Coffee Concert;  Stephen Page at St Peter’s, Bexhill

Saturday 9 September 2017

A strong turn-out for a varied and entertaining concert, which ranged from less familiar classical works to the highly popular.

Stephen Page opened with a triumphant voluntary by Alan Viner, Lobe den Herren followed by Bach’s Chorale Prelude Wir glauben all’ an einen GottBWV680 to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. His use of the cantus firmus here was in marked contrast to John Ireland’s gentle Villanella which requires a wide range of registration.

Howells’ Psalm Prelude No1 from Set1 demonstrated the English cathedral sound the St Peter’s organ can command, and this gave way to the warm tones of Pachelbel’s brief Chaconne in F minor.  Herschel’s allegro from a longer suite used echo refrains and could easily have been written for a mechanical clock.

Not that any of the above made for difficult listening but the rest of the programme was in a lighter, more familiar vein, commencing with Yon’s Toccatina for flutes and Lang’s Tuba Tune. Karg-Elert’s Chorale-Improvisation on Nun danket alle Gott needed no introduction but it was good to know the background to Fats Waller’s The Jitterbug Waltz – how many of us knew he played the organ?

As a tribute to the 40th anniversary of Star Wars we heard a brief and quiet piece from John William’s film score before Stephen Page concluded with one of his most popular works – Abe Holzmann’s  Blaze Away!

The next organ concert at St Peter’s will be given by their resident organist, Anthony Wilson, on Saturday 11 November at 10.30am.


Royal Albert Hall, Friday 8 September 2017

As always on the penultimate night of the world’s biggest classical music festival, the atmosphere in the Royal Albert Hall was up several notches as the capacity audience settled down and the Vienna Philharmonic filed in.

Michael Tilson Thomas (how like the fondly remembered Otto Klemperer he begins to look – same sort of charisma too) made sure we heard lush precision in Brahms’ Variations on the St Anthony Chorale. The woodwind section players were almost dancing by the time we got to the vivace in Variation 5. It’s a fine work to begin a concert with because the score (not that TilsonThomas was using one) provides so much for everyone to do. It’s almost as much of showcase for instruments as is Britten’s Variations and Fugue on a theme of Purcell aka TheYoung Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.

Then, the orchestra was slimmed down for Mozart’s piano concerto No 14 in E flat major, K449. Written in 1784 in Vienna this elegant, if shortish, work is an apt choice for a VPO concert although it isn’t one of Mozart’s most familiar concerti. Emmanuel Ax was an unshowy soloist who played Mozart’s own cadenzas with authority and lightness of touch. The dialogue between piano and orchestra, especially in the andantino middle movement was nicely balanced and it’s good to see Ax so engaged with the orchestra that he was virtually conducting from his piano stool when he wasn’t playing himself.

The advertised part of this fine concert ended with Beethoven’s Symphony No 7, as glorious and joyful as ever. Tilson Thomas’s interpretation, however, is more grandiose than frothy. His tempi, in the first three movements are gentle. He spares us those ultra-fashionable Norrington-esque hurtles in pursuit of Beethoven’s original metromome markings. The result? You could hear every delightful detail in the texture including lots of fine flute work, strong contrast between brass interjections and  woodwind rejoinders  along with the rich, but spirited string sound for which the VPO is famous. He gave us plenty of speed and lots of the prescribed brio in the allegro to round off a pretty splendid account of a popular work which manages never to sound hackneyed. I do wonder, though, about the wisdom of lining up horns and trumpets, five big steps above the strings. It means they can see and be seem, obviously. But it also means that you can hear their parts so clearly it’s as if you’re reading their music and sometimes it’s obtrusive rather than blended into the sound.

Tilson Thomas introduced the encore On Hearing the first Cuckoo in Spring as “a piece you will all know very well” – a hint that he, an American, and the VPO do not. In fact I discovered afterwards that the orchestra had never played it before. Well of course Delius is a long way from Brahms, Mozart and Beethoven in terms of both time and place but the VPO played it with tender respect and it was a fitting end to a most enjoyable concert.

Lovely to see the VPO in London again, by the way. This time I counted seven women players: four second violins, one first violin and two cellos. Things are gradually equalising but they still have a way to go. I’m sure there are plenty of eager, talented female brass and woodwind players in Austria and elsewhere just waiting for a break …


Barefoot Opera: La Boheme

St Mary in the Castle, Saturday 30 September 2017

La Boheme returned to St Mary in the Castle last Saturday with new principle singers. The difference it made demonstrated both the strength of Jenny Miller’s production and the impact of the singers themselves. American tenor, Andrew McGowan, was a youthful, naïve and impetuous Rudolfo. There were no problems at the top of the voice and he brought a heady romanticism to his wooing of Mimi. For once the on-off relationship made perfect sense, and his desolation at her death was truly moving.

Lucy Ashton, who sang Pamina for us last year in Opera South East’s production of The Magic Flute, was outstanding as Mimi. Her openness of manner and honest emotions caught the complexity of Mimi’s character, and her singing throughout was finely focused and moving.

The rest of the cast may have been familiar from the earlier performance with Oscar Castellino a fine Marcello and the instrumental ensemble splendidly well balanced.

St Mary in the Castle, Friday 8 September 2017

It is easy to forget that La Boheme is essentially an intimate work. The voices may be large but the emotions are very personal. The great strength of Jenny Miller’s new production for Barfoot Opera is that it drew on these realities and made them the heart of the evening. The umbrellas and the hints of prostitution which underpin the story were very effective. Added to this was one of the finest small ensembles supporting the work.  It was a stroke of genius to include Milos Milosovic on the accordion, its gently melancholic tones being absolutely in tune with the unfolding pathos of the drama.

The majority of the cast was strongly characterised with the women being particularly impressive. Sarah Foubert as Mimi was able to combine a genuine sense of consumption with a radiant top to the voice and her act three aria was thrilling. Elaine McDaid’s Musetta was equally strongly characterised and a perfect foil to Oscar Castellino’s well rounded and persuasive Marcello.

Laurence Panter seemed miscast as Rudolfo. He had difficulty with the tessitura of the role and often seemed hesitant musically. His acting was firm and convincing throughout and it may be that he would impress more positively under other circumstances.

Mathew Thistleton’s Colline and Tim Patrick’s Benoit were both positive presences, and there can surely be few like Andrew Sparling, able to double Shaunard perfectly convincingly with solo clarinet in the ensemble. His obbligato opening to Musetta’s quando m’en vo was masterly and totally apt.

Inevitably there were some cuts, acceptable in act two given the lack of children on stage but unfortunate in act three which lost its structure at the start. Thankfully the quartet was emotionally as challenging as it should be and became the climax of the evening.

Barefoot Opera return on 11 November with Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea.