Friday, 27 May 2016

Article published in Manchester Evening News 27 May 2016 (full version)

SUPER Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti is back with Manchester Camerata on June 3, for their end-of-season concert at the Bridgewater Hall.

It looks like it may be the last of its kind, as their next season’s plans show them playing at other Manchester venues for all events except the traditional New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day junketings. No harm in that – they’re known for crossing boundaries and winning new audiences.

This one is unusual, too, because the conductor is not the Camerata’s music director, Gábor Takács-Nagy, but Andrea Marcon, founder of the Venice Baroque Orchestra, with whom Nicola has been working in recent years on performances of music from that era.

The programme is all-Mozart – symphonies 34 and 35, and violin concertos nos. 3 and 5 – which is interesting because players steeped in the styles of the earlier 18th century usually have something special to bring to music of the classical period, too.

Nicola is a player who’s always keen to learn: “I like to take advice from musicians and conductors I’ve worked with,” she told me.

And she believes in taking time out to re-adjust and work on her performances. “I take breaks from the pressures of being in public all the time,” she said.

“Quite often, in those times I’ll still be playing as much as when I’m touring and performing, but it will be practice at home and learning new repertoire I’ll be doing. That’s not under such pressure, but it’s equally valuable. Working under pressure and getting away from it are both good.”

She’s committed to educational work and getting youngsters interested in classical music. “It’s not something I’ve analysed really,” she adds – “It’s been part of my life naturally – doing concerts, visiting schools, being inquisitive and being concerned about the state of music education in any area where I’m performing.

“A lot of the time it’s about collaborating with existing educational bodies … and even when they just want you to be a figure-head, I want to work with the kids properly.”

Nicola won the BBC Young Musician competition 12 years ago, aged 16, and has since become a recording star and in-demand concert soloist. She was made an MBE in 2013, is fronted a memorable Vivaldi concert with Manchester Camerata in September 2014. This one – part of a short European tour she’s making with maestro Marcon – looks to be another night to remember.

Monday, 23 May 2016

Halle review 23 May 2016

Elder, Hallé Orchestra and Choir, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester
The Victorians liked their oratorios long and loud (most of the time), and when Dvořák wrote St Ludmila for the Leeds Festival of 1886 he got the style exactly right.

Sir Mark Elder brought his and the Hallé’s celebration of Dvořák to a thunderous close with a performance which also unveiled a new English translation from the Czech text by David Pountney (and deftly abbreviated the score).

The story is about the conversion of the Bohemian Princess Ludmila to Christianity and her role in the subsequent conversion of Prince Bořivoj and, naturally, the whole nation.

Although Hallé history does include a previous St Ludmila, that was just after the Leeds premiere, so it has taken 130 years to get to a second, and Elder was determined to reveal its virtues to today’s listeners. Was he right?

The piece was made for and in the North of England choral tradition, and the Hallé Choir (trained by Matthew Hamilton) made a showpiece of it, with clarity throughout and power when needed. The orchestral writing is never less than imaginative, and the orchestra gave that its splendour.

Its first listeners heard echoes of Handel and Bach in it, which tells us more about how Handel and Bach were performed in those days than anything else, but the fugal outbursts and block-solid harmonies were thrilling, Elder’s operatic instincts to the fore in the climactic final pages.

But there is more to the work than that. It opens with a liquid orchestral texture like a precursor of Rusalka, includes a soloists’ trio (portraying Christian conversion) to a walking bass like that of Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony pilgrims, and has a hunting chorus akin to a symphonic scherzo.

It also provides its soloists with great opportunities. Emma Bell, in the soprano role of Ludmila, had both a pretty barcarolle (Sullivan not far away for a few moments) and a dramatic aria in Part One, and exploited their potential. Christine Rice met the challenge of 19th century contralto writing in fine style, and brought distinction to the lovely and richly orchestrated triple-time hymn that dominates Part Three.

That she shared with James Creswell, whose saintly Ivan (bass) was betimes mellow and stentorian; and there were two tenors: Stuart Jackson as the Farmer, and Nicky Spence as Bořivoj. Each gave character and finesse to their part.

It was an education, and an experience, to hear St Ludmila rediscovered. As its first Manchester Guardian reviewer said, it has genius in it but attention is not held throughout. He was spot on.

Friday, 20 May 2016

Article published in Manchester Evening News 20th May 2016

NEW orchestras don’t start every day of the week, but one that has, in Manchester, in the recent past is the Piccadilly Symphony Orchestra, founded by conductor Tom Newall.

