Monday, 29 June 2015

Review for Manchester Evening News 29 June 2015

THE visit of one of the world’s leading composers,

Krzysztof Penderecki, to conduct the UK premiere of his enormous seventh symphony in the Bridgewater Hall, was always going to be one of the major events on the Manchester classical calendar.

It was in the Royal Northern College of Music’s big end-of-term concert by its Symphony Orchestra, Chorus and Chamber Choir and involved about 250 performers on-stage and off-stage in the auditorium. But for the accident of a few days’ distance in time, it could have been one of the highlights of the Manchester International Festival, as the festival, too, highlights Manchester artistic firsts.

But the timing was nigh-perfect, as Penderecki had just been to the Vatican to collect a papal medal from the Pontifical Council for Culture, awarded for his sacred music. Performing his seventh symphony, titled The Seven Gates Of Jerusalem and written for the holy city’s third millennium in 1997, could hardly have been a better way to celebrate. And after the concert the RNCM awarded him its Fellowship – another honour to put in his bulging trophy cabinet.

The man himself cut an imposing figure on the rostrum: solidly built, bearded, dignified, and relaxedly magisterial as he controlled his vast forces of singers and orchestral players. The platform included two giant instruments called tubaphones – something I’ve never seen before looking like clusters of bass organ pipes laid on their sides and played by whacking big flat beaters on their ends to create a sort of chromatically tuned tom-tom sound.

The concert’s first item was Penderecki’s fanfare-like Entrata for 11 brass players and timpani, conducted by RNCM conducting junior fellow Piero Lombardi – as majestic an opening item as anyone could wish for, with the composer’s characteristic clarity and rhetorical gravitas.

Then RNCM piano star Dominic Degavino was soloist in Lutosławski’s piano concerto (for this was in fact the culmination of a week-long festival of today’s Polish music), with Macieij Tworek, from Poland, visiting conductor. Dominic Degavino showed himself a real communicator of the music, in the austere yet haunting melodies of the third movement in particular, and there was virtuosity all round in the complex and rhythmically layered sections of the work as much as its oases of calm and beauty.

The Seven Gates Of Jerusalem featured solo vocalists Hannah Dahlenburg, Emma-Claire Crook, Hollie-anne Bangham, Christopher Littlewood and Aidan Edwards, with Arthur Bruce in the speaking role of its sixth section, in addition to orchestra and three choirs on stage and further brass cohorts in the high places of the auditorium. It sets quotations from the book of Psalms (in Latin), plus Ezekiel’s vision of the valley whose dry bones come to life heard from the speaking narrator.

Penderecki repeats some of his texts with insistence, stressing concepts such as the proclamation of God’s glory, the opening of Jerusalem’s gates to the nations, the promised blessings of peace, and (very near the end) the sense of God’s presence: ‘Hic est Deus’. His music combines both the awesome and the numinous, and includes a long, lamenting setting of the De Profundis for unaccompanied choir.

The orchestral interludes were vividly realized, and there was a magnificent midpoint culmination of all the forces in Lauda, Jerusalem, Dominum: itself a foretaste of the climactic final bars and final massive chord. The young performers gave him all they had, and the result was an experience to remember for many a day.


Robert Beale

Friday, 26 June 2015

Article published in Manchester Evening News 26 June 2015

MARK SIMPSON is a product of the Junior Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester who has rocketed to fame, both as solo clarinettist and composer. 

He was made the BBC Philharmonic’s new composer-in-association, he’s working on a chamber opera for Opera North to be premiered next spring, and The Immortal, An Oratorio gets its world premiere from the BBC Philharmonic, alongside Mozart’s Requiem, in the Manchester International Festival on July 4. 

Mark won the BBC Young Musician competition and the BBC Proms/Guardian Young Composer of the Year Competition in 1988, aged 17 – the first person to do that ‘double’. 

He studied at Oxford and the Guildhall School in London, and is now published by Boosey & Hawkes. He’s won the 2010 Royal Philharmonic Society Composition Award and had a piece performed at the Last Night of the Proms, as well as writing other works for major orchestras. He was part of Manchester Camerata’s Composers’ Project earlier this year. 

The Immortal is for baritone (Mark Stone), an eight-solo-voice chamber choir (virtuoso singing group EXAUDI), chorus (Manchester Chamber Choir) and orchestra. Its words by Melanie Challenger are based on a book about Frederic Myers, a founder of the Society for Psychical Research. 

Myers and other séance-attenders in the Edwardian period were convinced they were hearing genuine messages from the ‘other side’, and documented them, along with the results of so-called automatic writing. 

