Friday, 30 December 2016

Article published in Manchester Evening News 30th Dcember 2016

WHAT does 2017 hold for the classical music fan? Plenty, to be sure, and today I’m picking out just a few of the highlights of the first part of the year.

At the Hallé, Sir Mark Elder leads an Elgar festival at the Bridgewater Hall (March 9, 11 and 12). It features the first symphony, a ‘Beyond the Score’ focus on the Enigma Variations, and the oratorio The Dream Of Gerontius with the Hallé Choir and a great trio of soloists: David Butt Philip, Sasha Cooke and Iain Paterson.

Then, in a special event to celebrate his 70th birthday on June 2 (a date he shares with Elgar), Sir Mark will be conducting Schoenberg’s huge choral and vocal work, Gurrelieder. The Hallé and BBC Philharmonic join forces, and soloists include Alice Coote and Johan Reuter, with Sir Thomas Allen as the speaker – on June 4.

The BBC Philharmonic present Bach’s St Matthew Passion on April 14, plus visits from conductors Vassily Sinaisky (April 23) and the exciting young American, James Feddeck (April 1 – he also conducts the Hallé in the May ‘Opus One’ concert).

Opera North’s visit to The Lowry brings three operas based on fairytales – Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel And Gretel; a light-hearted version of Rossini’s La Cenerentola (Cinderella) … and, in a rare staging, Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Snow Maiden. Hansel And Gretel is on March 8 and 11 (plus a schools matinee on March 9), La Cenerentola on March 9 plus a matinee on March 11, and The Snow Maiden on March 10.

There’s also opera from the Royal Northern College of Music: Handel’s Theodora, performed from March 24.

Our other world-famous centre of musical education, Chetham’s School of Music, is to open its new £8.7m Stoller Hall with a weekend of special events from April 21 to 23. The gala concert on April 23 is conducted by Stephen Threlfall and Sir Mark Elder, with two orchestras, mezzo-soprano Kitty Whately (daughter of Kevin ‘Lewis’ Whately) and international piano virtuoso Paul Lewis, both of whom trained at Chet’s. A series of starry concerts follows.

Paul Lewis is also appearing in recital at the Bridgewater Hall on February 12 – one of the international series events there, which also include top orchestras the St Petersburg Philharmonic (January 27), Vienna Tonkünstler (February 24), Kremerata Baltica (March 24), and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (with the complete Brandenburg Concerti on May 11).


Friday, 23 December 2016

Article published in Mancheater Evening News 23rd December 2016

LET’S take a look back over the classical highlights of 2016. My problem is what to leave out, but here goes at a top ten …

1. Opera North’s complete, semi-staged Ring Cycle, on its once-only visit to The Lowry, was in a class of its own. The prolonged standing ovation at the very end was testimony to the gratitude of those who witnessed the whole undertaking, and the vision of Opera North’s outgoing musical director, Richard Farnes.

2. In fully-staged performances the company had two outstanding new shows: Annabel Arden’s production of Giordano’s Andrea Chénier, and Orpha Phelan’s of Britten’s Billy Budd – each a story of betrayal, heroism and love. In both the musical teams were among the best Opera North has yet presented: for me, Andrea Chénier just had the edge.

3. The Hallé and Sir Mark Elder are well into a Ring Cycle, too. Their third recording-cum-concert was of Das Rheingold, at the Bridgewater Hall last month. It was magisterial and entertaining with opulent orchestral sound and inspired dramatic life.

4. In May Sir Mark brought a celebration of Dvořák to a thunderous close with a performance of the oratorio St Ludmila. The Hallé Choir (trained by Matthew Hamilton) made a showpiece of it.

5. And Sir Mark’s inspiration of combining scenes from Verdi’s Macbeth with Beethoven’s ninth symphony (in October) paid off in the quality and thrill of performance, with the Hallé Choir marvellous again.

6. The BBC Philharmonic have been doing great things. Vassily Sinaisky’s reading of Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ symphony with the CBSO Chorus in May was characterised by extraordinary beauties and splendour.

7. And there was no doubting the emotional appeal of Shostakovich’s ‘Leningrad’ symphony as the Philharmonic and chief conductor Juanjo Mena gained a standing ovation from many after their performance in February.

8. Of visiting orchestras to the Bridgewater Hall, the Oslo Philharmonic, in March, stood out. Its chief conductor, Vasily Petrenko gave us a thrilling and eloquent account of Mahler’s fifth symphony, with velvety string tone and impressive brass playing.

9. Manchester Camerata’s all-Mozart programme at the Royal Northern College of Music, with music director Gábor Takács-Nagy and Jean-Efflam Bavouzet soloist in two piano concertos, was a pinnacle of their winter season.

10. And Handel’s Tamerlano, from the Buxton Festival and The English Concert (with Paul Nilon, Marie Lys and Owen Willetts), was the pick of the festival’s operas this year.

Friday, 16 December 2016

Article published in Manchester Evening News 16th December 2016

IT’S not too late to get a CD Christmas present for a music lover, so here are highlights from this year’s releases that have come my way.

A Christmas Celebration. Hallé Choirs and Orchestra conducted by Stephen Bell (Hallé HLL 7545)

Stephen Bell has put his own stamp on the Hallé’s Christmas concerts now, and here’s the ideal way to take them home with you and hear the Hallé Choir, Hallé Youth Choir and Hallé Children’s Choir plus great orchestral playing – including the unique Hallé rendition of Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride.

Handel’s Messiah. Hallé Choir, Sheffield Philharmonic Choir, Hallé Orchestra conducted by Sir John Barbirolli (The Barbirolli Society (SJB 1086-7)

One for nostalgia. There are many recorded versions of Messiah, but if you want to recall the atmosphere of those Belle Vue performances with massed choral voices under Barbirolli, here’s how it sounded in 1964 – complete with the penultimate ‘Hallelujah!’ simply shouted.

Sibelius: Symphonies 5 and 7, En Saga. Hallé Orchestra conducted by Sir Mark Elder (Hallé HLL 7543)

Sir Mark’s account of the hugely popular fifth symphony is bracing and magnificent, and his approach to the single-movement seventh captures its mix of depression and gigantic optimism.

Donizetti: Le Duc D’Albe. Soloists, Opera Rara Chorus, Hallé Orchestra, conducted by Sir Mark Elder (Opera Rara ORC54)

This is an opera Donizetti never completed, so it’s virtually impossible to stage it. But Sir Mark – with the Hallé as his pit band – has captured the magic of what might have been, and his solo team are magnificent.

Rêve D’Enfant. Sophie Rosa, violin, Benjamin Powell, piano (Champs Hill Records CHRCD123)

Cheshire violin soloist Sophie brings her lovely sound to bear on music by César Franck, Ravel and Eugène Ysaÿe, including the A major Sonata by Franck (you’ve heard it on Classic FM without a doubt).

Ginastera: Orchestral Works vol. 1. BBC Philharmonic conducted by Juanjo Mena (Chandos CHAN 10884)

This is the music of Argentina’s major classical composer of the 20th century, and though a mixed bag is well worth investigating. I liked his atmospheric Pampeana no. 3 particularly.

Summer. Jonathan Scott at the organ of the Bridgewater Hall (Scott Brothers SBDRCD008)

Jonathan Scott’s recitals at the Bridgewater Hall, with their inventive programming, have become very popular, and here’s a great souvenir with a typically eclectic round-up of music from Vivaldi to Philip Glass.

Friday, 9 December 2016

Article published in Manchester Evening News 9th December 2016

A CHRISTMAS show with a difference comes to the Royal Northern College of Music on December 14. It’s the world premiere of Luca’s Winter – a fairytale fantasy written by saxophonist Tim Garland and performed by the RNCM Big Band and Chamber Orchestra together (with Tim on solo sax), and EastEnders and Hollyoaks actor Stefan Booth as narrator.

Tim, a research fellow at the RNCM, has created this new concert work for a 60-strong ‘super-ensemble’ of band and orchestra, and his story – expressed by writers Nora Chassler and Don Paterson – is about a young musician called Luca who gets tangled up in a succession of well-known winter-time tales. Geppetto, the man who made Pinocchio, is in it, so are the Elves and the Cobbler, the Little Match Girl, the Red Shoes … and even three spooky characters like the ghosts from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

“I wanted to create a story with characters that are pretty recognisable,” Tim told me. “Luca finds himself in a city where there’s a sort of labyrinth of tales. We’ve got Cinderella-type character, too, called Maarja, with a stepmother. She’s the love interest – and the city has past, present and future all wrapped together in it.”

