Hastings Philharmonic

St Mary in the Castle, Saturday 14 April 2018

Was this the largest audience for a Hastings Philharmonic event, even allowing for the Christmas concerts? It certainly felt like it and the ovation which greeted the end of the Tchaikovsky was whole-hearted and certainly deserved.

The first half was given over to Elgar’s Cello Concerto with Richard Lester an intense and moving soloist. Without excessive rubato or dwelling on the potential melancholy of some of the writing he created a narrative which was holistically pleasing. Yes there is a melancholy which comes close to depression in the opening movement, and the work often returns to the potential bleakness of life, but at the same time there is much that reflects the opposite mood. The final movement had a jaunty air to it, reflecting on Falstaff rather than Gerontius, so that the whole was uplifting and life-affirming rather than the sentimental wallow which can too easily slip into place.

As is often the case at St Mary’s, the soloist was almost uncomfortably close to the front row and there was a sense of intimacy throughout which larger venues simply cannot reproduce.

If the Elgar had eschewed the overtly emotional, Tchaikovskly’s Fifth Symphony had it in bucketfuls. After a slow sombre opening – and tempi throughout tended to be on the slow side – the brass let rip and it was obvious we were in for a thrilling ride. The long horn solo at the start of the reflective second movement was beautifully crafted by Anna Drysdale, and Marcio da Silva’s control of the opening dynamics made the brass intervention all the more dangerous. The third movement seemed almost out of place within this world of romantic sentiment and brash aggression, but gave way to a finely paced finale, which opened with near-Sibelius like mystery before we tumbled helter-skelter into the closing onslaught.

The young players who make up Hastings Philharmonic Orchestra are proving to be among the most exciting ensembles to be heard anywhere. For how long Marcio da Silva can keep them together before they are snapped up by other national and inter-national orchestras is anybody’s guess. For the moment let us be grateful we have them here and look forward to the Verdi Requiem at the White Rock on 5th May – which deserves to sell out, so get your tickets quickly!

 

Nicholas McCarthy at Opus Theatre

Opus Theatre, Hastings, 13 April 2018

When Polo Piatti launched Opus Theatre not many could have imagined that we would have a series of concerts by some of the finest young pianists in the world today. Thanks to the acquisition of the Opus Phoenix grand piano and sterling support both from Phoenix and other philanthropists, to say nothing of the willingness of professional pianists to perform in smaller venues to smaller audiences, Nicholas McCarthy gave the first recital of the new season – setting an exemplary standard for the series as well as instant rapport with his audience.

This would normally be more than enough to excite an audience but when one realises that he has no right arm and that all the works we heard were given with left hand only, the outcome is extraordinary.

In very relaxed fashion he led us through the world of piano compositions for left hand – ranging from Brahms’ amazing arrangement for Clara Schumann of Bach’s Chaconne in D to the lovely anecdote of Fumagalli’s left hand only arrangements as he preferred to use his right to hold his cigar!

The range of works tended towards the romantic, with richly effective compositions by Richard Strauss, Felix Blumenfeld and Scriabin, but included Bach. The suites for solo cello are easily adapted for left hand, and the Prelude from the first cello suite was particularly effective and beautifully phrased. There was also a new commission from Nigel Hess – a delightful and deeply atmospheric Nocture.

Nicholas McCarthy had opened the concert with an arrangement of Rachmaninoff’s Springwaters and ended with his own adaptation of the same composer’s familiar Prelude in G minor. Looking at the original score it should not be possible to reproduce the composer’s torrent of notes with one hand but this is exactly what Nicholas McCarthy does,  and what’s more makes it seem so easy. Such is the professionalism of the finest artists.

Anton Lyakhovsky will perform tonight, Saturday 14 April, and next week end brings Sunny Li and Oliver Poole. All details on the Opus Theatre website www.opustheatre.co.uk

Divertimento

St Mary in the Castle, Thursday 5 April 2018

A very large audience was present at St Mary in the Castle for a short but nonetheless most unusual evening. Divertimento for Rope and Strings brought together violinist, cellist and two corde lisse specialists. While the musicians played, Carol Dawson and Joe Keeley climbed, swung and deftly wrapped themselves in the ropes suspended from a large frame which had been erected within the central space of the building. So unusual was the enterprise that it was often difficult to know quite what to focus on or how to take it.

The music chosen for the two soloists was equally demanding. Brief works by Kodaly, Bartok and Ravel would have been unfamiliar to most and not the easiest of works to take in on a first hearing. This is in no way to denigrate the quality of the musicianship from violinist Phillip Granell or cellist Midori Jeager, just that it was often disconcerting to pin-point the focus of attention.

