matter how beautiful, and they certainly are, to have serious music for Easter at this time of year was a challenge – but one which certainly paid off. The often austere musical lines and the close setting of the texts, make demands on the listener which are then repaid with the levels of concentration and attention to detail.

The first half was given over to Scarlatti’s version of 1723. In many ways a straightforward setting of the poem, it treats each verse as a separate musical item, concentrating on the emotional impact of the text. Only by the time he gets to the 13th of the 20 sections does he start to combine them and uses the 16th and 17th verses as recitative before the confident enthusiasm of Inflammatus et accensus.

Pergolesi’s more familiar setting seems not only more emotionally involved but also sets larger sections of the work to create extended musical structures, particularly in the second part of the poem where the singers often work together rather than as individual voices.

We are used to Marcia da Silva as a fine baritone but here he was singing counter-tenor for the first time. While this is obviously not his normal range, and there were times when the sound was not as precise as we have come to expect, the intensity and dramatic edge were impressive throughout.

Soprano Emily Armour was given more lyrical settings, with occasional coloratura passages to delight the ear, her voice amply filling the large spaces of Christ Church.

Petra Hajduchova moved effortlessly from keyboard to harpsichord, producing apt support for the voices, along with the two violins and cello.

Two weeks until Hastings Philharmonic’s traditional Christmas Concert, and the new-year will bring us a Tango Night and Schubert’s Winterreise.