First Night of the Proms – 28 August 2020

It has been a very strange year for the BBC Proms. Normally the First Night is in mid July, yet here we were, celebrating the first live First Night on Friday 28 August. To say it was a stunning success  would be an understatement.

The musicians made the most of social distancing to give a clarity and precision to their music-making which is rare in the RAH. It may be somewhat unacceptable to say so but the greatest benefit by far was the lack of a live audience. No shuffling, coughing, chewing, whispering, clapping the wrong place, and no background ambience. This may be ok when you are listening from home and like the sense of the audience, but hearing works from Sleep to the Eroica, without any hint of interruption was a revelation.

 

The first night nearly always includes a new commission, and this year it was Tuxedo: Vasco ‘de’ Gama by Hannah Kendall. I always try to approach these new works with an open mind but I have to admit it closes down very quickly. Lots of percussion, bird whistles, even a tiny musical box but little sense of substance.

What a difference as we moved to Sleep by Eric Whitacre. The BBC Singers were more than just socially distanced. They were spread out across the stalls and the ensuing harmonies were intoxicating. Again the lack of an audience was an essential part of this as tiny nuances, absolute clarity and perfect balance was compelling throughout. A wonderful work we must hear again.

Copland’s Quiet City  is more familiar but again the crisp textures shone through.

The final and major work for the evening was Beethoven’s Symphony No3 The Eroica. No hint of any problem keeping the orchestra together given the vast area they were spread across, and Sakari Oramo’s obvious delight in the results he was getting.

A wonderful evening. I just wonder how we might reach a compromise between small well behaved audiences and none at all!

Global Conversations at the Opus Theatre – Part 1

How are professional musicians across the world coping with the lock-down? Brian Hick sat in on the conversation arranged by Opus Theatre with five eminent international music-makers. 

Polo Piatti, Opus Theatre Founder & Director, and concert pianist and Opus Patron Oliver Poole brought together a small group of international musicians online last Saturday to share thoughts on the present situation and look towards the future not just locally but internationally. Joining them were Soprano Carly Paoli, EMMA For Peace founder Paolo Petrocelli, and conductor & impresario Gianluca Marciano.

Oliver gave a relaxed introduction. In a ‘live’ setting we would be seated in the audience with the speakers on the platform, but for those of us used to close ups on zoom this was almost identical. The five speakers were as intimate with us as our own families. What is more the meeting allowed immediate feedback from the viewers via text link.

The first point raised for Polo was the problem of physical distancing in current concert halls and theatres. It is very difficult as the Opus is a listed building and we can’t remove the pews. If we tried to seat an audience socially distanced it would never be cost effective, and we could not run a bar or provide adequate toilets. Even the Composers Festival for 2021 is now in doubt as musicians need to work and make a living if they are to come to the Festival paying essentially for themselves. We have to consider – do we delay the Festival even more or do we restrict it to composers and musicians who live locally and could therefore travel easily and without great expense? We, as musicians, are Key Workers of the Soul yet there is no world-wide organisation to support the arts.

Carly was asked about her experience as a singer working in lock-down. I have had to learn how to express myself with a very different sense of contact with the audience. Though there are many problems –getting the immediate response from the audience is a joy. Hitting the right note at the end of an aria, only to be met with silence, even though you know there are many people listening to you, is very uncomfortable. Thankfully I do get very positive feedback but it is never the same. Oliver wondered if we should support specific. Yes there are some ways we can genuinely involve ourselves. Recently I was asked to work at St Luke’s in Liverpool with a group of musicians and WWII veterans – all in PPE . This was a potential way forward for small encounters. The present situation has given music a voice to a much wider audience even if it is not under the conditions we would most desire. We need to bring joy. I have worked with ‘When you wish upon a star’ since I was sixteen. It is a children’s charity established to provide special times for children who have serious medical and mental needs. I was delighted when Everton Football Club became involved in this. I’d never been a great football fan previously but it was a wonderful experience. As the event came to a close, Oliver invited Carly to sing for us, so she gave us an a cappella rendition of Somewhere over the Rainbow.

Global Conversations at the Opus Theatre – Part 2

Two eminent international musicians were part of the webinar at the Opus Theatre which Brian Hick sat in on. 

Composer, Polo Piatti, and concert pianist, Oliver Poole, were able to draw on their international connections to invite international innovators to the Opus webinar..

Paolo Petrocelli – cultural advisor to Cold Play and founder of EMMA for Peace – was asked about his experience in Italy. Here, at the start of the pandemic, everything changed within a week. Rome Opera had never closed – not even during the war. In Italy, the arts are subsidised but ticket sales are still very important, so we have to reinvent how we stage events. Because of the long weeks of fine weather we could make more use of our larger outside venues. This way we could accommodate an audience more easily. This would provide musicians with a live rapport. The one caveat is of course that we don’t know what is going to happen in the future and we mustn’t push so hard that we make mistakes now which a little time would help clarify. We have to look at quality before quantity.

