Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra Short Ride in a Fast Machine 8th October 2023

Conductor: Clark Rundell
Pianist Joanna MacGregor

This all American programme began with A Short Ride in a Fast Machine. Familiar as it is from recordings, it doesn’t get too many live outings because of the huge forces it requires so it was a treat to hear it such an exhilarating concert opener. Played here with masses of rhythmic panache, Clark Rundell ensured that we all heard the excited terror which John Adams experienced when he went to the ride in his friend’s new Ferrari and got the idea for one of his best known pieces.

Personally I could do without the chat that MacGregor and Rundell treated us to before the concerto. We get too much of this on Radio 3 without having to endure it in concerts as well. Yes, I suppose it’s informative but we’ve all got (free) programme notes and I, for one, neither need nor want verbal entertainment as well.

The Piano Concerto in F is Gershwin showing us in 1925 that there were plenty more tools in the symphonic bag that had produced the previous year’s Rhapsody in Blue. Joanna MacGregor found smoky silkiness in the first movement as well as being every inch a “team player” in her support of other players – listening rapt, for example, to John Ellwood’s legato trumpet solo which opens the second movement before launching into her saucy little off-beat tune accompanied by pizz violins held horizontally. Yes, of course, it’s a piece full of moods and colours and this performance delivered them in spades. Moreover, it’s always a pleasure to watch MacGregor’s cool, slim-fingered elegance especially, on this occasion in the white heat of the third movement.

The second half began with smaller forces – strings with a wind quartet and one trumpet§§§ – to play Charles Ives’s The Unanswered Question which dates from 1908. It’s a pity that audience bangs and coughs spoiled the pianissimo opening but, unfazed, players maintained their sostenuto softeness for the whole six minutes with admirable control. The piece is almost a mini trumpet concerto and placing Elwood at the back of the gallery added a sense of otherworldliness.

Then came Leonard Bernstein’s The Symphonic Dances from West Side Story which guaranteed that everyone went home singing. Six percussionists plus timps – “Lenny” didn’t do things by halves did he? What an orchestrator he was. And here, in the fine acoustic of Brighton Dome, Rundell ensured that we heard and noticed, for instance, the horn solo in the first adagio picking up from the string quartet, supported by harp and then passing it to trumpet – all played with delicacy and warmth. A programme piece like this must be tremendous fun to play and BPO certainly seemed to be having a grand afternoon, their tone as rich as I’ve ever heard it. The enormous tuba mute was my favourite moment.

Susan Elkin

Iolanthe English National Opera 5th October 2023

Cal McCrystal (Director)
Chris Hopkins (Conductor)
Lizzi Gee (Choreographer)

I had not had the opportunity to see ENO’s Iolanthe in its first run in 2018, so it was with a completely open mind that I entered The Coliseum to see what the company would make of it, a second tier G&S show in terms of popularity though regularly voted musically the best among online aficionados.

Following an entertaining on-stage introduction by Captain Shaw (Clive Mantle, playing a complete part manufactured from one passing reference) I was very impressed by the overture: it’s not often that Sullivan’s full score with all the doubled wind and two percussionists is heard. Under Chis Hopkins’ baton, the fine ENO orchestra held the whole audience in rapt attention as barely any noise was heard to disturb the mood-setting. Impressive stuff.

The first chorus of the fairies was a riot of colour and energy held together by choreographer Lizzi Gee’s robust choreography. On a few occasions that energy led to ragged entries and inaccurate rhythms which was unfortunate, though forgivable in the opening scene on an opening night. Catherine Wyn-Rogers’ Fairy Queen – paying more than a passing resemblance to Brunhilde, both in costuming and style – was a delight to hear.

Strong performances too, from Ellie Laugharne as Phyllis and Marcus Farnsworth as Strephon, whilst John Savournin’s delivery of the patter songs, particularly the Lord Chancellor’s notoriously wordy ‘Nightmare’ song was clear and with impeccable diction.

That said, whilst I’m all in favour of taking Sullivan’s music at a healthy pace, at times here I found it simply too rushed. Words were lost, tempos fluctuated between stage and pit with the occasional obvious anxious glance downwards. However all this is forgivable on an opening night.

What, I am afraid, I find totally unforgivable is the Director’s complete lack of trust in the material. Any additions to the score and libretto should be placed with care and thought – sadly lacking here.

For some reason Phyllis and Strephon’s first act love duet is upstaged by a person simulating a sex act with a sheep. The Fairy Queen is compelled to mistake Strephon’s name with a fake phallus. The second act quartet is interrupted by a not particularly topical Boris Johnson and Liz Truss reference. Private Willis’s shrewd observations on politics and politicians were accompanied by a defecating horse. And so it went on…. and on…. and on. Whilst this sort of thing might have worked in the privacy of a rehearsal room, they didn’t bring anything of any merit to the production, which was a great shame.

In summary, a slightly skittish opening night that will without doubt settle into something you can close your eyes and enjoy listening to. Preferable, anyway, to watching parts of it.

Lucas Elkin

Nicola Benedetti plays Brahms Royal Festival Hall Philharmonia Conductor: Cristian Macelaru 1st October 2023

The concert opener – One Line, Two Shapes by Nico Muhly – stems from Pandemic isolation and must be a very challenging piece to bring off from cold because it starts with the softest possible chorale played by two celli and two double basses. It then builds gradually before being interrupted with staccato string chords – played with commendable dramatic incisiveness. I rather enjoyed the bowed xylophone and the acoustic effect of placing a small group of lower strings behind the brass.