There are aspects of The Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra in it, too: all the characters are represented by instruments or groups of instruments,  and Luca is a guitar player but finds himself with the wrong guitar – it all works out in the end.

Tim says the music integrates jazz and classical styles. “The jazz element in the music is integral to the plot of the story. The Big Band sounds give the idea of being in a metropolis. But it’s not really show music: it’s concert music with some contemporary sounds. I think people can handle that if the context is programmatic – telling a story – like with a film score.

“My idea all along was to make a piece that engages everyone – I thought ‘Why don’t I write a great big piece for band and orchestra – and make it Christmassy?’ Hopefully it will come around again in years to come.”

Conductor for the 90-minute piece is the RNCM’s Clark Rundell, who’s well experienced in bridging the jazz-classical gap. “I think in future this sort of music will become less of a freak and more of a regular occurrence,” he says. “I’m really enjoying getting to know this score.”

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Review of La Vie Parisienne at the Royal Northern College of Music

It’s always a thrill to see young performers at the RNCM visibly mature and gain in confidence as the first night of a new show there takes place.

Offenbach’s operetta, La Vie Parisienne, was not an easy ask for them. It needs to have froth and fizz and lightness all the way through, and things like that don’t come instantly when you’re nervous and haven’t done the piece with a full live audience before. Even the orchestra seemed to take time to enter into the spirit of the evening.

But the foundations were there. Director Stuart Barker had the massed forces on stage (with the first of two teams of principals, as the operetta is, as usual, double-cast) well drilled and aware of their positions. Simone Romaniuk had created an incredibly versatile, inventive and adaptable design – magically transformed, as it should be, for each new scene while we heard the entr’actes – with clear, colourful sets and evocative projected backdrops. She also created the lovely costumes, putting the story into the 1930s with a sure hand (we find the lifestyle of drone-like English aristos and the foppish Parisian demi-monde quite believable in the era of Jeeves and Wooster).

So we’re seeing a day in the life of Raoul de Gardefeu, who wants to tempt English Lord Ellington and his wife to sample Parisian delights apart from each other, so he can seduce the noble lady. Lord E fancies a night with the high-class escort Métella (a pun in that name, I guess), but we know he’s never going to get that far, and he just gets drunk. There’s a sub-plot involving a Brazilian millionaire also out on the town and the humble glove-maker Gabrielle, who turns out to have a lot more to her than first meets the eye. Act Two is set at the Moulin Rouge and then a posh restaurant, with attendant can-can dancers and similar delights. In the end Lord and Lady are reconciled, everyone else pairs off happily, and Parisian life goes on.

Using Alistair Beaton’s English translation, and with voice-coaching by Natalie Grady, the show was done, and heard, in plain English (no surtitles). Half of the skills called for were those of acting, not just singing, and in the cast that I heard some performers were really good at that. Some also have personalities and voices that work just beautifully in operetta style, too – I can mention Fiona Finsbury’s Métella, John Ieuan Jones’ Lord Ellington, Matt Mears’ Brazilian and Charlotte Trepess’s Gabrielle in particular (but I haven’t seen the other cast at all) – and everyone threw themselves into the movement and dancing, which was skilfully contrived by the amazing Bethan Rhys Wiliam.

By the time we were in the Moulin Rouge the soufflé had really risen, under the sure hand of conductor Andrew Greenwood, and it was no wonder the sails of that windmill in the backdrop suddenly accelerated.

Friday, 2 December 2016

Article published in Mancherster Evening News 2 December 2016

IT will be an all-singing, all-dancing Christmas show this year at the Royal Northern College of Music – Offenbach’s La Vie Parisienne.

The college’s opera department, under the leadership of Professor Lynne Dawson and Kevin Thraves, is out to wow audiences with the classic operetta, which will be conducted by Andrew Greenwood (in charge of the award-winning RNCM performances of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream last year) and directed by Stuart Barker, director of training and productions at British Youth Opera.

I had the chance for a peek at rehearsals, as the cast and chorus were on stage learning their steps from choreographer and production assistant Bethan Rhys Wiliam, in the set designed by Simone Romaniuk – cleverly adaptable from being a railway station in Act One to the Moulin Rouge in Act Two (and two other places besides).

Kevin Thraves, RNCM deputy head of opera and chorus master for the show, told me: “Bethan is working on this show full-time now, as it’s a piece that’s full of dancing. It’s a light-hearted French romp, with disguise, mistaken identities, love and infidelity – and everything works out OK in the end, with toasts to Paris and the Parisiens.

“This year is its 150th anniversary, and we’re using the English translation by Alistair Beaton, a writer, satirist and theatre director – he’s translated a number of operas, and this one was originally done for the D’Oyly Carte company in 1995.

“We’re doing six performances this time, with two matinees, and they are selling really well. There are 16 principal roles, and we have double-cast it, so a lot of students get their chance to shine. There are 40 in the chorus, mainly our undergraduates, and around 40 in the RNCM Opera Orchestra.

“RNCM Junior Fellow in Conducting Manoj Kamps is assistant conductor and will take the performance on December 13 himself.

“Stuart Barker is really well used to working with young singers, and he’s doing a lot of improvisation work with the cast and chorus – he likes to draw little stories out of them as they perform.”

Among the principals are singers Alexandra Lowe and Neil Balfour, who have had major roles in RNCM opera before. And the thrill of a show at the college is always that you may see a new star born …

La Vie Parisienne is at the RNCM on December 7, 9, 11 (matinee), 13, 15 and 17 (matinee).

Friday, 25 November 2016

Article published in Manchester Evening News 25 November 2016

SUNDAY night sees one of the peak events of the entire Hallé season in Manchester, when Sir Mark Elder conducts a concert performance of the complete Das Rheingold, the first part of Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

The line-up of soloists – and there are a lot of them in Das Rheingold – is truly impressive. Bass-baritone Iain Paterson is Wotan, Susan Bickley is Fricka, and soprano Emma Bell is Freia. The giants, Fafner and Fasolt, are sung by Clive Bayley and Reinhard Hagen, and Susanne Resmark is Erda.

The three Rhinemaidens are to be Sarah Tynan, Jennifer Johnston and Leah-Marian Jones, while Samuel Youn will now be singing Alberich, and Nicky Spence takes over as Mime.

Will Hartmann as Loge, David Stour as Donner, and David Butt Philip as Froh, complete the list.

Sir Mark is planning that this performance will result in a Hallé recording, as the previous ones of Götterdämmerung and Die Walküre have done.

“This is music I’ve lived with since I was very young,” he says. “I prepared Die Walküre and Das Rheingold for Solti when I started out at Covent Garden. It’s like re-opening an old friendship and trying to make it richer. And this great, great music should sound incredible in our wonderful acoustic at the Bridgewater Hall.

“I think the orchestra are going to be very struck, though, by what a different experience is from the other parts of the drama,” he adds.

“The others are so complex by comparison. But it’s a piece of absolute brilliance in the nature of what he wanted it to be.

“The words were the last to be written: he had the whole scheme in front of him by then, but he wanted to introduce the drama in the characters we find here. It shows us that Wotan’s greed was no different from Alberich’s.

“Alberich’s rage, when he loses the ring, is for me the most moving part of the piece.”

He points out the range of characters depicted in Das Rheingold. “Loge, for instance, has to be a German tenor. We have got Will Hartmann – who played a crucial part in Szymanowski’s ‘King Roger’ with me when we did it at the Bregenz Festival. He’ll be a great person to introduce to the Manchester audience.

“And Susanne Resmark was my Mistress Quickly when I did Verdi’s ‘Falstaff’ at Glyndebourne – she’s a great character.”

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Manchester Evening News article 18 November 2016

THIS is a milestone year for choral group St George’s Singers of Poynton. The choir was formed 60 years ago, with 23 members. Today it has over 100, drawn from Cheshire, Derbyshire, Yorkshire and Greater Manchester, and is recognised as one of the most innovative in the north, under musical director Neil Taylor.

It’s celebrating with major concerts in Manchester and Stockport, including (on April 22 next year at the Royal Northern College of Music) great choral works from the past 600 years, and (on June 25) Verdi’s Requiem with Stockport Symphony Orchestra and the Sheffield Chorale, at Gorton Monastery.

