Saturday, 23 April 2016

Review of Hallé concert of 21st April 2016

HALLE ORCHESTRA  Bridgewater Hall

The final concert of the Hallé’s normal Thursday series (there is, of course, still the Dvořák festival to come) was conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth, their principal guest conductor, and offered several variations from the standard formula – if there is one.

It had a choral first half and a symphonic second half, for one thing – Bach’s Magnificat and Bach arranged by Stravinsky to begin with, and then Schumann’s ‘Rhenish’ symphony (no. 3).

The Stravinsky was a reworking of Bach’s Canonic Variations on ‘Vom Himmel Hoch’, a typically ingenious approach to baroque music from a time before authenticity became important (the mid-1950s). Choir and a small orchestra serve up the original contrapuntal lines, with some relishes added, making cantus firmus very firm at all times and offering all the right notes (and then some), even if not in the original right relationships.

The Hallé Choir sang neatly and securely, and it made a stimulating prelude to the main dish of the day, Bach’s Magnificat. Showing the breadth of his skills, Ryan Wigglesworth was part-time harpsichord continuo player as well as conductor for this, but if that was a gesture towards the manner in which the music might first have been heard, it was about as far in that direction as things went.

Bach would no doubt have expected a very small group of singers (with soloists emerging from the choir) and a small orchestra, too, but this performance was much closer to the grand (and rich) Victorian tradition of massed performers and had four invited soloists. Nothing wrong with that for a hall as large as the Bridgewater, but it does demand a different approach from that of the small-scale baroque specialist.

(Stravinsky compensated for the absence of 18th century articulation technique by putting in a harpist, stabbing interjections and in other ways – now it was up to the army of performers to master the textures on their own!).

There were brief moments of diffident attack, but the big sound was used to great dramatic effect in Fecit potentiam and made an imposing pair of final choruses (the chorus also took on the trio of Suscepit Israel, with real success).

The soloists – Sophie Bevan (soprano), Christopher Ainslie (counter-tenor), Andrew Staples (tenor) and Christopher Purves (baritone) – are all versatile and distinguished singers, and the two middle voices shone brightest, with both strength and flexibility in delivery.

The Schumann symphony was further testimony to Ryan Wigglesworth’s gifts. I heard his reading of Tchaikovsky’s second last week, and it’s clear he has a relaxed and effective rapport with the Hallé. This time it was a scrupulously accurate reading of the score that yielded enormous benefits: sonorous and smooth throughout, wind and brass choirs blended and well contrasted with the strings in the Scherzo, and with a touch of mystery after all the grandeur of the fourth movement. The horns and trumpets were on top form for the finale, whose bouncing rhythms were a tonic.


Robert Beale

Friday, 22 April 2016

Article published in Manchester Evening News 22 April 2016

GRAHAM SCOTT, head of keyboard at the Royal Northern College of Music and himself an alumnus, has an interesting two days coming, on April 28 and 29.

First is the college’s Piano Recital Prize competition (7pm in the Carole Nash Recital Room), when today’s young hopeful pianists will aim to make their mark for the future.

The following day Graham is giving a solo recital himself (1.15pm, same venue) – the fourth in the RNCM series of staff recitals, new this season.

He knows what it’s like to be a student with high hopes, having been one here himself – and he knows the challenges today’s students face. I asked what advice he gives them.

“Choosing the right repertoire is vitally important at the start of a career,” he says.  “I think we choose two types of repertoire.  Repertoire that suits us, something that shows off our best attributes.  We also need to be able to bring something new, interpretively, to this.  

“The other type is repertoire that addresses weaknesses in our playing – it’s not generally for public consumption, but helps us improve.  

“It is also a good idea to include something new to the listener that captures their attention.  

“I tell students to be able to seize every opportunity that comes. It helps to be good at many things: teaching, chamber music, recitals and concertos.  It is possible to find your niche, however, such as in playing contemporary music.  

“And if you are resilient, entering competitions is good way of opening doors.”

