Friday, 27 March 2015

Article published in Manchester Evening News 27 March 2015

JAPANESE pianist Noriko Ogawa, an Associate Artist of the Bridgewater Hall, devised her first piano festival there three years ago – ‘Reflections on Debussy: in the Mirror of the East’.

Now she’s been asked to mastermind another: ‘R & R: Ravel and Rachmaninov’, focussing on two great composers for the piano, near-contemporaries but very different people. 

“Ravel was very small – and Rachmaninov a very big man. Ravel’s writing is incredibly precise – miniatures that are beautifully crafted and carefully made. Rachmaninov was a Russian, with a big heart and not shy of being Romantic – his music is on a huge scale.  

“I’ve visited Ravel’s house near Paris (now a private museum), and his personality is still there. What shocked me most was the bathroom – there were so many nail files on the cabinet! They explained it was because he had a different one for each of his fingers. 

“And there is a cupboard in the lounge, full of letters awaiting answers. People are still studying what kind of man he was, but really his music is the only thing that signifies his personality. 

“Rachmaninov revealed his heart in every piece: he was vulnerable, but never secretive. He said it was important to find the climax in every piece of his music – Russian players know that, and I’ve noticed they always want to make it happen.” 

The festival stretches over several weeks and involves top pianists including Peter Donohoe, Martin Roscoe, Kathryn Stott, Murray McLachlan and Clare Hammond, as well as Noriko herself. 

It will include a children’s concert and workshop (April 17), a Mid-day Concert (April 23) and a four-concerto finale with the BBC Philharmonic (April 24). Specially dear to Noriko’s heart will be ‘Jamie’s Concert (April 22) for parents and carers of children with autism and other learning disabilities. 

“Since I did this at the Debussy festival in 2012, the idea has grown quite big,” she says. “I’m now an official cultural ambassador of the National Autistic Society, and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama is supporting me to do research through these concerts. I’d like many people to join us – those with an autistic member of the family or who want to understand more about the condition.” 

The first date is Tuesday, March 31, and features a lecture recital by Murray McLachlan, and Peter Donohoe performing Scriabin’s Sonata no. 7, Ravel’s Miroirs and Book Two of Rachmaninov’s Preludes.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Review written for Manchester Evening News 22 March 2015



THERE have been some thrilling events in the recent story of the Royal Northern College of Music, but the official re-opening of the concert hall, resplendent now with its galleries, new lighting and new floor, was one of the greatest I’ve witnessed.

The 10-minute standing ovation at the end of Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ symphony reflected not just the fact that they’d done something they’d never been able to do on such a scale before – stage the huge 90-minute work, with over 200 young musicians taking part, on their own premises – but also that the performance itself was magnificently accomplished and (in my case at least) brought a lump to the throat. 

Much of that was down to conductor Jac van Steen, who brought to this quasi-religious symphony a complete personal commitment and passion. In many ways it was the most compelling and affecting performance of it I’ve heard. That’s because he’s one who knows exactly how to handle the young musical thoroughbreds who populate the RNCM stable. Cool head and warm heart is the secret: give them clear orders and they’ll follow you to heaven and back.

From the electric opening, with ruggedly articulated, gloriously responsive and romantically lyrical string playing, it was clear it would be a very special evening. The brass were disciplined and warm in chorus, the woodwind piquant and pastoral – the final plucked string notes of the movement precisely together. 

The sentimental second movement was played with remarkable delicacy from strings, wind soloists and horns, and as grandfatherly as you could wish for. The third’s surreal dance had a delightfully springy rhythm, deriving from the flick of van Steen’s wrist and his clarity of gesture. He balanced every full texture, even the loudest, most blaring discord.  

The Urlicht fourth movement introduced mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly’s wonderful solo voice, peerless in this devout, serene meditation. She was to join with soprano Jane Irwin and all available forces in the paradise-storming finale, where the previously off-stage brass and the RNCM Chorus high in the centre gallery brought the crowning glories to Mahler’s vision of new life for the dead. Jane Irwin’s voice floated like a wisp of incense, and the peroration was as climactic as it could be.

This was also a test of the hall’s new acoustic, which it passed with distinction. Occasionally hard with big sounds before, it’s lost none of its intimacy but gained a new dimension. 