But first there’s the German Requiem by Brahms, on 26th November at the RNCM, when SGS are joined by the Northern Chamber Orchestra and international star soloists Elizabeth Watts – a former member of Norwich Cathedral Girls’ Choir, a group founded by Neil Taylor – and Marcus Farnsworth, their president.

I spoke to Marcus Farnsworth as he was appearing in opera in Boston, USA. His link with SGS began when he was at Manchester University and a choral singer at Manchester Cathedral alongside its then conductor, Stephen Williams. “He created the role of assistant musical director for me in 2004,” he says. “They’re an amazing bunch of people – always happy, incredibly enterprising and energetic. Now I’m an advocate for the choir, I can help with contacts for soloists, and it’s a feather in my cap, too, to be linked with them.”

Neil Taylor, recently organist at Sheffield Cathedral and now living in Macclesfield, became conductor 10 years ago. He says: “I think it’s the passion you can sense in the room when you work with them … and a determination to do everything as well as they possibly can. There’s an unimpeded lack of fear, and they’re willing to tackle anything.

“The thing that attracted me here was the variety in their repertoire that had been brought by my predecessor – they’re up for anything, and that’s really refreshing.

“They work with anyone from professional orchestras (as in the Brahms Requiem) to school groups. Two weeks after the Brahms we’re doing a Christmas concert (it’s on December 10 at Norbury Church, Hazel Grove) with Bradshaw Hall Primary School Choir and the Youth Brass Band for Stockport.”

If you’d like to join in with St George’s Singers, there’s a Singing Day for all comers on January 21 at St George’s Church, Poynton (see

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Review of Opera North's Il Tabarro and Suor Angelica

The best performance of the whole week from Opera North was that of Il Tabarro, one half of the Puccini double bill presented as their third programme. It was a revival (by Michael Barker-Caven) of David Pountney’s clearly told, dramatic, moving and dark production, first seen here five years ago as one of the ‘Eight Little Greats’.

Il Tabarro is about adultery, jealousy and murder – always great subjects for opera. Bargeman Michele finds his wife, Giorgetta, is having an affair with Luigi, one of his deckhands … and you can imagine what ensues.

The casting was on a level Opera North don’t always achieve. Giselle Allen is one of the best soprano voices they regularly call on, and her acting skills are second to none. David Butt Philip is that rare thing, a really beautiful young English tenor voice (RNCM and Samling in his training and already spotted by Sir Mark Elder among others) and sang and characterized his Luigi powerfully. Ivan Inverardi is the real thing when it comes to Italian baritones, made for the part and good to hear.

The lesser roles of La Frugola (Anne-Marie Owens), Tinca (Stuart Laing) and Talpa (Richard Mosley-Evans) were also very strong.

On top of that we had one of the most experienced and inspirational opera conductors around with Jac van Steen in the pit. His strengths outclassed those of his colleagues heard at The Lowry this week, with a warm string sound from the orchestra, sympathetic accompaniments and spine-tingling climaxes just right for Puccini.

The new production in this pairing – Suor Angelica, which is the third piece Puccini wrote, alongside Gianni Schicchi, to make up his ‘Triptych’ – was directed by Barker-Craven and had the same sure hand on the orchestra. It wisely took the same realistic, slightly updated approach to the setting and story-telling … yet the story itself gives enormous problems. There has to be some kind of staged ‘miracle’ at the end, as Angelica, the woman who was banished to a convent by her aristocratic family for having a baby outside wedlock, and then learns the child has died, finds divine forgiveness despite taking her own life by poisoning. This was done by filmic means, with somewhat incongruous imagery mixed together – as good a solution as any, but the deliberately sentimental intention of the authors is still hard to convey today.

The singing, though, was first-rate. Anne-Sophie Duprels’ rich tone suits Angelica well, and young, RNCM-trained soprano Soraya Mafi made a real impression as the cheerful and well-intentioned Sister Genoveva, her pure and lovely voice contrasting effectively. Patricia Bardon was a trifle too witch-like as The Princess (dressed in glaring 1960s yellow), but her vocal quality is, as ever, superb. The remainder of the roles demonstrated the excellent quality of the singers’ ensemble that Opera North is now able to field.

Review of Opera North's Der Rosenkavalier

Don’t say masterpieces from the past can’t find new relevance today. As we came out for the second interval of Der Rosenkavalier, after the scenes in which Baron Ochs, the overweight, uncouth, ill-mannered, women-abusing buffoon of the story, becomes the chief butt of amusement, you could hear it all around: ‘He’s Donald Trump, isn’t he?’

But there was more than that to Opera North’s revival of David McVicar’s production, which began life at Scottish Opera and was last seen here in 2002.

I liked the production a lot first time round. It’s realist, set in the period the story is meant to occupy (Maria Theresia’s imperial Vienna), and catches a sense of crumbling grandiosity in its design. It tells the story clearly, comedy and sentiment included, while keeping a clear focus on the pain of the mature woman (the Marshallin) who gives up her toy-boy lover, Octavian, for the greater good and to bring happiness to him and his true love, Sophie. Their youthful ardour wins.

There’s gentle satire in the behaviour of Faninal, the nouveau-riche who wants to marry his daughter into the aristocracy, and a host of comic bit-parts for minor characters.

Composer and author Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannstal brought a conscious echo of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro (and other Beaumarchais-based tales) to the piece by having Octavian – the ‘Knight of the Rose’ of the title – sung by a woman. He has to don women’s clothes, like Cherubino. (Opening with girl-on-girl action, as some might put it, in a bedroom scene may have incongruous resonances for us, but in 1911 was probably a safer way to represent sex than with a male and female. So you just have to get over that).

The major roles cast list here included several notable singers trained at the Royal Northern of Music, among whom Helen Sherman (Octavian) was the stand-out. Her voice was strong, secure and finely modulated, and her acting superb. Fflur Wyn (Sophie) also brought lovely tone to her role and a sense of stagecraft, though some of the delicacy she essayed did not meet quite sufficient gentleness from the orchestra pit.

Likewise Henry Waddington as Ochs, though looking and acting the part with magnificent presence, could not always summon the weightiness he wanted. William Dazeley was well cast in the other baritone role of Faninal, where his airiness seemed just right.

Ylva Kihlberg (previously star of Opera North’s The Makropulos Case and Jenůfa) was a very fine Marshallin. No one could write soaring melody for the female voice quite like Richard Strauss, and the final trio for the three girls was beautiful.

This is the first full show to be conducted by Opera North’s new music director, Aleksandar Marković, since he took over. He brought energy and precision to the score, and though he has not completely mastered stage-pit balance in the quirky Lyric Theatre acoustic yet, drew some moments of exquisite delicacy.

Friday, 11 November 2016

Review of Opera North's Billy Budd

(This review is based on the opening night at Leeds Grand Theatre)

Billy Budd is widely considered one if Britten’s greatest operas. Written in 1951, with a libretto by E M Forster and Eric Crozier based on Herman Melville, it had pretty well all the firepower of the British arts establishment behind it when it launched, as a follow-up to Peter Grimes, the sea-faring story that made Britten’s operatic reputation just after the war.

This time we’re on board a British warship in the Napoleonic era, guarding the seas against the French. Billy is a young able seaman who is ‘impressed’ – ie signed on against his will. His nemesis is the evil master-at-arms, John Claggart, and the captain caught in a desperate moral dilemma is Edward Vere.

Claggart falsely accuses Billy of fomenting mutinous talk, and when Billy (who has a recurring stammer) can’t speak but hits him in reply, his fate is sealed by court martial – hanging from the yardarm.

Vere’s decision to order Billy’s death, in accordance with King’s Regulations, though he is manifestly a good and noble lad, is at the heart of the opera. It’s about good and evil personified, and the place of law when they clash. Above all, it’s about Captain Vere, the original Peter Pears role, here played by the masterly Alan Oke. I thought he was really excellent, portraying a man genuinely (literally?) caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, and singing with distinction throughout.

There has always been a focus on a sub-text of homosexuality perceived in this piece: it has an all-male cast, a title-protagonist who is meant to be physically as well as morally admirable, and of course Melville, Forster and Britten were all gay. Its date, however, ensured that such matters were left to a spectator’s imagination and could be disregarded altogether – and director Orpha Phelan seems to have followed that sensible principle.

(More to the point in today’s world might be the fact that the piece reflected an artistic environment where women played hardly any part anyway … how much do we want to endorse that?)