Thinking on to his solo recital, I asked about the programme. He begins with Alban Berg’s piano sonata – a work he played in a memorable recital here six years ago – and ends with Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantaisie in A flat.

In between there’s a new piece by RNCM head of composition Adam Gorb – another parallel with that 2010 recital.

“I have chosen repertoire that I have enjoyed playing over a number of years,” he says, “ – pieces that I have an affinity with.  

“Adam Gorb’s new work is called Brahms And Red Wine.  Adam was invited to a ‘Brahms and red wine’ evening a few years ago – at the time he didn’t like Brahms or red wine … over the years he has come to like both.  

“The piece has quotes from Brahms, interwoven with Adam’s own compositional language.  It’s a very inventive piece … and not too difficult to play.”


Friday, 15 April 2016

Manchester Evening News article 15 April 2016 (full version)

ECHOES Of A Mountain Song, the Bridgewater Hall’s celebration of northern landscapes in music, poetry and song, reaches its climax on April 23 and 24.

The 23rd also happens to be Shakespeare’s birthday, so – slightly incongruously – the BBC Philharmonic’s concert that night is both a celebration of Shakespeare and part of the festival weekend.

But they say Shakespeare once lived in Lancashire, so that’s all right. And before the beatification of the Bard there is a programme for today’s northern poets, from 11am in the Barbirolli Room and from 1pm in the stalls foyer, with participants reading their favourite (or their own) poems – the second event is free.

At 3pm the Barbirolli Room hosts a recital by pianist Clare Hammond, soprano Jane Wilkinson, violinist Suzanne Casey, cellist Kenneth Woods and narrator Peter Davison, based on the life and work of Emily Brontë.

Sunday sees the festival finale, in an orgy of folk music and folk arts, with a country fayre, clog-dancing, fiddling, a sing-in – and the world premiere of Get Weaving!, a specially commissioned community opera by Alison Prince and Andrew Keeling, with a cast drawn from Chetham’s School of Music, the Bridgewater Hall Singers, Maghull Wind Orchestra and the Church of England School of the Resurrection. That’s from 6pm to 7pm.

It commemorates the Mass Trespass of Kinder Scout, on 24 April, 1932, when activists walked the forbidden moors of Derbyshire – the beginning of the battle for the Right to Roam.

Back to the BBC’s Shakespeare concert. Andrew Gourlay, former assistant conductor of the Hallé, is on the podium, and before Prokoviev’s Romeo And Juliet ballet music there are five world premieres by young Manchester composers, each piece reflecting a Shakespeare sonnet.

The same pieces are being used as incidental music to five new radio plays, as BBC Phil general manager Simon Webb explains:

“We divided all the sonnets into five groups, relating to different times of day or night. Then each playwright was given a time and could choose a sonnet – working with the composer to make a radio play with incidental music.

“They’re all about life in Manchester, and each orchestral piece can stand alone as a kind of musical landscape in itself.

“We chose five very interesting emerging composers from the University of Manchester and the Royal Northern College of Music. The ‘Manchester School’ has never really gone away, and it’s particularly vibrant at the moment.”

Monday, 11 April 2016

Manchester Evening News review 11 April 2016


THE National Youth Orchestra is a phenomenon, and nothing I say can take away from the fact that its members are outstanding musicians and deliver performances of professional quality which are extraordinary for a collection of teenagers.

But I’m sure they would also want to be judged as if they were professional musicians. By that standard, the first half of their concert at the Bridgewater Hall (the third delivery of the same programme in as many days, in different places) did not completely catch fire.

Fire was its theme, though, with music chosen by conductor Kristjan Järvi. The opening piece was Stravinsky’s Fireworks, and while the playing seemed well-drilled and the ensemble immaculate, there was never any hint of surprise in the way they did it.

Then we heard a violin concerto by American composer Michael Daugherty, with soloist Chad Hoopes, subtitled Fire And Blood. He’s a very good violinist indeed (his Telemann encore proved that in addition to the virtuosic demands of this concerto), but he had rather modest material to work with. Written 13 years ago, it was inspired by images of US car-making assembly lines and, not surprisingly, contained an awful lot of what are often known as motor rhythms. A long slow movement attempted to compensate, but for me evoked images of muzak in tea-breaks more than anything else.