Robert Beale

Friday, 20 March 2015

Article published in Manchester Evening News 20 March 2015

SALFORD Choral Society has a UK premiere in its concert with Manchester Camerata at the Royal Northern College of Music on March 28. 

This is not a big surprise, you might think, for one of the region’s liveliest choirs, which will perform under its young conductor, Matthew Hamilton. 

However, the music the group will play is unusual in that it was composed over two centuries ago – by the man who was boss to Mozart’s father. 

It’s a Requiem by Luigi Gatti, music director to the archbishop of Salzburg from 1783 to 1817. Written around 1807, it survived in Salzburg Cathedral archives until its recent rediscovery. The modern world premiere was by Salzburg Cathedral Choir in 2012, and Salford Choral has secured the right to bring it to the UK first. 

“Gatti had written several operas in Italy before his move to Salzburg, and you can see the influence of opera in his sacred music,” says Matthew. “He has a particular gift for melody – like in Mozart, the phrases are achingly elegant. It’s a great piece to sing.” 

It’s also about 15 years later than Mozart’s own more famous Requiem – and strikingly different in tone. 

“Composers such as Cherubini, and later Berlioz and Verdi, wrote settings of the Requiem with a dramatic treatment of death and judgment,” says Matthew, “and this is earlier than those. It’s turning the corner into the Romantic type of Requiem.

“It’s scored for a slightly larger orchestra than Mozart’s – but for the Dies Irae there are four trumpets, and that’s more dramatic than anything Mozart’s does. It begins and ends serenely, in C major, but there’s real grit there, too, and it’s very much a choral setting – perfect for us to get our teeth into.” 

Matthew has been helping Salford Choral get their teeth into lots of things since taking over as music director in 2012.  

He’s also associate conductor of the London Symphony Chorus, director of Reading Bach Choir and Keele Bach Choir, musical director of the New London Chamber Choir, and works with the BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Chorus, CBSO Chorus and the BBC Proms – but still lives in Chorlton. He got married last September to his former university colleague Amanda, and since she’s working in Aberdeen, Manchester makes a good base for them both. 

And he’s conductor for a Manchester Chamber Choir concert on May 23 at the Bridgewater Hall, when they and organist Wayne Marshall explore works by the 20th century French composers Dupré and Duruflé.

Friday, 13 March 2015

Article published in Manchester Evening News 13 March 2015

CELLIST Alisa Weilerstein has become a welcome visitor to the Hallé over the past five years, giving outstanding performances of the Dvořák concerto and Shostakovich’s first. 

Now, in this season highlighting all Shostakovich’s concertos for violin, for piano and for cello, she’s back to play the second cello concerto (with Sir Mark Elder). It’s a very different work from the first – and yet, she says, “I actually think the second concerto is far more profound. 

“Musically it’s different, of course, and it ends very enigmatically and quietly. The first is virtuosic and clearer – the second, written a long time afterwards, is more introspective and darker. 

“These are things I really love exploring. Shostakovich has a very identifiable, individual language, and the first concerto for violin and first for cello have a similar structure and character. 

“But in his music there’s always an underlying sense of struggle, even if on the surface it pretends that everything is lovely. That’s something that appealed to me, even as a child.”

She began playing very early in life and always wanted to be a soloist with orchestras around the world. In the years since 2010, when we first heard her play with the Hallé, she has begun recording the greatest 20th century cello concertos under a contract with Decca Classics. 

That has included a highly praised recording of Elgar’s concerto, with Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin. It grew from live performances with him and the Berlin Philharmonic in Oxford and Berlin – and she says, remembering that he and Jacqueline Du Pré had once played and recorded it together, to begin with she felt ‘that’s the only work I can’t play for him …’ 

But she found him a conductor who treated her in ‘the most fantastic way’ – and the CD has been a career milestone for her.  

The other recent major milestone in her life has been getting married, 18 months ago, to young Venezuelan conductor Rafael Payare, the newly appointed boss of the Ulster Orchestra. They had ceremonies in both New York and Venezuela. 

Despite the busy schedules that each of them pursues, Alisa says: “We do see a lot of each other. When one of us is working, the other goes to where they are. Last month, for instance, he followed me to where I was playing – at other times I follow him. We chase each other around the world!”