Roderick Williams (Billy) and Alastair Miles (Claggart) were both in excellent voice, but had the unenviable tasks of appearing totally noble and totally evil, respectively. The former was as good as anyone might hope: the latter even (on first night) picked up a few pantomime-style boos!

There is a magnificent augmented chorus, and one smaller role that stood out was Stephen Richardson as Dansker, the older, good-guy crew member.

What remains most clearly in the mind from this production is the skillfully contrived set, the realistic costuming (both by Leslie Travers) and the energy and clarity with which the story is told.

And there’s a great coup de theatre at the beginning of Act Two, where the ship prepares for action against a ‘Frenchie’. With the full cast on stage and eager for battle, a magnificent orchestral backdrop and two huge guns lowered over the stage and tilted to point at the audience before ‘firing’, the effect is genuinely scary.

Be prepared for loud bangs, we were warned as we entered the auditorium, and it was an accurate prediction: wisps of fire-cracker ash hung in the air for minutes afterwards.

Article published in Manchester Evening News 11 November 2016

ALICE SARA OTT is one of the glamour girls of the international concert stage. She’s German-Japanese by parentage and devoted to her career as a concert pianist. That career has been meteoric in recent years.

On November 22 she’s at the Bridgewater Hall in the last of a five-date UK tour with the Philharmonia Orchestra and its conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy – himself a near-legendary pianist – and she’s playing one of the favourite virtuoso concertos, Tchaikovsky’s no. 1.

To say she always wanted to be a pianist is almost an understatement. “My parents took me to a concert when I was three years old,” she remembers. “I think they just couldn’t find a baby-sitter!

“I was so fascinated by the fact that the person on the stage could hold the attention of an audience for two hours – and at that age I wanted to get attention and be understood. I said to my mother, ‘I want to be a pianist.’

“She said ‘Forget it’, and it took me a year to convince her.”

One strong-minded young lady, it seems. Alice says her next strong memory is of playing in public (she went to a teacher who encouraged it) at five years old.

“I played just a short piece, but there were about 1,000 people there and I remember their reaction. That was the first moment that people listened to me and understood me. I decided this was going to be my future.”

She says she still feels a stranger wherever she goes, because of being raised in two different cultures (her mother is Japanese, her father German). “But music gives me a voice and an identity.”

She has other strings to her bow, however, as she has made herself a name as a designer, too. “I just like to draw,” she says, “I can’t keep my fingers still. Recently I had the opportunity to design some bags, and it was fun, because I travel a lot – you become very particular about what you want as far as bags are concerned!”

She’s played the Tchaikovsky concerto about 80 times before, she says, but not recently, in fact. Now she’s returning to it: “A tour is an opportunity to grow with a piece. Every night is so different: you have to create the sound for each new acoustic.”

The Philharmonia Orchestra, with Alice Sara Ott, conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy, Bridgewater Hall, November 22, 7.30pm.

Friday, 4 November 2016

Article published in Manchester Evening News 4 November 2016

I WROTE last week about Billy Budd, one of Opera North’s upcoming programmes at The Lowry, alongside Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier and a Puccini double bill of Il Tabarro and Suor Angelica.

Il Tabarro, a tragedy of infidelity and revenge, is an update of the award-winning production of 2004. Suor Angelica is new: it’s set in a nunnery, to which the heroine has fled to escape the shame of having an illegitimate child.

In its cast is Bury-born soprano Soraya Mafi, one of today’s rising opera stars. I chatted with her about making it in a highly competitive world.

“I always loved singing and dancing,” she said. “My mum loved singing, and I had a natural affinity for it, but I would probably have been a dancer if I hadn’t had problems with my back when I was a teenager.”

Then she won the National Junior English Song Award in 2004, aged 15.

“It gave me a bursary for singing lessons, and mum got in touch with the Royal Northern College of Music. Sandra Dugdale took me on – and I still see her regularly.

“I had a lot of problems: I completely lost my voice at one point, and she was a rock for me. I worked my way through college, doing corporate events, football matches, hotel gigs – then when I didn’t get any scholarships to go further I worked in Selfridge’s for two years.”

But she won her way to a postgraduate place at the Royal College of Music in London, where she was taught by Opera North favourite Janis Kelly – and she still studies with her and coach David Harper.

Recently Soraya has picked up several big awards, coming second in the Kathleen Ferrier competition in 2015 and first in the Susan Chilcott Award this year.  She also got some good roles in opera productions, and she’s a Harewood Young Artist with English National Opera.

But she still lives in Chorlton and keeps close to her family, now in Rossendale.

Her role in the Puccini opera is Suor Genoveva – a character she describes as ‘vivacious and youthful’ and very much the opposite of the guilt-ridden title role. “She’s down to earth and she gets on with it,” she says. I can see those traits in Soraya Mafi, too.

Soraya Mafi sings in Suor Angelica, The Lowry, Nov 11, and also in Mozart’s Requiem, Bridgewater Hall, Nov 13

Friday, 28 October 2016

Article published in Manchester Evening News 28 October 2016

OPERA North’s week at The Lowry is coming, with three different programmes on offer. One is Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier – a revival of the glittering and sumptuous production by David McVicar first seen in 2002 (one of my favourites). It’s conducted by the new musical director of Opera North, Aleksandar Marković.

The next is Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd – a new production. And the other one is a double bill of Puccini: the two short operas from his Il Trittico which are NOT Gianni Schicchi, that is Il Tabarro and Suor Angelica.

I went to see Billy Budd in Leeds ahead of this visit to Salford. It’s a big show – written for an all-male cast – with a huge chorus and some spectacular effects delivered by director Orpha Phelan and her team.

The story is taken from Herman Melville, and the librettists who worked with Britten in 1951 were E M Forster and Eric Crozier. It’s set throughout on a British warship in the Napoleonic era, at sea and on guard against the French, where Billy is a young able seaman who is ‘impressed’ – ie signed on against his will. His nemesis is the evil master-at-arms, John Claggart, and the captain caught in a desperate moral dilemma is Edward Vere.

These pivotal roles are played by Roderick Williams, Alastair Miles and Alan Oke, three of today’s top stage singers and all long associated with Opera North.

The scene you will most likely remember if you see it is at the beginning of Act Two, where the ship prepares for action against a ‘Frenchie’. With the full cast on stage and eager for battle, a magnificent orchestral backdrop and two huge guns lowered over the stage and then tilted to point at the audience before firing, the effect is genuinely scary.

Be prepared for loud bangs, we were warned as we entered the auditorium on the first night, and it was an accurate prediction: wisps of fire-cracker ash hung in the air for minutes afterwards.

The point of the opera, though, is the contest between good and evil, in the shape of Billy and Claggart, and Vere’s decision to order Billy’s hanging, in accordance with King’s Regulations, though he is manifestly a good and noble lad. It’s a thoughtful experience.

Opera North at The Lowry: Nov 9 and 12 – Der Rosenkavalier; Nov 10: Billy Budd; Nov 11: Il Tabarro and Suor Angelica

Friday, 21 October 2016

Article published in Manchester Evening News 21 October 2016

THE Hallé’s principal guest conductor, Sheffield-born Ryan Wigglesworth, has been in that role just over a year now, and he conducts a big (and fascinating) programme at the Bridgewater Hall on Thursday.

The music is Copland’s evergreen Fanfare For The Common Man, followed by Britten’s Sinfonia Da Requiem and Tippett’s A Child Of Our Time – the latter an oratorio famous for its choral arrangements of Afro-American spirituals.

The three are linked because they all relate closely to the Second World War. Copland’s fanfare, from 1942, was inspired by America’s entry into the conflict. Britten’s work was commissioned by Japan before Pearl Harbor but rejected because of its overt pacifism – John Barbirolli premiered it in New York in 1940. A Child Of Our Time was written in the early years of war, inspired by the death of a young Jewish refugee and the ‘Kristallnacht’ pogroms of 1938 – Tippett, like Britten a pacifist, was equally horrified by Naziism and the destructive forces of war.

“Something remarkable always happens when this work is performed,” says Ryan Wigglesworth. “It’s one of those pieces that becomes much bigger than perhaps even the composer himself thought he had achieved.”

Tippett’s own recording of it carries a shattering resonance from the apartheid era in South Africa: the choral climax on ‘Let My People Go!’ at the close of the spiritual, Go Down Moses, is unforgettable.

The spirituals punctuate the work almost as do church chorales in Bach’s Passion settings.

“I think it was a bold decision for him to include them, because they have their own language, different from his own, and yet the arrangements are wonderfully and very deftly done,” the conductor (himself also a composer) comments.