But that was all before the interval. Afterwards it was as if a different orchestra had turned up. They gave a white-hot, blistering and very beautiful performance of Stravinsky’s The Firebird ballet music. This was the piece they had really come to play for us!

They followed Järvi perfectly through all its tricky changes of pace and rhythm, and he obtained a vast range of tone and power from the 160-odd players.

Magical moments included the Princesses’ Round Dance, the Infernal Dance and of course the Final Hymn. And the greatest glory of the playing was in the solo contributions from principal horn (Manchester player Livi Gandee), principal oboe, principal flute and principal clarinet. There are musicians there who surely must make their mark in future.

The concert ended with a brief version of Tchaikovsky’s Dance Of The Tumblers (from The Snow Maiden). By this time everyone was de-mob mood, and it made a hugely enjoyable valedictory.


Robert Beale

Saturday, 9 April 2016

Manchester Evening News review 8 April 2016

HALLE ORCHESTRA  Bridgewater Hall

IN one of the outstanding concerts of the Hallé season, Sir Mark Elder conducted a stunning performance of Vaughan Williams’ fourth symphony, and a fascinating one of a rare Elgar work, both of them recorded live for future CD issue.

There was almost a First World War theme running through the programme: I say almost, because although John Casken’s Apollinaire’s Bird (an oboe concerto) and Elgar’s A Voice In The Wilderness are both definitely inspired by it, the most you can say about the VW symphony’s references is that they catch a 1930s mood of foreboding which was no doubt inspired by the 1914-18 war and fearful of another one.

First off was Ravel’s Pavane Pour Une Infante Défunte, dating from 1910 in its orchestral version – a foil for the ‘war’ music, perhaps. It served to show off the exceptional solo talents of Hallé principal horn Laurence Rogers and oboist Hugh McKenna, and the warmth of the strings’ playing under Lyn Fletcher’s leadership.

Apollinaire’s Bird was written two years ago for the Hallé and its principal oboe, Stéphane Rancourt. I said then it was both a serious and demanding concerto and grimly evocative of the noise and horror of trench warfare, and I would say the same again. The fact that it has been given a second performance by the orchestra so soon after its premiere is an indication of the esteem in which both it and its soloist are held.

Elgar’s A Voice In The Wilderness, written during the Great War itself, was a theatre piece originally and was given with its narrator and soprano soloist in costume. It sets words by the Belgian poet Emile Cammaerts (newly translated by Geoffrey Owen) describing the experience of soldiers at the front who hear a girl’s voice singing, from a lonely cottage, of her hopes for peace and restoration.

Elgar gives it a near-pastoral setting of desperately moving innocence – an epitome of British understatement, if you like. The speaker, Joshua Ellicott (Evangelist in the Easter performances of The Passion at Upper Campfield Market) was eloquent in his native Mancunian voice, and Jennifer France sang the role of the girl with the purity and strength tone heard before in her Royal Northern College and Opera North appearances.

Then it was the symphony. Sir Mark had the violas front-of-stage and massed violins on the left: the sound was rich and he found lyricism and sweetness in the grittiest of music (and there’s a lot of that).

The solemn tread of the bass line was emphasized in the slow movement, with lamenting, tender melodies above, and tension screwed up expertly in the scherzo. Then the finale’s marching pace and rhythms – I can hardly resist hearing this music as ironic distortions of Tchaikovskian hysteria and Germanic B-A-C-H precision – were superbly realized.

The audience reaction at first was shock and awe (and then fulsome applause). But sometimes shock and awe say more than anything else.


Friday, 8 April 2016

Article published in Manchester Evening News 8 April 2016

IT will soon be five years since the BBC Philharmonic’s chief conductor, Juanjo Mena, took up his post. He’s conducting their latest series concert at the Bridgewater Hall on 16 April, and it’s very much focussed on the theme of the whole season – Leonard Bernstein, his music, his enthusiasms and his mentors.