They’re playing at the Royal Northern College of Music on May 29 (2pm), in the first of a new series called Young Explorers Concerts. The special programme for children, Music From Distant Galaxies, features the Stars Wars suite by John Williams, Short Ride In A Fast Machine by John Adams and The Planets suite by Holst.

Tom had the initial idea, says manager Rachel Cotton, so he could conduct a high-quality ensemble on a regular basis and give students and emerging young players a chance to work to a professional schedule.

I became involved when Tom began looking for people to help him turn his idea into a reality,” she says. “We started the orchestra with no funding and just a small amount of investment from Tom and me, to get the first concert off the ground – and from there it has grown rapidly.”

The idea of a ‘repertoire orchestra’ turned into a complete new arts organisation which could not only provide work for emerging players but have a focus on taking orchestral music into disadvantaged communities.

“We approached Manchester Communication Academy – a school and community hub in Harpurhey – with the idea of a concert at the school and a parallel outreach programme. “They were really excited by the idea of a 70-strong symphony orchestra in their community, and so the journey began to plan our inaugural concert,” Rachel adds.

The project is supported by Arts Council England, and they have set up a community choir and a primary school singing project in north Manchester. 

“The choir and primary schools joined the orchestra at the Bridgewater Hall as part of Jason Manford’s charity Christmas concert, an experience I am sure they will never forget,” she says. “Over the next three years we plan to continue to grow the work we do.”

Meanwhile, there’s the RNCM concert, plus a performance at Blackburn Cathedral in June and then a two-week tour to Danville, Kentucky, USA, where they have been invited to be orchestra-in-residence for a community arts festival.

They’ll be playing live for showings of Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas animated film in November and December, and making a return visit to a UK Star Wars fan convention. May the Force be with them.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Review of Halle Dvorak festival


I heard the first of the Dvořák ‘specials’ which ended the Opus One season – and then the brief appendix in the form of a lecture-performance of The Golden Spinning Wheel early on Wednesday evening.

The three Opus One programmes each contained the Dvořák cello concerto, with soloist Gary Hoffman, preceded by a Slavonic Dance (a languorously slow and gentle version of the popular E minor one in the first), and followed by a symphony – nos. 7, 8 and 9, respectively.

The first outing for the concerto was a considerable success, and Gary Hoffman is a strong and eloquent player, but its effect was at least as much down to the orchestra and Mark Elder’s contribution as to his.

Elder really loves the tuneful, mellow sound of Dvořák’s writing and orchestration and had his players well prepared – no awkward scrape up to the top note on the violins, such as is often heard, at the introduction to the second theme in the recapitulation of the opening movement, and a lovely reverie of calm and unashamed emotion in the slow movement. The striding rhythm set at the outset of the third was kept for much of what followed, giving sustained impetus.

The seventh symphony is known for its darker moods, mixed with the sunny pastoralism Dvořák made his own, and its opening movement made an effective transformation from nervy apprehension to bucolic calm. The second movement’s expansion and contraction of emotional breadth were handled surely, and the scherzo’s lilt brought out, at a pretty relaxed pace, with no loss of forthright energy. The finale, too, lit up its 4/4 tread with swaying, flexible dance rhythms whenever they came.

For his music appreciation class on The Golden Spinning Wheel, Sir Mark gave us a full background talk, complete with excerpts from another late Dvořák tone poem, The Wild Dove, as well as the one we were about to hear in full. It was amusingly done and acutely observed, and demonstrated the extent to which the composer was using operatic techniques even in wordless musical story-telling by this point in his career.

It seems to have helped Janáček find his way to speech-inflected melody, too, and there were times, in this vivid full performance of the piece, when you might almost have thought you heard the younger man’s music in embryo.


Robert Beale

Saturday, 14 May 2016

Review of BBC Philharmonic 15th May 2016

BBC PHILHARMONIC   Bridgewater Hall

The distinctive thing about Vassily Sinaisky’s reading of Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ symphony (no. 2) with the BBC Philharmonic and CBSO Chorus was that it didn’t attempt to keep the full effect of its considerable resources of power and skill for the last pages alone.

On the contrary, it was characterised by extraordinary beauties and splendour throughout the 80-minute score, holding attention and catching the imagination at every point. I don’t think I’ve ever heard an account in which there were so many passages where I thought, ‘Yes, that’s exactly how that was meant to be.’

There was never any doubt as to where its emotional journey was going, the textures were constantly clear, transparent and well balanced, and from the outset we heard clear shaping and articulation of the phrases, along with extraordinarily expressive moulding of melody.