Mark says: “Melanie compiled some of her text from these scripts, and she’s also written a kind of monodrama, interspersed among them, which represents the voice of Frederic Myers. 

“He and others like him had a firm belief in the afterlife, but we can see now that it was fuelled by deep personal loss. We both find that very poignant – there was that human desire to communicate with someone who had been lost.  

“The main thrust of the work is that by empathizing with his situation we’re able to understand how his mind worked. 

“The first four minutes are full of a kind of swirling, weird sound, where you can’t tell what the words are – they’re all coming at you together. So I hope no one complains ‘I couldn’t hear the text’! 

“The larger chorus and EXAUDI are essentially singing, or reciting, the scripts from actual séances. It’s very difficult and virtuosic material.”




Friday, 19 June 2015

Article published in Manchester Evening News 19 June 2015

A work by Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki gets its UK premiere at the Bridgewater Hall on June 26, with 250 performers and the composer himself as conductor.

It’s Penderecki’s seventh symphony, subtitled The Seven Gates Of Jerusalem, and calls for a very large orchestra, off-stage woodwind and brass, three choirs, five soloists and a narrator.

The performance is the highlight of the end-of-year concert by the Royal Northern College of Music and crowns a week of celebrations of the music of Poland at the RNCM. 

Commissioned for the third millennium celebration of the city of Jerusalem, The Seven Gates Of Jerusalem is rarely performed due to the sheer forces required, but is one of Penderecki’s most powerful and dramatic pieces. His other music includes film scores for The Shining and The Exorcist. 

RNCM artistic director Michelle Castelletti, says: “I’ve been gripped by Krzysztof Penderecki’s work ever since I heard his Threnody For The Victims Of Hiroshima and his St Luke Passion. The intensity of these creations and sheer emotive power they invoke are staggering.  

“We are pulling out all the stops to present this monumental work, and I am thrilled, not only because the RNCM will be giving the UK premiere, but because he will be here to conduct the performance himself.” 

The complete festival, from June 23 to 26, celebrates Polish composers including Lutosławski and Górecki, and new compositions by RNCM students. After the concert, which features Lutosławski’s piano concerto with soloist Dominic Degavino, Michelle Castelletti will present Krzysztof Penderecki with a Fellowship of the RNCM.

Meanwhile in Alderley Edge (St Philip’s church), and Sandbach (St Mary’s church hall), Manchester-trained pianist Manny Vass, who lives in Stockport, is live in recital with his Sonic Waves programme, on June 26 and 27. It’s water-themed music, from Liszt, Schubert, Chopin and Handel – plus his own arrangements of sea shanties. Manny has already made a big impact with his album From Bach To Bond, including Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody and themes from the Bond movies as they might have been arranged by Liszt. 

His self-produced CD album of Sonic Waves is a hit with Classic FM audiences, reaching number 3 this week.

Friday, 12 June 2015

Article published in Manchester Evening News 12 June 2015

GORTON Monastery will see one of its biggest choral concerts ever on June 21, when St George’s Singers of Poynton, 80-strong, are joined by the Sheffield Chorale, 50-strong, for a performance of Elgar’s The Dream Of Gerontius, with Stockport Symphony Orchestra. 

Neil Taylor is conductor of both choirs and thrilled to be bringing them together for the first time.  

“I’ve been able to rehearse each choir separately,” he says, “but we all come together on the Thursday before for a rehearsal with orchestra, and then on the day itself with orchestra and soloists.” 

Those soloists themselves are a starry team: Marcus Farnsworth, who studied at the University of Manchester and the Royal Academy of Music, won the Wigmore Hall International Song Competition in 2009 and is now in demand everywhere, is the bass baritone; and Mancunian tenor Joshua Ellicott, who has garnered golden opinions in Vienna and New York and sung here with Opera North, the Hallé and The English Concert, Gerontius.  

Anna Harvey, a young Sheffield singer who was at Cambridge and the RAM and has appeared with top UK orchestras and opera companies, takes the mezzo-soprano role.  

Neil Taylor – organist of Sheffield Cathedral and a choral director for The Daily Service and Manchester University Chorus – has trained his Poynton choir over the past nine years for many prestige concerts, including Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 and Bach’s St John Passion.  

But this is the first time he’s asked them to tackle Gerontius. “My hesitation in the past was because of the size of chorus the work needs. It needs to be big to balance the orchestral writing … but I always thought I’d like to do the work. It has everything: drama, delicacy and an amazing moment where the soul of Gerontius finally meets his Maker. Elgar wrote: ‘For one moment, must every instrument exert its full force’. 

“The chorus needs to be able to make a good, strong sound, but also, at times, something quite ethereal.” 