“Britten’s work is in a sense the opposite to Tippett’s, because although both were early in their careers when they wrote them, Britten had a fair amount of music behind him by then.

“But I think it’s in this piece that he really found his voice. There’s an orchestral sound that came out of Mahler and others he admired, but it’s more piercing and has a powerful architectural clarity.

“It has simple ideas with enormous emotional effect, and he was becoming a master of deploying instrumental colours – he knew how to hold something back until it could make maximum impact, as he did with the saxophone in this music.”

Hallé Orchestra and Choir, soloists, Bridgewater Hall, Oct 27, 7.30pm

Friday, 14 October 2016

Article published in Manchester Evening News 14 October 2016

THE Hallé’s ‘Opus One’ concert programme this month (given on Wednesday, repeated Thursday and next Sunday) includes a magical work by Mozart – the Concerto for Flute and Harp.

It’s pretty well unique in the orchestral repertoire, and making its lovely sounds in these performances as soloists are two of the Hallé’s own players, principal flute Katherine Baker and principal harp Marie Leenhardt. Conductor is Gergely Madaras.

Katherine and Marie are both established, familiar and much-loved figures to Hallé audiences, after 12 years and 22 years with the orchestra, respectively. Both began playing when quite young.

“I started at 12, but it was really like a hobby for me until around 17 or 18,” says Marie. “Making the harp my career didn’t cross my mind until we moved house (she is French-born) and then I had a teacher who was training professional players.

“I actually wanted to be a surgeon when I was younger – but after a gap year from school I knew I wanted to be a musician. I’ve never regretted it.”
Katherine is the daughter of musical parents – her father, Julian, was principal horn with the
Hallé for seven years – and she learned the flute from the age of 10.

“My parents were very down-to-earth about the realities of being a musician, though,” she says. “I always wanted to be an orchestral player, and they’d say ‘You may never make it’” – but she went to London’s Royal Academy of Music and was with the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra before the Hallé.

It’s not the first time they’ve played the Mozart concerto together with the Hallé, but the first for some time. I asked how they go about preparing to be joint soloists.

“We rehearse together first,” says Marie – and Katherine chips in: “I do find it quite odd, because with a solo concerto you prepare completely on your own, of course. Then we play it through together with piano accompaniment.

“It’s almost like playing chamber music – but we’re doing it in front of the whole orchestra. And the conductor is supposed to adjust to what we want to do, isn’t he?”

Marie adds: “For me it’s easier when there’s a conductor there – then you have someone to relate to, because the orchestra is also part of the music.”

“And Gergely Madaras was previously a flautist himself,” Katherine says – “so he knows the piece really well!”

Friday, 7 October 2016

Review of Halle concert 6 October 2016

SIR Mark Elder’s inspiration of combining scenes from Verdi’s Macbeth with Beethoven’s ninth symphony for the first concert of the Hallé Thursday series paid off, not just in the full house but the quality and thrill of the performances.

Strange bedfellows, you might think. Yet not so strange, as the composers were two of humanity’s biggest-hearted visionaries, and each of the works was (as we say today) a game-changer.

For us in the audience there was the bonus of hearing two world-class operatic soloists, hot from topping the bill together in the opera at La Monnaie in Brussels, as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Scott Hendricks is a superb actor-singer and brought his character to life even in the limitations of concert performance. Béatrice Uria-Monzon caught the idea, too, and her creamy mezzo-soprano sound was a joy.

Almost needless to say, the orchestral contribution, from the first notes of the Act 1 Prelude on, was atmospheric, vivid and dramatically incisive, with the rasping sound of the brass, cimbasso and all, at full throttle.

The Choral Symphony shared Scott Hendricks in its soloists’ line-up, young Welsh soprano Natalya Romaniw (whose career highlights have been in the north west a number of times already) topping the texture with serene clarity, Madeleine Shaw (no stranger to us as a result of Opera North’s ‘Ring’ cycle) her rich counterpart, and Allan Clayton (another young singer whose work we’ve heard and loved before) adding to the ensemble.

With Mark Elder in charge, this symphony is never less than a fire-cracker. Unlike with most other works in the Beethoven canon, no one bats an eyelid at the power of the modern symphony orchestra (today’s timpani, too) being used and allied with a big chorus.

The Hallé Choir (now trained by Matthew Hamilton) were marvellous – particularly the sopranos, hitting the high notes again and again with formidable accuracy and glorious tone, and smiling as they did it. They sang from memory, too, which undoubtedly helps.

Beethoven’s great essay on Reasons To Be Cheerful hit the spot on this occasion, driving rhythms balanced by flowing melodies, determination and hints of ecstasy in the Scherzo, beautiful tone and real drama in the Adagio, and a finale beginning in near-theatrical style and ending in sheer exhilaration.

On Radio 3 on Monday 10 October.

Article published in Manchester Evening News 7 October 2016

TWENTY-FIVE years ago, a young musician called Tim Williams started a music group for the Manchester area.

It was called Psappha, and specialised in living composers – its first concert included music by the Salford-born firebrand Peter Maxwell Davies, and a world premiere.

Today it’s an established part of the national music scene, the north of England's only stand-alone professional contemporary music ensemble and a National Portfolio Organisation for Arts Council England. It’s based at St Michael’s, the former Italian Chapel in Ancoats.

Tim Williams is its artistic director, and still enthusiastic to share his love of new music.

“I went to a comprehensive school in Liverpool with a brilliant music teacher,” he says. “He took us to the Philharmonic and also to contemporary music concerts. He even wrote a xylophone concerto for me to play, at the age of 15.”

(He was clearly a gifted percussionist, and you’ll see him playing with top orchestras as well as Psappha).

“What I really love is being able to ask a composer about his own music and how we play it,” he says. “You don’t often get the chance to do that.

“We’ve changed with the times, but it’s always been about offering people in the north west something they can’t find anywhere else. I’m still excited about what we do – and we’ve worked with composers from all over the world.”

The latest collaboration is with Mike Walker – Salford-born and now resident near Haslingden – whom he describes as ‘the best jazz guitarist on this side of the Atlantic’, and his internationally famous quintet, The Impossible Gentlemen.

Psappha’s opening concert for its 25th anniversary season is with them and includes Mike’s suite, Ropes, played by the Gentlemen and a 22-piece Psappha strings ensemble conducted by Clark Rundell.

Mike says: “I wanted to fuse the dynamic of the acoustic string soundworld with the electric soundworld of the jazz quintet: and I was thinking about lines in our lives, and ropes – things that can tie us up as well as help us out of a hole. There are sea shanties in there – and things about being ‘tied up’, ‘towed home’ – and even ‘a bit ropey’!”

Other music in the concert includes the Triple Quartet by 80-year-old American giant Steve Reich, and the 1970s cult track by Gavin Bryars, Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet.

Psappha, RNCM, 12 October, 7.30pm.

Friday, 30 September 2016

Article published in Manchester Evening News 30 September 2016

SIR Mark Elder opens the Hallé Thursday concert series with Verdi and Beethoven: excerpts from the opera Macbeth by the former, and the ninth symphony by the latter. The Hallé Choir play their part, alongside top operatic soloists Béatrice Uria-Monzon, Scott Hendricks, Natalya Romaniw, Madeleine Shaw and Allan Clayton.

These works might seem worlds apart, but Sir Mark says they have something vital in common:

“As we were putting this season together, we realized we were (quite unconsciously) including a connecting thread you could call ‘Northern Legends’ – from Wagner’s Ring and the material Schoenberg used in Gurrelieder to some of the tales of old Scotland. Macbeth, of course, is a real Scottish figure as well as a Shakespeare character.

“But the common factor with Beethoven’s ninth is that I think both works were what you could call ‘game changers’ – both composers wanted to do something that was above the usual.

“In Beethoven’s case it was using the human voice in a symphony to express something more than could be done with instruments alone. In Verdi’s it was, in a way, the opposite: he wanted to take out the purely vocal charm of the Italian bel canto style and create a kind of musical drama that had not been done before.

“He wanted dramatic presentation of the scenes, rather than a display of singing. He insisted on a dress rehearsal before the first performance – something never done in opera before – and worked repeatedly on the scenes he wanted delivered in a realistic way … the ones we are performing on Thursday.

“Two of our singers are coming straight from a stage performance of the opera in Brussels, so they will be singing in the way they do in the theatre. Verdi, for instance, wanted the voices of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in the murder scene to be hoarse and whispered, because of their fears: that’s what we want to re-create.”