Odd moments of humour also seemed to upset the balance – was this a light-hearted event or was the humour a deliberate choice to prick the potential to take the event more seriously than was intended?

There were moments of great beauty when suddenly movement in the air above reflected the music below, but these were rare compared with longer stretches which seemed baffling – the creation of a living musical stave at the rear of the area never quite made any real connection with the music being played.

The event had been staged free of charge by MSL Projects and Gisele Edwards in collaboration with Whirligig Arts, with a discussion session at the end to consider not only audience response to the piece but to the potential future of similar events. Where cultural events locally are expanding so rapidly, this was an exciting and positive venture, even if it did not necessarily prove to be more than a step in the right direction.

Host turns into guitarist

Tim Chick transmogrified from hosting interviewer to musical performer during the latest of Worthing’s International Interview Concerts. He pulled on a jersey, picked up an electric guitar and walked on stage to plug in and play with the two guest classical maestros in front of a full-house audience at St Paul’s on Easter Sunday.

Together they played a short piece he devised himself with violinist Kamila Bydlowska and pianist Varvara Tarasova, improvising along with him.

Chick is taking guitar lessons and was playing in public for the first time. After his and the audience’s final questions, Bydlowska, from Poland, and Tarasova, from Russia, played a Brahms scherzo encore but then came this stunt – the last of several unnamed surprises promised to the audience in the billing.

His purpose, said Chick, was to impress that whatever the instruments used or the material made up on the spot, it is all music, free of outside-imposed categorisation.

The exuberant Bydlowska’s irrepressibly energetic personality and almost carefree versatility fuelled an extraordinary concert that filled almost every seat. Tarasova, celebrated in Sussex after she won its own International Piano Competition in 2015, played an unexpectedly full role in what was a new partnership intuitively brokered by Chick.

Entitled ‘The violin will take you’, the International Interview Concert astonished and entertained with its holiday-escape flavour of music from three continents and its disregard for conventional classical music concert formatting and seating layout.

After a Spanish serenade from de Falla, a full-blooded German romantic sonata from Schumann, a Polish nocturne and tarantella dance from Szymanovski, and a Russian love song from Rachmaninov – another surprise added to the programme on the day – Bydlowska’s penchant for tango leapt into its own.

As well as being a fully-fledged orchestral concerto soloist, and a key member the contemporary London Electronic Orchestra, and a separate classical string trio, the effervescent Bydlowska is in a working tango quartet, La Tango Terra.

Instead of the intended Fantasy on Porgy & Bess Themes by Igor Frolov, she played solo an authentic Argentine Tango piece by the legendary Piazzolla while walking around the enthralled audience. She then pulled up a bar stool to play three semi-improvised tangos with Tarasova, plus an off-the-cuff version of the evergreen Gershwin blues-jazz song, Summertime.

The audience, which included young children listening with their parents, some colouring and drawing, stumbled on a high-spot that dramatically brightened an almost perpetually dull Easter weekend.

Report by Richard Amey, co-devisor of The Interview Concerts

Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra

The Dome Brighton, 25 March 2018

The Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra finished the season in fine festive fettle. I don’t often laugh aloud in the concert hall but there was plenty of that in the Dome for this unconventional programme.

Malcolm Arnold’s piano concerto op 104 – new to me, and I suspect, to most of the audience – doesn’t get out much because it was written for husband and wife Cyril Smith and Phyllis Sellick. Cyril Smith had lost the use of his left arm through strokes so the piece was written for three hands and two pianos – which makes it expensive and impractical for most concert promoters.  Stephen Worbey and Kevin Farrell, who work as a witty and very accomplished duo, have arranged the concerto for four hands on a single piano.

Written in 1969, it’s a very listenable piece. Both orchestra and soloists shone, especially in the middle movement which engagingly alternates schmaltz with dissonance. The last movement, for which Worbey and Farrell changed places, is very jolly with cheerful tuba vamp rather similar to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s (imitative?) Jesus Christ Superstar song for King Herod – written a year later.  Worbey and Farrell are showman musicians who warm the audience up with jokes before they start – it sits somewhere between Victor Borge and pantomime – but it’s good quality fun and their flamboyant playing is riveting. Their Sabre Dance encore – played at prestissimo and more – was a tour de force.

The concert had begun rather more conventionally with the Karelia Suite in which Barry Wordsworth allowed every section to have its moment. The busy repetitive string work in the first movement can, for instance, be hard to make lively but in this performance it did real justice to the soaring brass above it.  The warmth and suitable lushness in the two following movements, when the violins get most of the melody, was strong too.