He’s just brought the Singers back from Germany, with four concerts and three standing ovations, and has planned an exciting season for 2015-16, with Mozart’s C minor Mass at the Royal Northern College of Music in November, an open ‘singing day’ in January, a St George’s Day special for April 23, and a return to Gorton in a year’s time for Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony and music by Gustav Holst.

Review for Manchester Evening News 6 June 2015

HALLE ORCHESTRA AND CHOIR  Bridgewater Hall and live Radio 3


PERFORMING Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis was a project Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé had long aimed to do. Both he and chief executive John Summers have spoken of this as one of the mountain peaks they longed to climb.  

And now they have. It requires a choir at the very top of its game to do this work justice, but with training by their choral director, Madeleine Venner, the Hallé Choir are surely among the best orchestral choral bodies in the country. They are a big group and they pack a punch. Their singing is also nimble, accurate, nuanced and glorious to hear. 

That wasn’t all there was to praise as the Hallé reached the end of its 2014-15 season with Beethoven’s visionary and dramatic setting of the liturgical mass. Sir Mark’s vision of the work was as moving as it was thrilling, and fascinating in its attention to detail. 

His team of soloists – Elizabeth Llewellyn, Susan Bickley, Allan Clayton and Reinhard Hagen – were outstanding in their individual contributions and smoothly integrated in ensemble. Beethoven gives them some glorious music to themselves, such as the Amen to the creed, in the Benedictus and in the agonized cry for mercy of the Agnus Dei, and we heard lovely singing and real emotional commitment, the soprano soaring to angelic heights, the tenor voicing assurance, the mezzo pleading for humanity and the bass noble and profound. 

There were also glimpses of transcendence in the orchestral playing: leader Lyn Fletcher’s violin solo and the richness of viola tone in the Gloria’s Gratias Agimus Tibi, and again in the Benedictus, among them, and the wind players made the music of Et Incarnatus Est in the creed a magical, pastoral sound, like a nativity scene. 

Sir Mark did not neglect the need for vigour: we had a dancing tempo for Et Ascendit and throbbing treatment of the fugue subject in Et Vitam Venturi which was finally hammered home in the manner of the Ode To Joy. Some of the sound-world created was almost like hearing Mahler - some vividily operatic (horns' contribution in particular). 

And I can’t end without a mention of the distinctive sound of the period kettle drums, played (by Erika Öhman) with appropriately hard sticks that sounded at times like a menacing death rattle and were superbly effective in the noises of war that Beethoven allows to challenge his vision of peace. For him, only sheer determination could win. 


Robert Beale

Friday, 5 June 2015

Article published in Manchester Evening News 5 June 2015

THE BBC Philharmonic begins a set of concerts including all six symphonies of Danish composer Carl Nielsen on June 9, with principal guest conductor John Storgårds. 

That’s not particularly surprising – it’s Nielsen’s 150th anniversary on the 9th, and Nielsen ‘cycles’ are on the agenda of a number of orchestras this year. The Phil’s series, though, includes another complete bag: Mahler’s song set entitled Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Guest singers are Roderick Williams, Florian Boesch, Gillian Keith and Hanno Müller-Brachman. 

Des Knaben Wunderhorn was a book of folk songs and poems first published in the early 19th century. Its verses about love, war, childhood and wandering became a foundation document of Romanticism. 

Mahler was one of several composers to put the songs to music, and among his settings around a dozen for voice with orchestra date from 1899. 

But why put them alongside Nielsen’s symphonies? I asked BBC Philharmonic general manager Simon Webb. 

“What we’re trying to do with Nielsen is to put him in context as a great 20th century symphonist,” he said. “He doesn’t have that status in public consciousness, and in my view he should have. 

“We’re putting him alongside Mahler, as there are profound synergies between them. Mahler wasn’t seen as a great symphonic composer by many until the 1960s, which was a period of personal exploration and experience.  

“Then his music came to be appreciated in a new way – to my mind that has rarely happened with Nielsen.” 

He pointed out that the settings of these folk (or folk-like) songs made their way into Mahler’s symphonies (nos. 2, 3 and 4), and Nielsen’s symphonies are also rooted in folk music and the traditions of his country.  

“Both looked at the natural world for inspiration and imagery. Both challenged conventional ideas about the symphony – Mahler obviously, but Nielsen, too, for instance by writing a two-movement symphony, adding extra instruments to the conventional line-up, or including a wordless vocal line.

 “And in the Mahler songs you have tragedy, frustration, joy and comedy – it’s as if ‘music is life’ … which is actually something Nielsen said.” 

The Philharmonic and John Storgårds have already completed the Sibelius symphonies on CD – this month they bring out the full Nielsen set, too, on the Chandos label.