Sir Mark is also looking forward to his concert on November 10, when he will conduct and, it is planned, record Vaughan Williams’ sixth symphony – another in a CD succession of VW symphonies from the Hallé, now quite extensive.

“I’m excited to be doing this work, which is so different, wild and anguished,” says Sir Mark. “The orchestra will be up for whatever challenges the music gives us. My respect for, and interest in, Vaughan Williams grows every year.”

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Review of BBC Philharmonic concert, 24 September 2016

Haydn’s ‘The Creation’ used to be as popular an oratorio as Handel’s ‘Messiah’. The Victorians loved it, and would cheerfully put on community presentations for Christmas and Easter just as they did the Handel staples.

It’s quite rare to hear a performance now, and Saturday’s audience was heartily grateful to the BBC Philharmonic, City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus, soloists Lucy Hall, Dietrich Hensel and Robin Tritschler, and maestro Juanjo Mena, for opening the Phil’s Bridgewater Hall season with it.

So they should have been, for care had been lavished upon it. Mena drew the maximum of atmosphere and scene-painting from the orchestral score, and the soloists animated their angelic, and later human roles with every subtlety they could.

The orchestral strings, guest led by Ioana Petcu-Colan, were beautiful to hear in the early baritone and tenor arias, and Lucy Hall brought lovely high pianissimi and warbling trills to her vocalization of Gabriel.

That said, there were some aspects that were puzzling or even a bit disappointing. I think the root of them was that this performance did not quite know whether it was in period style or not. We had natural horns and trumpets, and old-style timpani, but the strings (only a desk short of symphonic strength in each department) and woodwind were today’s instruments and played in mainstream style.

The Bridgewater Hall acoustic lends itself superbly to classical articulation, intense rather than broad tone production, and small forces. It also works brilliantly when a big orchestra fills the room with sound. But this was a compromise, and balancing the numbers in the orchestra with those in the chorus was not all that was needed. Somehow, tonal blend and neatness of note-lengths were not perfect (and, to begin with, ensemble in the band was not, either).

So we had a few raucous full-orchestra fortissimi, including the famous ‘There was light’ moment and the sunrise soon after, and Juanjo Mena’s eagerness to realize the lively rhythms of the choruses while maintaining smoothness of flow, meant some had muddied waters.

I did like the emphasis on Haydn’s little jokes, however – the trombone raspberries that represent the arrival on the planet of ‘heavy beasts’, in particular. And the duet and chorus in part three (by which time Dietrich Hensel had become a gentlemanly Adam and Lucy Hall a sweetie of an Eve), was beautifully paced and balanced, with the choir gently introduced beneath the solo and instrumental textures.

If their attempts to add some latin passion to their first-innocence relationship were not wholly convincing, they became a Papageno-Papagena happy couple by the end, which was lovely.

One more gripe: if only it could have been sung in English. There’s a charm all its own in those antique lines.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Article published in Manchester Evening News 23 September 2016

CLASSICAL fans are spoilt for choice this weekend, as tomorrow night not only do the BBC Philharmonic open their autumn schedule at the Bridgewater Hall with Haydn’s The Creation, but Manchester Camerata open theirs at the Royal Northern College of Music.

It’s a typically eclectic programme, ranging from music by Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones to Haydn, Mozart, Holst and Vaughan Williams.

Gábor Takács-Nagy conducts and ‘Haydn to Hendrix’ is the title – so what’s that about?

“Our aim is always to push at boundaries,” says Camerata head of creative programming Samantha Morgan, “and we believe that good music is always good music.

“We’re looking to bring in younger, fresher members of the audience as well as older ones, and we’re saying: ‘We know it might not be what you’re used to, but come with us on this journey’.

“Gábor has been doing this kind of thing in his work in Switzerland, too, and people find they really enjoy it.

“We want them to trust us, and we will ensure that any non-classical music is by musicians who are first-class in their own right. The Rolling Stones’ Sympathy For The Devil is in an arrangement by Daniel Schnyder, and for Hendrix’s Purple Haze Variations there’s also material by Simon Parkin, who’s worked with us for a number of years.”

Further ahead there’s a visit from Tine Thing Helseth, the trumpet player who has enlivened the Camerata’s ground-breaking ‘UpClose’ performances. She’s soloist and director for their ‘Festive Happening’ on December 18 (3pm) at the Albert Hall, Peter Street.

“Tine Thing has already helped us put these kinds of things into action with her programming. Freedom of choice of music gives freedom in performance, and we can profile members of the orchestra and engage with an audience that way,” says Samantha Morgan.

Between those two events, on November 17 pianist Alexander Ullman is lead artist for a promenade concert by the Camerata at the Whitworth gallery (making its own French impression, with Poulenc, Roussel, Debussy and Stravinsky).

The UpClose concept, says Morgan, is informing all their concerts: “We’ve taken our musicians into bars where there’s no classical music normally, and people just loved it. We’ve learned about how to communicate to the audience who come through that kind of door.”

Friday, 16 September 2016

Article pubished in Manchester Evening News 16 September 2016 (full version)

BOTH the Hallé and BBC Philharmonic open their autumn concert schedule

at the Bridgewater Hall next week, and in the Hallé’s case it’s the first programme of the Opus One series, in which the young British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor is soloist in Liszt’s first piano concerto and Hallé music director Sir Mark Elder conducts Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ symphony.

That’s performed three times over – September 22 (2.15pm) and September 25 and 28 (7.30pm).

The BBC Phil have their opening concert on 24 September, beginning under music director Juanjo Mena with Haydn’s The Creation (aka Die Schöpfung, as they’re doing it in the German version).

It’s the first of three major choral works in their season, each with a different choir: for Haydn it’s the City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus, and the others are Bach’s St Matthew Passion (next Good Friday) with Manchester Chamber Choir, and Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder next June – a joint project with the Hallé when both orchestras together and the Hallé Choir are joined by a starry soloists’ team.

Simon Webb, BBC Philharmonic general manager, was understandably thrilled at the treats in store for his Bridgewater Hall audience.

“We’re trying to present music that’s changed things – in particular changing music itself,” he said. “Great music always has an important impact. In our 2017-18 season we’ll focus on music that had a political impact, but this is about revolutionary masterpieces in a musical context.”

That’s the idea behind starting with Haydn, and also the Bach and Schoenberg works to come, but it also shows in two programmes later this year, conducted by Mena, that include Stravinsky’s The Rite Of Spring, Ravel’s Daphnis And Chloé ballet music and the UK premiere of Magnus Lindberg’s Vivo (November 19), and Berg’s violin concerto (soloist Michael Barenboim) and Bruckner’s Symphony no. 7 (December 10).

“The former will show the colours and brilliance of the orchestra, and the latter has a lot to do with how Juanjo approaches his own artistic identity,” says Webb.

There’s also a stream of British music, with Elgar and Walton on October 9 (Mena conducts, and Jennifer Pike is soloist in Sibelius’ violin concerto) via Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ trumpet concerto on October 22 (soloist Håkan Hardenberger, conductor John Storgårds) and Britten’s Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes on November 5 (Storgårds conducts again).

And there’s much more in the New Year, including a world premiere … but more of that another day.

Friday, 9 September 2016

Article published in Manchester Evening News 9 September 2016

SINGING in choirs is getting more popular all the time, and some of our region’s well established choral societies have discovered the trick of engaging people who thought they couldn’t manage it and bringing them to a point where they can do justice to some of the great classical works.

One of those is 100-strong Altrincham Choral Society, and their open-to-all ‘Come and Sing’ day is on September 17. It’s called The Magic Of Mozart, and the music to be shared ranges from his Ave Verum Corpus motet to the choruses of his late masterpiece, the Requiem.

Conductor is Manchester-born Steven Roberts, ACS musical director and one of the most experienced trainers of amateur singers in the north of England. The society, founded in 1945, performs regularly at the Royal Northern College of Music and has appeared at St Paul’s Cathedral, the Bridgewater Hall and in Prague, Venice and Florence.

The ‘Come and Sing’ day is at St Mary’s Church, Bowdon, starting at 10am and running through to a free-entry performance in the early evening. Participants pay a small fee and register in advance.

“We pick music that’s achievable in a day,” says Steven Roberts. “Obviously this is not to concert standard, but people come with an open mind and a tremendous work ethic. We start with warm-ups, and then we get on with learning. And it helps to have breaks for tea and coffee!