Sinaisky built the first movement accelerandos to thrilling effect, and both at its close and that of the second movement held the last cadence in dramatic suspense.

His tempo for the second movement was gentle enough to prevent dislocations and still tense with nervousness and yearning beauty, and the third was so nuanced in pace and accent as to bring both surreal easefulness and a sense of nightmare.

Jennifer Johnson’s singing of the mezzo role in the Urlicht movement and the finale was peerless, pure and ecstatic, and soprano Olena Tokar added youthful sheen to the latter. The CBSO Chorus’s singing was spine tingling in its intensity from the first whispered chords, and they moved through a huge dynamic range to the paean of the symphony’s final outpouring.

The Philharmonic’s playing in all departments was wonderful to hear, with the brass resplendent in their pomp. If I said the last pages were no surprise in view of what had gone before, they were certainly no let-down either.


Robert Beale

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Manchester Evening News article 13th May 2016

THE Hallé’s celebration of Dvořák and his music comes to its conclusion in the next eight days with performances of some of his most popular and some of his least well-known works.

The popular comes in the form of the cello concerto – Gary Hoffman will be playing this for the second time here in a week on Sunday, and for the third time on Wednesday afternoon – and the eighth and ninth symphonies, which figure in the same two concerts, along with some of the Slavonic Dances. So far, so much-loved, tuneful and familiar.

On Wednesday evening, however, there’s a special outing for the symphonic poem The Golden Spinning Wheel, which is a late Dvořák work, based on a folktale, that caused a critic at the time to suggest he was ‘on the slippery slope to … Richard Strauss’ – a point that might today endear it to us rather than put us off. It will be preceded by an illustrated talk presented by Sir Mark Elder.

Then on Saturday May 21 there is the 1886 oratorio St Ludmila, written for the Leeds Festival and in the tradition of the time of stirring Handelian choruses and historical narrative. Manchester heard it, too, soon after Leeds and thanks to the Hallé, but it’s taken 130 years to get a repeat performance here.

Sir Mark Elder conducts these, as he does all the concerts in the ‘Nature, Life and Love’ festival. He’s said he wants it to be a chance to hear the familiar alongside the unfamiliar, and that has been a feature of this festival from the outset.

The first concert began with Dvořák’s Moravian Duets, sung delightfully by the Hallé Youth Choir, conducted by Richard Wilberforce. But the real serendipity came with Francesco Piemontesi’s playing of the piano concerto. I’ve heard it before, but this was something special.

It’s a long work, packed with melodic ideas and needing a clear sense of its harmonic and structural shape to be really satisfying. Sir Mark brings that awareness in abundance.

For the finale, he put back together the three overtures Dvořák originally called Nature, Life and Love – though today we know the middle one as the Carnival overture – and played them, as he put it, ‘as one work’.

The Hallé played all three with great distinction, and Sir Mark’s dramatic instincts brought the last – linked to the Othello story – to an operatic-style climax.

Review 12th May 2016

URMSTON CHORAL SOCIETY  St Monica’s Church, Flixton

Gareth Curtis’s Reflections, which received its world premiere in the 75th anniversary concert of Urmston Choral Society under Julie Parker’s direction last night, is a fine and effective work that could make itself at home with many other moderate-sized choral groups.

Written for SATB (with a little division of parts but also many impactful unisons), with soprano and baritone soloists (Margo Campbell and Maurice Rushby) and piano duet accompaniment (on this occasion Miriam Graham and the composer), plus a speaker (Margaret Curtis), it has four movements and fills around 50 minutes.

It’s based on texts from the Latin mass – the traditional Kyrie, Sanctus, Agnus Dei and the final ‘Ite, Missa Est … Deo Gracias’ – with additional words, spoken and sung and mainly from the Bible, which reflect on the meaning of the liturgy, as if we are overhearing the silent readings and meditations of the gathered worshippers.

Gareth Curtis’s writing is direct and accessible, itself reflecting an eclectic mix of styles, with bell-like clusters and plainsong lines at the beginning and end, two engaging march rhythms for choral passages (and something like a samba at ‘Pleni sunt caeli …’), and a touch of Messianesque chording to introduce the Sanctus.

There are rich, smooth harmonies for the choralists to enjoy (a beautiful one to end ‘Dona Nobis Pacem’), lovely circling melody lines for the soloists (and hidden in the accompaniment to the spoken part of the Agnus Dei), while the final movement builds a jazzy head of steam, with well calculated highpoints using the performers’ combined resources to the full.

In some ways it’s in the tradition of the 1960s Christian ‘jazz cantatas’ by Malcolm Williamson and others – in many it transcends them and points towards a deep individual experience of Christian worship.