Oliver asked Paolo about the connections of Music to Diplomacy. I work with EMMA for Peace which aims to promote music as a tool for diplomacy through collaborations with international institutional partners such as the UN organizations and the World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates. EMMA is also active in individual partner countries with the support of national institutions, as well as organizing concerts at major venues and festivals throughout the region. We aim to bring together musicians from all social and cultural backgrounds, recognising that music is itself an international language. Musicians have a role within communities worldwide, not just as entertainers but as spiritual inspirers and leaders.

Conductor & impresario Gianluca Marciano was three weeks into a five week festival in Lebanon when the lock-down hit. Everything simply stopped. Within a day all my future contracts were cancelled and there was no live music at all. The problem is that recorded music is never the same experience as a live event. We must not assume that technology is the answer. It isn’t! At the Lerici Music Festival in Italy, which I run, there is the possibility of open air performances but more importantly we need to draw on local musicians in smaller numbers to contain any on-going risks. This could be true for England, though of course here the weather is always a problem. However, a difficulty will arise when we come to the start of the autumn season where our larger houses, because of the close proximity of seats and crush in the bars and public areas, are not suited to physical distancing. It is very difficult to motivate a singer to work in a large building which is 3/4s empty. And what if the sound quality is poor? Given that, and the lack of atmosphere / ambience, the experience can never be the same. We must never forget that music is a profession not a hobby for vast numbers of professionals across the world. Art is not a luxury. We need to be resilient and deal with the situation. Creative artists need to be optimistic and active in the world, not expecting the world to provide the answers for us.

Garsington Opera – Skating Rink

I was due to review the premiere of David Sawer’s opera at Garsington in 2018 but a major accident on the motorway meant I was stuck for four hours and so did not make it; all the more enjoyable then to be able to catch up with it via YouTube during the lockdown.

Rory Mullarkey’s libretto is based on the novel by Roberto Bolano but uses a different narrator in each of the three acts to move the narrative forward. This helps to speed up the story line but also gives us a different emotional insight into the characters. At a basic level the tale is quite slim. A potential Olympic figure-skater has lost her grant and has nowhere to practise. A local government official manages some slight-of-hand with local finances to pay for an underground skating rink so that she can practise. Alongside these events, a night-watchman, Gaspar, is trying to protect two travellers whom the mayor wishes to eject from a campsite. The various characters interweave with each other, and it is only in the final bars that it is revealed that another traveller, the alcoholic Rookie, is responsible for the murder of Carmen in the ice-rink.

The three male protagonists lead each act, though the principal characters emerge only slowly. The first act focusses on the young Gaspar, sensitively sung by Sam Furness, and his relationship with two female travellers, Carmen and Caridad. His love for Caridad quickly becomes clear though he is more concerned with her welfare and the town’s desire to get rid of her. The older traveller, Carmen, is strongly played by Susan Bickley who quickly establishes the complexity of the character and her ever-changing relationship with the world around her. Claire Wild’s Caridad is a damaged personality, especially moving when she finds Carmen’s body on the ice.

The businessman Remo, sung by Ben Edquist, is a smooth operator but in the long-run he is the one character who really loses out. His fling with skater Nuria does not last and he is left sad and somewhat isolated at the end. Even as narrator of the second act he seems to be a loner.

Enric, the civil servant who fiddles the books to run the ice rink, is a fine creation from Neal Davies. His emotional turmoil is beautifully crafted and it seems fitting that, by the end, Lauren Zolezzi’s skater Nuria has abandoned Remo for the older but far more reliable Enric.

The dark horse throughout is Alan Oke’s wonderful Rookie. Besotted by Carmen, but most of the time too drunk to be in control of himself, he eventually owns up to her murder simply because he could not have her.

There is a small chorus, who are clearly individualised, and a splendid pairing for Nuria with the real figure skater, Alice Poggio. Stewart Laing’s direction is crystal clear and his setting – including the ice-rink which is fully functional yet safe for ordinary walking – made up of packing cases and plastic furniture, is absolutely right for the sense of constant transition which underlies the life of all the characters.

David Sawer’s score is not afraid to write extended arioso passages for the main characters, all of which work extremely well and there is a natural flow to the whole work. Garsington Opera have a real success here. I would very much like to encounter this again – hopefully live next time.

Hastings International Piano – An Evening With . . .