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Review written for Manchester Evening News 11 March 2015

THIS new production of a Mozart masterpiece is good example of Opera North doing what it ought to do. Making opera accessible while keeping to high musical and production standards should be the company’s watchword, and this fulfils it. 

That’s not to say that everything made sense or hit perfection – but there have been very good productions in the past to compare with. In Jo Davies’ new one it’s sung in English (Jeremy Sams’ clever translation) with no surtitles to distract attention – so the comedy is visual as well as verbal and the singers have to put the lines over. 

They all manage that well, some very well. The interesting thing for me was that Quirijn de Lang, as Count Almaviva, came over so sympathetically, with his attempts to play the old-style aristocrat boss frustrated by his servants (and, of course, the women whose plotting crosses the class barriers completely). He is a superb singer, too. 

That’s not to do down Richard Burkhard’s performance as Figaro, which was well acted and finely sung, but I noticed that de Lang uses a conversational style of recitative singing (almost Sprechgesang) that sometimes sits a little loosely to the notation, whereas the other principals are all stricter. 

There’s also an element in the production which focuses on the crumbling façades of an upstairs-downstairs social setting (literally so, in the case of Leslie Travers’ set designs, and emphasized by the costuming – Gabrielle Dalton – in a Downton Abbey sort of period), so the tottering structure of feudal power becomes a powerful concept. 

Davies’ great achievement here is to get all the singers to find real human personality, not caricature, in their acting. Some of them were strikingly successful. I don’t remember a less harridan-like Marcellina before (Gaynor Keeble, looking a tiny bit like Imelda Staunton), and Henry Waddington – always a great character actor – is really believable as Dr Bartolo. 

Silvia Moi and Ana Maria Labin both look their parts, acting and singing beautifully as Susanna and the Countess respectively, and Helen Sherman tackles the difficult task of being a lovestruck teenage boy with gusto. 

It’s strongly cast all round – good to see Ellie Laugharne making her contribution as Barbarina – and conductor Alexander Shelley pilots everything with skill and sympathy from the pit. It may not plumb all the emotional depths, but this Marriage Of Figaro is quality entertainment. 

Repeated on Saturday. 


Robert Beale

Friday, 6 March 2015

Article published in the Manchester Evening News 6 March 2015

OPERA NORTH are back at The Lowry from March 10, with three programmes: a new production of Mozart’s The Marriage Of Figaro, a return visit for their recent La Traviata, and a double bill of Falla’s La Vida Breve (last seen here in 2004) and a new production of Gianni Schicchi, by Puccini. 

Opera North say the former received ‘extravagent audience and critical praise’ 10 years ago – well, not from this source. I didn’t like it then and I don’t like it now. But the latter is a comedy and contains one of the most popular tunes in all opera – O Mio Babbino Caro, sung by the young Lauretta (soprano Jennifer France) to her dad, Gianni (baritone Christopher Purves). 

The latest presentation of The Marriage Of Figaro from the company is directed by Jo Davies, who has previously directed their popular versions of Carousel and Ruddigore. It’s one of the greatest operas ever written – light and funny but simultaneously tender and moving. 

I spoke to mezzo-soprano Helen Sherman, who trained at the Royal Northern College of Music and is singing Cherubino in this production. It’s her role-debut with Opera North and her first time as ‘the hormone-filled teenage boy’, as she calls him. 

“It’s so much fun,” she says. “I used to be very analytical about acting as a male, and I’ve done a number of male roles over the years, but this time I’m trying to focus on characterisation, looking at him as a human being rather than a caricature. 

“Jo Davies doesn’t let any of the details pass by without working on them, and neither does the conductor, Alexander Shelley. 

“We’re singing in English and there are no surtitles – quite unusual these days – so the audience can really see everything we’ve been able to find in this production.” 

Helen has been busy ever since her time in Manchester, including singing with English Touring Opera in Donizetti’s The Siege Of Calais (where she got rave reviews, and which she’ll soon sing again) and in The Coronation Of Poppea. She’s also sung Mozart for the Classical Opera Company, Rossini’s Rosina (in The Barber Of Seville) for Longborough Festival, and Carmen for a big tour with Mid-Wales Opera which earned her an award nomination. 

“And then I came to Leeds,” she says. “It’s been a fantastic time. The whole team’s hearts are in their work and the results are wonderful.”