It opens with Bernstein’s own music for West Side Story and includes his Chichester Psalms alongside Stravinsky’s Symphony Of Psalms. The CBSO Youth Chorus and Hallé Youth Choir are taking part.

There’s also the harp concerto by Ginastera, the Argentinian composer whose centenary Juanjo Mena is celebrating in big way this year, with several concert appearances and a series of recordings with the Phil – the first CD of his orchestral works is out already.

Soloist for the Ginastera is Marie-Pierre Langlamet, harpist of the Berlin Philharmonic – which is a happy circumstance, as maestro Mena is making his debut with the Philharmoniker next month, and the Ginastera harp concerto is in the programmes.

Juanjo Mena says: ‘Ginastera is the Argentine equivalent of Copland, himself a supporter of Ginastera’s music while he was in exile from Argentina. While Copland painted the open prairies, Ginastera focused on the pampas.’

He chose the concerto for Berlin, alongside music by Falla and Debussy’s Iberia, the Spanish-flavoured music he is known for. ‘I’m trying to put Ginastera in the place he deserves,’ he says. ‘In the UK people often think Spanish and Latin music is easy and it goes fast – but there’s a flamenco term ‘cante jondo’, which means something very deep, as if you are crying inside. I tried to show this in rehearsal by demonstrating our way of dancing: it’s not Fred Astaire, it’s something that comes from the centre of the body.’

He’s proud to be taking the Phil to Spain (again) this year: they are opening the Granada Festival, at the Alhambra Palace, in June. ‘It’s good for the Philharmonic to be there and to be close to the country,’ he says  – ‘I love Spain.’

Friday, 1 April 2016

Article published in Manchester Evening News 1 April 2016

KRISTJAN JÄRVI is a real chip off the old block. He’s the youngest of a family of internationally famous musicians – dad is veteran conductor Neeme Järvi, older brother is conductor Paavo Järvi, and their sister is flautist Maarika Järvi.

And Estonia-born, US-trained Kristjan is a conductor, too. He holds music director positions with the Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Gstaad Festival Orchestra, he’s founder-conductor of a New York-based classical-jazz-hip-hop outfit called Absolute Ensemble, and also founder and music director of the Baltic Sea Youth Philharmonic.

Unconventional is his style. Which is what will make his concert with the UK’s National Youth Orchestra (‘the world’s greatest orchestra of teenagers’) at the Bridgewater Hall on April 10 quite an occasion.

They’re playing Fireworks and the complete Firebird ballet by Stravinsky, plus a violin concerto by American composer Michael Daugherty, with 21-year-old soloist Chad Hoopes – recent winner of the Menuhin Violin Competition and already in demand in major concert halls.

Among the 164 NYO players will be five musicians from Manchester and surrounding areas. One is 15-year-old horn player Livi Gandee, who says: ‘Performing such thrilling and evocative music in my local concert hall will be a real privilege.’

Kristjan Järvi’s commitment to working with young musicians is clear. ‘Orchestras are each a microcosm of society,’ he says. ‘If you can mould these young people into helping each other to be the best they can be, then you can shape the whole of society.’

He founded the Baltic Sea Youth Philharmonic, which draws on 10 different countries, nine years ago. Now it provides coaching, masterclasses, composition tuition and recording opportunities for its members and others, too. A new orchestra of players in their 20s and 30s, the Baltic Sea Philharmonic, has grown from it.

‘I wanted to help get rid of preconceptions,’ Järvi says. ‘With people from a range of countries from Norway to Russia, you have different ways of approaching life. But the orchestra is like the Baltic Sea itself – it unifies all these traditions.’

There’s a theme to the Manchester programme – a typical Järvi touch – the idea of fire. That’s clear in the Stravinsky pieces, and Daugherty’s violin concerto was inspired by the city of Detroit and its history of steel work and car making. It’s sub-titled Fire And Blood – and, as it happens, was first commissioned, performed and recorded by Kristjan’s dad, Neeme Järvi. Like father, like son.