Opera South East: The Magic Flute

White Rock Theatre, Hastings, Saturday 8th April 2017

The Magic Flute is a disarmingly complex work. A fairy-story with wicked queens, pure princesses and evil Moors is under-pinned by a rationalist attack on superstition which is itself uncomfortably allied to misogyny and racism. That Fraser Grant chose to highlight the fantastic elements made sense, even if it skated over the deeper moments rather too easily. His production is set in a school, where the students are surrounded by gigantic alphabet blocks. It is a well-focused approach, and his use of immaculately drilled school children to move the blocks around is very impressive.

Characterisation is kept simplistic, allowing the narrative to unfold without asking too many difficult questions. In this James Williams’ gentle bird catcher is particularly effective and his final duet with an equally appealing Papagena from Marina Ivanova, is one of the highlights of the evening.

Mark Bonney’ school boy Tamino sings the arias with aplomb but never quite convinces us he is the hero of the piece. Thankfully his future is obviously in safe hands given the forthright and beautifully sung Pamina from Lucy Ashton who will guide him in future – just one of the ironies when the work is so strongly anti-feminist.

Fae Evelyn has the coloratura for the Queen of the Night but is given little to do other than sweep on and off majestically. Jeremy Vinogradov’s incisive Monostatos is turned into a black rat which works well for much of the time even if it waters down the real sense of menace.

The most challenging change in presentation is that of Sarastro who is presented as a mad scientist. That he is a scientist fits with the Enlightenment approach to reason, but that he is verging on the insane seems to tip him over into the other camp. Toby Sims sings with conviction but it was difficult to fit the noble outpourings to O Isis und Osiris within a Rocky Horror laboratory.

The orchestra provided well balanced accompaniment throughout with some fine individual solo playing. Kenneth Roberts kept tempi brisk and light, in keeping with the production itself.

It was very pleasing to see the White Rock comfortably full, though we are all too aware that no opera performance today can rely solely on its income from the audience, which makes the roll of benefactors all the more important.

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.

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