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

ENO: Madam Butterfly

London Coliseum, Thursday 11 March 2020

Anthony Minghella’s production of Madam Butterfly has returned for a seventh time and it is a tribute to its many strengths that it appears as fresh and beautiful as it ever was. Add to this excellent singing and consummate acting, and the evening could not fail.

If Dimitri Pittas’ Pinkerton seems an outsider this is certainly in keeping with the work. He may return older and wiser but he is still from another world, unlike Roderick Williams’ world-weary Sharpless, adding to his increasingly impressive list of character parts with one of his most subtle yet. The edgy tenor of Dimitri Pittas, at its most mellifluous in the act one love duet, is a fine contrast to Roderick Williams’ rich baritone with absolute clarity of text at all times.

It was difficult to believe that Natalya Romaniw was singing Butterfly for the first time as the role fits her like a glove. No western singer can bring a visually convincing Japanese teenager to the stage but she moved us throughout with the dignity and innocence of her performance, coupled with heart-melting moments in her lyrical outpouring. Her One fine day was stunning in its intimacy with Suzuki before it opened out into a rich statement of faith.

The rest of the cast were drawn from strength with Alasdair Elliott a more up-market Goro than usual, Njabulo Madlala a sympathetic Yamadori and Keel Watson an imposing Bonze. Stephanie Windsor-Lewis as Suzuki is not given a lot to do in the production as the black suited crew move everything that needs moving. However, her voice matches Natalya Romaniw’s with ease, making the flower duet a significant moment. The chorus don’t have a lot to do but look beautiful, which they do with ease, and sang will equal beauty. The orchestra under Martin Fitzpatrick were crisp and alert, with exemplary balance given that the singers were kept to the front of the stage for most of the evening.

Anthony Minghella’s production has so many lovely moments it is difficult to pick just a few but on this occasion the lanterns in the love duet were wonderfully gentle, and the puppet for Sorrow is surely the finest way to do the child. He is on stage far longer than is normal, shows a range of emotions way beyond most child actors and never becomes embarrassing. It is masterly.

This may be the seventh revival but I suspect it will not be the last.

Philharmonia Orchestra

Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury
Sunday 8 March 2020

Young British conductor, Alpesh Chauhan, was new to me but I’m sure I shall see a lot more of him before long. He has the Philharmonia totally under his baton with which – against the current fashion –  he beats time clearly. He also has a very expressive left hand, each finger on which seems to communicate its own message. And I expect, in time, he’ll learn to smile. He certainly had plenty to feel proud of in this all Russian concert.

We began with Tchaikovsky’s The Tempest – an early piece which doesn’t get performed as often as it deserves to. There are some terrific brass passages and lots of intense hard work for strings and piccolo. It sounded pretty good in this performance with a strong sense of story telling.

Shostakovich’s second piano concerto is much more familiar and  Valentina Lisitsa made it sound fresh and exciting especially in the frenetic first movement in which she delivered almost every one of her thousands of high speed fortissimo notes. I enjoyed her quiet smile at the recapitulation too. She’s an unshowy performer, and here she was accompanied by some fine, incisive orchestral playing complete with crisp col legno bowing, vibrant pizzicato and snare drum. The contrast as we moved into the warmth of the lyrical andante was delightful.

Pictures at an Exhibition is always a showstopper. The sheer colour and verve of Ravel’s orchestration sells itself. This was a  pleasingly energetic but well controlled performance, particularly in the arresting glissandi moments, perfectly punctuated by the percussion section’s whip. There was also some lovely solo work from wind and brass. When we finally reached the Great Gate of Kiev the tubular bell moved me, as it always does. And if the intonation was fractionally wonky in places and the timing was awry once or twice then it simply didn’t matter. The grandiloquence of the piece carried the day and ensured the audience left feeling uplifted.

One gripe though: Why doesn’t the Philharmonia list the names of its players in the programme – perhaps on a slip for each concert? I would like to cite some of the players for especially strong solo work but I can’t because I don’t know who is who.

Susan Elkin