“People visit us from other choirs, and some come who aren’t in choirs at all. It’s a stress-free day and a lot of fun.”

Steven was from a brass banding background, but studied choral music and conducting at university. He’s had charge of a male voice choir and conducted amateur musicals and operatic societies.

“Because I’ve conducted brass and wind bands and orchestras, I’m not uncomfortable with instrumental ensembles, which join us at Altrincham Choral for some of our concerts, too.”

In 1992 he won the British Federation of Young Choirs conducting competition – in front of judges including legends like Sir David Willcocks, John Rutter, Stephen Cleobury and Philip Ledger. He was himself a singer with the Huddersfield Choral Society at this point, and its musical director, Brian Kay, invited him to do chorusmaster work with them.

Two years later he answered an advertisement by Altrincham Choral for a conductor … and 22 years further on, as he says, “We’re still having a great time!”

Monday, 5 September 2016

Manchester Evening News article 2 September 2016

FOR my third survey of the coming season in Manchester classical music, I’m focussing on smaller-scale events, including our two city-based chamber orchestras.

Manchester Camerata is absent from the Bridgewater Hall except for its New Year concerts, but has plenty to offer in other venues. Its concerts with music director Gábor Takács-Nagy begin with two of Daniel Schnyder’s versions of rock classics (Sympathy For The Devil and Purple Haze) as well as Holst, Vaughan  Williams, Haydn and Mozart (RNCM, September 24), continue with an all-Mozart programme – including two piano concertos played by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (RNCM, March 2) – and finally, at Manchester Cathedral, there’s Haydn, Mozart, Philip Glass and the world premiere of Colin Riley’s Double Concerto For Two Cellos (June 8, soloists Guy Johnston and Gabriella Swallow).

Violin superstar Henning Kraggerud is both composer and performer in Equinox, a special programme for Manchester Science Festival, on October 16 at the Albert Hall, and the ‘Upclose’ series presents three rising star pianists: Alexander Ullman (The Whitworth, November 17), Emanuel Rimoldi (HOME, February 2), and Iyad Sughayer (Manchester Cathedral, May 2).

The Northern Chamber Orchestra performs mainly outside Manchester, and its series at Macclesfield Heritage Centre is always worth the trip. Soloists this season include violinists Chloe Hanslip (October 8) and Matthew Trusler (January 14), horn player Naomi Atherton (February 18), and pianists Steven Osborne (March 4 – this programme includes Anthony Gilbert’s lovely Another Dream Carousel) and BBC Young Musician winner Lara Melda (May 13).

Groups appearing at the Bridgewater Hall include The Sixteen with the Britten Sinfonia, conducted by Harry Christophers (October 28), the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge (December 13), and Gidon Kremer with his Kremerata Baltica (March 24).

And recitalists in the International Concert Series there are legendary violinist Kyung Wha Chung, Paul Lewis (piano), guitarist John Williams, with John Etheridge and Gary Ryan, bass-baritone Sir Willard White with the Brodsky Quartet, and organist Wayne Marshall.

The Royal Northern College of Music’s programme is bursting with goodies: I’ll pick out the recital by the great bass singer Sir John Tomlinson – who’s to become the college’s President next year – with David Owen Norris, piano, on November 17. Its theme is ‘Michelangelo in Song’, and the music’s by Britten, Wolf and Shostakovich. Later there’s the James Mottram International Piano Competition, from November 28 to December 3, and the world premiere of Luka’s Winter, by Tim Garland, for narrator, chamber orchestra and big band on December 14.

Manchester Evening News article 26 August 2016

THIS week I’m taking a look at opera highlights of the coming season in Manchester. We get our opera in concentrated bursts here, as Opera North come over from Leeds usually for one week at a time, but present three different shows within it.

This autumn all eyes will be on the company’s new music director, Aleksandar Markovic, who will appear at The Lowry in November conducting one of its great past productions – Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. Heading the starry cast are Ylva Kihlberg as the Marshallin and Helen Sherman as Octavian, with Henry Waddington, Fflur Wyn and William Dazeley.

Alongside comes a double bill of Puccini: two of his Il Trittico one-acters. Il Tabarro is a revival of the David Pountney production seen in the ‘Eight Little Greats’ series in 2004, and Suor Angelica is a new production. Favourite soprano Anne Sophie Duprels stars in the latter (with Patricia Bardon), and Giselle Allen, David Butt Philip and Ivan Iverardi head the cast of Il Tabarro.

On top of that, there’s Billy Budd, by Benjamin Britten, a classic tale of seafaring drama, in a new production by Orpha Phelan. Singers include Alan Oke and Roderick Williams, and Garry Walker conducts. If this reaches even a fraction of the heights of the company’s Peter Grimes a few years ago, it will be magnificent.

In case Wagner fans had not had their fill with Opera North’s complete Ring Cycle earlier this year, the Hallé have a concert performance of Das Rheingold on November 27, conducted by Sir Mark Elder. The singers include Sarah Tynan, Jennifer Johnston, Leah-Marian Jones, Christopher Purves, Iain Paterson, Susan Bickley, Emma Bell, Reinhard Hagen, Clive Bayley … and more.

There’s English Touring Opera at Buxton, also in November, presenting La Calisto by Cavalli (with Catherine Carby), Ulysses’ Homecoming by Monteverdi (with Katie Bray), and Xerxes by Handel.

After all that, a welcome dose of levity will be in the Royal Northern College’s December production of La Vie Parisienne by Offenbach, conducted by Andrew Greenwood and directed by Stuart Barker

In the March 2017 week by Opera North we get three nights of fairytale: Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Snow Maiden, Humperdinck’s magical Hansel And Gretel (Katie Bray and Fflur Wyn, with Susan Bullock as the Witch), and Rossini’s romantic La Cenerentola (or Cinderella). And there’s Handel to follow at the RNCM: Theodora. So never say you don’t get much operatic choice.

Friday, 19 August 2016

Article published in Manchester Evening News 19th August 2016

AS Manchester’s classical music goes into summer holiday purdah for the next three weeks or so, I’m taking a long view of the coming winter-spring season’s highlights – starting today with the big battalions of orchestral and choral music.

Both the BBC Philharmonic and Hallé have choral works to offer at the Bridgewater Hall early in the season: Haydn’s Die Schöpfung (The Creation) from the BBC Philharmonic under Juanjo Mena on September 24, and Beethoven’s Choral Symphony from the Hallé on October 6, conducted by Sir Mark Elder (with scenes from Verdi’s Macbeth to precede it – quite a contrast). The BBC Phil employ the City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus – and they’re doing The Creation in the German version – and of course the Hallé have the Hallé Choir.

At the end of the season the two symphony orchestras join together for one of the biggest Romantic blockbusters in the repertory: Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder. It comes on June 4, and the Hallé and BBC Philharmonic will combine with the Hallé Choir, Sir Thomas Allen as narrator and five top soloists under Sir Mark Elder’s baton. It’s just after Sir Mark’s 70th birthday, and billed as ‘a celebration for one of British music’s most treasured figures’.

That birthday is one he shares with composer Edward Elgar, and in March he presents an Elgar festival with the Hallé including the first symphony, ‘Enigma’ Variations and The Dream Of Gerontius (March 9 to 12).

There’s much more to be excited about, of course – I’d point to Tippett’s A Child Of Our Time, performed alongside Britten’s nearly-contemporary Sinfonia da Requiem, by the Hallé under Ryan Wigglesworth (October 27), an evening featuring virtuoso organist Jonathan Scott collaborating with conductor Cristian Mǎcelaru and the Hallé (February 9), and the BBC Philharmonic in Bach’s St Matthew Passion, with Manchester Chamber Choir and Nicholas Kraemer (April 14, Good Friday).

And each of the big two has a world premiere to share with us: the Hallé on April 20, with Huw Watkins’ Symphony, and the BBC Philharmonic on May 26, with Mark Simpson’s NOX – a concerto for cello and orchestra (soloist Leonard Elschenbroich).

Visiting orchestras at the Bridgewater Hall include the St Petersburg Philharmonic (always wonderful) on January 27, and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in the complete Bach Brandenburg Concertos on May 11.

Then there’s the Hallé’s performance of Wagner’s Das Rheingold on November 27 – but that’s next week’s subject: opera.

Friday, 12 August 2016

Article published in Manchester Evening News 12 August 2016

SYMPHONY orchestra concerts are thin on the ground in the north west in the summer months (and that’s an understatement!), but Buxton Opera House is boldly going where few others venture and putting on the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra on August 20.