I presume the programming of the second half was partly to create an end-of-season party atmosphere and partly to encourage people to bring children. It succeeded on both counts. It would have been good to see even more under-11s for Barry Wordsworth’s arrangement of three numbers from Act 1 of Coppelia and the Carnival of Animal, but splendid to see even twenty or so. Coppelia – like all good ballet music – is full of glorious melodies and played well, the music itself dances. Conductor and orchestra gave it their all and it was quite hard to sit still and refrain from humming along.

The concert ended with Saint-Saens’ best known piece, which – if you think about it – is another work which doesn’t get many performances in its entirety. We are very used to hearing its 14 separate sections but it’s a treat to hear all of it in one place. At the heart of it were the inimitable Worbey and Farrell who’d written hilarious Hilaire Belloc-style verses to introduce each bit – except for Pianists when Barry Wordsworth stepped forward and read a verse. Of course it was all beautifully played with accomplished solos from principal cello, principal double bass and, best of all, the xylophone. I enjoyed the off stage clarinet as the moving cuckoo too – with many of the audience looking round wondering where the sound was coming from.

The concert took place on the first day of British Summertime so I left the Dome in daylight with a real spring in my step, a head full of earworms and excitement about the next season which looks excellent – yet again.

Sussex Concert Orchestra

Christ Church, St Leonards, Sunday 25 March 2018

We know Kenneth Roberts better as a conductor than a composer but he has a large number of works to his name, many unperformed locally. It was good then to start this concert with a suite of dances drawn from his own score for the ballet Anne Garland. The story comes from Hardy’s The Trumpet Major and we heard dances for a ball, dances for a wedding and a final, reflective Epilogue. The style echoes the late romantic world of Malcolm Arnold (and even at times Malcolm Williamson!) and the dances effectively reflect the period and the events. The Epilogue by contrast avoids melancholy while highlighting the gentle pain of potential loss. There was no sense that the score did not have a place alongside the rest of the programme.

Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole is best known for its final movement and rarely heard complete. Violinist Amber Emson was fierce in the opening Allegro non troppo and elegant in the flowing Intermezzo.  Some momentary lapses in intonation from the orchestra did not distract from the overall impact.

Christ Church has a difficult acoustic for a large orchestra, the long reverberation tending to muddy the sound. Dvorak’s New World Symphony was at its best in the quieter moments, with some strong solo playing, though the brass often managed to cut through to fine effect.  The central section of the third movement, closer to Smetana than the rest of the work, flowed with an exhilarating sense of enthusiasm, and the balance was at its best in the final movement where rhythms were tighter and cleaner.

The orchestra returns to Bexhill on 3 June as part of the Bexhill Festival.

Emma Johnson at Lamberhurst Music Festival

St Mary Lamberhurst, Friday 23 March 2018

It is easy to overlook the fact that the clarinet is a recent addition to the range of musical instruments in terms of the history of music. For Mozart it was a novelty which he happily endorsed and for which he wrote many magnificent works – one of them represented here. Emma Johnson, accompanied by Gregory Drott, opened her recital with an arrangement of the final movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet – and a very fine start it made. From there we were quickly transported to the romantic period, though Saint-Saens’ Clarinet Sonata in E flat Op167 is something of an oddity. The composer had such a long life that this late work was written in 1920, though its sound world is redolent of the mid nineteenth century. The opening movement is whimsical if not actually melancholic leading to a warmer Allegro animato. The third movement is the most striking, being almost an arrangement for clarinet and piano of a composition for Cavaille-Coll organ!

By comparison Schumann’s Fantasiestuck Op73 are lighter in texture and carry the listener with ease.

The second half brought us firmly into the twentieth century with Bernstein’s early Clarinet Sonata and three brief pieces by Stravinsky. Perhaps the most pleasing piece, however, was the suite arranged from music by Paul Reade written for Emma Johnson as incidental music for the TV series The Victorian Kitchen Garden. Throughout, Emma Johnson had introduced each work and maintained a gentle intimacy with her audience, despite the need to move from one side of the central pillar to another.

The church was full, despite a miserably damp evening, on this the first event in this year’s Lamberhurst Music Festival. The next concert brings the Ferio Saxophone Quartet on Friday 25th May.

The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff

St Mary in the Castle, Thursday 22 May 2018

It was Ewan MacColl who created the Radio Ballads over half a century ago and The Young’uns evocative Ballad of Johnny Longstaff continues that fine tradition. Their close harmony – three male singers with sixteen songs, most of them specially composed for the event – and the visual impact of the historic photographs, would be enough to enthral in itself. However, this event goes one step further. Thanks to the strength of the oral history movement we have six hours of Johnny Longstaff himself, telling his own story. The Young’uns draw on this, winding their songs throughout the events and giving us a precise emotional encounter with historical events – and what events they are! Losing his job as a boy because of an industrial accident, he joined the hunger marches to London, slept rough by the Thames, joined the English Battalion in the Spanish Civil War and eventually fought in WWII.