Fanya Lin, from Taiwan, was a prize-winner in the 2018 Hastings International Piano Concerto Competition, and was giving her recital from Arizona where she teaches when not performing on the concert platform.


After a brief introduction she launched straight into her programme without any comment on the works themselves. She opened with the first movement of Schumann’s Fantasie Op17. Written in 1836 it is regarded as one of the composer’s most demanding and complex works, the opening movement showing numerous changes of mood and an evolving structure which requires close attention from both listener and performer.  Given the complexity of the score, some introduction to it might have helped our ability to follow it.

The only other work was an unexpected rarity – Lowell Liebermann’s Gargoyles Op. 29. Though the immediate impression is of a romantic suite in four movements, it was actually written in 1989, commissioned by the Tcherepnin Society of New York. Highly technically demanding throughout, the extrovert quirkiness of the writing creates a mood of unease, even when the melodic lines are clear. The opening movement is fluid and demanding, leading to a haunting, if uncomfortable, slow movement. The undulating nocturnal third movement leads to the exhilarating gallop of the finale which requires both stamina and strength from the performer.

Though recorded in a studio, there was a problem for much of the recording with a time delay which meant that Fanya Lin appeared to be playing the notes after we actually heard them. Looking away from the screen helped, but it was a pity to have to do this as her playing was visually impressive.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Michelle Candotti in recital

The eighth recital from HIP was given by Michelle Candotti who was a prize-winner in the 2013 Hastings International Piano Concerto Competition, writes Brian Hick. Dressed in black, she sat at her piano distanced from the camera, almost silhouetted within a pure white studio. It was a very striking image and worked perfectly for her chosen programme.

She opened with Liszt’s Paraphrase on Ernani which draws on music Verdi used in Act 3 of his opera. Liszt sticks closly to the original melodic lines here, so that the source is more obvious than in some other paraphrases, and the lyrical underpinning shines through easily below the florid runs.

She followed this with J S Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in G minor, BWV 885, from volume 2 of the Well-Tempered Clavier. We have heard surprisingly little from the pre-classical repertoire in this series so it was very good to hear this fine piece of Bach sandwiched between two more romantic works. Her playing was starkly abstract, almost unemotional in its impact,  with a fine sense of clarity and balance throughout.

She concluded with Chopin’s Etude Op10 No8 in F major. Nicknamed the Sunshine it is full of life and wonderfully fanciful running arpeggios. The melody is somewhat buried in the left hand but she managed to balance the whole so well that we never lost the sense of where the music was going. It is a remarkably short work and certainly left us wanting more.

 

Alexander Yau – HIPF on line

Last Friday, the weekly concert from HIPF during this lock-down period was given by the 2019 Hastings International Piano Concerto Competition Prizewinner, Alexander Yau.

On of the fascinating aspects of this series has been the range of venues from which the young players are performing. On this occasion Alexander Yau was in his music room in Sydney, having got back home from the Julliard School in New York just before the lock-down came into effect. On this occasion the sense of intimacy was overwhelming, as we were standing right by the piano and – had he been playing from the score – we could have turned over for him.

This closeness has its slight discomforts as every little additional sound, from his finger-tips on the keyboard in longer runs to the squeak of a pedal, is magnified far more than it would be in a concert hall or larger studio. However this is inconsequential compared with the sense of involvement it gives us with the music-making.

He opened with Liszt’s arrangement of Schubert’s Der Muller und der Bach. This was reflectively romantic, heightened by Liszt’s warmth, but never straying too far from Schubert’s original song. Liszt came into his own with the Concert Etude No2 La Leggierezza though even here the opening is reserved, with the occasional florid touch, before building in excitement and pace, before returning to a quiet, almost sombre, conclusion.

If these two works may have been less familiar, the concluding Barcarolle in F sharp major Op.60 by Chopin brought us on to headily romantic ground and an extended moment of wallowing indulgence. Alexander Yau phrased this with passion and intense involvement without ever lapsing into sentimentality, leaving us wanting more. Let us hope we are able to hear him again soon live, not in his music room.

Fumiya Koido in concert with Hastings International Piano

It is good to know we have access to live music as well as the many excellent recordings being streamed via YouTube. The most recent of these from Hastings International Piano Festival, which I caught up with on Saturday morning, was given by Fumiya Koido, winner of the 2019 Piano Concerto Competition.

Though the recital runs for only just over quarter of an hour, it seems to reflect the passing of a whole day.

He opens with Chopin’s Etude Op10 No11, its light, delicate, uplifting beauty ideally suited to the start of the day – particularly when the news seems to be increasingly bleak. This was followed by the first movement of Haydn’s Sonata No33 in C minor. We are certainly into the afternoon here – and a Spring afternoon at that, with the constant subtle changes of mood and texture. If at times it seems introspective, the moments soon pass and the optimism returns. The final item was the first movement of Scriabin’s Sonata No3 Op23, which, with its fiery dynamic, is certainly a work for the late evening, possibly with a large glass of claret.