Then it was off to the familiar, beloved sound world of Brahms’s violin concerto – except that Nicola Benedetti, tall and elegant in her long black dress, made it seem completely fresh. Visibly and physically feeling her way into the music during the opening orchestral section, she attacked the first movement (Allegro non troppo) with warmth, energy and passion interspersed with a lot of sweetness and imaginative, dynamic colour in the cadenza. The adagio felt like a real oasis after the heat of the allegro. The oboe solo (Timothy Rundle) was almost painfully beautiful and nicely supported by the rest of the woodwind section especially the bassoons. And from the solo violin entry there was a strong sense of conversation and rapport between Benedetti and the string section principals. Finally Macleru, clearly very much at home with Benedetti, made sure that the Allegro giocoso danced to the end of the concerto with joyful exuberance. Benedetti’s slender fingers, incidentally, are fascinating to watch as she trills effortlessly on all four fingers – surely the envy of every amateur string player in the hall?

After the interval came Rachmaninov’s third symphony with its many sections and mood changes across the unusual three movement structure. And the performance was full of things to admire – the legato string playing over the wind cross rhythms in the first movement and impeccable solo work from leader Zsolt-Tihamer Visontay for example. In a work which changes direction so often it’s important to find plenty of tension and Macelaru certainly did that especially in the adagio in which he stressed the detail from, for instance, harps and celeste before reaching the busier central section with its sudden, trumpet fanfares. It’s a big work (five percussionists plus timps) and here it purred along joyfully with players appearing to enjoy it as much as the rapturous audience did.

Susan Elkin

Daisy Noton (Flute) and Milo Harper (Harp) Christchurch St Leonards on Sea 24th September 2023

Music by Faure, CPE Bach, Telemann, Debussy, Elgar, Bizet, Boulanger, Tournier, Piazzola, Ibert

The flute and the harp have, in the past, had their critics. Mozart apparently had an aversion to the flute, writing to his father in 1778: ” You know that I become quite powerless whenever I am obliged to write for an instrument which I cannot bear ” while one book on music described a harp recital as the ‘nadir of ineptitude’. More recently, popular figures such as James Galway and Marisa Robles have raised the profile of both instruments, encouraging the sort of enthusiasm generated among young cellists of my generation by Jacqueline du Pre. Moreover composers – even Mozart – have produced for the two instruments together music of sublime beauty, profound emotion and intimate charm: 19th and 20th century French composers have found the combination particularly alluring – works by Ravel (especially the ravishing Introduction and Allegro) and Poulenc come to mind.

The first of the eighth season of concerts organised under the auspices of the Hastings Philharmonic Orchestra served to dispel utterly any apprehensions about the way in which both flute and harp can encompass an extraordinary, even unexpected, variety of expression, either as solo instruments or when playing together, and the two young performers clearly have distinguished careers ahead of them. Flautist Daisy Noton, a former woodwind finalist in the BBC Young Musician Competition, is still studying at the Royal Academy, while harpist Milo Harper, also a product of the Academy, has already won a number of prizes and has had extensive professional experience: he is keen to broaden the harp repertoire. Both developed their skills in national and international youth orchestras, those essential cradles for the nurturing of musical talent.

Through a varied programme of relatively short pieces including solos for each instrument and works for both, Daisy and Milo were able to demonstrate both their own exquisite musicianship and the full range of what their respective instruments can achieve. Arrangements of some well-known music also gave one new insights, like a seeing a close friend in an unfamiliar context, particularly true of the Elgar Salut d’amour. Even though they had apparently only met for the first time a few days before the concert, Daisy and Milo played with great sensitivity to each other and had a real rapport, producing a wonderful balance, each letting the other shine when required while providing sympathetic support.

Daisy consistently produced a warm, firm tone with little vibrato to distract from its purity and some beautiful legato playing. In faster passages her articulation was precise with subtle phrasing, lightness and agility: at no point was musicality sacrificed to bravura performance, and if anything, she played with understatement. She took on board the demands of the solo Telemann G minor Fantasia in which she brilliantly brought out both the melodic content and implied harmony through clever differentiation in tone, while her performance of the Debussy Syrnix was movingly plaintiff and evocative. Indeed, in almost all pieces, her playing produced an underlying poignancy while interspersed with bouts of dramatic energy.

Milo showed everything of which the harp is capable in his solos, particularly the Tournier Danse de Moujik, designed to showcase what is distinctive about the harp through marvellously different textures and varieties of tone, from lush glissandi to isolated, echoing harmonics. He has an extraordinary ability to bring out a melody while providing a full accompaniment, and his performance of the Debussy Clair de Lune made one think the work had been written for the harp. Technically , his mastery of the harp is superb and he manages to produce a variety of expression from the instrument which I would have considered impossible

The works performed together were positively inspirational, with both drama and intimacy and, in many cases, a sense of wistfulness which the combination perhaps naturally generates. In the CPE Bach Sonata in G minor, both played with great precision, exchanging dominant roles and answering motifs, and producing a perfect ensemble. In all pieces, there was just the right level of rubato and each player recognised when the other had to come to the fore. In Nadia Boulanger’s Nocturne, I really sensed two performers playing as one, such was their sensitivity to each other, a deeply moving experience overall in a piece which gets to the essence of each instrument: the gradations in volume were simply thrilling. This sense of unity was also reflected in the Piazzola Café 30 and the Ibert Entr’acte, where some delicate and skilful playing from both performers matched each other, reflecting the somewhat melancholy nature of each work.

This was quite simply a wonderfully uplifting evening, in which two young performers showed their ability to play with enormous sensitivity and skill in a varied and demanding programme of considerable emotional content. I feel sure we will hear much of both Daisy and Milo as time goes on and they are to be congratulated on their fine performances.

Jonathan Watts