Of course most of us have never heard of him. He was just one brave man among thousands, but his story is emblematic of the fight for workers’ rights and for the victory of democracy over fascism.

It was deeply moving and politically apt at the present time. The events spoke for themselves without any need for party political pressure.

The three singers are well balanced but also bring individual skills. Sean Cooney wrote most of the songs as well as leading the trio, Michael Hughes plays piano and guitar, David Eagle adds piano and accordion. A one-night-stand was not really enough to take in the wealth of a life lived so fully, and it would be good to think we might see The Young’uns again soon. More information available on www.theyounguns.co.uk

Hastings Philharmonic: Mozart

St Mary in the Castle, Hastings, Saturday 17 March 2018

Hastings Philharmonic have not been lucky with the weather this year but it does not seem to deter their audience who turned out in the bitter cold of Saturday evening for a Mozart concert which included one of his most pessimistic works.

The evening opened on a brighter note with the Sinfonia Concertante K364. The small forces brought a lightness to the score and a fine interplay, not only between the soloists, but also the whole ensemble. The Andante is written in a minor key which, given the weight of the symphony to come, seemed to dominate the evening. The soloists, violinist Aysen Ulucan and viola player Ladislau-Cristian Andris, brought a needed warmth in their playing and provided an admirable rapport between themselves.

Marcio da Silva is adept at introducing new music to Hastings, and the second half opened with a new composition by Philip O’Meara – Flacubal 95 – which is based on material drawn from Mozart’s late G minor symphony which we were to hear immediately afterwards. Those who know the symphony well would have been able to tick off the references, but even without that the piece works very well as a whole in its own right. It starts with a rustic rewriting of the opening theme from the first movement, instantly appealing and approachable. The hunting horns continue this rural idea as does a beautifully reflective section in the first movement. If there is a more introverted feel to the second movement one could hardly call it Brutal and the writing often seems tongue-in-cheek. The finale rushes in where lesser mortals might fear to tread with an instruction to play as fast as possible including a section which seems to reflect Bernard Herrmann rather than Mozart – and none the worse for that. After all the rush, the chaconne-like ending returns us to the gentle placidity of the opening. A fine piece and well worth repeating even without its Mozartian context.

The symphony which followed was crisp and alert to detail, the acidity of the G minor setting never far from our ears. Even the smooth legato of the slow movement had its sinister moments, as did the following Menuetto and the furious impact of the final movement.

Hastings Philharmonic returns on Saturday 14 April for Elgar and Tchaikovsky. Hopefully the weather might have improved by then!

 

Opera Anywhere: The Magic Flute

St Mary in the Castle, Hastings, Friday 16 March 2018

Mozart’s The Magic Flute is open to a wide range of interpretations and as long as it is well sung and sensitively staged it will always impress. This was certainly true of Opera Anywhere’s visit to Hastings last Friday. The opera may have been pared down and was without a chorus, but the narrative made sense throughout and many of the voices were exceptionally good.

Director Susan Moore had taken a fairy-tale approach to the work, almost a dream in the mind of Tamino, where singers move role with ease and the unexpected is simply accepted. Doubling the three ladies with the three boys was particularly effective, the Sesame Street boy puppets being delightful as well as creating distinctive personalities.

Using modern dress however can cause some problems. Where Mozart’s racism is simply avoided by making Monostatos as European as the rest of the cast, the latent anti-feminism of the text is more difficult to hide, particularly Sarastro’s oppressive not to say overbearing presence.

One way to soften this is through the characterisation of the Queen of the Night. Here Helen Winter’s fading Hollywood Diva is absolutely at one with the baroque ornamentation of her arias. She is a fish out of water and wonderfully so.

Tristan Stocks’ Tamino is a student growing into his maturity, vocally secure but not yet adult enough to be more than a prince. He is fortunate that his Pamina, Olivia Lewis, is so positive, both vocally and histrionically, despite her obvious youth, that she has the strength for both of them. The tests through fire and water were imaginatively staged, with Pamina delighting in the flames and splashing the water – a lovely touch.

Oskar McCarthy is an amiable Papageno, strong on humour without over-egging his opportunities, in contrast to Mark Horner’s stalwart Sarastro.

The surprise of the evening was Jack Roberts’ wonderfully lyrical tenor as Monostatos, doubling for various priests. He gave us some of the finest Mozart singing of the evening and it would be good to hear him as Tamino.

Accompanied throughout by Louisa Lam on piano and keyboard, and Nick Planas on flute, the additional sound effects were always apt.

Opera Anywhere return to Hastings pier in August with Pirates and Pinafore.