The mood changes are more extrovert and demanding, and Fuyima Koido brings a real passion to his playing, which communicates well despite the fact that he is isolated in a rather large studio.

Earlier in the series we had heard Roman Kosyakov playing Haydn and Tchaikovsky, and Su Yeon Kim bringing us a Chopin Nocturne and Ballade.  Keep up to date with all the events on www.hastingsinternationalpiano.org.

HIPF: Pasadena Roof Orchestra with the Puppini Sisters

St Mary in the Castle, Saturday 7 March, 2020

What a wonderful way to end two weeks of magnificent music-making. The Pasadena Roof Orchestra and Puppini Sisters turned Saturday night into an end of season party for all of us, greatly helped by the gradually increasing numbers of dancers who made excellent use of the space available.

 

If Managing Director Ian Roberts needed any vindication of the undeniable risks involved in launching any new venture, this was it. A full house, at the end of a series of wide ranging events, which had encouraged a large number of generous donations enabling the HIPF to support educational work with young musicians in the area and provide over 1000 free tickets for under 18s. This alone makes the festival worthwhile, and when the quality of performances is added into the mix we are doubly blessed.

The Pasadena Roof Orchestra (PRO) opened with a breezy reading of High Society which included a number of solo breaks which were to become a feature of the evening. The Puppini Sisters, dressed alarming like Carmen Miranda, then joined the orchestra for their first set, opening with Sing, sing sing.  If Boogie, Woogie Bugle Boy was to be expected, their use of more modern favourites, in highly effective 1940s arrangements was not, and proved to be all the more captivating. Dolly Parton’s Working 9 to 5 sounded as if it had been written for the Land Army! They ended this set with Jealousy announcing it was a tango and bringing dancers onto the floor again. Throughout the evening we were increasingly entertained with fine examples of Lindy Hop, Balboa, Swing Jive and Shag.

PRO’s lead singer Duncan Galloway then introduced Jubilee Stomp before he crooned What more can I ask. His range of styles enabled him to move smoothly on to I’ll be glad when you’re dead, you rascal you, but his finest moment came with Bing Crosby’s classic Don’t fence me in with the Puppini’s standing in admirably for the Andrews Sisters. To move on immediately to I will survive – again in 1940s style – was unexpected and stunningly impressive.

After the interval the dancers were able to enjoy Anything Goes before we heard an Italian number from the Puppini’s and a foxtrot which was a mashup of Lady Gaga and Billie Holiday. I put a spell on you and Putting on the Ritz brought us once again to Duncan Galloway with Zing went the strings of my heart and a very up-tempo version of Old man river. The Sisters final set opened with I want to dance with somebody and then exploded with a salsa version of Dancing Queen!

The last number was supposed to be Mack the Knife, when the dance floor heaved with excitement, but encores were of course wildly encouraged and we ended the evening where we had begun, back in the 1940s with an improvised rendition of In the Mood. We were – and could have gone on for much longer.  Let’s hope the festival becomes a fixity for many years to come.

 

Hastings International Piano Festival: An evening of Jazz

St Mary in the Castle, Thursday 5 March 2020

The newly launched festival aims to cover all aspects of the piano and so brought a jazz evening to St Mary’s, led by acclaimed international jazz vocalist Claire Martin. She was joined by her regular partners Martin Sjöstedt, piano, Niklas Fernqvist, double bass, and Daniel Fredriksson, percussion and special guests Alex Garnett and Liane Carroll.

If the piano was not quite at the heart of the evening then it certainly played a respectable part with some fine breaks from Martin Sjöstedt in the first half and the more familiar presence of Liane Carroll in the second.

Claire Martin has an eclectic style, drawing on numbers by Tony Bennett, Lena Horne and Ella Fitzgerald as well as more recent songs. She also ranges vocally from clearly articulated items like the laid-back approach to A rainy night in Tokyo or the scat vocals of Believe in it. It was a pity that she seemed to assume her audience would be familiar with much of her music as her introductions did not carry well within the acoustic at St Mary’s so we missed much of what passed between the items.

Saxophonist Alex Garnett is a recent visitor to Hastings, bringing an evening of Ronnie Scott’s Jazz to the White Rock, but here he played duets with Claire as well as adding a number of scintillating breaks alongside the trio.

In the second half Claire was joined by Lianne Carroll who is well known to us for her many years of enthusiastic music-making in Hastings. She has collaborated with Claire Martin in he past and this shone through as the evening progressed.