Robert Beale

Friday, 6 May 2016

Review of Halle concert of 5th May 2016


Sir Mark Elder introduced the first of the Hallé’s Dvořák festival concerts on Thursday, and chose a programme uniting the beginning and (nearly) the end of the composer’s career.

Four of the Moravian Duets – early two-parts-and-piano settings of folk song texts – were confidently sung by the Hallé Youth Choir, conducted by Richard Wilberforce and accompanied by Paul Janes, with a nicely timed touch of mystery to close the third and a beautifully tender and restrained ending to the final one.

The real enlightenment of the concert’s first half, however, came with Francesco Piemontesi’s playing of the piano concerto. I heard Stephen Hough do it last season in Macclesfield, shortly before his concert and recording with the CBSO, and that was very good, but this was something special. It’s a long work, packed with melodic ideas and needing a clear sense of its harmonic and structural shape to be really satisfying.

Sir Mark brings that awareness in abundance. There was a warm and individual sonority from the outset (with the principal clarinet of the night, Sergio Castello Lopez, making a distinctive contribution), a singing shape to every melody, and a keen sense of detailed effect.

More than that, there were dramatic contrasts as the tender, meditative episodes contrasted with the vigorous, open-air quality that Dvořák’s music captured so effectively – a lilt of dance and fun in the finale, particularly. Piemontesi made light of the technical issues that daunt many soloists, introducing the lighter themes engagingly and making the writing sound the most sparky and sparkly ever done for piano.

One of the fascinations of this early Dvořák comes in the characteristic details of figuration, harmonic progression, texture and orchestration that we recognise as familiar features from his greater, later works. The slow movement of the concerto even begins with the same four notes as the ninth symphony’s ‘Hovis’ theme.

And the pentatonic melody that dominates his trilogy of overtures from the 1890s – originally called Nature, Life and Love, though we now know the middle one as Carnival – could have been written in his youth.

Sir Mark did us a favour in putting the three together as originally intended, because that ‘Nature’ theme, though only glimpsed in the ‘Carnival’ music, opens the first and tragically dominates the final one. It’s as if Dvořák was trying out the idea of a cyclical symphony before he (one of the few to do so) really got it right in the ‘New World’.

The Hallé played all three with great distinction, and Sir Mark’s dramatic instincts brought the last – linked to the Othello story – to an operatic-style climax.

But I couldn’t help thinking that Carnival is not just a mid-work scherzo but simply an inspiration above the other two. I’ve never heard quite such an exuberant ending to it.


Robert Beale

Manchester Evening News article 6 May 2016 (full version)

HIS albums have topped the classical charts three times over, he’s an associate artist of the Bridgewater Hall, a Fellow of the Royal Northern College of Music and its head of guitar.

He’s Craig Ogden, and his solo guitar playing is in demand. This summer he visits the Hong Kong Guitar Symposium for concerts and masterclasses, and later come Madrid, Portugal and Australia – but on May 14 you can hear him in Macclesfield, in a return visit to the Northern Chamber Orchestra’s concert series at the Heritage Centre.

He’s playing the guitar concerto by Castelnuovo-Tedesco, in a programme that ranges from Bach to Puccini. It’s the final concert of the NCO’s Macclesfield series and comes as general manager Jonathan Thackeray, who has guided the orchestra’s rising fortunes since 1998, begins his farewells.

I caught Craig Ogden on his way to Bristol for a concert, but his thoughts were of the summer, including Hong Kong and Australia. The last will be a home-coming, as Oz is his native land.

“I’m busier than ever before – my career seems to have a nice steady climb to it,” he says. “Previously, the bulk of my work has been in this country. My kids have been relatively young (Gabriel is now 13, and Gracie 8), and I’ve done a lot of teaching at the RNCM. The UK’s been good to me.”

Future plans he has with the NCO include a new concerto commissioned from Sandbach-based composer (and ace saxophonist) Andy Scott, and American composer Andy Gordon is also writing a concerto for him.

“I’m up to my eyeballs in new music and new repertoire at the moment,” he says cheerily. “But I get to play a lovely mix of music.

“Teaching has always been a valuable and important part of what I do, and while the other stuff does go up and down, teaching helps to pay the bills.”

The Castelnuovo-Tedesco guitar concerto was written for the great Spanish guitarist, Segovia. “My favourite bit is the slow movement – it’s so poignant and evocative,” says Craig.

“A chamber orchestra is good to play it with, and, as always, my sound will be discreetly amplified.”