The theatre also hosts the Hallé Orchestra with its ‘Pops’ conductor Stephen Bell, on September 18, in a gala fund-raising concert for the Blythe House Hospice, and the RLPO will be back in November. Links between Buxton and the Liverpool musicians have been built up and are set to continue.

I talked to Carol Prowse, a New Mills resident and chairman of the High Peak Theatre Trust, which runs the Opera House in Buxton. She’s been involved with it for more than 30 years, previously as assistant company secretary, company secretary, director and deputy chairman.

“Balance in our programmes is important,” she said, “and to me providing high-quality classical music is an essential part of the programme we offer.

“The RLPO had a weekend residency in the town last November, including a performance by Ensemble 10/10, its own contemporary music group, and that was very well received. For it we introduced the concept of a ‘gardens ticket’ – you buy a ticket for the central dress circle or upper circle and also get pre-show and interval drinks – which went very well.

“Our other classical commitments are to English Touring Opera and of course the annual Buxton Festival, which is the heart of everything for us.”

The RLPO’s programme next week is a tribute to Johann Strauss, the ‘waltz king’. It’s introduced by Classic FM presenter and author John Suchet and directed from the violin by James Clark, the orchestra leader, in the style of Strauss himself.

Its visit on November 9 is in a concert conducted by Cristian Mandeal, the brilliant Romanian who was the Hallé’s first chief guest conductor and remembered with respect and affection by Manchester audiences.

The programme includes Brahms’s third symphony, Debussy’s Prélude á l’Après-Midi d’un Faune, and Mozart’s clarinet concerto (soloist is Benjamin Mellefont, the RLPO’s own principal clarinet).

The RLPO is proud of its history, going back to the formation of a private concerts society in 1840 (not very long after the Manchester equivalent), and justly proud of its present chief conductor, Vasily Petrenko. Ensemble 10/10 is conducted by the Royal Northern College of Music’s top maestro, Clark Rundell.

Friday, 5 August 2016

Article published in Manchester Evening News 5 August 2016

MUSIC has long been a part of the life of St Ann’s Church in city centre Manchester, and on August 9 there’s a visit from Spanish pianist Maite Aguirre, assistant conductor at Grange Park Opera and director of the Academia de Musica in London.
Her programme at St Ann’s includes music by Granados, Ginastera and Ernesto Lecuona.

I talked to Simon Passmore, St Ann’s director of music, and his colleague, James Hume, who are responsible for the concert programme there – including not just the long-established Tuesday lunchtime organ recitals, and regular piano and chamber music recitals provided by the Royal Northern College of Music, but also performances on Tuesday evenings, Saturday lunchtime and evening concerts, and other events.

The free organ recitals were a feature of the music directorship of the late Ronald Frost, who gave over 1,000 of them, and Simon Passmore is continuing that tradition – currently working through the entire organ works of J S Bach, alongside other music.

Concerts by guest performers have been promoted for around two decades at St Ann’s: recent ones have included performances by the Pleyel Ensemble, Manchester Chorale, guitarist Frederick Lawton and organist Jonathan Scott.

Simon Passmore, who took up his post a year ago after being organ scholar, said: “James and I decided it was now time to have tickets, print brochures and make St Ann’s a proper concert venue.

“We produced a brochure listing everything. Our audience is mainly older people, but in term time there are a lot of students, too, and they get special prices just like at the Hallé and BBC Philharmonic.”

James Hume (who became the assistant music director in 2010) added: “As a venue St Ann’s is pretty wonderful. The organ is one of the best in the north west, and we have a Steinway B grand piano on loan from the RNCM.”

Their programme for autumn and winter includes the Gravity Percussion Duo (October 11), the RNCM Jazz Collective (November 15), and Handel’s Messiah (on December 3), with a chorus based on the church choir and soloists and orchestra mainly from recent RNCM graduates. That’s conducted by Simon – who points out that St Ann’s, as a setting, is probably the only remaining church in Manchester built during Handel’s lifetime. It even has some stops in the organ with pipes in them from the period, too!

Article published in Manchester Evening News 5 August 2016

MUSIC has long been a part of the life of St Ann’s Church in city centre Manchester, and on August 9 there’s a visit from Spanish pianist Maite Aguirre, assistant conductor at Grange Park Opera and director of the Academia de Musica in London.
Her programme at St Ann’s includes music by Granados, Ginastera and Ernesto Lecuona.

I talked to Simon Passmore, St Ann’s director of music, and his colleague, James Hume, who are responsible for the concert programme there – including not just the long-established Tuesday lunchtime organ recitals, and regular piano and chamber music recitals provided by the Royal Northern College of Music, but also performances on Tuesday evenings, Saturday lunchtime and evening concerts, and other events.

The free organ recitals were a feature of the music directorship of the late Ronald Frost, who gave over 1,000 of them, and Simon Passmore is continuing that tradition – currently working through the entire organ works of J S Bach, alongside other music.

Concerts by guest performers have been promoted for around two decades at St Ann’s: recent ones have included performances by the Pleyel Ensemble, Manchester Chorale, guitarist Frederic Lawton and organist Jonathan Scott.

Simon Passmore, who took up his post a year ago after being organ scholar, said: “James and I decided it was now time to have tickets, print brochures and make St Ann’s a proper concert venue.

“We produced a brochure listing everything. Our audience is mainly older people, but in term time there are a lot of students, too, and they get special prices just like at the Hallé and BBC Philharmonic.”

James Hume (who became the assistant music director in 2010) added: “As a venue St Ann’s is pretty wonderful. The organ is one of the best in the north west, and we have a Steinway B grand piano on loan from the RNCM.”

Their programme for autumn and winter includes the Gravity Percussion Duo (October 11), the RNCM Jazz Collective (November 15), and Handel’s Messiah (on December 3), with a chorus based on the church choir and soloists and orchestra mainly from recent RNCM graduates. That’s conducted by Simon – who points out that St Ann’s, as a setting, is probably the only remaining church in Manchester built during Handel’s lifetime. It even has some stops in the organ with pipes in them from the period, too!

Saturday, 30 July 2016

Review of The Yeomen of the Guard, Buxton Opera House


It’s good that the Gilbert & Sullivan festival, though now removed from Buxton to Harrogate, lets its old home in on a bit of the action by sending its National Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company there, at least for a few days.

I saw The Yeomen Of The Guard, my favourite of all the standard G&S operas. What I love about it is the sense that Sullivan is trying out some ideas for a model of English vernacular opera – more Romantic than most of his other collaborations with Gilbert – seeking the Holy Grail of a popular lyric style based on ‘traditional’ English music, as identified by Macfarren and others, but bringing in some of the qualities of his own time. At times it sounds almost like Dvorak. He took it a stage further with Ivanhoe, shortly afterwards (the opening production at what we now know as the Palace Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue, then the new English Opera House), but alas found no real successor.

It’s also got a superb book in which Gilbert produces mock-Tudor dialogue that is still perfectly comprehensible, and a storyline with pathos – tragedy, even – mixed with comedy on an almost Shakespearean level. It’s a long way from the topsy-turvydom of much of the rest of popular G&S.

The result is a very fine series of second act numbers, and slightly grander operatic features in the overture and two act finales, than you get elsewhere. Director John Savournin responds to these with imagination, darkening the stage and stilling the silliness from time to time, and ending the opera with a curtain-call line-up minus bows or curtseys. The tears – and death – of a clown (in this case, the jester Jack Point, who finally loses his longed-for love, Elsie Maynard) are moving indeed when you’re forced to look them in the face.

Richard Gauntlett is a class act as Jack Point, though not quite the master of the patter song that some of his predecessors have been, but superb in the final scene. Jane Harrington, too, has a fine voice and presence as Elsie. Bruce Graham, a seasoned veteran of the G&S tradition, brings his clarity and stage sense to Shadbolt the jailer (who eventually gets his prize in Phoebe, beautifully acted and sung by Fiona Mackay). And the noble English tenor role of Fairfax is very well taken by Nicholas Sales, fitting it like a glove in Free From His Fetters Grim and elsewhere.

One thing Yeomen needs is a generous collection of principal talent, as there are two quartets with only the tenor role in common (Strange Adventure – beautifully sung with  English Vocal Union seriousness – and When A Wooer Goes A-Wooing) . Here they had the resources for it, and conductor David Steadman paced and phrased the score with a sure hand.